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Tribulations

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Art by Ryuuringo

Nico pulled off his black leather gloves and unwrapped his scarf. Hazel had taken up knitting and insisted on making one for him with wide black and white stripes. He’d requested a solid black one but Hazel was always trying to get him to wear other colors. White wasn’t so bad, at least it was better than the superhero boxer briefs she’d bought him. Actually, he liked the underwear but would never admit it. It was an idea she’d gotten because he’d started reading comic books. They were a nice distraction in the underworld and he needed something like that. The inflow of dead from the wars had overwhelmed Hades’ kingdom, which had already been fit to burst before. Nico called himself “helping” but the truth was that he was doing busy work.

“Why can’t you just stay here with me?” Hazel would ask and he would smile and say he just didn’t belong here. He had only ever visited Camp Jupiter as an ambassador of Pluto but he’d never felt comfortable with the idea of staying. Maybe it was because he wasn’t born from his father’s Roman persona, or maybe he just didn’t belong anywhere. He’d made good on his threat to some degree. After the war he left Camp Half-Blood and had not been back the last eleven months. He tried to disappear altogether but he just couldn’t stop visiting Hazel every so often. He missed her when he was away and she couldn’t come visit him in the underworld. They were still afraid that their father would not be able to ignore her existence if she were in his palace.

They were sitting in in a coffee shop in New Rome and unlike Camp Half-Blood the Romans didn’t have magical weather control so it was chilly. Nico had an espresso and Hazel was sipping some warm mulled cider loaded with whipped cream and caramel. It was warm inside the shop and the smell of coffee and baked goods was a welcome change from the uniquely unpleasant aroma of the underworld. The place was pretty busy and the hot drinks were selling fast but there were still some people opting for the cold ones that were more milkshake than coffee. He and Hazel were sitting at a corner table in cushy chairs.

“I swear I’m buying you a coat next,” she said looking at his thin, black long-sleeve shirt with disapproval. She was in a baby blue turtle neck sweater and had her own white scarf to go with it.

“What?” Nico said smiling at her. “I don’t get as cold as normal people.”

“You say that but I’m still afraid you’ll catch the flu,” she said looking concerned. “And you still look so thin. You can’t lie and say it’s still the seeds. It’s been too long.”

He didn’t like thinking about his time in that jar. The pomegranate seeds from the underworld had saved his life but a side effect was his loss of appetite. His body had to readjust to mortal food which wouldn’t have been a problem except he had used the seeds right after surviving the nightmare of Tartarus. He had been weak from injury, dehydration, and lack of food before being captured and shoved into a jar. Using the seeds when his body was in the worst possible shape had exaggerated the negative effects.

“My body is still recovering but I am getting better,” he promised. Just to prove it he picked up one of her madeleines and ate half of it in one bite. She gave him a humoring smile and started telling him about everything he’d missed the last four months. She told him how Frank had really taken well to the position of Praetor, how demi-gods could visit both camps now, how Jason decided to stay at Camp Half-Blood after helping Frank assume his post…

“Oh…” she stopped suddenly.

“What?” he asked.

“And Annabeth is here…in New Rome…finishing up high school. She’s gonna go to the university,” she said cautiously. There was something there in her gold eyes --an anxiety that confused him.

“Really? She must be happy. Is Percy here with her?” Nico tried to sound nonchalant but he was nervous. Running into the famous power couple was not something he wanted to do.

“No…they broke up actually,” she said quickly and picked up her mug. He just stared at her as she fidgeted under his gaze and tried to occupy herself with sipping the drink.

“Broke up?” he asked. “No.”

“They did, she told me herself,” Hazel confirmed. “I saw her almost right after your last visit and she was registering for classes.”

“What happened?” his voice was a mixture of anger and disbelief.

“Well, she was kind of reluctant to talk about it, but she said that while they still care about each other, they just want different things now. I think Annabeth was tired of being a hero,” Hazel said sympathetically. “I think she just wanted to do her own thing.”

“And what about Percy?”

“He’s still at Camp Half-Blood. The last I heard from Jason is that they were doing Lord Mercury a favor. Something about Percy promising to find all his demi-god children and make sure they got to camp safely.”

“Yeah, I think I heard him talking about it, but that was a while ago,” Nico said confused.

“Well, it’s not like he’s had time before now. That whole thing with the prophecy, losing his memory, coming here, then Gaea and the war…”

“Yeah…” he agreed. Hazel gave him a sad look and smiled.

“You could go back,” she said softly. “He probably needs more friends around him now.”

Nico just stared down at his coffee.

“I can’t lie. I think you need to see him…for yourself I mean. I know you were hurting because of your feelings but is not being around him even working?”

“So, did you finish that painting?” he asked instead of answering. Hazel glared at him.

“Don’t do that!” she said quietly. “You kept me in the dark about what was bothering you since the day we met! Jason knew before me!” She was practically hissing at him, her anger clashing with her attempt to keep their conversation private.

“I never meant for him to know-”

“It doesn’t matter! I’m your sister, I love you, and it still hurts me that you felt like you couldn’t tell me! You didn’t trust me!”

“Hazel, I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” Nico said again because he could see her eyes turning glassy. “It’s not that I didn’t trust you. I was just scared of saying it out loud…of everything.”

It was true. Once everything calmed down he had finally taken Jason’s advice and told Hazel. Her immediate reaction had been to hug him and cry and then she got angry, especially when she found out it was Jason who suggested that he tell her.

“If people knew…that would make it real,” he said looking away from her.

“Nico, there is nothing wrong with you,” she said sincerely. “The only person who has a problem with it is you.”

“How can you be so okay with… with me?” he asked, looking back at her.

“Maybe because I was never taught that it was wrong. I don’t think it would matter if I had been. I couldn’t imagine treating someone that way –especially not my brother. I’ve dealt with hatred too. People hated my hair, my skin, my mother, and I hated myself because of my curse. I remember what that feels like.”

Nico suddenly felt stupid and self-centered. Hazel had dealt with a lot more animosity than him. They were both treated as outcasts because of their father but while he could hide his other insecurity, Hazel couldn’t. She’d told him about her childhood and it made him angry because he thought she was perfect the way she was. He almost laughed because she had said as much to him ever since he told her about his feelings. He reached across the table to take her hand and she smiled at him.

“You should go see him,” she said again.

“I’ll think about it,” he said.


 

It didn’t take much thinking. After leaving Hazel he shadow traveled directly to Camp Half-Blood. He did want to see Percy and he still couldn’t believe he and Annabeth were over. He debated just hanging around and hiding in the shadows to catch a glimpse of him, but in the end he decided he was a bit braver than that. He still didn’t want to go straight for Percy so instead he went to the big house and was surprised to see Percy was there. He was sitting on the porch talking to Chiron.

“Nico!”

“Mr. Di Angelo!”

“Hey,” he mumbled walking up the steps. And then Percy jumped up and grabbed him, hugging him around shoulders. Nico froze mid-step, so shocked that he couldn’t return the hug.

“Where have you been?” Percy demanded in his ear and pulled back to look at him.


 

“See! He couldn’t stay away once he heard his beloved’s heart was possibly broken! For that matter, the fact that he ran and was willing to be alone forever is proof of his love!”

“Affection only, that does not prove true love. And even if it is so, it is one-sided and unrequited.”

“Forgive me, my lady, but are you blind to what happens right in front of you all the time or only now?”

“I see an embrace between friends –old allies—not true love.”


 

“Umm, sorry?” Nico said, still in shock. He was honestly speechless. How could he organize his thoughts while confronted with those angry green eyes?

“Percy, perhaps you could let him go?” Chiron said gently. Percy huffed and sat back down.

“Nico, we’ve all been worried,” Chiron said glancing at Percy.

“I was helping my father in the underworld,” he replied. Percy was looking at him like he wanted to explode. “It’s a real mess down there now after all that’s happened…” Chiron nodded like he understood but Percy…

“You could have told us where you were! You could have said something, Nico! You just disappeared!”

“I told Jason I was leaving!” He shot back. He was starting to think he shouldn’t have come. Being yelled at by Hazel was enough.

“And you didn’t even tell him where you were going!”


 

“Still convinced they are going to survive?” she asked smugly.

“That is concern you’re seeing,” the other woman said with the tone of explaining something very obvious to someone very slow. “I’m sorry it’s so hard to spot behind the disguise of anger.”

“Let’s just see if he takes the bait.”


 

They glared at each other for a few seconds before Chiron cleared his throat.

“Well, you’re back now and you’re safe. Percy, perhaps you’d want to take Nico inside to see Jason?”

“Why is Jason in the big house?” Nico asked.

“Jason was hurt on our last mission,” Percy said, and Nico could see his anger ebbing out, giving room for concern. “He’s been helping me find the children of Hermes and some monsters spotted us. My injuries were pretty minor, a little nectar and ambrosia and I was fine in two days but Jason has a broken bone and that takes longer to heal.”

Nico followed Percy inside and up the stairs. Jason was in the second room on the right. When they walked in Jason was sitting up in a queen-sized bed with a coke in one hand and the television remote in the other. His right leg was in a cast and propped up on some pillows. He was watching something with really bad acting from what Nico could see.

“A soap opera? Really?” Percy said mockingly.

“I’m watching for the plot!” Jason yelled and then he noticed who was with Percy. “Nico!” He was actually a little grateful for the broken leg because he knew Jason would have bear-hugged him if he could have. “You said you weren’t coming back!” Jason said looking at him.

“Oh, so you were never coming back?” Percy asked with an attitude. Nico just hid behind his bangs. “Well, I’ll leave you two to catch up,” Percy said and stomped out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

“Don’t mind him, he’s been worried about you,” Jason said.

“He’s really showing it,” Nico said sarcastically.

“Really, Nico. He hounded me for days about letting you leave and how I should have stopped you or told him so he could have stopped you.”

"How are you?” Nico asked, deflecting the topic. Jason rolled his but let the subject change.

“I’m okay. A few more doses of nectar and ambrosia and I’ll be back on my feet. Piper went to get some food.” He gestured for Nico to sit in the chair next to the bed. “We’re worried though. We never got to Mercury’s son. Percy and I are a good team but together the monsters smell us so easily. I’m afraid we may have led them to the kid.”

“What’s going to happen?”

“Percy wants to go back by himself and Chiron is trying to talk him out of it.” Nico stared at the ridiculous soap opera and Jason stared at him.

“You could go help him,” he said. “I know you just got back but we’re kind of in a bind here. Percy doesn’t trust many people to have his back. I’m down, Leo is helping Calypso open a garage, and Annabeth is-”

“In New Rome,” Nico finished. “Hazel told me. How did that happen?”

“I don’t know much,” Jason said shrugging. “They were in a bad place for a while before the break up and then it was over. He took it pretty hard but tried to hide it, and between you and me, I think he’s throwing himself into these missions partly as a distraction. His emotions are swinging a little wild these days.” Nico let that sink in for a moment. There was something horrible about the thought of Percy hiding and bottling up his pain like Nico did.

“I’d go but he’s mad at me already.”

“I told you, he was just worried. Just talk to him and I bet it’ll clear up easy.”


 

He found Percy back on the porch sitting in a chair. Chiron nowhere in sight. Nico sat down in the chair on the other side of the table typically used for games of pinochle. He had no idea what to say, how to even approach this. He’d left because Hazel was right, he just couldn’t accept the part of himself that made him love Percy. And he could never tell Percy about the problem because –despite all of Jason’s reassurances—he couldn’t get over the fear that he would become an even bigger pariah.

Percy didn’t speak either so Nico just sat there looking out at the camp. He watched the other campers walking around, many of them in orange t-shirts like Percy. Some were sword fighting or climbing the lava wall and he realized that he had missed this place. He had the urge to go see his cabin but he knew he couldn’t leave the porch without fixing this.

“Percy…”

“You could have said something,” Percy cut him off. “I know you’re used to going off on your own but this time was…it was just mean, man. We were all dealing with so much but I was happy because we’d all survived and then you just vanish. It was like we lost you, like you’d died. Now I find out that you weren’t even going to come back.”

“I’m sorry. And yeah, I was planning on not coming back because the quests were over and I had no reason to stay, but I couldn’t leave Hazel,” he said sadly.

“Nico, some of us think of you as a friend. We don’t only need you when there’s a quest happening,” Percy said in an annoyed voice. Nico looked at him and felt a twisting pain of guilt mixed with affection and longing. Besides Hazel and –now—Jason, Percy was the only other person who had always seemed like he wanted Nico to stick around.

“Okay, I guess I know that now.”

“So what was it that brought you back?” Percy asked looking at him curiously. Nico didn’t look at him because if he did he would blush. He just trained his eyes on the volleyball court.

“I needed a vacation. I went to see Hazel before I came here.” He saw Percy nod and quietly sighed in relief.

“So what’s up about this son of Hermes?” he asked changing the subject.

“I need to go find him but Chiron keeps trying to pair me up with people who will only slow me down,” Percy said, sounding exasperated.

“Well, Jason thinks I could help you but if you’d rather go alone-”

“You’d go with me?” Percy asked blinking.

“If you want me to…” Nico said uncertainly.

“It’s a good idea. We’ve fought together so much…it could work,” Percy said. “I’ll go to the sword arena and tell Chiron. You’d better get ready to go because we can’t waste any time.”

Percy stood up and headed for the arena but before he’d gone too far he turned around and smiled at Nico, making his stomach flip.

“I’m glad you’re back, Nico,” he said simply and walked off.


 

“If only you could see the potential I see…” she said, “then you would not be insisting on this charade.”

“I see you overreacting over the tiniest bit of human emotion. That is why this is necessary.”

“And your own desires have no part to play?” she scoffed.

“Do not presume to know my desires.”


 

"It's good that you're going back," Chiron said when Percy told him what they had decided. "However, are you certain going with Nico di Angelo is a good idea?

"We'll be fine," Percy said. "Nico is a lot stronger than anybody else you've tried to pair me up with."

"I'm not questioning his abilities," Chiron said, shaking his head. "You have fallen out before, and another argument could endanger the son of Hermes further."

"Don't worry. We wouldn't let personal differences get in the way of the mission," Percy said. "Besides, he offered to come with me himself.  Maybe we can sort things out."

"If you're sure," Chiron said. "I wish you luck."

“Thanks,” Percy said, turning to walk back to the cabins and find Nico. Chiron had a point. He and Nico had a lot of history, and not all of it good. Even so, Percy was determined to be a good friend to him. Nico had offered to come with him, after all, so maybe he didn’t hate him anymore.

Nico was waiting for him outside his cabin when Percy returned.

“Ready to go?” Percy asked, and Nico nodded.

“Just tell me where, and I will take us there,” he said, and Percy grinned. This was going to save a lot of time. He told Nico where he and Jason had lost track of the son of Hermes, then grabbed Nico’s hands. The shadows swallowed them and spit them out in a dark alleyway in the city. Percy could still see traces of Jason’s blood on the ground, but there were no monsters in sight.

“Come on,” Percy gestured towards Nico and started walking down the alley. Nico easily fell into step with him. Percy grinned.

“You know, we should do this more often. I don’t think it’s been just you and me since just before the battle with Kronos,” he said.

“It didn’t go so well last time, though,” Nico said, sounding a bit sad. Percy supposed the was right. There was the whole thing with selling Percy out to Nico’s father, after all.

“Well, we did win the war, so everything ended well,” Percy said uncomfortably. “Anyway, I didn’t mean...”

“Quiet!” Nico hissed, and Percy was offended for half a second before realizing Nico was listening for something. He drew his sword, so Percy did the same. A moment later they were attacked by a bunch of cyclopes. The monsters came stomping from around the corners of other alleyways that connected with theirs. They filled the twilight with savage roars that made Percy’s eardrums vibrate.


 

“They’re in position,” she said. “Shall we get started then?”

“Yes. Soon you will know that my judgment was right. They will not succeed.”

“We’ll see, my lady. They may surprise you yet. I have little doubt they will,” she smiled.

“Then let us begin.”


 

The cyclopes were almost laughably easy to defeat, especially with Nico there. The son of Hades was clearly used to fighting multiple enemies at once.

“So much for them,” Percy said, then frowned as he looked in Nico’s direction. “You look worried. What’s wrong?”

Nico shook his head. “Just a funny feeling. My underground senses are going off. I think we should get out of here.”

Now that he thought about it, Percy could feel something too. A prickly sort of feeling, making the hairs on his neck stand. Something was wrong.

“You’re right,” Percy said, looking around for any sign of trouble. “Let’s get...”

The ground opened underneath their feet with a loud crack. Percy managed to jump aside and catch the edge before falling down. Nico, who had been standing on top of the rift, wasn't so lucky.  He fell down as Percy clung to the edge.

"Nico!" Percy screamed on the top of his lungs. He couldn't see what was happening beneath him as he tried to get a better grip on the edge to heave himself up.

"I'm okay!" he heard Nico yell beneath him.

"Can you get out of there?" Percy asked, finally managing to look. Nico was standing on a small platform right below him. Apart from that platform, forming a narrow U-shape in  it,  the rift seemed to lead straight down into nothingness. Tartarus, maybe. The thought sent shivers down Percy's spine.

"There are no shadows!" Nico  yelled. "And I can't get a grip on the walls."

"Hold on!" Percy said. "I'll get up and find a rope or something to haul you up."

"I don't think there's time for that," Nico said, and Percy looked again. The rift was closing again, slowly. Nico was right. Even if Percy got out right now and ran to find a rope, there was no guarantee the rift would still be there when he got back.

"There has to be a way!" Percy said, scanning for opportunities.  There was nothing he could see. Nothing, except... Percy grinned. This was a crazy idea, but it might work.

"Just hurry up and get out of here!" Nico yelled.

"I have an idea!" Percy said. "Stand back, I'm coming down."

"Don't you dare!" Nico yelled angrily. "Climb up! Try to find rope! Even if you don't make it I might have time to use the shadows as the rift closes."

"Stop talking. I'm coming down now." Percy said, letting go of the edge and falling down to the platform. He stumbled as he landed and would have fallen into the abyss if Nico hadn't caught him.

"Thanks, man." Percy grinned, but Nico just looked angry.

"What in Hades' name do you think you're doing?” Nico growled. “You should have gotten out of here!"

"I'm going to get us both out of here," Percy said. "Turn around and give me your arms."

"Whatever this is it had better work," Nico muttered angrily, but he did as Percy asked. Percy put his back against Nico's and hooked their arms together.

"Okay, push against my back. We're going to walk up this wall," Percy said. "Put your left foot up against it."

"This is impossible. It's too wide," Nico said.

"No, it's not. Besides, it'll get narrower by the minute. We have to hurry," Percy said. "Ready? Push! And Right! Left!"

It was extremely challenging. If not for the threat of crushing death, and possibly Tartarus, Percy would have given up after the first few steps. However, they moved slowly up the wall, one painful step at a time. When they reached the halfway point they were both sweating and breathing hard. As Percy had predicted it got a bit easier as the walls came closer, but they were soon getting too close.

"We have to hurry," Percy  said. "Just a little bit further, okay?"

"Right," Nico said between breaths. "You set the pace. I'll follow."

Percy counted faster now. By the time they finally reached the surface the rift was little bigger than a bathtub. They pulled themselves up, watching as the rift closed fully behind them. Percy laughed loudly, which made him even more out of breath.

"I can't believe that actually worked!" he said happily. Nico frowned and looked at him furiously.

"You mean you didn't know it would?" he said. "Why would you risk getting crushed?"

"I wasn't going to leave you behind," Percy said, getting angry as well. "I've lost enough people as it is, and you just came back. Of course I helped."

"It was still a stupid thing to do," Nico insisted. "I wouldn't have wanted you to die for me."

"Oh, come on. We survived," Percy said. "That's all that matters."

"You two are so cute!" a female voice suddenly said, and Percy spun around. Two women were standing in the alley, one smiling and looking happy, the other with an expression that was half disappointment and half disgust. Percy recognized them instantly.

"Queen Hera. Lady Aphrodite," Nico greeted them with wary respect. "To what do we owe the honor?"

"We're here on an errand of true love, of course. What else?" Aphrodite tittered. She was beautiful in her long silky pink dress, but her appearance kept changing. Percy stared at her in surprise. He remembered the last time he saw her she kind of looked like Annabeth, but now the longer he looked at her and thought about it more she changed. He briefly wondered what Nico saw.

“I still maintain that this proves nothing,” Hera said. She looked as haughty and self-important as ever. Her physical appearance hadn’t changed either --powerful brown eyes, long, chocolate brown hair woven into a braid with silver ribbons, and when she moved her dress shimmered with rainbow colors. “One trial is not enough.”

“Trial?” Percy repeated angrily. “What trial? You mean to say that you had us go through that for no reason? We could have died!”

“Of course there was a reason. Don’t be silly,” Aphrodite said. “These trials are meant to test your affection for each other. See, Queen Hera doesn’t think it’s very strong.”

“What?” Nico exclaimed, completely red for some reason. Maybe he was angry, though his expression was almost afraid. Percy was mostly confused.

“Indeed,” Hera said coldly. “Aphrodite and I have made a bet. If you can pass the trials, she wins. If you fail, or give up, then victory is mine.”

“We’re not your playthings!” Percy said angrily. “We don’t care about your bet. Just leave us alone.”

“See?” Hera said, turning to Aphrodite with a smile. “Already refusing the trial. I told you the son of Hades didn’t mean much to him. Hardly surprising, either.”

"That’s ridiculous!” Percy exclaimed. “Of course I care about him, but I don’t have to prove it to you!”

“If your affection really is strong, then proving it shouldn’t be a problem,” Aphrodite said, smiling at him.

“Unless of course you don’t think he’s worth the trouble,” Hera said. “Which nobody would blame you for, dear.”

“Don’t talk about him like that!” Percy growled.

“Percy, it’s okay. Really,” Nico said weakly behind him. “Just leave it.”

“No! After everything we’ve done for you, you have no right to say anything,” Percy said, pointing at Hera. “We would never have defeated Gaea without him, even if he wasn’t one of your precious seven!”

“Exactly my point! Will you take the trials to prove your affection for each other then?” Aphrodite sang, and Percy hesitated for a second, getting the feeling he was missing something important.

“There we have it!” Hera said triumphantly. “I told you there was no way he cared for the son of Hades, even if the reverse may be true. It is as I said, he doesn’t belong.”

“What?” Percy exploded. “How dare you say that? Of course he belongs! I’ll prove it, if I have to!”

“Percy...” Nico said behind him, his voice sounding strained.

“Shut up!” Percy interrupted. “We’re doing this. We’ll prove how wrong she is!”

“Excellent!” Aphrodite grinned happily. “You are my champions! The next trial will begin immediately.”

“Be warned. If you give up or fail, I will require you both to be more obedient in the future,” Hera said. “And I’m quite certain you will fail.”

“You’re wrong,” Percy said angrily, and Aphrodite beamed.

“We’ll be watching,” she said. “Oh, this is going to be so good!”

With that, the two goddesses disappeared without a trace. Percy was still fuming with anger.  He kicked an empty can out of the alleyway to vent his frustration.

“That was stupid,” Nico said quietly. “Didn’t you hear what they said the trial was about?”

“They don’t think we care about each other but we’ll get through it. We’ll make her eat her words,” Percy said determinedly, then sighed. “I suppose we still need to find that son of Hermes, as well. Come on, let’s go.”

Percy took a few steps forward, then doubled over in intense pain. He heard Nico scream behind him, and turned around to look. Nico was on the ground, holding himself.

“Are you alright?” Percy asked through gritted teeth, moving forward. Suddenly, his pain was gone. Nico looked up at him in surprise.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Nico said, looking confused. “For a moment there, though...”

“Me too. Must be the next trial or whatever,” Percy said, offering Nico a hand to help him up. Nico ignored his hand and got up on his own, looking away from him. Percy tried not to be hurt by that.

“We’re supposed to prove we like each other, you know,” Percy said. Nico glared at him as he stomped away, barely making it two steps before the pain returned, apparently hitting both of them at the same time. Once Percy moved just a little closer to him again, the pain was gone.

“Oh no,” Nico muttered. “This can’t be happening!”

