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-

 

Yes, before you ask, "crush" was absolutely the most accurate word Nico could have used at the time, although it's not like he was given much of a chance to prepare. It sounds childish, sure, "I had a crush," but a crush comes on you like a cough -- a sudden, harsh contraction in the ribs, and you're completely helpless to stop it.

 

-

 

"Look, man, I get it --"

"No, I really don't think you do," Nico says impatiently, without breaking stride. "And I'm not saying that to sound all like, woe is me, I'm so misunderstood --"

"Dude, 'misunderstood' is tattooed on your ass, I can see it from here," Jason remarks, because Jason is a jerk.

Jason is over six feet tall.

Jason is unfair.

"-- but I mean it in that, like, this is not new information to me. It's not, it's new information to you. For real, that's the only thing that's changed. I mean, for gods' sake, why does it feel like I'm the one coaching you through my feelings?"

Then, "ugh," because he'd been trying to avoid bringing out the "f" word. Whatever, if there's one thing Nico's picked up about the twenty-first century, it's that the bar for acceptable masculine behavior is set way too high, he was never going to make it anyway.

The sidewalk ends and he dodges left. It does not, however, shake Jason's mild-mannered pursuit.

Whose idea was Jason Grace, anyway? Like, who looked at the world and thought putting Jason Grace in it was a good idea? Nico would like to have some very strong words with their skeleton. Mainly of the breaking kind.

"All right, fine, you're right. I don't know what you're going through, because, like, most of the people I've had feelings for have reciprocated them --"

"Wow, not helping."

"-- but I just wanted to say thanks."

Nico pauses, but only for a moment.

"You're welcome," he says, though he has no idea what he's being thanked for. Maybe if he's polite enough, Jason will go away. (It's rude to shadow-travel just to get out of an uncomfortable conversation. Sally Jackson taught him that. Nico listens to her. She's a cool dude. Lady. Lady dude.)

Jason tilts a smile at him, like the sarcasm doesn't scrape at him like sandpaper.

"For being in love with Percy," he continues, and Nico's skin just jumps all at once and crawls like it's trying to peel right off his bones and leave them behind, because let's not put it like that, shall we? Let's say crush. It's childish. It means less. It doesn't open its maw inside Nico's stomach like he's got his heart on a noose and it's about to be sent swinging.

He grumbles, "Yeah, because I totally did it for you."

But Jason isn't finished.

"None of the rest of us could have impressed Cupid the way you did." Nico turns away, but Jason catches him instinctively, a hand against his shoulder the same way people try to catch falling things. "That's why I'm trying to tell you, man. You were the hero that day. Without that scepter, we would have gotten nowhere. You saved us, and by extension, you saved the world. Because you let yourself love Percy Jackson that much."

Nico swallows, throat clicking dryly.

"Hand," he says warningly. "Before I remove it."

And Jason does, not even making a big deal out of it, just being respectful, and Nico kind of wants to stab him anyway.

 

-

 

a small list of facts about nico di angelo, before we begin:

1. He is fourteen years old. He cannot name all fifty states. They covered it in the fourth grade, sure, but Nico wasn't there that day.

2. He has twenty-three words to describe the feeling that exists when his physical body does not, squeezed thinner than a blink of light on the dark side of a shadow. None of these words are adequate.

3. The first time he felt someone die, he was five years old and it happened on the other side of Piazza Spasimante, where the shadow from the church steeple fell in the perfect shape of a cross on the dust-colored stones. It was Maruiccia's older brother. They took a brick and they smashed his head in. It took three blows; Nico felt it, the snapping of bones in his skull, the crush of all the pieces scraping together, and clapped his hands to his ears and started screaming until all the dogs on the street were howling just to shut him up. Fer Voglia had a handsome voice like a priest's and he was going to inherit the fishmonger's when his father passed. He kissed boys, too, and would sometimes come to stand beneath Mama's window and call her name until she threw open the shutters with Nico on her hip and shouted down in exasperation, "What, you whore?" And Fer laughed and said, "Nothing, Signorina di Angelo, I just wanted to see your beautiful face, but I see you are in a mood! Has your wealthy man not visited lately? Moved on to the more welcoming? Perhaps he would like my company!" And Mama would reply, "Next time he visits, come and ask us nicely!" just to see his face break open into laughter. Later, Nico watched from Mama's arms as Bianca stood in front of a mirror and obsessively checked the back of her head like she expected to find it dented, and then she turned and asked, "Who would do something like that?" And Mama waited a long time before she answered, "Mussolini would. Hitler, maybe. And there are far, far too many young men who want to please them."

