Author's note: Okay, so I made up some mythology here. But c'mon, I'm guessing the lore on Tartarus isn't too extensive. And besides, it was clear from Nico's reaction that it wasn't exactly going to be pretty. I just wanted to write a nice post-HoO story that would portray that.
Also, huge inspiration from (and therefore credit to) two of my absolute favorite post-HoO stories: Annabeth Jackson by cole-lit and Remedy by . Check them out!
Ever since they got back from Tartarus, Percy and Annabeth had been quiet.
Oh, they still spoke when spoken to. In fact, they didn't even seem aware of how quiet they had become.
It wasn't just a lack of words, though. They used to be two of the most active people at the camp, which is really saying something, considering the camp is just full to the bursting of ADHD, ten- to nineteen-year-old demigods. But Percy and Annabeth could hardly manage to sit still; if Percy randomly stood up in the middle of your conversation and started practicing sword maneuvers in the air with Riptide, people knew not to be offended; if Annabeth burst in to your cabin late at night and offered to help with your Ancient Greek homework, people knew she had just torn-up a failed blueprint and that Um, I think I'll just do it in the morning. But thanks, though...
And now, nothing.
Annabeth's blueprints gathered dust, and it had been so long since the campers had seen Riptide that they wondered if maybe Percy hadn't lost it somehow while they were in Tartarus.
Three months had passed since they had crawled back from Tartarus, four since the Giant War had ended, eight since they had closed the Doors of Death from the Underworld-side, and nine since they had first fallen in. They had spent six months in the literal Hell of the Underworld, so no one begrudged them their new quiet, even if it was worrying to see them side-by-side at the Athena table, an arm around each other, spaced-out from the conversation and utterly inattentive of their surroundings. No one had the heart to remind them that Percy was supposed to sit at the empty Poseidon table. No one touched them, just looked on and worried, for three months.
And then Nico came, and brought some friends.
When Nico di Angelo crossed the border of Camp Half-Blood with a dozen monsters, varying in size from empousa to hellhound, the campers immediately drew their swords to greet them at the camp-side bottom of the hill.
"Calm down," Nico growled. "They're friends. Where are Percy and Annabeth?" Nobody moved. "Fine, I guess I'll find them myself."
"Halt!" Clarisse stepped forward. "Nico di Angelo, what do you think you're doing?!"
"Bringing visitors for the power couple who saved your asses. Now where are they?"
Clarisse looked apoplectic. "You can't be serious. Leave the monsters at the border, come have a chat, and then maybe we'll allow you to visit the two shells."
"Shells?" Nico asked, momentarily startled. Two empousai behind him looked at each other and hissed almost sympathetically.
The campers shifted uncomfortably, but Clarisse crossed her arms and stood her ground. "They spent six months in Tartarus. Of course they didn't come back the same."
Nico's expression shifted, the aura of darkness that normally radiated from him becoming stronger. "Of course. Where are they?"
"Nico, you can't just assault them with monsters from the depths of Tartarus. Not everyone feels the same connection to the Underworld as the children of Hades—"
"Clarisse," Percy called from the Big House. "What's going on?" He and Annabeth were approaching the group with relatively unperturbed expressions, despite Nico and the small army of monsters. Before Clarisse could respond, Nico piped up.
"Percy, Annabeth!" he called.
They stopped walking. "Nico?" Annabeth called, eyes travelling to the monsters. "Glykeria? Photine?" The two empousai ran forward at her call, and the campers, too stunned to do anything else, looked on.
"Dear children!" the one on the right screamed, enveloping the two in a disturbingly motherly hug.
"Glykeria!" the other one hissed. "Did you not hear the brown-haired girl?"
"Right, right, of course," Glykeria said, immediately releasing the startled demigods and joining her. "We're very sorry for coming! We should have realized, after... well, Photine and I will be on our way—"
"Wait!" Annabeth pleaded. "Don't... don't go!"
Percy nodded, drawing Annabeth a little bit closer. "We'd love to have you visit. Why don't you just... um..." he faltered, noticing the shocked campers. "Perhaps somewhere a bit more private, until dinner."
"Yes," the Scythian dracaena said, sliding forward. "Perhaps the beach?"
Nico turned to the monsters behind him. "I'll walk Percy and Annabeth over. The rest of you, we'll meet you there." As the rest of the campers watched the strange sight of a dozen assorted monsters tromping awkwardly towards the beach in the distance, Glykeria, Photine, and the Scythian dracaena following, Nico stepped forward and started pulling the two behind him towards the Big House.
As the monsters faded into the distance and the three demigods disappeared into the Big House, Clarisse frowned. "Alright!" she called, snapping the campers out of their shocked daze. "We'll see what's up later. For now, it appears as though these monsters are to be treated as friends," she sneered distastefully. "Keep your daggers on you at dinner."
Recognizing the dismissal, the campers trudged off dazedly to forest, undoubtedly to relay to the dryads and satyrs the events of the last few moments. Clarisse, however, after ensuring that they had all but disappeared from view, turned towards the beach.
"You've got to snap out of it," Nico said as soon as they crossed the threshold.
"Snap out of it?" Percy frowned.
"Yes, it. You're not acting like yourselves." They froze at the accusation; Nico sighed. "Look, I've been there too, remember?"
