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The Other "Heroes"

Chapter Text

It was supposed to be a simple errand.

"Run down to the market at the corner and pick up some wipes," his mom had asked, leaning against the kitchen counter. Her baby bump was so huge, it looked like it was peering over the edge of the counter to judge the distance for what would be a magnificent high-dive.

Percy sighed to himself as he pictured her, smiling despite the awkwardness of her bulk. His sister was due in just a few weeks, which excited the demigod beyond all measure, but with the baby so close to being due, his mom just couldn't move around like she normally could. So he'd happily agreed. It was just a short walk down the block.

A short walk down the block that just happened to cross paths with a very angry-looking serpent lady.

Annabeth would have been proud of him. Instead of getting caught off-guard by a monster wearing some paper-thin disguise, he noticed the threat before she noticed him. She would have easily passed for just some silly street performer to the unwatchful eye, but Percy's experiences must have finally started to kick into gear, since he spotted the longer-than-usual nails poking out of the slinky dress she was wearing. Of course, just because he spotted her first didn't mean she couldn't see him back. In fact, that's just what happened, since he was still standing on the sidewalk in plain view when the woman turned her head to gaze his way.

Her eyes widened at the sight of him, only making it easier to see that her eyes glowed green with slits like those of a snake's. She dropped all pretenses of standing idle and began marching straight for the son of Poseidon, her nails seeming to grow longer until they poked fully out of her sleeves.

Percy scanned the street as she approached, cursing to himself. The New York neighborhood was a little crowded for his liking, no matter how much work the Mist might put into keeping the mortals ignorant. With the serpent woman only thirty feet away, he would have to settle for somewhere cramped, but private. With a wink at his pursuer, the demigod ducked into a side alley.

The smell that hit his nose immediately made him regret his decision, but there was no time to dash to a new location. He pushed further down the alley, leading him to a more secluded circle behind the apartment buildings he'd been next to when he first noticed the danger. Speaking of her, his newest fan was making her way down the alley now, with her hands extended to the walls next to her. From this point, Percy noticed that her hands were shriveled, and sported claws that would have made Mrs. O'Leary jealous. The hellhound could probably have eaten this snake woman like a cookie, but the alley they were now facing each other in would have been too small for her.

"Percy Jackson," the woman hissed, dragging her tongue along her lower jaw as she pronounced the final syllable. Doing so meant Percy got a good look at her teeth. They were all sharpened, like a crocodile's, which only further solidified her as Snake Lady in his mind. "We meet at last."

"Shame you couldn't wait until later today for it, though. I haven't even showered yet. You're seeing me still in my bed clothes," Percy mouthed off, pulling Riptide from his pocket and uncapping it with a pop of his thumb.

Despite a sword suddenly appearing in his hand, Snake Lady seemed indifferent to his joke. "It's not a big deal. I'll happily kill you, in spite of your shabbiness," she snapped, turning her hands so the palms were facing him. She didn't say anything else, which made it all the more surprising when it felt like Ares just plopped down from Olympus and roundhouse kicked him in the chest.

Percy went flying into a collection of trash cans, one of which ended up spilling old spaghetti all over his shoulders. That would take a lot of time to wash out.

"Guess... that means you're not in the mood for playful banter," he coughed, rising to his feet. Despite the bravado, his chest was throbbing, and Riptide felt shaky in his hand.

Snake Lady smirked. "No. Learned that lesson from my brother. Always kill first; make snarky one-lines later."

Her eyes seemed to shimmer, and Percy rolled forward, as the place where he had just been standing seemed to get body slammed by an invisible force. "You can only dodge for so long against someone like me, son of the sea," she hissed, swiping her claws in front of her.

Two dumpsters at opposite sides of the alley suddenly launched themselves at Percy, and would have crushed him if he hadn't raised his arms in time. He'd been focusing on the water tank positioned on the back of the building they were fighting next to, and with the motion, he ripped the liquid away towards him. The water formed a seal around him, and the dumpsters battered off it harmlessly.

"Talk about dirty fighting," Percy murmured, before sending his water shield spiraling towards his opponent. Snake Lady arched an eyebrow in defiance as the water came at her, and flipped a hand dismissively. The air around the water seemed to grow warm, and Percy's best line of offense evaporated into steam as Snake Lady heated the air around it.

"Clever, boy. But not good enough. I grow tired of this game," she snapped, bringing her clawed hands together into a pose. "Enough of this minor magic. When I'm done, there won't be a shred of you left." With that threat hanging in the air, she began chanting. Percy had been hanging around Camp Jupiter enough to recognize the language as Latin, but the words on their own were a mystery to him.

However, his lack of knowledge about Latin couldn't prevent him from, well, actually just attacking her while she got her spell ready. It was a trick that had worked well, more than it really should have. Hubris wasn't just the fatal flaw of many heroes; it could prove quite fatal to monsters as well. Like Snake Lady, who apparently had assumed that he would just stand there and wait while she cast her little spell of doom.

With strands of cold spaghetti still clinging to his upper torso, Percy launched himself at the sorceress, who seemed to be so wrapped up in her own greatness she had closed her eyes to focus on her spell. Somewhere Clarisse La Rue was shaking with fury at the stupidity of this snake wannabe, Percy thought, as he brought Riptide down in an arch aimed right at his enemy's head.

What Percy had not counted on, however, was that such a sword swing meant Riptide ended up passing right through whatever invisible magic Snake Lady had been using to smack him around the alley. Six inches from her head, a scaly purple light erupted as the sword came to a halt, mid-swing.

"What?" Percy managed to ask as the light came spilling out of the cut he'd made in the air. This got the attention of Snake Lady, who's serpentine eyes shot open at his exclamation.

"Quiet, toad! I'm trying t-.. what in the name of Chaos have you done?" she sputtered, her hands coming unclasped as the light enveloped both her and the son of Poseidon. "You moron! Do you have any idea what you've just done?"

As tempting as it was to mock the snake woman for her carelessness in spellcasting, the spiraling magic now completely surrounding them had Percy a tad too worried to take the bait. It was getting faster, and it took all of his strength to keep Riptide from being wretched away from his grasp. Even though the sword would eventually come back, losing it this close to a monster was a death sentence.

"Any idea what's happening right now?" he asked Snake Lady, who made the universal sign for 'My loathing for you knows no bounds' by narrowing her eyes at him and reaching out to strangle the demigod with her clawed hands.

She never got the chance to do so. A thunderous sound erupted in his ears, and a new force blew both of them back to the very ends of the purple spirals, now reaching Mach speeds. Try as he might, he couldn't keep hold of Riptide, and the sword flew out of his hand, up towards the top of the funnel. Across from him, Snake Lady looked both disgusted and horrified. A fair reaction, given the circumstances.

By now, the magic had seemingly reached its peak, then with one loud, high whistle... it was over.

The spirals vanished, the wind stopped, and the sound threatening his eardrums quieted.

It took a few moments for the son of Poseidon to realize he'd squeezed his eyes shut. That was enough to make him slam them open again. There was no way he'd ever let anyone see him making the same mistake Snake Lady had made during their battle. The same Snake Lady who'd ridden the Tunnel of Magic Death with him. The same Snake Lady... who'd suddenly vanished.

Percy blinked. Then blinked again. It was no illusion. The sorceress was gone. As a matter of fact, New York City was gone. The alley they'd been scrapping in was now replaced by a familiar sight; the strawberry fields of Camp Half-Blood.

Despite the suddenness of the change in scenery, Percy breathed a quiet sigh of relief. The camp's magic border against monsters surely meant that Snake Lady must have gotten ejected from the magic tunnel before it dropped him off here. Why it chose to drop him off here was still a viable question, but one that could wait. His mother would definitely require an explanation for why a shopping trip down the street turned into a detour to camp, which honestly scared the demigod more than any wannabe snake witch ever could.

Still, Snake Lady could end up posing a real threat sometime down the road, and Annabeth had been relentless in her insistence that he familiarize himself with as much knowledge as he could about potential monsters they'd come across. It wasn't hard for the son of Poseidon to imagine her glaring at him with annoyance, letting out a harried breath as she lectured him about the dangers they could face whenever they weren't at either of the camps. Gods, he loved that woman.

So, he turned towards the camp, walking through the fields. If anyone could give him some info about the magic snake who had attacked him, it would probably be someone at the Hecate cabin, with Chiron as a backup plan. He must have ended up landing in the northern part of the fields, since the first thing he saw upon emerging from the treeline was the pegasus stables.

He must not have spent a lot of time riding the Tilt O' Magic of Fun (Despair), since the sun looked to be in the same position it was when he'd gotten accosted back in New York. As such, there didn't seem to be anyone cleaning out the stables. Chiron had mentioned getting a rotation started the last time he had visited camp, which Mr. D had been more than happy to agree to, but Percy recalled all of the cabin counselors wincing at that proclamation. Which, of course, only made Mr. D even more supportive of the idea.

Either said rotation must have been off this time of the afternoon, or Chiron was still asking for volunteers, because there wasn't a single soul at the stables. The pegasi didn't seem to mind being left to their own devices either way, if the amount of pleased neighing was anything to go by.

Things changed as he passed by the armory and the arena. It was still the off-season, so camp was mostly empty, but the few demigods he did see all gave him weird looks. He didn't recognize any of them, and with a start, realized he still had the spaghetti from the dumpster wrapped around him. In fact, thanks to the chaos of the magic twister, most of it was now looped in his hair. No wonder he was getting so many strange looks. Who'd imagine Percy Jackson would stumble into camp looking like the son of the flying spaghetti monster?

The thought was enough to make him pull the noodles out of his hair as he walked, which thankfully wasn't too much of a hassle, but the cold sauce staining his shirt would take a washing machine, at least.

Percy bit his lip at the thought as he approached the Hecate cabin. He could only hope Lou Ellen wouldn't automatically assume the sauce was blood and go screaming for a doctor from the Apollo cabin before he could get a single word in. Or worse, try her own hand at healing him with one of her "experimental" spells. The last time she'd tried one of those, she'd turned Cecil Markowitz into a pair of handcuffs. The son of Hermes returned to normal after the spell wore off, but Percy heard from Will Solace that Cecil had shut himself away in the Hermes cabin for the next two days, refusing to come out until Lou Ellen issued a public apology.

That scandal was enough to bring a smile to Percy's eyes as he knocked on the door. The Hecate cabin seemed to buzz with magic, like someone was pondering on whether or not to answer, before it finally peeked open.

A young man peered at Percy from behind the door, which hid most of his body from sight. All Percy could make out was half of the boy's face, which was visible in the daylight. Like many children of Hecate, his hair was a dark shade of brown/black, and his eyes a similarly dark green. Percy didn't recognize him, which meant he must have been a new addition to the camp.

"Sorry if I disturbed you, friend. Just looking for Lou Ellen," the son of Poseidon said, brushing his hair back to try to keep the smell of old spaghetti from wafting into the cabin.

The boy blinked in confusion, with no answer.

"Lou Ellen. The head counselor of the Hecate cabin," Percy repeated, with more information for emphasis.

The door swung open fully, revealing the young man. He was dressed like most demigods at the camp; the signature orange shirt, plus a pair of dark blue pants. He stepped out of the cabin, an unreadable look in his eyes.

"I hate to break it to you, friend, but there's no one here named Lou Ellen, and she certainly isn't the head counselor of the Hecate cabin," he remarked, crossing his arms in a huff. "That role belongs to me. Name's Louis Blackstone, head counselor of Hecate."

"Huh?"

It was kind of a pathetic response to that kind of proclamation, but it was all Percy could muster at this news. How else was he supposed to react, upon being told someone he definitely knew existed wasn't around?

The son of Hecate frowned at Percy's lackluster answer, and shook his head disdainfully. "I don't know what sort of trick Cecelia thinks she's pulling by lying to you, but tell her to put a sock in it. I already apologized for that handcuff incident; no need to send some new guy over in an effort to make me look stupid."

If Percy's brain wasn't already spinning in circles, that last sentence put it on the world's fastest merry-go-round without a seatbelt. Cecelia? Handcuff incident? Apology? New guy? It was a case of having too many questions to ask at once, which sadly never seemed to result in any of them being answered. Which is exactly what happened. Louis turned on his heel, marched back into the cabin, and shut the door, leaving the rattled son of Poseidon alone.

It took several minutes for Percy to realize his jaw was hanging open, and close it. It took another minute for him to remember he had feet, and walk away from the cabins. The Big House. That was where he should go. Chiron would surely have some sort of answer. Or maybe this was a dream...

He felt a sudden weight pop in to his back pocket. Reaching down, he felt the familiar touch of Riptide. The sword's return was both a blessing and a curse. He had his weapon back, but the realness of it appearing like that proved he wasn't dreaming.

The Big House was familiar enough. Everything that was normally there was, and as bonus, Mr. D wasn't lounging on a chair on the porch. Percy wasn't in the mood to trade insults with the wine god. Not after having a shock like the one he'd had at the Hecate cabin.

He didn't even bother to knock, walking right on in. His mom would have been outraged at his lack of manners, but she wasn't here, so there was no need for her to know. Instead, he called out into the house.

"Chiron! It's Percy. Sorry to barge in on you like this, but I need to talk to you about something."

A moment later, the sound of horse hooves on hardwood floors sounded from around the corner near the main staircase. "Percie, as much as I appreciate you and your company, there comes a time to at least knock before you come barging in on someone without any sort of warning," the centaur remarked, before coming around the bend.

He was holding some papers up to his human torso, and upon seeing the demigod, almost dropped them, only catching them at the last moment.

"Oh! My apologies, dear boy. I thought you were someone else," Chiron bumbled, pressing his papers together and smoothing them out before placing them down on a small parlor table in the hallway. That done, he drew himself to his full height, offering a wide smile. "Welcome, my friend. I do apologize for my earlier rudeness, but I must insist that you knock before entering any buildings here. Never know what you may find."

The centaur chuckled at this, which was probably why he didn't seem to register the look of astonishment on the son of Poseidon's face. "No matter, no matter. You're new, so can't blame you for being ignorant of that suggestion. Now, I suppose we'd better get introductions out of the way. I'm-"

"I know exactly who you are, Chiron."

Percy's voice came out a lot harder than he had meant to, and his tone was enough to stop the immortal centaur's diatribe in its tracks..

"You're Chiron the centaur, trainer of several Greek heroes, most of them demigods. This is Camp Half-Blood, one of only two safe places in the world for modern demigods to live and train, the other being Camp Jupiter in San Francisco," Percy rattled off, now thoroughly freaked out.

The centaur's expression became very guarded. "Yes, that is all correct. You are... remarkably well informed for someone I've never met before," he responded, his posture tensing up. "Yet, the very fact you're here proves you're neither a monster nor mortal."

"Because of the barrier around the camp. Only demigods, satyrs, and those invited can enter," Percy finished, his voice losing strength.

Chiron's expression hardened. "Right again. I'm not aware of anyone sent out to look for someone fitting your description, so I'd wager you weren't told all this beforehand. So, allow me to extend an olive branch: Who are you?"

When Percy answered, his voice was barely audible. "Percy Jackson. Son of Poseidon."

The room became very quiet. Almost... tranquil. Chiron didn't show any signs of having heard the demigod, but Percy knew he had. All too well.

"You're... Percy Jackson. A son of Poseidon..." the centaur trailed off, clearly at a loss for words. Percy could relate to that feeling now more than ever.

Before anything else could be said, a vicious pounding erupted on the door to the Big House, causing Percy to jump. Chiron seemed to struggle to rip his eyes away from the demigod long enough to look towards the door. "Who is it?"

"It's Alister," the voice answered, clearly caught between an angry sob and righteous determination.

Chiron furrowed his brow at this, before stepping close to Percy and leaning down to whisper in his ear. "Go into the kitchen. Stay out of sight. Only come out when I call for you," he instructed, but the tone of his voice indicated it was much more of an order.

Percy didn't have the willpower to disobey the command, and stepped into the kitchen, cracking the door behind him so he could follow the conversation. He heard Chiron compose himself before crossing to the door and opening it. Feisty footsteps, those of a demigod's, stormed inside the moment the door opened, and started pacing the parlor.

"She's gone. Vanished. No one's seen any sign of her since she left the mess hall," a new male voice said, the same one that had addressed itself as Alister.

Even though the voice was an unfamiliar one, Percy could swear there was something about that tone. Was it the composure, despite how stressed it was? Maybe the sense of urgency to it? Whatever it was, something about this unknown demigod felt like home to Percy.

Alister, meanwhile, continued to rant. "She was supposed to meet me at the stables. She said she'd cleaned out pegasi stables before, back when we were going through the labyrinth, and it would be easy enough to just wash them out with the water from Long Island Sound."

Chiron's voice was calm in response. "Easy, Mr. Chase. Percie can handle herself; we all know she's capable. Where did she say she was going?"

"She wanted to see Nicola and Willamina on their way to Camp Jupiter, and then would take some time to stop by her mom's place. She was only supposed to be gone for a few hours; it's been too long."

"Was she taking the car?"

"Yes, but you know her! Can't go three feet without running into some sort of monster from gods-know-where! The only place I can think of she'd willfully stop is the strawberry fields, if a craving hit her on the way back. But her car would have still been here if it had!"

A very cold fist began to form in Percy's stomach as he eavesdropped on the conversation. He might not have been a child of Athena, but even he could fit some of these pieces together without help.

Chiron, meanwhile, seemed to come to a resolution. "Alister, you're not alone in thinking something weird is going on with Percie."

The response was short and sweet. "You too?"

"Yes, but I fear the ramifications behind the answer I'm about to give. If it is true, it's something I've never seen before."

Alister sounded like iron when he spoke again. "Then lay it on me. We walked through Tartarus together; nothing could top that."

That fist turned into a volcano when Percy heard that last sentence. His suspicions, ever since running into Louis, were now confirmed. Despite the panic of his situation settling in, he could still hear Chiron's calm demeanor shining through.

"It would perhaps be best if I showed you. Mr. Jackson, would you please introduce yourself?" the centaur called into the kitchen.

Tartarus. It had been the worst experience of his life. He'd only come through it because Annabeth had been by his side. She'd pulled him from the river of sorrows when he'd been ready to give up. He'd slain Arachne before the Mother of Spiders could wreak her vengeance. They'd done it together. And now they were separated. Again. After he'd promised to never leave her; the promise made right before they both plunged into the pit.

The memories racked him, but also filled the son of the oceans with a fervor. He'd get back to her. Hera as his witness, he would. Maybe the Styx would have made for a better promise, but he still hadn't forgiven the queen of the gods completely for ripping him away from Annabeth. If the Fates got crotchety with him, may as well get Hera in trouble too.

His mind and heart now made up, Percy stepped into the parlor. Chiron was in the middle of the room, his arms crossed on top of his equestrian back. His face was serene, despite the direness of the situation. Standing across from him was the person Percy could honestly say he'd never expected to meet. The demigod was about half an inch shorter than Percy, but his stormy gray eyes gave the impression that he towered over the son of Poseidon. A sword and dagger hung from his waist, in a cross-draw fashion. He was thin, but lean with muscle, giving him an aura of authority and compassion.

That Percy was expecting, but what he hadn't expected was the hair. It was a striking blonde, that dangled down and back from Alister's face. There wasn't enough of it to tie into a bun, so he wore it straight. Even so, the resemblance was beyond uncanny. This... in some twisted way, was Annabeth.

You could have heard a pin drop for several seconds as the two boys sized each other up. Alister's face didn't crack, but Percy could tell he was experiencing a version of the same phenomenon he was going through at the moment. Seemingly realizing that neither demigod could muster the words to speak, Chiron took the initiative.

"Mr. Chase, this is Percy Jackson. Mr. Jackson. This is Alister Chase. I believe the two of you... know each other."

Chapter Text

Hermes was going to be hearing from her. Or maybe it was one of the wind gods responsible for her current predicament. Either way, when Percie Jackson finally got her head back on her shoulders, someone was going to get it.

The daughter of Poseidon's day had been rather peaceful, up until the moment she got plucked out of the fields outside camp by some vortex of magic and unceremoniously dumped into a New York back alley. Some deity out there was definitely having a laugh at her expense.

Groaning, she pulled herself up to her knees, and immediatly found herself staring down at a mess on her shirt. Whatever magic that had abducted her from camp had apparently seen fit to drop her off right in the middle of a pile of trash. She'd landed on a garbage bag filled to the brim with moldy cottage cheese, and now was covered in the gunk from her neck to her waist.

"Why couldn't it have been spaghetti? Or even cake?" she shouted up to the sky, to no answer. The gods, like they usually did, ignored her. Fine. She could handle this herself; she'd done it before. Several times, as a matter of fact. With another groan, she rose to her feet, brushing off as much of the spoiled dairy product as she could muster.

Glancing up, she was treated to an even weirder sight. Her car, which she had parked right behind her there in the strawberry field, had also gotten caught up in the tornado. It had landed right smack in the middle of a small circular outlet in the alley, but luckily, didn't seem to take any serious damage in the fall. However, there was a new problem: The alleyway, which was her only way out of here, was too narrow for her to drive her car through without giving it some serious surface damage. She'd have to leave it here, until she found someone with a better head for getting out of tight spaces.

"Alister's gonna get a kick out of this. Well, after he's done lecturing me about getting kidnapped by mischievous spellcasters," she muttered to herself, walking to the end of the alley. Still, the thought of her boyfriend having a laugh at her expense was enough for the hero of Olympus to brighten a little. Alister had been so caught up in his architectural plans for Olympus, on top of the designs he'd been offered to oversee in New Rome, he'd barely had time to smile the past few months.

“When I get back, I'll see about getting him away from camp for a few days,” Percie thought. The last time they'd really had to each other was.... Paris, actually, before that whole mess with Gaea and the giants resulted in her getting her brain wiped and tossed to Camp Jupiter.

With that plan in mind, Percie stepped onto the street, her trash-covered shirt not even drawing the attention of the passersby on the sidewalk. "Never change, New York," she grumbled, marching up the street. Whatever force had taken her here had apparently seen fit to drop her off just a few minutes away from her house, so that was stop one for her.

Aphrodite would never let her hear the end of it if she suggested time out with Alister while looking like she just had a wrestling match with a spoiled house salad.

Arriving at the apartment, she fished for her key in her back pocket. Her fingers brushed past Riptide as she did so, and the sword felt... off, somehow. Which was strange, since she'd been using it for almost five years now. Riptide was about as natural to Percie as breathing underwater.

Dismissing the feeling as just her nerves being rattled by her unexpected abduction, she let herself in to the apartment. It was still early afternoon, so Paul would still be at his teaching job. A rattling in the kitchen meant her mom must have been doing some house-cleaning, and Percie briefly considered saying hi before deciding to shower first. Her mom would see the cottage cheese and immediatly demand an explanation. One that Percie did not have ready yet.

Her room still seemed to be in order, but after finishing her shower, Percie couldn't help noticing that her Camp-Half Blood shirt was... bigger than she remembered. Hers tended to fit snug, but still stayed comfortable. This one... went almost down to her mid-thighs. Percie had heard of clothes shrinking over time, but getting larger? Maybe her captor was really a god of pranks, and they still hadn't finished toying with the daughter of Poseidon.

With that unsettling thought in the back of her mind, Percie finished dressing, changing only her shirt, which got the worst of her literal dumpster dive. Heading back into the living room, she spotted her mother in the dining room, leaning over the table with a wet paper towel in her hand.

"Did you get the wipes without too much trouble?" her mom asked, not turning around.

"Wipes? The only one who really got wiped was me, if getting slammed into a garbage pile counts as being wiped out," Percie responded, trying to smooth out her over-sized camp shirt.

Sally whirled around at that statement, her baby bump looking like a fourth head of Cerberus as it swung around. The look in her mom's eyes immediatly set Percie on guard.

"Oh, great. What is it now?" Percie asked, putting a hand to Riptide in her pocket. "Wayward minor god? Rabid hellhound? That mailman who refuses to take the hint?"

Her mom's eyes got even bigger, and for a moment the daughter of Poseidon was worried she'd faint against the table. Fortunately, Sally Jackson was made of sterner stuff than that.

With one hand to steady herself, Sally gulped before speaking. "Um... is that you, Percy?" she asked, her tone beyond creeped out.

"Last time I checked, yes. Unless you know someone else running around with my dashing smile," Percie said, grinning. Then, not. "Oh, no. Is it another eidolon? Did I get possessed again without knowing about it?"

Sally slowly shook her head, lowering herself down into a chair at the table. Percie, not wanting to freak her mom out any more than she already had, sat down on the edge of the couch. "Dear... are you sure you're Percy?" her mom asked.

"Sure as I am that my dad is Poseidon. And that you're my mother," the demigod answered, not quite sure where this conversation was going.

"Okay. The next question is the big one: Are you aware that you're a woman?"

Percie was quiet for a moment, before it became obvious what was going on. "Oh, I get it! Someone's teamed up with you for a joke!" Percie giggled, her sides starting to wheeze. "Who was it? Janice, or maybe Lea? Ooh, I know! Willamina asked you to do it before she and Nicola left for New Rome. She's the only one of those two whose sense of humor is immature enough to pull that kind of stunt."

Despite the hilarity of the situation, her mom didn't seem to be laughing. In fact, the look on her meant she didn't find one single thing about this situation humorous. It was enough of a cold stare to stop Percie's laughter in its tracks.

"Answer the question, dear."

Sally wasn't joking. And if Sally wasn't joking, then what in the name of Elysium was going on?

"Um... as long as I can remember, I suppose. I've been Percie Jackson, daughter of Poseidon, all my life," the demigod answered, crossing her arms defensively.

Her mother's gaze didn't waver, but it did seem to flicker through several emotions before she spoke again. "I see. Then we seem to have another problem on our hands."

"Mom, what is going on? You look like you've seen a ghost ever since I walked in here."

Her mom paused before answering. "Because... I didn't have a daughter with Poseidon. I had a son."

It took a lot to surprise Percie Jackson. Five years ago, she would have said the same thing. How wrong she would have been. First, her math teacher turned into a monster. Then, her own mother got crushed by the Minotaur. She'd traveled to the Underworld multiple times, beheaded Medusa, gotten turned into a guinea pig, and even used public transportation. But none of that even came close to the surprise she felt when her mother said that.

"W-what?" was all she could muster.

"Exactly what I said. Poseidon and I had a son named Percy. I sent him out to run an errand for me only about half an hour ago."

"But... but..," Percie was at a loss.

Sally sighed, one loaded with the sensation that she was sick of things like this happening. "I take it you would tell a different version of that story?"

"Yeah. The Poseidon part is right. Most of it seems right, too. Just the whole son part."

Her mom frowned, before pulling up to a standing position. "As much as it pains me to suggest this, I think you may need to go see someone at camp about this whole thing. They're better equipped than me to handle this."

Oh. Right. Camp-Half Blood. "There's just one little problem, Mom. Uh... the car is kinda stuck in an alleyway," Percie admitted, her cheeks flushing.

Sally arched an eyebrow at her daughter. "Oh? Then why can I see it from the window in the street?"

What? Percie leaned past her mother to look out the window in the dining room. Sure enough, the car was sitting in its usual spot on the street, looking none-the-worse-for-wear despite the wild ride it had taken.

"This day gets weirder by the minute," the demigod complained, as she headed for the door.

"Percie Jackson! Hold it, young lady!"

Her mom using her full name? That was never a good sign.

"Yes?"

Sally detoured into the kitchen, coming out with a plastic bag with a seal. Inside, there were four blue chocolate chip cookies. "I make it a rule to never let a guest leave without feeding them," she said, pressing the bag into Percie's hand.

They were the exact same as they always were. Everything seemed so right... so why was it all so wrong as well?

Percie couldn't find the words for a moment, before looking back up at her mother. "Thanks, mom. For what it's worth, I'll see if I can find a way to bring your son back to you."

The words felt bizarre coming out of her mouth, but Percie meant them. Sally's eyes teared up at the response, and nodded, motioning to the door.

With a final thank you, the daughter of Poseidon left in the car, heading for Camp-Half Blood. The drive took about an hour and a half, thanks to the New York traffic, which gave Percie plenty of time to think about her situation.

The bigger-than-it-should-be shirt she was currently wearing was the most important clue to this puzzle. If Sally Jackson really did have a son, it would make sense that his shirt wouldn't really fit on her. She'd had similar experiences whenever she would mess with Alister by wearing his clothes. Why didn't she notice the similarity then?

If it was all true, and it seemed like it was, where did she fit into this? Maybe that little magic twister of surprise had done more than just drop her off in New York. But what had caused it? And why did it only seem to affect her?

Her head was so clouded with thoughts, it took a moment for her to register that she was now driving along the stretch of road that veered away from the city and towards camp. It wasn't a very busy section of highway, but Percie noticed it looked even more deserted than it usually did. That could only mean one thing.

Percie's suspicions were confirmed when a thunking sound came from the top of her car. Great. That better not have put a dent in the roof. Paul would kill her.

Sighing in frustration, the daughter of Poseidon slammed on the brakes, bringing the car to a screeching halt. Her uninvited guest apparently hadn't made sure their grip on the car was strong, since the sudden stop sent them propelling forward along the road. A flash of donkey fur and bronze confirmed exactly what it was that had ambushed her.

Percie took her time getting out of the car and uncapping Riptide, enough so the empousa was able to struggle to her feet after eating some serious pavement.

"Jaywalking like that is worthy of a serious citation, madam," Percie commented, taking a few free swipes at the air to warm up her arm. "If I wanted to pick up hitchhikers, I would have let Lea install that crane arm on the side."

Her would-be attacker turned around in confusion at the sound of her voice, and Percie instantly realized who just tried to blitz her.

"Kelli."

The cheerleader growled in a mixture of hatred and frustration as she climbed to her feet, her fangs glistening in the dimming sunlight. "Since when has Jackson taken to letting little girls drive his car?" the creature spat, her claws curling into fists.

Another reference to this male Percy, perhaps? If he'd managed to piss off Kelli, Percie decided she was definitely a fan of him.

"Percy had better things to do than cater to your little revenge plot. Lucky for me, since it means I get to kill you for... what is it now? The third time?"

The empousa snarled at her, but didn't spring into an attack. "I have no idea who you are, girl. I usually don't kill mortal women, but there's something about you I despise. Guess I can make an exception just this once."

How could Kelli not remember her? That was the biggest insult the empousa could have possibly delivered, and she didn't even mean to! "What do you mean, pointy teeth? Last time I saw you, Bob turned you into a pancake back in Tartarus. How was reforming from that, by the way?"

The empousa's hair burst into flame at Percie's mockery of her, and she lunged, claws outstretched. If she'd connected, the daughter of Poseidon would have been a goner. Shame she didn't even get close.

The emotional attack left Kelli almost woefully exposed to counterattack, which Percie had been counting on. It was something she and Alister had made a habit of doing. If the egos of the gods were fragile, nothing compared to the egos of monsters. Well, the ones without much common sense, anyway.

Kelli's charge was all too easy for Percie to just duck under, and with Riptide in hand, striking upwards was a simple task. The empousa let out a strangled gasp of horror as she crumbled into dust, leaving Percie alone once again.

"Have fun explaining that one to all your friends in the pit," the demigod taunted the remains as she recapped Riptide.

With that little distraction dealt with, Percie returned to her drive. Kelli's interruption aside, the rest of the way was uneventful, though it did give the daughter of the ocean more to think about her situation. If Kelli had been looking for this Percy Jackson, and didn't even recognize her old nemesis... great snakes of gorgon. The possible answers were dwindling, and Percie could safely say she didn't like any of them.

Upon her arrival at camp, her fears seemed to be confirmed. Everything was as she expected it to be, in regards to the buildings and the locations. However, the few demigods she did see she didn't recognize, though some of them felt very familiar. The Big House was in the middle of some sort of hullabaloo, with an number of demigods all crowded around Chiron. The centaur looked desperate for someone to save him from his teenage assailants, but once Percie had approached, the whole crowd went silent.

It was easy for her to push her way up to the front, where Chiron waited expectantly. Percie could only make out a few scattered whispers amongst the demigods, but the ones she did catch included phrases like "disappearance" and "change". On reaching the centaur, she put one hand to her hip, trying to assume a confident posture.

"I take I'm expected?" she asked.

Chiron nodded, keeping his cool. "Yes. Ms. Jackson sent an Iris message after you left telling us to expect you."

This prompted another menagerie of whispers to break out, before Chiron raised his hand. "Please. If I could have everyone except the counselors clear out, we can try to figure out what's going on."

The announcement was met with by a number of disappointed complaints, but was obeyed, leaving Percie alone with the centaur and a few other demigods, one of whom looked absolutely fascinated by the daughter of Poseidon.

"Amazing. I wonder if it's really him, or someone else," the young girl wondered aloud, earning her a few hard glances from her compatriots.

"Lou Ellen, keep your voice down!" a big brute of a demigod chastised, and Percie was struck by how he looked just like a male version of Shannon Yang. The daughter of Ares would have been ecstatic by the idea of having a brother around, since none of the other demigods at camp could be talked into sparring with her more than once.

Chiron cleared his throat, stopping the potential argument before it could escalate further. "Peace. We're still waiting for one more person before we can settle this properly," the centaur mused, before his eyes darted up to the sky. "Ah. I believe that is her now."

Percie, with all the other demigods, followed his gaze, and were met with the silhouette of a pegasus being ridden by a woman. As the rider and winged horse neared, Percie suddenly had an epiphany.

"Is that Blackjack?" she said aloud as the pegasus descended to the ground in front of the house. His rider, a blonde demigod with gray eyes, dismounted and marched straight for Chiron, ignoring everyone else.

The others cleared out of her way, but Percie was still focused on the pegasus, and approached him.

Blackjack eyed her with a suspicious look before speaking. "Why do I get the feeling I know you?"

"Probably because we do know each other, just in a really strange way," she responded, earning a surprised look from the pegasus.

"You can understand me, boss? If that's the case, mind if I ask if you brought any donuts with you? Annabeth refused to stop for anything the moment she got that Iris message about Percy vanishing, and I'm famished!"

"Annabeth, huh? I take it she's the one you were giving the ride to."

"Yep. Got to fly all the way up to Olympus for that one. She's been put in charge of redesigning it after Kronos tried to destroy the gods last year. Real mess, that was."

Percie's heart sank as Blackjack confirmed what she had been beginning to suspect ever since running into Kelli. She sighed, pulling out the one remaining cookie she hadn't eaten on the drive to camp.

"Don't have any donuts, buddy. Will a cookie work?"

Blackjack thought it over before neighing in affirmation, which Percie was happy enough to oblige. However, upon turning back to the group, she found all of them staring at her in a mix of awe and shock.

"You... can speak to pegasi, miss?" Lou Ellen asked, hands clasped together in a nervous gesture.

Even Chiron and Annabeth looked paled by the revelation. "Yes. I can. Being a daughter of Poseidon does have it's share of useful perks," Percie responded.

The demigods all shared a nervous look for a moment before Annabeth stomped towards Percie. The blonde hair, the gray eyes, the determination... yep. This was exactly who Percie had been scared of running into.

"Hi. You must be-" the daughter of Poseidon tried to say, before suddenly ending up on her back with a thud.

Above her, the daughter of Athena maintained a tight hold on Percie's right arm, which she had just used as leverage to judo flip the daughter of the sea right over her shoulder. It was unexpected. It was strong. It was... the exact same thing Alister had done to her when they had reunited at Camp Jupiter for the first time.

"If you ever leave me again," he had said through tears. Percie had laughed then, but she still felt guilty about that whole mess, even if most of the fault didn't lie with her. She'd promised to never abandon him like that again. She'd kept it, even if it meant falling into Tartarus. But now... it had happened again.

"Who are you? Where is he?" Annabeth demanded, startling Percie out of her memories. Even with her face pressed down into the dirt, Percie recognized the pain in Annabeth's voice. It was him, all right.

"One thing at a time... Wise Girl," Percie said, twisting around to look Annabeth in the face.

The child of Athena's eyes went wide. "S-Seaweed Brain?"

Percie slowly shook her head. "Not quite. There's been... a mix-up."

Annabeth gently released her death grip on Percie's arm, allowing the daughter of Poseidon to climb to her feet. When she did, she faced the group together, now looking completely thrown for a loop.

"Guess we all have a lot to talk about. But first: Food. I'm starving."

Chapter Text

"Let me see if I have this right."

Alister was leaning across the table at Percy, his grey eyes boring into the son of Poseidon's pupils. The two demigods were seated at the table on the back porch of the Big House, alone. Percy had told his story multiple times by now: the assault of Kronos on Olympus, the rise of Gaea, the Seven, the camps, and the sorceress he had been fighting when everything went wrong. Chiron seemed to have gotten the gist of it after the first telling, and retreated back inside to think on their circumstances.

The son of Athena hadn't been quite so accommodating. By now, Percy had repeated every event of the past five years eight times, adding as many details as he could remember. Alister's face had gone from disbelief, to anger, to depression, to sympathy, and finally landed on exasperation. The last of which could be used to sum up Percy's life.

"You're Percy Jackson, a son of Poseidon. At sixteen, you completed the First Great Prophecy first given by the Oracle more than seventy years ago. Olympus was preserved, and you rejected immortality in an effort to correct the mistakes of the past, so no one could ever manipulate demigods the way Kronos had. Not a year later, Hera erased your memory and sent you to Camp Jupiter, when the Prophecy of the Seven was set in motion. You, and six others, defeated Gaea and her giants, breaching the gap that existed between the Greek and Roman camps by arranging for the Athenian Parthenos to be returned to Camp Half-Blood. All was well, until some sorceress had a spell go wrong, sending you to this world, where all unfolded the exact same way, save for one crucial detail: The genders of all demigods, involved or otherwise, seem to be the inverse of what they were in your world."

It sounded crazy when you put it like that. But crazy was something Percy had sadly grown accustomed to.

"Essentially, yes. Everything you guys went through, we did too. The faces were just different," Percy confirmed.

Alister had his hands on the table, from having leaned over to absorb as much of the conversation as he could. Now, Percy could see they were visibly shaking. Out of what, he couldn't tell you. But the son of Athena looked incredulous at the idea of what they were now forced to come to terms with.

"And whatever magic ripped you away from your world, you think did the same to my- to our Percie," Alister finished.

"I believe so. The sudden disappearance you described... it sounds exactly like the sort of thing Annabeth would say about mine," the son of Poseidon said.

The son of Athena buried his face in his arms, his hands running back and forth through his hair. If this was Annabeth, he would have pulled her into him, and tried to reassure her. But doing it now felt... odd. Technically speaking, this both was and wasn't Annabeth in front of him.

Suddenly, Alister rose to his feet, turning his back to Percy to look over the camp. It was hard to see thanks to the light, but Percy would have sworn the demigod was blinking away tears.

"Malakas!" the son of Athena cried out, putting a hand to his mouth. He launched into another tirade of Ancient Greek curses, at least half of which involved saying some very insulting things about Zeus's mother. Percy would have been proud, if he wasn't anxiously glancing up at the sky, waiting for a lighting bolt to fry Alister where he stood. Nothing came.

Alister seemed to realize the same, and let out a grim chuckle. "Guess my mother still has the honor of being one of Zeus's favorites," he remarked. The sky, despite being clear, thundered overhead, which only made Alister make a rude gesture towards it. "You heard me!"

"Umm. Alister. Maybe we shouldn't antagonize Zeus right now, especially if the magic involved in fixing this mess includes any sort of flying," Percy cautioned.

The son of Athena looked like he wanted to argue, but bit his tongue, throwing one more accusatory glare at the sky before sitting back down. "Since when were you the rational one?" he asked.

"One of us has to be," Percy shot back, which made Alister chuckle again. A real one, this time. Not one loaded with anger. The sound was a pleasant one, just like whenever Annabeth genuinely smiled. "So, what are the odds Chiron's made any leeway while we're out here?"

"Oh, he can make plenty of leeway. The real question is whether or not that leeway is going to actually be helpful, or send us on some errant quest to track down some ancient, forgotten magic that's really just gonna try to kill us as soon as we find it."

"Spoken like a man familiar with the system," Percy cracked, prompting another spout of laughter from the two boys. However, a part of Alister's statement gave Percy pause. "Wait, send us on a quest?"

Alister rolled his eyes. "Of course, Seaweed Brain. You didn't think I was just gonna let you run off to fix this yourself, did you? Doing something yourself is what got us in this mess in the first place."

It was... oddly comforting, hearing Annabeth's affectionate nickname for him come out of Alister. Privately, Percy had found it impossible to listen to it coming from anyone but her. Yet, Alister's saying it didn't sting. At all.

"Then after you, Wise Guy," Percy said, standing and motioning that he'd follow the son of Athena back into the house. Something flashed across Alister's eyes, but he didn't say anything, and headed back inside, with the son of Poseidon on his tail.

The Big House was a cacophony of noise as soon as they both stepped in. The sound of multiple people, all trying to talk over an Iris message at once, was enough to make Percy want to go back outside and insult Zeus some more.

"Guess it's time to see if I was right or not," Alister sneered, leading Percy to the main floor of the house.

Chiron was in his wheelchair, sitting in the middle of five different Iris messages. The centaur was nodding and shaking his head at the same time, which couldn't have been very determinant for the folks on the other end.

"I will not pretend to be well-versed in this kind of magic, ma'am, but if anyone could offer some insight as to how to correct this, I believe she would be our best bet," Chiron said into one. The other end, which appeared to consist of a skunk, growled in response, to which Chiron shook his head again. "Gale, if it bothers you so much, you must tell her. I can't imagine Hecate would be excited to have some wild sorceress running around, ripping apart the fabric of space."

The skunk squeaked in affirmation, and signed off. Chiron sighed, before turning back to the others.

"Now that that's taken care of, on to the other concerns."

Alister leaned over, to whisper in Percy's ear. "Let's hope Hecate can keep her mouth shut about this, at least until we know what we're dealing with. I'm not looking forward to explaining to Poseidon how I lost his daughter... again."

By the time Alister had finished whispering, Chiron was wrapping up his other Iris messages. Once the final one was finished, the centaur groaned, before noticing the demigods standing in the entrance to the room.

"Gentlemen. How much of that did you hear?"

"Only the juicy bits, I promise," Percy assured him, and he heard Alister face-palm himself behind him.

The centaur tried to smile, but the stress of having that many conversations at once clearly had taken its toll on him. "At least the spark wasn't lost in this... exchange," Chiron mentioned to Alister, who somehow managed to both smile and frown at the same time in response.

"Did anyone have any suggestions? Outside of the one that I heard come from the Hunters," the son of Athena said, changing the subject.

'The Hunters?" Percy asked. "What did they say?"

"Something about letting you sink or swim, I really wasn't paying much attention once I realized who it was," Alister said. "Shame they let their hatred of men completely cloud the fact that Percie is in trouble, too, if we can't fix this."

"The Hunters might be unsympathetic, but I doubt the same could be said for Artemis, herself," Chiron noted. "She did hold up the sky for you, Alister," the centaur reminded him.

The son of Athena's hand went to his shoulder, rubbing at the memory of the old pain. Percy remembered that same sensation; it wasn't one he was keen to repeat.

"We heard you talking to Gale about Hecate, too. Surely she could shed some light on this," Percy suggested.

"Yes, but Hecate will not interfere until she knows exactly what she's dealing with. The goddess of magic is rightfully conservative when it comes to poking around with unstable magic she doesn't fully understand," Chiron explained.

Percy furrowed his brow. "So, Hecate is on standby, and the Hunters are ignoring us. Anything else?"

The centaur paused, then nodded. "Yes, but it's less of a solution, and more of a request."

"I knew it," Alister said behind him.

"Easy, Alister. It didn't come from who you think. The request came from Rey, at New Rome."

Alister bit the inside of his cheek. "I see. And what does the praetor need?"

"He, along with the rest of the Seven, would like to speak with... the new Percy."

Percy blinked. "Are they all in New Rome right now?"

"Not all. Peter's in Malibu with his father, and Janice is attending the Edgarton Day and Boarding School for Girls, but Rey, Lea, Faith, and Hayden are aware that the Percie they know isn't around right now."

"Do Peter and Janice know?" Alister asked.

"No. You'll have to fill them in yourselves."

Percy huffed at the idea of telling his story again, earning a reprising look from Alister. "Okay, we can do that," the son of Poseidon acquiesced.

"Excellent," Chiron concluded. "Take the chariot from the Ares cabin. I'll make sure Shannon doesn't try to blow either of you up."

"And are we ever so grateful for it," Alister remarked, heading for the door. Before he could make it, Chiron wheeled in front of him.

"One more thing. Rey mentioned that Thomas is going to be in New Rome in the next few days. You're going to want to keep him... away from Peter, yes?"

Alister sucked in his cheeks. "Yikes, I forgot about that."

Percy snickered. "Did you just admit to forgetting about something?"

"Shut up, Jackson."

The two demigods met back up at the stables, where Alister was putting the finishing touches on the war chariot. Shannon had to be talked down at length by Chiron when she learned the son of Athena and the new guy were going to be leaving with it, but ultimately stood down. "Get so much as a scratch on it, though, and I'll rip your ears off, lanky," the daughter of Ares had said to Percy as he passed her.

"Sherman would be proud," Percy muttered as he watched Alister ready the chariot. The son of Athena had changed into a windbreaker, and was being quite diligent about the harnesses as he readied the pegasi.

"They say their names are Calico and Shortstop," Percy translated when the two winged horses started neighing into their bridles.

Alister paused for a moment. "Ah. Of course you can speak to them. Percie could too; I don't know why I'm surprised by that."

They were ready in the next few minutes, with the chariot pointed in the direction of California. Alister stood at the reins, and glanced back at Percy expectedly. It was in that moment the real weight of what they were about to do sank in.

"Ummm... I also really don't fly very well," Percy explained.

Alister only smirked at this news. "If you're anything like my Percie, you'll manage. Hop on."

That was how Percy found himself holding tight to the waist of the son of Athena, screaming in terror as the chariot soared into the sky. It was hard to hear over the sound of the wind and his own wails of horror, but Percy would have sworn Alister laughed the whole way into the sky. Calico, too, though Shortstop did speak up on his behalf.

Once they reached their cruising altitude, the ride became a lot less scary. The wind died down, which meant the chariot wasn't rattling like it was about to come apart. "You can let go of my waist now," Alister told him.

The son of Poseidon hadn't realized he was still clutching to his pilot, and sheepishly let go. His face must have been a cherry shade of red, because Alister broke into another fit of guffaws when he turned back to look.

"Guess we found one difference between you and Percie. Percie isn't so easily embarrassed," Alister observed, turning back to the open sky.

Their flight continued for about an hour or so in silence, before Percy's nervousness manifested enough for him to ask about something. "So, you're really not worried that Zeus will blast us out of the sky now that we're pretty much in his backyard?"

Alister turned one defiant eye to the clouds before speaking. "I'm sure he'd love to, but then he'd have to explain to both Athena and Poseidon why he turned two of their biggest heroes into paste. I don't think petty insults would be good enough justification for it."

The sky started rumbling again, but because of how close they were, it made the threat seem much more real. Alister scoffed aloud at it. "Plus, he'd have to find a new architect for Olympus, and good luck explaining to Aphrodite and Demeter why he obliterated such a talent in that field."

That proclamation was enough to make the sky go completely silent, and Alister smirked.

Percy was amazed at the boldness he was witnessing. Alister was right here in the sky, and just got away with smack-talking Zeus to his face. No wonder Percie fell in love with him.

"So, Chiron mentioned Thomas. May I ask who that is?"

Alister blinked. "Oh, right. If I got everyone in your world right, Thomas would be Thalia, Zeus's kid."

"So the daughter of Zeus was a son of Zeus for you guys?"

"Correct."

A thought occurred to Percy. "But Thalia joined the Hunters when she was fifteen. If she was Thomas here... what was he up to the past few years?"

Alister winced. "When we rescued Artemis from Atlas, the gods judged whether Percie and Thomas should be allowed to live, to fulfill the Prophecy. Percie had the protection of several of the gods, but Thomas wasn't quite so well received. The only reason he wasn't blasted right then and there was because Zeus and Poseidon both put their foot down."

"My dad, too?"

"Yes. It would have been hypocritical of him to support Percie, and not support her friend. At least, that's how he explained himself to Percie later."

Poseidon would have stuck his neck out for not just his daughter, but his daughter's friends? Would his father have done that? Percy didn't know, and a part of him was scared to ask.

"With Thomas allowed to live, the question was whether or not he was the child of prophecy. His life, therefore, was part of a compromise."

"A compromise?"

"He would be allowed to live, but until the prophecy came to an end, he was to stay in the Lotus Hotel."

Percy's heart sank. "What? They... forced him there?"

"Yes. Once Kronos was defeated, Percie was allowed to retrieve him. He was head counselor of the Zeus cabin for a while, but when the two camps came together, he made it a habit to be one of the primary ambassadors between them."

Percy nodded along, then frowned. "What if Percie hadn't been the child of the prophecy, either? Would he still be in the Lotus Hotel?"

Alister fumed. "Most likely."

A new alarm sounded in Percy's head. "Oh. I get why Chiron asked us to keep him away from Peter, then."

The son of Athena looked pained. "Yes, you've got it."

The locations of Peter and Janice had given it away. Peter was this world's version of Piper, and Janice was Jason's counterpart. He knew they had broken up, and neither one was really happy about it, but that was all Piper had been willing to divulge.

"Thomas probably won't be happy about Peter breaking up with his sister, huh?"

Alister only shook his head.

"Yeah, I figured."

The two of them flown on in silence. Percy's day had started out weird, and only gotten weirder as it went on. Now, on the back of a war chariot, he was heading to California, to meet up with some old friends who weren't the people he remembered. If anything could be said about all this, at least he wasn't heading to Camp Jupiter alone this time. He had Alister. And if Alister was half the hero Annabeth was, they'd be just fine.

Chapter Text

At least the camp's menu hadn't changed.

Sure, Percie may have had numerous pairs of eyes watching her in fascination, but it was going to take more than extra attention to get her to put down the burger Aello the harpy had managed to whip up once the group had moved to the mess hall. Apparently a female Percy Jackson was just another day for Aello and her sisters, since the former hadn't even blinked when Percie had shown up. Or she just hadn't noticed. You could never tell with harpies.

Percie seemed to be the only one with any sort of appetite, however. The rest of the demigods all glumly sat around her, in the only real defiance of the "cabins must sit in accordance with each other" rule Percie had seen herself. Granted, she'd heard about the stunt Willamina pulled so Nicola could sit with her at the Apollo table, but that was just one person. Every head counselor was crowded around the Poseidon table, with their attention squarely focused on the newcomer.

They wouldn't have to wait long. The daughter of Poseidon ravaged her plate in record time. (She was so bragging to Janice about that the next chance she had. Assuming there would be a next time, of course.) Satisfied, Percie turned her focus to the real problem.

"So, guess you guys wanna hear it, huh?"

Thus, the tale was told. The prophecies, the Seven, the strange magic tornado, and everything in between. Except for whatever happened in Albania. Nicola and Rey refused to elaborate when she had asked about it. The daughter of Hades had just about melted into shadow when Percie had brought it up. Fine. They could keep their secrets.

When it was over, no one looked thrilled. A fair reaction. As exciting as it was, Percie couldn't say she appreciated being one of the main players in this story.

Annabeth, who had been just about attached to her hip ever since the judo demonstration on the lawn, spoke up first. "So... it all happened twice. Once for us, and once for you. Just... with the change in chromosomes."

"You got it, Wise Girl," Percie nodded, provoking a curled lip from the daughter of Athena. "What? Does your Percy not call you that?"

Annabeth bit her lip, presumably holding back a curse. "He- he does, but... he's the only one who can get away with it."

The daughter of Poseidon shrugged. "Fair enough. But I'm gonna have to remove Seaweed Brain from your vocabulary if that's your decision."

"What?"

"Alister calls me that. No one else," Percie said, dropping her voice to abolish any pretense of a joke. "Unless, you're willing to put Wise Girl back on the menu."

If looks could kill, Annabeth's would have made for a decent attempt. But Percie had faced looks that genuinely could kill, and still came out on top. This was child's play.

The two women maintained some serious eye contact for several seconds, before Clovis, counselor of the Hypnos cabin, ended up letting out a snore that could have blown the top off of the Senate building in New Rome. The tense moment shattered into bemused awkwardness, which allowed Chiron to speak.

"Well, Percie, considering how much information you've provided us, I can safely say this is the strangest thing I've seen happen in at least four decades," the centaur noted.

Annabeth and Percie looked at him in unison.

"Just... four decades?" Annabeth asked, fear in her voice.

"Yes. The sixties were... something else."

Images of Apollo in bell-bottom pants flashed through Percie's head, which easily ranked on the top ten list of things she never wanted to think about ever again. Right above her mother being held hostage by Titans, and right below the time Faith had accidentally turned into a mare at the pegasus stables. During mating season.

"Sounds like a tale we don't have time to hear, Chiron," Cecil Markowitz said, moving them back on track.

"Yes, yes. Regardless, we lack the necessary means to go about solving this dilemma on our own. Therefore, it is my assertion that we must reach out to those who can," Chiron finished.

Percie arched an eyebrow. "Okay, but who could hold the answers to something like this? We have no idea who even cast this sort of spell, let alone if it's reversible."

Lou Ellen pulled at her hair. "My mother could probably hazard a guess, but she's just as likely to tell us to figure it out ourselves. She was never fond of doing things the easy way."

Hecate could be a help, but only if she was in the right mood. The goddess of magic did create one of the monsters that had tried to murder Percie just earlier today. Her assistance would be about as reliable as a coin-toss.

Percie was beginning to consider just that, actually, when someone else spoke up: Damien White, the counselor of the Nemesis cabin.

"Why don't we just ask Rachel?" he put forth.

Annabeth's nostrils flared. "Because the last thing we need right now is another prophecy. We just barely made it through the last two!"

"No said anything about a prophecy, Annabeth. Just ask her about it. We have access to the Oracle of Delphi; we'd be morons to not put that connection to use!" he argued.

The last part of the conversation went over Percie's head, until the son of Nemesis mentioned the Oracle.

"Oh... Rachel is your Oracle here. That makes sense," she said without thinking.

That got everyone's attention again. "Wait... she isn't in yours? I thought it was just the demigods that were different," Clovis mumbled in his sleep. How did he do that?

Ignoring the son of Hypnos and his oddities, Percie nodded. "Yeah. Our Oracle of Delphi is River. Red hair, saw through the Mist without a problem, really deadly with a hairbrush... sound familiar?"

Miranda Gardiner of the Demeter cabin's jaw dropped. "That's Rachel, all right. But how on earth could the Oracle be male? The Hunters didn't change."

"Everybody in our world was shocked, too. It was originally Hades' idea. Since he was the one who cursed the last Oracle, he put forth the idea that the next one should be as opposite to the previous one as possible. River jumped at the chance, though I'm certain at least half of his decision was based on the fact that it would finally get Apollo to stop hitting on him."

Everyone else made a face. "Apollo... with Rachel?" Annabeth choked, her face turning green.

"Now I need a bath," Lou Ellen moaned.

"Ditto," Damien seconded.

Chiron looked disturbed as well, but recovered first. "As dangerous as it could be, I fear Damien's suggestion seems like the most effective one. Rachel could shed some light on this without having to involve any of the gods."

Annabeth furrowed her brow at the centaur. "So, we're not telling them?"

"Not telling us what?" an all-too familiar voice asked from across the mess hall.

Percie ground her teeth together as she turned to face Dionysus. The god of wine was leaning up against one of the pillars in the corner of the hall, a look of utter boredom etched on his face. That look was eternal, just like the ghastly leopard-striped pattern on the shirt he was wearing.

Suddenly, most of the demigods at the table found something fascinating about their shoes, or the floor, or under the table. The only ones who didn't bother trying to hide anything were Chiron, Percie, and Annabeth.

"Mr. D. I didn't know you'd be back so soon," the centaur greeted, his face betraying no concern.

The god rolled his eyes. "Neither did I. I know Scrabble usually doesn't last very long when Athena is playing, but Hermes is completely convinced she's rigging the bag in her favor. How else could she spell serendipity with only nine pieces in front of her?"

Annabeth grunted at the accusation, but didn't challenge it vocally. Percie had no such filter.

"Maybe you just miscounted," the daughter of Poseidon said, spinning in her seat so she could face the camp director directly.

Dionysus only narrowed his eyes at her. "That argument might be effective if I was inebriated, madam, but I've been sober longer than you've been alive. Not of my own choice, of course, but the point still stands."

"Oh, right. The whole nypmh fiasco. I forget, what did she have that Ariadne didn't?" Percie asked innocently.

That did it. Mr. D's eye actually twitched at that remark about his wife on Olympus. "A brain, something you are clearly lacking by taking that tone with me," the god sneered, striding into the hall.

The daughter of the sea blinked in an exaggerated tone. "Oh, was that off-limits? Sorry. I'm new, but you really can't blame me, you know. How am I supposed to know the rules if the camp director is too busy losing at board games to be bothered doing his job?"

Her insults weren't as creative as Alister's, but oh boy, were they just as effective. The wine god actually looked like he might just ignore Zeus's rule about not using his powers and turn the demigod into crushed grapes, but even Olympians knew better than to push their luck like that. A fact Percie exploited numerous times.

"You... are quite possibly the most annoying little hero I've ever had the displeasure of meeting," Dionysus hissed, a cup of Diet Coke suddenly appearing in his hand. "What's your name, loose lips?"

She wanted, more than anything, to say Percie Jackson, and watch as Mr. D lost his mind again, but she remembered Chiron's idea to keep the hero-swap a secret for now. At least from the gods. So, she had to improvise.

"Ophelia Castle," she made up on the spot. Nice. No one would ever suspect a daughter of Poseidon would be named after a character famous for drowning.

"Okay, Oria Palace," the god responded, nonchalantly sipping his Diet Coke. Great. Even in this world, the wine god liked messing up people's names for fun. How was she supposed to enjoy her inside joke if he didn't call her Ophelia?

"She hasn't been claimed by anyone yet," Annabeth offered, finally speaking up after watching Percie square off with the camp director in bafflement. "Just got here about an hour ago, actually."

"Would have been two hours, but I got delayed by some reckless empousa suffering from a case of mistaken identity," Percie helpfully added.

Dionysus didn't look impressed by the boast. "Glad to see you made it without being injured," he replied, his tone implying the exact opposite. "I take it you're all here waiting for her to be claimed?"

All the other demigods nodded, without speaking. Mr. D shrugged. "Fine. I'll make myself scarce. The last thing I want to know is who I'll have to apologize to for accidentally turning their daughter into a grapevine in forty years."

The camp director trudged off towards the amphitheater, but no one dared say anything until they were sure he was out of earshot.

Everyone stared at the daughter of Poseidon in wonder as they waited. She'd just openly insulted a god to his face, and even brought up his freaking wife! And she wasn't dead!

"He'll get over it. I'll bring him some Diet Coke, and he'll forget why he was so mad," Percie dismissed, turning back to everyone else. "So, the Oracle?"

Chiron actually smiled, for the first time since she'd arrived. "Yes. She lives here in the New York area, just like your River, I'd imagine. I take it you know the way?"

Percie nodded and went to stand up, but Annabeth put a hand to her shoulder.

"I'm going with you," the daughter of Athena said, and her tone declared she'd accept nothing other than a yes.

That was enough to make Percie want to refuse, but she couldn't. Annabeth clearly missed her own Percy, just like she missed Alister. Besides, she'd only gotten as far as she had because she had her friends behind her. It wasn't in her to reject them like that.

"Fine. But don't get into trouble on my account," Percie acquiesced.

The others wished them luck, and Chiron put a finger to his lips, clearly indicating that they should keep out of sight of Olympus. The two demigods packed, and met back up at Percie's car. Well, Percy's car. Percie's was still stuck in that side alley.

Annabeth climbed into the passenger's seat, and inhaled. "It... still smells like him. Like... an ocean breeze."

"How do you know that's not my scent?" the daughter of Poseidon joked, starting the car.

"I know."

Annabeth's voice was the exact same as Alister's whenever he was sure about something. It tugged at Percie's heartstrings, but she swallowed it down. If she and Percy had really changed places, then both boys were surely working as hard as they could to reverse this situation. The women couldn't afford to do any less on their end.

As they pulled away from camp, Annabeth turned to her. "What you did back there... standing up to Dionysus? That was pretty cool. And don't think I didn't notice you made him completely forget about the part where we were keeping secrets from the gods."

Percie grinned. "He's a grouchy old fool, but he's my grouchy old fool. I wasn't kidding about buying him off with Diet Coke, you know."

The daughter of Athena actually laughed at that, a middling giggle that sprung up into a higher register. That was Alister's laugh; literally, the exact same.

Annabeth must have noticed Percie reminiscing, because she quieted down quickly. The New York countryside passed by as they drove, and the daughter of Athena seemed to contemplate something as they turned onto the highway. Finally, she spoke again.

"Percie?"

"Yes, Annabeth?"

"You can call me Wise Girl if you want to."

Percie actually slowed down to look her companion in the eye at that. "In that case, Seaweed Brain will do just fine."

That triggered another round of laughter, and Percie didn't hold back. Just like she never did. This world might have been one she hadn't expected to pass through, but the Fates could be finicky. Let them. Percie Jackson had Annabeth Chase by her side. If anything, it was the Fates who needed to be on high alert.

Chapter Text

Calico brayed in irritation at Shortstop. "He said what?"

"That he would not be coming back, not after what Verona had been saying about him behind his back," the other pegasus whinnied. "Then he just soared away, without even bothering to say good-bye to the foals. What kind of father does that?"

"One who had no business being a father in the first place," Calico responded, shaking his head in disgust. "Deadbeat dads might be all the rage now in Stable Magazine, but that doesn't mean you should actually become one!"

The pegasi had been gossiping nonstop the entire flight. At first, Percy had offered to translate the conversation for Alister so neither of them ended up too bored during their trip, but that arrangement had only lasted twenty minutes or so before the son of Athena retracted the offer. Percy couldn't blame him. For flying horses, the duo were painfully dull about their conversation. Alister had the luxury of not being able to understand them; Percy not so much.

He must have been making a face, because Alister slowed the chariot once he saw the son of Poseidon staring daggers at the backs of their transport. "Maybe we could all use a break," he suggested, giving the reins a tug so the pegasi would land.

"A break?" Shortstop asked, as they descended. "But what about my story? I was just about to get to the good stuff."

"Yeah!" Calico added. "We can't just stop now. We'd be leaving off thigh-deep in suspense!"

Alister turned an eye to Percy. "They're not saying anything offensive, are they?"

Percy rested his head against the chariot's side in defeat. "Offensive? No. But boring? One hundred percent."

Shortstop reared as much as he could in his harness. "Boring? Me? What poppycock! I'll have you know I was voted 'Most Likely to Tell an Exciting Tale' in my pottery class at Cambridge!"

Calico whipped his head to the side to stare at his fellow pegasi. "Cambridge? You said you studied at Oxford!"

"No, I said dated a mare who studied at Oxford! Gods, why don't you pay better attention?"

The winged horses' conversation devolved into bickering between the two of them, which was at least more entertaining than listening to Shortstop badmouth his relatives. They didn't let up as they landed, and the moment Alister unleashed the harness, Calico stormed off in outrage, with a very persistent Shortstop hot on his heels.

The son of Athena shook his head as Percy steadied himself on the ground, trying to wait for his equilibrium to right itself. Flying may have been the most effective method of traveling to California, but it wasn't the easiest on his stomach.

"Is this what getting seasick is like?" Percy wobbled on his feet, until Alister leaned him on his shoulder.

"Probably, since you're starting to turn the same shade of green as your eyes," Alister told him, easing the son of Poseidon down into a sitting position.

"Just wonderful. I'm gonna need a minute," Percy said, leaning over into the fetal position.

Alister could only shake his head at his traveling companion before turning back to the chariot, digging into his bag for something. "We can stay grounded for a bit, so you can recover. But I'd rather not leave our only vehicle sitting out in the open like this."

Whatever Alister was looking for was at the bottom of the bag, since it took a solid minute for him to find it. "Finally!" he exclaimed, pulling out a Yankees cap.

Percy looked up from the ground in recognition. "Oh, is that the invisibility thing Athena gave Anna- I mean, you?"

Wow, that chariot ride must have really messed up his head. He'd kept the names straight the entire time since meeting Alister, so why did he let it mess up now? Annabeth would have called it a Freudian slip, but that would mean... something he didn't really want to think about. At least, not while he still felt like puking.

The son of Athena pretended not to notice, though. "Yep. It finally started working again once that mess with Gaea was settled, and the gods weren't stuck between their Greek and Roman forms. Since then, I've tried making improvements to it."

"Improvements?"

Alister nodded. "Observe." Fanning the hat out with his hand, the blonde demigod stepped up to the chariot, a determined expression on his face. Pulling on the brim with one hand, he stretched it out over the shaft of the chariot's yoke. Once he'd done that, the vehicle vanished.

Percy's mind was boggled. "What? You can turn objects invisible with it, too? Not just people?"

Alister's smile was a proud one. "Indeed. It already did that, since it would make its wearer's clothes and weapons disappear too, so I thought why not see if I could do the same without the need of a person. It took a few tries, plus quite a few favors called in to Hephaestus, but I managed to figure it out."

Geez, no wonder the guy had been so complicit in landing them. Wait a minute...

"Uh, I don't mean to sound like a worrywart, but do we know where we are?" Percy asked, pushing himself up to a lounging position on the ground.

"We should be in the middle of the Indiana Dunes National Park, about fifteen miles south of Lake Michigan, if my memory serves me correctly," Alister remarked, spreading out a map from his bag. "At this rate, we should be able to get to California late tomorrow night, if we leave early enough in the morning."

Percy startled. "Morning? We're setting up for the night here? I thought it was just a break."

Alister didn't speak for a moment. "I... changed my mind. It's already getting dark, and I don't want to put the pegasi at risk, flying them late into the night without rest," he said.

Alister might not have been Annabeth exactly, but Percy still recognized the tell that meant he wasn't telling the full story. Alister, just like Annabeth, had a slight tremble come into his bottom lip whenever he was keeping secrets from someone he cared about.

"Is that right?" the son of Poseidon asked, pushing the issue.

"What else would it be?"

"Oh, I don't know. Maybe you hadn't quite realized just how much flying was doing a number on me, and felt bad about it," Percy guessed.

The flush that came over Alister's face was all he needed to know he'd hit the nail on the head. "That is... completely ridiculous, Percy Jackson!" the son of Athena protested. "The pegasi need rest, as do the two of us."

"Ah, so you admit to being concerned about my well-being."

Despite the nausea still in his stomach, Percy couldn't help holding back a smile as Alister stuttered for a comeback before turning and walking away. "You are... impossible! I'm going to find some water; drinking for me, and the rest so I can throw it at you."

Oh, this was too easy. "Really? Water is your weapon of choice against a son of Poseidon?" Percy taunted.

Now it was Percy's turn to get cursed out by Alister, the son of Athena throwing as many as he could over his shoulder as he walked off. Percy had to hand it to him; despite the headache, Alister did help him feel better. Even if it wasn't in the way he intended.

Taking a few more moments to make sure he wouldn't topple over immediatly, Percy rose to his feet, finally getting a good look at where they had landed. The Indiana Dunes National Park was a mix of beach and forest, if the surrounding area was anything to go by. Alister had put them down in a clearing, with a multitude of trees sprouting in every direction. Despite that, the ground under his feet was a mix of both sand and soil, and looking north, Percy could see the sand slowly outnumbered the soil the further one went.

The chariot was invisible, so Percy could leave the clearing without feeling too guilty about leaving their vehicle unguarded, but the arrival of the pegasi meant he wouldn't have to. Calico came flying down as the son of Poseidon stepped back into the clearing, and Shortstop wasn't far behind, landing almost right on the chariot.

"What in the blazes?" Shortstop recoiled, and based on how the chariot had been facing, Percy judged the pegasus just took one of the wheels to the chest.

"Yeah, the chariot is there; just invisible," he informed them.

Calico snorted. "Well, it better not be when we start flying again. I didn't bring my anti-gravity license with me on this trip."

"Anti-gravity license?"

"Yes, the one that lets me levitate demigods with my mind. What do you think some wind god would conclude, seeing pegasi pull demigods in an invisible chariot? We'd get fined into the next millennia!"

Shortstop shuddered. "Please, no. I can't afford any more air traffic tickets. Not after that summer in South Beach."

"Hey, you chose to drink and fly on your own, Shorty," Calico snapped at him.

"Only because that cat goddess dared me! Shortstop is many things, but he is not a coward!" the pegasus insisted.

Sensing another argument brewing, Percy jumped in. "Actually guys, we're gonna be settling in for the night here. Don't want to violate any union laws about overworking pegasi, you know?"

"Oh, how generous of you!" Shortstop swooned. "I'll tell the boss all about how accommodating you and Alister were on this flight, Jackson."

Okay... he hadn't been expecting there to be actual pegasus unions. But the more you know. "Thanks. Just make yourselves comfortable around here, and we'll resume in the morning."

Calico gave the other pegasus a dirty look. "Don't think you're off the hook with me about that lie you told about Cambridge, either."

Percy turned and left the clearing, just as Shortstop started whinnying about 'the benefits of a traditional education'. He'd heard enough equestrian squabbles for the day; heck, for the rest of his life.

Which meant his only other possible choice for company was Alister. Well, he could have gotten the attention of one of the nymphs sure to be hanging around the park, but most were bigger gossip-mongers than pegasi. The son of Athena was the only option that didn't involve him badmouthing someone to get attention.

At first, Percy was concerned that Alister would be hard to track down, if the size of the park from the air was anything to go by. Luckily, he heard his companion before he saw him.

"Stupid... idiot... moron... imbecile," Alister's voice carried through the trees. Moving through the brush, Percy came upon the son of Athena squatting by a small stream, probably one that connected to Lake Michigan to the north. Alister was collecting water from the stream by dunking his head into it and squeezing the water out of his hair into an extra bottle that they had packed. The sight was actually both funny and creative, made only more so by the sprinkled insults in between head dunks.

Since this part of the park was more sand than soil, the son of Athena didn't hear Percy approaching him from behind. "Bonehead... nitwit... loony," Alister kept muttering, each new dunk getting its own word. It took a lot of willpower for Percy to hold back his laughter, until he caught a glimpse of something else.

It had been hard to spot at first, from the angle he was standing at and from the copious amounts of water running down Alister's face as a side effect of his water-collecting, but the demigod seemed to be crying. In that moment, all of Percy's amusement turned to concern.

"You're gonna hurt your head, doing that for too long," he finally said, causing Alister to freeze in place, his hands still wringing his hair out. The son of Poseidon sighed, sitting down next to him.

"Besides, I think you've got enough," Percy continued, capping the now almost-full bottle Alister was leaning over.

The son of Athena slowly coiled up into a sitting position, bringing one hand up to his eyes. "I take it you're feeling better, then?" he asked, not looking at Percy.

"Yeah. Just needed a moment to rest."

Alister absorbed his response before nodding, and pulled his hand away from his face. There weren't any tears, but the redness around his eyes proved what Percy had noticed wasn't a trick of the light. "Good. Have the pegasi made it back?"

"Yep. Were happy to learn we were stopping for the night, too."

"I figured. From what you told me of their conversation, I suspected Calico would drown himself in lava before being left completely alone with Shortstop."

The two of them sat in silence for a moment, Percy contemplating whether or not he should mention what he came upon. He didn't want to embarrass the son of Athena, especially since they had only just met a few hours ago.

"Is that what you're telling yourself?" a small voice inside Percy's head asked. "You're just new acquaintances?"

Great, now his conscience was lecturing him. That's why it sounded so much like Annabeth. He knew Alister technically was Annabeth, but how could he be expected to broach a topic like that now?

"If it was Annabeth that you stumbled on in the forest, dunking her head into a stream to fill a water bottle and crying, would you just pretend nothing had happened?" the voice put forth.

No. He knew that much. He cared too much to ignore something like that.

"Oh, but you're willing to do that to him, huh? You're not the only one separated from the person he loves, Percy Jackson."

Ouch. That one stung. But he had to admit it had a point. Alister was a lot better at keeping his emotions hidden than Percy, but the son of Poseidon knew better than to assume this freak accident hadn't hurt both of them.

Looking over, Percy noticed the son of Athena still hadn't budged from his crouch. The tears may have stopped, but Percy suspected there was a tremor working its way through Alister even now. He couldn't close his eyes to that.

"So... how much of those words were meant for me?" he finally asked.

Alister swallowed. "Less than you might think."

"Then who were they really for?"

The son of Athena closed his eyes, letting out a shaky breath. "Percie, the gods, you... and me."

Percy blinked at that last one. "You? Why for you?"

"I... don't know," Alister admitted, his hand going to his left arm. "A part of me knows there's nothing I can blame myself for, relating to this. None of us really could; who even knew magic like this was possible? But even with that thought... I can't help but feel like I have to share the blame for everything else that's happened to her."

This... was a side of Annabeth Percy had only seen a few times. In private moments, away from the eyes of everyone. The daughter of Athena had accomplished more than Percy had ever dreamed anyone could do in a lifetime, and over a span of just five years. But that didn't mean she didn't hold regrets.

Percy definitely had his fair share. Bianca di Angelo, Charles Beckendorf, Ethan Nakamura... all of their faces had appeared in Percy's nightmares. He might have not been directly responsible for their deaths, but the son of Poseidon had wondered, more than once, what each of those demigods might have accomplished if they'd never crossed paths with him.

His gaze must have drifted, because Alister had to nudge him back to the real world. The son of Athena didn't look miffed by Percy's lackluster attention, however.

"We can't afford to sit here feeling sorry for ourselves. Not both of us, anyway," Alister chided, rising to his feet.

"I get it, though," Percy responded, rising as well. "This worry that you make things worse for everyone, just by being involved. It doesn't leave, even if you know the end result is worth fighting for."

Alister sucked in a breath. "And I don't disagree. But we can spill our hearts to each other some other time," the son of Athena said, walking back to the clearing.

"I'll remember you said that, Wise Guy," Percy told him, matching his stride.

"I'm sure you will, Seaweed Brain."

It wasn't a very long walk, but it did take enough time for a new idea to occur to Alister.

"Why did you assume my complaining was about you?" he asked Percy.

"Because we packed plenty of water bottles for the trip. There was no need for you to go find some random stream and fill more," Percy said, only half-joking. "I just assumed you were looking for an excuse to get some space away from me, after our little spat."

"Oh, the spat we were having because you were wrong?"

Percy chuckled. "So you're still denying that you were worried about me?"

"And I will continue to do so, to the day I die," Alister assured him.

Percy was about to call that bluff, until the sound of hooves interrupted the conversation. "Are those... the pegasi?" he wondered.

Alister's hand crept towards his sword. "I think so... so why would they come running after us from the clearing?"

When Calico and Shortstop came thundering past, eyes wide with terror, the demigods had their answer. A trio of anthropomorphic sand creatures erupted out of the tree line, brandishing an assortment of sand weapons.

"Run, boys! These guys mean business!" Shortstop wailed as he galloped past Percy.

The son of Poseidon uncapped Riptide, facing this new threat with apprehension. Despite his studying on mythological creatures, he didn't recognize the sand demons now bearing down on him and Alister.

"Seitaads," the son of Athena helpfully growled as he drew his own blade.

"What?"

"Basically sand monsters. They can shape sand into whatever form they wish, including parts of their own bodies. Oh, and they eat just about anything living," Alister told him, bracing his sword against his shoulder.

The Seitaads, having evidently given up their pursuit of the pegasi, circled the two demigods, waving their sand weapons menacingly. Well, two of them, at least. The third Seitaad had apparently chosen to make his weapon a sand-fork. Size and all.

"Not very talkative, are they?" Percy posed, turning so he and Alister stood back to back.

One of the monsters, who was dual-wielding two sand flails, suddenly leapt forward, his sand-legs launching him a lot further than Percy would have expected. Sidestepping the flails, Percy slashed Riptide into the monster's side, but shockingly, the blade seemed to pass right through the Seitaad.

"Kinda hard to stab sand, Percy!" Alister yelled, rolling out of the way of the second flail. The Seitaad with the fork charged the son of Athena, who had to pull his dagger with his left hand to stop the monster from impaling his liver.

Percy pivoted, leaping over the first attacker to cover Alister's flank. They were outnumbered in this fight three-to-two, so where was the third Seitaad? Only two of them had attacked so far.

Landing next to Alister, the son of Poseidon kicked the sand-fork away from his back, only to register a horrified look in the son of Athena's eyes. Before he could figure out what was going on, Alister planted a kick right into Percy's solar plexus, knocking the demigod backwards a solid five feet. The force was enough to throw Alister back as well, just in time to avoid the third Seitaad, who came bursting out of the ground right where both boys had been standing just moments ago.

"Sorry!" Alister shouted, rolling onto his feet and striking with both of his blades. The sword lodged in the third Seitaad's chest, but stuck there, and the monster didn't seem very bothered by the new accessory. His dagger, meanwhile, sliced the sand-fork into pieces, only for the second Seitaad to mold a part of its stomach into a double-bladed axe.

Percy staggered to his feet, intent on helping Alister, but the first Seitaad had other ideas, slapping with one of its flails at Riptide. The flail looped around the sword, and with a snap, Riptide was wrenched out of his hands. Oh boy.

The second flail came racing down at Percy's skull, which the demigod was only able to avoid by leaping to one side onto his stomach. Not slowing down, he kept his momentum, tucking into a roll as the Seitaad started kicking up sand with its feet.

Sand that turned into a twister, sending the son of Poseidon flying into a tree. Percy felt his ribs seize up as he slid down the bark, and had to haul himself to his feet using the trunk as a brace. Allister wasn't having much success, either. His sword was out of reach, still firmly planted into the third Seitaad, who had copied his friend's idea of a battle-axe.

The son of Athena's face strained as he tried to counter two long-handled weapons with just a dagger, and before long, one of his opponents managed to cut a pretty serious gash into his leg.

This was not going well. All the boys had between them was a single dagger, to take on three enemies who could never be disarmed, and could just burrow into the ground to launch attacks from below. They needed something else.

Percy had an idea, having seen Riptide pass right through the sandy things, but he had no idea if it would work. Even if it did, their location meant he might not even be able to pull it off.

Alister's injury kicked him into gear. The son of Athena tried pulling back, but hobbling on one leg was a precarious position to be in on the battlefield. The Seitaads facing him charged as one, while the third jumped at Percy, its flails coming together into one strike. Percy shut his eyes, reaching out. This had to work.

It did. A wall of water came rushing past the tree Percy was leaning against, catching his attacker off guard. The sand monster dissolved into particles as the wave washed over it, distracting its two companions long enough for the water to consume them as well. With all three Seitaads now trapped in the vortex, Percy held his hand out, pushing the entire body of water up into the air.

"Please work," he whispered, holding it aloft. Once he was sure the Seitaads had been raised high enough, the son of Poseidon closed his hand into a fist. The water condensed down into a smaller and smaller shape, crushing every grain of sand due to the increasing pressure. Percy didn't let up until he'd turned the massive wave into a drop small enough to fit on a fingernail, before finally dropping it.

Alister stared at him in shock, blood still pouring out of his leg. "Where did you get that water from?"

"The stream; I didn't know if it was close enough for me to pull it over to us, but I guess it was," he answered, before his chest convulsed in agony. "Gah, that smarts."

"I think you might have broken something," Alister suggested, before his one good leg gave out, sending the son of Athena into a faceplant. "GH- I don't think I can walk on this," he muttered through his teeth.

Despite the cracked feeling in Percy's torso, he managed to kneel down next to Alister. "We packed nectar, right?"

"Back... at the camp," Alister wheezed.

Percy cursed, before a familiar voice spoke behind him.

"Nice fighting, gentlemen!" Shortstop congratulated them, nuzzling into Percy's back. "Calico thought we were about to be turned into steaks if we hadn't run into you!"

"I did not, you liar!" Calico brayed, trotting up to them. "You were the one screaming for help as we ran."

"Yes, but you ran first."

"Did not!"

"Did so."

"No-"

"Shut up!" Percy snapped. "Were you two just waiting on the outskirts of that fight, watching us almost die?"

Both pegasi blustered, but didn't deny the accusation. The son of Poseidon fumed, but held his tongue further. "Never mind. You can make yourselves useful now. Get the two of us back to the clearing we set up in," he ordered.

The winged horses murmured apologies as Percy hoisted Alister onto Calico, then draped himself over Shortstop. The ride wasn't a smooth one, since Shortstop seemed incapable of avoiding hitting every other root with his hoof. Percy held his pain down, until a particularly sharp jolt elicited a groan.

"Careful, you oaf! It's his chest!" Alister admonished Shortstop.

The pegasus grumbled about taking orders from someone who couldn't even walk for a second, before remembering that Percy could understand him, and kept his mouth mercifully shut the rest of the way.

On reaching the clearing, Percy was insistent that Alister take some nectar before he did, something the son of Athena didn't try to argue against. His leg injury must have been worse than he let on, if he didn't squabble about it.

Once that was taken care of, it was Percy's turn for treatment. One touch from Alister confirmed that yes, at least a few ribs were cracked, with one broken for sure. The son of Poseidon had to be propped up against the invisible chariot for Alister to get enough nectar into him.

"That should be better in a few hours," the son of Athena said once they'd finished. Wiping the sweat from his brow, he blinked at Percy. "Wait... what happened to my sword?"

Talking only made his chest injury throb, so Percy instead pointed upwards. Alister turned an incredulous look to the sky, and was treated to the sight of his sword, thoroughly soaked, come spiraling down, landing on the ground with a thunk.

"How- how did you do that?!"

Maybe it was the nectar taking effect, but Percy smirked as he felt sleep pulling at him. "I'll... tell you... in... the morning."

And with that, he was out.

Chapter Text

"So, who's my double for you?" Annabeth asked, drumming her fingers on the dashboard. The two demigods had been sitting in an awkward silence since Percie put it into cruise on the highway. Rachel's mansion wasn't too far, but there were only so many trees one could count on the side of the road before insanity started to set in.

Percie sighed, her grip on the steering wheel tightening as she thought of her boyfriend. "Alister. Before you ask, yes; he is taller than you."

The daughter of Athena pondered this information, then closed her eyes. "I know you went over everything, and most of it seems to be the exact same sequence of events. But, I can't help feeling like there had to be at least some minor differences here and there."

"Such as?"

"Well, when I went after the Athenian Parthenos, I had to outwit a cabal of chauvinistic Roman ghosts. Did Alister have better luck, since he was a man, in that little encounter?"

Percie pursed her lips as she tried to recall everything Alister had told her about his descent under Athens, where he confronted Arachne. To be fair to her, he'd shared it while they were stuck in Tartarus, so she'd been repressing most of it for a while. "He ran into them, but from what he said, it was no cakewalk for him, either. Honestly, I'm pretty sure those ghosts would have been a pain in the butt for anyone, regardless of who they were."

Annabeth blinked, then nodded. "I guess it was just overthinking on my part. That whole mess with the Romans... I know we're good now, but when they learned I was a child of Athena... you'd have thought I cannibalized their children in front of them."

"Because of the whole 'chaste goddess' thing?" Percie guessed.

"Yeah. Of course, that's not how Athena has children, but it didn't seem like a good time to go into detail about exactly how I was born."

Percie chuckled. "No, I imagine that would have freaked them out even more."

The daughter of Poseidon was in an odd position, to say the least. The conversation was easy enough to have, even though she was technically talking to someone who'd seen everything Alister had. Alister... gods, what did he say when he realized she was gone? They were going to wash out the stables together, as soon as she got back from seeing Nicola and Willamina off. It was an errand. A typical thing. He'd kissed her temple, and said "Don't keep me waiting" with a look so serious, it was funny.

But it wasn't funny any more. The longer they were apart like this, the more it would ache. The reassurance that the son of Athena had Percy was a small measure of comfort, but Annabeth had a point. Even though they were the same, things were different. And she didn't know the intricacies of Annabeth's relationship, either. Could things really be so... simple, to say all was exactly as it was on the other side?

Percie's grip on the wheel got tighter, and tighter, until it felt like the upholstery was hanging on by a thread. Her knuckles were shaking, too, and Percie had to will her muscles back to a more relaxed state.

Such a thing, of course, caught Annabeth's attention, and the daughter of Athena's eyes softened into a compassionate look.

"He had those moments, too," she admitted, turning to look out the window.

"I'd be scared if he didn't," Percie responded, her eyes locked on the road now. "Alister always knew when I was about to go off, and could prepare for it." The daughter of Poseidon could conjure the image all too easily. It would be something small; a young girl calling for her brother, or a wire snapping if pulled too taut. Then the memories would start to overwhelm her. A choking, squeezing sensation that felt like it would last forever... then Alister would pull her in, and his voice would make it all shrink away. It hadn't gotten any easier since Tartarus, except now it was something that happened to both of them. They'd only gotten closer after Gaea's defeat, something many already thought impossible.

Annabeth breathed out a hearty sigh, bringing Percie out of her thoughts.

"I just hope yours is taking care of mine," Annabeth said after a pause.

"Knowing mine, he's already given yours a thorough dressing-down, if not two," Percie shot back.

Annabeth smiled at that. "Yep, you two are the same. Making even the worst better with a joke."

"I'm only half-joking," Percie countered, but the smile was contagious. Geez, that woman looked just like Alister when she smiled. It was enough to melt the heart of a dragon.

The rest of the drive to the Dare residence passed by quickly enough, mainly due to the traffic thinning out as the demigods headed further away from the city. Percie ended up gunning the engine to nearly ninety at one point, only for Annabeth to pester her enough to drop it down to eighty. "You're going to get us killed before we ever make it," she'd complained.

"Let's hope not. Imagine how embarrassing the epitaph would be: Here lies Percie Jackson: Hero of Olympus, Bane of Pavement."

That one had been enough for Annabeth to gently punch her in the shoulder, which just made Percie more determined to get her to smile again. Maybe next time.

The Dare manor loomed over the women as Percie pulled into the driveway. Annabeth had leaned over the driver's seat to let Rachel know who was to be expected over the intercom stationed at the front gate, which was more than enough to get them waved through without a problem.

"Did anyone tell her anything over Iris message while we were driving?" Percie asked.

Annabeth shook her head. "If we're keeping things under wraps, we can't be too liberal with our messaging. Iris is sure to be listening in once she realizes we're sending a lot out of camp, and that info will spread like a plague on Olympus if she hears it."

"Yay, a busybody rainbow goddess. What else is new?"

The driveway was empty, which meant Percie could finally enjoy some decent parking at the house. The last time she'd seen River, his dad was holding some kind of fundraiser, and you couldn't get within three hundred feet of the house with a car. At least, until The Hind of Keryneia showed up, and destroyed most of the ground floor. On the bright side, it made the evening a lot more exhilarating.

"So, how do we want to do this? I knock on the door, and lead with 'Hi, I'm Percie, but a woman!'?" the daughter of Poseidon asked.

Annabeth rolled her eyes. "No, Seaweed Brain. We can explain it together, without the need for the theatrics."

"You're no fun."

"I can be fun! I just know when to have fun!"

"That would be easier to believe if you hadn't just blushed."

The daughter of Athena made a face. "You... are so... idiot!" she snapped, marching to the door and banging on it.

"Hey, you opened this can of worms, Wise Girl. Remember that," Percie said, joining her on the porch. Annabeth didn't respond, and Percie sighed. "Fine. I'm sorry for making fun of you. My bad."

She didn't say anything back, but her face did soften a little. Just in time, too, since the door opened not a second later.

"Annabeth!" Rachel greeted, wrapping the demigod in a hug. "It's been, what? Six months, more? How you been?"

"Busy, Rachel. Very busy," Annabeth grunted through the embrace, doing her best to return it.

Percie studied this world's Oracle of Delphi as she and Annabeth hugged it out. The hair was the closest connection to River from the outset, but it wasn't hard to see the other hits. Their height seemed to be identical, and the freckles might have even been in the exact same pattern. That... was just a tad weird, even for this situation.

Rachel finally dropped Annabeth from her clutches, but didn't look away. "So, where's Percy? He couldn't come?"

The relatively good mood that had been on the porch evaporated with that question. Annabeth's eyes fell to the ground, and Rachel's face grew somber.

"Oh, boy. What's happened now?"

'It would... be best to discuss this inside," Annabeth whispered.

Rachel didn't hesitate to shoo both demigods in, shutting the door behind them. "My parents are out, so we've got the place to ourselves. Let's talk in the kitchen," the Oracle said, leading the way.

That was how Percie found herself sitting in a chair so expensive, King Minos would have fainted at the sight of it. Rachel's hot chocolate wasn't half bad, either, even if it really wasn't the perfect weather for it.

"So, what's Ocean Boy gotten himself into this time?" Rachel asked once they were all situated.

Annabeth stared down into her mug, most likely trying to come up with the best way to explain it all. Not an easy task.

"It's a long story," Percie said, trying to spare Annabeth some heartache.

The Oracle turned to Percie, really looking at her for the first time. "Well, if there's one thing we have right now, it's time. Don't hold back on my account."

Percie could appreciate her spunk, at least, and complied. Everything she'd said at camp, she said here. Rachel's eyes bugged out, but she didn't interrupt, even when Percie mentioned that her Oracle wasn't a Rachel at all. She finished with the idea Damien brought up about seeing her, and waited for a response.

The Oracle of Delphi's eyes went back and forth between Percie and Annabeth fervently, before landing on the daughter of Poseidon. "And... you're him, in a manner of speaking?"

"Yeah; seems so."

Annabeth palmed her mug, looking despondent. "It's been a very... interesting last few hours, to say the least."

"I can't imagine why," Rachel murmured, standing to her feet. "No prophecies have cropped up, at least, so we're safe on that account for the moment. Otherwise... I don't really have a guess."

Annabeth leaned forward, her eyes focusing. "I know it can be difficult to see the things you do, but is there something... anything we can try?"

Rachel grimaced, resting her hands on the kitchen counter. "Annabeth... trying to force the visions is never a good idea. Especially with Apollo in such hot water with Zeus for that whole fiasco with Gaea."

Percie bit her lip. "Even if we managed to get one, there's still the matter of figuring out how exactly this was done. What's the point of bailing out the ship if you don't plug the leak that caused it to take on water in the first place?"

The other girls blinked at her.

"Are we sure she's Percy?" Rachel asked Annabeth.

'I was pretty confident," Annabeth admitted.

The daughter of Poseidon huffed. "Focus, guys. I've been around enough magic to know that spells of this magnitude never just do one thing. It's like unraveling a knot, and causing the whole tapestry to come apart."

Annabeth tilted her head. "Yes, that could very well be a potential problem, but according to that analogy, we'd have to find the knot in order to unravel it in the first place."

"Knots or no knots, it's not something I think I can brute force," Rachel cut in. "The last person to try went mad, remember? The best I can offer is to try to coax whatever I can out, but I'm gonna have to take it at my own pace."

"It's better than nothing," Percie conceded, but Annabeth still didn't look very pleased.

"Okay... just keep us informed," the daughter of Athena relented.

Rachel blew a stray tuft of hair out of her face. "Not like I have anything better to do, cooped up in here with no one else to talk to."

"Spoken just like River," Percie commented, standing up and offering the Oracle her hand. "Thanks for your time, and nice to meet you."

"You too, though I wish the circumstances weren't so dire," Rachel seconded, accepting the shake.

It was in that moment, when their hands connected, it happened. Rachel's grip tightened, and her eyes started to shimmer, a green light dancing in them. Even though they were indoors, Percie could feel the wind blowing past her, circling the Oracle as Rachel's jaw dropped, her eyes clearly not seeing what was in front of them. The phenomenon lasted for fifteen seconds, before the wind departed, and Rachel's eyes returned to their normal shade of green. The Oracle wobbled on her feet, and collapsed into Percie's arms.

"Er- I'll never get used to that!" the daughter of Poseidon exclaimed, holding Rachel aloft. She'd only seen River have an episode like that once, when he'd delivered the Prophecy of the Seven, but it was still enough to creep her out.

"Rachel!" Annabeth jumped out of her seat, coming to Percie's side. "What was that? What did you see?"

The Oracle swayed in Percie's grip, her face trembling. "V-V... Vengeance..." she managed to say, holding tight to Percie.

The daughter of Athena zoned in. "Vengeance? Like Nemesis?"

"No, no," Rachel muttered, her body starting to recover. Percie was able to raise her to a standing position, but the Oracle did lean on her for support. "Not Nemesis. This was too... one-sided to be her. Too much anger, rage. Like a dam about to burst."

"A dam?" Percie questioned. "That sounds really familiar..."

"Not now!" Annabeth interrupted, still focused on Rachel. "This anger. Who did it come from?"

The Oracle's eyes started to refocus. "She... uses many names. I don't know which is her real one. But... she is known as the child-eater. The night terror. The enchantress. Even the bogeyman."

Percie tensed up. "The enchantress? Could that be?"

"The person who cast the spell? Yes," Rachel said, no hesitation in her voice.

Percie turned to Annabeth. "Anyone you would know?"

The daughter of Athena shook her head in frustration. "No. Too many monsters could fulfill those descriptions. Our biggest hint is that our tormentor is a she."

"But do you know what this means?" Rachel burst out, pulling on Percie's arm. "That vision triggered when we touched. For that to happen... whatever magic brought you to this world, and sent Percy away, still lingers. Its presence has followed you."

Percie winced. "That doesn't sound good."

"No. Whoever cast the spell could use that to track you. Even worse... I don't think she's the only one who could follow it."

Annabeth and Percie startled at that. "You mean... Percie's going to draw in even more monsters than usual?" Annabeth asked, shocked.

The Oracle nodded apprehensively. "It might start to fade over time, but until that time comes, you're going to attract monsters by the hundreds."

Percie closed her eyes, her gut starting to churn. "So, I'm gonna have to deal with even more nasties than usual? Just peachy."

Annabeth put her hand to her chin, closing her eyes as well. "The enchantress, and now this? There has to be something... something we can narrow down if we can just look back far enough."

Percie opened one eye at that. "Far enough?"

"The magic used to exchange the two Percys would have required thousands of years to perfect. Lou Ellen's always talking about how some spells can be so complicated, they take actual decades to cast properly."

Rachel frowned. "If that's the case... then there's something we may need to keep in mind."

"Yes?"

"The instability in that vision made some things hard to interpret, but the anger I felt from it wasn't just directed at Percy. Some of it seems to also have been born through the spell itself."

Now Percie was lost. "The spell itself?"

Rachel cupped her chin in her hands. "Something must have gone wrong. The spell misfired... or glitched... or something. The effort it took to create it went to waste."

"So, this enchantress wasn't planning on swapping the two Percys?"

Annabeth opened her eyes in fear. "No, she wasn't. What would be accomplished by just exchanging them? A tremendous amount of effort went into crafting that spell; they wouldn't get complacent with a swap."

Rachel's expression was starting to match Annabeth's. "And if there was a hiccup in the spell, that could have been what caused the switch in the first place. Of course, if that's true... what was the original goal?"

The daughter of Athena's mouth twisted into a snarl. Her eyes seemed to grow even grayer as she had a realization. "A spell of this caliber... could only have been conjured for one single purpose."

Percie held her breath, desperately praying that Annabeth was about to say something like 'so she could hold a really exciting Bingo tournament' or 'she was really lonely, and who better to have for company than two heroes'. Life had been difficult enough. It was only fair that the mastermind behind this plot was just a big softie. Right? Right?

Wrong.

"The enchantress... intended to remove Percy Jackson from existence entirely."

Chapter Text

Demigod dreams were unpredictable. Sometimes you'd be forced to relive some of the most unpleasant moments of your life, in excruciating detail. Or maybe you'd get oddly accurate showings of things happening across the world, which nine times out of ten ended up being directly related to whatever you were doing. Occasionally, you might get a reprieve, if Morpheus was on his lunch break. But the god of dreams rarely ever ate.

He certainly wasn't on break while Percy was out. The son of Poseidon saw flashes of his biggest memories as he slept: The Battle of Manhattan, the Argo II firing on New Rome, almost drowning for real after nearly dying in that muskeg in Alaska. But those were small fry compared to what he ended up seeing.

He was back in the alley in New York, cold spaghetti slapping him in the face as he turned on his heels to look around. Percy made a move towards the alley's exit, but before he had finished his first step, the street fell away, leaving him stranded in the outlet he'd faced Snake Lady in.

Speaking of his enemy, she seemed to have been granted a starring role in this nightmare. She'd come unfurled out of the ground, her street performer clothes exchanged for a Victorian-era dress that covered her from her neck to her ankles. Her eyes shone with an ethereal light, and her claws had grown to an impossible length, so much so that they fully extended from the massive sleeves on her arms. Of course, Percy didn't find Riptide when he reached for it. Thanks, Morpheus.

"Percy Jackson," Snake Lady boomed, her voice striking every joint in the demigod's body with paralysis. "The Fates are both kind and unkind to you, are they not?"

Whatever snappy comeback Percy was going to throw back at her died in his throat. Apparently Snake Lady didn't seem to lose any of her magical abilities in dream-mode. His whole body seized up, forcing him to look her in the face as she slowly approached him. Her dress ripped and tattered as she grew closer, revealing more of her scaly skin with every inch.

"I confess, I underestimated you. Even knowing what you were capable of, I allowed myself to be taken off-guard by one of Hera's champions," the monster spat, smoke beginning to sizzle from her sleeves.

Percy might not have been able to move, but his eyes still conveyed his surprise at that remark. Snake Lady sighed. "Yes, you may not see yourself as that, but your understanding is but a trifle anyway. A shame that it must come to this."

She laced one of her clawed hands under Percy's chin, tilting his head upward until it faced the sky. "I wonder if your patron regrets her actions, if she's even capable of such sympathy. She showed me none."

The sorceress didn't seem to be speaking for his benefit, but Percy appreciated the info. Assuming she didn't possess the ability to kill him in his sleep right here.

"You know, there was a rumor going around some of the ancient Greeks that you and I shared the same father," Snake Lady continued, wrapping her claws around his throat. "Good thing it wasn't true. I might actually feel a little guilty about this."

With that, she began squeezing. The son of Poseidon felt his chest start to burn as his windpipe was blocked off, but with his limbs still completely frozen, there was nothing he could do about it. "For what it's worth, die knowing that you have caused more trouble for me than any of the so-called gods."

Even his sleep, Percy could feel his lungs desperately fighting for air. The claws on her hand began digging into his neck as she tightened her hold, and his vision began to darken. "Don't fight me, young one. I possess things you could nev-" Snake Lady started to say, before her eyes widened in fury.

"No! I won't let you interrupt!" she screamed into the darkness behind her.

With the last of his consciousness slipping away, Percy could just barely make out Snake Lady raising her other hand to slice his throat with her claws, only to vanish into mist before she could strike. That mist enveloped Percy, shrouding the son of Poseidon in a new light. At least, until that light became corporeal and bonked him on the head.

The blow was enough to jolt the demigod awake, now gasping for air again. His hand instinctively went to his throat, and even though there were no puncture wounds, he would have sworn he could feel bruising. Yet that was still not the thing that immediatly grabbed his attention upon awaking.

