The first time Will saw Nico’s sketchbook, he hardly knew him beyond his ripped aviator jacket.
He was working in the infirmary, trying to rebuild order. The post-battle rush had slowed, and only the long-term patients were still there. Them, of course, and someone who should have come in sooner.
”Will!” Kayla shouted from where she removed some Roman’s stitches. “Can you give out lunch?”
Will looked at the clock and cursed: he was supposed to give the patients meals at noon, and it was almost one in the afternoon.
“Yeah! Give me a sec!”
Will set down his box of syringes and picked up a bunch of lunch trays. He distributed them quickly to the patients, many of whom groaned about the quality of the lunch meats.
With minimal complaining from two Romans and an Iris kid, Will took his last tray and moved to the final bed.
He was almost surprised to see Nico sitting on the edge of his bed, hunched over something Will couldn’t see. He was sure he would have shadow travelled away the moment he was left alone, but he was still there where Will had left him.
His back was to Will, so he didn’t see him coming. Will stopped behind his shoulder, about to tap him and give him his sandwich, but paused. Nico was focused intently on a sketchbook in his lap, where he was drawing a quick but extremely detailed sketch. As it went on, Will saw the drawing take shape; a young girl with dark eyes, dark hair in a braid, and a cap set sideways on her head. Her small smile was tinged with sadness, as if she knew that whatever brought her joy wouldn’t last.
Suddenly, Will felt like he was intruding. What if this girl was Nico’s best friend, or someone he lost in the war? What if she was his girlfriend?
Will coughed lightly. Nico jumped and whirled around, snapping his sketchbook shut.
”Solace, shit! When did you get here?”
Will set the tray down in front of Nico. “Just now,” he lied. “I brought lunch.”
”Oh,” Nico said. He picked up the sandwich, eyeing it like he was worried it might suddenly turn into spiders. “Thanks.”
For a moment, they were both silent.
Will asked, “What were you drawing?”
”Nothing,” Nico shot back like acid. Will took a step back purely on instinct; Nico may have been two feet from Thanatos’s Door, but he probably could have taken Will’s head off in a second.
Nico fell silent for a moment, a thoughtful look on his face. He softened. “My older sister,” he said softly.
Will nodded. “She looks like you.”
”Well, we’re related, so that’s to be expected.”
Will laughed at that, and Nico actually smiled. It looked good on him, Will thought.
Will sat on the bed next to Nico. He pretended not to notice him scoot a couple of inches away.
“So, she’s your full sister? Or just the mortal half.”
”Full. Hades and everything.”
”Really? I didn’t see her in the battle. Is she alright?”
”She’s dead,” Nico said shortly. Will’s stomach dropped.
”Oh, damn. I’m...sorry?” Will wasn’t sure how to react to Nico’s lack of emotion. “Did she die in the battle, or...”
Nico shook his head. “A quest a couple years back. Just trying to...remember her face.” He gestures to the close sketchbook.
Will nodded. Micheal and Lee’s faces were starting to lose details in his mind, too. He wished he could draw them out, but even his stick figures were crude and ugly.
”Well,” he said, “it was really good. Where’d you learn to draw like that?”
Nico shrugged. “Not much else to do when you’re stuck hiding in a bomb shelter.”
Will’s eyes widened, and Nico seemed to stiffen as he realized what he’d said. Will knew Nico wasn’t from America, he had the remnants of an accent that Will couldn’t quite place, but the idea that he had been caught up in some foreign battle was...somehow surprising. Monsters and godly trials were normal problems for demigods, but rarely did they get caught up in mortal wars. Will didn’t know what to say.
Nico looked at the ground. “I’d like to eat lunch now. Alone, please.”
Will stood. “Yeah. Y-yeah, sorry. I’ll be in the main area if you need me.”
He started to leave, but Nico called, “Will?”
Will turned and saw Nico peering at him over his shoulder. There was something in his eyes, something close to regret.
”Thank you,” he muttered.
Will nodded, mustered a small smile. “Of course.”
Then, he went back to the main infirmary, trying to focus on his patients instead of the mysteries of the brooding boy in the corner.
Will hummed as he walked across the meadows of Camp Half-Blood and to the Hades cabin. Nico had finally agreed to come to sing-along, and Will wasn’t about to let him skip out.