4. At the time that boys like Fer Voglia (and Nico) were being collected and burnt like cigarettes, the approval rating for Adolf Hitler in Germany was 90%.

5. Facts like that are hard to forget. It never leaves him. It's a shadow in his skin, that makes loving Percy feel a lot like a brick at the back of his skull, the promise of crushed bones. A crush, if you will.

 

-

The first person to talk to him about it was not, contrary to popular belief, Jason Grace.

Jason doesn't get any credit. Jason had to be told. Come on, Cupid had to get involved before Jason figured it out, because Nico is just that good at hiding shit (and also, kinda, nobody cared? Like, if you were going to make a list Nico's most important characteristics, his desire to put his hands on Percy's face and drag his teeth across his mouth wouldn't even make the top ten. The dead people, time-traveling casino thing kind of trumps it.) Nico built himself a very off-putting disguise, and, being fourteen, promptly got offended when nobody saw through it.

Everyone was pretty busy around that time, though, it's fine.

A week or two before Percy showed up at Camp Jupiter with his memory completely wiped and Nico's heart jackrabbited straight out of his chest, landing in a tangle of pulp and spiderwebbed veins at his feet in a way that felt obvious even to him, he was in Indiana, stealing lunch.

Indiana's one of those states that Nico often forgets exists, and even when he's there, he still probably couldn't find it on a map.

He doesn't forget it as often as he forgets those states that, you know, aren't New York over there on the coast, but still sometimes he needs to sit down, because, like, Delaware exists? Like, how does Delaware exist? There are millions of people in Delaware, doing people things. There are probably half-bloods dying in Delaware. Nico only thinks about Delaware like once a month. It's weird.

Anyway, he's in Indiana, at this wrap shop owned by this enormous Somali guy who introduces himself as the patron deity of travelers. He has several safe havens established across the country, wherever there's a significant population of East Africans. Nico isn't East African and has never been to that part of the world, not even accidentally, but the nature sprite behind the counter cheerily tells him that showing hospitality to the victims of other mythological pantheons never hurt, and also to try the lamb sambusas, they're made fresh daily.

It's the end of summer, the sky high and very blue, and Persephone comes into the shop and sits on the other side of the table, thumb flicking across her phone. The blue glow from the screen catches on the beads around her neck.

Nico pushes his plate towards her in offering.

"Thanks," she says, picking up the last sambusa and taking a bite, tilting her wrist over the table as lamb juice trickles down the heel of her hand.

Then she puts her phone down, crosses her leg at the knee, looks right at him and says around her mouthful, "If the relationship is toxic, Nico, then you need to get out."

"Excuse me?" he says in surprise. And then, "How did you know what I was thinking about?"

Her iPhone case is green and has a seedling on it, set in a bed of rhinestones. He thinks it might be real. She's wearing a long blue maxi dress, open at the neckline and draped in big red beads. Hoops swing from her ears. In this light, her eyes are as golden as Hazel's, her skin the same biracial beige. She smells like sawdust and hay, like those corn mazes that pop up everywhere in the autumn.

"You're a mortal," she says patiently. "You know houseflies, right?"

"No, I've never heard of them," Nico deadpans, because he has all the self-preservation skills of one of those moths that flutter straight at a zap light.

Persephone lifts an eyebrow, her expression as pleasant and mild as a spring day. "You know," she says, and casually stretches a hand across the table, touching the tip of her finger to the center of his chest. Immediately, every bit of metal in Nico's clothes turns into a dime-headed blossom; the zipper of his coat a sudden long vine of summer peppermint. "I like you a lot better when the only significant thing you can do is photosynthesize."

