Chapter 7

Annabeth hadn't bothered waiting for Malcolm to give her details before she went cavorting off to find Percy, so she has to call him back, celestial cell phone tucked between her ear and her shoulder as she yanks the barest essentials of armor over Percy's torso and helps him do up the straps - they decided it would be best to dress for speed, and just cover that one important spot at the small of his back.

Malcolm reports that the last place both the demon and Nico were spotted was the fifth station - which one, Percy asks, because there are five fifth stations located at various points around the circumference of Mt. Fuji from where you can start a hike to the summit - right, um, the lowest one - that's Gotenba, then. The Gotenba fifth station - yeah, okay, whatever, says Malcolm, who spends too much time in Olympus to really know his way around Japan. Just go get him, yeah?

Persephone and Hermes went to clear the stations of tourists and hikers as best they could, so if they're lucky, they shouldn't have to go rescue too many mortals in distress. It depended on how hungry the demon is.

"This is sounding more cheerful by the minute," he remarks to Annabeth after she reports this.

Jennifer Matsueda's standing just outside the armory with Blackjack's reins in hand, and she meets his startled look with a flat one of her own. "The fear demon is one of my half-brother's creations," she informs him. "Phobos told me that it lives on a diet of personal nightmares and usually moves from one victim to the next, hounding them doggedly until they go insane, which is when it feeds. You can outsmart it, though - Phobos doesn't believe so much in intelligence in his pets."

For a second, he's so surprised he can't say anything. Then -

"Won't your brother be pissed you told me that?"

Her eyes flash. "Take care of the demon, Percy. I'll handle my brother."

"... Thank you, Jennifer," he goes, genuinely touched, and is rewarded with the faintest of smiles.

"You're lucky," she tells him abruptly, with a look on her face like she hasn't meant to say it. "That you have people who care about you this much."

He thinks, briefly, of bathing in the River Styx; of Annabeth reaching out to him through the pain, of Nico waiting on the shore. He thinks of everyone at camp, and the little ways they all look out after each other.

"So do you," he replies as honestly as possible, and jumps onto Blackjack's back.

All right, boss! goes the pegasus with adolescent delight. Monster butt-kicking time, like the good old days! Only with fewer Titans, because they're messy.

"Yes, yes, they are."

It takes a lot longer than he anticipates to fly to Mt. Fuji - for all that it's an ever-present hulk on the horizon, it never does seem to get any closer. Gotenba has the advantage of being the closest fifth station to where Camp Half-Blood is, but he can see the mote of the sun dip to kiss the Kanto plain just as they go swooping down to earth.

Gotenba fifth station looks eerie deserted - the bus-park nothing but an open expanse of blacktop, the shops all closed up, the restaurant silent. It makes the figures out in the gravel pathways that much easier to spot.

Nico he recognizes immediately - dark hair and mismatched sneakers, crouched down beside two unconscious middle-aged Japanese men, whose jeans are streaked with mud from being dragged across the terrain and whose faces have lost all color. If it wasn't for the fretful rise and fall of their chests, Percy would have thought they were dead.

Nico leaps to his feet when Blackjack makes his landing, cantering a few steps to kill momentum, and before Percy gets a chance to get a word in otherwise, says, "Oh, good, you're here, and you even brought your noble steed! These two got ambushed and I didn't get to them fast enough and they need to get to a hospital, as soon as possible."

Percy doesn't even hesitate, "Blackjack, can you -"

Already on it! the pegasus replies, kneeling down far enough that they can heft the unconscious duo onto Blackjack's back, using the reins as best they can to strap them down. I'll be back for you, though, boss, never fear!

Percy watches Blackjack sail away into the sky until he's nothing more than a black speck over the trees, and then he turns around, sharply, to face Nico.

And, unbelievably, Nico says, "I was wondering if you'd get here sometime this century. I lost her trail. Come on, you can help me find it." As casual as anything.

Over the past few days, Percy's come up with several one-liners to open this conversation with, each one sharper and wittier than the last, but what comes out of his mouth when he does open it is, "Your clothes are still in my drawers, by the way."

Nico gives him a look that could strip paint from the walls. "I don't suppose you have a water bottle on you or something?" he continues, matter-of-fact and not at all like he's imagining setting Percy on fire. "There aren't a lot of nearby water sources."

"No, sorry, it didn't occur to me to grab one when I was racing -"

He shuts his mouth with a faintly audible click, remembering, suddenly, Rachel, calling after him and telling him to remember a water bottle the next time he climbed Mt. Fuji. "You're kidding," he groans. And, knowing without looking that Nico's giving him the fish eye, adds, "No, not you."

"Uh-huh. So that leaves both of us a little handicapped when it comes to our powers. If I start quaking the ground, I'm in danger of starting a landslide, which will be a disaster in an area as heavily populated as this - and quote me on that, man, I've done it before. And unless you can wring water from trees, you're useless too."

"Thanks. You're a confidence booster." Percy frowns at the swath of woods ahead of them, clearing his throat and wondering if they're just going to ignore the giant unaddressed elephant clomping around behind them. "So, do you have any idea what we're looking for? Is there a Wikipedia page somewhere with a handy-dandy picture of a fear demon, because I've got no idea what they -"

"Her name's Thessalia," cuts in Nico. His sneakers scrape on the gravel as he sets off across the parking lot - the windows of the deserted shops blink down at them. Percy opens his mouth and shuts it again, finding he really doesn't have anything to say to that, and follows. Nico continues, quieter, "I named her after the Greek city, the one that eventually became Thessaly - my mom used to vacation there a lot, and I thought it was a pretty name, I dunno," his voice fades until it's just a mumble.

"You thought - Nico, what -"

Nico rubs at his nose in that gross way he does when uncomfortable. "Remember when I told you that Persephone gave me a pet to raise, thus proving that I wasn't completely incapable of showing human compassion and could succeed at not killing things? Well, that was Thessalia."

