I'm starting to worry I might be obsessed with this PJO fanfiction business. I'm wondering if there's some sort of 12 Step Program I can go through...
Anyway, below is my latest venture. However, it owes a great deal to JJdracula who PMed me with the idea and asked me if I was interested in writing it. It was a fantastic idea that I just couldn't get out of my head after she asked and so here it is. The vast majority of the plot is JJdracula's and there are some chunks of prose and dialogue which are either hers outright or are adapted from things that she had already got written or had penned since we've been talking about it and sent me. So thank you, for handing this idea over to me and letting me run with it. I think I might enjoy this.
Instead of Going Under
Dreams still bothered Percy. Well, that was if 'bothered' was the right word. Maybe he should choose something else, like haunted, because that's what they did. Hung around him, as well as every other demigod he guessed, and usually scared the crap out of him. Whether he wanted to admit it or not.
This dream was no different. It was dark, with shadowy tendrils leaping and darting around, bouncing off the walls of the room he was in and hindering his vision. Every now and then he heard a haunted voice (there was that word again; it was becoming a theme) whispering to him through the dark but it was too quiet to make out anything other than the tone. Sometimes he thought that it was asking him for help but it was all so dark it was like it was sucking away at every one of his senses, not just his sight. The shadows swirling around him seemed to be hissing malevolently and drowning out the voice's cries. It was practically impossible to make out any words.
He stepped forwards, one had groping blindly in front of him, trying to get to the voice, but he was just stepping further and further into darkness and it was getting colder and colder with every step, the shadows growing darker, until finally—
That was it. No dramatic ending to the dream, no scary conclusion, no horror movie-style reveal of something hiding in the tub behind the shower curtain. Neither did he go for that other overwrought cliché and jerk upright, sweating, with a gasp or a scream. He simply opened his eyes and immediately found his bedroom to be as cold and dark as the dream. His forehead creased into a frown as he pushed hair out of his eyes impatiently, focussing hard on the dark room. His eyes scanned the shadows and his hand was reaching subconsciously for Riptide before the thought was even fully formed. He slipped his hand under his pillow, where the pen was hidden, and as his hand closed around the cool plastic he felt himself begin to relax.
Riptide was his security blanket after all. All demigods had them, whether it was Clarisse's electric spear or Annabeth's knives. They each had their own little thing that made them feel safe and Percy doubted that he was the only demigod in history to go to sleep with their weapon of choice curled in their fist. You didn't face what he had faced and came out the other side a trusting human being. Something was always going to try and kill you and what better time to do it at night when you were sleeping? Stab or get stabbed, gut or get gutted. They should turn that into the demigod motto; maybe get it put on t-shirts and badges.
Probably not all that reassuring for new campers, though.
He couldn't see anything through the darkness; the streetlight that normally shone through his curtains seemed to stop short before entering the room, swallowed up by shadows. He uncapped the pen and watched it grow into the blade he knew so well. The golden glow from the metal did penetrate the darkness slightly, combatting the shadows in a way he wasn't sure something as mundane and as mortal as a light bulb ever could, and his attention was immediately drawn to the corner furthest away from his bed.
There was something there, something moving — a boiling mass of shadows was growing larger and he slowly and carefully inched himself out from under the tangle of bedclothes, backing towards the window. Now he was out from under the blankets the chill in the room was really pronounced; his skin prickled all over from head to toe as the cold puckered flesh into goosebumps.
His breath caught in his throat and he froze, one foot poised to climb onto the windowsill in case he needed to take the fight outside to the fire escape. He could not afford to get thrown through any more walls — he had had no idea how expensive drywall was to repair. How Sally had managed to pay for the monster-related damage to their apartment when he had still been living there was beyond him.
The cold had become more intense but it had also become more familiar to him; the chill reminded him of someone he hadn't seen or heard from in more than two years, someone he had almost started to believe was dead. Could it be…?
