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Once a Hero

Chapter Text

A note about the timeline: this fic assumes that Nico’s birthday is January 28th, 1932.

 

“The Gods called your name
and the seas turned dark;
the earth quaked with power.

You looked up at Olympus
screaming at the gates;
“What will I become?”

The Gods fell silent, then-
with a thunderous roar replied;
"Who are you now?”

~ Achilles ~

 

Autumn, 1941

Nico and Bianca sat side by side on the train. Nico huddled against her side, as close as he could possibly get. He was cold and lonely despite his sister's presence, the loss of his mother still aching in his chest.  

The boat ride across from America had spooked them both with the waves tossing the boat back and forth, wind howling, and rain pounding on the decks. Neither child said a word as the train trundled along.

Across from them in the carriage sat two other boys and a young girl. Like Nico and Bianca, their coats and bags looked new and well cared for. A small trunk was stowed above each in the luggage rack and a small canvas bag sat on the ground at the eldest girl’s feet.

The girl sat in the centre of the group, one boy flanking her on either side. Both appeared to be younger than her; the eldest boy looked to be around Bianca's age. The younger one fiddled with a small figurine that Nico couldn’t quite make out while the other was content to stare out the window. The girl held a book in her lap and perused it quietly, pausing every so often to brush a particularly stubborn brown curl behind her ear.

The train ride seemed to pass quickly to Nico in comparison to their travels by ship, and all too soon the conductor’s whistle was blowing, announcing the arrival at the station. Bianca clambered up to stand on one of the seats to pull down the trunks and the older boy in the carriage helped her fetch them down. 

Once the luggage was dealt with, Bianca grabbed Nico by the hand. His palm was sweaty and slipped from Bianca’s clutch in several heart-stopping moments of panic as they wormed themselves through the crowd on the busy platform. They battled their way through the swarm of people to the exit, practically tumbling down the station steps to the street beyond.

Bianca hauled Nico out of the way of the bustling pedestrian traffic to a nearby bench to gather her surroundings. Nico obediently allowed himself to be pulled this way and that, knowing full well that even he, in all his nine-year-old wisdom, would have difficulty navigating such a situation.

Bianca hastily tightened a loose fastening on Nico’s trunk and buttoned up his rather dishevelled jacket. Then she sat herself on the edge of the bench, back ramrod straight, legs crossed at the ankles and tucked neatly to the side, just like she’d seen her mother do. She patted the bench beside her to get Nico to sit next to her then folded her gloved hands in her lap. 

Nico sat down far more clumsily, his spine slouched into a C against the back of the bench almost immediately. Still, he shuffled as close to Bianca as possible, nestling himself back into her side.

Nico wanted to spend as much time with his sister as possible before being separated. He drank in every detail of her face. The curve of her small nose, the spray of freckles over her cheeks. Her short eyelashes and arched eyebrows. The way her hair hung against her cheek as if shielding her from the rest of the world. Even the red spot under her chin that she scratched at absently when her mind wandered and the small mole hidden behind the curve of her ear. Nico studied it all. He didn't want to forget a single detail.

They weren’t permitted to attend school together. Their grandfather was of the opinion that Bianca was too old to attend a co-educational school. At the age of nine, Nico was barely old enough to be sent to an all-boys school and nervous about striking out on his own. He was barely old enough to question why he was being sent away, only understanding that he had lost his Mama and his father wouldn’t be coming back.

They had initially been sent to their grandfather's home in Washington only to be quickly turned out with a small bundle of tickets and banknotes to send them to Italy to be with their aunt. In turn, their aunt had stubbornly insisted that she was too old to care for two children and enlisted the help of their grandfather to send them to school. They had weathered one abandonment after another together and now they were to be separated. Nico had never felt so alone. So hopeless.

Nico wasn’t sure how long they sat there watching the flood of people pass by. He was just on the edge of sleep when Bianca hopped neatly off the bench. Her shoulder caught him briefly in the chin, jerking him back to alertness. A tall man dressed in a dark suit and a cap was standing over them. He had a stern face but his eyes were a kind grey. The harsh lines of his clothes were softened by the wrinkles in his face. He smelled strongly of cigarette smoke and when he smiled, his teeth shone yellow.

“The di Angelos?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” Bianca answered primly.

“My name is Arlo Moretti. Your aunt hired me to collect you and transport you to the school grounds.”

Bianca nodded and reached for Nico’s hand again to pull him off the bench. Nico allowed it, if only because he knew she was looking for the comfort of her strong brother. Obviously.

Nico’s school was made of dark red brick and seemed to extend forever behind the wrought iron gates. Nico looked up at the gates and gulped. It towered over him. The iron lettering of St. Dismas’ School for Boys glared down at him. 

A kindly looking woman stood on the other side of the gate. She was plump and wore a pale purple apron over a grey dress.

Nico glanced back at the car where Bianca watched from the open back seat. She nodded in encouragement and he took another step forward toward the gate.

The woman smiled down at him. “Hello.” She looked like one of the cakes Nico’s mama used to bring up from the bakery and sounded just as sweet, enough to make Nico’s teeth ache and his stomach curdle with sugar. “My name is Madam Belloni,” she continued, pushing the gate open wide enough for him. “ I’m the matron here at St. Dismas’. You must be Nico. Come on through and I will take you up to the school."

With one glance back at his sister, Nico reluctantly slipped through the gap. As he did so, Bianca pulled the car door closed and Arlo steered the car carefully away down the hill. The siblings’ schools were near enough to each other that they could attend the same church and Nico had been repeatedly assured that he would see Bianca on the coming Sunday. It didn’t appease him. The week-long wait already seemed to stretch out endlessly in front of him.

The gate slammed shut behind Nico, making him jump. Madam Belloni put an arm around his shoulders to guide him up the long driveway to the school entrance. The drive was lined sparsely with trees. Nico shied away from them as if they would bite. He ignored the gardens and sports fields, keeping his head down and resolutely staring at the ground. Gravel crunched under their feet, small stones rolling away from them with each step.

The school soared over-head. An enormous flight of white stone steps loomed before Nico like a mountain. The doors at their peak were a solid green wood, each with a fist-sized knocker far above Nico's reach. Madam Belloni urged him up the stairs, lifted the curled, black door handles, and pushed the doors wide. She ushered Nico in ahead of her and he crept into the hall, butterflies fluttering in his stomach.

Nico’s first impression of the inside of the school was how big everything seemed. The hallway was gigantic, the ceiling so high above him. Everything appeared to be made of an unforgiving stone, brick, or concrete. He noted the silver pipes that ran all around every wall. The building must have some kind of heating system but it was nothing at all like the newest update that ran inside the walls of his old home in Washington.

Some twelve boys were darting about the hall. They talked over each other and rough-housed, looking all too comfortable in the unfamiliar environment for Nico's taste. Each boy wore a mix of what looked to be the school uniform. Grey slacks or short pants with white shirts and grey sweaters, under which the blue and gold of the school colours winked out from their ties.

Perhaps sensing Nico’s wariness, Madam Belloni explained in a low voice, “The other boys arrived a fortnight ago. Not to worry, I am sure you’ll make friends soon." 

She lifted her voice to address the hall at large. “Boys?" she called, and although her voice wasn’t harsh it still carried an air of authority that stopped the boys in the hall dead. “That’s better. Really, is this any way to behave? You’re all quite lucky that I was the one to walk in and not Professor Lecce."

The boys exchanged glances with one another, and Nico took note. Apparently, Professor Lecce was not someone he should cross.

"This is Nico di Angelo," Madam Belloni continued. “He will be joining our school as a year four student. I expect that you will all make him feel welcome." She offered Nico a kind smile. "I must be off now, but..." She paused, her eyes carefully searching the group of boys. ”Pietro, would you please show Nico his dormitory and help him settle in?"

A small boy with a shock of light brown hair and dark eyes stepped forward. "Hello, Nico," he said, offering his hand. It reminded Nico of the way he had seen his grandfather introduce himself at parties.

Nico narrowed his eyes, was the other boy making fun of him? “Hello,” he said, shaking the proffered hand.

Madam Belloni beamed at them. "Good. I will see you boys at supper." And with that, she disappeared down the hall.

Pietro stood at Nico's side, facing the rest of the boys. A few offered Nico a small smile, one or two glared with open hostility, but most seemed uninterested, if not mildly curious, about the newcomer. At some invisible, inaudible signal they all began to introduce themselves at once. Nico didn't remember a single name except Pietro's and he was stunned by the sudden influx of people and voices. Pietro didn't seem to notice and practically bounded through the crowd, tossing lines into conversations as he passed, Nico scrambling to keep up with his heavy trunk.

"Oh, sorry," said Pietro, apparently noticing Nico's struggle for the first time. "Here, I'll help." He took hold of the trunk's handle with one hand and they pulled it along together. "Our dormitory is on the second floor," he explained. "The year fours share with the fives."

Nico nodded, struggling to keep up with the taller boy. The trunk skidded on the wooden floor as it was pulled around unevenly.

"You don't talk much," Pietro noted. "Cat got your tongue?"

Nico frowned. He supposed Pietro was right. Normally Bianca complained that he never shut up, but since... it happened he hadn't heard her complain once. He shrugged.

"I'll get you to talk," Pietro announced. He let go of the trunk; it thudded to the floor, nearly wrenching Nico’s shoulder out of its socket with the sudden weight. “And smile, too.”

Nico's mouth twitched slightly in the hint of a smile at that. 

Pietro grinned. "See? You can't help it. I'll make you be happy, whether you like it or not."

They continued down the hall to a flight of stairs, Pietro chattering all the way. Nico didn't speak much, but he listened intently and Pietro seemed pleased to find that Nico was a good listener. He nodded in all the right places and, while he didn't completely smile per se, the corners of his mouth were liable to twitch upward in the ghost of cheer.

Pietro didn't even quiet as they hauled the trunk up the steps, lamenting how there was a caretaker who had assisted the boys arriving without fathers but that he was occupied cleaning the third-floor hallway where some of the older boys had played a rather messy practical joke. 

Nico was alarmed to hear that the school regularly implemented the cane as punishment; he had never been punished with more than a smack to the hand. His mother had maintained that hitting children while teaching them not to hit was "the lowest form of hyp-oc-ris-y”, and if his Papa was ever to witness misbehaviour his towering figure and stern glare was enough to have Nico sending himself to bed without supper.

By the time they reached the dormitory, Nico had learned quite a lot about life at St. Dismas'. He knew that Professor Lecce was the headmaster and incredibly strict, that the older boys were technically forbidden from fagging but they did it anyway, and that Pietro had an older brother who mostly shielded him from such treatment.

Pietro offered the same protection to Nico who accepted immediately. He wasn't entirely sure what 'fagging' was but it didn't sound like something he wanted to be involved in. Pietro had also told him that they would be having a visit from Professor Lecce, the headmaster, in the next few days. Apparently, he made a point to visit each of the dormitories every couple of weeks to personally lecture troublemakers in front of their peers (embarrassment was his favoured method of punishment) and to introduce himself to the new boys. The thought made Nico's stomach drop. 

The dormitory was a long, thin room. Each of the longer walls housed a row of beds, identical in size and bedding. They were all neatly made, with a small set of drawers at the foot of each. Under the beds, Nico could see the lines of trunks pushed tidily away. Beside the door they had entered through, on one of the short walls, was a long counter full of cabinets. Several unmarked boxes sat neatly along the back of the counter. At the other end of the room were two other doors and a large wardrobe in the centre. The door on the left led to the boys' private bathroom and the other to a storeroom for extra bed linen and uniform pieces.

Pietro informed him, quite enthusiastically, that it was nearly time for supper and urged him to get changed into his school uniform so they would be ready to eat. He led Nico over to the storeroom and wardrobe and started digging through for something that might fit Nico.

His uniform consisted of short trousers ending just above the knee and a white shirt with a tie striped in the school colours of blue and gold. Pietro tossed him a sweater to put on over his white shirt and under the blazer if it was cold. He also pulled on a pair of black knee-socks and a sturdy-looking pair of shoes. He would be given another set of identical clothes later in the evening as well as a coat and hat for school excursions.

Nico felt awkward in his uniform. The shorts were just too short for his legs and the shirt hung off his thin frame in drapes. At least the jumper fit him well and disguised most of the ill-fitting uniform.

He soon discovered that he was to be known as number 495 from then on, his second name. The number was engraved onto the white metal number plate attached to the metal frame of his bed and a number tag was soon to be sewn into all of his clothes.

A bell rang in the distance, echoing in from somewhere in the upper levels of the building. Pietro immediately jumped up from the bed he’d been lounging on and pulled Nico, now fully dressed in uniform, out the door. It was time for supper.

The dining room was the largest room Nico had ever seen. Mostly windowless with stone floor, the room was filled with long tables and benches with a serving table in the middle of the room. Twelve boys sat at each table with a prefect, identified by the blue and gold crest on their sweaters and blazers, at the head. Pietro tugged him along by the hand, babbling about how nice it was that they could come and go as they wished for supper on off-days rather than being strictly monitored as they were on school days. The dining room seemed cosy; the lights were turned on, filling the room with a golden glow and the tables were polished to a shine.

Pietro lead him over to the central table where they collected plates and loaded them with food. The table was laden with bread, bowls of butter, jam jars, and honey. At one end lay a huddle of plain and fruit cakes and bowls of apples and oranges. Pietro lamented that a common punishment for misbehaviour was being denied cake or fruit for a week. Nico soon understood why: the cake was delicious.

After supper, it was time to prepare for bed. Apparently, Nico had arrived during the boys' allotted free time during the afternoon and after supper, there was no such freedom. He traipsed upstairs behind the rest of the boys, walking side by side with Pietro. The crowd of children split into smaller groups when they reached the second floor, each spreading out to their different dormitories.

The boys in Nico's dormitory were under the instruction of two prefects who directed them in getting ready for bed. They changed out in the open and took turns washing up in the shared bathroom. When everyone had had a chance to clean themselves up, a prefect called everyone to their beds for prayer.

Copying the other boys, Nico knelt beside his bed and said his prayers as instructed by the prefect. He tried to stumble along with the words of the other boys "...now I lay me down to sleep..." but it came out messy and jumbled; he had never been asked to pray before bed before. The words tasted unfamiliar on his tongue.

When they were finished, the prefects called for lights out and ushered everyone into their beds. One last walk down the row for inspection and the lights were clicked off.

The mattress felt cold and unfamiliar to Nico, the springs poked at his back in places and the pillow was lumpy. He couldn't seem to decide if he was too hot or too cold. The blanket scratched at him and his too-large pyjamas balled up around his ankles. Pietro's bed was on the other side of the aisle from Nico's and he felt more alone than he had all day without his new friend. Idly he wondered if Bianca felt as out of place and uncomfortable as he did. It wasn't home without her. It wasn't home without Mama. He tossed and turned for hours before he finally fell into sleep.

***

"Up you get please."

Those were the first words of the morning. All the lights were clicked on and curtains were thrown wide. Nico pried his eyelids open to the room to the sight of a willowy little light-haired man in a white uniform striding about the dormitory. He carried a notebook in one hand and a jar of thermometers in the other. When he reached Nico, who was just barely sitting upright, he swooped in and jammed a thermometer in his mouth. With a spindly, spider-like hand, he felt for a pulse on Nico's wrist. After his surprise had subsided, Nico remembered that he had been warned by Pietro of this precautionary practice. It had been carried out for the first two weeks of term and was administered to all newcomers.

When temps and pulses had been taken they were told to put on their socks, line up by the door and follow the prefect. Nico did so, falling into place behind the rest of the boys, vaguely wondering what the next strange experience would be.

Madam Belloni sat at the end of the hallway behind a table. The surface was laden with large bottles which looked to Nico to contain white chalk that settled to the bottom, leaving a watery grey liquid on top. The other boys seemed used to the sight and obediently stepped forward one by one to receive a small cupful of the substance. When it was Nico's turn he lifted the cup to his mouth apprehensively. It smelled vaguely like classroom chalk and as the liquid moved, little solid pieces of white lifted and swirled around. Madam Belloni nodded at him encouragingly and he drank. 

He gagged.

It was by far the worst thing he had ever drunk in his life. It tasted foul like the smell of rotten eggs and the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard. His whole body rejected it. His throat convulsed violently and his stomach lurched. He forced it down.

Beside him, another boy was being beckoned forward to take his turn and he was shunted aside. The powder had settled thickly onto his lips, teeth and gums. Cringing at the texture, he hesitantly licked it off his mouth.

Pietro soon found him in the hall and latched himself onto Nico's side. To Nico's disgust, despite the obviously horrific ordeal, he was still as cheerful and talkative as ever. He immediately started babbling about a rumour that the mixture, whatever it was, had been given to British troops during the Great War. That information confirmed two things in Nico's mind; the first, that the trenches were just as horrible as his aunt’s Venice neighbour had told him, and second, that his Papa was right when he said how foolish the British were.

After they had taken their turn, the boys were ushered back into the dormitory where they were instructed to dress and prepare for breakfast. Again Nico pulled on his ill-fitting uniform. He tugged self-consciously at the hems of his shorts, wishing them longer, and awkwardly tucked his shirt into the waistband in a vain effort to make it appear smaller.

The sweater over top did help, he decided and shrugged it on. He hadn't even washed his face when they were abruptly ordered out of the room by their head of year and marched down the hall in single-file. Nico found a place behind Pietro in the line and followed him closely all the way downstairs. The groups from other dormitories were apparently doing the same, as another group was already entering the dining hall when Nico's reached the top of the stairs.

When they entered the dining hall they filed toward the benches, most elbowing for places next to their friends and stood at attention behind their seats. At the front of the room, a severe-looking man who Nico assumed was a teacher blew a whistle. The students, apart from Nico, said their grace in unison, "For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful. Amen." Nico stumbled along with the words, a beat behind the other boys, mumbling the lines quietly. 

The man surveyed them over his spectacles. “A chi la vittoria?” he called. (To whom victory?)

The boys around Nico raised their right arms in saluto romano and gave a shout. “A noi!” (To us!).

The whistle blew again and everyone made to sit down, benches scraping against the stone floor. No one said a word as they ate. Nico opened his mouth to speak to Pietro beside him, but an older boy across the table from him shook his head furiously. Nico's jaw clicked shut.

A small troop of girls in pale blue uniforms scuttled about the hall with carts of food to serve. They placed a bowl and spoon in front of each boy and moved on without a word. Madam Belloni watched each of the girls carefully from her place by the door as they worked.

Nico looked doubtfully at his bowl. It was filled with lumpy grey grainy food. He had never seen something like it before — certainly had never been asked to eat it. Just looking at it made his stomach lurch.

"Eat it all," Pietro breathed from beside him. "You'll get a smack if you don't."

"What is it?" Nico hissed.

Pietro didn't respond. The boys across the table shot death glares at them. Nico ducked his head to avoid their eyes and stuck his spoon in his bowl with a plop.

After a quick trip to their bathroom for teeth cleaning and final inspection, Nico was sent off to the school building with the other boys. They followed a long path from the boarding house to the schoolhouse, lined on both sides by a lush green lawn and thin, towering trees.

Nico didn’t pose a threat to any of his classmates academically. He had known that he wouldn’t when he had first found out he would be starting at St. Dismas’. Not that he wasn’t intelligent or even that he didn’t enjoy school, but that he never seemed to have much luck with his professors.

His previous teachers had often lamented that he was a difficult child, not that his Mama had ever believed them, and that he refused to put in any effort with his books. 

A common scene in a year four literature class was this: Professor would pose a question, Nico would be called, the strap would answer.

Nico’s attention was called by a curt, clear, "Mr. di Angelo” and he looked up.

"Read the next paragraph if you please." He swallowed, stuffing his nerves deep down where no one would see, staring at the page in front of him. "Well, boy?"

A deep breath. ”The- g-great days of.... m-mo...dern Italy– er... b- be- buh–“

SLAM!

A ruler smacked down on the desk, square between Nico's hands. He jerked back from the book and stared, agape, at the Professor.

"Are you stupid, boy?"

“I–”

"Have you not learned to read?"

"Yes, I… the letters move!"

The class around him laughed. Nico's ears burned red.

"The... letters... move," Professor repeated. "That is enough from you. Out. Wait in the corridor and I will deal with your rudeness in a moment."

And so Professor, as Nico could not bring himself to utter the woman’s name, would reunite either Nico’s backside with the cane or if she was in a particular hurry, his palm with the hard smack of her ruler.

It was unsurprising, then, that Nico’s scores in maths, though not impressive in themselves, rose dramatically higher than his literature marks. Frankly, that was perfectly good enough for him. However, the staff of St. Dismas’ did not share his views. He hung on the lower end of class lists and regularly received the strap for not following his reading as diligently as the other boys.

The only class that Nico truly excelled in was Latin. To the great surprise of his teachers, Nico thrived on the ancient language. He easily deciphered the assigned texts and outstripped his classmates in writing assignments. Nico attributed his unorthodox success in Latin was due mainly to the fact that his Latin professor did not write him off outright as a ‘troublesome child’.

Professor Gentile was more than willing to give students falling behind his extra attention and to assist Nico in any way he could. As far as Nico could tell, he was the only student with a genuine interest in Latin which was likely why Gentile was so eager to encourage him. 

Much to his dismay, Nico's success with the language only solidified his teachers’ belief that he was purposefully mocking them in his other classes.

Outside of classes, all of the boys in Nico's dormitory were participants in Balilla, the troop of youth cadets. Each night after lessons, they would practice marching formations and learned how to shoot and care for weapons with imitation guns. Nico loved the practice, it was fun to be a part of a group. Almost as if he had an entire family of brothers.

When the boys were freed from practice, they congregated in the large playroom toward the back of the school building. Each student had a private locker in a small room off the main area. There was no furniture, only a football net at either end. The room was devoted to them running off their energy and enjoying themselves. In warm weather, a huge sliding door was pushed back, making the room an extension of the playground. Notices were pinned to the walls displaying 'games lists' for the school teams.

The school was divided into two alphabetically divided groups, one blue and one gold. Each group was called a house and the competing teams coming from each house accumulated an unofficial number of victories and losses for which the losers had to pay a forfeit at the end of term.

They would play or go for walks until it was dark, and then, after washing and changing from sports kit to uniform, they lined up in the common room once again and marched into supper.

Nico eventually learned to dread supper. He strongly suspected that they had only given the boys good food for the first few weeks to lull them into a false sense of security. From Nico’s second week of school onward, all palatable food seemed to be reserved for off days. Although he was certain that the food delivered to the school kitchen was edible, what happened after its arrival was a mystery to him. During his third week, they were served small piles of yellowish grey slop that they were assured was risotto, but Nico had never eaten a slimy risotto before.

The dishes always arrived at the dining hall steaming but by the time they made it to the tables the food had cooled to the lukewarm of used bathwater. From looking at the variety of dishes provided for the students, no one could have guessed what they were.

If they were lucky, a single piece of fruit might have made it to the table on its own and could be swiped to slightly improve the food, but such luck was seldom witnessed. If any of the boys ever tried to skive off on their dinner, a sharp index finger in the back from Madam Belloni was enough to make sure they remembered to ‘eat up every bite’ and ‘be grateful’ for what they were given.

Nico was apparently not as good a judge of character as he had thought, as Madam Belloni was most certainly not the kindly surrogate mother he had anticipated. She had a sharp eye for unruly behaviour and a hard hand with the strap. And while a nagging voice in the back of his that sounded suspiciously like Bianca insisted that she meant well, Nico couldn’t find it in himself to believe it.

Once the food was served, yet another blast from the all-powerful whistle was blown as the signal that the boys could talk quietly amongst themselves. Emphasis on quietly. Speaking too loudly was not gentlemanly, they were informed, and any naughtiness or rise in volume meant the immediate order to the wall for the rest of the meal, forgoing the remainder of one's food.

Privately, Nico thought that it might be a better alternative than eating whatever it was they were fed. However, such a position became remarkably less desirable if and when the headmaster entered the dining room to give some kind of address or to personally check on how things were getting along. If a student was standing against the wall at that time they were summarily sent to ‘wait for me in the hall’. Most of such invitations ended with a trip to the nearest classroom and a short meeting with the rod.