Of course, he hadn’t seen Nico at dinner, but Will wasn’t worried. Nico often got so caught up in training with the undead that he forgot to eat. He had brought a few protein bars with him to make Nico eat before s’mores.
The Sun was beginning to set over Half-Blood Hill, casting a warm orange glow over the Athena Parthenos. Will smiled. He remembered Nico all but passing out with relief when it landed safely on the hill. Of course, he was also wearing a Hawaiian shirt and had one foot in the shadow realm, so maybe that wasn’t the only reason he looked a bit faint.
Will liked to think that they were becoming friends. Sure, Nico would be hard pressed to admit he had any form of relationship with another human being, but Will knew better. They often partnered together during activities, talked at the campfire. Nico didn’t often lead the conversation, but that was fine. Will would coax some snark out of him, and that would be enough.
And Will thought that maybe, maybe, maybe. Nico was starting to let him in, just a bit. A couple of weeks ago, he had told Will about the whole Lotus Hotel ordeal, and how it had lead to his sister’s death. He didn’t say what happened once he had run from camp, but rumors spread quickly enough around here. Will knew more or less where he had been the past five years.
So yeah, maybe they weren’t ride-or-die best friends forever, but they were something. Will smiled at the thought. He and Nico di Angelo were something.
He shivered as Cabin 13 came into view. It was a chilly evening, he supposed.
Then, he remembered. It was August. It wasn’t supposed to be chilly.
Will finally forced his mind to the present and took stock of his surroundings. A forty-foot radius around Cabin 13 was covered with frost, and at least twenty yards of the surrounding area was far colder than normal. The grass had started to wilt around the doorstep, spreading slowly outwards as if the walls were poisoning the earth. Worst of all were the cracks in the ground, webbing around and threatening to crumble into the Underworld.
Will ran up to the cabin, leaping up the stairs and ignoring the bite of the freezing air and the ice seeping into his shoes. He pounded on the door.
”Nico!” He called. “Are you okay?”
”If you don’t answer, I’m coming in!”
Will strained his ears against the door, but he could hear nothing beyond the crunch of dying grass beneath him.
Will cursed. He turned the knob so hard it nearly broke and swung the door open.
Inside, the cabin was disturbingly still. Ice coated every surface in a thin layer. The air seemed to be on edge, as if moving even the slightest amount might destroy the Earth. Shadows leeched their way out of the floor, the corners, the cracks in the wallpaper, all drawn towards a small form huddled on the bed in the corner.
”Nico?” Will asked. Nico didn’t move, didn’t look up or acknowledge him.
Will took a step inside the cabin, and something crinkled beneath his foot. He bent down and picked it up. It was a piece of drawing paper, crumpled and torn, with the beginnings of a drawing that Will couldn’t make out, because it had been scratched out so fiercely that it ripped the paper.
It was then that Will noticed the entire floor was littered with these papers, and the foot of the bed, too. In the darkness of the cabin, he couldn’t see what was on them. He was almost afraid to.
He moved slowly towards Nico, carefully avoiding the pages beneath his feet.
Will could see Nico better as he stood next to the bed. He had his face buried in his knees. His hair was wild and tangled. He had blood stuck underneath his fingernails, and with a turn of his stomach, Will noticed ragged scratches and welts running down Nico’s bare forearms.
Will moved to put a reassuring hand on Nico’s shoulder, but Nico flinched when he got close, and more cracks crisscrossed the floor.
“Okay,” he muttered and retracted his hand. “No touching. That’s fine.”
Nico’s ragged breathing was the only sound in the cabin. The silence was overwhelming, oppressive.
Finally, Will asked, “What happened?”
Nico didn’t move. Will wasn’t even sure he’d heard him.
”I know I’m not a therapist or anything, but you can tell me. Did something attack you?”
“Go away,” Nico growled weakly.
Will let out a breath of relief. Nico was present enough to hear and respond. That was a good sign.
“I’m not leaving, Death Boy, even if you want me to. Now, did something attack you?”
Slowly, Nico wrenched his head from side to side. No.
”Okay,” he continued. “Did one of the ghosts come back?”
Another head shake. Nico’s hands clenched into fists, then relaxed. A bit of blood started to drip from his right palm.
“Then what happened?”
Nico went entirely still. He wasn’t trembling, wasn’t hurting himself. Will wasn’t even sure he was breathing.
Then, Nico stuck out a weak, bloody hand and pointed to the ground, littered with papers.