There are no words. There are simply no - "Your stepmother gave you a man-eating fear demon as a pet?"

"It was actually kind of sweet. And totally kickass as far as pets go; it was like having a miniature T-Rex that sleeps on your pillow and chews on souls in the Fields of Punishment for fun."

"You guys makes dysfunctional seem functional, you really do," Percy says in a tone of great wonder usually reserved for Rubix cubes and Picasso's undiscovered masterpieces. "Okay, so what happened? Why is it currently terrorizing Mt. Fuji like some modern-day version of Godzilla?"

Don't even start with the Godzilla-rampaging-Tokyo remarks, says the look Nico throws over his shoulder. "I've been busy lately," he grumbles, and the giant unaddressed elephant between them makes a point of not stepping on them, which is very considerate of it. "So she must have worked the locks and gotten out."

"And let me guess, she's not potty-trained and she won't come when you call her."

"The upper world is a completely different story, Percy. She's not meant to control herself in the upper world - that's where all the fun is," Nico darts around the broad side of the restaurant, and Percy wonders where on earth does he think he's going, before he spots the path that weaves off into the trees behind the shops. Without looking back, Nico goes in a louder, less-controlled voice, "Why did they send you, anyway? I would have thought this would have been the perfect opportunity for one of the younger half-bloods to do a Quest. Hasn't that Jennifer girl been itching for a chance to prove herself?"

Jennifer just wants someone to look at her and not see who she's supposed to be because of who her father is, Percy thinks. "I volunteered," he replies, which isn't strictly true; it was more like he was press-ganged into going. "It's the first time anybody's seen you. Or been able to find you."

"That's kind of the point," Nico says witheringly. "Not being found."

"And what - you didn't think I didn't want to find you?"

"I knew you didn't want to find me."

"You absolute ass! You practically accused me of killing your family and then you run off!" Nico goes white and wane, wilting a little bit inside his jacket. "I'm not invincible, you know - it hurts me just as much as it would the next person, to think that you think of me like that."

"I don't -" Nico starts, knee-jerk, and then his anger flares and chokes him off. He sneers at him. "Uh-huh. I bet you've already chased Annabeth up some mountain and made up with her. What does that make me, sloppy seconds? Some loose end that you need to wrap up so you can move on?"

Yes! No! he thinks desperately - the argument is bounding on ahead of him, and he doesn't know if he can keep his thread of it much longer before it dissolves. "Yes!" he cries. "Yes, I have made up with her, but only because she's not as stupid and stubborn as you are!"

"Oh, right, because Annabeth has never been stubborn and blind-sided about anything!" Nico, having once been on the bad side of the nuclear winter between Annabeth and Rachel ages ago, throws his hands up in the air. "So she just sanctimoniously accepted that you were gay, just like -"

"But I'm not gay!" he blurts out before he can stop himself, and knows, immediately, the way you know something's up when you see your finger severed from the rest of your hand even if it hasn't reached your brain yet, that he's screwed it up. Nico's eyes flash white-hot and he twists back around and stomps up the incline, managing to both pull off righteously indignant and unaffectedly mission-focused at the same time.

"Crap!" Percy hisses, not so softly that he doesn't think Nico can hear him, because how can he do this? How can he tell Nico that he still kind of finds girls hot, but he finds Nico hot too, in a completely unrelated way so as not to say that Nico is hot like a girl, but that Nico is hot because he's Nico and Percy kind of likes the funny noises he makes during sex and he still wants to know just how powerful they are, together. Just like how can he tell Annabeth that he still loves her, he'll never stop because to stop loving her would mean stopping a part of himself like his heart or his breath, but he also likes guys, and not to insinuate that he ever thought Annabeth looked like a guy.

It's entirely too complicated, he thinks, and wonders perhaps if it's too late to move to some mountain temple and become a monk.

He jogs up the path after Nico, opening his mouth to say something - anything that could patch this up, when a boulder the size of a four-poster bed lands in front of him.

The impact it makes hitting the ground is almost enough to knock him off his feet; he staggers backwards, gaping in confusion. "The hell -" he manages, before there's another massive thud! from somewhere up ahead, and Nico's voice, cussing loudly.

Percy moves, darting around the boulder and racing up the last bit of incline, not a moment too soon: another rock lobs out of midair, landing right where he'd been standing. This one is much smaller, only about the size of a miniature poodle, but it's still big enough to make him thankful he hadn't had to introduce himself to it.

He finds himself in a courtyard, surrounded by a ring of evergreen trees. He's confused for a moment before he sees the temple gates, poised to frame the mountain summit behind them, and realizes - oh, right, the fifth station has a shrine. Nico stands in the center of the courtyard, his sword drawn and his eyes sliding warily back and forth, a similar-sized boulder lying innocuously a few feet away. Percy uncaps Riptide and goes to stand with him, back-to-back.

"Is that a new sword?" he remarks idly, as their eyes sweep across the courtyard: the temple itself is to their left, the gates to the right, and trees in every direction. There's no indication of where giant flying boulders could be coming from. Percy's pretty sure that wasn't mentioned in the brochure.

Nico shrugs, readjusts his grip. "Yeah," he mumbles. "It's not as good as my old one, but it is celestial bronze, so it does the job when I need it to."

And then: a tell-tale slow whistle. Percy's head snaps up, and all his focus narrows in, then shatters fractcal like it does for any half-blood about to fight. All the details coming swarming at him - the swaying direction of the evergreens, the peeling paint of the characters on the temple gates, the rapid breathing of Nico behind him, and the dark shape in the sky, falling fast and whistling through the air.

Percy springs, rolling away to one side, Nico goes the other, and the boulder hits right where they were standing, making the ground jump. He hears Nico stagger, cussing again, hears the sword skitter across the gravel path, and then Nico's voice, "Oh, by the gods, you're kidding."

