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The Other "Heroes"

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"He couldn't have gone far."

That one phrase repeated itself over and over again in Percie's head. She needed it to be true. If it wasn't... the consequences of this night would never allow her to rest ever again. For all her self-proclaimed lack of sense, the few brain cells she seemed to have told her that her hopes were well-founded.

Nico was exhausted; no denying that. Just earlier today he'd suffered the confines of Circe, and her sadistic method of captivity. He'd mentally broken down soon after, and even after recovering from both of those incidents, he still held his own against Pisces. But that strength could only take him so far.

She'd been following Zoe's directions in the sky ever since she first left the clearing. The Huntress willed her in the right direction, her astronomical figure shifting its aim ever so slightly if the child of the sea ever wavered in her sense of direction. Knowing that her old foe was helping her now did nothing to ease Percie's heart rate, but it did fill her with an odd sense of relief.

The Zoe assisting her... was not the one who'd tried to kill her three years ago. The former lieutenant's presence tried to pull at Percie's mind, taking her back to what she'd said to Artemis when she first revealed the truth: "If I could change it, I would. But I do not regret my actions on that mountain, and would do it all over again if I had to."

Dark voices sounded in her head, needling her with jabs at her psyche. "What did Percy have in him that you didn't? He, a man, was able to win the respect of Zoe. You couldn't even do that as a woman, with a natural advantage in that regard. You never blamed Thomas for what transpired on that road, because you knew it was you. It was always you. You refused Zoe's offer without a thought. You sided with Bartholomew after their conflict. You defended Thomas for lying to everyone on the quest. And it was you who ultimately betrayed him. He killed for you... and you locked him out with the wolves."

What, like she wanted to do that? The only reason... the only reason she went along with Thomas's lie... was because she could see how much it meant to him that she did. Thomas had sacrificed himself once before, to make sure Lucille and Alister reached camp. Was it all that surprising that he'd do it again?

"So one sacrifice wasn't enough for you; I see. He'd already given himself up once before; what was asking him to do it again?"

She didn't ask! He did! He pleaded with her to go through with it. What was she supposed to do? Refuse that kind of request? What kind of person would that make her?

"An actual friend; not a wimp who counted on her loved ones to make all the necessary sacrifices for her."

That one stung. Hard. Percie's legs slowed as she felt a new presence in her mind, one seemingly drawn to her by her own ragged emotions. This couldn't just be her own conscience... it was much too concise for that.

"How observant of you, Percie Jackson. Many never are able to pick me out amongst their own self-doubts and criticisms. That you are one of the rare few able to look beyond the veil and recognize me marks you as quite a hero."

Great. How long had this trespasser been sitting in her mind? Talk about an invasion of privacy.

"Privacy is an illusion, Percie. As is honor, confidence, and the truth. As for your first query, I shall leave that ambiguous for now. The two of us are but pieces, my dear hero. You might be the more prominent one, but all have a place in the universe, no matter how unpredictable your presence in this dimension was. We shall meet when the time is right. Until then, I wish you luck in your hunt for the boy, dear. Do be careful: just as there are not two suns in the sky, there can never be two sovereigns over the same field."

Okay... now the voice was talking like a fortune cookie. A really smug fortune cookie. But behind that riddle... Percie could tell she'd be seeing whoever that was again. She did not recognize the voice; it was leering, yet affectionate. Male... and female. Old and young. A god, surely... or maybe something even older. More... primal.

Her mysterious eavesdropper now gone from her head, Percie could resume her pursuit in earnest once again. The wilds of the Kentucky passed by her as she ran, cursing her legs for not being able to match the speeds she'd seen the Hunters achieve. Running sixty miles an hour was suddenly looking very attractive.

Jumping over a fallen tree, Percie's eye caught something glistening in the moonlight. Attached to a ripped branch was a very familiar skull ring, hanging off the edge by just an inch. Nico. He'd been here.

