So, I've been wanting to do a PJtO fic for a while, but I haven't had any insperation until now. I'm not really sure when this is set, I just know it's sometime after The Lost Hero. For the sake of this oneshot the world isn't in any eminent danger. However, Nico is 16 (and so is Catherine). If you want to check them out, I will be posting two pictures of how I imagine Nico and Catherine to look. Love you! x]

Disclaimer: All characters except for Catherine belong to their rightful owner, Rick Riordan and I claim none of them. =]


I hovered on the outskirts of the party, quietly watching Catherine. I buried my hands deeper into my pocket, the same as I buried the emotions stirring in my chest. A guy, maybe a year older, walked past me, bumping my shoulder as he did. He stopped and turned.

"Watch where you're going." He spat, then added once he'd gotten a good look at me, "freak."

I glanced at him without turning my head and narrowed my eyes into a glare. He blanched and spun around, immediately walking as far away from me as possible. People weren't giving me nervous glances and a wide berth of five feet for nothing. It didn't matter that everyone in the room thought I was a loner—that was the truth, after all. What they saw at my side through the Mist instead of my Stygian iron sword I didn't know, nor did I especially care. I had come here for one purpose, and it wasn't to socialize. Now that I knew Catherine was safe, I could leave. As I started to slip away I caught movement in the corner of my eye. With a scowl I turned to see the kid from earlier talking to his friends and pointing to the spot I had stood moments before. I quickened my pace in hopes of not being stopped, muttering a curse in Ancient Greek. The door was a foot behind me when I heard it open and close again. Footsteps crunched through the snow but I kept walking.

"Nico?"

I paused mid-step. Actually speaking to Catherine had never been part of the plan. I briefly considered feigning deafness, but then I felt Catherine's warm hand wrap around my wrist.

She let go quickly and said, "Geez, Nico! Your skin is colder than the snow!"

I shrugged and turned around. A small smile flickered over my lips as I studied her face.

"What are you doing here?" She asked the snow quietly. I sighed and shook my head.

"I just thought I'd make sure you were okay."

Catherine scoffed and shifted her weight.

"Yeah, well, I'm fine."

I glanced up at her. The familiar feeling of longing sprang up, but I stamped it out before it could fully ignite. My life was already a complicated mess; Catherine would only make things more difficult.

"Look, I know that last time you saw me, I didn't leave on good terms, but—"

"Good terms? You just disappeared, Nico! Same as you always do."

I crossed my arms over my chest. "You had other company."

"Yes, because you show up whenever you want, with no regard as to other people's plans!"

"You didn't seem to mind my being there while we were—"

"That is not the point!" She said in frustration, though her cheeks darkened in a blush. "I'm sick and tired of you just popping up whenever you damn well please! You expect us all to just drop everything for you. Either you want to be with me or you don't. I can't stand it anymore!"

I blinked several times, surprised by her sudden outburst. I didn't know how to react so I stayed silent. This visit had definitely not turned out as planned. A sudden presence had me turning toward the trees lining the perimeter of the house. A green, wispy figure was standing by the trunk of a pine tree. Catherine was oblivious to the ghost, who was invisible through the Mist. Silently it started to advance toward me. With a twitch of my wrist he froze and I turned back to Catherine.

"What are you looking at?" She scowled.

"Nothing. I have to go."

"What else is new?"

I ignored her and turned to leave. Catherine laughed wryly; I felt an odd stab of guilt inside, but didn't dwell on it. Instead I put my hands in my jacket pocket and left. When I got near I took the ghost by the hand and led it into the shadows. Once I was out of the moon's bright rays, I solidified the shadows around me, shielding me from Catherine. I summoned the shadows around me and closed my eyes. I imagined where I wanted to go in my mind, and stepped forward. I continued to walk forward a few moments and then opened my eyes. A slight fatigue washed over me and I stumbled a little. After banishing the ghost back to the Underworld, I stepped out of the shadows. I dug in my jeans pocket for the key to my apartment. I saw the old Chinese woman who I rented from, in her small specialty shop and gave her a small wave. No one seemed to care that I lived in China town even though I wasn't Chinese. No one really bothered me at all, really. I knew that it had to do with the aura of death and fear that I radiated, but I liked it better that way. Slowly I trumped up the steps on the outside of the shop. Once I reached my apartment I closed the door and went to the kitchen, opening the fridge to a lone can of soda. With a sigh I took it and went to the small living room. I dropped onto my sofa and put my feet up on the coffee table. The thing about living by yourself was that you didn't have to care; you could do whatever you felt like and not get told off about it.