"What happened?" he yells, spinning to face the direction the boulder came flying from; somewhere there, behind the temple. He curses the approaching dark - it makes the shadows too long, too easy for something to hide in them.

"I lost my sword!" Nico yells back, completely indignant, as if it somehow anyone else's fault but his own. "Crap!"

"Doesn't it come back to you?" Percy goes, puzzled, as he edges around the boulder. Nico's standing in between the trunks of two evergreens, neck craned out over a straight drop down; the restaurant, the shops, the shrine all sit on a cliff edge. His expression is distinctly pissed off. Percy fights down a flash of apprehension: he's standing entirely too close to the edge, looking like a dark, skinny, and obvious bowling pin for demons throwing boulders (at least, Percy assumes it's the demon they're chasing. He's not looking forward to meeting it if it can throw boulders that big.)

"No."

Percy blinks. "It doesn't? Gods, what kind of crappy craftsmanship is that?"

"... Mitsubishi Motors."

"Oh. Well. That explains it."

It's pure dumb luck that Percy takes another step in Nico's direction at that moment: the football-sized rock that comes sailing out of the sky only grazes his head, instead of rupturing it on contact like a watermelon, which is actually would have been preferable: his head can't be ruptured, but it can be conked silly. The momentum is enough to knock him clean off his feet, his elbow and side breaking his fall. He lies flat on his back, one hand lifted to his head in stunned disbelief. He pulls his fingers away, and wonders why there are fifteen of them; he's pretty sure he didn't wake up like that. Riptide, somehow, is still in his other hand, and his ears are filled with the sound of bees buzzing.

Wait. No. That's someone talking. Shouting, really, far too close - there's no way Nico could be that close, could have gotten to him that fast; he must have shadow-teleported. Idiot - he'll tire out if he does that too much, and they'll both be useless.

Nico jostles his shoulder, hard. "Percy! Are you all right?"

"Next time I see your stepmother, I am going to find a way to cut her up into little pieces and hide her in the walls, because really, how stupid do you have to be to think, oh, hey, let's breed a fear demon and have a kid who can't even find his own heart with the Hubble telescope raise it, yeah, there's a brilliant idea," he tries to say, but mostly what comes out is, "nnpg."

"You stay there," says Nico, and he might have brushed the hair back from Percy's face, the touch is so light, but then he's pulling Riptide out of his grip and Percy makes a small noise of protest which, of course, Nico completely ignores. "I'm borrowing this real quick."

"Ddnnn," replies Percy heatedly, which probably meant something along the lines of, "don't you dare," but Nico was already striding away, sword in hand, shouting into the quickly falling twilight that cast the temple in long shadows, "I know you're there, Thessalia! Stop throwing rocks at us and come out!"

Silence meets this, but it's silence of the not-rock-throwing type, which is a bit of an improvement.

"Thessalia!" Nico tries again. "Please, what do you want?"

It strikes Percy as strange that Nico's not calling out to her like she's his disobedient pet - like some sneakier, slightly more ominous version of Mrs. O'Leary that has a fondness for gnawing on juicy living things - but more like he'd call to a friend he's lost sight of. He sits up, gingerly probing his skull and biting back the wave of nausea that strikes him when he finds the sore spot. Tooth decay and concussions are apparently not included in the invincibility clause.

From a hazy distance - but what is only probably a few feet - he hears Nico give a sudden, horrified yelp, and when he looks up, he's absolutely certain he must have rattled his brains somehow, because there is no possible way he's seeing what his brain is telling him he's seeing.

"Dad?" he goes, stupidly.

In the quiet of the temple courtyard, Poseidon looks a little out of place in his Croc sandals and swim trunks - against the backdrop of soft greens and the red temple gates, his Hawaiian shirt is garishly bright. He approaches slowly, bringing with him the scent of sea brine and the echo of gulls crying. For every step he takes - which isn't many; when you're ten feet tall, each stride carries you quite a distance - Nico takes a step backwards, Percy's sword still thoughtlessly gripped in his hands.

Percy blinks a few times, but his father doesn't disappear, and it seems Nico's seeing the same thing he is, but still, "- what are you doing here?" he manages in a thick voice, suddenly ashamed to be on the ground in the presence of a god, even one he's related to. He tries to struggle to his feet.

Poseidon ignores him; his eyes - glowing with god-light - are fixed on Nico, who's too caught off guard by his appearance to keep his ground. The sea god advances, forcing Nico back until he's mere inches from stepping on Percy, and then he stops, shifting his weight and folding his arms across his massive sailor's chest.

"My lord," goes Nico after a pause, trying for polite and sounding out of practice with it. "Um ... er - how can we help you?"

This seems to break Poseidon's silence; he blinks, and looks down at Nico with a vague kind of amusement, like someone's just tried to stop him from stepping on a ladybug. "Aren't you the boy that made my son bathe in the River Styx?"

"Oh, crap," says Nico in a tiny voice, with the air of a rabbit chased by dogs making a wrong turn and running into them head on. It's that little bit of terror - from Nico of all hard-headed people, terrified of his father - that spurs Percy to his feet, and he braces himself behind the other demigod.

"Dad, I don't -" he starts, but Poseidon is looking thoughtful now.

"Did you ever pay him back for that? That's a pretty big debt to have, half-blood."

"I know," Nico mumbles, head bent, and - is that guilt? Percy frowns at the back of his head. A debt - no, Nico never owed him, not for making him invincible. He paid him back, didn't he? He swayed Hades's loyalties, brought him down off his centuries-long neutral position. That was epic enough, but Nico - there's no way Nico can still feel guilty over it. Nico has all the tact of a polka-dotted elephant.

Poseidon's eyes flash in the gloom.

"Your father is my brother, boy, and the god of wealth, the great equalizer of king and paupers. You and I, we know better than most that all prices must be paid."

