I am so, so sorry this took so long to get out. Like, a ridiculously long time. I had so much trouble ending it and I had to do a lot of scrapping it and starting again. I've also been creatively blocked lately, very much so, which I think mostly can be attributed to the fact that I've not had much chance to read fiction a lot lately. It's true what they say: if you want to write a lot, first you have to read a lot.
Apologies also to everyone I owe review replies to. I will make time for you as soon as I can. I haven't stopped caring, believe me.
This is now the final chapter of this fic. My usual thanks to JJDracula, without whom none of this would even have made it into being. Thank you everyone for supporting me on this amazing journey. I'm sorry it has taken so long to get to this point, but the end is finally in sight. It's been a privilege writing for you all and I want to thank you for sticking with me and leaving me with so many kind reviews. You've all been awesome.
Thanks for having me.
Percy waited out the rest of the day at Annabeth's before he risked coming back to his apartment. He was half expecting to see an eviction notice on the door, but all seemed okay as he let himself in. Maybe the other tenants hadn't been able to point out his apartment as the source for the sonic screeching. Good news, because he was so not looking to be homeless right now.
The apartment was in total darkness. Percy flicked the light switches, but nothing happened. He almost smacked himself in the forehead. Of course. Anything with the capacity to shatter had shattered thanks to the Sirens, including the lightbulbs.
"Crap. I should have bought a—" Percy began.
Nico pulled out a flashlight and clicked it on, walking past Percy into the apartment.
"Flashlight," Percy continued. "Huh. Where the hell did you get a flashlight from?"
Nico let the beam of the flashlight rove over the apartment. It stopped short on the plywood nailed up at the windows before continuing down to the floor. Shards of glass glimmered under the light like specks of gold at the bottom of a prospector's murky pan.
"I stole it from Annabeth's." Nico shrugged it off, continuing to let the light wander around the wreck of the apartment. "Why didn't you think of this?"
Percy closed his eyes. "When she comes looking for it tomorrow, the story will be I took it and I borrowed it from her. If you value your life, I mean."
Nico swung the beam around, temporarily blinding Percy. When he realised what he was doing, he let the light drop to the floor. "Oops. Sorry. But what do you mean, if I value my life? She had a whole shelf in this insane survivalist's closet full of flashlights and spare batteries. I doubt she'll even notice it's gone."
"Nico, when have you ever known Annabeth to not have at least three separate ways of cataloguing and categorising the things she owns? She will notice it's gone and yes, she will be mad you took it without asking."
"She has about five thousand flashlights. I don't think this is going to be the one which decides whether she lives or dies."
"Try telling Annabeth." Percy walked forward and took the light off Nico. His shoes crunched on scattered shards. He shone the beam on the windows and walked over to inspect the work, pushing on it. It seemed solid. "I guess they got contractors in to board up everyone's windows. This should keep the worst of the weather out for now. What with Fifth Avenue needing new glass, only the gods know when we'll actually get proper windows."
"We should have stayed at Annabeth's." Nico wrenched a couch cushion free, shook it clear of glass and replaced it upside down so he could sit down without impaling himself.
"What, you liked sleeping on her couch that much? Besides, I'm trying to keep you alive. I don't think that mixes so well with you staying at Annabeth's. Especially not with you taking her stuff without asking." Percy crossed the apartment and pulled Nico to his feet. "Come on. Get up. Thank the gods we live in New York City, where there's no shortage of places to buy lightbulbs in bulk long after other cities have closed up for the night."
Nico groaned, trying to resist Percy pulling him to his feet. "Really? I did not sign up for late night lightbulb shopping."
Percy kept pulling. "Yeah, well, I didn't sign up for a smart ass roommate. I guess we're both going to have to suck it up." He finally got Nico to his feet. "Plus after the lightbulbs, we're getting pizza because I am starving and we both deserve it."
Nico snorted. "Why the hell didn't you lead with the pizza? I would have been all over it." He marched out of the apartment, sticking his head around the door. "What are we waiting for? Pizza is not going to buy itself."
Percy knew he should be tired, but he wasn't. Maybe it was because he'd slept in so late after the blood loss and amateur surgery, but there was no way he was going to get any sleep. With a sigh, he rolled onto his side and then tossed onto his stomach. The covers churned over him. To make sure they weren't sleeping on beds of glass fakir-style, he'd flipped his and Nico's mattresses, but the rush job he'd done on the bottom sheet had come untucked. I was rumpling underneath him, further adding to his sense of annoyance.