He barely noticed his breath misting in front of him thanks to the figure that stumbled out of the shadowy mass growing in the corner. The figure immediately dropped to all fours, a curtain of dark hair obscuring the face, and Percy's heart practically stopped. He didn't need to see the face to know that it was him; the method of arrival and the chill in the room had done enough.
The shadows in the room began to fade; Percy took the cue from the streetlight's illumination turning the tide and winning the battle with the darkness to flick on the lamp beside his bed. It was almost blinding after the suffocating darkness but Percy didn't care; it threw a pool of light towards the guy currently apparently set on hacking his lungs out onto his rug in the middle of the room and confirmed everything he had suspected.
It was him. The one who had lost his way after his imprisonment during the Giant War. The one that had gone AWOL more than two years ago with no explanation. The one that had turned sixteen just last week (the date was circled in black Sharpie on Percy's calendar even though there'd been no reason to remember or celebrate).
Nico. Percy's long-lost cousin.
Percy capped Riptide and stumbled forwards, perhaps even less gracefully than Nico had on his entrance, having finally gained control of his limbs. "Nico?!" he asked, barely daring to believe what he was seeing.
Stepping closer, though, he wished he hadn't. Shaggy, unkempt black hair, devoid of any of its previous lustre and cloyed with dirt and grease, parted enough to show Percy Nico's face. The light from the bedside lamp wasn't excessively bright but Nico's was not looking good. His cousin's face had become so pale it was almost translucent; he could see deep blue veins meandering their way through the flesh. The sallow skin was stretched tightly over the cheekbones and around his jaw. The sunken eyes were mired in the purple bruises under both of them. A rust-coloured scab bifurcated his upper lip but it was almost hidden by the torrent of blood meandering is way from both nostrils.
Nico was wearing a hoodie which was torn at the neck; it flapped open, revealing a jagged scar across his throat and a spindly collarbone protruding from his chest with a deep hollow behind it. Nico looked more like one of the skeletons he liked to summon rather than a human being.
"Percy," Nico croaked hoarsely, wiping the back of his hand across his mouth and cuffing ineffectually at the nosebleed, looking up at his cousin. "Hey."
It took a little while for Percy to form words; his lower jaw was hanging open so far it felt like there were weights hanging off it and they weren't going to release soon enough to leave his mouth free for talking. "'Hey'?!" Percy demanded eventually, incredulousness pitching it a lot higher than he'd planned. "Two years and everyone thinking you were dead and all I get is 'hey'?!"
Nico shrugged tiredly, shuffling on all fours over to Percy's desk and using it to pull himself to his feet. He wobbled dangerously but managed to stay vertical long enough to meet Percy's green stare (which had flared with irritation and annoyance to replace the relief) with his own impassive dark one. "The story runs a little long, sorry. But I'm here now." At that moment his knees failed him; they buckled from underneath him and he plunged to the carpet. Percy moved forward to catch him and managed to support him to the ground where he indulged in another hacking coughing fit.
Percy had easily put his whole hand around Nico's bicep when he had caught him with room to spare and the hand that was on his back could feel ribs through the thick material of the hoodie. Nico both looked and felt half-dead. What had happened to him that had resulted in this? The longer Percy rubbed Nico's back, trying to ease the coughing, the more he came to realise that Nico was burning up. There was heat rolling off his body in waves which was pretty much new territory where Nico was concerned.
As Nico coughed, Percy noted that the sleeve had ridden up on the arm that he had grabbed; the exposed forearm was just as pale as the face and even dirtier but it was also littered with burns and scars like detritus left behind on a battlefield. He frowned; every demigod had their scars and the stories to go with them but this was one hell of a lot for one guy. Some scars, still pink and healing, were overlaid on older, whiter ones and burns new and old glistened back at Percy in the dim light.
Percy got to his feet and slipped into the bathroom, coming back with a glass of water. He held it out to Nico who took it and gulped greedily, draining the glass before managing to sit back on his heels. Despite the coughing, Nico had taken the time Percy had been in the bathroom to yank the sleeve back down; there were self-cut holes in the sleeves for a thumb, Percy noted, to keep the sleeves permanently stretched down as far as they would go. It must have come loose when Percy grabbed him.