Pietro advised Nico that it was best to cry out at the first smack as it cut down on the punishment. After trying his tactic the first time he was ‘invited’ into the hall during his first week, Nico decided that his logic was flawed.

When the whistle blew again, the time for talking had ended. The staff at large demanded silence while various lists and notices were announced. That was when the boys learned whether they were to leave class at any point during the next day to visit the dentist or doctor, or if anything from home had been delivered by the postman. The first time such a package arrived for Nico, he was eleven.

Chapter Text

February 1943

Almost two whole years had passed since Nico’s enrolment at St. Dismas’. He had settled into school life rather well, accumulating a small group of friends and a mouth to rival Pietro’s when it came to chatter. He became adept at forcing his way through literature class and always finding an enjoyable way to spend term breaks at his aunt's home in Venice.

Whenever the seemingly omniscient Madam Belloni was nowhere to be seen, he gladly joined in the trouble making antics of his friends. Even instigating what was hailed as the finest year five prank the school ever seen when the boys had upended a vat of greying spaghetti in the headmasters’ office. The caning had most definitely been worth it.

Now and again, the dorm at large couldn’t resist the temptation of a room of thirty beds. They would leap from bed to bed at such a speed Nico almost thought he was running on the clouds, flying. Of course, if Madam Belloni ever witnessed such antics there was due punishment. Under the matron’s watchful eye, the boys would stand at attention in a line down the centre of the room with feet together and arms held straight over their heads. No one could hold the position for very long before they began to wish that they hadn’t participated at all. Naturally that didn’t stop them the next time an opportunity arose.

Despite his tendency to attract all manner of mischief and trouble, Nico’s school life had been rather uneventful. Or, as uneventful as it could be during a war.

Air raid shelters were built between the playground and the hockey fields, and drills were carried out regularly. Whenever the dormitory awoke to the blaring of the siren, the boys leaped out of bed. They were all terrified, much as the older boys tried to hide it, and bolted downstairs and across the field to huddle in the shelters. Throughout the uncertainty of the war, classes continued as usual. Nothing was going to interfere with their daily routine, especially not the Allies. 

For two years, Nico had followed the same routine with very little variation. By the time Sundays rolled around, he was just about ready to tear his hair out from the sheer monotony of it all. But Sundays were, without a doubt, the highlight of his week. Sunday was his day to see Bianca.

After breakfast the boys were sent back upstairs to prepare for church. Nico honestly thought it was ridiculous to wear school uniforms for breakfast only to change again for church. They wore their best clothes, the only pieces of clothing that were regularly pressed and then hung in the dormitory wardrobes tagged with the owner’s number.

In strict two by two lines, they walked down the hill to the church. The line was headed by the eldest students and gradually got younger as it progressed to the back. Nico enjoyed the walk because they were allowed to speak as loudly as they wished until they reached the church. Most of the students didn’t mind who they walked by and sat with in mass but Nico always made a point to seek out Pietro. Hardly a week went by when the two didn’t accompany each other.

When mass was over and the boys had been released back into the streets, they were allowed a few minutes to speak with the girls from the nearby Gemma Galgani’s Institute for Young Ladies before heading back to school. That was when Nico and Bianca would find each other and eagerly recount the week’s adventures. The allotted time they spent together was the most important thing in either of their lives. For the first weeks in their new homes, they only had each other to confide in and were each other’s only consistent companion for the weeks of break between terms.

If the weather was fine, they would even be permitted to set out in mixed groups from both schools for an afternoon walk, as long as a teacher accompanied them. Black swastikas watched them carefully from the windows of many shops and homes. Bianca would always purse her lips when she saw one and grip Nico’s hand just a little tighter. He thought nothing of it at the time.

It was on one such walk that Nico had first broken a bone. 

Pietro had joined Nico and Bianca’s group for a walk when they had spotted a low wall guarding a small stream trickling through town. The mandatory teacher had paused for a moment to examine the wares in a shop window when the boys took their chance. They leaped up onto the thin stone, laughing off Bianca’s protests of danger. By the time their teacher thought to investigate the commotion it was too late. One of the stones was slick with water from the stream and Nico fell hard off the wall. He landed hard on an outstretched arm with a sickening crunch.

Bianca hadn't been allowed to accompany him to the hospital.

By the time they reached the hospital, Nico’s wrist had swollen to almost twice its usual size and the shirt had to be cut from his arm. Nico had thoroughly enjoyed the destruction of his least comfortable clothes, and a hastily prepared splint and sling were assembled to make him slightly more comfortable. When the entire procedure had been finished, Nico’s arm was encased in a thick plaster cast from wrist to elbow and his arm braced in a canvas sling.

That had been a week before the letter. The following Friday, Nico’s name was read out for the post for the first time.

The day had progressed much like any other: rise, wash, eat, learn, eat, learn, play. By the time dinner rolled around, the day was turning out to be perfectly boring. At supper, Nico had clumsily fed himself with his left, non-dominant hand and waited to be dismissed. The whistle blew. The announcements were read. The post was delivered. His was the very last letter on the pile. 

“Mr. di Angelo.”

Nico almost didn’t believe his ears. A letter for him? He tripped out of the bench and made his way up to the head table where Madam Belloni held the letter captive in her pudgy hands.

"Here you are,” she said, passing the envelope into his left hand.

He returned to the table, hands shaking with excitement. Elegant, slanted handwriting curled its way across the front of the envelope. Nico di Angelo. Nico examined the way his name was written with fascination. The black ink etched into the paper stretched itself into gentle curves and sharp points. He had never seen handwriting like it before.

“Who’s it from?” Pietro whispered, head down so as to avoid the teachers’ gaze.

Nico hadn’t even thought. His mind had been too preoccupied with the mere fact that a letter had arrived at all to spare a thought for who had written it. Nico slid the envelope over to his friend to tear open with his two able hands. A folded letter flopped out, landing lightly on the table. Nico flipped it over eagerly. His heart swelled in his chest when he found that, to his great surprise, he could read it with ease. The characters remained mercifully stationary while his eyes roved over the paper.

“What is it?” Pietro asked.

“It’s… it’s from my Papa.”

Pietro snatched the letter from his hand eagerly to read it in full. His face fell. “But this isn’t in–”

“Boys, did you not hear the whistle?”

Nico looked up. Professor Lecce stood above them imposingly, looking down at them from over his round spectacles. The severe lines of his face deepened with his frown. The room around them had already emptied of students. Nico wondered vaguely how they had possibly been able to ignore the commotion.

“Sorry, sir,” he said. “We’ll go now.”

As he made to stand, the headmaster reached down and pulled the letter from Pietro’s grasp, eyes darting across the page.

“Your father,” he concluded. “He will be retrieving you from school.”

“Yes, sir,” said Nico, sitting back down when it became apparent that the headmaster was expecting him to stay.

“He believes that it has become too dangerous.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Hmm.” Nico and Pietro exchanged glances. What was going on? “Come with me, Mr. di Angelo.”

Lecce gripped Nico by the upper arm and hauled him off the bench. Nico scrambled to find his feet and keep pace with his professor out of the room. He glanced over his shoulder to Pietro who sat, perplexed, alone at the table. 

"What's going on?" Nico protested.

"Quiet," Lecce snarled.

Down the hall they went, Lecce practically dragging Nico down the hall as the boy scrambled to keep his footing. He practically threw Nico into his office. The room was relatively small. A wide, many-paned window sat centred on the back wall. A dark wood desk with a leather chair sat in front of it. Two uncomfortable looking wooden chairs sat between the desk and the doors. Lecce ignored Nico, rummaging through his desk drawers and withdrew a small prism of glass.

"Sir, please," said Nico. "What's going on?"

Still, the professor ignored him and continued to the window, prism in hand. He slid it into a patch of dwindling sunlight and a rainbow spread across the window ledge. Lecce fished through his pockets and withdrew a gold coin. He laid it gently on the ledge.

"O Iris," he chanted. "Accept my offering. Show me Lord Zeus at Olympus."

Good God... Nico thought. He's gone mad.

The air shimmered beside the window. A man appeared square in the mist, as if through a window. Nico gasped. He was imagining things, surely. The man in the image had a greying beard and hair. His neatly-trimmed beard was marbled grey and black, it put Nico in mind of a storm cloud. His eyes were a bright, electric blue that seemed to pierce through Nico's very being. He wore a pinstriped suit, ironed with military precision.

“My lord," said Lecce. "It's time. He's coming for the boy."

"I see," said the man in the image. Nico slowly edged his way to the door, distancing himself inch by inch from the headmaster. "Collect the girl, an extraction team will deal with them within the hour." 

Nico's stomach dropped. 'Deal with them'. They were going to kill him. They were going to kill Bianca. He bolted for the door, wrenching it open. Before he could make it over the threshold, Lecce had him firmly in his grasp. Nico cried out as Lecce grabbed his broken right arm. The professor wheeled him around and shoved him hard into a chair.

"Sit down."

The man in the image glared down his nose at Nico from the other side of the desk. "So it's you." Nico gulped. The man looked up from Nico to meet eyes with Lecce who still loomed over Nico from behind. "Keep him contained. I doubt he will pose much of an issue."

"Yes, sir," Lecce agreed. The man swiped a hand through the image and the mist dissipated, leaving a slight shimmer on the wall as it faded.

Nico's eyes darted around the room, searching for any hope of an escape. At the corner of the desk, a leather shoe reflected the light from the windows. Nico's heart jumped into his throat. No. He craned his neck, standing from his chair only slightly. The shoe led to a leg, a pleated pair of dress trousers, a suit jacket. A man, lying surely dead on the floor. Nico opened his mouth in a silent scream. Greying hair, a severely lined face, thin spectacles. Professor Lecce? But it couldn't be... two of them? He shook his head, blinking furiously.

He was slammed unceremoniously back into his chair. The other professor, Not-Lecce stood over him.

"Not dead," he said. "I do not kill."

"Who are you?" Nico demanded. “'Not dead’? What do you mean? Let me go!”

He seized the arms of Nico's chair, bending until his face was just inches from Nico's.

Suddenly, the door was pulled opened behind them and Lecce looked up. Bianca was shuffled in, she still wore her school uniform and her face was shadowed by the green cap the school provided for outings. Her eyes were wide with fear. A woman Nico recognized as the Matron at Bianca’s school held her by the shoulders, hustling her inside.

"Nico?" Bianca breathed.

Nico attempted to stand from the chair, but Lecce shoved him back down. "You aren't going anywhere, boy," he growled. "Not until my lord is ready to move you."

"So..." Nico said hopefully.”You– you aren't going to kill us?"

Lecce scoffed. "Kill you? No, merely educate you. And if your father presents an aversion to this plan of action... well, I daresay that he knows more than anyone that your death is always an option. As unpleasant as it would be."

"What does that even mean?" Bianca cried. "We don't know what you're talking about! If this is some kind of ransom–”

Matron stepped in front of them to stand behind the desk. She was a rather tall woman with a soft face and a short bob of dark hair styled in the American fashion. Nico remembered her clearly from his Sunday visits with Bianca's school.

"It means," she said in heavily accented Italian, "that whatever happens next is entirely up to your father to decide."

“But…” Nico scrambled for something, anything, that he could say to appease their captors. "But we haven't even seen our Papa for two years!"

"Then I suppose you have nothing to worry about," said Professor Lecce, folding his arms. "If he does not interfere we will continue your education in safety and you needn't worry. Now come. It is time that you were transferred.”

He gestured for Nico to rise, which he did with no small amount of trepidation. Bianca bit her lip, her eyes brimming with fear. Lecce seized Nico roughly by the back of his shirt and dragged him forward like a kitten by the scruff of his neck.

Matron followed behind with Bianca in tow, Nico could hear her pleading to be left alone but the sound was distant to his ears. His brain focussed on one thing: getting free. His vision seemed to narrow, only fully acknowledging the exits — the windows running the hallway, the stairs up to the dormitory, and the main door out of the building.

His heart thudded in his chest, adrenaline coursed through his veins. RUN, his brain screamed at him. But he couldn’t. He wasn’t strong enough to escape Professor Lecce and certainly not to incapacitate him long enough to free Bianca. And he couldn’t, just couldn’t, abandon Bianca.

“Oi!” A voice cried. Nico’s head whipped up. It was Pietro, leaning over the balcony from the floor above. He had one of his own shoes in hand and held it threateningly over his head. “If you want to hurt Nico you’ll have to go through me!”

And with that, he lobbed the shoe down to Professor Lecce. It hit the headmaster square between the eyes. The shock of the impact was enough to loosen his grip on Nico’s shirt. Nico lurched forward, darting out of reach of Lecce’s grabbing hands. Behind him, he heard a grunt of pain as Matron was hit by another shoe. Bianca ran forward, grabbing Nico by his good arm and tugging him along. Together, they threw the doors open and sprinted down the steps.

Nico fled across the lawn, running full-out. Bianca was just ahead of him, her longer legs propelling her faster than his. Behind them, the thudding footsteps of Mr Lecce and Matron announced them close on Nico's heels. A hand seized the back of his collar. He cried out a strangled yelp as the shirt choked him. Bianca looked back over her shoulder, eyes wide with fear. She skidded to a stop, loose grass spraying up from the ground beneath her feet.

"Nico!"

Bianca screamed, pointing with transfixed horror at something behind her brother. Nico struggled against his captor, craning his neck to see. Matron held his shirt tightly in her fist and sneered down at him. Behind her, Lecce lay unconscious on the ground but Nico had no idea how that had happened. A shriek rang out from Bianca's direction and Nico whipped his head around to her. A huge bat-like creature, easily seven feet tall, loomed over her, its leathery wings spread wide. It reached out for her shoulder.

"Don't be frightened, honey." Its voice was raspy and grated unpleasantly on Nico's ears. "I'm here to help." 

Bianca stumbled backwards, turning to run again. Nico fought violently against Matron's grasp. She was rooted to the spot behind him, her grip still vice-like. The creature seized Bianca under the arms and leapt into the air. Nico gasped as the creature's vast wings spread out in the sky above him. 

“Release him.”

Matron took a sharp intake of breath. Her fingers slowly loosened on Nico’s collar. She turned slowly and Nico followed suit. Behind them stood a tall, oily man in an expensive looking suit. Nico’s heart thudded a little faster.

“Papa,” he breathed.

His father caught his eye carefully and beckoned him closer with two fingers. Nico bolted around Matron, stumbling on the uneven ground as he scrambled toward his father. At the last moment, Matron grabbed for his shirt. Nico ducked around her and fled toward his father, practically diving behind him. The creature thudded to the ground beside them, Bianca still in her arms. Bianca immediately wriggled out of the grip and grabbed Nico by the hand.

“Are you okay?” Nico asked.

Bianca’s face was pale and her hands were shaking. She nodded.

“If I were you,” Father said slowly, not taking his eyes off of Matron, “I would think better of trying to fight. If you run, I will not pursue you.”

Matron scrambled back, turned, and fled. No one moved until she had reached the gates and bolted down the street. Father glanced at the creature.

“Follow her,” he ordered. “Make her pay.”

Nico looked to Bianca fearfully but she wasn’t paying attention. She had her eyes fixed on Father, Nico couldn’t quite decide if she was relieved to see him or terrified.

“Wh-what’s happening?” she said in a trembling voice.

Father turned. He almost looked surprised, as if he had completely forgotten they were even there.

“Not here,” he said gruffly. “You must be moved to safety until I am able to procure a deal with Zeus for your lives."

Nico and Bianca exchanged a glance. "Father," Bianca tried. “We don't understand. Who is Zeus? Why does he want to hurt us?"

Father pursed his lips and glanced upwards at the sky. "I will explain everything in due time. For now, I must move you to safety. Prepare yourselves."

He snapped his fingers and the world around them dissolved. Pure darkness entangled them, squeezing painfully around their entire bodies, wrenching the air from their very lungs. And then suddenly it was over. They fell to a hard, stone floor in a heap, tangled together gracelessly. Bianca recovered first, pushing herself off of her little brother and to her feet. She held out a hand to Nico, helping him clumsily regain his feet.

The room around them was huge. High ceilings soared overhead, supported by black marble pillars. The floors were bronze and the walls were made of more black marble. At one end of the room, a dais rose from the floor occupied by two thrones. One was made of what looked like human bones while the other was silver, crafted in the shape of a many-petalled flower. 

At the opposite end of the room stood a pair of double doors that rose high above Nico. Their sheer size made him gulp. Beside him, Bianca gasped. Nico jumped and spun around to face whatever it was she had seen. Emerging from the shadow of the dais were three skeletons. They wore the familiar uniform of common soldiers and carried combat rifles. Their jaws clicked open and shut in a senseless imitation of speech as they advanced, weapons at the ready. Nico and Bianca scrambled back toward the doors.

They slammed smack into something solid. Nico fell to the ground, Bianca stumbled in her attempt to catch him. Their father stood above them, looking down his nose imposingly. His clothes had changed from his familiar suit to a set of oily, black robes that trailed to the stone floor. He looked to the advancing skeletons.

"My children," he said simply. The skeletons fell back immediately, putting up their rifles. "You will not harm them."

Nico slowly got to his feet, inching closer to his sister. He positioned himself slightly behind her. Bianca's hands shook.

"What is going on?" she demanded. "Where are we? How did we get here? What were those- those things?"

Their father eyed her and waved a hand. Behind them, a table and three chairs shimmered into existence. "Sit," he ordered. "I will explain."

Hesitantly, Bianca led Nico to the table and sat. Father took the seat across from them.

“What happened?” Nico asked immediately. "There were two of him! They killed Professor Lecce! Or... someone.”

Father waved a hand in dismissal. “The daemons are the least of our concerns.”

"Demons?" Nico yelped.

“And your headmaster is not dead,” he continued as if Nico hadn't spoken, “this particular breed of daemon is rarely murderous. As I am sure you both have realized, the stories your mother and I used to tell you about the ancient gods and heroes. Heracles, the minotaur… all the gods. They are all true."

Nico glanced at Bianca. She raised her eyebrows.

"I am not mad," Hades said as if he had read their thoughts. “Here." He snapped his fingers and the fires burning in the braziers roared higher, turning an inky black. He waved a hand and the fire shrank back to regular size and colour.

Bianca's eyes were wide as dinner plates. "That was…”

"Killer." Nico grinned. "Can you do it again?" 

Bianca shot him a look. "If the stories are true," she said hesitantly. "Then you’re–"

"Hades, yes.”

"And this is..."

"My palace in the underworld."

"This whole place is yours?" Nico asked, awed. Hades inclined his head in answer.

“You’re nuts…” Bianca decided, pulling away from the table. 

Nico looked at her in confusion. What was she saying? Their Papa would never lie to them, and besides, this was the coolest thing that had happened to them in years. They had been wishing they could see their Papa since Mama had died, why couldn’t Bianca just be happy that they had finally gotten what they wanted?

“I am not mad,” Hades repeated.

“But this doesn’t make any sense!” Bianca insisted. “Those were just stories!” 

“Bianca, you saw the fire,” Nico countered eagerly. “This is–”

“Shut it, Nico,” Bianca snapped. “This is crazy. Those stories aren’t real. They’re just bedtime stories!”

“They are true, I brought you here to keep you safe. Zeus decreed that he, Poseidon, and I would not sire any more demigod children. Both of you were already born at the time of the pact and he ordered that I turn you over to Olympus where you would be sent to a camp to be trained.” Hades expression turned stonily serious. “I refused and he murdered your mother. I was only able to protect you. Maria… I was too late." He cleared his throat. "Zeus declared her death a warning and allowed me another week to deliver you to him. I used the time to hide you both. I transported you to Italy and planted memories of a journey by ship that never happened. Your aunt was... persuaded by a servant of mine to send you away together where I could guard you. Wards were placed around the school grounds and I had my guards keep watch when you left school. I have yet to find the traitor. Someone recently revealed to Zeus where I was hiding you and he placed his own agents within the schools."

"Matron and Professor Lecce," said Bianca.

“Correct. Daemons sent by Zeus to kidnap you taking the shape of school administrators.” 

"I don't understand," said Nico. "Why didn't we go with Zeus to be trained? Why was that bad? Wouldn't he have left Mama alone?" 

"Perhaps," Hades growled. "But he would never let you live."

Nico frowned. "But why?”

"The prophecy," Hades answered. "The Oracle of Delphi revealed a prophecy stating that a child of the elder gods at the age of sixteen will save or destroy Olympus. Zeus will not risk either of you reaching that age. He would have you both killed."

Bianca paled. "Three years," she murmured. "I only have three years left."

"Precisely," Hades said grimly. "Monsters can sense demigods by their scent. When a half-blood reaches your age, the scent is strong enough to be detected. At this time most demigods are taken to Camp Half-Blood in America to be trained to fight. If I were to leave you unprotected, Zeus and rogue monsters would discover and destroy you. If you were to attend camp, Zeus would not let you live. This is the only solution." Under the table, Bianca reached for Nico's hand. "You will remain in the underworld, I will train you to defend yourselves, and when the time is right you, Bianca, will save Olympus." 

Bianca's hand went lax in Nico's. "But-but," she spluttered. "I can't! I don't know how!"

Hades face softened slightly, he looked almost gentle. "You can and you will. I will teach you. There are three years yet–”

"What about me?" Nico asked eagerly. "What do I do?"

Hades' eyes flashed angrily. "Do not interrupt me, boy," he growled. Nico shrank back from the god's anger, his hand clenching Bianca's. "As for you, I will protect you in my realm with your sister and you will assist her with the prophecy." Nico's face fell. His father had no great plan for him?

Suddenly, the double doors flew open. Another bat-like creature flapped its way into the room. This one was paler, it’s leathery skin practically white. Bianca recoiled at the sight of its pointed wings and yellow fangs, but Nico stared in amazement. Hades appeared only mildly annoyed by the intrusion as if such a creature was often found in his palace.

"Megaera," he said curtly. "You have news?" 

"Hermes, my lord. He appeared at Charon's ferry requesting an audience. As per your orders, my lord, he was stopped at the gates and Charon relayed his message to me. Zeus demands that you bring your children to Olympus immediately. He has threatened to enter the Underworld and seize them himself if you do not obey."

Hades' entire form glowed. A golden sheen outlined him against the darkness of he room. His eyes burned with fire. "How dare he!"

Bianca sucked in a sharp breath and Nico gave a small yelp at the sudden light. Hades took a deep, steadying breath. Slowly, the glow dissipated.

"I will go," Hades said, in a voice of forced calm. "Bianca, Nico, you will accompany me to Olympus. I can better protect you from Zeus if you are close. Megaera, you as well. If things do not go according to plan, you are to take them to safety.”

A myriad of questions lined up in Nico’s mind but he sensed that it was in his best interest to keep his mouth firmly shut. His father was liable to be even more impatient with his chatter than his teachers.

"Yes, my lord,” Megaera agreed.

"Bianca," said Hades. "Nico. Brace yourselves."

Nico hardly had time to flinch before Hades waved a hand and they were swept back into the crushing darkness.

Nico fell to his knees and gasped for a breath of air. Beside him, Bianca stumbled. Hades appeared standing tall and upright, carefully smoothing a crease in his robes. Behind him, Megaera hunched in a crouch ready to leap into action.

The floor beneath Nico's knees was white marble. It gleamed gold in the light of giant braziers hung from towering pillars. Bianca held out a hand to help him to his feet and Nico took it, unsteadily climbing upright. He felt sick to his stomach. Whatever kind of travel Hades was using to move them around did not agree with him at all. 

Twelve huge thrones, occupied by equally huge people, sat around them in a semi-circle. Each of the seated occupants was at least three metres tall. Nico could barely look at them without feeling a tingle as if his body were starting to burn. The air crackled and smelled of ozone. Glancing at his father in confusion, Nico's eyes flew wide. Even as he watched, Hades was growing in height until he easily matched by the size of the thrones' occupants in the room. Nico was suddenly very conscious of the fact that he was still wearing his school uniform. 