He stared at the chink of light coming in around the side of one of the pieces of plywood and at the curtain flickering in the draught it let in. This was crazy.
The covers went airborne as he threw them off him and plunged his feet into a sturdy pair of boots by the bed. He was not about to walk the shattered glass gauntlet in the dark. They'd replaced the lightbulbs, but Percy didn't want to turn any lights on in case he woke Nico up. As Percy reached his bedroom door, he realised he had no idea what he was actually going to do — he assumed his TV was a goner. It made him pause for a split second before he wrenched open the door anyway. He had to do something or he'd go insane.
There were lights on in the apartment. That surprised him. Frowning, he crunched his way down the hall and into the living area. What he saw made him stop and take a step back. Was he actually asleep and dreaming? Because otherwise, what he was seeing made no sense.
Nico was wandering around the apartment with a trash bag trailing after him, picking up the larger shards off the furniture and dumping them in the bag. Admittedly, he wasn't cleaning very efficiently and he seemed to be collecting half the broken glass and ceramic under the bag as he dragged it around, but he was still cleaning. It was enough to make Percy pinch himself.
Nope. Definitely awake.
"Did you get replaced by a pod person?" Percy asked, leaning against the wall. "You're… cleaning."
Nico looked up, his fingers tightening for a second on the mouth of the bag. He looked like he'd been caught in the act of something much worse. He relaxed, heaving a shrug. "Yeah. I know. Weird, huh? I can't even believe it. I had to do something and the TV is well and truly dead. I couldn't—"
"Sleep? Yeah. It's going around."
Nico nodded. "Adrenaline. It's a bitch. Plus, I'm going to have to get used to sleeping again without pills. Apparently, I've still got a lot to learn." He saw Percy's face tighten at the comment and jingled the trash bag at Percy to fill the awkward silence the confession left. "I didn't even know where to start. I have no idea how you're meant to start cleaning up a mess like this. Maybe you should move."
"You don't have to do this, Nico. It can wait."
Nico bent at the waist and started picking up the debris from the broken coffee table. The trash bag was soon bulging with empty takeout containers and two table legs. "I know, but I want to. Gotta keep busy. Busy busy or go insane, you know?"
"I'm fine, Percy. Let me do this. Besides, you might never see me clean again. Enjoy it while it lasts."
"I was just going to ask if you want a broom."
Nico arched an eyebrow; the wrenching knot he tied his full trash bag in was all the answer Percy needed.
"Okay. Baby steps. I got it," Percy said, holding up his hands and laughing. "I'm going to sweep. I thought I didn't have the energy to deal with this mess until morning but it turns out I'm apparently not allowed to sleep tonight, so…"
Percy fetched a broom. Shards tinkled against each other as he propelled them across the kitchen tile.
Nico watched the pile of broken glass grow for a few minutes before sagging and retracing Percy's earlier steps to a closet, returning with a dustpan. "You bring out the worst in me. First you have me saving people's lives and now I'm sweeping." He bent down; Percy began to sweep glass into the dustpan.
"You'll be a model citizen before you know it," Percy said with a grin.
Nico glared at him as he opened a new trash bag and crashed the glass in the dustpan into it. They worked in silence for a few minutes; the tile floor eventually became more visible.
"You're probably sick of me asking this by now, but are you okay?" Percy asked. "You were quiet over pizza and you're quiet now. It's sort of freaking me out. You don't do quiet."
Nico gave a small, one-shoulder shrug. "Sure. I guess. I'm still trying to get my brain to catch up with everything from the past few days. Big changes, you know?"
"Yeah, but good changes. Right? I mean, I know the Sirens came along and made a mess of everything but you know how monsters love to pick their moment."
Nico nodded. "Weirdly, I think the Sirens might actually have helped me out. I don't know. Like I said, I'm trying to get it all straight. One minute I'm freaking out because suddenly I'm back to being a demigod and my father is yelling at me about my responsibilities and the next… maybe it was the best thing that could have happened? I didn't feel like I was really back, like I was really here. It didn't seem so permanent. Now I think about it, having survived the Sirens and done all the demigod stuff and still be standing at the end of it… it sort of feels like I got back on the horse at just the right time."
