Of course, we didn't exactly go home. We came up a couple of miles south of the trench, near a deserted beach with sand so white it was almost blinding in the midday sun. As we rose through the water I felt myself becoming more solid and more real until, by the time we reached the surface, I felt whole and alive again. It was like waking up from a dream and watching the world come back into focus around me. My life and my feelings were real again and now that I realized that, the way I'd lacked them in the Underworld frightened me.
I pulled Nico up out of the surf and onto the beach alongside me. I didn't really care where we were, just that we weren't underwater or anywhere near the Underworld right now. Suddenly I got a faceful of seawater, and Nico was on his side coughing and hacking. I didn't know what to do, so I pounded him on the back.
"Ow!" he said in between coughs. "You're going to kill me all over again!"
I grinned. I felt giddy. It was hard to think and I didn't even know what to do now that I'd gotten him back. Because I'd done it – I really had gotten him back. My chest felt like it was swelling and my head felt like it might explode.
I took a deep breath, breathing in Eau de Seawater and Nico. I grinned stupidly. It smelled perfect.
"What are you doing?" he asked, pulling a piece of kelp out of his matted dark hair and tossing it onto the beach.
I kept grinning. "You smell nice."
Nico made a face. "I'm covered with seawater and sand." He rolled his eyes. "Only you would think that smelled nice."
"You're one to talk, dead boy."
"I – " Nico stopped, his mouth still open. He blinked at me for a minute, like he was seeing me for the first time. "Percy, you…"
And then before I even knew what was happening he'd shoved me back onto the sand and crawled on top of me, pushing me down like he could trap me there and keep me like that forever. Let me tell you, right at that moment I would've let him. Right then I didn't care if I never went home or saw my friends ever again. The world could go to pot and Kronos could rule heaven and earth and all that mattered to me was the sand at my back and Nico on top of me, his dark eyes so close that I almost went crosseyed looking up into them.
"I just did what I had to," I told him quietly, feeling kind of stupid all of a sudden. "You saved me as much as I saved you, all right?" Because that was absolutely true. My mind was still kind of sluggish and slow, but it was starting to work again as I tried to grasp the full weight of what had just happened. Hades was not going to be happy, I realized. I was pretty sure he would have liked nothing more than to have kept me there forever. And I was also pretty sure that I'd only gotten off on a technicality.
Nico looked at me for a long time. I looked right back at him, trying to memorize the way his face looked just then and make the moment last forever. I knew it couldn't, but the longer we could put off reality the happier I would be. After a stretch of silence that actually wasn't uncomfortable at all, I leaned up just far enough to kiss him, softly.
I mean, we were guys. Guys didn't tell each other that they loved them, did they? But I guess I pretty much did – I loved Nico, and suddenly I wanted him to know. If love was meant to be shared, then I was supposed to share it, right? It felt weird thinking about saying it out loud, but I thought that maybe if I could just show him –
Nico appeared to understand. His mouth was molding to mine as he pushed me back down against the sand, deepening the kiss until I wasn't sure where I ended and he began.
"My dad can't ever have you," he said quietly, and I realized that his hands were sneaking under my blood-soaked shirt and up my stomach, skin on skin. He pushed himself down on me even more and I squirmed, which was obviously his plan because we both groaned and then he kept moving and sliding against me. "He can't have you because you're mine."
"Nico," I heard myself gasp, though I'd never heard my voice sound like that before. And I didn't care. Let him hear me like that – Nico di Angelo was the only person on this earth that I would ever sound like that for, and at that moment we both knew it.
"Mine," he whispered each time his hips moved against me. "Mine, mine, mine."
* * *
I blinked slowly, feeling gritty and sore and my left arm was numb where Nico was sleeping on it. I thought I'd heard someone calling my name, but Nico was asleep and there was no one for miles, let alone anyone who knew my name. I scooted a little closer to Nico and had just started drifting back to sleep when I heard the voice again.
I knew that voice, I realized. It was familiar. It was…
I blinked, sitting up so abruptly that Nico moaned and swatted at me, trying to pull me back down. I turned my head in the direction of the voice, praying that I really had been dreaming. But I hadn't.