As I stared at my wall thoughts of Bianca drifted into my mind. Was she doing okay, or was she like me and barely staying off the streets? I couldn't contact her anymore, not now that she'd been reborn. I missed my older sister more than anything. The longing I felt nearly consumed me some days. But there was nothing I could do; she was gone. Another sigh ripped through my chest, leaving me feeling empty. How could Catherine ever find anything good in me? She might not know who I was—the son of the God of Death—but she knew my past was sketchy. She knew that I was trouble. Yet she always appeared to be happy when I visited, even if annoyed that I gave her no warning.

"…Honestly, you sleep like the dead. No pun intended, of course."

With a scowl I opened my eyes groggily. Someone was leaning over me….someone female. I sat up abruptly and my skull almost collided with the goddess' in front of me.

"What are you doing in my house?" I demanded.

Aphrodite sniffed haughtily and took a step back.

"Is that the way to address a goddess, dear cousin?"

"Get out."

"My, my, aren't you in a friendly mood."

I glared at her, my annoyance growing. The last thing I needed was someone like Aphrodite meddling in my life.

"What do you want?" I asked, knowing that she wasn't going to leave until she said what she'd come here to say.

"I'm here as a kindness, to help you. So you can drop the icy demeanor and disrespect."

"I don't want anything from you, least of all help."

"Fine." She said, glaring at me. "Catherine can stay in Hades for the rest of eternity."

I froze and blinked a few times. Catherine? My heart started to race in my chest. What did she have to do with this?

"…What do you mean?"

Aphrodite rolled her eyes. "You might be able to lie to each other, and try to lie to yourselves, but you can't hide the truth from me. I'm the goddess of love, honey."

"What are you talking about? Just get to the point!"

"So demanding, my dear little cousin. Okay, okay," she said when I glared at her once more. "Your father has been busy while you were taking your little nap. I, being the generous goddess that I am, intercepted one of his ghastly messengers—furies, they're called?"

I gave a stiff nod, struggling to put on an air of indifference while truly hanging on every word.

"He's kidnapped your little girlfriend, and refuses to release her until you go down there and talk to him. I don't know what you did, but he seemed very upset. I suggest you don't waste any time."

I clenched my jaw and muttered a curse. Curse him! Curse him to the deepest pits of Tartarus! He'd finally found my one weakness. I cursed myself, and my inability to ignore the way Catherine made me feel. I cursed Aphrodite, just for the heck of it. She was the goddess of love, after all—surely she had some part in this.

"What? No sarcastic reply?"

I scowled at her as my brain whirled with a plan. I had to find Catherine, but seeing my father was the last thing I wanted. After his last little stunt, we weren't on speaking terms. Reyna hadn't been thrilled to lose her Ambassador of Pluto, but she'd understood. If he was going to lie to me and use me as a pawn, then I wasn't going to defend him against the other gods. Deep down, I knew that I shouldn't be mad at him. He was a god, and nothing was ever easy. Still, I was his son. Did that not count for anything?

"Are you going to thank me, or should I roast you on the spot?"

"Thank you," I managed a semi-civil tone. Aphrodite shook her head and rolled her eyes.

"Do not make me regret this, cousin. This is your last chance; don't blow it."

I knew she wasn't referring to my father. I averted my gaze as the goddess revealed her true form. The room glowed warmly with golden rays a moment, and then she was gone. My shoulders slumped as I thought of what Aphrodite had told me. I had two options: ignore him as I'd been doing the past two months and hope he gave up and released Catherine, or go down there and rescue her—which meant I would be doing what he wanted and playing into his hands. I balled my hands into fists and started to pace across my carpet. After a minute I knew what I needed to do: I needed to talk to Percy. He would know what to do. I snatched my key off of the counter and headed to my stairs. Soon I was in the alley and shadow travelling to Camp Half-Blood. I couldn't believe my father had chosen today, of all days, to take Catherine. No, actually, I could.

"Christmas Eve, really?" I demanded of him angrily. The ground trembled, so lightly that only I would feel it. I glared at the ground and called him a name in Ancient Greek. Another tremor rumbled across the ground, louder and more profound this time. Shaking my head, I stepped into the darkness.