"Hades." 

Nico recognized the speaker instantly it was the same man who had spoken to Professor Lecce in his office. He was seated at the head of the room, dressed in a navy blue pinstriped suit. His throne lacked any intricate designs but was made of solid platinum. His proud face was grim, blue eyes smouldering with anger. Just looking at him, Nico felt a tingle of fear down his spine. Zeus.

Looking around at the rest of the gods Nico mentally matched each of them to a name he remembered. Next to Zeus sat a beautiful woman with dark hair braided over one shoulder and a dress that shimmered with colour. Hera, Zeus’s queen. The man to Zeus’s left was obviously Poseidon with his seaman’s cap and hip-waders. Next to him, a huge lump of a man with a leg in a steel brace, a misshapen head, and a wild brown beard, and fire flickering through his whiskers. Hephaestus. Then there were Ares and Athena with their military uniforms and Hermes with a newspaper and what looked like a stack of telegrams beside his throne. Dionysus looked bored, twirling a grapevine between his fingers.

Nico shot Bianca an excited grin but she looked nervous, her brows creased and shoulders tensed.

"The Council has discussed your actions, Uncle,” said Hermes. "We have voted to act. All in favour of not disintegrating them?” Nico didn't recognize the language being spoken. It wasn't Italian and Nico didn't know how he understood the words.

A few cautious hands went up.

“A moment," Athena requested with a staying hand. "As we know from the Great Prophecy, children of the three elder gods are dangerous. The security risk is too great.”

"Before you issue your threats,” Hades said coldly, “allow me to inform you of one simple fact.”

This seemed to amuse Zeus. He glanced around at the assembled gods with a slight wry smirk. "Go on."

"I have lost much to this war," Hades said in a voice of forced calm. ”And I, frankly, refuse to lose anything else." His voice turned dangerous. "So you will leave my children, Zeus, or so help me I will raise every monster in Tartarus–”

"You dare threaten–” Zeus rumbled.

"YOU WILL NOT TAKE THIS AWAY FROM ME!" Nico and Bianca shrank back at the volume, cringing away from their father. Hades halted abruptly, eyes flicking briefly toward his frightened children. He took a deep breath, reining in his temper.

"Uncle," Athena said reasonably. "We do not make this decision lightly. It is not aimed as an attack on you personally.” Zeus huffed but she ignored him. "But think of the prophecy. If one of these demigods were to turn against Olympus…”

"Do you think I would allow for such a thing to happen, Athena?" Hades snapped. "The only danger of either of my children turning traitorous was caused by Zeus when he murdered their mother."

"Father," Dionysus said, twirling his grapevine through his fingers and adding a sigh to each word like every syllable was a dull waste of breath. “Can this not wait until they come of age?”

"No," Zeus snarled. "I want them dealt with now before they gain any foolish notions of escaping us."

"I have vouched for them," Hades said, his teeth gritted and black eyes pulsing with anger. “Is my word not enough?"

Zeus snorted and Hades’ eyes turned fiery. "Hardly enough, Hades," said Zeus. "After the destruction your other children have caused in these past years you are fortunate that I have not blasted these two already." 

"You know as well as I that we cannot dictate the actions of our children," Hades growled.

"Precisely." A grim smirk tugged at the corner of Zeus' mouth. "You have proven that you cannot control your children.”

"We shall put it to a vote," Athena announced. "All those in favour of allowing the demigods their lives?"

A handful of gods including Hermes raised their hands.

Bianca breathed a sigh of relief. "That's seven," she murmured.

Zeus scowled and thunder rumbled through the hall. "Very well," he grumbled. He slammed his bolt into the floor. "The demigods live."

Athena nodded. "There is still the matter of the prophecy. If these demigods are to turn sixteen, we risk the end of Olympus."

"The girl may take the oath," said Artemis. "If she is to avoid ageing, we remove that risk." Bianca gave Nico a worried look. Nico, in turn, looked to their father. Hades looked torn.

"What oath?" Bianca ventured.

"To join my band of hunters," Artemis explained. "You must pledge yourself to me and my hunt."

"And swear off men," piped Apollo across from her. "It'll turn your whole life topsy-turvy."

Bianca still looked confused and Nico frowned. Artemis' hunt? What would that even mean? 

"Father?" she asked tentatively.

Hades sighed. "It would appear that that is your only choice."

Bianca bit her lip but nodded. "What about Nico?" she asked, squeezing her brother's hand.

"The camp," Hephaestus offered.

"No," Hades snarled, "I will not have my son's mind poisoned by that damned camp. I will not allow it."

"A demigod with this destructive power will not reside in the Underworld,” Zeus countered.

"Father," Athena said placatingly. "If the boy was to be trained... There would already be a demigod prepared to defend Olympus should the prophecy come to pass.” Zeus didn't respond and Athena turned her attention to Hades instead. “Uncle, if you wish for the boy to be spared, you understand, of course, that he must be monitored. I am sure that Camp Half-Blood will provide a more than adequate training program. If the boy was to attend under Chiron's personal tutelage would that be agreeable?"

Hades cast a murderous gaze to Zeus. ”I suppose I have no other option," he said bitterly.

"Then we are agreed?" said Poseidon. "The girl is to join Artemis' hunt and the boy shall be trained to fulfil the prophecy.”

Around the room, the gods nodded their agreement.

“Bianca di Angelo," said Artemis, calling their attention. "Daughter of Hades. Will you join the Hunt?”

Nico stared at his sister, unable to believe what was happening. She was leaving him?

"I will," Bianca agreed. "What do I have to do?”

Artemis beckoned her closer and gestured for her to kneel. “Say these words. ‘I pledge myself to the goddess Artemis.’"

"I... I pledge myself to the goddess Artemis.”

"'I turn my back on the company of men, accept eternal maidenhood, and join the Hunt.'"

Bianca repeated the lines.

"I accept your pledge," Artemis said.

Bianca didn’t look any different but she took a deep breath and opened her eyes wide. "I feel... stronger.”

Artemis smiled. "Remember your pledge. It is now your life.”

Bianca climbed to her feet and took a stance awkwardly beside Artemis’ throne.

"This boy is still dangerous," Dionysus warned.

"And when his sixteenth birthday comes to pass?" said Hera, speaking for the first time. "What is to be done if it is not yet the time for the prophecy?"

"Immortality."

Everyone in the room turned to look at who had spoken. It was Hestia, tending the hearth in the centre of the throne room. 

"I know that it is not my place to offer counsel in this chamber, brother," she said, looking to Zeus. "But if Nico was to prove himself worthy before he reaches the age of sixteen, would it not be prudent to offer him immortality? A demigod trained solely for the protection of Olympus, who will have proved himself to be strong enough for such a gift to be bestowed? Allow the boy to train and be taught the ways of heroes. He will learn."

Zeus gave her a thoughtful look. “If, and only if, the boy proves himself by the time he reaches the age of sixteen he will be offered the gift of immortality. If he does not…

"I would remind you, brother, that the council has already assured my son's life," said Hades. "There is a place in the desert, where time is frozen. If he does not prove himself by that time, he will be sent there until the prophecy does come to fruition."

"Very well," Zeus grumbled. "Do any of the council object?" No one spoke up. "All in favour?”

Dionysus abstained, as did Ares and Athena. There was some mumbling and shuffling among the gods as if they weren't all happy with the plan, but nobody protested.

"We have a majority," Zeus decreed. "It is decided. The girl will join the Hunters of Artemis. The boy will be prepared to fulfil the prophecy until he reaches sixteen years of age. If he proves himself, he will be granted immortality, if he does not, he will be frozen in time until the prophecy comes to pass." He cast one more glare at Hades. "The council is dismissed." And with that, Zeus stood from his throne and stormed from the room. The other gods filtered out behind him, some with their heads bent in conversation, Hephaestus fiddling with a handful of gears and wires. 

Bianca put an arm around Nico's shoulders. "He did it, Nico," she said. "We're safe now."

He looked up at her in confusion. "But you have to leave."

"I'll come back," she assured him. "We won't be apart for long."

Nico wasn’t convinced. If Bianca was leaving him, who would protect him? No, he told himself, you won’t be alone. You have Papa. He glanced at his father. Hades was deep in conversation with Artemis, his hands gesturing widely in earnest.

Nico cocked his head. What was so important if he and Bianca were safe? As if he had sensed eyes on him, Hades looked up and caught Nico’s eye. Nico quickly looked away. That, it seemed, was the end of Hades’ conversation as he immediately left Artemis where she was standing.

Bianca wrapped her arms around Nico and held him tightly. “I’ll miss you,” she murmured in his ear. “Be safe.”

Nico squeezed her once and pulled back from the embrace. “You said it wouldn’t be long,” he accused.

She gave him an apologetic smile. “We'll see.” She glanced up at Artemis and back to her brother. “I think I have to go now,” she said. “But I will miss you.” 

“I’ll miss you too,” said Nico, breaking away from her fully.

“Come on kid.” 

Nico glanced up. It was Hermes, in normal human size, standing at his side, his mailbag slung across his chest.

“I’ll give you a lift to the camp.”

“Thanks.”

Hermes took a firm but gentle old of Nico’s arm. Nico’s last view of the throne room was his father watching him through narrowed eyes before he was pulled into nothingness.

Chapter Text

They reappeared on the wraparound porch of a large house. A few kids were having a snowball fight with the wood nymphs at the edge of the forest. The porch was decorated with strings of red and yellow fireballs that gave off heat but didn’t catch anything on fire. 

In the distance on one side, a hill climbed its way upwards to the sky. To the other side, the valley swept its way to the shore of a sparkling lake. When Nico had left St. Dismas’ it had been late evening but wherever Hermes had brought him it was still light. The landscape was dotted with ancient buildings that looked like Greek architecture including an open-air pavilion overlooking the lake, an amphitheatre, and a circular arena. A dirt track circled around a flat area of grass, overlooked by spectator’s stands. A dozen kids around Bianca’s age shot targets at an archery range. Others rode horses down a wooded trail, and, unless he was hallucinating, some of their horses had wings.

Down at the end of the porch, a man sat with his back to them. Nico could see the edges of a blanket trailing close to the floor on either side of him.

“Chiron,” Hermes called.

The man jumped and turned, his face breaking into a smile.  He had curly brown hair and a scruffy beard, and kind warm eyes, lined with the creases of past smiles. Chiron turned and as he did his entire chair turned with him. Nico’s cheeks darkened when he saw that the man sat in a wheelchair. He had never seen someone with a chair such as that outside of the hospital when he had broken his arm. He wore a fuzzy sweater with a hoof-print design on it, and he had a blanket on his lap that almost hid his wheelchair completely.

“Good morning, Lord Hermes, and–” his eyes fell on Nico. “Hello, my boy.” Nico groaned inwardly. Was this some kind of punishment? Did nobody speak Italian in his father’s world? English. The bane of his existence. The language wasn’t taught at his school and he had fallen out of practice with it since his relocation back to Italy.

“This is Nico di Angelo,” Hermes introduced. “The Council has sent him to be trained. Here, I have the transcript of the past meeting.” Chiron pushed himself closer and accepted Hermes’ file produced from his bag. “This should tell you all you need to know.”

“Thank you,” said Chiron.  “Will you be staying for tea?”

“Afraid not,” said Hermes, patting his mailbag. “Duty calls.”

Chiron inclined his head in understanding and Hermes gave Nico a parting slap on the shoulder. “Good luck, kid. You’ll need it.”

Before Nico could ask what he meant, the god had disappeared in a burst of light.

Chiron smiled at Nico and shifted his weight as if he were going to get up out of his wheelchair.

But that had to be impossible.

The blanket fell from his lap as he rose, but the legs didn't move. His waist grew rising above his belt. Nico could hardly believe his eyes. He kept rising out of the chair, taller than any man Nico had ever seen. Chiron’s upper body smoothly grafted to the front of an animal. Muscle and sinew under thick white hair. A leg came out, long and knobby-kneed, with a huge polished hoof. Then another front leg, then hindquarters, and then the wheelchair was empty, nothing but a metal shell with a pair of fake human legs attached.

Col cavalo,” Nico murmured.

Chiron laughed. “Yes, quite. Now, come,” he gestured for Nico to follow, “I’ll give you a tour.”

The farmhouse was easily four storeys tall and was painted a mossy green. The roof was grey shingles and held a crumbling chimney and brass eagle weather vane.

The camp included an archery range, lake, stables, the javelin range, amphitheatre, and an arena where Chiron said they held sword and spear fights. Last, Chiron pointed to an outdoor pavilion framed in white Grecian columns on a hill overlooking the water. There were a dozen stone picnic tables sitting in rows out in the open air. The mess hall had no roof or walls and Nico couldn’t help but think it must be awfully cold.

There were still more places to visit. The metal shop where campers forged their own weapons, the arts-and-crafts room, and the climbing wall, which consisted of two facing walls that shook violently, dropped boulders, sprayed lava, and clashed together.

As Chiron lead Nico closer to the woods, the sun was beginning to set. The woods were huge, taking up at least a quarter of the valley.

"The woods are largely inhabited by monsters,” Chiron warned, “if you care to try your luck, but do go armed. Do you have your own sword and shield?”

I get weapons?” Nico practically jumped for joy. “Che figata!”

Chiron chuckled. “I’ll take that as a no. We can visit the armoury later."

Twelve cabins lay nestled at the edge of the woods. Nico had never seen such a bizarre group of buildings before. They were arranged in a U, just like the thrones he had seen on Olympus. They each had a large brass number above the door with odds on the left side and evens on the right. Other than their matching numbers, they could not have looked more different.

Number nine had smokestacks, like a miniature production factory. Number four had tomato vines on the walls and a roof made of grass. Seven seemed to be made of solid gold and gleamed so much in the sunlight it was almost impossible to look at. The pair of cabins at the head of the field, numbers one and two, were nearly identical. Cabin one was the largest, its polished bronze doors shimmered so that from different angles lightning bolts seemed to streak across them. Cabin two was more graceful, with slimmer columns garlanded with flowers. The walls were carved with images of peacocks. Cabin three stood to the left, a low building of rough grey stone studded with pieces of seashell and coral. It looked as though the walls themselves had been lifted from the ocean floor. Number five was bright red and its roof was lined with barbed wire. A stuffed boar's head with glassy black eyes hung over the doorway.

All twelve of the cabins faced a commons area about the size of a football pitch, dotted with Greek statues, and fountains. A huge stone-lined fire pit sat smouldering in the centre of the green.

A girl about Nico’s age was tending the flames, poking the coals with a stick. She seemed oddly familiar. Without waiting for Chiron’s permission, Nico inched toward her, gauging her reaction to his nearness. The only girl he had recently spoken to alone was his sister. Whenever his school mixed with the girls from down the road, Pietro was plastered to his side or they were under the strict supervision of their teachers.

“Hello,” said Nico.

The girl looked up at him, unsurprised, with a small smile. “Hello, Nico.”

“You know my name?”

She nodded, prodding at the coals with her poker. “I saw you on Olympus. My name is Hestia.”

“You’re the one who made them save me!”

Her smile widened, and a pink tinge dusted her face that had nothing to do with the heat of the flames. “I helped. A war between the gods is not desirable for any of us. I merely help where I can to keep the balance.”

“That’s… thank you.”

She nodded. “I sense that you will do great things, Nico di Angelo. Now go. You have many friends to meet. I will speak to you again in time.”

Chiron stood waiting for Nico outside of cabin eleven.

“You spoke to Lady Hestia,” he observed.

“She’s nice,” said Nico, adjusting the sling around his neck.

Chiron gave him a curious look. “Yes,” he said, “I suppose she is. This is cabin eleven," he continued, gesturing toward the doorway. "Make yourself at home."

Cabin eleven was by far the least remarkable of the group. Its brown paint peeled off the walls, revealing the greying wood beneath. The threshold was worn down and clear cracks striped the chipped windows. A doctor’s symbol, the winged pole with two entwined snakes, hung over the doorway. The door was too low for Chiron to enter, but he stood in the doorway, watching intently. The crowd of campers inside looked up when Nico entered, and bowed respectfully to Chiron in the doorway.

“This is Nico di Angelo," said Chiron, by way of greeting. “He will be staying with you from now on. I expect you will all make him feel welcome.”

“Undetermined?” somebody said from the back of the room.

Chiron hesitated. “Undetermined,” he said, after a long pause.

Everybody groaned.

“Now, now,” said Chiron. “Let’s not be rude. Good luck, Nico. I will see you at dinner.” He trotted off without another word, leaving Nico to meet his new cabin mates.

Nico looked around at the campers' faces, some sullen and suspicious, some eyeing him as if they were waiting for a chance to pick his pockets. He took a deep breath. This couldn’t be that hard. He had done this before when he had first arrived at St. Dismas’. He could make a home here, however hostile the campers appeared. He could do this.

An older teenager stepped forward. He wore an aviator’s jacket and his light brown hair was cut military-style short. His face was pale like he’d spent too much time inside. He offered Nico his left hand to shake without hesitation and Nico immediately saw why. His right hand was a pink and sore, wrinkled and swollen grotesquely. Clean white bandages wrapped tightly around his palm and wove their way up his wrist.

"Welcome, Nico,” he said, “name’s James. I’m head councillor. You can have that bunk in the corner right over there for now.”

"For now?" Nico asked.

“You're still undetermined," James explained. "Cabin eleven takes all newcomers and visitors. Hermes, our patron, is the god of travellers. Once you're determined, you'll be moved to your own parent's cabin.” 

Nico looked at the rickety old bunk he had been given. There was nothing to mark the space as his. Everything he owned had been left at the school and his aunt’s house. He would probably never have any of it back.

He looked back to James.

“But I know who my Papa is.”

James raised his eyebrows. “That so? Then who’s your parent?”

“Hades,” Nico said without hesitation.

The atmosphere in the cabin changed instantly. Even those campers that had at first looked friendly, now wore cold, stony expressions. James’ eyes darkened.

“You shouldn’t say things like that, kid,” he warned. “It ain’t clever.”

“It’s true!” Nico insisted.

James shook his head at him, all friendliness vanished. “Just leave it. It’s time for dinner.”

The mess hall could not have been more different from the dining room at Nico’s school. There were around fifty campers, a much smaller number than Nico had been expecting. Each cabin had its own table complete with a white tablecloth with purple trim. Two of the tables were entirely devoid of occupants, cabin one’s only had a single camper.

Everyone was talking, roughhousing, and generally being far more rambunctious than would ever be allowed at St. Dismas’. Torches burned brightly on the columns, and a brazier crackled in the centre of the pavilion. At the pavilion, torches blazed around the marble columns.

Nico gaped at the occupants of cabin twelve. They had furry legs and hooves that definitely belonged on farmyard animals instead of adolescents, and horns peeking out of their hair. Chiron stood to one side in his centaur form watching the campers fall into the mess hall with casual eyes.

When everyone had found their places, Chiron pounded his hoof against the marble floor and everybody fell silent. He raised a glass. "To the gods!”

Everybody else raised their glasses as well. Nico followed suit, this routine was familiar to him and reminiscent of mealtime salutes at his school. "To the gods!”

Wood nymphs came forward with platters of food: grapes, apples, strawberries, cheese, fresh bread, and barbecued meat. Nico’s glass was empty and he glanced around for a nymph with a jug or pitcher. When he couldn’t see one, he turned to the girl beside him, intending to ask for help, but stopped short when he saw what she was doing. She spoke casually to her glass, giving the object itself an order for what she wanted to drink.

“Pepsi Cola,” she requested. There was the sound of pouring liquid and the glass filled with a sparkling caramel drink.

Nico looked at his own glass apprehensively. “Lemonsoda?” he tried. He took a cautious sip, and sighed happily, smacking his lips. It was perfect.

Campers passed platters around the tables to each other; Nico grinned when the smoked brisket reached his place. He loaded his plate and passed the platter along to the girl beside him. She took it, not meeting his eyes. 

Nico looked around at the rest of his table, wondering idly if there were daily prayers here as well. When everyone had served themselves, they rose and went to the fire in the centre of the pavilion, bringing their plates with them. Nico frowned, lifting his plate and following them. Were they ever going to get to eat?

The campers surrounded the fire and Nico hopped on his tiptoes to see over people’s shoulders. Everyone took a portion of their meal and scraped it into the fire, always the best food on their plates. The juiciest beef, warmest, most buttery roll, the ripest strawberries.

"Burnt offerings for the gods,” James murmured in his ear.

James nudged him forward and Nico approached the fire. He glanced at the other campers for a moment, self-conscious of what he was being asked to do. He scraped his bread roll and a bunch of red grapes into the flames. Papa, he prayed silently. He didn't know what to say. Thank you, he finished finally, for saving us.

As he moved aside to let the next camper through, he caught a whiff of the smoke. It smelled nothing like burning food. It smelled like hot chocolate, and flowers, and a spring day after rain.

When everybody had returned to their seats and finished eating their meals, Chiron pounded his hoof again for attention. The chaotic noise of the mess hall quieted.

“Good evening, campers,” he said in a carrying voice. “Capture the flag is cancelled this Friday as we still have not finished removing the myrmeke infestation.” The campers around the tables groaned as one. Chiron weathered the protests with little more than an indulgent smile. “As well, we have a new camper today. Nico di Angelo, welcome to camp.”

There was a collective gasp. The girl beside Nico scrambled backwards from the bench and the boy across from him pointed in open-mouthed shock. Nico tipped his head back, looked directly upwards and gasped.  Above his head swirled a dark mist, within which shimmered a Greek battle helm of pure darkness.

“Is that…?” said James.

“The symbol of Hades,” Chiron said grimly. "It is determined," he announced. “Hades. King of the Underworld, God of the Dead.”

The campers backed away. Nico grinned, looking at James. “See?” he said. “I told you.

James shook his head, lips thinned in disapproval. "Not good, kid."

The pavilion around them was total silence and Nico's smile faltered. Wasn't this a good thing?

"Come now," said Chiron. He smiled but the expression was odd, forced, and didn't reach his eyes. "Nico here is–”

"A dago." It was the girl who had spoken. The one who had sat beside Nico only minutes earlier. “And I’m not having a dago Hades kid in my cabin!”

“Mary–” Chiron tried.

"She's right," James interrupted. "We should get to choose who stays in our cabin. If we don't want him there, he can leave.”

Nico's head whipped between Chiron and the Hermes campers like he was watching a tennis match.

"James," Chiron's voice turned dangerous. “That is enough. Nico, like all demigods who pass through this camp, has the right to Cabin Eleven's hospitality.”

The girl, Mary, got to her feet. "Well, maybe we aren't feeling very hospitable." The other campers murmured their ascent, nodding, and shooting Nico black looks.

Chiron looked between the two Hermes campers with a defeated expression. “Very well,” he sighed. “I see you will not let the matter drop.”

Nico suddenly felt very small and insignificant. “Where am I going to sleep?” he asked, his voice quiet.

“You’ll stay in the house,” said Chiron. “The guest room is yours.”

Chiron shooed the rest of the campers in the direction of the campfire, informing James that he would be in charge, and turned to herd Nico into the Big House. Nico looked back over his shoulder, as Chiron guided him down from the dining pavilion.

He was lead into the Big House and through the hall into a sitting room where a pair of leather couches faced a stone fireplace. Chiron backed into his magic wheelchair again and assumed his guise as a regular mortal. Nico was directed to seat himself on the nearest sofa and took his place gingerly.

“Well, Nico,” said Chiron, settling into position across from him, “I can imagine that was not an entirely pleasant experience.” From anyone else, the statement would have sounded taunting, but from Chiron it was only kind and perhaps just a little sad. “But I assure you that Mary is not a bad person, she is misguided, only a child still–”

“She is older than I am,” Nico mumbled.

“Ah.” Chiron faltered slightly. He cleared his throat. “James… he has been through quite a lot these past years. He will come around. It is difficult to overcome such experiences.”

“What happened to his hand?” Nico blurted, thinking back to the puffy, red skin of James’ fingers.

