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The Best Times to Kiss A Girl

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Karolina is walking back from a supply run when she hears Nico’s excited chatter ringing from one of the rooms. She stops at the door, backpack on one shoulder and a paper bag filled with food clutched against her chest. The tiredness that has been creeping in Karolina’s bones slowly seeps away as she listens, caught up in Nico’s enthusiasm.

“The dude was like a body builder covered in tattoos, all glaring and angry and then Gert walked in with Old Lace—”

Karolina catches herself walking towards the sound of Nico’s voice. She stops, shakes her head, and turns the other way. Karolina walks to the kitchen and sees Alex on his new(-ish) laptop (borrowed, not stolen). Karolina almost freezes in her tracks.

“Oh, hey Karolina,” he looks up, pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose, “I thought that was you I heard at the door.”

“Yep,” Karolina responds lamely. She tries to smile in return but she’s so nervous it ends up looking more like a grimace.

Alex’s expression contorts into one of worry, “Trouble?”

“Nah,” Karolina shakes her head and takes a deep breath. She feels herself becoming a little more grounded, “Nothing I couldn’t handle.” She offers him a small smile.

“Oh, well, that’s good.” Alex still looks confused. Karolina feels an all too familiar guilt gnawing at her. 

“Just leave the stuff you got on the counter and I’ll fix ‘em,” Alex offers, “I’m already here anyway.”

“No, that’s okay, I—”

“It’s cool, Karolina,” Alex waves a hand, dismissive but kind, “You’re probably tired, and anyways, you should go check up on Nico.”

Karolina doesn’t respond. She swallows but her throat feels dry. Alex gives her a look like he’s measuring her and Karolina wonders if it’s just her imagination so she tries to push her worries down.

“Are you sure?” she doesn’t stutter even though she felt breathless.

“Yeah,” Alex smiles. For a moment they just stare at each other. Karolina feels like Alex is sizing her up. She wonders if she’s the one sizing Alex up. Karolina has liked Nico for a long time— helplessly and, for a time, hopelessly. But Alex has liked Nico for a long time as well (maybe even longer than she has), and even though the choice was out of his hands (because it was in Nico’s), Karolina hated that she hurt him anyway. 

Nico chose me, Karolina thinks. Still a little out of breath, still a little in disbelief. Nevertheless, pride rumbles in her chest at the thought, stomping down the guilt that has gnawed at her heart, making her stand taller.

“Don’t keep Nico waiting,” Alex laughs softly after what felt like eternity. 

Karolina sounds as breathless as she felt when she replied, “Right.”

“Okay.”

Karolina puts the paper bag on the counter, “Thanks, Alex.”

The thanks sounds more genuine and grateful than necessary for a simple favor like arranging supplies.

“No problem.” The smile on Alex’s face is small, accepting. Karolina wonders for the nth time if there’s any meaning behind it or if she’s just overthinking it again.

Karolina’s attention is on Alex even as turns around to leave the room. She pauses by the door, out of sight, and breathes. There is a guilt, one that has attuned itself to Alex, steadily building in Karolina’s chest. She hears his fingers on the keys of his laptop, a pause, then she hears the soft scrape of his chair against the floor. Footsteps, then the rustling of the paper bag and wrappers as objects are removed, the dull thuds against the counter. A cupboard creaks as it opens. 

Karolina hears Alex sigh.

(There is more weight to that sigh than Alex will ever want to admit, out loud or to himself.)

Karolina shakes her head, releases a sigh of her own. She starts walking towards the living room. Nico’s voice becomes louder, her excitement more palpable. It draws Karolina closer.

“Until that point I’d never heard a grown-ass man scream so…”

Nico’s back is turned against the door, sitting on the floor and talking as animatedly as Karolina’s ever seen her. Molly notices Karolina entering the room and grins at her. Chase briefly looks away from Nico to glance at Karolina. Even Old Lace lifts her head up, ever so slightly, in greeting. Karolina holds a finger to her lips. Despite her earlier mood, she’s already grinning. Chase’s attention is dragged back to Nico. He nods vigorously at something she says. Gert fluidly masks the wave she’s about to send Karolina’s way by reaching out and stroking Old Lace’s head. Molly looks back towards Nico and engrosses herself back in the story.

Karolina watches for a while. In light of standing against their parents and turning their backs against everything they’d ever known (or thought they knew), they found a family in each other. Karolina moves carefully, removing the bag on her shoulder and setting it on the floor quietly. 

The rustle of Karolina’s skirts as she kneels behind Nico goes unnoticed by the goth who’s caught up in her own story. There’s a fond smile dancing on Karolina’s lips. Her arms go around Nico’s waist, Karolina tucks her chin against Nico’s shoulder. Nico doesn’t flinch, doesn’t falter in her story. She relaxes against Karolina like it’s where she has belonged all along. It’s comfortable, easy.

“I felt kind of bad after, but it was hilarious. I wish we could’ve recorded the whole thing and…”

Karolina kisses Nico on the cheek. She listens.

Chapter Text

 

“Chase, what the fuck happened to you?” 

Alex’s tone is so sudden, so incredulous, and so caught off-guard that it makes Gert look up from her book. She’s greeted by the sight of a very drenched, mildly confused looking Chase Stein.

“Hurricane Nico happened to me,” he flings his arms out towards Alex, sending droplets of water flying in his direction. Gert doesn’t miss the concerned look beneath his impish mirth.

Instinctively, Alex jerks his laptop away. He glares at Chase, “Very mature.”

Chase smirks, he opens his mouth to retort but Gert cuts him off before he can start another argument and they’re veered off-topic, “Hurricane Nico?” she asks.

“Yeah,” Chase turns his attention to Gert (Alex keeps his eyes trained on Chase warily). Chase tilts his head, confusion resurfacing (is he pouting?)— The expression on his face reminds Gert of a forlorn puppy. 

“She looked really pissed about something.”

“And you thought it was a good idea to approach a pissed Nico?” The image of the puppy sticks in her imagination and Gert tries to keep the amusement out of her voice. Judging from the smug expression Alex was trying to smother, however, she clearly wasn’t doing a very great job.

“It just looked like she needed to talk,” Chase answers defensively, crossing his arms in front of him. He shivers, but he doesn’t seem to be entirely conscious of the action, “And we were talking, until…”

He trails off. Gert watches as Chase’s expression contorts into one of genuine concern. (And speaking of concern, she should get Chase out of those wet clothes before he catches pneumonia.) 

“Until?” Alex prods.

“Until I mentioned Karolina,” he shakes his head in mild disbelief (cue image of puppy). “Then she blasted me with water, and just walked out on me.” (Chase notes to himself, Never bother Nico especially when she has her staff.)

Ah,” is all that Alex manages to say. His expression shifts into something Gert can’t read. She doesn’t miss the way Alex pretends to busy himself by fixing his attention on his laptop.

“What does that mean, Wilder?” Chase’s tone is a bit more bitter than Gert expected it would sound. When Alex doesn’t respond (he doesn’t even bother looking up when Chase flicks more droplets of water in his direction).

Chase visibly deflates. “Is this about last night?”

Alex still doesn’t respond. He’s impressively convincing at looking completely engrossed by whatever it was on his laptop’s screen. Still, Gert can see how tense he’s become.

“Come’n, Wilder, say something,” Chase pushes, frowning. “Even you have to be worried about—”

“Chase,” Gert interrupts, taking her eyes off the tick in Alex’s jaw to meet Chase’s gaze meaningfully, “How about you change before you get sick?”

Chase suddenly flushes, “I, uh,” he clears his throat, embarrassed (the sound is actually enough to catch Alex’s attention, though briefly).

“You’re out of fresh clothes,” Gert deadpans. Alex almost laughs.

“I got distracted working on the Fistigons,” then he gestures, rather ridiculously, towards Gert’s general direction, “And other stuff.”

Alex actually snorts at this, earning a glare from both Gert and Chase.

“How ‘bout we try and beg Nico to poof you dry,” Gert says, placing a hand on Chase’s bicep and attempting to drag him out of the room in search of the aforementioned girl.

“No!” Chase exclaims, looking rather horrified. “The next thing I know, my ass is frozen or my hair is on fire. No,” he shakes his head, dramatically, “We steer clear of Nico for now.”

Gert sighs, “We’ll figure something out.” She shakes her head in an attempt to erase the image of forlorn puppy Chase from her mind.

“I’m sure we will,” Chase grins. His expression is innocent enough, but something about his tone belies this innocence. Gert narrows her eyes at him even as anticipation runs down her spine. Chase’s expressions turns mildly sheepish, “What?”

Gert, despite herself, smiles.

Alex shakes his head as he watches the exchange. The small smile that graces his lips vanishes when he thinks of Nico and Karolina. Alex sighs when he remembers what had happened last night. Another close call. They were usually careful so they didn’t have a lot of those, if at all. But last night they were careless. They split up, thinking they were safe. They fell for a trap instead and unfortunately, the cops that cornered them were a little trigger happy.

The bottom line was: Karolina had a habit of putting her life on the line for the team, and they (sans Nico in this context), in turn, had a habit of letting her; inevitably pissing Nico off in the process. Alex hates pissing Nico off, for more reason than being on the receiving end of her magic (Alex would still argue it’s science).

Alex remembers the look of sheer panic, the utter terror that overtook Nico. He remembers her ferocious, almost desperate determination as she tried to go back for Karolina. Nico would always fight to keep Karolina by her side, Alex realizes, accepts.

Despite her biting words (“If it was you in her place … but it’s not.”), Alex knew that Nico would at least try to do the same for the rest of them. But— Alex thinks of how broken Nico sounded despite how hard she fought to appear in control, demanding and pleading in the same breath. None of them would (could) ever cause that.

In his mind’s eye, Alex sees Nico’s shoulders falling, the quiver of her lips, the unshed tears shining in her eyes; remembers the look of defeat and resignation slowly burning through Nico’s stubborn determination. The image is vivid, and the memory evokes a sharp pain in his chest. Alex is hurting for Nico, not because of her. He’s hurting not because she chose Karolina over him, but because Karolina’s good heart and her tendency for acts of selflessness had the potential to hurt Nico. Because when all is said and done, he still loves Nico, and he loves her more than he’ll ever care to say. 

“Alex?” The two raps against the doorframe almost drowns out the soft voice that breaks his reverie. Alex looks towards the sound, feeling dazed. Karolina stands by the doorway, framed by the streaks of afternoon sunlight that filters through the window.

“Hey,” Alex hears his own voice, but it sounds distant. He feels hollow, somehow. Lost and unsure. He wonders if he would ever look at Karolina and not hurt.

“Has Nico talked to you?” Karolina is tentative. Her words come out carefully and soft like a whisper. 

Alex shakes his head, and offers instead, “Chase tried talking to her.”

Karolina winces, “I saw.” She sighs. 

Sorry about that. She doesn’t say, but Alex hears the apology anyway.

The conversation is halting and awkward. Most days, Alex is trying to be better, kinder, but he doesn’t always know how to be around her without sounding so hostile. Antagonizing Chase is easier because their entire relationship, even before Amy’s death, has always been built around bickering and grudging agreements. Trading scathing retorts (mostly receiving them, to be honest) with Nico is simpler because, well, it’s Nico; and, for the most part, Nico’s first language is snark anyway.

Karolina is a different matter. She may be at the crux of his bitterness, but that didn’t mean he found any sort of satisfaction in having her caught up in his hostility. Karolina is genuinely good in ways that most people rarely were anymore. Molly, for all her optimism and whatever innocence she still possesses, is likely the only person that Alex knows matches this genuineness.

“Karolina, can we talk?” Alex says, drawing the syllables out, his voice sounding more like his own with each word that passes through his lips. They’re already talking, but he has to ask anyway.

Karolina stiffens, senses the change in the air. She shakes the anxiousness creeping up her spine and forces herself to relax. She remains rooted in place, not wanting to cross the threshold. Thankfully, Alex doesn’t ask her to sit down. Karolina leans against the doorframe instead.

“Sure, Alex,” she answers after a beat.

“It’s about Nico,” he says like it wasn’t already obvious.