"You didn't spend six months there," Percy shot back, spine rigid and arm clasping Annabeth tighter to his side.
"True. But I remember it every day."
"Then how—" Annabeth choked on the words, eyes beginning to well with tears. "How do you... how are you doing fine? How come you aren't... aren't like us?"
Nico shrugged. "I'm not. But I had to go fight a war. And as crazy as it seems, that helped me; I moved on. You have to move on."
Percy's shoulders slumped and his chest began to heave, slowly, dangerously. "Nico, you can't be serious."
"You can't dwell on the things you saw down there," Nico pressed. "You realize that half of it wasn't even real?" Percy nodded. "Good. Then let yourself forget. Let go."
Percy closed his eyes, still trying to steady his breathing, and Annabeth turned her head into him. "Nico," she murmured, voice muffled, as her face was pressed into Percy. "What did you see?"
He started. "What do you mean?"
"What did you see?"
He swallowed, throat suddenly dry; he watched as Annabeth's free hand started stroking Percy's stomach. "I saw... well, does it really matter?"
"Yes," she murmured simply, as Percy's breathing began to steady; she raised her head and pressed a soft kiss to his cheek, letting her hand rest still where it had been stroking.
"Well... Bianca was there."
She nodded. "Of course."
"But it wasn't pleasant."
"Almost nothing is in Tartarus."
"Almost?" he asked, incredulous. "That place was literally hell! If it hadn't have been for Photine and Glykeria—!"
"They helped you as well, then? I suppose that makes sense." She removed her hand from Percy's stomach. "I mean, they are the only two who know the other way out of Tartarus."
Nico blinked. "The other way?"
"Of course," she said, eyes snapping to that steely shade of gray they did whenever somebody asked a stupid question. "How do you think we got out, after we closed the Doors? It took Photine and Glykeria nearly five months to finally find us, and then we got out of there as fast as we could." Her eyes darkened. "But in those five months, Percy and I didn't just see things."
"Nico," Percy finally spoke up again. "We did things. Bad things, horrible things, and, worst of all, good things you should never do in a place as dark as Tartarus. It ruined them."
When Clarisse caught up to the monsters, they were chatting amongst themselves.
"We really shouldn't have come" the Scythian dracaena from earlier sighed.
"I suppose not," Photine said. "I didn't think—"
"But of course!" Glykeria pressed. "The poor dears, we saw what happened at the lake—" The hellhound barked. "Marinos!" she gasped, as their heads all whipped to Clarisse.
"Explain yourselves," she demanded. The hellhound barked again.
"Marinos," the Scythian dracaena hissed, "the next time you use that word I swear I will wash your mouth out with the nastiest soap I can find." Clarisse glared at the snake woman. "Explain what, exactly?"
"What do you think?!" she shouted. "Explain why a ragtag pack of monsters from Tartarus is visiting the two demigods who had to spend months on end there!"
"Calm yourself," the Scythian dracaena hissed. "Without Photine and Glykeria, we might all be down there still."
"Do you know what my name means, child?" Photine spoke up. "It means 'light.' I am the light that leads the brave out of Tartarus. My sister, Glykeria, is the love that makes it possible."
"My name means 'sweet'!" her sister saw fit to add.
Photine frowned. "Quite. Though how 'love' and 'sweet' got so closely intertwined within you, I do not know." She turned back towards Clarisse. "We led Nico di Angelo out of Tartarus first. Then, later, we led Perseus Jackson and Annabeth Chase out. They were brave."
"It's my fault we didn't find them faster," Glykeria sighed. "But they love each other so much! Ironically, the more love present, the harder it is to find someone. Tartarus feeds off that, you know. Twists it, violates it. Why, at the lake—"
"They don't need to know about the lake," the Scythian dracaena hissed.
"Tartarus damaged them," Photine agreed with her sister. "When we found them, they were accompanied by the monsters you see around you." Clarisse glanced at them warily. "The two were protecting them."
"Protecting them?" Clarisse said flatly, disbelieving. "Two demigods stuck in Tartarus were protecting the monsters that live there."
"Tartarus is awful for everyone," a third empousa insisted. The other monsters nodded.
"And not all of us deserve to be there," the Scythian dracaena finished. "Because of this, some of us are hunted by our brethren. Percy and Annabeth protected us from them, and we attempted to protect them. We all swore on the river Styx to protect them or die trying. And some of us did."
"Until we found them," Glykeria said.
"And we thank you every day," Percy murmured. Startled, Clarisse and the monsters turned to watch as Annabeth, Percy, and Nico stepped onto the beach. Clarisse was shocked to notice that, for the first time in three months, Percy and Annabeth didn't have their arms around each other — though they were holding hands — and their eyes were sharper, clearer. Nico was grinning. "Clarisse, we'll explain more at dinner. Now go; we have to catch up with our friends."
Clarisse had had too much shock for one day. She turned and obeyed, walking up the path.
She looked back when she heard cheering, and saw Annabeth and Percy finish a long, sweet kiss before letting go of each other's hand and surging forward to joyously greet the monsters assembled before them. She smiled.
It was good to see that Prissy son of Poseidon and goody-two-shoes daughter of Athena happy again.