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Kiss a Boy in Tokyo Town

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SOLDIER #2: This crooked world, it is falling like dominoes. We are but a small army, the illegitimate children of lords, the citizens of a blasphemer's kingdom. What good can we achieve?
QUEEN: If Pandora can keep her hope, then so can we.

 

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| Kiss a Boy in Tokyo Town |

 

See, the thing that's absolute crap is; he's invincible, right, took a swim in the River Styx, yada yada, and here he is, flat on his back with a manly bib over his chest and drool marching down his cheek, because apparently the "immunity to all mortal wounds" doesn't extend to tooth decay.

The absurdity of dentistry is universal, Percy finds, drumming his fingers on the seat control button and remembering a time when using it to make the seat go up and down was cool instead of just obnoxious -- playing with dentist's chair stops being permissible somewhere over the age of ten. It's all of that time, energy, and money -- not to mention fancy equipment that looks better on the Star Trek set it came from -- all going into taking care of your teeth. Of all things.

It's ridiculous, it really is.

What's even more absurd, though, is the fact there is a dessert shop kitty corner to the dentist's building. Percy comes out the door, under instructions not to eat anything for two hours and gingerly probing his new cavity filling with his tongue, and the first thing he sees is a tray of taiyaki sitting out in the window.

Custard-filled. Fresh hot.

It's out to get him, it really is.

He eyes the taiyaki, then turns deliberately and starts off down the sidewalk back towards the station, and his stomach immediately begins to mourn their loss with deep, rumbling whines. He tells it in no uncertain terms that it's a spoiled brat and it can get over it. This conversation lasts long enough for him to get out of danger of buying any.

He cuts through a daiso, emerging on the other side in front of the train station in a way that's so sudden it's still surprising, like he's walked into a wardrobe and come out in Narnia; it just kind of sneaks up on you, like a ninja leaping out of a tree (which, funny story, actually happened to him once.)

If he takes the local train, home is just one stop away, but Percy only has about 16 yen left on his Passmo, so he decides he might as well walk.

It's a nice enough night for it, with only a half-hearted kind of humidity slinking in between the buildings, early enough to be light out but late enough that the neon lights glow in cotton-candy colors in his peripheral, clinging to the corners of the tall buildings like geckos on a tree. While he's standing at a light, a boy comes out of the arcade; the doors whoosh open with a tumbling rush of loud sound and cacophonous music, making Percy jolt a look behind him in surprise, and seals off a moment or so later. The imprint of it is still in his ears when he steps off into the zebra crossing.

He's lived here almost a full year now, and he still catches himself looking the wrong way for traffic.

The sun has almost completely set when he drops into 7-11 just a few blocks from home. He's thankful mainly for the rush of air conditioning that chills the sweat along his spine and seeps into his hair. It's not humid out, but even Percy can work up a sweat walking this far -- invincibility doesn't stop that from getting to him, either. He nods to the girl behind the register, vaguely recognizing her face, even if he wouldn't be able to place it if he met her in any setting outside of 7-11. She nods back, continues to watch something on her phone underneath the counter.

He contemplates a row of marked down sweet bread with his back gratefully turned towards the refrigerated section, wondering if it was worth buying some for breakfast tomorrow when he knew his taste was going to be off due to the filling.

Out of the blue, a hand clamps down onto his shoulder and spins him around.

It's still instinctive, the dive his hand makes for Riptide, fight or flight still as hardwired into his ADHD brain as it was when he was young and on the run for his life, but he only has his fingertips around the cap of the pen in his pocket when he registers the grinning face of Chris Rodriguez, whose concept of personal space became kind of hazy and subjective after his stint in the Labyrinth.

Percy relaxes into a grin, removing his hand from his pocket in order to clasp Chris's, do some complicated brotherly handshake, complete with shoulder bump and a "hey, man, how's it going?"

And he doesn't know what to say after that.

For all that they survived the same Olympic catastrophe, they were never particularly close. Yet in place of actual affection, there's a deep feeling of relief at finding a familiar face in a strange land, and Percy hasn't seen Chris for awhile, not since the latter found a job as a teacher and rented out a place on the coast, a good hour's train ride away. You can grow out of being a half-blood, Percy discovered; there's almost nothing about Chris anymore that would suggest he's a demigod. He's just a smiling face, the overhead lights casting a glare off his glasses and two Mountain Dews and a pack of gum stacked in his hand.

"It's been awhile," he nods, agreeing to whatever small-talk comment Chris has just made about him looking older. "You moved to the seaside, like, right after Christmas, yeah?"

"Yeah, man, and it's not too shabby. I'm surprised you haven't yet." Chris shrugs. "I mean, with your dad and all. I thought you'd rather be by the sea."

Percy can't help but smile at that. "Nah. All water's connected, right, so if I wanted to be close to my dad and them, all I have to turn is turn on the kitchen sink. I kind of like the city, anyway, once you get used to it."

"You just like being close to Camp Half-Blood."

"Guilty."

Chris claps his shoulder again, grinning. "Is that where you're headed now?"

"What, camp? No, they don't need me today. Just headed home."

"Huh. Want to grab something to eat, then, maybe? I don't have to be back in Hase right away, I can catch the rapid express at 9:20."

Percy makes a face, thinking, abruptly, of the taiyaki in the window. "I can't." When the grin slides sideways off of Chris's face, he realizes how that must of sounded and hurries to correct himself. "Not that I don't want to, man, it's just. I just had a cavity filled and I'm not supposed to eat anything for awhile."

This, if anything, just earns him a weirder look. "Then how come when I saw you, you were staring at the sweet bread like it was rehearsing its wedding vows for you?"

"Was not!" Percy fires back. "I thought I saw it moving, so I decided to investigate in case it turned out to be a baby hydra or something -- don't look at me like that."

"Like what?" Chris hums, perfectly innocent. "I'm glad you're playing your part in keeping us safe. Say, let me walk you home, at least. It's not every day I get to see you."

And Percy says, "yeah, all right," because it's true, and really, what plans did he have. The girl at the register tucks her phone into the pocket of her apron with the ease of long practice, bowing to them smoothly as she hands Chris his change. The phone's back out before the door even swishes shut behind them.

Chris catches him looking at him. "What?" he goes, popping a piece of gum into his mouth and absently-mindedly offering Percy one, only to receive a pained look in response.

"Nothing. It's just -- what brings you to the metro, man? I mean, I know you don't like the city, so how come I find you in my 7-11? Of all places."

Chris gives him the kind of sardonic smile that says the veiled questions aren't fooling anyone. He hates tight, enclosed spaces: anyone who went crazy and wandered inside the Labyrinth for weeks would, no doubt. It used to make day trips with him to New York City kind of a nightmare, although he'd never been one to complain about it (which, in hindsight, is probably why Clarisse liked him so much.) And as a son of Demeter, the metro has to be death for him: all endless, interlocking buildings, and the rarest real estate is always the green real estate. It'd be interminable for any nature-lover; Percy hasn't seen Grover in over a year.

"I don't mind the city, Percy. I do what I can." He lifts his hand, and above them, a half dozen hanging baskets suspended from the closest apartment complex's balconies are darker, greener, and fuller, as if they'd been ruthlessly attacked with Miracle-Gro in twenty seconds.

Percy gives the gutters alongside the building a little shake, spilling out rainwater and letting it float up to distribute evenly to the plants.

Chris smiles. "I dropped in at camp."

Realization dawns. "Did you talk to Rachel?"

"Yeah." A shrug. "For all the good it did me. Have you ever tried to get a straight answer out of an Oracle?" Catching Percy's look, he waves a vague hand, floundering with the obviousness of that statement, because -- duh, Percy Jackson. "I mean. I figured there wouldn't be any harm in asking, y'know."

Percy didn't need to be told what Chris asked. "You wanted to know if Clarisse had decided whether or not she wanted to move out here."

Another shrug, softer this time.

"Well? What did she say?"

"Hell if I know. A lot of stuff about there only being so much room in one's heart, and how she wasn't a magic 8 ball and I should learn how to get the answers on my own." They share an eyeroll; saying that Rachel is a diva is like saying that the properties of methodical calculus are a little complicated. Being an Oracle only made it worse. "I think it means no, though."

"I'm sorry, man."

"Don't be. I think I knew. It's not like anything has changed -- I mean, think about it, dude. Clarisse would be absolutely miserable in this country. Everyone's so polite all the time, and she's ... well, she's not, and that's what makes her so ace. Most of her cabin elected to stay behind in New York for that reason, yeah? I can't ask her to leave her siblings or her mom --" He cuts off, awkward, and Percy just nods, because they all left someone behind when moved to the other side of the world. His own mother is still in their apartment in New York; she sends him packages when she can afford it, and they always arrive three weeks later, well beat up from international customs.

He can even sympathize with Chris. Annabeth's back in the States, too. She'd let him leave with a lingering kiss and a, wait for me, Seaweed Brain, okay?

And as much as he misses her like he'd miss a minor internal organ if he ever had to lose one, he knew better than to beg her to leave. There's no way that'd be fair.

Grover, too, doesn't have much time for him, or much of Olympus in general, too busy with his hunt to save the Wild. Knowing that Japan was already a bit of a lost cause, he spends most of his time in other countries, doing protest marches and getting his face splashed on the newspapers occasionally for being an activist. Grover even has his own host of fan websites: Percy knows, because when he's really bored, he'll go and post stupid stuff on them, just for laughs.

Juniper, he sees around Camp Half-Blood, but he draws the line at hanging out with his best friend's girlfriend without said best friend being there. There's low and then there's just pathetic.

They pass a playground, which is basically a small parcel of raked gravel the size of three Porta-potties lined up side by side, containing a single sea-saw and a few little plastic animals whose little plastic faces wear varying degrees of little plastic insanity.

Chris cracks his gum, says awkwardly, "And Annabeth isn't ..."

Percy glances at him. He's a tall man, Chris Rodriguez is, taller than Percy (which, much to the dismay of his ego, is not hard to be, he's learning; the kids at camp who hit their growth spurt within the last year have pretty much outstripped him.) He's losing some of his half-blood-trained muscles, his stomach starting to strain against his shirt. He has the same black hair and wide-set eyes that most children of Zeus's siblings have, and his dark complexion is earthy; when his face stretches into a smile at a little girl carefully following her mother around with a miniature water-pail, his ears shift an inch up his head.

He's shaking his head when Chris looks back to him. "She isn't coming anytime soon," he says. "Her entire family was going to come with her, you know, get a place as close to Mt. Olympus as they could so she could help them rebuild. But after her sister --" he breaks off, shrugging. "-- ... well, after."

"Yeah," goes Chris, who doesn't need explanation. "How's Malcolm doing with Olympus, by the way?"

"Well, they haven't turned him into barbeque yet, so I assume he's doing something right." Percy, who remembers how it had nearly killed Annabeth to hand her blueprints for the new Olympus over to her second-in-command, grimaces.

Silence falls after that, except for their shoes on the pavement and the ever-present sounds of the city. Then --

"Strange to think we're even here at all, isn't it?"

"It's the last place I would have imagined myself," agrees Percy, who'd been thinking along the same lines.

Somewhere in the distance, a man is yelling, the words barking and foreign, but even that's different than it was in New York City, where, "what are you looking at, punk?!" is on par with, "hi, how are you, I like your shirt."

"It all happened so fast, you know," Chris shrugs, voice quiet. "I mean, the United States had been home of the gods since the American Revolution. I don't think it ever occurred to me that I would see it move countries in my lifetime."

"There wasn't anything that we could do," says Percy, with a voice run threadbare from saying it so much -- the president had said it, the governors had said it, Zeus had said it, Chiron had said it, Paul had said it to Sally the morning Percy left for good, knowing he'd probably never see her again -- there wasn't anything that could have been done. America's decline came too fast, too sudden: it was nobody's fault, just the combination of pent-up things. Crop failures, flu outbreaks, crashing economy, global warming, Wal*Mart: the blame could have been placed on anything.

And the mortals went on believing it. Behind the Mist, nobody actually said it, but everybody looked at each other sideways and knew, knew that this had been the Titan's back-up plan, that they'd walked right into it, that it was closing shut all around them.

If you can't topple the king from his throne, topple the throne from out underneath the king.

Somewhere along the line, the gods of Olympus had been forced to say, we're abandoning ship. And looked for what would be the strongest country, the new top dog.

"And here we are," Percy concludes, tilting his head to the sunset-streaked Japanese sky.

The problems had been endless. It's not like you can just snap your fingers and suddenly everything's installed in another country. To the gods, who had had 300 years to get used to living in a big country, having to fit all their junk into one the size of California had made for one incredibly tense Winter Solstice.

Half-bloods had to choose: to go with their gods, or to stay with their homes, their families. They had to choose between each other. Percy and Chris are here, Annabeth and Clarisse are there, and it's not even an uncommon story.

It never gets easier.

"Wow, Camp looks creepier every time I see it," remarks Chris, and Percy snaps back into himself to realize that they're passing Camp Half-Blood on the right: it's such a normal fixture in his life he doesn't even notice anymore.

An hour outside of Tokyo main, Camp Half-Blood picked the only sizable plot of free land it could find without falling off a cliff somewhere: Atsugi American Military Base. It hadn't been hard to persuade the few remaining Americans living there to leave: it'd only taken a few Cyclops and Ares on a motorbike and they were calling their booking agents. Out of three American military bases in the area, Atsugi was the largest, which fit Camp Half-Blood's needs nicely. From the outside, it looks like an eerie, abandoned set of barracks, an Exchange and strip mall, and a giant golf course. It's surrounded on every side by a fifteen-foot high wall of barbed wire.

The actual boundaries of camp don't start until several feet inside the main gate. If you're standing on the outside, the boundary marker looks like a giant television screen, running ads for upcoming Fourth of July fireworks displays and reminders that to marry a local, you needed to fill out several different forms than for a usual license. Inside, the dragon lay curled around the pine tree, smoke drifting from its nostrils and its flat eyes alert.

The one concession Camp Half-Blood had to make for its disguise is the manned entrance gates: mortal guards who have never been beyond Thalia's tree and don't know there's anything more to camp than a half-abandoned set of barracks for American military. Percy always makes a point of talking to them when he goes through; whatever his Misted military papers say, his rank's apparently enough to get their wide-eyed attention and some very smart salutes, even though he knows they know he's scarcely over twenty. He knows what clubs they were in in high school and the names of their sweethearts and a general idea of what they do when they're not in uniform.

They're very nice young men. They just happen to be very nice young men who carry AK-47s.

Percy lifts his hand to them in greeting and hears a faint call of "good evening, Jackson-san!" in response. Beside him, Chris shivers slightly and averts his eyes, not used to the sight. Percy sees how it could be eerie -- men with big guns patrolling a ghost town of a military base, and assumes its part of the Mist working its disguising magic, making people avoid it.

Percy's apartment building is about a fifteen minute walk from there, across the street from a car repair shop. It's an innocuous building, easy to miss, and if you've hit the First Kitchen, you've gone too far.

Their conversation is easy enough to last them until they get to the steps. Percy nods at one of his neighbors, who's locking her bike into the bike park on the building side. She greets him with shy English -- she teaches a class to preschoolers and she was the first in the building who really made Percy feel welcome.

"Hey," goes Chris suddenly, after she totters up the steps and disappears inside. He pulls his glasses off his nose, wiping the lenses off on the hem of his shirt. "How about you come by my place in Hase sometime?" He offers a sly grin. "I'll make it a party."

Percy nods once, remembers being seventeen, when, "party at Chris and Clarisse's!" usually meant an absurd amount of alcohol and a lot of pretending they had no recollection of things the next morning. It was one of the worst-kept secrets at camp, and should have gotten them a lecture on underage drinking, at the very least, if only Dionysus hadn't been right there along with them -- and usually the first one to start removing clothing. He wonders if Clarisse not being there will mean a proportionate rise in the amount of alcohol, and decides, what the hell, why not.

"Sweet, man," Chris grins when he gives another nod. "How about tomorrow night? You free?"

"Nah, I got a lesson to give at camp."

"No sweat. Day after that, then. Friday night. Surely you can free up a Friday night!"

"Whatever," he rolls his eyes, though they both know it's true. "Yeah, fine, I'll be there."

"That's the spirit. Here, lemme give you my address." After a second of fumbling, he pulls the receipt out of his 7-11 bag, and pats his pockets down for a pen. Percy lifts his hands helplessly to show he doesn't have one either, and Chris goes, whatever, and places his writing hand over the back of the receipt. Spindly Roman characters spring up in a slow, arching scrawl, and Percy smiles: Chris is using dirt as ink.

He listens to Chris give directions, like how because he's white they're going to try and get him to switch to the Enoden line when he's taking the train, which he doesn't need to do; it's the train for tourists and it costs an insulting amount of money, nodding at the appropriate points. They part, then, Chris off in the direction of the station, Percy up the steps of the apartment complex, waving hands in each other's general direction and assuring the other that, yeah, Friday, right? Yeah, man, see you then!

 

| --- | --- |

 

There's a dark figure standing over his bed when he wakes up the next morning.

Percy does the first thing that comes to mind: he punches his intruder in the face, swings himself off the bed, and dives for the pockets of his discarded jeans, coming up with Riptide, uncapped and glowing.

"Owwwww," groans the figure, now lying prone at an awkward angle in the armchair where he fell. "What the hell, Percy, you broke my nose!"

"You were being a creeper!" Percy replies indignantly, lifting the sword so the soft seagreen light illuminated more of his would-be trespasser's features -- and then he finally recognizes the congested voice and bony face, and shock wipes everything else blank. "Nico?"

"Hi," says Nico di Angelo, glaring up at him around the hands he has clamped to his nose. "You have a crap apartment. Seriously. Like, I thought you couldn't get any worse than some of the places in New York, but pfffff. Also," he admits somewhat grudgingly, pulling his hands away to inspect them; blood glints redly on his fingertips. "You have a mean right hook."

"Oh, grow up, you're barely bleeding." And then, "Wait, what do you mean, I have a crap apartment?"

He fumes about this for a solid five minutes, which is long enough to get the lights turned on and his sword put away and a pack of fishcake from the back of the freezer unceremoniously shoved against Nico's face ("I saw what you did there," he grumbles, and Percy feigns deafness.) It is not a crap apartment; Percy has been living here for months, and it's clean. There are no cracks in the walls and all the floorboards meet up properly. The hot and cold water faucets actually run the temperature they're supposed to. It's just ... small.

And by small, he means there's two rooms. Only he's gone and made it two and a half by putting up a folding partition in front of the kitchenette; hanging strings of seashells stand as a makeshift door. The rest of the room is desperately starved for free space; there's a cubby right by the door for shoes, Japanese-style, an and end table for mail -- only most of the surface is taken up by some crafty thing he got on a whim at an art festival in Shizuoka, mostly because it reminded him a lot of the head of Medusa (good times, those) and also because Rachel would have killed him if he didn't buy anything -- and there's an armchair, a folding card table that could pass for a dining room table if it put on airs and a fake accent. There's a bookshelf that doesn't hold much in the way of books; the bottom shelves are mostly DVDs, and the top shelf has the few artifacts he's bothered to save from various adventures -- spindly golden remnants of the Fleece, the Mythomagic figure of Hades, his tattered Camp Half-Blood shirt that he wore the day they fought for Mt. Olympus. Next to it is a stack of plastic containers that serves as a dresser of sorts. Just beyond that is the door to the bathroom, which has the distinction of being the second room of the house.

There isn't even room for a bed. Percy has to fold the card table and push the TV into the corner, and then pull the bed down out of the wall.

It is not crap -- it's just ... economical.

Percy hands Nico a warm washcloth to mop the blood off his face, taking the frozen fishcake in trade and running it under the tap to clean it off before tossing it back into the freezer. "So nice of you to drop in," he prompts after awhile, when Nico volunteers nothing, managing only enough sarcasm to kill a small rodent. "How've you been?"

"Fine," replies Nico, oblivious. "Why were you asleep?"

"Um, because it's morning? That's what you do in the morning -- at least, when you can. Some people work in the morning, I hear, but most sane people sleep."

"Oh." He blinks. "I didn't realize it was that early here."

"Where did you come from?" Percy goes, perplexed. It's been ... hell, it's been years since he's seen Nico -- the guy could have been living in a trailer park in Nebraska and he wouldn't know.

Nico shrugs, and stands, going to toss the washcloth into the sink. "The Underworld. Morning, day, night -- they don't mean much down there. I guess I forgot."

Percy frowns at him, and for the first time, gets a good look at him.

He's grown up, in a very understated way that you wouldn't notice unless you looked closely -- the fact his face has filled out, growing into the features that had been so prominent before; his high, Italian cheekbones and stick-out ears now look winsome instead of just comical. He's gotten taller, too. In fact, Percy realizes with a thrill of disbelief, Nico might just be taller than he is now; standing this close, he can tell there's the faintest of disproportions to the levels their eyes and foreheads are at, and yes, Nico is taller than he is, if only by the faintest amount, and hopefully that's a difference that will be negated when Percy puts on a pair of shoes.

The WWII bomber jacket he remembers from years ago is more worn, cracked at the elbows and unraveling at the hem, and Nico is still too skinny inside of it. He looks like a 90s rocker kid dressed in his grandfather's clothing, with converse sneakers and skinny jeans. Like most half-bloods, he wears a beaded necklace around his neck. It's not the same, though; where as any camper would have one bead for each summer spent at camp, Nico's looks more like something you'd pick up at a tourist dive on a boardwalk, the kind with a discount rack that sells jewelry with common names (Percy never paid much attention to those, for obvious reasons.)

Nico wears his sister's name around his neck.

A lot of what Percy remembers about Nico comes back to him in halting flashes; son of Hades, born during the Great Depression and locked up in the Lotus Casino for seventy years, playing trading card games until it was convenient to let him out (there were worse childhoods, he supposes.) Lost his sister, turned rogue, disappeared off the face of the earth after the Battle for Olympus. Percy had noted his absence kind of abstractly after that point, like a certain silly tradition you had in high school that you remember fondly once or twice after you graduate, or some kid you knew from grade school, but it never really occurred to you that their life would keep on moving too.

"Well, make yourself at home, I guess," he goes, somewhat sarcastically, as Nico helps himself to the bag of gummy candies he has sitting out on the counter.

"Thanks," says Nico, still being deliberately oblivious and popping the gummy into his mouth. "You know, I haven't seen you since ..."

"Since the last time all the heads of cabins got called together, yeah," Percy nods. Being the only living demigod child of Hades made Nico the head and only member of the Hades cabin, and Percy remembers him being there the last time everyone got called together for an emergency, looking young and faintly bemused by everything, like he'd forgotten how people worked. "Wasn't that when Annabeth accidentally triggered one of Deadalus's booby traps while poking around on his laptop ...?"

"Yeah," Nico bobs his head, and they pause for a second, each recalling the event that had them all going cross-country on a Quest to deactivate each booby trap before it brought upon nuclear holocaust -- which is just about as non-pressuring and cheerful as it sounds, but oddly, not what everyone remembers about it.

Finally, Nico bites his lip and goes, "Do you remember when ... --"

"By the gods, yes!" Percy returns with a loud laugh, having waited for one or the other to bring it up, because it's just one of those things that can't not be mentioned. And he clarifies, "With the Amazonian girdle? And Thalia had to --"

"With her teeth --!"

"YES."

And they're off, spurting with half-muffled guffaws and laughing like they're out of practice with each other -- but the unease fades quickly, because it's not that hard and most people are made to laugh with each other. Nico rocks back on the counter, clutching his stomach and going, "No -- no -- no, seriously -- man, we were so disappointed when they chose not to make that the symbol for the bead that summer."

"No kidding! It was classic." Thalia, of course, is inclined to disagree, and bringing the subject up is surmountable to asking to get an arrow stuck somewhere very tender, but still.

"But," he eventually goes, leaning back against the fridge and scuffing the bottom of his bare foot against the linoleum. "That was a couple years ago. Have you been --"

"Living in the Underworld, yes."

"Why?"

Nico shrugs. "All my family's down there," he says, his grin fading, and Percy flinches, remembering all of a sudden why being around Nico is so uncomfortable and not something he enjoyed a whole lot when he was younger; he just says things like that without thinking. "And as the only living mortal child of Hades, I've got weight to pull. It's a big place to run, and Dad needs what help he can get."

Catching the expression on Percy's face, which he thinks is somewhere between polite interest and pity, he stiffens defensively. "It's not that bad, you know. You get used to the dark and the --"

"The dead people?"

The look that Nico gives him is so flat that Christopher Columbus probably could have navigated it and fallen off the edge of the world. It's like he can't fathom why Percy would find that weird. "Who are very nice," he says blandly.

"... okay, then. What brings you to the upper world?" More importantly, why Percy Jackson's living room-slash-bedroom at a ridiculous hour of the morning?

Nico fiddles with the wrapper from his gummy, swinging his legs back and forth so that his heels rap against the cabinet doors, and Percy's ADHD brain takes great pleasure in distracting him with the fact that Nico's wearing mismatched color sneakers; one green, one orange. And not even a tasteful, muted color that works well with footwear; it's the lurid, dubiously radioactive kind of green and orange color that only really surfaces on or around Halloween.

"Dunno. Decided I might as well try something different. It gets kind of boring down in the Underworld when Persephone isn't there. Dad's sense of humor goes right out the window -- also, the three judges that decide whether newcomers go to the Fields of Elysium or the Fields of Punishment get rotated this time of year, and the new kids always take their jobs so seriously, which is no fun at all."

"No, I can see how it'd be easy to get too serious about judging the fates of a person's eternal afterlife."

Nico catches the sarcasm this time, and rolls his eyes. In the sterile white glow coming from the light above the sink, his skin is as translucent and pale as a piece of paper, the circles under his eyes as dark as bruises. By the gods, he looks like a serial rapist, Percy thinks. Do I have a serial rapist sitting on my kitchen counter? He's eating my candy! Hey, stop --

"-- that!" he goes, scowling, as Nico pops another gummy into his mouth. "Okay, fine, so dead people are boring. Why does that make it okay for you to play Goldilocks and steal my -- did you just take another one?"

"For later!" Nico replies hotly, pocketing the package and holding his hands up, showing that he could, in fact, keep them out of the candy. "Stop being so anal. And I apologized already, what more do you want? Persephone told me it wasn't healthy that she was my only friend I spent any time with, and I should go visit some of my friends in the upper world."

"Thanks a lot. Most people usually call ahead when they're going to be -- hang on, Persephone's your friend?" Percy boggles for a moment.

Nico gives him a look that says his grasp of the facts is a little late in arriving. "Sure. Don't look at me like that. She said she was sorry she turned me into a geranium. She even gave me a pet -- a fear demon Phobos created for her as a belated birthday present. Besides, we have a surprising lot in common. Putting up with Dad is pretty high up there."

"-- Persephone?" says Percy again, like he's hoping they're talking about some other goddess of the Underworld. "You're friends with your stepmother?" He's seen Amphitrite, like, twice in his entire life, and both times she looked at him like she was hoping he was some small, runty sea slug she could step on with a pointy heel.

Nico wrinkles his nose. "Ugh. Actually, it works a lot better if I don't think of her as my father's wife, but rather as a daughter of Demeter. That makes her our cousin. Once you think of her like that, she's a lot cooler to be around."

And ... it's kind of too early in the morning to work out the logistics of that remark.

"So, yeah, we hitched a ride to the upper world together," continues Nico, running his thumbnail along the seam of the counter. "And I got here and I realized I didn't actually know anybody." He rubs at his nose. "Except you."

There is no reason that should make him pause. But something in the way Nico says it makes it skip inside Percy's brain like a record briefly caught off track, but it's gone before he can catch it. "You know Rachel," he finds himself saying.

Nico widens his eyes at him, like, duh. "Yeah. Um, and she's not the virgin Oracle of Delphi or anything. I can imagine nobody would raise any eyebrows if I dropped into her bedroom at a weird hour of the morning."

"Good point." As off-putting as Nico is, nobody actually wants to see Apollo vaporize him on the spot.

"Speaking of raised eyebrows, how come you were alone in bed?"

Scratch that. Percy would be very pleased if Apollo vaporized him on the spot. "Excuse me?"

Nico holds up his hands defensively. "No, hey! That's not what I meant. It's just -- where's Annabeth? I thought I'd find you slumming it here with her, or something. Weren't you two, like, locked at the tonsils at one point?"

Percy closes his eyes and sends a brief prayer to the gods for patience. "Okay, first of all, no. Second of all, I am savior of the world, thank you very much, and we don't slum."

"Wow," says Nico, looking pitying. "Please don't tell me you actually use the 'savior of the world' schtick. That is ... that is wow, kind of sad."

"Lay off," Percy snaps. "For your information, Annabeth is home with her family, you ass. Her half-sister got diagnosed with childhood leukemia and Annabeth would rather be there with her while she goes through chemo than -- how did you put it -- slum it here with me."

Nico has the decency to look ashamed. "Oh," he says, softly. "I didn't mean -- er, how is she?"

Percy sighs. "The Chases are extraordinarily strong people, Nico, even the mortal ones." Unbidden, he smiles, thinking of the last active update he'd gotten from Annabeth; a video on her Facebook page, of her and her half-sister doing some kind of informal ballet routine to an Imogen Heap song in their living room -- something Annabeth never would have been caught dead doing under normal circumstances, but it looked natural on her, the slippers and high bun, and the smile on her face when she stood next to her sister, whose bald head caught shinily even with the poor exposure.

When he looks back over, Nico is watching him with a wary kind of hopefulness, like he just kicked a puppy and he's sorry and he wants to know he didn't hurt it too much.

Percy sighs again. "You picked a fantastic time for a visit, I guess. Isn't the upper world grand?"

"It's falling apart," says Nico baldly. "Why do you think I chose to live down under? Even Dad says so -- pretty soon, the Underworld's going to be the only place that runs efficiently, anywhere. Japan is the new top dog in this world, now that America and China have toppled, but how long is that going to last?"

"Bad times can't last forever," murmurs Percy, repeating something Chiron always told the campers whenever they got homesick, Rachel looking white and nervous behind him, like a little girl caught in a lie.

"Yes, well, no one's working very hard at saving it. The U.S. is a mess, China has stopped accepting international aid, and Australia was named the number one vacation spot last year, which just goes to show in what a bad state the world really is. I wish I could do something, but --" he shrugs, helpless. "All I'm good at is killing things."

The kitchenette is small enough that Percy can reach out and bump Nico's shin with his knee. "Hey. I don't think I can single-handedly save the world -- tried doing it once, lot of people wound up dying, and Luke had to go and save the day in the end -- but, at the very least, I can be your friend here in the upper world. What do you say we go to Camp Half-Blood -- see if anybody actually remembers you."

Nico blinks at him, like Percy's gone and deviated off a pre-arranged script he had organized in his head. The grin happens too quick for him to bite it back, and Percy returns it without thinking.

"Yeah, all right," Nico goes. His grin broadens into a smirk. "You should probably change first, though."

Percy looks down -- notices, with a vague, detatched kind of horror, that he's wearing a really, really old pair of Spongebob Squarepants boxers.

"Right. Yes."

 

| --- | --- |

 

If there's one thing moving to a foreign country has taught him to appreciate, it's how far the Mist goes in covering their asses. He's pretty sure Hermes hasn't even stopped for a cup of coffee in twelve months, too busy smoothing over the merging of mortal and immortal worlds.

The human guards take what Percy tells them is Nico's guest pass and study it carefully. In reality, it's a blank sheet of paper, and when Percy had first dug it out of a mess of things in the kitchen, Nico had cracked, "So, what, do we walk up there and say, 'these are not the droids you are looking for'?"

"Believe in the power of the Force, Luke," Percy says sagely, as the guards hand the paper back to them and wave them through. He wishes them have a nice day, tells the one to give his best to his daughter on learning her alphabet.

"Wonder what this paper made you out to be," he muses to Nico, tucking the Misted paper up and tucking into his back pocket.

"Probably something like a sergeant lieutenant officer of the third degree or something, I don't know, I never followed that stuff."

"Huh. Sounds like you're a real ponce, then."

Nico looks at him like he's a moron. "Dude, your name's Percy, okay. You do not get to talk about poncy names."

About twenty feet inside the gate, there's a familiar tug at the pits of their stomachs at the move from one plane of existence to the other, and around them, the base disappears; barracks and golf courses becoming the white columns of the Big House and the practice fields, Thalia's pine tree tall beside them. Instinctively, Percy breathes deep, loving the smell of it -- horses and pit-fire and the scent of what is probably the Hermes cabin switching the Hephaestus's cabin's petrol with tomato juice.

Beside him, Nico tenses almost imperceptibly; none of his memories at Camp Half-Blood have ever been particularly fond.

"Percy!" it's the youngest Aphrodite girl, Kitty, coming up behind them, the beaded cornrows of her hair swinging around her shoulder blades. She carries a package in her arms, well beaten up from its long journey; gifts, he hopes, from her family back in the States. Proof that they're all right. "Hey, did you see Michael Yew on TV last night?"

