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just give me mercy / cause i keep hurting

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When Bianca finally brings up the topic of soulmates, the sun is glinting off the stagnant water, the Venetian Grand Canal is buzzing about the upcoming war that Mussolini is sure to bring, and Nico is wiping a drop of sweat off his brow. He’s trying to grab the liras that Bianca has in her pocket when he glimpses black curled around a nearby woman’s wrist. It’s in wicked bold, the word. Gorgeous .

“Nico?” Bianca looks down at him, follows his gaze. Oh.”

It’s then that Nico learns why his mother always has blank arms and legs, unlike his teachers and the women he sees at the grocery market and the men he glimpses on the canals. Soulmates are a topic underlying the surface of conversations; not everybody has them, but enough do. Enough.

Not Mama, though, but it’s alright. She has Nico and Bianca and that’s better.

Nico doesn’t really care about his soulmate. He has time, endless and unfurling before him. He thinks that they’ll walk along the Grand Canal like him and Bianca and Mama always do. Nico wonders if it’s Livia, with her long, blonde hair, at first, and her sweet smile. Or Cecilia, with constellated freckles dotting her limbs.

Once, just once, he allows himself to think of Luca, the lanky teen that lived just across the water. He never has an unkind word to say to anyone, a lilted grin always toppling his lips one way or the other. He never forgets to give Nico a spare apple every Tuesday, always a bright red. Luca used to watch him and Bianca sometimes, when Mama was out, and he’d always make sure to play with them.

People say Luca’s too friendly. With the way he looks at other men — well, it’s a pity that the war took him, but at least they don’t have to worry. About him making other people that way, at least.

Nico will never tell anybody this, but once, just once, he saw him with another boy. His chest burned. Shiny red apples.

But then there’s the war. Mama doesn’t want him and Bianca to hear of it, blocks out the radio. Until one day they can’t keep hiding, and instead they’re running , to the United States. Mama used to live there, until she met Papà and came back to her home of Venice and the water. But now they’re back, among the heroes.

Years later, Nico will remember Mama cradling him to her chest as they leave their house for the last time. Andrà tutto bene, she tells him in a soft hum. Everything will be alright.

Except it isn’t. Except lightning crackles overhead and everything turns into a blinding white. Most people never get hit by lightning. For people like Nico, the storm never ends.

---

It’s always been Nico and Bianca, the two of them until the end of time. Neither of them need soulmates while they have each other. Or, at least, that’s what Nico thinks.

But the end comes like this. Bianca leaves him for immortality, a never-end, another family, and he has Percy Jackson, who’s a hero, yes, but nothing compared to Bianca. Bianca, who joined a group of girls with no soulmates (Nico can’t comprehend the ones who have them, and leave them behind). Bianca, who abandoned him. This is the only time that Nico wishes writing would appear on his arms, his back, his legs, proof that someone is choosing him.

Still, he clings to Percy with everything he has, and it’s not bad at all. His Mythomagic cards are coming to life, and it’s almost everything Nico’s dreamed of. The Hermes cabin is nice to him. He plays Capture the Flag with real swords.

Percy Jackson even promises to protect Bianca.

( Nico tries his best when the quest is gone. He follows around the Hermes cabin, goes to lessons, learns how to be a half-blood. But in the night, he has dreams of dark and empty junkyards and electricity like lightning againagainagain. Over and overandover. Every morning, Nico wakes up in cold sweat, and has to remind himself that it’s okay, Bianca is alive. )

When Percy comes back, the only thing he has is a Mythomagic statue and the word loyal wrapped around his arm.

“You promised me you would protect her.” He had promised he had promised he had promised —

It’s in the back of his mind, almost like a niggling itch. A feeling of his sister. Standing in the Fields of Asphodel. He’s never felt her like this before. Nico’s fingertips are cold.

And then there’s Percy. Who brings skeletons and tells him to “Run, Nico!” but all Nico can do is scream and press his hands to his head and wonder if this is how the world ends, ripping and yawning and raw. He wants to hurt Percy, make him realize what he’s feeling, but even so, Nico can’t let him die .

Nico and Bianca. He wonders if this is how people without soulmates feel.

“Go away!” It’s all too much, the skeletons and the abyss and the fire and Percy Jackson.

Even though he can’t remember what life was like before, Nico’s instincts do. He does what he did years and years ago, and runs.

---

Bianca should have lived. Out of the two of them, it should have been Bianca who had to keep going.

Everybody knows it, especially their father.

---

The next few months, years, are a little bit of a blur. Time spent below the earth and above are the same, really. The first things to go are his Mythomagic cards. If he hadn’t been so obsessed with that stupid game, then Bianca would still be alive. But fire doesn’t end up in anything but more ashes.

Not only that, but Bianca won’t talk to him. It should be the one advantage of being the son of the god of the Underworld, but she keeps slipping out of his grasp, as if she really did leave Nico forever when she chose the Hunters. Even in death.

In another world, Nico would have bought a Happy Meal to eat himself, maybe play with the toy, but in this one, he digs holes and tosses the food inside. He can party with the dead. He’ll do whatever, as long as it gets his sister back.

Nico and Bianca, until the end of time.

Then he sees Percy Jackson again, and Annabeth and the satyr and the Cyclops. Nico’s mind is still full of memories of his sister, and something about Percy sets them alight. He must be there to get rid of Nico; a child of Hades is welcome nowhere. And somehow, he knows about Nico’s plan, as if he would ever exchange Percy and Bianca’s souls. As if they are equal.