Will’s brow furrowed. “You—you want me to look at the pages?”
Nico put his hand down and forced out some kind of grunt. Will hoped that that was a confirmation and not ‘if you touch those papers I’ll send you straight to the Fields of Punishment.’
Slowly, Will leaned down and grabbed a handful of pages from the floor around him. He leafed slowly through them. The first few were indecipherable, scratched out or torn through or nearly empty save for a few violent strokes. Then, he got to a complete, whole page, and almost dropped what he was holding.
The entire page was filled with a drawing of some hellish landscape. Rivers webbed through the ground like veins in skin. Flames licked jagged cliffs, clouds as red as blood hung dense overhead. Hundreds of monsters dotted the scene, hunting down other life forms, swooping low in the skies, burning alive on the flesh-like hills and valleys.
The picture struck cold terror into Will’s heart. His hands started to shake, and he moved onto the next drawing.
This one showed a blister-like shape in the ground. Inside of it seemed to be a sort of larvae, and Will could feel its malevolence through the page. Blood dotted the ground around it, pooling in holes like pores.
The last picture was the worst. The edges of the page were filled in with black, as if whoever was seeing it were stuck in some kind of box or prison and looking out through a small opening. Will could see enough, though. He saw hundreds of thousands of monsters, more than he had ever seen in his life, marching over the land. It was dark, so dark, it should have been impossible to see anything. But he could see everything. He could see the bloody ground giving way under the feet of the monsters. He could see jagged rocks coming up through the ground and slicing clean through anything in the way. Worst of all, he saw what looked like a gigantic pair of elevator doors chained to the ground. They radiated a sort of dark power, like an enemy one wouldn’t want to cross. Just staring at the sketch was enough to make Will want to lie down and die, give into the will of the Underworld.
The last page fluttered out of his hand and onto the floor. Will stared into the darkness, trying to make sense of what he’d seen.
”They were stuck in my head,” Nico mumbled from behind him. “Couldn’t get them out.”
Will slowly turned back to Nico. He was rocking slightly, now, staring straight ahead.
”You—you saw that?” Will asked.
Will felt cold fingers run down his spine. Nico spent six weeks unaccounted for, and no one would say where he had been. Will assumed he’d just been traveling unattended to, but those drawings...they radiated death and darkness. They were horrific portraits of a terrible, monstrous prison. There was only one place Will could think of that would hold that much dread, that much destruction.
”Nico,” he whispered, trying to hold back the tears that pricked his eyes, “you went to Tartarus?”
Nico winced at the word, but slowly, he nodded.
”S-sometimes, the memories...they won’t leave. If I draw them, it calms it down some.” His voice was raw and ragged, like he’d been screaming and sobbing for hours. It hurt Will’s heart to think of Nico screaming into a pillow to muffle the sound, plagued by memories that were only distant nightmares to most people.
”They won’t leave,” Nico whispered. He finally met Will's eye, and Will watched a fresh tear drip down his cheek. “I can’t forget. I can’t get the pictures out. Not even when I draw them.”
Will’s throat contracted. For all his medical and psychological knowledge, he was completely lost on what to do.
He did the only thing he could think of. He brushed the pages off of the foot of the bed and sat down, careful not to look at any of the fully-formed drawings. He wasn’t sure he could handle anymore.
But these were just drawings, and he had only seen a few. Nico had days worth of real memories of this place, playing forever like a film. Will didn’t know how he was still alive, much less mentally whole.
Observing the ice and wreckage around him, Will decided that maybe that last part wasn’t as true as he wanted to believe.
Will took a breath. “What if you tell me about it?” He proposed.
Nico blinked like the idea was something he’d never considered. Will continued, “You said you’re trying to get the pictures out, but drawing isn’t working. Maybe talking will help.”
Nico opened his mouth as if to speak, but shut it again, pressing his lips tightly together. He shook his head, drew his knees closer to his chest.
Will touched Nico’s knee gently, barely a brush. Nico flinched but didn’t move away.
”Nico,” Will said, “I know you’re not the most open person in the world, but this might help. If you want, I could...say something about me first, just to make things even. A quid pro quo.”
Nico stared at him with those wide, dark eyes. There was something broken in them, but maybe a little light, too.
