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Rubatosis

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rubatosis: n. the unsettling awareness of your own heartbeat, whose tenuous muscular throbbing feels less like a metronome than a nervous ditty your heart is tapping to itself, the kind that people compulsively hum or sing while walking in complete darkness, as if to casually remind the outside world, I’m here, I’m here, I’m here.


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A serial killer, a nurse, and Death walk into a shack in the woods.

Only one walks out.

In another world, it could be the punchline to a joke. In some other universe, where Nico’s world isn’t measured in the amount of souls he holds in the palm of his hand on any given day he may have even laughed at it.

It could be funny, right?

After all, who walks out?

Is it the serial killer, who conquers the reaper and nurse alike, wrapping them around their little finger like the red string of fate? Or is it the nurse, who’s been saving people for so long that he or she might as well be a real life hero?

But who is Nico kidding. This isn’t some other universe. The serial killer can win the reaper’s affections and the nurse can patch his heart with a smile, but in the end, there’s always going to be one outcome.

Death comes for everyone.

Even the souls he doesn’t particularly want to take.

He takes and takes until the only heartbeat left is his own, tapping a nervous ditty against his ribcage to stave away the darkness.

Maybe that’s the punchline.

.

The first person that Annabeth Chase ever kills is her mother. It was a bad pregnancy to start with, but the doctors had all been confident about Mrs. Chase pulling through until that very last hour — that last hour, when the pain of labor had turned to blood-soaked rags and a frantic nurse herding Mr. Chase out the door.

The doctors hadn’t said in so many words that it was her or the baby, but it was heavily implied.

Mrs. Chase chose Annabeth.

A day later, Mr. Chase took home a 5.8 lb. baby girl and made plans for his wife’s funeral.

.

When Percy Jackson is eight years old, he watches a woman step out in front of a subway car. She hadn’t been pushed, he remembers very clearly. She’d just… stepped out, like she was stepping into the car rather than in front of it. What he remembers after that are mere snapshots as his mother rushes to cover his eyes: a fleeting glimpse of a broken stiletto, blood spattered on the tracks, the screams of dozens of strangers, calls for help. They’re hazy, these memories, layered just under the feel of his mother’s callused hand, warm across his eyes. The smell of the underground—dirty air mostly, the scents of dozens of perfumes and sweaty bodies overlapping each other—all of that now tainted by something sharp and metallic. The sound of her voice in his ear, whispering shakily, “It’ll be okay, baby. C’mon, sweetie, we’ll walk home.”

Days, weeks, years later, the memory of the nameless woman’s actual death will be dusty and half-forgotten, but what came before—what came before the screams and the blood and the broken stiletto—that’s a different memory altogether.

There was a man, there in the station. He was a tall man with sharp, narrow features, as if his pale skin was stretched too tightly around his skeleton. Gaunt, was the word his mother probably would have used, his eyes sunken and bruised, like he hadn’t slept in years. He held himself like a prince, spine straight and shoulders back, and he stood out in the crowd like fine china stacked next to paper plates. Percy watched as the man moved gracefully through the crowd, coming to a stop next to a seemingly innocuous woman and bumping his elbow up against hers, the way thousands of New Yorkers bump into each other every day.

Except, when Percy next blinked, there was something shiny in the man’s hands — something bright and unusual, as if he was cupping a puddle of moonlight. Percy had been ready to ask his mom about it, because it was weird and kind of neat, but then the man’s eyes had met his, and the next thing Percy knew, the woman was dead.

That was Percy Jackson’s first meeting with Death.

.

Annabeth’s first memories largely consist of the woods behind her house and the way that they went orange and red in the autumn sunsets, how the Virginia chill would creep into her bones until her father finally managed to coax her away from the falling leaves and into the house.

When she’s four years old, her father gets her a set of legos and helps her build a little hobbit hole, just like the one that Bilbo lived in. It’s probably terrible, because she’s four years old, but her dad sits with her after it’s built and crows in triumph, whisking her around the living room in an impromptu dance.

He tells her that her mommy liked to build things too, that her mommy made so many pretty things, but the prettiest, most wonderful thing she ever made was Annabeth.

.

Percy doesn’t see him again until he’s ten years old. This time around, Death is in the form of a kid. He has chubby cheeks and darker skin like he’s been out in the sun a lot recently, but something in Percy’s brain recognizes those dark eyes, deep as a black hole.

He’s at school when it happens. It’s a Tuesday, which means that Nancy Bobofit is threatening to put centipedes down the back of his pants. It isn’t an odd threat, coming from her, and he’s in the middle of retaliating when he trails off, catching a glimpse of a kid who definitely does not go to Yancy. The kid is trailing after one of the quieter seventh graders, dogging her footsteps like he belongs there, in her shadow. Percy thinks that her name might be Mia—Mia something or another, the girl who always eats lunch by herself and has a perpetual collection of bruises.

“Are you even listening to me, Jackson?” Nancy hisses, her hackles up, because everyone knows that being ignored is worse than anything for a bully. He tunes her out, his eyes trailing after the odd pair, and it’s only after they round the corner, the boy tapping his wrist against the water fountain as he passes, that awareness comes back to him in a rush.

“Sorry, what were you saying?” Percy asks, voice placid and would-be sweet. He’s not the least bit surprised when she jumps him with a shriek, pounding away at whatever she can reach with her fists and sending them both sprawling to the dirty floor.

Later, after the teachers have pried them apart and he’s safely at home, munching away at an oatmeal bar while Smelly Gabe watches the television in the living room, he finds out what happened.

Mia—Mia Polz—twelve years old as of February 20th, was found dead in an alleyway after school. He watches from the hallway as the newswoman blinks every couple seconds and carefully skirts around the word murder, like giving a name to the crime will make it real.

Percy blinks when his mother lets herself into the house, a gust of wind accompanying her. He half-watches her unwind the scarf from around her neck, most of his attention still on the television, which has gone on to a commercial break. She shivers and just stares blankly out the window for a minute before she shakes herself over and turns her attention to him.

“Anything happen at school today, sweetie?” Sally asks him, coming over to drop a weary kiss to his forehead.

“Nothing special,” he shrugs. He doesn’t want to worry her with the news about Mia and she’ll find out about the fight with Nancy whenever the school gets around to calling. He takes another bite of his oatmeal bar and chews, thinking about a little boy with chubby cheeks and his older, skeletal doppelganger. Both were around when someone died. He thinks of the weird, puddle of moonlight that the older man had cupped in his hands that day, and his brain churns out an image of a skeleton holding a scythe.

Reaper, Percy thinks, humoring his overactive imagination. Death.

.

Annabeth doesn’t like San Francisco. She misses Virginia and her big old house nestled between mountains. She misses her leaves and the sunsets and how quiet it was all the time, but daddy says that this job is better, that it’ll help them out a lot in the long run.

She still doesn’t like the city. It’s too loud and her school has about twice as many people in each class, so there isn’t a lot of time to talk to the teacher.

But her dad seems happy, so that makes her happy too.

.

When Percy is eleven years old, his mother goes into a coma. He hadn’t been there when it happened—he was at school and when he’d come home to an empty house, he’d shrugged it off. Smelly Gabe was probably at a bar with one of his buddies and his mom was probably working late. By now, he’s pretty used to coming home to an empty house. He doesn’t like it, necessarily, would rather have his mom with him, but if it comes down to being alone or hanging out with Smelly Gabe, he’ll take being home alone for awhile any day.

He makes himself mac-n-cheese, adds some blue food coloring, and settles down in front of the television to do his homework, scratching idly at a stain on the couch.

Smelly Gabe doesn’t remember to call him until almost nine o’clock and when he does, he’s not even at the hospital. Percy has to steal a twenty from his mom’s stash to afford the bus fare to the hospital, and even then, it takes awhile for him to find out what room she’s in, and even longer to convince the nurses to let him see her.

It was a hit and run, they tell him.

“Your stepfather brought her in and gave us the story,” one of the older nurses says. Her gray hair is in crazed ringlets and she’s got an old, stretched tattoo of a dove on her wrist, the image drooping this way and that now that her skin is stretching out with age. The look she gives him is both sympathetic and disapproving, like he’s the one responsible for the fact that Smelly Gabe left right after dropping his mom off. There’s a shrewdness there, though, as she leaves him at his mother’s bedside with instructions to call if he needs anything, that makes him think that she doesn’t believe Smelly Gabe’s story much either.

.

Annabeth is five years old when her dad meets Kira. She’s five and a half when Ms. Kira becomes Mrs. Chase.

She’s six when her stepmother has the twins, Bobby and Matthew. They look wrinkly and pink and she doesn’t like them much, but she’s not too put out about it when they’re quiet.

Unfortunately, they aren’t quiet very much.

.

He spends weeks in the hospital at his mom’s side. By the end of the first week, all the nurses know his name, and he knows theirs. There’s Maryann Rivera, who is on-call pretty much 24/7 despite having a four year old son. Her hair is almost to her hips and she always smells like pineapples; when Percy does something stupid, she doesn’t hesitate to start railing into him in Spanish. After her there’s Beatrice Sandoval—call me Bee—the older lady with the dove tattoo, who’d first shown him to the room. Then there’s Diana Bennett, the twenty-two year old who got a job here just after graduation; Sergio Lee, who confesses at one point that he’d wanted to be a surgeon but settled for being a nurse when his wife got pregnant with their first kid; and Rita Gibbs, who’s even older than Bee and brings him snacks from time to time.

He doesn’t let them shoo him off, despite their best efforts, and eventually they stop trying. Sergio even brings him a book, Slaughterhouse Five, which Percy hasn’t read before.

On the fourteenth day, a very familiar face shows up.

He’s in his middle-aged form again this time, the one he’d worn when he’d taken the woman on the subway, though he doesn’t look quite as sick as he did then. His skin is still much paler than it was as a kid and he’s still too skinny, but he doesn’t look like he’s going to keel over any second. He’s wearing one of those fancy black winter coats and is, curiously, barefoot. Percy can see the knobby bits of his toes, the wiry hair there, and the untrimmed side of his pinky nail.

Percy takes one look at the man, standing in the doorway and staring at his mother like Percy isn’t even there, and says, very firmly, “No.”

The man startles, blinking at him with amazement. It should be comical, the way he reels backward, glancing over his shoulder like Percy might be talking to the non-existent person behind him, but Percy’s mother is in a coma, and he’s seen this man all of twice, and both times, someone died, so he’s not feeling very amused.

“Excuse me?” the man says, carefully, his voice creaky. It makes Percy think of cleaning the attic, how all the dust takes to the air and gathers in your chest, making you wheezy and sick sounding for the rest of the day.

“You can’t take her,” Percy says, unblinking; moving so that he’s between the man and his mother’s bed. His back is so straight that the muscles ache and he’s terrified out of his mind, but he is eleven years old. He can fight off Death—with a capital D!—if he wants to.

Something strange happens to the man’s expression and he goes, “Ah,” in a puzzled voice, and shuts the door behind him. He takes the seat in the corner furthest from Percy and his mom, crosses his legs, and inspects the IV drip with interest.

He’s silent for a long time, long enough that Percy gets bored of standing and takes a cautious seat at the foot of his mother’s bed.

“What makes you think I’m going to take your mother anywhere?” the man finally asks, returning his attention to Percy. Uneasy, Percy shifts under the weight of his stare, touching his mother’s ankle through the blankets just to make sure she’s still there. He wants to make sure she’s still breathing too, but doesn’t want to turn his back to the man, afraid that he’ll take advantage of Percy’s distraction and whisk his mother’s soul away under his nose.

“I saw you before,” Percy tells the man, thinning his lips. “Twice.”

A flare of interest as the man leans forward in his chair, cocking his head at Percy. “Where?”

“There was a woman. She jumped in front of a train. You touched her and she died.”

The man nods, like there isn’t anything amiss in that story, like it’s normal. “And the other time?”

“Mia Polz. She went to my school. You looked like a kid then. You followed her, I saw you, and then she died alone in an alley after school let out.”

“You don’t think I killed her though,” the man says, looking at him like he’s said something weird, like he’s something curiously new. Something precious. It’s off-putting, the way his eyes go soft with almost-affection. Carefully, Percy shakes his head.

“You didn’t kill them, you were just there. You…” he trails off, thinking of that silvery light in the man’s hands, and doesn’t say anything until the man gestures for him to continue. “You took them to a better place,” he finishes, confident that his answer’s the right one for once. He doesn’t know if the place is heaven, his mom never raised him on religion and he never really liked the idea of pearly gates and singing forever anyway, but wherever it was that this man took them, Percy’s sure that they’re at rest now.

The man smiles, his thin cheeks quirking like they’re trying to remember how to dimple. “And you don’t want me to take your mother there?”

It’s like a punch to the gut, like getting stabbed in the solar plexus with something sharp. For a moment, Percy just reels, his heart cartwheeling in his chest. Something like guilt unfurls in his chest. It hurts.

“No,” he tells the man in a small voice, feeling very selfish all of a sudden.

The man cocks his head. “Why?”

Because,” Percy hisses, clenching his fists together until his nails cut into his palms. Because she’s his mom. Because without her, it’ll just be him and Smelly Gabe, Smelly Gabe who hurt her and lied about it. Because he is eleven years old and his mother is his hero and he doesn’t want her to hurt, but he doesn’t want her to leave either.

The man just watches him quietly, leaning back in the chair and uncrossing, then recrossing his legs. The bottoms of his feet are thick with calluses, but they aren’t dirty the way they should be if he’s been walking around New York without shoes.

Eventually, the man nods again, and gets to his feet.

“I’ll come back tomorrow and the day after. If she doesn’t get better, I won’t let her suffer,” the man warns, and Percy nods frantically.

The man stops just before the door, looking back over his shoulder at Percy. “You are very brave, Percy Jackson,” he says softly, and walks out the door.

.

“Mrs. Jacobs says that you killed your mommy.”

Annabeth blinks, very slowly, and doesn’t look away from her legos, not even when a pink little boot kicks her tower over.

“Are you stupid? Didn’t you hear what I said?”

Annabeth reaches for another lego block and starts over again.

“Everyone says that you’re going to kill your new mommy too, the same way you killed your first one. They say that you’re gonna kill your whole family, that they’ll all drop dead just so they can get away from you.”

“C’mon, she’s not listening—”

“Did you hear me? Your mommy hated you so much that—”

Annabeth grits her teeth when the same pink boot knocks over her new tower. Slowly, she looks up, fixing a wide grin across her face. She wants to tell stupid Melissa Jordan exactly who she’s going to kill if she doesn’t leave her alone, but the last time Annabeth did that, the principal called her dad. She doesn’t want that, so she just smiles blankly until Melissa calls her a freak and goes away.

Then she goes back to her legos.

.

For the next week, the stranger shows up every day. He sits with Percy mostly in silence, but sometimes, he talks. It’s never about anything important — the weather in Madrid, a little old lady in Thailand who’d come to him with a smile, a dying portion of reef off the coast of Sydney.

On the seventh day, he approaches Percy’s mother’s bed for the first time, an apology in his eyes.

“No,” Percy cries, flinging himself out of his chair and at the man.

“I warned you—”

“Please,” Percy sobs, his fists going up to clench in the fabric of the man’s coat. “She’s strong, she’ll make it, she just needs more time.”

The man gives a huge, gut-wrenching sigh, and slowly, crouches down so that he’s on Percy’s level. He places his hand, hesitantly, on Percy’s wrist.

It feels like ice, like the first shock of snow on his skin.

“Everyone,” the man explains carefully, “In this whole wide world, wants more time.”

“But—” Percy starts. The man lays his hand across Percy’s mouth, very carefully, like he’s afraid he’ll hurt him.

“Seven days ago, I should have taken your mother’s soul, but I didn’t, because of you. I am failing my one purpose, because a human boy wants to keep his mother. Do you know how many boys would want that opportunity, if they could see me?”

Percy shakes his head, helplessly. The man snorts.

“A lot. All of them. But death is eternal. It will be here until the end of the universe, until every last atom is gone. I will be here, millennia after you and your mother are dust in the ground once more. Do you understand?”

Percy nods and the man gives him a soft smile, and removes his hand.

“Please,” Percy insists, the moment he is able to do so. Desperately, he grabs hold of the man’s wrist, using it to tug himself closer, until he’s pressed up against his side. The man sighs again, looking away as tears start to drip down Percy’s cheeks. “You can save her. I know you can.”

“Death can’t save anyone, boy.”

“But you can.”

The man is giving him that look again, like Percy’s surprised him.

“Please,” Percy whispers, one last time, letting go of his wrist and throwing his arms around the man—this stranger’s—neck. He has to go up on tiptoe and hop a little to even do it, because the man is tall, and he goes tense all over the minute Percy gets his arms around him. Percy’s tears feel frozen to his cheeks and he is hyper-aware of the beeping of his mother’s heart monitor, the way that she looks against the scratchy-sticky hospital pillows, her cheeks taut and skin almost grey. The man is still and silent as a statue, but he pats Percy’s back once, lets the hug happen.

“Fine,” the stranger breathes.

He straightens up, dislodging Percy easily enough. His eyes, when they meet Percy’s, are reluctantly amused, like the emotion has been dragged out of him with the jaws of life.

Percy watches with bated breath as the man lays a hand on his mother’s ankle, ready to explode into action at the first sight of silvery soul. Two minutes pass before his mother gives a long, steady sigh, relaxing back into the bed. The man pulls away.

“She’ll wake within the hour,” he tells Percy shortly, giving him a stern look. “You get one freebie, Percy Jackson, and that’s all. The next time I come for a loved one of yours, I will not hesitate to take them.”

Percy’s breathing is shaky, his voice stoppered up in his throat.

“What should I call you?” Percy whispers as the man makes his way towards the door. His fingers are trembling, so he hides them within the folds of his mother’s sheets. The man glances back at him and smiles again.

“One would hope that you don’t plan on seeing me again anytime soon,” he says sardonically, one black eyebrow tipping up. Percy blushes, because as much as he’s seen the man in the last week, it hadn’t occurred to him that he might not see the man for quite some time.

“You listened to me,” Percy explains. “You saved my mom. I want to know your name.”