"Yeah!" Percy grins. Michael Yew, who'd been head of the Apollo cabin during the battle for Mt. Olympus, now has his own game show -- he fits in Japan like he never did in the United States. It probably has something to do with him finally finding a world where his piddly height is average. "He almost killed me with that crack about MTV -- I know, right, who knew he could be funny? I'm glad the show was a success, though. It's always good to see half-bloods making names for themselves."

"Oh, real subtle, Percy," Kitty rolls her eyes. She's one of the ones that rarely ever leaves camp.

He waves her off. "You know what I mean. Go on -- go and open your package. Practice is in thirty minutes, all right?"

The day Dionysus and Chiron called the meeting in the pavilion and told them that in light of recent events, Olympus was going to have to relocate to Japan, they were given a choice. All half-bloods under the age of thirteen would go home, and those out in the world who'd never been to camp, never been claimed, would remain so, oblivious for the rest of their lives that they were descended from the Greek gods. Moving countries meant that the monsters left, too, so it was up to each and ever half-blood to decide for themselves: stay here, in America, where nothing is certain, or to go with their god parents to Olympus, where there would always be monsters to fight.

For many of them, it wasn't a choice at all.

I know you love me, Sally Jackson told her son without a tremble in her voice. But that camp made you who you are, Percy. To take you away from it, from that world -- you wouldn't be my son anymore. And she'd kissed his cheek, then, softly, like she'd already said good-bye.

A loud, booming bark catches his attention. A huge, dark shape bounds towards them across the grass, tongue lolling in delight at the sight of them, and he should really head off imminent disaster.

"Mrs. O'Leary!" he yells, flinging his hand up. "GIRL, SIT."

The school bus-sized hellhound skids to a stop seconds before she would have pounced on them, her butt hitting the ground with the sound of an anvil dropping. She flattens her ears back against her head and whines, edging down onto her elbows and stretching her neck forward. She sticks her tongue out, rolling it out to its furthest length so she could lick feebly, joyfully, at the toes of their shoes.

"Good girl," says Nico, reaching down to pet Mrs. O'Leary's tongue in a fond manner, like, oh, hey, giant scary-looking hellhound, how cute.

He then proceeds to wipe the drool off on Percy's shirt, which earns him a dirty look and a, "how old are you?"

"You know, I don't actually know," says Nico honestly.

"You don't know -- what?"

"How old I am. I mean," he continues, catching the look Percy's giving him. "I have a vague idea, of course, but time runs differently in the Underworld, so who knows. I know I'm old enough to be legal."

Percy can't help but leer at that. "Legal for what, exactly?"

The tips of Nico's ears flush. "I don't know, just ... legal."

With Mrs. O'Leary happily loping behind them and Percy still making off-color jokes, they head for the practice fields. They pass a group of campers heading in the other direction, carrying a small wading pool, a couple gnome-looking lawn ornaments, and three gallons of milk. Percy decides he really doesn't want to know, but he starts pointing out half-bloods for Nico's sake.

"-- and that's Jerome, head of the Nemesis cabin. You might remember him -- he was ten and unclaimed when the Titan army stormed Olympus, and he looked real stupid in armor that was too big. Looks scary now, I know, but usually he's a really friendly guy. He used to be real thick with Rochester, the girl from Zeus, and hasn't really been the same since she got -- er -- you know --"

"I know," says Nico softly. "I saw her in the EZ Death line."

"Yeah. Hey, see them over there?" he jerks his chin to where two really tall boys stand ready just outside the practice arena in old Greek armor, their heads bent together over the newest handheld Nintendo knock-off; they look similar in some ways, but completely different at the same time; one looks better placed at a Hawaiian surf shop, and the other one looks like he's been pressed-cut for an Ivy League interview. "That's Justin and Justin. I call them Justin C. and Justin P. They're brothers -- yes, with the same first name, doesn't that suck? -- and kind of my closest friends here. If I go anywhere, it's usually with them."

"What cabin are they --" starts Nico, walking half-turned around, but at that moment, he runs directly into a girl who's practically two feet shorter than him. She staggers back a few steps; she's tiny, Japanese, and dresses like she'd picked out whatever apparently to clash the most from her closet. She focuses on Nico and bows quickly, mumbling "excuse me" and scampering off.

"I'd get someone to test your food and drink for poison for a few days if I were you," says Percy dryly, when she's out of sight.

Nico frowns at him. "Who was that?"

"Jennifer Matsueda," sighs Percy in the tone most adults use when describing the children who can't seem to get it into their heads that they're not supposed to punch the other kids when they don't share their milk. "She's the only girl from the Ares cabin who elected to come with us to Japan. She is so obnoxiously passive-aggressive, but she was also the one that taught us the language." And nobody really likes her, he doesn't need to add, because you need to be a stronger person than he is to like a child of Ares, but everyone thinks she's lucky: she has family living close-by, and doesn't have to spend nights in her empty cabin if she doesn't have to.

"So wait, what are we doing now?"

"Most weekday afternoons, I run practice. Sword-fighting, hand-to-hand combat, you name it."

"You run practice."

"Yeah, man. It's where my salary comes from, but it also means I usually get stuck with chaperone duty on our field trips." Catching Nico's blank look, he explains, "Everyone lives year-round at camp now, and will be so until, like me, they're old enough to move away and start their own lives. So every now and then, we take planned trips places, both local and far away. It's always risky, having so many half-bloods in one place -- and Dionysus has to okay all of them, ever since that debacle at the Cherry Blossom Festival -- but usually pretty awesome. Now excuse me, I need to kick some half-blood butt."

With the exception of the field trips, and the occasional package from home, it's sparring practice with Percy Jackson that everyone at camp looks forward to the most. Even Dionysus takes a break from moaning about his job and the stupid kids to show up to watch, because there's fighting and then there's fighting, with no holds bar, flat out with the intent to hurt and maim, and Percy cannot be injured, and nobody has to control themselves with him. They can look at his friendly face and not hesitate before running their blade through his heart; they can strike him with moves to break his bones, they can play as dirty and as mean and cheap as they want, and it won't matter. Percy comes out each day without a scratch on him.

He's the world's best punching bag. He's been on the receiving end of so much pent-up frustrations and helpless anger, over messy break-ups and grief from news of illness and poverty back in America, seen the darkest sides of the campers, and he doesn't mind. This is why he moved. This is who he is.

At one point, after the blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl from Hebe, Miranda, bows out, breathing hard, he turns around and finds himself facing Nico, who grins.

"Come on, cousin," he goes, bringing his fists up into boxing position. "Let's see what you got."

"After you." Percy lifts his sword and brings his shield into position. "How'd they do it in the 30s?"

A laugh. "Well, you know what they say. If you can't stand the heat, stay out of hell!"

Percy moves, but Nico's hand is already snapping downwards in a movement like he's breaking an egg, and the ground quakes. He hears, in the background, the shouts of surprise from the campers in the stands as the whole arena shudders, and he leaps and rolls to the side to avoid the fissure that cracks the earth beneath his feet.

He uses his momentum to push himself upright again, but in that moment, Nico's on him. In each hand he grips a human thigh bone like a club, and he's already spinning into Percy, one of them whistling right for his head.

It's a blur, after that, of point and parry, attack and counterattack. Nico's not wearing armor, which is against camp rules, but nobody is actually stopping the fight to tell him this. Percy has forgotten what it's like to battle a child of the Big Three, how much more powerful they are than the average half-blood. When children of the Big Three fight, all the forces of nature respond.

He's not sure how long it lasts. Not long, he doesn't think: Nico is out of practice with beating people up for sport and Percy's already exhausted from previous fights, but neither of them can actually get the other on his back and both of them are too stubborn to give in. They push right on through the buzzing in their ears and the blackness edging in on the corners of their vision.

They break apart after awhile, circling each other with slow steps. Percy's helmet is gone, knocked off in a glancing blow from one of the bone-clubs, and Nico is --

"-- woah, hey!" he yelps, as Nico sways on the spot and then sags forward; the bones drop from his hands, and Riptide and his shield fall from Percy's in the same movement so he can catch Nico on the downward slump. The weight of him is enough to make him stagger to his knees, Nico's arms hap-hazardly flinging themselves around his neck and his nose pressed into Percy's shoulder.

"Well, hi there," Percy huffs with laughter, half-holding him, on their knees in the arena. "How are you?"

"M'allright," mumbles Nico. Each inhale he takes expands his chest against Percy's, a warm and solid pressure. "Think I might stay awhile. In Japan, I mean. Get a job or something. Trading card capital of the world here, isn't it? I used to be king at Mythomagic. Could kick butt, you know."

"I believe you."

"Dunno my way around, though. Dunno where to get started."

Percy grins against the side of Nico's head, slow as melting butter, starting at one corner of his mouth and stretching to meet the other. Arms still braced around him for balance, he promises, "Nico di Angelo, I will show you Tokyo."

 

| --- | --- |

 

Like it had been in New York, Camp Half-Blood is located a little ways outside of the city. On a map, it's all covered under a great scope just generally referred to as "the Tokyo metro," but in order to get to Tokyo itself from where Percy lives, it's about an hour train ride.

"Do you have money?" he asks Nico the next morning, as -- bright and early, because Nico teleported into his living room without bothering to check time zones first (again) and managed to knock over everything that could possibly be knocked over as he staggered around in the dark -- they head up the escalator at the train station. Percy reaches out and tugs Nico over to stand on the step in front of him -- in Japan, you stand on the right, walk on the left. It's non-negotiable.

Nico gives him a steady look. "My dad's the god of wealth, Percy. What do you think?"

"Just checking."

It's still dark enough out to fool the senses into thinking it's earlier than it actually is; the clouds hover low and grey and there's a light drizzle coming down -- people shake out their umbrellas and roll them up into plastic covers as they step into the station. Percy, being Percy, doesn't get wet unless he wants to, but it's not until he notices that Nico's unkempt hair is beginning to flatten down on his skull that he remembers to extend the courtesy to him as well, tells the water to roll off of him -- which earns him an thankless snort. The rain's not heavy enough and it's too much of a weekday for people to really look at them and wonder why they're not more wet than they are.

It's a strange feeling, though, to lean against the ticket teller machine and help Nico sort out how Japanese money works ("It's 100 yen to 1 American dollar, give or take a decimal point. There are coins for almost everything up through 500 yen, and then you get into the bills. See, these." "So, wait, it's almost 1000 yen to get to Tokyo?" "Well, round trip. You'll pay the second half on the ride back." "Still! I remember when this much could get you all the way to the West Coast and back." "-- you're really that old, aren't you?" "Shut up!") Nico watches him, curious and carrying a paper ticket in hand, as he puts more money on his Passmo.

You get so used to doing things by yourself, that he has to catch himself, look back, make sure Nico's still with him -- and the simple fact that he has company seems to make everything different.

"Percy, there are people wearing masks sitting around," Nico comments to him on the platform.

Like so. Things that have become normal to him suddenly no longer are. He grins, "Yeah. People here will wear masks when they're sick, rather than sneeze all over each other and smear snot in uncomfortable places."

"Oh. So, wait, that's considered rude?"

Grew up with absolutely no role model and less common sense than a drunk kitten, Percy reminds himself in time to keep from asking Nico if, what, he grew up in a barn, of course it's rude. "You can never be too polite in Japan."

"Huh. No wonder the Ares cabin elected to stay behind."

"And no wonder I haven't seen you around."

"What do you -- hey!"

And then they're off, and once Percy gets started, he finds he can't stop. He needs to drag Nico through the connecting stations and show him the vending machines that sell every canned or bottle drink imaginable, plus some vending machines that sell possibly the most random things ("is that -- are those socks?"). He needs to show him the toilets in the public restrooms, which have so many buttons and functions it's the next best thing to being an astronaut, and if they get funny looks when they both tumble out of the same bathroom stall, laughing, well, it's okay -- one white person doing something embarrassing is awkward, but two white people acting silly in public is just cute.

Percy knows they've reached Tokyo when the sun stops shining through the train's windows -- when the skyscrapers have become so tall that no light at all ever reaches the ground, spare for a few minutes exactly at noon.

They're already on the rail line bound for Shinjuku, so it's easy to start the adventure there: the Tokyo Tower sits like a smaller, red-and-white version of the Eiffel Tower at the crest of a hill, and Nico frowns and shades his eyes with his hands and looks up and goes, "Who's that at the top?"

"Prometheus, I think. Tied up there and keeping his head low for a couple centuries, like he's supposed to."

At the zoo in Ueno, they catch sight of a silver stag, standing in the heart of the lion exhibit, head bent to drink serenely out of the trough. All the lions are cowering on the other side of the enclosure, trying to look as if they all meant to be over there at the same time.

Percy looks at Nico out of the corner of his eye. "Should we wait and see if the Hunters of Artemis show up?"

And Nico goes, "What, you mean stick around and volunteer to be ridiculed endlessly because we happen to have a Y chromosome and they don't? No thank you."

They laugh. The stag nimbly leaps off -- clearing the zoo wall in one easy bound.

In the shopping district in Asakusa, they find perhaps the strangest sight of all -- other white people. Percy buys them both some taiyaki from one of the dozens of vendors that line the famous shopping street up in the northern-most point of the main city -- taiyaki being fish-shaped biscuits with flavored filling, because they evaded him earlier at that place kitty-corner to the dentist's.

"You know, I've never asked," Nico comments idly, his mouth full, as they sit on the curb and watch the swirls of people move up and down the street. Everything is narrower and more miniaturized in Japan, stores stacked on top of stores as entrepreneurs built upwards instead of out, and there's not a lot of room for foot traffic. "But where's Mt. Olympus?"

"It's the 300th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Building." Percy's never warranted an invite to the new headquarters, nor -- thankfully -- had to go there as the result of any Quest, but Malcolm heads up that way frequently enough on Annabeth's behalf that they all know where it is. He doesn't really need to go -- he knows the basic layout; Annabeth and Malcolm e-mail each other updates on the rebuild-Olympus project so often that Percy'd be jealous, if only it wasn't, you know, Annabeth's life-long obsession. "They have an observatory at the top for the mortals -- it is the tallest building in all of Tokyo."

"And the gods are on 300? It's not the 600th floor?"

"I guess not. Everything's smaller here."

Perfectly aware of the innuendo, they both pause to share a leer.

After a moment of companionable silence, Percy polishes off his taiyaki and wipes a glob of custard from the corner of his mouth. "While we're at it, where's the entrance to the Underworld? It used to be in LA -- as far away from Mt. Olympus it could get and still be in the same country, but Japan's geographically the size of the state of California, so where it'd go?"

The look Nico gives him at that isn't easily identifiable.

Percy shrugs, sucks the custard off his thumb. "Not that I plan on raiding it anytime soon -- I may be one of very, very few mortals who have gone there and come back not once, but twice, but I really don't fancy pressing my luck."

"It's in Hiroshima," is all Nico says, looking distracted, and Percy sobers, correctly assuming that this time, the mortal disguise of the Underworld isn't that of a soul-sucking movie company, because not even the gods can be ironic 100% of the time.

Harajuku, of course, is at the top of the list for this whirlwind tour -- it's Friday, though, and the best time to see Harajuku street fashion is Sunday morning ("I don't think I'm missing much," goes Nico when Percy explains this. "You should see some of the frightful things people are wearing when they die.")

Fortunately, people dressed in strange and physically improbable costumes isn't the only strange thing in Harajuku worth a second look.

They're standing outside of it for a solid five minutes before Nico figures out what they're looking at. When it finally does click, his face twists incredulously. "Are you kidding me?"

Percy grins.

"That. Is that a store dedicated entirely to condoms?"

"Why yes, yes it is." Behind Nico's head, the mascot of Condommania winks at them and tells them to be safe.

"Can they -- are they even allowed to do that? In public?"

"So long as you don't actually imply that you're going to use them. That would insult the Japanese sense of propriety."

Nico digests this for a moment, and then rounds on him, his eyebrows going up suggestively. "Well? Aren't we going in? You did bring me all the way here, you know."

"Yes, but I didn't actually mean -- Nico, what -- urk, oh, okay," he manages feebly, because Nico's already inside, tossing a wicked grin over his shoulder, and Percy has no choice but to follow.

In the end, they wind up spending more money than they should have.

The day stops being quite so fun when, while weaving their way through the crowds in Takeshita St., further down the block, Nico abruptly catches his sleeve and goes, "Percy, those ladies are staring at us."

Percy wonders how the hell Nico can notice something like that in a crowd this size. "Okay. That happens, sometimes, though not so much in Tokyo as in smaller towns like ours -- but we're white, in case you haven't noticed. People will stare at us. Besides, we're young and ridiculously good-looking." He pauses, and looks at Nico very slowly and obviously. "Well ... -"

"I could poke you in the ear with a pin and you'd blow up like a halogen balloon, you're so full of it," Nico says, disgusted. And, a few minutes later, "Except. Percy, now they're starting to grow tentacles. Is that normal, too?"

"... No," Percy decides. "No, that is most definitely not normal."

"Wow, ladies, what nice teeth you have." Nico's hand gives a harsh shove to the small of his back. "Run!"

Percy doesn't even ask, or look around: he bolts forward, diving into a space that opens up between two shoppers and pelting headlong into the crowd. He loses sight of Nico almost instantly, but it doesn't take him long to find their persuers; she cuts in front of him after a few stores down, wearing a I ♥ New York (But Only As a Friend) shirt and a fanny pack, and possessing way too many tentacles to be comfortable. He's seen their like before; they used to be crawling all over the lower decks of the Princess Andromeda.

"I see you, half-blood!" she crows, her voice a hissing, lizard-like shriek. "It was only time, I said to my sister. It was only time they would start getting bored of camp, and then we'd have sport to hunt again!"

"You need to get a hobby!" Percy shouts back -- spots a rock fountain outside a potpourri shop, flings a commanding hand out to it. The water responds with a roar, bursting from the fountain and coming to swirl around him in eddies and ribbons, suspended in midair -- he quickly clears an open space on the cobblestone street as people fan out of the way. "Have you ever thought about pedicures? I'm sure with as many hands as you have, it should be no problem!"

"Insolence!" roars the monster, and Percy frowns in its general direction and wonders of no one in particular, "What does that even mean?"

He snaps his wrist forward, striking the monster across the face with a whip of water, so hard that her head snaps back, and while she staggers, he wraps her tentacles up and orders the water to freeze. After that, it's cake; he lazily strolls up beside her, uncapping his sword and leveling at her where she lays trussed up on the street, helpless and unable even to get back to her feet.

"For your information," he tells her coolly. "We've been out of camp dozens of times. And as long as I live, you will not lay a hand, finger, tentacle, or proboscis on my half-bloods."

She curls her lip, and bursts into fine golden dust with a retort still unspoken on her tongue.

By this point, the crowd's starting to stare, muttering back and forth to each other too quickly for Percy to be able to translate it very easily, but he does hear, "police," and decides it would be a very good time to resume shopping in peace like a normal, functioning member of society.

He meets up with Nico fifteen minutes later at the end of the street, outside the McDonalds. He materializes out of the crowd, his head bent and his face flaming red.

"She chased me into the women's lingerie store!" he mutters at Percy's questioning look, and when the son of Poseidon barks with laughter, shoots him an angry glare. "Don't laugh, it was horrible! I had to hide out amid this teeny-tiny racks of ... of --" he fumbles, pinwheeling his hands through the air helplessly, and Percy -- trying very, very hard not to laugh like a loon -- offers helpfully, "bras?", and he goes, "YES. Those! And I was waiting for her to pass me so I could jump out and vanquish her, but in the meantime, here I was, crouched down among women's underwear, and everyone was staring at me." He trails off into a horrified moan.

Percy claps a hand to his shoulder solidly. "Hero of the hour," he manages, somehow schooling himself into a straight face.

"And when I did leap out to kill her, my sword got caught on the .. the -- the clearance rack," Nico's voice trails off into a whisper, like he can't even dare to speak of it, and Percy's fingers clench compulsively on his shoulder.

"Hero of the hour, defender of the meek from tentacled tourists and small cup sizes," he announces. "Deserves a Big Mac." And steers him into the McDonalds.

One very unhealthy, greasy, manly meal later, Nico isn't blushing quite so hard, but they both agree that they've had enough of Tokyo town for one day.

 

| --- | --- |

 

"Which works out just fine," Percy says, back at the train station, while he helps Nico sort his money into the machine to buy the return ticket. "It gives us just enough time to run this stuff back home before we have to head to Hase."

Nico frowns at him. "Why are we going to Hase?"

"It's Friday night. Chris Rodriguez invited me up to his place, and since you're with me, why don't you come too?" he offers off-handedly.

Nico continues to frown at him, so -- feeling uneasy, like he's gone and crossed some boundary he couldn't see -- Percy shrugs and goes, "Unless you have something incredibly pressing you have to get back to..."

"No, I'm coming," he says instantly, like there wasn't even a question about it. "It's just ... who's Chris Rodriguez?"

Percy stares at him, almost missing the turnstile and momentarily causing a traffic jam when he had to backtrack and swipe his Passmo again. "Chris Rodriguez?" he echoes, once he gets through. "Son of Demeter? Clarisse's boyfriend?"

Realization lights up in Nico's eyes, and he wrinkles his nose. "The crazy guy?"

"Formerly crazy guy," Percy stresses with a roll of his eyes, using the tone of voice one uses when saying that the bread used to be fresh, but it's okay, there's no mold yet, it's fine. "Apollo healed him."

"Still."

When they get home, Percy checks the weather channel and pulls a hoodie on and wants to know why, exactly, there are a couple shirts and three pairs of jeans that don't belong to him in his drawers, and how did they get there? And Nico shrugs and says something about being talented and sneaky like that.

"Bull," snorts Percy, pulling his sneakers back on -- Nico never bothered to take his off, but it's become habit for Percy; another one of those things he unconsciously adopted from the locals. "You probably have, like, a butler. Or something. Who's dead and rotted and does your laundry and folds your clothes and then puts them in my drawers because you're too lazy to ask me if you can just stay here."

Nico looks at him like he's a moron, which is probably as close as he comes to a default expression. "Yes," he agrees sarcastically. "Yes, that's exactly it."

And then they're back at the train station, forking out more money to the teller machine, which gobbles up their coins greedily, and Percy has to check the diagram of all the train lines in order to figure out where exactly on the seashore Hase town is and how many stops they have to pay for -- Chris had somehow neglected to mention that part.

The sun's sunk low on the horizon by the time they're sailing over the plains, and Percy watches its position change ever so slowly in the sky as they move, imagining he can almost see the chrome and custom paint job of Apollo's sun chariot.

It's been a long day already, and they wind up drowsing against each other; Nico strips out of his bomber jacket and pillows it behind their heads, and after an undetermined length of time, Percy reaches over, probing at Nico's bicep curiously like he's checking for tender spots on a squash.

"The hell?" Nico gives him a funny look, half-lidded with sleepiness. "What are you doing?"

"You're so scrawny, but these are a lot more beefy that I thought they'd be," Percy goes, teasing. "What, you do a lot of weight-lifting down in the land of the dead?"

Nico rolls his eyes. "Lay off," he mumbles, folding his arms across his chest self-consciously, and whether it was by intention or not, it does make the wiry cords of muscles in his upper arms stand out. He scowls when he catches Percy's smirk. "I did a six-month stint as a farmer, okay? It was muscle up or perish in the fields."

Percy blinks. "You ... were a farmer?"

"Yeah." Nico shrugs defensively. "Demeter thought it would be a good character-building exercise for me. Said that if her brother wanted to waste away like a worm down in the Underworld, that was his prerogative, but he didn't have to afflict the same fate on his children. And she pestered Persephone about it, so Persephone finally just asked me if I would do it, to get her mother off her back. It wasn't so bad -- I had a great crop."

"And you just -- let Demeter bully you?"

This earns him a frown. "Hey. Be nice. She's your aunt too."

They pause for a moment, reflecting on the sheer absurdity of that statement.

"Wow," Percy decides. "We are so inbred."

Outside, the buildings are making a marked shift from urban to rural: compact apartment buildings give way to actual houses with balconies and porches, small businesses with signs in tasteful calligraphy.

Percy casts a lazy glance at the map above their heads, checking where they were and how far they had to go.

"Five stops," he murmurs, sinking back down against Nico.

"I don't understand how you can do that."

"Do what?"

"Just --" he waves a hand vaguely. "How you can even read this stuff. Or speak it. I mean, I listen to you talk to the girls in the shops -- you sound like you were born speaking Japanese. I still haven't even sorted 'good morning' from 'good evening'. I wouldn't have a clue how to find my way on the train."

"It's not that hard, really," goes Percy, amused -- does he really speak to girls in shops like he was born speaking their language? If he does, it's not intentional: he just likes people. It's his fatal flaw, ask anyone. "And it's a lot easier to speak than it is to write, I promise. Here, scooch over a bit, I'll teach you the basic alphabet."

Only he sucks at it -- he mixes up the characters for "so," "ru," and "ro" three times and can't remember which he's supposed to teach first, hiragana or katakana, and just winds up confusing himself and Nico even more, so he gives up, saying something along the lines of being unable to even read English properly, so what are his chances with Japanese characters?

Dyslexia sucks.

 

| --- | --- |

 

The address Chris gave them leads them to a house on the end of the block about ten minutes from the Hase-Dera station, two stories tall and with roughly the circumference of a bouncy castle, but to Percy -- who has never lived in anything bigger than a two-bedroom apartment -- it seems a rather large place for one man to live in. The back patio (i.e. square of concrete -- the Japanese have no concept of "lawn") opens out onto the seawall. He can hear the waves crashing against the stone, as familiar to him as his own heartbeat.

"Cheers, man!" says the half-blood in question, throwing open the door just a little after Percy knocks. "I hoped I told you Friday and not some other day -- oh," he adds, spotting Nico on the step below, who is looking up at him a little warily, like he still doesn't believe Percy's assurance that Apollo healed him of insanity.

"Chris, do you remember Nico di Angelo?"

"Son of Hades, sure!" goes Chris, sounding cheerful and very not-crazy. "This is great -- I have a lot of beer, and now another person to help drink it -- can't go wrong there. Come on in!" he steps back a bit to let them through. "I managed to pick up as best I could before you got here, but I suggest you don't open any closets -- stuff might fall on your head."

"Can't be worse than the shoebox Percy's living in," goes Nico, stepping around Percy, who's toeing off his shoes in the entryway. He promptly has to eat his words.

What there possibly was to pick up and where it would go, they'll never know, because the place is floor to ceiling in junk -- in the living room, there's a clear space on the sofa and the armchair and a little space in front of the television, but most every available surface is taken: there are take-out cartons lying around and dirty plates stacked on top of each other, which would be gross and potentially hazardous if not for the fact that each and every single thing has a plant growing out of it. The take-out cartons are blooming with pansies and wildflowers, the dishes are covered with a thin film of moss and creeping ivy, and the coffee table is home to a small greenhouse's worth of poinsettias. Somewhere in another room, the washing machine chugs away.

"Holy crap," whispers Nico, articulating Percy's sentiments exactly.

"How have you managed not to get the police sicced on you?" Percy wonders, amazed.

"I have, actually," grins the son of Demeter. "Twice. But as I'm not growing anything illegal, they can't really do anything besides give me funny looks and talk over my head, and as far as I know, untidiness isn't a crime punishable by law. Yet."

On the front table, just inside the door and peeking out from underneath the leaning fronds of a bonsai tree, is a picture of Chris and an older man who has Chris's dark, frothy hair, only his face is more like a wrinkled walnut and he's missing several teeth.

"That's my papi," says Chris, noticing where he's looking. "Got out of Fidel's Cuba -- didn't even come to this country with the shirt on his back. All he had was a packet of seeds in his pocket -- back when they weren't so anal about agricultural imports. My mother helped him start his flower business in Orlando." There's a vulnerable kind of fondness on his face when he looks at the photograph. "He wanted to come with me when I said I was moving with the gods to Japan, but he had just finally gotten really good at living in America. He's tough enough to ride out what that country's going through. I know he is." A shadow crosses over his eyes.

Percy nods at him in solidarity, because he hopes the same thing about his mother every single day.

Once you got used to the sheer amount of greenery everywhere, things get much easier -- it's already preprogrammed into most men under the age of twenty-five, the ability to sink into sofas and armchairs and look like they've grown on it like an ulcer. Chris has a whole cooler of beer next to the couch, like perhaps it had come installed there when he bought the house.

It's a lot of catching up at first -- filling each other in on how things have gone since they moved away from camp and turned native. Nico participates little in this, merely slurps beer from the rim of his can and lets his eyes rove between the two of them, following the embarrassing stories of how they did and didn't fit in to the local life that get flung back and forth with increasing frequency and deteriorating respect, and then, just as easily, moving on to embarrassing stories about the people they know. ("Oh, hey, hey, do you remember -- um, um, oh help me out, that Apollo kid who was an altar boy before his dad claimed him --" "What, Nate?" "Yes! Him! Nate Atherton!" "Isn't he the one that --" "Went into Catholic seminary after he left camp, only to drop out when we were seventeen in order to get married to that nice crossdresser who worked in a sandwich shop in Queens?" "Yeah. That guy.")

"So, wait, man, how can you afford the digs?" Percy gives him a sarcastic toast with his beer can. "Imminent repossession by natural forces or not."

"Well, Katie Gardener helped me purchase the place, but I can afford the upkeep on my own and have a little extra. It's comfortable, for sure."

Percy arches his eyebrows. "Aren't you a teacher?"

"Yes, but -- we're paid better over here than we are in the States. Especially if you're a native speaker -- most of my income comes from the extra English classes I do in the evenings, outside of the high school."

"Sorry --" puts in Nico, somehow managing to sound as impolite as possible while being courteous. "But who's Katie Gardener?"

"My older sister." He looks thoughtful. "You might remember her -- yeah, I think she was still head of the Demeter cabin when you were around."

"What happened to her?" Percy asks with a pang of nostalgia. He'd fought alongside Katie in the battle in Manhattan. The Demeter cabin had been small, even then.

"Who, Katie?" Chris sends a wry look at the ceiling. "I've never seen her more in her element -- she's about two positions away from becoming president of the Itoen company, much to the consternation of everyone over the age of thirty."

Percy barks out a laugh, "Of course she is." Don't ever try to tell a half-blood that there's such a thing as a glass ceiling.

"Itoen's the biggest name in green tea around here," he adds for the benefit of Nico, who's working very hard at not looking confused.

Nico hums something in his throat, looking contemplative. Percy remembers what he said on the train, about having done a six-month farming stint for Demeter, and wonders if he's thinking that if trading card games turns out not to be his higher calling, if he can go to Katie Gardener for a job. He imagines scrawny, pale Nico out working in the sun under a wide-brim hat, picking tea leaves and contemplating Zen, and snorts beer up his nose.

"Anyone up for a brawl?" pipes up Chris a little while later, kicking out at a gaming console and couple of controllers with his foot, and this is something else that's preprogrammed into any young man under the age of twenty-five: the universal appeal of beating things up with big sticks on a video game.

"So," goes Chris while they wait for the start screen on Smash Bros to load and Nico trots off into the kitchen to get more ice for the cooler. "I didn't think you guys were, like, friends."

"Huh?"

"You and Nico. I mean --" he shrugs, in a no-big-deal kind of way. "I dunno. Just never thought you two got along. He kind of lured you into a trap and sold you out to his father when you were sixteen, didn't he?"

There's a crash from the kitchen, followed by the sound of a dozen ice cubes skittering across the floor and Nico cussing, topped by what is probably a very spirited dance to try and get them all picked up.

Percy frowns in that direction. "Yeah. I guess he did."

"You guess?" Chris's eyebrows go up, and he pushes his glasses up further on his nose to bring Percy into better focus, like it'll make him make sense. "Wait, so you don't care that he basically betrayed you?"

"I dunno. I don't really look at it like that." He fiddles with the buttons on the controller, says evenly, "I mean, okay, sure, he was a cheap sell-out --"

"Hey!" comes from the kitchen. "I can hear you, you know!"

"-- but so was Silena. So was Luke." So were you, before the Labyrinth, goes unspoken, but Chris suddenly looks uncomfortable and busies himself up with setting up the brawl on the screen. "It's a little stupid, don't you think, to hold a grudge against Nico, and not them, just because Nico happened to survive and they didn't?"

Nico comes back into the room half-way through Percy's speech to dump the ice into the cooler, and the look that he gives him is confused, grateful, and a little wary, like he's waiting for the punch line. The overall expression is so bewildered that Percy can't help but laugh at him, dropping his controller into his lap and reaching out to him, grabbing his face between his hands and dragging him close enough to push their foreheads together. "You're all right, man," he says, punctuating his words with a shake to Nico's head, fingers digging into the natural handholds of his jaw and ears. "You're all right."

Exaggeratedly, he rubs their noses together and lets him go. Nico looks dazed and even more confused, and he stays there for a moment, awkwardly distended over the arm of the sofa, blinking at him. Then, as if noticing he was doing it, he pulls back quickly, rubbing his nose with a muttered, "gross," but it's half-hearted at best.

"If you don't hurry up and pick your players, I'm a pick for you and I'll make sure you both get crap characters, don't think I won't," Chris announces to them, stretching out an arm and grabbing a new beer, and the night quickly dissolves into pretending they know kick-ass combos when really all they're doing is hitting a bunch of random bottoms as fast as they can.

