Chapter no 50

The Sun and the Star

A small gathering of dryads and nymphs greeted Nico and Will as they entered the dining pavilion, and Mr D had to shoo them away to even get close.‌

‘My two favourite demigods have returned,’ he said, and he held his arms open and embraced both of them at the same time.

‘Favourite?’ Will said into Mr D’s armpit. ‘I thought you didn’t even like


‘Oh, I don’t,’ he said. ‘All of you could fall to the bottom of the sea and I wouldn’t care. But I’d prefer if you two were the last to drown.’

‘I can’t believe I missed you,’ said Nico, grinning. ‘It’s great to be back.’ ‘I must hear everything,’ said Mr D, gesturing to a table piled with fresh,

steaming food. ‘Eat up, and commence with the storytelling, because what I’ve already heard sounds phenomenal.’

‘Already heard?’ said Will. ‘But … we just got here.’

‘News travels fast in our world,’ said Chiron, sitting at the head of the table. A couple of dryads darted up and began to pour chalices of nectar for everyone. ‘And bits and pieces of your exploits have floated to the surface, so to speak.’

Mr D glanced down at Nico’s feet and the Cocoa Puffs ducked behind them. ‘I am especially eager to hear about … whatever they are!’

Nico thought Mr D looked like he was about to explode from excitement, and it was honestly a complete delight.

Will led Nico to the table, and they sat next to each other. There were fluffy eggs, glistening bowls of fruit, a towering stack of fresh pancakes and

a platter piled high with crispy vegan bacon. Nico was certain he was going to eat every morsel.

‘Well, where should we start?’ he said after scarfing three flapjacks in rapid succession.

Chiron’s mouth was open a little bit. Mr D’s eyes were wide, like he was a demigod in the armoury.

‘The beginning, Nico,’ said Mr D, sitting opposite Chiron. ‘Obviously.’

And so Nico and Will took turns sharing what had happened over the course of the previous week. Nico would speak when Will needed to eat,

and Will would take over when Nico’s eyes went all glassy as a new plate of food was placed on the table. Nico expected to feel exhausted after

everything that had happened, but he realized how badly his heart, soul and mind had missed being here, in Camp Half-Blood, among people who cared for him.

He would always have a soft spot for the Underworld. It was his second home. But his first home – and this was what Nyx couldn’t understand

about him – was the mortal world.

He had spent so many years resisting companionship, friendship and love. He’d refused to stay in one place and hadn’t allowed anyone to get

close to him. No matter how hard people tried to show Nico that they cared, he had chosen loneliness and isolation instead.

And as he listened to Will recount Chaos’s pit and the showdown with Nyx, Nico told himself that his past self had been trying to stay safe. After

so many years of disappointment and pain, he had come to expect the worst. But now he’d …

There was a soft chittering at his feet. The Cocoa Puffs had gathered under the table, and they looked at him expectantly. The one-eyed

cacodemon licked his lips with a glowing tongue.

So Nico grabbed a fresh plate of pancakes and quickly placed it on the ground. He did his best to ignore the frenzy that erupted as the Cocoa Puffs feasted, but Chiron finally looked under the table and scowled.

‘Those things are what Nyx created out of you?’ he asked.

Nico nodded. ‘She’s created cacodemons all her life,’ he said. ‘It’s not that surprising that she would do it again.’

‘So, you’re basically a father to a bunch of cacodemons,’ said Mr D. ‘This might be my favourite part of this story. It’s so chaotic.’

‘Excuse you,’ said Will. ‘They’re the Cocoa Puffs. Get it right.’

‘I don’t understand the reference, and I refuse to learn what it means,’ said Mr D. ‘But Cocoa Puffs it is.’

Chiron rubbed his goatee. ‘What an ingenious way of fulfilling the prophecy,’ he said. ‘I must admit … I was worried.’ He gestured to Mr D. ‘We were both worried.’

‘Speak for yourself,’ said Mr D, popping a grape into his mouth. ‘I always knew that Nico would emerge victorious.’

Chiron scowled at the director. ‘Anyway, I think you did something scary and risky, Nico, but I’m glad you were willing to give up that part of yourself.’

‘Well, not completely,’ said Will. ‘If I learned anything from this quest, it’s that eradicating the past isn’t really possible. Or healthy, for that matter. It’s better if you learn how to live with it.’ He reached down and petted the Cocoa Puff with tusks. ‘And I think Nico is going to do a wonderful job of that.’

Heat rushed to Nico’s face. ‘Thank you,’ he said quietly. Will put his hand on Nico’s left leg and squeezed.

