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Once a year we Celebrate (Another trip around the Sun)

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It was dark. Nico couldn’t even see his own hands. He wasn’t sure he could feel them either. His legs also seemed to be numb, and he stood perfectly still, shifting his eyes, trying to feel his arms and legs. He wasn’t sure how long he stood, rooted to the spot, staring at the dark, empty, nothing.

He decided to turn in a circle, trying to see if there was light anywhere in this god-forsaken place. The moment he moved, his legs went from feeling numb to feeling heavy and difficult to control. But he turned; albeit slowly. The longer he turned, in his slow circle, the more he noticed about this place. Like the fact that nothing seemed to exist here. No winds, no scents, no sounds, no light.

His breath hitched in his throat, a lump compromising the air. His eyes stung, and he got angry at himself for it. There was no use in crying over it. He wiped his tears with angry motions and started running in a random direction, his feet heavy and silent below him.

He wasn’t sure how much he’d run, or how far he’d come. His breath was stuck in his throat, and yet, he didn’t feel exhausted or out of breath. It seemed his body behaved strangely on the inside too.

He ran for what must have been hours, in the never changing darkness. If he didn’t know better, he’d think he was running in place. He ran until it seemed like he couldn’t stop, and then, the darkness split apart, blinding him and forcing him to his knees. The silence got replaced by a deafening roar, and the nothing that had surrounded him became smouldering hot and suffocating. The air was thick. It seemed to suck out any liquid he had in his body, leaving his throat instantly raw and dry. His body felt like it was burning, sweat running down in streams.

Below him, the ground started moving, as though it was rolling like waves, and the roaring quieted down and got replaced by something much worse; wheezing and growling. Every time the wheezing came, the ground below him would rise, and when the growling came, the ground would sink. The ground was soft below him, covered with what might have been rain water. Except, Nico knew it wasn’t. He could tell. He remembered this well. The suffocating heat, his raw throat, his sweating body, the moving ground, and the wheezing breaths. The rivers crashing against the shore and hissing against the surface. In the distance, Nico could hear screeching and moaning. Low growling.

He didn’t want to open his eyes. If he didn’t open his eyes, it wouldn’t exist. He wouldn’t have to face it. But the heat was suffocating, and his throat was going to tear apart if he didn’t drag himself to that dreadful river. He didn’t want to.

He sat still and covered his ears, blood from the ground warm against his skin, smearing against his cheeks. He didn’t care. Tears fell, somehow. Despite how he sweat out all his liquids, he still managed to cry. He wasn’t even ashamed this time, of the crying or the shivering. He didn’t want to be here. He couldn’t be here.

A roar vibrated through the place, the ground quacking below him. A wheeze and a low growl.

“Please,” he wasn’t sure who he would plead to down here. The only thing that existed here was fear and misery, and no gods or humans could ever reach you. “Please. Not again.”

Coward, a cruel voice whispered in his head. If Nico didn’t know better, he’d say it was his own voice. Look what you’ve become. Worthless and terrified. There’s nothing great about you. No wonder no one likes you. You’re pathetic.

“Shut up,” Nico told the voice. “You’re wrong.”

Am I? Really? The voice laughed, humourless and cruel. It was mocking him. Don’t deny it. You know they all hate you. No one would even notice you’re gone. They don’t care about you. They don’t like you.

“Shut up,” Nico repeated, his face dry from his crusty tears that seemed to disappear as soon as they rolled down his cheeks.

Sitting there and crying like a baby won’t solve anything. You’re pathetic. You’re disgusting.

“I said, shut up!” Nico stood in anger, his eyes wide open, staring at nothing, his eyes hot with tears. Too hot for comfort.

Now, he couldn’t shield himself from the sight, and he couldn’t make himself look away. He was glued to the spot, eyes unblinking, drinking in the scenery as though he’d missed it. He could never miss this. Skies red and damp, the air foggy with breath mixed with blood. It settled around him, clung to him, entered his airways. The ground below him was steady, despite the coat of blood stuck to his shoes. It expanded and collapsed with each wheezing, ragged breath. Muscles taunt, pulses throbbing, organs slithering responding to the pulse. He could count the heartbeat, even all the way down here. Thump-thump. Thump-thump.

A crash of a wave drew his attention, and he looked to his left. The River Cocytus. Its flames licked the flesh and seared it, and Nico didn’t want to go near it, because he remembered it well; the scent and sight of burnt flesh. How it fell off in chunks into the fiery river. The only river he could safely drink from.

He fell to his knees again, his hair soaked with spit and blood from the skies above, his hands taking on a red colour that he tried to wipe off in vain. He didn’t want to walk through it. Not again. He wasn’t sure he would survive a second time, because he barely survived the first. He faced it all. The taunt flesh, the pulsating organs, the ragged breath, and all the monsters. The rib cage, and misery and her dark room. He wasn’t even sure how he survived it the first time. Maybe he just shut down emotionally and walked through it. One step at a time. But he couldn’t do that again. He wouldn’t do that again. He wanted to go back to camp, back to his bed, back to the safety of the border.

He didn’t even care if he got caked in blood or died from thirst. Anything was better than facing Tartarus again.

“Wake me up,” he pleaded, his cruel head-voice laughing at him. “Wake me up.”

He didn’t even know if he was dreaming, but if he was, he wanted to wake up. He wanted someone to wake him. Then air broke through his lungs and he sat up with a gasp.

It was dark. Well, it was kind of dark. He could hear birds chirping in the distance, and his body was wet with sweat. He shivered in the cool of wherever he was. He looked around, his eyes easily adjusting to the greenish hue. He could make out silhouettes of beds and an alter at the far end, torches with encapsulated Greek fire on either side of it. They illuminated the dark-grey curtains covering his windows, and Nico finally gathered his bearings. He was in Cabin 13, in Camp Half-Blood.

He ran his hands across his sheets. They were soft to the touch, making a zipper-like sound as his hands stroked them. He focused on the weight of his duvet over his body, the fresh air that came in from a crack in one of his windows. He closed his eyes and breathed, trying to push away the memories of heat and bloody fog. But it stayed with him and kept coming in flashes. And honestly, he couldn’t help it. He hadn’t dreamt of that place in a while, and he hated it each and every time. He allowed himself to cry, sobbing into his sheets. He was so tired of Tartarus, honestly. He just wanted it to go away, but he knew it never would. It was a part of him now, as much as his Italian heritage was. As much as his partner preferences were. He would never be rid of it, and that frustrated him.

He found himself hiccoughing and hyperventilating when he heard a voice in his head. It had a bit of a twang to it, and kindness and understanding. As warm as the sun, as kind as the person it belonged to.

You gotta take deep breaths, it reminded him. Focus on something good, or nice. Chase away those dark memories.

Nico envisioned the owner. His blond hair that curled around his ears. His blue eyes so full of kindness. He was taller than Nico, so his hands were also slightly bigger. Nico imagined Will holding his hands; focused on the warmth in Will’s palms. Imagined him breathing with him, looking him in the eyes. Patient, understanding, and kind. A smile in place on his lips to chase away the darkness.

Deep breaths, Darlin, imaginary Will told him. Nico couldn’t help a little smile. He imagined Will would smile back. That’s it. Keep going. Nice and slow. In, he inhaled, and out, he exhaled.

Nico kept breathing, holding onto Will’s words. All the things he’d taught him to do when he was haunted by terrible memories, or if he found himself getting anxious about one thing or another. The steps he took to chase away bad thoughts and self-loathing.

Slowly in, and slowly out. A steady rhythm despite the tears.

That’s it, imaginary Will told him. You’re doing so great. And you’re doing this all on your own.

Even though Nico knew it was true, knew he was just imagining Will sitting with him and helping him calm down, he still felt like telling Will it wasn’t true he was doing this on his own.

“I wouldn’t know how to do this if not for you.”

Imaginary Will laughed, bright and crystal clear. The sincerest laugh Nico knew.

Oh please, di Angelo, imaginary Will teased. You wouldn’t know how to function if it wasn’t for me.

Nico laughed, gurgled and snotty. It echoed off of the walls in his cabin, and he was glad he was alone in here so he wouldn’t have to explain why he was sitting and laughing on his own like a lunatic.

“Shut up, Solace. You’ll explode with that inflated ego.”

You have no one to blame but yourself, imaginary Will winked.