Things meander back to the story-telling, and this time, Nico joins in, because as lewd a tale as Percy and Chris can spin, nobody has better stories than the dead, and eventually the two of them give up and just let Nico talk, so, yeah, okay, you think THAT'S bad, wait until I tell you about this --

"Dude!" Percy sinks back against the leg of the armchair, hiding his face in horror at the punch line of the tale of the eighteenth-century Russian czarista. "I didn't even know that was physically possible!"

"Hmmmm," comes from Chris's direction, and when Percy peeks out from in between his fingers, there's a sly grin tugging at the corners of his mouth, imminent warning of something horrible. "That's not what Clarisse says about you."

Percy sits up so fast he almost knocks his beer can over. "She told you about that?" he near-shrieks, voice embarrassingly close to hysterical before he can think to check it. Too late, he realizes that he pretty much just gave away that yes, in fact, it was true, whatever Clarisse says about him, and tries to sink into the carpet.

Chris is looking entirely too gleeful about his discomfort, and a strangled noise comes from deep in Nico's throat; he leans forward over Percy, eyes huge in his skull. "You slept with Clarisse?"

"We were drunk!" Percy wails, and Nico's eyes, if possible, go even wider. "And I mean really, really drunk -- not oh, hey, that was a wild kegger kind of drunk, but more like we broke into Dionysus's private brewery on a dare from the Stoll brothers kind of drunk. That was Bacchanate wine," he emphasizes desperately, as Chris roars with laughter. "It was kind of getting clubbed over the head with a giant concrete block.

"Besides," he adds, in a more sullen voice. "She tried to stuff my head down the toilet the next morning, which was more like her, and we've solemnly agreed never to mention it to anyone."

"You -- I can't believe ... -- Wait a minute!" Nico spins on his knees to face Chris. "Isn't she your girlfriend? How come you're not more angry about this?"

"Because," replies the other half-blood, who really needs to stop looking so damn amused by the whole thing. "I'm the one she came to the morning after, bellowing about how the amount of alcohol she drunk was only proportionate to how unattractive her bed partner was in the morning. It did wonders at making me feel better, because she did drink a lot," he adds cheerfully.

"Oh, gods, shut up!" says Percy, half-laughing, and throws an empty aluminum can at Chris's head.

Nico's still boggling. "And Annabeth didn't murder you on the spot?"

"No, she broke up with me on the spot."

Nico seems content with that.

"And you were back together after a month," Chris murmurs demurely, and for some reason, he's watching Nico over the rims of his glasses, like he just figured something out.

They call it a night sometime after that, and Nico disappears somewhere, melting into the shadows in a way that Percy isn't sure is literally disappearing into the shadows, or just Nico's tendency to blend in and go unnoticed. Whichever it is, he's left them with all the beer cans to clear up, which keeps Percy preoccupied with complaining in no uncertain terms, because really -- there are lines you just don't cross.

"That was entirely too complicated," he informs Chris when he comes back up from taking the bag of cans down to the recycling bins at the end of the street. "They had, like, umpteen-gazillion different bins for different things and you had to stand there and sort it all. There's no conceivable way recycling can be that complicated."

Chris laughs. "Oh, trust me, it took me forever to figure out how it worked. Nah, they're collecting aluminum tomorrow, which is why I had you run those out there -- thanks, by the way. They don't do like that in the city?" he asks, curious, heading into the kitchen to get a start on the dishes; the stacks of them that apparently are used for eating.

"Um, maybe?" Percy mumbles, embarrassed. "I wouldn't know. They've got a guy who comes by once a week and just collects all your recyclables in general. I don't think the building supervisors trust us to know what is picked up on what day."

He doesn't catch Chris's reply, but it sounds an awful lot like, "spoiled." Percy chooses to ignore it, instead casting a mild glance around the kitchen, which, if possible, is even more covered in plant-life than the living room, leaving only enough space for a kitchen sink and a little counter room.

Close to the clock, there's a picture of Katie Gardener in a slope-backed dress with a broad pattern of vines around the hem, arm in arm with the president of the Itoen company. Percy looks at it for a long while, trying to reconcile this successful-looking woman with the awkward girl in armor he remembered from camp.

"You know," he says, leaning back on his elbows on the counter, briefly jockeying for space with a bougainvillea. "I don't think I'll ever really amount to much."

Chris lets out an unbecoming snort, rolling up his sleeves and turning on the water to fill up the sink. "Who says you had to, Percy?"

He gestures vaguely at Katie's picture. "Everybody. I mean, I'm a half-blood. I'm a son of the Big Three. I kind of saved the world when I was sixteen. Now it's like, now what." He glances over at Chris, who pumps soap onto his sponge, looking distinctly unimpressed with his plight. "Like, what do people expect me to do? Save the world again? I don't want to become some famous actor or activist or politician or whatever, like most well-known half-bloods in history are."

"Not all half-bloods in the world become famous, Percy. Just like not all famous people are half-bloods."

Percy pushes a breath out through his nostrils, not quite a snort, because he can't argue with that.

"You know what helps?" Chris continues, quietly. "If you try not to define your life by the fact you're a half-blood. Don't do things because you're a hero, or a son of the Big Three. Do it because you want to." He waves his hand in the air quickly, heading off the immediate protest Percy is about to make. "And I know, I'm sorry, that's really vague and unhelpful and nobody wants to hear the 'just be yourself' crap, but really. Have you ever tried just being Percy Jackson, instead of Percy Jackson, son of Poseidon, hero of prophecy-wrote?"

"I don't think I'd know the difference between the two," Percy mumbles.

"You will," Chris nods to him, his tone sure. His eyes slide, almost knee-jerk, towards the photo of him and Clarisse on the end table, sitting together on the bleachers around the practice auditorium at camp, their hands clasped together in the space between their bodies. "Trust me, you'll know."

The silence that follows is comfortable, filled with the soft clinking as Chris rinses dishes and stacks them in the racks to dry. When he's done, he dries his hands on a towel and comes to lean against the counter next to Percy.

"So," he says after a moment, balling the towel up and tossing in some random direction -- Percy wonders if it'll surface at any point in the next century. "Nico. Where'd he come from?"

"Midair, pretty much. And I mean that more literally than you think -- he just kind of poofed into my apartment yesterday morning, like a genie, only less Robin Williams and more, 'I got tired of hanging out with dead people all the time. Entertain me.'"

"I wouldn't have thought it, with, you know, all things considered --" an uncomfortable shrug and a vague movement of his hand. "But it sounds like you're getting along well."

A loud, protesting, vaguely incoherent noise was the only possible answer Percy has to this. Although, "you know," he continues after a moment, a grin beginning at the corners of his mouth. "I'd find it really ironic if he found some quiet, shy, polite Japanese girl and had to learn to curb his tongue. Oh, gods, can you imagine him with Japanese in-laws?"

There's no reply. Percy glances over and finds Chris staring at him with a look that plainly says, and here I thought you had more available brain cells than that.

"What?" he goes.

Chris is incredulous. "You do know that Nico is as bent as they come, don't you?" he says in a way that suggests he couldn't be any more blunt than if he forced trauma.

"-- What."

"Bent," the son of Demeter elaborates, rolling his eyes. "You know, crooked. Queer. Throws a mean curve ball for the other team. Gay, Percy."

Percy continues to stare at him. "... Nico?" he says, as if there's someone else who's been drinking with them all night that he might possibly confuse with the Nico they know, who is kind of a jerk, but what teenage boy isn't a jerk, like 90% of the time? Gay, though?

"Yes, Nico."

Percy snorts with laughter, disbelieving. "No way," he scoffs. "He's not -- he's just --" And he pauses, because really -- when has Nico ever expressed an interest in girls? To be fair, in the time that Percy knew him, they had a lot more to be worrying about -- and plus, Nico, was, like, thirteen when Percy saved the world, and didn't they still think girls had cooties at thirteen? But surely there must have been somebody --

Chris folds his arms, looking triumphant. "Exactly."

After a bit, in which he watches Percy goes through several stages of digesting this, he pushes himself off the counter. "Listen, man, the trains don't run this late, so you can just crash here. I'll put some pillows and blankets and stuff out on the couch -- you guys can fight over who gets couch and who gets floor, only please keep your powers out of it. I'm paying rent-to-own and I'd rather not explain sudden flooding or a legion of the undead or whatever it is you two get up to."

 

| --- | --- |

 

It takes him a while to locate Nico to deliver this message -- he has to go through the entire house twice before he realizes that no, he isn't inside. It isn't until he hears the scuffling above his head, like the world's most overweight squirrel, that it occurs to him that Nico must have gone out onto the roof.

He pokes his head out the window and cranes his neck back, but he can't see past the gutters. So he just settles for shouting, "Oi, corpsebreath! You up there?"

"Yeah, man," comes the reply. "Come on up, it's a beautiful night."

And okay, he thinks, sure, why not. By the way, are you really gay? Because for some reason I keep on coming back to that.

Percy has always thought he'd be the kind of person who wouldn't let something like that affect his way of thinking about a person, but as he gingerly climbs over the tiles, he finds himself wanting to sit a little ways away from Nico, just out of arm's reach -- not consciously, not maliciously, and when he catches himself, he gives himself a rough mental shake. You moron, he thinks to himself. What do you think he's going to do? Just jump you just because you have a Y chromosome? Gods, get over yourself -- you've faced over a hundred monsters and a Titan bend on the destruction of Olympus and come out the victor, and you're scared of stupid Nico who likes boys. And deliberately, he sits down close enough to Nico for their arms to touch. Not that he notices.

"You know," says Nico conversationally to the stars. "For all that we drank, I don't feel particularly drunk."

"It's hard to get a half-blood drunk," Percy replies, amused. "Bacchanate revels aside. We have better metabolisms than most mortals -- helps us keep skinny, too, which is why so many of Aphrodite's kids go into modeling -- and we hold human liquor ten times as well as everyone else. You should go to one of the bars here -- you become, like, a local celebrity once you've taken every middle-aged businessman they've got to offer and drunk them under the table. And the Japanese don't mess when it comes to alcohol, yo."

"I'm glad I know what kind of impression you've been making on the locals."

"Hey. I'm just taking advantage of the lowered legal drinking age over here. Do not tell my mother."

"I wouldn't dare," says Nico loftily, and Percy grins, laying back onto the tiles and folding his arms behind his head.

"Thanks for coming out here with me," he offers after a quiet moment, gets a huff and a "whatever" in response. "No, really. Thanks for the company."

"Eh. It was either that or just hang around the Underworld for another summer. Okay, yeah, it's not so bad when my dad has a little free time and we can actually hang out, but still -- he's a bit of a dick and he hasn't been very good at getting over that."

He snorts, bumping Nico's ankle with the toe of his sock. "Says the boy who sold me out to get his dad's approval, even if it meant me sitting in a cell for three years and you becoming the puppet of the prophecy."

"Yes, well," says Nico uncomfortably, rubbing at his nose in the gross manner he does when he really doesn't want to talk about something. "I chose you in the end, didn't I?"

Percy has to pause at that, fighting down a desire to grin ridiculously at the power lines arcing above their heads.

"Besides," says Nico a little too quickly, as if trying to cover up for how that might have sounded. "Since then, I've completely reorganized the infrastructure of my father's military -- after you went and annihilated it that first time. He's treated me with a lot more respect since then."

"Really? I didn't know you had an eye for that kind of stuff."

"Okay, well, most of the ideas I took from old Mythomagic strategies, but you'd be surprised at how similar it is."

"Ah."

Silence falls between them, comfortable, and up until this moment, Percy hasn't realized he's missed this, just having someone to hang out with.

From up here, he can hear the distant roar the ocean makes as it rushes up against the sea wall, smashing against the stones, and underneath it, the faint, burbling murmur of a herd of sea horses, the chitter-chatter of a family of otters discussing the merits of semi-brined versus slow-brined seaweed, and the soft song of a sea goddess is humming to herself, thinking that no one's listening. Closer to home, Chris's washing machine continues to hum, the sound intermittently floating to them from the open window below. Somewhere on the street, two women are loudly agreeing with each other about something, dissolving into peals of laughter without a thought for who might be listening.

It's so peaceful, just them and the cool summer night, that when Nico pushes himself up onto his elbow, half-suspending himself over Percy, he instinctively shifts his head to focus on Nico's face, and it isn't surprising when Nico lets his head fall so their mouths are touching, except that it is, a little bit, but not enough to really bother him -- it's almost like now that he knows it was a possibility, it isn't so strange. He unhooks a hand from behind his head, letting it drift down to rest on Nico's cheek, and just allows the kiss goes where it wants to, moving back and forth from upper lip and lower lip, chasing itself across the bows of mouths into corners, touches as light as sound, as sighs, as easy as all of that.

Maybe he's drunk, maybe he's just a little too disinclined to say no, to let this go on for as long as possible, but when Nico's weight steadily sinks down into his side, he grabs fistfuls of his shirt and tugs slowly, purposefully, until Nico gets the hint. Percy lets his legs fall apart that little bit, so that Nico can spread himself out on top of him, chests pleated together and Percy's ankle hooked easily over the back of Nico's knee. His elbows are propped up on either side of Percy's head, so he has to crane his neck a little to keep his mouth on Nico's, something he is less and less willing to give up, especially when Nico tentatively slides the tip of his tongue over the swell of his bottom lip.

It is lazy, and languid, all soft, urging noises, Nico's fingers tangled in the strings of his hoodie, and the faintest movement of Nico's heartbeat underneath Percy's palm, and if he wasn't so preoccupied, then it would have struck him as odd, that being here, kissing Nico di Angelo on a rooftop in Hase town, he is the happiest he has been in a long, long while.

 

| --- | --- |

 

Waking up is a slow process, something that involves a lot of contemplative stretching, twisting his feet up in the blanket that had been thrown over him and pulling his legs up close to his body. He presses himself further into the warm space he's made, and he blinks, so slowly that between them, the clock changes from 8:30 to 9:21, onwards and upwards. He finally does wake up sometime after ten, when, without thinking, Nico swings his legs off the sofa and straight into his ribs.

"Hey!" he protests, loudly, punching at Nico's quickly retreating shins.

"Sorry!" Nico blinks blearily down at him, where he lays in his nest of blankets and pillows next to the sofa. "Forgot you were there."

"Lame," grumbles Percy, trying to burrow his face in his pillow but knowing that he's awake for good this time. "You just like kicking a man while he's down."

"Yeah, that's me," comes the wry retort from above him.

When he sits up, pulling his shirt down where it's rucked up around his ribs and rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Nico sits cross-legged on the cushions, watching him from underneath crooked lashes and mussed hair. He wets his lips unconsciously when Percy looks up at him, his expression expectant, and Percy feels his stomach drop.

"Nico, look --" he begins, but is cut off.

"Oh, no you don't." Percy's heart turns over, not unpleasantly, with the way Nico seems to be looming into him. "You weren't drunk. You don't get to use that excuse. I remember it. You remember it. You kissed me back."

And it's that -- the simple wonder in Nico's voice that does it for him. Percy springs to his feet, circles to the other side of the coffee table so that it's in between the two of them, like the distance and the object mean anything. "No, no," he goes, holding up his hands. "No, no, no. It doesn't -- it's not -- Nico, you don't -- I have a girlfriend."

"Who you haven't seen in over a year!" Nico exclaims, disbelieving, like he can't fathom that Percy could even bring this up. "How do you know she hasn't done the same?"

"What, kiss you?"

"No. Moved on."

"Because there's nothing to move on from, okay!" he flares heatedly. "I love her, and we're good for each other. So if you were expecting -- if you thought -- man, no. You were wrong. I'm sorry. You were wrong."

Nico shoots him a look that is bright, hot furious, but it shuts down instantly, turning into an unaffected shrug. "Whatever," he goes, standing abruptly and walking into the kitchen. Not sure what to do, Percy follows.

"Nico, hey --" he tries, tone softer and apologetic, but Nico just brushes him off with a brusque, "It's fine," and, "do you think he has anything in here suitable to drink before noon?" as he bends down to rummage through Chris's fridge.

Percy watches him move stacks of beer cans to the side and lifting up take-out cartons that haven't yet begin to spring saplings, feeling a little lost and unsure what to do about it. He's a man, and he knows part of Nico's discomfort is the idea that he's revealed something that Percy can use as leverage against him, too quick to assume that Percy felt the same way, whereas Percy isn't even sure he's standing on solid ground. What does Nico want from him? Well, okay, duh, but surely he can't assume...

Nico slams the fridge door shut just as Chris wanders in, his face swollen from sleep and his boxers just a shade too small to be wearing while company's over. "You don't have a single non-alcoholic thing in here," he snaps at him, and stalks out the door -- or as much as he can stalk, giving up finesse in putting his shoes on in his haste to get out of there, hopping on one foot -- leaving Chris to blink at Percy, completely bemused.

"What's up with him?"

He just found out that while he's rather fond of sticking his tongue down my throat, I'm not sure if I like him doing it, Percy thinks, but it's too early in the morning for Chris to deal with it, so he just shrugs and goes, "Who knows?"

Chris shrugs back, says, "So what do you want for breakfast? I make a mean omelette."

By "a mean omelette," he really means, "something so filled with butter and salt and fat it's a miracle your arteries don't give up and die gasping for mercy," which Percy thinks is absolutely brilliant.

"So you two going back to Tokyo today?"

Percy looks up, shrugs, says around a mouthful of egg, "Dunno. Is there anything to do around here?"

"Uhh, I dunno, is the ocean wet?"

And that's how Percy finds himself with a handful of crumpled maps and vague directions and a, see you in a couple hours, yeah?

He sits out on the front stoop, not quite sure how he got here, wishing he'd at least have gotten a chance to brush his teeth or something -- before remembering they hadn't really brought anything with them. He breathes carefully onto his hand and sniffs. Okay, not bad, but he could use some mint gum, at least. The maps are messily folded, creases bending in ways they probably hadn't originally come in, and he tucks them into his back pocket. Like most things in Japan, Hase town isn't all that big, Chris had said, just keep to the main streets and things will kind of appear.

He's watching a pair of sparrows coyly chase each other around a power line when Nico comes back, his expression no longer quite so murderous and a can of iced coffee in his hand. He blinks, surprised, when he notices Percy sitting there.

Percy leaps to his feet just as a little bit of cautious hope appears in Nico's eyes. "There you are!" he goes, choosing to ignore it. He grabs him by the wrist and pulls him around to a noise of consternation from Nico as coffee goes slopping over the sides of his can. "Come on, we're going sight-seeing!"

"Ugh, really? I was hoping we'd be going back. We didn't bring a change of clothes."

Percy levels a look at him. "Well, if you're going to be a girl about it..."

"Hell no!" Nico speeds up so they're walking side-by-side. "Isn't Chris coming with us?"

"He's got school today."

"... isn't it Saturday?"

"Yeah." Percy snorts, amused. "There's school on Saturday. You didn't know that?"

"Ugh," Nico wrinkles his nose. "No. I'm glad I don't go to school here."

He gets a shove to the shoulder for this. "Says the boy who has never gone to school."

"Exactly," Nico goes, haughty. "I'm too fond of my seven-day weekend, thank you very much."

And just like that, they're all right again. Not forgiven, not really, because that would mean admitting there's something they need to be forgiven for, but all right. They head off up the street -- Percy winds up holding Nico's coffee while the latter tries to make sense of the maps. When he complains for the third time about how everything's in unfamiliar characters, Percy rolls his eyes and flips the map over so the English is right-side up.

"... Right," goes Nico. "Whatever. Okay, so we're ... hey!" He brings the map close to his face. "Is that -- I didn't realize we were so close to Enoshima Island!"

"Uhh, okay?"

"Dude!" Nico flutters the map in front of his face enthusiastically. "Enoshima! Only one of the best entertainment spots outside of Tokyo! And it's bound to be even better now that the Eleventh Muse is enshrined there."

"The what now?"

"The Eleventh Muse. You know who I'm talking about." At Percy's blank look, Nico gives a disbelieving huff. "You fail at Greek heritage, amigo. Anyway. You've heard of the Ten Muses, right? Daughters of Zeus and the source of all divine inspiration for art and theater -- you've seen them on TV before, I'm sure. They're the Muppets. Right, see. There used to be eleven of them, only something tragic happened with the eleventh muse involving some drama with her virginity or something like that, and anyway, she died, and when the gods moved to Olympus, her tomb moved to Enoshima island. Wherever she's entombed is going to be the wellspring of every creative brainchild Japan's going to churn out for the next century."

"Right. And you want to check it out."

"Well. It's also a pretty kickass resort spot."

"Uh-huh. Right. Chris wants us to check out the Amida Buddha first, and that should just be right up this way somewhere. So we can head to whats-its-place after that."

"Yeah, sure. .... Although, what's the Amida Buddha?"

"Hell if I know. I've just heard people talk about it. Let's find it and find out."

Which is easier said than done. "Right up this way somewhere" turns out to be a warren of homes and businesses, and nothing much in the way of helpful landmarkers. And the worse part is, no matter where they turn, they always seem to be going uphill. Being invincible doesn't stop Percy from getting a stitch in his side, which he thinks is crap and kind of belays the point -- what use is he in a fight if he can't catch his breath? Or, really, what use is he at finding national landmarks if he's about ready to give up and sit down on the sidewalk?

"What's this place called again?" Nico wants to know, when they stop at a traffic light. He looks the wrong way for traffic, too, Percy notices with some amusement. They're in what seems to be the heart of town now -- open-air shops fan the streets on either side of them, selling all kinds of things from crackers and raw fish to touristy bobbleheads and discount bundles of postcards.

"Kotokuin Temple."

"We could ask someone for directions, you know," Nico points out, infuriatingly.

Percy scoffs. "I think we've covered every corner of Hase town where it isn't. We're bound to find it sooner than later."

"Right." Nico rolls his eyes. "Well, I'm going to go ask directions."

"From who?"

"That guy." Nico points -- across the street from them, watching a young girl play with a fake plastic cell phone with a faintly perplexed air, is a very strange-looking man; a horse's tail of hair is held in a loose bun at the nape of his neck, but the rest of his head is as shiny-bald as a hard-boiled egg, and he's wearing a plain-colored, simple robe. A summer yukata, Percy remembers belatedly. Only it looks more old-fashioned than even the oldest people Percy has seen wears.

It doesn't click until he sees the little girl walk right through the guy, like he wasn't even there. Alarmed, he goes, "He's dead!"

"Why yes, yes he is," says Nico, in a tone that broaches downright cheery -- and why wouldn't it, he thinks. To Nico, running into a dead person on the street must be like meeting up with an old childhood friend. "And he probably knows the area better than the dirt does, so I'm going to go ask him. You can just stand here and pretend you're not lost."

"Thank you, I'll do that," Percy's testosterone speaks for him.

Nico crosses the street to go talk to the guy, and Percy lets his eyes slide unfocused so that the Mist swirls in -- the man in the ancient outfit disappears, making it look like Nico's standing there conversing animatedly with the street lamp. Only the little girl with the plastic cell phone seems to notice, though; she peeks out at Nico from behind her mother's tailored pants, her mouth pursed into a curious 'o.'

"So?" he inquires when Nico returns. "How's Uncle Lester doing?"

"Fine. He's got a bad spot of being dead, but that clears up after awhile."

And it's a little sad, that Percy doesn't even blink at that. "Cool. Does he know where we're going?"

"Yup. You go that way, and turn left." He points -- uphill.

"Of course we do," says Percy, grim.

Fortunately, it becomes obvious almost immediately that they're doing something right -- the crowds on the streets become thicker the further they go, and twice they have to squeeze up onto the curb as an overlarge tour bus goes trundling on by.

"By the gods, look!" Nico grabs his arm abruptly, and points to where the street comes pretty much to a dead end, right in front of -- "Kotokuin temple! We've found it! Finally!"

He sets off at a run with a whoop, getting as far as the main gates before he notices that Percy isn't behind him. Frowning, he slows to a halt and turns around, trotting on back to him. "What --" he starts.

"Too -- much -- walking --" Percy pants. "I can't -- I don't think I'll be able to -- no, no, you go on." Very slowly and dramatically, he sinks to his knees, one hand clutching at his heart and the other one waving at Nico, who doesn't look concerned in the slightest, the heartless jerk. "No, go! Save yourself! Don't look back! I'll be -- I'll be --" With a wheeze, he rolls onto his side, and -- for theatrical affect -- sticks out his tongue and plays dead.

"You, are retarded," Nico informs him, and seizes handfuls of his shirt and pulls him back to his feet, laughingly dragging him over to the lines at the gates, where they get stuck behind a group of Japanese schoolchildren and their harried-looking teacher, who is trying to get them all through the gates with the minimal amount of bloodshed. They pay the entrance fee and go in.

The Amida Buddha, they find out, is the smaller of two identical statues; one here in the Kamakura district, and a larger one in Nara. Called the Kamakura Daitbutsu, it used to have its own temple built around it -- hence the lingering name, Kotokuin Temple -- before a tsunami washed it away sometime in the fifteenth century. Now it stands out in the open on a pedestal, and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, some who come just to say they've seen it, others who pray and meditate with it and buy overpriced lucky tokens from the visitor's center.

"You know, I have a pamphlet, too," Nico feels the need to remark after a minute or two of this. "And contrary to what you seem to believe, I can read it."

"I don't know what you mean," Percy says airily. The statue looms before them, just a man sitting with his legs crossed and his palms up, for all the world like he just fell asleep like that. He also has incredibly droopy earlobes, which amuses Percy far more than it should.

"Hey, you do want to check out what's inside?" He gestures to a sign that says they can tour the hollow inside of the Amida Buddha for just 20 yen.

Nico seems rather unimpressed. "See what's inside a great big, green statue?" he goes. "What could possibly be worth seeing inside a great, big green statue?"

"That's part of the mystery!" Percy needles him. "Come on, how many times are you going to get this chance?"

"A bell, apparently," Nico answers him fifteen minutes and 40 yen later. "That was exciting. I'm glad we came all this way for that."

They descend the shallow steps and turn around in order to get one last look at the Amida Buddha, a giant man who's been in lotus position, contemplating the inner workings of the universe, for the better half of a millennia.

Percy gives him a bemused look when he shivers, head craned back to study the weathered, green exterior of the statue. "Are you cold?"

Nico rolls his eyes, droll. "You're a big bag of hot air. So long as I stand next to you, I'll be fine."

Percy laughs at that, reaching out to shove at the side of Nico's head, making him stagger a little bit and shoot him a scowl that's already unravelling a little bit at the corners, fighting off a grin.

And that's when the Amida Buddha stands up.

 

| --- | --- |

 

He isn't sure what, exactly, the mortals see through the Mist, but the Japanese promptly do what they do best: they panic and storm for the exits in one great big, crowd-following herd. Percy snatches Nico by the scruff of his neck, yanking him back sharply to avoid getting them both trampled.

The Amida Buddha clambers to its feet with a noise worse than even the oldest, rustiest tractor being put into its gears. Everything creaks in an obnoxiously high squeal as it stretches its arms far over its head, mouth yawning wide. Then, self-consciously, it straightens its toga and re-centers its crooked hat. When it looks down, it heaves a great, gusty sigh, breathing out an overwhelming whiff of mildew.

It blinks its flat eyes. "Well, don't everybody all come say hi at once," it announces in a low, rumbling voice that reminds Percy a lot of Mufasa from the Lion King, glancing down at the courtyard, which is suddenly empty except for Percy and Nico.

Nico's jaw is hanging open, which is about as nearly as attractive as it sounds, and Percy lets go of his collar, stepping away. "Er," is pretty much all he can manage, but fortunately, the Amida Buddha doesn't seem to be expecting much.

"Aww, no, you're kidding me," it complains, just now catching a glimpse of his shoulders. It reaches up and tries to brush off the centuries of bird poop in great swipes of its BMW-sized hand. It sounds like the beating of a hollow gong. "That's disgusting. Can't a guy meditate in peace anymore?"

"Nnngr?" a very small someone says. It might have been him.

The statue turns its head slowly towards them, and -- as much as a statue can -- it brightens. "Oh! Half-bloods! Fantastic!" It gets down off its pedestal and plops down on the steps in a great whumph that makes the whole ground jump. It leans down towards them, propping its elbows up on its knees. "I haven't seen any of your lot for a long time, not since that bloody rotten storm blew me here, ages away from Europe. Tell me, where am I exactly?"

"35, 22 North. 139, 32 East," answers Percy promptly, and, realizing he sounded kind of like an automated teller machine, adds as respectfully as he can, "Sir."

The Buddha's eyes turn up at the corners. "A son of Poseidon, then? He was always the least favorite of my great-uncles. It was his stupid inability to control his temper that landed me here, you know."

At that, the earth lurched underneath their feet, this time feeling more like an actual earthquake instead of a massive, multi-ton statue jumping on it like a bed -- the stone walkway shatters like a field of ice. The Buddha scowls as Percy and Nico stagger and topple over, turning its head towards the sea. "Oh, go eat some coral, you great lump of a god!" it roars. "It's true and you know it!"

Turning back to face front, its face falls comically. "Blast, get a load of this," it stretches a leg out in front of it, hiking up the folds of its toga up high. Percy quickly averts his eyes somewhere up higher on the statue's body, and beside him and nowhere near as polite, Nico yelps and claps a hand over his eyes. It grabs hold of his thigh and gives it a shake. "That is truly horrific. Why didn't anyone tell me my thighs were getting that bad? This'll take forever to work off, I'm telling you."

"It's what you get for sitting in one position for several hundred years," mumbles Nico from behind the weave of his fingers.

Again, the Buddha's eyes crinkle up. "Have I really?" Distracted from whining about its muscle loss, it looks around, like it's never bothered to take in its surroundings before. "Oh, good, my shoes are still here," it remarks upon noticing the giant pair of sandals hanging up outside the visitor's center. "Although, what's the rest of this?"

"Well, you're kind of a famous landmark," Percy offers, still on his back on the ground. His senses are starting to piece themselves together again, since it doesn't seem like the Amida Buddha is in a rush to try and flatten them or feed them to its offspring or otherwise try and devour them like most monsters. "People come from all over the world to offer you prayers and to meditate with you."

"Do they really? How strange. All I did was sit down to think about what I how I was going to get back home. I don't think I'm in Caracass anymore, Toro." He rubs his belly contemplatively, and then frowns, poking at it harder in a distinctly puzzled way.

"Er, and they built a bell tower in your stomach."

"... Right," says the statue.

It has to pause and think about that one, which gives Percy enough of a reprieve to scramble to his feet, pulling Nico up with him. The other boy has taken on a deliberate, long-suffering silence, and when Percy arches a questioning brow at him, he gives him a look that plainly says, if you'd listened to me and we'd gone to Enoshima island today like I wanted to, we wouldn't be here right now, listening to the Amida Bhuddha complain about how fat its thighs have gotten. And then he wonders how he knew that that's what that look said.

"Young man," the Amida Buddha says suddenly, startling them. He points a thoughtful finger at Percy. "If I may ask, have you recently had a filling of some sort put into a hole in your tooth?"

There are days when Percy simply has to step back and admire how completely bizarre his life is, and discussing his cavities with a national landmark is one of those things. He nods.

"Ah. I thought so. I am made out of a material very similar to what's currently in your mouth. Sediment calls out to sediment, after all. You know what I'm talking about, don't you?" This is directed at Nico, whom, up until this moment, it didn't seem to have paid much mind to. "You're an earthmover, aren't you?"

Nico tries very, very hard to not look confused, and succeeds about as well as the New York Giants succeed at not sucking at football. "Umm. Hades is my dad, so yeah, I gues."

"Why is that, anyway?" Percy asks him, frowning. "I mean, my dad's the one they call Earthshaker. But I can't do any of the stuff you can."

This just earns him a shrug. "Dirt's just made up of a lot of dead stuff, all ground up real tiny. Nobody does dead better than me, so it's not that hard, really."

Somehow, even with blank oval eyes and earlobes that practically droop to its shoulders, the Amida Buddha manages to pull off a surprised expression quite convincingly. "You're really serious. You two don't know?"

"Don't know what?"

"What Poseidon and Hades can accomplish if they ever stopped being such colossal stubborn mules and learned to work together." It crosses its legs, leaning forward, managing to look like a four-year-old obsessed with an earthworm it's dug up in the rain. "Your powers are only a fraction of what theirs are, but even that much can pack a punch. A child that can control the seas and a child that can control the earth could move continents if given proper motivation. Why do you think so many devastating regional wars are caused by children of the Big Three? You know," it adds, more to itself than to them. "Someone should suggest to the three of them that they should make a pact never to have any more children with mortals. It just always ends up in disaster."

Percy exchanges a look with Nico, whose eyes have gone shuttered and distant with thought, looking at him like he's never really saw him before. Percy feels much the same way. Move continents? Him and Nico, who still looks ridiculously scrawny in his bomber jacket and whose ears stick out kind of funny? There was no way they could pool their powers together enough to move a pail of water down a hill, much less start a war.