But then Percy wants to save him, and there’s something ripping itself out of Nico’s throat.

Before they’re gagged, Annabeth looks at Nico. Her eyes make him uncomfortable, grey and stormy and calculating. “You don’t know what you’re doing.” Annabeth Chase is somebody that Nico wouldn’t mind pushing over a couple of cliffs.

Percy never knew Bianca either. “Bianca wouldn’t want to be brought back,” he says. Nico wants to scream. His vision blurs.

Because Bianca comes back for Percy Jackson, and not for her own brother. She left Nico with nothing but a ghost of a greedy king, and Nico really just wants to stab all of them with his sword.  

“Bianca!” Nico finally says.

“Hello, Nico. You’ve gotten so tall.” Bianca looks the same as she always did, green hat and all. But Nico has changed, and not just increasing in height. The unspoken words weigh down on Nico’s shoulders, and he wants to cry. Bianca doesn’t want to be brought back, and she wants him to listen to Percy, who let her die, that’s not what a hero does, a hero saves, Percy is wrong

Bianca tries to touch him, and he feels nothing.

“Holding grudges is dangerous for a child of Hades. It is our fatal flaw.” Just a year ago, Nico would have taken anything Bianca said and held it as truth. But how does she know this? How did she even find out who their father is?

“Why are you helping him and not me? It’s not fair!” Here Bianca is, putting a boy she knew for all of a few days over her younger brother. Percy, Percy, Percy. What happened to Nico and Bianca? What happened to always being there for each other? What happened to Nico and Bianca until the end of time?

“It’s not Percy you’re mad at, Nico. It’s me.” Bianca looks at him, sadly and soulfully, and something inside of Nico goes cold. “You’re mad because I left you to become a Hunter of Artemis.” No. “You’re mad because I died and I left you alone.” No. “I’m sorry for that, Nico, I truly am. But you must overcome the anger. And stop blaming Percy for my choices. It will be your doom.”

Nico realizes that nobody truly understands what’s going on. He doesn’t care about the end of the world. He just wants his sister back.

But he can’t just sit at the ranch and do nothing. Nico waits and Minos sees his discomfort, and tells him that Percy and Annabeth are in trouble. An uncomfortable burning starts in his chest after that, and Nico can’t stop replaying how Percy told him that he wanted to help. He looks at his bare arms, bare legs, and remembers the black words he saw on Percy and Annabeth’s hands.

Nico’s only eleven. He forgets, now. It seems like so much longer. But he’s only eleven, so he gets caught.

Percy asks if he’s okay. Nico doesn’t remember the last time somebody asked him that.

Minos says that he’s been tricking Nico all along. That he will return to the living. Nico already knows he’s been a fool, but he also knows that he’s going to fix it. He’s the son of Hades; the dead have no power over him.

Minos, the ghost king?

“No,” Nico says, taking out his sword. “ I am.”

---

After the Battle of the Labyrinth, Nico goes into the woods. His clothes have a couple more rips in it, but otherwise, he looks no more the worse for the wear. But something’s different. Something’s changed.

Bianca comes back, again.

“Piccolino,” she says, a sad smile on her face. Nico doesn’t understand. Neither of them know Italian; they’ve been in D.C. and then Maine and then New York, but not Italy. “Nico.”

A tear slides down Nico’s cheek. “I’m stopping.” Bianca’s gone. She will never be the same sister she was beforehand; her decisions have changed that. Nico will never be the same little brother, either. He doesn’t know how to smile like that anymore, doesn’t know how to fit in. Being a child of Hades sets you apart, unless a family chooses you, like the Hunters had Bianca. Nobody has chosen Nico.

“Let yourself be happy, Nico,” Bianca says, “You don’t have to be angry all the time.” She looks at his empty arms. “Your soulmate is somewhere, even if you haven’t met her yet.”

Nico inhales sharply, then exhales. Thinks of sea green eyes. “He. Even if I haven’t met him yet.”

It’s the first time he says it, and heat rises in his throat. He’s different enough already, and this? This is too much. For some reason, he thinks of apples, shiny and red. Nico shoves it down, boxes it into a tiny space inside of him. This is for later. Not for his final goodbye with his sister.

The same sad smile stays on Bianca’s face. “I love you, Nico. Be happy. Never forget that.” She tries to touch his face before she fades away. It’s the last time he’ll ever see Bianca, Nico somehow knows that, but it’s like a weight has lifted off his chest. Bianca is gone. Life moves on.

It’s time to find some answers.

So he goes up and down and around the globe, just trying to find out where he came from and how to fix things. He listens to his father talk about how Bianca would have done better, and keeps pushing. He learns about May Castellan, waiting for a son who will never come home. He stands by the side of the River Styx and thinks.

Nico wonders how Bianca learned Italian. One night, there’s a flash of water in a river, or a canal, or something, in his dreams. But that’s the most he ever gets.

He tries to avoid the demigods, if he can. But he can’t resist talking to Beckendorf, who was on the ship to Percy. Nico avoids looking at the words on his arm. He wonders how the other person is taking it. Probably better than Nico had dealt with Bianca’s death.

Nico needs to know what happened. He needs to know that at least his mother loved him.

His arms are still blank. Not surprising, his soulmate’s not dead.

But —

His father says that he’ll tell him about his mother if he brings him Percy. Percy, who needs to bathe in the Styx anyways. But Hades can’t hurt him, or Nico doesn’t think he’ll be able to ever forgive himself.

When they meet Sally Jackson, Nico has to hold himself together, but something in his heart bursts.