Percy leaned on his broom and eyed Nico up and down. "Okay, I'll let you have this one but for the record, no more saying monster attacks are a good thing. It sounds like you're wishing for them and my apartment can seriously not take any more destruction."
Nico nudged the bulging trash bag with his foot. "Hey, I were you not there when I risked life and limb ditching those old takeout containers? They were two days from plotting to take over the galaxy. This might be the best thing to happen to the place in years."
Percy smiled. Some of the tension left his chest. He had been worried when he'd seen Nico awake and actually cleaning that Nico was unsettled or thinking about vanishing again, but it seemed less likely now. He was going to stay, but he was struggling to deal. Percy could relate.
"I was going to start a museum with those. Or discover a new antibiotic. I wasn't sure which yet. You could have tossed out the one advance to medical science capable of saving us all."
"You were trying to create sentient life, Percy. Don't lie. You were trying to grow some friends in those containers because, let's face it, you've got to find someone who will talk to you."
Percy brandished his broom. "I'm not above smacking you with this, FYI. It would be way more fun than using it for cleaning. A little something for you to bear in mind."
Nico's eyes glittered. "You'd have to catch me first." His gaze slid down to the floor, squashing the sparkle under the weight. Even after sweeping, tiny slivers of glass still twinkled up at him. He felt his face contort into a frown. "I know I've got a long way to go," he said.
Percy twirled the broom, tossing it up in the air with one hand and snatching it, still spinning, out of the air with the other. "Sure. Have you seen the state of the place? I'm going to have you vacuuming by the end of this." When Nico let that slide, Percy missed the broom in surprise. It clattered to the floor. "You're not talking about the apartment, huh?"
Nico shook his head. "Nope. I kind of wish I was, because even the way it looks now, the apartment is still going to be way easier to fix than me." He leant against the back of the couch, shifting position as some of the embedded shards stabbed him in the legs.
"Hey, weren't you saying how you were glad the Sirens came and trashed the joint because you needed to get back on the horse?"
Nico nodded, rubbing at his face. "I was. And I still mean it. Not least because when you're running for your life and generally trying to avoid death, you don't have time to think about how much you'd like a Valium." Nico snorted in a vague attempt at a laugh, but it was entirely humourless and flat. "Gods, I don't know."
Percy twisted his mouth and stayed silent. Nico abandoned his trash bag and tucked his hands under his armpits, his gaze zigzagging across the floor without taking any of it in.
Percy reached for one of the kitchen chairs and tapped it on the floor, dislodging a cascade of splinters as he did so, before sinking into it. He suddenly felt very old. "You want to take pills now?"
Nico swallowed. "Now. Yesterday. Probably tomorrow. It's never going to go away, is it?"
Nico looked up, blinking at the directness of the answer.
Percy shrugged at him. "What, did you want me to lie to you? I can't. Sorry. I'm not an expert or from a fancy rehab or anything but I think this is something which is going to stay with you for a long time. Time helps, sure, but I think a lot of the time you're going to have to deal with the fact you want to take pills."
"Yeah, but I don't want to be such a fuck up, Percy. I want to do better."
"You are not a fuck up. Quit saying it. If I have to get you a shock collar to yank you out of the habit I will."
One corner of Nico's mouth twitched up into a vague attempt at a smile. Percy realised he didn't think he'd seen Nico smile properly since he'd been back. It only added to the sense of weight in his chest.
"You think I'm kidding but we live in a city where we can bulk buy lightbulbs at two in the morning, so I have no doubt I will find a place selling human shock collars. It may need a vat of brain bleach to erase the memory of having to go that kind of shop in the first place but if it gets you to stop beating yourself up it will be worth it." Percy picked up his broom from the floor and pointed with it for emphasis, as if his stare wasn't enough.
Nico closed his eyes, rubbing them to try and erase the images Percy had conjured up. "Oh, gods. Hey, even with everything I've seen imagining you in a sex shop is still way too far for me. You may get to see my pizza all over again."
Percy smiled. "Agreed. Let's never mention it and never give me any reason to go there, okay? Look, Nico… like I keep telling you, you went through some horrific shit. It's a miracle you're still here and as whole as you are. Plenty of people would never have come out of the other side. That's how I know you're strong enough to keep beating this thing. You've survived things so many other people couldn't have survived. And you are doing better. Compared with this time last week, think how far you've come."