The daughter of Poseidon palmed the jewelry, studying it. How did it end up on a branch? If Nico had shadow-traveled, he might have stumbled into the giant oak upon landing, and lost his ring in his efforts to steady himself. The fact that he didn't stop to retrieve it... scared Percie. More than she thought she could be by such a reveal.

"Where did you go, Neeks?" she mumbled to herself, looking around the woods. The darkness was still and silent, yielding no answers or even hints to her question. The skull on the ring stared at her in expectation, like it was waiting for her to return it to its master.

A movement in the moonlight on the ring caught Percie's attention. The image flounced, and jumped, before leaping off the ring and materializing before her. Artemis's form emerged from that conduction, the goddess pulling her hood down as she approached.

"You are a hard woman to track, Percie. Even for me," the Hunt remarked, eyeing the ring in her hands. "But now I see you have more skill than you let on."

"What, this? I just spotted it by chance... no skill on my part was needed," Percie responded, putting the ring in her pocket next to Riptide. Nico would want it back.

"Humility might be a virtue, Percie, but there's nothing wrong in taking credit for an achievement," Artemis noted, her silver eyes scampering around the forest. "As intrigued as I am to simply follow you, and observe your methods, I feel it would be improper for me to sit back and leave this venture solely to you."

Huh? "You're... offering to help me?" Percie stammered.

The goddess nodded. "He needs you, Percie. More than ever. I am not so cold-hearted that I will stand by and be a passive observer to the suffering of one who helped rescue my Hunters."

"I... I... must say I'm shocked, my lady."

"Is it really so hard to believe?"

"Yes." Artemis raised an eyebrow at that, so Percie had to elaborate: "You are capable of great compassion, Lady Artemis. I saw it myself. However, you seem to reserve all of that compassion for women, strictly. You turned a boy into a jackalope for accidentally finding your camp. You had Actaeon torn to pieces by his own dogs for the crime of catching a glimpse of you naked in the wild. You... forced a sex change on Sipriotes for the same, and threatened him into joining the Hunt, on pain of death. You're capable of many kind things, my lady, but your attitude towards men needs some serious work."

For the love of Rhea, did she have a death wish or what? Over the course of one evening, she'd not only admitted to the moon goddess that she'd killed her favorite lieutenant, but was now chiding her for her treatment of men? The Fates were probably taking bets now on whether or not Artemis killed her via obliteration, or mauling.

The goddess let the moment sit in the air, seeming to take it in. Her eyes flashed, but they did dim once again when she tilted her head. "Is... that something you've been holding in for a long time?"

"Yes. A final contingency plan, as it was. If, by some fluke, the Artemis of my world ever discovered the truth of what happened, and tried to take revenge on either myself or Thomas, I was going to bring that argument to the Hunters. Some of them, like that repulsive Vera, surely wouldn't have cared. But not all of your followers are quite so vicious. Many of them have fathers, brothers, and male friends, or at least had them at some point. How do you think they would react to learn they'd sworn themselves to someone capable of delivering such harsh retribution, for such minor offenses? And even if that failed, I had my ace in the hole."

"An ace?"

Percie sighed. "Yes. Tell me, my lady: how many of your Hunters remember Kallisto?"

The stunned look on the deity's face told her everything she needed to know.

"I thought so; she's been all but forgotten by almost everyone. Only the most veteran of your Hunters could recall her, if they even could."

Artemis sneered. "What happened to Kallisto was regrettable, Percie, but I fail to see how that would move any of my Hunters away from me."

"Oh, is it?" she challenged back. "Regrettable? That's the word you chose? How does that even come close to dignifying that incident with the disgust it deserves?"

"Mind your tone. Remember who you're talking to," the goddess muttered, her bow appearing on her back.

