Percy takes a glimpse at the scene outside his window and wonders once more if this was a good idea.
He felt for the kid, he really did; he knew what it was like to be bounced around. Percy never stopped protesting getting kicked out of schools, but some part of him had started finding it inevitable. He had to wonder how bad it was for this kid, not only changing schools, but changing homes, even changing states, if the social worker’s words were anything to go by. As he watches the kid struggle against who must be his social worker, Percy really hopes what he has decided to do doesn’t crash and burn, for once.
He doesn’t bother opening the door yet, allowing the kid to mentally prepare himself as much as he can. Popping his head out of the door and pressuring the kid wouldn’t do the kid any good, Percy thinks. All he really knows about the kid is that he’s “troubled” and has had “a bad run”; Percy is painfully familiar with those four words. He can’t help but think they mean something a little different, though.
The doorbell rings, and Percy waits a few moments before opening the door with his most non-threatening expression. (He’s not sure how well he succeeds.) The social worker grips the kid’s hand and plasters on a smile. The kid has his head down, but he doesn’t hide behind the social worker. Percy takes in the mop of curly hair and his skinny arms before the social worker asks, “Mr. Jackson?”
“That’s me,” Percy says, moving his gaze to the social worker.
“I’m Mr. Casey, we spoke on the phone about a week ago. This here’s little Leo, who will be staying with you.” Mr. Casey leans toward Percy to whisper, “He can be a bit much, but he’s a good kid. Just call me if he starts any trouble.” Mr. Casey leans back again, smile still on his face, but the way the kid – Leo – shrinks even further into himself suggests he heard the whispered words. Percy feels a flare of protectiveness wash over him but does his best not to let it show on his face.
“I’m sure things will turn out well, Mr. Casey. Anything else I need to do?”
Mr. Casey hums, and gently nudges Leo through the doorway. “I’ll likely be visiting soon to check out how things are going, but otherwise helping Leo settle in will be all for today. Go on, Leo,” Mr. Casey adds with another nudge. “Mr. Jackson is going to take good care of you.”
Leo slowly nods, and whether it be reluctant agreement or farewell, Mr. Casey seems to take it as both and leaves the two of them to go back to his car. Percy shuts the door after him and involuntarily sighs. At Leo’s shy look, he says, “Small talk can be exhausting, sometimes. I think I might just be getting old.” Leo almost cracks a smile before letting his head drop down again, and Percy counts it as a win.
“It’s, uh,” Percy says, not bothering to reach out a hand. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Leo. I’m new at this, so I hope you can forgive me.”
Leo nods again, and Percy wonders if he will ever speak. Maybe Percy will borrow some of Rachel’s sign language books. “Do you want to put your stuff down?” Percy continues.
Leo almost looks like he wants to say no, but eventually nods his head. Percy smiles lightly and leads him down the hall.
The apartment isn’t the biggest, Percy will admit. There are two bedrooms, though, from when Percy still had a roommate. Annabeth had slept there, a few times, when they were still fighting. Sometimes Rachel. Connor Stoll had even slept there a few times, half-drunk and in no condition to go back to camp. But now it’s Leo’s room, with new sheets and patches repainted to the best of Percy’s ability. The original dresser still stood, and Percy briefly wonders if he should get a new one of that, too. Maybe a desk?
Leo shuffles quietly into the room, eyes lingering on the window for a second longer than the rest of the room. He puts his backpack on the bed – is that all he has? – and then turns to face Percy. He fiddles with his fingers a bit before mumbling, “Thank you, Mr. Jackson.”
“Percy,” he replies. “You can call me Percy, if you’d like. I’m not sure how much I’ll actually respond to ‘Mr. Jackson.’”
Evidently, those were the only words Leo would be saying for a while. He briefly glances up at Percy, and Percy belatedly realizes Leo probably expects him to leave the room. “If you haven’t eaten lunch yet, I’ll be making eggs. We can eat together in the kitchen, or I can just bring some here if you want to be alone?” Leo only nods again, and Percy isn’t really sure to which part he’s nodding to, but he takes the dismissal for what it is and leaves Leo to unpack alone.
