After Hazel went into some sort of trance, with one hand pressed against Nico's heart scarab, they waited in awkward silence.
Percy watched Leo carefully, knowing that there was absolutely no way that Leo was really alright right now. Not after baring his soul to Hazel only to realize he'd unintentionally spilled his life story and darkest secrets to four other demigods who he wasn't even friends with. Now he looked like a tiger in too small a cage, as they waited for something to happen. Despite the cool temperature, Percy could see that Leo was sweating from nervousness.
"Leo, about what you were saying earlier," Thalia started to say after several minutes, but Leo cut her off.
"What I said earlier is none of your business."
"I'm not talking about it anymore," said Leo coldly.
"I was just going to say –"
"I don't care."
"I'm sorry for what happened to you," said Thalia determinedly. When Leo didn't cut her off again, she determinedly continued. "You didn't deserve that. And . . . it wasn't your fault."
Leo turned his face toward the ground so that his bangs shadowed his eyes, probably to try and hide tears.
"She's right," said Annabeth when Leo didn't speak. "It wasn't your fault."
"What are you trying to do?" demanded Leo, his voice cracking. "Make me break down again here? We're in the middle of a quest. We can't afford to do this now!"
"Okay. Sorry," said Annabeth quickly. "It's just . . . Sorry."
Several seconds passed in silence.
"But I appreciate what you're saying," said Leo gruffly, all of a sudden. "Thank . . . you."
"We appreciate you coming to begin with," said Percy. "We never would have made it this far without you."
"Yes, yes. It's great being part of the team. When we get out of hell, let's all go out for ice cream," said Leo, hitting the sarcasm switch back on, but Percy thought that he looked a little pleased.
"I second that," said Percy. "And the Egyptians can treat."
"Thirded, as long as we go somewhere with milkshakes too," put in Jason.
"Then it's settled," decided Annabeth.
Leo looked up and a little bit of his old humor had returned to his eyes. "Are you guys actually serious?"
"Yes," said Percy. "Annabeth's the leader and she said that it's settled. So take it as an extension of our plan. When we get out of here, we're all going out for ice cream."
More would have been said, except at that moment Hazel gasped and opened her eyes, and the eerie light glowing around her disappeared.
"Hazel!" Leo had never left her side, but now had both hands on her shoulders. "Are you alright? Did it work? You didn't hurt yourself?"
Hazel blinked then looked from Leo to Nico, who still lay in Percy's arms. "I think . . . I think . . ."
Percy felt his stomach start to sink when Nico didn't move. If this had all been for nothing, then it was going to be his turn to cry. Crushing disappointment had just started weighing down on him. Then Nico opened his eyes.
Nico groaned as he came to. He felt like that time he'd accidentally gotten drunk in China, then was hung over the entire next day. His muscles were all sore too, and his head was fuzzy. For a second he was confused. He had no idea where he was, or what had happened, but had a sneaking suspicion that he'd been injured somehow. Then everything came rushing back to him at once: his mission to infiltrate the Heart of Liberty School, meeting Jason, beating up their principal, and that power sapping machine suddenly exploding. Then . . . the abyss. The End of Days.
"Ahhhh!" he tried to sit up quickly and accidentally hit his forehead against Percy's chin, not realizing that his cousin had been holding him. The force would have hurt and probably bruised a normal person, but since it was Percy, with his Curse of Achilles, it only snapped his head back.
"Hey! Whoa, Nico!" said Percy, struggling to hold onto him. "Calm down. You're safe. Calm down."
"What . . . where . . . Percy?" Nico looked around frantically. "Hazel?"
"Right here," said his sister.
Nico's eyes snapped to her. Then his jaw dropped as he realized what he hadn't been able to before. Hazel was dead.
He blinked at her in disbelief.
Nico's jaw clenched. Curses in English, Italian, and Ancient Greek flew through his mind at the speed of light. This wasn't fair! He got a sister again, only to find out that he'd never really had her? No! Nico wasn't going to stand for this. But before he could start scheming about how to fix this, another voice startled him.
"Nico? Are you OK?" asked Jason.
"Huh?" For the first time, Nico looked around at everyone who was there, and where they actually were. His brain seemed to short circuit momentarily, unable to find a rational explanation for how and why a party consisting of Percy, Annabeth, Thalia, Jason, Leo, and Mrs. O'Leary, was down in the Fields of Asphodel. A little bit of panic shot through him too as he realized that Thalia had reunited with Jason and must be furious at him for not having let her know about him immediately. But compared to everything else, that seemed like a small thing right now.