“Okay.” Alex barely hears the response. He offers her a smile that he hopes would ease her. Karolina smiles back, as she always does.

The silence that comes doesn’t last long, barely a breath long, but it felt like an eternity.

Alex has opened his can of worms, he may as well push through. If he doesn’t speak now, he won’t have the courage or the strength to do so next time. Alex is aware that this might be the only chance he’ll get, but everything he wants to say is caught up in an ungraspable storm. Words and truths are tantalizingly suspended before him; taunting him as they come close before flying out of his reach. And so, frustrated and grasping, he blurts out the only thing he was absolutely sure of—

“Nico loves you.” Alex hates the way the words taste in his mouth.

The statement, the bluntness of its delivery despite Alex’s stifled grimace, catches Karolina off-guard. She jolts against the doorframe, the edge of the wood digs into the skin of her shoulder. 

Nico loves you. He says it so casually, so surely it’s almost annoying (especially when neither she nor Nico has ever said it to each other, I love you. Not out loud anyway.). Karolina doesn’t doubt Nico cares about her or (a subtle thrill runs down her spine) that Nico wants her. She’s still entirely in awe, caught in a breathless wonder and heart-racing delight, and still entirely in disbelief. Karolina, for her part, reciprocates the caring and the wanting. The childish infatuation she once felt for Nico had transformed entirely. It had nestled itself in her chest, a wealth of warmth and love and longing.

Karolina loves Nico and—

“Nico loves you,” Alex repeats in a softer tone, rueful smile painted on his face. Then, firmly, he adds, “And I love Nico, so—”

It’s not a threat but Karolina bristles anyway. “Get to the point, Alex.”

“I love Nico,” Alex doesn’t back down, he courts the danger he sees flashing behind Karolina’s eyes. Alex continues, “I hate seeing her get hurt.”

Karolina doesn’t quite glare, but Alex feels the intensity of her gaze nevertheless, “And you think I enjoy it?”

Alex doesn’t answer, instead he says, “Imagine how losing you would destroy her.” 

“She’s not going to,” Karolina eyes narrows, her voice edged like steel, “I intend to be with her for as long as I can.”

Alex swallows, doesn’t doubt the sincerity of Karolina’s words. He pushes on, “That’s not good enough, Karolina,” he sees her raise an eyebrow, she doesn’t say anything so he continues, “You’re selfless and you’re reckless. That’s never a good combination.”

Alex waits for Karolina to respond, to tell him that he had let her be reckless. He waits for Karolina to tell him how he’d willingly left her to get to safety. Karolina doesn’t say anything and Alex can see her grinding her teeth. He softens, his shoulders sag (more with guilt than anything else), he tells her, “As long as you can may not be long enough for Nico.”

Karolina startles, her eyes widen and her lips part as though she would speak only for silence to come instead. Alex relishes this second look of surprise he’s elicited from her.

“Are you asking me to walk away from her, Alex?” This time, Karolina does glare. Frustration and indignation is evident in the quiet tremble of her voice, “What, so you can sweep in?” Her tone becomes harder, more determined, “Because I’m not going to. You can’t threaten me or guilt-trip me into—”

“No, that’s not what I’m trying to do,” he cuts her off, voice weary, “I’m not trying to pick a fight with you, Kar. That wasn’t— I was— fuck.” Alex sighs gruffly, breathes. He shifts gears, “I couldn’t do anything to save Amy and,” the words get caught in his throat, “And, afterwards, I didn’t do anything for Nico I—”

“I know,” Karolina is quiet again, her voice carries with strength but she no longer sounds angry. “I was there. I tried,” she stutters, “I tried to be there for Nico, but—” a pained and sardonic smile flitters briefly on her lips, “Eventually, I got pushed away and,” Karolina averts her gaze, eyes darkening with regret, “I let myself be pushed away.”

This time, it’s Alex who’s caught off-guard. And then, rather bitterly, he supposes he’d never stood a chance against Karolina after all. He had hurt Nico trying to drown himself in his own guilt. The rift (which he’d  been the one to carve) between him and Nico was immense (and Karolina had managed to carve a spot beside Nico where he would never reach).

Alex smiles, tired and sad, “You did more than I ever bothered to.”

Silence. A sigh. Alex pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose, speaks—

“I want to make up for never doing anything.” For never saying anything, Alex thinks to himself. Karolina remains silent, nods ever so slightly, and waits for him to continue.

“Our lives aren’t simple or safe,” his voice is soft in its prostration, Karolina almost has to strain to hear him, “But I want to make it safe enough so Nico doesn’t ever have to be scared that she’s lost you too.”


 The night has settled into a peaceful calm when Karolina finds herself standing in front of the door to her bedroom. Well, her’s and Nico’s. And she feels anything but calm. Her heart is hammering in her chest and she feels like bolting (but to where? Her room is just behind the closed door). 

Nowhere but forward.

Karolina pauses, a slight frown on her face. She shakes her father’s voice from her head. Nowhere but forward. It was a catchphrase from one of his movies. It had quite a number of sequels she used to hear it a lot when he was at home and practicing his lines. Or when Karolina would have a little stumble and he’d urge her on,  grinning, Nowhere but forward. (Karolina tries not to think about him most days. It still hurt to think that he’d also betrayed her. That he’d put her and her friends’ life at risk. She tries to understand him, or pretends she does. Maybe he thought he was doing it for the right reason, maybe— She stops. This is why she doesn’t want to think of him most days, it would drive her crazy if she did. But that’s most days, for now, for now, she would listen to his words.)

It doesn’t fill her with a lot of courage (at least, not as much as it used to, she doesn’t think it ever will) but it’s enough to get her to knock. Two and a half of the jerkiest, most awkward sounding knocks. She sighs and steels herself.

Inside the bedroom, Nico is on the bed with a book. She hears the knock but she doesn’t move. She fights the urge to even glance at the door as she tries to keep her focus on the book (the Iliad is weirdly fascinating). After a rather long pause, the door finally opens. Nico fights the urge to frown or flinch. Her expression remains deceptively neutral, eyes glued to the pages of her book, but only barely. 

When the door finally swings open, Karolina remains glued on the spot. Nico doesn’t acknowledge her presence (or she does, if the barely noticeable frown on her face was any indication). Karolina opens her mouth, attempts to say something, stops. Rooted on the spot, she stares. Nowhere but forward, she tells herself, but her feet doesn’t want to obey.

The silence is taut with awkwardness. The tension in the air so palpable that both girls can feel it grating against their skin. Karolina tries to say something again, but Nico beats her to it.

“This is your room too, Karolina,” her voice is somewhere between a growl and a whisper. She sounds annoyed, but Karolina could hear the anxious tremor in her voice, “Just get in and close the door.” Nico doesn’t take away her eyes from the book in her hands. She’s now openly scowling at the pages.

Karolina doesn’t move at first. This time she doesn’t really feel like she’s stuck on the spot, just stubborn. She wants Nico to look at her instead of whatever she’s reading. The page turns. Karolina waits too long.

“Well?” Nico asks through gritted teeth, brows furrowed and eyes still trained on the Iliad.

Karolina finally relents. She enters with a sigh, pushes the door closed. She stops again, just stands there, observing. Karolina’s expression softens when she sees how rigid Nico’s posture is and the white-knuckled grip she had on the book’s cover (The Iliad, Karolina notes with some interest), good thing the book was hardbound. The book couldn’t be that interesting, could it? They needed to talk and—

“Nico,” Karolina finally says, almost begging, sadness and trepidation making her voice waver.

This time, Nico flinches. She doesn’t say anything, still doesn’t look up.

Karolina sighs again. When she speaks, her words are heavy with resignation, “Look, I know I’m not your favorite person right now—”

She doesn’t get to finish the statement. “You are.” Nico interrupts, feeling the need to assure her girlfriend (she swallows, there’s a flutter in her chest that she’s trying to ignore, because she’s supposed to be mad but her insides are turning into mush). Nico looks at Karolina, finally, her stare is intense. 

Karolina loses track of whatever she was going to say, “What?”

“You’re still my favorite person, K.” Nico’s expression turns gentle. She offers a small smile, not quite We’re okay, but somehow Karolina knew they would be.

“I am?” She chokes on the question.

“Always,” Nico’s smile widens imperceptibly. She finally puts the book down, Karolina finally moves. She stops close to the edge of the bed, Nico’s side. Then, Nico averts her gaze again, she glances sidewards, stares pointedly at the book’s cover, “Did you know that Achilles wanted to go home?”

“What?”

“Achilles. Trojan War. Killed Hector. The Iliad. Ring any bells?” At least her confusion drags Nico’s gaze back to her, eyebrow raised and all.

“No,” Karolina says at first, then “Yes. I know the story. What—”

“He wanted to go home,” Nico repeats, as if it explained everything.

“Okay?” Karolina replies, her answer trailing into a question.

“After Agamemnon takes Briseis from him, Achilles removes himself from the battlefield,” Nico narrates. Her tone is unreadable. She sounded, as far as anybody was concerned, like they were two normal teenagers talking about a reading for school “He started preparing for a voyage home.”

“I know,” Karolina says, because she does know what happens in the epic. She’s read the Iliad before, for class. “But what—”

“It’s funny,” Nico cuts her off, “Because all this time I thought Achilles was just some petty, vengeful, angry dickhead.” There’s a wry smile on Nico’s face and something akin to dawning realization. Karolina is still confused, but Nico continues, “I used to think he was a monster for going as far as he did, dragging Hector’s corpse in front of his people.”

“Nico…” Karolina trails off, not really knowing what to say, she sounded tired but willing to listen.

“In my defense, I only saw that movie with Brad Pitt,” Nico is sheepish and incredulous when she says this. She picks up the book, “And it was far off from this.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“I think I’m beginning to understand Achilles,” Nico says by way of explaining, as though Karolina hadn’t just ask her a question. “You know what else?” Nico asks, wry smile back in place, “I think Achilles had wanted to leave that war way before Agamemnon offended him. Briseis was just the final straw,” Nico pauses, contemplative, then continues in a mock voice which Karolina assumed was Achilles’s, “‘What’s the point of toiling in war day in and day out,’ he asked, ‘because it’s the same for the person who fights hard and the person who just hangs back anyway.’” Nico’s tone and expression becomes more serious, “They all die.”

Karolina bites the inside of her cheeks. She doesn’t say anything and Nico is clearly not done. She listens, heart clenching at the distress hidden behind Nico’s words.

“Did you know he was adamant about going home, Karolina?” The question is like a punch to gut or a knife twisting in her chest, it hurt. “He’s all, ‘I want glory!’ But then he also says he doesn’t care if he loses his honor for quitting the war and sailing home.” Nico laughs, incredulous and angry, “He knew about the prophecy, right? Because his mother told him. He stays, he dies. He leaves, he gets to live a long life. So he chose to go home and he didn’t want to be persuaded to stay.”

Karolina remains silent, hating that she doesn’t know what to say.

“Do you know what happens?” Nico’s voice is quiet again, she sounded like a little kid, lost and scared.

“No,” Karolina answers, even though she knew. “Tell me.”

“Patroclus—” Nico suddenly cuts herself off, “By the way, not Achilles’s cousin.” She scoffs and rolls her eyes, “Honestly, that movie was a lie.”

On a normal day, Karolina would smile teasingly at Nico and say something like, I know, Nico. I’ve read the book. We had it for English lit, remember? Nico might say something like, You read it, I watched the movie. Not everyone is good and responsible like you, K. But it’s not a normal day. And even if Nico’s talking to her now, she knows they’re still “fighting.” And, anyways, even if they weren’t, Nico had that fire in her eyes that told Karolina not to interrupt. The present moment had a gravity to it that Karolina couldn’t quite yet place but was already tugging at her mind.

“Anyway,” Nico continues, “Patroclus approaches him. And Patroclus was selfless and compassionate and it hurt him to see their allies suffering badly at the hands of the Trojans without Achilles and his forces. So, he goes to Achilles, and he’s mad. He practically curses Achilles, mocks him. ‘Damn you for being so petty and stubborn. You’re so strong and brave and glorious but what’s the point if you don’t help our men even when you see them dying?’”

