Contains NO spoilers for Throne of Fire. I'm still waiting on my copy to arrive, which gave me time to finish this.
Nico wasn't sure how he'd gotten sent grocery shopping alone with Zia. Carter and Sadie were usually very careful to make sure things like that didn't happen.
Not that Nico disliked Zia or anything. They'd been getting along better lately. It was just that . . . well . . . there really wasn't a way to make things normal between the two of them. Not when Zia had inherited Nephthys' motherly instincts for Anubis and superimposed them onto Anubis' host. Or when Nico couldn't decide whether he wanted to get Zia a Mother's Day Card or stay as far away from her as possible.
She is not my mom, he told himself as he followed her through the produce department of the food-mart, pushing the cart while she burdened it down with vegetables and fruit. Why is it so hard to convince myself that when I know it's true?
He felt Anubis stir inside his skull, the god's attention caught by Nico's deep concentration. Usually the god kept the majority of his consciousness elsewhere, doing death godly things that involved feathers, scales, human hearts, and hippo-doodles that didn't Nico neither wanted nor needed to know about in detail. Anubis would have vacated Nico's skull altogether if he could have, but since their souls had somehow been fused together, that wasn't possible. He made up for it by trying to intrude in Nico's day-to-day life as little as possible, and by showing up with Mythomagic booster packs as soon as possible every time a new series was released. That went a long ways toward helping Nico forgive the god's unintentional intrusions.
Nothing's wrong, Nico told Anubis. Just shopping for food. Health food. He shuddered.
Keep your guard up, Nico, said Anubis.
You don't have to tell me, I already know. And Nico really did know. They were in San Fran-freaking-sisco. Home of Ghiradeli's chocolate, the Golden Gate Bridge, and hordes and hordes of evil monsters that were all out for Nico's blood. They had been in the city for just three days and Nico had already had to kill a sphinx, two cyclopses, and an automaton on the fritz. No demigod in their right mind hung out in the Bay Area if they didn't have to.
It was still up in the air whether or not Nico was in his right mind, but unfortunately, he really did have to hang out in San Francisco.
One of the local museums had recently cleaned out their storage and found a huge collection of Greek and Egyptian artifacts in their horde that they hadn't even been aware they'd owned. They were all old things that had been packed away since the 1920s, a time long before most people had respect for concepts like national treasures or customs arrangements, or even productive things like cataloguing the crap you bought that you intended to use to draw crowds and make money.
It was an old museum, but not very well known, so it hadn't yet drawn the crowds that Nico, Zia, and the Kanes knew that it would once word spread about what the museum actually had. As far as they knew, the exhibit had only been publicized through a few newspapers put out by local colleges. The Kanes and company had only learned about it because one of Anubis' idols turned out to be a part of the collection, and after it had been moved into the light after so long in darkness, Anubis had gone to check out what was going on and one of the other artifacts had caught his eye: a jeweled collar with the crest of the Mad Oracle on it, the woman who'd given the doomsday prophecy that Nico and Anubis were a part of. If there was one thing that she had owned in the exhibit, there might be more, which was why the Kanes, Zia, and Nico had come. As soon as word about the various treasures in the exhibit spread, House of Life magicians would begin swarming the site, no doubt, along with scholars, school groups, and new age hippies. Then everything would probably be packed up and sent on tour across the country when requests and donation money began pouring in to the little nothing, low security museum that owned the artifacts, and getting access to them would be much more difficult.
That was why Nico, Zia, and the Kanes were currently in San Fransisco. They had rented an apartment because it offered them more privacy than a hotel, and because they'd needed to set up as many protective wards on wherever they were staying as they could. They'd decided that it would be safer to stay in San Fransisco, even with all the monsters, because they didn't want House of Life operatives taking note of how often they came and went using portals, and realizing where they were going and what they were up to. They'd spent the past few days at the museum, every hour that it was open, examining as many of the artifacts as they could before the museum directed kicked them out for his one hour lunch break, that often lasted three hours, or decided to close the museum two hours early because he was 'a bloody lazy wanker,' as Sadie had put it.
But now Sadie was sick with food poisoning, caused by bad egg salad from the convenience store where they'd bought their lunches that day, after Zia put down her foot about getting fast good again.
Nico thought that he'd been remarkably mature by not throwing the fact that this was her fault in her face since it was rather obvious that if they'd gone to McDonalds like he'd suggested, Sadie wouldn't be dry heaving every twenty minutes. Carter had insisted on being the one to stay with her, which was understandable. If it had been Bianca, nothing short of a tow truck could have managed to drag Nico away. He was annoyed now that instead of running out and grabbing some fast food, and returning to their apartment ASAP, they were loading up a shopping cart full of stuff so that Zia could cook them healthy meals and pack them lunches.