Obediently, and only a little grudgingly, Nico bows his head and says, "I'm listening."

"Right." His zipper suddenly has teeth again. "Houseflies. Did you know that when a fly meets another fly, that fly, the immediateness of that fly, becomes their entire existence?" She gestures eagerly with her hands. "Their brains aren't big enough, nor are their lives long enough, for anything else. And after that other fly dies or moves out of view, they have no idea what they were doing or thinking about before. They fall in love so hard it obliterates everything else."

Her phone buzzes on the tabletop. She doesn't look.

"That's what you're like to us," she tells him. "Flies, whose brains are rewired every time they fall in love, and oh, you fall in love so often."

"... Wow," Nico drips sarcasm onto the table. "That's flattering."

Her head tilts. "Listen, kid, what I'm trying to say is, you're not around long enough. You don't live that long, so if they're toxic to you, get rid of them. You don't owe them your time. Cut yourself out of their earth. Get out."

Nonsensically, Nico thinks of a New York City fire escape, of the torchlights at Camp Half-Blood, of Annabeth's hand tucked absent-mindedly in the back pocket of Percy's jeans as they listened to something Clarisse La Rue gesticulated angrily in their direction. Their expressions had been soft, identical in their affection. His hands clench in the sleeves of his jacket, knuckles showing bonily.

Persephone points. "That," she says. "The person who makes you bend like that. Get rid of them, you're worth more."

"How come you haven't done it?" Nico fires back, clenching his jaw and then unclenching it to speak.

She blinks once. She sits back in her chair; he's surprised her.

"I assume," she says. "You're referring to my kidnapping."

He nods.

Persephone jerks her head, a movement that isn't a nod and isn't a shake, just a movement that tosses her hair away from her face; Hazel does the same thing when she's trying to think of what to say. Nico wonders if it runs in families, and to what degree Hazel and Persephone are related. It hasn't occurred to him to introduce them.

"I love how many different versions of that myth exists," she begins. "And yet nobody thinks to ask me for my version of it."

Her phone buzzes on the table. She seems to have forgotten about it. It's odd; Nico is usually the kind of person people will feign checking their phones for when they see him coming, not the other way around.

"Let me ask you something," Persephone unfolds her legs, setting her bare heels down on the ground. "Do gods need to eat? Like, to survive?"

"No?" Nico hazards, wondering if this is a trick question. "Although you do it a lot, but that's mostly just for fun, though, right?"

"Right." She spreads her hands, "So then why did I eat the pomegranates?"

He breathes out. His cross-armed grip on himself loosens.

His brain fires at it, strikes something. "To negotiate?"

"To solve an argument," she agrees. "About me. That's the moral of the 'Hades kidnaps Persephone' story. Whenever my uncles or my mother tried to call the shots, whatever they said, I made the final decision regarding my fate. Me."

"Do you love him?" blurts out of Nico before he can help it. "Dad?"

"Yes," she says instantly. "I suppose I do. After a couple thousand years, they kind of grow on you. He … he listens to me." Her mouth quirks, "He holds my hand sometimes without me needing to prompt him, and sometimes not even when there's anybody there to see us. That's nice."

Nico averts his eyes, picking at the corner of the table and shifting the empty plate an inch to the left for no reason. He feels strange, like he should give her privacy, like he isn't meant to witness this.

Her fingertip touches his chin, soft as a seedling.

She tilts his head up.

"I love your dad," she says. Her eyes are golden as haystacks, her hair falling all around. "But I love being queen more."

 

-

 

So Nico gets out.

For the next year and a half following that whole debacle (he's referring to the Ancient Lands thing here, not the prophecy and Kronos thing, because 'debacle' doesn't really narrow Nico's life down any,) his only real contact with Camp Half-Blood is Leo, who migrates frequently between the Greek camp and the Roman camp, tinkering with his navigation instruments, supplementing his supplies from the best of both stores, and investigating possible methods of infiltrating the island of Orgygia.

Nico offers to help.

"For real?" Leo blinks, looking up at him and forgetting that he's got a pair of magnifying lenses propped in front of his goggles. He rears back in surprise, then fumbles the lenses off their hook.