Nico's eyes go wide, stricken. "But we had no choice!" he protests.

"Hmm," says Poseidon, and there's enough disapproval in his voice to make an earthworm feel ashamed of itself - and Nico suddenly seems to be a lot smaller, like he's trying to fold in on himself. "If I had a sand dollar for every time someone said that."

It's strange, it doesn't make sense - why would Poseidon be here at all? It looks like him, yes, talks like him, yes, even smells like him - the same scent that Percy remembers so vaguely from childhood, memories his mother claims he can't have, salt water and fish. But there's something that's just not right ... and that's when he sees it. Or see the lack of it; like Zeus's thunderbolt and Hades' helm, Poseidon has a sacred object that he carries with him always, something that can't be duplicated and will always be recognizable; his trident.

This god's hands are empty.

"That's not him!" he blurts out. "It's not Poseidon!"

Poseidon - no, not Poseidon, a fake Poseidon, a Poseidon-copy - quirks the corner of his mouth up.

"Oh. I forgot," Nico breathes, his fear snapping whip-quick to anger without any time in between. "Fear demons are shapeshifters by nature."

"Very good," says the fear demon in question, smile thin.

Nico's standing in front of him, sword raised, as the fake-Poseidon advances, any resemblance to Percy's father slipping away into something like thoughtless cruelty, like the face of a ten-year-old preparing to pull the wings off a fly just to see the body come apart while the thing was still wriggling. He doesn't know what Nico's fear demon pet - Thessalia - looks like under there, doesn't want to find out.

He tries to keep his gaze on her as she approaches, but his attention falters, and then slips completely as Nico turns around, suddenly very, very close, his eyes wide and focused and the color high on his cheeks.

"Once, for us," he says, nonsensical, and Percy doesn't have time for a what before there's a hand on the back of his neck, dragging him down and then Nico's kissing him, mouth open and hot and desperate in the kamikaze way of those who have nothing to lose. Percy can only blink, only think about kissing back, but the thought never goes through to his mouth before he sees Thessalia's hand lifting, sees movement and something shooting towards them.

He shoves Nico away, hard, just as it strikes him point-blank in the chest, a dozen iron-strong looping bands, sending him flying back and impaling him high up on the trunk of an evergreen tree. They pin him there, immobile, strapped to the bark like a strait-jacket, his mouth filled with a foul gag of some kind.

Stars stop dancing across his vision after a minute, and in that time, Nico's staggered upright, his eyes flicking wildly back and forth across the space where Percy just was, his expression becoming more frantic when he can't locate him, and Percy cannot move an inch, cannot make any kind of noise at all to tell him to look up, Nico, look up, I'm here. Nico spins back to face Thessalia, his, "What have you done -" aborted, because she's not there anymore.

Where she was is just a skeleton, small and curled up fetal position on the ground like it had just crawled there to fall asleep.

It unfolds itself, slowly, and if Percy didn't already have a gag in his mouth he would have had to swallow the urge to vomit, because there are still the remnants of flesh lingering on the bones, strands of black hair tufting out of the sides of its head. It's only when it stands up, coming up as high as Nico's collarbones, and he can see what's left of the silver tunic, the black skinny jeans, and the shoulder strap of what used to be a quiver, does he realize what it is.

"What I have what?" asks the corpse of Bianca di Angelo.

Nico quakes on the spot, a visible tremble that runs through him all the way down to the hand that still holds Riptide. "Percy," he manages in a croak that wouldn't even impress a voiceless frog. "He just -"

The laugh that meets this, sad and pitying, comes flying right out of Percy's memory, and on the back of his eyelids he can see the girl herself, sitting around the campfire with them, the night before they left on the Quest that killed her. Nico makes a noise, something lost and wordless but absolutely understandable, and Percy knows it has to be familiar to him, too, times a hundred.

"Percy was never here, silly," she says, soft and sympathetic, and for a skeleton with no facial expressions, she somehow manages to look concerned as she takes a step towards him. "Nico, we're worried about you."

And she sounds so much like Bianca that for a moment, Percy forgets that she's Thessalia, she has to be, unless somehow - no, no, it has to be the demon, Bianca's dead.

This same struggle seems to be warring inside Nico, too; his face twists unpleasantly, and he shakes his head like he's trying to get rid of a persistent buzz.

"Persephone's worried, Dad's worried. Even Mom's worried," and Nico grimaces, hard, because what boy likes hearing that he's upset his mother, especially a mother who's been dead for over seventy years? "You've been saying all these things, about the upper world and Tokyo and Percy. Percy was never here, Nico, you haven't seen him in years, don't you see? Don't you see why you're scaring us?"

"I'm not -" And Nico grits his teeth, remembering. "No. You're dead. You're dead. I said good-bye to you. I let you go."

"Oh, Nico," Bianca - Thessalia! - steps in close, scarcely just an arm's width away, looking forlorn and ratty and years-deceased: Nico di Angelo's most precious possession, his most painful memory. His greatest fear, Percy realizes, his greatest fear is that he'll grow up to disappoint his sister. "You let me go, but who ever said I let you go?"

Nico's eyes narrow into slits.

Bianca's dead, dead and gone and the flesh has rotted off her bones, but don't ever tell a child of Hades that the dearly departed are not with them every moment of every day. Nico needs to be someone Bianca can be proud of.

The skeleton half-extends her hand towards him, pleading.

He lets out a soft, shaky laugh. "I don't believe you."

And he levels the sword at his sister.

With a sound like the rustling of dry twigs, the skeleton of Bianca tilts her head and almost seems to regard Nico thoughtfully. The hand that holds Riptide trembles, awkward and unfamiliar with the grip, and the grief in Nico's face is the same as it was when he was ten and cracking the earth looking for bones. But his gaze is hard, clear, and the sword stays trained on the facsimile of his sister.