"Wait!" Nico said when Zia would have walked right past the one display of vegetables that actually interested him.
"What's wrong?" Zia's golden eyes flashed and Nico could tell she was ready to pull out her wand and start blowing stuff up if she perceived there was a threat to him.
"We forgot the tomatoes."
Zia relaxed slightly as she realized that the only danger was that they wouldn't have the supplies needed to make spaghetti. Then her nose wrinkled slightly. "I don't like tomatoes."
"Sadie and Carter might."
"Carter doesn't. He picked them off his hamburgers at lunch yesterday and the day before."
"He likes them on pizza well enough. We could turn them into sauce for pizza . . . or pasta or something."
"It takes a lot of effort to turn tomatoes into sauce, Nico. I don't even know how to do that."
Neither did Nico. He cast the tomatoes one last longing look, then bid his dreams of having spaghetti for dinner tomorrow good-bye.
After that he didn't pay too much attention to what Zia added to the cart. He saw bread go in there, several fruits he didn't even recognize, and a block of cheese, but he spent more time casing the other shoppers and concentrated on seeing through the Mist.
Thankfully there were no monsters trolling around the food-mart that night, which was good for so many reasons. Aside from the obvious, that normal people could have been hurt. Zia's over-protective streak where Nico was concerned couldn't be ignored no matter how hard you tried. And he had tried very hard. Usually, with Sadie and Carter around, she managed to keep it down to tolerable levels. Yeah, she freaked out when Nico had to do something on his own, or he was in obvious danger more than he would have if it had been Sadie and Carter in his position. And if he got injured she was there to cover him until he had time to gulp down some ambrosia and get himself sorted out, then continued trying to coddle and mother him afterward which could be a little annoying, but which Nico secretly, deep down, thought was kind of nice. But with Sadie and Carter around, Zia at least tried to keep it all controlled, probably because she was more embarrassed to have witnesses to her behavior.
But when it was just Zia and Nico, and something attacked, Zia went into pyromaniac mother-bear mode. It was pretty impressive to watch, Nico had to admit, but it was still . . . just . . . weird. Having someone do things like that for him. Having someone care about him like that.
His father certainly didn't. Hades considered every child he'd ever had a disappointment. They were all either crazy, stupidly got themselves killed before they could obtain greatness, really crazy, physically incapable of controlling the necrotic powers that were constantly war with their own life force, completely ape-shit crazy, or, in Nico's case, naïve, stupid, and slightly OCD. Hades had said that in as many words. Things were much better between them now, yes, especially after the Battle of Manhattan. In fact, some people had remarked that Nico seemed to have become Hades' favorite child out of all those he'd ever fathered. But Hades was still the Lord of the Underworld. He was still a god, and gods weren't exactly good parents by any human standards.
Bianca had never been particularly devoted to Nico either. Sometimes Nico looked at Sadie and Carter and felt a bitter stab of jealousy at their bond. Sadie had been given the chance to walk away from all the crazy Egyptian magic stuff and go back to a normal life, but she'd stuck with Carter. Nico knew that Bianca had loved him. Just not . . . not as much as he'd wished she had. Not enough to stay with him when she got a better offer. After her death she'd tried to make amends. She'd contacted Percy and gotten him to watch out for Nico. And Nico had learned recently that she'd also been 'watching over' him with her dead soul powers (though in Nico's mind that just equaled her spying on him, which he hadn't been pleased about) until Nico and Anubis had accidentally fused their souls together, and Anubis' powers began naturally shielding Nico from any sort of supernatural spying.
And Nico's own mother . . . well he couldn't even remember her. If not for a summoning ritual he'd done once, he wouldn't even know what she looked like. He knew that Maria di Angelo had loved him and Bianca. She'd stubbornly done her best to keep their family together, and hadn't wanted Nico and Bianca raised in the Underworld, proclaiming it no place for children. Then she had died and anything that Nico knew about her had been washed away in the River Lethe.
Nothing concrete remained of her in Nico's mind, but there were times when he was struck by nostalgia that he couldn't place: a woman's perfume when he was in New York's Little Italy, or the sweet taste of spaghetti sauce from the 'real' restaurants that Zia drug them into when she got sick of takeout. Things that made his mind scream "home" even though he had no conscious recollection of them.
But . . . lately . . . and it terrified Nico when he first realized it, but for a while now when things like that happened and he knew that he'd encountered something that was reminding him of his mother . . . Zia's face had begun flashing through his mind.
A flash of glitter at the edge of Nico's vision caught his eye, providing him a welcome distraction from his own depressing thoughts. The Mist. He followed it to its source: six teenagers.