Nico wanted to kiss him. Maybe after breakfast, when he went to help in the infirmary. Away from prying eyes. He would tell him about the nightmare, and how he calmed down, and then he would kiss Will Solace. Just because he could.

Nico smiled and kept breathing, imaginary Will’s hands warm in his.

I’ll look forward to it, imaginary Will told him in unison with his head-voice.

Nico hadn’t been able to sleep since the nightmare. His eyes felt heavy with sleep and stingy from dryness. The skin below his eyes was tender to the touch, and one look in the mirror revealed flustered bags and blood-shot eyes.

For a moment he contemplated staying in so people wouldn’t ask about it, but his stomach growled in protest and clenched. He looked at it, as though it had betrayed him, because he usually didn’t have much appetite after a nightmare, then he sighed. He couldn’t shut himself in today, he knew. Even though he calmed down from the post-nightmare panic, he still felt so alone and isolated afterwards. He needed to see people and feel he existed in relation to them.

Nico stretched and decided to start his day. A nice shower where he washed his hair and body with mild-scented soap and shampoo, a facial moisturiser Piper once gave him to take away the worst of the dryness, and some of his favourite clothes. There was a perfume Jason had given him after he commented on its scent, and he decided to put that on too and spent time brushing and styling his hair.

Normally Nico would not do this much in the morning. He wouldn’t make this big a deal of dressing nicely, moisturising his face, and styling hair. But Will had once told him about how doing something nice for yourself could improve your mental health, and then a few Aphrodite campers had suddenly gotten involved to assist in the wellness lessons. To be fair, Nico hadn’t believed them when they first told him how doing some of these vanity things could make you feel better emotionally, but he promised to try it at least once, and then followed a guide, courtesy of the Aphrodite campers. It had involved lavender-scented shower oils and a face-mask he wouldn’t want to be caught dead in. The thing was, he had actually felt better after it, and that’s how he found himself with a wellness kit with certain soaps, shower oils, facial masks, and other vanity products he only ever used to help himself through a rough time.

He put on his shoes and shrugged his jacket over his shoulders, went to his door, took a deep breath, and went outside to face the day.

The weather was a bit chilly, but definitely not as bad as it should be. There were birds chirping and flying around, nesting in some of the trees. The other day one of the nymphs was gushing about hatching eggs and bird babies. Another nymph had been sceptical since birds probably shouldn’t be mating in January. Nico didn’t care much for it. The border was magic, after all, and he didn’t have to freeze in the cold New York weather. He trotted through camp and passed a handful of campers on his way. There was Sherman Yang, son of Ares, who looked about ready to kill anyone commenting on him still wearing his pyjamas and his bed-head. Billie Ng, daughter of Demeter, somehow had wheat growing on her head.

At the Apollo cabin Will stood in the door, one eyebrow quirked, his lips quivering—clearly trying not to laugh. He was ushering his siblings out the door. Kayla looked as awake as her brother, while Austin, on the other hand, seemed disoriented. He was rubbing sleep out of his eyes and dragging his feet.

“That’s what you get for writing sheet music all night instead of sleeping like I told you to,” Will scolded, his lips betraying him and quirking into an amused smile.

“You can’t stop inspiration, Will,” Austin yawned.

Will rolled his eyes. “And you can’t deny your body rest. I suggest you come back here and take a two-hour nap after breakfast.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Austin trotted away, Kayla shoving her shoulder into his, much to his annoyance it seemed.

Nico couldn’t help chuckling to himself. He walked up to Will who had been so preoccupied with his siblings he hadn’t noticed Nico. Nico fell in step with Will as quietly as possible, but Will’s smile gave away he knew Nico was there.

“’Morning,” Nico greeted.

“Good morning.” Will turned to look at him, and his eyes seemed to widen. “Well, hello there. You’re looking snappy today.”

Nico let out a snort and hoped he wasn’t blushing too much. “Except for the bags under my eyes.”

“I didn’t even notice,” Will said, giving him a quick once-over. He leaned closer and gave a quick sniff, and Nico half-heartedly swatted him away.

“Ew, Solace. Personal space.”

“No, I was just curious if I smelled you. You’re wearing perfume today.”

“I am. You should try it sometime.”

Will let out a huff. “I am a regular user of antiperspirant, thank you very much. A pleasant smell is a good smell, and I do deal with people throughout the day. Nothing more important than making them feel good and comfortable.”

“Yawn,” Nico drawled. “No wonder Austin is falling asleep on you.”

Will chatted him playfully, forcing Nico to make sure his hair was still sitting as it should. He gave Will a dirty look, and Will had the audacity to smile at him. Lovingly, at that. It made Nico’s stomach do jumping jacks, and he remembered what he promised himself when he woke after his nightmare. It made him suddenly nervous, even though he’d kissed Will before. He decided to sidestep a bit, so he was walking shoulder to shoulder with Will, and even though he was still getting used to all the things he could do without fear in this century, he gathered his courage and took a hold of Will’s hand.

Will looked down at him and smiled wider, closing his hand around Nico’s. It was the kind of smile people called love-struck, and Nico’s heart skipped a beat. They walked to the breakfast table together and didn’t let go until they had to pick out what they wanted to eat. Normally, Will would put a bit extra on Nico’s plate in the mornings, even though he ate fine, but today, Will let Nico put as little as he wanted on it. Nico supposed Will knew something was up since Nico had decided to get all fixed up. Nico was grateful he didn’t ask or bring it up here in front of all these people, because Nico had a sneaking suspicion he might start crying again if he had to talk about it, and he wasn’t interested in doing that in front of the whole camp; even if it was pretty empty in the off-season.

They went to the offering station, offered a portion of their food, then went to the Apollo table together where they sat side by side. Austin and Kayla were discussing Austin’s sheet music together. It sounded like Austin was trying to convince Kayla to give it a listen and critique it in return of him helping her with target practice.

Nico ate his breakfast, catching fragments of the conversation going on at the Apollo table. There was Will scolding and schooling Austin playfully, reminding Kayla to stretch before target practice because of an injury she suffered the other day, and the other two play-mocking Will for being a mother. They started flicking tissues at each other at some point, and Nico found himself laughing at it and somehow getting involved, even though he hadn’t said much the entire time.

After they finished eating and cleaning up the stray pieces of tissues that had fallen to the ground, the Apollo campers went their separate ways. Will once told Nico that was the best part of the off-season. Since there were just three of them, he didn’t need to focus so much on scheduling the day. He could allow them to do their own thing for the most part, giving him plenty of time to take care of his infirmary. Nico had pointed out, back then, that the infirmary belonged to Camp and wasn’t Will’s, and Will had argued it kind of did, seeing as he was the head medic. It was his job to make sure they had their stock in order, and the bedsheets and hospital wear was clean, and the surfaces were scrubbed and distilled on a daily basis and after every visitor.

They didn’t hold hands when they went to the infirmary, but their shoulders still brushed, and Will still didn’t push Nico to talk.

“What’s on the programme for today, then?” Nico asked once they entered the empty infirmary.

“Well. Since there are no competitions today, I think it’s safe to assume it’ll be pretty quiet in here, so I was thinking taking stock and do some general cleaning where it’s needed. If we’re lucky, not much needs to be done, so we’ll probably be able to just stroll around and do whatever today.”

Nico nodded. “Doing whatever sounds nice and boring at the same time.”

Will chuckled. “I mean. We could always prank someone if it gets too quiet for you.”

Nico let out a snort and chatted Will on the arm. “Didn’t Camp just suffer through a prank war?”

“Ah yes,” Will sighed, almost longingly. “The dullness of the off-season.”

“Poor off-season.”

Will snorted and gave Nico a shove, so Nico shoved him back with a playful smile.

“Start with the floors?” Will suggested.

Nico shrugged. “Sure.”

They walked to the cleaning supply closet together, and Will opened the door to pull out the broom and mop. He handed them to Nico who stood perfectly still as Will had to crawl into the closet to reach the other cleaning supplies giving Nico the strangest urge to make a dumb joke and when Will came out with the cleaning supplies, he couldn’t hold his tongue.

“Welcome out of the closet, Will Solace,” he dead-panned.

Will looked at him for a solid ten seconds before he burst out in laughter and doubled over, cleaning supplies spilling out of the bucket he’d put them into.