It strikes him, abruptly. How different their friendship would be, if they had had grown up in the same time and met when they were younger, just two kids at a summer camp for demigods who almost die a lot. Would they have learned to work together in a world where Nico's sister hadn't died and they hadn't been thrown together in a competition over a prophecy they had no control over?

"What?" says Nico, eventually, when the look goes on for several beats longer than it should.

"Nothing," says Percy, feeling like he's been struck in the gut with something heavy. Could they have been like the demigod children of Poseidon and Hades that tore the world apart in WWII?

Did they really have that kind of power?

"Hello? Half-bloods?" The Amida Buddha reaches out, waving a hand roughly the size of a tractor in front of their faces. "Half-bloods! What century is this?"

 

| --- | --- |

 

By the time they get the faintly confused, thunder-thighed monolith sorted out, afternoon has worn on, settling with a tired color on the horizon. They leave him sitting on his pedestal, contemplating his new existence, chin propped up thoughtfully on its fist, and crossing under the temple gates, Nico jokes that it's probably going to get stuck like that for another half-millenia, a poop-streaked version of the Thinker.

The walk back through Hase town takes less time the second time around -- they know where they're going, and there are fewer people out and about, poking around in the tourist shops and waiting in line at the food stands.

Nico keeps up a constant stream of chatter the entire way: if the Buddha in Kamakura turned out to be a minor god who'd been washed up on another continent by accident, what about the bigger statue in Nara? Were there other gods who settled away from wherever Olympus was currently situated, and if so, how many, and did anyone wonder what their kids got up to, or if monsters went after them? And for that matter, if the Buddha was a Greek god, how many other major world religions had figureheads who turned out to be gods or half-bloods? Percy watches him as he walks and talks, the way he flings his hands around when he follows a particular tangent to the end of its line of thought, and wants to. He really wants to.

And no, he really doesn't know what he wants, exactly, but it can't be that hard to figure out.

He thinks, briefly, ever so briefly, of the look in Annabeth's eyes when she last saw him, outside the hospital, leaning against the taxicab with his hands fisted in his pockets, of her, whispering, wait for me, Seaweed Brain, okay?

And then it's gone, the memory worn through like rubber off the soles of his shoes, and he reaches out, fingers snagging on the cuff of Nico's jacket. Nico stops talking, giving him a quizzical look, and Percy reels him in, one step, two step, until he sees comprehension light his face up from the inside out.

"Hi," goes the son of Hades, smiling wide, the street lights above them casting haloes of light in his eyes.

"Hi," Percy replies, as Nico steps into him without hesitation.

"How are you?"

"Fine. You?" The last word falls away, forgotten, as Percy closes the distance and kisses him. It's different from the night before: they only spend a few minutes chastely touching mouths back and forth, remembering the feel of it, before opening up, tongues curling up into each other's with small, curious licks. Then Nico is flush against him, a long, sinewy streak of warmth and unshaven chin scratching against his skin, holding on to him like he's never wanted anything else.

The kiss goes on, and beside them in the window, miniature bobble-heads of the Amida Buddha nod at them contemplatively.

 

| --- | --- |

 

"Oh, thank the gods!" goes Chris when they finally get back to his place. He flings the door wide open, pushing his glasses further up onto the bridge of his nose, and at their identical blank expressions, makes a noise in his throat like he's thinking about strangling them with a guitar string and isn't entirely sure he won't be congratulated for it. "The Kamakura Daibutsu? It's all over the news -- everybody's panicking, wondering what in the name of holy Hades' socket wrenches went down, and I'm assuming it's all your fault, so please, pardon me for being glad to see you in one piece." He steps back into the house with a huff.

Still standing out on the stoop, they share a bemused glance. Percy has almost forgotten that the rest of the world would have something to say about the Amida Buddha just standing up and announcing it'd just been thinking about how to get home.

Somehow, it didn't seem like the most monumental thing that happened today.

"See if I ever ask you over again!" comes from inside the house, which they take as their invitation to come on in.

"Well," says the son of Demeter once he calms down and they explain the story to him. "Between the Mist and Hermes glossing over some of the finer points, they'll come up with some way of explaining it all away. Still, though, I wonder why today of all days, did it decide wake up." The look he gives them suggests he still thinks it's somehow all their fault.

Nico shrugs. "I don't know. It said something about Percy's cavity filling, but I don't think that's what actually triggered it."

Chris stares at them some more. How come you aren't dead? Surely there's some kind of natural law that prohibits one-celled organisms like you from surviving, he doesn't say, but his eyebrows telegraph the message anyway.

Percy excuses them at that point, saying they should really be heading back into the city ("Yes, please do that, before you have all the other national monuments in this area getting up to do the wave."), and Chris sends them off with a good-bye, his land line phone number, and -- in a way that would be strange if he wasn't the son of the harvest goddess -- a plant.

Nico gives it a strange look as they head back towards the train station, watching the sprout bob its head congenially with each step they take. "What are we going to do with that?" he asks, bewildered.

"I dunno," goes Percy, equally lost. "Try not to kill it?"

The one thing about heading back into the city at this time of day that's completely unavoidable is the crowds -- Percy had known this was going to be the case before they set out. It's tourist season in Hase, since the hydrangea at the Hase-Dera temple have just all burst into bloom ("which isn't all that great," Chris had told them with a moony, lovestruck expression that they hope they never see him wear again, "unless you like flowers.")

Nico tries to balk back when he sees just how many people are standing up on the train when it pulls in, but Percy laughs and gives him a solid push to the small of his back, saying come on, we can always fit more people in.

They get lucky, and enough people get off -- chattering excitedly back and forth about something Percy is pretty sure involves "Amida Buddha," but he could be wrong -- that they manage to squeeze themselves into a corner by the door, where they can prop themselves up against the handholds and the hull of the train instead of onto other people.

The train pulls out of the station, trundling with slow clack-a-clacks across the tracks, and the people do the proper Japanese thing -- they keep their eyes averted from those they're sharing very personal space with, preferring to lean onto their friends instead of strangers and hugging their belongings close to their chests.

Nico's gaze is directed somewhere over Percy's shoulders as the train rattles on, catching glimpses of the ocean through the gaps between the narrow buildings, flashing in brilliant, glittering blue until -- at last -- they pull away from the seaside and speed off towards Tokyo. Percy just continues to look at him, unabashed and maybe a little wondering -- Nico who is just that little bit taller than him is slumped back against the door, generously allowing him the illusion of height, and this close, Percy can see everything: Nico's olive skin stretched gaunt across his cheekbones, making him look like he's just come crawling out of a grave -- oh, wait -- and his eyes dark-rung and deep-sunk like a heroin addict's, and he can just imagine his mother flailing and demanding that they cook him something fattening. His body is thin, wiry, and deceptively strong underneath the bomber jacket, and it thrills at Percy, the idea that he could put his hands anywhere, and Nico might not even stop him.

Almost unbidden, his fingers find the slice of exposed skin between the hem of Nico's shirt and the place where his boxers are visible above his belt, and trail, feather-light, across it, from one hip bone to the other.

Nico's eyes flash to his, one eyebrow raised.

When Percy doesn't stop touching him, a disbelieving smile begins to curve across the bow of his mouth and then is gone, replaced by something focused and intent.

"You know," he murmurs lowly. "They always did tell me that I should beware of perverts on the train."

"You should," Percy agrees gravely. "You never know who is one and who isn't."

With a quiet huff of laughter, Nico tugs at him until they're resting against each other, Percy's fingers slipping to the small of his back, pinned between the hot weight of Nico's body and the metal of the door. Nico's gaze roves around the train car they're in, checking to see if anyone standing almost on top of them is looking in their direction, and when no one is, he turns his head to meet Percy's, giving him a fish's kiss, quick as winking.

And that shouldn't be enough to make joy burst, bright and white-hot, somewhere deep inside Percy where it's kept safe, but it is, it is, and he buries his face against Nico's shoulder, a plant in one arm and a loose-boned demigod in the other, and wonders just how long he can make this last.

 

| --- | --- |

 

The answer is -- quite a while.

He isn't sure how it happened, but it stops being Saturday and starts being Sunday, and stops being Sunday and starts being Monday, and to be fair, there probably isn't a lot he could tell you about either day that doesn't involve Nico.

It has been almost a full twelve months since he's done anything like this, been able to do this, that it takes the whole weekend before he stops hesitating that little amount before he kisses Nico, as if to ask, is this okay? Can I do this? And he does kiss Nico a lot, because he can, because it's nice -- it's more than nice, it's amazing -- to be able to come up to a person no matter what they're doing, get right into their personal space, watch their pupils dilate in order to focus on you, and know you can kiss them and they'll kiss you back, and do so.

And Nico -- Nico does the same thing. Stripping the keys from his hand that first day, after they get home from Hase, fisting his hands in the fabric of Percy's hoodie and dragging their mouths together, to straddling him in the armchair while he's trying to watch a dubbed version of SpongeBob Squarepants, to slipping up behind him while he's shaving, making him jump.

"The hell -- Nico, watch it!"

"What are you going to do?" Nico murmurs against the shell of his ear, spreading his hands flat against Percy's chest, and even through the cotton of his sleep shirt, he can feel each finger, separate and distinct and too warm. "You can't cut yourself. Now get that stupid stuff off your face -- I want to stick my tongue down your throat and I'd rather taste you than the shaving creme."

As far as he's concerned, they'd never leave the apartment if they didn't have to -- the Japanese have this miserable idea that kissing should never be done in public, which Percy is okay with on some level, because it means keeping Nico inside with him, his fingers around the back of Percy's neck and their mouths twisting around each other, but Nico has other ideas.

"Oh, come on," he laughs, pulling back the seashell strings as Percy rummages for something microwavable out of his freezer. "You haven't taken me to any good Japanese joints yet, dude. I thought that was supposed to be part of the culture experience."

Percy gives him a strange look. "Are you telling me to take you out on a date?"

The tips of Nico's ears go red, but he doesn't drop Percy's eyes and grins wider. "Yes. It's an order."

So they go to this nice dim sum place (and when he says that, he means that it's the only dim sum place that he's ever tried, so by 'nice,' he really means that he has nothing to compare it to) that Percy usually passes on his way to the laundromat, and Nico only manages to make an idiot of himself half the time, which is an improvement over normal. He makes Nico pay ("you are a lousy date!") and then, when they're standing outside under the eaves, Percy gives him a thoughtful look and goes, "You haven't had a Japanese crepe yet, have you?"

"Do I want to?"

"Yes," Percy nods firmly. "Yes, you do."

There's a creperie in the department store where all the campers do their shopping, and Percy sends Nico to a table in the back corner of the tiny, fast-food like place, and cheerfully chats up the bored-looking college kid behind the cash register.

"Holy crap," is Nico's comment when Percy comes back with a Japanese crepe and hands it over to him, his eyes nearly as wide as the portrait of Minnie Mouse behind him. "I thought crepes were, like, this pancake-thing with some Nutella or sugar filling or something. What the hell is in that thing?"

"Ice cream, what looks like some whipped cream, maybe, strawberries, bananas, chocolate sauce, a graham cracker, and I think there's some cereal in the bottom, too."

"Holy crap," says Nico again. Then, more logically, "How does one go about eating these things?"

Percy grins, undaunted, and proceeds to wait while Nico figures it out. It takes about four minutes and just as many bites before the crepe tries to fall apart, smearing chocolate sauce all over the side of his mouth and his cheek and spilling strawberries onto the paper wrapping.

Happy that his brilliant idea and his patience have been well-rewarded, Percy moves in, pulling his wrought iron chair to the other side of the table so that he can lean in, dragging his tongue up the side of Nico's face.

Nico looks at him wide-eyed, his breath hitched in his throat and a dollop of whipped cream smeared across his upper lip. "Did you just -- did you just lick chocolate sauce off of me? By the gods, do people actually do that?"

Percy says something, he isn't sure what, it could have been anything, because he's planting a hand on the edge of Nico's chair and leaning the rest of the way in. The kiss is messy and involves way too much confectionary, but there's nobody who can see them and it goes on for awhile.

Monday afternoon, Percy has to run practice at Camp Half-Blood. He does so poorly in combat that even Kitty Lane, who hates handling swords in case she'll break a nail, manages to land a direct blow to his chest, which surprises her more than it does him: he feels silly, weightless, and disconnected in a way, like he had put his shirt on and his shoes on and then forgot to take himself with him on his way out the door, leaving it instead with Nico, napping like a cat in the armchair. And the strangest part about it is that he doesn't even have to explain himself: Harry Farlander from the Hebe cabin goes, "Dude is so getting laid," and everybody else nods and responds, "ahhhh," which is proof that way too many of the campers are growing up and need to stop it, it's creepy.

Nico meets him when he comes in the door: he tosses his keys somewhere to the side, doesn't even bother to see where they land, just as Nico's fingers curl around the hem of his shirt -- it's so easy to just let it slide up over his head, to sway back into Nico's center of gravity as his shirt joins his keys, wherever they may be.

"How was practice?" Nico asks, hands coming up to cradle his face.

"I have no idea," Percy replies, and pushes him up against the door.

On Wednesday, they go back to going places -- never quite as far as Tokyo, or as Hase, because Percy isn't so worried anymore that he'll turn his back and Nico will have slipped back to the Underworld, so he doesn't feel like he needs to show him the best parts of Japan first. But he takes him around locally, all the little places he's seen by simple osmosis of living here, but never really had an excuse to see, not until he had company to show it to.

Weeks slide by like this, with Japan spinning and whirling all around them, a storm of neon lights and crowds and the click-clack of chopsticks and trains coming and going. Nico spars with Percy at practice at Camp Half-Blood, bone clubs against Riptide, until they're both panting and exhausted, and it's easy, then, to fall into each other in the quiet of the armory, laughing and trying to catch their breath.

Nico makes a few more cracks about Percy being a lousy host who never takes his guest out to eat, but it becomes a moot point when Nico discovers onigiri. They pick some up from the 7-11 by Percy's house as a quick-type lunch on their way somewhere else, and Nico immediately decides he doesn't want anything else as long as he lives. Percy doesn't get it, personally: it's just rice with filling of some kind.

"Weren't you just here earlier today?" goes the girl who mans the cash register one evening, forgetting her role momentarily as Nico stomps back to the refrigerated section with the air of someone about to uncover buried gold, and startled by the unexpected show of personality from her, Percy laughs, which makes her grin.

"You know," he says later, watching Nico put the 7-11 bag in the fridge. "I like that you would probably sell your first-born for tuna onigiri. In fact," he steps closer, and instinctively, Nico turns to meet him, flattening his back against the fridge door, his eyes inky bright and curious. "I think I like everything about you. Especially the way you kiss. I really, really, really like the way you kiss me."

And it's the fact that Nico looks at him then, his eyes flashing and his expression so completely wrecked, naked with want, for him, and Percy hasn't even put a hand on him, that finally breaks him.

They have days, weeks yet to go in which to learn this, long, hazy nights on Percy's pull-down bed, in which they will learn how to undo buttons and slide out of boxers without tangling their hands in each other's, how to kiss and move and twine legs and arms without awkward bumping or elbowing each other in the stomachs or hips, how to made it so, absolutely, ridiculously, shudderingly good.

But not right now. Right now, they need to fumble, take their time, clumsy with wanting so much. He moves slowly, so slowly, fingers stroking the line of Nico's hip as he kisses each bit of skin exposed, reveling in the fact that he can, that Nico is here, with him, and he doesn't want to do a thing to spook him. He wants so desperately not to disappoint.

He's felt like this once before -- just the once.

He remembers, not so long ago, when he really wasn't much younger than he is now, the first time he did anything like this with Annabeth. When, out of the blue, while they were kissing in the quiet of his room some Saturday afternoon, she just slid a hand down her body and started undoing the buttons of her jeans, and he was struck dumb and blind and wondering what on earth had he done or said that day that would make him worth this, and he remembers being so careful, as attentive as he could be to everything, wanting to make it good for her, so that maybe she'd think this, with him, this wasn't so bad, and she'd want to maybe do it again sometime, or as often as possible.

And this is different, but the need is the same: the desperate, focused instinct to not screw this up, to keep this person here, with him, as long as possible.

"All right?" he murmurs at some point, combing his fingers through Nico's dark hair.

Nico turns his head restlessly, looking at him like he's a moron. "All right?" he echoes, and pushes himself up, looking down, his mouth wet and his eyes glittering like beetle shells. "This, this, this -- you are better than all right," and there's something in his voice that Percy thinks he recognizes, thinks maybe he's heard before. He wraps his arms around Nico's waist and pulls him close, wondering if really, really, there was anything more worth living for than this.

 

| --- | --- |

 

Percy knows he's asking for it when he takes Nico to the arcade, knows he's been putting this moment off, and when Nico sees what their destination is, he pumps his fist into the air and crows, "I will own you at this!"

And Percy says, "A little cocky there, aren't you?"

And Nico laughs, a glint in his eyes when he says, "Yes, but you're forgetting. I grew up in the Lotus Casino. My earliest memories are of arcade games -- you don't stand a chance."

And Percy puts up a best a fight as he can give. The Japanese are absolutely king when it comes to competitive gaming -- anything that could possibly be turned into pixels and a scoring platform, they've done it, and they spend the entire afternoon moving from one console to another. For about an hour, they get caught up in a dance competition with a couple of eleven-year-olds, and at the end, they console each other with the fact that it's okay, the kids have been playing this since they were old enough to tail their mothers to the department store and they're obviously just masquerading as human -- any other circumstances, and Percy and Nico wouldn't have been completely owned by a couple fourth graders. Totally.

At one point, needing to rest their trigger fingers after a particularly exhausting round at one of the first-person shooter games, Nico finds the whole assortment of claw machines.

He turns to Percy, his eyes bright and his eyebrows raised.

"-- What," goes Percy, not liking this look at all.

"I should win you some kind of prize from one of these," drawls Nico with slow thoughtfulness. "Something like --" he looks around, and points, "That."

Percy looks over at the carefully-arranged assortment of Stitch plushies, each one bigger than his television and dressed in little outfits that vary between cute and faintly homicidal, and shoves at the side of Nico's head, laughing, "Lay off, man, I'm not your girlfriend."

Nico flutters his eyelashes mockingly. "You mean you don't want me to win you a token of my affection?"

"Oh, gods, get me out of here."

Nico does wind up winning the Stitch, which Percy flatly refuses to carry under pain of death (har har, says Nico), but they also wind up successfully knocking down a box of candy, a few novelty finger puppets, and an anime figure from a show they've both watched (they might have used their powers for that one.) It is, all in all, a good day in the eyes of a claw machine pro, even if it does cost Percy a week's salary.

"Okay, okay, last one," goes Nico, picking a game close to the exit that at first glance looks a lot like Rock Band, only with great big bongo drums. "Last one. If you win, you get my loot and official bragging rights. If I win --" he glances around the arcade, trying to find a suitable punishment. He grins, predatory. "Dude. If I win, we have to get our picture taken in one of those photo booths."

"You're on!" laughs Percy, because -- banging things with sticks? How hard can it be?

He really has nobody to blame but himself when he loses spectacularly.

Nico, of course, chooses the girliest-looking photo booth he can find: the one with bright, glittering pink customizations for each picture, designed to offend anyone that doesn't have the sensibilities of a four-year-old girl; sparkles and fairies and promises that it can make them look like pretty princesses.

"Is this how you get into the pants of all your dates?" Percy asks him, sarcasm layered on thick, as Nico drops the coins into the machine a little too gleefully.

He grins up at him, cheeky. "I dunno. I've never taken anyone out on a date before."

Percy blinks at this. " -- never?" he goes, surprised, because Nico's kisses have been bold, confident, and possessing from the very beginning, like Percy's mouth and hands and hips have always been his, like he's already comfortable with the stubble on his chin and the curve of his Adam's apple and the flat panes of his chest -- all unfamiliar territory to Percy before this.

"Never," Nico confirms with the kind of look on his face that makes several wires in Percy's brain fizz. "I mean, I figured out what I was when I was thirteen. Didn't really have anybody to come out to, so I was saved that whole awkward deal, and also found out there's a very narrow pool of living queers in the Underworld. As in, I am the only one."

Percy's fingers catch at the hem of Nico's shirt, rolling it between his fingertips. "So what did you do?"

Nico's grin broadens. "What do you think I did?" he asks, and when Percy splutters, leans in to wrap his arms around his neck, adding in a low murmur, "It wasn't as lonely as it sounds. After all, I've had you ---" A touch, the pad of his finger feather-light against his lips. "-- it's been just you, actually, since the day you crawled out of the River Styx. That's when it clicked. And you -- you've been in every fantasy since I knew what a fantasy was." His breath stirs the hairs at his temple. "Do you want to hear the things I've wanted to do to you?"

Percy draws in a shaky breath, a throb of lust dizzy between his temples. "By the gods, Nico, don't say things like that," he whispers, and pushes him backwards into the photo booth.

They wind up not being able to print any of the photos they take, which is okay, really.

 

| --- | --- |

 

It's easy, sometimes, to forget that he's a son of Poseidon and Nico is a son of Hades, and that they're not just two boys heady with the idea of each other, fumbling around like teenagers, careless enough with their want to steal kisses in the dark corners of rooms and on the platform at the train station when they think no one is looking.

It astonishes him, just how easy it is for him to forget that they're not like everyone else.

The first Saturdays of every month are field trip days at camp: those who have managed to complete all their chores and stay out of trouble long enough to actually have some points stored up can cash them in and go with Percy on an excursion somewhere -- to the movies, to a festival, to a concert, wherever they vote to go just to get out of camp.

This time, they pick karaoke, and since the attendance is determined by who's behaved best, pretty much the entire Hermes cabin has to sit it out, while every single member from Athena is present, and it's really only the kids from Athena who can go to a karaoke bar and promptly sit down at a table and pull out their calculators. Percy passes them, catching bits and pieces of "and the radian of," "damn, I missed a calculation somewhere," and, "hey, guys, do you think we can download porn onto these things yet?" and takes a moment to appreciate how truly bizarre his life is.

Busy chaperoning, he doesn't notice that Nico's disappeared until Jennifer Matsueda sidles up next to him, going in her most icy sweet voice, "Where's your boyfriend?"

Up on stage, Miranda Farlander and her older brother Harry are shamelessly belting out some old Katy Perry ode to lesbian exhibitionism, to enthusiastic cheering from the audience.

Percy scowls. "He's not my --" And realizes it's a moot point.

But Nico isn't lingering around the drink bar, nor is he in the restroom, and when he passes Jennifer again in the crowd, she gives him a knowing look that makes him want to elbow her into the nearest burly-looking person, but he always wants to beat up a child of Ares, so this impulse is easy to ignore.

He checks outside, but only finds Kitty Lane, standing on the curb, smoking a cigarette with her boyfriend from Sagami Ono. "Everybody smokes in Japan!" she reacts, defensively, when she sees him. He scowls at her to let her know what he thinks of that, but lets her, because she got mail from home the day before -- a "return to sender" with government postage, regretting to inform her, recipient deceased. Her eyes are red-rimmed, and he doesn't think it's from the smoke.

He does find Nico, eventually, in the back hallway that leads to a storeroom, crouched down next to a girl who's taking in great big, shuddering sobs and trying to muffle them into her knees. She cannot be over the age of thirteen. Nico looks awkward, but determined, stroking her hair where it tumbles out of her headband. Percy can hear him murmuring, "It's okay, it's not your fault. He didn't -- he didn't -- you couldn't have saved him, and he's sorry, so sorry. He didn't realize how much you'd miss him,. He wanted me to tell you that."

Even with the language barrier, some of this sentiment must have leaked through, because she stops trembling quite so hard.

Percy leaves them there, the anonymous Japanese girl and the boy who can talk to dead people, and returns to chaperoning the other campers.

 

| --- | --- |

 

The fact that Nico is a boy should concern him more than it does. He's had to solve the riddles of the Oracle five years in a row, get his mother's blessing on sacrificing his mortality, and conquer a Titan wearing the face of a friend -- that Percy is a boy and Nico is a boy doesn't seem like much of a problem in comparison.

It's at around this time that he stops introducing Nico as, "and this is my cousin."

My friend, Nico, from America, he tells the head chef at the take-out place that does fantastic potstickers, when he says, "Oh, Jackson-san! Who's your company?" and they joke for a few minutes about American tourists, and how Percy was just the same when he first came, doe-eyed and stumbling over the proper forms of address, while Nico stands to the side, looking perplexed and uncomprehending.

My friend, he thinks, as they stop at a railroad crossing and, impatient, Nico picks apart the knot holding the take-out bag together, and Percy grumbles, can't you wait until we get home? and Nico pops a potsticker into his mouth and goes, Are you kidding? and doesn't even have the decency to offer Percy one, so Percy has to step in close, hand snaking into the bag to fish one out, and at his proximity, Nico's nostrils flare and he feels dizzy with it, the boundless affect he has on this man, that this man has on him, and he almost doesn't notice when the railroad crossing lights stop flashing and the arms go up.

My friend.

How did that happen?

And what changed? Me, or him?

 

| --- | --- |

 

All of this happens around and in between the days where they do nothing, go nowhere; days that just happen, when one or the other just sleeps on through until it's noon and kind of too late to really make plans for a day-trip anywhere, so one or the other shrugs and they go back to bed, where they can trace each other's skin with lazy fingers, roll around until all the sheets have been pushed to the floor and the only thing covering them is the other's body, lips, hands, and Percy, bent to the lines of Nico's skin and mouthing into the jut of his hip bone, would you lose control of your powers if I begged you to, would you bring this building down, mortar by mortar, if I asked? We could, you know -- you'd drive me to drown us all, just with this, just like this. Could I do the same to you?

Nico waves him off, dismissive, his eyes a gleam of white in the darkness and his voice all but a purr, telling him that sex with him isn't that impressive.

The challenge thrills all the way down into his gut, and some of it must show in his face, because Nico's beginning to grin, slow and feral, and Percy hooks a hand under his ankle and drags him across the mattress.

And he's invincible, right, took a dive in the River Styx, yada yada, but he swears, sometimes, when nothing much is happening -- he catches a glimpse of Nico, head thrown back, laughing at some commercial on television he can't even understand, when he's arguing vehemently that he definitely did not double-dip with the chips, or when he's absently fingering the beads of Bianca's name at his neck -- that he feels like maybe his heart's been torn from his chest, because he's sure, he's so sure he can feel it beating between the ribs that's opposite his.

"Most monsters are too stupid to realize that your head is your weakest target," he tells the half-bloods at practice, striking out lightning-fast to cuff -- gently -- at Kitty Lane's skull. "They barely have any brains, so it doesn't occur to them that you do. Therefore, they will nearly always go for the heart." Another strike, and Harry Farlander of the Hebe cabin staggers back a step. "So. Whatever you do, never leave your heart open, or chances are you'll wake up dead."

And yeah, he thinks, somewhere when late has started to become early, and Nico's weight is drowsy and pliant and pressing him back into the mattress. It goes something like that.

It goes something like that, and Percy feels hopeless and homeless and a little like he's been struck blind, and he thinks everyone should see it, should stare at him when he walks down the street and see the way everything's rushing all around him like waves crashing upon the rocks, and then Nico does something -- raps a knuckle to his forehead, or slips his hand into his back pocket absently, like he can't tell the difference between his own back pocket and Percy's and even if he does, knows it doesn't matter -- and everything straightens out again nicely, leaving nothing in him but the want, as clear as water.

He curls his hand around the back of Nico's neck, kissing him until their mouths taste the same, and all he wants, all he wants, is to be able to do this, again and as often as possible, for the rest of his life.

 

| --- | --- |

 

"You can get there from here, right?" he asks, for what is probably the third time, when Nico comes up to him after haggling extensively with the ticket teller machine -- to no avail, of course, because no matter how the son of the god of wealth insists, it will still be 450 yen to where he's going -- weaving through the crowd to where he stands, out of the way by a pillar.

Nico rolls his eyes, stuffs his change in his back pocket. "Yes, mother," he says dryly.

Percy reaches out to give a playful slap to the side of his face, resisting the urge to tease him again about insisting on taking the train ("Why can't you just shadow travel?" "And arrive tired out of my skull? Great first impression that'll make.") "You know you can still stay with me as long as you want, right?" he goes, nonchalant.

"Yeah, right, because that's exactly what I want to do with my life -- slum off the savior of the world."

He grins. "I thought it was lame to use the 'savior of the world' schtick."

"You're lame," Nico retorts, instinctive, and they snort themselves into a laugh.

"Don't kill anyone, yeah?" And Nico shoots him an incredulous, disbelieving look, like that shouldn't be the first thing that Percy should caution him about. Their lives are absurd, yes, but. Really. "No, man, I'm serious. Well, unless the whole thing turns out to be a trap and your potential employer is actually some kid of Echidna. Or Dick Cheney. In which case, go right ahead."

"Sure, and then I'll just ring you up and be like, 'hey, want to bring a shovel? No, don't ask questions.'"

"And why would you be asking me to bring a shovel? You are a shovel."

"Gee, thanks. Flattery will get you everywhere."

Percy knows he has to be grinning wide and vaguely idiotic, but he can't help himself. He flicks at Nico's forehead with a finger. "You should go. The rapid express will be here in five. You know your stop, ri--" he stops when Nico goes, "Really!" and reaches out, fisting the lapel of Nico's one and only nice suit and dragging him close for a kiss.

"Don't forget to bow," he mumbles, and kisses him again. "Always make sure you address the interviewer as -san." Another kiss, lingering this time. "Talk to him, not the interpreter." One more, until the chill of Nico's mint toothpaste is his as well. "And for gods' sake, don't act like a jerk."

Nico laughs into his mouth. "So, don't act like myself, then."

"Oh, hell no. That's for me to handle. Pretend not to be a jerk with everyone else, okay?"

"I have to go!" Laughing, Nico disentangles himself from Percy's hold, and gets a few steps before he turns back with a "oh, hell," grabbing Percy by the face and kissing him soundly. Then he's gone, waving a hand behind him and a, "I'll see you at dinnertime, yeah?" shouted over the noise of the crowd, and he disappears through the turnstiles.

Percy shakes his head, amused, his mouth wet, and heads off down the escalator.

When he gets home, he climbs the stairs with a vague kind of lethargy, wondering in an idle way if there's anything good on television -- and by good, he means something simplistic enough for him to understand.

He unlocks the door to his apartment and steps in, only to immediately come to a halt. There's a suitcase sitting right by the door, blocking the cubby-holes for his shoes. He stares at it for a couple heartbeats, as if that will make it disappear, or suddenly stand up and explain itself. Slowly, he closes the door behind him. When he does, there's a noise from the kitchen, like someone flipping the pages of a book.

His head jerks up, and he steps up, lifting the strings of seashells that make up the fake-door to the kitchenette, keys still in his hand and the other going for the pocket with Riptide, only to freeze half-way there.

It's Annabeth -- leaning against the kitchen sink, head tilted to one side as she absently combs her fingers through her hair, the other hand holding a folded-back magazine in front of her face.

Noticing him, she lowers the magazine.

"Did you know that geisha used to fashion their hair to mimic the Pagoda in Kyoto? It says so right here; it would take almost half-a-day to complete some of them. Architecture! In hairstyling!" She scoffs, incredulous, and tosses the magazine down onto the counter. "I never would have thought of it."

"-- I, what," Percy manages, and then, a heartbeat later, "Your hair! When did your hair get so long?"

Bemused, she grabs a handful of it, pulling it away from her body so she could inspect it. The ends are ratty and a little ragged, but it flows, straight and long and blonde, down the slender curves of her body; the ends hanging a mere inch or so above the hem of her sweatpants. It looks thinner than it actually is when it's down, which Percy supposes is because it's so long (and when did that happen?) "Yeah, I suppose," she says in a particularly patient voice, like she's used to dealing with idiotic questions from him, which -- he remembers with a jolt -- she is, because it's Annabeth.

Annabeth. In his kitchen.

In his kitchen, in Japan.

"I've been thinking about cutting it, actually," she comments idly. "I thought ... I dunno, I guess I thought they could make a wig out of it or something. For my sister," she shrugs, offhand.

He blinks at her. "So, wait. Your sister, she's --" and he stops, awkward, not sure how to finish the sentence. He doesn't want to admit that he really, truly assumed that the only way for Annabeth to come to visit him would be after a funeral. When there stopped being anything to stay in America for.

She gets what he's saying though, and smiles. "No, no, she's fine. Well, fine. She finished treatments two weeks ago and now I guess we get to bite our nails for the rest of her life and hope she doesn't relapse." She sounds weary at this, and Percy's heart gives a throb of sympathy for her; he knows what it's like to love someone so much that you're in fear for their life every minute of every day -- it had been his entire existence from the time he was eleven until his sixteenth birthday.

"Right," is what he says out loud. "That's good."

Silence falls between them for a long, awkward moment. Percy shuffles his weight to the other foot, not sure what to do, and there it is -- that familiar flash of exasperation in Annabeth's eyes.

