Chapter 4: A Child of the Underworld Considers Going Starkers From Now On
It was grocery day. And laundry day. And general shopping day. And just a fresh-air day, if Nico was going to be honest. His father had this terrible habit of forgetting that mortals needed such things as clean clothes, food that wasn't from the Underworld, and a chance to see the sky. Or, maybe he never forgot and just didn't care, which was also a perfectly viable possibility. Still, with no washing machine or proper kitchen in the Underworld, Nico got a chance to go out into the world. Some parts were still odd to him, being from a time 70 years in the past. Parents didn't beat their children when they misbehaved (and boy, some of the screaming children in the local Walmarts could only benefit from a good whack upside the head). Cars were sleeker, phones weren't rotary (some even could be hooked up to headsets, effectively making it impossible to discern between the successful and the genuinely insane), and everything cost about fifteen times what it used to, what with inflation.
On that thought, he examined the coins still in his pocket and sighed. Just enough for a load of laundry, then. There were some upsides to wearing all black all the time, even if it made him look even paler than he was. He didn't have enough for food, though. Since he was in California already, it wouldn't hurt to swing by New Rome and bum a meal or five off of them. If there was one thing a giant toga was good for, it was hiding stolen food.
The Laundromat was thankfully empty when Nico entered. He hated when people stared at him. Two weeks ago when he'd been there last, a little old lady started gossiping with her equally decrepit friend about how homeless vagrancy was on the rise and how deplorable it all was. Her hearing aid must have been malfunctioning, because she had said it rather loudly, too. Nico just hated dealing with people. Just… freaking people.
He found a machine all the way in the back corner of the room (most defensible, clear view of the doorway while maintaining cover) and started loading what little he had from the large shopping bag he'd been using to cart it all around. At least he hadn't had to lug it far; shadow travel had its uses.
After several months of living like this, the rest was autopilot. A quarter went into the machine along with some cheap-as-dirt detergent, two buttons were pressed, and that was it. Nothing to do but wait and make sure no one stole his stuff, not that anyone sane would want most of it anyway. What would a random thug do with a pitch-black toga?
He was going to be bored senseless for the half-hour it took to wash the load. Just stew in his own juices and think about stuff he'd rather not contemplate too deeply.
Like Perc- NOT GOING THERE NOPE NO SIR.
Like Hazel. There we go. Another big sister wandering around, but Roman this time. Sometimes Hazel reminded him of Bianca, but it was only in flashes. Tiny bursts of concern that she would show for him, even though he could see she actively hid them. The duty and responsibilities she carried made the set of her shoulders just like Bianca's. Granted, for Bianca, it was the responsibility of caring for an annoying little brother, but for Hazel, it was her own death. Okay, so there were some big differences. But other than that, they were nothing alike. Bianca definitely took the role of big sister very seriously. She had always been the one in charge, no question. Hazel tiptoed around Nico, like she was afraid of offending him or pushing too hard. It was nice to have some respect for a change, but… it just didn't feel right. They didn't feel like family. But then, he wasn't sure if he was ready to have someone he considered family. Just one more sister to lose. Maybe it was better like this.
The bell above the door of the Laundromat jingled, jerking Nico out of his thoughts. He slouched down in his chair as best he could, hoping to escape the notice of whoever just walked in.
No such stupid luck. The lady just walked right on in towards the back of the room, marching up to the washing machine next to Nico's, a heavy-looking bag in her left fist that must've contained her laundry.
She looked like she was in her late 40s, maybe early 50s. Very much a motherly kind of air, slightly overweight, wearing a Christmas sweater, hair that was starting to grey in a bun. Nico winced internally. There were two types of older ladies when it came to him: those who considered him a delinquent punk and those who wanted to coddle him and talk about how much he reminded them of their kids, or worse, their cats. Both were equally bad, in his opinion.
"Oh, hello there, honey! Didn't see you there!" the lady said, smiling. Oh, gods. Option number two, then. Nico summoned the full width and breadth of his willpower not to sigh or grumble. His mama had raised him better than this. He nodded as politely as he could manage.
"Startin' to get cold out there! I'm so excited for the holidays, aren't you?" she said.
"Mm. I guess."
"Say, why aren't you here with your parents? I'm sure they wouldn't send you here alone, not this late in the day."
There it was. He'd been waiting for that question. Every single time, somebody brought it up in some way or another. "They have work," he said tersely. The sooner Miss Nosy figured out he didn't want to share, the better.