“Oh my gods,” Will wheezed. “I can’t believe you just made a dumb joke like that.”

Nico shrugged, unable to stop himself from chuckling. He went to help Will pick up the spilt supplies. “I couldn’t help myself.”

“To be fair, it was the perfect opportunity. I am so glad you didn’t let it go to waste.”

“What a disappointment that would have been.”

Will looked at him and leaned over and pecked his cheek. Nico wished he didn’t blush so much whenever he and Will got intimate like this, since it was so little. He looked at Will who sat on his heels, smiling gently at him, and Nico decided if he didn’t tell Will now, and gave him that kiss, he might never.

“Hey,” Nico said, fiddling with the shredded ends of the mop. “I, erm… I had a nightmare last night. About Tartarus. And I… I started hyperventilating a bit when I woke up from it until I remembered your breathing exercises. I kind of imagined you there, helping me through it, so I wanted to thank you. That’s important to do. So, thank you, Will Solace.”

Will looked shocked for a moment, then let out a small laugh. He smiled that love-struck smile again and said: “I’m glad I could be useful to you.”

They stood, and while Nico still had the courage, he walked up to Will, went on his tip-toes, took a hold of Will’s neck, and kissed him on the lips. Will didn’t take long to kiss him back, one hand holding a cleaning bucket, the other hand cupping Nico’s cheek. Nico’s insides were on fire; in a good way. They broke apart, Will looking so pleased Nico felt like shoving him to knock him down a nudge, but he would rather get started on the floors so they could do nothing in particular the rest of the day.

Chapter Text

The infirmary was sparkling, smelling like lemon and antiseptics, by the time they were done. They’d opened the windows to ventilate the room, the breeze refreshing. After the kiss, Nico had been a bit shy, because his brain was still being weird about having a boyfriend, but overall the cleaning was pleasant. They’d goofed around too much, so obviously the cleaning had taken much more time than it should have. Still, Nico wasn’t complaining, because it had gotten him back to his normal self; no weird shyness, and Will had definitely noticed.

They bantered and bickered, and insulted each other for the laugh of it, until they packed up the cleaning supplies to check up on the medicine stock.

Will led Nico to the medicine room and held the door for Nico. He pinned the door open with a door-stopper, probably so people wouldn’t think they were doing something they weren’t supposed to. Nico looked over the steel-shelves, very few boxes present.

“Will?” he asked.

“Hm?” Will walked in and stopped almost immediately.

“Aren’t there usually more boxes in here?”

Will got slack-jawed and ran his hands through his hair, then walked further into the room and looked at every single shelf, crouching and tip-toeing, as if to make sure he wasn’t imagining the lack of medical supplies.

“No, no, no, no, no,” Will muttered, pacing the floor, his face at least two shade paler now. “Are you kidding me? How the heck are we out of stock?!”

Nico went up to Will and put a hand on his arm. “Easy there, Solace. Remember to breathe.”

Will took deep breaths and composed himself while Nico drew circles on his arms. It was kind of nice, actually.

“Alright,” Will said, determination in his eyes and stance. “We need to go talk to Chiron. The stock must never be this empty.”

“Right,” Nico agreed.

They exited the infirmary together and walked across the green to the big house. The Victor twins were chasing each other around, shouting insults at each other, bragging about being better and faster than the other. Will rolled his eyes at them with a sigh, Nico patted his arm in solidarity. The Victor twins were frequent visitors of the infirmary due to muscle strain from excessive physical activity.

“All the more reason to get that stock up,” Nico commented.

“No kidding,” Will sighed. “And here I was hoping for a lazy day. Who am I kidding?”

Nico shrugged. “The fates never liked being tempted.”

“You should talk to them about that one of these days.”

Nico snorted. “I am not going to tell the fates how to do their job. That’s just inviting bad luck to come for you.”

Will grunted while nodding in agreement. They stepped up on the porch of the big house where Chiron sat and played a game of solitaire. He had a stack of books on a smaller table by his side. When the two of them came up, Chiron looked up from his game. It seemed he had a small chance of actually solving the solitaire, in Nico’s eyes.

“Hello, boys,” he greeted, putting the stack of cards onto his table. “Anything I can help with?”

“Yes,” Will said, crossing his arms just to uncross the again. “My infirmary stock is practically empty.”

“Oh my,” Chiron commented, seemingly shocked. “How did that happen?”

Will shrugged. “Beats me. But I need it restocked if we don’t want to run into unfortunate medical situations.”

“Yes, of course.” Chiron rolled his wheelchair away from the table and considered the two of them. “I would suggest you do a supply run yourself, but I can’t afford to have Argus chauffeur you. He is needed here. Especially in the off-season.”

Will seemed quite displeased about that, and Nico looked between him and Chiron before speaking up. “I have a chauffeur we can use.”

Chiron looked at him quizzically. “You do?”

Nico shuffled his feet uncomfortably before taking a deep breath and looking up. “Yeah. His name is Jules-Albert. He’s a zombie.”

“I assume there’s a story behind that?” Chiron asked, quirking an eyebrow in amusement.

“There is,” Nico confirmed.

Chiron nodded as though he completely understood why Nico wouldn’t want to share that information with him, though Nico highly doubted that was the case. Instead, Chiron pulled out a piece of paper and started writing on it.

“What do you need, Will?”

Will stirred next to Nico. “Everything. There are like, four boxes in there and they’re all half-full.”

“You mean half-empty,” Nico commented. “Since we’ve been taking from them.”

Will rolled his eyes. Nico chatted him for good measure while Chiron wrote the longest list Nico had ever seen. It had his signature at the bottom. He handed it over to Will with an envelope titled ‘Infirmary budget’ and then he pulled out a card from his tweed jacket.

“This is the address.” He pulled it back just as Will was about to take it. “I expect you to be back in an hour at the most, boys.”

Will nodded and took the address. “Of course, Sir.”

“Good,” Chiron sighed, then he rolled back to the table and went back to his card game.

Will gave the address card to Nico who put it n his jacket pocket. They steered to the Apollo cabin where they sneaked in so they wouldn’t wake Austin who was supposed to nap. He wasn’t in the cabin though, and Will let out a groan and went on about how typical it was for Austin to not listen to him, especially in the off-season. He shrugged on a jacket and slung a satchel over his shoulder in which he put the money and the shopping list.

“When we come back, I will force Austin to take a nap.”

Nico laughed at him and patted his arm. If nothing else, then to make him feel better, since Nico couldn’t exactly relate to this specific problem. On days like these, when he saw just how irritating it could be to have loads of siblings, he was grateful for being alone in his cabin. They walked side by side, Will grumbling every now and again, Nico absentmindedly running his finger down Will’s arm until he reached his hand where he started drawing patterns. Will grabbed onto Nico’s hand while still muttering to himself until they reached the border where Will took a deep breath. He turned and smiled at Nico, and Nico smiled back.

Nico let go of his hand the moment they were outside the border so he could crouch down to the ground and concentrate on Jules-Albert. He thought about driving in a bigger family van, so they could have all the supplies, and hoped it would reach the zombie. His wishes came true moments later when a car seemed to come out of nowhere. It was a big, dark blue family van with a bit of dirt on the front bumper. Nico wondered if Jules-Albert had driven it through mud on purpose to make it look used, or if he found it somewhere like that. Mostly, Nico didn’t want to speculate where Jules-Albert found the cars he used to chauffeur Nico.

Will let out a low, impressed whistle and looked over the car. “Nice.”

Nico rolled his eyes and opened the back door, gesturing for Will to enter the car. Will mock-bowed to him and thanked him, calling him a gentleman. For that comment alone, Nico decided to smack the door the moment Will had mad it in and take the shot-gun seat himself. Served Will right.

“Hello there,” Will said from the back, a big grin on his face, acting like he was oh-so-clever. “Do you come here often?”

“I will kick you out,” Nico dead-panned, finding the address from his pocket and reading it out loud to Jules-Albert. “Remember to buckle up, Solace.”

“I already did,” Will smiled.

Nico couldn’t help but smile back at him in the rear-view mirror, wondering if Will could even see him. He decided not to think too much on it and turned on the radio while Jules-Albert took off, heading for New York.