Camp Half-Blood was fairly empty, just as it always was this time of year. As I walked briskly through the woods in the direction of Cabin Three, I saw the Stoll brothers outside of Detemer's cabin, filling the flower boxes with snow. They paused and looked toward me, but I was hidden behind a wall of darkness. I didn't know if Percy was here, but I didn't want to just show up at his house if he wasn't there. Sally wouldn't mind, and neither would Paul, but I always felt awkward around them: she fussed over me too much. When I peeked my head into the interior of Cabin Three and confirmed that Percy was nowhere in sight I decided I would check my own before leaving. There was a small piece of paper stuck to the black door when I approached. As I got closer I realized that it was a note. I ripped it off and lifted it to one of the green torches in order to read it.

Nico,

If you get this in time, you're invited to Christmas at my mom and Paul's place. Annabeth will be there, and maybe even Thalia, if she makes it. Bring a gift.

-Percy.

Shaking my head, I crumpled the paper into a ball and shoved it into my jacket. Once again, I gathered the shadows around me and stepped through it to Sally and Paul's house in Manhattan. I staggered a little; I didn't usually shadow travel more than twice in one day, and the use was starting to take its toll on me. The lights were on in the living room, a huge, decorated Christmas tree sat in front of the window and lights lined the roof. I didn't want to be here; there was too much happy. Still, I needed to speak to Percy, and I had no other way to contact him. Taking a deep breath, I dug my hands deeper in my jacket pockets and stepped forward. I knocked on the front door after a short deliberation on whether or not it would be appropriate to use Percy's bedroom window. I shifted my weight anxiously to my other foot just as footsteps became audible from inside the house. Sally opened the door and immediately her face broke into a smile.

"Nico!" She exclaimed. "You made it!"

"Uh…..yeah," I said uneasily.

"Come in, come in," Sally said, ushering me inside. Percy and Annabeth appeared from around the corner, their hands intertwined and looking happier than ever.

"Merry Christmas, Nico!" Annabeth said brightly.

"Er, yeah. Merry Christmas," I said. Maybe this wasn't a good idea.

"Paul was just about to break open the eggnog." Sally said with a smile. "You're just in time."

"That's….uh, great…."

They all seemed oblivious to my discomfort as I slipped into the living room after Sally.

"Nico, my man!" Paul said a little too loudly, which made me wonder what exactly was in the eggnog. He came over and offered his hand. When I took it cautiously he pumped my hand up and down energetically. After a moment Percy stepped forward and separated our hands.

"Okay, that's enough hand shaking." He said, then turned to me. "I'm glad you came, man. I was worried you wouldn't check back at camp soon enough."

"Um, yeah, about that. Percy, can I—"

"Time for presents!" Sally announced.

"Isn't that tomorrow?" I asked with a scowl.

"Percy and I have a tradition where we open two gifts on Christmas Eve," she explained. "Did you bring a gift like he said?"

"I forgot."

Sally didn't seem too worried. "Oh that's okay. We have plenty here. Percy, would you do the honors?"

And that's how I got stuck opening presents with Percy's family instead of travelling to the Underworld to save Catherine. After an hour and a half Percy stood up.

"Anyone want a refill?" He asked, wiggling the mug in his hand.

"I'll have a bit more," Sally said, handing her son her mug. Annabeth started to stand in order to help Percy, but I beat her to it when I saw my window of opportunity.

"I'll help!" I said, a little too forcefully. Annabeth gave me a suspicious look, but lowered herself back down. I went into the kitchen and pulled the eggnog out of the fridge, placing it on the counter.

"Want anything to eat?" Percy asked, glancing at me as he put the mugs down. "We have crackers and…..is something wrong?"

"Yes."

He immediately looked concerned and the look only deepened as I explained what Aphrodite had told me.

"Seriously? Wow…. so what are you going to do?"

"I don't know!" I said in frustration. "Why do you think I'm here?"

Percy nodded, deep in thought.

"You have to save her." He said a moment later in a tone of finality.

"But he—"

"Nico," he gave me a stern look. "You love her; you'll never forgive yourself if your dad does something rash."

I sighed, allowing my shoulders to sag once more. "But if I do, I'm just doing exactly what he wants."

"Is it possible to find her and bring her back without seeing him?"

I shook my head. "It's unlikely. If I know him, then I know he will have Catherine with him. It's what I would do. He'll be keeping tabs on me, anyway."