The tone she uses for Patroclus is bitter and furious. Karolina can feel the weight of those words pressing down on her as Alex words from earlier echoes in her head. You’re selfless and you’re reckless. That’s never a good combination.

“But then, you know, Patroclus is Patroclus. Ever so nice and caring. So he tells Achilles, ‘If you’re scared because of some prophecy of your death, then at least let me fight. Let me wear your armor, let me lead your men. Let me fight in your place so maybe I could scare the Trojan’s into thinking I’m you. Maybe I could give our allies hope, give them some breathing space so they can push back.’” Nico sounds subdued by the end of it, still bitter, still annoyed, but more tired.

Karolina aches with the desire to sweep Nico into her arms and whisper sweet nothings to her. She doesn’t. She barely twitches, holds her breath. Karolina is afraid of shattering the moment.

“And it’s so stupid,” Nico’s voice breaks, she grits her teeth and continues, no longer looking at Karolina, “Because Patroclus is so fucking compassionate and unselfish that he practically begs Achilles to send him to his death. And you know what’s even dumber?” If Nico’s voice wasn’t angry, the question would have come out as a snarl. Instead it’s a whisper, harsh and raw, and Karolina feels the impact of it gnawing in her chest.

When Nico doesn’t continue speaking immediately, Karolina realizes Nico is waiting for an answer, “What?” She barely manages to force the question out.

“That Achilles lets him,” Nico is breathless, but the frustration makes her voice louder, “I mean, he didn’t just know Patroclus could die, he knew that he would. Because that was the prophecy,” Her tone shifts to incredulity again, laced with irritation, “And it’s really fucking stupid because Achilles would probably give in to Patroclus anyway. No matter what. Because he knows he can’t deny his dumb friend’s big heart. Because he knows Patroclus probably would’ve risked himself anyway even if he begged him not to, and it’s, just, so fucking annoying,” Nico spits the words out haltingly and through gritted teeth, glaring and pleading at the same time. Karolina flinches.

“And then Patroclus gets killed,” Nico stops, swallows, looks away, “And finally Achilles decides to fight,” a sullen smile finds its way on her lips, she continues, “Everyone thinks it’s because he’s really mad at Hector and wants to avenge Patroclus, and he probably was, but that can’t be the only reason. You know what I think?” Nico meets Karolina’s gaze again.

Karolina shakes her head quietly, voice lodged in her throat.

“I think Achilles was more angry at himself,” Nico’s expression turns sad, infinitely sadder, “I think Patroclus’s words probably haunted him. What was the point of being so powerful when he couldn’t even protect his people, his best friend?” There’s a pause, “Homer called Patroclus someone Achilles loved above all other men and as much as his own life. And that was the person that he couldn’t save.” There is a desperation behind Nico’s dark eyes, now shining with tears, and it begs to be understood, “Achilles went into that fight not really giving a shit about Agamemnon’s up-sized gifts. ‘Just let me fight,’ he says. Going home and living a long life be damned. He doesn’t care whether or not he dies. Because he’s already dead anyway. He’s already lost Patroclus.”

Karolina feels the pain in those words as clearly as if they were her own. Nico feels like an extension of her a soul, a half of her heart, so Nico’s pain might as well be hers. It twists in her heart and churns in her guts. Karolina is kneeling by Nico’s (their) bedside. Nico is crying. Her tears fall down her cheeks unabashedly, she does nothing to stop them or wipe them away. The pause is long enough to last forever. Nico and Karolina’s hands are clasped together tightly. Karolina realizes she’s crying too.

Finally, Nico speaks again, “You know what I think?”

“Tell me.”

“I don’t think it was Achilles’s quest for honor or glory or whatever that doomed him,” Nico offers a shaky smile before her expression darkens again, “I think it was his love for Patroclus,” She pauses, the words are heavy with meaning. She looks at Karolina, who nods, I understand. 

Nico sighs, continues, “At the end of the day, Achilles was cruel. Dragging and parading someone’s corpse in front of his loved ones after you’ve just murdered him is horrible and inexcusable. But, I get it, in a way. Going mad the way he did, the pain he must have felt after losing the person he loved. It’s terrifying because—” She chokes on the words. Her hand squeezes Karolina’s tightly it nearly hurt.

“Because,” Nico tries again, “Because I don’t really want to think about losing you.”

Karolina shakes her head, bows and kisses Nico’s hands, her eyes shut tight futilely against her tears. Something that Alex had said earlier, before they parted, echoes in her head. If you die, it would kill Nico. Or maybe Nico would die trying to protect you. Your life is not just your own anymore. Take care of yourself, Karolina.

Karolina disentangles their hands long enough so she could get in bed and wrap her arms around Nico. She kisses Nico on her temple, I love you, then on her cheek, I love you, and finally on her lips, I love you. They stay like this for a while, arms wrapped around each other, tears falling. The silence that stretches between them is punctuated by their sobs, but it’s not uncomfortable.

After a moment’s eternity, Karolina speaks.

“Hey, Nico?” She whispers shakily against the other girl’s temple, “You know I’m here to stay, right?”

“Are you?” It’s teasing not accusatory. Karolina smiles. We’re going to be okay.

“I am,” She confirms, nodding sagely. She tries to keep her tone light and teasing, but she can’t help the somberness and the fear that pervades it, “Until you don’t want me anymore.”

“Never,” Nico shakes her head. She presses closer to Karolina.

“Then you have me forever.”

Chapter Text

Nico is used to nightmares. 

Sometimes the memory of the nightmare is fresh in her mind, chasing her in her waking consciousness. Other times, she would wake up, nightmare forgotten, but her heart would be hammering in her chest, hard and fast enough to ache. She would be shaking and breathless and sweaty. And utterly fucking terrified. 

Today is different. When Nico is jostled awake by the monsters in her dreams, she finds herself waking in the calming presence of Karolina rather than the cold and lonely darkness of her room. Somewhere in the night they had turned, facing each other, Nico tucked perfectly into Karolina, arms wrapped around each other. Nico finds herself bathed in this tender sense of belonging. She’s happy. And utterly in love. Nico nuzzles closer to Karolina, careful not to wake the other girl up, she breathes in sweetness and starlight. Karolina smells faintly of the city and detergent, and something else that reminds Nico of raspberries. She sighs, contented.

Nico closes her eyes again, not in attempt to fall asleep but just to revel in the moment. However, with their part of the world still enfolded in quiescence and the sun still hours away from coloring the sky with its rays, sleep reclaims Nico into its arms. Her nightmare is replaced by a sweeter dream, one that invokes memories of Karolina’s fingers tracing her skin, of her lips pressed against the inside of her thigh, and her voice raspy with desire. The dream is vivid, a terrifyingly encompassing verisimilitude that jolts Nico back into wakefulness just as her body is about to explode in pleasure.

It’s disconcerting and entirely too frustrating. Suddenly, Nico is very widely awake, chest heaving and blood rushing to her ears. She’s aware that she’s trembling. She can feel almost as much as she can hear the way her heart is thundering against her ribs. Later, when Nico is inwardly debating on the pros and cons of untangling herself form her girlfriend’s arms and sneaking off into the bathroom, Karolina shifts. Realizing that she’s waking up, Nico tries to keep as still as possible, to even out her breathing, and pretend that she’s asleep. It was hard to focus on the ruse because Nico was much too acutely aware of the way Karolina’s body arched against her as she stretched.

Unseen to Nico is the small smile that graced Karolina’s lips. She looks at Nico’s form fondly, relishing the weight of the other girl in her arms. Karolina knows Nico well enough to know she was awake. “Hey,” Karolina mumbles sleepily, voice beautifully husky, “Did you have another nightmare?”

Nico doesn’t answer. Fuck. She can feel every syllable as Karolina spoke, feel her gaze as surely as a gentle caress. Nico is far too painfully aware of the heat radiating from Karolina's skin to be comfortable, feels the heat seeping through their clothes like the beginning of a wildfire. She swallows, throat suddenly feeling dry.

“Nico?” The concern was honestly touching but Karolina’s voice was distracting her. It wasn’t fair that dream-Karolina’s sex voice sounded so much like real-Karolina’s sleepy voice— especially when the dream was currently replaying in her brain.

“Nope,” Nico finally croaks, muffling her response against Karolina’s shoulder, “It wasn’t a bad dream.”

The only nightmare at that moment was how inappropriately turned on she was. Karolina chuckles like she knew exactly what Nico had been dreaming about. Nico feels the vibrations of her laughter crawling against her skin, turning into delightful goosebumps. She shivers and tries to squirm away.

“No,” Karolina whines, complaint drawn out adorably. Her arms tighten around the smaller girl. Nico manages to successfully extracts herself from Karolina anyway, though not entirely. One of Karolina’s arms is still lazily draped on her waist. Nico takes in the sight of Karolina in the moonlight: with her heavy-lidded gaze and her lazy but fond grin, and the way her hair falls in gentle waves. The way the blue of her eyes put the best of the morning skies to shame. Even at this hour, with most of the city still sleeping, in the quiet of their room, Karolina is radiating her unmistakeable brand of strength and grace. She is captivating and Nico is in love with her. Loves her, plain and simply.

Nico reaches out, fingers brushing against Karolina’s cheeks meekly. She pushes some strands of blonde hair away from Karolina’s face. Nico hand ends up resting against her cheeks. Karolina raises her head slightly, and leans into the warmth of Nico’s hand. They look at each other affectionately.

For a moment, Nico simply admires Karolina. You’re strong and beautiful, and I love you. Then she leans in and presses a kiss against Karolina’s lips. It’s gentle at first, prodding next, then deeper and more languid. Nico feels Karolina smiling into the kiss. She smiles too.

When they pull apart, Karolina grins mischievously at Nico, “Would you like to tell me about that dream?”

Nico licks her lips, beginning to smirk. She disentangles herself completely from Karolina, only to straddle the taller girl. “I think I’d rather show you.”

Chapter Text

With magic you could never be bored. At least, that’s what Nico thought. 

She was wrong. 

Okay, no. 

Technically, she wasn’t wrong? 

Magic was fun, it’s just that the gang is supposed to be lying low, being inconspicuous, unseen, blending in, keeping their heads low, [insert other synonyms here], and all that jazz. No flashy science-ing, Nico. At the sound of Alex’s voice echoing in her head—an irritating blend of cautious, taunting and sensible—Nico blanches. First of all, it’s magic not science. Maybe Alex, her mom, or whoever else wanted to call it science, and maybe it was also sort of science, but she was going to call it magic.

Second of all, not flashy wasn’t fun especially when Nico wanted to be as melodramatic as possible.

(Side note: The tiny-ish explosion from two days ago was not her fault. It definitely wasn't because Chase dared her to tamper with the wiring of an annoying neighbor's car from the safety of their safe house.

The good ol' days.)

“I’m bored,” Nico grumbles to no one in particular. She’s lying on the floor, flat on her back, staring at the particularly boring ceiling.

“We’re all bored.” Even without looking at him, Nico can feel Chase rolling his eyes.

You’re bored?” She shoots Chase a meaningful glance, eyebrows waggling, his face was at least more interesting than the off-white paint job she’s been staring at for the past couple of minutes, “I thought you were keeping your hands busy.”

“Me?” he asks, hand on his chest, one eyebrow raised, smirk dawning on his lips “I thought that was you, Nico.”

Before Nico can respond, Alex chimes in, “I’ve watched the same cat video for the thirty-seventh time.”

There’s a slight pause in the flow of their conversation. A tiny nudge of awkwardness that makes Nico purse her lips. She and Chase stare at each other for what felt like an eternity until finally, he says—

“Thirty seven’s not an impressive number, Alex,” Chase gets off the couch to walk towards the table where Alex set camp. “You should see what people do with Vines.”

“I can’t,” Alex deadpans, he doesn’t take his eyes off the screen, “Vines are dead.”

The response elicits a very, overly dramatic gasp from Chase, “I didn’t raise you to be this way.”

“You didn’t raise me at all!” Alex suddenly explodes, cat video forgotten. He jumps out of his chair, whips around and faces Chase.

Nico drags herself to a sitting position. Okay, what the fuck?