She’s a better parent than Nico’s father, who lies to his face and brushes of the life of his mother — Maria di Angelo , he cradles it close to his chest — off to the side, like he never really cared about her at all. Nico wonders if she’s wandering the Fields of Asphodel, a mere shade who’s forgotten her son and her daughter. The only person left to remember her is the harsh man standing across from him.

Even after Percy swims in the Styx, Nico is alone, and he’s somehow left with a sort of hollowness that makes Nico suspect that he had been thinking of a different outcome. All that’s left is Nico and his father. And Persephone and Demeter, who are about as useful as a sack of garden tools in the ocean.

Once, he sees Bianca. It’s only for a brief moment, then he finds his mother.

His father is more loving than he has ever seen him. “Please, my dear,” he begs, “You must come to the Underworld.” But his mother refuses, because she is so, so, alive.

Nico falls apart as he sees his mother, kind and gentle, and so much like Bianca. He falls apart as he sees his father, giving and pleading and maybe like him, in a way. In the way his hands shake. Nico falls apart as he feels lightning around the world and crackle under his skin and his mother slipping away from the earth and into the Underworld.

“Bianca should have been in your place. She would have been better,” Hades informs him.

Nico lifts his chin up. “I know.” But you’re stuck with me. He continues. “You have to go help.” Nico may not be able to fight just yet, because this is more important. Hades needs to help. Because that’s what Bianca said, right? Not to hold grudges. His father needs to let go of his four thousand year old grudge against his family.

Life moves on, and it’s not waiting for anybody to move on with it. Hades knows this better than anyone.

Nico and his father, outcasts.

---

“Your death would be great for me.”

Adrenaline is pumping through Nico’s veins, and he feels the way that Percy Jackson must feel, all the time. Powerful, and needed . The dead crawl through the cracks in the ground and his father, always needing a dramatic entrance, confronts Kronos. All because of Nico.

Nico may not have saved the world, but he helped.

A small smile curls on his lips as he enters Mount Olympus. Sitting at his father’s feet, Nico doesn’t think he’s been this happy since Bianca was alive.

And then it’s it. The war is over. Nico should finally be happy. The war is over. His father is proud of him.

He pushes himself into constructing the Hades cabin, ignoring the sharpie-tip feeling that he felt on his hand after the war. Nico forces himself not to look, for as long as possible. He’s already feeling a little bit empty, with Percy and Annabeth and their matching Seaweed Brain and Wise Girl looped around their intertwined hands.

All of this, all of Nico’s could-be happiness is dampened out by one small thing. Almost delicately, in between two of Nico's fingers, is the word lonely .

It’s then that he decides he hates his soulmate.

Nico doesn’t hear from him again. Not even as the fascination with the son of Hades pitters off, as he starts to get more deliberately avoided glances, rather than friendly smiles. A little bit like falling off a cliff, thinking you have a parachute, turns out it was just a plastic bag. His first instinct had been right all along.

So there lonely stays.

Nico finds his sister. Not Bianca. Bianca’s gone and Nico will never be whole from that, but there’s Hazel. Hazel, who’s dead, yet somehow more full of life than Nico. She deserves to live, which is why Nico pulls her into the land of the living.

Hazel is nothing like Bianca, but she is everything like her. Hazel — Hazel is alive.

And there’s Romans. Nico only spends half a minute wondering if his soulmate is one of them, before tossing it aside. He’s Greek. They were the ones, that after all, in the myths, traveled alone. Heroes carrying the world on their backs.

That’s Nico, after all. Alone, alone, alone.

Lonely.

Nico di Angelo, thinking he could save the world even though he isn’t one of the seven, isn’t meant to be a hero, falls into Tartarus. It’s where Gaea’s people have chained down the Doors of Death. Nico’s been surrounded by monsters ever since before he learned he was a demigod, but even he has underestimated what hell is like. Even for a son of Hades, Tartarus is no place for a human to ever be inside.

Akhlys. “Child of Hades, what more could I do to you? You are perfect! So much sorrow and pain!” Tears of blood stream down her face.

A cliff yawns inside of Nico. He drinks fire; it pours through nothing. The burning is comfortable under his skin.

It’s almost a relief when he’s captured.

---

He never tells anyone this, later, but in the jar, all Nico sees is a golden smile. Sky eyes. It’s the only reason he has hope for as long as he does.

Nico never thinks anybody will actually rescue him.

---

Favonius warns Nico about letting his anger control him, and Nico’s ashamed to realize it’s the first time he’s thought about Bianca in weeks. There has been other things going on, but — Bianca. He can’t forget his sister.

But when Nico thinks of the word sister, Hazel’s the first one to pop into his head now.

The way Cupid acts — Nico’s felt it before, raw and tearing. When he was down in Tartarus, Nico could admit it to himself — when he looks at Percy Jackson, it’s the same feeling that he had when Bianca died. Love shouldn’t be this way, so similar to grief.

But Cupid’s attacking Jason Grace, who obviously knows love as something pure and delicate and lovely, and so Nico’s scream can’t help but rip itself out of his throat. "Stop it! It’s me you want. Leave him alone!”

Jason looks a little bit shocked.

Nico claims he’s not scared of Cupid, but that can’t be farther from the truth if he tried, and Cupid knows it. Nico’s spent his whole life running from everyone, and love, most of all.

Lonely burns on his fingers.

But his voice is strong when he speaks. “We want the sceptre of Diocletian. We have no time for jokes.”

