Chapter no 6

The Sun and the Star

Nico was doing his best not to get annoyed at how much preparation was swirling around him at the current moment.‌

He had accepted that Will was coming with him on this journey. The prospect still left Nico’s nerves tingling around the edges, but he was also excited to show Will … well, his other home. Even if he didn’t have

the closest relationship with Hades, and despite the many difficult moments he’d had in the Underworld, Nico still had a fondness for the place. He

wanted to get going.

But Will and Chiron were rummaging around Apollo’s cabin in a state of high anxiety. The two were treating this like Will and Nico were about to go to war with every Titan, all the Roman emperors and a reconstituted Gaia.

‘Do you think I’ll need warmer clothes, too?’ Will asked Chiron. ‘I mean, it’s cold in the Underworld, isn’t it?’

‘I don’t really know,’ said Chiron.

In unison, they both turned to Nico, and their expressions made them look like confused puppy dogs.

‘You might need a hoodie,’ he said. ‘At most.’

‘Okay, I’ll pack an extra in case the first gets dirty,’ said Will.

Nico glanced down at Will’s legs, which were, unsurprisingly, bare from the knees down. As usual, Will had on a pair of cargo shorts.

‘Will,’ said Nico, ‘how are you worried about it being cold in the Underworld but you’re still wearing shorts?’

He shrugged. ‘My legs don’t really get cold. Plus, cargo shorts are so handy! You never know when you might need to store something in a pocket.’

‘I swear,’ Nico said with a sigh, ‘you’re making this way more

complicated than it has to be. All we need is water, maybe a change of clothes, and that’s it.’

‘What about food?’ said Will. ‘We’re demigods, not ethereal spirits. We still have to eat.’

‘I’ve got that covered,’ said Nico with a sly smile. ‘Besides, if we run low, our friends in the Underworld will help us.’

Will narrowed his eyes at Nico, but he didn’t say anything. He stuffed

another hoodie in his knapsack – Nico was certain that was the third one –and then crossed the cabin to the doorway. ‘Okay, I’m done this time,’ Will said. ‘Promise.’

‘Did you bring extra socks?’ Chiron said, trotting over to them. ‘Chiron, you don’t even own socks, do you?’ said Nico.

‘No, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate them. Nothing wrong with having an emergency pair of socks.’

‘I have enough of those, thank you,’ said Will. ‘Plus, if I hold up Nico one more minute, I think he’ll send me to the Underworld the old-fashioned way.’

‘Like you said yesterday,’ said Nico, ‘you know me well.’ ‘What are you bringing, Nico?’ Chiron asked.

Nico grabbed the lapels of his leather bomber jacket. ‘This,’ he said, opening the jacket wide. He had on a black shirt with a white skull sitting beneath a red line and the letters AFI. Then he patted the weapon at his side. ‘And my trusty sword.’

Will frowned. ‘Nothing else?’ ‘What else do I need?’

‘Well,’ said Chiron, ‘at least allow the dryads to pack some ambrosia and nectar for you as a safety measure. What if one of you – or both of you –gets hurt?’

Nico groaned. ‘Fine. But then we leave after that, okay?’ ‘Deal,’ said Will.

They did not leave after that. Juniper insisted on providing a fresh batch of ambrosia squares. While those were being prepared, Grover the satyr

called in via an Iris-message and demanded to give a little pep talk to Nico, which Nico begrudgingly sat through. It was sweet, but Nico thought

everyone was overreacting. Extra hoodies, ambrosia and well-meaning

advice weren’t going to make much difference once they got to Tartarus.

The thing that finally got Will to stop delaying the inevitable was when Nico told him that they were going to miss their train if they didn’t get going.

‘Okay, okay!’ Will said, stuffing Juniper’s ambrosia and nectar into his knapsack. (Nico wondered if that knapsack was somehow limitless, because no other bag could fit this much stuff.) ‘The taxi is coming soon?’

Chiron nodded. ‘A regular human taxi, as requested.’

Nico gritted his teeth. ‘We’d get to Manhattan faster if we –’

‘No!’ said Will sharply. ‘No, after seeing Kayla and Austin off, I’m good with this.’

