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Chapter Text

Dusk was Nico's favourite time of day.

When the sun washed the sky with a thousand tongues of fire, grey clouds littering the giant canvas. When the gods powdered their fingers with pastels and covered the blue with smudges of orange and pink and purple. When rays of fading sunlight coated the sea, kissing it goodnight. He sat in the damp sand, watching the waves hurtle towards him. His throat was a rung-out rag. The brittle air sent his lungs into a shivering frenzy. Pumping air in and out and in and out. Frankly, he was sick of it.

He felt numb. Ridiculously, pitifully apathetic. His black nails shone out against his blue fingers. Stained with the cold, frost, ink. Death.

He shuffled, sand shifting below him. He was creating earthquakes, landslides for the ants. His black hair danced in the wind as he shook his head. There are no ants on a beach. Idiot.

He glanced down the coastline, knowing it would hurt but doing it anyway. His neck groaned. Down the beach was an aching scene. A giant fist clutched Nico's heart in a sharkjaw grin as he watched the bonfire. Teenagers lounged on the sand, beer bottles clutched between sweaty thighs. Laughter danced across the wind. The flames licked the burning sky. Climbing higher and higher. Scorching heaven, setting the feet of the gods on fire. Gobbling up the clouds. Devouring the sun itself.

A car was parked near the writhing beast of flame. Deep bass throbbed across the earth, pounding the lithosphere with fists of sound. If anything would cause an earthquake, it'd be that.

Nico took a deep breath and looked away. Gods, he missed it. He was fine.

He searched the coastline for anything, a boat, a surfer, a malicious shark ready to climb onto the sand and devour him whole. There was nothing, nothing to draw his attention away from the party, the teens, the life just down the beach.

He wanted to join them. He was fine.

To distract himself, he tried to name the exact colour of the sky. Too soft for lilac. Too pink for mauve. Raspberry? Too deep. Rose? Maybe. A perfect mix between rose and raspberry. Roseberry. Done.

He ran his frost bitten fingers over his pen. Drawing stars. Tracing the slope of a nose. Etching his sister's face in the paper on his lap. Gods, he missed her. Bianca.

Her name slammed into him, grasping at his clothes, ripping his skin into tiny pieces and scattering them in the wind. Until all that was left was a rotting, stinking clump of muscle. Salt water draining his blood and tissue into the ocean. Sharks circling, waiting for the rest of him. Stop. These thoughts aren't helping. It weighed on him like a tonne of bricks. Or a tonne of anything. A tonne is a tonne. Feathers, metal, guilt. It didn't matter. It still crushed him flat. This is wrong Nico. Her voice. He wanted to hear it again. He never would. He knew that. You're too hard on yourself, you numbskull.

'She's so cool.'

Nico froze. His stomach disappeared. One minute it was there. The next it was gone. He imagined drawing it. The boy with a gaping hole in his middle.

His voice scraped against his shredded throat. 'Thank you.'

He looked up. There was a boy above him. He must have wandered up from the beach party. He could feel his heart inside him, shuddering. His brain, trying to process it.

He was a couple of years older than Nico; blond, tanned, muscular. A jock. Probably. Nico never really knew. He was taking a wild guess. Sweat shimmered on the boy's skin, soaking through his pale shirt. The bottle in his hand stank like something distinctly not beer. His face was a mash of strong jawline, cheekbones, lips, eyes, skin. Such an amazing face. He was startlingly handsome, a word Nico detested. Mainly because it never applied to him.

His eyes were azure impulsivity, the colour of foam-capped waves. A tiny scar shone on his top lip. Nico wanted to trace it with his fingertips. If only he could. He was fine.

'Do you mind if I show my friend?' He didn't wait for an answer. 'Pipes! Get over here!' He waved a strong arm towards a girl inspecting the seashells. She looked up and Nico was struck by her eyes. Shimmering, soft. Trusting eyes. She was a rainbow, a kaleidoscope, a carton of glitter. Her soft skin burned in the fading light. She was beautiful. Gods, he wished he had his paints.