Nico's eyes rolled nearly out of his head as he set about teasing embedded shards of glass and ceramic out of the back of the couch. "Yeah, I've gone from being minutes from death to being… minutes from death. It's such a refreshing change of pace for me."
"Pipe down. You don't seem to think I'm serious about coming over there with this broom. You know what I mean."
"Yeah. I do. I mean, I know you're serious about the broom and I do know what you mean. Sorry. It's just… so much has happened in a few days, you know?" Nico said. "I think I'm still processing. First I came back, and then Himeros, and then my dad, and then the Sirens… Even for a demigod, we've had a pretty packed schedule. This is the first time I've had time to think and I'm kind of freaking out. I want to be everything you said but at the same time there are not enough bell boys in the world for the baggage I'm hauling. You have helped me out so much but with everything I've got going on…" Nico swallowed hard. "It would be easy to let you down."
"Please, you could never let me down. I don't think highly enough of you for you to let me down." Percy grinned as Nico's head snapped up; the grin widened as Nico narrowed his eyes at Percy.
"Hey, have I ever told you you're kind of a dick?"
Percy pretended to think. "No… nope. It's not ringing any bells." Nico continued to glare at him and he threw up his hands and laughed. "Oh come on, man. Lighten up. Of course you could never let me down. Don't be stupid. Also, you need to remember there's nothing you can do about your past. It happened. It sucked, but it happened. You can't change it now. So now focus on living and getting better. That's all you need to do."
"Easy for you to say," Nico muttered, still yanking bits of glass out of the back of the couch.
"Hey, it's gonna be easy for you to say one day, too. I know it might not seem like it now, but it will get easier. There'll probably be days where you don't think about it at all, even without the Sirens to distract you. And then there'll be days where it's harder. It's a long-haul thing. I wish I could make this better for you, snap my fingers and solve all of your problems but… life is tough, man. Life is really hard and it's about how you deal with it that defines who you are as a person. Right now, you're saying no to drugs. If you keep saying no, and it will get easier, then you'll be in recovery. But you've got to keep saying no. There's no cheat code here."
What appeared to be half a bowl came free in Nico's hand. If either of them had got in the way of such a big piece of shrapnel, they'd be staring at their intestines before knowing what had happened. Nico grimaced at it and tossed it into his trash bag. "I'm going to do better, Percy." He nodded once and dusted off his hands.
"I know. What are you telling me for? I'm not the one doubting you. The only person doubting you here is yourself. Give yourself some credit, for the gods' sake. Think about everything you've been through, everything you've survived, and know you are strong. A fighter. And you can do this. I'm not going anywhere, either. We can do this together."
Nico's gaze locked with Percy's for a long time. His dark eyes seemed to be searching for something until eventually he seemed to find what he was looking for. "You… want me to stay." Nico cocked his head; his forehead furrowed. The bag slipped gradually through his fingers, rumbling and clinking into a pool on the floor.
Percy got up and walked over to Niclo, a benevolent smile covering the smack upside the head he delivered to his cousin. "Okay, are you deaf or really, really slow? Because what have I already said a thousand times? Yes, I want you to stay you freaking idiot. Gods. Do you think I'd say it over and over and over again if I didn't mean it? Again: yes, I want you to stay. Repeat: stay."
Nico was rubbing the spot Percy had smacked him. "Firstly, ow. Thanks for the concussion. Secondly, I don't know. I thought… it was just one of those things people say. That they want you around, when really they're hoping to never see you again. You know, like… the thing people do where they say stuff they don't mean so they don't hurt anyone's feelings. The thing I suck at."
Percy stared at him with his mouth open. "I swear to the gods it's like…" He shook his head, running a hand backwards through his hair. "Like, have you ever interacted with actual people before? Ever? Those things you're talking about would be called tact and being polite and… You know, I guess it makes sense you don't have any grasp of those concepts because yeah, you are pretty much never either of those things. But no, I am not being polite when I say I want you around. I want you to stay. Period. I want you to get better. Period. Besides, we're family. Families aren't polite to each other, gods. Have you not learned anything from our dads? Families smack each other upside the head when they're being dumb. It's what we do."