"How could I ever forget? You're the woman who turned her best friend into a bear, and threatened to kill her if she ever crossed your path again, because she lied to you about your father forcing himself on her. A father who first tried to seduce her by coming onto her disguised as you, if I remember the story correctly. Because none of the Olympians believe in birth control, of course Kallisto ended up pregnant. And the moment she started showing, what was it you did again?" Percie batted her eyes at the Hunt. "I'd like to hear it from you this time, if you please."

Artemis shifted in the moonlight, her figure beginning to swirl with power. "You... dare make a demand like that of me, Percie Jackson? You wish for me to explain myself to you, when the incident you speak of is the one thing I wish I could change more than anything? What was I to do? Revoke the rules of my Hunt, of my vow? It would be a flagrant display of favoritism for me to expect one thing of my Hunters, and another of my lieutenant. Maidenhood is the bond that holds my family together, Jackson. To give it up is to be cast out."

"But she didn't give anything up. It was taken from her! By force! How can you look me in the eye and act like there's no difference?" Percie was shouting now, her hands clutched into fists at her sides. "You think I'm the only woman who takes issue with that line of thought, my lady? At the very least, the Hunters from the modern era would be outraged by that revelation. It's a level of victim-blaming that makes Hera look like the most rational woman in existence. And she turned women into literal monsters for being assaulted! What compassionate person would ever achieve that kind of contradiction?"

Percie had never seen a goddess visibly deflate before. For all her power, Percie's words must have been hitting some vital points. In fact, the scale of her accusations were actually causing the deity to age. Twelve seemed to become sixteen, then twenty-five, before finally settling into her thirties. Artemis was now taller than Percie, but she didn't seem to notice it.

"I was prepared to reveal that to the Hunters, in the event my Artemis ever tried anything against me or my friends," the daughter of Poseidon finished. "Even if she had me killed, she'd never shake that off. Her image would forever be tarnished; the maiden of the Hunt, and champion of women... reduced to nothing more than an abider, and a cruel tyrant. Men and women alike have suffered because of you, just like every other Olympian. So don't act surprised when I question your kindness. It only ever seems to be the mask that conceals the eruptions lurking just below the surface. Earning respect is not hard, my lady. What is hard... is earning that respect through love. Not fear."

"... Then what would you suggest, Percie? How would you go about earning that respect?"

The moon goddess's voice was... quiet. Not serene, but thoughtful. Open.

"I won't pretend it's not hard to change, especially for beings as old as the gods. But try. That was all I asked after the defeat of Kronos, right? Try to be better. For demigods... and yourselves. Fear breeds resentment; love breeds loyalty. And you can't expect the latter without showing it yourself."

Artemis closed her eyes, absorbing everything, not moving a muscle. Very deliberately, she regained her youthful look, until the middle-aged woman was once again the lively young girl.

"You... befuddle me more and more, Percie Jackson," she announced, pulling her hood up. "Now, if that is all we wish to discuss of the matter, I do believe we have pre- a friend, to track down." The goddess hunched over, motioning for Percie to climb onto her back.

"Uh... what?" Percie asked.

"I may not be Hermes, but I can be quite fast when I want to be. Hop on. It'll be much easier than streaking through the woods on your own."

Percie couldn't argue with the logic behind it, but the size the goddess had chosen made the whole thing a lot more awkward than it should have been. The seventeen year-old demigod clambered onto the back of the twelve year-old frame of Artemis, which surely resembled a giraffe trying to mount a zebra. The goddess didn't complain; she only scooped Percie's legs up off the ground and threw an expectant look her way.

"You may want to hold on tight," she smirked.

That was stellar advice. The moment Percie was locked in, the forest flew by. Air whipped through Percie's cheeks, giving her the sensation dogs must have felt when they stuck their heads out of moving vehicles. Artemis leapt along the tops of the trees, making massive jumps that would have given Percie a heart attack if she'd had enough time to process the act before it was finished.

"That ring you found was a perfect source of scent," the goddess pushed into her head. Guess telepathy was the best choice of communication at three hundred miles an hour. "We should be at Nico's location within the next few minutes."