After making the promised eggs and eating his portion, there’s still no Leo to be seen, so Percy wraps his scrambled eggs in plastic wrap along with some toast and leaves it on his tiny kitchen island. He walks down the hall again to knock on Leo’s now-closed door. “I left the eggs on the counter. I’ll be in my room, which is down the other hall.” Percy waits for a response he doesn’t expect, then does as he says, pulling out one of his many notebooks from his desk once he enters the room. All the notes are in ancient Greek, scribbled into the margins next to half-formed pictures and cross-outs. He’s not sure how long he stares down at the paper willing ideas to form, but eventually there’s a knock on the door. Percy is briefly concerned, thinking one of his friends barged into his apartment again, but then remembers the new addition to his home, and quickly gets up to open the door.
Leo looks nervous and uncomfortable, or at least more so than he already was. He looks up when Percy opens the door, and barely holding eye contact, asks, “Where is the bathroom?”
Oh shit, Percy thinks, I didn’t even tell him where the bathroom was. Percy almost doesn’t notice this is the second time Leo has spoken. Percy leans his head out the doorway to point to his right. “It’s right through that door, little guy. I’m sorry for not telling you. Like I said, I’m new to this.”
Leo’s eyes widen slightly at his apology, then he nods before heading to said door.
Percy sighs again. Another thing I’m not cut out for.
Another thing I need to be.
Percy would say he’s not sure how he ended up in this situation, but he is completely, totally sure for once, and is simply not up for acknowledging it, since it starts with Annabeth.
Breaking up was never something they planned to do. (Is it ever? Percy had thought, but never dwelled.) But they had “differences which they needed to work out,” as Annabeth had called them. Percy called them “problems.” It eventually led to a mutual breakup. Percy would still do anything to make sure Annabeth is okay, and vice versa, but Annabeth is out building in New Rome, while Percy is writing children’s books in New York. After everything, their relationship isn’t the broken thing.
But Percy isn’t equipped to live on his own, as he soon found out. He can take care of himself just fine, but living on his own is, well, lonely. He would write in his notebooks, ideas on top of ideas, until he physically couldn’t anymore, and would lie on his bed waiting until he could make ideas again. Annabeth suggested finding a roommate; his mom and Paul suggested fostering a child.
Percy didn’t think child services would let a single man living on his own care for a child, but they were either stupid or desperate and Percy was cleared to do so, and within a few months had a kid coming his way.
It’s now been a few days since Leo has arrived, and they honestly haven’t interacted much. Percy knows they should be, but he could practically smell the skittishness coming off Leo in waves. Percy has been giving Leo physical things, instead. Percy never owned many childhood toys of his own, so he gave Leo some unused notebooks, pens, and markers after the first night, hoping it would at least give him something to do. Then Paul had come today to drop off a giant pack of Legos. When Percy invited him in for lunch, Paul declined and said he and Leo should bond first before introducing any other relatives. Then he gave Percy a pointed look as if he knew Percy hadn’t been reaching out, and Percy finally resolved to spend time with the kid.
After leaving Leo with the Legos for a few hours, Percy knocks on the door and asks Leo if he wants to eat dinner in the kitchen with him. To Percy’s surprise, Leo shuffles out of his room and sits at the tiny island, waiting patiently for Percy to finish cooking. It’s only pasta with sauce, because Percy had never had a reason to make anything fancy, but Leo’s nod is noticeably grateful and he digs into the food with no complaint. He still looks uncomfortable, though, something beyond the discomfort of a new environment, and the sixth time Leo glances at the door Percy finally figures out why.
“I live alone,” Percy says, suddenly and without preamble, and when Leo gives him a wide-eyed look over his pasta he continues, “and I told my friends they all need to give me notice if they’re going to stop by.” He doesn’t mention Leo looking at the door, or the slight relaxation of Leo’s shoulders. He thinks Leo might know he knows, but he doesn’t mention that, either.