She came towards them and he felt the urge to scrape Bianca's face out of the paper, hurl her into the sea, the sky. She didn't belong to these strangers. She didn't belong to anyone. He was fine.

She bent down, hair falling over her shoulder, and peered at his drawing. She whistled, long and slow. 'Man, that's some serious talent. You'd give Rachel a run for her money.' The boy nodded.

'That's what I thought.' He crouched down in the sand, rocking back on his legs. His arm was so close. Brushing up against Nico. 'Drink?' He extended the bottle. Nico's nose scrunched up. It smelt disgusting.

'No. I don't drink.'

The girl grinned. 'Just as well. That shit's gross as hell.'

'Smells like it,' Nico scoffed. The boy shook his head, a grin settled comfortably on his face. Nico wished he could be that happy. He was fine.

'Hey, Leo made it. I took it to be polite,' the boy muttered as the girl laughed. 'I'm Jason, by the way.' Nico's heart squeezed. Jason. He was everything Nico wanted. He was fine.

'Nico.' The words hung in the air. He wondered if they'd recognise his name.

The girl squatted down beside Nico, her arm brushing his. They were a life sandwich. A pastel masterpiece in the making.

'I'm Piper.' He looked up at the girl as she spoke. Her voice was so lulling, calming. He felt like he could float in it. Or drown.

Jason and Piper. And Nico, although something about that equation felt off-kilter. Like stardust and dirt.

Chapter Text

Jason couldn't stop looking at Nico. He was a mystery coated in calamity wrapped inside cataclysmic alabaster.

His jeans were damp from the sand, his hands jittering like violin strings. His sketch pad sat in his lap, soaking up the heat around it with harsh lines and soft girlish faces. If one thing was for sure, it was that Nico was dripping with talent.

The sepia sunlight did nothing to keep the cold out of Jason's skin, his flesh, his bones. Before, he'd been warm, sitting around the fire with his eyes on the boys around him, a bottle of stinging, stinking life in his hand. But now he was shivering.

Nico must be frozen stiff, sitting out here for so long. And it had been a long time. Jason had been watching.

He looked over at the boy. Again. Nico's eyes were firmly stuck on the horizon.

'What are you looking at?'

The question seemed to startle Nico out of himself. Dark eyes flashed toward Jason, distrusting. Something about that look made him want to break Nico's walls down, brick by mental brick.

'I've always wanted to draw it. I just don't know how.' The sea. A blush that had nothing to do with the cold crept across Nico's face.

Piper sighed, soft. 'It really is beautiful.' Nico turned toward her and Jason found himself seeing nothing but pale skin and high cheekbones and long eyelashes. Gods, Nico was cute.

He shook himself, suddenly caught in a tangle of knotted string, questions, questions, questions. Nico was cute in an aesthetically pleasing way. Not a romantic or, gods forbid, sexual way. Nope. Not at all.

Lying had never been Jason's strong point.

Piper shot to her feet as a blast rocked the beach. Leo was blowing shit up again. Great.

'I'd better make sure he doesn't kill anything,' Piper muttered. 'It was great to meet you Nico.' Then she was gone, leaving them to be swallowed whole by awkward silence.

Nico shifted slightly. Jason blinked. Their eyes met briefly before darting away. Jason prayed to any god that would listen to put him out of his misery.

'You don't have to sit here you know.' Nico refused to meet his gaze as he said it, swallowing galleons of uncomfortable censorship. The sort that made him hold his tongue with an iron fist and set swarms of bees in his stomach. Censorship that stopped him saying stupid things. Like that.

'I want to,' Jason said. 'Unless you want me to go-'

'No. I don't.' Nico was shocked at the desperation in his voice. He had been betrayed by his own damn loneliness. He grabbed handful after handful of glistening sand and buried himself; stuffing it in his mouth and eyes and ears. Letting it slither down his throat. Choking him, suffocating him. Safe.

