Will was startled awake, disoriented. He reminded himself that everything was fine, for now. It had been three days since the battle ended, but after the days of stress, watching more and more monsters join the Roman forces threatening his home, fighting in the battle that ended with so many of his friends injured, and then recruiting all of the healthy Apollo campers to help in the infirmary, he'd barely been able to sleep more than a couple hours at a time for the past week. He was exhausted, but still on edge, his body waiting for the next emergency. It didn't help that Will felt useless, more or less. He was never a great fighter, the best he could do was try and stop the bleeding once it all ended, literally. Of course he ran into Nico di Angelo, who had thought he was a joke, trying to do a scouting mission in all black without covering his hair … not that he really cared about what the son of Hades thought, but he had a good point. Will was out of his element on the battlefield. He figured he was lucky enough to make it out unharmed … and who else to thank for that but Nico himself, taking down six Romans when he could barely stand - barely stay solid enough to hold his sword, even.
Will's thoughts drifted to the battle in Manhattan, Nico showing up with his father and the army they raised - it was amazing. Will felt like every time he got a glimpse of Nico over the years, he was different - more brooding, yes, but also more powerful and more independent each time he appeared, gaining a sens realism and grit Will admired - he couldn't help but feel sheltered and cowardly in comparison.
He shook himself and decided to get up. He didn't have time to spend the morning wondering about the Hades kid, fascinated by the mystery and rumors that surrounded Nico di Angelo. There were still a handful of campers in the infirmary, and Kayla stayed with them overnight. He might as well grab some food and go relieve her.
He slid on his jeans and flip-flops and glanced out the cabin window - Nico was outside the Hades cabin with Jason, who suddenly hugged him as Nico cracked a grin. Will froze in surprise - he didn't think of Nico as the hugging type, especially someone who would be hugging the All American Poster Boy, Jason Grace. Will felt a tinge of jealousy that Nico was grinning and hugging Jason, when he hadn't spared Will a second glance since Octavian had … that. Maybe Nico was used to people dying suddenly, living outside of camp and going on quests and, well, the whole son-of-Hades thing, but Will needed to process something like that, talk through it, get some sort of closure … and besides that one Roman demigod, Nico was the only other one who was there with him to see Octavian's last moments. Those few minutes had been following Will - Octavian's face popping up in his mind whenever he had a some down time, Will's conflicted feelings about just letting Octavian destroy himself. With everything that happened after the explosion, the rest of the Seven and Nico charging toward Jason and Piper as they fell, Reyna calling her forces into ranks, the unorganized Greek demigods frozen as they stared at the place in the sky where Gaea had been - Will had found plenty of things to keep himself from thinking too long about the morality of what they did, or didn't do. But now, as the injured were being sent back to their cabins, the Romans settling in, and the satyrs, nymphs, and Demeter cabin smoothing the battlefield over to look like it had just a month ago, Will was starting to feel haunted by Octavian, his .. nephew, brother, cousin? He had to talk to someone about it, but couldn't bring himself to burden his siblings, and he didn't think he could quite explain it all to his friends. That just left Nico.
Before he realized what he was doing, Will stepped out of the cabin and caught Nico's attention. He locked eyes and pointed to Nico and at the Apollo cabin's porch. Nico paused in his response to Jason and walked over.
"So where were you?" Will demanded, his seriousness hiding his insecurity.
"What do you mean?" Nico asked.
"I've been stuck in the infirmary for, like, two days. You don't come by, you don't offer to help." Yeah, sure, I'm annoyed because we're short in the infirmary. Nothing to do with Nico, really. Will was an expert at bravado - if his dad taught him anything, it was that if you act confident about something, others usually go along with it. Surely, that wouldn't work with zombie-summoning-shadow-jumping-Nico, though, right?
"I… what? Why would you want a son of Hades in the same room with people you're trying to heal? Why would anyone want that?"