It’s like watching the cheesiest stand off in the worst Western movie in history.

“You’re right!” Chase shouts back, aggressively pointing at Alex and totally in character, “You were adopted!”

“I always knew you were too white to be my mother!”

Chase gasps dramatically. Hand to chest. Alex has his hands on his hips, staring down his now-adoptive-mother Chase. Nico doesn’t know if she wants to laugh or quietly slink away from the room. This was weird, even for her, and that’s taking into account she can actually do magic, her girlfriend is an actual rainbow, and they have a dinosaur for a pet. Nico wonders if she was hallucinating or if she was that brain-dead bored she accidentally conjured this weird-assed vision of Chase and Alex.

Nico hears footsteps walking towards the living room. Well, at least that might confirm her am-I-hallucinating-or-is-this-real dilemma.

“Are they okay?” Karolina stops abruptly, just before the entry way. She’s staring at the Alex and Chase, clearly gauging if the fight is serious. Okay, definitely not a hallucination.

“Nope,” Nico’s gaze flickers towards Karolina, she shrugs lazily. A tiny smile finds its way to her lips.

Before Karolina can even ask, Gert interrupts coming at the heels of Karolina, “The better question is: Is Old Lace okay?”

Karolina rolls her eyes, a grin on her face. She makes way for Gert, Old Lace, and Molly to enter the room. Nico looks at Karolina in askance but this time it’s her girlfriend who shrugs. Molly heads over to the table and pulls out a chair. Karolina remains at the doorway, leaning against the frame and watching the scene in front of her. Old Lace rests on the floor beside the couch where Gert just threw herself on. 

It got weirdly quiet. Like Alex and Chase were stuck in their own weird movie and everyone else was waiting for Nico to respond.

“Uh,” after a beat, Nico tears her eyes away from her Karolina, watching Gert throw herself on the couch. “What happened to Old Lace?” she asks.

“Uhm…” It’s Molly who answers, sheepish and a touch pleased, “I kind of… got into a wrestling match with her?”

Chase and Alex are surprisingly unbothered. They have begun circling each other.

“Are you supposed to be wrestling with a dinosaur?” Nico frowns, mostly distracted by Chase and Alex circling each other like frat boys in a playground.

It’s Gert who speaks up, “I think what you meant was: Was Old Lace supposed to be wrestling the kid who can bench press a truck?” Old Lace, for her part, lets out a snort. Her head moves from side to side, as if shaking her head.

“Are you okay, Molly?” Nico asks, completely unsure, because Gert wasn’t wrong about the truck thing. But Old Lace is still a dinosaur. But still…

“Molly’s totally fine,” Gert waves a hand, she reaches out and pets Old Lace, “Old Lace got the worst of it, din’t’cha, girl?”

Old Lace throws her head back and groans dramatically, as if to agree.

“See.” 

Nico does not see.

“Oh, don’t be so dramatic,” Molly says. Nico doesn’t know if it was directed to Gert or to Old lace. “We were just playing.”

“Most kids don’t play with dinosaurs, Molly,” and before anybody can point out the obvious, Nico adds, “Not real ones anyway.”

“Most kids don’t have real dinosaurs,” Molly points out. Karolina steps away from the door way and moves to sit beside Nico.

“Most kids don’t have super smart bioengineer parents who created a dinosaur with an empathic bond with their daughter as a failsafe if joining an evil cult blows up in their faces,” Gert delivers the whole thing with a bright smile. Old Lace is nodding beside her.

“Most kids have dogs,” it’s Karolina who says this. Nico throws her an incredulous look. Karolina just grins impishly right back at her (which would have been annoying if she wasn’t so cute). Karolina throws an arm around Nico, pulling her in for a quick peck on the lips. 

“Don’t act cute with me,” Nico pokes Karolina on her side.

“Bold of you to assume I’m not always cute.”

True, Nico thinks. But she doesn’t say it out loud. Instead she wraps an arm around Karolina’s waist and snuggles closer.

“Hey,” and just like that, Nico’s attention is back to Gert, “Old Lace is a puppy. Look at her.”

Nico looks. Old Lace is… grinning at her? Suddenly, she’s wondering why a dinosaur bearing her rows of dangerously sharp teeth looked cute. “She looks like a dinosaur with very sharp teeth,” Nico manages to deadpan.

“She’s harmless.”

Old Lace whines dramatically before rolling over, tongue lolling out.

“Until you piss Gert off,” Molly mutters.

Nico can feel the last threads of sanity slipping away. At that moment, Chase chooses to shout— 

“You are grounded, young man! No more cat videos for you!”

“You can’t tell me what to do!”

How are they even still in character?

“I can and I will,” Chase suddenly lunges for Alex’s laptop. He actually manages to get it. “From now on you can only watch Vine compilations!”

Nooooooooo!!!!

“Hey, OL, wanna play fetch with Alex’s laptop?” Chase asks an evil grin plastered on his face.

Alex breaks character, “Chase, don’t you dare.”

Old Lace is up on her feet, butt wagging excitedly. She and Chase stare at each other for a beat. And then suddenly Chase is bolting out the door, laptop in hand, Old Lace on his heels.

“Molly, come on, you gotta help me wrangle, Chase,” Alex looks stunned for a moment, then he’s running after them, Molly following after him, confused.

“Don’t you mean Old Lace?”

Even though they’re out the door, running off to goddesses know where, Nico still hears Alex’s response, “No, I definitely meant Chase. I am going to—”

"Old Lace does have impeccable manners," supplies Gert to no one in particular. She doesn't make a move to get out of the bed.

There’s a crash somewhere in the house.

Nico looks at Gert, “Aren’t you going to save your boyfriend?”

There’s another crash. So much for lying low.

“Nah,” Gert shrugs, turning away from Karolina and Nico and settling in for a nap.

Chapter Text

Nico is dead.

No.

Not dead..

Karolina refuses it to be true. Nico wasn’t dead. She can’t be dead. She can’t.

Yet the proof lay there in front of her. Or rather, it was the fact that nothing lay in front of her that was  the problem. The complete absence of Nico from the spot where she had just been standing was just as damning a proof as a dead body would have been. 

Nico was gone.

“What did you do?!” Karolina’s scream is punctuated by a shot that Jonah manages to deflect in the nick of time. This only serves to frustrate Karolina more and she hurls a series of shots one after the other. Each shot wilder and more reckless than the previous, and stronger somehow despite Karolina’s steadily depleting energy. There is tremendous anger and loathing directed towards Jonah and simultaneously seeping into her skin. She throws everything she has behind every shot. The pain of losing Nico and having never told her she loved her. Grief that she’s truly gone. Hopelessness.

Karolina is alone.

She screams. A furious and futile gesture. Karolina’s sight is blurred by tears and the colors dancing to the tune of her erratic heartbeat and ragged breaths. Everything glows brilliant and blinding like an aurora trapped within a raging storm. Slowly and surely, everything goes dark. Karolina tries to fight off the dizziness and the dimming in her vision but she has spent all her energy and she’s losing the battle. Jonah, out of breath but composed like Karolina’s barrage did nothing to him, powers down to conserve his own energy. Drained, Karolina falls to the ground on her knees, her shoulders still shaking as her body is wracked with sobs.

“What did you do?” she asks again, voice weaker. An expression akin to pity and sadness flashes on Jonah’s face before disappearing into a cold mask. He schools his expression into one of indifference, and when he speaks his voice is void of emotion. “Remember this pain, Karolina,” he says walking closer, kneeling in front of her and staring her in the eyes. His daughter glares back at him through her tears. “This is what happens when you stand against me.”

Karolina grits her teeth together, an angry snarl painted on her face. Her eyes are bright with loathing. Karolina’s glare follows Jonah as he stands up, in the distance the sound of sirens can be heard. Now standing, Jonah dusts himself off. Moving calmly, methodically, he adjusts his cuffs, his collar, then the buttons on his jacket. He looks around him, looks down on the rest of his daughter’s remaining friends, gloating like they were all beneath him. And they were. His victory today proved that. Jonah’s controlled facade is broken only when his lips curl into a contemptuous sneer. Jonah watches them as they, in turn, glare at him with open defiance and cautiousness.

Karolina does not say anything to Chase when the boy helps her up, choosing instead to squeeze his hand to express her gratitude. Behind her, Chase’s entire body is taut with tension, ready to jump at Jonah if he ever tried to put a hand on Karolina or on any of their friends, broken fistigons be damned. Alex and Gert keep their eyes trained on Jonah as they move to help Molly away from the wreckage she was thrown into earlier in the battle. Molly, exhausted and lightheaded, leans onto her sister for support. With Old Lace leading in front of them, protective and with her lips curled and teeth bared at Jonah, the group move to join Chase and Karolina.

Jonah scoffs at the pathetic display. They stood before him, battered and broken, nothing but a group of recalcitrant children.

“Your stubbornness will get you nowhere,” he says to all of them. “You cannot win.” Then to Karolina, he says, “Give up now while you’ve only lost one person.”

He says it like Nico was perfectly expendable. Like they hadn’t just lost her or, like Nico didn’t have a life ahead of her that she’d deserved to live. Like Karolina never loved her.

Jonah is too impatient to wait for a response. “Well?”

Never.”

Karolina’s voice is barely above a whisper but it carries, not with volume but with weight. It makes the group stand straighter and Jonah sigh. He shakes his head. They were a pitiful bunch, all far too stubborn and too naive for their own good. He should have expected that answer. Karolina was his daughter. Of course she wouldn’t play easy. However, Jonah was confident he could match her stubbornness and come out as a winner. He would take away all of Karolina’s friends, rip apart their little group, if that was what it would take to have Karolina cowed into submission.

The sirens grow louder. Jonah cocks his head, listening, then as though nothing had happened, his entire demeanor changes. He smiles.

“You and your friends should leave now if you don’t want to be caught by the police.” Jonah even had the gall to sound like a caring father, his expression contorts into a far too convincing display of concern that makes Karolina’s skin crawl. Jonah turns to leave, arrogant and dismissive. He is completely unaffected as the gang glares daggers into his back as he walked away.

The silence that follows Jonah’s departure is deafening. Nobody moves or speaks. The stillness is punctuated only by the sound of their breathing and the approaching police cars.

“We need to go.”

It’s Alex who speaks first. Everybody but Karolina looks at him. Chase and Gert nod almost imperceptibly. Molly is almost completely passed out again. Karolina’s gaze is rooted on the spot where Nico was standing mere minutes earlier. No trace of her remains, neither shred nor speck. Nico was just gone.

Darkness starts creeping in around Karolina’s vision, more insistent this time.

“Karolina?” The voice sounds so far away, muffled like she’d just been submerged underwater. It could be Gert, or Chase, or Alex, or—

For a moment, Karolina wanted to believe that it was Nico who had just called her name.

She wanted to believe that Nico would come running in where Jonah had just exited. That she somehow managed to teleport herself away and she was safe, unharmed, and

Alive.

But she wasn’t.

Whether or not Karolina wanted to believe that Nico was dead seemed inconsequential. A part of her wanted to cling to the hope that Nico didn’t die in the blast, but how would she know for sure? Her father didn’t seem to be the type to half-ass such things. The world starts spinning. Karolina feels like she’s going to puke. Gone in the blink of an eye was supposed to be a saying, an exaggeration at best. Of all the times that it wasn’t, it just had to be now. Nico was gone in the literal blink of an eye. Karolina wasn’t granted the chance to say goodbye or to even think that she needed a chance to do so.

A few hours ago they were just in their room. Everything was fine and they were alone together in a world of their own creation. They were cuddling on their bed and watching Big Hero 6. Tadashi’s death hit Nico hard and they had to pause the movie because she was crying. When she managed to catch her breath, she told Karolina, rather pointedly, “This is why I hate needless heroics. Tadashi didn’t have to die like that.” Nico’s embrace tightened, clinging to Karolina like she could disappear; not realizing that she was the one who—

Karolina remembers how it felt, the dulcet sort of comfort brought about by simply being with Nico, or  being around Nico. She remembered it so acutely it hurt. The ghost of Nico’s warmth wrapped around her taunts her.