Percy nodded again. His seaweed green eyes flickered around the kitchen as he thought. I thought too, but not even combined could our brains create a better plan. I sighed in resignation.

"I don't have enough energy to shadow travel all the way to Los Angeles." I said quietly.

He muttered a curse under his breath. He crossed his arms and stared at the tile, his mind deep in thought. Annabeth came in the kitchen.

"What are the two of you doing in here?" She asked. "You left like five minutes ago."

We quickly explained my dilemma and I could almost see the cogs turning in her mind.

"I've got it," Percy announced a moment later. "You can take Blackjack."

I grimaced. I hated flying nearly as much as I hated water.

"There has to be something else."

"Don't be such a wimp, Death Boy." Annabeth said, punching me in the arm.

"It's the only way," Percy insisted. "Do you want to save Catherine or not?"

I clenched my jaw but nodded. "Fine."

He grinned. "Perfect."

"Mom?" Percy called, going back into the living room. I could hear him making an excuse as to why I needed to leave and promising to be back in an hour.

"We're good to go."

"Okay," I said. "But one thing before we leave…."

He raised his eyebrows in question.

"Could I take you up on that offer of food?"

Percy laughed and nodded. He looked around the cabinets a moment before pulling out a package of crackers, a jar of peanut butter, and a can of Cheez Whiz.

"This okay?"

"Sure," I replied, taking the supplies from him. Percy tossed me a bottle of water from the refrigerator and I caught it with one hand.

"Let's go," Annabeth said, reaching for the door handle. Percy and I exchanged glances and then I looked over at her.

"What?" She demanded. "You think I'm going to let the two of you have all the fun?"

Percy shrugged (the traitor), which left me no choice but to except her coming along. I just sighed and pushed my way out of the front door the best I could with my arms full.

"We'll take Mom's car," Percy said as he held up a set of keys. I nodded and got into the back seat. He and Annabeth got in the front. I was perfectly happy to share my space with the crackers, the Skippy, and the Cheez Whiz. At least they didn't try to talk to me. Annabeth, however, was a different story. She twisted in her seat in order to see me.

"Who is this Catherine girl, anyway?" She asked.

I sent her a glare.

"Okayyyyy," she said, holding up her hands in a gesture of surrender and turning back around.

Percy was the only one I had ever told about Catherine. And even then, I only told him the abridged version. Our history was too long and complicated to really explain properly. As I scooped a glob of peanut butter with my cracker and stuck it in my mouth I thought over mine and Catherine's relationship. She made me feel….good, happy; like I hadn't felt since Bianca was alive. I felt like I was alive again whenever I was with her. But at the same time, I couldn't imagine how she could ever love me. Commitment had never been one of my strengths. It was easier to maintain more of a 'friends with benefits' type of relationship. We'd had many good nights and fun times, but there were also the times we got into fights and couldn't stand each other. We both knew there were others—I'd never 'dated' anyone, but there'd been plenty of other girls. And it didn't take a child of Athena to figure out that Catherine had often dated other guys in between. There may have even been times when she was 'dating' another guy when she was with me. I knew I should feel guilty, but I didn't. I was a Child of Hades; not many people liked me in the first place so why should I care?

"Nico?" Percy asked, pulling me out of my reverie. I looked out the window and realized that we were at Half-Blood Hill.

"Coming," I muttered as I got out.

Together the three of us ran up the hill. From there Percy led the way to the stables, where all the pegasi were sheltered. The minute Blackjack saw Percy he pranced back and forth happily and craned his head out of the stall.

"Hey buddy," Percy murmured as he stroked the pegasus' nose. I didn't know what he was saying, but I could tell he was happy to see Percy.

"Okay, Blackjack's agreed to fly you to Los Angeles. He says you'll have to find your own way back, though, because he won't take two of you."

"Great horse," I muttered. Blackjack snorted indignantly.

"He didn't mean it," Percy assured him as he opened the stall gate. Blackjack stepped out and followed us outside. White mist filled the air from the combination of our breath.

"Have everything you need?" Annabeth asked.

I gripped the hilt of my sword and nodded grimly. Percy clapped me on the shoulder.

"Good luck. Let us know how everything turns out."

I took in a deep breath and nodded before climbing onto Blackjack's back.