He was still leaned up against the chariot in the clearing, where he'd passed out after being treated for his rib injury. However, the clearing had a new occupant, aside from the party he'd left camp with.

The woman was clearly a god, that was obvious. Why else would she be wearing a Greek chiton out in the middle of the Indiana Dunes National Park? Her hair was a darkened shade of brown, that hung down her waist in wild tangles. A dagger was fastened into her side, and she clutched a sputtering torch in her left hand. The torch finally clued him in.

"Lady Hecate?" he asked, his voice raspy from his near-strangulation.

The goddess of magic regaled him with a look of extreme annoyance. "So you do exist, after all," she growled, shifting her torch between her hands. "When Gale told me the tale, I was incredulous. But how can I deny my own eyes now?"

Still trying to regain his breath, Percy thought back to when he'd last seen Hecate. It had been the final battle against the giants, right after Gaea awoke. The goddess had fought alongside Hazel. She'd been elegant, and refined in her movements. But the deity before Percy now was anything but. Her chiton was a mess, and her torch looked pathetically sad, like it might fuzz out at a slight gust of wind.

Hecate's look only got sourer as she studied him back. "Yes, Percy Jackson. I am not myself... not in the way I desire. Your little mistake back in that alley has stripped me of all but my most basic powers."

Percy shifted against the chariot, and suddenly became aware of a new weight leaning against his chest. He turned his head, and was treated to the sight of Alister's sleeping form, nestled into the son of Poseidon's side. Percy put a hand to the son of Athena's back in an effort to shake him awake, but got no response.

"Don't bother trying to stir him. I've made sure the two of us can't be interrupted," Hecate snapped.

Percy felt a surge of anger flare up in his stomach. "You better not have hurt him," he managed to say with a reasonable amount of effort.

"Or what? You'll insult my hair?" the goddess spat back. "And don't accuse me of things you know nothing about. He's merely sleeping. How quickly you forget, Percy Jackson, the part I played in the Battle of Manhattan."

"Oh, the part where you put the entire city to sleep so Kronos could march in and slaughter my friends with no traffic in the way?" Percy demanded, his rising emotions making it easier to speak.

"What, was I supposed to meekly stand by while the twelve shunned all those outside their circle?" Hecate rounded, mist coiling around her shoulders. "Do you have any idea how many of my children went to the lord of time, son of Poseidon? Opposing him would have put me at odds with my own!" she fumed.

Percy went silent at that. He knew that many demigods of the minor gods had filled Kronos's ranks; it was why he'd tried to spare them during the war. They had been abused and neglected for so long; of course they'd go running to someone promising a better future. What he hadn't realized were the implications behind their involvement. Hecate, Nemesis, Iris, Hypnos... siding with the gods meant killing their own children.

His silence must have confirmed something for Hecate, because the goddess's expression returned to a neutral state. "I am many things, hero. Not all of them something to boast about. But I will not be the parent that the Olympians were to their offspring."

Percy swallowed, then nodded. "Okay. My apologies."

The goddess arched an eyebrow. "Unnecessary, but appreciated nonetheless. Now, on to the matter at hand."

Hecate spread her hands out, and the Mist began circling once again, covering the whole clearing in its fog. The goddess of magic vanished, but reappeared next to Percy, her torch now tucked under her arm. "I know of the woman who now haunts your dreams, the one who would have killed you had I not awoken you."

Percy flinched at the memory, causing Alister's head to slip down into the crook of his elbow. "So that was you, who interrupted that?"

"Indeed. I confess, I did consider allowing her to finish the job, if only to see if that might right the wrongs I've been dealing with since you arrived in this world," she confirmed.

"Do those wrongs have anything to do with your... current state?"

Hecate hissed. "The nerve of her... playing with a power like that so recklessly. We're lucky she hasn't ripped the fabric of the world apart, regardless of your displacement with our own Percie Jackson."

"But how would that weaken you?"

"A bit of half-truths on my part. Let me rephrase: The only reason the world hasn't come apart is because I've been holding it together, as best as I can. Of course, I am trying to counter magic that has been crafted over years on the fly, so I'm forced to... expend myself in ways I have not had to do in millennia."

Percy startled at his news. "That's just this world, though?"

Hecate actually let a small grin play across her lips. "I can assure you, no. Such magic has destabilized your world as well, if the forces I've seen working alongside me are anything to go by."

"Forces alongside you?"

"I suspect that the other me, your Hecate, is fighting on her side as well. The two of us are more attuned to magic than any of the other gods, minor or otherwise."

A sad thought sprung up in Percy's mind as he caught onto Hecate's meaning. "But, if you're busy holding the world together, you won't be able to assist us in undoing the spell, right?"

"You are more astute than many believe you, Jackson," she nodded. "Alas, I can only remain here a few minutes more, before my attention must refocus on the task at hand. Be warned: my magic right now shields you from the monsters hunting you, but when I leave, that protection will be lifted. You must resume your travels, immediatly."

Percy shivered as he absorbed her words, but nodded in response. "Thank you, for what you're able to do, Lady Hecate."

"Do not thank me yet, Percy. I suspect the real solution to this lies within you, and our Percie. Again."

Before she left, Percy needed to get one more question in. "You said you knew about this sorceress responsible, right? Anything specific you can tell?"

A troubled look passed over Hecate, before the goddess closed her eyes. "Very well. I will only tell you her name; no more. The woman behind this... she is called Lamia."

The goddess of magic departed with that, the Mist leaving the clearing as quickly as it arrived. Percy shook his head, too many thoughts running through his mind in that moment. Hecate's warning had been dire; they were being hunted, and needed to get out of there.

Alister's head had landed in Percy's lap by now, and the son of Poseidon shook him as effectively as he could without hurting him. Gray, bleary eyes fluttered open, looking up at Percy in confusion. "Uh, why are you upside down?"

"No time for talk! We've got to move!" Percy insisted, rolling out from under the son of Athena.

Alister lifted his head off the ground, an embarrassed look on his face. "Oh, gods. Did I try to cuddle you in my sleep? I am so sorry, it's something I've been trying t-"

"No need for sorry! Just get the pegasi harnessed!" Percy reiterated, before coming to a stop. "Wait... where are they?"

A long leg sticking out over the chariot clued him in. Stepping around it, he spotted Calico still snoring, his hind leg sticking into the air straight up. Shortstop was totally splayed out, like a snow angel, with his wings folded under him.

"Oh no! The sand demons are back!" Percy yelled out, his voice full of terror.

Calico's eye snapped open, his other hind leg shooting up to join the other one. "Please no..." he whimpered.

Shortstop didn't stir. ".... No, I said extra hay, not hold the hay," he neighed in his sleep.

Time for drastic action. Percy grabbed one of the water bottles they'd packed and splashed it into the pegasus's face. Worked like a charm. "Great jumping ballyhoo!" Shortstop cried out, rising to his feet in one swift motion. "The mermaids are attacking! With water that smells like Alister's scalp, for some reason!"

Percy rolled his eyes, but played along. "Yeah! And they're really mad at you! Mermaids hate higher education!"

"No! The savages! We must depart immediatly!" the winged horse screeched, racing towards the chariot, now visible once again.

Alister pocketed his Yankees cap, still shrugging off whatever Hecate had used to put him to sleep. "Ready when you guys are," he said, then had to jump to one side before getting trampled by the two panicked pegasi.

Percy loaded their bags as Alister harnessed the panicked Calico and the absolutely hysterical Shortstop. "They're gonna kill me before I can pay off my student loans!" the latter wailed.

After making sure everything was ready, Percy hopped on after the son of Athena, readying himself for another horrible take-off. Alister didn't even have to to touch the reins; the moment both boys were in the chariot, they were already ascending.

"Tch!" Percy winced, grabbing onto Alister's arm as the pegasi carried them into the sky at speeds he previously thought weren't possible. As they crossed beyond the treetops, the son of Poseidon made the mistake of looking down. Firstly, because it only made his airsickness worse. Second, because it gave him a good view of the posse Hecate had mentioned being on their tail.

More Seitaads, at least twenty of them, came charging into the clearing. It didn't take long for them to notice the chariot soaring into the air, and in the next moment, all of them turned parts of themselves into sand bows with sand arrows.

"Great horse of the sky!" Shortstop exclaimed as one went flying by his head. "The mermaids have reverted to primitive weapons! They no longer need to kill us with ignorance!"

"Shut up and fly!" Calico bellowed, his wings moving even faster. "Or at least take an arrow to the neck. Then I can be spared your company."

The two pegasi kicked into an even higher gear, leaving the national park far below them. Once significant distance had been placed between them and the ground, Percy's grip on Alister relaxed. "I think we're good to continue," he muttered, leaning against the side of the vehicle.

The son of Athena rubbed his arm, concern on his face. "How did you know they were coming?"

"Hecate warned me."

"Excuse me?"

Percy recounted the conversation from that morning to Alister. The son of Athena paled at the mention of Lamia's name. "No... it can't be her," he murmured.

"You know of her?"

Alister covered his mouth with one hand. "Daughter of Hecate, and Queen of Libya, at one time. Until she decided to carry on an affair with Zeus. Hera cursed her, turning her into a snake-human hybrid. After killing her children, of course. In retaliation against the Queen of Olympus, Lamia cast her own curse: all demigods would attract monsters, lured by the scent of their godly heritage."

The news came down like a hammer. "Wait, so Lamia is the one we have to thank for that whole thing?" the son of Poseidon asked, stunned. Of all the monsters to cross paths with, why her?

Percy stared at Alister, the son of Athena at a loss for words. Neither one of them had been expecting to tangle with the creature responsible for nearly every problem demigods faced, all the way up to the modern day.

"But... I told you and Chiron that the woman who attacked me looked like a snake. Why didn't she come to mind sooner?" Percy questioned.

Alister's gaze hardened. "Because she was killed. Kinda takes her off the main suspects list, doesn't it?"

"The sarcasm is not needed," Percy grumbled. "And what did we learn from that whole mess with Gaea and the Doors of Death? Killing off monsters was just about impossible before; Thanatos being chained up did nothing to help matters," he added, remembering his quest to free Death itself.

"So, Lamia could have been resurrected while the Doors of Death were open?"

Alister didn't deny the possibility, which only confirmed Percy's idea. Not that he was happy about it.

"And she apparently has access to my dreams. She would have killed me, if Hecate hadn't stepped in," the son of Poseidon mentioned.

That got Alister's attention. "That's... not ideal. You can't just stay awake until we solve this."

"Thanks for that, child of wisdom. Never would have come to that on my own."

"Now who's the one being sarcastic?"

Percy wanted to tell Alister 'the handsome one', but the son of Athena's face was so serious, he couldn't look him in the eye. He didn't want to laugh though, at risk of being tossed out of the chariot, so he ended up biting down on his tongue.

Alister shook his head. "No? Fine with me," he said turning back to the reins. "I'll try to think of a way for us to deal with that dreaming problem on the way to California... and Percy?"

The son of Poseidon rose to his feet again. "Yes, Alister?"

The demigod pouted, before turning his head off to the side, so Percy couldn't see his face. "I... really am sorry about that whole cuddling thing. It won't happen again, I promise."

That was the second apology Alister had made about it in ten minutes. Why was he so bothered by it... and why was Percy not nearly as bothered by it as he probably should have been? The sight of seeing Hecate in the flesh had been so jarring, after being woken from a dream where he was actually being choked, Percy's mind hadn't registered everything the moment it had happened. But now, up here in the clouds, he could recall things with a lot more clarity.

In that moment, where Hecate had pointed out Alister to Percy, and the son of Poseidon had accused the goddess of hurting him, Percy's arm had wrapped around Alister's waist, and pulled him tighter to his chest. He'd threatened Hecate, and while the goddess was right to scoff at it, since he really couldn't do much to her in that state, he'd meant it. That kind of thing... was something he'd only really done for Annabeth before. But it was real. That anger... that threat... if Alister really had been hurt, he might have swung at Hecate. No. He would have. No 'might' about it.

"Alister?"

"Yes, Percy?"

"You have nothing to apologize for. And no promises that need to be made."

Chapter Text

Percie felt her whole body tense as the words left Annabeth's mouth. "The enchantress wanted to... get rid of Percy entirely?"

Rachel grimaced. "Quite the plan, if that's what she was going for."

"But why to that extreme? What was holding her back from just trying to kill him, like every other monster with a grudge?"

Annabeth turned grave eyes to the daughter of Poseidon. "Because death would only end him there. But... if Percy ceased to exist, what would the world look like now?"

The other girls' jaws went agape at the realization. "If Percy never existed, odds are good Kronos destroys Olympus. The Romans had no idea about the attack; they couldn't fight on two fronts like that," Rachel whispered.

"Exactly," Annabeth continued. "Kronos wipes out Olympus, and Gaea rises not even a year later. The blood of a different demigod would have been required, but I'm sure the prophecy in question would have just selected another unlucky guy."

Percie had to sit back down, her mind struggling to digest this information. "So... Pe- I, would never be born. She... tried to remove the two of us from time, entirely."

"Could magic like that really exist?" Rachel demanded. The Oracle seemed to become more and more irate with every passing moment. "How on earth could anyone, even a god, affect the world like that?"

Sadly, it wouldn't be too hard for Percie to imagine it. "I might not have been her direct target, but I got caught up in the spell anyway," the daughter of Poseidon realized. "The only reason I'm here right now is because the spell itself went wild."

"Seaweed Brain," Annabeth murmured, her eyes far away. Percie could tell she was thinking about her boyfriend. As hapless as their current predicament was, it was only thanks to Percy that she hadn't been wiped from the universe without even being aware of it.

"Did she know about the second world, where this Percie is from?" Rachel asked. "The rage I felt in that vision... I wouldn't put it past her."

The daughter of Athena recovered, shaking her head. "Somehow, I doubt it. I have no idea how she could have learned of it, if she did. It seems more likely that her only real target was my Percy, and you-" she pointed at Percie, "got caught in the misfire."

Well, that didn't make the daughter of the sea feel any better. In fact, it only exacerbated her frustration. "So my being here is what? A mistake?" she asked, her voice growing cold.

Annabeth's response shook her out of it. "No. The exact opposite, actually."

"What?"

"Your being here is exactly the best thing that could have happened. Percy is the most qualified demigod on the earth when it comes to facing catastrophic events," Annabeth said, her voice unwavering. "From what I've seen and heard, the same title applies to you, Percie. The two of you may have been dropped into this situation without warning, but there's no doubt in my mind that both of you can overcome it."

Annabeth placed a hand over Percie's clenched fist. "We walked through Tartarus, Seaweed Brain. You honestly thought I'd give up on you because of a little mix-up?"

It was a good thing the daughter of Poseidon was sitting down, because she would have melted into a puddle of tears if she'd been standing. Not like her sitting down didn't mean there weren't tears at Annabeth's reassurance. Just that she didn't dramatically fall into the daughter of Athena's arms. That was Apollo's thing.

"You... moving little brainiac," Percie sniffled, rubbing her eyes. "How could I ever say no to you?"

"Ask me again when I tell you to clean out your car," Annabeth joked, cracking that smile again. Gods, Percie could have kissed her. Probably would have, if Rachel wasn't watching with a smile playing on the corner of her lips.

"You two are the sweetest," the Oracle teased, causing both demigods to lean back from each other to look at her. "What? I call it like I see it. Technically, I don't think it's cheating if the other person is literally your partner from another universe."

"Rachel!" both of them exclaimed, turning the same shade as a strawberry.

"Okay, I'll drop it. But keep making goo-goo eyes at each other, and I'll start again full-force."

Percie shuffled to her feet, letting go of Annabeth's hand. "I think I liked you better when you were all wild-eyed and green."

The Oracle only giggled. "Sure, Percie. Whatever helps you sleep at night."

The conversation was cut short a moment later when a beeping sound erupted over the mansion's alarm system. Cursing, Rachel jogged into the hallway outside of the kitchen, both demigods following her.

"Is someone trying to break in?" Annabeth asked when they stopped.

Rachel sneered as she clicked onto the system. "Not in the way you think. After that mess with the giants, I made a few... adjustments to the alarm, with some help from the Hunters and Chiron."

The Oracle scanned through a few shots of the mansion grounds before stopping. "Looks like we have visitors," she said, showing the screen to Percie and Annabeth. A horde of dracaena slithered across the manor's property line. By Percie's count, there appeared to be twelve of them.

"Guess you were right about that spell's lingering effects," the daughter of Poseidon intoned, pulling Riptide from her pocket. "Plans, Wise Girl?"

"Wait!" Rachel cut in, before Annabeth could speak. "They're coming up from the southeastern side of the property. There's a way we can sneak in behind them and take the whole group by surprise."

Both demigods blinked. "How?" Annabeth asked.

Rachel waved for them to follow her. "My dad got nervous after his last fundraising event got ransacked by the Hind, though he thought it was just a rabid deer. No one was hurt, but he decided to install an escape tunnel in the house in the case of any more surprise guests."

Percie was gobsmacked. "An escape tunnel? Where?"

They reached the ballroom in the back of the house, but there was no time to admire the architecture or the luxurious curtains. Rachel ran up to the piano, and played a trio of notes Percie didn't recognize. A second later, an entire portion of the wall folded in on itself, revealing a set of stairs leading downward.

Annabeth whistled. "That's... fantastic, actually."

Rachel shrugged. "The piano trick is too corny for my liking, but it's easy enough, I guess."

Percie broke into a wide grin. "I'm so trying that when I visit River again. I'll have to pretend I don't know, so his reaction when I 'accidentally' open the tunnel is good."

"I'll do my best to imagine it," Rachel responded, leading them down into the passageway. "It splits off, and can go in any direction. We know they're coming from the southeast, so this one is our best choice," she explained, taking the third path on the left and turning down into another smaller set of stairs.

Annabeth kept close to Percie's back while they snuck underground, her brow furrowed. "Where will we come up, exactly?"

"You know the well about one hundred yards from the driveway? That's where this one goes."

The daughter of Athena exhaled in annoyance. "A well? Really? What did your dad base his secret escape tunnel on, Clue?"

Despite her complaints, the system proved rather useful to their current problem. A few steps later, Rachel led them up a ladder, which opened out into the side of the stone well in her yard. Sure enough, the dracaena were ahead of them, crouching behind Percie's car, seemingly planning an ambush.

Percie had to hold back a chuckle. "Not the brightest attack strategy, is it?"

Rachel looked disappointed. "Guess I was expecting more from them. Shame."

Percie glanced over at Annabeth, who looked appalled at the monsters' poor choice of cover. If the girls actually did come out the front door, it wouldn't be hard to spot the mass of snake tails peering out from below Percie's car.

"I take six, you take six?" she asked the daughter of Athena, uncapping Riptide silently.

Annabeth slowly tugged her own sword free with a nod. Wait, sword?

"Where's your dagger?" Percie whispered.

"What dagger?"

"The one you used before you got the sword?"

The daughter of Athena looked bewildered by the question. "Why are you asking this now, of all times?"

"Alister uses a sword and a dagger together, not just a sword. I thought you'd be the same."

"Well, I'm not! I just use the sword, okay?"

Rachel rolled her eyes. "Ladies, you're both pretty. Please focus on the snake monsters; not your weapon preferences."

"Shut up, Rachel!" they both yelled at her. Yelled. When they were trying to be sneaky.

The dracaena all whirled around, expressions of surprise plastered over their faces. Clearly, they hadn't anticipated that their full-proof ambush could have been circumvented. That surprise only lasted for a second, though, before they recovered and charged, pointing spears at the three women.

"There goes the element of surprise!" Annabeth complained, pulling her blade. "This is your fault, Seaweed Brain!"

"Hey, blame the one who screamed at the top of her lungs when the game plan was stealth!"

"You did that, too, you bonehead!"

Despite their bickering, or maybe because of it, both demigods leapt forward to meet the charge of their enemies: Percie went over, Annabeth went under. Ironically enough, doing so ended up splitting the dracaena hoard in half, Percie's original idea.

The snake-women spun to face Percie as she landed, but she'd thrown off the focus of their charge by spinning them around. Somewhere, Alister smiled at her tactics. The thought filled the daughter of Poseidon with determination, and the dracanae nearest her dissolved into dust before she could lift her spear again. Riptide's first strike continued on its momentum, splitting another one of the monsters in half with a snick.

Out of the corner of her eye, Rachel went scrambling for the garage at the top of the driveway, presumably to find a hairbrush, or another suitable weapon. The remaining four dracaena facing her tried to use their weapons' reach to their advantage, jabbing at her from beyond her sword's range. But the daughter of Poseidon had fought alongside Romans. She had a counter.

Percie grabbed ahold of one of the spears just below the head, blocking the other three slashes with Riptide and her opponent's ensnared weapon. The long spears all got locked together, and Percie pressed her advantage, pushing the blunt end of the spear into the stomach of the monster unlucky enough to have gotten grappled. The dracanae panted as she got body-checked with her own weapon, and Percie used that to rip the spear clean out of her hands. The resulting force was enough to knock the other three back as well, two of whom had the misfortune to land on their backs instead of catching their balance.

That misfortune would be their end, as Percie skewered both at the same time, with her two weapons. Wielding a spear with a sword might have been unconventional, but the daughter of Poseidon thrived on unconventional. The now disarmed dracanae tried to grab one of her fallen sisters' weapons, only to get rewarded with Riptide in her neck as a reward. As she crumbled to dust, Percie turned to face the final snake-lady.

Now alone against a very well-armed demigod, the monster didn't look quite so confident. Gods love her, she did try. The spinning feint, followed by a low stab might have worked against a new legionnaire, or an actual child. But Percie was a veteran of two wars by this point. Blocking with Riptide, and striking with the spear, the sixth dracanae facing her was gone.

She wheeled to assist Annabeth, but saw that said assistance wasn't necessary. Annabeth had six neat little piles of dust scattered around her, and was watching the daughter of Poseidon with amused eyes. "I do believe I win that round," she said, grinning.

"Whoever said it was a competition?" Percie asked, trying to appear nonchalant.

"No one, but I have a feeling you thought you'd deal with your six first. That's what you get for showboating, Jackson."

If it was anybody else, she might have been embarrassed to be called out like that. But Alis- no, Annabeth, managed to make the jab playful.

"Oh, you wound me with your barbs, Chase."

"I try."

The sound of the garage of the manor drew their attention away, revealing Rachel holding what looked to be a bronze trash can lid. The Oracle's face fell when she saw the lawn clear of monsters. "Oh come on! I went to all that trouble of grabbing this for nothing?"

"Try being faster next time, Dare," Percie smirked, strutting up the driveway. "Here, keep this spear as a souvenir."

Rachel made a face as Percie tossed the weapon to her. "Yuck. No thanks! I'd rather clean up Mrs. O'Leary's trips to the bathroom."

Annabeth snickered, but pulled a straight face. "Nice work, ladies. Now, I do believe we have information that needs to get back to Chiron. Rachel, w-"

"I'm going with you," the Oracle said without hesitation. "Percy might be a hero for the ages, but I can't just sit back and wait for the day to be saved. Again."

"Hey, you did plenty of good. Don't sell yourself short," Percie argued.

"I threw a hairbrush at a Titan, and told a praetor to go to Europe. Not exactly the most thrilling resume."

Rachel wouldn't be persuaded otherwise, so that's how Annabeth found herself riding in the back seat on the way back to Camp Half-Blood. The Oracle had asked to drive, but Percie put her foot down on that one. Shotgun was the only compromise all sides seemed willing to agree to.

Mercifully, no other monsters attacked on the trip back. The evening light had since faded to a starry night sky, which made the camp look even more mysterious than it usually did. "I wonder if Lou Ellen apologized to Cecil for that handcuff accident," Rachel wondered as they pulled in.

The news that Percie and Annabeth were back, along with the Oracle, swept through the camp, resulting in the entire demigod population of the area hovering anxiously around the mess hall as the three delivered their report to Chiron.

No one looked pleased at Annabeth's theory that the sorceress behind this was trying to undo Percy Jackson himself, Chiron especially. "This is worrying," he commented. "We know the motive and the intent, but we still know nothing of the means, or the mastermind behind it all."

"Those clues don't narrow it down for you, either?" Percie asked.

The centaur shook his head. "I could wager a guess, but that's all they would be. And guesses are not going to cut it."

Further discussion was derailed when Mr. D came ambling into the mess hall, sipping more Diet Coke out of a plastic cup. "Ms. Palace, you're back. Hooray," he droned, not one ounce of sincerity in his voice. "Any luck in discovering your heritage, young lady?"

Annabeth and Chiron shared an unsure look with each other, and all the other demigods held their tongues. Percie groaned to herself, affixing the god of wine with a cheerful gaze. "Nope! Not yet, though I do have plenty of guesses myself. Chiron refuses to wager against them, though. I think he's scared of being out-bet, really."

Chiron managed an offended grunt at her false insult. "Quite, Miss... Castle," he said, remembering the fake name she'd given Dionysius.

The god of wine harrumphed at nothing in particular. "Well, somebody better hurry up. All of us swore on the Styx to claim every child at camp before they spent the first night, thanks to Mr. Jackson."

Did... Mr. D just get someone's name right? Granted, Percy technically wasn't here to hear it, but all of the demigods looked befuddled at the god. Percie could hardly believe it, either. Did Dionysus secretly respect her, too, when she wasn't around?

"I'm sure they're working on it, Mr. D," Annabeth soothed, looking nervous. "I'm sure Ophelia's parent is just... waiting for the appropriate moment."

The wine god scoffed. "If that was true, I'd call her a child of Apollo. But somehow I doubt Mr. Sunshine fathered someone as slippery as Ms. Palace."

Okay, this Dionysus didn't respect her, but she had insulted him to his face. Plus, he had no idea who she was. But slippery? Really?

"Maybe they're just savoring the moment before the big reveal," Percie offered. "Or dressing for the occasion, or preparing a big show with fireworks and guns? Oh, or they could be-" Percie's next words faded away as a bright green light erupted from behind her. The light shimmered and waved against the walls of the mess hall, casting the entire room in an aura of water. The light only grew brighter as an all-too familiar shadow emerged right behind her. "Or he's... right behind me, isn't he?"

Amidst the stunned faces of the mess hall, Dionysus included, no one spoke. The only answer Percie got was Annabeth giving the slightest of nods. Swallowing, Percie slowly spun around on her seat to face the man in the Hawaiian shirt, beach shorts, and flip-flops.

"Hi, Dad."

Chapter Text

"Anybody in the mood for Twenty Questions?"

Percy leaned over the railing of the chariot, staring at Calico in abject terror. The pegasus glanced back at the son of Poseidon, read his expression, then shook his head in dejection. "It was only an idea, guys. Flying cross-country gets boring if nobody wants to have any sort of conversation," the winged horse continued, glancing over at Shortstop for support.

The other pegasus didn't respond, staring straight ahead in fear. Percy couldn't blame the guy. As irritating as he had been during the first leg of the journey, getting shot at by sand monsters had sapped just about all of his spirit. Getting waylaid by that flock of gargoyles in Salt Lake City really hadn't helped matters. Alister ended up running most of the flying monsters over after knocking them out of the air, and poor Shortstop had been shaking like a leaf ever since.

"We're almost to our first destination, Calico. We can make it without any more chatter," Percy responded. Calico huffed at him, but didn't argue.

Alister, still at the reins, took a parting glance at his map. "I'm pretty sure we reached California about half an hour ago. We're not going to able to rest after picking up Janice, though."

The son of Poseidon and Calico both startled at that announcement. "But it's already so late," Percy said. The sun had set more than two hours ago, but Alister had shown no sign of wanting to slow down now that their visibility was shortened.

The son of Athena affixed Percy with a concerned look. "I've been pondering how we can combat that dream-invading Lamia demonstrated last night, and I think I have a solution, albeit a temporary one."

"By all means, let's hear it."

"Janice is our first stop since she's closer than Malibu, but I think Peter is our best bet for keeping you safe in your dreams, for the first few nights, anyway," Alister explained, angling the reins so the chariot began a slight descent. "His charmspeaking might be enough to keep Lamia out of your head, at least for a bit."

Percy tilted his head in confusion. "Wait, so you're basically gonna have Peter lullaby me to sleep? And then what? Is he just gonna whisper in my ear the whole night to keep me from dreaming?"

Alister exhaled in exasperation. "Unless you managed to come up with something better, Seaweed Brain."

Percy wanted to argue the point, but he couldn't deny the possibility of it actually working. He'd seen Piper's skill firsthand; hey, the woman was able to put Gaea to sleep right after waking up for the first time in eons. Peter might not be the worst choice. It was either that, or track down some wayward child of Hypnos.

"I hope Peter doesn't mind giving his sleep schedule such a major upheaval," was all he said in answer. Alister sniffed.

"He'll probably jump at the chance, really. If it means he and Janice will be on different sleep schedules."

Oh, right. The breakup thing. Percy really hoped that didn't come cropping up at a bad time. Hey, he now had something to look forward to even less than Shortstop's Powerpoint on the benefits of electric cars.

Judging time was hard, without the sun to keep an eye on, but Percy guessed it was another half hour before Alister's grip on the reins meant they came coasting down on a side street next to a campus. "I take it this is Edgarton's?" Percy asked.

"If it isn't, I'm going to be having words with a mapmaker," Alister remarked, hopping off the chariot and taking in the view down the street. "I don't want to take the chariot any closer, where we might get blocked off by buildings. We're gonna have to walk to Janice's dorm."

One helpful Yankees' cap later, the chariot and pegasi vanished. Calico neighed nervously at watching his own body disappear, and even Shortstop seemed to be startled out of his reverie, anxiously tapping his hooves against the pavement.

"Stay here, unless we call for you," Percy instructed, getting one half-hearted bray in affirmation.

Despite the darkness of the campus, Alister didn't seem to have any second guesses about their destination, leading Percy on a weaving path past various buildings. "Did you memorize the layout of the school, or something?" the latter asked.

"Of course I did; do you really want to knock on dorm rooms of a girls' school, asking for a specific one, in the middle of the night?"

Percy didn't have to answer that, and Alister left it there. He finally put a hand up outside of a smaller dorm, motioning for Percy to keep quiet. "She's up there; second floor, third window from the right," he whispered.

There weren't any lights on in the room, and neither boy wanted to risk getting caught on camera by going into the dorms directly, so they needed a way to get Janice down here. "Could we throw something?" Percy asked.

The son of Athena frowned. "And risk breaking the window? Someone's bound to hear it."

"Then what do you suggest, Wise Guy?"

Alister's eyes scanned the outside of the building, before they lit up. "No need to overcomplicate it; I'll just climb up. It's only the second floor."

The demigod unstrapped his sword and dagger, leaving them with the son of Poseidon. "Uh, what?"

"You heard me. I can use the holes in the bricks for a hold, and I am lighter than you anyway."

Before Percy could say any more, Alister went right up, his hands digging into the wall and yanking himself up to the window he'd pointed out. Was there anything that threw this guy for a loop? Or anything he did that didn't throw Percy for one?

The son of Athena lightly rapped his knuckles on the window frame, and based on his expression, he must have given whoever was in there a pretty good start. He motioned for them to come out, and then lowered himself back down, his feet hitting the ground soundlessly.

"She'll be right down," Alister assured him, running a hand through his hair. "I can take my weapons back now."

Dumbfounded, Percy handed the blades back without a word. Alister rearmed, then gave Percy a look. "Why are you staring at me like I just did something strange?"

"I've just never seen you- Annabeth, do something so... straight-forward," Percy stuttered.

Alister winced. "Didn't always. Had to learn that lesson the painful way." The son of Athena didn't elaborate further, and Percy couldn't recall any events from the years before where that seemed to be the thing Annabeth had taken away from an experience. If that was the case, then could he be referring to...

Percy thoughts had to be put on hold, since someone who looked quite familiar to the son of Poseidon came out the doors of the dorm, a dazed look on her face. The darkness of the night made noticing exact details difficult until she was close, but once she was, it was obvious. Blonde hair, tied into a loose ponytail that hung over her shoulder. She was tall for a woman, matching Alister in height, and her eyes could have given the sky a run for its money in the blue department.

"Alister, have you finally lost it? Do you have any idea how close I was to blasting you in the face with lightning until I realized it was you?" Janice asked the son of Athena, both of her hands crossing over her chest.

Alister rolled his eyes. "Considering you were hanging off your bed with only half your body, my guess is it would have taken about ten full seconds for you to recognize any real threat and react to it."

The daughter of Jupiter cracked a bemused grin. "Is your opinion of me really so low? I thought we were closer than that."

"You have a nasty habit of taking blows to the head and getting stabbed in the back, Janice."

Yeah, that sounded like Jason, if the appearance and location wasn't enough by now.

Janice pouted at Alister's words, before grinning again. "Oh, it's fine. I can't stay mad at you; not after the Argo. Really, I'm glad you showed up when you did. Academia can be a real pain on its own, before taking the disguised monsters into account."

Percy raised his hand, hoping to jump in. "Was it the math teacher, or the music teacher?" he asked.

Janice blinked at him, apparently really seeing him for the first time. "Both, actually. How'd you know?"

"Firsthand experience."

The daughter of Jupiter nodded, then squinted at Percy. "Uh, don't take this wrong way, friend, but do we know each other? I can't shake the feeling that I've run you into before, but the name escapes me."

Alister rubbed his eyes, leaving Percy with the honors this time. "About that... uh, we may need to take this conversation to the sky," the son of Poseidon offered, suddenly feeling very exposed standing out in the open night air.

Janice blinked, but agreed. Alister retraced their steps to the chariot, where Percy was treated to a very expletive-laced tirade from Shortstop. The pegasus's words were quite the jumbled mess of swears, but the gist of it seemed to be that he would not be putting in a good word to the pegasus union any more.

"Well, someone sounds cranky," Janice remarked, without Percy's translation.

Alister shrugged. "We've been flying all day. I think he's just touchy, honestly."

"All day?" Janice asked, her guard coming up. "I haven't asked, but I take it something's going on? I doubt either one of you would come knocking on my window in the middle of the night just for a chat in the air."

Percy breathed to himself, and as Alister clicked the reins for the chariot to take to the sky, he told her.

Her reaction was something he'd come to expect at this point.

"Uh....... huh?" Janice mumbled, as Percy told her who he was. "You're... Percie?"

"Only in a sense," the son of Poseidon admitted, before going into the greater details: Lamia, the swap, the traveling to California, Hecate. Janice's expression got even more weirded out as he finished, and she turned to Alister immediatly.

"How are you holding up from all this?" she asked him, putting a hand to his shoulder.

The son of Athena took a moment, then forced whatever emotion was coming up down. "I... have been better, but I can't slow down now," he said, flicking the reins. "We're heading to Malibu, so Peter can try to counter Lamia's dream-murder."

Janice's brow fluttered at the mention of Peter, but she didn't remove her hand. "You haven't been sleeping, have you?"

Percy felt like slapping himself after Janice said that. Alister had been rubbing his head and eyes almost nonstop the last few hours. How could he have missed that?

"You heard me, Janice. There's things to be done if we want Percie back, and sleeping-" Alister tried to say.

"She'd want you to take care of yourself. She'll never let you hear the end of it if she found out you put yourself at risk on her behalf."

Alister didn't have a comeback to that. Percy knew Annabeth wouldn't have, either. And just like Percie, he'd be wracked with guilt if he learned she'd put herself into a crisis position because she didn't let herself sleep in her quest to find him.

The son of Athena lowered his head, his grip on the reins relaxing. Janice coaxed the controls out of his hand into hers. "I know the way to Malibu," she said gently. "I can steer; you, get some rest."

His fight sapped away, Alister slumped down to the bottom of the chariot. Pretty much the moment his head rested against the side, he was out. Now Percy felt even worse. Gods, was he this bad with Annabeth? Alister must have been running on the barest of fumes, to be that exhausted.

Janice let out a sad breath, seeing him fall asleep. "Poor thing. He's never been good about showing weakness in front of others," she commented, turning to Percy. "Is... your Alister like that?"

"She's gotten better when it's just the two of us, but add others into the mix, and it's a different story," Percy admitted. Even though Janice wasn't quite as tall as Jason, she still commanded the same sense of leadership he'd always gotten from the son of Jupiter. It would be all too easy to tell her everything at once.

Alister shifted in his sleep, his leg brushing against Percy's. A second later, he did it again.

Janice grimaced. "He needs rest, but it can't be too comfortable, leaning against a chariot like that. Did you guys pack anything that could work as a pillow?"

Percy went through the bags, shaking his head. "Nothing I see here. Neither one of us could have predicted Lamia and her persistence, so we didn't plan for awkward sleeping places."

The son of Athena rolled over, his head pressing up against the base of the chariot's side. That would hurt when he woke up. Maybe it was time to learn the same lesson Alister had mentioned, and not overthink his solution.

Moving Alister's legs to the side, Percy slid in next to the son of Athena, so his back was to the side of the chariot as well. Being as careful as he could with the sleeping demigod's body, he leaned Alister's head up against the crook of his own neck. Alister let out a contented sigh, his arms automatically wrapping around Percy's side.

Janice studied the two boys with an unreadable expression. "Yeah, I guess that would work," she finally said, looking back to the front. "Try not to fall asleep yourself, though. I'd hate to have to kick you awake to save you from Lamia."

"Oh, you would, Grace? I think you might relish the chance," Percy threw back, his own arm resting on Alister's shoulder.

The daughter of Jupiter chuckled. "Jackson, you might look different, but I can safely say you're still just as fun to talk to."

The two demigods went back and forth for a good amount of time, and Percy didn't know they had reached Malibu until Janice brought them down with ease. "Welcome to the McLean beach house," the daughter of Jupiter announced with a rather forced enthusiasm. She picked up the bags, loading them on her shoulders. "I'll get these; you take Alister. Let's not wake him now."

Janice unharnessed the pegasi, who trotted down to the beach for the night without any added comments. Meanwhile, Percy lifted Alister in a bridal-carry, getting a good view of the McLean home. Not as big as the Dare mansion, but about twice as luxurious, if such a thing was possible. Being a Hollywood star did have its perks.

"Will Peter be up?" Percy asked, meeting up with Janice in front of the door.

The daughter of Jupiter shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not. But his dad is in Vancouver for some film shoot, so at least we'll get the house to ourselves."

Janice pressed the doorbell, then delivered two sharp knocks to the door. "That means it's me, plus some other demigods," she explained to Percy. The son of Poseidon hoped Peter was quick; Alister, while lean, wasn't exactly the lightest of demigods, and he didn't want to drop the son of Athena on his head.

About twenty seconds passed before the door finally opened. Yet again, the resemblance was uncanny; bright eyes, olive skin, and brown hair worn long on one side, shaved on the other. "Janice," the son of Aphrodite acknowledged, his voice steady. "What's go- Alister?"

Peter's eyes widened at the sight of Percy carrying the sleeping son of Athena. "Is everything all right?" he asked, his voice rising.

Janice took the chance to step into the house. "He's fine, just sleeping. Percy, find one of the guest rooms and get Alister settled. I'll fill Peter in on the situation."

Percy hopped to it, only lingering just long enough to hear Peter mutter "Percie?" to himself before he entered as well, leaving the other demigods behind. The beach house was huge, but thankfully Tristan McLean was a believer in common-sense architecture. The guest rooms were off to the side of the house, all tucked into a single hallway. The son of Poseidon picked one at random, shutting the door behind him.

The room was nice, decorated with animal patterns on the sheets and curtains. The bed itself was nothing to sneeze at, either; how many guest beds could be described as 'emperor-sized'?

Alister didn't stir whatsoever as Percy hung his weapons on the closet door, or managed to finesse him under the blanket. The son of Athena did seem to wiggle in disappointment when Percy pulled his arms off his neck, though. Once Alister was taken care of, Percy slid down into a chair in the room, his own exhaustion starting to weigh at him. Granted, he'd only gotten into a single fight that day with the gargoyles, but traveling in a chariot for the better part of sixteen hours could be murder on your feet.

Once that weight was off, though, a new one hit the son of Poseidon full-force. How oblivious could he be? Alister must have been teetering on the brink of collapse for several hours by the time they met with Janice, and he still had no idea about it. Yet Janice pointed it out less than five minutes after meeting up with him. She'd only known him for what, seven or eight months by this point? He'd had five years!

"Um, you knew Annabeth for five years, not Alister," the voice in his head corrected.

Did it really matter at this point? They were so close, they might as well be interchangeable.

"Is that why you had no problems with him cuddling you, then? You don't see it as being any different than cuddling with Annabeth?" it offered.

No... maybe... he didn't know! Who could? All he knew was that Alister was putting everything on the line for both his own Percie and the son of Poseidon. How could he not look out for the son of Athena with that in his mind?

"You had no problem not looking out for Nico when he did the same for you, right?"

The son of Poseidon jerked at that, sitting up rigidly. What had just brought that on?

He waited for the voice to speak again, but it was frustratingly silent now. Nico... gods, he didn't want to have to worry about that on top of everything else going on. "If- when I get back to my own world," Percy thought, "I need to apologize to him. I'll need to apologize to a lot of people, actually."

"Percy?"

Peter cracked open the door to the guest room, sticking his head in. "Janice brought me up to speed. It's... a lot to take in this time of night, so I'd appreciate it if you could bear with me," the son of Aphrodite added with a pained expression.

"No problem; I get that, fully," Percy answered, standing up. "She told you about Alister's suggestion?"

A grim nod was his answer. "I can do my best; that's all I can offer right now," Peter said, opening the door fully. He was stirring a cup of coffee in his hands, a determined look in his eyes. "Let's find you a room, and we'll get to work."

Janice met them in the hallway, offering Percy a pleasant grin, but avoiding eye contact with Peter. She slid into one of the unoccupied guest rooms, closing the door behind her.

"In here," Peter told Percy, opening the door to another one. The son of Aphrodite turned a hurt eye to Janice's door, but didn't say anything. Percy wanted to say something about it, but his own body was aching for sleep.

Percy's room, ironically enough, seemed to be ocean-themed, if the seashells on the wardrobe and the waves painted on the corners of the walls were anything to go by. "I don't think you're gonna have any trouble putting me to sleep, Peter," Percy told him, laying down.

The demigod smirked. "I could have you crowing at the moon like a rooster on the roof if I wanted, but luckily, my cruelty is limited by my responsibilities," he responded, settling into a chair. "Keeping Lamia out of your head is gonna be the real test."

The son of Poseidon offered a thumbs-up. "If anyone can, it's you, sweet-talker."

Peter made a face. "I hope my female version doesn't actually let you call her that."

"Oh, no. I just call her completely terrifying."

"Better."

Peter sipped his coffee, then leaned in to whisper in Percy's ear. The son of Poseidon made it about as far as the fourth word of 'tired' before his eyes rolled closed, and Hypnos took him.

Chapter Text

Percie had to admit it: Some gods knew how to make an entrance. Not all, mind you. Hades showing up at the Battle of Manhattan with an undead army? Great example. Ares dropping in for Elena's birthday party by parachute, which proceeded to get caught on the arena's outer rim, leaving the war god hanging like a banana? A lot less impressive. And annoying to deal with.

So she could at least respect Poseidon showing up with a light show. Apollo surely would have recommended some sort of epic chorus singing in the background, but her dad had made it clear he wasn't a fan of musical accompaniment. Not like that made the situation any less nerve-wracking.

"Lord Poseidon," Chiron said slowly, not moving from his spot at the head of the mess hall. "You... honor us with your presence."

The sea god didn't answer. His eyes were focused entirely on Percie, who felt a sudden desire to crawl under the table and hide. The demigod felt like she and her father got along well, better than a lot of kids did with their godly parent, but that didn't mean she was immune to his ire. If the look in his pupils were anything to go by, Poseidon seemed to be alternating between hugging her, or blasting her into a puddle of seawater. The worse part is, she didn't know which she'd prefer to the other.

"Sooooo...," Dionysus finally said, rocking back and forth on his heels. "Old Barnacle Beard went and had two, did he?"

That finally was enough to get the sea god's attention. "Excuse me?" he rumbled.

"I really should have seen it, now that I think about it. The green eyes, the black hair, the crummy attitude. She's got 'ocean' written all over her," the wine god mused, drinking the last of his Diet Coke. "Guess someone's got to tell Percy he's got another sister; who wants to draw straws for i-"

Poseidon must have teleported, because he went from right in front of Percie to across the hall before she even had a chance to register the movement. Looking over, she was treated to the sight of her father literally backing Mr. D into a corner.

"No one will tell Percy anything," he growled at the wine god. "And no one will tell anything about this to the rest of the gods, either. In fact, no is going to mention this to anyone whatsoever, no matter who they may be. Is. That. Clear?"

For the first time since meeting him, Dionysus looked genuinely rattled. Percie could relate; she hadn't been the focus of that speech, but if she had been, no doubt she would have melted into a sad puddle of Percie-goop. Most demigods would have.

The ocean god maintained his posture for a few more seconds before turning back around, facing the rest of the mess hall. His gaze swept over the room, before he closed his eyes, letting out a frustrated exhale. "Chiron, I ask forgiveness for the... suddenness of my arrival, but I must speak to my... daughter... alone."

The centaur bowed his head. "Of course, sir. We can clear out."

"No, no need for that. The two of us can go. I'd hate to put you all out for something like this."

Percie blinked. It was rare for a god to be so... gracious to a group of demigods. Sure, she'd talked to her dad about the Olympians trying to curb their more hardened edges, but this was a different Poseidon. She'd been expecting... well, not that.

"We can go to the cabin," she said, rising from her seat.

Poseidon raised no objections to that suggestion, so neither did Chiron. Before she left, Percie made eye contact with Annabeth. The daughter of Athena's expression was a mix of anticipation and support, so at least Percie could focus on the matter on hand. The walk back to the cabin was awkward, to say the least. Poseidon didn't turn to glance at her once the entire way back, which only gave Percie more alone time in her head. Images of people being turned into pufferfish made her want to call for Blackjack and fly away, but there was no running from this.

Poseidon reached the door first, and opened it without going in, his expression clear that he wanted her to enter first. It was either a gentlemanly gesture, or a threat, or both. Percie's money was on both.

At least Percy seemed to have the exact same taste as her when it came to organizing the Poseidon cabin. The beds were pushed off to the walls, with the saltwater fountain taking up most of the space on the main floor. Percie made herself comfortable on one of the bunk beds, while Poseidon waved his hand, causing a rocking chair made of sea shells to materialize. As her dad sat down, the demigod was struck by how human he really looked in this light. With his shaved beard, dorky shirt, and flip flops, he looked like some middle-aged newlywed enjoying his honeymoon at St. Kitts.

"Sorry about the mess; I would have tidied up if I knew you were coming," she commented, hoping Poseidon was in a laughing mood. He wasn't.

"I'm surprised that you can find the time and the willpower to make wisecracks at a time like this, daughter," he muttered, lacing his hands under his chin. The sea god leaned forward, his movement apparently increasing the water pressure inside the fountain. Guess Percy had found time to repair it after cutting it in half. Percie was still putting that one off.

"So... how much do you know?" Percie finally asked.

"About as much as you might expect," he answered. "Imagine my shock when I get a visit from Hecate, of all people. She blabbed about not having much time to sweat the finer details, but told me to talk to you for the full story. That was the second big shock of the day; I have not been the most attentive father, but even I keep track of my children. You... are not one I remember having."

The demigod's face was a sheepish one at that statement. "I guess the most accurate response would be... you didn't." It all came spilling out: the spell, the switch, Rachel, and everything in between. Percie really ought to have been used to it by now, but this was her dad. And she had to tell him not only was he now responsible for another child, but his favorite son had been ripped away to an unknown fate.

The god listened attentively, his face a mask of calm. Percie knew how deceiving the ocean could be, though; one minute everything's fine, the next you're fighting for your life. Her father was the reason for that. His mood could change on a dime, for the slightest reason.

When she finished, that expression didn't change immediatly. "I see," was all he said.

Poseidon chewed on this information, his chair rocking back and forth. His trident appeared next to him, and he absentmindedly grabbed it with his right hand, draping it over his lap. The longer she waited, the more antsy Percie got. Her dad usually wasn't the quiet sort. More of a 'tsunami smash' kind of god.

"Then, both of you filled the same role, in the prophecies?" he asked out of the blue.
\
"Uh, yeah, I think so. I fought Kronos in the throne room. He did too, right?"

"Yes, he did." Poseidon crossed his legs, shifting his trident so it was resting under his arm. "Did you sit on my throne, too?"

Of course he still remembered. "Yeah, I did that too."

The god made a sound in his throat that sounded like a combination of a chuckle and a sneer. "Did I almost kill you before I realized who you were?"

The memory still made Percie shiver. "A few more seconds, and I probably would have internally combusted. Somehow."

"No, not internal combustion. That's more Hephaestus's thing. I would have just flattened you with a giant yacht. Much cleaner," the god responded, finally giving her a small grin and a wink.

Thank the Fates, he just made a joke! Percie could feel her tension decrease by more than ninety percent with that little gesture.

"I appreciate your commitment to keeping the throne room of Olympus from getting too splattered, war or no war," she laughed back. The laugh was returned, which sapped the rest of her tension away completely.

They both composed themselves, Poseidon standing to his feet. "So, you're really him, huh?"

"In a way. But I like to think I'm at least a little better looking, right?"

"As the father to both of you, I cannot answer that without it being creepy."

"Fair enough."

Her dad was actually making her feel better, despite the situation. "So, Hecate was the one who told you something was up with me and Percy?"

The sea god nodded. "Dropped in, shouted a few curses about wild magic, and told me Percy was involved. Said I needed to check in at camp."

Percie returned his nod. "But... how did she know about it? We were trying to keep everything quiet until we knew more about what we were dealing with."

Poseidon thought about it. "She probably got clued in by whatever crazy spell you mentioned, and did her own investigation. Hecate's mind seemed to be... scattered, when she spoke to me, so odds are she's running herself haggard trying to counter it. We'd be best keeping out of her hair for the moment."

The demigod shrugged. "Fair enough. If anyone's got the know-how to fix this, it would be her."

"Fixing is a very strong word. I'd say she's just holding it together. With duct tape."

Magic duct tape sounded simultaneously like the best and worst invention of all time, but Percie ignored the potential entrepreneurial opportunity. "So she's got an idea of what's going on, and she told you because it was your kids involved?" she guessed.

Poseidon's gaze stretched. "Presumably. Rather kind of her, if it's true. She didn't have to, though I am grateful she did."

"Grateful? You?"

Her dad actually looked a little hurt by that. "Yes, grateful. Percie," he said, putting a hand to her shoulder, "I know how disappointing it can be; we, can be. We do love our children, as much as we tend to forget to show it."

Percie placed her own hand over his, not moving it. "I know, and it means a lot that you guys have been trying harder since Kronos. But... trying isn't always enough. For every demigod we've been able to help recently, there's another ten that slip away. We can't do everything, just like you."

Her words must have been striking the right chords, because the sea god pulled his daughter into an embrace, one of the first ones in a long time. It was startling, to be hugged by her father so suddenly like that, and Percie choked on her words. Gods, she did not want to cry in front of her dad right now.

"I'm okay," she tried to mumble through the hug, but her own voice tremor betrayed her. Either Poseidon had learned how to control a person's tear ducts, or she'd been secretly missing her dad more than she wanted to admit.

"I know you are," he reassured her, his hug only getting stronger. "But that doesn't mean you're not allowed to feel less than perfect all the time. You've seen too much for someone your age, Percie."

"Is this for me, or for your son?"

"Both of you. When Hecate told me something had happened to him... I may have acted a little harshly to her in return," he admitted. "She had the decency to tell me, and I snapped at her for it. I may regret my actions now, but I know that won't undo it."

"You could always apologize when you see her again," Percie pointed out.

"Apologies amongst the gods... Percie, the others wo-"

"Learn to accept it!" she insisted, her hands curling into fists. "Grudges have been the bane of many a demigod's life! Fighting for squabbles that aren't theirs! We've died for you and your pathetic arguments." Percie's tears didn't subside as she continued. "Is your pride really so fragile that it can't be bothered to apologize? What are the others gonna do? Tease you about it? Why do their words mean so much to you?!"

Poseidon didn't answer. His eyes narrowed, but he just sighed. "Percie... I can admit the wisdom in what you say, but you're asking us to completely defy our natures. Such a thing is hard enough for mortals; how do you think immortals fare in that regard?"

"So that's enough to not even try?" Percie asked, her voice hard.

"This... is not the conversation I wanted to have with you," he answered.

"Then what? Why are you here?"

The sea god pursed his lips. "Because I wanted to make sure my son was safe. Because I didn't want him to get embroiled in something that could... take him away from me. I didn't have a say the first two times; we can't fight prophecies, without making things worse. But there was no prophecy stopping me from acting this time."

"What are you saying?"

"I'm saying I would have stood between him and any madman foolish enough to try either of us," the god said, his voice steady. "Percy, like all of you, deserves more. And better. I came here to give him that."

Percie's mouth dropped, to her embarrassment. She'd never seen her father look so resolute. She fully believed him. Zeus preserve her, she believed her dad's words.

"He might not be here now, but you are," Poseidon continued. "Allow me to extend the same offer. If you need me, for anything, all you have to do is ask," he finished, reaching into his pocket and producing a sand dollar. "Take this. It's essentially an instant-message for those in my court. Throw it into any body of water, no matter the size, and I'll come."

Percie handled the tiny trinket with delicate hands. She... had her dad in her corner. A corner he could actually defend openly. And he'd do it without any strings attached. "I... thank you."

Poseidon's gaze softened. "You don't need to thank me. I'm just doing something I should have done a long time ago." The sea god kissed Percie on her forehead, and headed for the door.

"Dad?" Percie whispered, her voice barely audible.

"Yes, Percie?"

"I know I'm not what you were expecting, but I'm close. Percy may not exactly be me, but may I make a request on his behalf?"

Poseidon nodded.

"Stop by, and see him when he's back. On a more regular basis, I mean. I know relationships between gods and their kids can be complicated, but I'm sure he'd appreciate seeing you more. Just to know you're in his corner, at least."

The sea god gave her a smile full of sorrow. "I can do that. No problem. Thank you, daughter."

With that, he was gone.

Percie flopped down on her bed, tears now fully streaming down her face. Sure, she could have used some of her own powers to keep her face dry, but she didn't want to. The daughter of Poseidon had a lot of feelings she needed to let out. And let them out she did.

She must have cried herself to sleep at some point, because her mind registered that she was dreaming when she looked up and found herself in the middle of a crowded street. The sun was up, allowing her to see that the city in question was by no means New York. The streets were too wide, and the buildings weren't tall enough. Pressing herself for whatever craziness was going to be awaiting her, she rose to her feet and began walking.

None of the mortals registered her as being there, assuring her that this was a dream. Percie followed her gut, winding through some side streets before coming out on a sight even she recognized; the Liberty Bell. So this was Philadelphia.

The scene shifted; Percie was transported to outside the city, alongside the river that seemed to go through Philly. The name of the river didn't spring to mind, but knowing New England, it was probably unpronounceable by someone who hadn't grown up in the area. Percie traveled along the river's coast, until she came upon a campsite. A blonde boy was sitting down outside a tent, his hands fiddling with a package of bandages.

Percie angled herself closer to the unknown teen, knowing enough about her dreams to figure this guy had to be important for her to be focused on him. If he was a demigod, she probably knew a female version of him from her own world. Percie ran the possibilities through her head, eliminating people as they came to her. Blonde was a big help, and the boy didn't look angry or sullen enough to be one of the Romans. So from Camp Half-Blood, then. Now, who did she know was blonde, a woman, and a healer?

"Willamina!" Percie announced out loud, to no response from the boy. Okay, so this wasn't really happening. She'd said that loud enough to wake the dead... oh gods, why did she think of that phrase? If this was Willamina's counterpart, then that could only mean...

The tent the boy was sitting with his back to shifted, and a moment later, another boy stuck his head out, looking annoyed. Good grief, was this kid a perfect match for Nicola. He even had her shaggy hair!

"You're supposed to be sleeping," Will said, not bothering to look back at his boyfriend. "Give it another few hours."

"I'm ready now," Nico insisted, crawling out of the tent. "It's not a huge jump; we're just going from Philadelphia to New Orleans."

"Last time you said that, you overshot it, and dropped us off at that baby shower in St. Paul," the son of Apollo shot back. "We didn't even have a gift! Do you know how embarrassing that was? Not as bad as the cheese factory, granted, but I have enough nightmares about delivering Hedge's kid without being reminded of it."

Gods, they were so cute. Nice to see that hadn't changed.

The son of Hades rolled his eyes at Will. "The women at that baby shower were smitten with you. Just be happy I didn't accidentally raise an army of dead children when that girl asked you to dance with her."

"You did raise an army of dead children!"

"Yeah, but on purpose! I said accidentally."

As fun as it was watching these two, Percie had to wonder why her dreams were showing her this. It wasn't happening this moment, since it seemed to be around early nightfall in her dream. So this was either going to happen, or had happened already.

Will was about to chastise Nico again, but his eyes were drawn to something else on the other side of the river. Looking over, Percie spotted what had gotten his attention. A woman, wearing a white robe that hung past her ankles. It was too far to make out her face, but Percie would swear she knew this woman from somewhere.

"Who's she?" she heard Nico ask, before the woman raised her arms, and the dirt around the two demigods began to swirl under their feet.

"What th-?" the son of Hades managed to blurt out before he was buried up to his neck in the soil. Will suffered a similar fate not a second later. With a flourish, the woman snapped her fingers, and the two demigods vanished under the ground. Flabbergasted, Percie tried to march across the river, but found herself held back by an unknown force. The woman looked directly at her, and chuckled.

"You want them back, daughter of Poseidon? You know where to find me," she called out, and with a flick of her wrist, Percie shot up in her bed, wide awake. Oh, dear. That was no accident of a dream. And Percie knew exactly who it was she had just seen abduct Nico and Will.

She had no time to stop and think; the sorceress would not be patient with her captives. The daughter of Poseidon leapt to her feet, grabbing the sand dollar her dad had given her, as well as a few small provisions of ambrosia. With that, she sprinted for the pegasus stables.

"Percie!' Blackjack cried as she ran in. "Kind of early for a visit, though. Oh, is this a doughnut run?"

"No time, Blackjack!" she said, hopping onto the pegasus. "We need to get to Philadelphia; now!"

"And why are you headed for Philadelphia?" Annabeth asked, stepping into the stable and scaring Percie nearly to death.

"Gah! How long have you been there?" she bleated out.

"I figured this is where you'd come if anything came to you in your dreams. You wouldn't stop by the Athena cabin and tell me, because you wouldn't want to risk my safety," Annabeth responded, her voice a monotone.

"You're good."

"So what did you see?"

"Oh, nothing too shocking. The Liberty Bell, some river, oh!- and Nico and Will getting abducted."

Annabeth's eyes widened. "Abducted?!"

"Yeah, and you'll never guess by who."

"Then tell me."

Percie sneered as she thought about the woman's taunting voice, and the look of conceit on her face. She'd seen it only once before, and once had been enough. "Circe. She's back."

Chapter Text

For maybe the first time in his life since being claimed by Poseidon at twelve, Percy slept without dreaming. There were no visions of calamity, no painful flashbacks, no nightmares where he found himself standing naked in the Olympian throne room. That last one was the worst, bar none. And he'd had it more times than he cared to remember.

No. For once, Percy Jackson got to enjoy the feeling of oblivion. A warm, velvety blackness, that wrapped him in a cocoon of nothingness, and didn't unwind until he finally started to wake up. For a very brief moment, his grogginess meant he had no idea where he was. The warmth was still there, but light had replaced the darkness of his sleep. He had to blink several times before he remembered he was in the McLean beach house. A fact that became apparent when his eyes finally snapped into focus, revealing a very spent Peter McLean leaning back in the chair next to the bed, round spots under his brow.

"Did it work?" the son of Aphrodite asked, his hands clenched tightly to the arms of the chair.

It took Percy a moment to register what he was talking about. "Oh, the charmspeaking thing! Yeah, I think so. No dreams at all."

Peter threw both of his arms up into the air in triumph, though the action seemed to drain him of whatever energy he had left in his tank. "That's all I needed to hear. Good night- er, morning, Percy." With that, Peter was out of there, presumably headed for his room.

Geez, he did not want to stick around. Granted, he had spent however many hours had passed without rest, constantly whispering into Percy's ear to keep Lamia away. The coffee cup on the table next to the bed was drained, and Percy realized how much the son of Aphrodite had really put into his safety for the entire night.

Just another person he was going to have to thank profusely before this was all done.

Percy slipped out of bed and into the hallway, not spotting anyone else on his way into the bathroom. Sure, he could have just instantly dried himself after taking a shower, but Percy's bones ached. Out of pain due to the battles of the previous days, or the strain this situation was putting on his mind and emotions, he couldn't tell. All he knew was that he soaked into the hot water for as long as he could.

Redressing, the son of Poseidon passed by Alister's room. A small voice in the back of his mind told him to check in on the son of Athena, but he didn't. Alister was most likely already up, so checking on him would be a waste of a moment. Instead he pressed on, leaving the hallway and walking into the main living space of the first floor.

It seemed Peter hadn't had the strength to make it back to his room. The son of Aphrodite had fallen face-first onto the massive sofa spread out in front of the plasma TV, and was snoring soundly. He deserved the rest, so Percy needed to find somewhere else to lurk.

That somewhere else ended up being the upstairs hallway. Percy had been getting the full layout of the house when he heard some voices coming from what appeared to be a home-theater. Before he could stop himself, Percy perched himself right outside the door, next to a window that was open out to the beach side of the house.

"Does he seem trustworthy?" Janice's voice asked from the room.

Alister's delivered the response. "He saved my life in Indiana, when it would have been all-too easy not to. He might grind my gears sometimes, but I'd trust him. With my life."

The daughter of Jupiter appeared to blanch at that. "You? You'd trust him to that extent? After knowing him for what... two days?"

"Three, counting this one. But you raise a good point. I know my own nature, Janice. Trust is something I've handed out far too generously in the past; I paid the price for it. All Greek demigods did. But... he's different."

"In what way?"

"It's... almost scary how alike Percie he really is. The attitude, the way he carries himself, the absolutely frustrating way he manages to annoy me in more ways than one... it's like she never really vanished."

Percy had to jam his knuckles against his mouth to keep from making noise. So he wasn't crazy! He wasn't the only one getting completely wrung out by how close to Annabeth Alister was. The reveal managed to both relieve and unnerve the son of Poseidon. How very apt for what his relationship with Annabeth had started as.

Janice spoke again: "I get that. That conversation we had on the chariot... if you'd blocked out the voice and just focused on the words, I would have sworn I was speaking with Percie. But with that... what are you leading up to, Alister?"

The son of Poseidon crouched closer to the door to the theater, awaiting the answer with bated breath. Gods, why was he so nervous? This was Alister. What could he possibly say that co-

"Maybe it's best I tell him myself. Percy, you can come in."

And... there went his breath. Out in a gasp. Well, more of a gargle. A choke, really. Percy sputtered on air as he heard Alister call him out. Caught in the act, Percy's face had turned a beet shade of red as he walked into the theater, a double-dose of embarrassment at being caught eavesdropping and choking on nothing not helping his dignity.

Even worse, upon entering the theater, he found Alister sitting with his back to the door, still not even looking back at him. Janice was sitting across from the son of Athena, her expression making it clear she was just as shocked at seeing Percy as he was at being called out.

Alister sighed, still not turning around. "Thank you, Janice, for listening. Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to speak to Percy alone."

The daughter of Jupiter slowly rose from her chair, her face bedazzled with surprise. She nodded, then promptly left, shooting Percy an even more confused look before she did.

Alister gestured at the chair she'd just abandoned. "Please, sit."

"How did you know I was there?" Percy finally managed to form words again as he sat opposed to Alister.

"I'm tempted to say I smelled your snark, just to see your reaction, but that would be false," Alister admitted, a coy smile on his face. "But the truth: There's a window right outside this theater's entrance. You noticed it, right?"

Percy nodded.

"That window faces the ocean, and this time of the morning, there's a very consistent breeze that flows into the window from the west. I've been feeling it on the back of my neck ever since I sat down in here. When that breeze stopped, for an extended period of time, I naturally concluded that something must be blocking it, and the most obvious answer was you."

He said it so matter-of-factly, not an ounce of bragging anywhere in that speech. Did this happen often, and Percy was just too distracted by his own thoughts to notice it?

"Is that something your Annabeth doesn't do often?" Alister asked, when Percy failed to respond in a timely manner.

"Not usually when I'm around, at least," he mumbled. "Either that, or she just doesn't voice it aloud to me. That second option is most likely."

"Why is that?"

"Because she doesn't feel the need to prove herself around me. We're comfortable with each other; neither one of us goes out of the way to impress the other. We just... communicate, and enjoy the other's company."

Alister's smile dimmed a little. "Is that communication ever... difficult?"

"It can be. But we've been through too much together to let it fail, now. Just because something is hard doesn't mean you can't still work through it," Percy offered. "I think you and your own Percie can attest to that."

The son of Athena's gaze fell onto the table, his hands wrapping together. "I wish I could have done more... I wish I did do more," he said, his voice sinking. "So many things I still needed to say, things I wanted to do with her. Gods, I didn't even tell her I loved her before she left that day," Alister realized, his eyes widening.

"You didn't have to."

"What?!"

Percy took a breath, trying to keep his heart from palpitating right onto the floor. He couldn't afford to let his words get the best of him here. He needed to be precise. "I heard you tell Janice just how similar the two of us are. I agree with you, based on how close you and Annabeth are. So, if anyone here has the right to tell you how she feels, I'd argue I'm the most qualified for it."

Alister's shoulders tensed at that. "Then... tell me."

"When we first fell into Tartarus, I was terrified. Sure, you already knew that, but I don't know if Percie ever told you what exactly she was terrified of."

"What? She... you were terrified of something besides the pit?"

Percy could recall it all too well. The plummet had given him plenty of time to think as he clutched to Annabeth. "The fear that ran through my body during that fall... was that something would happen to her. And it would somehow be my fault. I'd destroy the most important thing in the world to me, through my own stupid mistakes."

Alister looked like a deer in headlights. Percy couldn't stop now, not without getting all this out.

"It was that fear that kept me attached to her as we walked through. Every sight, every sound, made me want to cover her with my own body. Bob was a big help, but even he could only do so much when we fought Tartarus himself. It was in that moment, when the Titan of the Pit appeared before us, my mind finally shattered. This was it. This was where I would lose her forever."

It was the first time Percy had ever allowed himself to say these things out loud. Like Alister, he found himself wishing he had said them sooner. But better late then never.

"So you don't need to fret about what Percie thinks when it comes to you. The things left unsaid don't matter. You never had to say it in the first place. I promise: Every thought she has about you relates back to one goal; the need to get back to you."

The two demigods sat in silence, Percy's words hanging in the air. Alister's eyes were so focused, the son of Poseidon briefly wondered if he was trying to stare holes into the table. "She would cross the universe for you, Alister. I... would cross the universe for you."

Alister's body spasmed, but his face remained a hardened shell. At last, he closed his eyes, unclasping his hands and placing them gently in front of him. "Thank you, Percy. For... all of it. And last night."

Percy had to think for a moment, before catching on. "Oh, the cuddling thing. No problem. I didn't want you hurting yourself, sleeping at that angle."

The son of Athena blushed. "I apologize if I was a tad too... clingy, in my sleep. Percie teases me about it every chance she gets."

"If she's anything like me, she's thinks its endearing," Percy reassured him, propping his feet on the table. "Now, unless you want to continue honoring that promise you made in the national park, I think it's time we find some breakfast."

Alister arched an eyebrow. "What promise?"

"The one where you said we'd pour our hearts out to each other. I told you I'd remember it, Wise Guy."

Percy had to duck to avoid the empty popcorn bucket Alister tossed at his head. "You... are the most insufferable man I've ever met, Percy Jackson," Alister said, trying to keep an annoyed expression but failing at it.

"Knowing the company you keep, that title is an honor," Percy tossed back, chucking the popcorn bucket back at the son of Athena. Alister ducked as well, his eyes narrowing in challenge. "Be glad Peter is asleep right now, Seaweed Brain, or I'd be forced to retaliate for that."

His sentence seemingly trigged something in his own head. "Oh!" Alister exclaimed, coming to a halt. "How did my idea turn out? Charmspeaking Lamia out of your head?"

"Better than you might have thought. Didn't dream anything, whatsoever. One of the best sleeps I've had in years," Percy told him.

"Well, it should hold us over for a few nights, at least. May want to get used to Peter monologuing into your ear for the foreseeable future."

It was something Percy knew had to happen, but that didn't mean he wasn't worried that the son of Aphrodite might use his power for a more nefarious purpose outside of the established boundaries. Yes, he trusted Piper to a fault, and extended the same to Peter. But that didn't mean he'd be surprised if the demigod ended up charming him into doing his English essays. That was always a possibility.

"Until otherwise, Peter will be sleeping during most of the daylight hours, then," Percy brought up. "He seemed exhausted after staying awake with me the whole night."

"All the better to keep him and Janice from having to interact too much," Alister noted.

"What was up with that, by the way? Every time they see each other, Janice starts making sad-puppy eyes, and Peter gets this look in his face, like he just punted a baby seal off a building," Percy said, remembering the looks the two demigods had exchanged while Peter was showing him to his room.

"It was not an... amicable breakup, if the way Janice told the story is any indication," Alister explained, looking uncomfortable. "Only Peter could fill in the rest of the blanks, but we can't afford to stir him awake and make him relieve some unhappy memories. Not while he's the only thing standing between you and death, anyway."

That not-at-all reassuring answer given, the two demigods returned to the main floor. Peter was still splayed out on the couch, his hair covering half of his face in a rather comedic fashion, similar to a Phantom of the Opera mask. Janice, meanwhile, was poking at some of the high-end lamps Tristan McLean had seen fit to decorate his home office with.

"Like, how many lamps does one person need?" the daughter of Jupiter asked as they came in. "I'm counting seventeen, just here in this one room! Does he think they'll be useful as some sort of backup in a power surge?"

"The mind of the Hollywood actor is a dangerous place, Janice," Percy cautioned her. "Only the bravest of souls dare venture into it."

Janice chuckled, spinning one of the lamp shades on her wrist. "So, did you two work anything out in that conversation upstairs?"

"Yes," they both said in unison.

The daughter of Jupiter flinched at their apparent sameness. "Okie dokie, then. So, what's our plan from here on out? Camp Jupiter?"

"Yes," Alister said. "The rest of the Seven, plus Rey, already know about our situation. They're going to be expecting us soon."

"Well, San Francisco isn't too far from here, via chariot. Any idea when you want to leave?"

The son of Athena bit the inside of his cheek. "Ideally as soon as we can, but I don't want to disturb Peter any more than we have to. He's gonna have the toughest job out of any of us, in the coming days."

An emotion flashed across Janice's eyes as Alister spoke, but she didn't voice whatever it was. "Agreed. His well-being should be a top priority for us."

Percy put a hand to his hip. "So, what would be our best time for a departure, then? San Francisco is about two hours away by flight; when is the ideal time to reach New Rome?"

Janice rubbed her chin. "It's a pretty busy time for the camp, this time of year. The legions are going to be in pretty rigorous training the next few weeks, and Rey isn't going to let a mix-up like this ruin his schedule."

Alister made a noise in the back of his throat, but didn't speak at the mention of the praetor.

"The rest of the Seven are there, too, plus Nicola and Willamina should be arriving any time, as well. Hayden wanted to to meet his sister's new girlfriend, after all."

Chiron's words to Alister before they left suddenly hit Percy. "We should also be expecting Thomas to arrive at some point," he reminded Alister.

Alister's face fell, and Janice wheeled on him, her eyes flashing. "Excuse me?" she demanded. "My brother is going to be there as well?"

"Uh, yeah. Chiron sai-"

"He can't be allowed anywhere near Peter," she cut in, her tone deadly serious. "I'm not joking, either. If he sees him, he will kill him. Without batting an eye."

Percy never knew Thalia could be so... spiteful. Protective? Absolutely. But this kind of reaction... what on earth had happened between Janice and Peter to drive this kind of wedge between them? Whatever it was, it had to mirror Piper and Jason. Did Thalia react like this when she'd learned they'd broken up?

"It's impossible to keep Thomas from being somewhere he wants to be, Janice," Alister moaned. "You might physically be older, due to his years in the Lotus Hotel, but he'll always see himself as a big brother. And big brothers usually don't like it when men break their little sister's heart."

"He didn't bre-" Janice protested, before giving up. "Look, just let me talk to him first. Thomas has been through too much to give everything up just to protect me."

"Where have we all heard that before?" Percy muttered, thinking on what Athena had said to him what she told him his own fatal flaw. He'd destroy the world before he'd let a friend get hurt. Back in Tartarus, he nearly had. Would have, if Annabeth hadn't been screaming sense into his head. Bob and Damasen had volunteered to stay behind. But it had taken every molecule in his body to leave them. If she hadn't been there, he wouldn't be standing here today.

Alister didn't look too convinced, which Janice scoffed at. "Just trust me. I know my brother. He won't do anything that would hurt me, either. And hurting Peter, w-would hurt me."

The crack Percy heard in her voice nearly broke his own heart. She still loved him. Even now.

The son of Poseidon wanted to offer Janice some encouragement. A rousing speech, or maybe a soft-spoken reassurance. She'd accomplished the impossible before. He opened his mouth to do just that. Then the room exploded.

Chapter Text

Did it surprise Percie when Annabeth demanded that the daughter of Poseidon wait for her before she left for Philly? No, of course it didn't. Alister would have done the same thing. Would she have tried to argue with him? Maybe, but would it have gotten her anywhere? No.

"You stay there and don't move a muscle, Percie Jackson. If I get back, and you left without me, so help me I will rip the door off the Poseidon cabin and use it as a makeshift raft to Philadelphia," the daughter of Athena had grunted before dashing off to grab some supplies.

Percie made a raspberry sound with her lips, but obeyed. No matter how terrifying Circe might be, nothing seemed to be worth risking the wrath of Annabeth. Plus, the Poseidon door was probably her favorite part of the entire cabin. Replacing it would be a huge pain.

"Guess I'll just sit here and wait," the daughter of Poseidon mumbled to herself, giving Blackjack a pat on the neck as the pegasus stood waiting at the stable's entrance.

"Boss, I hate to pry like this, but why are you so gung-ho about saving two guys you really haven't met yet?" he asked her.

"Because I do know them, just not in a very easy-to-explain manner," Percie answered, remembering the conversation she'd had with Nicola after Gaea's defeat. The daughter of Hades had seemed to be in relatively high spirits, despite her malnourished appearance. Right after telling her and Alister that she'd be staying at the camp, Nicola had dropped the real bombshell: She'd been crushing on the daughter of Poseidon for the longest time. Alister didn't seem to be too rattled by the reveal, but Percie's mind had been boggled. She'd spent three years convinced Nicola hated her, and for the exact opposite to be the case... was unthinkable.

Sure, Nicola had assured both of them she was over it, and based on how happy she seemed with the daughter of Apollo, Percie was inclined to believe her. But that didn't mean she still didn't feel like she owed the daughter of Hades something in return. She hadn't been the greatest friend, considering what Nicola had done for her in just a span of a few years. Nicola had been there when Percie fell into Tartarus with Alister. Gods, she hoped the young demigod had gotten over her crush by then. If not... no wonder she'd started counseling sessions with Dionysus.

Percie didn't realize she'd slumped against Blackjack, lost in thought, until the pegasus whinnied. "Uh, boss? You feeling okay back there?"

"Oh, uh, yeah. Just... trying to work some things out," Percie bluffed, hoping the winged horse wasn't paying too much attention this time of the morning. "Know any good donut places in Philadelphia?"

Blackjack perked up at the mention of the pastries. "Oh, the city's loaded with them! I recommend Frangelli's Bakery if you're new to the area, but in case you ever want a more classic taste, I'd say Okie Dokie Donuts is your best bet!"

Blackjack still hadn't finished his rundown on Philly's best places for fried dough treats when Annabeth returned to the stable, a small backpack strapped to her. She hopped up behind Percie, causing Blackjack to wheeze a little before regaining his balance.

"You ladies are heavier than you look," he complained, before shooting a terrified look back at them. "Oh, I didn't mean that! I- uh, I meant that... you see-"

Percie chuckled. "No need to apologize, Blackjack. Just get us to Philly."

Annabeth wrapped her arms around Percie's waist as they took off, the camp disappearing beneath them as Blackjack soared into the early morning light. The daughter of Athena's grip tensed as she leaned into the other demigod, inhaling as they reached a cruising altitude. "You... smell like the ocean," Annabeth murmured, her arms still locked on Percie.

"Daughter of Poseidon, remember? Can't wash it off, no matter how much soap I use," Percie cracked, before Annabeth's face brought her back into serious mode. "Oh... I smell just like him, don't I?"

Annabeth didn't speak; a nod was all it took. The daughter of the sea sniffed, looking back to the front of Blackjack. "It's weird... the whole thing with the Romans had easy scapegoats: we could blame Apollo, Hera, Athena... any number of people could fill in for our problems. Kronos was a similar thing- the Olympians, the Titan himself, Lucille-"

Annabeth's voice behind her sounded confused. "Lucille?"

"Oh, I guess she wasn't your guys' problem here. Daughter of Hermes... became the vessel for Kronos... scar over her eye? Ring any bells?"

"Yes. I know exactly who you're talking about." Annabeth's voice was hard as steel. Percie grimaced as she remembered fully; Lucille had been Alister's first hero, alongside Thomas. They loved each other, in their own way. But she'd betrayed it. Alister had privately told Percie he'd forgiven the daughter of Hermes for breaking his heart in more ways than one, but he still blanched whenever someone brought her up. And here she was, doing the exact same thing to Annabeth.

"Sorry. I should have known better," Percie said, hanging her head. "I keep forgetting that you and him are the same person. His memories are yours."

The daughter of Athena exhaled. "No, I get it. I have to keep reminding myself that we've seen each other at our best and worst moments, even though we've only really known one another for a few days," she added.

"So... I take it you guys had to deal with a male Octavia, then?"

"Roman augur?"

"Yeah. Pretentious little weasel. Had a weird thing for teddy bears. Managed to be both harmless and dangerous at the same time."

Annabeth shivered. "Yeah, that's Octavian. So being female didn't mellow him out whatsoever?"

"Mellow? Octavia? Please. I'm surprised she didn't die of a heart attack before twelve, if her blood pressure was anything to go by. It's leaders like her that make me question why Rome didn't collapse sooner than it did."

The daughter of Athena shrugged. "Sometimes the worst people are also the luckiest. Until Nemesis decides it's time for them to finally fall, of course."

Turning back to the sky, Percie blinked as the sun slowly began rising over the horizon. "Blackjack, how quickly can you get us there?"

"At this rate, I'd give us maybe two hours-ish, if the winds don't give us too much trouble," the pegasus neighed. "I don't really have the speed of an airliner, if that's what you're thinking."

"No, no, that should be okay. I just don't want those boys to be in Circe's clutches any longer than we can reasonably allow," she responded, one hand going to Riptide out of instinct. If that sorceress had laid so much as a finger on either of them, Philadelphia might end up facing a literal hurricane.

She must have been glowering, because Annabeth put a hand to her back. "They'll be okay, if your dream is right. Circe took them specifically to get your attention. She wouldn't hurt them now."

The daughter of Poseidon appreciated the gesture, but it didn't help her relax. "Now, maybe, but what about in an hour? Every second we spend getting there is one more second where something could go wrong. Maybe Circe decides she only needs one of them for her plan, or just showed herself abducting them to me so she could kill them immediatly after, to crush my hope of saving them, or-"

Annabeth wrapped her arms around Percie's shoulders, pulling her into her chest. "Stop that! You're going to let Circe out-think you before we even get to Philly. She showed you that dream for one reason, and one reason only: to make you reckless. She wants you to be angry. She wants you off your game. She knows you can't beat her if you're too busy worrying about Nico and Will to keep your head on straight."

Percie choked on her words, letting Annabeth hold her. "I can't lose anyone else, Annabeth," she admitted, her voice sinking. "I'd go right off the deep end. And that would be the end of me."

The daughter of Athena sighed into Percie's hair. "I know, Seaweed Brain. And I can't afford to lose you like that, either. I almost did, remember?"

Percie shook her head.

"Tartarus. When we met Akhlys."

The goddess of misery. A pathetic, sadistic creature. She'd tried to kill Percie and Alister with her Death Mist, right after promising to help them. It was the straw that broke the camel's back for the daughter of Poseidon. To be so close, and face another threat... she'd had enough. Percie had turned Akhlys' powers against her, forcing the goddess to wallow in the full extent of her poison. Akhlys had begged for mercy... mercy that Percie had run out of. She still remembered the grin that had creeped across her own face as misery itself crumbled before her.

Then he was there. Alister, shouting into her ear. How some things couldn't be controlled; were never intended to be controlled. Percie had allowed the events of the past years to walk her right to the edge of the abyss. Faced with the choice, she tried to step into it... but he hadn't let her. He'd pulled her back, saved her from becoming one of the very things that haunted her for her whole life.

"I remember," was all Percie said.

"Yeah. I do, too. And in the moments after that, before Nyx appeared before us, I made a promise to myself. I promised that I'd never let you reach that point ever again. To see you so removed from who you are... that is a darkness no one deserves to feel."

She... didn't deserve to feel that? That couldn't be right. "Annabeth, I... I can't ask you to stick to that promise," Percie whispered.

"Why?" Annabeth's response was concise; structured. "Because you don't think you're worth the effort? Because you have weaknesses, like everybody else? I don't know who's responsible for filling your head with that nonsense, but when I meet them, they're going to wish they'd never been born."

The daughter of wisdom grabbed Percie by the shoulders, making her stare right into her stormy eyes. "I. Love. You. You. Freaking. Idiot," she punctuated, putting her forehead to Percie's when she finished. "And no bad day, no fatal flaw... no gender swap will ever change that."

Later, Percie couldn't figure out who initiated the kiss. Maybe it had been her; so caught up in Annabeth's proclamation, her sense abandoned her, and her emotions took over. Or it could have been the daughter of Athena, just to show Percie how serious she'd been in her statements, and how unyielding she would be in the days to come. But that really didn't matter.

All that mattered, in that moment, was that for the first time since she'd been dumped into this world, the daughter of Poseidon felt like she was meant to be where she was.

Finally, after the elation faded away, the two demigods pulled apart. "I... I...," Annabeth stammered, her face flashing a shade of red Percie had never seen before. "I don't know what just came over me. Oh gods, I'm so sor-"

However, Percie could tell you exactly who initiated the second one. It wasn't as long or as sudden, but it conveyed everything she was feeling, when Percie pressed her lips to Annabeth's again. "Don't overthink yourself into a bad spot, Wise Girl," Percie murmured when they finished, leaning back. "You've got nothing to apologize for. Really, I should be thanking you."

The only sound was the sound of Blackjack's wings flapping through the wind as both demigods absorbed what had just happened. Annabeth looked petrified, but Percie felt renewed. "So, we ready to in drop and kick some sorceress butt?" Percie asked, smiling.

Every emotion all seemed to flash across Annabeth's face at once before she returned it. "More than ready, Seaweed Brain."

"Yeah! And then we'll celebrate with chocolate and glazed goodness!" Blackjack joined in, kicking out his hooves in joy. "No jelly-filled, though. That stuff is impossible to clean out of my hair."

It was weird. Rachel had told both demigods that she didn't really think it could be counted as cheating on your partner if the person you cheated on them with was technically them. Percie had been horrified by the implication, but here she was, just a day later, now seeing exactly what the Oracle had been talking about. There was no guilt, or questioning. It was the exact same feeling she'd had when she and Alister finally kissed, after the Battle of Manhattan. Granted, that one had been underwater, not high in the sky, but the emotions behind it had been the same. Based on Annabeth's demeanor, the daughter of Athena had reached the same conclusion.

The flight to Philadelphia ended up going off without any more hitches. Blackjack brought the two girls down in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the city stretched out before them. Annabeth hopped off, stretching her legs out after the flight.

"Okay, we're here. Any idea where Circe seemed to be telling you to come find her?" she asked Percie.

Percie swept her eyes out over the metropolis. "I saw Circe kidnap the boys outside the city, on the banks of some river, but I doubt that's where she'd keep them. Circe always had a taste for the inventions of the modern world."

Annabeth arched her brow. "The only river I can think of that goes through Philly is the Delaware river. Penn's Landing is the big hotspot for tourists visiting the city on the waterfront, but I can't think of a place there where Circe might-"

"Hold on! It's literally just called the Delaware River?" Percie interrupted.

"Yes. Why, what did you think it was called?"

"Something a lot less easy to say."

The daughter of wisdom face-palmed, then sucked in a breath. "Focus, Seaweed Brain. We know how prophetic dreams can be. What else did you see besides the abduction on the banks of the river?"

An image flashed through Percie's head. "I saw the Liberty Bell."

"The Liberty Bell?"

"Yeah, and it was kind of random, too. No monsters, no signs of strange activity. Just the bell. It's how I realized the city was Philadelphia."

Annabeth's eyes narrowed. "We need to head to Independence National Park, then."

Blackjack puffed his chest. "Easy enough. Hop on, ladies."

Percie didn't bother translating at this point. Annabeth seemed to understand the general gist of whatever the pegasus said by now. Probably due to having to listen to one too many donut-centered conversations related to her by Percy.

The early morning of the day meant the park wasn't very packed, with only the odd staff member milling around before opening. Blackjack dropped them off in the square in front of the State House, then galloped back into the air, promising to bring them back a dozen of Frangelli's best selection.

"I hope he doesn't steal them," Percie commented, watching the pegasus take off.

The demigods approached the bell, hanging solemnly in the center of the square. The famous crack was eye-catching, enough so that Annabeth had to pause. "You know, a lot of historians can't agree on when exactly the bell cracked. Some say it was in 1835, after it was rung to announce the death of John Marshall. A few others proclaim it came about during the abolitionist days, when the country itself 'cracked' over the slavery debate."

Percie remembered Annabeth's dad was a historian as she talked. "Do you have any theory of your own you want to add to that list?"

The daughter of Athena shook her head. "No, I'd rather not add to the mess. You know, the bell was originally rung to announce that the lawmakers of the city needed to gather. The Founders were among that group. A lot of them were children of Athena."

Annabeth stretched out a hand to the bell, before pulling away. "But enough of the history lesson. See anything around here that might point the way to Circe?"

Percie spotted nothing as she spun around, scanning for anything that might lead to the sorceress. "Maybe we're going about this wrong. Circe's thing is luring people in, and manipulating them into doing her bidding. So why doesn't anything out here catch my eye?"

"The only thing.... is the bell," Annabeth realized, stepping next to Percie. "Circe's fond of transfiguration. Turning people or objects into something else. Maybe she's done something similar here."

"You're not saying she turned one of the boys into the Liberty Bell, are you?"

Annabeth wrinkled her nose at Percie. "No, but she might have altered the bell itself. Maybe...-"

The daughter of Athena knelt down under the belt, placing a hand over the clapper. With only a moment of hesitation, she rang it. The Liberty Bell tolled, releasing a dreary sound out over the square. Percie felt a river of unease race across her spine as the melancholy ringing finished.

"Yeah, she did. The bell's been unringable since 1915," Annabeth confirmed, returning to her feet. "Now, let's see if ringing it attracts any special attention."

Did they really have to speculate? As it turned out, no. They didn't, to Percie's total non-surprise. No sooner had Annabeth finished saying that then the ground beneath them started to wobble, just like Percie had seen it do in her dream when Circe abducted the boys.

Instead of swallowing them, though, the earth opened up, revealing a rather startling sight. A very luxurious elevator emerged from the ground, coming to a stop before the two demigods. A helpful sign on the floor read out "Please, enter, all who ring the bell of wisdom, and be glad!"

"You've got to be kidding me," Percie moaned. "Might as well have it read 'Death awaits! Please prepare yourself for a bad time'".

It didn't stop her from boarding the elevator. Annabeth looked uneasy, but didn't hesitate to follow her in. "Guess this will take us where we need to go," she muttered, as the doors closed behind her.

Percie felt the elevator sink back into the ground, her hand closing around Riptide in her pocket. The buttons on the side of the elevator didn't have numbers on them; rather, each one imitated a significant moment of the daughter of Poseidon's life: slaying the Minotaur, getting turned into a guinea pig (of course Circe would include that one), holding up the sky, facing Kronos, and falling into Tartarus. The final one, however, differed. The image it displayed was a woman standing victorious over two slain bodies, the faces obscured.

As Percie looked at it, the picture shifted, into a burning pyre that seemed to grow and grow, until she dimly became aware that the room was getting hotter.

"Percie! Look around us!" Annabeth shouted through the haze the daughter of the sea had fallen into.

Shaking her head, Percie's senses returned to her. The elevator wasn't just getting hotter; it was actually on fire. The walls ignited, flames leaping against one another as it spread to the ceiling. Annabeth yanked Percie into the center of the lift, just as one spark singed at her cheek.

"Guess Circe didn't want to take any chances!" Percie shouted over the roaring inferno as the flames began licking along the floor, forming a tight circle around their feet. The elevator had seemingly slowed down, just to make their chances even worse.

Annabeth cursed, ripping off her backpack and grabbing a small tube from it. "I hate being right all the time!" she growled, uncapping the bottle and squeezing what smelled like coconut lotion into her hand.

Percie could appreciate someone with good skin care products, but was now really the time to be worried about dry palms? The daughter of Athena rubbed the solution all over herself, before turning to the daughter of the ocean with a determined stare. "Raise your arms!" she snapped.

Stumped, Percie complied, getting the same coconut treatment Annabeth had given herself. "Let's hope that's enough," Annabeth muttered as she finished. The flames got closer and closer, until they were only a few inches away from covering the whole elevator.

"At least we're in this together, eh, Wise Girl?" Percie offered, holding onto Annabeth.

"Always and ever, Seaweed Brain. Always and ever."

And with that, the fire engulfed them.

Chapter Text

The blast was enough to lift Percy off his feet. The son of Poseidon flew right out of the office, slamming up against the back wall of the McLean day spa, whose door had been open directly across from the hallway from where he had been standing. Sadly, none of the various hot tubs seemed to be prepared for use; all of them were completely drained of water.

His head ringing, Percy fumbled around with his hands until he managed to catch hold of one of the tubs. Heaving, he lifted himself up to a half-standing position, so he could see back into the office.

Or what was left of it. Greek fire consumed most of the room, spreading outwards from the glass windows that had been facing the street. Someone must have tossed it in from that side of the house, but who on earth would do that?

Percy had to put those questions on hold, however, to focus on a much more pressing problem. Alister and Janice had been right there in that room with him when the explosion went off. Where had the blast carried them?

The demigod stumbled out of the spa, his hand grasping for Riptide. The pen-sword managed to stay in his pocket despite the wild ride he'd just experienced, but with his equilibrium currently out to lunch, Percy had several doubts as to how effective he could be with it. He reached his other hand out for the doorway, in an effort to stabilize himself, and leaned his head into the now burning office.

It was difficult to make out much in the smoke the fire was causing, but Percy was able to catch a glimpse of a pair of feet poking out from under the desk. The son of the sea tried to push himself towards the fallen person, but his feet tripped over themselves when another smaller blast rocked another part of the house. Percy face-planted right into the coral pink carpet, getting a mouthful of smoke for his trouble.

A hand clasped onto the back of his shirt, yanking him up to a sitting position. "Careful," Janice puffed, dragging him under the desk with her. The effort seemed to be a monumental one for the daughter of Jupiter, and Percy saw why when she get him under cover. She had a very serious case of impalement going on; the desk lamp that had been right behind her before the fires caught had lodged right into the small of her back, burying itself about four inches into her.

"You okay?" Percy rather dumbly asked. Janice had a lamp sticking out of her! What kind of answer was he expecting: "Gee, Percy! I'm just dandy; couldn't feel any better!"?

The Roman just waved his question off. "I'll be fine, as soon we find out what just happened. But first, we gotta get out of here before the smoke inhalation finishes us off."

Easier said than done. Janice could barely stand up with her new back accessory, and Percy's breaths were getting harder and harder to come by. Guess that hit he took to the back after the initial explosion might have rebruised a few ribs from that fight with the Seitaads.

But she had a point. "Did you see what happened to Alister?" he asked Janice as he hoisted her up onto his shoulder, like they were about to engage in some inane three-legged race.

"No, I was too busy getting blown up by our mysterious attackers."

"The sarcasm is not needed right now," Percy complained, shuffling out of the office towards the main living space. "Really, was I that bad myself at some times?"

Janice managed to smile, despite her injury. "I'm sure your own friends back in the other world would be more than happy to agree to that sentiment."

"Yay."

The scene happening in the living room was a sight to behold. Peter, having been awoken by the explosions, was caught up in a very serious stare down with a pair of unfamiliar men. The newcomers were dressed like stereotypical frat guys, with university jerseys and well-worn jeans. The son of Aphrodite had had the foresight to store some weapons around the house, since Percy had no idea where the xiphos had come from. His adversaries were similarly equipped, each one sporting some variant of sword that Percy couldn't recognize immediatly.

The frat guy to the left of the living room swept his eyes over to Percy and Janice as they staggered in, pointing his finger at the son of Poseidon. "He's the one," the man intoned, drawing the attention of his friend.

"Then finish it, and let's be done. The Genius will reward us for putting an end to him here," the other snapped.

The Genius? Now who were these muscle-heads blabbering about? Another mastermind in the shadows? Wasn't Lamia enough?

"I'm just Mr. Popular, apparently," Percy fumed, leaning Janice against the back of the sofa. "Okay, Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-doofus, what did I do to get your underwear in a twist?"

"You are a mistake, Percy Jackson," the first guy snarled, bracing his sword with both hands. "You never should have existed here."

Peter, still in the middle of the room, angled his position so he was blocking Percy from both intruders. "Okay, I might have been willing to forgive the explosions: money could always replace any damage to the house," the son of Aphrodite began, twirling his sword, "but insulting a guest in my home? That's going too far."

"A son of love dares lecture us on the intricacies of hospitality?" the second goon demanded. "My, my. This world really has gone beyond the point of salvation."

"All the more reason to kill him now," his partner reaffirmed. "Less time wasted on conversation, and more to spend on our reward."

"Yes, the reward you're anticipating from your master; the Genius, as you called him," Peter remarked. The demigod's expression changed from an outraged grimace to serpentine smirk. "May I ask who he is, by chance?"

"He's-"

"Silence, you fool!" the second one cried out, his face betraying anxiety. "The master warned us of this one, and his honeyed speeches."

"Fool? That's not a very nice thing to call your friend," Peter continued, his eyes locked onto the face of the first intruder. "I can't believe he would talk to you like that. After everything you've been through together."

Janice tapped Percy on the shoulder, motioning for both of them to head out of the house. Percy nodded, slipping himself under Janice's arm once again. The son of Aphrodite seemed to have this mess handled.

"He... did always say things like that when he thought I couldn't hear him," Percy heard the first goon whimper as they left.

"Yes, of course he did. Because he's jealous of you, maybe? Or maybe he's really that much of a jerk."

"Remind me to stay on his good side," Percy whispered to Janice as they made it to the front door.

The daughter of Jupiter wheezed. "That's Peter: taking people's insecurities and making them into a mountain, right in the middle of a battle."

Her words seemed heavy, and Percy made a mental note to keep his eye on the pair of them for the rest of the time he was around. It seemed like the only way he'd ever manage to get any sort of answer as to how they broke up.

The front of the house, from the yard, was a heart-breaking sight: Greek fire that had started in the office was now moving up to the second floor, making swift work of the infrastructure. Percy hoped Peter could charmspeak his way out of there soon, before the McLean beach house literally flattened him.

"Still no sign of Alister, either," he muttered, setting Janice down in the back of the chariot in the driveway. The daughter of Jupiter gasped as the lamp in her back scrapped against the wall of the vehicle, but only shook her head when Percy went to look at it. "No time to worry about me. Just find Alister; I'm sure Peter will be out here any minute. We can leave as soon as all four of us are back together."

The look in her eye made it clear she wasn't going to tolerate any sort of argument from the son of Poseidon. "Fine," he acquiesced, stepping away. "But there's still some nectar left over from our flight here. At least try to take some of that."

Janice narrowed her eyes at him. "Where, exactly?"

Percy felt like slapping himself. The nectar was in one of the bags they had packed. Which was currently somewhere inside the beach house. Which, in case anyone had forgotten, was now going up in green fire.

"Just... stay there. I'll be right back with Alister and Peter, and we'll get you to New Rome for medical attention," Percy sputtered, dashing off to the side of the house. He could hear Janice rolling her eyes, it was so obvious, but bit his tongue. There was no time to stick around and trade coy remarks with Grace.

Passing by the part of the house where the three of them had been standing when the first explosion sounded, Percy slowed down. He couldn't afford to sprint around the area aimlessly. He needed to take a page from Annabeth's book, and try to learn what he could from his surroundings. Closing his eyes, he tried to recall the moments before the explosion.

He'd been right in front of the door, which was why he'd been sent flying back into the spa. That meant the first volley came from the direction of the windows; perhaps right through the windows there in the office. Janice had been in front and to the right of him. That meant she ricocheted off the wall and across the desk, which is how she ended up getting impaled by one of the very lamps she had been criticizing earlier. And Alister... the son of Athena was standing just off of Percy's left flank, facing Janice. He would have also bounced off the wall, but instead of careening over the desk, his path would have followed...

Percy's eyes widened. If his hunch was right, Alister had been blown right out the window closest to this side of the house. But where had he gone from there? Percy had seen no sign of him on the front yard. Wait... if Alister had landed outside the window where the first fire caught, odds were good he'd seen exactly who it was that had thrown the fire in the first place. And if he'd seen them, odds were also pretty good they'd seen him as well.

The son of the ocean's feet started moving on their own accord. Annabeth was rolling over in frustration somewhere right now, but there was no way Percy could stand still any more, pondering his next move when he could just be making it.

He ran to the beach around the house, now starting to show signs of giving way. Peter had better hurry up whatever he was planning with the two fratbros.

The McLean beach house wasn't the only luxury villa nestled away on this part of Malibu, but Tristan's star power had been more than enough to net his villa its own private stretch of sand. It was obvious the moment Percy rounded the corner that something had happened on this part of the property. The back tables had been tossed to the side, and the pool's ladder had been ripped out of its holding, now lying useless on the pavement around it.

Someone had been fighting here, and their fight had pushed them past the patio and onto the sand itself. Following the trail of destruction, Percy came upon a sight he hadn't been expecting further down the beach.

Alister, looking ragged from having been thrown out a window, was nevertheless launching attack after attack against another unfamiliar man. Unlike the college punks who'd been inside, however, this guy looked like he'd just stepped off the cover of a "World's Sexiest Lawyers" magazine. The three-piece suit was a tad too much for Percy's taste, but the son of Poseidon had to admit he pulled the look off well.