(Karolina does not know this, but in that moment, Nico had known herself to be a hypocrite; because if it came to Karolina, she would have made the same decision Tadashi had made.)

Karolina loses herself in the memory. When Nico’s embrace finally loosened, Karolina wriggled out of her arms to turn around and face the other girl. She kissed Nico then, gentle but prodding. Languid like they had all the time in the world. How wrong she had been. Karolina realizes, for the first time, that that was the last time she would ever kiss Nico. And that the closest she ever got to telling Nico she loved her was: “I love how beneath all that tough girl thing you’ve got going on Disney movies can still make you cry.”

Funny how quickly things fall apart.

Karolina wished the encroaching darkness would swallow her wholly and completely, and take her to wherever Nico was. The world tilts out of place, then, the ground is rushing up to meet her with open arms. Karolina is falling, but this time, Nico isn’t there to catch her.

Chapter Text

“I can’t believe you managed to find a place like this in the middle of the city.”

Nico only grins in response, entirely pleased with herself. The research and the planning that led up to tonight was more than worth it. There’s a bounce in Karolina’s step as she looked around, and seeing her genuinely excited (even if it was about a vacant lot) was nothing short of amazing. Nico didn’t miss how reserved her girlfriend has been for the past few days. She was, in fact, more than painfully aware of it. It was an unnerving sort of silence, sad and laced with homesickness. Like an invisible wall grew around Karolina and alienated her from everybody else. She was so withdrawn that sometimes, when Nico drew near, Karolina shied away from her. More than once she’s flinched away from Nico and even if it was completely unintentional, Nico couldn’t help but feel hurt. She wanted nothing more than to ease some of Karolina’s pain.

The product of that endeavor was tonight’s little outing.

The lot was close enough to their hideout that it wasn’t too much of a liability. Furthermore, it was situated close to the outskirts of the city where barely anybody ventured. The place has been abandoned and unused since the building that stood there went up in flames. The area surrounding it wasn’t exactly known for being the safest neighborhood either and, to top it all off, because of the fire many people believed the place was haunted. All in all, it meant that the lot was perfect for getting up to whatever shenanigans the gang wanted to do.

Creating a blizzard in the middle of a summer in a place where it’s technically always summer? Check.

Molly and Old Lace wrestling? Check. Chase blowing up some stuff with the fistigons? Check. Alex practicing with a handgun? Waste of bullets, but check. Karolina practicing how to use her powers, learning how to fly, and just glowing the brightest she can be without fear of being discovered by anyone? Fucking yes, check— 

Especially since Nico has something else up her sleeves to add to the convenience already provided by the lot. 

Although, to be fair, Nico allows, the place was kinda creepy. Especially at night. But, when you’ve been declared fugitives by your serial-killing parents who are part of some fucked up, cult-like group technically, sort of, kind of worshipping, in a weird and totally not normal way, Karolina’s biological dad— what even is creepy, right? Also, Nico has magic and Karolina has super powers. And if the place really was haunted, ghosts would be totally cool.

“You wanna know the best part, K?” Nico waggles her eyebrows as she’s bringing her staff, twirling it it extends with a flourish (she’s been practicing that for days and from the impressed look on Karolina’s face, she’s finally allowed to be smug about, and in Alex and Gert’s words, “going full anime magical girl”). The ghosts of the creepy lot can wait. For now, Nico couldn’t wait to make her girlfriend beam even brighter at the other news she’s got (pun intended).

“Is the best part me getting to spend some alone time with my amazing and beautiful girlfriend?” Karolina asks, her voice dropping to a suggestive huskiness. Her head is tilted questioningly, innocent expression plastered on her face even though the tiny smile on her lips contained just the perfect amount of suggestion.

“I,” Nico stutters, face turning red. I’m sorry, is my girlfriend into exhibitionism now? The look on Karolina’s face turns just a tad bit smug. Nico scowls, she files this little tidbit of information and tucks it somewhere in her brain to be examined later. She clears her throat. “Excuse me, babe, could you just let me finish?”

“That’s what she said.” The statement is muttered under Karolina’s breath, whispered through her teeth as she remains grinning innocently.

Karolina.”

“Sorry,” Karolina’s tone is sheepish but she doesn’t look apologetic. “You were saying?” Karolina tries to  do her best to look positively innocent.

Nico rolls her eyes but continues anyway. “The best part is this,” she points her staff towards Karolina, “Take off your bracelet.”

Karolina complies, now more curious than before. Instinctively, Nico reaches out as Karolina starts to be enveloped with light. But because Karolina’s more than an arm’s length away, it’s Nico’s staff that’s lightly grazing Karolina’s skin. She doesn’t exactly realize that she’s doing this, her staff trailing down Karolina’s arm. Nico is distracted enough not to notice Karolina’s slight shiver. Nico is completely mesmerized by the way the colors danced on Karolina’s skin. She doesn’t think seeing Karolina like this could ever become any less beautiful.

“Okay, what’s up?” Karolina asks, finally breaking Nico’s trance. Then, smirking, she adds, “Do we need another kink talk?”

Nico abruptly yanks her staff away from Karolina. The contrast of Nico’s current clumsiness from her earlier gracefulness makes Karolina laugh. It was adorable. Nico, on the other hand, tries to glare at Karolina while uselessly ignoring the heat making its way to her cheeks. “Shush and let me concentrate.”

Karolina nods, smirking, and waits. Nico takes a deep breath and lets it down slowly then, finally, she waves her staff, activating the spell she’s been working on. Nothing really overt happens but magic doesn’t always need to be showy.

“Babe?” Karolina’s looks at Nico confusedly. “Is something supposed to happen?”

Nico responds by pulling out her phone and snapping a picture of Karolina.

“Nico, I swear, if you took an embarrassing photo, I—”

Karolina stops speaking the moment Nico shows her the phone’s screen.

“I’m…” she trails off. Karolina walks closer to Nico and swipes to check if there were any other photos and Nico was just messing with her. There weren’t any other photos. She stares at the picture a beat longer before turning around to make sure the picture on Nico’s screen was of the view of the lot behind her. It was.

Finally, Karolina asks, “I’m not on the picture?”

“Nope.” Nico grins at Karolina proudly.

“But I’m not invisible?” Karolina looks at her arms and feet, then at the faint glow her lights were casting on the ground and on Nico. Yep, she was still there and very visible. “How?”

“Magic,” Nico twirls her staff again (fuck she was getting good at this). “Spell only works on phones and other stuff— which means nobody will be able snap a picture or take a video of you as long as the spell’s active.”

Karolina’s eyes widen, expression transforming from confused to impressed, “How did you do it?”

“I’m a genius,” Nico shrugs like it wasn’t big deal. In reality, it took her weeks to figure out how to finally make the spell happen. She practiced casting it for months to make sure it was perfect and that she could sustain it easily. Honestly, the whole staff twirling thing was child’s play compared to all the leaps and bounds she pulled to get the spell to work flawlessly. “Also I made Chase exercise his brain a little bit to help me pull it off. Alex is always going on about how the staff is science and not magic so I figured I’d apply a little science.” 

It was definitely a whole lot of effort and it, of course, begged the question—

“Why not just make me invisible? Wouldn’t that be easier?”

“Uhm,” Another blush creeps its way on her cheeks and Nico tries not to choke on her response. “Yes.”

It’s one word. How do you choke on one word?

“And?” Karolina prompts.

“I,” wow, is it hot out here or is it just me? My face is red enough for a tomato commercial, isn’t it? “I didn’t” pause. swallow. “want to, uh, to” stutter. choke. “not be able to see you?” Nico forces the words out haltingly, voice becoming smaller until the last word comes out as a squeak. 

A beat passes, then another. Nico fidgets uneasily. Finally, Karolina grins and pulls Nico into a tight hug. She leans down and kisses Nico gratefully, “You are adorable and amazing and smart and I—” love you “am utterly impressed by you.”

“Yeah, well, I gotta keep up with how blindingly awesome you are so…” She trails off. Nico wants to say she wasn’t preening but she definitely was. It definitely didn’t hurt that she liked basking in Karolina’s praise. “Go on, practice flying and shiz.”

With one last peck on Nico’s lips, Karolina untangles herself from Nico and takes off running. When her feet are no longer touching the concrete, Karolina lets out an exhilarated, gleeful squeal. She’s a little shaky at first but she manages; then, Karolina is flying. Every dash and turn and loop she makes is entrancing to watch. At first, Nico is dumbfounded by how easy Karolina makes flying seem to be. She’s comfortable and graceful and wow. Seeing Karolina flying is like watching the unfurling of freedom. It makes Nico feel light. Like she could fly. Like she is flying. (Hey, maybe she’ll come up with a spell that’ll let her fly alongside Karolina.)

Karolina paints the night sky beautifully and Nico’s pissed she can’t save any of it on video. Damn herself for making such an effective spell. Sometimes it sucks to be good at what you do. Well, whatever. They’ll have more moments like this, Nico thinks. She’ll have more days where she’ll watch Karolina illuminate the dark skies, or put sunsets and sunrises to shame. Whichever. Sure, they’re on the run now and their lives are caught up in a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream, but Nico’s sure they’ll always get moments like these: where the world is quiet and Nico’s enveloped by Karolina’s laughter and her heart is beating wildly even as her gut fills with complete content. Because there’s no way any of the fucked up, crazy situations they’ll probably get into wouldn’t be bearable and beautiful as long as she has Karolina by her side. 

Perfect moments are riddled with the worst imperfections, but that’s what makes them perfect, right? That things could still be pure and wonderful even though everything else looks like they’re about to fall apart. 

Nico found the most exquisite view she has ever seen thus far in her life, right there in a creepy, abandoned lot found in a neighborhood neck-deep in crime. There before her is a shooting star burning brighter and more vibrant than anything she’s ever seen; not at all falling but filled with the boundless potential to fly. Despite everything that’s happened (and anything else that’s probably going to come barreling their way) Nico doesn’t have any more wishes to make. Karolina made her dream come true (without even realizing it) when she summoned up the courage to kiss her. Sure, shit went downhill pretty fast after that, and for a moment Nico thought she had lost Karolina for good, but that was a landslide Nico would dare ride again. 

Maybe it was the timing, or the circumstances, or maybe it was fate. Regardless, Nico fell hard and fast and

“I love her.”

The realization comes out as a whisper, breathless like she’d been sucker-punched, but it was a good kind of impact. Nico is filled with so much love and affection it almost feels as though she could shatter with all that she contained within her; but there was no fear or shame to be found in her self-shattering. Because every fragment of her shattered self would gravitate towards Karolina, and with her is where Nico will be anchored, every fragment converging into itself, making her whole again. It’s a sublime coming undone, awe-inspiring and beautiful.

Nico is in love and it’s amazing.

“Earth to Nico, hey?”

Nico’s thoughts are dragged back to reality, when Karolina calls her name. Her eyes focus on Karolina who was floating (horizontally, like the air was her freaking bed or something) right in front of her and very, very close. Nico juts her chin forward just a bit and places a soft kiss on Karolina’s lips before responding.

“Yes, babe?”

“I asked you if you wanted to fly with me.” Nico can’t see through Karolina’s literal glow up, but she’s at least eighty-seven percent sure Karolina is blushing (the left over thirteen percent is just in case Karolina’s cheeks are already flushed from all the flying).

“Nah,” Nico shrugs, mostly teasing, “I don’t wanna fall.”

Karolina scoffs and waves a hand dismissively, “You won’t.”

“No.” 

“Please?”

“No.” Nico tries to suppress the smile forcing its way onto her lips.

“I promise I won’t let you fall.”

“You say that as if I haven’t already fallen for you,” Nico finally smirks, proud of the set up. There’s an expression on Karolina’s face that matches the one she gets when she blushes at Nico’s teasing, lips pursed but eyes shining with mirth. 

Then, Karolina’s expression transforms into a huge smile almost smug enough to be a smirk. “You say that as if I didn’t catch you.” She says that as if Nico didn’t catch her first.

Karolina plunged first, headlong towards Nico’s arms despite the uncertainty of whether or not those arms were open to catch her. 

Nico, too, took the plunge, propelled herself towards a love all at once unknown and familiar. 