Nico nearly froze in his tracks at the realization that these six teens were demigods. It seemed impossible, but Nico could tell a monster from a human from a demigod and he knew exactly which category these teens fell into. There was not a single doubt in his mind.
So what in Hades were they doing in San Francisco?
Maybe they're a gang, he thought suddenly. He saw now what the Mist was trying to keep hidden from human eyes: the tattoos that were visible on the arms of those who weren't wearing jackets. They were weird looking marks that Nico didn't think had been inked on there with needles, consisting of 12 lines like a barcode, under an eagle, under the letters SPQR. That could have been a gang mark. And they were all wearing purple. Most had on purple T-shirts, Nico noticed now that he was looking, but one of the girls was wearing a purple dress. He'd never heard of such a thing as a demigod gang before, but then, no one had ever heard of a demigod hosting an Egyptian god, so he knew weirder things were possible.
But as he watched the other teenagers, something about them didn't seem . . . well, gang-like. They seemed too . . . military-like to be a mere disorganized street gang. Their posture was impeccable, their movements disciplined, and there was a clearly established system of rank amongst them, with their leader being a blond boy with blue eyes, cropped blond hair, and a small scar on his lip. None of them had the mean look in their eyes that Nico had come to expect from members of street gangs, and now that he was paying attention, he saw that they were all in good shape, all well-fed.
Not a gang then . . . maybe some sort of self-formed vigilante group to deal with San Francisco's monster infestation?
It was then that Nico noticed one of the guys in the group was staring at him and Zia. No, he realized, not at him and Zia. Just at Zia.
Does he know she's a House of Life magician? He wondered. If so, what are they going to do about it? Camp Half-Blood's demigods weren't crazy about the House of Life, thanks to that so-called 'kidnapping incident' awhile back, when Hades thought that the House of Life had kidnapped Nico and had convinced Poseidon and Zeus to go to war with him against the Egyptians if Nico was not returned. Since then the camp had begun educating its demigods about Egyptian magicians, teaching them that they were usually enemies. Nico had no idea how widespread that way of thinking had become. He wondered if he'd be able to talk these demigods out of it if they wanted a fight. Maybe the smart thing to do would just be to grab Zia and shadow travel them both out of there before she started summoning pillars of fire and tying these demigods up with ribbons for putting Nico at risk.
As Nico watched, the purple-shirted demigod who'd noticed Zia turned to one of his friends, elbowed him, and said something. The other boy looked over toward them and Nico tensed. Then they said something to their leader who rolled his eyes and told them something that Nico couldn't hear, but he had a relaxed but exasperated look on his face. Then the first two boys started toward Nico and Zia.
Zia had just begun to put their groceries on the counter. Nico started to help her, not paying attention to what he was pulling out of the cart, just trying to get them out of there as fast as he could. Maybe if the cashier was fast . . . but no . . . Zia had picked up too much food. It would take at least a minute and those guys were only several seconds away . . .
"Hey there." The first demigod, the one who'd spotted Zia, stepped forward, a smile on his face, but there was something in his eyes that Nico didn't like.
"Hello," Zia said warily. She glanced at Nico, noticing that he was on edge, which immediately put her on guard as well. "Can I help you with something?"
"Yeah. I lost my phone number. Can I have yours?"
Nico's jaw dropped as he realized what this was. These demigods hadn't been assessing Zia as a potential enemy. They had been checking her out! And now they had come over to use lame pick up lines on her!
This is un-excusable! Nico glared at the guys when Zia just gaped at them, and pushed himself forward between Zia and the other demigods. "Leave her alone," he said, glaring at them with as much venom as he could.
"Easy there, squirt," said Demi-Dweeb Number 1. He reached for Nico's head, perhaps to ruffle his hair, or perhaps to do something more sinister, like grab a handful of his hair and hold him still for scalping.
Nico decided not to take any chances. He grabbed the dweeb's hand and twisted it around, getting enough leverage that with a single twitch he could break the other demigod's wrist. "Back the heck off!"
"Nico!" Zia started to reach for him when Demi-Dweeb Number 2 tried to come to his friend's aid. He grabbed Nico roughly by the arm hard enough to leave bruises. Then he found himself flat on his back because Zia had kicked his legs out from under him. "Keep your hands off him!"
"Hey, hey, hey!" The demi-dweeb's macho leader was hurrying over to help. Nico shifted his grip up to higher on Demi-Dweeb 1's arm and threw him. He crashed into Macho Leader Man, who stumbled but managed to stay on his feet. "Bobby! Lawrence! What are you doing? You said you were going to talk with that girl, not pick a fight with her and her brother!"
