To everyone else, a ring, normally associated with marriage, symbolizes happiness, finding your soul mate after many long years of solitude, being there for someone and having someone there for you. A ring can also mean fashion, an object worn with pride, high status.
But to Nico, it means nothing more than moving on to the next life, having your soul sucked out of your body, leaving loved ones, funerals, grieving, nightmares, blood, blood, blood.
To Nico, a ring means death.
Nico di Angelo thinks his eyes are going bad; bad to the point that he starts seeing necklaces as thick, grey rings.
That day, the day it all starts, he is out playing soccer with some friends when a member of the opposing team swings his leg back before releasing it forwards, making direct contact with the ball. The ball sails through the air and the other players were already exchanging high-fives because the ball definitely looks like it's about to go in the net; there's no way anyone can stop them from scoring.
Nico tries to play the hero. "I got it!" He yells, sprinting across the field to get in between the ball and the net just in time. He can feel the adrenaline pumping through his veins, the excitement rushing through him, and he already hears the cheers from his team that is about to come.
And he is grinning; smiling wider than he ever has before, smiling until the world around him starts spinning, a throbbing pain manifesting in his head as he spirals downwards and lands on hard soil with a thump. He sees members of both teams rushing over to him, screaming, worried, but he can't hear anything coming out of their rapidly moving mouths. It takes him a long, long time to realize that the ball had hit him hard and that he is hurt. Damaged. Injured.
There is no panic going on within Nico. His hand moves at a snail's pace to touch his right eye, the one that made direct contact with the ball. He presses down on it to sooth the strong pulsing sensation that he is feeling and realizes that he can barely open his eye anymore. It hurts, it takes a while for his mind to register the thought but eventually, he is screaming internally. Help! It hurts!
And then he feels something sticky, like half-dried glue. Nico runs his fingers over the spot and rubs his hands together. More of the sticky substance.
He brings his hand in front of him and holds it up against the blinding sunlight. He squints to get a better look.
There is no panic. There is only blood.
Nico closes his eyes now, allowing the world around him to fade away; the ground chips off slowly, the sky collapses, and the scenery that was once beautiful is swallowed up by darkness.
It's suffocating, Nico's brain slowly, very slowly, formulates the thought. The air is being sucked out of his lungs and amidst the darkness, he is able to see the outline of a person—at least he thinks it's a person.
When he blinks, the figure is gone.
Nico wakes up with an unbearable pain in his eyes.
At first, he thinks that he might be dead. But then the pain interrupts his thoughts and he concludes that yes, he is still alive because he can still sense, can still feel. He is alive, he repeats to himself. He is alive and wishes that he is dead so the stinging in his eyes can go away.
His eyelids flutter open and the change in atmosphere almost makes him laugh aloud. He is surrounded by white—white walls, white tables, white beds, white, white. He wants to laugh because the white is so bright that it's blinding and although he is covered in sheets on a bed, he feels naked, exposed; he thinks that he may have even preferred to stay in that dark, dark place from before.
It takes him a few minutes to realize that here are other people in the room with him. Two people staring down at him, just inches away from his face, too close.
He thinks, thank god, because there is finally something other than white to look at. He stares back at them—a girl and a woman—unblinking; the darker colours help to ease the throbbing in his eyes and soon enough, the pain goes away altogether. There is an image on the girl's shirt: a skull printed in a smooth black colour. Nico's eyes travel to that spot and he continues to stare there as if he is being drawn towards it because he finds strange comfort in the shade of black.
"How are you feeling?" A voice calls out to him, startling Nico. The sudden sound is too loud, he thinks, too loud in this room with no other nose than the steady drip drip drip from the unclosed sink.
He sits up slowly, propping himself up with his elbows, and stares at the woman who just spoke—the doctor, the nurse, whatever. His gaze lingers at her neck, where a light grey necklace is fastened tightly around her skin. It's just a normal necklace that doesn't even have any special design on it, but it looks so wrong on her neck, so out-of-place that Nico almost reaches out and yanks it off.
"I'm fine," he replies, his voice surprisingly steady. He has to bite his tongue to stop himself from rudely asking, What's wrong with you? Why are you wearing that ugly necklace?