"For real." And Nico isn't even offended when Leo just squints at him suspiciously. "I know a lot of weirdways, okay? If there's a way to sneak onto Calypso's island and stage a jailbreak, I can probably find it."

Leo fidgets. Then he shows teeth all at once and says, "I like your thinking."

Meanwhile, he and Hazel collect the twenty-first century like trading cards, exchanging them back and forth in the hopes of making a full set. The Internet is a fathomless mystery and why isn't there only one type of computer? Wouldn't that be simpler? Why did they change Daylights Saving Time? Was it broken? And holy crap, where in the world do they fit all the people? Sometimes, Nico looks at the population of places like Wyoming and just says, how?

Did you know that the year Hazel died, the world's population was only a little over three billion?

By 2012, it had breached seven billion.

"Wyoming, though!" he cries.

"I know!" she wails back.

"You guys are so flipping weird," Dakota comments from the other side of the Fifth Cohort's table, chewing at the rubbery end of his burrito and watching them progress through their moment of culture shock, bemused.

Nico doesn't really have an official position at Camp Jupiter. He and Reyna are bros, though (she's the one who gave him the twenty-second and the twenty-third word he has to describe the sensation of shadow travel -- it was a really good gift, Nico likes her a lot,) so nobody actively chases him out at swordpoint.

"Ah. Nico di Angelo," Terminus hails him as he goes by. "Son of Pluto. Still with us, I see."

"Hades, actually," Nico corrects automatically.

"Oh, right," says the bust. "I keep on forgetting you're the Greek edition. Well, I don't suppose they've found a cure for that?"

"No."

Terminus is oblivious to the sarcasm. He frowns for a moment, and then visibly decides he might as well comment. "Are you wearing your sister's clothes?"

Nico doesn't remember what he's wearing.

He checks.

"He is," Hazel pipes up from behind him, that horrible traitor. She stops beside him, a bucket of oats wobbling in her arms. "Those are my jeans. I was looking for those."

"How? Why?" Nico startles, incredulous. "I didn't think you'd miss them, you keep stealing Frank's clothes and wearing those instead."

"That's true," Hazel says happily. Her jeans have been turned at the ankle so many times she looks like the victim of a bad ring toss, and the sleeves of her sweatshirt hang past the ends of her fingers. Canadians Do It in Metric is embossed on the front; Nico's pretty sure that was Leo's handiwork. She tilts her head at him, her mouth pulling in the corner. "They fit you, at least."

"They do," he agrees, and gets a better look at her. "Hey, your hair's flat today. And really long!"

Her eyebrows lift, like, really, you're just now noticing? "It's called shrinkage," she says. "Wow, your hair is really flat too. What's your secret?"

"Patience and determination," he tells her solemnly. "Also, judicious application of a … an iron? Something iron?"

"Close. Flat iron. I used a straightener."

"There's more than one thing for flattening hair?"

"There are lots of things."

They exchange a look. It's their oh, gods, the twenty-first century is messed up look. Then she sighs, leaning her head across the distance to rest her forehead against the jut of his shoulder. He wraps an arm around her in a sideways hug, the bucket digging them both in the ribs.

"Seriously, though, you don't look half bad in girl jeans."

"Thank you," Nico says. "Needs more pockets, though."

Hazel looks at Terminus. So does Nico.

"Don't look at me," he goes. "Little dude has a point."

 

-

 

So, yeah, Nico's doing fine.

And then, the fall that he turns sixteen, Percy and Annabeth arrive at Camp Jupiter to attend school.

 

-

 

a small list of things nico di angelo loves about percy jackson:

1. He did it. The fucker did it. He became the prophecy kid -- even though he could have easily left that shit for Nico to clean up, he had the out -- and he did what Nico could not, and he never once acted like Nico should thank him for it. Nico wants to, somehow, but Nico wants to do a lot of things.

