The first time he meets Hestia, she is sitting cross-legged in front of the campfire. By then, all the other campers have left, and Nico, feeling a sense of curiosity at the strange girl tending the fire, approaches her. Immediately, he can tell that she is no demigod. She radiated an aura stronger than any demigod he has ever met. Instinctively, he backs away, before remembering that monsters cannot cross the border of Camp Half-Blood. However, this does not lessen his apprehension.
He is feeling lonely tonight. He desperately needs someone to talk to, and perhaps that is what drives him to walk up behind the young girl, who still doesn't seem to have noticed him yet. As soon as he nears her, he decides it was a bad idea. Just as he is about to turn and leave, the girls speaks up. "Nico di Angelo."
Nico turns, surprised, a hand on his sword. The girl pats the spot beside her. "Sit."
Nico looks around. No one else is here. Cautiously, he takes a seat beside her. The girls seems only to be about eight, but in the firelight, her eyes look much older, worn with the heavy load of too many years to count.
"You've been watching me." It's not a question. "You're the only one who sees me tending the fire. I am invisible to most others. You're the first one to approach me in years." The girl holds her hand over the flame, and it turns bright blue, flaring upwards. Nico jumps back in surprise, his heart racing. The girl lets out a gentle laugh, not a mocking one, but rather an apologetic one. "I didn't mean to scare you."
Fire. And suddenly, something clicks in Nico. "Lady Hestia," he manages to say.
The girl smiles. "Very well. Just as I thought. You're very clever. Why did you stay behind tonight?" she asks abruptly, turning around to look at him. For the first time, Nico gets a good look at her face. The dark grey orbs of her eyes are misted over, so that he cannot decipher their exact shade. The firelight casts shadows on her face, giving it a glowing, bronze look.
Nico shrugs. Now that his initial shock has passed, he has reverted to his old self: silent and closed off. "I don't know. I guess I was just feeling lonely tonight."
"Not just tonight," says Hestia, her hand still in the fire. "You've been watching me for the past few weeks, since you came back here."
Nico feels uncomfortable. Her dark eyes seem to penetrate right through him.
"So maybe I have," he says, a little defiantly. He observes the little girl (he still can't wrap his mind around the fact that the eight-year-old before him is a goddess), sitting serenely in front of the fire, the flames dancing on her palm. All of a sudden, he is overcome by a deep curiosity. Why would a goddess, of all people, sit at the fires of Camp Half-blood, tending them long after everyone else was gone? As if reading his mind, Hestia starts talking.
"I am Hestia, young one. The goddess of the hearth and the home. I have always been here, tending the campfires and the fires of the pavilion, since Camp Half-Blood was first built, many decades ago. No one sees me, but I am always here. But I look after this fire in particular, because it is the campfire, the hearth fire of Camp Half-Blood. It is where all the lost demigods who have found their way here gather to remember that they have a home and a family. But not you." Her contemplating gaze rests on Nico. "You are different. Who are you? How did you come to be at this camp?"
The question catches him by surprise. Nico is so unused to people asking about him. He hesitates, wondering if he should answer.
"Go on," Hestia prods gently. "Tell me. I like to listen. It makes my presence here worth something, at least."
And so Nico begins. Slowly, at first, telling her about his time in the Lotus Casino, the military school, arriving at Camp, and his sister. His sister. Her name feels unfamiliar when he says it now. It is the first time he has spoken of her to anyone since he had left camp to search for answers after the Labyrinth battle. Nico feels himself talking more than he has in months. For some reason, Hestia's presence calms him. Her quiet attentiveness, her blameless acceptance, those are the qualities that allow him to be speak freely for the first time in, well, years. Hestia listens carefully, her eyes occasionally wandering to the fire. When he gets to the part about how he met Percy, he breaks off suddenly, unsure of what to say, and unused to being the talker for so long.
And so they sit there, neither one speaking, the silence around filled only by the crackling of logs in the fire.
It is Hestia who breaks the silence first. "You're more interesting than I thought. Not many demigods here would have a tale like yours to share."
Nico snorts. "Interesting is not the first word I would have used to describe my life."
"Why don't you tell me about your parents?
Nico feels himself stiffen. The question about his parents puts him on his guard again. For a moment, he is unsure of what to say. He decides to begin with his mother, the easier of the two to talk about. "I don't know much about my mother, except that she died, a long time ago. I barely remember her at all."
Hestia doesn't shift awkwardly or say I'm sorry, like most people do, or look at him with pity. Instead, her silence, for some reason, comforts him. Nico finds it strange, having someone to listen to him for so long.
