Fandom: The Book Thief/Percy Jackson and the Olympians
Characters/Pairings: Liesel, Nico
Word Count: 8,200
Summary: Death meets Liesel Meminger three times.
Notes: So in the game of "what's the weirdest thing you can cross TBT over with?", I've already made one entry in the form of a Pacific Rim crossover, but I'm here with another, because once again, when two characters from different universes exist in the same place at roughly the same time, then obviously they have to know each other. I think I had to fudge timelines a little bit on both ends, but hey! For romanitas, because sometimes all you need is somebody to yell "DO IT" really loudly.
Spoilers through The Last Olympian (with only minor geographical spoilers for Son of Neptune and House of Hades) and total spoilers for The Book Thief.
Warnings for character death and one direct mention of the Holocaust.
[read @ AO3.]
the first time
There's a little boy with a kite on the tracks.
His hair parts down the middle like it's been cleaved in two, bowl-shaped and slick and revealing a single line of scalp, and he's got silver buckles on his black shoes. The kite jumps around in his hands. It is orange and blue and arrow-headed, and its tail wags joyfully around the boy's legs. He waits until the last train has pulled out of the station and then takes off down the tracks, the kite held aloft until it remembers what it's supposed to be and leaps from his hands.
Liesel sits on the back porch with the Greek who lives in the room across. She does the washing sometimes, saying she likes the feel of the sun at her back when she works better than she likes being inside wooden walls.
"Like a coffin," she says. She whistles when she washes and her hair is blacker than an oil slick, and just as shiny.
Liesel wants to call her Pfiffikus. She wants to call the boy Johann, for the silver in his buckles.
Sometimes, the kite dips sharply sideways and plows into the mud by the tracks. Sometimes, it lifts, and soars so high that Liesel wonders what it can see. The boy stands on the tracks on his tiptoes with the string and watches it shiver against the canvas-colored sky.
The tracks all lead to the harbor, where the ships come into port with the tide. There's not enough work for all the men who show up to carry the crates and load them on the trains that will take them to other places, and when the last train pulls out of the station for the night, they're still there, standing with their arms limp and useless at their sides, hands idle. There are always sailors drinking. There are always men fighting. Even better, there are men who will bet on the men who fight. In the morning, she and Max will take the money they won to the bank where it will not be robbed; the sound of aluminum-plated lire coins on a countertop has swiftly become one of Liesel's favorite sounds. In their room, under the mattress, they keep a tally in chalk of how much money they still need to make to pay for exit visas.
The money that Ilsa had given them had gotten them out of Germany, but if they'd thought that Austria would be any better off, they were wrong.
Italy, it turned out, was even worse than that.
"Where else can we go?" Max asked when they reached Genoa (Genova, the soldiers sitting across from them on the train called it, eyeing their joined hands and the faded patch on Max's jacket where he'd torn the yellow star out by its threads,) and ran out of land to eat up.
Neither of them had seen the sea before, and the size of it opened wide inside their eyes, a foam-toothed maw of blues and greys.
Liesel said it. "Out of Europe," and he gnawed at his mouth. Then he nodded.
She sees the Johann-boy flying his kite four more times before one day, he shows up and stands on the tracks and just looks around. The kite jumps back and forth in his hands, an orange-and-blue bird, but he turns in place. He looks left and right and walks part-way down the track, then turns around and comes back. The kite tail drags through the dirt behind him.
After a few more minutes of this, Liesel makes a decision. She finishes taping her other hand ("never trust a man who asks you to go into the ring bare-knuckles," Max tells her often. "That's the fastest way to break your hand." He would know; his knuckles stand out of his skin like unmarked graves,) and gets up.
She leaves the rowhouse behind and climbs the incline to the tracks. In her head, she pulls together her Italian words and tries to put them in the correct order.
"Ciao!" she calls to the Johann-boy. He spots her and draws away warily, so she stops and asks, "Are you lost?"
"I'm not lost," he throws back at her immediately, kicking it straight at her face. "I'm six!"
You're the same age my brother was, she thinks. I left him by the train tracks, too.
"Well," she says instead. "I'm sixteen."
He squints at her, his jaw shunted out belligerently. The kite in his hand swells with a wind, bending at his fingers in an effort to leave them behind, and it seems to make up his mind for him, because he steps up to her and demands, "Have you seen Christina?"
"Christina," he says again impatiently. "Christina Cabrera, she always came to fly the kite with me. She's got black hair and she always holds her head like this," he bends his neck so far sideways that the hairs go up along Liesel's arms. The last time she saw a body with a neck bent that far was when they pulled Tommy Muller's little sister in pieces out of a tree. Seeing the expression on her face, he straightens up and scowls. "You haven't seen her. Fine. I'll just come back. Who are you?"
She's never seen him here with anybody else.
