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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.

Chapter Text

After making sure the Athena Parthenos is secure with Leo and Piper, Jason flies down to help his friends, only to be greeted by Hazel’s sobbing. Moments later, Annabeth and Percy rise from her shadow. They collapse into each other, breathing hard. Percy turns below and gazes upon the pit leading into Tartarus. Jason can feel its evil energy, even from here.

“What happened?” Jason asks. “Where is Nico?”

Percy looks at him with watery eyes, breathing hard. The son of Poseidon can’t get the words out. He turns back to the chasm and yells, “Nico!” in a chorus with Hazel. Annabeth slumps against him and joins. He can see Nico dangling over the edge of Tartarus, alone. Jason realizes Nico, through whatever means, is taking Annabeth and Percy's place. He's surrendering to Tartarus again in their stead.

Every doubt and apprehension Jason had about Nico before that dissipates. And in that moment, a stupid thought enters Jason’s head. He has seconds to act. He looks at the ship above them, thinking of Piper and Leo. Jason holds them fond in his thoughts.

He directs his attention to Nico, who has begun slipping, and descends into the pit.

Jason is not sure what he’s trying to do. He knows Nico is near death. He knows Nico has been through enough, even by demigod standards. What he doesn't know is the extent and nature of the influence Nico has over him. The way he hung limp in Jason’s arms when he finally freed him from that wretched jar hurt his heart, hurt his head. He was on the verge of some memory, some unspoken vow, demanding he protect the son of Hades. Jason slams into Nico and loops his arms around the boy, wheezing. The wind becomes thick and heavy and starts to work against him. This is a very bad idea. Jason struggles for air.

Nico’s yelling something at him, trying to wriggle free. Jason won’t let him. He can’t. He has to get them both out of here. He’s strong enough, he can do this, he’s already rising and he thinks, We can make it out of here okay and he can’t wait to laugh at the shocked look on Leo and Piper’s faces--

--And the wind is gone and they’re falling.

Jason can’t breathe. The winds have never left him. They’re always nipping his ears, his heels, giving a cheerful boost to his powerful stride. They’re his freedom. The wind is gone and hot smoke fills his lungs. Helplessness, fear, overwhelms him. All he can do is pull Nico close to him and take a deep breath as they plunge into hell below.

He wrestles with the air, straining to find the winds, to use them in his favor. Their descent begins to slow. Amazed, Jason faces Tartarus, rising to meet them. He can see water below them. Thick, red mist surrounds everything. It burns Jason's eyes the faster they fall. “Not the river,” Nico whispers. Jason takes a sharp turn to the side, his last movement before they hit the earth.

Their legs hang half in the river, and a sense of dread and hopelessness overcomes Jason. He wants nothing more than to sink into the murky depths below. He can hear voices calling him from beneath the surface. He tries to regain some semblance of control over his mind and body, still reeling from the fall.

Nico untangles himself from Jason and somehow pulls him from the edge of the river and further up the bank. They lie there, heaving and panting. The rock beneath his hands is uncomfortable, sharp and warm.

This is Jason's worst idea to date and they're officially screwed.

Nico seems to echo his sentiments, glaring at Jason as soon as he’s caught his breath. He tries to form words, looks close to screaming, and finally settles on a simple question relayed through clenched teeth, “Why did you do that?”

Jason rasps a sigh.

The son of Hades continues, “If you had gone for Percy and Annabeth--all three of you--”

“You’re the one who tried to save them first, with that same risk.” Jason counters once his voice returns.

“I’m the only one who’s been to Tartarus,” Nico says. “I wanted to keep it that way. I’m the only one who can do this.”

“You got captured,” Jason says, exasperated. He stands, wincing at the toll it puts on his body. Is his strength leaving him this fast? “We just freed you, you’re hardly strong enough to do anything right now!”

“I’m fine,” Nico retorts, getting to his feet and swatting Jason’s supportive hand when he begins to sway. “I know Tartarus and I know how to get us to the Doors. I won’t make the same mistakes again. But we don’t have much time,” he says. Before Jason can interject, Nico lists off the agony that awaits, “The air is poison, it’ll blister us inside and out. There’s nothing to eat or drink--well, there’s plenty that’s lethal, if you get desperate. And monsters down here can’t die. We’re off to a great start.”

Nico stares into the distance, his attention drawn by something unseen. He watches the boy’s eyes glaze over, settling in a trance. Jason stands and snaps his fingers in front of Nico’s face. That seems to draw him out of it for the time being. “Hey. Let’s get going. The sooner we shut the Doors, the better.”

“So eager to rid yourself of my company already?” Nico drawls.

Jason shakes his head. “Only eager to get us both back home before everyone else murders us for our stupid decisions.” Nico snorts, carrying the suspicion of a laugh.

Jason should be more worried. He should feel terrified. He should be praying to Hera, to his father, begging them for mercy and guidance. He should be thinking of unspoken goodbyes to Leo and Piper. To Thalia.

But Jason is completely calm.

What is one more battlefield to him? Even if this hell has stolen his breath and his strength. Even if he has to keep an extra careful eye on Nico. Even if he has to disregard his own well-being. It’s nothing he’s unwilling to do and nothing he hasn’t done before.

They walk a in a painful but relative peace for a while. At last, Jason asks, “Why did you switch places with Percy and Annabeth?” Nico trudges along in silence, quickening his pace. Jason matches his stride with ease. “They could have done this--neither of them are as injured as you are. They’re a good team.”

He twists a ring on his finger, pressing his nails into the eyes of the adorning skull. “Annabeth’s injured, and Percy couldn’t find his way out of a paper bag. I know what I’m up against. I can do this on my own.” Jason criticizes him with a hard stare. He does not refute Nico this time, because he knows that Nico needs to hear those words to convince himself he can do it. He needs this lie to continue.

“I’m here now, too. You don’t have to do this alone.”

Nico scowls, “I didn’t expect you to try and play hero. But I guess I’m still sorry you got dragged into this. You don’t deserve this.”

He looks down at his feet trailing the molten rock below them in frustrated silence. “Hazel cares a lot about you,” Jason says, careful. He takes Nico’s silence as a cue to continue, “I know that if she loves you that much, you must be a good person. And you doing these things with such selflessness… it’s a testament to that.” Nico has no snarky remark, which Jason is grateful for. “I’ll be the first to admit I was wary of rescuing you and I was wrong. And for the record, you don’t deserve this either. You didn’t deserve it then, and you don’t now.”

His heart clenches when Nico halts and turns, face full of disbelief, so puzzled by Jason’s statement. In that moment, he is so innocent, naive, it almost hurts. It does hurt. He can’t believe his own distrust in rescuing Nico in the first place. Then, something clicks in Jason’s brain. His head throbs and he draws in a sharp breath. He knows that face. Somewhere deep within him lies the memory of those dark eyes. Nico realizes he’s been staring too long and looks away.

Jason narrows his eyes. “Nico--” He goes to rest a hand on his arm. But he pulls away when Nico tenses before he’s even made contact. “Did I… Do I know you?”

Nico stares into his eyes for a long time. Too long. “No,” he finally says, and the answer should not be a surprise, but he sounds as disappointed as Jason feels. “No, you don’t.”

“Each other is all we have right now, Nico,” Jason bites his lip. “We have to trust each other. Be honest with me.”

“I don’t have to do anything except get you to the Doors,” Nico retorts. “Anything besides that is a waste of what little time and energy we have left.”

He turns his back and keeps walking. His stride is off, legs shaking, but he persists. Jason jogs after him and maintains silence. They’re nearing the bank of another river; some great, fiery thing that snakes off into the distance. Everything down here is so harsh, dark and red. Jason squints as Nico stands at the edge. When they get closer, Jason realizes its liquid fire. Surrounding the river, he sees ruins--some once great monument covered in cobwebs. Jason knows something is off. His mind screams danger and he glances around. There’s nothing but the land stretching beyond and behind them.

“This is our only option,” Nico says, grim. When he stares at the river, his eyes glaze over again, and he shakes with remembered pain.

Jason wants to further inquire when there’s a hissing in his ear, soft and dangerous. He turns around and meets dark, beady eyes and a sickly sweet smell that freezes him in place. He coughs, breathing it in with Tartarus’ all-consuming stench.

Nico yells something Jason can’t hear. The eyes get closer, closer, dark tendrils wrapping around him, the weight of Tartarus sinks into him, and Jason wants nothing more than to sleep. Then, a piercing scream shatters his illusion. He pieces blurry instances together into a full story. The monstrous woman reeling back and crumbling into dust. Nico unsheathing his sword from her abdomen. Nico’s dark, warm eyes and gentle insistence coaxing him back to reality.

When everything is clear again, Jason aches. Pain becomes his horrible new clarity. Nico lays Jason on the riverbank and hovers over him. “That must have been Arachne.” Jason nods--it’s about all he can do. “She’ll respawn somewhere else. We can’t stay here long.”

He tries to sit up and immediately cries out in pain. His skin is blistering and he feels too hot. Jason digs his fingers into the rough earth, gritting his teeth. Nico becomes paler. He stares at the fallen ruins, brow furrowed in great concentration. He looks back to Jason with regret in his eyes. “I have to go.”

Jason panics, shaking his head. “Nico--don’t--” Nico wouldn’t leave him to die. He wouldn’t. Right? What does he have to gain? This is Tartarus speaking, Jason knows, but this fear clings to him nonetheless. He grabs Nico’s hand tight to stop him from leaving.

Nico’s eyes soften, contradicting his steely demeanor. “Hang on, Grace. I won’t leave your sight. Only for a minute. Count backwards from one hundred.”

“That’s longer than a minute.”

“Start counting.”

Then Nico walks away towards the ruins. Jason stares at his shoes, counting the nicks and tears in his worn black boots instead of down from a hundred. Nico takes thirty seven steps to the ruins. Jason continues to count other things. He counts the number of times Leo has made him laugh. He counts the number of times Piper has made him smile. He counts the number of times he’s thought of Thalia and felt so lucky to have a sister, to have a piece of family (Jason would count the times he’s talked to her but that number is too small, too sad). He counts the number of times he’s remembered something and clings to that feeling—that headache, that sting in his brain, and the warmth in his chest that follows when it finally clicks into place. He’s still waiting for that connection started by the son of Hades to solidify.

When Nico comes back, there’s the slightest bounce in his step—as much as allowed for the son of Death making his second trek through hell after the first venture ended in his capture and torture. Nico kneels beside Jason, setting a hand to his forehead. It’s clammy and cold. He sets down something beside him, an item Jason can’t see. “How do you feel?”

“Hot,” he whispers. “Very warm.” Nico’s hand is rough. His pale skin has taken on rouge blisters. His whole body trembles. “You don’t look so good, either.”

“This is nothing.” The unabashed truth of that statement hurts Jason. “Here’s what we’re going to do, Jason. We are going to follow this river through Tartarus to the Doors of Death. We are going to avoid monsters as much as we can. We are going to lie low. And we’re going to make it to the Doors without any trouble. You’ll be home before you know it.”

Jason frowns. “We,” he corrects. “We will be home before we know it.”

Nico sighs. He stoops beside the river. Jason cranes his head to see what looks like a thermos and watches Nico scoop the fiery liquid into the cup. Wincing, he caps the thermos then returns to Jason’s side. “Drink,” he instructs.

“How do I know that won’t kill me?”

“It’ll hurt,” Nico assures. “A lot. It’s going to feel like your insides are burning. But it will heal you. You have to last through the pain. After that, you’ll be fine.”

Jason musters a tiny smirk amidst his fever. “You want me to take your word for it?”

Nico shakes his head and laughs, bittersweet. “You asked me about trust. Well, here you are, son of Jupiter. How much do you trust me?”

Jason seizes the thermos and drinks without a second thought. He waits for pain, intensity, something. An uncomfortable warmth settles in the back of his throat, but nothing more. He coughs to rid himself of it and feels his strength returning. Wind is still absent but electricity courses through his veins anew. Jason can’t remember the last time he felt this steady.

“Was that supposed to hurt?” he questions Nico. He examines the liquid in the thermos--it glows dimly--and turns the container over in his hand. Engraving the cup is a small skull.

Nico stares at the thermos for a long while. “It’s my father’s,” he says. I couldn’t tell, Jason thinks, chuckling at the insignia. “I think it was a gift.” A great longing and pride fills Nico’s eyes and he takes the thermos back quickly, close and coveting. “The river should pain you to drink from it. Burn your throat, set fire to your insides… It can kill you. But I suppose the thermos negates those effects.” He points out one of three lines representing the cartoonish doodle’s teeth. Unlike the other two, this one glows, faint but persistent. “We can fill this three times and drink from it without worry before it’s gone.” He takes a slow gulp and gets to his feet. Jason follows his example. “We need to be at the Doors by then.”

The son of Jupiter nods. He stares at the dark horizon awaiting them. He does not pray. He stares at the dark, weathered ally he’s entrusting his life with. And strangely, Jason feels content. Enough so to step aside and allow him to lead them further into Tartarus.

Chapter Text

Nico clutches the thermos in his right hand as a lifeline. His left rests steady above the hilt of his sword. He tries not to think about what this gift might mean. A signal of the gods regaining their strength; Hades’ final gift to his son before their demise; a gesture of pity because only Nico is stupid, foolish, unlucky enough to suffer the pains of Tartarus twice and he needs all the help he can get. He refuses hopeful scenarios. He happened upon the thermos by accident, and that is all. It was there when he needed it to gain access to Camp Jupiter, and it's here now. Abject. Factual. Wishful thinking will get him distracted and otherwise killed.

Speaking of distractions, his eyes and mind wander to his companion. Jason matches his pace step for step. He carries himself high, like the son of majesty that he is. He almost radiates in the darkness of Tartarus. Realistically, he knows they’re liabilities to each other. Jason is one of the seven, fated to the prophecy above all. Nico knows nothing comes of meddling, whether it’s with prophecies, gods, or the dead. So he will keep his head down and fight tooth and nail to get Jason to the Doors. The others need him for the quest, and someone needs to shut the Doors from inside Tartarus.

He should have left Percy and Annabeth to fall. They’re stronger than he is right now, and together unstoppable. Being trapped with Jason in the depths of hell isn’t appealing--but Nico’s stubbornness is beginning to give way to reason. He knows he can’t do this on his own. He hates to admit it, but he needs Jason. If they can keep each other alive long enough to get to the Doors, then Nico can take care of the rest. If need be, he can... end things... before the monsters swarm him when the Doors swing shut. A service to himself and the crew of Argo II. He'll end his suffering and stop any betrayal Gaea may attempt to coax from his withered body. The thought should scare him. The fact that it doesn't is what actually scares him.

He thinks of the last glimpse of Hazel he received before fading into shadow. He hopes he can see her again, that her presence floods him with light one last time before he shuts the Doors.

“Nico?” Jason inquires. “Everything okay?”

“Yes,” is his clipped reply. “Just… thinking.”

The demigod nods. “What about?”

Jason doesn’t need to know the full truth. “Hazel,” he admits. His thumb traces the indents of the skull on the thermos, lingering on the glowing line. A thought occurs to him and before he can stop it, he blurts, “I wonder if she’s worried.” It’s selfish, but the thought that even one person cares for him is too inviting to ignore.

“I’m sure she is,” Jason says. “But she’ll be okay. With how hard she fought to get to you the first time, I can’t imagine what she’ll do now.” He shudders and Nico hides a smirk. “Piper’s probably angry at me. Leo, too.”

Nico knows Jason’s own silence is dangerous. He knows better than to let him worry, get lost so easy in his thoughts. “Tell me about them,” he prompts. He does not know them personally, but he wants to learn of Jason’s new life. They must be important to him. He squashes his familiarity with that notion.

So, Jason talks. Leo is funny and he makes good food and he may be a scatterbrain, but Jason trusts him with his life. Piper is beautiful and tough, with soft eyes and a strong spirit that puts Jason at ease.

Nico gnaws his stubby nails and convinces himself he isn’t jealous while Jason repeats a joke Leo once told him. Then he hears something, whispering, scuttling, nearby. Nico shuts him up with a hand over his mouth. Jason allows the son of Hades to drag him behind a mound of rocks. They wait, tense shoulders and shallow breathing, while a trio of monsters scurry past.

They overhear snippets of conversation from the dracanae. They praise Gaia and threaten humanity. Jason stares at the hoard with uncertainty. “Nico, I think… I think I’ve fought them before.” He presses a hand to his temple.

“And the first wretch I’ll exact my revenge on once we reach the Doors,” hisses the head dracanae, “is the contemptible son of Jupiter.”

“Jason Grace,” the second snarls in agreement.

The third slithers eager alongside her comrades. “He will pay for what he has done to our beloved Kronos, his armies, and the magnificent Krios.”

“Big fans of yours,” Nico muses.

Jason sighs, resting his head against the rock for a few long, silent minutes. “They’re headed to the Doors. Our best bet is to follow them.”

Nico nods his assent and they start trailing the dracanae in silence. He takes comfort in the fact that he and Jason are naturally in sync. Of course, he reasons, he is reasonably cautious because of their situation; Nico is weak, no matter how much he drinks from the river. Another part of him thinks that it’s Jason’s instinct, his former memories influencing him.

Nico tries not to think about it anymore.

They follow the dracanae for a long time across rocky terrain and sick, spongy ground. Finally, they come to an open field. “We’re going to get caught,” Jason says. “There’s no other way. We have to fight them.”

“About damn time,” mutters Nico. He’s itching to kill something, anything residing in Tartarus.

They each take a sip from the thermos--it hurts a little more this time--and stuffs it in one of the large pockets of his jacket. Then he settles his shaky hand on the hilt of his sword and they walk forward. They catch up and let themselves get caught by the dracanae. The monsters encircle them, expectant, hissing and jeering.

“Two demigods in Tartarus,” the head dracanae coos. “You’re a long way from home, Nico di Angelo. It would be adorable if it wasn’t so pathetic--if this wasn’t your second journey here.”

“You think he would learn,” another one tsks.

“Need some of your organs removed again?” the third teases.

Nico stands with his back pressed to Jason’s, standing firm as the dracanae close in. “Amateur hour. When am I going to fight some real monsters?”

The head dracanae shrieks, indignant. “You won’t be saying that for long.” Her eyes flicker to Jason and Nico splays his other hand out in front of Jason, shielding. “And you , poor, miserable son of Jupiter. You’ve no idea the delight I’ll take in enforcing your suffering.”

Nico lunges for her as she reaches for Jason, using his blade to pry her jaws apart and keep her at bay. Jason contends with the other two, making great use of his javelin. Nico strains but he feels alive, fighting for his life in Tartarus, fighting with Jason beside him. They trade places. Jason flips the head dracanae over with his javelin and then corners her with his sword. Nico switches his blade between his heads as he duels the other dracanae.

It’s going well until the leader starts making progress against Jason, pushing him back. That's when Nico gets distracted. One of the dracanae sinks her teeth between his shoulder and neck and he lets out a guttural groan. Before Jason can assist him, Nico yells, “Stay focused! Don’t worry about me!” even as his knees buckle when her fangs sink in deeper. The other dracanae scatters the sword from his grasp and coils around his legs, holding him stiff in place.

When they dracanae force Nico to face the leader, who has Jason cornered and heaving, scratches marring his shoulder, she laughs at them both. “Weak, pitiful, insolent… like all demigods. I'm sure you're thrilled to have made it this far,” she sneers at Nico, “but don’t think you’ll be so lucky to die here. What Gaea will do to you now will make that bronze jar seem like Elysium.” The dracanae slithers back over to Jason, slow and torturous. “However, Jason Grace, you may receive the privilege of death. If you beg for it.”

That’s right. He didn’t make it this far last time. He didn’t have this option before. He meets Jason’s eyes, cloudy with pain, and one look at Nico eases him. I have a plan, is his silent message.

Nico calls.

Moments later, the dracanae lay flat in the ground, fading away into the plain. Jason rushes and catches Nico before he can collapse, staring wary at the shadow of the Titan above them. He tries not to lean into Jason’s warmth. Nico gives a weak smile as a greeting, “Bob. It’s good to see you.”

“Bob happy to help,” Bob says, shuffling away the dracanae dust with his broom. “Last time was no good.”

Nico nods in agreement. Torture upon torture in the pits of hell—no good. “That’s one way to put it.” He uses Jason’s arm to steady himself, muttering an apology when it strains his injured shoulder. “Bob, this is my... friend,” He gives Jason the lightest nudge. “Introduce yourself.”

“Is his name really Bob?” he whispers.

“Sort of.”

Jason clears his throat and calls up to Bob, “It’s nice to meet you mister, uh… Bob. Sir. My name is Jason Grace.” He shakes Bob’s huge thumb and scowls at the mischief in Nico’s eyes.

“Manners!” Bob beams. “Nice boy. Friend like Percy? He smells even better.”

No matter how hard Nico tries to escape him, Percy's name has to follow him even down in Tartarus. But it’s Bob, so he lets it pass. “Yeah. Like Percy.” Jason heaves a long sigh. The son of Hades tries not to chuckle at his discomfort and confusion. “Can you lead us someplace where we can rest, Bob?” Nico asks.

“Of course! Anything for Nico. Old shrine... monsters stay away..”

“That’s perfect. Thank you, Bob.”

They walk arm in arm behind Bob’s thunderous steps, supporting each other’s faltering weights. “It’s a long story,” Nico finally says, breaking the silence.

“I can imagine,” Jason chuckles. “You know, I thought Tartarus would be a lot scarier. Not that it’s not. And I know saying that will screw us over, but… It’s not entrail-ripping and mind-melting as much as it is… weird. I’m sorry, that’s insensitive.”

“It’s okay,” Nico says, surprised to find no sarcasm in his own voice. He’s glad to have this watered-down version of Tartarus. His own trauma aside, he doesn’t want this to affect Jason anymore than it already has. “I’d rather you suffer as little of this as possible.” That’s why I jumped down here again. The longer Nico mulls over it, the more solid he feels in his decision. He would go through Tartarus for eternity if it meant he could protect those closest to him. He is secondary. If Hazel had been dangling in Annabeth and Percy’s place, it would have been a no-brainer. Anyone from the crew. Better me than them.

And as much as he hates to admit it, it's because it was Percy that he took that leap in the first place.

Jason gives him that same unreadable stare from earlier and Nico grows warm under his gaze. He tries to focus on something else, but then all he can think on is his weakened body. The longer they walk, the more his hunger and thirst weigh in on him. “We know each other, don’t we?”

He keeps his eyes on his boots. “That’s also a long story.”

They end up at an old shrine for Hermes, a hidden outcropping at the edge of a pit. Bob lifts them onto the stone ledge and sits on the ground beside them. “Bob, you should get out of here,” Nico advises. “I don’t want you getting trouble with my dad or any other monster.”

Bob frowns, fretting over Nico, “But... Bob help.”

“Don’t worry,” Nico assures. “I’ll need help, and I’ll call you again.

Bob is reluctant but departs and Nico sighs, sad to see him go. “I’ll take the first watch,” he says. He takes a small sip from the thermos. It isn’t enough to heal him, they’re already running low, but at least his bleeding has stopped. “How’s your shoulder?” His voice softens with concern, surprising himself and Jason.

“Oh, it’s…” He presses a tender hand to it and winces. “Could be better. I can take the first watch,” he offers.

Nico hands him the thermos. “You’re injured, Grace. You need to sleep some of this off.”

“So are you. Have you slept at all since…?” Nico shakes his head. He tries to ignore how Jason frowns, concerned and kind. “You need to sleep much more than I do.”

“I don’t want to. I… can’t,” Nico says in a small voice. He’s terrified of going to sleep here. He doesn’t know if he’ll be able to distinguish between his nightmares and reality. It may get better with time, but he doubts that. “I can’t sleep.”

He stares intently at him for a while. Nico wishes he could get tired of those eyes. “Then neither will I.” He settles stubborn beside him, resting against the wall of the broken shrine. “I fought the dracanae in the fight against Krios. A lot of them were grunts in his army.” Jason pauses, concentrating, speaking the memories as he recalls them. “Reyna and I fought side by side. We were trying to get to Krios, and we managed to get those three dracanae--the ones we fought against just now--to tie themselves into a huge knot. They were like a giant pretzel.”

Nico tries to downplay his snickering but it doesn’t work. It makes Jason smile and the crack in his heart widens. “Then that will be your torment in Tartarus. They’ll make you eat pretzels, day and night, for the rest of eternity.”

Then Jason laughs and Nico is undone. He starts laughing, too. He can’t help it. Everything about Jason is infectious. He’s a fever. Warm, hazy, all encompassing. Nauseous. It renders him useless, sick, and weak to heated whims. Nico’s always hated being sick until it came to Jason.

When they both settle down, Jason rests his sky-blue stare on Nico yet again. The burn of Tartarus has nothing on his gaze. “Will you tell me how you know me? I’m trying to piece everything back together. Percy has all his memories, he has for a while, but I still don’t. I don’t know why.” His voice becomes quiet and lost. Nico fiddles with the ring on his finger. “It doesn’t have to be now. But... someday.”

Nico is slow to agree but he does nod. “I’ll tell you when you get out of here.”

We,” Jason corrects again.

They lapse into silence and Nico closes his eyes. He can’t help it. He can’t remember the last time he slept but he’s afraid if he tries he won’t wake up. Or he’ll wake up back in the Jar. Tartarus crafts his fears and tailors his nightmares. His hunger and thirst make ignoring his exhaustion that much harder. “Don’t let me fall asleep,” he says, fixing Jason with a hard stare.

Jason shakes his head. “You can’t stay awake forever, Nico.”

“Watch me.”

Eventually, exhaustion wins out, and Nico falls victim to his own darkness.

Chapter Text

Hazel is too numb to cry.

Her eyes linger on the red chasm where her brother disappeared. Even when she’s ushering Percy and Annabeth back to the ship--he fell, he jumped, we can’t lose anyone else--and everything crumbles around them, she can’t look away. That sick fire burns her. When she helps Annabeth and Percy back up the ladder, they collapse on the deck. She longs to do the same. “I’ll grab you some ambrosia and nectar,” she tells them instead, then instructing Coach Hedge to get the ship moving. The walls of the Argo II are too big and too bright, she thinks, grabbing supplies from their makeshift infirmary. She wants them narrow, to close in, to swallow her with their shadow. She wants Nico’s darkness.

When she returns, Annabeth's head rests on Percy’s trembling shoulder, hands locked, lips sealed. Hazel gently pries the silk from her leg to properly dress the wound.

“Percy, she needs to eat this.” She breaks off a small square of ambrosia. When he doesn’t respond, Hazel takes his other hand. “Percy. I need you here, right now.” He's distant as he was on their Alaskan quest, stuck in another bog of muskeg. 

Percy blinks possible tears from his ocean eyes in response. He coaxes Annabeth into eating the ambrosia. Then he pulls her closer, tighter, shutting out the world. He offers his arm out to Hazel, inviting her in. At long last she accepts and goes limp in the embrace of their companionship.

“I’m sorry,” Percy and Annabeth murmur over and over. She can’t tell if they’re apologizing to her, each other, or Nico and Jason. Perhaps all of them.

When they’re sailing, safe from the crumbling pantheon, safe from Tartarus, footsteps pound the deck. Leo and Piper run up from below and Frank leaves the helm to Coach Hedge. They circle around the trio. Their presence should calm her, but Hazel feels trapped. How is she supposed to explain what’s happened when she can’t yet admit it herself? She can still see him, can still feel him, before his grainy shadow slipped through her fingers. “It’s secure,” Leo says, out of breath. “Glad we got the hell outta there.”

“Annabeth!” Piper exclaims, relieved. “I’m so glad you’re safe.” Annabeth’s stormy eyes cloud over; she can’t or won’t meet her gaze. Hazel untangles herself from the hug, but lets Percy’s hand rub comforting circles on her back as he does with the daughter of Athena.

“Everyone okay?” he asks, trying to summon the command and calm that Jason’s voice always brings.

A myriad of nods and quiet responses. Their state has humbled them, muted their fearful celebration. Trying to lift the mood, Leo laughs, “Where’s Superman? He bailed on us, I have a bone to pick.” The daughter of Aphrodite punches his shoulder, friendly and light. She stops laughing when she looks at Hazel.

There’s no kind gleam in her golden eyes. The sun, mocking her high above, floods the deck with warm light. She shivers in protest. Sacrifice is necessary, her Roman sensibilities tell her. Not everyone makes it, her demigod attributes whisper. Despite that, every part of her screams for her brother’s loss.

“Guys?” He swallows hard and the smile slips off his face. Laughter quieting, he repeats, “Where’s Jason? Where…”

Hazel tries to speak, but nothing comes out. Frank kneels down next to her, taking over for Percy and placing a comforting hand on her shoulder. “Hazel?” he asks. His voice is low, gentle, as if he knows Hazel is going to cry before she does. “Where’s Nico?”

And the numbness that held Hazel together shatters; everything cold and detached within her burns in grief. Frank holds her firm in his strong arms. She can’t bring her soul to stay with her body. All she can see is that bony hand stretched toward her, offering her everything, declaring that she, of all the heroes and triumphs of the human race, most deserves a second chance.

All she can see is her beloved brother curled in on himself, breathing but all too dead, risking his life for a world full of strangers and friends that don’t care. All she can see is the last glimpse of his shadow as he disappears into hell again, citing it as a deserved punishment to save those more worthy than him. Hazel is angry. At Nico, Annabeth, Percy, Jason, herself. She’s angry at everything. And sad. And too broken to let her mind grieve with her body.

Why can't he see the same goodness in himself that he sees in her?

Hazel removes herself from Frank’s hold and stands in front of Piper and Leo. She takes each of their hands. The heartbreak in their eyes is more than she can handle. “I’m sorry,” she says. It’s all she can say. All she can do. “I’m so sorry.”

It’s Piper choking up into her other hand, it’s the tears steaming the edge of Leo’s eyes, it’s Frank’s bowed head, it’s Percy’s glare at the shadow he casts, it’s Annabeth’s silence, it’s everything and it’s killing Hazel.

“Nico saved Annabeth and I from falling into Tartarus,” Percy finally says, as if he’s hearing the news for the first time. He’s waking to the horrific reality of his rescue. “Jason went after him.”

Everyone’s staring at her but pretending otherwise. She wants Nico. She wants void, to be lost, to let its absence fill her and take her away. She tries to speak again but she can only breathe in. In, in, air rushes in, air that Nico can’t breathe, useless, stale, suffocating air filling her lungs. “Hazel, breathe,” Frank tries to console her. “Just breathe with me.”

But she can’t. “I-I’m sorry,” she mumbles again. She needs to escape. She needs the darkness to envelop her. When the shade tugs at her leg, she follow its direction, and phases into her own shadow.

Disoriented, Hazel regards her surroundings. It’s a shifting blackness, a heavy scribble of charcoal on a blank page. It’s a tunnel. The current pulls her along, encouraging her every step. She’s sick, but she thinks she could get used to this. The silence, peace, that absolute nothing brings.

When she’s calm, she steps out of the shadows and finds herself in her room. The pull of light when the tugging shadow fades makes her sick. She’s struggling not to vomit all over the floor. She steadies herself against the wall. “Stop shaking,” she whispers to her hands. “ Stop.” Her body ceases. She rubs her red eyes and wipes away the lingering dampness on her cheeks, falling onto her bed.

Hazel wishes for her brother curled beside her. She knows Nico is alive. If she concentrates she can feel his pulse fluttering under her left wrist. It’s almost worse than feeling his death--it’s so faint, so cold, so inconsistent. What she wouldn’t give to trade places with him.

And in that moment, she tries to understand. What Nico wouldn’t give to take the burden of Tartarus on himself, to keep others safe in his stead. That’s how he ended up there in the first place, in the Jar, and back in Tartarus. How many times has he done this, she wonders, with nothing to show but lonely scars?

Hazel doesn’t know how much time passes. She lays there, wounded and desolate, blankets clutched tight in her small hands. There’s a knock on the door. “Hazel? Can I come in?” She offers no reply. The door creaks open. Frank sits beside her, holding her hand. Occasionally, he fiddles with her coils of her hair. “Do you want to talk about it?”

Hazel shakes her head. Eventually, though, his sympathy cracks her open. “I don’t know what to do, Frank,” she mumbles. “What to say. What to feel.” She curls in on herself. “I feel so helpless. He just--he said he was sorry and, and then he was gone.” She sits up, scrubbing her eyes. “And I--I know that he’s going to stay behind and close the Doors because Jason is one of the seven and, and that’s just how Nico is.” Bitterness pools into her words like bile. “I can’t keeping losing him. I’m afraid I’ve lost him for good, now. If he gets back, how long will he stay?”

Frank rests his head against his free hand, deep in thought. “Jason’s with him. He won’t let Nico sacrifice himself. They’ll find another way. Jason won’t let Nico give up his life on his behalf, and vice versa. That’s how they are. That’s why Jason jumped after him. He couldn’t let Nico get hurt.”

Hazel whacks her pillow. “They’re both idiots.”

He offers a thin, exasperated smile. “Yeah. They’ll both get an earful when they get back. And that’s only from me.”

The daughter of Pluto softly chuckles in agreement. A warm relief washes over her. She loves how Frank can ease her, uplift her, with the fewest of words. It's enough to snap her from her funk. She hopes it can last, that she can maintain her drive, and worry about getting to the Doors ahead of time instead of mourning. They aren't dead yet, she reminds herself. So she can't stay immobile.

She snuggles her way under his arm, hugging his torso. “Thank you.”

He pats her head. “I won’t say you’re not right to worry, but he'll be okay. It won’t be any easy going through Tartarus--and again, for Nico, I can’t imagine… but he’s not alone. They have each other.”

“And so do we,” she says quietly, squeezing his hand. Frank's one of the best friends she's ever had. Now more than ever, she's so grateful for his comfort. He's her rock in this storm of fire and emotion. After a while, Frank leaves, letting Hazel ponder in silence. She comforts herself with prayer. Even though she knows better, she prays to her father for help. She prays for her words, her love, to reach Nico, even in Tartarus.

A low tapping bothers her when she’s finishing up her last round of worship. It’s consistent. Not quite a knock. Perhaps not even meant to draw her attention. But it does and opens her cabin door to a surprise. “Leo?”

He jumps at the mention of his name. He had been leaning into her doorframe, fingers playing the wood, until she approached. Morse code. He was the source of the tapping. Now he seems caught between Hazel’s cabin and retreating down the hall to his own.

“Heya, Hazel, I just. Uh. Wanted to check up on you. See how you’re doing, and stuff.” His awkward phrasing gives her lips reason to curl into the smallest smile at his expense. She’s embraced the awkward moments that define their friendship. “Sorry, this is probably really creepy.”

“It’s okay, Leo. Don’t worry about it.” She places a hand on his arm, stilling whatever inner motor powers his jumpy behavior. “What does ‘and stuff’ entail?”

Leo runs a hand through his curls and lets out a long sigh. Then, he takes a deep breath, and blurts as fast as he can, “ Ijustcameheretoapologizebecausethewholethingismyfault.” When Hazel raises her eyebrow in reply, he continues, a little slower but still jumbled, “Because I broke open that stupid fortune cookie, and we just saved Nico, I’m really sorry--”

“Leo, please, stop. This is not your fault.” He’s ready to disagree with her. Nico used to do the same thing whenever he found himself at blame. It sparks anger and affection all the same. “Did you shove Nico into Tartarus and throw Jason down after him? No? Then it isn’t your fault. There’s no point in blaming yourself. You wouldn’t blame me for not stopping Nico, would you?” Leo adamantly shakes his head. “You wouldn’t blame Percy for not being able to pull Annabeth up and get them both out, would you?” Again, Leo shakes his head, rolling his eyes too, this time. “You wouldn’t blame Annabeth for not noticing she’d gotten caught in Arachne’s web. And you wouldn’t blame Nico for wanting to save them. Or Jason for wanting to save him. Or Piper for helping you secure the Athena Parthenos instead of getting everyone on the ship. So there’s no use in blaming yourself, too.” She says this and realizes the same for herself. A great weight lifts itself off her shoulders. “There’s no point in dwelling on what we could’ve done. We just need to deal with what’s happened.”

He looks so lost when she tells him that. They share a long silence until the son of Hephaestus raises a sigh too heavy for his lanky body. At last, with a fraction of his usual drive, he jokes, “So you’re saying it’s Coach Hedge's fault.”

“Not so loud, he’ll hear you.” And they share a quiet laugh.

He clears his throat, serious again. “I’m sorry. Not--not about Nico, this time. For forcing you to be my grief counselor.

“You aren’t forcing me to do anything. I’m glad to be here for you, Leo. You’re my friend.” She gives him an encouraging pat on the shoulder. Truth be told, it helps her to help others. She doesn’t have to think about how hurt she is, how much she misses Nico, how unlikely it is he’ll survive. Those chances only dwindle when they lie around and exchange faults. Blame is not what matters, she thinks. All that matters is getting to the other side of the Doors and defeating Gaea.

A little more courageous after Hazel’s reassurance, he chews his lip and mutters, “I miss Jason.”

“Yeah. So do I.” She rubs her left wrist, thought absent. “If something... happens to him, I’ll know. Children of Pluto are sensitive to death. And demigods… that’s not something you can ignore, especially when there’s an established connection. The one I have with Nico,” she chokes on his name, “is stronger, but still. If there’s anything… I’ll let you know.”

“Thanks,” He gives her a smile, a real smile this time, not a joke stretched too thin across his bright teeth. Leo wants to say something else, but a crash in the distance gives him pause. “That sounds like it was from the mess hall.” His eyes widen as though he’s remembered something and he yelps, racing down the hallway.

Her curiosity piqued, Hazel closes the door on her dark thoughts and runs after him.

Chapter Text

The Hermes shrine sits on an outcropping that overlooks a great distance of Tartarus. Dark red shapes flit around in the distance below them. Here, however, they’re untouchable for a little while. The crumbling structure shields them. The hallowed greyed stone gives him a sense of peace contrary to the surrounding chaos. He finds comfort in the old Greek symbols and lettering that adorn the ancient building. The ground of Tartarus, bright, burning coals, cast an almost angelic firelight over Nico’s pale sleeping state.

Jason watches Nico drift in and out of a fitful consciousness beside him. He sits with one knee drawn to his chest, sword leaning there precarious, and the other leg stretched out in front of him. He clutches the blade's hilt even in his sleep. Jason wants to unwind, unknot him, but fears retaliation. So he sits still and watches the dark boy slumber.

He can’t tell how much time passes. Time is strange in Tartarus. Perhaps it’s only been hours since they’ve entered, but his pain feels as though its accumulated over days, even weeks. Not only that, but he has no idea how much time has passed outside of Tartarus. Maybe they’re already too late. Maybe Gaia has already risen. Maybe the crew, Piper, and Leo are all dead.

Jason buries his head in his hands and breathes. He can’t let himself succumb to these dark thoughts. He has to stay strong. For himself, for Nico. His thoughts travel back to the son of Hades who sits restless beside him. As angry as Nico may be when he awakens, he needs to sleep. Jason resolves only to wake him if necessary.

A slight frown creases Nico’s pale brow. He mumbles something, sighs, and then it fades. He looks peaceful, but all too ghostly, when he’s asleep. Jason fears he’ll never wake up. He finds himself checking for the soft sound of erratic breaths, feeling that paper thin wrist for a drumming pulse.

Then Jason’s head starts aching again. He closes his eyes. His grip on Nico’s wrist tightens. He focuses on the strain, the hurt that rings in his head. It hits him all at once with a bright flash and a sharp gasp.

Jason found him sitting then much as he was now, sable and sharp, under the shade of a tree. Storm clouds rolled overhead. He had taken a recon mission to take out a sudden influx of monsters edging on their camp’s borders. The oncoming rain, which could deter others, eased his spirits. He could imagine his father standing at his back, encouraging, as he pressed forward.

He was eager to get away from Camp Jupiter and take some time for himself. Nothing but him, the forest, and whatever monsters he came across. Ever since he became a Centurion, everyone’s expectations of him heightened (yet again). He was getting tired of it. He couldn’t talk about it with anyone except Reyna without feeling like he was complaining, and she had her own problems.

He was a few days’ walk from camp mulling over these thoughts when he stumbled across him. Jason approached what he feared was a corpse and knelt down, feeling his wrist for a pulse. The boy’s eyes snapped open at the rumble of thunder.

Taking advantage of the grip he had, he held Jason’s wrist and flipped him onto the ground. After wrestling his way on top of him, he pressed the black blade flat to his throat. His sunken chest surged, shadows encroaching his form. The grass underneath them browned and died.

“Don’t touch me,” he growled. His hands shook holding the sword, but his gaze did not waver. The black blade pressed tight against his neck and Jason took a shaky breath. Those dark eyes pierced him--he couldn’t look away.

“I’m sorry I startled you,” he apologized. The boy was quite malnourished. He looked like a wild animal. If he wanted to, he could throw him off with ease. But Jason couldn’t afford to underestimate him in his position, so he remained still. Some part of him knew getting the boy off him would only be the first hurdle. He tried to explain himself, “I thought you might be dead. I was checking you for a pulse.” The boy’s clothes were tattered and worn, his shaggy black hair went down to his shoulders, and the crown of his head was matted with blood. “You’re injured.”

The boy snorted, his sword slowly returning to his side. “Nice eyesight,” Jason tried to reach for his backpack, crushed beneath him and the dead grass, but the boy stopped his creeping hands. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“I have some ambrosia.” He rested his hands on the back of his head until the boy reluctantly released him. It was hard not to feel flustered. His stomach kept doing flips even after the boy climbed off of him.

“I don’t need your charity.”

The boy was young and angrier than any demigod Jason had ever met. Powerful, too. He had never felt such an aura. “What are you doing out here in the first place?” Jason inquired, ignoring the boy’s dirty look when he rifled through his backpack. He sized Jason up with those dark, mysterious eyes, refusing to answer.

Everything about the boy made him curious. Perhaps he had been sent to find Camp Jupiter by Lupa as a test. He couldn’t very well interfere with his mission, then. But everything about this boy screamed the opposite of Roman (mainly, his posture). Perhaps a demigod toughing it on his own? Jason didn’t know many who could survive for a long time on their own--and this boy was unlike any of those he knew. He couldn’t be older than Jason, and he looked like he had been wandering for months, even years, on his own. Then, there was something pure and hurting beneath the demigod’s tough act, something that made him ache. Some fine, nameless thing that made him gravitate to the boy’s peculiar orbit. He did not pity him. He wanted to help.

Jason finally stood and offered the squashed ambrosia. “I’m not above making you eat this.”

“As if you could,” the boy smirked.

“Try me.”

The boy kept staring at Jason and the ambrosia. He fixated on the dead ground beneath him. The grass all around him kept dying, extending to the shadow Jason cast. “You wouldn’t want to help me if you knew who I was.”

That struck a chord with him. “Here’s a thought: I don’t care who you are. You’re hurt and you need help. That’s all that matters. You can accept that I want to help you or you can refuse and keep going until you collapse, and you’ll only have yourself to blame.” Jason shrugged, but kept his arm extended and amicable. “Your choice.”

The boy stared at him for a long time. At last, he grabbed the ambrosia square from Jason. He took two small, hesitant bites, and then wolfed down the rest of it. After a long time of chewing and silence, he cleared his throat and nodded his thanks at Jason.

“How come you’re out here? Were you attacked?”

The boy shrugged. “Monsters. Every day. For a while.” He rubbed his eyes.

He wondered if he could push the boy beyond monosyllabic responses. “You’ve been roughing it by yourself? That’s really impressive," Jason mused.

His eyes widened, confused, almost offended at the praise. “Uh.”

“Are you trying to find camp? I can’t help you, exactly, but--”

“I don’t want to go anywhere near that place,” he suddenly seethed. He gripped Jason’s arm, nails digging into his tattoo. “I don’t want it, I don’t need it. There’s nothing left for me there.”

Jason was very confused. “I… I’ve never seen you at camp.” He was quite involved at Camp Jupiter, especially since he became Centurion of the Fifth Cohort. And after spending years there, you got to know everyone, no matter what cohort you were in. A boy this… interesting would likely be shoved into the Fifth Cohort simply because the praetors wouldn’t know what to do with him. So that raised the question: What camp was he talking about?

“I didn’t stay very long.” A bitter scowl twisted his face.

There’s no way he could’ve gotten past our defenses and made his way in the camp, for however long, without us noticing hey why is he grabbing my shirt. The boy had balled Jason's shirt tight in his fist. Not confrontational. He was studying the fabric, the color, so intensely. He traced the letters of the Camp Jupiter logo. “I have an extra one if you want it,” he joked and gestured to his pack. 

“I don’t--” The boy’s olive skin darkened red. “I don’t want your stupid shirt. It’s the wrong color, anyway.” He mumbled the last part, confused, but concentrating his gaze with a precision that cut Jason deep. Then his eyes fogged and he began to sway in place.

The son of Jupiter started forward. “Wait, let me help you.”

“Don’t,” he hissed, falling against the tree. “It’s a waste.” He sounded like he was struggling to believe his own words.

“That’s not how I see it,” Jason said. As the boy slid to the ground and settled in the dead grass, he grabbed some bandages from his backpack. “You’re going to pass out at this rate.” He settled beside him and the boy seemed too tired to protest. He guzzled the water and an assortment of snacks Jason offered.

“I’m going to touch your head and bandage it up. Is that okay?” His hands hovered around his bloody hair. The boy eventually nodded. “Tell me if anything hurts.” They spent time in silence sizing each other up. At this point, he didn’t feel threatened, but wasn’t keen on setting the boy off. He didn’t want to hurt him beyond the injuries he already sustained. Jason cleaned the wound as best he could with what little supplies he had and wrapped it to keep it clean. The boy grit his teeth, but no sound escaped him. He hardly flinched. Jason wondered about the desperate circumstances that lead him to such a high pain tolerance. 

When Jason finished, the mysterious boy stood. If it hurt or dizzied him, he didn’t show it this time. He straightened his oversized jacket and murmured, “Thank you.”

Jason’s chest swelled. “I’m glad I could help. Listen, I could take you back to my camp. We have good healers. We could get you some clean clothes, a bed…” He left out the logistics of bringing an outsider to Camp Jupiter, but they could cross that bridge when they came to it. It was finally time to use his privilege as son of the king of gods that he hated being saddled with.

“Tempting as it is, I’ll have to pass.” The boy turned to leave. On impulse, Jason shot after him and grabbed his wrist.

“Wait. What’s your name?”

The boy turned his head just enough to meet Jason’s gaze. His eyes were dark and deep. There was something buried there that he knew he could never understand. So much in the past and future he could never hope to imagine. Yet a rich, warm oak tone lay under the blackness. His eyes softened just enough to suggest a smile once lingered there.

He did not answer Jason. He faded into darkness.

The scene warps, unrecognizable, and Jason reaches for Nico in the blur of his memories. That can’t be it, he wants to scream. Show him to me! But his mind has other plans.

The scene refocuses and Jason stands on Half-Blood Hill. Reyna and Annabeth stand before him holding hands, fingers intertwined. “I must stand here,” they speak in unison. Their mixed voices form a new identity that Jason can’t place.

They merge into one mighty being, hard eyes mimicking the Athena Parthenos. “The Romans must bring me.” They fade into light, a bright entity, stretching the ground and sky and growing several stories tall. The Athena Parthenos shakes and the earth beneath them cracks open.

AWAKEN.

When he returns to the present, the scent of rain and wind and woods replaced with Tartarus’ hideous, permeating stink, Nico is holding that same forearm, digging his fingers into Jason's tattoo. What hurts more is the way Nico's dark eyes pierce him. He whispers, urgent, “Wake up.”

The breathy tone makes Jason stutter. Nico is glaring at him, some soft, unknown emotion mixed with his annoyance. His sword rests at his hip. “You’re awake,” he says dumbly.

“Yes. No thanks to you.” He looks away. “You were sitting there in a trance. You wouldn’t snap out of it.”

“I… remembered,” He swallows, hard, reeling from the memory and vision alike. “I remember you, Nico.” Nico retreats as though the hand he gripped struck him. Jason hastens to explain. “I found you in the woods. You were injured and I helped. That’s all.” He doesn’t say anything else. He trusts Nico to tell him, in time, no matter how frustrating his lingering amnesia is. Pushing him into it will just scare him away. He rubs his head and sighs, resting it against the cold stone of the Hermes shrine. “How are you feeling? Did you sleep all right?”

Nico sets his sword beside him, pulls his knees to his chest, and rests his head on them. “Fine.” He scrunches his nose. Hands itch at the blood dried between his neck and shoulder. “I don’t think I slept. Not really. I would’ve had a dream, or a nightmare. It was just… dark. I thought I heard... Hazel.” He tries to brush off his stiffness, his sadness, with an accusatory glare. “I’m still mad you didn’t wake me up.”

“Fine, but I’m not apologizing. You needed to rest.”

The son of Hades is angry, ready to argue, but then the ground beneath them begins to smoke and glow with light. Jason pulls Nico to his feet away from the circle of fire. He convinces himself that’s what makes him heat up, not that Nico leans on him for support instead of the stone wall behind them.

Several things are left in the wake of the fire. A paper plate with a few greasy, singed pieces of pizza; a thick slab of barbecue brisket; an assorted bunch of fruit; and half a bag of M&Ms. As soon as he lays his eyes on that food, Jason realizes how well he’s downplayed his hunger to himself, and then how starving he is.

“Perfect. We don't have to worry about finding food,” Jason says, unashamed in using the food as an excuse to divert their argument. He sits down and gorges on some of the pizza. Nico is reluctant but sits beside him. He eats a piece of candy, takes a small bite of an apple, then curls into himself. “You should try and eat something. More than that, at least.”

“It’ll just make me sick,” Nico sighs. “Stop pestering me, Grace. I know my own limits.”

Jason almost questions him, again, but he lets it go. The last thing he wants is to push Nico away. They need to be on good terms if they’re going to get out of here. And he wants to hear Nico call him by his first name. “All right,” he says through a mouthful of brisket. “I'm just worried about you.”

“I know. I’ll be okay.” He nudges Jason’s arm. “Close your mouth.”

Jason chuckles and nods, wiping some sauce off the corner of his lip. He contemplates the appearance of the food, the circle of fire from which it emerged. Regarding the shrine, he hums in thought. “Where do you think this came from?”

“You’re saying that a little late for someone who’s eaten that much.”

He rolls his eyes but can’t stifle a laugh. “Someone has to have offered it. Chances are… it’s one of the camps.”

Nico’s eyes glint. He looks at the bag of M&M’s, eyes narrowed with scrutiny. “You may be right.” He grabs the the candy. “I was in the Hermes cabin for a while, before I was… claimed. I remember… One of the Stolls always offered some of these before dinner, every time, without fail.”

“So, the question is… does it only go one-way?”

Nico’s nose and eyebrows scrunch the way they always do when he’s concentrating. It’s kind of adorable, Jason has to admit. He piles the rest of the food on top of the brisket and takes the grease-stained plate that held the pizza, flipping it over. “Do you have something to write with?”

Jason shakes his head. “No, but I like where you’re going with this.”

Nico grabs his sword from his belt and pulls it out, pressing his finger to the tip, drawing a trickle of blood. “A little dramatic, but we don’t have anything else. It should get the message across.”

“What are we writing?”

Nico frowns, that cute, inquisitive frown again, and his hand falls back to his side. Jason blinks, hard, wondering where the thought came from. “I don’t know. I don’t even know what to say, or who to say it to.”

Jason thinks for a while. He remembers his dream. Camp Jupiter is on the verge of war against Camp Half-Blood. Most of the demigods either influential, reasonable, or powerful enough to stop that from happening are aboard the Argo II. He knows Octavian must have the Senate wrapped tight around his finger. The leaves only one option. “I think we need Reyna’s help,” he finally says.

The son of Hades looks intrigued. “You must really be desperate to be the first to suggest that.”

Jason scoffs but doesn’t disagree. He gives a brief explanation of his vision. “It may be the only chance we have to unite the Romans and the Greeks,” he says. He pricks his finger on Nico’s sword, startling him, and starts to write on the plate. “Give me your thermos.” he instructs, intent and focused on crafting the message. Once he’s done, they’ll burn it, using the shrine as a conduit to send the message back from wherever the food came from. That brings another issue, however. “How can we make sure this actually gets to Reyna? She’ll take one look at this and laugh, if it even gets that far. I mean, she could recognize my handwriting, but… this is more finger painting.”

Nico fishes around in his jacket and pants, finally pulling a scrap of paper from his back pocket. He looks pained as he sets the card on the ground in the offering circle. “That counts for my signature, my word, and everything else I’m worth.”

Jason recognizes the insignia on the weathered card. When he examines it, he feels another memory based headache coming on. “I forgot you played Mythomagic.”

“You forgot your own middle name, Grace.” Jason laughs, even though he can’t tell whether or not it’s a joke, and the fact that it might be true is a scary thought. “I was kidding.” Nico’s delayed assurance gives him a small smile.

“Are you sure you want to give this up?” He looks at the card, regarding the figure. Familiar sea-green eyes shine against an ocean background. He strikes down a sudden pulse of anger. “Isn’t it your favorite card?” He knows he’s on the brink of something important because Nico bristles in response.

“It was,” is his terse reply. “Finish the note.”

Once he’s done writing, he takes a sip from the thermos and dumps some of the fiery liquid on the paper plate and Mythomagic card. It burns bright and disappears, no ashes left in its wake. It’s a strange idea, sure, but Jason likes to think there’s enough logic to carry it all the way to New Rome. He’s done much crazier in any case.

He regards his finger, wincing as the harsh of Tartarus stings even the smallest cut. Nico dips his index finger and thumb into the thermos and closes his wet fingers around Jason’s bleeding one. It smokes, burns, and the cut repairs itself. Jason bites his lip, a flush creeping up his neck.

Nico, enigmatic as always, turns to leave their haven. Jason is reminded of that day he met him in the woods. He does not grab him, but calls out, “Do you trust me, Nico?” It’s a selfish question. But Jason thinks he’s earned it. After all this intrigue, after everything that’s happened--he isn’t even sure of the reason he so eagerly jumped into Tartarus after Nico. All he knows is that he had to, but he doesn’t know why.

He doesn’t bother stopping. “I don’t trust anyone.”

“Don’t give me that. I don’t even have most of my memory back and I know that’s not true.”

“How can you know that?” Nico finally spins around, confronting him. “How do you know it’s not Hera, not the Mist?”

Jason doesn’t back down. He dares forward, pressing close to Nico. “I can’t explain it, but I know what feels right. I knew when I woke up on that bus at the Wilderness School that something was wrong. I knew when I first saw Thalia that the family I never knew I missed had finally come home. I knew when Camp Half-Blood filled something in me that was missing. Something my home could never fill.” He grabs Nico’s hand tight in his own, and a little spark shocks them both. “And I knew when you looked at me after we saved you from that bronze jar that I was someone important to you. And I know you must be important to me, too, because... because...”

Nico’s wide eyes give him pause. He shakes for a long time, quiet, brooding. When he speaks at last, his voice is so small, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Everything you’ve done for me… you would do the same for anyone else. It’s who you are.”

Anger overtakes Jason. “Despite what you think, I wouldn’t jump into Tartarus for just anyone. And I don’t think you would, either.”

Darkness creeps into the few corners of the Hermes shrine. It surrounds, suffocates them both. “You have no clue what you’re talking about, Grace.”

“You’re right. I don’t know, because you won’t tell me anything! Stop hiding the truth from me!”

The son of Hades peers at him through a cloud of dark hair. “Hiding?” he repeats, voice dropping an entire octave. The shadows intensify, swirling around them.

They’re still close, Nico’s head nudging his collarbone, meeting his gaze with fury. Jason takes a long breath, trying to calm himself. “Justify my trust in you, Nico. Give me a reason to believe my instincts. You think I’m just the hero taking pity on the tragic son of Hades, right? Tell me otherwise. Why lie? Why not let me care about you?”

Nico says nothing. The shadows recede, and the heat of Tartarus settles back in, choking them both. Just like that day, he does not answer. He slings his sword over his shoulder and stalks off.

Jason watches Nico a long time before he finally follows after him.

Chapter Text

Jason stops in front of the field of shadows. He hears a distant roar but doesn't bother glancing behind them. They took a chance, doubling back to refill the thermos at the river. They ran into another hoard of dracanae, larger this time, but managed to get through. But now more monsters are aware of their presence. All seek them out; old enemies driven by bloodlust that Jason can’t remember and minions of Gaia eager to make Nico suffer.

Now, two lines of the skull thermos glow and Jason has no idea if they are any closer to the Doors of Death. Bob gave them a much needed edge, but Nico seems reluctant to summon him again, and explains to Jason the dicey past of the former Titan. They both agree to keep him as a last resort, because neither wants a Titan going berserk on top of every monster in Tartarus seeking out their blood. So they stand at the precipice of some great, foggy terrain, unsure of how to press on.

They’ve spent their time in tense silence. Well, Jason keeps trying to engage Nico in conversation and Nico keeps refusing. He’s very frustrated by the time they end up in front of the murky haze.

Somehow, with each passing horror, Tartarus still manages to darken. The rust that surrounds them bleeds into the fog, creating a mist that makes Jason sick to look at. “How are we going to get through here? I can’t even see through it.” He thrusts his arm into the fog. A feeling of coldness and despair washes over him. He can feel gravity pulling him down, down into the depths of Tartarus. That's something else Jason hates. In Tartarus, there's nowhere to go but down.

Nico purses his lips. “I have an idea.”

“That’d be great, because whatever that is,” Jason says over a monstrous shriek, nearer than the last one, “is getting too close.”

“It could be risky, but... I could shadow travel. It’s the fastest transportation we have. If I can transport us in short bursts, getting closer and closer to the Doors, we can be out of here in no time… And it’s better than taking shots in the dark.”

Jason isn’t eager for what’s to come, but it’s the only option they have. “Fine.” Nico almost flinches at his short reply. His sets a determined face opposed to the trace of fear in his eyes. But when the son of Hades offers his hand, he accepts it without hesitation, deciding it’s more out of fondness than the monsters chasing them. The shadows engulf them and they go.

Shadow travel makes Jason sick. The darkness creeps around him, tugs him along, fills his ears and his eyes and his nose with too much static. He keeps tight the grip on Nico’s hand as he leads them through the night. The smog of Tartarus fades, filling his lungs with clean, cool air, frost settling on his nails and the edge of his ears.

They walk through the darkness hand in hand. It's like trudging through walls of mud. They're making progress, slow, suffocating progress. Then the dark path ahead of them ripples and Nico stops.

“Nico?” Jason asks. The ground beneath them shakes and they both stumble, holding hands tighter. “What’s going on?”

“I--I don’t know. This shouldn’t be happening. It should be a straight shot. We shouldn’t stop moving.”

Light bursts in the tunnel of shadows beneath their feet. Two gigantic half-lidded eyes beneath their feet fixate on the duo. Jason pulls Nico close to him, drawing his sword from his coin. Nico, likewise, brings forth his own weapon.

DO YOU THINK YOU CAN DEFEAT ME IN MY OWN DOMAIN?

The son of Hades trembles beside him, wordless terror in his eyes. The voice of Gaea. “Run,” Nico whispers. He grabs Jason’s hand again and dashes further into the shadow. The eyes move fast underneath them, following through the darkness. Then, with a horror, the son of Jupiter realizes they aren’t moving at all. They’re running, but they aren’t getting farther than a few feet. He pulls Nico back, breath short and wounds aching.

YOU DARE TRESPASS AFTER I LET YOU GO SO EASILY… YOU WILL KNOW PAIN, SON OF HADES, AND SOUNDLY. YOU KNOW NOTHING OF TORTURE. NOT YET. With each echo, the voice gets louder and louder. Nico covers his ears, eyes wide and terrified.

“Stop it,” he whispers. “I control the shadows.”

AND IS THIS NOT ENOUGH FOR YOU, SON OF JUPITER? Vivid green pupils turn to Jason and he can’t help being drawn in. YOU WILL SUFFER GREATLY FOR YOUR INSOLENCE. I LOOK FORWARD TO YOUR DEMISE. IT WILL END ANY HOPE THE GODS HAVE LEFT.

“You can’t stop us,” Jason says. He steadies his voice and stands his ground. He has to stay strong. “You will know what it’s like to fail.”

A laugh explodes the dark. Nico cries out, physically pained by the sound. His body begins to smoke. Jason reaches for him, but the shadows separate them. “I control the shadows,” he repeats in that same small voice. “I control the shadows, they don’t--"

I CONTROL THE SHADOWS, the voice taunts back. The echo reaches a piercing shriek and Nico’s eyes roll into the back of his head.

“Stop it!” Jason exclaims. He reaches for Nico, but the shadows are darker and darker and they keep thickening and he can’t muddle through them. “Leave him alone!”

YOU CANNOT SAVE HIM, JASON GRACE. YOUR HEROICS ARE A CIRCUS ACT. I’VE GROWN BORED OF THEM.

Nico collapses in the darkness and Jason loses sight of him. He screams for the son of Hades but no sound comes out. He screams and screams and screams but the darkness swallows his voice. Jason tries to wade through the shadow, but it only pushes him back. He wants to cut through to Nico, but he can’t see and is afraid he’ll strike him by mistake.

“Jason?” He sees a figure emerge from the shadows, sky blue eyes blind to his presence.

His heart stops. Jason can’t breathe. “Thalia?”

“Jason,” Thalia calls. “Where are you?”

“I’m--” Tears prick his eyes. “I’m here, Thalia, I’m right here.” He reaches for her and their eyes meet, but she doesn’t see him. Her eyes rake over his form without consequence.

“I need you, baby brother.” She tries to laugh but it comes out a sob. “Please…”

“I’m here, Thalia!” Jason cries. He reaches for her again but she fades into the darkness. “Thals…” He tries to regain his composure. This isn’t real. He has to find Nico. He has to get out of here. A coldness settles in his joints, worsening with every step.

He hears Thalia scream and starts running.

There's a growl beside him and a creature comes bounding out of the darkness at him. The wolf's jaws bend wide open and Jason slices across its throat. Out of nowhere, somewhere on his left, another wolf materializes and attacks him. Wolves appear from the shadow and surround him. Jason cuts them down one by one, desperate, wild, only gaining momentum with each beast he cuts down.

"Thalia!" he screams out. "Thalia, if you can hear me--" He's cut off by another wolf charging him. This one hangs onto his leg and he groans, sinking his blade into its hide, trying to shake it off.

Then he sees her. She steps out of the dark clutching her gored stomach. This isn't real, Jason reminds himself. This can't be real.

"Jason," she calls again, as if he isn't there, crying right in front of her. "I'm sorry I stopped looking... but everyone else stopped, too." Her sad tone become bitter, icy. "Did you expect everyone to drop their lives just so they could find you?"

"You aren't real," he repeats aloud. Thought is absent, sound is concrete, it's something, even if his words get swallowed by shadow.

"Did you expect Camp Jupiter to collapse without you?" Her eyes gleam with Reyna's spirit. "Did you expect me to break in pieces just because you were gone?"

"You... you aren't ..."

Thalia spits at his feet, a mixture of blood and saliva. The wolves begin to cower away from them both, whining low. "Did you not think of the consequences that would arise from your selfish actions?"

And from the mist emerge Piper and Leo side by side. If his heart wasn’t broken before, it bursts now.

“I thought we were a team,” Leo whispers.

“We are,” Jason says. “But, look--I don’t have time--you’re not even real! None of you are!”

Piper’s eyes water. “How can you say that, Jason? I thought you cared about us! About me. I thought… I thought we were in love.”

“Piper, I care about you so much. And Leo, you too...”

“You left us,” they echo.

“I had to save Nico!” Jason cries, ready to tear out his hair in frustration. “He was hurt, he needed help.”

“We were too!” Leo fires back. “And you… abandoned us.”

Thalia bleeds through onto the arm clutching her stomach. "It wasn't enough. You weren't enough. You had to play the hero, didn't you?"

“I wanted to keep him safe!”

Piper smiles sadly. “Don’t you want to save us, too?”

“I--” Jason’s words catch in his throat. He’s trying to break away, but he can’t when Piper looks at him like he’s her world and Leo looks at him like the star guiding him north. “I can’t…” He’s too full of everything.

The eyes roll under him again. YES, JASON GRACE… WEEP, FOR THIS IS ONLY A TASTE OF THE ETERNITY OF ANGUISH THAT AWAITS YOU.

He grabs his head and screams. "You aren't real!"

So Jason makes a tally of what is. His name is Jason Grace. He is in Tartarus. Nico is somewhere in the dark. He has to find him. Has to trust him. He’s all he has.

“Nico,” he calls through the shadows once more, shivering and piteous. “Nico…” Jason stares at the eyes beneath him and a renewed anger fills him. “Where is he?” he demands, on his hands and knees, staring into endless abyss. The eyes narrow with mirth and that sickly laugh sounds again.

His hands twitch and spark. Jason draws his javelin and spears the eyes, savoring the scream that fills every inch of the shadows, filling his ears and his eyes and his nose and his very soul. Electricity courses through his veins. The sparks dancing across his skin grow more aggressive, blazing in the dark. “ Show me,” he demands of the shadows. He lets lightning fill him inside and out, rid him of the doubt and fear welling up inside him, and erupt the darkness.

When Jason revives the light, he sees enough of Nico for a lightning bolt to reach him. Light bursts and the world falls out from under Jason.

Tartarus, up to this point, has blocked him in. Closed him off from light and goodness. Buried him underground, kept him from the sky, the endless sky that he calls home. It clipped his wings and now expects him to fly.

He’s slipping through an eternal void, bracing himself for a fall that may or may not come. He’s falling without wind, without sound. Jason has never been afraid of the sky. Of falling, soaring, flying with nothing but his instincts to catch him. Until now. All that comfort, all that stability he found in the clouds starts to leave him. The air is working against him.

Jason tries to breathe, tries to slow down, tries to stop. All he can do is fall, helpless to the whims of the abyss. All the while, Thalia, Leo, and Piper’s words echo in his head, over and over. He can’t fly and he hurt Nico--for all he knows, he’s killed Nico and now he’s in Tartarus alone. Cold, dark, falling forever.

YOU CANNOT SAVE ANYONE, ESPECIALLY NOT YOURSELF.

Jason covers his ears, but it’s no use. The more he tries to deny the sound, the louder the voice becomes. The more the sickening truth realizes itself within him.

IMPETUOUS, DANGEROUS, AND SELFISH… JUST THE SAME AS YOUR FATHER BEFORE YOU.

Jason clutches his thrumming skull. The voice is deafening and even his own screams cannot drown it out. He’s ready to succumb to the dark when something barrels through the shadows straight at him--grabs his hand, his waist, desperate--and Nico pulls him back into the light.

Jason crashes onto the ground and the inky fog sucks up what’s left of his breath. He can’t stay in one place; he starts sliding across the sloping ground and finally stops against a rocky outcropping, crying out when he hits a boulder. He stops moving, but motion sickness catches up to him and he retches all over the ground. He remembers the hand on his wrist when it tightens, cool and comforting against his feverish skin. The air has him blistering again.

The rocks beneath them are unlike the rest of the ground in Tartarus. They’re cold and sharp, sometimes piercing through his shoes. He can’t see anything beyond the rock. He only knows they’re going to keep sliding down the hill unless he stops them.

The son of Jupiter turns his head to see Nico laying on his back, clutching him as a lifeline against the gravity that pulls him further down the hill. His clothes are smoking and maybe it’s his imagination, but Nico’s entire body seems to glimmer faint in the haze of Tartarus. A pattern zigzags up the hand holding Jason’s, a streak of lightning, ash on his skin. His eyes are closed, breathing labored.

For forever, they stay there on the ground. Holding hands, hardly there, but alive enough.

“Nico,” he whispers, afraid he will shatter if his voice is any louder.

“Hnn…” Nico groans. With tremendous effort, his eyes flutter open and meet Jason’s own. “J… Jay…?”

He doesn't have time to celebrate the fact that he called Jason by his first name--a nickname, even. His heart is beating out of control for something different, now. “Nico,” he breathes a sigh of relief, crawling closer to him. He keeps his feet grounded against the rock. “I’m sorry. Everything was dark and then you were gone and--and--I’m so, so sorry, Nico.”

He tries to shake his head at Jason, but groans when it makes him dizzy. “Don’t apologize. Not your fault. My bad idea.”

“We may not have fared any better walking through and waiting for something to catch up to us,” Jason counters. “Where’s the thermos?”

“Pocket.” Jason retrieves it and helps Nico into a sitting position against the rock, making him drink. After several sips, Nico turns his head away. “Don’t waste it all on me.”

“I’m not wasting it, you’re injured. I’m not above making you drink this.”

“As if you could,” Nico smirks at him. The familiar conversation rings through Jason’s head and he gives him a hesitant, sad smile. It breaks when the son of Hades bursts out, “Gods, Jason, you’re bleeding!”

Jason looks down at his mutilated calf. So that part of the illusion was real, he muses. “I didn’t notice.”

The son of Hades, very annoyed, traces the wound. “We need to wrap this.” He leans against the rock and tears the hem of his own already torn jeans until he’s got a sizeable bandage. He sits himself cross-legged on the ground, wincing, and pulls Jason’s leg into his lap.

He looks down at his wound and finds himself concentrating on Nico’s slight, deft hands. His pale fingers and choppy nails. It’s a clumsy job, but his hands move with care and purpose. His actions warm Jason. “We match now,” he points out, toeing Nico’s ripped pant leg.

His shoulders jolt as he holds in a laugh. His face eventually settles back into a neutral coldness, one that he’s struggled to maintain with Jason since their argument at the Hermes shrine. He hands Jason the thermos to drink. “You need to take care of yourself.”

“You’re safe. That’s all that matters.”

Nico pockets the thermos, frowning, and sets Jason’s leg back on the ground. He tries to stand but immediately wavers. Jason catches him before he hits the ground, trying to steady him comfortably inbetween his legs. His breath stutters, nails digging into the praetor’s arms.

“Let me help. At least until we’re down this hill and out of this fog.” He's already touching Nico but he backs away as much as he can. “Can I?” After a sharp nod, they stand together. He slings Nico’s arm over his shoulder, letting his hand loop around his waist to keep him close and upright. He draws his sword in the other hand. Nico rests his free hand over Jason’s at his side. He bites back a snort when the son of Hades’ red face shrinks into his jacket. “Ready?”

“Ready.” Nico’s timid hands curl into the fabric of his shirt and his heart wrenches.

The son of Jupiter ventures forward through the dark mist. He goes slow, trying not to slide too far down the hill, lest he lose control. They’re both in bad shape, but they’re supporting each other as best they can, and that fact makes his heart light enough to lift his lead limbs and move forward.

His mind wanders to the events leading up to the fall. He remembers Piper racing over to him after they defeated the giants, Nico di Angelo hanging in her arms. He stared at Jason then. Some disbelieving, relieved stare that gave him heartache. When he took Nico, light, angelic, into his arms, it was as though a piece of him returned. He didn’t know how he could’ve missed it; how he could go on without something that large, that important, that crucial to the cogs of his heart. Though, he supposes, he went on for so long without Thalia.

But this is different. It’s hard to explain when Jason doesn’t know him in the strictest sense, but he knows that he knows Nico. His self-sacrificing, self-deprecating nature, his aversion to touch, his sense of humor, the childish naivety and spark that belies all the darkness that’s trapped him his whole life.

Jason almost snuffed that spark with his own.

The sudden dark thought makes him halt. Nico’s idle fingers trace some pattern on the back of his hand. “Grace?”

“Sorry. Thinking.” He stares at the hand hanging over his shoulder and its main scar. It’s old, faint, beginning at the base of his left ring finger. A thin white line joins his spidery veins and disappears up his wrist into his coat. Lightning had struck there.

Nico, as if sensing his thoughts, flicks his nose. “You’re not the first person to hurt me and you won’t be the last.”

“That makes it worse,” Jason mutters. He resumes walking, slower and sicker than before.