“I haven’t really been a good parental figure, have I?” Percy muses, leaning back on his stool to stare at the ceiling. Leo remains silent. “I’ve been ignoring you.” Percy sits back up. “And I’m sorry for that.”
Leo shrugs, like he’s saying it’s fine, no big deal. It really isn’t fine, but Percy isn’t going to convince the kid over dinner. “Is it alright if we talk about ourselves a bit?” Percy attempts. “Seems like a good place to start.” Percy smiles what he hopes is a disarming smile, and Leo slowly nods.
“Hmm,” Percy starts, exaggerated. “How about this: I’m 29 years old. The big two-nine. How about you?”
Leo gives him a slightly incredulous look, like, shouldn’t you know that already? Which, yes, Percy does, but, “C’mon, humor me.”
Leo hesitates, then slowly holds up one finger, then two. “Twelve?” Percy sort-of-but-not-really guesses, and Leo nods as if there was a chance of Percy getting the question wrong.
I know he’s twelve, Percy thinks, but he’s so small. The boy is tiny, and Percy can’t help but assume it isn’t just because of genetics. Even Percy wasn’t that tiny, and he was made fun of specifically for being small (among other things, of course, but small was one of the distinct insults). Percy shakes the thought of his mind for now, though, and focuses back on the present.
Percy makes another humming noise, thinking of another question to ask, but Leo shakes his head and holds up one finger again. Percy is confused for a second, then ventures, “Only one question?” Leo nods, and Percy asks, “Can I ask one tomorrow?” Leo pauses, then hesitantly nods once more. Percy smiles again, smaller but unbidden. “A question per day, huh? Do you want to shake on it?”
Leo scrunches his eyebrows, the most expressive he’s been since he’s got here, and slowly holds out a hand for Percy to shake.
Percy gently takes his hand, so much smaller than his own, and hopes that for once, he’s taking a step in the right direction.
if you’re wondering what’s happening so am i. will probably proof-read a little more critically tomorrow. please enjoy!!
In all honesty, Percy expected Leo to be a little more volatile.
In hindsight, it’s a thought that’s hard to swallow. Percy had been judged and labeled before he even knew how to judge and label his own self, and he should really know by now to learn people with his own eyes and not through others’. According to Mr. Casey, Leo had gone through “a lot” (whatever that means) and has a reputation for lashing out and leaving, and Percy had automatically assumed Leo would be a handful.
If Leo is a handful, then Percy is three trucks and a half.
Leo has been nothing but polite and quiet, and Percy is aware that it can’t be for nothing. But he doesn’t know Leo, doesn’t even know where to start, and all he has going for their relationship is a government-issued home situation and a silly question game.
“Do you like the beach?” Percy asks during the game’s latest iteration. So far he knows Leo’s age, his favorite color (brown, answered by pointing at his eyes), whether he preferred cats or dogs (to which Leo was the most expressive, looking comically offended and then reverently answering dragons), and some other random facts with little to no value other than (hopefully) making the kid more comfortable. “I love the beach,” Percy continues, nearly sighing in longing.
Leo shrugs. Percy guesses, “No opinion then?”
Leo shrugs again. “Never been,” he explains quietly. He’s been talking more, Percy thinks, but the thought is quickly intercepted by a certain incredulity of someone having never experienced the joy that is the ocean.
“Really?” Percy exclaims like he’s sixteen again, abruptly leaning forward in his seat as Leo flinches back, “You’ve really never been to the beach?”
And in the midst of it all, Percy realizes, oh gods, Leo just flinched back.
Percy freezes in his seat, staring in slight horror at Leo’s closed eyes, his tensed shoulders, the oddly calm line of his mouth. Percy wants to reach out but knows he shouldn’t, and instead slowly eases back into his former position in silence. Leo doesn’t move for nearly a minute, then gradually lets his shoulders relax, blinks open his eyes, and pulls his lips up into a pleasant, closed-mouth smile. The practiced recovery, the near flawless mask, is more disturbing than even the initial flinch was. It means Leo has done it before, has needed it before.