"If it helps, I don't know how I got here," Nico said eventually, shoving hair off his face and taking another lingering look at his cousin. "I'm sorry. I just… one minute I was… I don't know."
It had taken a while for Percy to notice because the room was dim and the brown of Nico's eyes was so close to the dark of the pupil — in fact, the irises were a whole lot darker than when Percy had last seen Nico, another change not for the better — but he saw it now. Nico's pupils were blown wide, looking like saucers as they stared back at Percy.
"It's fine," Percy said automatically, tearing himself away from the massive pupils that betrayed the fact that his cousin was clearly as high as fucking kite, or should be if his body wasn't so sick. "Are you… high?" Never one for subtly he blurted it out practically before he could stop himself, although it wasn't just a lack of tact that forced the words out. He was angry too, he realised, more than anything else. What the Hades was Nico playing at, what was he doing to himself?
Nico snorted and rolled his eyes. "I'm sick, Perce. I took a little something to take the edge off. If that's a crime then there'd be a whole lot of doctors in jail right now for recommending it."
"What did you take?" Percy asked, his mind chugging away. Nico was messed up, sick and high. Was he high all the time? How long had he been sick? Did he need an ambulance? Was he even going to be able to give Nico the help he needed?
"Does it matter?" Nico asked tiredly, one shoulder shrugging. "A couple of things. This and that. I mean I'm pretty much a pharmacist by this point, Perce. I've tried the whole fucking rainbow of pills and then some."
"Gods, Nico, seriously? That's who you are now?" Percy said, distaste mixed with worry crossing his face.
"Bet you missed your messed up little cousin, huh?" Nico said, a trace of a smirk appearing as the shock on Percy's face registered. "I take it because it helps, okay? With… with everything."
Percy sighed. 'Everything' was such a broad term when it came to what Nico had been through. It could mean what had happened during his imprisonment, it could have been what happened with his father after the war was done, hell it could even been what had happened during all that time on the streets. All he knew was that Nico had been through enough for so many lifetimes already and he was still basically a child trapped with memories and experiences most adults never got to feel. Was it any wonder that something like this had happened? He had kept himself so aloof; without the support system of Camp or friends sharing experiences Percy thought that most demigod kids would end up like Nico. Sad, alone and, ultimately, pretty much broken.
"Of course I missed you, Nico. I went out of my mind when you left. Annabeth too. But this… this isn't what I was expecting when we found you."
Nico gave a hollow laugh, the effort starting another coughing fit. When he finally stopped coughing he spoke again. "Sorry to disappoint. This isn't exactly what I had in mind, either," he said, the bitterness coming over loud and clear. "Believe me. I've done things, seen things… But I can't do it anymore. I am so screwed up. I keep fucking up over and over again. All the time. I can't help it." Nico's shoulders slumped and he leant backwards against the wall, his eyes downcast. Eventually, his eyes closed and he sighed, trying to form the courage to whisper the thing that it had taken two years of living on the streets, taking drugs and more than a few near-death experiences for him to realise. "Maybe that's why I'm here. I think… I think I need help. I don't know where else to go. I don't have any else to go to."
The enormity of that took its time to sink in for Percy. Nico needed 'help' but his cousin had so much wrong with him right now that Percy didn't even know where to begin. What's more, this must be rock bottom for someone like Nico to admit that he needed help. His independent streak was a mile wide, perhaps even surpassing Annabeth's, so to get to this point Nico must have some seriously messed up stuff behind him.
"You need to eat," Percy said at last, choosing not to comment on anything else right now. "If you're sick you need to eat. There's soup in the freezer. I'll nuke it while you take a shower, okay?" Given that the fact that Nico's lungs were trying to turn themselves inside out every five minutes (well, that or make a break for it through his oesophagus) Percy guessed he should probably work on that first, the chest infection or whatever Nico had managed to catch.