But Cupid wins. Love always does, the stories claim. Even as he drags up an army of Romans, with grotesque smiles and armor still shining on their bones. None of it is enough protection from the god, because he’s right, Nico always hides behind death. It’s too bad love is worse.

He keeps pushing. Pretends that it was Annabeth all along. Pretends that his secrets, buried deepdeep under Lethe-erased memories and unbelonging aren’t exposed to the air, to Jason Grace. Cupid keeps pushing; Nico can’t look at his hands.

“Nico,” Jason says. “Everything is fine. I understand.”

How could he?

And so you run away again , Cupid chides, From your friends, from yourself. From your soulmate.

“I have no friends,” Nico shouts. “I left Camp Half-Blood because I didn’t belong in that place! I never belonged!” It’s his raw self, exposed to the wind, a salty wound in the ocean, no not the ocean, never the ocean —

It’s almost a relief, to say it. “I had a crush on Percy. That’s the truth. That’s the big secret.”

Had. And it’s almost the truth. He pretends he’s holding an apple.

They get the sceptre. His finger burns. Somehow, Cupid was kind enough not to let that secret out. Because Jason, with the word weathered on his back, can’t understand that.

“Nico,” Jason starts, and Nico fights back the tears in his eyes. “I’ve seen a lot of brave things. But what you just did? That was maybe the bravest.”

Life goes on.

---

The next time he talks to Jason, it’s almost better to concentrate on his hand.

Jason wants to talk, and all Nico can think about is how even his soulmate doesn’t want him. Nobody judging Nico? “That would be a first. I’m the son of Hades, Jason. I might as well be covered in blood or sewage, the way people treat me. I don’t belong anywhere. I’m not even from this century. But even that’s not enough to set me apart. I’ve got to be— to be—”

Lonely, lonely, lonely .

Nico never chose any of this.

Jason says he’s Nico’s friend, but Nico thinks he doesn’t realize what that really entails. “Sorry if I’ve learned not to expect much, when even my soulmate doesn’t want me.” It’s a testament to how much Nico’s battered Jason with that he doesn’t flinch. Only blinks.

“You know that’s a lie.”

But he doesn’t, not now, and so he continues, promising only Epirus and nothing more, remembering that every promise a person has made to him as been shattered. He stands there as Percy and Annabeth reunite with everybody else, as the other seven celebrate, and it’s a jagged reminder that he is not one of them. He is not a hero.

Hazel comes over to him, and he has to swallow up his tears.

He’s so glad he has a sister.

---

“My children are so rarely happy,” Hades says. “I… I would like to see you be an exception.”

Nico stares.

Let yourself be happy , Bianca had once told him.

---

He mentions the word to Reyna.

Reyna Ramírez-Arellano is so much more than Nico had imagined. She takes his pain, everybody’s pain, without an ounce of selfishness. Steady and strong and brave. The only marks on her are the ones of the Twelfth Legion. Nico thinks of the word sister, and Reyna almost, almost, makes his way into his mind.

Reyna had told him about her father.

Nico had turned Bryce Lawrence into a ghost, just after Reyna had talked about her dad, the mania , and Reyna and Hedge had still stayed.

They’re with the Pegasi, and it’s the two of them and the beating wings of the horses, Coach Hedge having gone back in the thick of the fleet. All of them know that that won’t end up well, but he most likely won’t get himself falling to the earth, so they’ll be alright for now.

“There’s a word on my hand,” Nico blurts out. He knows that Reyna doesn’t have any.

She looks majestic, sitting there on her pegasus, braid fluttering in the wind behind her. Nico examines her face carefully, searching for any sort of reaction. But she’s Reyna Ramírez-Arellano, so what does come out is measured. “And it says?”

Nico’s gaze stays fixed on his hands. The way they’re positioned, only the edge of the the mark can be seen, the -ly. In another world, it would be friendly, or lovely, or silly. In another world, Nico would think about his soulmate without a raw sort of hole opening in his stomach.

Just for a second, he thinks of the golden smile that his coma had conjured up. Sky eyes.

“Lonely.” The word hangs in the air. Then the rest stutters out. “It’s been there for a year. After the Titan War.”

This has been what’s been haunting him. That when they were celebrating, fixing, healing, all his soulmate had noticed about Nico was that he was alone. Nico had burst into war with his father and the dead, and all his soulmate had thought he was was lonely.

“You are different now,” Reyna says. Her eyes are steady.

You are not alone, she is saying.

Reyna may have the power to give others her strength, but this is so much more than that.

Nico pauses for a moment. They’re flying into a warzone, lugging a three hundred foot statue and somehow trying to save the world. Here he is, worrying about his soulmate. Reyna is right; Nico is different than before. Then, he didn’t even know if he had a soul.

Nico allows himself to think of his soulmate. Preparing for war, probably. If he dies, all Nico will have left is that lonely.

( A brief thought slips through his mind, something Nico would have never thought a year ago — maybe his soulmate didn’t want Nico to be alone. Maybe that was why he noticed. Maybe, maybe, maybe, Nico allows himself to hope. )

But that’s for after. Nico swallows. Right now, in the before, they’re going to save the world.

---

A laugh slips out of Nico’s lips when he sees Will Solace. Aggravating is written across his forehead in bold letters. If Nico had been in Will’s position, he wouldn’t have come out of the Hades cabin until it faded away. But there Will is, in the thick of the infirmary, still healing, still doing his job.

“Nico!” Will’s face lights up. “You came. Though I miss the shirt.” Nico frowns at the thought of the tropical parrot shirt, Isla del Encantorico written across it almost as boldly as the words on Will’s face. “My face? Even more gorgeous now. I can’t believe I used to think I never had a soulmate.”