"Seaweed Brain," she goes, and his heart gives one great leap in his chest. "You do realize I was just on an eleven-hour flight, right? And I haven't slept in longer than that and the entire way, I sat to this noxious woman who insisted that I listen to every horrible travel experience she's ever had, and I had to dip into my college savings to afford this trip to see my stupid hero boyfriend, who can't even be both--"

She cuts off, because he crosses the kitchen in one great bound, snatching her up into his arms and spinning her around. She laughs, bright and happy and a little too loud in his ear, but he doesn't care, because her arms are around his neck and when he puts her down she crushes herself to him like she can hug herself into his bones.

"Gods, I missed you," she breathed into his neck.

"How long are you here for?" he wants to know, a little breathless -- his lungs are constricted against his ribs, his heart feels so big.

"Just two weeks," she goes, and at his expression, barks with laughter. "Not all of us can just up and move to the other side of the planet, Seaweed Brain. See, some of us can string more than two thoughts together occasionally, and we need more time to consider these things --"

"Oh, shut up," he says, and kisses her.

He has just enough time to think, her mouth isn't as big as -- before he forgets how he was even going to complete that statement, because she's kissing him back, and the absolute, sheer familiarity of it sweeps everything out from under him like a tidal wave.

This is Annabeth, and he has kissed her hundreds of times -- once when he was fourteen and about to die, once on his sixteen birthday when he happened not to die, and then with increasing frequency from there -- and he hasn't had this in over a year, her chasing his smile across the bow of his mouth and into the corners, the feel of her hair underneath the flat of his hands, long and silky, with the small kink in it close to the nape of her neck where she usually has it up in a ponytail.

This is the girl he gave up immortality for -- not once, but twice, turning down both Calypso and then the whole pantheon of Greek gods in their turn, and being with her is like having a dozen warm, fuzzy childhood memories all wrapped up in his lap, purring. It's a favorite threadbare blanket, or some silly thing you won at a carnival when you were little sitting on a shelf, or being able to open the pantry doors and know immediately what you're going to find: all the things that make coming home like a holiday in and of itself, and trip to a time when everything was so much easier.

Percy hasn't realized how homesick he is until this moment, and just how much of his idea of home is Annabeth.

The kiss is beginning to shift into something that's long, breathless, made with lazy movements and silly noises -- all the things a good kiss usually is -- when they're interrupted, strangely, by something that lights up and begins to play a jingly, cheerful little tune from the pocket of Annabeth's sweatpants.

He pulls away, frowning, saying, "Is that what I think it --"

And that's whens she does the unthinkable, and pulls a cell phone from her pocket.

Percy leaps back with an exclamation of horror, his arms pinwheeling, and she immediately reaches out, seizing a hold of the front of his shirt and going, "No! No! Percy, chill out, it's all right -- monsters aren't going to come swarming, I promise! This cell phone -- we built it ourselves, it blocks the signal."

"Bwah?" goes Percy eloquently. "What? How?"

Quickly, because the phone is still buzzing in her hand, she says, "Do you remember Jake Mason -- he was the head of the Hephaestus cabin for that real short period before he stepped side to let Pearl take it, you know; right after Beckendorf --"

"Yeah," Percy jumps in when she begins to flounder, because Charles Beckendorf is someone that is still really painful for anybody to bring up around him: out of all the people that died that summer, Beckendorf is probably the one he feels the worst about, because the dude literally died for him, and Percy had paid him back for that sacrifice by being absolutely clueless to what was wrong with Beckendorf's girlfriend until it was too late. Totally not heavy stuff or anything, right?

"Right," says Annabeth, grimacing. "Well, he lives with his mom in Silicon Valley, which is -- quite literally -- about forty minutes away from San Francisco, so we meet up every now and then, and we came up with this idea to plate the microchip inside the phone with a celestial bronze alloy to try and deflect the monsters --" The chirpy little ring starts all over again, a little more impatiently than before, and she concludes, "And anyway, we put it all together and it worked. So far there's only this one, which isn't all that great because we still haven't figured out how to void long distance cell phone charges, but -- hello, this is the half-goddess Annabeth Chase speaking."

This last is delivered cheekily as she's flipping the phone open and bringing it to her ear.

She grins, "Hi, Daddy! Yes. Yes, I got here fine. And no... no, it really didn't -- Dad, it's a commercial flight, not a bomber plane, I'd be surprised if we deviated off the pre-approved course by three feet."

Percy watches the expressions flicker across her face -- polite disinterest, fond exasperation, each look more familiar to him than the last, and he leans in close to the mouth piece to say, cheerily, "Hello, Dr. Chase!"

"Yes, Dad, that was Percy. .. He is -- No, what, no, I'm not going to -- oh, fine," she puts the phone on her shoulder and informs him, "My dad wants you to know that it's only because you have proved yourself capable by saving the world from an evil Titan overlord bent on the destruction of peace and democracy that he's even considering letting me spend two weeks with you in a foreign country, and that the riot act he read you at senior prom still applies."

Percy's grin, he's pretty sure, is now so wide he's in danger of cracking his face in half. "Of course," he agrees, compliant, as he bumps her hip backwards, planting his hands on the kitchen sink, one on either side of her.

She narrows her eyes at him, daring him, and he leans in, brushing her cheek with a kiss on his way to her ear, where he places a longer, wetter kiss to the soft spot of flesh just behind her jaw.

"Sorry, Dad, wait -- what was that?" she goes, distracted, and he grins, beginning a slow trail of them across the tense tendons of her neck. "Oh, okay. No, that's good! Hey, do you guys want anything while I'm here -- .... no, Dad, I don't think they make those available to the general public, but if you want me to break in -- yeah, didn't think so -- !" She pushes at his chest suddenly, eyes warning, and he obediently lets go of the collar of her shirt, which he'd been trying to drag across her collarbone. He grins at her, biting his lip pointedly. "Yeah, Dad. Got it. I love you too. I'll be back soon. Uh-huh, take care."

She hangs up, lifting her hips up into his long enough to push the cell phone deep into her pocket and laughing against the shell of his ear.

"So," he says, voice a throaty murmur against her neck, fingers sliding just under the waist band of her sweatpants, and the faint gasp this elicits from her is enough to drive him to his knees, lips dragging down her sternum. "Now that you're here in Japan, what would you like to do?"

"Well, you could feed me." Her fingers thread into his hair, body curling around him like a comma, and they tighten compulsively when he presses his lips to the top-most rib right underneath her breast, where he can feel her heartbeat -- feel it begin to skitter, quick and in time with the shortening of her breath, all for him. "Considering the last thing I had to eat was that sad excuse for lunch they served us on the plane."

"I suppose --" a kiss to the fabric of her shirt, right below her navel. "I could make you something nice and fatteningly Japanese."

She levels a dry look down at him. "Hello, oxymoron, how are you?"

He thinks about it, thinks about what he has in his fridge, thinks about how she's looking at him, and then he's nodding and saying, "We'll feed you later." And walks her backwards towards where he hasn't even rolled up the bed.

 

| --- | --- |

 

In the end, they come to a mutual agreement that they really have no interest in cooking anything, not even a quick fry-up or something microwavable from the back of Percy's freezer, and eventually, he pulls himself from the bed with a last, lingering kiss to her hip, saying he'll go grab them some tea or soda or something from the vending machine half-way down the block, and maybe some fries from First Kitchen.

She waves him off with a loose, satisfied flap of her wrist as he tugs his rumpled jeans on over his hips, snatching up a t-shirt and tugging it on. It gets caught on his elbow when he tries to pull the door shut behind him at the same time, making him do a graceless little hop like a beheaded chicken. Finally, he pulls it down and heads out into the early twilight.

Just outside the front door, leg propped up on the bike rack and face obscured in shadow, is a boy in a well-pressed suit, tie tucked in, looking like he'd just come home from work. When Percy comes out, leaping down the steps in an easy bound, he pushes himself off, melting out of the darkness like he'd been etch-a-sketched, his lips quirked humorlessly.

Percy starts, surprised, stumbling over a crack in the sidewalk.

Then --

"Nico!" he goes, stupidly. "Hey."

And. Half a heartbeat later, "Oh."

"Yeah, oh." Nico's voice is soft, silky, which immediately makes all the hackles rise along Percy's shoulders in warning. "Remember me?"

"Nico..."

He doesn't wait, stepping in closer, his feet braced under his shoulders, the way you do when you're about to swing a sword. "How's Annabeth?" he asks, and the calm cracks only slightly, only in the faintest catch in his breath on the name.

Percy searches his face, over all the features as familiar as the ones in the mirror, and thinks that he doesn't look a thing like the Nico who uses the same knife for the peanut butter and the jelly, who jokes with dead people, who sometimes sits on the toilet seat and twists his death's-head ring so that the emblem pressed into the flesh of his palm, where he couldn't see it.

He shifts his weight, tense, abrupt. This is a Nico that's angry. Really, truly angry, not just childish and annoyed and easy to pacify like a disgruntled cat. He is furious, in a way that has every nerve in Percy's body on edge in a way it hasn't been for a long time.

This is Nico the ghost king, watching him with eyes inky and bright, whom he completely forgot the instant he saw Annabeth standing in his kitchenette, pulling her fingers through her hair in absent thought. This is Nico, the only living half-blood child of Hades the ultimate Judge, god of the underworld. Nico, who makes his sudden, powerful reintroduction into his consciousness, complete with every memory.

The gravity of what he's done hits Percy with all the weight of falling bricks.

"Hmmm," acknowledges Nico, when he says nothing. "That's what I thought." He spins on his heel, stalks away into the chain-link bike park with short, angry movements, his shoulders so tight in place that he's sure if he strikes them just right, Nico's whole body will shatter from the tension. He follows without meaning to, steps slow, hypnotized.

This is someone Percy barely knows. And yet -- and yet -- he knows his throat will heave if he licks it, and he makes the most wonderful, ridiculous noise when Percy kisses the sweat-damp curve of his spine. It's the same body, and an entirely different person inside, someone he hasn't provoked in years.

He wants to, and it's the same sharp, focused want he had that day the Amida Buddha told them they could move continents if only they worked together.

Nico chooses that moment to look over his shoulder, his eyes still as bright as bleached bones. At the expression Percy knows is all over his face, he goes still, suddenly wary.

Nico blinks. Percy moves.

"What are you -- no!" He blinks again, his voice a startled hiss, taking a staggering step backwards, too late, as Percy closes the distance between them in a single stride. "Don't you dare!"

And then Nico is against him, the whole long, skinny length of him, burning heat through his clothes, his muscles tight with anger, and Percy pushes into the lines of his body, pushes back, all knees and pressing thighs and Nico's chest like a bound drum against his own.

"Get off me --!" Nico's fists come up with inhumanly quick reflexes, but Percy knows those reflexes because they're his as well, and he snatches Nico by the wrists, and uses this leverage to shove him with straight-forward intensity against the wall of the building, sliding against him in a smooth, snake-like movement. All the breath goes out of Nico's body in a gasp. He writhes, but Percy is the same height and possesses more muscle mass and he knows this body, knows its weak points, and he uses his knees to pin his legs against the wall as well, so he's trapped, unable to escape.

Nico pants, his skin flushed from ears to neck, his eyes darting fast like a hummingbird between Percy's own, so he sees the moment the steel enters them.

His thighs move, locking one of Percy's legs between his own, and pulls their hips into place in a slow drag. Distraction shatters into Percy's eyes, and the look on his face intensifies.

"Ah," he all but purrs, and rolls his hips into him again, and involuntarily, Percy lets his weight sag against him. "Ah, yes. This. Is this all you wanted from me? Wanted me for the things your girlfriend wouldn't do for you? Still want me to do them?" He laughs, a breathy exhale against Percy's lips, but his words are ugly and sharp. "I can do things she wouldn't even --"

Percy kisses him, mid-word, catching his bottom lip, his teeth, the tip of his tongue. With a muffled noise of righteous indignation, Nico surges forward, a movement that in intention is meant to throw him off, but in execution only shifts his balance completely into Percy. His kissing back is less of a kiss and more of an attack, teeth scraping hard against Percy's mouth. The moan is helpless, caught somewhere between their tongues and breath, so that neither of them is sure who it issued from.

After a long, breathless moment, Percy retreats, his mouth raw and red and spread, and he can handle this fact, because Nico looks even worse. He breathes deep, listens for the sounds coming from the street, the parking garage, the front lobby.

He turns his eyes on Nico in the answering silence, and says, with a sweep in his gut like a choir falling, "Is that all right with you?"

He releases him, never breaking eye contact, and slides to his knees.

 

| --- | --- |

 

Annabeth only looks amused when he returns to the apartment empty-handed.

He shrugs, makes some excuse about finding the vending machine only to remember he hadn't brought any yen with him, something about having other things on his mind, making him more scatter-brained than usual, and Annabeth laughs like he's complimented her, leaning into him for a kiss. If she can taste Nico on his mouth, if she can tell anything's different at all, well, Percy might be imagining the tiny frown between her brows. Or maybe she's just jet-lagged.

He watches her sleep that night, curled up on the mattress next to him, facing the wall. He traces the smooth, freckled curve of her shoulder, kisses her shoulder blade just to hear her mumble something about sea monkeys and shift her weight backwards a little bit, trying to find him.

Taking care not to lie on her hair, he presses his face into the nape of her neck. "I love you," he tells her, because it's true, it's true and it's a miracle she's even here at all, and he doesn't know what he's going to do.

By the next morning, the reality of it has faded, just far enough that he doesn't look at it too closely and can pretend it doesn't exist, cooking them some rice for breakfast in an absent-minded way. This earns him a funny look (which he's missed,) a long-suffering sigh (which he's missed,) and Annabeth taking over his kitchen and making them pancakes instead (which he hasn't missed, but could definitely get used to, and he didn't even know he had pancake mix in his cabinets.)

He takes her the long way to camp, his hand in hers, letting her see the strangeness of a foreign country firsthand -- the cars on the wrong side of the street, the different languages floating from open windows, the spindly writing and even the curbs are shaped differently enough from American curbs to be noticeable.

He introduces her to the young men at the gates at Camp Half-Blood, and there's a moment of fumbling between bowing and shaking hands and everybody laughs it off, their ears tinged red with embarrassment.

Inside the camp, Annabeth is an instant celebrity. To Percy, who is used to the hero-worship, it's almost funny to watch Annabeth flounder, unsure how to approach the attention of everyone who all seem to know her name, but she is easily forgiven -- everyone wants news from home, even the dryads in the trees and the naiads in the lake. Everybody has left somebody behind. Everyone's family is split. For a moment, when they each have a new detail to cling to, the separation isn't so painful.

Dionysus does, eventually, break it up, shooing them all off with a, "don't you have chores to be ignoring?" and a "let the lady have some room to breath, you're all animals." He glances back at Annabeth and mutters in a much softer voice, "It's good to see you safe, Angelica."

"Thank you, sir." He grunts something and wanders off.

Boss! It's Blackjack, making a low swoop over his head, his voice a high whinny of excitement. He lands close by, cantering a few strides to kill off his momentum as he circles back around. Boss, you have to come see it, my filly, she's growin' up so big -- oh! He stops, spotting Annabeth, and nickers in surprise. Lady boss! He-e-e-e-ey, long time no see!

"He's happy to see you," Percy translates for the perplexed Annabeth, as Blackjack does a little dance in place.

She flashes a quick smile. "Hi, Blackjack."

The pegasus gives a sudden toss of his head. Hey! Lady boss hasn't seen my baby girl, yet, has she? Oh, man, she's gotta! There's no better time -- her wings are comin' in all fluffy cute. C'mon! He turns around with a swish of his tail, trotting off across the field.

"He wants you to meet his daughter," Percy says to Annabeth, and adds low for only hear to hear, "I'd go with it if I were you. Every sneeze she takes is a miracle to Blackjack, don't try to tell him otherwise."

Annabeth, to her due credit, only lifts her eyebrows, politely surprised. "Blackjack has small pegasus children? My, they grow up so fast, don't they?"

"Oh, I know," says Percy with a mock sniffle of regret.

They trail after Blackjack to the stables, where they introduce Annabeth to the filly, whom Percy has to admit (after much prompting from Blackjack to the point where he knew it had to be unavoidable) is named Poker Face.

Annabeth's eyebrows jump up her forehead. "Really?"

Blackjack snorts, correctly identifying the sarcasm in her voice. Hey. I like Lady Gaga, okay? She's a fine dame. For a human.

"She's beautiful, Blackjack," is all Annabeth can say to that, possessing far more self-control than Percy ever has.

Poker Face, if anything, seems just as patiently long-suffering with her father as they are. She scuffs her hooves against the stable floor as Percy translates for Blackjack, embarrassed by the attention but still eyeing Annabeth with shy curiosity -- it's the exact same expression she gets from the half-bloods, those that fought in the battle for Olympus and those that didn't, and it's a little strange to see it on a pegasus.

He sees movement in the corner of his eye. He turns his head, and goes cold all over. Nico's standing there, surrounded by the shadows; they bleed off his shoulders in long strips like ragged bits of tissue paper and catch around his legs, giving him the appearance of a disembodied phantom.

He glances sharply over at Annabeth, but she hasn't noticed.

He looks back, and Nico raises an eyebrow, daring, waiting.

Before he knows it, he's turning back around, catching Annabeth's elbow. "Hey --" he goes, voice contrite and foreign to his own ears. "I forgot -- I need something for practice this afternoon and I left it at home. I'll be right back, all right?"

"Sure." She flashes him a brief smile, then goes back to admiring the fluffy appendages that Blackjack swears are Poker Face's wings, though they look more like tribbles that have latched onto her shoulder blades like giant, feathery ticks. She's unassuming, not doing anything more than taking the words for face value.

When he looks back, Nico is gone, the space where he was nothing but a lengthening shadow, but the weight of his presence settles heavy in Percy's stomach. He says good-bye to Blackjack -- who doesn't even pause in his rendition of some story that's been totally blown out of proportions, and doesn't even seem to notice the loss of his translator -- and leaves the stables feeling like he can't feel the feet he's putting down in front of him. It's like he's not even in his own body anymore -- wherever he is, it's where Nico's at, and he's just waiting, impatiently, for his body to catch up to them.

He doesn't remember the walk back across camp, or if he says anything to the young men manning the gates or the woman who stops him in the lobby of his apartment building to tell him he has mail. When he unlocks the door and pushes it open, twilight has settled in his apartment; the lights are off and the maple syrup from breakfast is still on the folding card table. He toes off his shoes, shutting and locking the door behind him, and steps around the folding partition.

Nico's eyes snap up. He's a dark figure perched on top of the kitchen counter, too small in his bomber jacket and his legs crossed at the ankles, the orange and the green of his mismatched sneakers peaking out from underneath the cuffs of his jeans. He sits up slightly when Percy walks in, and he's wearing a t-shirt that says, "Greece Lightning!" with the emblem of Zeus throwing a thunderbolt.

"Nice shirt," Percy says, going for jovial or weakly joking and just coming out hoarse and a little lost.

Nico laughs shakily. "So."

"So?"

"So. What -- what are we going to do?"

Percy stares hard at the faucet. "What do you mean?"

"What do you mean -- what do you mean, Percy, what -- how are we going to --" his voice drops to a mere whisper. " --can you even look me in the eye?"

Percy does, instantly, and doesn't look away. Can't look away.

"Were you serious?" Nico says, still unable to raise the level of his voice.

"About what?"

"About still wanting me."

"I don't think so. No."

Nico's smile is as thin and brittle as bone. "Liar, liar, pants on fire."

"Yes," Percy breathes. Thinks of Nico, that very first day, laughing and saying, if you can't stand the heat, get out of hell. "Gods, yes."

"Annabeth. Are you -- what, are you going to break up with her?"

Percy closes his eyes, swallows hard. "I -- I -- Nico, her sister. She came all this way while her sister is sick -- I can't do that to her."

"You have to. You have to."

"I know." His eyes open again, catch on Nico's, and holds.

The look continues, Nico's eyes dark and fixed unblinkingly on him as he takes one step forward, then another, reaching out to nudge Nico's knees apart. One more step has his knees banging into the cabinets, but he scarcely notices because his body is flush against Nico's, the boy's legs locking around his waist and dragging him in like he never wants to let him go, arms coming up to wrap him up in a mirroring hold, clinging like a child lost in a storm. He buries his face in the long, tough line of muscle where Percy's neck meets his shoulder. Percy's breath comes out in a stuttering exhale, and his hands settle low on Nico's back, pushing in so hard it's as if he can press them into each other's skin, Nico's fingers scrabbling and fisting hard in the fabric of his shirt.

Nico's lips drag up his jaw. "Gods, this is so stupid --" he breathes out, voice shuddering. "So stupid, I can't believe I'm here, can't believe I'm about to say this because -- because -- oh, gods," his fingers fly up, involuntary, to clutch at Percy's hair, his hips shifting an inch forward as Percy leans him back, his spine bumping against the windowsill. "-- who says stuff like this, but -- but --" his nails scrap across Percy's scalp, bringing his face close enough to bite his chin, his bottom lip.

"But what?" Percy prompts, returning the favor with a series of kisses to the line of Nico's throat.

The words are murmured into his hair, fast and tumbling over each other. "But I tried to, Percy, I tried to go back home, back to the Underworld. But I couldn't. I can't help it, but I need it now -- I need it, I feel it in my bones, like earth, like death, that I need to be wherever you are, and I need to get there as fast as I can."

Percy looks up at him, the familiar red-flushed mouth and inky eyes, and responds, "Yeah. I know," and pulls their mouths down to meet.

And after that, it's a mess of things; Nico's jacket sliding off his shoulders (and straight into the sink; he whines, later, about how it took a week to get the smell of dishwater out) and Nico's fingers fumbling with his belt, their movements desperate, clumsy, and wanting in a way that only comes with the knowledge that your time is limited.

 

| --- | --- |

 

So it continues.

It's a strange sense of deja vu, standing with Annabeth at the automated ticket machines at the train station, helping her count out which coins she needs, watching her scowl at the maze of interconnecting train lines and rub at her temples, but when he's with her, it's so easy to forget he'd done this before, not even a month ago -- Annabeth is different, acts different, wants to see different things, looks at him different, and he forgets about Nico entirely, just reveling in being there with her.

Then, when she's off somewhere with her brother, Malcolm -- who, Percy is sad to admit, is more suited to showing off the kinds of things that a child of Athena would be interested in seeing, like the museums and the strange buildings in downtown Tokyo -- or up on Mt. Olympus, that's when Nico is there, in his home, and Percy has no idea how he could have ever forgotten this, how he could have ever thought he could live without it.

The days pass, slow and hazy and suspended, and Percy feels like he's on the top curving arch of a ferris wheel, just before everything starts to descend but you have a moment in which you forget that it is, when you feel nothing but yourself, high up in the air. Everything feels so strange -- Annabeth leaning into his side, her teasing laugh and bright grey eyes; Nico, catching him by his belt loops and pulling them together so their hearts pound against each other like relieved friends -- like he isn't really a part of it, like it's happening to someone else.

The first week of Annabeth's vacation slides away like this; her in the day, her at night, his world spinning on her axis, dizzy with remembering how it goes, and in the lull, the quiet moments, it's Nico in the silence of her absence, crashing into him like tides to the rocks, becoming more and more reckless.

One occasion, he comes out of the bathroom, toweling his hair dry, and finds Nico in the kitchenette, digging into a carton of ice cream as casually as if he'd been there all along, and Percy startles at the sight of him and goes "-- gods! Nico -- what are you --" his voice drops into an incredulous hiss. "She's right outside. She won't even be gone ten minutes, what --"

"Mmmm," interrupts Nico around the spoon in his mouth, eyebrows high. He sets the ice cream to the side and in an easy lope, crosses the room to weave his arms around Percy's neck, and licks a stripe up his Adam's apple with a chilled tongue. "It won't take that long, will it?" he points out, lips a surration against his jugular.

Yes, yes, he really is that easy. Percy gives in with a groan, spinning them around so he can shove Nico up against the bookcase and chase the flavor of vanilla and raspberries back into his mouth.

When Annabeth comes back, pretty much exactly ten minutes later, he's in the bathroom, and when she hears the water running, she calls, "You're still in the shower?" And teases him the rest of the day for being such a girl.

Another time, she shakes him awake too early in the morning and says, "Hey, listen, Malcolm's downstairs. We've got something we're going to work on on Mt. Olympus, okay? It'll probably only take a couple of hours for us, but time runs differently up there, remember, so don't panic if I'm not back for awhile, all right?"

"Why would I panic?" he mumbles, voice sleep-slurred. "You're Annabeth. You take care of yourself better than most other half-bloods I know."

He doesn't bother opening his eyes or turning over, but he can feel her rolling her eyes behind him. "True," she says, matter-of-factly, and he listens to her shuffle over on bare feet to the shoe cubby. "But I'd still like to pretend that you'd be worried if I went missing."

"You did that before, remember?" he tells her, too caught in half-sleep to check what he's saying. "Long time ago. I ran away from camp, joined a Quest I wasn't supposed to, let Nico's sister die, and bore the weight of the world on my shoulders, all for you. Still have the silver streak in my hair from that, y'know. Dye it, though. Don't you?"

"Yeah, I do," she replies, tone soft and a little wavering. "Have a good day, Seaweed Brain, and try not to say so many endearing things. I don't know what to do with you when you do."

The apartment door clicks shut behind her, and Percy falls back to sleep without thinking about it too hard.

When he wakes up, later, the curtains in the kitchen are open and he can see the sunshine, streaking through the cracks in the folding partition and catching on the seashells. He rolls out of bed, stretching, wondering for a second at the quiet of the apartment and then remembering, oh, right, Olympus. Annabeth. And takes a moment to be pathetically glad she takes her responsibility as the rebuilder of Mt. Olympus so seriously.

He's expecting it, but it still sends a hot thrill of surprise straight into his stomach when he sees Nico in the kitchen, half-bent to study the fridge door. There isn't much on there -- a pamphlet or two from nearby Vietnamese take-outs, a political satire cartoon that features a bright blue Empire State Building that he brought from home, and a post-it from Annabeth with the number of her mystical, monster-invisible cell phone.

He steps up behind him, wrapping his arms around Nico's scrawny chest, laughing huskily when he jolts in surprise.

"I was just --" he starts, turning his head, but Percy doesn't stop to see what he was just; he kisses him; the angle is awkward and he can't do much more than suck at his bottom lip and his tongue when it darts out to lick against his. Nico turns around in the circle of his arms and the kiss deepens, going straight into thorough and filthy without passing go or collecting $200.

"All day?" he murmurs, pushing them impatiently through the strings of shells, destination immediately obvious when Percy feels the backs of his legs hit the mattress.

He catches Nico's bottom lip between his teeth and holds onto it, pointedly, just to feel the way Nico's weight sinks into him bonelessly. "Yeah," he manages, muffled, and licks away across his teeth.

Nico pushes him backwards, severing the contact abruptly. On his elbows on the mattress, Percy frowns up at him questioningly, but the look fades away into something else entirely when Nico crawls over him, pressing him back into the warmth of the sheets that hasn't faded yet. "Good," says the son of Hades hoarsely, as Percy hooks a leg over his hips. "Because I think today I'm going to make you flood the place."

Percy laughs, and Nico falls into him like a body into a grave.

 

| --- | --- |

 

And there are other moments, even quieter, darker moments, when there isn't even the whisper of one or the other beside him, when Percy remembers that things cannot go on like this. Pretend all he like, he's going to have to tell her -- he's going to have to break her heart. And how the hell, exactly, does one go about doing that? She's going to need an explanation, need rational and maybe even a Venn diagram and he doesn't have one. He can't even explain it to himself.

It'll flip on him the other way, too. Unbidden, he'll think of Annabeth, the way their hands fumble together when she gets her long hair caught in the zip of her jacket, the way she all but climbs the wall when she finds a spider, or the simple way she'll just lean into him when they're walking that last bit of distance from the train station to the apartment building, weary from a long day out and limping from the blisters on her feet, and he thinks that Nico doesn't stand a chance, not against what he has with Annabeth.

One week after she arrives, she sits with him in the waiting lobby at the dentist's, and the receptionist laughingly chides Percy on taking better care of his fillings -- it's not like his teeth are invincible and can take endless abuse, and if Percy could die of the irony of that remark, he totally would.

He's brought a book with him -- it's one of the Harry Potter variety, and probably one of three books that he owns, total, and Annabeth curls up in the chair beside him, resting her head against his upper arm as he cracks it open and tries to start reading. He gets as far as the second paragraph before he notices the presence of someone small and probably under school-age, nimbly climbing into the chair on his other side. They look at each other for a long moment before he asks, "What's that?"

The boy's mother, on her cell phone with something that sounds incredibly important, notices where her child's gotten off to and rushes over, apologizing profusely, but Percy laughs, tells her it's no problem at all and shows the book to the boy, explaining how in Western novels, the text moves side-to-side, left-to-right, contrary to how Japanese novels work; up-and-down, right-to-left.

It entertains the kid for all of about fourteen seconds.

Annabeth scoffs something along the lines of, "you're absolute crap at this, Percy," and takes the kid to where they have a block set available in the corner, and whereas she's pretty good at making a replica of the Brooklyn bridge, the boy's mostly just good at knocking it down.

And he braces his elbows on his knees and watches her, her long hair trailing across her shoulders and back to pool on the carpet, her grey eyes bright as she echoes the little boy's nonsense words.

"Will you stay?" he asks her, later, after he's gotten the same lecture from the dentist he did from the receptionist, and they're on their way home again, weaving the long way through the neon strip of Atsugi: the same path he took the night he ran into Chris Rodriguez. "I mean, will you stay in Japan?"

She sighs, bumping his shoulder with hers. "I want to, Percy. I want to. You can't ask for anything more from me right now."

She wants to pick up a Japanese culture magazine or two for her stepmother, who likes collecting things like that, and it's an easy thing to take her to the 7-11. When he walks in with one arm looped around her shoulders, the girl cashier -- whose name he should really know by now, and who apparently works twenty-four seven because he rarely ever sees anyone else -- gives him a dry look and says, "You certainly didn't wait very long before moving on, Jackson-san."

And he laughs at her and replies, "You are so lucky my girlfriend has no idea what you're saying."

Her eyes double in size and her voice flies up to that impossible pitch Japanese girls have, "Ehhh?! You mean she doesn't know about the boy you were kissing back by the sushi and the onigiri the other day -- yes, I saw you, you were very rude about it."

He gapes at her. "And you really need to get a life outside of this store."

To his amazement, she sticks her tongue out, and then flips her phone open to reply to a text.

"What was that about?" says Annabeth, bemused.

"This town is too small," he answers, and he wonders, with a cold swoop of his stomach, just how many people knew about him and Nico, and if one of these days, Annabeth will understand the remark.

Gods, he doesn't want to do it, but he also doesn't want someone else to do it for him.

The rest of the walk home is done in silence, Annabeth's steps in easy tandem with his own. Her hand fits into the small of his back, her fingers brushing ever-so-lightly on that single place on his spine that tethers him to mortality; just resting, just saying, I know you.

"Oh," she stops suddenly. "Crap. That's Argus's car."

Percy looks around. They're maybe a block away from home. "What's up?"

"Nothing. It's -- oh, crap. I completely forgot." She rubs at her face briefly. "No, hey, listen, I'll be right back, okay? I just have to -- it's nothing, it won't take long at all, okay?"

"Okay," goes Percy, bewildered.

"You don't mind, do you?" she looks up at him anxiously. "Did you have any big plans for today?"

He holds up the book he brought with him, his finger still bookmarking the third or fourth page. "I'll probably see if I can get any farther in this," he tells her, tone light, saying simply, I don't mind. You're the one who fixes disasters these days, not me. Go fix the plumbing on Olympus or whatever's gone wrong now.

She chuckles, stretching up on tiptoes to kiss his cheek. "I have my cell phone if anything happens."

"Mhhmm, because I foresee myself facing all kinds of incorrigible foes today -- maybe even some four-syllable words."

"Exactly. Your brain might explode," she agrees amiably, and he elbows her in the side in playful retaliation. "So take care of it. I like it too much."

And she turns around, trotting off down the street where Argus waits in a nondescript Japanese-made car -- which is roughly the size of a BMW bug if it had eaten a size-down mushroom from Super Mario. Again with the economical theme the Japanese have going.

He heads back up to the apartment, shuffling around aimlessly for a couple minutes: he brushes his teeth, picks up some laundry and wonders if he has enough dirty clothes to warrant a trip to the laundromat, thinks up a lesson plan for the next practice he has at Camp Half-Blood, and then -- for lack of anything better to do -- winds up doing exactly what he told Annabeth he would, and drops into the armchair to read. It's about as entertaining as it sounds; the words all appear to be doing some synchronized swimming routine on the page, and he's too busy listening for the sounds of someone sliding into existence out of shadow to try really hard at deciphering them.

The soft squeak the hinges on the front door make as it opens is so unexpected that he doesn't place the sound for a moment, and by then, it's closed again. He looks up, but yes, it's Nico, already shrugging off his jacket.

Percy blinks at him. "Did you just come in through the door?"

Nico shrugs, his shoulders hunched moodily up around his ears. He toes off his sneakers, kicking them into the cubby. "Yes. I even walked in the front lobby and came up the steps."

"Wow, really?" The sarcasm is layered thick on his voice. "You know, if you really wanted to try it like a human being, you would have knocked."

