ONESHOT. I don't own PJO, Nico di Angelo, or the cover art, as much as I wish I did. Cover art's by viria from tumblr (I highly recommend her work) and I think we all know who PJO is by...
If one manages to bypass the locks on the carved silver doors of cabin thirteen, and is not repelled by the uncanny aura of death, the scowling, empty eyes of the watching skulls and gargoyles, and the torches of green fire that flicker menacingly if one other than their creator steps beyond the threshold, then they might find inside the obsidian walls a bed, some various Stygian iron weapons, and a motley assortment of myriad trinkets. These miscellaneous knickknacks are lined up on the stone shelves protruding from the solid black wall to the right of an iron-framed bed, which has been pushed into the corner's shadows as if the user might need to shadow travel even as he sleeps –– merely a precaution, but it had come in handy one time when the Stoll brothers had summoned up the courage to play one of their various pranks on the only person in camp who had not yet been on the butt end of one.
The owner of this bed, these weapons, and the strange collections of baubles is hardly ever home to see them. And when he is, he is alone, preferring the voices in his head to the voices of those around him –– at least, when he is around people. He is a solitary and seemingly hostile boy, clad in black and wearing skulls. Some think that in his mind he views himself as higher than everyone else, which is why he never associates and why he never speaks to them. And those who do not hold this view think of him as a depressed emo, too lost to be salvaged. And we shall not forget the ones who secretly believe he is bipolar, not an ill-founded theory. However they view him, they hold him to be an infallible, unreachable boy, who has cast away the whims of childhood much too soon than what is healthy for a young mind.
But if one dares to cross the threshold of cabin thirteen, and manages to see in the cold darkness the belongings of this troubled young man, they might find that what they are looking at are the magnifying glasses that will give them a better glimpse of the boy in black, and what is underneath. They might look closer, and in the process find that who they believed the boy to be is merely a façade, a veil, a mask that conceals the truth…
There is a silver lockbox sitting at the far end of the lowest shelf, dirtied by not a dust speck, not the smallest molecule of dirt, not even a smudge on the polished matte surface. That is because the owner opens this box often, just to look at what is inside. He looks, takes them out, rolls them between his fingers, opens them to test if they are still fresh, then carefully puts them back, closes the box, wipes off the lid, and replaces it back onto the shelf.
Bianca had first introduced them to him. She was obsessed with them. Back in Westover Hall, when she wasn't writing with a pencil (as required by the teachers) she would be doodling with rainbow-colored, fine-tip Sharpies. Once she had let little Nico get his hot little hands on her collection –– which amounted up to about fourteen markers in all –– and had regretted it when she found that he had sneaked downstairs in the middle of the night to the dining hall and turned the white tablecloth of the teachers' table into a colorful mess. No one ever found out that Nico had done it, due to his clever ploy of dropping one marker outside the door of one of the older boys' rooms, particularly an older boy who had the drawing skills of a ten-year-old and, to boot, a penchant for mischievous vandalism.
Bianca hadn't been able to bring them with her when they had left for Camp Half-blood, but neither she nor anyone else seemed to care. Only after Bianca was long dead did Nico ever remember the markers.
So as tribute to her, he had bought some of his own. They come in pretty much every color of the rainbow –– Iris would be quite proud –– and every time he sees a new kind, he buys it and adds it to his collection. And when he gets the chance, he goes through the collection, fingers them for a few moments, tests them out on a piece of cardboard just to make sure they still work, and puts them back. His thin fingers fumble often, and by the time he is done testing every one of the forty-nine (and counting) markers, his paper-white hands look like a three-year-old had used them as a coloring pad.
Depending on his mood, he sometimes scrubs it off immediately to rid his skin of the colors, and other times he just sits and gazes at the accidental streaks with a solemn, wry smile on his face. It's ironic, so ironic, that sometimes he just wants to stick these colorful hands into people's faces and show them that sometimes, there is enough room in his dark life for color.
That sometimes, even the pale boy in black can release his inner rainbow.
They all know about the McDonald's. Of course they do. The famous Happy Meal incident had assured that. They all find it creepy –– except for the few who find it to be cool –– which is one of the many reasons why people avoid him, and why the feeling is mutual. But none of them bother to ask what, exactly, happens to the toys. And quite frankly, Nico hopes it would stay that way.