The streets and trees were covered with a thin layer of frost that shimmered in the dull light and made the scenery look like a winter wonderland. It was dust-raining and the lights from the other cars seemed to be blinding against the grey skyline. At least the car was warm. Both Nico and Will had their jackets unzipped, and Will sat and hummed along to the song on the radio with a neutral and relaxed expression. Nico looked at the scenery as it passed him by, naming streets and stations, catching a handful things that had changed since he last was in New York.

Jules-Albert steered down a winding street that seemed to end blind, until they got closer and the blind end flickered to reveal the parking lot of a store Nico had never seen. He guessed the flicker was some sort of barrier meant to keep mortals out and turn them around, not unlike Camp Half-Blood’s border.

Jules-Albert parked at an empty spot and grunted at Nico. “We are here, Master.”

“Thanks, Jules-Albert,” Nico said, well aware Will didn’t understand Jules-Albert.

“Yeah, thanks a lot,” Will said regardless.

They got out together and walked side by side into the store. Nico wondered how they were going to find anything on Will’s list inside this sorry-looking excuse for a store. The facade was painted white at some point, chips revealing the grey concrete below. The windows were shattered, and the concrete walls were full of cracks. It looked like something out of those post-apocalyptic zombie films Kayla sometimes picked for movie night.

The door was rigid and red, and it moaned when Will opened it, the bell above struggling to let out a sound. When they made it past the store’s anti-theft detectors though, they walked from a cracked floor caked in dust, into a store bustling with life; so clean it was practically sparkling. There were a million different monsters loitering around inside, and Nico immediately went for his sword when a gorgon came up to him and put her hand on his shoulder.

“Easy there, Demigod,” she said in a raspy voice. “This store here is neutral grounds. No fights.”

Nico looked quizzically at Will, who seemed just as confused, and in as much disbelief as Nico. They glanced at the gorgon, then back at each other, and Will shrugged helplessly.

Nico loosened his grip on his sword, but the tenseness in his shoulders stayed. “Don’t think for a second my guard is down.”

“Of course not,” the gorgon agreed with a smile.

Nico gave her a glare for good measure as she turned around, and then he turned to find a shopping cart. Will agreed to push it, since Nico was a lot better in combat than he was, and neutral grounds honestly didn’t sound like a thing.

On the inside, the store was massive. As massive as a large mall with multiple floors and wide stretching floors. It seemed whoever had decorated it had tried to give each floor a theme, and the fourth floor was labelled ‘The Health Floor’.

Nico and Will hopped onto a flat escalator, Will holding onto the cart, a nervous look in his eyes, Nico scanning the monsters around them for the smallest sign of an attack. They reached the fourth floor which was full of stores selling oils, vitamins, herbs, and other health-related things. There was even a massage-spa parlour. They walked aimlessly until they saw a store called ‘Medical Supplies’. Nico eyed Will who shrugged, and together they entered.

There were medical supplies in here Nico didn’t even know existed, and Will was gushing about everything. He’d picked up a thing, talk about all the wonderful properties it had in the medical field, and suddenly it was like he was speaking a whole different language where Nico understood about every five words and the rest was medical lingo. Nico wasn’t one to put a dampener on Will though. Not when he was gushing like this and being kind of cute. So while Will was gushing, Nico looked at the list and picked out whatever was close and on their list.

There were of course a few select things Will was not a fan of, because these things were definitely false advertisement, had no medical value to them, and had been disproved multiple times, so how did people still buy them? Nico didn’t reply, because these rants weren’t meant to be answered.

They must have spent a good forty minutes in the store before they had everything, paid and ready to go back to the car. True to the gorgon’s word, there were no fights in the store, or in the rest of the mall. They passed the anti-theft detectors by the entrance-exit and found themselves back in the broken facade.

Jules-Albert sat in the driver’s seat still, reading a racing magazine, looking disgruntled. Nico knocked on the window, drawing Jules-Albert’s attention, pointing to the trunk in the back. The zombie pressed a button, opening the trunk with a hollow click. Nico opened the trunk and helped Will haul in their new stock. The car bounced for each object and seemed sunken after. They walked back into the store to give back the cart, still perplexed by how anyone agreed with these neutral grounds, since Nico was quite sure he saw at least two monsters in there he had killed once.

He opened the car door in the back for Will and instructed him to scoot into the middle. Will raised an eyebrow at him but did as told anyway. Nico scooted into the backseat himself, buckled in, and closed the door after him.

“You’re joining me on the way home?” Will teased, poking Nico in the side.

Nico swatted his hand away with no real heat. “Yeah. But we’re not going back yet.”

“Er… yes we are? We have fifteen minutes before our hour is up.”

“Sucks,” Nico said with a shrug. “I’m hungry, and we definitely won’t make lunch, so we’re finding somewhere in the city to eat.”

Will laughed nervously and started rummaging through his pockets. He pulled out pennies and a one dollar note. “This is all I have.”

Nico was about to say it was alright, that he could pay for whatever they wanted because he had a card from his father. Then he remembered that card lay in a hidden spot in his cabin, and he didn’t recall bringing it. He rummaged through his own pockets and came up with just as little as Will.

“Hm.” He gave the money between them a dirty look as though it had offended him. “We could always go McDonald’s. That’s cheap enough for us.”

Will gave him a look, as though he was going to scold him, and Nico braced himself to fire back. Then, Will’s facial expression changed and he burst out laughing.

“We’re gonna get in so much trouble.”

Nico made a non-committed sound and shrugged. “It was a big store. We did our best.”

“I like your ideas, di Angelo.”

“That’s because I’m smart, Solace.” He turned to Jules-Albert before Will could fire back. “Jules-Albert. Would you please take us to the nearest McDonald’s?”

“Yes, Master,” Jules-Albert growled.

Nico leaned back with a smile, looking amusedly at Will whose eyes held a challenging glint.

“Don’t think I won’t get you back for that last comment, di Angelo.”

Nico shrugged. “I know you will, Solace.” Will gave him a dirty look for the terrible pun, and Nico couldn’t help but smile. “For the time being, let’s just enjoy pretending to be mortal teenagers.”

Will shook his head with a chuckle, closed his eyes, and folded his hands. “Please, gods of Olympus. I never ask for much. Please allow me to have a monster-free date with my boyfriend.”

Will got what he asked for, but they also got scolded a bit when they made it back to Camp half an hour later than they agreed with Chiron.

Chapter Text

The 27th of January was a bit more normal than the day before. Nico woke, washed his face, ran a brush through his hair, and threw on some clothes. He shrugged his jacket on before heading to breakfast, meeting up with Will by the Apollo cabin, Austin and Kayla trying to get them to talk about what they did yesterday since they were home late.

Nico didn’t know if he was the only camper who didn’t refer to Camp as his home. Sure, he’d grown to like it here and had made some friends. He often sparred with the Ares campers, because they thought he was a good match. If he was in good condition Will even cleared him to use his ‘underworldly powers’ and he’d raise a couple of skeletons for the Ares campers to spar with until they grew tired. Nico would join them, of course, picking out the skeleton who was the most proficient fighter. Sword fight could be dull without Jason or Percy to spar against, since they were the only ones who really were on his level.

He remembered once sparring with Jason, before he headed to school with Piper. Percy had already left by then with Annabeth to catch up on some studying. He’d looked absolutely miserable at the thought alone and Nico couldn’t help but snort at him. Personally, Nico enjoyed studying at the Camp’s school.

Anyhow, the spar with Jason had drawn the attention of almost all campers. They’d agreed on no powers. Just them and their swords, and while Jason might be older and taller than Nico, with much more formal practice, they were still quite equal. At some point, one of the Stoll brothers started narrating their fight while the other walked amongst the other campers to gather bets. After almost sparring for an hour, adrenaline running through Nico’s body, irked on by the other campers, Jason ultimately won because Nico got distracted by something he couldn’t quite remember. It was all the same, really, because after they stopped, Nico practically collapsed, muscles aching from the effort.

Both Nico and Jason had gone to the infirmary after that and Will had started cussing them out for straining themselves too much. It might have been around that time Nico accepted he was falling for Will Solace. Someone who could make about every camper cower and still give gratitude suited Nico just fine. If he stopped to think about it, he and Will could be a dangerous combo; deadly, even. Because Nico could tell who was closest to death, and Will could bring them back from the brink; eight times out of ten he was successful. Will could also decide to not do that, if it was an enemy, for instance. Nico imagined that might be anxiety-inducing. Having two people standing above them, talking about how close they were to death, and just standing there, not doing anything about it even though they absolutely had the power to stop it.