"What's going on, here?" demanded the cashier. "If you kids can't behave –"
"Who knew her brother would be a psychopath?" groaned Demi-Dweeb 1 as he got to his feet.
"What did you call him?" Zia's golden eyes blazed like fire.
"Lawrence," Macho Leader said disapprovingly. "This is no time to be insulting them."
"Aw c'mon, Jason –"
"Bobby. Over here. Now."
Demi-Dweeb 2, who it seemed was called Bobby, hurried over to stand with Macho Leader, aka Jason. Nico glared at them, still standing his ground. Zia edged forward, trying to get between Nico and the demigods. Her expression was fierce.
"Way to go, guys. We finally get some R and R time and you have to kick it off on a bad note by harassing civilians," said one of the girl demigods.
Nico guessed that they couldn't tell that Zia was a magician, but he would have thought at least one of them would have recognized him as a fellow demigod. Or maybe they weren't expecting a normal human, like what they thought Zia was, to be accompanied by a demigod and that was why they overlooked that fact.
"Like I said, that kid is psycho –"
"What did you do, Lawrence, proposition his sister in public? You can't blame him for getting pissed!" said the girl in the purple dress.
"Like I'd do that, Reyna! I just used the 'I lost my number can I have yours' line. Not the 'I'm lost, can you give me directions to your bedroom' line like Bobby suggested!"
"I never suggested that!" said Bobby, his face turning red.
"You were going to ask her what?" shouted Nico, stepping forward in anger. "Che palle! Let's take this outside you –"
"You purple shirts!" said the cashier. "If you're not buying anything then get out of here and stop harassing my customers!"
"We're sorry," Jason said, making a motion with his hand that had his friends backing up, pulling Bobby and Lawrence with them. "This was all just a misunderstanding. It won't happen again."
"It better not," huffed the cashier.
The other demigods peeled back and headed toward the exit. The cashier went back to scanning Zia's and Nico's groceries and bagging them. The woman who'd been in line behind them stopped them after Zia paid but before they could leave.
"You have a very gallant brother," the older lady told Zia. "Not many little boys have enough mettle to stand up for the people they love anymore."
"Um, well thank you, but . . ." Zia looked at Nico with uncertain eyes. "He's not exactly my brother."
The older lady's words, and Zia's, made Nico feel like he'd physically been stabbed. He clutched the side of the shopping cart for balance and struggled to breathe. It took all his energy to start walking forward when Zia started walking too. He didn't hear the rest of the words they exchanged but didn't think he wanted to.
Trouble was waiting for them in the parking-lot, in the form of the six demigods from before. Most of them stood a little way back, on the other side of the parking-lot, but Jason, Lawrence, and Bobby were waiting near the doors for them, causing Nico to shove his own pain aside and reach for his sword since he was sure it was about to come to violence. Now that they were outside he would have bet money that these wanna-be gang, pseudo-military demi-dweebs were going to challenge him and Zia and he intended to make them regret it.
"Ma'am," Jason said, stepping forward, his hands clearly visible and not near any weapons that Nico could see, which didn't necessarily mean much given that he might be able to turn his watch into a razor-edged shield or something. "My friends here have something they wish to say to you. Don't you, Bobby? Lawrence?"
Bobby took a step forward grudgingly. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean any harm to you or your brother, ma'am."
"I'm sorry too," said Lawrence much more reluctantly.
"What else, Lawrence?" Jason prompted. More softly, he added, "The girls are going to know if you don't say everything they coached you to say."
Lawrence gritted his teeth. "I apologize for sexually harassing you and not treating you with the proper respect owed to another human being, ma'am." Then he turned to Jason. "Gods, man, you're so whipped. You really make people say things like that just because your girl wants –"
"Silence," snapped Jason. "You forget yourself. We invited you along with us because Dakota couldn't come, and in return you harass civilians and ruin our R and R time. You'll shape up now or we will report you."
Nico had to hand it to Macho Leader, he really was a good leader . . . and he realized that he shouldn't be mentally calling Jason that anymore because it seemed like Jason was a decent guy. He commanded the obedience of his comrades like any good leader would, and more than that, kept them in line and made sure they did the right thing.
"We accept your apology," Zia said when Nico didn't say anything. "And we appreciate it. Don't we, Nico?"
But something else had caught Nico's attention, causing him to pull out his switchblade and hit the button to open it, turning it into its sword form. "Trouble!" he snapped.
"Whoa!" All three of the other demigods, even Jason seemed surprised by the appearance of Nico's weapon. Jason recovered first, seeing that Nico wasn't attacking them, and turned to follow his gaze across the street to where four big black dogs the size of buses had appeared, their noses to the ground as though they were tracking something.