"Uh." His words fall into her brain at odd angles, scattering into an order she's having a hard time piecing together into something she can understand. He asked for her name, she thinks. "Liesel."
"You're from Germany."
"Yes, from --"
"Munich. I know, you've got lots of bones buried there."
Liesel is going to have to look that word up in the dictionary in the Greek's room when she goes back, because it must have some other meaning. Or is he really talking about bones? He can't be, he's six. Ossatura in the Italian, gebeine in the German, there's got to be a tangle-up somewhere between the two.
"Ah," she says. She flexes her fingers and holds them in front of her uncomfortably. They feel strangled and quartered underneath their wrappings.
He tilts his head. His hair doesn't move, slicked flat down from its part. He has an upturned nose like a pug. He keeps reminding Liesel of dead boys: Johann Hermann, her brother, and now Ludwig Schmikael and his permanent sneer.
He sticks his hands behind his back, kite pressed up against his spine, and asks, "Did you run away?"
"Yes." She and Max sleep with their shoes on, in case they have to do it again. "You didn't tell me your name."
"Nico," he tosses it to the side, like it's not interesting. His front tooth moves under the pressure of pronouncing it, folding like it's on a hinge. He presses in closer, looking at her without blinking, like she's one of those magic images from the newspaper, the one that only looks like something once you look through it. "We're running away, too!"
Liesel arches her eyebrows. She sits down on the track. "Really? Where are you going?"
Down the hill, the Greek's whistling lifts up towards them like it's been carried on the back of Nico's kite. He shrugs and kicks at the track. "I don't know, mia madre hasn't told us yet. Probably America, though," he says, his nonchalance obviously forced. He peeks at her sideways.
Liesel tries to look suitably impressed.
Careful, she wants to tell him. Americans drive planes with bombs in their hearts. They'll misread maps. They'll drop bombs on heaven if you let them.
"You'll have to send me letters and tell me what it's like," she says instead, and tries to think about what she knows about Americans that doesn't have to do with the caravans they drove down the bombed-flat, paper-pressed remains of Munich Street. It probably isn't fair of her, thinking like that. After all, the Americans took away the Nazis and gave her back Max's starved hugs. She thinks of Rudy and her grin fractures her face like glass. "They all run around like cowboys, right?"
"Probably," Nico says again, offhandedly. The sparkle in his eyes gives him away.
She scoots closer on the track. "Well, then," she tells him. "I'm going to have to keep an eye out on the newspapers to wait and see when you'll be one. Are you going to get yourself a cowboy hat, Nico?"
He makes some gesture around his head with his free hand that might be him tipping a hat to her. "A real hero!" he adds, stomping his feet to make the buckles rattle like cowboy boots.
She laughs, she can't help it.
"And you?" he presses. "Where are you running to?"
"We don't know yet," she says, kicking her legs out in front of her. "South."
He frowns. "What's south?"
"We don't know yet," she says again. She casts her mind out, twisting her wrist to make the stone skip. It sinks with a plop on some far corner of a map she studied once in Ilsa Hermann's cold library. "Australia, maybe."
"Is that …" he does some casting of his own. "A temple? Like the one they built to Hades? Mama and Bianca and I visited it once, I'm pretty sure it's south!"
"No, I'm talking about the country. Did you know," she leans in close like she's imparting a secret, and he obediently crouches down on his heels. "That when you go that far south, everything flips upside down? Winter becomes summer, night becomes day, big horses become really small and small spiders become really big and everything's upside down, right, so that means you can walk on the sky."
"No," he says immediately. "You can't!"
"You can," Liesel says confidently. "You can walk on the clouds like they're tightropes, all the way to the sun. That's Australia."
Max will like that, she thinks. She'll make a gift out of the words, she decides, to give to him and watch his eyes close as he holds them, warm as sunlight on his hands. They'll write it in chalk under the mattress next to their accounting, all capital letters to remind them: AUSTRALIA.
Nico is grumpy with her. "Well, America sounds stupid now."
She laughs again. She gets up. "Do you want to fly your kite?" she asks him, watching it flutter against his back, its tail a trail of bows. The next train is probably due soon, so they should get started.
"Okay," he says, and stretches out. The sun casts through the fabric, dyeing his face orange and the ground at his feet blue.
"What do you think a kite would call itself, if it could?" she wants to know.
Nico frowns upwards. "Probably something kind of short right now," he decides. "And then something else when it's up in the air, right? You're different when you get away."
The smile startles its way onto Liesel's mouth.
"Exactly," she says, and steps back when Nico takes off down the tracks. The kite leaps from his hands, tilts dizzily downward, and then soars to the end of its tether. Down the tracks, Nico shouts joyfully, "Did you see that, Liesel? On the first try, too!"