The doctor smiles gently, truly relieved, and the girl beside her latches herself onto Nico and hugs him tightly while he remains unmoving. He can tell that she is crying because of the wetness he now feels on his left shoulder and he wonders how long he was out, how long he spent with that nameless figure in the dark place. When the girl pulls back and finally releases him from her grip, he realizes just how familiar she looks. Something in his brain clicks.
Bianca, he thinks. His sister.
He takes a better look at her: he sees the dark circles under her shining eyes; her tear-stained cheeks; her messy, almost curly, black hair; and the same goddamn necklace around her neck. Anger courses through him and he finds himself glaring at the piece of jewellery as if it has stolen his favourite deck of Mythomagic cards. Why is she wearing that hideous necklace? Is this a new fashion trend he is unaware of?
And the weird thing is that it seems like everyone has started to wear necklaces—even the boys and the babies and the elderly. When Nico is discharged from the hospital, he looks around on the street and in the few hours that he had been unconscious, everyone had somehow gotten their hands on one of the dull, grey necklaces.
Bianca hugs him again once they are outside and smiles widely. "I'm so glad that you're okay! I was so worried when I heard you hit your head…" Nico tunes out the rest of what she is saying and his gaze once again travels to the ring around her neck and he continues to stare at it the entire twenty-minute walk back to their house, eyebrows furrowing in frustration and confusion.
Eventually, he simply learns to accept it and doesn't question it any further.
Fast-forward a few years...
When Nico di Angelo truly realizes what is going on, he is already far, far too late.
He thinks nothing of it at first because he can see the grey rings around necks of people everywhere: the people passing by on the street, the little kids at the daycare, the elderly couples at the park going for a morning stroll—they all have it. He's seen the rings his whole life, the shades of grey differing with each person, usually getting darker as they got older. There are rings on all of his friends and when he looked into a mirror, there would be one on him too. At the moment, his is a light grey colour—not so dark that it's unpleasing to the eye, but dark enough that there's no way he can possibly miss it.
He looks over at Bianca who is currently in the driver's seat of their new car and sees that the ring around her neck is a little darker than his, a little thicker than his, like it has been his entire life. As they continue to drive down the street, his hands move to his neck where his ring is and, just like all the other times, feels nothing but long, uncut fingernails against flesh. It's weird because after fourteen years, he still hasn't figured out what they are and why he's the only one who can see them.
That's right: no one else can see them for some reason. He once asked Bianca about it and she looked at him as if he was on drugs and he shut up after that.
Reaching out to touch his sister's neck, he is once again met with Bianca's stare of confusion. She turns her attention away from the road for a second to give him a pointed look. "Quit touching my neck. What's wrong with you?"
And Nico smiles sheepishly, retracts his fingers, and is about to reply to say that he doesn't know either, that he wants to know why all this started happening himself, when his eyes widen and his throat runs dry and he freezes on the spot because the once grey-coloured ring around Bianca's neck suddenly turns into a dark, dark black in less than a second.
The next thing he knows, there is a loud, blaring honk of a car's horn and Bianca quickly jerks the steering wheel to the right, tires squeaking, in attempt to avoid the car that is recklessly approaching them.
Nico's seen enough movies to know when the driver turns just a second too late and crashes despite all the effort, so when he sees Bianca's gritted teeth and white knuckles and the bright, blinding headlight in front of them, he knows that it is too late for them. But they aren't in a movie so he prays to Zeus, wishing to live another day with his naggy, overprotective, girly sister.
However, it isn't Zeus who answers his call; instead, it is Hades.
Because a week later, he is dressed in black from head-to-toe. Because a week later, his expression is grim, his eyes dull and blank; his lips pressed into a thin line, not smiling, thinking that he won't ever smile again.
Because a week later, Nico is attending his sister's funeral.
He stands there perfectly still as the small crowd begins to leave the funeral. He is embraced in too many hugs to count, watching people walk past him with tears rolling silently down their cheeks while he stays rigid, arms hanging at his side and head lowered. Nico is the only one who is not crying—has not cried since the beginning of the accident because it is Bianca who taught him to stay strong even when things are at its worst.