This just earns him an exasperated, raised eyebrow. "I am sneaking up here while your girlfriend is away. I don't think you get to complain."

"True," nods Percy, and decides that's enough with the small talk. He puts his book somewhere, it might have been the floor, he doesn't know, it's just that his hands are empty when he pushes himself to his feet, circling around the sofa to get to him. Nico's eyes are blazing, his arms already half-raised by the time Percy reaches him, so that he can fist his fingers in his hair as their mouths collide.

He licks his way in past Nico's teeth without waiting, hands at his waist, pulling at him urgently.

"What's the rush?" Nico's laugh is lost to a few muffled noises as Percy kisses him right through it, backing them up a few steps.

Percy replies, "I just got tired of waiting."

There's a blaze of something in Nico's eyes, and he goes, "Me too," as he tangles their ankles together, uses this to spin Percy around and shove him up against the wall. Something about the way he says it tells Percy he should pay attention, but his lips are already trailing across Percy's jaw, and with each slow drag, a few more of his brain cells fry up and become absolutely useless.

His hands scrabble at the natural-made handholds of Nico's face, dragging it up to his mouth so he can kiss him again, deep and thorough, letting Nico hum approval into his mouth.

He wants nothing more than this, for as long as he lives.

They pull away from each other, long enough for Percy to stroke his fingertips across Nico's cheekbones, admiring the blotchy flush that spreads from his mouth up to his ears and down his neck, disappearing underneath the collar of his shirt. His blushes always take so long to fade, and secretly, Percy really likes this: it gives him a semi-permenent look of having recently been ravished.

Nico looks at him intently, leaning in again to kiss a path down his neck, and Percy sucks in a breath when he feels Nico bite down, and it's so distracting that it takes him a moment to realize what Nico's doing, and by then, Nico's already doing it again to a spot just below it, rolling the skin between his teeth and sucking. He is going to have a hickey, he totally is.

"Hey!" He fists his hands in Nico's hair, wrenching him back far enough to give him a good shake, trying and failing so hard to ignore the hooded, dangerous look in Nico's eyes. The blood throbs across his skin, searing where his teeth had just been. "What are you -- Nico! That thing is going to be colossal! How am I going to explain that to Annabeth?"

A snort. "Dude. I am not telling you how to cover up your affair from your girlfriend." The flat of Nico's tongue licks a lazy stripe over the mark, before he bites down again, hard enough to make Percy hiss, his spine arching. Nico uses this to corner him further up against the wall, hips pressing hard into his and their hearts beating skittering fast like dragonflies underneath their clothes.

Percy gives up, letting his head fall back against the wall, feeling desire cloud hazily across his mind, fingers absently stroking the bones at the curve of Nico's neck.

He catches a flash of movement in his peripheral, a faint blur of yellow and blue and it's curious, because he's pretty sure it's not supposed to be there. Even with Nico licking across his collarbone, he manages to put his head on straight to look.

Annabeth is standing in the doorway.

Sobriety is immediate and as sudden as a slap to the face. Percy's fingers clench down hard on Nico's arms, pushing him back. Nico makes a soft noise of protest, tipping his head to the side to nip, ever so lightly, at the underside of Percy's chin, and Percy hisses, "Nico --! Nico! Nico, stop!"

He obediently straightens up, a movement that slides their bodies together in a way that seems over-the-top obscene, which is ridiculous because they both still have their clothes on (and, for the record, "at least we still have our clothes on" should never be the best recommendation he could give.) He turns his head, sees Annabeth, and blinks in a very slow way like a lazy fox, but he doesn't look surprised, and Percy should take note of that, perhaps, if his brain hadn't shorted out, because Annabeth is in the freaking doorway, wearing her favorite, worn pair of blue jeans and one hand still on the doorknob, and a look on her face unlike anything he's ever seen.

And Nico -- Nico is not moving away. Does he really have no clue that complete annihilation is about thirteen seconds away, unless they can come up with a convincing way of explaining this?

"Annabeth --" he starts, falters, and oh, gods, where is his ability to bluff his way out of things, he would really, really appreciate its help right now!

"Yeah," is what comes out of Annabeth, who can't seem to tear her eyes away, not even when Nico swirls the tip of his finger over the smooth button on Percy's jeans. "Yeah, I hate those days when you wake up on the wrong side of your sexuality."

"No! It's not like -- I'm not --"

"Not what?" cuts in Nico suddenly, snapping him a sharp look, index and middle finger hooking easily into his waistband. "Not gay?" He rocks forward, forcing Percy's heels to thunk against the wall and their legs to scissor together like the teeth of a comb. Percy's throat bobs, and Annabeth's eyes, if possible, go even wider. "Somehow, I call bullshit."

And then, as pleasantly as you please, he sends Annabeth a cocky smile and says, "Hey there, Annabeth. It's been awhile."

"Yeah, you could say that," she replies, voice faint, and it clicks, then, the way she is looking from Percy to Nico down to the cell phone in her free hand and back again. He remembers Nico, bent to study the number on the fridge. Remembers him, just now, saying he had come through the front lobby -- where there was a phone.

The chill is sudden, hitting him with the force of absolute certainty, and Percy isn't sure if his knees won't buckle if he pushes Nico away, so he just grips his shoulders tight enough to see him wince and he goes, "You. You called her. You -- you ... you meant for her to find us. You wanted her to find us!"

Nico has the decency to avoid looking him in the eye. "Well, of course I did," he snaps, sounding exactly like the bratty thirteen-year-old who once tried to beg him to understand why he had to sell him out to Hades. "Face it, Percy. You weren't going to tell her. What else was I supposed to --"

"I wasn't --! That's not fair, I was trying to..."

"Right, right," Nico says, brittle as ice and venom bright in his eyes. "Sure you were." He grabs the fistfuls of Percy's shirt, yanking them both off the wall and spinning him towards Annabeth. "Do it, then!" he spits. "If there's ever a time to do it, do it now! Tell her you don't love her anymore, you don't even love her enough to stop seeing me. Tell her it's over!"

Percy backpedals, hard, hands up, because Annabeth's just staring at him -- still standing in the doorway, in the stupid doorway, the door's still wide open, this cannot be happening -- and the look in her eyes makes him want to crawl underneath the linoleum and live there and eat worms for the rest of his life.

"I -- I --" he flounders, and he can't say anymore, because he lives life by just a few rules, and one of them is don't hurt Annabeth. Don't ever hurt Annabeth, and he won't. He can't. He can't be like Luke. He can't.

Nico says coldly, "That's what I thought." And releases him, taking two steps back. Percy sways on the spot, stuck between the two of them: Annabeth in the doorway, Nico by the bed.

Nobody says anything. Annabeth's breaths are shallow, short and angry. Percy's neck aches where Nico had been sucking at it, and it will strike him, later, a little deliriously, that this was his biggest concern at the time: that yes, it was going to bruise.

He remembers the feeling, like being on the top of a ferris wheel, knowing the fall had to come but willing to suspend disbelief for a moment, hang it in the sky with the stars -- and now here's the fall, the slide back down with gravity.

Finally, after what seems a long enough time that Percy is pretty sure he's died on the spot three times, Annabeth blinks once, slowly, like a doll.

"Nico," she says, with nothing in her voice. "How long?"

"A month," Nico replies immediately, and Percy wonders just how much his afterlife is going to suck if he kills the only living child of Hades right now. "Though, if it makes you feel better, before me, he was completely celibate."

"Yes, thank you, that makes me feel loads better," says Annabeth with enough sarcasm to scrape paint, which Nico, who has the tact of a polka-dotted elephant, is oblivious to.

And this is exactly what Percy didn't want. He never -- "wanted you to find out like this," he finds himself saying out loud, his voice different, strange even to him, like a creature lost in the dark and reaching. "I never --"

"-- wanted you to find out at all," says Nico, sharp enough that Percy closes his eyes, pain shooting bright everywhere inside of him. "Thought it would ruin your vacation, you know, announcing it to you. Always thinking of Annabeth's well-being, our Percy." He bares his teeth. "Selfless little savior of the world, isn't he?"

"Stop, Nico."

"I almost would have rather he dropped me like a hot potato when you got here, you know," Nico's words tumble faster, Annabeth watching him like she'd watch something with fangs or eight legs. "A month of sleeping together, I think I'd've been happier if he just called it quits then, you know? But I'll take him -- ha, I'll take him even sneaking around, I'll take even half of him if it means I can have him, I thought. Maybe I'm the selfish one, in the end, to not want to share him with you. Everyone has to share him with you, you know -- I just want him."

"I never asked for any of this," Percy puts in, desperate. "If there had been an easier way ... any easier way --"

"Oh, right," cuts in Nico, lightning sharp -- the bleached-bone glint is back in his eyes, the same out-of-control fury he had that day in the bike park, when Percy didn't know who he was dealing with. "You never asked for this. Is that what you said to Charles Beckendorf right before he died for you?"

Annabeth gasps, "Nico!" because even in her shock and her anger she wouldn't cross the line that Nico just crossed, Nico who just says things like that sometimes, and Percy has gone so completely still it's like someone has caught him on freeze frame.

"You tell me," he replies, astonished to find that his voice slips out whisper-quiet, for all the roaring that's inside of him, a great, whirling vortex of noise, of horror. He feels like he could scream and it wouldn't come out any louder than the rustling of the pages of a book. "You're the only who can only make friends with dead people."

"I didn't have a lot of options, as I recall," fires Nico, like he can't help it. "Considering my social circle pretty much collapsed after my sister died for you and your stupid quest to save her!" He jabs his finger at Annabeth, who's quickly draining of color. "It seems to me that everything I love, everything I've ever wanted, I lose to you and your stupid girlfriend!"

The echo of his roar rings in the walls for a long beat. Annabeth makes a noise like she's been stepped on.

Abruptly, all the fight just disappears from Nico's face, like it's been wiped clean, as if by using Bianca to win an argument, he overstepped a boundary within himself that he swore he'd never cross. Now, he's done it, and it's because of Percy. There's sullen resentment in his bony face, but no surprise.

He casts one long, blank look at Percy, like he has no idea who he is, and without a word, he slides sideways into the space between the bed and the bookshelf, disappearing into shadow as if he'd been smudged away by a great eraser.

In the silence that falls, Annabeth releases a shaky sigh, and with it goes all her fight as well.

Wearily, she lifts her head, her eyes flicking back up to his briefly. "There's nothing in your head but kelp," she says to him, and there's no affection in the remark, only a vague kind of disappointment. "I don't know what you were thinking when you tried to get away with this, but you've made a right mess of things."

And then, she's gone too, leaving Percy alone in the quiet of his apartment, the door still -- stupidly -- wide open.

Above his head, the lights buzz. The fridge hums.

It's exactly as it was before the morning he woke up to find Nico standing over him, just him and Tokyo town, only now, somehow, it's a thousand times worse.

Invincibility, Percy finds, doesn't stop his chest from feeling like it's cracked right down the middle, his lungs tight and burning with each breath, everything in him sharp and fragile and glittering painful. He touches his fingers to his sternum, and doesn't understand how it cannot be broken in two pieces like a china plate.

Is this what it's going to be like, being invincible, letting his heart walk off without him in two different directions and not die from it?

He lets his hand fall.

He stares at his tiny, empty apartment for maybe all of thirty seconds before he goes, "Ah, no, crap to this," grabs his keys, and stalks out the door.

 

| --- | --- |

 

He isn't sure what he says to the guards outside Camp Half-Blood; it might have been "good morning" or it might have been some compliment on their aunt's choice in tube socks, but the Japanese are unerringly polite and neither of the young men call him on it, merely bid him good evening and let him through the gates.

Camp Half-Blood is well-lit at night, rushes hanging from the trees and the pathways lined with torches; the play of soft, flickering natural light is jarring after a brisk walk through the florescent neon of Atsugi, and sometimes it's enough to make his head spin like whiplash, the smell of grass and the distant whinnying of the pegasi hitting him when he walks in, when he's gotten so used to the omnipresence of the Tokyo metropolis. Where everything else in his life has changed, the camp remains the same, and Percy thinks he might understand why the gods are so fond of keeping everything the way it's been for centuries: even this little bit of familiarity is comforting.

The tightness in his chest eases off marginally.

He's not so distracted that he doesn't stop by the pit fire at the very heart of the camp to say hello to Hestia, who looks for all the world like Little Orphan Annie in her bare feet and matchstick dress, poking at the fire. Her returning smile is bordering on sympathetic.

"They're just finishing up dinner, Percy Jackson," she informs him, and he bows and heads for the dining pavilion.

Campers are trickling out in groups of twos and threes when he jogs up the last bit of incline to the hall, and he spots the two familiar tall figures as they leave.

He grins.

When Justin Petrowski found out that Justin Corner was his brother, he'd only been at the camp for a week. It was a warm June night in the middle of Thursday's mystery meat dinner, and he'd very famously stood up, turned to a stunned quiet cafeteria, and (although he will deny it until his dying day) said, "What the hell? He and I look nothing alike! This is crap and I demand a refund."

Because it was true. Whereas yes, okay, Justin P. and Justin C. both are dark-haired and blue-eyed, so are thirteen gazillion other boys on the planet, and while it might work in books to walk up to someone who has similar features to you and declare instant familial connection, it certainly doesn't work like that in the real world, and with the exception of their first names, a Y chromosome and, apparently, an Olympian parent, there's nothing Justin P. and Justin C. have in common.

You couldn't have picked two different boys even if you went to the farthest possible reaches of stereotype.

"Hey, man!" Justin P. is the first to notice him; he's fourteen, with limbs that haven't yet gotten the message that they're not supposed to grow so long, and he walks with a hunch to his shoulders like a wire hangar that's been bent out of shape. The only person he doesn't address as "man" or "dude" or "doll" is Dionysus, who once turned him into a chameleon for doing exactly that and made him spend three humiliating days clinging to a branch in the Big House terrarium, eating crickets and sleeping upside down. He's been a vegetarian ever since, which actually wound up working in his favor; he's been going out with a girl from the Demeter cabin for a couple months.

He comes towards Percy, bumping his fist in greeting, and he manages to school his face into something that only moderately approaches hero worship. Percy gets that a lot.

"Justin," Percy nods in return.

"Justin," he adds to Justin C., who's half a step behind his brother, skateboard tucked underneath his arm. He tosses his long, shaggy hair out of his eyes long enough to spare Percy a friendly smile. He's one of the oldest campers who was living year-round before the move, and as far as Percy knows, still the one who had to come the farthest to be here. He left behind an enormous extended family in Hawaii, none of whom understood why it had been so explicit in his mother's will that he go to this camp when she passed on. Sure, strange things always happened when he was around, and he didn't seem to be too quick in school -- unless quick to get in trouble counted -- but Hawaiians look out after their own and it took all the fight Justin C. had in him to get them to let him go, and it's left him probably the most laid-back, mellow half-blood Percy has ever met. He's never seen him in an actual battle outside the camp, but he bets Justin Corner could deter any monster just by sheer chill-factor.

"Man, what brings you here this late?" goes the first Justin, shoving his hands into his pockets, shoulders high up close to his ears. His hair has recently been buzzed close to his skull, and nobody's had the heart to tell him that it wasn't really the fashion anymore.

Percy shrugs and offers them a self-deprecating smile. "I kind of had a crap day," he says, and although he trusts them to uphold the law of brotherhood that says no man shall be forced to confess his troubles while in the presence of other men, he knows they'll be curious. So, what the hell, he can't really muck it up any more. "I had a dentist appointment. And then my girlfriend found out about my boyfriend."

Their eyebrows hit their hairlines in exactly the same way, but to their due credit, they react how he was hoping they would. Justin P. gives him a sturdy, manly clap to the shoulder with a startled laugh of, "Dude, that sucks. Hard. Are we talking about Annabeth here? And -- oh, hey, that Nico kid? Holy Hades, man, how are you still walking around?"

"Grace of the gods," says Percy so dryly he could use his words as flint.

Justin C. lets his skateboard swing down so the back wheels struck against the path. The decal on the bottom of the board is a riot of colors and designs, most of them variations of the logo from his mother's surf shop. Percy gave him a holographic trident sticker for his fourteenth birthday, and he smiles now to see it catch with the torch light. "So are you going to stay with us in cabin three tonight, then?" he asks.

"If that's cool with you guys, yeah, that'd be great."

"Sure thing, man! We'll make it a party." To his brother, "Hey, do we still have that boombox the Hermes cabin nicked from Chiron?"

"I think so," answers the other Justin, smiling tolerantly, and Percy feels some of the tension drain from him. This is something he doesn't ever want to get used to, he decides, as he finds himself with an arm thrown around his neck from either side. Doesn't want the novelty of this to wear off. One Justin's laughing, saying something about going down and putting Dionysus's heart-print boxer shorts on some of the practice dummies and beheading them, and the other snorts, making it sound surprisingly fond, and Percy's content to just stay there, a son of Poseidon on each side of him.

 

| --- | --- |

 

And things are okay.

Things are blessedly simple, and it's okay.

He stays with his younger brothers in cabin three, and they don't ask questions or pry and it's pretty much just like any other summer at camp, when the biggest thing they have to worry about is whether or not they're going to serve real beef at dinner.

They beat up practice dummies with swords. They cheat in the chariot races and get away with it. They play fetch-the-Greek-warrior with Mrs. O'Leary and get yelled at when she pees on the grass roof of the Demeter cabin. They sit on the balcony of the Big House and watch the Aphrodite kids implement a long-proposed plan of ambushing Jennifer Matsueda, the only Ares girl -- she walks around the rest of the day with little hearts draw on her cheeks and pink and purple ribbons strung through her hair, just daring anyone to comment. They take a swim, which for children of Poseidon means messing around at the bottom of the lake for a couple hours, playing hacky-sack with an incredibly unamused polyp.

At seventeen, Percy had been surprised when he came late into the dinner pavilion one summer and found Justin Corner sitting at the Poseidon table, not a day older than Percy had been when he got claimed, and he was a little miffed that he'd missed the actual claiming, but he couldn't say he hadn't been expecting it.

Next summer heralded the arrival of Justin P., who'd been less than pleased to find he didn't even get the novelty of being the first child of Poseidon to be claimed post-termination of the pact, and downright pissed that he didn't even get to have a different first name.

"Most people just call them by their last names," Percy told Poseidon the first time he and Tyson could arrange to be in the same underwater castle at the same time. "But I don't -- it's fun watching them both turn around at the same time when you say their name. They're only a couple months apart, you know, which -- not going to lie -- was pretty dick of you," he added off-handedly, and his father gave him a half-startled, half-amused look that said invincible savior of Olympus or no, he is not above vaporizing him for insolence. "But both of them, Justin? Really?"

Poseidon scratched the end of his nose, embarrassed. "That was purely coincidental," he said. "Also ... ahh ..."

"Don't worry," Percy rolled his eyes, because really. The Olympian gods can be such wussies sometimes. "I haven't told my mom." She knows who you are, he didn't add, because Sally Jackson had already let that ship sail.

"Ah. Yes. Right. Thank you."

One day becomes the next, and then the one after that, and Percy doesn't see hide, hair, or any sign of existence of Nico or Annabeth. Most of his time he spends with his brothers and Serena, Justin P.'s girlfriend from the Demeter cabin, or else doing extra sparring practice with anyone who wants to.

"I think they just need time to cool off, Percy," Serena tells him as he helps her tend to the flower boxes on her cabin's windowsills.

"Or they've put their heads together and are coming up with a plan on how best to chop you in your sleep and hide you in the walls," puts in Justin P. unhelpfully, and the rest of the afternoon dissolves into a tussle that winds up including Serena and the other Justin, plus about 2/3 of the Hermes cabin, two pegasi, and an inner tube.

And he's fine. He really is. Except for the part where when he says he's fine, he means it in the way that he'll say he's full when really he's just not hungry, or when he knows that he'll have an impressive bruise and trouble breathing for a week, but he's alive, so all of that's okay, all of that he can handle.

It's an empty comfort.

 

| --- | --- |

 

Back in the old days, the Stoll brothers set up a couple deck chairs by the lakeshore, mostly as a prank for new campers -- nothing presented a bigger target than a half-blood just kind of lying out in the open like a sacrificial lamb. The Stoll brothers elected to stay behind when Olympus moved to Japan, saying that America was going to need a sense of humor to get them through, and they were more than happy to deliver, and nobody had the heart to take the deck chairs back to the Big House. There aren't as many monsters stocked in the forests at camp anymore -- not now that most people are there year-round, because going for a walk with Mrs. O'Leary and having to fight off a dozen giant spiders gets obnoxious after the sixth time -- so when Percy plops down on one of the chairs and leans back into the sunshine, the only thing that bothers him is one of the naiads from the lake, who slinks close to the shore and squirts a stream of water at him when she thinks she'll catch him off guard. Percy lazily deflects each attack, and eventually she gives up, muttering about how boring Poseidon kids are.

And that's how he is, half-drowsing in the early afternoon with a souped-up mp3 player he nicked from the youngest Hephaestus kid, when a shadow falls across him and a voice says -- loud enough to be heard over his music, "So! Half-blood! I hear you've been star-crossed in love."

He cracks an eye open, and groans half-heartedly; Rachel Elisabeth Dare is standing over him, leaning over the back of the chair, her face large and upside-down in his vision. The sun haloed behind her head makes it look like her red hair is made of glowing paper machete. An engineer's cap sits on top of all of this at a jaunty angle.

"Hello, Rachel," he says in as mild a tone as he can manage, hoping it's sufficiently discouraging without coming off as unfriendly.

Rachel, of course, ignores him, coming around to drop heavily down on the deck chair beside him, chin propped up on the heel of her hand, fixing him with an expectant look. This, he decides, is how he knows who his real friends are -- they're the ones who completely disregard the subtle hints that he wants to be alone.

He gives Rachel a lazy once-over. Per usual, she is impeccably dressed; the clothes cutting smooth across her sharp curves are the type he doesn't see anywhere outside of the runways of Tokyo or on the racks of the most expensive stores in the Shibuya 109. She always manages to stay one step ahead of the latest fashion trend -- which, he supposes, duh.

"That's what Aphrodite told me when I was thirteen, so yeah, I guess it's true. But what --" he needles, "-- does the virgin Oracle of Delphi care about my love life?"

"Absolutely nothing!" she says brightly and sarcastically. "Since, as you say, she is a virgin and therefore knows absolutely nothing about love, the poor thing. Give me a break." She leans forward, steepling her fingers together; he almost expects her to ask him to call her "doctor." "You're no fun when you're moping."

"I am not moping!" he says indignantly. "I am going through a break-up and am being suitably depressed about it. I am so sorry if this inconveniences you."

"Yes, well, your little brothers seem to be under the impression that they should be worried you're going to step in front of the fast train."

"I -- what," he splutters, yanking his headphones out of his ears and sitting up. "No! No, not at all! First of all, that wouldn't even work. Look, if there's anything that's really depressing, there you have it -- even if I wanted to kill myself, which is stupid anyway because how does that solve anything, I wouldn't be able to do it. My Achilles' heel isn't anywhere that makes it really convenient for me to off myself."

He sees her run quickly through all the places that implies his vulnerable spot is, and lets her, because she blushes almost as furiously as Nico does.

She manages a half-hearted leer, though, and then says, softly and seriously, "I know that, Percy. I've seen your death," she looks at him steadily, her eyes as blue as the sky beyond her head, focused and clear. "And you don't kill yourself."

"Thank you. I'm glad that narrows it down so much," Percy replies dryly, but he returns her look, and he knows they're both remembering the last time she said that exact same thing to him; the first and only time he'd ever felt that maybe, maybe, if he really tried, he could. The autumn after the fall of Kronos and the death of Luke, when the long, lazy joy of summer and surviving was wearing off and he was looking at many, many, prophecy-less years ahead of him and realizing he had no idea what to do with himself. That was the autumn Annabeth returned to San Francisco, when her sister first started getting sick more often than usual. That was the autumn he met Charles Beckendorf's mother at La Guardia, and until the day he dies he will remember her face when she realized that it was true, it was true, her only son was dead, remember how she just started collapsing inwards, like everything inside of her that had held her up was coming undone. That was the autumn he went around feeling like he'd swallowed a razor blade; he could feel it, tearing his throat apart with grief, with guilt -- knowing that people like Beckendorf, like Silena, like Ethan, died because they believed he was worth dying for, and he was only then starting to realize that no, no, he really wasn't, he really was nothing special at all.

Rachel had showed up unannounced on his doorstep mid-September, eyes some hazy mix of blue and gold, saying, Percy. I've seen your death. It's not here. It's not now. You don't kill yourself. Now come on, pick up your sword. Let's go lop heads off monsters or whatever it is you men need to do to work out your feelings.

He leans forward, too, so that they're in each other's space. "How have things been with you, though?" he asks, a lot more gently. "I can't imagine it's been easy."

She smiles thinly. "They ask me to keep my eye on a lot of things, Percy. A lot of the time, I feel like I'm in two places at once -- the gods ask me, quietly but urgently, what's going on with their enemies and whether or not I see them striking while we're still settling in. They ask me how their children are doing, back in the States, if they're safe. Half-bloods here ask me how their parents are, their friends, their siblings -- the people they left behind in that place. I don't know if you've been listening, Percy, but things are bad there, and only getting worse, and I can scarcely control what I do see."

Percy closes his eyes against the exhaustion in her voice, thinking, unbidden, of his mother, the morning his plane left, and the tremble in her hands when she held his face and kissed him good-bye, and he hopes with a kind of hope that's threadbare from use that the next letter he gets with a Manhattan zip code isn't from the government, regretting to inform him.

When he opens them again, she's still smiling at him. "So, in comparison, the petty drama of your love life is a very nice change."

He laughs at that. "Yes, well, don't tell Aphrodite her plan at making things difficult for me is going so well. She'll probably go right on over to her friends at CLAMP and tell them all about it and I'll never hear the end of it."

Her lips curve into a wicked grin, "I would die to see you the tragic hero of a CLAMP manga." Ignoring his spluttering, she turns her head and stares at something in the middle distance. He's about to follow her gaze to see what's got her attention, when her eyes flare gold, and then she stands, saying, "Well, your time of reckoning is coming up, Percy, so don't screw it up, all right?"

And then she's gone, leaving him still leaning forward part-way next to the lake, mp3 player in a pool of wire next to him.

That's how Justin P. finds him, a little while later; sitting there, looking faintly bemused and trying to figure out what the heck just happened. When he looks up, his brother's standing in front of him, hands in his pockets and shoulders bunched uncomfortably close to his ears. "Um," he goes, trying to look sympathetic and mostly just coming off relieved, like, hey, your problem now, man. "There's someone you ought to talk to. They're back by the cabin."

"... Right," is all Percy can manage, and he pushes himself up off the deck chair, collecting his shoes and heading off. Behind him, he hears the naiad pop her head out of the lake in order to squirt a stream of water at Justin P., whose indignant yelps follow him until he's out of sight.

When he rounds Zeus's cabin and almost trips over a peacock that's pecking despondently around Hera's, he wishes heartily that he'd just stayed by the lakeside, Rachel Elisabeth Dare and overfriendly naiads or no, because Annabeth is leaning against the cabin door, her arms crossed and her head down, but he'd recognize the worn Yankees cap anywhere, placed just barely on top of her head but not pulled down, making her still visible.

He gulps.

She looks up, and he forgets, immediately, about everything else.

Her hair is gone.

She takes a step towards him, lifting her cap up off her head and twisting it between her hands like she's trying to wring something out of it, and he approaches slowly, blinking and trying to reconcile the familiar face with the hair; whole feet of it severed off so that it feathers against the tops of her ears. It's like whole features of her face have changed; he notices, now, just how many freckles pepper her nose and cheeks, just how thin her mouth looks when she has her lips pursed -- things her hair hid before.

"I did not --" she begins, haltingly, and then looks annoyed with herself. She puts her hands on her hips, glares at him, and says in a much stronger voice, "I did not come all this way to see Japan by myself."

"-- Okay," he says, brilliantly.

The annoyance becomes more pronounced, and he's all right with this: he's used to identifying about seven different kinds of annoyed-Annabeth, so at least he's in familiar territory. "So," she says. "So come on. Put a shirt on. We're going somewhere."

"Okay," he says, thinking he might have agreed to sign over his firstborn or something if it meant she wouldn't run him through with his own sword or castrate him. "Where are we going?"

She hops down off the steps of cabin three. "I," she announces. "Want to see the maids in Akihabara."

 

| --- | --- |

 

It's surprisingly uncrowded for a weekday afternoon, and when they pass the tall, willowy Japanese girls dressed up as French maids handing out promotional fliers on the street corners, Percy can get away with half-turning around as they walk away, watching the girls without being afraid that he'll mow some little old lady over. Besides. It's Akihabara. You can't come to Akihabara and not turn your heads for the maids, especially when in heels, they're as tall as Percy is, only Percy has never looked that good in a pinafore and stockings.

When he faces front again -- just in time to stop himself from making a very personal introduction to a bike rack -- it's to find Annabeth looking right at him, an eyebrow ironically arched. He almost forgets it's her, with the short hair, and he scowls preemptively. Her point is immediately obvious, and he'd been wondering the entire walk to the train station -- making stilted conversation about what there all was to do in Akihabara, besides staring at the maids -- and the silent train ride, when this moment was going to come.

He digs the heels of his hands into his eyeballs. "By the gods," he goes, grimacing. "Are all my actions suddenly suspect, and is there any possible way I can delay this conversation?"

"Which conversation?" replies Annabeth, with the acid bite she'd once used to tell him he drooled in his sleep, way back in the beginning, when they were, like, eleven. "The one where you try to explain to your girlfriend that you'll ogle the maids in Akihabara like any other guy, and she'll smack you upside the head, and you both laugh about it and pretend that there was never a boy at home, and you've kind of seen him naked and oh, yeah, kind of like having sex with him a lot. No, by all means, let's go on not talking about that."

He continues making unpleasant faces, feeling suddenly very small. "Are the Justins right? Are you two plotting to chop me up into little pieces and feed me to the first monsters you can find?"

"Don't think I didn't consider it, but even I don't hate monsters enough to subject them to that."

Percy gives her a look, and her eyebrows come down. "Don't look at me like that," she scowls. "That kicked-puppy look. That doesn't work on anyone above the age of sixteen."

"Is this the only reason you wanted to go to Akihabara?" he demands, veering into her slightly so that they'll change direction in order to casually circle the block again. "So you could yell at me in public?"

"Yes," she answers instantly, eyes darting impulsively to the side as they pass a kiosk selling solar-powered cell phones -- a thoughtful look crosses her face, before she remembers that she's supposed to be yelling at him. "Because you've got a sea sponge for a brain and you deserve a good, long rant. But I also did kind of want to see the maids." He blinks at her, and she shrugs. "What? They're stronger women than I am, to stand around in an outfit like that all day."

"Japanese women are built like Mack trucks," he remarks. "They do the physically impossible, like, every day. I've seen one hike a mountain in high heels, it was ridiculous."

She can't seem to help the smile she flashes him at that, and oh, it shouldn't make him feel as good as it does, like something off-kilter is beginning to straighten out, and if he's never known before just how much Annabeth's opinion means to him, here's a very good reminder.

"Percy," she goes, more seriously, and okay, good feeling's gone. "I wanted to hear your side of the story. I think I deserve to know why, all things considered."

"Just so you know, if you try to make this one big, long discussion about feelings, I will step off the curb into oncoming traffic, don't think I won't."

"The only way you're going into oncoming traffic is if I push you," she returns, deadpan. "Stop trying to change the subject."

"I'm not!" he goes indignantly. They've gone four-square around the block again; they both slow their stride so they can amble casually past the maids for a second time. "I just -- I don't know what you want from me, Annabeth."

"Well, I wanted a faithful boyfriend, but failing that, I want an honest friend. Why did you do it?"

"Why I'd do what? Sleep with Nico di Angelo, after having not seen my girlfriend in over a year and not knowing if I'd ever see her -- all while living alone in a foreign country? Yeah, why would I possibly do that?"

She glances away, sharply, tilting her head like she's trying to shake her hair into her face to hide it, but it doesn't work and she just kind of winds up staring blankly at the sidewalk. She doesn't look surprised, like she'd maybe been expecting that, but now that she'd heard it, she wasn't sure if she could take it. Then the familiar Annabeth look sparks in her eyes and she says, "In no way is this my fault. Okay, I get it, Percy. I can understand why you'd start it. I have been off the face of the earth. But what hurts me the most is that you continued it after I got here. You strung both of us along, for what? Just because you could?"

"No --" he starts, helpless in the face of a train wreck.

"Then why!" she cries. They aren't even pretending to stroll anymore -- they've stopped outside a five-story anime and manga shop, with pedestrians just flowing around them, eyes politely averted from the colorless palor of Percy's face and the red fury on Annabeth's. "You can't have both of us, you selfish prat, not even if you're Percy-stinking-Jackson, okay! I can't speak for Nico, but I came here in love with you, and loving Japan, and loving that you loved Japan, and thinking that maybe I could work something out, and meanwhile, you're playing both me and -- and -- and, Percy, it's Nico; he fought with us in New York -- just like ... like, what, you're trying to figure out which one of us you like better? Just trying us on like we're socks and you're trying to match us to an outfit, what --"

He holds his hand up sharply, cutting her off before she can start, feeling ill. "Don't even ask me to compare the two of you. Gods, no, I don't want to start that."