Nico's shrug was uncertain; he was rubbing his upper arms. "I don't… It's kind of new for me to have someone say they want me around and actually mean it, Percy. That's all. It's rare enough for someone to say it and even when they do, most people toss it out there but when it comes down to it…" He bobbed his head, staring downward. "Yeah. Not so much."
"I'm not that guy. And I hope to the gods I never will be. I would hate to be that guy."
The floor began to swim in front of Nico's eyes, adding to the effect of the shards of glass looking like fish in an aquarium. Hot pinpricks swelled behind his eyes and he sniffed. He ground his teeth together, trying desperately to turn off the tap, close the floodgate, but he couldn't do it. A tear escaped down his cheek. He was biting the inside of his cheek so hard he could taste blood, but it wasn't enough to stop it.
"Nico, are you… crying? Hey, come on. I didn't hit you that hard."
Nico shook his head; his voice clotted in his throat, spasming around words. He looked up with reddened eyes, shimmering behind tears. "Sorry," he eventually managed. "It's not that. No one wants me around, Percy. No one. To hear someone say it and mean it is really weird, okay?"
"Where is this coming from? People do want you around, Nico. Don't be an idiot."
Nico tried a snort of derision through a clogged nose. The resulting sound wasn't pretty. "Please. I scare demigods and satyrs and most other supernatural creatures on the planet. I scare the freaking gods because I'm a child of the Big Three who isn't supposed to exist. Elle obviously didn't want me. I can't believe I ever thought she did. My dad only wants me when it's convenient for him half the time, like when he tried to make me the child of the Prophecy or needs something else ridiculous done in the Underworld. What am I supposed to think?"
"Hey, come on. That's the past. It's behind you now. Of course I want you around. Of course I mean it. And you have plenty of other people who want you around as well."
"Do I? Besides you… Even Bianca…" His treacherous throat convulsed again, giving time for extra tears to break free. He felt glass and china scraping into his back as he slid down the back of the couch and onto the floor and welcomed the biting pain. "Bianca was everything to me," he said, his voice as distant as the glazed stare sliding over his eyes. "She was my sister. My best friend. And then the second she had the opportunity to join the Hunters, she took it. She left me. I know I wasn't always the best brother and I know she had to be a mom to me for so long and maybe she needed space, but my own sister just… left. And then when I went to look for her in the Underworld, she had been reborn. She didn't even wait for me then."
Percy sighed. "Before she died, I think she thought she was giving you a better life, Nico. One she didn't know how to give you. She finally had people to rely on to love you and take care of you. No kid her age should have to be a mom. I'm not saying she did the right thing but I don't think she did it because she didn't want you around. I think she did it to save both of you, in a way."
"Well, let's chalk that one up as a miserable failure," Nico bit out. "She got herself killed and me… maybe I would have been better off that way, too. I look back and it's all shit, Percy. I've lurched from one fuck up to another all my life. What kind of person does that make me?"
"Do you want me to hit you again? The next time you mention deciding not to live I'm going to smack you into next week. You don't have to be embarrassed about the life you've lead. Most people would have never made it through a tiny amount of what you did. And you have plenty to live for now. We're all here for you, Nico."
Nico shook his head, scrubbing tears from his face with his sleeve. "No one says they want me around and actually means it. You have no idea what it's like. You have a mom and Annabeth and a whole freaking camp of demigods who love you and want you around. No one has ever said that about me before and actually meant it."
"Don't get upset because you think people don't want youl. They do." Percy swished his foot across the floor to make a space relatively clear of glass so he could sit down in front of Nico. "See? Would I be risking turning my ass into a pincushion if I didn't want you around? Seriously, I'd be less concerned about sitting on a porcupine right now than on this floor."
Nico looked up. "You think I'm crying because people don't want me? Are you kidding? Please. I got over that years ago. How the hell else was I supposed to go on? This embarrassing mess is because this is the first time in a long time someone has wanted me around for me, despite all my fuck ups, and actually meant it. It doesn't happen to me, okay? So yeah, I'm freaking out over it."
"Well, you better get used to it. There's going to be a lot of it coming your way. It's not just me who wants you to stick around."
Nico nodded. "It's going to be weird, isn't it?"