The rest... would be more difficult but would come later. With time.
With a plan of action in place Percy felt lighter as his brain began to file away information for later, making the situation seem less overwhelming. What he couldn't deal with now was being passed into the deep recesses of his mind, not to be forgotten but just to be out of the way for now. Annabeth always seemed so envious of his ability to do that; she overthought, especially in battle, whereas Percy just knew instinctively not only to prioritise but what to prioritise. That said, Annabeth was one hell of an amazing strategist because of the way her brain worked but in the heat of a battle when split second decisions needed to be made he felt like he had her beat.
Not that he'd ever tell her that, of course. There'd be no sex for about a year.
For now Percy found his cousin surprisingly easy to lead to the bathroom after Nico had nodded absently, surrendering himself to Percy's care. Nico was disturbingly light to pick up off the floor and support to the next room; Percy felt as if a tiny bird were leaning on him, not a human being. The soup couldn't come quickly enough and then, after that, an Everest of cake and candy had to be next on the list. There were better nourished famine victims.
With Percy's help, Nico plonked himself down on the closed toilet lid, folding forwards and slumping across his own lap like a marionette with the strings cut. Nico had really quietened down and receded into himself; apparently travelling to Percy and attempting to explain the situation had really taken it out of him.
"Nico, you gotta sit up," Percy said, wrenching back the shower curtain and running the shower full blast. "Take a shower. You'll feel better."
Nico groaned and struggled to sit up, his pupils still huge and his expression glazed. "Don't wanna," he slurred, no energy remaining to form the words. "Don't. Want... want. Want to."
"You'll feel better," Percy repeated with a little more force behind the words this time. If ever it was time for tough love it was now. "Come on." He hauled Nico to his feet again; his cousin was unresponsive, floppy, and could barely stand on his own. Rolling his eyes Percy awkwardly propped Nico up on his own chest and used his now-free hands to tug at the hem of the hoodie, trying to roll it up and off.
That woke Nico up.
He reeled backwards violently, shoving Percy away, backing against the wall opposite the door shaking his head. "I got it," he said, his fists balled into his hoodie. "I don't need... I can do it. Shower. Got it."
"Are you sure you're okay?" Percy asked.
Nico gave that hollow laugh again, the emptiness behind it causing Percy to flinch. "Okay? Fuck no. But I'll live and, hey, apparently that's the main thing right? So I'm told."
Percy hesitated, unsure of what to do next or what to make of the outburst. He half-turned to leave the room and then changed his mind, turning again to look at his cousin. Nico was stood there, still leaning against the back wall, his arms hugging his lower abdomen.
"I'll live," Nico repeated, his turn to get repetitive now. "I'll shower now."
Percy nodded uncertainly, not sure what to make of the situation but deciding to leave it be. For now. "I'll go and nuke the soup," he said. "Borrow whatever clothes you need from my room when you're done, okay? What you're wearing is about to fall off you."
Nico nodded, taking a glance down at his own clothes as if he was seeing them for the first time. "Fine," he said. "I'll see you in a bit." He stared across the room at Percy, who was still hovering in the doorway.
His expression was carefully neutral but Percy got the hint and sighed as he left the room, shutting the door behind him. He leant back against it for a few seconds, contemplating. It felt like he was debating a hundred different things at once. Should he call Annabeth? She always knew what to do, sure, but would Nico thank him for it? Then there was the neon elephant in the room: was he even qualified for helping someone who was quite clearly on drugs get clean because, unless he was very much mistaken, his name was not and had never been Percy 'Betty Ford' Jackson.
The lock slid into place on the other side of the door; the sound made him jump, startling him out of his reverie. He pushed himself back to standing and made for the kitchen. He was on autopilot, still deep in thought, and navigated around furniture with ease in the dark, not thinking about turning the light on. The contents of the freezer stared back at him when he opened it and a staring contest began although Percy, with his stare blank and not fully comprehending, would probably have lost on a technicality. He gazed at the frozen food inside, hanging onto the door and feeling cold air waft out across the floor, chilling his bare feet.