“That story is not mine to tell,” said Chiron. “You will have to ask James yourself. Now, this arm of yours.” Nico glanced down at the canvas sling around his arm. “How long has it been broken?”

“A few weeks,” said Nico. “The matron was going to take me to the doctor again soon.”

“It should be almost healed,” said Chiron, “let me take a look.” He moved closer to sit beside Nico and tugged the knot of the sling, releasing the taut canvas. Nico hissed at the ache of the stiff joint.

“Are you a doctor then?” he asked, submitting to Chiron’s examination.

“Of a kind. I have been a physician for many years, there isn’t a broken bone I haven’t seen. Ah,” he said, flexing Nico’s wrist slightly, “this looks to be healing nicely. No swelling, no bruise, does it hurt much?”

“Only a little,” said Nico. “If it’s moved.”

“I have something that should finish healing this up.” 

Chiron’s eyes twinkled, and he moved away from Nico to an old-looking, wooden china cabinet against the far wall. He opened the central drawer, rummaging for a moment and withdrew an aluminium lunch pail. He unlatched it as he returned and took out a bite-sized piece of what looked like biscotti.

“Eat, it will help.”

Nico gave him a disbelieving look. As much as he loved biscotti, he wasn’t aware of any magical healing properties attributed to pastries. He took the food apprehensively and took a cautious nibble.

Chiacchiere. Just like his aunt made at his summer home in Venice. He eagerly took another bite. Warmth spread through his entire body right to the tips of his fingers and toes. He was filled with a new, eager energy. 

The hurt of the campers’ rejection didn’t completely abate but he thought he felt the ghost of a touch on his cheek. As if his mother had only just touched her hand to his face, the way she used to when she assured him that everything was okay, that the war would not be the end of the world, that his Papa would always protect him.

Chapter Text

He was in a hotel, an all too familiar lobby. Graceful marble columns stretched what seemed like miles above him. Delicate couches and leather armchairs were dotted throughout the hall. A gold chandelier hung from the ceiling, casting the room in a warm glow. And Nico saw himself, two years younger, standing with his sister and… his mother.

Nico lurched forward, reaching for her hand. His hand went straight through her. His heart wrenched. A dream. She wasn’t really there, she couldn’t see him, he couldn’t touch her. She was so close, and yet so impossibly beyond his reach.

Nico remembered the scene clearly. They had been in Washington D.C., only days before his unexpected relocation to Italy with Bianca. They had been intending to meet his grandfather for dinner that evening and Mama had dressed Nico and Bianca in their best clothes for the occasion.

His mother wore a black dress, gloves, and a black veiled hat. Bianca, similarly, wore a navy blue dress, short to her knees, and ruffled around her shoulders. His younger self wore an uncomfortable jacket, short trousers, and shoes that had left red marks on the backs of his ankles.

As he watched, his mama led the children closer to the door, only to freeze midway. Hades. He stood from an armchair, dropping his newspaper down on the seat carelessly. He was large and his manner more than a little foreboding, in a black pinstriped suit.

Mama let out a surprised noise, and her face broke into a smile, so much like Bianca’s. Nico watched as his younger self and Bianca clung to their father’s hands and hugged him as high as they could reach. A visit from their Papa was rare and often accompanied by gifts and foreign sweets.

He permitted their attentions only for a few moments before he apparently grew tired of them. Seemingly from nowhere, he withdrew a box immaculately wrapped in gold, tied with purple ribbon, long but small enough to be carried in one hand. He pressed it into Bianca’s hands almost unthinkingly and she beamed.

“Chocolates,” he said, “from Switzerland. Share with your brother.”

Bianca nodded seriously, then took off at a run. The younger Nico yelled out a laugh and followed her. They scampered around the room, chasing each other in and out of the columns.

“You spoil them,” Mama noted, watching her children play with some amusement. Her voice was gentle, delicate, just as Nico remembered it.

“I see no reason not to,” said Hades.

As the children played, Hades drew Mama to a side couch. Nico edged closer to them, still self-conscious despite the knowledge that they couldn’t see him.

"Please, my dear," he said, leaning forward in earnest. "You must come to the Underworld. I don't care what Persephone thinks! I can keep you safe there.” He was leaning toward her, using his hands agitatedly as he spoke.

"No, my love, we have discussed this. Raise our children in the land of the dead? I will not do this.”

"Maria, listen to me. The war in Europe has turned the other gods against me. A prophecy has been made. My children are no longer safe. Poseidon and Zeus have forced me into an agreement. None of us are to have demigod children ever again.”

"But you already have Nico and Bianca. Surely–”

"No! The prophecy warns of a child who turns sixteen. Zeus has decreed that the children I currently have must be turned over to Camp Half-Blood for proper training, but I know what he means. At best they'll be watched, imprisoned, turned against their father. Even more likely, he will not take a chance. He won't allow my demigod children to reach sixteen. He'll find a way to destroy them, and I won't risk that!”

"Certamente," Maria said. "We will stay together. Zeus is un imbecile.”

Hades glanced nervously at the ceiling. "Maria, please. I told you, Zeus gave me a deadline of last week to turn over the children. His wrath will be horrible, and I cannot hide you forever. As long as you are with the children, you are in danger too.”

Maria smiled. ”You are a god, my love. You will protect us. But I will not take Nico and Bianca to the Underworld.”

Hades wrung his hands. "Then, there is another option. I know a place in the desert where time stands still. I could send the children there, just for a while, for their own safety, and we could be together. I will build you a golden palace by the Styx.”

Maria laughed gently. "You are a kind man, my love. A generous man. The other gods should see you as I do, and they would not fear you so. But Nico and Bianca need their mother. Besides, they are only children. The gods wouldn't really hurt them.”

"You don't know my family," Hades said darkly. "Please, Maria, I can't lose you.”

She touched his lips with her fingers. "You will not lose me. Wait for me while I get my purse. Watch the children.”

She kissed the Lord of the Dead and rose from the sofa. Hades watched her walk upstairs as if her every step away caused him pain.

A moment later, he tensed. The children stopped playing as if they sensed something too.

"No!" Hades said. But even his godly powers were too slow. He only had time to erect a wall of black energy around the children before the hotel exploded. Nico screamed.

The hotel was reduced to ruins. Fires crackled and spat sparks around the room. Lightning flashed across the sky, and thunder rumbled. His father, the height of everything Nico could call strength, knelt in the ruins. In his arms, he cradled the broken form of Nico’s mother. Little Nico and Bianca stared at their mother uncomprehendingly.

The package of chocolates forgotten on the floor, the box flattened by fallen masonry, its contents reduced to smears. The creature Alecto appeared behind them, hissing and flapping her leathery wings. His younger self didn't seem to notice her.

"Zeus!" Hades shook his fist at the sky. "I will crush you for this! I will bring her back!”

"My lord, you cannot," Alecto warned. "You of all immortals must respect the laws of death."

Hades glowed with rage.

"Take them," he told Alecto, choking back a sob. “Hide them in Europe. They have a mortal family. Zeus cannot find them there.”

"As you wish, my lord," Alecto said. "And the woman's body?”

"Take her as well," he said bitterly. "Give her the ancient rites.”

Alecto, the children, and Maria's body dissolved into shadows, leaving Hades alone in the ruins. And Nico woke with a sob.

Over the following two weeks, Nico fell into the routine of camp. His mornings started early. He woke before the conch shell to Chiron calling him downstairs. He was not fond of mornings and never had been but Chiron was much more tolerant of his slouching, early morning petulance than his teachers from St. Dismas’ had been.

They would begin the day with discussions of the gods in English, and Nico found himself doubly challenged both by his relatively limited vocabulary and the strangeness of the Greek gods in comparison to his visits to Sunday mass.

He found that Chiron was a kind teacher, and had yet to bring out a ruler or cane when Nico grumbled about the early hour or his as yet un-breakfasted stomach.

Then they would move to breakfast in the dining pavilion. Each morning Nico would join the campers at the Hermes table and each morning they would squeeze tightly together so as to put an additional foot of space between him and the nearest camper. Their rejection stung, but he weathered it without too much complaint. It was only for a meal after all.

After breakfast he would join Chiron on the porch of the Big House for more language lessons. They mainly studied Ancient Greek, which Nico found simpler to speak than English and much easier to read than Italian. Latin had come to him more easily as well and he found that many of the patterns of Latin could be applied to Greek. After only a few mornings Nico could skim through a stanza or two of Homer’s Odyssey without much difficulty.

He learned his weaponry quickly thanks to time sitting in the armoury with a reluctant James polishing armour and swords, and generally learning to care for various weapons.

His morning combat training was privately taught by Chiron. None of the other campers seemed to trust Nico with a weapon and made a habit of clearing the training fields when he approached. He and Chiron rotated through a training program of archery, javelin, and sword techniques.

Javelin was, by far, Nico’s weakest point. He didn’t possess the muscles to heft and throw one high or far. His arms and stature were short and his range of motion limited, an obstacle only slightly mitigated by Chiron’s supply of undersized weapons for the younger campers to learn with.

Archery was better, though not by much. After the first day, he could at least be certain of hitting the target. A bullseye was another matter entirely. His arrows would hit in erratic patterns, never grouping together at the central ring as Chiron’s did.

In swordplay he faired considerably better. Chiron started him by teaching him his stance, how to hold the blade steady, and the first basic strikes. He knew he wasn’t exactly a protégé; that much was plain from the twinkle of amusement in Chiron’s eyes whenever he tripped or fumbled with his sword. But he continued to improve and by their third attempt he felt much more confident with a sword in hand.

“Better, better,” Chiron said proudly, as Nico slashed at the training dummy. “Very good, Nico. Raise your guard… there. Now attack.”

They had been working for almost an hour already and Nico was near exhausted. Chiron, while kind, was a relentless task master. Nico’s hair was damp with sweat and his feet ached from the constant work. It was almost noon, their final training session of the morning, and Nico was looking forward to lunch and the change of clothes waiting for him back at the Big House.

“Alright,” Chiron said finally, “that is enough for today.”

Nico lowered his celestial bronze practice sword, breathing hard. 

All of the weapons at Camp Half-Blood were made of Celestial Bronze. The metal was favoured by demigods the world over and were entirely harmless to mortals. 

Despite his improvements, it didn’t feel quite right in his hands.

“Good work, Nico,” said Chiron. “Clean yourself up for lunch, I have some business to take care of.” Nico nodded and rolled his sore shoulders as Chiron trotted off in the direction of the cabins.

He approached the target they had used for their previous session and started tugging at the arrows. He had discovered during his first session that it was harder than it looked. Standing to the side of the target, he braced himself with one hand and pulled. One arrow, two arrows, three, four–

“What do we have here?”

Nico looked up. Peter Stowe, son of Aphrodite. He leaned against the target with his arms folded, casual as could be. Peter had a square jaw, perfectly straight teeth, and brown eyes and hair. Nico had seen him before with Mary from the Hermes cabin. He hadn’t expected a son of Aphrodite to be so adept at combat but, paired with Mary, daughter of Hermes, Peter was vicious in the arena.

“Just cleaning up,” Nico mumbled, pulling out another arrow.

“What are you doing, flaunting that you’re a Hades kid? Think it makes you special? You’re gonna get yourself into trouble there. With your funny little accent and a name like ‘di Angelo’, it’s pretty clear you’re ginzo too. My brother died overseas, you know. Fighting your kind. What do you think about that?”

“My kind? I don’t understand. What do you–”

“The Italians, the Germans. Your half-siblings. The usual psychopaths your father spawns. Just. Like. You.” He punctuated each word with a hard poke in Nico’s chest. Nico staggered a few steps backwards under the pressure. “They’re the reason all this is happening. You know where my father is? He’s out there in the trenches. Fighting against people like you.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Nico insisted, taking another step back. “I’m not a part of this. I lived in America–”

Peter towered over him. The meagre gap between their ages seemed so much larger with the considerable height difference.

“I don’t care where you grew up,” Peter hissed. He shoved Nico hard in the chest so his back slammed into the centre of the target. “That doesn't change the fact that you are one of them.”

“Come on, Peter! There’s lunch!”

Nico looked past Peter. Two of Peter’s friends stood at the edge of the volleyball court. Peter cast them a quick glance before turning his attention back to Nico.

“This isn’t over.”

And he left. Leaving Nico, heart still pounding, leaning against the target, and more lost than he had felt since arriving at Camp.

It was over his own lunch that Nico asked the important question. He was sitting across from Chiron at the kitchen table. The chairs were comfortably plush with blue and white striped cushions tied to the wooden slatted back.

“What’s happening?” Nico asked, taking another spoonful of soup. “With the war?”

Chiron shifted awkwardly in his chair and cleared his throat, setting his mug down on the table. “There are two groups in the war. The Allies and the Axis Powers. The Allies, predominantly western countries, are lead by children of Zeus and Poseidon. Even Phillip aspires to a leadership position in the war.”

Nico felt his ears warm. The son of Zeus was his latest fixation. The way his dark hair fell across his forehead. His almost luminously bright blue eyes.

And then…

The penny, and his stomach, dropped. It finally made sense to him what Peter had said. And if that was actually true, there was no way that Phillip would even look at him.

“Your half-siblings,” Chiron continued, “other children of Hades, largely lead the Axis Powers. There is a… tension between the brothers, to say the least, at the best of times. Now it is even more so.”

“Whose side are we on?”

“I’m not sure I know what you mean, my boy.”

“With the war,” Nico said quickly, “you said it’s Poseidon and Zeus against Hades, didn’t you? Whose side are we on?”

Chiron looked down at his clasped hands. “That is not for me to decide. As far as I am aware the residents of this camp are supporters of Lords Zeus and Poseidon. The gods have not yet called upon demigods to join the fight, but many have chosen to enlist on their own. …To join the Allies.”

“Where does that leave me?” Nico demanded. “I can’t– I won’t– He’s my Papa.”

“No one is asking you to charge into battle against your siblings, Nico. You are still only a boy and you will make your own decision when you are old enough. But I would urge you to think about the implications of your choice when the time comes.”

Nico nodded, swirling his soup around with his spoon. He almost wished he hadn’t asked. If they were on opposite sides of a war, it was no wonder the other campers disliked him so much. He couldn’t blame them really. If he had come face to face with one of the Allies in Genoa, he doubted he would have welcomed them with open arms. But he had thought he was one of them, that he was on their side. He had grown up in America, had spent the first nine years of his life living and growing alongside the most prominent families of the American government. What did he need to do to prove himself? How could he prove that he wasn’t some kind of monster?

After lunch, they retreated to the living room. Since Nico’s arrival at Camp Half-Blood, Chiron had been attempting to teach Nico about his demigod abilities. Apparently, children of the Olympian sons of Kronos, the ‘Big Three’, were more powerful, their emotions more temperamental, and their actions more dangerous. More importantly for Nico, they were also known to have potentially devastating abilities. As Nico’s trainer, it fell to Chiron teach him how to control his powers.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, Nico had yet to show even a hint of supernatural abilities.

“We have discussed some of the myths already,” said Chiron as he settled into place beside an end-table piled high with leather tomes. Nico flopped down on the couch, leaning against its plush arm. “The Rape of Persephone,” Nico shifted uncomfortably, “Orpheus and Eurydice, the Labours of Hercules… I think it’s time we get into the mechanics. To gain access to the Underworld at all, there’s a price.” Chiron dug into his pockets and withdrew a single gold coin. He placed it on the coffee table between them. “The ancients used silver, the gods use gold. One gold drachma to pay the ferryman for passage across the River Styx, the traditional way is to place it under the tongue of the deceased.” Nico stared at the coin, transfixed. “These days, the ferryman has found other ways. He has been known to add the price to any outstanding bills or mortgages, leaving it for the relatives to cover the cost.”

Nico cocked his head slightly, examining the coin from a distance. On the face of the coin, Zeus watched him out of the corner of his eye. Zeus versus Hades….

“Nico, are you listening to me?”

“Mmhm.”

A pause.

He looked up. Chiron was staring at him, unimpressed.

“What is on your mind?”

Nico pushed himself up from the couch, pacing over to the window overlooking the strawberry fields.

My brother died overseas. Fighting your kind.

He knew it was true. Thousands of people were dying overseas, hundreds every day, and there wasn’t anything he could do to stop it.

“This is stupid.”

“And what makes you say that?”

He whirled around. “There’s no point! If I can’t use my powers… I’m never going to need this.”

“You might be surprised. In my experience, it is always better to know more than you need to than not enough.”

“And what good is knowing everything about that stupid coin when there are people dying out there? Shouldn’t you be teaching me something useful? Something that could actually help people?”

Chiron’s smile was sad and wistful, like Nico reminded him of someone he had known a long time ago. “You have a good heart, Nico, but you are too young to concern yourself with the war. Focus on your training.”

Nico folded his arms and turned back to the window. He could hear Chiron shifting in his wheelchair slightly.

“Nico… do you remember why the gods placed you in my care?”

Nico chewed on his lower lip and thought back. 

Of course. He had nearly forgotten. Everything had happened so fast. The boy will be trained to fulfil– “The prophecy… they said something about a prophecy.”

“Yes, exactly. Years ago now, the Oracle of Delphi revealed a prophecy that a child of Zeus, Hades, or Poseidon would one day save Olympus. That is why you are here. The gods chose you to that be that hero.”

“Me?” It was almost funny. “Chiron, I’m not a hero. I’m never going to be a hero. Everyone at this camp hates me, I can barely lift a javelin, you’ve seen my aim, and it took hours to find a sword small enough for me!” 

“I have trained more heroes than you can imagine,” said Chiron, “and I see so much potential in you. The gods chose you–”

“They chose wrong!” The silence hung in the air like fog. “They should have picked Bianca,” Nico mumbled. “Or,” his head whipped up, “what about Phillip?”

“After the prophecy was received, we waited for Phillip to take the place of the hero of the prophecy. He was already fourteen at the time. When he turned sixteen and the war began, we kept waiting for something to happen. We prepared for the demigods to join the fight but no immortal threat ever revealed itself. Now he is too old, the prophecy specifically calls for a child at age sixteen. It must be you, Nico.”

“What if I don’t want it?” he demanded.

Chiron held his gaze for a long moment. Then he sighed. “As you are already up, I’ll ask you to fetch down a book for me. Top shelf, left side, no title.”

“You haven’t answered my question.”

“Humour me.”

Nico huffed and went to the bookshelf, standing on his tiptoes to reach. The book was not quite as thick as the others on its shelf and none of the pages were dogeared or annotated like the majority of Chiron’s collection. Apparently it was not often read. Chiron took the book and started flipping through the pages absently. When he found what he was looking for he held the book out to Nico who took it cautiously, and sat back down on the edge of the sofa.

“There,” said Chiron. “Read, translate, and memorize the first three prayers listed in this chapter.”

“What is this?” said Nico, scanning the open page.

“A dissertation studying the inner workings of the Underworld. A student of mine wrote this by hand several decades ago. I’ll expect that you study it well. And when you are finished with that, you can help the Apollo cabin.”

Nico wrinkled his nose. The Apollo cabin was on maintenance duty, fixing and cleaning up anything that needed to be dealt with around camp. It was not his favourite camp activity.

“I’m not joking, Chiron. I really don’t think I can do this.”

“I’m afraid you don’t have a choice, this is what the fates have decreed. The only thing we can do is prepare you for the prophecy.”

***

Camp Half-Blood seemed to be granted a measure of control over the weather. It was barely March, but the snow had vanished and the sun returned to the sky. A sand race track was revealed from under the layer of frost, and metal stands rolled out from a storage shed behind the Big House. 

Nico assumed that they would be used for foot racing during the warmer months. He had regularly joined the other boys at St. Dismas’ in athletics on the track. Pietro had always been more athletic than him, excelling particularly at hurdles. Nico himself preferred sprints – much less strenuous, at least in his opinion.

Nico joined in the Apollo cabin weeding and raking along the track to make sure it was ready for use. Unlike the Hermes cabin, no one in the Apollo cabin seemed to want to interact with him, nastily or otherwise. He kept his distance, there was no need to antagonize them unnecessarily. Much simpler to avoid that conflict. The Apollo siblings worked together, dividing the track into segments and assigning one or two kids to clean it up. Nico was given his own section apart from the others.

He didn’t really mind being kept separate; since leaving St. Dismas’ he had become accustomed to being by himself. Besides, he repeatedly told himself, he had Chiron. He had never needed many friends before anyway. Bianca had been his best friend when they were younger, Americans had never been fond of them, and Pietro had been his near constant companion at school. Chiron was enough.

There was a commotion coming from the cabins: whooping and hollering and an odd creaking. Nico looked up from his patch of weeding just as a rundown chariot came rolling around the corner of cabin twelve. A charioteer guided a pair of oil-stained horses that, if Nico’s eyes were to be believed, were made entirely of bronze.

Having shared the archery field with the Hephaestus cabin during his lessons with Chiron, Nico recognized the driver as Danny Parker, son of Hephaestus. He was four years older than Nico and about three times as large.

Behind Danny came a swarm of Hephaestus campers following and cheering. Danny grinned and urged his metal horses on faster. The chariot wheels groaned as they rolled across the damp grass. They bumped along onto the dirt track, careening a sharp turn until the horses sped forward, straightening the chariot behind them. Apollo campers jumped back as the chariot rumbled its way down the track. Nico stepped back onto the grass off of the path as the chariot creaked by.

Nico had never seen a Greek chariot before. It was little more than a wooden basket, open at the back, mounted on an axle between two wheels. Neither safety nor comfort seemed to have been taken into account. He wanted to give it a try.

“Chiron holds monthly races,” said a voice from just behind him.

Nico near jumped out of his skin. He whipped around. A tall boy with a head of neatly cropped blond hair stood behind him. His skin was tanned, despite the fact that spring had just barely started.

“Hephaestus’ children always seem to have the best chariot, but I predict that that one will need some improvements before it is race-worthy.”

Nico privately thought that that wasn’t much of a prediction. “Sorry,” he said, “but who are you?”

The boy frowned. “You don’t recognize me?”

Nico shook his head.

The boy chewed on his bottom lip, apparently thinking hard. “That can’t be right…” he said. “No, you must be confused, dazzled by my good looks as you are.” He puffed out his chest, hands on his hips. “I’m Apollo!” He flashed a blindingly white smile. Nico could have sworn he saw an actual twinkle at the corner of his grin.

“I do remember you!” Nico realized. “You looked different on Olympus. Older.”

“Ah, yes,” said Apollo, chuckling slightly. “I thought I could jog your memory. My father is a bit of a fuddy-duddy, doesn’t like how I outshine him when I show off my magnificence in this form.” He gestured down at his torso. “So on Olympus I attempt to play down my looks, not an easy feat, I assure you.”

“Right. Erm… Can I help you, Lord Apollo?”

Apollo looked him over and nodded. “Yes, I suppose you can. I must speak to your trainer, if you could fetch him for me…”

“No need, Lord Apollo.” Chiron trotted up behind Nico. He bent his long forelegs into a brief bow and gave Apollo a warm smile. “It is good to see you again, old friend.”

“And you, Chiron, it has been a long time. Now I hear we have chariot races afoot.” He rubbed his hands together eagerly. “After last year’s performance I know just what my children need to crush– I mean, defeat in a fair and gracious manner, the other teams.”

He clapped his hands once and two golden blurs shot out of the forest. The shapes were moving too quickly for Nico to make out what they were until they skidded to a halt near the group. Two beautiful palominos, taller than any of the pegasi at camp. They tossed their heads wildly and stamped their hooves hard enough to spray dirt.

The scene had attracted a small crowd, those that had only minutes ago been awing at Danny’s chariot were now transfixed by the two horses. Several of the campers seemed to recognize Apollo and whispered excitedly to each other.

“This is a generous gift,” said Chiron, holding out his hand for one of the horses to sniff.

A young camper, a girl maybe eight or nine years old, scampered out of the crowd to the nearest horse. It dropped its nose to inspect the child, snorting hot breath through her blonde curls. She laughed and stroked the stallion’s nose.

“Oh, thanks, dad!” she squealed, giving the horse vigorous pats on the neck.

Apollo grinned at her. “Hey, no problem kiddo.”