“Seems we have to be close to each other, or it will hurt,” Percy concluded. “That’s going to make fighting difficult.”

“That’s the least of my worries. How long is this going to last?” Nico asked, sounding panicked now. Percy frowned.

“Calm down, it’s not that bad,” he said. “It’s better than being crushed to jelly, by far.”

“You should have left me in that rift,” Nico said bitterly.

“What are you talking about?” Percy said, getting angry again. “There was no way I was leaving you there!”

Nico gave a hollow laugh, almost sounding like he was going to cry. “You don’t get it. Even after all that, you don’t get it,” he muttered.

“Are you okay?” Percy asked, moving closer to him. ”What don’t I get?”

“Later,” Nico said, shaking his head. “We need to find that son of Hermes. We can deal with this when he’s safe.”

Percy nodded, following closely behind Nico as they walked away and turned right into another alley.


 

They continued down the alley, making sure to stay close to each other to avoid that crippling pain. Nico could barely look at Percy which made the fact that he –literally-- could not leave his side even more ironic and cruel. They moved through the neighborhood silently with their swords still drawn and were more on edge now than ever.

“The directions Hermes gave us say he lives in that brownstone up ahead,” Percy said pointing to the building with his sword.

“Which apartment?” Nico asked.

“2B.”

“Do you think Hermes knows? That those two are basically making it even harder for us to rescue his son?” Nico asked.

“If he does know there’s not much he can do. Hera is the queen,” Percy said with his voice full of derision.

“I wonder what even started this? They’ve never cared about…well, me before,” said Nico annoyed.

“Does it matter?” huffed Percy.

“Yeah it does!” Nico said fuming. “You never should’ve let them provoke you into agreeing! I’m in this too now and you had no right!”

“Oh, and what was I supposed to do?” Percy shouted. He stopped walking and Nico was forced to do the same or end up in agony. “I should have just stood there and let her talk about you that way? Huh?” he challenged.

“Yes!” Nico shouted back. The ground was beginning to crack around his feet.

“Well, I couldn’t!” Percy yelled. Either he didn’t notice the tiny hairline fractures forming in the sidewalk or he didn’t care. “You don’t deserve it!” He said as if the very idea of Nico’s worth being called into question offended him. Nico’s glare softened just a bit and then he turned away.

“Let’s just do this,” he muttered and started walking again, forcing Percy to follow.

The brownstone seemed pretty common when they entered the tiny lobby. The lamps on the walls were giving off a warm yellow light and the wood floor was smooth and glossy. The staircase to their left was made of the same dark wood and Percy headed that way with Nico right behind. They took the stairs slowly. Percy looked up for any surprises that might drop out of the landings above and Nico kept glancing behind. Nico didn’t know if a fight in this tiny building would work for them or against them since they couldn’t move more than four feet from each other. It wasn’t until they made it to the second floor that Nico noticed how eerily quiet it was in the building.

“It’s too quiet,” Percy whispered as if reading his mind. “A brownstone in New York should never be this quiet.”

“You wanna turn back?” Nico asked.

“You know we can’t. We have to at least check for the boy,” Percy sighed. They kept walking and when they got to 2B, Percy turned around and looked at him as if asking “are you ready?” He nodded and Percy knocked on the door. There was no answer and no sounds of movement on the other side.

“Mrs. Anderson?” he called. “We’re here to talk to you about your son. Hermes sent us,” he said through the door. Dead silence was the only response.

“I don’t like this,” he said shaking his head. “Move back a little,” he said. Nico took a tiny step back because he couldn’t go far thanks to their invisible tether. Percy grunted as he lashed out with his foot and kicked the door in.

They walked into the apartment and looked around. Nico flipped a light switch and they were greeted by empty space. The apartment didn’t have a single piece of furniture in it and the walls were bare too. It was clear no one lived here or at least had not for a long time.

“A trap,” Nico said with a sarcastic happiness. “We walked into a trap, of course we walked into a trap!” he said laughing darkly the sound echoing through the empty room.

“Well, we kind of knew,” Percy said wearily. “Let’s just get out if we can.”

They walked back out of the door and froze. The hallway had changed. The color was gone and the entire space was colored instead in different patterns of black and white. The walls were white with black polka-dots, the floor was a black and white checkered pattern, and the doors were painted with Zebra stripes. It was harsh on the eyes because the white was blinding and the black was so dark it could suck you in. Nico didn’t know why but it made him dizzy. Percy groaned next to him, noticing that the staircase was gone.

“What do we do now?” asked Nico squinting against the sight of the walls.

“I guess try a door…” Percy said and walked forward. He opened the door directly in front of them and it somehow led to another hallway. The door to the empty apartment slammed shut behind them, making them jump.

“Looks like we have to go through,” said Percy. They entered the hallway and walked on in silence. There were no doors but the hall twisted and turned which only made them more dizzy. It was like the dots and stripes were dancing in front of their eyes in bad 3D and Nico felt like he was going to throw up. Finally Percy growled in rage but the outburst only threw off his equilibrium and made him stumble and catch himself on the wall to his right. Nico would have moved to steady him but he wasn’t feeling very steady himself and he did not need to go tumbling to the floor with Percy.

“What’s the point of this?” Percy shouted in frustration as he leaned against the wall with his eyes closed. Nico was about to do the same, if only to block out the confounding patterns but he blinked and a door appeared next Percy.

“Percy, a door,” he said and pointed at it. The son of Poseidon pushed away from the wall and moved to open the door slowly with his sword raised in his other hand. When he pushed it open he had to blink to clear the black and white spots from his mind.

“Are you regretting accepting the challenge?” Aphrodite was standing in another barren apartment. Thankfully, there were no patterns inside as they stepped in and shut the door behind them. Her look was more stable now which Nico was grateful for. It was unsettling seeing Percy’s sea-green eyes and messy black hair whenever he looked at her.

“I can only keep us hidden a little while. I am sorry,” she said kindly. “I’m the reason you two are in this mess, but I truly believe you will win.”

“What do you mean it’s your fault?” Percy asked suspiciously. All the cheesy cheer was gone and Aphrodite looked serious for once.

“I may have bragged about how your affections helped to assure our victory against Gaea. Hera disagreed. She believes it was her maneuvering to unify the camps and bring the Seven together that won the battle. It doesn’t help that she’s annoyed Hades has a throne on Olympus now.”

“What?” Nico said.

“We won, who cares who gets bragging rights?” Percy said furiously.

“Oh, but things like that are very important to gods. Praise is a part of what we are. Still, I didn’t mean for this to happen. I promised to make your love life interesting, Perseus, but what I originally had planned would have taken years. And you, Nico,” she said turning to Nico with tears shining in her eyes. “You’re what made this story so painful and beautiful.” Nico felt angry at that but kept it in check. Aphrodite only gave him a dreamy smile.

“These trials don’t have to be an evil thing if you believe in your bond,” she said sincerely. Nico wished he had the kind of audacity to yell at her like Percy did because he so badly wanted to tell her to be quiet.

“You keep going on about our bond like Nico and I are some epic story of friendship. What is that about?” Percy asked.

Nico just wanted to melt into the floor but he had a sneaking suspicion that this trial was rigged to stop him from shadow traveling just like the last one. Not to mention the pain from their invisible tether would likely kill him. Aphrodite gave Percy a look that was half amused and half sad.

“I didn’t think you would be so adorably ignorant. This is why my way would have been more gentle but would have taken longer,” she sighed. “In this particular trial only honesty will save you, anything less will make the fun house grow bigger and more disorienting. It has been known to drive some mad, so take heed,” she said shrugging slightly.

“And I should tell you that If you lose you will answer to Hera first, instead of your fathers, for the rest of your lives. She will essentially own you. You’ll be her champions,  like Jason Grace. It would be the first time she has ever had control over three of the most powerful demi-gods in the world. Your fathers will not even be able to answer your prayers. She will win the right to govern my powers as well. For a thousand years Hera will dictate who I inspire with love.”

“And if we win?” Percy asked.

“Freedom!” Aphrodite smiled. “Mine and yours. You will finally be allowed to be happy and peaceful with your true love.” Nico felt his heart skip a beat and his face heat up. Happy with his true love. He looked at Percy and thankfully he was busy looking at Aphrodite in confusion.

“But Annabeth…” Percy began and Nico’s breath hitched in his throat.

“Shh! Hera has noticed the hold up in the trial. She’s coming!” There was a blinding light that he and Percy had to shield their eyes against, then Hera was standing next to Aphrodite and she did not look amused…but then she never did.

“What’s this?” she asked. “Shouldn’t I be watching them wander hopelessly through the fun house? You’re not assisting them are you, Aphrodite?” The other goddess giggled and for the first time, Nico understood that Aphrodite had many facets to her just like the other gods. She could be girly and vain but he had a feeling she also used that stereotype as a poker-face more often than anyone knew.

“Of course not! But the rules state they may have the challenge at hand explained to them, as well as the stakes involved,” she said sweetly.

“Well, you’ve explained enough. Now, you two,” Hera said turning back to them with a stern expression. “I am told relationships need honesty to remain healthy…” she laughed bitterly at that for a second and the look on her face was cold. “But every relationship has secrets and once they are revealed many do not survive it. Aphrodite has great faith that true love is immune. Show me,” she said.

And the goddesses were gone again. They were left alone in the apartment with some wacky maze on the other side of the door. Nico wanted to run or punch something or both. How was he supposed to be happy with his true love when his true love –or at least he suspected Percy was his true love—was still in love with his ex? And now he had to be honest with him?

“Nico, I’m sorry,” Percy was still facing in the direction where Hera and Aphrodite had been standing. “You were right, this is stupid and now we’re stuck doing this. We don’t even know how many trials there are.” Percy capped Riptide and sat down on the wood floor. Nico pulled his Stygian sword out of his belt, sighed, and sat down next to Percy.

“It’s okay, sounds like this is really about them. They would have found a way to make us do this without your help.” Percy was quiet and Nico sighed again. “Come on, we need to get out of here.”

“How? We have to be honest but about what? Have you lied to me about anything new?” Percy asked looking at him.

“No!” Nico snapped without meaning to. Percy stared at him distrustfully. “There’s nothing to lie about,” he grumbled. Black and white polka-dots appeared on the walls around them and they looked around in shock.

“What the-” Percy started and then turned on Nico. “That was a lie, Nico!”

“What…I!” Nico tried to speak but he was afraid another denial would manifest itself in the changing room and he couldn’t tell the truth… So, he just shut his mouth and stared at Percy’s affronted expression.

“What are you lying about?” Percy asked. “Is it Bianca? I knew you still blamed me for her death.” His voice was full of gloom and acceptance.

“That’s not it!” Nico shouted. “I was young and I was looking for someone to blame and it was just easy to blame you.” The polka-dots disappeared from the walls.

“Okay,” Percy said, “but what is it then?”

Nico was suddenly angry. It wasn’t fair, any of it, because Aphrodite’s words had given him hope but then he’d heard Percy say Annabeth’s name.

“Only if you answer first,” he said standing back up. “Are you still in love with Annabeth?” he asked quietly.

“Why?” Percy asked looking shocked. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“Just answer,” Nico said. His heart was pounding. Whatever Percy said next would set the stage for how these trials played out. He needed to know. A million thoughts were racing through his head: What if he said yes? Was Aphrodite wrong? Could a love goddess be wrong about love? Were the trials supposed to change Percy’s mind? Was he supposed to change Percy’s mind? What if he couldn’t?

Alternatively, that small glimmer of hope he could never get rid of flared brighter than a sun spot because what if he said no? What if he’d gotten over Annabeth? What if there was a fighting chance? Was Percy really his true love?

“I don’t know…” Percy said looking at him sadly. “I’m…I’m angry but I don’t know if that means I don’t love her.” The door opened behind them. Nico didn’t exactly know how to react to what he just heard. It left him feeling like he was floating in limbo.

“Maybe we can leave now,” said Percy dismally. Nico followed him out into the hallway silently. He felt a little bad for asking but he really did need to know and Percy had pushed him first. Nothing had changed outside of the room and Nico could feel the air between them growing tense by the second.

“We’re not going to get out of here unless we’re honest,” Percy said slowly. “Nico, just answer my question. It can’t be that bad. Look, I promise not to get mad. What do you have to lie about?”


 

“Explain to me how you were not wrong to set them up?” Hera asked delightfully.

“Quiet!” Aphrodite ordered.

“Excuse me?” Hera said incredulously.

“Shh! This is the turning point,” she whispered as she watched them. Hera scoffed at the rapture in her voice but turned back to watch without another word.


 

“Percy…just think. Think about everything Aphrodite said, about your love life, about these trials. They aren’t about friendship. Please don’t make me say it,” he said as he struggled to get his heart rate under control.

Maybe finally having the chance to calm down and think helped Percy, Nico didn’t know but he watched now as Percy connected the dots. The son of Poseidon had always worn his heart on his sleeve –probably without meaning to—but his emotions were naked on his face and the moment he realized what it all meant would always be etched into Nico’s mind simply because of the surprised and fearful expression Percy gave him. He didn’t want to look so he regarded the floor but he couldn’t unsee it.

“Nico...do you like me?” He said like it was too impossible. Like it was a stab in the dark and he was hoping he was very wrong. Without looking at him Nico nodded slowly and Percy leaned back against the doorframe and covered his face with his hands. The harshness of the hallway dimmed and the dizzy feeling was gone.

“For how long?” Percy asked looking as pitiful as Nico felt.

“Percy…”

“Nico, for how long?” he asked again.

“Since the beginning I guess.” He smiled sadly and looked away again.

“Nico, I’m so sorry.” Percy looked like he wanted to sink down to the floor again. Nico had always thought telling him would be bad but for himself not Percy and right now it was like they were both hurting.

“It’s not your fault,” he said quietly.

“I…just how many times does this have to happen? How is this fair?” he exploded. Nico looked at him in shock.

“Percy?”

“An interesting love life?” he yelled at the ceiling. “Why is it interesting to make me the biggest jerk on the planet?” he roared.

“Percy, you’re not-”

“I am!” Percy cut him off. “You don’t know! She kept making me do it!” Percy stomped around in circles like a madman. “I was so in love with Annabeth and I broke Calypso’s heart, turned down Reyna, she dangled Rachel in front of me, Annabeth and I didn’t even work out! Now I have to find out I’ve been hurting you this whole time and I didn’t even know it!”


 

“My, my…he certainly doesn’t seem to appreciate love now,” said Hera with no small amount of pleasure. “He’s right, you know. You should have left him with Athena’s girl, annoying as she is, at least she is not of the underworld.”  

“I disagree. He and Annabeth were not meant for each other. And his current anger does not upset me. I have to admit I did go a bit too far making him leave a string of broken hearts behind him, but this union will more than make up for it,” Aphrodite said serenely. “Anyway, they are being very honest with each other. I believe this trial is over.” She smiled as Hera pursed her lips.


 

“Percy, I don’t blame you,” Nico said honestly. “You never asked for me to like you, just like I didn’t ask to be…this way,” he said awkwardly. Percy caught his tone and his attention turned back to him and he looked more surprised than angry.

“Nico, there’s nothing wrong with you!”

“You sound like Hazel,” he said smiling.

"Well, she’s right. There’s nothing wrong with you. I just wish you liked someone who was worth it.”

Nico looked like he wanted to disagree but he turned away. “Let’s just get out of here,” he said when he saw the hallway had returned to normal.

They ran down the stairs and out of the lobby and found Hera and Aphrodite waiting on the sidewalk.

“How could you?” Percy growled at Aphrodite.

“You’re angry with me,” the goddess said giving him that sad, amused smile again.

“Yes! What am I supposed to think? To do?” he asked desperately.

“You have to decide that on your own, all I do is create possibilities,” she said looking at him like he was just some cute pet.

“Well, you can always drop out of the trials if you believe this is all wrong,” Hera said impassively.

“So you can own us?” Nico asked, speaking up for the first time. He looked at Hera darkly, like he was waiting for her to attack.

“Own you? I would be your protector! Is it such a terrible fate? Have I done anything to harm Jason Grace?”

“You like Jason,” Nico said. “You don’t care for me at all.”

“Me either really,” said Percy crossing his arms and glaring at her.

“I helped you during the war with Gaea, Percy Jackson,” she said sounding annoyed. “I came very near breaking the rules of godly involvement to help you. And Nico, dear,” she said smiling at him. “Perhaps I spoke harshly before. I can help you. You are only half Hades after all and I daresay I will make better use of your skills.”

“I believe you are forgetting all that Nico has done,” said Aphrodite. “He managed just fine without your protection when he survived Tartarus, led the Seven to the doors of death, transported Athena’s statue, and he also played a role in unifying the camps when they were on the brink of war and you were nowhere to be found. And he did it all for love,” Aphrodite said fondly.

Percy looked back at Nico who blushed and fidgeted under his gaze.

“I…! I mean…that’s not…it wasn’t,” he sputtered before clamping his mouth shut and looking away.

“And you’ve been trying undo all my best work since that silliness with Paris and the apple!” Aphrodite said sounding like an angry child.

Percy turned back to the two bickering goddesses just as Hera was about to open her mouth to retort.

“Okay!” he interrupted. “This is what started all of this! Look, we’re in, just tell us the next trial.”

“According to the rules you’ve earned a period of rest. Isn’t that so, Queen Hera?” Aphrodite asked while preening.

“Yes, you may go back to camp and rest. The next trial will find you,” she said dismissively.

“But what about the son of Hermes?” Nico asked.

“Oh, he never existed. I added the name to the list Hermes gave you,” Hera said flippantly.

“That means you lured me and Jason here and were counting on him getting hurt! How else could Nico have taken his place? Some protector!” Percy sneered.

“Oh please,” she rolled eyes. “Jason broke his leg saving you. That monster attack had nothing to do with me. I’d planned on stopping you both and giving Jason an alternate mission that would have forced you back to camp. The monsters were, as Leo Valdez would say, a monkey wrench in the works,” she said. “Go back to camp and I propose you take this time to think. These trials have killed others before you.”

“Scare tactics?” Aphrodite asked arching an eyebrow.

“The truth,” Hera said smiling and they disappeared.


 

Percy stared angrily at the spot where the two goddesses had just stood. He was so, so tired of being a pawn in their games. He had believed, or rather, hoped, that they would cut him some slack after the whole thing with Gaea.  Percy had helped save the world twice, and so had Nico. Was being in charge of their own lives really too much to ask?

He glanced over at Nico, who was looking at his feet, possibly waiting for him to say something. He wasn't sure what. Knowing how he felt... Percy didn't know what to think about it. It came as a shock to him. He had never even considered the possibility before, but looking at Nico now –the way he blushed and avoided eye contact-- it was glaringly obvious.

"Nico..." Percy began softly, not entirely sure how to continue that sentence. Nico shook his head.

"You don't have to. Let's just get back to camp," he said. "I think I can shadow travel now."

"You sure you're up for it?" Percy asked, a little concerned. Nico looked incredibly tired, and Percy could relate. The two trials, and the meetings with the goddesses, left him completely drained, physically and emotionally. He wanted nothing more than to curl up in bed and forget about everything for a few hours.

"I'll be fine. Grab on. I really want to get out of here," Nico said, offering Percy his hand while still not looking him in the eyes. Percy took his hand without hesitation. He had a feeling Nico had expected him to be disgusted by his feelings, and Percy wanted to make sure he realized that wasn't the case.

Nico took them straight back to Half-Blood Hill, then quickly let go of Percy's hand. "We better go tell Chiron about this," he said, gesturing for Percy to follow. They walked up to the Big House in silence.

Chiron was standing outside, talking to a couple of younger campers whose names Percy couldn't remember. He frowned as he saw Percy and Nico approaching.

"I take it you didn't find the son of Hermes?" he said, and Percy shook his head.

"There never was a son of Hermes," he said bitterly. "It was a trap."

Chiron's eyes widened. "Let's go inside, and you can tell me about it in private."

Once they were inside the house, Percy gave Chiron the abbreviated version of the events. Chiron nodded slowly when they finished.

"It is fairly common for the gods to use mortals to settle their bets," he said. "It rarely works out well, though. No matter the outcome at least one deity will be your enemy."

"Yeah, it's not like I've ever made the gods angry before, right?" Percy said drily. "In any case, there's not much we can do about it now. "

"Indeed," Chiron said. "And I would not recommend asking your fathers for help. Involving them in the conflict would likely make things worse."

"Right," Percy nodded.  "Well, I'm beat. I'm going to eat dinner, and then go to sleep. "

"Good plan, but I think I want to check up on Jason first," Nico said, turning to walk away. He barely made it two steps before Percy doubled over in pain, and judging by Nico's scream he did the same. Percy quickly took a step forward to counter the effect.

"I thought that would be over by now," Percy said, feeling angry and confused. "They said we deserved a break from the trials."

"Maybe it's not part of the trial per se, just an insurance that you remain together while the trials go on," Chiron suggested.

 

"You mean we won't be able to move more than six feet away from each other the entire time?" Nico asked, looking horrified. "That's not fair!"

"I don't think 'fair' is part of their vocabulary," Percy said. "We'll deal. Let's just go see Jason, then eat and go to sleep." He wasn't thrilled about the situation either,  but there was nothing he could do about it and he was starting to get too tired to be angry anymore. Nico seemed to be feeling something similar, because his shoulders slumped.

"Fine," he said tiredly. "But go to sleep where? My cabin or yours?"

Percy hadn't really thought that far. He shrugged. "Let's just go with mine for tonight," he said, then turning to look at Chiron. "That's not going to get us into trouble, right?"

"The situation being as it is, there's not much we can do about that," Chiron said. "You have my permission."

They nodded and made their way over to Jason's room. The son of Jupiter was still in bed, watching a movie where everything seemed to be exploding with a bored look on his face. He smiled as he saw them.

"Hey, how did it go?" he asked, then frowned at their gloomy expressions. "Is everything alright?"

"Not really," Nico said. "The son of Hermes didn't exist, and we ran into trouble. How are you holding up?"

"Bored out of my mind, but they are insisting I don't move until tomorrow," Jason said, his eyes passing between Percy and Nico like he was trying to figure something out, and suddenly it dawned on Percy that Jason knew.

The realization made him irrationally angry. How had he known, while Percy didn't have a clue? Had Nico told him? How long had he known? Was Percy the only one kept in the dark?

"Seriously, what happened? You two look beat," Jason said, frowning as Percy glared at him. Nico just shook his head.

"It's a long story. I'll tell you tomorrow," he said tiredly. "Goodnight."

For a moment Jason looked like he was going to argue, but then he just nodded and said goodnight. Percy took Nico aside as soon as they were out of earshot.

"How long has he known?" Percy asked angrily. "Why tell him and not me?"

"I didn't tell him," Nico said. "We ran into Eros in Croatia and he forced me to say it. Jason just happened to be there."

"Oh," Percy said, feeling stupid. Why had he been so angry, anyway? It made no sense. "Does anyone else know?"

"Just Hazel," Nico sighed. "Can we please go eat dinner now?"

They ended up at the Hades table, eating in silence. The silence was a little uncomfortable, and Percy felt like he should say something, but he wasn't sure what. They had said quite a lot today already. What was left?

In the end the awkward silence continued as Percy followed Nico to the Hades cabin so he could pick up some things for the night. Pajamas, toothbrush, a book, that sort of thing. When they finally made it to the Poseidon cabin Nico looked around uncomfortably.

"Um," he said. "I think the beds are too far apart."

Percy considered this, then sighed. "You're right. We're going to have to move to the floor. Gimme a hand with this."

With Nico's help he moved two mattresses to the floor, essentially creating a double bed. Nico seemed to be making an effort not to look at him again. He was blushing violently, and Percy wasn't sure what he could do to help.

"Look," Percy said. "You don't have to be embarrassed about this. It's okay, really."

"It's not," Nico said. "You do realize that until these trials are over neither of us are going to have any privacy at all."

"It'll be fine," Percy said, and Nico raised an eyebrow.

"I have to go to the bathroom. Is it still fine?"