He chewed his breakfast, mulling it over. He might have smiled a bit at the thought. There was something to be said about having that much power. Although it could be absolutely terrifying as well. Will poked him in the side, drawing his attention, and then pretended he hadn’t touched Nico at all. Nico scowled and threw some jam at Will, and that’s how a camp-wide food-fight started. Nico would of course deny starting it later on. No one could prove anything anyway, and if they could, no one would snitch.

He was practising sword fight with his usual skeleton when Will came running over. It was just before lunch, and Nico was kind of looking forward to it, since he’d tired himself out without straining himself. Lunch and a shower sounded pretty good about now. In the corner of his eye, Nico saw Will wave at him and finished the fight with the skeleton. He thanked it before sending it back, figuring he might as well break for today. Will smiled at him as Nico jogged over, breathing heavily and wet with sweat. He was glad he had chosen clothes specifically for these kinds of work outs. He wouldn’t want to wear his usual cloths with too many washes. He took a swing of water and a swing of Gatorade, just for good measure so Will wouldn’t say anything.

“’Sup?” he asked.

Will snorted. “You’re too old.”

Nico kicked his shin softly. “Shut up, Solace. What did you wave me over for?”

“So,” Will started, gesturing for Nico to follow him to the dining pavilion. Nico followed. “I spoke with Chiron because I remembered promising Hazel. I can’t remember why she couldn’t contact you that day. You might have been doing something for your father. Anyhow, Hazel wanted me to ask if you could come around today, and I just remembered about twenty minutes ago, so I asked Chiron. He said it was fine as long as you’re back before curfew.”

Nico raised an eyebrow at him. “Hazel wants me to visit today?” Will nodded. “When did she tell you that?”

Will scratched his neck forlornly. “About three weeks ago?”

Nico stuttered to a halt and looked at Will in offence. “Three weeks?! You’ve known for three weeks and not told me until now?”

“I told you I totally forgot it, because after you came back the whole prank-war started, and it kind of got lost since I had to heal everyone a thousand times over.”

“Fair enough,” Nico sighed. “I’ll go after showering. After lunch.” He added when Will looked ready to protest.

Will closed his mouth and smiled, clearly satisfied. They walked to lunch together, Nico trying to ignore his sweaty body, which was quite easy since no one commented on it. Will pressed his thigh against Nico’s, as though his sweatpants weren’t gross. Nico didn’t complain or anything, and he managed to give a Will a quick peck before headed to his cabin to shower and put on his normal clothes again. He decided to put on perfume again, just for good measure. He didn’t want to go see his sister and stink.

When he was about ready, he stopped by the infirmary to get a few things with him. He stepped inside to see a paper bag already prepared for him. It had his name on it in neat handwriting. Will had definitely tried too hard, but Nico appreciated it nonetheless. He curiously peeked into the bag to see what Will had packed him. His favourite Gatorade and a few granola bars. There were a few ambrosia cubes and a small vile of nectar as well, and a salmon-creme doughnut.

Will came out from his medicine room, carrying a few boxes to stack up inside the infirmary. He smiled when he saw Nico messing around in the paper bag.

“I hope I’m not overstepping by preparing that for you.”

Nico shook his head. “Not at all. I appreciate it. Thanks.”

Will shrugged. “Hey. We both know you’ll either shadow-travel or use the maze to get to Camp Jupiter in five minutes or less to spend time. The least I can do is make sure you can rejuvenate from that. Please consider letting Jules-Albert take you home, though. So you don’t strain yourself too much in one day.”

“Keep a bed clear for me just in case?” Nico teased.

Will rolled his eyes. “As if I didn’t already think of that, though I don’t think you’ll need it.” Will took a hold of Nico’s left wrist and looked at it with a crease in his forehead. He hummed. “Yeah. You should be good.”

Nico nodded and smiled at Will. He took a hold of Will’s hand as an excuse to keep him close a little longer. Will smiled back at him with that love-struck look and intertwined their fingers. Nico’s face got a little warmer, but he remained standing tall and holding eye-contact. Will seemed pleased, and Nico wanted to wipe that smile off his face, so he did it the best way he knew how. He kissed Will Solace on the lips. Will tightened his hold on Nico’s hand while his other hand found its way to the smaller of Nico’s back. Both of Nico’s hands rested on Will’s neck by his collarbones.

The kiss could have lasted a lifetime, or a few seconds. It was hard to tell because Nico’s head seemed to lose track of anything but the kiss. Still, they eventually had to break apart, and Nico knew he was probably smiling as much as Will and probably giving that same, disgusting, love-struck look.

“I’ll see you later, then,” Nico said, sounding annoyingly out of breath.

“Yeah,” Will agreed, sounding just as oxygen deprived.

Nico let go of his hand and gave a half-hearted wave before stepping into the nearest shadow.

He popped up by Pluto’s shrine, dizzy with dots dancing in front of his eyes. He leaned against the shrine to catch his breath and opened the paper bag to fish out the Gatorade which he gulped down greedily. He emptied almost half of it in one go before catching his bearings again and decided to take out one of the granola bars to snack on while he found his way to the headquarters.

Camp Jupiter didn’t seem to have changed much. People bustled about the winding streets that reminded so much of Rome it made Nico homesick in a way. Even if the signs were in Latin, the street and houses were so similar to Venetian buildings, which made sense since Rome had been Italy at some point. Especially the gelato store tugged at Nico’s heart strings and stirred far-away memories of his childhood in Venice. He honestly couldn’t remember the last time he had authentic, Italian gelato.

A few of the legionnaires recognised him and waved hi as he passed by. A few of them still had that reluctant look in their eyes, but at least they greeted him, which was a lot more than when he started showing up for the first time as Pluto’s ambassador.

He found his way to the headquarters, no one stopping him from going up and entering like he belonged in the building. He supposed, since he was an ambassador, he probably kind of did. When he came to Reyna’s and Frank’s office, he made sure to knock. Argentum and Aurum growled behind the door, and Reyna hushed them with a commandeering voice before she went to open the door. Frank stood behind her with a serious expression on his face, and Nico wasn’t sure how he liked it, since he was used to seeing Frank look much more relaxed and approachable.

“Hey,” Nico greeted, and both Praetors immediately lost the facade and hugged Nico one after the other.

“Gods of Olympus,” Reyna said. “We thought you wouldn’t come since you hadn’t given an answer yet.”

“Will lost track of the message because of a prank-war that had almost everyone in the infirmary at the same time. He’s the only actual healer we have in the off-season.”

Frank raised an eyebrow and looked at Reyna before speaking. “Why didn’t he just ask us to send someone over? We have plenty of healers. We can spare a couple if he needs help.”

“I’ll let him know that when I return. Chiron wants me back before curfew.”

Reyna nodded. “Very well then. We have a lot we need to catch up on. Argentum. Aurum.” The mechanical dogs stood at attention. “You are in charge while Frank and I are gone for a while. If anyone wants something, lead them to us.”

The dogs let out a bark each, if it could be called that. It sounded more like high-pitched screeching mixed with moaning. Frank shivered a bit, walking behind Nico and Reyna. They left the door to their office open while stepping outside, and Nico suddenly noticed how warm California was compared to New York. Even the camp grounds. While New York was freezing, and Cap Half-Blood was chilly, California and Camp Jupiter were lukewarm.

The three of them walked together into the streets, until they came to a piazza of sorts. Hazel sat and played some sort of card game with Jason, Piper, Percy, and Annabeth. She seemed to be enjoying herself while Annabeth looked beyond frustrated, and even from here Nico could hear her mutter about how irritating it was to try and play strategic when card games were half luck. Percy laughed and tried to peek at her cards just for her to flick him on the nose.

Nico couldn’t help but chuckle, which drew the group’s attention. Hazel lit up immediately, threw her last two cards on the table in full view of the others, and got up to hug him.

“Nico! Oh my gods. I didn’t think you would be coming. Leo and Calypso already had to decline because they had something else planned today, but they send their best.”

Nico nodded and hugged her back. “Sorry.” He let go of her. “Solace completely forgot to relay your message. Camp got a bit crazy because of a prank-war, so he got swamped in the infirmary.”