Nico's fingers drum over his hand. “We’ve sparred a few times. You shocked me. All accidents,” he stresses when worry crosses Jason’s face. “I always won, so that made up for it.”

“I don’t doubt that.” But a deep-seated fear and hatred digs its way into his heart. Nico has so many scars for so many reasons; and Jason is a repeat offender. The silence chokes him. Just like your father, the voice murmurs in his head. Imperial, egocentric, and hurtful. Everything he strives to avoid, everything he’s never wanted, yet he still falls under his father’s crushing influence. And he continues to crush others. No wonder they didn't search for him. He was a liability to the only place he ever called home. And if the Romans invaded Camp Half-Blood, that blood would be on his hands too.

“Stop thinking.” Nico flicks his nose again, drawing a weak smile out of Jason. “Don’t let it get to you.”

“It’s true,” Jason says. “What it said.”

“I don’t care what it said,” Nico huffs. “It doesn’t matter what it’s saying. It. Is. Wrong. You want to know how I know?” Without waiting for a reply, he barrels on, “After everything I’ve done… even when you didn’t trust me, even when you wanted to leave me behind--yes, I know--even when you had no clue who I was… you still tried to help me. You’re stupidly brave, enough to jump down here after me. Even if it was only pity then, you’ve risked for life for plenty of people who don’t deserve it because in your eyes, it’s the right thing to do. And you’re still so worried about me even though it's my fault you're hurting now. So don’t you dare go blaming yourself. I’d be dead down here already if it weren’t for you. I’d have died a long time ago.” He says the last part much softer, eyes drifting to the dark fog surrounding them.

Jason takes a deep breath, letting those words sink in. His head starts hurting again, but that’s nothing compared to the pang of his heart. His hold on Nico tightens. He closes his eyes, trying to orient himself, and when he opens his eyes again he welcomes the grassy plains of New Rome.

Chapter Text

The sun set behind them. He stood beside Reyna, facing Nico di Angelo and a young girl with dark skin and golden eyes. “I am advocating for my sister, Hazel, and her allowance into the legion. She’s a child of Pluto, as am I. I’ve proven myself trustworthy to you both, and I ask this favor in return for my senate service.”

Reyna regarded Hazel with a curious eye. “To be clear, we rescued you, Ambassador. And isn’t your senate service voluntary?”

“You mean, you took me in because you were afraid of how many times I’d defeated your fellow praetor,” he smirked at Jason, “and you’d rather that force be with you than against you.”

The girl, Hazel, looked nervous. A few shimmery stones popped out of the ground near her feet. She didn’t understand the cold humor Nico and Reyna shared. He sent her a smile he hoped was reassuring and the stones sank back into the ground. When the staring contest between her brother and Reyna ended in curt laughs from them both, all the tension left her shoulders.

“I’ll have to talk to the senate, of course, but it should not be an issue.”

“Because even if they don’t trust you, they’re scared of crossing you by refusing your family,” Jason supplied, causing Nico to scowl, though the fondness in his eyes betrayed him. “But more importantly, they’re scared of Reyna.”

“You’re strangely accepting of getting your ass verbally kicked to the curb. Guess your battle ‘training’ follows you off the field, too,” Nico hummed. That garnered a snort from Reyna and a stifled, unsure laugh from Hazel.

“We’ll see about that. The arena awaits, di Angelo.”

Reyna calmed them all down with a wave of her hand. “Enough. Hazel Levesque, come with me. You’ve nothing to fear. You can stay in your brother’s quarters until we can get you settled with your cohort.”

“Thank you, praetors,” she said, golden eyes beaming. She had a brief word with Nico, squeezed his hand and shared a smile, then went off with Reyna.

Once they were gone, Nico’s shoulders sagged with relief. He let out a long sigh. “Thank you,” he said sincerely to Jason. If the praetor remembered, he knew Nico had a sister, and knew how important she was to him. He longed for that kind of closeness with family. He felt there was something deeper going on in this situation, but he didn’t push. He knew better than to force Nico to open up. “You don’t know what this means to me.”

Jason believed him. “Well, now that you owe me one, will you finally let me beat you in a match?”

“If you’re asking that, you’ve already lost.”

They headed for the arena, cheerfully taunting each other the whole way. Jason tried not to bring up any of the questions burning in him. It included Nico’s sister’s sudden appearance after such a long time and his whereabouts during and after the war.

“I was visiting some… friends,” he supplied uneasily, stumbling over his carefully chosen words.

“Hope we didn’t steal you away too soon,” Jason said. They had sent an eagle scout to seek him out after their successful assault on Mount Othrys. Okay, Jason sent the eagle. He missed him and wasn’t sure whether or not Nico was actually alive after the war.

He spent two sleepless weeks milling around Pluto’s temple, praying to their fathers, ignoring his newly given duties as praetor. It was the first night of the middle of the third week when Nico walked in. Or rather, he trudged in, laden with wounds that Jason already knew time would struggle to heal. The moment they laid eyes on each other, the sadness vanished.

He didn’t know whether or not to hug him or punch him for making him worry so much, for keeping him up all those nights, for not telling him where he was, not taking care of himself--He’s so thin, he’s gotten paler, he looks so tired--but Nico made the decision for them both.

His step quickened, and he barreled toward the son of Jupiter to draw him into a tight embrace. He wrapped his arms around Jason’s neck and murmured an apology in his ear. Jason melted in his arms and after a hard pinch on his arm, all was forgiven.

He held that memory fondly, replaying it over and over again in his head when he was sad. Or bored. Or happy. Or... whenever else he felt like it.

Nico shook his head, distant. “No. They weren’t too happy to see me after all.” He scuffed the arena floor with his stygian iron sword, as though trying to scratch his worries from his shadows. It seemed they both needed the distraction.

“Well, they don’t sound like friends to me. They actually sound like idiots, if they weren’t happy to see you.” A smile ghosted Nico’s lips. He was determined to draw his friend from his stupor. “Sword or spear?” Jason asked, twirling his coin inbetween his fingers.  

“Spear,” Nico decided, steadying himself into a battle-ready position.

Jason obeyed and drew his weapon, gearing up. “You first,” he encouraged, a dangerous glint in his eyes. “Don’t go easy.”

“I never do,” Nico replied, melting into the shadows. Jason jumped back as Nico appeared in his own shadow, throwing him back with his spear. “Good, you’re learning!” Nico said, skidding backwards to one of the colosseum walls.

Jason shrugged off the praise with a smug smile. “Don’t flatter me, di Angelo.” He surged forward, using his spear to launch himself close to Nico and land a kick in his side. Nico coughed but Jason could see the excitement in his eyes. He came back at Jason, landing a jab at his ribs with the hilt of his sword, and then a cut on his arm.

They matched each other blow for blow, neither holding the edge above the other for long. Another hit from Nico had Jason's blood boiling. The son of Pluto held an all too confident sneer and some unknown vigor ignited Jason.

He didn’t mind the sparks dancing off his knuckles. And he didn’t realize the danger until he abandoned his spear, wishing to land a hit on Nico with his own hands, and a blue light filled his vision and loud crack resounded in the arena.

When he came to, Nico was on the ground, holding his burning, bleeding hand, gasping for breath. Jason’s stomach slid up to his throat. “Oh--” he said, because what else was there to say? “Oh no, Nico--”

Nico let out a hollow laugh, haunted eyes anywhere but Jason. “You win, Grace,” he said.

“Shit, Nico--” He helped the ambassador to his feet, trying not to worry about the manic, glazed over quality of his eyes. “I’m so sorry.” He dragged him from the arena into an empty room in the colosseum meant for changing before and after battle. He thanked the gods both were devoid of people. If they weren’t, he suspected Nico would have slipped through his fingers into shadow as he’d done so many times before. He cleaned and bandaged the wound, cradling Nico’s scorched hand in his own.

“It happens,” Nico said simply, biting back a cry when he tried to flex his charred fingers at the knuckle. “Whenever you get angry, your ears spark. Stuff like this happens.”

“It’s not supposed to. I’m always in control,” Jason lamented, gritting his teeth. He was a model Roman soldier. He was a model demigod. Powerful, son of the king of the gods, raised by Lupa, praetor, slayer of Titans and monsters alike. Jason fought very hard against his impulses.  “Always.”

“Well, get used to feeling things you can’t control,” Nico advised. His tentative hand splayed over Jason’s palm, eyes far away.

Jason slowly laced their fingers together. “I can’t allow that,” he murmured. “I have to be in control, Nico, because if I can’t command myself, how can I be expected to lead legions?”

“Jason,” Nico said, leaning close, pressing a hand on his knee. The use of his name startled his heart. A shock coursed through his whole body. “You can’t erase the human that’s in you.”

Those words pierced his heart harder than any weapon had ever pierced his skin.

“I know,” said the ambassador. “I know hard it is, how much it hurts. Especially when I can’t follow this same advice I’m giving you.” A bitter smile graced his features. “But you can’t get rid of it. You have to live with it.”

Jason closed his eyes. He took a few deep breaths, letting his free hand creep up to cup the back of Nico’s head. The son of Pluto stiffened, but with enough coaxing, fingers lacing through his dark locks, he relaxed in the hold. The praetor tried not to jump when Nico’s hand traced patterns above his knee. Jason thought that maybe being out of control wasn’t so bad, if Nico was the cause.

Nico looked physically pained when they both finally pulled away, guilt weighing him down. The moment remained unexplained, unspoken between them. He was not nearly ready enough to come to terms with it, Jason could tell. “Let’s go catch up with Reyna and your sister, okay?” After a long silence, he nodded.

Even if he couldn’t meet his eyes, Nico never let go of his hand.

A pinch on Jason’s nose brings him back. He resumes his stride. Nico’s dark, clouded gaze lingers on him. He can tell he’s worried, but they both remain silent. The grogginess from his vision fades and he awakens again to aches and pains. “More memories,” he explains. He tightens the grip on his sword, hoping it will ground him. He’s afraid of what might happen if he gets caught in a memory again during a crucial moment or battle. He’s afraid of leaving Nico stranded, alone, while he drowns in his past. “I think we’re almost out of the fog, though.”

Nico nods, restless in his arms. “I don’t know if you remember this, but,” he takes in a breath as Jason holds his own, “You fell asleep during a senate meeting once.”

He allows a pause to jog the praetor’s memory. “It was your first senate meeting as an ambassador,” he recalls, delight creeping into his voice as he remembers--actually remembers--and Nico’s hand on his own keeps him in the present. “I just got back from a quest. I was so tired… I just couldn’t stay awake.”

“And when no one was looking--”

“When no one was looking, you shadow-traveled me back to my quarters so I could take a nap without Octavian screeching at me.”

The dark boy chuckles. “No one even noticed until the meeting was over. I think Reyna’s eye twitched, but that was it.”

A laugh tears itself through Jason’s throat, low and joyful. “Thank you for that,” he hums, nudging Nico’s head with his nose. The boy looks away. Tension lapses into their connection. “That’s the stuff I want to remember. Do you understand why I got mad at you?” He doesn’t want to scold him, keeping a mellow tone. He just wants him to understand that Jason needs to understand. “I don’t know why you wouldn’t want me to remember something like that with you.”

It’s a long time before Nico answers. “You forgot me. I thought it would be easier if I forgot, too.”

He’s hurt when he asks, “Do you think I wanted to forget?”

Nico shakes his head quickly. “No. I just… I didn’t want… You have a new life, new friends, you’re a new person--”

“You don’t get to decide what I’m allowed to remember. No one does.” He reigns in his boiling anger that’s meant for Hera. “I’m compliant. I strive to live up to people’s expectations. And I’m tired. I’m not going to let anyone tell me who I am anymore until I understand it. Not even you, Nico.”

Silence falls over the two of them. As they move, the fog around them finally begins to thin. It stops choking them as much. If Jason squints, he can make out a large, dark shape in the distance. It’s immobile and impervious. Not a monster, but some kind of structure. Coldness seeps into his bones and he shudders.

“I’m sorry,” Nico finally says. He stops walking, but allows Jason to keep a hold on him. His eyes dart around as he works out an argument in his head. At last, carefully, he says, “I don’t want to see you get hurt. Much less at my expense.”

“It goes both ways. I can't protect either of us if I don't know what's going on.” He leans his head against Nico’s. They share a warm, still moment. Jason isn’t bothered by the threats that await them outside the fog. He isn’t bothered by the stifling air. He isn’t bothered by every rough, chafing surface in Tartarus that meets his touch. All that matters is this calm instance. “But thank you, Nico. I know you’re trying. Now probably isn’t the best time for all of this, so... let’s just focus on getting you out of here and closing the Doors.”

The gray around them begins to fade. After another hundred feet, they finally emerge from the wall of fog. The air isn’t any clearer, but Jason’s spirits immediately lift. He blinks, trying to get used to the harsh red light that he acclimated to before the fog. He’s glad to be out of the persisting darkness, Nico at his side, ready to forge on.

But all that fades when he sees what lies before them.

A dark house looms ahead of him, and a horrible dread fills Jason to his core. It expands beyond the slope they skidded down surrounded in fog and off into an even darker, deeper valley. Jason stretches his head trying to get a view of the whole thing, but the more he tries, the bigger it becomes. It stretches beyond his gaze, until it dwarfs them both entirely. “The Mansion of Night,” murmurs Nico beside him. “Even Giants and Titans refuse to enter it.” An unseen, unheard unease makes them both tremble. “This territory belongs to the Night.”

“The Night?” Jason inquires.

Nico nods, grim. “In the fog, when we were shadow-travelling… I received a vision from my father. He told me we have to seek out this mansion in order to get to the Doors. But we have to watch out--we may be too close to her already. If we draw her out--”

Jason hears a faint clicking behind him. Through the corner of his eye, he can see a monster lurking in the fog. He whips around and slices through a giant scorpion’s stinger before it can dig into Nico’s flesh.

They both rush towards the mansion, despite Jason’s instincts screaming to stay away. He spears the scorpion, flinging it back somewhere into the fog. The clicking intensifies and resounds loudly through the canyon. The horde was probably lying in wait, silent at the edge of the fog, for the demigods' arrival. Outside the house full of Zeus knows what. Waiting for their weak prey to get weaker and have no choice but to risk the scorpions or the mansion. Jason curses his own foolishness, for letting his guard drop enough to let the enemy get so close.

“Are you ready to fight?” he calls to Nico.

There’s no time for verbal confirmation because Jason has to dodge a glob of poison. He swings at the horde of insects approaching. He makes great use of his spear, keeping the scorpions at a distance and dodging the poison they spit at him. He’s starting to feel good, alive again, his wounds not enough to keep him down for long. His knuckles crack with electricity and he grins. Nico fights beside him with less enthusiasm, yet grants Jason a coy grin.

But the scorpions are too many in number. He and Nico end up back to back. The monsters are getting closer. Nico is slumping against him, and he’s finding it hard to breathe again. “Come on, Nico,” he urges, trying to sound encouraging. “We can get through these guys.”

Then Jason watches helpless as burning acid flies toward Nico. Before he can jump in front of him, push him out of the way, even cry out, the poison stops mid-air. The dark burnt liquid swirls and smokes in front of Nico’s shocked face. Then it flings back into the crowd of scorpions.

All the scorpions begin to bend, crack, fold in on themselves. There’s a horrible hissing as they collapse and leak poison on the ground surrounding them. The rocky earth melts and the scorpions sink into their own coffins. The coal-ridden ground burns green and red.

“Someone… the poison…” Nico murmurs, dazed. He grasps Jason’s arm for support. Suddenly, he is aware of the eyes on them. He turns around slowly, keeping his weapon handy. He pushes Nico behind him. Whatever stopped the scorpions is powerful and he knows they can’t help being the next target.

The figure stands in front of the door of the mansion. Jason isn’t sure if they came directly out of the house or simply appeared from thin air. The green eyes that greet him should not cause him panic or worry, but they do, and his legs start to tremble under him. He’s reminded of his vision in the fog--he won’t be fooled a second time.

His hands outstretched, he's coaxing and controlling the liquid poison, burning a circle in the ground around them. Nico gasps and steps out from the son of Jupiter’s reach. His foot dangles over the ring eroded by the scorpion’s toxin. He’s ready to leap to the other side and Jason knows he’ll have no choice but to follow.

At last, with great effort, Nico speaks his name, an embittered curse and hopeful prayer.

Chapter Text

Hazel is still queasy and Piper still shudders whenever there’s corn on the dinner table, but Frank has come into his own as a leader. He is a pillar of command and safety that keeps them grounded, and Hazel’s connection with Nico helps ease their spirits, knowing that their friends are at least, alive; it’s all they have and everything they cling to. They sail in relative peace, but the quiet stems from tense mourning. Leo spends every waking moment with the Athena Parthenos or the Archimedes sphere--sometimes both. Annabeth joins him, eager to shut out the world with a puzzle.

Percy stares out at the sea and keeps watch for monsters, but his eyes always drift to the shadows in sadness. Piper stares into her dagger, begging for a reflection of something, anything to indicate that Jason’s safe.

It’s in this state that Annabeth finds her, leaning against the mast, turning katoptris over and over in her hands. “Piper,” she greets. When she fails to reply, the daughter of Athena takes a seat beside her. They’ve all tried, but no one has gotten through to her. “You hungry?” Leo manages to get her to eat every day, which is good. Truth be told, she feels guilty for not coming to Piper sooner. She’s been so focused on keeping to herself, trying not to go mad, that she hasn’t been a good friend. Piper’s kept her from losing her head many times, and she wants to return the favor.

“Had some cereal earlier,” she mutters, rotating the blade to what little light the sky offers. Night approaches. A cool breeze ruffles the sails of the Argo II. She frowns at her reflection. Annabeth removes the blade from Piper’s shaky hands and sets it behind the mast. Her hands mingle with each other, lost, empty without her weapon. “I haven’t had any dreams, I haven’t seen anything--it’s completely dark. I don’t know if he’s okay.”

“He’ll be fine,” Annabeth assures her. “Jason is more than capable of protecting himself--and Nico. He’ll get them out of there. He’ll be back to you before you know it.”

Piper lets out a stuttering sigh. The words relaxes her, however temporary. “Thanks, Annabeth.” She leans her head on her friend’s shoulder, closing her eyes.

“Of course,” she hums. The faintest stars speckle the falling dusk. They watch the sun go down as a hush falls over Festus’ creaking vessel.

When Piper speaks, Annabeth strains to hear, a guilty whisper near her cheek. “I don’t know how to feel about Jason. I miss him, a lot. So much. I care so much about him. But… I don’t know if I… if… or how...” She searches for the right words.

Annabeth fills in the quiet blank, “You don’t know how you’re supposed to feel him?”

The twist of her lips confirm the demigod’s suspicion. “I love him, but… I don’t think I love him the way I’m supposed to.”

“And how are you supposed to, Piper?”

The daughter of Aphrodite shrugs. “Like… like how my mom wants me to. How it should be.”

“How Hera wants you to,” Athena finishes with a dirty look at the mention of the goddess’ name. She heard about it before, not at length, that Zeus’ wife gave them fake memories of a relationship that spawned a hesitant real one. Percy and Annabeth had no reason to doubt theirs; in fact, that search for him pulled the duo closer together than ever (though she still hates the goddess with a passion). But with Piper, it was messier. It was born of falsehood, no matter how genuine their actual feelings were, if they could even sort out what was theirs to feel. “That’s got to be awful, Piper. I’m sorry.”

“I feel guilty for even talking about this while he’s somewhere in hell, fighting for his life. And here I am, wondering about what’s real or not.” She sounds like she’s trying to shrug off her feelings, but it isn’t working. “I wanted to talk to him about it when he got back, but…”

“How you feel is important, too, Piper,” Annabeth assures her. “And Jason wouldn’t want you keeping this all bottled up. You’ll be able to sort it out when we get him back. Together.”

She looks doubtful. Annabeth has to wonder what has her shaken enough to question their relationship. Not that her thoughts are unfounded, but something has to have triggered them. Perhaps something from Jason’s past. But she won’t pry. She’ll be here for Piper, no matter what, but she won’t force her to dig into something unpleasant.

Piper shakes her head, choppy bangs dangling in her kaleidoscope eyes. Her heart isn’t in it when she repeats, “Yeah. Together.” But she looks a bit lighter than before.

A comfortable pause overtakes them, leaving both girls to their thoughts. First Jason, now her mind travels to its former occupant, what’s eaten up most of her brain power since defeating Arachne.

Consider this my parting gift.

A chill runs through her, no longer pleasant, crystallizing her guilty insides. Annabeth has tried warding off all thoughts of Nico. She’s tried going over possible motivations that could reason his decision. She’s tried talking about it to Percy, who outright refuses, clamming up when she only mentions his name.

She lets him stew inside her brain, invade all her thoughts and dreams. It drives her crazy not to know why. She can’t understand what earthly or godly force would compel Nico to take their place in Tartarus just as soon as he’s escaped from it. Especially for the two of them. She knows that Nico blames Percy as much as he blames himself for Bianca's death, for so much of his life going wrong. It's not like he was on any friendlier terms with her. But then again, Nico rushed to Camp Half-Blood to help her when she first told him Percy was missing. 

He said Annabeth didn’t deserve this, but she can’t help thinking otherwise.

A nudge from Piper draws her out. “Hey. What happened to not bottling it all up?”

She chuckles. “Unfair. I don’t even know where to start.”

The other girl pushes some of Annabeth’s curly hair behind her ear, a caring gesture. “Give me anything, then. Doesn’t have to be a full thought. Even a word.”

She tries to formulate an actual sentence but all that comes out, in a small, sad whisper, is Nico’s name. Apparently, that’s all she needs to have said, because Piper’s eyes well with compassion and understanding. “I’m… more than grateful. But… I’ve gone over it in my head a hundred times. I just don’t understand. He and Percy never quite got along, and… well, you’ve heard the rumor at camp that he has a crush on me, right?” Piper nods as though she’s considering it, but her lips drawn tight reveal her true disbelief. “I don’t believe it, but that’s all I have to go off of. Even with that, it doesn’t make sense.”

“You’re right. It doesn’t.” She purses her lips. “For all the wisdom your mom gave you, you tend to overlook simple things. Take a step back. Breathe."

“Thanks. Taking a page out of your mom’s book and going for crypticism?” Annabeth snarks.

“Hey, that’s all of our parents, thank you very much." In the middle of their laughter, Piper abruptly stops. She looks back down to her lap.

“What’s wrong?” Annabeth asks.

“Hazel and Nico have that sibling connection.” She closes her eyes and breathes, and Annabeth bites her lip, anticipating her words. “Does Thalia know?” A coldness washes over the daughter of Athena. They share a long, sad look and at last, Annabeth gives Piper a hasty hug and leaves.

She pretends that her shudders are her pounding feet against the sturdy wood of the ship. She stops by the tiny kitchen for a misting bottle. The ship is eerily empty. Besides Piper and the crew taking watch on deck, there’s no one around. Perhaps it feels that way because her desired company is going to great pains to avoid her. Percy isn’t in the mess hall, in the stables, or with Leo in the bowels of the ship. She speeds to his quarters, taking a deep breath outside his door.

“Percy?” She knocks in rapid succession. “Percy, we need to talk. Percy!” Again, no reply. “If you’re going to sulk in your room, fine. I’m going to call Thalia and tell her what happened.” Still nothing. She’s tempted to kick down his door but knows Leo will give her hell for adding to his list of things that need repair (besides, she knows it would end up on his “Won’t fix unless threatened by death” list, with how much he has going on). “You can talk to me, Percy. You know that, right? I’m here for you. But you need to be here for me, too.” She prays he isn’t in his cabin because now she’s close to tears. “I’m gonna go now. Just…” She can’t bring herself to finish so she retreats, wiping her eyes and tightening her ponytail in frustration.

When makes it into her cabin, she takes a few moments to compose herself (maybe snap a few pencils, yell into her pillow, kick her bedpost, fall on her bed because Hades, my ankle!--the usual breakdown) before she tries calling Thalia. She prays that the hunter won’t answer, but she thinks she needs Thalia now more than ever. She fights with this strange mixture of relief and disappointment when her friend appears in the mist in front of her, lit by a prism of color.

“Annabeth!” Thalia looks a little paler than usual. Her blue eyes are dulled, searching her friend for any sign of hope or reassurance. Maybe she already knows. “Business or pleasure?”

“Business is my pleasure. You know that.” They share a laugh before tenseness settles in again. “I hope you’ve been well.”

“I have. Well as I can be, anyway. What’s the bad news?” She doesn’t let the daughter of Athena deny her claim. “Annabeth, I know that’s why you called. You wouldn’t risk it otherwise.”

Her hands twist together in her lap. She can’t seem to find her voice, and every word she gets out is a bitter victory. “Jason is in Tartarus. He fell in trying to save Nico.” The quiet chokes her again, as bad as Percy. Annabeth’s face burns and she tries not to get upset again. She feels like she let Thalia down. “Nico was trying to save Percy and I. Jason jumped right after him and tried to fly them out and… I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Thalia.”

With a great deal of courage, she looks up to meet ironclad eyes. “I’d hoped my dream wasn’t right. Ah, well.” She snorts, bitter, trying and failing to reach a laugh. “Of course he’d do that. So damn noble and rash.”

“Like you,” Annabeth blurts. “It’s not a bad thing.”

“Well, then, look where I got him,” The blonde flinches and Thalia amends her harsh tone, apologizing, “I’m not mad at you.” She switches tactics, again, and asks, “What’s your next move?”

“We’re going to meet him at the Doors and close them so we can stop anymore monsters from escaping, and slow down Gaea’s army.”

“Fine. You get there, and you kick his ass for me. Don’t hold back. Then tell him I’m going to do much, much worse. And don’t call me again until he’s here, in person. Got it?” Thalia’s burying her true emotion under her anger, her drive. Annabeth doesn’t bother to contradict her. They can’t afford to mourn.

“You got it.”

But Thalia looks at her with incredible affection and, using a tone she hasn’t heard since she was a kid, murmurs, “Take care of yourself, Annie,” before waving her hand and abruptly ending the message.

She whispers to the silence, “You too.”

The daughter of Athena leaves her room, knowing as soon as she lays down, she’ll give up. She can’t stop or they’ll crash, and her friends need her at full capacity. She needs herself there. They can’t afford mourning any longer.

Annabeth is tired of silence. She’s tired of Percy, withdrawn, keeping her out after he’s finally returned to her arms. She’s tired of everyone brushing each other off and resigning to moping, herself included. She’s tired of analyzing herself to death when she should be putting her thoughts to practical use. She needs fresh air.

The daughter of Athena leaves her room and is headed back to the deck when Hazel almost runs into her. She’s got a bucket of water in one hand and the other arm cradles an assortment of cracker boxes. “Hazel, careful,” she warns, slowing her friend. “What’s wrong?”

She’s very out of breath when she pants out, “Main deck. Bird. Everyone.”

With that cryptic message, she runs down the hall and kicks the other cabin doors, summoning those just settling into their sleep shift. Annabeth continues her path upstairs and breathes in the night air with relief. The cabins get stuffy after a while.

Everyone but Hazel and Leo, who come running up the steps a minute later, stand defensively against a large eagle. Annabeth moves beside Piper and gives her shoulder a squeeze.

Frank seems relaxed after a moment and steps toward the eagle. They exchange bows and the eagle begins to squawk. The son of Mars listens intently, occasionally giving a word or grunt in reply. It’s a bit silly, but everyone waits with bated breath for the conversation to vinish.

He motions Hazel and Leo forward. The eagle gulps down the water, only pausing to scarf crackers from latter’s open hand. At last, Frank turns around and addresses them. “It’s one of the legion’s eagles from Camp Jupiter. He’s carrying a message from Reyna.”

Confusion falls over the demigods. “From Reyna?” Leo repeats.

“Yes, from Reyna,” he confirms. “Her message is as follows: Annabeth, you need my help. Take your crew to Split, Croatia. I will meet you there to retrieve Diocletian’s scepter. I have tried my best to slow Octavian from advancing upon the Greek forces, but I cannot make any promises.

She pores over his words again and again. “Frank, Hazel, do you know what Diocletian’s scepter is?”

Frank chimes in again, “It’s a scepter that belonged to a great Roman Emperor. Legend has it that the scepter can control armies of the undead,” He muses over the myth for a few moments. “That would be an incredibly useful weapon. We can’t let it fall into the wrong hands.”

“That sounds great and all, but how do we know this isn’t a trap?” Percy asks, peering at the eagle with suspicion. Its beady eyes narrow indignantly. “How do we even know Reyna sent this eagle? Why couldn’t she send a note?”

“Do you have any better ideas?” Annabeth quips. The eagle whines, knocking its beak against the wooden deck.

“Sending written confirmation that Reyna was leaving Rome to help Greeks--no offense--complete the prophecy that technically Annabeth lied about to Octavian wouldn’t sit well with the legion. If it was intercepted, and they got that note, it would be over. Reyna’s being as careful as she can.” Frank says, patting the eagle’s head. “And if that’s not enough, Diocletian is a personal hero of hers and Jason.” The crew quiets at the mention of his name. There’s a heaviness in the air, now. “This is our best bet. I trust her.” The eagle whines again and the warrior frowns, muttering something. He kneels down and grabs something attached in the animal’s talons.

“So, there is a note?” Leo wonders, still feeding the eagle. When the animal grows bored it plucks strands from his curly hair. He doesn’t seem to notice. Piper cranes her head to get a better look.

Frank laughs, surprising the rest of his friends. He turns it over a few times between his fingers. “I think he picked it up on accident. It’s just an old Mythomagic card.”

Annabeth and Percy snap, “What?” in unison. Her blood runs cold, then hot, then cold again. The son of Mars is sheepish, unable to understand the severity with which Annabeth approaches him. He holds up the card. It’s well-worn; the logo is faded, edges lightly curled, and a torn corner has been taped back together with care.

“That’s Nico’s,” Hazel whispers. She runs her fingers over the card lovingly. A tearful grin lights her face. “Yes. This is his, I can feel it!” She thumbs the back of the mended corner. “He’s got all his cards initialed--yep, right there.” The small, clumsy letters strike a chord with Annabeth.

“May I?” she asks. Hazel gives it one more tender glance, drinking it in, before she hands it over. The daughter of Athena stares at the card. She flips it over and over in her hand, wishing, willing it to change. It doesn’t. The figure on the card remains. The initials in the bottom corner, torn off, then rectified. Poseidon, trident in hand, standing powerful above rippling waves. “Here’s the proof,” she says, more to herself than anyone else. Piper’s words echo in her head. The simple solution is staring her in the face. And maybe she’s wrong. But even looking at this card, she feels she’s violating Nico’s privacy.

Percy comes over and she flips the card figure-side down. She taps the inscribed corner. She remembers his short visits to camp before Percy disappeared, how he waned in front of them. How he always lent a hand in the search, exhausting himself, even when Annabeth knew it was too much for him. She feels like a moron. “I didn’t know he still played,” comes Percy’s soft admission of guilt, another twist of the knife in her gut.

“So, guys, this is great and everything, but can you explain the implications behind this nerdy card game merchandise?” whines the son of Hephaestus.

“Nico wouldn’t part with this easily,” Hazel explains. “I can feel him, and I can sense his progress in relation to the Doors.”

“Then, did they make it out of Tartarus?” Piper questions. She tries not to sound too hopeful. “I mean, if Reyna somehow got that card…”

Hazel shakes her head. “No, they’re still there. But… he found some conduit of communication with the upper world. That means they’re safe. They’re making progress.”

“Hazel’s right,” Annabeth says. Her gray eyes spark with ambition once more. “Jason and Nico are alive. We need to make it to the Doors and help close them for good. Gaia’s rise is oncoming, our camps are on the verge of war--we need to make every second count.” From her words, everyone seems to stand a little taller, filling the space around them, becoming themselves again. “Get back to your respective shifts, everyone. We have a lot of ground to make up for. We’re going to get to Croatia, get the scepter, meet up with Reyna, close the Doors, and bring Nico and Jason home safe.” Her impromptu speech leaves everyone excited, but decidedly speechless. “Welllll?” she drawls. “Move!”

Everyone scatters to their respective duties. She feels awkward holding the card, having forgotten to return it to Hazel amidst the flurry of motion her motivation caused.

Annabeth doesn’t know when it happens, but she and Percy end up alone at the top of the stairs. She crosses her arms. She can’t decide between yelling at him or ignoring him. In the end, she does neither, because Percy launches forward and hugs her tight.

“I’m sorry,” he murmurs in her neck. There's a thick regret encompassing his avoidance, and something else neither of them are sure about, looped into his apology. All the tension in her dissipates so easily she curses herself. Annabeth slides the card into her pocket for safe-keeping and wraps her arms around Percy.

"Me too." She’s tired of apologies. She forgives them both with a kiss to his head.

Chapter Text

Nico had finally gotten the hang of shadow travel when he ran into him again.

Last time, he was on the run. Running through the Labyrinth, running with Minos, running from Minos. He could pretend there was another purpose to his frantic pace, but he couldn’t stop running. From Bianca’s death, from Camp Half-Blood, from Percy. He didn’t have time to think about the strange demigod on the west coast.

This time, he was seeking out a camp on purpose. His father had given him instructions to make his way to the camp under a Roman pretense. The Greek and Roman forces could not mix, could not know of each other; Nico was sent to make sure they were on track and, if necessary, give them a push in the right direction. With Kronos’ power on the rise, they needed all the help they could get. Funny, he knew that this would be easier than getting his father to go along with the same plan (he was still working on it).

He had to hide his intentions from the Greeks, hide his Greek nature from the Romans, and hide away from Kronos’ forces. Hiding. The only thing besides running that Nico excelled in. He made peace with the shadows.

He followed his father’s directions closely but still got caught up with hordes of monsters during his search for Camp Jupiter. It was better, he mused, than letting hopeful will-nots invade his mind. He was far away from Camp Half-Blood, far away from Percy, and good riddance. If he repeated it enough, he believed that he did like being alone. He liked being able to rely on himself and no one else, he liked the long nights in and under trees when he couldn’t sleep because he was scared or had too much to think about.

Then some do-gooder, statuesque, heroic demigod had to step in and wake him up.

Nico shrugged the collar of his jacket further up, trying and failing to come across as intimidating while he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. He’d fallen asleep in the woods encroaching upon the edge of a lake. Star lilies littered his vision, obstructing the violet-clad figure from his view. He stopped reaching for his sword when the figure crouched down, meeting his dark gaze between the flowers.

“Every time I see you, you look dead.”

It was the same boy that found him all those months ago when Minos was still training him. It had been a rough jump; the labyrinth was confusing and scary and he overshot his escape. The only solace he had then was that he hadn’t shadow-travelled outside of America again. That was a hassle.

Nico was sure he looked even dirtier and smaller now. Still the same gangly, creepy kid he’d always been, nursing a concussion, hair matted bloody against his forehead. But the other demigod looked even better. He’d gotten taller and gained muscle. There were more scars and scrapes to match the one above his lip. He retained curiosity in his calculating eyes that were too damn blue. Not like Percy’s favorite foods, but the open sky he used to see in the Italian countryside with his mother and Bianca. Yet they were strangely empty.

“I needed sleep.” He shrugged bits of grass off his dark jeans.

The other demigod pointed out, “Odd spot for a nap.”

“I’ve slept in stranger places.” He adjusted the sword resting at his side as he stood. He scrutinized the sort-of stranger. He wore the same purple camp shirt as the last time Nico met him, faded golden letters spelling out SPQR. Chances are he was part of the camp his father sent him to look for.

Lucky me, he groaned.

“Was a bed too deluxe for you?”

That remark tugged out a harsh cough that he intended as a laugh. Nico couldn’t remember the last time he slept in an actual bed, but he didn’t tell him. He didn’t want to scare him off with his sob stories.

The demigod took his silence in stride and continued, “It’s not safe to stay out here by yourself. Monsters have gained a foothold... everywhere, recently.”

“I’ve been just fine on my own, up to and including now.” He hated that he would have to relinquish his independence and ask for help in finding the camp. His father’s instructions weren’t quite clear. Nevermind finding it, he was unsure he could get through the border without help. According to Hades, it was heavily guarded. Nico could shadow travel across, but he knew the Romans wouldn’t be keen on him trespassing their borders. He needed the Romans to trust him.

Therefore he needed this demigod’s help.

“But I suppose I could use a hot meal.”

The boy gave a blinding grin and Nico’s heart rattled against his ribcage.

He was well enough to shadow travel, but he didn’t want to expose himself as a son of Hades-- Pluto, just yet (if he remembered Nico shadow traveling away when they first met, he didn’t say anything about it). He didn’t want to shatter the illusion; he seemed genuinely interested in Nico. The Roman demigod had a persistent nature, gently inquiring about Nico’s past.

“If you’re so worried about attracting monsters, stop talking about this in public,” Nico muttered through a mouthful of a burger. He only agreed to stop for food if it was his pick (he liked McDonald’s greasy convenience, sue him); he didn’t want an interrogation.

His blue eyes scanned the room, decisively ending on Nico. “We’re fine. I’m just making conversation.”

“You haven’t told me anything about your past,” Nico pointed out.

The demigod shrugged. “I don’t even know your name.”

“And I don’t know yours.”

“I’ll give you a hint. It’s the name of a hero from a famous myth.”

Oh, great. Because he enjoyed hurting himself, Nico snarked, “Perseus?”

“Nope.” He ran a hand through his blond hair, making a point to ruffle it up, and then raised an eyebrow.

“What am I supposed to do with that?”

“What shade of blond is my hair?”

Nico rolled his eyes. “Golden,” he said. Not that he paid any attention to his hair to know the exact shade and wonder how soft it would feel under his fingers. After a long, musing pause, he ventured, “Like the golden fleece.” His blue eyes beamed with pride and he offered a contained nod. “Jason, then?” A curious name for a demigod that lived and trained as a polar opposite to Camp Half-Blood.

“You got it!”

“Well, you force-fed me every hint. Not much of a victory.” But Hades’ son hid a smile in a handful of fries. “I don’t have any good hints for my name.”

“And you can’t just tell me, or it would ruin the mystery,” Jason said, nodding so seriously it took Nico a second to realize he was joking. They both cracked a smile together and he relented.

“My name is Nico. Nico di Angelo.”

Jason extended his arm over the table to formally shake Nico’s greasy hand. “Pleasure to meet you.”

Despite himself, Nico smiled again. Gods, he hadn’t in so long it hurt to do it so much now. He wondered how much trouble it would be to sneak into the camp without Jason’s help, but decided against it. He knew it would be hard enough to escape his watchful eye, even though he seemed unusually relaxed around Nico. He knew that wouldn’t last and almost reveled in the thought of shattering that illusion.

Almost. It actually made him sick and sad, but he would never admit that. He would brace himself and run before they had a chance to chase him away. He couldn’t accept help or kindness. That was how he stayed safe, now. That was how he prevented another Percy.

Jason was already too far down that dangerous road, and Nico refused to follow him.

Stares and whispers followed them from the border well into the camp. Nico was long since used to this. He was led to a large building, which he supposed was where they held their leadership meetings, much like the Big House. “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” Jason whispered as he opened the door for Nico. The son of Hades cursed the way his heart startled and blamed his injured head for the sudden dizziness.

He entered a dark room with beautiful marble pillars and stands. Jason took him to the center of the room where a girl stood. Her dark hair was braided tightly over her shoulder and two metallic dogs rested at her side.

Jason fell in line beside her and his entire demeanor changed. He stood taller, straighter, and a coldness settled into his eyes. Even his voice was different. “Praetor Reyna, I found this camper wandering outside our borders.” Jason’s commanding tone made Nico want to fuss over his posture, curse his haggard appearance. Jason was a leader, a commander, of course. And standing there beside Reyna, he looked so, so different from the boy Nico met in the woods.

Nico stood tall under the gaze of the praetor, still grappling with the shift in Jason’s personality. “State your business in truth,” Reyna demanded. Her hands rested on the heads of her dogs. When Nico opened his mouth to speak, they slunk toward him.

“I’ve been on my own for quite some time, running from monsters. My father contacted me and advised me to seek out Camp Jupiter as an Ambassador.”

The dogs seemed sated. The gold one rubbed his head against the back of Nico’s knee. He was tempted to pet them but thought better of it. “And who is your father?” Reyna asked.

The room grew colder, darker, at Nico’s will, and a smirk crossed his face. “I am a child of Pluto, Lord of the Underworld.” The dogs did not bat an eye and secret relief washed over him. His father’s plan was working so far. He reached into his jacket pocket slowly and pulled out a small dark thermos stamped with the seal of Pluto. 

This caught Jason’s attention. His eyes were brighter, despite the shadows tugging at the edge of the room. “A child of a kingly god,” he mused. “Reyna?”

“We are pleased to welcome you to our camp on your father’s behalf. I apologize for all these… formalities,” Reyna said, shaking her head at her golden and silver pets, who rolled over at Nico’s feet. “Romans are quite cautious about our borders and wary of strangers, though there may be no need.”

“It’s understandable,” Nico said. “You’re protecting your people. Better safe than sorry.”

Reyna nodded slowly and seemed to come undone with that phrase. The slightest ease entered her shoulders, fragmented sympathy littered her eyes. All too late, he remembered and hated how small and frail he must have seemed. But her warrior gaze knew better than to underestimate him, and for that, he was thankful. She took the offering and examined it. “What is your name?”

She said it with almost the same inquisitive caring that Jason did, making him pause and his heart stutter hopeful again. “My name is Nico di Angelo.”

“Nico,” she said, and she was so stony but she said it with care, and he almost longed for her to spit it out because that would be easier to handle than care, “You said… you spoke with your father? Directly?”

“Yes,” he affirmed. “We speak often.” Often didn’t mean a lot, but it was more than any other demigod could say about their relationship with their godly parent. Even if it was part of a long-term plan, Nico coveted that. It was the only thing he had right now.

Reyna mused over that knowledge. “The senate may not be pleased with this... omen--"

"Everything's an omen to them," Jason muttered spitefully.

"--but seeing as Pluto sent you directly with token in hand, there shouldn’t be a problem.”

“I’ll vouch for him,” Jason said, louder, eyes so full and blue Nico could swim in them. “If he’s on probatio--”

She laid a hand on Jason’s shoulder. Nico tried to ignore the envy that suddenly gnawed at his gut. “No need for that, Jason. We won’t refuse him. Nico, you’re dismissed. We will reconvene in a few days time, once the senate and myself have sorted out all the pesky details.”

“I don’t need to stay here here,” Nico said quickly. “I mean, there’s no reason for me to, I don’t want to impose--”

Reyna scoffed, which he supposed was her version of a laugh. “Please. We must be sure, firstly, that you won’t betray this location to anyone on the outside. After that, if you truly wish to leave, you may. I assume you have no interest in joining the legion, and I won’t push that on you or the senate. But right now, you’re here. You’re Roman. You belong.” Whether you like it or not. Nico swallowed hard. “Centurion Jason will get you acquainted while I meet with the rest of the counsel. Rest well, son of Pluto.”

After thanking them both, Nico was led out of the council chambers by Jason. “Let’s get you cleaned up,” he said. He took Nico to an infirmary. Healers fussed over him and he hated their poking and prodding, hated how he shrunk under their touch. But after Jason took them aside for a brief word, he only had one, personally selected, noninvasive attendant.

He carefully washed dried blood, dirt, and grime from himself and let the girl treat him. “I’m not much of a healer,” she admitted, treating his head with some unicorn draught before wrapping it gently in gauze. “You’ll have to take it easy for a few days so you don’t aggravate it.”

“Thanks again, Gwen,” Jason said, taking a seat beside her. “I appreciate it.”

Nico mumbled his own thanks to the girl. She did not pry and was respectful of his personal space, for which he was extremely grateful. He supposed Jason summoned her for her careful nature, reflecting Nico’s own caution.

“Of course, Jason. I’m happy to help,” Gwen smiled. She fixed Nico with a mocking, stern gaze and said, “Stay out of trouble! And don’t be a stranger.”

Once she left, Jason stared at Nico expectantly, settling back into the graveness from their meeting. “If you’re going to stay here, you have to abide by our rules.” Nico nodded. Of course, a Roman-led camp would be much stricter than Camp Half-Blood. He should have expected that. Perhaps he could benefit from such rigid stability.

What Nico didn’t expect was the purple shirt Jason pulled out from behind his chair and presented as a cat would a dead mouse to its owner. “You have to wear a camp shirt.”

“And… this is a rule?” He prayed to all the gods that Jason was messing around.

“No, but I thought it would be funny to try and get you to wear it,” the centurion admitted.

Nico stared at the shirt. Of course, only demigods picked the grossest, brightest shades to represent their affiliation. Greek or Roman, they were both idiotic. “Well, I can’t back out now. Wouldn’t want to give the senate any reason to doubt my loyalties.”

When he emerged from the bathroom shrugging his aviator jacket over the Camp Jupiter shirt, Jason beamed. Putting on his most pompous voice, he cleared his throat, “Let me treat you, Nico di Angelo, to the greatest sights and feats that our fine camp has to offer. Right outside the infirmary, if you look left and down the road, you’ll see the bathhouses…”

Even knowing that Nico was a child of the god of death didn’t seem to phase Jason. Reyna seemed equally nonplussed. Maybe Pluto was viewed differently than Hades. Maybe everyone in Camp Jupiter genuinely didn’t care. Maybe Nico could stay here and not feel ashamed of his parentage. Or maybe everything will end up falling apart. But he imagined that if they even ignored, tolerated, or dare accept him as a child of death, maybe Nico could be accepted as…

Well, there was no use dwelling over it. He wouldn’t be staying anyway.

But if he had to, staying here wouldn’t be the worst, Nico thought. It was a nice place, though he wasn't sure how he felt about the whole child army thing (that was a lie: he didn't like it at all. But he supposed, to prepare demigods already unlikely to make it to adulthood, this was the best way they knew how). They had a thriving town, schools, shops, even an arcade--it was so much different than Camp Half-Blood. It was colder. It was structured. It was secure. Not much room for running around, enjoying a day out on the lake, or lazing around under tall, comfortable pines.

Why did everything in a demigod’s life have to be so polarizing, he lamented. Camp Half-Blood was the only place he’d ever truly been happy. For a short time, it was his home. But no one could fill the emptiness that Bianca left him with. And Percy Jackson haunted him no matter where he went. Nico could almost grapple with it, now, but some days it knocked him off his feet because how could it still hurt this much. He still didn’t know if his absence was a blessing or a curse.

He was having similar mixed feelings about his tour guide. Jason was different around Nico, compared to everyone else. He didn’t know what to think. The longer he was friends with Jason, the more that notion cemented itself in his mind.

Jason maintained a carefree, kind nature around Nico. Before the son of Hades could berate himself for not knowing something, Jason would explain and help him understand, chasing away the shame and apprehension. He was very tactile, but he kept his hands to himself, always making an effort to ask permission. Nico was taken aback. No one wanted anything to do with him and if they did, they had no inkling to respect his personal space.

Years of keeping to himself and avoiding others, searching for the beginnings of hatred and distrust in all who spoke to him, allowed Nico to read people easily. He understood them without much prompting. Silence was valuable. It helped him learn. The longer Nico spent around Jason, the more he was sure his behavior towards him wasn’t an act.

The act Jason put on was for other people.

He was strong, guarded, like a good leader. He was not unkind, he genuinely cared, but around others he seemed restrained. When it was just him with Nico, it was raw, it was unbridled, it was honest, it was real.

It scared Nico.

It was at the end of that tour that Jason grabbed an assortment of pastries from a quaint cafe and brought them to the top of a hill overlooking the entire city. Years later, Nico would return to this place after each fruitless search, cursing the camp and the temples ignorant toward Jason’s absence. But now it was calm. The sun was setting behind them, lilac streaking the sky, easing the sun to sleep and raising the stars from their own slumber. He handed Nico a brownie square which he cautiously ate. They lapsed into a comfortable silence, taking turns picking at the treats.

Jason laid on the grass, stretching his arms above him and sighing with contentment. “I love this spot,” he said. “You can see the whole sky. Right before the sun sets for good and the moon rises in its stead, and everyone still has their lights on. We’re all awake at the same time--us demigods, the stars, the sky, mortals and gods… we’re all together, for this short time between day and night.”

Jason’s word struck a chord with Nico. You would love Camp Half-Blood, he thought gently. And then he remembered a book he read during his travels, a snippet of poetry that stuck with him. Even though he struggled with comprehension during his brief stint at school, and never had enough time afterward, Bianca and his mother always stressed the importance of education. When Nico finally had the opportunity to read, books were a wonderful escape, and he chased the words on nights he couldn’t sleep.

Soft, lunar light danced at their backs. “This reminds me of an old poem I read,” Nico mused to himself. Jason regarded him with a curious eye. Nico licked his rough lips and closed his eyes, trying to remember. “So, we'll go no more a-roving, so late into the night. Though the heart be still as loving, and the moon be still as bright.”

He felt self-conscious with Jason’s staring. “That’s beautiful.” Nico hid his flush in the sleeve of his jacket, unused to the attention. When was the last time he’d talked this much to someone, had someone care this much about him, had someone smile this much at him? He couldn’t remember. “Do you know the rest of it?”

Nico shook his head. “No. Maybe I could try and find the collection again. It was an old pocket book, it had a bunch of classic poems.” Hades, he managed to make small talk with someone without them running away in fear. He was losing his touch, and Jason was persistent. He has to keep an eye on me to make sure I won’t hurt anyone, he chided himself. He has to make sure I can be trusted.

“We have a library,” Jason said. “I could take you sometime and we could look for it.”

Nico nodded. “I… wouldn’t hate that.”

Jason smiled. The sky darkened around them. “Listen, Nico, there’s something you should know. It’s better you know sooner rather than later,” he said. Nico watched Jason close before his eyes, tensing, shielding his open eyes from Nico’s prying gaze. “My father.”

The son of Hades had not even considered Jason’s godly parentage. “Okay,” he said. “Who is it?”

Jason bristled, as if expecting to be struck or screamed at, and Nico was surprised to find how much it hurt to watch him shy away before he even spoke. “I’m… I’m a son of Jupiter.”

Everything made too much sense now. The way he carried himself, the strength he radiated, the way he led and closed himself off to everyone he and Nico had come across. The name of the camp itself was proof of the legacy Jason had to live up to. That’s why his eyes lit up when Nico told him. That’s why he was trying so hard to bond with him. They were both children of kingly gods. So powerful and so alone.

Did he want to tell Nico in order to dissuade any outside prejudices? Was he afraid of ever telling Nico in case he would hate him? He could see Thalia in those blue eyes and his heart hurt for Camp Half-Blood.

These familiar sentiments hurt his heart. So he sucked it up and pushed his sadness down.

“So?” Nico finally said, unimpressed.

And with that deadpan, uncaring comment, Nico watched all Jason’s worry melt away. Jason didn’t want to do anything but help him when he found him in the woods, and he didn’t change when he learned his parentage. All he wanted was to be friends. The least Nico could do was return the favor.

“Nothing,” he finally shrugged, amazed and respite. “Just thought you should know. You’d find out sooner or later. I didn’t want to shatter the illusion.”

“There’s nothing to shatter, Jason. You could have told me how much of a dork you ‘secretly’ are, and even that would have been more shocking.”

Jason gaped at him. “Did you just--”

Nico looked away, trying not to grin. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Jason erupted into laughter and Nico was not far behind. He couldn’t remember the last time he laughed. “You’re something else, di Angelo.” Nico felt a horrible warmth bloom in his chest and right then and there, with Jason’s eyes crinkling and the moon rising behind them, bathing them in light, he knew.

He couldn’t stay in Camp Jupiter.

Chapter Text

Nico wasn’t sure why he was at Camp Half-Blood again.

His welcome wore out after a week. Apparently, saving the world is a thankless job, but only for him. Everyone was still gushing over Percy and Annabeth every time they so much as walked to the dining area for breakfast.

Nico would be more upset if he hadn’t braced himself for this expectation. Summer washed away, and with it, any warmth left in the campers’ hearts for him. Percy and Annabeth still politely waved whenever they saw him, but they didn’t know what to do with him. Conversation was awkward, stilted. Which he understood. But it still hurt. So he didn’t see the point in putting forth anymore effort. He helped push the Roman and Greek forces together in secret. That was as chummy as he was going to get.

If anyone wanted to talk to him, they would. So he knew he had nothing to worry about. Because no one would.

His father wanted him to scope out the area around camp, look for any excess of monsters--Kronos’ straggling forces, or something else. Things had been relatively quiet since the war ended, so he figured, it was about time danger came back to wear their comfort down again.

There was something strange in his father’s tone when he asked, but he knew better than to question it. The fact that his father was talking to him at all--even if it was just giving orders--gave him something to latch onto. A connection, no matter how tenuous. Like it or not, Nico was all Hades had left of his perfect, nuclear family.

Whatever. Once he performed this perfectly routine inspection, he could go back to Camp Jupiter, where he actually enjoyed being. His shame kept him away from Camp Half-Blood, but his guilt kept luring him back. Camp Jupiter, on the other hand, had become the closest thing to a home. No one trusted him. No one quite knew what to do with him whenever he turned up. He only stayed around because of his father’s vague prophetic commands.

But he’d won over a precious few that mattered to him. Centurions Gwen and Dakota, no strangers to alienation (though only a fraction of what Nico’s been through) as leaders of the Fifth Cohort, were good sparring partners. Reyna was warming to him. And Jason? Well…

Nico’s face warmed when he thought of their last goodbye. The memory was heavy and conflicting. But he thought about it. Let it play out. Tried to embrace it. Jason hadn’t been disgusted or angry. A little shocked, but he smiled. And it wasn’t a polite praetor smile. It was the smile he reserved for Nico alone. It was a gamble. Perhaps the start of a positive change in their relationship and his own acceptance.

He was praetor, now, and his responsibilities would only increase. Nico worried for him, the stress lines in his forehead and the bags under his eyes, but he had Reyna to keep an eye on him and keep him in check until he returned to kick some sense and rest into him.

Nico was almost smiling when Percy approached him. “Hey, Nico!” His hair was dark and damp, clothes sticking to his skin. It was almost November, but he went swimming anyway. Go figure. He gave Nico a friendly, confused smile which he couldn’t return. He was probably wondering just what everyone else was, albeit more politely: What is he doing here?

Percy… was still a complicated matter for him. His presence in general gave Nico a great shot of anxiety and conflicting emotions. Attraction, rage. Dedication, desperation. Resentment. He couldn’t pick out any one that was stronger than the other. He gave up trying. He would always feel second to Percy. He didn’t think he would ever stop owing him, stop trying to make it up to him, make up… his existence , and the trouble that caused.

The same swell of emotions that accompanied Jason’s appearance were, on the whole, much more positive. He chose to stick to that, even if the clarity of them is what scared him.

“Hi, Percy.” He sounded tired already and Percy shifted awkwardly. Nico tried to sound brighter, but it didn’t really work, “How have you been?”

“Ah, pretty good, pretty good. Just visiting, since I have the weekend off for conferences.” He pumped his fist in the air triumphantly. “I’ve been here the last few days. You couldn’t come say hi earlier?”

“Would you want me to?” Nico drawled. “I wasn’t here, anyway.”

Percy folded his arms, curious. “Oh. Really? You know, the war’s over. You don’t have to keep running around.” What are you still hiding? His eyes seemed to ask, Nico still untrustworthy, still in need of a sword pressed to his throat to squeeze out all his secrets.

“My father,” Nico said with a shrug. “And I don’t mind. Gives me something to do.”

“There’s lots of things to do at camp,” Percy said in a sing-song tone. “Archery, sparring, art classes--”

“I don’t care, I get enough practice, and I’m not artistic.” He scuffed the ground with his boots and sighed. “I know this place is important to you, but it’s… not everyone has your optimism.”

“And not everyone has your pessimism,” Percy said dryly. Nico glared at him, and Percy just laughed and ruffled his hair. “At least tell me you haven’t spent all this time in the underworld. You need some sun in your life.”

“I like the underworld,” Nico said hotly. “At least the people who ignore me there ignore me because they’re dead , not because they hate me.” Percy held up his hands, wincing in defeat. Nico remembered Percy’s insistence that Camp Half-Blood could be his home, too.

Do you really believe that, Percy? he had asked. But before he finished the question, he already knew the answer from the doubt lingering in Percy’s eyes. All Percy ever seemed to look at him with was mistrust.

He felt like Percy tried harder with Luke, hellbent on destroying everything Percy held dear, than he ever did with Nico, who he swore to his late sister that he would watch over. That stung.

“Besides,” Nico said quickly, trying to gloss over his outburst, “I have… friends.” He cringed at how weak it sounded. But he couldn’t exactly say, I’ve been spending all my time with the antithesis of this place and actually feel like I can be there without anxiety-induced vomiting. And he knew when Percy eventually found out, they’d be right back at square one. So there was no reason for Nico to extend any further courtesy.

Percy nodded and decided to let the subject drop. “Well…” He was saved from attempting anymore conversation with Nico because Annabeth strode up just then. He turned to her and grinned, wide and pleased to see her.

Annabeth subtly intertwined their hands and returned his smile, albeit smaller, and Nico’s stomach dropped.

“Hey, Nico,” she greeted. “You staying for the campfire tonight?”

“Um,” he said. His gaze couldn’t part from their intertwined hands. “I have some business--my father.” He couldn’t keep his head screwed on right. Of course, how easily they fit together, Annabeth already pressing into his side, Percy leaning his head on top of hers. They both regarded him with the same curious eyes, trying to pick apart his reaction, understand it. Nico was afraid of what they might find.

Then the day went from awkward to awful.

A cold hand ripped his heart from his chest and stifled any normal reply he could give. The fist squeezing him forced him to stumble back. He lost his breath and his pulse quickened. His entire chest ached, a gaping hole. The grass beneath him withered and died. Percy and Annabeth exchanged worried looks, but didn’t separate, instead backing up from Nico together.

His heart. A piece of him disappeared. An important presence was completely missing in the ether. Not dead, but… gone .

Jason was gone.

No ghost, no bones. He was irreversibly absent.

“Nico?” Percy asked unsteadily. “You feeling okay?” When he didn’t answer, he whispered something to Annabeth, and she let go of Percy and took a step toward Nico.

Nico flinched back, shaking his head. “I--”

The world was falling out from under him. Percy and Annabeth locked together, locking him out. His last chance. He tried, tried, tried to make them understand, to understand them, but he couldn’t fix the wrong he’d done. He didn’t even know if it was that, anymore. He was a kid, scared and alone, and the only people who promised to protect and listen to him refused him at every turn. Didn’t even try. So Nico did. Again and again. It was a scab Nico forced himself to pick at because he had to hurt, he deserved to hurt, and he didn’t know how to live without bleeding.

Jason started to show him otherwise.

He cleaned his wounds. He wrapped his scrapes. He kissed his bruises. He gave him a hand to hold so Nico wouldn’t scratch his bandages. For the first time in a long time, Nico wasn’t hurting. And he didn’t know what to do with himself.

Until now. He hurt now.

It should have been a relief to return to his routine misery. He should have expected it. There was no peace for demigods, especially not a child of Hades. Nico always stayed on edge, always away from others, always isolated, for his benefit as well as theirs. For situations exactly like this. This was what he was waiting for, wasn’t it? Since the first day Jason brought him to camp. Now he was gone. And so was that short golden era.

Nico turned away from Percy and Annabeth and staggered off into shadow. Their silence followed him for hours.

He saw this coming but he couldn’t stop crying.

Nico reaches into the darkness and Jason is gone . He’s faint, burning, fading away from him. “Jay--” he calls out. He collapses to the ground. The darkness lifts around him, begins to dull. It’s not as harsh or cold. Something is keeping it at bay. He feels like he can breathe again and the screaming has stopped. There’s some familiar presence in the air. He calms but an entirely new feeling of dread washes over him. He’s shielded from Tartarus for the time being, in this tiny space, but has to face something far worse.

Lifting his head from the floor, his eyes meet a pair of bare feet shrouded in a shadowy cloak. He looks up into his father’s face, shrouded by dark hair and mystery. “You are incredibly foolish.” Intimidation radiates from him but Nico sustains his glare. He holds his ground and stands by his stupid decisions in spite of his father, and that’s the closest Nico will ever get to a mortal family.

“Nice to see you, too.”

“The first time was bad enough on its own--but you… willingly lept back into the chasm of Tartarus--” The coldness seeps back into Nico when his father simply says the word, “You are… unbelievable.” Hades sounded frustrated, angry, and a little impressed. “I was ready to overlook Iapetus’ absence, knowing he was assisting you. But shadow travel? Here? That’s the final straw. You need to be careful, my son.”

“I’m fine,” Nico retorts, swaying as he gets to his feet.

Hades suddenly grabs Nico’s hand, making him flinch. When he draws his son’s arm up, he can’t see it and it’s not the darkness surrounding them. His hand has taken on an opaque quality, fading into the surrounding area. His arm flickers, ghostly, up to his elbow. “You are weak, and shadow travelling here, of all places, may well destroy you.”

“Thanks for the encouragement.”

He draws back as if touching Nico pains him and his form flickers. “This is not to be taken lightly. You’ll fade away to nothing, and then what use will you be?” Affection betrays his father’s anger and Nico’s heart wrenches. They’re both great at holding grudges but they can’t stay angry at each other forever. They’ve tried.

“Why are you here?” he asks, tired, staring at his fading arm. There’s no bitter pretense in his voice. He knows how much his father is risking by getting involved. Leaving the thermos for him, and now, directly stepping into Tartarus to speak to his son while the rest of the gods’ Greek and Roman aspects battle for dominance. His form continues to glitch in and out, Roman elements sometimes bleeding through to change his appearance.

Hades regains his composure and sighs. “I am here to stop you from getting yourself killed. Don’t think you’re doing anyone a favor by risking your life.” For him, rings in Nico’s ears, and for a terrifying moment he isn’t sure whether his father means Percy or Jason. It remains unspoken but it rattles around his head and brings his rage to life.

“Jason is one of the prophecy. He needs to get out of here.”

“I don’t disagree. But there’s another way. You are underestimating how much you’re needed above my realm. And how much power you have below it.”

Nico scratches his ratty hair and groans, long and low. “I don’t have time for riddles. Jason is in danger.”

“You’ll get to him,” his father spits. “I am here, now, to put things in perspective for you.”

“I know what I’m doing.” It’s feeble, he’s lying, but it’s kept him going this long.

“Clearly.” Hades’ eyes narrow, not unkindly, and he takes a step toward his son. “The Romans are preparing to march on your Greek comrades. You must hurry and find your way to the Doors. You must go through the Mansion of Night. Nyx--” the shadows warp, tremble, as if pained by the name, “and her children are after you. Be wary. It will not be pleasant.”

“It’ll be a walk in the park compared to this conversation,” Nico mutters. Hades continues on, unperturbed by his son’s snark.

“Your sister will greet you at the Doors. She is gaining an exceptional control over the Mist to aid your rescue.” Hades pauses. “You may acquire Death Mist from Akhlys to help you pass through Gaea’s hordes unnoticed. But there is always another way.”

Nico nods, rolling his eyes. He’s tired of cryptic god nonsense. Hades takes his disappearing arm and concentrates. Shadows intertwine with the tissue, rebuilding the mass that was. He grasps his own cold flesh, trying to wake himself up. “Mansion of Night. Children. Be careful. Got it.” He stares at his father and his eyes soften. “Thank you,” he finally says in a small voice. He’s little again and his father leaving, hand trembling over the doorknob, facing some terror beyond the threshold of the di Angelo house. Nico doesn’t want him to get hurt.

Hades nods. “Take care.”

“Take care,” Nico murmurs back.

His father fades and he’s left alone in the crushing darkness.

Nico takes all his power to make his own path through the darkness of Tartarus, warding off taunts, jeering eyes, and unfriendly shadows. When he sees Jason he bolts, using everything he has left to make it to him. He reaches his hands out and dives, crashing into him, returning the favor to catch him when he falls and drag them both out of the darkness. When they make it back into the fog, he’s fading, weak, but alive, and Jason is holding his hand. That warmth grounds him, makes him solid again, gives him purpose to move forward.

While Jason carries him, he mulls over the meeting with his father, trying to ease Jason’s spirits at the same time. Then they reach the Mansion of Night. A great foreboding washes over Nico and soon he’s backed into his companion, swinging at a horde of giant scorpions.  Neither of them are quite strong enough for this, but he thinks they can manage. He’s been backed much further into much smaller corners.

But then he emerges from somewhere near the mansion and he extends his hand and all the liquid rushes back, chokes the scorpions, burns them out of their shells. Under those hands, that powerful ownership, Jason and Nico are left standing and safe.

Nico’s ten years old again and he can see him standing in front of him, tall, protecting, slaying the manticore. He takes a hesitant step forward. A pair of green eyes he’s come to loathe and love greets him.

“Percy,” he says.

This is an illusion, it’s not real, Nico knows that.

But.

That same lopsided grin hangs on him, that same casual slope of his shoulders, that same sea breeze ruffled hair. And everything Nico’s fought so hard to get over, to forget, hits him hard. “You aren’t real,” he says. “You aren’t Percy.” But his sword is returning to his side.

Percy shrugs, digging his hands into his pockets. “Maybe not. But I’m all you’ve got.”

“Show us your true form,” Jason demands.

“You haven’t earned that privilege quite yet. I’m here to help you, Jason,” Percy says, raising an eyebrow. “Your only way to the Doors is through the Mansion of Night.” As if choreographed, he points to the house, and some unearthly scream rattles throughout the ground. “It’s full of terrors that all creatures of Tartarus avoid at any cost. Unseemly sights, gruesome sounds, fouler than any earthly or godly creature can ever manage. Even looking can be enough to kill you, but it’s much worse than looking at a god’s true form.” Percy directs a grin at Jason that makes both demigods shiver. “But I can take you through it safely. Won’t harm a hair on your head.”

“What’s the catch?” Nico hasn’t realized he’s stepped forward until Jason pulls him back.

“You have to keep your eyes open,” Percy says, pointing at Nico. “And Jason, you need to keep your eyes closed. The entire time. Otherwise, deal’s off.”

Jason gives Percy a tight-lipped smile. “Will you excuse us a moment?” Percy nods and Jason takes Nico aside. “Nico, this is a bad idea. I would take shadow-travelling again over this.”

“As much as I agree with you, I’m not strong enough to do that right now,” Nico says. He remembers his father’s caution for a moment before pushing it to the back of his mind. “This is the only way. We don’t have any other choice. I don’t think fighting him and going into the mansion weak would work either.”

Jason shakes his head, glaring at the ground. The scar on his lip mars his frown and despite their situation, he thinks that it’s… more than a little adorable. Focus, Nico, he chides himself. “I don’t like this.” His concern deepens and he says soft, almost to himself, “Why does he want your eyes open?”

Nico has no answer for that. “Percy’s weird,” he supplies, shrugging.

That isn’t Percy, Nico.”

Right. He clears his throat and looks away. “I really think this is our best shot, Jason. We need to get the Death Mist, otherwise we can’t get through all of Gaea’s troops guarding the Doors. And we can’t get to the Doors if we don’t get through the mansion.”

Jason stares at Nico for a long time, pensive and silent. He steps toward Percy. “What do you get from this? Why make this deal? Why not just kill us right now?”

“I won’t draw satisfaction from your death,” he drawls. His green eyes glint, and they’re too green. They’re Greek fire, envy, poison--not the tides that pulled Nico in when he was ten. “Why else would I save you? That would be too short and insubstantial.”

“Akhlys,” Nico mutters. “Goddess of Misery. Child of Night. That’s where you’re taking us, right? To her?” And then Gaea, echoes in his head but remains unspoken.

Percy’s face distorts, pure anger rolling off of him in waves. The mansion seems to loom larger, the ground quaking beneath them. “You don’t have much time. Monsters won’t follow you into the mansion, but they’re happy to stand outside and wait for you to tire out. You’ll be coming with me one way or another.”

“Fine,” Nico sighs. Nico and Jason jump over the earth scorched below them. “Take us through the mansion.” He takes Jason’s hand, lacing their fingers together, trying to calm his nerves.

Akhlys, Percy, does the same with Nico’s hand. He brushes his thumb over the knuckle, a gesture so small and intimate it makes his knees weak. “Close your eyes, Jason,” the goddess instructs. Jason shares one last look with Nico before he obeys the command. Once that’s done, Percy smiles at Nico and gods. It’s not Percy, he keeps telling himself, but he can’t bring himself to pull away, to maintain the distance and the barriers he spent years building. He leans in and whispers, lips brushing the edge of Nico’s ear, “Don’t let go of my hand.”

The door of the mansion swings open before they’ve even approached it. Percy squeezes his hand and Nico’s skin crawls for all sorts of reasons. “We just have to make it through the house. You lead us as much as I’ll lead you. Keep your eyes open.”

“I got it,” Nico sighs. Fear overwhelms him. Jason presses his head on his shoulder for a moment. That gives him courage enough to continue.

The door to the mansion flies open before Nico reaches it. He stands on the threshold, feeling the darkness sucking him into the house. Jason shuffles closer, a show of comfort and affection that Nico is grateful for until Percy does the same. Not Percy, he chides himself again. “Go on,” not Percy encourages him, using a tone Nico hasn’t heard since he was a kid. “Lead us in.”

The son of Hades steps forward into the first dim room. There’s a faint light coming from somewhere, the ceiling, but he’s afraid to look at it. There’s a series of cards scattered across the floor. He scuffs one of them with his feet. They look like one of his old Mythomagic decks. He tears away from the cards and the door slams shut behind him. They’re plunged into darkness. All he can see are those green eyes beside him gleaming in the darkness. Then they close.

“I thought you were going to lead us,” Nico hisses. “Where do we go?”

“You have to find your own way out. I’m just making sure that you don’t get killed. You’re taking too long.”

He can hear a whisper beside him. He turns his head, frantic, looking for the voice. He knows he’s stalling, but he’s paralyzed with fear. That’s when he sees something crawling out of the card he stepped on.

It’s mangled and bloody, entirely human and inhuman. All he sees are its eyes gleaming in the darkness. A sliver of electricity courses through the figure. It twitches, flops on the ground. Little bits of lightning give Nico enough light to see her, his mother, burned beyond recognition and crushed under rubble.

Another card beside her summons another figure. Nico doesn’t look at Bianca but he doesn’t need to. He can still hear her labored breathing, rattling in her empty chest. He breathes and his chest begins to cave in. His skin recedes, curling into itself, clinging to his ribcage. He breathes, chokes, in unison with his mother and sister. Some otherworldly force has got hold of his heart. Some giant hand is squeezing him, compacting him, molding him like rubble molded his mother and sister.

“Nico,” Jason breathes unsteady beside him. “Nico, move.”

He takes one torturous step away. Then another. One more. He turns his back and runs.

Chapter Text

It occurs to Nico that he cannot even witness the full horror of what the Mansion of Night has to offer. Still, even in Tartarus, the Mist persists. What he sees is beyond comprehension, beyond thought, and so horrendous that even the most watered down version is enough to kill him. His hand flies to the pocket of his jacket where his father’s thermos rests secure. He’s sure that it’s all that’s keeping him alive, whether it’s enchanted or not.

It’s dark. Most of what he sees are shapes, vague and undefined, but enough to contribute to the collapse of his lungs. Monsters of all kind and creation crawl out of the recesses of his thoughts into flesh to torment his body in tandem with his mind. His own skin becomes malleable, slipping off his bones, melting off his cold skeleton, puddling on the floor in ash. Nico wants to say this isn’t real but he knows better than that. He’s spent too long in Tartarus to argue over reality, because it hurts either way.

Gods, does it hurt.

He collapses on the ground and wrenches his hand from Percy, wiping at the blood dripping from his eyes down his gaunt cheeks. Now, more than ever, his eyes are wide and open. He’s afraid he’ll blink and they’ll refuse to lift again, and Akhlys will leave them stranded, dying, at the mercy of the Night.