Okay, so maybe sitting outside the bathroom door while Nico was in there wasn't Percy's idea of a good time. It was pretty embarrassing, actually, doubly so when they reversed the positions. Showering in the morning really wasn't something he looked forward to, either. Percy suspected that no matter what life threatening trial Hera threw at them next, this was going to be the real challenge. Percy was an only child, and had grown up with the possibility of privacy whenever he wanted it. Nico's childhood had been different, but he had spent most of the last few years alone. Spending every moment in close company with each other might be enough to drive them crazy.

As they lay down to sleep, Percy considered this. Nico had purposely turned his back and was facing away, but Percy lay awake for a while, studying the mess of black curls that was the only visible part of the boy beside him.

Percy had woken up today thinking that Nico hated him or at least disliked him. Well, not actively thinking about it, but it had been in the back of his mind for a long time. Now he knew the reverse was true. And in the end, that was better, right? Maybe, if they got through this, they had a shot at being friends. Good friends, as they should have been all along. That was what he wanted, right?

Percy sighed, closing his eyes. He could figure things out tomorrow.


 

Nico felt so conflicted and uncomfortable. It was such a mistake to come here. He should have insisted they go to his cabin. At least then he wouldn’t have to deal with the sea breeze that magically blew through this cabin constantly. That explained why Percy carried this scent with him all the time. His mind was fuzzy like he was intoxicated. He was drowning Percy’s smell. It made him feel safe and relaxed but it also stirred up more embarrassing feelings and sensations below his waist. And then there was the slow and steady sound of Percy’s breathing. Gods! He was right there! If Nico rolled over he would only be inches away from the one thing he wanted so bad that he could almost taste it.

And there wasn’t a thing he could do about it. It was more important than ever that he kept his feelings and urges in check. Percy knew the truth now and he’d handled it better than Nico thought he would, but he couldn’t help suspecting that Percy was uncomfortable near him. He kept saying reassuring things, but he was probably just being nice because that’s who Percy was. Nico needed to show Percy that just because he had feelings for him didn’t mean he couldn’t control himself. And he would never show how hard it was to do so, especially in that moment. Nico was breathing Percy in like pheromones and he was so scared his body would betray him. His mind was already turning against him –hatching little plots and fantasies about rolling over and kissing him or just cuddling up to him to get closer to that smell…

Nico curled into the fetal position –clenching his legs together tighter and pulled his shirt up over his nose to help block out the scent. He just wanted to sleep and escape this torment.


 

He felt warm when he woke up. Not hot, exactly, just a nice, snuggly warmth. He felt something like the wind in his hair, but the rustle was too regulated to be the wind. Too regulated, and too warm. And there was something heavy on his legs, a well.

Nico forced his eyes open. For a moment he didn't comprehend what he was seeing. Everything was orange, for some reason. Then he realized he was looking at Percy Jackson's T-shirt, and that he had his face buried against his chest. Panicked he moved backwards, pushing Percy away from him as he rolled off the mattress. The sudden, sharp pain in his chest made him realize he'd gone too far. Percy jolted awake with a yell, and Nico hurriedly moved just a little bit closer again to make the pain stop. Percy turned towards him, frowning as he tried to catch his breath from the rough wakening.

"What was that for?" he groaned.

"Sorry," Nico mumbled, feeling his cheeks grow hot. "I wasn't thinking."

"It's fine," Percy said, yawning widely and scratching his head. "Just, not a very nice way to wake up, you know."

"Sorry," Nico repeated, trying not to look at Percy, trying to forget that he had just woken up next to him.  It hadn't exactly been like he'd imagined, in those rare moments he'd allowed himself to imagine anything at all. Part of him wished he'd been able to remain calm and just enjoy lying beside Percy for as long as he could, but it was probably best not to think about that.

"You okay?" Percy asked, eyeing him with worried expression. Nico nodded, willing himself not to blush again. He probably failed.

"So, um, I'm going to take a shower," Percy said uncomfortably. "If you could, um..."

"Right," Nico said, getting up and following Percy to the bathroom. The worst part was that the shower was not, in fact, less than four feet from the door. Nico's face was burning as he realized this.

"I'll just keep my back turned," he muttered, sitting down at the floor. He tried his best not to listen to the rustling of clothes behind him, or Percy's soft sigh as the water hit him. Mostly he tried to imagine horrible things to distract himself from the fact that Percy Jackson was standing naked and dripping wet right behind him. Yeah, that was definitely the wrong trail of thought. Considering he wouldn't have any privacy at all in the foreseeable future, not even in the shower, he really ought to try and think about something else.

The water stopped flowing behind him and he heard Percy move around, drying himself and putting clothes on.

"Okay, your turn," Percy finally said, sitting down on the floor beside Nico, giving him a brief smile. He had a towel around his neck and his hair was still dripping wet. How was it possible for someone to look so good while wet? It had to be a son of Poseidon perk. Nico tore his eyes away from him and stood up. He hesitated. He really felt uncomfortable doing this, but on the other hand he needed a shower, especially a cold shower, badly. And he had already brought clean clothes with him. Sighing, Nico began to undress.

Percy kept his back turned, but Nico kept glancing back at him, hyper aware of his presence. When he got into the shower, he immediately turned the dial to cold, gasping a bit when the icy water hit him. He stayed just long enough to feel clean, but he was still shivering when he got out and quickly got dressed. He had no doubt Percy noticed, but thankfully he didn't say anything about it.

"How long do you think we have until the next trial?" Percy asked as they walked to breakfast. Nico shrugged.

"There's no way to tell. I kind of hope it'll start soon, though," he said. It was true. Living like this any longer would probably cause him to go crazy and do something stupid, and he didn't want to see Percy's reaction when that happened. Percy had taken everything pretty well,  so far, but he doubted it would last if Nico actually tried something. Which he wasn't going to do. Even if he wanted to.

"Yeah, me too," Percy nodded."It's not your fault or anything, but this spell is really wearing me out."

They ate breakfast at the Poseidon table, trying to ignore the curious looks the other campers gave them. Nico could see the Aphrodite kids whispering and giggling amongst themselves while looking at them, and he tried not to hate them. Their mother's deeds were not their fault, after all.

"So, you want to spar or something?" Percy asked out of the blue as they were finishing up. Nico considered this a moment. Getting rid of some energy would probably be a good  idea.

"Why not?" he said. "Just sparring, though. Using our powers could be dangerous for the both of us in this situation."

"Agreed. Just swords, then," Percy said, grinning at him, apparently happy with the prospect of sparring. Nico couldn't help but smile back at him.

They never made it as far as the arena. Two women stood waiting for them at the edge of the forest, and Nico groaned.

"Ready for the next trial?" Aphrodite sing-songed, smiling happily at them, like she wasn't going to send them to their doom. Percy frowned at them.

"Are you going to lift this spell if we do?" he asked. "It's really impractical."

"People who love each other are supposed to want to be near each other," Hera said, raising her eyebrows. "Are you giving up?"

"No way," Percy said. "But going to the bathroom alone would still be nice, you know."

"If your relationship can't withstand proximity, then maybe it isn't so strong after all," Hera said.

"I think we're ready for the trial," Nico said hastily, because Percy looked like he might say something stupid again, and possibly anger the queen of gods.

"Oh, wonderful," Aphrodite said, clapping her hands together. The scenery changed. Camp Half-Blood melted away and a large cave appeared. It was brightly lit and about as big as the Poseidon cabin, but Nico couldn't see an exit anywhere. What he could see, however, was a large pile of grain on the floor.

"Oh, please, no," Nico muttered, while Percy looked confused.

"What are we supposed to do? Eat that?" he asked. Aphrodite giggled.

"Of course not. You're going to have to sort it into piles according to what kind of grain it is," she said.

"You did this to Psyche once," Nico said. "Why make the same trial twice?"

"It is a little unoriginal," Aphrodite admitted. "But Lady Hera insisted."

"A lasting  relationship isn't all about being truthful and brave in dangerous situations," Hera said with a cold smile. "What kills love most easily is the boring, everyday tasks."

"Right, because sorting grain is an everyday task nowadays," Percy scoffed. "How am I supposed to know which grain is which, anyway?"

"I suggest you talk to your partner," Hera said. "You have until dawn tomorrow. That should be plenty of time."

"Good luck!" Aphrodite said, and both goddesses disappeared, leaving Nico and Percy alone with a pile of grain.

"This is the worst thing they could have come up with," Percy said. "Give me a good monster any day."

"I guess that was the point," Nico said, sighing deeply as he sat down in front of the pile. "Might as well get started."

"So you know what's what, then?" Percy asked as he sank down beside Nico, picking up a grain from the pile. "Is this wheat?"

"It's barley, you can tell by the spikes," Nico said. "We're lucky they're not peeled. That would have been really hard to tell."

"It's still going to take forever," Percy groaned. "How do you know this, anyway?"

"Demeter did make good of her threat to make me work at a farm for a time," Nico shrugged. "I picked up a thing or two, but I didn't stay long. The grain kept dying on me. I'm not good with plants."

"I can't imagine why," Percy laughed.

The first few hours went pretty well. They alternated between light conversation and comfortable silence, but after three hours on sitting still sorting a seemingly never ending pile of grain they were both too bored and irritated to say anything. Nico was itching to get up and do something more interesting, and he could tell by the foot restlessly tapping the floor that Percy felt the same. The sound was getting on his nerves.

"Would you stop that?" he finally hissed. Percy actually did, for a while. Barely five minutes later the tapping started up again. Nico resisted the urge to punch him.

"I told you to stop it!" he said, louder than had intended. Percy looked at him with a frown, then stood up and stretched.

"I can't do this, I need a break," he said, jumping up and down for no reason.

"We're not even halfway yet, and we have a time limit," Nico pointed out, but he knew he was too fed up with the whole thing to sound convincing.

"I know, I know," Percy said, grabbing Nico's arms and dragging him up. The bones in Nico's legs protested after sitting still for so long. "I'll go crazy if I do that any longer. Come on, spar with me."

"Fine," Nico said, glad he still had his sword. "But let's move the grain we've already sorted out of the way first, I do not want to redo it."

After putting the sorted grain into neat piles by the wall of the cave, they moved to the other side and drew their swords. They were still bound to each other and didn't have a lot of room for movement anyway, but the exercise helped clear Nico's mind. Percy was a very skilled swordsman, but Nico could hold his own, and was more accustomed to fighting underground. The tension ran out of Nico's body as they fought, and he found himself grinning.


 

"See that?" Aphrodite said triumphantly. "They don’t despair over the menial task, and are keeping each other's spirits up. That is a sign of true love if I ever saw one."

"What I see is two boys fighting," Hera said. "And the task is not yet complete. Undoubtedly they will be fighting with words as well as swords before this is over."

"Perhaps," Aphrodite said thoughtfully. "But even the greatest relationships have disputes. Wouldn't you agree, my lady?"

Hera didn't answer.


 

They had to stop every  couple of hours to do something physical. The first time it was sparring. The second time Percy bet that he could do more pushups than Nico in the same amount of time, which was true, and the third that he could walk on his hands longer, which wasn't. Percy always seemed to be the first to break. He honestly wondered where Nico got his patience from. Even with all the breaks, the trial started to wear on them. The goddesses had provided water, but no food, and they were hungry, tired and bored out of their minds as evening fell. At least the pile had gotten much smaller by then.

"If every trial hereafter is like this one, I'll quit," Percy said bitterly, then looked at Nico. "No offense."

"None taken," Nico said tiredly. "I wouldn't hold it against you. Honestly I'm still surprised you agreed to this at all. Especially after you realized what it was really about."

"Well, after everything Hera said, why wouldn't I?" Percy said. "Besides, having her dictate love for the next thousand years would be a nightmare."

"I wonder," Nico muttered. "She is the goddess of marriage after all."

"She would only pair together people she thinks would make the prettiest babies," Percy said angrily. "Though Aphrodite isn't much better."

"You realize they are probably listening to this right now," Nico pointed out, and Percy laughed drily.

"That must be more boring than Jason's soap operas," he said. "And they deserve to know what we think of them anyway. Will this pile never end?"

"There's not that much left," Nico said. "At this rate I think we'll make it, as long as we haven't sorted anything wrong."

They continued in silence for a while.

"Can I ask you a question?" Percy said. Nico rolled his eyes.

"You just did."

"Funny," Percy said, smiling slightly. "I was wondering. Why didn't you tell me who I was when we met at Camp Jupiter?"

Nico hesitated. "Hera sent you there for a reason, and without your memory. If I had told you everything immediately, you would have rushed off to Camp Half-Blood, and never gone on a quest with Hazel and Frank. I didn't want to interfere with whatever plan she had."

"It still wasn't a very nice thing to do," Percy said. "Was that the only reason?"

"If you're asking if I planned to try and woo you without your memories, the answer is no," Nico said, smiling bitterly. "It honestly hurt me to see you like that. Besides, you still remembered Annabeth."

"Oh," Percy said quietly. "Sorry."

"It's fine," Nico said, but judging by the tone of his voice it wasn't. Percy decided not to press on.

When the last grain was finally sorted, Percy threw himself on the floor, sprawled on his back.

"Gods, that took forever!" he said. "I never want to see any kind of grain ever again in my life!"

"Agreed," Nico said. "Though I wasn't particularly fond of the stuff before, either."

Percy laughed. "Hey, we're done!" he shouted to the air. "Let us out of here!"

"Well done, boys," Aphrodite said, appearing from nowhere. She was clapping her hands, looking positively delighted, while Hera stood beside her with a sour expression on her face. "And barely any fighting either. I'm so proud of my champions."

"That's great," Percy said. "Now take us back to camp."

Aphrodite smiled brightly, and the cave disappeared. They were on the edge to the forest at Camp Half-Blood again.

"Do not look so happy about your success. You may yet wish you failed. The next trial will be harder, and deadly," Hera said, looking ominous. Percy couldn't bring himself to care.

"Sounds fun," he said. "Later then."

The  goddesses disappeared, and he turned towards Nico. "Let's go grab some food. I'm starving."

"As long as I don't have to sort it," Nico muttered, and Percy laughed as they walked back to the dining area.


 

They were just sitting down at the Hades table for dinner when Jason walked into the dining pavilion. He grinned and made a beeline straight for them.

“All healed?” Percy asked grinning at him.

“Yep,” Jason said flopping down on the bench next to him. “You guys look worn out again…what’s going on?” he asked looking between them. Percy and Nico looked at each other, which only made Jason frown in suspicion.

“You said the son of Mer- Hermes didn’t exist? Tell me what happened. Nico?”

“Can we tell you after?” Nico asked. “We’re only sitting together because we have no choice but Chiron will probably be mad if he catches you.”

Jason left reluctantly and Nico and Percy ate in silence, mostly because Percy couldn’t think of anything to say. They had worked well together in the cave but now everything felt awkward and tense again. Maybe it was because they were back at camp with the curious glances and giggling children of Aphrodite and Ares now. He should have seen that coming. Ares and Aphrodite had a special relationship and their children got along oddly well. Of course cabin ten gossiped to them. He wanted to talk to Nico about the tension between them. In the cave he’d started too after asking him about what happened at Camp Jupiter, but he stopped. Maybe because he was still shocked that Nico had those kinds of feelings for him. He had never suspected, not even for a minute --maybe it was because they were both boys and he’d never thought about it-- but also because Nico hid it so well. Knowing everything he’d been through --it was easy to pass his moodiness off as an adaptive trait, but as it turned out he’d been living with a broken heart.

Percy was still angry at himself for not seeing it and at Aphrodite for meddling as much as she had. He had never resolved anything with Reyna or Calypso. Only Rachel remained his friend and that was only because she realized her calling to be the Oracle. He didn’t want to leave Nico to deal with this on his own. He wanted to make it better, which meant he had to force the angry and defensive son of Hades to talk –without a magic fun house.

After dinner Jason found them again, telling Piper he would catch up with her. Her eyes drifted to Percy and Nico and she looked a bit embarrassed. Percy had to suppress an outburst. Of course Piper knew! She was a daughter of Aphrodite and the counselor of cabin ten, but it looked as if she hadn’t told Jason, at least, and he was grateful for that. It was also clear that Jason was not going to back off until they told him what was wrong. Percy explained everything about the trials with thinly veiled irritation at the whole setup.

“What?” Jason said loudly. “Test your affection?” he repeated. He looked at both of them and Percy was sure he could feel the awkwardness radiating off of them. “Oh gods…”

“He knows,” Nico said flatly and then he shrugged. Jason’s eyes widened and he quickly glanced at Percy before turning his attention back to Nico.

“It was part of trial two? Three? I’ve lost count already,” Percy sighed. “They stuck us in some weird maze where you had to tell the truth to leave. Thing looked like something out of a bad MGM musical...”

“Percy, can I talk to Nico alone?” Jason asked.

“That might be hard,” said Percy sarcastically.

“It’s part of the trials,” Nico said. “We get more than like six feet from each other and it feels like our ribs are breaking.”

“Seriously? So that’s why you have to sit together now. Wait…what about other times?” he asked cautiously.

“We’re attached all the time,” Nico said uncomfortably as Percy shrugged.

“This is really messed up…” said Jason. He looked at Nico who tried to smiled and reassure him.

“I’m okay,” he said to Jason.

Percy almost choked holding back his snippy interjection of, “Yeah, I’m fine too.” He knew this was hard for Nico –and he and Jason were obviously closer than Percy ever knew—but this was a lot for him to take in as well. Aphrodite had turned him into the world’s biggest prick and he supposed he wasn’t entitled to any empathy.

“But you guys will beat this,” Jason said confidently, then hesitated. “What happens if you get through it?”

Both of them blushed and did their best not to look at each other.

“Something about living happily ever after,” Percy grumbled.

“Is…is that a good thing?”  Jason asked, his eyes darting from Nico to Percy and back again. Percy knew that was code for “do you like each other now?”

“It’s just something we have to get through,” Nico said, sounding grouchy. “If we win, they leave us alone. That’s how I’m looking at it.” That made Percy feel sad and upset with himself all over again for being selfish a second ago. Now that he was paying attention he could see that it was hurting Nico to be this close to him. He wondered what was going on in the younger boy’s head.

Jason was looking at Nico with undisguised sympathy. He had been in on this element of Nico’s life for a while and it made Percy feel slow. Percy was struggling to understand him while Jason just did. It only made him more resolved to talk to Nico. They walked slowly to the campfire where Jason said good-bye and went to sit with Piper. He and Nico sat together but neither joined in with the songs. They stayed locked inside their own thoughts –the only place where they still had any privacy.

When it was over and almost time for lights out, they started for the cabins.

“Do you want to go to your cabin tonight?” Percy asked.

“No, all my stuff is still in yours so let’s just go there. We’ve already got the mattresses set up too.” He didn’t sound happy about it but Percy didn’t want to push and start an argument.

Inside Percy’s cabin they turned their backs so they could change into sleepwear and then climbed under the sheets. Once again, Nico rolled over to face the opposite direction and this time he scooted a little further away. Percy propped himself up on his elbow and stared at that head of silky black hair.

“Nico?”

“Hm?”

“About…how you feel, like about me…” He could see Nico go rigid underneath the sheets.

“I don’t want to talk about that,” he said, sounding annoyed. “Just go to sleep, Percy.”

“I can’t believe we’ve gone through all those trials –with more to come—and you still can’t just talk to me about this.” At first Nico didn’t respond and Percy was wondering what else he could say to convince him. And then Nico surprised him by rolling over to look at him. The soft glow from the fountain made Nico’s eyes seem even darker and Percy could feel his gaze. It wasn’t a bad feeling, he’d never been afraid of Nico, unlike everyone else. Percy could see enough to tell that he was snuggled under the covers to the point that half his face was hidden.

“What do you want me to say?” he asked, his voice sounding muffle by all the material keeping them warm. “You don’t understand how hard this is for me,” said Nico somberly. “I didn’t want anyone to know, especially not you.”

“It’s not…I just. If you’ve liked me since we met…that’s five years now. You’ve liked me as long, or longer than Annabeth and I just don’t see anything about me that would inspire something like that,” he sighed. “Can we please talk about it?” I can’t just not wonder about this or leave things like they are.”

He heard Nico take a deep breath. “What good will it do? It might only make us both feel bad,” Nico said as if he saw nothing but futility in the subject.

“Maybe it’ll help us? If this is what’s been causing so much trouble between us then maybe we can finally move past it. And maybe I want that,” Percy said.

“I guess there’s really no reason to spare myself now,” Nico said, sounding bitter. He sat up and ran a hand through his shaggy hair. He didn’t bother to look at Percy, who was staring at his back. “When we met I was a stupid kid who played Mythomagic and dreamed about having super powers and going on adventures. Then you showed up –fighting a monster right in front of me. I thought you were so cool,” he said sadly.

“I screwed up that day. We were saved by the Hunters of Artemis,” Percy corrected him.

“The hunters weren’t there in the beginning. You may not have killed that Manitcore but you held it off and that did save us.” he said. “I didn’t see a failure, I saw a hero. And yeah, my feelings…how I feel...it was almost instant,” he said. “You were nice, brave and...well, I mean you’re…I mean I thought you were cute,” He stopped talking and the muscles in his back looked tense. Percy felt his face heat up and hoped that if Nico did turn around, he couldn’t see as well in the dark  as he claimed.

“Then Artemis and Apollo showed up,” Nico said, carrying on quickly. “Real gods! And they knew your name and looked at you like you were important. I guess it was hero-worship and it was wrong but I was immature and I didn’t know any better. Then Bianca…” he stopped again and Percy felt his heart sink.

“I will never stop being sorry-”

“No, stop apologizing. Bianca was right. I wasn’t mad at you, I was mad at her for leaving me and I was mad at myself for so much. Not being able to stop her, or even help her, and because I honestly wasn’t very happy to find out I was the son of Hades. And I was mad because I liked you when I should’ve been liking girls.”

“Nico…”

“No, just let me finish. You were always there to save me. It was frustrating but I would be lying again if I said I wasn’t happy to see your face every time you got me out of trouble. You weren’t that hero I saw as a kid anymore, you were a different one. You make mistakes but you keep fighting. You keep trying to be my friend even though everyone probably thinks you’re crazy for it. And I know you don’t want it but everyone looks up to you and they’re right to do it because you would never lead them wrong. You would never turn evil like Luke. You would never betray someone you cared about and that’s why I gave up.”

Percy, who had been blushing with embarrassment, blinked in confusion. “Gave up?”

“Oh, um...” Nico hesitated like he hadn’t meant to add that last part. “When we were in the Labyrinth and we started getting along again I thought…I thought maybe. But then I saw how much you liked Annabeth. But I still thought that if I showed you I wasn’t mad at you, I guess, that maybe you would like me back,” he said quietly. “But it didn’t take long for me to see that Annabeth is who you love. Aphrodite was right. I helped as much as I could because it was the right thing to do, but also because I wanted to help you. I didn’t expect anything back, though. I still don’t. She was right about me but she was wrong about us.”

Percy could actually feel his heart breaking and his own self-hatred was swelling. “Nico, if I had known-”

“What?” he asked finally turning around to look at Percy. There was no anger in his voice, just sorrow. “You would have broken up with Annabeth for me? Percy, I knew it was hopeless and that’s why I gave up and why I never told you. I was ready to live with it. You were happy and I wasn’t going to mess with that. I’m still not really comfortable with that part of myself so who knows? Maybe I never would have said anything anyway. When I heard you two broke up I just wanted to see if you were okay,” he sighed and turned back around. “Now we’re in this mess.”

“You were checking up on me?” Percy asked.

“Yeah, sorry about that.”

“No, it’s okay,” he replied.

Percy felt like an idiot. He knew he had a bad habit of slipping into tunnel vision and forgetting to think about the people around him but there was no excuse for this. He had never forgotten Nico, but he obviously had never been paying any real attention. It was in that moment that Nico di Angelo took on a quality of selflessness that awed him. How could he think anything else when he’d just heard that Nico had been suffering in silence and was prepared to do it forever? He couldn’t have done it. When he thought Annabeth had feelings for Luke he had gotten angry and snapped at her about it. And Annabeth had been downright unpleasant to Rachel until she became the Oracle. Even though their relationship had crumbled a few months ago, he doubted very much that either of them could have just turned away forever –even to make the other one happy.

Percy reached over and put a hand on Nico’s shoulder. “Thank you,” he said with genuine gratitude.