Nico didn’t answer, but Will said anyways, “I had an older brother, once. Full mortal, but we lived together. Me, him, and my mom were...well, dirt poor and exhausted, but okay. That was when my mom was still struggling, of course, not a country music star.”
Will laughed, just a bit. “For a while, life was good. Until, uh, my powers got stronger. Monsters started attacking. It wasn’t bad at first, just a strix here and a poison cow there. But when I was around eleven, I was walking with my brother in the park, and a Stymphalian Bird just came rocketing out of the trees. Before I could do anything, it shot out a bunch of its feathers, and they pierced Jack straight through. It was like the movies, the shock and the blood and everything.”
Will took a rattling breath. “I managed to scare it off by kicking a trash can really loud, but it was too late. He was gone.”
Will blinked away tears that were still threatening to come up after all these years. “But, yeah. My mom decided it was too dangerous for me to live in the mortal world, and I started going to Camp full-time. And I’m here now. It sucked, it sucks every day, but I’m making it.”
Finally, Will turned back to Nico. His expression was unreadable. “Your turn,” Will said. “Tell me what it was like.”
Nico took a deep breath, closed his eyes for a long moment. When he opened them, they were filled with a new determined resolve. It looked much better on him than broken agony. Will wanted to keep it around.
Nico started, “The fall alone took two days...”
Will learned. He learned of the bone-breaking fall, of Nico hobbling on shattered legs to drink from a river of fire, of his mind all but disintegrating every time he looked up at the monster-filled sky. Of his starvation, his fear, his agony. His encounter with Akhlys, his dozens of monster attacks. Worst of all, his capture by the giants, painful and helpless and alone.
Will had always wondered what motivated that darkness in Nico di Angelo.
“Nico? Hey, we’re gonna be late for breakfast, you coming?”
There was no answer from the closed door that Will was pressed against. He sighed.
”Come on, it’s October in New York, I’m freezing my ass off out here, let me in already.”
Silence. Will hoped Nico hadn’t had another nightmare. It happened, sometimes; Nico would be so stuck in a memory that he couldn’t move until someone dragged him out of it. That was part of why Will got him up for breakfast every day, but he also just liked Nico. Probably much, much more than he should have.
He pushed the thought away. Nico was a loner even platonically, he would never think about going out with Will. And if Nico was dreaming of a hellscape right now, Will’s stupid unrequited crush wouldn’t help him.
”Nico!” He called. “I’m about to turn to ice! Can I come in?”
Again, no answer. Will swore. A few more seconds with no heat and he was sure he’d lose a few toes.
With a resigned sigh, he opened the door and tiptoed inside.
Surprisingly, the room was empty. Nico’s sword was gone. The curtains were drawn open, letting the gray morning light fall over the walls. The bed was neatly made as it always was, but Will noticed that Nico’s sketchbook was still there, wide open.
Will was puzzled: Nico had the book on him half the time, sketching scenes at camp or people that Will now knew were his sister, mother, or old friends from Italy. When it wasn’t in use, it was hidden away securely. It was never just out in the open for anyone to see.
Will knew he should turn around and find Nico. He knew it was wrong to invade someone’s privacy, especially someone as secretive as Nico. But something about him was drawn to the sketchbook. He wanted to see what was in it, learn whatever he could about the short goth enigma that he pined after.
So, against all logic, he approached the bed and picked up the book. The page was open to a quick sketch of a bug on a strawberry plant. Will smiled at the drawing, ran his fingers over the delicate pencil strokes.
The pages felt soft and worn beneath his fingertips. He leafed through a few insubstantial drawings, portraits of random, long-dead Italians, and scenes of camp life.
There was a long stretch of blank pages in the middle, and Will thought maybe he had reached the end of the art. But then he turned another page near the back of the book, and he almost dropped it.
On that paper was a drawing of...Will. It was exquisitely detailed, capturing Will’s freckles and dimples perfectly. He was smiling brightly, looking somewhere in the distance. That picture made him seem so bright, so lovely. So...beautiful.
Gently, Will turned the page. It was another portrait of him. His brow was furrowed, intensely focused on whatever task he was performing. Based on the medic coat he was wearing, he was probably healing. With a flutter in is stomach, Will wondered if Nico had drawn this during his days in the infirmary after the Battle of Half-Blood Hill.
Another one, where Will was making a s’more, a bit of marshmallow stuck to his cheek. Another, where he was asleep in the grass, drooling just a bit. Will laughed at the picture.