He leans against Jason’s leg, still stretching to keep their hands intertwined. Jason’s other hand hovers over Nico’s hair. Nico nudges his leg, unspoken permission, and the son of Jupiter weaves his fingers through his dark, knotted hair. It calms him. It grounds him. He can breathe a little more now.

“Are you scared?” he asks, soft and low.

Jason is silent for a long time before he finally admits, “Yeah. A little. You?”

“Not at all,” Nico hums. Jason snorts and squishes Nico’s face in the side of his thigh, playful. His heart almost leaps out of his chest.

Percy, annoyed with being ignored, kneels beside him, eyes finally open, enough to scrutinize and pick him apart like nothing in or out of Tartarus can. “Come on, Nico,” he sighs, quiet enough only for the two of them to hear. “You planned for this. You expected this. You did this for me, remember?” He grabs Nico’s chin in his hand and forces their gazes to meet.

“I didn’t--” Nico coughs, something thick and dark dripping from his mouth. Jason’s grip on his hand tightens.

“Say it,” he growls. “Say you did this for me.”

Nico shakes his head. This is just another trick, another ploy to hurt him. He won’t give in to torture again as quickly as last time. He’s not the one that matters right now. He has to get Jason to the Doors.

“You won’t admit it,” Percy murmurs. “You refused to promise it. But that’s why you’re here. Then again, you always knew you would end up here because of who… no, what you are.”

Nico wants to scream. But he doesn’t. He gets his frantic breathing under control and manages the courage to look away. “Jason, please help me up,” he says, tugging his companion’s hand gently. He ignores Percy’s smoldering eyes until they finally close in triumph.

“Of course,” Jason says, relieved to finally hear his voice. He fumbles a bit without his vision but helps Nico to his feet. Percy runs his hand up and down Nico’s arm. He ignores it and presses on through the mansion, picking up his pace.

Some horrifying, relieving fact occurs to him. It doesn’t matter how fast he goes. The mansion will find a way to slow him down and it won’t kill him; no, that would be too easy. It will tear him up from the inside out, let him devour himself, let him escape full of holes, missing everything that makes him himself, let the pieces break when his childish hands attempt to tape himself back together. Only then, may he die.

I know how you work, he tells the darkness.

And I know how you work, it whispers back to him.

They press on through the dark. Down some hallway into some other room. Nico can’t tell what direction they’re going, how long they’ve been in the house. All he has is Jason’s comforting hand and Percy’s polarizing touch (he has given up trying to correct himself; this is part of the game he must play, now). Occasionally Percy will redirect him, placing a hand on his lower back, righting him and sending him on the correct path. The longer he touches him, the closer he gets, the more Nico burns under his touch. A physical, palpable discomfort. But straying away from him is even worse. A coldness overtakes him and he starts sweating and gasping for breath.

Then they’re overtaken by a flock of monsters. Arai, picking and scratching at their flesh, fluttering this dark wings and creating a choking breeze. Nico lets go of Percy, ignoring the chill it sends through him, draws his sword and pulls Jason close. He can’t kill them, lest he become subject to a curse. But fighting them off without killing them is getting more and more difficult. His jacket and jeans are further torn and one of them manages to rake its claws across his stomach. He holds in a strangled yell. Percy stands silent amidst the chaos of it all, amused at their plight.

The claustrophobia of it all is getting to Nico. He’s starting to panic. The air is stale, and his surroundings too brown. Too bronze. He keeps seeing things in their red eyes, they’re pulling him apart, bit by bit, but he can’t close his own. There’s no shooing away this nightmare.

“Jason,” he yells over the fluttering and screeching. His voice and body shake, cold and fearful. “Do you think you can manipulate this wind?”

Jason’s brow furrows. “I… I might be able to!”

“Good. I want you to blow them all back, then draw your sword. Don’t kill any, otherwise you’ll take on a curse.”

“Got it.” The arai, onto their plan, fly faster and faster in a circle around Jason and Nico. The air becomes thin and begins to disappear entirely. Nico struggles to breathe. He clutches at his throat and swings his sword at a few of them, trying to break the cycle. Jason beside him breathes just as heavy, concentrating. At last, the wind blows back against the arai and they can both breathe again. They hit each other, the walls of the Mansion, as they’re blown back. Percy ducks his head but is otherwise unaffected. Jason draws his sword, eyes still shut tight. “I’ve got good instincts, but I need you to be my eyes. Tell me what to do, Nico.”

The arai multiply exponentially and advance upon the demigods, screeching and clawing. For every one that Nico pushes back, two more appear in its place. He’s trying to save himself and Jason, who swings blindly at the air per Nico’s instruction.

“Nico, I’m going to try and summon lightning,” Jason calls, hitting back another arai with the hilt of his sword. “Take cover.”

“I’m not leaving your side,” he snaps. “Go ahead. I’ll be fine.”

Then Jason grabs hold of his waist. “Percy,” he calls out reluctantly and throws Nico straight through the horde of arai. He rolls across the floor until he hits Percy’s feet. Percy leans down and grabs Nico and he tries to wrestle away from his touch, but it aggravates the cut on his stomach.

“Got him.”

Then the room lights up.

Nico sees Jason. A model warrior, the quintessential Roman, facing off against Krios and toppling his throne. He sees him confused and scared, waking up with no memory and holding a hand that doesn’t quite fit right in his own. He sees him on a snowy mountain with his family, his sister, the happiest he’s ever been. He sees his mother leaving him to the wolves. He sees him praying for his father for guidance, with not even the air bothering to reply. He sees him living in Camp Half-Blood, living , and not just surviving in army ranks.

He sees him unconscious, bloody, head cracked open and cradled in a pair of loving hands. The essence pours from him, from his head and into Nico’s hands, then more lights and gore assault his vision. Gaea’s laugh echoes in his head.

Jason!” he screams. He scrambles to his feet but Percy stops him, pressing into the wound on his stomach. He knows struggling is useless but he doesn’t stop calling and reaching for Jason.

The arai burst. The stench of burned flesh fills his nostrils, makes him sick. Dark blood splatters every inch of the room, of him, of Jason. Feathers and chunks of wings and claws and eyes cling to him. His eyes are still shut tight. “I think I got them,” he says in a strangled voice. He returns his sword to a coin and stuffs it in his pocket. Then he vomits and collapses to the ground.

Nico is released and runs across the slick floor, tripping on his way over to Jason. Percy calmly stalks forward and stands behind him. Nico touches Jason’s arm and hisses in pain. His skin is freezing, enough to burn him. But he persists, even though being away from Percy hurts and touching Jason hurts even worse.

“You’re so cold,” he whispers. He removes his aviator jacket and forces Jason’s arms through the sleeves. He bites back a whimper of pain. The jacket is oversized, big enough on Nico so that it fits perfectly snug on Jason’s shoulders. He vomits again. Nico wipes some dark blood from his face. “Jay--Jason, listen. Can you hear me?”

“He’s dying,” Percy says. He sounds almost sympathetic. He doesn’t need to, because Nico can feel it. The coldness in his chest flickers as Jason’s life force ebbs away. “He’s taken on too many curses.”

Nico shakes his head, frantic, clinging to Jason even as he vomits. Traces of blood drip from the corners of his mouth. “No, no, there’s another way. There has to be.”

“You know,” Percy says, kneeling beside them both, “you can’t afford to waste time on him. He’s poison to your mission. You have to get out of here before this place eats you alive.”

Poison. That’s right.

“You can help him,” Nico accuses. “You can save him.” It’s not a question. It’s almost a threat.

“I could,” Percy hums.

“You can control poison!” Nico exclaims, desperate as Jason keels over, shivering and unresponsive. “That means you can get it out of him, heal him. Y-You have to save him! You promised...”

And Percy smiles. He claps a hand on Nico’s shoulder. “You can’t expect me to keep all my promises.”

The son of Hades wants nothing more than to kill him in that moment but he can’t waste what little time and energy he has left. He’s spitting rather than breathing. Rough and loud and hurting. He slings Jason’s arm over his shoulder, despite the way it burns, and hauls him to his feet. He keeps going. “I’m getting out of here, with or without you.”

So Nico starts walking, dragging Jason along, Percy trailing curious behind them. Every trudge of his weary feet gets more difficult. Nico’s eyes are open but he’s not sure what he’s seeing anymore. It’s just a blur of bright and dark atrocities. His eyes start bleeding again and his mouth hangs open, shocked and struggling to breathe, saliva dribbling down his chin.

He talks to Jason with no indication the son of Jupiter can hear him. “You have to stay alive, Jason. Everyone’s waiting for you. Reyna. Piper and Leo. Thalia. They can’t do this without you.” He takes a shuddering breath and lurches forward, the heaviest step he’s ever taken. “I can’t do this without you.”

He sees the door, the exit, blinding light ahead of him. He tries to take another step and hits the floor face-first.

Nico’s frothing when he drags himself up to sit. “Percy--Akhlys --whatever. Heal Jason. You need us alive, right?” Jason’s body hands limp in his arms. He glares at the darkness surrounding him. “Right, Nyx? Gaea needs to spill his blood at Athens! You need sacrifice, you can’t kill him just yet!”

“Don’t speak her name,” hisses Percy. His form glitches, revealing some dark being behind those green eyes. “My mother has nothing to do with this!”

“Then help me!” Nico sobs. “What do you want from me?”

“Kill me,” he snaps. “Or let Jason die. Either are a worthy sacrifice. It is your word, Nico, that will decide who dies now and who dies at Athens.”

Nico staggers to his feet and draws his sword. He’s going to vomit. He stares Percy down, draws his sword back, readies himself. But he just falls forward again, using his sword as a crutch, stabbing it into the floorboards. You’re not Percy , he tells himself. But he can’t kill Akhlys like this.

Akhlys succumbs to a malicious fit of laughter. “Pathetic. You know misery loves company, Nico, and you make quite the company. You still can’t bring yourself to kill me.” Percy takes a step closer and grins at him. “Your sister’s murderer. Your tormentor.” He presses a hand on his neck and Nico’s flesh bubbles and burns under his touch. He moves away from the son of Hades and kneels beside Jason, who is limp beyond the occasional convulsion. He drags Jason up and Nico cries out when he notices Jason smoking under the goddess’ touch as well. “ Tell him,” Akhlys jeers. “You tell him why you can’t kill me, Nico. Tell him the real reason you jumped into Tartarus. Why you ran away from Camp Half-Blood and into his waiting arms. Tell him why you risked his life along with yours.”

Jason’s eyes are squeezed shut and he mumbles something, out of focus, out of touch with reality. He reaches for Nico and Percy forces his hand back down. “Will you save him?” Nico finally sobs.

“Yes, of course. Now tell him. Jason doesn’t have much time.” The doorway of light has begun shrinking as well. Behind them, figures in dark cloaks and robes begin surrounding them. They chant a prayer, low and ominous. One of them swings a thurible, a horrible clinking in the silence, and incense--or, what Nico assumes is actually Death Mist--permeates the air.

Nico gasps, throat raw, “The real reason I did it…” Tears manage to flow from his dry eyes, smearing the blood that dried there. Percy has the gall to smirk.

The robed figures’ chanting turns into a choir, a gospel, announcing his demise. With each note, another bit of him is shattered, another fragment of him torn away from himself. He’s back in church and Bianca’s holding his hand and he’s surrounded by fear and hatred and the incense chokes him.

“I left Camp Half-Blood because… I hated him. I hated myself. But I couldn’t get away from him, no matter how hard I tried. And I… I couldn’t hate him. I couldn’t let go of my own sentiments. So I jumped--”

Akhlys is drawing her power from his intense misery. The more he speaks, the more Jason stills, and color begins to return to his dirty, pale face. “Tell Jason why,” Percy repeats, extracting poison from Jason’s mouth and nose, sickly swirling it around his head. “Why you couldn’t hate me. And how you--”

“Not you,” Nico snaps. “You aren’t Percy.”

The choir stops singing. Akhlys has the nerve to look surprised, then angry. The realization hits him all at once.

“You aren’t Percy,” he repeats, louder. He stands a little straighter. His sword returns to his side as a weapon instead of a cane. “You’re just using him to feed on me. I shouldn’t have expected anything less from the goddess of misery.”

“Stop it,” Akhlys hisses. Her form glitches. Those green eyes Nico knows so well have been a dead giveaway from the start, a reminder. Jason is taking in air, breathing, hard, making an effort. His skin has stopped steaming.

“You know why I can’t hate him? Why, after everything that’s happened, that he’s done, I’d jump into Tartarus again for him?”

“Me!” Percy’s distorted form protests. “For me!”

“You want that,” he says. “You want my pain, my hurt, my heart. Everything I felt for him. This form makes that worse. It reminds me of the past. You feed on me and it makes you stronger than ever, because darkness and despair are bound to a child of Hades. But you aren’t Percy. It took me too long to realize that.”

Akhlys releases Jason and the chorus begins to close in on them. “You stupid, insolent demigod...”

“You aren’t Percy!” Nico cries. “Percy is an idiot. He’s foolish. He’s loyal to a fault. I blamed him for my sister’s death. I blamed him for a lot of things.” Nico tightens his grip on his sword. The shadows in the Mansion of Night aren’t as scary now. His breathing has regulated and everything he’s seen that should have fried his brain is lone gone from his thoughts. “But Percy cares . Percy is friendly and funny and warm and he tries, he tries so damn hard to help and even when he’s wrong you can’t help thinking he’s right. Percy is real and flawed and he is a hero and… he’s my friend. I may be angry, but I’m not--not in love.” The words are wrenched from his throat and Percy flinches when he spits them out. Nico lingers on Jason’s stirring face. “I haven’t been, for a long time. And you can’t suck the life out of me through him.” Bianca’s words flood back to him, what she told him about grudges, and with a great, shuddering sob, he’s letting it all go. “Percy is not a bad memory you can use against me!”

With every word, Akhlys form weakens and collapses before his eyes. There’s a great cry, light bursting from her chest, poison seeping from her into the floorboards. Nico hauls Jason to his feet and backs away. He hones in on the darkness and lets it fester around them. He lets it claw at Akhlys and cloak them safely. The chorus around them disappears into the air.

“There’s nothing you can do to make me more miserable,” he growls. “And I won’t let you hurt Jason by hurting me.”

“I wanted--” yelled Akhlys in a hoarse voice, rattling the foundations of the mansion. “I wanted to be looked at the way you looked at him. With such fury, such fire . You are so full of misery… You’re so miserable, it’s almost perfect. There’s almost nothing more I could do-- She screams again and the light around her intensifies as Akhlys begins to reveal her true form. The mansion begins to contract, close in on itself. The light of the doorway begins to shrink.

Nico takes Jason’s hand tight in his own, closes his eyes, and runs. He runs and runs until he can’t breathe, then he can , then he can’t again. This is how he could survive the mansion with his eyes open, he thinks. Beyond his father’s protection. Almost nothing worse could hurt him--no conjured illusion could match what he’s done to himself. The resignation to his own death at the expense of those he cares about. But there was another way.

Having a reason to fight for his life in Tartarus changed that. Jason changed it the moment he flung himself down after Nico. And his compassion made Nico all the more impervious.

Light fills the cracks in his eyelids. When he opens his eyes again, the redness of Tartarus greets him. Jason sways beside him. He starts blurring and Nico blinks hard, trying to focus. “Jason?” he whispers. “Jason, we have to run. Are you okay? Can you do that?” The mansion shakes and twitches behind them, as if alive, while Akhlys wails. Jason’s eyes flutter open and Nico has never been so happy to see the color blue in his life. He does not give an audible reply, but after a long time, he nods. Nico feels vulnerable and his breakdown hasn’t quite caught up to him yet. Maybe he can stave it off a while longer. Cautious, he tries to say, “Did you… How much did you hear…?”

“Enough,” Jason murmurs. He rubs his head. “Hazy. It’s like it was all a dream.” He doesn’t stop looking at Nico. There’s something in his eyes. Something unbidden and pure. Don’t look at me like that, he thinks. I can’t take it. “You know, I’ve seen a lot of brave things. But that? That may have been the bravest.”

The son of Hades’ adrenaline is all that’s keeping him from collapse and Jason’s words, affectionate, wonderful, proud, pull a few tears from him. His vision blurs further. His stomach stings. To keep from breaking down completely, he musters a snarky reply, “Your eyes weren’t even open.”

The scar above his lip twitches in amusement but he does not waver. He takes Nico’s hand in his. He lets him. “They didn’t need to be.”

Chapter Text

Percy’s having a rough week.

He’s safe, which is good. Annabeth is safe, which is even better. They’re well on their way to completing their mission and defeating Gaea. They have the Athena Parthenos, and Reyna is headed their way so they can devise how to unite the Greek and Roman forces alike against Gaea and Octavian’s mutiny.

But everytime he closes his eyes, Nico is there in the shadows of his mind. He sees Nico’s dark eyes filled with hope, bright, burning hope, the first time he ever saw Percy. A look that has always filled Percy with guilt and pride. How can someone look at him like that? How can he live up to it? The simple answer is, he can’t.

He’s leaning over the side of the ship, relaxed, staring into the water below. It calmed him before but now all he sees is Nico falling, not even bothering to reach for him, not expecting anyone to slow his descent or catch him.

Percy grits his teeth. These dreams, these visions, have plagued him ever since Nico and Jason fell into Tartarus. No, Nico fell. Jason jumped. He went after him without any hesitation. Percy hates how inferior that notion makes him feel.

He can’t help feeling that he’s failed the son of Hades. The fact is, he is to blame for so much of Nico’s life. He can’t understand why, after everything that’s happened between them, he is still willing to sacrifice himself for Percy.

But that question has gone unanswered for a long time and he doesn’t expect to find an answer anytime soon.

The son of Poseidon jumps when a hand comes to rest on his shoulder. “My bad, Aquaman!” Leo apologizes, scooting back. “Didn’t mean to startle you, but we’re in Split. Thought I’d let you know. We should assemble a group to go find Reyna and get the scepter she was talking about.”

Percy shakes his head, trying to rid himself of his worries. Nico can certainly hold his own, and Jason is with him. “Right, Reyna.” Before anyone else can volunteer, he jumps to it, “I’ll go into town.” Leo is closest so he grabs his hand. “Leo’s coming with me.”

The son of Hephaestus gives him a curious eye but doesn’t immediately protest.

“I don’t think it’s the best idea to let go of one of our most powerful demigods and the ship’s main mechanic,” Frank points out, pursing his lips. “I trust you both, but it may be better safe than sorry.”

The son of Poseidon claps him on the back and gives a dazzling smile. “Who, us?”

“Frank’s right,” Hazel says. “I’ll go with you instead, Percy. We’ll likely be facing Diocletian’s ghost. Having a child of the Underworld along with you is the best option.”

Leo parts from Percy, giving Hazel a grateful glance as he rests against the helm beside Frank. “Yeah, I’d rather not leave the ship. Festus gets cranky.” The figurehead grumbles, a low clanking in agreement. “And I don’t think that Reyna’s going to be quite keen on seeing me just yet, after the whole getting-possessed-and-trying-to-blow-up-the-forum thing.”

Percy narrows his eyes at his shoes. “Sure. Makes sense. Let’s go, Hazel.”

Truthfully, Percy was hoping to avoid Hazel. He really likes her, she’s a great friend, but it’s a little much seeing Nico reflected in her cautious nature, her quiet tones, her radiant eyes. He’s seeing Nico in everything, and that’s what he’s been trying to avoid-- everything. Perhaps getting out and about would be good for him. So he holds his breath, gives Hazel a smile, and they leave the ship.

They wander around, keeping an eye out for Reyna and staying alert in case of monsters. Split is beautiful. He enjoys the winding cobblestone streets and brick red roofs checkering the town. They stop by a vendor for some ice cream, who stares at them a little too long for both demigods’ comfort.

“We probably stand out like a bunch of American tourists,” Percy ponders over his two scoops of cotton candy while Hazel looks at their surroundings in awe.

“Yeah. I wish we were here on an actual vacation, instead of fighting for our lives,” she says. “I’ve seen so many amazing places as a demigod. I feel like I never have time to enjoy them.”

“You get used to it,” Percy says with a shrug. “Lots of humans never even get to travel, and their lives are even more boring than ours.”

“I envy them,” she murmurs against her cone.

He takes a cold bite of his ice cream, savoring the chill that runs down his spine. “Me too,” he admits.

Percy contemplates going in for another scoop when he notices a payphone at the edge of a nearby canal past the ice cream vendor. He still has a few coins in his pocket. An idea strikes him.

“Hey, Hazel, let’s make the rounds one more time. See if there’s anything we missed,” he suggests, anticipation propelling him down the street without waiting for her answer. He gives her a wave and she rolls her eyes, wandering in the opposite direction. There’s no way she believes him but she takes the cue. He just needs a few minutes alone.

He fumbles with his coins and presses the phone close to his ear. Each ring jumpstarts his heart, shaking his entire body. After an eternity, the other line finally picks up. He licks his anxious lips.

Hello?” The voice asks. It’s early afternoon in Croatia, so she must be finishing dinner. Maybe a date. Or maybe she got stuck closing tonight and she’s enjoying a break that’s too short for all the work she puts in.

Percy wants to cry.

“... Hello?” The silence extends uncomfortably but he savors the syllables he’s granted. He’s taking a risk. But he just had to hear her voice again.

I miss you and I love you don’t seem appropriate for the anguish his mother has suffered without him. “... Percy?” He sucks in a breath and remembers himself. He has to find Diocletian’s scepter. And he’s putting her in danger just by calling.

He hangs up the phone so fast and so violently that the receiver pops off and rolls into the cobblestone streets. He goes to get some more ice cream to cool down. Hazel comes back a few minutes later and gives him a hug.

“You are too easy to find,” a voice behind him says. Reyna, in full armor and gear, approaches them. She looks weary, her braid bigger and looser than normal, but battle-ready as always. Unexpectedly, she puts a gentle hand on Hazel’s arm. No words are exchanged; Percy can feel the support, the companionship they’re sharing like the sun beating down on them high overhead. Sheepish, he continues gnawing on his ice cream cone. Reyna greets him with a curt nod and colder, but still amicable, glance.

He’s lost his appetite by now. “You sure got here fast.”

“My pegasi is an incredible companion,” Reyna says with a tight-lipped smile. “She got taken down by gryphons to get me here.”

“Reyna, I’m so sorry,” Hazel whispers.

“Unavoidable.” Her heavy eyes gleam with sadness. “I had no other choice but to rush here. With her rise approaching, the tensions between the camps higher than ever, and your friends… well. You need all the help you can get.” Her dark eyes brood far away even without mentioning them by name.

“That sums it up,” Percy says. “Want some ice cream?”

Her nose wrinkles in distaste. “No, thank you. We need to focus. Do you two have any idea what you’re looking for?”

“I can feel the catacombs of the city, and I have a vague idea of the underground layout, but nothing good enough to get us to the temple,” Hazel adds. “It’s like something’s blocking me.”

Percy chews his lip. “We were going to wait for you to show up and lead us to it. I’m going to be honest, we’re lost. Like you said, we need your help.”

He expected her to look smug at his admittance of defeat but she only nods. She narrows her eyes, contemplating, as she surveys the town. “It’s as I saw,” Before he can press her for questions she continues, “Another dream I had. Nico. He came here when he was young, with his family.”

Percy tries not to show his surprise. He forgets, there’s still so much about Nico he doesn’t know. So much he refuses to share. Reyna’s eyes drift again and she traces a path across the stony street, lost in those memories. It’s far from his right, but he feels jealous anyway. Even more than Hazel, who’s eyes widen a bit at the information, and then pass over them both without comment.

“How well do you know Nico?” Percy asks, snapping her from her daze.

She frowns. “I met him a few months… no, a year? Some time before Hazel came to the camp. He came to us, by his father, as an ambassador to Pluto. He was distant. Slow to trust. We did--we do get along. Why do you care, Percy?” Reyna’s face is calm, but her eyes betray frustration and annoyance. “If you’re so concerned about Nico’s relationships, you can ask him when he returns. Maybe work on your own connection to him.”

Percy holds his ground. “I didn’t ask for your opinion. I was just making conversation.” They stand there in tense silence until she stalks off into an alley. Hazel gives him a long look, a hopeless shrug, and trails after Reyna.

He hates to stick Hazel in the middle of his feud with Reyna. He didn’t even intend for it to become that. He and Reyna respect and trust each other, truly, but there’s always something about her that makes him feel guilty. That, and her friendship with Nico, Nico’s deception, his odd behavior… Everything is jumbled and angry inside of him. He can’t pin down what he’s feeling anymore than he can pin down a word on a page. So he gives up and takes after Hazel.

Reyna leads them down the alley that mortals can’t quite pinpoint and into an old, dark, decrepit tomb. It’s full of broken statues and busts of Greek myths. The aged brick walls, coated in moss and mold, close in on them in a way that makes the three claustrophobic.

That’s where he is, leaning against one of the old busts, in a red tank top and bermuda shorts, jagged bronze sword at his hip. The ice cream vendor from earlier. A pair of wings flutter on his shoulder blades. “Son of Poseidon, daughters of Pluto and Bellona. Welcome to the tomb of Diocletian.”

Reyna reaches for her sword. “Favonius, I presume.”

He smiles, dark curls bouncing around his handsome face. “You are correct. Perfect deduction.”

“Who?” Percy questions.

“I am Favonius, god of the West Wind. Or, if you prefer, Zephyros for the Greeks. At your service.” He seems relaxed and kind. Percy is slow to let his guard down, but he reasons that if Favonius wanted to hurt them, he could have taken advantage when they first entered the city. He must have noticed, too, and chose a pacifist path; Hazel and Percy weren’t presences that were easily ignored. “If you’re here for the scepter, I’m afraid I won’t be able to help you with that. It’s no longer here and neither is Diocletian’s spirit. The scepter is in the possession of my master.”

Percy’s gaze linger on the god’s wings. “Who’s your master? Aeolus?”

“That airhead?” Favonius snorted. “No, of course not.”

Reyna snaps her fingers, eyes widening in realization. “Eros, isn’t it?”

“Correct again, Reyna. Or, for our graecus friend, Cupid.” His wings flutter. “Of course, you have the upper hand. You’ve seen this all before, through another’s eyes.” As if relishing in the owner of those memories, he sighs wistfully. “What a fascinating demigod. I was so sure he would return to look upon my master’s face. Perhaps another day. So unfortunate...”

Percy, confused and a tad annoyed, interrupts Favonius’ reminiscing. “So, can you take us to Cupid, your master?”

“We don’t have much time,” Hazel adds. “Every second counts if we’re going to put a stop to her rise.”

“Of course. Your friends... your brother… How unfortunate,” he repeats, bemused, shaking his head. “And before you get too far, no, he’s not the baby with wings you’re expecting. He is… nothing like what any of you suspect.” The room becomes darker, more ominous at his words. But Favonius remains sunny as ever.

“Great! Can we hurry this up?” Percy demands, agitated.

Reyna nods in agreement. “We need the scepter.”

He rolls his eyes and snaps his fingers; their physical forms dissipate into the air. Favonius brings them as wind through the winding hills and vineyards past Split, past mountains, to a regal, abandoned temple far away. Diocletian’s birthplace, but long before that, Cupid’s domain.

Percy marvels at the cracked marble and dirty white stone as Favonius leads them through the temple. “I warn you… The scepter will come at a cost. Facing the god of Love is no small matter. He will demand the truth from you-- all of you.”

Percy snorts. Compared to everything he’s gone through as a demigod up to this point, this will be his easiest mission, bar none. “Oh no, I love Annabeth. You got me.” Hazel turns red and tries not to laugh. Reyna settles for rolling her eyes.

“It’s not that simple, Percy Jackson,” Favonius sighs. “ Love is not that simple. Love is complicated. Was it so easy to tell your Annabeth how you felt in the first place? How did that love strike you, when it found its way from the palpitations of your heart to coherent thought?” Percy falls quiet as the god chides him. To be fair, it wasn’t easy when he had a crush on Annabeth. Not knowing, not wanting to ruin their friendship, not wanting anyone to find out… The long nights, the hidden smiles, the affection he never dared to show because no one like Annabeth could feel the same way about someone like him. “It is not and will not ever be easy. A love that’s worth it rarely is and rarely lasts. Such trials are necessary for proper reward, daughter of Bellona.”

Reyna looks up with wide eyes when she’s addressed. She glares at Favonius’ wings when he turns back around, not bothering to reply to his callout. When no one answers him, he turns back around and continues to guide them through the winding temple. Favonius tells the story of his lost love, the struggle and anguish of heartbreak that he suffered, a cautionary tale for them all.

Percy keeps his eyes on the ground, occasionally glancing at Reyna while he listens to the story. She walks in stony silence, hands clenched, looking defeated. If Cupid’s forcing the truth out of any of them, it certainly won’t be himself or Hazel. Everyone knows where their love and loyalties lie.

That leaves Reyna. Inheriting Nico’s dreams, defending him, their tenuous connection… Maybe Reyna and Nico are closer than anyone knows. The thought makes him a little sick but he can’t discern why.

They reach a stone set of stairs leading to the top of the temple, blinding them with light. The West Wind god scrutinizes them one last time. “Think long and hard about how you proceed, demigods. You cannot lie to Cupid. If you let your anger rule you... well, your fate will be even sadder than mine.”

The wind blows across the decrepit rooftop. Cold, unforgiving. Crumbled pillars and stone litter the ruins. Besides the trio it’s empty, but a chill settles in Percy nonetheless. He uncaps Riptide and prepares himself for the worst. Reyna, too, draws her own blade. Hazel draws her dagger. “You guys feel that?” They both give curt nods.

Wind whistles by his ear. So, you have come to claim the scepter.

Percy spins around, trying to pinpoint the voice. “Cupid, where are you?”

Where you least expect me. As Love always is.

A powerful gust of wind knocks Percy off his feet and he hits the ground with a groan. He doesn’t know what hit him, but every sense in him screams danger . He gets to his feet and cuts at the air, closing in a circle with his companions. The wind whips harshly around them and they’re forced to split in different directions. A powerful slash through the air further damages a broken wall beside Reyna. She huffs, throwing her braid over her shoulder, goading, “Coward! Show yourself!”

You expect me to play fair? A rich laugh rolls over their ears. I am the god of Love. I am never fair.

Percy dodges another gust of wind threatening to blow him over. Hazel looks panicked, trying to find an escape from the invisible attacks. “Are we sure this guy is Love, not Death?” Percy grumbles.

You would know, son of Poseidon. A gentle breeze in his ear is all the warning he has before another attack. He rolls to the side as a force cuts through the stone where he just was. You and Hazel met my counterpart, Thatanos. We are not so different. Except Death is sometimes kinder.

“We just want the scepter,” Hazel pleads. “Give it to us and we’ll be out of your… wings. We need it to help defeat Gaea. Aren’t you on our side?”

Love is on every side. Both Reyna and Hazel dodge an attack, driven together by dodging blasts of harsh air. And no one’s side. Ask not what Love can do for you. Something flies at him, but this time, it isn’t just wind. Percy deflects an arrow with his sword, sending it skittering back across the arena.

“Just what we need. A greeting card,” Reyna groans. She shields Hazel with her arm from another arrow. “What does he want?”

Percy Jackson. Cupid’s smooth voice rolls out across the arena and targets him. You, of all demigods, know Love as a weapon.

Percy stills. His grip on Riptide tightens. “I don’t know what you mean,” he confesses.

Countless have pried for your Love, and you have used it as a tool to hurt.

“No!” he protests. “That’s… that’s not true! Just because I love Annabeth--”

SHE is not whom I speak of. You have left Love, abandoned, resentful, spitting it back in the face of those who offered.

A chill overcomes him. He remembers the heavy air that still settles between himself and Reyna. He remembers Calypso, silhouetted against the ocean, tears chilling her warm eyes as as she watched him go. Something else pricks at the edge of his mind, something he can’t place.

You twisted Love’s golden blade into their hearts. Another current of air sends him flying across the ground into one of the pillars.

“Percy!” Hazel and Reyna cry out.

Because of this, you understand Love more than most, Percy Jackson. Its weight. Its sacrifice.

He remembers leaving his mother in the underworld, not yet a teenager, knowing he couldn’t hang onto or protect the person he loved most in the world. The landscape changes. A burgundy mist settles over them. Percy coughs, already winded, and struggles to breathe through the illusion.

Love is the power to move mountains, empty oceans, twist shadows into light… How much of its heavy burden can you bear upon your back?

A figure appears in the red smog. Percy inches closer, tightening the grip on his sword.

How deep will you let it sink you?

He remembers the muskeg in Alaska and tries not to choke. Where are Hazel and Reyna? All he can see is red. “Hazel--” he calls weakly. He hears her whimper back somewhere behind him. “We need to figure out a way to dispel this mist,” he coughs. He backs up, reaching with his free hand for hers. They end up back to back and he can feel her trembling. “Hazel. Can you?”

“I--”

Love is not some magic you can undo, Hazel Levesque. It saves, ruins, lives. Hazel’s hand is so cold, so lifeless in his. Percy squeezes it for support. You, your parents, your only friend… and now your brother

“Don’t listen to him, Hazel,” Percy warns. “He’s just trying to rile us up.” The figure in the mist becomes clearer, trudging towards Percy. He perceives it as a threat; it must be Cupid, showing himself at last. Percy lunges forward and his sword stops shy of Nico di Angelo’s emaciated ribs.

His face is bloodied and dirty. He looks more like a walking skeleton than ever before. Hazel gasps, her eyes wide, quick to fill with tears. He sways as he stands, too weak to stay still. Cupid’s voice echoes with Nico’s across the rooftop.

“You know why I can’t hate him?”

Percy chokes back a confused sob, sword falling to his side. Hazel starts to turn but Percy shields her from the illusion, knowing it will only upset her. Percy can barely stand. Poor children of Hades. You give and give, and Death is not what takes--it is Love that steals from you. Air from your lungs and warmth from your heart and loving hands from your own.

“Stop it,” Hazel grits out. Her dagger clatters to the ground and she sinks to her knees, head in her hands. The ground begins to tremble. The mist grows thicker around them and Nico becomes harder to see. Hazel’s hands are clenched and she’s concentrating, trying to form some sort of bubble around them in Cupid’s chaos.

Percy looks around wildly, trying to figure out where Cupid’s voice is coming from, and trying to place Reyna’s location in the fog. “Reyna…”

Love has buried you once--it will bury you again.

Gemstones scatter beneath her feet and Hazel doubles over. “Hazel, hang on!” he cries. The illusion of Nico stands before her, bloody and ghostly, while she hangs her head in her hands. When Percy lays a hand on Hazel’s shoulder she gasps, recoiling from the burn.

Don’t touch me.” The ground shakes beneath them. Cracks web their way under his feet.

“Hazel, what’s wrong?” he asks. She only groans. The arena trembles. “Reyna!” He searches through red for the praetor. He hears her yell back faintly and sees a figure making its way towards them. “Reyna, help, she’s--”

A fissure cracks open beneath Percy’s feet. Then Reyna’s there, pulling him to one side, away from the green smoke and skeletons that storm out. Hazel still sits on the ground with her head clutched in her hands, shaking heavily. Will you hide among the dead with him?

Hazel releases a low groan that turns to a scream. She stares at Nico, eyes wide and unfocused and. Percy knows that look. It’s how dizzy and out of it she was during her flashbacks on the quest to Alaska. She’s not seeing Cupid, the red mist, or Percy and Reyna reaching for her. She reaches a hand towards the illusion of her brother and everything clicks into place.

Percy realizes she’s seeing Nico in Tartarus.

“Cupid, let go of her!” Percy roars. He slices through the skeletons with ease and stands strong against a powerful wind. More and more crawl from the fissure and a scream sticks in Hazel’s throat. He fights that much harder, bones clattering on the ground, bringing more green smoke. “You can’t--”

Reyna lunges forward and slices through Nico. The illusion disappears and they both try to ignore Hazel’s distressed cry. “Stop these tricks,” she demands, calling to Cupid somewhere in the sky. “I thought you were a proprietor of truth, of what’s real!”

I told you, all’s fair in Love and War, daughter of Bellona. You aren’t so naive to think otherwise.

“I didn’t come here for a lecture,” she snaps. She sounds so sure and strong it gives Percy courage to stand a little taller.

“We came here for Diocletian’s scepter,” Percy repeats, imploring. He kneels beside Hazel but doesn’t touch her, trying to get her attention by waving a hand in her face. He’s afraid to hurt her. “Hazel, can you hear me? Hazel, please…”

Only a child of the Underworld can wield the scepter, with a praetor of Rome to lead it.

Reyna grits her teeth. “Stop wasting our time. Hazel and I are more than capable--”

YOU ARE STILL HIDING. YOU ARE EMPTY.

Arrows begin to fly again and Reyna dives aside. Percy has no choice but to drag Hazel away; she remains unresponsive, golden eyes stuck open. The praetor gasps, each breath a hard won victory. She looks so pained. Percy wants nothing more than to help her, but he doesn’t know how.

But that absence you feel is not one Love can fill, daughter of Bellona. That emptiness is Love, its greatest depths, its darkest chasms. You refuse to fall. You cannot accept that which you offer so readily. That, which you’re so afraid of.

“You don’t scare me!” Reyna yells. She’s trying so hard to convince herself, but the anger in her voice doesn’t reach her eyes. Percy tries again to get close to her but the wind knocks him and Hazel backward.

I scare you very much. Face me. Be honest. The illusion of Nico appears behind her again, dark hair blowing in the wind. Will you keep the truth hidden at any cost? At the cost of everything you’ve strived to protect?

The real reason I did it…” His voice is so soft and weak, but the wind quiets to a breeze so his voice can echo across the arena. Onyx and jade clash and Percy’s heart stops.

Reyna lets loose a scream and swings at his form. She cuts through him but he appears behind her again, and again, and again, getting louder and louder each time, his words coming together a little bit more.

“Stop it!” Hazel exclaims suddenly. The mist warps sadly around her fingers. She takes a step and starts falling forward. Percy quickly reaches out and holds her upright. Much to his distress, she’s cold and shaking, but she seems to be back in the present. “Reyna, please… Stop…”

She grips her sword tight. It’s stopped at Nico’s pale neck. Those empty eyes lock with Percy and he feels like he’s been run through with the praetor’s sword himself.

Do you have the strength?

Reyna’s shoulders slowly drop. In the miniscule movement of her shoulder muscles, Percy watches all fight leave her. He watches her give in. Make the decision to give in for them.

“I couldn’t admit it to anyone,” she whispers. “Not you. Jason was--No one at camp could understand. It… It wasn’t important, it didn’t matter. I am a leader. I had--have everything to uphold… everything to lose, over and over, again and again… I couldn’t risk that.”

A wave of emotions rolls over him, Cupid’s influence infecting them all. He can see her, now, back on the island with Circe’s attendants, making Annabeth into something else with a dark flush hidden on her face. Feeling unnatural, wrong, damaged, and it has nothing to do with being a demigod. That’s something that makes sense, something she can reason with, something she can use to become powerful. Push out her sister, because if she loses her support, there’s no point in anything anymore. Then she’s trying to get close to Percy, trying to throw herself into how it’s supposed to be, how everyone has always told her it’s supposed to be. Then she sees those gray eyes at New Rome and it breaks her heart all over again. She’s stuck. Trying to sort out what she actually feels. Trying to avoid all sorts of suspicion from prying eyes and dangerous, mouthy augurs.

“It was turned against me,” she spat. “Nothing celebrated, nothing important… just the notion is leverage enough to take away everything I’ve built for myself and my people. To keep us safe.” Her voice chokes and she bites into her hand, breathing hard. The illusion of Nico begins to fade, replaced with a young man dressed in white, wings flat against his back, a golden sling of arrows over his shoulder. A bow rests sturdy in his hand.

After an agonizing silence, she meets his eyes with fire in her voice, “I... had a crush on Annabeth. That’s the truth. Are you happy now?”

Percy swallows.

"Oh, I wouldn't say Love always makes you happy. Sometimes it makes you incredibly sad.” His gaze softens as he takes in her sad, proud form. “But at least you've all faced it now. That's the only way to conquer me.”

He hands over the scepter and disappears with the wind. Reyna clenches and unclenches her trembling fists around the handle. Her sword lays forgotten at her feet.

Hazel is the first to move. Percy lets her go but keeps close behind her weakened steps. She approaches Reyna and takes the scepter, expression unreadable. The praetor flinches at her touch. “I’m sorry you had to do that, Reyna,” she says quietly.

Reyna shakes her head. “It was necessary for the mission.” She brushed off the grief of the death of her pegasus much as she brushes off her own grief now. It’s so reminiscent of Nico and Percy hates to think that, but he can’t help it, and his heart aches for them both.

Percy stands and moves beside her. He wants to hug her, wants to apologize, but doesn’t know how well she would receive him. He’s floored. He’s confused. An all too familiar guilt grabs hold of him. “Still. You shouldn’t have had to tell us like that. It’s not fair.” Reyna looks as though she’s going to throw up. “And for the record, everyone would accept you if you chose to tell them. What you did just now was incredibly brave.”

Reyna looks almost fearfully towards Hazel, who nods in agreement. She takes the scepter, heavy in her hands, and nods towards where they came in. “Let’s get out of here and back to the ship. You’ve had a really long day.”

“So have you.” A long, tense silence. “… Please don’t mention this to anyone,” Reyna says, skittish gaze darting to and from both demigods even as she stands tall. “Either of you.”

“We won’t,” Percy affirms. “But I meant what I said. Camp Jupiter would accept you. I can imagine they’d think even higher of you. And if not, well… I’d be more than willing to chat with whoever disagrees.”

Reyna manages the smallest, saddest smile that Percy thinks he’s ever seen anyone give.

Hazel groans quietly and draws their attention. “Hazel, you okay?” he asks. Her fists are clenched and face grim.

She manages to shake her head. She rubs the inside of her left wrist and lets loose a sigh. Whatever she’s feeling, whatever she saw, is something she can’t bring herself to say. “I think… he... I’m very tired. Let’s just get back to the ship.” She starts down the stairs without another word.

Percy pauses atop the steps, unable to follow. His thoughts are full, memories and old guilt resurfacing. He feels like he’s let Hazel down somehow, here. Maybe it has to do with the fact that he let Nico down so badly. When Hera, Juno, took his memories, he forgot that he’s a screw-up at heart. But now it hits him again full force. He doesn’t know how anyone, especially Annabeth, can and want to put up with him.

Reyna stops beside him. “I’m sorry I was cold to you earlier. I have better judgement than that.” Her voice is gentle, as though he’s a wounded animal. As if Cupid didn’t just tear her apart and dredge up her past from its secure grave.

He scratches the back of his neck. “I get it. We just need to move forward.” He feels like a moron now. “You know, part of it was… I don’t know, I... almost thought there might be something going on between you and Nico. Before all this.”

Reyna barks out a laugh. “I knew you were funny, Percy, but I didn’t give you enough credit.” He flushes dark red. She places a hand on his shoulder and lowers her voice. “I don’t feel that way anymore, for Annabeth. It made me anxious around you. I was… worried, about how this might impede our friendship.”

Percy notices how subtly she switches the topic away from Nico and tries to let it go too. He reaches for some more humor to lighten her mood. “It’s okay. I know how tough it is. I mean, it’s kinda hard not to have a crush on Annabeth.”

She’s able to roll her eyes and all tension releases between them, relief rolling in. “You aren’t wrong.” His unease is not about Reyna anymore, but Percy still feels off. As if sensing his discomfort, she peers closer, dark eyes reading his own for emotion. “There’s something else bothering you.”

He tries to come up with a feasible lie, but he can’t ward off her seeking, honest gaze. Percy offers a bitter laugh. “Guess Cupid said it well enough.”

“Something painful had to happen here,” Reyna says after a long silence. “I’d rather it happen to me than… well.” Percy. Hazel. Nico. “ Anyone else. And for the record, I believe that Cupid exaggerated some of your faults. Brutal honesty is just that: brutal. Truth gets lost in anger. Don’t let it get to you.”

Hazel calls them over, hoping to try and shadow travel them back to the ship. Percy’s eyes linger where the illusion of Nico stood in the middle of the arena. He wonders what he would have said if Reyna hadn’t stopped him.

Percy isn’t sure if he wants to know.

Chapter Text

Piper wakes up on the beach, all her muscles aching. She tries to get to her feet and groans at the strain it causes her. She gives up and flops back onto the sand. The tide tickles her feet, the rising sun casting a warm, pink glow over the waves. The daughter of Aphrodite closes her eyes and tries to remember just how she ended up here.

After Hazel, Percy, and Reyna returned from Split, none of them were in much of a talking mood. She wanted to confide in Leo her vision of the prophecy, something that occurred to her alone with katoptris.

It made sense that Leo and Jason were fire and storm, respectively. She knew the three of them had to finish what they started with their first quest and defeat Gaea; back when it was smooth sailing atop Festus’ bronze hide, her best friend and boyfriend and herself against the world. Strange, how her father being in mortal danger was the easiest time Piper had as a demigod.

She was still worrying over the logistics of the ‘fall’. Prophecies are too interpretative for a reason. It drives heroes mad on their quests. They get lost in the what-ifs, lose sight of their mission, and fall on those sharp words.

She wanted Leo’s company but he kept avoiding her eye. He had been for a while, actually, especially after the eidolon possessed him in New Rome. He was always skittish, but his isolation got worse and worse. She could feel his hesitant heart. Hesitant to open up, to accept their acceptance. He was powerful and he didn’t want to hurt anyone.

We already suffer from your cooking, so I think we’ll be all right,” Jason always joked. Then Leo would get red and push him and Piper would laugh. She loved her boys. Loved Leo and loved Jason. 

Sort of. No, she did, very much. But that was still a complicated matter.

She walked up on deck shivering, looking for Leo, but her eyes fell on Reyna first. The praetor leaned over the edge of the deck, her dark braid falling over her broad shoulder. She seemed incredibly tired. She hadn’t talked to anyone since she got on board, apart from a few words with Percy. He seemed the only one she was comfortable talking with. She was even avoiding Annabeth, who seemed to be the only one able to ever get through to her.

She seemed so cold and alone. Piper wanted to help, somehow. She could feel her cracked heart. After all, Jason was her friend first. She risked everything to cross the Atlantic and help them. Her leadership, her people… Piper could risk a little discomfort to at least thank her. So she swallowed her fear and approached.

“How are you holding up?” Piper asked quietly.

Reyna blinked snowflakes from her black eyes. She glanced quickly at Piper, perhaps expecting her to run off. But after a tense pause, she unwound enough to reply, “Fine.”

Piper fiddled with the hem of her shirt. “I, uh… wanted to thank you. For coming to help us.”

“It’s as much for the safety of my camp as it is yours,” Reyna replied coolly. “But you’re welcome.” She rapped her knuckles against the weathered wood of the Argo II. Her gaze was fixated on the stormy sea below. “Are you worried about Jason?”

The question caught her off guard. It wasn’t a challenge for his affections. It was cautious, timid. She was trying to engage. “Yeah, pretty worried. He can take care of himself, but… Still.” Piper rubbed her wrists. She tries to give back and asks, “Are you?”

To her surprise, there was no gap in her answer. “Yes. More worried for Nico, perhaps, but still. Worried for him.” Reyna gauged her for a reaction. The cold wasn’t what made Piper shiver; those dark eyes pierced her very heart.

“I’m not jealous,” she blurt. “Of you and Jason.” She would have felt that as soon as she first set sights on her in New Rome. Piper couldn’t sense names or specific thoughts, but she could feel things. The swell of blue that rose in Annabeth’s chest whenever she talked about Percy while he was missing. She felt Reyna’s fondness for Jason when they landed, of course, but it wasn’t a romantic one. It was a longing for his companionship. He was her partner and Hera snatched him up, erased his memories. And erased Reyna and Jason from each other’s lives. “And I’m not mad at you either, or anything like that. I… He was your best friend. You must miss him.”

Reyna blinked slowly. “I do,” she finally said, and seemed surprised by her own ability to answer. Her face softened and she looked to speak again when someone budged against Piper’s side.

“Chilling out?” Leo grinned. Piper rolled her eyes and lightly punched his shoulder. At least he seemed back to his more jovial self. She turned back to Reyna only to watch her leave, cape billowing in the winter winds. She spared her a glance before she went below deck.

Things get muddled after the thought of Reyna’s smile.

The cold raged on. The snowy climate was unusual around the Mediterranean and they weren’t sure what was causing it. Leo made a fire in his hands to warm them both. They sat on the deck, shivering and talking to themselves, with Annabeth at the helm. The cold intensified and she heard the wicked laugh of Khione. The ship lurched. Her instincts took over. She pushed Leo aside and something struck her--she flew, so far off the boat--she was still flying, and Jason wasn’t there to catch her--

Before she hit the ground, she woke up on the beach.

“Great,” she groans, smothering her face in her arm. Tears of frustration prick her eyes. “This is just perfect. Stuck in the middle of nowhere on a beach while everyone else is fighting for their lives.” It makes sense for her to land somewhere so beautiful and empty.

Soft footsteps tap against the sand. Judging by the weight, it’s no monster to worry about. Maybe it’s a stranded mortal. Piper looks up to see a beautiful girl leaning over her. Her skin is dark, and her hair falls over her shoulders, a deep hue of honey. Her eyes are a rich autumn brown that make her stomach do little flips. She’s intimidated and a teensy bit attracted. “You… aren’t who I was expecting.” The girl frowns and tucks some hair behind her ear.

“Expecting?” Piper questions.

She glares at the sky, and Piper can only assume the gods have something to do with this island predicament. “I can’t believe this.”

“Where exactly am I?” Piper asks. “And how do I get out of here? No offense, it’s a lovely island--”

“This is my home. Ogygia,” the girl supplies. She’s studying Piper, criticizing and concentrating. Like she can’t believe that out of anyone who could have washed up on this beach that Piper has. “You can’t leave.”

“What do you mean?” She scratches at her uneven bangs and laughs, nervous and high. “I can’t stay here, my friends are in danger!”

“There’s nothing to do but wait,” she says with a shrug. “I think… your being here is a mistake. Maybe they’ll take you back.”

“I didn’t come here of my own free will. I wasn’t sent here. I got knocked out of the sky!” Piper can’t quite breathe. Her friends are in mortal danger and she’s here arguing with a beautiful stranger. She doesn’t have time for any of this. “How do I get out of here?” she asks again. “There has to be a way off this island.”

The girl crosses her arms. “If there was, do you think I would still be here?”

“Isn’t this your home?”

She lets her eyes drift to the tall, grassy plains further off the beach. “Look, there’s nothing either of us can do. Unless a raft comes, and I doubt that will happen…” She crosses her arms into an intense knot, one Piper almost wishes to unfurl. “Unbelievable. Is this your idea of a joke, Hermes? Zeus? Answer me!” The sky remains silent. She stamps her foot hard against the sand and wanders further off into the island.

Piper can either sit and mope on the beach or charge after her for answers. Perhaps a better understanding of this place can help her discover a way to get off the island. So she runs after the pretty girl.

“Where even is this place?” Piper demands when she catches up.

“I couldn’t tell you even if I wanted to.”

“How long have you been here?”

“A few thousand years.”

“Why am I here?” She just laughs, irritating Piper. “You can at least tell me that. Whether or not I’m supposed to be here, I am here, and I can’t leave unless you help me.”

“I know that.” She wraps herself up in her arms, the island breeze making her shiver. “My name is Calypso.” A snippet of the familiar rushes back, filling Piper’s head with guilt and mouth with lead. “I was trapped here for aiding my father, Atlas, in a war against the gods… And now I’m cursed. I can’t leave. My only company are heroes that wash up on the island. Heroes I can’t help helping. Heroes I can’t help... falling for. And then they leave.”

Calypso looks Piper’s age but her brown eyes are older than anything, full of millenia of torment and splintered love. A great ache of sympathy pains her. “It must be a mistake, then,” Piper says.

They hold each other’s gaze for a long time before Piper finally breaks it, running back off to the beach where she crashed, trying to sort this out.

An island where heroes wash up… Maybe the island of washed-up heroes, now, Piper thinks darkly. She can’t help it. Out of everyone in her group, she can’t help feeling useless. Even Annabeth, who doesn’t have insane elemental powers, shapeshifting, or some great control of the dead, is one of the most capable demigods that Piper’s ever met. Piper’s supposed to be the glue that holds everyone together, but can’t help feeling that her friends are better off without her.

Her hand flies to her side where katoptris is slung. The blade is blank and cold. She stabs it into the sand, groaning with frustration. She can’t accept that the only thing to do is wait for her friends to rescue her. There has to be something she can do.

She spends the rest of the day scouting the island for anything useful and avoiding Calypso’s eye. She’s an intruder in her home--it’s a prison, but it’s still her home, she knows she’s trespassing--and doesn’t want to cause her any more trouble than she already has. She doesn’t find anything, and even if she did, how could she reason it into something useful? She’s picked up some engineering tips from Annabeth and Leo, but nothing practical enough to apply to her situation.

She spends the night on the beach praying and falls asleep with her dagger clutched tightly in her hands.

The next day, she calls to the ocean with her charmspeak. She coaxes the waves to part, to bring a raft swimming to shore, to return her to her friends. She wills katoptris to grant her a vision, a glimpse of something, anything, but it remains cloudy.

The sun begins to set and she sinks her blade into the sand. She can’t do anything for her friends. For Jason trapped in Tartarus. She can’t even rescue herself. But still, she can’t give up. Piper refuses her own failure. She won’t let anything stand in her way of returning home. Even if she dies on this beach in her old age, still trying to charm the ocean into summoning the raft, she won’t relent.

“You haven’t eaten since you got here,” Calypso says. She approaches Piper with a wary eye and a tray in hand. “Don’t worry, there’s no meat in it.”

Piper stares at the chilli, trying to downplay her rumbling stomach. She hasn’t talked to Calypso since that first day. She doesn’t want to give her any painful reminders of the past. She can feel Calypso’s heavy heart in every step, every glance, every strand of hair that strays from behind her ear.

“Thank you,” she says, all but snatching the tray. She doesn’t bother to ask how Calypso knows she’s vegetarian. The chili is hearty and warm. The lemonade she washes it down with is even better. Calypso gives her an amused glance. “Chilli is not the most graceful food, if you’ll forgive my table manners,” Piper says unapologetically, licking her fingers for every last drop of the meal.

Calypso suddenly laughs, a sweet, beautiful sound that rings in Piper’s ears. She tries to convince herself the heat rushing to her cheeks is chili steam.

Calypso, surprised at her own openness, folds back into herself. “You’re a child of Aphrodite,” she accuses after a long pause.

Piper wonders how obvious it is. But, she reasons, Calypso is a god. This isn’t beyond her realm of knowledge. Still, she can imagine that Calypso can’t be fond of her mother. Whether or not she was directly involved in Calypso’s imprisonment, those jaded by love tend to hold a grudge. The chilli she ate so ravenously turns into a rock in her stomach. Tension laces the island air. “Yep,” is all she can say.

She takes the empty tray from Piper, clenching the wooden board tight in her dainty hands. “You don’t seem like her.”

Piper isn’t sure whether to take her statement as an insult or a compliment. “I’ll admit, I’m not the most conventional daughter of Aphrodite… but my mom and my siblings get a bad rep.” Her heart aches for Camp Half-Blood. She grew very close with her cabin. Her own siblings didn’t even give themselves a chance, playing into the stereotypes and rumors everyone ascribed to them. She hated those assumptions, those falsehoods that plagued them. She fought hard for her own acceptance, and she wasn’t going to let her godly or mortal family suffer intolerance.

“Perhaps,” Calypso murmurs. Her voice is soft and if Piper concentrates, she thinks she can catch a whiff of cinnamon rolling off her. “Perhaps you’re right.”

She leaves Piper alone with her thoughts on the beach. But she keeps bringing her food consistently. Piper spends hours at the beach every day, sparring with trees to maintain her strength, trying to charm the ocean, coax the raft out of the horizon, or build something out of the few materials she found on the island. One morning she wakes up with a blanket around her and draws into herself, grateful for the comfort. The island nights are cold and lonely, but having a friend helps. She likes to think that she and Calypso are at least on their way to that denomination.

They grow closer. Calypso shows Piper her magical looms and teaches her to weave. And with a little instruction, Calypso is very handy with a blade. Piper can admire a girl like that. Hard-working, calloused hands, determined against impossible odds. Glances meet, fingers brush, and they skirt around something warm bubbling between them. She’s glad for the company despite the situation. If everyone else wasn’t in such horrible danger, Piper wouldn’t mind staying.

They set into a comfortable routine. Piper spends all day trying to get off the island. Calypso makes her take breaks and appreciate the beauty that surrounds them, even when her eyes scream for something grander, larger, more. So Piper shares everything she can about the outside world. Her dad’s dorky movies and chilling folklore. The quest she went on with Jason and Leo, and Calypso looks sad to hear those names, but she reassures Piper’s quivering lip at the mention of them with a gentle smile.

She takes Piper’s hand while they watch a sunset one night and Jason weighs heavy on her mind. She doesn’t want to buy into the island’s influence, into what’s bubbling in her lungs, what’s fluttering in her stomach every time Calypso looks at her. She’s had enough of circumstantial romance.

But even then Piper can’t help falling for someone so beautiful and kind. It feels natural, getting to know her. Really understanding someone. It feels right.

Worst of all, it doesn’t feel like Jason.

She doesn’t know how many weeks have passed when she finally kicks off her sneakers, hikes up her jeans and wades into the water. She can only cling to the hope that time has passed much slower outside the sphere of Ogygia. Her toes wriggle around in the wet sand and smooth rocks. “Part,” Piper says to the water. It ripples around her feet, moving away from her and creating a small well. “Part,” she insists, letting her voice roll mellifluous with waves and push the tide away.

The water continues to part in a line. Wherever she steps, it recedes, centuries old rocks and gems. Her heart aches, thinking of Hazel. She can’t leave her behind. She thinks of Leo, her best friend from before demigod chaos engulfed their lives. She can’t let him down. She thinks of Jason and his noble intentions trapped in Tartarus. She loves him.

Part,” she commands. The water at her sides smack an invisible wall, creating a thin path of sand and rock for her to walk. She does. She takes careful steps toward the sun lingering on the horizon. Beyond the water, beyond this island, her friends wait for her. The world crumbles around them. She can’t leave them--she can’t be left behind.

Piper walks a long time, further and further through the ocean, continuing her instruction of the waves. She lets thoughts of her friends fill her. Thoughts of Jason. His warmth, his leadership, his beautiful eyes. But there’s a quaver in her voice that stills the water.

Confused, she forces herself to remain calm and repeats, “Part.”

The ocean hangs suspended around and above her. No one could cause this doubt in her charmspeak except herself. “Move aside!” she pleads. “Part!”

Droplets begin to fall. It’s raining, soft, slow. She cannot keep the water at bay for much longer. Eyes appear beneath her feet and she hears Gaea’s laugh echo in her head.

DID YOU THINK YOU COULD ESCAPE ME THAT EASILY?

Piper turns and runs back down the path. The sharp rocks cut her bare feet. Gaea taunts her. She stumbles. When she stands again, she sees a figure at the start of the water.

Calypso stands at the edge of the beach staring at Piper. Slowly, she reaches her hand out.

Piper runs to her. The water begins to crash around her, falling in chunks, waking up from the spell she cast. The sand rises beneath her. Gaea’s voice becomes louder. “This is my home,” Calypso bellows to the earth goddess. “You are not welcome here.” The ocean plummets down on her with full force, she thinks she hears screams, and the last thing she sees before blackness are Calypso’s brown eyes.

She wakes up again on the beach. Stars stretch across the night sky for miles and miles. Their gentle twinkling give her a sense of peace. She can pretend this is the wilderness she loves. She can pretend she’s safe with her family and friends. She can pretend.

But Piper remembers herself with a great start and springs up. The ocean sits calmly in front of her, no animosity between her and the edge of the beach. Her hair is damp and clings to her forehead. She’s wrapped in a blanket and dry clothes she doesn’t recognize--a linen dress shirt draped over a comfortable olive green tee and dark sweatpants. The night is not so cold. A few feet away from her lies a fire. Calypso sits with her back to Piper, warming her hands.

“Calypso?” Her voice is no more than a whisper.

She turns, relief flooding into her worried features. She reigns herself in and Piper tries not to wince. “Piper,” she struggles not to let emotion seep into her voice. “I’m glad you’re awake.”

Her focus drifts to the ocean ahead of them. “I thought I was going to drown. And Gaea...”

“You would’ve. I made sure you didn’t. And Gaea is gone. She is not welcome here.” The ghost of a smile flickers in the firelight. “It would be much more annoying to deal with a dead hero than an alive one.” That word again, hero, making her stick out on the island even more.

“What happened to my other clothes?”

The red glow suddenly dotting her cheeks has nothing to do with the fire. “I changed them out for some new ones I made. You would have gotten sick if you kept those cold, wet rags on.”

It’s Piper’s turn to blush. “Made them? When?” she asks. She scoots closer, keeping the blanket on her shoulders. It’s soft, a rich, knitted magenta that makes Piper homesick. They haven't spent much time apart for her to sneak that past Piper. She imagines Calypso at her loom in the dark hours of night, weaving by the moonlight.

“I meant to give them to you earlier as a gift.”

“Thank you,” Piper smiles and tries to catch her eye. “How long was I out?”

“I’m not sure. Time is… difficult, here.” Her brow creases with a frown. “A few hours, at least.”

Silence befalls them. Piper tries to think of something to say. After a while she gives up and lets her head fall against her knees. She can still hear Gaea in her head, triggering doubts and fears she thought were laid to rest. “I’m never going to get off this island, am I?” Calypso shifts uncomfortable next to her. “I’m sorry. I just…”

“It’s all right. No one that comes to me ever stays. I’m used to it.”

“You shouldn’t be.” Piper’s fists clench. She’s reminded of Hera stealing everything about Jason that makes him Jason and his fight to regain an identity neither of them can fathom. The gods have no right to toy with their lives like this. Even Calypso’s. “It’s not fair.”

“I made a mistake. I was punished for it.”

“Still. Love should not be used as a weapon.”

The goddess brushes her hair over her shoulder. Piper admires the way it traces the curve of her back. “It’s the nature of my curse. I’ve dealt with this for thousands of years. What’s another year? Another ten? Another hundred?” Her hands curl into the sand, slipping the fine grains under her nails. “The last hero that was here promised to get me off this island. He swore he was going to talk to the gods on Olympus. I know he tried. I’m still here. But...” A fond smile tugs her lips and tears fill in the edges of her eyes. “I almost believed him.”

She can feel Calypso’s heart ache like the pulse beating against her own wrist. The way the affection swells in her chest--warm, big, blue like the ocean, is too familiar for comfort. The gods must have disregarded Percy’s word as soon as he left Olympus. Some choice insults bounce around in her head and she stores them away for later. Surely, her mother can’t have approved of this.

The brunette takes a slow breath. “Would it help to talk about them?” She draws an arm around Calypso, slowly, giving her enough room to retreat. “I know that sometimes it helps me to talk through a breakup.” Breakup seems too frivolous of a word for it, but Calypso chuckles.

She leans her head on Piper’s shoulder. Her heart starts drumming. “I’ve lamented enough. It would take too long.”

Piper gives a gentle shrug. “We have plenty of time.”

Calypso eventually gives way and speaks. Piper absorbs her heart, her aches and pains, her greatest joys. While the stars trace patterns in the sky, Calypso gives Piper the millennia of heartbreaks that she’s suffered. She can feel her mother’s influence washing over her and, in turn, her new friend. It calms her when she threatens to cry again, it soothes her when her bottom lip trembles.

“I thought your being here was a joke by the gods,” she said at long last. “A child of Aphrodite… I assumed you were trapped here to mock me. But I was wrong, Piper. You may be just what I needed.” She looks at Piper and her heart swells with affection. The heat of the firelight seems cold compared to Calypso’s caring gaze.

“Well, I’m glad I could help. I thought it was a joke, too. But not because of my mom. It was the whole hero thing.” She scratches her arm, her focus drifting to her feet in the sand.

Calypso removes herself from under Piper’s arm and leans back on her hands, examining the girl. “Why?”

Piper rolls her eyes. “I mean, isn’t it obvious? I’m not exactly hero material.”

“Ah, but looks can be deceiving, can’t they?” The goddess playfully jabs her side. “You said children of Aphrodite are already harshly judged. And now you’re underestimating yourself. You’re your own worst critic.”

She draws her knees to her chest. Calypso isn’t wrong. Piper’s hardest on herself. But, she reasons, there’s too many reasons for her not to feel that way. She knows she’s meant to keep their group together, but everyone can manage fine on their own without her anyway. She isn’t heroic like Percy, funny like Leo, smart like Annabeth, powerful like Hazel, kind like Frank…

Or anything that might be worthy to hold Jason’s hand.

“You’re crying.”

Startled, Piper blinks the tears from her eyes. Gods, she misses her friends so badly. She’s let them down. Maybe the world has already ended while Piper’s been stuck here in her own vanity. “Oh, sorry… I didn’t mean…”

“Maybe you need to talk,” Calypso suggests gently. She takes Piper’s hand.

Piper doesn’t know where to start. The more she tries to talk, the more tears choke her words. She struggles to find her breath. Calypso sits there and holds her until she’s finally ready. “Well… I just, I’m not anything my friends are. That kinda sucks. But I think the worst thing is I’m not good enough for the person I care about. In fact, I don’t think I care about them like I’m even supposed to,” she wipes her open clammy palm on the beach, wrapping up grains of sand tightly in her fist. She manages a hollow chuckle, “I shouldn’t be complaining to you about relationships.”

“But it helps to talk to someone.” She gives a knowing, playful smile that Piper can’t return. And even though there’s pain in her eyes to hear about someone else in Piper’s life, someone that she loves, she can see Calypso put it aside for her friend’s sake. That only increases her affection for the goddess.

A long silence passes between them. “And I know he doesn’t love me. It’s okay that he doesn’t, and I knew it wouldn’t work… I could always feel it, you know? That there was something else holding him back, someone else…” She remembers their battle against the giants. The aftermath. “And it wasn’t fair for either of us when he was leaving behind that life, that person, for me. And I know the exact moment when he--” Jason’s heart was broken open in seconds and Piper’s own just broke. And all she could do was stand there. She buries her head in her hands, trembling as Calypso rubs soothing circles on her back. “This is the only thing I’m supposed to be good at, my relationship, love, is just a mess. I think the gods should be banned from meddling in anyone’s love lives.”

“Not to feed your gigantic ego,” Calypso starts jokingly, “but I think you’re right.” Her fingers untangle Piper’s drying hair, and when they grace her neck, she shivers. When her sadness subsides, Calypso speaks again, “It’s funny. When you say you aren’t a hero, I see you willing to give up what makes you happy for that person’s sake. You think you’re weak even though you’re fighting twice as hard as anyone to prove yourself--though you don’t have to. Fighting against harmful expectations and proving people wrong. You even sat here with me all night and kept me company.” Her voice is right at the edge of Piper’s ear and she slowly turns her head. Their foreheads bump gently and Calypso laughs. The sound rings musically in her ears, over and over again. She could get used to that laugh. “You’re much more of a hero than you give yourself credit for.” She tilts Piper’s chin up ever so slightly. Her heart starts beating fast. “You saved me, after all.”

She can see the sunrise in her eyes. Her lips part and she can’t get out what she wants to say. After some hesitation, Calypso leans forward to soothe her stuttering, capturing her bottom lip between her own softly.

Again, Piper is reminded of cinnamon. Calypso is warm and earthy. She tastes, feels, like the home she’s always wanted. They part for air and Calypso is looking at her in shock as if she wasn’t the one who kissed Piper first. “That wasn’t supposed to happen.”

“Yeah,” Piper says dumbly.

“Can I kiss you again?” Calypso’s voice cracks. Her love hits Piper like the ocean knocked her out. She has this one last kiss with her. She knows when she turns her head towards the sun, she’ll see the raft bobbing towards the shore.

“Yeah,” Piper repeats. “Please.” She lunges to close the distance separating them and kisses her, deeper this time, more insistent. She can’t get enough. She tangles her hands in the goddess’ dark hair and gives her a kiss to ease her heartbreak and erase all the heroes that came before Piper.

“I suppose this is goodbye,” Calypso says. Her breath hitches when they pull away again. She grits her teeth to keep her voice steady and fights the tears in her eyes.

The daughter of Aphrodite shakes her head. “No. It’s not.” Calypso shakes her head doubtfully. Piper takes her face in her hands and brushes away her tears. She lets her charmspeak calm Calypso and means every word, “I’m coming back for you. I’m going to go save my friends, kick Gaea’s ass, and then come back for you.”

“No one can come to the island twice, Piper,” she says, irritated at her stubbornness. But she looks touched nonetheless.

“I don’t care. I’ll find you, Calypso, I’ll get you out. I’ll fight all of Olympus if I have to. You don’t deserve to stay stuck here. You’re my friend. I care about you.” She wants to kiss her again, so badly, but this is hard enough already. “I swear--”

“Don’t!” Calypso exclaims, slapping a hand over her mouth. Swearing on the Styx is more than a promise. Her eyes scream, Not for my sake. “The raft is going to leave without you!”

Piper nods and reluctantly tears away, wading into the water towards the raft. Calypso runs off briefly and Piper holds the raft inn place, tense, waiting for her to return. She comes back with a sack full of supplies for her trip. “This should last you a few days,” she tells Piper. Sadness fills her again when she slings the pack over her shoulder. Calypso tucks a few strands of hair behind her ear. She presses something small and sharp into her hand. “Be safe.”

“I will. You too.” She clambers onto the raft. A great gust of wind pushes her from the shore. “I’ll see you again soon!” Piper near screams. The goddess, fading into the distance, simply offers a wave and a sad smile. Her chest burns, aches. She’s ecstatic and terrified and guilty and too many things that don’t mix and result in a sharp, piercing pain in her heart. The island of Ogygia turns misty in the distance. The sun has risen, but everything is dark.

After a while, she loosens her fist and reveals a small shard of crystal from the inside of Calypso’s cave. It catches the light, shifting colorful, just like her own eyes. She hangs it on a string around her neck and presses a kiss to the prism.

Piper looks to the sky. “I’ll find you again,” she breathes. She sets her angry sights on Gaea’s tyranny and Olympus’s complacence. Her heart to her friends. Leo. Jason. Calypso. “I’ll get you out of here.”

She swears it.

Chapter Text

It’s a good thing you didn’t fall into Tartarus, Leo thinks when Percy’s tidal wave strikes the Argo II.

After Piper was blown into the sky thanks to Khione--at his expense, protecting him, because of him--, Zethes screamed at her and the siblings devolved into petty bickering. Annabeth was able to use this to turn them against each other, eyeing the grenade that spelled their doom. She kept her cool even after she watched one of her close friends catapult into the sky.

Leo? Not so much.

He stood still on deck, hunched and wincing as he had when Piper shoved him behind her protectively. Annabeth’s words are flying out of her mouth, smart, but not persuasive like Piper. Piper. Holding his hand. In the sky. Over the side of the boat. Slipping. Jason. Falling.

She didn’t even scream.

Neither does he. He makes no sound. Smoke drips off his fingertips. Fire scorches the wood beneath him. He throws himself at Khione and burns. He lets the heat fill him, consume him, and he grasps her wrists until he sees golden gashes. The whole of the deck bursts into flame and her brothers are burning too, good, good, they should, and then Annabeth hurls the forgotten grenade into the air and an explosion rips them apart.

The Argo II, a comet, tears through clouds and rips through winds all the way to Africa’s border. After Khione burns into nothing or escapes on some distant, cold wind to go lick her wounds, Leo grabs Annabeth. He calms his storm, just a moment, just for her, and uses himself as a shield against the fire that rages around them.

When they’ve finally landed, moored on some beach, Leo lets go. Annabeth stares at him with wide, tearful eyes. Her clothes, hair are signed, but she’s mostly unharmed. He tries to speak but smoke pours forth from his mouth. He looks at his hands and sees flame dancing there, replacing his skin, projecting the burning within him.