More than that, it means Leo had trusted him. He had shed a thin layer of his outer mask for Percy, of all people, and now Percy might have up and ruined it with one simple gesture. Story of my life, Percy thinks, briefly – one thing messing up all the things – but doesn’t hold onto the thought for long, more concerned about what Leo is thinking about. Not that Leo would tell him. He doesn’t think Leo would tell anything important to anyone, if he could get away with it.
But Percy has to try, damn it, so he says, “If you want me to leave, I can,” which isn’t what he meant to say, but has Percy ever said exactly what he means to?
The words work for Leo, though, who shakes his head with a more genuine closed-mouth smile. The fact you offered is enough, the line of his mouth seems to say, and Percy slumps down with a smile of his own, wide and toothy, and Percy wonders when he started feeling more like the kid in their government-issued home situation rather than the moderately functional adult he’s supposed to be playing.
“Have you been making good use of the Legos?” Percy throws out, some iterations later.
Leo’s fork stops partway from his mouth, but only for a second as Leo decides food is a necessity that can come before conscious thought processes, and the fork completes its journey. Percy had decided hearty stuffed potatoes were perfect middle-of-summer food, and one good thing amongst the other good things that surely exist about Leo is that Percy can pretend Leo agrees with Percy’s food decisions, and doesn’t just finish his food because he’s scared he might not get food again. (Which is a guess, on Percy’s part, but he’s pretty sure it’s a correct one.)
Leo finishes eating at a normal pace, then gestures for Percy to follow him as he walks toward his bedroom. When he opens the door, Percy’s mouth follows, his jaw dropping at the large Lego battleship Leo had managed to construct. “I should ask Paul for more Legos,” Percy says, once he manages to stop gawking, and figures Leo might accept that statement slightly better than blatant praise. For once, he’s correct, as Leo shoots Percy what must be his first real smile since he’s moved in, and he looks so much like the happy twelve-year-old Percy wishes he had the chance to be that Percy has to look back at the Lego battleship before he can do something weird like cry while wondering which hypothetical twelve-year-old he is really mourning.
Percy is trying, he really is, but sometimes the past rushes forward and Percy forgets that there’s a real, human person underneath all the godly glamour that was once the epicenter of his existence. And now there’s a real, human person under Percy’s care, and he really can’t afford to stay in bed all day. Even if he wants to. His feelings don’t change the fact that there’s a mouth to feed, now, that isn’t his own. There’s a growing kid down the hall who Percy knows won’t ask where his meal is, and Percy needs to get out of bed to make sure it gets to him regardless. Needs to lift his lead limbs and at least boil some pasta.
After some more mental yelling, Percy manages to drag himself to the kitchen, boil some water, pour way too many noodles into the pot, and silently hope Leo will just come out of his room because he can hear the pasta boiling, or something, but Percy knows it isn’t close to their scheduled dinner or lunch time, which are about the only times Leo will show his face without invitation, so Percy is going to have to make his way down the hallway if he doesn’t want to scream and scare the poor kid more than he probably has. Percy isn’t sure he can scream right now, anyway. He isn’t sure how more walking is going to go, either, but it’s worth a shot. Maybe.
Percy waits for the pasta to finish and turns off the stove before even attempting to get Leo, because knowing himself his sense of time is pretty wonky and burning his apartment down probably wouldn’t be pleasant. Probably. Leo wouldn’t like it, Percy tells himself as he braces himself down the hallway. He knocks on Leo’s door, not trusting himself to speak without rasping, and waits for Leo to peek out before tilting his head vaguely toward the kitchen and walking back in that direction. Leo miraculously follows. Percy finds the butter and some grated cheese and puts it on the counter. He doesn’t think he could do sauce right now. He hopes Leo doesn’t mind. He doesn’t know what time it is.
