Tis the Season…
Have you heard the news that you're dead?
No one ever had much nice to say.
I think they never liked you anyway.
Rachel couldn't remember the last time she'd spent Christmas with her parents. They always opted to spend the holidays somewhere exotic, leaving their daughter to celebrate with the hired help.
Okay, there had been one year when Percy invited her to spend Christmas with his family, but she was not going to reminisce about what had happened.
It was Christmas Eve, and she was spending it with a hot guy who was pretending to be her cousin. All things considered, it wasn't the worst situation she'd ever been in.
That was until she walked into the kitchen to make coffee and found Apollo sitting at the small table in the corner. He was pretending to leaf through one of her old sketchbooks, though his gaze was focused on the entrance to the living room.
Rachel cleared her throat, leaning against the doorway. "Can I help you?" she asked coolly.
Apollo jumped. "Geez, Rach. You act like I'm breaking and entering or something."
"I don't remember inviting you in," she said.
Apollo ignored her comment. "What about that guy you're living with now?"
So that was the reason for his visit. "His name's John, and he's not living with me. He's just…you know what? It's none of your business," Rachel said, glaring.
Apollo cocked an eyebrow. Rachel was certain she wasn't going to like what he had to say. "So when does it become my business? When you start sleeping with him?"
"Oh my God, Apollo. Just because we-"
"Is this a bad time?" John asked, poking his head in the door. He was carrying a few bags overflowing with groceries. "Because I can come back later and pretend I didn't see this."
This was one of the moments Rachel wished the earth would just open up and swallow her whole.
Apollo's eyes locked with John's. Rachel wished she could say something – anything to diffuse the growing tension.
"I suppose I should be going," Apollo said, getting up slowly. Before Rachel knew what was happening, he wrapped an arm around her waist, pulling her close and kissing her.
It wasn't exactly a small goodbye kiss, to say the least.
Of course, Apollo disappeared in a flash of gold light, leaving Rachel and John in one of the most awkward situations she'd ever been in.
John began unloading the grocery bags, seeming to take special care not to meet Rachel's gaze. "I didn't know what you like, so I got a little bit of everything," he said, pulling a giant ham out of the brown bag. "Okay, a lot of everything."
"How'd you pay for it?" Rachel asked, sitting down on the chair Apollo had occupied moments before.
"Your credit card. But don't worry – I didn't take your car. I walked."
The way he said it – without the slightest bit of sheepishness or regret – should have made the warning bells start ringing in Rachel's head. "So I guess you're planning on staying for Christmas," she said, trying to keep her feelings out of her voice.
"Unless your boyfriend's coming over," he said, reaching up to place a jar of seasoning in one of the cupboards. Rachel tried not to notice the way his shirt crept up, giving her a tiny glimpse of his tattoo.
"Not my boyfriend."
John just shrugged, his back still turned to Rachel. There seemed to be no end to the groceries. Once the first bag was empty, he asked her, "I take it you don't spend Christmas with your parents?"
"They're in Milan this year. In a few weeks, they'll come home and visit for a day. What's your story?" Rachel asked.
"I haven't really talked to my mom for longer than five minutes since I was nine. And my dad, well…I'm not sure if we're exactly on speaking terms." Rachel wasn't an expert on reading body language, but she was certain she saw him tense up. "I'm kind of an outcast on his side of the family."
Rachel wasn't sure how to best respond to that. "You're welcome to stay here…I mean, as long as you need to."
"You might regret your offer," John said, putting the last few items away. "I might not be leaving for a long time."
"Can you cook?"
"Then I don't think I'll mind."
John turned around, giving Rachel a smile. "Got a preference for what we'll eat tomorrow?" he asked.
She stood up as he walked towards her. He was just a few inches from her. His lips were just a few inches from…
God, she needed to get a grip.
John seemed like he had the exact same thought. He shook his head, taking a step back from Rachel. "So I just realized I forgot to buy myself some clothes. Is it cool if I borrow some more of your…I mean…" he trailed off, clearly uncertain of how he should refer to Apollo.
"Yeah, that's fine," Rachel said, fixing her gaze on the floor as John walked past her.
A few seconds later, she heard the shower turn on. "And it's hard to dance with the devil on your back, so shake him off. Whooah," John sang over the sound of the water.
Annabeth wasn't sure why she'd thought it would be a good idea to spend Christmas with Percy.
After ten minutes of driving with him, she was tempted to ask him to pull the car over so she could just walk back to her hotel. Percy had kept looking at her out of the corner of his eye, and he'd open his mouth like he was going to say something, but think better of it and stay silent.