"You can't help out a friend? Maybe cut bandages? Bring me a soda or a snack? Or just a simple How's it going, Will? You don't think I could stand to see a friendly face?"
"What… my face?" Nico looked confused. Had Will pushed it too far? Nico had the Seven, and maybe more friends at Camp Jupiter … maybe he was thinking of going back? He adored Hazel, anyone could tell that much. But Will had committed to this strategy, might as well milk it for all it's worth. He'd give Apollo some extra bacon after breakfast if it worked.
"You're so dense. I hope you got over that nonsense about leaving Camp Half Blood." Will was really pushing it. He expected a skeleton to pop out any second, but that possibility gave him more of a spark of excitement than of fear. That wasn't a normal reaction, was it? He'd work that out later.
"I-yeah. I did. I mean, I'm staying."
"Good. So you may be dense, but you're not an idiot." Seriously? This is how I'm trying to befriend the guy?
"How can you even talk to me like that? Don't you know I can summon zombies and skeletons and -"
"Right now you couldn't summon a wishbone without melting into a puddle of darkness, I'd Angelo. I told you, no more Underworld-y stuff, doctor's orders. You owe me at least three days of rest in the infirmary. Starting now." See? Simple concern for a fellow camper, nothing to do with his sword fighting that looks more like dancing or that captivating something behind his brooding darkness. Nope.
"Three days? I-I suppose that would be okay." Will couldn't believe that worked. He expected Nico to put up more of a fight, try to make an excuse or quick escape.
Percy Jackson was cheering at something Annabeth had told him. Both boys turned, losing the thread of their banter, and Nico looked like he was steeling himself for something.
"I'll be right back, promise on the Styx and everything," Nico said.
Will waited as Nico went over to the couple, who told him about some sort of exciting news from the look on their faces. Nico responded with something that made Percy pause and Annabeth grin. Will was about to grab the last couple things from his cabin before heading to the infirmary, expecting Nico to show up when he felt like it, but right then Nico turned toward him, looking genuinely happy - something Will wasn't sure he'd seen from Nico in years. Not that he'd been paying attention. Will grinned and tried to keep a cool demeanor at the thought of spending the rest of the week trying to figure Nico out. In a completely professional and medical way, of course.
Nico walked into the infirmary behind Will. He expected the patients to shrink away or look at him nervously, but nobody really paid him much attention. Some of Will's siblings glanced up between wrapping bandages and handing out ambrosia to wave, and Will led him toward a back corner right next to a window.
"This'll be you. I'm hoping the sun will help counter some of the shadows you've been fading into, but I might need to pull Coach Hedge in for a consult if we don't get your fading under control in the next couple days. I'm guessing you didn't really bring extra sweatpants back from Rome, huh? Or is tropical print your new -"
"Not another word, Solace. I was hoping everyone was too focused on the whole Earth-waking-up-thing to notice that shirt. There wasn't really time to go shopping between Orion and the Amazons and the Redcoats."
Nico glared at him but knew he didn't muster his usual level of intimidation. Will just laughed, which made Nico blush and glance away. He wasn't used to people dismissing his glares so easily.
"Well it sounds like I have a lot to catch up on. But first change into these scrubs and a new shirt," Will said, as he grabbed some clothes out of a closet across from Nico's bed. "I don't think you'll want to sit around in those jeans and hoodie for the next three days. I'm going to let Kayla know she can get some sleep and I'll be right back to run through your vitals."
Nico unfolded the clothes as Will slid closed the curtains sectioning off his corner. He supposed the shirt he was currently wearing smelled more like a campfire than it should, and the jeans had seen better days. Most of few clothes he had were back in Hades at his dad's place. He'd need to find more - he didn't think Will would approve of shadow travel just to go pick up a few things from his old room anytime soon.