Jason grabbed Nico's hand and tugged him down, down, down. Until they were laying on the damp sand. Staring at the indigo sky, watching teeny stars pop into existence. He tried to move his hand away, but realised that he didn't want to. Nico's fingers were strong, ink smudged and icy. So cold it almost burnt. Jason felt like a furnace, sending ripples of stinging heat along Nico's arm.

Nico tugged away, cradling his hand against his chest. Like it was dangerous, deadly. To keep Jason safe. He really is odd, Jason thought. Or maybe he just doesn't like creepy guys holding his hand. You fucking idiot.

His cleared his throat, took a sip of Leo's poisonous concoction. But his throat stayed mercilessly dry, dangerously wordless.

Nico's head lolled toward Jason. Studying him. Jason kept his eyes firmly on the sky. He didn't trust himself to look at Nico and not completely forget how to form a sentence.

'So, who are you?' Jason asked.

'What?' Nico's eyes darkened slightly as Jason looked over.

'Who are you? You know, what do you like? Your hobbies, your pet peeves, your full name. Who is this mysterious Nico?'

Mountains of sand and seaweed and the red lines on his hands suddenly seemed interesting to Nico, far more interesting than answering Jason's questions.

'He's no one special.'

'Bullshit.' Jason said the word with such conviction, such fervour. 'Everyone is worth knowing. Everyone is special.' He winced. 'God, that came out wrong.'

Nico smiled and Jason had never felt so proud. Maybe he was exaggerating slightly. Maybe not.

'He likes art,' Jason said. 'He sits on the beach for hours. He has nice hair.' Did he just say that? Oh gods.

Nico's face was scarlet, burning hotter than the bonfire down the beach. Jason found it slightly endearing.

'He doesn't like talking about himself in third-person,' Nico said. Jason could practically taste the sarcasm. He chuckled. 'No, seriously. It makes me want to punch myself.'

'Technically, you started it,' Jason said.

Nico raised an eyebrow. Delicately, ironically. 'You really want to play that game?' A catastrophic smirk danced across his lips, and Jason had never felt his stomach flip with such momentum. Eyes, eyes, eyes. Jason couldn't stop looking into them. What the fuck was wrong with him?

The sun was disappearing and Jason knew he was supposed to be heading back to Leo, back to the party, back to himself. One more minute. One more relaxed, molten minute. He realised that his neck had loosened, the muscles slack. He imagined getting up. He didn't get up.

The waves were creeping forward. Sweeping their bubbled fingers of salt water and seaweed towards the boys' shoes, beckoning. Nico knew that he could sit there until they reached him, swept over his jeans and faded black shirt. Over his neck, his mouth. Over his nose. Until there was nothing but the current and his onyx hair drifting in and out of his vision. That's what he wanted. To be nothing.

A girl shrieked. It was loud and grating, the sort of sound that made Nico's ears throb. He treated it like he would a fly or time passing. He just ignored it and fumed about its existence. But Jason looked up and swore. He stood, sending sand spiralling, cascading, over Nico.

'Warn me next time, Jesus,' Nico said, shaking sand from his hair like a dog. His stomach twisted as he realised he'd said "next time". As if he could ever see Jason again. He was fine.

When Jason didn't reply, Nico looked up to find him walking away, fast. Towards someone. Away from Nico. Always walking away. He was fine.

'Jason Grace, get your fucking dog under control.' There was a different girl stalking up the beach towards them, not Piper. While Piper had been all soft hues and kind eyes, this girl had sharp cheeks and delicate bone structure. She was golden; skin, hair, clothes. Her eyes shimmered blue. She looked fierce, a different kind of beautiful. Why was Nico forced to see all of the beautiful people in one night? His fragile self-esteem didn't need that. She looked like a goddess incarnate.

Nico would use watercolour to paint her.