2. The way he throws himself into a hug, full-bodied, like he has no idea that his ribs are softly undefended and anyone's hands could be knives. He shares loud, back-slapping bro hugs with Frank, and longer, quieter ones with Grover. He's not afraid to hug his mother where anyone could see. Sometimes, he'll pull Annabeth into a hug like they're trying to wrap each other into the same skin, the both of them just the right height for Percy's arms to encircle her head, tucking them close together. He hugs Nico without thought, certain of its welcome without ever stopping to think why. And the hold of it is gentle, like some part of him is aware that NIco's bones are made of matchsticks tipped with phosphorus. Nico wants to sink his fingers into him like gravedirt, and his chest feels like collapsing space, his heart strangled with its proximity to Percy's.

3. The way Hazel draws herself up taller when he's near. Frank might be their praetor, hers and Nico's both, but Percy was the first person she truly believed could be a leader, and Nico loves him because his sister makes it easy to.

4. Sally.

5. He can't drown. If there was one person in this world who could withstand the way Nico would love him if given a chance, it would be Percy, who wouldn't gasp airless under the weight of it.

 

-

 

It really shouldn't have surprised him, because for all that Annabeth attacks her problems categorically, she's also never been good at school, and Percy flunked out of how many schools in how many years? And the school here has been designed specifically to help half-bloods get their GEDs. There are courses available with texts in ancient Greek, which is so much easier to read than English, and the teachers are all a mix of older Roman and Greek half-bloods; living proof that it's entirely possible for half-bloods to live past the age of eighteen, contrary to popular evidence.

Here's the thing, though, about having a crush on somebody else's boyfriend:

Annabeth chose Percy. She chose him when she was twelve, when she got stuck with him as the prophecy kid in Thalia's place and she decided that she was going to turn this drooling lump into somebody who could live up to the woman Annabeth adored and had given up. She kept on choosing him even when very few other people would.

In turn, Percy chose Annabeth.

He chooses her every single day, and she chooses him every day, too, that's what love is. It's looking at a person and making up your mind.

And Nico -- Nico doesn't feel like he got much of a choice at all, because Nico didn't have anybody else to choose. Percy was literally the only person he knew, the person Bianca told him to trust, the person who held him suspended by the throat in a cell in the Underworld and everything in Nico just stretched, all his bones bending with the force, and he knew that if he survived this, he'd follow Percy like a shovel into a grave.

It wasn't a decision at all.

 

-

 

His back hits the hard-packed dirt, hard enough to shock all the air from his lungs, and he lays there for a dazed moment, groaning. He doesn't have to look to know he's over the boundary line.

"Annnd you're out, di Angelo!" Dakota calls, confirming it. "Tamada, take his place! Hurry up!"

"Ow," Nico complains to nobody in particular, and stays there. His face feels tight and sunburned, and when he flexes his knuckles, they start throbbing instantly. Well, that's cool, at least. He still has all his limbs. Bombs hurt, though, he wants this on the record somewhere.

Tennis shoes scuff the dirt by his head, and he looks up at the upside-down face of Annabeth Chase suspended above him. She's got her hands on her hips, and a smile on her face like she's glad to see him.

"Well done," she tells him, and then her eyes brighten, her mouth already widening to show teeth as she continues, "Well done, Nico-co. Four for you, Nico-co."

Nico groans loudly and covers his face.

"You're fired," he informs her. "You're banished from Camp. That was a horrible reference."

"But you understood it," she says smugly. "Welcome to this century, Nico, Mean Girls is something that happened. Isn't it such a time to be alive?" Then, "Come on, let's watch the rest of the game."

"Can I be exempt?" Nico tells the inside of his elbow. "I almost got blown up."

But he winds up in the bleachers anyway, probing curiously at his cheeks and wondering if you really need nose hairs for survival or not, because he probably has a lot fewer now than he did five minutes ago. His eyebrows are a lost cause. Annabeth kicks her feet up on the row in front of them and goes, "Is this … dodgeball?"

"Deathball," Nico corrects. "But same premise, yes, only, you know, more bombs."

A mangled scream echoes out from center court.

"And machetes," Nico elaborates. "Wow, I haven't seen those before."

"Tamada, you're out!" Dakota calls reluctantly.

"Are they going to be able to reattach that?" Annabeth goes, sounding worried.