"Easy now," I said cautiously. Blackjack eyed me before launching himself into the sky. My stomach lurched and I suddenly wished I hadn't eaten so many peanut butter and cheese crackers. Percy and Annabeth waved from the ground as they steadily grew smaller and smaller. Finally Blackjack stopped gaining altitude and lurched forward. I gripped his neck and sides tightly, though I did my best not to choke him. After an hour I relaxed a little as my body settled in the steady rhythm of Blackjack's flying.

"If I take a nap, you won't let me fall off, will you?" I asked him uncertainly. If I was going to get myself and Catherine back to Manhattan I would need all the strength I could get. Blackjack looked back at me—which made me a little uncomfortable to think he couldn't possibly know where he was going—and gave me an expression which clearly said: duh.

"Right," I said with a nod. I was still nervous about this whole flying thing, but I hadn't fallen off yet and Percy trusted Blackjack. Cautiously I lowered my body against Blackjack's strong form and rested my cheek against his strong, soft neck.

I ended up sleeping all the way to California. I probably would have slept longer, but Blackjack's rough landing roused me from my slumber. From the position of the sun I knew it was two hours after dawn. Blackjack's hooves clattered against the cement in the deserted warehouse parking lot he landed in. I jumped off of his back, thankful to be once again on solid ground.

"Thanks, Blackjack." I said, managing a smile despite the feeling I was still moving. He nickered softly before launching once more into the sky.

I knew he would go find a nice field to eat lunch in before flying back to New York. Now that I was here the reality was so much more, well, real.Until this moment it hadn't seemed all that serious. Now, as I stood alone in the parking lot of an abandoned warehouse the fact that my dad had kidnapped my kind-of girlfriend hit me hard. Gritting my teeth, I steeled myself against what I was about to do. Then I took a deep breath and stretched my hand out in front of me. Closing my eyes, I opened a large fissure in the parking lot. I stepped forward and stood at the edge of the pit and peered into the darkness. With one last breath of air I stepped into the hole and dropped into the Underworld.

Looking around, I identified the Fields of Asphodel. I turned left and headed for my father's palace looming in the distance. The fact that I could see it was testimony itself that Hades wanted to speak to me. My insides twisted with anxiety as I walked. Was Catherine okay? I didn't think my father would hurt her if he was using her as leverage against me. Then again, the gods were nothing if not irrational. I sent up a quick prayer to the others, just in case. I wasn't on very good terms with any of the gods, but a few of them didn't mind me. Before I knew it I was in front of his palace, looking up at the black and bronze replica of Olympus. A small shiver ran down my spine as I stepped forward. The hallways flickered eerily with orange and red flames from the torches lining the walls. My heart beat rapidly in my chest as I peered around the corner. If I could just find Catherine and escape without seeing my father….

I cursed loudly and scowled when I stepped into a hallway and was greeted by him. Automatically my hand shot to my sword. Hades stood before me, clothed in his black robes of death and a slight scowl on his face. I clenched my jaw and pointed the tip of my blade at him.

"Nico…"

I shook my head. "No, I don't want to hear it. Where is she?"

"Just listen to me, Nico. I only did it—"

"I told you, save your stories for someone who cares." I narrowed my eyes at him. "Tell me where she is!"

Hades set his jaw and stepped into my path. "I didn't go through all this trouble just to have you come here and disrespect me. May I remind you where you are, boy?"

"Sorry to disappoint, Pops," I said sarcastically. My eyes darted around, trying to identify a means of escape. I couldn't find one, so I resolved to think of a distraction. If I could just get past him, then I could make a run for it and find Catherine. I finally settled on one of the torches burning with Hellfire in the skeleton-hand holder. I sent a wall of darkness at my father, and then lunged for the torch. I gripped it with my hand and pulled it out of the holder. In one fluid movement I thrust the fire into his face and then pushed past him into the corridor.

I heard Hades' shout of frustration and anger, but I ignored it as I barreled through his palace. I wasn't sure where I was going, just knew I had to get Catherine and get out. I was approaching another corridor when someone reached out a hand and grabbed me. I was about to hit them with the flat of my blade when I realized who was in front of me. Persephone raised a pure black eyebrow at me. I opened my mouth to explain, but she cut me off.

"Do you want to find her? If you do, I suggest you stay quiet and listen. I'll tell you where she is, but only if you agree to talk with him." She growled in frustration and screwed up her face in annoyance. "That man is driving me crazy!"

"What do you—?"

"You!" She said, shaking me. "He won't stop ranting about you! It's bad enough in the infernal pit of despair without having to hear about you night and day. Not that I can tell the difference down here. Do you promise to talk to him if I take you to her?"