The man studies him, plainly assessing the second-hand clothes and the bruises that Smelly Gabe had left on his wrists the last time Percy had seen him, when he’d stumbled home from school for a snack before heading out to the hospital. They’re a sickly green-yellow color and the man’s eyes linger over them, a flash of anger there and gone again.

“You can call me Nico,” he finally says. “Nico di Angelo. It’s the truest name I have to give you.”

With that, he’s gone.

.

The day that she finds it, Annabeth is only outside because her stepmother had gently suggested getting some sun over pancakes and maple syrup. Against all odds, Annabeth kind of likes Kira. She’s a nice lady, with calluses on her thumbs and pointer finger from her paintbrushes, and Annabeth likes the way that even with the new babies, Kira still makes enough time to ask Annabeth if she wants her to brush her hair or if she wants to go for a walk. She’d even played legos with her a couple times when the twins were down for a nap.

So she isn’t really mad about it. Annabeth likes the feeling of the sun warming her hair, of the breeze on her skin, but she misses their old house terribly. She doesn’t like San Francisco half as much as she liked Virginia, so she stays inside a lot when she’s not at school. She likes puzzles, so she makes new things with her legos, fascinated by the way her fingers can piece together ugly little blocks and make them something new, something pretty.

But she likes Kira, so she goes to play in the backyard.

There’s a cluster of bushes lining the fence. They’ve got leaves bigger than Annabeth’s head and they’re fun to crawl behind. Most of the time she just lounges beneath them, watching the sunlight play through the branches and the way that little insects squirm through the topsoil.

This time, there’s a mostly stripped skeleton down there. It’s practically all bones, just little chunks of flesh clinging to it, and she thinks it might have been an opossum or a raccoon. Maybe a really big rabbit. She pokes it with a stick, blinking at the bugs that scurry out from underneath the carcass.

She should probably be grossed out. All the girls at her school would be, even if the boys would probably poke it the same way she’s doing. She’s not grossed out, though. In fact, she’s kind of fascinated by the little cracks in the tiny ribcage. She doesn’t know what happened to the animal, but its’ ribs are snapped in places, like it got hit with something heavy. The way they’re still fitting together is kind of cool, though. It makes her think of the way her lego blocks snap together, and that’s what gives her the idea.

She goes inside, wiping her feet so she doesn’t trail dirt onto the carpet and waves hello to Kira when she passes her in the hallway.

She’s got a tube of superglue and a pair of plastic gloves with her when she comes back and sets to work, snapping apart bones to get the pieces that she needs.

When she’s done, she’s got a miniature eiffel tower made of bones, and stands looking at it proudly for a full ten minutes before she hears Kira calling her inside.

A month and a half and three more corpses filched from various spots around the neighborhood, and Kira finally catches her at it, looking so horrified that Annabeth has no idea what to do.

Shame eats away at her insides at dinner that night and she dodges Kira’s nervous looks and her dad’s confused questions.

Two days later when she’s holding Bobby, Kira yanks him away from her, looking so frightened that Annabeth wants to puke, tears prickling at the backs of her eyes.

The day after that, she packs her bags.

She is seven years old, a month and a half from her eighth birthday when Thalia finds her.

.

When Percy is thirteen, his mother murders his stepfather. He’s not supposed to know about it and probably wouldn’t, if it weren’t for the way he wakes up one night to Nico sitting on the edge of his bed, knees hauled up to his chin and his fingers clenching and unclenching in Percy’s Chips Ahoy sheets, his dark eyes watching him.

He’s somewhere between the two forms that Percy has seen him in, maybe seventeen or eighteen. The chubby cheeks are gone, but Percy realizes happily that when Nico smiles, the dimples are still there.

“I thought I’d seen the last of you, Jackson,” he whispers, teasing.

Percy blinks tiredly, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He coughs once, wrinkling his nose at the taste in his mouth. “What are you doing here?” he asks, creakily, voice thick with exhaustion. Mom and Smelly Gabe were fighting before he went to bed. He rubs at the bruises on his ribs and wishes for some tylenol.

“I came to collect something,” Nico shrugs, looking around Percy’s room with interest. There isn’t much there—a swimming trophy from when Percy was younger, a tiny television that his mother had bought before he was born, some pictures. “Something that your mother delivered to me.”

Percy blinks down at his comforter, picking at a thread that’s come loose. When he looks back up, Nico is watching him again, his eyes shrewd and knowing. “I thought you should know.”

“Oh,” Percy goes, gaping when Nico unfurls his fingers to reveal the soul within. It isn’t silvery like the girl at the subway’s had been — it’s got a film of black over it, thick and viscous-looking, like it’s rotting and slimy to the touch. Just the sight of it makes Percy gag, so Nico quickly tucks it out of sight again.

“He’d hurt you,” Nico says shortly, shrugging jerkily as he peers at the seashell night light that Percy’s had since he was three. “And your mother, so. I thought you should know.”

“You’re kind of a hero,” Percy blurts, covering his mouth with a hand after, embarrassed.

Nico smirks at him, lips curling wickedly around the corners. “Death isn’t usually attributed to heroism, but I’ll take it.”

He bumps Percy with his shoulder, knocking him sideways back into the covers as he stands. “Get some rest, Percy Jackson,” he says and Percy groans.

“Stop calling me that,” Percy laughs. “It’s just Percy.”

“All right, then,” Nico whispers, nodding. “Percy it is.”

.

Thalia Grace is kind of weird, but she’s incredibly cool. She’s older than Annabeth, somewhere between twelve and thirteen, and has this short black hair that sticks up in the back when she doesn’t brush it. Her laugh kind of sounds like a donkey braying, but Annabeth doesn’t care. She likes it, how Thalia isn’t ever ashamed, throwing her head back and laughing like she’s challenging the world to a duel.

She’d saved Annabeth from a mean old man with a creepy smile and instead of offering to find Annabeth’s parents, Thalia had taken Annabeth with her.

They live in all sorts of cool places — rundown barns and abandoned stores, sometimes even in the backs of trucks, or even train cars. If they’re really lucky, they’ll wake up to the train rattling along the tracks and get off in an entirely new place.

She likes Thalia, because she never treats Annabeth like a baby. She talks to Annabeth like they were raised sisters, like they’re the same age.

They spend two years that way, dodging policemen and making their own adventures along the way.

By the time Annabeth is ten years old, the streets have become her home. Highway diners that don’t much care if two urchins sit in their booths and do crosswords for hours while drinking and eating whatever they can afford become her breakfast and dinner table. Thalia becomes her family, and most days, Annabeth forgets that somewhere out there, her dad is probably looking for her.

On the days that she does remember, she lets Thalia pull her close and sing her stories, and thinks that it’s better this way. That now her dad and Kira can have a real family, without her along to mess it up.

.

It’s probably a good thing that it’s another two years before he sees Nico again. Most people would say that it’s rather excellent, even, that he’s gone two whole years without a single brush with death.

Percy Jackson is not most people.

He’s fourteen before he realizes what it is, why he’s been droopier than usual, casting glances at people out of the corner of his eye, as if he’s asking himself, are you next? How about you? Are you going to fall asleep and drown in your bathtub later tonight? What about you? Will you be on the news tomorrow morning — a mugging gone bad?

His mother confronts him about it once, taking a seat on his bed and fidgeting awkwardly, smoothing down his comforter time and time again, until he finally snaps at her to just say whatever is on her mind.

“I’m worried about you, Percy,” she tells him at once, a frown creasing the space between her brows. “I don’t know what this is with you — if it’s just puberty or if you’re pining after some girl—”

He tunes the rest of it out, because that’s the moment, that’s the huge epiphany right there, spreading out through his head in a single, glorious burst of realization. Oh, he thinks, the insides of his skull wiped clean and numb. I’m pining.

“—ust want to know if this has anything to do with… Gabe?”

Percy jolts, snapping back into reality with all the force of a semi-truck smashing into a tricycle. He feels the shock in his bones and now that he’s looking for it, he can see the guilt in his mother’s face, the way there are bruises smeared under her eyes like she hasn’t been sleeping.

They never talked about it, not really. She told him that he went far, far away, and that he’d never hurt them again, and when the officers came later with questions, she kept them far away from Percy. He still doesn’t know what she said to them, but he can guess.

Nobody liked Smelly Gabe. Everyone knew that he was a drunk. When drunk assholes go missing, there aren’t many people out there to mourn them.

“No,” Percy says abruptly, sitting upright in a hurry and leaning over to pull her hand into his. When he sees the look on his mother’s face, the startled widening of her eyes, he makes his voice soften. Makes the panic ease back from his chest. “No, Mom. Not that. Never that.”

“Okay,” she whispers, biting her lip and averting her eyes. He wonders, just for that moment, if she knows that he knows. The moment passes when her lip trembles, and that is not on, okay? His mom is not going to cry over that asshole, ever again, so he tugs her in for a hard hug, and doesn’t let her go until she stops sniffling.

“It’s not a girl,” Percy admits later, after they’ve both dried their eyes. He’s examining the Buzz Lightyear that’s been sitting on his desk since he was seven, running over the details instead of looking his mom in the eye.

“A boy, then?” she asks calmly, no judgement in her voice. He runs his thumb over the bedsheets puddled in his lap, feeling out the ragged edge where the thread is coming unraveled too, just like his comforter. He loves her for that, Percy realizes. He’s so lucky to have her for his mother. So lucky. But he can’t really call Nico a boy, can he? Can’t explain him at all. Percy could get out of it, say Nico’s just some kid he’s crushing on in class, but then he’d be lying, and after this, he really doesn’t want to lie to her.

“No boy, either,” he says softly, squeezing his mother’s hand. “Not yet.”

.

This is how it happens: Annabeth makes a mistake.

There’s a crack of sound, like a firework exploding overhead, but no burst of color to accompany it, and then Thalia’s body is covering hers.

Annabeth blinks, touching the blood smeared across her chin from where she’d smacked it on the pavement. Her ears are still ringing, and she wriggles, wrinkling her nose at the crushing sensation of Thalia’s entire weight pressed against her back.

“Thalia?” she whispers, squirming until she can pull her other hand free from beneath herself. It hurts a little, like she skinned it on the ground too. Her back feels wet, but when she blinks at the dim alleyway, there’s no sign of raindrops on the cracked asphalt.

“Fucking kids,” she hears someone say, but she can’t turn her head to see who it was, if it’s the guy who’s wallet she tried to snatch or if it’s another random passerby. She doesn’t know. She can’t see, because Thalia won’t get off of her.

“Thalia?” she says again, louder, and squirms again. Fear is a familiar thing. She doesn’t often have reason to be afraid, because Thalia is good at getting them out of bad situations, but she remembers the night that Thalia had found her — the feeling of the old man’s hand around her wrist, squeezing hard enough to bruise as he tried to drag her to his car.

She repeats Thalia’s name again, voice cracking down the middle; a fork of lightning.

It takes a minute to recognize the sound of footsteps, long enough for a pair of boots to stop just in front of her.

It’s hard to get enough leverage to look up. Thalia’s head is tucked tight to the back of Annabeth’s neck, nose cold and pointy. She’s so heavy.

There’s a boy looking down at her, maybe thirteen years old. He’s all skin and bones, like he hasn’t been eating much either, and his eyes are scary — dark and fathomless, like an abyss. He’s staring down at them with those blank, dark eyes, looking right at them, so Annabeth reaches, wrapping her trembling, bleeding fingers around the tip of his tennis shoes.

“Help,” she gasps, breath choppy. The weight is making it hard to breathe and it isn’t funny anymore. She wants Thalia to get off now; she’s scared. Her fingers spasm, thumb hooking into the looped laces of one of the boy’s shoes. They’re tied the way she learned when she was little, with the bunny method that dad taught her. “Please.”

The boy blinks slowly, as if he’s coming out of a trance. He cocks his head at her, like a confused puppy.

“Please help us,” she says again, desperate to get this boy to tug her out from under Thalia, maybe even coax him into helping Annabeth wake the other girl up. Annabeth is usually stronger than this, but Thalia is really heavy and her head hurts from where she’d hit it on the ground and her back still feels wet. “My friend won’t get off of me— I think she fell asleep. Please.”

The pleading whisper seems to jolt the boy into awareness, because his eyes lose that blankness and widen in surprise, like he hadn’t realized that she was talking to him. He crouches down next to her, hands hesitating above her head. She wonders if he’s thinking of petting her hair. She’ll bite him if he does.

“What’s your name?” he asks in this slow, soft voice.

“Annabeth,” she snaps, well and truly fed up. “Are you going to help me or not?”

“Annabeth,” he breathes, and she can see him better now that he’s closer. He looks like he’s about to say something, but his mouth clicks closed before the first word forms. He hesitates again and she’s so sick of this. She’s scared and tired and wet and she just wants to wake Thalia up and go back to the abandoned apartment they’d made their home for the week.

“Get me up,” she whispers. “Please.”

His hands hover over Thalia and he shoots her a concerned look. “You have to promise me you’ll stay calm,” he says, and before she can think about yelling at him again, he’s rolling Thalia over.

Annabeth is up a little slower than she’d like, rubbing at her chin like she can make the blood go away. She’ll probably have a bruise there tomorrow.

Then she turns around.

The back of Thalia’s head is—

She can’t make sense of it, just staring at the mess of red. Her brain turns and turns, but she just stares until the boy rolls Thalia onto her back.

“Thalia?” she whispers, heart speeding up.

She stares at Thalia, the way her head lolls to the side, white shards of something (skull, some part of Annabeth whispers, it’s her skull) caught in her hair. Annabeth must make some kind of noise, because she can feel her mouth moving, but she can’t hear anything— she can’t— her chest is so tight and why won’t she wake up? Why won’t Thalia wake up? Why why why why—

Someone pulls her close, warm arms wrapping around her shoulders and drawing her back against a narrow chest, and she might be screaming or whimpering or sobbing. She might be doing all of those things, but she can’t tell, because the world has narrowed down to Thalia’s shape against the pavement and the memory of her weight draped over Annabeth’s shoulders.

Annabeth screams. She cries. She makes noises that she didn’t even know she could make.

And then the boy is looking at her again and pointing at something silvery and sweet, like a will o’ wisp, in the palm of his hand. He’s saying, “Look—”

.

After that, he can’t get Nico out of his head. He hadn’t been able to before either, but it’s… different, now. Now, instead of seeing Nico out in public — a ghost on the heels of every stranger on the subway — he’s seeing Nico in his dreams, in his bedroom, tangled in his sheets.

The first time that he wakes up with come cooling on his stomach and the phantom touch of Nico’s lips trailing across his hipbone, Percy’s cheeks go hot with embarrassment, and he falls all over himself trying to get his bed stripped so he can get the evidence into the washer before his mom wakes up.

It doesn’t work. And while she doesn’t laugh at him, there’s a definite glimmer of amusement in her voice when she tells him, “There’s nothing to be ashamed of, but you’ve got the right idea of doing your own laundry from here on out.”

The first time he actually sets out to get himself off — not just fumbling, curious touches that result in quick, mostly accidental orgasms — he thinks of Nico, sitting on his bed the night that his mom killed Smelly Gabe.

Nico’s wrists had been narrower at seventeen than they were when he wore the form of his older self. His mouth had seemed plusher, redder, flushed with youth. His cheeks hadn’t lost the baby fat, round and smooth, no hint of the bristly five o’clock shadow he wore so well in his older form.

Percy gets a hand wrapped around himself and imagines Nico stretching across his bed, imagines that his hands are Nico’s hands. He’d be hesitant at first, waiting for Percy’s permission, and then he’d take charge, sliding into Percy’s lap, kissing and stroking him expertly until Percy came between them.

He gets off to that and the next day, he comes to the image of Nico’s cheeks, bristly with stubble, rubbing over Percy’s thighs, his narrow, older face painted with come.

.

She blames her next mistake on her being all caught up in the boy — “Nico,” he’d told her, and she hadn’t had the nerve to ask how the embodiment of death came by a name; everyone deserved to have a name anyway, so it didn’t much matter how he came by it — and the brand new knowledge of souls.

He’d dragged her with him that night, after she was cried out and numb. He’d taken one look at her lank hair and sharp cheekbones and grabbed a hold of her wrist, dragging her with him into the shadows.

It was a little weird, being there to watch him take all those souls. She’s pretty sure that he hadn’t brought her with him for all of them, that even while he was talking to her slowly about the afterlife another him was halfway across the world or on another planet. It was kind of like Santa that way, because how could one person be everywhere at once? It just wouldn’t work.

But he’d stayed with her and then, when she’d started crashing, he found a hotel room for her, watching over her as she slept. The next morning he’d given her a cracked smile and asked, “Will you be okay?”

“No,” she answered honestly. “But I’ll live.”

She hops a couple of trains, mind still whirling a million miles an hour. She watches people, wondering when and how they would die, and if they’d see Nico too. She gets a little obsessed with it, which is how the social worker gets the drop on her.

They ask her all kinds of questions that she’s not okay with answering, so she stays silent, and when the lady watching her stupidly goes to get her a glass of water, she slips out the backdoor.

She’s in the middle of Kansas, so it’s not hard to find a barn to hole up in for the night. She likes horses. They’re big and warm, and sometimes, they’ll let her curl up in their stalls with them. Some even drop down into the hay with her, which is weird, because she’d thought that horses slept standing up.

She chooses an empty stall next to a large black stallion and falls asleep to him trying to graze on the top of her head.

When she wakes up the next morning, there’s a man in a wheelchair watching her. She blinks at him, surprised, and when he notices she’s awake, he smiles kindly.

She doesn’t often trust people who smile nicely, but she goes with him when he offers her breakfast anyway, because she’s tired and hungry and if it comes down to it she can probably outrun an old guy in a wheelchair, right?

Right.

Mr. Brunner lets her stay with him, supposedly because he’s got a weakness for strays, and feeds her until her stomach isn’t cramping so badly.

After a week passes, he asks if she’d like to actually stay.

“I can’t offer you your home back, and I imagine you wouldn’t like it if I did, but I’ve got the spare room and it would be nice to have an extra pair of hands around the place. The horses don’t get as much attention as they deserve.”

