“Fuck finals, fuck finals, fuck them, fuck them, fuck them,” Nico muttered under his breath as he poured milk into some cornflakes. “Fuck snow, fuck finals, fuck everything.”
Of course a blizzard had to hit New York the final day before winter break, rendering schools closed and bumping his English Composition final to January 3rd. Instead of catching up with Percy, Will, Alabaster, Hazel, and everyone else coming over for the holidays, he’d be in his room. Having a school-induced breakdown.
“Did your cereal try to attack you?” Paul asked, chuckling as he watched Nico stab his breakfast with a tablespoon.
“Snow day today. I’m gonna spend the whole break studying for English Comp--and by studying I mean throwing my notes at the wall and debating if a withdrawal-fail is better than an F.”
Paul chuckled again and ruffled Nico’s hair as he crossed to the coffee pot and poured two cups. “Your mom and I can help you, you know.” He mixed some milk and sugar in one and passed it to Nico. “She just so happens to be a writer. And, I was a pretty good English teacher way back when.”
Paul sat opposite Nico at the table and took a long slurp, eyeing Nico with a humorous glint. Nico rolled his eyes, as he always did when Sally or Paul referred to themselves as his Mom or Dad. No matter how many times he gave them attitude, they refused to stop it--though, Nico didn’t ever really put up that much of a fight. He secretly liked it, even if he couldn’t call them that just yet.
“It’s not something I can really study for,” Nico explained, “It’s just reading some passage Miss Borieo digs up and writing about the ‘rhetorical devices’ in it. Even if I manage to memorize all the different types… you know I won’t be able to write a decent essay in ninety minutes! I just wanted to get this over with and get ready for the party tonight. Is that too much to ask?!”
“Here--” Paul checked his watch. “Percy should be home from Camp Half-blood with your friends around three, give or take traffic, and the California and England flights should be in by one unless something got delayed. So… I’d bank on four o’clock as the final deadline for the party. It’s almost ten. Make sure you’re dressed in a half-hour, okay? I’ll help you with the final.”
“It’s no use, I’m gonna fail.”
“Humor me, then.”
Nico let out a long, fake, sarcastic sigh. “Fiiiiiine. Ten-thirty it is.”
“Hermione! Wait up!”
Hermione turned, surprised anyone would recognize her at King’s Cross. Most of the students didn’t get out for another two days, but her parents pulled her out a bit early so they could start their annual skiing vacation. Ron was grumbling about her being away during their first Christmas as a couple, so she’d bargained with her parents to start and end the week in New Hampshire early so she could spend New Year’s with the Weasleys.
“Hestia! Blaise! What are you two doing here?” Hermione cried. She’d barely talked to the Slytherins since the previous year, but they’d always had pleasant words for each other on the semi-rare occasions they were working together in Potions or Care of Magical Creatures.
“We’re going to New York for the weekend, to see Nico,” Blaise explained. “They’re having this party tomorrow. And… uh…”
Hestia laughed at Blaise’s awkward stumbling. “We’re both purebloods and don’t know how planes work. Professor Snape said you’re on our flight?”
“Layover at JFK, yeah.” Hermione smiled in understanding. “Sure, I’ll help you. Here, we need to catch the tube to Heathrow. C’mon.”
Nico sat at the kitchen table, waiting for Paul with his English Composition notes. Even if he was still annoyed and frustrated about the timing of everything, it at least comforted him to know that Paul would help him. That way, when he bombed the test, no one could say he hadn’t studied hard enough.
Paul came out of his room with a few pieces of paper, a couple of pens, and his laptop. He sat down next to Nico and placed it in front of him with a smile.
“I emailed Miss Borieo. She was more than happy to give you the prompt now, so you’ll have more time to write the essay. And, she even offered to let you have the list of rhetorical devices and their definitions with you when you write it. She said the final’s about applying what you know, not just base memorization. The rest of the class already knows these well enough that they shouldn’t have to study over the break, according to her.”
“Wait, seriously?!” Nico’s spirits lifted. “How did you do that?”
“I asked.” Nico stifled laughter; Paul sounded so done with him. “It took your mom and I a lot of shouting to get you accommodations for your dyslexia and ADHD. Maybe you should use them every once in a while?”
“Okay, okay, I suck at asking people stuff, I get it.”