He kept turning pages and looking at the delicate drawings, crafted by a fighter’s hands. Will, a flower tucked behind his ear. Will, letting an arrow fly to its target. Will, just smiling straight ahead, radiant, brilliant, gorgeous.
Will’s heart started to pick up. This was how Nico saw him? Every possibility in his mind whirled around like crazy, snapshots of experiences he hoped to share with Nico. For the first time ever, he was starting to believe that they could come true.
”What the fuck are you doing?”
Will snapped the book shut and whirled around. In the open doorway stood Nico, a large jacket swallowing his skinny frame and his breath turning to ice.
Nico marched forwards, snatched the sketchbook out of Will’s hands, and opened it to the page he had been on. Nico swore at the drawing of Will’s smile and tossed the book across the floor.
Will scrambled for something to say. “Nico, I swear I didn’t mean to, I—I was just coming to get you for breakfast.”
”Yeah?” Shot back Nico, a sort of wild panic in his eyes. “And that gave you the right to look through my shit?”
“N-no, but I—“
Will blinked. Nico never seemed this panicked outside of a flashback. The real world never scared him this openly. What could Will say to help ease him?
”Is that how you see me?” He asked softly.
Nico’s eyes widened. He tore away from Will’s gaze and started pacing wildly. “You—you had no right, no right to invade my privacy like that. None! What is your problem?”
”Is that how you see me?”
”I opened myself up to you, but you just had to know everything, huh? What, do you want dirt on me, or something? Is that why you’ve been spending so much time with me? Because if it is, you can leave me alone now. For good.”
Nico whirled around and took a threatening step towards Will. “No! I didn’t want you to see that shit, that’s why I hid it! You—I knew this would happen, I knew you’d hate me for that. I should have burned that book when I had the chance—“
”Nico!” Will interrupted. Nico snapped his mouth shut as if on instinct.
Will put a hand on Nico’s shoulder. It was freezing cold, but Will didn’t pull away. He looked Nico straight in the eye and asked, “Is that how you see me?”
Nico let out a breath of finality, as if he were facing his death. He looked to the ground. “Yes,” he whispered.
Will’s heart started swelling like a balloon. Nico thought he was beautiful. Nico thought he was beautiful.
Nico‘s voice shook. “And that’s why I didn’t want you to find out. I knew you didn’t feel the same, and I knew we wouldn’t be friends anymore after this, and just...I’m sorry. Fuck, I’m sorry.” Nico’s voice broke at the final word, and Will’s heart all but cracked in two.
”Nico,” he said, “I see you that way, too.”
Nico’s head snapped up. There was something close to hope in his eyes.
Will continued, “I shouldn’t have looked in your sketchbook, that was a shitty line to cross, but I want to know more about you. I like everything you’ve showed me, I—I love everything you’ve showed me, but I know there’s so much more there. And I want to see it. I want to see you.”
Nico’s mouth had dropped open. He quickly shut it. Just before Nico spoke, Will realized his words and blanched.
Will laughed just a bit. “I mean, I don’t know if we’re there yet. But I think that I might. I could one day, if you’d let me.”
And finally, finally, finally, Nico smiled. He was made of darkness, but that smile was brighter than the Sun. “I’d let you,” he whispered.
Nico took a step towards Will, then another. Will stood frozen as Nico stood up on his tiptoes, laced his fingers on the back of Will’s neck, and brought their faces only an inch apart.
”I’d let you.”
Will didn’t know which of them closed the distance. All he knew was that Nico’s lips were gentle and cold on his, his hands were soft on Will’s skin, and Will never wanted this to end.
But in just a few seconds, Nico pulled away. He was smiling so brightly, so broadly, so beautifully, and Will wanted to just bottle this moment and live in it forever.
Will’s stomach growled, and the tension broke. Nico broke out laughing, and somehow, Will joined him. He was happy, so damn happy, to be laughing over a stupid hunger pang in a tiny room in October.
Nick straightened and smirked at Will. “So, think we’ve missed breakfast?”
Another growl. “Gods, I hope not.”
Nico laughed again, and Will never wanted to hear anything else.
Nico took Will’s warm hand in his own cold one. Together, they could achieve thermodynamic equilibrium. What a pair they made.
Will looked to the misty morning outside, then back to Nico’s dark eyes. He smiled.