I stayed silent while I thought it over. If I didn't talk to him, it was likely I would never get out with Catherine alive. As much as I hated him at the moment, I knew that it was my best option. I had to think about Catherine and her safety. A sudden realization hit me; what if she never spoke to me after this? She didn't know that I was a demigod. How would she react to being pulled into this world of Greek gods and an underworld that is supposed to be mythical? Gritting my teeth, I met my step mother's multi-colored eyes. Finally I nodded in agreement. Even if I told her, I might still be able to get away without confronting him…

"Alright," I told her. "I'll do it."

Persephone sighed in relief and let go of the front of my shirt. "Good. I would thank the gods, but…well, I know Zeus has nothing to do with this. Come along, little step son. Your girlfriend's this way."

I resisted the urge to deny that Catherine was my girlfriend.

"Wait." She stopped so suddenly I nearly lost my balance in attempt to not collide with her. Persephone turned on me, narrowing her eyes.

"Swear on the River Styx."

I cursed mentally and cringed. She was good. I hesitated for a moment before admitting defeat.

With a sigh I muttered, "I swear on the River Styx that I will speak with Hades if you help me rescue Catherine."

After a short moment Persephone nodded, clearly pleased with herself.

"If you're anything like your father, that scheming, lying, foul-smelling…" she continued to mutter to herself, but I ignored it as the mad ramblings of an angry goddess. Silently she led me down several different corridors, all dimly lit and patrolled by ghostly soldiers from all eras. At last we stopped in front of a solid obsidian door.

"Is that really necessary?" I demanded. Catherine was probably freaking out right now, unsure of what was going on. Persephone just sent me a look and reached out, placing a hand on the door. At least they hadn't taken her to the dungeons.

"W-who's there?" Hearing Catherine's voice, usually so sure and commanding, shake in terror sent a pang of anxiety through me. I stepped forward, through the doorway of the poorly lit room. It was furnished with a plush leather couch, a dying fire, and a pitch black oval rug.

"Would it kill you to add a little color around here?" I asked Persephone. She sniffed haughtily and crossed her arms.

"You can take that up with your father." She said pointedly. Clenching my jaw, I went further into the room.

"Catherine? It's me."

"Nico? Oh, thank goodness!" She ran toward me and put her arms around me. I hugged her to my chest comfortingly, careful to not injure her with my blade.

"What the hell is going on?" Catherine demanded, pulling away.

"Shh," I said, putting two of my fingers to her lips. "I'll explain everything later. Come on, let's get out of here."

Suddenly the air around us grew thicker, everything going hazy with darkness. I felt Catherine's grip tighten on my arm. When the air cleared we were standing together next to Hades. Persephone, having her own goddess powers, had conveniently chosen to stay behind. Coward, I cursed her in my mind. She just didn't want to face him, knowing that she blatantly disobeyed his command to not help me. If I knew anything about my father, I knew he would have done just that. Catherine trembled beside me so I put my arm around her shoulders. I did my best to protect her from getting the full force of my father's anger.

"You have your prize." His voice was clipped and dangerous. I scowled at him for his choice of words but stayed silent.

"Are you going to listen to me now?" Hades asked, lounging back lazily on his throne.

"It seems I have no choice," I said through my teeth.

Hades flicked his wrist carelessly and a couch appeared suddenly behind us. I found myself sitting down on it heavily. Catherine clutched my hand and the sleeve of my jacket fearfully.

"I never once implied that you were to blame." He said tiredly. "Athena just…took my silence to mean something else."

"And you didn't think to correct her?" I demanded.

"And get banned from Olympus again? I just needed a little time, to repair the damage."

"Yeah, and in the meantime Athena made it her personal mission to torment me! Do you know how hard it is to hide from the Goddess of Wisdom?"

Hades' jaw tightened. "I had nothing to do with—"

"You could have easily prevented it!" I shouted. I would have stood, but Catherine was still holding onto me. I glanced at her and her eyes went wide. She let out a little squeaked of shock.

"Nico!" She whispered hoarsely. "Nico, what is going on? Does he really mean—?"

"I'll explain later," I promised once more. Catherine nodded bravely. Hades chuckled.

"How adorable. I never took you to be one to put much into relationships. Still, I knew that she was my last chance to get you here. All my previous attempts had failed. It seems I've finally found your weakness, my son." Had it been my imagination, or had his voice softened just a bit at the end?