The others come running up on deck. Leo staggers over to the head of the ship, ignoring the cries that follow him. “Festus,” he croaks. He leans over the side of the ship and sees his dragon’s head hanging loose, limp, sad. Asleep. But somehow, there’s a gleam in that metal that Leo sees as disappointment. He coughs, spitting more smoke over the side.

“--s overheating!” The wood beneath his fingers burns. Another set of his dangerous imprints on the picnic table.

He turns back to see his crew. The main deck and steering wheel are discolored, but not too damaged. Many of the oars are shattered. The mainsail is torn undone. He knows the worst will be in the infrastructure below. Percy is holding Annabeth close, gentle hand on her head. Reyna stands over them both with an expression he can’t read, but who can? Hazel seems concerned and Frank looks terrified at the deck that’s still smoking.

“Percy, help me,” Reyna says. She reaches for her sword and takes a step toward Leo.

His shoulders heat up. Don’t look at me like that, he wants to scream. All that comes out is guttural steam. “You--” he chokes. Reyna has no right to look at him like that. He didn’t want to blow up the forum, he didn’t mean to burn anything, he just--just-- just--You don’t know, you don’t understand, you don’t have to be afraid of me.

“Reyna, don’t,” Percy warns. He lets go of Annabeth and stands beside the praetor. “Leo, we need to get you in the water, okay? We gotta cool you down.”

“You’re afraid,” he accuses. He wants to retreat further into the deck but there’s nowhere to go but over the side. Follow Piper and Jason. Gone. Vanished behind smoke. Smoke’s coming out of his ears. He’s burning footsteps, holes in his wake. “You think I’m gonna hurt you.”

“No, of course not,” the son of Poseidon assures him. “I don’t want you to get hurt, Leo, and you’re smoking pretty bad. I’m just going to get you a little wet, okay? Just enough to cool off.” He takes a few steps closer and eventually places his hand on Leo’s shoulder with a little wince. “Is that okay?”

Leo gives away under him. Percy catches him before he hits the ground. Then he summons a great wave to crash over the deck and soak them all. Cold, sober clarity gives Leo reason to wretch but he’s made enough of a mess of his ship. Thank goodness someone else with the right powers was able to clean up his mess. Cleansing, kind water. Not like fire, not like him, not harmful. He’s sick.

“Did you have to get us, too?” Reyna grumbles, flinging her wet braid back over her shoulder.

They regroup and refocus. Annabeth brings up the idea of meeting with some god named Notus--“Auster,” Frank corrects for the other Romans--who rules over the south winds. They'll ask the winds to turn in their favor and direct them to where Piper is while their ship is still being repaired.

Percy groans into his hands. “Can we even use the winds without Jason?”

“I don’t know. We’ll have to figure something out,” Annabeth purses her lips. “Frank, do you think you could turn into some… flying creature… to steer?”

He scratches his spiky hair. “I probably could, but… that’s not a great idea.” Annabeth’s lips scrunch together, annoyed, and Frank amends, “Why not get Arion to lead? Hazel?”

Hazel crosses her arms and only nods.

Percy turns to Leo, who blanks at being addressed. “Could you wake up Festus just in case? Maybe he could help, too.”

“He’s just a head, Percy,” Annabeth says.

“So he’s got a brain!” he counters. “We need a backup plan.”

After they settle on Annabeth and Frank to hold daily audiences with Notus or Auster, Leo resigns to the catacombs of the ship. After tweaking the engine and making sure nothing is going to melt, rust, or snap, he lists priority repairs and comes up with a plan for the others to follow. As he turns to go above deck again, he almost runs right into Annabeth.

Leo and the daughter of Athena have struck up a strange friendship. They’re both brainiacs and he admits, it’s nice to have someone who understands . Annabeth is mechanical, calculating, and insanely smart. They gush over innovation and toil over the mysteries held by the Athena Parthenos. They even take turns being jealous over each other’s skills, too. When her eyes droop with exhaustion late into the night, Leo sends Annabeth back to her room for rest. And when he wakes up the next morning curled beside her mother’s statue, there’s always a blanket draped over him.

He thinks that trust burned away with the varnish on the main deck.

“We’re in tip-top shape, Annie Mudge,” he says. “Well, maybe more topsy-turvy, but you know what I mean.”

“Good.” She’s stern, but it melts and she takes a hesitant step toward Leo. “Get some food, or sleep, or something while I’m gone. Okay? We’ve got the ship well manned and I know you haven’t really slept since--” She looks away, brow furrowed with a mishmash of concern and guilt.

“Jason.” The name hangs heavy on his tongue but he has to say it, has to give it, because everyone’s acting like Jason’s dead and someone needs to keep him alive.

Annabeth taps her sneakers together uncomfortably. “Well. You need to take care of yourself. We need you, you know.”

Leo looks anywhere but her. “Yeah, yeah, I got it.” He appreciates her concern, really, he does, but the son of Hephaestus knows that if he stops, he’ll crash and they can’t afford that.

The commotion above deck is good static for his brain. Now that they’re on the ground, they’re more vulnerable to Gaea’s attacks. Coach Hedge’s manic laugh while he clubs griffins to death gives Leo the motivation he needs to get the motors up and running first. He lets Piper and Jason stew in his brain. He’s angry at everyone for acting like Jason died the moment he went after Hazel’s brother. He can’t let them do the same to Piper. He’ll refuse to let them trip over their names as if they’re goners.

When a socket wrench starts melting in his hands, he knows it’s time to take a break. At least change the clothes he’s almost burned through.

After changing into a greased formerly white shirt and worn jeans, he loses himself in the machinery again. He can’t seem to focus on that, even, working at a much slower pace than he knows he’s capable of, much to his annoyance. By the end of the day, Annabeth announces that Notus doesn’t want to help them just yet and the ship is off the ground enough to ease the nonstop monster attacks into just frequent.

He heads down to the engine room and is surprised that Annabeth, Percy and Reyna follow. And it’s to his horror that they stop just outside...

“That’s Piper’s room.” he says, trying and failing to sound completely casual. “What are you guys doing?”

Percy swallows uncomfortably. “Reyna needs somewhere to sleep, so… I was just thinking, while Piper’s out--”

“I am perfectly fine on the top deck,” Reyna insists, edging away from them all. He can tell she doesn’t want to encroach, and Leo doesn’t want to scare her but he knows she can feel his anger rolling off him in waves of heat.

“You can’t use Piper’s room,” Leo says flat out.

“Leo, we have two empty rooms right now--just let her have one,” Percy says. “Reyna fought just as hard as us to get here. Harder, even. Jason and Piper wouldn’t mind.” At the mention of Jason’s name, Reyna cringes slightly. Even if he wouldn’t, she seems to mind sharing his old room.

I do. They’re my best friends and I mind. There’s cots in the sick bay.” Horrible, lumpy boards that Leo would prefer the floor to.

Annabeth crosses her arms. “ Di immortales , you’re being ridiculous... Reyna, we can just share my room.”

“No!” Reyna and Percy blurt out together. They exchange an uncomfortable glance and Reyna continues, “Honestly, Annabeth, it’s fine. This is more trouble than it’s worth.”

“I’m not letting you sleep on the floor! Especially not when we can help.”

“She can take my room,” Leo says at last, finally spitting out the words tuck in his throat. “I don’t sleep in there, anyway.” He turns away and heads to the engine room fuming. He knows he’s being rude, but he can’t bring himself to care. Not when Reyna looks at him like that for something he didn’t do. Didn’t mean to do.

Who cares that you didn’t mean to? You still did, His dangerous mind whispers. He thinks of the factory fire. Gaea. His mother. Beyond that, there are consequences for every action no matter how pure the intent. Jason saving Nico. Piper saving him. Leo reminds himself that the road to Tartarus is paved with good intentions and sets to work. His wrist gives out early morning somewhere between fixing the engine and trying to piece himself back together.

The next day passes in the same tenseness. Leo takes the night watch because he hasn’t fought all day--“I spent half of today napping in the engine room!” he boasts, but no one laughs or even gets mad at his lie--and Annabeth takes on the repairs. Everyone has taken their anger, mistrust, and frustration into silence that coats each conversation, each interaction, and sets them all on edge. There’s nothing to diffuse the tension. Without Piper, it starts to build.

This schedule continues for several days. Leo takes an occasional nap to pay a visit to Gaea’s leering face or watch Piper and Jason fall over and over again, stays out of his room even though he needs a desperate change of clothes, and he’ll steal food off Hazel’s plate when she insists he eat, but otherwise it’s just himself and his machines. Everyone is too cold and too angry towards each other and Leo is afraid to make it worse. He lingers in dark corners and fixes appliances. He talks to them, to Festus, to himself. He cramps himself up in the vents and savors his isolation.

He doesn’t know when he first addresses Piper, but he knows it’s become a problem when Frank catches him.

He’ll throw an explanation, a greeting, a few words, into the air to his nonexistent friends. “We need to make sure the cooling fans are working, Pipes, because otherwise the entire bottom half of the ship will combust,” Leo says, wiping his forehead with a dirty rag. “I already did that to the top. Festus can’t take too many more of those.”

A sharp intake of breath draws his attention. Frank stands there with a plate of food, unable to move, staring at Leo with puzzled concern.

“What?” Leo crosses his arms. “It’s a mechanic thing. You wouldn’t understand.”

“Yeah. I guess.” Frank manages a polite smile and clears his throat. “I thought you might want something to eat.”

Hazel must have put him up to it. Or Reyna, so they can keep an eye on their dangerous captain. Leo almost considers the possibility that Frank genuinely cares and wants to be his friend, but that’s too nice of a fantasy for him to consider. “Thanks...” Leo says carefully. “You can just leave it there.”

Frank bites his lip. “It’s all quiet up on deck. I have some time.”

“Shouldn’t you be meeting with that windy guy?”

“It’s Annabeth’s turn.” That marks day five of their mooring. “I wanted to see how you’re doing.”

So it is a friendship scheme. “Why?” Leo finally asks. He can’t fathom anything beyond that word. He’s honestly floored that Frank wanted to come see and talk to him without any ulterior motives. Then again, he supposes that’s just who Frank is. No matter how jumpy or dangerous Leo can be.

“Because we’re friends.” He says it as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “Is there anything I can do to help with repairs?”

Leo lets his lips buzz together for a bit then shakes his head. “No. Not here, at least. It would take me too long to explain.”

“That’s fine. You can sit down for a while and tell me.” Frank must know he has no actual intention of explaining, so he drags Leo away from what he’s been working on despite his protests. Geez, how strong is this guy? He rubs his wrist, whining unnecessarily when Frank makes him sit down and eat. Now he can watch his legs shake with strain and his hand struggles to hold a fork.

“How are Percy and Hazel holding up? Uh, you, too.” Leo asks after a while. He realizes he hasn’t talked to them in days. He remembers their faces reflected in the pipes, but beyond that, he can’t recall saying a word to either of them.

At the mention of Hazel’s name, his brow crinkles sadly. “They’re doing okay. Haven’t talked to Hazel much… I’m tired.”

“I couldn’t tell. I thought the bags under your eyes were a panda transformation gone wrong.”

Frank chuckles quietly. “Glad to see you’re still in good spirits.”

“Well, someone has to be.” He doesn’t mean it to come out so bitter. He shrivels under Frank’s worried gaze, trying to redraw his joking persona. “I mean, you’d think this ship was headed to our own funeral with the way everyone’s acting. Except you. You… you seem fine. Together.” It’s Frank’s turn to look away.

Leo envies him, truly. He doesn’t understand how Frank is so put together, sitting with Leo in the engine room knowing what he’s capable of, and able to rally the morale of everyone on board the Argo II. The ship may be his, but Frank is the true captain.

“Well, someone has to be,” he echoes with a shrug. His tired eyes loom somewhere far and dark. “Everyone’s just confused and worried. Hazel… Hazel’s really worried for Nico.”

Eventually, they got the whole story out; Nico saving Annabeth and Percy and Jason diving into Tartarus after him. Leo doesn’t know him, not enough to be affected. But Leo understands Hazel’s shock. The only good family she’s ever known was ripped out of her hands as soon as she gained it back. He knows. Piper was the one good thing left of his old life. Losing her in his new one hurt too much. And Nico seems important enough to affect some of the most powerful demigods in their group. Important enough to make Hazel cry, Percy quiet, Annabeth confused.

And Jason.

Perhaps that’s the biggest shock. Perfect, infallible Jason threw himself into Tartarus to save a stranger. Jason was gone. Affected. This wasn’t some head wound ambrosia could fix.

He realizes he’s been silent for too long when Frank clears his throat. Leo struggles to voice his thoughts. “Yeah. I just… You know, I guess I never considered Jason actually… capable of getting hurt. Disappearing. Leaving.” His words dry up and he rests his heavy head on his knees. He’s seen Jason near death before, but this… this was worse. This was where only the dead went, and only the worst of the dead. Jason was suffering something that only creatures like Gaea deserved and it made him sick. Was this how Jason’s old friends at Camp Jupiter felt when he up and disappeared? Did Reyna feel this way? “I know this is a quest that’s constantly putting us in mortal danger, but… I guess I never thought he would…”

“No one expected it,” Frank finishes quietly. “We expect a lot from him, but not that.” Too much, they both finish, exchanging a guilty glance.

Leo promised not to talk about Piper and Jason like they died, but all his grief is slipping out and he can’t stop it. “Yeah. And Pipe--” His voice cracks and he tries to change the subject. “You know, I hope that we can get the ship going again soon. There’s only so many of my own messes that Festus can take.”

“They’re not messes,” Frank counters. He lets Piper and Jason drop so the mechanic can catch his breath. “You’re just… giving it a little more personality. A trademark.”

“You call the mast snapping in half personality, Zhang?”

“It’s original, I’ll give you that.”

Leo manages a snort. “Frank Zhang everyone, here to steal my stand-up routine. Now I’ll have to dedicate myself to destroying all chances of our success completely.”

The levity in Frank’s shoulders hardens into stone. He gives Leo a stern headshake. “Leo, you built the ship that made this all possible to begin with. You’re the whole reason we have even a chance at stopping Gaea.”

“I’m just a mechanic. A liability at best.” He clenches his fist, letting steam roll off the knuckles. “You know, Percy can control water, and I keep thinking how nice that would be. It’s cool. You can walk on water, you can breathe underwater, you can go swimming, . It doesn’t hurt to touch. It doesn’t destroy. The only power I have has taken away everything I care about.” His mother’s crying silhouette enshrouded in flame draws a choked noise from him. He thinks of Piper, Jason. He’s lost his best friends and can’t help feeling responsible. If they let him keep going after Khione, he could have set the entire ship on fire--destroyed their only chance of saving their lost friends.

A long silence stretches between them. Leo can hear the clamour of swords and monsters above deck, but it fades back into stillness. Eventually, he gains courage enough to glance to Frank, pensive and mournful in the wake of his emotional outburst.

“My mom was a soldier.” Frank doesn’t look at him. His foot taps the ground nervously, accentuating his burdened words. “She died trying to save her comrades. I was always told how powerful I was, what my ancestry meant… She told me I could be anything. I just wanted to be a child of Apollo because I really liked archery. Still do.”

He runs a hand through his spiky hair and Leo’s heart clenches when his voice wavers. Frank, a leader, unfounded in kindness, a super weapon bound to a short lifeline. It’s still hard to believe someone that good could resonate with anything that Leo feels.

“Then I found out I’m a son of Mars. After everything… I’m a child of war . It’s still hard to accept sometimes.” Leo taps his fingers against the ground, tapping an apology over and over. He’s not sure who it’s for. He’s surprised when Frank moves next to him, resting a steady hand on his shoulder. “I guess I’m just trying to say… I get it, Leo. I really do.”

Leo lets himself relax under the touch and lean into the embrace. Before he can stop himself, he’s wrapped his wiry arms around Frank in a tight hug.

It’s noon when Leo finally comes on deck in daylight to meet with the rest of the crew. The more complicated repairs are complete; the mainsail rigging fixed, the engine not in danger of combustion, the oars refinished… The sun is too blinding and he sweats, trying to focus on Annabeth’s shiny face.

“Notus has agreed to lend us some venti. They’re going to bring us to Malta. He said that’s where Piper is. Then we can go onto the Doors.” She lays a hand on Hazel’s shoulder and the girl calls for Arion, bringing a much needed sense of stability as they let the storm spirits drag them to their fate.

Leo’s at the helm wondering how he might be able to harness the power of a venti to create a super-powered engine when Hazel comes over. Frank follows shortly after. “They’re both safe,” Hazel says, laying her left hand over his on the stern. Frank does the same to his other. “We’re going to win this, you know.”

“Of course I do. No need to get sappy on me.”

Hazel replies with a kick to his shin and Frank laughs.

“I knew you were corrupt,” Leo accuses. “No one could be that nice.”

This time, Frank kicks him and Hazel laughs. Leo does, too.

They disembark and enjoy the sights that Malta has to offer, meaning Piper safe and sound. She’s sitting on the patio of a cafe waiting, but not searching. She’s wearing a different outfit. Earthy tones still her eyes to a rich brown. They seem to have lost their kaleidoscope effect, which is instead reflected in the crystal hanging from her neck.

Leo thinks he’s overreacted. He’s whined and whined to himself for days over Piper when she’s safe and sound, enjoying her coffee by the mediterranean shore. For all he knows, Jason and Nico are doing the same in some twisted Tartarus equivalent.

Then she looks up at him and he wants to burst into tears. Her chair scrapes against the floor as she hurries to stand. Before she can say anything, Leo lunges forward and hugs her. The anxious knot that’s been winding up inside him snaps. His best friend is here, safe in his arms, and it’s all he wants. “I thought I lost you, too,” he says in her ear, cursing the way his voice shakes.

A hand smooths his curly hair. “Oh, Leo,” she whispers. There’s nothing else to say. He’s so emotional that when he pulls back to grab Piper’s arms, her sleeves catch blaze. She’s completely unworried though, and when it dies down, there’s no burn to be found.

“Wait, what is this made out of?” Their joyous reunion falls victim to his excitement. Piper wouldn’t have it any other way; she takes it in stride, giving him a melancholic smile.

“It’s something a friend made for me.”

He actively tries to burn it, now, but nothing happens. “How attached are you to this shirt?”

“Define attached.”

Then Annabeth gives him a good natured shove so she can embrace Piper as well. And then everyone’s hugging and a little teary and feeling better than they have in weeks.

They spend the afternoon enjoying lunch together like real teenagers. It’s a closeness Leo hasn’t felt in a long time. The splintered group after Piper’s absence begins to weave itself back together. Her words ease the seams into place. It’s not the same as it was before. It’s stronger, better. Piper is not the same either. There’s a stone in her chest and she doesn’t tell him now, but he knows she will when she’s ready, and that’s enough. For now, all he can do is give her his hand, and that’s more than enough.

Festus spurts steam eagerly, Reyna holds the lookout, Coach Hedge mans the helm. The repairs are done. Everything is ready to go.

Piper and Leo stand on deck hand in hand, staring into the uncertain clouds of the future. He turns to her and lets a smile curl his lips. “Let’s go get our boy.” She gives him a careful nod, the sadness brimming in her replaced with determination. Leo feels the crew, the energy around him, the tear that still needs stitching. He’s made up his mind.

If the world has to fall to fire or storm, Leo swears he won’t let Jason fall again.

Chapter Text

Jason feels even worse than he looks, which is saying something.

The Death Mist enveloped them both while he was fighting to keep conscious in the mansion. Now, bathed in the sick orange hue of Tartarus that he’s grown accustomed to, he notices how pale and green his skin is. The skin itself sags, loose, struggling to stay melded to his bones. His thin limbs shake with effort to keep himself upright. He’s still coated with bits of flesh, blood, and feathers from the arai, which have uncomfortably dried onto him. The curses the arai left him with have mostly faded. Akhlys drew out most of the poison flowing in him, but he’s still weak. He takes a shuddering breath to steady himself.

All that’s keeping him going is Nico.

Gods, Nico.

Nico looks horrible. Perhaps it’s a trick of the light, but Jason is almost certain that his actual skull is working to break out from under his skin. Dark flashes of empty bones strike against his pale flesh. His sallow cheeks are smeared with blood in lieu of tears. His small frame is shaking, wracked with intense pain. Jason wants to wrap him up in his arms and shield him from the mansion, from his confession, from Akhlys, from Tartarus, from everything.

Beyond the mansion is a field of sickly-looking flowers. The prairie slopes into a valley obscured by thin fog. The mansion still seems huge, and years may have passed while they were inside, but it’s behind them. Now they just have to run. He’s still hazy, they’re both in horrible shape, but Jason takes it upon himself to lead them. He hears Akhlys, still wailing, and his blood boils with anger.

He can still feel the traces of the curses. A great sleepiness overtook him back there. He could hardly breathe, hardly move, but he was painfully aware of everything happening around him while the scent of pomegranates tickled his nose. Disgusting and sweet.

Jason feels all too responsible for leaving Nico behind, for questioning him, lacking important memories to dispel his doubt. Taking on that death trance from the curse of an arai only solidified Jason’s guilt.

And despite it all, the pain and the smoke, Jason is so glad to be here with Nico at his side. He’s so glad to remember even when it hurts them both so much. So glad to know someone as brave and kind as Nico, moreso than anyone he’s ever met. No one else could have gotten them both through that mansion. His heart burns to witness Nico’s torture when all he can do is give a hand to ease the pain. And Nico takes it.

Jason laces their fingers together and they brave the field of flowers. Unlike the fog they went through earlier, the field has a lighter haze, but a haze nonetheless. Some sweet aroma fills his nostrils. He hears a clambering, heavy breathing behind him, and whips around.

Akhlys is dragging herself on the ground in the flowers behind them. “Don’t leave--” she hisses. “Don’t leave me...” Her true form makes Jason’s stomach churn. Her body is little more than bones tangled together, tripping over each other, and thick tears streaming down her gaunt face. She’s starved, he supposes, of any positive emotion, and it’s more obvious than ever that her only sustenance is the misery of others. Her hands claw at the grass. She hooks her nails into Nico’s shoelaces. Percy’s voice pours from her mouth, “Nico, please…”

Jason wastes no time. He kicks Akhlys in the face, hard, letting out a satisfied grunt when he hears a loud crack. The goddess wails louder. Nico takes a few frightened steps back. Jason lets his anger swell. How dare she treat Nico that way, hurt him like that, use Percy, his identity, against him. “You think we made a mistake trusting you to take us through the mansion. I have news for you. You’re the one who made the mistake crossing us.”

The haze around Jason solidifies and he narrows his eyes. He channels it, funnels it towards Akhlys, forming a circle of that saccharine fog around her head. Gods don’t need to breathe, really, do they? Her choked cries fall upon wilting flowers. Jason clenches his fist and the air current intensifies, closing in, suffocating her further, faster, more--

There’s a shrill, dark cry from above that draws their attention. A great, sweeping chariot flies from over the mansion and lands in front of them, edging on the field of flowers. Startled, Jason releases Akhlys, who chokes and wails even more.

“Don’t stop now, son of Jupiter,” the large, dark figure in the chariot coos. She stands tall as the Athena Parthenos, voice booming throughout the canyon. Darkness laps at her heels, her massive hair, her shadowy skin. Her eyes are the only bright thing about her; yellow, pulsing, and dangerous. “Finish what you started. Spare me the trouble of punishing her for her foolishness.”

Jason wants to, he wants to make Akhlys suffer like she made Nico suffer. But the goading goddess clues him in to take a step back. So he breathes and returns to Nico’s side, who trembles against him.

The Death Mist should be shielding them from all eyes, monsters, but Nyx can see them. Is this even going to work? He laments to himself. We can’t have-- Nico can’t have braved the mansion for nothing.

“You finally decided to show yourself, Nyx?” Nico says. If he’s surprised she can still see them with the Death Mist, he doesn’t show it. His voice is little more than a croak, but it’s steady, and that’s more than Jason can say for himself. “Took you long enough. We thought this first-rate crony you sent was a joke. I mean, using a Percy illusion? Really? How tacky.”

Nyx’s gigantic eyes narrow. “You gave my child a banquet to feed off from your great wealth of misery.”

“I was miserable because of the state of your motel. If anything’s going to cause a nightmare, it’s the decor.” Nico, genius, elbows his side and gods Jason can’t think of how to pour out his overwhelming affection for the boy short of crushing him in a hug.

“I’m glad I had my eyes closed so I didn’t have to witness that garbage. And your tour guide?” Jason clicks his tongue at Akhlys’ twitching form. “Let’s just say it was… subpar.”

Subpar?” Nyx bellows. “I am the mother of all terrors in Tartarus. When Hypnos ran to me, hiding from Zeus, your father wouldn’t dare follow him into my mansion!”

Jason leans in close, trying to break the news gently to the goddess of night, “That’s because of the smell.” Nico shakes beside him, trying to suppress his laughter.

Nyx lets loose a great scream monsters start spawning around them. All manner of creatures and minor gods and goddesses flank her chariot. The darkness around them seems to intensify. Akhlys retreats from the flower field back to her compatriots, who give no sympathy to her weakened form. “Some familiar friends for the ghost king,” Nyx sneers. Nico’s face pales further as he rakes his gaze across a slew of monsters that must have had a hand in his torture. Again, Jason wishes to strike them all down, but he forces himself to stand aloof. “Is this not enough for you? Gaea wants you alive, but there’s no reason I can’t make you suffer any further…”

Nico clasps his hands together, vanishing his fear with a clap. “Please, anything. My first excursion here was much more exciting. I’m so bored. You don’t understand, Nyx. I’ve been everywhere. I wanted to come back, show this place off to my friend Jason, here, because I thought it was truly special and terrifying… I guess I was wrong. I’m even missing that bronze jar. Now, that was riveting.”

Jason gets sick hearing Nico make light of everything that’s happened to him. But he takes a deep breath and reminds himself to play along. Right now, they just need to survive. So he nods enthusiastically. “Yeah, I was thinking maybe if this place was as great as Nico said, I could get my dad to loosen up a bit and come visit. He’s kinda uptight,” He prays to his father at the same time to forgive him for his slander, “and this could be just the thing he needs to help chill him out.”

Nyx snorts. “I don’t need Zeus’ approval.”

“You don’t!” Jason hastily agrees. “But I wanted someone to prove him wrong. Knock him off his high horse. Show him what Tartarus really has to offer. But I guess he was right all along…”

Nico fakes a yawn. “Come on, Jay. Let’s find some place to eat and then get to the Doors. I can’t stand to suffer this boredom any longer.”

“Wait!” Nyx’s cry freezes them in their tracks and Jason struggles to maintain a look of passivity. “I’ll show you terror, demigods. You let go of the charm in your jacket pocket, Nico di Angelo, and then step back into my mansion for a proper look. With a proper tour guide.” Her gaze smolders and she takes one great step from her chariot. The ground shakes and there’s a horrifying scream as she steps on her child, Akhlys. In a burst of dust and dark sludge, she dissipates. Jason bites his lip. “I promise you, you will witness Tartarus’ greatest horrors at my hand. You will be thoroughly entertained before I hand you over to Gaea again.”

Nico nods, as though he’s considering it. Jason’s hand inches towards the pocket of Nico’s coat that he still wears, feeling the edge of the thermos Hades gifted him. A charm, Nyx called it. It protected them in the mansion, however little, just enough to keep Nico alive even when he witnessed the horrors of the mansion with his bare eyes.

“Well, I guess that would be all right…” Jason starts. His eyes sweep over the monsters and gods that surround them, standing tall and formidable, supporting Nyx. “But you can’t be bothered to deal with us all by yourself, it’s beneath your majesty. Lend us your most terrifying child for company. They can get us warmed up and ready for the real show, at your courtesy.”

Nico exhales quietly and Jason knows he’s said the perfect thing. Nyx’s children begin to bicker among themselves as to who is the scariest. Jason takes his friend’s hand and starts inching their way back through the flowers.

“I can’t just pick one,” Nyx counters, trying to quiet her squabbling kin. “All of my children are equally terrifying!”

“Except Akhlys,” Nico points out. “Come on, you’ve got to be able to weed out the worst ones, at least…” The arguing gets louder, more violent, and the creatures turn violent. They’re suddenly plunged into darkness, all of Nyx’s children claiming credit.

That s when Jason finally runs. Nico’s hand in his, they’re racing through the field. The flowers grow thicker, sturdier, into weeds that obstruct his path as he tries to escape. He can hear Nyx screaming in the distance, demanding to know where they’ve gone. Nico clings to his arm, breathing hard. Jason’s mutilated leg still aches but he forces himself to keep running. He can hear his heart beating in his ears. He goes fast, faster, and it’s almost like he’s flying again.

Then the weeds wind sharp around his ankle and he and Nico tumble to the ground. His hands claw at the harsh earth. The flowers shatter to dust in his hands. Their roots wind around his ankles, up his legs, encasing him. They’re smooth and harsh, like ivory. Like bone, he realizes all too late.

“Nico!” Jason’s hand finds his cold flesh and winds their fingers together. More vines of bone creep out of the ground. He struggles to sit but something heavy and thick binds his torso, holding him against the ground. The sweet aroma from earlier becomes overwhelming. The curse that left him with pomegranate on his tongue but worse, so much worse.

The ground shakes. He can hear the wheels of Nyx’s chariot spinning towards them, her dark horses snuffing the ground. Her voice is right at the edge of his ear, “Do you think I would let such fine prizes as yourselves escape?” Nico’s hand tightens around his. Tiny, sharp roots dig into his wrist but he does not let go. “You were foolish enough to enter my territory… to enter Tartarus itself… when Gaea still demands sacrifice.”

The vice around his chest tightens and Jason groans. “She’ll have to keep waiting, then.”

“Your father has inflated your ego,” Nyx hisses, disgusted. Some long, thin point strokes his cheek--one of her nails. “We’ll see if you’re so confident when your blood raises her to take vengeance. Oh, and I cannot forget the poor son of Hades…”

Jason feels Nico’s entire body jerk against the earth, against the bony weeds that keep him prisoner. He can control bones, earth, he can do something but physically and emotionally he’s spent and it’s a wonder he’s made it even this far. The ground dips as Nyx’s children surround them in the dark. He feels the dirt near Nico’s hand begin creeping up--or is he sinking in?

She waves her hand and that nauseating sweet smell hits him again. “No more need for your Death Mist… and after all that trouble. You know, Gaea’s fond of you for all, and perhaps because of, your foolishness. Sadly, we have no use for you… But perhaps we can keep you until we spill your friend’s blood. Squeeze a little more misery out of you. And we still need a female sacrifice…”

Hazel.

“Don’t you dare--” Nico cries out, but something cuts him off. He starts coughing and his words become muffled. His hand sinks further into the earth. More bones weave through his fingers, trying to pry Jason’s fingers from his.

“I’m sure she’ll be more than willing to participate for the small price of your guaranteed safety.

Nico!” Jason exclaims. He tries to wriggle free of his bonds but they tighten, harsh, and he can’t breathe.

“Embrace night. Embrace sleep. Be proud, son of angels…” Nyx murmurs as Nico’s protests quiet and he slides further and further into the spongy earth. “You will watch, feel, your sister leave this world. And then you may escort her to the next. To your new domain, oh, prince of Tartarus.”

Nico’s fingers claw at Jason’s from beneath the ground. Jason’s thrashing becomes more frantic, more insistent. The more he struggles, the tighter the bones wind around him. His flesh rubs raw and starts to bleed.

“Let him go,” Jason growls to the darkness. Jason is furious. Then a wave of that sweet smell hits him again and he’s dizzy, trying to stay conscious. The darkness begins to lift a little, the spell wearing off, and he can see wilted flowers around them. Nico’s fingers are sticking out of the dirt, barely gracing Jason’s palm. He can see his wide eyes peeking out from under the earth, dark hair strewn through the dead garden. Dirt fills his mouth and covers up to his nose. His knees are sinking and his chest is nearly submerged. “Let him--”

He remembers laying like this in a garden before. It was much different, then. The scent of New Rome tickles his nose and he thrashes his head against the ground, trying to rub his nose in the dirt, to rid himself of the familiar smell. The headache. The boy laying in the meadow. Nico slipping into the earth below him--he’s slipping, now, too--

“What’s wrong?”

Reyna’s voice pulled him from his thoughts. They sat in her favorite place, the garden of Bacchus, enjoying a warm drink together. It was a few weeks into Jason’s praetorship when he forced Reyna out of her office to take a break with him. The war was won, the camp was strong, and Jason had a lot of changes he wanted to institute to make the camp better. But they couldn’t enforce anything dead on their feet. So they took off for a few hours to relax. The cold autumn wind rustled carnations beside them.

“Just thinking,” Jason hummed. He sipped his chamomile, enjoying the warmth that flooded him all the way to his toes. “Trying to come up with arguments. Proposals.”

“This is a no-work-talk-zone, Jason,” Reyna said. “I admire what you’re trying to do for the legion. And we both know you’ll accomplish it. But not right now. Don’t make me revoke your tea privileges.” He conceded with a shrug and they lapsed into a comfortable silence. The war brought them closer than ever, long days of training and even longer nights of strategizing. They were a powerful team, a natural duo, and the obvious choice to lead Camp Jupiter.

Eventually, she ventured, “How is Nico doing?”

“You’ve seen him. Why are you asking me?” he said, a little too defensively. Reyna raised an eyebrow pointedly at the blush spreading across his face. “He’s doing well. I’m glad that he’s back.”

(Nico’s eyes meet his and fill with tears when dirt creeps over them, too.)

“Did he say how long he was staying?” Jason shook his head. “I should hope to see him again before he leaves.” She sounded troubled. Her hands clutched her mug tight, fingers tense enough to snap the handle if prodded.

“He seemed fine to me,” Jason said carefully. He waited for Reyna to elaborate on her musings.

“I don’t always need to share my strength with others to sense what they’re feeling. My mother has given me a strong, powerful intuition. There’s a great struggle within him. Since you first brought him here.” She took a sip of her drink and her lips wrinkled; it didn’t go down well with her worried words. “It’s gotten much worse recently.”

Jason looked down at his own drink with distaste. It was cold. He remembered his recent sparring session with Nico and guilt settled in his core. “Do you have any idea what’s bugging him?”

(Jason tries to scream when his head disappears completely beneath the dirt. His fingers are still touching his palm.)

Reyna rotated her drink slowly in hand. She used her other to pick at the violets popping up near her feet. “It’s not for me to say. Just keep an eye on him, will you? You seem to be able to get through to him.” It wasn’t quite an accusation, but there was an edge to her tone. “Do you know where he wanders off to for weeks at a time?”

Jason shook his head, taking note of her subtle shift in the conversation. “No. It’s usually errands for his father. Or to see his other friends.”

“Does he have other friends?” Reyna asked, cutting off Jason’s incredulous huff, “I mean, do you know their names? Are they other demigods?”

“I would assume so. What’s this about, Reyna?” He relaxed on his side to face her.

“I have no issues with Nico.” Reyna bit her lip. “The senate is not so keen on the neglect of his duties here.”

Jason rolled his eyes. Becoming a praetor meant that he had to put up with even more of what he disliked most of all in Camp Jupiter--the senate. Not that he disliked all who served. It was just… difficult. There were too many too resistant to change, too easily susceptible to fear mongering. Once it meant Bryce Lawrence. Now it meant Octavian. “So? Nico hasn’t done anything wrong!”

“I know that. I don’t agree with them, Jason, I’m only telling you what I’ve picked up.” She crossed her arms, shrinking a little into herself. “I’m just asking you to keep an eye on him, for all our sakes.”

“...I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have snapped at you.” He clasped a comforting hand on her shoulder and she relaxed, slowly but surely. He finished his tea without much fanfare. “Since you broke the ‘no-work-talk’ rule… I think this garden could really use an expansion. Some upkeep.”

“Just leave the violets,” Reyna insisted, playing with the petals. Her gaze softened, sweeping across the rest of the flora the garden offered.

(The darkness is lifting and now he can see that Nyx is laughing, all her children are laughing while Jason is screaming and Nico is suffocating.)

He understood why this was her favorite place. It was a soft spot in Camp Jupiter. The steel city they armed and guarded was cautious. People were friendly, but they retained a certain coldness. Their Roman elegance helped them thrive for centuries. Letting that go in any measure was deemed disastrous so there were not many soft places like this, untouched by the city and the army and the war. It was just a garden.

His own favorite spot was even visible from here. The temples shone brightly in the distant, despite the gray sky threatening to dull them. “I’m glad I get to be a praetor with you, Reyna,” he finally said. “I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather have by my side.”

Reyna nodded, slow and sure. He didn’t voice his thoughts, but he didn’t have to. They could read each other so well, now. He didn’t have to say that he didn’t feel at home in the army. That he wanted to change Camp Jupiter into what he needed as a child. To grant it the softness that surrounded this garden.

She didn’t have to say she was glad to have Jason as a cover and friend. Praetors spent so much time together, it was natural for them to form a relationship. Everyone assumed it, especially because of their closeness prior to the senate’s decision, so she did not have to worry about prying eyes and questions regarding her romantic interests.

He didn’t have to worry, either, even if he had to be careful about his feelings around Nico. But that was for Nico’s sake.

They could hide together in plain sight until they found a way out of their discontent. So they stowed away to the garden.

“I can’t either.”

Jason sobs when he’s ripped back to the present. The bones around him begin to loosen. He clings to the fingertips crawling at the edge of the earth, crushing petals, reaching for Jason from underground. “Come, son of Jupiter,” Nyx encourages. With a wave of her giant hand, the bones retreat into the earth with Nico. He can see the tip of his boot. “Let’s not keep your friends waiting at the Doors. The sooner we acquire dear Hazel, the sooner you can see him again.”

It’s dark. He’s underground. Near Tartarus’ lowest point. But Jason refuses to give in now. Not after Nico dragged him through the mansion. Not after he suffered at Akhlys’ hands for Jason--because of Jason. So he comes to a solid conclusion: Nyx is the goddess of night. He can ward her off if he can get bright enough.

“My father isn’t coming to Tartarus to see your mansion,” he says. His voice is strong and steady. It has to be. He tries not to notice Nico’s fingers going still.

Nyx looks around at her children, confused, and then regards Jason with those huge yellow eyes. “I have no more patience for your word spinning. Do you take me for a fool?”

Please, he begs, staring into the endless dark red above him. But he knows he cannot trust or count on his father. Even if he wanted to reach him, he couldn’t, not all the way down here. “I’ll sends his regards with a storm, the likes of which Tartarus has never seen.” And really, he does take her for a fool because she released his bonds already.

Jason flips out his coin and stabs his spear into the earth. He lets his sadness and anger fill him. He lets them take over. He stares into Tartarus’ red sky and demands those dark clouds to churn, demands the wind to whip around them, and demands lightning. He doesn’t ask his father, he doesn’t pray to him, Greek or Roman. It is Jason’s will alone.

There’s a crack of thunder that shakes all of Tartarus. Jason’s hands glow warm and the tips of his fingers are white-hot. The hair on the back of his neck stands on end. And lightning strikes down into the conduit of his spear.

The haze of Tartarus is rust but Jason sees red so much brighter.

Nyx and her circle of children recoil, screaming, trying to ward off the blinding electricity. Jason lets their distress fuel his anger even more. The proud spirit of his father fills him. An intense wind blows many of the monsters away and lightning disintegrates the rest. His spear is an anchor keeping him in place. The wind blows away the dirt and Nico starts appearing in bits and pieces. His nose, his knees, his wrists. Darkness cannot dissuade his powers again. No wolves, no illusionary family and friends can stop him.

He meets Nyx’s great yellow eyes. Lightning fills him, wind screams around him, and a great storm pours forth from his throat. He realizes then something else that brings himself and Nico closer together. Both their godly parents demand justice--in life or death. And now Jason does too. He growls in a voice not unlike his father’s, “Leave,” and her chariot surrenders with a massive boom. She’s blown into the air, past the mansion, past the fog, screaming, gone.

Chapter Text

When the steam leaves his hands and there’s still white spots in his vision, but no more lightning, he dives to the ground and starts digging at what parts of Nico he can reach. His legs are the furthest back, sinking an entire foot below, but Jason focuses on unearthing his face first. When he digs him out and sits up him by his shoulders, he lets loose a great gasp and starts coughing up dirt and blood. Jason pats his back and rides out his retching with him, murmuring soft reassurances.

“I’ve got you, Nico,” he whispers, the mansion in his eyes, dirt in his mouth, and fire spilling from his ears. “It’s okay. I’m here, I’m here.”

He’s still wearing Nico’s jacket and remembers the thermos. He makes Nico drink the rest of it to help wash some of the dirt out from his lungs. He wipes off what he can, but much of it has fused with the blood previously staining his cheeks. He helps Nico to his feet and continues dusting him off. He’s quiet, shaky, but responsive enough to help ease some of Jason’s worry.

Head to toe, Nico is filthy. He looks Jason up and down and tries to smirk, regain some of his old self. “We match now,” he finally says, referring to the gunk that plagues them both.

Jason laughs and pulls him in for a hug, his entire body sagging in relief. Then he remembers himself and parts. Nico looks annoyed, maybe even disappointed. Jason can’t tell if it’s because he touched him or because he let go.  “Sorry, I know I grabbed you earlier, but I want to make sure it’s all right now. Can I touch you?”

Nico snorts and it devolves into another fit of coughing. He manages to get out, “As long as you’re trying to save my life, I’ll let it pass.” There’s something in his voice that makes Jason warm. Nico’s voice gets smaller, smaller, and Jason strains for every syllable, “Thank you. You… you don’t have to ask, you know. I… appreciate it. But at this point, you don’t need to ask.”

Something blossoms in Jason’s chest and he struggles to keep it there. He doesn’t want to let it fall from his tongue and scare himself, scare Nico. Now is not the time. He takes Nico into his arms, hoping his touch is strong enough to force the trauma from Nico’s mind and body for a little while. He drinks in Nico’s brown eyes for too long before they get going again.

He lets Jason carry him through the deadened meadow. They come down a slope to the edge of a cliff leading to a river far below. He feels invigorated, occasional pulses electricity as his high fades, but can hardly celebrate with Nico in such a shape. The water rushing below makes Jason feel heavy. He edges away from the cliff and takes a breath. “We’re at the river Archenon. It’s a long drop.” There’s an almost triumph in Nico’s voice that makes Jason pause. “We’re getting close. We’re getting really close.”

He looks to the other side of the canyon. “It’s pretty far.”

“The drop is farther.”

Jason feels a little more confident in using the wind in Tartarus, now. His shoulders tense and he holds Nico firm in his arms. “Right. Close your eyes, we’ll be across before you know it.”

Nico refuses to let his lids drop. “There’s no reason to close my eyes.” His arms, looped around Jason’s neck, tighten their hold. “I know you’ll get us across.”

The son of Jupiter takes a deep breath and a running start. He leaps across the canyon. He doesn’t focus on the river below them, hissing dark, inviting promises. He concentrates on the wind. He coaxes a breeze, gentle, supportive, to propel them across. Nico’s father is protecting him. And Jason can convince himself he doesn’t need his father, whether he’s protecting him or not. The gods are getting stronger, or their fathers care more about their sons than their diminishing strength (that thought shouldn’t make him smile so much but it does). He thinks of Piper and Leo. The rest of his friends on the Argo II. Reyna braving the Atlantic on her own. Thalia. The boy in his arms.

That alone is strength enough to help him reach the other side. His feet connect with solid, sharp rock, and relief washes over him. He feels confident that even if Nyx could assemble her forces again, they wouldn’t follow them across the Archenon. There are plenty of other minions to capture Jason and Nico. He keeps forging ahead under the sharp red glare of Tartarus. The air becomes hotter and heavier as they press on.

“You can set me down, now,” Nico’s weak request comes after a while.

Jason quickly sets him on the ground. “Sorry,” he says, scratching the back of his head. His hair is shaggy under his fingers, he can actually grab a fistful of it. It’s quite past Camp Jupiter’s regulations at this point. “Uh, your jacket…”

“You can keep it for now. It looks good on you.” Jason hopes Tartarus’ redness is enough to hide the blush on his face. Nico doesn’t seem to notice. “Are you all right? Cold? Any traces of the curses left?”

“No. I’m doing much better.” Jason feels good as he can feel with all the wounds he’s accumulated over the course of their journey. He won’t trouble Nico with the guilt he feels for his imprisonment. He lets soft eyes fall on his friend. “How are you doing, Nico?”

His tone startles Nico. He doesn’t have to mention Akhlys, the mansion, because the way his bony shoulders stiffen lets Jason know he knows he’s not talking about their encounter with Nyx. The threat on Hazel isn’t the only thing that has him so afraid. He looks caged, trapped among the weeds again.

Jason understands, even from the single conversation he witnessed between Nico and Percy shortly after they rescued him. The resentment as well as the fondness that bound him to Percy. Trying to cope as a boy out of time. The reason Nico was split between the two camps, still trying to help him even when he was afraid and angry because of his feelings. The reason he was isolated, even then, and pushed everyone away. The same thing he was doing for Jason now. The reason he surrendered himself to Tartarus a second time.

Jason hesitates to touch Nico, even with permission, and settles for a gentle hand on his arm. He expects the son of Hades to flinch. But after he stiffens, eventually, he relaxes into the hold. “I know… that’s not how you wanted to tell me. Or anyone. Maybe you never wanted to say anything about it.”

“I didn’t.” His voice chokes and he hides glistening eyes under dark bangs. Jason knows the only reason he’s not running is because he can barely stand. “You weren’t supposed to know… No one was…”

He takes hold of both his shoulders, trying to meet Nico’s gaze. “I need you to know that I won’t hold this against you. No one will. I’m sorry it had to happen like this, but… myself and everyone else, they’ll back you up completely.”

“They won’t, because no one else is going to find out.” Everything that kept him together during the Nyx encounter shatters. His openness vanishes. He starts folding in on himself again, fill up on fear and regret. “I never wanted you to find out. Especially… not like this…” His words stutter over themselves, weak, and he goes limp in Jason’s hold. “You weren’t supposed to know. I was just a kid, I was impressionable, I was stupid—“

“You’re not stupid. It’s an important part of you. I’m not mad at you, Nico.” Desperation seeps into his voice. Nico can’t be blaming himself for this, he won’t allow it. “Please don’t be angry at yourself about this.”

“You weren’t--” A sad noise struggles to escape his lips, “You weren’t supposed to--”

“It isn’t your fault.”

“You--”

“I’m not leaving your side. This doesn’t change anything. At least, not in a bad way. You’re still you. You’re still my friend. Nothing can change that--not even the gods." Even Hera couldn't fully erase what he feels for the son of Hades. Nico gives up talking and simply falls forward, letting his head rest against Jason’s chest. His entire body shakes with effort not to cry. Jason wraps his arms around him. “And as long as you’ll let me, I’ll stay.”

“Gods, we’re going to die down here--” Nico croaks. “Oh gods, oh gods--I dragged you into this, I didn’t have to save him but I couldn’t let go, and I couldn’t stand it--I--” His body shakes harder. He starts hyperventilating. Jason holds him tighter, firmer, trying to soothe him. “I should have been able to stop the earth from swallowing us--the bones, I can--but I couldn’t, I couldn’t breathe, I was so scared, Jason… they want to kill you and Hazel and Percy and, and, and--”

“No one is going to die,” Jason murmurs in his hair. “I won’t let that happen.”

“Everything down here is hurting you just to hurt me,” Nico’s voice trembles, his hands tremble, gripping his coat fitted across Jason. “I’m hurting you. I’m going to be the death of you. And I can’t--”

“No, you’re not,” Jason snaps; he doesn’t mean to sound so harsh, but it quiets Nico like he wanted. “I’m sorry, but you’re not. You won’t be. Not now, not ever. I followed you down here. Don’t blame yourself unless you blame me, too.”

One arm Nico clutches to his stomach, and the other hangs on Jason’s back. They stand there for a long time, breathing together, Jason slowing frantic Nico to a calmer state. Perhaps it’s that, or the knowledge that they can’t afford to stay this still any longer that brings an end to their embrace. At last, Nico pries himself away, looking pained. Jason is pained, too, when that warmth disappears. “We don’t have time for this.”

“We don’t,” he reluctantly agrees. “But I need you to know that there’s no reason to be angry at yourself for any of this. And… you aren’t in Tartarus because of it, you don’t deserve any of this--”

“I got it,” Nico snaps, cutting him off. But he sounds grateful. “Let’s just… Let’s get out of here already. Maybe after that...” He tries not to promise, tries not to meet Jason’s eyes, but he can’t help it. “Maybe we can actually sit down and talk.”

“I can get on board with that.”

Beyond them lies a great dark red landscape full of monsters. There must be thousands, more than thousands, milling about, ready to unleash hell upon the mortal world. To wreak Gaea’s vengeance. To kill them and everyone they care about. The winding rust paths lead to trails of red and blue streaking across the ground onto a violet, pulsing ground. It’s something alive, moving and beating.

“The heart of Tartarus,” Nico affirms Jason’s thoughts. “The Doors are close.”

“And the others?”

He purses his lips, caressing the inside of his left wrist. “They’re getting close, too.” He rubs his head and Jason notices how his hair curls at the ends. It’s not quite black but like his eyes, streaked with a rich, deep brown that contradicts his first assumption. A shade that mimics the kind of coffee he doesn’t like (he would always load it with cream and sugar, and Jason revels in this remembrance). His hair is nearly reaching his shoulders. His skin is fearfully pale but if he got some sun, Jason can see impressions of the freckles that would dot his nose and cheeks.

Even though Tartarus has beaten him down, ripped him apart and spat him back out, Nico seems to stand taller and braver than when he was first rescued. Beneath all the snark and coldness of his first impression, there’s a deep well of compassion and strength that Nico hides away underneath all his misery. He’s trying so hard not to care but he can’t help it. Jason’s heart pangs with affection.

Without really thinking, he reaches out and brushes some of his longer, curlier bangs behind his ear. Nico gives him a long, calculating stare. “Jason?”

“I meant what I said, Nico. I’ll say it as often as I need to until you believe me. What you did back there? It was incredibly brave, and you’re so strong… Not just then, but always. You always tease me about having a hero complex. But you’re more of a hero than I could ever hope to be.”

The son of Hades stands still a long time absorbing those words. “Don’t discredit yourself like that.” Nico catches his hand, fond. “Just when I was starting to think stupidity wasn’t the deciding factor in launching you down here after me.” Jason smiles.

The demigods trace veins of rotted red and blue leading them further into the pit. As Jason suspected, the actual ground beneath them pulses. And what he mistook for red smog was actually hordes of monsters. There had to be thousands lining up, forming rank, preparing to enter the mortal world and exact Gaea’s vengeance. They’re all headed toward a great, rocky wall--Jason is so relieved to see that this endless hellscape has an end--where a set of dark doors sits guarded by two giant figures. Titans.

One of the Titans wears dark blue armor and a helmet with ram horns curled into the side of it. Jason’s head begins to ache. A rush of dizziness washes over him and Nico steadies him when he starts slipping on the spongy ground. “Jason, what’s wrong?” Nico holds his head still and forces their gazes to meet. “Focus on me. You’re here in Tartarus. We’re close to the Doors. I’m here.”

He remembers standing on top of Mount Othrys, trembling with sword in hand beneath the Titan’s gaze. Every part of him screamed in terror to run. His comrades were fighting for their lives below him. All he could think of then was making sure no more harm came to them. He would stop the Titans’ destruction so Reyna could rest easy. So Gwen and Dakota wouldn’t be afraid.

So Nico would approach him with a battleworn smile and embrace.

“You’re coming back soon, right?”

Nico gave him a lopsided smile, throwing a pack over his shoulder. He hadn’t slept for several nights and it showed. Nico always looked tired, but he was never this frantic. He seemed scared but didn’t reveal any details. Jason didn’t know how he could help.

“Yeah. My father has another mission for me. Scouting some territories, rounding up the last of the enemy forces, vagrant souls...” It sounded like there was something else to this mission, whether Nico knew or not. He carried its heaviness in his eyes. It wasn’t the cold air alone that shook him so soundly.

“You can handle it,” Jason affirmed, trying to lift his friend’s spirits. He gave Jason a weighted look of sadness and defeat. Then, to his surprise, Nico laughed. A soft thing, so fragile it made him wince.

“I sure hope so.” He readjusted the sword on his belt and sighed. “I’ll be back in a few days, barring any more errands from my father.”

“I’ll be counting,” Jason said, beaming at him. Nico’s head still drooped. He lifted Nico’s chin in his hand, gentle, coaxing him closer. “I’m sure everything’s okay. And if it’s not, it will be.”

He released a long, heavy sigh and relaxed, pressing his head to rest against Jason’s collarbone. His heart skipped a beat. “Thanks, Jay,” he finally mumbled into his shirt. Nico snaked his spindly arms around Jason’s waist and squeezed tight. “Don’t miss me too much while I’m gone.”

“I’m already heartbroken,” Jason joked, but wasn’t really a joke anymore. He rested his head on top of Nico’s an inhaled the scent--it reminded him of a forest in winter, so quiet and beautiful. He drew back to look Nico in the eye, hands squarely on his shoulders. “A week. Tops . No surprises, but be prepared for the best birthday ever.”

Hazel recently let it slip that Nico hadn’t had a birthday celebration before. When he prodded Nico, the son of Pluto confirmed his suspicions. He hadn’t had time for a proper birthday in quite some time, since he’d spent the last few years toughing it out on his own.

“You’re on,” Nico hummed, offering a playful smirk that made Jason’s stomach fold in on itself. “I’ll see you then.”

He turned to go and Jason caught his wrist before he could disappear into shadow. Nico looked annoyed, but it faded into uncertainty when Jason drew him close. He didn’t know how to say he didn’t want Nico to leave. And a great fear swept over him like it always did when Nico left, that this time he was leaving for good, and Jason had only seconds left to admire him. It was foul in his mouth and heavy in his stomach and wouldn’t leave him alone. Nico took a hesitant step forward, battling his own fear and trying to find the words to ease both their suspicions.

Jason didn’t expect him to press a kiss to his cheek. Soft, sweet, small. Hours passed in the seconds it took for Nico’s lips to fall back from his reddening face. A long silence stretched between them. Jason bit his lip. A soft glow seemed to radiate around Nico, eyes full of fear and desire.

“What was that for?” Jason finally got out.

“It’s just an Italian custom,” he said quickly. Seeing how flustered he was made Jason feel better--not to mention that it was. Really cute. It was a look that Jason never wanted to forget. “It means goodbye. Don’t let it go to your head.”


Before phasing completely into shadow, Jason could see his wide smile reflected in the slightest tug on Nico’s lips.

Nico’s small hands cradle his lolling jaw. His mind refocuses and he finds himself stuck on Nico’s high cheekbones. They’re streaked with dry blood but they’re so sharp and even now he’s so incredibly alluring. He remembers the kiss on his cheek, burning against his skin.

He starts leaning in.

“Jason, are you with me?” The son of Hades is concerned, trying to push Jason upright and away from him.

He remembers himself. He remembers Piper, and gods, he’s ashamed it took that long. “Yeah.” He manages to regain his balance and stop falling all over Nico. “Yeah, sorry. I just…” He hides his reddening face in his hands. Jason chalks up his behavior to the desperation that Tartarus inspires and shuts it up in the back of his mind. But Reyna’s teasing glare rests in his mind’s eye. “How long was I out this time?”

“Just a minute. But you didn’t say anything, your eyes were blank, you just… shut down.” He sounds so scared and Jason curses himself. They’re heading into the heart of Tartarus and he can’t even keep his head in the present. He won’t abandon Nico to brave hell alone again.

“I didn’t mean to worry you. Let’s just keep going.”

They continue forward through Tartarus. Nico’s sword scrapes across the fleshy earth. Jason chooses his spear, using it for support when he feels a bout of dizziness come over him. He tries not to dwell on the past, he knows it will just draw him back in, but he can’t help it. So many important relationships and moments and people were taken from him.

He remembers his mind faraway during Nyx’s attack. His heart softens to Reyna. The relationship between them was so stilted, and now Jason had a better glimpse as to why. Why she was so hurt when he returned. He was the only one who knew she was gay. He was a haven, a source of trust. And all of that was wiped clean with a snap of Hera’s fingers. Reyna was left alone again. Jason was in a new relationship, no matter how unsure he was. There was nowhere to hide.

And his own sexuality—identity— erased.

He grits his teeth. Nico notices his stress and Jason just says, “I’m tired of the gods meddling in our lives.”

Nico moves a couple paces closer to Jason. “Agreed.”

He lets his brooding lie in favor of optimism. Seeing the Doors in the distance has given Jason a newfound sense of hope. With Nico at his side, there’s nothing they can’t overcome. They’ve faced so much already. Good or bad, the end is in sight. “We’re almost there. You’ve kept your promise.” Jason gives half a smile and expects some sarcastic comeback, not the scowl that mars his features into darkness.

“I said I would get you to the Doors and my word is good--but I didn’t promise anything. I don’t really do promises. I don’t make them, and don’t expect others to keep them.” He remembers the hushed exchange that Akhlys shared with him in the mansion and bites his lip. Nico’s words are careful, and the dosing of his trust and companionship even moreso. Jason feels grateful to witness it, even if it’s only this circumstance that brought them together. Except that it isn’t. There’s a history behind them, which he can’t totally grasp, but he’s starting to.

“I promise I won’t make any,” Jason says, turning on his best praetor voice. It feels strange and cold to slip back into that persona but it makes Nico laugh so it’s more than worth it.

Tartarus is so red, so dark here, it hurts Jason’s eyes. Everytime he catches a glimpse of Krios looming in the distance, his head aches a little more and a little more comes back to him. Ghosts of his former life return to haunt him. Reyna’s favorite color. The cold sea washing over him after he slew the Trojan Sea Monster. Searching the library for hours trying to find that book Nico told him about and falling asleep reading poetry. Everyone’s shock when he refused to join the First Cohort in favor of the Fifth. Nico running off from Camp Jupiter and coming back more upset than when he left, throwing himself into Jason’s arms.

Nico gives him odd looks and Jason wards him off with a smile that isn’t convincing. His gaze falls to the surrounding hundreds of monsters ahead of them. The closer they get to the Titans, the more terror assaults Jason’s senses. The heat, the stench of Tartarus is so heavy here. The ground isn’t wet, but it squelches with each step of his sneakers. They’ve made it this far and the Doors are right there, so close it hurts.

He doesn’t know how they’ll get through them without the Death Mist. For now, the monsters don’t notice them, and he suspects that’s because his flesh stinks with the arai’s remains. They crouch down behind a large rock together and strategize.

They watch the Titans direct a group of monsters onto the elevator. They shrink to fit the human-sized doors and Krios jams his finger on the up button. He doesn’t release it. The Doors themselves are bound with thick black cord into the pulsing ground and sealed with black chains.

“They’re bound here so that they can’t teleport away,” Nico explains. “The Doors don’t stay in one place for long. If we can cut through those chains, and send it on one last journey, the Doors will reset.”

“Gaea and her monsters will lose their shortcut to the mortal world,” Jason finishes. Hope creeps in, filling him from the tips of his toes out the crown of his head. All they have to do is cut the Doors free and take the elevator back to the mortal world.

“There’s one problem.” Nico can’t meet Jason’s gaze. He stares at the throbbing ground and swallows a lump in his throat. His short-lived excitement fades back into anxiety. “To reset the Doors, someone has to hold the up button for the entire duration of one journey. Twelve minutes. Like Krios is doing now. Otherwise the journey won’t finish. The elevator will get stuck somewhere between Tartarus and the mortal world.” He shivers and draws further into himself. “One of us has to push the button so the other can meet the rest of the seven in the House of Hades.”

A bitter taste settles in his mouth. One of them has to stay behind. And from Nico’s shifting and direct reference to the prophecy, he already knows Nico is going to argue every point as to why Jason’s life is more valuable than his. “Easy,” he finally says, not trusting himself to get out more syllables than that. His mind races to figure out a solution. He can’t let Nico risk his life for him. He won’t, prophecy or not.

They’re a hundred feet from the Doors and Jason feels like he’s going to throw up. The Titans loom dozens of feet over their heads. The Doors seem mystical, a mirage, too human and too close for easy access.  “How are we even going to get to the Doors?”

Nico stares at those metal doors with a hunger in his eyes. “We need something to draw the Titans away so we can cut the chains to the doors. A distraction.”

“Which means drawing attention to ourselves in this monster-infested hellscape,” Jason finishes.

All the way back at the banks of the Cocytus, Nico said he would get Jason to the Doors. He knew from the beginning how the Doors worked and set out to bring Jason to the end. To spend this journey protecting him, taking care of him, saving him so he could save the world. He didn’t ask for anything in return. He didn’t let himself value his own life as he valued Jason’s, as much as he wanted to--Jason can see the way he gazes at the Doors, with undeniable want, a need so strong it stings in his chest to watch Nico deny himself. He’s given himself up to Jason. Before Jason could even remember why the name Nico di Angelo made his heart skip a beat.

Jason doesn’t know how give himself back.

“Do you remember when you said goodbye to me?” Jason asks him. He presses closer to Nico’s side.

The son of Hades doesn’t back away from the closeness, lifting his chin to stare Jason down. “Yes.”

Jason presses on, “I‘ve started to remember a lot more. I wish I didn’t have to remember it like this--with you hurt, stuck down here, but I remember it. I remember that you love fast food. You also really like fruit. Somehow, you make those two work together. I remember that your favorite color is green. I remember the way you look after we finish sparring. Sweaty and gross, but you’re smiling, like you could live on the battlefield. I remember the way you look at Hazel. What you gave up, what you give up, to protect her. To protect me.”

“You would do the same for me,” Nico replies easily. It’s not like the last time he said it. He doesn’t say Jason would do it for anyone and everyone; he says, knows, Jason would do it for him. He takes an interest in Jason’s tattoo, stroking the lines with his thumb one at a time. “You have done the same. You are doing the same.”

He’s so small and tired, leaning into Jason’s chest to breathe, struggling to hold onto the depressive reasoning he’s spent years drilling into his head. Jason doesn’t bring up the sacrifice of the Doors. Nothing good will come of confronting Nico right now, and it’s far too obvious. He just has to get Nico to see. If he could see him how Jason sees him, if he could understand his own selflessness, his goodness--

He’s startled when Nico takes his face in his hands, dark eyes searching his features hungrily, trying to commit every scar and scrap of skin to memory. He drinks in Jason like it’s the last time he’ll see him. And suddenly Jason is afraid, realizing it might be. They’re saying silent goodbyes all over again.

Nico breathes heavy in his face. “I’m getting you the hell out of here. I’m getting you back. To the prophecy, your sister, your friends. I’m keeping my word. You fly above the Titans and cut the chains on my count. Got it?”

Nico leans in to grab the thermos from Jason’s jacket pocket. He gets ready to stand from behind the rock. “No. Not without you.” He seizes Nico’s wrist desperately. “We’ll do this together. You stay behind me, stay in shadow. I’ll get us there.” Anything to stall the sacrifice they both know is coming.

After a long silence in lieu of the protest Jason expects, Nico squeezes his hand. “Lead on.”

Chapter Text

Jason tries not to freak out, but walking through the crowd of monsters makes him more than a little sick. His skin burns and blisters; the arai remains stink on his skin. The air is hot and heavy. Nico’s chilled hand in his own is all that calms him.

He manages to make his way through the crowd, slowly but surely. Yellow eyes slide over them both with no mention. The monsters blame their bloodlust for their excitable nostrils and hungry minds. Jason is not present as a demigod, covered in burning monster blood and flesh. They don’t regard Nico as something tangible, his darkness cloaking him. But that’s not all.

Nico radiates some dark, purple energy. It’s hard to see through all the red lights, but it’s distinctly his. Monsters that get too close yelp and rush off, or back away quietly so as not to provoke him. As though they’re afraid of him. Nico is unconcerned, carving a straight path through the shelter of their shadows up to about fifty feet from the Doors.

The Titans are yelling at the next group to get in line. Jason stands still at the back of the group, shoulders tense, anticipating. The monsters sniff around, puzzled as to the source of such a smell, such an energy. Those closest to them both start inching away. But others are baring their fangs and readying their claws. Jason holds his breath.

“Let me through to the Doors,” Jason yells up to the Titans. “I have no ill will towards you. My business is with your mother.” He squares his shoulders when the Titans direct their attention to him.

Suddenly, Jason is alone. He is alone in Tartarus, surrounded by fire and monsters and Titans thirsting for his blood. No wealth of lava can warm his chilling bones. Nico is so far away, so far behind him. Jason is abandoned. He is lying by the Phlegethon while Nico scavenges the ruins of Arachne’s tomb. He is falling in darkness while Nico sees his father. He is trapped in a bronze jar while Percy’s hands brand Nico’s skin. He is caged in Nyx’s hands while Nico slips into the earth. While Leo and Piper suffer without him. While Reyna soars through Atlantic storms. While Thalia runs and hunts.

Alone in the Wolf House. Alone at Camp Jupiter. Alone, alone, and afraid.

He longs to turn and affirm Nico’s presence to calm him, but before he can even tilt his head, Nico’s voice is in his ear, “Don’t look back.” He brushes his thumb over Jason’s battered knuckles.

The Titans exchange confused glances that turn into uproarious laughter. “So this is the haughty demigod that defeated you on Mount Othrys, brother,” the Titan beside Krios leers. “I couldn’t believe it until I saw you with my own two eyes.”

“Let me through and I’ll be out of your sight promptly.” Nico feels so far away. Jason is alone in the flaming landscape.

“The entertainment has arrived, Hyperion,” rumbles Krios. A throaty laugh rings in Jason’s head and he flinches, old battle scars aching again. Monsters begin to size them up, circling around, but Krios puts an end to that when he slams his spear into the ground. The earth quakes and the monsters retreat, shivering under his power. “Good things come to those who wait… And here comes the son of Jupiter on a silver platter.”

Hyperion snorts. “It won’t be much of a fight. Look how he sways where he stands.”

Nico’s lips move to the edge of his ear and give Jason jitters that make it hard to concentrate on the Titans threatening to stomp him flat. “Repeat after me, Jason.”

“You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by letting me complete my mission,” Jason says, trying to maintain their attention. Though the Titans are doubtful, they hang onto every dark and enigmatic word. “Your mother, Gaea, does not care for you.”

“She wages war on Olympus, the gods, your father, seeking justice for our sake,” Krios bellows. “Our loyalty is right to lie with her.”

“She favors the Giants,” Nico counters quietly.

Jason continues, “Who held off the demigods seeking to free Hera from the Wolf House? Who was given the privilege of attacking Camp Jupiter after Alcyoneus’ defeat? Who imprisoned Hades’ son in a bronze jar to lure the prophetic seven to Rome?” The more he seethes, the stronger the aura around Nico becomes, until no monster stands within ten feet of him. The shadows underneath him darken, stretching out to the Doors.

Krios’ giant hand clenches around his spear. His thumb aches to release the up button so he can attack Jason, but there is no way the Titans can risk throwing a kink in Gaea’s tight schedule. And if Krios wants revenge so badly, he won’t dare let any of the monsters attack. Until the current passengers reach the house of Hades, they’re safe.

How many minutes have passed? How many minutes does he have left? He tries not to think. He just has to keep their attention. He needs to keep Krios’ seething rage on him so Nico can cut the chains and Jason can figure out a way to get him to take the elevator back up to the surface.

“She didn’t aid your rise in Manhattan,” Jason says. “She leaves you here on guard duty, to rot in Tartarus. Why should you aid hers?” His words agitate the orderly monsters, who start breaking rank, exchanging doubtful words.

“Back in line!” Hyperion bellows. Fear shocks Jason. His voice is so loud it threatens to blow him over. But Nico’s hand touches his lower back and rights him again. Gods, he wants to look at him. But he won’t turn his head. “I’ve had enough of you mouthy demigods. I’ll take care of this.”

“Brother, wait,” Krios commands, equally terrifying. “I won’t let you deprive me of my revenge.”

“Shut it, ram-head! Keep still and don’t release that button,” Hyperion says. He brandishes his spear and takes a step away from the Doors towards Jason. He reaches for the coin in his pocket and tries not to shiver. “We can’t kill him just yet. Mother has had a change of heart. I’ll just rough him up.”

“I know we can’t kill him, so you leave the torture to me,” Krios growls, so low the horns on his helmet rattle. Then, something occurs to him, mouth spreading in a vicious grin. “And speaking of… where is the haughty son of Hades, your companion? Don’t look so surprised. Word travels fast by carrion.”

Jason keeps his lips sealed tight. Nico behind him trembles, bunching his fist in the comfortable fabric of his coat. “Say I’m dead.” He releases him and creeps toward the doors. His black sword hangs heavy in his porcelain grip.

“He died to get me here,” Jason says, and the false statement still makes him choke. “He sacrificed himself to get me to the Doors. He saved our friends from falling down here at his own expense. He wouldn’t let them fall victim to Gaea’s ritual. He saved me, too.” His meets Nico’s eyes, who has his weapon trained on the chains binding the Doors to the ground.

“He was a fool to waste his measly existence on your decided fate,” Hyperion chuckles, shaking his head. “How were you planning to escape Tartarus on your own? Your blood will feed our mother’s rise and the earth will swallow you whole. You and your friends will spend the rest of eternity here, buried in flame.”

Despite the shadows, Nico’s hair appears rich and brown in the firelight. He is tense, ready to spring, waiting for the right moment. The Titans still haven’t noticed him. “Nico held out for weeks,” Jason says at long last. “I can hold out twelve minutes.” The ground shakes behind him but he stands firm. Nico’s eyes widen. His grip relaxes on his weapon. He’s shaking his head at Jason, desperate, trying to refuse the words sinking in.

Krios and Hyperion regard him with contempt, chuckling to themselves. The monsters around him roar and screech with laughter. They’re itching for his blood, his bones. They can’t kill him. They can’t, he reminds his pumping heart and shaking hands.

A great shadow falls over him, matching the length of those cast by the Titans. Nico slaps a hand to his mouth. Jason anticipates rolling away just in time for a gigantic broom to slam a crater in the ground where he stood.

A few monsters latch onto him. He flexes his sword and dispatches them easily, but more and more begin to swarm him. “Stand down, you bloodthirsty idiots! Do not kill him, Iapetus!” Krios roars. “I haven’t yet had my chance!”

Jason’s blood runs cold when he looks up and sees Bob gripping his broom as a spear, levelling with his brothers’ gazes. He looks to Nico again, who shakes his head wildly. “Brother, he hurt you. Blood must spill.”

“Not here, you half-wit!” Hyperion exclaims. He starts toward Bob, thunderous steps shaking the ground. “He is one of the sacrifices. He must be preserved!”

Bob raises his broom above his head and slams it down. Jason is surrounded by monsters, clawing him from all sides. He’s sinking into the red crowd. And then they’re all gone in dust and smoke. The broom strikes all the monsters attacking him, and only the monsters.

Bob isn’t trying to hit him. He’s helping distract his brothers. He meets the Titan’s gaze, which flickers briefly to Nico, then back to him. Jason nods in understanding. Nico seems to have caught onto their silent conversation and bites his lip. He wants to refute their plan, he doesn’t want them to fight for him.

Jason enters a sort of dance with Bob. He slaughters all monsters around him and Bob sweeps away great minions and armies with his broom. Jason feigns getting hurt and falls to the ground. He’s getting farther away from Nico, but the scene is drawing Hyperion and Krios farther from the Doors.

Enough!” Krios screams at the rebelling monsters. His voice shakes the fiery plain. It all happens at once. The elevator dings and he releases the button. Krios and Hyperion start forward toward Bob, brandishing their weapons. Nico rips through the first set of chains with his sword.

STINKING PIT.

The fleshy ground beneath them trembles. Jason recoils and stands, shivering. The Titans stop their commotion to listen to the voice rattling their bones. He looks to Nico who stands in shock, face pale, hands shaking. When he meets Jason’s gaze, he regains himself and readies to tear through another thick bunch of chains.