“We missed a prank-war?!” Percy nearly shrieked. “Aw, man. All the fun things happen when I’m gone.”

Annabeth rolled her eyes fondly at him. “I see you managed to bring Reyna and Frank with you.”

Frank scratched his neck forlornly. “Sorry we took so long.”

“Call it good timing,” Reyna said, “but we’d actually just finished up when he came.”

“We have to make room for the three of you, then,” Hazel cheered.

They gathered their cards and made room. Frank sat next to Hazel giving her a quick peck on the cheek. She fanned herself and Nico couldn’t help but find it endearing. He sat between Percy and Reyna, looking at the odd cards. He wasn’t sure he had seen them before. They were black on the backside with yellow writing saying UNO. He picked up one of the cards and turned it, trying to figure out what it meant. It was green with two arrows on it.

“So,” he started, preparing himself to be cussed out for not knowing this game yet. He might have heard the name, though. “What exactly is this?”

“You don’t know Uno either?” Percy asked, looking incredulous.

Nico shook his head. “The name sounds familiar, but I don’t think I’ve actually seen it before.”

“That’s okay, Nico,” Hazel comforted. “I only just learnt today as well, but it’s really easy to understand.”

Nico raised an eyebrow, looking back at the odd arrow-card. He somehow doubted it would be easy, but he shrugged regardless and looked at the group. Annabeth decided to explain the rules, breaking down the logic. Turned out this game seemed pretty straight forward, which Nico could appreciate.

“Makes sense?” Annabeth asked, once she was done explaining.

Nico shrugged. “Yeah. I can play same colour or number, the circle with the line-through skips the next person, the arrow-card changes game-direction, plus two forces next player to draw two cards, plus four forces them to draw four cards while I get to change colour.”

“But they can challenge you on the colour-change,” Annabeth reminded him. “If you for instance change from yellow to red, and they think you have one or more yellow cards on your hand, they can call you out. If they’re right, you draw four instead of them and they still get to play their turn. If they’re wrong, they draw six instead and skip their turn. Draw two also skips you.”

“Right.” Nico looked at the cards and pointed at the colour-wheel. “This one changes the colour to whatever I want it to.”

“And?” hazel sang.

“I need to yell Uno when I put down my second-to-last card, or I have to draw two cards.”

“He sounds ready to me,” Jason smiled, and Nico rolled his eyes.

“You won’t be able to see me for your loser-tears, Grace.”

“We’ll see about that.”

Turned out Annabeth’s mutterings about strategy and luck were true. Nico couldn’t count the times he had been this close to winning, just to be completely blind-sided by a draw-two or draw-four card. Not to mention yelling Uno. He almost always forgot and demanded rematches. He was new, and he was determined to win at least once, so they played the stupid card game for hours. Nico finally got the grasp of it and started winning and calling people out more frequently. Even if he was wrong and had to draw six cards, he found out you could actually win, even if you had the biggest hand. They tried playing in pairs after that, still with seven cards each. Only, you could see your partner’s cards and stack draw cards. Then, they tried something called ‘fun-rules’ in pairs where they could switch hands with anyone if they played a seven, and everyone’s hand would rotate once in play-direction if someone played a zero.

Once Nico got down those rules, he and Reyna slew the others. An almost unstoppable force, and Nico was laughing enough to make up for the years he’d been moping around alone when he was younger.

When they were done with Uno, Nico decided to teach them Machiavelli, a game he had enjoyed playing a great deal with his mum and Bianca back in the day. It took some time to explain how to play and what a valid combination was. The first few rounds they played with open cards so Nico could explain to each player what cards they could put down together or add to the already-put-down cards. Annabeth was the first one to understand it, since it was basically just counting in the same suit or putting down the same number in different suits, as long as the player had three or more of the cards to put down.

Nico remembered how Bianca used to be amazing at this and almost always won. Now, Annabeth wiped the floor with them all, organising her cards so well she could add combos everywhere. Nico wasn’t having it though, and even though they were eight players total, it wasn’t hard to see it had pretty much become a war between Nico and Annabeth. Which of course meant Reyna won since they forgot to pay proper attention to her.

They decided to eat dinner at the same table, even though they weren’t in a cohort together. No one said anything, though. Nico suspected it was because both Praetors were present at their table and no one was going to challenge that. Nico definitely didn’t complain, especially when he got authentic Italian gelato for dessert.

He hugged everyone goodbye in turn, starting with Reyna since Hazel was going to follow him to the entrance. Jason picked him up to be funny, so of course Percy did the same. Nico swatted them away with his best death glare and the two just laughed at him, talking about how they should spar sometime.

He waved goodbye before waking to the entrance with Hazel. She watched over him while he summoned Jules-Albert to pick him up. She eyed the small family car with amusement in her eyes and smiled at Nico. He felt warm and full and tired. Today had been a good day.

“Take care of yourself now,” Hazel said, hugging him.

“You too.” He gave her temple a quick peck.

“Say hi to Will from me?”

Nico tried not to blush, but his face betrayed him. “Yeah.”

She chuckled, stars in her eyes. “It looks good on you. Letting lose and being happy.”

“It feels good.” She nodded, wiping tears from her eyes. “Please don’t cry, Hazel. You’ll just get me started.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, burying her face in her hands.

Nico went to hug her again, not even trying to hold back the tears as they strolled down his cheeks. “We’ll keep in touch and see each other again,” he promised.

“I know,” she sniffed.

Hazel stepped back to wipe her eyes, and Nico gave her hand a squeeze. He gathered himself and went into the car, buckling his seatbelt and rolling down his window, giving Hazel a reassuring smile. She smiled back the same. Jules-Albert started up the engine.

“Oh yeah, Nico?”


“I know you don’t like not being told in advance, but the others talked about trying to come by tomorrow for your birthday. Percy and Jason talked something about a surprise party, but I vetoed it.”

Nico nodded. “Thanks. I appreciate it.”

“Nothing’s guaranteed, though. But, just in case.”

Nico nodded in understanding and waved at her as Jules-Albert drove him back to camp. He sat back in his seat and closed his eyes with a content smile on his lips. He couldn’t wait to tell Will about his day and hear how Will’s day had been. Maybe he’d teach Will Machiavelli too.

Chapter Text

On January 28th, Nico woke up, groggy as always. He’d slept exceptionally well last night, full and warm of happiness. He’d taught Will Machiavelli, Will’s siblings listening in, and the four of them had played it for hours after. At camp fire, Will had made him five s’mores. Nico almost got sick to his stomach from them. Still, he definitely didn’t mind.

He stretched and decided to clean his room before showering and getting dressed. Seeing as he cleaned it every day for inspection—hey, he wasn’t cleaning stables if he could get away with it—it wasn’t much he needed to do. He threw his dirty clothes in the laundry hamper, made his bed, and quickly swept the floors. They weren’t gross enough to need a washing.

He’d just shrugged on his jacket when a knock came from his door. He went over, rubbing the last of the sleep out of his eyes and opened the door. Will stood outside with a bright smile on his face, a bit of a challenging glint in his eyes.

“I was startin’ to worry you weren’t awake yet,” Will said.

Nico rolled his eyes and gave him a chat. “I was just cleaning the cabin quickly.”

“Before breakfast?”

Nico shrugged. “Hazel told me yesterday some of them might come over today.”

Will raised an eyebrow. “Oh?” Nico nodded. “How come?”

Nico looked at him. The glimmer in his eyes and his easy smile. As if Will Solace would forget Nico’s birthday. Nico remembered Will’s. He decided not to say anything, instead opting to shrug and give Will a shove with his shoulder. Will laughed, bright and loud, and shoved him back. Will kept pretending to pry information from him, why today was so important anyway, or if anything special was happening, ignoring Nico every time he told him to shut up and stop playing around.

They sat at the breakfast table, Austin and Kayla playing cards while eating. Nico couldn’t help the surge of pride when he recognised the game. They were playing Machiavelli.

Will rolled his eyes and sighed. “You should be eating breakfast. Not playing cards.”

Austin shushed him, while Kayla looked up, competitiveness in her eyes. “We’re getting better so we can beat Nico.”

“Good luck with that,” Nico teased, biting into his pancakes.

“We’re getting good,” Austin muttered, not tearing his eyes away from the game.

“That might be, but you need to eat. You can play after breakfast.” Will scolded, a smile of disbelief gracing his lips.