Nico sat back, his hands on his bloated belly, and he realized it had been a long time since he’d last been this full. He’d always been known as the demigod who wouldn’t eat. Why had he let himself get to the point of

starvation over and over again?

Because it was what he was used to.

But Nico’s life was changing. Had changed. What he was used to now was different than what his life had been like even a year ago. Back then, the idea that he could be in a relationship seemed impossible.

Things changed.

That wasn’t a bad thing.

But something needled at Nico as he sat there, watching Will’s animated storytelling as he described Tartarus to the two directors. Something was missing. Incomplete. There was a thread left that still needed to be pulled.

He looked down at the Cocoa Puffs. They, too, had gorged themselves and were now napping under the table. Mr D rested his chin on his hands and stared at Will dreamily, soaking up every detail of the Underworld.

The Underworld. There it was.

The other piece.

Nico stood and excused himself. ‘I’ll be right back,’ he said to Will. ‘There’s something I need to do.’

‘Of course,’ Will said. ‘Meet me in my cabin when you’re done?’ Nico nodded, and then he wandered away from the dining pavilion.

He headed for the Hades cabin. It was eerie being in the clearing with all the gods’ cabins; there were so many more of them than there had been

when Nico had first arrived at Camp Half-Blood.

Yet another sign of how much had changed.

The door to Hades’s cabin creaked as he opened it, and it smelled a bit stale inside. It still amused him that it had been decorated as if every child

of Hades was a teenage goth, but there was a comfort in the dark decor. He made his way to his part of the cabin and lifted his mattress to pull out a drachma.

Then he sat on his bed and took a small crystal and a drachma from a pocket on the inside of his bomber jacket. He opened the window shutter

and held the crystal up to the sunlight. In the rainbow that formed, he tossed the coin, while reciting the offering.

And then he said: ‘Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Piper McLean.’

Moments later, there was an image of Piper, smiling, the morning sun illuminating the two brown braids that sat on either shoulder. Next to her was a brown-skinned girl with dark hair in a pixie cut. The stud in her nostril sparkled.

‘Nico!’ said Piper. ‘Wow, this is a surprise. You haven’t met Shel before, have you?’

Nico shook his head and promptly burst into tears.

After some consoling – which Nico thought was probably really hard to do over Iris-message – Piper asked Shel to give them some space.

‘No, it’s okay,’ said Nico, wiping at his face. ‘She can stay.’ Piper raised an eyebrow. ‘Are you sure?’

He smiled. ‘If she’s important to you, she’s important to me.’ ‘It’s okay,’ said Shel. ‘I don’t have to be here.’

‘Stay,’ said Nico. ‘Maybe you can help.’

‘What’s going on?’ asked Piper. ‘Is there an emergency? Did something happen?’

‘No emergency any more,’ he said. ‘I just got back from a quest.’ ‘A quest?’ Piper’s eyes widened. ‘Oh, no.’

He started with the prophecy during the summer, after they’d defeated Nero. He had to stop every so often so that Piper could explain something to Shel, who listened attentively, nodding.

He told them about the quest. The journey into the Underworld. Epiales, the troglodytes, Menoetes, the garden and the Acheron. Both girls were transfixed once he got to the plunge into Tartarus and the nightmares that awaited him and Will.

When he’d finished, he was exhausted. This was the second time that morning he’d had to summarize what had happened to him and Will, and his boyfriend wasn’t even around to do half the work. But Nico needed to do this by himself, especially once Piper asked him why he had reached out to her.

‘Not that I don’t like hearing from you,’ she said. ‘It’s just that … well, we haven’t spoken in a long time. Not since …’

Silence fell on Piper’s side of the message, and Shel pulled her close in a hug.

‘That’s kind of the point,’ Nico said. ‘Because I should have reached out to you after …’ He sighed. ‘After Jason died.’

Piper turned away for a moment, and when she looked back to Nico her eyes were red and glassy.

Shel kissed her on the temple. ‘I’ll be right back,’ she said, standing up. ‘You don’t have to leave,’ said Piper.

‘I know. But … this is something you two should discuss alone. Come find me once you’re done.’

Shel disappeared, and Nico smiled at Piper. ‘I like her. She seems nice.’ ‘I like her, too,’ she said with a wry smile. ‘She’s never been weird about

my grief over Jason, either.’

‘I’m glad you have someone to share that stuff with. I’ve learned the hard way that I shouldn’t bottle up my feelings.’

‘Nico, after all you’ve been through – and not just on this quest – I think it’s understandable to everyone why you’ve tried to protect yourself. I don’t think it’s irrational or anything.’