But Bianca is no longer there to remind him of that—she is no longer there to remind him of anything.
Bianca is gone.
Suddenly the air is suffocating. He needs to walk away from here. It is just him now in an empty graveyard and a bunch of flowers beneath his sister's name. Nico urges his legs to move, faster, faster, and when the reality of the situation crashes down on him, he want to curse and swear and scream but his throat is so dry that it hurts just to swallow.
Walking down the street, hands hidden in his pockets so that no one can see them shaking, he realizes just how alone he is. There is no Bianca beside him to hold his hand when crossing the street; there is no Bianca to talk his ears off when the silence gets too awkward; there is no Bianca to tell him to hurry up, Nico, why are you always dragging your feet? or else dinner will get cold; there is no Bianca at all.
Out of the corner of his eye, he sees a little girl walking happily with her parents, holding a balloon. She is so happy that, for a moment, Nico thinks it's unfair how she can smile like that while he is on the verge of breaking apart. For a moment, he can see his past self there in the girl's place, making his way down the familiar street with his sister. When he blinks, the image is gone and the girl—Nico's eyes widens when he sees it—the girl's balloon is blown to the middle of the street.
The girl looks so panicked when the balloon is gone from her hands that she dashes after it without a second thought. Nico watches as she crosses the road hurriedly, hands reaching out to grab the string that is hovering just above her head. Nico watches as the ring around her neck turns a pitch black.
He knows her fate. Just a few seconds before it happens, he already knows.
A car drives into view at sixty miles per hour.
Say something! His brain screams. You can save her!
"Watch ou—!" The word out dies in his throat because it's too late. He can already see the blood.
As the girl's parents rush over to her and the driver comes out to call an ambulance, Nico knows that she is dead already; he doesn't need a doctor to tell him that. The grey ring around her neck is gone. And she is gone from this world.
Killed by a car. Just like Bianca.
Nico runs, sprinting as fast as he can. He bumps into an elderly couple but he doesn't care; he has witnessed too many deaths recently and he just can't take it anymore. He is shaking and his breath is hitched and he feels himself drowning as he runs, drowning in an ocean of corpses that he can't swim away from.
And it is only when he reaches out to turn the cold doorknob on his front door and steps into the now silent house he once shared with his sister that he collapses and finally allows the long overdue tears to fall. He yells in devastation, his sobs echoing throughout the house.
He cries his heart out both for his sister and for the little girl who got hit by the car.
Nico figures it out soon after, when he is finished grieving over everything and sits down to think about it calmly. The grey rings that he once thought was a fashion trend—after fourteen long years, he finally understands what they mean. And he thinks that he would've preferred them to stay as simply jewellery.
The rings are almost like a timer. It counts down, getting darker the older a person is. It counts down... until the person dies.
A death timer. But no, that isn't the right term for it.
Nico knows deep down that his hypothesis is correct, even when he doesn't want to believe it. He thinks back to when he was in the car with Bianca and how, just before they crashed, the ring around her neck that had been a dull, grey colour suddenly turned black. And how, when the little girl went out onto the street to chase after the balloon, her ring morphed from a light grey, almost white, to black the second before the car hit her.
The evidence is there. And it makes sense: the older a person gets, the closer they are to dying, which is why the rings on the elderly are darker than the ones on newborn babies. Which is why Nico's ring was always lighter-coloured than Bianca's.
It sometimes even gets to the point where the rings are almost pitch black—almost too dark to notice if the person has black-coloured hair—and so thick that it's as if the ring is squeezing the person, chocking the life out of them slowly until they are devoured completely. But they are never white, never completely pure.
Because no one lives forever and everyone dies eventually.
He still isn't completely sure about everything, though. Like: Why is he the only one who can see them? And since the rings can suddenly turn dark, does that mean they only count down to when a person dies from natural causes? Just how accurate are they?
But now, after getting hit by a soccer ball, after going to the hospital for immediate treatment twice, after he watched Bianca and a little girl die, after realizing that the grey rings grow darker and thicker as the person ages, Nico finally has a name for them and that's good enough for now. The name fits perfectly, but at the same time, just the thought of it leaves a bitter taste in his mouth.
The rings of death.