The surprised look is back, her grey eyes flinting with it. "You mean you don't think about how the two of us are different?" she goes in a flat voice, inviting him to take a step back and look at the ridiculousness of that statement.

"Of course I do," he snaps. "It's impossible not to. I mean -- gods, really? -- I don't exactly have a lot to compare you with, now do I? Like, you're different, duh, of course, but it's not like I'm cataloguing every single thing you do that Nico doesn't. Or visa versa. I'm not sizing you up." It's out before he can stop it, and he can feel the color working itself up his neck, because, no. Is he really talking about this? "It's just -- you're Annabeth, you know. And .... and he's Nico."

She blinks at him owlishly. "You don't have a lot to compare it to," she echoes, almost questioningly.

The red spreads across his face. He can feel it, and he might just step out into traffic, he really might. "No." And, hell, what pride has he got to lose anymore? "It's kind of always just been you." Well, except that one time with Clarisse, but both of them still have decades to go and about ten levels of maturity to reach before they'll ever admit to it, and wow, is he really thinking about that right now?

She blinks again. And stares.

"And Nico," he adds eventually, because yeah.

"And Nico."

He nods. Thinks about it for a second. "And Grover, too, I suppose, though we've kind of drifted apart lately."

She looks at him, blank-struck with horror.

He hastens to correct, "Not that he and I were -- no! Crap -- urk, ack -- no! I mean, he was really, really important in my life, too, but not like that. Um, no. For one, Juniper would do something unspeakable to me if I tried it, like -- I don't know -- trim my hedges into sexually suggestive shapes. If I had hedges. Second, issues with gender aside, I like to stay in my own species --"

And with that, Annabeth pivots and steps deliberately into oncoming traffic.

Granted, she steps into a zebra crossing on the walk sign, because she's a daughter of Athena and they have impeccable timing like that.

 

| --- | --- |

 

All in all, it kind of sucks all the fun out of a day trip, and they poke around in the massive anime shop for something for Annabeth's half-brother, sure, but after that, they both kind of agree they've had enough, and even though it's barely even afternoon, they head back for the station

The train sways over the tracks, the people swaying right along with it. Percy counts the stops in his head. Annabeth's bag is in her lap, her head the lightest weight on his shoulder. He smiles and debates telling her just how many young, Japanese girls are coveting her blonde hair while her head is down and she's not paying attention.

But before he can, she asks him, softly, like she doesn't want to disturb the waters anymore, "What are you going to do?"

"What do you mean?"

Her voice is quiet and almost lost under the automated announcement, telling them in three different languages what the next stop was. "You can't hide out in cabin three for the rest of your life, Percy."

He opens his mouth, and then closes it, because he knows what she's telling him and he's put an incredible amount of effort the past few days (okay, who he is kidding, this choice has been hovering over him since Annabeth showed up) into ignoring the fact he's going to have to choose. It could be any choice -- a big one, a small one, one as simple as deciding if he's going to talk to Nico if he sees him again, a choice as simple as asking Annabeth if they're broken up yet, or if maybe he can be forgiven.

Instead of answering, he pulls on her sleeve as the train slows to a halt. "Come on, we have to transfer to another line."

They step out onto the platform with a wash of other Japanese people, and he leads them through the underground warren of tunnels. Behind him, Annabeth is expectantly silent, and when they pass a small, slimy-looking scorpion monster crouched under a drinking fountain, she shoots it a glare, simply daring it to try and attack them -- she was going to have this conversation now, dammit, and gods help anything that tried to stop her.

The monster clicks its pincers nervously and skulks back into the shadows in a nonchalant manner.

When they join the small crowd of people waiting for the next train, he catches her wrist in his hand. "Can I ask you something?" he asks her with calm seriousness.

Her eyes flicker over his face. "Percy?" she answers in that "I am a daughter of Athena and if you're going to ask me some really dumb question, kelp head, I will smack you" voice she uses with him often.

"When we were younger, would you have given me a second glance if you weren't so obsessed with the Great Prophecy? If the half-blood in the prophecy hadn't been me, would you have even cared?"

Annabeth snaps a fierce look at him, insulted, but it softens almost imperceptibly, seeing something in Percy's face that throws her off, some clue that tells her he's thought about this, thought about it before, thought about it often. It's been bothering him for a long time. "That's not fair," she says quietly.

He nods. "No, I know. You're my best friend --" best friend, not girlfriend, comes out before he can stop it, and he can tell by the flash in her eyes that it doesn't pass her notice. "It's just. Sometimes I wonder, you know." Would Annabeth had been his best friend (his girlfriend!) if she hadn't sworn on the river Styx that she would fight her hardest at the side of the half-blood from the prophecy? Would she have chosen him, if he'd been any other half-blood? If Luke hadn't died?

Would she have loved him, if she hadn't needed him?

She continues to look at him, her eyes shadowed, and he squeezes her wrist gently and lets go. "Sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you by asking." Here, he huffs a laugh. "I don't know, man, maybe I am gay. Boys take a hell of a lot less figuring out."

"Not from this side, it's not," she remarks, tone dry. "Is that why you did it? Seeing both of us at the same time, I mean. Because you don't know?"

He sighs. "You know, I think I'd rather tap dance naked in front of my fifth grade class than have this conversation."

"Tough," she goes, unsympathetic, but her lips are twitching.

"I don't know, Annabeth. Maybe. Is it so hard to believe that I didn't know what I was thinking? Maybe I just didn't want to give either of you up. I still don't." The last is said quietly, to the concrete at their feet and the broad yellow line that marks where they should stand when a train is approaching.

She regards him thoughtfully for a moment. "It's not that hard to figure out," she ventures, and when he blinks at her, she elaborates, "Which you like better, boys or girls. It's not that hard."

"Oh?"

She steps in, and his body reacts without his conscious thought, so used to her it doesn't need to be told, turning so that her hips fit into the cradle of his, their sides companionably pressed together. "Kiss me."

He swallows. "What?"

She smiles, still, but her eyes are dead serious. "It's as easy as that. Kiss me, Percy."

She lifts a hand, fingers coming to rest on his shoulders, and in return, he grips her waist. He doesn't mean to, but when she leans in, he leans back, and yes, it is as easy as that, and their mouths are sliding together, and then they're kissing, tongues gingerly tracing the outline of each other's mouths.

Screw the Japanese, he thinks, pulling her closer. Screw them and their silly notions about PDA, I don't care, and Annabeth licks against the roof of his mouth and he fists his hands in her hair, the ends short and spiky against his knuckles. He moans, gripping harder and pulling her head to the side so he can kiss down her jaw to her throat, dragging his teeth across the point where her pulse beats out at him. The skin is smooth, her neck a pale column, and it's jarring for a moment: her hair is short like a boy's, but this is a girl's throat, and in that second-long pause, she pulls away, stepping out of his arms.

Her eyes are knowing. "See?" she says, reaching up to brush her hair back into place, her mouth curved in irony at how short it is, and he thinks he knows, now, why she cut it. Her eyes are wide and glittering hard.

"I --" he tries, helpless, but she quells him with a look.

They stand together in silence. A train comes and goes; it might have been the one they wanted, he has no idea. A train claiming to be heading right for the Elysium Fields could have trundled right up playing Here Comes the Sun and he wouldn't have noticed a thing.

People move around them; men with briefcases banging against their knees, boys weaving effortlessly between people with eyes never flickering from the screens of their phones. Women standing on the platform, animatedly bobbing their heads, shopping bags clustered at their feet like puppies. Schoolchildren balanced back on their heels in clean black shoes, backpacks sitting in front of them. He envies them for one impossible moment, and then he doesn't. He's wanted a lot of things in his life, but normal hasn't been one of them.

He forces out a strained laugh. "You know, I think this makes me the first famous queer hero. I wonder if they'll make an action figure of me."

"Don't be ridiculous," she replies, sounding equally strangled, and doesn't say what's ridiculous: the queer part or the action figure part. "You haven't read the uncensored version of the Illiad, have you? I found a copy once in a box in Dionysus's closet that had been labelled 'knitting patterns.'"

That's just ... what "-- were you doing in Dionysus's closet?"

She gave him the patient look all half-bloods have patented, the "don't ask if you really don't want to know the answer" look, and his jaw clicks shut. She sighs, "It doesn't matter, Percy."

"What doesn't, the fact that I'm queer or that Dionysus has ye olde pornography in his closet? Because that is horribly disturbing, not going to lie."

Her face takes on that particularly exasperated twist it does when she thinks he's being thick-headed. "We're Greek, Percy. We'd run the whole line of disturbing and kinky before disturbing and kinky had even been invented, okay. Unspeakable vice, and all that. You're not the first, not by a long shot, and you're certainly not the last. No one's going to judge you too hard."

Abruptly, it's too much. It's that thought -- the idea that he's going to have to tell other people, and suddenly Percy wants to be very, very far away. Just to not be here anymore, not in his own skin, but his skin doesn't seem inclined to listen to him, and when he pivots on one heel and strides off, it comes with him, willful as a lamb.

As far as dramatic exits go, it's pretty pathetic, since Annabeth ruins it by giving chase immediately, planting herself firmly in front of him so he can't go anywhere.

"Look, you dolt," she says, hands held up to stop him, the shopping bag from Akihabara swinging from her wrist. "All I'm saying is that there's no rush. I'm not expecting you to suddenly start marching in the Gay Parade or come out to your mom --" Percy closes his eyes in horror, because that's something he wants to do around the time of oh, never. "Just ... isn't it better to know?"

He says nothing, still desperately wanting to be elsewhere, and it's a cold rush of relief when the next train pulls in. His aborted attempt to flee means they've given up any chance of getting a seat, and they wind up having to hold onto the rungs, standing over a group of tiny, toothless old ladies who have absolutely no problem staring covetously at Annabeth's blonde hair, even when she's staring right back.

Eventually, after a long while of just swaying with the train, watching housing complexes and businesses glide past the window with the clattering of the tracks, he says into her ear, "You know, Annabeth, sometimes... oh, crap, I don't know, sometimes I think that I just want something for myself, something that has nothing to do with me being a half-blood or savior of the world."

"Savior?" she echoes. "That's a little much, don't you think?"

Please don't tell me you actually refer to yourself as the savior of the world, echoes Nico's voice in his head.

"You helped. A little," he allows, rather generously.

Slowly, she sets her bag down between her feet and turns to face him, still holding onto the rung with one hand. "So... are you trying to tell me that you just want something that makes you happy? That's all you need?"

Percy nods, and it stays there, unspoken but as obvious as if it has a foam finger and its own marching band, that that something just might be Nico, who has wanted Percy since he was thirteen years old, and doesn't hate Percy because he's a half-blood, or a son of Poseidon, but who hates him because he's an idiot.

Annabeth keeps on looking at him. "Since when did you start being wise?"

It's enough, suddenly -- not exactly a white flag, a truce, or permission, but it's close enough, and he wraps an arm around her shoulders. "I learned from the best."

 

| --- | --- |

 

Nico doesn't come to Camp Half-Blood.

Hestia hasn't seen him in weeks.

Rachel just gives him a hazy, mysterious smile, and he doesn't even bother finishing his question. When he turns to stalk out of the Big House, feeling like there should be a little cartoon scribble of frustration hanging above his head, she calls after him, sweetly informing him that next time he goes for a hike at Mt. Fuji, he should take a water bottle with him -- it's important to stay properly hydrated.

Chiron attempts to give him a knowing look, but Percy stares deliberately at some point below and a little to the left of Chiron's ear and just nods when told that he is as free to teach as many combat courses as he thinks he can handle, and not to worry, most young people go through something similar, it was probably to be expected that it would make a late start in -- and he doesn't listen to a word beyond that.

Nico hasn't been to the apartment, either. Percy only stops in long enough to make sure the milk still smells all right, to water the neglected-looking plant they got in Hase, and to check. Just in case.

He's not even home for five minutes before he turns right around and goes down to the front desk. Borrowing the lobby phone, he calls Chris's house and gets a faintly puzzled, "-- Percy? Are you okay?" in reply to his questions. He hasn't seen Nico, either, but he'll keep an eye out, and finally Percy gets so fed up with the concern that he hangs up without saying thank you.

On a whim, he goes so far as to go down to the 7-11 where they got the tuna onigiri that Nico had been so fond of and asks the cashier girl if she's seen him. She blinks at him several times, so he pauses, thinks about what he's saying, and this time his Japanese doesn't come out so jumbled and dyslexic. By the time he's gone through it again -- "Please, please, it's important to me that I find him, have you seen him?" -- he's roped the other cashier and four of the costumers into the saga. Even with the base nearby, white boys are not a common occurrence in this neighborhood and nobody remembers seeing one fitting Nico's description.

"You should e-mail him," goes the cashier, holding up her cell phone. Percy's not sure if he's ever seen her without it glued to some part of her anatomy. The others all nod. "Yes, you should use your phone. If he doesn't answer his calls, text him. Send him an e-mail. Look his address up. You're not out of options."

"Do it now," suggests one of the costumers, and again, all the heads around him bob like flowers disturbed by a breeze.

"I would if I could, trust me, but I don't actually have a cell phone," he shrugs, and they all look at him like he's announced he'd been born without a cerebral cortex, but it's okay, the empty space is only a little drafty, really.

He rolls his eyes. The Japanese are incredibly attached to those things, but Percy is personally more attached to his head, which is what he'll lose if he uses one. (There's Annabeth's super-mystical one, of course, but that plan only actually worked if Nico had a cell phone, too.)

If Nico wants to be found, he's sure not making it easy, and Percy leaves the 7-11 no better off than he was yesterday.

He has no idea where to find him. The thing is, he never asked. He never considered he would have to know.

It kind of feels like he's drowning in the River Styx all over again -- not so much the blinding, overwhelming pain, more the feeling that there's nothing there, forward or behind him, and he's reaching out for that lifeline he made for himself, but it's not there, and he keeps pulling into nothing.

 

| --- | --- |

 

Percy doesn't know Nico all that well, not really, not when he thinks about it. That's part of the reason he was in this mess, he supposes -- there are facets of Nico he never knew existed, and he's been catching glimpses of each one. Every time they're together, he sees something new, some messy, kaleidoscopic part of him, dark and bright all at once, and he doesn't know enough to put the entire mosaic together, but he knows enough.

He knows Nico wouldn't say please or thank you if his life depended on it. He thinks he has to be recklessly brave, not understanding that courage doesn't equal being stupidly and blindly confident -- not because he wants to be a hero, but because he wants to prove that he's not a coward like Hades was -- he wants to prove that if the prophecy had been about him, that he could have made the right choice.

And when he disappears, leaves, goes off to be alone, it's not because he wants to be alone. Nobody wants that; it's stupid, backwards, and probably the most human thing he knows of, to run away from people when you're actually kind of fond of them. It's wanting to know who's going to come after you.

"I'm trying, you idiot," he mutters to the ceiling of cabin three one night, shadows long and stretching between the beams. "But you need to give me something to go on."

 

| --- | --- |

 

Just the once, he dreams of Nico, standing knee-deep in field of tea leaves, Mt. Fuji white-capped in the background. His shoulders are bare, half-crescents from Percy's fingernails dark against his pale skin. He's shouting at a woman whose back is to him, "I won't, I won't do it, I can't leave it alone!" And the woman just sighs, gathering the folds of her kimono into her arms as she picks through the field.

He wakes up, the details retreating and strange in a way that makes him think that maybe it was just a normal dream, and not the voodoo-sleepwalking dreams he gets as a half-blood.

He's at lunch, scraping off a quarter of his sandwich into the fire, offering -- as always -- to Hestia, who still keeps his hope close and warm in the hearth, and to Poseidon, and -- this time -- to Aphrodite, which is less a prayer and more of a heartfelt and disgruntled plea for her to stop screwing with him, when he hears sandals coming flip-flapping up the aisles between the tables. It's almost sad, he thinks, that he can recognize Annabeth by how she runs.

There aren't a lot of people in the cafeteria, and Annabeth dashing up to him can't compete with the pet tarantula Kitty Lane, daughter of Aphrodite, just got from her boyfriend who works at the pet shop one station down in Sagami Ono, so she only merits a couple vanity glances as she stops, panting, next to Percy at the fire pit.

Percy takes a bite out of his carrot stick and waits, and when she anti-climatically just stands there, catching her breath, he offers, "Sorry. Were you waiting for an 8-bit choir?"

"Oh, shut up," she bites out, and steals his glass, asking it to please be cherry coke (it doesn't, however, stop being blue, and he doesn't know if that says more about him or about her.) She downs it.

"You all right now?"

"Shut up, Percy, before I change my mind and run you through with your own sword."

"You wouldn't dare," Percy says loftily. "You'd miss me."

"Not as much as I'd appreciate the peace and quiet," she retorts. "Now. Listen. I just got a call from Malcolm, and he was just on Olympus, and he said that Persephone was just there, reporting to Zeus about the escape of a fear demon from the Underworld, and that it's running around on the slopes of Mt. Fuji. And when I say demon, I mean imminent destruction of mortal life kind of scary big monster, rawr. Likes chewing on people, or cooking them extra crispy."

This is all said really fast.

"Okay?" Percy blinks at her. "Rachel hasn't announced a Quest."

"No, you idiot, because Malcolm said that Persephone told her dad that Nico's already been dispatched to take care of it."

"And you ran all the way here to tell me this?" Percy inquires, but he's standing up straighter, unthinkingly putting his plate somewhere to the side -- it disappears into the fire with a great whoosh, and he takes a brief, unrelated moment to mourn it: he hadn't even gotten to enjoy his sandwich.

Annabeth looks exasperated. "Percy, the fact that Malcolm came down to the mortal world to call me to tell me to get my ass over to camp as quickly as possible to tell you that Persephone sent Nico to Mt. Fuji to single-handedly slaughter a demon doesn't say anything about how much we care and want you to be happy?"

"Er," goes Percy, because there were way too many steps involved in that. "No, but thank you, I guess."

"Ugh, you are such a boy. Percy, you and Nico are probably the worst-kept secret at camp, if you're even that. Do you know how many people have come up to me and asked me if I know that you're dating -- oh, don't flinch, you pansy, you totally are, I saw the big Stitch plushie. The boy is harder to find than good shoes after Labor Day, so if you don't take this chance to talk to him now, we will find some suitable way to make you pay."

"What, you want me to go ... what, hash-out our problems while he's on a Quest?"

"Well, what were you going to do instead? Send him a carrier pigeon? Fighting monsters is probably the best way to get to him."

"You know, Paris said something similar about Helen, and look how that turned out."

"The difference is, Nico does not have the face to launch a thousand ships. Or a dress." They grimace in the same instant at that mental image. "And most of the half-bloods here don't even know him, but if he's important to you, then he's important to them." The look she gives him, then, tells him she has not forgotten the conversation they had in Akihabara -- that Nico just might be the thing that makes him happy. "They love you a lot here, you know."

Percy scratches at the back of his neck, because really, what was there to say to that?

Annabeth's eyes soften. "I don't want to go home knowing that you're here, unhappy."

Oh. That's right. His eyes snap up. "When do you leave?"

"Two days from now." She looks annoyed, like she expected him to already know that, but it's perfunctory at best, and it fades quickly into something else. "Jake told me to bring home some Japanese cell phones so we can work on constructing blocked-signal phones for you guys, but I don't know how I'm going to swing that -- importing stuff into the United States is hell these days."

"Take model ones," says Percy instantly, after remembering -- oh, yeah, Jake Mason, son of Hephaestus, lives close to Annabeth, and he ignores the jerk in his stomach, because he forfeited his right to be jealous. "Er, 'borrow' model ones with no intent to return. You know the ones they have out on display at the kiosks and stuff? They don't actually work, but they're the real thing. Take one of those -- it's very easy to do. We can hit up the department store if you want."

"We are not," Annabeth replies, though she looks thoughtful. "You, mister, need to go right now and help a son of Hades vanquish a fear demon. I did not just run all this way here just so you could turn me around to go steal cell phones from a department store."

Percy opens his mouth to retort, but is struck, abruptly, with what she's doing for him. The girlfriend he cheated on is helping him find the boy he cheated on her with.

He stares at her one long moment, then another, and then -- unable to help it -- he rocks forward, grabbing her face between his hands and kissing her square and flat on the mouth. "You are the most amazing person I know," he tells her, and though he means it as a simple statement, it comes out sounding a lot more complex, like he's saying a dozen things all at once.

"Yeah, yeah," she waves him off, looking pleased, color high on her cheeks. "So you owe me, Seaweed Brain. What else is new?"

 

| --- | --- |

 

Annabeth hadn't bothered waiting for Malcolm to give her details before she went cavorting off to find Percy, so she has to call him back, celestial cell phone tucked between her ear and her shoulder as she yanks the barest essentials of armor over Percy's torso and helps him do up the straps -- they decided it would be best to dress for speed, and just cover that one important spot at the small of his back.

Malcolm reports that the last place both the demon and Nico were spotted was the fifth station -- which one, Percy asks, because there are five fifth stations located at various points around the circumference of Mt. Fuji from where you can start a hike to the summit -- right, um, the lowest one -- that's Gotenba, then. The Gotenba fifth station -- yeah, okay, whatever, says Malcolm, who spends too much time in Olympus to really know his way around Japan. Just go get him, yeah?

Persephone and Hermes went to clear the stations of tourists and hikers as best they could, so if they're lucky, they shouldn't have to go rescue too many mortals in distress. It depended on how hungry the demon is.

"This is sounding more cheerful by the minute," he remarks to Annabeth after she reports this.

Jennifer Matsueda's standing just outside the armory with Blackjack's reins in hand, and she meets his startled look with a flat one of her own. "The fear demon is one of my half-brother's creations," she informs him. "Phobos told me that it lives on a diet of personal nightmares and usually moves from one victim to the next, hounding them doggedly until they go insane, which is when it feeds. You can outsmart it, though -- Phobos doesn't believe so much in intelligence in his pets."

For a second, he's so surprised he can't say anything. Then --

"Won't your brother be pissed you told me that?"

Her eyes flash. "Take care of the demon, Percy. I'll handle my brother."

"... Thank you, Jennifer," he goes, genuinely touched, and is rewarded with the faintest of smiles.

"You're lucky," she tells him abruptly, with a look on her face like she hasn't meant to say it. "That you have people who care about you this much."

He thinks, briefly, of bathing in the River Styx; of Annabeth reaching out to him through the pain, of Nico waiting on the shore. He thinks of everyone at camp, and the little ways they all look out after each other.

"So do you," he replies as honestly as possible, and jumps onto Blackjack's back.

All right, boss! goes the pegasus with adolescent delight. Monster butt-kicking time, like the good old days! Only with fewer Titans, because they're messy.

"Yes, yes, they are."

It takes a lot longer than he anticipates to fly to Mt. Fuji -- for all that it's an ever-present hulk on the horizon, it never does seem to get any closer. Gotenba has the advantage of being the closest fifth station to where Camp Half-Blood is, but he can see the mote of the sun dip to kiss the Kanto plain just as they go swooping down to earth.

Gotenba fifth station looks eerie deserted -- the bus-park nothing but an open expanse of blacktop, the shops all closed up, the restaurant silent. It makes the figures out in the gravel pathways that much easier to spot.

Nico he recognizes immediately -- dark hair and mismatched sneakers, crouched down beside two unconscious middle-aged Japanese men, whose jeans are streaked with mud from being dragged across the terrain and whose faces have lost all color. If it wasn't for the fretful rise and fall of their chests, Percy would have thought they were dead.

Nico leaps to his feet when Blackjack makes his landing, cantering a few steps to kill momentum, and before Percy gets a chance to get a word in otherwise, says, "Oh, good, you're here, and you even brought your noble steed! These two got ambushed and I didn't get to them fast enough and they need to get to a hospital, as soon as possible."

Percy doesn't even hesitate, "Blackjack, can you --"

Already on it! the pegasus replies, kneeling down far enough that they can heft the unconscious duo onto Blackjack's back, using the reins as best they can to strap them down. I'll be back for you, though, boss, never fear!

Percy watches Blackjack sail away into the sky until he's nothing more than a black speck over the trees, and then he turns around, sharply, to face Nico.

And, unbelievably, Nico says, "I was wondering if you'd get here sometime this century. I lost her trail. Come on, you can help me find it." As casual as anything.

Over the past few days, Percy's come up with several one-liners to open this conversation with, each one sharper and wittier than the last, but what comes out of his mouth when he does open it is, "Your clothes are still in my drawers, by the way."

Nico gives him a look that could strip paint from the walls. "I don't suppose you have a water bottle on you or something?" he continues, matter-of-fact and not at all like he's imagining setting Percy on fire. "There aren't a lot of nearby water sources."

"No, sorry, it didn't occur to me to grab one when I was racing --"

He shuts his mouth with a faintly audible click, remembering, suddenly, Rachel, calling after him and telling him to remember a water bottle the next time he climbed Mt. Fuji. "You're kidding," he groans. And, knowing without looking that Nico's giving him the fish eye, adds, "No, not you."

"Uh-huh. So that leaves both of us a little handicapped when it comes to our powers. If I start quaking the ground, I'm in danger of starting a landslide, which will be a disaster in an area as heavily populated as this -- and quote me on that, man, I've done it before. And unless you can wring water from trees, you're useless too."

"Thanks. You're a confidence booster." Percy frowns at the swath of woods ahead of them, clearing his throat and wondering if they're just going to ignore the giant unaddressed elephant clomping around behind them. "So, do you have any idea what we're looking for? Is there a Wikipedia page somewhere with a handy-dandy picture of a fear demon, because I've got no idea what they --"

"Her name's Thessalia," cuts in Nico. His sneakers scrape on the gravel as he sets off across the parking lot -- the windows of the deserted shops blink down at them. Percy opens his mouth and shuts it again, finding he really doesn't have anything to say to that, and follows. Nico continues, quieter, "I named her after the Greek city, the one that eventually became Thessaly -- my mom used to vacation there a lot, and I thought it was a pretty name, I dunno," his voice fades until it's just a mumble.

"You thought -- Nico, what --"

Nico rubs at his nose in that gross way he does when uncomfortable. "Remember when I told you that Persephone gave me a pet to raise, thus proving that I wasn't completely incapable of showing human compassion and could succeed at not killing things? Well, that was Thessalia."

There are no words. There are simply no -- "Your stepmother gave you a man-eating fear demon as a pet?"

"It was actually kind of sweet. And totally kickass as far as pets go; it was like having a miniature T-Rex that sleeps on your pillow and chews on souls in the Fields of Punishment for fun."

"You guys makes dysfunctional seem functional, you really do," Percy says in a tone of great wonder usually reserved for Rubix cubes and Picasso's undiscovered masterpieces. "Okay, so what happened? Why is it currently terrorizing Mt. Fuji like some modern-day version of Godzilla?"

Don't even start with the Godzilla-rampaging-Tokyo remarks, says the look Nico throws over his shoulder. "I've been busy lately," he grumbles, and the giant unaddressed elephant between them makes a point of not stepping on them, which is very considerate of it. "So she must have worked the locks and gotten out."

"And let me guess, she's not potty-trained and she won't come when you call her."

"The upper world is a completely different story, Percy. She's not meant to control herself in the upper world -- that's where all the fun is," Nico darts around the broad side of the restaurant, and Percy wonders where on earth does he think he's going, before he spots the path that weaves off into the trees behind the shops. Without looking back, Nico goes in a louder, less-controlled voice, "Why did they send you, anyway? I would have thought this would have been the perfect opportunity for one of the younger half-bloods to do a Quest. Hasn't that Jennifer girl been itching for a chance to prove herself?"

Jennifer just wants someone to look at her and not see who she's supposed to be because of who her father is, Percy thinks. "I volunteered," he replies, which isn't strictly true; it was more like he was press-ganged into going. "It's the first time anybody's seen you. Or been able to find you."

"That's kind of the point," Nico says witheringly. "Not being found."

"And what -- you didn't think I didn't want to find you?"

"I knew you didn't want to find me."

"You absolute ass! You practically accused me of killing your family and then you run off!" Nico goes white and wane, wilting a little bit inside his jacket. "I'm not invincible, you know -- it hurts me just as much as it would the next person, to think that you think of me like that."

"I don't --" Nico starts, knee-jerk, and then his anger flares and chokes him off. He sneers at him. "Uh-huh. I bet you've already chased Annabeth up some mountain and made up with her. What does that make me, sloppy seconds? Some loose end that you need to wrap up so you can move on?"

Yes! No! he thinks desperately -- the argument is bounding on ahead of him, and he doesn't know if he can keep his thread of it much longer before it dissolves. "Yes!" he cries. "Yes, I have made up with her, but only because she's not as stupid and stubborn as you are!"

"Oh, right, because Annabeth has never been stubborn and blind-sided about anything!" Nico, having once been on the bad side of the nuclear winter between Annabeth and Rachel ages ago, throws his hands up in the air. "So she just sanctimoniously accepted that you were gay, just like --"

"But I'm not gay!" he blurts out before he can stop himself, and knows, immediately, the way you know something's up when you see your finger severed from the rest of your hand even if it hasn't reached your brain yet, that he's screwed it up. Nico's eyes flash white-hot and he twists back around and stomps up the incline, managing to both pull off righteously indignant and unaffectedly mission-focused at the same time.

"Crap!" Percy hisses, not so softly that he doesn't think Nico can hear him, because how can he do this? How can he tell Nico that he still kind of finds girls hot, but he finds Nico hot too, in a completely unrelated way so as not to say that Nico is hot like a girl, but that Nico is hot because he's Nico and Percy kind of likes the funny noises he makes during sex and he still wants to know just how powerful they are, together. Just like how can he tell Annabeth that he still loves her, he'll never stop because to stop loving her would mean stopping a part of himself like his heart or his breath, but he also likes guys, and not to insinuate that he ever thought Annabeth looked like a guy.

It's entirely too complicated, he thinks, and wonders perhaps if it's too late to move to some mountain temple and become a monk.

He jogs up the path after Nico, opening his mouth to say something -- anything that could patch this up, when a boulder the size of a four-poster bed lands in front of him.

The impact it makes hitting the ground is almost enough to knock him off his feet; he staggers backwards, gaping in confusion. "The hell --" he manages, before there's another massive thud! from somewhere up ahead, and Nico's voice, cussing loudly.

Percy moves, darting around the boulder and racing up the last bit of incline, not a moment too soon: another rock lobs out of midair, landing right where he'd been standing. This one is much smaller, only about the size of a miniature poodle, but it's still big enough to make him thankful he hadn't had to introduce himself to it.

He finds himself in a courtyard, surrounded by a ring of evergreen trees. He's confused for a moment before he sees the temple gates, poised to frame the mountain summit behind them, and realizes -- oh, right, the fifth station has a shrine. Nico stands in the center of the courtyard, his sword drawn and his eyes sliding warily back and forth, a similar-sized boulder lying innocuously a few feet away. Percy uncaps Riptide and goes to stand with him, back-to-back.

"Is that a new sword?" he remarks idly, as their eyes sweep across the courtyard: the temple itself is to their left, the gates to the right, and trees in every direction. There's no indication of where giant flying boulders could be coming from. Percy's pretty sure that wasn't mentioned in the brochure.

Nico shrugs, readjusts his grip. "Yeah," he mumbles. "It's not as good as my old one, but it is celestial bronze, so it does the job when I need it to."

And then: a tell-tale slow whistle. Percy's head snaps up, and all his focus narrows in, then shatters fractcal like it does for any half-blood about to fight. All the details coming swarming at him -- the swaying direction of the evergreens, the peeling paint of the characters on the temple gates, the rapid breathing of Nico behind him, and the dark shape in the sky, falling fast and whistling through the air.

Percy springs, rolling away to one side, Nico goes the other, and the boulder hits right where they were standing, making the ground jump. He hears Nico stagger, cussing again, hears the sword skitter across the gravel path, and then Nico's voice, "Oh, by the gods, you're kidding."

"What happened?" he yells, spinning to face the direction the boulder came flying from; somewhere there, behind the temple. He curses the approaching dark -- it makes the shadows too long, too easy for something to hide in them.

"I lost my sword!" Nico yells back, completely indignant, as if it somehow anyone else's fault but his own. "Crap!"

"Doesn't it come back to you?" Percy goes, puzzled, as he edges around the boulder. Nico's standing in between the trunks of two evergreens, neck craned out over a straight drop down; the restaurant, the shops, the shrine all sit on a cliff edge. His expression is distinctly pissed off. Percy fights down a flash of apprehension: he's standing entirely too close to the edge, looking like a dark, skinny, and obvious bowling pin for demons throwing boulders (at least, Percy assumes it's the demon they're chasing. He's not looking forward to meeting it if it can throw boulders that big.)

"No."

Percy blinks. "It doesn't? Gods, what kind of crappy craftsmanship is that?"

"... Mitsubishi Motors."

"Oh. Well. That explains it."