Liesel balls up her taped-up fists in her pockets and follows him, tagged by her own shadow and the arrowhead shadow from above.
the second time
While they wait for their tickets to be called, Mama hands him a bundle of bills the same color green as celery and tells him to count it. She does the same to his sister. Nico crawls up next to Bianca on the bench and they roll the money around their fingers, pretending to be lords. Mama's made them do this every day for a week, so they've gotten pretty good at it. She doesn't want to do it herself. She says she hates the way American money feels in her hands, like flesh, but she needs to be sure she's not missing any.
Nico sticks his tongue into the gap where his front tooth used to be and tries to count faster than Bianca, just because.
American money has the denomination written on it -- Bianca says so, because Bianca can read and Nico's still mostly trying to keep the names of the letters straight, and anyway, he likes faces better than he likes letters and American money has a lot of faces on it. Of course, he's only ever seen the one face and the five face, but he hears there's more.
There's even a ten face, he's heard. He'd like to see that someday, kind of like he'd like to see Antarctica, or the pyramids.
Mama stands over them with one hand nervously pressing the belt on her dress into her stomach. She's shielding them from view, which Bianca tells her is silly because nobody's looking at them anyway.
"How do you know that?" Mama had asked her, the first time she volunteered that information.
"Their shadows tell me," she answered, and Nico bit down hard on his jealousy like rock candy, because the only shadow he can confidently tag is his sister's, but Bianca can steal secrets from anybody's if they're close enough.
Bianca also says that Christina Cabrera was pushed under a train seventeen years ago, and Nico thinks she's wrong, but she must not be, because nobody by the tracks knew who that was when he asked about it. And Bianca is bigger and stronger and more annoying because big sisters always are, but she's not a liar.
"And -- done!" Bianca crows triumphantly, balling up a smirk from the corners of her mouth and throwing it at his face. "Beat you!"
"Did not!" Nico protests, even though it's plain that she did.
Sullenly, he finishes counting. Mama cranes her body over him, each number forming like hard pebbles between her teeth as she counts along. This is all the money they have to survive in America until his father thinks it's safe, but Nico doesn't know that yet. In fact, nobody ever tells him -- he pieces it together on his own, many years from now in the lobby of a McDonalds in some mid-sized city far away from anybody who matters, hungry and counting faces like he did as a child. Nico will have to piece a lot of things together on his own.
A shout sounds out, catapulted high above their heads. They're on the docks, though, so the sound scatters amongst all the other noise.
It sounds out again. It sounds a lot like "wait!"
Nico lifts up onto his knees, putting a hand on the back of the bench. Bianca turns her head.
Two people blow by, close enough to feel the wind of their passing. They knock into a man with boulder shoulders and thick black arm hair that clings to his forearms like they're holding onto the edge of a cliff.
"Hey!" he grunts out, and the running man turns, stumbling off-balance and saying, "Bitte, bitte," and switching, "Scusi!"
He has hair like some bird just stumbled out of it, all brambles and feathers, and everything about him is hollow; his cheeks, his chest, the knobby bones in his ankles.
The woman attached to him at the hand pulls him upright again, saying, "hurry!"
Her stockings have ladders up the back of her calves, her hair loose and blonde, and she carries an accordion strapped to her back the way Bianca used to carry Nico when he was tired, before he turned six and thus became too old for such things. Nico lifts up straighter. The accordion grins back at him with ivory teeth, receding quickly between the people.
They race to the passenger ship at the very end of the dock, where they're just about to lift off the gangway. With a lot of shouting, everything halts, and a man in a fancy naval coat grudgingly walks back down the plank of wood connecting ship to port.
The man and the woman extend tickets. They extend papers. Even at his distance, Nico can see how their hands tremble. They have two suitcases. They have the accordion. Once the tickets leave their grip, their hands curl around each other, pressing tight between their bodies and knotted up like a stone they're preparing to throw down a very deep well.
"Where's that ship going?" he demands, leaning out and accidentally digging a knee into his sister's thigh.
She moves him. "How should I know?"
Bianca rolls her eyes. She's ten, and she thinks that because she has two numbers in her age, she's more important than him because he only has one, which makes sense to Nico's six-year-old brain, sure, but he's not going to tell her that. She plants her feet in her own shadow and closes her eyes.
On the gangway, the officer says something. He punches one ticket.
Nico stands up on the bench.
He yells, "Liesel!"
The officer punches the other ticket.
Nico clings to the back of the seat and stretches his body out, calling out, "Liesel! Liesel!"
The girl, the girl with the accordion and the taped-up fighting hands -- she turns around. Her eyes hunt left, then right. Nico coils up every part of his body, shoving his arm out and waving so hard he almost unbalances. Mama grabs his shoulders with a soft exclamation.
Liesel sees him. Her face cracks open into a smile. It's a book-spine smile, all her teeth lined up in neat rows. Her mouth is a library full of words, and she smiles at him like she's offering him whole books, every precious page she's ever collected.
She sets her suitcase down and waves back.
"Auf Wiedersehen, Nico!" she calls.