Then an explosion rips the ground apart. Jason uses his sword as an anchor in the spongy earth, crying out when shrapnel and wind burns through him. Krios and Hyperion are hit with dark matter and dissolve into nothingness. Bob stands his ground with Jason while monsters chant and scream around them.

From the earth emerges a giant dark figure. Jason sees millions of monsters, souls, screaming in the reflections of his chest armor. His flesh is disgusting, violet and veiny as the ground they stand upon. Krios and Hyperion are sucked into the dark vortex where his face is supposed to reside. A complete absence shrouded in a twisted black helmet. TITANS, the voice scoffs. LESSER BEINGS. IMPERFECT AND WEAK.

Jason’s knees go weak. He’s kneeling, but he wants to sink lower and lower into the earth, as Nyx offered so long ago. He wishes it was only Krios and Hyperion he was facing on his own. The fear of his battle on Mount Othrys is nothing compared to the agony that washes over him now.

“Tartarus,” he voices at last. A great roar of laughter shatters the plains again, sending monsters flying, sending more shrapnel towards Bob and Jason. Jason is overcome with the certainty of his own death. He’s almost died plenty of times. He’s spent his entire life in danger. But the pure power rolling off Tartarus makes him forget all those times before.

This form is only a small manifestation of my power, the god says. But it is enough to deal with you. I do not interfere lightly, little demigod. It is beneath me to deal with gnats such as yourself.

Jason tightens his grip on his sword. Gods, he can’t breathe, can’t think, can’t go on. He remembers Nico with a start. He searches through the red mist and sees his friend lying on the ground twenty feet from the Doors, trembling as he tries to stand.

You have proven surprisingly resilient, Tartarus says. You have come too far. I can no longer stand by and watch your progress.

Tartarus spreads his great arms. The monsters of the valley roar in triumph, baring their fangs and claws and clashing their weapons together. The Doors pulse with dark energy, straining against the chains. Be honoured, little demigods, the god intones. Even the Olympians were never worthy of my personal attention. But you will be destroyed by Tartarus himself!

Jason throws himself into the horde screaming to get to the Doors, to Nico. Bob grapples with Tartarus, raising his broom with a mighty yell and throwing himself onto the purple giant. Unlike Hyperion and Krios, he didn’t evaporate. He doesn’t have time to celebrate or figure out why. Jason slices through flesh and bone, adrenaline coursing through his veins. Gods, there’s so much red. It’s all he can see.

“Nico--” He knocks down some arai with the hilt of his sword and stabs an empousa. Nico is cutting down the chains as fast as he can and his shadows are fading. Monsters are running towards him. He reaches his hand out and a great rush of electricity blows them all back.

He skids across the flesh of Tartarus’ heart right to Nico’s side. He resists the urge to wrap him up in his arms and never let him go. “You okay?”

“I’m doing great,” he says, so bitter that Jason wants to laugh. But he doesn’t have time. A gryphon swoops toward them and Nico expertly cuts it down before he can blow it back with the wind. Then he frees the Doors from the last of its restraints and presses the up button, almost crying in relief when the elevator doors slide open. Jason leans against the side of the door closest to the buttons and wedges his heel back. This way, no monsters can attack from behind, and they can keep the Doors open. If he releases, he’s afraid the Doors will teleport away.

Nico’s follows his example and jams the left door. His white face is grim in the red light, but there’s a determined blaze in him that makes Jason shiver. “Did you call Bob?” Jason calls above the screech of several dracanae swarming him.

“No, I didn’t,” Nico yells back. He can tell the boy’s distress isn’t due to the thousands of monsters running towards them as much as it is for Bob fighting Tartarus on his own while they hold the Doors open. “I think he came for me. My father might have-- gods above--” Whatever else Nico wanted to say is cut off when he roars and opens a pit to swallow some telkines.

“Get in the elevator,” Jason insists. He casts out a shockwave that blows back all the monsters within ten feet of them. It’s draining but it buys them time to bicker.

Nico looks at him like he’s grown a second head. “Jason, you aren’t--”

“--Going to let you hold the Doors so I can leave.”

“Gods, you’re impossible.”

“You’re making me blush, di Angelo.”

And in the darkness of Tartarus, in all the blood and fire, Nico laughs. It strengthens Jason’s resolve all the more. He laughs too, less gentle, and returns to slaying monsters with renewed gusto. Nico opens a sliver in the ground and Jason sends forth a burst of electricity that wipes out a wave of cyclops. He knows it’s only a matter of time before they realize how horribly outnumbered the demigods are. It’s only a matter of time before he and Nico are worn down. It’s only a matter of time before Bob falls at Tartarus’ hands.

Tartarus is gaining a better control over his new body. He sends Bob back with a great swing of his mighty sword. “No!” Nico cries. In his distraction, an empousa lunges for his old shoulder wound. Jason tears the monster down in an instant.

“Focus, Nico!” Bob leans against his spear for support. He shakes his head at Nico and gives a sad smile, wrenching a sob from him. Jason presses closer to him, calming and caring among the chaos. “You can’t help him,” Jason says softly. He’s their only defense against Tartarus’ physical form. Bob, as though hearing this, nods resolutely.

“I--” Nico chokes. “I have to do something.” He’s forced shoulder to shoulder with Jason. He reaches an arm over Jason’s waist to get into the pocket where stuffed the thermos. He forgot about it, and damn it, Nico’s closeness makes him a little light-headed. He can no longer pretend it’s purely caused by the fear coursing through him. Jason wants to thank Juno, Hera, whoever for gifting him his memories at last with the worst timing ever. “Can you hold out on your own? Not for long. I just need a minute.”

“I’ll give you twelve,” Jason says, swinging his sword at the cautious monsters.

Nico purses his lips and lets Jason’s comment go. He takes the thermos in both hands and grasps it tight. His fingers dig into the indents of the glowing skeleton. He breathes slow, letting his eyes fall shut, and the glow brightens. It’s no longer a cup, morphing into some dark ring that slips onto Nico’s finger, right at the base of the lightning scar Jason gave him.

The shadow of the Doors, of Nico, darkens. A great energy pulses through the air. “I control the shadows,” he murmurs, but his voice echoes across the entire valley. His hands stretch out in front of him. The ground shakes. His shadow extends and casts fear over the approaching monsters. Jason dispatches all others that get too close, blowing them back with a great gust so he can nurse his wounds for a moment.

Jason switches to his spear and bursts one of the veins running near his feet. Harsh, cold water from the Cocytus sprays over the monsters, sending them fleeing in misery. As good a distraction as any. He runs an electric current through the vein, and it rushes, winding all the way to Tartarus, setting off an explosion near his feet. This gives Bob a moment to recover while Tartarus growls.

Nico’s hair curls soft around his face. His eyes fall open, glowing dark and pulsing purple. In a voice not unlike his father’s, he speaks, “All you spirits and shadows, rise. Those of you who have been wronged--take vengeance. Those of you who have wronged--seek redemption.

Tartarus’ armor quakes. The souls and monsters swirling in his plates scream and strain against their confines. He roars out as one of his armor plates bursts open.

The monsters attacking begin to dissent. They swarm forward and Jason swings, swings, swings his sword. But they aren’t just fighting him anymore. Some are standing still, unsure, hanging onto Nico’s every word. Wispy creatures rise from the ground, rise from the veins that burst beneath their feet, pull themselves from the fire and the fog.

“All of you who believe my just cause, who believe righteous revenge--feel me. I feel you, I am with you, I am you. RISE.”

It makes sense, Jason supposes. Nico swayed the impossible Hades to join the gods in battle to save Olympus. Who’s to say he can’t sway monsters, ghosts and demons to fight amongst themselves in Tartarus? It’s still part of the underworld. It’s his domain.

He watches in awe as Nico hangs suspended above the ground, shadow twisting beneath him. His impossibly white face is smudged with blood, dirt and tears. His hair whips around his face. His faded shirt hangs loose on his sunken chest. An insane dark aura surrounds him, crushing and powerful.

Gods, Jason wants to pull him down to earth and kiss him senseless. And again, he has to let the thought go.

He’s drawn back to reality when the battlefield erupts into complete chaos. Monsters are attacking each other as much as they are lunging at Jason and Nico. Many now flank Bob, screaming against the master of the pit. You fools, get the demigods! Tartarus bellows, crushing a legion of ogres beneath his mighty foot.

Nico sinks to the ground, head hanging low. “Jason,” he croaks over monsters roars and clashing metal, and his voice is all Jason can hear. He tugs on Jason’s pant leg, trying to pull him away from his side so he can reach the control panel. “Get in.”

“Not happening. I’m stronger than you are right now, Nico. I can hold them off.” Nico slumps against the frame even as he tries to draw his sword and Jason starts pushing him back.

“No,” Nico protests. He stands and grips Jason’s defensive arm tight. “Don’t--”

A rabid pack of lycanthropes swarm them and Jason shivers, remembering the ones that attacked him in the darkness so long ago. His leg aches his phantom pain. But he persists, he keeps fighting. “Nico, we don’t have much time. Go.”

A wave of monsters, spitting and snarling, descends upon them and Jason forgets how to breathe. No ghosts or creatures otherwise run to their defense. “No!” Then Nico raises his hands and casts a black wall in front of them and the Doors, enveloping them in darkness.

“What--” Jason swallows. The only light comes from the Doors, now. The outside chaos of Tartarus is muffled in their obsidian haven. Whatever this shield is, he knows it won’t last long once all the monsters descend upon them. They’re both bleeding and battered but Nico stands defiant in front of Jason.

“I’m not doing this,” Nico whispers. “I won’t--you need to go, Jason, now. Bob can only buy us some time, and I’ve bought myself some more with this and the summoning, but I can’t hold them long even then--”

“So I will,” Jason insists desperately. “You need to leave, Nico, now, or both of us are going to die.”

“I can’t, Jay--no, no, no --” His heart wrenches when tears well in Nico’s big brown eyes. He squares his jaw and sets his resolve. “Akhlys was wrong. I didn’t just jump down here for Percy. That was… part of it, but--” His hands are shaking and Jason wants to hold them, stroke them until they’re still. “An oath to keep with final breath. I thought that… if it was me, then none of you had to… he would be safe. Hazel would be safe.” He bites his worn bottom lip. “You would be safe.”

Those words weigh heavy in Jason’s bitter gut. “I thought you didn’t do promises.”

His voice is so quiet, Jason has to strain to hear him over the roar outside the black wall, “If it’s me, then the world falls to storm or fire--but storm, fire, doesn’t fall. You won’t--” Nico leans against his sword for support, bowing his head. Whether its from exhaustion or if he’s just unable to meet his eyes, Jason doesn’t know.

“Or maybe I fall anyway,” he counters. Prophecies are supposed to be misleading, so heroes misinterpret them and drive themselves mad. It’s chaos to go against. “Maybe you can’t change that.”

“After last time, I-I had to-- try, at least…” Something slams against the dark walls around them and they both startle. “Please, Jason,” Nico almost sobs, grasping his hands. “Just go, just get back to your friends and save the world, and just--”

“You can’t make me forget you. You can’t make me leave you. I--” Jason’s holding in his own tears. “Gods, Nico, I can’t lose you either. But this way, both of us have a chance. There’s a reason Bob came all this way to fight for you. I won’t let you sacrifice anymore for my sake.”

Nico bows his head. Tears gush down his face in a great river and he breathes hard. He’s losing himself in panic, in fear. “Don’t tell me to leave you. I’m not leaving you, Jason, I can’t--” Instead of crying harder, his voice trails into near silence, “I can’t lose you again… not again…”

Jason sighs heavily and sets his hands on Nico’s shoulders. “If you make me leave, you still lose me.”

Jason is once again struck with how small Nico is. He’s borne the weight of Tartarus twice on his bony shoulders. He’s given his heart again and again and let scars and heartbreak mar him beyond recognition. Crying here in his arms, he’s that boy Jason found in the woods two years ago, too afraid to open up, too afraid to accept the love he deserved. He’s the caution that holds him back in darkness. He’s the hatred that burns within for every part of himself.

He’s everything Jason wants and wants to protect. “But you won’t. I promise.” Jason takes Nico’s head in his hands, staring into those warm, dark eyes. He strokes his filthy gaunt cheeks. “I’ll be right behind you. Just reach for me. I’ll come running.”

“I felt you when y--you disappeared. I can’t feel you-- die--” His words are garbled and nonsensical. He tries to drag Jason into the elevator but his grip is too weak and he sinks further into his arms.

Jason holds him tight. He brushes back the hair matted to his forehead with sweat and blood. “You won’t feel it. I promise.”

Don’t pr--”

He lets his own tears start to fall with every crack in Nico’s fading voice. “You said I would do the same for you. To protect you. So let me .” He’s grasping Nico’s face in his hands tight and if what he feels now is even a fraction of the affection that prompted Nico to jump into Tartarus, he’s seconds from pushing Nico into the elevator by force. “Trust me, Nico.”

A long silence stretches. It’s seconds, it’s hours, it’s years, while Tartarus rages and storms right outside this wall of darkness. At last, something hardens in Nico’s dark eyes. He finally gives Jason the slightest nod and swallows his protests. “I do,” he says in the smallest voice.

Jason holds him tight and they’re both crying. Nico moves his lead limbs into the elevator and places both hands on either sides of the doors. He’s shaking and Jason wants to soothe his shivering bones. “I’ll hold the doors on my side closed,” he mumbles. “Don’t let go of that button.”

“Like I said, you survived weeks,” Jason chuckles. “I can handle twelve minutes.”

Nico stares at him longingly. All those unbidden words from their past are defined in that dark brown Jason has come to adore. There’s still so much he doesn’t know, wants to know, about Nico. Things he hasn’t remembered, things he’s never been told. An overwhelming sadness and melancholy washes over Jason, so powerful he has to lean against the Doors to right himself again. They start to close and he desperately sticks his foot out, keeping them open just a moment longer. The wall jolts. Cracks of red light start seeping in.

It’s hard enough already and his action prompts a muffled sob from his companion. Jason leans forward and presses his forehead against Nico’s. The door presses insistently to his foot. It needs to close. He needs to let him go. Nico’s trusting him and he has to follow through. He has to say goodbye.

Jason leans in and presses a soft kiss to his cheek. “I’ll be waiting for you,” he whispers. He pulls away and drinks into Nico’s shimmering hope. His foot stops blocking the door.

Nico opens his mouth to speak, to say something, anything. “Jason, I--”

He presses the up button and the doors slam shut before Nico can finish.

The obsidian walls tremble around him. Monsters scream on the outside, blasting fire, slashing their weapons, trying to break through the darkness to get to Jason. “Twelve minutes,” he whispers again. He hopes his voice carries all the way to Nico through the shaking Doors. After that, he can die. He just has to hold on long enough for Nico to get to the surface.

Jason is scared. He wishes he had given better last words to Leo and Piper, he doesn’t remember what he said to either of them. He probably fed into some joke Leo gave him. He must have said something to Piper after she dragged Nico from the jar and dropped him in his arms. A compliment, a “Thank you”, maybe even an “I love you”.

He should have done better by her. He blames the smog of Tartarus seeping through the widening cracks of the onyx matter for his queasiness.

Gods, he misses Thalia. He prays she doesn’t feel anything that’s happened to him. She doesn’t deserve that pain. He wishes he could say goodbye to her. To Reyna. Give her an apology, a hug, something--and she would understand, he knows she would, that’s just how he is.

He wishes for Frank’s calm. He’s the kind leader Jason’s failed to be. Camp Jupiter will be safe in his hands, he thinks. He’s powerful and he’s got the heart to put all of that towards something good. He wishes he could give Hazel a hug. Hearing how staunchly she defended him after he disappeared even though she’d only known him for a month made his heart swell. Maybe the effect he had on Nico swayed her opinion, too.

He wants Annabeth’s rational wit to calm him. She can talk her way out of any situation, and he would love to see her verbally destroy Tartarus and then physically rip him apart. He misses Percy’s companionship. The real Percy, the Percy that Nico cared so much about--as much as that hurts to admit--, not the gross misinterpretation from the mansion. He hopes those green eyes won’t haunt him.

Jason wonders if any of the others will miss him. He knows they will, but will they miss Jason for his true self? The self he lost so long ago that he’s only now begun to return to, far from their adoring eyes? Either way, he supposes, he’ll be immortalized as a hero in their memories. The son of Zeus who risked his life for a pitiful child of death because of his strong sense of justice. Nobility. Bravery. He’ll die living up to the expectations he hated so much.

As the shell of darkness cracks open and fire rains in, Jason presses his back to the wall of the Doors, keeping his left hand on the up button. He won’t let any of the monsters get to the control panel. He flashes his spear and breathes.

Nico is safe. He’s alive. He’s escaping Tartarus. That’s a victory.

Jason can’t die down here. Gaea won’t allow it (he has to believe that, it’s all that’s keeping him going). His blood will be spilled elsewhere. He just has to hold on long enough before he’s taken.

Through a rusty haze, Jason can see Bob’s great form fallen at Tartarus’ feet. His heart sinks heavy in his chest. Ghosts and monsters still swarm the god, who swats them off with irritation, rather than any actual hurt. Nico’s trick still has the battlefield divided into chaos. But monsters are convening on Jason again. He gnashes his teeth and lets loose a jolt of electricity from his spear to drive back an ogre. If he can’t hold on for twelve minutes, he never should have jumped in the first place.

The ground beneath him trembles and he summons a great gust of wind. Tartarus steps toward him, crushing dozens of monsters in his wake. Jason spears gorgons, drives back sirens, and lets out a great yell. His memory is so sharp and clear. He knows what he’s fighting for. There’s nothing that can stand in his way.

Foolish demigod, Tartarus bellows. You die for nothing. Your friends will follow shortly.

“I am Jason Grace,” he calls to the god. “Son of Jupiter, praetor of Rome. Brother of Thalia Grace. Defender of Camp Half-Blood. Friend to Greeks. Friend to Nico di Angelo. I know who I am, and I know I will defeat you.”

He calls upon his father, invokes his blessing, and lights up the battlefield with a great bolt of electricity. Veins burst, leaving trails of smoke in their electric wake. Monsters scream and swarm him. He cuts them down. One by one. Faster and faster. He’s bleeding, he’s injured, he’s holding on. He won’t let anything dissuade him from his mission.

Even Tartarus lumbering towards him is of no concern. Jason laughs, weary, pressing back against his hand. The image of the Doors seem to flicker. Are the twelve minutes almost up? Gods, he hopes so. He knees threaten to buckle under him. He remembers Nico’s shining eyes and they strengthen again.

I will enjoy your eternal suffering, Jason Grace… and the fact that you wrought the same fate upon all those you care about by your own hand.

Biting, kicking, clawing he defends the Doors. He draws comfort in Nico’s jacket. It hugs him tight and he sighs into the thick collar when he has a second to breathe. He can almost imagine their last embrace again. He tries not to cry.

The monsters only cease when Tartarus stands above him. His entire foot is taller than Jason. He’s massive and terrifying. Jason sinks to the ground, still keeping his hand on the up button. Please hurry, he begs the elevator. He begs Hazel to lead them to Nico and sweep him up in a hug. Help him to forget this ordeal. Even if it means forgetting Jason. As frustrating as Nico’s selfless intentions are, Jason understands. He’s the same way. He hopes Nico won’t blame himself for this, too.

A bitter smile graces his lips when Tartarus raises his sword. The monsters roar, now firmly under Tartarus’ control again and united against Jason. His tired eyes begin to droop as the sword swings down. The Doors become malleable against his back, fading, shifting away as they ready to reset. He thinks of the poem Nico told him about that he can’t recall. It’s in the back of his mind, tugging his hand, and Jason allows it to pull him into darkness.

Chapter Text

Frank is fond of quiet, but Hazel’s silence has had him worried since Croatia.

She came back limping, leaning heavily upon Reyna and Percy. The trio wouldn’t, or couldn’t meet anyone’s eyes but their own. Hazel wouldn’t let go of Diocletian’s scepter. Things got much worse after Piper left. Frank pressed her, maybe a bit too hard, to ask her about what happened. He suspected it was something to do with Nico; the way she preferred to stand in corners of the room, how she both radiated and gravitated towards darkness on the ship wherever she could find it. And then Hazel yelled at him, perhaps a bit too loud. They both parted in tears for separate ends of the ship. Shortly after that he sought Leo for company because, well, Leo scared him, but he was the only one who Frank thought could understand completely.

It was almost funny; the person he should have been most at odds with offered the best company and the easiest comfort before Piper returned. Hazel is his best friend, but he thinks Leo could become one of his best friends, too.

He and Hazel made up quickly, of course, both apologizing profusely. Frank still isn’t sure what happened in Croatia, but he doesn’t push her after that. Things are different; they both need their space. He knows Hazel will come to him on her own terms once she’s sorted it out herself. She knows Frank is there if she needs him.

While they head to the Necromanteion, Leo calls Frank over to the helm. He stands there already with Hazel, bouncing his leg to some unknown rhythm. “I need that magic piece of firewood,” he insists.

She straightens her coat, hand flying to the pocket where she keeps it safe. “Leo, no, you can’t--”

“I found a solution,” Leo says. There’s no joke in his demeanor. He’s as business as when Frank found him working on the ship below, but without the sadness that prompted him to talk to pipes. There’s a determination that blazes in his eyes, like the fire Frank is so afraid of. “It’s your call, Frank, but I can protect you.”

He meets Hazel’s worried gaze. After Leo’s outburst that charred the top deck and worse, the last thing he should want is to place his life in Leo’s burning hands. But after their talk below the deck, after catching a glimpse into the intense sorrow that motivated his outburst, and knowing the last thing Leo wants is to hurt people with his power (Frank is the same way), he trusts him.

And Frank has grown. He’s faced impossible things, completed insurmountable tasks that have made Mars proud. Hopefully made his mom proud, too. He swallows the fear in the back of his head and nods. “Go ahead, Hazel.”

Reluctantly, she hands the firewood to Leo. She gives Frank a small sad, but understanding look. So much is said in that quick glance. This makes me a little sad, but it’s your decision, I understand, I’m still your best friend and I’m not mad at you even though I’m more distant than usual. At least, that’s how Frank interprets it.

Leo procures a small white pouch from his tool belt. “Ta-da!” he hums. “This was made from a super fire-resistant fabric that even I can’t burn.”

It looks familiar. Frank narrows his eyes. “Is this why Piper is missing the sleeves on her new shirt?”

“I can neither confirm nor deny that statement,” Leo says. He places the firewood in the pouch and ties it closed with a bronze drawstring. “The fabric was Piper’s, but the string was my idea. Took some work to lace that into the fabric, but it won’t open unless you want it too. And it breathes like cotton.” He looks over his shoulder, searching for something. “Hey, Pipes! I need a demo!” Piper looks annoyed to leave her conversation with Annabeth but she walks over.

“You’ve taken enough of my clothes already,” Piper jokes. “What happened to your imperial fashion sense?”

Leo rolls his eyes. “Don’t make me offer Frank more color choices,” he threatens, poking her stomach and tugging the green shirt underneath her newly sleeveless blouse.

It’s good to see them both in such good spirits again. It puts Frank at ease a little more when Leo attempts to light Piper on fire. “See? Her entire outfit is made outta the stuff.” He demonstrates by moving his flaming hand from her shirt, to her blouse, to the hem of her pants. “You gotta get her to make me an outfit, Pipes--”

“Anyway,” she says quickly, a little pain in her voice that Frank can’t understand. “If you can’t take Leo’s word for it, take mine.”

Leo holds out his still steaming hand to Frank. “You just gotta trust me.”

Piper’s assurance is great, but he doesn’t need it to trust Leo. He speaks with the same confidence as when he worked to get Frank and Hazel out of the underground workshop in Rome, where Gaea promised that they would die.

Frank gives Leo the pouch.

His hand flies to his heart when the pouch is set ablaze. But there’s no tightness in his chest. No pain, no burning as his life ebbs away. The flames lick the fabric, but there’s no burning. The pouch isn’t even singed, it’s white as snow. Frank laughs, relieved.

“Thank gods that worked,” Leo mutters. “Otherwise it would’ve been really embarrassing.” He waggles his eyebrows at Frank and grins. “Who’s your best buddy?”

“It’s my shirt,” Piper coughs under her breath.

“Leo, that’s-- amazing,” Hazel says, grinning. She also looks relieved. Frank can feel all the fear that consumed him over his weakness for his entire life melting away.

“So, which one of you guys is taking this back?” Leo asks, dissipating the flame in his hand and offering the pouch to the air between Frank and Hazel.

“I’ll take it back,” he says. Hazel looks hurt, but she nods in understanding, tightening her grip on the scepter in her hand. The orb on top of it glows dark purple. Frank has a feeling he’s going to have to step up when they enter the House of Hades. He can’t explain it any better than Hazel can explain how and where she feels Nico and Jason. “And seriously, thanks Leo.”

Before Leo can escape, he pulls him into a bear hug, trying to force everything he’s feeling into a gesture that Leo can understand. He whines, but doesn’t try that hard to get away. Eventually, he pulls in Piper and Hazel worms her way in. Frank feels warm.

There’s a loud crack and they split, looking around for the source of the noise. “You should all come and see this,” Reyna calls, peering at the horizon. Percy stands beside her gripping the deck’s edge, eyes stormy. Black lightning streaks the horizon. A mighty cold river runs below. In the distance, there’s a huddle of ruins.

“The Necromanteion,” Hazel murmurs. Her dark tone makes everyone fall silent. There’s a coldness in her eyes, a heaviness that weighs Frank down with her. All he can do is squeeze her shoulder in support.

They leave Coach Hedge to guard the ship, choke down the barley cakes, and enter the underground. Hazel leads, tracing the end of her spear against cracks in the ground. Frank follows closely behind her. Annabeth, Piper, and Leo make up the middle. Reyna and Percy flank the rear.

Annabeth shudders, perhaps reminded of her battle with Arachne. Frank catches her eye and he gives her a reassuring smile. He makes sure to keep an eye out for spiders for her sake, and even though she keeps her lips pressed tight, there’s a gratefulness in her eyes that can’t be put into words.

They make it to a golden chalice filled with dark green liquid after several twisting tunnels. “Here’s the poison,” Hazel says, gripping the chalice tight in her free hand. She’s shaking and it pains Frank that there’s nothing he can do.

Percy loosens her grip and takes the cup. “Let me first,” he insists. He squeezes Annabeth’s hand and takes a big gulp. The dark green reflects in Percy’s eyes something dark, bitter thing that Frank can’t fathom. His nose scrunches with distaste. “Blech. Tastes like apple juice gone bad.”

A little tension leaves the group and he passes the cup to Annabeth. Then Reyna, then Piper, then Frank, and he hands it to Leo. “I feel like I should give a toast,” he jokes, swirling the chalice a little too carelessly for Frank’s liking.

“We’ll see how long you keep your sense of humor,” Reyna says, cocking an eyebrow.

Leo meets her gaze with ferocity. He raises his cup. “This one’s for you, Jason.” Everyone falls silent when he takes a sip, but its broken again when he whines, “Gods, that’s disgusting. Not as bad as the barley cakes, but… geez.”

He passes the cup to Hazel. She mumbles her brother’s name like a prayer and drains the rest. A passageway opens up right where they found the cup, revealing a new wall. “If the poison doesn’t kill us, then we’ve passed the first test,” Hazel says, wrinkling her nose, trying to get rid of the taste in her mouth.

“This is only the first level?” Piper squeaks.

Diocletian’s scepter and Leo’s flame light their way through the dark tunnels. They keep an eye out for the sorceress Hazel was warned about by Hecate and stay wary of flickering images and voices that aren’t there. Frank resists the cold settling in, trying to stay coherent amidst the underground illusions. He wonders if it’s like this in Tartarus--no, it has to be much worse, he decides sadly. He can barely handle a whisper he can’t define. How are Jason and Nico faring, the latter for the second time?

A rumbling breaks through their thoughts. Hazel holds Frank back and everyone stills until the tremor ceases. “Why does that keep happening?” Percy asks. “It’s like clockwork, every fifteen minutes.”

“The Doors of Death just opened again,” Hazel supplies. “Every twelve minutes. We need to hurry. Jason and Nico are in danger.” She forges ahead and everyone else follows her grim path.

Hazel traces a path through a dangerous cavern. Frank follows her every step, but the whispers in the back of his head keep distracting him. Then he sees the ghost demanding he follow, his friend’s worried whispers filling his ears as he rushes them along, and the cavern erupts into chaos. A great pit opens up beneath them and monsters of all kinds start climbing out. A horde of cyclops attack them first.

“Hazel, the scepter!” Frank cries out. She swings it high above her head, dousing them all in dark purple light and summoning hordes of ghosts. Dozens, hundreds of spirits swarm the cavern and add to the chaos. He stands back to back with her, drawing his bow and firing directly into the eye of a cyclops and knocking it down into the pit. The rest of his friends draw their weapons.

“Hazel, go,” he commands.

She shakes her head. “Frank, I’m not leaving you--”

“Hazel, this is the only way,” he says desperately. Frank wishes he could take her hand or hold her close, but they don’t have time. He has to take charge, and this may be the hardest thing he’s ever done, but he can’t let his legacy down. “Go save your brother and close the doors. We’ll meet you there.”

Before she can respond, the ceiling starts to shake. The monsters have upset the delicate balance of the cavern. He pushes her back, hard, and she runs the rest of the way from the avalanche.

Annabeth is on the other side with her.

“Annabeth!” Percy cries out. Frank has to usher him back while the cavern in front of them collapses. He can only hope that Hazel and Annabeth are safe on the other side. They can’t afford to think or act otherwise. The son of Poseidon trembles violently against his arm.

“Percy, she’ll be fine,” Reyna assures him.

Percy’s green eyes swirl and if looks could kill, Frank is pretty sure he would join the ghosts that Hazel summoned with the scepter. Frank gives a steady glare of his own and Percy starts to back down. “Okay,” he concedes, if only because the screech of monsters has drawn his attention.

Percy throws himself into the onslaught of monsters, tearing down cyclops with too much ease. Frank reminds himself that Percy doesn’t need water to be deadly. He’s a force to be reckoned with, sans his power, and even sans his weapon.

Reyna is back to back with Leo and Piper, the three of them a steady force. But there are so many monsters. It won’t be long before they’re overwhelmed. “Can’t you control these guys?” Leo yells to the praetor, flinging an orb of fire into the pit.

Reyna looks to Frank, who startles. Perhaps she hears Mars and Ares whispering in the back of his head, Lead them. At the break, you must take charge .

“It’s not up to me,” she says at last. “Can’t you keep up, Valdez?”

“Get along, you two,” Piper warns, charmspeak easing an apology out of both of them. Frank almost laughs if not for the centaur barrelling toward him.

“Form ranks!” Frank cries out. The ghosts lazily obey his orders, but they did listen, which is more than he expected. But it took all his strength to get them to obey a simple command; his head swims with pain. He can’t rely on them. He has to keep slinging arrows towards the dozens of monsters crawling out of the pit.

“How come they won’t listen?” Leo exclaims. Making sure Piper and Reyna are solid, he draws his hammer and smashes through monsters all the way to Frank, helping him stand when he sways.

“It’s my rank,” he says, trying to regain his balance. “I’m still only a centurion. I can’t control a whole legion.”

“Percy has to step down before you’re promoted,” Reyna calls over the chaos. “We can’t have three praetors.”

“Jason is still a praetor!” Piper points out, kicking a gryphon back and then slashing its throat.

Percy grits his teeth. “He’s in Tartarus, so I guess he doesn’t count.” Not to mention all the time he’s spent at Camp Half-Blood. He’s much more Greek than he is Roman at this point, and Frank doubts he could control an undead legion if he tried.

“Percy, prepare to get your ass kicked in twelve minutes or less!” Leo warns.

Percy grins. He cuts down several more monsters and then says loudly, “I, Percy Jackson, give my final order as praetor after my five days of service at Camp Jupiter: I resign my post and give you emergency field promotion to praetor, with full powers of that rank. Now hurry up and help us waste these monsters!”

“I’ll cover you,” Leo says, standing protectively in front of Frank, arms blazing and spread. His heart swells.

“Legion, agmen formate!” he commands. To his amazement, all the ghosts obediently fall into rank, stumbling over monsters in their haste to obey. “Eiaculare flammas!” They draw their arrows, which burst into flame at the tip, and fire them into the chasm. There’s a great explosion as more monsters crumble away into dust.

Percy laughs in amazement, eyes hungry for battle. “That’s more like it. Let’s turn this tide!”

Frank notices a weakness and calls to Leo, “Their left flank is weak! Think you can--?”

“With pleasure,” Leo responds, letting his hands blaze. “Take cover!” He runs in front of Piper and Reyna to the edge of the pit, sending a great burst of fire careening to the other side. The monsters that aren’t wiped out from that collapse into the pit. Piper cheers and Reyna looks reluctantly impressed.

“Piper, distract the enemy!” Frank says. Divide and conquer. Piper nods and immediately causes dissent among the monsters with her charmspeak, forcing them to turn their backs on each other. Reyna takes them down when they’re confused and distracted. She roundhouse kicks a gryphon charging Leo into the pit and he gulps his gratitude.

“Time to lead the front,” Frank murmurs. He thinks of Hazel. She’s facing off against the sorceress past the collapsed cavern, he thinks. Her grip on the scepter must be tight, willing ghosts, willing them to obey Frank since she can’t command them. He charges forward.

He’s faintly aware of the red glow surrounding him, as it had in Venice when Mars gave Frank his blessing. Monster claws and teeth do nothing to him, and their weapons laughably bounce off him. He remembers his mother as a soldier and only hopes he can make her proud as he charges into battle, striving to protect those he loves.

It isn’t long before the enemy’s forces are drained. The bridge leading them to the demigods collapses, taking the last few monsters with it. The ghosts and zombies wait expectantly in front of Frank. “Legion!” he says. “You fought well. Now you may rest. Dismissed.”

The glow around him fades and he would have fallen if Percy didn’t charge forward and catch his arm. “Easy, big guy,” Percy eases him to the floor.

Frank feels completely spent now that the blessing is gone. Piper and Reyna, side by side, trot over. Leo stands worried at his other side, but a grin breaks his face and he says, “Frankly, that was amazing.”

Frank finds it in himself to laugh, even more when Piper punches Leo’s arm. She gives him a bit of ambrosia and smiles warmly. “Seriously, it was. Terrifying, but… amazing.” Frank can’t quite wrap his head around being called terrifying, but he takes it as a compliment. He knows he’s done right by his family and protected his friends, and that’s what matters.

Reyna nods in agreement. “I couldn’t pick a better praetor myself.” The unusual praise makes him flush. The cavern shakes a bit and that jolts Frank to his feet again, no matter how wary he is. Hazel and Annabeth are still on the other side. “How are we supposed to get through this?” Reyna asks, eyebrows knit in worry, regarding the large pile of boulders blocking their way.

Frank remembers the ghosts filling the cavern. The blessing of Mars that surrounded them. “I need one more favor, dad,” he calls to the ceiling. He spreads his arms and invokes the spirit of the Roman warriors once more. “Guide us through this darkness,” he says. “Take us to the Doors. To Hazel and Annabeth.”

He almost passes out when several dead legion members appear before them once more. He can hear Mars and Ares laughing in the back of his head, loud and approving. “I think you’re officially too cool to be my friend,” Leo whistles. Frank grins.

The ghosts lead them through the darkness, opening a portal of black in front of the rocks. They file in, Frank leading the way. This must be shadow travelling, he realizes. The shadows tug them along in a current. Frost edges the tips of his nails. There’s danger ahead, he knows. He can’t quite voice it, but everyone behind him draws their weapons, heeding his silent command.

When he steps out of the darkness, he takes note of several things. Annabeth hides safely in mist. There’s a sorceress standing with two torches at her side, and it must be Hecate. There are chains broken where the Doors of Death must have been scattered broken on the floor. Hazel is standing wounded but triumphant in the face of a giant.

And that’s all that matters. Frank is a leader, but he allows himself a selfish moment and revels in the fact that Hazel is alive. And if Hazel is alive, Nico must be. Jason must be. If she’s safe, the rest of them will be okay.

“Sorry we’re late!” Percy apologizes. “Is this the guy that needs killing?”

It’s really not a fair fight. Between Hecate and Leo’s flames, Clytius barely stands a chance. Not to mention Percy and Reyna’s vengeance; both seem more powerful and focused now that they’ve seen their friends, especially Annabeth, safe. Piper holds back Hazel for a moment, to get her to catch her breath. She’s fought well, bended magic and mist and held off until they got here all while protecting Annabeth. She clutches at a wound in her side but she radiates pure power.

However, as he fights, a sense of unease begins to grow. Frank watches the elevator in anticipation, waiting for it to open, waiting for Nico and Jason to tumble out. It still hasn’t arrived. Hazel droops with exhaustion, and from the look in her eyes, he knows that they must be in the elevator. The end is so close. Piper guides her over to the elevator amidst the chaos and she slams her hand onto the up button.

When Clytius begins to fade to dust under Leo’s pointed flames, the elevator dings. Time slows to a crawl. Hazel sobs with relief when it opens and he stands there, shaking, clutching the doorframe.

His dark hair hangs in his face and Frank shudders. He’s paler than any of the ghosts that Hazel summoned. He’s covered in wounds, dirt, grime--Frank feels sick just looking at him. He’s been reduced to a skeleton, clothes too baggy for his criminally thin frame. There’s no one behind him or beside him. He is alone in the elevator. Shadows lap at his heel, at the palm of his hand, threatening to swallow him. Frank looks around frantic to the mixed reactions on his friends’ faces.

Only Nico stands there. There is no golden boy beside him, no son of kings to tell them it will be all right, no mythical leader that Frank has come to know as an idol and friend.

But there’s something else. An otherworldly black glow surrounds Nico. Not quite his shadow; it’s an extension of him, something he’s sinking into. It reminds Frank of the red glow that he emanated not too long ago. This must be the blessing of Hades, he realizes.

Maybe a few seconds, at most, pass during the time when Nico takes a single step forward. Time is still slow to Frank, but it’s starting to catch up to his rapid heartbeat. His right hand drags behind in shadow and he opens his mouth in a soundless scream. The darkness intensifies and crackles around him like the black lightning that led them here in the first place. Piper rushes back but Hazel just stands there, absorbing the darkness.

Like the portal the Roman soldiers opened for them, Nico’s hand is shrouded in shadow, dragging something along with him. With a great heave of his arm and a sob that twists Frank’s heart, he pulls. He’s pulling and sinking further into the darkness.

Hazel lunges forward and catches his arm before he can slide back into the elevator. She grits her teeth, digs her heels into the ground. Frank rushes forward and grasps her, grasps Nico, trying to pull them both back from the elevator. Then he feels Percy’s broad shoulders pressed against his, his arms outstretched, too. Leo holding him. Annabeth grabbing her. Piper whispering something, arms straining, some incantation or prayer. Reyna’s steadying arms around them.

They heave.

Wearing Nico’s bomber jacket, covered in blood from head-to-toe, Jason emerges from the shadows. Nico surges forward and his right forearm bursts with blood. The dark, purple magic engulfs the doors. They all stumble back. Jason reaches for Nico blindly, dragging them both to the ground. The doors disappear. They lay there, panting and twitching in the dark light cast by Diocletian’s scepter.

Frank isn’t sure when Hecate left, but she’s gone now. The entire temple rumbles. No one moves and no one speaks. He thinks at first that they’re afraid, unsure of what to do. Until he realizes everyone is looking to him.

“There’s not enough time to scale back to the entrance of the temple,” Frank states. He takes in Hazel and Nico’s weakened states. “And there’s no way to shadow travel.” Frank runs to Hazel while she stares at Nico’s lifeless body. His right arm bleeds darkness all over the ground. His entire body flickers in the light, as if he’ll disappear any moment. His other arm hangs haphazardly out of its socket, hand curled into Jason’s shirt. Jason looks as bad, old wounds bleeding anew on his leg and shoulder. He’s coated in filth and the stench he’s giving off makes him choke, gods, both of them, there’s so much red--

“They’re--he’s in shock,” Reyna says quietly. Her brown eyes are wide and strained as she looks on Jason and Nico’s stirring conscious. The most solid part of Nico is the hand holding Jason’s. She lays her own over theirs and closes her eyes, concentrating. “I can lend him my strength,” she says. She looks ready to buckle under the strain but she breathes through, and Nico’s body starts to become corporeal again.

Frank pulls himself together. “Hazel, can you open a tunnel straight to the surface and call Arion?”

“Not long and not very stable,” she grimaces. But she swallows hard, tearing her eyes from her brother, and extends her hands. “But I can do it.” The entire room shakes and a light breaks through from far, far above ground. Hazel’s whistle echoes through the tunnel.

“We’ll go in teams of three. Reyna, Percy, you take Hazel’s brother first.”

They sheath their swords and run over. Percy hovers uncertainly over Nico and Jason. Reyna is reluctant to let go of their hands and even more to separate them. Percy concedes and gently lifts the son of Hades into his arms. “Come on, Nico, let’s get you home.”

“H… ome...” Nico gasps and chokes, hanging on tightly to the jacket Jason wears. “J…” Frank can’t recognize the sound as a voice. “Ja…” He struggles in Percy’s hold, becoming more and more frantic the harder he tries to pull him away. His arm bleeds all over the ground, all over himself, all over Percy. Frank can’t make out a limb under all that black and red.

Arion rushes in through the tunnel, tamping hooves impatiently on the ground. “We’ll get your jacket later, Nico, I promise,” He assures the boy.

Nico struggles in Percy’s hands, Reyna’s hands, all the way onto the horse. Hazel keeps her gaze away, trying to focus on holding the earth together as it quakes, sweat beading her brow. Frank uses her determination to steady himself, too.

“Piper and Annabeth, get Jason,” he calls out as Arion speeds away with the first group. They help Jason limp to his feet. He breathes slow and unsteady, head whipping around wildly, looking for something they can’t see. Thirty seconds feel an hour but eventually, Arion returns and takes the second group.

Leo jogs over to Hazel and Frank. Hazel grits her teeth in concentration. “Saved the best for last, huh?” Leo jokes. His hands are shaking and it’s not just nervous energy. Maybe they’ll have the celebration and reunion they dreamed of when they’re back on the Argo II. Frank doubts it.

“They’re alive,” Frank says quietly, but his tone is strong and assuring. Leo and Hazel perk up slightly. He pushes down all his fear and doubt, knowing it will come back and hurt so much worse later. “We’re going to be okay.” This garners a tearful nod from them both. The ground vibrates and the three of them shudder. Finally, Arion returns. Frank and Leo clamber on, Hazel jumping on the last second.

The world is falling down around them. They fly through the tunnels, through the darkness, racing towards light. Out of the shadows and away from sad ghosts and broken bones. Hazel breathes anew when light floods her golden eyes. Leo’s curly hair flies around his pointed ears. Frank breathes in and absorbs the joyous atmosphere. They’re scarred but alive.

A quiet laugh from Leo rumbles his back. Eventually he joins in, and Hazel manages a sad smile, and Frank knows everything is going to be all right.

Chapter Text

The elevator music really isn’t helping Nico’s breakdown.

 His arms strain to keep the elevator doors closed. Dark purple energy from the inbetween of Tartarus and the human world seeps in, shocking him, trying to get him to loosen his grip. But he does not relent, no matter the fire in his joints, the agony in his heart. He’s gulping air too fast and too harsh, too much but he can’t stop. He’s only just holding himself together.

 The lighthearted tune playing only serves to aggravate him and rattle the doors. He watches the numbers on the display tick obnoxiously slow. The minutes become hours. I’m really doing this, he thinks. I’m getting out of Tartarus.

But Nico is alone. 

I’m finally almost free.

But Jason.

The moment those lips brushed his stained cheek is still burning him, still searing through all his pretense. He tries to slow his panicked breaths. Gods be damned if he’s going to pass out after everything he’s been through and waste Jason’s noble gesture. His stupid, brash, noble gesture.

Jason was wrong and Nico is the death of him. That thought itches and burns new blisters all over him.

How can he let go of Percy after everything that’s happened--after the mansion, but he can’t let go of Jason now? Of course Nico knows why, but he won’t entertain that thought. Hold on tightly, let go lightly, his mother always told him. No matter what he does, he can never hold on tight enough and at the same time can never let go.

He can still feel Jason’s heartbeat. His life force is still consistent. Faint, but it’s there, and it’s all Nico has. He holds in bile when the elevator jolts and Jason’s aura flickers. How is he supposed to face everyone now? How can he explain that Jason sacrificed his life for Nico? For someone that none of them knew he knew, knew he cared about so much, cared about more than anyone’s ever cared for Nico and maybe more than Jason’s cared for anyone--

But that’s wishful thinking.

And the worst part is that Nico can’t die. He can’t crawl away from this because Jason would berate him for the selfishness in his selflessness. His throat would get tight and his blue eyes would storm. Eventually it would fade, as it always did, and he would forgive Nico.

Nico is unable to fathom anything Jason does for him. Even though he knows the answer, it scares him and so he does what he always does: runs. From Camp Half-Blood, from Camp Jupiter, from Bianca, from Percy, from Kronos, from Gaea, from Tartarus, into Jason’s arms.

He had to run from that too.

Gods, he has to tell Hazel, doesn’t he? He’ll have to tell everyone and they’ll hate him, hate him even more for how disgusting he is and what he’s done--dragging Jason into Tartarus and corrupting him, tricking him into saving Nico’s life and leaving him for dead--dead--Jason’s going to die and it’s all my fault--

Nico is in full panic mode again and lets out a raspy, keening whine. “Sor--” he gasps out. “Sorry--Jason, I’m sorry--s-so sorry Jay… Jason…” He repeats his name over and over, a mantra, all that keeps him upright. Nico apologizes for a lot, first and foremost being his apology in the first place, because he knows Jason would shake his head and murmur assurances that Nico isn’t to blame. But he’s still sorry for so much.

Not letting Jason get close. Not telling Jason he knew him. Not telling Jason how he felt. Feels.

The climbing levels of the elevator no longer register. Nico tries to picture Jason as his aura flickers again. Filthy, but comfortable with the warmth of Nico’s jacket. His chin dotted with the slightest stubble. His hair long enough to develop a lovely wave, even covered in blood and dirt. The endless sky that lies in his gaze.

His hand pressed to the back of the elevator, protecting the control panel from all monsters. He sees flashes of darkness and feels Jason’s fear. But he’s accepted it; he’s going to die for Nico, and he’s okay with that. Because Jason really cares about him.

And then there’s a great shadow casting over him and Nico swears.

This shouldn’t be happening. Gaea should have enveloped his body into her soft earth already. She should have whisked him away from a fiery tomb to a dirty prison, awaiting his sister for sacrifice. Tartarus should not be this close and this ready to kill Jason when Gaea still needs him.

The elevator isn’t so turbulent now, and the chaos from the outside journey has faded as he’s gotten closer to the surface. His hand pressed over the up button. Reach for me. The shadow that threatens to drown him. I’ll come running.

Tartarus is the underworld. It’s still his domain. Prince of Tartarus Nyx dubbed him, condescension and shadow dripping from her words. He remembers his father. He injured Tartarus himself using his powers of darkness. He provided Jason a temporary shelter in shadow. Shadows. He traces the new black band around his scarred finger. The shadows he used to save Percy and Annabeth. The onyx wall that started in the Labyrinth.

Nico swallows hard and flexes his right hand against the metal door. He summons darkness around him and lets his hand dive into its innermost point. His fingers meet heavy resistance, churning through nearly formed concrete in the shadows. But Nico persists and reaches, even though it burns. More than Akhlys, more than being buried in shadow and earth alike, because it doesn’t hurt as much as letting Jason go without a fight.

“Jason,” he whispers, lips pressed to the cool metal of the elevator doors. “Please.”

There’s a touch that shocks him and he traces a fingertip, a knuckle, a hand that belongs to Jason. A hand about to get crushed by Tartarus’ mighty boot. Nico feels all the strain of the energy between both worlds weighing down on his arm and he tries not to scream. His ringed hand shakes.

“Come,” The Ghost King calls Jason’s very soul to him. But it’s Nico the boy again, a hopeful child, when he prays, “Come back to me.”

The hand meets his and their fingers intertwine.

“I don’t want to keep you waiting.”

And he pulls-- pulls--

The doors open. And the darkness is pulling him, too. He’s slipping. Falling.

Hazel grabs his hand.

Everything happens all at once.

His hand in darkness tugs, tugs, and pulls something through the cement shadows. He hears Jason’s gasp of life but can’t rejoice. It takes all he has to pull Jason out of the shadow in one piece. He knows Jason is holding his hand, holding him, but he can’t feel it. The gravity is so strong he feels his other arm jolt out of its socket. The old wound on his shoulder bleeds new.

Nico stumbles forward. He reaches with useless limbs--Jason reaches for him too--they hit the ground in a heap.

Gods, he’s alive, isn’t he? He’s here in the Necromanteion and Hazel’s fighting for them and Jason is alive right next to him.

His breathing has begun to even out. Color returns to his cheeks. Nico is struck with a horrible smell and remembers Jason is still covered in monster guts and blood. Nico is still marked in dirt. They’re both blistering and all the wounds he’s evaded come back full force.

Nico breathes even as his lungs threaten to collapse in on themselves. He’s alive. He’s pressed to Jason’s side--his arm pulls the son of Hades close, tight, tucking his head against his chest--and he can hear Jason’s heartbeat and feel him breathing and every expansion of his ribcage is a new line of notes in a gorgeous hymn.

You’re alive.

He reaches his hand to stroke Jason’s cheek, a weak, faltering gesture.

I’m alive.

Nico is breathing and alive and Jason is here and his sister is here and he’s in so much pain.

Through the midst of his contorting limbs, Nico theorizes that because he’s been in Tartarus for so long (his only reprieve being the bronze jar and not even an hour inbetween that and Tartarus again), his body has trouble adjusting to the normal pressure and nontoxic air of the surface world.

A scream sticks in his throat and he arches his back off the ground. His hand on Jason’s cheek turns into a vice grip in his hair, strong enough to tear. Jason groans and unwinds his clenched hand. He slurs, trying to sound out his name, but only a few sick syllables come out. He laces their fingers together again and it calms him.

A hand on his injured arm tugs and he tries to scream but all that comes out is cold air. His body twists, joints locked painfully tight even as he writhes on the ground. “D… ont…” He lays his tired eyes on Jason. Distantly, he thinks he hears Hazel, not knowing yet if he can trust her voice.

“--travel like this, he’ll--”

“... in shock… hold a tunnel?” Rumbling. Dust flecking his forehead.

A high whistle. “Arion!”

“--cy, Reyna, ta… zel’s brother--”

There’s a hand on his and Jason’s unlacing their fingers. He can only protest with a whimper. The touch burns him because it’s entirely human and it stings. He forgot what anyone but Jason felt like. He grasps the collar of his jacket, trying to hold onto Jason longer.

“Come on, Nico,” says the voice, small waves lapping at the edge of his ear. “Let’s get you home.”

Percy. “H… ome…” he repeats distantly. Camp Half-Blood. Nico is unsure whether or not his voice works. Camp Jupiter. Nico is unsure where home is. “J…” He tries to form another syllable, say his name, get him to open his blue eyes. “Ja…” Blood gushes from his arm onto the floor. Percy. Orange burns dark.

“We’ll get your jacket later, Nico, I promise.”

Arms and hands slide all over him, unwinding him. The giants, dragging him, gripping his body tight, pulling him in every direction and forcing him into the jar slowly , limb by limb, gods they wouldn’t let go they just kept touching him and he hates touch, contact, and revolts accordingly.

You can’t take me back there, he screams. No, no, no, ple--please, please, don’t-- but all that comes out is, “N… o… ngh… no…”

Nico isn’t ashamed to beg, he’s so scared, he’s terrified because they’re touching him and it’s not Jason, it’s taking him away from Jason and they’re going to kill them both and spill his blood and, and, and--

He watches himself struggle from some distant place. There’s no longer a connection between his body and mind. He slips from Percy’s hand into shadow. Nico watches his body fade in front of him, buried in darkness. Nyx’s garden. The mansion’s atrocity. The suffocating jar. Thoughts of Tartarus become the phlegethon running through his mind and burning him from the inside out.

He is trapped. He can see but there is no moving, no crying out for help that will not come, no struggling against what he has already decided to give into. All the while his shadow envelops him like a quicksand. The dark edges murmur sweet, intangible promises that the dangerous part of Nico is trying so hard to believe. He wants to do the easy thing. He wants to give in. He’s escaped Tartarus. He’s kept his word. There is nothing left for him to fight for.

Except. Except he is lying to himself.

A lightning thought strikes his mind and betrays all the lies he’s spun for himself: I don’t want to die.

Then he’s sideways and spinning. The stink of animal, frightened by the stink of Tartarus. Vomit teases his tongue. “Just close your eyes and hold on tight, okay?” The voice makes him sick. Flying makes him sick. The sun shining above makes him sick. It’s too much, too bright. Overwhelming his eyes. His weary eyes that have seen too, too much.

When the horse lands, the hands around him aren’t strong enough to keep him from wriggling away and tumbling onto the deck in his haste to get away. He presses his left hand tight to his mouth to hold off spewing vomit all over the deck. Nico can’t look too close at the other one or his vision starts swimming.

“Nico, slow down! Coach, please—”

“Ghn… way…”

“Holy Hera--Jackson, water. Bandages. Now.” Hooves stamp the deck. Weathered, hairy hands firm his shoulders to keep him from crawling away. “Ramirez, what happened?” A shaky, nearly silent breath is the only reply.

His head swims. Someone’s turning him over and his head falls back to stare at Percy’s face, too bright in the sun. “Nico, we need you to drink this, okay? It’s just water.” Percy sips the bottle and offers it to Nico, hesitantly prying the hand on his mouth away. “Please. Drink.”

Coach Hedge is mopping Nico’s blood off the deck. “I won’t ask so nicely, kid,” he urges. “So I’d drink if I were you.” His brow is creased with worry and Nico is struck with how old the satyr is. He looks so scared. It’s out of place. It reminds Nico of seeing his father in the shadows of Tartarus, warning him, caring for him.

A lot of good that did. Nico isn’t so good at listening.

But since he is too weak to refuse he lets Percy tip his head back. Cool liquid pours past his lips. He forgot what water tastes like. He still expects it to burn all the way down his throat. But it’s cold and calming. He sputters, gulping it down too fast, and the hand on his back only serves to antagonize him.

His body spasms again and his insides ache. Nico’s bones stretch and screams against the confines of his skin. He’s made it out of Tartarus, but the fresh air is too sweet and the pressure too light for him to survive.

He recognizes Percy and Hedge but what surprises him are Reyna’s dark eyes hovering over his form. This can’t be real, then, he reasons. Why else would she be here, looking so pained? Her lips move but only a faint ringing registers in his ears.

Nico knows she’s pressing two fingers to his wrist, his inner arm, his elbow, his bicep… but he doesn’t feel anything. He only knows because he’s watching her do this. She moves slowly and makes eye contact each time before pressing her fingers down. He only blinks in response when they pass through his ghostly flesh. But under her touch, his left arm undergoes some strange deposition, tissue weaving back together. Shape returns with pain. Warmth floods his bones and Reyna shivers, looking drained in comparison. His rings dangle loose around thin fingers.

Eventually, he feels her fingers prodding his shoulder because of the old empousa inflicted wound and the bone that hangs there out of place. Nico wants to hurl again, but nothing comes up. Just empty croaks to a silent world.

Percy enters his vision but Nico isn’t sure when he left. He looks ill when Reyna’s hand steadies Nico’s shoulder. Coach Hedge steadies Nico with a hand on his chest, helping him sit upright. Percy kneels behind him and holds his back. Nico only lets out a stilted breath when Reyna snaps his shoulder back into his socket.

Let me go, he thinks desperately. Percy’s knee burns into his back. His hands are on his shoulders to keep Nico steady and. He can’t stand it.

Reyna catches onto his discomfort, it seems, and scoots back. “Percy, let him go,” she urges quietly.

The hands, solid on his back, become hesitant. “But. Reyna, I’m trying to help.”

“I know, but right now, you aren’t.” Her gaze softens just so. “Let him go, Percy.”

He isn’t sure how long it is until his vision and hearing settle for good. While his brain fights to catch up with the speed of reality, Percy and Reyna talk quietly above his head. Arion drops off another group of three. He vaguely recognizes Piper and Annabeth helping Jason limp off the horse. Nico’s eyes drift to his torn jeans.

“Keep an eye on him, Ramirez.”

Reyna is still there beside him, holding him together in a vice with her gaze alone. Hedge quietly wraps up his arm. Percy doesn’t leave his side, but his gaze keeps flicking to Annabeth lying Jason on the deck. Nico wants to scream at him to leave, but he isn’t angry enough, and words aren’t working. All fight and emotion has left him. He sits as a doll, quiet and still.

Arion returns a final time bearing Leo, Frank and Hazel. Leo is laughing, high and out of breath. Frank reflects this with a reserved smile. And Hazel…

She stands there radiating a dark power much as Nico had shortly before this. She clutches a scepter in hand, orb swirling with black energy. Her gold eyes don’t quite shine. She leans on her scepter for support, nursing bruised ribs under her hand. Nico realizes that this is going to be much harder than he thought.

Dying is simple. He can slip away and disappear forever, if he really wants to. But even then Hazel would follow him to the underworld and chase his ghost through the afterlife. Like he did with Bianca.

Nico always blamed her, deep down, even if he hid it under hate for Percy. He hated her selfish intentions. How could she leave him behind, in life and death? It wasn’t fair. He watches with horror as all those thoughts cloud Hazel’s face, bringing tears to her eyes.

He watches his sister’s heart fracture when her eyes turn to him. A breath stops in her throat. She lets the scepter drop, doesn’t bother shooing Arion to the stables, and everyone on deck stops to watch her kneel in front of him.

Nico’s left shoulder keeps his arm from moving. So he reaches his other out to her. He wants to bridge the gap with an apology. He wants to brush her hair back and grip her hand tight in his own but.

It’s gone.

Nico thinks he could still be dreaming. There’s nothing below his right elbow. His hand, forearm, is gone. Nothing but a bloody stump clotted in shadow and Coach Hedge’s haphazard bandages. He still feels his arm move, his fingers flex, but there’s nothing there.

It’s gone.

Earlier, when he was fading, Reyna brought him back… somehow, but. Not all of him. He looks to her, trying to voice these thoughts with a single pained stare.

“Sharing my strength with others is an ability I inherited from my mother,” Reyna says quietly. Her whisper explodes across the space. Coach Hedge’s head hangs low. It must have happened when he pulled Jason from the shadows of Tartarus. Percy’s shirt is covered in his blood. It was strong enough to dislocate his shoulder, rupture his corporeal being, and tear his arm. “But you already… There was only so much I could do.”

Nico looks back to Hazel. His lost arm shakes.

Hazel crawls forward and gently slides her arms around his middle. She takes in his presence and her entire body trembles. Nico breathes her in, letting his head rest in the crook of her neck. “I-I’m really mad at you.” Her hands clench around his threadbare shirt. “How could you just-- leave like that?” A long silence passes before she speaks again, tears soaking his shirt, “Gods, Nico, I’m so glad you’re safe.”

Everything he would’ve said to Bianca if she made it back pours from Hazel’s mouth. And everything he wanted her to say if she returned floods to Nico’s mind. So he gives all that he can to his little sister.

“Don’t cry,” Nico chokes out. His voice is so much steadier than it should be but he has to be strong, he thinks, for Hazel. He’s okay, he can’t let her cry seeing him like this. “Haze. M’kay. I… Sorry. You…”

He tries to move his arms but they aren’t working, it hurts, and Hazel squeezes him tight to stop his struggles. He just wants to hug her back. They never thought they would see each other again. Gods, he can’t repent the pain he’s caused her following in Bianca’s ghostly steps.

Clumsily, he grabs her left wrist with his limp arm. It takes all his effort but the pulse he feels beating between them is worth it. He lets the tears shining in his eyes translate the words stuck somewhere between his mind and throat. “Glad you’re safe. That’s… what matters. You. Safe.”

And Hazel cries.

She brushes back his long bangs and kisses his forehead. She’s safe and that’s all that matters. It’s all Nico needs to hang on. She’s safe. You’re safe. Hazel is safe.

Everyone else shuffles around the deck. Friends reunite. Percy takes Annabeth in his arms and hugs her tight. Frank joins Reyna beside Nico and Hazel while they struggle to breathe. He murmurs words of encouragement, a rhythm of breath to follow. This goes on for a while. Nico starts feeling human again.

Then he remembers Jason.

He’s pushing himself off the ground, hair hanging like straw in his eyes. Piper rubs his back and Leo holds his hand. Jason pulls them both into a hug. He buries his face in Piper’s shoulder, in Leo’s curls, and sobs with relief. The three of them sit there, embracing, weeping, laughing with each other.

Coach Hedge trods over and Jason pulls him in for the hug, too. “You kids are gonna be the death of me,” he mutters, settling his short arms on Piper and Leo’s shoulders. They all laugh, exhausted and teary, only releasing the coach so he can set up the infirmary.

Nico held up his end of the bargain.

Now things can return to normal. He’ll stay around long enough to make sure Hazel makes it out unscathed, if he survives that long, but that’s all he needs to do. Jason’s returned to his normal life, to what he really needs. Nico lost Jason once. I can do it again, he convinces himself, even when his throat closes and his nose stings. Even though he lost his arm just so he wouldn’t lose Jason. Nico’s never been good at lying to himself, but he’s even worse at listening to himself.

When they finally part--hours, days, he can’t tell and he hates the grudge burning in his chest everytime Jason smiles at Piper--Annabeth kneels down and gives Jason a good-natured shove. “Thalia,” Nico sees her mouth, ruffling his hair with a one-armed hug. Percy joins and doesn’t seem to notice Jason flinching away from his touch. He’s quick to come up with a kind excuse, placate them both with a squeeze of his hand, and jump to his feet.

Percy and Annabeth can’t quite meet Nico’s eyes and he isn’t sure how to feel. Maybe a little smug he isn’t the only one skirting his gaze around them anymore. But that’s not something to be proud of.

Especially when he wants them to look. Say something. Do something. Anything.

Frank strides over to talk with Jason. Quiet. Solemn. But Jason says something that makes Frank beam with pride. Already, Nico sees him filling in the gaps, offering the necessary words to stitch the group back together. It’s weary but he assumes the role again for the benefit of everyone else.

“Go,” Nico mumbles to Hazel when her focus switches to Jason. “Haze, ‘m’fine. Go.” She’s reluctant to leave his side but eventually, she does. She talks quietly with Jason and tries not to cry. While she’s gone, Nico can slip away and lick his wounds. He looks to Reyna, who stares at the unfolding scene with a pain that Nico can’t place the origin of, but understands.

No one meets his eyes. No one knows what to do with him. He’s used to it. If he let Percy and Annabeth fall, he can only imagine how much more isolated he would feel on the ship.

The praetor helps him to his feet and takes him towards the stairs. His boots tredge the deck and he doesn’t dare look away from them. There’s buzzing in his ears, burning in his limbs, aching in his heart. A whisper, a call of his name, tugs the slightest turn of his head. It culminates in Jason’s too-loud question, “Where are you going?”

He doesn’t move. He trembles beside Reyna while Jason trudges over. He listens to his cadence, his injured leg faltering his steps. The steps that fall in time so easily with his, the steps that have followed him so close and careful, more haunting than any ghost.

Nico hears Reyna’s gasp when Jason pulls her into a tight embrace. He raises his head over to them. Everyone else on deck seems to be just as shocked. Jason doesn’t let go. He mumbles something into her shoulder and eventually she relaxes, some realization overtaking her. She hugs him back, brief but strong.

Things are returning to normal. Jason has Leo. Has Piper. Now Reyna, too, has returned to him. Everyone and anyone he might need.

Nico starts down the stairs.

“Nico, stop.” Jason’s voice freezes him again. He’s only glad Jason pulls him away from the staircase because he was close to falling. Not because it means he might want something to do with him after all. Jason grips his only arm at a loss for words. “What were you thinking?”

It’s a long time before Nico says, “Guess I wasn’t.”

“I was supposed to--you weren’t--” His hands scramble for purchase on Nico’s dirtied skin. “You’re hurt.”

“So are you.”

He isn’t sure who starts it. Whether it’s Jason’s gentle hand or his own will, he turns around to face him. They both carry unnecessary blame in their hearts, superfluous guilt in their eyes.

Nico takes a good look at him in the light. Still covered in burns, blood and flesh. There’s something haunted in his eyes that doesn’t belong there. It reminds him too much of what Jason’s been trying to shrug off since they met. But he’s looking at Nico. Drinking him in. Jason’s looking at him different from everyone else. He didn’t look this way at any of his other friends. Not Reyna. Not Leo or Piper. This is something reserved for Nico and it isn’t the first time he’s seen it. But it’s the first time he’s allowed himself to revel in it. The first time he’s tried to give it back.

Nico laughs. It’s low, rattling in his chest and straining his throat, but he laughs. His one hand moves to Jason’s own for support, fingers digging into the lines of service on his tattooed arm. “We did it,” he gets out. Another small laugh, closer to a sob this time, rips out of him. “We... we did it, Jason. Y--you--’re alive. Safe.” It wasn’t all for nothing , he thinks. You can let go of me, now. You don’t have to keep hanging onto me.

But Jason’s look is too honest and too good for Nico to refuse with stubborn will and dirty with weak lies.

Jason takes his face into his shaking hands and presses their foreheads together, close and light. Nico makes a noise he can’t define and can’t care to be embarrassed about. “Gods, Nico, you still don’t get it,” he whispers. “ You did it. You got us out of there. You saved me.”

Nico doesn’t refuse his words. He lets tears flow free and loses himself in pools of blue. But this time, he doesn’t drown. And now Jason is shaking and letting Nico see him vulnerable, fear filled eyes, while he falls apart in his arms.

“Don’t cry,” he finds himself repeating, but he says it low, so low in Jason’s ear. Not because he shouldn’t, as he’s sure Jason’s been told countless times. But because there’s no need, because they’re safe and alive and okay.

“Your arm--” Jason chokes out and clutches Nico tight to his chest.

He’s lost so much that this seems such a small sacrifice in comparison. “It’s--”

“Don’t. Not fine.” Jason’s hold is tighter, if possible, and Nico’s feet dangle off the ground. He’s angry. “How could you do that for me?”

You mean, how could I save you? He laughs again. How couldn’t I? He doesn’t answer Jason’s question. He sinks into his presence. Exhaustion wins out and his legs give way until Jason is the only thing holding Nico up.

And when Nico looks up, Jason’s face is contorted by fury, brow heavy with despair. The longer he stares at Nico the worse it gets. “Jay?” he asks quietly. He reaches a hand to his face and Jason stiffens under the touch. He doesn’t understand. They’re both alive, they’re both okay. Why is he so angry? “You look. What did I…?”

“How could you do that for me?” he repeats, so soft that Nico’s heart shatters.

“You saved me. So I... I saved you.” Nico doesn’t understand what Jason doesn’t understand.

Jason covers his mouth to stifle a sob. “No, Nico--” he gets out. “You shouldn’t--shouldn’t have-- fuck, Nico--” He starts sinking onto the deck and Nico follows, unable to support himself.

Jason hugs him closer and tighter and keeps rubbing his severed arm and Nico tries to reciprocate but he’s so scared because Jason won’t stop shaking, holding him, looking at him like that.

Nico lets them both be selfish. He stays in Jason’s arms and won’t let him go, either, trying to brush tears from his dirty face while keeping himself from hyperventilating. Jason kisses his forehead and it bruises, it burns.

Someone kneels next to them after some long while and Jason snarls, pulling Nico protectively to his chest, heart thrumming in his face.

Nico sees Percy out of the corner of his eye and struggles out of Jason’s vice. “Jason. It’s okay.” He scrutinizes Percy’s eyes, just to be safe, and recognizes the haunting hue. His reassurances are soft, only for Jason to hear, “Safe. Percy. This is real.” He thinks. 

Percy watches him, slow, careful, something in his eyes Nico can't read. He brushes back his bangs and Nico sees those telltale gray locks. That makes him believe it more. Akhlys didn't have that, he thinks. But he doesn't want to think too hard. Doesn't want to remember. It makes his head, heart and bones all ache too much. “Let’s get you guys cleaned up, okay?” he offers, raising his hands to placate Jason. “No one’s going to hurt you.”

Eventually, the Roman demigod settles down, breath slowing to normal. He still growls out, “It’s not me I’m worried about." 

Piper paces toward them. “Jason, calm down. Percy’s your friend. He wants to help.” Guilt crosses her face when he finally relaxes. His hold on Nico remains firm, however, and he absently strokes his hair. The gesture is calming and Nico finds himself leaning into it.

Piper and Percy help them to their feet, though Nico shies away from their touches and into the comfortable confines of Jason’s arms. He’s reluctant to venture out, only willing when Hazel offers her hand. She takes a long time helping him down the steps, leading him below deck, with too thin hallways and too dark corners for his liking.

Coach Hedge has beds, bandages, ambrosia and nectar all set up. He keeps them on schedule when their feet falter. He doesn’t let them think, stay still, otherwise they’ll all collapse. They settle Nico on a cot in the sick bay while Jason goes to shower first. Clean Jason, feed Nico. Clean Nico, bandage Jason. Bandage Nico. Feed Nico. Sleep Nico.

He hurts and needs all too much.

Vaguely, he wonders where his coat is. Jason had it last, somewhere, so long ago. Nico thinks about wrapping himself up in it and Jason’s scent wafting all around him.

Nico spends the next… well, he isn’t sure how long, in a daze. He thinks Hazel draws a chilly bath because lukewarm chars his skin and he soaks in grimy water for a long time. Drains it. Cleans the tub. Draws another bath. Rinse and repeat until every inch of Tartarus is scrubbed from his skin. He has too many fresh wounds and he lets it bleed all over his towel.

There’s a knock at the door to banish his bleary thoughts. He expects Hazel but someone else says, “I got you some clothes.” Right. His own are a health violation, a second layer affixed to his skin with filth that he all but shed away.

He creeps to the door and cracks it open. Annabeth, head turned respectfully away, pushes a bundle of clothes forward. Nico takes them from her scalding hands and shuts the door quick.

The sweatpants are comfortable and he has to guess they’re Leo’s, because he’s the only other boy on the ship under six feet. But the shirt? Long sleeved, dark blue and warm with Jason, perfectly soft against his broken body. He leaves it off since they still have to bandage his torso, but he kneads the fabric in his hand for comfort.

He emerges from the bathroom and keeps it close so it drapes over his prominent ribcage. More ambrosia, stinging disinfectant, and at last he can burrow away in the gifted shirt. People come in and out of the room, grabbing supplies, checking in on Hazel and glancing at Nico with fear and worry from the doorway. All he can do is remain grateful that they don’t stay.

Nico wishes Jason beside him.

Nico has held himself together pretty well when Hazel suggests he eat something before he go to bed. The last thing he remembers eating are the pomegranate seeds. He’s been drinking water, slowly, small amounts. But the thought of eating makes him sick. He remembers stale air. Dirt filling his mouth. Suffocating him.

And sleep? He’s slept once since his death trance. Jason guarding his body and Hazel guarding his mind (he knows she has to be the only reason he slept at all, even if fitfully). But now he’s out of Tartarus and nightmares are ready to pounce. Sleep is a bad option. He might never awaken. But so is eating. He’s barely kept down the ambrosia they’re giving him.

Nico gives up his words so Hazel foregoes dinner with the rest of the crew and gets him a small bowl of broth. Cold, at his request. He wonders if he’ll ever eat anything warm again.

“Your hair is getting so long,” Hazel muses, untangling the wet strands sticking to the back of his neck. Her fingers gently stroke his bruised scalp. Nico leans into it, able to sip contentedly from the broth for a minute. “We’ll have to cut it soon.”

He shakes his head. He likes his hair this way. Long and dark, so separate from the short, fair-haired scruff that adorned his head as a child. He tries to forget that entirely.