"Are you going to agree to put this behind us? Or will further leverage be necessary?"

The way he looked at Catherine made me nervous. I unconsciously tightened my grip around her. Was Catherine worth forgiving my father? Though Athena had finally relented on her punishments for supposedly burning her Extremely Important Building Papers ( I didn't actually know what they were, only that they had to do with architecture, hence the title), I had not spoken to Hades since. I sighed and glanced once more at the girl beside me. Was it worth risking Catherine's safety, just to continue hating my father? I knew holding grudges was my fatal flaw. If I refused to forgive my father, was I putting Catherine in danger? Now that he knew I would do anything for her, I feared that he would use her as a tool to use or manipulate me.

I met my father's gaze and held it for a moment. In that moment I decided on a plan. I sat up a little straighter and tightened the grip on the hilt of my sword.

"On one condition." I said. I knew it was a bold move, but it was one worth taking. Hades stared at me emotionlessly for a moment.

"Proceed…"

"You will swear to me, on the River Styx, that you will never again use Catherine as a way to manipulate me." I spoke slowly, to insure that he knew my intentions. I saw Hades' jaw tighten once more. So he had planned on using her? At the very least, the thought had occurred to him.

Silence enveloped for a long moment. And then, "I swear on the River Styx."

I smiled. "Good. It was nice talking to you, Pops."

His gaze softened just a bit; I knew I hadn't imagined it this time. He gave a curt nod as I stood, pulling Catherine up alongside me. I was going to lead her away, unsure of whether or not I should take her through the Underworld or use other means to get above ground, when Hades held up his hand.

"Nico, wait…"

I turned my head and quirked an eyebrow in question.

"The least I can do is aid you in getting home."

A part of me wanted to refuse his help. But one look at Catherine's terrified expression and I knew I had to except his aid. Gritting my teeth, I nodded. Before stepping close to him I slid my sword back into place at my side. As Hades raised his hand I turned and wrapped Catherine in my arms. I forced her to look into my eyes and not at my father. A bright light enveloped us, and the next thing I knew Catherine and I were standing under a tree in the middle of Los Angeles. Time has a different meaning in the Underworld than that of the mortal world, and the sun was already sinking steadily under the horizon. I felt Catherine shaking in my arms.

"W-what just happened to me? Am I going crazy?"

I shook my head. "No, you're not going crazy."

I looked around and saw a small café along the boardwalk. Wordlessly, I led Catherine forward. My pocket suddenly felt heavier than it had a moment ago. Reaching inside, my finger curled around a wad of cash.

"Thank you," I muttered at the ground grudgingly. I got Catherine to sit down before ordering the two of us sandwiches and drinks.

"Thank you…" she said quietly when I handed her the plastic-wrapped deli sandwich. I just nodded.

"Nico, was that really—?"

"Yes."

She frowned. "Don't be like that. That man…he meant…he meant the Greek goddess, didn't he? But that's not possible. Those things are just myths."

I shook my head and took another bite out of my sandwich. "No, they're not."

Catherine laughed and swiped her hand through the air. "Come on, Nico. He couldn't have been serious."

I met her brown eyes and nodded. "He was."

She choked and had to take a drink of her green tea. "What? No! That can't—"

"I know it's hard to believe, but it's the truth." I leaned across the table, careful to avoid others from hearing. "The gods are real, Olympus is real. The place where I go sometimes, during the summer…it's a camp for special kids. Kids like me."

"So he's…" she stopped and swallowed hard. In a whisper, she asked, "he's really your father?"

"Yes."

"No." Catherine said suddenly, her expression turning to anger as she banged her fist against the table. "I refuse to believe this nonsense. You drugged me, didn't you? You've made my brain go all wacky!"

"What? No! Catherine, I would never—"

"I don't ever want to see you again!" She shouted, drawing a few curious stares in our direction. She stood up and swept the bottle of tea off the table. My heart started to race. This was it. The moment that she rejected me, told me that I was a delusional freak that needed to be institutionalized. I stood up quietly, but she took off, racing out the door.

"Catherine, wait!"

I finally caught up to her outside, encircling her wrist with my hand. She refused to look at me. I fought off the staggering pain that threatened to unleash itself inside of me. I was usually so good at dodging emotions; these, however, would not be ignored.

"Wait…" I hated how my voice waivered, but forced myself to continue. "At least take this."