"No," says Thessalia, almost to herself, as if she's looking at a jigsaw puzzle and wondering why the pieces don't fit. "No, I'm going about this wrong."

She lopes forward, and in mid-stride, her entire appearance changes, as easily as a light switch being flipped. Percy makes an aborted, strangled noise, because it's an exact replica of himself that closes the distance, reaching out and putting the flat of his hand against Riptide's blade, pushing it gently to the side. Nico lets it drop, keeping it in a loose grip with tip pointed down, naked shock in every feature of his face.

Percy tries to make some noise, any kind of noise at all, something to get Nico's attention, because he's staring at the fake-Percy with entirely too much intensity to be safe.

"Percy, what -"

"Nico," murmurs Thessalia, and oh, gods, even her voice is identical to Percy's, sounding scratchy like it does when he's been fresh woken-up, lazy and compliant. "I came for you."

She reaches out, the backs of her knuckles drifting against Nico's cheek, and his eyes drag up like he can't stop it. Emotion shatters all across his expression, a million hopeless things all at once, wistful wanting and fierce resentment, lust and desire and eager affection and it's completely alien to see everything so exposed, so easy to read, except it's not.

It's not. It's not strange at all.

Percy has seen this before, seen this almost every time Nico looks at him, but it's different, it's different now because that's not him, that's a monster who feeds on fear and she's drawing even closer, leaning in so Percy can see how his profile looks, shadowing Nico's. And Nico... Nico's overwhelmed by it, the illusion pulling him in inexorably in a way Poseidon's hadn't, Bianca's hadn't; he's leaning into the touch like a snake charmed. And that's the scariest thing, that Nico has done this all along, has always been this devoted to him, and gods, gods, how much power over him does he have?

"I'm glad you're here," continues Thessalia in Percy's lowest, huskiest voice, and Nico makes a noise in the back of his throat, almost a whimper.

"I thought..." he goes, and his throat bobs like he's swallowing a rock. "I thought you wouldn't - I thought I was just a loose end to you."

"You idiot," she laughs, and there's no faking the fondness in her tone, so perfectly like him that even Percy has trouble remembering that she's a monster, she's the enemy. Riptide slips from Nico's hand, clattering to the earth, and he doesn't seem to notice. She continues, "You idiot, it was never a choice."

"No?"

She puts her hands on his hips, pulls him closer still. "No," she murmurs, and smiles.

Nico's grin is meltingly slow, and for the son of the god of darkness and death, there is so much light in him that second that Percy has to close his eyes against it, because it's wrong, that's not him, it's not fair that he doesn't even get this moment for himself.

He leans in slowly, contentedly, resting his forehead against Thessalia's, and murmurs, in the low, serious tone of someone trying to say something monumental, "Do you remember what the Amida Buddha said to us, about how the children of the Big Three are born complimenting each other, and how that a child of Hades and a child of Poseidon can move continents if they work together?"

Yes, Percy wants to say, because it's what attracted him to Nico in the first place, after that night on Chris's roof; the idea that Nico could be all that he had been missing.

"What -" goes Thessalia, beginning to pull back, her brows coming down in a perplexed expression. Panic flares briefly in Nico's eyes.

"I'd do it for you," he pushes forward immediately, hands coming up to cradle the lines of Thessalia's jaw with knee-jerk need to reassure. His words tumble all over each other, breathless and eager, skittering off his tongue. "If you asked, I'd do it. I would raise an army larger than any in recorded history. An army of bones that would never falter, never die. I would raze cities, collapse the earth underneath them. I know I can do it, I have the power. I would make you the most powerful person on earth, if you wanted."

Percy hears him. He listens.

And it wrecks him. It completely wrecks him, just like that, without warning. He slumps against the binds that tie him like his spine has been ripped from him like a fish. How could he have missed this?

Thessalia doesn't seem to know how to handle it, either. She swallows hard, her eyes wide, and Nico seems to take it as encouragement, because he leans further in, stroking the profile of her face. His long fingers fit into the natural holds; along her cheekbone, her temple, her jaw, behind her ear, a touch Percy has felt a dozen times before.

He breathes out, mere inches from the copy of his mouth, "The world, Percy. The world. There's no one else I would trust to take care of it. No one but you. No one..." His mouth dips, fitting into the shape of Thessalia's but not actually kissing her. It's a question, and offer, a plea, his heart on a platter and he's asking Percy to take it, to take all of it.

He wants to make him the most powerful half-blood, to make him truly invincible. Saving the world isn't ever enough, anyone can tell you that.

Distantly, Percy's aware of something shifting, and a heartbeat later, he realizes it's the ties, they're moving, inching further down his neck, easing off the pressure that slumping had put on his throat.

An idea occurs to him. Desperately, he begins to wriggle, trying to sink down onto the bonds that cut the highest across him, digging hard into his Adam's apple. He pushes and pushes, until he's unable to breathe, until the pressure becomes enough to make pinpoints of light break out on his vision, and ...

And yes, yes, they do. They move, they loosen, trying to get away, because he can't be killed and they can't be allowed to kill him, so they've got no choice but to break.

"Percy, please," begs Nico, and Percy struggles harder, feeling more of them begin to fall away as one-by-one they come loose of the tree trunk: he can move his arms, his legs, in marginal amounts, and he watches the mirror image of himself brush their noses together, bottom lip catching against top lip and Nico's mouth parts in anticipation, following the motion. One of Thessalia's hands come up, sliding along the back of Nico's neck to tangle in his hair, pulling his head into an angle that works better, and it's really, really weird, watching Nico kiss a Percy that wasn't actually Percy, mouths slack and dragging against each other.