"Oh, yeah, sure. The legionnaire medics are really good at their jobs. He'll be fine."

Once she has the rules more or less figured out, it turns out that deathball is kind of right up Annabeth's alley. Nico's shocked. He's floored. He's flabbergasted. He never saw that coming. Annabeth Chase, liking a game where you have to be able to outsmart your opponents and throw shit really, really hard? No way.

"Shut up, shut up, shut up," says Annabeth rapidly in a bid to get him to stop talking, leaning all her weight into him and bending him forcefully in the other direction, so that he has to grab onto the railing to keep from tipping over.

He laughs, telling her, "Be careful, or I'm going to fall to my death and you'll feel guilty for the rest of your life. I'll haunt your ass, I will."

"Oh shut up, you big baby," she goes, but she does stop leaning on him so hard. "There's, like, six feet between us and the ground."

"Yes, but I have a delicate constitution." He tries to keep a straight face, but he only gets about half-way through 'delicate' before Annabeth bursts into laughter, her head thrown back and her throat bobbing with the force of it, and then all bets are off.

Then she shoves him off the bleachers, just to make a point.

He lay there on the ground, groaning through the radiating pain of impact for the second time in less than forty minutes. Then he keeps laughing, though he doesn't really have the breath for it.

The sky pinwheels overhead. Nico's heart aches with affection.

Annabeth appears above him, gripping the railing, and she's serious when she says, "No, but really, are you okay?"

"Yeah," he tells the sky, and he smiles at her. "Yeah, Annabeth, I'm fine."

 

-

 

Nico's life would be so much easier, he thinks, if he could just hate Annabeth. If he could just stop thinking of her like a person. If he could just think of her like an object to move out of his way, something to get rid of.

But he can't.

It doesn't work like that.

 

-

Percy at nineteen is different from the Percy at seventeen who tortured a woman in Tartarus just for the pleasure of hearing her scream, from the Percy at fifteen who Nico sent to bathe in the River Styx on the promise of invincibility, from the Percy at thirteen who wouldn't look at him and told him that his sister's last words hadn't been for him.

He's taller, for one thing: not quite as unfairly tall as Jason, but tall enough to make you look up at him like you respect him. He's finally grown into the strange, starved shape of his face.

Then again, so has Nico.

Part of him is tempted to tattle. To find Percy in between his classes and just chill with him, not watching his fingers on his pen (his real pen, not Riptide,) and definitely not watching his throat (that's Nico's favorite part of Percy, his throat. Oh, how Nico's little winged heart loves that throat.) He could just slip it into conversation, like it somehow didn't define Nico's entire housefly existence there for awhile, "Oh, hey, funny story, did you know that I was in love with you when I was fourteen? Yeah, funny, right? So was everyone else. I don't get many points for originality there, do I?"

Did you know? he wants to know. Did you figure it out?

Did you know what I would have done for you?

Man, it's a good thing you kind of forgot about me there for awhile, because imagine what would have happened if you'd just worked a little bit harder at that promise you made to Bianca to look after me. You could have fucking ruined me. Your obliviousness probably saved us both.

Do you know that it doesn't go away? It's a cough, Percy, sudden and harsh like a brick to the head, and do you know that I probably still love you? Because I don't know if I do. How would that feel, not loving you? I wouldn't know.

I'd probably still go to war for you. I'd probably still die on a battlefield thinking that your side was the only side I wanted to be on, that it had to be right because it was yours.

I'd probably go to my knees for you. Do you know you could have that? I'd be good at it, you know I would.

Have you ever watched me like I watched you?

No.

No, Nico isn't going to tell.

Besides, by this point, he's pretty sure half of the way he loves Percy has to do with the way Percy loves Annabeth, so yeah. There's that.

 

-

 

He spends some time in the Underworld. It's been awhile; he hasn't really been around except for a major family get-together here and there, where Hades and Persephone hold hands under the banquet table and catch each other up on the kids they've had with other people like Nico isn't sitting right there. Alecto's usually present, though, and she's fun. She likes to stick voodoo pins in the dolls of gods she doesn't like.