"Gooo hs alr toajr wjeow okay?" Percie's jumbled answer returned, the velocity making it impossible for her to form any coherent thoughts. Like she hadn't embarrassed herself around Artemis enough; when she was holding up the sky, the deity had tried to warn her that she was about to trick Atlas into taking the sky from her. Percie, in her pain-induced haze, had responded by trying to place an order for a six-inch club sandwich. No one who heard that story let her forget it, either.

At least the travel was so fast, Percie didn't even have time to get motion sickness. One spectacular bound across an entire valley later, Artemis slowed to a halt, easing Percie down in front of a cave. Another one?

"The trail ends here," the goddess explained, letting Percie steady herself before letting go completely. "Nico is inside... at least, some version of him is, at any rate."

"That's... not a very reassuring way of phrasing that, my lady," the child of the ocean said, trying to reassert herself. "Is there anyone else in there with him? I'd hate to go stumbling into a trap, where he could be hurt."

Artemis cocked her head. "You would make that your primary concern, wouldn't you? But no. From what I can tell, he's alone. Which may not be the best thing, now that I say it aloud."

"No, it's not," Percie agreed. She went to enter the cave, then stopped short when Artemis did not follow. "You're not coming?"

The goddess backed up a step, shaking her head. "No... at least not at first. I... feel I have things I must say to him, Percie, but now would not be the ideal time. I will, but not until he's ready to hear me out. You must go alone. I shall stay here, and ensure no one... unsavory... follows you in."

Their plans decided on, Percie nodded, and stepped into the darkness of the opening. At least Pisces had had the decency to light some candles in her little home theater. This place didn't even have a hole in it to let moonlight in. On the plus side, at least that meant the odds of her encountering a monster who fought by making abstract TV references was next to nil.

It didn't take long for Percie to recognize that the cave wasn't vacated. Footprints in the few scattered soil outcroppings amongst the rock might have been hard to see in pitch black darkness, but she could feel that it was disturbed as she walked through it. Someone had come this way, and by the re-arranging of the dirt, they had been careless in their way of pushing forward.

Neeks.

He was close. He had to be, and that pushed Percie forward, her hesitation morphing into determination. The cave might have boasted a big entrance, but the sounds of her own footsteps echoed back at her. That meant they reached the end, and came bouncing back. She wouldn't have to go traipsing through an entire cavern system in the dark with no light.

Despite how odd it may have sounded, she saw Nico before anything else. In the dark, of all places. Sure, the cave itself was black; nothing. But the nothing in front of Percie as she found the end of it... was darker than anything else she had ever seen before. And that was counting Nyx, plus the gaggle of bootlicking acolytes she roamed Tartarus with. That was void-level darkness; this was emptiness. Emptiness... and sorrow.

"Nico? I know you're here," she murmured, squatting down and feeling around in the nothing. "Everyone's really worried about you, Neeks. Will's got to be going crazy, knowing him. Annabeth and Thalia are both messes. And me... well, I tracked you down in here. You can probably imagine how freaked out I was."

She got nothing.

"I know how crushing it is, to be treated like that. Vera had no right to say anything like that... and now she knows." Her voice dropped. "I... made her see the errors of her ways, as it were. She'll be lucky to see anything again, out of her right eye, now that I think about it."

Still nothing.

Exhaling, Percie crawled forward, her hands sweeping in front of her for the child of Hades. When her left pinkie brushed against a cold palm, she started. Feeling her way through, she made out Nico's form, slumped over into a yearner position.

"Neeks?" She rubbed his back, then moved down his arms. The long sleeves of his jacket had been rolled up, so her fingers met bare skin as they moved along. When her fingers came back dripping with something, she felt her heart stop.

The smell of iron hit her a moment later... blood.

Like Artemis, Percie was not Hermes. But boy, she would have given the messenger a run for his money, if the speed with which she came barreling out of that cave with the unconscious boy was anything to go by. Artemis, hunkered down near the entrance, widened her eyes as the two of them came spilling out.