And what that something was really wasn't a mystery. Nico had been expecting this to happen since he'd recognized the other demigods for what they were. The more demigods you put in one place, the higher your chances of finding monsters. Those other six demigods had already been pushing it on their own. Add the son of one of the Big Three to the equation, and it didn't really matter what charms or potions those demigods might be using to hide their own scents, or the fact that Nico had some wardings against monster detection that Anubis provided for him. They just had too much power in one place.
"You guys are half-bloods," exclaimed Bobby.
"And those are hellhounds," Nico said,
Jason, too, was focusing on the bigger issue. "Look alive! Form up!"
More weapons appeared as the other demigods rushed to follow Jason's command with swords, shields, and lances in hand. Zia shoved their groceries into her Duat storage space and pulled out her staff.
"What? Those two were half-bloods?" the girl Reyna asked as she moved to flank Jason. "Do they know how to fight?"
Nico couldn't help it. He laughed at that stupid comment. "Do we know how to fight? Come on, Zia!"
"Hey!" Jason shouted as Nico charged forward. "Wait! What the –" It seemed he was startled even more by the fact that Zia had just taken flight on the wings of her vulture pendant familiar.
"Be careful, Nico!" Zia called down to him.
Nico resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Really, what did she think he was going to do, throw down his weapons and try to pet the hellhounds? Maybe get them to eat out of his hand right before they bit it off? "Just don't light me on fire again!" he called to her.
Zia threw her staff at the hound in the front of the pack before Nico could reach it. Her staff morphed into a giant white cobra and struck immediately. Nico had always envied that trick. Sadie could turn her staff into a lioness and Zia could make it pretty much whatever she wanted, but Nico had yet to manage that trick. It seemed like it would be really useful for situations like these, when there were multiple targets to take down.
Only one of the hellhounds veered off to attack Nico. The others charged the rest of the demigods who had gotten into battle formation and had begun charging forward to meet their enemies. The dogs probably figured that whichever one fought Nico would only have about half a mouthful of meet, if that, which left Nico in single combat. That suited him just fine.
Fire flared up as Zia lit one of the hellhounds like a torch, right as Nico leapt onto his hellhound's head as it snapped at him. He smiled, proud that he had good jumping skills at least, as he landed in a crouch and stabbed his sword into the base of the hellhound's skull as far down as it would go. The creature reared once then collapsed with Nico still on top of its head. He held onto the blade of his sword to brace himself until it hit the ground and turned to dust beneath him. Then he landed gracefully on the pavement.
The purple shirts were fairing very well. Their organization was really quite something to behold. Nico started watching right as the only hellhound still charging them impaled itself upon three lances, held fast by the waiting demigods. Then two of the other demigods moved in, one on either side, while their leader plunged in beneath the hound's head, intent on slashing its throat.
"Careful!" Nico shouted a warning to Jason. "Its windpipe and jugular are in really deep! Your sword might not pierce them!"
He was right to warn the older demigod. All Jason's slash did was cut through its hide and annoy the monster. But his comrades that were flanking it did their jobs well. One cut a tendon in the hound's front leg, the other left a gaping wound in its side.
The other two hounds were faring even worse than the one facing all six purple shirts. One was half strangled by Zia's serpent staff. It was still fighting, but it had allowed the snake to wrap itself around it, putting it at a grave disadvantage, and it had been bitten a few times which meant it had been poisoned. The other one was on fire. Enough said.
Nico turned his attention back to the purple shirts as their hound erupted in a cloud of dust. Jason had cleverly taken advantage of his position and angle and cut it open from beneath.
"Reform!" Jason ordered. His troops, and it was hard to think of the demigods as anything other than his troops, immediately fell back into formation. Then Jason gave an order that Nico didn't understand, but sounded like Latin, and their formation shifted around one of the girls in the group who had somehow produced a weapon that was halfway between a crossbow and a cannon.
The girl took aim at the flaming hellhound. "Locked!"
"Fire!" Jason ordered.
A giant crossbow arrow attached to a chain shot from the weapon and sunk into the flaming hellhound's side.
They've got that one, I guess, Nico decided as Jason gave another command and his troops began cautiously advancing. He looked to Zia. She had gone to aid her white snake and was adding some controlled burns into the mix. The parking-lot was really starting to stink of burnt dog meat, reminding Nico of some of his less fun accidental trips to China that he took when he was learning how to shadow travel.
