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Every You, Every Me

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i.

(It starts like this)

 

Percy watches Nico sleep, stroking the dark silky head nestled into his thigh. The gaunt, hungry look has faded from the hollows of his cheeks and the shadows under his collarbones have all but disappeared. Sometimes, if Percy squints hard enough, he thinks he can see the death pallor lurking at the corners of Nico’s eyes, hiding in the way he freezes sometimes, in one place, for hours and hours on end, staring at a blank wall, or at something in the distance that no one but him can see.

Or maybe Nico has always done these things, and Percy just never noticed. ‘Never cared enough to notice.’ his conscience provides helpfully, sending a little shiver of guilt down his spine. 

Nico mutters something in his sleep, his dark eyebrows knitting together, and shifts restlessly. Percy presses a hand to the base of Nico’s spine (he’s so little that Percy’s fingers can span the small of his back), and the furrow on his forehead smoothes itself away. 

Nico sighs, a sleepy, contented sound that Percy has never heard from him when he was awake, and for a moment, he is nothing more than what he appears to be; a boy with slim, artist’s hands that can swing a sword as easily as they can pick out a melody on the piano, fine, tangled eyelashes that brush up against his cheeks when he offers Percy a rare smile, and a dusting of freckles across the bridge of his nose, like cinnamon sugar. His sharp edges are softening, fading away, ground down by caring, by home and family.

Percy chokes on a short, sharp little intake of breath, and presses his hand even more firmly into Nico’s back, like he can imprint the shape there. 

“Well, shit,” he says, to no one in particular, “I’m probably in love.”

But he will deal with it later, when Nico wakes. For now, the smaller boy is warm where he is pressed up against him. His skin has finally gotten back some of its olive tone. Most importantly of all, he is here, and he’s alive. They’re both alive. The storm is over.

 

ii.

(It starts like this)

 

“I love you.” Nico spits, the words jagged and bloody, cutting into his throat as they come out.

And for a moment, all Percy can think is, well, shit, of course he does.

Because those words are all he needed, the final puzzle piece, and now everything falls into place. It makes sense. It makes so much sense, looking at Nico, fragile, tough-as-nails Nico, who looks like he’s trying to decide between puking and diving for the nearest shadow. 

“Don’t leave,” Percy says gently, holding out a hand very slowly, the same way you would keep a wild animal from spooking, “it’s okay. I don’t care, I don’t think any less of you. Don’t run away.”

“Why couldn’t you have left me dead?!” Nico says, wildly, and here it is, the source of the sweeping rage of the past few months. “I didn’t have to feel anything down there! I wasn’t anybody! I was-”

“Happy?” Percy says, quietly. Nico falters.

“No. Not- not happy. But I was free. I could’ve stayed like that. I could have been at peace. But no. Percy Jackson can’t allow that. Percy Jackson is a hero, he has to save everybody, all the time, no exceptions, it doesn’t matter if he doesn’t really care about you, he’ll save you anyways because THAT’S WHAT HE DOES!” Nico is shrieking now, and the tears streaming down his face are angry, leaking out against his will from some broken thing deep inside him.

“YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT ME THERE! I didn’t ask you to come save me, I don’t want it if it doesn’t mean anything, I-”

All the fight goes out of him like a lightbulb bursting, and he slumps; a puppet with its strings cut.

Percy approaches him carefully, moving until he is standing so close he could count the freckles on Nico’s face.

“I didn’t want you to be dead,” he says, and his voice is very small. What he really means is you matter. 

He reaches out and takes Nico’s hand, lacing the slender fingers with his own larger ones.

“I won’t apologize for saving you.”

There is a long pause. Then Nico squeezes his hand, very slightly.

It isn’t much.

It’s enough.

 

iii.

(It starts like this)

 

Nico moves into Paul’s apartment, mostly because Sally won’t hear otherwise. Percy’s actually the one who presents the idea to her. It isn’t like Nico has anywhere else to go, and to be quite honest the kid still isn’t all there. Percy isn’t really comfortable with letting him go back to his bone palace in the Underworld, or wherever it was he lived when he was off on his own.

(“I have a flat in Italy.” Nico tells him, blankly, when Percy asks him about it, “No bones. No skeleton butlers. Quit asking.”)

Nico is hesitant at first, uneasy. He’s been alone for so long, acclimating to a family again is hard for him; the first two months or so he only opens his mouth to apologize, thank Sally, or snap at Percy. He’s still so angry, always so angry, and when he isn’t staring at Percy like he wants to punch him, he’s staring at him like Percy has stolen every good thing he’s ever had in his life, and torn it apart. Percy wonders if maybe he has.

Nico stays up too late, and gets up too early (the dark circles under his eyes are a permanent fixture at this point), he eats like a bird, and no matter how many comforters Sally piles on top of him at night, he still shakes and shakes.

Hazel comes to visit every once in a while, sometimes accompanied by Frank. Percy saw them in the kitchen together, once, as he passed by. Nico was smiling, a small smile, but a real one. It lit up his face, and Percy was struck by a sudden pang of- something. Jealousy, maybe. Regret.

Percy doesn’t think Nico will ever smile at him like that. He doesn’t blame him.

 

iv.

(It starts like this)

 

The sun just might be the sweetest thing Percy's ever seen, lying on his back in the grass with Nico sprawled limp at his side. He’s covered in bruises and cuts, probably has a mild concussion, at least three of his fingernails are missing (and maybe one tooth, there’s a lot of blood on his face right now and he doesn’t really know what it’s from). 