The unknown stranger was parrying Alister's strikes with a spear, a bored expression etched on his face. His heart didn't seem to be in the fight, the exact opposite of the son of Athena. Alister's strikes were haphazard and wild, sword and dagger flailing about. As Percy got closer to the showdown, he could hear the voice of the unfamiliar man.

"Please, Alister. Cease with this pointlessness," he chided, blocking a swipe from the dagger without breaking a sweat. The sword didn't fare much better, getting kicked away while the man pushed against Alister's collarbone with the flat end of his spear, knocking the demigod onto his back. "I'm doing you a service, really. How many more impossible things are you willing to let happen just because you don't want to face an undeniable truth?"

Alister only screamed in anger as he leapt back to his feet, his blades scissoring together as they raced for the man's throat. If the strike connected, the son of Athena would have decapitated his opponent. It did not, though.

The man only sighed in exasperation as he sidestepped the assault, smacking Alister across the face with the back of his hand. Even from this distance, Percy could see the blood splatter across the sand. Oh, now he'd done it.

"Hey! Calvin Klein! Try picking on someone more suited to your tastes!" Percy called out, Riptide coming to his hand. He still had about thirty feet to go before reaching the brawl, but he hoped his words would distract the man long enough for him to pull his attention away from Alister.

They did, but too well. The man's expression lighted at seeing Percy so close, and suddenly Alister was forgotten. The stranger hefted his spear with his hand, drawing it back into a charged position before launching it at the son of Poseidon. Percy only just managed to spin to the side, spilling onto the sand as the pointed weapon sailed past him.

Percy got to his feet, smiling at the development. "Whoops. Guess someone just lost his only means of defense."

Surprisingly, the man did not look hampered by this news. His expression only changed back to the bored look he'd been wearing when he was fighting Alister. He kept that same look as he extended his hand towards Percy. Confused, Percy turned to look behind him, only to be startled by Alister.

"Get down!" he screeched, his voice shriller than Percy had ever heard it. The warning dropped the son of Poseidon onto his chest, as the spear that had been tossed past him came passing right over his head once again, landing back in the hand of its owner.

"Really?" the stranger asked, giving Alister some serious side-eye. "Even after all I've told you, you still protect him?"

"And will continue to do so," the son of Athena spat, swinging at the man's legs.

The incoming attack was blocked by the shaft of the spear, and the man narrowed his eyes at Alister as he jumped out of range of another one. "Brother, come. You must see reason at some point," he chastised.

Percy felt his heart writhe. "B-Brother? Wait, you two are-"

Alister pulled himself to his feet, his nose bleeding from the backhand he'd taken. "Reason? You show up out of nowhere, blow up a part of my friend's house, try to kill another one of them, and you expect me to listen to you?" he challenged. "And don't pull that family nonsense with me, either! You don't get to play that card!"

The man frowned. "Oh, I don't? But he gets to play the 'I'm really your girlfriend from another world' card, and you just abandon your senses without thought?"

"Don't you dare bring Percie up to me, you malaka!"

Alister was literally vibrating with rage as he shouted. Percy crept up next to him, Riptide pointed directly at the stranger.

"Long-lost family?" he whispered.

The son of Athena flinched. "In a sense," he returned.

"What, no grandiose introduction?" the man called out. "I did not restore Athenian supremacy to be treated like some card-carrying villain, little brother. Either tell him who I am, or I shall. Both of us know how much I enjoy making speeches."

"You? Making speeches? I'd never guess," Percy snapped at him, before turning to Alister with a gentler voice. "Who is he?"

"Demosthenes," Alister gnashed through clenched teeth.

"Indeed. Athenian statesman, world-renowned orator, political mastermind, wartime genius, and ever-favored son of Athena," Demosthenes added, with a little flourish. "Once dead, now given life again thanks to a very bizarre situation involving Gaea. Thanks for fixing that whole mess, by the way. You have no idea how boring it was, sitting in Elysium with only Euripides and Alcibiades for company."

"Wait, so this guy is some ancient child of Athena?" Percy asked, his brain getting its wires-crossed. "And now he's back, and trying to kill me?"

"Please understand. It's not because of some ill-gotten grudge, or twisted hubris," the orator insisted. "I am merely doing what is best for the world at large. The fact that such a result calls for your death is a factor I deeply regret."

"Regret? You didn't seem very regretful when you chucked that spear at me a moment ago!" Percy shot back, stepping forward so Alister was behind him. The other demigod whined in his throat, but Percy put his left hand to Alister's stomach, holding him back.

"Only because I finally saw a chance to fix this catastrophe. Come, Perseus. Did you really think Lamia's spell was so limited in its scope? That the consequences of it were already known to you? Sure, Hecate might be wearing herself to the bone for now, but even her ability to keep the world together can only stretch so far."

"What are you implying?"

Demosthenes huffed. "Oh, for the love of- how did you ever fall in love with this dense oaf?" he barked at his brother.

It was a good thing Percy had stepped in front of Alister, because that was the only way he was able to restrain the child of Athena before he tried to rip his brother's eyes out. Even so, Alister still fought against Percy's grip for several seconds.

"Easy, Alister," Percy had to murmur into his ear. "You're not in a good place to fight, physically or emotionally. The only reason he didn't kill you before I showed up is because he didn't want to."

Demosthenes clicked his tongue in disapproval, watching the two boys struggle with each other. "True; Mother would have had my head if I skewered her precious little architect. I planned to spare him regardless, just as a thank-you for saving the world twice, but now I must ask him to step back and let me save the world this time."

"And how does killing him save the world?" Alister raged, before finally seeming to relax into Percy's grip.

"Easy; the world wasn't displaced until he showed up, thanks to Lamia and her disastrous magic. Ergo, the fastest and most effective way to fix that destabilization is to remove the irritant: in this case, Percy Jackson."

"And you know this how?" Percy questioned.

"Simple. The Fates never planned for this Percy to exist in this world. They had only considered Percie, not her double. But now we've had the displacement. Lamia's magic acted up, and now the universe doesn't know what to do with itself. Hecate isn't enough; neither is any other god strong enough to fix it. The only way we go on is to kill the one person who threw us all into this mess: you," Demosthenes explained, pointing his weapon at Percy. "I will not pretend to enjoy it; despite the differences, you technically did save everyone twice. But now you can do it again, just in a different fashion."

The ancient demigod was an opponent Percy didn't trust himself to go toe-to-toe with, not with him having to worry about Alister's safety. Fortunately, Tristan McLean's vacation spot was about to come in handy.

"A reasonable offer, Demosthenes," Percy said, spreading his arms out. "I like reasonable people. And you were right; you are a fantastic speaker."

The orator shrugged. "Comes with the territory, I suppose. If it makes you feel any better, I was never a fan of drawn out, painful executions. You probably won't even feel it."

The ocean off to the side began churning as Demosthenes finished speaking, before millions of gallons of water streamed over the sand, encircling the three demigods. Some of it curled around Percy, shifting into the form of two giant fists. The rest hardened into spikes, right behind the ancient demigod.

"But for all your genius, and planning," Percy continued, his smile widening, "did you really ponder the implications of fighting a son of Poseidon next to the ocean?" The question was asked innocently, with an added wink for context.

Suddenly Demosthenes, who up until that moment had that same bored look on his face, flushed as he realized what sort of trap he'd just let himself get cornered into. Percy heard Alister chuckle behind him, and titled his head in questioning. "Oh, you didn't?" Percy teased. "Shame. Your boys in the house called you the Genius. But I guess even geniuses make mistakes, huh?"

"Mistakes?" Demosthenes' voice was low. "Oh, no, son of Poseidon. This is no mistake. My main goal might have been to end you, but I never let myself get suckered into having just one plan. My secondary objective was already a massive success."

"Your secondary objective? Do tell."

The ancient son of Athena managed to smirk, despite his circumstances. "Just have a look at your boyfriend, if you want to see."

Huh? Percy turned to Alister, who looked just as bewildered by the claim. "What are you on about?" Alister prodded.

"I may not claim your life today, Perseus, but I've planted doubt. Doubt in the mind of your precious Alister. It doesn't matter whose hand does you in, you know. Your death will save this world and everyone in it; I don't care if it isn't me who does it. Think on what I've said, brother. Ask yourself which choice is wisdom, and which is fantasy."

The waters closed in on him a second later, Percy now fully done with his manipulation. Demosthenes vanished under the waves for several minutes, Percy not letting up until he was sure he'd held it long enough for the ancient demigod to have succumbed to drowning. But when he released the water, the sand where Demosthenes had been standing was clear. No body, no sign whatsoever.

"That coward," Percy grumbled. "Of course he'd have some escape plan ready."

The son of Poseidon turned to check on Alister, but the son of Athena was still staring at the spot where his brother had been. His eyes were a million miles away, and his lips were slowly moving, like he was repeating Demosthenes' last words over and over.

"Alister."

Percy's voice rattled the demigod out of his trance. "Oh, uh, Percy," Alister mumbled, blinking. "Thanks for uh... stepping in and all."

"No problem," Percy responded, angling his head to look Alister in the eye. "He didn't get to you, did he?"

"Him? No, not at all," Alister told him, but Percy could tell that wasn't the full truth. Alister had the same tells as Annabeth, and Percy had known her long enough to spot when she was being aloof.

"Okay then," was all Percy said, not wanting to push the issue. "We should get back to the chariot; Janice is there, and she's got a lamp sticking out of her."

Alister arched an eyebrow. "A lamp? Gods, that woman has the worst luck when it comes to injuries."

As the two of them made their way back to the front of the house, the two frat guys came spilling out a side door, locked in some sort of wrestling move. "You backstabbing miscreant!" the first one cried out, trying to body-slam his friend. "How could I not see it? You've been planning to usurp me as Demosthenes' right hand the whole time, haven't you?"

"Me? Betray you? You've been scheming against me ever since I became his left hand!" the second one berated. "By the time I'm through with you, you won't have any hands whatsoever to speak of!"

Alister and Percy watched them roll around in the grass, still screaming accusations at each other. "Peter's work?" the son of Athena questioned.

"Yep. Guess he made it out to the chariot," Percy said back.

That was good, because the McLean beach house was now fully engulfed in a green inferno. Several of the neighbors were gathered on the street, watching the house burn with mixed reactions. Some at least tried to look like they were faking tears; others didn't bother hiding their smirks.

None of the affluent bystanders paid any attention to the demigods in the driveway. Janice was huddled on the chariot, with Peter tapping his foot in anger at the indifference expressed by his neighbors.

"Remind me to tell my dad no one bothered to help," he complained to Percy and Alister as they approached. "I'm sure his lawyers could have a field day with this crowd." Despite his aggravation, the son of Aphrodite had harness the two pegasi while waiting. Neither Calico or Shortstop looked very proud of themselves for disappearing during the action again, but Percy wasn't in the mood for yelling at them.

"Did you manage to salvage anything from the house?" Percy asked him instead.

"No. I meant what I said in there. Money can always replace things. But people, my friends; that's something I won't mess around with."

Despite his house going up in flames right in front of him, the son of love smiled. In that moment, he looked more like Piper than he ever had before.

Janice grinned as well, despite her injury. "Guess I'm gonna have to hold off on that nectar until we get to Camp Jupiter, then, huh?"

Percy felt his heart melt at these two. Here they were, both suffering from pretty serious incidents, all because they were friends with Percie Jackson. And neither of them looked spiteful in the slightest. A pang of guilt twitched inside him, but he snuffed it out. He'd have done the same thing, if it meant helping either of them out. He couldn't get caught up in his feelings again; not when it went both ways.

The four demigods were ready soon enough, and Percy wondered what the mortals saw as the chariot flew up into air from the driveway. The Mist probably had a rough time covering that one.

No sooner were they in the air then Peter dozed off, his sleep from last night having been interrupted by Demosthenes and his duo of frat guys. Janice tried to rest too, but her back ornament made the process difficult. That left Percy standing next to Alister as they flew to San Francisco.

"He's gonna make another appearance, we both know that," Alister murmured, not looking at the son of Poseidon. "He's got it in his head that it's the right thing to do."

"Yeah, but at least he showed his hand to us," Percy reminded him.

The son of Athena bit the inside of his cheek. "Yes... the Genius, giving all that information out. That just makes me feel so much better."

Alister clammed up after that, and Percy didn't ask anything more. The son of wisdom clearly needed to be alone with his thoughts.

The son of Poseidon just hoped those thoughts didn't include a dagger in between his ribs before all was said and done.

Chapter Text

Percie slammed her eyes shut, waiting for the moment where the inferno finally started to sear at her skin. The irony of the daughter of Poseidon dying horrifically in a fire was not the last thought she wanted to ever think before meeting Charon again, but it seemed that was what her brain decided was important in her final moments. She held her breath, and waited.

And waited.

And waited some more.

Okay, this was weird. The fire had just reached her feet when she shut her eyes. It should have been scorching her, at the very least, by now. So why wasn't she writhing around in unthinkable agony? Not that she was complaining about that, but still.

"Percie, I think you can open your eyes again," Annabeth said a few inches in front of her face.

Percie's eyes fluttered open, and were met with a terrifying sight. The flames were there, all right. They were licking all over her clothes, sizzling with heat she could feel radiating off them. Looking over to Annabeth, the sight was even worse. The daughter of Athena was engulfed entirely in flame, and while she looked freaked out beyond measure, she didn't seem to be suffering any pain.

"Oh, great. The flames are so hot we can't even feel them," Percie bemoaned. "How long before the flesh starts sloughing off our bones?"

Annabeth's gaze darted around the burning elevator, before she exhaled in relief. "Actually, I don't think we have to worry about burning to death. At least, not from the ones in here."

"Excuse me? Pardon me for sounding skeptical, Wise Girl, but you are aware your face is on fire right now? Gods, I don't even want to think about what our hair is going to smell like after this."

The daughter of Athena rolled her eyes, holding up the bottle she'd whipped out before the fire had reached them. "Recognize this? It's Medea's sunscreen, the one I mentioned it would be really nice to have when we had to face the Colchis Bulls. I forgot to bring it with me that time; never again."

Percie had to squint to read the words on the side: "Medea's SPF 50,000 Sunscreen. And... this is why we aren't flailing around in agony right now?"

"Yeah. The same stuff Medea gave the original Jason when he had to fight the Bulls. It doesn't protect against all kinds of fire, but I guessed Circe's would be within the zone. She is Medea's aunt, after all."

The daughter of Poseidon broke into a wide grin, which must have made her look like a flaming pumpkinhead. "Have I told you how brilliant you are?"

"You could stand to mention it more," Annabeth replied, a sly grin returning Percie's expression.

Now impervious to the flames, the two demigods managed to enjoy the ride down into the ground. At some point, Circe must have realized her flames weren't going to be of any real use, and the fire died out, leaving a smokeless elevator behind. "Guess that confirms the magic angle," Percie commented as the elevator slowed. "Time to speak to a bellhop. No guest should have to worry about being cooked into barbecue in an elevator."

"Assuming that bellhop cared about your customer satisfaction enough to even listen," the daughter of Athena remarked, one hand going to her sword. "I haven't checked Circe's Yelp rating in a while, but it's not something she worries about. Turning your male visitors into animals tends to lead to a lot of one-star reviews."

Percie nodded. "As it should. I would know; guinea pig Percie was not a happy customer."

Annabeth must have had a thought suddenly occur to her, since she wheeled to Percie with a startled look. "Wait... you were the one who got turned into the guinea pig? Not Alister?"

"Oh, yeah. I can see how that might be confusing. Okay, so from what I gathered when we were there, Circe was trying to turn Alister into a guinea pig, like her M.O. For some reason, she had it in her head that I would make a decent sorceress. Not smart," Percie explained. "Anyway, she was right in the middle of guilt-tripping him into drinking some of that guinea pig potion, when I misheard her say the phrase 'what are' as 'water'. I was super parched because we'd been sailing all day, so I just went and drank the cup right then, before Alister could."

Annabeth brought her hand to her face, staring at Percie with a look of sunned sympathy. "Is.. that right?" she murmured.

Percie shrugged. "I was thirteen; impulsiveness was my go-to strategy. Anyway, the sight of me turning into a rodent must have broken whatever magic spell Circe was casting on Alister, because he snapped back to his senses and used some of those vitamins to turn everyone back. I'm pretty sure if Circe was a mortal, that incident would have taken at least twenty years off her life."

The elevator came to a full stop, and the doors pinged open. "Looks like our floor," Percie observed, stepping out. Annabeth followed her with slow steps, the story she'd just heard apparently being harder to digest than she had been expecting.

The women found themselves in a spacious lobby, decorated with green tapestries and light blue furniture. An empty desk stood to the left side of the room, with a dimmed out sign reading "The manager will be along shortly" plastered over the only other door in the room.

"Do we wait for the manager, or make our own entrance?" Percie asked, Riptide finding its way into her hand. "I don't want to seem rude, but showing hospitality to a kidnapper isn't something my mother spent time teaching me to practice."

Annabeth smirked. "Then after you, rule breaker."

Percie strutted up to the door, reaching out, when a voice cut in.

"Pardon! Pardon!" a male voice chorused, from under the desk. "A thousand apologies, my loves. I'll be with you in just a moment. As soon as I finish sorting out these tickets here."

A shuffling sound was followed by a cabinet being closed, and the voice that had spoken rose up from behind the desk. The man was vibrant, and clean-shaven. Strawberry-blonde hair curled into wisps around his head, and the T-shirt he was wearing was dangerously small for him. He leaned backwards to stretch himself out, and Percie got a pretty nice view of his very solid six-pack.

"You must be the manager, then?" she asked, having to pull her eyes back up to his face. The longer she looked at this man (boy, really; he couldn't have been more than nineteen), the more she found herself getting distracted by how darn gorgeous he was.

If the wide-eyed look Annabeth was giving was any indication, she wasn't the only thrown for a loop by this guy's beauty.

Meanwhile, he nodded at Percie's question. "Yes, I am! Sorry about the wait, dears. You'd be surprised how many parking tickets manage to find their way to this office, even though we're under the surface of the earth. Can I get you anything before I take your names down? A glass of water, perhaps?"

Percie would happily accept anything from this looker, but the mention of water reminded her of why they were here. "Oh, no thank you. We're just here to see Circe, is all."

"Ah, the mistress of magic herself. Very good, very good," he chirped, brining out a massive notebook and flipping to the C section. "Let's see.. Circe... here we are! It looks like you two are her VIP appointment of the day, actually. How wonderful! I can show you to her now, if you like."

Percie nudged Annabeth, knocking the daughter of Athena out of her stupor. "That would... be great, thank you," Annabeth mumbled, averting her eyes from the man's very... robust shoulders. Wow, this was hard.

"Lovely! Follow me, ladies," he warbled, opening the door across the room and motioning for them to come along. Percie led the way, having to bite her tongue to keep her eyes from trailing down his back to his rear. Oh sweet Aphrodite, he was wearing the tightest pair of skinny jeans she'd ever seen. In an exertion of willpower Percie did not know she had, the daughter of Poseidon did not get hypnotized by the swaying of his hips. She just needed to keep her eyes on the back of his head.

The young man stopped as he lead them through the hallway, pausing at an automated water bottle. "Are you sure you two don't require anything for a refreshment?" he asked.

"No, I'm good; Annabeth?" Percie said, her face scrunched together.

"I'll pass," she heard the other demigod squeak behind her.

"No problem; guess I'll help myself," he shrugged, fetching a small plastic cup and pressing the bottle's handle. What happened next was either a tragedy or a glorious event, depending on how you saw the situation. The water bottle malfunctioned, missing the cup and spraying a blast of liquid all over the guy's shirt.

"Oh, dear. I thought I fixed this last time I came through here," the young man muttered, placing his cup down on the fountain. "Now I'm gonna have to change."

He wasn't going to... no. Not now. Percie's brain started screaming at her to close her eyes, before he did what she knew was coming next. But her gods-forsaken eyes refused to listen. They needed to see.

With a grace Percie had never seen a guy pull off before, the man stripped himself to the waist up, tossing his soaked T-shirt onto a table in the hallway. The daughter of Poseidon felt her mind melt as she raked in the eye candy. She'd seen handsome men before. Alister was a shining example, above all others. With this guy, of course. He looked exactly like one of those Renaissance statues of a Greek god; flawless muscles, perfect skin, and the precise combination of strength and sensitivity.

"T- B- M...," Percie fumbled for words as the man brushed spare water droplets off his pectorals. Behind her, she heard Annabeth start inhaling with gusto.

"My apologies, loves," he cadenced, turning to them with a repentant look in his eyes. Percie felt a desire to take this muscular young man into her arms and soothe him. He hadn't offended her in any way. No, he was perfect like this. In fact, he never had to put on a shirt around her again.

"Get ahold of yourself, woman!" a voice in her head shouted at her. "We came here to save Will and Nico, not ogle the pretty manager."

Oh, couldn't she do both?

"No! Get back to the topic at hand. Now!"

The daughter of Poseidon sighed, then found her words again. "No problem. You were showing us to Circe, yes?"

He nodded. "Correct. Let us resume."

As he turned back around, the young man made a spinning motion with his hand. A water jug materialized in his grip, and he sipped from it, a pleased grin spreading over his face as he tasted the contents. "Perfect," he whispered.

Annabeth put a hand to Percie's shoulder as they all began moving again. "I think I know who this guy is," she breathed into her ear.

"Some child of Aphrodite, is he?" Percie guessed.

"No. This is Ganymede, once Prince of Troy."

The name wasn't familiar to her. "There were a lot of princes of Troy, Annabeth. Anything else special about him?"

The daughter of Athena looked grave. "Yes, much more. Ganymede was considered so beautiful, he captured the attention of Zeus himself."

"Wait, Zeus got infatuated with another guy for once?"

"Yeah. I mean, you did see him, right?"

A shudder ran through her body as she looked back at Ganymede's flawless form. "Yeah, okay. I get how that could happen. So what transpired after Zeus got interested?"

Annabeth rolled her eyes. "He did what he did best; resorted to kidnapping. He paid Ganymede's father with the best horses he could find, and made the boy immortal. Ganymede became the cupbearer for the gods, as well as Zeus's lover."

Percie winced. "Let me guess: Hera wasn't amused."

"Of course not. To Ganymede's credit, he managed to win over every other god on Olympus, though I'm pretty sure most of that was because of his looks. Anyway, when Hera finally had enough, she couldn't just kill or curse the young man. He had too many friends. So, Zeus made him a constellation, so he could always look on his old lover in the sky."

A constellation... the focus on water... the materializing cup. "Wait, Ganymede became Aquarius?" Percie choked out.

"The water-bearer; yes," Annabeth confirmed. "What I don't get is why he's here, of all places. Circe despises men, so why would she hire one as her secretary and manager?"

Percie's eye went to Ganymede as he led them. "Maybe Philadelphia's economy is in a rough spot right now, and Circe can't be choosy about who she takes on?"

"Let's hope that's the case. I don't like the implications behind other possible answers."

Ganymede glanced over his shoulder, noticing the two demigods trailing behind him. "Hurry up, dears. I'd hate for you to be late to your appointment on my account," he flounced, beckoning for them to speed up. Percie felt her face grow hot as she caught up to him, following him down another string of corridors and down a flight of stairs.

"Is Circe renting this space out from anyone?" the daughter of Poseidon asked.

"I'm sure she is, but the mistress of magic is infuriatingly tight-lipped about her connections not related to her business here," he answered. "Really, I can't believe she closed that lovely location down in the Sea of Monsters. Sure, the local population tended to devour any possible guests before they made it to her island, but the ones that did were always so happy to stay. I told Io that we should have combined into a joint-venture to buy out Circe, but she refused. That's why I'm here, now. I refuse to let opportunity pass me by again."

Percie shot Annabeth a quizzical look, earning a frown from the daughter of Athena. She clearly didn't buy Ganymede's explanation, in the slightest. Percie couldn't blame her. Ganymede seemed like too much of a ditz to ever prioritize business sense over his water-bearing duties.

The constellation personified didn't seem to register the look the two women shared, only prattling on about his plans for Circe's island: something involving frozen yogurt and go-karting. Percie stopped fully listening once he mentioned trigonometry; that was too boring, even when told by a gorgeous immortal.

She didn't realize he'd stopped until she ran face-first into his bare back. "Apologies, my dear. I should have warned you," he said, standing off to the side. "The mistress will be with you shortly in there." He pointed to a double-wide set of steel doors, located at the far end of the hall. "Do be careful in there, my doves. She brought some awfully rude young fellows along with her yesterday, and to my knowledge, they're still in there. I'd hate for them to cause you an unpleasant time."

Nico and Will. It had to be them Ganymede was referring to. At least they had both still been alive when Circe came back. "Thank you, Ganymede," Percie nodded at him.

A new look appeared on the young man's face for a moment. "Ah, yes. I forget... I have more than one name. Aquarius... was not my first."

The immortal's face melded into a mask of pain before he smiled again. "Do have a good time, ladies. Should you wish to schedule another appointment down the road, feel free to stop by my desk in the lobby and set it up. I enjoyed your company."

Ganymede bowed and left, taking a pretty long swig from his water jug as he left. Perhaps it was just Percie's imagination, but she would swore she saw him glare down at the cask in contempt before he turned the corner.

Annabeth didn't mention anything about it, though, so Percie pushed it away to the back of her mind. The daughter of Athena pulled her sword, giving Percie a cautious look. "We can't afford to be as reckless as we were with the dracanae. Circe is no pushover."

"I know. And we can't afford to jeopardize Nico or Will either," Percie seconded, palming Riptide. "So how do we want to do this?"

"She knows it's just the two of us. If just you walk in there, she's going to immediatly know something's up," Annabeth rambled to herself. "She's got us in a bind; we can't utilize any sort of ambush or trick here."

"Frontal assault's the only option, then?" Percie asked.

"Guess so."

The daughter of Athena didn't look very pleased with that outcome. Percie put a hand to her arm. "Hey, we've faced her before. We've faced a lot worse alone. Circe might be a threat, but she doesn't have what we have with each other." Gods, that sounded corny, but it was the best the daughter of the sea could muster on the fly. Public speaker she was not.

Annabeth placed her own hand over Percie's, squeezing it. "I know, Seaweed Brain. All right. Let's go rescue our friends."

The steel doors slid open with a nasty hissing sound as the two demigods approached. Oh, so they were expected. Lovely. The parting doors revealed what seemed to be an underground warehouse. Wired mesh separated the space into several dozen smaller pens, all of whom were crowded by many unhappy animals.

"Good to see Circe hasn't changed too much," Percie remarked, walking past an enclosure of whining goats. Many of them bleated at her in warning, knocking their heads against the wire. "A woman with dark hair and bad taste in eye shadow did this to you, didn't she?" she asked the animals.

Percie didn't know goats could look shocked, but all of these did at her question, before they began kicking up a fuss in affirmation. The daughter of Poseidon nodded in understanding. "Yeah, she turned me into a guinea pig once. Don't worry; we can get you guys back to normal, too."

The goats bayed in response, backing up from the wire. Annabeth leaned in. "Percie, I don't have any of those multivitamins from Hermes this time. How do you expect to change them back?"

"No idea, but we can't just leave them like this, Annabeth. If Circe is defeated here, who's going to feed them? Ganymede?"

The daughter of Athena grumbled something Percie couldn't hear, but didn't raise an objection. The two demigods continued on, weaving through more and more squealing animals until they reached the end of the room.

The pens gave way to a mock stage-setup, where a familiar foe was arranging some flowers alongside a silver throne fashioned to a miniature barn. Circe didn't speak when she saw the two women, only affixing them with a satisfied smirk before lounging into the chair.

"Where are they?" Annabeth asked point-blank. Nice. Percie was a fan of that method.

The sorceress batted her eyelashes in feigned ignorance. "Where is who, dear? Please don't play the pronoun game with me. It'll take forever for the conversation to get anywhere if none of us know who we're talking about."

"My friends; the ones you went and snatched up on the banks of the Delaware," Percie informed her. "Two boys; opposite to each other in almost every way, but cute as all get out."

"Hmmm...," Circe pretended to think for a moment, before slapping herself. "Oh, yes! Tootsies and Nevermore! I know exactly who you mean. Although, isn't it a bit of a stretch to call them 'your' friends, daughter of the ocean?" she purred.

Percie had to swallow her growing frustration. "No, it's not. We've been through more than you could ever comprehend, even if it wasn't in the traditional way."

"Oh, my. My sister told me how very much alike I should expect you to be, but this is almost scary," the sorceress teased. "Percy always had such reckless loyalty to his friends; it's refreshing to see it in you as well, dear."

Annabeth fidgeted at her words. "Your sister? Who? And how did she know Percy had been switched out with her?"

"You mean the answer hasn't already come to you, daughter of wisdom? I must say, I expected more from you, Annabeth. The truth is lying right under your nose, yet you remain unable to recognize it."

Percie jutted Riptide out at Circe. "Enough talk! We asked you a question: Where are they?"

The goddess made an annoyed sound with her lips, clapping her hands together. The barn structure she had been working on expanded, unfolding its walls until the whole thing was a flat foundation. The walls of the room shuddered as the floor gave way, two slots opening up from below them.

Percie watched as those two slots widened, and bright, bulbous orbs emerged from them, shining with pale blue light. Circe snapped her fingers, and the light faded out. Percie and Annabeth both had to hold back gasps as they saw what, or who, was trapped in them.

To the right, in the orb nearest Percie, was the unconscious form of Will Solace. The healer was crumpled into the fetal position, his breathing faint. In the other, to Annabeth's side of the room, was Nico di Angelo, though the son of Hades seemed to have his wits about him. He was crouched in the orb, but even from this distance, Percie could see his eyes burning with anger as he stared at Circe. His gaze drifted to the orb his boyfriend was slumped in, and that anger multiplied.

Nico must have screamed, but no sound pierced the orb's magic. A dark energy completely insulated the demigod, but the orb did not react. Circe cocked her head, making a pouty expression. "He's going to get himself killed, trying to escape from that. Couldn't even be bothered to learn from his partner's mistakes."

Percie stared back at Circe in apprehension. "His... mistakes?"

"Oh, yes. Dear Tootsies over there spent every last ounce of himself trying to break out of my spell. Unfortunately for him, that orb of mine comes with a nasty little side effect: it takes any magic or powers a demigod might try to use, and turns it back on them. I confess, Nevermore up there is much hardier than I would have anticipated. Anybody else probably would have at least passed out by now, but he's been trying every other minute, feels like. No matter. It'll catch up to him, eventually."

Annabeth shuddered next to Percie. "Why.... why take them? Why lure Percie here? For... this?"

Circe sneered. "For a reckoning, my dears. And that's all you'll ever know of this. Because I intend to put an end to Percie Jackson here. Permanently."

It would have been a great time for a clever retort. And normally, clever retorts were one of Percie's strongest disciplines. But the sight of the son of Apollo, laying there helpless, and the son of Hades furiously trying to break his bonds, despite the pain the magic was inflicting on him... Percie's wit died on her tongue. As did Annabeth's. The two demigods didn't have to coordinate, or exchange a look. The next plan of action was a given.

They charged.

Chapter Text

"So, what are the odds we get shot out of the air before anyone checks to see who we are first?" Percy asked, leaning over the side of the chariot to get a better view of the San Francisco suburbs passing underneath them. The Oakland Hills, where Camp Jupiter was nestled away, were visible over the skyline, but the son of Poseidon had been fired at enough over the course of his life. He didn't want Alister to have to force them into a crash-landing because some cohort got too trigger-happy.

"Oh, come on!" Calico neighed from the harness. "First the sand demons, then those snobby college kids, and finally nervous Romans? Is someone playing the world's most dangerous game of bingo with us? Because they're about to win big."

Janice, in answer to Percy's question, grimaced, though most of that seemed to come from the fact that she still had a desk lamp sticking out of her back. "I'm confident Rey made sure to tell the cohorts that you guys were expected. Or Faith did, of course. They won't shoot at us before they at least get an idea of who we are."

"How very nice of them," Alister scoffed. "At any rate, we should be there in a few minutes. Any idea where we can drop him off?" he asked, pointing at Peter. The son of Aphrodite was curled up on the floor of the chariot, snoring away. "I'd hate to jostle him awake just so we can get introductions finished."

The daughter of Jupiter thought about it. "Rey could probably take him in, if we asked him to. Other than that, I'm sure Hayden would be glad to share with Peter."

Hearing the two other demigods discuss the rest of the Seven, Percy couldn't help feeling a little left out. It was a dumb feeling, sure, but he couldn't shake the sensation that until he finally got to meet his friends' counterparts himself, he'd only have unfamiliar names to help him along.

"Don't forget Lea," the son of Athena pointed out. "If anyone could make room for Peter, it would be her. Which reminds me: I still need to strangle her for disappearing like that after the fight with Gaea. You know I haven't actually seen her since she sent that message from Camp Half-Blood."

Janice snickered. "I would have loved to have been in the room to see your face. What emotion hit you the hardest: relief, or anger?"

"Hermes swears it was a sight he could only describe as pathetic tears, but I have no idea what he's talking about," Alister dismissed. "The nerve of him! I got sent that message right in the middle of scoping out the extension he wanted on his temple, and that's how he repays my hard work? With slander?"

"Admit it; you missed Lea just as much as the rest of us."

Alister sighed. "Yes, I did. Despite my better judgment. And the fact that she had to go and get herself possessed by an eidolon just in time to bomb Camp Jupiter at the worst possible moment. Hey, that's two things I can strangle her for!"

"Then I guess I better stop talking, before I end up giving you more reasons to throttle my best friend," Janice joked. Her words lingered in the air, and the daughter of Jupiter suddenly seemed to be remembering something painful. "My... best friend," she murmured.

Percy knelt down next to her. "Janice?"

"It's... nothing. Nothing worth bringing up now, anyway."

The son of Poseidon would have been blind if he didn't notice that Janice cast a very deliberate look in Peter's direction, before turning back to him. "Well, we should be getting close to the camp's borders by now. Guess that means we should be expecting an unwelcome guest soon."

Percy winced as he realized who she was talking about. Gods, did he ever have anything important to do other than interrupt demigods on vital business? Like decorate someone's parlor? Oh, well. As long as Terminus didn't show himself in some dramatic explosion, the meeting could be slightly tolerable.

That possibility vanished as the pegasi were forced to come to a blazing halt right there in the sky, thanks to a dramatic explosion popping off right in front of them. Percy turned on his heel, coming face to stone with the god of boundaries. "Hey, Terminus. Long time no see, cinderblock."

The god had materialized himself right onto the chariot, leading to some very weary squawking coming from the two pegasi. Apparently Roman gods didn't qualify as a carry-on when it came to flying chariots. Terminus's stone face leered at Percy, his lips curling into a frown. "Oh, how lucky for me. Another insolent Greek," he complained, shifting to look at Alister. "Honestly. Between you two, and that irritating daughter of Hephaestus, I've heard enough rock-related puns to last me for the rest of time."

Janice grinned at him from her spot. "Hey there, Terminus. Great to see you. I take it one of the praetors told you about us arriving at some point?"

"Oh, and it's Ms. Grace as well. This must be Juno's idea of a joke," he scorned. "Yes, Ms. Zhang informed me of the... situation, as much as she could seemingly grasp. I take it this provocative green-eyed punk is the one who's taken the place of Ms. Jackson?"

"Punk?" Percy echoed, only to be ignored by everyone else.

"Then you'll let us through?" Alister questioned, his foot tapping against the chariot's floor with impatience.

"Yes, against my better judgment," the god grumbled. "However, just because you yourselves have permission to enter doesn't mean I still can't confiscate your weapons in the city limits."

Percy moaned. "Oh, come on! I feel like we've all done this song and dance before."

"Then you should know by now that song and dance is defined by its patterns, and it's those patterns that keep our society from collapsing," Terminus spat back.

"Didn't stop the first Rome from falling apart," Alister muttered.

Terminus went red, despite still being a stone statue of a head. "Why does everyone always bring that up?! One time! We fall apart one time, and suddenly no one stops to remember all the great things you did! No, now it's just 'lesson in giving away too much power' and 'mob rule never goes well'. I'll have you know it took more than 1,000 years for us to collapse! Most modern empires can barely make it 250."

"Yes, yes, all enrapturing," Percy derided. "Can we go now, or is there any other way you can inconvenience us further?"

The god launched into a tirade of profanity, most of which the son of Poseidon couldn't make out due to the fact that he was speaking Latin. Janice only looked amused, and Alister's scowl grew wider and wider until the deity finally finished. Peter didn't stir.

"All done?" the son of Athena inquired. "Good. Now let's get to camp."

The stone statue faded away, and the two pegasi breathed audible gasps of relief as the weight they were towing lighted significantly. Alister turned and cracked the reins without another word, guiding them towards Camp Jupiter, which had just become visible over a collection of hills.

"Trigger any memories, Jackson?" Janice asked Percy as they started to descend.

"Both good and terrifying ones," he confessed, swallowing down his nerves. "Any idea who'll be expecting us, Alister?"

"Chiron was on call with Rey and Faith while we were still at Camp Half-Blood, and I'm sure they've filled in Lea and Hayden. Nicola and Willamina will be here, but I don't know if Hayden saw fit to tell his sister anything without more information at hand," the son of Athena speculated. "I'd expect them to hold off telling anyone else, though. Last thing anybody needs is a panic in the Senate."

No one shot at them as they concluded their descent into the camp, which was heartening. Alister put them down at Temple Hill, away from any potential wandering eyes in the city. Percy shook Peter awake as gently as he could, the son of Aphrodite stammering a few sleepy denials before he blinked his eyes open.

"Either we made it, or we're being attacked by some ugly abomination," he guessed.

"First one."

"Thanks the gods," Peter said, sitting up. "I really didn't want to have to step in and save your sorry hides again twice in one day."

The son of Poseidon guffawed to himself. "I'm glad we're able to hold you back before you single-handedly conquer the world, Peter."

While Percy was waking Peter, Alister offered a hand to Janice. The daughter of Jupiter accepted it to haul herself to a standing position, but waved the son of Athena off when he went to help her walk. "It's just a little impaling; I can walk it off."

"Impalement is usually not one of the go-to's for building character, Janice," Alister argued.

"Since when have I ever been someone to use a go-to for anything?" she shot back, staggering over to Peter and Percy. "Come on. Let's not spend all our time here bickering when there's reunions to be had."

The daughter of Jupiter insisted on leading the way, which just gave the boys a really uncomfortable view of the lamp sticking out of her back as they walked towards the Senate House. "Most of the cohorts should be out in the Field of Mars this time of the day, running drills, so we should be fine heading there," Janice observed, gritting her teeth as her injury continued to bounce with every step.

"Will you at least go to the healers once we meet up with the others?" Peter asked her.

She paused for a moment. "Fine, but only if you find a place to get caught up on your sleep as well. Two hours isn't gonna cut it for me."

"You cut plenty of things; you can't make an exception for me?"

"You're not in a good position to broker with me for exceptions, Peter," Janice responded, her voice hardening. That was the signal to shut up. She wouldn't hear any more argument from the son of Aphrodite. Peter must have got the message, because he clammed up.

Percy bit his bottom lip, tempted to say something, but Alister nudged him with his shoulder, shaking his head at the son of Poseidon. Now was not a good time to play counselor to the former couple. Not when Janice was injured, and Peter was exhausted.

The quartet shuffled along after Janice, who led them up to the Senate House without any more conversation. As they crested the hill the building rested on, Percy got a good look at the Forums and Circus Maximus. Despite how busy Janice had talked the camp into being, neither one of them seemed to be showing signs of activity. Sure, maybe most of the Romans were at the Field of Mars, but shouldn't there have been at least a few folks milling about?

On reaching the top of the hill, the demigods were met, again, by a very irate looking Terminus, who looked expectantly at the weapons hanging to their sides. Percy wagered the god was trying to hold his hands out to confiscate them, but his lack of limbs made the process a lot less obvious than he might have anticipated. No one wanted to argue with the god, though, so they complied. Terminus gave them all a satisfied nod before he vanished, along with their armaments. Percy rolled his eyes, wondering if Terminus would notice when Riptide popped back into its owner's pocket.

"Here we are," Janice announced as they stepped up on to the steps of the Senate. "If I know Rey, he's got everyone involved in there waiting on us. Let's not keep them in suspense any longer."

They entered, Percy catching himself holding his breath as they did so. Was it ever going to get any easier, telling people their friend had vanished and now they got to deal with him? He was getting tired of that anxious look that always cropped up in their eye, that doubt that the man in front of them could really be the hero they'd gotten used to. He was the last in line, and must have been lagging, because Peter stopped to glance back at him.

"Having second thoughts, Percy?" he asked.

"No... just trying to steel myself before I go in there and ruin everyone's day."

Peter arched an eyebrow. "I think you might be overestimating yourself there. How exactly are you the one responsible for ruining anything?"

"Because-," Percy's voice locked down as he tried to explain it. "Because... I'm the one Lamia attacked. The one she wanted. And the one who ended up causing her spell to go wild. Can we really say that I didn't have some sort of hand in this?"

The son of Aphrodite crossed his arms. "If you want to blame yourself, go ahead. But will blaming yourself make you feel any better?" he challenged.

Percy's mind faltered. "Uh... no, I guess."

"Then why do it? Did you know what kind of magic Lamia was using when she tried to kill you?"

"No."

"Did you have the slightest idea what might happen if her spell succeeded, or failed?"

"No."

Peter made an exaggerated gesture. "Then how could you bare any blame for this? Lamia tried to kill you; the fact that she ended up doing something else is not something we can wipe off on your shoulders. You're here, and while you're not who anyone was expecting, you're someone everyone in there needs right now."

"They need me?" Percy whispered, stunned.

"Yes," Peter repeated, stepping in front of him. "You... are Percie. Your existence here keeps their hope alive. Do you have any idea how devastated all of us would be if we lost her? Do you have any idea how... broken... Alister would be right now without you here?"

Percy's mind flashbacked to Alister's state when he came storming into the Big House, right after he'd met Chiron. The son of Athena was a ball of nerves, pacing and ranting in equal measure. All he knew was that Percie was missing. That simple scenario had him desperate. Nothing else was needed. That... was exactly how he'd imagined Annabeth reacted when she met Percie for the first time.

The son of Athena might have been focused in their flight here, but Percy had seen plenty of his better moments. Those moments... the only reason he'd been able to keep that up was because Percy's presence gave him hope. Hope that she might be returned to him. That same hope was the hope he could offer everyone in that building right now.

"Thank you, Peter," Percy mumbled, shaking off his doubts.

"I don't need to be thanked," he said back, giving Percy a half-smile. "Your being here gives me hope, too. Just don't die on us; I'd have to pull an Orpheus, and dive down into the Underworld to bring you back."

"Is that a joke?"

"You tell me, son of Poseidon," Peter remarked, turning around and walking in.

Percy followed him in, letting the son of love's reassurances calm him. He hoped he'd been joking. Gods, if he wasn't... Percy didn't want a development like that hanging over his head. Aphrodite would kill him. After cursing him to fall in love with the ugliest creature she could think of.

The Senate House was just as impressive as Percy remembered it. The lack of senators made the place feel a lot more welcoming, as welcoming as granite and stone could be, anyway. Alister and Janice were standing off the center of the room, the daughter of Jupiter doing her best to keep herself as still as possible to prevent aggravation of her wound. A younger man was fussing around her, his gait matched only by the worry he was displaying for her. The dark skin and cinnamon brown hair marked him as Hazel's counterpart, Hayden.

Alister was engaged in a three-way conversation with two demigods wearing the signature purple capes of the praetors. No extra points for Percy guessing who they were: The guy, standing tall and rigid, was an easy match for Reyna. The woman shared a similar build to him, but gave off less of an intimidating aura, and more of an approachable vibe. That had to be Faith, Frank's equal.

The conversation quieted as Percy entered with Peter. Hayden paused in his efforts to glance up at the son of Poseidon before he returned his focus to Janice's injury. The daughter of Jupiter had to make a pushing motion with her hands to make the son of Pluto cease his action.

He rejoined the others, Rey and Faith making eye contact with one another as Percy approached them. The praetors might not have spoken, but Percy knew enough of his fellow heroes to deduce that they weren't thrilled by this confirmation of what they'd heard from Chiron.

"Isn't it nice, getting the gang back together again?" Peter asked, stopping next to Alister.

The son of Athena sucked in a breath. "We're technically still missing Lea, Peter."

"She's not missing; she's just helping out the Third Legion," Hayden offered. "They wanted to try out a new idea in the war games, and when Lea caught wind that their idea involved a giant mech-suit, she wouldn't be persuaded to drop the issue unless they allowed her to try out some of her own designs for it."

Faith made a pained expression. "If we hear any pitched screaming from the fields, Lea said not to worry about it. That just makes me worry more."

Rey swept his eyes around the circle of demigods. "We can worry about Lea and her inventions some other time. There's a more pressing issue standing right in front of us, unless we'd like to turn the conversation to discussing Janice's stamp collection?" The son of Bellona waited for anyone to raise support for the second option. When he got none, he nodded. "Excellent. Now, before we resume-"

He turned to Janice. "Grace, get yourself down to the healers and get that thing removed. Now."

"Rey, this is by no means the worst thing I've ev-"

"No objections, Janice. Since you've resigned as praetor, I'm perfectly within my right to order you somewhere when you're here in camp," Rey announced, tilting his head towards Faith." Unless, of course, my cohort feels differently on the subject."

The daughter of Mars shook her head. "No, he's right, Janice. You might think you can tough it out, but that lamp could have punctured something we can't see. Go see a healer. I'm sure one of us will fill you in later."

Janice made a face. "Technically, I'm a member of Camp Half-Blood now; your orders are more like suggestions."

Rey's head snapped back to her, his expression a mask of authority. Percy held his breath as the praetor stared the daughter of Jupiter down, before the son of Bellona's eyes softened. "Then as your friend. Please, go see a healer. I don't want to be worrying about you while we're trying to solve this problem."

Janice's face lowered. "Rey... I-", she tried to say.

"No. You don't need to say it. Just go. Please."

The daughter of Jupiter left without any more arguments. Rey didn't speak again until he was sure she'd left. "Now, Chiron told Faith and I what he could. Mind if I ask for the full story myself?"

It was becoming routine at this point, Percy recounting his life story to everyone he met. The assembled demigods all held their tongues during the telling, the only interruptions coming from Alister or Peter to fill their sides of the tale. The son of Poseidon finished with Demosthenes' attack on the McLean beach house, that morning.

"Why is it every time something crops up, it's because of those Doors of Death?" Hayden asked. His face scrunched up as he realized what he was saying. "Yes, I know I'm only here because of that fiasco, but it's still worth mentioning. How did some ancient demigod make his way through and stay out of sight for so long?"

"Demosthenes is called the Genius for a reason," Alister answered. "He was Athena's favorite, for a while. Never let himself be hampered by tradition, or rules. Always found a way around them. It wouldn't surprise me if he guessed that the Doors of Death would pop open at some point, and planned accordingly."

"And now he's hunting Percy, because he holds him responsible for the threat we're now facing," Faith said, catching on. "That's just what we need: an assault on two fronts."

"Two fronts?" Percy questioned.

"Demosthenes, and Lamia," Rey explained. "One a powerful sorceress, the other a formidable strategist. Both are gunning for you, in this world and your dreams."

"The borders of Camp Jupiter could hold Demosthenes back, at least," Hayden suggested. "Powerful or not, he's still just a demigod. A Greek one, to be exact. He wouldn't be able to enter without our permission, right?"

Percy wished that was the case. "A hopeful idea, but not one I think will work, Hayden," he countered. "Demosthenes was a very accomplished general in his day; he won't be afraid to launch an assault on the camp if he feels it necessary."

"An assault would require an army," Peter reasoned. "Where would he get one from?"

"The same place I imagine he got the two frat guys you turned against each other. I'm sure he's got some friends, hiding away somewhere."

Rey folded his hands together. "Even if that is the case, this time of the year is the best time for us to repel an assault. We've got numbers, and high spirits. Besides, if such a threat really exists, the safest place I can think of for Percy would be behind all of the legions."

"No."

Percy hardly recognized his own voice as he spoke. The entire circle of demigods stared at him as he continued. "I will not hide behind the lives of the demigods here. Demosthenes wants me. Not them. If he comes for me, I don't want anyone stepping in and getting hurt on my behalf. This is my problem to fix; I won't let anyone else sacrifice themselves for me ever again."

Rey's eyes widened. "Percy, I understand your apprehension, but the legionnaires will accept that they may be called to-"

"No, you don't understand, Rey!" Percy interrupted, stepping up to the praetor. "Too many people have died for me already! For some reason, they felt like my survival was the better alternative to everything else. I selfishly ignored the weight of that before; no longer. I will not allow anyone else to die because they wanted to save me."

Alister put a hand to his shoulder. "Seaweed Brain, we know how much it hurts to think about, but consider our options: If we lose you, we lose everything. What, do you think we don't value you as highly as you value us? Why would you assume we would be able to move on if you died because we didn't do everything we could to protect you?"

"It's not negotiable, Alister," Percy answered, averting his gaze from the son of Athena. "And I will make sure it stays that way."

"How?"

"All of you will swear to it. On the Styx. Not to sacrifice yourselves, or anyone else, for me."

All of the demigods shared incredulous looks with each other. "You've got to be kidding me," Faith exclaimed, putting a hand to her chest. "You'd have us swear on that?"

"Yes. I would."

Peter put his hands to his hips. "And what exactly will you do if we don't, Percy? You can't make us swear to something that insane."

Percy breathed. "You're right. I can't make you. But if you don't, I will leave Camp Jupiter. Of my own volition."

Hayden blinked. "Percy... you would do that? That would be suicide! Demosthenes and Lamia aren't the only ones hunting you."

"That's the idea. Those are the arrangements of this. Either you all swear on the Styx right here, or I walk out where I won't be a danger to any of you."

Alister's face darkened. "Are you... blackmailing us?"

"... Yes."

The word left his lips so easily. That's what he was doing. The pain he'd felt when he had to leave Bob and Damasen behind... he'd never let himself feel it again. He'd never let that guilt eat at his soul while he still lived.

"You all swear, right here, or I walk out of this camp, and never come back," Percy reiterated.

He locked eyes with Rey, his shoulders tense. He didn't break the eye contact he established. The praetor needed to know just how serious he was. "Are... you absolutely sure this is how you want to play it, Percy Jackson?" the son of Bellona asked him.

The silence that followed was his answer. Rey's mouth twisted into a grimace, before he shut his eyes with the slightest of nods. "Very well. I swear, on the Styx, not to sacrifice anyone for your sake. Myself included."

Percy's eyes shifted to Faith. The other praetor gulped, then exhaled. "I swear... as well."

Then Hayden. The son of Pluto looked betrayed, but Percy was stalwart. "If it will keep you here... then fine. I swear."

Peter was next. A look of disappointment filled the son of Aphrodite's eyes, but the son of Poseidon didn't budge. "If you're so eager to throw yourself away for us... who am I to stop you?" he dejected. "Have it your way. I swear, too."

That left only one here in this room.

Alister's eyes were vacant as Percy met his gaze. His lips trembled, and his breathing had become haphazard. "You would really make me do this?" the son of Athena asked, his voice barely audible. "After losing you... over and over again... you'd do that... to me?"

Percy's heart felt like it was being stabbed with every word Alister said, but he couldn't back down now. Alister's promise was the most vital one. He wouldn't be able to survive if Annabeth died for him. It was on this swear his entire gambit stood.

The son of Athena began visibly shaking as he tried to form the words. His hands, once resting against his back, now fiddled with his hair, the fingers quaking. Alister's gaze went all over the room, seeking some kind of reprieve. He found none. He was forced to look Percy in the eye once more.

How long they all stood there waiting, Percy didn't know. He didn't care. He would stand here all day if it meant he could ensure these demigods would be safe. They had put so much on the line already, even if it wasn't for him. He would not be another burden to them.

All he needed... was one more.

Alister shuddered, then suddenly went rigid. His eyes locked onto Percy's, and for the first time since he'd met Alister, the son of Poseidon felt like Athena herself was staring at him.

"Fuck you, Percy Jackson," he spat.

Then the son of wisdom turned around, marched to the door, and left.

Chapter Text

A pro-tip for all you demigods out there: charging an immortal sorceress with no game plan beyond that is probably the least effective thing you could possibly do as an attack strategy. But in Percie's defense, she was riled up. She had no idea what Annabeth's excuse was going to be, though. If Athena ever got wind of this, the goddess of tactics was going to sit both girls down and give them a dressing-down the likes of which they'd never experienced before. Assuming they lived through this fight, of course.

Percie and Annabeth had only closed the distance to Circe by about two feet before the magic-user vanished into mist. Not one to be deterred, Percie swiped through the blue vapors Circe had left in her wake with Riptide, praying to Ares that she managed to hit something. The daughter of Poseidon wanted her enemy not only incapacitated; she wanted her to hurt. Big-time.

Sadly, Ares was not in a sporting mood. Or he was busy canoodling with Aphrodite. Either way, Riptide went right through Circe's mist-form without so much as a sign that Percie had even struck.

Swearing to herself, Percie spun on her heel, Annabeth coming to her side. With the sorceress now in a much less corporeal form, both demigods were forced to play defensive. "Seriously? I thought you wanted to fight; not play keep-away," Percie taunted, earning a hollow laugh from Circe.

"This is fighting, you little whelp," the sorceress whispered through the air, the blue mist coiling together near the ceiling of the room. "I'm simply taking the precautions my sister should have taken if she wanted to avoid exactly this happening."

"More mentions of your sister," Annabeth gleaned. "Assuming this is the same one you mentioned earlier, then she's the one responsible for the switch-up of the Percys?"

Even though she was mist, Percie would have sworn she sensed Circe roll her eyes. "Ten points for putting together the obvious, daughter of wisdom. Your boyfriend might be a doltish buffoon, but even he had the sense to take an opportunity when he saw it. I intend to give you no such advantage."

The mist the goddess was hiding within sizzled with magic, then illuminated. Percie hit the deck, as did Annabeth. A pulse of sparks went soaring over their heads, right into the wall, leaving behind a scorch-mark the size of a door. Circe didn't let up, shifting in the air. The daughter of Poseidon rolled off the makeshift stage as the opposing ends of the structure lifted into the air, flattening together, then coming towards the middle at high speed. Annabeth thankfully followed her lead, escaping the impromptu bear trap right before it snapped them in half.

"You can only dodge for so long, my sweets," Circe mocked from her little bubble of safety. "I admit, your trick with the sunscreen did irritate me, but I don't need fire to squash the likes of you."

"Oh, will you please shut up?" Annabeth snapped, her legs launching her off the ground towards her opponent. The daughter of Athena braced her sword against her arm before chopping at Circe's form, shimmering in the blue light she'd summoned. Her blade just bounced right off once she got within a foot, though, and Annabeth had to tuck into a backwards roll to avoid breaking her neck on the hard concrete floor of the warehouse.

Not a very reassuring sight, but Percie knew the sorceress had a valid point; you couldn't win a battle by dodging. The problem was, how were they supposed to get through Circe's defenses without getting smashed flat by one of her spells?

The daughter of Poseidon briefly considered the sand dollar her dad had given her the night before; he'd promised he'd answer any call for aid she made. All she needed was a water source... oh, by the Twelve! She'd refused Ganymede's offer of a cup of water earlier! Why did she do that?

Making a mental note to kick herself later, Percie had to act. Now. Just as Circe was gearing up for another shot at Annabeth, who'd rolled right into the side of a chicken coop, the daughter of the sea grabbed a piece of the collapsible barn the sorceress had been working on. Slicing the flat piece of wood into a sharpened end with Riptide, she whistled at the sorceress.

Gods bless her, Circe fell for it. The goddess turned an annoyed gaze towards Percie just in time for the demigod to hurl the homemade javelin right at her face. Of course, falling for the oldest trick in the book didn't guarantee automatic success. The wooden weapon boinked harmlessly against an inner ring of Circe's magic, and crumbled into ash. Well, crap. She'd really hoped that would do it.

"Seriously? Did you just throw my set at me?" Circe outraged, tendrils of magic shooting at Percie. The demigod slashed at them with Riptide, striking most of them away, but one managed to get through, smacking her right in the sternum. The blow knocked Percie backwards, right into the orb Will was being kept confined in. When her back hit the magical cell, Percie felt her body seize up in pain, almost as if she'd taken two strikes from Circe back to back.

The daughter of Poseidon slumped down onto her stomach, the pain nearly causing her to fall unconscious. "I did warn you, dear: that spell takes anything you might try to do to it, and returns it twofold," Circe reminded her.

"Percie!" Annabeth cried out at the sight of her companion collapsing. The daughter of Athena once again tried attacking the sorceress, placing her sword strikes at the flashing bits of the spell Circe had crafted for herself. Each hit seemed to spark some sort of reaction, but Circe didn't seem very put off by it.

"This would be funny if it wasn't so sad," the goddess snarked, before lifting her arms into a pushing gesture. The entire spell seemed to lurch forward, right into Annabeth's front. The demigod reacted like she'd just taken a dump-truck to the face at 45 miles per hour. The force from the attack sent her flying backwards as well, this time right into an empty pen. Her momentum carried her further, over an empty water trough and section of fencing, before landing on an exposed section of barbed wire.

The daughter of Athena, quite understandably, screamed as the sharpened material cut into her skin, all over her back. To make matters even worse, some of the wire itself wound around her left arm and shoulder, effectively trapping her.

Percie saw all this from her spot on the floor near the stage, right under the orb Will was trapped in. Looking over, she could see Nico's orb finally clearing as whatever energy he'd expended faded away. The sight of the son of Hades wasn't a good one. His skin was beginning to sag, giving him a zombie-like complexion. His cheeks had hollowed out, and his eyes were unfocused.

Will didn't seem to be doing any better, even though he was out. Percie's unwanted collision with his cell hadn't only affected the daughter of Poseidon, by the looks of it. The son of Apollo was wincing in throes of agony as his orb pounded against his body. Percie tried to push herself up to a standing position, but her arms only managed to get her up to her elbows, which would have been fine for a yoga class. This, however, was a fight.

Circe looked bemused at the scene before her; pain and suffering everywhere. The goddess hovered over the room, basking in her apparent success for a moment, before gliding towards Annabeth, still pinned down by barbed wire.

"A good try, dear. But ultimately a failure, just like everything else you've ever attempted."

The daughter of Athena had murder in her eyes, but her predicament meant she couldn't stand up and face Circe again. The sorceress chuckled before brining her hands together. "I know I said I'd wipe Percie Jackson out as my first goal, but thinking it over, I've reached a different conclusion as to who I'll end first. Consider it payback for your insulting me at our last meeting on my island."

The magic around the sorceress began to pulse with fervor, and Circe smirked as the tendrils appeared again, swaying in the wind and wrapping against one another as the mist returned.

Percie tried to force her muscles to work, but they stubbornly refused to obey. She was stuck in her upwards-facing dog position. Riptide was useless like this, and there was nothing near her she could use as a makeshift weapon.

The daughter of Poseidon turned frantic glances around the room, desperate for some way to save Annabeth from the magic blast that was sure to be coming any minute now. Water seemed like the primary choice, but she couldn't spot any sources. The room was a warehouse underground; dry and acrid. Circe had probably taken precautions to drain the whole place of any potential fluids that Percie might have been able to use against her.

Not that it really mattered. Circe's shield had proven to be indomitable against everything she and Annabeth had thrown at her. Those tendrils made for a fantastic offense and defense, and the mist swirling around the sorceress made gauging her exact location impossible... wait a minute. Mist.

Percie remembered the elevator trap Circe had set for them. Medea's sunscreen had worked; something that seemed likely since Circe was related to Medea. The fires had been magic in nature, but were still based on nature itself, if such a thing had occurred. If Circe's magic worked like that, was it possible that the mist she'd encased herself in...?

There was no time to second guess herself; Circe was already beginning to unclasp her hands. It was now or never.

Percie reached her hand out towards the magic in the air, and concentrated. The mist was technically fog, and all fog was water vapor. And a lot of it. She'd never tried using her hydrokinetics like this before, but it was the only way to save Annabeth. The air around Circe continued on its course, spiraling together, then stopped.

The sorceress paused to glance at her spell, confusion on her face. Percie closed her hand into a fist, thinking hot thoughts. The mist encasing Circe trembled, then began to combust. The daughter of Poseidon made sure to ignite the outer layers of the spell first, so the goddess wouldn't catch on to what was happening before it was too late.

"What in the-?" Circe sputtered as the air around her heated up. The sorceress's clothes began to smoke as the entire spell succumbed to Percie's influence, which must have finally clued her in as to what was going on. "Why, you little miscreant!"

Circe started slapping at her smoking wardrobe, the tendrils flailing in the heated air as she broke the focus of her attack on Annabeth. If she'd caught on sooner, she might have had a chance. But now that the entire spell was being manipulated, she was boxed in. The sorceress's face morphed into a veil of terror as her body ignited, her entire form going up in flames.

The goddess must not have had some of her niece's sunscreen on her, because she was left howling in torture as the scalding atmosphere she'd created around herself seared her to the bone. Percie didn't dare look away, not wanting to give her opponent a chance to escape the trap she'd discovered, but she could see Annabeth staring at her with a withered expression.

Alister's face back in Tartarus flashed to the forefront of her mind, when she'd tried to smother Akhlys. She'd allowed herself to be stopped that time; after all, misery itself could be explained as simply a part of being human, or demigod. But Circe had no such luxury. All she was was a sadistic, hate-filled witch who tortured people for fun. Would have done the very same to three of her closest friends. Percie didn't hold back. Not this time.

It took several minutes for it to end. Circe's screams died around the half-way point, but Percie was going to be sure. Not a charred atom of the sorceress remained by the time the daughter of Poseidon finally dropped her fist, letting the heat dissipate. When she did, she lowered her head to the stage, planting her forehead down onto the wood itself.

She wanted to stay there, and just let the world go on for a bit without her having to do anything, but that was not how this was going to go. Sighing, Percie was able to grab onto the silver throne Circe had first sat in and hoist herself up to a standing position. The death of the goddess must have had some sort of effect on every active spell she'd cast, because the animals that had been in the pens were no longer animals.

Men of all ages glanced uncomfortably at one another as they got up off all fours. Some looked like day laborers, or park guides. A few had a professional look about them, but the most disturbing one was the goat pen, whom Percie had assured she'd fix. The goats were now a class of schoolboys, looking around in shock in their uniforms.

"Did that just happen?" a redheaded kid asked aloud, his mouth agape.

"Yeah; don't hold your breath, I've seen weirder," Percie wheezed, stumbling over to help Annabeth. The daughter of Athena stared pointed daggers at her as she worked at freeing her from her barbed state, not saying anything. Percie returned it for a moment, then broke it off. She was not in the mood to explain herself just yet. Not when they had so much to deal with.

"Can you take these guys upstairs to Ganymede? He'll need to know his boss just got cooked; literally," was all she told Annabeth.

The daughter of Athena gave a terse nod in response, fiddling in her pocket for some ambrosia. She nibbled on it as she hobbled towards the exit, motioning for all the men to follow her. They didn't raise a fuss, though several of them threw grateful yet terrified expressions at Percie. If she had a nickel for every time that happened...

With the mortals now safe, Percie turned her attention back to the reason she'd come here in the first place: Will and Nico. The two demigods had been released from their magical captivity; Will was still crumpled over on the floor, while Nico was crouched down in a seated position, his knees pulled up to his chest. Gods. They both looked dreadful.

Since Nico was at least still semi-aware, Percie tried interacting with him first. "You okay, Nico?" she inquired, stooping down so they'd be on the same level. The son of Hades didn't so much as look at her; his whole body trembled, his eyes glassy and far away. That was all she needed to change tactics.

Cursing her lack of healing abilities, Percie fished around for some ambrosia. She had no idea the lengths Nico had gone to to free himself before she and Annabeth arrived, so she had no clue as to how much he'd tried to counter Circe's magic. With the spell injuring him every time he tried, his wounds could be monumental. The daughter of Poseidon tried in vain to judge how much ambrosia would suffice, but finally just gave in, grabbing a handful.

"Can you at least eat some of this?" she asked, holding it in front of Nico. No answer, again. Percie had only seen Nicola like this once before: after a particularly brutal encounter with a basilisk in Memphis. The daughter of Hades had the misfortune to make eye contact with the monster, and froze in place. Basilisks had the unique ability to force anyone unlucky enough to make eye contact with them see their greatest fears all collide in their heads, and Nicola had reacted the exact same way Nico was doing now. It had taken Willamina days to coax her girlfriend back to reality.

Will. Percie had been so focused on the son of Hades, she'd forgotten the son of Apollo. Taking a moment to gauge the situation, she placed both of her hands over Nico's. The physical touch sent waves of cold surfing up her arms, but Percie held firm. Nico flinched at the touch, then went deathly still. Percie, as gently as she could, palmed the ambrosia into Nico's right hand, closing it. "I need to check on Will; just try to eat some, all right?" she whispered to him, before crossing the room.

Percie was no doctor, but she didn't have to be a child of Apollo to know the blonde demigod's condition wasn't good. His tan complexion had faded to a sickening green, and his breaths came in rattled, shaky gasps. Taking great pains not to move him too forcefully, Percie rolled him onto his back, lifting one of his eyelids. Will's eye was completely rolled up, leaving her staring at just a white orb.

"Apollo, if you want to drop in with some godly healing mojo, I won't complain," Percie murmured aloud, hoping the god would jump at the chance to help his son. No dice. The prayer went unanswered. "Fine, I'll do it myself." Trying to stay conservative with her ambrosia supply, the daughter of Poseidon broke the food into small pieces, tiny enough to swallow without chewing. Once she felt she had enough, she fed them to Will, having to tilt his head to get the unconscious demigod to swallow.

It took a few doses, but Will's pallor finally returned to a shade that was close enough to normal for Percie to relax. The son of Apollo breathed in contentment, rolling over and wrapping his arms around Percie. Oh, great. That was just what she needed now. Not one to let an awkward situation pass without her input, Percie heaved, lifting Will up over her shoulder as she stood to her feet. She'd seen Willamina do the fireman's carry move with Nicola, so at least this was an inspired decision.

To be fair, her body was still aching from the whack she'd taken in the fight mere minutes ago, and the son of Apollo wasn't exactly a lightweight. Curse those surfer-body muscles. But the daughter of Poseidon was tenacious enough to make it work.

After making sure she wouldn't topple over with her new load, Percie brought Will over to Nico. The son of Hades hadn't budged from his crouched position, but Percie noticed that the hand she'd put the ambrosia in was open. And at least a few nibbles had been taken out of it.

If she hadn't been carrying the son of Apollo, Percie would have broken into a celebratory dance. But since she was, she had to compromise for a more demure response. "Thanks, Neeks," she offered, putting a hand down to the son of Hades.

Nico started at Percie's nickname. It was something she had taken to calling Nicola in more private moments, and while the daughter of Hades never openly acknowledged it, Willamina had confided to the daughter of Poseidon that Nicola secretly appreciated the showing of friendship.

She didn't know if Percy had reached that point with Nico yet, but the use of it was enough to get Nico to at least accept her hand. She pulled him to his feet, but found the son of Hades' grip to be ironclad. That was fine with her; as long as he came along.

With one hand leading Nico, and the other keeping Will on her shoulder, Percie limped towards the exit, both boys in tow. Despite the pain flaring up in her body as she walked, Percie found herself flushed with satisfaction. No one she cared about was dead, which was a massive improvement from how a lot of quests she got involved with tended to go. She'd even slain a goddess, if they really could be killed permanently. Circe's agonized screams tried to press into her mind, but the daughter of the sea shook them out. She would not let herself feel guilty about protecting those she loved. The sorceress had made her bed; Percie just forced her to lie in it.

The answer this day had presented to her was clear: Percie Jackson was not going to pull her punches any more. Not with so much on the line.

Chapter Text

The mood in the Senate building was melancholic.

If melancholic was even a word strong enough to describe the hanging shock that permeated through the remaining demigods there.

Hayden was the most visibly scandalized. The son of Pluto had covered the entire lower half of his face with both hands the moment Alister had cursed Percy out, and hadn't budged them since. Minutes ticked by as everyone waited in the center of the room, frozen by what they had just seen transpire. Hayden's eyes scampered to the faces of everyone assembled, like the demigod was checking to make sure he'd just witnessed what he thought he did.

Percy could relate.

His jaw was half-open, hanging in the air. If Mr. D had been here, he would have gladly pointed out that Percy looked like a fish out of water, and would have spent the next two decades congratulating himself for such clever wordplay. Alas, not even the wine god's false sense of cleverness could cheer up the son of Poseidon.

"Well...," Faith finally said, "that just happened."

"I don't think I've ever heard Alister swear like that before," Peter added, bringing a hand to his shoulder. The son of Aphrodite looked more morose than Percy had ever seen. Piper included. It might have been because the demigod, being a child of love itself, was more finely tuned to the relationships of others, but even as those thoughts fluttered through Percy's head, he felt himself deflate.

Alister hadn't promised. His idea had crashed and burned. In the worst possible manner. Everyone else in the room had sworn, and was now bound to it. But the one promise that meant the most... had fallen flat.

"Does this mean you'll be leaving, Percy?"

The question took the son of Poseidon by surprise. He turned towards it, leaving him face-to-face with Rey. The son of Bellona's face burned with passion as he awaited Percy's response.

"I... I..," Percy mumbled.

"No? Then what was the point of that? The thing we just did... was all for a bluff?"

"No, it wasn't a bluff," Percy tried to defend himself. If only his brain would stop pulsing with nerves. "I... guess I'll be leaving soon, then."

The praetor's expression ironed at his words. Rey sneered, then turned away. "Feel free to try, Jackson. We'll see how far that pride takes you." With that, the son of Bellona followed Alister out.

Peter was right behind him, shooting Percy a jaded look. The son of Aphrodite shook his head at the son of the ocean, but didn't speak. His departure left Percy alone with Faith and Hayden.

"They're never gonna let you leave, you know," Hayden remarked, finally composing himself. "The promise was only not to sacrifice anyone. That's open to a lot of loopholes."

The son of Poseidon faltered in his stance. "What can they do to make me stay?" he tried to counter, but even he didn't believe his own bravado. The three demigods who'd just stormed out of the building didn't look like they'd pull any of their punches.

Faith still took the time to answer him. "Rey might order some of the legionnaires to tie you down, and lock you in a barren room. I'm tempted to do that myself, Percy," she added, scowling. Faith might have carried over Frank's teddy-bear-like demeanor, but she could still pull off the whole normal-bear thing just fine. "Peter could always just charmspeak you into staying if you managed to get free, of course."

The daughter of Mars didn't bring up Alister, though. To be honest, Percy was grateful she didn't. However, he noticed something that might have explained why. When Faith brought up Peter's charmspeaking, both she and the son of Pluto flinched. The movement was small, so odds were good neither one of them had even realized they'd done it.

Percy's curiosity couldn't be held back any more. "Can I ask why everyone's been so touchy around Peter?" he asked.

Faith blanched, and Hayden sucked in his cheeks. "It's... not our place to comment on it," the son of Pluto mumbled, fumbling with the collar of his shirt. "It's... not something any of us like thinking about."

"Wait, you guys know? Alister told me he didn't have all the details."

"Because he didn't," Hayden admitted. Faith widened her eyes at her boyfriend, but the shorter demigod put up his hand. "I won't tell him everything, Faith. Just... where we got involved."

The praetor didn't look very pleased with that. "Hayden, now is not the time. Not after everything that just went on in here."

"Then when? Alister and Percie will need to be told eventually; why not fill in some details now, when we have the chance?"

The daughter of Mars tensed, but kept her mouth closed. Percy could tell she had more objections to raise, but he recognized Hayden's tone. It was the same one Hazel used when she was done with the topic at hand.

Hayden turned back to Percy, sighing. "The reason Alister wasn't told much about Peter's breakup with Janice was because he had just reunited with Percie after that mess with Juno and her Greek-Roman swap idea. Both of them, while relieved to see each other again, were more fragile than they had ever been before."

Percy got that. The first few weeks after Gaea's defeat, he and Annabeth had been literally inseparable. She'd drag him up to Olympus whenever she had architect duties to fulfill, and he had kept her within arm's reach whenever she popped in at the apartment. His mom and Paul had joked about them keeping the door open whenever she was over, but they couldn't have known how... intimate the relationship had become.

Tartarus surely had some hand in it; the weeks of being separated by camps hadn't helped matters.

Faith cleared her throat, having given up her protestations. "When Janice told us she and Peter had broken up, we naturally asked her what had happened. She couldn't tell us exact details, either, since Peter was the one who initiated it."

Hayden nodded along. "He was tight-lipped about it when he asked him at first, too. But he did clue us in after we wouldn't drop the issue."

"And... what did he tell you?" Percy questioned, letting his words form carefully before he spoke.

The two Romans winced. "Peter... broke up with Janice because he didn't believe the love he felt for her was real," Hayden conceded.

What?

That couldn't be right. Percy had seen how Piper and Jason acted together on the Argo. Piper would have taken a bullet for the son of Jupiter without batting an eye, and he would have done the same for her. Their relationship was no crush, or simple infatuation. It was more than love... it was unadulterated closeness. Wasn't it?

"Yeah, we couldn't believe it when he dropped that one, either," Faith said, judging Percy's reaction. "He had to slow himself down; start from the beginning, as it were."

"And how did he do that?"

Faith pulled at her cape in discomfort. "You know they didn't know each other until Janice was plopped down in front of where Camp Half-Blood was searching for you, right? Peter and Lea had false memories of their time with her planted in their heads, to fool them into ignoring such a sudden appearance. Lea believed herself to be Janice's best friend; Peter, her boyfriend. But it wasn't real."

Hayden started fiddling with his sleeves, drawing Faith's attention away from her story. The daughter of Mars stopped to put an arm around the son of Pluto, Hayden drawing into the gesture.

"The more Peter thought about it, the more convinced he was that all of the feelings he had for Janice were born out of those false memories, plus his own mother," Hayden picked up. "Aphrodite never once, over the course of their time together, seemed to acknowledge the relationship between them with genuine seriousness. Peter concluded that she was doing everything in her power to further the romance along, for her own amusement."

Percy had a realization. "And the fact that she needed to spend so much time working keeping the romance alive... was because it wasn't real love?"

"That's what Peter thought," the son of Pluto lamented. "Don't misunderstand; he still loves Janice. Just... not in that way any more."

All of those looks made sense to Percy now. Janice's heartbroken stares, and Peter's hesitation... that was guilt. "But... why didn't anyone trust me with that? Or Alister? Or... Annabeth?"

Faith's mouth swept into a sympathetic grimace. "Remember how fragile you two were after that mess? Like us, you'd believed both Janice and Peter... or rather, Piper and Jason, were perfect for each other. But, that wasn't the case. You, just like Janice, had your memories wiped and were separated from Alister. We were worried that if you learned what actually led to the breakup, you'd begin to doubt your own relationship."

"But that's insane!" Percy argued. "Annabeth and I had real years of history behind us! No forgotten memories, or false ones, could undo that."

Hayden's chin quivered. "We hoped that was the case. But it was not a risk we were willing to take. Even if it didn't put a fracture between you two, there was always the chance it might pull some unpleasant experiences back to the surface. So, we kept the messier details a secret. Until we felt we could share them."

Percy stared at the two demigods. "Did you really have so little faith in us?" The accusation wasn't a fair one, he knew that. But his emotions got the better of him. "Were we really so pitiful that you couldn't be bothered to share knowledge like that? They're our friends, too. Not just yours."

"Don't take that tone with me, Jackson," Faith snapped, rising to her full height. Percy hadn't really registered just how imposing the daughter of Mars was, but when she fully squared up, the sight was a tall one. "We kept it to ourselves for so long because Peter asked us to. It was his story to tell, and we respected that. The only reason we're telling you now is because you didn't figure into our lives before."

"Excuse me? Did I imagine the war with Gaea, then??" Percy snarked. "I admit to being a scatterbrain most of the time, but even I can remember the giant earth mother trying to take over the world. There was a duo with me when that happened. A child of Mars, and a child of Pluto. Looked a lot like you guys. And unless I'm mistaken, I'm pretty sure someone exactly like me was here with you guys when you toppled a similar threat. So don't come at me with that 'we didn't even know you nonsense'."

"We don't have to, Percy. What you just did here in this building not ten minutes ago proved Faith's point entirely," Hayden jumped in, narrowing his eyes. "Blackmailing all of us into promising that we wouldn't try to protect you? I don't know where you got this idea that Percie Jackson was an arrogant, selfish jerk, but I can assure you she is not even one of those three things."

"Selfish?!" Percy spat. "How is making sure no one will die for you a selfish move?"

"Because Percie would have never done something like that to Alister!"

The room became quiet. Very quiet. The son of Pluto simmered with emotion as cradles of gemstones began to form around his feet. "Percie... would never hurt him like that. She'd never force him to not be there for her. She'd never do that to any of us. But. You. Did."

Percy's outburst died with a whimper. Hayden's words slammed into him, the full implications tearing away at his heart. Somewhere far away, Athena's voice chided him in his mind: "You would see the world fall away before you let a friend get hurt." But now, here he was.

"You might have her eyes, her sword, her abilities, and her spark," Hayden finished, "but you don't have her kindness."

The son of Pluto left, the gems following him as he stepped out of the building.

That left him alone with Faith.

"A harsh rebuttal, but one I'm inclined to agree with," the daughter of Mars remarked, crossing her arms. "You tied our hands, Percy. You took advantage of our desire to keep you safe, and exploited it to further your own agenda. Doesn't really sound like a hero, does it?"

"I... just didn't want anyone else to die." His voice was weak. Why? It was the truth. It had been the one thing he'd tried to learn from his experiences before. The pain he'd felt, losing Bianca. The anguish at Ethan. The guilt for Bob and Damasen. They all had so much to offer the world. And it was gone; swept away, because they had the misfortune to know Percy Jackson. "You all deserve a chance; a chance that stands the best odds of occurring without me being a liability."

Faith shook her head. "Not your decision to make."

"Maybe. But it was the right decision, and I made it for you."

The praetor cocked an eye at that. "The right decision, eh? Since when does the right decision call for you to make an ass of yourself in front of everyone who cares about you? Who wants to see you returned to your rightful place? Because I'll tell you what that decision just did: it made everyone even more determined to get you back home."

Oh, come on. Why could he never get these things right? "Why do you say that?" he asked her.

Faith tilted her head. "As angry as we all are at you right now... we all know where your heart was when you made that move. The emotional blackmail certainly sours it, so don't expect any of the others to be quite as forgiving as I am right now. But Hayden wasn't being fully sincere when he told you off like that. Percie might not intentionally hurt Alister, or any of us, but she'd go down in a heartbeat if it meant saving just one friend. I know I'd do the same."

The daughter of Mars put a hand to his shoulder. "Give them all some time," she advised. "They're still mourning the loss of their own friend, after all. But they'll come around."

Guilt. It was something Percy had gotten used to feeling, especially in the last few days. It felt like every time he turned around, there was someone he barely knew pulling out all the stops to save him, or make him feel better, or just ease the difficulty of something he was trying to do. He hadn't gotten used to it. Sure, they had the connection to Percie. But to go to such lengths for someone so foreign to you... Percy doubted he'd be able to ever pay them back.

Like in this moment. Faith had just made a seeming one-eighty in her attitude. Was that forgiveness, or just her status as praetor allowing her to see the bigger picture? Her criticism felt valid. But so did her assurances. Funnily enough, she'd given him faith in the rest of the Seven, plus Rey.

"I'm... glad you're so... you," he finally responded to her.

"Are any of us not?" she countered.

"No. No, you're all just as wonderful as you always are."

She smiled then. A warm smile, that soothed the son of Poseidon. "Then don't let my boyfriend's words eat at you too harshly. I don't think you and our Percie are the exception, then. You've got your own kindness." Faith's smile curled into more of a smirk. "Percie... can be a serious airhead, too. I think we've all wanted to strangle her at least once."

She actually made him chuckle at that. "At least give me a warning before you try choking me," he answered. "I bruise like a peach."

"Bruising means you're a survivor, Percy. I'm sure it would impress someone."

The conversation changed course when a sudden rumbling sound erupted outside. Percy might have mistaken the whole thing for an earthquake, if he wasn't the son of the god literally called 'the earth-shaker'. "Did that come from the Field of Mars?" he asked.

Faith rolled her eyes. "Yes, it did. Guess I better go make sure Lea isn't upsetting any more parents with her less-than-safe training equipment. Do yourself a favor, and never let yourself get suckered into being the test subject for her. I was scrubbing charcoal off my neck for weeks."

The praetor made for the door, but Percy followed her. "I still need to meet Lea, remember?" he pointed out. "I know she's aware of what's going on, but I still feel like we shouldn't keep her in the dark like this."

Faith bowed her head. "Fair enough. You can come with me. Just keep your head down; the games can get very... intense."

They stepped out onto the steps of the Senate Building, Faith taking a moment to get her bearings. Percy was about to ask her how she planned to get them to the Field of Mars, before he remembered what Frank did every time he went to morph into an animal. In that moment, the demigod phased out, replaced by a towering condor. She fixed Percy with pointed eyes, and before the son of Poseidon could voice his fear of flight, she lifted off with him in her talons.

"Faith, I don't like this!" he shrieked as they soared above Camp Jupiter. The condor above him ignored his pleas, increasing her speed as she flapped towards the misshapen land of the Roman war games. Percy shut his eyes, waiting for the horror ride to conclude. Facing some mechanical menace would have been preferable to this, which was actually what Frank had hinted to Percy was going on a month beforehand. Leo's name had cropped up as well, and Percy shuddered as he realized he was about to get a glimpse of the chaos firsthand.

Faith brought them down next to a makeshift tent, where two Romans in legionnaire armor were looking over a hand-drawn map of the Field. One ran off as soon they landed, leaving her friend to speak to the praetor, who shifted back to her normal form.

"Lucian. Care to explain what that noise was?" Faith questioned.

Lucian, as she had called him, looked like a cat that had gotten caught sneaking into a bird cage. His hair had been dyed pink, and he wore it in the traditional Roman style of cropped and short. Percy couldn't place a female version of him from his memories, so odds were good he'd never met the woman Lucian shared a place with.

"Praetor. I... uh... was just about to sound the alarm for a... tactical retreat," the young man blustered, clutching at a Star of David pendant at his neck. "I wasn't distracted by anything, I promise. Just... keeping an eye on the rear lines."

"I'm sure you were," Faith voiced, her tone sarcastic. "Was that eye focused on any rears in particular? Or were you indiscriminate with your leering at your fellow legionnaires?"

Lucian stammered, before trying to put on a stoic face. "Of course not. I would never lose focus on the battlefield, or in any serious situation at all. No, my mind is a love-free zone!"

Percy stepped up next to Faith, interrupting whatever the pink-haired demigod was about to boast next.

"I- Ja...-" Lucian sputtered, his eyes raking over the son of Poseidon. "I... what I was saying?"

"Oh, nothing," Faith sighed. "Just that I needed to have a talk with Rey about your performance. Again."

"What? No! There's only so much bathroom detail I can take, praetor! Do you have any idea how disgusting the Fourth Cohort is? The things I have found in those toilets would scare the scuff marks off a tap studio's floor."

The praetor huffed, turning to Percy. "This is Lucian Asimov: son of Terpsichore, and regular pain in my neck," she introduced. "Please, whatever you do, don't indulge him. In anything."

The son of the Muse looked like he wanted to argue, but another rumbling went off, this time much closer. Percy judged that it was about fifty or so yards away, hidden away from sight by a mass of giant boulders nestled across the Field.

"The idea for this was to simulate fighting on treacherous terrain," Faith hissed, planting her feet to stop herself from falling over. "But now something's gone wrong. Like it tends to do."

"Lovely," was all Percy said, patting his pocket. Yep. Riptide had returned. Guess Terminus was currently losing his mind somewhere in the camp over it. The thought made the son of Poseidon snicker, even as the ground started shaking again.

"Lea is so going to answer for this," Faith muttered.

Percy saw why when some of the boulders cradled on the ground were lifted up, more than thirty feet in the air. Underneath them, clutching onto the giant rocks with mechanical arms, was what could only be described as what would result from Optimus Prime having a baby with the Terminator. The behemoth stood at least two stories high. Its metal skin shined in the daylight, and its limbs popped and locked with nasty noises as it lifted the boulders up. Its hands were clawed with exposed wiring, and dozens of buttons trailed down its torso and onto its legs.

Clutching to the top of its head was a small female demigod, smacking at the mech's forehead with a giant wrench. She was covered in grime, and despite the treacherousness of her situation, seemed to be having the time of her life, riding the giant robot.

"Hey, guys!" Lea yelled, pausing in her efforts to bludgeon the machine to wave at the trio of demigods watching her. "Thought this guy needed a test run. Guess I underestimated how feisty he was going to get with the Cohorts. Now, you gonna behave, Porcius? Or is Mama gonna have to take you apart?"

Porcius didn't look very hampered by his maker's threat. To be prove his independence, he chucked the boulder. Right at Percy, Faith, and Lucian.

Chapter Text

The atmosphere out in the lobby was hectic, to say the least. At least forty men of various ages crowded around the desk, all trying to get the attention of Ganymede. The immortal seemed just a tad overwhelmed by the presence of so many at the same time, but didn't lose any of his luster as he tackled problem after problem. He did find the time to grab a new shirt, though. Percie couldn't decide if she was happy with that or not.

"No sir, I'm afraid this office has no lawyer you can speak to right now," he told one man in a police uniform before jotting down a phone number in his notebook. "Did you say you needed a ride to Buffalo, or Pittsburgh, sir? I'm afraid I can't hear very well right now," Ganymede said to another, his hands moving quicker than Percie might have guessed.

The daughter of Poseidon, along with her two escorts in tow, stood in the middle of the lobby, trying to assess the situation. Annabeth had pressed herself up against the wall furthest away from the cacophony, wrapping her arms in bandages. The ambrosia she'd taken on the way up here had seemed to be effective, but the godly food needed a tad more time to fully stop the bleeding.

A slight tug at her hand snapped Percie's attention away from the daughter of Athena. Nico wasn't looking at her, but the son of Hades seemed to be indicating that he wanted to go to Annabeth. Preparing herself for whatever her companion was about to say in response to her killing Circe, Percie obliged.

When they got close, Nico let go of her hand. Annabeth's arms came up automatically, and Nico fell into them, no words from either one necessary. They stayed like that for a moment before the daughter of wisdom glanced up at Percie, still toting Will on her shoulder. "Do I need to take him?" she asked Percie.

Not really, but Percie appreciated the offer, handing the unconscious boy to Annabeth. Will slumped over onto one of the sofas, Annabeth and Nico taking either side of him. The son of Hades maintained the quiet composure he'd stuck to so far, but did snuggle underneath Will's left arm, taking his hand. Annabeth smiled for the first time since they'd entered the warehouse, then looked back at Percie.

"I think Ganymede's gonna be a while," was all she said.

"Then it's about time I made myself known," Percie responded, stepping into the horde of jostling men and boys. Even back in their human forms, a lot of them still smelled like animals. One egregious example was a guy who seemed to be dressed for the runway, if his sleek raincoat and eye-liner were anything to go by.

"Call me old-fashioned, but getting turned into a hedgehog is not something I consider to be a normal errand!" the pretty guy proclaimed, pushing himself to the front of the crowd. "Do you have any idea how embarrassing it is, running around a pen all day?"

Ganymede shook his head in despair. "No, sir. I cannot. I offer my full apologies, of course. Had I known my employer was treating her visitors so rudely, I never would have applied for the position. May I take your name down so you may lodge a formal complaint?" the immortal offered, batting his eyes at the former hedgehog.

Pretty Boy seemed to stumble over his words as Ganymede's brilliant looks started dazzling him the same way they'd dazzled Percie when she first met him. "Um... sure. It's Adrian. Adrian Beaulieu."

The manager's eyes brightened, and he leaned over the desk, resting his chin under the back of his hand. "Adrian? What a very spectacular name. Have you by any chance been to the Adriatic Sea, your namesake?"

"Uh...no?"

Ganymede flipped over to another page in his notebook, writing with gusto. "Then say no more, sir. A man of your aura deserves to be treated to the place he was born from. Whenever you wish to see it for yourself, simply seek me out, and I'll be more than glad to accompany you."

Adrian's entire face went red, then he nodded furiously. "Of course. How may I get into contact with you... uh, I don't actually know your name either, sir."

"It's Ganymede," Percie cut in, pushing herself up to the front next to Adrian. "Don't know if there's any way to shorten that to something decent, either. Gan is too vague, and mede sounds like a beverage."

The immortal's ever-cheery façade cracked a little. "Ganymede... yes, you could call me that. But it's not really my name any more. Most people just call me Aquarius."

Adrian blinked. "Like, the astrological sign?"

"Oh, don't get me started on those dimwits!" Ganymede frothed. "First of all, Scorpio is a complete tool! He rescues a goddess once, and all of a sudden he gets to be immortal? What a douche! Gemini is another horrible example, but at least they have the decency to stick together."

Percie rapped her knuckles on the desk. "Focus, please."

"Yes, yes. My apologies for rambling. Yes, you may call me Ganymede, though I'm more used to Aquarius. When you're ready to accept my offer, just find me in the sky and call out, Mr. Beaulieu. I'll hear you."

Ganymede flashed another gorgeous smile at Adrian, causing the latter to literally swoon against Percie. His spiked hair pricked her in the side of the face, and suddenly she understood why Circe chose to turn the male model into a hedgehog.

"Am I good to bring something else to your attention now, Ganymede?" the daughter of Poseidon asked.

"Of course, my dear. How did your visit with Circe go?" he asked, innocence plastered over his face. "I must admit, it's very distressing to hear of what she did to all these fine gentlemen. I mean, I knew she already had a history of it, but you'd think she'd have learned her lesson after that mess in the Sea of Monsters. Honestly, some people need to leave the past behind."

He was rambling again. And maybe this was the hormones talking, but the more she listened, the more she believed the immortal to be completely sincere. There was no sign of sarcasm or insincerity in his voice or face; in fact, he seemed rather offended by learning what the sorceress had been up to.

"Shame she couldn't," Percie cut in. "It ended up getting her killed."

Ganymede stared in shock. "You mean.. she's dead?"

"As dead as a goddess can be, I'd say."

"I... see. That is rather troubling to hear. How am I supposed to advance my career in business if my employer is dead?"

Percie was at a loss for words at that one. "Maybe... you could try to take over right here? You seem to have a pretty good handle on the mess going on right now, especially for someone who wasn't expecting it."

Ganymede seemed to consider her proposal. "I guess it could work; all of Elysium could tell you I'm much a better boss than her, at the very least. No sick days! What kind of stick-in-the-mud enforces that kind of policy in the twenty first century?"

"Then I guess this is your chance to prove how wrong she was," Percie encouraged.

The immortal's face coiled into a pondering expression before he gave her a bright grin. "You're right! I'm the most qualified person there is to tackle this business! Before long, Io is gonna come crawling back to me, pleading for me to partner with her. But will I? No! That's what she gets for ignoring me!"

Ganymede stood up on the desk, clapping his hands to get the attention of everyone. "Gentlemen! Starting at this very moment, I am now the owner and operator of all business functions under the Liberty Bell! Please direct all of your complaints to the new manager: me!"

"But... weren't you already the manager?" one of the schoolboys asked.

"Yes, but now I'm the manager who manages the manager. Really, it's simple semantics."

The assembled men glanced at each other in confusion, but no one objected further. "Excellent!" Ganymede cried. "First, I'll need to find the appropriate attire for my new position. This boring old shirt and pants combo won't cut it! There's a lovely polo hanging up in the back room. Would anyone be willing to fetch it for me while I finish seeing to all of you?"

Adrian's hand shot up. "I'll do it."

"Yay! Thank you, Mr. Beaulieu. If you're quick about it, I might even let you help me resize the buttons so I can get the fit I want."

Percie had never seen a mortal move so fast. Adrian was out of there like he was being chased by Cerberus. With that issue settled, the immortal went back to handling the myriad of complaints levelled at him by the former animals.

"Good luck," she told him, stepping away from the mosh pit that had been given new energy. Ganymede gave her a thumbs up, before dutifully listening to one man tell a very long-winded story about his time as a yak.

Annabeth rose to her feet when Percie made it back. Will still seemed out of it, but Nico at least was gaining a little color in his face. "I'd say Ganymede's got things handled here. Time to make our own exit," she said, not looking Percie in the eyes.

She was still mad about how Percie had handled Circe. The daughter of Poseidon sniffed, but didn't broach the subject. "No argument here. Does that mean we have to take the elevator of death again?"

"No; I asked Ganymede if there were any other exits the moment I got back up here, and he said we could find another stairwell back in the hallway, hidden behind the water bottle he sprayed himself with."

It sounded like a much better option than riding the hell-evator for a second time. Nico was able to walk by himself now, and bracing Will against her shoulder, Annabeth was able to use him to help her carry the son of Apollo through the hall. Percie had tried to assist, but Annabeth refused, reminding Percie that she still needed to treat herself with ambrosia before the injuries she'd taken in the fight started acting up.

That's how the daughter of Poseidon found herself munching on the godly cuisine as they climbed yet another stairwell. This one was opened by just pulling the water bottle away from its fountain, which was a lot less impressive than the piano trick Rachel had shown them at the Dare mansion. The godly food tasted just like her mom's seven-layer dip, which made Percie feel homesick. She hoped someone had at least clued Sally in when Percy had shown up in her world. Chiron probably would once he found out, but she wasn't calmed by that rationalization.

When was the last time she'd even seen her mother; hers, not Percy's. It had to have been at least a few days; Percie had been staying at the camp to make preparations for the new wave of demigods they'd been expecting. The satyrs had been busy all hours of the summer, tracking kids down and coordinating rescue attempts. The daughter of Poseidon, as a veteran of the camp and the perils of demigod life, had been invited to serve as a counselor for the incoming children. Sally had joked that it would be great practice for when her brother was born... gods, her brother.

She'd nearly forgotten: her mom was pregnant when this all happened. Oh, no. What if the shock of learning Percie was gone caused her mom to go into early labor? She might just miss the delivery all together! Or worse... what if the shock ended up triggering a miscarriage?

"Percie. Are you daydreaming down there?" Annabeth called out, looking down on the daughter of Poseidon from a full floor above her. Percie had gotten so lost in her own fears, she'd stopped walking.

Her face must have displayed some of that fear, because Annabeth visibly softened when Percie looked up at her. "Sorry. Just... got distracted," Percie stumbled, taking the steps two at a time to catch up.

About ten minutes later, the stairs ended, and turned into a door. Since Nico and Annabeth had their hands full with Will, Percie had to open it. The door swung into daylight, and on stepping through, the daughter of the sea found herself standing in what looked like a bazaar of some kind. Merchants and stalls lined the pathways, which were full of mortals walking in both directions. The other three emerged right behind her, but no one seemed to notice the tousled, wounded teens.

"Guess the Mist is keeping this door hidden," Percie inferred. "Circe wouldn't want too many uninvited guests barging into her place without seeing her manager first."

Nico flinched at the mention of the sorceress, his hands clenching into fists. Annabeth shot Percie a dirty look, then gazed around at their surroundings. "I think this is the Cherry Street Pier," she said. "An event space built on the banks of the Delaware River to be used for community events."

"Charming," Percie observed, walking along the outer edges of the crowd. "We need to get to a more open area."

The bazaar only went on for so long, opening up into a garden. The Mist meant no one saw anything worth stopping for, but a few mortals Percie passed did try to sneak a few peeks at the bandages on Annabeth's arms. Once they'd gotten back outside completely, Percie led them all around the side of the roof that covered the bazaar.

"Time to signal our air taxi."

The daughter of Poseidon closed her eyes, reaching her thoughts out. "Blackjack, we need to go."

His answer came bouncing back a second later. "Fine and dandy. You guys still at the Bell?"

"No. The Cherry Street Pier, right outside the bazaar."

"Nice. How'd everything go?"

"We got the boys, and we're all doing okay. How long until you can meet us here?"

Blackjack paused. "Less than a minute, actually. Federal Donuts is right next to the river, where the pier is."

"Did you pay for them?"

"Of course I did! Who do you take me for, Shortstop?"

"I don't know who that is."

"Pegasus, like me, but the similarities end there. Snobby, total coward, and he actually believes that donuts are bad for pegasi! Can you even comprehend that kind of slander?"

Percie chuckled. "Sounds like a real piece of work. See you when you get here, buddy."

Blackjack's estimation wasn't off. Less than forty seconds after finishing their talk, she spotted the pegasus coming down over the bazaar. He landed with a spring in his step, and Percie spotted sprinkles stuck to his muzzle. "Philly really knows how to make a good donut, I tell you," he bleated, trotting over. His happy demeanor crashed a little as he saw how ragged everybody looked. "Um, are you sure everyone's okay?"

"We've been better," Percie admitted, "but it could have been a lot worse. How many of us can you carry without risking anything?"

The winged horse tilted his head. "Hm. Normally I'd be willing to push three, but that still leaves one of you out. Even so, I don't want to risk three people if one of them is unconscious; too many things to worry about there. And I know for a fact none of you would be willing to let him be the one who stays behind."

"No argument here. Then how about just the boys? Can you take them?"

Percie noticed Annabeth stiffen at hearing that, but ignored it. Blackjack nodded. "Yep. Anywhere specific you want me to go?"

"They had a campsite on the banks of the river. Think you could find it from the air?"

"No problem," the pegasus neighed.

"Then do that. Annabeth and I will find our way to you guys there."

Blackjack eyed his friend, then turned his gaze to the daughter of Athena. Annabeth didn't look very pleased with what she'd just heard Percie propose, but there was no way she could suggest something else without parting Nico from Will. And based on how attached the son of Hades was to the healer, separating them now would do more harm than good.

"No problems here," Annabeth murmured.

And thus it was decided. Percie helped Nico on to Blackjack first, then teamed up with Annabeth to slide Will in front of him. Nico handled his boyfriend with steady hands, a good sign. Once both demigods were situated, Percie gave the pegasus the go-ahead.

"Keep them safe, will you?" she whispered to him as he started to take off.

"If anything so much as looks at them funny, I'll bust out the judo moves," Blackjack promised, pawing at the air with his hoof.

With the boys secure, the pegasus soared off, following the Delaware as it snaked through the city, leaving the women alone with each other.

"I hope you have a plan for getting us to that campsite," Annabeth said, her voice flat.

Percie scoffed at her skepticism. "What makes you think I don't?"

"I know you, Seaweed Brain."

No arguing with that. Percie walked further along the pier, towards the center of the river. The daughter of wisdom followed her, until they came to a spot where they appeared to be in the middle of the waterway. "I think this should do," Percie commented, leaning over the side to gaze down towards the water. Annabeth came to her side, looking taken aback.

Until Percie climbed up the railing, and perched herself right over the edge. "What are you doing?" Annabeth asked, startled.

Percie rolled her eyes. "Finding the quickest way back to that camp. Now, are you coming with me, or I am gonna have to drag you into that river by force?"