He meets a phobosite on his way to his father's palace, because when you're stupid the way Nico's stupid, you forget that the Underworld is actually kind of a dangerous place, full of, like, you know, monsters and shit.

In the end, he manages to break one of the spines off its dorsal ridge and plunge it between the kink in its armor at the base of its neck, which he feels pretty triumphant about, because dude, training with the Romans is good for something, until the phobosite bursts into Mist with Nico still balanced on its back, easily forty feet off the ground.

It's not a bomb blast, it's not a fall from the bleachers. Nico hits the ground before he has time to visualize a destination and teleport himself out.

He shatters on impact, the bones in his leg splintering into shards like firewood, and the pain is so stunningly absolute that it obliterates everything else inside Nico's head, a white-out mushroom cloud that escapes through his mouth in a scream, tearing his throat on its way out.

Some stupid part of him skitters sideways and asks, almost curiously, if this kind of pain is what Percy felt when he bathed in the River Styx?

And then the rest of him shouts right over it, telling him to get help, you moron!

And Nico must call something, because the next thing he's aware of, there are hands on his face and a voice, commanding, "Wake up, wake up, you stupid fool."

He knows that voice.

"How --" he croaks out.

"You called me," Persephone says, sounding pissed. "Names have power in the Underworld, remember?"

Nico's pretty sure his stepmother would not have been the first person he'd call for help. She studies the mess Nico's body makes on the stones, her brow furrowed, and then she kneels down, angling her arms like she's going to pick him up. "No, I didn't," he's still kind of stuck on this point.

"Well, we're going to pretend you did." She smells like buckwheat and baking bread. "Up you go."

Nico saves himself the embarrassment of screaming again by promptly passing out, but not before he has the time to realize that yeah, no, that makes sense. The start of "Persephone" does sound an awful lot like "Percy."

He wakes up, later, in his room in Hades's palace. She's still there, sitting in a chair in the corner and scrolling through Pinterest on her phone. A skeleton hovers at her elbow with a goblet in its hand; it's a servant Nico recognizes, because the previous owner of those bones had died of bone cancer -- a fuzzy, calcified growth shows all along its skull and joints.

She's just about to shoo it away when it spots Nico, and its jaw immediately unhinges, chattering out an excited autumnal sound.

"Hi to you too," Nico replies in a croak.

"Hey," Persephone sits up. "You're awake, good. Take a look and tell me what you think of the leg."

"The --" He looks.

"I had to remove it," she offers, when he doesn't say anything for a long beat, just turns his hip a little bit to get a better look. "There wasn't anything left to put back together, I'm sorry, I hope you weren't attached to it."

"Oh, no," Nico says faintly. "Legs are completely detachable. Mortals are Mr. Potato Heads, didn't you know?"

"But this one won't take too long to grow. It'll grow faster if we send you topside and you can get some sunshine. See how it's just kind of green all over right now? That means it's still just in a sapling stage, but once the bark comes in and you start getting flowers, then that's a decent sign that your leg's fully grown back. Just come back and I can transfigure it into a real leg for you, okay?"

He doesn't say anything.

"Which means as soon as you're ready, you need to get up. There's no sunlight down here, sorry. You can't hide here." She appears at the bedside, standing over him. "Hey, did you hear me?"

Nico looks up at her and blurts out, "I ate the pomegranates."

Her golden eyes widen with surprise, and then she softens, bending down to press a kiss to his forehead. "I thought you might," she murmurs. "See? You've made a choice. No one can take it from you."

 

-

 

a small fact:

There are things Nico could do.

Of course there are things Nico could do, his entire world revolves around the idea that people see only what they want to see; Mist covers everything else. There are creatures out there who serve the needy for a price, there are monsters that shapeshift. There are spells, potions, conjurings -- there are any number of things that could be fashioned into a facsimile of Percy that Nico could use, could kiss, could pretend loved him back.

 

-

 

a smaller, even more important fact:

He could have Percy.

He could.

It wouldn't be hard. Percy's relationship with Nico runs on 90% guilt anyway, so it would only be a matter of finding the right way to pressure him. He could ask, he could beg, he could sink the idea into Percy's head like nails into the edge of a cliff: Nico di Angelo will leave you alone if you kiss him enough.