And that's when Percy sees Thessalia's other hand, the one still resting on Nico's waist, begin to transform. Her fingers lengthen, nails sharpening to feral points and skin going scaly. Percy suspects it might be the monster's natural form, but those are claws and they're entirely too close to very vital organs and panic bottles up in his throat and -

The binds give way completely, and Percy drops the last little distance to the ground onto legs that have lost all feeling, staggering and falling on one knee. With badly shaking hands, he rips the gag from his mouth and screams, "NICO!"

Nico jerks, but it's too late. Thessalia draws her clawed hand back and slashes.

There's a burbling, wet noise and just as quickly, she wrenches back, separating them completely. Nico stumbles, his eyes wide and glassy blank, four long, bloody tears stark on his ribs. Percy doesn't need to look at them, or at the dark, glittering satisfaction on Thessalia's face to know they're bad, they're deep, and Nico falls slowly: goes to his knees and crumbles sideways, falling across the temple steps.

Percy moves. The monster turns to him, the illusion crumbling; he watches as his own skin peels away from his face in long flakes like fingernail polish, cracking at the corners of her sickly grin and her eyes. The whole thing falls away, leaving him with something reptilian, human-shaped, and roughly his size, he doesn't care, doesn't pay attention, and Percy doesn't even realize he's screaming as he launches himself forward. Riptide is in his hand; he doesn't remember stooping to pick it up, maybe it just leapt to him, knowing him, he doesn't know.

All he knows is that the monster needs to die, and in that moment, he doesn't care about a single thing else, doesn't care what she shows him, what she turns into, because she can weave him an illusion of the end of days itself and he wouldn't care, because that's Nico on the cold stone steps, Nico dying, and Percy is so scared he doesn't have room for anything more.

Thessalia turns to meet him, and she catches Percy's face between the palms of her hands and leans into him even as he runs her through with Riptide in one fierce, clean strike. "Perfect," she breathes, her mouth open over his and sucking in his breath, feeding off his absolute fear the way a starving dog would go after a t-bone.

With an ecstatic sigh, she bursts into dust.

A moment later, the edges of Percy's world comes back into focus, and he's aware of just how cold the night air is at this altitude, can hear nothing but his sharp, heavy pants and they mist faintly in front of his face. Close by, Nico's breaths are short, pained, and with each one there's an awful sucking sound like something caught in an air hose, but he's breathing. He's alive.

The exhaustion hits him with the force of a falling mountain, the way it always does when he's defied death several times in a row, and no, no, he can't do this now, but already his consciousness is fading out. His hands shake ceaselessly when he caps Riptide. It takes all his strength, it seems, to turn around and take those few steps to where Nico lays, slumped against the steps, his eyes glazed like stained glass and his chest rising shallowly. They focus briefly, catching on Percy when he comes near, staggers, falls to his knees on the step above him.

He remembers, deliriously, something Nico said to him once, in those sleepless days before the Titan army stormed New York, with great responsibility comes the great need for a nap, and thinks a truer statement there has never been.

"Come here," he goes, reaching down to pull at a fistful of Nico's shirt ineffectually, because he doesn't think he could lift a sacks of silks right now if he tried. The son of Hades pushes himself up on one elbow; the other hand is splayed like a starfish over his ribs, where Percy can make out the dark, sickly beat of blood, sliding through the creases between his fingers.

"Come here," he says again, and keeps on saying, "come here, come here," come here, and with a feeble mixture of pushing and pulling, they get each other close enough that Nico's weight falls into Percy's lap, his throat working and his eyelids fluttering. He doesn't react when Percy reaches down, weaving their fingers together over the wound. Water drips from his skin, sinking into Nico's, and Percy calls out to the water in the spilling blood with all his power, still whispering nonsensically, begging the wound to clot, ordering the skin to knit, but it's hard, it's hard because his mind is fragmented and the power keeps on slipping away from him like a nail that won't stand straight and he's trying to hit it with a hammer two sizes too big.

But Percy keeps on pushing, keeps on trying, because what use is he, what use is there in being invincible, being a half-blood who saved the world by prophecy-wrote, being a son of Poseidon who can change the tides if he wants to, what was the use in any of that, the purpose in having that, if he couldn't save the life of Nico di Angelo, who, for love, would move the world?

Fix him, he cries, feels the flare of it inside of him, and falls forward into darkness.

| - | - |

He opens his eyes. And closes them.

He opens them again, notes that the scenery has changed. Doesn't care.

He opens them one more time. Justin Petrowski is leaning in so close to his face that Percy can count every single one of his whiskers. Premature. He doesn't really think Justin is meant for a beard.

He blinks, groans. "Get that ugly mug away from me, please. Gods, if I knew I was going to wake up to that, I would have at least had the courtesy to give myself brain damage first."

Justin P.'s face cracks into a grin, and he obediently removes his face from Percy's immediate line of vision. "Annabeth!" he can hear him calling. "He's awake!"

"About time," comes her answer from somewhere nearby, and Percy blinks again in what must be a very, very slow movement, because when he's done, it's her face that's suddenly hovering over his, her eyes as silver-bright as the undersides of dimes. Her lips quirk up, and she sits back. He notes, then, that he's lying down, and she's in a chair that she's pulled up to his side.

"What happened?" he asks groggily.

She folds her arms. "Well, from what we could tell, you guys went and dispatched a high-level demon, so congratulations. Nico was wounded and you bravely decided to help him out by fainting all over him."

He huffs a laugh. "Yeah, that sounds like something I'd do. Is he ..."

"He'll live," she tells him softly. "You did good. I wouldn't suggest you go out to get an MD degree, not with a head full of seaweed like yours, but you did it. You saved his life."

"Good," he lets out in a rush, and when he relaxes, he notices, belatedly, that he's lying on top of two tables that have been pushed together. There's a pillow underneath his head made up of someone's balled-up sweatshirt. "Um," he blinks, and sits up. "Where are we?"