'Aw, come on Cal! I was just joking around.' Behind her was a boy. He looked like a pixie, all wild hair and wild eyes and a wild smile that made Nico nervous. He darted like flames, like a fish. Snappy. Sneaky. Not as beautiful as his glimmering friends but still good-looking. Just wiry and small, like a blue wren.

'Leo, I swear to the gods, one day I'll punch you so hard your teeth fall out,' the girl snarled. Jason reached her, reached for her and Nico felt nothing but hollowness. Of course.

He lay back on the sand, content to let the sea swallow him. He didn't care. They were yelling but his head was fuzzy, blocking out everything but the sea. That was constant. That would never leave him.

You're making a big deal over nothing. That was his father's voice. You don't know the boy, for Zeus's sake.

And so Nico closed his eyes and decided not to care.

'Sorry.' Nico cracked open one eyelid to find Jason standing above him.

'It's fine. I don't care.' Feigning indifference was so easy. Especially when people wanted to see it. Hurt flickered across Jason's face. Why? Nico thought. Why do you even care?

'You should get off the beach, Nico. The tide's coming in and it's kinda freezing,' Jason said, his voice swimming in rippling pools of concern.

'I'm fine. It was nice meeting you Jason.' The dismissal in Nico's voice was obvious. And rude. You've always been rude, haven't you Nicky?

'Oh.' Nico tried hard not to flinch at Jason's tone. 'Nice to meet you too,' Jason said. And then he was gone. Trudging up the beach. Good. Walking away from Nico. Like he should. Walking towards Piper and Leo and fire. Life.

Watching Jason's silhouette, Nico heard something inside of him groan, like wood just before it snapped. He shoved down the part of him that wanted to call out, to run, to embrace Jason. Embrace the last drips of life inside him. Shoved it down deep. Compacting his stupid, ridiculous dreams into a tiny box inside his mind and shoving it into a vault. For extra defence, he stuck on a big, shiny padlock and swallowed the key.

He couldn't have those dreams. Dreams like that would drive him mad.

Dead boys don't deserve dreams.

Chapter Text

Nico had been dead for a while. He didn't know exactly how many days, week, months he'd been stuck on this beach. Dead. Maybe even years. He doubted it though. There was only so long that you could stare at the waves without going mad. He wasn't mad yet. As far as he knew.

The days blurred into the faded hues of sea spray, stinging wind that his deathly skin couldn't feel and 3am thoughts that screamed Jason Jason Jason and no matter how many times Nico tried to silence himself, the name echoed against his skull. Jason, made of wind and salt and pixie dust. And Piper, with her scintillating eyes and bubblegum skin, who saw him and talked to him and knew he existed.

He was dead. A ghost, an apparition, a figment of his own wildly deceased imagination. And yet they had seen him. And Nico had turned them away.

That hadn't happened before, someone seeing him. And he didn't think it would ever happen again.

He wished he could feel. He wished he had known what Jason's hand felt like. Warm? Soft? It could have shocked Nico with 10 000 volts and he would have no idea. Dead skin couldn't feel.

His sketchpad was littered with scribbled motifs; the soft melody of her voice, the muscles of Jason's back, eyes, eyes, eyes. Bianca's half-explored portrait was pushed to the back of Nico's mind because she was dead, like him, and he wanted life. He wanted static rainbows and roaming away from his beach and midnights in other places, looking at other things. He wanted food, tastes, smells. He wanted to stop wanting.

Autumn brushed its weary fingers across the world, leaving skull masks and pumpkin spice lattes and a billion shades of fire in its wake. The sea calmed, letting the pattering of raindrops soothe it to sleep. Raindrops that slipped around Nico, on his skin and hair but never reaching him.

Couples began to walk down the beach in coats and scarves and Nico kept drawing them, entwined fingers and clouded breath and sunset gazes set on each other and nothing else. Strangers with beautiful lives and beautiful loves and entire pages in his pad dedicated to their eyelashes. He knew, somewhere, the leaves were brittle and flaking off the trees like scales off a fish, lying on the pavement waiting to be crunched into dust. Halloween preparations were in full swing and all he could do was sit and imagine and hope and wish and dread Jason returning.