Beside him, Bianca's eyes pop open and she says, "They'll next make port in Egypt, at the mouth of the Suez Canal."
South, he thinks.
"Have fun walking on tightrope clouds!" he calls, and the book-spine smile cracks into a laugh, all feathers and glee escaping up, up, up. A dockhand yells something, startling the man at her side, who tugs on her hand. She grabs her suitcase and the two of them run up into the belly of the ship. Then they're gone.
Nico sits back down. He swings his legs above the ground. His lungs hurt like something squeezed them too tightly.
"Who was that?" his mother asks.
His sister leans down, pulling her socks back up. Easily, Nico says, "That's Liesel. She's a boxer. She lives by the station where I used to fly my kite." He pumps his legs again, back and forth. "She told me that the war put so many people in heaven that it's starting to sag, and that's why sometimes the clouds look all heavy and close to the ground, and grey, you know, like they've gotten wet. It's all the people wanting to come back."
Bianca looks up at Mama, who doesn't say anything for so long that Nico assumes that's it, question answered.
Then she says, "The problem with the idea of heaven," and Nico frowns, instantly drawn to the word idea. Heaven's a place, not an idea, isn't it? He knows the dead go somewhere, he can feel it, and just because you've never been somewhere doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Like Boston. Or Timbuktu.
Maria di Angelo glances out, towards the end of the pier. Their ship leaves soon, she keeps telling them. They have to be ready.
(In less than a year, she will be dead.)
She finishes, "Is that we gave it a gate."
the third and last time
Right before he passes out, Nico becomes aware of exactly two things:
One. The ground underneath his feet is the blue-white of eggshells, ridged with thin clouds like rivulets of dirt.
Two. The sky above his head is grassy, knobbly, and a surprised old woman hangs above him like a bat. Their eyes meet, and she drops towards him or he jumps towards her, he isn't sure, but suddenly she has a better grip on him than the tree does, and the sky around them smells like watermelon, and everything pinwheels, round and round.
"You're right," he tells her. "Everything is upside-down here."
"No," Liesel answers with a laugh. "I think that's just you."
When he wakes up, there's an ache in his bones that isn't quite physical -- in a way that he's only just capable of recognizing. It's like the knotted-up cramp of an empty stomach, the awareness of a space filled with nothing, and it's a space that Nico is tentatively calling his power. When he moves to stretch it, it pulls back. It's depleted. That's to be expected.
He rolls over, burying his face into a cushion. He's on a sofa, lumpy and beaten with wear. There's a blanket over him and someone took off his shoes.
Nearby, in another room, someone is playing an instrument. Poorly. When it stops, the instrument whines on a pained exhale. Accordion, Nico thinks with surprise, because he hasn't heard one of those in … well, a long time, and a man's voice says, "Better, Victor. Now again, from the top."
The next time he wakes, it's to a hand pressing into the spot between his shoulder blades.
Someone says, "Wake up, cowboy. I've brought soup."
Nico sits up. His mouth gums together when he tries to part his lips. The blanket is brown, pockmarked with twists of yarn, and he draws his knees up to his chest underneath it.
Liesel sits in a chair next to him, and she does, in fact, have a bowl in her hand. Steam curls off the top, and Nico reaches for it without thinking. It's got thick noodles in it, peas, small chunks of chicken, and there's absolutely nothing inside Nico except a screaming, awful chasm, fissured straight down through his chest like his ribs have turned into hard, crusted plates of earth. He is starving and the soup smells amazing and that's all he's going to think about.
"Is that soup?" a voice calls from another room. It's the same voice that coached the horrible accordion player. "Did you make soup? Mate! Don't eat the soup!"
Nico stops, spoon held aloft.
Liesel's mouth compresses. "Crucified Christ," she mutters, and then raises her voice. "Shut up! Who asked you anyway, you arschloch, I microwaved it, you can't stuff that up!"
A wheezy laugh answers, and Liesel sighs the sigh of the greatly put-upon.
"Don't listen to him," she tells Nico. "He turned ninety last month and he's very smug about it."
Nico isn't sure what that has to do with the soup, but he takes it to mean that it's fine, so he goes ahead and inhales. It's hot. It tastes amazing. He doesn't know where he is.
"Where am I?"
"Australia. Sydney. 45 Kiewarra Street." She points at the cushions. "My lounge. In that order, even."
Nico slurps up the information. He traveled from upstate New York to Sydney, Australia in a single leap, because there's no bigger shadow than the one the Earth casts in the direction of the moon. It knocked him clean out, though, and probing at the place where that power is feels like probing at the place a tooth used to be. It'll grow back. He hopes. He probably shouldn't make a jump like that again, though.
He peeks up at Liesel through his eyelashes. "Are you going to kick me out?"