"Oshino Ponds," offers Justin P. brightly, coming around to his other side to offer him a hand. Percy swings himself off the table, stretches his limbs out considerately - they're sore, like he's gone and done something dumb like try and climb a mountain. "A lot of the fresh-water goddesses make their home here, and Justin and I enlisted their help - the water here flows directly from the springs on Mt. Fuji, so it was the easiest way of transporting you. We weren't sure how injured you were, so we didn't want to run any risks."

"How did you -" Percy starts with a frown.

"How did we know where you were?" His eyes dance. "Dude, I don't think we could have missed it. You called out to us, you know, me and Justin both. It was like you'd clubbed us in the head, man, you were so freaking loud. And ... and I think you must have called out to Dad, too, because the goddesses found you almost immediately."

"But you're not injured at all," Annabeth hops to her feet. "Well, of course you aren't, but it was still strange to have you still out cold when even Nico's up and walking about again. Trust you to be this lazy!"

"Hey!" he protests, but not very hard, because she's laughing at him, and in that laugh he can hear the relief, fractal bright, and knows that even with everything, she was worried. She'll always be worried.

"What?" she goes, catching him looking.

"Nothing," he shrugs, reaching out to tug her close enough to give her a one-armed hug, turning his head to whisper in her ear so that Justin P. couldn't hear, "You're still the only person who knows where my vulnerable spot is." He feels her smile against his cheek, knowing that she knows what he's trying to say.

Oshino Ponds turns out to be named for the set of eight small pools of water, natural-made from runoff from Mt. Fuji, and each pond is so crystal clear you can see straight down to the bottom, varyingly twenty to forty feet down. There's a spring, too, so cold that the shopkeepers have set up a dare - a free cup of hot peach tea for anyone who can hold their hands under the stream for longer than sixty seconds. It's a warm day, and there are plenty of people wandering around, poking in the stores and children daring each other to lean out as far as they can over the ponds. Some of them, Percy notices with a start of surprise, he recognizes: Argus, sitting at a patio table, his few visible eyes managing to look forlorn as he watched Rachel Dare eat a purple ice cream cone; Serena, Justin P.'s girlfriend, leaning over a sickly patch of water reeds and frowning; Chiron in his wheelchair disguise, breaking off bits of bread to give to the children so they can toss it out to the koi, his lips moving in a silent prayer of offering to the water goddesses; Jennifer Matsueda and Jerome from the Nemesis cabin, flipping through a stack of postcards; and a few other campers, huddled together and sharing each other's bean buns.

And, for some reason, Mrs. O'Leary, sitting next to one a kiosk selling fresh eel and looking piteously hopeful. The young woman running the kiosk didn't seem to know what to make of her, no matter what it was she saw through the Mist.

"Why is half the camp here?" he asks Annabeth when she joins him.

"It's a nice day," she says, deadpan. "Besides, what happened to you and Nico is the most exciting thing that's happened all summer."

"So you made it into a field trip."

"Yup."

He turns his head, scanning the scene again. There's a bridge close-by, built over the largest of the ponds apparently for decoration. Two people are paused on it, elbows braced on the railing, watching the koi fish in the water below make their slow, lazy circles. The second time he looks, he notices that one of them is Justin Corner, and in his hands he's carrying a blooming, red hibiscus. The woman he's talking to is taller than he is, her earthy brown hair done up into an elegant bun on top of her head. She's dressed in a full-length kimono, bright green and shot through with patterns of blossoms. It's the same woman from his dream, the one Nico was yelling at.

As if she can feel his eyes on her, she looks up, catching his gaze.

It's Persephone.

He's not aware of closing the distance between them, just that suddenly, he's right there next to her, eyes never leaving her face, as he bends his upper body ever so slightly into a bow, saying, "My lady."

"Percy Jackson," she replies, completely on level. "Nice to see you again."

Did you plan it? he wants to ask her, straightening up and giving her a hard stare. From the very beginning, did you plan everything? The friendship with Nico, his fear demon pet getting loose, sending him on a quest to get him killed, all of it? Why would you want to hurt him like that?

Because, whispers some other part of his mind. Because she hates him. Maybe liking him wasn't an act, maybe they found something in common, but she still hates him. She'll punish him for what her husband has done, what he has - the freedom to go and come as he pleases, the freedom to love mortal women like Maria di Angelo, where she has nothing. Kidnapped, forced into marriage, sworn to return to the Underworld for six months every year, to smile and turn a blind eye to her husband's indiscretions, and this is all she can do.

She inclines her head the smallest bit, and then she's gone as if she was never there, leaving only the faintest scent of plumeria behind.

Percy takes a deep breath, reeling everything back in, and he opens his eyes to smile at Justin C.

"Hey," his brother greets him with a nod of his head, coming close. "Right scare you gave us there, yelling in our heads like that. Didn't know if you'd -" he shrugs, uncomfortable and letting that say the rest for him, having never been a man of many words.

Percy rests a hand on his shoulder, squeezing it just briefly enough to say what he means to say. "Have you seen Nico?" he asks.

"He was just here a moment ago," Justin says mildly, craning his neck around with a thoughtful frown. Back the way he came, Mrs. O'Leary suddenly starts up in great, booming barks, and his face clears. "Oh, there he is."

Percy turns just in time to see a familiar, scruffy figure get flattened by an overenthusiastic hellhound, his shouts of protests going completely unheeded, by both the hound and by everyone else. Percy starts towards them, legs moving separately of conscious direction from his brain, because there isn't much in his mind but relief, pure relief.

Nico manages to push Mrs. O'Leary off of him after she tires of him, wiping ineffectually at his face with a playful grimace. He clambers to his feet as Percy approaches, brushing loose pebbles off the backs of his legs.