“For what?” Nico asked. His voice gave nothing away.

“For telling me, for what you did during the wars, for everything. And I’m sorry I never said it enough.” Percy gave his shoulder little squeeze, happy that Nico had even allowed him to touch him. He would never be able to repay him but maybe he could undo some of the damage he’d caused. He would, most definitely, never ignore Nico again.

He saw Nico nod his head a little and then he pulled away.

“I know it’s none of my business but will you tell me what happened between you and Annabeth?” he asked. Nico lay back down and faced him this time.

“Yeah um…” he stopped to think about how to start this. It was hard to talk about Annabeth but he wouldn’t refuse after what Nico just shared with him.

“It started off with her just wanting to check out New Rome,” he said. “She liked it, of course, and it’s not like I didn’t. I’d always thought we would go live there one day but…I don’t know. At first I felt like I had to help rebuild here, you know?”

“Yeah,” Nico said.

“I didn’t feel right just leaving after this place was wrecked in the battle. And she was all for it, being an architect at heart, she even helped. But after that was over I remembered my promise to Hermes and so that took over. At first it was me, Leo, and Grover, then Jason came to live here and he started helping. After we rescued the fourth child of Hermes, Annabeth started asking me about moving to New Rome again. We were talking about it and I was wondering if I shouldn’t just finish high school at Goode and she was trying to talk me out of it,” he sighed and scratched his head in annoyance.

“I’m listening,” said Nico.

“Yeah she was trying to convince me go to school in New Rome with her. Then Calypso told Leo that she’d bought some property and wanted his help opening a garage. She’s turned into a real gearhead thanks to him. Grover wanted to go back to organizing the protection of the wild places too, so I kind of volunteered to stay on board with Jason and find the remaining half-bloods…without talking about it with her first.” He pursed his lips as he recalled how well that decision went over.

“She was furious. All of my IMs went unaccepted. She didn’t speak to me for two weeks. And then she finally came back to see me. We talked and she accused me of creating excuses to keep from moving to New Rome with her. And you know what? She was right. I could have gone. Their education is tailored to half-bloods so I might have even done better in school there. And there are plenty of young demi-gods dying for a quest who could have gone with Jason. I just…” he sighed again, remembering the conversation.

“I couldn’t go. I didn’t want to. I loved Annabeth but I wasn’t ready. Everything felt like it was moving too fast and I couldn’t keep up, or maybe I was too scared to try. She was so understanding about it and that made me feel worse. She said we were growing apart and we just agreed that it was over. I thought something must be wrong with me. I was the one who brought up the idea of New Rome and then I ran from it.” They were quiet for a while before Nico spoke up tentatively.

“Do you think maybe it was Aphrodite?”

“I wondered that when this started but I don’t know. It felt like me, like I was making my own choices but I guess you don’t know when you’re being influenced,” he said, running a hand through his hair.

“Maybe you two will work it out when you’re ready,” said Nico gently. It surprised Percy given the situation and Nico’s feelings. But he couldn’t see Nico trying to use this information to his advantage.

“Thanks, but I doubt it. I let her down. I can’t really describe it but something feels broken between us now. Maybe that’s Aphrodite’s doing,” he yawned.

“We should get some sleep. We don’t know when the next trial is,” Nico said and then he yawned too, catching it from Percy.

“Yeah,” he breathed and then closed his eyes. He felt better getting that story off of his chest. He hadn’t talked about it with anyone, not even his mom or Grover. Nico was a good listener. He was patient and didn’t push and he felt safe telling Nico because he knew he could keep a secret.

They fell asleep not even noticing that they were facing each other this time.


 

The next morning felt different, Percy could tell that the tension between them had eased immensely. Nico was quiet but his silence didn’t carry any of the angry weight that it used to. They walked to breakfast and Nico would smile faintly or laugh softly whenever something funny was said and it made Percy happy. The Ares kids seemed to have given up trying to antagonize them but he noticed the dirty looks and ignored them.

“Comic books? Cool,” Percy said nodding as he smeared strawberry cream cheese over half a bagel.

“Yeah I just got curious especially with all these superhero movies coming out. Hazel dragged me to see The Avengers and that started it.”

“You should try watching Young Justice too. I mean I’m not a big fan of reading so I usually just watch the cartoons but you’d probably like it too, it’s funny. You could come over one day and watch it with me.”

“Yeah maybe I will,” Nico said lightly and poked around his fruit salad before spearing a cherry. His cheeks were a little pink and he was wearing that faint smile. Percy felt a little surge of pride –like he used to get when he’d say something right and Annabeth would smile at him. That was immediately followed by guilt. He shouldn’t be happy when he knew these trials would probably leave Nico with a broken heart all over again. He couldn’t give the boy what he wanted so he needed to watch himself from now on.

“There’s Justice League too. Maybe we should have superhero day at my house?” he laughed and went back to eating.

After breakfast they went chariot racing against a couple of Apollo kids. Percy drove while Nico made undead warriors pop out of the ground in front of the other chariot. He made them swing their swords at the wheels and summoned black walls of stone to block the percussion arrows being fired at them. Finally the zombies succeeded in destroying one of the wheels on the shiny sun chariot and the Apollo kids lost control. They had to bail while their horses panicked and the ruined chariot flipped and bounce.

It was the easiest win Percy had ever had in chariot racing and probably the most fun. He whooped and hugged Nico before coming to his senses and letting go. Nico flushed all the way to his ears and Percy wasn’t able to completely suppress his laugh.

Back in the cabin he was still grinning like an idiot. Nico climbed under the sheets but Percy was sitting on his knees on the bed like a little kid.

“If I had teamed up with you when Tantalus was here we would have creamed Clarisse!”

“It’s not that big a deal, but thanks,” said Nico squirming under his praise.

“Yeah it is!” he insisted. “Look, the Aphrodite and Ares kids are going to be all over camp with this love trials thing and I know how sensitive you are about…” Nico’s face darkened but Percy kept going. “There’s so much more to you than that and we’re all going to be in your corner. And I think a lot of the other campers might surprise you.”

“Yeah sure,” said Nico in a sullen voice, his face a blank mask. “I’m sure it’ll help me make tons of friends when everyone finds out I’m an even bigger frea-”

“Don’t!” Percy said firmly. “Not ever. I already told you, there’s nothing wrong with you, and I’m not going to listen to you say things like that.” Nico looked sad and slightly surprised at Percy’s words but he didn’t argue. “I think you’re great the way you are and I know Hazel and Jason feel the same way. I just don’t understand why you can’t see it,” he said honestly.

“Anyway, we’d better go to sleep,” he said, getting up. “Just in case there’s another trial.” He flipped the light off and used the soft glow of the salt water fountain to find his way back to the bed.

“Goodnight,” he said.

“Goodnight,” Nico replied, but Percy had a feeling it would be a while before the younger boy actually fell asleep.


 

Percy woke up with Nico’s hair tickling his nose. He was lying really close to him, with an arm flung around Percy’s waist. He must have moved in his sleep. Percy blushed a little bit at their proximity, but he didn’t really mind so much. Still, Nico would probably freak out if he woke up in that position, so Percy carefully moved backwards. He had only just managed to untangle them and sit up when Nico opened his eyes.

“Hey,” Nico said sleepily, looking at him through half closed lids. He had a small smile on his lips. Percy raised his eyebrows in surprise, but smiled back nonetheless.

“Good morning,” he said. “Ready to get up?”

Nico yawned and sat up in the bed. “I guess I have to, if you’re going to” he said. “Let’s go shower.”

Percy blinked. Nico must be really sleepy if he didn’t get the implications of what he’d just said. He followed Nico into the bathroom. “Do you want to go first?”

“It’s fine, go ahead,” Nico said, sitting down at the same spot he had the day before, with his back turned. Still, Percy felt more uncomfortable about the whole thing than he had yesterday. He wasn’t sure why, but he had a feeling Nico stole glances at him while he showered, even if he didn’t actually catch him doing it. Percy kept the shower as short as possible and quickly got dressed. Nico’s face was slightly red as he moved to take his turn.

“Alright, ready,” Nico said after a while, and Percy got up from the floor, turning around. His eyes widened in surprise as he realized Nico was still naked from the waist up. He was giving Percy a sheepish grin while drying his hair with a towel.

“I forgot to bring a shirt,” he shrugged and moved past Percy, presumably to go get one. Percy tried not to stare at Nico’s naked back as he followed. The boy was skinny, but more fit than Percy had thought. Still, something felt off.

“Are you okay?” Percy asked uncertainly, and Nico gave him a surprised look.

“I’m fine. Why?” he said, frowning slightly as he bent down to pick up a shirt from the floor.

“You seem...different. Happier, I guess,” Percy said. Nico rolled his eyes as he pulled the shirt down over his head.

“And that’s a bad thing?” he asked. “I don’t know, I feel good. I guess talking to you yesterday helped.”

Percy nodded. That made sense. Nico had bottled his feeling up for a long time, after all. “Glad I could help.”

Nico gave him a brief smile. “Come on. Let’s go eat breakfast.”

As they sat down at the Poseidon table, Percy saw that Nico had actually picked some bacon as well as fruit for his breakfast for once. That was good. He just hoped the sudden change of diet wouldn’t give the boy stomach cramps.

“Do you think we’ll get the day off?” Percy asked. “You know, from trial-business?”

Nico finished chewing his bacon before answering. “I don’t think they will bother us today.”

“Based on what?” Percy frowned. “They’ve been running us pretty hard since this whole thing started.”

“It’s just a feeling,” Nico shrugged. “Today is a good day. Nothing bad is going to happen.”

Percy stared at him in surprise, then laughed. “I never thought I’d hear you being more optimistic than me.”

“Things change,” Nico said dismissively, finishing his meal. “Now, what do you want to do?”

At Percy’s suggestion, they joined the usual camp activities after breakfast. Nico hadn’t even protested against it, which felt a bit weird. Percy suspected he was making a conscious effort to be more positive, so he didn’t call him out on it. It was a good thing, right?

He was still a bit uncomfortable when they were climbing up the lava wall, and Nico stayed right beneath him the whole time. They had to stay close because of the invisible tether, but there was room enough for him to the side. When Percy pointed it out Nico actually laughed.

“Just enjoying the view,” he said, and Percy almost lost his grip in surprise. He blushed deeply as he collected himself and continued climbing. Since when did Nico say stuff like that?

Since today, apparently. It wasn’t long before he realized the boy as actively flirting with him. Nico grabbed his hand when they walked somewhere (“Just so we don’t accidentally get too far away from each other”), physically corrected Percy’s grip on the bow during archery, and stood so close to him in the lunch line that he would have been breathing down Percy’s neck had he been a few inches taller. Not to mention the little comments he made, small compliments and suggestions that made Percy blush. Nobody else seemed bothered by it, they didn’t even seem to notice the change. Percy was honestly flattered, but also starting to get a bit freaked out by the whole thing.

The whole thing culminated in the evening, during Capture-the-Flag. Nico and Percy were guarding their teams flag, since they had limited mobility due to their bond.

“Do you think anyone’s even going to dare attack us?” Percy asked after a long while of silence. Nico shrugged.

“Considering Jason’s at Camp Jupiter right now, I rather doubt the other team will be brave enough without him,” he said.

“He is? That explains why I haven’t seen him,” Percy said, surprised. “When did he leave?”

“Last night. He told us about it, remember?” Nico said, raising an eyebrow at him. Percy frowned. He couldn’t remember that at all, but Nico sounded so certain. Maybe he had just forgotten about it?

“So,” Nico said, taking a step closer to Percy. “We’re going to be waiting here for a while, and it will probably be boring. We should find a way to entertain ourselves.”

He reached out to touch Percy’s face. For a second Percy was stunned enough to let him, then he grabbed Nico’s hand and brought it away.

 

“Stop it. What’s wrong with you?” he said, and Nico frowned.

“There’s nothing wrong with me, you said so yourself,” Nico said. “Why are you fighting this?”

“What are you talking about?” Percy asked.

“This. Us. We’re meant to be together. That’s what this is all about,” Nico said. “It’s going to happen eventually. Why are you fighting it?”

“Nico, I told you how I feel about this, and about you,” Percy said uncertainly. “I don’t like you that way.”

“You would, if you gave it a chance,” Nico said. “You know you would. That’s what frightens you, isn’t it?”

Percy hesitated, unsure how to respond. He had never been so thankful for getting attacked as he was in that moment. Four younger demigods jumped out from behind the bushes, taking them by surprise. Percy defeated his two easily and without harming them, but Nico was ruthless, causing a lot of bruises and possibly breaking an arm.

“You didn’t need to do that,” Percy told him afterwards, when they were walking back to the cabin. “I’ve seen you fight, you could have disarmed them easily.”

“Well, I was angry,” Nico said, like that made it okay. Percy frowned.

“You were angry at me. You shouldn’t have taken it out on them.”

“Whatever,” Nico muttered. “Let’s go to bed.”

After changing into his sleepwear, Percy hesitated. He suddenly felt uncomfortable with the thought of sleeping next to Nico. For the first time he wasn’t sure that Nico wouldn’t do something, make something happen. Percy didn’t know how he felt about that. A little frightened, maybe. Was Nico right? Was he just afraid that he might actually fall for Nico if he gave it a chance?

As it turned out, Nico did something before they even got that far. He came up to Percy, looking like he was going to start their earlier discussion again, then leaned in and pushed their lips together.

Percy was too stunned to react, and Nico didn’t pull back. If anything, the kiss became more aggressive. The boy pushed himself against Percy, who backed up until his back hit the wall. Nico followed, more or less pinning him against the wall. Percy didn't know what to do, couldn't think, but his body seemed to make the decision by itself. Slowly he started to return the kiss.

As far as kisses go, it really wasn’t bad, but Percy was too confused to truly enjoy it. He wasn’t sure this was something he wanted, and if he did, was it just physical? He knew it was more than that to Nico, but he was still surprised Nico had taken this step. Percy hadn’t thought he would.

He wouldn’t.

The realization hit him like a lightning bolt. All the flirting, the positive attitude, the disregard for other people’s feelings...suddenly it all made sense. Percy forcefully pushed the boy away from him.

“You’re not Nico,” he said, certain of it, even if the boy’s hurt expression looked exactly like the son of Hades.

“Percy, what are you talking about?” he asked. “Of course I am.”

“You’re not,” Percy insisted. “This is a trial, isn’t it? Where is the real Nico?”

“You’re not making any sense,” the boy tried, but it seemed pretty half hearted.

“Drop the act,” Percy said angrily. “Who are you?”

The boy was silent for a moment, then frowned. “I am what you wanted me to be,” he said bitterly. “I’m confident and have accepted myself. I’m Nico as he should be.”

“No, you’re not. Nico is Nico as he should be,” Percy said. “He’s selfless and kind, and you’re not. He would never have tried to force himself on me like that.”

“You liked it!” Not-Nico spat. “You wanted me. You’ve never wanted him.”

Percy wanted to tell him that wasn’t true, but it was, in a way. This Nico had been too aggressive and made him uncomfortable, but he had also opened doors Percy hadn’t even known were there. Percy hesitated.

“See?” the boy said eagerly, almost begging. “It’s better like this. Stay here, with me. We could be happy together.”

“I’m sorry,” Percy said, feeling a bit bad about rejecting him even if the boy didn’t actually exist. “This isn’t real.”

The boy scowled at him. “Fine,” he said angrily. “You’re a sap anyway. I can do better.”

Percy opened his mouth to reply, but the cabin started spinning and dissolved before his eyes, turning everything to darkness.

When Percy opened his eyes he was lying on his back, looking up at Jason’s and Chiron’s concerned faces.

“Thank the gods you’re awake. Finally,” Jason said.

Percy groaned as he sat up. “What happened?”

“We don’t know,” Chiron said. “You’ve been asleep for the whole day, and we couldn’t wake you up. We assumed it was part of the trial, as it happened to both of you.”

Percy looked down beside him, and saw Nico lying there, deep asleep. The real Nico. Percy gently reached out to touch his face, but Nico didn’t react.

“Come on, Nico,” Percy said. “Whatever’s happening, it’s not me. Wake up.”

Nico didn’t react.


 

“It barely took him a day to realize it wasn’t real. That’s the power of true love!” said Aphrodite bouncing on her feet.

“Before you get all excited, let me remind you that the trial is only half done. The son of Hades may yet succumb to the illusion,” Hera said ignoring her antics.

“He won’t. I have every confidence he will see through it soon.”

“Perhaps, and perhaps not. We shall see,” said Hera crossing her arms.


 

The sharp buzzing sound of the alarm clock was the worst scare he had ever experienced. It was like having the monster under your bed blow an air horn in your ear. His eyes shot open and he groaned and hit the reset button, then pulled the sheets over his head trying to slow his heart down and go back to sleep. He knew that wouldn’t be allowed to happen when he heard his bedroom door open.

“Nico, get up! You make us late every morning!”

“Coming!” he snapped. He heard his sister growl in annoyance and slam the door but he threw the sheets back and sat up.

The noise of Washington D.C. was almost constant. He could hear the distant sounds of cars from people in their early morning commute, heavy machinery from construction, the air slicing roar of jets overhead, and his mother singing in the kitchen below. He got out of bed and picked up the components of his school uniform where he’d thrown them on the floor. He’d showered the night before and the nice thing about waking up late is that he didn’t have to fight Bianca for the bathroom sink in the mornings. He brushed his teeth and headed downstairs, dragging his backpack on the floor behind him.

He smiled as he moved closer to the singing. His mother was a morning person, unlike him, and she sang every morning. It was the only good thing about waking up in his opinion. He rounded the corner into the kitchen and saw her carrying two plates of French toast to the table. She was already dressed for work under her apron in a tasteful navy blue dress that silhouetted her figure and fell to the top her knees, functional heels, and her pearls –which she wore almost every day. Her thick black curls were pulled into a bun at the back of her head and her make-up was simple because she didn’t need much. His mother worked in the Italian embassy. Her father had been ambassador before he retired and died and she hoped to follow in his footsteps soon. It was hard because she would often have to leave for Italy. If he and Bianca were on holiday from school, they got to go with her.

They were both born in Venice like their mother but rarely got to see it. Her job forced her to Rome and back with little time in between. Still, when she was around she insisted on being there for them. She made them breakfast –because her job sometimes prevented her from making dinner— helped with homework, and drove them to school.

“Buongiorno, tesoro,” she said and smiled at him. Bianca blew past him to the table but he went straight to his mother for a hug. He didn’t know why but the sight of her made him sad and happy at the same time. She pulled him to her and he buried his face in her shoulder and inhaled her scent. Why did he feel like crying?

“You’d better go eat before your sister finishes it all,” she laughed and he let go.


 

The car ride was noisy with Bianca switching stations whenever one went to commercial. But he had the backseat all to himself to think. His name was Nico di Angelo, he went to Edmund Burke School, his mother is Maria di Angelo, his sister is Bianca, he had a best friend named Jason Grace –he knew all of that. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong, that he was forgetting something important. He looked around at the city with its busy streets and historical landmarks and buildings. It all seemed familiar and unfamiliar.

They pulled up to the school and Bianca kissed their mother quickly and bailed --heading straight to where her friends were standing. Nico leaned over the seat and gave his mom a kiss on the cheek.

“Have a good day, Nico,” she said smiling. He smiled back and had to force himself out of the car. He wanted to stay with her. He had this groundless urge to protect her but he knew that was silly so he got out and headed for the gates.

The concrete pathways that cut through the lawn were busy with students making their way to their first class. But no amount of tardiness would make them foolish enough to tread on the grass. To everyone else it probably seemed like a normal day. It was early so the sky was still clinging to that pale white morning color it has before shifting into baby blue and there was a little breeze blowing. He would bet a lot of the kids would be eating lunch outside today. He glanced around as he walked trying to take everything in. It was like walking through a dream, where you know exactly what something is even though you’ve never seen it before. He was restless –borderline anxious—he didn’t know why but he felt like he had more important things to do and he really, really didn’t want to be here…ever. But all kids felt that way about school, right?

He jogged up the steps and inside the building to head for class. He had English first and he should be busy trying to mentally prepare himself for the immanent frustration brought on by his dyslexia. He turned left and walked down the hallway that led to his classroom and was just wondering where Jason was when the door to the storage room opened and a hand shot out and grabbed him. He was hauled into the tiny dark space –too surprised to shout—and the door was shut. He was about to panic until the light came on.

Percy was wearing his school uniform –albeit rebelliously—his jacket was nowhere to be seen, his vest wasn’t buttoned, his shirt was untucked, and somehow it was sexy. He was smirking at Nico and there was mischief in those sea green eyes. He was the boy Nico had been crushing on since 6th grade when he was just starting junior high and Percy –the cool 8th grader—had to give Nico’s group a tour of the school. So what was it? What was wrong with this picture?

“Percy-” The older boy was on him before he could say any more. Percy’s mouth covered his as he backed Nico up until he bumped into the shelves behind them –causing the various cleaning products to rattle. The thought of pushing him away never even entered Nico’s mind. On the contrary, his arms came up and wrapped around Percy’s neck and he kissed back just as passionately. He could have stayed there all day with the feeling of Percy’s hands on his hips and the way he would lick Nico’s bottom lip before snaking his tongue into his mouth. The bell rang and they stopped but didn’t let go of each other.

“Hey,” said Percy grinning down at him with those eyes.

“Hey,” he whispered back.

“We’d better go before-”

The door opened and Percy pulled away from him quickly. It was Jason, frowning at them in clear disgust. Percy only smirked back at him and Nico knew he just looked incredibly guilty.

 

“You might wanna shut the door,” Percy said.

“Why? Afraid someone will see you in here and go running back to Annabeth?” Jason derided. The smirking stopped and Percy looked at Jason seriously.

“I’m more worried about Nico. You and I are graduating and he’ll be here all alone. So, go ahead, out him. I guess you don’t care that you won’t be around to protect him. High schoolers can be pretty mean…”

They stared at each other and the tension mounted between them. Nico didn’t know what to say, but then again, he had a feeling there was nothing he could say to ease this animosity. These two had a deep dislike for each other and the fact that Nico was in love with Percy bothered Jason a lot. He sometimes wondered what it would be like if they got along, but that might actually be scarier. Finally Jason reached in and pulled Nico out by his jacket and slammed the door with Percy still inside. They went down the hall –Jason stomping and Nico trying not to blush while he tugged his jacket back into place.

“Go to class,” said Jason tightly. Nico looked and they were in front of the door to his English class. “We’ll talk later.” He continued down the hall and Nico went the room and took his seat. He didn’t need Jason chiding him like he was his father… Thinking of his father gave him a strange and foreboding feeling, but he couldn’t understand why. His father had been a doctor in Venice who died when he was three.

No. Something whispered in the back of his mind. And suddenly Nico thought: He’ll be disappointed if I don’t wake up!

“Nico!” He turned his attention to the woman standing in front of him.

“Yes, Miss Ashworth?” The entire class was looking at him which was in direct contradiction with his life mission to avoid public awkwardness.

“I asked you to read the paragraph on page 273 out loud,” she said expectantly.

“Umm…” Nico realized that he had never even taken his textbook out and the rest of the students began to snicker as he hastily unzipped his backpack –his previous thoughts forgotten.


 

Most of the other kids were outside eating at the picnic tables just as he predicted, but he and Jason stayed inside –especially since Percy headed out there with a group of his friends and had his arm wrapped around Annabeth’s waist. Jason still looked angry and Nico could probably guess having two classes with Percy is what kept him from calming down. He wasn’t speaking to Nico either and had barely made eye contact with him since he sat down at the table.

“Jason, look, I don’t understand why you’re so mad!” Nico said, finally losing his patience with the silent treatment.

“And I don’t understand why you’re so okay letting him use you like that!” said Jason in an exasperated tone. “Nico, you’re so much better than that. He does this to you all the time. Teases you, gets your hopes up and then goes back to his girlfriend like nothing ever happened. He’s a pig,” Jason concluded and started picking the pepperonis off his pizza.

“You don’t know him! He cares about me, he just…” He faltered –unsure of how to defend his position.

“He just can’t accept the fact that he isn’t interested in the girl on his arm. He’s with her in public and hides you away like a dirty little secret. He’s a self-hating douchebag!”