Liesel snorts. "Oh, please. Of all the people in the world, we're the last who'd turn away a stranger who arrives out of nowhere. That would be the pot calling the --"
"I can hear you, you know!" the accordionist calls from the other room.
Tsking, Liesel picks up a cane Nico hadn't noticed before and pushes herself to her feet. Nico puts his spoon back into his bowl and looks at her, feeling strange and maybe a little horrified, because it's one thing to have Chiron tell you that four years for you was seventy years for everybody else, and something else entirely to see the effects of it on someone you know. Liesel's hair is white and very thin, pulled back and clipped neatly at the back of her head. Her scalp shows through in places. Her body shape is completely different, and he imagines a long, long life pummeling her and reshaping her like hands pushing into clay: wide hips and legs that dent inward with an unnatural bend, making her lean heavily on the cane in order to take a step. She crosses the room very slowly.
Nico looks away, and takes the opportunity to study the room. The window overlooks the street, which curves around a bunch of other houses. The sky's still surreal and blue and it makes everything inside the house look a little faded; the wallpaper and the bookshelves, the table and the armchair in the corner. The floor is wood, and at first glance, Nico thinks it transitions into carpeting by the door, but then he looks again and realizes it's paint. The floor's painted; suns and moons wax and wane their way out of the room, a gold-silver path leading out of sight.
Liesel follows his gaze and smiles her wide library of a smile.
"Max," she says by way of explanation. "We painted it together. If you like it, you should see the walls in the upstairs bedrooms."
Memory stirs inside Nico's head, shaking loose the dust that years in the Lotus Casino piled on top of it. "Is Max that bird-man?"
"I --" Liesel blinks. Her eyes are deep-set, and she has no eyelashes left. "I haven't heard him described that way in a very long time. Ja. Ja, he is." She looks at him. "How old are you, Nico?"
"Ten." No, wait. "Eleven." He'd had a birthday while waiting at Camp for Bianca to come back with the others from their Quest, but is it really a birthday if his sister is the only one who knows what day it is and she isn't there?
She isn't there.
She won't be there.
She isn't --
"Hey, there." Hands close around his, rescuing the bowl from them. The spoon clatters and rattles until it's lifted away, and, now empty, his hands tremble. The fissure in his chest ruptures, widens further, and Nico feels like he's going to get sucked into it at any moment, the ground upheaved beneath his feet.
Liesel pulls the blanket up around his shoulders again. "Hey, there, shhhh," she says. "You can stay here as long as you need to, verstehen? Did you get lost?"
Nico did not get lost. In fact, it had been very simple.
The list of people that Nico di Angelo knows and likes and trusts is incredibly short, and looks something like this:
Hestia. At Camp Half-Blood. Nico would rather chew his own arm out of a bear trap than go back there.
Liesel the boxer. Here.
"I'm not lost," he says. "I'm eleven."
Her mouth pulls. "How did you get here?"
"Okay." She says it so matter-of-factly that he peeks at her, uncertain. She catches him, of course, and smiles. "What? I've heard stranger stories. Who am I to say you couldn't get here on the back of a unicorn? How about you get some more sleep, ja? I will stay right here," she points at the chair. "I'm not leaving."
And she doesn't.
The next time Nico wakes, everything's dark, and he doesn't know if it's the dark of late night or the dark of early morning and he suspects that he's on the opposite end of the globe from whichever he's expecting. Liesel's still in the chair by his head, her arms folded and her chin dipped forward to rest on her chest. Her eyelids, in the dark, look as blue and translucent as dragonfly wings.
As he watches, an old man in matching blue pajamas gently takes the book from her fingers, marking the page with the dust jacket and setting it aside.
He fusses with her shawl for a moment, careful not to wake her. Then, with surprisingly little sound at all, he turns and leaves the room.
Nico wakes again, this time with no memory of ever having fallen back asleep.
The first thing he checks: Liesel has not moved. A pair of reading glasses cling to the end of her nose from a chain around her neck, and the book is back in her hands, perched in her palms like a heavy bird. For Nico, who is ten (no, wait, eleven) years old -- this completely solidifies his trust in her. Liesel is a promise-keeper. It doesn't matter what the size of the promise is. She kept it.
And considering the last two promises made to Nico got broken pretty spectacularly …
At breakfast, which is cold cereal out of the same bowls that the soup had come in the night before (which Nico really likes a lot, because they have Disney characters at the bottom -- none of the bowls at the Lotus or at the military school in Maine were Disney-themed, Nico didn't even know those existed,) Max tries to ask something about Nico's family, but Liesel cuts in with a question about the crossword, and that dissolves into bickering.
Nico looks at her for a long moment after she points him to where to put his dirty dish.
"I worked at a funeral home for forty-five years," she tells him lowly. "Digging graves. That's where all these come from," she makes a show of flexing her arms like she's showing off her muscles. Since she's wearing at least two cardigans, Nico can't see a thing. "But more importantly, I know what grief looks like."
