Spare the Rod
Summary: After the war against Kronos, Nico is cursed with obedience by Demeter. Unable to leave the camp or tell anybody about his dilemma, Nico's only hope is for somebody to figure out what has happened.
Too bad nobody at camp knows him well enough to tell that something's wrong.
Nico had almost made it past the camp border.
He should have just taken a short-cut through the shadows – he would have, had he felt physically able to – but the battle against Kronos had drained him, and he hadn't wanted to risk fainting as soon as the shadows spat him back out. He hadn't had any other choice than to sneak out at night like a thief.
Except she'd been waiting. And though Demeter was not feared in the way other Olympian deities were feared, Nico had spent too much time among immortals to believe he might trick his way out of whatever conversation she desired.
The goddess of the harvest demanded an audience, and Nico was in no position to decline.
"My lady." Nico forced his body into a bow as low as his tired muscles would allow.
Demeter looked almost exactly like she had on the rare occasions he'd seen her in the Underworld, only closer in size to a mortal than a goddess. "Already off to your next grand adventure?"
Something in her voice told Nico he needed to tread very, very carefully.
"The battle is won," he said slowly. "I've done what I could."
"Yes. The battle." She sniffed. "Do you know how long it took to clean up all the wheat I had to grow out of monsters? Nasty little crops they made. No nutritional value."
Nico thought of all the funeral shrouds they'd burned over the past week. Of how he would have left days ago, had there not been another, and another, and another demigod to honor. It wouldn't have felt right to leave without witnessing their rites of passage to the Underworld.
But gods forbid Demeter needed to clean up a wheat field or two.
"We are very grateful for your assistance, my lady," he bit out, though he could tell that he wasn't doing a good job sounding genuine. "Yours and your daughter's, as well."
"Oh, she would have been far better off sitting out this horrid mess in the castle. But no, Hades just had to cave." She rolled her eyes carelessly. "Any self-respecting god wouldn't have bowed to some half-blood's pestering, but he's always been–"
"I wouldn't have needed to pester him if he'd agreed to help from the start," Nico snapped.
Some part of his brain was screaming at him to stand down. To fall to his knees and beg for forgiveness. Demeter wasn't intimidating like Ares, or Zeus, but she still had the power to vaporize him.
Another, angrier part of him had spent days at the funerals of people he'd felt die in battle. He'd had no time to heal, he hadn't slept – how, when he had no cabin of his own, and he most certainly wasn't going to creep people out in the Hermes cabin – and he had no patience left to placate a goddess who'd done the bare minimum and now dared to complain.
Demeter clicked her tongue in displeasure. "In previous times, half-bloods still had respect for the gods. Especially their parents. If you were my son, you would have known not to overstep after being told no."
"Times changed," Nico said curtly, still ignoring the part of his brain blaring alarm sirens at him to stop. "These days, respect needs to be earned."
"And what is that supposed to mean, child?"
"Back in the day gods may have been worshiped just for existing, but maybe it's time you made an effort now that your kids were the ones to save Olympus."
Demeter frowned and crossed her arms. "I do not appreciate your attitude, boy."
"I'll live." Nico turned on his heel, drunk on sleep-deprivation and righteous anger.
Demeter made a disapproving sound with her tongue. "That won't do. Turn around. Don't turn your back on me again."
Nico had no time to debate whether to obey her before his back went rigid and his body turned on its heel without his permission. A shiver ran over his spine over what he had just done.
Demeter gave him a look of consideration. "I can tell that scolding you will not do any good. Your father has been far too lenient with you. Typical."
"My lady." Nico did his best to keep the alarm out of his voice. "I apologize for stepping out of line. It has been a long week, and–"
"Oh, no. My dear, you've had attitude problems long before this whole mess with Kronos started."
"If you will just allow me to request an audience with my father–"
"Like you've 'requested audiences' in the past? Bursting into the palace whenever it suited you? But of course you would. He let you. No, Nico, I rather believe we're past letting your father handle your parenting." She made a thoughtful expression.
The foreboding sensation in his gut morphed into one of terror. Nico tried to reach for the shadows for a swift retreat, not caring if he lost consciousness afterwards, but he was frozen in place.
"I know," Demeter said. "I'll do you a favor. I'll admit that you've had a rough life – no consistent parenting at all – so it's not all your fault that nobody's taught you how to behave."
She waved her hand, and a sickening tingle traveled over his body and settled right underneath his skin.
"This will help you along," she said, sounding satisfied.
"What did you do?" Nico asked tonelessly, dread curdling his gut.
Demeter gave him a benevolent smile. "Maybe now your father might come to appreciate you more. Nobody likes a rebel."
"What did you do?"
"Enough of that. Do not ask again."