She watches him carefully, shrewdly picking him apart for any signs of a falsehood.

But he is really nice, like Thalia was. He hasn’t tried to hurt her all week. All he’s been is kind.

“I can offer you an education as well,” he adds, buttering a piece of toast. “I was a teacher for a long time, and I’m sure it would be no hardship to homeschool someone as bright as you.”

She squints at him suspiciously. “Why are you being so nice?”

He laughs. It’s a pleasant laugh, almost a snort, and reminds her of Thalia’s donkey brays. “Maybe I just miss having children around the place. I’m old and you look like you’re in desperate need of a little bit of kindness.”

“Can I think about it?” she asks, turning her spoon in her hand over and over again.

He smiles at her, huge and ever-so-slightly gap toothed, and says, “Of course.”

She thinks about it for another week and a half, then the next morning at breakfast, she gives him her answer.

.

When he’s fifteen years old, a boy transfers into their class. Leo’s dad is some big shot army dude and he’s upfront about the fact that he probably won’t make it here past Christmas, but Percy likes him. He’s funny and clever, and he sits with Percy at lunch even though he doesn’t have to.

Leo’s got dark hair and black, intelligent eyes, and a lopsided smirk; he reminds Percy of Nico so strongly sometimes that he wonders if he should feel bad — if he’s using this kid as some kind of substitute for the real thing. Percy pushes it to the back of his mind and doesn’t think about it again until much later, when he’s got the kid’s narrow hips bracketed between his knees and his tongue in Percy’s mouth.

Three months was how long he lasted at their school. Percy took him to the skate park, taught him the ins and outs of using a skateboard without killing himself, laughed with him over stupid, silly gossip, and lost his virginity to him behind the bleachers of his high school gymnasium during a pep rally.

The day before Leo’s due to ship out, he sneaks in through Percy’s window and smirks as he goes down on him, pulling back before Percy can get off, his mouth stretching into a filthy grin when he presses a packet of lube and a condom into Percy’s hand.

They’re too young for the sex to be precisely good, but Percy’s educated himself enough by now to know how to make it not overly painful, and when he’s done, he makes sure to pull out carefully, and then go down on Leo until his discomfort is all but forgotten.

They kiss each other goodbye, and instead of making Leo go back down the fire escape, he marches him through the living room, past where his mom’s fallen asleep on the sofa, and to the front door.

He doesn’t tell Leo that he’ll miss him, even though he will. He just gives him one last, lingering kiss, and that’s it.

“Who was that?” his mom mutters sleepily when he nudges her awake, guiding her back to her room with a gently-placed hand to the space between her shoulderblades.

“Leo,” Percy shrugs. “He’s leaving tomorrow.”

“Oh, honey,” his mom says and gives him a swift, sleepy hug.

.

Mr. Brunner never asks Annabeth for her last name, seemingly happy to call her Annabeth and leave it at that. He doesn’t push about her past, and when she asks him why he’s not more concerned about having a twelve year old runaway living in his house, he shrugs and wrinkles his nose, saying, “You aren’t the first frightened child that I’ve taken in.”

Annabeth wakes each morning to the jewel-toned rays of the sunrise creeping in through the large bay window taking up most of her wall, shifting under the large, scratchy blanket that Mr. Brunner insists is actually older than he is. She gives herself five minutes to languish in the hazy warmth of her bed most days and then she gets up, throws her hair in a haphazard ponytail and goes to tend to the horses.

She spends most of the morning that way, talking gently to them as the sun freckles and darkens her shoulders, and when she gets back to the farmhouse, she’s aching pleasantly from the labor, and fully ready for whatever lunch Mr. Brunner foists off on her.

The afternoon is for the library.

It’s her favorite part of the house, even if it isn’t particularly big. What it doesn’t have in size, it makes up for in sheer volume, books lining the walls floor to ceiling, stacked on coffee tables and next to armchairs. She loves it. The smell of old books and the way the dust motes dance in the rays of sunlight. She loves the way Mr. Brunner sits next to her and teaches her, her brain soaking up his words like a sponge.

She’d spend whole days in there if he’d let her, swallowing the knowledge within whole.

The summer that she turns fourteen, she’s in town picking up some vegetables from the local farmers’ market when she meets a boy named Jaime with wide, burnt shoulders and a smile that makes his nose wrinkle up, his freckles all pressing together like they’re trying to merge into one big super freckle.

He’s nice to her, even though he doesn’t really have to be. She doesn’t go to the high school, so she’s only known around town as Mr. Brunner’s stray orphan, but she likes it that way. Nobody really bothers her.

She’s young and while she’s not stupid, she’s adapted to small-town life, forgetting all the lessons that Thalia once taught her about people, so one night when he smiles and offers to drive her home, she accepts.

Annabeth loses her virginity in the rusted bed of his dad’s pickup truck. There’s a pool of grease next to her head and everything smells a bit like pigs, but she doesn’t mind at first. She laughs when he does, and he’s so incredibly sweet as he helps her out of her jeans, flicking his thumb against her unshaved kneecap and grinning wide.

She’s young enough that she doesn’t know much about sex. Thalia had done it, she knows, because Thalia’s the one who’d given her the talk in a back alley somewhere just outside of Queens, but Annabeth doesn’t really know about it.

She knows that the first time will hurt, but she doesn’t know just how much it will hurt without a little foreplay to settle her nerves long enough for her to get her slick and ready, so when he moves too quickly after he’s inside, she fists a hand in his shirt and gasps, “Slow down.”

He doesn’t slow down and it doesn’t get better, it hurts and hurts, and when he’s done, she’s overwhelmingly relieved.

After, he gets up and drives her home with her still hunched up in the bed of the truck, tears stuck in her lashes. He doesn’t help her out and doesn’t really say anything, just revs the shitty engine and gets out of there.

The next time she sees him, he laughs at her, and says some truly horrible things about her to the friends he’s got grouped in a loose circle around them.

She leaves the shopping plaza with fury curdling her veins and for the first time in almost three years, thinks about Nico’s face and the glow of people’s souls in the palm of his hand, the way the edges blacked and shriveled depending on just how awful the person was. She thinks about Nico and her bone towers and wonders what he would do, if she handed him Jaime’s soul with a smile on her face.

She doesn’t, of course.

Instead, she goes home and curls up with a book in the biggest paddock, and when Mr. Brunner asks her if she’s alright, she says she’s fine. Because that’s what you do, isn’t it? When people ask how you are and you feel like the world is spinning too fast. You pretend you’re fine.

She doesn’t kill Jaime, not that summer or the summers that follow, but she thinks about it.

.

After Leo, he sleeps with an upperclassman named Luke, who looks nothing like Nico with his blonde hair, tan skin, and perpetual, mysteriously unexplainable smell of salt and sand. They don’t date, because Luke is the quarterback on their football team and has a pretty girlfriend to be his beard for a reason, but they do have sex, enthusiastically and often.

Luke lives in a pretty shitty area, the kind of sketchy neighborhood that makes Percy’s look good, so when Percy gets held at gunpoint one night on his way home from Luke’s, still stinking of sex, he’s only slightly surprised.

He has to fight back the urge to make snarky comments at the two guys who are telling him to turn out his pockets, because he knows how this goes. He’s lived in New York City all his life, and he knows not to provoke the men with guns. So he turns out his pockets, which only have enough change to get back home in them, and sighs when they start yelling again.

“Look, that’s it, seriously,” Percy tells them, as gently as possible. “I don’t have anything else on me.”

They exchange looks over his head, narrow-eyed and mean, and when one presses a rough finger over the hickey Luke had left on Percy’s neck and says, “He’s kind of pretty, for a fag,” Percy feels the first real frisson of fear go down his spine. There’s anger there too, because really? A slur? But mostly, he’s suddenly very aware of the gun that’s still nudged up against his skull, and the horribly morbid, inappropriate thought that between the leftover lube and Luke’s come, he’s still wet, so at least if they rape him it won’t be as bad as it could have been.

He’s managed to give one of them a bloody nose and possibly broken the other’s rib, though his jeans and boxers are halfway down his thighs, when Nico appears out of the shadows, seventeen again, and livid.

It’s the first time he’s really seen Nico with an emotion other than zen tranquility on his face and it shocks Percy right down to his core, the way Nico’s lip curls into a snarl as he takes hold of the bigger one’s collar and slams his face into the side of the building. There’s a sickening crunch and the man that Nico’s got a hold of slumps to the ground like a bag of meat. The other curses and scrambles off of Percy, looking around frantically, trying to locate whoever just took out his buddy. Percy takes advantage of the distraction and scrambles for something, anything, to use as a weapon, and… finds a rock.

Which he uses. To bash the other guy’s skull in.

It’s over quickly; a rock to the temple, especially if the rock is sharp, is a suitable enough weapon, and if used correctly, is incredibly effective.

Percy is left with blood on his hands and a glowering Nico, who crosses the space between them and takes hold of Percy’s chin, jerking up on it sharply, and using it as a hand-hold to manhandle Percy around, checking him over for damages.

Percy goes quiet, letting Nico do what he wants, even though adrenaline is still surging through him, making his heart pound. He lets Nico gently tug his jeans back up his hips, lets him brush careful fingers over the bruise spanning the entire left side of Percy’s face.

“Were you here for me?” Percy asks quietly, searching Nico’s face for anything other than quiet, furious rage. He finds it, Nico’s head snapping up, eyes going sharply to Percy’s, and then the anger just drains right out of him, easy as a sigh.

“No,” Nico tells him, carding an easy hand through Percy’s hair. “I was here for them.”

.

Annabeth gets her GED when she’s sixteen after she spends two long weeks forging various papers and placing photos until she’s got a pathetically easily faked identity.

She shows them to Mr. Brunner, because she doesn't actually want to keep this secret from him.

“Annabeth Chapman, from Lawrence,” he muses, touching the pads of his callused fingers to the documents. Everything is there, from birth certificates to social security cards, so she just watches for his reaction. He looks up at her and smiles, a bit lopsided, and says, “Chapman actually suits you.”

Three weeks later, on her way to the next farm over she stops walking when she spots Nico on the side of the highway, next to an overturned semi-truck. He doesn’t look little anymore. He’s old and stooped with liver spots dotting his temple, but she can tell it’s him. She blinks and lifts her hand in a wave, brain stuttering over a thought she’d had almost two years ago. She looks at him, crouched in the grass with his hands hovering over something hidden by the bulk of the truck, and wonders what he would do if she gave him a soul.

Something warm and wriggling with emotion inserts itself into the space between her ribs and she bites her lip, considering all the possibilities she’d have if she made a tower out of human bones.

It’s a bit like the Tower of Babel, she thinks. Building a tower high enough to touch heaven itself. Only in her case, the height doesn’t matter quite as much as the rot of the soul, and she’s not trying to touch heaven.

The idea of it grows roots and she’s already planning when Nico finally notices her hand, still outstretched, frozen mid-wave.

Bemused, he waves back, then slips into the shadow of a police car, and is gone.

.

Percy’s not proud of himself for the behavior he exhibits immediately following that particular meeting. It hadn’t lasted long, but that sudden exposure to Nico after so long apart jump starts something in Percy’s chest. His fledgling, stupid crush on the man — entity? creature? — explodes after Nico walked him home that night.

Percy stops sleeping with Luke. He doesn’t even feel put out when Luke doesn’t react apart from a shrug and an offered fist to bump.

What he’s not proud of is the way that he takes to loitering in the bad parts of town, keeping a watchful eye out for a glimpse of Nico on the streets. People die all the time, he thinks. How hard can it really be?

When that idea ends with him in the ER getting a knife wound stitched up in his side, he’s forced to consider coming up with a better plan.

Nico though, makes it easy, because while Percy is recovering, waving off good-intentioned nurses who still remember him from his youth, he comes and props himself up on the end of Percy’s bed, raising a single eyebrow in his direction. He doesn’t look very amused, young again, back in the pre-pubescent form that Percy hasn’t seen since he was in middle school himself. It’s weird, seeing him that short now, after Percy’s gotten so used to looking up at him.

“You’re trying to find me, aren’t you,” Nico accuses, a frown pulling his features tight. In his older forms, that expression is foreboding. On this one, it’s just cute — like a ten year old who's been inconvenienced by his chores.

Percy, who can’t really deny it, shrugs and offers a sheepish smile. “Can you really blame me?”

Nico scowls. It is, somehow, even more adorable than the frown. “Yes,” he hisses. “You are literally courting death, Jackson. Do you have any idea how dumb that is?”

“In my defense,” Percy protests, shifting under the scratchy hospital sheets. “It’s kind of a recent development.”

When Nico scoffs, he flaps a hand in Percy’s direction, like he can’t bear to look at him any longer. He squirms further onto the bed, leaning back against the footrest with his knees drawn up to his chin.

“There are safer ways to do this, y’know,” Nico offers, after the silence has long passed into uncomfortable territory.

“Do what?”

Nico’s cheeks go a delicate pink and suddenly the chart near Percy’s foot appears to be incredibly interesting. “Seeing me,” he mumbles. “There are easier ways to find me than just hanging around street corners and hoping you’ll see someone get shot.”

“I’m open to ideas,” Percy tells him, shrugging. He immediately winces when the movement pulls on his stitches.

Nico’s head whips back up and his lip curls. “What’s the place that death will always, always make an appearance?” he deadpans.

Percy considers. “I don’t know, a graveyard?”

Nico rolls his eyes at him, then kicks out at Percy’s leg. It’s gentle, barely more than a tap, but it surprises Percy so much that he lurches backwards, rocking into his pillows. It tugs on the stitches more than shrugging had and though he tries to contain the wince, he doesn’t entirely succeed.

The tip of Nico’s toe brushes his in an almost-apology, but the look on his face only briefly softens before he says, “No, you idiot. A hospital.”

“Oh,” Percy says intelligently.

.

“I brought you a present,” Annabeth tells Nico, glancing over her shoulder to where he’s standing, eying her totem with a skeptical eye. It’s not quite as impressive as she would have liked, and would be more aesthetically pleasing if she’d stripped the flesh first, but she’s pleased with the way the man’s eyes are still wide with horror, his mouth caught forever in a silent scream. She files that away for next time, cocking her head as she considers what chemical would be suitable for the task.

Nico raises a single eyebrow and says, “I’m not well-versed in human culture, but most people don’t give others dead bodies as a present.”

She snorts, watching as he pulls a soul black as tar from the man’s chest. It’s long and stringy, dotted with ragged holes. The sight of it makes her sick. “I’m not giving you his body,” she tells him. “I’m giving you his soul.”

“You know,” Nico remarks, ghosting a finger across the stitches in the man’s throat, eyebrows furrowed as if he’s lost in thought. “There’s a boy in New York who can see me the way you can. His mother gave me a similar gift.”

Curious. She hadn’t thought that anyone else could see Nico. “Who’d she give you?”

“Her husband,” Nico replies nonchalantly, blinking her way with sleepy eyes. “The boy’s stepfather. He wasn’t a very nice person.”

Annabeth cocks her head at him, but Nico shrugs at her and changes the subject.

They don’t discuss the fact that she’s killed someone, not really. They carefully side-step and tap-dance their way around the subject and when he goes, she’s kind of glad that he didn’t ask her why she did it, because she doesn’t have much of an answer. She did it because she wanted to. Because the idea of a creation made of viscera that is entirely hers sends a pleasant chill down her spine.

Chris Moore was a horrible person. The bruises on his family’s skin were always firmly ignored whenever the Moores walked by, at least until it came to the disgusting rumors about how a delivery boy had caught him fucking his own daughter in a field one week.

Annabeth killed a man, a horrifyingly human man, because no one should have to suffer the way Katrina and her mom had. But mostly, she’d killed him because she liked the idea of making such an ugly person into something so terrible that it came out on the other side stunning.

.

Percy graduates from high school on a warm, sunny day and after taking a late lunch with his mother, he celebrates by spending the afternoon in the hospital.

He meets up with Nico in the cafeteria, halfway through hour three of his shift, when he’s going to fetch Mr. Robinson’s meal.

“Congratulations on living long enough to graduate,” Nico tells him flatly, surprising him from behind and bumping their elbows together affectionately.

Percy turns to him, taking in the weird bomber jacket that Nico’s got draped over his shoulders, a grin already on his face. The guy in line behind Percy gives him a weird look, so Percy ladles a modest amount of the mystery stew into a bowl and stays silent until he manages to duck into the privacy of an empty room.

“Thanks,” Percy says, setting the food down on a nearby table and leaning back onto it to get a better look at Nico. He lets a flirty little smile tease around his lips, makes sure that his legs are spread enough to draw Nico’s attention, and teases, “It was a bit touch and go there for awhile, but I seem to have some kind of guardian angel looking out for me.”

Nico snorts, crossing his arms over his skinny chest, his eyes flickering once down Percy’s body. Something like interest flashes there, and Percy’s grin widens. He wants to fist-pump. “In some religions, I am an angel,” Nico tells him, leaning back against the wall and almost mirroring Percy’s position. He wonders if it’s intentional.

“Yeah, but you’ll never tell me which of those actually got it right,” Percy points out, stabbing a finger in Nico’s face, only marginally accusatory.

“Spoilers,” is all Nico will say to that, grinning wide as he leans in to peck Percy on the brow before vanishing into the shadows with a short laugh. Percy curses.

.

They give her a name, after her fourth.

Nico’s the one who tells her about it, when she’s waiting for the blood to drain from Tom Thornton’s body. She’s in New Jersey for this one, making the long drive by herself under the guise of visiting old friends. Mr. Brunner hadn’t been entirely happy to let her go by herself, but he trusted her judgement. Her shirt collar still smells like the cheetos she’d bought at the gas station and she hasn’t slept in thirty-six hours.

Nico has his legs tucked up underneath him and is absentmindedly devouring the piece of chocolate she’d passed him when he goes, “Y’know, they’ve given you a name.”

She tilts her head at him. “Oh?”

He nods, head bobbing up and down in sharp, jerky movements reminiscent of a puppet on a string. “Yeah. A detective down in Reno was talking about it yesterday.”