Finally, he'd found the courage to speak to her. "We don't have to tell my mom anything if you don't want to," he'd said. "I'll just say we're friends and come up with something about how…I don't know, you couldn't fly out home because your plane was cancelled."
"That sounds fine," Annabeth said neutrally.
"I'm going to stay here in Massachusetts until you, you know…have the baby."
"What about school?"
"I talked to my teachers, and they're willing to let me do projects so I don't end up with incomplete grades for the semester – and then, I guess I'm dropping out for the rest of the year."
Annabeth couldn't understand how he could be willing to just forget about his classes. "How's your mom not going to notice that?"
"My dad's paying for school. She'll be happy I'm closer to home."
"Can I ask what the point of staying is?"
"I want to stay here for you."
That was the last thing he'd said on the awkward ride to New York. Things didn't get any better once they got to his house.
Sally ran outside as soon as the car pulled into the driveway. "You can stay in here if you want," Percy mumbled. "At least until I explain what's going on."
Annabeth agreed, wondering just what Percy was going to tell his mother. She could only guess what Percy had told his mom when they'd broken up – if it was anything like what she'd told her parents, Sally probably thought she was the spawn of Satan.
Sally looked from Percy back to Annabeth in the car, her lips moving soundlessly. Percy said a few words, which made Sally frown.
Annabeth had a feeling things weren't going well.
A few more minutes passed, and Sally finally retreated back to house while Percy walked back to the car. He opened the door for her, even offering a hand to help her out – a gesture which she made a point of ignoring. "What did you tell your mom?" she asked.
"She could tell something was wrong, Annabeth," Percy said, popping the trunk of the car and grabbing their bags.
"What did you tell her?" Annabeth repeated, a feeling of dread creeping in.
"That you're pregnant, but we don't know what we're going to do yet," Percy mumbled, handing Annabeth her bag.
"I was going to have to tell her eventually. Unless you really didn't expect me to tell my mom that-"
"You don't get it, do you? Now that she knows, she's going to tell your dad, and then my parents, and pretty soon everyone will know."
"So what?" Percy demanded. "You can't honestly think you could keep everything hidden."
Percy didn't have an immediate response. Instead, he headed for the house. "Well, Mom knows, so you might as well just try to make the best of it," he said before opening the door.
Sally had married Paul shortly after Percy turned 16. Shortly after, they'd had to buy a bigger home for their growing family. Located in a nice part of New York City, the two-story house was covered in pictures of Sally's two children.
And as soon as they walked in the door, a little girl ran to greet them, hugging Percy tightly even though she only came up to his knees. "Brother's home!" she squealed.
"Hey, Ellie. You've gotten big since I last saw you," Percy said, dropping his bags and picking her up.
"This many!" she said proudly, holding up two small fingers for her brother to see.
"Yeah? You're getting pretty old," Percy said, smiling at his sister, which made her erupt in a fit of giggles. "You remember Annabeth, right?"
"Anniebeth?" Ellie asked, her big brown eyes peeking over Percy's shoulder. Annabeth hadn't seen her since her first birthday party. "Down! Down!" she said, pushing against her brother, who gently set her down.
"Come see room!" she said, tugging on Percy's hand. Percy followed her, giving Annabeth a sheepish shrug as his sister pulled him down the hall.
Annabeth was left to awkwardly stand in the hall. She wouldn't go so far as to say she'd ever felt unwelcome in the Blofis home before, but at that moment, she wished she could be anywhere else in the world.
Sally emerged in the doorway to the kitchen. The look she gave Annabeth couldn't be described as cold, but it definitely wasn't the welcome one she was used to. "So you're pregnant," Sally said, her voice neutral. "Can't say I didn't see it coming – what was Poseidon thinking getting you two a condo for the entire summer?"
Annabeth felt like Sally was expecting an apology, though what she was supposed to say, she had no idea. "I, well…we're doing an adoption."
Sally raised an eyebrow. "Percy said you two didn't know what you're doing yet."
"Percy doesn't really have a say in it," Annabeth said, perhaps a bit too coldly.
Sally frowned. "I hope you've thought a lot about what you're doing, Annabeth. It's not something to decide – oh, hello!" she said as her daughter ran back into the room and hugged her leg, Percy close behind.
"Paul had to stay late at school to finish a few things," Sally said to her son. "He doesn't think he'll get home any time soon, but we were planning on telling you tonight…"
"Tell me what?" Percy asked.
"Bit sitter!" Ellie announced proudly.
Annabeth, clearly not as well-versed in baby talk as Sally and Percy, had no idea what the little girl meant. However, Percy seemed to understand completely. "You mean you guys are…" he trailed off, his mouth hanging open.