Because he not only gets the toys, he collects them.
They are arranged by date of acquirement, and if he has more than one from a single day he arranges those by height. It is bizarrely meticulous and almost creepily obsessive, but as he lives alone, Nico doesn't really care. When counted, the numbers are incredible. Even just looking at the perfectly positioned display –– which spans two entire shelves –– would impress one who cares enough to step back and look.
This is for two reasons: one, McDonald's is cheap, and two, Nico loves chicken nuggets. And fries, and Cokes, and soft-serve ice cream, and all of that unhealthy junk. And of course he loves the toys. He loves all of it. He remembers that Bianca never let him eat that kind of stuff. She was always nagging him to finish his vegetables, to drink his milk, and to not eat dessert first. Even in the Lotus Hotel and Casino, her verdict had been strict. Of course, she let him have a candy bar every once in a while, and would let him have dessert after he ate his Brussels sprouts.
He remembers one time when Bianca had left their table for a few minutes to use the bathroom, and then came back to find that Nico had set up a small Mythomagic war in which the table was a battlefield, the little figurines –– which he had stuffed inside his pockets –– were the good soldiers, the shoots of asparagus were the enemy soldiers, the broccoli florets were bushes and trees, and spoons were catapults from which deadly projectiles known as melon balls would be launched. It had been an impressive setup, and little Nico had whined –– knowing that if he won, he wouldn't have to eat any of his vegetables –– that it should stay. He had ended up having to eat them anyway, grumbling all the while that Bianca was no fun.
He hadn't recognized the faint, melancholy glimmer in her eyes, but now that he is older, he knows what it was. Yes, Bianca had been strict, but now he knows that she had acted so only to protect him. She had been the closest thing to a mother he had ever had.
And now, every time he goes to McDonald's, he remembers to buy a salad.
All children of Hades have them. In general, all children of the Underworld do; Thanatos's daughter has a particularly severe case. Unless they are children of Persephone –– who are rare, seeing as Hades's fraternization rules are strict.
Nico's pollen allergies are particularly bad. During the spring, summer, and fall months, one can find on his bedside table a bottle of children's non-drowsy, grape-flavored Claritin and a tiny plastic measuring cup. It takes quite a bit of Mist-manipulation on his part –– after a daughter of Hecate taught him about Mist-forms it became easier to convince the suspicious mortals –– but he gets the medication from the closest Walgreen's. He hates the stuff, but he takes it anyway. The alternative is to look and sound like a complete idiot as he sniffles and sneezes and tears up for no apparent reasons all throughout the day.
He remembers the one time when he had not taken his medicine –– it had been a relatively clear day, and by clear I mean not in the sky but in his nostrils. So he had ignored the medicine, and gone off to bug people and help some of the other campers with their cabins. As the day progressed, though, the pollen levels increased, and he could feel his nose getting stuffier and stuffier… he couldn't leave, of course; he was helping the new members of the Nemesis cabin with the foundations and didn't want anyone asking why he was leaving. So he had just discreetly nabbed a few tissues and used when needed. But after a few hours, during which it had gotten worse, he blew his nose one too many times, which caused the delicate blood vessels to burst…
… prompting a serious nosebleed that he didn't even notice until one of the Nemesis girls whom he was working with screamed. Apollo's healers were surrounding him in literally seconds, even though he tried to protest, with not much success, that he was unhurt, if not a bit claustrophobic from all the personal-space-invading medics. They had helped him clean up, and after the bleeding had slowed, Nico returned to his job. However, the daughter of Nemesis had been quite annoyed with the son of Hades for giving her such a scare, so within the hour, word was flying around Camp Half-Blood that Nico is allergic to pollen. What little blood Nico had left in his body had instantly rushed to his cheeks, and he had slunk into his cabin for the rest of the night.
It's a weakness that he hates, but it's one of those weaknesses that can convince him that he's not dead yet, and that he is at least half human.
Sometimes it's those weaknesses that are his only ties to what's real, and what is outside of that creeping insanity that comes with his life.