Nico got the feeling Apollo enjoyed this type of attention. A troop of adoring and grateful children and several starstruck teenagers must be a major stroke to his ego.

“And you came to deliver these yourself?”

“Ah, no,” Apollo looked suddenly a bit sheepish, “I am here on official business.” Nico could have sworn that Chiron cast him a glance, but the look was gone as soon as it had come.

“I see,” said Chiron. “My office then?”

The two separated themselves from the group, making their way down to the Big House, and leaving the Apollo campers to fawn over the horses. Nico watched them go, standing alone in the crowd.

Chapter Text

The Hephaestus cabins had made some improvements since Nico had last seen their chariot. Their chariot had been polished to a shining bronze, wheels replaced, the horrible creaking noise completely eliminated, and the automaton horses had been given an obvious tune-up. 

The other cabins had chariots, too. The Ares chariot was blood red and pulled by two grisly horse skeletons. Nico frowned at the sight. One of Chiron’s books had mentioned summoning the bones of the dead as a power attributed to descendants of Hades. He couldn’t help the pang of envy that the Ares cabin of all people were apparently able to master powers that should have been natural for him. The Ares charioteers were loading a gradually growing pile of weapons into the basket: javelins, caltrops, a mace, and some others that Nico couldn’t name from a distance.

Apollo's chariot was trim and graceful and entirely made of gold. It was pulled by the two beautiful palominos Apollo had summoned to camp. Their fighter was armed with a bow, though he had been warned that shooting regular pointed arrows at the opposing drivers would result in the loss of his dessert privileges.

Hermes' chariot looked ready to fall apart. It was ancient, with peeling green paint and a high-risk of splinters. Mary stood at the reins, one of her half-brothers holding a lance as he stood behind her. They looked like a simple pair compared to the other chariots but Nico knew that the Hermes campers would have more than a few tricks up their sleeves.

Nico stood at the centre of the green with Chiron, where they could watch the race from all angles. Chiron would, as usual, act as medic and the non-competing Apollo campers were on hand for extra assistance. Nico was there purely to observe; Chiron insisted that learning basic battlefield first-aid was essential for all demigods and it seemed like this was an opportunity Chiron felt he might get to learn hands-on.

A satyr standing to Chiron’s other side raised the conch shell to his lips and blew.

"Charioteers!" Chiron called. "To your mark!”

He waved his hand and the starting signal dropped. Hooves thundered against the dirt. The crowd cheered.

The Aphrodite chariot took the lead. Their charioteer, Carol Jones, grinned over her shoulder at the contestants behind her. Two of the chariots had collided, sending the four competitors sprawling in the dirt. Their panicked horses dragged the chariot diagonally across the track. Chiron took off at a loping canter, medical bag at his side.

Nico bit his lip and tore his eyes away from the wounded group to the two leading chariots. Ares’ team was neck and neck with Aphrodite’s. Behind them, the Hermes team, Kenneth and Mary, were quickly gaining. Nico stood near the second turn of the track as the Hermes team whipped into the curve.

That was when it happened. A resounding crack. A shout of surprise. The chariot skidded sideways. The horses screamed, dragging harnesses and a broken axl. A body was thrown free.

The girl rolled, limp limbs flailing and flapping against the ground. Her helmet bounced off the dirt, wrenching her head and neck to unnatural angles. The body stopped rolling in a blooming cloud of dust at Nico’s feet.

Nico’s mouth dried out and his breath hitched in his chest. The dust surged. It crashed over his head, temporarily blinding him. As it retreated like a wave down the beach, it dragged the clamour from the crowd. The dust and a hush settled like a shroud. Kenneth lay in the wreckage. Dead? Unconscious?

Dirt clung to Nico’s hair and tongue. It greyed the blood leaking from Mary’s mouth and nose, created a milky sheen over her staring, unseeing eyes.

In the ringing silence, Nico’s heart throbbed in his ears.

The winning chariot rolled through the finish line, charioteers grinning with victory. They pulled their horses around to look back at the crowd. Their smiles faltered.

Nico took a step backward, his heart pounding. Emotion choked in his throat. Chiron galloped up, bending his forelegs into a bow to check the pulse in her neck. The crowd waited with bated breath.

“Dead.”

That was when Nico realized. They hadn’t seen, nobody else had seen the chariot fail, all they saw was a girl, lifeless and broken, at his feet.

There was uproar.

The crowd advanced on Nico, their hands in fists, some tightly gripping weapons.

“You killed her!” someone yelled.

“No!” Nico protested.

“How could you!”

“I didn’t!”

“ENOUGH!”

The crowd around fell quiet again but Nico could practically feel their anger. Chiron withdrew a single gold coin from his saddle bag. He carefully, delicately, lifted Mary’s chin and let her mouth fall slightly open. The coin was slipped in just passed her lips and under her tongue.

“Nico,” said Chiron, his voice carefully controlled. “The prayer, if you will.”

For a brief moment he wondered why Chiron was asking him; it wasn’t like he’d ever been able to do it before.

But then he felt it. Something deep inside him tugged as he looked down at Mary. He knew what to do.

He took a deep, steadying breath and knelt beside Mary’s fallen form. He put one hand to the earth and gently placed the other on her forehead. “Kathotheyeste aete ten chamene pseche.” (1) He felt a shudder run through him, his whole body chilled–

“Oof!” A hard knock to his chest and his back hit the ground hard.

“Freak.” Peter stood over him, his eyes red and brimming with unshed tears, his hands balled tightly into fists. “Don’t touch her again. This is your fault.” He pulled back to land another blow, this one to Nico’s nose, but a set of hands pulled him back. Nico didn’t know the other boys, but he recognized them as Peter’s friends. “You killed her!” Peter cried, fighting against the boys’ grip.

“Peter,” said Chiron, his voice low and reasonable. “This is a tragedy but not Nico’s fault.”

Peter ignored him. He fought free of his friends’ grip and launched at Nico. A solid hit to the mouth, another to his throat. Nico gasped for air. A knee driven into his stomach.

“Peter!”

Nico scrambled backwards as Peter was hauled off of him. He tripped to his feet.

“I–” His eyes darted around the faces staring him down. “I’m sorry.”

Nico took off at a run. He tripped and stumbled his way over the grass, still slick with morning dew. He could hear Chiron calling after him as he fled but he didn’t stop, ducking into the shadow of the woods and weaving in and out of trees. He ran blindly, not a thought in his mind except away. He had hardly been in the woods since arriving at Camp Half-Blood; the trees and paths were alien to him. He ran and collapsed into the shadow of a towering pine tree.

Please, he begged, just get me out of here.

When he woke again he saw only darkness. For a moment, he was confused. Had someone stolen the sun? Then he realized that he hadn’t opened his eyes.

He lay on black grass, crunching under his body’s every shift. Above him a cavern ceiling yawned, dotted with stalactites. He groaned. Every inch of him ached. He could hear the sloshing of water running. 

A booming bark shook the cavern around him. He sat bolt upright but immediately regretted it as his surroundings swung wildly around him. He swayed, bracing an arm against the brittle grass. A massive black dog bounded toward him. It was half transparent. Only its eyes and teeth looked solid, it was easily seven metres tall, and had three heads.

“Merda!”

Nico staggered to his feet and fell back a handful of steps. His stomach did a somersault, his head spun.

The Rottweiler let out another bark, sticking his three massive heads down to Nico’s level and shaking his oversized bum in the air. His short, stubby tail wagged enthusiastically. Nico had a feeling that such close proximity to a clearly deadly monster should be terrifying but with those big brown eyes, all six of them, and lolling pink tongues, he couldn’t help it. He laughed.

“Aw, hello there.”

He reached out a hand and placed it on the middle head’s wet nose. The dog jumped around, barking happily. Nico laughed again, then swayed, hand to his forehead. Almost as if concerned, the dog halted its play and cocked its heads in comical unison. He gave an uncertain rumble and sniffed Nico’s slouched form curiously.

“I’m al– oh!”

Nico’s jacket was snagged between two massive teeth. The dog hoisted Nico high in the air. He flailed, crying out in surprise.

“Hey!”

The dog ignored him, shaking the head carrying Nico and bounding off through the fields. The cavern was crowded with near transparent, drifting shapes, which scattered as the dog barrelled through the throng. 

A palace of shining obsidian loomed on the horizon, parapets climbing into the air above. Instinctively, Nico knew that it was his father’s palace. His father would help him. If Camp Half-Blood didn’t want him, Hades would give him a place to stay, Nico was sure of it.

The dog set him down before the towering bronze gates and nudged him forward with his left snout. Nico stumbled and cast an accusatory look over his shoulder at the dog.

Nico shivered as he put a hand out to the gate, the bronze was cold as ice. Skeletal fingers seized his wrist. He yelped and jumped back. A skeletal guard stood just on the other side of the gate, so close to Nico they were almost nose to nose. The skeleton wore a familiar military uniform and the shadows pooled in the empty eye sockets sent chills down Nico’s spine.

Nico had seen many soldiers in the dress of the Royal Italian Army on patrol near his school. They would guard the ports, inspecting cargo and questioning sailors. On one of the school’s weekly outings, Nico and Pietro had snuck away to watch the goings on at the port. The soldiers’ activities had seemed fascinating to them – after all of their practice at Balilla, becoming soldiers was their shared dream.

They had been crouched behind a stack of crates, playing at spying when a soldier had seized them each by an ear, yanking them to their feet, and steering them forcefully back to their teacher. Nico remembered the lurching of nerves in his stomach. He felt the same just then, staring into the soulless eye sockets, that he had made a terrible mistake coming here, and that the consequences would be anything but pleasant.

The skeleton held his wrist fast, not releasing an ounce, as it reached inside a breast pocket of its uniform. Nico’s heart pounded in his chest. Was it going for a weapon? He couldn’t seem to bring himself to move.

But there was no weapon. Instead, it withdrew a large key and inserted it into the gate’s lock. It released Nico as the gates swung open. Nico cast the skeleton a nervous look as he stepped inside. The skeleton made no more move to halt him.

Inside the courtyard was the strangest garden Nico had ever seen. Multicoloured mushrooms, poisonous shrubs, and odd, luminous plants flourishing without sunlight. There wasn’t a true flower in sight but the number of precious jewels made up for the lack. Heaps of rubies as large as Nico’s fist, clumps of raw diamonds.

Stone statues were dotted in and amongst the plants, all grinning grotesquely. An orchard of what looked to be pomegranate trees stood in the centre of the garden. The fruit smelled amazing and Nico was suddenly painfully aware of how hungry he was. His mouth watered and he drifted over to one of the low hanging branches almost without thinking.

Before he could pluck a sweet, juicy fruit from the branch his arm was knocked away. The same skeleton guard stood behind him. It pointed on through the garden, clattering its teeth urgently. Nico was disappointed but obeyed the garbled order.

He walked up the steps of the palace, between black columns, through a black marble portico, and into the palace. The entry hall had a polished bronze floor gleaming in the torchlight. There was no ceiling, just a cavern roof, far above.

Every side doorway was guarded by a skeleton in military gear. Some wore Greek armour similar to what was used at camp, some camouflage with tattered American flags on the shoulders. They carried spears or muskets or Berettas. None of them bothered him, but their hollow eye sockets followed him as he walked down the hall, toward the big set of doors at the opposite end.

Two American army skeletons guarded the doors. Their lipless mouths grinned down at Nico, rocket-propelled grenade launchers held across their chests. The guards stepped aside, opening the doors wide for him.

Nico recognized the room within immediately. It was the same throne room he had visited with Bianca only two weeks ago. A dais rose at the far end of the room, bearing a throne of human bones and a second silver one. 

Hades sat stiffly upright on the throne of bones. He was at least ten feet tall again, as Nico had last seen him on Olympus, and wore black silk robes and a crown of braided gold. Nico’s sense of trepidation only grew. His father did not look pleased to see him.

“Two weeks.”

Nico gulped. He had barely set foot in the throne room and was frozen in his tracks. The heavy double doors slammed shut just behind him. 

“Two weeks at that godsforsaken camp and you run.” Hades’ voice was cool, collected. Nico would have preferred it if he had shouted. “I don’t suppose you understand what you have done, you foolish boy.”

“I–” Nico’s throat was was dry, his heart pounded. “I didn’t kill her.”

Hades waved a hand in dismissal. “I do not care what happened to the girl. By fleeing from that camp you have broken a, thankfully informal, agreement with the Olympian Council. Are you aware of what the Olympians do to half-bloods who disobey them?”

Nico swallowed thickly but decided that Hades wasn’t looking for a response. He wiped at the drying blood from his cut lip with his sleeve.

“You are lucky they haven’t killed you already.” Hades surveyed Nico down his sharp nose. He sniffed and adopted unconcerned air. “I admit, I was not pleased with the council’s decision to send you to Camp Half-Blood. I do not approve of their frankly lax training program, or their blind obedience to edicts from Olympus. Here is yet more proof of their incompetence. Unable to keep a single half-blood within their grounds.” Nico thought Hades seemed to rather like ranting. “Well? Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

“I couldn’t stay there,” Nico said sullenly, “they hate me. And they don’t like you.”

Hades scoffed. “Of course they do not ‘like’ me, and I suppose they have taught you the same. What has Chiron told you? That I am corrupt, inherently evil, the monster hiding under your bed?”

“Um…” Nico didn’t quite know what to say to that but thought that lying would be a bad idea. “He said that… the other campers don’t like me because they’re scared of you.”

Hades snorted derisively. “Those demigods could do with a dose of fear. My name as a curse, bah. Chiron used to teach them some respect for the gods, and now? A nightly sacrifice, with no real devotion behind it.”

“I’m sorry?” said Nico.

Hades huffed. “Do you know how many half-bloods march their way to my gates after crossing the Styx? The gall. As if I don’t have enough to deal with! There are constant complaints to Charon about their living conditions, that the Underworld apparently hasn’t made the mortal advancements they seem to think are so necessary and they won’t settle for anything less than my personal attention. They seem to think Elysium grants them some kind of special access. Indoor plumbing, telephones… I haven’t had the funds for updates to Elysium since the Great War. How can I, when Asphodel needs expansion every other year?

“And you.” 

Nico gulped and Hades cut his eyes at him.

“You sent a soul to me.”

“Yes…?” Nico hedged.

“Chiron taught you?”

“I asked.”

“Hmm… is that so?” Hades gave him a thoughtful look. “Regardless, I have quite enough to deal with. You will return to Camp–”

“I can’t go back there! They think I killed someone.”

“I believe I told you not to interrupt me.” 

Nico bit his tongue hard enough to make his eyes water. Hades could be truly frightening and the ice in his voice chilled Nico to the bone. Nico ducked his head and nodded his apology.

The silence hung in the air until Nico couldn’t stand it any longer.

“Uh… sir?” he asked.

"Yes, Nico?" Hades said tightly. "What is it now?"

"Pietro, my friend from St. Dismas', can I write to him? Chiron said he couldn’t get mail across the Atlantic…” he trailed off.

Hades paused. "The boy who helped you escape?"

"Yes," Nico said eagerly, he hadn’t expected Hades to actually remember.

Another long pause.

"There was an attack by the Allies." Nico felt a stone drop in his stomach. No. No. No no no no no. "I am afraid the boy was killed." Nico stumbled, the weight hollowing out his stomach as if he had been punched.

“He–" Nico choked out. "He's dead?"

Hades said nothing and Nico fought the tears springing to life behind his eyes. The world spun around him, blurred and confused in a whirlwind. This couldn't be happening. He felt sick. He didn't know if he was going to pass out or be physically ill. The room around him was fuzzy.

"I want to see him," he croaked.

"Not possible," Hades said dismissively.

"Please I– I have to see him."

"No." His voice turned dangerous. Nico felt as though his stomach had been plunged into a vat of ice cold water.

"Where is he?" Nico pleaded. "I won’t… I won't look for him. I swear.”

Hades considered him for a long moment. "Asphodel, I would expect."

Asphodel?”

“That’s what I said,” Hades said in a clipped tone, narrowing his eyes in distaste at having to repeat himself.

 “Please," said Nico. “He saved me and Bianca from Professor Lecce. He– he deserves better.”

“He deserves nothing,” Hades snapped. “He has been given no less than what he has earned. Your debt to him was paid when I advanced his case, now he is given the treatment his life merits. And that is the very last I will hear on the subject.”

Nico could feel his insides burning with anger. It wasn’t fair. ‘The very last he would hear on the subject’? Pietro had saved Nico’s life and all he got in return was to wander aimlessly, silent and confused, for all eternity? How was that just?

He glared up at Hades, tears drying and sticky on his cheeks. “That isn’t fair.”

“It is more than fair, boy,” Hades said. “You are asking for mercy, something which the Underworld does not provide.”

“But he helped us!” Nico shouted, his voice raw. “He earned it!”

“Enough!”

Nico shrank back. He had crossed a line. Hades’ eyes were dark, his jaw clenched, and one of his hands fingered the staff ominously.

“I will not be contradicted by a child. I am Lord here, and you would do well to remember that. You are not to go searching for this boy, is that clear?”

Nico looked down at his shoes, fidgeting and swiping at the dried blood on his lip. 

“Is. That. Clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. Now get out of my palace.”

Hades waved a hand and Nico disappeared into the crushing darkness.

He was deposited at the edge of the woods. It was early evening, the sun almost set and the sky purple and dotted with stars. There was no campfire burning and the grounds were silent. The campers must have already turned in to bed.

Nico trudged past the ropes course and lava wall to the Big House. The holiday lights had been removed days ago, replaced with mosquito repelling candles burning on the little card tables. Warm light shone out the living room windows illuminating the porch.

Nico pushed open the screen door, letting it bang shut behind him. At the noise, Chiron emerged from the kitchen in his wooden wheelchair.

“Nico,” he sighed in relief. “My boy, where have you been?”

“I went to see someone.”

“Who– oh.” His face fell. “Nico please tell me that you haven’t…”

Nico shoved his hands into his pants’ pockets and scuffed the toe of his shoes on the hardwood floor. “I didn’t mean to. I just–” he looked up, meeting Chiron’s concerned eyes. “I asked for someone to take me away, and… and it worked.”

“We have much to talk about.” Chiron gestured to the kitchen. “Come, there’s hot chocolate.”

Nico recounted the afternoon’s events, his journey to the underworld, speaking with his father, their argument. Chiron blanched when Nico explained how he had contradicted the Lord of the Dead and even shouted at him in his own palace. Apparently, Nico was lucky to be alive.

Somehow Nico doubted his father would kill him. Not after Hades had gone through so much to ensure his survival, but that wasn’t to say he couldn’t make life very difficult.

In his guest room, Nico shivered and burrowed further under his blanket. It had been a long day.

After being separated from his father for years, Nico hadn't been him for more than an hour before being summarily dismissed. It hurt. Everything hurt. The absence of Bianca, losing Pietro, his father's coldness… It felt like every time he thought he was getting a rug under his feet, someone yanked it out, leaving him alone and bruised on the floor.

Suddenly his mother's absence burned anew. She would know what to say, she would talk sense into his father, she would never have let Bianca leave him.

One thing was now abundantly clear to him: his father was nothing like his mother.

The Allies. It was their fault. The Allies, the Olympians, one in the same really. If Zeus and Poseidon hadn’t teamed up against Hades in the war Nico would still be in Italy. Bianca wouldn’t be so far away. Pietro would still be alive. Mama would still be alive.

He didn’t leave the Big House at all the following day. Chiron tried to coax him out of doors for breakfast and again for training. Both times he refused. Nico ate in the house’s cramped, country style kitchen, and skipped training to read in his room.

He was lucky in that the guest bedroom was on the second floor and out of Chiron’s reach. The most the old centaur could do was call up the stairs and that was easily ignored by closing the door and burrowing under his comforter. His teacher would always give up after a few minutes and only return after another hour or so had passed. It felt safer for Nico to hide away in his room. Safe from the resentful eyes of the other campers, the jeers, and Peter’s inevitable fists.

It didn’t click until the following afternoon. 

After Mary’s accident, he had finally felt the power of the prayer. He had finally come into his abilities. He was a son of Hades with all the power and abilities that came with his divine heritage. If he couldn’t go to Pietro, he could summon Pietro to him. And with Chiron’s training, Hades would be none the wiser.

Chapter Text

June 25, 1944

Focus, Nico.”

One hand out in front of him, his eyes closed. He took one breath in and let it out slowly. There. A tug behind his navel and the ground began to shake. A skeletal hand broke through the earth, clawing at the grass. His breath hitched in his throat. No matter how many times he practised, he was always startled by the first.

“Don’t lose it.”

Another deep breath. He closed his first and tugged with every ounce of every ounce of energy he had. The earth split open. Eight skeletal warriors, dressed from head to toe in Greek battle armour, sand and dirt pouring from every crevice and socket, emerged from the pit.

“Very good,” Chiron murmured, a hand coming to Nico’s shoulder. “Now. You know what to do.”

“Only one,” Nico said, his voice stronger than he felt. He was already tired from the effort of summoning. The phalanx advanced, ignoring him. Nico shrugged off Chiron’s hand and drew his sword. “I said, only one.”

The skeletons seemed to falter, looking at each other as if they might have the answer. Then all but one of the warriors collapsed, bones falling to the ground in a macabre jumble. The remaining skeleton advanced, sword in hand. Chiron backed away as Nico readied his stance.

The skeleton struck first. Nico parried reflexively, more than a little unprepared.

“Don’t let your guard down,” Chiron instructed.

Nico shoved the skeleton away, shaking his shoulders loose. He could do this. He had fought skeleton warriors before but the summoning always left him tense and drained. He went on the offensive, beating the soldier back with his celestial bronze blade.

“Watch your left side!”

Nico jumped out of the way just in time as the skeleton slashed at his waist. The soldier clacked its empty jaw menacingly. Nico ignored the noise, stabbing at the skeleton’s rib cage. The blade passed harmlessly through the gaps between its bones.

Think Nico!” Chiron scolded. “What are you fighting?”

Nico jogged back a handful of steps, giving himself a chance to breathe. The skeleton followed, brandishing its rusty blade. Before the soldier could strike, Nico swiped his blade at the skeleton’s legs, knocking the bones out from under it – if not held together with muscles and ligaments, reanimated bones were surprisingly precarious.

What was left of the skeleton fell to the ground, hips and upwards balanced on the grass, hands still clasping the hilt of the sword.

Nico dodged the flying weapon and swung his sword across the skeleton's neck, cleaving the skull clean off.

The bones crumpled, rolling dully across the earth before bursting into little clumps of golden sand. A single pinky finger remained in the grass at Nico’s feet, his spoil. Nico pocketed it to add to his steadily growing collection in the Big House attic.

Chiron clapped him on the back. “Good work, my boy. You’re growing stronger.”

Nico grinned at him. “Thanks, Chiron.”

“Now, be a lad and fetch my bow and quiver. I have a class to teach.”

He nodded and sheathed his sword. They had been training on the edge of the forest for the better part of an hour. It was a nice day, one of the warmest of the summer so far, and Nico could feel the heat of the sun burning on the back of his neck as he crossed the green.

The other campers did not deign to acknowledge him as he passed, choosing instead to become suddenly fascinated by their shoes or something off in the middle distance. It had been that way for the past year or so. Ever since Mary’s accident.

Nico’s feet pounded on the wooden steps to the porch. The screen door slammed shut behind him. It was stuffy in the Big House, despite the windows thrown wide. Nico wrinkled his nose at the feel of it; it was even worse upstairs in his bedroom.

He hurried down the hall to the right until he reached Chiron’s office.

The door was closed, as it always was, but unlocked. Nico had been in Chiron’s office before, but it wasn’t a common occurrence. Once had been to receive a Christmas card from a relative that Hermes had sent his way, and the second to be lectured on the importance of keeping his weapons in good order in the armoury rather than tossed in the general directions of their racks.

Inside, the room was neat and orderly. An in-out tray sat on the corner of the dark wood desk alongside a jar of pens and a letter opener. A newspaper lay casually thrown in the centre of the desk. At the back of the room in between two windows, Chiron’s bow and quiver hung in pride of place.