"Percie, wha-" the goddess blurted out before her nose caught the same scent. "Oh."

Well, that was an underreaction. Nico's nails were caked in blood, and long scratches covered his arms, some so deep, they looked like they could have dug through the brachioradial muscles. He'd done this to himself; no monster involved.

"I need something to stop this bleeding; now!" Percie grunted, tearing her gaze away from the son of Hades to look for something suitable nearby. Nothing; not even a sprout of flowers.

"Then we'll improvise," she added, unzipping Nico's jacket and sliding it off him, doing as much as she could not to aggravate the injuries further. Knotting the sleeves together, she turned the clothing into a makeshift tourniquet, tying it off along his right arm. That was one taken care of.

The left was still seeping, and cursing to herself, Percie realized she had nothing else. Neither her nor Nico's shirt was long enough to adequately cover his entire arm, and she couldn't afford to let him lose any more blood. Maybe she could do something similar with her pants, but she had nothing to use as cover out here in the chilly Kentucky ai-

"Use this."

Artemis was standing over her, her hood extended in her hand. The silver garment shined as the light of the moon reflected off its luster, and Percie felt emotions choke her up.

"Thank you, my lady," she breathed, knotting the top of the garment and placing it up over Nico's other arm. Artemis watched her silently, as the daughter of Poseidon finished her work.

"You'd make Apollo proud, with your quick-thinking," the goddess noted, crouching down next to her.

"I'm no healer; just really tenacious."

"Tenacity is an important trait in a healer. You can't give up on your patients just because things look bleak."

Percie couldn't argue that. "I'm just glad we found him before any more damage could be done," she whispered, taking one of his hands and smoothing it out. Dry blood crusted on his nails shrugged off as she brushed him.

"He... did this to himself?" the deity questioned.

"It... can happen, sometimes," Percie admitted. "I've only ever seen it with Nicola once... but I'll never forget it." It was a particularly bad episode. Willamina had been out, so Percie and Alister had been on their own when the daughter of Hades came stumbling up to the Poseidon cabin in the middle of the night, eyes hollow and shaking.

It had been a nightmare; a horrific one. Percie had gone running for one of the Apollo campers, but they'd just come back from New Rome. They were all exhausted, and no amount of panicked door knocking could stir them. Alister had heard her, though, and came back.

They patched Nicola up, and let her stay the night in cabin three. She never made a sound; just stared at nothing, as her wounds were treated. None of them slept a wink, and when Chiron investigated the next morning, one look at the child of Hades was all it took for him to ignore the rule violations. Percie and Alister ran shifts, one of them keeping Nicola company the whole day, until Mina returned four days later. By that time, Neeks had started speaking again, but Percie still shivered when she remembered it.

"He went through Tartarus alone. It... it was worse than it was for us," Percie mentioned. "We had each other; he was alone, in every sense of the word."

Artemis reflected for a moment. "Alone? He made it through... alone?"

"Yes."

A shuffling next to them cut off the conversation. Nico rolled over onto one side, before a shudder ran through him. His arms, still wrapped, came up, and Percie had to act quick.

"No no no no!" she cried out, grabbing at his left arm. Artemis's hood was stained with red, but that was nothing compared to what damage could still be done. Even with one limb locked down, the right arm would not be denied. It lashed out, catching ahold of Percie's own arm, and the daughter of Poseidon grimaced as the nails started clawing at her.

They didn't get far. Artemis pinned the right arm down again, before Nico could break the skin. With a determined look, she gestured for Percie to back off. Hesitant, but willing to cooperate, Percie inched back, before pulling away. Nico's left arm didn't get the chance to rise before Artemis had pinned it as well. The son of Hades thrashed under her, but the goddess didn't flinch.

"I can hold him; try to calm him," she instructed.