Annabeth huffed at her, then grumpily pulled herself up the railing as well. "You're lucky you're a child of Poseidon," she snapped.

The wind went out of Percie's sails. "Huh. I would have called it the exact opposite."

The daughter of Athena went gray as the full implication of her sentence became obvious. "Oh, gods. Percie, you know I didn't mean it like that, right?"

"Yeah. Yeah, of course I do." Gods, Percie hoped that sounded a lot more convincing to Annabeth than it was to her. She took the daughter of wisdom by the hand, then looked down at the river. "Thanks for trusting me, at least."

Annabeth didn't respond to that, something Percie had been expecting. So, she jumped, pulling Annabeth with her. The plummet towards the water wasn't a big one, so the chances at injury weren't too bad. Even so, the daughter of Poseidon made sure to soften the surface of the water before they fell in. The river reinvigorated her, but she couldn't afford to stop and let it go to her head. Annabeth needed an air bubble.

Making one was easy, and Percie swam them out farther upriver before breaking the surface of the water. "You are crazy," Annabeth sputtered, looking frazzled. "I know the whole underwater thing might not freak you out, but some of us might feel a little claustrophobic down there."

"That's why I wanted to come up here, so you could get your bearings," Percie threw back. "Besides, this was the best place for what I wanted to do next."

"Do next? Like what?"

Percie sank back under the water, bringing Annabeth along in another bubble. She made this one as large as she could, giving them enough room to stand up in it. "How are your wounds?" she asked the daughter of Athena.

Annabeth blinked, then shook her head. "They're fine. I took some ambrosia; just give it a few hours, and I'll be right as rain."

"They might not be getting any worse, but they could still be bleeding," Percie pointed out. "Especially after you lugged Will up those stairs. What are the odds you might have opened some of them up again?"

The daughter of Athena gestured at Percie with her bandaged arms. "Even if they did, I'm already patched up. Why stop here to ask about that?"

Was she really gonna be this difficult? Fine. "Because I saw you take that fall. The barbed wire. It didn't just catch your arms, Annabeth. It got laced all around your shoulder, and must have scratched your back up pretty seriously, too."

Annabeth opened her mouth to protest, but no words came out. She dropped a guilty look to the floor of the bubble, then turned away. So Percie had been right in her assumption. "I brought you down here in the river because that's the only place I could think of where I might be able to heal with any genuine idea of what I was doing," Percie explained. "At least let me check; if everything's good, we'll drop the issue and head up the river towards the camp."

A shocked look crossed Annabeth's face. "You want me... to undress down here?"

"Oh, please. We're both girls; besides, I just want to have a look at your back and shoulder. Nothing below the waist."

A really long pause took place before the daughter of Athena finally capitulated. "The things I do for you, Seaweed Brain," she mumbled, turning her back to Percie and taking her shirt off. Percie had to bite her lip to keep her from audibly gasping at the sight. Annabeth's back and left shoulder was lacerated beyond description; what looked like hundreds of little cuts had covered every bare inch of skin from her neck down. Most of them had stopped actively bleeding, but at least a few were fresh.

"Were you going to tell me, at all?" Percie asked.

"I didn't want to distract you from the boys," was the answer she got.

Horrified at the scene before her, the daughter of Poseidon stuck her hand outside the air bubble, coating as much of her arms as she could in water. She pulled them back in, willing the liquid to remain on her like some underwater surgical gloves. "This is probably gonna sting," she confessed, before shaking the water loose of any unwanted particles and then directing it to flow into the wounds on the demigod.

Annabeth hissed in pain as water flowed into all of the cuts, but she didn't start, or try to jerk away. Percie kept her focus on the task at hand, willing the water through the wounds with her mind as she put both hands to Annabeth's hips. "I've never done this before, so let's hope I don't screw it up," Percie added.

The daughter of Athena snickered. "Just do what you need to do, Percie. Like you always do."

That was a weighty statement. "Are you mad at me? For killing Circe, and all?"

"Why do you think I'm mad?"

"Oh, I don't know. It might be the harrowing looks, or the stony silent treatment. Or the fact that you tried to hide the fact that you were injured from me."

Annabeth winced, but Percie didn't think it was because of the treatment. "I know you said you didn't want to lose me to the darkness, Annabeth. And I know you must have been having flashbacks to Akhlys when you saw me turn Circe's magic against her."

A second wince confirmed that Percie had it right on the money. "But this was not the same," the daughter of Poseidon continued. "Akhlys had already been neutralized as a threat. I let my anger get the better of me there. But Circe was going to kill you." There was no weakness in her voice, no second-guessing. "She would have killed you, me, and the boys without even batting an eyelash. Anyone who tries that, to any of my friends, is going to be in for a bad time. And don't try denying that you'd do the same thing if the shoe was on the other foot."

Satisfied with her success, Percie pulled her hands back, withdrawing the water out of Annabeth's back. Returning it to the river, she spun the daughter of Athena back around. Now it was her turn to grasp her companion by the shoulders. "I appreciate your concern, Annabeth. More than you know. But this isn't the same. I felt horrible after nearly killing Akhlys. I feel no guilt whatsoever about what I did back there to Circe."

Something in her voice must have struck a nerve, because Annabeth's eyes darted away. But she wasn't letting up. "Anyone who harms my loved ones like that will face a similar fate. I've gained too much to lose someone else. No one at either camp would blame me for protecting you. None of the Olympians would, either. We all do what is necessary if it means saving the life of someone we care about."

"I know," Annabeth whispered. "I know that. So.. why do I still feel this way? Why am I angry at something that I know I wouldn't have done any differently?"

Percie had a potential answer come to her. "Because," she said, pulling Annabeth into an embrace, being careful not touch any of the cuts on her back, "I'm him. I'm the man you had to save from his own demons. Just as he saved you from yours. Just as I saved Alister, and he saved me. Too much about this situation is similar to things we've already endured: separation, confronting old and new foes alike, the allies we're forced to rescue. It's creating the illusion that everything we went through the first few times was for nothing."

The daughter of Poseidon took Annabeth's hand. "But that's all a lie. Everything we went through still means something. We're all different because of it. We grew; we loved; we endured. It made us who we are. And now, it's made us prepared to handle this. We will fix this, and we will be reunited with the people we care about."

Annabeth had tears coming into her eyes, both sad and happy ones, if Percie was any judge. The daughter of Athena wiped them away with her free hand, laughing to herself. "Since when were you such a powerful speaker, Seaweed Brain?" was all she asked.

"When I finally realized that I had things that needed to be said."

The other demigod sighed, then finally made eye contact again. "Okay. We're good. Anything else you want to tell me, before we get back to Nico and Will?"

"Just one, Wise Girl."

"I'm listening."

Percie smirked, then leaned in to Annabeth's ear. "You can put your shirt back on."

Chapter Text

It wasn't the first time Percy had had some giant monster throw a boulder at him. It was the first time, however, he'd ever seen the boulder disintegrate into powder in mid-air. The massive slab of rock only made it about ten feet before the son of Poseidon's eye tracked an arrow that slammed right into it. The arrow vaporized on contact, taking the projectile with it.

Faith blew a tuft of hair out of her face, an elegant bow clutched in her left hand. The daughter of Mars cocked an eye at the giant mech, which somehow managed to look surprised at seeing its weapon get demolished by some tiny arrow. "Wonder how they'll fare against the metal itself," she wondered aloud, pulling another arrow and going to notch it.

Lea, still riding Porcius, put both of her hands up in a frantic gesture. "Don't you dare use those things on him, Zhang! Porcius here took more than three weeks to build, and two more weeks to filet out most of the kinks. I am not having him blown up just because he got a little cranky."

This was only a little cranky? Percy doubted that. As did Porcius, it turned out. The mech raised its clawed hands in fury, and charged the demigods, spewing steam out of his eye sockets. As the distance closed, Percy noticed that most of the robot's joints were spinning out of their stocks, and the metal that composed his body looked misshapen and warped.

"How many people have tried to calm him down?" Percy shouted up at Lea, leaping to one side as Porcius came roaring past. Faith and Lucian both took the over approach; Faith hopping onto the mech's instep and using the momentum to catapult herself above him, while Lucian assumed what looked like a ballet position before he sprung straight up, getting enough airtime for the robot to pass right under him. "Not enough, I'd guess."

The son of Terpsichore landed with a dainty step, despite looking horribly nervous. "No offense, Lea, but how are we supposed to stop him without turning him into a pile of rubble? And without him smashing us flat, come to think of it."

The daughter of Hephaestus clambered over Porcius's head, so she was standing on the back of his shoulders. "Lesson number one of building armaments, my dear Lucian: Never make something indestructible if there's a chance it might go wild on you. I made sure to include a little Achilles heel on Porcius, if you will forgive the reference."

Lea looked rather pleased with herself for that one. Percy, having taken a swim in the Styx for himself to get the blessing of the ancient warrior, did not appreciate the reminder. "And that weakness is?" he prodded at Lea, just as Porcius righted himself, facing the three demigods again.

"I just told you, you barnacle head! His Achilles' heel is literally his heel!"

Percy didn't know what was worse; the SpongeBob reference, or Lea's horrible lack of creativity. Both, however, were not as bad as the giant robot staring at him with death in its... eyes? Holes? Honestly, he couldn't even tell any more.

"Left or right heel, Lea?" Faith demanded, hand going back to her quiver. "I can make either one pretty easily."

"No, not that bow, Faith!" the daughter of the forge shouted. "You'll ruin him. Use something that doesn't totally wreck shop. Like your spear. Or your sword. Or your eyebrows."

"That doesn't answer the question!" Lucian shrieked as Porcius jutted its fingers at them. The limbs detached from the robot, turning into guided missiles that scattered as they approached the trio from all directions.

"Oh sure, now your finger-torpedoes decide to function properly!" Lea complained as Faith grabbed both boys and pulled them under her cape.

The light of the sun vanished as Percy was yanked underneath the purple garment, right up to Faith's side. The daughter of Mars looked seriously annoyed, but otherwise indifferent to what was happening. Lucian was not faring so well, despite how successful he'd been at keeping himself out of harm's way.

The son of Poseidon didn't see the projectiles strike, but he did feel them, the ground underneath rocking as Porcius's fingers slammed into the shield Faith had made with her garment. "Perks of being a praetor," was all she said, unveiling them once the explosions were over.

"Bomb-proof clothing? Have they always done that?" Percy asked.

"Only when they're needed, it seems."

Porcius looked infuriated that he'd given up his fingers for such a lackluster attack. The giant mech actually stomped his feet, like a petulant toddler who'd just been told he wasn't allowed to have any candy. "Now, now, young man. Is that any way to behave in front of people you don't know?" Lea chastised him, bonking him over the head with her wrench. Okay, now he could see why the metaphor seemed so apt.

"Lea! Left or right?" Faith reiterated.

"Right, right! The left side would have completely ruined his modifications to his flamethrower boot!"

Porcius perked up at that statement, raising his left leg in wonder. He twisted his ankle, and a massive column of fire shot out of the back of his foot. Percy would have sworn on the Styx that he saw the metal-man grin at this new weapon.

"Stop giving him tips about how to kill us!" Lucian whined, pulling a manuballista off his back. "Or at the very least, make the tips helpful to us, too! Like how to disable the flamethrower shoes?"

Lea shook her head. "Sorry. Haven't decided which flaw I want to put in those yet."

"Are you kidding me!?"

The son of Terpsichore readied his weapon, bracing it against his shoulder. "I'm going to bring down that abomination myself, just for being such an irritating fight," he continued, looking down the sights.

Faith tapped Percy on the shoulder. "Let's spin him around, then, so Lucian can get a clear shot."

"And how exactly do we intend to do that?" Percy responded, staring at the giant robot with a flamethrower on its foot.

The daughter of Mars smirked before morphing into a cheetah, sprinting at the colossus before it had time to aim its fire. Porcius swerved in an effort to stomp the praetor, but lost his footing as the feline careened between his legs, knocking him right over onto his face. Lea spilled off to the side, landing on her funny bone.

"Great Pyramid of Giza!" the daughter of Hephaestus exclaimed, grabbing at her rear. "Faith, watch where you're going when you try to pull a move like that!"

Percy didn't know cheetahs could somehow look amused, but the Roman leader pulled it off, whiskers and all. The son of Poseidon did agree that she had a decent idea, though. "Hey, bucket-head!" he called out, waving his arms at Porcius as he darted past the fallen robot. "I hear copper is in this season, so why did you go with the rustic look? That went out of fashion back when Narcissus was still somewhat tolerable."

"Excuse me?" Lea whirled on her butt, glaring at him. "I happen to be someone who's met that bloated idiot firsthand, and let me tell you, he was never tolerable! And what was that about Porcius looking rustic? He's state-of-the-art, I assure you!"

Despite how inaccurate his mockings might have been, they sure were effective. Porcius looked outraged as he rose to his feet, steam now pouring out of his ears and hips as well. He raised his left foot, and Percy was almost a demigod smore before Faith crashed into him, knocking the son of Poseidon to the side. The flames went past them, scorching the hills in its wake.

Having a one-hundred pound cat slam into your chest wasn't the best feeling in the world, so Percy hoped no one would make fun of him for being on the ground, wheezing in pain when the battle was finished. Using his left foot to shoot fire meant Porcius's right ankle was totally exposed, an opening Lucian didn't waste. Right as Faith snatched Percy away from the blast, he fired, the bolt from his crossbow smashing into metal plates on the lower end of the robot's right leg.

Porcius wobbled in a circle, his right ankle coming apart as he did so. The robot's expression was indignant, like he couldn't believe he'd just gotten outwitted by a dork with green eyes and a cat. Not to mention the dancer with the pink hair. He came crashing down with a thud, pieces of his body flying in all directions. Lea sighed, strutting up to him, wrench in hand.

"Guess you weren't quite ready yet, old boy," she lamented, prying open his chest and grabbing onto some wires that had gotten crisscrossed. With a clenched fist, the daughter of the forge incinerated the wires. Porcius's head slumped over, the light behind his eye sockets going out. "Stupid malfunction," Lea repeated, kicking at a piece of what looked like a pelvic bone. "All that work, and he didn't even get to smash up any of the cohorts."

"Not from lack of trying," Lucian argued, climbing over the fallen mech. "The Third and Fifth Cohorts went running back to the barracks, screaming at the top of their lungs about the whole thing. The Second tried to bring him down with the ballista, but someone who shall not be named-" he threw a pointed glare at Lea, "insisted that she could fix this without any more chaos needing to happen."

"And how did that go?" Faith asked, back to her normal form. The praetor seemed to be divided about whether she was entertained or outraged by the fiasco.

"Oh, it went perfectly fine!" Lea said. "No one else had to get involved until you guys showed up."

"Yeah, because everyone else ran off in terror!" Lucian snapped back.

"What, the big bad legionnaires didn't want to fight this cute little guy?" she teased, pinching the metal cheek of the deactivated robot. Percy had to bite his tongue to keep from voicing his own opinion on that take. Porcius wasn't any of those things Lea just described him as, but the son of Poseidon suspected pointing that out now would only get him on Lea's bad side. He had already taken that initiative himself with the rest of the Seven.

Thankfully, Faith's interjection meant he didn't have to worry about it. "Enough!" she bellowed, silencing the quarreling demigods. "I can't say I'm pleased all of the Cohorts ran from the battlefield, but at least no one was injured. Lea, I trust you can handle the remains of Porcius from here?"

Lea sucked in her cheeks. "It'll take a few weeks, but I can have him up and running in no time at all."

"Not really what I was asking, but fine," the daughter of Mars acknowledged. She turned to Lucian. "And you: I will not pretend to be pleased with you getting separated from your fellow soldiers because of a simple malfunction, but you did fare well when it counted."

The son of dance sheepishly pawed at his hair. "Oh, it was no big deal-"

"So I'll only assign you two days of bathroom detail. For all of the Cohorts," Faith finished.

"Oh, come on!"

The pink-haired boy tried more pleas, but Faith was having none of it. She dismissed him, and Lucian sulked off to the barracks, his giant crossbow hanging from his back. The praetor waited for him to walk out of hearing distance before she let out an audible sigh.

"This is him," she told Lea.

"I gathered as much," the daughter of Hephaestus confirmed, her gaze solidifying on Percy. Lea scraped some dirt off the front of her shirt with a rag she produced from her back pocket, then turned an unhappy eye to the mess that had been made of her creation.

"Can I leave him here for a few days, so we can sort this whole mess out?" she asked Faith, gesturing at Porcius, then Percy.

"Take all the time you need. I doubt many of the legionnaires will be salivating at the thought of fighting Porcius again, anyway."

"Good. So you'll be off to tell Rey how everything went down here?"

"Yes. Take Percy to your room, and try not to let anyone pay too much attention to him."

The daughter of Mars broke off for New Rome, while Lea pushed Percy towards the northern side of the barracks. "Rey was kind enough to lend Calypso and I one of the older barracks for our own use while we're here," she explained, keeping an eye on any demigods they passed by.

The mention of the Titaness caught Percy off-guard. "You mean, she's here in camp too?"

"Not right now, no. She got a job in San Francisco; some teaching gig, if you can believe that," the daughter of the forge answered, leading Percy to a smaller lodging house nestled away from the rest of the barracks. "She will be back sometime after dark, though, if you're interested in seeing her again."

"That's okay. Things were kinda... awkward between us, after I forgot about leaving her on Ogygia once the war with Kronos was over."

Lea sniffed, opening the door and showing him inside. The space was comfy, at least, even though a lot of it was crammed with designs and models made from various materials. "We already had that conversation, Percy. No need to reopen old wounds that have already faded away."

So Percie had also forgotten. It was a little comforting, in a way, to know that he hadn't been the only one to abandon the woman who'd helped save his life. "So, are you two still...," he asked, trying to take the conversation somewhere else.

The daughter of Hephaestus arched an eye at him. "We're living together, Aquaman. You do the math."

"Just curious. Calypso never mentioned any women washing up on her shore, so I guess I just didn't think about it."

Lea chuckled. "Yeah, I didn't either. If you'd told me I was going to be dating a three thousand year-old Titan two years ago, I would have asked what drugs you were taking, and where could I find some for myself. But... there's just something about her that has me enchanted."

The smaller demigod got a wistful look in her eye, and Percy's heart warmed a little, learning that Leo was finally feeling the same way after being forced into the third-wheel position for so long. Or seventh-wheel, if you wanted to be technical.

"So; the others shared what they could with me, but mind if I ask you? I mean, yours is the most enticing tale out there," she prodded, propping herself up on a worktable.

Percy filled her in. Lea nodded most of the way through, but cocked her head when he mentioned that Lamia was the one responsible for cursing all demigods to be hunted by monsters naturally attracted to their scent. "We never get one of the simple ones, do we?" she moaned, before shutting up to keep listening.

She didn't interrupt again, and Percy finished with the oath he'd asked everyone in the Senate building to swear to. Lea face-palmed as he finished. "How was that supposed to help anything, Percy?"

"I just wanted to-" he tried to explain.

"No! I know what you wanted! I don't blame you for wanting it, either. It's just... this is just so typical of you!" she fumed.

"Typical?"

The daughter of Hephaestus narrowed her eyes at him. "Remember what I, or I guess what Leo, said to you after telling everyone what happened on Ogygia when I was sent there? Both of us were holding serious grudges against you for forgetting about Calypso like that; if he's anything like me, he was looking forward to nursing that grudge for at least a few good years," she admitted. "But then you went and knocked the wind right out of my sails. Or Percie did, but whatever. You know what I mean. Anyway, you figured out what was going on and apologized for it, before I had any time to properly nurse my grudge."

Lea took her cap off, and bundles of brown hair fell around her face. "You wanna know something? I was actually kind of excited to have that dirt on you. All I'd heard ever since coming to camp was how great Jackson was; what a great person she was to friend and foe alike, and how capable of a warrior she had proven herself. It was kind of grating, to be honest. Then lo and behold, a lovely little hand grenade fell in my lap. Suddenly you weren't the paragon of virtue any more; you had a dark secret I could keep to myself, so no matter what praise I was forced to hear, I could always console myself with the knowledge that you were really no better than me."

Percy didn't interrupt. Despite how grave the topic seemed to be, he could tell Lea was working up to something greater. Keeping his mouth shut was the best choice here.

"But then you went and ruined it! You recognized that mistake, and apologized for it without me having to do anything," Lea continued, slapping dust off her goggles. "Just when I was ready to treat you like some regular person with flaws, you go and face up to them! It was in that moment I had to reconcile something; you really were the stand-up gal, or guy, that everyone had been making you out to be. And it was hard for me to accept that."

The daughter of Hephaestus paused, looking like she didn't know where to take her thoughts from there.

"So... what are you trying to say, Lea?" he asked her, finally breaking his silence.

"I wanted to say... I'm sorry. For trying to make you out to be something you're not."

Percy knew Leo had felt something very similar to this about him. The son of the forge had indeed told him on the Argo some of this before. But this was different. This was... more.

"You really shouldn't have taken those stories at face value; I really am just a normal guy," he said, trying to wave the praise off.

Lea snorted at that. "Yeah, and I'm a voluptuous daughter of Eros. How many people could do what you've done, Percy? You fought the Minotaur, Medusa, and Ares himself at the age of twelve. Traveled through the Sea of Monsters and Tartarus, coming out alive of both. Held up the sky. Traversed the Labyrinth. Fought the Titan lord of time in the flesh. Got your memories wiped by the Queen of the gods, catapulted to a hostile camp, and rose to leadership within it like nothing. Helped defeat Gaea in her bid to take over the world, and pissed off some ancient sorceress whose magic ended up teleporting you to another version of the world entirely. Most people would have spread that out over more than five years."

He had to admit it: she had a point.

"Yes, I know, but a lot of the Greek heroes did plenty of insane stuff too, all in a space of a few years. And most of them died either horrific or ironic deaths, at the end of tragic lives," he pointed out himself.

Lea frowned. "So?"

"Don't you think that's cause enough for concern?"

"If you were one of them, sure. But you're not Heracles, or Icarus, or Bellerophon. You're you, you idiot," she said, poking him in the chest. "If anyone could take this messed up situation and come out alive, it would be you and our Percie. Yes, making some of us swear not to protect you was dumb, but take it from me: Dumb can sometimes be really smart, if you think outside the box."

She said that last bit with such a goofy smile on her face, Percy couldn't help but laugh. "You don't mind if I steal that one, do you? Annabeth would get a kick out of it."

"Go ahead, but you better at least credit me in the prologue when you write it into that autobiography I know you're gonna end up doing," she teased back.

"Me? Write a book? I'd sooner see pigs fly."

"But you already have see-"

"I know," he stopped her, laughing again. "Don't remind me. A giant pink sow flying through New York is a sight I will never forget as long as I live."

A pounding at the door startled both demigods out of their reverie. Lea opened it to find some wild-eyed centurion with crispy blonde locks dangling around her face, panting. "Lea, there's something going on at the Forum you need to come handle."

"Me?" the daughter of Hephaestus asked, confused. "Why me? I'm kinda busy with something. Surely Rey would be a much better-"

"Rey's already there. He's actually a part of the thing that's happening that you need to come and put a stop to."

Now Percy was at the door as well. "What's going on?" the son of Poseidon asked, a bad feeling forming in his stomach.

The centurion couldn't hold back the anxiety in her eyes. "It's Rey and Alister. I think... I think Alister is trying to kill him."

Chapter Text

Today had been a day of learning for Percie. Quite a few realizations had seen fit to smack the wayward child of Poseidon right in her gut ever since the image of the boys being abducted jolted her from her slumber and set her off on this rescue mission to Philadelphia.

For example, she'd learned that sunscreen was a vital tool for everyone to make use of, regardless of their plans for the evening. Or that charming, beautiful immortals could really be layered people, with dreams and aspirations outside their pre-determined jobs. But the biggest thing Percie was going to be taking away from today? Judo pegasi could be really, really scary.

"How do you like that?!" Blackjack snorted, popping up into the air and delivering a full-power kick to the head of the nymph who'd been unlucky enough to not get out of the way in time. The winged horse landed with grace, careening over on his heels and slamming a hoof down over the torso of another nature spirit who'd been trying to saddle him.

"I can do this all day, ladies," he bellowed, spraying sprinkles all over the river bank. Some of them landed in the hair of one of the younger nymphs, who screamed like she'd been stabbed with a hot iron.

"Oh gods, it's starting to shed!" she shrieked, diving into the river in terror. Several of her sisters followed her, now thoroughly spooked by the martial artist masquerading as a pegasus. Such an action meant they abandoned the last three of their forces: the two Blackjack had knocked out with his hooves of fury, and the only one smart enough to keep herself out of the danger zone.

The nymph swallowed as the pegasus reared at her, his legs pawing at the air. "Bring it on, you sexually-repressed newt!" he taunted, tossing his mane all over the place, a wild look in his eyes. "Come and get a taste of what ol' Blackjack is cooking!"

Percie and Annabeth were watching the shameful display from the middle of the Delaware River. The two demigods had traveled up the course of the waterway until they spotted this little confrontation happening on the shore. Blackjack had gotten Nico and Will to the camp, at least. The tent was still set up, nestled closer to the forest, and both demigods were laying in the shade provided by the trees.

Percie had asked him to keep them safe. As weird as it was, he seemed to be doing just that.

The lone nymph, looking like she'd rather be anywhere other than facing a pegasus trained in the art of Japanese close combat, fell to her knees, putting both hands in front of her in a move that clearly said 'please don't smoosh me into the sand with your majestic body, o brave and powerful warrior'.

"Please! We just wanted to make sure they were all right," she begged. "Do you have any idea how few cute guys show up in this part of the wilderness? It's all just elderly tour groups and married middle-aged plumbers. It's not like we were gonna do anything."

"Hah! A likely story!" Blackjack thundered. "I know your tricks, she-devil. Lure them into a false sense of security with your feminine wiles, and then wham! They get made into unwitting concubines, or menial laborers."

"Uh...," the nymph trailed off, looking perturbed. "I think you might be mixing up nymphs with Amazons."

Annabeth titled her head to whisper in Percie's ear. "Do you think we should step in?" The child of wisdom couldn't understand the pegasus's half of the conversation, but she seemed to get most of it based on the tone of voice the winged horse was using.

"No, I think Blackjack has this handled," she responded. Was it the most effective way? No. Was it the most entertaining? In more ways than anyone could possibly imagine. There was no way Percie was going to barge in and ruin Blackjack's big moment to feel like a hero.

The nymph flailed her arms at her now drooling sisters. "Can I at least just take them and go? I promise I won't let any of them come back!"

"Only if you swear on the Styx," he answered her, nodding his head sagely. "Only then could I be persuaded."

Was he trying to imitate Chiron, with the whole 'noble warrior' persona he'd taken on? And since when did Blackjack know what a concubine was? Percie made a mental note to have a chat about the pegasus's Internet access if she ever had the chance to meet her counterpart face-to-face.

"Fine!" the nature spirit wisped. "I swear on the Styx to take my sisters, and leave all of you alone. We won't come back."

The deal now struck, Blackjack motioned them away with his front leg, holding his head high. The nymph fretted silently to herself as she scooped up her two injured fellows, one of whom was starting to stir, saying something about "rogue children of the hunt."

Percie and Annabeth made sure to let her abscond with her sisters, before they finally swam up to the bank, Percie using some of her heritage to keep their clothes dry. "Remind me to never challenge you to a judo match," she called out to the pegasus, who actually postured in a stereotypical 'royal' manner upon seeing the two demigods.

"Oh, you're good there, boss! I make it a rule to never use my powers too often. I'd be much too dangerous," he bragged, trotting up to her. "Speaking of powers, did you and Annabeth take your time to stop by Frangelli's and try some of their newest specials? One of the ads was promoting a 'horsepower' donut, something that sounded ridiculous to me. Who wants to drive a donut? You'd get sugar all over the place."

"Yeah... what an odd thing," Percie stated, trying to think of a good comeback that didn't involve cursing the name of Hera or Aphrodite. Only one of those two would have been insane enough to let Blackjack see something called a horsepower donut. Her wit failed her, and she just nodded. "Totally. Horrid idea."

"That's what I told the boy behind the counter. He didn't even acknowledge me! Just went right on to the next customer like it wasn't even a big deal!"

Percie needed to stop him, before he regaled her with every little thing that had gotten in his craw while he was exploring the city. "The boys; how are they?" she asked.

Blackjack faltered. "Oh, yeah. Right. Okay, I know I'm not one to judge, but that smaller kid kinda freaks me out. Smells like glue. And didn't say a single word on our way over here. I kept having to look back to make sure he hadn't fallen off."

"Glue?" she mumbled. "Oh, you mean like death?"

"For pegasi, glue is the smell of death," he answered, the look on his face making it clear he was being completely serious.

Considering what kind of shape Nico had been in after they got him out of the orb, that news didn't surprise Percie. While she had been talking to Blackjack, Annabeth had climbed up to the camp to check on the two demigods. Now looking over, she could tell the daughter of Athena didn't look very pleased with what she saw.

"Thanks for looking after them, Blackjack. Is there anywhere you can head off, but still be close by if we need your judo again?"

The winged horse saluted. "I'm sure I can find somewhere. Just give a yell if the monster-slayer needs to make a reappearance."

Oh great, now he thought he was Van Helsing. An image of Blackjack wielding a wooden stake and garlic cloves almost made Percie giggle, but then she imagined him wearing a goofy 19th century wig and frills with it, and that proved to be too much.

"Ju- ha, ha, just go.... oh, dear; PLEASE just head on," she tried to say, but her intermixed laughs must have made it a lot harder to understand.

Blackjack looked confused at his boss's apparent amusement at his new title, but didn't say anything. He clopped away, spooking a dryad who must have born witness to his fight with the nymphs earlier. The tree spirit literally jumped out of her trunk and dashed off into the woods, wailing about her fragileness.

"Maybe I should invest in a vacation for him," Percie muttered to herself, making her way up to the tent. On getting closer, she could see why Annabeth didn't look very happy. Will still hadn't regained consciousness, despite his better state, and Nico was curled up into him, shaking.

"We can't afford to risk any more ambrosia; it's too likely to kill them at this point," Annabeth guessed, crouching down in the shade of the tent. "I don't know what else we can do at this point for them, though."

It killed the daughter of Athena to admit that she didn't know something. Her brow scrunched up and her mouth formed into the shape of an upside-down U, making her look like she'd just caught someone urinating in her cookie dough. A very bizarre comparison, yes, but Percie shuddered as she thought about what happened after Bacchus ended up crashing the reunion party for the Seven last month. His Greek form was forbidden from making wine; his Roman, no such luck. It had taken more than an hour to get Lea off the ceiling fan, and even longer to pull the spear out of... on second thought, no one needed to think about that accident ever again.

Instead, Percie knelt down next to the two boys. She leaned over the son of Hades, who's eyes were wide open, staring at Will's face. "Neeks," she breathed out, keeping her voice as relaxed as she could. Nico jerked at the nickname, then slowly turned one eye to look up at Percie.

"He needs rest. Holding on to him like that could only aggravate his condition further," she pleaded, ignoring the anger boiling behind the boy's eyes. "I promise. He'll be okay."

Why? Why did she say that? It was the exact same thing she'd said to Nicola about her brother. And everyone by now knew how that had turned out. Hearing such a similar promise, from such a similar person, must have triggered something in Nico, too. In a flash he was on his feet, towering over Percie who was still squatting down.

"Say that again," he whispered, and Percie felt chills run down her spine. She was walking on eggshells right now.

"He. Will. Be. Okay," she reiterated, hitting every single syllable with precision. She couldn't afford to show weakness now. Even if it meant what came next had to happen.

What came next was Nico drawing his blade and swinging at the daughter of the sea, in a move so quick most people wouldn't have had time to even see it play out before it was over. But as many had come to learn too late, Percie Jackson was not most people.

The Stygian blade didn't even make it halfway into its strike before Nico was booted back, Percie thrusting her palm into his chest and rising into a defensive stance in one motion. Riptide sang in her pocket, but she didn't pull it. A small voice in her head told her that it wasn't the time to reveal that just yet.

Not to be deterred by a simple shove, Nico spun, pivoting to Percie's right side as his sword came low, aimed at her knees. She hopped backwards, letting the son of Hades overextend his reach by just a little too much. Percie swiped her foot out as she spun as well, towards Annabeth. The move tripped Nico over himself, and the demigod spilled onto the sand with an audible oomph.

"Percie!" Annabeth called out, fear in her voice. The child of wisdom went to draw her own sword, but Percie grabbed the hilt, keeping it in its scabbard.

"No." Percie didn't dare take her eyes off Nico even as she spoke to Annabeth. The son of Hades clearly had to put a lot of effort into just standing up, his sword-arm sagging as he span to face her again. "This is my fight. It's been a long time coming, if I'm being honest."

Annabeth wasn't to be deterred, either. "He'll kill you!" she protested.

"Oh, he's trying. But he's too spent. I wager he couldn't summon a carpal bone at this point, let alone a legion of zombies," Percie responded, her eyes indicating the challenge.

Nico snarled at her, taking his weapon in both hands. He plunged the blade into the sand, closing his eyes with a shaky breath. And waited. And waited. And waited some more. Finally, his eyes popped open again, anger and aggravation and indignation all swirling in his pupil.

"Just as I thought; he's still too weak," Percie said, stepping towards him. With his gaze focused on her face, he didn't notice her palm Riptide into her left hand, keeping the pen behind her back. "Nico. You're going to hurt yourself, doing this."

"Shut up!" he spat, levelling his blade at her. "What would you know about my hurt?"

"I know that it's been the one thing you could ever count on," she answered, taking another step. "I know it's the only thing you thought could ever be relied on to not abandon you. You clung to it, for that familiarity, because it was the one thing you thought defined you as who you are. Am I close?"

Nico stepped back, without seeming to realize it. "Don't come any closer to me," he hissed, sweat now pouring down his face. Gods, Percie's heart was breaking. Was this really how bad Nicola had been the last few years? All those hurt looks she thought Percie hadn't caught... why didn't she talk to her before it got this bad?

Never again.

"It's okay to feel scared and alone. It's okay to be protective of the few good things you have. And it's okay to want to lash out," she continued, brining Riptide to her side, but not uncapping it. Percie thought of her dad, and what he would do when he stopped messing around. That sense of command, of authority. That aura that said you would not be defied any longer. "But this is not the right time. You will hurt yourself, beyond repair. Put. The. Sword. DOWN."

The last word reverbed around the whole river. Trees shifted. Small ripples expanded into quakes in the water. The entire area seem to list as the order came out of her mouth. In that moment, Percie felt more like her father's child than she had last night, when he was calming her.

The quivering scenery around him distracted Nico. His eyes finally left Percie as he stared at his surroundings, mouth dropping to a surprised gasp. It was then she finally struck. With one fluid motion, Riptide slashed upwards, catching the cross-guard of Nico's blade. It continued on its forward thrust, launching the weapon skyward. Nico's head instinctively went up to follow his airborne sword, and Percie pressed the opening.

When he looked back down, it was to see Riptide pointed directly at his throat, hovering off the bare skin by less than an inch.

"I saved your life today, Neeks. And his," Percie said, gesturing to Will. "Please. Don't... don't do something that will take you away from him. He still needs you. I... still need you."

Percie didn't drop the authoritative tone, but she did put all of her sympathetic thoughts into her gaze. That gaze pierced right through the son of Hades, keeping him frozen in place. Percie angled Riptide so the point was no longer endangering Nico's throat, then closed the gap in between them. She didn't lower her blade until she'd made it right in front of him.

"I'm not leaving you alone again," was all she said. Riptide snicked back into a pen, and was returned to her pocket. She was completely defenseless once again.

Athena would have called her foolish. Ares would have called her soft. Artemis would have called her reckless. Hang them all, and their condemnations. What did they know of being discarded and used like some ratty handkerchief? Who cares if it got her killed? Percie would see herself skewered a thousand times over before she let anyone lay a single hand on the boy in front of her. That included herself.

Nico's mouth trembled, something she couldn't not see, being so close. The son of Hades opened his mouth to speak, but couldn't seem to find any words that would do the confrontation justice. So he did something that should have happened a long time ago.

He collapsed into her arms.

Percie let the momentum carry her down onto the sand, landing on her rear. Nico buried his head in her shirt, his entire body getting wracked by sobs. Percie thought Akhlys had set the gold standard for a breakdown. Not any more. The sounds that came out of the boy's mouth carried over the entire river bank. A few nature spirits watched from a distance, drawn in by their own curiosity. Percie didn't pay any attention to them. Her hands cradled the weeping demigod, her palms rotating in small circles on his back.

A shuffling sound on the sand behind her caught some of her focus, though. As Nico continued pressing into her, she heard Annabeth resume the crouched position she'd taken next to Will. The shifting of the sand next to her meant the son of Apollo must have finally been waking up.

"Is that-" she heard him say, trying to sit up.

"Shh. Careful. You still need to be easy about your movements," Annabeth pointed out. "But yes. It's him."

If Nico heard the conversation, he didn't acknowledge it. The sobs shifted into screams as he shook in Percie's arms, his hands grasping onto her shoulders so tightly, it was sure to leave a bruise. Did Percie pull away? No. She bundled the son of Hades even tighter in her arms, resting her head against his cheek. "It's okay. You can let it all out," she told him.

The screams rose to a fever pitch, and Percie heard Will start arguing behind her. "Annabeth, he needs me. Now."

"Yes, he needs you. But... I think he needs her right now, too. At least... he needs the person she represents."

"Represents?" the son of Apollo asked, baffled. "Just who is she, anyway?"

"We'll tell you all about it later. But for now, I think we should leave them be. You still need some looking after yourself."

"Are you telling me that you're asserting authority over me as my doctor?" the healer asked, his tone incredulous.

"Answer me honestly, Will: Are you well enough to stand up?"

The silence that followed was answer enough. "Then that's settled. I'll fill you in, with Nico. But not until you're both ready," Annabeth affirmed, her voice making it clear that was the end of it.

The son of Apollo fussed a little to himself, but he must have accepted it, since Percie didn't hear any more between the two of them. Good. That meant she could direct her full attention to Nico once more.

The son of Hades's screams didn't subside for some time. And even when they did, that wasn't the end of it. Screams became whimpers, which eventually gave way to loud silence. Silence to anyone who wasn't the daughter of Poseidon. She was still close enough to listen to the movement of his lips as they tried to make sound.

"Don't try to force it," she said in his ear. "If it stops, let it. You can't force sadness out of you, just like you can't force happiness in. Nothing good ever comes from trying to bottle your emotions, no matter how positive or negative they are."

Nico crumpled against her, his fists finally relaxing on her skin. His breaths were raggedy, but still regular. That was a hopeful sign. At least, that was what Willamina had been saying when they finally brought Nicola back after that basilisk fight.

"I'm not gonna break this," she murmured against him. "We'll stay here, like this, as long as you want to."

The son of the Underworld made the slightest of nods against her chest, still remaining silent. That was fine. Nothing more needed to be said. There, on that river bank, Percie finally felt like she could understand Nicola, and Nico. Could she blame herself for the tragedies that had plagued them? No.

But what she could blame herself for was how she treated them afterwards. Even though she had never pushed them away from her, that wasn't enough. She'd expected Nicola to approach her with any issue she might have crop up. What happened the last time she'd done that?

Right. Percie had grabbed her by the throat, and shoved her against a wall in the Underworld. Even after she realized who she was choking, she didn't let up. Sure, she'd just been deceived by Hades into thinking the demigod had betrayed her, but the girl was twelve. Twelve! What kind of person chokes a child and then just never apologizes for it afterwards?

"I'm sorry," she groaned between her regrets. "For not being there. When I should have been."

Nico finally spoke again, no edge in his voice at all: "You're here now."

Yes. She was. And she hoped, with all that was true within her, that that would be enough.

Chapter Text

The centurion, whose name Percy learned was Lucy, had to keep her speed down in order for him and Lea to follow her to the Forum. She hadn't had time to tell Percy who her godly parent was, but if her sure-footedness was any indication, Percy's money would have been squarely on Mercury. The son of Poseidon had to rack his brain for who she might be in his own world. His time at Camp Jupiter itself had been so brief, keeping track of every demigod was harder than he might have wished. The only choice that sprang to mind was Larry, the son of Mercury who'd called the trek to Alaska a suicidal mission for members of the Fifth Cohort.

Strangely enough, Percy was able to remember that Larry had only been a legionnaire the last time he'd been in New Rome. Guess he managed to nab a promotion. Good for him. And her, technically.

"What on earth do you mean, Alister is trying to kill Rey?" Lea gasped, having to sprint to keep up with Lucy's jogging. The daughter of Hephaestus was seriously struggling to not collapse onto the road leading from the barracks into New Rome. Percy was feeling something similar. While not at his full speed, he could still track every labored breath he sucked into his lungs as he tried to keep pace with Lucy.

The Roman demigod flinched as she kept going, her legs looking hampered beyond description to be moving so sluggish during a dire situation. "That's all I managed to see before Rey yelled for me to grab as many members of the Seven as I could. Peter should already be there, and I know Faith isn't going to take her time, either."

Percy's brow furrowed as he absorbed her words. For Rey to specifically ask for the members of the Seven... what in the name of Zeus was going on at the Forum? "Lea, we've got to move faster," he appealed. "We can't waste any time."

"You think I don't know that?" Lea wheezed, managing to make a pouty expression at Percy through her sharp intakes of air. "Some of us weren't blessed with long legs, Kelpface."

Kelpface? That was a new one. Lucy turned an annoyed eye back at the two bickering demigods, but didn't bother slowing down or speaking up. Both of them had to make do at the speed they were maintaining. The run to the Forum was only about ten minutes at that pace, but the hills of the camp were murder if you weren't used to running on inclines for long periods of time.

At last, they reached their destination. The Forum was just as majestic as Percy remembered it, if a lot more deserted than it usually was. The plaza still boasted its ornate collection of statues and fountains, but many of the shops and stalls that made up the outer ring of the courtyard were barren. Only a few seemed to be in operation, but still were missing their active operators. That fact probably had something to do with what was going on in the center of the square.

Percy saw Rey first. The praetor looked to be scowling at something across from him, which usually wasn't anything new for Reyna, so Percy had to wonder why two dozen demigods were circled around him, staring in shock.

The son of the sea saw why when Lucy shoved aside a couple of legionnaires so he and Lea could push to the front. The son of Bellona darted off to the side just as Alister swung his fist at Rey's face. The praetor sneered as he returned his own strike, but just as Rey had done, Alister pivoted, turning the punch into a clear miss that struck nothing but empty air.

A hand clawed at Percy's arm, and he tore his gaze away from the fight to see who was pulling at him. What he was met with was something he'd never thought he'd see. Peter stood at his side, but for the first time ever, the child of Aphrodite's beauty had been tarnished. His left eye was a swollen mess, and the hand that wasn't touching Percy was trying to cover as much of the injury as possible.

"Peter, what happened to you?" Lea gaped beside him.

"I tried to break them up," Peter growled, his wounded eye twitching. "Alister... packs quite a punch."

"He did this?" Percy butted in, stunned.

Peter only nodded grimly. He pulled his hand away so Lea could assess the damage, and Percy had to hold back a choke. The son of Aphrodite's left eye had swollen to the point where it was almost completely shut, and the skin around it was painfully purple.

Percy felt his soul shrink a little. "But how did this even start?"

"I don't know," Lucy remarked. "Both of them stormed in here, shouting their heads off at one another. Alister tried to leave, Rey blocked his path, and the next thing I know, the kid is throwing hooks and jabs like he's in a ring."

Well, it wasn't just punches anymore. Alister tried to grapple the Roman demigod, but Rey turned his tactic against him, grabbing Alister's elbow and twisting the arm around to his back. Percy shut his eyes, expecting to hear a popping sound as the arm broke, but no such thing occurred. Looking again, he witnessed the son of Athena bring his left leg up, kicking Rey's hand away from his arm.

A few more kicks followed, these aimed at the praetor's torso. Rey blocked the first two with the backs of his hands, but a third one knocked him off balance backwards. Rather than fall, though, the Roman went with the momentum, flipping backwards back onto his feet, just in time to duck under a roundhouse Alister launched at his neck. Keeping the movement going, Rey spun into his own roundhouse, and this one connected, slamming Alister right in the jaw.

The son of Athena actually flipped forward, landing flat on his back. Before Percy even had time to register the blow, Rey pounced, putting both of his knees to Alister's chest and pinning his arms to the ground.

"Had enough?" he grunted, taking a moment to compose himself.

Alister sneered at him from the ground, visibly struggling against the Roman planted on his chest. "Not nearly."

"What are you doing, Alister?" Percy called out, stepping into the center of the square. The son of Athena glanced at him from his pinned position, but Rey remained focused on keeping the Greek down.

"This doesn't concern you, Percy, " Alister insisted, thrashing under Rey's grip.

"Really? Then pray tell why you just attacked me?" the praetor shot back.

"Oh, don't come at me with that," the son of Athena snarled. "You've had it coming for a while."

"Alister...," Peter murmured, stepping up as well. He didn't bother covering up his eye, and Percy noticed Alister wince at seeing the son of Aphrodite's state. "What did Rey do that has you so worked up?"

"A better question would be what did he not do that has me worked up," Alister returned.

Rey rolled his eyes, not loosening his grip. "Then use your words, Alister. Not your fists. Isn't that something your mother would say?"

Oof. That was not going to be helpful. Percy backed up towards the edge of the circle at the mention of Athena. Alister's eyes narrowed until they had been reduced to little slits, that stared up at Rey with a fervor that must have startled the praetor, because his hold weakened.

That weakness must have been enough, because Alister snapped his fists away from the ground, knocking Rey from his advantageous position on his knees. The son of Bellona titled forward, just as the son of Athena launched a wicked headbutt. The entire crowd of demigods cringed as a loud smack erupted from the collision, knocking the praetor back a solid five feet.

Anyone else probably would have at least been knocked senseless by the strike, but Rey somehow staggered to his feet, holding his head. He took a second to shake a few cobwebs out of his head, then refocused, his scowl morphing into a full-on rage.

But Percy couldn't worry about the praetor right now. Alister was back on his feet as well, but the son of wisdom wasn't looking at his opponent. His gaze was locked on the ground, the heaving of his shoulders giving away just how knackered he was. Percy was about to step forward to check on him, but Peter's hand stopped him.

"Don't," the son of Aphrodite whispered. "He's... not himself right now."

The son of Poseidon was about to ask what he meant, but then the wind picked up. A howling squall ringed in Percy's ears as a gray aura condensed around Alister. The demigod didn't even seem to notice, taking a few more moments to himself before he finally looked up again. The sight was... terrifying. No other word described it.

Alister's grey eyes had taken on their own luminescence. The wind whipped his hair into a frenzy, and even as he glowered at the son of Bellona, a sickly grin spread across his face.

"Is that-," Lea mumbled, her voice numbed by the shock of what she was seeing.

"It has to be," Lucy answered, backing away. All of the other Romans did as well as the force around Alister reached a new pitch. The marble statues of the Forum seemed to quiver in their spots as the phenomenon caught them in its wake, tossing bits of fragmented stone to all corners of the square.

"The blessing of Athena," Percy intoned, his body frozen to the spot in fright. He'd never seen it... like this. Athena was supposed to be the goddess of wisdom, and strategy. She was many things... but this force, this rage... it seemed too wild to be her. Too... undignified.

"You want me... to use my words, Rey?" Alister hissed, his voice carrying through the plaza like he was speaking through a megaphone. "Well, I wouldn't want to disappoint the praetor of New Rome, would I?"

One of the fountains crumbled at his words, water leaking over Percy's shoes. He was so stunned at the display before him, the son of Poseidon barely registered the wetness on his feet. The Romans did, though. All of them, Lucy included, stumbled over each other as they ran from the Forum, making it the second time that day the cohorts had fled from a confrontation. But this was no malfunctioning mech. This was a veteran demigod pushed to his limit.

Rey bit his cheek as Alister glared at him expectantly, eyes glowing. "If it will let me know what I did, or didn't do, that has you so pissed off, then yes."

"How... quaint," Alister murmured, blowing the roof off one of the abandoned stalls in the Forum. "Then let's start off with the most pressing issue: your failure as a leader."

"My what?" the son of Bellona started, taken off guard by the announcement. "How dare you-"

"Dare?!" Alister shrieked, his eyes burning so hotly they seemed to be brewing their own thunderstorm. "Do not speak to me of dares, Roman. Not after the stunt you pulled in the Senate building just this morning."

The power of his words actually lifted Rey off the ground, slamming the praetor into one of the columns that composed the front of a store called the Drowsy Aqueduct. "He's... actually using his words to cause physical pain," Peter stammered, next to Percy. He, the son of Aphrodite, and Lea were the only demigods still in the Forum after Alister's display started tearing apart the plaza.

"What... are you talking about, Alister?" Rey protested, rising to his feet with considerable effort. "What happened in the Senate that's provoked... this?"

"You! You didn't even try to object!" Alister accused, flinging the praetor into one of the still-standing fountains. "When Percy asked us to swear on the Styx! He looked to you first. Because he knew that if you agreed, the others would fall in line, like good little servus."

The Latin word for slave was enough to turn Alister's anger on the others in the square as well. Percy found himself lifted into the air and slammed into the ground, while Peter was sent flying into Lea, sending both of them sprawling. Percy pushed himself up to his knees, his arms quaking. This... was what Alister had been so furious about. Rey's acceptance of the bargain he'd forced the demigods in the Senate building to hold to.

"You could have refused him! You could have shut down that stupid idea before it gained any sort of leverage, but you didn't!" Alister reiterated.

The son of Bellona winced as he climbed out of the fountain, soaked to the skin. "I was only thinking of him," he tried to say.

"Of course you were! That's all you do, isn't it? Think of Percy, and Percie," the son of Athena drawled, his voice seeming to shift in the wind. His distinguished tenor was beginning to modify itself, into something closer to his mother's elegant mezzo. In fact, it was like Athena herself was speaking alongside her son. "After all, you'd only known her for what? A few weeks? And you were already chasing after her, weren't you?"

Yikes, this was getting uncomfortable. Yes, Reyna had made a move on Percy. But she had no idea about Annabeth; heck, with his memories all jumbled up, he barely had any idea about his girlfriend. He knew she was out there, and she was important to him, but exactly who she was escaped him for most of his time at Camp Jupiter.

Oh, gods. Annabeth must have picked up on it herself, since he'd never told her about Reyna's advances. And she still trusted her enough to let her bring the Parthenos back to Camp Half-Blood?

Percy's mind must have been on the same wavelength as Rey's. "Alister, I didn't know she was already spoken for!" the praetor objected, assuming a neutral position with his hands at his sides. "The moment I learned about you, I backed off! I respected the relationship. And I never tried to hide what I'd done while she was here. You must have known that, or you wouldn't have asked me to be the one to return the Athenian Parthenos."

Alister jeered at the rebuttal. "That's your excuse? Then tell me, oh capable leader, exactly what your plan was in Charleston."

Suddenly, Rey's face fell. "That... was a situation out of my control."

"Out of your control? You're the praetor!" the son of Athena bellowed, his voice forcing everyone in the Forum to their knees. "You could have stood up to Octavia at any point! That miserable little whelp would have cowered at your word. But no. You indulged her pathetic whining, to the point where you even tried to kill me yourself, knowing full well we had nothing to do with the attack on New Rome."

"I was only doing what the legion fel-"

"You were doing what was best for you and your pride, you hypocrite! You would have slaughtered every single one of my friends at Camp Half-Blood, without batting an eye! You had every opportunity to stop that madness! But that was something you refused to do. Instead, we had to send the Oracle himself to you. What if we hadn't done that? Answer me!" Alister's voice reached a decibel level that could have shattered the windows of the Ares cabin as he demanded a response.

Rey wet his lips, looking nervous for the first time. His gaze darted around, and Percy's stomach dropped as he realized that the son of Bellona didn't have an answer that would justify his actions.

Alister did, as well. "You can't, huh? I'm not surprised. For all the bravado and chest-pounding you Romans preach, your actual willingness to commit to the difficult choices leaves so much to be desired," he spat, knocking Rey onto his back. "How do you think my mother would respond to such arrogance, since you brought her up?"

Percy rose to his feet, the wind still battering at him. "Alister... whatever you're about to do, don't," he called out, trying to push his voice out over the wind. It hurt beyond description, seeing someone he cared about reduced to this.

Alister half-turned his head towards Percy, one flashing eye locking onto him. Percy felt that stare force itself into his mind, probing through his head until it found the memory from that morning, where Percy had blackmailed the demigods into swearing not to sacrifice anyone for him. Like a sledgehammer, every emotion Alister had felt in that moment clobbered the son of Poseidon, forcing him into the fetal position. The betrayal, the anger, the guilt, the indignation, the desperation... the love. It was all too much. Gods, was this what Rey had been subjected to while Alister was tossing him around? No wonder he could barely defend himself.

"Satisfied, Percy?" Alister remarked, the voices in Percy's head cooling off. "Unless you want me to make you relive Tartarus, I suggest you pipe down while I deal with the praetor."

Did... he just...-

"Alister! This isn't you!" Lea screamed, trying to catch her footing but failing. "We're friends! Can't you see how badly you're hurting everyone?"

For a second, Alister's face flickered back to something normal: his eyes ceased burning, and his expression softened, but it only lasted a brief moment. "Yes, and it pains me to do it, but it must be done! This hurt... this agony that I've been keeping within me... no more. I will show you all exactly what it's like to be Alister Chase."

Percy tried to stand again, but the wind pushed him into the ground. Peter and Lea suffered similar fates as Alister turned back to Rey. The praetor shivered as the gaze fell on him again, but despite the circumstances, remained on his feet. "Enough, Alister. Your conflict is with me. Leave them out of it."

"As you wish, Rey," he responded, stepping towards the son of Bellona. Rey shut his eyes as the wind smashed into him, knocking the Roman right through one of the marble columns of the Forum. The entire section of the building gave way, trapping Rey underneath the rubble.

"Alister," Percy pleaded, to no avail. Either the wind was so strong, he couldn't hear the son of Poseidon, or he was deliberately ignoring him. The son of Athena stalked towards the fallen praetor, now pinned under the column he'd been pushed through.

"Rey!"

Faith's voice rang out as the daughter of Mars descended into the square, landing in between him and Alister. Hayden dropped in by her side a moment later, and Percy realized she must have taken the form of some winged animal to fly through the winds into the Forum.

The son of Pluto didn't seem put-off by the scene before him, marching towards Alister. "What is the meaning of-" Hayden tried to say, only for the son of Athena to swipe him aside like he was throwing out a tissue. Hayden smacked his head against the base of one of the fountains, going limp.

"Hayden!" Faith yelled, wheeling around from her fellow praetor. "What are you doing, Ali-"

That was as far as she got before the daughter of Mars was also thrown aside, going headfirst into a fruit stall across the opposite way of the plaza. This... couldn't be happening.

Rey glared at Alister from his pinned position. "Enough! I'm the one who deserves any anger you want to take out; not them!"

"Why, is that a selfless act coming from you, Rey? My goodness, the world really is falling apart," Alister cracked, towering over the son of Bellona. No. It wasn't Alister any more. This... had to be something else. His voice wasn't even remotely human-sounding anymore. It was like someone had recorded Athena over a hellish choir, then put all the emphasis on the bass of her voice.

The praetor closed his eyes, turning his head away from his attacker. "Do what you have to. Just... don't hurt anyone else."

"My pleasure."

The wind snarled into a column, circling Alister's hand. Power crackled as the demigod judged his new weapon, then lifted it above Rey's head. Percy screamed. Or tried to. So did everyone else who was still conscious. The strike reached its pause, then fell.

But it didn't reach its target.

Out of nowhere, a new person emerged in front of Rey, protecting him from the attack. Alister had to freeze mid-blow, to avoid obliterating the small girl now standing in front of him. A girl clad entirely in black, with a skull ring on her finger. Her hair was tangled, but pulled back, and she affixed the son of Athena with a look of indifference.

"Alister," she remarked, her tone casual.

"Nicola."

The daughter of Hades sniffed. "Care to explain this to me?"

"I... don't owe you anything, Nicola. Now get out of the way!" Alister ordered.

"Sorry, but I can't do that. It looked to me like you were about to kill Rey, and that's something I can't allow."

The blessing of Athena wilted, but still maintained itself. If you could even call it a blessing. "Then... I'll have to kill you too, Nicola," the son of Athena quipped, but he wavered. The demonic voice seemed to have a shock run through it, and the wind in his hand dissipated.

"Go ahead. But that's the only way you're getting to him. Because I'm not moving."

"Nicola," Rey whimpered, trying to push the column off himself. "Get out of here. It's too dangerous."

The young demigod shook her head. "No. I'm not abandoning you, just as you didn't abandon me. If he really wants you, he'll have to go through me first. Assuming that's something he thinks he can do, of course."

"Are you... questioning my resolve?" Alister rumbled.

Nicola turned back to him, and actually smirked. "Not just me. So are you. Why else would you still be standing there, and not tossing me away like you did everyone else?"

"Because... because I-"

"I'll tell you why. Because you're stronger than her, Alister. You're stronger than Minerva."

Minerva. The name sounded like venom. Of course this wasn't Athena. Athena was grace, and brilliance. Proud, but smart. Careful, yet brutal. But her Roman counterpart was a far different goddess: Spiteful, forgotten, and insane. Percy felt like kicking himself. They were in freaking Camp Jupiter; of course Athena would have reverted to Minerva if she came here!

"I... will not be lectured by some spawn of Pluto, girl," the being inside Alister tried to sneer.

Nicola only glared in response. "Too bad. You might be a goddess here, but you're nothing compared to what you could be. I also know Athena lurks somewhere within you, as well. Tell me, my Lady: do you wish to see your son used by this pretender? A woman scorned by history, who now takes revenge at the expense of her children?"

Alister's body staggered back, multiple voices now ringing out. "I am not your plaything- no, stop denying me, boy! - Leave my son this instant, before I force you out!"

The winds stopped entirely, and Alister clutched at his head, stumbling away from Nicola. Percy felt the weight pressing on his back lift, and he launched to his feet. Nicola threw a curious glance his way before putting her hand up, indicating him not to approach just yet.

"Athena! Alister! The grievances you hold towards Rome are settled. Minerva has no place in this world anymore," she said, angling her body to keep Rey behind her.

"Me? No place? What sort of- Silence, you pretender! You dare try to enforce your will on me and my own?!- What... what did you make me do?"

It was disturbing beyond imagination, watching Alister's voice speak in three different tones. The son of Athena crumpled onto his knees, his fists curling in his hair. Percy sensed Peter and Lea hanging back, no doubt just as horrified by the exorcism Nicola was attempting as he was. Hayden still lay unmoving by the fountain, but Faith pulled herself over the counter of the fruit stall, her eyes exposing just how freaked out she was.

Nicola sighed, and for a brief moment, Percy could swear he felt the presence of Hades himself. "Minerva. You are not welcome here, or anywhere else. The world has no need for you. I will only tell you this once: Leave Alister, or be obliterated where you stand."

"Who are you to threaten me, you pompous rat of the Underworld!" Minerva screeched, not looking up. "I have done far worse to those who irked me for less!"

Alister's body wretched backwards, and Athena's voice erupted out. "But I am no mere demigod! You think you can control my child? I will see you annihilated beyond the point of recognition, you blasphemous tyrant!"

Alister jerked forwards, onto his hands and knees. He spoke again, but this time it was his own voice. "Mother...," he whispered. "Please... help."

And help she did. The space over his head blasted into a blinding light, revealing the form of two women: One rattled and stark, the other poised and shaking with fury. Percy saw it all: Athena grab Minerva by the throat, and hoist her into the air. The Roman goddess squirmed and clawed, but the Greek half only tightened her grip.

"You... you would not... you lack the resolve to end me," Minerva chaffed, dangling off the ground. "I am you... you would never see me gone, for fear of destroying yourself."

"He. Is. My. Son," Athena proclaimed, taking Minerva's throat in both of her hands. "And you... are not me."

"Don't look!" Nicola screamed.

Percy turned away, as the goddess revealed her true form. Even with his eyes shut, and his head facing the other way, Percy could feel the power unleash. A single scream of frustration pierced the air, tearing at the son of Poseidon. That scream contained the very essence of the Roman goddess. It was a scream of exasperation, of denial, of rejection. And one of pure, unadulterated fear, as immortality was revoked, and the goddess of wisdom obliterated her other half.

The light faded. The Forum became very quiet. Percy opened his eyes and turned around. Where once there was ruin and destruction, there was now no sign of what had just occurred. The broken columns stood again; the fountains had been repaired, and the statues had resumed their normal positions. Looking around, Percy's jaw dropped. Peter's black eye was healed, his natural beauty restored. Rey was back on his feet, looking at his body in startled pleasure. Faith stepped away from a repaired fruit stall, no sign of injury. Hayden raised himself up onto his knees, holding his head in confusion. Nicola breathed a quiet sigh of relief, nodding at Percy.

Everyone was all right. Everyone seemed back to normal... except for him.

Alister hadn't budged from his kneeling position, his face almost touching the ground. There was no movement, aside from the slightest lifting of his back as he breathed. Percy was at his side in a moment.

"Alister."

It was one word. One word that conveyed everything. The concern... the healing... the love. Alister slowly, very slowly, tilted his head so he could look Percy in the eye. The look on his face said it all.

"Percy..." he mumbled, his eyes losing focus.

"Shh. I'm here. You can let go."

With that, the son of Athena... only Athena... passed out, in the waiting arms of the son of Poseidon.

Chapter Text

The sun was slowly sinking over the horizon when Nico lifted his head off Percie's chest, removing his hands from her shoulders. The daughter of the sea did so likewise, sliding her arms from around his back, along his hips, and returning them to her side. She made sure to pat the top of his hand with her own as she did, flashing him a sympathetic look. "Ready?" she asked.

The son of Hades swallowed, then nodded. "Yeah."

Percie stood first, catching glimpses of the eavesdropping nature spirits as they backed into the shadows of the woods. Knowing how gossipy they could be, it wouldn't surprise Percie if word reached Argentina about what had just happened before the day was out.

She offered Nico her hand for the second time that day, but this time, he took it without hesitation. After hoisting the demigod onto his feet, they walked back to the campsite, Percie being sure to keep herself between the river and Nico, just in case any of those nymphs from earlier wanted to try their hands at socializing again. Luckily for all involved, none of them seemed ready to risk the wrath of Blackjack the judo-master a second time.

Annabeth greeted both of them well enough, but Will's face made it clear the son of Apollo wasn't very happy with what had been going on since he regained consciousness. Nico gave Percie's hand a squeeze before he released it, returning to his boyfriend's side. Nico's presence seemed to reassure the healer, but it didn't quell the suspicion behind his eyes.

"You doing all right?" he asked the younger demigod, taking Nico's hand in his own.

"I'm fine, Will."

"Are you sure? Do I need to take a look, or-"

Nico leaned into Will's side. "I'm fine," he repeated, interlocking fingers with the son of Apollo. "Just... tired. And sore."

"No time for rest right now, guys," Percie commented, leaning against the nearest tree. "I'm by no means as brilliant as Wise Girl over here, but even I know you two must be awfully confused about who I am."

Will didn't argue that point, but Nico did throw a fleeting glance back at Percie. "What if I wasn't?"

"Then I'll commend you for your ability to remain passive," she fired back, letting a half-smile play across her lips. "But I promise you, the answer is a doozy."

"Doozier than getting abducted and tortured by a goddess?" Will asked.

Annabeth chewed on that for a moment. "Normally, I would say no, but given just how weird the last few days have been, I'm tempted to disagree with that contention."

"Oh, then by all means. Let's hear it."

Percie shrugged at Will's defiance, extending a hand out to the river. Like a dog responding to its owner's call, the water came to her, just enough for her to form into a yo-yo. "Fine with me, but I hope you don't mind if I practice with this? I have a bet going on with a very stubborn son of Tyche; he is of the opinion that I can't reliably use a yo-yo as a weapon against a Cyclops, and there's no way I'm letting Chandler get one over on me."

Nico only raised an eyebrow at the display, while Will looked visibly more shocked. "Is she...?" he asked Annabeth.

"Yes, but that's not the disturbing part of the story. Not by a long shot," the daughter of Athena answered before he could get any further.

"More?" Will's eyes boggled. "How could it get more stunning than that?"

"We still don't know her name, Will," Nico pointed out, sitting cross-legged on the sand. Now that the son of Hades was truly calm, Percie used some of the water she collected to fetch his Stygian blade from where it had landed on the sand. She placed it in front of him, and the demigod nodded at her as he returned his weapon to its scabbard.

"You say that like you might have an idea, Nico," Percie observed, snapping her water yo-yo down and bringing it back up again. "If you're really right, then my commendations for you are even higher than I stated them to be."

Will turned a curious look to his boyfriend. "Do you know?"

The son of Hades chewed on his lip for a moment before shaking his head. "I can't really say. I get the sense I know her, but I can't place it anywhere. Oddly enough, though, I don't think we have anything to fear from her."

"Well, I would hope not!" Will said in a sardonic manner. "Or you wouldn't have been so buddy-buddy with her for so long."

Nico smirked. "Now who's the jealous one?"

"Nico di Angelo, so help me-"

"The name is Percie," she answered nonchalantly.

Will's grievance against Nico went unspoken as Percie told them her name. The son of Apollo managed to take on an even more defamed expression, while Nico only jutted one eyebrow in response.

"Percie Jackson, if you're curious about the full thing," she added, spinning her yo-yo around her thumb. Annabeth rolled her eyes at the showboating, but Percie could tell the daughter of Athena was amused by her antics, at least. She could only hope Percy was keeping Alister in light spirits as they worked on their side.

Will's gaped mouth made him look like a fish out of water, so Nico had to make the first statement after that bombshell. "Are you... Percy?" he asked, his tone indicating that while he seemed willing to believe it, he didn't really want to.

"Yes, but not in the way that you're thinking," Annabeth told him.

"Thank Olympus for that," Nico exclaimed. "Imagine how embarrassing that would be, having to be comforted by your first crush after he somehow switched into a woman."

"You're a lot closer to the truth than you think, Neeks," the daughter of the sea remarked, making her water toy do a cat's cradle. "Technically, I was your first crush. Just... not in the traditional sense."

The son of Hades actually smiled at that. "Oh, really? Today is just full of surprises."

"Will someone please let me in on what's going on?!" Will begged, looking for some hint amongst the other three. "Why am I the only one who's out of the loop?"

Percie giggled, taking a seat at the camp. "I might be Percie Jackson, Will, but I am not your Percy Jackson, if that makes any sense."

"It doesn't!"

"Oh, for gods' sake," Annabeth sighed, sitting fully stretched out. "Please just tell him straight. Stop messing with him."

"But he's so cute when he's lost!" Nico protested, earning a gentle jab in the ribs from his boyfriend. Percie's smile grew wider watching the two of them, but fine. Playtime had to end. She returned her aquatic yo-yo to the river, sitting up straight.

"I'm not from this world, Will. There was a bit of a slip-up involving some super powerful spell, and now your Percy and me have changed places, as it were," she explained.

From there, everything else was simple. Both boys listened as Percie explained their dilemma, Nico leaning closer and closer in the deeper into the story they got. When she finished, the son of Hades looked like he wanted to say something.

"And... this Nicola is me?" he asked.

"Yes."

Nico's face blanked as he absorbed that information, then nodded. Will shifted in his place, being careful to not strain himself too far.

"So, Percy got attacked, interfered with the spell somehow, and now we've got female Percy running around?" the son of Apollo repeated, still looking shaken.

"A female Percy who just told you about your own female counterpart, yes," Annabeth returned, cocking her head. "As well as a male version of myself, a female Nico, and everyone else. Even Rachel ended up getting the gender-swap treatment."

"This makes my head hurt," the healer complained. "And no, it's not from being maimed by Circe. If a world like that exists somewhere out there, then how many others might be creeping around, too?"

"Too many to bother worrying about," Nico cut in. "All we need to focus on is getting Percy back. No offense, by the way," he directed at the daughter of Poseidon.

"None taken. By all means, I have nothing against you guys, but if I have to learn any more names for people I technically already know, I'm going to start forgetting how to do simple addition," she joked back.

Nico smiled again, then turned back to Annabeth. "And let me guess: you're thinking that Circe had some role to play in this, either in the creation of the spell, or cleaning up the after-effects of it."

"Yes," Annabeth conceded, acknowledging him. "Circe repeatedly mentioned her sister as the one who had the biggest hand in this, so odds are good we're dealing with some very dangerous daughter of Hecate. But what I don't know is why the goddess of magic herself isn't trying to sort this out."

"Yeah, about that," Percie muttered. "When I spoke to my dad, he mentioned that Hecate was a bundle of nerves and stress. I think she's trying to fix whatever damage that spell did to both worlds, but doing so means she can't afford to clock out for a bounty hunt."

"So we're on our own, like usual," the son of Hades dejected.

Will put an arm around his boyfriend. "No, we're not. We've got demigods on both sides trying to fix this problem. Hecate will do her part; we need to do ours."

The son of Apollo, despite his earlier confusion, seemed to be taking the new developments in stride now that he knew exactly what was going on. Percie had seen Willamina undergo similar concentration in the infirmary, so seeing it here as well wasn't surprising.

"Besides, if Nicola is just as dangerous as you are, something tells me Percy will be just fine where he is," the son of Apollo continued, squeezing his boyfriend's shoulder.

Nico tried to pout, but he didn't do a very good job at concealing the blush that emerged on his pale features. Percie turned to Annabeth, who still looked contemplative. "We have Circe's hints, but I don't really know what we can do with them," Percie said to her.

"Same," she responded. Annabeth crossed her arms in frustration. "We need more information. Hecate has many daughters, and several of them could conceivably fit into the description Rachel gave us yesterday. Tracking them all down one by one isn't going to be a very effective method of hunting down the one responsible."

"And we can't ask the goddess herself, because she can't be distracted from her work," Percie finished. "So, where do we go from here?"

"I don't know where you guys go from here, but I know where Ms. Can't-Take-A-Hint is about to go!" Blackjack shouted from down the sand, pulling the demigods' attention to himself. The pegasus was chasing one of the nymphs around the river bank, and squinting, Percie saw that the unlucky water spirit was the one who'd gotten clobbered in the chest after trying to jump on the winged horse.

She was also the one who'd started murmuring things about rogue children of the hunt as she started to regain consciousness, Percie realized. "Blackjack, it's okay! I think she has something important to tell us!" the daughter of Poseidon shouted at her pegasus.

Blackjack hesitated at her words, cornering the nymph against a tree on the edge of the bank. "I don't know, boss. She has a funny look about her."

That was because the poor nymph had been cursed with orange hair combined with purple eyes, but there would have been no point in voicing that right now. The nature spirit shook against the trunk of the tree, raising her hands in surrender. "Please! I'm not like my sisters. I wasn't trying to talk to the boys because I thought they were cute."

"How do I know you're not being tricky?" Blackjack demanded, stomping his hooves at her.

"Look, you made my sisters swear on the Styx, right? That oath isn't something I'd risk breaking unless something was really bad, right?" the nymph argued, sucking in her cheeks. "If I am lying, you're free to pound my bones into dust with your murderous combat prowess. Deal?"

Blackjack mulled her point over. "Fine, if the boss agrees to it," he capitulated, letting her pass. The nymph breathed in relief to herself, approaching the demigods with a cautious demeanor.

"I don't mean any of you harm. I just needed to tell someone who could do something," she explained, sitting at the edge of the camp.

"Because you're bound to this river?" Annabeth asked her.

"Yeah. I can't go beyond a certain point," the spirit admitted. "Look, I know my sisters have cultivated a really shaky reputation for us nymphs, but sometimes that reputation pays off. We hear things long before many others do."

"And you heard something that was serious enough you needed to track down some demigods?" Will prodded.

She nodded. "Yeah. I was trying to tell that pegasus earlier, but I didn't know he was so good at taekwondo."

"Judo, actually," Percie corrected her.

"No matter. Anyway, yesterday afternoon I was lazing around the river, like I do," the nymph continued, "when all of a sudden, a hubbub broke out amongst some of my sisters further east. A commotion like that only happens for one of two reasons: either someone was caught kissing someone else's boyfriend, or some large group of strangers was passing through."

"Let me guess: the guy's name was Inigo, and he was looking for the man who killed his father," Percie suggested.

"Ye- No! That was not what happened," the nymph bristled. "Like any of my sisters could ever hope to win Inigo Montoya's heart, anyway! That hunk is mine! Anyway, what happened was that some giant group of girls were chasing this four-legged guy across the river, and apparently they weren't very nice about it," she explained.

"Did this giant group of girls all look like wild Girl Scouts?" Nico asked.

"Yeah, actually."

"Were they all toting bows?" Will questioned.

"Yep."

"Had a cabal of wolves and birds of prey following them around?" Annabeth added.

"Indeed they did."

"Screamed a lot of really offensive things about men and women in general?" Percie moaned.

The nymph blinked. "Wow, you guys are really on it. Friends of yours, or something?"

Nico frowned. "Friends is a very loose term. I would have called them 'irritating allies' at my most generous."

"And what about at your least generous?" Will asked him.

"Repressed hooligans on a power trip."

Annabeth stifled a chuckle, then shook her head. "Those are the Hunters, all right. But what about this four-legged guy they were chasing?"

"Oh, right!" the nature spirit said. "When I first heard about it, I thought he was a centaur. But to hear my sisters talk about him, I think he might have been something more. All I know is that he led the Hunters right into a trap."

The Hunters? Trapped? That sounded like a first. "And what did this trap entail?" Percie spoke up.

"He had them all cross the river, then doubled back, leading them towards the city. Thinking about it now, the fact that it was a trap was really obvious. He had a bow, too, and he kept making these really impressive shots. But none of them struck the Hunters. Rather, he seemed to be using his arrows to corral them together, right as they went to cross the river for the second time."

"But they didn't cross the river again, did they?" Annabeth said, realizing something.

The nymph nodded affirmation. "No, they didn't. Once they were in the center of the water, the river itself seemed to turn on them. But it wasn't the river. It was something in the river."

"Any idea what it was?" Will leaned in.

"No. All I know is that whatever it was, it seemed to suck the Hunters down into the water, leaving no trace of them behind. Then, it had a brief conversation with the four-legged man, who mentioned something about 'delivering the rogue children of the hunt' to someone called the Genius."

Nico arched his eyebrow at the story. "So, now it's the Hunters' turn to get abducted?"

"Sounds like someone really is playing a bigger game here," Percie mumbled to herself. "And if it's this person calling themselves the Genius, I'd wager they probably fall into that category."

The nymph shrugged. "Everything after that is really spotty. The four-legged guy sprinted off, at speeds no mortal could ever hope to match, and whatever it was under the water seemed to just vanish, like it was a part of the water itself the whole time."

"Well, that's not exactly helpful," Percie raspberried, exhaling up into the air. "Did you happen to hear from anyone where they might have gone, or where the Genius was planning to keep the Hunters when he had them delivered?"

"Is that really necessary?" Nico asked, before the nymph could answer.

"What do you mean?"

The son of Hades scowled. "I mean, do we really have to go to all the trouble in rescuing the Hunters in the first place?" Nico's voice was hard, and Percie winced as she realized why he wasn't very accommodating to the immortal members of the Hunt.

"Nico, we can't abandon them. They wouldn't abandon us," Will reasoned.

"Oh, they wouldn't? Is that why it took them so long to show up at the Battle of Manhattan? And don't even try to defend what they did with Gaea."

Annabeth tilted her head. "What happened with Gaea?"

"Orion happened. Long story short, the reason we saw next to none of the Hunters was because they were too busy being chased down by some old rival, and apparently that was more important than preventing the end of the world as we know it," Nico spat.

Percie sighed to herself, turning back to the nymph. "If you have nothing else you could tell us, then I guess we owe you our thanks for what you could," she said, offering the nature spirit a wave.

"Sure," the nymph mumbled, rising to her feet unsteadily. "Guess I'll just... be on my way, then. If I hear anything else, I'll try to send word up the river." She stumbled away, shooting uncomfortable glances back at Nico before she returned to the water.

Will gave Nico the stink-eye. "Way to go, sweetie. You just chased away our best source of information."

"She had nothing else to tell, or else she would have stuck around," Nico defended, stirring away from Will's touch. "And don't patronize me. I just fail to see why the Hunters' distress should be my concern. They're capable warriors; they can take care of themselves."

"And we couldn't?' Will shot back, putting a hand to his hip. "I know you're not the biggest fan of Artemis or her followers, but I don't think that should translate to not helping them whatsoever, especially if they're in a jam."

"I didn't ask what you thought, did I?" Nico snarled, then instantly paled when Will froze, looking hurt. "Oh, gods, Will. I didn't mean that... I... look, I'm sorry, okay?"

The son of Apollo pulled back, drawing into himself. Percie grimaced, but didn't step in. Nosing about in other people's relationships tended to end poorly for most Greek heroes, so there was no way she was going anywhere near that mess.

"Nico... I know you and the Hunters have some rocky history," Annabeth began, "but if there's a chance that rescuing them means finding whoever cast this spell, then we need to take it, if we want Percy back."

The daughter of Athena's voice softened as she spoke her boyfriend's name, catching Nico's attention. The son of Hades looked conflicted, then seemed to notice something.

"Nicola is me in your world, right?" he asked Percie, who nodded at him. "Then... Bianca... wasn't Bianca, right?"

Time to walk on eggshells again. "No. Nicola's brother was Bartholomew."

"So, how did it go done for you? How... did my brother die?"

Annabeth's eyes widened, like she hadn't even considered that fact. True, Percie hadn't brought the full details up, but that was because the memory was still too fresh. But there was no getting out of sharing it now. Not when Nico was looking at her like that.

"The Hunters wanted Nicola," she answered, her voice soft. "She was only ten, though, and Bartholomew objected. Rather strenuously, too. Since he was a guy, none of the Hunters reacted very well to that decision, and ended up trying to... take Nicola behind his back."

The others were all very still, listening to Percie talk. "Of course, he found out, and... ended up getting into a tussle with Zoe. Artemis had to break them up, but not before he'd managed to scratch one of her eyes out."

Nico inhaled, but Percie wasn't finished. "Of course, Artemis was ready to kill him right then and there, but I stood up for him. Told her that her Hunters were in the wrong for trying to take a ten year-old girl away from the only family she'd ever known. Nearly got both of us killed, doing that. But we were able to negotiate a compromise after Artemis was abducted alongside Alister. If Bartholomew came along with us, then he'd be spared for injuring the Hunter's lieutenant like that. From there, you guys know how it went."

"Bartholomew... actually took out one of Zoe's eyes?" Nico whispered.

"He might have only been a teenager, against a three-thousand year old Hunter, but he was protecting his sister," Percie explained. "He was... scarily competent at that. How no one figured out he was a son of Hades after that, I have no idea."

Nico's lip quivered. "Bartholomew fought that hard for me?"

"Yes. He did. And died for it."

Will seemed to recover from Nico's earlier lashing out, scooting closer to his boyfriend. "Nico, I think this proves something."

"And what is that?" the son of Hades breathed.

"Bianca didn't join the Hunters because she wanted to get away from you. You were her only family. She loved you... more than anything."

"If that's true, then why did she leave me?"

"Neeks, she was still just a kid too," Percie jumped in. "She'd been looking after you for years. I think... I think she just wanted to find a place where she didn't have to be in charge for once. The Hunters gave her that."

Nico raised his eyes at her. "And how would you know that?"

"Because Bartholomew told me himself. He adored Nicola, with every fiber of himself. But he was playing the role of brother, mother, and father, all at the same time. That kind of pressure, on top of being a child of the Big Three... I can see why Bianca would be looking for a way out."

"But he fought for Nicola. She... didn't even seem to consider the choice before she accepted," Nico whimpered.

Annabeth moved closer to him, so all three of them were circling the son of Hades. "That doesn't mean she didn't love you, Nico. Even if it was what she wanted, leaving you had to be the biggest challenge she'd ever faced."

"Then why didn't she wait for me in Elysium? Why did she choose rebirth, where we'd never see each other again?"

The voice that answered him didn't belong to Percie, Annabeth, or Will. "My guess is she wanted a second chance at life, so she could accomplish something that would make you proud of her."

That unmistakable tone of adolescence... Percie's stomach churned as she turned to face the newcomer squatting in the shadows of the forest's edge. The speaker was female, and looked to be about twelve. She wore a silver hood, that covered a black tunic fitted to her small frame. Pulling the hood down, shining silver eyes met the demigods, taking the entire scene in.

The stomach churning gave way to full blown panic as Percie addressed their guest. "Lady Artemis."

The goddess only narrowed her eyes at the daughter of Poseidon before stepping out into the light of the sun. Artemis threw a regretful look up at the giant star in the sky, then faced the teens once again.

"I hope I'm not interrupting something secretive," she remarked, pulling the hood back up, "but a very distressed dryad came calling out, saying there was something going on around her that involved my Hunters. Imagine my surprise when others follow her, telling me of Mr. di Angelo, Mr. Solace, Ms. Chase... and someone claiming to be Percy Jackson."

Percie sucked in a breath. Yay. Now the cat was out of the bag.

"How much of that did you hear, by any chance?" Annabeth asked, looking nervous.

"Enough to involve myself in the conversation."

That wasn't exactly the most definitive answer, but Percie didn't want to point that out to the goddess, and risk being turned into a beluga whale. "So, you didn't know the Hunters were missing until that dryad told you?" she asked instead.

Artemis glared in disapproval. "Of course I did. But I did not find the time to slip away from Olympus until just recently."

"Slip away? What's going on at Olympus?" Will cut in.

"A fair question, nephew, but not one I can answer without prompting another hundred after it," she told him. "All I will say is that none of us are very pleased with the state of the world, at the moment. My father refused to let anyone leave until someone brought him an answer. I snuck out after Ares got into an argument with Hermes about whether or not milk went with peanut butter. They'll be debating that issue for at least two days, giving me the time I needed to look for my Hunters."

The goddess turned to Percie. "You wouldn't happen to know anything about that, would you?" she glowered.

The daughter of Poseidon stammered for a bit. "Umm... if I told you it wasn't my fault, would that help matters?"

"With me? Maybe. With the other gods? Absolutely not."

"You drive a hard bargain, my lady," Percie admitted. She gave Artemis a very quick rundown of the situation. The goddess of the Hunt looked put-off by the reveal of another world where she also existed, but she didn't turn Percie into some sort of woodland rodent, which was a plus.

"And this Genius has some sort of plans for my Hunters?" Artemis asked once it was over.

"Yeah, but we don't know where they or the Hunters are," Will lamented.

The goddess stared at him for a moment in disbelief. "You do realize I'm the Hunt, yes? Tracking is my bread and butter."

"You mean you can track them down, without any hints?"

"They were abducted from this river, yes? Give me a moment."

Artemis's eyes swept the area, pinpointing several key locations before she blinked, and turned back to the demigods. "I can find them. Then I shall teach this Genius what it means to earn the wrath of an Olympian."

"What are you gonna do, steal his sister from him, too?" Nico groused. The son of Hades hadn't spoken since Artemis appeared, but he was now staring daggers at her with undisguised hatred.

All of Percie's nerves exploded in anxiety as the goddess slowly turned to Nico, a look of outrage on her face. Annabeth and Will were mirroring her expression, but the son of Apollo didn't leave his boyfriend's side, even as Artemis approached them.

"What... did you just say?" she asked, her voice low.

"You heard me the first time, oh great hunter," Nico threw back, not backing down. "Care to explain to the class?"

The goddess didn't stop until she was right in front of the son of Hades, her diminutive stature by no means lessening the intimating aura emanating from her. "Nico di Angelo, I don't know what you think you're playing at, but I don't owe you anything, just as you don't owe anything to my Hunters."

So... she had heard that part. Oh, boy.

"The only reason... I repeat, the only reason... you're not a gnat right now," the goddess continued, gnashing her teeth, "is because I know you're reliving moments of great grief. Grief brought on by the death of your sister. Therefore, I am willing to let that little outburst slide. This time. Am I clear?"

"Crystal."

"Good," she said, still staring him in the face. "Because I really don't want to have to explain to my brother why I turned his son's boyfriend into a parasite."

Nico's tough façade cracked a little, as he turned to Will. The healer was holding his breath, his hand starting to coil around Nico's arm.

"You're not a lone wolf any more, boy," Artemis told him. "Think on how your actions might affect those you care about, before you open your mouth next time."

Her point made, she wheeled back to Percie. "I will not force the others to come with me, but I feel it is best you accompany me on my hunt, Ms. Jackson. If only so I may see how you fare with my own eyes."

"I'm coming with her, too," Annabeth said, not bothering to think about it.

The goddess actually smiled at that. "I did not expect any less." She looked over at the boys. "Well? Will either of you be joining us, or not?"

Will and Nico looked to each other, and seemed to have an argument with each other in their minds. A few seconds passed, before Nico sighed, and Will nodded. "We will. Thank you for your mercy, my lady," the son of Apollo said with a bow.

"Don't call it mercy, Mr. Solace. I am merely paying respect to my brother, despite his... limitations in some areas," she remarked back.

Percie tried to force a smile. "So all five of us, huh? Wonderful. Anyone have an idea who we might be looking for?"

"The Genius's identity so far eludes me, but I do believe I know the name of the scoundrel who lured my Hunters into his little trap," the goddess commented. "I must warn you, though: His presence in this situation does not bode well for any of us. And if my thinking is right, then I also know who his partner was, in the river."

"You really were eavesdropping for a while, huh?" Percie muttered.

Artemis arched an eye. "All good Hunters use their ears, child. You'd be surprised what stealth and patience can bring you."

Annabeth looked irritated at the beating around the bush. Hey, at least it was a goddess doing it this time, and not Percie. "May we hear your idea, my lady?" she asked.

"Yes. I believe the fleet-footed man with the bow to be Crotus, a predecessor to myself and Apollo. It was he who gave mankind the bow, and the rhythm of music."

Nico looked dazed. "I've never heard of him."

"I'm sure you have. You just don't know him by that name. Many in the mortal realm refer to Crotus as Sagittarius."

Oh... no. "Sagittarius?" Percie echoed. "But then... does that mean-"

"Yes, Ms. Jackson," Artemis interrupted, looking annoyed. "That would mean the creature in the water, who vanished without any trace, would be the Fish. Pisces."

Chapter Text

The inside of the Camp Jupiter infirmary. A stony, cold place. To the untrained eye, it could have passed as a normal mortal hospital without much trouble. It was rare for a demigod to come through, no matter the severity of their injury, and not be out and about within a few short hours. Ambrosia, nectar, and unicorn shavings had no problem curing any physical malady.

But what was being treated right now wasn't physical, in any way, shape, or form.

Percy was sitting in one of the chairs in the main lobby of the building, his eyes burning holes into the wall across from him. Next to him, Hayden was fidgeting, trying to make small-talk with the son of Poseidon, but failing to get anywhere. Rey was seated at the head of the room, directly facing the door. Any time someone who wasn't nursing an injury came in, the praetor rose to his feet, spoke to them for a short time, then saw them out. With Lea's Porcius no longer running amok, the turnover of the actually wounded was next to nothing compared to those who fit into the previous category.

Hayden tried to speak again, but Nicola tapped her brother on the shoulder, shaking her head at him. The daughter of Hades' expression was clear: Percy didn't need someone talking to him right now. At least, not the way she saw it. The truth of the matter was more complicated than that.

Percy wanted more than anything for someone to reassure him, to tell him that today was just a wound that could be cleaned up, patched, and forgotten about in no time. But life wasn't that forgiving. At the very minimum, today would be a scar, a scar that might fade, but would never disappear entirely. The son of Pluto didn't look very happy about Nicola's request, but he stopped pestering Percy.

The sound of someone arriving from the inner doors of the infirmary made the son of Poseidon rise to his feet in expectation, but the sight that greeted him wasn't Willamina. The daughter of Apollo had shooed everyone out the moment she got a good look at Alister, and looked like she wanted to flatten Percy when he tried to argue with her. She'd sat them all down in the lobby, and told them, in no uncertain terms, that she would handle the unresponsive son of Athena. Then she left.

Instead of the healer, a familiar face stood in the lobby now, body wrapped in bandages. "Janice!" Faith breathed out, going to her friend. "How are you doing?"

The daughter of Jupiter held her arms up, keeping Faith at length. "Sore. Very sore. But recovering. Don't tell Willamina I'm out of bed; she'll kill me herself."

Rey affixed her with a serious look. "Why are you walking around, then? You should be resting. You went through a very traumatic surgery, if Willamina is to be believed. That lamp almost punctured your left iliac, as she put it. You're lucky you're even able to stand without pain."

"Who said it's not painful?" Janice retorted, lowering herself into a chair with a grimace. "I heard the commotion out in the hallway through a closed door. Let's say my curiosity is stronger than my desire for an easy night. What happened?"

Percy slunk back down into his chair, his eyes closing. As relieved as he was to see the daughter of Jupiter no longer suffering from her impalement, his mind was still troubled.

"It's... not a pleasant story, Janice," he heard Lea say, the daughter of Hephaestus sounding beat. "Minerva... made an appearance."

"Minerva? I see. And what did our dear goddess of wisdom do once she arrived?"

Percy could sense everyone look at him, but he didn't respond. He'd explained enough the past few days. Someone else could do it.

"She possessed Alister, and used his body to unleash her rage at Rome," Nicola answered. "Rey got most of it, but the Forum ended up getting pretty smashed up in the process. The same could be said for everyone else in here, too."

Janice gritted her teeth. "Did she, now? What was she trying to do?"

"She was going to kill Rey, if Nicola hadn't recognized what was going on, and stepped in," Peter spoke up. "Minerva might have been in control, but Alister was still in there."

"And Alister would never hurt Nicola," Janice said, catching on. "So, you pulled the whole 'I know you're still in there' trick, did you?"

"Yes, but not in the way you might think." Percy heard Nicola cross her legs in her chair. "It was important for Alister to hear me, but the attention I really wanted was the attention of Athena."

"You... were speaking to Athena?"

"Yes. Minerva might have been her counterpart, but they both share a form. Wherever Minerva might have gone, Athena would have been dragged along for the ride. I guessed that Athena wouldn't take kindly to Minerva hijacking her son and using him to wreak a vengeance that had already been settled, so I went for it. Turns out, the Greek goddess agreed with me. And things proceeded to go poorly for Minerva."

Janice paused. "So... she's gone, then?"

"Minerva? Yes. And won't be back, if Athena did what I think she did," Rey added. "I sent some people out to have a look at the temples. Minerva's... seems to have mysteriously vanished."

"Wait, so she's just gone, like, gone-gone?" Lea asked. "I didn't know gods could be destroyed like that!"

"Not by easy means, but when facing stronger versions of themselves, I could see it happening," Nicola remarked. "Not to be crass, but the Romans pretty much had Athena spayed when they made her into Minerva. A match-up between those two could ever only really end one way."

Percy wasn't listening to the conversation. Too many images were springing up in his head. The wind, the pain as he slammed into the ground, the piercing eyes of Minerva as she looked at him through Alister's shell. What she had said... she'd make him relive Tartarus if he interfered. How? What could she possibly do to put him in any more pain than she'd already done, making him view Alister like that?

Someone patted the back of his hand, making Percy realize he'd been clutching the arms of his chair with enough force to leave an imprint. He blinked his eyes open, and was treated to Hayden's concerned face. The son of Pluto didn't speak, but he did touch a finger to Percy's temple. Just like that, the horrific images from earlier in the day vaporized. They were replaced by better moments: Alister's face as he laughed at Percy screaming in terror as they soared into the air the first time. The warm smile Janice had flashed him when they were at the beach house. Peter's reassurances that everyone in this room still needed him.

"Are... you using the Mist on me?" Percy whispered, so only Hayden could hear him.

"Yes. Do you want me to stop?"

"No. Please. Whatever you do... don't let those memories come back."

Hayden nodded, and Percy closed his eyes again, drinking in the pleasant pictures dancing in his mind. The conversation around him continued, but his mind didn't seem to bother worrying about it.

"How did you know, Nicola?" Peter was asking. "How did you know that was Minerva? All of us thought Alister had just finally snapped."

Nicola sighed. "When I went through Tartarus, I witnessed something similar with Nyx. She would possess the bodies of the deities who followed her around in her realm, if she wanted to handle something small hands-on. Granted, most of those possessions were consensual, but whenever the host began to fight, the voice she spoke with would change. It would become scratchy, and tenuous. When I heard the same thing coming from Alister's mouth, I realized something like that must have happened here. From there, all I needed to know was who was behind it. The grey eyes meant it was Athena or Minerva, and the anger at Rey was something that couldn't have come from the former, since he was the one who returned the Parthenos."

Janice whistled. "Nice work, girl. If you hadn't been there, I hate to think about what would have happened."

Rey made a sound in his throat. "Most likely, I would have been killed. Then Minerva would have turned her rage on whoever happened to be in the vicinity." The praetor rose to his feet, reaching a hand out to the daughter of Hades. She took it, and he bowed, holding it in front of him. "It seems I now owe you a debt, Nicola di Angelo. A debt I intend to pay you back in full."

"Rey, you've already paid me back for more than enough debts," Nicola protested. "I never would have survived the journey back to America if you hadn't been there, sharing your strength with me. Consider my actions today as me paying back that debt."

Rey must have tried to argue, but Nicola wasn't having it. She pressed into his chest, hugging him. "You were there for me when it counted. Please... just let me do the same for you, just this once," she mumbled into his cape.

The son of Bellona was taken aback, but returned the hug after some hesitation. "I... agree to the terms of your help, then. For old times' sake."

"Since when were you such a hugger, Nicola?" Lea asked when they pulled apart.

"When I finally met someone I wanted to hug," she returned, giving Lea a smirk. "When you came back, you're lucky I settled for the uppercut. Not decapitation."

"The day isn't over yet, guys," Faith cut in, smiling at the two girls. "Who knows? Maybe I could drum up some false charge against Lea, and send her off to bathroom detail with Lucian? I'm sure he'd appreciate someone to share in his suffering."

"Oh, come on! So I went and died for a second! It's been months, you guys," Lea complained. "When can we just let bygones be bygones?"

"Never, Valdez. Not after that stunt you pulled. Letting someone think that someone they love is dead, when they're not, is a cruelty not even my dad would inflict on someone," Nicola said.

"So you do care about me, then?"

"I never said that."

"Pretty sure you just did, Nicola," Janice cracked, smiling as well.

"We all heard it," Hayden said from next to Percy.

"Actually, what she said was she loved Lea, not just cared about her," Rey added, a rare smile crossing his features.

The daughter of Hades stared at the room in sullen silence. Or at least, that's what it sounded like to Percy. He must have been smiling, too. Hayden's magic, alongside the friendly banter he was lucky enough to be around, seemed to finally be getting through the haze that had permeated him ever since Alister collapsed into his arms.

The euphoria was so magnificent, he almost didn't register the sound of the door from the lobby to the outer wing of the infirmary swing open. But he did. His eyes opened, and every head swiveled to stare at Willamina.

The daughter of Apollo looked wiped. Her blonde pixie cut was laying in every single direction, and she looked to be blinking away spots in her eyes. Instantly, the mood of the room switched from jovial to concerned.

"How is he?" Rey asked, gesturing for the healer to take the seat he'd been occupying until a moment ago.

"I conducted a full examination," she answered, sitting down without argument. "Physically, he's fine. No sign of injury, or anything like that. But if that's the case, then I fear whatever's afflicting him has to be either mental or emotional in its origin. Based on what you told me of what happened in the Forum, my diagnosis is that it's both."

"Is he awake, at least?" Percy asked. It was the first thing he'd said to the group as a whole since he'd carried the listless son of Athena into the infirmary. Everyone glanced at him in worry, but Willamina didn't address the awkwardness.

"No. I believe he needs to wake up on his own, so I didn't give him anything that might raise his pulse or adrenaline. Alister is stronger than any of us give him credit for; he needs to fight this malady on his own, at least until he regains awareness."

"Can I at least sit in the room with him?" Percy prodded.

The healer sucked in her cheeks, exhaustion clear on her face. Nicola went to her girlfriend, settling behind her. The daughter of Hades began massaging Willamina's neck, something the medic moaned at. "I... don't think it's a good idea, Percy," she finally said. From what he'd learned from overhearing conversations, the Seven had indeed told Willamina and Nicola about the swap, which was why neither one of them had batted an eye when they met the son of Poseidon for the first time.

Janice tried to stand up for him. "Is there anyway he can at least see him? Out of all of us, he's gotten closer to Alister in just a few days than most people get in years."

The healer perked up at seeing the daughter of Jupiter. "Wait, why are you out here, Janice? You're supposed to still be in recovery!"

"I sensed trouble about, and rose to defend the camp in its time of need."

"Well, the trouble is over and done with, so why don't you pack yourself up and get back to bed? Before I have Rey and Faith drag you back there, and then babysit you for the night."

Janice mumbled something inaudible, then looked to both praetors for support.

Rey snickered. "You're a member of Camp Half-Blood, remember? So is she. I'd say she's fully in her right to order you to bed as your doctor."

"You'd just follow her orders, like that?!"

Faith shrugged. "Apollo is Apollo, whether Greek or Roman. And we're in a hospital, technically. She's got every right to make demands and have them obeyed, if you ask me."

"This is so unfair," Janice complained, heading for the door. "Fine. No need for the escort. Just... keep me updated, okay?"

Nicola waved at her. "Of course. You go get some rest. The two of us will be back to check in on you in the morning."

The daughter of Jupiter left, leaving Willamina to look back at her girlfriend in confusion. "The two of us? What makes you think I'd give you the right to violate patient-doctor confidentiality like that?"

"Because Janice Grace ended up violating some of my own confidentiality, granted not due to any fault of hers, but Cupid didn't see it that way," the daughter of Hades remarked with a sneer. "Besides, I do worry about her. Always throwing herself in front of everyone, with no concern for her own safety. It'll get her killed one day, mark my words."

Willamina actually laughed at that. "I'll see my dad turned mortal and take archery lessons from my siblings before Janice ever stops doing that," she joked.

The mood might have lightened for a moment so the two girls could poke at each other, but Percy wasn't satisfied with the refusal of the request he'd made. "Willamina, I'm not trying to undermine your authority as a healer, but is there any allowance you could make? At all?"

The daughter of Apollo shook her head. "I'm sorry, Percy," she said, as the front door to the infirmary opened behind Percy. "I'm putting my foot down. No one will see Alister. Until he wakes up himself. That's all I want to hear about it."

"Are you sure you can't make an exception for me, dear?" a female voice behind Percy intoned. Willamina's eyes widened as she got a look at the newcomer, as did Nicola's. In fact, everyone else who'd been looking in the general direction of the door when it opened was now staring in open bafflement. Percy turned, his mind preparing to see whom had just spoken.

The voice had given it away. He'd never forget it, not after hearing it scream in rage at Minerva as she puppeted Alister like some twisted marionette. The woman was about Percy's height, and she was dressed rather casual for the occasion, going for a soccer-mom look with her hair in a bun, a light jacket, and jeans. If her eyes weren't a vibrant shade of grey, Percy would have easily mistaken her for a retired centurion on her way to her kid's third-grade recital.