They catch each other, and they fall, arms entwined; and because they are together, they fly.

I caught you.

So you did.

Nico laughs, feeling breathless and carefree. Karolina laughs with her, swaying in the air to the music of  their laughter. They fall silent, the quiescence is pregnant with meaning and permeated by unspoken adoration. A beat passes where one or both of them are holding their breaths. Finally, Nico blurts out,—

“Hey, can I tell you something?”

“Of course.” Karolina’s smile is gentle. She floats down, vertically this time, her feet as close to the ground as it could be. She hovers close to Nico, their gazes meeting.

Nico takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. She waits for another beat, simply looking into Karolina’s eyes, wondering why she’s never talked about this before. “I was never unsure with you,” Nico begins to say, “not really, at least not like I was unsure with Alex.”

Karolina’s lips part with surprise, eyes widening a fraction. Her heartbeat was way too loud in her ears, yet, still, Nico’s voice was ringing louder. “Kissing you felt nothing like kissing him.”

“Please tell me I was the better kisser.” Karolina says this to diffuse the giddy tightness in her chest, maybe give herself time to stop blushing.

“You are,” Nico grins, “By far, I promise.”

“Nice.” A shy, little exclamation.

“Now, hush. Let me continue.”

“Sorry, go on.”

“When you kissed me for the first time—” Nico begins to explain, the memory of their first kiss flashes in her mind and suddenly she was feeling parched. She clears her throat. Once. Twice. “When you kissed me for the first time, I thought,” Nico pauses again, trying to figure out how to phrase the next part of her sentence without sounding overly sappy before throwing her cares to the wind because this was a sappy moment anyway. “The first time you kissed me, I thought, Is this what princesses feel like?”

Karolina can’t help herself, she giggles, her giddiness bubbling up her throat and spilling from her lips unbidden. She stifles her laughter, finally managing to say, “Somehow that sentence didn’t go the direction I thought it would.”

Nico gives Karolina a light but chastising look that quiets the blonde girl. Karolina’s expression turns sheepish as she nods for Nico to continue.

Nico sighs, but she continues. Is this what it feels princess feel like? Because “It felt like being woken by true love’s kiss.” The memory makes Nico smile. She pauses again, this time just to take in the way Karolina looked after hearing those words, all loving and a curious, standing there before her with lights and rainbows illuminating her skin. 

Nico feels at home in Karolina’s gaze.

“I felt alive, and whole. Everything in my brain just went quiet and all I could think was how soft your lips were, how you tasted like, how your breath felt on my lips.” Embarrassed, a tinge of pink makes itself apparent on Nico’s cheeks. Nevertheless, she says, “When I kissed you, I just knew.”

“Knew what?” And Karolina’s question is phrased with the same sort of breathlessness that forced out the words I love her from Nico’s mouth.

“That I was going to fall in love with you,” Nico cups Karolina’s face with both her hands and pulls her closer (Karolina is still floating, and for a moment she wonders if she can get Karolina to kiss her upside down. But that’s stuff for later). “And I knew,” she carries on, “that I was going to love being in love with you.”

It’s not quite the I love you Nico wanted to say but the sentiment was the same regardless.

It was the perfect moment for Karolina to say, I love you too, Nico, but the words don’t come out. Because the syllables are stuck in her throat, Karolina opts, instead, to show the sentiments behind those words. Bursting with happiness and adoration, she kisses Nico. Unlike the soft kisses they’ve been giving each other so far, this kiss was deeper, warm but not quiet inflaming, at least not yet. But it comes. Warmth turning into heat turning into—

Nico feels herself literally being lifted off the ground. She wraps her legs around Karolina’s waist (Holy fuck, they were making out a few feet off the ground), her fingers entangling themselves into Karolina’s blonde curls. Nico bites down softly on Karolina’s bottom lip. Somebody moans between the two of them and

Suddenly, Karolina’s lights are dimming and she’s falling on top of Nico. The breath gets knocked out of their lungs with a loud oomph and they’re sprawled on the uncomfortable concrete.

Karolina props herself up on her elbows, rough cement going unnoticed as it digs into her skin She’s looking down at Nico with a loopy smile on her face.

“I fell.”

“You did.”

“And you caught me.”

The expression on Nico’s face is soft and filled with fondness, the ghost of a smile gracing her lips, “Always.”


Karolina wakes up with Nico’s name on her lips and an emptiness slowly creeping in as her dream faded into her unconsciousness. She finds herself nestled in someone’s warmth. It’s comforting and soothing enough that, for a moment, she tries to convince herself it was Nico holding her. Karolina doesn’t open her eyes and tries to distract herself from the despairing thoughts trying to claw its way to the forefront of her brain. She focuses on the arms around her and channels the memory of the first night she fell asleep cuddling with Nico.

She remembers feeling saved, not just because the group had come to her rescue but because the reality that Nico hadn’t pushed her away was finally sinking in. Karolina focuses on what it was like to have her chest filled with so much hope, of feeling beloved by Nico. Karolina tries, but the attempt is meaningless as it does nothing to quash the emptiness sitting in the pit of her stomach.

Karolina opens her eyes. The van (probably, definitely hot-wired and to be ditched somewhere inconspicuous) is blanketed by a silence reeking of melancholy. 

Alex is driving. He’s sitting alone in front, hands gripping the steering wheel tight enough to make his hands shake. Old Lace is curled in the back and asleep, leaving Karolina, Chase, Gert, and Molly crammed in the middle. Nico is nowhere to be found. Of course she isn’t. The false sense of calm Karolina tried so hard to cling to shatters. The storm sets in, roiling and smothering, as reality crashes down around her. Karolina tries to stamp down the onslaught of feelings trying to force its way out of her chest. Her throat is tight with a stinging pain, making Karolina take in a shuddering breath.

Instinctively, Chase’s arms tighten around Karolina, voice laced with concern, “Hey, how are you feeling?”

“Like crap.” Karolina forces the words, the understatement of the century, out with a croak. She doesn’t try to extract herself away from Chase. She was too tired, and right now he was perfectly comfortable.

“I hope you’re fine with Chase as your pillow.” Gert says, craning her neck to look at Karolina, a worried looking her face. Gert’s arms are draped around Molly as the younger girl slept.

“Ride’s bumpy,” Chase explains, “We didn’t want you to be jostled around and Molly’s already latched onto Gert pretty tight.”

“I hope you didn’t mind me stealing your boyfriend,” Karolina murmured. Despite trying to make her tone light, her attempt at joking falls flat.

“It’s fine,” Gert replies, the rest of her words are spat out hurriedly they’re almost toppling over the other, “Technically, you can’t ‘steal’ him away. Chase is a really good cuddler, and you probably—”

“Gert.” Alex interrupts, looking at her reflection on the rearview mirror. 

“Sorry,” Gert winces, pursing her lips, chastised. The apologetic look she throws Karolina’s way is met with a smile that was kind but tired.

Alex pulls out a bottle of sports drink from somewhere and passes it to the back, “Could you please give this to Karolina?”

“Sure.” Gert reaches for the bottle, uncaps it without completely removing the cap and passing the drink to Karolina.

“Thanks,” Karolina mutters as she receives the drink, then a little louder, she adds, “Thanks, Alex.”

“No problem,” Alex answers, weariness evident in his voice. There’s a small smile etched on his face, directed at Karolina even though the girl couldn’t see him.

After that exchange, everything falls silent again. Nobody acknowledges the presence of the gaping hole in their packed car. Trying to swallow down the scream clawing its way out of her throat, Karolina chugs the sports drink, finishing the entire bottle with big, desperate gulps. She manages to screw the bottle shut before letting her arms fall to her lap, bottle gripped loosely in her hands.

After a beat, Karolina drops the bottle and shifts positions. She angles her body towards the window as much as the limited space allowed. Karolina opts to curl into herself, her back pressed against Chase.

“Chase, can I stay here for a bit longer?” she asks without looking at him.

Chase nods wordlessly, Karolina buries her head against her arms. She starts to cry. Eyesight blurred, cheeks wet, shaky breaths, and body trembling. Karolina wished unconsciousness would just take her back into its arms, but it doesn’t. Rather, she’s assaulted by the memory of Nico disappearing before her eyes. 

Chase can pinpoint the exact moment his heart shatters in sympathy for Karolina and in grieving for Nico. His arms tighten around Karolina, feeling both concerned and protective. Chase wished he didn’t feel so powerless because it fucking sucked. The thought of losing Gert was, alone, terrifying for Chase. He couldn’t imagine what Karolina must have been feeling now, only that she didn’t deserve what she was going through. Nico didn’t deserve to die. Jonah had no right to take her away from them.

On Gert’s face is etched a profound sadness. Her heart clenches in her chest as she listened to Karolina’s soft whimpers. It could have been any of them in Nico’s place tonight. Gert tightens her embrace around Molly and kisses the top of her head. Molly stirs, nuzzling closer to her sister but otherwise remaining asleep. Gert wished she could turn back time and figure out a way to save Nico. The next time she saw Jonah, she was going to sic Old Lace at him and make sure he was deinonychus food.

Alex keeps his eyes on the road. He doesn’t dare peek a glance at the rearview mirror and tries to block out the sound of Karolina subdued sobs. Alex furiously wipes the tears on his cheeks with the back of his right hand, his left hand remained clutching the steering wheel with a death grip. He’s tired. His heart is aching and his throat is swelling shut. Like Chase, Alex felt powerless. He tries to push the other thoughts away from his head and tries to focus on ensuring he got everyone back home safely and in one piece. They’ll recuperate, they’ll train harder. Next time, they’ll do better and—

A sharp intake of breath from Karolina reminds him that “everyone” now no longer included Nico.

This is the echo that reverberates: Nico is gone.

Finally, Alex lets himself take a look at the reflection of his friends on the mirror; seeing Karolina’s crying form as well as the forlorn expressions on Chase’s and Gert’s face made him seethe with determination. He drags his eyes away from the mirror and directs his glare at the road. They were going figure out a way to bring Nico back. There was no way Nico was dead. That wasn’t wishful thinking, it was logic. There was no way Jonah would have actually risked killing her. Nico was leverage especially after what he’d done to Amy. Even if he had some other leverage over the Minorus, (the videos, for example), Nico was at least an assurance that the Minorus would not betray him. Nico couldn’t be dead. It just didn’t seem plausible and Alex didn’t want to be wrong.

Jonah’s words to Karolina loom over the heads of all the occupants in the car: Remember this pain … this is what happens when you stand against me.

The world decelerates and ceases moving. Everything stagnates into an oppressive stillness. The gaping void left by Nico’s apparent death sucks the life out of the air, making everything too thick and too heavy to breathe in.

More familiar sceneries begin surrounding the van as they draw closer to their safe house, their way back takes them to a part of the neighborhood that had managed to endear itself to Karolina— the vacant lot where she and Nico (and the rest of the gang) occasionally hang out in was situated in that particular area. Karolina, no longer crying now, keeps her eyes rooted on the passing views outside the window. They don’t exactly pass by the abandoned lot but knowledge of its existence (and of the memories it carried) taunted Karolina. 

The safe house comes into view minutes later. Then, finally, their van comes to a stop.

We’re home.

It’s the thought echoing in everybody’s head, tainted only by the knowledge that not all of them made it back.

Chapter Text

The adrenaline wore off nearly half an hour ago. His heart was as steady as it could be for an athletic, healthy, nineteen year-old. Still, Chase didn’t feel so calm. The memory of his heart throbbing in his ears and pounding against his chest is too clear, too loud to be a mere echo. 

The safe house is shrouded in an eerie sort of silence, a thick and oppressive silence that Chase desperately hates. He can feel the precarious peace hanging in the air as surely as he felt it trying to scratch its way beneath the surface of his skin. The anxiety is familiar. Chase recognizes the calm before the storm, the moment right before everything explodes and the world tilts out of balance.

All around him, everything is quiet, but Chase is sure the calm isn’t going to last. The storm that’s going to set in is one that has been in the making for several months. They all tried to ignore it, and that was their mistake: going on like there wasn’t a tempest brewing in the horizon. 