Percie didn't need to be told twice. She swept herself over so she could look down into Nico's face. "Neeks, it's not real. It's a nightmare; no matter how true it seems, it can't hurt you. You beat it. It can't do anything else."

She cupped his face, keeping his head still. "You're not alone. No matter how much those voices tell you you are. They're liars. You have everyone here... and those who aren't here. You'll never have to face something like that ever again. Not by yourself."

With his arms useless, and his head immobile, Nico's fit subsided, Percie whispering into his ear as his breathing finally slowed. She put a hand to his chest, helping the rising and falling motion along with her palm.

Artemis arched her brow at the demigod, who nodded in response. Cautiously, the Hunt released his arms, sitting back on her haunches. Percie pulled the child of Hades up to her chest, cradling his head against her shoulder.

His body retched a little, but his arms remained at his sides. Slowly... ever so slowly... his eyes fluttered open.

"B- I... P-Percie?" he breathed out, his voice shallow. He took a moment, and in that moment, the pain in his arms registered. "Oh... it happened again, didn't it?"

"Yeah, sweetie. It did. But it's over now. I'm here."

"Just like you promised..."

"Yeah. Just like."

Nico's head went limp against her, but his eyes remained open. "I saw Bianca in Tartarus."

"What?!" Percie would have liked to believe she uttered her disbelief in a dignified fashion, since she'd been relatively composed ever since finding Nico injured. But that composure vanished and got replaced by a high-pitched squeal.

"It... it wasn't 'her' her, but it was close enough. It was Apate, in disguise."

Artemis quietly growled to herself at the mention of the goddess of deceit. Percie caught her breath, trying to relax again. "I see. She took Bianca's form to get under your skin, right?"

"Yeah. I knew it wasn't her... but I wasn't in a good place. She got in my head; messed with my thoughts. Took something I thought was true and twisted it into something else. Even now, I still don't know if she was messing with me, or if she was deliberately using the truth to hurt me, since she knew it would be a lot more effective than making something up. She said that Bianca joined the Hunters because... because she was afraid of me."

The goddess tensed up.

"Afraid of you?" Percie asked, drawing him closer to her. "Did she elaborate?"

Nico nodded. "Yeah. That by growing up with me, and spending so much time together, she realized what I was capable of. The love she showed me... was born from fear. She didn't want to risk my anger, so she went along with whatever I wanted. Artemis offered her a real chance at freedom from that terror, and she accepted without a second thought."

The child of Hades hadn't turned his head, so he didn't see Artemis crouching down off to his left. Percie threw a look at the Hunt, who shriveled back into herself as the boy kept speaking.

"She didn't give me a single hint that she was leaving me, Percie." His voice broke. "Just... dropped it, out of nowhere. And with that, she was gone. No goodbye. Nothing. Apate... was so convincing. I believed her then. In some small way, I think I still do."

Percie had to force her next question out: "The nightmare: What is it, exactly?"

Nico lowered his head. "In it... the circumstances change. But the end result is the same: Bianca provokes me... and I... I-"

"No, Nico di Angelo. You'd never do that."

Artemis leaned forward, sliding up next to the two demigods. Her eyes lessened in their usual spark, making her look even younger than her normal form. She kept speaking: "The grief that I pointed out earlier today... that kind of remorse is not something that a monster like that could ever feel. Bianca loved you, and you her. There was nothing in her that feared you, nothing that would have made her betray you."

Dark eyes swiveled to stare at the goddess of the Hunt. "Then why did she leave me?"

Artemis actually trembled for a moment, before lowering her head. "That... was my fault, Nico."

Nico froze in Percie's arms, the daughter of Poseidon having to blink several times to make sure she just heard that right. Did Artemis... just take responsibility for what Percie thought she did?

"Bianca was a child, much like yourself. Just like Percy, at the time. She was looking for something... or someone, rather, to be her own rock. She was yours, but like all children, she wanted a role model for herself. Someone she could aspire to. I... injected myself into that need, without considering the consequences."