"Lady Athena," he said at seeing her. "I must admit; I did not ever expect to see you here. As yourself, of course."

The goddess of wisdom only blinked in response. "It seems there are firsts for everything, Percy Jackson. Something I imagine you know much about, if your presence here, as you are, is any indication."

"My lady, to what do we owe the pleasure?" Rey asked, lowering himself on to one knee. "It is... most generous of you to come here, at this moment."

"Rise, Mr. Arellano," Athena said, motioning for him to do so. "You proved yourself more than worthy of respect when you returned my essence to its rightful place. There is no need for such formality, though I do appreciate the gesture."

The praetor rose to his feet, not meeting the goddess's eyes. "Forgive me, ma'am. It seems I owe you now twice; once for your assistance against Orion, and now again, for saving my life today."

"If it relieves you of the burden you carry, then know that I don't require anything of you, for both of those events. The first was a gesture of gratitude on my part; the second was really more of an incidental event, more than anything."

Faith gulped as she studied the deity. "My lady, may I ask how it is you are here, as you are? Does this really mean...," she faltered, unable to bring up the events of the last few hours in the presence of the one who ended it.

"My... other half, if one could even call her that," Athena seethed, "is no longer in a position to assert herself ever again, if that is what you are asking, child of Mars. As such, even when in the vicinity of New Rome, my mind remains unchallenged by her annoyances."

The goddess turned her attention back to Willamina, her stormy eyes betraying no hint of anger. This was probably the calmest Percy had ever seen Athena. It was... kinda refreshing, if he was being honest. Guess exterminating your darker side had a side-effect of mellowing you out for a few hours.

"I treasure your commitment to seeing my son well again, daughter of Apollo, but I must request that I be allowed to stay with him, until he awakens," Athena continued.

The healer stammered for a moment. Not in an arguing sense, Percy could tell, but more in a 'how could I ever refuse a request from a goddess when she's being so polite about it' kind of way.

"If you wish to stay with him, then feel free, my lady," Willamina managed to say. "If you require anything further, please just ask for it."

"Thank you, Willamina," the goddess answered, nodding at everyone present. "Now, unless anyone wishes to discuss something further, I shall be on my way."

Athena walked past Percy, and he seized up a little as she passed. He wasn't opposed to her seeing to her son, not after she just freed him from his predicament, but there was something he was hoping to be there for when Alister finally awoke.

"Lady Athena, may I make a request of you?" he blurted out.

The goddess of wisdom stopped, not turning around. "Is it within my power?"

"I... think so."

"Then let's hear it, Mr. Jackson."

Percy caught his breath, trying to calm himself. He needed to choose his words very carefully here. "I don't know the intricacies of your relationship with Alister. If it was Annabeth, I might be able to speak with more certainty. But I must ask something of you, if you intend to be the first person he sees when he wakes up."

Athena seemed to bristle at the mention of the daughter she did not know, but she didn't turn around and vaporize Percy where he stood, so that was something. "Very well. What do you desire of me?"

"When he wakes up... please, be careful how you speak to him. He's been through so much already. When you go into his room, don't go in there as Athena, goddess of wisdom and war. He doesn't need an intellectual bout, or a pick-me-up speech, or even a congratulations for all he's accomplished."

The room was dead quiet as Percy tried to wrap his lips around the last part of his request. Athena didn't budge, but she stood at rapt attention as Percy found the words.

"He needs his mother."

The deity sucked in a breath, which didn't alleviate Percy's fears, since the gods didn't have to breathe. A few of the others in the room seemed to inch ever so slightly away from the son of Poseidon, as if they expected Athena to crush him with a giant anvil for daring to tell her how to parent her child.

To his own surprise, Athena didn't kill him, or blast him with her own caustic wit, or even glower at him in contempt. All she did was gently look over her shoulder, fixing Percy with a compassionate eye. "Perhaps you are wiser than I gave you credit for, Percy Jackson."

In the next moment, she was gone.

"Percy... what-" Faith mumbled, shocked.

Hayden looked just as stunned. "Did... Athena just pay you a compliment? After you told her how to do something?"

"The world really must be coming to an end," the son of Poseidon cracked, sinking back into his chair. At least Alister could have someone there for him at this time, even if it wasn't him. Maybe Athena could prove to be a better choice, too. She was finally doing what Percy had asked of the gods after Kronos: she was going to be there for her child.

Of course it would be her. Wisdom wasn't blind, like love or justice. It could see when change needed to come. The ocean... the ocean never changed. Not for anyone; no matter who they were. Did the ocean ever rise up when Percy was being ostracized by his peers and teachers alike? No.

Did the ocean ever try to console the son of Poseidon when he came home to find his mother bruised and bloody, insisting that everything was okay? No.

Did the ocean ever... even notice him, when he wasn't being accused of something he knew nothing about? When he wasn't serving as a pawn in some grander idea? When it didn't need him to fix something he had nothing to do with?!

"Percy."

The son of Sally Jackson was knocked out of his thoughts by Willamina's voice. The healer was leaning over him, a concerned look on her face. "Did you just... dissociate for a second? I've been trying to get your attention for at least twenty seconds now."

"Sorry, sorry," he stumbled, shaking his rising anger away. "What did I miss?"

The daughter of Apollo put her hand to his forehead. "Wow, you were out for a moment. You missed the others leaving; Rey said you could stay with him, if you wanted. Or I can make you some space here in the infirmary, if you want to sleep here."

"Oh, um. Sure, we can do that second one," Percy answered, shaking the webs out of his head. "Will you be staying here, too?"

"No, she won't be," Nicola responded, putting her hand to her girlfriend's shoulder. "She's been working nonstop for thirty hours now. Patching up legionnaires and centurions in equal number. Just because the Senate offered you a permanent spot here in the infirmary doesn't mean you don't get some days off."

"I guess I'm outmatched," the healer said while winking at Percy. "Let me make you a cot here in the lobby, then. I'm sure Athena will come get me if Alister needs anything."

"Please pray she doesn't," Nicola told him. "I've been trying to get her to come home for hours. I'd like to sleep next to my girlfriend for at least one night without some random trouble popping up and snatching her attention away from me."

Both Percy and Willamina shared a knowing smirk, the healer pulling some couches together and fitting a blanket from one of the unused rooms on it. "I hope it's not too uncomfortable for you, Percy. I should be back around late morning, assuming the ball-and-chain over here actually lets me get out of bed," she quipped, playing with Nicola's hair.

"With that attitude, you're gonna be lucky I let you live long enough for late morning to show up. It's not even dark yet," the daughter of Hades argued.

"So testy. That means she's tired," Willamina laughed.

"No, it means I'm annoyed, and kicking myself for allowing a big dork like you to ever win me over," Nicola shot back, trying to look convincing with her pouty face. "You might be cute, Solace, but don't think I can't make myself impervious to your charms when I want to be."

The daughter of Apollo slid her arm behind Nicola's back, bringing the smaller woman to her. She leaned down into Nicola's face, her voice going down an octave. "Big talk for such a tiny person. Mind if I test just how strong that imperviousness really is?"

If Nicola was going for the defiant angle, she really needed to work on her strategy. Swooning into your opponent's arms and letting her carry you out of the building like a sack of potatoes tended to give off a different impression.

Percy watched them go, kissing before they ever made it around the corner. Guess Nicola's willpower wasn't as strong as she claimed. His heart picked up a little at seeing the two demigods so happy with each other. Nicola... and Nico, deserved it. He really needed to have a talk with Will when he got back. The son of Apollo was picking up slack Percy had let drop off, which couldn't be easy.

How much time passed, he didn't know. The clock in the lobby was broken, so Percy had no idea how long he paced the length of the room. Willamina had dropped a sign saying the place was closed as she left, so at least he didn't have to worry about some injured demigod bursting in on him and his thoughts.

The cot the daughter of Apollo had prepared for him was serviceable enough, but he couldn't rest. Even as the sky darkened outside, his body refused to let him slow down. The anger returned, not content at being silenced once it finally found its voice again.

"Why did I ever bother listening to you?" he complained aloud, to no one in particular. Okay, that was a lie. He knew exactly who he was complaining to. But as long he didn't actually invoke his father's name, he shouldn't attract too much attention. "I mean, you said over and over how much you wanted to be involved, but couldn't even make an effort until my life was literally being threatened as a casualty of war?"

As if that wasn't enough. As if Percy didn't have enough to deal with before the Olympians dragged him into their drama. Into their prophecies. The nerve of them... the nerve. To sit back and judge him for not blindly following their word, like some... puppet. Puppets. That was all he was to them; what he and his friends were to them. Why did he think it'd be any different? Was it because one of them was his father? Since when did he even have a father? It was just him and his mom. Plus the human excrement who called itself Gabe, but that didn't count.

His mother... oh, boy. Did the Sally of this world even know Percie was missing? Was she waiting on her daughter, not knowing that she'd been hijacked by Lamia's mischief? And did his own mother know? Maybe Percie had gone to her first, if she was dropped in where he had been, but what if she hadn't? Percy's breath started to quicken as guilt began to override anger. He tried to sit down, but his knees buckled, and he landed next to the cot. Was Sally crying somewhere, over her lost son? With a baby on the way?

Panic started to set in as the full implications dawned on him. If his mother was experiencing grief like that, while pregnant... he needed to get back. Now. Percy's arms started scraping at the ground for some sort of hold as he tried to stand, but his legs refused to obey. Why? Why wouldn't they work? His hands fell on his pocket, and Riptide bounced.

Riptide... that was it. Demosthenes' words flooded into his head as he yanked the pen free. "Kill Percy Jackson, and the chaos will be undone. The world will go back to the way it was. Percy, once again, saves the world, just in a different way. It doesn't have to be my hand that does it, either."

No. It didn't have to be Demosthenes... or Alister. If he died, then maybe... just maybe... he could go back. He could hug his mother again. And Estelle... would be okay. Percy uncapped the sword, testing the point against his palm. Yeah. That would work perfectly. He angled the blade at his heart, steeling himself for the blow. "Thank you for your wisdom, Demosthenes," he whispered, closing his eyes. Riptide's tip brushed against his chest, the sword almost singing with anticipation. How very fitting. To die at your hand was one thing. Dying for your own hand was quite another.

Percy sighed, letting his guilt seize him completely. He mumbled apologies to Alister, and the others. They would understand. And even if they didn't, then getting Percie back would surely make them forget about him.

"Thank you. For everything," he stated, hands locking down on the handle of his weapon. Then, he plunged it into him.

Or at least, he tried. His hands refused to listen. He tried again.

Nothing. Okay. Maybe stabbing was so violent, his body refused to go through with it. No problem. He could just run himself into the blade. The wall surely looked sturdy enoug-

"What? Are? You? Doing?"

Percy's eyes were forced open, compelling him to stare Athena right in the face. The goddess looked horrified by what she saw. Looking down, he saw her hand on the hilt of Riptide. Ah. So that's why it didn't work.

"Fixing this mess I made. But I can't do it while you're holding onto my sword like that. Would you mind letting go?" he asked her, his voice calmer than it had ever been.

The goddess didn't loosen her grip. "And how is skewering yourself on your own blade supposed to fix this?" she demanded.

"Well, since my presence here is what's causing the universe to unravel, then naturally getting rid of me seems like the best way to fix it," he pointed out. "May I continue?"

"No," she grunted, yanking Riptide away with no trouble at all.

Percy sighed. "You know it's just gonna come back, right?"

Athena glared at him, then smashed Riptide over the desk in the lobby. The sword shattered like a porcelain doll at her strength, the entire blade coming apart in pieces, leaving nothing behind but a handle.

"Why.. why would you do that?!" Percy asked, the loss of his weapon sparking a new feeling in him. "How... how am I supposed to save anyone now?"

"How is dying, alone and miserable, going to help anyone?" the deity fired back, throwing the useless handle away. "And who filled your head with that nonsense? What makes you think killing yourself will just magically reset everything back to normal?!"

Percy opened his mouth to argue, but the words he wanted to say fizzled out as Athena stared into his eyes. The goddess didn't break eye contact, but his vision shifted. Images of Chaos itself sweeping through the world, as mortals and demigods alike succumbed to the destruction. Percy started to collapse again, but Athena caught him, holding him to her.

"That fate is not certain, Percy," she said in his ear. "But neither is the one where you return to your world because you die. Now, I know you'd never come up with something like that on your own. So who did?"

"D- De- Demosthenes," he gasped, the horrific images fading away. "He... he said my death would save everyone."

The goddess froze for a moment, then shook with a fury he'd seen before. It was the same look Athena had given him when she voted for him to be executed after debating the potential outcome of the prophecy involving Kronos.

"That... egotistical maniac," she swore. "What does he think he's playing at, making claims of that magnitude?" Athena shook her head, not letting go of Percy. "You let yourself fall into a dark place, didn't you?" she said.

A dark place... yeah. He could see how she might reach that conclusion.

"I was angry," he admitted. "I... wanted to know why you were the only one. The only one... who seemed to understand what I was talking about when I said I wanted to prevent another Kronos from brainwashing demigods into fighting his war for him again."

Athena's mouth curled into a half-frown. "Change is hard, Percy Jackson. I do not know why you claim I get it, when I find myself struggling constantly even now," she said. Percy stared at her, but she continued. "I was always one of the more active parents amongst the Olympians, but even I fell short of what I should have been. I cannot undo my past. But I can try to do better for the future. The same can be said for you, as well."

He could... be better? Athena... thought he could be better?

"Why are you being so nice to me?" he finally asked. "I thought you hated me."

"... Because you proved me wrong, Percy Jackson. And I hate being proven wrong."

"Proved what wrong?"

Athena adjusted him so he could look at her directly. "I said you would destroy the world before you let any of your friends get hurt. But as it turns out, you are willing to hurt them, even if it isn't on purpose."

No. She knew.

"Yes, of course I know. Remember what happened just today? When my... Minerva... was inside Alister, I saw everything. How you betrayed every single one of your friends so they wouldn't let the camp be harmed for your sake. You didn't spare their feelings... because you wanted to spare their lives. That takes strength, Percy. It's the mark of someone finally looking at the big picture."

"But it didn't work," he mumbled in argument. "They'll never let me die for them."

"Is that why you did this, then? Because you knew none of them would let you?"

Why was she so good at getting right at his flaws, at the things he didn't want to admit? Oh, right. Wisdom.

"I wanted to do something for them, and the world. If I had to die, so be it. If... I had to hurt them, to save their lives, then so be it," Percy confessed. "I'd rather they live long lives hating me than dying young because they loved me."

Athena's expression softened. "Then I guess you know more about being a god than you let on."

What? Athena... was she saying that... the gods stayed away from their children... because getting involved put them at even greater risk?

He must have looked incredulous at the idea, because the goddess shook her head. "It's hard to accept, no? The things we do out of sight, for the sake of those who don't know us. But you still have things here to do, Percy. Dying here won't fix anything."

Percy silently nodded at Athena, the goddess standing him up.

"I didn't come in here just to make you feel contradictory," she explained. "Alister's awake."

"Is he okay?" the words were out of his mouth before she finished the sentence.

Athena winced. "Okay... is a pejorative term. He... is in a very fragile state right now. But, he did ask for you. And I think Willamina would be okay with it."

"Did you... um... take my request into consideration?"

"Yes. I enacted your... request, as it were," she answered, her mouth forming a thin slit. "It has been a long time since my son... ever asked for help like that, Percy. I couldn't ignore that. Not any more."

The goddess's words drifted away, as if she was remembering other moments. Percy waited to see if she wanted to say anything else, then made for the door.

"Percy Jackson." Athena's voice was controlled, but shaky still.

He turned to her. "Yes, my lady?"

"I feel it is only fair I make a request of you, as well."

"Yes?"

Athena's lip quivered, something Percy never thought he'd ever see. "Be good to my son."

"Of course."

The goddess nodded. "Thank you. I shall stay, for the night. Lamia shall not threaten you, not with me around."

"Lady Athena... you have my gr-"

"Go. He wanted to see you. He doesn't just need his mother, Percy Jackson."

The weight of that sentence slammed into Percy full force. Alister... needed him. Just as he needed the son of Athena. And he'd almost ripped himself away. Again. Gods, why was he such an idiot? "Thank you, Athena. For your wisdom. Just... thank you so much," he exclaimed, jogging out of the room. He needed to see him. Now.

Alister's room was clean. Sterile. Willamina's work, no doubt. The demigod was huddled under a light blanket on his back, shaking ever so slightly, when Percy entered. Athena had set up a chair right next to the bed, and that was where Percy sat down, right next to Alister. The blonde demigod turned away as Percy settled, a look of anguish on his face.

"Hey, Wise Guy," Percy led, leaning over to take the son of Athena's hand. Alister trembled, but he didn't fight the contact. "Your mom said you wanted to see me?"

"Percy... I'm so, so sorry," he quavered, shutting his eyes. "I... let myself get carried away. Minerva... she used that. She took emotions that I thought I had expelled and brought them back up to the surface, for everyone to see. She... she made me hurt you."

"It's okay." Percy brought Alister's hand up to his own cheek. "Everyone's all right. And Minerva is gone. She'll never be able to hurt you, or any of us, ever again."

Alister looked up at him, his eyes tearing up. "My mother... she... she was here. When I woke up. She said everything was okay. She said you were all worried about me. I... didn't believe her."

"Did you tell her that?"

"Yeah. I asked her why was lying to me. Percy... she apologized. After I snubbed her."

"Apologized for what?"

"For everything. For insulting me as Minerva. For not being strong enough to prevent her Roman counterpart from taking control of me. For letting me go at Arachne by myself. For... for stepping in between me and you."

"Athena... did that?" Percy asked, his voice dropping. "She... apologized for opposing us as a couple?"

"With tears in her eyes. It was the first time I'd ever seen her cry, ever. She promised me... that she'd do everything in her power to bring Percie back. And she... made a request."

There were certainly a lot of requests going around this infirmary. "What did she request?"

Alister reached his other hand out, putting it to Percy's left hand. "If we ever... were to marry," Alister choked, trying to blink back his own emotions, "she asked if she could be the one to officiate the ceremony."

Athena... wanted to officiate his wedding? The same Athena who tried more than once to have him killed? That Athena?

"Did... did you say yes?" Percy questioned, his mind locking up.

"I told her I didn't know. I'd have to ask you about it before I answered."

Percy could feel his heart, the same heart he tried to stab just a few minutes ago, tremble in his chest. Alister looked at him with wide eyes, waiting for an answer. "I... think I'd like that, Alister. Percie would, too. Athena and I had a very... eye-opening conversation earlier."

The son of wisdom smiled. It was a small one, but it was still a smile. It was a smile worn by a son who knew, finally, that he could count on his mother. And it was that smile that did Percy in.

"I love you, Alister Chase."

"And I love you, Percy Jackson. More than you could ever possibly know."

It wasn't Percy's first kiss. Not by a long shot. But it was the first one, in a while, to permeate through his entire being. His mind cleared, his body relaxed. His soul broke into a rendition of "Somebody to Love" by Queen. Somewhere, Aphrodite was giving herself a high-five. The Muses were making a toast. But none of that really mattered. All Percy knew, in that moment, was that the young man he was kissing would have his heart forever.

But he did have a question when it was done. "You've been shaking ever since I came in; why?" he asked, once their lips separated, though he didn't lean back.

A shudder went through Alister's body. "I'm cold. I... I don't know where Willamina put my clothes while she was examining me," he confessed.

Should he have looked around for them? Maybe. But Percy's mind remembered Alister's own words: Don't overcomplicate something if the answer can be simple. "You're not naked, are you?" he asked the son of Athena.

"What? No... she at least had the decency to leave me in my boxers."

Percy nodded. "I see. Well then, guess we better find some way to warm you up." The son of Poseidon hooked his thumbs under the hem of his shirt, pulling it over his head. The cool air of the room nipped at his bare chest, but Percy ignored it. "Geez, it really is chilly in here, huh?"

Alister's face as Percy fumbled with his pants was priceless. "What.. are you doing?" he asked, not looking away.

"Taking advice from someone much wiser than myself," Percy answered, stepping out of his pants. "There. Now we're both in our boxers. Now, scoot."

The son of Athena made a gargling sound as Percy lifted the blanket off him and snuggled in next to him, draping it over both of them. That sound was cut short, though, when Percy pulled Alister into his chest, wrapping his arms around the demigod's torso.

"Oh... gods," Alister moaned, as Percy's warmth covered him. "You... are completely insane, you know that?"

The son of the sea arched an eyebrow, smirking. "Is that your way of saying you want me to stop?"

Percy felt Alister's bare leg wrap around his own, yanking him in closer. The son of Athena stared right into Percy, a new look crossing over his face. "No. In fact, I think you might need to get even more... thorough... with your solution. It's... very cold under such a thin blanket, after all."

He didn't need to be told twice. It took some careful positioning, but after taking a minute to sort everything out, they had their spots chosen. Alister snuggled into Percy's sternum, pressing one arm against his chest and wrapping the other around his neck. Percy, meanwhile, kept one hand on Alister's waist while moving the other one to the small of his back.

"Better?" he asked once they were settled.

Alister sighed in contentment. "Perfect."

"Your mother is going to have a heart attack if she comes in here and finds us like this, you know."

"She'll live."

Alister did pause after he said that, though, then looked up at Percy. "I... don't know if I'll able to sleep tonight," he admitted. "Even with you here... the nightmares are gonna be relentless."

Percy pressed a kiss to his forehead. "How about this: if you do fall asleep, and end up having a nightmare, I'll wake up with you. Then I'll stay up, and kiss you until you go back to sleep. Rinse and repeat, until Morpheus finally gets the hint and leaves you alone. Deal?'

The son of Athena narrowed his eyes at him. "It's disturbing that you came up with that system so quickly."

"Systems make you comfortable. I know that much. And my goal," Percy leaned in, "is for you to get... very comfortable."

Alister melted into him at that, forcing a slow purr from Percy's lips. "Okay then," he responded, his voice small. "I'll try."

"Good night, Wise Guy," Percy whispered, and he'd barely finished before Alister's eyes fluttered closed and the son of Athena's head lolled against his chest. Percy grinned, letting the slow, rhythmic breathing of the boy in his arms lull him deeper and deeper, until he too drifted off into oblivion.

Chapter Text

"So, you're leaving with Artemis?" Blackjack neighed, pawing at the ground in restlessness. The demigod was brushing her pegasus's mane as they stood together along the bank of the Delaware River. The goddess of the Hunt was standing at the helm of her moon chariot, conversing with her reindeer. Blackjack threw some glances her way before turning back to Percie. "I mean, I know Artemis can be really chill with women, but you're taking the boys, too. What's gonna stop her from tossing them out in mid-air because she doesn't like the way one of them looked in her general direction?"

Percie studied Nico and Will, gathering up the rest of their campsite. The son of Hades was dour about his work, something Will clearly noticed when Nico got the zipper of the tent stuck as he closed it, and started glowing purple. The healer put his hand to the younger demigod's back, bringing Nico out of his building explosion. Even so, he didn't change his expression as the tent folded away.

She shook her head. "I don't really know, buddy. I thought this would be easier, somehow. With Nicola being a boy here, and all."

"Easier?"

"I thought his sister followed Bartholomew's path a lot more closely than she ended up doing," she admitted. "But since she was a girl here, the Hunters had their sights set on her from the get-go. Bianca took the offer, of her own free will; she wasn't almost kidnapped, like Nicola. Nico can't just blame the Hunters for ripping his sister away from him."

Blackjack considered her words. "Does he blame Bianca, too, then? That can't be healthy."

"It's not, no, but I get the impression he doesn't blame Bianca, at least not as much as you might think."

"Then who does he blame?"

Percie sighed, shaking her head. "I think he blames himself, more than anything. He sees himself as this pestering little kid, who drove his sister away from him, right to her death. He might try to put out the idea that he's upset with his sister, but I can see through that. He misses her; more than any of us seem to have realized."

It didn't surprise Percie when Annabeth appeared from behind the pegasus, her face making it clear she heard everything. "Percie, how could you know that?" the child of wisdom asked, keeping her voice down. "The anger that I was getting from Nico in that conversation seemed to be genuine, especially when he was questioning Bianca's motives."

The daughter of Poseidon ran her tongue over the inside of her lips before answering. "If I told you it was a sixth sense, would you believe me?"

Annabeth sidled up to next to her, putting a hand to Percie's bicep as she finished getting Blackjack refreshed. "Seaweed Brain, I know it can be hard for you to open up, but it's me. I know I'm not actually Alister, but I would like to know what's going on."

"You're definitely your mother's child, you know that?"

The blonde demigod narrowed her gaze. "What makes you say that?"

"Athena made me feel like an open book every time she looked at me. You and Alister are the same way."

Percie turned back to Blackjack, trying to find something else she could adjust on him that would busy herself, and give her a reliable excuse to end the conversation there. No dice. The winged horse didn't have a single hair out of place, nor a single sprinkle left in his maw that needed to be plucked away.

"Boss, maybe I should go," he mumbled, trying to shift away from her.

"No, you can stay. I'd hate to drive you off because Artemis showed up with her fancy chariot."

The pegasus shot her a knowing look. Even with his long horse face, Blackjack's meaning got across to her. He wasn't talking about ditching them so Artemis could Uber everyone to their destination in the Santa sled. He was trying to step away so Percie and Annabeth could have some privacy, before this last chance was over. The others would be ready in just a few minutes, and once they were all in the air, any hope of private conversation would pass on.

"Since when were you so perceptive?" she murmured at him.

"When I realized I was lucky enough to be the main source of transportation for not one, but two legendary heroes," Blackjack whinnied, nuzzling into her face. Percie hugged his muzzle, and the winged horse pressed into her. It was moments like these she needed to learn to appreciate more; the small interactions she got to have with people she might not see again for some time. Granted, Blackjack wasn't a person per se, but he had enough personality to fool her.

"Okay, then," she allowed herself to say. "If I need you, I'll let you know."

"No one here is your enemy, boss. Don't let your thoughts trick you into thinking otherwise."

With that, his wings unfurled to their full length, and he took off, vanishing into the twilight sky. Percie watched him go, then turned to face Annabeth, who's face had softened as she'd been listening to the half of that conversation she could understand.

"I don't want to sound like I'm prying, Percie, but is there something going on with you that you're trying to keep quiet?"

"Whatever gave you that idea? Was it the sour looks? Or... maybe the gloomy disposition?"

"Actually, it was the fact that you single-handedly faced Nico, unarmed, and still managed to get him sobbing into your arms not a minute later. You've been watching him like a mother hawk watches her eggs ever since. And now you offer a version of Nico's psyche that no one else seems to have considered, but sounds really likely?"

Annabeth furrowed her brow at the daughter of Poseidon. "Just what is your relationship to Nicola like?"

Gods, Percie did not want to talk about this. But the hypocrisy of asking Nico to spill his heart to her, and then not extend Annabeth the same curtesy, was too looming to back out of.

"Pretty similar to Percy's from what I can tell," she led with. "Unrequited crush, betrayed a promise to return their sibling to them, treated them like a rabid animal unjustly, all of those things carried over. Really, I think what's bothering me is something Nicola mentioned offhand to me."

"And what was that?"

Percie took a moment to compose herself. "It was after Nicola confessed her crush on me. She turned to leave, then said something that sounded like a joke. But now that I see Nico, I think she might have been a lot more serious than she was letting on."

Annabeth blinked, her eyes showing genuine curiosity. "So what was that addendum, then? When he told Percy, that was all he said. Aside from some playful jab about not being his type."

"That... was what he said instead?"

"You mean Nicola didn't?"

"No." Percie thought back to that night, after Gaea's defeat. Nicola's playful smirk, and that devilish spring in her step. She clearly thought Percie's surprise at her confession was hilarious, but then that playfulness faded into something more contemplative. The daughter of Hades' words echoed in Percie's head as she repeated them to Annabeth: "You're really more of a sister to me, Percie. If you were a guy, I might almost mistake you for Bartholomew."

Annabeth's jaw dropped in slow motion, as Percie's reveal unleashed a whole new cabal of revelations. "If Nico felt similarly..."

"Which he definitely could have, since everything else seems to be matching up," Percie cut in.

"... Then are you saying... you might be reminding Nico of Bianca?"

Why did everything have to connect so perfectly? Percie was going to sit Nicola down when she got back, and give her a nice long talk about accidentally predicting the future. Hopefully before she went and predicted the death of Janice, or something. That girl needed to watch herself; she was already one of the strongest demigods on the planet. She didn't need to add precognition to her already expansive list of powers

"If I am, no wonder he's been looking at me like I remind him of something pleasant," Percie put together. "I mean, did you see how unfazed he was by my story? He actually told Will they had nothing to fear from me. Before he even knew who I was! Since when has he ever been so un-paranoid?"

Annabeth put a hand to her chin, pondering this newest predicament. "It doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing, Percie. Maybe someone who can fill that hole in his heart could help him out down the long road."

Percie disagreed. "Annabeth, if all goes well, I won't be here for that. Remember?"

"Oh... oh, no."

"Exactly. He's going to lose two sisters, and Nicola is going to lose two brothers. I can't do that to him. Not... not again."

The ground under Percie's feet started to shift, but Annabeth grabbed her by the shoulders, keeping her up. "Nope, you're not passing out again," she exclaimed, holding on tight. "Percie, you can't start thinking like that now. Nico has his weaknesses, like everyone else, but he's far stronger than you're giving him credit for. Bianca's fate was a tragedy, no argument there. But you being returned to your world; ending the unraveling of the universe... that's our happy ending."

"But it's not his," Percie whispered, turning to look at the smaller boy. Will was whispering something in his ear, which finally managed to break Nico out of his grumpy state. The son of Hades let a small smile cross his face as Will started poking at his side, then turned to give the healer a quick peck on the lips.

"I will not let any harm come to that kid ever again, Annabeth," the daughter of Poseidon vowed, facing her companion once again. "I can't stop him from thinking of me like that, though, so I guess... we'll have to see."

The daughter of Athena returned a consoling expression, cupping Percie's chin in her hand. "You always did get a little too reckless in your loyalties, didn't you?" she bemoaned quietly, kissing the demigod. Percie let Annabeth take the lead in the exchange, before turning her head to the side so she could speak.

"The fact that I can still get attached to anyone, after the first few years of my life, is something I hold dear to," she mumbled, as Annabeth pulled away in confusion. Percie shook her head. "Not now. Not when we could technically get interrupted. Later. Please."

The child of wisdom gulped, then nodded. "Okay. Later."

"Thank you."

The two women locked hands with each other, then approached Artemis in her chariot. The goddess raised an eyebrow at the public display of affection, but didn't say anything about it. "I'm ready when you are. Pisces has about a day ahead of us, so we need to be vigilant in our travels," the deity remarked, tugging at her hood.

"So we all know this is a trap, right? It's never a simple rescue mission," Percie pointed out.

"Obviously," Artemis retorted. "Though I suppose the real question is who the trap is for. Perhaps it could be me, or maybe this Genius anticipated getting your attention with this abduction, Ms. Jackson."

"My money is on the second one," Annabeth put forward.

Artemis raised an eye at her. "May I hear your reasoning?"

"The Genius probably knew that the gods would be too busy debating the matter of the world falling apart at the seams to bother about the Hunters. Even you said you were unable to defy Zeus until he was distracted. Because the Genius had no way of knowing if such a distraction would ever come up, if he really wanted your attention, my lady, he would have done something that couldn't be ignored. Ergo, this kidnapping of the Hunters was meant for someone who couldn't just stand by and let it play out."

Percie nodded in approval. "Very nice, Wise Girl. But what makes you think that that nosy person would be me?"

"Because the coincidence would be too unlikely. Think about it: Circe kidnaps Will and Nico, and not a few hours later, the Hunters get abducted in the exact same area? Circe specifically called you out in your dream. She wanted you to come to Philadelphia. It ensured that you were in the vicinity, meaning it'd only be a matter of time before some blabbermouth nymph came running to you about it. Now that I think about it, I don't think Circe was allowed into the whole plan. The Genius used her as a scapegoat to bait you here, so he could lure you into his real trap with the Hunters."

Artemis frowned. "A troubling idea... but not one I can dispute."

Percie had an idea occur to her. "Oh gods, I think we might have missed a serious clue, too! So Sagittarius and Pisces were working together to lure in the Hunters and take them, right? Now remind me: Who did we run into in Circe's underground house of horrors?"

Annabeth's eyes widened. "Ganymede... Aquarius!"

Now it was Artemis's turn to look stunned. "Wait, Circe was using a man as part of her guise? That's a first."

"And something I pointed out when we were down there!" Annabeth repeated, face-palming. "I couldn't figure it out! Why did she change her M.O so drastically? But if we follow the reasoning of that she was being used as one of the Genius's pawns... then suddenly Aquarius's presence makes sense."

"He was there to make sure we arrived, so he could pass on word to his co-conspirators," Percie realized, her ears burning. "And to think I thought he was hot! Gah, I'm gonna need another shower before this is all over."

Artemis gazed in disapproval at Percie's confession about Ganymede, but moved on. "Aquarius, Sagittarius, Pisces... and the Genius. Plus whoever cast the spell in the first place. It seems there are a lot more pieces on this board than any of us were anticipating."

It wasn't a reassuring thought. After Nico and Will finished packing up their campsite, all four demigods boarded Artemis's chariot. The moon goddess cracked the reins, and her reindeer leapt into the air, Percie having to keep a firm grasp on the seatbelts the Olympian had seen fit to include in her vehicle. Nobody looked happy to realize they were walking into an obvious trap.

"Especially when we're probably outnumbered," Annabeth informed them.

"Why do you say that?" Will posed, purposefully standing in between Nico and Artemis. The son of Hades didn't look very pleased, but thankfully he held his tongue.

"Because Aquarius, Sagittarius, and Pisces are all part of a set, remember?" she pointed out. "They might not crisscross in their original incarnations, but modern fascination with them as the astrological signs means they've all formed their own version of the Twelve."

Artemis cleared her throat. "A number of us on Olympus raised that issue a few decades ago, but Zeus shot the idea down. Said it was ridiculous to think that the signs could pose any sort of real threat to us. I suppose he's right in a technical sense, but that didn't stop them from partnering with this Genius."

Nico looked perplexed, turning to the conversation. "But what makes you think all twelve are involved? The only two we know for sure are Sagittarius and Pisces, since Aquarius's presence could still be a coincidence."

The goddess bit her lip. "Many of the signs... don't have very good history with us, Mr. di Angelo. In point of fact, Sagittarius and Pisces probably would have been voted least likely to attempt anything evil if you called for a debate on the issue. Their involvement anyway means the others must at least be aware of this conspiracy, if not actively involved."

Percie's stomach calmed enough for her to stand up. "Can we get the rundown, Wise Girl? So we at least know what to expect?"

Annabeth sighed. "Sure. Who do you wanna know about first?"

"Let's go with the fish. He sounds fun."

"She, actually. Pisces is a woman."

"Barely," Artemis muttered to herself.

Annabeth ignored her. "Pisces was originally a two-headed fish, who carried Aphrodite and Eros to safety when Typhon first started running amok. As a sign of gratitude for saving the life of her and her son, Aphrodite put the fish into the sky, where the two heads separated into two individual koi. Such an honor also granted Pisces power, and the two fish can now form into a single entity, a beautiful woman, as an ode to the goddess who rewarded them. Be warned: Pisces is one of the oldest constellations, and her involvement in this cannot be a good sign."

"Hey, if I was to grill Pisces, should I serve her with lemon butter, or cilantro?" Percie asked. Everyone in the chariot shot the daughter of Poseidon a dirty look, which she sank away from. "Come on, guys. Lighten up. It's about time we faced an opponent we could eat, instead of the other way around."

Will just ignored her. "And Sagittarius?"

"Crotus. A child of Pan. A dear friend to the Muses, and avid hunter. He invented the bow, applause, and plenty of other things that we probably don't know about. Despite often appearing as a centaur, he's actually closer to a satyr, though he tends to appear in a mostly human form now. The Muses were so enamored with him, they asked Zeus to put him in the sky for all the good he delivered the world. Some even theorize that it was Crotus who first practiced the art of illumination in hunting."

"He did," Artemis answered. "Despite his promiscuousness, Crotus maintained a diligence in the wild that even I must respect. Despite what Apollo may claim, or what I may pretend, it is he who is archery incarnate. The only reason my Hunters do not lie dead now is because he did not will it. None of them, not even Thalia, could ever hope to match him in a confrontation."

"So we've got a gorgeous fish, and a dead-eyed wildman to contend with," Nico murmured. "Better than a bunch of ugly giants, I guess."

Percie wasn't really paying much attention to the young man. She was chewing on the name Artemis had just dropped. "Thalia... would I know her? She seems... familiar."

Annabeth grimaced. "Daughter of Zeus. Got turned into a tree. Went with you on the quest to free Artemis from Atlas. Does that help?"

Percie gasped. "Oh, great. Thomas is a Hunter here?"

Artemis's head snapped back to the daughter of Poseidon at that. "Why do I detect indignation in your voice, Percie? Thalia is a wonderful member of the Hunt; she's become my most trusted lieutenant. Many of my new members are brought comfort by her leadership skills."

The demigod clammed up, not wanting everything unsavory to spill out all at once. "It's just... even seeing him as a woman, I can't imagine Thomas ever showing anything close to respect for the Hunters."

"And why is that?" the goddess challenged, though there didn't seem to be any anger directed at Percie.

"Um... before I answer that, I need to ask something: When you guys were sorting out who would go on the quest to take on Atlas, how did Percy end up included?"

Annabeth actually seemed to hold back a chuckle. "He snuck out. The Hunters refused to travel with a guy, after all... wait a minute."

The daughter of Athena realized the contradiction as she said it. Percie nodded. "Yeah. Zoe requested me, specifically. That's how I ended up coming along. I take it the same held true for Thalia, since she was a woman?"

"And Thomas would have been left behind," Will added, intrigued. "So how did he get involved? I can't imagine Zoe would have been very happy to have him along, since she was already forced to bring Bartholomew with her."

Percie sucked in her cheeks. "Yeah. She wouldn't have. So... Thomas decided to play his own gambit."

"His own gambit?" Nico asked, now interested as well. "What did he do?"

"The fifth member, Phoebe, ended up being on the receiving end of the Stoll sisters and their pranks, so she was out of commission. Zoe had to find a new Hunter, and decided on a newer recruit, who called herself Ingrid."

The moon goddess actually looked puzzled at that claim. "But I don't have any Hunters named Ingrid. Never have, if I remember rightly. And from what I can piece together, my Hunters did not go through any changes when the worlds differed. So... how did this Ingrid appear?"

This wasn't gonna be fun. For Artemis, at least. Nico was bound to get a kick out of it. She just hoped he didn't get himself killed.

"Ingrid... wasn't a Hunter at all. In fact... she wasn't even a woman."

Annabeth's jaw dropped for what felt like the seventh time that day. "No...he didn't..."

"Yeah. Thomas manipulated the Mist, and made everyone see him as Ingrid, for the entire quest."

Sure enough, the barest hint of a smile started to come over Nico. Artemis was a different story.

"He did WHAT?!" she bellowed, clutching to the reins in a rage. "That man... took on the shape of a maiden, and joined the Hunt in disguise?"

That wasn't the worst part of the story. Not by a long shot. "The weirdest part was, it worked a lot better than it should have. None of us were really paying that much attention to Ingrid; she kept to herself, stayed out of the way in fights, and never spoke up unless something was serious. The Mist maintained... until we finally started to head up Mt. Tamalpais. Lightning struck the car, which ended up disrupting the illusion. Thomas told me later he suspected Zeus was trying to kill him, to hold back the prophecy."

Annabeth looked to be enraptured by the story. "I take it Zoe didn't appreciate being lied to?"

"After losing an eye to Bartholomew? She was looking for a fight, and Thomas handed her one on a silver platter. She lit into him, screaming about his 'pathetic-ness' and total lack or regard for honor. He'd been listening to her mock Bartholomew the whole way, and was sick of her constant belittling of men. He pushed back, calling her a jealous creep, because he talked Lucille out of joining the Hunters the last time they'd met. Zoe had tried to convince the daughter of Hermes, but she had refused to leave him and Alister behind."

No one else in the chariot said a word as Percie continued: "Zoe's reaction was... predictable. She snarled, and told him that if he had just let Lucille go, then maybe she wouldn't be working for Kronos, and he wouldn't have to kill his best friend."

The demigods all shuddered, and even Artemis seemed to go still.

But there was more to tell. "That was the last straw for Thomas. He already felt horrible about Bartholomew's death, and Zoe bringing up Lucille to him didn't help matters. All still might have turned out okay, if what happened next didn't go down the way it did."

"What happened?" the goddess asked, her posture frozen. She seemed to know what answer was coming.

"Zoe proclaimed that she'd kill me before she ever let Thomas deprive her of another Hunter again. I mean, I knew she wanted me along because she wanted to induct me into the Hunters, but I'd already told her multiple times that I'd never leave Alister like that. She must have realized that the Alister I was referring to was the same one who Lucille had been loyal to in the past, and that pushed her over the edge."

"She was facing the same two men who'd snatched Lucille away, and inadvertently led to the current situation with Kronos," Nico gaped, catching on. "She assumed the same thing was happening again, just with Percie."

Percie nodded at him, trying to keep herself composed. "Yeah. At that declaration, Thomas had enough. He attacked her, just as she went to strike me. She missed; he didn't."

Artemis slowly turned to Percie, her silver eyes sparkling with danger. "Zoe didn't die at the bite of Ladon in your world, did she?" the goddess asked, her voice low.

Time for the big reveal.

"No. Zoe died right there on that mountainside."

Annabeth's gaze darted between Percie and Artemis. "So Thomas killed her? To protect you?"

"No."

"What?"

"Thomas managed to stab her in the arm, but he didn't kill her. He didn't want to draw any more ire from Artemis, or the Hunters. Zoe wasn't holding back, though. She pulled her daggers, and went to stab him right in the face. She didn't make it."

Everyone in the chariot all stared at the daughter of Poseidon as the answer became obvious.

Percie nodded at their silence, her mind resigned to its fate. "I killed Zoe Nightshade, to protect Thomas."

Chapter Text

"Mm... gh... erch!"

Percy's eyes flickered open, his brain whining at him to just ignore the sounds coming from next to him and get back to sleep. Such a suggestion earned a very harsh reprieve from his heart, who told his brain to plug its ears if it bothered him so much. The son of Poseidon hadn't been able to fully sink back into sleep after the last fit Alister had, so he was wide awake before the second round of whimpers began.

"Easy, Wise Guy," Percy whispered, tapping his finger to the sleeping demigod's collarbone. Grey eyes battered at the air, before Alister sighed, coming back to the waking world.

"I'm sorry," he said, tucking his head on Percy's shoulder. "This is what? The fourth time tonight?"

Percy locked his hands behind the son of Athena's back, pressing them together. "I haven't been counting. But you don't have to, either. If I have to stay awake all night to keep an eye on you, that's what I'll do."

"Percy, I don't want to keep you up all night. You can go; I'll be fi-"

Percy's lips met Alister's, shutting the latter up. The child of the sea didn't let up until the tension in the other demigod's lips faded away, and he relaxed into the embrace. "You can let me worry about you for a night. You've been trying to take everything on yourself; you need a place where you can be safe. A place where someone else can be in charge. As it happens, that place is right here."

Percy nuzzled into Alister's neck, eliciting a silent moan from the child of wisdom. "Now, close your eyes, and sleep. I'm not going anywhere."

After the first few times they'd gone through this, Percy had kept his promise. He'd stayed awake and kissed the son of Athena back into tiredness. Doing so meant he'd had plenty of time to find the spots on Alister's body that could sap any of the other boy's will to argue with him.

Before Alister could say anything else, Percy lowered his face, planting his lips on the patch of skin directly under Alister's clavicle. Keeping one arm behind the child of wisdom so he didn't fall away from the touch, Percy dragged his other hand up across his stomach and onto his chest. The son of Poseidon couldn't stop himself from grinning as Alister went limp at the action, his eyes closing involuntary and a gasp escaping from his mouth.

"Shh... I'm here. I know you're a fighter, Wise Guy. But you don't need to fight this. You don't need to fight me."

The son of Athena gave an almost imperceptible nod, his breathing becoming regular, and deliberate. Percy kissed up his neck again, stopping at his ear. Taking care not to overdo it, he placed several tiny brushes of his lips against the back of Alister's ear. By the time the fifth one had been planted, Alister was asleep again.

Smiling to no one in particular, Percy tussled some of the boy's hair out of his face, so he could put one more to his forehead.

"You'd make Hypnos proud."

Hearing Athena's voice out of nowhere like that would have normally startled Percy into some loud exclamation about not sneaking up on people, but he didn't have the benefit of such a display, given his current situation. Not letting go of Alister, Percy merely turned his head, so he could look at the goddess, now seated in the chair next to the bed.

"You know, the 'please knock' sign was put on the door for a reason," he complained, keeping his voice as quiet as he could. "And Hypnos needs to get a hold on his son, so I didn't have to play his role every time Morpheus sees fit to toss some horrible image into Alister's head."

Athena eyeballed him. "And you needed to take your clothes off to play that role, did you?"

Percy felt himself grow hot at being called out like that, but pushed ahead. "He was cold, and we didn't know where his clothes were. I decided to invoke one of his conclusions: don't make a mess of something with a simple answer."

"Nothing about what is going on between you two, clothed or otherwise, could ever be called simple, Percy Jackson."

Alister shifted in his sleep, earning a glance from both demigod and goddess, before he bundled into Percy's side, his head resting against Percy's cheek. "I think I may have to disagree with you there, Athena."

"You'd disagree with wisdom, son of Poseidon?"

"Wisdom and intelligence are not the same thing, are they?" he challenged, running his hand over Alister's.

"What are you trying to imply?"

"You might be a virginal goddess, my lady, but unlike Artemis, you too have fallen in love before. Is Alister's birth not proof enough of that?"

Athena crossed her legs, like she was about to raise an objection to a ludicrous proposal she'd just heard at her bi-monthly PTA meeting. "Yes, Percy. I have. What of it?"

Percy gestured at her and her son. "Then may I hear how you processed that love? Was it really a complicated thing for you? Or did it strike you as simply as it seems to resonate with me?"

For once, the goddess of wisdom looked stumped. Percy danced for joy in his head, finally getting to score a point against her. Sure, it wasn't a competition, and she still would have creamed him if it was, but he took pleasure in making sure it wasn't a total sweep.

"Love is not my domain, Percy Jackson," she sniffed at last, seeming to decide on something. "But from what I understand of it, the chemistry behind it can be incredibly simple... and highly dangerous. I am merely doing as you requested of me earlier tonight: I'm being his mother. And as his mother, I get a tad worried when I find my son being seduced when he's not in a good state of mind."

"And as I recall, you made a request of me as well, Lady Athena. You asked me to be good to Alister. Me being here for him, as vulnerable and tired as he is, can only be a good thing, yes? Alister told me you wanted to officiate our wedding. I know you're aware of the implications behind that; I don't exactly see my wedding to Annabeth being a chaste one."

Even in the darkness of the room, he would have sworn he saw a blush dance across Athena's face. "And you wouldn't have given your support like that if you didn't approve of our relationship reaching that level," Percy continued. "So why are you so disconcerted by seeing us like this? Being open, and vulnerable with each other? I love him; he loves me. Why might that prove dangerous now?"

The goddess hesitated, then ran a hand over her eyes. "I am not blind, Percy. I do not doubt your feelings, nor the feelings of my son. My apprehension, if we're calling it that, comes from the fact that Alister did not fall in love with you first. He fell in love with Percie."

Ah. Now the point emerges. "I see. You're worried that we might be letting old lenses color our perception of each other," he guessed.

"Precisely. You and your Annabeth, like my Alister and Percie, were matches I did not see coming, but came to accept. At least, if your Athena is anything like me, she wouldn't have predicted it. But nevertheless, I allowed it. Percie, much like yourself, seemed to be both the best and worst choice for a partner I could have ever picked out for him. I see much of her in you, just as I'm sure your Annabeth sees much of you in her. But... there are differences. You may not be aware of them, but I guarantee they exist. If they do surface, and I'm sure they will, you must tread them carefully. To Alister, the slightest aberration may prove to be too much."

Despite the direness of her words, Percy was calmed by Athena's explanation. She wasn't being a prude, or being a nagging mother. She was just doing as Percy had asked. Her warning was not made out of displeasure, but concern.

"I... understand, my lady. You're right; we must be careful. I know my word may be difficult to judge, but I promise that we will."

"Please do," she repeated. "I have lost far too many children to their own flaws than I care to admit, Percy Jackson."

The goddess went to stand, but Percy had one more thing to tell her. "Athena? About that question you asked Alister earlier... officiating the wedding between him and Percie? I have her answer, if she really is anything like me."

Athena paused, half-out of the seat. "I see. And how do you believe Ms. Jackson would take to that offer?"

"She'd be all for it. Because it would make Alister happy."

The deity froze, and for the slightest of milliseconds, Percy saw the confidence crack. It returned as soon as it left, but there was no forgetting that brief window of time: Athena just doubted herself. She was doubting if her warning to Percy was needed.

"I... thank you, Percy. For... everything."

She stood, gazing down at the two boys. "Lamia made an attempt earlier this evening, to enter your mind. I don't believe she shall try again any time soon, if she's even able to recover from the thrashing she received during the endeavor."

Guess having a war goddess guard your mind had its perks. "You have my gratitude, my lady."

"And I yours, Percy. For what it's worth... I think my other self should be honored to see you as her son-in-law."

Two compliments from Athena? In one day? That was going in the history books. "I... don't know what to say, Athena," Percy admitted. "I'm not used to you being so... accommodating."

'Don't get used to it," she remarked in a dry tone. "I'm sure once this mess gets fixed, I can settle back into the role of disapproving matriarch without much trouble. And I'd appreciate it if you kept this side of me a secret from anyone else." Her voice was serious, but she actually winked at him as she finished.

"And risk the wrath of you? No thanks."

She nodded, then perked her head. "Now that Lamia is out of the picture for the foreseeable future, let me see if I can't do something about Morpheus." Moving gently, the goddess leaned down, placing one finger to her son's forehead. A small light spread out across Alister's face, and he smiled in his sleep, curling against Percy.

"What was that?" Percy asked, a little shocked.

"Just a part of my blessing; my real blessing. He should be calm for the rest of the night. And now let's make sure you don't try anything while he's out."

Before Percy could protest, Athena touched his forehead, and all of a sudden, the room got very hazy, and his eyes closed. In his last moment of consciousness, Percy would have sworn the goddess was smirking at him. "Good night, boys. And Percy? Be sure to check in at the lobby desk in the morning. I left a gift for you."

Getting roofied by your boyfriend's mother wasn't something Percy could really recommend to anyone, since the path most people would have to take to get to that place was something he wouldn't wish on his worst enemy. Okay, maybe if it happened to Apollo. That would be funny. But only under the right circumstances. Percy did have to credit the experience with one thing: It provided him with the means to have two nights of sleep in a row without having to worry about nightmares.

The only trouble was, it meant waking up on his own was something that would have to be put on hold.

A knocking at the door roused Percy from his slumber. The sun was out, so at least the night had came and went. Movement in his arms brought his attention to Alister, who looked better than he had in a while.

"Is that Willamina?" the son of Athena asked, both amusement and fear creeping into his face.

"Alister, I'm coming in," the daughter of Apollo called out, the door knob turning.

Shit. Shit, shit, shit. There was no time to redress, or come up with some plausible explanation for why an almost-naked Percy was in bed with an almost-naked Alister that didn't involve censor bars and adult warnings.

The son of Poseidon fumbled around, but Alister put his hand to Percy's face, getting his focus back. "Hey, I can handle it," he said, giving Percy a quick peck on the lips. It sounded good, sure, but what did he have in mind?

Percy was about to find out one way or another, because the door opened less than a second later, the healer stepping in with her eyes glancing down at a clipboard.

"Sorry if I disturbed you, bud, but I wanted to come in here and-" Willamina's sentence fell away as she looked up and was treated to the sight of two shirtless demigods snuggling together, Percy looking guilty, and Alister looking amused. "What in the name of Alexander the Great are you doing in here?!" she cried out, her clipboard plummeting to the tile.

Before either boy could respond, Rey's voice came from the hallway. "Is he awake? Good. I was hoping I could come in an-" the praetor came in and stopped short, arrested by the same sight. "Huh????"

"Willamina. Rey. How's it going?" Alister asked, the very picture of unconcerned. He gave Percy a squeeze under the blanket, then tilted his head at the two invaders. "Can I help either of the two of you with something, or can it wait?"

His blasé tone must have thrown them off, because neither one answered. Faith's voice came in from the hallway: "Is something the matt- Gah!" the daughter of Mars spat out as she came in, making it three demigods frozen in the doorway to the room.

"You've got to be kidding me," Percy mumbled to himself, leading to Alister suppressing a chuckle before he addressed them again.

"Faith? How you doing?" he questioned, no sign of panic in his face whatsoever.

The female praetor put her hand over her eyes, her face turning an incredible shade of red. Rey's mouth dropped, his gaze locked on the two demigods. Willamina was also turning red, but not from embarrassment, if the knot in her eyebrows was any indication.

"Are you seeing this?" she demanded of the two Romans.

"No!" came Faith's sharp response, putting her other hand over her eyes as well. "Guys... I am so, so sorry," she pleaded.

"My legs. They... refuse to move. I can't leave," Rey said lamely, not even bothering to look away.

Willamina threw annoyed looks at both of them before facing Percy again with vigor. "So, Mr. Jackson, care to explain why you're in my patient's bed, in your underwear, looking like an embarrassed kid on prom night?"

"Because I asked him to be," Alister responded, scratching at his hair without missing a beat. "I was cold, and since you didn't bother leaving my clothes out where I could find them, I asked Percy to stay with me, so he could hold off the chills. Is there a problem with that?"

"Nope!" Faith cut in, still refusing to look at the boys.

"Not at all," Rey seconded, a smirk playing on his lips.

The daughter of Apollo exchanged a silent conversation with Alister in their minds, the son of Athena looking like the very picture of innocence. Which had to be hard, given that he was still clutching to Percy's chest, with his hair messy and unkempt.

"It's flagrant, disrespectful, and shocking," she finally muttered, her eyes making it clear she wasn't happy, "but no. If you asked him to, then it's not a problem."

That was all Faith needed to hear. "Works for me! I'll leave you be." She vanished out the door, her steps loudly pounding down the corridor.

Rey's smirk got bigger, but he finally seemed to remember how to use his legs. "Best give them some time, Willamina. Just... to finish whatever they need to finish," he remarked, slinking out of the room, but not before shooting a thumbs-up at Percy. Great.

Willamina huffed after him, then spun on her heel. "You've got five minutes to get dressed and get out of here, Jackson. And if I hear even the slightest of suspicious noises from the other side of that door, you're gonna get cursed with rhyming couplets that would make Michael Drayton turn into a serial killer."

She slammed the door to get her point across, which was enough to send Percy scurrying across the room, grabbing clothes and putting them on as quickly as he could. Alister watched him with a grin. "You okay, Percy?"

"I guess. Don't think the same could be said for Faith, though," he returned, pulling his pants on. "She'll be lucky if she doesn't go blind, really."

"Oh, you're not that ugly," the son of Athena cracked, leaning back. "At least we gave Rey quite the performance."

Percy shot him a tired look, grabbing his shirt off the floor. "And now the praetor can go to sleep without worrying, knowing what we look like in bed together. Oh, glorious day. I can check it off my bucket list."

Alister dropped his smile, leaning forward. "Okay. I'm just joking. Geez, since when did you lose your sense of humor?"

Percy was about to stretch his shirt over his head, but he stopped at Alister's tone. Athena's words echoed in his mind, telling him to tread lightly, and he took a moment to compose himself. "I know. It's just... I'm a little sensitive about us... in that way, you know?"

Alister's annoyance was replaced by concern. "Is that a me thing, or is Annabeth the same?"

"What, because you're a guy? No, no, nothing like that. It's... I just don't like sharing that part of me outside of the two of us." Percy sat down on the bed, taking Alister's hand. "That place... it's for me, and you. I don't want anyone else involved. Is that wrong of me?"

"No, of course not. But.. we didn't actually do that, though."

"No, but every single one of them thinks we did." Percy let the room mellow a bit before he continued. "You were in a really vulnerable place, Alister. So was I. That vulnerability isn't something I'm willing to give out to everyone. For both my safety, and yours."

The son of Athena nodded, running his thumb over Percy's knuckles. "I see. When you were whispering to me last night... that safety you mentioned... you're right. I don't want the others to see me like that."

"Yeah. Not saying you shouldn't feel comfortable to trust the others with anything that might be bothering you, but what just happened was a little too close for my liking. There are some parts of me that I'm not willing to divulge like that. Is that... okay?"

Alister smiled. "Of course. Why wouldn't it be?"

Percy sighed. "Nothing... I'm sorry, I just value that trust you showed me last night a lot. And their interruption made me feel like I was betraying that trust somehow."

The demigod took Percy's other hand, leaning to the side so he faced him head-on. "Percy, please. You don't need to apologize. It was out of your control; besides, it was nothing I couldn't handle."

"Oh, yeah. You did handle that little fiasco a lot better than I would have."

Alister chuckled, kissing him. "Perk of being a child of a strategist."

Athena. "Oh, yeah. Your mother dropped by last night to tell me Lamia made another shot at killing me in my sleep."

"Let me guess: Lamia now has a spurting hole where her head should be?"

"Eh, she didn't go into much detail. All she said was we should be okay for a few days."

The child of wisdom rolled his eyes. "Because of course she didn't kill her. Why did I get my hopes up?"

"She had already killed Minerva, Alister. I think she was still feeling tuckered out from that."

Alister cocked an eyebrow at Percy. "Since when have you been such an ardent defender of my mother, Percy?"

"When I agreed to let her officiate my wedding, and told her so myself."

A light, not from the sun, spread across Alister's face. "Then... you said yes? She could do it?"

Well, there went any doubt in Percy's mind that he might have been presumptuous about Alister's feelings towards Athena's request. "Yeah. Said it was worth it, just to see you happy about her finally going along with us as a couple."

More kisses came at Percy, the son of Poseidon having to bob and weave to sneak his own in amidst the flurry Alister was slinging at him. Willamina's fist beat against the door again, her voice rising over the walls of the infirmary with a fervent blaze. "One minute, Jackson! So help me, gods, I will see to it that you can never attend a lecture class ever again!"

Alister pouted at the door. "Spoil sport. Guess you better get going, before she unleashes the wolves."

"She's a child of Apollo, not a Hunter," Percy threw back, pulling his shirt over his head.

"Could've fooled me."

Finally making himself presentable, Percy opened the door, almost hitting the waiting healer in the face. "About time, Percy!" she wailed, slipping past him and blocking the way back into the room. "Now, I know how dense our Percie can be, but even she would have had the sense to keep her hands to herself at a time like this!"

"Willamina, as your patient, I must ask you be polite to my boyfriend," Alister called out from the room. "Your anger might trigger an anxiety attack, or cause an ulcer to appear, if you don't lower your voice."

The daughter of Apollo seethed. "Fine," she grunted, looking back to Percy. "Give me enough time to conduct my examination. Once I'm done, if he's okay, I'll discharge him, and you two can continue the festivities from there."

Percy winced, but managed to pull a smile. "You're an angel, Willamina," he told her, stepping down the hallway. "Guess that's why you compliment Nicola so well."

"You...! Little...! Idiot!" she blathered, slamming the door shut after her. Even through the wall, he could hear Alister laugh at her antics.

That was certainly an... interesting way to start the morning. Heading through the corridor, Percy recalled Athena's reminder for him to check out the desk in the lobby before he went anywhere else. The lobby was deserted, so Rey and Faith must have made themselves well and truly scarce after getting more than they bargained for on entering Alister's room.

Now, what did Athena leave for him?

The desk in the lobby didn't have anything on it, so he had to go digging through some of the drawers before he spotted it, in the fourth cabinet to the right. Percy's heart wretched when he opened the drawer.

There, lying solemnly in the middle of the empty cabinet, was a very familiar pen. Holding it with ginger hands, he tested the weight, then held it out. Taking a breath, he extended his palm out and removed the cap. Riptide slashed out, the blade shining with a luster he hadn't seen since he first used it against the Minotaur. Looking at it, he noticed something new: words engraved along the base of the blade.

"From a very grateful mother."

Athena... that clever sap. Percy sank back into the chair, his gratitude to the goddess now through the roof. He sat there for a moment, his mind fuzzing with all sorts of emotions, when the door to the infirmary opened.

Nicola came striding through, stopping short when she saw him. "Ah. Percy," she acknowledged, giving him a nod. "Forgive me if I can't stay and chat, but I have somewhere to be real quick."

"If you're looking for Willamina, she's in Alister's room."

The daughter of Hades shook her head. "Nah. I know that. Actually, I need to check in on Janice first. Now- where is he?" she mumbled, turning back around and sticking her head out the infirmary. "Over here. Come on, Grace. Has anyone ever told you you have the attention span of a chipmunk?"

Grace? Looking for Janice? Percy's chest thumped as he realized who she had to be talking to.

His mind snapped to attention, just as Nicola's escort came through the door. Jet black hair, save for a single blue streak that curved down the teen's face. His black leather jacket gleamed through the lazy lights of the lobby, and the chains he wore around his belt clanged against one another with oomph.

"Know which room?" his baritone put forward, as he fully stepped in. The son of Zeus towered over Nicola, which wasn't all that hard to do, but Percy estimated he had to be at least 6'3", and that was without the high boots he was sporting.

"12A. She should be up, so no need to go asking Willamina for permission. Even if she wasn't awake, I'm sure I could find a loophole that would let you in," Nicola returned, coughing on her skull ring and polishing it with the sleeve of her shirt.

"Thanks, Nicola. You're an angel," he responded, stooping low to kiss her on the cheek before marching on. "Hey man. What's up?" he threw at Percy, walking into the main space of the building.

Percy guffawed a little, earning a smirk from the daughter of Hades. "He's a tall drink of water, isn't he?" she teased, clearly amused by his confusion.

"Umm... I don't really need to ask, but just for clarity's sake, was that...?"

The child of the Underworld tapped her foot against the floor. "Yes, Percy. That would be Thomas. Son of Zeus, brother of Janice, and all-around great guy to be friends with. Oh. Yes. And the killer of Zoe Nightshade."

Chapter Text

Percie had to hand it to Artemis; for a goddess, she showed remarkable restraint. If the day ever came where the daughter of Poseidon was finally forced to utter the truth about what happened on that mountain, she knew she wouldn't survive the Hunt's wrath. It might have been an arrow, or a savage mauling at the hands of a rabid hyena. Heck, there was always the possibility Artemis might just go nuclear on her face. But... this wasn't her Artemis. That one litigating factor saved her life.

It did not, however, save her from getting choke-slammed into a giant tree. Really, it could have been so much worse.

The entire party had sat in stunned silence after Percie revealed the truth of Zoe's death. No one noticed Artemis bring the chariot down out of the sky until the moon goddess left her place at the reins, grabbing Percie by the neck and smacking her into the bark of a nearby oak. Percie's windpipe immediatly went on the endangered list, as Artemis's silver stare reached an intensity level that would have rivaled Apollo's sun Porsche.

"You... killed Zoe?" the goddess boiled. Despite being in the form of a small girl, she had remarkably strong fingers. Percie tried to open her mouth to speak, but the grip tightened, and the child of the sea was forced into silence, every available ounce of strength she had left forced to direct its attention to keeping her breathing going.

"You killed her, before she ever got to see me again?"

The Hunt's voice had transformed. The lilting eloquence of the goddess was giving way to a stampede of growls and snarls, as if a thousand wild beasts were about to emerge from her throat and rip Percie into bits.

Percie's sight started to blacken, as the force choking her only increased. Through the blinking spots now clouding her vision, she could make out Will and Annabeth. The former was holding the latter back, the son of Apollo straining to keep the other demigod from launching herself at the goddess. Her hearing was starting to fade out as well, but Percie could have sworn that Annabeth was screaming something.

Artemis either did not hear her, or did not care enough to listen. And the weird part was... Percie understood why. As close as she was to the people in her life, Artemis had known Zoe for three thousand years. Even if the one she spoke of technically wasn't the same Zoe, that kind of bond wasn't the type to be easily severed by a change in dimensions. How else could she explain the feelings she was holding for the daughter of Athena, who even now increased her efforts to break Will's hold on her.

The healer strained at the task, but he held on. Then, as the iron burning in Percie's throat seemed to reach its erupting point, a small realization dawned on her. Will and Annabeth were in sight... but where was Nico? No sooner had Percie noticed his absence then the other two did the same. Will's grip on Annabeth subsided, and the daughter of Athena paused, looking around.

Her eyes went wide. As did Will's. Percie's probably did too, but that was because they were about to pop out of her skull. That didn't count.

What did count, however, was what came next. Artemis was so caught up in her strangling of the demigod, she didn't seem to register what was happening until it hit her. What hit her was a squadron of undead colonials. Tricorn hats, frilly coats, and powdered wigs didn't make the sight any less terrifying. The zombie settlers dogpiled the goddess, ripping Percie out of her hand.

With wheezing gasps, Percie sank down the tree trunk, her hand clutching at her throat. Annabeth was at her side in a moment, pulling her back along the ground as more undead joined the fray, twisting and tearing at Artemis as she whirled on them, hissing like a cornered panther. Nico stood in the shadows of a dead tree, his eyes burning with dark fire. He held out his hand, and the earth beneath him ruptured, as a horde of zombie Native Americans rose from the depths.

The onslaught was overwhelming. Every time the goddess managed to throw off one of her attackers, two more fell into place, quickly burying her under the writhing pile of walking corpses. A pained howling lifted through the trees, piercing the night sky like a wayward arrow.

Annabeth was still dragging Percie through the mud, away from the action, but the daughter of Poseidon struggled. "Annabeth... stop... I can move," she grumbled, kicking her legs out at the passing roots.

The child of wisdom compromised, allowing Percie to climb to her feet, only to resume pulling her back around towards the chariot. Will met them halfway, putting his hand to Percie's neck.

"That's gonna leave a seriously nasty bruise," he muttered, scanning through his knapsack. "I think I have an ice pack in here somewhere."

Percie shrugged him off, turning back to the unfolding scene. By now there were more undead than there were trees. They swarmed the area, climbing over each other in an effort to get to their prey. Nico stood in the middle, his eyes unblinking. His newly summoned minions parted around him like some demented messiah, all in a driven effort to extinguish the threat they'd been called to fight. Percie could no longer see Artemis, but flashes of light escaped through small cracks in the undead legion, as she fought.

"Forget about me," Percie dismissed, shaking free from the two demigods. "I have to stop him!"

"Percie, you can't," Will argued, grabbing at her wrist. "When Nico gets like this... there's no bringing it down. You have to wait."

"Will, he's going to kill her."

The words felt wrong, but Percie knew them to be true. As powerful as Artemis was, she was hopelessly outnumbered in this fight. And she was already down. The mound of zombies scratching and clawing at the goddess was now starting to rival the oak tree they'd been standing under in height.

"But... how?" Annabeth asked, blinking back tears. "Percie... how can you... still defend her? She was going to kill you!"

"So was he, not four hours ago," Percie shot back, pointing at Nico. "Yet here we both stand. I will not let Nico go down this path, Annabeth. And I will not let Artemis fall. Do you even want to think about the chaos her death would unleash on the world?"

The goddess of the wild, and childbirth, and the moon. As much as none of them wanted to admit it, Percie knew Annabeth and Will understood that the world couldn't lose Artemis. It was why she'd agreed to save her from Atlas in the first place.

She got no more objections. Satisfied, Percie waded through the moaning cadavers, pushing aside rotting minutemen and decaying Redcoats. Reaching Nico took more time than she would have liked, but none of the undead even looked at her. They were zoned in on their target.

"Neeks, you can't do this," she pleaded, grabbing the boy's shoulders and spinning him to face her.

Nico looked at her with dead eyes. "Why not? She was going to kill you. Seems fair, if you ask me."

"Nico, killing Artemis would cause more problems than it would solve. We can still salvage this; just call them off."

"No."

The boy went mute, turning his head back to the carnage. Percie shook him, screamed at him, even slapped him at one point. But she got nothing. The son of Hades was a mannequin; still and silent.

Fine. If he wanted to play hardball, so could she. Riptide didn't so much as come to her hand as it appeared. The sword glistened in the moonlight for a moment, then seared through a wave of undead. One unfortunate dead guy got his jaw lopped off, but he didn't seem too bothered by it. Another lost his arm in the daughter of Poseidon's dash for the center of the dead people jamboree, but just picked up the severed limb with his other arm. Geez, Nico, quite literally, didn't raise no quitters.

The ant nest of zombies converging on the goddess was now starting to resemble a water balloon that was being pushed to its limit. Grey matter and organs were getting chomped as the walking dead slashed each other in their effort to reach Artemis.

Oh, this was gonna be gross.

Telling herself to keep her mouth closed, Percie stabbed downwards into the horde, getting down in the muck with the jostling remains. One very nasty Native American warrior with an eyeball dangling out of the socket by a single tendon pressed his face next to Percie, eliciting a sharp shriek from the demigod before his head got cleaved off. With every leg she cut off, every face she split in two, every torso she skewered, Percie got closer and closer to the center of the pile.

A colonial zombie who brushed against her lost his nose in the process. A politician of some sort got his legs taken at the knees. Two women in big puffy gowns learned what a literal translation of the phrase "a little off the top" meant.

Almost there.

By now, Riptide's bronze metal was stained black with goo. Liquid that Percie really didn't want to think about dripped down the handle of the sword, coating her arm in sludge. A slash cut a young newspaper boy zombie into three pieces. He splattered all over her face, making her want to retch. But she couldn't slow down. She was so deep in the pit, she might not be able to get out if she turned around now.

One more guy wearing a silly wig lost his whole face, and suddenly Percie was there. She caught sight of Artemis, thrashing at a trio of cadavers in circus gear. That was disturbing. The goddess cut one of the performers in two, only for the others to pin her arms to the ground, hissing. Another corpse raked his nails down her cheek, drawing flecks of golden blood. Even in the moaning mosh pit, Percie could hear the deity scream.

Yelling herself, Percie severed at the assailants, mincing the circus duo into chunks of flesh, and lancing Riptide completely through the final attacker. She couldn't rest on her laurels; she had literally milliseconds to act before new zombies replaced those. Now crouched next to the fallen goddess, Percie threw herself on her, covering every inch of her that she could.

Artemis looked at her in absolute astonishment as the undead closed in, her voice lost in the mournful wail of the dead husks once again granted life. She must have realized Percie didn't hear her, because in the next second, her voice exploded in the demigod's head.

"What are you doing, Percie?" she exclaimed.

A telepathic conversation. Yay.

"Saving a friend."

The goddess's astonishment turned into bewilderment. "Friend? But... I just tried to kill you!"

"So? If I held a grudge against anybody who ever attacked me with intent to kill, I'd have literally no friends," Percie answered, the fact that it was only a half-joke kind of depressing her.

"But why save me?"

"Because your anger was justified. Because I don't want Nico to do something he'll regret. And... because I'm sick of people dying on my behalf."

The zombies grabbed at Percie, trying to pull her off the goddess. Percie shoved her fists into the ground, thinking tree thoughts. If they got her off, it was over. The nails of the undead grazed across Percie's skin, and for a moment she was scared she'd misjudged Nico. Her fears were unfounded.

The undead, clearly at a loss for what to do now that the person they were supposed to protect was blocking the way to the person they were supposed to kill, all froze up. Artemis arched an eyebrow at Percie, but the demigod shook her head.

"Please, my lady. Let me talk to him. Let me explain," Percie appealed.

Percie could hear the zombies part for their master as he approached, behind her. "Percie. Get off," Nico's voice barked.

"Or what? What will you do?"

"I'll... I'll... I'll pull you off myself, and then finish it."

"Finish what, Nico?" she asked.

The son of Hades blustered behind her for a moment. "I'll finish defending you."

"Do I look like someone who needs defending right now, Neeks?"

It was quite the sight: Percie, shielding the goddess of the hunt with her body, covered in zombie guts and body parts. The goddess lurked under her, blood dripping from several wounds on her body, but she did not flee, or try to resume the fight.

"Percie... I don't want-"

"You don't want to do what, Nico? Hurt me? Too bad. If you want to get to her, you're gonna have to get through me first."

Not allowing herself to get up, Percie readjusted herself so she was lying on Artemis on her back. Nico stood above her, his face an ashen white. The son of Hades seethed, but he did not move from his place.

"Nico, I understand wanting to protect someone. How do you think I felt when your dad trapped my mother in the Underworld? How do you think I felt when Atlas kidnapped Alister? How do you think I felt when I learned that Nicola was being kept hostage by Otis and Ephialtes?"

Some of the zombies on the outskirts of the horde disintegrated. "It's the worst feeling in the world. Feeling helpless. Feeling alone because of it."

Redcoats quivered and vanished, departing into dust. Colonials and Native Americans alike collapsed into nothing. "It's the ultimate way of torturing yourself: every day, you ask yourself if there was something you could have done, something that might have changed it for the better.":

Percie paused in her speech to glance back at Artemis. "I think about Zoe every day. We might not have gotten along, but I admired her strength. Her resilience. We were more alike than I think either one of us ever wanted to admit."

Only about two dozen undead remained. They wobbled, and caved in on themselves. One might have even giggled as he watched his own body dissolve. Talk about a death rattle.

"We had the same fatal flaw, you know," Percie continued, gazing at Annabeth. "We were loyal, to a fault. So loyal, we could lose sight of the bigger picture. Athena was completely right; I would have sold the world out in a heartbeat if it meant sparing the lives of just one person I loved. Zoe was no different: she would have crossed the universe itself to reunite with her mistress, her commander... her friend."

Artemis's gaze lifted up to the sky, seeing something Percie didn't spot. Her lips moved, Percie making out the words "beautiful stars".

"There's not a day that goes by where I don't ask myself if there was something I could have done to stop the confrontation on that mountain. Maybe I could have talked Thomas down... maybe I could have stood up for Bartholomew... maybe I could have bluffed about wanting to join the Hunt. But I didn't do any of those things. I'll never know. But what I do know is this: if you put me back on that mountain, and had those same events unfold the exact same way...," Percie breathed to herself, "I'd do it all over again."

"Seaweed Brain," Annabeth murmured, coming to her side.

"Thomas was... is, my friend. And as much as I might have wished things had gone differently," she had to compose herself a moment, "I do not regret my actions."

Nico and Artemis both stood silent, absorbing Percie's words.

"My plea to you, Nico, is to stop the events you see unfolding now. Don't let it reach the point where your hand is forced, as I did," Percie told him. She turned to the goddess. "All the same, I did kill her. And I would do so again." Percie moved Annabeth away, kneeling in front of Artemis. "If you still seek vengeance, my lady, by all means. Take it. I will not begrudge you that. All I ask is that it be quick. Zoe did not suffer; I do not wish so, either."

Artemis crackled with energy, her eyes landing on Percie, then fixing on Nico. The son of Hades didn't tremble at her gaze, but he did lower his head. Will appeared next to him, wrapping his arms around the boy from behind. Nico exhaled, folding into the embrace.

"Percie Jackson," Artemis rumbled, her essence coming alive with silver light. "You continue to surprise me. First you throw yourself into battle to rescue me, from a fate I do not wish to think about," she threw a glance at Nico, "and then reverse direction, throwing yourself on my mercy, or rage. A decision you openly leave to me. After admitting that you would not alter your course if you could go back to that moment."

The daughter of Poseidon nodded.

"I don't know if you're stupidly brave, or bravely stupid," the goddess concluded.

Percie managed to snicker. "You're not the first to mention that, my lady."

"No, I imagine not."

Artemis stepped forward, and everyone else sucked in a breath. With a deliberate motive in her movements, the deity placed her hand on Percie's shoulder. Instead of searing pain, or visions of bloody carnage, Percie felt an aura of tranquility settle over her.

"I believe you to be a woman of honor, Percie Jackson. Your perseverance, honesty, and heart are clear to be seen." Artemis pulled the demigod to her feet, wiping some of the black goo off her face. "I will not pretend to understand you... but perhaps that is why I find myself willing to forgive you."

"F-Forgive me?" Percie stammered, truly taken aback.

"I was not there. I cannot say whether or not you made the correct choice. But taking what I have learned of you this evening into count, there is no doubt in my mind that you did what you thought was right. And knowing your character as I do now, I will not punish you for that."

Percie had to blink away tears. After years of hiding this truth... of lying to everyone, she'd finally confessed. And now, the one person she'd lied to the most... was forgiving her?

"I shall even forgive Mr. di Angelo, for his... over-protectiveness," the goddess added, throwing some side-eye at the son of Hades. Nico gaped at her, so Will had to speak for him. "You're... even forgiving that, Lady Artemis?" he asked.

"Would it not be hypocritical of me to condemn him for defending someone he cares for? After I just made an attempt on Percie's life, for someone who was already dead? No, I am not so blind that I would see myself held to different standards than a boy."

Okay, kind of a back-handed compliment, but the gesture was still noted.

Will smiled at his aunt. "Thank you, my lady. And my sincerest apologies on behalf of my boyfriend. He's... a bit of a loose cannon."

"Eat an arrow, Solace"

The mood was... actually light. Percie couldn't believe it. She... was alive. She was forgiven.

Annabeth pulled tight to her, shivering against her shoulder. "Percie... I need to know. What... happened?"

Everyone in the group sighed, sharing glances with one another. Then, in a move Percie did not see coming, they all sat down in the mud, with her in the center. Even Artemis, who produced some ambrosia from inside a sleeve of her tunic and began chewing on it.

"Story time, then, huh?" the daughter of the sea joked. With a weight she didn't even know she was carrying now lifted from her shoulders, the demigod found it easier than ever to talk about...

 

"You'll never take another Hunter from me, Thomas Grace!" Zoe shouted, her body tensing as she faced down the son of Zeus. Percie clenched her teeth, backing away from the shouting match on the side of the road. Grover, still completely out of it from the lightning strike, mumbled something about chili dogs before rolling over.

The daughter of Poseidon had to bat the rain pouring down on her face away, trying to make out the two figures in front of her. Zoe's back was to her, clothed in the tunics of the Hunters. Thomas, brandishing Aegis and his spear, looked absolutely feral from this angle. The son of Zeus sneered at her, hefting his pointed weapon at her chest. "I never took one to begin with, Zoe! Lucille made her choice, on her own! What, are you so blind to your own hypocrisy? Can't tolerate the idea that a woman might not think the same as you?"

"I will not be lectured on hypocrisy by the bastard son of a pig like Zeus!" the Hunter screeched, her frame silhouetted by a lightning bolt flashing overhead.

"Don't you dare compare me to my father!"

Percie, sensing trouble, patted her pocket for Riptide. The pen seemed to glow in the rain as she pulled it out, like it could tell conflict was brewing.

"Guys, please!" Percie yelled, stepping towards them. "We can't turn on each other! Atlas still has Alister, and Artemis! We can have this argument later. After they're both safe."

Zoe turned to her, a heartbreaking smile on her face. "So determined, Percie. So... loyal. So headstrong." She looked back at Thomas, a glint in her eye. "Think you can take her as well, Thomas? Not while I still draw breath!"

What happened next happened quickly, seemingly all at the same time. With speed Percie hadn't seen before, Zoe pulled her bow, an arrow notching as she spun on her foot. With that glint in her eye now etched on her face, Percie could see what was coming. The bowstring was yanked back, aimed right at Percie's head. She didn't have time to dodge.

She didn't have to. The bowstring was severed, Thomas' spear slicing through it like a knife through butter. The weapon continued on its forward thrust, burying itself up to the hilt in the Hunter's forearm. With a yell of fury, Zoe wheeled on the male demigod, dropping her bow to the ground. Percie's mind screamed at her to move... to stop this.

Zoe's hands went to her belt. Her daggers lay there, sheathed, but waiting. Thomas raised Aegis to block her, but the shield only managed to stop the first blade. The second one darted past the armament, its course heading straight for the boy's eye. Even in the rain, the smile of victory on the Hunter's face was like a lighthouse calling in ships to port.

Then... the dagger stopped. Zoe looked down, confused. Thomas blinked, stunned by the miss as well. How could she have missed at that distance? Where was her blade?

It was still in her hand. But that hand wasn't attached to her arm any more.

Riptide, coated in blood from severing the hand from the arm at the wrist, struck again. As the harmless blade, with the fingers still clutching it, clattered to the mountainside, Percie plunged her sword into Zoe's back. She ran her through, the point of the weapon sticking out of her chest.

"W- W- What?" the Hunter managed to dribble, sinking to her knees. With a look of utter disbelief written on her face, Zoe turned to face her killer, as Percie ripped the sword away, leaving a gasping hole in her midsection.

"Leave him alone!" Percie shrieked, raising Riptide above her head. Taking a two-handed grip, Percie closed her eyes and swung with all her might. A sickening chopping sound split the air, as Percie decapitated the kneeling warrior. Zoe's head, her final expression one of absolute shock, toppled from her shoulders, bouncing down the mountain as her body crumpled into a heap.

Percie didn't know she was crying until Thomas shook her gently. "P- Percie," the son of Zeus whispered, leaning down to look her in the face. "What... did you do?"

"I protected you."

Despite the tears, there was no tremor in her voice. No questioning. No regret. Thomas recognized it first, stepping back with a horrified expression. "Percie... the prophecy."

The Oracle's raspy voice echoed in her ears: "The Titan's curse one must withstand... and one shall perish by an unwavering hand."

"What... do we do?" she managed to ask, steeling herself. "Thomas... Artemis... she'll kill me. She'll... never believe me. She'll never forgive me."

"No, she won't."

Well, that wasn't very reassuring. Percie stared back at Grover, completely out of it. He'd be no help. "I have to tell her, though," Percie realized. "She deserves to know. Zoe... Zoe loved her. And she loved Zoe back."

Thomas panted, eyeing the corpse before them with a pained expression. He must have been running every possible solution to this situation through his head.

Just as Percie began to truly break down at the thought of her own death, the son of Zeus looked up, his eyes blazing with sparks. "I have an idea. You saved me... now it's only fair I return the favor."

No. He couldn't. "Thomas, please," she begged him, catching wise to his plan. "You can't do that. Not after I just tried to-"

"Listen to me, Percie," he cut in, grabbing both her shoulders. "You're the hero Olympus needs right now. You have your mother, Alister, Grover, and everyone else back at camp. You have your whole life ahead of you."

"So do you!" she protested, beating her fists against his chest. "You just got it back! I can't ask you to throw it away for me."

"Percie... I have nothing beyond you, and a few folks at camp," he continued, his voice quiet. "Lucille... lost her way a long time ago. Anything we might have had is gone. And Alister?" He actually chuckled. "I think you'd be a better fit for him than me, if I'm being honest."

"We're not... that," she argued, but the lack of conviction in her voice was obvious. "Besides, Athena would never allow it. She'd kill me if Artemis didn't."

Thomas arched an eye at her. "Oh, would she? She might find herself facing one very angry Poseidon if she did that, wouldn't she? Not to mention Aphrodite, Hermes, Apollo,-"

"No!" she yelled, but her energy faded. She couldn't argue. The son of Zeus had a point. A lot of people would miss her. And him... he'd be lucky to have ten people at his funeral. "Are you sure... you want to do this? Is there really no one out there you could find? A friend, a forgotten crush, a long-lost sibling, something!"

Thomas shook his head, still smiling. "Children of Zeus don't make many friends, Percie. Our love lives tend to get hijacked by Hera, and if I had some random sibling running around, I'm pretty sure my dad would have mentioned them."

So it was true. He had no one... other than maybe her.

And faced with that reality, Percie couldn't say she'd feel different.

"Okay, then. I'll go along with it."

Thomas held her, so he could speak into her ear. "Whatever you do... this has to stay between us. No one, not even Artemis, can ever learn the truth. Especially Artemis. I don't want my death to be in vain, Percie. Please. Promise me?"

"On the Styx?"

"No, not on that. But on our friendship."

"... Okay. On our friendship."

The plan was made. And set in motion with the defeat of Atlas. The Titan was left screaming in rage as he resumed his burden. Percie, exhausted from holding up the sky, had stood by as Thomas told Artemis the new version of what happened on the mountain. She expected the outrage, and the fury. What she did not expect... was Artemis dragging both her and Thomas into the throne room of Olympus, before all of the gods, minus Hades.

"Your son murdered my lieutenant, Father!" Artemis screeched, her voice rising above the ceiling of the room. "Percie will testify to it! He deliberately provoked her, and then struck her down like some rabid animal!"

Zeus, along with the other Olympians, all turned to the fourteen year-old girl. Facing down all of them together, Percie doubted she could do it. Surely one of them would see through it. Then, Thomas caught her eye. Ever so secretively, he tilted his head. "Tell them I did it," he seemed to beg her.

"It's... it's true," Percie forced out, keeping her emotions down. "Thomas killed Zoe, without even batting an eye."

"Nice!" Ares chirped, getting death glares from several of the other gods. "What? There's no room for weakness in battle. If she didn't want to die, she shouldn't have trusted herself around him in the first place."

"Yet again, your sense of right and wrong astounds me, son," Hera remarked, looking elated despite the proceedings. "Given the testimony of dear Percie, alongside Artemis's story, I see no reason to debate this issue further. Right, husband?" she cooed at Zeus, leaning over with a smirk.

"Hera, you expect me to just put an end to it here, with no evidence beyond the word of someone who was not there, and a child of my brother's?" the king of the gods rumbled.

Poseidon glared from his throne. "Are you accusing my daughter of lying to us, Zeus? What would she have to gain from that?"

"How about a nice juicy chance at fulfilling the prophecy herself?" Apollo suggested, leaning back with a pleased grin, like he'd just cracked the case. "Just a little false testimony, and boom! No more competition."

"Percie's not lying," Thomas announced, cutting off the argument. "Everything is true. Zoe is dead, by my hand."

Athena glared at the pair of demigods. "Oh? Rather... honest of you, Thomas, to back the word of someone who just signed your death warrant. You've known her for what? A few months now? Are you so close that's there's no ill will between the two of you?"

Zeus put his hand up, silencing the room. "A fair point," he admitted, though he didn't look happy about it. "Percie Jackson. I shall ask you again: Did my son kill Zoe Nightshade? Fear not; as long as your answer is honest, no harm shall come to you."

Well, that didn't really help out matters. Giving the fact that Artemis was staring literal daggers at Thomas, it would not be surprising at all for her honesty to be repaid with just a change in defendant. Percie had to will herself not to look to Thomas. Even without doing so, she was certain he was pleading for her to go along with him.

"It's the truth, my lord. Thomas killed Zoe; I have no other motive beyond wishing to see justice done."

An unwavering hand, indeed.

Hera smiled at her. "Thank you, child. It's demigods like you that remind us all of what we should expect from our children." The queen of the gods threw several pointed looks around the room, causing quite a bit of shuffling amongst the others.

Zeus did not waver, but he did ultimately nod at Percie. "Very well. Since my son does not contest his guilt, and Percie has confirmed it, I see no reason to argue this point any longer. All that remains is the punishment."

"Death. Slow. Painful. Fields of Punishment, at least. Tartarus, if I'm lucky," Artemis growled.

"Yikes, someone's made her mad," Hermes chuckled, crossing his legs. "But it does raise a point: Thomas could very well be the child of the prophecy? Can we afford to toy with fate like that?"

"Oh, who cares about the prophecy?" Aphrodite fumbled, combing her hair with a bright pink hairbrush. "So he killed some silly little Hunter. Should he really die for that?" The goddess of love ignored Artemis's death glare, only pausing to examine her nails. "For all we know, Zoe deserved it. Or maybe she attacked him first. Self-defense makes for a very compelling argument."

Percie almost spoke up at that, hoping to use that reason to really tell the truth. But Thomas's face halted her. His eyes conveyed everything: there was no going back, no changing the story.

"Eh, who hasn't gotten a little too swept up in the moment, and chopped someone into pieces?" Ares added, making puppy eyes at Aphrodite. "Happens to me at least once a week."

"That's because you have no sense of irony," Dionysus returned, shaking a bottle of Diet Coke. "Regardless of his intentions, the fact remains a very loyal warrior to Artemis now lies slain. We can't set a precedent for leaving mistakes like that unpunished, can we?"

"Enough!" Zeus bellowed, the ceiling crackling with electricity. "It appears this debate must be settled by vote. Seeing as how both Artemis and myself have a vested interest in the outcomes of this decision, we shall both abstain."

"Father!" Artemis tried to argue.

"No! Our votes will just cancel each other out anyway! It doesn't matter!" he snapped.

Demeter laced her fingers together. "So, what are the options? Death, as Artemis has suggested? Or amnesty?"

"No, not amnesty," Athena countered. "Even if not killed, Thomas must face some sort of consequence for this. I will not abide a reckless demigod as the child spoken of in the Great Prophecy."

"Then how about this?" Poseidon leaned forward, his gaze darting between Percie and Thomas. "If spared, Thomas will be confined to the Lotus Hotel, until we see the prophecy come to pass. He serves a sentence for Zoe's death, and does not stand a chance of being the one spoken of to save, or destroy, us."

No arguments were raised, but Percie blanched. Her own father... had suggested that? How could he? The Lotus Hotel... that was no way to live. Looking up at him, Poseidon knotted his eyes at her, before lowering his gaze. He seemed to be contemplating something.

"Very well. The stakes are set. If judged to keep his life, my son shall be held in the Land of the Lotus-Eaters, until the prophecy comes to pass," Zeus declared, not paying attention to the clear dissatisfaction of Artemis and Hera.

"That leaves ten votes; five ties," Apollo added, smiling again. Come on, man. It was first grade math! No need to be so proud of yourself.

"Hmm. What shall we do in the event of a tie?" Demeter pondered. "Thoughts?"

"Easy. I shall cast the deciding vote," Zeus proclaimed.

"Oh, come on!" Artemis complained. "What, I don't get a vote, but you do? When it's the most important one? What kind of fairness is tha-"

"That is my decision, and I WILL NOT BE QUESTIONED!" the king of the gods declared, rising to a massive size. "You toe the line with me, Artemis! I shall not hear any more dissent, from you, or anyone! Now sit, and be silent!"

The goddess of the Hunt actually seemed to grow nervous at her father's outburst, shrinking into her throne. She nodded, looking like a scared little girl. Zeus slowly returned to the thirty-foot size that was normal for the Olympians, then nodded at his wife. "Hera, you may begin."

"My vote should be obvious," Hera sneered. "The boy must perish for his actions. No amnesty." 1-0.

"Indeed," Athena seconded. "To leave such a volatile power unchecked would not be wise, nor practical. Nothing personal, brother, but what has happened today must not be repeated." 2-0.

Aphrodite rolled her eyes. "Oh, please. Were you not listening to the terms? He's no danger to anyone with the Lotus Eaters. I say he should live." 2-1.

Hephaestus, having kept silent to this point, sat up straight in his chair, fiddling with a wind-up jetpack. Wow. Percie couldn't believe she hadn't noticed that yet. "As reckless as he might be, I believe us pariahs must stick together. I cast my vote for him to live." 2-2.

Ares snorted. "You guys are so boring. The Lotus Eaters would wear his spirit out of him. Better to die than suffer that. Let's blow him up!" 3-2.

Apollo blinked, staring at Ares. "But... weren't you just commending him... oh, whatever. Sorry, bro. But I can't abide anyone who would hurt my sis like that, purposefully or otherwise. You gotta go." 4-2.

Demeter cocked her head at Thomas, putting a hand to her chin. "Hm... as frightening as it may be, I know what it's like to have a child ripped from you so suddenly. It is not something I would see done against my own family, even for grievous offenses. Perhaps I may change my mind in the future, but today, my mind is clear. The boy shall live." 4-3.

Hermes grinned. "It's not every day I see someone finally shut Artemis up." The messenger god snuck a peek at the Hunt, clearly enjoying her forced silence. "Oh, if only she could stay like that forever. This may seem a tad random, but I feel I must pay Thomas back for giving me this gift. He may live." 4-4.

Dionysus tossed his hand, dismissively. "String him up, for all care. We still got the Fleece. He's not needed to protect the camp any more." 5-4.

Percie sucked in a breath. Everyone knew how Zeus would vote. He'd acquit Thomas, no question. This meant... the final vote would be the decision maker. And who was left?

Poseidon rose in his throne, taking in the scene before him. Every god in the room was staring at him, and Thomas was looking to the ground, seemingly resigned to his fate. The sea god blinked at him, then turned to his daughter. He looked Percie right in the eyes, seemingly trying to figure out what she really wanted.

She'd told them she wanted to see justice done. Did her dad buy the lie? Would he condemn Thomas in a misguided attempt to appease her? Or did he know her well enough to see that she was hiding something? That she wanted nothing more than to see her friend safe, after she'd saved his life.

"Please, dad. Let him live," she begged in her mind, hoping he could hear her.

The long silence was clearly making everyone uncomfortable. Even Zeus shifted in his chair. "Brother," he murmured, "I know we don't always see eye-to-eye. I know... I overreacted when my lightning bolt was taken. I unfairly blamed you, and Percie. But... please. Don't take my son from me."

Percie couldn't believe her ears. Based on the look on his face, Thomas couldn't believe it either. Neither could any of the other gods, come to think of it. Ares accidentally broke one of his fingers, trying to crack his knuckle. Dionysus opened his still fizzing Diet Coke bottle and sprayed himself with the beverage. Aphrodite got her comb tangled in her hair, ripping out several long strands.

"My daughter told us she wished to see justice done," the sea god said suddenly, tapping his finger to his chin. "I've been pondering what she meant by that. I admit that I have not been the most... attentive father, to her. But today, I feel like I finally understand her."

Poseidon turned to Zeus. "There is no need to worry, brother. I vote for Thomas to live."

Chapter Text

"What do you mean, he killed Zoe?"

It was a good thing the reveal had shocked Percy to the level it had, because that was the only reason he didn't scream the question at the top of his lungs. The walls and doors of the infirmary had demonstrably proved that they were not as soundproof as they had looked. He'd already earned the animosity of Willamina thanks to his half-naked presence in Alister's room, and the daughter of Apollo would not have taken kindly to the son of Poseidon waking up everyone in the building with his startled exclamation on top of that.

Nicola raised an eyebrow at him. "Uh... yes? What, did not that happen with you?"

"No, it definitely did not," Percy responded, shooting up to his feet. "Zoe got bitten by Ladon once we made it up the mountain. Even then, the poison didn't kill her until we defeated Atlas. How did it happen here?"

The daughter of Hades put a hand to her hip. "Look, all I know is what Percie told everyone after the fact. Maybe you should talk to him if you want the full story there. He'll be out in a minute, as soon he finishes checking on Janice."

The two demigods stood there, waiting. Percy was so thrown by the reveal behind Zoe's fate, he didn't notice that Nicola was sporting a different look until a few minutes had passed. Her hair, which the day before had been worn down around her shoulders, was now tied into a ponytail, hanging off the back of her head. A pair of bony earrings had been added, and unless Percy was mistaken, the younger demigod was rocking a subtle shade of purple eyeliner.

"Going somewhere today?" he asked her.

"What, this?" she motioned to her face. "Just... trying something new. Peter's always telling me that I shouldn't be afraid to experiment a little with my look, so I don't 'scare the pants off everyone I meet for the first time', I believe was the way he phrased it. Really, if I didn't know Mina liked it, I wouldn't bother. I like scaring people."

"Mina? Since when have you been one for nicknames, Ghost Queen?" Percy remarked, leaning against the lobby desk.

The daughter of Hades blinked at that. "You mean, the version of me in your world doesn't really do that? Like, at all?"

"I'm sure he does, but I've never heard him call Will anything other than Solace, annoyance, or when he's feeling affectionate, boyfriend. Nico isn't really the social butterfly that you seemed to have settled into."

"What part of me makes you think I'm anything even close to that?" she put forward, pointing at her eyeliner. "Because of this? Look, this is a rarity, okay? I just wanted to do something special for Mina. I had to wait until she left this morning so I could put it on. I want it to be a surprise."

That was... actually quite sweet. And if Percy didn't know any better, he would have guessed he saw the daughter of the Underworld redden a little at having to explain herself to him.

The door from the hallway opened, drawing their attention. Willamina stuck her head in, affixing Percy with another icy glare before she visibly brightened at seeing her girlfriend. "Neeks! I'm gonna need.... a... woah." The healer trailed off as she spotted Nicola's new fashion. "You look... really good."

Nicola giggled a little, something that would have sent off red flags for Percy if he ever heard Nico do it. Yet, he didn't feel the need to hit the deck when she did it. "I was wondering if you might be amenable to taking the next few days off," she said. "We haven't been able to go anywhere together ever since that mess in Tallahassee."

"Oh, you mean the mess you got us into with your shadow-travel, because you'd been teleporting us all over the country without rest?" the medic threw back, stepping into the lobby. "I was washing the scent of that skunk-ape out of my clothes for weeks, you know."

"Yes, I know," Nicola pouted, stepping up to her. "But I still miss you, even if we technically see each other every day. Would you please ask Rey or Faith if it's okay for you to leave for a bit? I promise not to overwork myself with the shadow travel this time."

Willamina squinted at her, cupping Nicola's chin in her hand and tilting her head upwards to get a better look. "Neeks, please tell me you didn't put all this on just because you thought it would make me change my mind about spending time with you."

The daughter of Hades got quiet. "I didn't do it... to bribe you, or anything. I just know you like it. And I wanted to do something for you. You've been... very patient, with me, and I sometimes feel like I'm not doing enough to justify tha-"

Nicola's sentence got cut off by the healer pulling her into a hug, Willamina's tan arms contrasting against the pure darkness of the coat the daughter of Hades was wearing. "Don't do that, sweetheart," the daughter of Apollo murmured in her ear. "If you want to put on some accessories or makeup, go right ahead. But don't ever feel like you need to change something about yourself for me, okay?"

The smaller girl inhaled, then nodded against her shoulder, returning the embrace. They stood like that for a moment, before separating. "I was just coming in to tell Percy that I finished up with Alister," the medic continued, shooting Percy another dirty look. "As far as I can tell, he's good, so he'll be down in a minute. I've discharged him." She turned back to Nicola. "Let me go have a look at everyone else real quick. Once I've gotten an all-clear, I'll track Faith down and ask for some time off. Wait for me here?"

She got a nod in response, and kissed the child of Hades on the cheek. "See you then. Oh, and Neeks? As good as that stuff looks on you, it's still nothing compared to the original."

With that, the healer was gone.

Percy rubbed at his arm, not able to push down the feeling that he might have accidentally intruded on what should have been a private moment. "She's... just as compassionate as Will," he finally said.

"I would hope so," Nicola returned, her face not showing any emotion. "I'd hate to think of myself falling for a jerk, after all." The female demigod chewed on that statement for a second, then started for the door. "I'm gonna find a bathroom. Wash some of this infernal stuff off."