‘But you were right there,’ he said. ‘You were grieving the loss of

someone you loved so much, and I didn’t even think to drop you a message. That wasn’t right.’

She nodded. ‘I mean … yeah, maybe it was a little weird. To be honest, I expected you to reach out to me at some point, but then it never happened,

and life changed so much for me. I guess I kinda forgot?’

‘Well, I’m sorry to open old wounds, but this experience got me thinking. I really want us to be better friends, but I knew that couldn’t happen unless we talked about Jason.’

‘I appreciate that,’ said Piper. Then: ‘I really miss him, Nico.’

‘Me, too,’ he said, a lump forming in his throat. ‘There are days when I forget he’s dead. My mind thinks he’s on a quest or something, and he’ll just come waltzing into Camp Half-Blood with you, Leo, Frank or Hazel. And I know that’s partially because I’m still getting over it – I’m adjusting to him not being here. But I’m also realizing that maybe I’ll never get over it completely. A part of me is always going to hurt because he’s gone.’

‘That part does get smaller.’ She flicked her braids over her shoulders. ‘The more you live life, the more your life sort of grows around the hole in your heart. And sometimes a person comes along and helps you build a

whole new room in your heart, and you get to fill that with love and memories.’

‘You mean Shel?’

She tilted her head and smiled. ‘Well, I was referring to Will Solace, your smokin’-hot boyfriend, but yeah, Shel, too.’

‘How are things going with her?’

‘Really good,’ said Piper. ‘It’s a lot of firsts. First relationship with a girl. First time I’m with someone who’s Native like me. It’s really freeing, Nico. We have this shared language and experience even though we haven’t lived identical lives.’

‘That’s amazing!’ he said. ‘I’m really happy for you.’

‘It’s weird sometimes, too. Dad is still wrapping his mind around the whole thing.’

‘Oh, no,’ said Nico. ‘Is he being judgy?’

‘No, not really,’ she said. ‘I think he’s just had a hard time seeing me as one person, then having to accept that I’m something else. To be honest,

even I struggle with that.’ ‘Struggle with what?’

‘Well,’ said Piper, shifting in her chair, ‘I really loved Jason. I was genuinely attracted to him. So suddenly realizing I was attracted to a girl

was a bit of a shock to me, too. Dad doesn’t have a problem with that at all. He told me that if he had even an inkling of homophobia in him he couldn’t have worked in a place like Hollywood. Almost no one there is straight.’

Nico laughed. ‘So … is it a label thing?’

‘Yeah, I guess. Like, I thought I was straight, and I’m clearly not. But … does that make me bi? Pan? If I never find another man attractive again, does that mean I’m a lesbian?’

Nico didn’t answer at first. ‘I think, after what I just went through,’ he said eventually, ‘the best thing I can say to you is that we are not only one thing forever. We’re allowed to change at any point in our lives. We don’t

have to be stuck with a label someone else assigns us. Gods, we don’t even have to stick to a label we give ourselves. So, you can be bi or pan or a lesbian or queer, and tomorrow you may have a better sense of who you are, or tomorrow you can be a big ole queer mess and figure it out fifty years from now.’

‘I should tell my dad that the next time he asks,’ she said, laughing. She put on her best imitation of Tristan McLean. ‘“Piper, dear, how should I describe your relationship?” “Well, Father, I am a big ole queer mess.”’

Nico guffawed, maybe for the first time in his life. ‘Perfect.’

After they spoke for a few more minutes, Shel popped her head back into the room and said something inaudible.

‘I gotta go, Nico,’ said Piper. ‘We’re going on a long hike today, and we need to be on the trails soon or it’ll be a billion degrees while we’re out there.’

‘Hope you have fun,’ he said. ‘The very idea of hiking even one yard makes me want to perish, but you do you.’

She giggled and waved. ‘Don’t be a stranger, Nico di Angelo.’ ‘It was nice meeting you!’ Shel said.

He waved goodbye to them, and the Iris-message evaporated.

Nico lay back on the bed, relief coursing through him. He’d been afraid of what Piper’s reaction would be to him calling out of the blue, but he now knew that he’d had no reason to be so anxious. Of course she was going to understand complicated reactions to grief! But that was what Nico had to

work on – always anticipating the worst.

Maybe he should bring that up with Mr D. Nico would be interested in talking further with the director about Tartarus, but even more so if they could come up with other things Nico could do to help his mind.

Being so open to change now … well, it scared Nico. But it also thrilled him.

He hadn’t intended to, but he quickly slipped into a dreamless, exhausted sleep.

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