“Reno, really?” She snorts.

“People don’t stop dying in Reno just because there was a movie quote about it,” he informs her, nose in the air as he waves a hand flippantly in her direction.

She grins. “It’s from a song, genius.”

“Whatever. Don’t you want to know the name?”

She mockingly flutters her eyelashes at him and purrs, “I’m dying to know.”

He swats at her, but she dodges, peering over into the bathtub to see just how much longer she has to wait. She could just do something quicker, probably, but she has ideas for this one. And Nico’s not half-bad company.

“They’re calling you the Architect,” he tells her slowly, swallowing down the last piece of chocolate when she turns to look at him, eyes wide. He quirks that familiar awkward grin at her, and says through candy-smeared teeth, “Thought you’d like it.”

.

Percy starts college during summer quarter, because, as his mother says, he’s an overachiever. For all that he’d fucked around in high school, getting detention left and right for pranks gone wrong, he’d at least had the good sense to keep his grades up, so he manages to get a scholarship at NYU and jumps into the nursing program there with gusto.

Dorm-living is covered under the scholarship, so instead of staying at home, he moves into one of the co-ed dorms around campus and gets a roommate named Clarisse, a bull-headed girl who reminds him of Nancy Bobofit back at Yancy. They fight like cats and dogs and it’s bad enough that after one argument turns into a flat-out brawl, the RA gives him a different roommate, a mild-mannered Asian dude built like a linebacker named Frank. Frank’s a lot nicer than Clarisse was, and he’s a great cook, so, all in all Percy’s pretty happy with the arrangement.

He’s still volunteering at the hospital — or rather, is still working at the hospital because Bee and the others pulled some strings and got him on the payroll as some kind of errand boy — but he’s had to cut his shifts back a lot because of school.

He still manages to see Nico every once in a while, which is pretty awesome, even if it isn’t as often as Percy might want to.

They’ve actually upgraded to having conversations now, Percy holing himself away in the bathroom so they can chat about everything from traffic in foreign countries to video games. It gets him in trouble a couple times, but he makes up some shit about having a bad stomach. He feels bad for lying, but the way that Nico’s breath hitches on a laugh is worth the guilt.

In his second year of college, someone actually dies in the dorms. He only knows about it because Nico sneaks into his room while Frank’s out and presses his fingers into Percy’s ribs, making him yell and leap out of his computer chair.

Nico, sitting on his bed demurely, smiles innocently at him.

“You asshole,” Percy laughs, flicking him hard in the forehead. Nico laughs at him, throwing his head back to expose his throat. It distracts Percy, who spends a minute staring at the soft skin there before he snaps out of it when Nico clears his throat pointedly. When he looks back up, Nico’s smirking at him, eyes glittering with amusement.

“Hey to you, too,” Nico says, scooting further back onto Percy’s bed, so his back thunks up against the wall. He crosses his feet at the ankles and tucks them under himself.

“Who died?” Percy asks curiously, turning back to flip his textbook closed. He definitely isn’t going to get anything done with Nico in the room.

“Who says I didn’t just want to see your pretty face?” Nico teases.

Percy snorts. “Please, you’re too busy to make a house call to little old me. Who died?”

Nico jerks a head up. “One of the girls upstairs. Overdosed. You should probably call it in or something, her roommate’s down in Delaware with her boyfriend for the week.”

Percy wrinkles his nose, thinking of smelly corpses in the dorm’s heat. Their air-conditioner is more or less broken, but nobody’s been by to fix it since last summer, despite the multiple complaints. Still, he hates ‘discovering’ bodies. The cops always give him suspicious looks and ask too many questions.

“So, what’s up, other than dead girls?” he asks, twirling his pen between his fingers. He flashes Nico a smirk. “Do you even eat? I could call for pizza and we could play the new Call of Duty.”

Nico, who Percy had accidentally gotten addicted to video games in the rec room at the hospital over a year ago, bites down on his lower lip to hide his pleased grin, and shrugs. “Sure. Why not. It’s not like I can’t be everywhere at once.”

Percy rolls his eyes. “In that case, you should totally come visit me more.”

Nico’s smile widens and he pats the spot next to him, gesturing Percy over until he caves and slides onto the bed next to him. “Wouldn’t want to get too distracted,” Nico breathes, eyes on Percy’s lips. He licks his own and Percy is so close to saying fuck it and leaning in to kiss him, but in the next second Nico sighs and shifts, expression closing off.

“So,” he says, raising an eyebrow. “You promised me pizza?”

.

“So, what’s new in your life?”

Nico gives her a flat look. She watches him grimace at the soul she’s just given him, wrinkling his nose at the grey slime that oozes off of it. It’s probably the grossest one she’s seen so far. She watches, fascinated, as he stuffs it in his pocket and flicks the goop from his fingers afterwards.

“Oh, you know,” he goes. “Some kid keeps bringing me dead things.”

“Kind of like a cat that way, huh?”

He rolls his eyes at her and turns to leave. Says over his shoulder, like an afterthought. “I do like cats.”

.

Percy never got a chance to meet his dad. Most days, this doesn’t bother him. After all, how can you miss someone that you never met? He knows that his dad was the captain of some fishing vessel and that he’d died in the middle of some storm that swept through with little warning. His mom doesn’t have a picture of him, so he doesn’t even know what his dad looked like; if Percy had gotten his jawline or his ability to tan instead of burn. He doesn’t ask his mom about it either, because back when he had asked, his mom had always gotten this pinched, sad look on her face and clammed up.

When he was a kid, he went through a phase where he wanted to be just like the man he’d never met. Every week, he’d want to be something new when he grew up. A marine biologist one week, then a trainer at Seaworld the next. The week that he’d decided to be a fisherman, his mom had tried to hide her tears, but he’d noticed the redness around her eyes anyway. He hadn’t talked much about his dad after that.

Now that he’s grown, the only thing that’s survived from those couple of weeks where he was obsessed with anything ocean-related is his love of weird fish and his tendency to go to one of the piers that look out over the bay whenever he’s feeling nostalgic.

It’s finals week of his last year at college and he’s graduating in two weeks with a shiny Bachelors. He hasn’t decided yet if he wants to come back to get his Masters, but he figures he’ll get to that later. Entry-level position is better than what he’s got now.

Percy’s not all that fond of the pier in Battery Park. It’s old and feels empty, nothing like the busy docks that his mom used to take him to when he was little, the ones bustling with fishermen, dozens of old boats tethered to the old, salt-worn wood. For all that Battery Park is a busy place, Percy can’t help but look out across the water and think of how very lonely it is.

He sits there anyway, legs dangling over the water and watches the reflection of the moon in the waves, the brine clinging to the weathered wood. There are little fish below him that he could see if it were daytime, but now the water is black, so dark that he thinks he could just slip right into the shadows underneath.

Someone shuffles up behind him, feet heavy on the creaky wood, but that’s normal. Even this late, there are joggers milling around, couples going for a late-night stroll. He doesn’t even blink until the person takes a seat next to him, their sides brushing together. It’s uncomfortably close, especially for a New Yorker, so he sighs and turns, ready to politely tell whoever it is to fuck off, because he’s really not interested in any company.

Percy blinks when he finds Nico staring back at him, arms folded over the railing with his chin hooked over them, cheek pillowed against his upper arm. He peers at Percy curiously, legs kicking back and forth over the water, like he’s a little kid. His head is cocked and he’s smiling, a little slant to his mouth that makes his eyes light up.

Percy hasn’t seen him in over two months, between cutting his shifts down to nothing at the hospital and all the schoolwork. The last time he’d seen him, they’d gone out for Thai food and laughed themselves sick at the look on the old couple’s faces when they realized the order was for just one guy. Looking at Nico now, Percy realizes that he looks good. Really good, stubble on his cheeks and face creased with lines, but he looks a healthy forty now, rather than the gaunt skeleton of a middle-aged man that Percy is used to. He’s even wearing a suit, tie gleaming red against his pale neck. Percy doesn’t think he’s ever seen him in a suit before.

“This is a change,” Percy snorts, shifting on the boards beneath him. His ass is going numb, a little bit. “Usually I find you, not the other way around. Stick with the script, man. Unless—”

“I’m not here for you, Percy,” Nico interrupts him gently, bumping their sides together easily. Percy’s gotten so used to seeing Nico as his age or younger that it surprises him, just how much taller Nico is like this. “I was in the neighborhood.”

“Lemme guess — a jumper?”

Nico frowns at him, like he’s going to chide Percy for making death into a game, but after a moment, he just sighs and shakes his head. “Hit and run, actually. Couple streets over.”

“Not even water related. Now, that’s a tragedy,” Percy snarks, pleased when Nico actually rolls his eyes and punches him in the arm, a reluctant grin on his lips.

“I forgot how much of an asshole you are, Jackson,” he snorts. Percy bats his eyelashes at him.

“No, you really didn’t.”

Nico sighs. “No, I didn’t. That’s okay, though. I kind of like you like this, even if you are a complete brat.”

Percy gasps in mock outrage, ignoring the look he gets from a stray jogger who gets close enough to hear him seemingly talking to himself. She jogs away, a little bit faster, and Percy doesn’t even bat an eyelash. “Me, a brat? Why, I never.”

Nico bops him on the nose. It’s an affectionate gesture, one that he’s used multiple times just since Percy’s been at college, but this time, he gets distracted along the way, his hand sliding down Percy’s face until he’s cupping his jaw. Nico presses his fingers to Percy’s pulse, so Percy tilts his head back obligingly, and desperately wishes for Nico to kiss him there.

It’s not like he hasn’t gotten laid. He’s in college. Percy’s slept with guys and girls alike, sometimes even at the same time, but this, with Nico, has always been different. Will always be different. Nico’s the person that he sees behind every crappy one-night stand, every failed relationship — Nico’s the reason that most of the relationships that Percy’s tried have died a miserable death.

Apparently, according to his last girlfriend — who had lasted a grand total of a month and a half — it is incredibly obvious that he’s in love with somebody else. He hadn’t even had the heart to deny it, because it was true. Percy’s been half in love with a man whose age varies depending on the week and who is the literal personification of death since he was eleven years old.

It’s only gotten worse over the years, since he and Nico have actually started hanging out whenever he’s nearby.

Three months ago, Percy had fallen asleep tucked around Nico, and when he’d woken up the next morning, Nico had still been there, tucked tantalizingly up against Percy’s morning wood and seemingly surprised that he’d fallen asleep too.

Now, with Nico’s callused fingers brushing over his skin, he wants nothing more than to lean forward. To take a leap.

“You should kiss me,” he breathes, feeling Nico’s fingers stutter against his neck. Percy’s watching him with hooded eyes, so he sees the way that Nico licks his lips, the way that he makes some kind of aborted movement towards Percy, stopping when there’s a few inches between them.

“I shouldn’t—” Nico whispers, breath flitting over Percy’s skin. “We shouldn’t—”

“Nico,” Percy says gently, raising a hand so he can wrap it around Nico’s wrist. He holds it there, keeping Nico’s palm pressed to his neck, and meets Nico’s eyes. “I’ve wanted you for a long time. Whatever excuse you’re about to give me, trust me, I’ve thought of it. And I don’t care.”

Nico makes a noise, tiny and choked, like he’s been crushed and gutted, and closes the distance between them.

It’s a good kiss. Surprisingly good, even. He’d half-expected it to be horrible, just because of how much he’s built the idea up in his head over the years. But no, it’s… just what he’d wanted, starting out slow and easy, then morphing to something more, something hot and intense.

Percy shudders when Nico’s fingers skate down his sides and pulls back long enough to gasp, “We should head somewhere where I won’t be thrown into a mental institution for having sex with myself in the middle of a park.”

Nico grins wickedly at him and Percy can’t even make out his pupils his eyes are so black. Nico kisses him again, just the once, stubble scratching at Percy’s neck as his lips drift up Percy’s jaw, until he reaches his ear. “Watch this,” he breathes hotly, and then they’re sliding backwards into the shadow, and the next thing Percy knows, they’re thumping down onto his bed and Nico’s sprawled over him, lips red and wet, looking thoroughly debauched.

“How did you—”

“Trick of the trade,” Nico tells him with a chuckle, kissing him again until Percy’s breathless with want, panting into Nico’s mouth, dick pressed somewhere into the vicinity of Nico’s stomach. Just when he’s starting to think that this may end with him coming in his pants like a teenager, Nico shifts off of him, pulling back just enough to yank Percy’s shirt over his head and shedding his own in the process. His fingers knot in his tie and Percy goes breathless all over again, has to lean up so he can use the tie to yank Nico in for another desperate kiss.

Nico laughs at him, rolling their hips together before gently prying Percy’s fingers loose. “Patience,” he chides, and Percy scowls at him.

He scrambles off the bed long enough to shed his jeans and boxers, then, when Nico doesn’t move fast enough, grabs at Nico’s pants and yanks them off as well. When they’re both naked, Percy gives Nico a pleased smile, and slides onto the other man’s lap, pushing Nico back onto the bed properly.

He leans in, wrapping both hands around Nico’s wrist and pressing them back, until they’re stretched over his head. Nico shivers and Percy, grinning, grinds his ass against Nico’s dick and says, “I’ve wanted you to fuck me since I was fourteen years old, I think I’ve been patient enough.”

Nico eyes blaze and he surges against Percy, thrusting up, dick sliding between his asscheeks. He groans loudly and Percy laughs, letting go of Nico’s wrists so he can make a grab for the condoms and lube in his side drawer. He hesitates, fumbling the box of condoms, and turns to Nico, an eyebrow raised curiously.

“Do I even need one of these?” Percy asks, cocking his head. “I don’t— I mean, you aren’t really human, so—”

Nico breathes deeply through his nose, long lashes fluttering against sharp cheekbones. He looks pained when he admits, “I haven’t had sex in two centuries and before that, it was even longer, so no, you don’t need one.”

“Sweet,” Percy says, tossing the condom back in next to a little baggie of weed and the pipe he only breaks out on special occasions.

It doesn’t take too long to prepare himself. At this point, he’s got this down to a science, and while he enjoys taking the extra time to let someone finger him open slowly, until he’s a writhing wreck, he doesn’t have the patience for that, not now that he’s finally got Nico beneath him. He tells Nico as much, gasping as he works himself open. Breathes, “Next time.”

When Percy finally slides down onto Nico’s dick, they both groan, probably too loudly judging by the thump on his wall.

If Percy were smart, he’d go slow and actually savor the moment. In his fantasies, he’s always done that, teasing Nico until he’s gasping, but who is he kidding. After years, there was never going to be a chance of them going slow.

It’s fast and rough, almost desperate. Percy rides Nico like he’s trying to win a race and when even that isn’t enough, he flips them around so that Nico can fuck into him harder and faster, until the headboard is slapping against the wall with every thrust. Just as he’s about to come, Nico reaches around, hooks two fingers into Percy’s mouth and somehow manages to fuck him even harder, until Percy can feel it in his fucking bones.

He comes. Explosively. Letting out a wail so loud that his neighbors are going to hate him for days.

Percy almost pulls something in his neck trying to get enough leverage to look over his shoulder, watching Nico’s face twist in pleasure, cheeks flushed as his mouth stretches open on a moan. Nico’s fingers stutter on Percy’s hips, and he cries out sharply, tossing his head back as he comes. He slumps across Percy’s back, chin scratchy against his shoulder, and just stays there.

“So,” Percy says, once they’ve both regained their breath. “That was pretty fucking awesome.”

Nico snorts, nuzzling his face against the side of Percy’s neck. He’s going to have so much stubble-burn. So much. Awesome.

“I should probably go,” Nico tells him reluctantly almost thirty minutes later, when Percy’s drifting in and out of sleep. He frowns, latching onto Nico and curling around him like an octopus.

“Nooooo,” he slurs, fighting desperately to open his eyes. “Stay with me.”

There’s a sound like a sigh from nearby, and Percy knows he’s won before Nico says, “Just ‘til morning.”

He lets out a sleepy little cheer.

.

Annabeth moves to New York just as summer is giving way to fall, the leaves in Central Park beginning to turn yellow on their branches as the shops fill up with Halloween decorations and discount candy. As a general rule, she doesn’t like cities much. She visits them, drives miles and miles from Mr. Brunner’s farm to search out her kills, but she’s still not entirely sure about actually living in one.

Every alleyway makes her think of Thalia’s blood pooling on cracked pavement, and she has to walk a little faster past them, because even she can’t outrun that particular memory. One day, it’s going to catch up to her.

It’s NYU, though. A scholarship to NYU, because she got awesome scores on her SAT, and she can’t just pass that up. She can’t.

So she gets her shit together, promises Mr. Brunner — “It’s about time you called me Chiron, Annabeth, honestly.” — that she’ll visit, and moves into a crappy studio apartment near the main campus.

Everyone knows that the worst sort of people live in New York anyway. It’ll be good for her.

.

The day that he graduates from college, Nico’s skulking in the shadows near the stage, offering Percy a grin when he passes on his way to collect his diploma. He’s not there anymore when Percy turns back, and he doesn’t see him at all when he and his mom go out for a celebratory dinner, but when Percy gets back to his house, Nico lets Percy fuck him in his childhood bedroom.

It’s fantastic.

It’s also the last time that Percy sees Nico for longer than five to ten minutes at the hospital before he meets Annabeth.

.

She’s gasping for breath, holding tight to her injured wrist when Nico slides out of the shadows behind her and remarks, disconcertingly mild, “That was stupid of you.”

Annabeth sneers at him. “Is he—”

“Don’t worry,” he tells her, examining his ragged nails. They’re chipped around the edges, like he’s been using them to claw at something. They look like Roberta Water’s had, after the woman spent an hour trying to wildly claw her way out of an old well filled with piranhas. The water had only come up to her waist and Annabeth had managed to hoist her up before they had gotten to her upper half. It wasn’t her most original idea, but the result had been perfect. “I took care of it.”

All the breath that’s been building up in her lungs since her kill got the jump on her leaves Annabeth’s body in a rush. For a moment, she just sways, dizzy with relief. Nico sighs when he gets a look at her properly, reluctantly sliding over so that she can lean on him. His hair, which smells oddly of smoke and expensive cologne, brushes against her cheek. She shivers, hissing in pain when the movement jars her wrist.

