Will insisted on joining him at the Hades table for dinner.
Nico isn’t uncomfortable or bothered, per se, but he is a bit annoyed. Will had already been following him around all day (well, maybe Nico had been doing most of the following as Will’s busy schedule jumped from his infirmary shift to archery class to music practice and back again), and that was plenty of socialization for one day, thank you very much. Will should know by now that if he really wants to be on Nico’s good side, it would be best to interact with him in small doses.
“Are you going to eat that?”
Nico glances up to see Will pointing at his small pile of broccoli with his fork and shrugged. “Do you want it?”
His stare is as sharp as his utensils. “I want you to eat it. You need at least one serving of vegetables a day, Nico.”
And this is exactly why Nico wishes his doctor would have prescribed him only one daily serving of Will Solace.
“I’m not hungry,” he replies.
Will just raises an eyebrow. “And whose fault is it that you ate all of your fries first?”
Nico pushes his plate away and leans back in his seat. “Let’s stop talking about food.
Though he first mutters something under his breath about the importance of a balanced diet, Will then gives in and stands. “Want to head to the campfire?”
“To eat s’mores?” He laughs at the glare he receives in return. “Okay, okay, I’m done, I promise. No s’mores; I’m not even hungry.”
Will nods, still standing over him. “But you’ll come with me?”
Something odd lurches in his heart that he hastily ignores, but Nico manages to nod. He is about to get up when a hand is offered straight to his face.
“Good,” Will said. His voice is strangely quiet, though it sounds like he's still trying to give it its usual edge. “Let’s go, then.”
After staring at his hand for what is probably far longer than the acceptable length of time for hand-staring, Nico takes it briefly, standing and then dropping it like it’s poisonous. If Will is weirded out by any of his actions, he doesn’t show it. Still, Nico silently curses himself for being so painfully awkward.
The thing is, he’s still getting used to this whole regular, healthy socialization stuff. He has been to the campfire with Will probably a dozen times since the end of the war, so why is the back of his neck itching more than usual this time? Why does he smell something strange in the air, and why does it seem like each step he takes feels heavy? Why does everything seem to be coated in dread?
But maybe he’s just nervous because Will changed into a light blue button-up after his infirmary shift had ended and because he complimented Nico’s new haircut (courtesy of Piper) earlier. Maybe. As they walk, though, taking deep breaths and focusing on things other than the person next to him doesn’t shake the fear that has settled in his nerves.
Will must be able to sense it. “Are you alright?”
Nico just nods and hums quietly. Will looks like he wanted to prod him further, but the nearby shouting of Lou Ellen and Cecil seems to catch his attention. He waves to the two of them, who have already found seats close to the fire pit, and they motion to the empty space next to them.
Will turns to him and slows his pace. “You okay with sitting with Lou and Cecil?”
Nico shrugs. “Sure. They’re fine.”
Will smiles, knowing that fine is quite the complement coming from the son of Hades. He returns his gaze to the building crowd in front of them, but almost immediately, his grin falls away, ousted by a frown and a creased brow.
“What is it?” Nico asks, still observing Will’s expression.
He simply points, and Nico follows the line of his index finger.
A hush falls over the cacophonous chatter and laughter he usually despises, though the amphitheater isn’t completely silent—it becomes a bubbling pot of whispers, gasps, and stutters that is somehow even more irksome. It bothers him in a different sort of way, he supposes; it signals something much darker and scarier than camp gossip. He hears a girl’s shriek, and the volume of the voices spikes for a moment before falling again. The bodies in front of him are still blocking his view, however, and he can’t see the object of their fear.
He can’t until the crowd suddenly parted, that is, and he realizes that it is staring directly at him.
Rachel Dare is standing in the middle of the amphitheater, her eyes glowing sickly green, glowing mist entwining around her arms and legs like ethereal serpents. It isn’t until she opens her mouth, which is also flooded with green, that Nico realizes she isn’t actually looking at him, but rather the person standing at his left shoulder.
“Four half-bloods will travel south,” the voice of the oracle hisses.
Nico hears the faint whisper of a younger camper nearby. “What’s going on?”
“It’s a prophecy,” someone replies. “Listen.”
She continues, her eyes unmoving. “To rescue me from the serpent’s mouth.”
There’s a sharp intake of breath beside him, but he doesn’t dare turn around.
“Three brave souls, accompanied by death—”
No, Nico begs. No more of this. Stop.
“The son of Apollo draws his final breath.”
And with that, the whole amphitheater watches as all of the green mist is pulled out of Rachel as if it’s being vacuumed. It condenses into small orb above her head for a moment, then shoots up into the sky like a rocket.
“That—that doesn’t usually happen after prophecies,” someone says, and then Rachel collapses.