Percy snorted and rolled his eyes. "Only if you make it weird. Which… given who you are yeah. It's probably going to be really weird. But you'll adjust, even if I have to force it on you. I'm pretty good at changing people's minds."
"You're also pretty good at bragging. Just tossing it out there."
Percy breathed on his nails and buffed them on his shirt. "What can I say? I'm also pretty good at killing Medusa, defeating Ares and saving the world a few times over. It's a gift."
"Wow. I never thought I'd feel sympathy for Annabeth but if this is the kind of person she has to put up with then I have a whole new appreciation for her," Nico said, managing to laugh while shaking his head.
"There are plenty of reasons I love her, but the simple fact she puts up with me is pretty much the biggest part of it," Percy said, his face splitting into a grin. "And I know neither of you exactly see eye-to-eye, but she'll be there for you as much as I will if you need her. All of us will. If you ever need someone to talk to and I'm not around, Annabeth will listen. She wants you to get better just as much as I do. And if you'd rather not talk to either of us but you still want to talk, then Annabeth keeps a spreadsheet of ex-campers from the past 50 years to keep tabs on what they're doing now. There are plenty of people on there who can help you. Some of them went on to become therapists and shrinks. They could help you through all of this.
"I know you might not want to talk now but one day you might want to and there are so many people out there. I'm not trying to pressurise you into talking to anyone and if you don't want to talk fine, I'm on board but if you do want to then we can make it happen. The world owes you, Nico. It's time we all started repaying the debt."
"Okay. Thanks." Nico's voice had a poorly-maintained mechanical edge to it, like rusted cogs grinding reluctantly against each other. He understood what Percy was saying but it was too much for his brain to even contemplate, let alone actually consider doing.
"You okay?" Percy asked, his forehead creasing in concern. "Sorry. I didn't mean to scare you. I only meant… you know. I'm not trying to force you to talk about it but if you want to then…"
Nico blinked, then shook his head. "I'm fine. Sorry. It's hard enough to get my head around people wanting me around and wanting to help me so when it comes to actually considering it… yeah. I'm not there right now. I can't. Thinking about going back to that place and reliving everything… I don't know how much of me there will be left at the end of it all if I start picking at that scab. It needs to stay in the past, at least for now."
Percy held up his hands. "Fine. Totally, absolutely fine. Like I said, I'm not trying to force anything on you. If you want to talk about it, I'm here. If you want someone else, we'll find someone else. If you don't want to talk about it, then as long as you're doing okay that's fine as well. This is your life. No one gets to live it but you."
"Huh," Nico said.
"My life," Nico echoed. For so long it had felt like someone else's life: first Minos', then his dad's, then Mimas', then came the drugs and Elle and Himeros. He realised he hadn't been properly in control of who he was and what he wanted to do for the longest time, and now maybe that time had come.
A wave seemed to crash over him, numbing all thoughts and feelings into nothing but a dull, churning roar.
"Yup," Percy said. "I'm not going to lie. It's tough. Sometimes it's hard and it sucks, but it's all yours and you pretty much have to love that, right? No one's going to try and take it from you again, Nico. I won't let them. I don't care if Mimas comes back from Tartarus or a thousand Dereks turn up on our doorstep, they're not going to fuck this up for you a second time."
The roaring in Nico's ears ratcheted up in pitch, becoming a shrill ringing. "My life," he repeated again, struggling to get the words out of his oddly-dry mouth. It felt like the floor had fallen out from underneath him, but instead of plunging downwards he was being whisked upwards away from the drop.
Percy smiled. "Didn't we do this already? Nothing's changed in the past five seconds, so yeah. It's still yours. Now the million dollar question is what are you doing to do with it?"
The question hung in the air for a long time between them. Nico's eyes searched back and forth across the middle distance, searching the future for the landmines that had dogged his past and finding the way remarkably clear.
"Whatever I want." Nico's voice was hushed, like he was in a temple and worried he was being irreverent. It was more a question than a statement, almost like he was asking the universe if it was an okay thing to say.
He had never been able to even think it before without the metaphorical ceiling falling in on him, without a thunderbolt from the blue sent to blast the very notion into atoms, and it was finally dawning on him that maybe now he could.
Laughter burst out before he could stop it, the dawning of the fact that what he was saying might actually be true now after so long being a blatant lie proving too much to contain. "Oh gods. Whatever the hell I want."