Once Nico changed he sat on the edge of the bed and took stock of what he'd be staring at for the next 72 hours. The infirmary was pretty homey for being set up like a hospital. It was in the back of the Big House, so the walls and floor had more of a living room feel. The curtains between beds weren't sterile white ether, but looked like they were made out of bedsheets campers had left behind - some were striped, others with patterns on them. One of the sides sectioning off Nico's corner had small yellow daisies. Nico supposed it was better than the Hades cabin for now. He had spent last night there with Hazel, but didn't like the thought of staying there alone just yet. It was too dark and too gloomy for everything he had just gone through. Something about the obsidian floor sent him flashes of the jar he almost died in, and the green firelight wasn't exactly comforting to wake up to after dreaming about Tartarus. He had set his skeletons at creating the cabin after the Battle of Manhattan, but left before the project was really finished. Whoever had taken it on after him sort of ran with the death and zombies theme. As nice as a cabin to himself would be, Nico wasn't looking forward to going back just yet.
Will interrupted his thoughts as he came back in holding a clipboard with a lab coat on and stethoscope around his neck. Nico couldn't help but think how incongruous Will's flip-flops were with the rest of his outfit. He supposed for a 15-year-old healer, Will looked official enough.
"So first, let's run down the list here. I'm trying to get better about keeping everyone's basic vitals - it's so interesting what differences there are between cabins. Apollo and Ares kids usually run a bit warm, and the Hypnos kids have crazy low blood pressure - no surprise there, right? I haven't had any Hades kids in here ... I mean, obviously … but … uh," Will trailed off and blushed, then coughed and seemed to get back on track. "So, basics: birthday, age, we'll get your blood pressure…" He looked up to see Nico's pained expression.
"Um, my birthday is May 16th but the whole stuck-in-a-magic-time-hotel thing … I'm either 14 or 80-something, so…" Nico trailed off, staring at the ground. Nico was still self-conscious about that. Not only was he the creepy son of Hades, but he couldn't relate to all the pop culture that most of the other campers loved. At this point he had figured out that Harry Potter looked sort of like him but with glasses and did magic and fought some of the monsters from their world, and there were card games and movies and video games about some other monsters that were definitely not real in their world but he thought might be Japanese, and he was sure he could never catch up on all of the shows and movies and games and books that had come out in the past 70 years … so he'd given up. But some campers, when they found out, would still try to quiz him and always acted amazed that he had survived without having whatever, and he just added that to the long list of why he didn't like talking to new people.
Will just nodded and wrote on his clipboard. "We'll go with 14, otherwise it'll throw off my spreadsheets," he said, smiling. He put his clipboard down and started, "So, blood pressure. Give me your arm and I'll -"
Will stopped mid sentence, staring at Nico's arms where Lycaon had clawed him and Reyna stitched up. Nico looked down and realized they were probably infected - his skin was red and swollen around the marks, standing out against his super-pale skin. Nico figured that he probably should've mentioned those. He'd half forgotten about them, so numb from everything that had happened since he was in New Rome last.
"Right, so... we were in Portugal and the Athena Parthenos on top of this building," Nico explained, "and Coach Hedge had to make a rope ladder so we could get to it but Lycaon, who was working for Orion, was attacking us with his wolves that could only be injured by silver, so only Reyna's dagger and Argentum - uh, one of her mechanical dogs, the silver one - could kill them, and there weren't many shadows so I sort of grabbed the ropes around the statue and jumped into Lycaon and killed him so we could travel through his shadow all at once but he sort of got me before I was close enough and … well, Reyna stitched me up when we landed on this cruise ship, but it was the middle of the ocean and we couldn't exactly ask for a full med kit without drawing attention so, yeah. They're ok, really."
Will just stared at Nico as he told his story, glancing down at the cuts every few seconds. "Yeah of course, just the first werewolf or whatever. And yeah, between Portugal and a cruise ship - there'd be no time to waste for sterilization when you've got a giant after you, I guess," Will joked awkwardly. Nico squirmed internally. He forgot that not everyone was like Reyna or Jason - they knew what it was like, what you had to deal with when you were desperate to stay alive and moving. Most campers - normal campers - probably thought they were magnets for trouble, too reckless to be safe anywhere.