‘I think you’re missing out, frankly,’ said Nico. ‘Those three old ladies are a million times cooler than we’ll ever be. Or I could call Jules-Albert. That would be free.’

‘No zombie chauffeurs, either.’ Will’s eyes were pleading. ‘Please grant me just a bit of normal, boring human travel before the Underworld.’

Nico sighed. ‘Fine.’

Which is why, a few minutes later, Nico and Will packed themselves into a boring yellow taxi on Farm Road 3.141. The driver was hunched over in the front seat. He had on a grey cardigan and a black driver’s cap, and his

car smelled vaguely of something smoky and dead.

The driver twisted around to stare at them. ‘You boys going to the Long Island Rail Road station in Montauk?’

‘Uh, yeah,’ said Will. ‘Our train leaves in fifteen minutes. Will we be late?’

The man smiled, and he had a gold cap on one of his front teeth. ‘Not in this car you won’t.’

The engine revved, and the car seemed to jump forward as it sped away from Camp Half-Blood. There was no Grey Sisters magic at work here. No, this was just the beauty of a Long Island cabdriver on a tight schedule.

Nico had a blast with the window rolled down. As the traffic whizzed by on the Sunrise Highway, the driver regaled them with a story of how he once got a movie-star client from Sag Harbor to the Islip airport in under thirty minutes. As for Will, he was not doing as well. He had a white-knuckle grip on the door, his eyes were wide with terror, and he was obviously trying to get a handle on his breathing.

The driver got them to the station with six minutes to spare.

They raced up the steps to the platform, Nico easily outrunning his boyfriend, though that was mostly due to Will having to get his land legs again. ‘Was that worse than the Grey Sisters?’ Will panted. ‘’Cause it felt like it was worse than the Grey Sisters.’

‘You were the one who wanted to travel like a normal human,’ said Nico. By the time the train arrived, they’d fallen into an uncomfortable silence.

The doors opened, and they quickly moved inside. The car they’d chosen was about a third full, so they headed to a part where there were fewer people. Will struggled to fit his knapsack on the luggage rack above the


‘I’m telling you,’ said Nico, sliding into the seat closest to the window, ‘you won’t need half that stuff on the journey.’

‘We’ll see about –’ Will began, and then something toppled out of his bag and smacked him in the face. ‘Ow!’

Nico restrained himself, because he knew laughing wouldn’t make the

situation better, even though it was very, very funny. Will rubbed at his face and then crouched down to pick up the thing that had fallen – a white

sphere about the size of a softball. ‘Will, what is that?’

‘Nothing,’ he said, and stuffed it back into his knapsack. ‘Oh, no. I must know what that is.’

Will sighed, brought it back down and handed it over. When Nico gripped it, the entire thing lit up so blazingly bright he almost dropped it.

‘Sweet Hades, what is this?’ Nico blinked repeatedly as little white spots appeared in his vision.

‘Don’t laugh,’ Will warned.

‘I can’t guarantee that I won’t.’ ‘It’s a battery-powered sunlamp.’ ‘A what?’

‘Look,’ said Will, ‘I don’t know what it’s like down in the Underworld, and plenty of people use these things to help them get through the winter months when the sun is weak. It’s a form of light therapy. I used to have one when I travelled with Mom.’

Nico was actually impressed. ‘Okay, that’s kind of amazing. And maybe it’ll delay the effects of the Underworld on you.’

‘That’s the idea.’ Will returned the sunlamp to his bag and sat down next to Nico. ‘I brought extra batteries, too.’

‘What didn’t you bring on this quest, Will Solace?’

Will didn’t answer. Moments later the train crawled forward, and soon the various Long Island neighbourhoods were whizzing past them. Nico enjoyed the panorama: the woods, the industrial parks, the run-down strip malls and rows of cosy brick houses where normal mortals lived normal

lives. Will, however, was clearly nervous. He bounced his right leg up and down as he glanced around the train carriage.

Nico reached over and placed his hand on the bobbing thigh. ‘Will, you can’t do that the whole train ride.’

‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘Just trying to focus.’

‘I don’t think you have to worry quite as much as you are,’ said Nico softly.

Will raised an eyebrow. ‘Nico, we’re going to Tartarus. Are you

seriously trying to tell me that it wasn’t that bad when you were there?’ ‘I mean … Yeah, it was awful, okay? But I know a lot more about

navigating it now than I did then. Plus, I’m choosing to go this time rather than being pulled down there and getting kidnapped by a pair of attention-seeking giants.’

‘I still think you’re underselling the trauma,’ said Will. ‘But can you at least appreciate that I have no experience with the Underworld in general, let alone Tartarus? So this is freaking me out a lot more than it is you.’

‘Okay, okay,’ said Nico, reaching for Will’s hand. ‘That’s fair.’

Will closed his eyes and leaned back in his seat. His breathing slowed, and Nico watched his chest rise and fall. Will did this sometimes when he needed to calm down, so Nico let him be.

Nico’s gaze wandered over the train carriage. A couple of businessmen in plain black suits were having a muted conversation a few rows up. A

woman with dark brown skin and locs was laughing at her young daughter, who was standing in the aisle without holding on to anything, trying to keep her balance.

‘Subway surfing,’ said Will, which startled Nico. ‘What?’

‘You try to stay upright while the train moves without holding on to

anything,’ he said. ‘Though I bet it would be much harder to do in the city. Those trains are way lurchier.’

‘How do you know about that? Do they even have subways in Austin, Texas?’

Will smirked. ‘There’s a lot you don’t know about me, Nico.’ Nico scoffed. ‘Like what?’

‘I love Golden Oreos, for starters.’

‘Oh, please. That’s obvious. They’re basically Apollo’s version of an Oreo anyway.’

‘And the morally superior choice.’

‘We’ll come back to that,’ said Nico. ‘What else don’t I know about you, Will Solace?’

‘I first visited New York City when I was …’ Will counted on his fingers. ‘I think I was nine?’ He gazed out of the window as the train rolled into the next station. ‘Mom was on tour, and she was really excited because she was playing some big club in Manhattan a few nights in a row. But what I remember most about that trip was that she parked our van in this big,

cavernous lot and said we would not drive a single second while we were in the city.’


‘She told me you don’t really get to see New York unless you’re on the subway. So, everywhere we went, we took the train. We rode it up and down Manhattan. We took it out to Coney Island one day to go on a bunch of rides. We went out to Queens, too, to see the place where the World’s Fair was held a long time ago. We even made the most amateur mistake possible.’

The train picked up speed again, and a conductor asked them to show their tickets. As Nico handed his over, he said to Will, ‘I’m afraid to ask what your mistake was.’

‘Well, it was very hot that summer,’ said Will. ‘It’s not the same out at Camp Half-Blood. In Manhattan especially, the heat gets trapped between all the buildings, and it’s like a giant oven. So we’d just come out of the Met, and by the time we’d walked the two or three blocks to the train, we were sweating buckets. So we were super excited when the train arrived, because one of the cars was completely empty! Guaranteed seats in a

perfectly air-conditioned car during the summer are so rare. Usually all the cars are jam-packed and humid.’

‘Okay,’ said Nico. ‘But … the empty car was a good thing, right?’

Will’s smile faltered. ‘Well … no. Turns out if an entire train is packed except for one car, that’s actually a warning sign.’

Nico twisted up his face. ‘A warning for … what?’

Will wrinkled his nose. ‘Oh, gods. What, Will?’

‘Let’s just say that when the doors closed a very pungent and recognizable smell filled that car. Someone had, uh, made a deposit on the floor.’

‘NO!’ Nico grimaced. ‘Are you serious?’

‘It happens,’ said Will. ‘I guess someone couldn’t wait?’ ‘I would pass away,’ said Nico. ‘Right on the spot.’

Will laughed at that, which felt like a small victory to Nico. ‘We just moved cars at the next stop. And that was when Mom taught me about subway surfing.’