I swallowed. I was covered with sand and my clothes were not exactly within arms' reach. "… Dad," I managed to say, trying not to look at his face but at his chest, at the buttons of his Hawaiian print shirt instead. You'd think that getting caught naked with your boyfriend would be pretty nearly the most embarrassing thing ever. And then you'd think that getting caught naked with your boyfriend by your dad would be even worse. But getting caught naked with your boyfriend by your dad who's a god has got to top the charts for the most embarrassing thing that could ever happen. I wondered if there was some quota of embarrassment that you were supposed to fill in your lifetime. If that was true, I really had to be about done for the rest of… well, ever.
Beside me Nico moved and looked up, blinking blearily at me. I cocked my head in the direction of my father and watched Nico's gaze follow it – and then he abruptly turned red and sat up too, only he managed to mostly hide himself behind me. Cheater, I thought, pulling my legs up to my chest.
Poseidon just looked at us for a minute. He didn't look embarrassed or angry or anything, but that was almost worse than if he had. I couldn't tell what he was thinking at all, but I knew that if he had come here to forbid me from doing whatever this was then I was going to have to defy him. I just really hoped that wasn't the case. I liked my dad – well, at least I liked him when he wasn't staring at me and Nico sitting there on the beach naked. But he really was an okay guy. He'd been proud of me in the past. I just hoped he could be proud of me now.
"You've made a lot of gods very… uncomfortable," he said at last. "And you've made Hades very angry."
Nico frowned. "We don't care."
I glanced over at him. I guessed we didn't, really, but… could we afford not to? When you're a half-blood, not caring can get you killed just as quickly as caring about the wrong thing. Maybe we didn't care, but I wasn't sure that flaunting that fact was exactly the best strategy.
Then my dad did something I'd never expected – he chuckled. My head swung around to face him again, staring. Now I was confused. We'd made a lot of gods uncomfortable, royally pissed off the god of the dead, and my dad thought it was funny?
"I suppose you don't care, do you? Ah, I remember what it's like to be in love." I squirmed as he looked down at us with a funny, nostalgic smile. "But remember, love has gotten no small number of heroes up to their necks in trouble before they knew it.
Wasn't that the truth. But we weren't in trouble now – at least, it didn't seem like it. But I still wasn't exactly sure. "Dad…" I paused – I almost didn't want to ask the question, but I had to know. "Are you angry?"
He was silent for a long time. All traces of laughter had gone from his face and his expression was serious again. "No," he finally said quietly, after what felt like forever, "I'm not angry, Percy. Do you think I should be?"
"Uh," I said, wondering how exactly I was supposed to answer that question. "I mean, no, I don't want you to be mad. But," I pressed on, realizing there was more to this than just what I wanted or even what he wanted, "I know the gods don't like…" I gestured to Nico and then myself, "stuff like this."
Nico grabbed my arm, and when I looked at him he looked scared and determined all at once. "I don't care what the gods don't like. I'm not giving you up for anything," he said, and the way his voice sounded, the way we'd just, well, made love not too long ago, I know that he meant it.
And I felt the same way. "Me either, Nico," I assured him.
"Then I will see that you don't have to."
We both turned to look up at my dad again. I had to admit, I was a little surprised. He was sticking his neck out for us, and I was pretty sure that gods didn't do that for just anybody. Heck, they didn't even do it for their fellow gods, most of the time.
"You've done well, Percy," Poseidon said, and suddenly my stomach felt like it was full of butterflies, like I was about to go into the living room on Christmas morning. "What you did, you did not only out of love, but out of a desire to protect the world and Olympus from the threats of Kronos." He paused, looking at us both. "I will go back to Olympus and make sure the gods know these things."
"Thanks!" I said, almost leaping up off the sand before I remembered I wasn't wearing anything and just shifted embarrassedly around. "Really. Thank you, dad."
"Don't thank me just yet," he said, and tilted his head. "There are those who aren't going to take it on my word that you deserve to remain safe. Hades will be among them." He looked at Nico, and something silent seemed to pass between them.
Nico nodded. "I know."
"Then I will leave you to each other," Poseidon said, and a smile began to tug at the edges of his lips again. "When you feel you're ready, you'll have help getting home," he said to me, and then suddenly he was gone, leaving only the salt smell of the sea wafting on the breeze where he'd been.