“One of these days,” Nico tells her, almost fond, “You’re going to get yourself into trouble and I won’t be here to save you.”

She snorts. “Please. Asshole would have died from blood loss anyway.”

“But he could have lived long enough to tell somebody what you looked like.”

“Big deal. So they’ll know that some girl with blonde hair is killing people in New York City. It’s not like they would have known that I was the Architect, even if they had identified me as his attacker.”

Nico’s quiet, watching raindrops drip slowly off of the fire escape above their heads. “It was still a stupid mistake.”

She nods. “Yeah, it was.”

“And we need to get you to the hospital now.”

“Yeah,” she sighs. “Probably.”

“Close your eyes.”

Obligingly, Annabeth closes them, feeling the earth shift out from under her. She wrinkles her nose at the feel of shadows on her skin. Nico has only had to do this a few times with her along, but she still doesn’t like the feeling of the darkness in the not-space that they occupy before reorienting somewhere else. It’s oddly alive, moving against her skin like it knows her, like it wants to burrow into her veins and take up the spaces between her bones.

When she opens them, they’re just outside the hospital, nurses in green and blue scrubs bustling around inside the building.

Annabeth is beginning to think that every single mistake she will ever make will lead to a huge, life-altering, foundation-shaking event. Thalia was the worst of them, and sometimes she still wakes up in a cold sweat, the memory of Thalia’s shadow on the pavement haunting her, but the mistake that lead to Thalia’s death also lead her to Nico and thus paved the way to who she is — what she is — now.

Another had lead to Mr. Brunner.

This mistake surely won’t be quite so life-changing, she hopes, leaning against Nico until a nurse takes her away.

.

Percy’s been working for a straight forty-eight hours and hasn’t seen Nico once in that time the day that he meets Annabeth.

He’s at the point where he is literally pissing and shitting nothing but espresso and the shit coffee in the break room, and is starting to think that his hands are shaking too severely to hold a thermometer much less an epidural when he stumbles into an Annabeth Chapman’s room.

The girl’s chart is lackluster and it seems pretty cut and dry. She’s got a broken wrist. He can see that just by looking at it, and if he could tell her that instead of making her waste money on an x-ray, he would.

He thinks he mumbles something to that extent, eyes valiantly attempting to focus on her file long enough to write on it when he hears the girl cough slightly.

Percy blinks, forcibly making himself look away from the chart. Right. No reason to be rude. He’s tired, has a raging headache throbbing behind his eyes, and he’s strongly considering proposing to his mattress, but that doesn’t mean he has to be a complete dickbag.

“Sorry,” he says, shaking his head in the hopes of clearing it. “Haven’t slept in a while. I’m a little out of it.”

The girl sitting on the table in the middle of the room gives him a halfhearted smirk, her eyes hooded. She looks nearly as tired as he does, listing heavily to the left, her entire body curled around her injured wrist. She’s attractive enough, the kind of pretty that Katy Perry and Snoop Dog sang about every second of the day on almost every radio station a couple years ago, with a deep tan and freckles dotted across her nose. He’s willing to bet she’s got them on her shoulders too. Her sun-dark skin sets off the gold in her blonde hair.

He’s tired enough that he might give in to stereotyping her, just a little, because it honestly surprises him when she opens her mouth and says, “Tell me about it. I’ve got an exam in Computational Design in about… oh, eight hours and haven’t slept since yesterday afternoon.”

“At least you broke your left hand,” he says, then pauses. “Oh god, you aren’t left-handed, are you?”

She laughs, eyes crinkling up at the corners. It’s absurdly cute. “Nope. Right-handed, thank god. Otherwise we’d have a real problem on our hands.”

She very carefully makes the movement that is universally known to represent jazz hands and he snorts. “Puns, nice. You really must be as sleep-deprived as I am.”

“Hey,” she protests mildly. “I’ll have you know that I am very funny. But only when I’m tired. All my friends tell me so. At least, they would if I had any friends.”

He bursts into surprised laughter, catching himself with a hand to the nearby counter so that he doesn’t end up falling ass over teakettle in front of a patient. It’s happened before and he isn’t particularly keen on repeating the experience. “Okay, Megara,” he teases, amused when the tips of her ears go bright red. “Let’s take a picture of that hand of yours, so it can tell us what we both already know.”

They pass the time playing twenty questions and he learns that she’s studying architecture at NYU, that she’s from a small town in Kansas, and that she’s got the most contagious laugh that he’s ever heard. She reminds him of Nico a bit, with her dry, dorky sense of humor, and the way she sometimes falters in the middle of her sentences as if she’s not quite used to taking the time to talk to actual people.

By the time he’s done setting her cast, he’s already horribly fond of her, and just tired enough to grin her way and say, “Hey, we should maybe hang out some time. Watch a movie or get some food.”

She raises an eyebrow at him. “Are you asking me out right now?”

“No!” he protests, laughing off the sudden creeping horror at the realization that yes, that probably had sounded like he’d been asking her out. “No, no, sorry. I’ve got a boyfriend, but you’re pretty cool and I don’t know? It might be nice to do something other than go straight home to crash on the couch after work.”

She rolls her eyes at him, wrinkling her nose as she scratches the skin just under her cast. She considers him for a moment, then nods decisively. “You know what, sure. It’s probably healthy to interact with actual human beings, right?” Without pausing for an answer, she makes a grabby motion with her good hand. “Give me your number.”

He smiles, handing over his phone.

.

Nico’s waiting for her when she steps out of the hospital and she makes a face at him, stepping in close to his side so that no one else hears her say, “Chivalrous of you. And here I thought I’d have to hire a cab.”

He rolls his eyes and shoves her. “I don’t even want to know what’s got you in such a good mood. Hospitals don’t usually do it for most people.”

She shrugs at him. “I met a guy. He’s got a boyfriend, so it’s not like that, but he seems… nice. Funny. It seemed like it would be a good excuse to spend time with a human that I wasn’t planning on killing.”

Nico gives her this look that she doesn’t even know what to do with and offers her his arm. “I’m not even going to bother replying to that.”

“Don’t worry,” she teases, hooking her good arm into the crook of his elbow. “I won’t replace you.”

.

“We can’t keep doing this,” Nico tells him abruptly, jaw tight. They’re both still naked, lounging around sleepily. Percy blinks at him, surprised, before he realizes.

It’s self-preservation. Nico is a creature who is going to last for at least another millennia and Percy, Percy is going to die someday. And Nico will have to be the one to tug his soul from his chest. They’ve been doing so good, making this work even if they don’t see each other as much as they’d like to, but it’s the shadow of pain in Nico’s eyes that makes Percy truly understand just how much this is going to hurt him when Percy’s gone.

It’s self-preservation and Percy knows that, but he still feels the ache, just beneath his ribs.

He grins through the pain, elbows Nico in the side, and says, “Okay.”

.

Annabeth is having a good day. The sun is shining and the sky is that pleasant shade of blue that makes her think of long, quiet afternoons at the ranch with Blackjack nibbling at the ends of her braid. The smog of the city isn’t even bothering her all that much, because it’s a great day and she has a not-date with the nice nurse who’d helped set her cast, so she’s taking the stairs to Percy’s apartment two at a time, whistling under her breath with a bag of take-out swinging from her fingers.

Then she sees him and the entire day goes to shit, her chest seizing up with ice.

Nico looks small, curled up outside of Percy’s door, his knees pulled up to his chin and his face pressed to the tops of him.

“No,” she breathes, eyes wide, barely noticing it when the bag of takeout tumbles to the floor. Nico’s head jerks up at her voice and when he sees her, his eyes go big and watery, and she’s stumbling towards him before she can stop herself.

“No, no, no,” Annabeth hears herself saying from afar, hands fluttering around Nico’s shoulders. She wants to touch him as much as she wants to slap him, but she’s just hesitating, heart in her throat. She’s overreacting, she knows that. She only just met Percy, hasn’t even had the chance to properly get to know him yet, but she likes him, and that’s not something that she can say about most people.

“Not him,” she’s saying as her hands finally land on Nico’s shoulders, her knees thumping dully on the stained, shitty carpet. “Please, please, don’t say—”

“Annabeth,” Nico interrupts in that soft, dry voice of his. Dimly, she registers that her hands are trembling, but can’t bring herself to care. “Annabeth,” Nico says again. “He’s fine. Percy — he’s fine, he’s not—”

Nico cuts himself off, breath hitching with something that’s half dry sob, half hysterical laughter. That, more than anything, is what shakes her out of the haze of fear, because she’s known Nico since she was a little girl and he’s not like this. Nico takes her kills from her with a detached smile on his face, talks to her over their dying bodies, sometimes even gives her pointers. He’s kind enough to wait for her to finish up in the hospital so that she doesn’t have to get a cab home and has a horribly morbid sense of humor, but he’s Nico. He doesn’t do human emotion, not the way that she knows it.

There are tears in his eyes, though, and that is more important than lunch and marathons of old cartoons with a boy she kind of likes.

“Hey, hey,” she murmurs, wrapping her arms around him carefully. “It’s okay, Nico. What’s wrong?”

He lets out another not-sob and she bites her lip, squeezing his shoulder as she gets to her feet. She goes back for the Chinese, happy that nothing’s actually spilled, and when she gets back, she kind of nudges Nico to the side a bit, so that he’s tucked firmly out of sight.

“Stay right here,” she tells him, and raises her fist to knock.

Percy himself looks about as bad as Nico does when he answers the door. His eyes are rimmed red and he looks like he’s haphazardly thrown on whatever clothes he could get his hands on. He blinks at her slowly, almost owlish, and she gives him a rueful smile and teases, “Forgot, huh?”

Percy blinks again, head tilting to the right as he squints at her. “Oh,” he says after a long moment has passed. “Shit, yeah, sorry. I forgot that we were supposed to hang out. I—”

She shakes her head, cutting him off with a smile, hyper-aware of Nico’s presence a few feet away. “It’s okay, I actually just got a phonecall from one of my classmates. She needs some major last-minute help with something, but I figured I might as well pass lunch off to you since I was already downstairs.”

He stares at the bag of Chinese food that Annabeth dangles in front of him and slowly takes it from her. God, he looks awful. “So,” she says, when it becomes apparent that he’s not going to. “Raincheck?”

“Yeah,” he whispers, still looking pale and lost. “Yeah, that’d— that would be good.”

She nods firmly, giving him another stilted grin, and keeps smiling all the way through their goodbyes, until Percy is closing the door in her face.

Then she stoops down next to Nico, curls her fingers into the collar of the t-shirt he’s wearing, and pulls him to his feet.

“C’mon,” she tells him, making sure his feet are under him properly before getting a hand looped around his waist so she can guide him down the hallway. “You’re coming with me.”

Nico’s never actually been in her apartment before. They’ve had conversations next to corpses and occasionally seen each other when there wasn’t a dead body involved, but well. She doesn’t want to call it a professional relationship, exactly, but Nico’s the creature that she passes souls off to, the thing that she’s been borderline obsessed with since the first time she saw him. They don’t do house calls or have lunch dates. They aren’t exactly friends, despite the fact that he knows every nook and cranny of her soul better than she ever will.

So Nico’s never seen her place before, which makes it all the more surprising when he makes a beeline towards her living room, easily navigating the book-shaped landmines stacked in the hallway like he’s done this a hundred times, before disappearing around the corner.

When she catches up with him, he’s shorter and less-stubbly, curled up around the afghan that Chiron gave her before she left. He’s younger than she’s ever seen him before.

He peers up at her over the corner of her blanket when she takes a seat next to him and doesn’t say anything, just stares resolutely at her until she sighs and crosses the room to turn the television on.

“I’d say this calls for some Disney,” she tells him awkwardly, flipping open the case to Beauty and the Beast and shoving the disc into her battered DVD player.

“You don’t have to tell me what’s wrong,” she says after she’s settled back in beside him. “But I’m here, okay? I won’t ask how you know Percy or anything like that, not if you don’t want to tell me, but— you look like you could use a friend right now.”

Even as she says it, she realizes the connection. Nico’s the boyfriend. It’s a bit of a leap, maybe, but she can’t imagine just any human making Nico cry. And god, that means that Percy can see him. She thinks about it, staring at a wayward cowlick at the top of Nico’s head, and wonders about a story he told her, of a boy in New York, whose mother had killed her husband because he was hurting her child.

Nico’s head tilts back onto her shoulder and she reaches up to pet his hair, feeling inexplicably awkward. She’s not used to this — any of this. The closest human relationship she’s ever had was probably Thalia, and Nico knows just how well that turned out. Even with Mr. Brunner, she’d never really opened up to him. She’s socially awkward because she doesn’t let people in, and she’s better at disposing of dead bodies than dealing with ones that are still living, but she can usually fake her way through it. With Nico, she thinks, she doesn’t really have to. Fake it, that is.

He’s not human and knows what Annabeth does with her spare time, so she can sit on a couch with him for a couple hours and listen to him cry.

She doesn’t like it, because Nico cries like he’s dying once he finally breaks down completely halfway through the movie. It’s surprising how much the sound of it tears at her very soul, makes her want to be someone who can offer him comfort.

He cries and eats her chocolate when she offers it to him and when he starts shaking, she rubs his back, little soothing circles that make him gasp shallow breaths into her shoulder.

Once Beauty and the Beast is over, she puts in Monsters Inc. and orders pizza, because she can — because she has Death sitting on her couch and sobbing like he’s feeling a millenia of pain at once — and against all odds, it’s this creature that makes her actually want to be a better human.

She doesn’t kiss him, because he looks like a seven year old and snorts snot everywhere when Mike and Sully do something stupid on the television, but sitting there, with the warmth of him tucked up against her, she really thinks about it. She thinks about the stilted, muttering fragments that Nico lets slip between wracking sobs, about his relationship with Percy and how he’s always been so brave and how Nico might actually love him, and isn’t that awful? Isn’t that the worst, Annabeth?

She doesn’t kiss him because he looks like he’s seven years old and has somehow managed to shatter his heart to pieces breaking up with his boyfriend, but she thinks about it.

.

Later that week, when Annabeth comes over to his apartment with her schoolbooks and a towering stack of MARVEL movies, she eyes him dubiously and asks why he’s moping around in sweatpants and eating ice cream by the gallon.

Percy shrugs at her and tries to grin. It hurts worse than when he’d tried to smile at Nico and pretend he wasn’t tearing himself apart inside.

“Bad breakup,” he explains, taking another bite of mint chocolate chip.

She doesn’t press for details.

.

The problem with Percy Jackson, Annabeth is beginning to realize, is that the more time you spend with him, the more you like him. He’s a genuinely nice person, with smiles that dwarf his stupid face and eyes that twinkle like the sun on the sea whenever he spouts off these completely ridiculous jokes that, against all odds, actually make her laugh.

He brings her coffee whenever he’s not working, strolling onto campus still dressed in his scrubs, pushing the warm styrofoam into her hands with a lopsided smile that makes her toes curl in her sneakers. When she’s got enough time between classes, they’ll get lunch and spend the entire time talking about innocuous things that shouldn’t make her heart swell three sizes in the span of seconds, but does.

They have movie nights at either her place or his and sometimes she falls asleep on his ratty couch, waking up the next morning to the smell of waffles. They talk about everything from the book she’s reading to the days they’ve had and slowly, Percy worms himself into her heart.

It’s terrifying how fast it happens. Percy Jackson is like the happiest disease ever, digging himself beneath her skin and burrowing into her veins, where he stays, a dormant virus, content to sit inside of her and wait for just the right moment.

The hours she spends with him are so bright compared to the rest of it, eclipsed only by the hours that she spends with a bone saw and someone’s corpse. The day that she wakes up and realizes she’s in love with him she stares at her ceiling with blank eyes until the textured surface blurs into a smooth expanse of white.

She hasn’t let herself think about Nico much, because thinking about the way he looked on her couch, so small for an entity so enormously vast, makes her feel like she’s been suckerpunched with a sack of guilt. Thinking about Percy in those few weeks after Nico, so brittle that she was afraid he’d shatter if she so much as touched him, makes her feel small.

He’d gotten better slowly, but she wasn’t stupid. He might be smiling for her and laughing at her attempts at jokes, but beneath that, there’s no way he’s not still hurting, at least a little bit.

She sits in her bed that day and stares at her ceiling until her bladder forces her up, and after, she gets her food and sets out to murder the first asshole she sees in the most painful way possible. It doesn’t help much, because when the douchebag’s blood is drying on her hands and Nico shows up, he just cocks a head at her and says, “You don’t usually get your hands dirty.”

She doesn’t. Annabeth is incredibly careful about how she does things, meticulous in her planning. Murder, for her, is an art form. It requires weeks of scheming and, sometimes, actual blueprints. There’s never been any sense in going out to kill someone just because she’s angry and irrationally upset with herself. Until now.

As Nico watches her warily, Annabeth stares at the smears of blood on the wall of this random New York apartment and thinks of modern art. The swirls of red against nicotine-stained yellow walls bring to mind the canvasses that she’s seen around the city. The ones that someone has no doubt just mindlessly tossed paint at until they can claim there’s meaning lurking just beyond the chaos, out of sight.

She makes some kind of noise, small and hurt, and clenches her dripping hands close to her sides. Nico sighs at her and moves past the body, brushing a hand over it, the soul clinging to his palm like cellophane. “Let’s get you home and clean you up, okay?” he breathes, ghosting a hand over her arm too, and dragging her backwards into the shadows with him.

She kills another two days later, and another four days after that. Each time, Nico looks at the smears of red, like a child’s fingerpainting, and gently guides her home.

They’re so different from her usual kills that no one even thinks to link it to her, to The Architect. They give her a new name and profile her all wrong, and she laughs hysterically about it for a full fifteen minutes when she realizes that they’re calling her Monet. Annabeth hasn’t painted a damn thing in her life.

She hates it so much that she stops, goes back to killing people the way she’s used to.