Nico skirted the edge of the desk to retrieve the items and turned to leave, but just as he did so, the newspaper’s headline caught his eye. His dyslexia made it difficult to make out, but Nico could guess as much as Gunmen Murder One Million.

He blinked. What on earth was that about?

He swiped the paper off the desk and tucked it under his arm. Chiron had some reading to do.

Chiron was already on the archery range when Nico arrived. The centaur observed the campers as they strung their bows and checked their quivers. It was an advanced group of Ares and Athena campers who evidently had quite a lot of experience under their belts already.

“Here,” said Nico, offering the weapons.

“Thank you, Nico,” said Chiron with a warm smile.

“I found this,” said Nico, not waiting for Chiron’s attention to waver. He held out the newspaper for inspection and Chiron took it, slinging his bow and quiver over his back as he did so.

“Ah… Nico… do you know what this is?”

“Someone killed a million people, right? That’s a lot for one battle. Where did it happen? Was it in France?”

“Nico… this…”

“What does it say?” Nico demanded.

Chiron gave him a cautious look and cleared his throat. “Germans Murder Jews in Poland.”

Nico’s stomach dropped. “The Germans? My– murder?”

Chiron fixed him with a searching look. “Are you certain you want to hear this?”

Nico exhaled, trying to shake the nerves from his body, and nodded. “Yes. Yes, I– I need to know what’s happening.”

Chiron eyed him carefully but continued to read. “From 1942 to 1944, more than 1,500,000 Jews were put to death by gas or other methods in the German concentration camps in Poland. In addition, a system of starvation is being carried out in which the number of deaths, on the admission of the Germans themselves, bids to be almost as large. This is stated in a report received by Allied Governments in London from a Polish major who was imprisoned at the camp. The report is based on statements by eye-witnesses who escaped from the camps last April. The most gruesome details of mass kill–”

Nico looked up at him in confusion. “And? What else does it say?”

Chiron’s eyes were sorrowful as he surveyed Nico over the paper. “Nico you really should not have read this. It is not something a boy your age should know.”

“Well, now I do know. So please explain it before I spend the next hour trying to figure it out on my own.”

Chiron glanced around at the archery class warming up around him. “Take a rest, and meet me on the ropes course after lunch. We will talk about this later.”

“But–”

“Later.”

Before Nico could argue any further, Chiron had already left to begin his lesson. Nico huffed and turned away. No one told him anything.

“Oi, run along, kid,” a jeering voice called. “Don’t you have some children to terrorize?”

Nico clenched his fists. The Ares cabin. Over the past year, they had formed an unlikely alliance with the Aphrodite campers to make Nico’s life miserable.

He knew he deserved it. What kind of demigod needed someone to die to use their powers? Half-bloods were supposed to help people, not kill them. His training had come along in leaps and bounds since Mary had died and he had come into his powers. It was pointless to pretend he hadn’t profited from her death. But the fact that he deserved it didn’t make it much easier to bear.

He kept walking.

“Hey, I’m talking to you.”

A strong hand grabbed Nico by the shoulder and hauled him around. It was Bruce Wallace, one of the biggest and meanest Ares campers. 

“I’m a little confused, are you a vampire or a zombie?”

Nico didn’t meet his eyes, focusing on the bite of his fingernails digging into his palms.

“Come on, didn’t your mother ever teach you it’s rude to ignore someone?”

Nico bit down on his tongue hard enough to draw blood. Don’t rise…

“Oh, that’s right. She got herself blown up, didn’t she?”

Bruce’s voice was distant, barely audible over the roar of blood in Nico’s ears. He could feel the heat rush to his face. No one talked about his mother like that.

“That’s one thing The Lord of the Sky got right. Too bad he missed you. What? You don’t have anything to say?”

Nico could feel the insistent tugging behind his navel. He had to get to the Big House before he lost control. If Bruce would just let go of him, he could walk away and–

Bruce gave him a violent shake. “Don’t ignore me you little–” 

A rumble rolled through the camp and the ground shook under Nico’s feet. Cries of alarm sprung up from around the archery range.

“Let go of me,” Nico ground out.

The earthquake shook the field, cracks springing to existence and zigzagging their way through the grass.

“Nico!” Chiron yelled. He cantered in their direction, only to stumble as the ground in front of him fell away.

“Is this what you did to Mary?” Bruce said with a forced sneer. “Made the ground give out under her chariot?” He sounded scared now, a slight tremble in his voice, the grip on Nico’s arm tight enough to leave bruises.

“I never hurt Mary!” Nico snapped. “That wasn’t my fault. The chariot–”

“Nico, stop this!” Chiron was only a few yards away.

Then Nico registered what was happening around him. Targets had fallen to the ground, campers, held onto each other’s shoulders, kneeling in the grass because they couldn’t keep their footing. The grass was split in places with cracks leading straight to the Underworld.

He squeezed his eyes shut, focussing on the lurch in his gut. Control it, he ordered himself. He concentrated on his breathing, taking deep, slow breaths. He couldn’t let anyone else get hurt.

When he opened his eyes, the shaking had stopped. The cracks in the earth had sealed themselves, leaving dark scars in the green grass. The campers were getting to their feet, casting death glares in Nico’s direction.

“Reset the field,” Chiron ordered no one in particular, his eyes on Nico. “I will only be a moment.”

Nico ducked his head. Bruce gave him one last shove and stalked away to find his siblings.

“Come along,” said Chiron, ushering Nico away from the field. 

“Nico, you are getting to be too old to lose control,” he said sternly as they crossed the fields. “With over a year of training–”

“Spare me the lecture,” Nico grumbled, “I know. Worst student you have ever had the misfortune of teaching.”

“That is not what I was going to say.” Nico rolled his eyes and shoved his hands in his pockets. “What was it this time?” Chiron asked after a long pause. “What did Bruce say?”

Nico chewed on his bottom lip. “…Nothing.”

“Nico–”

“I just lost control. It was me.”

“I cannot help you if–”

“I don’t need you to fight my battles!”

The campers paused at the training field. Chiron glanced at the archery range and back to Nico.

“You aren’t my father,” Nico said, more quietly. “I don’t need your help.”

“I know you do not want to hear this,” Chiron said in a low voice. “I am not trying to take your father’s place, Nico, but you should not expect him to take a role in your life. Many demigods never meet their godly parent, the time you spent with your father is an exception and I am very sorry to say that it is likely the extent of your contact with him. You must let go of this notion–”

“That I have any sort of family?” Nico glared at him. “My mother died, my grandfather didn’t want me, my sister left me here, and my father doesn’t want anything to do with me.”

“That is not what I said.”

“But it’s what you meant.”

“What I meant is that holding on to what is lost will only make things more difficult for you. You need to let go and learn to be happy and find a new family here.”

“I don’t want a new family,” Nico snapped. “I want my old one back.”

He wanted snowy evenings in his grandfather’s living room, sitting before a grand fireplace with Bianca and a plate of chocolate cake. He wanted his mother reading bedtime stories and teaching him piano. The days when he and Bianca weren’t bickering and she would walk him to the store to buy penny candies or take him to the park. Those rare evenings when his father would visit, always accompanied by some new toy or treat. Nico remembered the life he had lead before, the grandson of a diplomat, he had had everything he wanted, everything he could possibly need. He missed having his sister to dust him off when he fell, and his mother to kiss every bump and bruise.

He wanted an end to the war. A world where the papers didn’t report on mass murder, where children at school didn’t have to prepare for air raids.

The loss of his old life was a familiar ache and one that had never entirely gone away even after three years. He learned to put the nostalgia out of his mind but each and every time he thought of his old life, the pain burned anew. He wondered if it would ever go away.

“Then it is your choice to hold on,” Chiron sighed, “but I would urge you otherwise. You must be tired. Take a rest and start with your Latin, I will check on your progress when my class is over.”

Nico stormed back to the Big House. He was sick of being told how he was supposed to feel and what he was supposed to want. He wanted his family, he wanted a way to escape the other campers, he wanted Chiron to understand him the way he had before the chariot race.

He shook his head and slammed the screen door behind him. There was no point wishing for things that could never happen. Maybe Chiron was right and he just needed to accept that Camp Half-Blood was his life now. He would continue to train and avoid the Ares campers until he turned sixteen and then– and then what?

He had never been told what happened after he turned sixteen only that he had to “prove himself” before he got there. How was he supposed to prove himself worthy if he let the other campers push him around like Chiron wanted him to? Surely the hero of the prophecy wasn’t supposed to be picked on by summer campers.

Nothing made sense anymore. Nothing had really made sense since he had left Italy.

He stomped into the sitting room, the buzz of pain that echoed up through his body at each thump giving him a kind of satisfaction.

His Latin work sat open on a small desk under the window. He and Chiron had been working on it the previous evening, discussing the various accomplishments of the Olympian gods, with the notable exception of Hades, of course, over the course of the past century.

His assignment was simple and should have been easy, all he needed to do was translate one Latin paragraph into English, then into Italian, and then into Ancient Greek. Nico had been speaking the first three languages for years and Greek came to him easily enough, it was not a particularly gruelling project. Even so, Nico could hardly focus on the letters in front of him. His eyes skimmed over the words without taking in any meaning, the letters blurred together in dark squiggles in a way somehow entirely different from his usual reading problems.

He huffed and flipped his workbook shut. Latin could wait.

He kicked his chair under the desk and glanced around the room. Out the window, he could still see campers working in the archery fields. Chiron paced up and down the lines behind the campers, correcting form here and there, and calling the range safe.Nico’s hand automatically went to his sword hilt as he cast about for something to do. His fingers tapped along the pommel absently. Frowning, he looked down at his hand. That was something he could do.

Nico’s hand automatically went to his sword hilt as he cast about for something to do. His fingers tapped along the pommel absently. Frowning, he looked down at his hand. That was something he could do.

He pulled his sword from its sheath with the familiar shing of metal on metal. Chiron never let him do anything cool in his lessons. It was always drills or sparring or powers practice. Never the tricks the older campers showed off.

The sword was comfortable in his hand, a now familiar weight. He swung experimentally, twisting his wrist to spin the sword in his palm. It spun easily, the blade slicing through the air with a satisfying ease. Nico grinned in spite of himself. He whirled the blade again and tossed it to catch in his left hand. It was so easy. He spun in a little circle, staring down an imaginary enemy with his sword raised. He could see Bruce’s face perfectly ingrained in his memory as he slashed at mid-air.

CRASH!

Oh, Hades.

Nico dropped to his knees on the hardwood. The lamp lay in pieces on the rug in front of him. The ceramic base scattered in large chunks and the glass bulb smashed, little bits of glass sparkling in the wool of the rug. The lampshade had rolled away under an end table. Chiron was going to positively murder him.

He swept at the broken pieces with his bare hands, pulling them into a haphazard pile and ignoring the pinpricks on his skin. If Nico just cleaned everything up before Chiron came in, he would be none the wiser. He hoped.

Chiron’s hooves clopped heavily on the porch step and Nico heard the familiar shuffle as he sank down into his wheelchair and came in through the screen door. Damn it damn it damn it! Nico cradled the handful of shattered ceramic in one hand and made for the kitchen dustbin.

Nico could hear Chiron enter the kitchen even as he dumped the pile into the bin. He whirled around.

“What’s happened here?” Chiron asked seriously looking at Nico’s bloodied hands.

Nico hastily tucked his hands behind his back. “Nothing!”

Chiron frowned at him. “That is a very poor lie, Nico. Let me see those hands.” Nico shuffled his feet and ducked his head but allowed Chiron to gently pull his hands out from behind his back. Chiron tutted over them, noting the tiny pieces of glass from the smashed lightbulb that had stuck themselves into the skin of his palms. “Hmm… Well, I suppose it could be much worse. I highly doubt this will require stitches or nectar. Come sit and I’ll clean this up.”

“I can do it myself,” Nico mumbled, his face flushed. He hated when Chiron treated him like a child. He was thirteen! He didn’t need anyone to take care of him.

“I’m sure,” said Chiron, sounding unconvinced. “Humour me.”

It stung. Chiron was not quite as gentle as usual when he removed the glass shards with a pair of tweezers and washed out the cuts. They sat at the kitchen table, Nico very conscious of not dripping blood on to the blue gingham tablecloth.

“Look, I’m sorry about the lamp,” Nico said.

“This isn’t about the lamp, Nico.” Chiron sighed and rubbed a hand across his forehead. “I asked you to do your language work, why can you not do as you are told? What were you doing?”

“I was trying to do sword tricks,” he muttered. “I never get to learn anything like that in my lessons.”

“That is because combat is not game,” Chiron huffed. “I teach what you need to learn. When you understand the seriousness of the situation, perhaps you can learn other things.”

Nico rolled his eyes. “I do ‘understand the situation’. Father dumped me here to wait for gods know how long and you are left to pick up the pieces.” He stomped his foot on the tiled floor hard enough to bruise his heel and glared at the ground as if that would get Hades’ attention.

Chiron pinched the bridge of his nose. “I would appreciate it if you did not attempt to anger Lord Hades, Nico. Your frustration is understandable but kindly refrain from bringing the wrath of the Lord of the Underworld down on this camp. There are many innocent–”

“Innocent my eye,” Nico snapped. “You see how they treat me. Let Hades crush them, see if I care.”

“I know you do not mean that.”

“Don’t I? I only ever do what I’m told. It’s always lessons and chores and turning the other cheek. I screw up once and– and suddenly it’s the end of the world because Zeus will smite me and no one will take on the prophecy.”

“I never said that,” Chiron countered. “You are being dramatic.”

“Oh, am I?” Nico said scathingly. “It doesn’t seem like that to me.”

“You simply cannot afford to make these mistakes, Nico,” Chiron barked, his voice uncharacteristically harsh.

“That isn’t fair!”

Chiron took a deep, steadying breath, eyes closed. When he opened them again, he seemed to have regained his usual composure. “No,” he said. “It isn’t fair. But I can only accept the very best from you.”

Nico slumped in his chair. “...How can you expect the best from me if I don’t even have all the information?”

“Is that what all this was?” Chiron asked, bitterly amused. “An elaborate plan to convince me to read the article?”

“No,” Nico admitted. “But I do want to hear it. The prophecy too.”

“I will concede the article to you,” Chiron agreed. “The prophecy, I am afraid, will have to wait upon the gods’ permission.”

Of course it would. Just like nearly everything else in his life since Italy, Nico would wait for Olympus’ approval. He was honestly surprised that they didn’t call for a meeting of the twelve when Nico wanted to take a bath.

Chiron pulled the newspaper from a basket under his wheelchair and flipped it open to the correct page before passing it on to Nico. He skimmed through what Chiron had already read to him.

“Prisoners are housed in rows of buildings surrounded by electrified fencing nine feet high with machine-gun and searchlight towers at–”

“Intervals,” Chiron provided.

“–at intervals of 500 yards. Four… Um...

“Crematories.”

“...Crematories each with a daily capacity of 1,500 were built in the camp in February 1943. The camp doctor divides sick personal into two groups, seriously ill and curable. The former are disposed of by fatal injection near the heart but 50 percent of all Jews, curable or not, receive the injection.”

Nico looked up at Chiron in confusion. “What does that mean?”

Chiron’s hands were clasped in his lap, his face drawn in concentration. “It means that Germany has begun to eliminate all Jews from their occupied territory. I believe people have begun to call it a ‘genocide’.”

“Not–” Nico looked down at the paper again. “But not all of them. They wouldn’t kill everyone. They can’t.”

“It seems they are trying.”

Nico’s stomach lurched. He thought he was going to be ill. If he was embracing his heritage as a son of Hades, was this his future? Murder and destruction? He didn’t want any of that.

He felt ashamed. He wanted to retch. He wanted to sob, to scream.

How could people like him, people who shared his blood, treat other human beings like that? He felt ill, then felt guilty for feeling ill. He had no right to be so distraught at the discovery. He had not suffered from it in the slightest. He had been safely tucked away, sheltered from the knowledge of the true nature of the war in his boarding house, playing with the other boys, laughing with Pietro, and dismissing Bianca’s solemn looks at the Swastikas hung in shop windows. And even after leaving St. Dismas, Nico had been sequestered away in the Big House at Camp Half-Blood where his only worry was what the other campers thought of him.

It was ridiculous. How could he have been so ignorant, so completely out of touch with the world around him that he hadn’t realized what was going on? He had hardly even thought to ask Chiron. What kind of person did that make him? To be so self-centered that even in the midst of a war he didn’t think to ask about the true victims of hardship?

He remembered what his teachers at St. Dismas’ had called him. An ungrateful child. Troublesome. A fool. And one particularly colourful ‘devil child’. They were right, of course they had been. He had been an idiot to ever think otherwise.

When night fell, Nico’s mind was still on the war. Chiron had confiscated his practice sword and made him finish cleaning up the broken lamp. Nico had finished his language work in tense silence while Chiron read on the sofa. Their practice on the ropes course wasn’t nearly as much fun as it usually was with the tension hanging in the air.

At dinner, Nico had scraped a portion of his food into the fire with a silent prayer to his father and tried to ignore the scathing looks from the campers as he ate at the end of the Hermes table. He knew they were judging him not only for losing control of his powers but also, always, for his parentage, his country. Everything.

He picked at his food unenthusiastically.

It had not been a good day.

When Chiron had dismissed them from the dining pavilion, Nico did not return to the Big House and instead wandered through the dark to the beach. He had an odd sort of thrill being near water, the same kind of feeling as standing at the edge of a high cliff: his stomach did cartwheels and his heart beat faster. He supposed it was the risk. He knew entering the water would be a near death sentence now that he knew his parentage; a son of Hades venturing into the ocean would be an insult to Poseidon.

Nico settled himself down on the sand, kicking off his shoes and socks. It was a warm night and the moon shone bright enough to illuminate the water with an eerie glow. Nico leaned back on his hands, letting the sand trickle over his fingers and toes. It wasn’t the most pleasant sensation in the world but the discomfort gave him an odd satisfaction.

“You alright?”

Nico jumped and whirled around. A tall boy stood behind him in the scrubby grass where the main green met the beach. His dark hair rustled in the breeze, the moonlight glinting off his blue eyes. Phillip. Despite being in his early twenties, the son of Zeus had returned to camp for the summer to help Chiron with some of the younger campers. He never spoke to Nico when it wasn’t absolutely necessary.

“What are you doing here?” said Nico, fidgeting with his hands in his lap.

“I saw what happened on the archery field. I thought you might want someone to talk to.”

“Really?”

“No. Chiron said he would teach my beginner javelin class for two weeks if I did.”

“Oh.” Nico drew his knees up and hugged them to his chest.

Phillip sighed. “I was joking.” He settled down in the sand beside Nico. “Well, no, Chiron did say he would cover my class but that isn’t the only reason I came. What happened on the archery field… that kind of thing used to happen to me all the time.”

Nico snorted. “No. I don’t think so.”

“Really,” Phillip insisted. “After I was claimed, I could get so nervous. There’s a lot of pressure being a child of the Big Three, you know that. Mostly it was just little things, clouds rolling in when I was under pressure, pouring with rain just outside the borders. But sometimes it was much worse. Lightning strikes on the top of the Big House and in the woods - more than one fire started, actually. It was awful. I was so scared I was going to hurt someone. And that was when Chiron was familiar with my powers, he’s taught hundreds of Zeus’ children. He can probably count on his hands how many children of Hades he’s taught. It isn’t your fault, Nico. It’s a lot of power to contain without a lot of help. It’s hard. Trust me, I know.”

Of course Phillip knew. Why hadn’t Nico thought to ask before? They were the only Big Three children left at camp after all. It made sense Phillip could help him.

Nico looked up at him. “Why didn’t you… why didn’t you ever tell me any of that before?”

Phillip shifted uncomfortably. “Look, Nico… You– you aren’t a bad kid but I would have an angry mob after me if anyone else knew about this. You understand, don’t you?”

Nico’s stomach sank. “Oh. I thought– never mind.” Of course he didn’t actually want to be friends with Nico. …Or anything else. Why would he?

“Hey…” he patted Nico’s shoulder awkwardly. “It isn’t all that bad. I bet living in the Big House is a lot more comfortable than the cabins.”

As if that was any consolation.

“Would be more comfortable if everyone didn’t hate me,” Nico pointed out.

“People don’t hate you–”

“Don’t they?” Nico demanded. “Seems like they do. Even Chiron–”

“Hey,” Phillip’s voice was suddenly harsher than before. “Don’t take this out on Chiron. He’s doing what he can, but he can’t change everyone’s minds for them. Especially not when you aren’t doing anything to make friends on your own.” Nico huffed and clenched his fists in the sand. He wished Phillip wasn’t right. He knew he hadn’t exactly gone out of his way to endear himself to the other campers.

“I know Chiron’s hard on you. But he’s doing everything he can to help you. You’re lucky the gods sent you here, Chiron can do a lot to help you. And he’s only hard on you because he knows how great you can be.”

Nico flushed, grateful that the darkness hid the blush on his cheeks. Phillip thought he could be great.

“Yeah?” said Nico with forced spite. “Well, right now all he’s doing is make me feel like I’m just not good enough. Never will be.”

Phillip pushed himself to his feet, brushing sand from his shorts and palms. “It isn’t Chiron’s fault if you push everyone away. Instead of being angry at the world, maybe you should take a look at why you refuse to be a part of it.”

Nico wrapped his arms around his knees and pulled them up to his chest, glaring at the sand, as Phillip turned away. He curled his toes, feeling the sand trickle in and around the creases between his toes. Suddenly the beach did not feel peaceful or contemplative. It was nothing, but eerily lonely.

Chapter Text

September 5, 1945

Things did not improve for Nico with the end of the war.

The announcement of America’s victory in Japan saw parades through the streets and celebrations for days on end, or so Chiron’s newspapers reported, and Camp Half-Blood was not exempt from the post-war jubilations. The campers built a roaring bonfire, sang at the top of their lungs, devoted extra large offerings to the gods, and Chiron seemed in too good a mood to reprimand rowdiness.

Nico wasn’t entirely sure how he felt about an Allied Victory. It was isolating; the world around him rejoiced, but Nico himself felt as though he was moving in slow motion. The war was over, so logically he knew he had no reason to be anything other than thrilled. He was an Italian, after all, and had lived in America for the majority of his life. His loyalties should be firmly on the side of the Allies.

So why wasn’t he pleased?

You know why, a voice in the back of his mind told him, because your family lost.

Hades’ other children had been leaders of the Axis Powers and they had lost. But those from Hades’ bloodline couldn’t lose. They simply couldn’t. They were the children of the eldest Olympian, the strongest and most powerful of all the gods. How could they be defeated? It didn’t make sense.

But Nico knew they deserved defeat. He knew the atrocities that had been committed and the complete horror of the aftermath. That knowledge didn’t change the fact that he felt a type of shame that his family’s side in the war had been defeated by that of Poseidon and Zeus.

Sympathy for the victims? Or shame for his family’s loss?

It was a balance he weighed in his mind for the days following the news of the Allied victory. 

It didn’t help that the defeat of the Axis Powers had emboldened the other campers against him. They took his siblings’ defeat as a sign that Nico was not as frightening as they had once thought, and he instead shifted into the role of everyone’s favourite target. He was the camp scapegoat. A dark Italian, a son of Hades, clearly an ideal outlet for everyone’s pent-up energy.

Nico spent almost all of his time training. He threw himself wholeheartedly into Chiron’s lessons and devoted most of his time outside of lessons to perfecting his techniques and reading up on what they discussed in their theory and mythology classes.

His current favourite spot was in the shade of a large maple tree. Most afternoons, during his allotted free time, he could be found sitting cross-legged in the shade with a book or cleaning his armour. That was where Peter and his friends found him.

“Oi, dago!”

Nico glanced up, then wished he hadn’t. It was embarrassing that he now responded to slurs nearly as well as his own name.

Peter Stowe and his friends stood at the mouth of the cabins area. Peter, in the middle, had his arms folded and a grin on his face that Nico did not trust in the least. He ducked his head back to the book in his lap.