Zia didn't really need his help, he could see, but he moved to where he could easily back her up if anything changed. Anything, like those purple shirts coming to steal her kill. No one could lay claim to the hellhound he'd taken down but him. The purple shirts had taken one down alone, and were finishing off the one that Zia set on fire. As long as Zia killed hers on her own, or if Nico stepped in and killed it if they looked like they were going to steal her kill, that would give him and Zia the win. And Nico knew they weren't really competing, but he didn't really care. It mattered to him.
Then Zia finished off her hellhound just a few seconds before the purple shirts killed theirs. She just had time to change her snake back into a staff as the last enemy fell.
"Well," Jason said as he brushed some dust out of his hair. "Not exactly R and R, but still a good time at least."
"You guys aren't half bad," Nico told them. Then he tensed as Zia seized his shoulders and spun him toward her, looking him up and down for any sign of injuries.
"You weren't hurt, were you?" she asked, real worry in her gold eyes as she grabbed his chin and turned his face from side to side. Nico wasn't sure if she was looking for cuts or bruises on his face or what, but the genuine concern she was showing made it hard to get angry at her overprotectiveness right then.
"No, I'm fine. Come on, stop it Zia."
Nico heard one of the girls in purple laugh and was pretty sure he heard the word 'cute' come from that direction, so he sent a glare their way.
"You both fight well too," Jason said, maybe to distract Nico from the insult. He came forward to meet them. "But I've never seen you at the encampment before."
Oh, so they did go to Camp Half-Blood. Nico wondered why he hadn't seen them there before either. Maybe they only came like on weekends during the school year or something when Nico wasn't around? Or maybe they were unclaimeds who'd left camp before the Titan War. He knew there were still plenty of those around, though many of them had been claimed now.
And when it came down to it, Nico didn't really care about them, what they did, or where they lived, since it was obvious they could take care of themselves. All he cared about was keeping the perverted ones away from Zia.
"Let's keep it that way," Nico told Jason. "No offense to you." He glared at the two demi-dweebs so there was no doubt in anyone's mind who the offense was meant toward.
"Well . . . you can obviously take care of yourselves." Jason gave a friendly smile. "But you really are good fighters, and we'd love to have soldiers like you in our legion. If you ever feel like joining up . . ."
Zia gripped Nico's arm tightly and pulled him away, as though she thought Nico might seriously consider their offer. As it was, he didn't even understand it, and he wasn't at all tempted.
"If we decide to, we'll light a couple more hellhounds on fire to signal you," promised Nico.
"Come on, Nico," Zia said. She pulled him further away from Jason. "Sadie and Carter will be worrying why we're taking so long."
That was a lie since they hadn't been gone nearly long enough to cause worry, but Nico didn't feel like sticking around anyway. He had no idea what the Mist would show people but didn't want to be around in case PETA or something showed up to riot.
The only problem with their exit was that the majority of the purple shirts were blocking their path to the sidewalk, and unless Nico and Zia felt like walking around a car to deliberately avoid them, they had to walk very close to them. The girls moved respectfully back to let them pass. So did Bobby. Lawrence held his ground and Nico had to suppress the urge to shoulder him out of his way. But he got by without incident. Zia didn't.
"Don't touch me!" Zia cried out, her voice colored with shock and alarm and anger.
"Lawrence!" snapped one of the girls. "Don't be a pervert!"
"Lawrence!" Jason began striding forward, stormy faced.
Nico beat him to the punch. Literally. He pivoted around Zia and cracked his fist against Lawrence's jaw. "Keep your hands off her, you pezzo di merda!" he screamed and grabbed two handfuls of Lawrence's hair. With a salvage jerk he pulled the older demigod's face downward while raising his own knee. The two collided with a sickening crunch but Nico didn't release Lawrence's hair. Instead he slammed his head against the side of the car that he and Zia really should have walked around to avoid this creep. "You touch my sister again and I'll drag you to the gates of Hades and –"
Nico's voice died as he realized what he had just said. He felt his hands go limp and Lawrence's hair slipped through them, sending the perverted demigod to the ground.
No. No, no. I did not just call Zia my sister. Oh no.
"Nico . . ." Zia had both hands on his shoulders, pulling him back gently.
"You deserved that, Lawrence," said Jason coldly. "If you ever try to grope a woman again while you're under my command, or anywhere in my sight, I'll make sure you regret it even worse than you do right now."
"We're leaving," Zia told Nico, still pulling him away. "Come on. Come."
Nico didn't resist. The purple shirts didn't try to stop them. A few apologies might have been murmured but if they were Nico didn't hear them. His own tormented thoughts were too loud.
How could I do that? Why? What's wrong with me? Calling Zia my . . . my sister . . . Oh gods . . . How could I do that?