He has quite a few of them, in fact. They're cleverly hidden in plain sight, but they're there. Disguised as blazing green torches mounted on the wall by Stygian iron fixtures, they serve a dual purpose –– to intimidate those outside, and to comfort the one inside.
He never told his father, of course. If he did, Zeus knows what would happen –– no, not even Zeus. He didn't tell anybody about those nights that he spent in the Underworld, when his father had reluctantly taken him into the palace, and given him a room to stay in for the time being… a dark room, pitch black when the door was closed. No way to penetrate the darkness. He never told anybody about those long nights that he spent curled up in the large but cold bed, shivering and shutting his eyes to block out what's around him. Something tells him that these terrifying nights, during which the enemies of the mind tortured him relentlessly, were the beginning of his irrational fear, but he cannot convince himself that the danger is past.
Nico never tells anyone that he is afraid of the dark.
It is a childish fear, he knows, and definitely an inappropriate one, but he can't seem to completely get rid of it. Over the two years of solitude and maturing he has learned to ignore the fear, but always it is there, lurking in the back of his mind. He knows he has no reason to fear. Why, he is the Ghost King! He is the son of Hades! He can use the darkness against his enemies!
But even though he is strong in darkness, somewhere his inner child recoils in fear.
He doesn't know how the nightlights –– er, torches –– help. One might think that they make the spooky environment only spookier, with the ever shifting shadows and the eerie green glow. But somehow, he feels comforted. Maybe it's because when there are shadows, there is a way out. Because of course, in complete darkness, when there are no shadows, escape is impossible.
The children of Apollo are always getting on him, saying that light is the best thing. Humans are naturally drawn towards the light –– though this argument faltered when Nico pointed out that he technically wasn't human. The conversation had ended abruptly when Nico had shadow traveled far away from the cheery, way-too-sunny Apollo kids.
He didn't tell them that he realized that they were right.
Usually they run from him. Nico has eyes that can send a Doberman yelping and scurrying under a couch. He never means to scare them off. Really. Unless they happen to be ten feet tall, fire-breathing, and/or intent on eating him, in which case it is perfectly fine to draw out the Stygian iron sword and send the monster back to Tartarus the hard (but fun) way. One would think that he was a well-known serial killer of canines, the way the dog owners pull their pets close and the dogs themselves whimper as he passes.
And yet, every time a dog shies away from his cold, pale hand, something breaks inside Nico's dark soul.
He loves dogs. Really, he does. He likes the little furry ones with the pointy ears the best; they remind him of miniature hellhounds, but smaller and with no desire to eat people. But whenever he sees a dog on a leash and asks the owner if he could pet it, either the owner or the dog and many times both would refuse his innocent request. The mortal would often be repulsed by his rough, dark appearance; the dog would be repulsed by the aura of death.
It breaks his heart when he can't stroke the dog's warm fur and pat its head, just because of who he is.
Which was why he had made an instant bond with Mrs. O'Leary, the only friendly dog he knew (seeing as Cerberus had initially tried to bite his head off). The surprisingly friendly hellhound had also taken a liking to Nico, seeing as he probably has an interesting scent –– barbecue, probably, with a hint of death and the distinct smoky scent of Greek fire.
And which is why, if one looks on the black comforter of Nico's bed, they will find, propped up against the pillow, a row of small stuffed terriers, which are well-worn from the many times he has stroked their heads and nuzzled their fur.
If one looks at all of these things, and thinks about their meanings, they will find something. Not a physical something, but something deeper, better. They will find a person under that cloak of indifference and hostility, a person with flaws, weaknesses, fears, and feelings. If one looks at this person through the things they now know, they will find that the outside façade of coldness and invulnerability is a mask, covering what is underneath. He doesn't mean to put it on; he doesn't even know that what is there still exists. He believes that it has faded with the years, vanished into the scars that give merely a glimpse as to what he has gone through.
But always, the child with the Mythomagic cards and the pearly white grin –– the child who played with his sister's markers, who refused to eat his vegetables, who has to take decongestant medicine every night to help him fall asleep, who is afraid of the dark, and who loves dogs even if they don't love him back –– will live on, somewhere deep inside Nico di Angelo's shadowed heart.
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