He works his jaw.
"What do you do now?" He addresses some other part of that sentence, purely out of self-preservation.
"I'm retired, thank God. I write children's books now," she says brightly, and gestures at Max, who's still working at the crossword with the stub of a pencil. "He helps."
He looks up, blinking at them owlishly. "I what?"
Liesel turns on him and says, in a complete change of tone, "You get in my way!" It comes out waspish, stinging. "You old dodger. And you need a haircut."
"I have no hair!"
"Oh, I'm sorry. It must be all that hot air coming out of your ears, I mistook it for a mess," and she winks at Nico. Max rolls his eyes and deliberately turns his back to her. She chuckles, and gathers Nico up with her voice when she says, "I can show you some of our books, if you'd like."
She laughs again when he immediately draws his lips up off his teeth.
"Not a big fan of books, I take it?" she says easily.
"I can read," Nico insists, mulish.
"You learned to read just so you could play video games," Liesel concludes. "It's okay, I get it."
"Card games," he corrects her. "I really like card games."
Her smile softens, settling in somewhere around her eyes.
"Do you know what I like?" He shakes his head, and she says, "Wikipedia."
A laugh startles out of Nico's mouth, shocking him more than her; he didn't know it'd been hiding there.
He sleeps a lot, those first few days, first in the upstairs room that used to belong to Liesel's son, where there's a forest painted on the walls -- silvery evergreens and dark, loamy woodland, touched by painted patches of sunlight by the window in a way that makes Nico think there should be birdsong -- and then on the sofa again when the forest creeps him out too much, too similar to the woods where Camp Half-Blood played its capture-the-flag games. He wakes when Max gives afternoon accordion lessons to the neighborhood kids in the next room, and again when Liesel comes and reads in the chair by his head.
She enlists his help mixing paints for Max one afternoon. She's sent Max to the store with a list.
"Neither of us move as fast we used to," she explains to Nico, and shimmies to bring attention to her crooked legs and the overturned ankle. "But he still gets errands done quicker without me. You have the list, ja?" she lifts her voice.
"Ja," Max calls back.
"Good. And if you don't bring back any licorice, don't bother coming back at all!"
"Ja," he says again, not sounding in the least bit threatened. Nico peeks at him when he shuffles on by, pulling the collar of his coat into place, and he winks back. His eyes are the color of the woodland upstairs, swampy and dark. Nico decides he likes the two of them a lot, and listens very carefully when Liesel tells him how to break the bricks of primary colors and mix them to create greens, oranges, purples, and the whole spectrum in between.
When he gets better, he starts running around outside. The woman who lives on the corner lets her sprinkler run in the front yard, and all the kids turn up to run through it, shouting and laughing and getting wet. Nico joins them, unconsciously shifting his accent to mimic theirs.
His skin darkens again. He misses Bianca. Sometimes he can't swallow, can't breathe, can't unlock his jaw, he misses her so bad.
He stays on Kiewarra Street for one month and one day. He learns the names of Liesel's children and grandchildren. One of them, a girl named Tessa, pops by to visit one day, kissing Liesel's cheek and saying "shalom, Max!" and bringing flowers that she arranges on the kitchen table with no fuss. Nico watches her curiously -- she's dark all over, down to the color under her nailbeds. She's darker than Nico, darker even than Mama, who wore gloves to her elbows and wide hats to try and keep the Mediterranean sun off of her. Tessa greets him cheerily and asks if he's one of Max's students.
When he gets bored, which is often, he snoops through Liesel's things.
On the mantle above the fireplace in the room where he sleeps, an accordion rests, its bellows yellowed with age, its ivory grin a little broken-toothed. He looks at it and remembers a flash of a running girl, a German immigrant girl, carrying nothing but a suitcase and an accordion on her back.
"My father's," Liesel and Max say in unison, and exchange a smile that Nico can't decipher.
The bookshelves, in addition to having, you know, books that Nico isn't interested in, have photographs in frames that he takes down to look at.
Nico's never been in a home where people kept photographs before.
They're all of Liesel's kids, mostly, but he finds one of Liesel standing in front of a funeral parlor with a boring-looking man in a suit, cutting a cake the shape of a shovel. Her hair is iron grey, instead of white, so Nico taps the glass and says, "retirement," to himself. Another is a far-away shot of Liesel and Max on stage in an auditorium like the kind they used to give lectures from at Nico's old military school, and with it is a close-up of Max surrounded by schoolchildren, showing them something on his arm. Nico doesn't know what that's about.
(He'll make a guess, later.)
In turn, he tells Liesel that his mother's dead because somebody dropped a building on her, and his sister's dead because Percy Jackson can't keep a promise, and he has a father, but his father's somewhere he's never been and he's scared to go look for him. Mortals aren't supposed to go to the Underworld.
But Nico isn't entirely mortal, is he?