A few people rush forward to help her, and the rest of the crowd dissolves into chaos. Some people are speaking loudly, others are talking in hushed voices, but the message is all the same—this is a prophecy. For a quest. And…
Nico turns around, and sure enough, he’s still there, staring at the spot where Rachel stood and blinking like he was just blinded by a camera flash.
“Will?” Nico asks hesitantly.
He blinks again and shakes his head. “I…” For once, he seems to be at a loss for words.
Nico bites his lip. “Um. Do you want to go somewhere quieter? To think about it?”
Will nods. “Yeah. Yeah, that’s probably a good idea.” He then turns his gaze to Nico. “Come with me?” His voice is so raw, so small compared to the cacophony surrounding them, and it hits Nico in the chest like a spear.
They turn away from the amphitheater and start walking, but almost immediately, they are ambushed by Lou Ellen and Cecil.
“Hey,” Lou sighs. “Will, I—I know you get to pick who goes with you, but we just want you to know that we—”
“I know,” he says. Then he beckons them to follow, and he continues walking.
Nico leads the four of them to the quietest place he can think of—cabin thirteen. He steps up on the porch, opens his front door, and holds it so they can all file inside.
He closes it behind him and turns to face the others. Will is already sitting on one of the beds, staring blankly at the wall, but Lou Ellen and Cecil are standing awkwardly in the center of the cabin, glancing around like they’re afraid to touch everything.
Cecil catches his eye and frowns. “I’ve, uh, never been in here before.”
Nico gestures to the other empty bed—the one Hazel uses when she visits. “Have a seat.”
The two of them sit down gingerly, and Nico joins Will on his own bed, leaving a respectable amount of distance between them. For a moment, they’re all silent. No one wants to be the first to speak. They’re all waiting for…
“So,” Will finally says. “I can’t say this is entirely unexpected.”
Cecil nods. “Yeah. Your father’s been M.I.A. for the whole summer. This must have something to do with that.”
“To rescue me from the serpent’s mouth,” Lou Ellen chimes in. “It must be the oracle itself speaking, right? And then the way it seemed to vanish at the end…it’s like it got captured.”
Nico nods. “It predicted its own kidnapping. And the serpent—Python, obviously. He was the one who originally guarded the Oracle of Delphi before Apollo killed him.”
Lou Ellen nods. “Exactly. So we—I mean, Will has to rescue the oracle from Python like his father did.”
At her obvious slip-up, everyone falls silent again. Nico glances at Will. He’s still staring at nothing, hunched forward and resting his forearms on his knees.
It’s Cecil who speaks up next. “It’s kinda weird that it says ‘four half-bloods’ at the beginning but then ‘three brave souls’ in the third line, huh?”
“Accompanied by death,” Lou Ellen repeats. Then her eyes widen. “Maybe…maybe one of the four gets…” She can’t finish her sentence, and Nico doesn’t blame her.
“I don’t like it either,” he admits. “But you have to remember that prophecies can always have double meanings.”
She nods, but Nico can tell she’s still uneasy.
“I think we should talk to Annabeth,” he says. “She knows a lot about mythology and could help us interpret this thing. Also, she’s been on a lot of quests.”
Suddenly, Will laughs. “You’re all ignoring it.”
All eyes turn to him.
“What?” Cecil asks.
“The last line,” Will says, grinning, but there’s no humor in his eyes. “The son of Apollo draws his final breath.”
No one responds.
Yeah. Of course, it would need to be brought up at some point, but Nico did not want to think about it. He didn’t even want to think about what thinking about it might do to him. He didn’t want to confront how exactly it made him feel.
“I know we have to think about double meanings,” Will continues, “but to be honest, I don’t see any other way you could interpret that.”
Cecil clears his throat after a moment. “Uh, Will? You don’t…have to do this. If you don’t want to. I mean, it says ‘the son of Apollo,’ right? That doesn’t have to be you.”
Will finally raises his head, and he glares across the room at him. “Then who the hell would it be, Cecil? Austin? One of the little kids? Fucking Lee or Michael?” At their names, his voice cracks. “You’re wrong. It has to be me.”
An intense feeling of deja vu washes over Nico. When has he felt this way before?
He pushes it aside and tentatively reaches out, almost laying a hand on Will’s shoulder before he stops and puts it back down. “Will…it’s up to you. You have to choose whether you want to do this or not. But just know…” He glances at Cecil and Lou Ellen. “We’re all here for you. We’re going to support you either way.” He swallows. “And whether you like it or not, I’m going with you.”
That gets Will to lift his head again, and when he looks at him, Nico notices the tears welling up in his eyes.
“Nico, please. You’ve been through enough.”