The warmth of the fire slowly makes its way deep inside him. The breeze around them lifts the tree branches gently, making them sway in harmony. The flames ripple, turning red, yellow, orange, the colors weaving and melting into one another. Hestia radiated a comforting presence, her demeanor relaxed an unassuming, and for the first time in his life, he feels safe here.
Hestia's voice breaks through his trance. "What about your father?"
Nico wakes from his thoughts. He doesn't know how to respond. Typically, a mention of his father would result in a rush of mixed feelings. Pain, resentment, anger. Too many different emotions to express. Hestia waits for him to speak patiently. "I don't know him very well," Nico says quietly. "I've only met him a few times." He hesitates. "He's not like a normal parent. Well, none of the gods are, but he's…different from the other Olympian parents. He hardly ever talks to me, and when he does, it's like he doesn't know what to say." Nico could understand that. He rarely feels comfortable enough to talk around his father either. "He's never asked about me or my sister. I don't think he even cares that I exist."
"He does, child." Hestia speaks up suddenly, her dark eyes turning to him. "You might not feel it, but he does look after you."
"How would you know?" Nico retorts, momentarily forgetting that he is talking to a goddess.
Hestia sighs. "You forget that he is my brother, and I have known him since the beginning of time. He has watched over you since your birth, Nico. He has always been in the shadows, looking out for you and your sister."
Nico lets out a short, harsh laugh. "I don't need anyone to look out for me."
"I see that," the goddess says gently. "You are used to doing things alone. You get that from your father."
Nico feels a surge of anger. "I'm nothing like him." He feels the bitterness and resentment make its way out of him involuntarily. His voice cracks. "He doesn't care about me. I'm nothing to him. He's never so much as said more than two words to me when I see him. I wouldn't have believed he was my father if I didn't have my powers to prove it. I—I don't know what I've done. I've tried everything to please him. Out of all the Olympians, I had to get him for a father."
All of a sudden, Nico hears himself ranting. About his father, about the other campers, about all the gods. He doesn't care if he angers Hestia. He's beyond caring by now. He pours all of his anger and resentment out, and by the time he's finished, he feels more empty and meaningless than ever. Hestia is not looking at him anymore; she's staring into the fire, her expression unreadable. Nico sighs in frustration. He regrets his outburst. But it's too late. He's done it again. Poisoned another friendship. And even though this one was just a new one, he still feels a sense of loss as he gets up to leave. But he stops, looking down in surprise, when he feels Hestia's warm hand on his arm.
"Don't go yet."
Reluctantly, Nico allows himself to be pulled back down, his expression carefully guarded.
"Let me tell you something, Nico di Angelo." Hestia's voice is quieter now, if possible. "Do you know why you care so much what your father thinks?"
Nico laughs sardonically. "I can't imagine," he lies.
"Because he is your family, and despite everything, you are tied to him more than you can know. You two are more alike than you think." She ignores Nico's disbelieving snort. "Your father is alone too, more so than you are. You have Camp Half-Blood, a home, and friends."
"Home? This isn't my home. I see the way these people look at me. They're not my friends."
Hestia sighs, and for the first time, she looks impatient. "Open your eyes, child. Have you ever looked at these people, really looked? Because if you have, you would see that all of these people, Percy Jackson, Annabeth Chase, Thalia Grace, Grover Underwood, they are all your friends." Her changes. "Do not make your father's mistakes. Do not close your eyes before you even see the truth, for fear that it is not what you want. Do you know why I listen every night to the campers talking at the fire?"
Nico shakes his head, not knowing where this is going.
"I watch them because they remind me of what my family was like many millennia ago, when things weren't so…complicated. When there wasn't so much anger and bitterness driving the Olympians apart.."
Nico looks up in surprise.
Hestia sighes. "I am the goddess of home and the hearth, but my family is the most broken out of all of them. I am the forgotten goddess. I have faded into the background, watching other people talk. In that way…" Hestia pauses. "In that way, you and I are alike." All of a sudden, the goddess seems so much for human.
Nico feels her words stir something inside him. In that way, you and I are alike. He feels a sudden kinship with the old goddess.
"You don't realize what you have. You have another chance, a chance to be a part of something. A chance to reach out to your family while it still exists, which is more than your father has. Do not make his mistakes. Do not wait until it is too late. Do not be afraid to even try. Your father has driven away chance after chance, until now, when there are only twelve Olympians, and he is not one of them."
"Don't you ever feel lonely?" The question bursts out of him.
Hestia's eyes are infinitely old. "Sometimes. But I much more than what people see. I hold the Olympian family together. I remind them that they have something to stay for. Over the millennia, I remind them that they have still a home." Hestia is looking at him now. "You are not alone. You will always have a place among the Olympians, even though it may not feel like it now," Hestia says gently. "You just have to take it. Remember that." And she is gone.