Nico opened his mouth to do exactly that, but no sound would come out. His eyes widened.
So did her smile. "There we go. How lovely." Demeter patted his cheek before he managed to pull away, no longer paralyzed in place. "Do me a favor and don't tell anybody I've come to see you. Or about my little gift. We want them to believe you're the one making an effort, don't we?"
Nico was speechless. Completely and utterly speechless. Demeter's curse – her blessing – crawled like an army of ants underneath his skin.
"Enjoy your gift, Nico di Angelo."
"Wait," he said, tearing himself free. "Wait! Take it back! Take it back, please!"
But Demeter glowed and disappeared, forcing Nico to clench his eyes shut in fear of disintegrating from her power. After she was gone, he released a shaky breath. He looked over his shoulder, free to move at last.
Down in the camp, he could still see the remains of the large funeral pyre that had carried over three more campers into the realm of his father the day before.
Nico hovered at the camp border, fighting with himself for longer than he cared to admit. By the time he managed to come to a decision the first rays of the sun were starting to fall into the valley and reflect off the surface of the lake.
He was tempted to go through with his plan and leave the camp behind regardless of what had happened. He had no reason to stay – he didn't want to stay – but doing so would be risky. Demeter hadn't had the courtesy to give him a run-down of her 'blessing', so he didn't know the scope of what she'd done to him. It would have been foolish of him to go off by himself while injured, exhausted and bearing the unknown curse of a goddess.
Fine. Nico clenched his fists and slowly made his way down the hill and into the valley. He'd been at camp for a week. He could manage a few days more – just long enough to figure out how to break his curse until he could be on his merry way.
His return – unfortunately – didn't go unnoticed. He hadn't gotten his hopes up, but it was still annoying. No matter where he went, at camp he always stood out.
Maybe the war had changed his standing at camp a little, but he had no illusions over how long it would hold. Soon people would forget about his contribution in the battle, and they would remember why they felt uncomfortable in his company.
Of course it had to be Percy who spotted him. Of course, when any other camper might have graciously decided to ignore Nico's presence. Then again, he'd already decided he'd stick around to deal with Demeter's curse. Percy was as good a person to consult as any.
"I thought you were–"
"Already gone?" Nico muttered. "Not for lack of trying."
Percy's mouth tugged into a downwards curve. After luring him into the Underworld, convincing him to take on Achilles' curse and fighting at his side in the war, Nico no longer knew where the two of them stood. "What changed your mind?"
Nico tried to tell him. He tried to tell him about his chat with Demeter, about her curse, even just about her appearing at camp. But no words that came even close would make it out of his mouth. Nico was frustrated, but unsurprised. Demeter had told him to keep her visit to himself, so he couldn't outright explain what had happened.
"I've got unfinished business," he said instead, an answer that was true, but so vague that it slipped past the curse.
"And once you've finished, you'll what? Leave, just like that?"
Nico was too tired to try to place Percy's tone. "That's the plan."
Something twitched over Percy's expression, too quickly for Nico to place. "Alright," he said, his voice tight. "At least stay at camp until you're healed up."
Nico, who'd been thinking about the best way to get around Demeter's order not to ask anybody for help, cringed at the sensation surging through his body. It felt like an iron chain snapping shut. Like something in his chest had been pulled taunt and now restricted his breathing.
It faded quickly, but the message was clear. Nico's surprise quickly morphed into dawning horror.
Demeter hadn't cursed him into obeying just her. She'd cursed him with obedience towards everybody.
Nico wasn't proud of it, but he fled from Percy mid-sentence, fearing what other thoughtless command he might dump on him if he let the conversation continue. He immediately tried crossing the border, meaning to test the limits of Demeter's curse.
It was impossible to overcome. Nico's feet carried him right to the edge of the camp, then froze in place and wouldn't allow him to move an inch unless it was back to where he'd come from.
Nico clenched his teeth, furious at the loss of freedom. He tried telling himself that it could have been worse. He'd already decided to stay at camp to get help, so what difference did it make that he now had extra motivation? The restriction would pass as soon as he managed to lift the curse. It wasn't a big deal.
But it wasn't really the command itself that terrified him. It was the implications. Percy had spoken less than five sentences to him and accidentally bound him to the camp. What would other campers say to him, unknowing of the weight their words now carried? What were the curse's limits?
Nico would have to avoid interacting with people as much as he could – which wouldn't be much of a difference to what he usually did at camp. This time, the stakes were simply much, much higher.
Nico avoided talking to anybody all morning before reluctantly deciding that he wasn't getting anywhere.