A long-winded sigh escapes his lips, leaving him almost breathless. He’s just tired, Chase thinks, too tired. Swirling thoughts and jumbled memories. High strung yet weary. Frustrated and numb. Nothing is happening yet but it already feels like too much. I need to get ice. He reaches towards the handle of the freezer. Contact. Cold, unfeeling metal against a not-particularly-warm hand. Clammy hand. Slightly trembling hand. Chase’s grip tightens around the handle. Tightens, tighter. White knuckles. He yanks at the handle hard. Too hard. The refrigerator shakes as the freezer door swings open. Chase wrestles to loosen his grip. He sighs again. Stares at the near-empty freezer like it offended him personally. He squeezes his eyes shut. Breathe in. Hold. Out, slowly. Repeat. Once, twice, three times. Close eyes. Inhale deeply. Hold. Exhale slowly. Chase opens his eyes. I am okay. 

We are okay.

‘We’ meaning all of them.

‘All of them’ meaning not including Nico.

He winces at the thought. He sees the storm in the corner of his eyes ready to explode. How long has it been? Six months? Seven? Nico has been dead for close to seven months. They should have talked about it instead of letting it fester like an open wound. He can feel the rot crawling in his bones, dancing against his skin, burying in his muscles. Why didn’t they ever talk about it? Nico deserved to be talked about and remembered and instead they went on pretending like everything was okay.

Chase grabs the bag of frozen peas, it’s the only thing sitting in the freezer. It has been sitting there for months forgotten. Nobody ever really stashed anything in the freezer unless one of them was feeling particularly decadent and bought a tub of ice cream. So there it was: a lonely bag of peas. 

It was Nico who bought it.

Nico we don’t need peas.

Yeah, nobody likes peas.

You won’t be saying that when you have a bruise and you need a bag of peas.

Why can’t we just use ice?

Trust me, we’re going to need the peas.

Funny how Nico’s ghost could haunt him via the presence of expired vegetable. But she was right, after all. Someone had a bruise and they needed the frozen peas. 

Chase closes the freezer door, gentler this time. He’s been crying this whole time, he realizes. He wipes away the tears with the back of his hand. Breath in, his breath shudders. Hold. One, two, three… breath out, slowly. Repeat. Bag of peas in hand, Chase walks out of the kitchen and to the living room.


 

Old Lace follows Molly out of the living room, sensing Gert’s urging and the worried glance that she throws her sister’s way as Molly stepped out. They pass by Chase in the hallway. Old Lace is sensitive enough, familiar enough with Chase, and bonded enough with Gert, to know that something was wrong (even if the red eyes and slightly wet cheeks weren’t signs enough).

She nuzzles against Chase’s chest, purring as if to console. 

Chase chuckles in response, he pets Old Lace appreciatively, “I’ll be fine, girl. Go ahead and follow Molly.”

Old Lace moves her head, as though to nod. Chase steps in the living room and she follows Molly upstairs to her room.

The door to Molly’s room is left ajar in anticipation of Old Lace. The deinonychus pushes the door open and walks in and toward Molly’s bed side. Molly was lying on the bed, curled into a tight ball and crying. Old Lace rests her head on top of Molly’s legs, purring again. Absentmindedly, Molly reaches out and strokes Old Lace’s head.

If Old Lace could speak, she would ask Molly what was wrong. If Molly didn’t feel too choked up to speak, she would tell Old Lace how difficult and painful it was to see Karolina running headlong into danger like it didn’t matter if she was throwing her life away. She would talk about how frustrated and angry she felt and how Karolina doesn’t get to rush off headfirst to her death like losing her won’t hurt the team. She would say how terrified she’d been seeing Karolina’s unconscious form being laid down on the couch by Chase. She would tell Old Lace how horrible it felt like to wake up and realize one of your best friends was dead. Because that’s what happened to her the night that Jonah killed Nico. She was unconsciousness, lying in the pile of debris she helped create when Jonah blasted her away.

But Molly is too angry to speak. She’s angry enough that there’s no more fight left in her and all she can do is cry and lie limply on the bed. The weight of Old Lace against her legs, the sensation of Old Lace purring, and the feel of the ridges on the deinonychus’s head beneath her hands was a comfort, grounding her so it doesn’t feel like she’s about to float away.

Molly doesn’t need to say anything because, to a degree, Old Lace understands. She feels what Gert feels and so she knows how empty longing felt like. She recognizes the skewed balance and the uneasy stillness hunched over her humans, sense their pain in the air. Nico’s absence is a loss to her too, and not just because Gert misses her.

Old Lace perks up, sensing a change in Gert’s mood, a flare of something not entirely good. She lifts her head up slowly so as not to startle Molly. She cocks her head slightly, trying to get a feel if Gert was reaching out and calling for her presence downstairs. 

“Is it Gert?” Molly whispers, voice hoarse and catching in her throat. Old Lace turns her attention back to Molly, who’s now sitting up and wiping her falling tears. “Should we go to her?” A hiccup makes her stutter.

Old Lace shakes her head no. Even if it felt like Gert was distressed, Old Lace could also sense the girl’s desire for her to stay with Molly. She remembers the worry radiating off of Gert seeing how rattled Molly had been when Karolina was knocked unconscious. When they’re both needed downstairs, Gert would call for them, but for now, Old Lace stays with Molly. She nuzzles herself against Molly the way she did with Chase earlier, prompting a hug from the other girl. 

If Old Lace could speak, she would tell Molly that everything was going to be okay eventually, and that, for now, it was okay for Molly to grieve and be mad.

If Molly could hear Old Lace, she’d believe those thoughts to be true.


Chase lays Karolina down on the couch carefully even though she’s completely passed out. She’s caked in soot, mud, and blood that’s both hers and isn’t. Gert kneels beside the couch and checks Karolina for cuts they may have missed and needed to clean, bruises that were already forming. Wordlessly, Chase brings her a basin filled with water and a hand towel. Gert thanks him quietly as he mumbles an excuse about getting some ice. 

Gert watches as Chase exits the room. His tensed posture and clenched fists doesn’t go unnoticed. Gert sighs. She bows her head down and brings up a hand to massage her forehead. After a moment, Gert finally dares to bring her gaze to Karolina’s prone form. A breath hitches in her throat, turning into a lump that seems to make her throat constrict. Gert swallows it down, ignoring the knife twisting in her chest and choosing to focus on the fact that Karolina is breathing. That she’s still breathing. That’s she’s not dead. Gert takes a deep breath, deeper, letting it all out with one shuddering sigh. She takes a hand towel and wets it. Gert begins to work on cleaning the dried blood and mud on Karolina’s skin. She works silently, methodically; focusing on getting Karolina cleaned up instead of the cuts and bruises. Carefully, she lifts Karolina’s shirt to check to check the blow she took to her ribs.

Gert winces at the sight. Karolina’s ribcage were, unsurprisingly, bruising; it’s an angry mismatch of blue, black and red on the left side of her body. That’s what happens when a 260 pounds of pure muscle barrels into you.

“I’m gonna go to my room.”

Gert jerks, head whipping towards the sound of Molly’s cracked voice. Her eyes were glued to Karolina’s injury. Suddenly, she’s guilty for getting so caught up in her own musings that she forgot about her sister still being in the room. 

“Molly?” Her sister doesn’t reply, merely looks at her with a downcast and tired expression. Gert suppresses the urge to sigh, saying, “She’s going to be okay.”

“I know,” Molly replies softly, mouth cast in a tightlipped smile . The sisters look at each other for half a beat longer before Molly starts to walk out of the room. Gert, worried about her sister, urges Old Lace to follow her.

Chase walks into the room a few seconds after Old Lace and Molly exit.

“I have frozen peas,” he says, holding up the bounty he freed from the freezer. There’s a small smile on his face and he’s less tensed than earlier and it makes Gert relax a bit.

“We definitely need it,” she says.

Chase catches sight of the bruises as he passed the bag of peas to Gert. He grimaces, taking in a sharp intake of air. “Damn, K, what have you gotten yourself into this time?” he murmurs softly. To Gert, he asks, “Do you think she broke a rib?”

“Hopefully not,” Gert sighs. They were low on medical supplies and they hadn’t had the time for a supply run because Karolina had been determinedly fucking up Jonah’s extensive connections. Sabotage a lab here, undermine a firm there, blow up a warehouse here, etc. Of course, out of all of them, Karolina had been the one to use up most of their medical supplies. If Gert knew any better, she’d say the girl had a death wish.

Maybe, she does.

There it was again. The tightness in her chest, the lump in her throat, the blurring at the edges of her vision, the memory of Karolina’s screaming and crying the night Nico died all coming together in one blasted cacophony.

“Gert.” It’s Chase, there’s a note of concern seeping into his voice. He’s kneeling beside Gert now, hand firm on her shoulder. “You okay?”

Tightlipped smile. Nod. “Yeah.”

Focus. Gert tells herself, gritting her teeth. Sensing the turmoil, Chase leans in and presses a kiss to her temple. Gert leans in, breathing in the air around them (Chase smelled like an oddly complementary mixture of sandalwood, smoke, and something distinctly electrical— literally like an overloaded circuit board. The last part is technically unsurprising considering they did blow something up earlier).

Banishing the panic edging into her gut, Gert concentrates on the contrast of heat and cold emanating from Chase and the bag of frozen peas. Most importantly, she focuses on taking care of Karolina. Breathe in. Hold. One, two, three… Exhale. Slowly, gently, she places the passable (hopefully temporary substitute) ice pack on Karolina’s bruised ribs. The blonde girl stirs, groans, but doesn’t wake. 

A whisper teases its way out of Karolina’s lips. Gert thinks it sounded a lot like Nico’s name and it saddens her. A combination of heartache and wistfulness settles across her shoulder like a blanket that was all weight and no comfort. She misses Nico, her little jibes, the teasing smirks, and her surprisingly animated way of telling stories. Gert misses having someone who could match her deadpan humor and sarcasm, and someone who could match her barbs without flinching. It hurt to miss Nico and Gert couldn’t imagine what that pain even meant for Karolina.

Gert sighs.

“Where’s Alex?” Gert asks, snapping out of her reverie.

Chase frowns, “I don’t know.” He looks at Karolina again, drawn to the pained whimper that escapes her lips, before bringing his gaze back towards Gert. 

As if on cue, Alex enters. Alex’s strides are long and heavy. Jaw set tight and glaring behind his glasses. He heads towards the table without any preamble. He drops the paper bag on the table haphazardly before turning around and heading straight for door again.

Gert and Chase speak at the same time: “Alex where—” “What—”

They’re cut off by Alex’s growl, “Medicine.”

Alex walks out of the room without turning around. His stomping footsteps echo in the empty hallway. Then, there’s a door slamming somewhere in the house. Gert winces. Chase sighs. Karolina remains sleeping.


Karolina has not slept in her bedroom in months, choosing, instead, to make the living room her permanent residence. [Redacted: It has been months since Karolina has slept in the bedroom she used to share with Nico.] So-called permanent residence is rarely used by Karolina regardless; and so the living room is empty until she staggers in after hours of being outside doing god knows what. Karolina sleeps too late and wakes up before the sun rises (which is entirely too early for her morning meditations). She rarely sleeps but for whatever reason she has managed to stay upright, alert (as much as a wounded and cornered animal can be), and simply barrels through whatever mission they’ve got going on. It’s impressive if not worrying. Alex doesn’t ask. There’s no point in asking when you already know the answer. Neither has he bothered talking Karolina out of her dangerous and rash antics. Clearly, Alex thinks as guilt wells in the pit of his stomach, he should have.

The living room has become Karolina’s space, a barred cage that nobody knew how to unlock. With walls erected by Karolina that nobody knew how to penetrate. When Karolina is in the living room they leave her there to brood on her own (as much as it can be called “brooding” when it comes to Karolina, at least). She has successfully isolated herself from everybody else: all smiles and sunshines that are just a bit too fake and a bit too dull. I’m fine, she would say even when they could all hear the lie from a mile away. 