Nico didn't know why he'd said that. He couldn't understand it and wasn't even sure how he felt about it. Guilt and shock swirled around in his chest in equal measures. He felt like he heard people were supposed to feel if they ate pop rocks then drank soda. He wouldn't have been surprised if the conflicting emotions caused him to explode.
I didn't mean it. I know she's not my sister. I wouldn't . . . I would never try to replace Bianca with anyone!
It was only a slip of the tongue, Nico. Anubis was in his head again, summoned by the intense emotion. It had been easy enough for him to read Nico's memories and see what had disturbed him so. You have nothing to feel bad about.
Don't I? I mistook Zia for my sister, Anubis! It's like . . . it's like my memories are dissolving or twisting or just generally getting screwed up somehow! First I started seeing Zia's face when I thought about my mother. Now I'm referring to her as my sister without consciously planning to! For a second I really thought . . . I didn't think she was Bianca, but I really thought Zia was . . . What's wrong with me?
Nothing is wrong with you, Nico. You're tired. You're on the end of an adrenaline rush. And you're in the company of a young woman who sees you as family. Are you going to pretend that you don't see her the same way?
No, but . . . But . . . It would have been one thing if I called her my mother. I could have blamed that at least on you. But to call her my sister . . .
You didn't betray Bianca if that's what you're afraid of, Anubis told him. He didn't point out that it was Bianca who had deserted Nico, but it hung in the mental space between them anyway so much that he might as well have.
Nico walked in silence for awhile, taking care to keep that silence in his head as well. He needed to time to think this through and figure out what it all meant. Anubis seemed to understand that. His presence remained in Nico's mind, but he did not voice any of his thoughts to his host.
"Nico?" said Zia when the apartment they were renting was in sight. "Are you . . . are you okay?"
"I don't know," he answered honestly.
"I . . . I'm sorry if I did something to upset you . . ." She didn't realize what the significance of him accidentally referring to her as his sister was. There was no way she could know what was troubling him.
You should tell her, Nico, said Anubis.
Mind your own damn business.
Do you want her feeling guilty for something she hasn't done? She believes that it is her fault that you're upset, Nico.
Nico stopped walking. Zia froze as well.
"Nico?" she asked.
"It's not your fault," Nico told her. "I . . . I'm sorry. Please don't feel guilty, I just . . ." He froze as his vision blurred with tears. Then he hurriedly tried to swipe them away. "I'm sorry. I'm tired."
"You . . . you're sure you weren't hurt?" asked Zia.
"I promise that's not it," Nico said. "I swear on the Styx."
"What then? Please tell me. Maybe . . . maybe I can help," suggested Zia.
"No one can help me," Nico whispered.
"Have you ever let anyone try before?" she asked.
You should tell her, Nico, urged Anubis. Tell her.
"No!" Nico snapped at both of them. "Trust me, it won't do any good! And don't mistake this for some stupid emo teenage angst fit of misunderstood-ness and rebellion because seriously no one in the world has ever been in a situation like mine before! There's no way to help someone who can't even remember –" Nico abruptly shut his jaw as he realized his slip. Zia lost all her memories of her family too, he remembered all of a sudden.
Her eyes were so sad, but still so caring as she regarded him. Nico wondered if that's how his mother would have looked at him if he'd exploded at her like that, raging against her and the world in general. A little bit hurt but still full of love.
I miss my mama. Nico didn't think he'd ever had that thought consciously before, but as he stared at Zia it came clearly through his head. Then he reached for Zia without even consciously realizing it, then his arms were around her and he was clinging to her with his face pressed against her shoulder, fighting off sobs. "Mi dispiace . . . Mi dispiace . . . I'm sorry . . . I'm so sorry . . ." He wasn't sure who he was apologizing to or for what. He just knew he was one sorry son of a gun, and he was so glad that Zia was holding him right then, like she cared.
She does care, Nico. More people care about you than you realize.
"Shh . . ." Zia was stroking his hair in a way that felt very nice and comforting. "Shhh . . . It's alright. I'm here, my little lion. Be still . . ."
She held him until he had himself under control again. Once he did the first thing he asked was, "Lion?" He tilted his face up to look at her and tried to smile, but thought that he probably failed miserably.
Zia gave him a sympathetic smile in return and reached for his face. She wiped away the last traces of his tears, running her thumb beneath each of his eyes. "I knew it was the wrong nickname to give you as soon as I said it. Sorry . . . little jackal."
Nico made a face, but didn't really mind what she'd said. His pride just made it mandatory to protest it. Then he sobered up again. "I'm sorry Zia. For . . . for that . . . I . . ." He swallowed. "I called you my sister without thinking back there. And when I realized what I'd done . . ."
"I don't mind," Zia told him. "If you want to think of me as your sister I –"
"My sister's dead," Nico told her.