He got his wish.

'You really love this beach, huh?' Nico didn't need to turn to know it was Jason standing above him. He could recognise that sliver-capped voice anywhere. It had been on repeat in Nico's head for a month now. A month.

'It helps me think,' Nico said. Not exactly a lie. Not exactly the truth either. But you're not going to just tell a guy that you're forever and eternally bound to the place, are you?

He looked up and if he'd had a working heart it would have broken, shattered, exploded and left his ribcage in dizzyingly splintered remains.

He was brilliant. Jason was a beast of coiled muscles and sweat and easy smiles. Backlit by the morning sun, he looked like a god of some sort. That's what they call putting someone on a pedestal. Bianca's voice snapped some sense back into him, enough sense to scrape his jaw out of the sand and wipe the awe from his face, discarding it like a crumpled tissue.

Nico forced the bouncing excitement out of his stomach at the fact that he could see him, that Jason had somehow noticed him. Eyes that were usually blind to his insubstantial existence had finally unglazed, he was being seen.

Jason was puffed, panting slightly even as the frigid wind whipped his nose the colour of popping candy and fairy floss.

'Rudolf's come early this year, it's only October,' Nico said. Sarcasm was the best form of defence against regular conversation. Jason's puzzled face made Nico's insides itch. 'Your nose looks like the girls' toy section of Target.'

Jason rubbed his nose as he grinned. 'It's cold and I've been running. Cut me some slack,' Jason said.

Nico glanced down the beach, mock-horror plastered across his face. 'Running? Is something chasing you? A bear? A beast? Run! Save yourself, I'll hold it off,' Nico yelled out, bounding to his feat as if preparing for battle. Jason laughed and Nico almost joined in. Almost. He couldn't remember the last time he'd laughed. It must have been before Bi. A long, long time ago.

He slumped back on the sand and Jason joined him. Uninvited, combing his fingers through the collection of shells that Nico made when no one was watching. Picking things up in front of people would freak them out. Imagine seeing floating shells. 'I like running,' Jason said. 'It's cathartic.'

'Sweaty, uncomfortable, self-imposed torture is cathartic?'

'For me, yeah,' Jason said.

'What sort of sadist would enjoy running?' Jason grinned.

'Sadism is enjoying seeing other people in pain, not yourself. This's just called keeping fit.'

Nico fought the urge to roll his eyes, swallowing it like medicine. 'Like you need to keep fit,' he said.

Jason just frowned, studying himself. It seemed stupid to Nico, who'd never been buff, never had muscles that you could see. He was scrawny and short, but he'd never actually tried to change it. He'd just hated himself. Useless. He was fine.

'What're you drawing today?' Jason asked, trying to peek at Nico's sketchpad. His eyes flicked with an emotion unplaceable when he saw it.

Jason's eyes stared out of the page, intensely focused on something just to the left, behind the viewer. A violet cape billowed out behind him as he hovered above a city, lights like dragonfly wings spidering below. His skintight suit clung in all the right places, showing exactly how much Nico had noticed about him. Protector, the title read. Nico had turned him into a superhero.

The pad snapped shut as Nico's thundering heart dropped to his stomach. Gods, Jason had seen it. Seen his stupid drawing. Protector had seemed like such a good name at the time. He was fine.

Jason's eyes met his, the same eyes that Nico had been scribbling for weeks but never quite getting the colour right.

'It's amazing,' Jason said and Nico floated up, up, up; playing bumper cars with clouds and aeroplanes. 'Can I have it? Please.'

The yearning in his voice nearly made Nico hand it over, let him keep it. It might help Jason remember that he existed. But no. He couldn't do that.

'It's not finished,' he said and he knew that Jason knew he was lying.