‘Wow. I didn’t get to travel to New York until the Battle of Manhattan.’ Will grimaced. ‘Not a great introduction to the city. Did you know that years before that, my mom and I were actually in Manhattan when my satyr

found me and brought me to Camp Half-Blood? Monsters attacked me downtown.’

‘No!’ said Nico.

‘Remind me to tell you that story someday.’

The way he said it, Nico got the message that he wasn’t quite ready to share the details.

‘Sometimes I forget you’ve been all over this continent,’ said Nico. ‘I mean, I’ve been a lot of places, too, but mostly since coming to Camp Half-Blood. Do you ever miss travelling?’

‘Occasionally,’ said Will. ‘But I think it was more that I liked being with my mom. She has such an adventurous spirit. It’s hard not to feel the same way when you’re around her and she wants to go see the world’s biggest ball of twine or something.’

Nico tried to imagine the world’s biggest ball of twine. He found the concept vaguely terrifying.

He glanced a few rows up at the woman and her kid, who now sat in her mother’s lap. He leaned against Will’s shoulder. ‘Did you ever want like … like a normal childhood?’

He could feel Will fidget. ‘I don’t think so,’ said Will after a moment of silence. ‘Maybe sometimes I wanted the things I saw other kids experience. But I also got to travel all the time! My mom is basically like my best friend, and I wouldn’t trade that for the world.’

Nico considered that. Some days, he struggled just to picture his mother’s face. He remembered her voice in his nightmares: Vita mia.

‘Do you ever think about what life would be like if you weren’t a demigod?’ he asked.

Will jerked away from him. ‘What? Why would you say that, Nico?’ ‘It’s just a question.’

‘No, I don’t ever think about that.’ Will gazed into the distance. ‘I think about all the wonderful experiences I’ve had because of who I am. I’ve been able to help people – to save their lives, Nico! – and I’ve protected the world from imminent danger.’

Then he gave Nico one of his soul-warming smiles. ‘I can heal people. I can glow in the dark. And … well, I met you.’

‘Oh, gods, groaned Nico. ‘No cheesiness! It’s too early in the day, Will!’

Will snuggled up to him. ‘But it’s true. I’m very thankful we’re in each other’s lives.’

‘You cheated with that answer,’ said Nico, ‘but I’ll allow it.’

Will planted a kiss on Nico’s temple. ‘My grumpy ball of darkness.’ ‘The world’s largest grumpy ball of darkness, thank you very much.’

They spent the rest of the train ride in silence. At some point, Will began to doze. Nico watched the world go by outside. At Woodside, the last stop before Manhattan, the mother and daughter got off. The young girl skipped alongside her mother on the platform, and her carefreeness made Nico’s heart sink.

Will was right. There was so much about being a demigod that Nico

would never want to give up, and he certainly didn’t want to even imagine a world without Will. But there was more to what they’d been born to than just abilities, demigod friends and ridiculous adventures.

The images from Nico’s dream last night swirled around in his mind. There were … darker aspects. Loneliness. Pain. Isolation. And all those things made up who Nico was. Did Will not see that? Or did he only focus on the positive things about being a demigod, the things full of light and promise, the things he wanted to see?

Sometimes Nico wasn’t sure. Did that make him a bad boyfriend? He had nothing to judge this against because he’d never got as close to anyone as he had with Will. How did other couples do this? Did Annabeth and Percy

ever doubt each other?

At the thought of his friends, Nico realized that there was a possible

solution to some of his anxiety over this trip, and maybe Will’s, too. Who else knew more about Tartarus?

When the train finally pulled into Penn Station, Will was quick to rouse.

He yawned. ‘Didn’t expect to fall asleep. Where to now?’

‘A little last-minute detour,’ said Nico, shaking off the nerves that had crept over him. ‘Humour me, and I promise it will be worth it.’

As Nico explained that they had to catch another train uptown, he noticed Will reaching under the collar of his blue T-shirt and running his fingers

along the gold chain he wore.

The chain Nico had given him.

And, like Will’s smile, it warmed Nico. Maybe he was overthinking all of this. It was clear Will cared deeply for him, and Nico let that one little gesture push away his worries as they headed into the maze of Penn Station.

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