And Percy would. He would do it without hesitating, if he thought Nico wanted it, if he thought he'd sleep better afterwards.

After all, Percy's been trained from a young age to think that his life is forfeit, all for love of other half-bloods. Percy was prepared to die for them, there at the top of Olympus, so it'd be easy to say, I don't want your life, I just want to know what it's like to put you on your back, I want to know if the inside of your mouth is ticklish, I want to leave the mark of a skull in the shape of a bruise on your neck. What's the price of a kiss? Whatever it is, Percy'd be willing to pay it; he's been trying to compensate for that bit there in the middle where he didn't remember people like Bob, people like Nico. He could accommodate him.

If Nico asked nice, maybe he could take a finger and hook it into the belt loop of Percy's jeans to tug him in, because Nico's always wanted to do that, or put his thumb to the jut of Percy's hip, or --

 

-

 

He won't do it.

And that's how Nico knows.

 

-

 

The revelation comes upon him like a cough, like a crush, that sudden contraction at his ribs, and Nico does the only thing he can: he goes to talk to somebody about it.

(He's not fourteen anymore.)

He finds them in one of the lounges off the main cafeteria, which is one of the few places in Camp where modern technology goes haywire less often than it does everywhere else, and so it's where legionnaires go when they need to unwind and can't be kept in with the greater populace.

He doesn't knock (Nico doesn't like knocking, because he doesn't like the idea of nobody answering,) but instead leans his head against the door and waits a beat for the shadows under the rug to tell him the nature of what he's about to interrupt.

Upon finding it interruptible, he pushes inside.

Good Morning America's on the TV, and Hazel's got her eyes covered, her lips pursed in concentration as she tries to identify the host on the sound of her voice alone, because what's more twenty-first century than its background noise? When she gets it right, Frank switches over to one of the other morning news networks, and she tries again. They're far enough apart on the couch that Nico doesn't feel weird plunking right down in between them.

Hazel lowers her hands when the couch bends at the added weight, and, whatever expression has to be all over his face, she immediately says, "Oh, Nico," and her arms go around his neck.

He was totally fine up until that point, because you're always fine until somebody gives you permission not to be, and Frank's hand comes down on his other shoulder and Nico just shudders.

"It's okay," his sister says, right against his ear.

"Is there anything we can do?" Frank offers. Then, "Ow!" when Hazel leans across and smacks him hard on the arm.

"Frank, don't say that, we've got nowhere we can bury him!"

"No, don't kill him!" comes out of Nico, strangled into a half-laugh. "I'm really fond of him, that's the problem!"

She looks at him for a long while; he doesn't look back at her, he isn't brave enough yet, but he feels the weight of her eyes. He shifts his weight; his regrown leg is especially achy today. She kisses his cheek and speaks.

"Tell you what. Frank, what time is it?"

"Uhh. Ten till seven? In the morning?"

"Perfect. Do you know who goes jogging around the track at seven in the morning?"

"Isn't it … the guys from the Second Cohort?"

"Yes," says Hazel with relish. "And you know them, it isn't anything worth doing if they can't do it with their shirts off. Come on, get up, we're going to go sit in the bleachers and watch."

"But I'm not --" Frank starts. "Ow!"

"Come on!" Hazel's hands pull Nico to his feet, while Frank surreptitiously rubs at the spot where she just kicked him. "Let's go catcall some hot Roman dudes while they work out."

"Yeah, okay, sounds good," says Nico agreeably.

And it is.

 

-

 

a small list of things nico di angelo hates about percy jackson:

1. He'll grow out of loving him eventually, of course. He'll grow up, and the crush of his crush won't bend at his bones so much. But it'll be too late, and the connection will have already been made, between the idea of love and the idea of Percy, so that every new person Nico meets and love will fire back to Percy, whether he means it to or not, that small contraction of a cough, that quick crush at his ribs.

2. Percy Jackson will control how Nico di Angelo feels about people for the rest of his life, and he won't ever know it.

 

-
fin