But Will hastily continues. “Time for your three-day stay!” He gestures around. “Now get on a bed, Death Boy, because your arm needs some looking at. And are you fading?” A gasp. “Come here right now.”

Nico falters. But then, in his head, he remembers what Will had said. You have friends or at least people who would like to be your friend. Nico thinks that he would like to be Will’s friend, too. Maybe.

So he sits on the bed that Will pats, and ignores the looks. “Aggravating, are you? I agree with your soulmate. She must have seen you bossing around everyone in the infirmary.”

“Yeah, they probably did.” Will says it like it’s nothing, continuing to roll up Nico’s sleeve, but the pronoun change makes Nico stiffen. He thinks of apples, thinks of war. Sky eyes. He glances up at Will, sees a slightest bit of uncertainty. He’s paused.

“Oh, cool.” A thousand skeletal butterflies are fluttering in Nico’s stomach.

“How was this healed?” Will’s now looking at his werewolf scars in a mixture of horror and awe. Coach Hedge had used sports medicine and nature magic, but it had been a patchy job at best. And judging by the expression on Will’s face, it’s not at its best.

“We were on a schedule,” is Nico’s retort.

“That’s not an excuse!” Will takes his hands off Nico’s arm, and the air feels cold again. “You could die from this. I think you’re going to have to stay here an extra day.” Nico begins to protest, but Will holds his hands out in front of him. “Now it’s a week. I’ll be back. Don’t move.”

Nico doesn’t think he can, anyways. He can’t even breathe, really, but he doesn’t blame Will for not noticing. He has other patients to take care of. Besides, Nico doesn’t want to go back to the Hades cabin, not when Hazel’s about to leave him alone in it.

He glances down at his hands. They’re not fading out of existence anymore, fingers long and lithe and blank. Blank. He looks again.

It’s a good thing Jason comes in when he does. The words can’t seem to come out of Nico’s mouth, not when his soulmate doesn’t think he’s lonely anymore, but what does he think at all? All he manages to say is, “It— it’s gone.”

Jason stares at him. His eyes almost match the shade he sees in his dreams, sometimes, but they’re too dark. “What?”

“My soul mark. Where is it?” Nico’s breath shortens. He tries to twist around and check under his shirt, but his hands go through his body entirely. His soulmate is making him dissolve, but this time, Nico’s not going to become a ghost. It’s the opposite.

Jason’s eyes widen. “Nico, I don’t think that’s what you should be worrying about right now.”

“Don’t you get it?” Nico manages to choke out. “That’s everything.”

Just then, Will rushes back over. “Sorry, I had to help Kayla with fixing a broken bone, but —” He pauses. “Nico, I didn’t mean for you to take Death Boy so literally.”

If he were in a better state, Nico would have countered with a snarky response. But right now, he’s just struggling to breathe, because he’s met his soulmate again and he’s not lonely not lonely not lonely. The words that seemed to haunt Nico for so long are gone. But what have they been replaced with —

“Nico, breathe.” Will is in front of him. Sky eyes. Jason is hovering nearby anxiously.

He closes his eyes, but opens them just as quickly (the dark is worse than day, after all, now) and fixes his gaze on Will. “Sorry, it’s just that my mark disappeared.”

An expression of confusion appears on Will’s face. “What do you mean it disappeared? It’s right on your arm.” Nico looks down in shock. It’s there, in scrawled letters, that don’t spell out lonely anymore.

Instead, it says resilient. The word fills the space between the stitches, where Will had so gently touched him only minutes earlier.

---

Two days in the infirmary go by. Nico heals. He sleeps. He talks to Will.

( “So, you’re telling me that you’ve never climbed the rock wall before?” They’re restocking bandages, an activity that Will has deemed Nico physically fit for. But nothing more.

Nico shakes his head. He never stayed at Camp Half-Blood for long enough.

“Well, as soon as you’re better and not in any sort of danger, we’re going to race to the top. I may not have any sort of talent outside of medicine, but hey, maybe I can beat you in something.” )

Jason and Piper and Annabeth and Percy come by. Percy is awkward, as Nico had expected, but there’s something in Annabeth’s eyes that sends Percy into something… different. They don’t come at the best time, anyways, because Will’s on his snack break and him and Nico are talking about the best kinds of music, because after all, Nico’s very out of date on these kinds of things.

Nico doesn’t know why Will is acting like they’re friends, except for that one sentence. But Nico remembers what Bianca and his father had said. So he talks back.

“You’re a literal idiot,” Nico says, once, when Will trips over his feet in the middle of the infirmary, and crashes on an empty bed. Will responds with a thumbs up and a goofy smile, and something in Nico’s stomach burns. Skeletal butterflies, sky eyes.

Another time: Nico’s staring at the wall, trying to forget about the looming pit in his stomach. Will comes and brings a needle. “Stitches time!” Nico can understand how excited Will is to hold a needle — it’s just like Nico is with his sword, that Nico has been forced to keep in his cabin — but that doesn’t mean that he’s willing to comply. Nico stares at him.

This goes on for all of five seconds, before Will rolls his eyes. “ Fine, I guess you’re going to rot away into a pile of flesh because—” He cuts off. “Are you okay?”

Nico’s hands are shaking. But, “Yeah, I’m fine.”

Will rolls his eyes and scoots closer. Nico’s hands shake more. “You’re obviously not okay. Tell me what’s wrong. Doctor’s orders.”