Leo looks at him questioningly, and Percy belatedly realizes, oh, I forgot plates. He grabs them, and then grabs forks and knives and napkins, and serves Leo a rather hefty portion of pasta. Percy mechanically eats a smaller portion while Leo eats his at his careful, steady pace. He expects a silent dinner, but after a few minutes, Leo clears his throat and asks, “What’s your favorite season?”
Percy isn’t in the right mind to be as surprised and elated as he should be that Leo reached out to him. Instead he answers, “Summer,” because that’s when his life has always started and ended and begun again. It’s when the sand underfoot is always warm and the waves shine the bluest. It’s where he always finds himself.
“I like autumn,” Leo counters, and doesn’t elaborate. Percy wonders if autumn is Leo’s summer. Or maybe he just likes the leaves. Brown is an autumn color.
Leo doesn’t talk for the rest of the night. He wordlessly cleans both his and Percy’s plates and silverware and puts the leftover pasta in an empty Tupperware container. He cleans the pot. He leaves the kitchen light on when he leaves, and only leaves his room once afterwards to use the bathroom.
Percy sits stock-still in the kitchen until sleep calls him as the sun rises, and he shuffles into his bedroom.
not sure how i feel about this chapter as a whole, but i do like a lot of the individual parts of it. happy reading!!
When Percy was eight, his mom caught the flu. Gabe had been angry at her – yelling disgusting words with his equally disgusting breath – but it was no match for how angry Percy had been at him. Percy had practically barricaded his mom in his own bedroom, cursed Gabe out as well as an eight-year-old possibly could, then had screamed and screamed and screamed until Gabe let him out the door with just enough cash to buy off-brand cold medicine, which wouldn't even help but would at least make his mom feel a little bit better. Percy had missed school for a week and a half, sitting outside his bedroom door while his mom rested. His mom had scolded him, after she found out, but when he got home after his first day back at school his mom had been in the middle of cooking a cake, and Percy hadn't realized until years later that just for you, Percy, had really meant thank you, at least in that moment.
Right now, it's Leo who deserves a thank you.
But when Percy is about to turn on the stove, mentally sorting through elaborate dinner ideas that he hasn't bothered with since Annabeth left, his gut stirs with a feeling of wrongness, for once unrelated to the syrupy thickness that had followed him out of Hell. No, this is a softer feeling, a vague inkling that he isn't doing something quite right.
Percy steps away from the stovetop, and suddenly he has five takeout menus partially crumpled from being crushed in the back of the kitchen drawer, and with the strange confidence Percy only allows himself some of the time, he marches up to Leo's door and knocks, probably a bit too loud.
Leo peeks through the doorway the same way he always does, hesitant but polite, and looks rather confused at whatever expression Percy is making. Percy isn't really sure what expression he's making, either. "Want anything?" Percy asks, brandishing his menus rather awkwardly, but it earns him a small smile and a shrug. "Okay, let me rephrase: I'm getting us takeout for dinner. Which do you want?"
Leo eyes the menus questioningly, and Percy belatedly realizes he needs to actually let the kid read them. He hands them off, then looks to the side as Leo reads, and after a moment Leo clears his throat and points at one of the lines of the Italian place's menu. "Sounds good," Percy says. "See their number anywhere on there?"
Leo flips to the front of the menu, holds it up for Percy, and Percy brandishes his cheap cellphone to enter the number. Hesitating, Percy holds the phone out to Leo and says, "Is this right?" because correct phone numbers and dyslexia don't usually mix. Leo squints heavily at the phone and then at the page and back before nodding. Percy takes a deep breath because he kind of hates reading from menus almost as much as he hates talking to strangers on the phone, the words never coming out right in either scenario. But he gets through it, and Leo looks amused by his determination and subsequent relief, and when Percy brazenly announces, "It will be here in 30 minutes," Leo giggles, and although Leo quickly covers his mouth to hide the sound, looking cautious and inching behind his half-open doorway, Percy thinks his heart might burst.
Percy grins, then squats down to say, "We can build something with those new Legos while we wait, kiddo. As long as you're okay with me touching them, that is. I'm kind of horrible at building things."