It's just … he's never been anywhere without Bianca before. He doesn't know how.
"Well," says Liesel slowly. "If you ask me, cowboy, I say you can do anything. You've already misplaced a couple decades -- trust me, 1946 was not four years ago for most of us. How many other kids can say that?"
In time, his powers come back to him. They come slowly, like a new tooth growing in.
The first to return is his sense of taste; his ability to look at Liesel, and then Max, and know that the earth they stand on is not the same earth that birthed them, not the same earth to which their parents' bones were turned to dust. He looks at Liesel sitting in her chair with her cane next to her, and she tastes like heavy, wooded German earth, a slow-moving river than she used to sit by with her father … and a boy, perhaps? The imprint on her bones is too faded to tell, struck out by the heavy burnt taste of cinderblock. Liesel carries a demolition site in her skeleton.
Max's bones, when he finds them, come with the strong sensation of cold stone, like they were made to be in a cellar. But he's hollow, too, ninety years held together with bird bones and ash, and the first time the taste of it coats the inside of Nico's mouth, he leaps to his feet and vomits into the kitchen sink.
"You see?" Max says to Liesel. "You're not better at making soup than your mama."
"Shut up," Liesel snaps back without heat. She's trying to come to Nico's aid, but she can't do it very quickly.
Nico dry-heaves once more, spits the taste into the basin, and then puts his back up against the countertop (Max and Liesel call it a bench, strangely.) He feels gross. He says to Max, "Everyone who shares your bones burned. They burned them," and he's looking for it, so he sees the way the color leaves Max's face completely. Liesel stops, hips bent into the table.
He turns his head towards her blindly. "You know," he tells her. "I'd given up on ever knowing."
"You believe me?" Nico presses sharply.
"Yes." He makes it sound so simple. "Why, are you lying?"
Nico pauses, but he knows; he knows the same way he knows right from left, the same way he knows that two comes after one. Nobody with Max's bones were ever buried. He shakes his head.
Liesel reaches out, and Max takes her hand without looking. Nico, whose sister's body was never recovered and never put into the ground like it should, sinks to the floor and wraps his arms around his knees. He can feel them holding hands even on the other side of the kitchen; they carry the space for the other in their bones.
The second thing to come back is conversation.
First, his own shadow starts talking back, telling him what it can see when it's stretched out across the pavement, hiding from the sinking sun.
Then, to his surprise, other shadows start talking to him, too. While falling asleep, the one under the sofa tells him stories about the intervening years, all the things that have quickly been shoved into the dark, dusty space between the base and the floor: sweets wrappers (Liesel's daughters,) and a porn mag once (also Liesel's daughters,) and a box containing an engagement ring (Liesel's son.) The shadows behind bookcases and in the corners of rooms tell him about the cobwebs, so he cleans them out. Max and Liesel are too old to do it themselves.
Nico aches to talk to his sister, who was the only other person he knew who could do this.
"If you could," Max says to him, outside on the porch. "If you could bring your sister back to ask her a single question, what would it be?"
Nico opens his mouth, because there are a hundred and one things he would ask Bianca, he'd never have enough time for everything he needs to know, but really, it's a stupid question.
"I'd ask her," he begins. "If she wants to play one last game of Mythomagic. And then I would hug her. A lot."
A hand, on top of his head. Max scrapes his hair back, gentle.
"Ja," he says, in his wordy way, and doesn't move when Nico buries his face against the scratchy material of his jumper, merely presses his hands against Nico's back, and holds on. Nico hugs him tightly, letting Max's chest expand into him, and thinks of an accordion and its lungs. Some people make music whenever they breathe.
Then, one month and one day after Nico teleported himself half-way around the world, a visitor arrives on Kiewarra Street.
The afternoon sun falls in planks through the window, warm upon his back, and the floor is cold against his stomach as he adds a small, smiling sun to the end of the motif in the lounge (a surprise for them, for later,) and when the door opens, he knows at once who it is.
"Oh, no, not you again," she says when she sees him, standing there with a paintbrush in his hand like a knife. She's seven feet tall, her face thin and white, and her heart beats circularly through her chest. "Hades in Hell, I've already told you, I don't know what happened to your sister, now please stop following me."
Nico stays shocked frozen to the spot like he'd been slapped there. He's unable to say a single thing.
"All right, fine, so Alecto's been wondering where you are," Death says with a shrug. "After this, I'll go and tell her you're all right, shall I?"
She heaves out a breath and mutters, "I don't have time for this," and moves for the stairs.
Three years from now, she won't have this job. She will be in pieces in Tartarus. Thanatos will take her place. Percy Jackson will be in Alaska and Nico will put his hand on his own shadow and beg beg beg everything that will listen, every single thing the sun does not touch, that he does not lose another sister. Please, do not make him bring that news to Annabeth Chase, who has a space carved into her the way Max and Liesel do, whose bones will not rest without him.