So. Nico was some kind of pill-popping junkie who had hit rock bottom and had come to see Percy to get bailed out? Huh.
In so many, many ways he wished it had just been a monster visiting him during the night to kill him.
His lips thinned as he reached for the Tupperware with the soup in and slammed the door to the freezer, plunging the apartment back into darkness. He hit the lights irritably and started rooting through the pile of dirty dishes in the sink until he found a bowl that looked like it would just rinse clean without scrubbing or dish soap. It did and he turned the plastic container of soup upside down, banging it a few times on the counter to dislodge it and gaining a whole lot of satisfaction out of it.
Nico had a nerve, really, when you thought about it. Whack. The soup still didn't shift. What was with showing up after all of this time and expecting Percy to just toss him a life vest because he had finally realised that he was drowning? Whack-whack. Had he not realised that people would have been looking for him for all this time? Whack. Or did he just not care? Whack-whack. WHACK. The Tupperware cracked under the onslaught and Percy growled in frustration, although the plastic container did relinquish the frozen block of soup.
Percy swept the massive soup ice cube off the counter into the waiting bowl (Sally had been very adamant about not microwaving food in plastic containers and, even though a little bit of chemical contamination was pretty much at the bottom of the pyramid of things that were going to kill him he still always transferred food before heating it) and practically threw the soup into the microwave. A resounding crash rattled through the kitchen, followed by the door slamming. Percy punched the digits angrily.
Then he sighed and closed his eyes, rubbing his hand over his face and the bending forwards to rest his head on the counter. The microwave was sending small vibrations through the work surface and into his head and he let it wash over him as he calmed down. He couldn't be angry about what had happened. Nico had said it himself: there wasn't anyone else. Percy, and perhaps Annabeth as an extension of that, were the sum of all the family that Nico had, the only people who might even consider being there for him in a time of need.
And it wasn't Nico's fault, not really. Whatever had happened during his long period of captivity no one was completely, one hundred per cent sure about but the simple fact was that he just wasn't the same kid when he came out of it at the end. Add to that the loss of Hazel (she had been forced to return to the Underworld after the end of the Giant Wear to keep the balance), which had once again left him bereft of siblings and therefore anyone else who could even remotely understand what it was to be a child of Hades, then perhaps it was no surprise that Nico had gone off the deep end.
Apparently it had been a truly spectacular dive when he'd done it, too. The judges should have given him straight 10.0s all over what with the speed and distance he had fallen and the apparent theatrics on the way down, going from who Nico had been before to… this.
Whatever 'this' was.
As the timer ticked down on the microwave Percy again considered calling Annabeth. It was now pretty much his default reaction in any kind of crisis; she really did seem to know what to do in all situations. Then he realised that she was probably asleep and had classes in the morning; perhaps it would be better to break the news tomorrow about Nico's sudden return.
In the distance he heard the shower stop running and he glanced in the direction of the bedroom. He would deal with this because he owed it to Nico; hell, the at this point the world pretty much owed it to Nico. Nico needed someone to listen and work out his problems with him and Percy would do it. What other choice was there? Throw him back out onto the streets and spend the rest of his life imagining him as some John Doe in a morgue? No, absolutely not. Not gonna happen.
The door to the bathroom opened and closed and Percy heard the sound of the chest of drawers in his bedroom being pulled open. He glanced again at the soup; the block was melted now and on the way to being cooked. It was time for his game face.
Nico emerged from the bedroom at last, drying his hair with a towel. He was wearing sweatpants and a hoodie, both of which drowned him and made it look like he was about to be devoured by some kind of toothless, cotton monster. Whether he looked better or not for the shower Percy couldn't really tell; there was no more dirt on his face but at least it had served to give the flesh some colour. Without it, Nico's face achieved a feat that Percy would not have thought possible ten minutes ago in that it had paled even further.
"How are you feeling?" Percy asked.