I dug in my pocket for the money. "It should be enough to get you home."

She accepted the money, but then ripped her wrist out of mine and ran. Away from me. I swallowed the lump in my throat and blinked back the water glazing my eyes. I could easily hitch-hike home, or I could visit Reyna at Camp Jupiter and get a few supplies in order to travel to New York. Someone scoffing behind me caused me to jump.

"You idiot!" Aphrodite shrieked. She appeared as a jogger, her hair, which was now a deep red, was tied back in a pony tail. She actually reached out and smacked the back of my head.

"Ow!" I said, rubbing the spot grumpily.

"Are you just going to let her get away? I swear, Nico de Angelo, if you don't go after her right this minute I will blast you to oblivion! You'll be so far gone even your good-for-nothing father won't be able to bring you back."

"Why are you angry?" I demanded, bewildered. "This has nothing to do with you."

Her eyes flashed. "This has everything to do with me! I don't take kindly to those who blatantly ignore my work!"

I was so dumbfounded I didn't know how to respond. I just stared at her, blinking idiotically.

"Well?" She demanded. "Go after her, you imbecile!"

"Uh…" was my only response. Suddenly my legs were carrying me across the boardwalk, in the direction Catherine had run earlier. I wasn't sure if I was running more from fear of the angry goddess or the desire to catch Catherine. After a moment I decided my motives were split fifty-fifty. I don't know how I found Catherine—I suspected Aphrodite had something to do with it—but I did. She was about a mile away from the café, her head bent down as she stood under the shade of a palm tree. I stopped to catch my breath but kept my eye on her. I hadn't been stationary long before Catherine pushed away from the tree and started to walk toward the path.

No! my mind shouted, panic starting to bubble in my chest. What if I didn't catch her? I pushed myself faster and soon crossed the distance separating us.

"Catherine!" I said breathlessly. She froze and then spun around, her expression one of shock.

"Nico, what are you—?"

Before she could say anymore I framed her face in my hands and kissed her. I could hardly breathe as my head swam with her scent. Even after her frightful excursion into the Underworld she smelt like lavender and warm honey. The feel of her skin, of her lips on mine, made me feel as though I was in a different world. Nothing existed except for Catherine. She pulled away abruptly and slammed her fist against my shoulder.

"No!" She exclaimed, tears falling down her cheek. "No! You ass!"

I opened my mouth to ask what was wrong, but I suspected it had something to do with the whole kissing thing.

"You can't just come back, and kiss me, and think everything's okay!"

"I…"

"You always do this," she choked out, punching me again in anger. "And I always give in, and then the next thing I know you're gone!"

"Catherine, please, I—"

"I'm sorry, Nico, but the truth is I can't trust you anymore. You feed me lies and then expect me to believe you when you actually speak the truth. How do I know you're going to stick around this time? All you do is leave me."

She turned and I knew that if I let her take that first step I would never get her back. I reached out and took her arm gently. Catherine froze, turning her head a fraction but not completely looking back at me.

"I promise, I will never leave you again. I couldn't…"

Catherine shook her head, but I refused to let her arm go.

"Please," I was practically begging now. "If you give me one more chance, I won't let you down. Catherine…"

I circled around her in order to look into her eyes, to show her with my own that I was serious. I took her hand in mine, reaching up to tuck away a stray piece of hair.

"Please…" I stepped closer, my eyes locked onto hers. There was the tiniest of nods and I pulled her into my arms. My lips were on hers again, only this time she kissed me back, the cash I had given her scrunched in her fist as she gripped my leather jacket. Her tears added a tint of salt to our kiss as I pressed her to my chest.

"I love you," I gasped, pulling away for a moment.

"I love you, Catherine." I repeated. "Don't make me live my life without you."

She rested her cheek against my shoulder, tears still in her eyes.

"I don't know why I should believe you," she whispered. "But I do…mostly."

"I'm sorry," I said, pulling away and looking into her eyes. "For the way I've always treated you. If you can accept the impossible, if you're willing to love me back after everything I'm going to tell you, I promise you to be yours forever. But only if you want me."

Catherine smiled and reached a hand to touch my cheek gently. She nodded.

"Of course, Nico. I'll be happy in any world, just as long as you're in it."

I smiled and hugged her against my chest once more. After a long moment I pulled away and framed her face gently once more.

"What do you say we go home?"

She smiled. "What are we waiting for?"