His sister purses her lips. “Fine, but you know I can’t stop Reyna.”

Nico manages a small smile. He’s surprised that Reyna’s here, sure, but glad. Her presence has always calmed him. There’s an unspoken kindness underneath all that stoicism that makes his heart melt. She’s stone through and through, and her persona is what Nico wishes he could achieve (healthy or not, and it’s not, he’s sure).

Silence settles between them. Nico keeps chugging away at the bowl in his hands. It seems to refill after every sip he takes. There’s too much. But he’s going to try and finish it, he has to, liquids are all he’s keeping down. Hazel wants him to eat and he’s let her down enough already. And he refuses to die after escaping Tartarus because his pride kept him from a nourishing bowl of soup.

Hazel’s fingers slow in his hair and land on his stiff shoulders, tense. “I don’t want you to leave again,” Hazel blurts into the silence.

Nico chokes on his broth.

She waits until he’s calmed before she continues. “Can you promise me that?”

Nico wants to. So, so badly. But his lips are glued tight. He can only shrug against her sad hands. They let the conversation drop. She hugs him tight, burying her head in the crook of his neck. He sets down the broth so he can pat her head consolingly.

“I think I want to sleep, Haze.” The day has taken a lot out of him. Days. Hours. Weeks. However long he’s been in Tartarus. However long he’s been out of it. Nico is rigid, expecting to blink and find himself back underground, in the mansion, drowning in the Cocytus, in the jar, anything but the paradise he finds himself in now. It hasn’t sunk in that he’s not there.

He may have left Tartarus but he knows better than to think it will leave him alone.

Hazel pushes the two cots together and piles on blankets to soften them. He’s too tired to go to her room so she opts to stay in sick bay with him for the night. Nico is going to point out that Jason needs one but he remembers Jason has his own room. Bed. Probably for himself and Piper. Nico tries not to gag on that notion.

He settles into bed on his left side and faces Hazel. They link hands. “I’m really glad you’re safe, Hazel,” he says quietly. He doesn’t have to say that he thought he’d never see her again. That he threw himself into Tartarus to save her as much as anyone else. That he regrets following Bianca’s footsteps and leaving her behind. “I’m sorry.”

Hazel scoots closer. “I know. I’m glad you’re safe, too.”

He lets her even breathing lull him into a sense of safety. He relaxes but won’t let himself fall asleep beside her. He refuses to let his guard down while she tosses and turns on the uncomfortable cot.

Some time during the night, whether minutes or hours have passed he doesn’t know, the door creaks open. He shuts his eyes tight, scooting a little closer to Hazel’s back. Muted footsteps trace the wood. The bed dips under sudden weight.

“I couldn’t sleep,” Jason whispers.

Nico rolls over to face him. “Neither can I.” He’s still wearing Nico’s jacket. Blue eyes trail to what’s left of Nico’s right arm. Jason’s hand halts just above the bandages and Nico nods. “You don’t have to ask.”

“I want to. It’s important.” Nico’s heart clenches. Jason dips his nails into the overlapping bandages and sighs. His hand eventually rests on Nico’s side, pressing lightly into his ribcage. “Do you think this is real?” Jason mumbles.

Nico has his doubts, but Jason needs certainty, so he keeps them quiet. “Does it feel real?”

The hand on Nico’s side dips under his shirt to smooth over his cold skin and his brow drips with sweat. “It does.” The touch is warm, sudden, but it’s the first warm thing that hasn’t triggered him. He relaxes into it. Welcomes it. “Sleep. I’ll keep watch. That way, we’re covered, whether it’s real or not.”

His suspicion sparks a low fear in Nico. “Are you still mad?”

Jason doesn’t reply. His hand moves to stroke Nico’s hair. “Sleep, please. For me?”

Nico’s still afraid he won’t wake up. But if this is the last thing he remembers in the wake of whatever torture awaits beneath his eyelids, he’s fine with that. So he lets Jason’s warm hands win out the fight. A heavy weight settles on his chest--the jacket Jason’s been wearing for so long, now. It’s all the comfort Nico needs. A kiss to his brow and he’s out like a light.

Chapter Text

Jason doesn’t want to cry in front of everyone but when he sees Nico broken down under bright lights he can’t help it. The setting sun that greets them is too harsh, the oranges of the sky too burnt for him to believe he’s really escaped Tartarus.

But Nico is there. Bleeding, burned, missing an arm. Reaching what he has left out to Jason.

And yes, he’s angry. Angry that someone would sacrifice that much for him. He supposes he’s not one to talk, when he dove in as soon as Nico fell. When he’s spent his entire life playing hero. Yes, he’s spent his entire life letting people devote their lives to him, entrust their safety to him. He can never guarantee it and they know. He knows. It still hurts. But it’s never hurt as bad as seeing Nico hurt in that same position. Because he cared enough to save Jason when he was ready to die.

What would have happened if Nico hadn’t pulled Jason out right when he did? Nico’s soul and body, torn to pieces, stuck between the mortal world and Tartarus. An eternity of death in shadow. For what? Jason’s safety? So the prophecy can unfold?

Nico is all too willing to give himself up for a cause. Jason can’t let himself be that cause.

He scours his skin and watches crimson swirl the drain. He empties an entire bottle of body wash to get his skin clear again, desperately trying to drown out the stench of Tartarus. His skin is too red, too tight once he’s finally out. It’s soft and it shouldn’t be. Soft skin doesn’t serve soldiers.

Jason regards himself in the mirror. His calf is twisted and marred with teeth marks. His physique is leaner and his skin newly pale. His scar stands out more this way, striking, seeming to split his lips further in an ugly way. His stomach gnaws at itself, ravenous with a hunger that he isn’t sure food can satisfy.

He can’t recognize himself in the mirror. Jason’s memory and mind are completely in sync, now, distorted and washed out. The steam in the shower starts rising, hot and fast, quick to fill his head. Fill his lungs. Smog. The stench of blood. Fire. The river.

A knock at the door snaps him out of it. “Jason? Grabbed you some clothes. You okay?”

Leo’s voice brings him back to earth. He clutches the mirror, sharp nails indenting the edges. “Yeah, I’m good,” he gets out. The glass shakes when he releases it. He can’t stand to look at himself any longer. He grabs the outfit left at the door and quickly puts it on. A Camp Half-Blood shirt and blue sweats. This orange, horrible and neon, he finds comforting. Warm colors make him anxious, but this one is fine.

Nico’s jacket sits on the floor in a dirty heap. Jason runs his hands over worn leather reverently. He slips into it, appreciating the comforting wool, and wincing at the dry blood stains. Nico’s blood. He removes the jacket, rinsing the stained garment under cold water and scrubbing until his hands are raw and the jacket is clean again. Then he puts it back on.

When he emerges from his bathroom Leo stands there. He’s gotten taller, Jason notices. Lost some of the baby fat in his cheeks, gained a broadness in his shoulders that wasn’t there before. He still retains his impish features but he’s prouder now. Confident. His jovial persona is less of a facade.

“How long were we gone?” Jason asks.

Leo whistles low and uneasy. “Um, not sure. A week? No... longer.”

“Longer,” he repeats numbly. How much and how little has happened while he and Nico were trapped, he wonders. To give Leo such a jolt towards becoming a young man. His friends are growing, capable of changing, but still themselves.

Jason is so stuck in comparison.

“You with me, Superman?” Leo puts a hand on his arm and Jason flinches.

“Sorry,” they both hasten to say.

“I just,” Jason bites his lip. “Startled, that’s all.”

Leo nods quickly. He’s a little hurt, but there’s compassion in his eyes. “Yeah, yeah. Don’t worry, I get it. Let’s get you bandaged up, ‘kay?”

Jason takes a look around his room. It’s remained undisturbed since he left, gathering a thin layer of dust on his dresser, save for where Leo rummaged through to get him some clothes. An idea floats in. “Do you have an extra pair of pants?” Jason asks.

“Uh, yeah, somewhere. I can’t even remember the last time I changed these,” he tugs at a hole in his worn mechanic’s jeans and Jason can’t help a grin, “How come?”

He rummages through a drawer of camp shirts and plain tees, settling on something comfortable, blue and long-sleeved. “Nico needs a change of clothes and my pants won’t fit him.”

Leo chuckles. “Yeah, he’d probably drown in them.”

They trek to the infirmary and to Jason’s disappointment, Nico isn’t there. Well, he’s using the infirmary bathroom to get cleaned up. Jason feels like he needs to see him, to say something, but he doesn’t know what. The other part of him can’t stand to look at him after he’s sacrificed so much for his sake. So he gives Annabeth the clothes to give to Nico and gets bandaged up further away on one of the cots.

No one asks him any questions. For now, he is safe from the onslaught of their curiosity. Piper bandages the wound on his leg. Leo cleans up his shoulder. Other scrapes and bruises are tended. Ambrosia has no taste. No comfort. There’s no spot on Jason’s body untouched by Tartarus. Even his insides have been fouled.

Piper sits on the ground with her head resting on his knee, distant while she bandages his leg. He threads his fingers through her hair. She’s changed, too. There’s something different about her he can’t place. She seems sheepish around Jason, but more confident overall, her eyes remaining brown. Not the specific shade that Jason loves so much, he notes with guilt, yet still quite beautiful.

She gives him a sad smile and he returns it with as much melancholy. They’ve aged thousands of years in a single week.

“I’m starving,” he says at last, when everyone else remains too afraid to speak.

Piper and Leo take him to the mess hall and Jason thinks that no matter how much food he gets, he’s going to die of malnutrition any second. He remembers being a child in the wolf house, fighting cubs for scraps. This is the same, but worse. Panic overtakes him. He doesn’t even know what he’s eating, whatever the cornucopia spits out. He gorges and hardly stops to breathe, much less think about slowing down.

“Jason, slow down,” she advises, no charm in her voice. He knows how much she hates having to use it against her friends, no matter the benefit it may bring.

Leo tries to help, “You’re going to make yourself sick.”

A chunk of beef sticks in his throat and he forces it down, thumping his chest. “I’m fine,” he insists. He guzzles a glass of water and continues feasting. Buttered rolls, spinach, pasta. He needs to keep eating. Grime and fire tease his tongue. Needs to stay alive. Can’t taste anything more than the ambrosia crumbled like sawdust in his mouth. Gods, he’s so hungry, he’s not fast enough and he needs to keep eating, digging in, gnashing his wolvish teeth--

He stops when his fingers dig into the shell of a pomegranate, bursting it open. The broken seeds scatter the table and bright, burning scarlet drips down his hand. Piper’s holding her breath. She reaches for Jason’s red hand.

“Pipes, don’t,” Leo says quickly, perhaps noticing the unusual anger rising in Jason before he does. She retracts her hand, upset. Confused. “Don’t touch him. Jason, just… put the pomegranate down, okay? Take a breather. There’s still gonna be food here, even if you’re not stuffing it in your mouth.”

Jason nods, unable to muster a witty reply. He gives the pomegranate one final throttle before he lets it fall in chunks on the table, splattering red. So much damn red. All the food he’s been eating--how long, how much--churns his stomach. But he has to keep this down, he’s already cried in front of them today, he can’t show anymore weakness. He can’t handle the looks they keep shooting his way, to each other, behind his back.

He takes their hands in his own and manages a sickly smile. Piper doesn’t pull away even when his dripping hand embraces hers, and Leo doesn’t retreat even though Jason’s gripping his wrist too tight for comfort. “Thank you both,” he says. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

“Us, too,” Leo says in a moment of uncharacteristic quiet. “We missed you.”

“A lot,” Piper adds, something in her voice that he can’t define.

Jason offers his reply to the nearest trash can.

He gives Piper a shaky nod of permission when she longs to rub soothing circles on his back while he spews his guts into the trash can. Red still drips from his hand. His mouth. Poison, blood, whatever it is makes him sicker and sicker. He doesn’t even know if it’s real.

Shit, none of this is real, is it? The pomegranate is some twisted sign that this fantasy is not reality, that he’s still in Tartarus, maybe the mansion, maybe some other torturous scenario that Gaea’s designed, that he’s here puking and sick and dying, maybe, while Nico is alone dying somewhere else--

Leo is calling for help, distant, and suddenly Frank is there telling Jason to breathe. He doesn’t touch him, doesn’t get too close, but breathes with Jason in counts of eight. “Inhale, Jason, slow--hold,” Jason is shaking but Frank’s voice is so strong and powerful that calm washes over him. “Now exhale. Good. Just keep going.”

Jason wants the wastebasket in his hands to shatter along with his body’s weakness. “Thanks, Frank,” he gets out after a long time of silence filled only by their worried breathing. Piper and Leo have cleaned his mess off the table and he takes a seat again, much more subdued.

Frank is different, too. Too close to Jason’s height for his prideful liking, chin held strong and steady, a tenor of authority filling the room every time he speaks. But his black eyes are still soft and kind. That remains unchanged, he notices with relief.

He lost all memories of his friends and their growth in the past. He doesn’t want all his new friends to grow up and old without him.

They sit Jason back down and Frank explains everything that’s happened while he and Nico were gone. He has to chuckle at Piper when Frank tells him about the corn plant. He covers Reyna striding across a lonesome ocean to meet them because of the dreams that plagued her. The mooring of the ship shortly after leaving Croatia, Piper’s disappearance and the time spent fixing the ship, up to entering the temple of Hades in Epirus. Leo adds anecdotes and humorous explanations whenever Jason starts zoning out, struggling to stay in the present with his friends.

“Praetor, now, huh?” Jason says. There’s not jealousy or competition in his voice, which eases Frank’s tense shoulders.

“Yeah. I mean, it was an emergency. We were pretty desperate--”

Jason shakes his head. “If anyone should make praetor, Frank, it’s you. You’re a good leader. I’m glad you were here to take care of things in my absence.” Leo and Piper nod eagerly in agreement, the former clapping Frank on the back. Interesting, how they’ve gotten closer. They weren’t quite friends when he left.

“Thanks, Jason. We’re… we’re really glad to have you back.” Frank gives a thin smile. “It wasn’t the same without you.” Jason doubts part of that sentiment but Frank is sincere, so he accepts his kind words.

“Frank’s right,” says someone behind Jason. Annabeth strides in with Reyna and Percy. They take seats at the table across from him. Her gray eyes pierce him with concern. “How are you feeling, Jason?”

“Fine,” he lies. “Just a little tired, but I’ll make it.” He waits as long as he can before the question bursts out of him, “How’s Nico doing?”

“Hazel’s taking care of him,” Annabeth says, all but ignoring his question. Her hand taps impatiently against the table, perhaps to rid her of all her nervousness. Whatever she came to talk about is itching on the tip of her tongue. She’s itching to blow past Nico. Even mentioning his name motivates her gaze to stick to the table. Percy, too, seems sheepish. Everyone quiets. Reyna meets his gaze helplessly.

And it makes Jason angry.

“That’s all you have to say,” he says. A low chuckle rumbles spitefully in his chest. “Did you ask him? Talk to him?”

“He’s not talking to anyone, Jason,” Annabeth says. There’s something behind her gray eyes when they sweep over him, something strange. She’s always trying to figure him out. Well, she does that with everything, but it’s different with him. It always has been. “I’m not going to push him when he’s… in this state.”

“Why would you ask me how I’m doing yet not say a word to him?” Jason prompts. “I thought you would be the first. He jumped in to save you, after all.” His cold eyes flit to Percy. The son of Poseidon tenses. “Both of you.” Then he examines the three that were comforting him not minutes ago. “Any of you.”

“We’re going to talk with him when Hazel’s done bandaging his wounds,” Percy says. “We just stopped by.”

“Just stopped by.” Jason’s hands clench in his lap. He remembers Nico leaving. Leaving, always leaving for weeks at a time, coming back sadder each time. Leaving to help Percy and risk his allegiance to both camps. Leave Jason with their unknown final goodbye to look for Percy. And he shakes with fury.

Frank looks between them both, concerned. He tries to divert their attention, “Hey, Percy, I think I heard Hedge calling you at the helm…”

“What do you want me to say?” Percy asks. He sounds tired, as though he’s played Jason’s insinuations in his head a hundred times already. “I’m not going to fight you right now, Jason.”

“Is expecting you to treat Nico with the bare minimum of human decency a fight, Percy?” He remembers Akhlys’ green eyes glowing behind his eyelids, bulbs ready to burst and shower them with glassy debris. He abruptly stands up, electricity crackling along his knuckles. “If that’s what it needs to be…”

“Jason,” Reyna warns. “Sit down.”

Percy’s chair scrapes the floor and he stands too. “Percy, cut it out,” Frank says. Annabeth folds her hands on the table and shuts her eyes tight, concentrating. Leo keeps glancing warily between Percy and Jason. Frank squares his shoulders and stands, too. “Both of you stop it, right now. We aren’t going to start fighting again. Everyone is safe and that’s what matters.”

Percy and Jason stare at each other, hard and angry. They bow to Frank’s command and sit slowly, never taking their eyes off each other. Percy speaks in a strong whisper, “I had my reasons to be suspicious. To be angry. I’m not proud of it, but you don’t know him like Annabeth and I do.” Jason can’t help it, he laughs. The notion that Percy knows Nico a fraction more than anyone else in the room is hysterical.

“Jason, stop it,” Reyna insists. “Percy is trying to be mature about this. You can at least do the same.”

“Oh, I can do better than the least someone expects of me,” he seethes.

“Stop acting like we aren’t grateful,” Annabeth says. She’s finally unwound her clenched jaw to speak. She looks at least guilty. “Believe me, I understand how much Nico has done for us… for Camp Half-Blood, for the world as much as Percy. And me. I mean, without Hades armies alone--I understand how much he’s given and how little he’s received in return.”

“I wish it didn’t take him falling into Tartarus again for you to realize that,” Jason drawls. Annabeth’s gaze falls to the floor.

“You wanted to leave him behind,” Percy snaps back. “What’s your excuse?”

“I wasn’t lucky enough to have my memory back, Percy. So what’s yours?”

Before Percy can lunge over the table, and before Jason can get ready to retaliate, and before Frank and Reyna can stop them, something at the doorway catches his eyes and his anger dies in his throat. And Jason hates that it feels so good to watch Percy go quiet, unsure, even if he isn’t the one who caused it.

“You remember?” Hazel asks quietly.

Jason turns to meet her hardened stare, much like Nico’s. And like Nico, he doesn’t turn away, even when most of the others do. He nods, slow and steady. When Hazel greeted him on the top deck, she gripped his arm tight and murmured a stream of gratitude and grief into his ear. She holds his arm again, now, studying his face for truth.

“I remember,” he says in the softest voice, the tone he’s come to reserve for Nico. Some wary appreciation finds its way into Hazel and she offers a small smile.

“Hazel—“ Annabeth starts. Silver and gold clash. The daughter of Pluto seems so sad, drained, that she lets it drop.

Hazel instead says, “Piper, can you help me? I need some broth for Nico.”

Piper takes her cornucopia in her trembling hands and nods. She glances at Jason and he tries to reassure her with-- anything, but his mind goes blank. Reyna is still watching him warily. Frank is still ready to bolt in case Percy or Jason make a grab for each other.

And Jason wants to. But he won’t. This isn’t just his fight.

He hates feeling so scared and angry when he looks on Percy’s face and when he tries to form words again, poison coats the tip of his tongue. It’s hard to breathe. So he excuses himself without another word.

Jason flies to the top of the main mast and lets the winds rage around him. Lets their whistling drown him out. These gusts are so light, so airy it makes him nauseous. He can bend them without any effort. Thunder rolls and the sky grows stormy. A shout from below draws his attention. “Jason-whatever-your-middle-name-is-Grace, you better calm those winds! I just tailored those sails again!”

He recognizes Leo as a dot below him and obediently stops the wind. The silence buzzes in his head, much too loud. He presses his hands to his head. The next thing he knows he’s floated down to the crow’s nest where Leo stands, reaching his arms out uncertainly. Jason nods his permission and slowly, slowly, Leo lowers his hands to his sides. He helps him clamber over the side and into the outpost.

“How’d you get up here so fast?” is all Jason can think to say.

Leo shrugs. “In case you haven’t noticed, Jason, I’m pretty tall. And I hate seeing you in trouble.” They both share a mediocre laugh. Leo doesn’t wait for a long silence to overtake them before he speaks again. He’s not one to steer away from what he wants and Jason appreciates his directness, even though he winces when Leo asks, “What was that fight with Percy about?”

Even his name sets off shocks in Jason’s ears. “He… He’s so--Annabeth, too! After everything that Nico did for them, he can’t even… Neither of them can be bothered to look him in the eye.”

“Can’t blame them, he’s got a pretty mean death stare,” Leo counters jokingly. His face falls pale when Jason shoots him a look. “Bad timing, sorry. I don’t know how to help, Jason. Where’s all this coming from? What did Hazel mean, when she said you remembered…?”

Jason shakes and his vision blurs. Leo takes his hands again and holds them until they’re still. “Sorry,” he apologizes.

“You’ve got nothing to be sorry for, Jason. Just let me help. Can you tell me about when you guys first met? Something, so I can try and make sense of all this.”

His once childish face has taken on a level of seriousness Jason has only seen a handful of times. He remembers Leo struggling not to break down in front of him and Piper when Festus was reduced to a pile of scraps, glowing eyes dulled into submission. Even with the false memories lingering in his head, he’s always been sure he could trust Leo. So he exercises that bond.

The blurriness doesn’t subside until long after he’s finished talking. Meeting Nico in the woods, bringing him to Camp Jupiter, becoming friends with him over the last two years. And when he’s done pouring out his affection, Leo wrings himself dry with a shake of his head, curls bouncing wildly.

“So Nico’s dad sent him to your camp to… infiltrate the Roman ranks?”

“Not infiltrate,” Jason corrects, uncomfortable with the wording. “He wasn’t a spy.”

Leo shrugs. “Well, he wasn’t loyal to the Romans or the Greeks. So what does that make him? A vigilante?” Jason’s jaw clenches and Leo continues, “I’m not attacking him, Jason, I’m trying to understand. I’ve heard their side. I want to hear yours.”

He chooses his words carefully, trying to craft the truth without betraying Nico’s trust and revealing what he’s only ever meant for Jason’s ears. “Nico was just a kid in trouble and I wanted to help him. He didn’t trust me but I wanted to be close to him so badly because… well, he didn’t treat me like everyone else did! He didn’t have expectations, he isn’t like anyone I’ve ever met. He didn’t know my name, my dad… and I was still enough. He’s loyal to both camps even though neither are loyal to him. Loyal to his father. His family. Me--” Leo’s brown eyes are wide and unfaltering, taking in Jason’s every word. “Anyway… he steered us in the direction to coordinate our attack on Mount Othrys… I guess, at the same time he fought with Camp Half-Blood was fighting in Manhattan. He was gone for weeks. I had no idea if he was alive or… I was so scared he might be dead.” His new memories of his bond with Nico have him reeling again, gripping the railing of the outpost for support. His breath thins. “He’s saved me so many times. And I just want to do the same for him. I have to. Some part of me knew that, too. When I jumped.”

Leo flinches when Jason meets his gaze. “He’s pretty important to you, huh,” Leo guesses. There’s something in his voice that Jason doesn’t linger on, doesn’t dare try. Leo’s never been handy with emotions and he looks ready to run. But he’s staying there for Jason. He’s holding it together. “Important, but you didn’t really remember. Kinda like Reyna?”

Jason chokes. “Kinda.” He sinks to the floor and buries his face in his hands. “You know how Hera. Um. Juno, she. Erased my memory. Not just places or my childhood, not just Reyna and Nico. She erased things about me. My personality. My ident--” Jason cuts himself off because the words are too thick, too heavy, too painful to get out. But keeping them in might be even worse.

While he struggles to decide, Leo kneels beside him. “Hey, hey, it’s okay, Jason. You’re okay.” He seems so shaken to be the one to take care of Jason but he steps up to the task. “I think I get it.”

Jason dries the tears threatening to spill and nods, drawing his knees close to let his head loll over them. “Yeah.”

Leo’s hand on his shoulder turns to insistent tapping. Morse code, some explosion of emotion that Leo can’t fit in words. No grand apology or deep sympathy can match the anguish Jason feels. They both know that. He inhales, exhales, and every passing second raises another patch on hair on Jason’s arms. “You should talk to Piper.” His head snaps up at the mention of her name. Guilt burrows into his core. “I mean it. Just… talk to her, okay? I’m happy to listen, but there’s not much I can do except give advice. So that’s what I think you should do. She’ll understand, Jason. But you can’t let this keep boiling inside you. It’s not fair to you, and it’s not fair to her, either.”

Jason manages to nod, still shaking. “Okay.” He looks at Leo and swallows. The son of Hephaestus opens his arms just so Jason can pull him into a bone crushing embrace.

“I forgot how good of a hugger you are,” Leo wheezes, returning the gesture. “I don’t even think Frank could manage a bear hug like this.”

Jason snorts, separating them at last to ruffle Leo’s hair and return his cheeky grin. “I really missed you, Leo,” he sighs. “I’m sorry, again, leaving like--”

“You have nothing to apologize for, Jason,” Leo stresses. “Even though it was rude. You didn’t even say goodbye. And, you know, there are easier ways to avoid my cooking. You could’ve just said no.” It’s too soon, probably. But Jason still laughs anyway. It’s the most anyone’s gotten him to do since he returned. “Besides, you were just… being you. Saving him. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know Hazel… Hazel’s so glad to have her brother back.”

Jason floats them back down to the main deck long after the sun has set. He’s prolonged talking to Piper long enough. He promises Leo to meet with her and, with another tight hug, he’s off. He’s making his way through the too dark hallway apprehensively and stops just outside the infirmary. The door is shut.

His hand hesitates over the handle. Nico’s probably asleep. Jason hopes so, anyway. He needs the rest. Jason really wants to see him. He should go talk to Piper first. But before he knows it, he’s already weaned the door open and stepped inside.

Hazel and Nico are curled up, back to back on two close cots, blankets piled around them. Nico faces away from him but his shoulders stiffen as soon as light floods the room. He’s wearing the shirt Jason picked out for him and that makes his heart soar.

Jason wanders over to Nico’s side of the cot and sits on the edge of the bed. He takes in his pale sleeping face and remembers watching him sleep at the Hermes shrine. He’s in worse shape now but there’s something undeniably stronger about him. Nico’s broken so many times, he may well be invincible now. Well, almost. Jason stares at the stump of his right arm, buried in the long sleeve of his shirt. He thinks of how much more Nico would be willing to take in his or Hazel’s name. It’s not a comforting thought.

“I couldn’t sleep,” Jason whispers. Testing to see if he’s awake.

Nico rolls over to face him. “Neither can I.” He’s still fixated on Nico’s right arm. The bandages imprinting beneath the worn sweatshirt. Nico catches on and nods. “You don’t have to ask.”

“I want to. It’s important.” Jason rolls the sleeve up to Nico’s shoulder with great care. Rests his hand on the pale limb. Dips his nails into the overlapping bandages and sighs. Nico is safe and that’s what matters. But it still hurts, it still aches to see him in so much pain. Nico would have been fine if he hadn’t tried to save Jason. And Jason would have been in Gaea’s hands, but. Alive. And Nico would be in one piece and with this sister and happy and they would have figured something out, would have saved the world anyway--

But then again, maybe nothing matters. This could still be a dream. Something so peaceful and perfect as Nico’s almost safety and Leo’s understanding has to be conjured by something. He can’t afford to think that anything is less than a potential threat. His hand eventually rests on Nico’s side, pressing lightly into his ribcage. “Do you think this is real?” Jason mumbles.

Nico’s face is unreadable. “Does it feel real?”

His hand dips under Nico’s shirt to smooth over his cold skin. Jason’s hand is so warm in comparison he’s afraid his fingers will brand Nico’s side. Nico doesn’t shy away from the touch. He meets Jason’s gaze and relaxes into the hand. Nico seems so steady and sure, even though he’s hurt. So Jason swallows his doubts. “It does.” Silence. He gives all he can give, “Sleep. I’ll keep watch. That way, we’re covered, whether it’s real or not.”

Piper will wait until his conscience wins out. Nico bites his lip. “Are you still mad?”

“Sleep, please. For me?”

Nico resists at first, perhaps too scared. He takes off Nico’s jacket and lays it over his still form and Jason’s hand in his hair calms him down. On an impulse, he brushes hesitant lips over Nico’s forehead. Isn’t sure whether or not he wishes Nico is awake to remember it. He seems to rest after that. Well, as soundly as he can. He keeps twitching and murmuring in his sleep, but a few words and touches from Jason soothe him.

Sometime later, there are footsteps outside the door. Jason tenses until he sees Piper walk in. She sits on Hazel’s side of the cot and strokes her curly hair. “How are you holding up, Hazel?”

She must have woken up sometime between Nico falling asleep and Piper’s entrance. She snuggles closer to Piper. “‘M tired.” She rolls her head over her shoulder, gold eyes bright in the darkness. “I need to ask a favor, Jason.”

“Anything,” he replies.

She puts her hand over his, where it rests on Nico’s arm. “Please help take care of him. If something happened to me, I…”

Piper shakes her head. “Nothing’s going to happen to you, Hazel. We won’t let it.”

Hazel lingers on Nico’s pained sleeping face. “Just in case. I don’t know how he’d handle it… losing a sister again. I almost lost him, and I--I can’t…”

“Yeah, of course. I’ll protect him. No matter what.” He clears his throat. “He’s important to me.”

“I’m glad you remember,” Hazel mumbles, giving a small smile as she rolls back over to Piper’s side. “He really missed you.” Piper’s hand on her head eventually sends her into a deep sleep. Then she murmurs a gracious word to a restless Nico and he, too, relaxes.

Piper and Jason watch the children of Hades, so vulnerable and innocent, sleep beside each other. So full of affection and love for each other, for everyone else. Everyone but themselves. That notion burns in Jason’s chest, makes it hard to breathe.

“I meant to find you and talk to you earlier,” Jason says.

Piper laughs, soft and knowing. “Leo told me. I figured you would be here.”

She’s amiable but that only adds to the weight of his guilt. He doesn’t know how to start. “I haven’t been fair. I wish I could’ve… I should have been better to you,” Jason blurts. He’s too close to his father’s mighty steps and the voice in Tartarus teases him again. Quieter, he continues, “You deserve the world, Pipes.”

Piper stares at him. A long time. And stares a little longer than even that. She seems to have trouble processing his words. “You’re an idiot, Jason,” she finally says. She takes his hand as she’s done so many times before and it feels a new kind of warm. “In a good way. You are so kind and wonderful that it’s almost annoying.” His scarred lips tug into a smile. “But you aren’t perfect. And that’s fine. You’re just... you. And you were so good to me.” She kisses his hand. “You’re just as good a boyfriend as you are a friend. And... I think that’s where we should stay.”

Jason blinks. He hasn’t even gotten to wring out the beginning of his excessive emotions. “You’re breaking up with me?”

“Bad timing, I know,” Piper sighs. “But so was this.”

She gestures to the air between them and Jason laughs for real. “You’ve been spending too much time with Leo. Trying to usurp his role as our resident comedian?”

“I’ve been spending too much time with Leo, so, no. That should be obvious.”

All the tension rolls out of him in a great wave. He squeezes Piper’s hand and kisses her forehead. It’s a sweet, platonic gesture. He still has so much he needs to say to her. To start, he settles on, “You’re amazing, Piper.”

She goes quiet and fiddles with the crystal hanging from her neck. “Really, though, I saw this coming. Ever since the Pantheon. Before then, too.” Her brown eyes flit to Nico’s peaceful sleeping face. “Don’t apologize for what I’m going to say. I just... need to say it. As much as you need to hear it. You remember when we rescued Nico, right?”

Jason’s heart is lodged in his throat. He can’t form any syllables so he gives her a slow nod.

“You and Percy were fighting the giants. I was protecting him.” Katoptris at her side stirs with light, faint impressions of these memories. Jason focuses on that because it’s easier than meeting Piper’s eyes. “I carried him over to you because he was too weak to stand. And... you took him in your arms, and.” She pauses to sniffle and steady her breath. “Before that, I always figured there might be someone else. Someone you left behind. And it wasn’t fair for me to keep you from them.”

“But you weren’t keeping me from anyone, Piper,” Jason murmurs. “Not anymore than I was. I... we didn’t know.” Neither of them are at fault. They’re victims of circumstance. The gods’ wicked plans gone awry.

“Yeah. But I certainly didn’t help. It was just little things, you know? We would be in the library getting books for Annabeth and... you would just stop.” Jason remembers that sunny day while Annabeth dismissed them to grab some manuals while she was working on the Argo II with Leo, after weeks of  persistence. His fingers graced the binding of Lord Byron’s collection. A sunset in New Rome tugged at the back of his mind. “Or, every time I’d call you Jay, your eyes would get so clouded and sad. And you never said ‘I love you’, and I was afraid that I might be influencing you, somehow—”

All these moments hit Jason in a rush and he swallows the tears insistent on choking him. “No, Piper, you didn’t. Even if you had, it would be an accident, it’s not your fault.”

Piper puts a comforting hand on his shoulder, gaze wet and mournful. “Even then, I can’t... I can’t stand the thought that I might have been manipulating you.” Because of the gods manipulating them both. In the reflection of her blade, he sees her, Nico in arms. Handing Nico to Jason. Jason helping him stand. “I could feel it, how your heart was blocked. At first, I thought it might be Reyna, except I didn’t feel anything like that for you from her. But that moment when you took him in your arms, I... I knew your heart wasn’t mine. Never was. Or would be.”

Tears flow freely down her cheeks, now, and that triggers Jason’s own. “Oh, Piper,” he whispers. His shaky thumb brushes tears from her dark lashes.

She finally sobs, as quiet as she can be, so as not to wake Hazel and Nico beneath them. “It’s not fair.” Not fair that Jason’s identity was erased. Not fair that Piper was forced to fall in love. Not fair that the gods manipulated them to be together for their own gain.

“I know.” He leans over and hugs Piper tight, trying to quell her crying with companionship. “I’m so sorry, Piper.” They sit there, rocking and clinging, until their tears and apologies have long since ebbed away.

Jason catches himself staring at the crystal necklace Piper keeps fiddling with. A token from someone dear, he supposes. They had been drifting before but he supposes Tartarus was the catalyst. He’s not angry (even if he was, the grace with which Piper takes this situation would melt that fury in an instant). Just curious. “Who gave you that?”

She looks at Nico, then to Jason. “I’ll tell you about her if you tell me about him,” she offers.

So Jason tells her.

They talk late into the night. Long after Piper falls asleep at the foot of Hazel’s cot, Jason is still awake at the end of Nico’s, his arm around his former girlfriend. He sits there and breathes in the darkness, trying to make sense of everything that’s happening.

What happens next could be a sleep-deprived induced hallucination, Jason supposes. Something gold and green materializes before him. He shields his face with his arm, the light blinding. For some reason it doesn’t disturb the other occupants of the room. Hazel, Nico and Piper remain fast asleep.

Jason gulps when he stares at the flickering form of Juno. Blue spots of color encroach her form, reflecting her Greek counterpart. She drifts over to Jason and lifts his chin with a single finger. “You’re safe,” she hums. “That’s a start.”

Jason grits his teeth and turns away. He has no respect for her--for any of the gods, right now. “Why are you here?”

“I know you must have questions, Jason. I’m here to sort things out.”

“Sort things out?” he chuckles. “Like how you sorted things out for me at the wilderness school?”

“That was a temporary measure. I was saving your life, you know. The lives of everyone you care about.” She places her hand on top of Piper’s head where it rests on Jason’s shoulder. He resists the urge to smack it away. “I wanted to make you happy.”

“How could you make me happy by taking me away from them? By making me forget, not letting me protect them?”

“Do you regret befriending this girl? And your other friend, the son of Hephaestus?” Juno cocks an eyebrow, deflating his argument.

“Well, no, but--”

“Then why are you so upset?” The gold and blue glow surrounding her is too harsh. She simpers, retracting her hand from Piper’s hair. “You had an easy path, Jason. Linear. Comprehensible. So few heroes get that, you know. You and Piper are a good match.”

“We were,” Jason corrects. “If we were given time, something more than you smashing us together and… messing with our heads. How do you think Piper’s mom feels about you manipulating her heart like that?”

He doesn’t mention his father because he’s sure his well being, much less his love life, is of no consequence to Jupiter. That doesn’t go unnoticed by the smirking Juno. “That is not your concern. Your concern is to follow through the prophecy as intended.” She saunters over to Nico’s side. “This one had the right idea.”

Jason sets Piper’s head against the backboard of the cot and rushes over, placing himself between Nico and the goddess. “Don’t touch him.” Juno’s long nails reach for Nico’s messy hair. Jason’s hands crackle with electricity. “You’ve hurt us enough already.”

Juno huffs through her nose. “Listen to yourself, Jason. If you hadn’t remembered… neither of you would be in this position.” When she notices Jason’s confusion she chuckles. Her form switches to Hera, swathed in royal blue and peacock green. “If you hadn’t remembered, Nico wouldn’t have thought there was something still left to save. No, he wouldn’t have jumped at all. Your paths would split--for the better.”

“How is it better?” Jason demands. He refuses to buy into her words. She’s only trying to rile him up, play upon the guilt that Nico’s pain is attributed entirely to Jason’s existence.

She regards the son of Hades thoughtfully, smoothing a hand over his brow. Nico shivers in his sleep and Jason has to physically restrain himself from throwing Hera aside. “Nico, alive, in one piece. Isn’t that what you want? He would have been happy, too. Shame. He needs a light in his life--”

“I don’t think you have any clue about what Nico needs,” Jason counters. “What Piper needs. What I need. You want us to complete this prophecy and you keep changing things--tinkering with us--”

“Call it divine intervention,” Hera waves her hand dismissively. “You’re lucky, Jason. I like you. You’re my favorite. You should be honored to have such protection around you. To represent the gods as you do.”

“I’m tired of representing you!” Jason cries. “You took away everything--erased my identity--I almost lost everyone I care about. All because of you and this stupid prophecy and--” Jason’s head throbs and he clutches it tight in his hands. He knows the rules of war, knows how they can bend and break to suit a guilty conscience. He’s lived with it his whole life. Facing Tartarus has embittered him even more, now. “You’re the same as Gaea. Using us. Hurting us. It’s your own fault the gods are scattered and dying, now. It’s justice.” Hera’s form wavers, navy and distorted.

Jason is tired. Tired of everyone’s expectations. Tired of not knowing himself. Tired of hurting everyone he cares about because he doesn’t know himself. Tired of following the demands of inane gods when he would thank Gaea to swallow Juno whole for the trouble she’s caused. Jason has to be in control. He has to be. He can’t let everyone and everything around him keep manipulating him. He can’t let Nico get hurt for the sake of protecting him.

“I’m tired of you telling me where my loyalties lie.” He sits beside Nico’s unconscious body and intertwines their fingers with his one hand.

“You are treading dangerous ground, Jason Grace,” Hera growls. “After everything I’ve done--”

“After everything you’ve done, you can’t be surprised,” Jason snaps. “I’m done with this prophecy. I’m choosing my own path. Find someone else. I’m done being your champion.”

Hera and Juno warble in his vision, illuminating the room in harsh greens and blues. “You are taking after the wrong side of your family, Jason Grace,” The entire room trembles, her voice echoing harshly off the walls. The contempt in her voice is a tone usually reserved for Thalia. “Should you forsake my blessing… things will get much worse for you. Your pride will destroy everything you hold dear.”

Jason narrows his eyes. “Maybe. Or maybe it will just destroy you.” Gold, green and blue flood his vision. The goddess disappears with a scream that leaves only his ears ringing.

Jason is left alone holding Nico’s hand in the dark. Doesn’t breathe. Doesn’t blink. Doesn’t sleep for the rest of the night.

Chapter Text

Bianca lays a wet cloth over Nico’s scorched forehead. 

He blinks. It’s Reyna, now. Blinks again. Hazel. Blinks one more time. Everything in him pounds with pain. There’s blue light. Blue eyes. Thalia’s slick black hair. A scarred smile. Luke’s twisted jaw. Riptide gleaming in the snow. That broad, powerful back. Striding away from him. Nico is alone. Jason’s back to him. In the elevator. His purple shirt is so faded. Sweat spills down his face, his shaking hands.

“Breathe, Nico,” someone reminds him. Probably Hazel. Spooning broth into his empty body that twitches and pulses with each breath of clean air flooding his lungs. “You’re in the infirmary on the Argo II. You’re with me. You’re safe.”

He’s seen Hazel often but Reyna’s been there, too, calming him. Sometimes Frank will pop in to check on them both. Piper brings blankets. Leo stands at the door and buzzes his lips. He’d be angry at Percy or Annabeth if he had energy enough to breathe. He’s not even sure if anything he’s seeing or saying is real. There’s a strange haze over everything. It could be a side effect of his fever. It’s doing wonders for his paranoia and his mind’s insistence that this is just Tartarus, still Tartarus, and he’s never getting out.

The other constant presence is Jason. He comes when it’s quiet, when the night is cool, when Nico’s clarity is at its best. Perhaps it is that Jason brings that clarity with him. He’ll comb through knots in his hair, trace fingers over his pronounced collarbone, all while Nico tries to remember to breathe.

They ride out the silence together. When Nico starts seeing green eyes in the dark, Jason will take his chin in hand and raise his head to the light. When Jason’s memory flickers at the mention of a name, a place, Nico chases his panic away by tucking golden curls behind his ear.

“Is this real?” Jason asks again that night. Nico’s fingers linger in his hair. Jason slides his hand over Nico’s, slow, but not hesitant. He’s testing Nico.

Nico’s feverish state isn’t bringing him any closer to that truth. Jason is all he has left to cling to, so he does. “I hope so.” The moon hangs high, poetry ringing across the hillside. Jason is at his side but he’s still too far away. “Ti ricordi--” Nico wrinkles his nose. English isn’t working in his muddled brain, his muddled brain that already struggles with words. Once he’s sorted himself out, he continues, “You remember. I said I... I would tell you.”

Jason flips over the now warm cloth on his head. “Tell me what?” His voice is so sweet. He remembers his mother’s homemade tiramisu.

“What you were. Are. Meant to me.” Each word is spat off his dry tongue, propelled by coughs. His hand fumbles with the collar of Jason’s shirt and he pulls him down, close, trying to get him to hear, needing Jason’s cold fire to still his fever.

Jason’s brow furrows. “Don’t worry about that now, Nico. Just rest.”

“But--” I need to tell you.

Jason returns Nico’s hand to his side, gentle, unwinding his crooked fingers, pressing a finger to his lips. Then his lips to Nico’s forehead. It’s a modesty so heavy that it sinks him further into the sweat soaked mattress. “I know. But you aren’t dying. This isn’t goodbye. You have all the time in the world. Just… talk to me when you’re really ready.” Then he smiles, a smile Nico can never and will never refuse. The desire to tell him was the only thing keeping him awake so he lets his request slip into the darkness with his consciousness.

Two days. He can’t escape Tartarus. He’s stuck in this feverish state, cold and hot flashes, taut limbs and brittle bones, unable to even stand on his own. Reyna has given him her strength in small amounts. It drains her as much as it helps him and he doesn’t want her to see what’s inside him.

But Nico can’t bake in his flesh while the world crumbles outside the infirmary. He needs Reyna to jumpstart his heart. Shorten the healing process exponentially. He explains this to her in one of his fleeting moments of sobriety. The praetor sits unsure at his bedside, Hazel across from her. “I don’t like this,” Hazel says. “You can’t keep taking shortcuts to heal, Nico. You’re just going to hurt yourself more down the road.”

“We don’t have a choice,” Nico croaks. Reyna’s gaze rests unwavering on his shriveled form. “I can’t lay around and do nothing. I need to help.”

“I need you to get better,” Hazel whispers. “I need you to heal right, Nico. You need it, too.”

“I need you to worry about yourself,” he bites. Hazel stands taller, angrier, defying his words. Nico amends his tone only slightly, “I can’t have you wasting all your time and energy on me when she’s rising. I’m done being a distraction.”

Reyna’s steely demeanor doesn’t change. She glances between Nico and Hazel. “This is the best course of action for our mission,” Reyna finally says. There’s a resignation in her voice and even though she isn’t showing it, Nico can tell she shares some part of Hazel’s anxiety. “He’s a liability to himself as much as the rest of us in this condition.”

“I need to protect you, too, Hazel,” Nico says, not meeting her eyes.

Hazel grits her teeth. “ You need to protect me? Nico, you can’t even stand--” She chokes on the rest of her words and Nico chews guilt in his jaw. Her voice falls soft and low, “Is it really just me you’re trying to protect at this point?”

Nico grips his blankets tighter. She can’t know. She can’t find out. How much more disappointed in him would she be if she did?

His sister watches Reyna take Nico’s only hand and funnel her strength into him. His hand turns into a hot chunk of coal, fire running through his veins, and it’s red all over. Dripping from his cheeks, his ears, staining the blankets. No, he refuses. I’m in the infirmary on the Argo II. Reyna and Hazel are here. I’m safe.

While Reyna recovers from their communion, Hazel offers Nico ambrosia and nectar in small amounts. “You have to try and eat something real,” Hazel insists after he gulps both down with some water. “Not just broth.”

“Who’s been feeding me the last two days?” he deadpans. Hazel snorts, releasing some of the tension between them. Nico accepts her steep price and joins the rest of the crew for breakfast. In theory, it seems a fine idea. He has to face them all sooner or later. He’s grown quite tired of their pitying glances. It’s almost worse than the fear campers held toward him for so long.

Nico uses Hazel’s arm to brace himself when he stands. Reyna hovers uncertainly behind them both, her supportive hand outstretched. He is so detached from his body. This foreign, broken thing that doesn’t remember how to walk, how to stand, how to live on its own.

When he and Hazel enter the doorway of the mess hall, everyone falls quiet. His appearance sours their conversation, apparently. Nico doesn’t look at anyone. He feels out of place, worse than he did on the deck when he returned. Because now he’s conscious for their discomfort. A chair skids the floor and familiar footsteps pace over. “You’re awake,” Jason beams. The bags under his eyes weigh down his voice, but he’s still trying to smile for Nico. So Nico tries, too. “How are you feeling?”

He places a hand on Nico’s back. Nico shrugs. Jason’s fingers prod, massage a spot on his lower back. He holds in a sigh but lets the gesture provoke a smile.

“Hazel, how was your shift last night? Did you sleep okay?” Jason converses, helping her help Nico to the table. He should be annoyed but Jason is close and warm and too comfortable to refuse.

“I slept all right,” she hums. “Coach Hedge is a… very loud navigator.”

Somehow, he ends up between his sister and Jason, Reyna on the side of the latter. Across from her sits Piper and Leo. Frank takes the head of the table at Hazel’s end, and across from Nico are Percy and Annabeth.

He figures they still won’t look at him, so he doesn’t bother.

Hazel loads his plate with heaps of pasta, piles of vegetables, and scoops of fruit. She narrows her eyes when he scowls-- You promised.

Nico chokes down a forkful of broccoli without breaking eye contact. Happy? She has the nerve to grin at him.

Frank seems amused at their silent communication and while Nico suffers his meal, his sister turns her attention away. Now that he’s assimilated to the dinner table, everyone resumes their previous conversations. He just tries to eat. It’s surgical, he’s picking everything to pieces, but it’s the best he can do. Hazel’s hand squeezes his knee reassuringly under the table.

Jason seems particularly focused on every bite Nico takes, watching the pale column of his throat, blue eyes growing in intensity with each swallow. He takes a slow sip of water, trying to stomach a clump of oregano. Jason is still staring.

“Hungry, Jason?” Reyna snorts and elbows him. Then, barely audible to anyone but them, “You’re drooling.”

Nico hopes his face isn’t as red as it feels while Jason shoves a dinner roll in his mouth in lieu of answering.

It’s surprisingly easy to find casual conversation in the middle of the end of the world. Leo talks about something to do with the ship--a new cooling engine he’s working on. Annabeth eagerly chimes in a few words. Frank and Percy argue some sparring semantics while Hazel and Piper chat together.

It’s casual, it’s carefree. Nico is reminded of a rare summer day during his probatio when he sat with Jason and Reyna in Camp Jupiter’s dining area, longing for halfblood pines. So he convinced the praetors to sneak out of the cafeteria with their lunches and they sat outside and enjoyed breakfast in the grass. Jason and Reyna’s few close friends, Gwen and Dakota, filtered over. They skipped their regular routines that day, all hushed giggles and sealed lips. Nico felt comfortable, then. At home.

“You’re smiling,” Jason notes quietly. “What are you thinking about?”

Nico’s reverie lingers. He tries to paint the picture in his mind again but it washes out. “Uh. That day.” He clears his throat. “We ate outside.” The few vague words don’t stir Jason’s memory, but Reyna’s.

“I remember that,” she says. Her engagement in the conversation makes Nico a little more at ease. “That was when we held our emergency leadership conference.”

Jason’s eyes brighten as he remembers. Nico loves that look, as much as it scares him. Scares him that Jason might remember who Nico is, really is, and the treachery that comes with his person.

“Wait, that’s what the emergency leadership conference means?” Hazel interrupts. “That’s not fair!”

“It’s official senate business. Out of your responsibility. Sorry, sis.” Nico shrugs, amicably popping a grape in his mouth.

“Wait, I think… I wasn’t there, but,” Frank squints, trying to recall. “Terminus condemned those, for some reason.”

Jason’s hand finds Nico’s knee under the table and he tries not to jump. That firm hand soothes patterns across his trembling thigh. “I remember. We were, uh. How did it go again, Reyna?”

“Testing border security.” Her stone face only makes Jason laugh harder. Nico starts to grin.

“Wait, wait, wait,” Leo interjects. “Jason, what kind of hijinks were you getting up to?”

“It was my idea but to be fair, Nico was the instigator,” he chuckles. His hand is still warm on Nico’s thigh, prompting him to explain. Not harsh, not demanding, but encouraging him to join in. For once, eyes on Nico are curious, not harsh. He focuses only on Jason, Reyna, and his pouting sister as he recalls the day.

“Well. Weapons aren’t allowed inside the city. So we were testing border security. Going back and forth across the border. Terminus… h-he was annoyed, but we weren’t doing anything wrong.” He drinks some water. He hasn’t talked this much since he’s gotten back and his throat is still raw from suffering.

Jason laughs. “He was sooo mad, he couldn’t figure out why the alarm kept going off. Reyna and I didn’t have any weapons on us.”

Nico nods fondly. He catches Hazel’s gaze which reflects his own mischief back at him. “When Jason or Reyna would go across and the alarm, uh, would go off. I was hiding and... I shadow travelled part of my sword across the border.” It hurts to say that, his wrist shakes, but he manages to glance at Jason. The hand on his leg squeezes, brief, but assuring.

Percy snorts and his world fractures. “That is hilarious. Didn’t peg you as a trouble maker, Praetor Grace.” For a second everything stops. His words hang suspended in the air, reaching across the space to then. Reconnecting. Trying. Jason’s jaw tightens and Reyna blinks between him and Nico. He sees those green eyes glowing in the darkness. He can’t shake them so easily. But he remembers Bianca, too, and tries. If only for her sake.

“Well, Jason’s always been unconventional. You can’t survive in the fifth cohort otherwise,” Nico manages.

Percy swirls some pasta around his fork. “Ha, don’t I know it.”

Jason eases into their conversation with a nod. Some unknown tension disappears into the air and he meets Percy’s eyes with a smile. A shame Nico can’t follow his example. “Don’t tell me you haven’t messed with Chiron or Mr. D before.”

Percy chuckles smugly. “Well, I wasn’t caught. That’s the difference.”

“Who says we got caught?” Reyna hums.

Nico adds, “Do you think if Terminus knew it was us that he’d leave us alive?”

He flinches when everyone laughs. But it’s not cruel laughter. It’s amiable and soft. It’s something they’re sharing with him rather than hurtling at him. And he manages to sigh pleasantly at the mess of his breakfast.

Their meal continues in such a fashion. Nico doesn’t talk much, he can’t finish more than a third of everything on his plate, but Hazel rubs his shoulder to assure him. “Thank you, for trying,” she says, low enough for only the two of them. “It means everything that you are.”

“Anything for you,” he replies.

Annabeth leaves the mess hall and reenters with Coach Hedge once they’re all done eating and the dishes cleared. “The ship should be fine for now,” she says. “This isn’t going to be a fun conversation, but we need to figure out what our next move is.”

The room shifts. Everyone sits up straighter, eyes harden, fists clench. Nico reaches for Jason’s hand. “So, the twenty-million-peso question,” Leo says. “We got this slightly used forty-foot-tall statue of Athena. What do we do with it?”

Reyna glances to Jason, sharing some private connection. “According to my dreams, and your… paper plate--” Nico snorts. “It needs to be returned to Camp Half-Blood by a Roman leader. Do I understand correctly?”

Jason nods slowly. Nico remembers the dream he had at the Hermes shrine, and the terror of the threat Camp Half-Blood is under shines in his eyes. “‘I had a dream down in… uh, Tartarus. I was on Half-Blood Hill, and Reyna and Annabeth were holding hands.” Annabeth listens with rapt attention and Nico notices Reyna shift uncomfortably in her seat as Jason retells his vision. “And then Athena’s voice said, I must stand here. The Roman must bring me.”

Annabeth nods, taking in Jason’s words. “The statue is a powerful symbol. A Roman returning it to the Greeks… that could heal the historic rift, maybe even heal the gods of their split personalities.” Nico anxiously fiddles with his ring and thinks of his father. Split in two, split between the waking world and Tartarus. Just to give Nico a warning he’d disregard.

Coach Hedge scrunches his nose. “Now, hold on. I like peace as much as the next satyr--”

“You hate peace,” Piper interjects.

“The point is, McLean, we’re only--what, a few days from Athens? We’ve got an army of giants waiting for us there. We went to all the trouble of saving this statue--”

“I went to most of the trouble,” Annabeth grumbles.

“--because that prophecy called it the giants’ bane,” the coach continues. “So why aren’t we taking it to Athens with us? It’s obviously our secret weapon. Maybe if Valdez strapped some engines to it--” The incredulous look on Annabeth’s face is almost enough to make Nico laugh. Almost.

Jason clears his throat. “Uh, great idea, Coach, but a lot of us have had dreams and visions of Gaea rising at Camp Half-Blood.” He looks around the table for affirmation. Piper meets his gaze and nods heavily. So do a few others. Nico can’t tell what’s between them, especially when Jason is still holding his hand.

Piper purses her lips. “The Roman legion is almost within striking distance of Camp Half-Blood. They’re gathering reinforcements: spirits, eagles, wolves.”

“Octavian,” Reyna grits her teeth. “I told him to wait.”

“He’ll have his war, but only if we let him,” Frank says quietly. “So we have to stop him. Bringing the Athena Parthenos back to Camp Halfblood is the only way to do that. So, Reyna takes the statue and we go to Athens. That’s agreed on?” Everyone nods.

Leo shrugs. “Cool with me. But, uh, a few pesky logistical problems. We got only two weeks until that Roman feast day when Gaea is supposed to rise?”

“The Feast of Spes,” Jason nods. “That’s on the first of August. Today is--” He frowns and Nico can sympathize. He has no idea what day it is, either.

“July sixteenth,” Frank fills in.

How many weeks was I in Tartarus? The question finally hits Nico. He counts his time in the jar and Gaea’s torture, too. Between searching for Percy and Jason, then trying to find the Doors and do something to stop Gaea’s rise… Somehow, in all that chaos, the only coherent thought he has is that he missed Jason’s birthday.

Nico isn’t even aware he’s uttered his thoughts aloud until Jason says quietly, “I missed yours, too. It’s okay.”

Nico feels eyes on him but Hazel takes back the conversation to spare him the attention, “From tomorrow, just sixteen days. It took us that long to get from Rome to here – a trip that should’ve only taken two or three days, max.”

“So, given our usual luck,” Leo says, “maybe we have enough time to get the Argo II to Athens, find the giants and stop them from waking Gaia. Maybe. But how is Reyna supposed to get this massive statue back to Camp Half-Blood before the Greeks and Romans put each other through the blender?”

Reyna nods, slow and serious, considering Leo’s words carefully. Nico would have expected her to snap at him, but she only says, “Unfortunately, Leo is correct. I don’t see how I can transport something so large. I was assuming--well, I was hoping you all would have an answer.”

“The Labyrinth,” Hazel says. “When Annabeth and I were in the Necromanteion facing off against Pasiphaë, she said she reopened it. And if she has…” She looks to Annabeth. “It can take you anywhere, right?”

“No.” Percy, Annabeth and Nico speak in unison, then share equally uncomfortable glances. Hazel shrinks in her chair. Nico tries to put into words the confusion of the labyrinth, its darkness, its instilling fear. All he can think of is that wall of black obsidian exposing his identity to Kronos. Exposing his identity to Percy. Akhlys. To Jason in the elevator.

“Sorry for bringing it up,” Hazel says glumly, putting a hand on her brother’s shoulder. Nico doesn’t realize until then that he’s shaking.

“Not to shoot you down, Hazel,” Percy amends quickly. “But for one thing, the passages in the Labyrinth are way too small for the Athena Parthenos. There’s no chance you could take it down there.”

“And even if the maze is reopening,” Annabeth adds softly, “we don’t know what it might be like now. It was dangerous enough before, under Daedalus’s control, and he wasn’t evil. If Pasiphaë has remade the Labyrinth the way she wanted…” Her eyes flicker to Nico for just a moment, something soft and sad there. He scowls. He doesn’t need her pity.

“Hazel, maybe your underground senses could guide Reyna through, but no one else would stand a chance. And we need you here,” Nico says quietly to his sister. He doesn’t want her to leave. Hypocritically, perhaps, he doesn’t know what he would do. It’s bad enough having her fate tied to the prophecy. Trekking through the Labyrinth… that’s something else entirely. “And if you got lost down there…”

The group falls silent. Reyna spreads her hands. “Other ideas?”

Something about Hazel’s dejected nature stirs something in Frank. It surprises Nico when he says, “I could go. If I’m a praetor, I should go. Maybe we could rig some sort of sled, or I could turn into--”

“No, Frank Zhang.” Reyna gives him a weary smile. “I hope we will work side by side in the future, but for now your place is with the crew of this ship. You are one of the seven of the prophecy.”

“I’m not,” Nico blurts. Everyone falls quiet and stares at him, holding their breath. Jason lets his hand drop. “I’ll go with Reyna. I can transport the statue with shadow travel.”

Hazel’s fists clench on the table. Her eyes are wide, her face pale. “Nico.”

“Hazel.” He tries to rest his hand over hers and she rips it away.

“Stop it,” she says. Her voice trembles. “Nico, do you even hear yourself? Were you listening to me at all before breakfast? If anyone’s… if anyone is going to shadow travel that statue, it’ll be me instead.”

“You can’t do that,” Nico insists. “Hazel, you’re part of the prophecy. We need you here. I don’t… I don’t want you to get hurt.”

“I don’t want you to get hurt, either!” The shadows in the room seem to darken, flickering at their feet. Nico shouldn’t be scared but he shivers. There’s something unknowable and powerful within her that he’s always known, but never fully seen. He doesn’t know if he’ll survive that.

“Hazel is right, Nico,” Percy says. His voice stirs anger in Nico’s heart. “You were hardly here when we… when you got out of there. And a year ago you said transporting just yourself was dangerous and unpredictable. A couple of times you ended up in China. Transporting a forty-foot statue and two people halfway across the world--”

“I’ve changed since I came back from Tartarus,” Nico snaps. In so many ways that he can never explain to Percy. Can hardly acknowledge himself.

“Nico, we’re not questioning your power,” Reyna tries to soothe him. “We just want to make sure you don’t kill yourself trying.

“I can do it,” he stresses.

“No.” Jason’s objection is so quiet he almost misses it. His face is blank. “You aren’t going, Nico.”

Nico gives a short laugh. “You can’t be serious.”

You can’t be serious. I can’t believe we’re even having this conversation after--” Jason swallows. He meets Nico’s gaze and Nico is drowning. He’s never seen those blue eyes look so cold. Not even when he was a praetor. “You already lost your arm. I’m not willing to let you risk anything else.”

“Jason, this is a war. People are going to die,” Nico says. He hates the way his voice crack, the way his jaw trembles, how clammy and cold his skin is. Bianca. Zoe. Michael. Silena. Charlie. Ethan. “People are supposed to die.”

“Then why did you save me?” Jason’s tone is soft but demands truth. And Nico swore he would tell him but he can’t now, not when everyone’s looking at him, not with Percy and Annabeth and his sister all staring at him.

Blood turns icy and the son of Hades heaves a breath. “Be… because you’re part of the prophecy, Jason. That’s why. And that’s why you need to stay here.”

Is that all?  his sad eyes ask while his hands fizz electricity. “Even you aren’t allowed to tell me that, Nico,” Their walk through the fog jogs Nico’s memory and he bites his tongue. “I’ll go with Reyna and Tempest can take me back. I can get the statue to Camp Halfblood and meet you all at Athens after. She can’t reach us in the sky.”

“Jason, listen to me--” Nico pleads. Everything is falling apart.

“Nico’s right,” Annabeth says quietly. His shoulders tense. Out of the entire group, he didn’t expect her support. She glances nervously between them both, then her gray eyes turn to steel and she stands from her chair. “Jason, you can’t leave. What if you don’t get back to Athens in time? What if we’re playing right into what Gaea wants?”

“She’s out of a sacrifice if I’m away from you guys,” Jason counters. “If anything, it’s safer that way.” Except Jason was too close to death in Tartarus when Nico left. Gaea was going to let him die. But Nico can’t say this, he can only grip the table for support. And there’s something decided in Jason’s eyes. There’s a finality in his posture, and acceptance of his fate. He’s determined and Nico knows he won’t be able to stop him from leaving.

“You’re part of the prophecy,” he repeats weakly. It’s a failing argument, but Annabeth nods to back him up. Leo and Piper clasp hands together, silent, almost in mourning. As if they saw this coming and are accepting it.

Frank shakes his head. “I… I don’t like this, Jason. It’s not a good idea.”

“Neither is letting Nico go,” Hazel says through clenched teeth. The lights in the room flicker and his sister’s shoulders tremble.

Annabeth implores, “You can’t deny a prophecy, Jason. Seven half-bloods will answer the call--”

“I didn’t answer the call, I was taken!” Jason exclaims. His broken voice drives a dagger in Nico’s heart. Jason is scared and full of fury. It’s a strange look. It’s unsettling. It’s that same desperation he saw in Tartarus when Jason confronted Akhlys. Nico finds it hard to focus.

“So was I,” Percy says. His face is pale, fists pressed hard into the table. “But… that’s our responsibility, now, Jason. Whether we choose to accept it or not.” Nico remembers Percy accepting the weight of the world on his shoulders, literally and figuratively, to save those he cares about. He’s panicking--it’s happening all over again. He pictures Jason shouldering the Athena Parthenos on the winds, the dangerous western quest, his sister in danger--No. Rain falling in the desert. Thalia escaping responsibility with the hunters. No.

“And you’re happy with that? The gods bossing you around? Toying with your memories, your life, everyone you care about?” Jason asks, anger and desperation seeping into his tone. His face is heavy and his scarred lip seems to split his features like a horrendous mask. He’s hardly Jason anymore, he’s aged and decrepit and powerful and Nico’s thoughts are too painful to hold onto. Piper sinks into her chair.

“No, but--” He covers his face with his hands. Percy’s voice shakes very, very slightly, and Nico only knows because he’s hung onto every note and knows that timbre better than his own. “I don’t know if you’re making the right choice.”

“If it keeps the rest of you… if it keeps Nico safe… it’s the right choice.”

Jason sounds calm but he looks almost manic and his ignorance has Nico is seething, now. “Care to include me in this conversation?” He looks between them both. “This isn’t just your decision, Jason--”

“It is my decision and I’ve made up my mind.” He lets out a slow breath. “If I can do anything to stop this… in any way… to any degree… to any of you--” And he says everyone but he’s only looking at Nico, only meeting his eyes, unflinching and resolved. “I’ll do it in a heartbeat. This is the only way I know how. This is how I can best help everyone.”

“Jason, uniting with the gods is the only way we can really defeat Gaea,” Annabeth says. “We need the gods’ help to defeat her giant army, if we can’t stop her from rising.”

“We’ll stop her from rising,” Leo says. “If we don’t, we’ll have already lost. Jason can make it back in time--”

“Are you prepared for what it means to refuse the gods?” Reyna demands. “Even if you don’t choose the prophecy, Jason… you still may not have that luxury. You might not change anything. It could end up worse than you even imagined.”

He meets her hardened gaze. “That’s a responsibility I’m willing to bear.”

“At the risk of everyone else, Jason?” Annabeth snaps. She’s gotten more upset than Nico as the conversation has gone on, her blonde hair frazzled and flying out of its secure ponytail. Percy tries to grab her hand but she brushes him off. “At the risk of the entire world?” Jason looks at Nico and nods with no hesitation. Despite himself, his heart flutters.

“Reyna will be safe. Gaea won’t kill me. She can’t, yet.”

“Jason, you’re risking a lot on that assumption,” Frank says.

Nico nods. “He’s right, Jason. We need you. I--” His voice falters. He tries one more time. Nico grabs for Jason’s hand and pleads, “Jason, I can do this. Let me. Trust--”

“You aren’t going,” Jason and Hazel say in unison, the latter in tears.

Nico wants to yell. He wants to scream I hate you and cry This is all your fault to some mythical scapegoat but he can only say it to Jason. Except that he can’t. Jason shakes off his hand, cold, and Nico can’t help falling back into his chair. He sinks into his jacket and the world around him turns into nothing more than a dull buzzing in his ears.

Jason is throwing his life away. Nico’s done nothing but try to save him and Jason is throwing all of that away.

And the possibility that he’s doing that because he wants to return the favor makes Nico almost gag his breakfast all over the table. He would if he could breathe properly. He hears, distant, Frank suggesting Coach Hedge accompany them. Some last retort from Annabeth. A deafening silence from everyone else.

His blood pulses, sick, boiling beneath his skin. Nico can’t breathe. His skin is frigid. He’s ruined the prophecy and Jason has to leave and everyone is going to die and it’s all his fault. Nico bundles this into the blackness of his heart and stands.

“Nico?” Hazel questions. He takes one step away from the table. Sways. Shoves his chair aside. Stumbles. Jason’s eyes on him. Annabeth’s eyes on him. Everyone watching him too, too much. He’s going to die. How disappointed his father and Bianca are. His breakfast rushes to the back of his throat and he chokes it down like dirt, firewater, stale air and pomegranate seeds.

“I have to go.”

Coach Hedge grips his whistle tight in hand. “Kid, wait a second. We still need you here. You’re part of this conversation.”

Jason sighs, annoyed. And something snaps. “Nico, you can’t run from this.”

The room stills for everything except the great wave of anger that rolls over Nico. Shadows gather at his feet and the room turns dark. His right arm aches. “Who’s running now, Jason?” he laughs. He wants the shadows to whisk him away, envelop him, he tries to step into them--

He sinks against the wall. The shadows shocked him, shoved him away. Shit . He grips his arm through his jacket where it ends. It’s bleeding through, flickering. Jason jumps to his feet. “Nico, wait-- I didn’t--”

“You have no right to say that to me.” He’s going to throw up. “You don’t-- I thought you--” Looks at Jason. Looks at Percy. Percy’s looking at him. He won’t stop looking at him. Stop. Swallows back his breakfast again. Turns and heads up the top deck.

Nico manages to reach the side rail and vomit what little he managed to eat into the ocean. Take that, Poseidon, he thinks weakly, slumping his head against the railing. Drowning would only be so lucky. He breathes slow, in and out, biting into his jacket sleeve to get that sick taste out of his mouth.

Maybe minutes or hours later, there are footsteps behind him. Someone sets a water bottle at his feet. “Go away.” He flexes his fingers, tightens his hand around the chipped railing. Someone settles beside him on the rail, a respectful distance away. But still too damn close. “Leave me alone , Jay--oh.”

He quiets when he meets Reyna’s level gaze. “Hello, Nico.”

“Thought you were someone else, sorry.” He mumbles, fiddling with his long, empty jacket sleeve. Tries not to look as awkward as he feels.

She nudges the water bottle towards him. He drains it quickly, grateful to have something to rinse his mouth. “Is it all right if I stay?” she asks. And Reyna asking means the world. He nods and she sinks into her elbows.

They don’t talk, but her quiet reassurance gives Nico calm enough to start. He’s always found comfort in her strong presence, and the warmth that lay beneath her cold leadership. Not exactly like Jason’s, but more similar to his own. Not that he had enough courage to voice that notion.

“I should be the one going.”

Reyna folds her hands. “Perhaps. If things turned out differently.” If he hadn’t lost his arm. If he hadn’t fallen into Tartarus again. If Jason hadn’t tried to save him. If he hadn’t remembered how important Nico was to him. “You know that you’d die if you did this, don’t you?”

He grits his teeth. “That’s what I was counting on.”

The praetor’s eyes widen. “Nico. Don’t talk like that.”

“Better me than them. Any of them.” Especially him goes without saying.

She releases a long, low breath. “You both share the same idiotic nobility. It’s one thing to save your friends. It’s another thing entirely to waste your life on a meaningless sacrifice.” He flinches and she watches him with the same calculating gleam in her eyes as her dogs, tearing up his lies and discerning the truth. “If you went on this mission, all you would do is endanger everyone you’re trying so hard to protect.”

“What else am I supposed to do?” His hand shakes against the railing. He’s genuinely asking. Nico doesn’t know what to think, what to do anymore. He doesn’t know who he is if he’s not protecting Jason. Hazel. Even… even Percy.

“You’ve been taking care of us this whole time. For once, let someone take care of you,” Reyna’s dark eyes focus on the ocean below, its captivating torrents and swirls. “Jason cares about you. He wants to keep you safe.”

He can’t say that he’s only protecting Jason because of the prophecy around Reyna because she knows the answer. Nico knows the answer, too, but he can deny himself for a while longer. And he can refute Jason’s motivations. “I don’t get why… he…” Why would he do this for me?

Reyna tucks a lock of hair behind her ear. Her braid bunches loosely over her shoulder, as casual as Nico’s ever seen it. Her gaze drifts to the stormy gray clouds, the ocean she travelled to meet the Argo II. “We do dangerous things for a few very good reasons.”

That same enchanting gray, Nico suddenly realizes, as Annabeth’s bright eyes.

“Oh,” is all he says. Silence falls between them. After an eternity, he glances shyly at Reyna. She fidgets with her nails, an uncharacteristic display of her anxiety. Nico isn’t the only one who threw himself into a hurricane to save the person he cares most about. And admitting that is scary but he feels braver with Reyna at his side just as scared, just as spited, just as hurt, and just as determined to use all of that for something good.

They don’t need words and Nico is grateful. Reyna reaches a hand out, hesitates, and after he nods she lets it fall on his shoulder. Squeezes once. All the tension in him deflates and suddenly, he’s hit with the overwhelming urge to let his stifled tears fall. He doesn’t, but he feels like he could, with her here.

A thump against the deck shocks them both. “Ramirez, let’s go plan our route. We’re leaving tonight. No sense wasting time.”

She looks amused to see Hedge speak to her, a praetor, with the same authority as the rest of them. Nico forgets sometimes (too often, always forgets) that they’re all teenagers and Hedge is an adult. He wishes he could pretend this was just a field trip gone horribly awry.

“Right.” She gives Nico the smallest smile. “I’ll see you before I leave?”

He nods eagerly. With a nod and sharp turn of her heel, she disappears below the deck.

“You all right, kid?” Hedge asks. His voice is low, concerned. It startles Nico.

“Mhm.” The stinging from the shadows on his arm have long since subsided and Reyna’s talk calmed him, calmed his anger towards Jason. Now he’s only slightly frustrated with Jason and his own hypocrisy.

“Good. I’m not putting up with anymore complaining the last few hours I have here.” He rests his bat at his side like a staff.