"Like road kill," Nico said shortly, finishing with the towel and raking his fingers through his hair. "Clean road kill, though," he added as an afterthought. "Which is always a bonus. By the way, you call yourself a demigod? The strongest thing you have in your bathroom cabinet is Tylenol. You know who they give that to? Babies who are teething."
"You went looking through the bathroom cabinet?" Percy asked, a pronounced edge to his voice as his eyebrows shot up in surprise.
"Yes," Nico said grouchily, not catching Percy's expression as he rolled back the sleeves of the hoodie he was wearing. "And not a single oxycodone in sight. Hell, I'd have settled for some Vicodin but no. It was like a nun's bathroom cabinet."
"I thought you wanted help?" Percy asked, folding his arms. "Isn't that what you said to me about, oh, ten minutes ago? Correct me if I'm wrong but I don't think raiding someone else's bathroom cabinet hoping to score some prescription pain meds is consistent with that."
Nico blinked and looked up from his rolling. He threw his hands up in the air defensively. "Fine. Okay, you're right. I'm sorry. I was just making a joke, jeez. Lighten up." His expression humbled under Percy's glare and he sighed, looking down at his bare feet. His toes were scrunched underneath him. "I do want help," he said quietly. "I do."
Percy nodded, gesturing at the tiny kitchen table. Nico crossed the room and sat down, drumming his fingers nervously on the cheap plastic. His eyes, the pupils of which had now started to contract, were darting all around the room. Percy noted them lingering on the door and windows — the viable escape routes.
"Thinking of leaving?" Percy asked, leaning back against the counter.
Nico blinked again, surprised that Percy had noticed, and then his expression changed to sheepishness. "No. Well, not right now. The soup smells too good. I didn't even realise I was doing it really. It's just habit. Gotta know where the exits are in case you need to make a quick one, you know? You get used to planning on how you're going to run away."
The microwave beeped and Percy turned around, rescuing a clean-ish spoon from Mt. Dirty Dishes and giving it a quick wipe on his t-shirt for Nico to use to eat with. While his back was turned, he heard the chink of a metal lighter being flipped open, the click of it striking and then a long first drag on a cigarette. When he turned around, there was a packet of Camel Regulars on the table and one dangling from Nico's lips. Nico didn't notice Percy's glare because he was too busy playing moodily with the lighter, running his fingers through the flame.
"You smoke?" Percy asked, his nose wrinkling in distaste.
Nico looked up, startled. The lighter went out. "Yeah," he said offhandedly, taking another drag and then removing the cigarette from his mouth, using his free hand to offer Percy the packet. "Why, you want one? But FYI it's pretty bad when you're bumming smokes from an actual bum. Just sayin'."
"I don't smoke," Percy said firmly. "And neither should you."
Nico rolled his eyes. "Seriously, am I really going to get that speech? Blah blah, smoking kills, cigarettes are suicide sticks, blah. Yeah, I read the packets. Thanks. Besides, number one: I like smoking. Number two: of all the altars I've been worshipping at recently, and believe me there have been one hell of a lot, I think Lady Nicotine's altar is the least of both of our worries, don't you?"
"You're underage," Percy said. "And even if you weren't this is my apartment and you can't smoke in here. So put it out."
Nico glowered at him, took one last big drag and dropped the cigarette in a half-empty cup of coffee on the table next to him. The cigarette hissed and died in amongst the patches of mould which littered the surface of what was left in the mug. "Happy?" he asked, exhaling through his nose and cramming the cigarettes and the lighter into the front pocket of the borrowed hoodie.
"My apartment, my rules," Percy said stoically, taking the soup out of the microwave and crossing the kitchen to plonk it in front of Nico. "So yeah, actually. Pretty happy. Now eat. We really need to talk."
A shadow passed over Nico's face as he played with the spoon, staring down into the surface of the soup. "What about?" he asked quietly, almost as if he were afraid of the answer.
"Everything," Percy said. "Like what the hell happened to you. What we're going to do with you now."
"Like I said, it's a long story," Nico said, still talking to the soup. "I don't even know where to start."