"Well, that's awful! Working this late. Some employers have no respect for their workers at all. I can relate," she said. "In fact, my boss actually sent me on the dumbest of errands today! I couldn't believe the old codger when he told me what it was." She began rummaging around in her bag, that good-natured smile still on her face. A chill swept over Nico as he realized: she hadn't started to load anything into the machines – hadn't even moved to do so. Had gone straight for him without flinching. Shit. He'd let his guard down.
The lady withdrew a long, wicked machete from her bag. "I'm not sure why my boss wants a little kid like you dead, but those are my orders. Bosses, huh? So very disrespectful. I should be doing something important with my time." Her eyes flashed completely black, irises, sclera, and all. Nico scrambled to his feet, hands groping for the hilt of his Stygian sword, hidden in his own laundry bag.
"What are you?" he spat, putting the sword between him and her.
She paused, eyeing the black metal. "Hm… I could ask the same of you. That's not a natural metal. Maybe the boss wasn't making light of my skills after all. Not that it's going to matter much. A kid is a kid."
"A sword's longer than a machete."
"My arms are longer than yours. It comes out about even in the end, except for the part where I have a few hundred years' experience over you. And trust me, dearie, that's going to make all the difference."
With that, she stepped nimbly to the side and hooked a leg around the chair next to Nico's, yanking upward. The chair flew towards his chin, and, like an idiot, he reacted automatically, trying to bat it away with the hilt of his sword, leaving his right side completely open.
"You kind of suck at this, hm, dearie?" she crooned, slashing away.
"Agh!" Son of a – his upper arm was bleeding. Like, a fair amount. That couldn't be good. And he was backed into a corner with a row of chair seats right behind his knees. If she backed him up any further, he would trip and fall over, and once that happened… Well, one way or another, he'd be going back the Underworld when this was over. Maybe he could distract her. "You… you're some kind of demon, right?"
"Some kind? Well, I guess that's correct, in the same way that you're some kind of human. Probably. Still not sure what you are, exactly. There's some human in there, right? You look like you might have some wraith in you. Especially around the eyes."
Nico had an idea. It would only work once, if it worked at all. If it didn't he was dead. But then, if he couldn't find a way out, he was also dead. It was worth a shot.
He tensed his shoulders like he was going to try to strike out at her. She noticed, and raised her arms for a better defense. Sucker. With that, Nico half-jumped, half-fell back-down into the seat, his legs both kicking up like a bucking horse, slamming her squarely in the gut. She made a choked noise as she flew backwards, crashing into the floor. Her weapon clattered across the tile floor. Nico completed his slide to the ground, knees hitting the floor. As his spine straightened, he brought his sword with him, driving it into the older lady without a second's hesitation.
She gave a small gasp and a groan. Then, she did something odd. She started laughing.
"Haha! Really? A kid? Me?" She broke to cough blood. "That's rich. Well done; that was inspired. Just don't think you'll get away so easy. If the higher-ups want you dead, dearie, then… they'll definitely… send… more…" As her words trailed off, the black left her eyes. Her body went limp.
Nico winced as he pulled his sword free. Why wasn't she dissolving like every other monster? This wasn't right. This looked like a full-on murder scene now. If she were a creature of Greek or Roman mythology, then she would've dissolved. Crumbled. Returned to Tartarus like everything else. But she was a demon by admission, so she had to be a mythological creature and not human. It didn't make sense.
Nico's eyes widened. No. There was no way. There shouldn't have been this kind of overlap. There were boundaries. He clenched his teeth. Evidently, there must not have been anymore. He needed to talk to each camp as soon as possible. Romans first, just because they were closer. Not because Percy was probably at Camp Half-Blood and he was avoiding the ever-loving shit out of that boy. Not in the slightest. He was going to have to go there one way or another, anyway. Something in his gut said that someone at camp might know what was going on moreso than he did.
The washing machine made a whirring noise as it slowed to a halt, the click of the door unlocking the only sound in the Laundromat. Nico sighed. Guess he wasn't going to get to dry his clothes properly after all. Hopefully the Romans wouldn't give him peculiar looks if he showed up in street clothes with a bloody sword and a bag of wet underwear. They ought to be used to crap like that by now.
(A/N): Shorter chapter. My apologies. Basically, I adore Nico's character now and I really want to incorporate him into this story. Where I'm going with this... I have no idea.
Also, the stuff about things being 15 times more expensive now? Yeah, that's accurate. I looked up the inflation rates and the dollar value for today and for 1938, when Nico would have been 6 (never mind that he was still living in Venice at the time - shut up). So when somebody tells you about how great $7.25 an hour is for minimum wage, keep in mind that in 1938, it was around $4.25. Now account for inflation and multiply it by fifteen for its worth in modern-day money. Yeah. Tell that person to shut the hell up.