It's pure dumb luck that Percy takes another step in Nico's direction at that moment: the football-sized rock that comes sailing out of the sky only grazes his head, instead of rupturing it on contact like a watermelon, which is actually would have been preferable: his head can't be ruptured, but it can be conked silly. The momentum is enough to knock him clean off his feet, his elbow and side breaking his fall. He lies flat on his back, one hand lifted to his head in stunned disbelief. He pulls his fingers away, and wonders why there are fifteen of them; he's pretty sure he didn't wake up like that. Riptide, somehow, is still in his other hand, and his ears are filled with the sound of bees buzzing.

Wait. No. That's someone talking. Shouting, really, far too close -- there's no way Nico could be that close, could have gotten to him that fast; he must have shadow-teleported. Idiot -- he'll tire out if he does that too much, and they'll both be useless.

Nico jostles his shoulder, hard. "Percy! Are you all right?"

"Next time I see your stepmother, I am going to find a way to cut her up into little pieces and hide her in the walls, because really, how stupid do you have to be to think, oh, hey, let's breed a fear demon and have a kid who can't even find his own heart with the Hubble telescope raise it, yeah, there's a brilliant idea," he tries to say, but mostly what comes out is, "nnpg."

"You stay there," says Nico, and he might have brushed the hair back from Percy's face, the touch is so light, but then he's pulling Riptide out of his grip and Percy makes a small noise of protest which, of course, Nico completely ignores. "I'm borrowing this real quick."

"Ddnnn," replies Percy heatedly, which probably meant something along the lines of, "don't you dare," but Nico was already striding away, sword in hand, shouting into the quickly falling twilight that cast the temple in long shadows, "I know you're there, Thessalia! Stop throwing rocks at us and come out!"

Silence meets this, but it's silence of the not-rock-throwing type, which is a bit of an improvement.

"Thessalia!" Nico tries again. "Please, what do you want?"

It strikes Percy as strange that Nico's not calling out to her like she's his disobedient pet -- like some sneakier, slightly more ominous version of Mrs. O'Leary that has a fondness for gnawing on juicy living things -- but more like he'd call to a friend he's lost sight of. He sits up, gingerly probing his skull and biting back the wave of nausea that strikes him when he finds the sore spot. Tooth decay and concussions are apparently not included in the invincibility clause.

From a hazy distance -- but what is only probably a few feet -- he hears Nico give a sudden, horrified yelp, and when he looks up, he's absolutely certain he must have rattled his brains somehow, because there is no possible way he's seeing what his brain is telling him he's seeing.

"Dad?" he goes, stupidly.

In the quiet of the temple courtyard, Poseidon looks a little out of place in his Croc sandals and swim trunks -- against the backdrop of soft greens and the red temple gates, his Hawaiian shirt is garishly bright. He approaches slowly, bringing with him the scent of sea brine and the echo of gulls crying. For every step he takes -- which isn't many; when you're ten feet tall, each stride carries you quite a distance -- Nico takes a step backwards, Percy's sword still thoughtlessly gripped in his hands.

Percy blinks a few times, but his father doesn't disappear, and it seems Nico's seeing the same thing he is, but still, "-- what are you doing here?" he manages in a thick voice, suddenly ashamed to be on the ground in the presence of a god, even one he's related to. He tries to struggle to his feet.

Poseidon ignores him; his eyes -- glowing with god-light -- are fixed on Nico, who's too caught off guard by his appearance to keep his ground. The sea god advances, forcing Nico back until he's mere inches from stepping on Percy, and then he stops, shifting his weight and folding his arms across his massive sailor's chest.

"My lord," goes Nico after a pause, trying for polite and sounding out of practice with it. "Um ... er -- how can we help you?"

This seems to break Poseidon's silence; he blinks, and looks down at Nico with a vague kind of amusement, like someone's just tried to stop him from stepping on a ladybug. "Aren't you the boy that made my son bathe in the River Styx?"

"Oh, crap," says Nico in a tiny voice, with the air of a rabbit chased by dogs making a wrong turn and running into them head on. It's that little bit of terror -- from Nico of all hard-headed people, terrified of his father -- that spurs Percy to his feet, and he braces himself behind the other demigod.

"Dad, I don't --" he starts, but Poseidon is looking thoughtful now.

"Did you ever pay him back for that? That's a pretty big debt to have, half-blood."

"I know," Nico mumbles, head bent, and -- is that guilt? Percy frowns at the back of his head. A debt -- no, Nico never owed him, not for making him invincible. He paid him back, didn't he? He swayed Hades's loyalties, brought him down off his centuries-long neutral position. That was epic enough, but Nico -- there's no way Nico can still feel guilty over it. Nico has all the tact of a polka-dotted elephant.

Poseidon's eyes flash in the gloom.

"Your father is my brother, boy, and the god of wealth, the great equalizer of king and paupers. You and I, we know better than most that all prices must be paid."

Nico's eyes go wide, stricken. "But we had no choice!" he protests.

"Hmm," says Poseidon, and there's enough disapproval in his voice to make an earthworm feel ashamed of itself -- and Nico suddenly seems to be a lot smaller, like he's trying to fold in on himself. "If I had a sand dollar for every time someone said that."

It's strange, it doesn't make sense -- why would Poseidon be here at all? It looks like him, yes, talks like him, yes, even smells like him -- the same scent that Percy remembers so vaguely from childhood, memories his mother claims he can't have, salt water and fish. But there's something that's just not right ... and that's when he sees it. Or see the lack of it; like Zeus's thunderbolt and Hades' helm, Poseidon has a sacred object that he carries with him always, something that can't be duplicated and will always be recognizable; his trident.

This god's hands are empty.

"That's not him!" he blurts out. "It's not Poseidon!"

Poseidon -- no, not Poseidon, a fake Poseidon, a Poseidon-copy -- quirks the corner of his mouth up.

"Oh. I forgot," Nico breathes, his fear snapping whip-quick to anger without any time in between. "Fear demons are shapeshifters by nature."

"Very good," says the fear demon in question, smile thin.

Nico's standing in front of him, sword raised, as the fake-Poseidon advances, any resemblance to Percy's father slipping away into something like thoughtless cruelty, like the face of a ten-year-old preparing to pull the wings off a fly just to see the body come apart while the thing was still wriggling. He doesn't know what Nico's fear demon pet -- Thessalia -- looks like under there, doesn't want to find out.

He tries to keep his gaze on her as she approaches, but his attention falters, and then slips completely as Nico turns around, suddenly very, very close, his eyes wide and focused and the color high on his cheeks.

"Once, for us," he says, nonsensical, and Percy doesn't have time for a what before there's a hand on the back of his neck, dragging him down and then Nico's kissing him, mouth open and hot and desperate in the kamikaze way of those who have nothing to lose. Percy can only blink, only think about kissing back, but the thought never goes through to his mouth before he sees Thessalia's hand lifting, sees movement and something shooting towards them.

He shoves Nico away, hard, just as it strikes him point-blank in the chest, a dozen iron-strong looping bands, sending him flying back and impaling him high up on the trunk of an evergreen tree. They pin him there, immobile, strapped to the bark like a strait-jacket, his mouth filled with a foul gag of some kind.

Stars stop dancing across his vision after a minute, and in that time, Nico's staggered upright, his eyes flicking wildly back and forth across the space where Percy just was, his expression becoming more frantic when he can't locate him, and Percy cannot move an inch, cannot make any kind of noise at all to tell him to look up, Nico, look up, I'm here. Nico spins back to face Thessalia, his, "What have you done --" aborted, because she's not there anymore.

Where she was is just a skeleton, small and curled up fetal position on the ground like it had just crawled there to fall asleep.

It unfolds itself, slowly, and if Percy didn't already have a gag in his mouth he would have had to swallow the urge to vomit, because there are still the remnants of flesh lingering on the bones, strands of black hair tufting out of the sides of its head. It's only when it stands up, coming up as high as Nico's collarbones, and he can see what's left of the silver tunic, the black skinny jeans, and the shoulder strap of what used to be a quiver, does he realize what it is.

"What I have what?" asks the corpse of Bianca di Angelo.

Nico quakes on the spot, a visible tremble that runs through him all the way down to the hand that still holds Riptide. "Percy," he manages in a croak that wouldn't even impress a voiceless frog. "He just --"

The laugh that meets this, sad and pitying, comes flying right out of Percy's memory, and on the back of his eyelids he can see the girl herself, sitting around the campfire with them, the night before they left on the Quest that killed her. Nico makes a noise, something lost and wordless but absolutely understandable, and Percy knows it has to be familiar to him, too, times a hundred.

"Percy was never here, silly," she says, soft and sympathetic, and for a skeleton with no facial expressions, she somehow manages to look concerned as she takes a step towards him. "Nico, we're worried about you."

And she sounds so much like Bianca that for a moment, Percy forgets that she's Thessalia, she has to be, unless somehow -- no, no, it has to be the demon, Bianca's dead.

This same struggle seems to be warring inside Nico, too; his face twists unpleasantly, and he shakes his head like he's trying to get rid of a persistent buzz.

"Persephone's worried, Dad's worried. Even Mom's worried," and Nico grimaces, hard, because what boy likes hearing that he's upset his mother, especially a mother who's been dead for over seventy years? "You've been saying all these things, about the upper world and Tokyo and Percy. Percy was never here, Nico, you haven't seen him in years, don't you see? Don't you see why you're scaring us?"

"I'm not --" And Nico grits his teeth, remembering. "No. You're dead. You're dead. I said good-bye to you. I let you go."

"Oh, Nico," Bianca -- Thessalia! -- steps in close, scarcely just an arm's width away, looking forlorn and ratty and years-deceased: Nico di Angelo's most precious possession, his most painful memory. His greatest fear, Percy realizes, his greatest fear is that he'll grow up to disappoint his sister. "You let me go, but who ever said I let you go?"

Nico's eyes narrow into slits.

Bianca's dead, dead and gone and the flesh has rotted off her bones, but don't ever tell a child of Hades that the dearly departed are not with them every moment of every day. Nico needs to be someone Bianca can be proud of.

The skeleton half-extends her hand towards him, pleading.

He lets out a soft, shaky laugh. "I don't believe you."

And he levels the sword at his sister.

With a sound like the rustling of dry twigs, the skeleton of Bianca tilts her head and almost seems to regard Nico thoughtfully. The hand that holds Riptide trembles, awkward and unfamiliar with the grip, and the grief in Nico's face is the same as it was when he was ten and cracking the earth looking for bones. But his gaze is hard, clear, and the sword stays trained on the facsimile of his sister.

"No," says Thessalia, almost to herself, as if she's looking at a jigsaw puzzle and wondering why the pieces don't fit. "No, I'm going about this wrong."

She lopes forward, and in mid-stride, her entire appearance changes, as easily as a light switch being flipped. Percy makes an aborted, strangled noise, because it's an exact replica of himself that closes the distance, reaching out and putting the flat of his hand against Riptide's blade, pushing it gently to the side. Nico lets it drop, keeping it in a loose grip with tip pointed down, naked shock in every feature of his face.

Percy tries to make some noise, any kind of noise at all, something to get Nico's attention, because he's staring at the fake-Percy with entirely too much intensity to be safe.

"Percy, what --"

"Nico," murmurs Thessalia, and oh, gods, even her voice is identical to Percy's, sounding scratchy like it does when he's been fresh woken-up, lazy and compliant. "I came for you."

She reaches out, the backs of her knuckles drifting against Nico's cheek, and his eyes drag up like he can't stop it. Emotion shatters all across his expression, a million hopeless things all at once, wistful wanting and fierce resentment, lust and desire and eager affection and it's completely alien to see everything so exposed, so easy to read, except it's not.

It's not. It's not strange at all.

Percy has seen this before, seen this almost every time Nico looks at him, but it's different, it's different now because that's not him, that's a monster who feeds on fear and she's drawing even closer, leaning in so Percy can see how his profile looks, shadowing Nico's. And Nico... Nico's overwhelmed by it, the illusion pulling him in inexorably in a way Poseidon's hadn't, Bianca's hadn't; he's leaning into the touch like a snake charmed. And that's the scariest thing, that Nico has done this all along, has always been this devoted to him, and gods, gods, how much power over him does he have?

"I'm glad you're here," continues Thessalia in Percy's lowest, huskiest voice, and Nico makes a noise in the back of his throat, almost a whimper.

"I thought..." he goes, and his throat bobs like he's swallowing a rock. "I thought you wouldn't -- I thought I was just a loose end to you."

"You idiot," she laughs, and there's no faking the fondness in her tone, so perfectly like him that even Percy has trouble remembering that she's a monster, she's the enemy. Riptide slips from Nico's hand, clattering to the earth, and he doesn't seem to notice. She continues, "You idiot, it was never a choice."

"No?"

She puts her hands on his hips, pulls him closer still. "No," she murmurs, and smiles.

Nico's grin is meltingly slow, and for the son of the god of darkness and death, there is so much light in him that second that Percy has to close his eyes against it, because it's wrong, that's not him, it's not fair that he doesn't even get this moment for himself.

He leans in slowly, contentedly, resting his forehead against Thessalia's, and murmurs, in the low, serious tone of someone trying to say something monumental, "Do you remember what the Amida Buddha said to us, about how the children of the Big Three are born complimenting each other, and how that a child of Hades and a child of Poseidon can move continents if they work together?"

Yes, Percy wants to say, because it's what attracted him to Nico in the first place, after that night on Chris's roof; the idea that Nico could be all that he had been missing.

"What --" goes Thessalia, beginning to pull back, her brows coming down in a perplexed expression. Panic flares briefly in Nico's eyes.

"I'd do it for you," he pushes forward immediately, hands coming up to cradle the lines of Thessalia's jaw with knee-jerk need to reassure. His words tumble all over each other, breathless and eager, skittering off his tongue. "If you asked, I'd do it. I would raise an army larger than any in recorded history. An army of bones that would never falter, never die. I would raze cities, collapse the earth underneath them. I know I can do it, I have the power. I would make you the most powerful person on earth, if you wanted."

Percy hears him. He listens.

And it wrecks him. It completely wrecks him, just like that, without warning. He slumps against the binds that tie him like his spine has been ripped from him like a fish. How could he have missed this?

Thessalia doesn't seem to know how to handle it, either. She swallows hard, her eyes wide, and Nico seems to take it as encouragement, because he leans further in, stroking the profile of her face. His long fingers fit into the natural holds; along her cheekbone, her temple, her jaw, behind her ear, a touch Percy has felt a dozen times before.

He breathes out, mere inches from the copy of his mouth, "The world, Percy. The world. There's no one else I would trust to take care of it. No one but you. No one..." His mouth dips, fitting into the shape of Thessalia's but not actually kissing her. It's a question, and offer, a plea, his heart on a platter and he's asking Percy to take it, to take all of it.

He wants to make him the most powerful half-blood, to make him truly invincible. Saving the world isn't ever enough, anyone can tell you that.

Distantly, Percy's aware of something shifting, and a heartbeat later, he realizes it's the ties, they're moving, inching further down his neck, easing off the pressure that slumping had put on his throat.

An idea occurs to him. Desperately, he begins to wriggle, trying to sink down onto the bonds that cut the highest across him, digging hard into his Adam's apple. He pushes and pushes, until he's unable to breathe, until the pressure becomes enough to make pinpoints of light break out on his vision, and ...

And yes, yes, they do. They move, they loosen, trying to get away, because he can't be killed and they can't be allowed to kill him, so they've got no choice but to break.

"Percy, please," begs Nico, and Percy struggles harder, feeling more of them begin to fall away as one-by-one they come loose of the tree trunk: he can move his arms, his legs, in marginal amounts, and he watches the mirror image of himself brush their noses together, bottom lip catching against top lip and Nico's mouth parts in anticipation, following the motion. One of Thessalia's hands come up, sliding along the back of Nico's neck to tangle in his hair, pulling his head into an angle that works better, and it's really, really weird, watching Nico kiss a Percy that wasn't actually Percy, mouths slack and dragging against each other.

And that's when Percy sees Thessalia's other hand, the one still resting on Nico's waist, begin to transform. Her fingers lengthen, nails sharpening to feral points and skin going scaly. Percy suspects it might be the monster's natural form, but those are claws and they're entirely too close to very vital organs and panic bottles up in his throat and --

The binds give way completely, and Percy drops the last little distance to the ground onto legs that have lost all feeling, staggering and falling on one knee. With badly shaking hands, he rips the gag from his mouth and screams, "NICO!"

Nico jerks, but it's too late. Thessalia draws her clawed hand back and slashes.

There's a burbling, wet noise and just as quickly, she wrenches back, separating them completely. Nico stumbles, his eyes wide and glassy blank, four long, bloody tears stark on his ribs. Percy doesn't need to look at them, or at the dark, glittering satisfaction on Thessalia's face to know they're bad, they're deep, and Nico falls slowly: goes to his knees and crumbles sideways, falling across the temple steps.

Percy moves. The monster turns to him, the illusion crumbling; he watches as his own skin peels away from his face in long flakes like fingernail polish, cracking at the corners of her sickly grin and her eyes. The whole thing falls away, leaving him with something reptilian, human-shaped, and roughly his size, he doesn't care, doesn't pay attention, and Percy doesn't even realize he's screaming as he launches himself forward. Riptide is in his hand; he doesn't remember stooping to pick it up, maybe it just leapt to him, knowing him, he doesn't know.

All he knows is that the monster needs to die, and in that moment, he doesn't care about a single thing else, doesn't care what she shows him, what she turns into, because she can weave him an illusion of the end of days itself and he wouldn't care, because that's Nico on the cold stone steps, Nico dying, and Percy is so scared he doesn't have room for anything more.

Thessalia turns to meet him, and she catches Percy's face between the palms of her hands and leans into him even as he runs her through with Riptide in one fierce, clean strike. "Perfect," she breathes, her mouth open over his and sucking in his breath, feeding off his absolute fear the way a starving dog would go after a t-bone.

With an ecstatic sigh, she bursts into dust.

A moment later, the edges of Percy's world comes back into focus, and he's aware of just how cold the night air is at this altitude, can hear nothing but his sharp, heavy pants and they mist faintly in front of his face. Close by, Nico's breaths are short, pained, and with each one there's an awful sucking sound like something caught in an air hose, but he's breathing. He's alive.

The exhaustion hits him with the force of a falling mountain, the way it always does when he's defied death several times in a row, and no, no, he can't do this now, but already his consciousness is fading out. His hands shake ceaselessly when he caps Riptide. It takes all his strength, it seems, to turn around and take those few steps to where Nico lays, slumped against the steps, his eyes glazed like stained glass and his chest rising shallowly. They focus briefly, catching on Percy when he comes near, staggers, falls to his knees on the step above him.

He remembers, deliriously, something Nico said to him once, in those sleepless days before the Titan army stormed New York, with great responsibility comes the great need for a nap, and thinks a truer statement there has never been.

"Come here," he goes, reaching down to pull at a fistful of Nico's shirt ineffectually, because he doesn't think he could lift a sacks of silks right now if he tried. The son of Hades pushes himself up on one elbow; the other hand is splayed like a starfish over his ribs, where Percy can make out the dark, sickly beat of blood, sliding through the creases between his fingers.

"Come here," he says again, and keeps on saying, "come here, come here," come here, and with a feeble mixture of pushing and pulling, they get each other close enough that Nico's weight falls into Percy's lap, his throat working and his eyelids fluttering. He doesn't react when Percy reaches down, weaving their fingers together over the wound. Water drips from his skin, sinking into Nico's, and Percy calls out to the water in the spilling blood with all his power, still whispering nonsensically, begging the wound to clot, ordering the skin to knit, but it's hard, it's hard because his mind is fragmented and the power keeps on slipping away from him like a nail that won't stand straight and he's trying to hit it with a hammer two sizes too big.

But Percy keeps on pushing, keeps on trying, because what use is he, what use is there in being invincible, being a half-blood who saved the world by prophecy-wrote, being a son of Poseidon who can change the tides if he wants to, what was the use in any of that, the purpose in having that, if he couldn't save the life of Nico di Angelo, who, for love, would move the world?

Fix him, he cries, feels the flare of it inside of him, and falls forward into darkness.

 

| --- | --- |

 

He opens his eyes. And closes them.

He opens them again, notes that the scenery has changed. Doesn't care.

He opens them one more time. Justin Petrowski is leaning in so close to his face that Percy can count every single one of his whiskers. Premature. He doesn't really think Justin is meant for a beard.

He blinks, groans. "Get that ugly mug away from me, please. Gods, if I knew I was going to wake up to that, I would have at least had the courtesy to give myself brain damage first."

Justin P.'s face cracks into a grin, and he obediently removes his face from Percy's immediate line of vision. "Annabeth!" he can hear him calling. "He's awake!"

"About time," comes her answer from somewhere nearby, and Percy blinks again in what must be a very, very slow movement, because when he's done, it's her face that's suddenly hovering over his, her eyes as silver-bright as the undersides of dimes. Her lips quirk up, and she sits back. He notes, then, that he's lying down, and she's in a chair that she's pulled up to his side.

"What happened?" he asks groggily.

She folds her arms. "Well, from what we could tell, you guys went and dispatched a high-level demon, so congratulations. Nico was wounded and you bravely decided to help him out by fainting all over him."

He huffs a laugh. "Yeah, that sounds like something I'd do. Is he ..."

"He'll live," she tells him softly. "You did good. I wouldn't suggest you go out to get an MD degree, not with a head full of seaweed like yours, but you did it. You saved his life."

"Good," he lets out in a rush, and when he relaxes, he notices, belatedly, that he's lying on top of two tables that have been pushed together. There's a pillow underneath his head made up of someone's balled-up sweatshirt. "Um," he blinks, and sits up. "Where are we?"

"Oshino Ponds," offers Justin P. brightly, coming around to his other side to offer him a hand. Percy swings himself off the table, stretches his limbs out considerately -- they're sore, like he's gone and done something dumb like try and climb a mountain. "A lot of the fresh-water goddesses make their home here, and Justin and I enlisted their help -- the water here flows directly from the springs on Mt. Fuji, so it was the easiest way of transporting you. We weren't sure how injured you were, so we didn't want to run any risks."

"How did you --" Percy starts with a frown.

"How did we know where you were?" His eyes dance. "Dude, I don't think we could have missed it. You called out to us, you know, me and Justin both. It was like you'd clubbed us in the head, man, you were so freaking loud. And ... and I think you must have called out to Dad, too, because the goddesses found you almost immediately."

"But you're not injured at all," Annabeth hops to her feet. "Well, of course you aren't, but it was still strange to have you still out cold when even Nico's up and walking about again. Trust you to be this lazy!"

"Hey!" he protests, but not very hard, because she's laughing at him, and in that laugh he can hear the relief, fractal bright, and knows that even with everything, she was worried. She'll always be worried.

"What?" she goes, catching him looking.

"Nothing," he shrugs, reaching out to tug her close enough to give her a one-armed hug, turning his head to whisper in her ear so that Justin P. couldn't hear, "You're still the only person who knows where my vulnerable spot is." He feels her smile against his cheek, knowing that she knows what he's trying to say.

Oshino Ponds turns out to be named for the set of eight small pools of water, natural-made from runoff from Mt. Fuji, and each pond is so crystal clear you can see straight down to the bottom, varyingly twenty to forty feet down. There's a spring, too, so cold that the shopkeepers have set up a dare -- a free cup of hot peach tea for anyone who can hold their hands under the stream for longer than sixty seconds. It's a warm day, and there are plenty of people wandering around, poking in the stores and children daring each other to lean out as far as they can over the ponds. Some of them, Percy notices with a start of surprise, he recognizes: Argus, sitting at a patio table, his few visible eyes managing to look forlorn as he watched Rachel Dare eat a purple ice cream cone; Serena, Justin P.'s girlfriend, leaning over a sickly patch of water reeds and frowning; Chiron in his wheelchair disguise, breaking off bits of bread to give to the children so they can toss it out to the koi, his lips moving in a silent prayer of offering to the water goddesses; Jennifer Matsueda and Jerome from the Nemesis cabin, flipping through a stack of postcards; and a few other campers, huddled together and sharing each other's bean buns.

And, for some reason, Mrs. O'Leary, sitting next to one a kiosk selling fresh eel and looking piteously hopeful. The young woman running the kiosk didn't seem to know what to make of her, no matter what it was she saw through the Mist.

"Why is half the camp here?" he asks Annabeth when she joins him.

"It's a nice day," she says, deadpan. "Besides, what happened to you and Nico is the most exciting thing that's happened all summer."

"So you made it into a field trip."

"Yup."

He turns his head, scanning the scene again. There's a bridge close-by, built over the largest of the ponds apparently for decoration. Two people are paused on it, elbows braced on the railing, watching the koi fish in the water below make their slow, lazy circles. The second time he looks, he notices that one of them is Justin Corner, and in his hands he's carrying a blooming, red hibiscus. The woman he's talking to is taller than he is, her earthy brown hair done up into an elegant bun on top of her head. She's dressed in a full-length kimono, bright green and shot through with patterns of blossoms. It's the same woman from his dream, the one Nico was yelling at.

As if she can feel his eyes on her, she looks up, catching his gaze.

It's Persephone.

He's not aware of closing the distance between them, just that suddenly, he's right there next to her, eyes never leaving her face, as he bends his upper body ever so slightly into a bow, saying, "My lady."

"Percy Jackson," she replies, completely on level. "Nice to see you again."

Did you plan it? he wants to ask her, straightening up and giving her a hard stare. From the very beginning, did you plan everything? The friendship with Nico, his fear demon pet getting loose, sending him on a quest to get him killed, all of it? Why would you want to hurt him like that?

Because, whispers some other part of his mind. Because she hates him. Maybe liking him wasn't an act, maybe they found something in common, but she still hates him. She'll punish him for what her husband has done, what he has -- the freedom to go and come as he pleases, the freedom to love mortal women like Maria di Angelo, where she has nothing. Kidnapped, forced into marriage, sworn to return to the Underworld for six months every year, to smile and turn a blind eye to her husband's indiscretions, and this is all she can do.

She inclines her head the smallest bit, and then she's gone as if she was never there, leaving only the faintest scent of plumeria behind.

Percy takes a deep breath, reeling everything back in, and he opens his eyes to smile at Justin C.

"Hey," his brother greets him with a nod of his head, coming close. "Right scare you gave us there, yelling in our heads like that. Didn't know if you'd --" he shrugs, uncomfortable and letting that say the rest for him, having never been a man of many words.

Percy rests a hand on his shoulder, squeezing it just briefly enough to say what he means to say. "Have you seen Nico?" he asks.

"He was just here a moment ago," Justin says mildly, craning his neck around with a thoughtful frown. Back the way he came, Mrs. O'Leary suddenly starts up in great, booming barks, and his face clears. "Oh, there he is."

Percy turns just in time to see a familiar, scruffy figure get flattened by an overenthusiastic hellhound, his shouts of protests going completely unheeded, by both the hound and by everyone else. Percy starts towards them, legs moving separately of conscious direction from his brain, because there isn't much in his mind but relief, pure relief.

Nico manages to push Mrs. O'Leary off of him after she tires of him, wiping ineffectually at his face with a playful grimace. He clambers to his feet as Percy approaches, brushing loose pebbles off the backs of his legs.

Catching sight of him, he complains in no uncertain terms, "Your stupid dog makes me feel like I'm on the Flinstones. Look at this, I have big drool stains on my shirt -- hey!" he goes, startled, because Percy isn't stopping. He puts his hands up, too late, and only manages to get them trapped between their chests when Percy catches him up in what he will never, ever in a million years admit to being a giant bear hug, except that it totally is. It shocks all the breath right out of his body, and he's forgotten what it's like, to have Nico's skinny limbs tangled in with his, forgotten how simply warm he is.

Without thinking, he drops his arms to Nico's waist, and leans forward to capture his mouth in a kiss, which works just about as well as you'd think it would: Nico's lips are stiff under his, like a frog's, his neck straining backwards in an attempt to escape.

"Percy -- Percy --" he goes, urgently, and twists his chin backwards to get his mouth of his reach, which works just fine; Percy flicks his tongue against the column of his throat, almost laughs at the hitch in Nico's breath. "Annabeth is right behind you -- Percy ... -- your girlfriend --"

Percy muffles an incredulous noise against the tense tendons in Nico's neck, because really? Out of all the times to suddenly become chivalrous of this fact, he picks now? He pulls back, only far enough to smile and say, "Ex-girlfriend, actually." And, unable to help it, he leans right back in, adding with a playful nip to the end of his nose, "We thought we might as well clear up any confusion anybody had and just say it already, considering I kind of have a boyfriend now."

"Oh," says Nico faintly. And then, "Oh."

He smiles, and Percy has to swallow against the sudden and painful thump of his heart, because it's the same expression he gave the demon, only this time it's at him, all for him -- Nico, who's lived in the darkness of the Underworld for years, glowing like the sun at high noon, and Percy feels blind-struck just looking at him. When he leans in, Nico meets him half-way, his arms coming to wrap around his neck, pressing them as close together as possible, kissing like they never decided to stop. He doesn't care that Annabeth is standing a few paces behind them, that both Justins are a little ways beyond her, and that pretty much the entire world can see him tongue Nico di Angelo like he'd lost something valuable down by his tonsils -- let them watch. He doesn't care, because this stupid, silly, impetuous jerk of a man is here, with him, and Percy Jackson has decided he doesn't want this to ever not be the case.

"Wow," says Nico when Percy pulls back to draw in a long breath, feeling ridiculously like a bucket overfilled, a giant slopping mess of joy tumbling out of him all along the edges, making him dizzy and he kind of wants to lean into Nico, just so he doesn't have to deal with it all on his own. He does, because he can, their arms looser around each other now that they know the other isn't going to bolt. Nico breathes a huffing laugh against Percy's temple. "You know what they say, how people resemble their pets? You lick just like Mrs. O'Leary."

Percy pulls back to try and punch him in the ribs, going, "Shut up!", and they scuffle for a couple moments, stopping when Nico leans in to put his forehead against Percy's. Somewhere nearby, Mrs. O'Leary lets loose a low whine, starved for attention, and somebody -- one of the Justins, maybe -- says, "it's okay, girl."

Later, when Argus is driving them back to camp in a the camp van that's now a tour bus from Eos Travels -- Tour Beautiful Japan!, Percy nudges Nico with his knee. "Hey," he goes, when Nico cracks an eye open in a long-suffering way, his head propped up against the window. "Remember what you said, before, to Thess -- to the demon, I mean, about the two of us -- you know --"

"Conquering the world with a zombie army because I'm too in love with you to deny you anything if you asked me for it?" says Nico, with a sarcasm too fragile to be readily believed. "Yeah, I do. Why?"

"Well, I say yes." Nico's head snaps up at this, eyes flaring open all the way, incredulous and hopeful and already inside his pupils, there's the stirring of power, like he's limbering up a muscle. Percy absently reaches out and curls his fingers around the back of Nico's neck. "But I say we go about it the slow way. No zombie armies, okay? We go about it like normal people, the long way around, piece by piece."

There's that smile again, and Percy hasn't even realized he's nervous, but he is. He's promising something, offering something, which is a lot harder to do when the other person has the power of yes or no.

"Yeah?" goes Nico, not resisting when he's pulled forward, simply rearranges himself with a soft shuffle, resting his head against Percy's shoulder. "Where will we start?"

"Here, in Japan," says Percy confidently. "It's the most powerful country in the world. We'll make it more powerful. We'll make it safe, too, while we still can -- while the half-bloods being born to the gods are still too young to start attracting trouble. We'll make a better world for them. Then --" his voice shakes, ever so slightly, and Nico's arm snakes around his waist, gripping hard like an anchor. "Then we can go back, help America, help China, help the countries that the Titans brought down."

"Think we can do all that?" is said softly.

"I've saved the world once before, may I remind you. How hard can it be to do it again?"

A laugh, huffed against his collarbone. "You're full of it."

"I sure hope so. Thalia --" he adds suddenly, finally finding words for something that had been floating around in his subconscious since that day in Hase town, unaddressed because of various other things that seemed more important at the time. "If Lady Artemis can spare her, she'll help us."

"One child each from Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades," nods Nico, running his fingers along the seam at the hem of Percy's shirt. "Working together for the first time since the last world war. Yeah, I can see the appeal."

"Will you, though?" Percy asks after a few seconds pause. "Stay here in Japan?"

A shrug. "Yeah, okay," Nico mumbles, dismissive, like it hadn't even been a question. Then he lifts his head, propping his chin up on Percy's shoulder, grinning broad, "Besides," he says, "I kind of really like that stuff -- the what's-it-called -- the kimchee."

Percy laughs, barking, relieved, torn unasked from his throat. "Kimchee is Korean, you idiot," he goes, and oh, he's not expecting that jab at his heart, the overwhelming affection for this stupid half-blood boy, spreading warmth all through him. He takes Nico's hand, threading their fingers together, and just keeps breathing -- in, out, one breath for each one Nico takes.

 

-

 

SOLDIER #1: Hark! But what is it that comes?
SOLDIER #2: I feel the earth shake! It has the beat and sound of a calvary one hundred men strong.
KING: No. Not one hundred men strong. It is but one man, made strong by love.

 

 

-
fin