Percy sighed in frustration, reaching over and jamming the spoon into his cousin's hand. "Eat," he said. "Start there."
Nico practically inhaled the soup. If Percy didn't know better he would have thought that his cousin had developed the power to speed up time while he was away. It seemed like one minute the bowl was full and the next it was almost empty, with Nico tilting the bowl to try and scrape the remnants out in hardly any time at all.
"Someone was hungry," Percy said, amused.
Nico shrugged. "I guess I was. I didn't realise. If you spend enough time not eating then your body stops reminding you that you're hungry. It was good soup."
"My mom made it," Percy said. "She told me to put it in the freezer in case I got sick."
"Well it worked. I feel better. She's one hell of a cook," Nico said, preparing to take the last spoonful.
"The ambrosia probably helped," Percy said evenly, watching as Nico's face clouded in anger.
Nico threw the spoon back into the bowl and scowled hard at Percy. "You spiked my soup with ambrosia?" he demanded, his jaw jutting angrily.
"You weren't going to take it willingly and you needed it," Percy said with a shrug. "Whether you like it or not."
"Well I don't like it," Nico bit out. "I don't need help from Camp or from the gods or any of it. Not anymore, not after what happened."
"Screw you, Percy," Nico bit out.
"Would you please grow the fuck up?" Percy half-shouted. "You're sick, Nico. Really sick. You had a fever and you were coughing your lungs out. That kind of thing doesn't go away with soup on its own. You keep telling me you want help now start acting like you mean it. Start accepting it."
Nico looked mutinous, his jaw set. Despite the cold anger in his eyes Percy was reminded of when he had first met Nico, all those years ago, when Bianca had still been alive and telling him he needed to brush his teeth or go to bed. He bit down hard on his bottom lip, trying not to laugh at the image he had conjured up.
The laughter died pretty fast when Percy really stopped to hold up the picture he had of the old Nico, not just the child obsessed with Mythomagic but even the guy he had been before the Giant War, and this shell of a human being hunched over the folding card table in his kitchen.
It wasn't funny.
"Do you have health insurance?" Percy asked pointedly, trying a different tack.
Nico looked up at his cousin, all anger forgotten, his nose scrunched into an expression that demanded how stupid are you? "What? Sure I do. All of the details are securely locked in my safe along with the other important documents in my life, like the birth certificate that says I should be dead by now. Of course I don't."
"Exactly," Percy said. "If you had gone without ambrosia then the only other way is taking you to a hospital where they're going to turn you into a human pincushion, run you through every machine they have, pump you full of a ton of antibiotics of whatever, and then when that's all over they're going to start asking questions like, 'Oh, what was your social security number again?' and then probably 'How the fuck does a ninety-year-old man look sixteen?' Next thing you know, it's time to chain you up in a government lab for a spot of vivisection. Your choice." He folded his arms, eyebrows raised, and stared Nico out until Nico dropped his eyes to the table top and sort of gave a tiny defeated shrug.
Percy rolled his eyes; the fact that Nico could never admit when he was wrong was yet to change, it seemed. Instead of antagonising his new houseguest more he moved to clear the bowl, taking it to the sink and playing a round of crockery Buckaroo with the dirty dishes already stacked there, which very nearly went horribly wrong when a plate made a break for it. He managed to catch it on his foot, however, although wished he'd just let the thing smash when pain shot through his toes, exacerbated by the cold radiating upwards from the scuffed linoleum beneath his soles.
Swearing loudly he slammed the plate down on the kitchen counter and turned 180 degrees while clutching his bruised foot and hopping. In the short time he had been distracted Nico had already nestled his head in the crook of his arm and was sprawled on the table, fast asleep.
Percy let out a breath it felt like he'd been holding for some time even though he hadn't. Nico was here to stay, it seemed, and Percy had invited all of his cousin's problems in as well to share the couch with him. What exactly had he let himself in for and, more importantly, did he have what it would take to turn Nico back into the guy he used to know?