The day after her last final she gets so drunk at her apartment that she thinks she may have unintentionally killed herself. That after everything she’s going to die with a bellyful of gin in her empty apartment and no one will be the wiser until Percy tries to come find her. She laughs herself sick and ends up puking all over the kitchen counter. When she turns around, Nico’s leaning back against her fridge, watching her heave.

“I’m not here for your soul,” he tells her when her heart tries to jump out of her chest. He eyes the vomit on the counter behind her and the sweat clinging to her temples and sighs hugely. “Go shower. I’ll clean this up.”

Annabeth thinks about his face the entire time she’s in the shower, swaying so badly that she has to fist a hand in the curtain just to stay upright. When she gets out, there are fresh pajamas laid out on her bed and a glass of water next to it. She dresses in silence.

Nico’s sitting on her couch again, knees drawn up to his ears. It makes her breath catch, deja-vu flaring up so intense that she staggers into a column of books. They’re textbooks, so it hurts, her toes protesting loudly. Nico looks at her when she drops down next to him and doesn’t even hesitate before he’s wrapping an arm around her shoulders.

It makes her feel so much worse. So much worse.

“I think I fell in love with your boyfriend,” she mumbles into his collarbone miserably, hoping that she’s not slurring as much as she thinks she is.

“Not my boyfriend,” he corrects her mildly, but even as he says it, she can feel him tensing up.

Annabeth punches him in the arm, leaning back so that she can glare at him with her horribly bloodshot eyes. “He was,” she insists, lip trembling. “You cried.”

Nico’s quiet after that, for so long that she thinks she’s pushed too far, that he’s going to leave or snap her neck, but eventually, he shifts back into her. “Percy deserves someone human,” is what he decides to go with, the idiot. Before she can punch him again, he continues. “He deserves someone that can be there for him whenever he needs them, someone that he can hold hands with in the park and take on dates. That— that isn’t me.”

She stares at Nico and for a moment, she hates him — hates that there are tears spilling down her cheeks, that this stupidly impossible creature has wormed his way into her heart too. Before Annabeth can stop herself, she’s up in his space, cupping his cheeks and kissing him all over his stupid, self-sacrificing face, smearing tears and snot into his skin.

“You stupid, stupid asshole,” she’s sobbing, choking on the force of her tears, her whole body shaking. “What if Percy deserves you?”

At that, Nico quirks a sad, half-smile at her, and presses a quick kiss to her temple. He doesn’t say anything.

.

It takes him a little over six months to realize that he’s developed feelings for Annabeth. Three weeks later, when he confesses to her over a cup of coffee, she raises a single eyebrow at him and fixes him with a look that says louder than words how stupid he’s being. She doesn’t need to say anything after that, but she does anyway, shifting in her chair.

“We’ve been more or less dating for a month now, seaweed brain. I just didn’t want to push you after your last breakup.”

“Oh,” he goes.

She smiles at him and scoots her chair around the table, until she’s right next to him. The kiss she presses to his cheek isn’t something huge like it is in fairytales, not the way it was with Nico. It’s just a kiss to the cheek; anyone could give him one and he wouldn’t question it too much. But this is Annabeth, and after that declaration, the moments they spend together mean something.

.

Dating Percy is strange. Annabeth has never really had a relationship before, because it hasn’t ever been necessary. It was easier to lose herself to schoolwork and the familiarity of a stiletto in the palm of her hand to bother herself with interacting with other humans. Sex wasn’t important to her. She’s had it since Jaime, but even that was lackluster at best, and she has Nico to talk to when she’s feeling lonely, so why bother?

There are nights where she sleeps over at his house and goes out of her skin in the quiet of the apartment, spending the hours after Percy goes to bed poring over her schoolbooks. She’s at the point in school where she has so much coursework that she sometimes just wants to kill something. Some nights, she does. She goes out and plans elaborate traps, only calming when there’s blood drying on the pavement and a new creation just waiting to be discovered. Other nights, she pushes that impulse to the side and takes Percy out for ice cream instead.

It’s real and it’s good, even if she feels guilty every time she looks at Nico.

Nico doesn’t ask about Percy, so Annabeth mention him. They talk business and death, and sometimes, they play video games while waiting for her victims to finish dying.

She doesn’t think it can last, is the thing. She doesn’t. Nico might have thought that Annabeth was the right person for Percy, but she isn't. They’re good together and she likes him a lot, but that’s the problem. He’s too good for her.

Percy is intelligent and kind. He likes sushi for some god awful reason and despite his passion for nursing, he’s got a really strange water-based obsession that’s apparently to be blamed on his father. He likes putting blue food dye in anything and everything and he actually helps little old ladies cross the street. It’s a thing that he does. Percy’s got a hero complex so vast that it amazes her sometimes that he was ever involved with Nico. She wonders, though, how that had worked. She wonders about the differences between her Percy, the man that borrowed a battered pick up truck from a friend and drove them both down to Pennsylvania one weekend just because she mentioned in passing how much she missed the stars, and Nico’s Percy, the boy who was perfectly content to sleep with a man who took souls for a living, who, if Nico was to be believed, joked about it.

The first time that they have sex, she lays there afterwards and stares at his sleeping face. She doesn’t know how she ended up here, with a man she actually loves, who’d been so focused on getting her off that by the time he had actually slid into her, she was already two orgasms in and dripping.

She takes him down to the farm to meet Chiron and laughs until she’s sick when Percy and Blackjack chase each other around the pasture like a couple of newborns.

It’s a good year, so at the end of it, she moves in with him.

Living with him should be harder, but it isn’t. If Annabeth is good at anything, it’s adapting. She moves on with her life with Percy at her side, and if it’s a little bit harder to sneak out and hunt down murderers, well, she doesn’t need it as much anymore, does she?

She doesn’t stop, though. Annabeth is the Architect. It’s part of her, the same way that Percy is a hero under the morbid humor and Nico is a creature whose whole purpose is to extract the thing that makes people human from their hollow shells. She doesn’t need it anymore, but she still wants it, so she doesn’t stop.

One night, when she and Percy are pressed close together under the sheets despite the heat, Annabeth tells him her real last name. She doesn’t tell him all of it, because there’s a part of her that isn’t ready to tell him about her relationship with Nico, but she tells him about running away when she was seven. She tells him about Thalia, how she’d saved Annabeth, but leaves out the bit where she’d died doing it.

She tells him about her dad, about Kira and the twins, and how sometimes she wonders if they’re still looking for her.

Contacting her dad is Percy’s idea. Just the once, he tells her, finger stroking over hers, just to get some closure, to tell him that she’s okay.

So she does. Annabeth calls her daddy and cries when he breathes her name like her voice is the sweetest thing he's ever heard, like it's a revelation he's long accepted to live without. They talk for hours and Percy holds her hand the entire time, his head pillowed on her collarbone.

She gets a P.O. box and they send letters back and forth. Her dad doesn’t press, doesn’t ask to come see her, and she knows it’s because he can tell that she’s not ready for that. He does, however, send her his class ring, which she takes to wearing on a simple chain around her neck.

On their two year anniversary, Percy smiles at her over the dinner table, and her heart clenches up tight. It’s the first time she’s ever thought about spending the rest of her life with him. The first time she’s ever wanted it.

The realization is like a punch to the gut and part of her recoils away from the idea, because what if? It can’t last. He’ll find out what she is and he’ll leave her, or worse, he won’t leave her, and she’ll get caught anyways.

Two days later, Nico’s face tells her that he knows exactly why she killed this one. His eyes are bruised, dark and sad, and he touches her hand like he wants to take away her fear.

He opens his mouth and tells her, “You’re going to have to choose.”

She chooses not to reply.

.

“What are you doing in here?”

Nico flinches at the sound of Percy’s voice, his shoulders inching up around his ears as he takes a stumbling step backwards, knocking into a pile of books as he goes.

Percy doesn’t know what woke him. It might have been some weird Nico-based ESP or something, maybe a cat yowling on the fire escape or some drunk on the street, but it certainly wasn’t Nico himself, who’d been standing there so quietly in Percy and Annabeth’s bedroom doorway that Percy hadn’t even noticed at first.

It’s been years since they talked. Oh, they’ve seen each other, sure. In passing, always. Sometimes he’ll walk by a room at the hospital and see Nico out of the corner of his eye and Percy will have to fight the gut-instinct to backpedal backwards and into that room, because the urge to find and keep Nico has been ingrained into him since… forever. Since always. Nico has been with him longer than most people have, barring his mother.

They’ll brush by each other in hallways and not say a word, just go about their business like Percy is just another one of those poor bastards who can’t see Nico moving about in the world. But they haven’t talked since that last snapshot of a moment, where Nico had told him that it was too much. That they needed to stop. So Percy had stopped.

Percy stopped Nico and months later, he’d started Annabeth.

He doesn’t regret it. He can’t. Not when Annabeth is the best thing that’s happened to him since Nico himself. Better maybe, because Annabeth is gloriously human and can hold hands with him in the park and go out to eat at the hole-in-the-wall diner down the street.

But Nico’s always there, lurking in the farthest, most cobwebbed corners of Percy’s heart. It hurts sometimes, to think about him, so Percy doesn’t. Just shoves him back into that mental box with ‘DO NOT OPEN’ scrawled across it in sharpie.

Percy blinks at him sleepily, shifting in Annabeth’s arms so that he can push himself up onto his elbows.

“Nico,” he says again, more quietly, with less panic in his voice. “What are you doing here?”

Nico shivers in the doorway, wrapping his arms around himself and actually shrinking as Percy watches. In all the time that they’ve been together, not once has Percy ever caught the show that is Nico di Angelo changing the shape of his body at will, so he just watches, fascinated as Nico’s cheeks round out, his hair creeping down to his chin.

“Sorry,” Nico says eventually, his voice so incredibly young. “I— Mrs. Perkins in 3c. She— bathtub. She fell asleep in it. Thought I’d…”

He trails off, but it’s obvious what he was going to say. He thought he’d stop in; was in the neighborhood, thought I’d pop over and creepily watch you and your girlfriend sleep. With a sigh, Percy heaves himself up off the bed, stopping long enough to check that Annabeth is still sleeping peacefully before he marches straight over and grabs Nico by the wrist.

It isn’t hard to tug Nico into the kitchen. He pretty much goes easily, his arm slack the minute Percy’s hand closes around it, and it’s only when they’re in the warm, buttery light coming from over the sink that Percy really looks at him.

“You look like shit,” he blurts, eyes round as he studies the gauntness of Nico’s cheeks and the bags beneath his eyes. Usually that kind of exhaustion doesn’t tend to carry over into his younger forms, but what does Percy know? He hasn’t talked to the guy in almost three years.

“I’ve been busy.” Nico shrugs, looking around the kitchen with a disinterested air. He plucks at one of the glass ornaments hanging over the sink, pinky nail sliding against the albatross’ beak. It’s one that Annabeth had brought back with her one day, passing it over to him delightedly and taking it back just as fast, so she could hang it next to the octopus.

“You’re always busy.”

Nico turns away from their hanging collection of glass animals and stares at Percy, jaw trembling faintly. Percy’s heart speeds up in response, an instant, visceral need to comfort Nico seizing hold of him. There’s no reason to feel guilty about what he’d said, because it was true. Nico is always busy and has been ever since Percy’s known him. Everyone, everything dies, which means that even when Nico’s with him, he never, ever stops.

It’s got to be lonely, he thinks, then shoves that thought firmly back into his Nico box.

“Yeah,” Nico’s saying, a self-deprecating smirk curling around the corners of his mouth. “But it’s gotten harder now that I don’t have a nice distraction.”

Before he can stop himself, Percy sneers at him. “You did that yourself."

“I did.” Nico nods, nibbling on his lower lip. It was a habit of his that used to drive Percy crazy. Now it just makes him want to slam something against the wall. Maybe Nico’s head. More likely, Percy’s fist.

“So you don’t get to regret it,” Percy continues, stilling the minute tremors that have started up in his hands. He clenches them until his knuckles have gone white. “You don’t get to feel bad about how we ended, because you did that. You did that and y’know what? I’m happy.”

He laughs, throws his head back and laughs until he feels faint. “I’m deliriously happy most of the time. I never thought I could do that, without you. But I am. Annabeth is great. She’s funny and awesome, the smartest person I’ve ever freaking known, and I don’t want her to come out here and think that her boyfriend’s gone insane because he’s talking to thin air. So fuck you very much, Nico di Angelo. You don’t get to be lonely.”

The look that Nico’s giving him is new. He’s never seen that particular brand of… hatred? Rage? Self-loathing? Percy doesn’t really know what he’s looking at, but it makes him feel small. He feels as if he’s young again, begging for his mother’s life.

“Percy Jackson,” Nico goes in a quiet, terrible voice. “I have loved you since I broke the rules I’ve had in place for centuries so you could keep your mother.”

“But?” Percy prompts, stupidly inching closer to the creature looming over him in the middle of his kitchen. The scowl on Nico’s face darkens, and then it splinters, fragments until there’s only Nico left behind, looking like a lost little boy. He glares at Percy, but there’s nothing there. Not anymore. The all-consuming rage that had seemed ready to go nova behind his eyelids has been well and truly extinguished.

As if he knows this, Nico stops glaring. He looks like he’s about to say something, mouth opening as his eyes go past Percy, back towards the bedroom. His mouth clicks shut and he turns, away from Percy, towards the shadows beside the refrigerator.

He throws Percy one last exhausted look and says, “Don’t ever presume to tell me how to feel ever again, Percy Jackson. It’s not your place.”

Within seconds, he’s gone.

.

Nico’s acting weird.

For that matter, so is Percy.

“Any chance you know what’s the matter with Percy?” she finally asks, when Nico avoids her eyes for the fourth time in ten minutes. She tries not to bring up Percy with him, she does, but they’re both acting weird, okay. She isn’t dumb. She knows what that means.

Nico looks at her blankly for a moment before he sighs. “I don’t get to regret,” he says, like it means something.

Annabeth starts to ask him what he means when he silences her with a look.

She decides not to press.

.

Percy wakes up to the sound of the door creaking open. It’s done quietly, like Annabeth is trying not to disturb him, the door giving a quiet little click as it closes behind her. He shifts on the couch, wincing at the crick in his neck, and burrows his face into the cushions his mom had gotten them as a housewarming present. They’re blue, with little seashells edging around the sides. Annabeth thinks they’re hideous, but likes his mom too much to get rid of the things.

“Annabeth?” Percy calls sleepily, an abrupt, face-splitting yawn getting the jump on him. He blinks his eyes open, blearily peering out from under his cocoon of blankets. Netflix is still up on the TV, but it’s gone back to the main screen, asking politely if he wants to play the next episode. He grimaces at it.

“Hey,” Annabeth whispers, stooping down over the couch to brush a kiss over the top of Percy’s head. She smells a little weird, like her shampoo and perfume, but there’s something else there, something that makes Percy’s brain ache with the strain of remembering. “Didn’t want to wake you.”

He hums quietly, nuzzling into her touch, and makes grabby motions at her until she chuckles and tumbles down onto the couch next to him. Percy’s quick to pull her into his arms, happily absorbing her heat.

“You heat-hog,” Annabeth says fondly, relaxing into his arms.

“Not my fault,” he murmurs. “You’re so warm.”

She snorts. “And you’re burning up under those blankets. How the hell do I still feel warm when you’re acting as your own personal furnace?”

He shrugs. Talking is too much effort right now. All he wants to do is magically teleport to the bedroom and curl up with her until he has to wake up for his shift at the hospital. He tells her as much.

“Fine,” she says, uncurling from around him, ignoring his protests like the harpy she is. “Let’s get you up.”

Even if he were awake he wouldn’t be all too embarrassed about leaning on her as she helps him to the bedroom. She’s a good girlfriend. Structurally sound and strong enough to heft him around. He likes her so much.

It’s not until she’s tumbling him backwards onto the bed that he blinks his eyes open again, peering up at her owlishly. She’s smiling at him, affection clear in her eyes as she brushes away a tuft of hair that’s been clinging to the corner of her mouth. He blinks, catching sight of something smeared across her wrist. It’s out of place, disconcerting enough to jar his half-asleep brain into catching hold of her hand.

The stain is red, arcing across the pale underside of her wrist, just over the spiderweb of blue veins and then spattering out across her forearm. It’s weird, and for a moment, he stupidly thinks that she’s been painting something.

Percy’s wide awake in seconds. He’s a nurse, okay, he knows what dried blood looks like on skin, and more importantly, Annabeth doesn’t paint.

“Are you okay?” he asks, frantically brushing his thumbs over her skin, attempting to locate the source of the blood. “Did you cut yourself? Are you all right?”

He glances away from her arm long enough to get a glimpse of her face, which is so pale that he’s already reciting the steps to deal with blood loss in his head.

But no, Percy thinks, fingers stuttering slightly when they don’t find an open wound. Annabeth isn’t stupid. She wouldn’t have come home if she was hurt badly, she would have gone straight to the hospital. Annabeth doesn’t paint, and well, she isn’t due for her period for at least another two weeks, so this isn’t like that awkward summer day that they woke up to blood everywhere.

If Percy were normal, leaping to the conclusion that he comes to would be just that. Foolishly jumping to conclusions. But Percy isn’t normal. And he knows where he recognizes the scent that’s clinging to her hair now.

He remembers that it took weeks to lose that smell on his pillow, after he and Nico stopped… Well. It took weeks before all traces of Nico were obliterated from his apartment.

Percy stares at her, eyes wide, and thinks wildly, My girlfriend kills people.

It’s just a paranoid leap, he reasons. Just his half-asleep brain going to the least-likely scenario.

But no. He knows, like a shard of ice that has lodged itself in his chest.

“How do you know him?” Percy asks blankly, his voice dull even to his own ears. There’s a part of him begging her to prove him wrong, to ask who he’s talking about and tell him how she saved a homeless person who got hit by a car or something stupid like that. Anything.

Annabeth flinches backwards like she’s been slapped across the face, and that tells him everything. She knows exactly who he’s talking about, no clarification necessary. “Who—” she starts to ask, and then it’s his turn to reel backwards.