Her pace took her to the door in just a few steps, but moving at such a pace meant she didn't have time to stop when the door opened and Alister stepped into the room, bumping right into her.

"Doh! Gah... oh, Nicola!" the son of Athena exclaimed, steadying himself against the doorway. "Sorry, I didn't see you."

"No problem, Alister. Most of that was my fault, anyway. Serves me right for not being aware of my surroundings," she responded, brushing the front of her jacket. "Just heading for the bathroom."

Alister nodded, stepping aside, but as she passed him, the blonde demigod spoke again. "And thank you. For... helping me when I needed it, yesterday."

She paused, looking over to him. "No thanks needed, Alister. You would have done the same for me. Even... knowing my feelings for Percie, you still came when I needed you. So don't get hung up on me doing what anyone else with a heart would have done."

"Well, I'll mark this day on my calendar. Nicola admitted she had a heart."

"I also have an undead army at my beck and call. Maybe don't go around blabbing that first part to people, or I'll be forced to introduce you to them."

Alister chuckled. "Me? Blab? Perish the thought. Hermes himself couldn't get past the vault that is my lips when it comes to your secrets, Nicola."

Nicola returned the laugh. "See that you don't." With that, she left.

The son of Athena shook his head at her departure, then crossed over to Percy. "Well, I've got a clean bill of health, but Willamina has asked me to stay in New Rome for the next few days, just so she can make sure there's no lingering effects from Minerva's influence," he explained, giving Percy a quick kiss. "Guess we'll have to spend the intervening time making a plan."

"For Demosthenes, right? Can't forget about him, now that Lamia's been benched," Percy guessed. "Well, he might be called the Genius, but we've got our own strategist working against him, and forgive me for the boast, but I think ours is much more capable."

Alister made a face. "While I appreciate the compliment, I'm afraid I don't share the optimism. We may know our enemies, but we have no idea what their game is. Both of them want you dead, but we have no idea what Lamia was attempting with her first spell, or why Demosthenes is convinced killing you will fix everything."

His actions, here in this very lobby, from the previous night came flashing back into Percy's mind. He internally debated on whether or not he should tell Alister, but his conscience won out. Alister had shown him a level of trust that couldn't be ignored last night. He needed to return it.

"Can I tell you something?" Percy asked, taking Alister's hand and sitting down with him.

Instantly, Alister's expression became guarded. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah, yeah... well... now. I wasn't in a very good place last night."

"Because of me?"

"Partly. It was... right after Athena came in, and everybody else left. Admittedly, I was probably still scarred from seeing you get used like that, but the more I thought about it, the worse I ended up feeling." A small voice in his head said that he'd revealed enough, but he pushed forward. "I got upset, seeing Athena finally act like a mother, without seeing the same level of sincerity from any of the other gods. It's been a year since Kronos, and even though we're doing better, there's so much more room for improvement."

Alister nodded, letting him talk. He did take Percy's other hand, massaging the son of Poseidon's dorsals.

"I... got upset with my father. For not stepping in earlier in my life. For not being there for me when I was being bullied, and mocked by kids and teachers alike. For not doing anything to help my mom when we had to live with Gabe to keep monsters away from me. It made me remember something, something I shouldn't have forgotten, even with what's going on right now."

The son of Athena's eyes widened. "Oh, dear. Sally's pregnant, right? And pretty close to delivery?"

"Yeah. We still have some time, but we're officially in the zone, as it were. A stressful situation might induce premature delivery, or even worse... it could even lead to a miscarriage. Alister... if I lose my sister, like that..."

Percy had to stop, unable to continue. His eyes were tearing up, just at the thought. Alister pulled him to his chest, cradling Percy's head. "Easy, Percy. Sally's made of steel. If I know my Percie, she went straight there, and would have been careful about it. Both your mom, and your sister, are fine."

"She... would have gone straight there?"

Alister kissed the top of his head. "No, don't go there. Don't start kicking yourself for not checking in with her first. You had no idea what was going on; heck, you were nowhere near the city when you landed. Even once you realized the change had happened, you can't blame yourself for trying to find your friends. That was my idea."

Percy glanced up at him. "Alister... does she even know Percie's gone?"

His face faltered. "I... don't know."

"Then I have to tell her. I have to make sure."

"Okay, we can go. Give me a minute to talk to Rey, and we'll-"

"No!" Percy's response was abrupt. "You can't go! Willamina still needs to keep an eye on you. She might have given you a clean bill of health, but I'm not putting you at risk. Not after what happened yesterday. I've done enough to endanger you."

Alister touched Percy's cheek, leaning into him. "Percy, what are you talking about? I've been in danger my whole life; why do you think your presence here is somehow magnifying that?"

"I heard what Minerva said, Alister. She said your anger at Rey was born from his refusal to stand up against me when I tried to get you guys to swear not to sacrifice anyone for me. She was only half-right, wasn't she?"

The son of Athena got very quiet.

"Sure, you might have blamed Rey for not speaking up, but I know he wasn't the real target of that rage. You were really angry with me, weren't you?"

"I-"

"I get it. It was short-sighted and selfish of me. Especially to you. You've been nothing but accommodating to me, and I repaid your kindness with blackmail and manipulation. Please, don't try to justify what I did back there. Just listen."

Percy rested his head on Alister's shoulder, closing his eyes. "I was mad at my dad, but I was mad at myself, too. Seems like everywhere I went, I only ever brought misery and destruction onto the people who loved me. And most of that was brought on because of some stupid decision that I'd clung to. The only reason I'm here right now, instead of Percie, is because I went and goofed in my fight with Lamia. She should be here, teasing you about your cuddling habits, or giving you crap about not letting loose every once in a while."

The son of Poseidon felt Alister flinch against him, and locked their hands together. "I drove Nico to the edge. I sent everyone back at camp into a panic with my disappearance. I forgot about Calypso. I acted like a jerk, to a lot of people who were only trying to help me. And... I almost got you, and the rest of the Seven, killed, because I decided that my own worries about your lives overrode your concerns about both me and Percie. All of this was boiling underneath the surface last night. And then I remembered Demosthenes' words."

"You...didn't," Alister mumbled against him, stunned.

"Yeah. I let him brainwash me. I thought if I died, I could fix this. I could go back to my mother, and Percie would return. She'd be there for you when you woke up, and everything would be perfect again. And even if it didn't work, at least my death could spare you all the tragedy that was soon to be coming, like it always seemed to do at some point. I... almost did it. Athena stopped me."

"Mother..."

"Yes. She stepped in, knocked me back to my senses. Talked through my feelings. I wouldn't be here if she hadn't intervened."

Percy finally tilted his head, so he could look the son of wisdom in the face. "I've made a lot of mistakes, Alister. But dragging you along, when you could still be injured... that is not one I will commit. I promised Athena that I would be there for you. And sometimes, that means I need to know when to step away."

Alister reached his hand up, running it through Percy's hair. It took him a while to meet the sea-green eyes with his own grey ones, but when he did, Percy could tell the demigod was letting the son of Poseidon's story run through him. "You... just want to talk to Sally, right? You're not running away from me, so you can protect me?"

"Is there really a difference between going somewhere, and running away, for demigods?"

"Yes." Alister's voice was unshakable. "If you're just going somewhere, and it turns out the new place doesn't work out, you can always go somewhere else. But if you're running away? Nowhere will ever be the right place."

Percy's entire being trembled at that. But he understood. He could never run away from Annabeth, and expect himself to carry on. Alister was no different.

"I promise: I just need to talk to my mom. When I'm sure she's safe, I'll come right back," he told the other boy.

"I'm going to remember you said that, Percy Jackson."

"I'm sure you will, Wise Guy."

This time, it was Alister who took the lead, pressing his lips against Percy's. They stayed there for a moment, taking in as much of each other as they could, before pulling away. "Any idea how you plan to get to New York and back, though?" the son of Athena questioned.

"Uh......"

No. He had nothing.

Fortunately for Percy, he was spared the awkwardness of admitting that by the door to the lobby swinging open, and Thomas sauntering in.

"Alister! Since when have you been here?" the son of Zeus interjected, throwing a huge hug around the son of Athena as he stood in greeting. "How long has it been? Three, four months?"

"I think... five, actually," Alister wheezed, his face straining at the force. "Thomas... I'm kinda sore, right now. Would you mind..."

The taller man instantly pulled away, looking guilty. "Whoops. Sorry, bud. Didn't know."

"That's okay. How's Janice doing?"

"Fit as a fiddle, or so she'd have me believe," he answered. "I know she has a bad habit of getting herself into mischief, almost as much as Percie, but getting impaled by a lamp? That's got to be a new one. Thank Hades Willamina was on shift here when she arrived; no offense to the Roman healers, but I'd trust that woman with anything from a paper cut to a decapitation."

Thomas's eye twitched as he spoke that last word. Percy sucked in his cheeks, glancing over at Alister. The son of Athena had gone stiff as soon as Percie was mentioned, something Thomas noticed as soon as he'd finished speaking.

"You okay, Alister?" he asked, putting a hand to his shoulder. "Is... Percie okay?"

"We... um... don't know, actually."

Thomas's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean you don't know?"

"She's... gotten herself into a bit of a mix-up, as it were," Alister explained, rocking on his heels. "Knowing her, I'm sure she's making it work, but we've got a situation on our end, too."

"Well, we've dealt with Kronos, and Gaea, back to back. What could possibly outdo those two knuckleheads?"

Alister tried to force a grin, but the effort just made him look a kid who got into his dentist dad's supply of laughing gas. "How about this," he gestured at Percy. "Care to make a guess as to who he is?"

The son of Zeus gave Percy a solid once-over, but shook his head. "I mean, he looks capable enough, and I saw him when I came in earlier, but I've never met him before. Sorry about not introducing myself by the way, man," he said, extending his hand to Percy. "Thomas Grace, if referring to Janice didn't give me away. Son of Zeus, but that's not really all that special; half of ancient Greece could make the same claim."

Percy accepted the handshake, which nearly made him choke in surprise. Wow, this guy had a strong grip. And he didn't even seem to be trying all that much! At least he carried over Thalia's sense of humor, at any rate.

"Nice to finally meet you, Thomas," Percy answered. "You can call me Percy Jackson."

"Sounds good to me, Per..." he trailed off. Thomas's gaze shifted to Alister, who only gave him a very deliberate nod in response.

"Yep," Percy acknowledged. "That's my name. And unless this whole thing is one big elaborate dream concocted by Morpheus as a way of paying me back for that little misunderstanding with the cucumbers and that Russian taxi driver, something tells me you're gonna need an explanation."

At least the son of Zeus didn't question him too much. He let Percy do most of the explaining, only occasionally throwing a shocked look in Alister's direction every few minutes. Percy did have to repeat that Thalia ended up joining the Hunters multiple times, but aside from that, Thomas seemed to get everything down the first time through.

"And our Percie is now stuck on the opposite side, as it were?" he asked once it was finished, his hands locked on his knees.

"Yeah. We think she's trying to solve this problem on her end, but so far we have no way of making any sort of contact with the other world," Alister added. "If it's any comfort, I'm pretty sure Annabeth, who would be me, would at least stick with her regardless of what they might have to do."

Thomas paused, eyeing the two boys. "So... if you two are technically still yourselves... are you still, um... you know?"

Percy actually snickered at that question. The son of Zeus seemed to be the first one to make the obvious connection, or at least voice it. He wouldn't have put it past Peter to have figured it out the moment Percy showed up on his doorstep, carrying Alister like a groom late for his wedding.

Alister seemed amused by it, too. "Yes, we are," was all he said in answer, leaning his head on Percy's shoulder. Percy pressed a quick kiss to his temple, just to hammer the point home. Thomas laughed, holding his hands up.

"Okay, okay. I get it," he said. "No need to prove it. So, what's the plan, Alister? Got any ideas for figuring this mess out?"

The son of Athena blew a wild hair dangling down his face away. "Sadly, we've been kinda busy here lately, and no new leads have surfaced. Really, the only reason we came here was because Rey specifically asked us to. The Seven needed to meet Percy for themselves."

Thomas nodded along. "I see. It's just like Rey, to try to keep everyone together on the same page. Can't say I'd have done it any differently. So, we're stuck here, until someone gets an idea?"

Percy coughed. "Actually... I was thinking about breaking off back for New York. I don't know if anyone's told my mom about what's happened, and I don't want her worrying about Percie."

"Back to New York?" Thomas asked, raising his brow. "Were you planning to do that by yourself?"

"He doesn't even have a plan for getting back there, much less taking anyone with him," Alister jumped in, giving Percy a gentle jab in the ribs. "Willamina's put me on watch, anyway, so I'm stuck here no matter how much I may want to go with him."

"Since when have you been such a stickler for following rules, Alister?" Thomas joked.

"Ever since we saw what happened the last time you broke off on your own, and ignored a prophecy, Thomas," the son of Athena shot back, his tone not joking.

The taller demigod's face clouded, with several emotions. "Alister... what happened to Zoe is in the past. I don't know what Percie told you, but it's over. I payed the price for my actions; it's done. There's no need to trudge it up."

"Actually, I think I need to trudge it up," Percy admitted. "What happened to your guys' Zoe? On our quest, she died to Ladon, but not before she ended up taking a blow from Atlas that was meant for Artemis."

Thomas jerked his gaze to Percy. "You mean... Zoe died in the final fight? Not on the way up the mountain?"

"No. She got us all the way to the end, before dying at the hands of her father."

Alister jerked his head over, as well. "Wait, Atlas was her dad?"

Percy stared at both of them. "Uh, yeah? I mean, how else could the final line of the prophecy be fulfilled? One shall perish by a parent's hand?"

"What?!" both of them exclaimed.

The son of Poseidon knotted his eyes together. "Wait... are you guys saying your prophecy was something else? That Zoe wasn't damned to be killed by her father at all, and in fact died before she ever confronted him?"

Thomas shuddered, leaning back in his chair, his eyes falling to the ground. Alister shot him a weird look, then shook his head.

"No. The final line of the prophecy for us was close, but not that. Instead of perishing at a parent's hand, Zoe died to an unwavering hand. Which ended up being Thomas's, the way everything shook out," the son of Athena informed him. "He snuck onto the quest, antagonized her, and ending up killing her when the conflict reached a boiling point."

The son of Zeus sighed, finally looking back up. "Yes. I did. And I don't regret it. She had it coming." His voice was layered, and solid... but Percy got the sense there was more to the story. Something behind Thomas's eyes said he wasn't being forward about the smaller details.

"Unwavering, all right," Percy muttered, drawing another flinch from Thomas. "Guess we had more differences than I was expecting. I mean, I already knew you couldn't have been a Hunter, since you were a guy in this world, and Alister told me the gods put you in the Lotus Hotel so they could hold off the Great Prophecy."

"Did he now?" Thomas's voice was low, hard. "I wasn't very... pleased, by that decision, but now that I know the alternative was joining the Hunters, I think I ended up with the better side of the bargain, after all."

Alister exhaled. "Thomas. I just don't want you going off halfcocked again, and getting us into more trouble. Both Percy and Percie are at stake, along with the universe itself, if Hecate's warning holds any weight. We can't afford to get cute with our solutions."

The son of Zeus folded his hands together, closing his eyes for a moment. "If I promise not to allow myself to become... embroiled like that again, may I assist you, at least?" he asked, opening his eyes again. "Percie is still my friend too, Alister. If she's in trouble... I want to help."

"Of course you can help," the son of Athena responded, his voice softer. "Just... be careful, okay? Percie would never forgive herself if you got hurt on her behalf."

"Then I guess it's a good thing I don't die easily," he said in turn, rising to his feet. "You said you wanted to get to New York, right?" he asked Percy.

"Yeah, that's right."

"Well, what are we waiting for? Let's go."

"Now?" Percy stumbled. "But... how will we even get there?"

Thomas flashed him a cocky smile, gesturing at himself. "What, did you think I went with the biker gang look just because I liked the aesthetic? I've got my own ride; we can be in New York in five days; four, if I push the speed limit."

Riding with Thomas, on the highway? That... actually sounded like a lot of fun. And terrifying. But fun. Percy almost whined when Alister objected.

"That's still too much time, Thomas. It'll take you at least nine days to get back; nine days I don't want to spend just waiting while Demosthenes builds up his strategy without any action on our part. Not to mention I'm sure Lamia will get back into gear in that time, too."

The son of Zeus rolled his eyes. "Fine; his loss. Then how do you suggest we get there? And yes, I am going. Percy will need a bodyguard, right? I'd hate to miss out on a fight because I was stuck at base camp, babysitting the Romans."

"Don't let Rey catch you saying that," Percy suggested.

"Oh, and if he did? Rey and I have been spending plenty of time together, since my role as ambassador between camps was decided upon. Trust me; we can both dish it out as well as we take it."

That would be a matchup Percy wouldn't mind seeing, but gladiatorial spats would have to wait.

"Well, if the motorcycle is out, and the pegasus union is boycotting us, what's left?" the son of Poseidon asked.

"I'm sorry, what?" Alister asked, startled.

"Got a message in my head last night: turns out using pegasi to run over a horde of gargoyles violates Commission 23-65 of the Winged Horse Federation of Hooved Aerial Transport," Percy relayed. "As such, Calico and Shortstop are off-limits, until Chiron pays a fine to the union boss, some mare named Windcloppel."

"Please tell me he's making this up," Thomas begged Alister.

"What, the union, or that name?"

"Either, or both! Something!"

Percy shook his head. "Nope. None of that came from me. I'm actually really sad that I didn't make that up. Seriously, who names their daughter Windcloppel?"

"Probably the same people who came up with that union name," Alister joined in, making a face. "But that does pose a problem. If we can't fly, what's the quickest way to New York?"

The answer hit Percy a few moments later, when his eye fell on the door that Alister and Nicola had been heading for when they had their little collision. "Oh, great," he complained, covering his eyes. "Willamina is going to kill me."

Did she? No. That would have violated the Hippocratic Oath, or some variant of it. However, Hippocrates did not specify that doctors couldn't scream at the top of their lungs at their patients. Or at least, the people dating their patients. And were currently testing their patience.

"Absolutely not!" the daughter of Apollo roared, after Percy made his request to let them take Nicola with them to New York. "Traveling like that is dangerous enough, without making such a massive jump. She almost faded from existence entirely, taking that stupid statue across the world. I'm not risking it; end of discussion!"

Nicola, sitting on the countertop of the apartment she and Willamina were renting while in New Rome, looked rather pensive at the argument. All three boys were standing in the living room, Percy taking the brunt of the healer's monologue.

"Willamina, I know it's a lot to ask, but Sally deserves to know what happened to her kid," Alister argued. "And we can't send an Iris-message, since we know Lamia or Demosthenes could be listening in."

The medic's face softened, but she still refused. "And my heart breaks for Ms. Jackson, but I cannot in good standing as a doctor condone that kind of stress on anyone, much less my girlfriend. Alister, you saw her after that trip. The wind could have knocked her over."

"Do I just not get a say in this?" the daughter of Hades asked from her perch.

"You can, but my authority as your primary care-giver can override you," she shot back.

Thomas groaned. "Please? She'll be going with Percy and myself. We can keep an eye on her, if she needs a break in between jumps."

"Keeping an eye on her isn't going to help if she ends up getting swallowed by the void itself!"

Nicola cleared her throat, but when the four other demigods turned to face her, her spot was empty. In a flash, she appeared next to her girlfriend, looking pleased with herself. "Oh, yeah. I still got it," she boasted.

The daughter of Apollo did not look amused. "Traveling across the room, and traveling across the continental United States, are two different things, love."

"Mina."

Nicola's voice was soft, vulnerable. The healer's scowl vanished in an instant.

"I want to help," the child of Hades pleaded. "Sally could be suffering. We need to make sure she's okay. I know you're worried about me, but I'm a lot stronger now than I was months ago. And I'm not having to lug around a giant statue this time. I won't try to force it all in one jump. We'll stop, recover, and continue. Percy and Thomas can watch me. If I start... fading, they'll be there to bring me back."

"Couldn't I at least go with you?" the healer asked, ruffling her girlfriend's hair. "I... don't want to lose you, Ghost-girl."

"I know, but you have to keep an eye on Alister, remember? I'll be fine; I'm not the weak little girl I was a year ago."

Percy swallowed. "You've never been weak, Nicola."

The daughter of the Underworld paused, then sighed. "I appreciate the thought, Percy. But I was. I let my own demons get the better of me, time and again. Not any more." She hugged Willamina, pressing a kiss to her neck. "I'll come back. But you can't coddle me forever, Sunshine. There are some things I need to do on my own. This is one of them."

The daughter of Apollo quivered, but returned the kiss. "Okay. If this is what you want... I won't stop you. Just be careful."

"I will." Nicola turned to the boys. "I need to pack some things. Meet you guys at the Forum?"

"That'll be perfect," Thomas agreed.

The smaller girl headed off into another room, leaving the four alone. "Please... keep an eye on her," Willamina begged, looking at Thomas and Percy. "She's... all I have, right now."

"With everything I've got," Percy swore.

"Anything so much as looks at her funny, I'll turn it into a puddle," Thomas promised.

As they left, Alister took Percy's hand. "Don't think I've forgotten about your promise, Seaweed Brain. You better come back in one piece, too."

Percy squeezed him back. "I wouldn't dream of disappointing you, Wise Guy."

They got one more kiss in, before Alister left, leaving him and Thomas to walk to the Forum alone. "You guys really are meant for each other, huh?" the son of Zeus observed, glancing at Percy.

His tone was casual, but once again, Percy would have sworn that something was bubbling under the surface. He'd never gotten this kind of read from Thalia, so this had to have been connected to that aberration they'd discovered in the prophecy about Atlas and Zoe. Unless there was some other flagrant change he hadn't noticed yet.

"Guess we are, since I can't go ten minutes without wanting him around," Percy confessed, thinking about the look in Alister's eyes as he told Thomas off about sneaking onto the quest to free Artemis.

He didn't reach an answer by the time they reached the Forum, and in the ten minutes it took Nicola to arrive with a bag loaded down with supplies, Percy still had no clue what he was missing.

"We ready to do this?" she asked, extending a hand to each of them.

"Ready. Never shadow-traveled before," Thomas added. "Kind of excited, really."

She turned to Percy. "And you?"

"Yeah. If it means seeing my mom again, I'll do anything," he told her.

Nicola nodded, taking their hands. "It's funny, isn't it? The children of the Big Three, together again. Wonder what sort of unlucky baddie we'll inevitably cross paths with."

Hopefully not one that could cast a spell that transported them into some alternate universe where the Norse gods were still kicking. Percy didn't even want to think about what that might entail. Probably some sort of talking sword, which would end up crushing on Riptide. His love life was complicated enough; he didn't need his weapon getting its own subplot.

That was the last thing that went through his head before Nicola closed her eyes, and the three demigods were yanked into a pitch-black vortex.

Chapter Text

Percie closed her eyes, letting Artemis pad away at her face. The moon goddess was tender in her action, taking care not to irritate any of the girl's skin as she scrubbed away at the zombie guts clinging to her. After she'd finished sharing the tale she'd promised never to speak of, Nico and Will stepped away, the son of Hades needing a moment. Annabeth stood behind Artemis, keeping her own eyes closed as she ran this new reveal through her head.

"You seem to be wrestling with something within yourself, Percie," Artemis mentioned, moving her attention from Percie's face to her clothes. "May I ask what?"

The daughter of Poseidon opened her eyes, but averted her gaze away from the goddess, trying to keep any more emotions from getting through. "It's just... I promised Thomas that I'd never tell anyone what happened on that mountain. And I stuck to it, for three years. I didn't even tell Alister. All he knows is that Thomas was sent to the Lotus Hotel, for defying the prophecy by sneaking onto the quest, and killing Zoe. Thomas asked me to promise on our friendship." Percie lowered her head. "And now I've broken that promise," she lamented.

The Hunt appended her with a thoughtful gaze. "Did you? I don't know about that. If one was to ask me, I'd say you're still keeping it. After all, no one involved in that mess is here. And unless the Fates have a very nasty surprise in store for all of us, I doubt they ever will find out."

"But... you guys are still them. How is it any different?"

Artemis tapped her on the shoulder, signaling for her to look the goddess in the eye. "Percie; if I was your Artemis, would you still be alive, even after you saved me?"

She didn't have to think about it. "No."

"I gathered as much. You not only killed Zoe in the defense of a man, but you then lied to her about it. For three years. If such a thing was done to me, I know I would not show mercy."

Annabeth's eyes shot open. "But.. you did. Doesn't that prove Percie's Artemis might, as well?"

"No, Annabeth. My forgiveness exists because my Zoe did not suffer that fate. I can still look to the sky and see her. My other self has no such comfort, as bittersweet as it is. In fact, she has had three years to stew on it; you could literally prevent the end of the world as we know it, and she would not defer in her judgment if she was to learn the truth."

Percie stared back in confusion. "Lady Artemis... are you saying what I think you are?"

The deity nodded. "Yes, dear. I am not the Artemis you lied to. Technically speaking, you have continued to maintain your promise to Thomas. Those who must not learn the truth... still do not know it. And unless you or Thomas breaks that oath, I suspect they never will."

Her worry at that revelation must have shown on her face, because Artemis took her hand. "Fear not. My lieutenant is a noble one; I suspect her male version to have at least some of that same trait. He was indeed wise enough to hide the truth of the matter to protect you, after all. And to the point of risking his own life... yes, I would say Thalia has much in common with Thomas."

"The only person I could see Thomas ever telling the truth to ... would be Percy," Annabeth cut in. "And since you're the same person, I don't think that counts as him breaking his promise, either."

"And Percy will not break that oath, because we all know his fatal flaw is loyalty. He will keep that secret to his grave," Artemis concluded. "In short, I see no reason for you to beat yourself up about what you've revealed tonight. In fact, I dare say I should thank you."

"Thank me, my lady?" Percie mumbled. "For what?"

The goddess's face looked up to the sky again, pain in her eyes. "Because you have taught me something this night: as horrible as the events of that day were, they could have been so much worse."

A nagging question at the back of Percie's mind surfaced, and the daughter of the sea couldn't hold back her interest any more. ""My lady, I hope I don't offend you by asking this, but may I ask what you're looking at? You've done it a few times the past few minutes, and every time, it seems to be in a certain spot. Am I missing something?"

Annabeth choked up at the question, instantly sending pangs of guilt coursing through Percie's veins. Artemis blinked, seemingly holding back her own emotions, before shaking her head. "It's okay, Percie. You would have no way of knowing, given the events of your world. Here. Follow my finger." The Olympian stretched her hand out towards the sky, her finger pointing at a cluster of stars that broke over the treetops.

It took a moment, but Percie's mind registered that the stars Artemis was pointing at formed into a constellation. The child of Poseidon had never been good at making the figures in the sky out, but even she could see the undeniable form a young woman splayed out in the sky, her expression determined as she notched an arrow. It might have been three years, but Percie could still recognize the unmistakable shape of Zoe Nightshade.

"She... she became a constellation here?" Percie murmured, the gorgeous sight arresting her. "She... isn't gone forever?"

"No, child. She made it to Atlas, and fought by my side one last time. She saw the Titan fail in his schemes, but sadly, the poison of Ladon had come too far for me to help her. She... died in my arms, but I would not let that be her end. So... she is the Huntress, forever free to continue her greatest work in the sky."

Percie felt her breath catch as she looked up at her old foe, looking as proud as she ever did. Yet beneath that pride... Percie could swear she saw something else: kindness. The person she could have been, if things had been different in her own world. At least here, Zoe did not have to fall so far, before she ever made it back to her mistress.

"She... she sounds like someone I would have been honored to meet," Percie mumbled.

The three women stood there, admiring the figure in the sky, until Artemis's expression molded into something more baffled. "Hmm... that's strange," the goddess whispered.

Annabeth and Percie both looked at her. "Is something the matter, my lady?" the daughter of Athena questioned.

"Yes. From where we are, Zoe should be facing the west, towards the place where she finally fell. But... unless I have erred horribly in my sense of direction, she appears to have aimed her bow southward. Though I have no idea why that would be the case."

Annabeth traced the trajectory of the constellation's bow if she were to fire, her hand moving along the trees until it came to a point beyond what Percie could see. "If I can remember what the sky's dome is made up of," she frowned, "then if we follow the arrow's path, Zoe has fired at..."

The child of wisdom's face drained of all its color as she remembered something. "Oh, no," she exclaimed, gazing at Percie in horror. "She's warning us! She shot at-!"

The arrow that came streaking out of the darkness of the forest pierced through Annabeth's warning, rocketing towards the blonde demigod at a velocity no regular bow could have ever hoped to achieve. The projectile was aimed right at her head, and if it wasn't for Artemis's reflexes, that would have been the end of Annabeth Chase.

The moon goddess snatched the arrow out of the air, snarling as she whirled towards the direction it came from. Before Percie had time to even cry out an initial warning, the Hunt produced her own silver bow, returning fire with her own arrows. The silver weapons flew into the darkness, illuminating the wilderness as they penetrated into the unseen void. A very lithe shadow dodged out of the way, leaping into a flip and springing through the branches, coming to a rest in a holly tree just as Annabeth finished her exclamation.

"Sagittarius!" she finally concluded, her face now totally colorless. In the time it had taken her to say that one word, the events just described had passed, all at blinding speed. The first volley, Artemis's catch and return, and the enemy's own flanking maneuver.

"Crotus!" Artemis shouted up at the dark figure, burning with moonlight. "Such cowardly tactics are beneath a man of the hunt like yourself!"

"I think thou shalt find my tactics most befitting of one of your own, dearest Huntress," a slithering voice returned from above. "Shall I wear my soul upon my sleeve, for thee to pierce with impunity? The daws would lay with the serpents before one such as I ever fell into the folly of your hunt."

"Does he always talk like this?" Percie asked, reaching for Riptide. "Because that's gonna get annoying, real fast. You didn't tell me Sagittarius studied Shakespeare with Apollo."

"I believe I mentioned the Muses were infatuated with him?" Annabeth threw back, pulling her own sword. "No one ever accused the Nine of having sense when it came to picking favorite lovers. Why else do you think so many artists have horrible loves lives?"

Artemis didn't divert her gaze from the figure leering at her from the treeline. "Crotus! You and your ally have taken my Hunters! Tell me what your reason for doing so is, and I might consider letting you live."

"Is yond a threat, dram one?" the constellation replied, slinking down the trunk of his perch like a snake. He finally stepped into some sort of light as he reached the bottom, allowing Percie to get a good look at Sagittarius. His form was distinctly human, but the shimmering light of the moon reflected off his ears, giving him an elven appearance. An immaculate emerald bow glittered in his hands, and a quiver of golden arrows hung from his shoulder. "Imagineth my own shock, milady, to waiteth f'r thee on hours long and stale, only to findeth thee beset by undead. Thou has lost thine touch, Artemis."

"You saw that?" Percie challenged. "Just how long have you been listening?"

"Ever since thy mistress's harem fell into our design, child of foam. Is thine imagination really so cuckolded that thee cannot fathom our successes?"

"Some of those words have to be made up," Percie complained, looking over to her companions. "Can someone translate, please? I only speak English, Greek, sarcasm, profanity, and a little bit of Corsican. Don't ask about that last one," she added.

Annabeth rolled her eyes. "He said he's been involved in this ever since the Hunters were abducted from the Delaware. And he wants to know why you're so dense."

"Then why couldn't he have just said that?"

"He did!"

The Shakespearean archer smirked. "Thy friend speaks true, interloper. Hast thou not heard of my frolicities with the Muses? Wouldst shock thou to be educated on what such dalliances have granted me?" The constellation's form shifted, until his short brown hair was replaced by a striking orange, that fell to his back. His yellow eyes became purple, and his undeniably male body became much... curvier.

"Does this clue you in, Percie Jackson?" the nymph from the river taunted, shaking her head. "Honestly, I couldn't believe it myself when you fell for it. The nymph swore on the Styx she wouldn't return, nor would her sisters! Why didn't you realize I was a phony?"

"Wait... that was you?" Annabeth couldn't stop herself from blurting out.

"Quite the costume change, I know. But Thalia's teachings were most useful. I've never been the most skilled actor, but I do pride myself on my rendition of the battered, helpless damsel. Probably why Artemis and I never got along, despite being masters of the wild."

The goddess sneered, but Percie's mind got caught on something else. "Wait, Thalia taught you how to do that? Since when has that been a thing demigods could do?"

"Um... I believe Crotus is referring to Thalia, as in the Muse of comedy, Percie," Annabeth corrected. "They were a thing for a pretty long time. Guess she thought he was funny, or something."

"Or something? My dear daughter of Athena, I'm hurt!" Crotus exclaimed, before shifting back to his normal self. "Thalia's humors were alas a fine mathematical addition to my already voluminous repertoire. What I, nor Pisces, coulds't foresee wast the involvement of the virginal deity. Expectations numerous, were our belief that she'ds't be confined to the luxurious prison of Olympus, until thine lives were extinguished, along with her flowery catamites."

"Oh, come on! You just showed us you could speak like a normal person!" Percie whined. "Please, stop talking like you're auditioning for Iago. You're not dignified enough for that role, anyway."

"Dignity?! Dost thou doubt my dignity?!" he bellowed, his bow bouncing up and down on his arm. "And I was a fantastic Iago, thank you very much! Dionysus loved my rendition of his stabbing of Emilia! Sure, most of that was probably because Emilia was played by Apollo in that production, and he made sure I had a real knife for that scene, but the point still stands! I didn't study in London for fourteen years just to listen to some two-toned sea brat give me notes on my dialect!"

Percie was about to tease him some more about breaking character, but Artemis threw a hard glare her way, making it clear she needed to shut up.

"Crotus, what is your game here? Why kidnap my Hunters? Just to lure Percie?"

"Well, I'm sure she could tell you this, being a child of Poseidon, but if you want to catch a big fish, you need to have some big bait," the archer huffed. "Let's face it: the only way we'd get her here is if we went dirty with it. The two boys were a nice start, but the Hunters? That was a gift."

"So you were involved in that," Annabeth hissed, her suspicions confirmed.

"Of course. Such a convincing performance on Circe's part... did you really think she could have pulled that off without some direction? Whether she killed you or not, we had our pieces right where we wanted them."

"We? Who's we? You and Pisces? Or the others?"

Crotus put his fingers to his lips, smirking. "Guess you'll have to see for yourself, Annabeth. You want the Hunters back? You're gonna have to take them."

"That can be arranged," Artemis growled, drawing and firing before she'd finished talking. Crotus leapt to the side, firing his own bow in mid-air. The goddess slashed the arrow away as it came towards her, and she barreled towards the constellation, her figure shrouding in white light.

"So touchy," he remarked, leaping through the trees, trading fire with the goddess. "You always were so threatened by me, weren't you? A man, giving you your reason for existing? That must have stung like a bitch."

"Keep wagging that tongue, Sagittarius! I'll see it stuffed and hung on my wall before this night is over!" Artemis yelled back, as the two archers zipped through the forest. "Percie! Annabeth! I tracked the scent of my Hunters to this area. Go eastward, until you come upon a large bridge. That bridge spans the place I've detected as to where my Hunters are being held."

"How very impressive," Crotus barked, sprinting through the woods. "Do you intend to abandon them to face me, leaving them to fight Pisces alone?"

"Abandon? No. That would imply that they had no chance. But you do not know these demigods as I do, pompous fool. You're the one who has abandoned the Fish; not the other way around."

Annabeth pushed at Percie. "Go!" she shouted, as silver arrows collided with gold ones. "Artemis can hold him off! We need to do what she says, and find Thalia and the others!"

With the dark forest now constantly getting brightened up every time the moon goddess notched her bow, or sprang into a tree, it didn't take long for Will and Nico to come running out of the gloom, both boys looking frazzled.

"What's with the light show?" the son of Hades asked, as Crotus led Artemis further into the wilderness.

"Sagittarius came calling," Percie answered, tugging Will as she ran past. "Not a very nice guy, either. And wicked deadly with that bow. Artemis said we should leave him to her, while we deal with the Fish. She said to go east? Annabeth?"

"This way," the daughter of Athena pointed. "Keep an eye out for the bridge she talked about. She must have waited until she found the place her Hunters were taken before she let her grief about Zoe overwhelm her."

"And because of that, Sagittarius heard the zombie battle go down," Percie retorted, earning a guilty look from Nico. "No need to get sad on us now, Neeks. You didn't know. At least we don't have to worry about facing two signs at the same time."

"But Pisces was a two-headed fish, split into two individuals," Will pointed out, as the demigods got farther away from the long-ranged fight now moving across the forest at blistering speeds. "I don't think we should start congratulating ourselves just yet."

"Hey, does someone called the Fish sound like she'd be a challenge for me?" Percie asked. "For all we know, I could politely ask her to let the Hunters go, and she'll be so starstruck at seeing a daughter of Poseidon in the flesh, she'll be unable to deny anything I ask of her."

"A nice idea, Percie, but Pisces is actually older than your dad," Annabeth mentioned. "If anything, she'll be expecting obedience from you; not the other way around."

Well, that would be rather inconvenient. She'd never live that down with Triton. Her brother would tell everyone in the Atlantic that his half-sister couldn't even defeat a fish. He'd omit the part about that fish being an ancient constellation, but rumor was a nasty thing in the ocean. Entire sea empires had been toppled by things even less true.

"Then let's hope Pisces has a weakness for yo-yo tricks, because I can't offer her anything else."

Artemis hadn't been kidding when she said they were looking for a bridge. Though, she didn't mention that said bridge was a rickety little crossing, that spanned a gap between two rocky ledges at the crest of a waterfall. Looking down, Percie could make out a shallow stream below, but her sense of height warned her that jumping down into that would only serve to break both of her legs.

"She said to look at the space being spanned," the daughter of Poseidon recalled, leaning over the cliff to look around. The incline made the action hazardous, but she made out an enclave carved into the side of the opposing bluff, that seemed to angle itself down into a cave system.

"Guess that's our meal ticket," Nico said next to her. "Underground again. Yay."

Annabeth narrowed her eyes at the cliffside, then spun around, eyes scanning the landscape around them. "I think I know where we are," she muttered. "This must be a part of Mammoth Cave National Park, in Kentucky. We were so busy talking in the chariot, I didn't realize we'd crossed state lines."

"Then I guess that opening will take us to the eponymous Mammoth Cave?" Will deduced.

"Yes. But that's not something that reassures me," she told him. "Mammoth Cave is the world's longest known cave system. More than 400 miles of it have been explored, but experts suspect there's at least 600 more miles that haven't been mapped out. Even worse, at least 200 fragments of the cave have been documented in the national park. Like that opening there. It's not a part of the main caverns, meaning odds are good it hasn't been fully excavated yet."

"Oh, goody. That makes us the guinea pigs. Not literal ones this time, of course," Percie cut in. "So Pisces is keeping the Hunters down in that chamber of the cave?"

"If Artemis's sense of tracking is right, yes. And call me old-fashioned, but I tend to believe the goddess of the Hunt when she says tracking is one of her strengths," Will put forward. "So the next question: how do we get in there? That entrance is fifteen feet down, and there's nothing to grab on to to climb. And that bridge looks like it's on its last legs."

The wires keeping the bridge suspended creaked even as the demigods looked at them. That was out.

"How big is the opening?" Nico asked, a new look coming over his face.

"Uh, about eight feet across, I'd estimate," Annabeth answered, squinting at the hole in the cliff. "It's about twenty feet deep before it breaks off into another strand of cavern, too. If I could find some sort of fulcrum, we might be able to make a rope swing of some kind-"

The son of Hades shoved Percie, who was next to him, into the daughter of Athena, knocking them both onto the ground. Before either girl could grunt, Nico grabbed ahold of Will and yanked him down as well, so all four demigods were collected into a neat little pile. "Time to see if my practice has paid off," Nico remarked with a grim smile, and Percie felt her breath get sucked out of her lungs as darkness filled her vision. A sensation like she was being sucked into a vacuum pulled at her, but relented two seconds later, with the wet grass of the forest floor being replaced by cold limestone.

Pushing herself off of Annabeth, Percie made a 360 degree spin, taking in her surroundings. Yeah. They were in the cave, now. The opening was about nine feet behind them, the sound of the waterfall making it clear they'd moved into the cliff.

"Did you just... shadow-travel us into the cavern?" she asked, her head still spinning.

Nico, who was rising to his feet with a confident grin, nodded. "Yeah. Since it was only about forty feet, I'm not feeling light-headed, either. Can't believe I actually managed to make such an exact location, too. Guess it works better if I can see it, after all."

Annabeth groaned, rising to a crouched position. "At least give us some warning ahead of time, Nico. I like to prepare myself before making my head do the Harlem Shake of Death."

Will, who was still lying face-down on the limestone, finally put one hand into the air. "Nico di Angelo... you are so dead," he muffled. "I thought we talked about reckless shadow-traveling! What if you miscalculated? You could have teleported us to Bermuda, or missed the cave entirely and dropped us off the edge of the cliff."

"But I didn't, did I?"

"Yeah, this time! But who's to say you'll get it right every time? It only takes one mistake, Nico. One mistake, and you're gone. And I couldn't bear that."

The son of Hades' expression lightened. "Will... it was just this once. Thalia needs us, and I didn't want to waste time trying to get us in here."

The son of Apollo glared up at his boyfriend, flipping over. "Wasting time would be preferable to you wasting your life, Ghost King. You can't just back off all the progress we've made in the name of convenience! Why are you so determined to make a martyr of yourself?"

"Will, I'm not trying to ma-"

"Then why can't you listen to me?!"

The healer's voice broke on that, and he sat down, burying his head in his arms. Nico stood by helplessly as his boyfriend broke down, scooting up against the wall of the cavern. Percie stood between them, her eyes bouncing between them both.

Will's sobs were gut-wrenching, but it was the sight of Nico starting to fade into the shadows of the cave that got her moving. "Oh, no, Ghost Boy," she exclaimed, dashing in and grabbing him by the arm before he could vanish. "Running away from this isn't an option any more. Not after everything you two have been through together."

The child of the Underworld trembled, his thin frame so frail, Percie could feel his heartbeat through his shoulder. "Percie... I... can't do this," he whimpered to her. "I've never been good... at emotional things."

"I'm gonna let you in a secret, Neeks: No one is."

"But you are."

The child of the ocean actually to hold back open laughter at that one. "Really? Is that what you see? Nico, I've struggled with my own feelings for a long time. It took me forever to finally open up to Alister. We knew each other for almost five years before I finally let my defenses down completely. But I can promise you this: when those defenses did come down, it was the most liberating thing I've ever experienced."

The younger demigod shook his head at her words, trying to push them away. "But this is different. He's always been the solid one. I don't know how to play the other role. I... don't know how to be the rock."

"That's the problem, Neeks. You're too caught up in the knowing part. Thinking about your feelings never works. Because your brain will try to insert reason into them. And most of the time, reason and emotions have no business being in the same room." She turned Nico towards Will, whose tears hadn't subsided. Their conversation was low, so he couldn't hear them. "Do you care about him?"

"More than anything else."

"Then let that drive you. Not your fears."

"But... what if I mess it up?"

Nico sounded so worried, so concerned... Percie's mind couldn't help recalling Nicola's face as she watched Bartholomew leave with her and the others for Atlas. The daughter of Hades had accepted Percie's promise with sincerity, but she was unable to hide her own misgivings. She'd been there when Bartholomew stumbled on Zoe and the Hunters, trying to sneak her out of the Hunters' camp. Percie had only arrived on the scene after the fight broke up, but according to Grover, Nicola had begged her brother to stop once Zoe was down. She hated seeing him like that.

If she hadn't stopped him... would things have been different? Maybe. But that face Nico was making... it was that same look of trepidation she'd seen three years ago. That look of "Did I just make things worse?"

Percie took both sides of Nico's face in her hands, pressing her forehead to his. "Don't worry about that. He needs you. Now. Everything will be fine. You're not alone in this, be it self-doubt or emotional support."

The son of Hades breathed against her face, but he didn't pull back. An agreement was reached silently when they made eye contact, once more. Percie let go of him, stepping aside so he could act.

Nico's feet shuffled along the floor of the limestone cavern as he approached his boyfriend, who still hadn't looked up. The boy threw one last nervous look at Percie, who nodded at him. Taking a moment to breath, he squatted down in front of Will.

Annabeth came to Percie's side as he put his hand to Will's arm. The son of Apollo froze at the touch, looking up at the other demigod with startled eyes. Percie couldn't hear what was said, but Nico tucked himself in between Will's knees, nuzzling into his chest. The son of Hades ran his hands over the healer's forearms, leaning him up against the side of the cavern.

"We should continue," Annabeth whispered to her as the boys propped together, both starting to cry now.

"Took the words right out of my mouth, Wise Girl," she responded, turning to the break-off in the wall of the cave behind them. "They can catch up once they're ready."

"Assuming they can catch up before we turn Pisces into a seafood dish."

"I wouldn't complain if they missed the action. And the danger."

The daughter of Athena tossed a knowing look her way. "You're a lot more astute, and conniving, than a lot of people credit you, Seaweed Brain. Wonder who you get it from?"

Percie gave her a mischievous smile, sneaking into the opening in the cave while both boys weren't paying attention. "I didn't lie about anything I said back there, you know. Just... recognized that I could kill two birds with one stone, as it were."

Annabeth followed her in, the passage changing into a thin corridor of limestone walls. "Effective. Now, let's get in there and deal with that fish. I've been too busy hanging back and letting you hog all the action. Time for something else."

Percie laughed at that, her voice echoing down the chamber. Whatever was waiting for them down there had to know they were coming now. Did that worry the daughter of Poseidon? Not really. Nothing... and she meant nothing... would ever scare her more than the shockingly bad performance Crotus had treated her to that evening.

"Just don't monologue anyone to death. Sagittarius will sue us for plagiarism."

The cave rumbled as the two demigods slinked through the passageway, the already narrow path getting smaller and smaller, until they had to straggle along sideways, holding their breath to make the process easier.

The route took them down into the cliff, before opening up into a larger antechamber. The only light sprinkling into the natural-made room came from the candles someone had seen fit to light and outfit the walls with, which really seemed like a serious fire hazard. "Anyone home?" Percie called out. "Pisces?"

What was she, the innocent babysitter who called out into the darkness, right before getting brutally stabbed to death by the masked maniac? Like the constellation would ever actually answer bac-

"Yes?" a female voice lifted across the room. "Give me a second; I haven't finished season four yet. I will not be pulled away until I can at least get halfway through the show."

The sound of a TV being fast-forwarded reverberated through the cave, before it was switched off. "My goodness, what is up with the modern fascination with plot twists?" a young woman complained, stepping into the cavern through a pair of limestone-colored curtains. "You try to watch just one episode, and the next thing you know, the entire day has gone by because you have to know what Cersei is planning next."

"Were you... watching Game of Thrones in there?" Annabeth asked her.

"Only because there's nothing else to do in this boring cave!" the woman moaned. "Honestly, who knew Hunters could be so picky about their television? I don't know who's kidnapped them in the past, but in my house, captives don't get to make demands about what we watch."

"So... you're Pisces?" Percie asked, taken aback by how normal the woman looked. Black hair, worn in a braid down her side, coupled with sweatpants and a shirt that said "I'm two halves of a whole idiot."

"Yeah, since no one bothered to remember my real name," the lady snarked. "Really, if I knew immortality was going to be this boring, I would have let Typhon smash that revolting love goddess and her spoiled son into custard. At least then I would have died amused."

Percie bit her lip, eyeing Annabeth in confusion. The child of wisdom looked just as stunned by the constellation they were speaking with as she was. "So... may we have the Hunters back?" Percie asked, hopeful her first idea might work.

Pisces looked disgusted. "As much as I'd like to say yes, no can do, Percie Jackson. We still have plans for them. Well, okay. Just one plan."

"And that plan is?"

"Luring you in and destroying you. And I hope you packed some popcorn, girls, because I'm about to go Red Wedding on your asses."

Chapter Text

Percy hated shadow-travel. Yes, it was quite handy in a pinch, and was by no means the worst possible method of transport the three demigods could have used to head for their destination, but it came with so many unpleasant side effects.

The churning darkness that swallowed him up also tossed him around like a ragdoll, coupled with a sensation that felt like the very air in his lungs was being compressed and forced out of him by a giant bicycle pump. The magic kept this up for about thirty seconds, before spitting him back into sunlight.

To Percy's surprise, he remained on his feet, though on looking around, that seemed to be less due to his own fortitude, and more to the fact that Thomas and Nicola were holding onto him like they'd been glued together. Nicola's expression was both satisfied and stoic, while the son of Zeus looked liked he'd just been stuffed into a massive rattle that some bored Cyclops had danced a flamenco with.

"Fun, right boys?" the child of Hades asked, managing a smile before she wilted, leaning on Thomas.

Despite how wiped out he still looked, Thomas snapped to attention the moment Nicola gave in to him. "Woah, woah! Easy there, Nicola," he said, keeping her on her feet. "Do you need a moment?"

Even though she slumped over into him, Nicola maintained her proud grin. "Just one, yeah. Guess all my practice really did pay off, huh? Normally a jump like that would have knocked me out, but I actually feel pretty good."

Percy made a confused expression at Thomas over Nicola's head, which the son of Zeus returned. "If you're feeling okay, then I guess we won't worry too much," Percy answered, letting go of their hands and turning to have a look at their surroundings. "Know where we landed?"

"Somewhere in Colorado," came her response. "I did promise Mina that we wouldn't try to force the whole thing all in one go, remember? Just give me a few minutes to regain my bearings, and we should be ready for the next leg of the jump."

Percy glanced back at her. "Just a few minutes? Are you sure that's not pushing it?"

"I agree with Percy," Thomas added, lowering the daughter of Hades into a sitting position in the shade of a ridge. "Even if you want to keep pushing forward that fast, I'm gonna need some time just to make sure my head is still on right."

Nicola narrowed her eyes at both of them. "I'm beginning to remember why I don't shadow-travel with new people very often," she grumbled, curling up into the cover Thomas put her under. "But fine. We can take a bit more time, if you two are gonna be such mother hens about it."

"Willamina's the mother hen; we're just her hand-pecked servants," Percy retorted, picking up the bag the child of the Underworld had brought along with her and taking it to her seated position. "And something tells me not keeping my promise to her would be strike three for me. At best, she'd kill me. At worst, I'm gonna be speaking like James Joyce for the rest of my life."

Thomas blinked. "Who?"

"The guy who wrote Finnegan's Wake. Wrote in genuine old Irish. And no offense to anyone who might speak that dialect, but I couldn't make it through the first sentence without calling Annabeth over. And she couldn't even read it, either! She had to ask Chiron to translate it."

"Did he?"

"According to Mr. D, yes, but only just. He gave me the translated copy a few days later, and only told me to never crack open a James Joyce work ever again."

Nicola cocked her head. "More rhyming couplet threats, then? Geez. What did you do to earn that kind of ire from her?"

"Oh.... um...," Percy's face flushed as he remembered the events of that morning. "She, along with Rey and Faith... may have caught me in bed with Alister earlier today."

"So?"

The child of the Underworld looked remarkably blasé at that reveal. "Um... we weren't exactly fully clothed, either," Percy explained further.

Still, Nicola didn't react. "Okay? And? Did anything happen between you two?"

"No, no! He was cold, and I was trying to warn him up. Nothing happened... that might happen in that kind of situation. We kept it PG."

The female demigod face-palmed, shaking her head at the story. "Oh, Mina. Always so protective of your patients, even when they really don't need you to be," she muttered, before looking back up at Percy. "Don't let her tough act fool you, Percy. She's a sucker for healthy relationships, and even if she might get offended by you defying her like that, she'd never actually do anything about it. It'd be too hypocritical."

Now it was Percy's turn to cock his head in questioning. "Hypocritical? Why would you say that?"

"Because... she's been my doctor for several months now." Nicola leaned forward. "I won't go into too much detail, but let's just say Mina isn't in very good standing to get on to people for being affectionate with her wards. Two months ago, I came down with the flu. And for all her precautions, she still ended up catching it too." She raised an eye at him. "Care to hazard a guess as to how that might have happened?"

No, he didn't. "Thanks, Neeks. For the... uh... support, I guess."

Nicola blinked at him. "That's... the first time you've called me Neeks. Percie can't seem to go five minutes in conversation without doing it."

The son of Poseidon rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. "I'm still trying to get used to calling Nico that, myself. Not as like a teasing thing, by any means. Just, to make things between us less... how could I put it?"

"Antagonistic?"

"Yes, that's it," he nodded. "Can you see where I'm coming from?"

"Yes, Percy," she told him, her voice getting quieter. "I can see it pretty easily, too."

The conversation fizzled out there, the mood in the area getting pretty awkward as both demigods clearly were thinking back to their own troubled relationship with one another. Nicola seemed to be at a loss, so Percy turned back to Thomas, who'd been quiet throughout that entire exchange. The son of Zeus's sky-blue eyes were burning into Percy, with more unreadable emotions dancing in the irises. This guy... certainly kept his cards close to his chest. This was the third time Percy had noticed something big lurking just beyond the surface, but the demigod never voiced or acted on them.

"Well," Thomas finally remarked, standing up straight and looking around. Nicola had dropped them off in some small canyon, in Colorado, if she had her locations right. Two small ridges closed overhead, giving them plenty of shade from the sun, which was sure to be nice if they had ended up in the desert part of the state. "I'm gonna have a look at our perimeter. Make sure no one can sneak up on us easily. You two stay close to each other."

Without waiting for an answer, he turned and walked off, leaving the two of them to themselves. Nicola watched him go, a frown beginning to play on her face, but on testing to see if she could stand up, didn't like the result.

Percy sat down next to her, eager to get out of the sun himself. "Sorry if I made that awkward," he mumbled, as Nicola pulled her bag up to her.

She let out a grim chuckle. "Percy, nothing will ever be more awkward than me, a lesbian, meeting the male version of the woman I was crushing on for nearly four years. As blundering as you might be sometimes, you'll never reach Percie-levels, to me at least."

"Is it okay if I ask you something, then?" he shifted to look at her directly. "I never worked up the courage to ask Nico, but since you're here, I was wondering if it might be... different."

That guarded look came back, and for a moment Percy was afraid he'd ruined it. But then, just as soon as it flashed up, it withered. Nicola gave a slight nod, going through her bag. "Okay. Go for it."

"What did Nico ever see in me?"

Silence. Nicola froze in her action, her hand stuck in her bag. One piercing dark eye glanced over at Percy, who didn't shrink back from the stare.

"I've asked myself that ever since he confessed to me. Me, the guy who promised to protect his sister, and failed. The guy who cast him out like a rabid dog, and never bothered to treat him with anything close to trust, even when he deserved it. I-" Percy had to swallow some bile as he forced himself to continue, "I even choked him once. When he was twelve. So... how? How in the name of Rhea could he have ever gotten so invested in that attraction?"

"You ask me that, like I would know," Nicola returned, still not moving. "We might be counterparts, Percy, but it would be presumptuous to assume my feelings were anything resembling his. He was not nearly kidnapped by the Hunters. He did not watch his sister nearly beat a woman to death when he was ten. He did not chase his only family away simply by being born the way he was."

"Now who's the one being presumptuous?"

"Excuse me?"

"True, Nico was a boy, so he never had to deal with the attention of the Hunters. But Nicola, if that was the case, who then did the Hunters have their sights on?"

The daughter of Hades sucked at the inside of her cheek. "I guess... it would have been... Bartholomew's equal, yes?"

Percy gave her a slow nod. "Yeah. Bianca di Angelo. Artemis wanted her for the Hunt. And do you know what her answer was?"

"I'd assume no?"

"You assume incorrectly."

The girl now fully stared at him, astonishment in her face. "She did what?"

"Bianca joined the Hunt, of her own free will. That's how she ended up on the quest to free Artemis; not because she attacked Zoe," Percy informed her, trying to maintain a façade of indifference. "It tore Nico apart. He was convinced that he'd somehow driven his sister away from him, and that got her killed in the long run. So no. He may not have nearly been kidnapped, or watched his sibling fight someone almost to the death, but that last one? I'd say Nico di Angelo knows exactly what's it like to feel as if you pushed your family away, simply by being who you are."

"Mio fratello," she shuddered, her eyes going to a distant place. Nicola's hands gripped at the bag in her lap, the force straining against the straps to the point Percy was worried they'd snap. "I... always wanted to know why I was born a woman," she mumbled, more to herself than Percy. "If I'd just been male, then the Hunters wouldn't have bothered with either one of us. Bartholomew would still be here. I wouldn't... I wouldn't..."

Her words died out. Percy's eye caught the shadows creeping up, like wolves lurking outside the light of a campfire. He wrapped an arm around the younger demigod, and the darkness pulled back.

Nicola leaned into him, going lax at the touch. "But to know that it didn't change anything in the long run... did I do something to the Fates? Does the world just have it out for me, no matter the circumstances? Is there no timeline where my brother and I get to grow old with each other?"

"You're asking the wrong man, Neeks," Percy answered, rubbing her shoulder. Her heartbeat was pounding away against the son of Poseidon, and Percy was reminded of just how small the demigod really was.

Nicola closed her eyes, breathing into Percy's shoulder, then seemed to come to a conclusion. "It was the safety."

"Pardon?"

"Why Nico... why I... became so infatuated with you. You were the first hero I ever saw in action. Mythomagic had nothing on you, nor any of the other heroes I met at Camp-Half Blood. But there was something special about you. Bartholomew and I were orphans, for a long time. Bounced around orphanages and foster homes; got an extended stay in the Lotus Hotel. The world around us changed in ways we could never know, but all we knew was each other."

Nicola's hair brushed against Percy's face as she looked up at him. "Bartholomew... was the only person in my life who made me feel safe. Until I met Percie. She just had this aura about her, like no matter what was going on, once she arrived you knew everything was going to be okay. That's why I wanted you to promise me you'd protect my brother. I thought... I thought he felt the same way as I did. That you were the first thing we could count on."

"You were ten, Nicola," Percy said. "You were overwhelmed. Everything happened so fast to you guys."

"Maybe, but even after he died, that sense of security refused to depart. Do you have any idea how frustrating that was? I wanted to hate you. For at least a year, I was pretty sure I did. Then I ran into you again, in the Labyrinth. And you know what the first thing I felt when I saw you was?"

Percy shook his head.

"Relief. Relief that you were there. You saved me from Minos' brainwashing, and finally seemed to accept your own fault in Bartholomew's death. But that was a mistruth on my part. Deep down, I knew how my brother died. Of course he'd sacrifice himself for you guys; that's who he was," Nicola murmured, a mix between a sob and a laugh escaping out of her mouth. "I wanted to blame you. But I couldn't. I wanted to blame myself, but that was too painful. I wanted to blame Bartholomew, but I could never be angry at him for protecting people he cared about. I had no one to direct that hurt at, and it ate at me."

The child of Poseidon shivered, keeping her close to him. "Bianca... was one of the bravest demigods I'd ever met, Neeks. She never stopped thinking of Nico, the whole quest. I can't imagine how much stronger Bartholomew was feeling about you. And she... she didn't even hesitate, in her final moments. Told me to look after you."

"And in a way, you did."

"But how?" Percy demanded. "I treated you like garbage! Dragged you around, all the while being completely unaware of your feelings towards me. How could you still care for me, like that, after everything that happened?

"Because I knew you didn't do any of it on purpose. Even the choking thing. My dad lied to you, made you think I'd turned against you. Honestly, the fact that you managed to hold back after being told that... it only certified that I was justified in feeling safe around you. I know how horrible that sounds, but it's the truth. Yes, it was only a crush, but... it could have turned into something more. I'm grateful to Alister, for being so devoted to you. He helped me realize that my feelings, while strong, weren't the 'be-all-end-all' connections of real love."

Nicola put a hand to his arm. "I don't know if everything I've said is exactly how Nico feels on the subject, but it's my truth. You were a shining figure in my eyes, one that I could count on no matter the situation. You proved me right, again, saving me from that gods-forsaken jar. Hayden told me you didn't hesitate to take time out of your journey to find me."

"Nicola... I don't know what to say," Percy wobbled. "Just... I'm sorry. For anything I might have done that hurt you, in ways I was too stupid to see. You and Nico both deserved more. You deserved better."

The daughter of Hades chuckled. "It's not on either of us to decide who deserves what, Jackson. But if that's how you feel, let me set something at ease: I forgave you a long time ago. If I hadn't, I would have incinerated you the moment you called me Neeks."

That was enough to provoke another chuckle from Percy. How did she do it? Get him to laugh at moments like this? "Thanks, Nicola. I just... needed someone who could answer that. And I didn't want to open any old wounds on Nico, since he and I were so close."

"No problem; glad I could serve as your proxy," she returned, fist-bumping his shoulder. Nicola sat back up, the shadows vanishing completely. "Now, I should be ready when Thomas comes back to make the next jump. He'll say he's fine, but could you at least make sure he didn't walk right into a wild troop of Amazons? I don't want to get tranquilized again."

"One son of Zeus, coming up," Percy sparked, climbing to his feet. Nicola shot him a sarcastic look, turning back to her bag. Following the path in the canyon Thomas had been walking, the son of Poseidon followed a curve, noticing that the canyon widened a little as he continued. He might have missed the demigod entirely, if he didn't have to raise his hand to block the sun from invading his eyes. The movement brought Percy's attention to the underhang of the ridge on his right, where a small space had been formed into the canyon wall.

Thomas was laying down in that space, his eyes fixed on the valley that led into the canyon. His perch meant he would spot any possible intruders coming from that direction, with plenty of time to warn him and Nicola, and as a bonus, the only way said attackers could spot him was if they weren't affected by the sun's rays smacking them right in the eyes. Clever.

"Everything look good?" Percy called up to him.

The son of Zeus flinched, staring down in shock. "Percy?! Gods, don't sneak up on me like that! I could have blasted you into dust, if I wasn't being careful!"

The child of the sea had to stifle a giggle as he recalled Janice telling Alister the same thing. "Sorry. Force of habit. Mind if I climb up there and join you?"

Thomas seemed to deliberate the offer, before patting the soil at his side. "Come on up. Just don't lose your footing. This canyon is a lot slicker than it gives off."

The warning was appreciated, since it took Percy ten more minutes than he would have liked to join the demigod on his watch. Most of that was spent trying not to slide down the wall in shame, but he managed to make it without embarrassing himself too bad. Thomas smirked a bit, watching him struggle, but that smugness disappeared when Percy made it.

"How's Nicola?" Thomas asked, returning to his lookout position. "I hope you're not coming all the way up here just to tell me something's gone wrong."

"No, no. She's doing fine," Percy remarked, thinking on the conversation he'd just finished with the girl. "We... finally got to say some things to each other that needed to be said, is all. She also said she's ready to make the next jump whenever you are."

"Ah. Good. We can... head back soon, then."

The son of Zeus was obviously distracted by something, and since Percy couldn't see anything coming at them that might justify that, he figured it had to be something related to him. Seems everything was, recently.

"Have I done something to offend you, Thomas?" Percy asked out of the blue.

"You? No; why? I'm here with you, aren't I?"

"Well, yes, but-"

"Didn't I ask to come with you, the moment I learned you were heading for New York?"

"Yes, you did, and with that-"

"Then what's the issue?"

Percy huffed, earning a glare from Thomas. The son of Poseidon wavered a little at the gaze, but found his voice. "It's just... there's been a few times where I'll look over at you, and it looks like you want to say something, but you never do. I just don't want there to be any sort of bad blood between us; not without at least letting me know if there's something I can do to fix it."

"Something you can do, eh?" Thomas posed, chewing on his bottom lip. "Sorry. Can't think of anything. Guess you were just seeing things, Percy. Hate to disappoint you."

It was a convincing attempt to dispel the suspicion, but Percy had already seen it three times. Once was a fluke. Twice was a coincidence. Three... that was a pattern. "Does it have something to do with Alister?" Percy prodded.

"What... what makes you think he's got anything to do with nothing?!"

Bingo.

"Because every time I've caught you making that look, it was after someone mentioned Alister, or after the two of us had a moment together. You know, you were the first person to just ask the two of us outright if we were still a couple, after the swap. And you did that not even two minutes after learning about it. I may not have Annabeth's, or Alister's, intelligence, but even I can spot something that consistent."

"You... could spot it?" Thomas's voice was low.

"Yeah."

"Does that mean... Percie could also already have spotted it?"

"That I don't know. I've just been paying attention to my friends a lot more closely ever since I got yoinked out of my world and into this one. Don't wanna miss anything, you know? So maybe she has, maybe she hasn't. I can't say."

The son of Zeus put his head to the ground, sighing. "That's not very helpful, Percy."

"So... am I right? There's something you're not telling anyone?"

Thomas glanced up at him, his face conflicted. "Yes...," he gritted, "but I can't tell you. Not you. Because you're her. And she's the one person who could never be allowed to hear it."

What on earth was he talking about? This... was something Percy had never seen in Thalia.

"Don't ask me again," Thomas stated, shifting so he could lower himself back to the canyon wall. "Percy. Do not. Ask. Again. Please."

"Thomas, I want to help," Percy poked, scooching forward so he could climb down as well. "Percie might be me, but maybe that's exactly why you could tell me. You get it out of your system without giving it away."

Was he poking at a bear? Yes. Should he have probably stopped? Big yes. Did he? Of course not.

"I don't want to talk about this, Percy," Thomas repeated, the sky above starting to darken. The demigod's hair almost seemed to absorb the gathering energy above his head, standing on end.

"And I do. Thomas, I know what it's like to keep things buried. It never ends well. Please, don't let it-"

Without warning, Thomas lunged, shoving Percy into the canyon wall. The son of Poseidon's pleas got knocked out of him as he got pinned against the ridge. Thomas glowered at him, just a few inches from his face. The son of Zeus had literal thunderbolts dancing in his eyes as he hovered above Percy, mouth contorted into a sneer.

"Why. Are. You. So. Stubborn?!" he hissed, pushing his face right up to Percy's cheek. "Is it something I'm putting out? Do I need to beat some sense into you, before you finally get it? You can't heal this, Percy. So don't try."

Percy gulped, trying to keep his nerves under control. The power emanating from the other demigod was so visceral, the son of the sea could feel the hairs on his arms sticking up, just from being so close. "Thomas... anything can heal. It might be a painful recovery, but it can mend. Sometimes... you have to break a bone so it can be set properly."

"And that would be my bone being broken, according to your metaphor? Brave talk, for someone teetering on the edge of a very bad time."

Sparks started flying from Thomas's skin, grazing Percy's body. It tingled for now, but the threat was obvious.

"If you know anything about Percie, you know she doesn't abandon her friends when she knows they need her. I'm the same way. If you want me to drop this... you're gonna have to put me down, Thomas."

Lightning cracked across the sky as the son of Zeus shook at his words. Percy felt heat surround him, closing his eyes. If the strike did come, he didn't want to watch it. Seconds felt like hours as the power standing before him rose to a crescendo... then faded. His opened his eyes.

Thomas winced, his grip on Percy loosening as the sky above cleared. His hair calmed down, and he brought his head to rest on Percy's shoulder. "Gh... no. I could never hurt you. You're... her."

Was he saying...?

Percy brought his hand up, to where Thomas was keeping a grip on his side. "Thomas... are you saying that you're in lo-"

The words never made it out. Thomas's lips met Percy's, pushing him back to the wall. The kiss only lasted a few moments, but in that brief interaction, the son of Poseidon didn't have time to register what was happening. The son of Zeus pulled back as quickly as he began, looking both ashamed and heartbroken.

They stared at each other, sea-green eyes pulling at sky-blue ones. The latter of which finally fell to the ground, hurt more now than ever.

"Damn you, Hera," Thomas whimpered, before stepping back and walking along the way they'd arrived.

It took a lot to render Percy Jackson speechless. But what happened there, in the shadow of that canyon? That did it. The son of Poseidon could barely even think as he slogged after Thomas. The son of Zeus didn't say anything else, either, so the trek back passed in a silence more uncomfortable than any Percy had ever experienced.

Nicola, now on her feet once again, turned a smile their way as they approached, but it lessened as she saw the dour expressions on both boys' faces. "Did... something happen?" she asked, putting one hand to the sword at her side.

Oh, did something happen all right. Thomas shook his head at her, making a point not to look anywhere near Percy's direction. Percy did likewise, treating Nicola to a rather bizarre situation where she was trying to hold a three-way conversation by herself.

"Ooookay," she finally relented, affixing them both with a weird look. Weird. How very appropriate.

That weirdness got a lot more grating when the daughter of Hades extended her hands to the boys. They each took one without complaint, but paled when they remembered that they had held hands last time they traveled. Not doing it this time would clue Nicola in to everything she needed to know.

His mind now fully numb, Percy fumbled for Thomas's hand, which met his with more literal sparks. In return, Percy felt the moisture in the air sizzle. Luckily, Nicola was too busy closing her eyes to focus her mind on the jump ahead, so she didn't notice the elemental exchange.

This time, Percy was jubilant to get swallowed by the darkness, the welcoming nausea being enough to distract him from the bubbling pit of pain in his chest. The trio bounced around the shadows, for a considerable amount of time, before Percy heard Nicola pull in a sharp intake of breath. In the next second, they were pulled off to the right, popping out in sunlight once again.

A sunlight that was shattered by the sound of honking horns. Percy's eyes flew open, and his jaw dropped as a flatbed toting what must have been all of the lumber in America came barreling right at his face.

"Sweet Cerberus!" he exclaimed, finding his two companions' hands in his and leaping to the side. Nicola came without any sort of resistance, the daughter of Hades' eyes crossing in exhaustion. Thomas was heavier, but as soon as he recognized the death heading straight at them, he pushed off as well, carrying the three off to the side against a railing.

A railing?

Yes. A railing, on the bridge they'd just gotten teleported onto. Looking up to the signs on the freeway, Percy made out Gateway Bridge (Illinois-Iowa), with an arrow pointing at Illinois.

"Talk about seeing the light at the end of the tunnel," Percy muttered, dragging the other two along with him as he walked to the end of the bridge. Cars roared by, coming in both directions, but no one stopped to check on the three teenagers stumbling next to the rails of the Gateway Bridge.

Nicola, who was having to be kept aloft by the combined efforts of the boys, scooped her head up, her face stricken with panic. "Guys, something went wrong," she frantically said, trying to get her feet under her.

"How? We made it to Illinois, by the looks of it," Thomas asked, bringing up the rear of the line. "Sure, we landed right in the middle of a road, but I figured that was just one of the cons to using such a risky method of travel."

"No, that's just it!" she sputtered. "I was aiming for Kentucky, not Illinois. You felt that random divergence in the portal, right? That wasn't an accident on my part. Someone pulled us this way, into Illinois."

"You mean someone interfered with the shadow-travel?" Percy gasped. "But who could do that? And how could they do that?"

"I don't know! They'd have to be skilled in it themselves, even more so to be able to effect the travel of others. That kind of power is something that would take years to master."

By now, they'd reached the end of the bridge. Percy stopped short, scanning the area for any sign of their mysterious interloper, but couldn't see anyone suspicious. The bridge broke into a full freeway, with road signs pointing the way to Fulton, Illinois just north of there.

"No towns," Thomas spoke up, interrupting Percy's thoughts. "Too big a risk of drawing monsters. Nicola needs rest; whoever hijacked our ride must have had to overpower her own magic."

"I... can stand," Nicola protested, her shaking legs proving her wrong just as she said it. "Okay, no. I can't. Just... let me have a quick power-nap, and we'll be good to go." With that, she fainted, collapsing into Thomas.

"Find a spot away from the road, then?" Percy led.

"Yeah. Hopefully one with some cover. Whoever yanked us here has to be looking for where we ended up."

The son of Zeus hoisted the snoring girl into his arms without effort, moving to the front of the group. Percy let him, pausing to make sure no one followed them, then went after Thomas, who trekked off the road into the forest.

"So..." Percy began, swinging his arms as they moved, "care to talk about what happened back in Colorado?" The new development had startled him back into being able to speak again, and with Nicola sleeping soundly, the son of the sea felt confident enough to broach the subject.

Thomas sighed. "Not really, but something tells me you're not gonna drop it, are you?"

"Oh, does it?"

The taller man threw a pained look his way. "I'm... sorry. That was wrong of me. You're already in a relationship, we technically just met, and I should've known better than to let myself get ruled by my emotions like that. The last time it happened... Zoe died."

"And you killed her?" Percy asked, stepping up so he match Thomas stride for stride.

"I... claimed so. But... no. I did not kill Zoe Nightshade. That was a lie I concocted to protect someone dear to me."

The pieces all fell into place in that moment. "Percie did it, didn't she?" Percy gazed at him. "Tensions rose, Zoe attacked someone, and Percie killed her defending them. And you took the blame... because you loved her."

Thomas grimaced. "That is the short of it, but there were... complications. Zoe did not try to kill me; rather, she was aiming for Percie."

"Percie? Why would she do that?"

"She apparently saw me as a threat, that would keep Percie out of the Hunt," the son of Zeus growled. "Never mind Percie had already refused her several times, before I ever entered the picture. But Zoe was not to be deterred. She said if she couldn't have her, no one could."

"And tried to kill her? And... Percie fought back?"

"No; I did. I broke her bow, but Zoe went for her knives. She was too fast. I couldn't block her in time... but Percie got there before she could finish me. She saved my life... and I resolved to save hers."

"You took the blame," Percy murmured, catching on. "So... you weren't sentenced to the Lotus Hotel because the gods didn't want to risk the prophecy coming into play. They sent you there... as the punishment for killing Artemis's lieutenant."

Thomas nodded, looking ahead. "I made Percie promise never to tell anyone what happened. Artemis would kill her, without question. When we made that pact, I did not anticipate living through that day. But there was enough dissent among the gods for a parlay to be reached. My life was spared... thanks to Poseidon."

"My dad... saved you?" Percy asked, befuddled

"He was the deciding vote. On whether I would live or die. He looked right at Percie, saw something no one else did, and voted in my favor. As did my own father. It... it was the first time any of the gods ever showed me any compassion," he faded.

That tone... it hit Percy right in the heart. He'd been there, just the other night. Convinced that no one really cared for him, and those that did would have been better off not doing so.

"Then you do see me as her," he realized. "You just told me the truth... and you kissed me."

"Yes, Percy. I do. And I'm in love, though it took me a long time to realize it. But if there's one thing the Lotus Hotel gives you... it's time." Thomas groaned, blinking away tears. "I'm in love... with my best friend's partner. And I just forced myself on you." He choked on his words. "I told Zoe I was nothing like my father. Guess that was a lie..."

Alister. Gods, this was a mess.

Such a mess, that Percy couldn't think of anything else to say. Thomas didn't seem very eager to say any more anyway, so they walked on in silence. After some more hiking, Thomas put a hand up, pointing in the direction of an abandoned barn. The overgrowth had overtaken the building, but aside from the excess of plants, it seemed sturdy enough.

"Let's stop in there. We can't lurk around in the open with potential pursuers after us," the son of Zeus argued.

Percy didn't disagree, so they pried the doors open. Dust instantly met Percy's nose, but aside from that little annoyance, the barn appeared safe. The loft was still intact, and empty stalls confirmed that they hadn't surprised any wayward monster trying to have a nap.

"You can watch Nicola," Percy told him, fastening the door closed behind them. "It's my turn for keeping lookout."

Thomas nodded. "Okay." He made a space in the middle of the floor, laying Nicola's head on her bag. The son of Poseidon climbed up the loft, so he could watch outside the window on the second floor of the barn.

"Percy?"

"Yes, Thomas?"

"I'm sorry. For... for being such a bastard. In more ways than one."

The child of the sea looked down at him, the anguish on his face clear. "I know, Thomas. Just... give me a moment, all right?"

Percy turned back to the window, not waiting for the response. Cruel? Maybe. But he had things to think about.

Aphrodite hadn't been kidding, in her words to him outside the Junkyard of the Gods. His love life was not easy.

Chapter Text

Swordfight by Candlelight sounded like the name of a really pretentious art exhibit. The kind that required you to be dressed in your absolute best if you wanted to even stand in the presence of a painting. Because apparently, that painting would be able to tell if any of its observers weren't abiding by the dress code set by its creator.

Why was Percie thinking about smug art exhibits, staring down Pisces? Well, that had a simple explanation: Since the only light coming inside the cave was being provided by the candles that had been rather conservatively spread around the chamber, the daughter of Poseidon found herself having to squint to make out her opponent as the constellation yanked a blade out of nowhere. Where was she keeping that, in her hair?

Even in the darkness of the cave, the demigod could make out the light-blue aura shrouding the sword, which looked to be quite large for a one-handed weapon. Annabeth swept out to the side, skirting the edge of the space between the three of them. Pisces regaled the daughter of Athena with a dull expression, then flashed her eyes.

Annabeth seemed to understand what just happened, since she raised her blade up in defense, even though Pisces still had to cross about fifteen feet of space to reach her. So when the constellation did appear right before her, slamming her blade down, Percie's mind was boggled.

The Pisces holding the blue sword smirked, facing Percie square on, while the other copy of herself parried Annabeth's counter-attack, driving the daughter of Athena's sword to the side, and leaping up onto a stalactite, swung again, aiming at her face. Percie leapt into action herself, catching the attack right before it cleaved into Annabeth, Riptide's cross-guard smacking it down before the child of the sea span into her momentum, aiming a slash at the constellation's side.

Pisces pushed off her perch, making a soaring leap that carried her over the entire cavern, landing behind her other half. This Pisces, instead of the hostile blue that the original had been boasting on her weapon, clutched to a silver blade, with gold engravings carved into its hilt and handle.

"Oh, come on, me!" the first Pisces bemoaned. "You missed!"

"I didn't you see jumping into action, did I?" the other one snarked, brushing some dirt off her shirt. "Way to handle that dangerous demigod, me. You stood there and looked really intimidating. I'm sure Percie is quaking in her boots."

"I've heard of talking to yourself, but this is ridiculous," Annabeth muttered, standing at Percie's side.

The daughter of Poseidon had to agree. "So, I take it this new Pisces is the second koi?"

"I resent that remark!" both constellations spat, turning away from their argument to face the women again.

"Suddenly I miss Sagittarius."

The first Pisces rolled her eyes at Percie, turning back to her doppelganger. "So, what was the big plan? Strike while I distracted them? Nice job, sweetie. And stellar weapon choice; really, you could have gone with literally anything, and you picked freaking Excalibur?"

The silver and gold sword seemed to brighten at its name, as the other Pisces hefted it onto her shoulder. "Hey, this one is a perfect replica of the one they used in Merlin! And don't lecture me about taking the easy way out when it comes to weapon selection. You're walking around with a White Walker ice blade! I thought we agreed you'd use the Winchester they showcased in The Rifleman."

"Because there's nothing fun about shooting them, you gill-headed amoeba! I thought we agreed to watch the Hunters because that meant we got to be on the front line. What's the point of being the last line of defense if you don't get to at least cross blades with the heroes?"

Percie shared an unbelieving look with Annabeth, before shrugging. Hey, if they wanted to just stand there and argue when a fight was going on, that was their loss. The demigods were ready to press the advantage.

Percie went low; Annabeth went high. Since the Pisces with the White Walker sword had her back to them to engage in her bickering, she was the first target. Riptide arced at the constellation's knees, while Annabeth's blade came chopping at her neck. You know, if they both landed these hits, and put enough force into them, the result would probably get Pisces to flip.

Sadly, any chance of a humorous victory was dashed when Pisces lifted her Game of Thrones copycat, stopping both strikes without even looking in their direction. "Fine! Guess I'll kill you two first, then resume this conversation with my other self," she snarled, wheeling into the motion and leaping up. Guess she managed to squeeze some of her free time into watching Jackie Chan, because Percie got a flying karate kick to the chest, sending her flat onto her back. Annabeth got the other foot in her stomach, bringing her onto her knees.

"Hey! Don't steal all the action from me!" the other fish yelled out, charging at the daughter of Athena with Excalibur hoisted above her head. "You... shall... not... pass!" she cried, slicing at Annabeth with a flourish. The child of wisdom rolled out of the way, cutting into her attacker's heel as she avoided the flashy offense.

"Serves you right for quoting Lord of the Rings at a time like this," Percie wheezed, rising to her feet and stabbing at the wounded enemy. Excalibur seemed to mellow in disappointment as her attack came in, but the other Pisces interfered, the White Walker weapon stopping Riptide in its tracks. A high-pitched ringing echoed through the cave as the swords met, nearly knocking the daughter of the sea off her feet.

"Oohh. Accurate to the source material. Nice touch," the wounded Pisces toasted, as her copy pushed Percie off her. "Now just actually kill her with it, and I might take back everything I said about Buffy and Spike."

"They're a fantastic on-screen couple!" she shouted back, pushing Percie back up against the wall. The demigod found herself on the receiving end of a flurry of strikes, all of which made that ear-bleeding screech every time she parried with Riptide.

"Oh, please! Angel and Buffy forever!" Excalibur-Pisces declared, cartwheeling at Annabeth and striking diagonally with the English weapon. The child of Athena winced as the sword came within an inch of cutting her nose off, but managed to dodge, bringing her sword up in a thrust in response.

Even for two hotheaded TV buffs, the constellations were doing a damn fine job of keeping the two demigods on the defensive. Too good a job. Annabeth managed to keep Excalibur from breaking her skin, but her opponent leaned into that priority, stomping on her foot and elbowing her in the face when the demigod got the weapons locked together. Meanwhile, Percie had even less success than that; the White Walker blade's cacophony must have been shocking her reflexes, since she wasn't able to respond to a cut that came at her left flank, slicing just under her arm.

The wound wasn't a major one, but Percie felt a cold numbing sensation shoot up her entire arm, freezing her whole left side. Pisces chuckled to herself, watching the daughter of the sea seize up as advanced frostbite seemed to immediatly set in.

"I did say I wanted to be accurate to the source material, right?" she taunted, pointing at Riptide. Percie glanced down, watching as her weapon, now coated in frost, started cracking and sputtering as ice formed at the base of the handle.

"Percie!"

Annabeth's sudden cry distracted the gloating Pisces, who shot her a disapproving glare. Excalibur-Pisces didn't seem too rattled, but that changed when the daughter of Athena seemed to get a second wind, seeing her companion fall like that. With strength her opponent hadn't been expecting, Annabeth rounded on Pisces, knocking Excalibur's point into the ground and ramming her blade into her gut.

"Well... that wasn't in the script," the constellation cracked, dropping her sword and falling onto her side, clutching at her wound.

The White Walker Pisces sneered, and strode at Annabeth, swinging in a wide arc at her head. Having learned to avoid trading sword blows by witnessing what had happened to Percie, the child of Athena just ducked under it, managing to land a glancing bow on the Fish's wrist.

"Gr.... you're going to pay for that one, girl," Pisces gritted, having to step back and take in the cut spurting blood.

With that brief moment of respite, Annabeth rushed to Percie's side, yanking her to her feet. "Find the Hunters," she whispered into her ear, shoving her into the curtains where Pisces had first entered. "I can keep her busy for at least a bit."

"Annabeth, I can't leave you," Percie tried to stand, but her left side was completely immobilized, cold creeping towards her chest. "You can't fight two by yourself."

"No, but I can hold two off by myself, if you go for the cavalry. Percie: we need the Hunters. Now. Go!"

Annabeth whirled on her stance, bracing her sword against the wall of the cavern. The wounded side of Pisces, unable to stand, threw a side glance at her expy. White Walker nodded at that, grabbing Excalibur off the floor and brandishing both blades against the demigod.

"Looks like I'll finally get that Merlin/Game of Thrones crossover I've been writing to HBO about," the constellation mused, gazing at her weapons with a dangerous shine in her eyes. "Get ready to become a part of primetime history, blondie!"

"Blondie?!" Annabeth sputtered. "That's it! You're sushi!"

With a sneer, the constellation leaped, bringing her weapons down in a combined smashing strike. As Percie pulled herself along the wall behind the open curtains, she heard Annabeth hold the attack off, shouting various tv show spoilers as she fought back.

"What do you mean, Sheriff McAllister is actually Red John?!" a shocked Pisces's voice echoed down the caverns as the daughter of Poseidon stumbled, landing on her face. That ever-expanding chill sensation wasn't letting up, crawling over her torso and down into her legs. She needed to hurry, before her entire body became a very handsome ice sculpture.

Luckily, Pisces must have built her Evil Lair of Evil with conveniences in mind, like not having to keep her TV volume down if she wanted to hear any intruders come in and ask for her. A short trip around the corner revealed a larger antechamber, with a giant plasma screen television mounted to the wall. A popcorn machine, plus soda fountain and candy bar, adorned the corners, all topped off with a very luxurious mahogany chair in the center, facing the TV.

But where were the Hunters?

"Hey! You, with the ice on your arm!"

That was a woman's voice, but Percie looked around the entire room, seeing nothing.

"Over here, lazy eye! On the counter!"

The child of the ocean dragged herself to the candy bar, her left arm now completely encased in ice. On getting closer, Percie realized the entire structure wasn't a service station; half of it was devoted to displaying chocolate, Skittles, and lollipops, while the other half had been emptied out and filled with rocks, like the kind you'd put in a fish tank for... whatever the reason was. Tricking the fish, maybe?

Percie's wayward thoughts about the habits of people who kept aquariums died away as she reached this one, looking down in shock. Dozens of very small women all looked up at her, not giving an impression that they were pleased with their predicament.

"Oh, thank Artemis! It's a woman! And not that stupid TV one, either!" one cried out. "I was about to climb out of this thing and destroy her remote control, if she made us watch one more episode with that dreadful Joffrey in it."

"Umm... he got poisoned, remember?" another reminded her. "The only tolerable moment in that whole awful show, though. It almost made getting kidnapped, shrunk, and locked in here worth it."

"Sounds like a bad time," Percie drolled, scanning the group of tiny women. "Uh, is there someone in here named Thalia, by any chance?"

"That would be me," a dark-haired girl spoke up, jumping up and down in front of the others. It was her voice that had yelled out first, when Percie had stepped in the room. "Did Lady Artemis send you after us?"

"In a manner of speaking. Now, I don't mean to sound out of my element here, but none of you happen to know how to... you know... get you back to your normal sizes? I can't really return bit-sized Hunters to Artemis, can I?"

Thalia leaned her head on a palm, thinking. Wow. At that angle, she was a perfect fit for Thomas. The fettered brow, the lean figure, the warrior's stance... she even had his habit of cracking the knuckles in her left hand whenever she was thinking too long about something.

"Maybe you could just... break the glass and get us out of here?" the daughter of Zeus finally suggested. "I'm sorry I can't offer anything further; getting swallowed by a giant fish and spat out into a fish tank tends to leave the finer details out."

Percie's neck was now starting to refrigerate, so she didn't have time to sit back and work this out like a tactician. "Stand back, ladies. Don't want to skewer anyone on broken glass."

The Hunters wisely stepped back against their tiny prison, giving Percie enough room to swing Riptide's hilt back and smash the side of the tank to pieces. None of the Hunters returned to their normal size, but since they all would have proceeded to barge right through the rest of the counter, that was probably for the best.

"Now what?" she asked Thalia.

The lieutenant shrugged. "Guess we leave and see what happens. Anyone want to go first?"

She got no affirmatives from her compatriots. "Fine. I'll go first. Just keep your hand under the spot I leave from, okay?" she shouted at Percie. "I don't want to fall to my death because my three-inch body had to endure a four foot drop."

With her left arm now a popsicle, Percie had to use her right. Positioning it in the requested place, she gave Thalia the go-ahead. The daughter of Zeus composed herself, then stepped out of the remains of the tank into open air.

That was how Percie ended up with a regular-sized demigod smacking her in the face as she reverted to her normal size the moment her body left the makeshift jail Pisces had crafted.

"Well, that's convenient," Percie muttered from underneath Thalia, who had landed right on her chest.

At least it meant the rest of the Hunters could exit as well, each one returning to their unaffected sizes as they left the tank. Looks like whatever enchantment Pisces had crafted her holding cell with didn't factor in the odds of her captives ever actually getting out. Given how distracted and air-headed the Fish had come off as, that didn't seem very shocking.

"Thanks, friend," Thalia told her, pulling Percie to her feet, but taking on a concerned expression as she finally got a good look at Percie's half-frozen condition. "How did that happen?"

"Pisces has been watching too much primetime television," Percie murmured, swaying on her feet as her entire body below her neck lost all its feeling. Thalia had to catch her as she tilted over, her head lolling against the Hunter's shoulder. "Annabeth is here, too. She needs help. Fighting alone right now."

"What? Annabeth? She's here?"

"Yes."

"Where?"

"Down the hall," the daughter of the sea managed to moan, before her lips went a very troubling shade of blue.

Thalia's eyes burned with intensity. "Go, now!" she barked at the Hunters, who dashed out of the room with fervor. Mumbling under her breath, the child of Zeus lifted Percie onto her shoulder and back, following them. "Just who are you, anyway?"

"Can't... talk... too cold."

It wasn't an over-exaggeration. Percie felt like she had been dumped off in the middle of Antarctica, right as winter came in full force, without any sort of protective layers at all. She was so cold, she wasn't shivering. In fact, she was starting to feel kind of warm. That... was a sign of severe hypothermia.

Gods bless her, Thalia didn't stop to wait any more. The war cries of the Hunters sounded down the chamber, and the lieutenant pressed on, increasing her gait to a jog. They broke into the first cavern a moment later, and even with icicles forming on her eyebrows, Percie could make out the unfolding scene.

Annabeth, looking haggard but uninjured, was propped up by the curtains, being tended to by a Hunter who looked to be no more than thirteen. The rest of Artemis's followers were ganging up on the two Pisces, neither of whom looked very thrilled with this development.

"I thought we weren't watching She's The Man until Saturday," the wounded side mentioned, hopping around the arrows and knives that came at her from every direction. Most of them missed, but at least two arrows caught her in the back, and three knives ended up stabbing into her chest. "Oh, come on! That's gonna take forever to wash out!"

"Shut up and fight!" the dual-wielding half snapped, her back up against a wall as she desperately batted arrows and blades away from her. Looks like being a couch potato was coming back to bite her in the butt; she'd been so obsessed with Ned Stark and his family, she'd forgotten to take her captives' weapons away after locking them in her fish tank.

"Easier said than done, me!" the now skewered Pisces retorted. "Instead of me sitting here and watching you do all the fighting, maybe it's time we went Super Saiyan."

"Fine with me!"

The constellations leapt at each other, taking several free hits in the process, but upon making contact, the whole room shook. Hunters went falling backwards as the two women joined and became one. Where they were once two irritated looking swordswomen, there was now one very large, smug fish flopping on the floor of the cavern, two heads protruding from its body. Even as Percie's mind started to shut down along with her body, she couldn't help but laugh at the sight. This was the best Pisces had?

The humor went away as soon as the Fish righted itself on its fins, slamming its tail into the ground. The entire cavern trembled, and one Hunter shrieked as a stalactite fell from the ceiling, crushing her leg like a chicken bone.

Pisces grinned, which in her original from, was just really sick to look at. The fact that it was two grins didn't help. Somehow spinning on her fins, the Fish whipped her tail into the main body of Hunters, knocking the archers away like they were bowling pins. Thalia swore, easing Percie off her and notching her own bow.

"Annabeth, is this fish who I think she is?"

The daughter of Athena nodded. "Yeah. That's Pisces."

"My lucky day."

The daughter of Zeus fired, but Pisces somehow caught the arrow in one of her mouths, eyeing the demigod with amusement. That amusement lessened when Thalia raced at her, her eyes cracking with electricity.

The Fish brought one of her fins up to counter, and an electrical current whipped through the cave as the two forces met. Pisces shriveled at the exchange, but didn't fall. She bit down on Thalia's leg, drawing a sharp cry of pain from the lieutenant. Slinging her head to one side, Thalia was sent careening off into a stalagmite, the force actually being enough to knock her clean through it.

Not done with her prey, Pisces pushed herself off the ground with her fins, extending her whole fish body out to crush the daughter of Zeus, who was pinned under the remains of the rock formation she'd been hurled through. None of the other Hunters could stand, and Percie was out of it. Annabeth was the only one who could get to her feet, but she didn't stand a chance at crossing the room quickly enough to rescue Thalia.

The look in Pisces' eyes as she came down on her opponent was enough to make even Nemesis recoil in disgust.

Then, that look veered into terrified. Thalia was still stuck in her predicament, but the sudden appearance of Nico, standing in front of her with his Stygian blade pointed right up at Pisces' exposed underbelly seemed to rob the Fish of her joy.

Percie smiled to herself as Pisces recoiled, her giant fish form shimmering and dissolving back into her two human forms, just in time to avoid the hard black steel of Nico's sword. The injured half crumpled to the floor, biting back a curse as she turned her ankle against a rock, and the other one didn't have time to pull her plagiarized weapons to defend against Nico's attack.

The son of Hades swung with purpose, taking off the right arm of the Pisces who'd been the SpikexBuffy shipper. Blood erupted from the amputation, but the constellation didn't back down, leaning into her injury and launching a corkscrew kick at the boy.

Not one to be thrown off by unexpected martial arts, Nico just stepped back, letting her wide attack miss and responding by chopping off her leg as well.

Now Pisces was missing half of her limbs. Despite the body horror going on, the comedy was delicious: the Game of Thrones fan was hopping on her one leg, looking put-off by her situation.

At least her disembowled copy thought it was funny, too. "Need a hand?" she asked innocently.

"No, I do not need a hand!"

"No, you don't," Nico agreed, making her left arm match her right with another slash.

A commotion behind Percie pulled her attention away. Well, what little attention she could muster, freezing to death on the cold limestone. Will's voice broke in through her frosty haze: "Percie? Can you hear me?" The healer rolled her over onto his lap, his eyes narrowing at her predicament. "Hypothermia; advanced stage. Core body temperature: approaching 87 Fahrenheit, 30.5 Celsius."

That didn't sound good.

"Anything you can do, Will?" Annabeth asked, pulling herself close to them.

"If it was anyone other than a child of Apollo, no; not here. But since I'm exactly that, I think we've got a chance." Will rubbed his hands together, then pulled himself close to Percie, closing his eyes. "Time for some sun."

Even with her vision fading, Percie could make out the healer, and how he literally started glowing. Orange light danced across his skin as he put his hands to her face, the cold seizing up and departing as warmth flooded her nerves. The medic moved his hands down, her whole body getting the treatment. Her lips pulled apart, and she managed to inhale a massive breath as her temperature started to return to normal.

Not quite finished, Will went to the cut on her left side, where the White Walker blade had first spread the chill. Will's touch made her convulse in shock as the son of Apollo increased his own temperature, and pure warmth met pure cold. Percie gasped as the healer bandaged the wound, not removing his hand from her side until Annabeth, now cradling Percie's head, finally gained some color back in her face.

"Talk about a spa treatment," the child of Poseidon managed to crack, her eyelids fluttering at the relief. "I would have been a horrible dessert."

Annabeth looked down at her in relieved frustration. "You... are impossible," was all she said, giving Percie a kiss before shooting her attention back to the fight. Percie angled herself as well, to watch.

Nico was having a grand old time, cutting Pisces into pieces. The constellation had been reduced to just a torso and a head, yet somehow didn't look to be in very much distress.

"We might need to call this one a wrap, and look to the next encounter, me," she called out, trying to roll away on her stumps. "This place is getting too crowded for my taste."

"Seconded," her bleeding half added, taking half a dozen arrows to her back as the Hunters resumed their attack. "OW! Yes; leave. Now!"

Staggering to her feet, the Excalibur-Pisces picked up her limbless doppelganger, holding her like a football and barreling past Nico as he tried to trip them up. The Fish leaped over his foot, charging right for the wall that they were closest to. Instead of slamming against it and bouncing off, the whole cavern gave way, and the constellations fell into open air.

Annabeth yanked Percie to her feet, so they both could see what happened next: Pisces fell right into the waterfall they'd spotted as they first discovered the entrance to this cave. The moment the Fish touched the water, she vanished, her essence shining in the cascading falls and down into the stream below. Despite the shallowness, Percie could make out the reflection of a giant fish skirting the surface of the water, swimming at speeds a mako shark would have been jealous of. It only took a few seconds for the constellation to put enough distance between herself and the demigods to disappear from sight.

"Coward!" Thalia shouted after her, grabbing onto a rock formation in the center of the room and pulling herself to her feet. Several Hunters had to be helped to their feet by their comrades, but everyone had come through the scrap with their lives.

"Never a dull moment, is it?" Nico joked, returning his weapon to its sheath. He turned to Thalia. "Nice to see you still kicking, Grace."

"di Angelo, there isn't a Game of Thrones fan alive who could ever snuff me out," she returned, hobbling over to him and slapping him on the back. "Thanks for showing up when you did; I'd hate to be a pancake right now."

"You're not sweet enough to qualify for that title, Thalia."

The daughter of Zeus chuckled, shaking her head. "Nice to see nothing's changed." She turned to Annabeth and Will. "Solace. Annabeth," she acknowledged, greeting them with a raised hand. "Guess I owe you guys some thanks, too; we'd probably still be stuck in that theater if you hadn't dragged this one along with you," she pointed at Percie.

The child of Poseidon grinned uncomfortably as the two other demigods shared a look. "Yeah. Real good timing on our part," Annabeth muttered.

Thalia frowned. "Something wrong?"

A golden arrow came spearing through the cavern a moment later, cutting off whatever Annabeth was about to say. Again. Really, Crotus must not have liked her.

Everyone who could stand on their own veered out of the way, pressing against the wall as more arrows came sailing in, sticking into the wall across from the opening in the cavern.

"This guy doesn't know when to quit," Percie grumbled.

Thalia nodded in agreement. "Yeah. Been there; heard that. We tried to catch him in Philadelphia... but we got waylaid."

"Yeah. We know."

Silver flashes penetrated the waterfall, which seemed to invigorate the Hunters. "Is that... Lady Artemis?" the young girl who'd been tending to Annabeth asked, perking up. "Oh... he's in trouble now."

Peeking out through the hole, Percie spotted the archer constellation parkouring his way up the cliffside, with the moon goddess hot on his heels. She'd closed the distance considerably, but Crotus looked to be enjoying himself, despite the predator on his trail. Arrows flew in equal measure as they crested the top of the incline, the wild man doing a handstand to fire at Artemis from below, before plummeting back down to the stream under him, landing with grace.

"He can't keep that pace up forever, can he?" Will asked, sliding in next to Percie. "Artemis will catch him at some point. She doesn't need rest."

"No, he can't," Annabeth confirmed. "So what's he planning? He looks far too confident for someone trying to beat the goddess of the Hunt at her own game."

Yeah. He did. Sagittarius leered up at his pursuer in sick enjoyment as she followed him down the cliff, notching yet another arrow. Instead of dodging, the archer presented himself to her with a flourish. In that moment, it clicked.

"He's setting a trap!" Percie cried out, trying to warn the deity as she readied to fire.

The arrow didn't fly. Before Artemis could release it, a gargantuan tail shot out of the earth, wrapping the goddess up into a neat little coil. Her bow fell away as her arms were pinned down, her unseen attacker twisting her into an upside-down position.