There’s a heat on the whole right side of Nico’s body. He grits his teeth. “Tartarus.”

An expression flits across Will’s face, for one moment, before he places his hand on Nico’s shoulder, gently, as if tending to a scared cat. Nico’s whole body stiffens, but Will keeps his hand there for one moment more, and then everything relaxes. “I’m sorry.”

“Why are you apologizing?” Nico rolls his eyes. “You wanted me to get stitches. You said something. Doesn’t mean that I’m still getting stitches, though. You have to figure out something else that doesn’t involve a needle ripping through my skin.”

Will looks like he wants to pursue the topic further, but ends up following Nico’s train of thought. Nico’s glad. He’s not ready to talk about Tartarus.

Then it’s time for Nico to go, and although he’s only moving a few feet away, there’s something different. He’s not going to be spending all this time around people, anymore, and everything’s going to go back to the way that it was before. A few weeks of friendliness, before everything peters out, and it’s just Nico, left in the Hades cabin, again. Will'll only be around for a few more days.

Jason and Will both walk him back to his cabin. It must be a funny sight, but at least the aggravating is gone from the latter’s face. Nico wonders what it says now.

“You’re going to be okay?” Will asks him. Nico nods. Apprehension is written in the lines of Will’s face, but he leaves, anyways. After Nico repeatedly assures him that he’ll be fine, he can sleep in a cabin by himself, if he needs anything he’ll go to the Apollo cabin.

Lonely, lonely, lonely.

Not anymore.

But lying down in his coffin-like bed isn’t the same anymore, not without Hazel’s soft breaths from across the room. Nico’s eyelids flutter shut. Red flashes across his vision. Apples, war. Hell. Liquid fire burning his veins.

Bloody tears falling down Akhlys’s face. Chopping monsters in half, in half, in half. Arai. Drakon. Tartarus.

It’s all too much.

---

Will is the one who finds Nico the next morning, curled up in a ball in the grass outside the Hades cabin and tears slipping down his cheeks. He doesn’t say anything to him, just lifts him off the ground — more gently than Nico knew he could be held — and carries him to the infirmary.

Nico never tells Will this, but he sees the peek of a word on Will’s collarbone. Here. He wonders what that means.

---

Will’s working late tonight.

“Go to bed,” Nico lazily looks up at him from his bed. It’s in the middle of the room. Will had made sure of that. Will’s doing something silly, like restocking the bandages, which his siblings could easily do. It’s ridiculous, the word slips into his head.

The blonde makes a funny motion and strangled gasp after Nico speaks, but turns to face him. “Excuse me, the infirmary doesn’t just run on its own, Death Boy. People have to take care of it.”

“That would be your siblings, on the night shift,” Nico drawls.

Will sighs, and puts down the bandages. He looks at Nico. There’s something in those eyes that makes Nico falter. Sky eyes. He looks up sharply. But Will isn’t where he was just a moment ago. Instead, he’s settling into the bed right next to Nico, his right arm brushing Nico’s left. Nico inhales sharply. Red bursts into the edge of his vision, shiny and glossy like an apple’s skin.

Will’s hands are shaking.

Nico doesn’t prompt him to speak, so they sit there for a couple moments. He can tell this isn’t a typical conversation. Will just gives and gives and gives, and Nico thinks maybe this is where it finally stops. Maybe he’s empty now . But then he remembers Reyna, with her endless reservoirs of bravery and strength.

“Victoria died today. It was touch and go with her, but I thought she’d make it. I really thought she would.”

Nico has a faint image of who Victoria is. “Victoria was your sister, right?” he asks.

Will nods, clasps his hands together. “She was amazing at archery. Better than a lot of us.” He pauses. Nico doesn’t know what to do. Nobody’s ever relied on Nico, not like this. But Will continues. “If, if only I had healed her better, or actually been able to fight, but I’m just a healer —”

Like instinct, Nico pushes Will’s shoulder back so he’s facing Nico. Surprise is evident in the way his lips part slightly. They’re red, like apples. “Hey, you idiot, if you weren’t as good of a healer as you are, so many more people would have died. People need you to be the way you are. You can’t save everybody.”

Then it comes. “She was my sister, she was only eleven. I should have tried harder.”

Nico’s mind flashes back to the howling winter, to the crack in the pavilion, to darkness and and hollowness and pouring Coke in holes to get some glimpse of his sister. He remembers Bianca’s hand on his cheek and he remembers kissing Hazel on the forehead and he remembers how hard his sister hugged him before she left to go to Camp Jupiter.

“She’s gone now. There’s nothing you could have done. It’s not your fault.”

It’s almost like he’s talking to Percy. The last part of letting go.

Will looks like he’s about to cry, wetness dripping off his long lashes. He breathes in. Then, before Nico can do anything, he hugs him. It’s different than Hazel, the only person Nico’s ever let do so besides Bianca, because it’s like Will’s clutching on to Nico as if he’s a lighthouse in the middle of a dark sea. Nico has never been bright. He hugs back, just the slightest bit.

“Sorry,” Will finally says. He knows Nico doesn’t like to be touched. Nico just rolls his eyes.

The next morning, people give Nico looks as he heads back to the Hades cabin with Will. It’s not that Will is carrying a load of nightlights — ready to light the place up, he had said, and Nico had thought of Leo Valdez and reminded himself to sit with Jason at breakfast tomorrow — because Will is getting the same glances as normal. No, it’s Nico, but Will doesn’t say anything, so neither does Nico.