Nico,” he whispers harshly, eyes narrowing. “Nico di Angelo. Y’know, sometimes tall, dark, and stubbly, sometimes super short and baby-faced? Likes hanging around dead people? No?”

She stares at him, still pale, her hands shaking. “I—”

Maybe cutting her off again is a douche move, but he can’t take the smell of Nico in their home right now. Can’t make himself think about Nico, the ex that’s still a raw, bleeding wound, even now. “Please tell me you don’t kill people,” he says quickly, and she—

She flinches.

Annabeth could do any number of things at this point in time. She could scowl at him and ask how he’d even think that about her. She could tell him that yeah, she knows Nico, but only in passing. She could laugh it off.

Instead, she says in a horrible, guilty voice, “Percy, please.”

He lunges up off of the bed, propelling himself away from her so fast that he nearly collides with the wall. “How many?” he asks.

She bites her trembling lower lip, lifting shaky hands to her hair. When she doesn’t answer, he barks out, “How many, Annabeth?”

“I don’t know,” she admits quietly, hands back in her lap. She looks at him, imploring, and he— he feels so sick right now. He shouldn’t. Once upon a time, Percy killed a guy with a rock that was attempting to assault him. His mom murdered his stepdad so that he could never hurt her or Percy ever again. Percy’s ex takes the souls from humans as his full-time job. He has so much history with death, so this shouldn’t be so shocking to him. Shouldn’t bother him so much.

But Annabeth has always seemed so above all that. Annabeth was special and perfect, the one thing in his life that Nico had never touched. Maybe it’s irrational, being upset with her about this, but Percy isn’t feeling very rational right now.

You lost count?” he shouts, voice entirely too shrill. He clenches his fists tight to his sides when she rocks backwards, away from him, her entire face bleached of color.

Even as he watches, he can see her pulling herself together. He watches her spine straighten, her shoulders going back as her grey eyes go steely with resolve. “Twenty-four,” she says in a cold voice.

His teeth grind together unpleasantly as his jaw tightens and he turns abruptly, reaching out to grab the first pair of jeans on the floor. They’re small enough that they might actually be hers, but Percy doesn’t care. They button. That’s all that matters.

“I’m going to go stay at my mom’s for awhile,” he hisses, and she nods, as if she’s expected that. She probably had.

“That might be a good idea,” she replies frostily, pointedly turning away from him as he throws things into his bag.

Those are the last words she says to him before he slams out the door ten minutes later.

.

The first day after Percy leaves, Annabeth is furious. She wants to destroy the apartment, shatter each and every piece of the life that they’ve shared together. She wants to go out and spread blood across the concrete like paint on canvass. A small, angry part of her wants to find Percy and take him apart, make him into a tower of bones and flesh. Even as she thinks it though, it’s like she hits a wall. No, no, no, that wall insists. Not him. Not Percy. Not ever.

Instead of doing something that she knows she’ll regret, she goes to the gym.

The day after that is worse, because that’s when the sorrow hits.

It’s terrible and all-consuming, aching deep down before it even starts to feed off of her paranoia, her fear of him turning her in.

She spends the rest of the week wandering around their apartment, her hands trembling on the pages of old paperback because she can’t bring herself to touch the television remote.

He’ll tell someone, and they’ll bring her in for questioning. She doesn’t think that she’s ever left evidence behind, but what if she did? What if Percy’s testimony is enough? They’ll arrest her and she’ll spend the rest of her life behind bars if she somehow doesn’t end up on death row.

Three years ago, before she met Percy, that was a perfectly acceptable outcome. Why commit murder if you weren’t prepared to get caught, after all? Three years ago, she would have been fine with it. It would have just been a new chapter in her life, owning up to the kills she’s left all over the country.

Now, she can’t even fathom the idea of never seeing Percy again.

It hurts, thinking that even if he doesn’t turn her in, she might still lose him.

On the fourth day, when she hasn’t moved in over twenty-four hours, Nico shows up.

She’s only peripherally aware of him being there. She knows that there’s someone else in the house, someone saying her name, but she also knows that it’s not Percy, which means that they don’t matter.

Nico getting her up and into the bathtub passes by like a dream, sepia-tinted and slow. His hands in her hair and the smell of shampoo in the air is just as unimportant as the water swishing around her suddenly bare hips. He’s talking to her, she thinks, murmuring in a slow, quiet voice; the kind that you use on pets or small children.

Her life is not a Twilight book though. She is not Bella Swan and she is not a damsel in distress. Her name is Annabeth Chase and she’s gone through worse than this, so after a handful of hours, she plucks herself out of the sorrow that’s been doing its damndest to drown her.

Nico blinks at her and a small smile flits across his mouth; a hummingbird kind of smile, there and gone again, quick as a blink. “Glad to see you’re back.”

Annabeth shivers, hooking her ankle around his to pull him in closer.

They’re on the bed, Nico curled around her like a giant therapy dog, and the blankets have been yanked up to their chins. Her hair is still damp.

“Percy found out,” she tells him dully, whispering it into the sharp jut of his collarbone.

“I gathered,” he murmurs, pressing a kiss to her temple.

Just that contact makes her breath hitch in her chest, so she pulls him closer still, tossing her legs over his hip, as if she can sink into him via osmosis. “How’d you know I needed you?”

He’s quiet, just looking, and she breathes raggedly in the silence, soaking in the heat of another body. “I always know when you’re in trouble,” he confesses in a whisper, hands locking together at the base of her spine. “You and Percy. You’re… important. So I make it my business to know.”

“That’s sweet.”

“It’s not,” he snorts. “It’s actually a little pathetic.”

Annabeth rubs her nose against his jaw. “I kill people for fun. Pretty sure that your stalker tendencies are the least of our problems.”

This time, she lets the silence drag on. It isn’t altogether comfortable, but it’s not awkward either. It’s just the two of them and the hum of the radiator, the low drone of people talking outside.

“He’s going to tell someone,” Annabeth whispers later, when the room is beginning to darken with impending nightfall, twilight shades of purple and orange spilling through the cracked blinds. “He’ll tell somebody and I’ll get caught and I— I could have dealt with that. I could have. But now—”

She doesn’t know if Nico means to kiss her. Probably not, if she knows him at all, but one minute he’s making low shushing noises and the next his lips are on hers.

It’s a chaste kiss at first, the kind that you give a beloved relative, but somewhere between her realizing that Nico is actually kissing her and him making as if to pull back, she makes a quiet noise in the back of her throat and kisses him back, her hand sliding up to cup his cheek.

He makes a noise to match her own and from there, it’s easy to roll into his lap. Easy to kiss him until her lips are tingly and numb, until he’s panting, hands tangled in her hair. By the time she rolls their hips together, it’s comfortable, a low-grade buzz of arousal humming beneath her skin.

It’s simultaneously too fast and not fast enough, but she wants this. It isn’t something that she’s considered before now, the possibility of having Nico, but in this moment, she wants him.

Nico is good to her. He seems to know just what she wants before she does, lets her take charge and when the time comes, helps her pull off their clothing. They don’t fit together the same way that Percy and her do, but it’s still good. His cock is pretty, maybe an inch or so longer than Percy’s, and it fits in her hand like it belongs there.

She gets him inside her and it’s still so easy, so fucking simple to ride him slow and sweet, until they’re a pile of sweaty, shivering skin. When she comes a minute or two after he does, her toes curl against his calves, wiry hair brushing against them, and she muffles her cries with his skin.

He leaves her with a kiss to her cheek and a promise, his eyes wide and honest as he stoops over her. Annabeth doesn’t know if she believes him, but she’s sleepy and still buzzing from the aftershocks, so she doesn’t argue, just pulls him down into another wet, open-mouthed kiss.

Then she lets him go.

Maybe he’s right, after all.

Maybe everything will be okay.

.

“You dumb asshole,” a voice hisses from the shadows in the corner of his bedroom. Percy shifts, accidentally inhales too much dust and coughs. He doesn’t even have to remove his nose from the pillow to know who is standing behind him.

“Hello, Nico,” Percy says dully.

Rough hands grab him, yanking him up, and spin him away from the bed. A pained noise looses from his throat when Nico shoves him back into the wall. It creaks alarmingly, rattling, an old photograph trembling on its hook above his head. He blinks the dizziness away, pupils dilating as they focus on Nico, who is too close, baring his teeth like a wild animal.

It isn’t the oldest Percy’s ever seen him, but Nico towers over him like this, his entire frame gaunt and skeletal but absolutely vibrating with a power that Percy seldom sees. He’s not old, not the stooped-back old man that Nico likes to wear whenever he’s dealing with the souls of the elderly, but there are laugh lines and frown lines both marring his face, cheeks bristly with a few days old beard.

“What—” he starts, choking when one of Nico’s hands go to his throat, catching and pinning him there. He gags, head knocking painfully against the wall, so hard that he sees stars.

“You don’t get to talk,” Nico snarls, the same way that Percy had once said, words heavy with grief and rage, you don’t get to be lonely. He shakes Percy hard, like one would a disobedient dog, and hitches him higher up the wall, until Percy’s toes are scrabbling at the carpet. “You get to listen and pray, Percy Jackson.”

Obediently, Percy says nothing. He just gasps for air, tears welling up when it doesn’t come.

“How dare you. Annabeth is—” Nico falters for a moment, something both helpless and awed setting the rage in his eyes alight. “Annabeth is my best friend. I’ve known her nearly as long as I’ve known you and you can’t even fathom—”

He stops again, gasping raggedly like he’s the one fighting for air. The hand around Percy’s neck tightens and then, miraculously and all at once, lets up. It’s still there, wrapped around his throat with enough force to keep him there, but he’s no longer in danger of dying, so Percy will take what he gets.

“When Annabeth was eleven, I pulled her sister’s corpse off of her and she… she saw me. Like you. She asked me for help.” Nico swallows, once, eyes flitting from Percy to the band poster a few feet away. “She was covered in blood and she— it doesn’t matter. That’s her story to tell.”

“But you—” Nico cuts him off again, the anger sweeping back in so fast that Percy whines.

“But nothing,” he hisses, pressing in closer, their bodies sliding together long and slow, like they’re doing something entirely different right now. Percy’s body wants them to be doing something different, because this closeness is reminding him of all the things they used to have. Having Nico so near again is like waving a loaded needle under an addict’s nose and it’s not fair, that after all this time, Percy’s dick still sits up and takes notice whenever Nico’s within reach.

The motion means that Nico can’t possibly miss Percy’s response and true to form, he doesn’t, eyes flitting down between them, startled. Percy’s ears burn with humiliation as Nico drags his eyes so very slowly back up his body, a mean smirk spreading across his lips. “Oh,” Nico purrs, leaning close, until their lips are very nearly touching. “I see how it is. I thought you didn’t want me anymore, Percy? Thought you were happy? Or was that a lie?”

Percy gasps as Nico’s zipper presses against the clothed outline of his dick, sucks in a deep breath and lets his hips twitch forward. His eyes flutter shut. “I’ll always want you,” he gets out around half of a dry sob, voice wrung ragged.

“Will you, now?” Nico goes, no inflection in his voice. He brings their hips together again, grinding against Percy with purpose this time, and they both hiss at the contact. “Even after this?”

Percy doesn’t hesitate. “Always.”

He doesn’t know what he expects. Pain, maybe. Nico’s fist breaking his nose. Bitter laughter. The worst would be if Nico straight up disappeared, dissolving into shadow like he was never here.

What he gets is Nico’s mouth slanted over his, open and wet. The kiss is aggressive, steeped in rage and loss. It’s the kind of kiss you give someone when you’re desperate, when you’re so empty inside that you want to fill yourself back up with someone else, if only for awhile. It’s biting and horrible and glorious all at the same time, and when Nico growls and hitches Percy’s leg up around his hip, he doesn’t protest, just helps Nico yank his sweats down his thighs.

He wants Nico to fuck him, badly enough that he shakes with it, but Nico just fishes his own cock out of his pants and wraps his hands around them both.

It’s the angriest handjob he’s ever gotten.

When it’s over, Nico glares at him again as he’s zipping his pants back up. He kisses Percy though, just as hard and bruising as before; trails sucking kisses down his throat, punctuating each and every one with a hard bite that’s sure to leave a mark.

“Fix it,” he says against Percy’s lips. “Fix this. Listen to her.”

“Why?” Percy asks, because he has the self-preservation of a goldfish.

Nico’s eyes glitter like the wings of a beetle, gleaming with the promise of danger. “A long time ago,” he says, slow and careful, “A woman named Sally Jackson killed a very bad person.”

Percy swallows. “So?”

“So.” Nico pulls away, drifting back towards the shadow. “Ever think that maybe this situation is similar to that one, hmm?”

.

Annabeth is drinking tea in her underwear when Percy comes home, hunched over her textbooks and humming something that she’d heard on the radio earlier. It’s a bright sunny day, so she’s sitting in a patch of sunlight, biting down on the eraser of her pencil. She doesn’t see him at first, not until he comes up behind her and brushes a finger over the faint bruises that Nico had left on her hips.

“These from Nico?” he murmurs.

She freezes, throwing a narrow-eyed look over her shoulder, squinty with suspicion and maybe a little stifled heartbreak, and sets the tea down on the coffee table.

“Maybe,” she says, back stiff. “Why?”

She expects him to throw accusations her way. Maybe some name calling. What she doesn’t expect is the weird smile he flashes her, or him tilting his chin up to reveal a dark purple mark just below his jawline, the set of teeth marks a perfect match for the ones a few inches above her left breast.

Annabeth considers keeping a firm grasp on the simmering anger that’s been emitting sparks inside her ribcage for the better part of a week, since Percy walked out their front door. There is an overwhelming sense of relief though, knowing that he’s back, that Nico found him. She wonders if Nico was as gentle with Percy as he was with her, but judging by the faint, hand-shaped bruises around his throat, she thinks probably not.

“Did Nico tell you everything?” she asks, offering Percy a sheepish smile.

He shakes his head, nosing a kiss just below the curve of her jaw. “No. He told me that I should get my head out of my ass and actually listen to you.”

So she tells him. Everything she’d left out the first time they’d had this conversation.

Annabeth tells him again about Thalia and being a seven year old runaway. How relieved she’d been, when this older girl had found her, saved her. This time around, she doesn’t leave out Thalia’s death. She tells him about how heavy Thalia’s body had been and her first meeting with Nico. How Nico had taken her with him that night, just so she didn’t have to be alone.

She whispers quietly about legos and building the eiffel tower in her backyard out of bones. She tells him about her first kill and all the ones after it, how Markus Finch, the forty year old business man who kidnapped little girls off the streets and set them in front of a camera had screamed when she cut into him. She tells him about how good it felt.

Then she finds the articles they have on her, on the Architect, and shows him those.

With a grimace on her face, she tells him about the asshole hick who’d fucked her in his pickup truck and laughed about it after, how she regrets not going back and slitting him from throat to groin.

When she’s done, voice creaky, he passes her a glass of water and tells her his own story.

He tells her about women on subways and a little girl who’d gone missing, only to be found later in an alleyway a few blocks from his school. He tells her about how he’d begged Nico for his mother’s life in a hospital room, about Smelly Gabe and what Percy’s mother did to him in the end.

He tells her about the mistakes he made along the way, about hanging out in darkened alleyways in the hopes of catching a glimpse of Nico and how he hadn’t started volunteering at the hospital because he wanted to be a hero, but because Nico had suggested it.

Percy tells her everything and after, he curls up on the couch with her and traces over the marks that Nico’s left on her body, mapping them out with his hands and mouth.

.

The roadtrip is Percy’s idea.

They take his car down to Kansas and find Jaime, who, if his fiance’s bruises are anything to go by, is just as much of an asshole at thirty as he was at eighteen.

Annabeth slits him open, throat to groin, her eyes cold as they watch his insides spill out to spatter against wheat grass.

When Nico shows up, he raises an eyebrow at both of them, takes Jaime’s soul, and says, “Good. You made up.”

Percy flashes him a grin, bright-eyed and excited. There’s blood on the back of his knuckles from where he’d busted Jaime’s lip and he should probably care that he just watched his girlfriend kill someone, but who is he kidding? He’s been watching the boy he loves take souls from corpses for nearly two decades. If that didn’t desensitize him to something like this, than being a nurse would.

Annabeth kisses Nico’s cheek before he vanishes on them, whispers in his ear just loud enough for Percy to hear. “Thank you.”

.

“So,” Annabeth says abruptly, two weeks later. They’re in the middle of watching a documentary on brain chemistry and the narrator’s long monologue about serotonin is enough of a segue for her. “Are we going to talk about this?”

“About what?” Percy asks, absentminded, most of his attention still on the television.

“About how you’re still in love with Nico,” she says, ignoring his yelp of surprise as some of his coffee slops over the rim of his mug when he startles. “And how we both slept with him.”

She isn’t used to Percy looking uncomfortable. He’s confident even when he isn’t really, but the way he’s avoiding her eyes isn’t exactly subtle. Annoyed, she grabs a hold of his jaw and jerks his chin to make him look at her. “Don’t be stupid. I know you’re still in love with him.”

“And you?” Percy asks, narrowing his own eyes at her. “Are you in love with him too?”

“No.” She blinks, mind churning up images of Nico tucking her into bed, of washing her hair for her when she was freaking out, and how he’d looked crying on her couch. She opens her mouth, amends, “Not yet. But I could be.”

Percy’s silent for several long minutes, eyes fixed on a point just above the television itself. Eventually, he sighs. “So, what do you propose?”

She grins at him and wonders how Nico would look, if the next time she killed someone, Percy was the one to hand him the soul.

.

“I want to do that,” Annabeth tells him when he steps into their apartment after a grueling sixteen hour shift. Three people died today and he’d only caught the barest glimpse of Nico. Once. Just the once.

Annabeth is watching Hannibal — the show, not the movie — a half empty container of pad thai on the coffee table in front of her. His mouth waters instantly, because he hasn’t had a bite to eat since he’d left the apartment this morning. He leans around her, stealing her chopsticks so he can snag a piece of chicken.

He chews thoughtfully, his eyes on the television. “Why do you even watch this show?”

“It gives me ideas.” She shrugs. “So, what do you think? Would Nico like it? We want something big for your debut.”

