NICO VII

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Everything hurt. His eyes stung like a dozen wasps were stinging them repeatedly, his bones felt like they were splintering or being grinded into powder, and his skin felt like he was being boiled in oil. His ears rung like the world's loudest bell had been placed in his head. He couldn't move a muscle or even breathe. His eyes wouldn't open no matter how much he willed them to, but he did find that he could still use his voice. What was wrong with him?

"Nico," the voice of the god of the Underworld suddenly entered his mind.

"Dad?" He had never once called Hades that before. It was always father or Hades, not dad. Strangely enough, however, the voice of his father's seemed gentler than when he'd first spoken.

"My son," he whispered. Suddenly Nico felt something cold touch his forehead, a finger perhaps, and he could move once more. The pain faded like it was never there in the first place. "Rise, my boy."

He heeded his father's command. Opening his eyes only after standing, he was surprised to see them in a dark void Nico had never visited before. The darkness seemed to stretch on forever, its expansion endless and yet empty. It gave even the son of Hades the creeps.

"Where are we?"

"You are in a unique state of being," Hades explained. "We are in your mind, yet not. Your mind has moved from your body, waiting for your soul to leave the mortal world and join it so you can pass on. Nevertheless, your consciousness is still aware as to what is going on with your fading physical body."

"Wait, so I'm dead?"

The god of the underworld shook his head. His black cloak moved back and forth as he did so, revealing a few trapped souls' faces in its folds. "Not completely. You are in the process of dying, which is why I am here. I came to escort you to the Underworld."

Too many thoughts ran through Nico's head as he felt various emotions all at once. For starters he was happy because he had saved his friends and his father had cared enough to be with his son as he died. It was like Hades wanted to be with his son and was actually proud of him. He was glad he had a place to go; living in his father's castle and being Ghost King was a pretty nice afterlife. On the other hand, part of him felt guilty for leaving his sister and friends behind. He also knew that sometime down the road, after working alongside his father for decades, things would get boring. Hades would be used to his son being around, then treat him like just another one of his underlings. Nico would be stuck working as a judge of the dead or doing work he would grow tired of. Above him his friends would be living their lives with the ones they loved. He would miss them.

Nico suddenly felt sick. He frowned slightly as he contemplated his own death. "I really overdid it this time, didn't I?"

Hades raised an eyebrow, seeming unsure if his son was being serious or rhetorical. "While I am proud that you will be joining me in the Underworld, I do not understand why you held Python back for as long as you did. If you had released the monster it might have ended up killing one of the other questers, but Apollo's son could have still sent Python to Tartarus. You gave your life protecting people you met only two weeks ago. Why is that?"

"I couldn't just let my friends die," he said quietly. "Dad, you told me during the quest with the Athena Parthenos that you wanted Hazel and I to be exceptions. You wanted us to be happy. Hazel is happy with Frank and her friends, while I finally felt like I belonged somewhere. Ever since Bianca died I've never been able to allow myself to be happy. After the battle with Gaea though, things have been getting better. I actually have friends I can trust now. People I can rely on and that trust me," he stressed.

His father looked away from him, a large frown on his face. "You died a hero's death saving your friends. Is that what you're saying?"

Nico nodded stiffly. "I know you dislike heroes, but the answer is yes. Those people I met just over a week ago are my friends. We've grown close on this quest, and while it's new to me I can say without a doubt that I care about them."

Nico! Nico, please, wake up! Don't fade away, di Angelo, don't leave us!

His eyes widened. It sounded like Will was shouting at him. "What is that?"

Hades peered around through the darkness, seeming perplexed. "The son of Apollo has managed to bring your body back from the brink of fading completely. Your soul is still caught in between life and death though, my boy, but the fact we're in your mind and your physical body is stable allows you to hear what is going on around you."

Please, Nico, don't die! Lou Ellen's voice sobbed. I know you haven't known us long but you're our friend.

Cecil's ragged voice spoke next. C'mon, Ghost King, I was only joking about you becoming a ghost. You'll be fine if you just wake up!

Will started speaking again, but this time it wasn't directed towards him. Dad, please tell me you can help him! I can't lose him. Please, you cured my blindness— help Nico, dad!

Hades frowned at Will's words. "I can sense great pain coming from this boy, son. His entire soul is flickering from the amount of emotion he is overcome with. He is desperate for you to live."

"I don't..." Nico was silent. He'd known Will cared about him from the constant attention he'd received from the kid since appearing on Half-blood Hill. He saw the warm looks Will threw at him when he thought he didn't notice, the obvious compliments and grins he graced the child of Hades with openly. He remembered the many times Will had accidentally bumped against them on their journey, and the way he said "doctor's orders" so Nico would listen to him. Memories from the last two weeks flooded the demigod like Percy and Jason had created a hurricane out of them. One, however, struck him like an arrow hurled by Cupid (or Eros).

It had been during their stay on the cruise ship. On the second and last night they had slept on the ship, Nico and Cecil had been forced to share the bed with Will once more. Luckily the son of Hermes had rolled onto the floor before Will could grab him as he moved in his sleep. This left Nico, who was already asleep, to get unconsciously cuddled by the blond-haired demigod. Nico had woken up in the middle of the night mortified to find himself snuggled up to Will's warm chest. He'd noticed how nice his chest was, but filed that information away as irrelevant. His face had become red, his heart beating faster than a pipe bomb right before it went off. The doves in his stomach became phoenixes.

Will, he had whispered in attempts to get him to let go. Rise and shine, Solace! I can't sleep in this position!

Sky blue eyes had opened at his command, gazing into his own dark brown eyes tiredly before closing a few minutes later. However, Will had rolled onto his back, pulling Nico's light body towards him so that the younger boy's head was resting on top of Will's shoulder. It was then Will had wrapped him up in his arms contently, humming happily before his breathing became deep once more. Nico had simply given up, deciding that relaxing into the strangely welcome embrace was the only thing he could do if he wanted to get some sleep. He'd woken up several hours later, well rested, from the best night's sleep he'd had in a long time.

"Oh Gods," Nico whispered as realization ran through him like a sword. "I can't die."

Hades stared at his son in confusion. "I do not follow, Nico. Why can you not die?"

Nico gulped. "I... I think I'm in love Will Solace."

Light brighter than the sun suddenly lit up the void around him, an invisible wind pushing Hades away from him. The god of the Underworld, while shocked at the confession and the events going on around him, managed a small smile.

"It seems you will get your wish, my son. I look forward to seeing you in the mortal world someday soon. Also, while I hate heroes I could never hate the person you've become. Good-bye."

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