It’s only after Will has left to go to the infirmary and let Nico change into another black shirt that Nico sees it, a large word on his arm, black and bold and barely legible. But he doesn’t care.

Nico’s never been an anchor before.

---

He sits with Jason the next morning, and ten minutes later, Percy joins them too.

“Nico! It’s so nice to see you out and about!” Percy’s energetic as always. All of his awkwardness from earlier seems to have faded away. He’s shoveling food into his mouth at about a mile a minute, and it makes Nico wonder how he ever had a crush on him.

Jason is next to Nico, and thankfully, eating at a slightly slower pace. “I didn’t even think you knew where the infirmary was, before. And look, now you’re spending all your time in it.” He frowns. “You’re not sick or anything, are you?”

Nico scowls and tries to focus on his food. “No. Solace just kept me in there, that’s all.”

Jason’s eyebrows shoot up. “ Oh .”

“Oh what?” Nico stabs his pancake threateningly. “That’s what I thought.”

They switch topics to Capture the Flag. Hermes cabin is leading one side and Ares the other. “You already told Travis that you’d be on their side?” Percy is indignant, staring at Jason with wide eyes. “Without any sort of consultation?”

“You do know the Ares cabin sort of hates you, right?” Nico says.

“Yeah, but it’s the thought! You know what, there’s Annabeth — I need to ask her something, anyways.” Percy gets up and leaves the table. Nico has always wondered about the friendship between Percy and Jason. Jason’s always preferred Leo, but Leo —

Percy gets along better with Piper, but Piper is sitting with her siblings. The three of them, Nico and Jason and Percy, are allowed an exception to their empty tables.

“So.” Jason looks down at his arm. “That happened, huh?”

Nico nods. Eats his pancakes.

“I hope you and Will are happy.”

Nico chokes on his food.

---

Days pass. Nico is stubborn and then empathetic and courageous and reliable. He can handle those. But then there’s the campfire, one night. Nico is sitting with Jason and Piper and Annabeth and Percy and the four of them are chattering amongst themselves, Nico chiming in occasionally. There’s an empty space next to Piper that none of them mention.

Until Will comes over. Nico glances over at the place where Will had just been and sees Austin stretching his leg over a whole bench. “Can I sit here? Austin kicked me out.” There’s a slight smile at the edges of Will’s lips. His Camp Half Blood shirt stretches up a bit, revealing a sliver of skin and the word persistent.

Nico feels nauseous. He nods.

The other four nod their hellos to Will, talk to him for a bit. Piper looks at Nico and smiles. And after a few minutes, so does Annabeth. Nico is hot and cold all over. Will, Will Solace can’t be his soulmate. Will is too kind and good and light for somebody like Nico.

Sky eyes. Red apples.

He snaps back to existence when somebody pokes him on the cheek with a stick. It’s Will, holding jumbo marshmallows in the palm of his hand. “I just fought a battle to get these, you better eat them.” Nico’s not surprised, considering that Percy and Jason are still currently tussling over the bag.

“What if I don’t?” Nico challenges.

“Sorry, that’s not an option.” A dimple appears on Will’s cheek and something flushes inside Nico. “Doctor’s orders.”

“I’m not in the infirmary anymore.”

“You still gotta do it, Death Boy.” Will’s voice is light as he sticks a marshmallow on a stick. “Come on.”

“Stop calling me Death Boy ,” Nico protests as he grabs a few marshmallows. “If you keep saying that, I get to call you — Sunshine.”

“You could be a little more original,” Will shrugs, “You could easily call any of my siblings that. Think outside the box! Like Casualty Lad, for you.”

“Like Sonic?” He thinks of the whistle on the hill. It seems like years ago, even though it was only a few weeks.

Will furrows his eyebrows. “I don’t know how you think I’m a hedgehog. I’m a little bit more gorgeous than that big blue thing.”

“What?” Nico is confused.

“Sonic… Sonic the Hedgehog?” Will pops a marshmallow in his mouth, and Nico stays riddled with confusion. “No? Nothing?”

“See, back in the 1930s, the only games we had were played outside.” It’s the first time Nico has been so open about his past, about the fact that he should be an eighty year old. Although if he had stayed in Venice back then, in Fascist Italy, he probably would have been killed.

Red apples. He moves a little bit away from Will. Their legs had been brushing, hands almost touching.

Will opens his mouth to speak, but then closes it. “You have a lot of catching up to do,” he finally responds, softly.

“I’ve played some games.” A scowl mars Nico’s features. “Like Mythomagic.”

It’s the wrong thing to say, because then, a full-fledged smile appears on Will’s face and any previous tension disappears with that grin, that golden grin. “Hey, my friend used to play that game! He was always obsessed with Mr. D.” Both of them make a face. “We all know who my favorite was, of course.”

Nico scoffs. “Apollo only has 500 attack power.” It’s funny, how easily he can slip back into the guise of a regular fourteen year old. “The only good time to choose him is when you’re against a manticore.” Nico had seen a manticore in Tartarus. He had stabbed it in the chest.

“See, I had a second favorite too. He was pretty powerful.” Will eats a marshmallow, then nudges Nico, as if to remind him to eat his before it burns.

The marshmallow is hot. Nico chews it for a few moments before mumbling “Who?” around his mouthful of food.

Will is still smiling. “Hades. He has some pretty cool powers.” He leans forward.

Nico’s heart falls out of his chest. A thousand, no a million, skeletal birds are fluttering around in his stomach. Part of him wants to hide. Part of him wants to stay. Sky eyes, butterflies.