He plants himself between Death and the stairs.
There's only one person up there.
He balls up his fists.
Never go into a boxing match bare-knuckled, he thinks. That's the fastest way to break a hand.
Death stops. She watches him.
She looks like Liesel. It's there, in the shape of her face, her eyes.
"Child --" she begins, so gently.
"No," Nico says. "Please, no."
He wants to look over his shoulder, wants to check where Max is. If he yells right now, how quickly could Max come? Nico can throw a punch, he's fairly sure, but it's Max and Liesel who were the fist-fighters, who literally fought tooth and nail for every pfenning and lire that got them out of Europe. Between them, they can stop Death. They have to.
The Fury's hand clamps down over his mouth.
"Don't you dare," she whispers.
Earthquakes happen inside Nico's chest, chasms opening, whole arctic shelves cracking and falling into the sea.
"Humans," says Death, and there's an aftershock in her voice, a trembling like snow coming off the branches in midwinter. "I cannot bear you."
"Will it hurt?" comes wobbling out of him.
He is ten years old. The gravedigger is upstairs. He was going to surprise her with the painting. He was going to stay, and not think about his father, or what Chiron said, and maybe someday it would even stop hurting to think about his sister. He won't get that luxury now, he thinks.
"No," says Death, so simply that Nico relaxes in spite of himself, because that's not the voice somebody uses when they're lying to comfort you.
"You won't hurt her?"
"No. I have so many things I want to tell her."
Nico clings to her arms. He looks up into that awful face. He wants to claw her eyes out. He wants it to be yesterday, with Liesel sitting at her computer with her glasses on her nose and Max offering words whenever she got stuck, and Liesel turning to Nico and asking things like what do you think the woods dream about when it sleeps? And Nico answered, the light, and felt scored clean through, pleased, when she told him that was perfect.
Death puts him aside and ascends the stairs, step-by-step.
He crouches against the floor, stretching his power out, out, out, and when it happens, everything lurches downwards.
In the Underworld, everything is grey. Nico's never been here before, and the water's grey, the light's grey, the stone is the dark color of a sunrise sky. No wonder Death collects colors, he thinks.
He looks around.
He stands with Liesel on the shore. She's not old anymore. She is small and skinny, wearing a polka-dot dress and carrying, of all things, a black book that she presses to her heart. She looks fourteen. She looks the same age Bianca did when she said good-bye to Nico on the steps of the Big House. Nico can see straight through her, catching a glimpse of the outline of the rocks beyond her.
"Are you scared?" she asks him.
It doesn't occur to him to lie. "Yes."
She reaches for him. He wonders, for a moment, if she's going to pass right through, but then her fingers fold around his. He holds onto her like she's a kite, ready to leap away from him if she catches the wind right.
"You know what you have to do, don't you, cowboy?"
He shakes his head.
She squeezes his hand. "Someone's grown a forest in you, Nico. And in that forest, they've only bothered to cultivate a few different types of trees. Trees grown from loneliness and manipulation, from fear and hatred. It's so easy to grow those things, they'll often grow unattended. You have to go into that forest and you have to learn it. Learn everything you can. Learn about your father, learn about your powers, learn about what they're going to do with you now that they've brought you out of that hotel. Know your forest.
"And then," she continues. They're walking now, keeping the River Styx to their right. Liesel swings their hands between them. It reminds Nico of how school made them hold hands to cross the street: does everyone have a buddy? "You have to plant something new. Something you found. Love or friendship or faith. You plant it into that forest of horrible things. You grow it in secret. It will grow, and it will grow, and it will grow, and when it's time, cut it down so that when it falls, it cuts a path for you to follow out of the forest."
She makes it sound so easy. But this is also the same girl who once told him with complete confidence that you could walk on the sky if you traveled far enough.
"But I don't have anything like that."
She stops. She turns to him, holding her book, and then she leans in, pressing a kiss to the swell of his cheekbone.
"There," she says. "That's the seed. Plant that."
He touches his cheek and the place where her ghost mouth brushed against him. "Okay."
Somewhere down the river, a light approaches. It belongs to a thin man in a black suit, standing upright in a boat. Further up along the shore, a jetty sticks its finger crookedly out into the water. Even with the distance, Nico can see a small cluster of grey shapes waiting.
It's his turn to ask her. "Are you ready?"
"You're coming with me, right?"
"As far as we can go." It's the easiest thing he's ever promised, and Nico di Angelo, he decides right then and there, will be a promise-keeper.
Liesel smiles sideways at him, and in her face, Nico sees the boxer with the taped-up hands and the accordion on her back, and the old woman who pulled him out of a tree. After all, he supposes, what the kite calls itself when it's in the hand is different from what it calls itself when it's in the sky. "Then I guess it's time to meet what's waiting for us."
Together, Nico and Liesel step towards the river.