He’s filthy, exhausted, and on the verge of a full-body shutdown. But he’s alive. He made it.

He turns to look at the boy lying next to him, a lump of some nameless emotion clogging up his throat- and sees that Nico’s eyes are open.

Nico’s eyes are open, and he is crying, silent tears that course down his cheeks and carve little paths in the dirt. His eyes are blank slates. 

Percy feels something inside him crack a little.

“I want to go back.” Nico whispers, his face still wiped clean, expressionless.

“Take me back.”

Percy feels a little sick now, the previous elation gone as quickly as it had come.

“I’m sorry, Nico.” he says, and his voice sounds strange even to his own ears.

“I can’t.”

 

v. 

(It starts like this)

 

“Come on, you little shit, hang on.” Percy grunts, dragging Nico’s limp body across the asphalt, half carrying, half supporting him with one arm. 

“I just got you back, I’m not letting you go now.”

A howl starts up somewhere in the darkness, a little too close for comfort, and Percy shudders a little. He’s survived the Underworld before, but lugging an unconscious son of Hades, and no longer in possession of the Mark of Achilles, things are looking slightly more grim.

“Come on, kid,” Percy says through gritted teeth, tearing a strip of cloth off the bottom of his shirt and tying it tightly around a bleeding gash on his arm.

“Hazel misses you. Frank and Leo do to, they haven’t said it but I know they do. Jason-” Percy pauses for a moment, laying the limp boy gently on the ground and wiping the sweat out of his eyes with a grimy, blood-stained hand, “Jason hasn’t spoken for the past week. Not even to Piper. You gotta do something, man, before he turns into the Hunchback of Mount Olympus or something.”

Percy chuckles a little, but it’s swallowed up and lost in the gloom. He clears his throat.

“Yeah, okay, that was weak. I can do better, just, I’m a little tired right now. You’re heavier than you look.” he nudges Nico with his foot. There is a noise behind him, and he whirls around, uncapping Riptide in one smooth motion. 

He can see shapes in the blackness, dozens of them. 

“Okay, Nico,” He says, and takes a deep breath, “here we go.”

 

vi.

(It starts like this)

 

“Where is he?!” Percy snarls, his grip on Riptide so tight that his knuckles are bloodless white.

Hades looks down at him, and for a moment Percy thinks he can see an ocean of sadness in the god’s eyes, older and deeper than the beginning of time.

“Gone.” he says simply, his voice emotionless, and he turns away.

“Then give him back.” Percy says, quiet and deadly. Every nerve in his body is on fire, and he wants nothing more than to lunge at Hades and tear into him, but he holds himself back.

“Why should you care what happens to my son, Jackson?” Hades says, with a trace of bitterness, “It never seemed to matter to you before.”

“I know,” Percy says, wild, determined, “I know, and I can’t go back and change that. But I can do this. He saved my life, let me save his. I stopped Gaea, you couldn’t have done it without me, you owe me.”

Hades is quiet, his back to Percy.

“Please.” 

The god turns, and for the first time, Percy sees the anguish in his obsidian eyes (the same eyes Nico inherited). 

“Think what you will of me, Percy Jackson, but do not forget that Nico is my son.”

Hades pauses for a moment.

“If you can find him, and take him from the Underworld alive, I will turn my back on the both of you.” he says, and Percy feels a short, sharp burst of gratitude as he realizes what the god is doing.

“You were never here, Jackson, I never saw you. Do you understand?” Hades continues harshly.

Percy hesitates, then bows.

“Yes, sir.” 

He turns to leave, then pauses.

“Nico loves you, you know.” he says, and exits the palace without looking back.

Behind him, Hades covers his eyes with a long, pale hand, and tries to forget what it had felt like to hold Nico’s smaller one.

 

vii.

(It starts like this)

 

Percy’s eyes fly open, and there is light, bright light searing into his eyes, and air in his lungs, and none of these things are right because he’s dead. He should be dead, he knows it, he felt the blade slide home into his heart, nobody can live through that, not even him. He makes to sit up, and groans a little at how stiff his muscles are. There is a gasp above him, and he looks up into bloodshot gray eyes.

“Annabeth?” he chokes out, his voice hoarse and dry, and for a moment she just stares at him, mouth agape. Then he is being tackled backwards, slamming into the grass with an ‘oompf’ as Annabeth sobs and hits him and laughs all at the same time.

“You idiot,” she says, pounding his chest, “You stupid fucking idiot, we thought you were gone for good.”

Percy wraps his arms around her and closes his eyes, inhaling her lemon soap smell.

“PERCY!”

His eyes fly open, and Piper slams into him too. Jason is there behind her, visibly trying to keep from crying, the big baby. Leo and Frank are grinning through their tears, thumping him on the back and congratulating him on another near brush with death. Percy laughs with them, his chest expanding as he takes in the fact that somehow, against all odds, he’s alive. Then he catches sight of Hazel, standing off to the side, her face drawn and tearstained. Something deep down inside him shudders. 

This is wrong. He shouldn’t be here. This wasn’t a near miss, he was dead

Percy looks around him, takes in the faces of all his friends-

No.

Not all his friends.

Someone is missing.

Someone is missing.

 

viii.

 

It starts like this, when Percy realizes Nico’s endings have always been his beginnings, and the boy who held out his hand to a little kid on the top of a cliff all those years ago is different from the one who kisses the corners of Nico’s smiles and says come here like he means I love you.

 

When Nico slides his hand into his, he finds he doesn’t really mind the change. 

 

(really, it starts with you)