“Here’s what we’re going to do.” Paul gave Nico the papers--the passage, and the prompt--and opened up his laptop. “We’re going to read this out loud, together. Take notes in your journal--Greek, Latin, Italian, I don’t care--then, you’re going to dictate this essay to me and I’m going to type it up word-for-word. Then, we can edit it together and send it off before everyone arrives. Get it over with.”
Nico nodded. It was nice having someone looking out for him.
“This is so cool!” Hermione had heard Blaise and Hestia say versions of that every five minutes for the last hour. The tube, metal detector, baggage check, ticket scanner, ATM, frozen yogurt machines… it was adorable, really, like toddlers traveling for the first time.
Now, they were officially in the sky; Hermione was able to trade seats with a charming old man so she could stay with the other wizards. Hestia, sitting by the window, was staring out at London from the clouds.
“Blaise, look!” she squealed. “The cars are tiny!”
Blaise peered through the window, sticking out his neck so he could see past Hestia’s head. His eyes widened with childlike delight.
“You may now use electronic devices,” a cool, female voice announced.
“Look at this,” Hermione said, grinning in anticipation for their reaction. “Look at this.” She plugged their tiny airplane headphones into the headphone jack on the back of the seat and turned it on. Through the headphones, Hermione could hear, “You're a mean one, Mr. Grinch. You really are a heel. You're as cuddly as a cactus, you're as charming as an eel. Mr. Grinch.”
“Whoa,” Blaise whispered.
“This is a classic,” Hermione said with a laugh. “Probably cheap to get, and ‘tis the season.”
“What is it?” Blaise asked.
“The device is called a ‘television.’ ...well, kind of. It’s an airplane-version of a telly. And those black things? Put them on your ears. They’re called headphones; they give you the sound that matches the television’s visuals.”
They both did so eagerly. “This is awesome!” Blaise cried. “It’s like a book, but in front of your face!”
“So, a play,” Hestia teased him. “But like a portable play.”
“About right,” Hermione answered. “The story’s about that green guy--see him, there? He’s going to try and steal Christmas from a nearby town by dressing up as Santa Claus and taking all the presents and things.”
Soon, Hermione was watching the movie just as earnestly as them, whispering commentary, laughing at the others’, and getting the occasional “shush!” from some business suit behind them.
“Well, Merry Christmas, big guy,” Percy waved good-bye to Tyson over the Iris Message. “Tell Dad that too, okay? And Ella?”
“Merry Christmas for Daddy and Ella from Percy! I will!”
“Not that he celebrates Christmas, being a pagan god and all… at least, I don’t think he--whatever. I’ll talk to you soon.”
The light from the IM faded, leaving the once-again-abandoned Poseidon cabin as empty and depressing as ever. Percy hurried back into the bright flurry of snow; that uneasiness he developed for his old cabin after Hogwarts never really went away. He went to the Zeus cabin, shouting, “Jason? Are you packed yet? We need to hit the road if--aw, gross!”
He’d walked in on Jason and Piper… kissing was probably the best word, but a fair amount of clothes was already on the ground. Percy shielded his eyes. “Are you serious, Grace?! Piper?! I said we had to hurry . This. Is not. Hurrying! This is the opposite of hurrying!”
“We’re both done packing,” Piper remarked. It was amazing how unphased she was about being walked in on in a bra and not much else. Part of the Aphrodite cabin, Percy guessed; she never seemed too fussed about people catching them doing stuff like that.
“So you were just, what, killing time?!”
“Yes,” Piper answered. “You can open your eyes now. We’re decent.”
Jason was somehow red and pale from embarrassment at the same time. Percy assumed he didn’t look much better himself. “Car leaves in twenty minutes. Please get your bags in my trunk before then. And… just do everyone a favor, and don’t do--that--while you’re staying at my parents' house?”
“Deal.” Piper smiled in amusement. “I know Will is finished packing too; he’s hounding Leo back in the Hephaestus cabin to get a move on. I think Calypso was threatening just to pack for him last time I was there.” Piper bit her lip, obviously stifling laughter, then said, “you might want to pass on the ‘what not to do at my parents’ house’ speech to Mr. Brown-Pre-med-Son-of-Apollo.”
“Oh my gods… that’s my brother Piper!” Percy groaned. “I’m leaving before you spit on my innocence any more.”
“What innocence?” Piper teased.
“Exactly! It’s precious!” With that, Percy left, headed for the Hephestus cabin.
“That was terrifying,” Alabaster complained to Hazel as they exited the plane terminal. “I should’ve followed Percy when he took the train last week.”