He'd tried to describe Demeter's curse through writing, but his hand wouldn't move over the paper. He tried to read up on Demeter in the modest collection of books they had at camp (maybe she'd cast a curse like this one before), but he couldn't find anything promising, and he didn't want to ask the Athena kids – who had a much more extensive collection in their cabin. He even considered consulting a ghost, but he didn't feel like finding out whether the curse extended to non-living beings as well.
Around midday he had no choice but to cave and ask for help the old-fashioned way. At this point he hadn't slept for several days, and hadn't had a decent meal in almost as long. His eyes itched and he felt irritable.
He picked Annabeth as one of the less likely people to run their mouths and ruin his life further and tracked her down on her way from the gym to the showers.
"I need your help," he said, stepping directly into her path.
She flinched like he'd melted directly out of the shadows. "Nico!"
"Are you free?" He tried not to sound impatient, but wasn't sure how successful he was being.
Annabeth had bags under her eyes that might rival his own (he felt a little guilty, knowing how much she'd been working to rebuild), but she carded a hand through her messy hair and said, "I– Yeah. Yeah, I've got time. What's up?"
He tried to tell her. He really did. He tried every way to talk about Demeter without actually mentioning her name, about the curse, about his new compulsion to obey whatever command he was being given. He even tried putting it as though he'd just happened to come down with a curse, no goddess involved at all.
It was no use. All that he managed were abrupt splinters of sentences like, "Well," and, "There is," and, "I can't."
Annabeth frowned, clearly grappling with impatience herself. "Nico–"
"I'm sorry," Nico bit out. "I'm trying. I just– I really need–"
He tried to force the words out. They clawed at his chest, wanting to be spoken out loud (though he was so used to getting by on his own, it felt like a betrayal to need help from somebody else so desperately), but it was like his vocal chords were paralyzed.
"I need to– to– I'm trying, I just–"
"Is somebody in acute danger?" Annabeth cut him off.
"I– No. It's nothing like that."
"Okay." She looked him over, her gaze softened. "You look tired. You didn't go to bed last night, did you?" She didn't wait for him to answer. "Go, catch some sleep. We can talk when you're feeling better."
Nico's legs started to move before she'd finished her sentence. Frustration clogged up his throat just as much as the curse did, and he marched on wordlessly, forced to obey Annabeth's command.
He tried to resist at first, but doing so made a dull, throbbing pressure explode behind his skull. The longer he kept fighting (managing only to slow his steps, but not stop them altogether) the stronger the pressure grew, until it had sprouted into an agonizing pain.
He stopped. The pain faded. Nico's legs carried him further as Annabeth's command tugged him forwards as another chain had snapped shut around his neck.
Nico slept in an empty guest room in the Big House, glad that the curse let him choose at least this much. He'd slept in the Hermes cabin when he'd first come here, but since he'd found out about his father and run away from camp...
Yeah, no. He got plenty of stares already wherever he went. No need to make it worse by camping out in the most crowded cabin by far.
Since Percy had struck his deal with the gods, there were plans to build more cabins so that every demigod could have a place they belonged, but until then the Big House it was.
Except Nico didn't want to go to sleep – not here, nor anywhere. He didn't feel safe in the Big House. He didn't feel safe, much less comfortable, at camp – that's why he'd never stayed for long.
But he had no choice. Annabeth's command rang in his ears, bright like a bell. Nico slept.
He jerked upright feeling disoriented and with his heart hammering in his chest. He grabbed blindly for his sword; it was still right where he'd left it the day before, clasped to his belt. The curse hadn't let him put it away before forcing him to lie down.
Nico hastily stumbled out of bed, trying to gauge how long he'd been out. He still felt tired, but the thought of going back to sleep had terror crawling up his spine. He could no longer control when to be vulnerable or where to lower his guard.
If somebody told him to drop his sword mid-battle, he'd have to do it.
If somebody told him to sit still and do nothing, he'd sit, and wait, and... would he starve, if somebody didn't tell him to move? Would he stop breathing altogether?
He wished there was somebody he trusted to safely experiment with. What did the curse count as a command? Did suggestions count? Did requests? What about slang? Rhetoric statements? Sarcasm?
How could Nico know how literal the curse took orders? If somebody told him to get lost, would he start walking and not stop until he couldn't find his way back? If somebody told him to drop dead, would he do it?
Demeter probably wouldn't have wanted him to come to serious harm, but he doubted she'd thought of building in fail-safes. The gods rarely considered their children's mortality, too self-absorbed by their own invincible nature.
Nico wondered if she had any idea of what she had done. Even if there was nobody out there who wanted to hurt him (Yeah, right.), at the moment anybody could kill him with a single careless sentence.
A/N: Yes, this was inspired by Ella Enchanted. No, Nico is not going to have a good time. Enjoy!
Beta'd by the lovely Igornerd, To Mockingbird, PyrothTenka and lilahri!
Let me know what you thought! :)