Nico snorts. The gruff care of the satyr lifts his spirits. And then with Reyna at his side, resting on deck with Coach Hedge watching them closely, he’s suddenly brought back to Grover’s prying eyes, watching over himself and Bianca. He shakes his head to rid his mind of the image. It’s more difficult than sad.

“Thanks, coach,” he says tiredly. He stuffs the empty water bottle in his jacket sleeve. He taps his foot nervously on the deck.

“I’m not gonna let anything happen to them.” Coach Hedge glances where Reyna left, where Jason probably stirs below. “But you better not do anything stupid. Keep an eye on the rest of the crew for me. McLean and Valdez.” Of course, he has a soft spot for Jason and his trio of friends. Nico can almost smile. “I’ll get Grace and Ramirez there and back in one piece. Deal?”

He extends his tough hand. Nico shakes it. “Deal.”

He crawls back to his room after that, settling into the damp, cold mattress with a great sigh. He worms his way out of his jacket and lets it lay across his shoulders as a blanket. The one time he tries to rest, sleep evades him. He stares at the ceiling, hand resting on his sharp ribs, until the door to his room swings open.

“I’m sorry I lost my temper with you.”

Jason takes his seat on the other side of the bed. Nico doesn’t look at him. Stares straight ahead at the aged wood ceiling. Can’t get mad at Jason for doing everything that Nico’s done. All that’s left is a numb, lingering fear that they’ve lost what was. If Nico closes his eyes, he can pretend he’s laying in the grass on the temple hill in New Rome, Jason and a bag of pastries at his side.

Maybe one day they’ll stop killing themselves to protect each other.

“When do you leave?” Nico asks, still averting his gaze.

“Soon. I wanted to say g… to see you, before I left,” he amends. Perhaps if they don’t even entertain the possibility that this is a goodbye it won’t be. They know better but they’ll still play along. “Thought we should clear the air.”

Nico rolls onto his side to face Jason. “How so?”

“I don’t… if this is… I want to know where both of us stand. With each other. How we both… at least, how I feel.” Jason takes a shuddering breath and that numbness turns into a fear that’s sharp, piercing his skin with needles of ice. Because Jason is talking in that soft voice, using that sweet tone that makes Nico absolutely melt into every syllable. It’s the voice that Jason saves just for him, when they’re alone. On the hill in New Rome, in Jason’s quarters, after sparring. In his ear in the darkness of Tartarus, it’s all that kept him going.

“Jason.” Nico grabs his hand. He tries to summon courage enough to get out the words that have been stewing in his fevered brain for days, now. For weeks. Months . Perhaps too soon after he met Jason, but these words have not betrayed him yet, and he doesn’t expect them to start now.

Jason’s worn lips tug into that smile that’s just Nico’s and he opens his mouth to speak and Nico. Is scared. Jason is leaning down and his falling hair casts a shadow over Nico’s cheekbones. “Nico.” He’s not trying to be sultry but Nico’s always thought his name has sounded extra sultry in Jason’s already deep voice. His name, two syllables, send intense vibrations that shake him from his core deep into the mattress.

His breath is suffocating but the space between them is the air Nico breathes, it’s everything he needs. And he wants to give in.

Jason is so close. So blue.

Summer skies. Closing in. Clouds rolling in. It’s not a kiss, it’s hardly a touch. Thunder rumbles. A pressure far too soft. A sweet storm. His lips shouldn’t be this smooth. Rain dripping down his skin. Jason’s hand on his waist trying to pull him closer, deeper. Dreamlike.

Nico wants to give into this fantasy but he knows how much it will hurt when he wakes up--

“Tell me after you get back,” Nico says, hardly a space of breath between them. The words leave him in a rush and he regrets each one that escapes his chattering teeth. “We can talk then.”

Prolonging the inevitable. Because Jason looking this kind and saying things Nico never dreamed and doing things that aren’t really happening is too close to a promise and a promise is too close to a goodbye and a goodbye is too close to wisping rivers in the underworld and ghostly gray fields. The storm rumbles, somewhere far beyond, fading into obscurity. His mind bleeds unreality.

All Jason’s resolve seeps into a palpable disappointment. He bites his lip, slow, nursing his scar between his teeth. “Okay,” he says at last, quiet. He squeezes Nico’s hand. He understands, he has to, and that makes it hurt all the more. “Okay.”

And he leaves.

Nico blinks and an hour could have passed. He doesn’t know how long he sits there, hand where Jason sat, letting his place grow cold. He slips into his jacket, quickly, and leaves his room. Please don’t let it be too late, he begs.

He almost runs into Hazel, who must have run down to fetch him. “Are they--”

Hazel steadies her brother with a soft hand on his shoulder. “They’re just about to leave.”

They head to the loading bay where the Athena Parthenos is kept. Ropes crisscross the statue, fastened by their friends. Reyna shoulders a hefty bag over her shoulders, given by Piper. Hedge sits on the statue, already set, impatiently tapping his bat. Leo stands near the bay doors, hand on a switch. He’s talking quietly with Jason, gripping his arm, going in for a hug. Nico looks away before they can catch him staring.

Hazel leaves Nico’s side and joins Frank in saying goodbye to Jason. So he makes his way over to Reyna, trying not to feel awkward in the crowd. He debates getting Reyna’s attention with a wave when Piper hugs her tight. So he’ll wait out their goodbyes and then slink towards her.

Reyna smiles when they part and meets Percy for a firm handshake, which turns hilariously awkward when Percy meant to go in for a hug. Nico can almost laugh. Almost. All that leaves him when Reyna meets Annabeth’s gaze carrying an all too familiar weight in her eyes. Nico swallows.

“Take care of yourself, Annabeth,” Reyna says quietly.

“You too, Reyna.”

And fury strikes Nico. It’s not their fault. He hates to blame them. But he can’t help wondering why is all of this so easy for Percy and Annabeth and not for him and Reyna.

Reyna breaks from the hug quickly and, perhaps noticing Nico’s discontent, pushes past her comrades and makes her way toward him. He’s shocked at the sudden attention and stands a little taller. “Perhaps one day we’ll take on a quest together that doesn’t depend on the safety of the world,” she offers. Her hand extends and he nods permission, letting her land on his shoulder.

“I’d like that,” he manages. Out of the corner of his eye he can see Percy giving them and odd look. He shuts it out of his mind.

“He’ll be safe with me,” Reyna adds in a whisper only meant for him.

His eyes shine with gratitude and all he can do is nod again.

Jason meets the rest of them to say goodbye. He hugs Piper close, doesn’t kiss her, doesn’t hold her too long. Nico hates to hope. He gives Annabeth a firm nod, meeting her reluctant gray eyes with a resolve that inspires her concession, a low sigh. He settles on Percy with uncertainty.

Jason grips his hand in a handshake that’s a little too firm for both of them. No words are needed. Percy looks at Nico--for only a second, but he did, Nico isn’t imagining it--and then back to Jason with a strong resolution.

“I’ll see you guys in two weeks,” Jason says. Reyna climbs onto the statue to join Hedge in a steady foothold. Leo’s hand hovers over the button to open the doors.

Nico thinks he understands what Jason felt when he watched him leave to go look for Percy all those months ago.

“Wait.” His voice is so quiet he doesn’t even recognize he’s said anything. Jason turns away. Fading into a dream. “Jason, wait!” It’s almost shrill. Obnoxious and panicked. Everyone looks at him but all that matters is Jason’s eyes meeting his. He tries to say something profound and protective but all that comes out is, “Aren’t you going to be cold?”

Jason frowns, tugging at his camp shirt. “Uh… no?”

“You’re flying thousands of miles above ground.” Nico’s hand shakes. “You’re going to be freezing.” He shrugs off his jacket and steps forward, hanging it to Jason.

Jason’s hands meet his in the jacket, admiring the worn garment with the pads of his fingertips. He breaks open that smile that’s just for Nico and Nico has to remember to breathe. “Thanks for looking out for me,” he murmurs, pulling the jacket on over his broad shoulders. It’s hilariously big on Nico but it fits Jason just perfectly. Like how every time their hands meet they become a warm mold. Two halves of the same whole. That’s how it’s always been, ever since he found Nico as that nameless boy staggering around the woods.

Jason steps forward, arms out, extending for a hug. Nico closes the distance and throws his only arm around Jason’s neck tight, winding trembling fingers in his long hair and breathing him in for what he hopes isn’t the last time.

“So I guess this is goodbye, huh.” Nico chokes, burying his head in Jason’s chest.

Jason rests his head on top of Nico’s. Tries to pour all their unsaid words from his hands to Nico’s skin. “Not for good. Just for now.”

Nico lets him go.

The loading bay doors open and the Athena Parthenos stays still, suspended in the air. Jason flexes his fingers, concentrates, and it begins to sink into the clouds. A high whinny echoes in the air. A torrent of warm air blows past them all. Coach Hedge hangs onto his hat. Reyna’s braid flaps over her shoulder. Jason’s hair ruffles in the wind. The sun sets over New Rome while the moon waxes poems anew. The night was made for loving and the day returns too soon, Nico remembers to himself.

“Another crossroads,” Hazel says, whisper floating along the roaring wind. “East and west.”

Those blue eyes meet his one last time and the Athena Parthenos sinks into amber clouds and disappears.

Chapter Text

 Hey everyone! I'm here today with a few housekeeping things. Sorry if you were hoping for an update, it’s still a bit too soon for that. But don’t worry, it’s in the works!

 

I unlike Rick went back and fixed some continuity stuff, specifically the timeline surrounding Jason’s disappearance (according to the dates used in the PJO wiki). He disappears in October following the battle of Manhattan, and two months later Percy disappears. Mid January, Jason shows up again and The Lost Hero happens. Chapters 10 and 16 have been revised significantly due to this so please give those two chapters, at least, another read. 

But if you have time I would recommend rereading the entire story, for coherency's sake, since all the chapters have been revised to some degree to reflect these and other changes (i.e. Frank and Hazel are not a couple in this story, they vaguely were in the very beginning, and since I wasn't sure where the story was going at that point so I defaulted to canon).

I will be EXTREMELY busy this semester come September. While I have a good portion of the story outlined or already written in advance, updates may be biweekly instead of weekly. Or every ten days. It depends on how much room I need to breathe, because I'm going to be taking 20 or so credits... whoops. So while there may be a slight change to the frequency of updates, it's nothing big. And I will always let you know the timeline regarding updates in the author’s notes at the end of every chapter (so if you comment asking when I'm going to update, I will not respond). 

The second act of the story will be posted here and continue through Bloods of Olympus. I'm guessing it will be around the same length as the first part, give or take a few chapters. There’s probably going to be a long ass epilogue, and if I get around to it, maybe some stand-alone pieces related to the AU. We shall see if I get around to it. I'm quite fond of this fic.

In addition to this, I'll be posting other jasico stuff intermittently, so feel free to check that out as well. As always, thanks for reading. I'll see you guys in the fall!

Chapter Text

Since befriending Hazel, commanding undead legions with Diocletian’s scepter, and visiting the Necromanteion, Frank’s gotten a lot more buddy-buddy with the afterlife. It only makes sense for him to go to Odysseus’ palace. Piper and Annabeth flank him in disguise and they hobble into the temple in their tattered shrouds.

The presence of spirit from the palace was so strong, miles away, that everyone could feel it. The children of Pluto were extra sensitive and the closer they got, the sicker Hazel looked. Nico--well, he couldn’t look much sicker than he already did. Hazel wanted to help them face the undead but Leo convinced her to stay behind, much to Frank’s relief. She did sprinkle the mist over them before they left to aid in their disguise.

“Just be careful,” Leo implored, taking Frank’s hand in his before he left, a moment of impulse that surprised them both. He released a shaky sigh. “Tired of seeing people leave my ship and not come back.”

“We’ll be fine, Leo.” Frank shouldered his quiver of arrows and gave a soft smile to his friend.

Leo had calmed and matured especially over the course of their journey, and Frank found himself wanting to spend more and more time with him. Not that Leo wasn’t still ridiculous sometimes--he still thought he was a riot. Maybe it’s just that Frank had come to tolerate it as part of their companionship. In all honesty, it had become not only expected, but endearing.

So Frank let his leader facade drop around Leo--it wasn’t constant, but he let himself relax with Leo like almost no one else. And that eased some of Leo’s worries in turn.

Piper, readying to leave, nodded and nudged Leo’s shoulder with her head. “Yeah. We’re in good hands with Frankie, here.” She gave him an affectionate squeeze and clambered down the ladder. Annabeth ruffled his hair as she passes.

Frank firmed the grip on his hand and smiled again. “We’ll be back before you know it.”

Leo’s worried brown eyes follow him all the way to Odysseus palace, which is aglow with ghostly light and booming with restless spirits. Ghosts of all kind wander the palace halls. Frank hobbles along and tries to fit in, keeping his head down. He hears whispers of information, loud shouts of celebration, and eventually gathers all the intel he needs from a ghost who’s particularly friendly at the prospect of Gaea dividing the earth among these fallen warriors.

The safest path is to take their ship along the Peloponnese to the acropolis where Gaea will awaken. It’s the longer way to travel and Frank worriedly thinks of Jason struggling to make it in time. But he has to have faith in his friend. And faith in the crew. Which he does, wholeheartedly.

He feels at ease with Annabeth and Piper beside him. They’re both incredibly powerful in their own right but they still look to Frank for direction, making his hands sweat and heart swell. He’s even more terrified now to let them down. Let down everyone as the new praetor, if he retains that title after the war.

… He starts understanding the anxiety that Jason must have felt. What made him crack.

While maintaining his facade as Iros the beggar and listening in on ghouls and ghosts, foolish and eager to spill the details of their rewards from Gaea, he thinks of Jason. All but shattered, the winds holding the last few splinters of his personality, his sanity, together. Frank didn’t know Jason before he was taken. When Frank showed up at Camp Jupiter, he was already gone. He heard stories. Fables, myths, legends about this incredible praetor. And Frank could see those effects hanging like weights on Jason’s shoulders, under his eyes, crushing his spirit.

I was taken, Jason echoes in his mind again. Frank knows that Jason will meet them at the Acropolis with Gaea. He’ll be back, better than before, blue eyes twinkling and a grin plastered on his sunny face. Wishful thinking. Part of Frank doubts Jason will be back at all. His fear is borderline selfish--he’s afraid to act on his own as a leader without guidance. Percy, Jason and Reyna all seem better suited to the task but they’re all looking to him now. It scares Frank.

As he limps away from the banquet table, he feels a pair of piercing eyes follow him. He tries to keep his pace the same, not letting any panic show and give away his true identity. Hazel’s magic is much stronger than his own insecurities. He has to hope. But it seems not to matter, anyway. The ghost finds him out.

“What brings you here, Iros?” Michael Varus challenges. He’s wearing the same Camp Jupiter shirt that Frank hides underneath the mist and his robes. “Something brought all of us back. Bitterness. Cruelty. Vengeance. My own ambition.” He swirls sword in spectral hand, his SPQR tattoo glimmering in shadow. “What would a beggar want? Home? Maybe. Some stability. Power , perhaps. The will to wield what he’s been granted. Control.”

Michael chuckles and the sound chills Frank to his core. It’s as though Michael’s been reading his mind as soon as he stepped into the ruins of the palace. He scans the crowd for Piper or Annabeth’s eyes, but they’re both lost in a crowd of ghoulish smoke. His walking staff, a bow in disguise, trembles in his grip.

“You should muzzle your Roman,” he snaps at the crowd of ghosts. But they only egg Michael Varus on, eager to see what happens. It occurs to Frank that with all the mist Hazel gave them, the ghosts could have expected them anyway. Whether they did or not, he’s about to become their entertainment.

The dead praetor raises his sword. “Our desires reveal us. They show us for who we really are. What we are. I lost my cohort twice in Alaska. Once in life, once in death. I remember a small fire, burning bright… How bright will you burn, Frank Zhang, when the earth rises?”

His reflexes take over. He feels Varus closing in on him and in seconds Frank’s drawn his bow, aimed it at his heart. His old man disguise disappears into mist. He stands taller and straighter, coming back into his young, strong body. He hears a gasp in the crowd--Piper, from somewhere far off.

Michael Varus laughs. “My father is Janus, the god of two faces. I am used to seeing through masks and deceptions. No greater mask is yours as new praetor. You stink of ceremony.”

Frank’s fingers brush over the notch where his arrow rests, ready to fly. “You stink of defeat. Your ambition wiped out your entire cohort--the one that I and countless others have tried so hard to rebuild since your death.”

“Oh, worse has happened than the death of the Fifth Cohort. Worse is yet to come.” Michael lowers his sword and leans on it, casually, leaning close until Frank’s arrow is directly between his ghostly eyes. “You cannot leave this palace, Frank Zhang. You have led your friends into a trap, and so will lead the rest into death. You are a powerful demigod, a great strategist… You would fit in well with the ranks of the dead. Why not give that scepter a little more juice?”

Hazel has the scepter with her now. She hasn’t let go of it in days, fretting over the dark purple orb, never letting it any further out of her sight than her brother. “I don’t belong with you.” The two praetors begin to circle each other. Frank catches sight of Annabeth on top of a table, kicking aside a platter and startling many suitors. Piper stands nearby, her brown eyes wide with worry.

“Oh, really? A praetor on a suicide mission for the glory of the underdog… We’re closer than you’d like to admit. You’re closer to the dead than you’d like to admit.”

He remembers summoning the ghosts of his ancestors in the Necromanteion. How cold it made him, how weak he became, the fear that overtook him. It’s much the same now, as he surveys the dead legion. He thinks of the deadened look in Nico and Hazel’s eyes.

“You were a legion officer. A leader of Rome!” Frank counters, trying to keep his head from swimming. Everything is gray, whispery, of so little substance--yet so close and cloying it’s all he can see.

“So was Jason Grace. Loyalties change.” At the mention of Jason, Varus gives a crooked grin.

“You can’t trust anyone here!” Piper calls out to the crowd. Her charmspeak washes over them, casting doubt and fear among ghostly brethren. At the same time, she meets Frank’s eyes, giving him a shaky nod. He can’t get swept up in Varus’ manipulation.

Frank tries to downplay his fear, taking courage from Piper’s reassurance, but the dead praetor sees right through him. “Rome will fall, Frank Zhang. By my hand. I’ll start here with you and then go west. Oh yes, go ahead and play dumb. It’s what you’re good at. But Gaea knows of Reyna, the satyr, and the Tartarus escapee. The earth mother has sent her most dangerous son: the hunter who never rests. But you don’t have to die, Frank Zhang.”

He steps toward Frank and Annabeth gasps. “Frank, don’t listen to him!”

Those dark ghost eyes pin him in place. Eyes that know death, eyes that understand battle. “You’re a child of war. You’re surprisingly powerful despite your shortcomings.” He tugs at the white pouch slung on Frank’s belt and he jolts backward, fear coursing through him. “You would do well. With your expertise, Gaea’s support… We could lead her troops to victory, side by side. Recreate Rome. A home, for you and those you hold dearest. One that doesn’t shame you for your faults, your ancestry… your everything .”

Frank tries not to listen to the powerful tempting words of the ghost. Tries not to think of all the times he’s felt so cold and out of place in camp. Instead, he thinks of Hazel forging a friendship with him. He thinks of the pride he felt winning the war games with Percy at his side. His mother’s faith in him since birth, in every part of him. Jason’s breakdown.

Frank wants to fix Camp Jupiter. He wants Rome to be his home, truly. He knows it must be in ruins before he can pick it up and build it back up again. But not now, not here. 

“This isn’t the way I want to change things,” Frank says quietly. And he lets the arrow fly.

Varus deflects it with his sword easily and snarls. The ghosts roll forward like fog and Frank forgets himself. All battle instincts take over, red filling his vision. He fights side by side with Piper and Annabeth, who slash through monsters and ghouls with ease. Bitter, angry ease.

They have to warn Reyna and Jason and Coach Hedge about Gaea’s attack, whoever’s hunting them. Frank focuses on that. He’s going to make Camp Jupiter a better place. Follow through with what Jason tried so hard to do. Make a place where he and Hazel and her brother and everyone can be happy. The home he wish he had.

These happy thoughts fill him with ambition, a dangerous ambition. He lets his guard down for only a moment, kicking at a dusty helmet as his enemy fades to dust with the rest of the ghosts in the palace. Long enough for Varus to sneak up behind him.

“Born a Roman, die a Roman,” he seethes into Frank’s ear. A coldness overtakes him, as though Varus torched the last of his firewood. The tip of Varus’ gold blade sticks out just above his ribcage, then slides out with a sickening squelch. He sinks to his knees and hears Annabeth and Piper screaming.

Then, there’s a crack. Like thunder. He wonders if in this deadened state, he’s imagining Jason coming to his rescue. Something that fictitious and impossible seems likely with the haziness Frank feels.

He does see that telltale flash of golden hair--no. Eyes .

Begone ,” Hazel growls. She raises her hand, Diocletian’s scepter clutched tight in her fingers, the orb pulsing dark purple. Something ripples behind Frank. Dust falls on him, the ashes of the praetor. Why is she here? Frank doubles over and wheezes. Then, concerned hands befall him. Piper and Annabeth’s voices blend together.

“Hazel, what are--what did you--” Annabeth manages to get out, turning Frank onto his back to get a look at his wound. She winces, face growing pale. “Michael Varus…”

“I felt Frank was in trouble so I came,” Hazel replies, clipped. She wastes no time taking Annabeth’s pack and digging through it for nectar and ambrosia. “Frank, eat this.” Her steady fingers push one of those sweet squares past his lips. He struggles to swallow it with the blood in his mouth. Piper helps him wash it down with nectar.

“You’re going to be fine, Frank,” she assures him. Her words give him confidence. He feels warmer. He can breathe easier. “We have to get back to the ship. Why…” she looks at the hole in his chest and gulps, “Why is it smoking?”

“That blade was imperial gold,” Annabeth whispers. “It’s deadly to demigods. It’s only a matter of time before--” She looks so shaken, it’s throwing Frank off. She’s supposed to be cool, calm, collected. But her face is white as a sheet.

“Good thing I’m here,” Hazel says grimly.

“I’ll just… walk,” Frank says. The words ache to be wrenched from his throat.

Hazel shakes her head, mopping at the wound on his chest with fragments of his robed disguise. “No, Frank, don’t. I can take us back.” She tears open his shirt with her spatha so she can get a proper look at the wound.

“Why are you… why here,” he slurs. His head swims when he looks at Hazel’s golden eyes. “What… bout… your brother.”

Hazel doesn’t answer and she keeps her focus on his wound. “He needs more ambrosia,” she says to Annabeth. Annabeth should balk at Hazel’s authority but she only nods, shaky, and gives Frank some more ambrosia.

Piper looks between them both and then Frank with concern. “Hazel, are you sure you can take us all back?”

“I got here. The ship’s not so far.”

“Were you planning on coming the whole time, no matter what we said?” Piper says more pointedly. Her eyes narrow. She helps ease Frank off the ground so they can wrap a bandage around his chest.

Hazel’s hands pause where they’re tying the bandage. They pull the cloth tight and he gasps. “I felt him dying. I wasn’t going to let it happen. I’d do the same for any of you.”

“You sound like Nico,” he drawls. The moment the words leave his mouth he knows he’s messed up. Frank thinks that if he hadn’t just been stabbed, Hazel might have done the honors herself. All she does is sigh loudly through her nose and wipe her bloody hands on her shorts.

Michael Varus’ words echo in his head while the girls share a tense silence. The bloodlust in his voice, the violence he encouraged, and Frank’s righteous refusal… He suddenly thinks of his father. His ancestry. The blood and dead that cling to this place.

“So many ghosts,” he wheezes. “My dad. The Necromanteion...”

“Frank, easy,” Piper says. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to try anything like that again. Especially when you’re so weak…”

Annabeth nods her agreement. “Please.”

Frank meets Hazel’s eye. “I need to,” he insists. He stares at the scepter in her hand, a pulsing symbol of power. Their connection, the connection of Pluto and Mars. Hazel’s face is grim and her fingers tighten around the scepter. Frank closes his eyes and concentrates, calling upon Mars in a voice lower than a whisper.

There’s a sudden boom and a red flash of light that startles them all. Frank recognizes that intense glow and gasps in surprise as his father appears before them, form flickering uncertainly like his own consciousness.

“Ares,” Annabeth and Piper echo, the former with slight disdain.

His projection glitches to his Greek aspect, but he returns to his Roman self quickly, annoyed at the switch. He reminds Frank of a dying lightbulb, continuously flickering between both selves, aviator shades glowing through the dusty palace ruins. “My time is short. The dissent of Odysseus drew me here, and the brutality of this battle was enough for me to latch onto.” He stares around the fallen palace almost fondly. “The surrounding dead help as well.”

Hazel ducks her head at this, fixing her eyes on some crack in the ground. She clenches her jaw. Frank eases himself onto his elbows, gritting his teeth in pain. “Father, help us.”

“Can you heal Frank?” Piper asks.

“Battles are my specialty. The aftermath isn’t beyond my scope of concern, but this. This wound has touched your mind as well as your body. It is something you must fight on your own, Frank.”

If only surviving a stab wound was as easy as changing into a rhino running down enemies like bowling pins. “Thanks,” Frank groans. “I’m trying.”

“Still, I am grateful you called. The last few weeks have been hell.”

“I know, I’ve heard it all,” Frank chuckles, remembering Ares and Mars echoing in his head loudly, creating violence and dissent in his mind.

“Easy, boy,” Mars scolds, but there’s an amused smirk curling the edge of his stiff lip. “Juno flees Jupiter. He’s taking his wrath out on her for, as he believes, causing the war.”

“Didn’t she?” Annabeth deadpans. “You know, since she plucked Percy from camp, erased his memory, stole him away for months--”

“Don’t misdirect your anger towards me, Annabeth Chase. Your spirit is admirable, but it’ll get you in trouble. Already has.” He’s Greek again, something weighing down his glare toward Annabeth. She sours at this and Piper eases her with a gentle hand on her shoulder.

“Can you advise us?” Piper gets them back on track again, and Frank smiles gratefully, even though the action pains him. Everything pains him right now and they need to get him back to the ship. Standing here squabbling won’t help. Piper, at least, knows this.

Hazel catches on and says, “Tell us what to do, please, lord Mars.”

Mars grins, obviously pleased with the show of respect. “As you know, the Peloponnese is the only viable route. Along your way, seek the goddess of victory in Olympia. She is out of control. As long as she is, the rift between Greek and Roman can never be healed.”

“You mean Nike?” Annabeth asks. “How is she out of control?”

Mars opens his mouth to answer and his form violently flickers, a flash of red blinding them all. Thunder booms beyond the hill of the palace, startling them all. Dark and huge, like the lightning bolts that surrounded the Necromanteion. When he’s calmed, he shakes his head. “There’s no time. I can’t stay from Olympus long. I am one of the few left in his favor.”

“What else do we need to know?” Frank fights his drowsiness, biting the inside of his cheek and hoping the pain will keep him awake.

“As you’ve heard, the giants are gathering in Athens. There are few gods that will be able to help you on your quest. Juno is not the only one who has incurred Jupiter’s wrath; the twins have fled and seek shelter from him as well.”

“Artemis and Apollo,” Piper echoes. “But why?”

Mars’ image fades in and out even more. “If you reach the island of Delos, they may be able to help. They’re desperate enough to try anything. War brings out all last resorts out of their previous reservations. Now, go. We may meet in Athens again if you succeed.” With Jason , Frank thinks, nodding at his father’s words. But Mars’ eyes, obstructed by those shades, make his face unreadable.

There’s a huge puff of red smoke and Mars disappears. Frank’s head lolls back onto the concrete.

“Frank!” Hazel drops to his side, legs shaking. Everything in his vision is dark and fuzzy. Hazel looks scared and weak, the hand clutching the scepter shaking. “Everyone put your hand over mine,” she instructs, placing her other hand on Frank’s chest. He clumsily grabs her hand, running his thumb over the knuckles. She squeezes back. Annabeth’s cold, shaking fingers settle on top of his. Then Piper’s warm steadiness. He sighs and lets darkness envelop him.

The shadows take him back to the Argo II and he’s stuck staring at the bright sun above. “Frank!” Voices on deck. Someone clambers to his side and Leo enters his vision, looking concerned.

“I’m fine,” Frank mumbles.

“I told you to be careful --” His voice cracks. Frank frowns. He doesn’t like to hear him so upset.

“You didn’t tell me not to get stabbed.”

“Leave the jokes to Leo,” Percy says, kneeling beside him. “Annie, what happened?”

“Michael Varus,” she says bitterly. Her hands need something to do so she tightens Frank’s bandages and starts tearing her robe for more. Recognition flickers in Percy’s eyes and he scowls.

“Alaska,” he mutters distastefully. Frank nods and chuckles weakly.

“You’ll really need to rest for a while, Frank. A wound from imperial gold… It isn’t pretty.” Annabeth’s shaking hands keep trying to tie more bandages to stop the bleeding. Frustrated with her lack of progress, Hazel takes over. Her agitated eyes stay fixed on his wound. He remembers the darkness, the cold rush he felt when she appeared. The fear on Annabeth and Piper’s faces. Annabeth is still shaking and Piper seems withdrawn.

Frank looks to Leo, still at his side, then questioningly to an ill Hazel. He shrugs hopelessly. “Not much I can do when Hazel and the Holograms vanishes into thin air.”

“I can hear you , Leo.”

Leo crosses his arms. “Good, you need to know how uncool that was.”

“Leo’s right, Hazel,” Piper interjects carefully when Hazel shoots Leo a dirty look. “We had things under control. If there’s more of us out there, there’s just more danger.”

“Things obviously weren’t under control,” she says, gesturing to Frank lying on the deck. Frank feels, as he has many times in his life, quite awkward. He hates being the elephant in the room, the dying demigod on deck, but Nico lifts that burden off his shoulders when he comes running up from below.

He’s still incredibly pale and thin, but he’s gotten his energy back in the last few days. Frank never sees him eating with the group in the mess hall but sometimes he sees Nico snacking up in the crow’s nest or relaxing against the main mast. Even finding solace on the figurehead of Festus. Frank has no idea how he gets to any of those places, as injured and unable to shadow travel as he is. He reminds Frank of a spider, creeping around corners, shying away from footsteps. The thought makes him laugh, some clarity entering his mind. Maybe that’s why he and Annabeth don’t get along.

He wanders over to the group, losing his resolve as eyes turn to him. “Hazel.”

“Nico,” she replies in a false cheerful tone.

He rubs his right shoulder and frowns at his sister. “I thought we talked about this.”

“Talked about what?”

Sparks fly as each sibling holds their ground. The entire deck is frozen, split into sides down Frank’s body. Hazel, Leo and Piper on one. Nico, Annabeth and Percy on the other. “Let’s just get moving,” Piper says, easing her way into the situation again. Smoothing over rough patches and sewing fragments back together. “Leo, can you get us up and running? We can get Frank to the infirmary.”

Leo nods. Some of his paleness has faded but he still looks worriedly at Frank’s wound, the steam rising from beneath his bandages. Leo starts to get up and Frank remembers Varus’ warning. “Wait, Leo--” he tries to sit and winces, clutching his chest. “ Ahh --We have to take the Peloponnese route.”

Leo frowns. “What? That’ll take twice as long. If we just go through the Corinth--”

“It’s a trap. Cyclops army. Whole bunch of bad monsters. We can’t. Dad said no.”

“Everywhere we go is a trap,” Leo shrugs. He seems amused at the disjointed fragments Frank blurted, but doesn’t comment otherwise. “Guess I’ll just redraw the map route again …” But he doesn’t sound that upset. His holds Frank’s gaze until he disappears below deck to the engine room, giving him a small smile when he does. Something warm settles in Frank’s chest, chasing out the cold hurt from his wound.

Of course Frank’s first mission as praetor off the Argo II he gets stabbed . Just wonderful. But he’s still a leader. Jason still tried to lead after all sorts of horrible events. Even tried after Tartarus. Frank can try, too. A tiny stab wound won’t keep him down.

He thinks of Jason lugging the Athena Parthenos west through the sky. “Jason and Reyna are in danger. Gaea’s sending… some hunter after them. One of her sons.” He turns to Nico, who startles when he’s addressed. “Can you let them know?”

“Uh. Yeah, I… Sure.” He grips his short arm, staring at his shoes with sudden interest. “Let’s get you patched up first, at least.”

Percy and Hazel help him to his feet. He remembers dragging them both out of the muskeg in Alaska and laughs softly. Everything was so much simpler back then. “You okay, Frank?” Percy asks. The concern in his voice softens Frank’s tense shoulders.

“Yeah. I’m okay.” Hazel’s hand around his waist is tight. Her lips are pursed tight in worry. He remembers his father talking of the battle’s brutality. The darkness radiating around the scepter. Her fractured focus. “Hazel, what happened to Michael Varus?”

She looks away. “In Alaska?”

“Hazel,” Frank repeats, softer. Percy looks between them both curiously.

“What matters, Frank, is that you’re safe. He can’t hurt you or anyone else anymore.” Her golden eyes are sunken and hollow. The look on her face is ill-fit for a girl so young. Frank feels sick and it’s nothing to do with his chest wound anymore. Percy looks just as worried as he feels.

They settle him onto one of the cots in the infirmary. More ambrosia and nectar. They get him a new shirt. He props himself up against the pillows and drifts out of consciousness, hanging onto the pouch on his belt for comfort. Michael Varus didn’t touch it. So Frank won’t die. He can’t die.

Figures pass in and out of the door. He feels faint, as cold and strange as when he summoned his ancestor ghosts in the Necromanteion. He grips the edge of the cot for stability, something to ground him in this too unreal world. He’s brought all the way down to earth when cautious footsteps tread through the door.

He expects Hazel and is surprised to see her brother there. Nico freezes when Frank’s eyes land on him. He feels guilty taking up space in the infirmary, which has become synonymous with Nico’s room. He’s still recovering and for whatever reason refuses to take Jason’s empty room.

“How are you feeling?” Nico’s arm hangs loose at his side, unsure, probably wishing for the sleeves of his aviator jacket. He’s wearing a baggy SPQR shirt and a pair of jeans that Frank recognizes as Leo’s because of the grease stains. Out of everyone on board, he expects Nico to ask him how he’s doing the least . But Frank appreciates it.

They’re a team, now, he reminds himself. They have to work together. He’s awkward around Nico, but no more or less awkward than he is around anyone he’s tried to brave the threshold from acquaintance to friendship with.

“Completely beat.” Frank wipes some sweat from his forehead. “You?”

He apparently didn’t expect Frank to ask, confusion taking over his face. Searching for the answer somewhere in forgotten notes, trying to answer a question on a test he didn’t study for. “Uh… Fine. I guess.” He sits on the other cot across from Frank and fiddles with his skull ring, pushing it back and forth on his ring finger with his thumb. He’s not one to linger when he’s uncomfortable so he comes right out and says, “I need to talk to you about Hazel.”

“What do you mean?” He remembers their confrontation on the deck.

Nico’s dark eyes narrow at Frank, intense and scrutinizing. Frank hopes this isn’t a shovel talk. One, he’s not even together with Hazel. Two, he’s not sure he would survive one from Nico di Angelo. “In the Necromanteion… you wielded Diocletian’s spear. Called on your descendants to lead you through the temple. Hazel told me, but more than that… I can see death lingering around you. Its shadows. You’re flickering.”

Frank’s head sinks into the pillow beneath him. His voice trembles when he asks, “So, am I dying?

Nico bites his lip. “Not exactly. But… you’re interacting with death more than most demigods would.”

“More than anyone except you and Hazel?” he guesses. The son of Hades nods. “Yeah. That makes sense.” He doesn’t know what prompts him to speak. But Nico’s silence no longer feels awkward or choking. It’s inviting. “It just seems that there are ghosts everywhere I go. I have to lead, to keep you all safe--but there are so many left behind in that wake.” Thoughts of his mother float in and he sighs sadly. He thinks of the camps on the verge of war, Octavian’s ire spurring them on.

To his surprise, Nico’s eyes well with sympathy. “War is a ghost,” he says. “It haunts the same way. It hurts the same way.” Hades and Ares are closer than he thought. And now, upon the evening of battle, their fates are ever more entwined. “You’re close with Hazel.”

Frank nods. “She’s my best friend.”

“Things are only going to get worse.” The depressing statement is treated as a fact, and Nico spreads his hand helplessly. “Things is what happens when you befriend a child of death. There are consequences. Whether we like it or not--” With the grimace in his tone, Frank can tell he’s more than fed up with misery trailing his heels, “--misfortune follows us. And it will follow you, too. You need to be prepared for it. And understand what comes with sharing a bond with my sister.”

Frank shrugs and says, “We’re demigods. We already have enough bad luck. And being friends with your sister isn’t some burden, either. Even if more creepy stuff happens. Same goes for you.” Nico looks up, surprised. “It’s more than worth it.”

He obviously didn’t expect such a kind response and simply clears his throat. “Oh. Well… good. I’m glad that Hazel has you as a friend.” He bounces his leg anxiously. “I was worried about her after I left.”

Frank remembers Nico’s cryptic exit from Camp Jupiter. Whispers from Gwen and Dakota. He showed up around the same time Percy did and then vanished again. Hazel always spoke of Nico quietly, yet fond, worry creasing her brow. He remembers how shaken she was when they saw Nico in the jar. How much more she fell apart when he took on Tartarus again .

“She was worried about you, too.” Frank doesn’t blame Nico for Hazel’s recent behavior. Well, he doesn’t want to. But this dangerous behavior is becoming a pattern, if what he’s learned from Percy and Hazel is true. “Take care of yourself. If you can’t for your own sake, I understand… but at least for Hazel.”

Nico absorbs Frank’s words for a long time. He rubs his right arm, hand gripping where it severed, just above the elbow. His bandages are crisp and clean. “Right.” A soft murmur, “I’m trying.”

“I don’t want to lecture you or anything,” Frank adds. “And I’m not saying it just for her. I’m saying it for you, too.”

Nico’s nose scrunches--the way Hazel’s does when she thinks he’s said something ridiculous. “We aren’t friends.”

He thinks of Leo holed up in the engine room. Hazel on her own, struggling with the straps of her armor just as much as he was. Percy on the banks of the tiber. “We could be.”

He releases a long sigh. “Sure you didn’t get concussed, too?” The words are dull, the faintest smirk tugging at his lips. No longer is he pushing off his friendly attempts. Frank’s apprehension melts away and he returns Nico’s jab with a smile.

They’re a team, he reminds himself. They have to work together for this to succeed. And Nico isn’t a bad kid. He’s just been through a lot. Frank has, too. If he can do anything to ease his burden, he wants to. Frank understands what it’s like to be an outcast for his ancestry, for things he can’t control. Hazel and Frank became friends with each other in spite of, and perhaps because of, their loaded pasts.

The same thing seems to have happened with Nico and Jason, Frank thinks. His closeness with Jason seemed to come out of nowhere, but he guesses there’s some long past behind it.

All those thoughts vanish when the ship lurches. Their next problem lies somewhere above deck. Nico glances at the ceiling reluctantly, hears footsteps outside the infirmary. People rushing past. “We can hide out here for a while, if you want to be alone,” he offers. Nico nods shyly. Frank wonders how he can open up the conversation again and then an idea strikes him. “Actually, wait. Can you get something from my room? It’s on my bookshelf, top right.”

Nico follows his instructions and comes back a few minutes later, shoebox tucked under his arm and a glass in hand. He shuts the door behind him. Frank downs the water with a great gulp of thanks, not realizing how thirsty he was.

He dumps the shoebox on Frank’s lap and scoots a nightstand full of medical supplies inbetween their two cots. “Why would you bring your Mythomagic cards on an apocalyptic road trip?” Nico asks, sounding amused as he settles cross legged on the cot across from Frank.

He starts sorting through his themed decks. “Well, you did too,” he points out, remembering the eagle that carried his message all the way from Tartarus. Nico stiffens suddenly and Frank worries he’ll storm off. He changes the subject and asks, “Do you want to put together your own deck? I have them grouped by different themes, but it’s based on my personal tactics and strategies… We could put one together for you.”

Nico’s eyes rake across the hundreds of cards with an eager gleam, Frank’s transgression forgotten. “Surprise me. I like a challenge.” He cracks his knuckles one finger at a time on the edge of the stand.

Frank’s chest wound aches cold but as the hours pass, Nico di Angelo’s company keeps him warm.

Chapter Text

Nico was running out of options.

He was getting exhausted running back and forth between the camps, back and forth across the coast, but he wasn’t giving into his body’s cry for rest so easily. He had to find Jason. Or find Percy, because that would likely lead him to Jason. Their disappearances were connected. He knew it. There was no way they couldn’t be.

Something was stirring. He could see it in the stress of his father’s brow with each new mission. Could feel it in the air, in the ground beneath his feet. October brought early winter with Jason’s disappearance. Both camps seemed colder and more foreign to him with each passing day.

Well, particularly Camp Half-Blood.

The more Nico tried to bridge the gap between himself and the Greek camp, the wider it became. This is what Bianca would want , he reminded himself each time he got closer to the exit for good. That’s what his father wanted too. Something closer to Bianca. Something… not Nico. He was trying to be that, trying to spread himself thin between both camps for that purpose. It was starting to wear away at him. But once he found Jason he could find Percy and then he could find Bianca and he wouldn’t have to worry about trying to be something he wasn’t anymore.

But it was a lot for one kid, especially a kid like Nico. He was a string drawn taut across too many points on a map. It was only a matter of time before he snapped.

“All the dryads that can look are looking for him,” Grover said. All of the head counselors were gathered, discussing Percy’s sudden disappearance. Almost the entire camp was mobilizing to find him. “I’ve alerted a lot of satyrs, too. But it’s weird. I don’t feel our connection anymore. He’s just… gone.” The satyr’s head drooped sadly.

“He’s out there,” Clarisse interjected gruffly. “There’s no way Jackson would go down without a fight. I mean, he might be lying in a dumpster somewhere, but he’s alive .” A boot thumped the side of his chair and he jumped. “Is he?” she asked in a lower concerned tone.

Nico was technically a head counselor. Even if he hadn’t stepped foot inside his cabin since it was made. He only decorated it to scare off other campers and satisfy some of his frustrations. He preferred his quarters in New Rome--which were Jason’s. Nico never planned to enlist in the legion, so he couldn’t stay with any of the cohorts. He stayed with Jason the first week he was introduced to the camp. He was hardly ever there in the beginning, at least long enough to stay the night; but thanks to Jason that time became longer and longer. But since Nico happened to step into his own cabin today, he was quickly sought out. Annabeth and Grover all but dragged him to this meeting, as if they considered him necessary to find Percy.

He was useful, but that was all. They’d ignore him again when they realized he had no better idea of where Percy was than they did.

“I don’t know,” Nico said. “It’s not that I feel him alive or dead--” An energy that he knew like his own, better than his own, almost as well as Jason’s just disappated and he didn’t notice, “It’s like Grover said. I don’t feel anything for him.” His heart skipped a beat and he added, “I don’t feel him anywhere. He’s just gone.”

“Could he be in the underworld?” The Apollo cabin counselor suggested. His blond hair and blue eyes reminded Nico of Jason, only serving to make him more sour. If this was a senate meeting, he’d sit between Jason and Reyna, ambivalent and joking under their breaths the whole time. “That’s the only place I can think he’d be if we can’t find him anywhere on the surface.”

“Good point, Will.” Annabeth turned to Nico. “Could you check up on that?”

Nico blinked. “You know, if he was in the underworld…  I would know, and dragged him back already . Not to mention I already have checked. Three times.” Once for Jason, once for Percy, once for Bianca--he only came back with Hazel, an unexpected surprise. But that was no one’s business. Not even his father’s.

Annabeth pursed her lips. “Are you sure?”

He crossed his arms with a snort. “Don’t worry, Annabeth. I don’t want to keep your boyfriend. My father doesn’t want him around, either, if that’s what you’re worried about. We don’t just snatch up campers from the shadows and throw them into dungeons willy-nilly. Who do you think I am?” Spite dripped from each sardonic syllable and he slumped in his chair, the knot in his stomach pulling tight. He didn’t want a reminder of how the camp viewed him, least of all from Annabeth.

“Well, the underworld is pretty big. It’s a lot for one person to comb over,” Will insisted. “Maybe we could send teams. If we go with Nico, we won’t get attacked, right?”

“What makes you think my father cares that much about me not to let his forces roam free in the underworld?” Nico asked, tapping his fingers slowly against the table. The boy met his eyes and frowned, annoyed with Nico's lack of cooperation. What didn't he get about his assurance that going to the underworld again would be a waste of time? “And what makes you think my father cares about harming other demigods that aren't Percy Jackson?”

Of course no one at camp would take his word as it was given. They couldn't really trust he was searching as had as everyone else, that he cared as much as if not more than they did about finding Percy. He couldn't be trusted like Annabeth or as empathetic as Grover. Or as whatever as whatever they were looking for. That only served to make Nico more upset than he already was.

“Okay, so, underworld’s out,” said Connor Stoll, closing the matter. He and his brother were oddly quiet and serious during the meeting, moreso than Nico had ever saw during his time in the Hermes cabin. “What else can we do ? I mean, if Nico and Grover can’t feel him anywhere… where else could he be? Olympus?”

Nico allowed himself to tune out the rest of the meeting, if only not to upset everyone else. If marching up to the gods is what it took to bring Percy back, Annabeth was sure to have it planned out if she hadn’t already gone. She seemed to have things under control. He stood and turned to leave.

“Wait, Nico, where are you going?” Grover asked.

He shrugged and went out the door.

He didn’t expect to hear hooves and footsteps trailing after him so suddenly. All the emotions he forced down in the meeting came bubbling back up with vengeance. He made it to the bottom of the hill before finally turning around to their cries. “ What ?”

“We still need your help, Nico,” Annabeth pleaded. The bags under her eyes were striking against her tan skin. Her hair was frizzy, falling out of her ponytail. Nico felt for her. He really did. Jason’s disappearance had him in a similar state of disarray. However, no one noticed, because Nico was always in disarray. Always frazzled, always angry. And no one cared. No one at Camp Half-Blood.

“I have my own responsibilities, Annabeth,” he said. He twisted the ring on his finger and averted his eyes. “Percy’s yours and mine… is elsewhere.”

“Are you sure you can’t stay, Nico?” Grover tried, softer.

Annabeth nodded. “You could stick around for a few days. You don’t have to look for Percy. Just take a break from running around.” He couldn’t tell if they were trying to convince him into staying with false sweet words, or if they were getting smaller to placate, afraid of him blowing up.

He met their eyes to discern the truth. “What do you want from me?” Annabeth and Grover exchanged glances. “I mean it. Am I supposed to go running across the country to find Percy? Or is that too dangerous for a kid like me?” His fist clenched, the silver band burning against his knuckles. “You need to pick one of those. You can’t keep going back and forth. I can’t keep going back and forth. I’m too dangerous to stay here but too powerful to let you let me get away. I get it .” Anger flooded his tongue and he mussed up his hair. He was too much, too different, too other for everyone.

Everyone except Jason. And he was gone .

“That’s not it, Nico,” Annabeth interjected. She looked guilty, he noted with mute satisfaction. Good. She should be. She lowered her voice, “Is this about Bianca? Because if it is, I understand--”

“No, you don’t ,” Nico snapped. “You really, really don’t, Annabeth.”

Grover put a hand on her shoulder and pulled her back a few steps. “Nico, please. Just come back to the meeting. You’re as much a part of this as we are. We want your help, if… if you’re willing.”

“I have a choice, now?” Nico shook his head. But their eyes were wide and pained with Percy’s disappearance. He couldn’t refuse them. Couldn’t refuse him . Couldn’t refuse the possibility that they might one day accept him if he kept bending to their every whim. “I’ll check the underworld again.”

A smile broke the daughter of Athena’s weary face. “Thank you, Nico.”

“Don’t thank me. Please... don’t.” He didn’t need praise for his weakness. He stalked up the hill and faded into the shade of Thalia’s tree, letting it carry him away.

Nico almost considered asking Thalia about Jason. Perhaps she had taken a leave of absence from the hunters and was taking a well-deserved family road trip with her brother. But that… that was another issue entirely, one Nico dared not provoke.

The camps weren’t allowed to even know of each other’s existence, much less mingle. Jason and Thalia… that would only prove fatal in the face of his father’s mission. So he never brought Thalia up around Jason, even when he spoke quietly of the older sister he always wondered about. Probably some boring office job , he always joked, hopeful for the both of them to succeed in a mundane life. And Nico was never around Thalia long enough to bring up Jason. He still had many issues with the hunters. Thalia never mentioned him. So there was no reason for Nico to bring it up, either.

He could only imagine the chaos that would ensue if they got a proper reunion.

The months went on like this. Nico spent less and less time at Camp Half-Blood. He just wandered worried and vagrant across America, no trace of Percy or Jason anywhere on land, sea or sky. Before he knew it, it was January, and he was turning fourteen. Hazel dragged him home to celebrate. They went and grabbed pastries from Jason’s favorite cafe and sat on the hill outside Pluto’s temple.

Reyna stopped by, waving a hand in greeting. “Nico. Happy birthday.” Short, sweet, and to the point.

“Thanks.” He nudged the bag her way and she took half a scone.

“Hope you weren’t expecting a present.” Reyna’s not one for sentimentality.

“You wouldn’t give me what I wanted anyway,” Nico replied with a solemn shrug. Reyna’s eyes saddened and she sighed, shaking her head. Hazel put her hand over her brother’s.

“I want to find him just as much as you do. Unfortunately, I am not the only voice on the senate.”

“I know.” The augur, Octavian, recently wormed his way into Jason’s position. No one said no. No one said anything , so he could get away with it. That was not Reyna’s fault. Nico distilled his anger and mumbled, “Sorry.”

“So am I.”

Hazel squeezed his hand. After Reyna left, she said, “You guys are close, huh?”

Nico nodded slowly. He was afraid to elaborate. If he named those feelings, he would come one step closer to actualizing them. And he wasn’t ready for that. He couldn’t do that. No one deserved to take that on.

“We were.” Past tense. He had to move on sometime . May as well be now. He squeezed a few tears onto his shaking hand when Hazel wasn’t looking and cursed himself.

Nico had to find Jason, so he needed real rabble rousers. People who weren’t bound by the construct of the legion. Or, rather, people who were willing to risk that construct such as himself. That’s how he found himself with Dakota and Gwen on the banks of the tiber during their evening guard shift.

“I have no idea where he could have gone,” Gwen said. “You said you don’t feel him anywhere ?” Her eyes were wide, complete belief in Nico’s abilities. It startled him.

“No. I’ve been looking for months. Another one of my--friends, uh, went missing, too. So it’s not a coincidence. Things have just been… wrong, lately.”

Dakota nodded, his gaze lolling to rest on Nico. “Nothing new for the Fifth Cohort. But Jason… it’s troubling. You’ve missed most of the senate meetings lately, di Angelo. What I’m about to say is information you’re privy to, but don’t go spreading it around.” He glanced at Gwen and she nodded, giving him the resolve he needed to continue. “Octavian won’t let the legion mobilize to find him.”

Nico balked. “What?”

Gwen stressed her short ponytail. “Reyna sent some initial eagle scouts, but then Octavian forced them to pull back. He said something about a vision he had… looking for Jason would tear apart the legion. There was something connected to him we couldn’t, weren’t allowed to find.”

Dakota’s crimson lips pressed together in a frown. “It could be just more cock and bull… I wouldn’t put it past him. But he’s got everyone convinced. Well, except us. We all have half a brain and enough righteous Roman hatred to know Jason’s not dead and leaving him behind is… shitty, to say the least.”

Dakota wasn’t a serious person, despite being a centurion. He inherited Jason’s position after he became praetor. But as Nico knew Dakota, he held a fierce loyalty to the legion and his friends. His caring was a river deep and wide that ran with blue fury. Receiving the validation that Jason’s abandonment by the legion was horrible made Nico feel better. But then it faded when he realized there was still nothing they could do. The entire legion praised Jason for years and when he disappeared, no one bat and eye.

Nico didn’t like Octavian. But what Gwen said… something they weren’t allowed to find… Nico thought of his father’s mission. That had to be it. They camps weren’t allowed to mix. Not yet. But they would, inevitably. It would all start and end with Percy and Jason.

Maybe he didn’t have to look. He just had to wait for Jason to show up at Camp Half-Blood. A thought that made him sick, but the more he thought it, the more it made sense. He’d been running from there for so long, now. Jason was bound to turn up. Right? The gods knew what they were doing. His father knew. They had a plan. Right . He had nothing left to believe.

“Nico?” Gwen’s hand hovered over his shoulder. “Are you okay?”

He swayed as he stood and breathed, trying to calm himself. “Yeah. Sorry, I… I’m just tired.” His vision crept to the stars above. Nico could see a hunter’s image flecked in the sky.

“Get some sleep, kid. It’s late.” Dakota clapped him on the back. Swift, startling, but not entirely unwelcome.

Nico wanted to protest but Gwen’s hand on his shoulder was soft and assuring. “You can’t keep running on empty. We haven’t given up, you know. We won’t. We’ll get a fresh start tomorrow once you’ve rested. Okay?”

He thought of Bianca tucking him into a bed. A tone gentle and caring to ease him to sleep. No nightmares, no nothing. Just comforting darkness. A warmth he hadn’t known in years flooded his ears and threatened to push tears past his eyelids.

He thought of Annabeth and Grover urging him to stay at camp. Bianca, haunting his every footstep. Campers watching him, skulking, jeering, hurtful once he outlived his usefulness. A spiteful streak of green stung his heart.

Dakota and Gwen wanted him to stay at camp. Hazel followed his shadow close, careful, caring. Campers watched him but it stopped there. He didn’t think about anyone else when Jason’s eyes were on him.

“Okay,” Nico relented. Jason’s quarters were cold, and his bed was freezing. But that night, he slept, really slept , perhaps for the first time since Jason disappeared.

Nico awoke the next morning with a plan. He would head to the underworld and demand the truth from his father about Jason’s whereabouts. This game of cat and mouse he was stuck playing had to end.

He shouldered his backpack and headed out of the praetor’s villa for Camp Jupiter’s border. An unwelcome guest trailed close behind him, slinking up to his side. Nico kept his mouth shut and walked faster, but the assailant matched his pace.

“Ambassador, where are you off to in such a hurry?” drawled Octavian, having no trouble keeping up.

“None of your business.”

“Do you have a second?”

“No.”

“Great! So, you missed the last senate meeting--”

“I’ve missed the last five .”

“Ah, right. You were at the other camp again.”

Nico stopped cold.

“What?” he asked, turning very slowly to meet Octavian’s glittering eyes. He fought to keep his voice steady and was glad his hands were stuffed in his pockets, since they were surely shaking.

“I said , you were out looking for Jason?” Octavian raised an eyebrow. But there was something knowing and sinister behind that look. Octavian always gave Nico the creeps, and now this oddness was reaching new heights.

Nico looked around. It was still early, there weren’t many people milling about. No one close enough to hear them or save him, anyway. He steadied his breath and spoke with ease, “I’m going to visit my father and ask him if he knows anything about Jason’s whereabouts, since you refuse to mobilize the legion to find him.”

The augur chuckled. “I am not the only voice in the senate, Ambassador. Many are concerned it would be a waste of our resources. We don’t want to lose any good Romans.”

Jason is a good Roman. Why are you willing to lose him after all he’s done for this camp?” Nico took an accusatory step forward, shadows lapping at his heel. Octavian gulped nervously and began to shrink.

“Just be careful you're not overstepping your boundaries. Wouldn’t want to have the senate discipline you.”

At this, Nico outright laughed. “I’ll do whatever it takes to get Jason back home safe. I’ll exhaust every possible option. Why do you care what I do, anyway? It’s not like I’m part of the legion. I don’t exactly fit in here.”

“You still hold influence, power, as an ambassador,” Octavian countered. “Yet you don’t want any of it, do you…?” He trailed off and took a step forward, leaning over Nico. “I can see why you’re looking for Jason. You two are very similar. Very close, in fact.”

His heart sped up. “We’re--friends.”


“Mhm. That much is obvious.” The augur nodded slowly. His eyes were glinting again, unnerving, as he tried to unravel the son of Hades. “You’ll have to settle down at some point, Ambassador. We need you here.”

“So you can keep an eye on me,” Nico said, rolling his eyes. This conversation was obnoxiously familiar. “I get it.”

“Well, don’t think I’m that shallow. You’re a powerful ally and I want to work with you. I’m just looking out for all our best interests.” Octavian gripped Nico’s arm and nudged the back of his ankle, all but marching him out of the block of villas and toward the border. It was a long walk. Nico ripped his arm from Octavian’s hand but didn’t dare run. “Just like how you need to look out for your sister. This camp is not so kind to new trainees. Least of all the Fifth Cohort. Bitter misfits looking for a home… things can get ugly. There’s no room for slip ups, and there’s no room to hide. Secrets are the only weapons an enemy can use within our borders.”

Nico was cold and shaking. He grabbed the collar of Octavian’s shirt and dragged him down to eye level, something the augur was not expecting, if the yelp he let out was anything to go by. Nico was small, smaller than Octavian, and he couldn’t win with words, so physical intimidation was all he had, something he was very skilled with because and in spite of his size.

“You leave my sister alone,” he hissed. “You don’t go near her. Neither do any of your other cronies , or you’ll have me to answer to. If you so much as touch a hair on Hazel’s head--” Nico was suddenly aware of the eyes on him. It didn’t look great, the foreign ambassador railing on a senior member of the senate. He reluctantly released Octavian.

“Cronies,” Octavian repeated, dusting off his shirt, as though that was all that concerned him from Nico’s speech. He seemed amused. “So old-fashioned.” Nico turned to leave, anxious with other campers watching them, but the augur caught him by the arm one last time. His bony fingers squeezed into Nico’s arm and he tried not to wince. “I’ll see you at the next senate meeting, Ambassador? With a full report of you and your father’s discussion?”

Nico grit out, “ Fine .” and trudged to the camp borders.

The instant he left the camp borders, Nico sunk into shadow, ignoring the surprised gasps of the border guards behind him. He didn’t care. He was shaking. He had to get out of there. Octavian’s hands still burned him, his words were ringing around in his head and shaking him to his core.

He thought of Hazel, shivering in the fields of Asphodel. A lighthouse breaking through foggy dawn. He couldn’t let her get caught in this storm. Either he just guaranteed no one will mess with her or that no one will want to be her friend. Sadly, being ignored was the safest option for children like them. But his heart ached for his sister. She was good, she was bright like the gems she pulled from the depths of the earth. She didn’t deserve her fate.

Nico would not let her succumb to death, even if it cost his own soul. She deserved another chance. She was not Bianca, something he was still struggling with, and maybe that’s why she was so good for him. Why he was so determined to protect her. Hazel was not Nico, she was not Bianca, she was unique and wonderful and he would give everything he had left to help her stay that way.

The winter wind tore at his cheeks and the holes in his jeans but Nico persisted to DOA Records. Unfortunately, his stepmother would be in the underworld, which he wasn’t quite prepared to deal with. “The things I do for you, Jason,” he muttered as he stepped into the back of the shop and slipped below the land of the living.

Nico reached the gates of his father’s palace, which were locked. Unusual. He simply phased into shadow and continued on to his father’s throne room. That was also locked. Odd. He banged on the door a few times and got no response. When he tried to shadow travel through, he was met with a resistance that blew him back several feet.

“What…?” He rubbed his head and stood. “What did I do this time?” he yelled through the door. Gave it a solid kick that left his toes throbbing. If he had to throw a tantrum to get his father’s attention, fine . It was no different from the many months he spent convincing his father to help in the Battle of Manhattan. “I’m not leaving until you come out!” He thought he heard a groan from inside the room. He whacked the door with the butt of his sword. “Come on. You can’t stay in there forever.”

The door opened just a crack, suddenly, and Persephone stuck her head out. “Do you mind ? Your father has a terrible headache.”

Nico tried to reign in his rebel instinct, resisting the urge to elbow his way past his stepmother. “I have to talk to him. It’s official ambassador business. I’m just following his orders.

“Nico, your father isn’t quite himself right now,” Persephone said in a hushed tone. “His Roman and Greek aspects aren’t getting along.”

Nico bit his lip. His father warned him this would happen. With the merging of the camps approaching… Things would only get worse. “Well, then I have to talk to him even more urgently, now. Please.” He sheathed his sword, a show of good faith.

Persephone looked over her shoulder and sighed, opening the door a crack wider so Nico could step in. “Fine. Make it quick.”

Nico strode right up and knelt in front of his father’s throne, where he sat flickering in and out. One moment, he was in his traditional black robes, dark hair cascading down to his shoulders. The next, he wore a strict business suit and his hair was cropped, save for the beard he sported. “Father. I’m back from Camp Jupiter.”

“So you are.” The mention of the camp caused him to flicker to his Roman aspect for a long moment before turning back to the father Nico was accustomed to. “And?”

“Percy Jackson and Jason Grace are still missing.” A beat. “I’m looking for them.” Another long silence. Nico kept his gaze on the black marble floor. “I need you to tell me where Jason is.”

“I thought you would be more concerned for the Jackson boy.”

Nico swallowed. “If I find Jason, then I can find Percy. I just--I need to know where he is. The camps are getting close to merging, I’m sure, I can feel it. It’s only a matter of time. The augur at--”

“It’s only a matter of time, you said so yourself,” Hades interrupted. “So be patient. Keep waiting.”

“You know where he is.”

Nico’s father sighed, resting his weary head on his hand. Persephone tiptoed up to the throne and sat beside him, taking his other hand. Nico bit down an annoyed remark. “My son, his fate will only disappoint you. Your paths have split, now.”

His hands went cold. “Tell me where he is,” Nico implored once more. “I… I need to know that he’s all right.”

“If I tell you, you’ll run straight to him. You won’t like what you find, Nico. Trust me.”

“Tell me where Jason is, father. You’re making me run all over the place--he's my friend.”

And they both know Nico doesn't have many of those.

Hades sighed again, somehow deeper and longer than the last. “He recently appeared at the Greek camp. About a month before your birthday.” Nico’s heart leapt from his chest. Camp Halfblood, the place he’d avoided for so long, now housed his most important friend. He’d go back and suffer a hundred more Where’s Percy cry fests that their strategy meetings devolved to just to see Jason again.

“So he’s alive. He’s safe.”

Upon seeing his son’s glowing face, Hades’ frown only deepened. “Well, yes. But he is not the same hero you remember.”

“What?” Nico’s nose scrunched. “What do you mean?”

“It’s something you’ll have to see for yourself. I can’t stop you. All I can do is warn you… you will be incredibly upset, Nico. Please tread carefully.”

“Just. Just tell me what’s wrong with him. I could help, maybe I can--”

“Nico.” His father’s tone was soft and gentle and he stood, approaching his son as though he was a frightened, wounded animal. “What’s done is done. Just concentrate on your mission. The senate, in New Rome. Limit your trips to the Greek camp.”

“Why can’t you tell me what happened?” Nico rose to his feet.

“Nico, listen to your father,” Persephone advised. “He’s only trying to help you.”

“Maybe I don’t want your help. I don’t need your help. You can’t keep ordering me around like this! I’m not one of your undead. Not yet.”

Hades shook his great head, slow and sad. Pain lingered in his eyes and he said to Nico, “Go then, if you must. Jules-Albert will take you. But remember: I warned you. You will return directly after for the details of your next mission.”

Spiteful Nico muttered, “Not if I stay at camp.”

“You won’t,” Hades assured him coldly. There was a hint of a laugh in his voice that would haunt Nico until he reached New York and everything in his head turned to static.

Chapter Text

Hazel disappeared the instant Nico felt a coldness creeping behind his eyelids.

Before he could even register it as Frank, she was gone, slipping into shadow with such envious ease. That left him alone in the mess hall. He was too startled to stop her and now he’s alone. He felt a familiar danger as Frank’s life force ebbed away. Preemptively, he ran to the infirmary and made up the cots, knowing their leader would be injured upon his return.

Frank turns out to be splendid company. Nico can see why he’s such good friends with Hazel.

Thinking of his sister makes him purse his lips while laying out his next move absently. Frank tries to draw him out of his worries with the game and it works, but his mind won’t stop drifting back to her.

She greets them some odd hours later, the mechanic bouncing anxiously at her side. She sits next to Nico, maintaining a casual nature, even though he can tell how tired she is. “How are you doing, Frank?” She’s still holding that Roman scepter.

Frank gently pats his chest. “Hurts pretty bad, but I think I’m okay. Nico’s been keeping me company.”

Leo watches Nico with a skeptical eye, taking a seat on the side of Frank’s cot. Nico is suddenly aware that he’s still playing Mythomagic. They’re nowhere near finishing the game but he wants to fold right now, embarrassed, even with Hazel here.

“It’s good to see you both getting along,” Hazel smiles.

Nico turns his cards in hand face down on the nightstand. He notices Frank’s disappointed frown. “Uh, yeah… It’s… Hazel, I actually need to talk to you.”

“What about?” She feigns innocence in a high voice.

He knows he won’t be able to get them open unless they’re alone. “I’ll see you later,” he says to Frank. He avoids Leo’s eye and grabs Hazel’s hand, all but dragging her out of the infirmary. He takes her to the mess hall, which is thankfully empty, and forces her to sit down. He takes the scepter, too, setting it at his feet.

“Hazel, can you tell me what happened?” Nico takes his sister’s hand, squeezing it tight. There are dark circles under her eyes and her dark hair is frazzled.

“Nothing happened. Frank was in trouble. I… I saved him.” She swallows.

“I know there’s more to it than that. Please… I want to help you, Haze. Just let me.” He’s aware how much he’s repeating her own words back to her, helpful intentions she’s expressed to Nico over and over. Now it’s his turn.

Her foot thuds anxiously against the floor. Silence suffocates them. At last, she speaks, “I… I’m not even sure. I just… It was like I could bend him, his soul, in my hands like clay. And I just…” Her fists clench and Nico feels as though she’s squeezed his own insides.

“And?” Nico prompts, even though the answer will leave him shaking.

“And I banished it.” She meets his eyes and in them, Nico sees darkness raging. He can see the plains of Tartarus all over again, can feel the soul that’s now trapped there. It takes him a minute to come back, Hazel giving his shoulder a nervous nudge.

Nico runs a hand through his hair and shakes his head, opening his mouth to speak several times, before giving up and closing it again. “Hazel. You… You shouldn’t have done that.”

“He was going to kill Frank--he stabbed him, Nico!” Her voice cracks. “What else was I supposed to do?”

“Trust that they had it under control,” he says.

“You can’t say that to me when every time Jason so much as gets a papercut you come running to his side,” Hazel snaps.

Nico slumps in his chair. His sister immediately regrets the words, her face falling. This is all so backwards , he thinks.

She continues after a long silence, “I know you give up everything to protect me. I know how much you care. But you always leave when I need you most. You, putting yourself in danger--I never asked you to do any of that.”

“But I want to. You’re my sister, you’re important--”

“So why are you getting mad at me for doing the same thing?” She folds her hands in her lap, regarding Nico carefully. “Do you see where I’m coming from, at least? I want you safe, too. I want Frank safe. I want Leo safe. I want everyone safe . Maybe this isn’t the way to do it, but… if you have any other ideas, please tell me.”

Silence is her reply.

“Until then… we just have to do what we can.” She gets up to leave and Nico grabs her arm. “I want to do better.”

“I do, too.”

Her arm is trembling in his grip. “You know that I only have so much time before--”

“Don’t,” Nico says quickly. He stands to meet his sister. The scepter hits the legs of his chair, a deafening sound. “Don’t talk like that, Hazel. After all your efforts, after everything you’ve done… You’re going to live a long, happy life. You’ll finally get the chance you deserve.”

“Or maybe it wasn’t enough,” she whispers. “Maybe I haven’t done enough. Or maybe I’ve done too much.” Anxiety creeps in and she holds her brother’s hand, clinging to him for shelter. “A soul for a soul, Nico. You know I can’t stay. And now that the doors are closed… it won’t be long.”

“Yes you can!” he says, voice rising in response to her doubt. If only he could banish her fears with a shout. “You can. You’ll be happy and, and, alive --I’ll make sure of it.”

She squeezes his hand, meeting his gaze sadly. “You don’t have to try so hard. I want you to have a chance too, Nico.” She leans in to kiss his cheek. He can feel the tears welling in her eyes dampen the edge of his ear when she embraces him. “I can take the risks now.”

He hugs her, arm wound tight around her shoulders. “Hazel, no.”

“I’m here on borrowed time. Let me make the most of it. Let me do some good.”

They sleep in Hazel’s room that night, back to back, tossing and turning in all odd hours of the night. He wonders when he swapped places with Bianca, and when Hazel peered into his past and decided to adopt Nico's mistakes all over again and pass them off as her own. He wants his Bee, wants to know how she did it, how she could even stand to. But he knows the answer lies in the well of his heart, overflowing with love Hazel protect Hazel save Hazel.

Nico wakes up not feeling anymore rested than he had the day before. He wants to get to the mess hall early. He hates eating in front of everyone else. Can hardly stand to eat on his own, much less with everyone watching him.

Hazel wakes up with a wet, tired face. Nico wipes off a fat tear hanging to the edge of her lashes and she smiles up at him. “Breakfast?” The sun has barely risen. He nods, grateful for her company. He nurses a cup of coffee while she fixes them both breakfast. It’s silent and peaceful. He clings to these moments, these little things he knows he won’t have for much longer. Nico knows his sacrificial nature needs as much help as Hazel, but he can’t help putting her above him.

He doesn’t want to lose another sister.

She lays plain toast and two eggs before him. “Oh, I forgot--” She stuffs her hands in her pockets, fishing around for something. “You and Frank were playing yesterday, and I remembered, your card--” 

“My card,” he repeats, remembering the message he sacrificed in the Hermes shrine. The coffee turns acrid in the back of his throat.

“I was going to give it back to you, I thought… huh. I guess Annabeth still has it.”

Nico swallows. He’s not sure if he’s heard her right. “She… what?” he asks. There’s a tremor in his voice.

“Yeah. She wanted to take a look at it, and after that, I guess we both just forgot. Oops.” She shrugs. When she notices her brother’s state, she frowns. “Nico. Are you feeling all right?”

“Fine,” he lies. “Yeah. Fine.”

There’s a knock on the open frame of the mess hall and the siblings jump. Leo, with a hand pressed to his mouth, makes the sound of crackling static. “Ground control to Major Levesque, ground control to Major Levesque. Requesting clearance for a landing on the dining room table, over. T-minus ten, nine…”

“As long as you don’t stand on the table,” Hazel snorts. She scoots Nico’s plate in front of him, makes the same crackling sound into her hand and then, “You’re clear, Valdez. Over.”

Nico’s glad for the distraction. He sits at the end of the table next to his sister, Leo on the other side of her. He curls up in his chair, resting his head on his knees, resigning himself to the fate of this meeting. Piper files in next to Leo and they chat with Hazel amicably, leaving Nico quiet and awkward.

He’s unfortunately reminded of all the meetings he had with the counselors at Camp Halfblood when they were searching for Percy, complete with Annabeth’s tired eyes and frazzled ponytail. When she comes in, Hazel says, “Annabeth, do you still have--”

Nico grunts and shakes his head at his sister. She doesn’t understand, but thankfully lets it drop. Annabeth’s eyes scan Nico nervously but she doesn’t push it further. He can only hope she doesn’t remember.

Annabeth may be clouded by her own pride, but he has to believe she’s not so dense that she’d look at the Poseidon card-- ask for it and not think anything suspicious was going on. Percy seems thankfully oblivious because he walks in a minute later supporting Frank, sitting down next to him. He pours himself a glass of orange juice and snakes his other arm around Annabeth’s shoulders.

Nico wants to gag.

He pokes at his eggs with his fork, watching the edge of egg whites curdle and the yolk stiffen. Hazel nudges him and he begrudges a nibble of toast.

