The sun was almost down, and it was raining, and the movie was stupid and Argus wasn’t even going to leave camp for another hour. Nico stood on the sidewalk, soaked to the skin, in front of the movie theater scowling at the posters that had advertised a good action flick. Liars.
Still being dripping wet—and cold given that it was a mid-October rain—with his hair all plastered to his head and his jacket getting sodden and heavy was actually preferable to spending another minute listening to those idiots on the screen. It was only about a twenty-minute walk from here to the lobby of the Empire State Building, where Argus was picking him up, and so, deciding he might as well wait there, off he went. Maybe he’d get a coffee or something on the way, to help stave off freezing to death.
And, okay, so maybe he technically wasn’t supposed to be wandering around New York on his own, what with the whole this-is-New-York thing, but he was a child of Hades, and he’d fought the freaking Titans, and Mr. D only let the year-rounders visit the city every so often anyway, and his introverted nature absolutely demanded he periodically escape from people.
He was about halfway down Broadway when he saw a place called Monster Doughnuts that looked likely to offer caffeinated salvation from the headache pounding through his brain and the frost taking up residence in his marrow. So, figuring he’d give it a try, he ducked inside.
Five minutes later he found himself literally flung out the back door into an alley, trying to draw his sword and land on his feet, and strangle the heads of each end the snake he was fighting all at the same time. He had a vague memory of Chiron or Minos or Charles Pitman telling him the name of this thing, but whatever it was, he didn’t like it very much. He and the snake landed tangled up together—not on his feet at all, and with a rather unpleasant pounding on his spine—but he scrambled to his feet—finally getting his sword free—and was able to give the snake a convincing threat.
It sized him up and apparently decided it didn’t like its odds, because it began to slither away, sort of looping itself into a U shape, both heads moving together, leaving a wake in the water sloshing through the alley towards the drain.
And that would’ve been the end of it, if not for the very frightened meow that Nico heard from around the corner. Unable to help himself, he bolted around the side of the Monster Doughnuts to find the double-ended snake menacing a tiny, soggy, black kitten—a kitten!—that was desperately trying to climb on top of a garbage dumpster to get away.
Nico made quick work of the snake. The kitten completed climbing up onto the dumpster, and it turned to see Nico there with his sword out. It looked him over and then sat down and tried to curl its still-too-short tail over its feet and look casual. Since its fur was soaked and clumping together everywhere and since it was slowly sliding down the plastic cover of the dumpster, this ended up looking stupendously comical, so Nico reached out quickly and plucked the thing off of the dumpster—female, he noticed—and set her gently onto the floor of the alleyway.
“I can’t do anything about the rain,” Nico said to the cat. “Sorry.” Thunder rumbled. “Apparently my uncle is having a bad day.”
The kitten regarded him—looking impossibly thoughtful for a small, soggy, mass of black fur and green eyes—for a moment. Nico could swear she was actually coming to a decision. Then she meowed and licked his hand.
Nico rolled his eyes. He put away his sword, turned, and began to head out of the alley, but stopped when he heard tiny splashes behind him. He turned back to see the kitten following him, affecting an air of nonchalance that came off as ridiculously as it had the first time. He knelt down. “Look, you’re not nearly old enough to pull that off yet. And I know black animals are sacred to my dad and all, but where is your mother? No way she’d be happy with you leaving.”
The kitten meowed and licked his hand.
He sighed, stood and left the alley, ignoring the splashes this time.
In New York the sidewalks are crowded even when it’s pouring rain, but when he stopped for the next light, something brushed against his leg that was not somebody else’s ill-placed foot. Even before he looked down, he knew. The little kitten was sitting next to his feet now, looking for all the world like she was both put out with him for walking away and happy that he’d led her on a sight-seeing tour. She followed him across the street with that same cheerfully irritated air. She followed him all the way down the block, daintily picking her way around the larger puddles, despite the fact that they were both totally soaked and it was still pouring rain. And when they arrived at the Empire State Building and the doorman absolutely put his foot down at allowing the kitten to come inside, she looked so pitiful that Nico just couldn’t leave her to wait alone in the rain.
So, he waited with the cat. It was totally ridiculous, just standing around, trying to look like he wasn’t just standing around. And time seemed to slip by impossibly slowly, before anyone else joined him, although it had finally stopped raining, which left him in that horribly uncomfortable drying-off phase of things.
When Chiron and the other campers finally showed up, Chiron gave him an odd look from his wheelchair. “I thought you were going to watch a movie?”
Nico blinked. He’d never told Chiron he was going to watch a movie, which meant that somehow or another, the centaur had been keeping tabs on him anyway. Which was actually sort of sweet in an annoying and vaguely over-protective sort of way. He debated about how to answer Chiron’s question when the kitten suddenly leapt up from the ground, into Chiron’s lap. She put her paws on his chest, lifted her head and meowed at him much louder than a creature that size had any right to be able to. Then she jumped back down and sat down in front of Nico’s feet, tried to lay her tail over her legs again and glared at Chiron.
“New friend?” Chiron asked, raising a brow and apparently trying not to laugh.
“It’s a long story,” Nico answered.
The kitten meowed and, since his hand was not in range, rubbed her head against the cuffs of his jeans.
When Argus showed up with the van, the kitten jumped in before anyone else managed to get on, of course. And then, being tiny, she hid somewhere until they’d gotten to Camp Half-Blood. Much to Nico’s shock, Peleus not only didn’t eat her, but seemed utterly charmed by the tiny thing and stretched out a leg for her to rub her back against as she walked by. Nico had thought he’d have to do some explaining to Mr. D, but he’d forgotten about his soft spot for cats. One look at her, and the wine god was completely taken in, waving Nico off with a vague instruction to make sure be careful introducing her to Mrs. O’Leary, and not to drip too much on the floor.
Mrs. O’Leary turned out not to be a problem. She leaned her huge head down and regarded the tiny kitten curiously. Since the cat was smaller than the hellhound’s nostrils, Nico was vaguely concerned that she might be inhaled by accident, but after a small sniff, Mrs. O’Leary seemed just as charmed by the little (thankfully un-inhaled) thing as Peleus had been.
So he and his little shadow squelched down to cabin thirteen, inwardly amused at how this adorable little cat clashed with the skulls and green fire décor. But the kitten didn’t seem perturbed. She just jumped up onto his bunk and looked around approvingly—as if he needed her approval, Nico thought—before sitting down and trying one last time to fold her tail across her feet. Nico shook his head in amusement and so she gave up and flopped over on her side, twisting around onto her back so that her head hung off the bed, and regarded him upside down.
“All right,” Nico sighed. “You can stay. I suppose it was never really an option, was it?” He stripped off his sodden clothes and pulled dry ones from the dresser. Pulling off wet socks was a joy second only to putting fresh, dry ones on, and he relished the feeling.
The kitten blinked.
“Fine. You’ll need a name, though.” He dragged on a new pair of jeans and started pulling his shirt over his head.
She just gazed at him, unhelpfully.
“Well, if you’re going to hang out with me, it’ll have to be something appropriate. I’m a son of Hades. You’ll have to be tough. We have a reputation to uphold.” He grabbed a sweatshirt, since it was a bit chill and tugged that on as well.
Now she gazed at him seriously.
“How about…Mab? How is that for a name?” Nico asked, thinking of the dream fairy from Romeo and Juliet.
The kitten rolled over to right-side-up, and he reached out to pet her. “Well, how’s it sound? Mab?”
And then she meowed and licked his hand.
Which was probably the straightest answer he’d ever get out of her, Nico decided.