Will cleared his throat and reached for some salve stored in the table next to Nico. "Werewolf scratches aren't known for healing well, but I guess it's better than a bite, right? I don't see any abscesses, but I still want to take these stitches out. At this point they'll just add to the scarring. Most deep cuts I can heal and you wouldn't even know they were there but I'm not sure about something from Lycaon," he said as he cleaned the area and applied numbing cream before starting to remove the stitches.
Nico watched him in silence, noticing how sure his hands were as he worked on the infected areas. In the spots that weren't numb, Nico also felt a deep warmth emanating from Will. Something that came with being the child of the sun god, he supposed. Nico was used to big, flashy powers - hanging around the other children of the big three could get competitive. What Will was doing, though, had a whole different skill to it. An attention to detail most demigods his age couldn't manage, and a precision that seemed natural. He also let himself really look at Will's face while the other boy was so focused on the sutures. Unless he was fighting or glaring daggers, Nico usually avoided looking directly at people. Watching Will, he was reminded of Apollo again. Nico could see the similarities in their hair - golden and messy in a stylish way - and the structure of their faces - straight nose, strong jaw, expressive eyes - but Will had a softness that Apollo lacked. Maybe it was his age, but Nico liked that Will's face wasn't quite as angular as Apollo's, his cheekbones not quite as sharp and mouth not quite as wide. Not that Nico had any opinions about anyone's mouth, especially not Will's. These were just objective observations, of course. Nico made himself look away before Will caught him staring.
Will glanced up when Nico turned his head. "Oh, sorry! Did I pull or something? Sometimes I get too wrapped up in this stuff, do you need more numbing cream? Want a break? I'm nearly finished.."
Nico shook his head, "I'm fine, really. Just … nothing. Keep working."
They went back to silence, Nico listening to Will's siblings asking the other patients questions about healing and rest and what they wanted for breakfast. Right on cue, Nico's stomach growled and he blushed.
Will glanced up again. "Right, I totally forgot about breakfast. I haven't eaten either, I'll let these air out a bit before wrapping them and I can go grab us something? What do you like?"
Nico paused - his appetite was slowly coming back since Persephone's pomegranates, but any actual cravings for food weren't there yet. "Uh, whatever. I've mostly been eating gas station food or healthy stuff from the Hunters so anything is fine."
"Two bagels with cream cheese, it is," and Will hopped up and left.
Nico went back to listening to the activity in the rest of the infirmary. It sounded like some Romans and Greeks had tried to show off to each other and gotten a couple children of Nike involved and it didn't end well - one of Will's siblings was trying to sort out who needed help first while the campers argued about who won.
Nico began to feel his exhaustion as the sun from the window bathed his covers in warmth and the sounds of the infirmary turned to white noise. He was about to drift off when Will returned with bagels, fruit, and some books.
"I expect you to catch up on sleep, but in the meantime I thought you might want to read or something? I grabbed books from my cabin… I'm not sure what you like best," and he sat them down on the table by the window. "I'm partial to sci-fi and fantasy, but you might have had enough of that in real-life so there are a couple history books and good old Agatha Christie novels - she was one of Apollo's favorite kids so we have about 20 different books of hers. Anyway, food," and he dumped the fruit out on Nico's bed and handed him a toasted bagel. "You look like you need some vitamins so eat some fruit too, doctor's orders."
"As long as there aren't pomegranates," Nico said, quietly.
"Yeah? Is that a Persephone thing? She's your step-mom, right?" Will asked, sitting down with his bagel.
Nico wasn't sure he wanted to go into it … but his advice to Hazel came back to him, 'Getting a second life is one thing. Making it a better life, that's the trick.' The words he said to Reyna echoed in his head too, about those that don't use their voice being as good as the ghosts in Asphodel. Since Nico was turning to shadow already, he figured he should try everything he could to keep from slipping away.