Leo still looks slightly cautious, like giggling is against the rules he set for himself, but he opens his door to let Percy in, eyes lighting up as he digs through his new set of colored blocks.
Paul sounds incredibly unimpressed.
"Are you sure you don't want anything? Not even alcohol? Food? Car insurance?"
"Now you're just being funny," Percy replies, leaning his elbows on the kitchen counter. "I don't even own a car. And I'm turning thirty, not twenty-one."
"Ah, yes. The big three-zero." Paul sighs dramatically. "Okay, so you don't want anything. But your birthday is coming up – "
"Not for another two weeks!"
" – and your mom and I would like to know if you're coming over for dinner like usual."
Percy is about to say, why wouldn't I, but after a second he realizes, "I'm not sure if Leo would be okay with that yet. Whenever I suggest going to the park or anything he gets this weird look on his face."
"… Would it better if we go over there?"
Percy pauses. "I'm… not actually sure. Maybe?"
"Well, let us know as soon as you can, kiddo. Oh, does Leo like the new Legos?"
Percy laughs, remembering the Trojan Horse replica Leo had almost finished constructing. "You mean the third set? He loves them. But if you buy him anymore you need to get, like, a Lego-chest or something. The cardboard boxes only last so long."
"Noted," Paul responds, also laughing lightly. A few thumps sound from the phone, then another laugh. "Okay, okay – Your mom is currently hitting my arm with her notebook, I suspect she wants to speak with you – yes, I get it, give me a moment – "
"Percy," his mom interrupts, "how's my favorite son doing?"
"He's doing good, mom. Feeling kind of old, though."
"How do you think I feel?" his mom exclaims. "My son is turning thirty soon! And he practically has his own son now! Speaking of which, will I be meeting him soon?"
Percy recalls the way Leo had flinched back from him, that one afternoon. "I don't know," he answers honestly. "And before you ask, I'm not sure what's going to happen with my birthday." He slumps further onto the counter. "It isn't just me, anymore. I have to see what Leo thinks."
Percy can practically hear his mom's soft smile. "I'm proud of you, Percy."
"For what?" Percy asks, genuinely confused.
His mom huffs. "Let us know when you know what you want to do, Percy. I love you."
"I love you too, mom. Talk to you soon."
As Percy brings the phone down from his ear, he sees Leo inch his way into the kitchen, looking vaguely guilty.
Percy huffs out a breath of his own. "I'm guessing you heard all that?"
Leo sheepishly nods, eyes at his feet. "You don’t," he voices, surprising Percy, "have to worry about me. I can stay here on your birthday."
It takes a moment for Percy to realize what Leo is suggesting. "Leo, that's not – " Percy almost reaches out, then thinks better of it. "That's not what I meant. I want to celebrate my birthday with you. I just wasn't sure if you'd be comfortable going to my parents' house or with them coming here without warning, you know?"
Leo shuffles a bit, looking reluctant to speak again, his eyebrows furrowed as if he's trying to find a suitable way to communicate without doing so. "That doesn't matter," he says eventually, and it washes over Percy like the rising tide, finally creeping up to the high point of the shoreline, because although Percy had his fair share of put-downs and disappointments, he had always known he mattered, at least in some way, and for some reason, Leo didn't. Leo didn't think that, and something inside Percy constricted beyond measure, pulling taut and staying that way.
"It does matter," Percy insists, knowing fully well Leo wouldn't believe him, not yet. "Your comfort will always matter, especially to me. So I'm going to do my best to always ask if you're comfortable with something before doing it, okay? And all you need to do is answer. What you say goes."
Leo looks slightly overwhelmed, but he's no longer looking at his feet, and instead of falsely nodding and walking away like Percy expects him to, he moves closer, tentatively placing one of his (small, so small) hands on Percy's elbow. The tilt of his head is sweeter than any thanks, the simple act more delicate than the thinnest of glass, and it all makes Percy's heart feel inexplicably fragile.
It's something he hasn't allowed himself in a long, long time.