“Yeah, yeah,” Austin muttered, annoyance in his voice. “After this game.”

Will rolled his eyes. “Because I haven’t heard that before.”

He let them be regardless. Even though Nico had only seen him reigning in all of his siblings for a month, it was easy to tell Will was a lot more lenient in the off-season. Nico had seen him confiscate stuff for lesser reasons than skipping breakfast. Austin stayed true to his word though, and Will got off his case after that.

Today was one of those rare days where the Apollo campers made a schedule to not get completely bored. After breakfast and cabin inspections, they had arts and crafts, then music. After lunch, Will had planned Archery for Austin and Kayla, while he’d planned sword fight lessons for himself. Apparently, Nico was teaching him. They could do whatever they pleased after that until dinner, and apparently Austin wanted to share his new sax music at the camp fire.

It sounded good to Nico, so he agreed to tag along and teach Will sword fight. In arts and crafts, Austin and Kayla taught him to braid leather bracelets while Will was working on something that was supposedly a secret, because he wanted to give it to Nico when it was done. At music, Austin convinced Nico to jam out with him on the piano, while Austin played jazz tunes on his saxophone. Will joined on ukulele and Kayla sang. Nico briefly wondered why Will didn’t play the acoustic guitar instead, since he knew how and it would probably sound better than the ukulele, but he didn’t comment on it. Somehow it worked out this way, and it didn’t sound half bad. Nico had a good time as well, getting more and more familiar with the keys. He remembered when he was younger, and he played with ether his mother or Bianca. They would play the main melody, usually on the higher scale, and he would play the rhythm melody, usually on the lower scale. Now, he sat with the piano on his own, still learning to play everything alone. Luckily, Will, Kayla, and Austin didn’t tease him for it. Instead they were patient with him and didn’t mind playing certain segments a thousand times over, until Nico got the keys right.

When they didn’t jam together, Nico still enjoyed spending time practising the piano and getting a grip on the keys and the scales. He still needed a lot of help to understand how to read notes. Austin was good at teaching, although sometimes he’d get a bit ahead of himself. Luckily, Nico found he was quite good at learning how to play a song by hearing it and copying it. Jamming was easier than listening and copying, since Austin took the lead and the others mostly played scales to fit the sax. It was quite relaxing and made Nico feel warm and happy.

They headed for lunch together, Kayla still humming while Austin cleaned his mouthpiece. He whistled along to Kayla’s singing, even though he really sucked at whistling. Barely a sound escaped his lips, but he seemed happy all the same. Will bumped his hand into Nico’s and took a hold. Nico didn’t feel as flustered as he did last, so he took that as a good sign. At the moment, he felt such at ease, he could be floating. He laughed and joked around with Will and his siblings at lunch, creating music with plates and glasses. Some of the Ares campers groaned, and Sherman Yang snapped at them to keep it down. All Nico had to do was give Sherman a glare. A challenge. What are you going to do about it, Yang?

The Ares campers stayed quiet after that. Sherman gave Nico a glare when he and Will followed the Ares campers to the practice ring, but it didn’t escalate beyond glares. At least not for now, and Nico wasn’t going to start a situation. Will had helped him discover the sweet satisfaction of never starting a fight, even if he finished it, because when Chiron inevitably came to scold the brawlers, Nico would mostly get a slap on the wrist since multiple people could attest to his fighting back being self-defence. So he let it go and waited patiently. If Sherman Yang, or one of the other Ares campers, wanted to start something with him, he wasn’t going to stop them. On the contrary. Watching them carry out whatever punishment they got for starting something was the sweetest revenge in existence.

Nico and Will went to get themselves some armour, and because the Ares campers were fidgeting and shooting him glances—Sherman clearly stopping them from actually asking him—Nico raised some skeletons for them. At least no one could claim he hadn’t kept it civil, then. He looked at Will, who stood with an easy smile, watching the Ares campers sparring with the skeletons despite Sherman’s protests.

“I have a feeling he’ll do something to you out of spite,” Will mused.

“Let him,” Nico said, rolling his shoulders. “Let’s forget about that for now and focus on you.”

Will’s smile brightened. “Why, I never,” he teased.

Nico gave him a pointed look and rolled his eyes. “Focus, Solace. We’re gonna figure out how to make you capable of protecting yourself, in case of a new war. You may be a brave medic, but running out into battle with nothing is as stupid as doing heroic deeds.”

Will nodded. “Heroic deeds really are stupid. Even if they save the world. Because the heroes nearly kill themselves,” he gave Nico a telling look.

Nico poked him in the arm for good measure. “Keep that up Solace, and I’ll refuse to go easy on you.”

Will chuckled, mirth in his eyes, but stood at Nico’s full attention regardless. Nico gave him a cynical look, just to get his point across, and then they started their lesson. They started out very basic, slow and without breaking much sweat. It was all stance and holding a sword. Nico even gave Will his very own instructor skeleton to spar with. The skeleton would relay pointers to Nico, so it felt like they were two teaching Will now. In a way, they had to do it like this. Even though Nico might hold back, he didn’t want Will holding back, and Will probably would for the sake of not having to spend time healing wounds he inflicted.

First, Nico tried to get Will to fight on the offence, but he seemed a bit reluctant to strike so furiously; not to mention a bit too heavy-footed for it. Will was the kind of person who was used to standing his ground and not taking any nonsense. After watching a few matches where Will kept making simple mistakes, Nico called for a time-out so Will could get something to drink. He should probably have convinced Will to change clothes before the match, because while Nico was just instructing, not moving much, Will was working hard.

“Maybe, I’m not cut out for fighting,” Will huffed, gulping water and Gatorade.

“Hmm,” Nico mused, trying not to get distracted by Will’s sweaty biceps. “I don’t think that’s it.”

Will raised an eyebrow. “No? Did you miss how I got my butt whooped by a skeleton who, by all biological laws, should not be able to move at all?”

“I didn’t.” Nico stole a sip from Will’s Gatorade. “But until now, we’ve tried having you do offence attacks. We haven’t tried defence yet. I’m thinking, maybe defence will merge better with your natural healer instincts than offence.”

“Sounds plausible.”

“Name something you can do that at least renders someone immobile.”

Will blinked before speaking with a blush. “I mean. I know pressure-points. If I wanted, I could make you numb with just one touch if I got access to the right spot.”

Nico looked at him, almost in disbelief. The extend of Will’s medical knowledge and abilities had never been something they discussed much. They hardly discussed Nico’s power beyond how he could use them without passing out. Will shuffled, almost shyly, as if Nico was going to shun him for being able to poke someone and have them lying numbly on the ground. That was actually quite good. He could use that.

“Alright,” he said. “I’m guessing you also know which veins are deadliest to cut during battle?”

“Of course.”

Nico nodded. “That’s good. We can definitely work with that. Alright. I’ll teach you defence stances instead, then. Defence is a bit tricky for me, because I’m definitely more on the offence. But it should be possible. Mostly you will need to focus on reading your opponent’s body and blocking their attack. Don’t be scared to egg them on by playing a game of chicken. Get close and retreat, block them and look for openings.”

Nico sparred with Will, using slow movements, explaining everything as they moved, and where Will could spot his openings in the blink of an eye. They weren’t going to do a full sword fight right away, although they did speed up a bit and used light taps. Almost like fencing.

When they’d sped up sufficiently, Nico had Will spar his skeleton. Will pointed out the skeleton couldn’t feel pressure points, so he had to show where it would be for the skeleton to play along. After that, Will did a lot better. He was clearly cut out for defence. His body wasn’t as rigid, and he didn’t seem as unsure and lost and guilty. Nico let Will spar for another twenty minutes before he called for break and followed Will to his cabin so he could take a shower. Even though Nico wasn’t super sweaty himself, a quick shower didn’t sound unwelcome. Especially considering he might be getting guests later.

He dressed in a pair of black skinny jeans—new and not scuffed—and a white T-shirt the Apollo cabin had given him after they found out he was really into old rock bands; including The Rolling Stones. It had red sleeves, and a red Rolling Stones logo taking up the front. He had a black zip-up hoodie he decided to shrug over his shoulders, instead of wearing his jacket. He was just about to go outside again, after popping on his shoes, when a knock came from his door. He rolled his eyes, figuring it must be Will who had probably finished up before him and was getting impatient for him to come back out to hang around until dinner.