Zia raised one hand to her mouth in surprise.
"Her name was Bianca and she died a couple years ago. I was really stupid about it. I tried to bring her back, just couldn't accept that she was dead, that she'd left me, and now I'm scared because I'm starting to forget things about her. I'm terrified that I'm going to lose her the same way I lost my mama." Nico said that all in a rush, only stopping when he had completely run out of breath. "When . . ." he said, once he had inhaled again, "When I think about my mother now I don't see the lady that I've seen in . . . pictures, with the pearl necklace and the dark eyes. I see golden eyes and Egyptian charms. I see you."
Several emotions crossed Zia's face: surprise, sorrow, and a little bit of happiness. Nico was glad that she was flattered about that rather than thinking him a freak.
"I was worried that I was going to lose Bianca the same way," said Nico.
"I'm sorry," Zia said. "You were right. There really is nothing I can do or say to help you or make you feel better."
"Yet . . . somehow I do feel better," Nico said, surprised to discover this.
Sometimes sharing your worries with someone will do that, said Anubis. The god sounded a little bit smug, but only a little.
"Well . . . I'm glad," said Zia. "You know I care about you."
Nico nodded. They'd had this discussion before. Neither was sure where the familial affection of the gods they hosted ended, and their own affection for the other began, but the line was so blurred that they had decided it didn't really matter. They were family, in a weird amnesiac, schizophrenic, DNA-less kind of way, and that was what did matter. What they felt for each other, however confusing, was real. And Nico was glad. Zia had become quite important to him.
"I care about you too . . . Aunt Zia."
Zia made a face like she'd bit into a rotten lemon. "Aunt?"
"Yeah, you're right, that's not going to work," Nico said. "I only realized it as I said it."
"Are you trying to get me back for the lion thing or the jackal thing?"
"Neither," said Nico quickly. "Don't worry, I won't call you that again. At least I probably won't. I don't know quite what you are to me, but I'm just not going to worry about naming it until I have to. Then I'll use whatever word feels right."
"Fair enough," Zia said. "We'll figure it out as we go."
She draped an arm around his shoulders and pulled him close, and kept her arm around him as they walked the rest of the way back to their apartment.
She was warm. Nico hadn't realized it until that moment, hadn't been consciously aware of it, but just being near Zia seemed to drive off the perpetual chill that his powers caused him to feel. Maybe it was because she had an affinity for fire magic. Or maybe it was something psychological and Nico's mind just tricked him into feeling like he was warm because he saw her as his family, as one of the people you came home to, and sat at the hearth with, and just soaked in warmth beside.
Nico would have bet good money that it was the latter. He knew he was about as psychiatrically screwed up as a person could be without torturing small animals; what was one more weird tick to blame on his parents and childhood?
But whatever it was, whatever the reason, he was glad for it. Glad for her, whatever she was to him.
"We'll figure it out as we go," she'd said, and they would. Together. Because that's what families were for. That and driving you insane, but, Nico thought, smiling as he leaned against Zia, as comfortable in her embrace as he thought he would have been in his own mother's arms, and as he remembered he'd once been in his sister's, that ship had already sailed for him and Zia a long time ago.
AN: I hope I didn't make Jason and the Roman demigods in general seem like jerks. And yes, they were Jason and his Roman Camp friends. Except Lawrence who is an OC who I meant to be a jerk. I like Jason and think his friends would be disciplined and polite like him, so I chose to have Nico break an OC's nose rather than someone who'll probably be a cool character. I didn't mean to make them come across as weak compared to Nico and Zia, who did contribute a little more to the battle. I just think their ways of fighting are probably quite different. Camp HB's demigods seem to each be their own leader in battle, each one choosing their own targets and taking them down with their own style, everyone expected to be able to take care of themselves. I'm predicting the Romans will be a more organized, unified force where they are expected to act as a team and combine their strength. Sometimes slower than Camp HB's way, maybe, but probably sometimes more efficient too.
Special thanks to Abdiel's angel who gave me the idea to make this one-shot a two-shot with a chapter from Nico's POV. Nice to see a fellow Gargoyle Legends fan! I too am looking forward to seeing Eden beat the Gormogons into pulp. Thank you for giving me the idea for this second part. I'm glad you like reading about messed up complicated emotions and drama because it's so much fun to write, lol, and I hope you'll enjoy this part too.
And as a last note, once again, I haven't read Throne of Fire yet. I know that there's probably stuff in it that contradicts my fics, and I'll decide what to do about it, how to reconcile it, and where Nico was while Carter and Sadie were off saving the world after reading it. For now I hope you'll enjoy this second dose of messed up Nico and Zia family love.