Neither demigod spoke. They needed to hear more.

"I thought I was doing something good, taking a young woman in and giving her a chance to be a part of something bigger than she'd ever had the chance to experience. I did not factor in the truths behind that: she'd been locked away in the Lotus Hotel for years, with only you as her family. That kind of bond... should have been respected. But I did not respect it; I was thinking only of myself, and how generous I was, to be so accepting of someone I barely knew. That was the problem: I didn't know her, and shouldn't have assumed anything."

"My lady, you couldn't have known all the details of her past," Percie murmured.

"No, but even so, I should have waited. Made sure she knew the full consequences of joining the Hunt before I burdened her with that choice. She was so close to you, Nico. I should have seen that the moment I laid eyes on you."

"Why?" he asked, his voice a monotone. "Why should it have been obvious? We were... so distant from each other, at that time."

"I'm more than just a goddess of the Hunt, and the moon, dear. I'm also the goddess of childbirth: You may not have had your birth mother, but you still had one: Bianca. She was your everything... mother included. The bond between a mother and her child... is perhaps the most sacred one of all. I believe that with every fiber of my being. But yet... I was blind to that, with you. I couldn't... or rather, wouldn't see it. And in so doing, I ripped her away from you."

If you had asked Percie a year ago if she thought the Olympians were capable of shedding real tears, she would have laughed you off. The only tears the gods ever shed were tears of pain from listening to one of Apollo's horrible haikus, or tears of joy from being spared having to listen to one of his horrible haikus. But tears of regret; of guilt? You'd see hungry sharks make friends with plump seals before that ever happened.

How wrong she would have been. Artemis hunched over, golden tears dripping down onto the ground as she let everything come out. The tremors in her body... the cracks in her voice. That couldn't be faked.

"Back at the Delaware, Percie, I heard you mention to Annabeth that you suspected Nico didn't know who to blame for his sister's death. You guessed that he blamed himself, and I wager Mr. di Angelo would have agreed with you," the goddess sniffled. "But as I think back to the events of those days... I must contest that conclusion. The person who deserves the blame for all of this... is me."

Nico gently tapped Percie on the arm, and she let him go, allowing him to scoot closer to Artemis. His face was an unreadable mask.

The Hunt met his eye, though it seemed to pain her to do it. "I know it can't bring her back. And I know I can't undo the actions and words of myself, or my Hunters. But despite all that... I want you to know I'm sorry."

The son of Hades didn't stop until he was face-to-face with the deity. Artemis didn't back down, but she didn't rise up, either. All she did was close her eyes.

"Whatever you think I deserve... go ahead. I won't stop you, or strike back. I won't even defend myself," she conceded, putting her arms down.

Percie's eyes must have been resembling disco balls, they were so wide and astonished. A goddess... was not only apologizing, but letting a victim of her hubris take whatever sort of payback they wanted? Despite how much she joked about nothing surprising her any more, Percie was completely gobsmacked.

"What you deserve, huh?" Nico repeated. "I guess I better make the most of it, then."

His arms came up, just the slightest recoil springing up in his shoulders as he raised his wounded limbs. Artemis didn't budge. Percie couldn't budge, even if she wanted to. What would he do?

Nico wheezed, anger and frustration and guilt all coming out in one big exclamation. Then... he threw his arms around the goddess.

Artemis didn't flinch, but when nothing else came further, she opened her eyes in confusion. "Nico?"

The son of Hades shuddered, his body falling into hers. Artemis's arms came up as a reflex, pulling him into an embrace. "I can't do it," he mumbled, tears now running from his eyes as well. "As much as I want to... I can't. I can't hurt someone... who would apologize to me so sincerely. I would lose the last part of myself I like."

The goddess closed her eyes, more golden tears falling from her. They mixed with Nico's, and in that connection, Percie finally saw something, something she'd been fighting for ever since she'd defeated Kronos:

Respect... without fear.