“And you’re probably just jealous of him!”

The look of shock on Jason’s face made him regret that. “Why can’t you just let me have this?” Nico asked piteously. Jason pushed his tray away and turned to look at Nico.

“We’ve known each other a long time. You trusted me with your secret and I would never tell and of course I want you to find a guy and be happy, but Nico…this isn’t it. He’s taking advantage of your feelings. He’s been doing it since that day he caught you staring at him.”

“I just can’t stop thinking that he’s a good person,” said Nico and Jason closed his eyes and sighed in annoyance. “I don’t know what it is but I get this feeling that I can trust him. You think I’m crazy, don’t you?” he asked sadly.

“No, I just think you’re in love with this idea of Percy, not the real one.”


 

He mulled over Jason’s words for the rest of the day and he felt conflicted. Percy paid no attention to him since the storage closet moment. He could see Jason had a point but it warred in his mind with his firm beliefs that Percy was worthy of his affection. But there was also that lingering feeling that he was forgetting something. It was all starting to make his head hurt and he was happy when school was over for the day. It was a rare day when their mother was off in time to pick them up and he crawled into the backseat gratefully.

“How was school?” asked Maria.

“Boring mostly,” mumbled Nico.

“I got an A on my essay!” Bianca squealed. Nico pretty much tuned them out as Bianca explained her essay and his mother gushed.

At dinner he just picked at his tortellini and claimed to have a stomachache when his mother asked if he was okay. He went to his room and turned on the TV but he was just flipping channels aimlessly. His mind was still full of nagging questions about Percy. He banged his head against his mattress and decided to watch some cartoons but then there was a knock at his door.

“Come in.” His sister walked into the room and smiled at him before sitting down on the bed. She looked so much their mother and he didn’t know why that meant so much to him. He stayed where he was lying on his back. Bianca was obstructing his view of the television so he just looked at the ceiling.

“Is something wrong? You barely ate anything and usually you devour mom’s tortellini.”

“I’m okay,” he lied.

“It’s that Percy guy again, isn’t it?” He turned his head to look at her disapproving expression but went back to studying the ceiling within seconds. “Nico, you know it would be better if you could get over this…problem. You’d be happier crushing on girls.” His heart dropped into his stomach and tears began to prickle his eyes.

“I wish I could,” he said softly.

“It’s just a phase, it’ll pass,” Bianca assured him and he was sure he would be crying soon. His own sister… What would his mom think?

“Yeah, listen, I need to sleep. I’ll probably feel better in the morning,” he said, avoiding eye contact. Bianca said goodnight and kissed his cheek but it felt like an empty gesture. When the door closed behind her a tear streaked down his cheek. He couldn’t remember ever feeling so lost. His cellphone started singing on the nightstand and when he picked it up there was a picture of Percy on the screen and his heart stopped.

“Hello?”

“You busy?” asked Percy.

“Uh, I-”

“I’m outside in front of your neighbor’s driveway. Sneak out and we’ll go somewhere,” he said.

“I don’t think I can,” said Nico uncertainly.

“Of course you can. It’s not a big deal. I’ll have you back before they notice.”

“I just don’t think it’s a good idea…”

“Please, Nico? I miss you.” Dealing with Jason and his sister had weighed him down like an anchor and hearing those words from Percy dragged him up from the depths. His resolve crumbled and he agreed.

Bianca was in her room and he slipped out of his quietly shutting the door as softly as possible. He could hear his mom in her office talking on the phone and so he headed for the back door through the laundry room. Relief washed over him when he made it outside without getting caught but he moved quickly. He stopped at the end of their driveway and looking left to right. He finally spotted a car with someone in it waving and ran for it. Percy was smiling at him when he opened the door and got in.

“I knew you could do it,” he said proudly.

“Where are we going?” Nico asked.

“To be alone for a little while,” Percy said and started the car.


 

Bartholdi Park was more like a triangular shaped botanical garden in the city. There was a greenhouse and a huge fountain in the center surrounded by plants and flowers. Nico had only ever been here once before on a field trip and now he was making out with Percy on the ground under a tree. They started standing, and then sitting, now he was on his back with Percy on top of him and somehow his fear of being seen had been lost in the transitions.

It was a heady feeling having Percy on him like this with his fingers flitting everywhere, but there was something urgent about it too. Percy’s lust was like a fever. Nico could feel it radiating off of him. Soon his wandering hands found the clasp of Nico’s pants and began to tug at it.

“Wait,” Nico said pushing him back gently.

“Why?” asked Percy leaning down to kiss him again but Nico stopped him.

“I don’t think we should…do that,” he said shyly.

“Don’t worry, I brought protection,” Percy said dismissively.

“No, that’s not…I just think it’ll mean more to me than it will to you,” said Nico sadly. The surprise on Percy’s face made him hopeful that he was wrong.

“Well, what do you think it means?” Percy asked in confusion.

“That…I mean something to you…that you love me,” he said hopefully.

“Nico, don’t be so serious. It’s just sex.” He moved to restart their kiss and Nico turned his face away.

“Why are you still with Annabeth?” Nico asked. “You’re not attracted to her so why not be with me?” Percy sat back and looked down at him in disbelief.

“What is this? Am I on trial here?”

That word hung in the air between them –almost like Nico could see it written on the wind.

Trial. Trial? The trials! It was like the right piece fitting into the right spot in his mind. That’s what he’d forgotten…everything! The truth. His heart thundered in his chest and panic coiled in his gut like an angry serpent. It wasn’t real, none of it. He sat up and glared at the fake in front of him.

“Where is Percy?”

“Umm I’m right here?” said fake Percy looking perplexed and amused.

“I mean the real Percy,” Nico said. “This isn’t real.” Fake Percy looked sad and reached out to stroke Nico’s cheek.

“Of course it’s real. Don’t I feel real?” Nico pushed his hand away in revulsion.

“This is a trial, it has to be. Percy would never act like you. He would never-”

“Touch you like that?” finished fake Percy.

“Yes. And my sister… Bianca would never say those things to me! She knew…she knew how I felt and it didn’t bother her. She loved me anyway. Now, answer me. Who are you really?” All pretenses were gone and he looked at Nico with no shame.

“Nico, I’m what you wanted, in those dark moments when you wanted him so badly that it didn’t matter if he was with Annabeth or not.”

Nico stared at him in shock. The worst part is that he couldn’t deny it, but it wasn’t as true now as it was before.

“That was in the beginning and it was selfish. I wanted him to be happy in the end.”

“And what about your happiness?” Fake Percy moved closer. He sat between Nico’s legs and the look of sympathy he had on his face kept Nico from scrambling back away from him.

“You know the truth. These trials won’t help anything. He still loves Annabeth and they’ll probably get back together as soon as he changes his mind and wants to move to New Rome.” He leaned forward and rested his forehead against Nico’s. “Stay with me,” he whispered. “At least with me we can have something, more than what he’s willing to give you. And your family is here.”

Nico felt so mad, but he didn’t know who he was angrier with right now –Hera and Aphrodite, this thing trying to seduce him, or himself for falling for this trick. It made him feel weak and he hated it.

“Get away from me!” He shoved the fake Percy away and got to his feet.

“Go back then,” fake Percy said glaring at him from the ground. “You’ll be miserable in the end and you know it. He’ll never accept you,” he said viciously.

The world began to spiral and for a second Nico felt dizzy enough to pass out. He shut his eyes against it and when he opened them again he was on his back still in bed. He sat up quickly and looked around to make sure this was indeed reality. Percy was sitting next to him and Chiron and Jason were standing close by, staring at him in concern.

“Nico!” Jason cried in relief.

“Nico, are you alright?” asked Chiron.

“Nico?” He looked over at Percy and he didn’t know what to say or feel.

“Nico?” Percy called again. He reached out –maybe to put a hand on his shoulder—but Nico flinched back. Percy stopped and looked wounded as he drew his hand back.

“I…please, don’t touch me,” said Nico. He couldn’t. He just couldn’t handle being touched by the real Percy after that. It was too soon and too painful.


 

“Oh, this trial seems to have driven a wedge between them,” Hera said in fake wonder.

“No doubt brought on by the excessiveness of your illusion,” said Aphrodite with barely contained anger. “This trial was supposed to be about them! You didn’t have to drag in the boy’s mother and sister!”

“I was merely balancing out that interesting version of Jason Grace you added in. It looked to me like he was trying to debunk the trial,” Hera said calmly. “But they passed!”

“Yes, because their love is true,” Aphrodite said glaring.

“Then go congratulate your champions.” Hera smiled and disappeared.


 

 

“I...I can’t talk about it,” Nico said, looking down at his hands. “Please, just leave me alone.”

Jason and Chiron exchanged a look, but stood up to leave. Percy, who had already told them an abbreviated version of what happened to him during the illusion, couldn’t do the same. He remained where he was, sitting about two feet away from Nico but unable to do anything. Every time Percy moved even a little closer Nico flinched away.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to stay?” Jason asked, probably thinking that it might be better than leaving the two of them alone. He might have been right about it.

“Just go,” Nico said hollowly, then turned his back towards Percy, clearly pretending he wasn’t there. That hurt a bit, but Percy couldn’t blame Nico for it. No, he knew exactly who he blamed.

“I can’t tell you how proud I am of the both of you,” a female voice said, and Percy groaned as he turned around. Aphrodite was standing by the door, thankfully alone. At least she had the decency not to act giddy this time.

Nico clearly didn’t care. “No,” he said, not even looking at her. “Not now. Just leave.”

Percy was a bit surprised. Nico was usually very respectful to gods, even if they were being assholes. Just what had they put him through in the last trial?

Aphrodite gave him a sympathetic look and opened her mouth to say something.

“Don’t even try,” Percy told her sternly. “We’ve earned some rest. Just do as Nico asked, and leave.”

She hesitated, then nodded. “As you wish. The trials will begin again tomorrow. I am truly sorry for how things have gone.”

She disappeared again before they could say anything back. Percy wished she hadn’t apologized. If it hadn’t been for her they wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place.

“Nico,” Percy tried again, and the boy abruptly stood up.

“I need a shower,” he proclaimed, still not looking at Percy as they walked to the bathroom. Percy took his usual place on the floor, trying not to think about the last time he’d sat there. Or rather thought he sat there, while the boy who wasn’t Nico had showered and forgotten to bring a shirt. Percy shook his head to clear it. He wanted to talk to someone about this to help him understand his own confusion, or to at least have some time on his own to think things through. Nico probably felt like that as well, probably more than Percy did.

When Nico emerged again he was fully clothed and smelling of soap. His hair was still dripping wet and his skin slightly pink, like he had scrubbed himself hard. He walked past Percy, still not looking at him.

“Nico, please. Talk to me,” Percy said, reaching out to grab his arm. Nico pulled the arm back like he’d been burned.

“Don’t touch me!” he shouted, sounding more panicked than angry. His eyes met Percy’s for a split second before Nico looked away again, but Percy was taken back by the pain he saw there. He backed up a step holding his hands up.

“I won’t touch you,” he said trying to sound reassuring. “Just...please, tell me what’s wrong. How can I help you?”

“You can’t,” Nico said, looking down at his shoes. “Stop trying. Everything would be so much better if you just stopped trying to help.”

“What do you mean?” Percy asked, confused.

Nico closed his eyes and took deep breaths, apparently trying to calm down. “Forget it,” he finally said. “Just keep your distance.”

“Nico...” Percy tried, one last attempt, but Nico turned his back, hugging himself like he was cold.

“Stop it. Please. Just stop it,” he said, his voice thick, and Percy wondered if he was crying. Nico sat down on the floor, still keeping his back turned and making no sounds that Percy could hear. Percy had no idea what to do. What he wanted to do was to walk over and put his arms around the boy and reassure him it would be okay, but Nico didn’t want him to touch him. Or talk to him. Or anything to do with him, really. Percy sunk down on the floor as well. He couldn’t leave without Nico, anyway.

He managed to get Nico to come with him to lunch a while later, mostly by pointing out that he was hungry and couldn’t go by himself. It was clear that Nico came with him solely for Percy’s sake, as he was just moving things around on his plate, completely unresponsive.

“Nico, you’ve got to eat,” Percy urged. “Come on, you’ll need your strength for the trial tomorrow.”

Nico was silent, and Percy though he wouldn’t answer again, but then he sighed and pushed his plate away. “Why? What’s the point?” he said. “Why are we even doing these trials?”

Percy frowned. “You know why. A thousand years of Hera directing love, us being her slaves and all that,” he said. “Nico, you’re not giving up, are you?”

Nico made a horrible, hollow sound that might have been a laugh, but didn’t answer.

“Nico,” Percy tried, reaching out for him, which only resulted in him getting up from the table and taking a step back. Another step would have caused excruciating pain, but thankfully Nico remained where he was, looking down at his feet.

“I’m sorry,” Nico said, his voice strained. “I can’t...” He trailed off, looking pained.

“It’s okay, ” Percy said, attempting a smile. “We don’t have to talk about this right now. Just… sit down. Eat something. I won’t try to touch you again, I promise.”

Nico hesitated for a moment, then reluctantly sat down. He took a couple of bites, but mostly he just stared down at his plate. Percy was frustrated, but there wasn’t anything he could do without risking another fight. Neither of them said anything until they had finished eating.

“So...um, do you want to do something?” Percy asked. “You know, to take our minds off things. I don’t know, archery?”

That was the wrong thing to suggest, as his mind immediately provided him with thoughts of Not-Nico whispering in his ear as he corrected Percy’s grip on the bow. The real Nico wasn’t even looking at him, however, so he probably missed the way Percy’s cheeks went hot.

“Something,” Nico muttered, apparently considering it, then he sighed. “I want to talk to Hazel.”

“Okay,” Percy said, because hey, at least that meant Nico was talking to somebody. “Are you going to tell her what’s going on?”

“I don’t want her to worry,” Nico said. “I just need to talk to her.”

He called Hazel from the beach rather than any of the cabins. Percy hung back as much as he could as Hazel’s face appeared in the mist, smiling brightly as they appeared.

“Nico, hi!” she said happily, “How are things going?”

“I can’t complain,” Nico said. “I just wanted to check up on you.”

“I’m fine, Frank is taking me to a café in New Rome in a few minutes. They apparently make the best brownies ever,” Hazel said with a smile, before frowning. “Nico, are you sure you’re alright?”

“I’m fine, just been having bad dreams,” Nico said. “Don’t keep Frank waiting. I’ll talk to you later.”

“Okay,” Hazel said uncertainly. “Take care of yourself, you hear me?”

“I will,” Nico said, then broke the connection. He made no move to get up from the beach, so Percy sat down beside him, about a foot away. The silence hung heavy for a long while. Percy kind of wanted to put an arm around him, but he had promised he wouldn’t touch him.

Finally Nico let out a sigh. “The last trial,” he said, looking out over the water. “What was it like for you?”

Percy hesitated, not really wanting to go into detail about it. “Everything was the same, but you were different,” Percy said honestly. “It took me a while to see through it.”

“For me everything was different,” Nico said, sounding distant. “We weren’t demigods, we went to school like normal people, and… And my mother and Bianca were alive.”

Percy stared at him, realizing the magnitude of what Nico had been through. Seeing his mother and sister again, even fake ones, and having to give them up… Percy couldn’t imagine it. If Aphrodite or Hera had shown up right then Percy would have tried to kill them, consequences be damned.

“Nico, I’m so sorry,” Percy said, and Nico finally turned towards him.

“Hazel wasn’t there, that’s why I wanted to talk to her,” he said, sounding choked. “But you were. You were different, and I can’t...I can’t...”

He curled up, covering his face with his hands. His breathing was uneven and his shoulders were shaking. Nico was crying, and Percy wasn’t sure what to do. Hesitantly he put a hand on Nico’s shoulder, only to be shaken off immediately.

“Don’t touch me,” Nico said, between sobs, begging rather than demanding. “Please. Just don’t touch me. Not right now. I can’t... ”

“I understand,” Percy said. “Just… If there’s anything I can do, just tell me. I’m here. I’m not leaving.”

“You can’t leave. There’s a difference,” Nico said, moving his hands away from his face and looking up at the sky. Percy could see there were still tears in his eyes, but Nico was furiously trying to blink them away.

“Even if I could leave, I wouldn’t,” Percy said quietly. Nico turned to look at him for a long moment, but didn’t answer. With a sigh he got up and walked towards the water to wash his face. Once he was finished he walked over to where Percy was sitting.

“I’m not good at archery,” he said. “But I guess it’s something we can do without bumping into each other all the time. Let’s go.”

Percy grinned widely as he followed Nico back to camp.

Things remained a little strained between them for the rest of the day, but at least Nico could look at him now. When night fell, he still lay as far away from Percy as  he could be without causing them physical pain, and Percy was honestly a little hurt by it. He missed having Nico close, and being able to talk freely to him. Still, he understood that Nico needed some space.

“You don’t think they would give us another trial like that, do you?” Nico asked, though he still had his back turned.

“I seriously doubt it,” Percy said. “They wouldn’t put us through the same thing twice.”

“I don’t think so either, but still,” Nico said weakly. “I don’t really want to go to sleep.”

“Me neither,” Percy confessed. “But we have to.”

“I know. We need our strength for the trials,” Nico said, sighing deeply.

“We’re still doing them, then?”

“You were right, we need to finish this,” Nico said. “And I don’t want to have gone through that for nothing.”

“You won’t have. We’ll get through this,” Percy said reassuringly, but Nico didn’t say anything else.

Percy sighed and closed his eyes, doubting either of them would get much sleep that night.


 

They woke up to the sound of Aphrodite’s nervous giggle and Hera’s unimpressed voice.

“Ready for the next trial?” she asked, and Percy groaned as he sat up in bed, trying to blink the sleep out of his eyes. Nico was covering his face with his hands, muttering something about how this had to be a nightmare. Looking at him, remembering what they had put him through made Percy’s blood boil.

“No,” Percy said harshly, causing both goddesses and Nico to look at him in surprise. “No, we’re not ready,” he clarified. “Obviously. We’re still in bed. Come back in an hour or so, when we’d had the chance to shower and eat breakfast.”

Hera narrowed her eyes at him. “Do you really think you’re in any position to make demands?” she asked, her voice dangerously low.

“Look, we’ll do your damned trials,” Percy said angrily. “But give us an hour to get ready. You’re already ancient, what does one hour matter to you?”

Hera glared at him, but Aphrodite just giggled. “We can give them that much, can’t we?” she said with a voice like silk. “It’s not like we’re in any hurry, and watching them do their trials in their pajamas would be ridiculous.”

“I’ll give them half an hour,” Hera said with a disgruntled look, then she disappeared, quickly followed by Aphrodite. Percy watched with some satisfaction. It was a small victory, but it still felt good.

“You shouldn’t piss them off,” Nico said beside him, but his voice had an almost amused undertone. Percy grinned at him. That was a bigger victory right there.

“Come on, we haven’t got much time. Let’s go shower.”

They got ready in a hurry, more or less running to breakfast to get something to eat before the trial started. As they had experienced before, the goddesses didn’t always remember they needed to eat if the trial took a long time. Percy figured there wasn’t really any point to trying to figure out what the trial would be like. For all he knew they could spend the next few hours fighting dragons or being trees.

When their half hour limit was up, the goddesses appeared again. Hera was looking irritated, but Aphrodite was smiling.

“Are you ready now?” Hera asked. “Or do you need another hour to calm your nerves?”

“That would be nice,” Percy said. “But I suppose it would be better to just get this over with quickly.”

“You might be right. It could very well be over quickly,” Hera said, smiling like a snake as Camp Half-Blood disappeared around them. Percy reached out to grab Nico’s arm without thinking, but they stayed together this time. A stone corridor appeared before them, and Percy could see it turning in three directions at the end.

“Here we are,” Hera said. “Make it through the labyrinth, and you pass.”

“What labyrinth?” Nico asked, but Hera just looked smug and disappeared. Aphrodite stayed behind, looking serious.

“The labyrinth is dangerous, so be careful,” she said. “The only advice I could give you is not to get separated. The tether that bound you has been broken for this trial.”

Percy was about to tell her that they could handle it, they had been through labyrinths before, but as he opened his mouth no sound came out. Aphrodite gave him an apologetic look, then disappeared as well. Percy shouted after her, trying to tell her to wait, but there was still no sound.

“Percy?” Nico asked behind him. “Please tell me there’s no light in here, and that you can’t see any labyrinth either.”

Percy turn towards him with a from, trying to ask what he was talking about. Nico was looking around, but his gaze was unfocused, and he was moving his hands in front of him like he couldn’t see anything.

Which he probably couldn’t, Percy realized. Nico was blind, and he was mute. That was the real trial, not the labyrinth. He cursed soundlessly. How were they supposed to communicate?

“Percy?” Nico asked again, sounding uncertain. “What’s going on?”

Sighing, Percy walked over to him and took his hand. Nico tried to flinch away from him, but Percy held on.

“Percy, let go of me!”, Nico said, but Percy ignored him. This was the only way. He turned Nico’s palm upwards and slowly wrote mute into it with his finger. Nico’s eyes widened and he stopped struggling.

 

“You can’t speak?” he asked, his eyes aimed somewhere over Percy’s shoulder. It was a bit unnerving, considering how piercing his eyes usually were. “Stomp once for yes and twice for no,” Nico suggested, and Percy stomped once. Nico nodded.

“So we’re going through the labyrinth mute and blind,” Nico sighed, sounding incredibly fed up with the whole thing. Percy could relate. “Fine. I’ll try to keep my other senses open, while you lead the way. Agreed?”

Percy stomped once, then moved his grip from Nico’s arm to his hand and attempted to drag him forward, but Nico snapped his hand back.

“I can sense you. You don’t have to touch me,” he said, and Percy groaned. Or would have, it there had been any sound. Aphrodite said not to get separated, and this was a fool proof way to make sure that didn’t happen easily. Especially since the tether apparently had been broken, the one time it would have been useful.  He wished he could have told Nico that, but instead he just stomped twice and grabbed his hand again.

“I mean it, Percy,” Nico said, trying to get free again. “I can follow you fine. I can sense life from you. And I can sense the shadows and the rocks. I’ll be fine. Let go of me.”

Percy stomped twice and reached for Nico’s palm again, writing and probably misspelling safer and warning. Nico sighed.

“You mean what Aphrodite said,” he rightfully interpreted. “Fine. Let’s just get through this.”

Percy smiled at him, but of course Nico couldn’t see that. With a tight grip on his hand Percy started moving down the corridor, then hesitated where it split into three parts. Figuring they had no way of knowing, he turned left.

“Unless the labyrinth is changing like the one Daedalus built, we should get out eventually by following the wall,” Nico said, and Percy nodded. He knew that much, so he walked forward with one hand in Nico’s and the other on the left wall, following where it took them.

After they had been walking for a while in silence, Nico suddenly stopped. “There’s something alive in front of us,” he said. “You should get your sword ready.”

Right, Percy tried to say, then cursed soundlessly again as he uncapped Riptide and walked forward, making sure Nico was slightly behind him.

“Just around the corner,” Nico whispered, and Percy stopped, writing stay into Nico’s palm. Nico frowned like he was going to argue, but thankfully didn’t say anything. Carefully Percy rounded the corner, and was immediately attacked by three cyclopes. If Nico hadn’t warned him Percy would have been taken completely by surprise, but as it were, he was able to defend himself decently enough.

He parried a blow from the nearest cyclops, then ducked under the second and attacked the third before it had time to react. Percy slashed it’s head of, then quickly turn to do the same with the other two. Parry, duck, attack. The battle was over in a minute. Percy shook his head. Cyclopes! Who did they think he was?

“Percy!” Nico shouted, and Percy hurried towards the sound, except… Except the corridor behind the corner wasn’t there anymore. He was met by an impassable wall. Percy cursed as he started to bang on in with his fist, to let Nico know he was there, and okay, if nothing else.

“Percy, stop banging and listen,“ Nico yelled from the other side. “It’s not ordinary rock. I can’t move it. And I can’t shadow travel either.”

He turned quiet, and Percy banged the wall once to signal he understood.