But all Will does is put his finger above Nico’s lips, brushing off a stray marshmallow. His touch is electric. “You had a little mustache.” Heat flushes on Nico’s cheeks. “You looked cute with it, at least, makes you look a little less like a tiny angry midget” He doesn’t know what to do, so he just rolls his eyes.

Cute appears in the path that Will’s finger had traced the next day.

---

After that it’s light and Nico feels like he wants to hide in the shadows again.

Hazel’s on an Iris message with Nico one day when she sees it. She’s talking about the latest changes to Camp Jupiter and what Dakota had done the other time when she pauses in the middle of her sentence. “Nico!”

“What?” He jumps. “I told you about Leo’s message already, what is it?”

“Your arm!” Hazel’s eyes are shining as she points. “Your soulmate!”

Nico looks down, thinks of sky eyes. “Oh, yeah. That.”

“Did you find her?” He hasn’t seen Hazel smile this much in a while. Something boils in Nico’s stomach. Out of everybody, Hazel would understand. Hazel, who was born before Nico in the dead of the winter, she would get it. Why he’s so uncomfortable.

“It’s, um—” Nico lowers his voice to a mumble. “It’s Will Solace.”

“What?” Hazel’s still smiling. “I didn’t hear you.”

“It’s Will Solace.” Nico’s voice cracks. He thinks of Will. Will with his blonde hair and golden smile and sky eyes. Who knows how to keep the nightmares away, who thinks of Nico as his anchor, as gorgeous and capable and amazing and divine. He thinks of Will Solace, and there’s something swooping around in his stomach, like a skeletal bird.

Hazel’s smile gets wider. “Nico — that’s great. I’m so happy for you.” She looks as if she wants to hug him.

“But— it’s Will.” Willwillwill.

There’s a pause, like Hazel’s realized what Nico’s thinking about. “Nico, you deserve to be happy.” She reaches out, even though they can’t touch. “No matter what. Nobody has earned this more than you.”

He thinks of the time he spent in the Labyrinth, with only Minos for company. Almost blind, searching for Percy Jackson. The tears that slipped out at night for Bianca, the only person who understood him.

Nico looks at his sister and swallows. He swipes through the Iris message, lets Hazel fade into mist. She gets it. Hazel gets it, and she’s telling him to go ahead and do it anyways.

Nico is so close to happy. His days are spent with Jason and Percy and Piper and Annabeth and Will and Lou Ellen and Cecil, and he goes to Camp Jupiter sometimes, talks to Hazel and Frank and Reyna. His nightmares are as close to going away as they’ll ever be. The nightlights Will brought him help. Reminders of Tartarus are less. He hasn’t laughed yet, but he’s smiled. He’s almost there.

He starts to go to the Apollo cabin. But through the window, Nico spots Will talking to his sister, and he just can’t bring himself to interrupt, so he goes down to the lake instead. Aphrodite cabin is canoeing. Piper waves at him from across the water, hair in messy braids and a grin on her face. A year ago, she would have never smiled at him like that.

He sits there for a couple minutes, wallowing in his own misery. But time goes on and life goes on and somebody sits next to him. It’s Lou Ellen, one of Will’s friends. Nico’s talked to her a few times, but not often. She looks like she was just struck by lightning, brown hair all over the place and eyes a storm.

“Hey, Nico.” She’s loud, and brash. “You know you’re Will’s soulmate, right?”

He nods. Piper is looking curiously at their conversation.

“So what are you going to do about it? Cecil wanted me to turn you into a cat and let Will take care of you, and I swear, I’ll do it if neither of you guys do anything.” Lou Ellen crosses her arms. Nico can see why Will is friends with her. But he doesn’t respond. He doesn’t know what to say. “Come on, he really likes you! Every time he mentions you he starts blushing.”

It’s not that he thinks Will doesn’t like him. Will’s taken to touching him whenever he gets the chance, random brushes on shoulders or hands or arms. And Nico, to his merit, doesn’t flinch away. Nico thinks that the only thing stopping Will is that he is unsure if Nico likes him.

I do, Nico wants to tell him. But he can’t.

Nothing comes out of Nico’s mouth.

“Nico? Hello?” Lou Ellen waves his hand in front of his face. “I don’t care that you’re his soulmate, if you hurt Will, I will transform you into a slug. And Cecil will prank you for months.” Nico gets up. “Um, what are you doing? Nico?”

He goes to the Apollo cabin.

Thankfully, it’s empty. Nico doesn’t know what he would have done otherwise. Will is lounging on his bed, eating a shiny red apple, and occasionally throwing it in the air before catching it. When he sees Nico, Will quickly scrambles to his feet. “So, what brings Death Boy to my humble abode?”

The word happiness loops around Will's wrist.

Nico scowls for a moment, before blurting it out. “You know you’re my soulmate.”

The apple is tossed aside, forgotten. Will seems like he can’t move, so Nico walks closer. “Yeah, I do. You — you’re mine. Too.” Will is babbling, his eyes focused on the extraordinary on Nico’s shoulder. It seems to give him more courage. “I like you, Nico. I like you a lot. You’re incredible.”

Nico swallows. Meets Will’s gaze. His sky eyes are filled with uncertainty, even with what Nico has said. Nico likes that, that Will doesn’t think that soulmates are the end-all be all. Because what matters is this. “I— I like you too.”

Will smiles, and it’s golden and gleaming and filled with joy. Like the sun has finally risen.

---

Let yourself be happy, Bianca had said.

Finally, Nico does.