So, he told Will about Tartarus, or as much as he could. He wasn't exactly used to telling long stories, most of his time had been spent fighting and living on his own. He didn't go into great detail, but he got the main point across: Tartarus was worse than anyone could imagine, with so many layers of torment that Nico barely survived. Really, he would've been lost down there if Gaea's army hadn't decided he was more useful as bait than as a permanent resident at his father's palace. He ended, finally, with the jar and his death trance and the pomegranate seeds, his last hope before giving up completely. When he was finally free of the jar, the first few hours felt like a hallucination. He couldn't quite believe that he was back in sunlight after everything he had gone through. One final hallucination wouldn't've been the worst way to go.
But it had been real. And each day, somehow, he kept going, despite almost breaking in Tartarus, almost giving up on rescue from the jar, almost disappearing into the shadows. As he finished his story, he thought about how Hazel had been the main reason he kept getting up and being just alive and present at first, but he had grown to appreciate the other Seven in their own ways, he had learned something about coping from each of them.
He had been slowly peeling an orange as he spoke, having to send his nervous energy somewhere, staring at it as if the fruit itself had asked the question. Once he finished talking, he popped an orange slice into his mouth and looked up. Will was only halfway through his bagel, a piece forgotten in his hand, as he stared thoughtfully somewhere near Nico's feet. Nico couldn't read him - Was that too much? Did I ramble? Did he zone out? Does he think I'm crazy for how I described Tartarus? Maybe I still need work on my people skills. A simple "yeah, a step-mom thing" probably would've been fine. Tartarus wasn't exactly breakfast conversation, he supposed.
"You're amazing, Nico," Will said, finally looking up.
Nico was confused. "You heard all of that, right? I stupidly thought I could find the Doors of Death on my own, just wandering through the Underworld. Then, like a clumsy child, I fell into Tartarus and was captured by Gaea and used as bait to lure my friends into a trap. You got that part too, right? And on top of it all, while they were outsmarting huge spiders and fighting evil spirits and killing giants, I was just asleep in a jar eating pomegranate seeds waiting for them. Or did I tell some other story just now?" Nico's anxiety and anger with himself started to take hold and the bed frame started to frost over. Rather than answer, Will reached out and took some grapes, now icy and frozen, and ate a couple. Nico was distracted by how casual Will was about the whole thing - as if most of his patients would just freeze fruit for him now and then. The frost began to recede.
"The way it sounds to me," started Will, "you did what you felt needed to be done, and for selfless reasons. Yeah, your plan didn't really work out, but I don't think I've ever talked to any demigod who's gotten back and said, "Yep, that went perfectly, no surprises at all." Everything that just happened could've ended so much worse - like, none-of-us-alive worse. Honestly, I've always admired you for how you handle things."
"I - you - what?" Nico couldn't connect those dots.
Will laughed, exasperated. "Nico, look, you've never taken the easy way out and you're stronger for it. I remember when you showed up here, a kid. I had just gotten here too. You were here for barely two months before you set off on your own - that's crazy. Most demigods show up here after barely making it through some monster attack, and don't leave again until they've had years of training, and even then there are usually other demigods or a satyr with them. But you went out there by yourself and survived. More than that, you figured out your powers and learned how to fight and if even half of the rumors are true you held your own against all sorts of monsters." Nico was about to argue, but Will held up his hand for Nico to wait.
"And at eleven or something you show up at the Battle of the Labrynth and raise an army of dead that protects the rest of the camp and the effort sets you on fire or something … and then you take off on your own, again," Will adds, talking faster as he goes, building up his momentum. "I've heard kids about to age out brag about things half that impressive. And then apparently you were helping Percy on that whole Great Prophecy thing and got him the Curse of Achilles, probably not the first time you saved his life either, and then showed up at the Battle of Manhattan even stronger. And with your dad, and a whole army, and wearing that crazy armor and yelling at Kronos himself and - like, how did you even learn to fight like that?" Nico tries to cut in again, to correct him that No, it wasn't like all of that, I tricked Percy to get information from my dad, and had to make up for Midas, and.. But before he could cut in, Will continued with even energy.