“Percy, there’s something coming towards you, so you have to move,” Nico said, sounding urgent. “I’ll try to find you further on, okay? I should be able to sense you, so find a good place and stay put! Understood?”

Percy banged the wall once, really wishing he could talk.

“Good. Now get moving!”

Percy reluctantly did as he said, and started moving forward again, before he heard Nico yell “The other way, Percy!” and silently cursed as he turned around and hurried down another corridor instead. Since the labyrinth could apparently change whenever it wanted to, there wasn’t really any point to following the wall. Instead he ran forward pretty aimlessly, wanting to keep the distance between himself and whatever it was that Nico had warned him about.

After a while he figured it was enough, and he was hopelessly lost anyway. Nico had said to stay put after getting away, but it sounded like the most boring plan ever. Besides, Nico was blind. If he was attacked he would be in serious trouble. The problem was that Percy couldn’t sense Nico like Nico could sense him. If they had been in the water, maybe, but as it was…

Water. That was an idea. Concentrating, Percy could feel a large body of water somewhere pretty far off. He started walking in its general direction. Of course the labyrinth didn’t allow him to walk straight to it, but he could feel himself getting closer.

“Hey, I think I recognize you,” a voice said as he turned the corner. Percy groaned as he saw the sphinx blocking the path in front of him. She gave him a cat-like smile.

“I think you will be pleased to find that I have abandoned the modern popquiz,” she said. “The old way worked best, I say, though I have found some new riddles.”

Percy really wished he had been able to comment as she brought forth a colorful book called Uncle Rodney's Best Riddles and carefully turned the pages with her claws.

“Ah, here’s a good one: What is so delicate that saying its name breaks it?” she asked. Percy thought about it, came up short and realized it wouldn’t matter anyway because he couldn’t answer.

She looked at him expectantly for a while, and Percy just sighed and raised his eyebrows, making a vague gesture to the air as he waited for her to attack.

She made a disgruntled face at him. “No need to act like that. I gave you an easy one on purpose,” she muttered. “Fine, go right ahead.” She stepped aside, and Percy hurried past, wondering what had just happened.

As he made his way towards the water again, it suddenly hit him. Silence. He started laughing, which felt strange since there were no sound. What were the odds of the sphinx asking that particular riddle, anyway? Percy couldn’t wait to tell Nico about it. After they had gotten out of the labyrinth and he could speak again, of course.


 

Nico had always prided himself on having good eyes.

It wasn’t something he bragged about, exactly, but he could see further than most people, and had very good night vision. It was a child of Hades-thing of course, but there had to be literally no light in a room for him not to be able to see anything. The only time he could remember being completely blind was for a brief period in Tartarus, and it had been terrifying.

This wasn’t much better.

Percy’s presence beside him had been comforting. His touch as well, as much as Nico didn’t want to admit it, but now Percy was far away in the labyrinth, and Nico could barely feel him at all. He was completely on his own, and he couldn’t see anything.

It wasn’t that he was “surrounded by darkness,” like some people would have described it. Nico could feel darkness, and it was usually comfortable to him. This wasn’t it. He just couldn’t see.

With one hand on the wall, Nico started walking forward, towards the vague feeling that was Percy. He was walking slowly, almost dragging his feet so he wouldn’t stumble on anything. He had a pretty good idea of the layout of the surrounding corridor, thanks to the stone and the shadows, but the details eluded him. He really, really missed being able to see.

He made his way forward, almost falling on stray rocks and the uneven floor a couple of times. Whenever the path split, Nico always chose way he couldn’t sense any life down, as long as it still lead in somewhat the right direction. Nico had good instincts when it came to fighting, but he had never fought blind. If he got out of there alive he would make sure to train with a blindfold. He never wanted to be in this situation again.

He got surprisingly far before he was forced to pass through a path with monsters. Nico hesitated some ways away from them, wondering what to do. The path was too narrow for him to slip past unseen, and considering he didn't know which way they were facing that would have been hard anyway. Hades, he didn’t even know what they were, just that there were three of them. They could have been cyclopes or emposai or just really big rats.

Nico made an attempt to summon a skeleton as help or distraction, but he couldn’t find the usual connection to the Underworld, probably for the same reason he wasn’t able to shadow travel. Nico swore under his breath. It seemed he had no choice but to engage the monsters directly, as much as he would have liked to avoid it. Hopefully they would be talkative enough to give him an idea who they were and how they were armed.

He drew his sword and approached carefully, as quietly as he could, but of course that didn’t mean much. They could probably see him well enough without hearing him.

“What’sss thissss?” a female voice said, an Nico heard the sound of something slithering across the ground as the monsters approached him. “A demigod?”

“Scythian Dracanae,” Nico muttered. “Great.”

It was pure luck that he avoided the first blow, and the weapon swung at him hit the ground beside him with a clang. Probably an axe, judging by the sound. As he quickly moved away from her he could hear something swing by past his ear. A sword, maybe more than one. He was outnumbered. But he had managed to duck past them, so he did the logical thing and ran.

Nico could hear them shout behind him, calling him a coward and beginning to pursue him. Nico knew he didn’t have much of a chance of outrunning them, especially since he didn’t know the ground in front of him, and sensing the walls was much harder when he was running. With his luck, he would probably find himself in a dead end. On the other hand, the dracanae probably had a hard time moving in the narrow corridor, so that bought him some time.

Suddenly he could hear splashing beneath his feet. There was an increasingly thick layer of water on the ground, and Nico didn’t know what else to do but continue forward. The water slowed his movements though, and he could hear the dracanae closing in on him, screaming about how they were going to rip him to pieces.

The water came up to Nico’s knees now and was getting deeper quickly. Nico finally lost his balance and fell into the water. He wasn’t a particularly good swimmer, especially not with shoes on and a sword in his hand, but he figured he would move faster by trying to swim than  by walking. The problem was that the moment he lost the contact with the ground he truly became blind. He couldn’t sense the walls anymore, and the shadows were muddled and vague. His only points of reference were the the life forces of the three dracanae uncomfortably close to him, and the familiar feel of Percy far away… No, wait. Percy wasn’t far away anymore. He was coming towards Nico increasingly fast.

“Percy!” Nico shouted, swallowing a mouthful of water in the process. Then he felt somebody grab a hold of his ankle and dragging him down into the water. His initial reaction was panic, and he tried to kick himself loose before realizing he was moving away from the dracanae, and that the person holding his ankle was familiar. That was reassuring, but didn’t help the fact that he couldn’t breathe.

Thankfully Percy seemed to realize this, and Nico could feel his hands move from his ankle to his leg and then up until his arms were around Nico’s torso. If Nico hadn’t been trying not to drown he would have been panicked about that, but he could suddenly breathe. They were still swimming, so Percy must have brought them to the surface again. Nico couldn’t feel the dracanae anymore, or anything else either, except for Percy, who was all around him. It was still a little uncomfortable, but right then and there it was the only anchor Nico had, and he allowed himself to take comfort in it.

“I told you to stay put,” he told Percy without malice, and could hear Percy breathe like he was laughing, though there was no sound. He could feel Percy adjust his grip around him a bit, then they started moving again, though Nico had no idea where they were going. Percy couldn’t exactly tell him, either, so Nico just had to trust that Percy knew what he was doing. Which was frankly quite alarming. It had been a long time since Nico idolised him enough to think he could do no wrong. He knew him well enough now to know that at least half of Percy’s plans were stupid, but strangely enough he still felt safe where he was, completely at Percy’s mercy.

When Nico at long last could feel the ground beneath his feet again it was as if somebody had turned on a light. Not literally, since he still couldn’t see anything, but he could feel the labyrinth stretching around them now. Percy released his grip around Nico, but kept a hold of his hand, tugging him forward. Nico followed, sniffling slightly. He was drenched and it was pretty cold.

Percy suddenly stopped, and Nico could feel his hand almost touching his chest. “What are you doing?” Nico asked, unable to stop himself from blushing. Percy didn’t answer, of course, but Nico could feel the water starting to run down his body and away from him. Percy was drying him, Nico understood that, but it was a very strange sensation. Nico shivered involuntarily. He hoped Percy wouldn’t realize how little the gesture had to do with the cold.

When Nico was dry Percy took his hand again and they started walking forward. They walked at a decent pace for a while, then Percy started hesitating, slowing down like he was unsure and uncomfortable. Nico on the other had felt better than he had since this whole thing started. It took him a moment to connect the two.

“It’s really dark in here, isn’t it?” Nico asked, feeling shadows all around them. “I’m guessing you can’t see much.”

A single stomp confirmed it. Nico nodded. “Let me lead, I think I can find the way.”

It was easier now than it had been before. Nico was still cut off from the Underworld in an uncomfortable way, but he could feel the shadows stretch out around them, telling him of the surroundings. With a firm grip on Percy’s hand so they wouldn’t get separated again, or so he told himself, he started walking towards the place where he felt the shadows starting to weaken. Which should mean light and possibly the exit.

As they got closer Percy started breathing like he was laughing and clapped Nico’s shoulder before starting to drag him along again.

“I take it this means you can see again,” Nico said drily. Percy didn’t bother to even stomp as an answer. He dragged them through an open space between two thicker pillars of stone, if Nico’s senses were correct.

Suddenly he was hit by a bright light. Nico let out a yell. The light hurt his eyes, and he tried to cover them with his hands. He could feel a warm hand on his shoulder.

“Nico, are you okay?” Percy asked, sounding worried. Sounding worried. Nico forced his eyes open and looked at him. He was blurry and unfocused, but Nico could definitely see the sea-green eyes looking down at him with concern. Nico blinked a couple of times, and the image became sharper. Too sharp, almost. Percy was standing way too close. Nico shook his arm off and took a step back.

“I’m fine. I can see again,” Nico said, looking around. There were a thick stone gate behind them, but otherwise they seemed to be standing in a vast field in the middle of nowhere. “I never want to go through that again.”

Percy laughed a bit. “Me neither,” he said, clapping Nico on the back. “But I shouldn’t be complaining. You had it way worse. Again.”

He sounded bitter, like he was ready to tear the goddesses a new one when they arrived. Nico rolled his eyes. “Not being able to speak must have been the worst possible impairment for you, though,” Nico said, causing Percy to laugh again, more genuinely this time.

“Hey, that hurt my feelings, you know,” he said, making a show out of being offended. Nico couldn’t help but grin at him.

“Once again, well done!” a voice said behind them, followed by a light applause. Aphrodite was standing there, looking absolutely delighted. “I’ll return you to camp now. You really are the best champions I could have hoped for.”

She disappeared and took the field with her, leaving them back in the Poseidon cabin where they had started. They stood looking awkwardly at each other for a while, then Percy sighed.

“I’m starving. Let’s go eat dinner.”


 

The events of the day seemed to be tattooed on the inside of his eyelids. He saw them every time he tried to sleep and whether it was leftover adrenalin or anxiety, he didn’t know, but it kept him from calming down and drifting off. He rolled from one side to the other and fluffed his pillow while sighing in frustration until Nico yelled at him.

“Percy! I’m trying to sleep!” He’d been so quiet that in the dark, Percy had forgotten he was there for a second.

“Sorry, I just can’t get comfortable or something,” he mumbled. “I guess I’m just not sleepy.”

“Well turn on the lamp and read a book or something,” Nico suggested in an annoyed tone.

“I don’t really like reading,” Percy reminded him. “If there was a tv in here-”

“You’d be keeping me awake with that,” Nico interrupted.

“Do you know any stories?” Percy asked hopefully.

“Are you serious?” Nico asked turning over. The fountain didn’t give off much light but Percy could see that Nico was scowling at him.

“I just need something else to think about. I keep going over today in my head and it’s making me mad all over again.”

“If it will stop you from keeping me awake, fine. How about the story of Medusa?”

“No way. I actually fought her and I don’t need any reminders,” said Percy.

“Okay, how about the story of Oedipus?” asked Nico.

“I’ve never heard the whole thing but what I have heard makes me say no.”

“Narcissus then?”

“The guy who loved himself ‘till he died?” Percy asked incredulously.

“I’m running low here! Sisyphus?”

“Do you know any that don’t end in death?” Percy asked exasperated.

“It’s kind of a theme for Greeks,” Nico said flatly. “There is one but…”

“Yeah?” Percy asked looking over in the direction of his voice.

“I don’t think you’ll like it either.”

“Does everyone live?”

“…yeah,” Nico hesitated.

“Then tell me. It can’t be that bad.” Percy turned over on his side to face in Nico’s general direction.

“Okay,” Nico said softly. “When the gods first created man-kind we were much different. Every human had a head with two faces, and four arms, and four legs. They were strong too. Strong enough to equal the Cyclops and maybe even the Hekatonkheires.”

“Like Briares?”

“Yeah, are you gonna let me tell this?” Nico asked. They were so close now that Percy had turned over to face him. He wasn’t sure Nico was paying attention because surely he would have moved back a little –as he always seemed to be on a mission to put space between them and avoid physical contact. But now Percy could feel the slight amount of body heat Nico gave off and the puff of his breath as he spoke. And maybe it was wrong but he felt comforted by it.

“Sorry,” Percy mumbled.

“So the gods began to fear the humans because one day they might rise up to overthrow them. At the same time they didn’t want to lose the tribute the humans provided. What Aphrodite said about praise being a part of who they are was true. So Zeus came up with a solution. He would use his lightning to split the humans in half. It would nullify their threat and double the number of humans thus increasing the amount of tribute the gods received.”

“Yeah that sounds like something they’d do,” Percy scoffed.

“Anyway, after they were split apart, the humans felt incredible sorrow. They weren’t whole anymore and fell into such absolute despair that they stopped eating. They would have died and the gods would have lost their tribute, so Apollo stitched them up which gave them navels --the only remaining thing we have to remind us of our original form. Each human would now only have one face, two arms, and two legs and we would yearn for our other half forever –the missing half of our soul.”

“Supposedly,” Nico said in much quieter voice. “When the right two find each other there’s an automatic and silent understanding of one another and they would…umm…lie with each other as one. And they would know no greater joy than that.”

“There,” he said, his voice indifferent. And he turned over to face away from Percy again. “Goodnight.”

“Thank you,” Percy said weakly. “That was kind of sad,” he added in a low voice.

“Yeah…I guess it is,” Nico said back and then he was quiet.

Percy lay there for a while wondering what that story meant to Nico. Did he picture Percy whenever he thought about it? He tried to imagine being joined together with Nico and told himself it was just simple curiosity after hearing a something like that. It made him smile when he thought about sharing the same body as Nico –who would surely be cranky all the time and probably shadow travel them everywhere without asking Percy first. He stopped himself before he laughed out loud and disturbed the grumpy son of Hades again. When he thought of “lying together” with Nico he blushed and his stomach felt tight. Sex with Nico… That was a dangerous subject so he pushed it away.

He tried to imagine himself conjoined with Annabeth and his mirth dried up instantly leaving a sour taste behind. If Annabeth was his other half then he would be miserable in New Rome right now. He couldn’t see himself telling her she couldn’t go to college just because her permanently attached boyfriend didn’t want to go. Those thoughts were depressing so he closed his eyes and went back to imagining how much he and Nico would probably irritate each other if they were attached and he fell asleep smiling.


 

“It’ll be over soon,” Jason said.

“When is soon? They never tell us if we’re close to an end,” Percy said exasperated. He and Nico were both still weary with aches and pains, they’d slept most of the day away and while they were tempted to remain in bed --hunger trumped all. Now they were walking past the amphitheater with Jason and Piper, on their way to the dining pavilion for dinner.

“We never asked how many trials there were but I doubt they would tell us if we did,” said Nico.

“Well, hopefully my mother won’t let it carry on and risk losing,” Piper said looking at the ground as she walked. Jason stared at her for a second –concern was laid out on his features. He took her hand and she flashed him a smile before examining the ground again.

“Or Hera will make it go on forever in the hope that we’ll lose,” mumbled Nico.

They passed by Rhys and Travis, two big, foul attitude having sons of Ares. Percy felt his temper rumble like a sleeping lion when one of them started making kissing noises as they passed by.

“How’s the double date going, love birds?” called Rhys. Percy was two seconds away from turning around and replying with his own snappy remark –he wasn’t quite sure what but he knew it would involve a comparison between Rhys’s mother and a gorilla. Before he could, however, Nico reached over and grabbed his wrist. Percy relaxed immediately and when he looked at Nico a silent shake of the head was all the son of Hades gave him.

He was glad for it. If he had turned around it more than likely would have led to a fight and since they were connected he would be dragging Nico into the conflict with him.

“Piper, are you okay?” They looked over and for a second Piper looked just as angry as Percy but she took a deep breath.

“Yeah, yeah I’m fine. I’m just annoyed at those guys.”

“So you talked to Leo?” Nico asked Jason.

“Yeah,” Jason smiled absently. It seemed that Leo had the power to amuse him even from far away. “He and Calypso will have the garage up and running soon and he wants us to come visit.”

“They haven’t had any monster trouble?” asked Percy.

“Very little. It’s either the constant smell of motor oil covering his scent or Calypso’s presence deterring them. She’s more Titan than god since Atlas was her father,” Jason shrugged and looked sad for a few seconds. It was easy to see that he missed his best friend. “But how’s Hazel doing?”

“Hazel and Frank are fine,” said Nico shrugging. “He’s become a strong Praetor.”

“I knew he’d do well once he built up his confidence,” said Jason. He looked ahead and his expression was more wistful than sad, as if he were remembering the days when dozens of Roman demi-gods looked up to him. “Anyway,” Jason said shaking himself out of it. “Leo said he’ll do most of the actual mechanics and Calypso will handle paint jobs.”

“Must be nice…” said Nico and three pairs of eyes looked at him. “I mean that he and Calypso have something together, something that’s theirs…”

“I’m starving! I’m gonna go inside!” Percy looked up and Piper ran inside the dining pavilion without another word or explanation. Even Jason was staring after her in shock.

“I have no idea what’s up with her lately,” he said as they walked in.

Maybe it was because they were both really tired the following morning, but neither of them noticed anything strange until they had collected their food and was about to sit down. Nico had been thinking about what life would be like if he had been permanently blinded, and absentmindedly made his way to the Hades table. He was ready to start eating when he realized Percy was all the way over at the Poseidon table, staring at him. For a long moment Nico stared back, bewildered.

They rose at the same time, then hesitated, still looking at each other. In the end Nico sat back down again, and Percy walked over to him with a bewildered expression on his face.

“The tether is still broken,” he said, and Nico nodded slowly.

“I noticed.”

Percy frowned at him. “But does that mean it’s over?” he asked. “Are we done?”

Nico tried not to cringe at his choice of words. “I don’t know,” he said truthfully. He got up again, suddenly having lost his appetite. “I’m going back to my cabin.”

“Nico...” Percy said hesitantly, but Nico didn’t feel like talking anymore.

“Look, I’m tired, and it would be nice to shower alone for a change,” Nico interrupted him. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

He picked up some apples from his plate and offered the rest to his father, then stalked off towards the Hades cabin. It was eerily quiet once he shut the door behind him. Nico sank down on the floor with his head in his hands.

He didn’t know how to feel. If the trials were over, what had been the point of them? Living happily with his true love? That didn’t seem likely. Nico had had this vague hope that the trials would actually succeed in getting him and Percy together. He had tried not to think about it, but the thought had been there. That certainly hadn’t happened.

Nico felt pathetic, sitting on the floor with his arms around himself. He should have been relieved that he finally had some privacy, both from Percy and the goddesses, but mostly he just felt alone. He already missed Percy’s constant presence so much it hurt. It was different from earlier, when they had gotten separated. It wasn’t about wanting the other to be safe, or wanting help against monsters. This was just him, wanting Percy close to him again.

The cruelest part of it all was that he had gotten a taste of what living with Percy could be like, only to get the impossibility of it all thrown back into his face. Nico rested his head against his knees and sobbed.


 

As he watched Nico walk away from him the urge to chase after him was so strong he imagined it could move mountains. So why was he hesitating like his feet were stuck to the floor? He knew people were starting to stare but they were on the far side of galaxy compared to the problem in front of him. It took him longer than usual to recognize it. He was so used to being in front of a monster when it came and then stuffing it down or pushing past it to fight. But he never expected to be standing in the dining pavilion and feeling a sharp spike of fear as Nico di Angelo stormed out on him. He was afraid to chase after him.

Slowly, mechanically he put one foot in front of the other until he was leaving too, but he had no idea where he was going. His thoughts were consumed as his feet went on autopilot. Wouldn’t they be told if the trials were over? Wouldn’t Hera appear to gloat if she won? They had passed every trial put in front of them so it would be more likely that Aphrodite would pop out of thin air to clap and giggle. The only thing that made sense was that the trials were not over. But then why was the tether gone? Maybe they didn’t need to be bound for the rest of the challenges but how could the goddesses be sure Nico wouldn’t shadow travel away? And Percy had practically made a name for himself for sneaking away from camp.

He found himself in front of his own cabin door and looked down the green at the Hades cabin. What was he hoping to see? There were no windows and the only motion he saw was the flickering of the Greek fire torches on the outside. The temptation to walk down there and knock on the door gnawed at his insides but instead he pushed his door open and walked into cabin three. Inside the mattresses on the floor were the first things he noticed and he hated the thought of sleeping on them without Nico. At some point in the last few days he had come to think of it as “their” bed. Then he noticed Nico’s things were still around –clothes, toiletries, etc. He stood there for a moment taking it all in and then went to change into his pajamas. The physical and emotional toll from the trials left him exhausted all the time now, and if he could just go to sleep…

At first he headed in the direction of the bathroom until he remembered that he was alone and didn’t have to change behind a closed door. Changing out in the open of the room still felt weird but if the bond was permanently broken then he needed to get used to being alone again. He sat down on his side of the mattresses and immediately caught a whiff of Nico’s scent from the sheets. That spike of fear came back along with a pang of sadness. He ran a hand through his hair and sighed in frustration. That’s all it took for him to know he couldn’t sleep, at least not without Nico. It frustrated him because it just seemed clingy. He hadn’t been like that with Annabeth.

Okay, he thought, I miss Nico. He didn’t like the way things were right now. He felt like Nico was angry –which he usually was—but he didn’t know what about. And he hadn’t chased after him because he was scared by the fact that he even wanted to. Was this Aphrodite or the trials? Or Aphrodite and the trials?

The coiling feeling of anxiousness in his stomach tightened. He was developing feelings for the son of Hades... It wasn’t Nico himself that made him afraid of this. There were a lot of good things about Nico. He could be funny when he wasn’t acting surly. He was also really nice when he wasn’t trying hard to hide it. Those rare glimpses of positive emotions made him want to dig deeper into Nico –as if he could somehow find them under the ice and drag them back to the surface. And it wasn’t like Nico was ugly or anything. In fact, since the dream trial Percy had noticed his physical appearance more. Thoughts of Not-Nico entered his head unbidden –there had been something exciting about the way he flirted openly. He could feel his face getting hot as he remembered the way Not-Nico would just touch him –holding his hand, rubbing his cheek—and then the kiss… Percy had kissed him back, he couldn’t lie about that.

Would it be like that if he were in a relationship with Nico for real, if they ever got comfortable enough around each other? He fidgeted where he sat on the bed as he felt an unexpected flush of heat all over. He didn’t really know what to make of that bodily response. Not-Nico told him he was just fighting it because he was afraid. But really he was only afraid that how he felt was being caused by Aphrodite’s influence. And if that was the case, he didn’t want to lead Nico on. He wasn’t quite as oblivious as his friends believed and after spending all this time with Nico he knew how serious this was. Nico had real feelings for him and they ran deep enough that they caused the younger boy pain. The very last thing he wanted was to cause him more pain and he could only attempt a relationship with Nico if he knew his feelings were sincere, and not the whim of some ever changeable goddess.

There was a knock at the cabin door and for a second he wanted to ignore it but the he thought it might be Nico looking for his things and sprang to his feet. When he opened the door Piper was standing there. Confused and a little disappointed, he stared at her like an owl.

“Percy,” she said looking annoyed. She was wearing her camp t-shirt and a pair of holey jeans.

“What? What’s wrong?” he asked confused.

“Why aren’t you with Nico right now?” she asked without any attempt at civility.