The stinger on the end of that tail clued Percie in as to what... or who, this new face was. Long, dripping with venom, and dazzling against the moonlight, it pressed itself up against the struggling goddess's chest. Two pincer claws came shooting out of the earth, as the huge beast clambered out of the ground entirely, its yellow scales straining against the dirt.

Crotus giggled in excitement as the massive scorpion spread itself out to its full reach, stretching out at least thirty feet long, and fifteen feet wide.

"Scorpio."

The name pierced the quietness of the chamber as everyone watched in stunned horror as Artemis widened her eyes in recognition at the beast holding her in its clutches.

"Remember him, rosebud?" Crotus taunted, swinging his bow on his arm. "Because he seems to remember you."

The creature raised by Gaea to kill Orion. Even in the dark of the night, Scorpio glistened with power. And rage.

"She needs help," Nico blurted out, as Crotus flipped his hand. The scorpion seemed to agree with the motion, slamming Artemis through a tree and pinning her against the cliffside.

"But how? Orion couldn't even kill that thing; how can we?" Will desponded. "Even if we could, we'd still have to deal with Sagittarius."

The situation was bleak all right. Artemis couldn't get free of the death grip Scorpio had put her in, and Crotus, while dancing with joy, looked ready to unleash another cache of arrows at a moment's notice. But Percie felt differently.

"They... will not take her. Not if I have anything to say about it," she growled, the waterfall blocking them from view seeming to spurn her into action. "Orion may not have succeeded, but none of us are him."

Annabeth turned a worried look to the child of the sea. "Percie... what are yo-"

Crotus didn't have time to register the danger. As watchful as he was, he wasn't paying enough attention to the waterfall right behind him. So, when it diverted course and crushed him against the scorpion, the look of astonishment on his face was priceless.

Scorpio, realizing something was amiss, went to skewer the goddess with his stinger, but was overcome by the waves as well, before he could make his thrust. His hold on Artemis weakened, and the goddess faded into moonlight, hovering above the waterworks as Percie rode the falls down into the forest.

The daughter of Poseidon didn't have time to turn around and respond to the stunned looks sure to be on Thalia's face, as well as her Hunters, but she could imagine them well enough. Crotus sputtered and coughed, trying to notch his bow, but the water ripped his weapon away, leaving him helpless to the battering waves and pounding pressure.

Scorpio, in spite of his size, wasn't having much luck, either. The giant beast's tail went in all sorts of directions, only managing to get caught on the hard rock of the cliff. Percie raised her arms, the small stream at the base of the cliff lifting her into the air, so she could keep herself out of harm's way. Bringing her palms together, the two constellations slammed into one another, Crotus taking a sharp claw right to the face.

With a mighty gesture, the water whirlpooled, tearing into her foes with a force many might have called impossible. But there were few forces in this world stronger than running water. Crotus, his head just barely above the surface, screamed as his body was shredded by the currents. Scorpio's claws got skinned to the bone as Percie increased the water pressure, the scorpion releasing a horrible cry of anguish.

Suddenly, the water making up the foundation of her vortex faltered. With the bottom pooled out, her attack floundered, dumping the two drenched and deformed villains to the earth. Percie sneered, and tried to resume her assault, but the water retreated.

The sight of the young man now standing on the edge of the cliff, looking down over the scene, confirmed why.

"Aquarius!" Crotus shouted up at Ganymede, his eyes desperate. "Get us out of here!"

The water bearer frowned, spinning his cask in his hands. "Oh? But I thought you said you could handle this yourself. You, Pisces, and the giant eye sore over there."

Scorpio weakly hissed up at him, before leaning over. Crotus shook his head. "Well, clearly we can't! Just do your dumb water thing, and make our escape!"

Ganymede winced at the insult, eyeing Percie with a mixed expression. "Okay, but you all owe me for this."

"Oh, shut up about you and your insufferable debts, Aquarius! Just do it!"

The handsome former prince turned his head in hurt, before nodding. He swung his cask around, engulfing both himself and his fellow constellations in a large wave that swept them up into the sky, lifting them higher and higher until they vanished.

Percie stood, mouth agape, as she watched her enemies flee. She didn't realize Artemis was standing next to her until the goddess put a hand to her shoulder. "Quite the display, Percie," she said. "It seems I owe you for saving me twice now."

"What, that waterfall thing? Don't worry about it; you'd do the same for me."

Artemis eyed her. "I would? Seems... a little presumptuous for you to say that, isn't it?"

"No. I trust you would. It's what friends do, right? They help each other."

The moon goddess actually looked baffled by that declaration, made so easily, but Percie just put her hands up in an indifferent gesture. She wouldn't argue this point, but her feelings on the subject were stone. Artemis might have been an Olympian, but she had already admitted she understood Percie in a way most people didn't. That was enough to confirm it.

The deity didn't say anything else, and just waited with Percie for everyone else to make it back, Will taking great pains to make sure no one hurt themselves rappelling down the cliffside. Having a child of Poseidon use the waterfall behind them as a makeshift elevator didn't hurt.

Thalia approached her, her gaze one of wonder. "That thing with the water... no regular demigod could have pulled that off."

Percie affixed her with a knowing look. "Oh, really? Then I guess it's no mystery who my father is, is it?"

"No... but how could that be? I thought... Percy was the only-"

"Sit down, Thalia," Artemis huffed. "Everyone else, too. There's quite the story behind this."

Mercifully, Artemis shook her head when Percie got to the point in the tale where she had to reveal what happened to Zoe in her world, so none of the Hunters got to hear about how Nico almost rocked their mistress with a zombie hoard, or how Percie cut Zoe's head off in defense of a man. Everything else was covered, though.

All of the girls in the clearing looked bewildered by the reveal, Thalia seeming to be the most affected. "So... I'm a guy, where you're from?"

"Yep. Don't worry, though. There was no level of badassery lost in the exchange, as far as I can tell between you two. No Hunters for him, of course, but that means he's been very hands-on with a lot of things concerning the two camps."

The daughter of Zeus's gaze darted to Annabeth. "And you... how are you holding up?"

She sighed. "It's... not been easy, but... I've been managing. This might sound strange, but with Percie here, I feel like Seaweed Brain never really left me at all."

Percie's heart melted into butter.

Nico crossed his arms, standing back with a sour look on his face. Will shook his head at his boyfriend, his hands full with the number of wounded Hunters he was trying to treat, none of whom looked very happy to be having a boy touching them.

"Settle down," Artemis barked at them when one actually recoiled at the touch. "He's one of my brother's. Let him do what he's excellent at. Besides, he has no interest in women, anyway."

"I don't have much interest in men, either," Will remarked, sneaking a glance at Nico. "Just one man, actually."

The Hunter with the broken leg didn't look very reassured. "Is that supposed to make me feel better?" she demanded.

"The only thing stopping you from feeling better is your own prejudices," Nico mumbled, just loud enough for everyone to hear him. He only smirked at the angry looks he got. "What? It's completely true; nothing like writing off half the entire population just because they ended up with a Y chromosome. Something they had no control over, since it was decided before they were ever born."

Percie had to bite her lip to keep her grin from becoming too easy to spot. Annabeth seemed to be experiencing the same satisfaction, watching someone finally point out the obvious.

Artemis even seemed to enjoy it, lowering her face to the ground and pulling her hood up. Or maybe that Hunter just rubbed people the wrong way. Either way, the goddess didn't get involved in the argument.

"I am not going to sit here and be patronized by some boy," a different Hunter complained, rising to her feet. "Especially not one so enamored with his own sex, he's dating another man."

"Easy, Vera," Thalia grumbled. "That's my friend you're talking about. And the guy who just saved your life. Or did I imagine that whole mess with Pisces up there?"

"He didn't save anything! We could have handled it ourselves!"

Nico furrowed his brow. "Yeah, you looked real competent in there. Broken bones, tossed aside like nothing, kidnapped by a fish. Lured into an obvious trap by a man. You're making the women of the world proud, Vera."

The unruly Hunter sneered. "Is that sarcasm?"

"Not used to being on the receiving end, Pinocchio?"

"Oh, shut up you! Just because your sister couldn't hack it as one of us doesn't give you any right to stand there and judge me!"

Did... did she just... go there?

Percie didn't realize she had dropped her jaw until a fly almost buzzed into her mouth. That nasty little occurrence swatted away, she turned a nervous eye around the area. Thalia was staring at Vera in shock, her hands covering her mouth. Will, who had been resetting a dislocated shoulder in that moment, was locked on to his patient, his eyes dim. Even the Hunters, and Artemis herself, looked scandalized by what Vera had just uttered.

But that was nothing compared to Nico. The son of Hades' arms dropped to his side, his face ensconced in shadow. No one moved as he quaked in the moonlight, then stepped backwards. Another step. Then another. Then he was gone.

"Did... did he just shadow-travel?" Annabeth murmured in fear. "He... can't... do that. Not now!"

Will rose to his feet, terror in his face. "He's gonna overexert himself; we have to find him, now. He could end up in Canada if we don't move fast!"

Vera smirked, putting a hand to her hip. "What, did I hurt the little baby's feelings? Talk about male fragility, huh? Love to play tough, but can't even take anything deeper than a-"

That was all she got in before Percie socked her, her fist splitting the Hunter's lip and knocking her over on her stomach. Not finished, the daughter of Poseidon leaned down and spun her over, giving her a second one right to the eye. She got in a third one... and a fourth one... and a fifth one. No one tried to stop her. She counted every punch. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. Eleven. Twelve.

By now, Vera's face was an unrecognizable mess. Bruises, blood, and swelling left her resembling a mutilated jack-o-lantern. Percie finally pulled back after thirteen, her knuckles dripping with blood that wasn't hers. "You... make me … embarrassed to be a woman," she hissed, before standing up again. Her fingers wailed in pain, but she forced it down. "We need to find him. Now."

She could say that, but it wasn't enough. Percie knew that. She didn't wait for a plan. She just ran off, in the direction Nico had been facing when he folded into darkness. She heard voices ring out behind her, but she ignored them. The forest passed by her in dark shapes and twisted shadows, like they were mocking her. "You'll never find him," they creaked. "You'll fail him, again. Just like you failed Nicola. You'll be sad, but you'll move on. You always do. But he won't. He'll wander the darkness forever, lost and alone and forgotten."

No. She wouldn't allow it.

Her pace quickened; her lungs burned. How far could he go... in that kind of distress? How far would he push himself?

As Percie passed through a clearing, the stars above her seemed to shift. Taking a moment to glance up at them, a familiar sight greeted her. The Huntress. Zoe.

Percie shivered under her gaze, the constellation regarding her with... what? Pity? Compassion? Exasperation?

"Zoe... if you can hear me... please, point me in the right direction. Where did he go?"

The movement was subtle; so subtle, Percie briefly wondered if she imagined it. But it did happen. The Huntress adjusted her aim ever so slightly, pointing a direction just northwest of where Percie had been running.

"Thank you."

Chapter Text

The first thing that clued Percy in to the fact that something fishy was going on was that he saw the two strangers step out of the woods before he ever heard them. From his position up in the loft of the barn, the demigod had a great view of the whole treeline, so when the two teens came slinking out of the shadows into sunlight, the son of Poseidon rapped his knuckles against the wooden floor of the platform.

Thomas, who'd been lounging against the main pole providing most of the support for the barn's roof, was on his feet in less than a second. It took just as little time for him to climb up the ladder to the loft as well, sneaking a peek out the same window.

The son of Zeus squinted at the two young men, now crossing around the side of the barn. "They don't look familiar to me," he whispered. "Nicola said she thought someone hijacked our shadow-travel; think these guys here could be our culprits?"

Percy squatted down, in order to make sure their visitors didn't spot him in the window as they moved in front of it. "I don't know. They might just be normal kids out for some mischief in the woods... or they could be horrifying monsters putting on an act. Either way, let's just keep our heads down. With luck, they'll pass right by and we won't have to worry about it."

"Not to be a stick-in-the-mud, Percy, but since when has anyone we've encountered in this kind of situation ever turned out to be just normal people?"

"Hey, it might happen... eventually. I mean, it's not like every single person on the planet is actually some ancient god or creature from Tartarus, right?"

"Sure feels like that, sometimes."

Percy wanted to argue, but he couldn't, and that irked him. Much as he might cross his fingers and hope the denizens of mythology might finally learn from their friends' mistakes and leave him alone, it never seemed to be the case. Odds were good he'd be fighting disguised hydras and sociopathic gargoyles for the rest of his life, no matter how old he got.

The two newcomers stopped in front of the barn, staring up at it with suspicion. Now that they were squarely facing it, Percy could make out their features. They both looked to be around his own age, seventeen, and had the builds of warriors, at the least: muscular, but lean. The one on the right was more wiry than his friend, but his fingers flexed in anticipation, like he was expecting a fight. Piercing blue eyes peeked out from side-swept platinum blonde hair, and he made a face as he turned to his companion.

"Should we make ourselves known?" he asked, his accent smacking of the Mediterranean. "We went to the trouble of coming this far; can we leave the sneaking and plotting to those more suited to it?"

His friend frowned, his own black hair dangling down over the side of his face. "It's that attitude that nearly got you killed by the Furies, remember? As much as I might enjoy your company, you knew that coming along this time meant following my instructions. I won't be made a fool of a second time, Pirithous."

As he spoke, the dark-haired stranger brushed his long locks away from his face, revealing his eyes. They were a striking sea-green.

Percy's breath caught in his stomach as both the eyes and the name of the impatient demigod were spoken. That name... Pirithous. He knew that one. And that would make the other guy... oh no. Thomas, sensing his distress, clamped one hand over Percy's mouth, stopping any sharp intakes of air from giving them away.

"Friends of yours?" the son of Zeus asked, as the two trespassing demigods continued having their own conversation.

Percy shook his head, and motioned for Thomas to put his hand down. He complied, and the son of the sea crouched against the wall of the loft, biting his lip. "That guy with the dark hair? That's Theseus."

"Like... first guy to kill the Minotaur, Theseus?"

"One and the same. King of Athens, first husband of Ariadne... and son of Poseidon."

Thomas knitted his brow. "So, an unwelcome family reunion? What festivities. And his friend?"

"He called him Pirithous. King of the Lapiths, tyrannical ruler, all that jazz. And if Chiron had his facts right, he was also a son of Zeus."

The taller man brought his hand up to his forehead. "Wait... so right now we've got two ancient demigods standing on our doorstep? And they just so happen to be our half-brothers, respectively? This is making my head hurt."

"Yours and mine both," Percy returned, fighting the urge to peek back out the window. As much as he wanted to keep an eye on the whereabouts of their guests, looking out now was sure to draw unwanted attention.

"Can't we just blow the door down?" Pirithous complained outside. "I mean, we don't even know if they're in there or not! For all you know, we could be sneaking around an empty building. Talk about embarrassing."

Theseus cleared his throat. "Will you keep your voice down, please? They're here; I trust Charles' acumen. I doubt they'd be willing to brave the wilderness, with an exhausted member of their party to worry about. Shelter would have been their main concern; ergo, they must be here."

Wow. Theseus really was as competent as Chiron had made out. But Percy didn't have time to be impressed by his brother's success. Nicola was still unconscious on the main floor, and both Theseus and Pirithous looked fresh for a fight.

"We have to get her out of here," Percy muttered, nudging Thomas away from the window. "If anything breaks out, Nicola's gonna be a sitting duck. I'll step out, and face them; you-"

"Not happening, Percy," Thomas cut in, shaking his head. "I promised that I would protect both of you, remember? You get Nicola; I'll hold off the gruesome twosome. There's a back door, nestled away in the corner. Get Nicola out that way, and hide. Once she's up, the two of you get out of here. I'll make sure those two bozos can't interfere with the shadow-travel this time."

Before Percy could object, Thomas jumped out of the loft, marching to the door. He paused when he reached the bar, waving at Nicola's sleeping form. "Go!" he whispered. "You need a head start. Don't waste it arguing with me on this!"

Percy clambered down the ladder, staring at Thomas with hurt eyes. The son of Zeus grimaced at the look, but stood stalwart. "Think of it as me paying you back... for saving me."

Why did this keep happening? Why did everyone always insist on throwing themselves at danger for him? How many times was it now? He could barely keep track. Percy wanted to protest, to open his mouth and tell Thomas why he had it backwards; why he needed to stay behind and fight the impossible battle while the son of Zeus escaped with Nicola. But... that wish died on his lips.

Thomas's eyes were a sight to behold. Years of anger, mistrust, and affection had taken their toll on the demigod, and his entire past was on display. The running, the lost sense of belonging, the forced isolation... they'd brought him here. With few friends, but friends nonetheless. And now, he was going to pay that friendship back. Could Percy really rip that from him, out of his own selfish desire to protect?

"Just... come back to me," Percy mumbled, conceding.

A pained smile was returned. "Remember what I said in New Rome? I don't die easily."

He hoped it was true. Gods, he wanted it to be true. Scooping Nicola into his arms, and slinging her bag over his shoulder, Percy made for the back door. He heard Thomas wait for him to make it, before turning back and undoing the latch to the barn's main entrance.

There was no one waiting in ambush out the second exit, and Percy took advantage of that, toting the sleeping daughter of Hades into the cover of the trees. He didn't go too far, out of a fear of getting them turned around, and managed to make his way to a hollowed out log. The log was snuggled into the base of a small hill, which provided him with a naturally made bunker, as it were.

Checking it out, Percy realized the space was just enough to squeeze Nicola through, with her bag, and upon doing so, found the daughter of Hades completely hidden from sight. You'd only stand a chance of seeing her if you got down on all fours and turned your head at an angle, in one specific spot.

It was blessing, finding a hiding spot like that for his charge, but it was also a curse. The spot was good. Too good. So good, he found himself facing a choice. There was no way anyone was stumbling on Nicola for at least few hours, and the child of the Underworld had insisted that she'd only need a short rest before being able to travel again. With her taken care of, his mind immediatly jumped to Thomas.

The son of Zeus... was so different from Thalia. They were both natural leaders, and commanded a level of authority Percy hadn't seen replicated since he'd last appeared before their godly father himself. But Thalia had found her place in the world. She was Artemis's lieutenant; a respected leader of the Hunt, who had found a family she cared for. They returned that relationship, and Thalia never lacked in support or adventure.

Thomas had not been nearly so lucky. A pariah due to his father's reputation, and as a boy, no chance of finding acceptance within the Hunters. Not after Orion, and his betrayal. Alister claimed he'd been kept busy with his role as counselor of the Zeus cabin, and ambassador to New Rome, but busy didn't always mean happy. Everyone on the Greek side thought him to be a murderer, who'd snuck onto a quest and killed the leader for challenging him on it. The Romans had seemed amicable enough, but none of them really seemed to have gotten attached to the son of Zeus. He'd only really spoken to Rey and Faith, as ambassador, and while he still had Percie and Alister... his unrequited love for the daughter of Poseidon surely hampered that.

And now he was fighting for her. Sure, it was technically Percy, and not Percie, he'd been protecting when he ordered the son of Poseidon to leave with Nicola, but the child of the sea had not forgotten the desperation behind those lips when they kissed him. If there was any one emotion he could say had been radiating off the son of Zeus... it was longing. A longing for acceptance. A longing for change. And a longing for someone to reach out.

All of these revelations hit Percy one after another. It made his choice for him.

Returning to the barn was simple enough, since he'd been careful to not go blindly dashing through the forest on his first trip. The building was still standing, so at least no one had been blown up in the time it took him to depart with Nicola and return.

Percy kept low, hovering within the bushes of the treeline as he crept around the barn, keeping his ear to the ground for any sounds of a fight. Voices soon reached him; strained, terse words that bubbled with hostility.

"I have no idea what you two are talking about," Thomas insisted as Percy managed to swing around the front of the barn under cover. The son of Zeus was facing the two ancient demigods with his arms crossed, a sneer plastered on his face. "I've never even heard of this 'shadow-traveling' you were talking about. All I know is that I don't appreciate being snuck up on when I'm trying to find a place to stop for a break."

Pirithous, his own sneer making him look like a cross substitute teacher, flattened his brow at his half-brother. "Oh? And you take breaks like that all the time? In abandoned barns, in the middle of butt-fuck nowhere?"

"Language," Theseus chastised, looking indifferent to the conversation. "I do apologize for my partner, Thomas, but I do wish you'd come clean with us. Neither you nor Nicola has anything to fear from myself or my companion. The only one we want is Perseus. However," his face contorted into a malicious veil, "if you continue to play this game with us, then I will not hesitate to skin you alive and feed you to Scylla. Nicola can suffer the same, easily."

Thomas bristled at the threat. "Oh, is that so? And why are you so fascinated with this Perseus, exactly? Last I heard, he was happily dwelling in Elysium with Andromeda. Speaking of that, aren't you two supposed to be dead, too? You're looking rather fetch for that."

"We were, but an old friend made us an offer we just couldn't refuse," Pirithous slithered. "And don't remind me of Elysium! Some of us weren't lucky enough to achieve it."

"Oh, yeah. The whole 'trying to kidnap Persephone to make her your own wife' thing. Yikes, that was a bad call. You know, I remember hearing that story, but I only just now realized that you were that Pirithous. Didn't Hades superglue you down in the Underworld for months and tortured you with the Furies for that mess?"

"I was the months one," Theseus corrected. "Pirithous didn't escape. Heracles managed to pull me free from that fiasco when he trekked through the Underworld, but dear Pirithous was not so lucky. Stayed there until the Furies grew bored of him, and got cast into the Fields of Punishment for trying to abduct the Queen of the Dead. At least you went out like a legend," he told his friend.

Pirithous shuddered. "Don't remind me. At least it was more entertaining than you; you got thrown off a cliff for murdering your own son."

Theseus shrugged at him. "And I continue to regret it. But the past is the past. The present is the present. And the future... is in great danger, unless you tell us where Percy Jackson is, and let us do what we came here to do!" he snapped at Thomas.

Thomas leaned his hand on his palm. "And how is killing this guy supposed to save the world, exactly? You haven't told me yet."

"Because you don't need to know that. Now stop playing dumb, and spill it. We've already searched the barn, and know you weren't alone in there." Theseus's hand went to his belt. "I strangled the Minotaur when I confronted him, Grace. I defeated the two armies of the Pallantides single-handedly. I carried the Marathonian Bull over my shoulders without complaint. I am not a foe you can even hope to stand up against."

"Try me."

With an aggravated yell, Theseus yanked his belt off his waist, snapping it with a twist. The clothing item grew in size, unfurling into a twenty foot long whip. The weapon cracked, sending a shock wave through the air that almost blew Percy's cover. He had to actually grab onto the bushes he was crouching behind and hold them in place.

Pirithous grinned, finally getting to leave the diplomacy behind and move on to something he actually understood. He held his hands out, and a seven foot long staff emerged from mid-air, a large bronze clubhead shaped like a hawk adoring the end of it.

Both ancient warriors attacked at once; Theseus popped his whip at Thomas's torso, while Pirithous leapt into the air to deliver a two-handed strike right onto his brother's head. Thomas didn't budge; he only smirked as both attacks came at him.

The reason for his confidence? The wind. Before either strike could touch him, the air around the son of Zeus seemingly came to life, swarming around him in a defensive vortex that stopped both attacks cold. With a snap of his fingers, Theseus was tossed away into the air, while Pirithous struggled against the force as it pushed him back.

"Dad is god of the sky, remember?" Thomas taunted Pirithous, who snarled at him in response. "Looks like I got the better share of the powers, didn't I?"

Theseus's whip came slamming downwards again, only to get caught up in the mini-tornado now surrounding the child of Zeus. Instead of letting go, the warrior held on, and was yanked into the whirlwind, spinning at speeds that must have hurt.

"He's persistent, I'll give him that," Thomas admitted, turning to face Pirithous. He reached down into his boots, and retrieved two small blades, with jagged handles. "But I never could appreciate a stubborn enemy." The son of Zeus hurled the pointed daggers at his brother, whose eyes widened in panic before raising his staff and blocking them. The blades stuck in the metal, which proved just how much force Thomas could put into his throws.

As well-done as that defensive move was, it had taken Pirithous's focus off holding back the wind. The former king was blown off his feet, and slammed through several trees before one collapsed on him.

Percy was in awe; Thomas had just gotten the better of two legendary demigods by himself, and didn't have a scratch on him. It was actually really refreshing, to see such domineering foes... fall... like...

Percy's wonder vanished as he got a better look at Theseus, still trapped in the tornado. He seemed to be at Thomas's mercy, but Percy saw a different story. As battering as the wind was, the hero of Athens was keeping his bearings, and was using the momentum of his spinning to push himself closer and closer to the eye of the storm, where Thomas was standing.

Of course. He remembered what Annabeth had said about it. Despite being a child of Poseidon, Theseus was revered by ancient Athens. Not for his parentage, but for his intelligence. In fact, many of the day called him the greatest hero of all time, surpassing even Heracles. Brute strength was one thing; strength mixed with wisdom and critical thought? That was worthy of respect.

And now that intelligence was paying off. At the rate he was going, it would only take Theseus a few more seconds to breach the inner perimeter of the defensive wall Thomas had manifested, and the child of Zeus had no way of knowing that was coming. He needed to act, before his half-brother killed Thomas right then and there.

Percy sprinted from his cover, trying to dodge the harshest gusts of wind that slapped at his sides. He couldn't shout out a warning; Thomas wouldn't have been able to hear much of anything in that shield. Instead, he threw Riptide, so it banged off the wind right in front of Thomas's face.

The son of Zeus spun to him with a look that screamed 'why the hell did you come back', but that was all Percy needed to happen. Turning his attention to the side meant Thomas saw exactly what Theseus was up to, just as the ancient demigod started to pierce through his barrier. With a yell, Thomas heaved, sending an electrical current through the tornado just as the whip made it through, lashing at his arms.

Theseus froze in place, his whole body twitching as electricity rocketed through him. The wind slowed to a crawl, dropping the convulsing warrior on the ground with a thump. Thomas dropped to his knees, his arms shredded as the whip fell loosely to its owner's side, caked in blood.

Percy was by his side in a moment, taking in the damage. It wasn't pretty; Thomas's arms were a mess of blood, and looking closely, the son of Poseidon would have sworn he could see the bone in several places. "How bad is it?" Thomas grunted, his eyes closed.

"It's... um... not good. We need to get you some ambrosia and nectar, fast."

Percy moved under Thomas's side, taking the taller man on his shoulder and leaning him against his own body. He was careful not to touch either arm, which made the process a lot trickier than he would have liked.

"Why did you come back?"

The question almost made Percy pause, but he didn't. They couldn't afford to stop. Not after getting a brief moment to leave. "Because I care about you, Thomas. And I wasn't leaving you to die, no matter how much you may have wanted me to. We're in this together."

The child of Zeus took bated breaths, though Percy couldn't tell if that was because of his injuries, or because of what the son of the ocean had just told him. Either way, he didn't fight the assistance. Percy walked him around the barn, to meet a familiar face.

"Seriously? I take a nap for just a short time, and you two go and manage to get yourselves nearly killed, picking a fight with two choirboys?" Nicola demanded, standing in the shadows of the building. "And why did you dump me in the middle of the forest when I thought the plan was to seek some kind of shelter when we stopped?"

Percy went to answer, but a splitting sound that reminded him of a volcanic eruption cut him off. Pirithous flew onto his feet, shaking off wood chips and leaves as he blasted the fallen pine away from him.

"Okay, you've done it now, you little maggots," he bellowed, stomping towards them. "I don't care what Theseus or Demosthenes says: you're all getting turned into sad piles of ash, and nothing is going... to... sto-"

The demigod's rant stammered and died out as his eye caught Theseus, who'd stopped thrashing in throes of agony. Instead, the former king of Athens was completely still. Percy couldn't make out any sign of life... no pulse... no breathing, nothing.

"Th-The- Theseus," Pirithous mumbled, going to his friend's side. He rolled him over, shaking him. "Hey... hey, buddy? You all right? You... you're fine, right? I mean, you survived stronger stuff, easy. Like... the Minotaur. And Hippolyta. You outsmarted Medea. You killed all six legendary thieves by turning their methods against them." The warrior gently scooped up his fallen friend, holding him to his chest. "You... can't die. Not like this. Not... not before me."

He got no response.

"We need to leave; now," Percy muttered to Nicola, whose jaw dropped as she realized what was going on. "Before he finishes denial... and moves onto anger."

The son of Poseidon couldn't have known how right he was. No sooner had he said that then Pirithous began to glow with a golden light. His eyes burned with hatred as he rose to his feet, taking his staff in his hands. Lightning thundered overhead as he charged, at a speed that Percy's eye could barely track. The weapon came up, death looming.

Then Nicola grabbed him, and Thomas, and they vanished into shadow.

 

Pirithous watched the three demigods disappear, just as he completed his swing. His staff, so lovingly given to him by Hephaestus as a birthday present, missed its target, leaving a massive hole in the ground.

Those... bastards. Monsters. They... they took him away.

The ancient ruler threw his weapon to the ground, shrieking in fury. His staff bounced off the side of the barn, the hawk representing his father on the crest disconnecting, and landing at his feet. The statue glared up at him, earning itself a kick in the face from the angry demigod. That was a mistake.

"Ah!!!" Pirithous yelled, as his toe shattered against the hard metal. He collapsed onto the ground, pain both physical and emotional tearing at him. Blinking back tears, the child of Zeus crawled back to the side of his friend. Theseus's eyes, once so bright and lovely, were dim; unseeing. Pirithous desperately tried to feel a pulse, but got nothing.

"I'm not losing you like this," he cemented, ripping his friend's shirt open. There was no sign of breathing, and he'd never done this before. Time to learn under pressure.

His fingers laced with shocks as he rubbed them together, then zapped Theseus's chest. He tried it several more times, his makeshift defibrillator leaving horrid black marks on his best friend's skin with every touch. Still nothing.

"Come on!" he pleaded, moving onto CPR. Theseus's lips were cold, but he ignored that. He pumped without hesitation, his own breathing becoming more and erratic as he tried, without success, to revive his only friend. "You can't die on me! I have no one else!" His pleas went unanswered.

How long he sat there, weeping, and vainly trying to save him, he didn't know. All Pirithous knew was that the one thing that stopped him... was the touch of a hand on his shoulder. A hand that chilled him to the bone.

"He's gone, Piri," Charles intoned, his bony hand clasping harder to the child of Zeus. "I felt his spirit depart long ago. All you're doing is deforming his remains."

"He's died before; he can get out again."

"No." The son of Hades blinked, his hand going to a pocket on his vest. "The Doors of Death are sealed. We who used them once cannot return again. My father will not allow it."

"Hang your father, and hang you, Charles Boles," Pirithous spat. "You were supposed to keep them here; why were they able to shadow-travel away? After we went to all that effort of diverting their course?"

"I told you already, Piri: to accomplish such a feat drained me of all but my most rudimentary abilities. The fact that I was able to thwart my sister's power was shocking enough; despite her youth, she is a force to be reckoned with. You would do well to remember that, for the future."

The son of Zeus rose in anger, grabbing the gentleman bandit by the collar. "All I hear is excuses, Charles. Excuses from a pathetic demigod who never bothered to use his full potential for anything other than stagecoach robberies. For a son of the Big Three, you strike me as more of a gnat."

Charles did not speak. Rather, he only stared on as skeletal hands burst from the ground, grabbing Pirithous by the shins. Two zombie U.S. Marshals sprung from the ground, leering at the child of Zeus with their badges still fastened to their lapels.

"Please unhand me, Piri. Or else I shall be forced to make you do so," Charles remarked, his voice still as dignified as ever.

The undead each put a hand to their holsters, hissing in threat. Pirithous slowly released his hold on the child of the Underworld, and the zombies sank back into the ground, still snarling.

"Thank you." Charles readjusted his sleeves. "Now, as tragic as the loss of Theseus is, we cannot turn on each other now. The world still needs us. I told you all before, yes? The Doors of Death opening was a sign; a sign of a new age. Those once denied can now claim what is theirs. But for that to happen, the universe must be allowed to remain. And this... madness... brought on by Lamia, must be quenched."

Pirithous nodded, sighing as guilt wracked his body. He let his brother get the best of him... and now the man he loved was dead.

Charles put a hand to his shoulder, comforting him in the only way the son of Hades seemed to know how. "We mourn together. And together, we shall avenge his death. But that vengeance cannot distract us from our main mission." Dark fire danced in Charles's eyes as he stared directly into Pirithous's soul. "Percy Jackson must be annihilated."

Chapter Text

"He couldn't have gone far."

That one phrase repeated itself over and over again in Percie's head. She needed it to be true. If it wasn't... the consequences of this night would never allow her to rest ever again. For all her self-proclaimed lack of sense, the few brain cells she seemed to have told her that her hopes were well-founded.

Nico was exhausted; no denying that. Just earlier today he'd suffered the confines of Circe, and her sadistic method of captivity. He'd mentally broken down soon after, and even after recovering from both of those incidents, he still held his own against Pisces. But that strength could only take him so far.

She'd been following Zoe's directions in the sky ever since she first left the clearing. The Huntress willed her in the right direction, her astronomical figure shifting its aim ever so slightly if the child of the sea ever wavered in her sense of direction. Knowing that her old foe was helping her now did nothing to ease Percie's heart rate, but it did fill her with an odd sense of relief.

The Zoe assisting her... was not the one who'd tried to kill her three years ago. The former lieutenant's presence tried to pull at Percie's mind, taking her back to what she'd said to Artemis when she first revealed the truth: "If I could change it, I would. But I do not regret my actions on that mountain, and would do it all over again if I had to."

Dark voices sounded in her head, needling her with jabs at her psyche. "What did Percy have in him that you didn't? He, a man, was able to win the respect of Zoe. You couldn't even do that as a woman, with a natural advantage in that regard. You never blamed Thomas for what transpired on that road, because you knew it was you. It was always you. You refused Zoe's offer without a thought. You sided with Bartholomew after their conflict. You defended Thomas for lying to everyone on the quest. And it was you who ultimately betrayed him. He killed for you... and you locked him out with the wolves."

What, like she wanted to do that? The only reason... the only reason she went along with Thomas's lie... was because she could see how much it meant to him that she did. Thomas had sacrificed himself once before, to make sure Lucille and Alister reached camp. Was it all that surprising that he'd do it again?

"So one sacrifice wasn't enough for you; I see. He'd already given himself up once before; what was asking him to do it again?"

She didn't ask! He did! He pleaded with her to go through with it. What was she supposed to do? Refuse that kind of request? What kind of person would that make her?

"An actual friend; not a wimp who counted on her loved ones to make all the necessary sacrifices for her."

That one stung. Hard. Percie's legs slowed as she felt a new presence in her mind, one seemingly drawn to her by her own ragged emotions. This couldn't just be her own conscience... it was much too concise for that.

"How observant of you, Percie Jackson. Many never are able to pick me out amongst their own self-doubts and criticisms. That you are one of the rare few able to look beyond the veil and recognize me marks you as quite a hero."

Great. How long had this trespasser been sitting in her mind? Talk about an invasion of privacy.

"Privacy is an illusion, Percie. As is honor, confidence, and the truth. As for your first query, I shall leave that ambiguous for now. The two of us are but pieces, my dear hero. You might be the more prominent one, but all have a place in the universe, no matter how unpredictable your presence in this dimension was. We shall meet when the time is right. Until then, I wish you luck in your hunt for the boy, dear. Do be careful: just as there are not two suns in the sky, there can never be two sovereigns over the same field."

Okay... now the voice was talking like a fortune cookie. A really smug fortune cookie. But behind that riddle... Percie could tell she'd be seeing whoever that was again. She did not recognize the voice; it was leering, yet affectionate. Male... and female. Old and young. A god, surely... or maybe something even older. More... primal.

Her mysterious eavesdropper now gone from her head, Percie could resume her pursuit in earnest once again. The wilds of the Kentucky passed by her as she ran, cursing her legs for not being able to match the speeds she'd seen the Hunters achieve. Running sixty miles an hour was suddenly looking very attractive.

Jumping over a fallen tree, Percie's eye caught something glistening in the moonlight. Attached to a ripped branch was a very familiar skull ring, hanging off the edge by just an inch. Nico. He'd been here.

The daughter of Poseidon palmed the jewelry, studying it. How did it end up on a branch? If Nico had shadow-traveled, he might have stumbled into the giant oak upon landing, and lost his ring in his efforts to steady himself. The fact that he didn't stop to retrieve it... scared Percie. More than she thought she could be by such a reveal.

"Where did you go, Neeks?" she mumbled to herself, looking around the woods. The darkness was still and silent, yielding no answers or even hints to her question. The skull on the ring stared at her in expectation, like it was waiting for her to return it to its master.

A movement in the moonlight on the ring caught Percie's attention. The image flounced, and jumped, before leaping off the ring and materializing before her. Artemis's form emerged from that conduction, the goddess pulling her hood down as she approached.

"You are a hard woman to track, Percie. Even for me," the Hunt remarked, eyeing the ring in her hands. "But now I see you have more skill than you let on."

"What, this? I just spotted it by chance... no skill on my part was needed," Percie responded, putting the ring in her pocket next to Riptide. Nico would want it back.

"Humility might be a virtue, Percie, but there's nothing wrong in taking credit for an achievement," Artemis noted, her silver eyes scampering around the forest. "As intrigued as I am to simply follow you, and observe your methods, I feel it would be improper for me to sit back and leave this venture solely to you."

Huh? "You're... offering to help me?" Percie stammered.

The goddess nodded. "He needs you, Percie. More than ever. I am not so cold-hearted that I will stand by and be a passive observer to the suffering of one who helped rescue my Hunters."

"I... I... must say I'm shocked, my lady."

"Is it really so hard to believe?"

"Yes." Artemis raised an eyebrow at that, so Percie had to elaborate: "You are capable of great compassion, Lady Artemis. I saw it myself. However, you seem to reserve all of that compassion for women, strictly. You turned a boy into a jackalope for accidentally finding your camp. You had Actaeon torn to pieces by his own dogs for the crime of catching a glimpse of you naked in the wild. You... forced a sex change on Sipriotes for the same, and threatened him into joining the Hunt, on pain of death. You're capable of many kind things, my lady, but your attitude towards men needs some serious work."

For the love of Rhea, did she have a death wish or what? Over the course of one evening, she'd not only admitted to the moon goddess that she'd killed her favorite lieutenant, but was now chiding her for her treatment of men? The Fates were probably taking bets now on whether or not Artemis killed her via obliteration, or mauling.

The goddess let the moment sit in the air, seeming to take it in. Her eyes flashed, but they did dim once again when she tilted her head. "Is... that something you've been holding in for a long time?"

"Yes. A final contingency plan, as it was. If, by some fluke, the Artemis of my world ever discovered the truth of what happened, and tried to take revenge on either myself or Thomas, I was going to bring that argument to the Hunters. Some of them, like that repulsive Vera, surely wouldn't have cared. But not all of your followers are quite so vicious. Many of them have fathers, brothers, and male friends, or at least had them at some point. How do you think they would react to learn they'd sworn themselves to someone capable of delivering such harsh retribution, for such minor offenses? And even if that failed, I had my ace in the hole."

"An ace?"

Percie sighed. "Yes. Tell me, my lady: how many of your Hunters remember Kallisto?"

The stunned look on the deity's face told her everything she needed to know.

"I thought so; she's been all but forgotten by almost everyone. Only the most veteran of your Hunters could recall her, if they even could."

Artemis sneered. "What happened to Kallisto was regrettable, Percie, but I fail to see how that would move any of my Hunters away from me."

"Oh, is it?" she challenged back. "Regrettable? That's the word you chose? How does that even come close to dignifying that incident with the disgust it deserves?"

"Mind your tone. Remember who you're talking to," the goddess muttered, her bow appearing on her back.

"How could I ever forget? You're the woman who turned her best friend into a bear, and threatened to kill her if she ever crossed your path again, because she lied to you about your father forcing himself on her. A father who first tried to seduce her by coming onto her disguised as you, if I remember the story correctly. Because none of the Olympians believe in birth control, of course Kallisto ended up pregnant. And the moment she started showing, what was it you did again?" Percie batted her eyes at the Hunt. "I'd like to hear it from you this time, if you please."

Artemis shifted in the moonlight, her figure beginning to swirl with power. "You... dare make a demand like that of me, Percie Jackson? You wish for me to explain myself to you, when the incident you speak of is the one thing I wish I could change more than anything? What was I to do? Revoke the rules of my Hunt, of my vow? It would be a flagrant display of favoritism for me to expect one thing of my Hunters, and another of my lieutenant. Maidenhood is the bond that holds my family together, Jackson. To give it up is to be cast out."

"But she didn't give anything up. It was taken from her! By force! How can you look me in the eye and act like there's no difference?" Percie was shouting now, her hands clutched into fists at her sides. "You think I'm the only woman who takes issue with that line of thought, my lady? At the very least, the Hunters from the modern era would be outraged by that revelation. It's a level of victim-blaming that makes Hera look like the most rational woman in existence. And she turned women into literal monsters for being assaulted! What compassionate person would ever achieve that kind of contradiction?"

Percie had never seen a goddess visibly deflate before. For all her power, Percie's words must have been hitting some vital points. In fact, the scale of her accusations were actually causing the deity to age. Twelve seemed to become sixteen, then twenty-five, before finally settling into her thirties. Artemis was now taller than Percie, but she didn't seem to notice it.

"I was prepared to reveal that to the Hunters, in the event my Artemis ever tried anything against me or my friends," the daughter of Poseidon finished. "Even if she had me killed, she'd never shake that off. Her image would forever be tarnished; the maiden of the Hunt, and champion of women... reduced to nothing more than an abider, and a cruel tyrant. Men and women alike have suffered because of you, just like every other Olympian. So don't act surprised when I question your kindness. It only ever seems to be the mask that conceals the eruptions lurking just below the surface. Earning respect is not hard, my lady. What is hard... is earning that respect through love. Not fear."

"... Then what would you suggest, Percie? How would you go about earning that respect?"

The moon goddess's voice was... quiet. Not serene, but thoughtful. Open.

"I won't pretend it's not hard to change, especially for beings as old as the gods. But try. That was all I asked after the defeat of Kronos, right? Try to be better. For demigods... and yourselves. Fear breeds resentment; love breeds loyalty. And you can't expect the latter without showing it yourself."

Artemis closed her eyes, absorbing everything, not moving a muscle. Very deliberately, she regained her youthful look, until the middle-aged woman was once again the lively young girl.

"You... befuddle me more and more, Percie Jackson," she announced, pulling her hood up. "Now, if that is all we wish to discuss of the matter, I do believe we have pre- a friend, to track down." The goddess hunched over, motioning for Percie to climb onto her back.

"Uh... what?" Percie asked.

"I may not be Hermes, but I can be quite fast when I want to be. Hop on. It'll be much easier than streaking through the woods on your own."

Percie couldn't argue with the logic behind it, but the size the goddess had chosen made the whole thing a lot more awkward than it should have been. The seventeen year-old demigod clambered onto the back of the twelve year-old frame of Artemis, which surely resembled a giraffe trying to mount a zebra. The goddess didn't complain; she only scooped Percie's legs up off the ground and threw an expectant look her way.

"You may want to hold on tight," she smirked.

That was stellar advice. The moment Percie was locked in, the forest flew by. Air whipped through Percie's cheeks, giving her the sensation dogs must have felt when they stuck their heads out of moving vehicles. Artemis leapt along the tops of the trees, making massive jumps that would have given Percie a heart attack if she'd had enough time to process the act before it was finished.

"That ring you found was a perfect source of scent," the goddess pushed into her head. Guess telepathy was the best choice of communication at three hundred miles an hour. "We should be at Nico's location within the next few minutes."

"Gooo hs alr toajr wjeow okay?" Percie's jumbled answer returned, the velocity making it impossible for her to form any coherent thoughts. Like she hadn't embarrassed herself around Artemis enough; when she was holding up the sky, the deity had tried to warn her that she was about to trick Atlas into taking the sky from her. Percie, in her pain-induced haze, had responded by trying to place an order for a six-inch club sandwich. No one who heard that story let her forget it, either.

At least the travel was so fast, Percie didn't even have time to get motion sickness. One spectacular bound across an entire valley later, Artemis slowed to a halt, easing Percie down in front of a cave. Another one?

"The trail ends here," the goddess explained, letting Percie steady herself before letting go completely. "Nico is inside... at least, some version of him is, at any rate."

"That's... not a very reassuring way of phrasing that, my lady," the child of the ocean said, trying to reassert herself. "Is there anyone else in there with him? I'd hate to go stumbling into a trap, where he could be hurt."

Artemis cocked her head. "You would make that your primary concern, wouldn't you? But no. From what I can tell, he's alone. Which may not be the best thing, now that I say it aloud."

"No, it's not," Percie agreed. She went to enter the cave, then stopped short when Artemis did not follow. "You're not coming?"

The goddess backed up a step, shaking her head. "No... at least not at first. I... feel I have things I must say to him, Percie, but now would not be the ideal time. I will, but not until he's ready to hear me out. You must go alone. I shall stay here, and ensure no one... unsavory... follows you in."

Their plans decided on, Percie nodded, and stepped into the darkness of the opening. At least Pisces had had the decency to light some candles in her little home theater. This place didn't even have a hole in it to let moonlight in. On the plus side, at least that meant the odds of her encountering a monster who fought by making abstract TV references was next to nil.

It didn't take long for Percie to recognize that the cave wasn't vacated. Footprints in the few scattered soil outcroppings amongst the rock might have been hard to see in pitch black darkness, but she could feel that it was disturbed as she walked through it. Someone had come this way, and by the re-arranging of the dirt, they had been careless in their way of pushing forward.

Neeks.

He was close. He had to be, and that pushed Percie forward, her hesitation morphing into determination. The cave might have boasted a big entrance, but the sounds of her own footsteps echoed back at her. That meant they reached the end, and came bouncing back. She wouldn't have to go traipsing through an entire cavern system in the dark with no light.

Despite how odd it may have sounded, she saw Nico before anything else. In the dark, of all places. Sure, the cave itself was black; nothing. But the nothing in front of Percie as she found the end of it... was darker than anything else she had ever seen before. And that was counting Nyx, plus the gaggle of bootlicking acolytes she roamed Tartarus with. That was void-level darkness; this was emptiness. Emptiness... and sorrow.

"Nico? I know you're here," she murmured, squatting down and feeling around in the nothing. "Everyone's really worried about you, Neeks. Will's got to be going crazy, knowing him. Annabeth and Thalia are both messes. And me... well, I tracked you down in here. You can probably imagine how freaked out I was."

She got nothing.

"I know how crushing it is, to be treated like that. Vera had no right to say anything like that... and now she knows." Her voice dropped. "I... made her see the errors of her ways, as it were. She'll be lucky to see anything again, out of her right eye, now that I think about it."

Still nothing.

Exhaling, Percie crawled forward, her hands sweeping in front of her for the child of Hades. When her left pinkie brushed against a cold palm, she started. Feeling her way through, she made out Nico's form, slumped over into a yearner position.

"Neeks?" She rubbed his back, then moved down his arms. The long sleeves of his jacket had been rolled up, so her fingers met bare skin as they moved along. When her fingers came back dripping with something, she felt her heart stop.

The smell of iron hit her a moment later... blood.

Like Artemis, Percie was not Hermes. But boy, she would have given the messenger a run for his money, if the speed with which she came barreling out of that cave with the unconscious boy was anything to go by. Artemis, hunkered down near the entrance, widened her eyes as the two of them came spilling out.

"Percie, wha-" the goddess blurted out before her nose caught the same scent. "Oh."

Well, that was an underreaction. Nico's nails were caked in blood, and long scratches covered his arms, some so deep, they looked like they could have dug through the brachioradial muscles. He'd done this to himself; no monster involved.

"I need something to stop this bleeding; now!" Percie grunted, tearing her gaze away from the son of Hades to look for something suitable nearby. Nothing; not even a sprout of flowers.

"Then we'll improvise," she added, unzipping Nico's jacket and sliding it off him, doing as much as she could not to aggravate the injuries further. Knotting the sleeves together, she turned the clothing into a makeshift tourniquet, tying it off along his right arm. That was one taken care of.

The left was still seeping, and cursing to herself, Percie realized she had nothing else. Neither her nor Nico's shirt was long enough to adequately cover his entire arm, and she couldn't afford to let him lose any more blood. Maybe she could do something similar with her pants, but she had nothing to use as cover out here in the chilly Kentucky ai-

"Use this."

Artemis was standing over her, her hood extended in her hand. The silver garment shined as the light of the moon reflected off its luster, and Percie felt emotions choke her up.

"Thank you, my lady," she breathed, knotting the top of the garment and placing it up over Nico's other arm. Artemis watched her silently, as the daughter of Poseidon finished her work.

"You'd make Apollo proud, with your quick-thinking," the goddess noted, crouching down next to her.

"I'm no healer; just really tenacious."

"Tenacity is an important trait in a healer. You can't give up on your patients just because things look bleak."

Percie couldn't argue that. "I'm just glad we found him before any more damage could be done," she whispered, taking one of his hands and smoothing it out. Dry blood crusted on his nails shrugged off as she brushed him.

"He... did this to himself?" the deity questioned.

"It... can happen, sometimes," Percie admitted. "I've only ever seen it with Nicola once... but I'll never forget it." It was a particularly bad episode. Willamina had been out, so Percie and Alister had been on their own when the daughter of Hades came stumbling up to the Poseidon cabin in the middle of the night, eyes hollow and shaking.

It had been a nightmare; a horrific one. Percie had gone running for one of the Apollo campers, but they'd just come back from New Rome. They were all exhausted, and no amount of panicked door knocking could stir them. Alister had heard her, though, and came back.

They patched Nicola up, and let her stay the night in cabin three. She never made a sound; just stared at nothing, as her wounds were treated. None of them slept a wink, and when Chiron investigated the next morning, one look at the child of Hades was all it took for him to ignore the rule violations. Percie and Alister ran shifts, one of them keeping Nicola company the whole day, until Mina returned four days later. By that time, Neeks had started speaking again, but Percie still shivered when she remembered it.

"He went through Tartarus alone. It... it was worse than it was for us," Percie mentioned. "We had each other; he was alone, in every sense of the word."

Artemis reflected for a moment. "Alone? He made it through... alone?"

"Yes."

A shuffling next to them cut off the conversation. Nico rolled over onto one side, before a shudder ran through him. His arms, still wrapped, came up, and Percie had to act quick.

"No no no no!" she cried out, grabbing at his left arm. Artemis's hood was stained with red, but that was nothing compared to what damage could still be done. Even with one limb locked down, the right arm would not be denied. It lashed out, catching ahold of Percie's own arm, and the daughter of Poseidon grimaced as the nails started clawing at her.

They didn't get far. Artemis pinned the right arm down again, before Nico could break the skin. With a determined look, she gestured for Percie to back off. Hesitant, but willing to cooperate, Percie inched back, before pulling away. Nico's left arm didn't get the chance to rise before Artemis had pinned it as well. The son of Hades thrashed under her, but the goddess didn't flinch.

"I can hold him; try to calm him," she instructed.

Percie didn't need to be told twice. She swept herself over so she could look down into Nico's face. "Neeks, it's not real. It's a nightmare; no matter how true it seems, it can't hurt you. You beat it. It can't do anything else."

She cupped his face, keeping his head still. "You're not alone. No matter how much those voices tell you you are. They're liars. You have everyone here... and those who aren't here. You'll never have to face something like that ever again. Not by yourself."

With his arms useless, and his head immobile, Nico's fit subsided, Percie whispering into his ear as his breathing finally slowed. She put a hand to his chest, helping the rising and falling motion along with her palm.

Artemis arched her brow at the demigod, who nodded in response. Cautiously, the Hunt released his arms, sitting back on her haunches. Percie pulled the child of Hades up to her chest, cradling his head against her shoulder.

His body retched a little, but his arms remained at his sides. Slowly... ever so slowly... his eyes fluttered open.

"B- I... P-Percie?" he breathed out, his voice shallow. He took a moment, and in that moment, the pain in his arms registered. "Oh... it happened again, didn't it?"

"Yeah, sweetie. It did. But it's over now. I'm here."

"Just like you promised..."

"Yeah. Just like."

Nico's head went limp against her, but his eyes remained open. "I saw Bianca in Tartarus."

"What?!" Percie would have liked to believe she uttered her disbelief in a dignified fashion, since she'd been relatively composed ever since finding Nico injured. But that composure vanished and got replaced by a high-pitched squeal.

"It... it wasn't 'her' her, but it was close enough. It was Apate, in disguise."

Artemis quietly growled to herself at the mention of the goddess of deceit. Percie caught her breath, trying to relax again. "I see. She took Bianca's form to get under your skin, right?"

"Yeah. I knew it wasn't her... but I wasn't in a good place. She got in my head; messed with my thoughts. Took something I thought was true and twisted it into something else. Even now, I still don't know if she was messing with me, or if she was deliberately using the truth to hurt me, since she knew it would be a lot more effective than making something up. She said that Bianca joined the Hunters because... because she was afraid of me."

The goddess tensed up.

"Afraid of you?" Percie asked, drawing him closer to her. "Did she elaborate?"

Nico nodded. "Yeah. That by growing up with me, and spending so much time together, she realized what I was capable of. The love she showed me... was born from fear. She didn't want to risk my anger, so she went along with whatever I wanted. Artemis offered her a real chance at freedom from that terror, and she accepted without a second thought."

The child of Hades hadn't turned his head, so he didn't see Artemis crouching down off to his left. Percie threw a look at the Hunt, who shriveled back into herself as the boy kept speaking.

"She didn't give me a single hint that she was leaving me, Percie." His voice broke. "Just... dropped it, out of nowhere. And with that, she was gone. No goodbye. Nothing. Apate... was so convincing. I believed her then. In some small way, I think I still do."

Percie had to force her next question out: "The nightmare: What is it, exactly?"

Nico lowered his head. "In it... the circumstances change. But the end result is the same: Bianca provokes me... and I... I-"

"No, Nico di Angelo. You'd never do that."

Artemis leaned forward, sliding up next to the two demigods. Her eyes lessened in their usual spark, making her look even younger than her normal form. She kept speaking: "The grief that I pointed out earlier today... that kind of remorse is not something that a monster like that could ever feel. Bianca loved you, and you her. There was nothing in her that feared you, nothing that would have made her betray you."

Dark eyes swiveled to stare at the goddess of the Hunt. "Then why did she leave me?"

Artemis actually trembled for a moment, before lowering her head. "That... was my fault, Nico."

Nico froze in Percie's arms, the daughter of Poseidon having to blink several times to make sure she just heard that right. Did Artemis... just take responsibility for what Percie thought she did?

"Bianca was a child, much like yourself. Just like Percy, at the time. She was looking for something... or someone, rather, to be her own rock. She was yours, but like all children, she wanted a role model for herself. Someone she could aspire to. I... injected myself into that need, without considering the consequences."

Neither demigod spoke. They needed to hear more.

"I thought I was doing something good, taking a young woman in and giving her a chance to be a part of something bigger than she'd ever had the chance to experience. I did not factor in the truths behind that: she'd been locked away in the Lotus Hotel for years, with only you as her family. That kind of bond... should have been respected. But I did not respect it; I was thinking only of myself, and how generous I was, to be so accepting of someone I barely knew. That was the problem: I didn't know her, and shouldn't have assumed anything."

"My lady, you couldn't have known all the details of her past," Percie murmured.

"No, but even so, I should have waited. Made sure she knew the full consequences of joining the Hunt before I burdened her with that choice. She was so close to you, Nico. I should have seen that the moment I laid eyes on you."

"Why?" he asked, his voice a monotone. "Why should it have been obvious? We were... so distant from each other, at that time."

"I'm more than just a goddess of the Hunt, and the moon, dear. I'm also the goddess of childbirth: You may not have had your birth mother, but you still had one: Bianca. She was your everything... mother included. The bond between a mother and her child... is perhaps the most sacred one of all. I believe that with every fiber of my being. But yet... I was blind to that, with you. I couldn't... or rather, wouldn't see it. And in so doing, I ripped her away from you."

If you had asked Percie a year ago if she thought the Olympians were capable of shedding real tears, she would have laughed you off. The only tears the gods ever shed were tears of pain from listening to one of Apollo's horrible haikus, or tears of joy from being spared having to listen to one of his horrible haikus. But tears of regret; of guilt? You'd see hungry sharks make friends with plump seals before that ever happened.

How wrong she would have been. Artemis hunched over, golden tears dripping down onto the ground as she let everything come out. The tremors in her body... the cracks in her voice. That couldn't be faked.

"Back at the Delaware, Percie, I heard you mention to Annabeth that you suspected Nico didn't know who to blame for his sister's death. You guessed that he blamed himself, and I wager Mr. di Angelo would have agreed with you," the goddess sniffled. "But as I think back to the events of those days... I must contest that conclusion. The person who deserves the blame for all of this... is me."

Nico gently tapped Percie on the arm, and she let him go, allowing him to scoot closer to Artemis. His face was an unreadable mask.

The Hunt met his eye, though it seemed to pain her to do it. "I know it can't bring her back. And I know I can't undo the actions and words of myself, or my Hunters. But despite all that... I want you to know I'm sorry."

The son of Hades didn't stop until he was face-to-face with the deity. Artemis didn't back down, but she didn't rise up, either. All she did was close her eyes.

"Whatever you think I deserve... go ahead. I won't stop you, or strike back. I won't even defend myself," she conceded, putting her arms down.

Percie's eyes must have been resembling disco balls, they were so wide and astonished. A goddess... was not only apologizing, but letting a victim of her hubris take whatever sort of payback they wanted? Despite how much she joked about nothing surprising her any more, Percie was completely gobsmacked.

"What you deserve, huh?" Nico repeated. "I guess I better make the most of it, then."

His arms came up, just the slightest recoil springing up in his shoulders as he raised his wounded limbs. Artemis didn't budge. Percie couldn't budge, even if she wanted to. What would he do?

Nico wheezed, anger and frustration and guilt all coming out in one big exclamation. Then... he threw his arms around the goddess.

Artemis didn't flinch, but when nothing else came further, she opened her eyes in confusion. "Nico?"

The son of Hades shuddered, his body falling into hers. Artemis's arms came up as a reflex, pulling him into an embrace. "I can't do it," he mumbled, tears now running from his eyes as well. "As much as I want to... I can't. I can't hurt someone... who would apologize to me so sincerely. I would lose the last part of myself I like."

The goddess closed her eyes, more golden tears falling from her. They mixed with Nico's, and in that connection, Percie finally saw something, something she'd been fighting for ever since she'd defeated Kronos:

Respect... without fear.

Chapter Text

The ride this time was jarring, even by the already harsh precedent that shadow-travel held to. That probably had something to do with the fact that Nicola had whisked them all away in a hurry, in her haste to keep them all from getting flattened by Pirithous. The trio ricocheted all over the place as the portal sucked them in, the daughter of Hades launching into a slew of curses and pants as she shut her eyes. The light the enraged son of Zeus had been emitting as he charged them faded into nothingness, and before Percy knew, he went spilling out into a dumpster, landing right on two bags stuffed with melted fudge.

The dessert gave way under him, and Percy sunk into the trash for a moment, before he flailed for the dumpster's edge, keeping his head above the sea of plastic bags that were now pushing in on him. Pulling himself up so he could at least get his upper-half out of the mound, he got a glimpse of Nicola's feet sticking out of a similar bag, kicking in defiance. The child of the Underworld had landed headfirst in shredded lettuce, which Percy saw firsthand as he pulled her out of her predicament.

"I hate iceberg lettuce," was all she said when she was free, spitting strands of the vegetable out of her mouth. That was two-thirds of their group accounted for; where was Thomas?

That question was answered a moment later, when Thomas came popping out of the dumpster next to them, covered in the sad remains of a twelve-layer chocolate cake. Cake batter in his eyebrows fluttered to the ground as he blinked at them, icing making the blue streak in his hair look less like a fashion statement and more of a mistake one bad night of poor decisions had included in its wake.

"I hate to be a whiner right now," the son of Zeus gritted, moving up to the side of the bin, "but I can't really use my arms at the moment." With considerable effort, he lifted them up onto the side of the dumpster, blood now coating the side of the disposal container. Percy winced at the sight, but got the message enough to stop lollygagging.

He and Nicola hoisted themselves up and out, before working as a unit to free the child of the sky from his waste-filled prison. Thomas bit back curses of his own as they did so, sending pangs of concern through the son of the sea as he got a better look at his injuries. The bone was visible in several places, and both arms were leaking faster than looked healthy.

"We've got to get him somewhere we can treat this," Nicola cut in, interrupting his worries. She looked around, as did Percy. Aside from their landing zone, which had already been thoroughly experienced, he hadn't had time to take in anything else. Their shadow-travel had deposited them behind a large building, which was barren on this side. The sound of several people walking, talking, and screaming meant they had landed right in the middle of some high-trafficked area, at the least.

"Can you watch him?" Percy asked, helping lean Thomas against the building. The son of Zeus looked irritated at being handled like he was a delicate flower, but he didn't contest the point, which really only helped solidify just how injured he really was.

"Sure," Nicola returned. "See if we need to move; I don't want to be stuck here if we're gonna be having company in a few minutes."

Creeping around the building's corner, the noise from the mortals grew louder. The sun was still high in the sky, so when Percy snuck a peek at the other side, he got quite the view. Families, teens, and people of all ages milled around; some were crowded around food stalls, with others walking in groups, with a destination in mind. More screams drew his attention upward, where he caught sight of a red and white rollercoaster racing overheard, packed to the brim with people.

A few people, dressed like staff members in khakis and brightly colored polos, finally clued Percy into where they were when he noticed the logo on the chest: "Hersheypark." Like, the chocolate? It had its own theme park? Guess that explained why he landed in fudge, and why Thomas was doing a rendition of a brooding loaf of cake.

"We landed in a theme park," Percy said, returning to his friends. "Hersheypark, apparently. Any idea where that is?"

"Pennsylvania," Thomas grunted, earning a surprised look from the other two. "What? The Lotus Hotel didn't have a lot of quality reading material, okay. I must have read that stupid encyclopedia on American tourist spots at least fifty times."

Nicola started at him. "Thomas, how long did it seem to you, staying there? Because I was there for like seventy years, and it only felt like a few weeks."

"Honestly... I don't know, and I don't care to remember. All I knew was that I was missing the action... and missing the only people I ever felt close to."

The demigod avoided looking at Percy as he spoke, but the unsaid was pretty clear. He'd been worried sick about Percie, knowing that she was basically being forced into taking on the Great Prophecy, what with him getting benched for taking the blame for Zoe's death.

"Regardless, we might be out of sight for now, but I don't think the backside of a theme park restaurant is the best place to go about treating injuries," Percy continued, turning away from the direction he'd just come from. There was a pretty crowded parking lot off to the left behind a fence, and the right side gave way to a more open field, leading off to a hilly wilderness.

"We can't risk the populated areas, guys," Nicola put forward. "Not with one very pissed off demigod chasing after us."

The hills it was. The three teens had to weave around a few park visitors, and through a more sparsely populated area of the entrance-exit gate, but thanks to Thomas and his grit, they managed to make it out of sight of the main park without attracting unnecessary attention. Percy didn't breathe easily until the only sign of the candy-themed venue was the sound of excited people screaming as the rollercoasters continued their course.

Brushing the last of the fudge off his backside, Percy brought them to a stop at the bottom of a hill, where Thomas sank down the moment they relaxed. "Looks like Theseus spent some time upgrading his weaponry while he was dead the first time," Thomas managed to joke, holding back a grimace. "Don't know why he went for a whip, though. Guess he was a lot freakier than even we suspected."

Nicola eyed him. "Seriously? Theseus and Pirithous? How do I let you two yank me into things like this?"

"You wanted to come."

"Yes, I did. Doesn't mean I wanted to add two more revered demigods from the past to the list of people trying to kill us."

"Three, actually," Percy corrected. "Neither one of them was the one who hijacked our shadow-travel. So at the least, we're looking at a third unknown enemy."

Thomas grunted as Nicola went through her bag for nectar. "Probably that Charles guy we heard them mention when we were eavesdropping on them. If he could do it, he's probably another Hades kid."

Nicola sneered. "Probably isn't going to cut it with me, Thomas."

"Can you name any other godly parents whose kids could do it?"

"No, but that doesn't mean none of them could, if we think about it. All it is is magic, so I'm sure Hecate's children could learn it. Or maybe Hermes, since he's free to enter and exit the Underworld as he pleases. I... don't want to think about one of my brothers hunting me, Thomas!"

Percy put his hands up, in a soothing gesture. "And no one is. But we can't get caught up in that, Neeks. Pirithous mentioned Demosthenes, remember? He's connected to them; might be giving them orders, for all we know. That's at least four demigods on the hunt for me, and knowing what Alister told me of his half-brother, there's probably plenty more in reserve."

"Well, Theseus isn't," she shot back. "Not any more. I'm pretty sure it was his death that woke me up, actually. There was... a lot of horrified screaming, as his spirit got yanked back to the Underworld to face my father. Can't say I envy him right now."

The thought of the Lord of the Underworld letting loose on the wayward hero was a little unsettling, but expected. Hades had been furious about cleaning up the remains after the Doors of Death were closed again, and every escaped soul he'd tracked down hadn't been seen again since. Even the ones first granted Elysium were now only whispered about.

"So Demosthenes has put together his own little confederation," Thomas mused. "A confederation of revived demigods, from different eras and heritages... because I know there was no one walking around Ancient Greece named Charles."

The son of Poseidon put his face in his hands at the thought. It was bad enough having to contend with Lamia; now he had a posse of former heroes jostling for his blood, as well. All of whom were acting on the orders of a man who believed killing him would save the world. "They're not going to stop," he realized. "They think I'm a threat; as long as I'm around, the world is in danger. A lot of them probably saved the world themselves, in their day. They're just doing it again."

Both Nicola and Thomas were silent at that. Neither offered any rebuttals or sarcastic comments, which didn't ease Percy's anxiety. Sitting down, he tried to look on the positives: at least they could be killed, if Theseus's demise was anything to go by. They didn't need to rope a god into the mix, like they had with the giants. Everything that he and his friends had to contend with, their enemies would too. It was actually a more even playing-ground than many of his other quests.

Nicola tended to Thomas as Percy pondered this. Taking another look at his lacerations, she made a queasy face. "I think I'm gonna have to pour nectar into those directly," she muttered, earning a regretful look from Thomas. "Let me find something for you to bite down on."

The daughter of Hades produced a cloth strap from her bag, looping it into a smaller knot. She offered it in front of the son of Zeus's mouth, and he took it without argument, though there was some hesitance in his eyes.

"Percy, can you come help me with this?" she called out, stirring Percy from his thoughts.

"No problem."

"I need you to keep him still; I don't want to risk pouring any of this into his veins directly. It'll do more damage than it'll fix, but I can't do that safely if he's thrashing around."

Thomas's eyes only got wider at that proclamation, but he didn't fight Percy when the son of the sea eased his head down into his lap, keeping ahold of his shoulders. Nicola laid his arms out at his sides, giving Thomas a sympathetic look. "I'll go as quick as I can, buddy," she whispered.

After a nervous nod, she was ready. Nicola hovered the container filled with the godly liquid over his left arm, keeping eye contact. "I'm gonna go on three, all right?" she said. "One-"

Nectar hit the wounds the moment the word left her mouth, the daughter of Hades not giving Thomas any time to tense up as she counted. The cloth in his mouth strained at the seams as the son of Zeus shook with agony, but he didn't budge. Percy didn't have to apply much force; as painful as the procedure had to be, the child of the sky didn't try to resist.

After fifteen seconds of treatment, Nicola switched arms, repeating the process with the right. More agonized flashes went across Thomas's eyes, and this time a primal grunt leapt from his throat, but he didn't try to move. He stayed still, leaving the daughter of Hades to her work in peace. When it was over, she wrapped the wounds in gauze, leaving him resembling a mummy from the biceps down.

"There we go," Percy assuaged, as Nicola pulled the cloth out of his mouth. "The worst is over."

"Things can always get worse, Jackson," Thomas grumbled, staring up at him from his lap. "Just be glad you weren't there when I got swallowed by that drakon in Wisconsin. Had to cut my way out of that thing's lower intestine with my knives. I was in the infirmary at camp for a solid two weeks; this is nothing."

With the most perilous injury now taken care of, they could move on to other things. Nicola put her hand to her face, her mouth coiling into a frown as she touched a sensitive spot.

"I think I may I have taken something in that dumpster right to the cheek," she moaned, tilting her head to the side. "I didn't register it at the time, but now that we have a moment to breathe, I'm feeling it now."

Percy slid out from under Thomas, scooching over to her to have a look. When she pulled her hand away, Percy was treated to a pretty dark bruise forming on the crest of her cheekbone, the skin turning a sickly yellow. "Might have been a metal plate, or a wonky doorknob," he mused. "Don't think it'll need any sort of serious attention, but we may be able to cover it up."

He had a look at her bag, fishing through a bunch of medicals supplies, food, water, and extra clothes. "Is there anywhere in this thing you may have stored some of that makeup you were talking about earlier today?" he asked her, their conversation about Nicola's eye-shadow coming to him.

The daughter of Hades took on a confused look. "I guess... maybe? But how would that help?"

Switching to the zippers, Percy continued his search, before finding what he was looking for. A container of foundation matching her skin tone, next to a few sponges and fake eyelashes. Looks like Mina had it right on the money the first time; Nicola was planning to doll up for whenever they were able to travel again.

"This should work," he said, popping it open and dabbing one of the sponges into it. "May I?'"

"S- Sure, I guess," she stammered, letting him get to work. The nasty yellow welt took a bit of effort to cover up, but Percy was persistent. Nicola kept shooting him confused looks the entire time, which he figured was probably going to be the case. However, since he had his back to Thomas, he wasn't expecting it when the son of Zeus spoke up.

"Percy... when did you get so competent with makeup?" came his question, his voice thoughtful.

Despite the gentleness of his tone, Percy froze a little. "Um... Piper was bored one day on the Argo, and asked if anyone wanted to have a try. Didn't have anything else to do, so we spent a few hours learning the basics," he bluffed, turning his full attention back to his work.

Nicola's eye stopped him this time. "Percy, I may not be the most well-versed person when it comes to makeup, but even I know covering up bruises isn't something you really just pick up from a few hours of going over the basics," she observed. "Thomas, is he good at it?"

"Disturbingly so," the answer came back a moment later. "Like, if I didn't know to look for it, I probably wouldn't see it right now."

Gods, not now. He did not want to talk about this.

"Guys, it's nothing," he protested, but the shakiness in his voice didn't help. "I just used my head for once; bruises can be covered up, so they can heal without attracting any unneeded attention."

His explanation didn't satisfy anyone. Not even himself.

He didn't know he was twitching until Nicola put a hand to his arm. "Percy... you can tell us," she mumbled. "We might not be Nico or Thalia, but to us, you're still Percie. And... if you can do this, she might, too. I know you aren't beholden to tell us anything personal, but as your friend, I would like to know what's going on."

Percy didn't realize that Thomas had moved closer as well until he felt the son of Zeus put a hand to his shoulder. "It can stay between the three of us," he promised. "We could swear on the Styx, if that could make you feel better about it."

"No."

His voice was shallow; hesitant. Percy still hadn't lowered his arm from Nicola's face, but he had stopped brushing her.

"No... as in no, you're not telling us?" she asked.

"No. Just... no more promises on the Styx. Not between us. You all deserve more than that."

His arm finally came down, and Percy lowered his head, trying to compose himself. That plan failed spectacularly; his chest heaved, his breathing quickened, and his fingers started clutching at the strands of grass on the hill in a fervor.

He felt Nicola slide into his chest, and Thomas pulled both of them up to him, being ginger with his arms. Percy was effectively sandwiched between the two other children of the Big Three. The daughter of Hades massaged the tops of his hands with her own, getting him to release his death grip on the innocent blades of grass beneath him. The son of Zeus sighed against him, causing a gentle gust of wind to come slipping through his hair, provoking him into letting his upper body relax.

"Thanks, guys," he mumbled, letting the combined efforts soothe him, to a point.

They all stayed like that for a minute or so, before Percy finally opened his mouth again: "Did Percie ever tell you guys about her life before she ended up at Camp Half-Blood at twelve?"

The two demigods shook their heads no.

"My mom knew who my father was... and she knew what would happen if any monsters were to catch wind of my scent. Being a son of Poseidon, that scent was even stronger than it would have been for other demigods. So, in an effort to keep me safe, she tried to find a way to mask my own scent with another."

His voice trembled a little, but Nicola patted his hand, letting silent encouragement keep him grounded. Neither she nor Thomas looked like they wanted to interject; just listen.

"That scent... ended up coming from a piece of shit named Gabe Ugliano. Nice guy, for about the first thirty seconds of us knowing him. Then his true colors came out. Dude was a total slob, sleeze, douchebag, asshole, and every other derogatory thing you could ever label a person. And he deserved it, oh boy. For all the monsters I've ever faced, none have come close to matching the absolute loathing I continue to hold towards that man."

Despite the pain of the memories being trudged up, the words came spilling out. Some tears did as well, but Percy kept chugging.

"He smelled like spoiled garlic cloves that had been stuffed into used gym shorts, which I thought only made him even more repulsive. I couldn't figure out why my mother was so loyal to him... until I learned about the scent curse Lamia cast on all demigods."

Lamia. The same woman who'd hurled him into this situation... also was indirectly responsible for everything he was about to divulge.

"Gabe's scent masked mine. That's why it took twelve years for anything monster-related to track me down. As extraordinary as that might seem to anyone who didn't have that luxury... I have to say, I think I would have preferred the hungry giants and the bloodthirsty hellhounds to Gabe and his... parenting."

Neither Thomas nor Nicola had reacted visibly to anything so far, but as Percy went on, they both seized up. Nicola glanced up at him with fear in her eyes, and Thomas pulled them in tighter, so his face was right up next to Percy's ear.

"When?" was all he asked.

"The first time... I was six. Still don't know what I did. Mom was out at work, so it was just me and him. One minute, I was sitting on the floor, trying to sharpen a blue colored pencil, when all of a sudden, I was splayed out on my back, my ears ringing and my head throbbing."

If looks could kill, Thomas's death glare at the hill next to them would have sent half of Pennsylvania plummeting to the bottom of the ocean.

"He never told me why; just that I needed to wise up, around him. Never told me how to do that, either. But whenever we were alone... it happened. Again. And again. As I got older, the hits got harder. By the time I was eight, he had upgraded to full-out punches. That... was when he started telling me that I needed to cover it up. Or else he'd go to jail, and my mom would hate me for taking him away."

Nicola shuddered into him, and Percy felt a wetness on the front of his shirt. She was crying now, too.

"I was a kid... I believed him. So, I started finding ways to hide the marks. I'd rub toothpaste on them, try to wipe them away with a towel. Then I found out I could use my mom's makeup. I was careful, too. I knew she'd realize some of it was missing if I used too much, so I got really good at taking just the tiniest bit and stretching it out to its full capability. The whole time... I was blaming myself. For provoking the hits... for deserving them, in some way. But as I got older, I started realizing that my mom didn't love him. I stopped caring so much; I didn't bother trying to conceal the fact that I was using the makeup to cover up the bruises. She must have noticed it was missing... and I'm sure she was able to figure out why it was disappearing."

Percy had to choke down a sob before he could continue: "That stretch of time, about a year and a half, was the worst time of my life, bar none. The hits kept coming, but now I thought my mother didn't care enough to stop them. She never stood up to him, never even talked to me about it. I figured she really did hate me; why else would she be willing to stay with a man who was beating her son repeatedly, unless she didn't care. Then... I learned the truth: Even if she did figure out what was going on, it was still better than putting me at risk to things that would have torn me limb from limb without hesitation; at least, in her eyes."

He'd almost finished, but there was still one more part to the tale.

"When I got back to New York, after returning the bolt... I saw Gabe raise his fist against her, as well. That... that was too much. Some part of me must have thought that if I could direct all of the abuse my way, he'd leave my mom alone. But he didn't. Knowing her, she must have been hoping along the same lines; by drawing all of the anger towards her, she could stop him from hitting me. But it didn't. Losing her to the Underworld... made me realize how much I still cared for her, after spending eighteen months with nothing but resentment towards her. It cast my entire life in a whole new light."

Both demigods sizzled with fury as Perce finished. Nicola, her face streaked with tears, gazed up at him with utter hostility in her eyes. "Where is the son of a bitch right now?" she growled.

"Well, if things unfolded here like they did in my world, then Gabe is currently starring as a main attraction of a very high-end art museum, after he had a particularly rough encounter with the head of someone whose name rhymes with Nedusa."

"Sounds like he got off easy, compared to what I was planning to do if I ran into him now," she hissed, curling her fingers into her palm. "I'd make Tantalus be grateful he wasn't dealing with me when he went and butchered his son for a dinner party."

Thomas's eyes cracked with fury, but that emotion did lessen as he held to Percy. "Have... have you told anyone else this before? In your world, I mean."

"No. Not even Annabeth... or my mother."

"Why not?"

"My mom... probably already figured it all out herself. I wasn't very kind to her, during those years. If she found the missing makeup, she had to put it together. Bringing it up to her would only open healed wounds on both of us. I can't hurt her like that; not again."

"And Annabeth?"

That one was harder. "I don't know how," he confessed. "It's a secret I've been keeping for a long time. I know she won't judge me for it, or blame me... but I still get tongue-tied whenever I think about broaching the subject. Ever since that thing with Gaea got cleared up, we've been honest with each other about everything else. It's just... I spent six years of my childhood getting beaten every day by someone who exploited my love for my mother. That kind of thing is something I can't just unload on her. It makes me sick to my stomach."

Both of his companions wrestled with that answer for a moment. Nicola looked worried, while Thomas just looked tired. The son of Zeus finally closed his eyes, taking a moment to compose his own thoughts. "I won't tell you what you should do; whether you should tell her or not. Just... don't feel like you need to hide things from us because you're worried you might invoke negatives in us, as well. We all care about you, Percy. And anyone who tries to pick at that is going to be in for a very rough time."

Nicola snuggled into him. "Seconded. You were the one who taught me that keeping things bottled up forever only led to issues down the road. As Mina says, pulling a Band-Aid is never fun, so may as well make it quick, so you can heal sooner. Don't ever feel like you have to hide things from us, Percy. We want to be there for you; let us."

The united front of support was enough to evoke more tears from all three demigods, who sat there in the grass for what felt like at least an hour. As long as that might seem, Percy still felt somewhat saddened when Nicola finally pulled away, standing up again. Her bruise was covered up, thanks to his efforts. He didn't know whether that was a good thing, or a bad one at this point.

"I feel well enough to get us to New York, at least," she announced, closing her bag. "We're close enough, I can get us there in the next jump. You guys ready?"

Thomas waited for Percy to answer, pulling his bandaged arms back and rising to his feet as well.

"Yeah, I think I'm just about ready," the son of Poseidon answered, letting the two of them pull him to his feet. He'd finally done it; shared one of his biggest regrets, and he did with people he'd known for less than two days. Despite that, he felt... comforted. As painful as recalling the events of his life was, it was something he'd left behind. It was over, and couldn't return. For all the shenanigans he'd gotten caught up in, this one included, none of them could ruin him completely. He'd already survived far worse.

The trio all took a breath, then joined hands yet again. Nicola concentrated, flexed her shoulders, and then... they were there. The portal spat them out on the all-too familiar New York streets, sending Percy stumbling into a doorway while Nicola and Thomas caught themselves on a staircase's railing. Looking around, Percy caught sight of the signs at a nearby intersection.

"We're three blocks away," he confirmed, as the others steadied themselves. "You've gotten really accurate with your destinations, Neeks."

"Not as much as I'd like," she moaned, having to keep one hand on the railing. "I was aiming to get us right in front of the apartment. Either I misjudged something, or we got diverted again."

"Well, for a diversion, three blocks is a lot more minor than an entire state," Thomas added, helping her keep her balance. "And since the ride wasn't as hectic as it was last time Charles interfered, my guess is it's something else."

"What, like a barrier of some kind?" Percy questioned.

"Maybe. For all we know, Sally might have put up some anti-magic seals around her apartment, in the event of any unwanted guests."

She could have. Percy's mother had been taking a lot of steps lately to keep their apartment as safe as she could whenever Percy was around. Paul had been taking some advanced sword lessons with Chiron every other week, and even his mom had gotten in on the action, ordering some handheld Celestial bronze traps from Hephaestus that she'd hidden around the block.

"Well, whether it was intentional or not, we're still close," Nicola fumed, finally centering herself. "And I can still walk! Yay for me. Looks like I was right; taking it easy with the shadow-travel does make a difference after all."

With the child of the Underworld congratulating herself for her success, the three of them headed for the Jackson apartment. No ghosts, ghouls, or attention-starved New Yorkers got in their way, so it was a short walk. As they moved, though, Percy couldn't shake the feeling that the aura of this part of the city seemed to be somewhat... attentive. Not hostile; just mindful. Like a parent watching their kid on the swings.

None of the mortals seemed to be affected by it, so he briefly wondered if it was just him. Glancing back at the others refuted that.

"We're feeling it too, Percy," Thomas said without him needing to ask. "Whoever or whatever it is, they aren't actively trying to kill us yet. Let's not give them a reason by loitering around."

The feeling only got stronger as they neared their destination. Stopping in front of the building, Percy felt a new overwhelmed emotion start to tug at him. How could he say anything to the mother of Percie that would alleviate anything? If she didn't know, wasn't he just storming in and ruining her week for nothing? But if he didn't, then could he be putting Percie's unborn brother at risk? What if Sally did know, and was longing to see some variation of her daughter, even if that had to be him?

"You can't stand there and second-guess yourself all day," Nicola said behind him. "She'll welcome you, even if she's not expecting you. You're her kid; the triviality of the issue won't stop her from being there for you, just as it hasn't stopped you from being there for her. Thomas and I will be right behind you, the whole way."

Since when was Nico this good at pep talks? His mind now at ease thanks to Nicola's support, he gulped and walked up the stairs to the door. With only a small measure of hesitation, he buzzed his number.

He didn't have to wait long.

"Yes?" his mother's voice came back. There was something behind it... something both sad and joyful.

"It's Percy," was all he managed to say.

A pause... then a sigh. "I know. Please, all of you; come on up."

A sigh of relief swept through him. She knew. She wasn't up to her ears in panic or terror. The door to the building unlocked, and the three demigods made their way to the Jackson residence, that sense of being watched not leaving even as they entered the domicile.

Sally was waiting at the door, which was already open when they got to the right floor. Her pregnancy was just as pronounced as it was when he'd left, which sent another wave of respite down Percy's body. He approached with a cautious tread in his step, stopping at the threshold of the apartment.

"Hey, mom," he murmured, suddenly finding it hard to meet her eye.

She took him in, then put her hand to his shoulder. "I was wondering when you'd find your way here," she said, before leading him inside. Once they were in the parlor, she hugged him, though her baby bump made the process a little more awkward than usual. She still smelled the same, and felt the same. Her embrace was a little more restrained than normal, though.

"There's someone else here who needs to see you too," she said to him as they pulled away. Nicola and Thomas followed him in, Thomas shutting the door behind him. Percy raised an eyebrow at Sally.

"Who else is here?" he asked.

A shuffling sound at the sound at the end of the hallway revealed Paul, who somehow managed to maintain a genuine smile on his face as he walked towards the now fairly crowded entryway.

"Glad to see you could finally make it in here in one piece, Percy," he greeted, giving the demigod a reassuring pat on the back. Percy knew Paul could adapt to supernatural and crazy things on the fly, but even he was surprised at how in stride his step-father seemed to be taking this development.

"Paul," Percy responded, offering another awkward hug. It was returned with ease, but Sally still looked troubled. "Um... I think we all need to have a talk," he admitted. "Is the living room a good place?"

His mother sucked in her cheeks. "Not really, dear. You see... the someone I was referring to wasn't Paul. He's in the living room, waiting for you."

Paul pulled his wife close to him, concern on his face. "Sally, we should give them some space for a bit. Let Percy talk to him; we can wait for a bit."

Sally didn't look pleased at the situation, but she didn't argue. She motioned for Percy to head into the living room, leaving Thomas and Nicola behind with the two adults.

"Anyone up for a game of crazy eights?" he heard Paul ask them as he walked down the hallway to the living room. "We could always pull up an extra chair to the table out on the patio."

With the four of them preoccupied, Percy had to steel himself as he rounded the corner of the hall. If both Sally and Paul were adamant that Percy speak to this as-yet unknown visitor before he explained anything to them, there was really only one person it could be. Suddenly, that feeling of being observed outside made sense. And why he didn't feel threatened by it.

The man on the couch in the living room looked just like he remembered: short black hair, a trimmed beard of the same color, and the same sea-green eyes Percy possessed. He'd traded his Hawaiian shirt for a lifeguard's top, and his beach shorts for a pair of bright red swimmers' wear. The flip-flops, though, were eternal.

Poseidon glanced up at him, rising to his feet as Percy entered. "Son."

"Dad."

The sea god looked like he wanted to say more, but settled on something else: he opened his arms.

And Percy, without any hesitation, fell into them.

Chapter Text

Percie didn't interfere with the embrace going on between Nico and Artemis. That kind of reconciliation, as it was, was stronger than anything she might have been able to contribute. Instead, the daughter of Poseidon held back, letting the two of them get whatever they needed to release out.

"... Forgive me, Nico, but may I ask if this display... is forgiveness?" the goddess finally asked once they separated again.

Nico wiped at his eyes, taking on an unknowing look. "I can't really say, my lady. What you did, and what your actions led to... I don't know if I can forgive it, per se, but at the very least... I think I'm willing to let it go. For now, anyway. Maybe I can really forgive you at a later time."

"It's more than I deserve, Nico."

He let out an amused grunt, despite his tears. "Somehow, I doubt forgiveness is something most, if any, deserve. But I guess that's what makes it all the more rejuvenating."

Artemis nodded with him. "Perhaps so. I won't ask again. For what it's worth... knowing you aren't going to continue thinking that Bianca was terrified of you is enough to leave me satisfied."

Breaking away from the demigods, the moon goddess put her fingers to her lips, releasing a silent whistle. The moon itself seemed to tilt on its axis, and in the next second, the silver chariot they'd ridden to the Hunters' rescue appeared in the night sky.

Percie slid up to Nico as they waited for their ride. "I'm proud of you," she whispered.

The son of Hades blinked in surprise. "Proud? Of what? I've been nothing but a mess all day. How can you be proud of that?"

"Remind me, Neeks: what is the fatal flaw of children of Hades?"

"... Holding grudges."

She smiled at him. "Yes. And what you just did... was the exact opposite of that. You could have taken everything out on Artemis right there, but you didn't. Not because you were weak; because you were strong enough to realize that it wouldn't make you feel any better. You didn't hold the grudge. You released it, even if you haven't technically forgiven her yet."

The boy gazed up at her. "So, what? One moment of personal growth is enough to undo everything else?"

"Am I supposed to hold that against you, then? You were hurting, and acting according to that. You didn't hurt anyone else, when you could have easily done so. And protecting me from Artemis? It would be awfully hypocritical of me to judge you for that, when I flat-out killed someone for threatening a person I cared about."

Percie tilted her head at him as she finished: "It's okay to have some faith in yourself, Nico. Mistakes might happen, but don't let those get in the way of the things you've overcome."

"... Why?"

"Why what?"

The child of the Underworld turned to her with wide eyes. "Why... why are you always thinking about everyone except yourself, Percie?"

Her voice faded out. For all of Percie's smart comments and wisecracks, she couldn't answer this simple question. She didn't have an answer. And when she didn't voice something in response, Nico put his hand to hers.

"I need to talk to him when he gets back," he muttered, more to himself than her.

At least Artemis's reindeers looked to be in a good mood when they landed. Their mistress afforded each of them a pat before boarding, motioning for the demigods to join her. Nico and Percie followed without any more words being exchanged between the two of them, something Artemis must have noticed, but did not comment on. The ride back to the others passed in silence. Looking up to the darkened sky, Percie noticed every single star they went under. A few of them brightened at her gaze, while others pulsed with resentment.

The daughter of Poseidon was careful not to look in the direction of the Huntress. She'd asked so much of Zoe already; to direct her gaze back to her former enemy would only make her feel worse about the events that had transpired in her dimension. How did Percy do it? The stranger in her head had a point: a boy shouldn't have been the one to win Zoe's respect at face-value. Yet, here the Huntress was resplendent in the air, and the Zoe she knew was buried without honors on some tawdry mountain headed by a pig-headed Titan.

"I believe we are there," Artemis finally observed, after a few more minutes of flight. With a flick of her reins, the chariot descended, leaving behind the cave systems of the previous encounters and returning them to the waterfall where Percie had nearly demolished Sagittarius and Scorpio. Annabeth was pacing on nervous feet, but her expression noticeably laxed when she saw both demigods in the back of the flying moon vehicle.

"You're back," was all she said, throwing her arms around Percie when the child of the sea disembarked. Her blonde hair fell across Percie's face, threatening to send her back into another fit of emotions as her scent reminded her of Alister once again.

"I think I need a moment," Percie whimpered, clutching to her. "Just... like this."

The daughter of Athena obliged, her arms locking down around Percie's hips. "Rough night, Seaweed Brain?"

"You can say that again."

"Nico!" Will's scattered cry came out behind them, the son of Apollo darting up away from the stream. His eyes furrowed at the tourniquets tied around Nico's arms, but he didn't mention them; all he did was take his boyfriend into his arms.

"Sorry for running off like that," Nico mumbled into his ear.

"I'm just glad you're safe, sweetheart," he returned, opening his eyes to look over Neeks' shoulder at Percie. He mouthed the words "nightmare?" at her, which she nodded at without breaking her own reunion with Annabeth. "Did you do... that?" he continued, eyeing Nico's bandaged arms.

"Yeah," she mutely responded.

"Thank you."

Artemis observed the reunifications for a moment, a curious look on her face. She turned to the enshrouded treeline, sticking two fingers into the air. A brief flash of moonlight struck her fingertips, and in the next moment, Thalia emerged from the woods.

"My lady," she kneeled for a moment before rising, contemplating the scene before her. "Was there any difficulties you encountered along the way?"

"Many, but sadly none of the variant that I could shoot," the goddess remarked, a sad regard crossing her face. "However, we settled them, in a way I believe was both long-coming and cathartic for all of us. How fare the others?"

"Will's been wonderful, your grace. Most of the broken bones we sustained fighting Pisces are healing well, and we've kept to the shadows of the wild, to avoid any more unneeded attention from anyone else looking to capitalize on Percie's presence here."

"We still don't know what the signs are playing at, anyway," Percie added, Annabeth stepping back from her to join in as well. "We've got an errant sorceress, someone called The Genius, and now, all twelve of the astrological constellations seem to be working for the second one."

"Pisces tried to kill you," Annabeth murmured, her tone thoughtful, "but Crotus did not. He fired at me; not you, when he had the element of surprise. And Scorpio specifically targeted Artemis. Ganymede may have been their method of escape, but he did not step in to fight, despite how formidable he surely could have been."

Artemis frowned. "Indeed. Despite their cooperation, all of the constellations appear to be playing at their own individual goals. So far, four of the twelve have made their intentions clear. We cannot take risks regarding the other eight. The other gods must be informed about this."

"Can we leave me out of that?" Percie pleaded, drawing a perplexed look from the Hunt. "I mean... Poseidon and Hecate already know, but I'm worried I'm just gonna get special attention from the other Olympians if they learn exactly who I am. And nothing good ever comes from having a bunch of gods invested in your life; no offense, Lady Artemis."

"None taken."

Will's bottom lip twitched. "That reminds me... does anyone else know about Percy being gone; aside from all of us gathered here, anyway?"

Annabeth bit her cheek. "The demigods at camp, and Chiron, do, but so far, we've been keeping it a secret. None of the Seven, nor anyone else has been told, aside from Sally."

"Then why do the constellations seem to know?"

The son of Apollo's question was a fair one, yet it seemed to stump the child of Athena. Annabeth fished for words, but couldn't find any fitting ones.

"I don't know that," she admitted with a growl. "Pisces didn't bat an eye at Percie showing up, and even confessed to just using the Hunters as bait to bring her in. Circe did the same, now that I think about it."

"And Crotus showed no sign of being thrown off, either," Artemis recalled. "You spoke of the sorceress responsible for this, yes? There is always the chance she had a contingency plan in motion if her initial spell was thwarted. But that would not explain why our enemies seem to be ahead of us on this."

Thalia clicked her tongue in frustration. "I mean, sure, it seems like it's normal for dangerous people to learn about us before we ever do, right? When Percy was suspected of stealing my dad's bolt, didn't like everyone and their uncle hear about it before he did?"

"Same with me," Percie confirmed. "Rumor travels faster than anything else amongst both the pantheon and the monsters opposing them, I've learned. The accused being the last to find out isn't all that shocking."

"But to my knowledge, you've hidden this occurrence well," Artemis put forward. "Poseidon has not spoken a word of it to anyone, and no one has seen Hecate ever since we first started sensing the universe stretching at the edges. I was just as surprised to learn of Percie's presence here as I suspect everyone else was."

"Then they have a bigger hand in it than we've given them credit for," Annabeth concluded. "For all we know, The Genius could refer to one of them specifically, though I have no idea who that might include. Until we know for sure, we can't take any chances."

Nico sighed, speaking up. "I understand telling the gods about the constellations, and their mischief, but can we agree to leave Percie out of the story for now? For all we know, one of them might just assume she's causing the problem by existing, and vaporize her on the spot."

It wasn't a very cheery thought, but Artemis didn't refute Nico's assertation, which just made the daughter of the sea even more paranoid. All this work, and to get disintegrated without so much as a howdy-do, because some trigger-happy deity was a fan of the easy way out.

"If it worries you so much, I suppose I can leave it out of my report," the moon goddess ruminated, drawing an audible sigh from Percie. "But if I may make a suggestion; don't let the constellations distract you from the sorceress. She's surely hiding in the shadows, waiting for her own opportunity. The death of Circe will guarantee that she makes her own retributive move soon."

Annabeth sucked in air at that. "We're going to need help," she realized, to Percie's discomfort.

"Does that mean tracking down who I think it does?" the child of Poseidon moaned.

"Yes. We need to coordinate with the rest of the Seven."

"But how?" Will brought up. "You can't Iris-message without potentially giving the game away to Iris, and who even knows where some of them are? Leo hasn't shown up ever since he sent that infuriating letter about surviving Gaea."

"Something I still need to punch him for," Nico seconded. "But even ignoring him, finding the others could take days. Days that I'm pretty sure you don't have."

"Well, we have to do something!" Annabeth exasperated. "If the gods have to be left out of the loop, and we have very powerful constellations working against us, we'll need all the help we can get. And the others will do it without a second thought."

"I don't want them getting into trouble on my behalf, Annabeth," Percie spoke up.

"What you want, and what will happen, rarely ever intersect, Seaweed Brain. I know it troubles you, but Percy is important to them, too. We can't leave them out because we were worried about making them collateral damage. Besides, they'd be furious to find out we ignored them when one of our own was in trouble."

It was a really good argument. One Percie couldn't refute. In other words, an argument she hated, and one Alister tended to pull out whenever they disagreed on something. Dating a child of wisdom really had its drawbacks, sometimes.

"Just... try to be careful, then," she relented. "So... how do we go about contacting them?"

"I know at least Hazel and Frank will be at Camp Jupiter," Annabeth answered. "They're the easiest; Piper's probably either off with her dad, or stuck in Hollywood. Jason... I really have no idea. He's been quiet about it whenever we ask him at the reunion parties. And Leo's off the grid entirely; he could be anywhere from Cape Town to Jakarta."

Artemis raised an eye. "Then you must make do with what you know for sure. The Romans sound like the solid lead. If you wish, I'd be willing to take you there myself, to spare a long trek across the nation."

It was a generous offer.

"Okay, but that still makes me anxious," Percie said. "We're on a time schedule here; just settling for Hazel and Frank is too risky."

"Then we'll split up," Nico suggested. "If Piper is in Hollywood, I can get people there easily. The main entrance to the Underworld is there, after all. It'd be simple enough to drop down in there, and just pop back up in-"

"Absolutely not," Will objected, cutting him off. Nico threw an annoyed glance his way, but the healer shook his head. "Not for the reasons you're assuming, Neeks. I... know you're strong enough to just hop around the Underworld. But your presence there is sure to catch the attention of your father. And if we're keeping Percie a secret, sending her down there with you would be like shooting up a flare."

The son of Hades winced at the revelation. Percie pursed her lips, the conclusion now appearing to be one she liked even less than the first idea. "Are you saying we have to split up?" she asked. "What are we, teens in some 1960s kids show about mystery-solving and people in monster costumes?"

"Well, Nico can't go if he brings you with him, and one of you between you and Annabeth needs to go to New Rome. Either Nico takes Annabeth with him through the Underworld, where you get to deal with a probably confused Hades, or he goes to Camp Jupiter, and sends two others through his dad's house instead."

"Wait, why can't he just take you, Will?" Annabeth asked him. "Hades already knows you guys are together, right?"

Nico shrugged. "Yeah. I don't see why we can't do that."

The healer didn't look so blasé about it. "Maybe he could, but that would leave Piper taking our word on it about what's going on. Don't you think she deserves to hear it either from Percie herself, or you, Annabeth?"

The two female demigods shared an uneasy look. "I think he's got a point there, Wise Girl. If I was Piper, I'd need to hear it from one of the Seven. Nico and Will are wonderful, but this kind of bombshell needs to be done as gingerly as possible," Percie pointed out.

"You realize that train of thought means there's really only one possible combination that could fulfill all of those quotas, guys?" Thalia spoke up, drawing everyone's attention. The daughter of Zeus had been so quiet, Percie had forgotten she was there. "Nico can't go to the Underworld without drawing unwanted attention, and Percie going to New Rome would set off plenty of alarms for the gods."

"Terminus...," Annabeth cursed. "He'd immediatly detect her, and demand to know who she was. And we all know he can't keep his mouth shut."

"So, the only pairs that work are Annabeth and Nico, going to Camp Jupiter, and Will and Percie traversing the Underworld to Hollywood. If you're adamant about Piper hearing it from one of the Seven, of course."

They all considered Thalia's proposal. Terminus was an unforeseen problem; he'd happily sing out about her taking Percy's place the moment he learned of it, and bluffing to the god of boundaries rarely ever worked. There was no loophole to exploit in that. Of course, that meant Percie would get to take a relaxing stroll through Hades' backyard.

"Does anyone have any objections to that?" Artemis offered.

Percie had all kinds of objections, but none that would lead to a better solution. She couldn't go to Camp Jupiter, and Nico couldn't go to Hollywood. Their hands were tied.

"No," Nico dejected. "I don't have any."

"None here," Will paled.

"Nada," Annabeth repeated.

"No," Percie finished, her voice hesitant.