"Nico? Nico!" Percy looked like he was about to start panicking.
"I'm alright," said Nico. "I . . . what happened? How . . . why . . . ?"
"Long story, amigo," said Leo. "We'll fill you in later. Right now, the situation is that your sister just helped us retrieve your lost soul and put it back in your body, and now we need to bust her out of here. So how about it? You got a plan?"
"Give him a moment," said Percy, when Nico just gaped.
It was a lot to process, but his mind was finally starting to fill in the holes, or at least making reasonable connections about what had happened. After that machine had exploded, his soul must have been displaced somehow, and ended up in that abyss. Percy had already been on his way to the school, Nico remembered. He must have met Jason and the two had managed not to kill each other and team up. Then . . . they'd figured out a way to get his soul back. He guessed, from Leo's presence alone, that Leo had been indispensible to the plan, since he couldn't see Percy letting him in on it otherwise. And the plan led them here, to Hazel, who'd actually managed to succeed. Nico knew he was missing some things, but the details could wait.
He took a deep breath and managed a shaky smile for his friends. The terror he'd felt while he was in the abyss was mostly gone. He wasn't alone anymore. Which reminded him . . .
Anubis? he asked tentatively.
Relief flooded Nico at the sound of Anubis's mental voice. He'd never been so glad to be possessed as he was at that moment.
It's good to be back. How was the Egyptian apocalypse?
Not as much fun without you. Anubis's mental voice sounded a bit antsy and Nico immediately realized why. The Egyptian god had wanted to keep his presence in Nico's mind to a minimum to avoid drawing Hades's attention.
We'll talk later. You can tell me all about it, said Nico.
Agreed. But . . . it's damned good to have you back, Nico.
Nico took half a second to mentally bask in the genuine affection that he could feel Anubis had for him. Then he turned his attention back to the situation at hand.
"I'm thinking. Don't worry, Hazel. I'll come up with something."
How to help a departed soul escape from Hades? That was a problem Nico had some experience in working on. Unfortunately, he'd only come up with one solution, and that involved trading another departed soul that was cheating death, for the soul he wanted to save. It sucked, but he didn't have any of those handy. Theoretically, it would be possible with his father's permission. Nico knew the story about how Hades had let Orpheus's wife go, on the condition that he didn't look back until they were both out. That hadn't worked out for poor Orpheus, but it didn't really matter. He knew that his father wouldn't just give him permission to walk out of the Underworld with his sister's soul. For one, he couldn't look like he was showing favoritism to his children, never mind that's what Zeus and most of the other gods did right and left. For another, Hazel had been sentenced to Asphodel which would complicate her release even more.
Looking at her now, Nico could see it. Hazel's whole life was recorded in her soul, playing back like a movie that only his eyes could see. He guessed it was probably a latent power, that hadn't activated until now, because he'd never been in the presence of any soul from Asphodel. Whether he could use this power on other souls remained to be seen, and would require some testing, but Nico put that aside for now. What mattered was that Hazel didn't deserve to be here. She didn't belong here. Screw those damned judges. Nico was taking his sister back.
He thought hard about his options. The exit strategy was only one thing that had to be considered. The way he saw it, they had three options. The main entrance would be impossible, so he didn't count that one. That left the door of Orpheus, Melinoe's cave, and one other way that hadn't even existed up until a year ago. Nico almost dismissed that one out of hand too because its location made it ridiculously impractical, but when his mind returned to the other two exits, he stalled.
He remembered another trip to the Underworld, with Percy and Thalia, back when Persephone summoned them for a quest during the Titan War.
And that was where the solution to their problem lay.
"I've got it!"
AN: Sorry it's so short, but this is all I've had time to write since August, and people are getting anxious and worried I abandoned this fic, which I definitely have not, so I wanted to give you guys something. I have some free time this weekend so I'm starting on the next chapter right now. Btw, can anyone figure out Nico's plan? Or the exit that he's planning on using? I'll give you a hint, but I'm putting it in my profile, in case anyone reading this is utterly against getting any hints.
Oh, and also, TartKiwiFruit on DeviantArt did the most awesome manga-fied version of the scene where Leo was singing in the last chappie! She is an amazing artist, and I am so honored that she would take the time to make 4 pages of heart-stoppingly beautiful manga-style fan art for my fic! There are links to these pages in my profile, so please check those out too!