"That's right – we're expecting another baby at the beginning of August."
Growing up, holidays had never been fun with an alcoholic of a mom. On the run with Luke and Annabeth, the days had all blurred together, so one was never more special than the other. But with Artemis, every holiday was cause for a huge celebration.
Thalia could hardly stand it. She'd asked Artemis if there was anything she needed taken care of a few days before Christmas – lately, it wasn't uncommon for the goddess to send her on small tasks. Just a few days before, she'd been sent to California to investigate any strange activity.
Well, besides finding her cousin and his friend strangely close to the entrance to the Underworld, she hadn't noticed anything before Apollo came to pick her up.
But then again, Percy's friend seemed strangely familiar. Even after she'd been dropped off in Michigan, she couldn't shake his face. John Oak – the name didn't sound familiar, but she swore she'd seen his eyes before…
Artemis had noticed she'd been distracted over the last few days. When Thalia had requested a reason to be gone on Christmas, the goddess had given Thalia a look that made her feel like Artemis could see right through her.
"Take some time off, Thalia. Don't come back until you're ready," Artemis had told her.
And just like that, she'd been allowed to leave. A Hunter, but not a Hunter. Artemis was allowing her an unlimited amount of time to go and do whatever she needed to do.
And how did she choose to spend Christmas by herself?
In a graveyard, obviously.
She wasn't sure why she'd decided to visit him. Maybe because while they were on the run one Christmas, after a particularly nasty skirmish with some monsters, he'd promised that one day they'd be able to have a normal Christmas.
It wasn't like he'd ever kept any of his other promises, though.
Thalia had been alone for a while when there was a slight popping noise to her left. She was hardly worried, but she grabbed her spear all the same. "Who's there?" she called out, not taking her eyes off the tombstone.
"Spending Christmas in a cemetery alone?" She heard footsteps approaching her, but it was nothing to worry about. She recognized the voice – Nico di Angelo.
"Looks like you had the same idea."
"I'm a son of the god of the dead. It makes sense for me. Mind if I sit?"
Thalia shook her head. Nico took the seat next to her, holding a bag of fast food. "I had a feeling I'd find you here," he said.
Thalia suddenly realized that Nico was nearly the same age as her – physically, at least. She hadn't seen him for more than a few seconds in over three years.
"Did you visit your sister today?"
"Bianca's not buried anywhere. It was impossible, since she allegedly went missing 60 years ago." Nico paused briefly before continuing. "I've tried finding her in the Underworld, but she's gone. Maybe she's been reincarnated; maybe I just can't find her."
Thalia wasn't sure what she was supposed to say. "Do you think it's stupid to come here?" she finally asked.
Luke Christopher Castellan. 1992 – 2010.
"I don't think it's stupid," Nico said, handing her a burger from the bag. "Unless it makes you feel closer to him or some bull, because he belongs down in the Underworld, Thalia."
"I know, but…"
"So Artemis let you come here?"
"She kind of gave me an extended leave of absence."
They ate their food in silence for a while. Finally, Nico said, "Did you hear Annabeth's pregnant?"
"What?" Thalia asked, choking on the last bite of food she'd taken. "Annabeth and Percy?"
"Yeah, he went to Massachusetts to be with her and everything," Nico said.
"But I thought he was just going to spend the winter holidays with his family," Thalia said, remembering how she'd found him and his friend alone in the streets of Los Angeles. "Do you know anything about his new friend?"
"The John guy?"
"Tons, but I don't think you'd believe me if I told you."
Thalia rolled her eyes. "Whatever."
"He's a dead guy."
Nico laughed. "Told you so." He reached into the bag and pulled out a flask filled with something that smelled a little stronger than Kool-Aid. As the older, more responsible cousin, Thalia knew she probably should have told him to put it away, but she couldn't bring herself to care.
"So what are you doing when you're not stalking graveyards on holidays?" Thalia asked as Nico handed her the flask. Artemis wouldn't approve, but what she didn't know wouldn't kill her.
"Want to find out?" Nico asked.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Nico shrugged. "Since you're not hanging out with Artemis and her gang anymore-"
"It's a temporary leave of absence."
"It doesn't matter to me. All I know is it gets lonely traveling alone."
Thalia could agree with that. "I guess so."
"So you'll come with me?"
Nico grinned. "Merry Christmas, cousin."
Notes: I'm thinking the next chapter will be some more lovely Christmas drama. I really should have made this longer, but you guys deserve an update after so long. Long reviews are killer motivation. By the way, the song Luke's singing is Shake it Out by Florence and the Machine. Virtual cookies if you can get the significance.