The dissertation Chiron had given him (written by one Emilie Preiswerk, apparently) had been his near-constant companion for the past year. Ever since Phillip had found him on the camp beach he had made, what he considered, a conscious effort to get a grip on his powers. After Nico had finished reading the book cover to cover for the second time, Chiron had dug out some of Emilie’s other work which was mostly comprised of leather-bound notebooks written in messy, jagged handwriting that she had documented her training and the development of her powers in.

Emilie’s powers had apparently developed very differently than Nico’s. Hers had manifested young and had been accompanied by constant whisperings from the dead, and visions of and visitations from spirits that had escaped the Underworld. Nico was grateful he had not inherited those particular gifts from his father and dearly hoped that they would not develop when he was older.

Nico’s powers had always come to him slowly. Until Mary’s death, he had not shown an inkling of supernatural ability and even when he had, it took a conscious and concerted effort to use. He couldn’t recall Bianca displaying any kind of power either. It made him even more uneasy about fulfilling the prophecy. Was the late onset of his powers a sign that they were weaker than those of Hades other children? What if he wasn’t strong enough to be Olympus’ hero?

“Di Angelo!”

Nico’s eyes flicked up from the page.

Peter and his friends, who Nico now recognized as Gary Donald from the Dionysus cabin and Stephen Walter from Apollo’s, stood over him, arms still crossed in almost comical symmetry. They leered down at him.

“What do you have there?” Stephen asked, already reaching for the journal.

Nico slid it behind his back. “Nothing.”

Peter raised an eyebrow and glanced at the other two boys. “Really? That doesn’t look like ‘nothing’.”

Gary made a quick grab for the notebook which Nico blocked and as he did, Stephen swiped the book out from behind him. Nico slumped back against the tree, glaring at the three boys. Peter and Gary grinned at each other as Stephen flipped it open and skimmed through the pages.

“I heard voices at night again,” he read. “I think the dead sense who I am and are drawn to me– you read this?”

Peter wrinkled his nose. “You hear voices? You know what they do to mortals who hear voices at night? Two steel rods through the brain.”

Stephen grumbled. “Don’t give me any ideas…”

“Just give me my book,” Nico snapped. “I wasn’t doing anything to you.”

Gary snorted. “You being here is enough, ginzo.”

Stephen snapped the journal shut with a clap. “You know, I think I am getting an idea.”

Peter grinned. “Care to share with the group?”

“Just a little therapy session for di Angelo, here.” Nico’s stomach churned. “To help him remember exactly who he is and where he came from, I think he’s forgetting. Who knows? It might even help with all those pesky voices he’s been hearing.”

Nico pushed himself to his feet, slowly edging sideways around the tree. 

“Leave me alone.” 

He hated how his voice wavered.

“I think someone’s scared,” Gary said in a sing-song voice.

Peter’s hand shot out to seize the front of Nico’s shirt, slamming him up against the tree trunk. Nico’s breath hitched as his head collided with the tree.

“I’m going to make you understand every single inkling of pain I’ve had to deal with since you took Mary from me,” he growled in Nico’s ear. “You don’t belong here, di Angelo.”

Gary grabbed Nico by the wrist and wrenched his arm up behind his back. Nico yelped, his knees buckling under the force.

“Let’s go on a little trip.”

The boys manhandled Nico across the camp to the dining pavilion. Nico dug his heels in the dirt and yelled muffled protests against Stephen’s hand over his mouth. If any of the other campers noticed what was happening, they didn’t intervene.

Nico reached for that tug of power behind his navel but it wouldn’t come. The ground rumbled weakly beneath their feet, more like an upset stomach than an earthquake, and halted altogether when Gary buried his fist in Nico’s gut.

“Stop,” Nico choked, the breath knocked out of him.

When they reached the pavilion, Gary slammed Nico against the nearest column. Nico gasped as his ribcage smacked into the hard stone. He kicked out as something was wound around his legs. Rope? When had they found rope? Gary tightened his grip on Nico’s wrist and twisted his arm behind his back.

Peter and Stephen took the opening to pull the rope tight around his calves and swing it up over one of the marble beams.

“Wait–”

Before he could finish his sentence, Nico was lurched off his feet. Together, Peter and Stephen hauled on the rope, yanking Nico’s legs out from underneath him. He yelped as he hit the ground and clawed at the marble stones as he was dragged, feet first, into the air.

The world was strange upside down, it made him feel ill. Nico could feel the blood rushing to his head and his shirt slipped exposing his embarrassingly scrawny frame. Nico craned upwards to reach his ankles and untie the rope, his abs burning. Gary, Peter, and Stephen laughed out loud as he scrambled, twisting and squirming against his bonds.

Some of the other campers were approaching, summoned by the shouting and laughter. The crowd gathered cabin by cabin until almost the entire camp was watching him struggle. Some of them joined in laughing with the boys, Bruce at the forefront. Others, like Phillip, kept their amusement and sniggers to themselves. No one stepped forward to help Nico down.

“Let me down!” Nico shouted, swaying in the air.

His stomach rolled. He didn’t like heights, or being upside down, or being the centre of attention, and certainly not a combination of all three with an added bonus of pain and humiliation.

“PETER MICHAEL STOWE!” Chiron’s voice boomed through the dining pavilion. The snickering stopped abruptly as all of the campers’ mirth was extinguished. Nico stopped struggling, letting his arms dangle limply as he swung. “Cut him down this instant!”

Peter folded his arms and turned to face Chiron. “It’s just a little fun, Chiron,” he said. “No harm done.”

Now, Peter,” Chiron ordered, his voice dangerous. “If I have to tell you one more time…”

Stephen stepped up beside Peter and put a hand on his shoulder. “Fine,” he said in a dignified voice, “we made our point. Gary?”

Gary looked disappointed but released the rope regardless. Nico plummeted to the ground. Instinctively, he tucked as he fell and hit the marble floor on his side, his left shoulder taking the brunt of the blow. 

It was dizzying, the world spun off kilter, all the breath was knocked from his lungs. Tears stung the back of his eyes. He gasped, curling inwards to protect the rest of him in case Peter and his friends thought he made a good target on the floor.

“Peter, Gary, Stephen,” Chiron snapped, “kitchen duty for the rest of the summer, stable chores for the rest of the month, and if I hear of you planning something like this again I assure you, you will regret it. Do you understand me?”

Nico had never heard Chiron so furious.

“Yes, Chiron,” the boys said in unison. They didn’t sound apologetic.

“The rest of you,” Chiron continued, lifting his voice, “back to your scheduled activities.” When no one moved he cast a glare around at the crowd. “Now!”

The crowd scattered.

Nico shuddered on the stone floor. The pain from his shoulder echoed through his entire body. He could already feel a bruise forming deep in his skin. He groaned.

The other campers would never let him forget what had happened, he would be the laughing stock of Camp Half-Blood for the rest of his life.

“Nico…”

Chiron stood over him now, his centaur hooves uncomfortably close to Nico’s body. He bent at the knees, holding Nico gently under the arms and lifting him up to his feet.

Nico didn’t resist. He swayed slightly on his feet, his stomach swirling.

“Oh, Nico.” Chiron sighed. “Back to the house, I think. I want to check that shoulder.”

Nico’s mind snapped to a vicious clarity.

“No!” He hauled his arm out of Chiron’s grip. “I’m done here.”

“Breathe, Nico,” Chiron ordered gently. “You’re–”

“Don’t tell me I’m upset! And don’t tell me to breathe. Did you see what they did to me?”

“Calm down–”

“No! I will not calm down! They hung me upside down like– like a criminal? Like Mussolini? That’s what I am to them! I’m the enemy.”

“Nico,” Chiron chided, irritatingly calm, “the boys’ actions are reprehensible but do not take this too far. You are not the enemy here. The campers are… letting off steam with the victory celebrations and looking for someone to blame for the war. I assure you, it is not personal.”

“Do I look like I care if it’s personal?” Nico demanded, rolling his sore shoulder. “Do you think I agreed to become the camp’s punching bag? It’s humiliating! Is this what the gods had planned when they sent me here? Is this what my father wanted for me?”

“I understand that you are angry–”

“No, Chiron, you don’t understand! I’m leaving. I won’t do this anymore, and I don’t care what the fucking council has to say about it!”

Thunder rumbled in the distance and Chiron’s face went pale.

“Back to the house, Nico,” he ordered.

“Didn’t you hear what I said? I’m–”

Go,” Chiron barked, making Nico jump. “It is not safe, for you of all demigods, to criticize the gods so openly, nor to disregard their orders. Now, back to the house.

Nico blinked at him. Chiron had never taken such a tone with him before.

He narrowed his eyes at the centaur. “And you wonder why I want to leave.”

Then, with a turn on his heel, he stormed back to the house.

 

***

 

Chiron never got the chance to inspect Nico’s shoulder. By the time the old centaur let himself into the house, Nico had shut himself into his bedroom.

He began his preparations as darkness fell. He packed lightly in a mid-sized canvas rucksack Chiron had gifted him years prior. In it went a change of clothes, an old and dented metal water canteen, and an extra pair of socks. Anything else he needed he would have to beg, borrow, or steal.

He waited until the cabin lights flicked out one by one and the hallway light outside his room was clicked off. Chiron had ceased creaking around the downstairs so he thought it safe to assume he had gone to bed with plans to lecture Nico further in the morning.

Nico stole to the window and slid the glass frame up, opening the window to the warm night air. For the first time, Nico was thankful for his scrawniness. He fit easily through the window frame and knelt almost comfortably on the shingled roof below his window. He tugged his bag through after him and slung it around his shoulders. Time to move. 

His first challenge would be navigating his way down from the roof. Nico thanked his solitary lucky star that his bedroom was only on the second floor so the task was not quite as daunting as it could be.

He crawled his way to the corner of the roof and looked down, considering. The drop was probably only twelve feet or so. He could definitely survive that if he fell even if it would be unpleasant. Still on his hands and knees, Nico turned his back to the ledge and steadily lowered himself, legs first, off the side of the roof. His stomach lurched as his legs hung in open space. 

He kicked out, hoping to feel for one of the columns that dotted the wrap around porch. His foot collided with one such pillar sending a thudding ache through his lower leg. Nico hissed a curse through gritted teeth. He managed to awkwardly hook both legs around the column and continued to push himself down from the roof.

He was left hanging with just his fingers clutching the edge of the eaves and his legs stuck out in front of and below him. He reminded himself of a sloth he had seen at the zoo in D.C. Nico closed his eyes for a brief moment to steel himself, then let go of the roof. He threw himself forward to the column, slinging his arms around the white wooden pole and hanging on as tightly as he could.

The hard part was over. He slid down the column with ease and balanced on the edge of the deck railing. The camp was silent and still, not a single sign that anyone had heard his descent. He hopped off the railing and out onto the grass.

As he began his track across the green, he glanced back at the house and the meagre height he had climbed from. His face flushed at the thought of what he must have looked like scrambling down the side of the house.

“Good job, Nico,” he muttered to himself. “Probably the worst way of handling that.”

He adjusted his rucksack on his shoulders – no use worrying about it now, he had other problems. If he was to leave camp without detection he would have to avoid the cleaning harpies which meant he would have to go quickly and quietly, without alerting anyone to his movements. 

The quickest route was to walk directly from the Big House to the cabins, cut between Zeus and Hera’s cabins, and continue up the hill through the arch, and out of camp. Assuming Chiron didn’t realize what he was up to and pull him back.

Here goes nothing.

He made it to the cabins without raising the alarm, pausing on his way to swipe his usual practice sword from the tool shed. The grass was soft and silent beneath his feet and he blended easily into the darkness.

It was as he crept past the Hermes cabin that he first heard voices.

“…and the flames were building and building, the heat searing his face!”

Nico frowned. The voice was coming from inside the cabin. He edged closer, leaning against the cabin wall beside the window that stood cracked open an inch or so to let the night breeze filter through the cabin.

“But he didn’t care, there were mortals inside that needed his help. He ran inside even though his comrades were shouting for him to come back.”

Nico peeked around the window frame. Inside the cabin, the campers were sitting cross-legged around the room. Some sat on their bunks, the majority in a haphazard semi-circle on the floor. In the centre stood Johnny Walter, a boy maybe two years Nico’s senior. He held a torch under his chin that made the hollows of his face stand out in grotesque shadows.

“So James battled through the flames. He ran through debris and smoke to follow that little girl’s cries. But by the time he found her…”

The campers waited with bated breath.

“She was already dead.” 

A gasp rose from the crowd.

“So James picked up her lifeless body and carried her out through the flames. And now, even though he has returned to America, that little girl’s spirit follows James everywhere he goes.”

Silence fell around the room. Nico tilted his head. Was this story about James Montgomery? The Hermes cabin counsellor he had met all that time ago?

“That is not what happened.” A girls voice cut through the silence.

“Oh yeah?” Johnny snapped. “Then what do you think happened to his hand, Sarah?”

“I don’t know,” said the girl – Sarah. “But he’s not haunted. That girl would have gone to the Underworld. Ghosts don’t just float around our world for no reason. Obviously.”

“He told me he burned himself cooking,” piped up a boy of maybe eight at the oldest.

“He lied,” said Johnny, glaring at the boy. “We all know James went to war. He just won’t tell us what happened.”

“Maybe he doesn’t want to talk about it,” said Sarah, “and we should all leave him alone–”

Nico had heard enough. He slipped away from the cabin and continued his way across the camp grounds. He felt an unwelcome little spike of envy towards the Hermes campers. He missed having that kind of friendship and late night mischief the way he had with the boys at St. Dismas’. For the most part he was used to his isolation but when he was faced with such a clear example of everything he was missing, it made his chest ache.

He shook his head. There was no time to dwell on what he didn’t have – only to push forward. And onward he would go, come Hades or high water.

Chapter Text

The hardwood stairs were cold beneath Nico’s bare feet. His fingers trailed along the edge of the polished handrail as he slunk downstairs. His pyjama trousers were too long for him, purchased for him to grow into, and the button up shirt had slipped off centre to reveal his collarbone.

“Mama,” he called from the foot of the stairs. “Mama!”

“In the parlour, tesoro.”(1) Mama’s voice, melodic and clear, carried down the hall.

Nico padded down the hall across the hard oak floors.

His Nonno’s house in Washington D.C. was full of dark wood floors and panelled walls topped with richly coloured ornate wallpaper. Nico ran his fingers along their smooth surface as he padded down the hall after his mother’s voice.

At the end of the hall, the door to the parlour was ajar and, as Nico reached it, he could hear hushed voices from inside. He peeked around the door frame. 

Mama sat on one of Nonna’s chaise lounges in a shiny black dress with billowing sleeves. Her short, dark hair fell in curled ringlets and little sapphires winked from her earlobes. She had been out for a dinner that evening, Nico knew because she hadn’t come to kiss him goodnight after his nurse put him to bed.

Nico shrank back when, in Nonno’s favourite leather chair, he saw a tall man he didn’t recognize. The man looked supremely uncomfortable and pointedly did not look Nico in the face. He wore a black suit with a dark red tie, and his shoes were polished to a mirror-like shine. His face was all severe lines and his hair was oily.

Mama smiled at him reassuringly. “Good evening, tesero,” she said. “I believe your nurse put you to bed some time ago.” When Nico pressed himself against the door frame, she held a hand out towards him. “It’s alright, Nico, I promise. Ade (2) here is a friend.”

Nico looked between them for a moment, the cuff of his nightshirt in his mouth. He padded over to pop himself up on the seat next to his mother and nestled himself under her arm.

“It’s cold in the nursery,” he pouted.

“Mmm,” Mama hummed knowingly. Her many bracelets jangled lightly against each other as she gently rubbed Nico’s back. “Did you wake your sister?”

“No, Mama. Bianca gets angry if I wake her up.”

The man– Ade snorted.

“Ade,” Mama said in that chiding voice she used when Bianca demanded dessert first. “Come, tesero,” she said, rising from the lounge, “we can search out an extra blanket easily enough, I think.”

Ade cleared his throat awkwardly. “Perhaps…” He shifted in his seat. Nico blinked and in the man’s hands was a fur blanket. He must have had it in a pocket… somewhere. “…this may help you sleep.”

“Well,” Mama laughed, “you certainly know the way to a child’s heart.”

Nico could hardly resist the urge to bury his little fists in the silky looking fur.

“It’s zibellino,”(3) Ade explained, “sable. From Russia.” He held it out for Nico, not looking inclined to rise from his chair.

Nico glanced at his mother, who gave him an encouraging nod, and slid off the lounge to his feet. Ade draped the blanket around Nico’s shoulders, passing the corners into Nico’s own hands.

“Nico…” Mama prompted, not unkindly.

Grazie,”(4) Nico murmured, running his fingers over the fur.

Ade’s seemingly permanently grim expression softened, just a little. “You are welcome. Consider it a belated birthday gift.”

A grin spread across Nico’s face. He showed off the gap of his missing front tooth proudly. “I’m six now,” he said. “Five and two whole weeks.”

A hint of a smile tugged at the corner of Ade’s mouth. “Well, that is certainly very impressive. Now, listen to your mother and go back to bed.”

Mama’s hand sat gently on Nico’s shoulder and he looked up at her, slipping his hand in hers. Nico looked back to Ade and waved goodnight as Mama guided him from the room.

 

***

 

February 1946

Snowflakes danced through the air. Hoards of people bundled up in hats, scarves, and large overcoats hurried down the sidewalks in the dimming light. It was an unusually chilly evening and it seemed everyone in the city was making their way home to a warm bed and a hot meal.

All except for Nico who weaved his way in and out of the crowd with his hands in his pockets. The wind nipped at his face stinging his nose and ears red. It had been a waste of a day. There had been a shortage of easy marks in his usual areas so he had eaten little and he hadn’t scoped out a place to sleep yet.

He shivered and shoved his hands deeper into his pockets. His head tucked down against the wind he continued through the crowd, jostled this way and that as he went.

He stumbled as one particularly large passerby knocked into him. He lurched to the side slipping on a patch of ice and skidding to the edge of the pavement. He yelped, arms whipping out to stop his fall.

A hand steadied him, gripping him by the upper arm as he lurched into the traffic. A car rushed by him, only a hair’s breadth from his nose.

Nico blinked. He was alive? That was good, he supposed, and altogether rather surprising given his recent track record. He looked back over his shoulder and caught his breath.

James.

He recognized that face, the mole just below his left ear, the elfin features, his neatly arched eyebrows. How many times had he seen that face watching him cautiously from across the dining pavilion, or tipped downwards as he polished a blade?

“James?”

“Nico?”

Nico feared for a moment that people would stare but then he remembered, he wasn’t in Genoa or Camp Half-Blood anymore. This was New York City, and this interaction was hardly the strangest thing the locals had seen.

James pulled Nico away from the curb to stand under the overhang of a department store window. “What are you doing here?” he demanded, folding his arms. He still wore the aviator’s jacket from when Nico had first met him at Camp Half-Blood but the bandages Nico remembered were gone from his right hand.

“I could ask you the same thing.”

James gave Nico a stern look.

“Hunting,” he said shortly, adjusting his shirt collar. “Mortals have been going missing in this area for a couple of days now, there’s a monster nest nearby.” Goosebumps raised on Nico’s arms as a cold wind blew down the street. He shivered.

“Here,” said James. He shrugged out of his jacket and wrapped it snugly around Nico’s shoulders. “You aren’t going to fight anything if you freeze to death.”

Nico scowled at him and wriggled out of the jacket, shoving it back into James’ hands. “You sound like Chiron. I can take care of myself, thanks.”

“Oh yeah, looks that way.” James gave Nico’s stomach a pointed look. “When was the last time you ate, kid?”

Nico glared. “None of your business.”

“Hey, I just saved your skin, ‘least you can give me is a decent explanation. Why aren’t you at camp? What are you doing out here all on your own?”

“Just practice," Nico lied. “Chiron thought I should try–”

“Bull. Chiron would never send anyone away from camp alone. Tell me the truth, Nico.”

Nico glared at him. Who did he think he was? He wished James would shove him away with that Hermes cabin sneer and leave him in the crowd alone. It would save him the explanation. 

“I left, all right?” Nico snapped. “The other campers, they drove me out of Camp Half-Blood. Happy?” Gods, Nico hated the pity on James’ face. “Stop looking at me like that. I’m not some kid anymore, I’m fine.”

“You don’t look fine,” said James. He slung the jacket over his left shoulder with one finger hooked in the collar. “There’s no shame in getting a little help. Just come back to my place and take a rest.”

“I’m not a stray dog, James. Not something for you to take care of to make you feel like a good person.”

“That’s not what this is.” James sighed, glancing around at the people passing them on the street. “Look, I know that the others at camp didn’t get along with you–” Nico snorted. Understatement of the century. “–and I didn't do anything to stop it. Let me make it up to you. Take your revenge by eating all the food in my pantry.”

Nico chewed on the inside of his cheek. He didn’t want anyone’s pity but he couldn’t deny that a change of clothes and some food that wasn’t actually stolen was more than appealing.

“Fine,” he said, finally. “But just for a couple hours, then I’m out again.”

“Deal.”

It was more than a few hours.

After a week passed, Nico began to accept that he might just like spending time with James.

After a month, he moved from the couch to a folding cot.

After two, he and James had claimed their own sides of the single bedroom.

Every morning Nico would leave the apartment looking for a new monster to fight, and every time he would swear to himself that he wasn’t coming back. But every night he would return to the tiny apartment and James cooking in the galley kitchen. James always made two servings, no matter how many times Nico insisted he wouldn’t be coming back. They would sit on the edge of the bathtub as James washed out cuts and applied cream to bruises and reprimanded him for being so careless.

And it felt… good.

Small and rundown as it was, their little apartment felt like home to Nico. He knew every creaking floorboard and scratched bathroom tile and squeaky kitchen cupboard. The worn out carpet that itched bare feet and his old cot that James had borrowed from a friend of a friend of a friend. All of it was better than anything he had had at Camp Half-Blood.

 

April 1947

Until she arrived.

Linda Martin. Five feet and six inches of giggling, cheerful, obnoxiousness. She was always just there. With her hands on James’ shoulders while he cooked, laughing into his brown curls, or reading some stupid book in Nico’s favourite chair.

Nico had even liked her at first. She made James give him second servings of desert and stay up as long as he liked, what more could he want?

Things started going downhill the third time Nico met her. She had come for dinner, James had cooked, as always, and Nico had even put in the extra effort and moved his pile of dirty clothes from the couch to the bedroom. It had been just fine until James walked Linda to the door.

Nico was sitting on the moth-eaten sofa. He sat backwards, leaning over the back of the couch to watch the pair at the door. James helped Linda into her coat, like the damned gentleman he was, and then kissed her on the lips. It was so casual, like Nico wasn’t even there, as if kissing people was just something that they did now. Nico sputtered and glared at them, wishing his eyes could bore burning craters in their skulls.

James closed the door behind her, grinning like an idiot.

Nico huffed his impatience and James glanced over at the sound.

“What’s wrong?”

“Is that new?” Nico questioned, eyes narrowed.

“Is what new?”

“That,” Nico gestured vaguely at the doorway. “Linda. You and Linda.”

“What?” James shook his head. “No, I’ve been with Linda for over three years now.”

“And you’re just telling me this now?” Nico asked, shifting over as James flopped down on the couch beside him.

“I thought you knew!”

“How could I know? This is the third time I’ve seen her. Why did she only turn up now?”

“She was living with her parents. In Michigan.” Nico scoffed. “That’s where we met,” James insisted.

Nico faltered. “When did you live in Michigan?”

“Oh, only for sixteen years. I grew up– why are we even talking about this? I didn’t think this was that important to tell you.”

“Not important? That you have a girl and we’re kissing people–”

“Whoah, stop right there.” James held up a hand. “You’re not kissing anyone, you’re only fourteen.”

“That isn’t the point,” Nico insisted. “You should have told me.”

“Gods, Nico, what is the issue here?” 

Nico leapt to his feet. “Because no one has ever trusted me with anything and I thought you were different!”