He shakes his head. “No way. You’re the one who’s always telling me to open up and let myself be vulnerable with people. To take care of myself. There’s no way I’m letting you go out there and get yourself in trouble on your own.” He takes a deep breath. “Yeah, I’ve been through enough of this shit for a lifetime, but that just means that I can handle it. And no offense, but you’ve never done something like this before. So let me help you. Please.”
“I agree,” Lou Ellen says. “Will, you know Cecil and I aren’t staying behind, either. We couldn’t bear to. But neither of us have ever been on a quest before, either, so I think Nico’s right. We need him.”
Will blinks, and a tear rolls down his cheek. He lifts his hand and forcefully wipes it away. “I can’t…” He laughs softly. “I can’t believe you guys. You don’t trust me.”
Lou Ellen raises her eyebrows. “Do we really have any good reason to? I mean, you’ve risked your life on the battlefield and in the infirmary so many times, trying to save people. You’re always willing to let yourself die, and your friends have always had to stop you. Do you really think we trust you to go off on a quest without us and come back in one piece?”
Cecil nods. “Also, and no offense, man, but you suck at fighting. You wouldn’t hurt a fly. A monster lunges at you, and you’re gonna try to avoid killing it. You need someone with you—” He looks at Nico pointedly. “—who can do the killing for you.” He coughs. “Um, no offense to you, either, Nico.”
Just then, there’s a knock at the door. Nico jumps up from the bed and heads over to open it.
“Hey,” Annabeth greets. Her tone is light, but she’s twitchy with nerves. She drums her fingers against the notebook she’s holding. “Is Will in there? I just spoke with Chiron about everything. There are a few things I’m hoping I can pass on.”
“Yeah,” Nico replies. “Come on in.”
Annabeth follows him inside, and he opts to stand beside her instead of sitting back down next to Will.
“Hey, guys,” she greets. “I know you’re probably stressing over the prophecy.”
“That’s an understatement,” Cecil mutters.
She opens her notebook and folds the cover around to the back, holding it with one arm while she points to it with her index finger. “First things first. In Ancient Greece, Delphi was located at what was referred to as Axis Mundi—the center of the earth.”
“But isn’t that Latin?” Lou Ellen asks.
Annabeth nods. “You’re right. But Axis Mundi isn’t applicable just to the Romans; other cultures had their own versions of it as well. It’s just that the Latin name is most commonly used.” She moves her finger to the next line on the page. “The Greek version of Axis Mundi was believed to be in a city called Phocis. But, of course, Olympus used to be in Thessaly. And while the physical version still stands there…” She looks up from her notes. “The new home of the gods is the Empire State Building.”
Will stares at her. “So you’re saying this ‘center of the earth’ is also in a different place now?”
She nods again. “Precisely. Phocis was in the center of Greece, so it made sense at the time. But now that the gods reside in America, Axis Mundi is probably somewhere in this country, too.”
“Probably?” Cecil echoes.
Annabeth bites her lip. “Well, yeah. We don’t know for sure. We’ve never had any reason to look for it.” She then points to something else in her notes. “But the prophecy gives us a clue. Four half-bloods will travel south. So it’s likely somewhere south of here.”
“Great,” Cecil deadpans. “That really narrows it down.”
“So you think Python will be at this Axis Mundi place?” Will asks.
She nods. “I do.” Then she sighs. “Will, I feel really bad. I hate that you have to do this. I guess I thought…I was hoping that we’d be done with quests for a while.”
“We all were,” Will replies. “It’s unfair. But we just have to accept it.”
The way he says accept it fills Nico with dread. He doesn’t want to accept it. Not if it’s going to end in…
“Are you taking them with you?” Annabeth asks. She’s glancing around the room, but her eyes land back on Will. “Lou Ellen, Cecil, and Nico?”
Will hesitates for a second, but then he nods. “Yeah. If I say no, they’re just going to come chasing after me, anyway. So I might as well make it official.”
“Yes!” Cecil cheers, pumping his fist. “There you go, man.”
Lou Ellen just smiles, and Nico locks eyes with Will for a moment.
He can tell that he’s trying to hide it, but there’s no concealing the fear Nico sees. He’s scared, and rightfully so. He shouldn’t have to do this. Like he said, it’s unfair.
But unlike him, Nico isn’t going to just accept it. He’s going to fight it. He’s going to fight to make sure Will doesn’t have to. It scares him, how much he knows he’s willing to do to protect him. He doesn’t really want to think about why. But he knows that he will.
“Well,” Annabeth says, and they both look back to her. “I wish you all the best of luck. I’ll try to help from here as much as I can. I’m going to keep researching. If I find anything else, I’ll shoot you an Iris Message.” She then turns to leave but glances over her shoulder one last time before she opens the door. “Go easy on the shadow travel, Nico. I’m sure Will is going to tell you the same thing if he hasn’t already, but we don’t want a repeat of the Athena Parthenos.” Then, with one last grim smile, she’s gone.