“Calm down, Solace. I’m coming out.” He opened the door and immediately had confetti shot in his face, and the shrill of party blowouts mixed with voices yelling happy birthday at him.

When the thin shreds of coloured papers were done falling around him, and obscuring his vision, he blinked and took a moment to take in the scene. At the very front, stood Hazel, her golden eyes twinkling with happiness, carrying a box. Behind her stood Percy, Annabeth, Jason, Piper, Leo, and Will. Percy and Jason imitated taking pictures of Nico’s shocked expression, shit-eating grins to boot. Nico was really happy Hazel told him yesterday they might come over to surprise him. He’d been somewhat prepared for this all day.

“Hey guys,” he said, trying to not act as surprised as he was. “Feel free to come in.”

“Boo, Hazel,” Leo complained. “I can’t believe you actually told him.”

Nico rolled his eyes, and Hazel gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. He was glad his cabin was clean, the beds made, the floor clear. He found some of the cushions from the unused bunks and moved them to the floor in a circle, so they all could see each other. Piper and Annabeth put a large box they’d been carrying between them onto the floor, and Will took off a bag pack Nico hadn’t even noticed him wearing until now. Inside Will’s bag pack was plastic plates, plastic cups, plastic forks, and cone-shaped, white party hats with colourful circles and confetti printed on them. Will passed them around to everyone but Nico, and none of the others complained. For Nico himself, Will fished out a black paper-crown with a hand-painted ghost on it.

“I made it for you in arts and craft. Because you’re the Ghost King,” he grinned, and Nico rolled his eyes at him, but he kept the hat on.

Inside the giant box Piper and Annabeth had carried in, was a three-layer black cake, decorated with light-grey whipped cream shaped like tomb stones, skeletons, zombies, and ghosts. Nico had to choke back his tears.

“My mum made it for you,” Percy said. “I just told a bit about you, and then she figured you’d like your cake like this.”

Nico nodded, not trusting his voice, and smiled around at his friends.

“I also brought a pack of playing cards,” Will announced. “In case you want to beat us all in… what was that Italian one called you taught me the other day?”

“Machiavelli,” Nico snorted, quickly wiping away his tears.

“That one,” Will smiled.

Nico shoved him, took the cards, and shuffled them. He hoped no one else would need these cards later on, since they were eating Sally’s really nice cake while playing, and Nico had gotten a bit of the decorative whipped cream onto his cards. Judging by the state of everyone else’s cards, he saw he wasn’t the only one. The light reflected greasy fingerprints, until the cards were nothing but sticky cake residue. Leo had brought another card game called Cards Against Humanity. It sounded simple enough, but some of these sentences were abhorrently crude. Nico never felt so offended before, and Hazel fanned herself more than she played. The others were having a blast though. Both at the game, and at Nico’s and Hazel’s embarrassment.

When dinner rolled around, they gathered at the Hades table. Chiron was about to complain, when out of nowhere, Will presented a note. Chiron seemed defeated while Will smiled innocently at his stunt; a doctor’s note where he excused the company at the Hades table by using Nico’s mental health and well-being as a catalyst. Nico didn’t complain about it. Because who, ever complained about gaming the rules? They sat in their stupid party hats and the others still teased Nico and Hazel about their reaction to Cards Against Humanity. Nico got them back by creating small localised earthquakes that had them choking on their food and drink.

He was already tired when they went back to his cabin to lounge around, and he wondered if the others would stay over at camp. It was kind of nice to have most of them gathered. Sure, Frank and Reyna hadn’t been able to tag along because of their Praetor duties, but Hazel said they sent their best. Nico sat against his bed, Hazel on one side, Will on the other. He’d somehow found a hole in-between all of the crazy to properly introduce them to each other. He had felt a bit tongue tied, and a bit silly, because it wasn’t like they didn’t know each other or their relation to Nico. This was just the first time they had physically been in the same proximity since Nico and Will started dating.

Nico leaned his head against Will, listening to the others’ stories about how school and homework was. Jason was ranting about his Pontifex Maximus project and how it was a bit larger than he initially had thought. Leo talked about living with Calypso, Emmie, and Jo. It sounded really nice, Nico thought. Hazel spoke fondly of Camp Jupiter and how it was to lead a cohort. Nico greatly admired her and felt a surge of pride for his sister. He could fall asleep like this.

As his eyelids drooped, the others seemed to remember themselves. Both Percy and Annabeth had promised Sally to come back for the night. Jason and Piper had promised Piper’s dad the same, and Leo had promised Calypso he’d also make it back at least before midnight. Only Hazel would stay at camp this time around, and even though it wasn’t exactly what Nico had hoped, he was still glad.

They got up to break, Nico standing with them. But none of them headed to the door. Instead, Will placed Nico in front of his bed, and stood next to him as he accepted presents from his guests. Even though he knew it was customary to give gifts at a birthday, he hadn’t expected it.

Annabeth gave him a history book of Italy, from the 1920’s up to modern time. She said she’d hoped to find something dating a bit farther back for him, but Nico honestly didn’t mind. He was too happy for words. Percy gave him a parrot plush toy with an eye-patch and made a dumb pirate joke. The others chuckled at Nico’s embarrassment, and Nico shoved Percy, pretending he didn’t care for the parrot, but secretly, he really loved it. Jason gave him an amazing, up-to-date, sword-cleaning-kit, including a sharpening tool, and Nico gave him half a hug for it. Piper gave him a bracelet she had braided herself of multicoloured pieces of threat with a cactus charm on it. She explained to him that Native Americans believed the cactus to represent protection and endurance, so a cactus charm was believed to help people endure tough situations. Nico put it on immediately and was just about to hug her when she added a home-made dream catcher for his nightmares to the mix. Even though Nico wasn’t that superstitious, he was immensely grateful for Piper’s kind thoughts. Leo gave him a set of fireproof clothes he and Calypso had made and tested together. Although Nico wasn’t sure when he would ever need it—or wear it—he thanked Leo nonetheless, and told him to thank Calypso for him.

Last up was Hazel. She carried three gifts with her. One from Reyna, one from Frank, and one from herself. Reyna’s gift was a full spa-treatment day at Camp Jupiter for him and a friend of his own choice. He could cash it in at any time and Nico was so happy he might have let out a single laugh. Frank’s gift was a binder with Mythomagic cards. Hazel let him know Frank had found all the cards he had extra copies of, and collected them for Nico, hoping they could have a match next time they saw each other. Nico told Hazel to tell Frank he was on. As for herself, Hazel pulled out a large canvas where she’d painted a family portrait that had Nico in tears. Hades/Pluto in the back, splitting down the middle, holding a hand on either of their mothers’ shoulders. Hazel, Nico, and Bianca were in the front, Nico between his sisters. He hugged Hazel tight, choking on his tears, not embarrassed about it.

He waved them all goodbye as they had to leave, and while Hazel hung up the portrait in the cabin, Will turned to him with a smile and gave him a half-hug, presenting his own present.

“I don’t think anyone can top what Hazel got for you. But hey, I tried.”

Nico snorted and took Will’s present. “It’s not about who gives the best present, Will. You all put thoughts into it, so I appreciate it regardless. Truly.”

He unwrapped Will’s present and saw a CD with a hand-drawn cover. The drawing depicted a skeleton with a beating heart. It wasn’t anything pretty or extraordinaire, but Nico could decipher it nonetheless. There was writing on the cover; Best of Nico di Angelo.

“It’s your favourite songs,” Will told. “I figured you’d like it, since you finally got a CD player.”

Nico nodded and smiled. “Thanks.”

“There’s more.” Will shuffled a bit. Almost shyly?

Nico gave Will the CD and dug further into the box until his hands caught a leather cord with what could only be two beads on it. One of the beads was the one all the campers got after the battle of Manhattan, and the other bead was the one they all got after defeating Gaea.

“I noticed you never got a leather chord, or beads,” Will said. “So I decided to get at least those two for you, since you were vital to our success. You deserve them as much as the rest of us do.”

Nico was almost embarrassed by how much he’d been teary-eyed today, so he wiped his eyes before he got started, and hugged Will tight. Just for good measure, he gave Will a kiss as well.

Will smiled into the kiss. “Happy birthday, Nico di Angelo.”