'Okay.' That's all Jason said, like he cared, like he understood and all of a sudden Nico wanted to do nothing but know him. He wanted to be knee-deep in Jason's thoughts, swimming in his personality and idiosyncrasies, drowning in his understanding.

Nico wished his tongue would unravel, wished that words could roll off it like magic. He wanted to ask questions and get answers but he was wooden, his voice box was a 5am supermarket car park and his words tasted of acidic silence.

'So,' Jason said, rubbing the back of his neck. 'My friend Percy's having a Halloween party next week. It might not be your thing but I was hoping-'


Jason's face swelled and crumpled, rubbish that Nico had scrunched up and tossed to the gutter.

If Nico had a heart that worked, he knew it would be hammering. His lungs would freeze, his anxiety would clutch him in iron clamps.

But he was dead.

Nothing could make him anxious anymore.

But he was feeling.

He wasn't supposed to feel anymore.

But he was guilty.

What a shitty fucking afterlife, when you could still feel guilt.

'I don't like parties much,' Nico said, like that could explain it. Like he could explain how trapped he was on this beach.

'I get it,' Jason said. Nico knew that he didn't.

The conversation had turned stale, old bread and feet smell. They sat like that, steeping in autumn sun and awkward half-breaths.

Nico opened his mouth, hoping that something, anything would come out.

'How old are you?' Nope, anything but that. Stupid, fucking mouth.

Jason grinned. '17. You?'

Damn. Damn it all to hell. Well Nicky? How old are you? What age should he give? What was the date? When was his birthday? Who was he anymore?

'16.' That sounded about right.

'You look so little though,' Jason said and Nico decided that it was a very bad idea to watch the scar on Jason's lip when he talked. He wanted to kiss him. He was fine.

'I think puberty just gave me the finger and walked off.' Don't look don't look don't look. He looked. Gods, the scar was so cute when Jason laughed. 'It must have stuffed it all in you, instead,' Nico said and he prodded Jason's arm. He was real. He was fine.

Jason flexed, exaggerated, excruciatingly wondrous. Nico laughed, despite himself.

'You're such a dork.' Nico doused himself in gasoline and burned, burned, burned. The sky went up in flames, smoke curling around the sun, sand blistering into glass bubbles at his feet.

Jason clambered to his feet, grin splattered across his face. 'This dork's gotta finish his run. I'll see you around Nico.'

He gave a little wave and turned to go. Nico looked out across the waves, his smile like a disease. Impossible to kill.


He looked back around and the smile was immortal.

'If you want to avoid parties, I would keep off the beach on Halloween. Apparently we're going swimming with ghosts.' Jason rolled his eyes like his friends were stupid, silly, believing in ghosts. Shattered glass peppered Nico's skin, a roast pig on a spit.

Nico wanted to die again, and again, and again. How on earth was he supposed to avoid a party happening where he lived?

'Thanks,' Nico managed to force out of his gridlocked mouth. His brain was a jammed printer and Jason was the flustered office worker pulling sheet after ruined sheet of photocopied emotions out of him.

'Anyway, bye.' Jason walked away, leaving heavy footsteps and electric pulses behind him. Nico sat in complete stillness as the sun peaked and set. As the waves crept over his knees and back again. He couldn't even begin to plan how to avoid it. He could just hide in the waves until they were gone. He could sit on the ocean floor, make friends with the fish and pass-the-parcel with coral and stones. He could be properly dead for a day. A corpse in the water on Halloween.

Or he could go.

Or he could try to see what happened.

Would the others see him? Was it just Jason and Piper that could? Or could Percy, Leo, Cal, look at him and notice him and see him and oh gods.

He could watch the party, he could join the party, he could hide forever in a coffin of sand and coral.

Not really a choice at all.

He was going to be the only real ghost at a party made for faking it.

Despite the beast clawing him apart from the inside, Nico couldn't help but feel that somehow he'd been given a gift.