Catching sight of him, he complains in no uncertain terms, "Your stupid dog makes me feel like I'm on the Flinstones. Look at this, I have big drool stains on my shirt - hey!" he goes, startled, because Percy isn't stopping. He puts his hands up, too late, and only manages to get them trapped between their chests when Percy catches him up in what he will never, ever in a million years admit to being a giant bear hug, except that it totally is. It shocks all the breath right out of his body, and he's forgotten what it's like, to have Nico's skinny limbs tangled in with his, forgotten how simply warm he is.

Without thinking, he drops his arms to Nico's waist, and leans forward to capture his mouth in a kiss, which works just about as well as you'd think it would: Nico's lips are stiff under his, like a frog's, his neck straining backwards in an attempt to escape.

"Percy - Percy -" he goes, urgently, and twists his chin backwards to get his mouth of his reach, which works just fine; Percy flicks his tongue against the column of his throat, almost laughs at the hitch in Nico's breath. "Annabeth is right behind you - Percy ... - your girlfriend -"

Percy muffles an incredulous noise against the tense tendons in Nico's neck, because really? Out of all the times to suddenly become chivalrous of this fact, he picks now? He pulls back, only far enough to smile and say, "Ex-girlfriend, actually." And, unable to help it, he leans right back in, adding with a playful nip to the end of his nose, "We thought we might as well clear up any confusion anybody had and just say it already, considering I kind of have a boyfriend now."

"Oh," says Nico faintly. And then, "Oh."

He smiles, and Percy has to swallow against the sudden and painful thump of his heart, because it's the same expression he gave the demon, only this time it's at him, all for him - Nico, who's lived in the darkness of the Underworld for years, glowing like the sun at high noon, and Percy feels blind-struck just looking at him. When he leans in, Nico meets him half-way, his arms coming to wrap around his neck, pressing them as close together as possible, kissing like they never decided to stop. He doesn't care that Annabeth is standing a few paces behind them, that both Justins are a little ways beyond her, and that pretty much the entire world can see him tongue Nico di Angelo like he'd lost something valuable down by his tonsils - let them watch. He doesn't care, because this stupid, silly, impetuous jerk of a man is here, with him, and Percy Jackson has decided he doesn't want this to ever not be the case.

"Wow," says Nico when Percy pulls back to draw in a long breath, feeling ridiculously like a bucket overfilled, a giant slopping mess of joy tumbling out of him all along the edges, making him dizzy and he kind of wants to lean into Nico, just so he doesn't have to deal with it all on his own. He does, because he can, their arms looser around each other now that they know the other isn't going to bolt. Nico breathes a huffing laugh against Percy's temple. "You know what they say, how people resemble their pets? You lick just like Mrs. O'Leary."

Percy pulls back to try and punch him in the ribs, going, "Shut up!", and they scuffle for a couple moments, stopping when Nico leans in to put his forehead against Percy's. Somewhere nearby, Mrs. O'Leary lets loose a low whine, starved for attention, and somebody - one of the Justins, maybe - says, "it's okay, girl."

Later, when Argus is driving them back to camp in a the camp van that's now a tour bus from Eos Travels - Tour Beautiful Japan!, Percy nudges Nico with his knee. "Hey," he goes, when Nico cracks an eye open in a long-suffering way, his head propped up against the window. "Remember what you said, before, to Thess - to the demon, I mean, about the two of us - you know -"

"Conquering the world with a zombie army because I'm too in love with you to deny you anything if you asked me for it?" says Nico, with a sarcasm too fragile to be readily believed. "Yeah, I do. Why?"

"Well, I say yes." Nico's head snaps up at this, eyes flaring open all the way, incredulous and hopeful and already inside his pupils, there's the stirring of power, like he's limbering up a muscle. Percy absently reaches out and curls his fingers around the back of Nico's neck. "But I say we go about it the slow way. No zombie armies, okay? We go about it like normal people, the long way around, piece by piece."

There's that smile again, and Percy hasn't even realized he's nervous, but he is. He's promising something, offering something, which is a lot harder to do when the other person has the power of yes or no.

"Yeah?" goes Nico, not resisting when he's pulled forward, simply rearranges himself with a soft shuffle, resting his head against Percy's shoulder. "Where will we start?"

"Here, in Japan," says Percy confidently. "It's the most powerful country in the world. We'll make it more powerful. We'll make it safe, too, while we still can - while the half-bloods being born to the gods are still too young to start attracting trouble. We'll make a better world for them. Then -" his voice shakes, ever so slightly, and Nico's arm snakes around his waist, gripping hard like an anchor. "Then we can go back, help America, help China, help the countries that the Titans brought down."

"Think we can do all that?" is said softly.

"I've saved the world once before, may I remind you. How hard can it be to do it again?"

A laugh, huffed against his collarbone. "You're full of it."

"I sure hope so. Thalia -" he adds suddenly, finally finding words for something that had been floating around in his subconscious since that day in Hase town, unaddressed because of various other things that seemed more important at the time. "If Lady Artemis can spare her, she'll help us."

"One child each from Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades," nods Nico, running his fingers along the seam at the hem of Percy's shirt. "Working together for the first time since the last world war. Yeah, I can see the appeal."

"Will you, though?" Percy asks after a few seconds pause. "Stay here in Japan?"

A shrug. "Yeah, okay," Nico mumbles, dismissive, like it hadn't even been a question. Then he lifts his head, propping his chin up on Percy's shoulder, grinning broad, "Besides," he says, "I kind of really like that stuff - the what's-it-called - the kimchee."

Percy laughs, barking, relieved, torn unasked from his throat. "Kimchee is Korean, you idiot," he goes, and oh, he's not expecting that jab at his heart, the overwhelming affection for this stupid half-blood boy, spreading warmth all through him. He takes Nico's hand, threading their fingers together, and just keeps breathing - in, out, one breath for each one Nico takes.

Post A/N: Here's the original author's live journal site http:/ veritasrecords .livejournal. com/88203 .html (Just remove the space y'all know how Fanfiction can be fickle when it comes to including web addresses.)