Nico faces Will again, and he’s already nodding. “She’s right. If you think you’re going to be shadow traveling us all over the place until we find this Axis Mundi, you’re wrong.”
He raises his hands in surrender. “Wasn’t planning on it. But I can still cover transportation.”
Will raises his eyebrows. “How?”
“I’ve got this zombie chauffeur,” Nico explains.
Nico glares at Cecil. “It’s a gift from my dad. He can drive for as long as you want, since he’s dead and doesn’t get tired. It’ll obviously take longer than shadow travel, but…”
“It won’t kill you?” Will asks.
Nico resists rolling his eyes. “Yeah.”
Cecil leans back on his hands. “So, when do we leave?”
“How does tomorrow morning sound?” Will asks. “We’ll leave bright and early so we have plenty of daylight.”
“Works for me,” Lou Ellen says. Nico and Cecil nod in agreement. Then she glances out the window. “It’s pretty late. We should head back to our cabins.”
Will freezes for a moment, but then he stands. “Yeah. Yeah, you’re right.” He looks at each of them. “See you guys tomorrow.”
Nico nods. “See you tomorrow.”
He opens the door for them, and all three file out. Once they’re gone, he heads over to his bed and flops down on his back. It’s still warm from Will sitting there.
He wonders briefly what’s going on outside—if they ever got to have their campfire, or if everyone was too panicked. If any of Will’s other friends are looking for him. Or—oh, gods, his siblings.
Nico was fairly well acquainted with the Apollo cabin, as he spent most of his free time either helping out in the infirmary or being forced to catch up on the decades of music he missed while Austin and a few others explained to him the importance of each individual band and artist. He begged Will to get them to stop, but Will just laughed, because he knew that he actually enjoyed it. He had even taken a liking to a few of the bands Austin raved about and had started listening to more of their music in his own time while cleaning up his cabin or training in the arena. Once, Austin caught him humming to himself in the infirmary and almost had a heart attack.
If there’s one word to describe the Apollo kids, it’s passionate.
They’re passionate about music, sure, and Kayla about archery, and Will about medicine and surgery and some other weird things that Nico did not need to hear about during breakfast, thank you very much, but most of all, they’re passionate about each other. The bond between them is insanely strong, more so, Nico thinks, than that of any other cabin. He knows that Will would risk his life for any of them, and they would risk their lives for him.
So he can only imagine how terrified they must be.
Only a few seconds after he’s lied down, his thoughts are interrupted by another knock on his door.
He doesn’t want to answer it, but he has no idea who it would possibly be, so he gets up out of curiosity. When he opens it, he just stands there, at a loss for words.
“Hey,” Will says softly, his voice a stark contrast to how it sounded when he was upset with his friends just a few minutes prior. “I…do you mind if I spend the night here? I can’t go back to my cabin. I…don’t want to see them just yet.”
Nico blinks, and then he steps aside, leaving an opening in the doorway. “Yeah. I mean, that’s fine. I don’t mind.”
He smiles, and it’s small, but it’s still there. “Thank you, Nico.”
After he comes in, Nico shuts the door behind them. He heads back to his bed while Will goes to Hazel’s, but then he thinks better of it and opens his dresser instead. He picks through his clothes and finds two pairs of pajama pants, keeping one for himself and holding one out to Will.
“Here. I’ll get changed in the bathroom, you can stay in here.”
Will stares at them for a moment but then takes them. “Thanks.”
After Nico quickly changes in the bathroom, he comes back out and heads straight for his bed. It’s been an exhausting day, and he absolutely does not want to think about anything to do with the quest or the prophecy anymore. Will is already lying down, too, on top of the covers and staring at the ceiling. Nico sort of feels bad, wondering if he should talk to him, but he has no idea what to say. He’s terrible at comforting people.
Fortunately, Will speaks first. “Thank you.”
Nico turns his head to the side on his pillow to look at him. “It’s no problem.”
“No,” Will says. “Not just for letting me stay here. Or for the pajamas. For everything, Nico.”
Nico blinks. “What?”
Will rolls onto his side to face him from across the room. “You didn’t have to help out in the infirmary for the past two months. You didn’t have to pull me away from that crowd earlier. You didn’t have to volunteer to go on the quest with me.” He smiles. “But you did. So thanks.”
“Oh,” is all Nico can say. He pauses for a moment. “Um. You’re welcome?”
Will laughs a little and shifts onto his back again. “Good night.”
Nico decides to turn away, too. “Good night,” he echoes.
“See you in the morning.”