"Then I'll take Mr. di Angelo and Ms. Chase to Camp Jupiter... in the morning," the goddess resolved. "I suspect it's been a long day for all of us; we can afford to at least let everyone rest until the sun returns."

"No arguments from me," Nico exhaled, leaning on Will. "Are you done treating the Hunters?"

"Yep. We should be seeing full recoveries from all of them... except for... um," Will stammered, his confident posture dwindling.

Artemis leaned towards him. "Yes, Mr. Solace?"

"All of your Hunters will be good as new, my lady... except for Vera."

The name sent chills through the air, though the goddess didn't flinch. "I see. And what is her injury?"

"I treated her bruising and broken jaw, but... she's going to lose all sight in her right eye. I think Percie damaged the cataracts, because she can't see anything whatsoever out of it. And since she was a mortal woman, not a demigod, I can't treat her with ambrosia or nectar despite her being a Hunter."

Huh. Guess Percie never thought about that potential problem. She'd just assumed all Hunters gained a sort of demigod-ness from joining the Hunt... wait a minute.

"She's losing her eye, essentially?" Percie asked, memories from three years ago exploding in her head.

This time, Artemis did flinch, as did Annabeth, Will, and Nico. "Just like... your own world," Artemis breathed. "And... it happened in defense of Nico."

Oh, gods. She... just took out a Hunter's eye for hurting Nico. Just as Bartholomew had done to Zoe when he stumbled on their attempted kidnapping back at the Hunter's camp that same night Alister was abducted.

Thalia, the only one out of the loop, looked at everyone in confusion. "Um... am I missing something here?" she asked. "Why is everyone suddenly at least two shades of white paler than they were five seconds ago?"

"It's... not a story that needs to be repeated, my lieutenant," the goddess mumbled. "Just... know that it has nothing to do with you, or any of my other Hunters."

The Hunt regained her presence a moment later, readjusting her tunic over her shoulder as Percie stared at her in astonishment. She really had been able to distance herself from the Zoe of Percie's world.

"Thalia, would you bring Vera here?" Artemis asked out of the blue. "I do believe she has something to say to all of us, particularly Mr. di Angelo."

The child of Zeus nodded, somewhat nervously, before retreating back into the forest. She returned shortly afterwards, with a very beaten-up looking Hunter in tow. Vera had a bandage over her right eye, and most of her face was still an uncomfortable shade of black-yellow. As bad as she looked, Percie didn't feel bad about it. Weirded out by the similarity of the whole eye-thing, but not remorseful.

"My lady," Vera acknowledged, having to turn her head at a side angle to see Artemis properly. "You asked for me?"

"Yes, Vera." The goddess's voice dropped into something more sinister. "Do not think I'm willing to just forego what you did earlier this evening. You were out of line, as I suspect you came to realize when I did not intervene on your behalf when Ms. Jackson was... chastising you."

Chastisement was putting it mildly. Vera looked like an eggplant that had been bounced down a rocky incline, then beaten with a hammer.

"My lady," Vera hissed, putting as much humility into her voice as she could, "while I am willing to admit that I may have crossed a line, I fail to see why you've seen fit to bring me here, in front of... them."

The Hunter's stare didn't divert from Artemis, but the slight lowering of her left shoulder confirmed she was referring to Will and Nico. "Oh, you fail to see? Was that on purpose, or are you just really unfortunate when it comes to making accidental puns?" Percie shot back. "Because I've been standing here trying to come up with a golden one for about fifteen seconds now, and you just went and dumped a diamond in my lap."

Annabeth snickered next to her, and even Thalia had to suppress a chuckle. Vera was less amused.

"Listen here, you self-loathing, repulsive littl-" she tried to bite back, only for the goddess to interrupt.

"Be silent!" Artemis roared, her voice twisting into a motley of animalistic groans and bellows. "You're not here to trade barbs; you are here to listen, and be respectful!"

Vera stopped short, genuine fear now in her one uncovered eye.

"To answer your question, you are here to apologize," the Hunt elaborated, no nonsense in her tone. "This is an order, not a request: apologize to Mr. di Angelo for your flagrant display of disrespect, to both him and his sister."

Nico looked shocked, but managed to compose himself before Vera spotted it.

"An... order?" the stunned Hunter muttered.

"Yes. And once that is done, with full sincerity, you shall issue one to Mr. Solace, for being so difficult while he was trying to treat you, and then you shall conclude with Ms. Jackson."

"Her, too? For what?"

"For attacking someone she cares for. Right after she saved your life, and the lives of your sisters. Do it. Now."

Vera's mouth opened and closed like a drowning person, caught in-between the tides. Maybe she could have apologized to Percie without any hang-ups, but doing the same to two males? In front of Artemis, her lieutenant, and Annabeth? Percie relished the absolute bafflement on her face.

"I... I'm ve-"

"Look at him when you do it!" the goddess demanded, her form beginning to brighten.

Ever so slowly, Vera turned to Nico, who was keeping himself rather stoic in the face of such delicious karma. Percie could never.

"I... humbly apologize... for my harsh words to you... sir," Vera stumbled, shaking in fear. "And you as well... Mr. Solace."

Nico didn't react, but Will was kind enough to nod at her in acknowledgement.

Now for the juicy one. Percie leaned forward on her heels, not bothering to conceal her pleasure in the situation. The Hunter was obviously repulsed at having to apologize to someone who looked as gleeful as the daughter of Poseidon did, but that only made it even better.

"Ms. Jackson... I would like to say... that I regret how things got out of control when last we spoke," Vera grumbled.

Percie blinked in defiance. "Ooh, that sounds so close to an apology, but we're not quite there yet. Could you elaborate, Clay Face?"

Vera wheeled to Artemis, looking for sympathy, but the Hunt didn't back down. The goddess pointed a stubborn finger back to Percie, emphasizing with a very threatening wrist bounce.

"I'm sorry," she griped. "For being so rude and disrespectful. Happy?"

Percie let her smile vanish, replacing it with a judging sneer. "Not really. Since you only bothered with it because Artemis forced you. Even with a useless eye, you still haven't learned anything from this, have you?"

"No, she hasn't," Artemis agreed, approaching Vera. "My dear, you may have found yourself welcome in my hunt yesterday, but as of your actions today, as well as your blatant refusal to follow my orders, it is quite clear that you no longer deserve my protection."

The Hunter, former Hunter really, quaked at that statement. "But... my lady! I'm still a maiden," she pleaded, backing up. "I've never disobeyed you, or questioned your orders. Where is this coming from?"

Thalia rolled her eyes at the doomed woman. "Lady Artemis called for the apology to be sincere, remember? That was about as sincere as a promise from a used-car salesman."

"And such disobedience will not be tolerated," the goddess added. "Neither will any more bashing of men, in my presence or otherwise."

That got a reaction from everyone, but Vera's was the most pronounced.

"What?!" she gasped, stumbling on to her rear. "You're... showing them clemency? Men? For what? They... they... they're-"

"If you wish to leave this conversation alive, you will not finish that sentence!" Artemis glowed with fury. "That is my decision, and I will not be questioned! I will not abide those who slander good people within my hunt, be they men or women, or neither of the above! Now, unless you wish to see a side of me few women ever do, I suggest you get out of my sight."

With a snap of her fingers, Vera's entire form wilted. Immortality was revoked, and the former Hunter sagged against the ground, her bow and quiver vanishing from her back.

"This... can't be happening," she stressed.

"It is. Go. Before I change my mind about showing you any mercy."

Vera rose to her feet and tripped away, tears in her eyes. She found no sympathy in the circle; not even Thalia bothered to offer her a hand. Whimpering, the former Hunter crept into the wilderness, before disappearing behind an outcropping of boulders.

Artemis watched her go, before turning to Percie with a strained look. "I fear I have more expulsions to see to before this night is over. I do not do this lightly, Percie. Please, do not make me regret heeding your words."

"I... will try, my lady," Percie responded, the weight of what she'd just set in motion hitting her. The Hunters... were going to shrink considerably this night, and would forever be changed.

At a nod from her lieutenant, the goddess headed off, into the forest. Thalia smiled at the other demigods before she turned to follow her mistress. "We'll find you all in the morning," she said over her shoulder.

Will pulled Nico to his side. "Come on, Ghost King," he teased. "Let's get you properly treated, and then to bed."

The son of Hades pouted, but didn't raise a fuss. With them off to tend to themselves, that left Percie alone with Annabeth.

"Time to set up camp?" she asked the child of wisdom.

"Yeah. Unless you want to sleep in the fish cave."

No. Pisces's way of living was its own form of torture. Thanks to Annabeth's ability to think ahead, the girls had their tent set up quickly, but Percie hesitated once they finished. Something was needling at her, preventing her from sleeping just yet.

"I need a moment alone; okay?" she asked Annabeth as the latter zipped the tent open.

"Sure. Just... don't go anywhere too far."

"No worries there. I just... have someone I want to thank."

Kissing her on the forehead, Percie stepped away up to the waterfall, riding it up the cliff until she stood at the precipice. It offered her a full-view of the sky. And the Huntress.

"Zoe." Percie's jaw quivered, emotion threatening to overcome her. "I'm sorry things happened between us the way they did. Back when I knew you... I was scared. I saw so much of myself in you... and that frightened me more than anything. Not just because of the vows, but because of the lengths your devotion to them drove you to act on."

The woman in the sky didn't budge.

"But seeing you here... like this... I can't help but feel relieved. You deserved better. Like so many of us. If I had done better... done right by you, maybe you'd be like this in my own world. Free to follow your love forever, instead of sequestered away in the Underworld. To know that there was at least one version of me who could do the right thing..."

Percie's tearful lamentation overwhelmed her. How could she ever face her own Artemis ever again, after learning about this? How could she ever look Thomas in the eye again? And how could she ever thank Percy, for being the hero she wasn't when it mattered the most?

A tiny touch to the top of her head pulled her gaze upwards. The Huntress was looking down on her, the stars making up her face pulling her expression into one of compassion. Her bow was aimed right at the spot Percie felt someone graze on her skull.

"Zoe?"

The Huntress nodded. She... nodded.

"Is that... forgiveness?"

Another nod.

"Did... did I make the wrong decision, back in my world?"

No nod. The constellation stilled... then shook no.

No... she said no. Zoe forgave her... and said she wasn't wrong to defend Thomas. Crying wasn't enough to do justice for the outpouring of tears that flowed from Percie's eyes. She wept, out of guilt. Out of relief. Out of regret.

"Guess... I wasn't as unwavering as the Oracle thought, huh?" she managed to crack, through her sorrow. "Thank you. For helping me... and helping Nico. Just... thank you."

The ride back down the waterfall didn't ease her tears, though it did at least muffle her sniveling. Despite trying to cut back on it, she'd had no luck by the time she reached the tent.

Her sobs of course drew Annabeth's attention, and the daughter of Athena was waiting at the opening for her.

"You okay?" she asked, letting Percie in.

"Is yes and no at the same time a viable option?" Percie retorted, earning herself cuddles from the blonde when she finally laid down.

"Of course it is; isn't that the normal state of living?" Annabeth countered, one hand playing with Percie's hair while the other pulled her in tight. "There's nothing wrong with feeling both at the same time."

"There might be nothing wrong, but that doesn't make it any easier," she complained.

Annabeth sighed, wiping tears away as they arrived. "No; nothing worth doing is ever easy."

More fortune cookie talk. Joy.

"Just hold me," the child of the sea dismissed, pressing into her.

The child of Athena smiled. "That I can do, Seaweed Brain. That I can do."

And so, for the second time in as many nights, Percie cried herself to sleep. But at least this time, there was someone there to make her feel better about it. And judging by where Annabeth had placed her hands, she was as much of a cuddler as Alister.

Chapter Text

It had been a long time since Percy last hugged his dad. They'd fought together back when the giants were defeated, but there had been no time for emotional reunions or even a private word they could exchange. Gaea was too busy rising from her slumber, all because of some unfair line in the prophecy about his blood being spilled. Apparently nosebleeds, as undignified as they were, still counted in that manner. As such, no sooner had they slain the giants before the Seven literally got smacked back to Camp Half-Blood, before Percy could say anything to Poseidon.

The sea god still smelled the same as they connected; briny saltwater combined with a more refreshing ocean scent that made him feel like he was curled up on the sand, listening to the tides come in. The familiarity almost broke Percy right then and there, but Poseidon's still-mindful posture managed to anchor him enough for the demigod to pull in a stabilizing intake of air.

"How long have you been here?" Percy mumbled into his father's shirt, not coming apart just yet.

"Ever since I learned about... this," the deity admitted. "Once I realized that Lamia was involved, I made myself comfortable here. She may be repelled from you herself, but that despicable cretin is not above attacking anyone who might be connected to you in any way. Anyone who wishes to lay a hand on your mother or Paul is going to have to get through me first."

Percy's head jerked up. "You're... protecting them? Yourself?"

"Yes. I apologize if that has prohibited me from making myself known to you beforehand. However, I knew you were with Alister, and he's proven himself as quite the capable protector as well. With you insulated from harm amongst the Seven, I felt assured enough to direct all of my attention towards keeping your mother safe."

That might have explained the lifeguard outfit, now that Percy thought about it.

"Were you the one who stopped Nicola's shadow-travel short, a few blocks away?"

Poseidon nodded. "I didn't deliberately stop her per se; rather, the boundary I've set up around the apartment did. It'll sense any incoming monsters, magic, or otherwise hostile presence, and keep it out long enough for me to determine whether or not it's a threat. As soon as I realized that it was you who'd been intercepted, I let you pass without incident."

The conversation was casual, despite the extraordinary circumstances that had transpired to bring it about. Percy, in his mind, knew he was forcing himself to avoid the big topic at hand, but he couldn't let that keep up. Even if Poseidon seemed willing to indulge his loose questions, it wasn't fair to either one of them for Percy to hold back.

"I'm sorry," he murmured, sagging down onto the couch.

"Sorry? For what?" the god returned, taking the spot next to him.

"For... for setting this whole thing in motion. Fighting Lamia so recklessly... I should have known magic like that could backfire if it wasn't respected. But I didn't think about that, and now I've gone and ripped your daughter away from you."

Poseidon tilted his head. "Don't you think you're being too hard on yourself? I doubt even Athena could have predicted what sort of after-effects Lamia's spell could have triggered. And this is not the first time my daughter has been thrown into a mad situation, Percy. I trust the same could be said for you."

"That doesn't make it any better. Every time I turn around, I feel like my actions are always negatively impacting the people I care about most. I've gone and vanished again, not even a year after that mess with Hera and Gaea, and now people on both sides are facing horrible dangers just to fix my problem."

"They care about you. That is not a bad thing, son. No matter what Ares might have to say on that subject. You're just as important to us as I'm sure we are to you. Abandoning you, even in this direness, is not an option."

The god wrapped his arm around Percy's shoulder, in one of the first fatherly gestures Percy could remember getting from his dad in some time. "Even though you've been staying here, you've been getting updates about what's been going on the whole time, right?" he asked.

"Yes, Percy. Hermes and Athena have both been proactive in their own responses to this. That includes keeping me in the loop while I guard Sally."

"And Athena... she told you, didn't she?" Percy didn't formulate the words, but his dad had to have known about what he was talking about. The goddess of wisdom might have kept some things from the past day to herself, but his suicide attempt... that surely would have qualified as something Poseidon needed to know about.

The god of the sea nodded, confirming it. "Yes. She did. And she told me about how she interfered. I... was not myself for a time after that, Percy." Poseidon quieted for a moment, before turning in his seat to face the demigod directly. "It was about me, wasn't it?"

"Not... all of it."

"But enough. I'm not completely blind to my own mistakes, son. For all of my words to the contrary, I know I have not been a decent father to you, if the version of me you know is anything close to myself. Percie and I have been trying to patch things up, slowly, but I see it every time I look in her eyes; everything I do now only makes her question why I couldn't have done it sooner. I can bring up the prophecy, but that is not enough. Not any more. Even with the Fates keeping along stringent lines, loopholes can be exploited. At the least, I could have done something to ease your loneliness growing up. But I did not."

Percy wanted to speak, but cold shivers ran down his spine as Poseidon talked. It should have been cathartic, hearing his dad acknowledge the things he'd been struggling with for so long, but nothing close to that connected with him. All it did was make him feel worse.

"Why didn't you?" he managed to force out. "Why... did you keep away? When both me and my mom needed you?"

The god thought about it, for several moments. "Because I was scared, Percy."

"You? Scared? Of what?"

"Many things: Zeus had decreed that he, myself, and Hades were to avoid having children with mortals, and in the event we did, then we were to keep our noses out of it once they were born. Of course, my brother has always believed in 'rules for others, and rules for myself', so Thomas's birth went unchallenged, despite the whispers it provoked amongst the gods. Zeus, in an attempt to make himself out to not be a total hypocrite, abandoned Thomas, and then Janice, without losing any sleep over it. Then... you were born. Those whispers grew until they were rumbling ambience. The gods were all watching me, and you, with critical eyes. To reach out, after Zeus had ignored his own kids, would have been regarded as me holding myself above the law. My brother may have not been able to punish me outwardly, but you were vulnerable. And no one else would have objected."

Percy's eyes closed, but Poseidon continued: "It was not surprising when Zeus scapegoated you and Percie as being responsible for the theft of his lightning bolt. Honestly, I was surprised he let twelve years pass before doing something about it. It would not be the first time my brother scrapped together some shoddy charge against a demigod he despised, and used that as a way of punishing one of us."

"Are you trying to say... that you let my mom and I suffer because you thought it would protect us from the wrath of Olympus?"

"In a way. Alongside Zeus, we had another fact to contend with: We gods have a tendency to ruin things, Percy. Without having to try. As horrible as I knew things were, and I did know, make no mistake... there was always the chance my presence in your life would only add fuel to the fire. It's the worst feeling imaginable: watching your own child face the worst that the world has to offer on their own, and know that you can't do anything to help them without putting them in more danger. There were times where I would long for Percie so much, it would actually ache."

He wanted to hate his dad. Gods, he wanted more than anything to feed the resentment that had been growing inside him for years. Even if this technically wasn't his Poseidon, the semantics didn't matter. Everyone had seemingly accepted that he and Percie were one and the same. There was a reason Poseidon kept referring to him as "you" in that story, even though it was actually Percie.

But seeing the sea god so down-hearted... so regretful and sincere, made sustaining that hatred impossible. And Percy would be lying if he said he and his dad had nothing in common. They both valued their loved ones, more than anything else, and Athena had observed that he'd been willing to hurt his friends for the short-term if it meant they could survive long-term. How had she phrased it: "You didn't spare their feelings... because you wanted to spare their lives."

"I want to feel again," the demigod mumbled, earning a glance from Poseidon. "Something good, I mean. The past few days have been hell... with little reprieve. Every time I turn around, I have to either confront some maniac planning world domination, or some demon from my past that's been haunting my mind. Both the past and the present refuse to let up, for even a moment, and the future looks just as bleak." Percy pulled his knees up to his chest, quaking. "Could just one thing in this world learn to stay fixed?!"

"I find myself asking that more often with every passing year," the deity concurred, doing his best to soothe Percy: He put a hand to his arm, and the quivers running through Percy's muscles relaxed. "But as much as I may wish I could do anything different, I can't. All I can do is be better; for you, and all of my children. I hope you understand my decision to stay here, and protect your mother, instead of tracking you down."

"Actually, that's the one thing you've done I don't find any fault in, whatsoever."

Poseidon tried to crack a smile. "Guess that proves I can be better, huh?"

"Keep it up; maybe you'll end up earning that "World's Best Dad" mug I know you kept after the Battle of Olympus."

It wasn't a very jovial quip, but Poseidon laughed at it anyway. The sound reverberated in Percy's entire being, and even though he was still locked in some emotional doldrums, his father's promise was enough to ease at least some of that tension.

A gentle knocking at the entrance to the living room pulled both men's attention away from each other. Thomas, looking haunted, stood at the precipice to the room, his hand resting against the wall. "May I intrude?" he asked, his voice shaky.

Poseidon paused, then nodded. "I don't have any objections; Percy?"

"No. It's fine."

The son of Zeus stumbled in, lowering himself into a recliner. "Nicola's absolutely creaming Paul at crazy eights; I'm pretty sure she's using some Underworld magic to cheat, but if she is, Paul doesn't seem to mind. He hasn't stopped smiling ever since we walked in."

"That sounds like him. Never lets himself be made out to be an ungracious host," Percy ruminated. "Are you here because Nicola suggested you start playing for money, or something?"

Thomas brushed his hair out of his face, sighing. "No. I just... needed to talk to your dad, Percy."

Poseidon sat up straight, but he didn't look irritated. "Oh, dear. Thomas is using the serious voice. That never leads to good things."

"Nothing in my life has ever led to a good thing, uncle," he snarked, crossing his legs at the knee. "I wanted to ask you about what happened the last time we saw each other."

"The vote... I see." Poseidon's joking tone vanished. "What is it you wish to discuss?"

"Why?"

"Why what?"

"Why did you spare me?"

The sea god blinked. "What do you mean, nephew? I thought I explained myself back when I cast my vote; I based my decision on what I deduced Percie wanted. She did not wish to see you die, so I did what I could to make it so."

Thomas's hands latched together, straining. "But how did you know that? She didn't say anything that I thought could be construed as wanting to see mercy extended. As a matter of fact, she said she wanted to see justice done."

Percy held his tongue, not wanting to let his own questions disrupt this. He could piece it together as they went along.

"Are you implying that justice was not done, Thomas?" Poseidon countered. "Did you wish to die for your actions, that day?"

"No... but... how could you show any compassion to me, a son of Zeus? My dad certainly didn't when the shoe was on the other foot. Yet, you still spared me. I've never had one of the gods do anything like that before."

Poseidon frowned. "Didn't four others also vote to save you, before me?"

"Those don't really count: Aphrodite's a flake, Hephaestus opposes Hera on principle, Hermes loves chaos, and Demeter is too jaded by the loss of Persephone to do anything that would risk a child's life in relation to their parents. Yours was the only vote that seemed to have any real weight to it."

"Just mine? Not even your father's vote resonated with you?"

The child of the sky shook. "My father is not someone whose kindness I want, nor expect. He kept Janice from me, and was happy to throw me to the wolves the moment he realized he'd fucked up by siring me. He's also far too narcissistic to ever see me as someone other than just an extension of himself. Children of Zeus don't get any leverage, not even from him. He actively encourages us to outdo everyone else, and then takes our achievements as his own. Of course he'd vote for me; he'd never want a precious progeny to die before they could honor him in some way."

"Thomas," Percy muttered, shifting in his seat. The other demigod winced, but didn't hold back.

"So, no. His support means nothing. It has too many strings attached."

Poseidon absorbed his argument, tapping a finger to his knuckle. "As much as I may wish to argue the contention, I fear it is more truthful than any other explanation," the ocean god responded. "My brother... tends to pick and choose his heroes, even amongst his own. Those not shown favor do not last very long."

"Exactly," Thomas finished. "I was fully expecting to die that day... until you cast your vote. It's been weighing on me ever since. And I'd like to know why."

The deity leaned forward, closing his eyes for a moment. "As the votes were cast, I realized it would all end up on my shoulders. My family is quite predictable, in that way. Thus, I was left to determine many things on my own. I was the one who suggested the Lotus Hotel, not out of malice, but out of a lack of other options. Amnesty was off the table, and death was too extreme. And the longer we debated the issue, the less likely the odds you'd maintain enough support to keep you alive."

Thomas was a statue, listening to the god talk.

"As Percie recounted the events of Zoe's death, I couldn't shake the feeling that she was being... evasive. Whenever she faced the gods, she'd always look to me whenever she was feeling overwhelmed. It was understandable; I was the only friendly face she could rely on. But as she spoke to us that day, I realized she seemed to be avoiding my gaze more often than not. In fact, most of her attention went to you, when she wasn't looking to one of us. Despite her testimony, she didn't look disgusted, or outraged by your actions. She looked scared for you. It was in that moment... my decision was made: I would not see you dead, because that would hurt Percie. And I had hurt her enough."

Both Percy and Thomas trembled.

"I knew she wasn't telling the whole story, but did not press her for the details. She was... quite inconsolable about your confinement with the Lotus Eaters. Which, of course, confirmed that I'd made the right choice: she wanted you to live."

Poseidon's expression shifted into a more curious look as he continued: "However, I never found the resolve to ask her myself. I did not wish to reopen old wounds. Therefore, may I ask you? What happened with Zoe?"

The air in the room became very still. Percy recounted Thomas's words: He'd promised Percie never to speak of it, and had her make the same swear. On their relationship, if he had guessed rightly. Poseidon's question was a loaded one, but Percy doubted his father knew just how volatile it was.

"I... cannot speak of it," Thomas stammered, his voice getting very choked up. "Percie and I promised one another, and I can't break a promise to her." The son of Zeus wobbled in his seat. "Please, uncle; don't make me break that. It's the only thing I've been able to count on. She's... the only one I can rely on."

The sea god studied Thomas for several moments, which had to have been nerve-wracking. Finally, Percy's father rose to his feet, crossing the room to where his nephew was seated. Thomas closed his eyes, trying to keep himself from shaking. He didn't succeed.

Percy found himself holding his breath as Poseidon came to a standstill next to Thomas's chair. The god's expression was unreadable, and for a moment, the child of the sea was worried his father would lash out at Thomas for refusing to answer him.

"It means that much to you? She... means that much?"

The son of Zeus nodded, without looking up or speaking further.

Poseidon's hand came down.... not in attack, though. He laid it on Thomas's shoulder, finally getting the demigod to look him in the eye in anticipation.

"Okay, then," he relented. "I won't pry further." Then he did something that took even Percy by surprise: he hugged his brother's son.

Thomas went rigid at the touch, like he was expecting the god to crush him like an eggshell, but the gesture was a gentle one. Eventually, the panic in his eyes faded away as he realized he wasn't being murdered by his uncle. Cautious arms came up, and Poseidon nodded encouragement, allowing Thomas to return the embrace in full.

"You miss her as much as I do, don't you?" the god asked him.

"... Yes."

"You see her as more than just a close friend, too, right?"

"... Yes."

It was just one word. But it was a confession. To her father, of all people. To his credit, Poseidon took it in stride.

"Was it... what happened with Zoe, that brought that on?"

The demigod started, then finally shook his head. "Not at first. When we... made that pact, I cared for her, but I wouldn't have said it was... love. At least, not love like romantic love. We were friends, and rivals. By virtue of our births, and by our connection to Alister. He was like a little brother to me, and to see my closeness to him replaced wasn't easy."

Thomas gulped a little. "But I eventually realized why it happened like that," he continued. "It had been years; he wasn't the mischievous little seven year-old anymore. He'd grown up considerably, and had gone on two massive quests in just two years. An eight year difference was reduced to just one. It would have been selfish of me to expect him to drop all the relationships he'd made in that time and come running back to me."

Percy thought of Thalia, and the unspoken feud that had sparked between them after she revived. He'd figured most of that had to do with Annabeth, and hearing Thomas confirm it made him wince. The daughter of Zeus had awoken in a world that had continued without her; her only friends were now openly trying to coup the gods, or had moved on with their lives.

"But despite all that, Percie never once acted like I was intruding on something. She encouraged me to rebuild my friendship with Alister, and we did, thanks to her support. At first, I assumed she was doing that because it would have made Alister happy, but I learned soon enough it wasn't quite so cunning; that was just who she was. She cared about people, without expecting favors in return. She was the first demigod I'd ever met who didn't hold my heritage over me, as either a cudgel or a pedestal. I was just her friend; Zeus be damned."

Thunder cracked at a distance, but Poseidon just rolled his eyes, nodding at the teen to continue.

"I was already reconciling that, when the fiasco with Zoe went down. She... was there for me when it counted, and I was there for her. To hear you say she never stopped worrying about me... I should have expected it, but I didn't. At least, not at first. But the Lotus Hotel gave me time with my thoughts. Percie was the one who took me there, right after the voting concluded. We didn't say much, but as she turned to leave, she promised that she'd come back as soon as Kronos was gone. And she did. The very same day, once the battle was finished. She went above and beyond for me in every way, ever since the day we met." Thomas's eyes watered. "It took... a long time for me to admit my feelings to myself. But when I did, everything fell into place. I was in love... with someone I could never hope to have."

Hearing him talk like that was heart-breaking. If Percy had been in the same boat, he would have gone off the deep end a long time ago. Thomas had been through just as much as he had; but at least Percy had found Annabeth. All the son of Zeus had found was more pain.

Poseidon sighed, giving his nephew a pat on the back before breaking off the physical touch. "I see. Thank you, Thomas. You didn't have to answer that, but I appreciate that you did. For what it's worth... if things were different, I'd be proud to support you in your relationship with Percie."

"R-really? But... my dad-"

"You are not Zeus. That is clear. If you were, you would have resorted to kidnapping by now." More thunder, which the sea god ignored. "For all of your self-doubts, I would say you've overthrown your father's legacy. Love, especially unrequited love, can hurt; but it's not the end. Only the beginning. Does Percie know?"

"I... don't know. Maybe? Maybe not."

"Well, when she returns, may I make a suggestion?" Thomas nodded at him. "Tell her how you feel. It'll hurt, and it'll be awkward. But your friendship is strong enough to survive it. Keeping that bottled up will only eat away at you from the inside. Lay it all out; don't mince the details. She'll understand, and she'll appreciate your honesty, your trust. Only then can you heal."

"Heal?" Thomas whispered. "Such a thing..."

"Is completely possible. You're much stronger than I ever realized, nephew. And you deserve to be happy."

Thomas jittered, seemingly unable to process what the god had told him. Percy was right there; since when had one of the Olympians ever been so understanding about so many things at once? With considerable effort, the son of Zeus mumbled thanks to Poseidon and stood, leaving without any more words. The deity turned back to Percy, and chuckled at his son's open bafflement.

"Who are you?" Percy wondered aloud.

His dad took on a more serene look. "I'm his uncle."

It... was happening. It wasn't just empty promises. The gods... at least Poseidon and Athena, were putting their money where their mouths were. They were trying. Trying to be better. Suddenly, Percy regretted his harsh words from earlier.

"I'm sorry," he said, turning away.

"No; I'm sorry. For making you wait so long for that."

A sparkling light reflecting in his dad's eye pulled Percy's attention away. Poseidon noticed it as well, crossing the room to the sliding glass door that led out to the patio. The sea god looked up and out of it, his hand going out to empty air, where his trident started to appear. It vanished, however, when the deity recognized the newcomer.

"Looks like there's more news," was all he said, opening the door and standing to the side. The fluttering light sprinted into the room, doing a dramatic circle around Percy's head before landing on the fireplace frame. The ball expanded into a larger shape, until it sprouted limbs and a head. The winged shoes finally gave it away.

"Lord Hermes," Percy acknowledged, giving the messenger god a little bow from his seated position as he materialized, leaning up against the fireplace. Hermes grinned, brushing some wild hairs back out of his face. He'd apparently settled for the jogger look: knee-high socks, track shorts, and a tank-top that seemed designed to show off all of his abdominal muscles.

"Percy," Hermes returned, the wings on his shoes waving at the demigod. "Pleasure to finally meet you at last, though I do wish it was under less stressful circumstances."

"You and me both, my lord."

With the greeting out of the way, Poseidon leaned towards his fellow deity. "I take it you're not here to admire the scenery?"

"Alas, I am not."

"More news, then?"

Hermes's smile dipped, getting replaced by a concerned look. "Yes, but not news I was expecting to deliver. For all the drama going on, I still have duties to attend to. One of which, of course, is guiding recently deceased souls to the Underworld."

Percy recalled Hades mentioning something to that affect before. "Okay. Found something along the way that caught your curiosity?" the demigod asked.

"Caught, and spiked, my boy. I was doing my rounds, like usual: cancer patients, drunk drivers, husbands caught in bed with their neighbor's wives, all the usual sort. When, all of a sudden, I run into someone very familiar to me in Illinois."

Illinois. Oh. "Theseus, right?" Percy guessed.

Poseidon started. "Theseus? But he's-"

"Supposed to already be dead, yes," Hermes noted. "Quite the little shock, I'll admit. I collected him regardless, but just as I was about to dip out, who should I find mourning his death than his old friend Pirithous?"

"Piri? Him, too?"

"And he's not the only one. Dear Charles Boles made an appearance as well."

The sea god snarled. "What were those three doing there?"

"Trying to kill me," Percy answered, earning a shocked look from Poseidon and a knowing nod from Hermes. "They're working with Demosthenes; he's assembled a team of long-dead demigods to hunt me down, because they think killing me will put the universe back together."

"Charles said as much while I was eavesdropping," Hermes confirmed. "Seems their little team snuck out the Doors of Death while no one was looking, and have now decided to make themselves known. By targeting Percy, in an effort to fix Lamia's mistake."

Poseidon sneered again, but kept his cool. "Do we know how many of them are still working towards that goal?"

"No. Charles was tight-lipped once he realized I would be along soon. Didn't seem to realize I was already there. Made a bunch of ominous sounding observations, then shadow-traveled away. Probably to lick Piri's wounds, with his best friend getting killed and all."

"That's gonna be a problem. If they've got numbers we don't know about, threats to Percy could come from any direction. Pirithous and Charles are both formidable adversaries on their own; having a coalition at their disposal makes them dangerous enough to involve all of the gods."

"That's where I'm going as soon as I'm done here," Hermes said. "Athena probably already knows Demosthenes has his hand in somewhere, but she may not have guessed he's got an army under him. Can't imagine Zeus or Hades would be delighted to know about their sons' involvement, as well."

"So Charles is a son of Hades?" Percy asked.

"Yes. A very odd one, too. Polite, respectful, and quite deadly. Massacred an entire platoon of Mars' offspring during the American Civil War, if I remember correctly. Got himself a shiny promotion. I was cleaning up that mess for days."

"Focus, please," Poseidon chimed in, cutting off Hermes' story. "The point remains we must act on this; no prophecy is holding us back this time. I will not allow anyone to harm my son, no matter how much they may think it will save the world."

"Already calling him yours, huh?" Hermes noticed. "He does posses quite the je nais se quois, I'll admit."

It was a compliment, but Percy didn't appreciate the messenger's laissez-faire attitude about most of this. See? He could throw in random French too.

"Thank you, Lord Hermes," the demigod vocalized, keeping his irritation to himself. "Anything else?"

"No; I was too busy hurrying back here as soon as I dropped those souls off to Hades. He seemed very... eager, to deal with Theseus himself."

Poseidon fumed about something for a moment. "Hermes, I have a task for you, before you go."

"As long as it doesn't involve children or animals, fire away."

The sea god frowned, but didn't comment on his nephew's snark. "Would you be willing to hold off on leaving, for about half an hour? I have something I need to do, and I don't wish to leave my son or Sally unprotected, with this cabal of ancient demigods lurking around."

The messenger paused. "Um... sure, I guess? What, did you leave the water running at home or something?" Hermes grinned at his own joke, reveling in the cynical look father and son shared with each other. "Sorry! Couldn't resist."

"So yes, then?"

"Yeah. No problem. I can spare thirty minutes, assuming I don't get bored."

Percy arched an eye. "There's a game of crazy eights going on in another room. From what I hear, Nicola is cleaning out. Sound interesting enough for you, my lord?"

"Crazy eights? Nicola?" Hermes leapt off the fireplace. "I'm there! Beats getting stomped by Athena at Scrabble! Seriously; what kind of word is tarradiddle? It sounds dirty."

With that declaration, the god of thieves dashed off into the apartment, looking for his game. Percy exhaled, feeling exhausted just from talking to the overactive deity. "You need to do something?" he asked his dad.

Poseidon gave a solemn affirmation. "Yes. It's something I've been wrestling with for a long time, but never worked up the courage to face properly. Now that you're here, and we finally seem to understand one another, I feel safe enough to ask it."

The sea god put both of his hands on Percy's shoulders, making eye contact with his son. A typhoon seemed to be brewing under his pupils, but whatever was causing it wasn't directed at Percy.

"I'm going to ask you something, son. Something... not very nice to think about. You don't need to say anything, if it's too much. Just a nod or a head-shake will be fine. Okay?'

A black hole churned in Percy's gut. It threatened to overwhelm him as his father pressed into his mind, letting him know exactly what was coming. It was a question he didn't want to think about; ever. But it was something his dad needed to know, if anyone did.

Letting his dad's presence comfort him as best as he could, Percy gave him the okay. Poseidon leaned into his ear, and whispered the question. Shudders ran through Percy's body, as old memories tore into his conscience. But this time... Poseidon was there. That pain... could never happen again. With a shudder, Percy nodded his head in confirmation to his dad's question.

The sea god rumbled in silence, fury unlike anything Percy had ever seen running through his body. "Thank you. That was all I needed to know. I'll be right back."

With one more paternal squeeze, Poseidon was gone. Percy collapsed on the couch, trying not to cry. He would wait for his dad to return. Until then... he would stay put. He couldn't face anyone else right now... especially not his mother.

 

Hades leaned back in his throne, finally allowing himself a chance to unwind. It had been nothing but business as usual all week; until Hermes came by with a very spooked Theseus. The lord of the Underworld had put on the quite the outraged demonstration: dark flames, the screams of the damned, all very theatrical. Hermes didn't stay to watch, so he had the wayward son of Poseidon all to himself. It took a few minutes, but before long, the demigod was shrieking at the top of his lungs as the Furies carried him off to his punishment. Defying the Doors of Death... such flagrant disrespect deserved quite the retribution. Thanatos would be quite pleased to see his old acquaintance again.

With that nuisance taken care of, the god conjured his book back to his hands, finding the page he'd left off on. Despite being thousands of years old, Hades had never found the time to read Old Yeller, but Persephone had been pestering him to get to it ever since Demeter loaned it to her last frost fall. She'd left it for him once spring rolled around again, and he had nothing better to do with his free time.

Just as he was having a chuckle at Little Arliss, and the hijinks he was putting his mother through by bringing a baby copperhead into the house, his intercom buzzed. Looking away from the page, the god grumbled to himself as he pressed the button he'd had installed on his throne's armrest. "Yes, Charon?"

"Sorry to disturb you, sir, but you have a visitor."

A visitor?

"Who is it?"

"It's your brother, my lord. Poseidon."

Hades sighed, putting his book away. "Send him in. Not like you could really stop him, if he wanted to get by anyway."

The boatman-turned-secretary didn't sound very amused over his communications. "Very well, sir. He'll be right in."

What could this be about? Theseus? That kid made his own bed when he was alive, both times. Getting serenaded by Thanatos, then chopped into pieces over and over for all eternity was more of a mercy than what he could have inflicted. A part of him was wanting to reuse Sisyphus's punishment, but not enough time had passed for that to fly.

Hades' younger brother came sweeping into the room, anger etched on his face. Poseidon stopped respectfully before reaching the throne, something the lord of the Underworld had not been expecting.

"Brother. How rare to see you here," Hades remarked, standing to his feet. "If this is about Theseus, I really don't want to hear it. I mean, he did try to kill Percy, and all. Yeah, he told me. Thought it might inspire sympathy. It did not."

"I'm not here about Theseus, Hades," Poseidon responded, remaining still. "I wish to discuss someone else: Gabe Ugliano."

The name didn't ring any bells, so Hades had to pop open the trusted accordion folder. "Ugliano..." he murmured to himself, flipping through the U's.

The other god looked taken aback. "You... haven't upgraded to digital, yet?" Poseidon asked, his anger getting replaced by surprise.

"Don't start with me. The service down here is terrible; it takes months for Persephone to download movies, and the last time Nicola brought Willamina for a family dinner, we had to cancel the pizza I ordered because Alecto couldn't get a single bar to save her life."

Despite his rambling about his living conditions, Hades didn't stop in his search, finally finding the right file. "Here we are," he said, producing it from the others. "Gabe Ugliano: typical miscreant; abusive partner, garbage attitude, horrible sense of hygiene, and overall scum. Why are you so interested in him? Plenty of folks down here are no better; a lot are even worse."

Poseidon didn't waver. "Where is he now?"

"Weren't you listening? Stewing somewhere in the Fields of Punishment, is my guess. I can't remember every degenerate who comes through here, brother."

The sea god bit the inside of his cheek. "Okay. May I find him?"

"Why?"

"He... has a lot to answer for. To me, specifically. Whatever he's suffering in the Fields... is nothing compared to what I intend to do."

Hades narrowed his eyes at the other god. "And what makes you think I'll just let you come swaggering into my domain, and have your way with the souls of the departed? No matter what this poor sap did to offend you, I fail to see why you've taken time out of your day to hunt him down yourself."

Poseidon swallowed before speaking again. "Brother, I've shown nothing but respect since I arrived. I waited, in line, to speak with Charon, and have not challenged your authority in any way. I will not demand an audience with Mr. Ugliano, but I must ask again. He has wronged me... in a way I will not speak aloud."

The lord of the Underworld took pause at that. His brother had a point; he'd shown a respect to Hades that had not been seen since the Battle of Olympus. In fact, Poseidon seemed to be begging, in a way. At least, as much as a god could beg.

"What do I stand to gain from granting you this?" he asked.

"I will owe you a favor, brother. One I will pay back, with interest, if you allow me to do what I came here to do." There was no hesitation in Poseidon's manners. He was serious.

"A favor from you..." Hades considered. "Just for this? How long do you intend to... speak, with Mr. Ugliano?"

"Only about twenty minutes or so. That's all I need."

It was an odd situation Hades was in. A respectful brother, making a mundane request like this? Mr. Ugliano must have seriously pissed off Poseidon to make his younger brother offer to pay back a favor with interest, just for twenty minutes.

"Very well," he relented. "Tisiphone!"

The Fury of Vengeance descended from above, leering over at Poseidon before bowing to her master.

"My brother wishes to find Gabe Ugliano. Show him to where he's kept in the Fields of Punishment, and allow him twenty minutes alone with the man. Once that's done, return to him, and show him out."

"Thank you, brother," Poseidon breathed, his hands clenching into fists. An aura of pure rage settled into the sea god's body, something Tisiphone noticed with relish.

"Of course, sire," she hissed, beckoning Poseidon to follow her. "Come, my lord. The man you seek is this way."

 

The Fields of Punishment. Not a very nice neighborhood. Unless you were a fan of never-ending torment, the wails of the damned, and opera music that never stopped. Seriously, who came up with that one?

Whether it was traitors getting dunked in hot oil, murderers getting dumped into a very scary-looking river, or politicians having their mouths sewed shut with a dull needle and having the stitches ripped out over and over again, nobody was having a good time. Especially Gabe.

As if getting stoned by Medusa wasn't bad enough; the former poker player was chained to a gambling table, with a bunch of very unhappy souls next to him. The dealer, a pasty lizard-man with glowing eyes, hissed at them as he dealt the cards.

When Gabe hesitated to pick them up, the lizard nodded at one of the faceless figures standing behind him. Searing pain shot through Gabe's entire body as a scalding fire poker was shoved into his bare flesh, for what must have been the one thousandth time. It stayed there for minutes, until finally the dealer motioned for the torture to cease. The moment it left, Gabe grabbed at his cards, not wanting to incur another rebuke. Every time it happened, the burning iron was left one second longer than the last. His back, seared to a crisp, nevertheless continued firing pain receptors every second.

Two eights, an ace, a jack, and a three. Why an ace?

No sooner had he looked at the cards then a spear was jammed into his neck, choking him on the metal. It always happened when you got dealt an ace, and he seemed to get one every other hand. When the weapon was yanked away, the jack took effect: two hammers got smashed against both of his temples, threatening to knock him out. But he dared not slouch. Not after what he'd seen happen to that one woman who did.

The two eights brought him a double helping of an axe chopping off his fingers, his hold on the cards teetering, but he held on. Smirking, the lizard called for the final card to be inflicted. Before the three lashes from the spiked whip could be delivered, though, a new hand appeared on his shoulder. A horrifying female face leaned in, hissing something incomprehensible to the dealer.

The lizard nodded in obedience, and clawed hands yanked him away from the table, raking into his sloughing flesh as he was hoisted up and over his chair. The woman smiled at him, before dragging him off into the darkness of the Fields.

A few moments later, that darkness was replaced by blue light, which invaded his eyes. Gabe reeled, the woman's clawed grip getting replaced by something much stronger. How strong was uncertain, until a mighty fist punched right through his abdomen, coming out his back. Sea-green eyes stared at him in loathing as his heart and lungs were ripped out; he felt everything. Because that was how this place worked. No matter how fatal, you always survived. There was no release.

A second fist ripped his eyes from his skull, tossing him onto the ground with a thud. The hands grabbed his ears, yanking him back onto his knees. With his eyes gone, he couldn't see anything, but his ears remained.

Because they did, he heard this new person's voice sizzle in his eardrums. A tsunami of anger washed through the words, as if a building hurricane had finally been let loose.

"This... is for Percie."

The ears were ripped off without another word. Could it get any worse?

Yes, it could.

And it did.

To Tisiphone, twenty minutes passed like normal. Fleeting, simple. Exciting maybe, but business.

But for Gabe Ugliano? The next twenty minutes were the longest twelve hundred seconds of his life... and afterlife.

Chapter Text

When Percie's dream didn't immediatly break into a horrible nightmare, she knew it was time to pay attention. The night sky towering above her shifted, the stars flying across the dome of the sky as the daughter of Poseidon seemed to fall through the earth itself, layers of rock and heat cascading into nothingness, until she stopped. Her body was ethereal, which meant she'd be serving as an unnoticed visitor during this vision. It was better than being forced to recall that time she had to clean out the bathrooms at Camp Jupiter after chili night. The Third Legion nearly killed her, several times.

The bowel incontinence of the Romans aside, she had things to worry about in the here and now. Her dream body levitated slightly above the ground, passing through unfamiliar fields until a mountain range came into view. Percie followed a trail cut into the side of one of them, cresting the top of a ridge before she settled down next to a snowy crevice. With that, she stilled and waited.

The sound of rushing water reached her ears as she went silent, and a wave lurched up the incline, collecting into three neat piles on the mountain trail. Ganymede was the first to materialize, throwing his gorgeous locks backwards in a theatrical fashion. His water cask was cradled in his arms as he smoothed out his clothes, looking incensed.

Crotus got dumped out next, landing face-first into a pile of snow with a thump. His bow caved at the pressure, poking him in the back of the head while his quiver dipped off his shoulder, most of the arrows getting stuck in the icy ground. Finally, the giant scorpion came tumbling out of the vortex, landing right on Crotus. The archer gasped in strangled pain as two thousand pounds of arachnid crumpled on top of him.

"Get... off... of... me... Scorpio," he wheezed, his eyes bulging out. "Aquarius... help me out here."

"After I just saved your butts, despite you mocking me? You got yourself into this mess when you insisted bringing Scorpio with you; you deserve everything you get."

"Then at least make him... unmorph. I can't breathe with him on me."

Ganymede rolled his eyes, stepping over to the collapsed monster. He dug his hand into his cask, and flicked several droplets of water onto the scorpion's face. Lateral eyes fluttered in confusion, staring up at the prince as Scorpio seemed to remember where he was.

"Care to return to your prettier form, dear? You're crushing poor Crotus."

Percie had never seen anyone bat their eyelashes seductively at a giant scorpion before, but apparently it was a proven method of getting them to follow your instructions. Scorpio complied, shrinking down until the massive arachnid's claws and stinger was replaced by a petite young man, sporting some shocking yellow hair with black stripes running through the middle.

Scorpio, now looking fourteen years old, rolled off Crotus, his arms bleeding all over the white snow. Looks like Ganymede's well-timed rescue wasn't fast enough to prevent his two accomplices from getting seriously banged up by Percie when she loosed the stream at them. The scorpion drew into himself, curling into a ball in the snow.

"That's better," Crotus grumbled, pulling himself to a kneeling position. "Way to drop the ball, Scorpio. You had her, and you couldn't even finish the job." A loud smacking sound cracked over the mountain as Sagittarius backhanded the scorpion across the face, knocking the young constellation over onto his side.

"Striking a wounded animal? Not exactly the sort of thing I'd expect of a man of the wild, Crotus," Ganymede remarked, looking unamused. "And what were you doing while the fight was going down, exactly? You had your bow; why not jump in?"

"Because I thought the homicidal twink over there had it handled," the archer threw back, yanking his arrows out of the ground and returning them to his quiver. The last one was twirled in his fingers for several loops, Crotus seemingly considering using it on his fellow constellation, before sliding it in with the rest of them.

Scorpio cringed at the older man, before dropping his gaze to the ground, trying to cover his wounds with snow. Ganymede shot him a sympathetic look before sighing, gazing further up the mountain. "And now your little plan has gone up in smoke. You failed, as did Pisces. Can't say I envy you right now."

"Pisces was never going to do anything helpful, so I don't know why you're acting surprised. The Fish refuses to take anything seriously unless it suits her whims."

"Much like yourself, in that respect."

"Shut your mouth, Aquarius!"

"Enough!" a new voice called out from above. A dark-haired woman descended down the frozen slope, regarding the two bickering constellations with a stern eye. "I will not allow you two to risk causing another avalanche because of your petty squabbles. Now be silent."

Both men clammed up, Ganymede looking ashamed, and Crotus looking put-off. The woman reached their elevation, pulling her robe up to her knees so she could walk through the snow without tripping. Her wardrobe was cream-colored, with elegant furs dotting the edges of her outerwear. As she fully stepped into the moonlight, Percie caught a rather unusual sight: Her hair was worn long, but from the top of her skull poked two very unmistakable horns, that curled backwards.

Scorpio shuddered in the snow, catching the woman's eye. "Oh, you poor thing," she cooed, all hostility flushing out of her as she crossed to the young man. "Looks like she did quite a number on you, didn't she?"

The scorpion nodded, the woman pulling him into her robe with a kind look on her face. "Crotus... what have I told you about striking him?"

Sagittarius mumbled something Percie didn't hear.

"Speak up, young man. I didn't catch that," the woman barked.

"Not to do it."

"Yes, that's right. So why is there a red mark on his cheek that fits the back of your hand to a tee?"

Crotus paled, rubbing the back of his head. "Because... Percie slammed us together when she attacked from behind, and I ended up accidentally slapping him in the current?"

Ganymede snorted. "Is that your idea of an excuse?"

"I'm not making excuses. I just expected more from someone famed for killing Orion."

Scorpio wailed into the woman's robe, earning more concerned glances from her before she eyed Crotus with disdain. "Well, it's going to stop here. Just because we are all working together does not mean I will tolerate any abuse between this family. Lay another finger on him, Sagittarius, and I will fillet you myself. Am I clear?"

Crotus wilted under her gaze. "Yes, Amalthea."

Amalthea... where did Percie know that name? Was it that weird thing with the Trojans... no. Wait. She had something to do with Zeus, right? A lover... no. Something more... personal. She was rewarded for it, in a big way. Another constellation, then. But which one? Oh, wait. The horns.

Capricorn. Amalthea was the Goat, and the woman who nursed the infant Zeus while he was being hidden from Kronos. Guess she never lost the motherly instinct, in spite of being turned into stars.

Five out of twelve were now accounted for. It was looking like Artemis's worries were well-founded. The astrological signs all seemed to be in on this together.

Gathering the bruised Scorpio into her arms, Amalthea huffed at the two other constellations. "The matter of your failure aside, we have things to discuss. Attendance is mandatory; and no more quips from you, Crotus. You've been testing many people's patience with that inane Elizabethan speak."

"Inane? That is the language of true poetry; why else is it so hard to master?"

"Because it's outdated, and fell out of fashion for a reason?" Ganymede suggested, stomping up the hill after Amalthea, who turned to carry Scorpio back with her.

Crotus exhaled at their backs, following them with petulance. "I'm beginning to understand why I didn't hang out with you guys before all this," he grumbled to the ground as he walked.

Percie's dream changed; the ice caps of the mountain morphed into stone walls, with a hot spring in the center of a large circular room. Amalthea toted Scorpio in with her, the two other constellations following at her heels. The Goat took a place at the left-hand side of the spring, wrapping Scorpio tight to her and whispering words of encouragement.

Ganymede settled down at the northern point of the circle, with Crotus sitting across from him southward. Several other people were already assembled, staring at the archer with looks that ranged from bemusement to outright disdain.

"Well, the prodigal son returns," another horned man sneered at Sagittarius, golden armor glistening off him. "And with nothing to show from his escapades. Aside from a bruised ego and a bruised ally."

"Bite me, Chrysomallus," Crotus snapped back at him. "Like you could have done any better?"

"It's not like he could have done any worse," a red-headed brute of a man chimed in. "You didn't even make a single shot count. Archery incarnate, my ass. At least Scorpio managed to land a hit in his fight with Artemis. You stood and watched."

The archer fumed. "If I wanted your opinion, I would have asked for it. There's a reason I call you the cancer of this group, jerk."

"Because I literally am the Cancer of this group, Romeo," the red-head smirked. "And nice job on jerk, by the way. It's not every day I hear the most vanilla insult ever coined in the English language."

Crotus opened his mouth to respond, but a fuss from elsewhere in the room stopped him short. Cancer shared a knowing look with the horned man, who if Percie had to guess, was most likely the Ram, Aries.

Said outbreak of noise was coming from two look-alike men, sporting sandy-haired buzz cuts and wearing matching naval officer uniforms. No prize for picking those two out as Gemini.

"Pollux, I'm not saying that!" the twin on the left insisted, crossing his arms and shutting his eyes. "It would be a poor exercise in timing and judgment."

"Castor, you're being a prude," his brother countered. "You can't keep all of your best jabs to yourself. What's the worst he can do? Shoot at you? Based on what happened a few hours ago, he'd miss."

"I missed on purpose, you imbeciles!" Crotus shouted at them, throwing his arms in the air in frustration. "What's the fun in killing if you don't play with your prey first?"

A growling noise from the corner of the room silenced the archer's protestations. A massive lion emerged from the shadows, its huge paws plodding towards Sagittarius with visible irritation in its eyes.

"Leo raises a fine point, Crotus," Amalthea added, looking up. "A fool wastes his time on fun when there is prey to be hunted. If you must play with your food, at least wait until they're dead at your feet first. Because of your incompetence, we have nothing to show for ourselves this evening."

Oh, great. How could she have forgotten about the Lion, Leo? Percie grimaced as she remembered that Lea's counterpart in this world was also named Leo. Wow, that had the chance to get really confusing if they were ever in the same room together.

Cancer grinned at Crotus's unease, the lion circling him several times before lounging next to him in the circle. "You might be a master of the hunt, my friend, but you should learn to respect those who always considered it their domain." The constellation seemed to shift his form, taking on the image of a giant crab, before settling down as human again. "I'd hate to see Leo rip you limb from limb for defaming his kinfolk."

Ganymede addled his nose at his fellow conspirators, taking a sip from his cask. "As much as I appreciate the bashing of our darling archer, may I insist we proceed? Some of us have plans we'd like to enact, but we can't do that if we're stuck here waiting for everyone to show up."

The only one in the circle who had yet to speak was a bald man, standing with his fingertips pressed together in serenity. He eyed Ganymede, before sweeping his gaze out to the others. "Can't continue; still missing Libra, Virgo, and Pisces, plus witch."

Witch? What witch? There was a thirteenth person assisting them? Could that witch be the Genius? Percie, already paying close attention, concentrated as hard as she could on the conversation.

"Thank for the input, Cow-man," Castor mumbled aloud, to Pollux's joy. Unfortunately for him, it only infuriated the bald dude, who glared at Gemini with murder in his eyes.

"You mock Taurus? Taurus make you roadkill!" he bellowed, pawing at the ground with his feet and lowering his head, as if to charge. The Bull pointed his chrome dome at the twins, who went from joking to panicked very quickly. Taurus fumed out of his nose, before suddenly standing up straight, grinning from ear to ear. "Taurus make wisecrack. Like Castor. Funny, yes?"

Castor was white as a sheet, but Pollux managed to compose himself enough to chuckle in a nervous fashion. "Yes... yes, very funny Taurus. Glad to see you've been paying attention in my Insults class," the twin assured the bull.

"Next time, I could go for a little more wise, and a lot less crack," Aries muttered, earning a stifled giggle from Cancer and a look of exasperation from Amalthea.

Crotus, who'd held his tongue since Leo plopped down next to him, tried to continue. "So, do we know where they all are?"

"Virgo went looking for Pisces, and Libra goes wherever she goes," Amalthea answered him, her efforts to calm Scorpio finally seeming to have an effect. The teenage constellation regained some of his pride, straightening out in her arms and looking up at her with questioning expressions on his face.

"No, I do not know where the witch is, precious," she said to him, running a hand through his hair. "Feel better?"

The Scorpion nodded affirmative, and Capricorn guided him away from her, allowing him to take his place in the circle. The hot spring in the center bubbled as they all gathered around it, earning a satisfied grunt from Leo.

"Seems Virgo is about to return with our TV addict," Cancer commented, leaning his head on his palm. "About time."

The image of the Fish appeared in the water, before the spring spat Pisces out, the constellation slamming face-first into the ceiling before plummeting down next to Ganymede.

"Pisces; how nice of you to finally join us," the Water Bearer snarked, dumping his cask on her head. "You look dreadful; have a run in with some hipsters?"

The Fish sputtered, gagging on the magic liquid Ganymede toted around with him. "No; I was trying to find some purification artifact that could purge those spoilers that evil daughter of Athena filled my mind with. How am I supposed to watch the Mentalist when I know who the over-arching villain is from the start?"

The waters of the spring glowed again, producing another woman. However, this one bore the regality of a goddess: neatly folded brown hair tucked into a bun, wearing a pantsuit that would have made any female entrepreneur jealous. One thing stood out about her, though: she was wearing a cloth around her eyes, knotted to an impossible degree in the back.

"Pisces, you deserve far worse for botching your part in that plan to this extreme," the new woman, who had to be Virgo, chided her. In her right hand she held an impressively silver set of scales, which dinged as she put them down. The sound chimed in agreement, and Percie felt as if the instrument had spoken in its own voice for several moments.

"Seems the Scales agree with me," Virgo continued. "Justice demands we see you punished for your laziness and distracted personality."

"Nothing could be worse than my current state, Dike," the Fish mumbled, rising to her feet and taking her spot in the circle. Seemed Pisces had resumed a single form, since her second half didn't come barging in wielding any more movie weapons.

"How wrong you are. But I suppose it can wait until our business with Lamia is concluded," Dike, the real name of Virgo, snapped, taking her spot as well. The scales returned to her hand, and the spring shined with brilliant light. "We're all here."

Then... the scales themselves were Libra? Guess it made sense, since Amalthea had explained that Libra went wherever Virgo did. But that new name... Lamia? Percie wasn't familiar with it, but she sounded important.

"Where is that witch, speaking of her?" Crotus sneered. "Awfully rude of her to blow us all off after asking us to meet in this desolate ruin under a mountain."

"You'd love that, wouldn't you?" Ganymede snarked.

"Boys!" Amalthea's voice permeated the air. "I said enough."

The Goat's maternal presence calmed the room as much as it could, though several of the constellations threw frustrated looks at the Water Bearer and the Archer. Percie huddled down, having to remind herself that she didn't have to hold her breath to hide. None of them knew she was there, listening in her sleep.

"She's close," Crotus suddenly piped up. "That scent is unmistakable."

A moment later, the witch they'd spoken of slithered into the cavern, earning a shocked grunt from Percie. Lamia's lower half was composed of the tail of a snake, twisting and convulsing against the ground as she crossed the room. Slitted eyes hovered below sharpened bone, and her hands were more animal than human, the nails ending in feral claws.

"Lamia; you honor and irritate us with your presence," Cancer announced, smirking. "For a moment, I was worried you'd bail; after all, it was your spell that went and spoiled everything you'd been planning, right?"

"Don't patronize me, Cancer," her reptilian timbre echoed. "I was careless, true, but I thought you'd appreciate that carelessness. Had it not occurred, many of you in this room would not be here, would you?"

Several alarms all went off in Percie's head at once. Lamia... was the one whose spell caused her to change places with Percy? She'd been the one trying to remove him from this world, and her as collateral. Percy had interfered, and now the snake was forced to go the constellations for help? Constellations who had benefitted from her spell's discharge, if Lamia had it right?

Lamia's argument was enough to silence the Crab, at the least. She narrowed her eyes at all of the assembled forces, a lingering gaze landing on Crotus for several seconds. "I thought I made myself clear after I approached you all, did I not?" she said, whirling on her tail.

"You made a lot of promises, Lamia. Promises I still doubt," Ganymede refuted, tapping his cask. "Help you kill Percie Jackson, and you'll see us rewarded with the thrones of the Olympians? What's next, beachfront property in Las Vegas?'

"But there no beach in Nevada?" Taurus questioned, the snipe clearly going over his head.

The sorceress huffed. "I went over this, Aquarius. Many of us in this room were wronged by the gods, yes? Cancer and Scorpio, killed in their quests to satisfy the demands of their creators. Aries, hunted down for his fleece. Leo, killed by Heracles for his labors. Taurus, hunted down and destroyed for sport. Virgo, abandoned by Olympus for the mortal world, and ripped away from them because she was seen as unfit. And of course, you, my dear water bearer: kidnapped and raped, for the crime of being beautiful."

Ganymede froze at her words, as did many of the others.

"The gods did this to us." Lamia spread her arms out, like she was giving a sermon. In a way, she was. "Hera turned me into this, and struck my children down without mercy. I wanted Percy Jackson removed from this world, because it was his presence that preserved Olympus; twice. Without him, Kronos rises. Without him, the Seven would have crashed and burned before they ever reached Europe."

Rachel and Annabeth had been right on the money. The sorceress was seeking to undo the successes of Percy by eliminating him from time entirely.

"He may have thrown off my spell, but that misfire did have one benefit I did not foresee: The magic swirled into the sky, touching all of you. Now, those who were dead have been revived. Those who were forgotten have been reincarnated. And now, we can take our revenge on the gods who wronged us." Lamia pulsated with magic. "I may not be able to recreate my spell, but our combined efforts shall correct that. Percy may be out of our reach, but the Genius shall deal with him. We must hold our end of the bargain, and deal with his female doppelganger. As long as a Percy Jackson exists in either world, our triumph can be stopped."

They were serious? The constellations were working with this mad daughter of Hecate to overthrow Olympus? Did the gods just leave enemies in their wake everywhere they went? On second thought, that sounded exactly like something the gods would do.

Lamia wasn't done. "With Kronos and Gaea overseeing the universe, the thrones of Olympus will be vacated. Kronos sought to replace the gods with his Titans, but who says they would make the best rulers? Thirteen gods... thirteen of us. We will take their place. Can you not see it?" she challenged, walking around the circle to look them all in the eye. "The Ram. The Bull. The Twins. The Crab. The Lion. The Maiden. The Scales. The Scorpion. The Archer. The Water Bearer. The Goat. The Fish. And myself."

Her words were having an effect, all right. Even kind-hearted Amalthea looked jubilant at the idea of the gods getting their just desserts. Only Ganymede looked unconvinced, but he did not raise his voice in challenge.

"We are standing at the dawn of a new age, my friends. My spell may have failed, but I can recraft it. That will take time, however. Time in which Percie will be hunting us. And unless someone strikes her down, I have no doubt she will succeed."

"She's one demigod," Crotus argued. "She doesn't stand a chance against us."

"Didn't she almost kill you and Scorpio, single-handedly?" Lamia snapped. Silence answered her. "I will not suffer any more defeats of that magnitude. She is but one, but one person is sometimes all it takes, you fools. Did you learn nothing from watching her defend Olympus the first two times?"

"But we watch Percy do it, not Percie," Taurus blustered.

"Same thing! Same person! The point is, if anyone can stop us, it is her! So she must be killed!"

Amalthea reined in her excitement to resume a more thoughtful posture. "We can stand here, beating our chests and proclaiming our intentions all we want, but how do we intend to go about doing that? We all know how capable she is; killing her will be much more trouble than many of us expected."

Lamia seemed to cool down at her words. "I agree, Capricorn. We must not rush headlong into this; perhaps we must take a page from our ally on the other's side book, and approach this from a tactical angle. The Genius has planted the seeds of his plan, when last we spoke. He shall water them, and when the time is right, those seeds will bloom into success."

The Genius... wasn't in this world? He was someone on the other side. So Percy and Alister were dealing with him. Lamia's words tugged at Percie's anxiety. The Genius was planning something big... something he'd already set in motion. Based on Lamia's tone, she had complete faith that he would succeed.

"Good luck, douchebag," Percie muttered in her sleep. "Alister hasn't been outwitted yet, and with Percy by his side, I don't see it happening any time soon."

The constellations and Lamia didn't stir from their conversation, though Leo did stretch himself out, his tail flicking as he sniffed at the air.

"You never told us how you managed to communicate with the Genius, Lamia," Dike noted, her hand coming to her hips. "If he does exist in this other world, how did he come to learn of your spell so quickly? Did you reach out? Or did he?"

"He reached out to me," Lamia answered, her tail lashing at the water of the spring. "I do not yet know how he did so, but the fact remains he leaves little notes of correspondence for me whenever he wishes to inform me of something. I write my response on the back, and when I return, the notes are gone. However, I have no doubt he does not leave the confines of his own world."

"You're being elusive," Pollux noted, his twin leaning in to whisper something in his ear. "Does that not concern you, that someone has figured out a way to cross the worlds before you did, the spell's creator?"

"It is unnerving, but I have never been one to look a gift horse in the mouth. He's on our side; that much is enough for me to trust him."

None of the constellations looked pleased at that, Leo especially. The lion paced the circle, before stepping out of it, his maw going to the ground.

"What's up with him?" Aries asked, getting distracted by Leo's shuffling. The others noticed the big cat as well, Scorpio's lip curling into a grimace as he backed up from Leo.

"Easy, my dear," Amalthea soothed. "I believe our illustrious Leo is catching a scent he does not like."

The Lion's tail went straight up, pointing in a few different directions before settling down... whilst headed right where Percie's dream self had gotten comfortable against the wall. No. He couldn't have... she was dreaming.

Leo growled, his mane spreading out as he arched his back in dominance.

"Seems we have an interloper," Crotus remarked, his bow coming to his hands. "Wonder if I know them."

"Peace, Sagittarius. I believe I know who our eavesdropper is. I've been suspecting her of it for some time," Lamia dismissed, stepping out of the circle and staring Percie right in the eyes. A sickly grin spread on her serpentine face as she looked right through the daughter of Poseidon.

"I should have known you'd find your way here, Percie," the sorceress cackled, drawing angry looks from her conspirators. "I knew Morpheus couldn't resist giving you a sneak-peek of what's to come. So you know the basics, do you? Who, why, how... but that does not change anything. You're a formidable opponent, but even you will be hard-pressed to weasel your way out of this. The gods cannot protect you forever, and when the day comes when that protection is lifted... we will be there."

Magic burst from Lamia's fingers, lancing towards Percie's position. Leo pounced, his claws aimed for her neck, and Crotus fired at her, golden arrows flying right for her eyes. Right before the triple combination could ravage her, Percie jolted awake.

Annabeth was snoring next to her, and their tent was as cozy as it had been when she drifted off.

Oh, shit. She'd learned several things, and knowledge was half the battle, as Alister liked to say. But knowing what they were up against... made that other half less of a mountain, and more of an abyss.

With no bottom in sight.

Chapter Text

"I'm back."

Percy's eyes flickered open at Poseidon's return. The sea god looked... different, somehow. The lifeguard attire hadn't changed, nor had anything else. No... there was something peculiar behind his expression. Like he'd been struck by a revelation, or some other blindside.

"Run into any trouble?" the demigod asked, pulling himself back up to a seated position. He hadn't cried any more, but finally admitting the full extent of Gabe's abuse to his father had drained him of most of his usual zest. "You look like you just discovered the secret ingredient to fast food beef."

Poseidon's mouth's corners dropped downwards as the deity returned to his seat, next to Percy. The calming ocean scent that had first greeted the teen when he reunited with his dad had been replaced by something else. Saltwater's signature aroma usually filled Percy with a serenity of some sort, but this scent reeked of death. The Styx had smelled vaguely similar, but this was... more personal. More exacting.

"No trouble; no trouble at all," his dad responded, his tone taking on a more nonchalant air. Percy might have been willing to believe that the god hadn't encountered any obstacles on the way to... wherever he went, but trouble had followed him. It might have not been for Poseidon, but someone had just had a very bad time, somewhere.

The demigod turned his head to the floor. "You didn't hurt anyone, right?"

"No one who didn't deserve it, no."

"But you did hurt someone."

"Percy." Poseidon's voice was hard... commanding. "It was something that needed to happen. There's no need for either one of us to ever speak of it further."

If his dad hadn't been stinking of the Underworld, he might have been able to drop it without any more thought. But after what he'd confirmed... Percy didn't have to think outside the box to figure out where, and what, his father had spent the last twenty minutes doing.

"Than-"

Poseidon raised his finger, silencing his son, but there was no hostility behind it. "No. I meant what I just said. We don't have to go further."

Percy must have pulled quite the puppy-dog look, because the Olympian softened considerably over the next few moments. The finger came down, and Poseidon cursed to himself, facing Percy directly.

"I don't want to discuss it any further either, dad," the demigod admitted. "And we don't have to... right now. But... I'm gonna need to. At some point."

"Fair enough, son. When you're ready... I'll be there."

He'd... be there? Percy's heart sunk as he remembered his situation. It was so easy to forget, sometimes. This wasn't really his Poseidon. It was Percie's. "But... if we do fix this, then you won't be the Poseidon I end up talking to about it. For all I know, my dad has no clue about... that."

The sea god furrowed his brow. "He may not... no. Because I had a daughter, the thought was always something I struggled with. For you... actually, no. I think he's already struggling with that possibility. Even if he isn't, we are the same, Percy. His concern will be just as real as mine. He did refer to you as his favorite child, right?"

"Yeah. But I really don't see him act like that, most of the time."

"Then we're even closer than I anticipated. Nevertheless, he does care for you. If you took this to him, he'd be in your corner. One hundred percent. It may take time, for both of you, but you'll be able to face it together."

Together? Since when had he and his father ever really faced something together? Otis and Ephialtes had been a joke, the moment the gods came thundering in with their weapons and flashy powers. Before then, it had been a give-and-take relationship, with Percy doing pretty much all of the giving. He'd brought the bolt back to prevent war amongst the Olympians, and all he had to show for it was not getting vaporized. He'd been an instrumental player in the Battle of the Labyrinth, and for that, Poseidon made a brief appearance at his birthday party, where they had a whopping one conversation. Then, when Typhon was marching for the New York, he had to literally dethrone his father in order to get the sea god to deal with the problem that was threatening everybody.

Doing something together was not something Percy Jackson could have ever imagined for him and his dad. And now here was an alternate version of him, telling the demigod he could breach his most painful memories with that same Poseidon, who'd never once seemed to take the full stock of what his son had been dealing with. Did Percie do anything different from him, to make her dad so amenable to this kind of openness, this trust? His father would never.... right?

He must have fallen silent for a considerable length of time, since the god in front of him wound up putting his hand over Percy's own. "You're my son, Percy. And I'm your father. And I'm giving you my word, that I'll be there for you, when you need it. Just... let me know."

His tongue couldn't form the words, and his lips refused to move. So all he could do was respond to the Olympian with a nod. Poseidon held his contact for a moment longer, before pulling his hand away as he turned to the entrance to the living room.

"Now, I think your mother would like to speak with you. Should I go, or-"

Percy's response, terse and direct, even surprised him: "No. Please, stay."

The god paused, then acquiesced, rising from his place on the couch. "As you wish. I'll get her."

Either Sally had been anxiously waiting around the nearest corner where she could still technically be referred to as giving them privacy, or Hermes' introduction to the card game going on elsewhere in the apartment had made her temporarily forget about being pregnant, because his mother came bounding into the living room the very moment Poseidon seemed to signal down the hall.

Paul must have stayed back, to watch the theatrics that were sure to be unfolding at crazy eights, because Percy's step-father didn't follow his wife in. Sally lowered herself into the same chair Thomas had occupied when he had come in, being sure to remain cautious with her baby bump.

"Is it a girl here too, or are you expecting a boy?" Percy asked, amazed at himself for having the nerve to ask that aloud.

His mother hesitated. "No, it's not a girl, if the ultrasound was accurate. We're expecting a boy."

"Got any names picked out, yet?"

"Yes. Aster."

A warm feeling spread out from Percy's chest, the pattern of similar names finally seeming to be broken. Guess that only held true for actual demigods. "We're thinking of Estelle, for my world."

"Estelle? That means star, if I have it right," Sally mumbled, not looking away from him. "Paul and I have been doing some extensive research about names, and their origins. Don't want to mess up by naming our child some forgotten version of garbage, or something."

"I could see that being awkward," Percy noted. "So... what does Aster mean, then?"

"Star, Percy," Poseidon answered. "Both names are Greek in origin... and mean the exact same thing."

Aster. Estelle. Two as yet unborn children, living in entirely different dimensions... who shared a connection no one could deny. Percy's relief was instantly replaced by wonder. Rachel's male counterpart had surprised him, when Alister filled him in on that little bit of trivia, but since one could technically make the argument she was destined to become the Oracle, her fate was intrinsically tied to the exploits of the gods and their children. Estelle... couldn't have a connection like that, could she? But how else could such a parallel exist here?

The three of them sat in quiet as they all seemed to reach their own conclusions about what this meant. Sally visibly recovered first, perching herself on the edge of the recliner.

"This is not a conversation I can say I ever expected to have," she confessed, studying Percy with a critical eye. "Discussing children I have, yet will never have myself... learning of a version of me that existed entirely out of my knowledge, and I out of hers. It takes me back, and not in a good way."

Poseidon shifted at that statement, but didn't interrupt.

Sally eyed the god for a second, before appearing to come to another conclusion. "Regardless, from what we've learned so far, I see no reason not to treat you any differently as I would my own Percie. What kind of mother would that make me?"

Percy had been shocked by the understanding the gods had been demonstrating this far. His mother... not so much. The moment she first looked at him, and hadn't whacked him in the face with a frying pan, he knew he would be welcome here. That knowledge wasn't enough for him to hold back all of his emotions, but at least he didn't burst into tears. Again.

"I was worried you hadn't heard anything," the demigod said, sitting fully up. "I've been so busy running around trying to get my bearings in this world, I completely forgot that you could have been left out of the loop."

"Chiron contacted me pretty quickly. From what I gathered, he talked to just about everyone, actually."

Poseidon shrugged. "It took a few minutes for it to sink in for us on Olympus, but Hecate got the word around the moment Gale came rushing back with the news. Hearing that one of our most recent heroes had been hijacked and replaced by a male version of herself did spark quite the hubbub."

Percy could have figured that out on his own. "So, I know you came here, and Athena went to Camp Jupiter." The son of the ocean was tactful enough to leave the whole 'possessing Alister as Minerva and nearly murdering Rey' out of his story. The goddess probably didn't want anyone holding that over her head. "And Hermes has been running around, keeping everyone on the uptake. But what are the others doing?"

"Well, Hecate's gone silent, to try to keep the destabilization from getting too out of hand, but she did mention she'd already told you that. Hades remains as neutral as ever: death doesn't stop in times of crisis, after all. As for the others... there's been a lot of dramatic shouting, but as I've come to expect from my relatives, no one really seems to have any ideas as to how we should proceed from here."

Poseidon didn't elaborate further, but Percy would have bet money that at least some of the gods had suggested leaving him to solve this issue on his own. He was a hero; that's what heroes did. If the gods needed a problem solved, they called him. No matter how much he pleaded with them not to.

Sally jutted her chin forward in resolve. "Sitting and waiting for something to happen might work for the gods, but we don't have that luxury. Percy, and Percie, are both in terrible danger, so long as this swap remains. I won't be satisfied with some half-hearted support from the sidelines. Either one of them steps up and takes a more direct approach, or at least comes up with an idea to be enacted."

Percy was fully onboard with that idea, but as was common knowledge by now, words were much easier to come by than results. "Hecate already admitted the best she can do is slow it down," he revealed. "She gave me no estimation, but based on her appearance, I wouldn't be sitting down and taking my time with this."

"I'd feel better if it wasn't magic in the first place," Poseidon moaned. "Just one interference led to this mix-up. Imagine what anything larger might cause, if the spell's after-effects continue to linger? All I know for sure is that we can't go blundering into this. We could completely wipe out both universes, or even worse, if we don't find out exactly what we're dealing with."

"What's worse than wiping out both universes entirely?!"

"They could merge together; the worlds would burn in raw chaos. The Fates cannot account for two Percy Jacksons, or two Chirons, much less two of each Olympian. As much as it pains me to say it, the cabal led by Demosthenes isn't entirely wrong. You and Percie are close enough to keep the universes separated, but enough differences exist for you to throw the balance off-kilt. Imagine the destruction that would occur if more people ended up switched, or somehow ended up in the same universe."

It was rare for Poseidon to speak so gravely like this, which didn't help the rising sense of dread building up in Percy's mind. He had to think four-dimensionally for the logic to work, but it wasn't entirely over his head. With how skittish the gods were about messing with Fate, the possibilities lurking behind a meshing of the worlds could be nothing less than apocalyptic in scope.

Sally maintained a deadpan expression through all that. "So, all we know... is that we don't know anything? That's not very helpful."

"I can help with that!" Hermes sang out, clicking his heels against the floor as he appeared in the living room. Behind him, a grumpy Nicola was staring at his back in resentment, while Paul observed them both with a bemused look on his face.

"You? Can help?" Poseidon asked, incredulous.

"That hurts, uncle. That's hurtful. And yes, I can. I didn't just come by to fill you in on Theseus's demise, and flirt with Thomas."

"You were flirting with Thomas?" Sally asked, eyeing the messenger god with disdain.

"No... well, not on purpose. I just said some innocent things about how he was filling out, and offered to introduce him to Usain Bolt. I mean, come on! A kid of Zeus, hooking up with someone named Bolt? The love ballads would write themselves."

Poseidon blinked in confusion. "Isn't Usain one of your kids, though?"

"What does that have to do with anything?"

Everyone else in the room shared a "you've got to be kidding me" look with each other, something Hermes either didn't notice, or did notice and decided to ignore.

"Anyway, to my point." Hermes suddenly stiffened up. "I was on my way here when I got a request from of my girls at camp: Connie. She was making an offering, and included this juicy little tidbit in her prayer. Apparently, Chiron has been working everyone around the clock, trying to figure out how to get Percie back, and Louis had quite the breakthrough."

Louis... the head counselor of Hecate, and the first person Percy had met that clued him in that all was not well in the jungle.

"Louis has been spending the last few days desperately throwing every bit of magic he can muster at the wall to see what sticks, but didn't have any luck until River showed up. It seems the Oracle had been beating his head on his doorframe, trying to invoke some kind of prophetic vision, when Louis' spell triggered something. No audible prophecy, but he did go rushing off to Chiron, and Connie heard the tail-end of the conversation in the Big House."

Nicola, still looking angry about how her game must have gone on, now looked confused. "Wait, why was Connie in the Big House?"

"Something about borrowing one of Darren Tanaka's chokers; honestly, the less I think about that boy and his kinks, the better."

"Borrow? Sounds to me like your daughter was planning to steal-"

"Nicola, that's hardly the most important thing to focus on, yes?" Paul cut in, giving the daughter of Hades a sympathetic look. Nicola blushed at his intrusion, but did go silent.

Hermes rattled on: "Connie heard River talking to Chiron. Seems Louis' magic might have finally connected with old Delphi, because River saw... something. All she was able to make out was that Chiron was insistent he'd bring this news to Percy as soon as he could."

Percy blinked. "Guess I finally get to meet Rachel again, then. So, does this mean we've got to head back to camp?"

"No need, Percy. I jumped into Connie's prayer the moment she mentioned that, and told her to tell River that you were on your way to see your mother, if Charles had been telling the truth while I was eavesdropping on him. Based on that, odds are good he's on his way here right now, since it's been at least an hour and a half after that conversation finished."

No sooner had Hermes finished speaking then Poseidon closed his eyes, a vein in his forehead pulsing. "And quicker than we might guess. He just crossed the threshold I set three blocks out from the apartment. And he's not being very lawful about the speed limit, either."

"Yeah, that sounds like Rachel," Percy muttered, remembering how the Oracle of his world had responded to the Hind of Keryneia breaking into her parent's ballroom by chasing after it on a riding lawnmower. She didn't catch it, but she did manage to snag some poor Hunter's tunic when Artemis's followers came busting in a moment later, which did not help calm matters.

Nicola sniffed at the air. "He'll be here shortly, then. I'll make myself comfortable." The child of the Underworld plopped down on the floor of the room, sitting crisscross. Sally looked scandalized, but held her tongue.

Hermes grinned before bowing his head. "And with that, my job here is done. Thank you for the game, Mr. Blofis. And you, Nicola, for being such a sucker with your cards. Oh, and do tell Thomas that my offer to introduce him to Usain was legitimate! My son could use some... company, in his retirement."

"But he's already married!" Paul tried to argue, to no avail. The messenger god merely shot an enthusiastic thumbs up at everyone before sprinting into the air and launching himself into a puff of smoke.

"Does someone put heroin in his coffee every morning, or is he always that insufferable?" Nicola complained from the floor.

Poseidon shook his head. "His very first action upon being born was to slip away from his mother and steal a bunch of Apollo's sacred cows. When he got tracked down, he went above and beyond denial; he actually swore, on his father, that he didn't even know what a cow was."

A god of rogues, through and through. Percy shook his head at his cousin's antics, before coming to a realization. "Umm.. where's Thomas?"

"Outside on the patio," Paul responded. "Can't say I blame him; Hermes was making a lot of very... suggestive innuendos. How Thomas didn't blast him right out of the apartment, I'll never know."

"I better go talk to him before River gets here."

Poseidon shot his son a cautious look as the demigod crossed to the sliding glass door. Percy got the message loud and clear: be delicate. And don't try to force anything out of him like you did back in Colorado.

The son of Zeus was sitting with his legs crossed in one of the patio chairs, staring up at the sky as the sun began to make its descent from its noon-time position. He must have heard the door open, but he didn't turn back to see who it was.

Percy sat down across from him, at a ninety degree angle from his front. Thomas had to have seen him out of the corner of his eye, but still remained silent.

"Are you okay?" the son of the sea finally asked.

"No. Not really."

Percy didn't really have a good response to that. It was the obvious answer, but that didn't make moving on from there any easier.

"If it makes you feel any better, Hermes left."

"I know."

It wasn't exactly the most riveting conversation. So, when Thomas continued, Percy breathed a quiet sigh of relief.

"My dad and I are alike... in ways I don't want to think about. Too much pride, is the big one." The son of the sky sneered at his own words, irony dripping into his voice. "If you'd told me that when I was still a kid, I would have been overjoyed to hear it. But now? The idea fills me with disgust."

"You still are a kid, Thomas. We all are."

One blue eye wandered over to where Percy was sitting. "Are we? Feels like I've been through enough to cover multiple lifetimes. And every time I think I've finally conquered one dragon, a bigger and nastier one rises to take its place."

The son of Zeus rose to his feet, stepping over to the railing that overlooked the city skyline. He seemed to get a little green as he peered over the edge, but didn't back away. Thalia's fear of heights hadn't been dropped, by the looks of it.

"You know, Percie was the first time I didn't fight for something I wanted."

The son of Poseidon stood and crossed to the railing as well, being careful to leave some space between them. "Care to explain that?"

"I'm a fighter, Percy. By nature. My whole life, it feels like I've been doing nothing but fight. If I wanted something, I went for it. Much like my dad. I fought Zoe to keep Lucille out of the Hunters. I fought back the Cyclopes as they closed in on us as we approached the camp. And I fought to be a part of the quest to rescue Artemis and Alister. And what do those things have in common? Every single one of them ended in failure."

Thomas forced out a laugh, but it wasn't a very convincing one. "For all my support and friendship, Lucille turned on me, just like she did Alister. All those shared experiences meant nothing. Then, in some desperate attempt to keep the only people I cared about alive, I sacrificed myself, but only ended up getting some half-assed mercy from my father, who turned me into a tree. Finally, given the chance to do something meaningful, what happens? I get passed up, pull some ridiculous gambit to go anyway, and directly cause one of my only friends to kill someone who should have been an ally in defense of me."

Percy wanted to comfort the other demigod, but he couldn't find the words or the gesture that would suffice. "What are you saying, Thomas?"

"I'm saying... that my fighting never turns out well. My own nature made everything worse for everyone around me. When I realized I was in love with Percie, my very first thought was about how I could win her over. But I could never hurt Alister like that. When I thought it about, I determined that the best thing I could do... was keep my head down. Fighting for her would have only caused more pain and suffering to everyone, myself included. That's why I never said anything. But even so, I don't feel any better, and few people see me as anything more than a wild child; just another one of Zeus' thickheaded sons."

Percy moved a little closer, but still kept some distance between the two of them. "You did it to protect her, Thomas. She knows that, since you were willing to take the blame for Zoe's death. All your life, all you've ever done is try to protect people. There's nothing wrong with that. So things went wrong. It happens. You didn't make Lucille turn on everyone: she did that on her own. Really, Hermes deserves more blame than you, and I don't even blame him all that much."

"I'm just... tired, Percy. Tired of being treated like a leper. Of feeling like everything that's gone wrong went bad because of me. I was the first child the Big Three had after the pact was made; I was the one who provoked Zoe into that confrontation; I was the one who fell in love with the one person I finally felt like I had formed a real friendship with."

The son of the sea raised an eyebrow at that last one. "How is that something to be ashamed of?"

"What?"

"Annabeth and I didn't start out as a couple, Thomas. It took five years for us to realize we were falling in love. Alister and Percie were the same way. Love isn't something that just falls out the abyss and kicks you in the rear when you meet a captivating stranger. It has to grow, and fester. Previous relationships are the foundation of it, be they friendships, rivalries, mentor-student dynamics, or none of the above. Annabeth and I were all three, at one point." Percy closed more distance between them. "There's nothing wrong with you; falling in love with your first real friend is actually the most normal thing I can think of. Happened to me."

"What about Grover?"

"Grover's absolutely a great friend, but we weren't exactly the pinnacle of positive connections when we met. He was hiding quite the secret from me, for a while. Yes, we're completely loyal to one another, but Annabeth was the first friend I had who didn't come with any strings attached. Like I'm sure Lucille and Alister did for you, at any rate. Lucille was always too haunted for a real connection to form, and you already admitted Alister was more of a brother to you."

By now, only about six inches separated the two demigods' arms from touching. "You didn't choose your father, Thomas... and you didn't choose who you fell in love with. So don't beat yourself up over either of them."

"Tough habit to break."

"From what I've gathered, you're good at breaking things."

"Perhaps too good."

"Just another thing we have in common, then."

That one actually provoked a surprised look from the son of Zeus. Percy shook his head sadly.

"Annabeth was my first love, but that didn't stop others from ending up in similar straights," he explained. "If you want to hear more about it, it'll have to wait, though. One of them is on his way here right now, and that would be a really awkward conversation."

"Who is it?"

"River."

"You mean... as in River the Oracle? He was interested in you, too?"

"Technically Percie, but yes."

A knocking at the glass door could only mean one thing. Nicola peered out at the boys, making a "vision" motion by fanning her hands out around her eyes. Looks like River had made it.

"He's here; had some vision about what might be going on," Percy told Thomas. "I won't make you come in, but... will you promise to think about what I said?"

The son of Zeus flustered a little, tugging at his collar. "I... guess I can do that."

"Thank you. And if you're still feeling down later, maybe think about having a chat with Nicola. She's got plenty of experience in knowing what it's like to be romantically interested in Percie Jackson."

The surprise turned into utter befuddlement. "Her too?!" Thomas exclaimed.

"Yep. And as we saw earlier today, she's in a perfectly wonderful relationship now regardless. Aphrodite did say she planned on making my love life interesting, after all."

"Did she now?" the son of Zeus mumbled, eyeing the daughter of the Underworld on the other side of the door. Nicola was making strangling motions with her hands, and fluttering her ankles around, probably in reference to what she wanted to do to Hermes. "I... suppose I'll have to find some time to talk to her, then."

"Do that. I think it'd be good for you."

Thomas bumbled for a moment, before looking down and away. "I don't know if I'll ever get used to that."

"Used to what?"

"Compassion."

Percy's heart shook, but he couldn't stay any longer. "Well, you've got plenty of time to. Especially when we fix this mess, and you can talk to Percie again."

Thomas looked pensive at that statement, but didn't press it further. Percy moved away, heading back through the door where Nicola sighed at him. "Took you long enough. River's already on his way up, if your dad's sense of distance is anything to go by."

The adults had cleared out, presumably to greet the Oracle at the door, giving Percy a brief window of time to speak with Nicola. "Neeks, would you be willing to head out there and keep Thomas company while we talk to River?"

A sour expression met his face. "Do I have to? I was hoping to listen in and get the scoop as soon as it was said the first time."

"I can't make you, but it would mean a lot to me if you did."

"Fine," she relented. "Just tell me everything later. And whatever you do, don't mention the lawnmower thing to River. I don't know if your Rachel took that little accident with the Hunters easier because she was a woman, but he kept shooting paranoid looks over his shoulder every time someone mentioned lawncare equipment. I think the lieutenant threatened to castrate him, or something."

"Noted. No lawnmower allowed in conversation."

With that disturbing reveal to keep in mind, Nicola left him alone, heading out to sit at the patio table behind Thomas. The son of Zeus winced a little as he turned to face her, but he did throw a subtle nod Percy's way. Hopefully the child of the Underworld could help him sort out his emotions in a way Percy couldn't.

A barrage of introductions coming from the front door signaled River's arrival, as Percy entered the hallway. Sally and Paul both kept the same sense of homeliness they extended to all of Percy's friends when they were over, but Poseidon seemed noticeably wary of the young man who stepped in between them.

River, perhaps more than anyone else so far, resembled his counterpart to a scary level of accuracy. He wore his flaming red hair short, as one key difference, but everything else matched to a tee: the same freckled patterns on his face, the same olive green eyes, and even his height looked to be identical to Rachel's. This meant Percy had a good five or so inches over him, but upon seeing the son of Poseidon, the Oracle's hardwired expression would have been enough to topple a dynasty.

"So it is really true," River observed, standing opposite Percy in the hallway. His voice hovered right around the lyric tenor range, but the slight emphasis on the consonants marked him as a New Englander, born and raised. "I admit, I don't know whether I should kiss you, or punch you. Or both, if I wanted to be daring."

"You're already a Dare; daring has to be in your blood," Percy shot back. "But if we're picking between kisses or punches, might I suggest a third option, like a fruit basket or something? Everyone loves fruit baskets."

"Well, at least you're still clever," River sniped, throwing a look back at the adults behind him. "And here I was, hoping this was all some elaborate joke Chiron was playing on me."

"You never know," Percy teased. "The old 'call a good friend, tell them your mutual acquaintance got yanked into another world and has now been replaced by a genderbent version of themselves' trick is a tried-and-true classic."

"Did I say you were clever? Because I'd like to retract that previous statement; you're just making inane comments and hoping something will stick."

"Oh, dear. Looks like I just got found out. Quick; someone call the sarcasm police."

The Oracle glared at him in annoyance, which only made Percy chuckle at the situation a little more openly.

"Oh, come on? Percie doesn't engage in some friendly needling every now and then?" He crossed his arms in fake irritation. "Guess my Oracle is just cooler than you, then."

River bit his lip, clearly holding back another string of comebacks. Poseidon cleared his throat at them, putting an end to the witty repartee. "If you two are finished with your introductions, perhaps it's time we discuss the thing Mr. Dare is here to disclose," the sea god rumbled, shooting Percy a frustrated look.

The demigod shrugged in defeat, but did steal another sly smirk at River as the Oracle composed himself. "My apologies, Lord Poseidon," the red-head recovered. "I just don't suffer idiots very well."

"That's my son you're talking about, River," Sally said from her spot near the door. "Don't make me break out the mom-voice on you; I will, without question."

A genuinely frightened look passed over River, before he nodded. "Understood. Shall we take this conversation to the dining table?"

Poseidon insisted on sitting at the head, which meant Percy had to take the spot right next to River, as Sally and Paul doubled up on the other side of the table. The Oracle snuck more annoyed looks at him, but Percy didn't take the bait. As much as the teen next to him was trying to give off an aura of indifference, he could tell the red-head was hopelessly intrigued by his presence here.

River did manage to look away to open up the conversation, though. "It's not a full-fledged prophecy, so no hint as to how we might be able to deduce the outcomes we're looking at," he started. "Really, I still don't know what caused it. Louis was shouting random words, flinging pig balls back and forth across his cabin, when one of his incantations must have stumbled on something. Because the next thing I knew, I could make out at least one ingredient we could use to undo Lamia's spell."

"Let me guess: it's sitting at the bottom of a deep dark hole, guarded by terrifying monsters and cranky minor gods of bad jokes?" Percy suggested.

"The only cranky minor god of bad jokes is sitting right next to me, thank you," River snapped, "but nevertheless, yes, I imagine getting such a thing from its current location will not be as simple as flicking a light switch."

Paul rested his chin on his hands, leaning over the table. "But what is it, exactly, River? I don't think anyone here is a stranger to dangerous adventures; why be so vague about it?"

The Oracle grimaced. "Because the last time this thing was put to use was not a fun time."

Sally huffed. "Still not answering the question, Mr. Dare. You've got three seconds, before the mom-voice is unleashed full force."

"It's Kronos' scythe!" came the answer, the words tumbling out of River's mouth so fast, Percy could barely register them as English. But barely was still enough.

"You mean, the same one he used in the Battle of Olympus, and the one he used to... well... you know... un-man his father Ouranos?" Percy stuttered.

"One and the same."

Poseidon, now completely zoned in on River, narrowed his eyes. "But why the scythe? And how would you know that?"

"I'll answer the second part first; Louis' spell triggered a vision of purple magic, the same one Percy described as what zapped him into our world. Most likely, it latched onto some ambient residue of the spell, and since Chiron was asking the Hecate cabin to research the spell's flaws, my connection to Delphi meant I was shown a piece of the puzzle to undoing it."

"But just a piece?" the god asked. "Why are we getting it in shambles; most visions Delphi receives tend to be complete ones."

"I don't know," River admitted. "Ever since Zeus confined Apollo to some dark trench of Olympus for accidentally allowing Octavia to run loose with the Romans, and for triggering the Prophecy of the Seven, I haven't been getting any visions at all. This was the first one in months. I haven't slept properly in weeks."

He did look just a tad worn out, now that Percy mentioned it. "Okay, but how does the scythe factor in?" the demigod questioned.

"The scythe has been bathed in Titan blood at least twice now; once when Kronos carved his father into pieces, and then again when Zeus did the same to him following his defeat after the first Titan War. Probably more, if we consider the conflicts between the Titans themselves. That kind of use has made it very... special. From what I can tell, the weapon has actually shed so much powerful blood, it can now cut through time and space itself."

"Excuse me?!" Paul stammered, his confusion being shared by everyone else. "Kronos' scythe somehow got more powerful... by killing Titans?"

River deflated. "I don't know the logistics of it; all I saw was the scythe, being used to cut holes through reality. I did not see the wielder, but I saw what they did: the scythe cut a tear into the fabric of space itself, though cut is really putting it mildly. More like whoever used it punched a bunch of shoddy holes through space, then dumped the remains down the toilet. But... it worked. And they used it as a means of combating whatever magic is keeping Percy here, and holding Percie from us."

"So... we get the scythe, and we can use it to try to return the Percys to their own worlds?" Poseidon questioned, looking nervous.

"There's probably a whole lot more, but that seems to be our best bet. The scythe is only a piece, but it's a vital one. With it, we can try to connect the worlds without combining them."

His dad only got even more nervous, spurning more anxiety in Percy. "Okay, so we have our mission. But where is the scythe right now?" the son of the sea asked.

The sea god swallowed. "It melted into a rather sad-looking liquid last time I saw it. It was during your fight with Kronos in the throne room, Percy. The scythe took on the form of Lucille's sword, and was destroyed by Hestia."

Destroyed... the scythe was destroyed. Oh. Oh, no. No no no no. Please... that couldn't mean what Percy thought it meant.

River sighed in defeat, seemingly reading his mind. "That scythe is connected to Kronos. More so, it's status as an almost-living weapon by this point means it probably shares some traits with the other Titans. Finally, despite its newfound strength, we have seen no sign of anyone in our world using it; ergo, it must be somewhere no one is willing to trek into to get it."

The Oracle turned a very consoling look to Percy, who was freezing up in his chair.

"The scythe is in Tartarus."

Chapter Text

"So, you're saying not only are all twelve astrological signs gunning for you specifically, but they've teamed up with Lamia, the sorceress who set this whole thing in motion by attacking Percy in the first place?" Nico sounded flabbergasted as he recounted Percie's harrowing dream from the previous night. He, Will, Annabeth, and Artemis all stood in wariness at the newly revealed development.

Percie could relate. Some small part of her must have been hoping that the involvement of Ganymede, Crotus, Pisces, and Scorpio was all a really contrived fluke. There was no way all twelve constellations who made up the Zodiac could be running around, with her in their sights. But no such luck. There was some serious heat bearing down on her back, on top of the threat posed by Lamia.

"At least we know who our enemy is, in full," Percie tried to be optimistic. "That's better than what we could say last night."

"But we still don't know who this Genius is," Annabeth butted in, scowling. "And even worse: whoever he is, he's figured out a way to communicate between the dimensions. Something not even Lamia has been able to do yet. And she crafted the spell to begin with."

The goddess of the Hunt crossed her arms, her hood pulled down to her neck. "The signs are trouble enough... Lamia could ruin anything we may try. Her mother Hecate might be the more powerful sorceress, but with her attention thoroughly focused on keeping the universe in place, she could effectively assert herself as the most dangerous magic-user currently walking the face of the earth."

Will sucked in his cheeks. "And she's thrown in with a lot determined to unseat the gods, and take over the world. Why do I feel like I've heard this plot before?"

"Because if there is anyone more unchanging than the gods, nephew, it would be the constellations," Artemis returned, gazing up at the sunny sky. "No matter how futile it may seem to us, they clearly are set in their ways. Lamia was not being deceitful when she painted Olympus as cruel to them. The Snake is willing to tear this world apart to see her plans through; it won't matter if she destroys everyone in the process."

The goddess raised an unsettling point. Lamia's anger at the gods had been festering for centuries, if even longer. That kind of resentment wasn't something that could be calmed with the passing of years. The sorceress had to have been plotting this gambit for a while; it wouldn't have surprised Percie if Lamia had intended for her magic to reawaken all of the fallen signs in the first place.

"We can focus on the positives, at least," the daughter of Poseidon resolved. "At the very least, we have names, faces, and what our enemies are planning. All that's left for us to do right now is build our own forces."

"Agreed," Annabeth responded, looking peeved. "Is everyone still in consensus about what we decided on last night? Splitting up, between Hollywood and Camp Jupiter?"

No one objected.

Artemis nodded. "Very well. I shall take Ms. Chase and Mr. di Angelo to New Rome. Percie, you and Will shall be left to traverse the Underworld on your own. Hades might sense your presence, but there is always the chance he may not see it as anything other than a crossroad. Without