"And then you come back to Camp for a couple weeks or whatever before leaving again. Seriously. What kid does all of that stuff, more than anyone ever asked of him, and then has the option of staying here behind protected borders with whatever food he wants, and a cabin to himself, and all the training gear he could imagine, and pretty fantastic healthcare options if you ask me, but still chooses to leave? I mean, you might have a self-destructive streak, but I think there's more to it. From all that and the story you told me, your decisions all come from some sense of duty, a strict moral compass that convinces you that if it needs to be done you might as well be the one doing it so nobody else needs to worry or something. You weren't one of the Seven in the prophecy, you didn't need to risk anything there. In fact, you've never waited for the Oracle or one of the Romans' stuffed animals or whatever they use to tell you to go do something. It's crazy. And brave. And selfless. Who wouldn't be impressed?"
Will stared at him, eyes blazing, and then seemed to realize that Nico had stopped arguing. He softened and looked out the window.
"And then, all the stuff you did in the past couple months, Tartarus and the jar and shadow traveling to the point of almost disappearing," Will continued, quietly. "I don't think many of us could've come out on the other side of that sane. But somehow you're still so modest … and normal."
Will sat back, and sighed, and pulled a small piece of his now-cold bagel off. Nico was trying to figure out how to respond - when Will put it all out like that, sure, it sounded great. But Nico knew all of the details in between, all of the times he ran away because he was angry or afraid or too proud, and did things because he wanted something out of it too, and Will couldn't understand all of that. That the past few years weren't about Nico being brave or selfless or whatever. Before he could say anything, Will spoke, almost to himself.
"I mean, just look at Octavian. My nephew or whatever. What did he have, what did he go through, that made him turn out like that? So delusional and power hungry? I can't believe we were related. And the worst part is, I was glad to see him go. I've been around death, it's always lingering with what I do, but I've never felt so satisfied seeing someone die. What kind of healer am I, that I thought good riddance. I mean, I tried to talk him out of it, it was sort of an automatic response, but part of me was so angry at him for being close to Apollo, being my relative but so terrible, and I felt no sadness with his death…" Will trailed off and suddenly looked back up at Nico.
"Sorry, I sort of got off on a tangent there," Will said, smiling sadly. "The Octavian thing has been bugging me. It's silly, we've been in a war and death happens and I don't know why his is sticking with me. Short story: you're stronger than you think you are."
Nico just nodded. He wasn't sure what to say to Will about Octavian, because he sort of felt the same way. "It probably doesn't help much, coming from me, Death Boy or whatever you called me, but I don't think you're wrong to feel like that about Octavian. It's like he got all of the worst parts of Apollo and twisted them even more. And uh, thanks. For the pep talk," Nico said with a hint of a blush.
Will cleared his throat. "Yeah, of course. Well, I guess I should wrap up those lacerations and get the rest of your admitting paperwork done. I promise I didn't make you come here so I could just ramble all day…"
"Yeah, no, it's fine. I don't mind," Nico said with a half smile.
Will cleared off the remaining fruit and finished his bagel in a couple bites while he went to wash up and get bandages. When he came back they sat in silence as he worked, Nico trying to come to terms with the way Will had described him, and thinking about Will's struggle with Octavian's death. Will was definitely more complex than Apollo, Nico decided. It was nice, in a way, to know that Nico hadn't been alone in his guilt about not feeling guilty about the augur. Will had him stand and took his blood pressure, height, and weight just through touch, quiet except for a quick and doctorly lecture about eating better. It seemed like Will had used up most of his words, and once Nico was back in his bed Will handed him the stack of books and gave him a sort of melancholy half smile before leaving Nico to his thoughts.