James ran a hand through his hair and turned away from him. Nico felt his stomach sinking. This was it, James was finally sick of him. He would lose yet another home.

When James turned back to look at him, it was with a look of deep disappointment. “I don’t understand why you’re doing this. Linda and I being together is– it as nothing to do with you.”

“Nothing to do with me? When you’re all over her like that?”

“What do you mean all over her? Nico–” James sighed. “We were trying to keep things subtle. Ease you into the idea of our engagement.”

Nico sucked in a deep breath through his teeth. “Engaged. You’re engaged? And you didn’t even tell me. Why didn’t you tell me? That’s a pretty big detail to leave out, James.”

“Because I knew you’d react like this,” James snapped. “You’ve always had a short temper and I knew you’d think I was abandoning you for her.”

Nico laughed hollowly. “If you know me so well, you’d have known that I don’t like secrets. You don’t trust me. I get it. I’ll get out of your way then.”

“That isn’t what this is, Nico! I’m not turning you out, you’re always welcome here.” Nico snorted. “But Linda is a part of my life– the most important part of my life. You’ve got to respect that.”

Nico shook his head, turning to the door. “I’m done with this.”

“You always do this! You’re running away again. You ran away from Camp, now you’re running away from me. I’m trying to help you, Nico, and you’re throwing it in my face just like you did to Chiron.”

Nico bit his lip. This was not what he wanted. He was making everything worse but he didn’t know how to undo what he’d said. It was too late. James would never look at him the same way.

“Wait.”

Nico stopped and turned. James stood behind him at the end of the hall, his jacket in hand.

“Take my coat,” he said quietly. “It’s cold out.”

Nico caught the jacket with both hands. It was the same aviator jacket James had wrapped around him that day on the street when they had first found each other. It was heavy, entirely dark brown leather with a fleece collar. Linda had added the fleece herself and the navy blue patch over the breast pocket was from James’ mother. James loved this coat, he hardly left the house without it and Nico could barely believe that it was being given to him so freely. Surely James realized that Nico was not coming back.

“Take it,” James said again.

Nico looked up from the jacket and took in the look on James’ face. Was that regret? No, disappointment. But at himself, or with Nico?

He put his hand on the doorknob. So this was it, striking out on his own again. He could handle it. Probably. He had before. He turned the handle, slipped out into the hall, and closed the door behind him with a soft click.

Chapter Text

Nico tugged shoved his hands in the pockets of James’ old aviator jacket. The coat was too big for him but it was comfortable and smelled like their apartment. It was one of the only two things he had taken with him; the other being the leather notebook Chiron had given him two years prior. The book sat in the inside pocket of the jacket, heavy against Nico’s chest.

He had only been on his own for a day and already he was beginning to wish he had planned before making his exit. He already knew that he wouldn’t be able to keep up with the number of monsters he attracted by himself. When James had picked him up in February, Nico had already been exhausted from defending himself against monster after monster. Chiron’s lessons and Emilie’s writing warned him that they would come in droves now that he was stronger and it would be only a matter of time before he was overwhelmed.

He had to find somewhere safe. Somewhere he could hide from Camp Half-Blood, the Olympians, and the monsters that would inevitably hunt him down. But having left so abruptly he didn’t have anywhere safe to lay low and catch is breath between battles. Without James or Chiron, Nico had only one alternative left to him.

He would go to his father, show him just how much he had learned, and ask for his help and protection. If anyone could help him reunite with Bianca, it was Hades.

Nico spent his first night on his own on the fire escape halfway up James’ building and began his hike at first light. 

The myths told of two main entrances to the Underworld: Charon’s ferry and the hidden entrance Orpheus had used to rescue Eurydice. Emilie’s writing told him the location of the latter.

He made it to Central Park by mid-morning. It was not especially busy with only a few couples and small families out in the grey spring morning. Nico’s walk through the park took half an hour to find the spot described in Emilie’s journal.

It was a cluster of large boulders heaped on top of each other in a haphazard pile. Nico raised the notebook, opened to a yellowed page with a charcoal sketch. He compared the two with his head tilted. Surely he had found the right place.

Nico tucked the notebook back in his pocket and glanced around the park. It seemed quiet enough with no one in sight.

He took a deep breath, feeling only a little ridiculous.

“Ninna nanna, ninna oh,” he sang. His voice was flat and raw, not the melodic singing voice Bianca had inherited from their mother.

“Questo bimbo a chi lo dò?
Se lo dò alla Befana, 
Se lo tiene una settimana
Se lo dò all'uomo nero,
Se lo tiene un anno intero.
Ninna nanna, ninna oh,
Questo bimbo me lo terrò!” (1)

The rocks shook in their own miniature earthquake. The two largest boulders slid apart, grating against each other all the way, to open a narrow gap that Nico could squeeze through.

He glanced back over his shoulder for one last look at the dusky park and slipped through the gap. 

As Nico cleared the boulders, they slammed back together. The cave beyond was pitch black without a single shred of light to meet Nico’s eyes.

He reached out blindly with both hands, feeling for a wall. The rough stone they met was damp and cool to the touch. Nico felt his way around the cave with his hands out in front of him like a game of Blindman’s Bluff. He slipped on the stone floor as he began to edge his way through the corridor. The cave seemed to go on forever. It sloped steeply downward, eventually turning into haphazard narrow steps, and Nico was forced to keep one hand outstretched to the cave wall to keep himself grounded.

He didn’t know how long he had been walking but it felt like hours when, at the very end of the corridor, the space began to lighten. The walls gradually became drier and the ground less slick. Nico's pace quickened as he chased the light at the end of the tunnel. It reflected warm and orange on the jagged stone edges of the cave walls, inviting Nico to run toward it.

As he neared the end of the tunnel Nico caught his breath. He had made it. The mouth of the cave opened up at the base of a cliff on a plain of black volcanic sand littered with bones. To Nico’s right, a river of filthy dark water gushed from the rocks and roared off in a cascade of rapids. The cavern ceiling loomed high over Nico’s head in a parody of what might have been storm clouds. The stalactites were wickedly pointed and glowed a faint grey. To his left was a wall of black stone. The only break in the wall was a huge arch at which lines of the dead had congregated.

A familiar monster stood over the crowd, watching the spirits six gleaming black eyes. Cerberus. He was almost translucent which made him difficult to see and Nico thought that he would not have noticed the enormous dog if he was not expecting to see him there.

Nico set his sights on Cerberus and picked his way down the rocky beach.

Cerberus giant noses twitched as Nico neared and the beast stood up to stiff attention. His three heads tilted comically with their foreheads creased in intense concentration. Friend or foe, he seemed to be wondering.

Nico whistled, high and clear, and Cerberus’ ears perked forward. Three pink, slobbering tongues lolled out of his mouths. His stubby tail wagged wildly. Friend, he had apparently decided. 

Cerberus bounded over the lines of the waiting dead to Nico. He stuck his noses down to sniff Nico all over, leaving his playful rump up in the air. Nico couldn’t help but laugh as the dog investigated him.

“Hi, boy,” he greeted fondly, giving a hearty rub to each of the dog’s snouts. “Will you let me through the gate, huh, Cerberus? I need to go see Papa.”

Cerberus let out a happy bark that made Nico laugh all over again. He jogged a few steps toward the line of waiting dead and Cerberus leapt after him, tail wagging furiously. The dog skidded back into position on his massive paws leaving giant skid marks in the ashy dirt.

“Stay,” Nico ordered him.

Nico continued on his path by walking between Cerberus’ front paws and underneath his furry belly to slip through the gates and past the security ghouls with the rest of the spirits. The guards eyed him curiously but Hades' edict from all those years ago rang true and no one made a step to stop Nico on his journey. 

On the other side of the great walls, the entirety of Hades’ kingdom was laid out around him. Nico had emerged in what must be the Fields of Asphodel. The black grass was a brittle, rotten, and over-trodden by the thousands upon thousands of undead. The field was dotted with clumps of poplar trees and fallen stalactites.

The faces of the dead were difficult even for Nico to focus on. Their expressions shimmered making them look constantly angry or confused. They approached him, attempting to speak but their voices came out like the nonsense chatter of bats twittering. When they realized Nico couldn’t understand them, they moved on looking even more crestfallen.

The line of the newly deceased wound through the field to a black-tented pavilion where a banner proclaimed: JUDGMENTS FOR ELYSIUM AND ETERNAL DAMNATION. Two much smaller lines snaked out the back of the tent.

To the left, security ghouls marched spirits down a rocky path to the Fields of Punishment. It was a vast wasteland sectioned into different torture areas by minefields, fences of barbed wire, and rivers of lava. A warm, moist wind blew a strong scent of sulphur up from the glowing and smoking fields.

The line coming from the right side of the judgment pavilion was much shorter. It led down a gentle hill to a small valley surrounded by delicate bronze walls. Elysium was full of beautiful houses from every time period in history, from Roman villas and medieval castles to Georgian mansions. Silver and gold flowers bloomed on the lawns and the grass rippled in a rainbow of colours. 

A shimmering blue lake lay in the centre of the valley, dotted with three small islands. Nico knew that they must be the Isles of the Blest where those who had chosen to be reborn three times and had three times achieved Elysium.

Far away in the gloom, Hades’ palace stood tall with black stone walls and bronze gates. The ramparts were alight with fire. The palace glittered with black obsidian and shining bronze.

It got darker as Nico left the judgement pavilion and moved deeper into the Asphodel Fields. He could see the colour fading from his clothes and his skin became a washed out pale. As he neared the gates of Hades’ palace the crowds of spirts began to thin. 

A pair of skeletal guards stood at attention on either side of the main gates. This time, the gates were opened for him with ease and he was gestured into Persephone’s garden.

He remembered the garden very well; the flowerbeds overflowing with golden plants and gemstones, and the skeletal white trees sprouting from marble basins. Iron steps led up to a large, semi-circular veranda where a pair of thrones, one bone and one silver, sat with a view of the Fields of Asphodel.

A woman was waiting for him seated on the silver throne. Dark hair cascaded down her back in a tumble of curls. Her skin was darker that Nico’s own olive, but was washed out pale like she hadn’t seen the sun in far too long. Her eyes were the same way, multicoloured but faded as if the Underworld had sapped her life force.

He had a feeling that in the world above she would be beautiful, even brilliant. Even her dress shimmered with beauty, flowers blooming throughout the fabric, constantly shifting and changing as she moved. Nico swallowed hard when he saw the expression on her face. Her lips curled into a sneer, her eyes burning with anger.

When he saw that look, Nico immediately knew who she was. She was his father’s wife, Nico’s stepmother, Persephone, Queen of the Underworld.

“And just what,” she demanded, “are you doing here?”

Nico’s heart stuttered. This was anything but good. He supposed he shouldn’t have expected anything different; his last experience in the underworld hadn’t exactly gone swimmingly and so far this visit had been far too easy.

“I–” He cleared his throat. “I came to speak to my father.”

“Lord Hades is an exceedingly busy god, boy. Your business can wait.”

“Please,” Nico insisted. “I need to see him. It’s important.”

The air above the obsidian throne shimmered and Hades appeared seated regally as ever beside his wife. He smoothed some invisible crease from his black robes and looked down his long nose to Nico. His robes made him look rather like the l’uomo nero (2) from the ninna nanna (3) he had sung to gain entry to the Underworld.

“Nico,” he said, in lieu of a greeting. “I thought I sensed your presence.”

Persephone huffed and looked away, resting her head on her fist as she leaned against the arm of her throne.

Nico bowed, just because it seemed like the thing to do. He felt very small standing in the garden beneath the balcony with the gods looking down on him. 

“Well? Why exactly are you here?”

Nico’s mouth was dry. “I came to ask–”

Nico cursed himself. Despite the years since his last meeting with his father, he apparently had not developed a backbone. There was something about Hades that sent all the wits and composure Nico ordinarily clung to out the window.

It must be his aura, he decided. Just as Hestia had instilled a sense of warmth and belonging when they had met that first day at Camp Half-Blood, Hades gave him a feeling of unease that threw him entirely off balance, as if anything he said or did would only condemn him in his father’s eyes.

“Yes?” Persephone snapped. “Spit it out.”

“For protection.”

“Protection,” Hades repeated.

“Yes,” said Nico. “I don’t have anywhere else to go. Now that Camp Half-Blood expelled me there’s nowhere safe for me.”

“And you expect me to take you in.” It wasn’t a question.

Now that he heard it out loud, Nico realized how ridiculous the idea was. Hades, the God of the Underworld, Lord of the Dead, providing shelter to a lone demigod? It was absurd. He had been foolish. Nico looked down, he should have known better.

“Well… yes. But I was also hoping–”

Persephone let out a sharp, forced laugh. “A half-blood? Live in the Underworld?”

“Persephone, my dear,” said Hades, holding up a hand for silence.

Persephone cut her eyes at Hades and raised her chin stubbornly. “Don’t you ‘my dear’ me, husband. You cannot seriously be considering this, allowing one of your bastards into my house?” She folded her arms and gave her husband a pointed look, daring him to argue.

“Nico is my son,” said Hades, in that irritatingly placating way. “I will not allow Zeus to take another one of mine. When Maria–”

“Do not bring her into this,” Persephone snapped, slamming her palms down on the arms of her throne. “If you insist on upholding this damned sham of a marriage, you will do me the courtesy of keeping that harlot’s name out of this palace.”

That loosened Nico’s tongue. “Don’t talk about my mother like that!”

Persephone’s eyes flashed with anger. “I beg your pardon?” she hissed. “What did you say to me?”

Nico’s eyes darted to his father, but Hades had his eyes half-closed and two fingers to his temple as if fighting a migraine.

“I won’t let you talk about my mother like that,” Nico repeated. A growing sense of dread pooled in the pit of his stomach even as he spoke.

Persephone’s eyes narrowed. She raised a hand, her fingers sparkling rosy pink with energy. Nico squeezed his eyes shut, waiting for the blast.

But it never came.

He opened his eyes.

Hades held Persephone’s wrist in his pale, spider-like fingers. She held her husband’s gaze, her eyes fiery in the shadowed room. Nico watched as Hades’ grip loosened and lowered his wife’s hand.

“Enough, Persephone,” he said slowly. “He is only a foolish boy, his words mean nothing. We can put this situation to our advantage.” Persephone let out an angry huff and tore her arm from her husband’s grasp. “He will bring greatness to this realm, my dove,” Hades insisted, “the Hero of the Prophecy. And when he saves Olympus we will be honoured above all other gods.”

Nico’s stomach flopped. ‘Saves Olympus’? Chiron had told him what the prophecy would entail, but hearing that expectation from his father set his nerves jangling all over again. From what he had heard, prophecies were more likely to get him killed than anything else. After the war, Chiron had even urged the Oracle to give camp a wide berth to allow the campers a rest. Nico didn’t want to be a part of some prophecy. He didn’t want that burden. There had to be another way to earn his father’s approval.

Persephone pursed her lips and lowered their hands, her posture still tense like a cat ready to spring. “Fine,” she hissed, voice venomous. “Then I will not hear a word of the woman. And if he ever speaks to me like that again…” she let the threat hang in the air.

“Agreed.”

Persephone shot Nico a withering glare and vanished in a whirl of flower petals.

“I would advise you to hold your tongue in future,” Hades said calmly, turning to his son. “Persephone can be quite prideful.”

“I noticed,” Nico snapped. The trepidation he had felt since Hades appeared in the room was gone, replaced by sizzling anger. “How can you let her say things like that?”

Hades sighed and drummed his fingers on the arm of his throne. Evidently, he did not want to answer questions about his wife. “Nico, as much as I cared for your mother, Persephone and I have been bound for millennia. You are a mortal. You could never hope to understand the intricacies of the situation. Now enough of this. You came to ask for my protection. I am willing to grant you sanctuary here in my realm–” At least that’s something “–but only under the condition that you continue your training. The agreement with Olympus stands that you will be granted immortality at the age of sixteen if you prove yourself worthy to take on the prophecy and the mantle of Champion of the Underworld. I intend for you to do so.”

“I’ve already been trained,” Nico said shortly. “Chiron taught me himself.”

Hades snorted. “Two years under that old centaur’s falling standards is hardly adequate. No, you will begin your training tomorrow.”

Nico gritted his teeth and forced himself to take deep breaths. Speaking out on behalf of his mother had gotten him nowhere, and somehow he doubted his father would be receptive to a debate on Chiron’s training schedule.

“Yes, father,” he ground out.

Hades either didn’t notice or didn’t care that Nico was so unenthusiastic about the idea of further training. “Go on then,” he ordered, gesturing to the doors of the palace. 

“Wait.”

Hades arched an eyebrow at him.

“Please,” Nico amended. “I– I had a favour to ask.”

“You have already asked for quite a large boon,” Hades sounded amused, “but ask.”

“I want to see Bianca.”

“Your sister is with the Artemis’ band of Huntresses,” said Hades. “I have no control over her movements.” Nico opened his mouth to respond but Hades cut him off. “I will consider your request and speak to my niece. Now go, Alecto will meet you.”

The doors swung open without Hades so much as lifting a hand. Nico bowed again and made his way to the doors. When he reached them, he glanced back over his shoulder, and Hades was gone, leaving nothing but an empty throne behind him.

As soon as he left the garden, Alecto seized him from the entryway and hauled him down to the basement levels at the back of the palace. Nico shrugged his shoulder, attempting to push the clawed hand off. The grip was tight and uncomfortable, the sharpened tips of Alecto’s talons caught at his shirt.

It was damp, dark, and freezing at the bottom of the castle. The heat from the braziers seemed to stop just short of warming Nico's skin and he shivered against the cold. A narrow door stood at the end of the corridor, a heavy iron lock set into the wood. Alecto inserted a claw into the lock and twisted. Nico heard the telltale click of it unlocking and privately thought that it seemed an inconvenient way to pick a lock. The door swung open.

Inside was a cluttered workshop, full of jumbled artist’s easels with hand-drawn sketches and diagrams of buildings and contraptions Nico had never seen before. Glass jars of green oil lined one shelf and strange metal machines that Nico couldn’t make sense of were crowded into the corners of the room.

In the midst of it all stood a fit-looking man in his fifties. He bent over a table strewn with schematics and diagrams Nico didn’t understand. He looked up at their entrance and gave a dry sort of smile. He wore his grey hair short and had a neatly clipped grey beard. Under a worn leather apron, he wore navy pleated trousers with a plain bush shirt. At the base of his neck was a strange mark, a purplish blotch like a birthmark or a tattoo, but before Nico could make out what it was he shifted his shirt collar. The mark disappeared under his clothes.

“Why, Alecto,” he said. “You haven't brought guests to my humble shop in centuries. Had l known, l would have tidied up."

Alecto did not seem as pleased to see him. “This is Nico di Angelo,” she rasped. “He will stay here in the palace in your charge.”

The man coughed awkwardly. "I don't believe that is part of my agreement–”

"The Lord's orders!” Alecto interrupted, shoving Nico forward into the shop. “See to it that the boy is kept busy."

"But–"

Alecto had already disappeared in a flap of leathery wings.

The man sighed heavily. "So, Lord Hades has put you with me, hm?"

Nico looked up at him through his fringe, it had been a while since anyone had taken him to a barber. "Yes, father said you were going to train me."

The man blinked. “Son of Hades, eh? Well, who are we to argue?" Nico huffed, blowing at his fringe. No one, Hades had made that quite clear. Hades had a plan in mind and Nico was in no place to argue. “Quintus,” said the man, offering Nico his hand to shake, “I serve Lord Hades redesigning and repairing the Underworld. Explore a bit, I need a moment to organize my plans and then we will see about finding you a place to sleep.”

As Quintus shuffled with his various papers and plans, Nico wandered around the workroom. Upon closer inspection, he could see just how massive the room was. It almost rivalled the size of the sword arena at Camp Half-Blood. Strange contraptions hung from the ceiling, whirring and spinning seemingly pointlessly. Nico had never seen such inventions before. Several blackboards on wheels were scattered amongst the various inventions and covered with calculations so cramped Nico wondered at how anyone could make sense of it.

As he neared the back of the room, Nico’s face broke into a grin. A wall of weapons, all in a shining bronze hung before him. Weapons were something he understood perfectly. They looked ancient, but none seemed to be falling into disrepair. The green torchlight bounced off of the metal, jumping out at his eyes. An enormous battle axe loomed menacingly above Nico and he quickly sidestepped away to the smaller blades.

A row of throwing knives was strapped to a leather belt, hung on display like trophies the way a hunter would present his guns, and above them an archer’s bow and quiver. A sword hung above its sheath was centred in the display. Nico had never seen anything quite like it before. At Camp Half-Blood, all of the swords were celestial bronze but what the sword hung above him was black as night, its iron blade gleaming in the torchlight. 

Nico dragged a stool over from an easel and climbed up. He stretched on the tips of his toes and reached out for the sword, fingers itching to grasp its hilt. Just as his fingertips brushed the leather he overbalanced, stumbling forward. His hand grabbed at the sword for balance, knocking it from its perch.

But there was no crash.

An unfamiliar but strong set of hands had caught Nico around the waist and the weapon by the pommel.

“Careful, boy.” It was Quintus. He stood over Nico, not a trace of anger in his stance. “You’ll hurt yourself, straying into things that you shouldn’t.” He offered Nico a good-natured smile and replaced the sword on the wall. “Now come, let’s get you settled.”

They traipsed back upstairs out of the basement levels and Quintus steered Nico with a hand on his shoulder to the third floor of the palace. Despite a rather significant lack of living beings to occupy them, Hades’ palace was equipped with dozens of bedrooms. 

Nico would apparently be taking up residence in the east wing, on the opposite side of the palace from his father and Persephone. He didn’t know if that was some sort of protocol, the King and Queen of the Underworld having a wing to themselves, or if Hades or Persephone had arranged for Nico to be kept as far from their sight as possible.

Nico’s bedroom was huge. He had expected something similar to the guest room at the Big House, small, and soft, and warm, and homey, and nothing like what lay before him.

The floor was black granite without so much as a rug to add even a hint of softness. The curtains over the window were black velvet, and long enough to just brush the stone floor. A narrow door led out to a small balcony overlooking Persephone’s garden, with a view stretching passed the Fields of Asphodel to the River Styx. A four-poster bed with black silk bedding and silver trimmings housed a veritable mountain of pillows that dominated the headboard, practically begging Nico to collapse into them. On either side of the bed was a table set with an oil lamp.

An enormous fireplace was set into the wall directly opposite the bed, empty and cold. A stately looking desk stood to the right of the door, bare but for a table lamp and a small pile of blank pieces of parchment. A tall wooden dresser stood on the other side of the door and a large trunk sat at the foot of the bed. Deep purple wall hangings with silver embroidery draped down the stone in a likely attempt to make the room warmer and more comfortable.

Flaming torches hung from the walls lit with green fire. A chandelier of interlocking bones was suspended from the ceiling, carrying iron brackets with candles alight with green flame. One wall housed a second door that, upon inspection, Nico found to lead to his own private bath. The other held a set of stately, windowed, double doors that opened out onto a small balcony with wrought iron railings.

“This should do,” said Quintus, passing his gaze over the contents of the room. “There are very few in residence at the palace so this wing is not normally in use.”

“This is all mine?” Nico asked.

“All yours,” Quintus agreed.

Nico grinned. He hopped up to sit on the bed, bouncing a little on the soft mattress.

He cocked his head at the torches on the wall. “Why is the fire green?”

“Ah,” Quintus smiled, “that is Greek Fire, lad, burns as long as there is fuel and is unquenchable by water. It is a necessity in the Underworld to keep the fires burning. Now, while you are in my care I would ask that you do not venture out of the palace grounds without supervision. The staff will be informed of your presence but I do not think that a run in with your father’s guards outside of the castle grounds would be a good idea.”

Nico didn’t particularly mind that edict. ‘Don’t wander off’ was a simple rule that had been true everywhere Nico had lived and he suspected he would find equally simple ways around it.

“Get some sleep,” Quintus urged him. “We will begin your training tomorrow.”