We sat there for a minute, just listening to the sound of the surf on the beach. Then Nico turned to me, looking up with dark eyes and a wry sort of smile. "Well, that was… kinda weird."
I laughed, nodding. "Yeah, kinda." I looked down at him, and suddenly I couldn't stop myself from grinning. "He seemed to like you, though. That's good, right?" I had to admit, it made me feel a whole lot better to know that my dad wasn't going to forbid me from being with Nico. He was even going to try to defend us…
"I guess it's good that one of our dads is okay with this," he said, running one hand up my chest and stopping at the place where the skin was raw and new. There was a shiny white scar, the width of Nico's sword, directly over my heart.
"Hey… are you really okay with all this?" I asked, suddenly worried. "I mean, you stood up to your dad and now he's really angry – "
This time Nico laughed, though it wasn't as carefree as my laughter had been. "I'm not afraid of him," he said, looking up at me. "And… I don't care what he thinks. I really don't."
I wasn't sure if Nico was telling the truth, but it wasn't the time or place to try to ask him about it. Instead I just looped my arms around him and hugged him close.
I wish I could say that after a while we got up and got dressed and worked out a way to get home. But the truth was, we didn't. We stayed on that beach all day and into the night, sitting together in the sand and talking about nothing, or sometimes not even talking at all. It was like I couldn't get enough of touching Nico and he couldn't get enough of touching me. I wanted to memorize the way every part of him felt, even covered in salt and sand because that made it all the much nicer. I guess I have weird tastes, but Nico didn't seem to care, even when he ran his hands through his hair and made a face and complained about how he'd be washing sand out of his hair for weeks. I just grinned and told him I didn't mind, and he told me it was because I was weird, and that started a whole round of tussling that led to something much nicer than tussling that led to us lying on the beach with our sides pressed together and our fingers intertwined as we stared up at the night sky full of more stars than you could see even from Montauk.
But by the time the morning came, we knew we had to get back. I didn't know how long I'd been gone, but I was pretty sure that I was going to be in deep trouble the instant I got back. Nico said he'd take some of the blame for it, but I wasn't so sure it worked that way. How can you take the blame for something when you were dead?
We eventually found our clothes and struggled back into them – everything we owned was crusted over with sea salt and my t-shirt was torn over the chest and had been pretty much soaked in blood. Our shoes were pretty much dead, so we just looped the laces together and brought them along to throw out when we got back to camp. You don't get to be best friends with a satyr and ever consider leaving your garbage in the wild ever again, I can vouch for that.
True to his word, when Nico and I were ready to go and had turned toward the ocean, there were two magnificent hippocampi whinnying and waiting for us to mount them. Nico didn't have enough of me in him to breathe underwater, but I was able to craft a sort of bubble around his head so he could breathe as we raced northwards under the waves. He looked like an out-of-place hero from a science fiction novel gone wrong, sitting astride a creature that was half-fish, half-horse with a dark sword stuck through his belt. When I told him so, he just made a face and whacked me on the arm.
It only took about a day of travel to get us back to the coast of New York. We arrived off the shore of Camp Half-Blood just as the sun was rising, so the sky was still more orangey-yellow than blue. The trip had been hard, but I could tell that neither of us was still quite ready to return to camp – and everything that came with it – just yet. But as the hippocampi let us slide off their backs and accepted a few grateful noserubs in thanks, I knew that we couldn't put it off any longer. We were home.
I turned to look at Nico, watching him in the early morning light as he started heading up the beach. When he realized I wasn't following he stopped, cocking his head and offering a hand back to me. "Well, come on. We're in this together, remember."
I grinned and took his hand. "Yeah. We are."
We walked hand-in-hand up the beach towards Camp Half-Blood, knowing that this definitely wasn't over yet. I was pretty sure Chiron was going to kill me for leaving, and if he didn't then Mom was probably going to kill me for it. But even the thought of having to face their anger couldn't make me feel any less happy just then. Nico was back where he belonged, and I was too. And no matter how strong the gods or even their enemies were, love was even stronger than that. And we were going to prove it.