“I…” he said stupidly.

“I saw what happened back there. Why didn’t you go after him?” she demanded, her kaleidoscope eyes flashing.

“He wanted to be alone!” Percy said indignantly. “And no offense Piper, but it’s not really any of your business.”

“I wish it wasn’t my business!” she shouted back and he could see over her shoulder that some of the other campers were looking in their direction.

“Piper, calm down,” Percy said.

“I’m sorry,” she said sighing. “Can I come in?”

He moved aside for her and turned to close the door. Piper stopped looking down at the bed on the floor and turned to face him.

“I’m sorry I yelled, but ever since this thing started it’s been weird for me.”

“Yeah I’ve noticed the other Aphrodite kids seem to know what’s going on,” he said.

“Yeah, but they don’t know as much as me. I mean they know our mom and Hera have a bet going on about you and Nico and we can kind of see this shine around you two. It’s obvious that you’re a love match.”

“What?” Percy asked and looked down at himself to see if he was glowing.

“And it’s not just that,” she continued. “I can feel snatches of your emotions, both of you. I’ve been trying to keep my distance because I didn’t understand and didn’t want to butt in. And oh gods! My whole cabin is getting on my nerves with gossip about you two and bugging me with questions about our quests!”

“Piper!” he called interrupting her verbal tornado. “You’re feeling our emotions?” he asked like he wanted to be sure he’d heard her correctly. Piper blushed and nodded mutely.

“It started at the same time as the trials I guess. At first I thought I was just going crazy or something and then it became sharper and I knew it wasn’t coming from me,” she said looking at him pointedly.

“Why?” Percy asked blushing.

“I have no idea,” she sighed. “But just now in the dining pavilion it felt like Nico was sinking into a black hole and you’re just a jumble.” They avoided each other’s gaze and Piper sat down on edge of the mattresses.

“You know,” she began --looking down at the floor and playing with the feather braided in her hair. “I wasn’t thrilled when I found out I was the daughter of Aphrodite. I didn’t really understand her role I guess. And she can be shallow because, I guess, most love is,” she said smiling. “But after the war and learning how to use my powers –with the exception of this new one-- I see things differently now.” She stopped twirling the feather and looked at Percy.

“Do you know how rare true love is? How many different obstacles and fates there are out there blocking people from finding their right matches?” she asked. Percy shook his head blankly.

“Well that’s why my mother usually reflects the other aspects of love and attraction. She doesn’t get to deal with deeper love often. It takes time to set something like that up. And maybe it’s better that it’s so hard to do because true love is powerful and dangerous. It can change the world, change the course of history. Look at what happened when my mother gave Prince Paris his true love.” She pulled out Katoptris and turned it over in her hands. “It’s a big deal, Percy, and my mom doesn’t take it lightly. If she says Nico is your true love, then you should listen, but that doesn’t mean everything is going to go perfectly.”

“Why did I get out of bed?” Percy groaned to himself. “What do I do? He practically ran out of the dining pavilion.”

“Because he was hurting,” she implored. “I felt it. Whatever you said right before, it hurt him.”

“I didn’t mean to. I just asked if we were done,” said Percy.

“Done with the trials or done with him?” Piper asked arching an eyebrow.

“Done with the trials! Of course not done with him!” Percy said in disbelief.

“Does he know you meant it that way?” she asked.

“I guess not,” he replied wiping a hand down his face.

“Please go check on him. He’s probably miserable right now. I don’t need to get close to know that.”

He and Piper left the cabin and as she headed for cabin ten, she hesitated and turned back to look at him with a small smile on her lips. “You’re a lot more clear now,” she said. “Take those feelings to him.” Percy flushed and nodded, answering her smile with shy one of his own. He jogged barefoot down the green to Nico’s cabin.

He knocked but there was no answer. When he tested the doorknob it turned and he pushed the door open tentatively. The inside of the Hades cabin was even darker than he expected. It certainly didn’t help that there were no windows. The lights were off, or maybe the cabin had none. He knew Nico liked darkness but this was ridiculous. He took two quick steps in and tripped.

“Ouch!” He face-planted right into the shaggy carpet.

“Percy? Is that you?”

He felt hands and legs as Nico crawled away from him. Then there was the soft patter of feet over to the wall and then the lights turned on. He pushed him up into a sitting position and looked around. The inside of the cabin was chic looking. There was a huge black chandelier with dangling crystals hanging from ceiling. There were pictures of Erebos on the walls in black and white as well as other depictions of the underworld. The chairs were black and comfy looking and the beds had elegant black headboards and comforters. The shaggy carpet he was sitting on felt soft and amazing between his toes. His eyes found Nico by the door where the light switch was and they stared at each for a second before Percy shot to his feet and walked over. Nico looked like he wanted to back away but there was nowhere to go unless he shadow traveled through the wall. Percy lifted the boy’s chin with his fingertips and stared at his face.

“You’ve been crying,” he said stating the obvious. Nico’s eyes were red and glassy and his cheeks looked moist. “Why?” he asked softly. Nico turned his head avoid him but he looked back almost as quickly.

“What are you doing here?” His face was as hostile as he could make it with tears threatening to spill but his voice was shaky. Percy smiled and wiped his thumb across Nico’s cheek brushing the tears away.

“Where else would I be?” He almost laughed at Nico’s wide-eyed expression but decided to hug him instead. “Don’t cry, please?”


 

When Percy opened his eyes he knew it wasn’t quite morning yet. Of course he couldn’t be certain in the windowless cabin but he didn’t hear the normal sounds of activities that rang in the air at camp so everyone must still be asleep --everyone except him…and Nico. What actually woke him up was how less warm and not at all snuggly he felt. His arms were empty, absent one emotionally fragile son of Hades. Even though he’d asked him not to, Nico had started softly crying during their hug. Percy led him over to one of the twin-sized bed with every intention of laying him down but the grip Nico had on his hand wouldn’t allow him to walk away. They said nothing, Percy just climbed over him to squeeze himself between Nico and the wall. He’d wrapped his arms around the younger boy and that’s how they fell asleep.

Now Percy was in the bed alone and confused. The light from the chandelier was dim and he was glad for it because his sleepy eyes adjusted quickly as he scanned the cabin for Nico. He scooted out of sheets and off the bed. There was a door off to the left side that he assumed led to the bathroom and he headed for it. There was light coming from under the door, which was cracked open slightly.

“Nico?” He called softly, pushing the door open slowly.

“I’m here.”

He pushed the door open the rest of the way and saw Nico sitting in the white tiled floor. This room seemed shockingly bright compared to the black cabin and he attributed it to the tiles reflecting the light. Everything else was black –no surprise there—black shower stall, black sink and counter top, and black bathroom mats. Nico was against the wall with his knees tucked under his chin and Percy knelt down in front of him.

“Why are you in here?” Percy asked.

“Why are you here?” Nico asked back. “Here with me, in this cabin, in my bed? What are we doing, Percy?”

“Nico, I-”

“I don’t need you to pity me,” Nico said sternly. “What happened when you came in was…I was just emotional. And you don’t have to feel bad. We can’t change what we…prefer. You’ll never want me the way I want you.”

“What if that isn’t true?” Percy asked gently. Nico only stared at him so he went on. “I need to apologize to you for being so stupid,” he said smiling a little. “I should have stopped you from leaving yesterday. I should have just told you that I want you with me because I do. I couldn’t get used to not having you around yesterday.”

“Percy…I need you to be very clear. What are you saying? I thought you wanted to be done with me.”

“No! No, I wanted to be done with the trials. You’re wrong, I do want you. Aphrodite was right and it’s not one-sided anymore.” Percy said. Nico just looked at him like he didn’t understand.

“I know I’m rambling but I what I want ask is, can we just be together? It’s over and you know what? Maybe we won! We haven’t heard anything from them but we’re both fine so maybe this is it. Can we just try being together and doing that happily ever after thing, please?”

“Percy,” Nico said interrupting him. He was smiling but still looked like he might cry. “Please just shut up.” Percy laughed and took his hand.

“Alright,” he said and then leaned over to kiss to Nico despite the slightly terrified expression the son of Hades had when he saw what Percy was doing. Their lips connected in a simple peck that made Percy smile and he immediately went in for another.

“So what do you want to do today?” Percy asked him softly.

“Maybe take a nap?” Nico replied blushing deeply. “I didn’t sleep all night.”

“I know an empty cabin with two mattresses on the floor.” He grinned and Nico smiled.


 

They were back in the Poseidon cabin, tangled together on their makeshift bed. Their kisses were shy and unfamiliar –nothing like in the dream trial-- but they made Percy feel light and he couldn’t get over how his every touch made Nico blush. He also couldn’t keep his fingers out of that silky black hair and Nico’s arms were wrapped around him –clinging like he was afraid Percy would vanish.

“You’re tired,” he mumbled to Nico. “You should sleep.” He said it for Nico’s own good but he didn’t want to stop. They were being pretty innocent but there was something brewing under the surface. It was like everything in him had been waiting to be this close to Nico and he knew it could easily go too far.

“Suddenly I’m not sleepy,” said Nico as he kissed Percy again. This kiss was different –hungrier than the others and it forced a moan from Percy. He pressed himself closer to Nico, no longer caring about going too far.


 

“My lady, surely you can see it’s over now?” asked Aphrodite gently. “I don’t believe the final trial is necessary.”

“Are you forfeiting, Aphrodite?” Hera asked coolly. The other goddess sighed.

“If you wish to call it that, by all means do. But I do not have the heart to ruin their peace.”

“You started this with your vanity and boasting,” Hera said angrily. “I do not accept your forfeit. You opened this door and now we will walk through it!”

“What can you hope to gain?” Aphrodite asked in disbelief. “Look at them! If you won't accept this how do I know you will end this after the final trial?”

“I swear it on the Styx. The next trial will be the last.”


 

They were interrupted in the middle of kissing by two figures standing over them, and Percy almost fell out of the bed when he realized who it was.

“Why are you here?” he demanded. “I thought it was over!”

“Not quite yet,” Hera said, smiling like his distress amused her. “There’s one final trial left.”

“Why? What’s the point?” Percy asked, putting an arm around Nico, who seemed embarrassed by the earlier display of affection in front of the goddesses. “We’re already together.”

“We know, and I’m so happy for you,” Aphrodite said, smiling apologetically. “But Queen Hera has insisted on one final proof of your love for each other.”

“We don’t have a choice, do we?” Percy muttered.

“Excellent,” Hera said, and clapped her hands once. A table with two chairs appeared from nowhere. On the table stood two goblets filled with a colorless liquid. It looked like water, but Percy could tell it was something different.

“So, what? We drink from the goblets?” Percy asked.

“This trial is designed to test how well you know each other,” Aphrodite said. “No fights, no tricks, just a few simple questions.”

“So what’s the catch?” Nico asked, narrowing his eyes suspiciously.

“It’s very simple,” Hera said. “Each time you answer wrong, a sip of the goblet must be taken. However, the last drop, and only the last drop, in each goblet is a fatal poison. As long as you get enough answers right, you’ll be fine.”

“This isn’t fair,” Nico said. “I can’t even answer all questions about me, and we’ve never talked that much about ourselves.”

“I would have thought the challenges so far had encouraged you to actually get to know each other,” Hera said, smiling dangerously. “Especially since you stated your little...fling.”

“It’s not a fling!” Percy exclaimed angrily. “And we’ve only really been together for less than a day.”

“But you’ve been friends for years. That should be plenty of time to get to know each other,” Hera said. “Or are you already admitting defeat.”

“Never,” Percy said between gritted teeth. “Ask your questions, then leave us alone.”

“Excellent,” Hera said. “Sit down, and we’ll start. There will be ten questions for each of you.”

They sat down on opposite sides of the table, each with a goblet in front of them. Nico’s hands seemed to be trembling slightly, so Percy reached out for him and took a firm hold of one of his hands.

“We’ll be okay,” he said, trying to sound confident. Nico gave him a pale smile.

“I’m not so sure,” he said quietly.

“How sweet,” Hera said sarcastically, while Aphrodite remained silent, looking more apologetic than ever. “First question, then. Let’s start off with an easy one: What is the other’s favorite color?”

“What does that question prove?” Percy said.

“Just answer.”

“Blue,” Nico said without hesitation. Percy gave him a smile, but then frowned. He actually wasn’t sure.

“Um...black?” he guessed, which caused the liquid in his goblet to turn a poisonous green. Percy sighed as he took his first sip, grimacing at the sour taste.  “Sorry. What is the right answer?”

“Green,” Nico said. “There was no way you could have known.”

“Except for asking, of course,” Hera said happily. “Next question. What worldly possession do the other treasure the most?”

“I’m guessing Riptide?” Nico said uncertainly, and Percy nodded, which wasn’t really necessary seeing as how Nico’s drink remained clear.

“Again, I honestly don’t know,” Percy said, beginning to feel bad about how little attention he had paid to Nico over the years. “Your sword?”

“Sorry, it’s the Hades figurine. Remember?” Nico said, and Percy nodded as he took another sip. At this rate he was as good as dead.

“Let’s move on. The other’s worst nightmare?” Hera said, looking like she had won already.

“Tartarus,” Nico and Percy said in unison, and both drinks remained clear. Aphrodite gave them a smile, but Hera seemed disappointed.

“Why don’t you ask the next question?” she told the other goddess, who frowned but took a step forward.

“What is the main trait the other loves and admires in you?” she asked, and this time neither of them answered for a while.

“A while back,” Percy begun hesitatingly, looking at Nico. “You said something about me doing anything for my friends and never betraying someone I cared about.”

“I did,” Nico confirmed, then started down into his goblet. “I’m not sure. You said… you said you wanted to be with me, but I’m not sure why. I guess you just like having me around?”

“That’s not specific enough,” Hera said, and the liquid in Nico’s goblet changed color. “Drink!”

“What do you mean, not specific enough?” Percy said angrily even as Nico drank. “I like all of him, alright?”

“Just leave it, Percy. We’ll talk about this later, if we get a chance,” Nico said sternly.

“Next question is the opposite. What do the other find most annoying about you?” Hera asked. “And don’t even try to convince me it’s nothing.”

“Probably that I tend to withdraw into my shell and bottle things up rather than reach out,” Nico guessed, correctly.

Percy squeezed his hand and gave him a smile. “You’re getting better,” he said. “I’m not sure. My obliviousness?”

“Your willingness to do anything for your friends,” Nico said, shrugging helplessly at Percy’s confused expression. “I can’t help it. Your most attractive trait is also your most annoying.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Percy sighed as he took another sip of his drink. There was dangerously little left on the cup now. He counted maybe three sips, if he was lucky, and there were still five questions left.

“As a child, what was the other’s dream job?” Hera asked them.

“Oh, come on!” Percy exclaimed. “How could we possibly know that?”

“Again, by asking and having actual conversations, as people do in relationships,” Hera said. “And this question could have multiple answers, so I think it’s fair.”

“You wouldn’t know fair even if it hit you in the face,” Percy muttered. “Fine. Mythomagic champion?”

“I wasn’t aware that could be a job,” Nico said, sounding slightly amused despite the situation. “It’s going to sound crazy, but I actually wanted to become a pilot.”

“Really?” Percy asked, laughing even as he drank. “I have to tell Jason about this!”

“Please don’t. He flies around with me enough as it is,” Nico said. “And I don’t know. I’m guessing policeman.”

Percy laughed. “I’m sure every little boy have wanted to become a cop at some point,” he nodded.

Hera was visibly starting to get annoyed, and was glaring daggers into Nico. No wonder, the boy had only gotten one answer wrong so far. Aphrodite on the other hand looked proud of him. Percy just felt increasingly bad for knowing so little about him.

“Moving on,” Hera said harshly, “Is the other a cat-person or a dog-person?”

Percy stared at her for a moment before laughing out loud. “You’re running out of questions, aren’t you?”

“The choice says a lot about a person’s personality,” Hera said sourly, even as Aphrodite was rolling her eyes behind Hera’s back. “Well?”

“I’d say dog-person,” Percy said, remembering a younger Nico with Mrs. O’Leary years ago. He’d have to reintroduce them at some point.

“I’d say the same,” Nico said, smiling at Percy and probably thinking about the same particular dog.

“My lady, may I ask the next question?” Aphrodite asked, and Hera waved at her to go ahead. Aphrodite smiled at them. “What is the biggest regret of the other person concerning you?”

Percy could think of a lot of things Nico might regret that had to do with him. Trusting him to protect Bianca, running away, lying to him at camp Jupiter, this whole trial thing. Still, he was pretty certain when he answered. “Selling me out to his father.”

Nico gave him a brief nod, looking down at his own goblet rather than meeting Percy’s eyes.

“I told you I don’t blame you for that anymore,” Percy said gently.

“I still regret it,” Nico said quietly, then took a deep breath. “I’m guessing letting Bianca die, even though it wasn’t your fault.”

The liquid in both goblets remained clear, and Aphrodite beamed at them. “Just two more questions,” she said.

“What are the other person’s plans for the future?” Hera asked, sounding smug, like she knew she had them. And she was right, because Percy honestly didn’t have a clue.

“It used to be settling down in New Rome,” Nico said uncertainly. “I’m not sure if it has changed.”

“It hasn’t, except I want you to come with me,” Percy confirmed, giving him a smile. Whatever happened during the last question, Nico had already passed the challenge with flying colors, meaning he was safe. Percy was another story entirely.

He sighed deeply. “I don’t have a clue. I’m hoping the same,” he said, though he wasn’t surprised when the liquid turned green again.

“I’m sorry, I’ve never really thought about staying in New Rome,” Nico said. “I kinda had this crazy plan of moving far away somewhere and maybe study history or medicine or something, but I would definitely stay with you in New Rome if you wanted me to.”

“That doesn’t change the fact that it was the wrong answer,” Hera said sternly. “Drink!”

Percy did. There was exactly one drop left when he put the goblet back down. If he got the next answer wrong, he was dead. He looked up at Nico, who had realized it as well. He was even paler than he usually was, and his hand was sweaty and trembling.

“Hey,” Percy said, giving him a smile. “We’ll be fine.”

Nico gave him a nod, but it was pretty clear he didn’t buy it.

“Last question,” Hera said, with all the force of a reality show host trying to build suspense. “What has been the most important decision the other person have ever made?”

Percy stared into his goblet, realizing he was dead. Still, he wanted to hear Nico’s answer before he attempted on of his own. He wanted to spend as much time together as they could before taking the final sip. Out of all the ways Percy could have died over the years, this really wasn’t how he’d thought it would happen, but at least it would mean Nico would be free from the goddesses, and maybe they could still be together in the underworld?

“I’m not sure,” Nico said uncertainly. “You have made a lot of important decisions, some of which have changed the world. Giving up immortality so that the minor gods could get recognition?“

Nico’s drink turned green, and he drank without another word. Maybe he realized Percy wasn’t sure about the answer himself. Right now the decision to take these trials seemed more important, though in the grand scheme of things, it probably wasn’t.

“The decision to transport the statue to Camp Half-Blood?” Percy guessed, already knowing it was wrong as he said it.

Suddenly Nico stood up, leaning across the table to capture Percy’s lips in a kiss. Their last, Percy realized. He wanted to savour the feeling, but Nico suddenly pulled back, and Percy opened his eyes, confused.

“I love you,” Nico told him. He was holding a goblet in his hands, and it took Percy a second to realize it was his goblet.

“Nico, don’t!” He screamed, but too late. Before Percy could stop him he had already taken the final sip of the goblet, and the last fatal drop of poison. Nico stilled, his eyes becoming unfocused.

“It was the only way,” he said, sounding distant as all the color disappeared from his face.

“NO!” Percy yelled as the goblet fell out of Nico’s hands and the boys legs didn’t seem to hold him anymore. Percy grabbed a hold of him, keeping him standing. “You can’t do this! It was supposed to be me! I was the one to screw up!”

Nico didn’t answer. His eyes lingered on Percy’s face for a moment, then closed. His body relaxed against Percy.

“He broke the rules, right?” Percy yelled at the goddesses. “We failed the trial, right? So there’s no need for this to happen! Fix it!”

“The last drop has been drunk, I never said who had to drink it,” Hera said ruthlessly.

“Then we forfeit, you win!” Percy begged. “I don’t care! Just help him!”

“It’s too late. The final trial is over. You won,” Aphrodite said. She had tears in her eyes, but that didn’t matter to Percy right now.

“Like hell we did!” Percy screamed. “It can’t end like this. Help him. I’ll do anything, just please. Save him.”

“Even if we asked you to die in his place?” Hera asked, narrowing her eyes.

“Yes,” Percy said without hesitation. “Now help him!”

 

Hera sighed, and turned towards Aphrodite. “It looks like you were right, for once,” she said. “Very well, I gracefully admit defeat.”

“I appreciate it, my lady,” Aphrodite said, and Hera disappeared, taking the table and the goblets with her. Aphrodite smiled towards Percy and kneeled down beside them to stroke Nico’s cheek.

“He will be fine, Percy,” she said. “As a reward from me for completing the trials, he will be saved. He will wake up in an hour or so.”

Percy breathed out in relief, holding Nico close. He was probably crying, though he didn’t particularly care.

“Your love is truly incredible,” Aphrodite said. “If he hadn’t taken the poison from you, if you hadn’t offered your life to save his Hera might never have been truly convinced.”

“Just leave us alone,” Percy told her. Aphrodite gave him a sad smile, then disappeared as well. Percy remained on the floor with Nico unconscious in his arms.


 

When Nico opened his eyes he expected to be in the underworld waiting room but instead he looked up and saw the grey ceiling of the Poseidon cabin. At first he was confused but then he recognized the scent invading his nostrils. He would know that smell anywhere, still, he blinked a few times to clear his eyes and be sure. When he turned his head he saw Percy sitting on his side of bed on the edge of mattress with his back facing Nico. His shoulders were slumped and everything about him radiated tension.

“Percy?” he called softly.

Percy looked so stricken that Nico couldn’t find any more words. Whatever he would have said next was doused from his mind by the look on Percy’s face. His beautiful sea-green eyes were dark from crying, the tiny red veins giving the whites of his eyes a pink hue. Nico only had a second to notice these things because Percy immediately crawled across their makeshift bed and gathered him up in his arms.

“I thought you were gone,” Percy said sadly. He released Nico and touched his face like he was making sure he was alive.

“What happened? I thought…”

“You tried to kill yourself,” Percy said, his voice and expression heading in an angry direction.

“I couldn’t let you die,” Nico said simply. He felt strangely calm and happy in all of this. He expected to be dead. To be ripped away from Percy forever, but now he was back. Percy could get as mad as he wanted.

“Nico, you’re the son of Hades. If I died you could still see me, summon my spirit or go to the Underworld and visit me. It might not be what we want but it would be something. If you die…I have nothing.” Something inside of Percy seemed to deflate as if he were just working all this out. Nico felt hurt because he’d never thought of it that way either. “I’d have no way to see you,” Percy continued. “I’d just have to wait to die and hope we could be together then.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, “You’re right. But I’m here, we both are.” He slid his hand into Percy’s. That chased away the sad look in the older boy’s eyes and he smiled.

“It’s over, you know…the trials. We won,” he said.

“What?” Nico sat up quickly but his stomach rolled in response and he felt himself turn green.

“Ugh oh gods…” He gripped Percy’s hand and wrapped his other arm around his middle.

“Are you okay?” asked Percy.

“Yeah I guess that poison or whatever made me nauseous. But we won? Really?” He smiled in spite of the gross feeling rising in the back of his throat.

“Yeah, I offered to trade to my life for yours and that apparently convinced Hera,” Percy rubbed the side of his face but Nico was stuck staring at him in shock.

“Percy…”

“I think it might be better if you just went ahead and threw that stuff up,” he laughed. “You’re looking a little green.”

About ten minutes later Nico walked out of the bathroom with feeling much better and with freshly brushed teeth. He smiled at Percy and tried to fight the heat rising in his cheeks.

“Should we go tell Chiron it’s over?” he asked. Percy’s brow furrowed as he thought about it and then he grinned.

“No, not yet.”

“Why?” asked Nico as he walked over to him. “We won! We should tell Jason and Piper too.”