“And gone where?” Frank reminded him. “You’re not exactly welcome at Camp Half-Blood.”
“Paul and Sally’s?” Reyna contributed.
“Not with finals week,” Annabeth answered, grimacing at the old memories. “Nico must be going through absolute shit right now, waiting for grades to come in. I don’t think Ms. Jackson would’ve wanted the twin-terrors together again when he’s already so unmotivated to study.”
“You would’ve gone crazy on the train,” Frank added. “Besides, it’s not like you have to worry about Zeus blasting you out of the sky.”
“I just don’t like heights, okay?”
“Of course, Al,” Hazel reassured him. “Frank, be nice.”
“Tough chance,” Alabaster said with a teasing smirk.
Ever since joining Camp Jupiter, Al had formed an unlikely friendship with the son of Mars, easily becoming the camp’s greatest tactician, arranging new war games and new training practices that made the legion deadlier than ever. He worked closely with both Frank and Reyna now and was so brilliant that, after a while, even Reyna started to befriend him. He sort of took Annabeth’s place in that respect, using Nico to relay his ideas back to Camp Half-blood. It was a bit sneakier than Annabeth would’ve liked, but there was no way most of the camp would listen to Al after his actions in Kronos’s Army and the Wizard Genocide, and his ideas were too clever to reject due to mere prejudice, even justified prejudice. It gave Nico an excuse to come to camp on the regular, and he always put enough of a signature Ghost King flair to Al’s ideas that no one ever caught on.
He came up to New York at every chance he got; while those two never said everything that happened during the Wizard Genocide, Annabeth knew enough to know that it was a version of her and Percy’s pre-romance friendship.
When everyone tries to kill you, you get real close real quick.
The two were inseparable whenever they were on the same side of the country; and, whenever they got together, monsters somehow managed to attack. While not a demigod anymore, Nico could still see through the Mist and had his Stygian Iron sword and skill intact. It was more dangerous for Nico to fight monsters when he couldn’t be healed by magical means, but he was usually good enough to keep from getting more than a scratch. The few times he hadn’t escaped unscathed… well, that’s how they got their nickname: twin terrors.
“Annabeth!” Blaise, Hestia, and Hermione were waiting outside the terminal.
She let Hestia hug her, then smiled at Blaise. “Hi, guys! Hermione? What are you doing here?”
“I’m headed up to New Hampshire. My uncle has a skiing cabin; it’s kind of a tradition. My flight’s delayed until the snow passes, though. The storm headed up north, so I’m stuck here for another few hours. I thought I’d pass these two on to you —they don’t have… any experience in the Muggle world, really.”
Annabeth laughed. “Well, Merry Christmas! Say hello to Ron for me!”
Annabeth noticed a faint hollowness in Hermione’s words and realized.
It’s her first Christmas without Harry.
They met each other’s eyes, thinking the same thing. Annabeth knew from experience the last thing she’d want was pity, so she didn’t smile or try to reassure her. The look was solace enough.
“Kids! Over here!” Sally’s voice came ringing from the luggage claim. Hestia, Blaise, Hazel, Frank, and Al all ran to greet her, but Annabeth didn’t feel right to leave Hermione alone.
Reyna walked up to her. “It’s in my bag. I thought we could pass it on through those Followers of Hecate--Blaise and Hestia.” The murmur was inaudible to Hermione, who’d already started walking back to her terminal.
“Hermione!” Annabeth called. “Hold on! I have something to give you!”
She mouthed ‘you’re amazing’ to Reyna, and ran to Reyna’s suitcase. “Hi, Sally,” she heaved as she rummaged through the pockets. “Sorry, one second.”
“Reyna brought something for me--got it! Sorry, hold on.”
She ran back to Hermione and gave her a box. “Al kind of held onto this after… you know. We didn’t want to send it back through the mail, but no one was ever going to Hogwarts, so…” Hermione opened the box, to find the Marauder’s Map and Harry's old wand. Tears rolled down her cheeks.
“Merry Christmas,” Annabeth wished her again. “I mean it. Ron, too.”
Silent tears began to flow from Hermione’s eyes, and she barely managed to get a thank you out before sobbing in earnest.
Annabeth watched the follower of Hecate walk off into the distance. She was strangely fond of her and Ron, even a year later. “Keep them safe, Mom,” Annabeth prayed under her breath. “Protect them for me.”