The television is paused on the image of a corpse woven into a cherry tree, flowers sown where the rib cages once were. Belladonna for the heart, white oleander woven into a chain for the intestines, ragwort for the liver; all poisonous, all blatantly toxic, but Annabeth is right. It does make a lovely image.

Percy thinks of being fifteen years old and taking a walk through the gardens with Nico — who wore the image of an old man with a stooped back, liver spots and purple bruises beneath his eyes like it was a suit tailored just to his liking — at his side, how Nico’s fingers had gently stroked across the petals of an agrostemma githago bianca white, as if it was something cherished, something precious. He wonders what Nico will think, when he sees the bouquet of a corpse and knows that it’s from them, with love.

“He does like flowers,” Percy answers simply, mouth dry. Annabeth throws a grin his way.

.

Percy was right, she thinks, her own eyes heavy-lidded as she watches Nico’s go round with surprise. He has to reach past Percy to tug the soul out of the body and when he leans in close, Percy uses his moment of distraction to ghost two fingers over the knobs of Nico’s spine.

Nico shivers and yanks back so fast that the soul almost doesn’t come with him. It’s an ugly thing, far too ugly to have just come out of something so goddamn beautiful. In the end, they hadn’t gone with an exact replica of the body in the show, but it was close.

Nico’s eyes keep flitting between them and the tree with the corpse strung up in it, eyes lingering on the white petals.

“I know what you’re doing,” he hisses at her just before he leaves.

She smiles at him, leaning in so that she can cup her hands around his jaw. She kisses the tip of his nose, because she can. “Do you, really?”

.

The plan blows up in their faces on a Saturday night. Percy still smells vaguely of antiseptic from the hospital and is strongly considering pulling away from Annabeth so he can go take a shower when the door explodes open.

He jumps, heart thudding in his chest, and next to him, Annabeth goes perfectly still. It will never not surprise him how she does that, how she goes from the Annabeth that curls her cold toes beneath his thighs and smiles at him like he’s sunlight after a long, hard winter to the Annabeth that’s dangerous, who knows the best ways to take people apart and put their corpses back together again.

Her eyes are flinty and grey, narrowed in the direction of the front door. Her hand is twitching towards the opposite side of the couch, like she’s got a weapon of some kind stored there. She probably does; Percy has no idea how he didn’t catch on sooner.

When Nico rounds the corner, it doesn’t matter that he looks furious, because seeing him and not the cops makes both their shoulders sag with relief.

“What is wrong with you people?” Nico growls, coming to a stop before them with his arms crossed over his chest. He looks angry. Percy hasn’t seen him pissed off like this in months, since he’d jacked Percy raw in his childhood bedroom and sent him back home to his girlfriend with his tail tucked between his legs.

Nonplussed, Annabeth raises an eyebrow at him. “I don’t know, Nico. What is wrong with us?”

At his side, Nico’s hands clench into fists. He leans forward, getting into their space, his eyes flitting between them. “This is your fourth in a month. Stop it.”

Percy snorts, fingers curling around the knobs of Annabeth’s ankle, stroking a small cut there with the pads of his thumb. He thinks she might have cut it shaving, but it’s just as possible that the cut is from that time they had to run bare-footed over glass last week. That was horrible and Nico’s right, they should probably stop because they’re making stupid mistakes, but Percy’s not about to let him get off without a fight. “So, getting souls gift-wrapped when they’re from Annabeth isn’t a problem, but when they’re from me they’re suddenly a big deal. Thanks man, way to make me feel special.”

Heat flares in Nico’s eyes and he bares his teeth in a snarl, his attention settling on Percy.

Nico snaps, hooking his hands into Percy’s collar and yanking him in until they’re nose to nose. He’s still snarling, eyes wild, and for a moment, Percy thinks that this might end the same way their last angry altercation had. Nico looks two seconds away from crawling into his lap and biting his face off. Instead, he hisses, “No, you fucking dumbass. Annabeth was smart about it, she waited months between her kills and made absolute sure that she wouldn’t be caught. The two of you are getting sloppy and you’re going to get caught—”

Annabeth slides to her feet next to him and without a word, disappears into the kitchen. Percy wrinkles his nose. Way to leave him alone to deal with this. Traitor. “Nico—”

“No!” Nico cuts him off with a furious gesture. “You don’t get to say my name right now. Neither of you do. Because you’re making my life difficult and I have had it up to here with your bullshit!”

“Stop, it’s not—”

“Why can’t you assholes just ask me out like normal people? Why does it have to be corpses? I get it, I do, some humans leave a bad taste in my mouth and are better off dead, but that’s not worth a damn thing to anyone if the two of you get caught trying to make the world a better place!”

Nico takes a deep breath, eyes still furious, and having emerged from the kitchen, Annabeth pauses beside him and sighs. “Are you done?”

Nico turns on her, mouth curling with incredulity, but when he starts to open his mouth, she pushes a mug into his hand. Nico fumbles with it, wincing when a few drops off what looks a lot like coffee spills over the rim and onto his fingers, but obligingly goes quiet.

“Nico di Angelo,” Annabeth whispers, stilted and formal, her eyes narrowed; dangerous. “I just handed you a cup of coffee.”

He blinks at her. Then back down at the cup in his hands. “You did.”

“So, if anyone asked, you would be able to say that you are currently having coffee with us.”

Nico squints at her, suspicious. “I suppose.”

“Good.” She nods, staring at him until Nico takes a sip. “First date’s over. Now I get to do this.”

Easy as can be, she steps into the cage of his body, and kisses him.

They look good together, Percy realizes. They complement each other well, like yin and yang, all dark and light, soft and sharp, old and young. Which isn’t to say that Nico looks like an old man or anything, but he’s definitely older than either of them at the moment.

Their lips slide together smoothly, a flash of Annabeth’s teeth against Nico’s lip when he doesn’t respond quickly enough for her, soothed by a hint of tongue a moment later.

As he’s watching, Annabeth tumbles them both backwards, so that Nico lands across Percy’s knees with her on top of him. Percy grins when Nico glances back at him, pleased that he doesn’t immediately pull away from Annabeth.

Nico starts to say something, his whole body going tense when Percy slides a hand around his belly and pulls him into his body even further, until they’re comfortably settled against the couch cushions. Annabeth, though, just pulls him in for another kiss, throwing her whole body into it. Her hips roll and Nico makes this glorious noise in the back of his throat, head falling back onto Percy’s shoulder when Annabeth starts to kiss a line down his neck.

“You aren’t going to make a fuss about this, are you?” Annabeth growls, jerking Nico’s shirt over his head.

Nico shakes his head slowly and Percy snorts, tilting his head so he can kiss the side of Nico’s jaw. “Good answer,” he murmurs, distracted when Annabeth pulls her own shirt over her head, then makes quick work of her bra.

She beams down at them, bare chest flushed, and rolls her hips again, eyes shrewd and calculating, like this is one big experiment.

“Very good,” she purrs, lowering her mouth to Nico’s ear. “Now, you’re going to kiss Percy for me and then I’m going to come on your dick. Twice. Good plan?”

At a loss for words, Nico just nods. Percy laughs.

.

Annabeth wakes up the next morning to two bodies bracketing her in and Nico’s fingers tracing a circle around her nipple. She squints at him, feeling grumpy.

“You have to stop this,” Nico tells her, his voice pitched low so as not to wake Percy. “If we’re going to do this, I need you to stop. Both of you. I can’t let you get hurt, not— not if we’re actually going to do this.”

Percy is snoring and she thinks she feels drool on the back of her neck.

It doesn’t upset her the way it should, the way it would have a few years ago. The idea of giving up the adrenaline rush of severing an artery and creating something new isn’t as horrible as it might have been. She’s always liked building things, but she’ll be getting her degree in two weeks, and there are more conventional ways of creating beautiful things.

“Okay,” she murmurs, stroking her ankle over his. “No more killing.”

“You promise?”

She could laugh, but there’s a vulnerability in Nico’s voice that makes her heart ache. She knows that he’s lost people, because when you live forever, you’ll always lose the people you love. Always. It’s just a matter of how long you get to keep them around. “I promise.”

.

It lasts for a little over three years, their calm before the storm.

Three years before Annabeth comes home to him with a wild look in her eye and blood on her hands, Nico at her heels.

Her clothes are torn and there’s a bruise blossoming over one eye, but it’s the pure fury on Nico’s face that makes Percy shut his mouth with a click, his own protests silenced with that one look.

“I didn’t—” she sobs, throwing himself into her arms. “I couldn’t—”

Percy looks to Nico for answers. “He had a gun. She didn’t have a choice.”

It only goes downhill from there.

Things like gang wars and previous victims come back to slap them in the face, and the second time that Annabeth is ambushed in an alley and is forced to deal with it the only way she can is the tipping point.

That night, she looks at Nico, a cut above her cheek that has Percy seething with anger, and he nods at them, eyes shuttered and dark, like he’s already saying his goodbyes.

He gets them out.

Tells them to stay out of sight and helps them cut and dye their hair, teaming up with Annabeth to get them new identities. They leave everything except for Mr. Chase’s class ring and Percy’s mom’s wedding ring, the cheap, rusted thing that she’d given him when he brought Annabeth home the first time.

They don’t call their parents, but they do post two letters.

They’re goodbyes, more or less, because even if they do make it out alive, they aren’t going to be able to see their parents for a long time.

Annabeth regrets it, he knows. It’s in her body language whenever they duck into roadside gas stations or pass a post office. She regrets not seeing her dad again when she had the chance. There was always some excuse, she tells him one night, when they’re curled together in the backseat of a car they’d picked up outside Maine. They’ll have to switch to a different one soon, just in case.

Always an excuse, and now it’s too late.

“Keep your heads low,” Nico had told them the last time they’d seen him, standing tall and furious in their apartment. “I’ll find you.”

They keep their heads low, not that it’ll do them much good in the long run.

.

The wanted posters start going up three months in, Annabeth’s face popping up on databases they shouldn’t be and Percy’s right next to hers, with the damning words, suspected accomplice.

Four months in, they buy a glorified shack off some hick in the middle of nowhere, some swamp in the boonies of South Carolina.

Six months in, Nico shows up at their door pale and shaking, and brushes their worries off with a kiss.

Annabeth is happy to see him. She is. She missed his stupid face whether she likes it or not and god, she hates herself for loving them. Hates herself for loving Percy, because if he’d never met her, he’d still be working shifts at the hospital and having brunch with his mom and her new husband on Sundays.

She’s happy to see him, but she loves him. Annabeth knows him. She knows the way he kisses when he’s tired and when he’s happy, the way that he hates corn for no apparent reason, and how there’s a girl who works at the diner a few blocks from their old apartment that reminds him painfully of the girl — the sister that he’s talked about a grand total of two times — who’d given him his name.

She knows all his tells, which means that she knows something is off about him.

It’s in the way he touches them; gentle, almost reverent, like he’s mapping their bodies out while he still has the chance.

This is it, she thinks blankly, hips moving against Percy’s. Nico’s lips are against the back of her neck, his hand trembling as he strokes between her legs, and it’s all wrong, everything is wrong. She wants to tell Nico to take Percy and run, to never look back and never think about her again.

Forget me, she wants to scream, but Nico is silent.

Each kiss he leaves is full to the brim with desperation and pain, but he isn’t saying anything. Which means this is set in stone. This isn’t something that they can get out of. She can’t make a deal with him like Percy did, can’t save Percy the way he had saved his mother all that time ago.

She can’t do anything, so instead, she shoves her tears to the side and climbs into Nico’s lap, rides his dick like it’s the last thing she’ll ever do. Because it is. This is the last thing of meaning that Annabeth Chase will ever do in her entire life, just this. Their skin on her skin, their touch bringing her bones to life, making something beautiful out of something so very ugly.

When she wakes up the next morning, Nico’s spot beside her is cold. He’s gone gone gone and she crumples into Percy’s arms, and tries not to sob.

.

“You’re here for us, aren’t you?” Annabeth says sadly when Nico shows up on their doorstep, face wiped clean of any expression.

Nico bites his lip, then shakes his head.

“Then why—?” Percy starts, cutting himself off when Nico pushes past him into the house. Next to him, Annabeth is regarding him carefully, leaning back on the front door so that it gently swings shut behind her.

“I’m not here for your souls,” Nico tells them as he collapses onto their beat-up couch like a bag of bones. He looks the same way he did yesterday and the day before that — on the wrong side of thirty, unshaven, and exhausted. He’s a collection of parts and more than ever, he looks just right for the role he plays. All that’s missing is a scythe and a black robe to replace the t-shirt he’d stolen from Percy sometime last month.

Annabeth pushes past Percy too, gently lowering herself onto the couch next to him. She wants to pull Nico into her arms, Percy can tell, but she’s hesitating. Percy heaves a great sigh and joins them, curling up on the other side and hooking his chin over Nico’s shoulder.

He squints at Nico, who is little more than a blur this close, but Percy’s too worried to pull himself away long enough to grab his glasses. Nico’s shuddering, his frame quaking gently. Percy exchanges a look of horror with Annabeth when he lets out a dry sob, crumpling inward like a star collapsing in on itself.

“I’m not here for your souls today—” Nico gasps, another sob shaking him when Annabeth gives in and wraps her arms around his waist. He shudders again and fixes Percy with a look of perfectly exquisite sorrow, tears glistening in his lashes. “—because I took them last night while you were sleeping.”

Percy freezes, staring at Nico with wide eyes. He glances at Annabeth, who is perfectly calm, as if she’s expected it all along. She probably has.

“Can I see them?” she asks, carefully, squeezing Nico to her side. “Our souls. Can we see them?”

Nico nods and thrusts his wrist forward, movements stilted and jerky.

There, curled around his wrist, are two bracelets of silver — tendrils of light looped around and around his wrist, going all the way up to his forearm. Despite all they’ve done, neither souls look the way Smelly Gabe’s had, the way countless of their victims have looked in the palm of Nico’s hand. They’re both silvery and bright, with the faintest bruising of gray shadow around the edges. Percy can actually tell which one is his; it calls to him, makes him want to reach out and touch.

Annabeth lets out a shaky breath. “So why did you come? If you’ve already taken our souls. You could have just left us to it.”

Nico shivers, biting down on his lip so hard that droplets of blood well to the surface. He looks at her, expression torn between betrayed and grieving. When he speaks, his voice is soft and cracked.

“I had to be here,” he tells them quietly, nuzzling his wet nose into Percy’s neck. “I couldn’t just let you die alone.”

There’s a low, wounded crooning noise coming from somewhere. It takes entirely too long to realize that the noise is coming from his own mouth, muffled against Nico’s hair.

“You didn’t have to do this for us,” Annabeth tells Nico gently, but Nico just shakes his head frantically. His cheeks are wet.

“Yes, I did.”

They gather Nico closer as they wait, Percy pulling him into his lap so that he can press himself up against Annabeth’s side, getting an arm around her shoulders. They’re quiet, the endless drone of the cicadas outside mixing with other swamp noises. Everything is quiet, save for the occasional sniffle, so they hear it when a branch cracks outside.

“I love you,” Nico says abruptly, pulling back so he can peer at both of them. His eyes are panicked, wide and black, hands trembling as he drags first Percy, then Annabeth, in for deep, almost bruising kisses.

“Both of you. More than—” his breath hitches when another sound from outside makes its way in. “—More than anyone I’ve ever known. And I will continue to love you both, until the end of me. The very end of everything.”

“Until the very last atom is gone,” Percy whispers, memories of being young and scared at his mother’s bedside fresh in his mind. “Right?”

“Us too,” Annabeth breathes, her eyes going wet for the first time. “We love you too.”

Nico smiles at her and it’s real — breathtaking and beautiful.

“I know,” he whispers back, then the door splinters open.

For a moment, Percy’s entire world is occupied by the noise — the shouting and the white noise buzzing in his ears — and then he grounds himself in them, centers himself to the sound of Nico and Annabeth’s breaths, high and panicky.

There’s pain, sharp and unmistakable, and the sound of gunfire.

He ignores it and the blood welling up beneath Annabeth’s shirt, staining the white fabric red. He ignores it, ignores everything, keeps his eyes locked on Nico’s as more blood bubbles to his lips; as he coughs. Annabeth’s hand squeezes his and then, distantly, he’s aware of the moment that her hand goes lax, the moment she slips away.

He keeps his eyes locked on Nico’s, on the tears trailing down his cheeks, and hates himself for this. For making Nico, a creature who will outlive him by eons, feel pain.

Percy remembers Annabeth reading to them in bed the summer before last, her hair mixing with Nico’s on the pillow; her breath stuttering on the last lines of the book. It was the hottest day of the year and their air conditioner unit was broken, but despite the way their skin had stuck together, sticky with sweat, they’d wrapped themselves into a knot of human parts, and they’d finished their book.

A last note from your narrator, she had read, voice shaking, her fingers toying with his hair. I am haunted by humans.

Never has that line been more appropriate than now, he thinks, and kisses Nico’s lips. He tastes of salt.

Percy Jackson holds that memory, that one last, beautiful memory, in his mind and keeps his eyes on Nico.

He keeps them there until the world fades.

.

Nico di Angelo is older than the pyramids, older than the oldest bacteria, and will exist until every last atom is well extinguished. In the 1940s, a little girl named Bianca di Angelo gave him a name and a family.

She died in his arms with a smile on her face.

He has many names and many faces, but the one that Bianca knew is his favorite.

During the earliest decades of the 21st century, it happens again. Two people break into his heart and knock on its walls, tugging on heartstrings like they’re doorbells. They see him and they know him, and despite it all, they love him.

It’s the little things, that make you feel alive. That make you feel human.

Nico di Angelo’s favorite color is white, he hates corn, and he has loved all of three people since he was created millennia ago. His heart beats, louder than ever now; a nervous staccato tapping meant to reassure in the great, unassuming quiet of his lonely world.

Three heartbeats walk into a shack in the woods.

Only one walks out.

I’m here, Nico thinks, fingers stroking nervously over two souls, still wound tight into a thin bracelet of silver around his wrist. I’m here, I’m here.