Frank muddles over a map, occasionally patting out puffs of smoke from the wound underneath his shirt. Leo leans way too far over the table to get a look at the map with him. “So… we’re going to stay airborne and drop anchor as close as we can to Olympia. It’s further inland than I’d like--about five miles--but we don’t have much choice. According to my dad, we have to find the goddess of victory and, um… subdue her.”

Percy frowns over his glass of juice. “I’m cool with fighting the occasional goddess, but isn’t Nike one of the good ones? I mean, personally, I like victory. I can’t get enough of it.” Nico almost laughs. He runs his finger over a dried stain on the top of his mug to distract himself.

Annabeth taps her fingers impatiently, perhaps trying to solve the mystery through morse code. “It does seem strange. I understand why Nike would be in Olympia--home of the Olympics and all that. The contestants sacrificed to her. Greeks and Romans worshipped her there for, like, twelve hundred years, right?”


“Almost to the end of the Roman Empire,” Nico affirms softly. He read a lot of Roman history to make sure he knew what he was talking about in preparation for his father’s mission. Everyone stares at him. He meets Hazel’s glance and she nods. He goes on, “‘Romans called her Victoria, but same difference. Everybody loved her. Who doesn’t like to win? Not sure why we would have to subdue her.”


A thin trail of smoke pours from Frank’s shirt and he frowns. “Mars only warned us that we could never heal the rift between the Greeks and Romans unless we defeated victory.”

“How do we defeat victory?” Piper shakes her head. “Sounds like one of those impossible riddles.”

“Like making stones fly,” Leo said, “or eating only one Fonzie.” A loud crunching noise and smacking lips make Nico wince.

Hazel wrinkles her nose. “That stuff is going to kill you.”

“You kidding? So many preservatives in these things, I’ll live forever.” Leo turns suddenly to Nico, leaning to look at him over Hazel’s shoulder. “Have you had these before? They’re Italian.” He pops a handful into his mouth. Nico can smell the artificial cheese and the residue sticks to Leo’s calloused fingers like cloying plastic.

“Is the fact that I’m Italian the only thing you know about me?”

He’s not surprised when Leo withers. Nico is not an open book. But when Hazel kicks his leg under the table, he sighs and gives it another shot,

“... Actually, I think I’ve seen those before. In the casino. Don’t care for the taste.”

Leo’s brows shoot up to his curly bangs. He looks at Nico closely, trying to figure him out, examining him like he might a broken radiator spurting steam at odd intervals.  “You’re not old enough to go to a casino.”

Percy and Annabeth exchange a glance. Nico smirks. Annabeth coughs into her hand, giving Leo a pointed look to get back on track.

Leo continues as though his side conversation with Nico hadn’t halted their important discussion. “But, hey, about this victory goddess being popular and great. Don’t you guys remember what her kids are like at Camp Half-Blood?”


Hazel and Frank have never been to Camp Half-Blood, and Nico’s spread too thin to remember clearly, but the others nod gravely.

“He’s got a point,” Percy nods. “Those kids in Cabin Seventeen are super competitive. When it comes to capture the flag, they’re almost worse than the Ares kids. Uh, no offense, Frank.”

Frank shrugs, though the action seems to pain him. “You’re saying Nike has a dark side?”

“Her kids sure do,” Annabeth says. “They never turn down a challenge. They have to be number one at everything. If their mom is that intense…”

“Whoa.” Piper’s hands hit the table as an idea slams into her. “Guys, all the gods are split  between their Greek and Roman aspects, right? If Nike’s that way and she’s the goddess of victory--”

“She’d be really conflicted,” Hazel finishes. “She’d want one side or the other to win so she could declare a victor. She’d literally be fighting with herself.” Nico is reminded of their circular conversation and winces. He takes a sip of his cold coffee and stabs one of the yolks on his plate, concentrating on the golden liquid oozing out. “But we don’t want one side or the other to win. We’ve got to get the Greeks and Romans on the same team.”

“Maybe that’s the problem,’” Frank says. “If the goddess of victory is running rampant, torn between Greek and Roman, she might make it impossible to bring the two camps together.”

Nico thinks of all the time he spent running between both camps to try and pave the way for some peace, on his father’s behalf. Is this why all his efforts were in vain? He frowns and flattens the draining yolk with his fork to banish the thought. “Yeah, but how?”


Percy cuts through a stack of blue pancakes and replies, not looking at him, “Maybe she’s like Ares. That guy can spark a fight just by walking into a crowded room. If Nike radiates competitive vibes or something, she could aggravate the whole Greek-Roman rivalry big-time.”

Frank nods at Percy. “You remember that old sea god in Atlanta, Phorcys? He said that Gaia’s plans always have lots of layers. This could be part of the giants’ strategy--keep the two camps divided; keep the gods divided. If that’s the case, we can’t let Nike play us against each other. We should send a landing party of four--two Greeks, two Romans. The balance might help keep her balanced.”

Despite the wound fizzing on Frank’s chest, he still commands respect and attention as a leader. He shows that same focus now that he did when laying out cards on the nightstand during their match yesterday.

“I think Frank is right,” Annabeth agrees. “A party of four. We’ll have to be careful who goes. We don’t want to do anything that might make the goddess, um, more unstable.” Nico silently excludes himself, knowing he’s enough of a timebomb on his own.

“I’ll go,” Piper suggests. “I can try charmspeaking.”

Annabeth shakes her head slowly, giving Piper a sad, reluctant smile. “Not this time, Piper. Nike is all about competition. Aphrodite… well, she is too, in her own way. I think Nike might see you as a threat.”

Piper fiddles with the crystal around her neck, deep in thought when she nods. She unnerves Nico. He’s sure she must see him as a threat to her relationship with Jason. Probably the same way she saw Reyna. He doesn’t know for sure, but he won’t take any chances. She asks, “Who should go, then?”

“Frank and Annabeth shouldn’t be paired,” Nico says. He pokes around the food on his plate. He’s barely finished half a slice of toast. Since he’s already taken himself out of the equation, he’ll put his effort into deliberating the group. “Ares and Athena aren’t a good combination. Neither are Athena and Poseidon. Percy and Annabeth shouldn’t go together either.” The last part is rushed, almost a whisper, but he can tell Percy hears him when his fork suddenly skkkrts against his plate and makes everyone wince.

“So Percy and me for the Greeks,” Leo says, as though nothing awkward has happened. “But… what about Frank? You sure you’re in good enough shape to go?”

Frank bites his lip. “No,” he cedes truthfully. “But Hazel and I are the only Romans.”

Nico can feel Percy’s eyes on him even before he opens his mouth to speak. “Would it be redundant to send Nico and Hazel as Romans instead of Frank, so he can keep resting? I mean, you’re an ambassador at the camp. Doesn’t that count?”

Nico wants to snap at him but Percy’s questioning isn’t malicious. He sounds genuinely curious. He just wants to help make sure Frank doesn’t put himself in more unnecessary danger. “Maybe.”

“I don’t know if Nico’s Roman enough, though,” Annabeth frowns.

His instinct is to refute her, too. He wants to say that he’s never felt more at home in Jason’s quarters, in Pluto’s glittering temple, sitting with his sister at the edge of the tiber. But then there’s the tall, haunting pines of Camp Half-Blood, drawing him in with his sister’s name. He feels split, not unlike Nike. “I’m not enough of either to count in any case,” Nico says plainly. “I think that would only make Nike worse. But, Frank, you’re still injured. I’m happy to go in your stead.”

Frank smiles, soft and small. “I appreciate it, Nico, but I’ll go. I can muddle through it.”

“Are you sure?” Hazel asks worriedly.

“Yeah. Besides, I don’t know if sending two children from different aspects of one god would be a good idea. It’s just more division.” He glances between Nico and Percy. Your combination would kill us before we got started remains unsaid beyond the worry in Frank’s eyes. “And I really am feeling a lot better.”

Leo looks around at his friends and grins. “Are we the ultimate non-competitive dream team or what?’

The pain in Frank’s face disappears with a smile. “It could work,” he agrees. “I mean, no combination is going to be perfect, but Poseidon, Hephaestus, Pluto, Mars ... I don’t see any huge antagonism there.”


Hazel stares at the map under Frank’s hands. “I still wish we could’ve gone through the Gulf of Corinth. I was hoping we could visit Delphi, maybe get some advice. Plus it’s such a long way
around the Peloponnese.”

Nico nods. “What day is it?” he asks his sister quietly. He’s still not used to the days. She supplies him and he says, louder for the group, “It’s already July twentieth. Counting today, it’s twelve until…” He trails off and lets his mind fill in the hopeful blank: Twelve until I get to see Jason again .

Frank nods sympathetically. “Mars was clear. The shorter way would have been suicide.”

“And as for Delphi…” Piper examines the map closely, dark brown eyes calculating. “What’s going on there? If Apollo doesn’t have his Oracle any more…”

Percy grunted. “Probably something to do with that creep Octavian. Maybe he was so bad at telling the future that he broke Apollo’s powers.”

Frank, Hazel and Nico all manage some form of a laugh at that. Nico tries to hang onto that, instead of the fear instilled by Octavian threatening his sister’s safety and his own untold secrets. The praetor says, “Hopefully we can find Apollo and Artemis. Then you can ask him yourself. Juno said the twins might be willing to help us. There’s a lot of unanswered questions. A lot of miles to cover before we get to Athens.”

“First things first,” Annabeth interjects. “You guys have to find Nike and figure out how to subdue her… whatever Mars meant by that. I still don’t understand how you defeat a goddess who controls victory. Seems impossible.”

Nico almost snorts. “Says the girl who held up the sky.” The group turns to him at the comment. Annabeth is trying to discern whether or not it’s insult or praise. Nico himself isn’t sure. Long ago, he remembers everything thinking he had a crush on her. He latches onto that notion again and elaborates carefully, “You’ll figure it out. You always do.”

Perfectly normal, straight-laced behavior. Smooth.

Percy’s found the nerve to look at him again. Nico doesn’t return the favor.

“Why delay?” Leo asks, crumpling his empty chip bag and missing the trash can when he shoots it far over the table. “I’ll grab my grenades and meet you guys up there!” He dashes off. Piper smiles at the trail of dust he left behind him, amused.

Nico cuts his yolk into tiny pieces with his fork. “Not hungry,” he apologizes to his sister. He leaves, too. He still has to contact Jason and Reyna.

With nightmares and restless sleep, Nico’s had no chance to reach Reyna or Jason through the power of dreams. He’s too afraid of the waking nightmare that is his life, not to mention the terror beneath his eyelids. Still, he has to try. He has to warn them somehow, if they aren’t already aware of what’s after them.

Nico plans to return to Hazel’s room and try to take a quick nap and reach Jason and Reyna that way, but he stops just outside Jason’s room. He hesitates over the doorknob and, in a moment of impulse, pushes it open and strides in.

Jason’s room is painfully ordinary. His bed is made and Nico can’t see any personal effects to speak of. The second he closes the door his head starts swimming and his hands start sweating.

He remembers Jason’s familiar weight pressed to him. Jason meeting him in the infirmary, sitting on the cot beside him before he left. Jason leaning down. Jason’s lips close, so close to his own.

Nico runs a hand through his greasy hair. He still isn’t sure whether or not he imagined that. It seemed too perfect, too ethereal to exist. Jason’s affections often come across that way. Nico can’t fathom why he has any right to them, past or present. He shouldn’t even be here. He has no claim to Jason, to his room, to even belong in his memory. The gods dictated that.

But he can’t leave when the downy blue duvet on his bed smells like him, is soft like him, and all too happy to envelop him. Nico lays on his back and settles onto the bed like it’s home. He remembers doing the same in Jason’s quarters when he was missing. It’s a bittersweet thing, a lonely comfort.

It’s almost hilarious, how easily Nico falls asleep, when he’s hardly slept the last… well. Since he can remember. In Jason’s room, with Jason’s scent and aura, he slips into the realm of dreams in a manner of minutes.

He sees flashes of things. The Roman camp preparing to fire, Octavian’s hard fist. He sits upon a gilded chair, suspiciously similar to a throne. He’s decorated in praetor garments and now, something new. He’s donned the title of Pontifex Maximus, elevating himself to the rank of emperor. Nico’s fists clench. Mike Kahale stands beside him, gaze downcast.

Before Octavian kneels a boy with a broken nose, green eyes and messy brown hair. He removes his hoodie and reveals a grin so twisted that, for a second, Nico fears it’s Akhlys come to hunt him in the waking world.

Octavian looks over a piece of parchment. “I see you are a legacy of Orcus.”

“Yes, my lord,” replies the stranger amiably.

Octavian, clearly pleased by the subservience, almost sings, “I am not a lord. Just a centurion, an augur and humble priest doing his best to serve the gods. I understand you were dismissed from the legion for, ah, disciplinary reasons.”

“Yes, Pontifex,” he affirms. “But, if I may, those charges were unproven. I am a loyal
Roman.” Mike Kahale turns away at this, visibly sickened. Nico’s heart aches for Rome.

Octavian smiles. “I believe in second chances. You’ve responded to my call for recruits. You have the proper credentials and letters of recommendation. Do you pledge to follow my orders and serve the legion?”

“Absolutely,” he answers.


“Then you are reinstated in probation, until you have proven yourself in combat.” He nods to Mike, who reluctantly hangs a leather cord with a probatio tablet around the demigod’s neck. “Report to the Fifth Cohort,” Octavian continues. “They could use some new blood, some fresh
perspective. If your centurion Dakota has any problem with that, tell him to talk to me.”

Nico’s blood runs cold. The Orcus legacy grins, green eyes glinting darkly. “My pleasure.”


“And, Bryce.” Octavian’s skeletal face makes the son of Hades shiver, and even Bryce seems subdued for a moment. “However much money, power and prestige the Lawrence family carries in the legion, remember that my family carries more. I am personally sponsoring you, as I am sponsoring all the other new recruits. Follow my orders, and you’ll advance quickly. Soon I may have a little job for you--a chance to prove your worth. But cross me and I will not be as lenient as Reyna. Do you understand?”

Bryce’s smile disappears. He seems to want to protest, but thinks better of it and simply nods.

“Good,” Octavian nods and rolls the parchment back up, handing it to Mike. “Also, get a haircut. You look like one of those Graecus scum. Dismissed.”

This is troubling, but not what Nico is looking for. He reaches across time and space for Jason, as he reached so many times before when he was missing.

I am the son of Hades. I go where I wish. The darkness is my birthright.

Nico finds Jason by his sister’s pine.

Camp Half-Blood is a chaotic sight as the Greeks prepare for war. Children run to and fro, sleepless, weapons clenched tight in hand. Nico recognizes some of their faces but it’s just a blur, a fearful horde of demigods. He pushes himself away from the talk of war and seeks out Jason.

He’s silhouetted by storm clouds and distant stars.

“Jason,” he says softly when he gets to the top of the hill.

The son of Jupiter turns, surprised to hear that voice greeting him. But his surprise washes away to relief, and something else unknown. There are bags under his eyes. His hair is mussed. “Nico,” he greets warmly. “Why are you here?”

“I don’t have much time,” he says regretfully, resisting the urge to embrace him. “There’s someone after you. Frank told me to warn you--some kind of hunter. One of Gaea’s sons. That’s all I know.” He reflects upon what he’s just seen with Octavian and adds, “And, and Octavian is recruiting new people in the legion. Previous discharges. It looks bad...”

Jason’s brow has already furrowed with worried anger. “Okay. I’ll tell her.”

Nico can feel his consciousness beginning to pull him back away. Whether he’s waking up or some godly force is preventing their interaction, he doesn’t know. But the camp is fading and Jason is blurry around the edges. “Be careful,” he warns.

Jason nods. His blue eyes are full of emotion. “You too.”

“I’ll see you in twelve days.”

“Twelve days,” Jason repeats. He softens. Nico’s vision fades to black and Jason’s words echo for miles. “I’ll be waiting.”

Chapter Text

Nico is stuck on the ship with Annabeth and Piper. The current girlfriend of his former affection and the possibly former girlfriend of his possible current affection. All in all, not a great situation, and Nico’s felt nothing but awkward since he was dragged onto the Argo II.

He spends his time on the deck, sick of being holed up in his room. Dark spaces should give him comfort but right now, they leave him jittery. And even if he doesn’t want fresh air, he knows he needs it. He’s probably going to be stuck on this ship until they get to Athens. That’s a thought that doesn’t sit well.

They either think he’s too weak to go questing, or they’re too afraid to let him. Nico doesn’t necessarily blame them at this point. Is there anyone to blame when he causes discomfort wherever he goes? It’s only a fact of his existence. He ruminates over this while laying on the deck, hand on his stomach, eyes shut tight as the sun beats down high overhead. Leo’s jeans are dirty and they keep giving his knees this weird itch. His shirt is starting to lose Jason’s scent.

Nico is out of his element. Stuck in the sun, stuck with too many people, stuck in ill fitting clothes. There’s nowhere to hide. He’s completely uncomfortable.

His head falls to the side and he stares at his right arm. Can still feel the rest of what was, when he concentrates. But there’s no shadow, no manifestation. It’s gone.

Nico finally thinks of a way to distract himself until Hazel returns. He stops pitying himself for a second and stands, drawing his sword. He hasn’t held it since Jason escorted him into the elevator. The return of the stygian iron’s dark energy washes over him as the sword handle settles comfortably between the callouses covering his palm.

He takes a few off kilter swings at the air. He focuses on centering himself. He’s fought by restricting himself before, limiting his own mobility, but this is entirely new. It will take some getting used to. Nico uses his time on the deck attacking the empty space in front of him, unable to summon any imaginary enemies.

The biggest annoyance, to his surprise, is his hair . It keeps falling in his face, his eyes, and he impatiently brushes it back with his elbow. It’s long, now, and his bangs were already fond of dangling in his eyes. Now it waves down to his shoulders. He can’t properly fight if it keeps falling in his face.

At some point, he realizes he’s being watched and abruptly stops.

Piper stands at the top of the stairs, brown eyes calculating, still tracing his last tactic before she realizes he’s staring back. “Sorry,” they both start, and Piper continues, “I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“It’s fine,” Nico says. He blows stray locks out of his face, nose wrinkling in annoyance.

Piper fiddles with one of her twin braids, worrying over flyaways. “You’re a good fighter.”

“Not much good if I can’t see,” he mutters. He sheathes his sword so he can properly brush his hair back behind his ears. It won’t stay that way for long.

They stare at each other while she unwinds her braids, dark hair framing her cheeks in pretty waves. She lives up to the beauty that all children of Aphrodite possess. Nico can see why Jason liked her. Likes her , he corrects his guilty, hopeful conscience.

When her hair falls, she ties it back in a ponytail, and offers the other binder to Nico questioningly.

Nico weighs his options. He feels gross for the negative thoughts that crop up when he’s seen Jason with Piper, since she’s here offering kindness and hasn’t done anything wrong. Then again, this could be a test. She could just be messing with Nico, gauging him to gauge his affections for Jason. Affections that definitely don’t exist , and if they did, they’re no match for hers.

“Go ahead,” he says, turning his head down to his shoes.

She carefully pulls his bangs from his face, carding her fingers through his hair to bunch it up into a uniform mess. Her blunt nails scrape his scalp and he prides himself for not flinching. Each contraction of the binder, tighter and tighter at the base of his neck, is another beat his heart skips.

When all’s said is done, Piper turns him around to face her and smiles, apparently satisfied. “It looks good on you,” she says. She sounds so sincere, Nico’s red face can’t bear to meet hers. He can only see Jason, the blissful tone of his voice when he called to her so long ago, when his eyes meet Nico without a flicker of familiarity in them--

No. The memory is too unpleasant. He instead lingers on Piper protecting him while giants rained chaos down above, rather than the hurting jealousy that’s beginning to plague him again. If she’s going to try, so will he.

Jason tried. Nico owes him that much, at least.

“Thanks,” he says at last, looking to her timidly. Her face is round, skin smooth, brown eyes deep and enchanting. Nico wonders why someone as pretty as her would compliment someone as… well, Nico as Nico is. His eyes drop to the pendant around her neck and she smiles. He looks away again. “Is… is that a gift?”

“Yes. From someone special.” She fiddles with the edges of the crystal.

Nico swallows bile. “From Jason?”

She shakes her head.

He hates that he’s so relieved at the response.

“I haven’t really had a chance to thank you,” she says, breaching the silence between them again. His fingers dance along the hilt of his sword, cool, comforting in this realm of the unknown. “I mean, I have, but… I haven’t. I’m sorry it took me so long to say, but, thank you. For looking after him. For saving him.”

Nico’s brow furrows. “Jason’s the one who saved me,” he corrects.

“It goes both ways,” Piper insists. “Refuse the credit all you want… I’m glad he has a friend like you looking out for him.”

The word friend leaves an acrid, unsure taste between them. And again, he has to chastise himself for his immediate jump to the negative. But he can’t help it.

“Jason has a lot of friends,” Nico says cryptically.

Piper presses on, seemingly unperturbed by Nico trying to block her praise at every turn. “You guys were friends before, right? I mean, before all this.” She gestures to the ship, instead of alluding to something about Nico’s there-and-back-and-there-and-back-again roadtrip to hell, which he appreciates. But the subject matter she’s treading is dangerous.

“We knew each other. I served in the senate as an Ambassador to Pluto. My father wanted me to try bridging the gap between the Greek and Roman camps.” A sigh escapes his lips unwittingly at the thought of his father. “I don’t know how much you know about Camp Half-Blood the last few years--”

“Annabeth’s caught me up,” she says. That doesn’t make Nico feel better, but he doesn’t think Piper means anything malicious, so he gathers his courage and presses on.

“--but the Greek and Roman forces worked in tandem to defeat the forces of Kronos. The Romans… just needed a push in the right direction.” Nico didn’t do anything, not really. He planted the seeds in the senate, in strategy meetings and late nights with Jason and Reyna, but he spent so much time at Camp Half-Blood, too, aiding Percy secretly against Kronos just as well.

Nico’s loyalty leaves him aching.

“A push,” Piper repeats, the trace of a grin as she continues, “So, you really brought us all together in the first place.”

Us , she says, and Nico thinks of her and Jason, rather than the group as a whole. “Um… well, I haven’t done that much to actually keep you all together.” He thinks of the split when they were arguing whether or not it was worth it to rescue him. It wasn’t even a split--it was Hazel arguing against all of them until they gave in. Including Jason. Nico wishes she was here--she could help him find the right words, to help him have an actual conversation with Piper.

Piper stares at him, calculating, but not unkind. “You really don’t think so?” she asks, and the words, smooth, warm, startle him. “There’s a reason all of us are here, Nico. Including you. Especially you. Don’t sell yourself short.”

Every knot in Nico unwinds. Calmness takes him over. This must be the power of her charmspeak, he realizes, but he allows it. Doesn’t think he could stop the tide of comfort. It threatens to drown him. He feels actual tears tugging under his eyelids when Annabeth comes up from below deck.

In that instant, all his levity vanishes. “Piper, I was looking for you,” she says, out of breath, smiling warmly at her friend. She looks to Nico, but before she can speak, or even blink at him, he’s nodded his head politely at them both and left.

His sword weighs him down all the way to the mess hall. It’s the brightest, safest room, and the screens reflect the calm waters of the lake at Camp Half-Blood. Not Nico’s ideal image, but it’s big, well-lit, and a testament to his consciousness. He’s awake, he’s alive, he’s alone.

Alone.

Nico holes himself up in whatever dark corner of the ship he can find--even when his skin crawls, he endures it just so he can be alone with his thoughts, though that’s what’s killing him--so he can train and return to some semblance of his normal self.

He rages with his sword. He can’t use his powers, he’s too afraid to, after the last time he tried shadow travelling when Jason upset him. Jason. His energy increases tenfold. He hopes Leo won’t mind all the damage he’s done to the training room when he returns. Nico has nothing else left to do.

If Piper tries to find him, he makes up an excuse and slides away into darkness. Annabeth keeps her occupied otherwise, and Annabeth won’t dare go near Nico, so he thinks he’s safe. He doesn’t eat, doesn’t sleep, just tries to regain the feeling of both arms with the strength of only his left. He gets sucked into a hole of black from avoiding all plaguing him, both old troubles and new.

Tries not to think about Reyna and Jason on their own.

Tries not to think about how disappointed and angry his father must be.

Tries not to think about how Bianca would’ve done better.

Tries not to think about Percy.

Tries not to think.

Nico is sweaty and exhausted, Jason’s shirt clinging to his thin frame, and Leo’s pants tight in some spots, baggy in others. He drops his sword at last, the practice dummy clattering to the ground with it. He sinks to rest his head on his knees, pulling at his ponytail in frustration. He still hasn’t taken it out.

He’s interrupted by a knock on the door and bristles.

“Nico? It’s me.”

Piper’s voice is soothing and it’s what he needs, but he still won’t allow himself to want that comfort.

“Can I come in?”

He wonders if she’s using charmspeak, but he doesn’t think so. He thinks she has enough sense to know how caged Nico already feels without adding to that with her silk tongue.

“Yeah,” he croaks, waving a hand at the door. “Go ahead.”

She looks at the straw and training dummies littering the floor and chuckles. “Looks like the last time Hazel and I were in here.”

Nico wipes some sweat from his brow. “Hazel?”

“Yeah. We spar together.” He notes the gold dagger strapped to her side. It’s misty, it reflects something deep and unseen. “Trying to catch up to the rest of the team.”

Hazel has nothing to compensate for, Nico thinks, and may even go so far to think of Piper the same way. Nico knows what it’s like to be mislabelled, misunderstood, and most of all: underestimated. Piper holds the magnitude of rising tides in her heart. She’s a daughter of Aphrodite, and she contains a sharpness beyond that presumption.

“I’m sure they’re the ones that have to catch up,” Nico assures her.

Piper blinks. Her cheeks flush dark and she smiles. Her nervous energy amplifies the awkward silence. She looks around the messy room again and hums. “Wanna have another go before Buford kicks us out to set it all up again?”

Nico blinks. “Huh?”

“You’ve got to be tired of kicking straw around.” She extends a hand and the other rests against her hip where her weapon waits. “And nothing beats a real opponent.”

“Just because you’ve got a good read on Hazel doesn’t mean you have a read on me,” Nico warns. But he accepts her hand.

He feels invigorated with Piper as her opponent. She doesn’t go easy on him. She doesn’t treat him like glass, even if she’s concerned. And she was right: fighting straw does nothing for his reflexes, the new corners of his body, like an actual person. He catches her off-guard, too, and the thrill of sparring helps him grin again, and she returns a slightly unnerved one. She does know when to stop, despite Nico’s protests, and leads him to a chair before his mind catches up with his collapsing body.

Nico drains a water bottle in one breath and slumps in his chair. He’s exhausted, now that he’s finally stilled. And he feels an odd sense of peace.

Piper nods sympathetically. “Sometimes you just need to hit something.”

Nico laughs.

Later, she approaches him again, holding something in her arms and looking nervous. Nico’s defenses jump immediately at the sight of another person, but their sparring session did help him calm some. Sure, she’s trying to figure him out, but he’s doing the same thing. Jason, strenuous romantic, is their one connection. That’s left unsaid. But maybe they can forge their own beyond that. He remembers Piper and Reyna’s closeness when the praetor was departing. Perhaps she’s attempting a similar outreach.

“I figured you might be more comfortable wearing your own clothes instead of a stranger’s.” She holds the bundle at arm’s length. Nico disagrees only for the comfort of Jason’s shirt, but she doesn’t need to know that. So he takes them.

“Thanks,” he says carefully. His torn jeans hang on his arms, and the skull insignia on his shirt stares back at him. The garments, dark and familiar, give Nico a sense of homesickness he hasn’t felt before. “You didn’t have to do that.”

 

“I wanted to,” Piper insists. “I mean, you can spar in Leo’s pants, but I don’t know about an actual fight.”

 

Nico lets the slightest smile tug his lips. “I wouldn’t prefer to.” He tugs at one of the sleeves of his shirt. The collar has been mended, pristine. They feel new even though it’s like he’s returning home. “How did you... salvage these?” he asks. Salvage, for lack of a better word, since they were practically threads.

 

“A friend taught me how,” she says, wistful eyes trailing to the floor. She fiddles with the crystal around her neck again. “Being a daughter of Aphrodite helps, too.”

 

Nico is hit with something hurtful, then. A notion that leaves him breathless. Piper is a stranger who knows that Nico is Jason’s friend and wants to do everything she can to make him feel better, to thank him, to bridge the awkward gap between him and everyone else and be a companion.

Annabeth and Percy still haven’t said more than a few words to him.

“Thanks,” he says again, vision beginning to blur. “You don’t have to...” He grits his teeth, “just because you feel sorry for me--o-or because Jason--”

“Whoa, whoa, wait. Have to stop you there.” Piper frowns. She looks as awkward as he feels. He holds the bundle to his chest and wishes for his other hand just so both can tear into something. “Nico, I… I really do want us to be friends. But, I mean, if you don’t...”

He knows Piper’s being genuine. That’s the worst part.

“Okay. Yeah. I get it. Yeah, yeah. I--thanks.” Each word is practically wrenched from his throat and he locks himself in the infirmary until Hazel and the others return, taking a shower to drown in and out his thoughts.

Piper’s small voice is stuck in his head. He’s had that same tone so many times. He thinks back, thinks to her, framed against the stormy gray skies of Camp Half-Blood. He remembers that day vividly, purpose lighting a fire in his bones.

Nico was going to prove his father wrong .

He could stand to stay at camp, he would find Jason, and he would be okay during every second of it. He walked the familiar trail up to Half-Blood hill, instructing Jules-Albert to wait near the border for his return.

That itch lingering in the back of his head was coming to the front of his skin. Jason was so close, now. Nico felt some a familiar life force; though watered down, static, he recognized the faint heartbeat of Jason that he so carefully memorized. He was here. Nico was minutes, seconds away from seeing him again--that put a certain spring in his step, no matter his father’s words.

He picked up his pace as he trod down the hill, but to his dismay, the first to greet him was not Jason. It was Grover.

“Nico, you’re back!” He looked surprised to see Nico, but he managed a tired grin. “What’s up? It’s been a while.”

Nico wasn’t used to making conversation, so he barrelled on, “I haven’t found Percy.”

“Uh--okay. Not what I was… how are you doing?” Grover walked patiently beside him. Nico wasn’t sure whether to feel grateful or annoyed that someone from camp was trying to make conversation with him. He felt like Grover was trying to make amends, somehow.

Well, Nico decided he could give him some credit for trying , at the minimum. Even if he already wore out his welcome at the Greek camp only a week after the Battle of Manhattan. “Fine. Where’s Annabeth?” The cabins were all decorated, he couldn’t help noticing, with lavish pink ribbons and red hearts everywhere. It made him sick.

Grover raised an eyebrow. Nico didn’t understand why his cheeks tinged pink and he looked awkwardly away. “Uh, last I saw, working with Leo on the... Listen, a lot’s happened since you left, we’d better sit down so I can catch you up on everything.”

“New campers?” Nico prodded.

Grover, having learned not to ask where Nico gathered this information, just added, “Yeah. Annabeth had this dream, you see, and one of them was supposed to lead to Percy. We… we haven’t found him yet, but we’ve learned a lot, and I think we’re getting closer. See, it’s crazy, there’s this Ro--”

“Where is he?” Nico asked. “J… the new camper.”

Grover only seemed a little frustrated at Nico’s cold responses. If anything, it spurred to engage Nico even further, “I’ll take you to him. He’s a really cool guy--he’s kind of like Percy, y’know.”

Nico bristled at this, Grover’s words setting off a visceral twinge of disgust in his stomach. “I doubt that,” he snapped, gaze dark at his shoes.

Grover was watching Nico again, close, concerned. “I mean, they’re both leaders. Good hearts. Crazy good at fighting, too. And get this--he’s a big three kid, like you! Maybe you guys can get along.”

Nico almost laughed. Almost.

And then Grover said, tone quiet and cautious, “Y’know, he’s not all like Percy, if that’s what you’re worried about. He’s not in the market to,” He cleared his throat and nodded pointedly, meeting Nico’s eyes, “date Annabeth.”

Nico stopped dead in his tracks. He choked on his dry tongue. “What?”

Grover gave a timid smile and hastened to explain, “He’s already dating someone, so--”

Grover . What...”

Dating someone. Someone. Dating. Someone. Dating someone. Dating. Dating. Dating .

His voice was quiet, assuring, and it’s the worst thing Nico could hear, his misplaced kindness trying way too hard, pushing way too far, “It’s okay, Nico. Listen, it’s the perfect time. She’ll understand. We all want to find Percy, right? Hey, here they come--”

The sky was gray, stormy, which was appropriate. February had never felt so cold. The atmosphere lingered in Annabeth’s eyes, and Nico wished he could hold her gaze, but something else drew his attention. They were hand in hand, walking down the path, faces too bright and too cheery. Unnatural. Her hair was long and dark, wavy over her shoulders (so was Nico’s, too dark, maybe, not long enough, perhaps) and she was still smiling when her gaze turned to Grover and Nico.

And then his eyes followed.

Jason’s eyes.

His Jason.

Those eyes were completely devoid of recognition when they landed on Nico. Nico quickly forced himself to look away, trying to hide his heartbreak. Grover reached to put a hand on his shoulder. Jason and the girl were still yards away. Annabeth was behind them. Closing in.

Date Annabeth .

Same blond hair.

He’s kinda like Percy .

Same blue eyes.

He’s already dating someone .

Same scar on his lip.

He is not the same hero you remember .

Nico handled it with as much grace as the situation allowed, with Grover’s misguided insinuations, Jason’s lock and key handhold, and Annabeth’s gray eyes closing in. He disappeared into shadow in an instant, and he was sure the scream he let out when he collapsed in front of Jules-Albert and the limo echoed throughout the entire camp.

He banged the door of the car until he felt his fist go numb. It left a sizeable dent; he couldn’t tell whether or not Jules-Albert was disappointed. The chauffeur gently patted Nico’s head with his bony hand and unceremoniously tossed him into the passenger’s seat. He was carted back to the underworld and spent the entire drive in a haze, the buzzing in his head drowning out all other noise. The bright decorative displays of New York romance only served to irk him. Valentine’s Day passed on the way back to his father’s domain and he returned kneeling to his throne.

Hades said nothing. But the expectant pitying sigh that he granted Nico would send him into a rage if he wasn’t already so numb. He was horribly smug despite his son and Nico couldn’t bear to raise his head. He was ashamed of being so hopeful in the first place. He supposed he deserved this. Somehow, somewhere along the way, he must have done something to justify it. Everything bad that ever happened to him seemed just. And his father was nothing if not just.

“I’ll return to Camp Jupiter as soon as you’ll allow me,” he said. Nico didn’t recognize the voice as his own. “I have a dissertation to deliver the senate.”

He wandered into the palace garden, treading dead grass in his wake. He settled beside a rose bush and twiddled his thumbs, skinny legs criss crossed on the ground. Nico wanted to be angry. He wanted to be upset. But all that came up was this strange emptiness.

He may as well have never found Jason. He would be better off assuming Jason was dead. Nico would be better off dead, instead of remembering the way Jason’s eyes glanced over him like everyone else’s, like Nico wasn’t even there, the way his hand fit so well with a pretty girl , the way he fit in at Camp Half-Blood after being raised Roman when Nico had been trying so damn hard to fit in the one place he was supposed to belong.

Then again, how could Nico fault Jason? He looked happy. This was the will of the gods, apparently. There was nothing Nico could do. He just had to keep his head down and follow his father’s orders.

Nico swallowed, a great sadness overwhelming him. Bianca was dead. Hazel was alive on contingency of the Doors being open, a sneaky move under his father’s nose. Percy was missing and didn’t care, no one at Camp Half-Blood cared enough beyond a conversation every few months. Nico could only be taken in small doses.

Jason was his first friend. He thought that once, just this once, he might be allowed to keep someone he was close to.

“Stupid,” he muttered, fisting tearful eyes. “Stupid, stupid, stupid .” His breath hitched. Why would Jason care, anyway? This just had to be natural order. They never should have been friends. Never would be in another life. It was chance that pushed them together, and some morbid curiosity on the son of Jupiter’s part. What did Nico expect? Of course Jason would move on, would settle down with a pretty girl, would find his home and happiness by chance, a home that didn’t include Nico.

Nico bit into his wrist, trying to stifle the sound of his sobs. Decades of agony and loneliness set off an earthquake too big for his small body. His heart had always been heavy, and now, it was too much. Worse, he cried for everything he feared to come with this startling revelation.  

Jason was gone.

Jason wasn’t his.

Just when Nico thought he might not be alone anymore, his one friend, his one chance at happiness, friendship, was stolen . The gods themselves decreed his misery. His misfortune is necessary for the benefit of others, for prophecy, for saviors. Saviors like Jason.

He stilled his tears only for Jason, only for that thought. He suffered for Percy. He could take on tenfold at his own expense to save Jason. No, a hundred times. Nico would spend another century in the Lotus Hotel. Nico would hold up the sky, let his hair wash out gray. Nico would go back into the Labyrinth, endure Minos for much worse and much longer. Nico would go through hell and back for him--

“Nico?”

A soft voice startled him from his thoughts and he froze. The grass was dry beneath his feet and the roses incredibly wilted, the bush dark with decay. “I’m sorry about your garden,” he choked out, wiping snot on the sleeve of his jacket. “You can turn me into a--a cactus lily, or whatever.”

“No, it’s fine,” Persephone murmured. Her voice was unusually soft. She cast a hand over the bush and thorns popped out of dead vines. Petals broke on the ground and new crimson was crafted their place. She brought back life to the bush, though the ring of earth around Nico remained stubbornly dead, and he was sure would remain. “Is everything all right?”

“Yeah. Just peachy.” He wiped his red, runny face, feeling embarrassed at his own weakness. At least the sight of him broken was enough to subdue punishment.

He tensed when Persephone placed a hand on top of his head. The other remained loosely clenched at her side. She stroked his hair gently and spoke in a voice reserved for his father and her wildlife children, “It’s hard to see now, but your father has good intentions. We all do. There’s something much bigger at play, here, Nico.”

“That’s what he’s been telling me the past two years,” Nico said. “I know all of that. I just--” He choked again. I thought this time would be different. After putting himself off for so long, he thought that he might be allowed some levity, just this once. But he was naive to latch onto that.

His father probably wished for Bianca, again. Someone able to follow orders. Someone cold and capable. Someone able to drop their affection for the mission at hand. Bitter, Nico curled into himself, dragging his knees to his chest.

Persephone sighed, trying to calm his agitation with her gesture. They stood in silence watching the gray souls of the underworld drift outside the palace, sparse colorful blossoms brightening the landscape. Nico wasn’t keen on Persephone but he admitted that her sense of decorum was tasteful.

At last, he stood, and Persephone’s hand moved to his shoulder. “Your father is just worried for you,” she said, dark eyes unreadable. But there was a genuine care that reminded Nico so much of his mother he almost teared up again. “Things are only going to get harder.”

“Whoopee.” His head hung low, sad. He needed to stop pitying himself and move on. Jason already had.

Persephone’s other arm raised, hesitant, and Nico regarded her suspiciously. “I won’t turn you into a dandelion,” she promised.

“This time,” Nico muttered. He must have looked truly awful, for Persephone of all to offer him affection. But Nico found that he didn’t care anymore. He just wanted someone. He wanted comfort. He needed it, just like everyone else. Even more so.

Persephone held him like his mother used to, one hand cramping his shoulders together and the other woven from his neck to the crown of his head. Long they stayed. Her hand trailed down his back to his side, to the pocket of his jacket. He stilled when she dropped something inside.

Counted.

Breathed in, out.

She pulled back, hands gripping his shoulders almost desperately. The present weighed heavy in his pocket. “Take care of yourself. For all our sakes.”

Back to the Roman camp.

Percy, of course, appeared at the edge of spring. He didn’t have time to rejoice; didn’t have anything left in him to celebrate it. He had to find the Doors. He had to close them to stop the endless tide of Gaea’s forces from overwhelming the mortal world, and give both camps a fighting and uniting chance. He was close on their tail. He could do this. Quick, easy, without anyone else getting hurt or involved. If it had to be him, then fine.

Nico fell right into her trap. He fell a long way.

It got blurry, then. Atrocities blended together. There was no sense, just the stench, the mud beneath, squelching with each step as he sunk further and further into his own grave. Tartarus. There, he burned away any heart left with Phlegethon waters. Let the coals scar him like the lightning strike on his ring finger. He was left alone just long enough to pass the last vestiges of his sanity and desperation before he was cradled in claws and dragged back to the surface.

Gaea’s warm maternal hands clasped his dirty face, tutting at him for his insolence. She gave him a kiss and tossed him to her wolves.

Dark. Giant, calloused hands, squeezing the blood from his body. Laughing when red when it splattered, oozed, turned him blue. Playing with him, stretching his limbs, making him dance like the broken doll he was. Gentle bruises dot his limbs like freckles, the freckles Jason so adored. Bronze.

Each breath, strained, gasping, his fading consciousness taunting him. Hazel wanted to find him. He wasn’t worth the air, and he had so few breaths left to give.

Nico pulled a fifth of his Valentine’s Day gift from his pocket with just enough saliva left to swallow.

Jason wasn’t coming.

One more pill.

Jason didn’t want to.

He was halfway there.

Nico was going to die without telling Jason…

His sword marked another tally on the glass.

It was better this way.

He had hoped he would get to see Hazel one more time before he died. He had hoped he would get to explain to Annabeth and Percy. Then again, Nico hoped for a lot of things. He was an idealist. Foolish. Naive. And he was going to die that way. A hopeful child of Hades to one and a scheming traitor, backstabber, oddity to the rest.

Piper pulled him from the fire and he woke to Jason’s blue eyes with a glimmer of recognition in them. Those arms, around him again. Fleeting. Poisonous.

But enough. Enough to make Nico think that maybe--

Annabeth’s scream drowned out his thought. Nico watched Percy and Annabeth dangling below and a stupid thought entered his head. It wouldn’t leave him be. He knew he had only one shot, and he knew he wasn’t strong enough right now. So he took Hazel’s hand in his while she yelled for help and it surprised her enough to quiet her for a moment.

Maybe --

“Nico?”

Hazel opens the door to find Nico’s hand tangled with his bootlace, eyes distant and unsure. When she enters his view, he relaxes, releasing a long sigh. “Hazel. It’s okay.” He fiddles with the egglet, mumbles, “Just having some trouble with this.”

“May I?” she asks kindly. He nods, sheepish, and lets her do his laces up.

“You’re back,” he says, relieved, brushing his wet hair back behind his ear. “Did it go all right?”

“I think so,” she grins, but it’s hollow. She looks spent, scepter and spatha strapped to each side. Nico hears a muffled yell up on deck and raises an eyebrow. Hazel’s grin falters, the cracks in her facade shining through.

She takes his hand and leads him up on deck. They pass Percy and Frank struggling, a goddess with gold wings wrapped up in their net. “Nike?” Nico guessed.

“Yep,” Frank wheezes, grunting when she lands a kick at his stomach through the net. Her voice is muffled by… a sock in her mouth. Nico raises an eyebrow. “My idea,” Frank states proudly.

“Nice touch,” Nico snorts. “If this is a glimpse at your methods of diplomacy going forward, you’ve got my vote.”

Frank grins. “Thanks. I’ll need all the help we can get.” On cue, the goddess lunges again, this time landing a blow to Percy’s shin. Nico doesn’t smile. Much.

“No kidding. Need a hand?” Hazel, Percy and Frank exchange a look. Nico thinks that Jason would appreciate his morbid sense of humor, even if concern belied his initial laugh. “You guys really can’t take a joke. Do you want my help or not?”

The underworld siblings wrestle Nike into one of the stables, though Blackjack and Arion don’t seem too happy with the company. Nico can’t help noticing Percy’s eyes on him, taking him in. Nico shouldn’t squirm, so he holds his ground. Steels his vagabond boots into the deck.

“You’re looking better,” Percy says. He looks unsure and out of place. Nico thinks it suits him, now.

“Yeah?” he all but snaps.

“More like yourself again,” he adds. “The clothes.”

Nico squares his jaw. “Piper.”

“That was nice of her.” Percy bites his lip.

“It was.” Frank and Hazel look incredibly awkward, but Nico doesn’t care. His vision is tides, foaming, swarming turquoise. “She apologized.” He holds his breath and counts. One. Nothing. Three. Percy is still looking. Five. Percy drops his gaze. Nico’s own expectations prick and deflate him.

He turns to leave, ignoring Frank’s concerned frown and Hazel’s shouts after him.

Who cares, who cares, who cares . He storms up to the main deck for some fresh air. If Percy won’t try, then fine. Nico’s done trying. He gives people too much credit for trying at all, when they should be trying much harder, if they really care. Because Nico has and is trying, so damn hard . He has two wars to attest it.

If Percy cares, he’ll apologize. Nico doesn’t have to be friends with him. Or Annabeth, for that matter, he reminds himself when he brushes past her, too. He’s tired of bearing their guilt. Once they figure out what exactly they’re sorry for (because at this point, Nico’s done keeping score with them) and apologize for real, Nico can figure out just what he’s sorry for and they can move on.

Maybe it’ll never happen. Fine! Fine . He doesn’t care.

(He cares. He cares way too much.)

He sees Piper and wants to approach. She’s glancing worriedly at Leo, who is louder and more cheerful than usual, a clear sign that something’s wrong. Still, Piper takes note of his quiet appearance and beckons him forward with her kind smile.

“Leo, can you give us a minute?”

He seems as grateful for the distraction. He gives Nico another one of those scrutinizing mechanic glares. “Sure. Man the helm for me, di Angelo.” He kisses Piper’s cheek and claps Nico’s shoulder, taking his leave.

He steadies himself. “Sorry… about earlier.”

Piper hums. “Tired of people’s assumptions, so you punch first so they don’t suckerpunch you later.” He slumps against the ship’s steering wheel, nodding humbly.

“Doesn’t mean I need to be so hostile.”

Piper cocks her head, curious gaze meeting his shy one. “Maybe. It does say a lot, though.”

Nico’s skin crawls. “I feel like you know a lot without someone saying.”

“I do. Not names, no matter how… specific a feeling.” She’s playing with the crystal resting against her collarbone again, and calms. “I know you’ve been through a lot. It just means people have to make an effort to gain your trust. You’re selective about who you let get close to you, which makes sense. We’re demigods, and you’re…” She trails off. A million different adjectives bounce around in Nico’s head. She doesn’t use any of them. “Jason is one of those people.”

Nico’s heart pounds in his ears. He can feel it coming. But then, it swerves and misses him by miles. It hits his lungs and his heart instead of crashing into some snark brooding in the back of his mind.

“I hope I can be one of those people, someday, too.”

Nico isn’t good with words. Not like Piper, with her silver tongue, sensible kindness and righteous, aggressive diplomacy. So he holds out the hair binder from earlier to her again. “Please,” he whispers, bowing her head. He watches her heart skip a beat and her anxiety turn into compassion.

Nico keeps his hair up most days after that.

Chapter Text

“Maybe Jason should have thought this through” has become the motto of his life.

It’s not overly difficult to carry the Athena Parthenos, but he does have Tempest helping him. He concentrates on the winds, clouds, creating a cushion of atmosphere and sending them west. He thinks they might look like an oddly shaped blimp to any mortal that happens to catch sight of them.

Reyna’s looped her braid into a bun, tired of it flapping in her face. She’s got their map taped to the stone so it won’t fly away. She’s got that pensive look, tracing the map with her finger, that Jason remembers from candlelit nights strategizing before their assault on Mount Othrys. Jason knows otherwise, but it seems like Reyna hasn’t changed: she’s as beautiful and confident as when he met her at only eleven.

She catches his eye and he smiles, embarrassed at having been caught staring. She returns an awkward half wave.

Jason cringes internally. He’s glad to have her back at his side, but things are still… strange. He’s gaining his memory back in larger chunks, now, but it’s not any easier to fall back into their cadence when he’s forgotten how to walk. He can’t just act buddy buddy so easily. That didn’t work with Nico, and it won’t work with Reyna. He has to regain her trust and friendship all over again. Not that he isn’t willing; he wants to, he will, he just knows it will be difficult. And he still isn’t sure if Reyna’s as keen to rekindle their relationship.

That brings him to thoughts of Nico again and he has to fight the flush rising up his cheeks.

If there’s anything that offsets their smooth sailing, it’s Jason’s thoughts of Nico, and he has to fight to retain control of the statue in the air when the son of Hades filters into his thoughts again. Which is more often than Jason would like to admit.

He wonders if Nico’s thinking about him, too.

“So, where are we gonna park this thing?”

Hedge’s voice shatters Jason’s thoughts and he startles from his daydream, causing a bout of turbulence that makes Reyna glare at him. “Sorry,” he apologizes. “Uh… I don’t know.” Now that he’s present, he’s aware of the ache in his bones, how tight the harness is, how much the statue strains him.

But when weakness tempts him, he catches sight of Athena’s eyes, glaring at him as if to say, My daughter held up the sky for days. You can drag me back to Camp Half-Blood, no problem.

Which, of course, spurs spiteful Jason on despite his fading strength.

“We’re just above Pompeii,” Reyna says over the whistling wind. She looks anxiously at the ground below. Whatever makes her afraid to land there, Jason doesn’t know; they have to stop sometime.

“Why not? A volcano’s the least of our problems, after Albania.” Hedge pops a granola bar into his mouth and Jason shudders in agreement.

“Are you suggesting we land in the volcano?” Reyna drawls.

“I’m only saying, where else are we gonna stuff this fifty foot hunk of--”

“Guys,” Jason whines. “Can we not do this while I’m carrying a god’s statue and our only hope of saving the camps thousands of feet above the ground?” He didn’t want to risk any unnecessary turbulence. He’d already angered Juno by refusing her title of champion; which Jason may still be bound to, anyway. He doesn’t need her egging Jupiter on to strike him down. He’s refused his Roman identity, the prophecy… he probably looks like an ungrateful gnat that needs a good sandal smushing under Jupiter’s giant foot.

“Technically, Tempest is carrying it,” Reyna says. A whinny echoes in the air, feeding into her response.

Jason’s starting to feel actually sick, now, and groans. “Seriously. We have enough to worry about after…” He shakes his head and sighs, gearing up for descent. “Look, I’m setting this thing down, now.”

Reyna’s eyes narrow. “After what , Jason? How else have you cursed our already impossible quest?”

Jason’s used to Reyna’s dry wit, it’s closer to his own serious humor than Nico’s snark. But this time it’s meaner, more pointed, and it sets him off.

“Juno and I had a… conversation,” he replies tersely.

Reyna’s jaw stays hinged, even though she’s gritting her teeth harder than he’s ever seen Hedge crunch down. And now the coach looks surprised, caught between the two feuding teenagers.

“All right, cupcakes, settle down,” he snaps. “Grace, park this thing before I puke over the side. Ramirez, strap yourself in.”

“You are un believable , Jason. It’s selfish enough for you to abandon your place at Athens--”

“I’m not abandoning anything!” Jason exclaims. The wind nips at his ears, cold and sharp. “I’m going to meet them there--”

“--but to jeopardize the mission you bound yourself to because of your petty grievances?” She shakes her head. “I don’t ever remember you being so foolish.”

Jason glowers, standing, fists clenched in defiance. “Well, I don’t either , if it makes you feel any better!”

“It doesn’t!”

Hedge whacks him in the shin with his bat and Jason yelps. “I think you’re both losing the plot here!” he exclaims. Reyna gets a sharp rap on the shoulder. That’s when Jason notices the clouds in the sky are askew. No, the statue is. It has gone from the perfect vertical he’d maintained to a diagonal slant, Athena’s head aiming for the ground. Jason’s stomach leapt to his throat and they start falling.

“No, no, no!” He lunges for the ropes, pulling them tight in hand to slow their descent. They burn his hands, intent to snap from his grasp. But he hangs on tight, using them to reign the statue back to vertical. It doesn’t slow their descent, any. “Hang on!” he yells to his companions.

The ground is racing up to meet them, Jason’s breath leaving him in the atmosphere. He whistles for Tempest, who obediently races for the head of the Athena Parthenos. Tempest’s help lends a cushion that gives Jason room to breathe, but he’s straining so hard that black spots start cropping across his vision. He almost buckles.

He remembers, now. Reaching for Nico. Arms wrapping tight around him. The air knocked from Jason’s lungs, smog seeping in through his pores, and they plunged into hell below. He’d lost the wind, then, too.

Hedge grapples with a handful of ropes and secures himself to Jason’s leg. That solidity snaps Jason’s panicking brain back to reality. Reyna tightens her backpack straps and throws her arms around Jason’s neck, gripping his shoulders harshly. He chokes, wants to yell at her again, but a surge of energy races through him. He catches her SPQR tattoo, the symbol of her mother blazing light against her skin. She’s lending her strength to him again.

It’s hot, painful, but it’s enough. The ropes sear his palms but he grits his teeth and pulls , steering them all the way to the ground. The Athena Parthenos slides sideways, smashing up miles of meadow until they’ve reached the edge of some well preserved ruins.

The dust settles and Athena’s statue is wedged firmly in the dirt. Jason pants, trying to catch his breath. Reyna’s arms around his neck and Hedge wrapped around his shin have cut off his circulation, and now that Jason’s on the ground, it catches up with him in a rush. Reyna struggles to undo his harness. Once it’s loose, he collapses, sliding off the statue and onto the pavement.

“Pan’s pipes!” Hedge curses.

“Thanks for letting go,” Jason grumbles. “Wouldn’t want you guys to fall, too.”

Reyna and the coach stumble down, setting Jason up against the statue. Reyna sighs and makes him drink some unicorn draught.

“You know,” his voice cracks, inbetween sips, “I don’t remember you being so easy to set off.”

“Only you,” Reyna replies, capping the draught and putting it in her bag. She accepts a bottle of gatorade from coach and hands the pack off to him. Jason remembers the thermos, suddenly, Nico propping him up against a steaming boulder and making him sip, slowly, slowly, to regain his strength. He wonders how much of his pain Reyna absorbed, with her pale face and suddenly sunken eyes. She fixes Jason with a stern glare. “You need to take care of yourself.”

“Mhm,” he nods, only half listening. His mind is stuck on Nico again, but worse, it’s clouded by the haze of Tartarus. Jason doesn’t know how, but he can feel the dead here, too. Something’s off in the air, something’s unsettling. He curls into himself, pressing his knuckles tight to his forehead, trying to rid the cursed memories from his mind. This isn’t what he wants to remember.

Reyna’s gaze softens just so. “Jason.”

“What?” he snaps. “I. I mean--sorry. I’m just--”

“Get some sleep,” Reyna instructs, clapping him on the shoulder. “You’ve carried us quite far already without any rest. We can’t keep going with you dead on your feet.”

Dead. Jason’s eyes sweep over the empty ruins. They’re well preserved, and the volcano lies miles away, still in sight, seeping wisps of smoke. “You can sense it, right?” He peers at the praetor’s dark eyes. “The ghosts.”

Reyna nods slowly. She looks jittery, which isn’t something Jason is used to. He wonders why ghosts have her so anxious. “Yes. All old Roman cities have them, but Pompeii… with a tragedy like that… they’re everywhere. And more dangerous.”

Jason stuffs his hands into his jacket pockets for comfort. The worn collar of wool sits up against his ears. He wishes Nico was here. He’d know what to do about the ghosts. He’d get along with Reyna.

“She’s right, you know,” Hedge says pointedly. Jason isn’t sure what he’s referring to, but he nods in agreement anyway. He’s never known Reyna to be wrong. “We’ve got this, kid. My baseball bat’ll keep you safe. I’ll set up a perimeter--snares, traps, the works.”

Jason leans into the comfort of Nico’s jacket and bites his lip. “Only if you’re sure--”

“We’re sure, Jason,” Reyna assures him. She gives him a short shove, almost playful, and stands. “Sleep.” She whistles for her dogs to scout the area around the statue.

Jason, too, calls for Tempest. He presses a gentle hand to his companion’s snout. “Get some rest, buddy,” he murmurs, feeling calmed by the electricity crackling under his fingertips. “You’ve earned it.” Tempest snorts in agreement and nuzzles the top of Jason’s head before disappearing into the plains.

He tries to keep his eyes open a while longer, he really does, but the promise of rest is too tempting. He takes off Nico’s jacket, bundles it up like a pillow, and he’s out as soon as he curls up to the ancient leather.

Jason’s dreams are restless. Gnashing teeth, dark fur, arrows whistling past his ears, followed by an empty laugh. A spear driven through his chest. A sign of what could have been, what may come, he isn’t sure.

Then a misty sky settles overhead. Stars. A storm is on the horizon. He watches the chaos of Camp Half-Blood comfortably from beside the pine tree on Half-Blood hill. They’re preparing for war. Jason could just as easily be among them as with the seven heading to Athens.

Guilt plagues him again, Reyna’s earlier words weighing him down. But Jason is already at the end of his rope. If Nico tried to take the statue, he’d die. And he couldn’t very well let Reyna go alone. Lastly, he couldn’t let Camp Half-Blood, his new home, fall to ruin.But there is something less charitable in his intentions: the desire to escape, to get away from the prophecy that pinned him to the gods’ dartboard. That, he couldn’t deny was just as much motivation.

It doesn’t matter, he tries to convince himself. He’ll get the statue back to Camp Half-Blood and then fly back to meet the others at Athens. It’ll be a lost faster going back without dragging around the Athena Parthenos. Just him and Tempest, racing time and earth to get back to his destiny. His friends. His--

“Jason,” a voice says softly.

The son of Jupiter turns, surprised to hear that voice greeting him echoes his longing thoughts.“Nico,” he greets warmly. “Why are you here?” He takes in the pale boy, his sunken shoulders, his hesitancy to approach.

“I don’t have much time,” Nico says regretfully. Jason wishes this wasn’t a dream. He wishes he could stride forward and hold Nico close, ease his trembling away. But that’s more selfish thinking, and they only have so much time in this scape of dreams. “There’s someone after you. Frank told me to warn you--some kind of hunter. One of Gaea’s sons. That’s all I know.” He reflects upon what he’s just seen with Octavian and adds, “And, and Octavian is recruiting new people in the legion. Previous discharges. It seems bad. One of them, his name was Bryce--”

A visceral reaction at the name triggers fear and anger in Jason. “Bryce Lawrence,” he blurts. “I think… I think I remember. I have to ask Reyna, to be sure.” Some distant fear takes hold of him, something he can’t define. He shudders, forces himself to focus, and lets his eyes land on Nico again. “Okay. I’ll tell her.”

Then, Nico’s form starts to blur. At first, just around his amputated arm. But then all of him becomes static, pixelated. Maybe he’s waking up; maybe something is pulling him away. Jason doesn’t know, but he wishes that their interaction could last longer. “Be careful,” the son of Hades warns.

Jason nods, emotion choking him. Nico’s doe eyes are so wide, lovely. “You too.”

“I’ll see you in twelve days.”

“Twelve days,” Jason repeats. He smiles. “I’ll be waiting.” He thinks he catches Nico’s own start to a grin when he disappears for good. Then, Jason feels a pull. Back towards the camp cabins. He blinks, and then finds himself in the warped dimension that is the Hypnos cabin.

Demigods are snoring sweetly in their bunks, oblivious to the chaos outside. Or perhaps remaining dormant to escape it. Jason can’t blame them either way. The head counselor, Clovis, sleeps in a comfortable leather armchair near the mantle of the cabin, from which a branch grants a large bowl drops of Lethe water.

Jason is fond of Clovis. He tried to help Jason get his memories back when he first arrived at Camp Half-Blood. It was thanks to that session that Jason found out Hera had stolen them. Even after his quest when he was no closer to gaining them back, Clovis sat with him through many more fruitless attempts to retrieve what was lost.

“Clovis, wake up,” he says, laying a gentle hand on the boy’s shoulder. He jolts awake, sees Jason, and then relaxes. Jason’s one of few that can easily wake him up, a notion he wears with pride. Though Jason supposes it doesn’t matter now, since they must both be dreaming. Because Hypnos children dream so powerfully, demigods find their dreaming selves in this cabin one way or another.

“Oh, hi, Jason,” he smiles tiredly and lets out a deafening yawn.

“Hi, Clovis. Listen, I need you to tell Chiron that Reyna and I are on our way to camp.” He quickly explains the situation with the Athena Parthenos, trying not to let a lengthy explanation muddle his message in the fickle world of dreams.

“So, it’s true,” Clovis muses, reaching for a cup of hot chocolate on the table beside the armchair. His gaze turns pensive and worry furrows his gentle face. “When we got your message… well, I didn’t suppose I’d be seeing you anytime soon. You escaped that place.”

Jason shudders. “Y… yeah.”

He lazily stirs his hot chocolate. “Have your dreams been troubled?”

Jason has a feeling he’ll be here longer than he anticipated. But, he supposes, if he’s asleep he’s asleep. Reyna and Hedge will wake him at the sign of trouble. So he pulls up in front of Clovis using one of the many bean bags littering the cabin. “Truth be told, I haven’t had time to dream,” he chuckles, shaking his tired head. “But you’re right, my dreams haven’t been fun.” He thinks of the dream, vision, he doesn’t know what to call it, when Juno visited him.

Clovis nods slowly. “Even I’d have trouble sleeping after that. You need your rest, though. Solid eight hours every night should do you good.”

Jason ponders this. “I didn’t sleep for a few days and then I slept almost an entire day. Does that count?”

Clovis sighs, a mix exasperation and humor. “Well, I hope you get some actual rest soon. Things haven’t been any better here. In fact--I should catch you up.”

He leans forward and taps Jason’s forehead, granting him a brief vision of the war counsel that took place earlier that day. Clarisse insisting they attack, anxious of the Roman’s advantage in the offensive, and trying to care for Coach Hedge’s wife at the same time. The silence of Apollo, not only to the traitorous Octavian, but his loyal Greek children such as Will Solace and Rachel as the Oracle. Chiron’s greying beard and Grover’s skittish hooves.

Jason’s heart aches. He may not know any of them nearly as well as Percy and Annabeth, who’ve been at Camp Half-Blood nearly as long as he at Camp Jupiter, but he hurt for each and every one of them. It seems that everything in his old life is conspiring against him. His friends, his legacy, his father. His home.

Now that Jason’s discovered his identity, his past seems determined to erase his future.

But he believes they can coexist. His identity can exist. He can just be.

He’ll fight for it. Not just for himself--for everyone. For Piper and Reyna. For Nico.

When the vision fades, Jason blinks his tired eyes hard. Clovis has fallen asleep again, so he snaps his fingers to get his attention back. Clovis groans and stretches his arms over his head. “When are you planning to get here?”

“A few days,” Jason says. “As soon as possible. And then to Athens to meet the rest of the seven.”

“Are you sure you aren’t spreading yourself too thin?” Clovis asks, gentle, inquisitive.

Jason knows he is but pretends otherwise. “We don’t have a choice.” His own comfort and well-being is the last thing on his mind. It always was, in the wake of others’ needs.

The son of Hypnos’ head droops sadly. “Do you think you can get there in time?”

“Yes.”

And then, the ground begins to rumble. Jason looks around wildly for the source. The earth shakes. “ Once again, your ego blindsides reality, Jason Grace. ” Clovis’ voice has turned deep and echoey. The cabin splits entirely in half, opening a fissure in the ground that rips through all of camp. Jason yells and falls back, unable to stop Clovis from tumbling in.

He runs out of the cabin in time to see the chasm split all the way up to the hill, swallowing his sister’s pine. He sees those great green eyes peering at him through the depths of red smog below.

YOU KNOW YOU CAN’T SAVE EVERYONE.

The fissure widens.

AND NOW YOU CAN’T SAVE ANYONE.

The earth beneath Jason breaks, too, and devours him whole.

His eyes snap open before he hits the ground and he whirls upright with a gasp. A hand on his shoulder stops him abruptly. He almost pukes. “Jason,” Reyna eases him back against the statue. “You’re safe.”

He swallows his unsteadiness and nods, taking comfort in her presence. The dream world of Camp Half-Blood fades away, replaced by the sunset casting orange over the shadows of Pompeii. Tourists straggle out of the ruins, the mist turning their guides gently away.

Reyna hands him a sandwich and a water bottle, both of which he downs quickly. It does nothing for the emptiness in his stomach, and he’s sickly reminded of his meal with Piper and Leo. He should like it. It’s his favorite: crunchy peanut butter and raspberry jelly. He doesn’t ask how or where, but he catches the self satisfaction in her shoulders when he smiles.

Even the warning Nico gave him doesn’t sour his mood, for the sheer fact that he saw Nico. Was close enough to touch him.

The happy mood fades when he recalls the information to Coach Hedge and Reyna.

“A hunter,” Reyna repeats with a deep set frown. “A giant, perhaps?”

“I’d rather not find out,” Coach Hedge grumbles. “I say let’s get moving.”

Jason almost smirks. “Are you suggesting we avoid a fight?”

Coach Hedge snorts. “Listen, cupcake, I like a smackdown as much as the next guy, but we’ve got enough monsters to worry about without some bounty- hunter giant tracking us across the world. I don’t like the sound of those huge arrows.”

Reyna’s lips are pursed. She’s deep in thought. Jason doesn’t even know she’s still listening until she says, “Could we ask some other hunters for advice?” Her dark eyes flicker to Jason. “Your sister.”

Jason’s stomach drops. He’d completely forgotten about Thalia. How much does she know about his plight in Tartarus? Has she felt it, dreamed it? Or does she not even know? He has to stave off those thoughts for another time so he can answer Reyna, “I could try Iris Messaging her,” he says reluctantly.

Reyna and Hedge exchange a glance. “She may be our best bet, Jason. I thought you were on good terms…?”

“Uh,” Jason says. “I mean, I haven’t talked to her since… before, um…” He curses his faltering voice, the fact that he stutters over the word, can’t even say the name of that awful place--

Reyna’s lips part in a soft oh, and she nods grimly. She looks around the darkening ruins, dusky stars blanketing the world and welcoming the spirits that linger. “We’ll talk after the next jump,” she decides. “Let’s just get out of here.”

Jason throws on the aviator jacket and reaches for the harness. Something in the air stills him and the hair on the back of his neck shoots up. All his senses insist danger . The ghosts that lingered earlier have now disappeared. “Where did they all go?” he asks no one in particular.

“I don’t know,” says Reyna, reaching for her weapon. “But it can’t be good. I’ll keep a lookout, you get strapped in.”

Jason nods, fumbling with the ropes and buckles. “Okay. It should only take a few seconds.”

Coach Hedge stood suddenly, his back to them. “ A few seconds you do not have .”

Jason could scream. He recognizes Gaea’s voice, taunting him again, following him like a ghost. Hatred and fear creep up and stick in his throat.

Reyna looks panicked for a second, but then she draws her knife, determined. She stands in front of Jason protectively.

Hedge stepped toward her. “Be glad, Reyna Ramirez- Arellano. You will die as a Roman. You will join the ghosts of Pompeii. ” That strikes some fear in Reyna’s eyes he doesn’t understand, but she persists. The ground bursts open, as it had in Jason’s dream. Ash spurts everywhere and sunken figures crawl out of the ground. Ghosts of earth and stone surround them. “ The earth will swallow you. Just as it swallowed them .”

Jason doesn’t know how they manage to get out of there. Reyna fights off all the ghosts with Aurum and Argentum so that Jason can knock Coach Hedge out and strap himself to the harness. He whistles for Tempest to help start a breeze to get the statue in the air again. It was a lot easier to control it when it was dropped from the Argo II. Lifting it off the ground is something else entirely.

He cultivates a harsh wind. It only just keeps the monsters at bay, and Reyna threatens to go with them, her praetor cape flapping wildly around her in the wind. “Reyna!” he cries, tossing a few ropes in her direction. She wraps them, tight and crude, around her waist and keeps fighting. Her dogs are weak. Jason can’t let her get hurt, and he can’t let her lose another companion, not after she lost her pegasus.

That’s right: Reyna and Scipio braved the Atlantic alone just to get to her friends in danger. Reyna can snap at Jason all she wants for his bold intentions. She shares that same commitment. They’re both trying to save their homes, following the off beaten path. Maybe she’s just resentful because she and Jason don’t share the same home anymore. Well, fair enough.

Jason digs deep, hauling the sky in his hands to urge the Athena Parthenos upward. He feels a kinship with the statue, a calmness. It aggravates and motivates him. Much like Annabeth, he supposes. No matter his grievances, she’s still his friend, and she’s part of his new home. He’s determined to protect that as much as anyone else.

He groans when the statue begins to rise, free from the clutches of the earth. He helps yank Reyna up to the statue. She scrambles, taking Coach Hedge from him, and hanging on while Jason returns them to the air. The ropes, tight around his wrist, burn callouses deep into him. He cries out in pain, but persists.

It’s an eternity when his vision’s clear again and the skies are Portugal ready.

“Jason, let Tempest take over for a bit,” Reyna calls tiredly. She’s curled against the statue of Nike in Athena’s palm, trying to shield herself from the wind.

“I’m fine,” he brushes her off.

“Your hands are bleeding.”

Jason looks down. So they are. His wrists and palms are raw and red. Bits of skin have flaked off and the ropes are stained dark. Tempest seems to agree with Reyna, since he heads the helm, and Jason feels the wind relax under his horse’s control.

He lets go of the ropes and starts his way over to Reyna, shivering and zipping up his aviator jacket. He really feels like a pilot. It would be cooler if his mission wasn’t so impossibly doomed.

Reyna cleans his hands and gives him a square of ambrosia to help get his energy back up. It’s tasteless and chalky in his mouth, and after its swallowed he feels no less exhausted. He fixes his friend with a tired glare.

“You know, calling me selfish isn’t great for team morale,” he says.

Her eyes don’t soften, but they don’t meet his, either. “Getting into arguments with the gods about our misfortunes doesn’t help team morale, either. No matter how much I agree with you.”

He crosses his arms. “I was hoping we could be friends again. I know I don’t act like I used to, but--I don’t remember how I used to act. I don’t know who I was, then, but I have a better idea of who I am now. And if… if you don’t want any part of that, then fine .”

Reyna sighs. “Jason, that’s not… That isn’t what I’m angry about.”

“Then what is it? As I recall, I’m not the only one abandoning my post to help my friends.”

Her face sours. “You still know me quite well, even if you don’t remember half our friendship.”

“Do you think I wanted to forget, Reyna? Because I didn’t. And you should know better than anyone how much I hate people assuming what I want and need.”

Reyna is quiet for a long time. The scratching of a pen fills their silence, Coach Hedge crafting letters for the wind to carry back to his wife, Mellie. “It wasn’t easy to be a praetor by myself, you know. Even if it wasn’t your fault. And then you showed up with this new girl, and this new life, and… I was angry. It felt like you abandoned me. Like we lost any solidarity we once had together. You were missing eight months .” She leans her head against her knee and sighs, “I thought we were going to make our home better together. So kids like us wouldn’t have to struggle anymore.”

Kids like us. Demigods. But queer kids, too, he knew was the unspoken whisper. He wonders if he told her before he disappeared. Or if she just knew , saw a streak of recognition in his interactions with Nico, because she already knew him so incredibly well.

“I still want that,” he says quietly. “Just… in different ways. And there are different ways for me to help that, too.”

“Abandoning your Roman heritage is one of them?” She cocks an eyebrow and Jason caves. “Juno didn’t make you do that.”

That notion leaves Jason angry, but he stills his rage, trying to explain. He wonders if this is how Nico felt, dodging between both camps, not feeling loyal enough to either. Jason’s problem is more that he feels a strong kinship to both. “I’ll always be a friend to you, Reyna, Roman or not.” he says. “I thought you wouldn’t forget something like that.”

He leaves her there, choosing to brood near the head of the statue, far away from everyone else. He sits with Tempest leading their giant stone chariot into the sun, and Athena’s careful eyes beneath his feet. He remembers his dream and shudders, has to look away.

Jason bets Juno is laughing at him. He’s vagrant, weightless, torn between his heart and his mission. He hopes no one gets hurt because once, just this once, he put the former first.