Maybe the reason why they’ve all simply given up on getting through to Karolina is because none of them knew how to get through to themselves either. How do you help Karolina deal with losing Nico when you have no idea how to deal with it yourself? At least, that’s what Alex thought. Right now, looking at Karolina’s sleeping form, the question is yet again running through his mind. He still doesn’t have an answer. All Alex knew for sure was that he needed to do something about it before the group comes apart. Karolina getting injured as badly as she had gotten today was the last straw, at least, it’s the last one before everything goes to shit; so Alex decided he wasn’t going to wait for the camel’s back to break before he makes a move.

Karolina has always had a touch of recklessness to her, one that Alex has criticized a million years ago. But that recklessness was born out of selflessness, of her desire to protect her friends. Her recklessness now was different. It was, as far as Alex could comprehend, self-flagellation and, at worse, a death wish.  

Self-harm isn’t always blades and fire and shit, Alex.

I know that, Gert.

Do you?

I spent years blaming myself for Amy’s death. I know.

Karolina’s lights haven’t quite dimmed but they’ve turned gray, and it terrifies Alex. Jonah barely has any color when he calls forth his powers. And Jonah was— What if Karolina ends up—

Alex shakes his head. No. Karolina was different. There’s no way she would— Alex wasn’t going to let Karolina become anything like Jonah; if not for Karolina’s sake but for the sake of Nico’s memory. Fuck. Alex inhales sharply. Jonah was arrogant, selfish, and cruel. Karolina was grieving. Suddenly, Alex is awash with horror and shame for even making the association. Before he can delve into his thoughts further, his musings are interrupted by Karolina stirring, a sound that’s halfway between a strangled shout and a drawn out grown comes out of her lips.

Alex jumps out of his chair instinctively, body taut with tension and ready to help Karolina. Even after it becomes apparent that Karolina’s not waking up yet (even after the loud scrape of his chair against the floor or the loud thwack that comes from his knee hitting the leg of the table), Alex remains standing. He waits for two beats longer before slumping back down on the chair. He buries his head in his hands and sighs. He stays in that position until he finishes counting from fifty down to zero, then he straightens up, slowly, as if he’s terrified he would wake Karolina up (or terrified he was going to fall apart).

One. Two. Three. Four. Five… Alex lifts and pulls the chair closer to the table. Eleven. Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen… He sets his arms on the table, resting his head against them. Twenty. Twenty-one. Twenty-two. Twenty-three… Alex releases a breath he didn’t realize he was holding, relief washes over him like a tidal wave. Thirty-three. Thirty-four. Thirty-five… He’s not ready to confront Karolina just yet, he realizes. Fuck. What do I even say?

Alex lifts his head up an inch, brings his gaze back towards Karolina. Even unbidden, his brain begins replaying what happened nearly five hours earlier: 

Molly’s face crumpling when the muscled henchman’s fists connected with Karolina mid-flight. Old Lace pushing against Chase who was ready to throw himself against the man who’d just pummeled Karolina to the ground. The raw panic and the distress in Gert’s voice when she screams Karolina’s name. And Alex… 

He’d stood there, gun clenched tightly in his fist, all at once frozen with fear and numbed by shock. He saw Karolina go down and all he could think of was—No! Not her too!—something in his brain just clicked into place, then, in the next second, he has his gun pointed at Muscles and he’s pulling the trigger. Even after the bullet hit Muscles squarely in the shoulder, he didn’t flinch. He kept walking towards them, not exactly menacing, just dispassionate. Alex was pissed and had been close to throwing the gun in Muscles’ direction but before his body could even follow through with his brain’s impulses, Muscles was already being thrown off his feet by a blast coming from Karolina. Alex managed to breathe again, relief and concern mixing and roiling in his gut.

She had managed to get up, flying two feet in the air, eyes bright and skin blinding. It was a terrifying sight, but at the same time, awe-inspiring. By some miracle, Karolina had managed to knock Muscles out cold. She remained floating for half a minute, chest heaving, wincing, then faltering in the next second. It was Molly who caught Karolina before she crashed. Karolina had managed to mumble a quiet ‘thank you,’ before fainting. Alex pretended he couldn’t see the way Molly had gritted her teeth or how the muscles in her jaw worked. 

Karolina hasn’t woken up since then. Injury or not, she needed the sleep.

Alex tears his gaze away, closes his eyes, and brings his head back down to his arms. He was going to talk to Karolina. He needed to. He will. He wasn’t going to let Karolina push him away anymore. But for now— Alex’s shoulders sags, all the tension flowing out of his body. He’s tired. He’s just so fucking tired.

Alex pretends he’s going to feel better after waking up.


 

Nico would die trying to protect you.

The words have become distorted, becoming a cacophony of shrieks crashing into one another and against Karolina’s cranium. Louder and louder the words become, a cruel taunt grating in her ears and placing an enormous pressure on his chest.

Nico died trying to protect you.

Karolina jars awake. She bolts upright, with her blood ringing in her ears, and her heart beating painfully against her bruised ribs. Alex words, twisted as her mind had made them, were still haunting her. Her chest heaved, her breathing labored, but it felt like inhaling sand. Suddenly, Karolina is filled with the urge to claw at her throat. She was in pain, like she’d been ran over by a truck ten times and then the truck backed up for good measure. There was a burning sensation in her ribs, a sharp ache that was intensified with each labored breath. Karolina tries to tell herself to breathe easy—You’re okay. Breathe.—slower, deeper, more carefully; but the more she tells herself to calm down the more the panic blooms in her gut.

It is Alex who finally calms her down.

Karolina didn’t really notice Alex was in the same room as she was until he’s suddenly beside her, kneeling on the ground, one hand placed gently against her back and another hand offering her a glass of water to drink. He’s speaking in hushed tones, there’s almost something rhythmic in the way his words were tumbling out of his mouth. It’s oddly comforting. When Karolina finally gets to the point where she doesn’t feel like clawing at her throat anymore, she takes the glass and chugs the water down, pointedly ignoring her pained ribs. When it’s emptied, Alex takes the glass without a word, stands up, and puts it down on the table.

Karolina thinks she hears Alex say something along the lines of Wait here, she scoffs (she thinks she did), as if she could go anywhere in her condition anyway. Karolina doesn’t say anything to him and Alex simply walks out of the living room, less than a minute later his back with an ice pack in his hands (the bag of peas is out of commission). He gives the ice pack to Karolina, who gingerly places the it against her ribs. She sighs against the cooling sensation. Alex props the pillow behind her and helps her get more comfortable. Karolina mumbles an incoherent noise that vaguely resembles a ‘thank you.’

After a while, Alex finally speaks.

“How are you feeling?”

“Probably worse than how I look.”

“Good.”

Karolina rolls her eyes. “Impressive bedside manners, Alex.”

“I wasn’t the one who decided to fly into wall made of muscles.”

“I flew into someone’s fist.”

“My bad.” Alex glowers at Karolina, but the look he gives her goes ignored and unseen. 

“What are you doing here?” Karolina asks, finally looking at Alex. There’s no hostility in her voice, just curiosity.

“I needed to talk to you,” Alex answers honestly. “And, anyway, Gert didn’t want you to be left alone so I volunteered to stay here while they sleep.”

“You need to sleep too.”

Alex jerks his thumb towards the table behind him, “I did fall asleep, actually.”

They pause, a bit of awkwardness is hanging in the air. They’re unsure of how to continue.

“Didn’t know you cared, Alex,” Karolina finally mutters. The words are uttered softly, almost bitterly.

Alex frowns at her, confused, taken aback, and clearly hurt. “Of course I do.”

Karolina ducks her head and avoids his gaze. She swallows in an attempt to stamp down the guilt rising in her chest. “Sorry,” she says, because she doesn’t know what else to say.

“You know we all care about you, right?” Alex asks her, there’s an edge to his voice that Karolina can’t place. She think it sounds like Alex might be on the verge of tears. She’s never heard him speak with a tone that soft or that unsure.

“I know.” Karolina’s heart clenches in her chest and she gives in to the guilt. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…” she trails off. Alex looked so sad and lost and Karolina has no idea what to say.

Alex looks away, lost in thought. Karolina can see the warring emotions in his eyes in the minuscule twitches on his face—anger, confusion, sadness, helplessness, guilt—he swallows. Karolina doesn’t realize Alex isn’t wearing his glasses until his hand goes to his face to push the missing glasses up the bridge of his nose. Even Alex looked surprised for a moment before finally sighing and letting his arms drop to his side. He looks back at Karolina, holding her gaze, his eyes desperately searching for something Karolina has no idea how to give. Then, Alex blurts out—

I’m sorry.”

Karolina is about to ask what he means but Alex speaks first, evidently forcing the words out of his mouth. “I made a promise and I couldn’t keep it. I’m sorry.”

There’s an edge of desperation in his voice, laced with panic and regret, and this time, Karolina can see the tears welling in his eyes.

Karolina is about to ask what he means, when it hits her. Her nightmare, Alex’s words (Nico would die trying to protect you), becoming distorted (Nico died trying to protect you).

The words, Alex’s promise, hang over them uneasily. A conversation from a lifetime ago echoing in Karolina’s mind.

Our lives aren’t simple or safe but I want to make it safe enough so Nico doesn’t ever have to be scared that she’s lost you too.

“I promised to protect both of you, I couldn’t—” Alex cuts himself off. “This isn’t— I’m not—”

Karolina gives Alex time to compose himself. Not knowing what to say, she simply watches as he brings his hand up to his face to pinch the bridge of his nose. Alex inhales, shuddering, on the verge of tears, then he sighs.

“Please stop trying to get yourself killed, Kar.” Alex looks at Karolina helplessly. His voice is barely above a whisper, trembling, and hopelessly scared. Alex sounded like a terrified little kid. “I can’t— We can’t—”

Karolina winces. Looks away. “I’m sorry,” she says again. She’s not sure if she’s apologizing for having jeopardized herself over and over, or if she’s apologizing because she knows she can’t promise Alex to stop doing it.

“Karolina, we can’t lose you too. Let us help. You’re not the only one who’s—” We’re all grieving her. “Please.” Alex is searching her face for any hint that she understands. Karolina only nods mutely, not trusting herself to sound sincere. “Nico,” Alex begins to say, his voice cracking, “Nico wouldn’t want you to throw your life away like this. She—” he breaks off again, choking. Alex brings his hand up to wipe away his tears.

Karolina counts the seconds that pass before Alex speaks again; and when he does speak, his voice is calmer and more even.

“If you die,” he says, “If you wind up getting your self killed, Nico will have died for nothing.”

The words are like a knife to her chest, aching harsher than her bruised rib.

“You’re being cruel, Alex.”

“I’m only telling you the truth.”

Karolina has no idea how to reply because, fuck it, he’s right. He’s right.

Karolina was angry that Alex was right. She was angry with Nico for leaving her, and she’s angry with herself for feeling that way. But that was their truth now and Karolina had to deal with it. She was angry with Jonah for taking Nico away from her, for parading what he did over their heads. She was angry at their parents for ever colluding with Jonah and for complicating their lives. Karolina wanted to be a normal teenager. She wanted to worry about things most teenagers worried about. She didn’t want this. She didn’t want any of the pain pouring in and settling in her gut like concrete. She wanted Nico.

Once upon a time, Nico told her about Achilles and Patroclus and, fuck, she thought she understood what Nico had been talking about but she never fully realized the gravity behind those words until they’d become true for her. Nico’s fears became her reality and it wasn’t fucking fair to any of them.

Patroclus gets killed, and finally Achilles decides to fight. Everyone thinks it’s because he’s really mad at Hector and wants to avenge Patroclus, and he probably was, but that can’t be the only reason. I think Achilles was more angry at himself. I think Patroclus’s words probably haunted him. What was the point of being so powerful when he couldn’t even protect his people, his best friend? Homer called Patroclus someone Achilles loved above all other men and as much as his own life— and that was the person that he couldn’t save. Achilles went into that fight not really giving a shit about Agamemnon’s up-sized gifts. ‘Just let me fight,’ he says. Going home and living a long life be damned. He doesn’t care whether or not he dies, because he’s already dead anyway. He’s already lost Patroclus. I don’t think it was Achilles’s quest for honor or glory or whatever that doomed him. I think it was his love for Patroclus.