“But if we tell,” began Percy as he reached up and grabbed Nico’s hand to pull him down onto the bed. “Then Chiron will know we’re not bound together anymore and he’ll make us separate.” He leaned over and kissed Nico’s cheek. “I’m not ready for that yet.”

Nico gave up fighting his blush and couldn’t help staring at Percy’s face. He had dreamed of it but never thought he would actually see Percy looking at him that way. It was like Percy was seeing him for the first time and as self-conscious as he was, that look made him feel special.

“I just got you back,” Percy continued and ran his fingers through Nico’s hair making him shiver. “Now what were we doing before we were interrupted?”

Nico’s mind went joyfully dumb as Percy kissed him again. As usual part of him worried that this was just another dream, but no, this felt way too real. He knew now the dream trial had not been this vivid. Cognitive thinking was muddy but everything else --especially his sense of touch-- was incredibly sharp. He could feel Percy’s lips, Percy’s tongue, his fingers in his hair, massaging his scalp and lulling him deeper into this haze. Before he knew it Percy was on top of him, between his legs. When had he laid back on the bed?

When Percy pulled away and started kissing behind his ear he whimpered and tugged at the older boy’s shirt, threatening to rip it. His inhibitions were gone and his guard dropped.

“I love you.”

It slipped out of his mouth before he could think or stop himself. He’d whispered it right in Percy’s ear so he couldn’t even hope to cover it up. He froze and so did Percy. But before he could start apologizing profusely Percy kissed him again.

“It’s okay,” he whispered back and kissed Nico again. “I-”

A knock on the door shatter the moment and made them jump.

“Percy? Nico?” It was Jason’s voice and Percy groaned and buried his head in Nico’s shoulder. Jason knocked again and Nico knew he was minutes away from busting in on them. Percy must have known it too because he sighed and sat up on his knees. His lips were dark pink, his hair and clothes were ruffled, his green eyes were beginning to clear but at the moment they were clouded with lust. That alone made Nico want to pull him back down –Jason or no.

“Yeah, what is it?” Percy called.

“You two okay?” Jason asked through the door. Percy rolled his eyes and Nico smothered a laugh.

“We’re fine,” he said.

“Are you guys coming to breakfast?”

“Yeah, we’ll be there in a minute,” Percy sighed.

“Do we have to go?” Nico asked trying not to sound whiny. Percy chuckled softly and leaned down to kiss him one more time.

“We’d better put in an appearance and I guess you were right, we need to tell them.”


 

Jason and Piper laughed and hugged them both when they told them the trials were over, They didn’t tell them the details, though. It felt kinda private.

Chiron seemed to notice, and though he didn’t push the issue his expression turned serious. “Well done,” he said. “Now I believe you should take some time apart to think things through.”

“What?” Percy exclaimed, protectively pulling Nico just a little closer to him. “We went through all that to find each other, and now you want us to separate? No way!”

“I’m not saying you should break up,” Chiron said. “Just that the trials put an enormous strain on both of you, and that you were manipulated from the start. You should take some time to work through all that, separately, or you might start to doubt that your affection for each other is actually your own.”

“It’s definitely real,” Piper said angrily. “I can feel it radiating off them. There’s no point to keep them apart anymore.”

“I’m not going to keep them apart,” Chiron said, holding up a hand. “They are not allowed to sleep in the same cabin anymore, but other than that it’s their own choice. It was a friendly advice, nothing more.”

“Thanks, but I think we’re good,” Percy said, playfully ruffling Nico’s hair as Chiron left the room. However, Nico looked uncertain. Percy saw him exchange a few uncertain glances with Jason, who gave a helpless shrug, as if to say he had no idea.

“Percy, maybe he’s right,” he said quietly. “Maybe we should take some time apart. Not long, just a week or two.”

Percy looked at him in surprise. “Nico, I don’t doubt your feelings for me,” he said, frowning. “Are you saying you still doubt mine? I was ready to give my life for you, you know.”

“You were ready to do that in the first trial already,” Nico pointed out. “And no, I don’t doubt you. I just think that you might, if you never get the chance to think things through.”

Percy honestly couldn’t believe what he was hearing, and was just about to say so when Jason interrupted him.

“Percy, I know this isn’t really my business, but from an outsider’s perspective it looks like you were forced together by two goddesses. Which doesn’t mean your feelings aren’t real,of course,” he said uncertainly, glancing at Piper. “But you haven’t really been apart more than a few hours at most since the trials started.”

“I already went through this thought process yesterday, before the last trial,” Percy said. “I have thought things through.”

“Just…indulge me, okay?” Nico said in a gentle tone, putting his hand over Percy’s. “We’ve been manipulated enough for several lifetimes, both of us. Let me just make sure.”

“Fine,” Percy groaned. “Two weeks.”

“Thank you,” Nico said, leaning in to kiss him like he suspected it was the last time.


 

“You can’t blame him for being cautious,” Percy’s mother said as she turned the blue pancakes over in the frying pan. “Besides, spending some time apart to sort out your feelings is only healthy.”

“I know. I just miss him,” Percy said gloomily. He had lasted exactly two days at Camp Half-Blood without Nico, alone in the suddenly extremely large and quiet Poseidon cabin, before leaving to stay with his mother for a few days. She had been surprised by the turn of events, but just told him to bring Nico around as soon as he came back. However, she did agree with Nico’s decision to spend time apart.

His mother smiled sadly at him. “Love is complicated enough without goddesses being involved,” she said.

“Tell me about it,” Percy sighed. “When he comes back I want it to be just us, but we’re not even allowed to be in each other’s cabins anymore.”

His mother smiled. “Well, you don’t have to go to camp, right?” she said. “If you promise to be responsible I might be able to help you with that.”

Percy looked up at her. “What do you have in mind?”


 

Nico would have expected Percy to be at Camp Half-Blood when the two weeks were up. If not, maybe New Rome or his mother’s house. Instead, as he shadow traveled towards Percy’s life force, he ended up somewhere he had never been before.

It was a sandy beach by the ocean. A cabin stood a bit away from there, slightly smaller than the ones at camp. Percy himself was, unsurprisingly, swimming around underwater and probably hadn’t noticed Nico yet. Smiling to himself, Nico sat down on the beach to wait.

When Percy emerged from the water a bit later, he took one look at Nico and gave him a huge happy smile. “Nico!” he shouted, and all Nico’s fears of rejections disappeared as he got on his feet and ran through the water into Percy’s arms, accidentally knocking him off balance. They tumbled down into the shallow water together, and Percy laughed as they went down. The water was pretty cold, but it didn’t matter. Percy was holding him, pulling him closer and kissing him, and that was the only thing that existed right then.

“Hey,” Percy smiled as he pulled back, running a hand through Nico’s hair. Nico was basically sitting in his lap with the water reaching up to his waist.

“Hey,” Nico answered, blushing a bit over his earlier desperation. “I missed you.”

“I can tell,” Percy grinned. “I missed you too.” He leaned back in for another kiss, and Nico pulled him tighter, never wanting to let go again.

After a while they had to get out of the water, and Percy dried them off as they walked towards the cabin, hand in hand.

“You can’t do anything about the sand as well?” Nico asked, wondering just how he had managed to get sand everywhere that fast.

Percy laughed. “That’s more your territory than mine.”

Nico rolled his eyes. “What are we doing here, anyway?” he asked. “Where are we?”

“My mother rented us this cabin for a week as a present,” Percy said. “Since I told her I wanted to be alone with you for a while.”

“Alone?” Nico repeated, feeling his cheeks grow hot. Percy stopped, giving him a concerned look.

“We don’t have to do anything you don’t want to,” he said. “I just wanted to spend some time with you, just the two of us. I really missed you.”

“No, it’s just...I...” Nico tried, then gave up and pushed their lips together again, hoping to convey what he was feeling that way.

Percy grinned happily when they parted. “So can I carry you over the threshold?” he asked, and Nico playfully slapped his head.

“I’m not a girl, and we’re not married.”

Percy laughed. “But we are kinda on our honeymoon,” he said, taking Nico’s hand again. “Come on, let me carry you.”

Nico wasn’t fond of being carried, but Percy was giving him the most adorable puppy eyes he’d ever seen, so he crumbled. “Fine,” he gave in, then yelped as Percy wasted no time to pick him up.

“You don’t weigh anything at all,” Percy said. “You need to eat more.”

“If you’re going to start complaining I’m not letting you carry me,” Nico threatened, and Percy laughed.

“Understood,” he said, then continued walking towards the cabin, hesitating at the door.

“Um, think you can get the door open?” Percy asked sheepishly. “My hands are kinda full.”

Nico snickered, reaching out to open the door. “You haven’t really got the whole romance-act together, have you?”

“Hey, I’m doing my best,” Percy said defensively, walking sideways through the door so Nico wouldn’t hit his head. Nico looked around. The cabin was small, with a kitchen counter in one corner and a table in the other. The double bed took up most of the space, and that’s where they were heading.

Nico’s face was burning as Percy slowly lowered him down on the bed and climbed on top of him.

“You okay?” Percy asked, giving him a brief, gentle kiss.

“Yeah,” Nico said breathlessly. “I’m perfect. It’s just...”

“Just what?” Percy frowned. “Am I moving too fast?”

“No, it’s not that,” Nico said uncomfortably, blushing again. “But I’m pretty sure I have sand in my underwear, and I think I should take a shower.”

Percy blinked, then slumped down, burying his head in Nico’s shoulder as he laughed. “You’re adorable,” he said, then gave Nico a kiss on the eyelid before climbing off. “I could probably use a shower myself, to be honest, but you go first.”

Nico considered suggesting they shower together, but bit his lip. He wasn’t quite sure how to approach this. He wanted it, and he was pretty sure Percy wanted it too, but he needed to mentally prepare himself for this. So he showered and got out so Percy could get in. He was relieved when Percy didn’t push him. They just climbed into bed and held each other in the dark. It was like being back in the Poseidon cabin again and it made Nico feel comfortable and safe.

“So what did you do while you were gone?” asked Percy quietly. His hand was rubbing circles in the small of Nico’s back and would occasionally glide across his hip and up his side, then back down again to resume the circular massage.

Nico didn’t even know if Percy noticed he was doing it but combined with the sound of gentle, rushing waves outside, it was making him sleepy.

“Uh, I went to New Rome to see Hazel. She’s happy for us by the way…” he yawned loudly and Percy giggled.

“Stop putting me to sleep,” Nico said in mock anger.

“Sorry,” said Percy and his hand stopped.

“Anyway, she actually started crying and I thought I’d never get away once she hugged me. Just a warning, she’s probably going to do the same thing to you once you see her again.”

“Did you ever think everyone would be so happy to see us together? I mean, were we such an obvious match?” Percy asked.

His hand had started rubbing Nico’s back again and far from being annoyed, it made Nico smile. Percy was so comfortable that he didn’t notice he was doing it. It was something small but it made him glad.

“I don’t know, but I’m happy too.”

“Me too,” Percy whispered and somehow found his lips in the dark.


 

The next few days were a blurry bliss. They were alone together without nosey campers or pestering goddesses. They spent a lot of time walking, talking, and burning meals –which usually resulted in Nico shadow traveling them to the nearest fast food place. There was a little problem with some wild harpies but they handled that quickly.

They tried things and experimented a little in bed. Being secluded on the beach with no expectations or responsibilities meant giving in and indulging their raging teenage hormones. Percy always seemed to know when to stop but as Nico grew more comfortable, he wanted to stop less and less. And as they discovered new things about each other and themselves, Nico realized that he like to give more than he got.

It might have been the fact that he was mostly still floating in a state of awe. He could touch Percy, and Percy wanted to be touched by him. Watching Percy’s eyes flutter close, hearing him moan, and knowing it was his fault was more empowering than killing any monster. He also discovered that Percy liked to be directed. He wanted to know exactly what Nico wanted and how. Saying those things out loud was embarrassing at first but the results outweighed that.

It wasn’t until the day before their last day in the cabin that he knew they were done waiting. When he woke up Percy wasn’t wrapped around him like he usually was. He was in the little kitchen area and Nico couldn’t tell what he was attempting to make until Percy came over with an ugly but unburnt ham and cheese omelet and some orange juice. He grinned in that big goofy way that Nico loved.

“Why couldn’t you pull this off all week?” Nico asked laughing.

“I finally got my technique down,” Percy said confidently. “We might have to go out for lunch and dinner though. We’re out of everything.”

“That’s fine. Thank you,” he said and then took a bite. “Wow, it’s actually not bad!”

They ate and decided to spend the day in the nearby city. There were resorts on the other side of the beach and Percy bought them slushies as they walked around looking at all the tourist attractions.

“I have no idea how our little patch of beach is so untouched by all of this,” said Nico, looking around. There were hundreds of people strolling about in very little clothing. The sidewalk was cluttered with hot dog and ice cream stands, along with screaming children.

“Private owners,” said Percy as he sipped his blue slush. “My mom’s been renting that cabin from them for years and they refuse to let this near their part of the beach.”

“I’m glad,” said Nico. “It’s nice to get out but I like how quiet we have it.”

They ate hot dogs and found an arcade that made Nico happy because it reminded him of the time he spent in the Lotus Hotel with Bianca. But it wasn’t until dinner that he realized he was on an actual date. It seemed stupid but he’d never realized that he and Percy were a couple now. They were together, and he loved him, but it just never clicked into place that he was Percy’s boyfriend until they were being seated in a restaurant. He was afraid he was blushing and everyone could see but tried to ignore it.

When they finally went back to the cabin, Percy begged him to go swimming. It was like scuba diving without all the heavy, clumsy gear. Percy could just form an air bubble around them underwater as they explored the sea. Nico was still annoyed about being covered in sand but he expected it after sprawling out on the shore with Percy.

“Time to go in?” Percy asked, still lying on his back smiling. Nico wrinkled up his nose as he tried to brush the sand off his arms and legs. The rough substance had actually given him the worse exfoliation ever. He could feel the sand burn in some places.

“Yeah I need a shower…and maybe some ambrosia.”

“It’s not that bad,” Percy laughed as he stood up and offered Nico a hand.

Inside he ate half a square of ambrosia and headed straight for the shower. He could feel a tension between them right now. It appeared the moment they stepped back into the cabin and it made his stomach flip. When he’d gotten undressed and stepped into the warm water, he was torn between making this as quick as possible to hurry back to Percy and just staying where he was, nervous and almost trembling. He hadn’t really reached a decision when there was a knock on the door before it opened.

“Um, could...could I join you?” Percy’s voice said on the other side of the shower curtain, sounding strangely thick. Nico hesitated, then took a deep breath.

“Sure,” he said, his voice cracking a bit, but Percy seemed to hear him. There was a rustle of clothes, then Percy slowly pushed the curtain open. Nico blushed when he saw that Percy was already naked --naked and hard. Even after everything they’d done, the sight still made him swallow nervously.

Percy reached out for him slowly as he pulled the curtain closed behind him. Nico’s mind wasn’t really working properly, especially not when Percy put his arms around him and pulled him close. Their groins touched, and Nico let out a pretty embarrassing gasp. Percy chuckled as he kissed Nico’s cheek, his hand moving down his back like the warm water from the shower.

“I can feel it, you know,” Percy said. “I can feel the water running down your body. I couldn’t before...when we were outside, or maybe I ignored it, but now...I want you so much.”

Nico took a shaky breath, allowing himself to put his arms around Percy’s naked waist. The feeling of skin against skin was almost unreal. He had wanted this for so long, but he had never truly believed it would happen. Now here he was, naked in the shower, embracing the only boy he’d ever loved.

“Can I?” Percy asked into his ear, and Nico nodded. He seemed to have lost the ability to form words, but it didn’t matter when Percy brought their lips together in a deep kiss. Nico had to pull away pretty quickly, because the water was getting into his nose, making it hard to breathe.

“Bedroom?” Percy asked hopefully, and Nico smiled shyly as he turned the shower off. Percy somehow managed to dry them on the way to the bed, despite being preoccupied giving Nico sloppy kisses and letting his hands wander over his body.  Once they were on the bed, Percy reached over him to the bedside drawer, bringing out a small tube of lubrication.

He gave Nico another kiss before settling between Nico’s legs, giving him an unsure look. “Are you sure you want this?” he asked, and Nico couldn’t help rolling his eyes.

“A blind man could see that,” he groaned. “Please, Percy. I want you to.”

“That’s what I wanted to hear,” Percy smiled, lifting Nico’s hips a bit before covering his fingers with the transparent liquid from the tube. The liquid felt cold as Percy’s finger entered Nico, and he gave an involuntary shiver.

“Sorry, I should have warmed it up, shouldn’t I?” Percy apologized, looking a bit worried.

“It’s fine,” Nico said, partly because it was already getting warmer, but mostly because Percy Jackson was fingering him. It felt a lot less uncomfortable than the first time they’d tried this. He relaxed as much as possible and when Percy added another finger the pain was short lived. The fact that Percy was kissing all over the surface of his body that he could reach certainly helped. The sensation was still a little strange, but by the time Percy pulled his fingers out Nico had started to enjoy it.

“Ready?” Percy whispered breathlessly, and Nico felt something bigger than three fingers prodding at him. He nodded, trembling in anticipation, then Percy started to push into him.

It hurt. It really, really hurt. Nico couldn’t help the whimper that escaped him, and he felt Percy go still.

“Do you want me to stop?” Percy asked, his voice sounding strained. Nico considered it, then shook his head.

“No,” he said, breathing in short breaths. “Just go slowly. Please.”

“I promise,” Percy said. “You feel amazing,” he whispered, his voice shaky with pleasure.

He kept his promise, going at a snail’s pace and giving Nico time to adjust. Soon enough he started begging Nico to let him go faster, and Nico couldn’t say no while listening to his panting and moaning. Percy’s breath was on his neck and his teeth nipping at his pulse. He was everything to Nico in that moment. He clouded and overwhelmed all of Nico’s senses. And he gave Percy permission –even urged him on-- and for the first few thrusts it was still mostly painful and uncomfortable, but then something slowly began to change. It started to feel good, then great, soon he was moaning in pleasure with every thrust. Nico reached down to touch himself as well, but Percy noticed and took over that as well, leaving Nico to slowly drown in his own pleasure.

He came with an undignified scream, letting himself go in Percy’s hand, and Percy followed seconds afterwards. For a moment afterwards they both stilled, not moving except to breathe heavily, then Percy pulled out of him and collapsed beside him on the bed.

“You were incredible,” he murmured as he pulled Nico close and kissed his eyelid. “I love you.”

Nico’s world went still. Even after everything, those three words were what pushed him over the edge. He buried his face into Percy’s shoulder and started to cry.

“Nico, what’s wrong?” Percy asked, sounding alarmed. “Did I hurt you? Are you okay?”

Nico chuckled between sobs, pulling Percy a little closer. “I’m okay, nothing is wrong,” he said. “I love you too. I love you so much.”

Nico could feel Percy soothingly run his fingers through his hair and kiss the top of his head. “Then why are you crying?” he asked gently. “I don’t understand.”

“Because you’ve never said you love me before,” Nico managed.

“I thought it was pretty clear,” Percy said, and Nico could hear him smiling. “But if you want me to I’ll say it a lot more. I love you.”

He put a hand under Nico’s cheek, urging him to lift his head, then leaned in to kiss him. No rush, no desperation, no underlying tension. Just the two of them enjoying the taste of each other. Nico smiled into the kiss.

This was all he ever wanted. He felt whole.


 

When he woke up he felt so sore and stiff that he nearly groaned out loud. He stopped himself when he realized he would wake Percy. His boyfriend was cuddled up to him with his face so close Nico could feel Percy’s gentle puffs of breath in his ear. He still felt content but the afterglow was gone, which was the only thing masking the pain before. He tried to drift back off but he couldn’t ignore his aches enough to do it so he just laid there listening to Percy sleep.

It was worse when Percy finally did wake up and wanted to shower together and go to breakfast. When Nico tried to get out of bed he couldn’t hide his wincing and he even limped a little. Percy was at his side immediately, fussing over him and apologizing profusely. He insisted Nico eat some ambrosia and nectar and instead of fooling around in the shower –which he was sure Percy wanted to do when he first suggested it—he only helped Nico wash since he was so sore. He had to admit the warm water helped and the ambrosia kicked in fast. He was a lot less sore by the time they got out so they still went to breakfast.

But it was their last day in the cabin and they didn’t want to spend it around the noisy tourists. They went back right after, dumping their shoes on the front step and walking along the beach and letting their feet get wet as the tide rolled in.

“We have to leave tomorrow…” Nico said out loud, sighing as he looked off into the distance.

“Yeah, honeymoon’s over,” Percy said just as sadly. He teased Nico’s fingers with his own, lacing and unlacing them as they walked along. It was a little cloudy out so the sun didn’t beat down on them making the walk uncomfortable.

“We can do this again though, right?” Nico asked hopefully, looking at Percy with huge dark eyes.

“Yeah, but what about New Rome?” Percy asked uncertainly.

“Do you really want to move there with me?”

“Only if you want to, and we don’t have to go right away,” said Percy nervously. “I just…I love Camp Half-Blood and we can always go visit, but having to sleep in separate cabins every night? I can’t go back to that, at least not for too long. I’d wake up missing you every morning.”

“I want to,” said Nico. “But are you ready to face Annabeth?”

“Yeah, I know she won’t…hate us for being happy. And besides, maybe she’s found someone else by now.”

“Then I guess we need to make a quick trip to check out housing in New Rome,” Nico said and smiled at him. Percy grinned and threw an arm around Nico’s shoulders, pulling him close.

“I love you,” he whispered in Nico’s ear, making the younger boy blush deeply.

“I love you too,” he replied and kissed Percy.

“Making out on the beach is a pretty romantic last day,” Percy said when he pulled back.

“Not in the sand,” said Nico looking adamant.

“In the water?” Percy asked hopefully.

“In the water,” agreed Nico and the he let Percy walk him into waves.


 

“My lady, Queen Hera is here to see you,” said the nymph. Of course there was no option to refuse to see Hera. This was more a warning that Hera was entering her palace. Since the end of the trials, she and Hera had maintained a tense silence. She won, but the queen of the gods was a sore loser.

Aphrodite reclined on a pink and white chaise eating cherries and watching her favorite soap opera. She didn’t bother to stand as Hera strolled into the room.

“It’s lovely to see you, Queen Hera,” she said flatly, still looking at the tv.

“Aphrodite, we should try to put this whole silly thing behind us. All of Olympus can feel our tension. You won the game. For the sake of the family-”

“Yes, alright!” Aphrodite huffed and tried not to roll her eyes. Anything to make Hera shut up and stop her “family” speeches.

“Well,” said Hera briskly. “Glad that’s done…” she paused and looked awkwardly around the room.

“How are they?” she asked finally, clearly trying to sound casual. Aphrodite did roll her eyes this time as she picked up the remote and flipped the channel.

Percy and Nico appeared on the screen, walking along the beach. Aphrodite couldn’t help the smile that came to her face as she watched them. They listened to the young couple’s plans for the future and she felt tears prick her eyes.

“They really do love each other,” said Hera softly.

“Yes,” said Aphrodite quietly. “Even I don’t get to see a love like this very often. It took me decades to make this happen.”

“For what it’s worth, I do agree that it would have been…a shame to ruin it,” said queen awkwardly. “It’s very beautiful.”

“Yes,” said Aphrodite, unable to tear her eyes away from the two boys tangled together in the water. “It’s very rare too. And the only thing more beautiful than watching it is experiencing it.”

“I wouldn’t know anything about it,” said Hera as she turned and left the way she came.

Aphrodite watched her go and pitied her. Hera knew just as well as she did that Metis was Zeus’ true love, but he’d ruined his own happiness out of fear and now he and Hera were stuck together. The universe needed their union for balance and there was no way out. The goddess of love turned back to the flat screen and smiled as she watched Percy pushing Nico’s long wet hair out of his eyes. There was nothing she could do for Hera but she could protect what was in front of her.

She walked up to the screen and blew a palm full of pink glitter at it. It floated right through the tv as if it were a teleporter. The boys couldn’t see it but the glitter was all around them now.

“Nothing will ever threaten your peace again,” she said. “Just like I promised.”

 


End