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.
Percy had never known how to talk to Nico di Angelo, even back when he'd been a star-struck kid nerding out over his Mythomagic cards. Driving him away from camp – or at least being a large factor in doing so – was one of Percy's biggest regrets.
He'd been hopeful when Nico had decided to fight on their side during the war, and even more so when he'd decided to stick around afterwards. A week at first. Then two. Soon a month had gone by, and while Nico showed no intention of leaving, Percy hadn't gotten any better at interacting with him.
He was staying, but he wasn't making any friends. He was here, but it didn't feel like he gave them a chance to get to know him.
Nico was with them, but he was acting nothing like Nico di Angelo.
Nico started to get reckless during training. He volunteered for more and more patrols. Once or twice Percy caught him veering precariously close to the camp borders.
"Guys, I'm worried about Nico."
"When's the last time you saw him?" Grover had only been at camp sporadically since the end of the war. Though Percy was proud of Grover's new responsibilities, he missed his best friend.
"He hasn't left," Annabeth said quietly.
Grover's eyes went wide. "Not once? It's been weeks."
"As far as we know he hasn't crossed the camp border once."
"Isn't that a good thing?" Grover looked between them dubiously. "I thought you wanted him to feel at home."
"But that's it," Percy said, "I don't think he does."
As far as Percy could tell, Nico hadn't made a single friend in all the time he'd spent here. He let them rope him into camp activities alright: sword fighting, wall climbing, even canoeing. He helped with chores without a complaint. He joined them for meals, and for the campfire, and for patrols.
But no matter what activity or campers they introduced him to, he didn't seem to enjoy any of it.
Nico seemed miserable, yet he never suggested anything of his own. Nor did he show any signs of wanting to leave. It didn't make any sense.
"Has he been talking to any of you?" Percy asked, because he sure didn't feel like any of the conversations he'd had with the kid had gotten him anywhere.
"Not really," said Rachel. "I tried. He mostly just lets me talk at him, though."
Annabeth stared at the ground, her brows furrowed. "I thought he might just need some time to get used to all this."
Nico had been alone for so long. Ever since Bianca… "I thought so too," Percy said quietly. "But something just feels… off."
He'd hoped they were making progress. He'd hoped that the war – as horrible as it had been – had given them this one good thing in bringing them all closer together. In making Nico see that they – that the camp – could be his family, if only he let them be.
"Do you think he's just indulging you?" Grover asked.
"You'd think he'd be trying to look a bit less miserable if he was."
The border alarms tore through the silence. Percy grabbed Riptide and lunged for the door in one movement, and trusted the others to be hot on his heels.
Nico had been waiting for something like this.
A pack of giant scorpions had climbed the hill leading into the valley, and though they hadn't managed to breach the border, Nico didn't especially care about details like that. He might not get another opportunity before the curse robbed him of any remaining autonomy. He had to make this one count.
Nico toed the border experimentally. He'd never bothered to find out at what point the curse would deem him 'healed up' enough to allow him to leave.
His foot stepped through the invisible line without problem. Percy's command had run its course.
Nico grinned and lunged into the midst of the monsters. He felled one, then two of them before any of the other campers could even think about joining him. He slashed his sword and ducked and dusted another scorpion. One of them sliced open his leg, and something inside of him unraveled.
Nico ignored everything he'd ever learned about surviving and threw himself into the fight head-first. He held nothing back. He allowed himself to be wild and reckless, wasting all of his energy. No command would be able to save him if his body was too exhausted to raise his sword.
He whirled around towards Percy's voice and froze. Percy looked horrified.
Nico realized he was grinning – a wide, manic expression that split his entire face apart. If only he was able to shadow-travel to give himself that last shove…
It didn't matter. He would soon get to meet his father – one way or another.
Something was wrong.
Nico wasn't acting like himself. He didn't even fight like himself. The Nico that Percy knew wasn't reckless. He wasn't stupid. Nico didn't throw himself at monsters like it was the last battle he would ever fight.
"Nico!" he yelled again, because while distracting someone in battle was about the most stupid thing a person could do, whatever Nico was doing right now was worse. "What are you doing?"
Nico wasn't even using any of his powers. He shouldn't need to – Nico was usually able to hold his own with his sword just fine. But he didn't look like he was fighting to win. He looked like he was trying to take as many monsters as he could down with him.
"Get serious, di Angelo!"
Nico perked up at his words, and something in his eyes gleamed. It occurred to Percy that this unhinged grimace he was hesitant to call a smile was the only expression other than apathy he'd seen on the boy in weeks.
Nico raced forward, and the darkness followed him. Shadows around him quivered and swelled. Cracks opened in the ground and revealed skeletal arms that dragged the monsters into the Underworld.
Nico ducked into and out of the shadows like he was one of them and cut down every scorpion that got in his way. Percy hadn't seen his powers in action since the war, and while he could never forget how powerful Nico really was, it wasn't something he thought of when looking at the guy.
Just when Percy was starting to lose himself in the battle, he saw Nico flicker. His heart skipped a beat.
Nico didn't turn to look. He melted back into the shadows and took far too long to reappear. He wasn't focused on the remaining monsters anymore. He looked down at his flickering hand and grinned like this was what he'd been waiting for all this time.
Nico froze up completely. A scorpion charged right at him, but Nico didn't even look at it. He didn't move. He didn't raise his sword. He didn't do anything.
"Duck!" Percy yelled, and sliced Riptide through the monster a split-second after Nico let himself fall.
Percy had no clue what had just happened. He stood above Nico, panting, with Riptide still drawn. The adrenaline pumping through his body made him feel dizzy. He couldn't seem to get his breathing under control.
Around them, other campers cut down the remaining monsters. After Nico's rampage, there weren't many left.
Percy dropped to Nico's level. "Are you mental?"
"Maybe," Nico whispered. He raised his hand. It was still flickering, but Nico didn't look scared at the prospect of his body dissolving into nothing. He looked ecstatic.
Percy realized that shadows were wrapped around Nico's frame like he was still commanding them. His body trembled with overexertion, but still he wouldn't quit. All of a sudden, Percy felt very cold.
"Stop using your powers," he said hoarsely. "Right now."
The shadows dropped away. Nico kept watching his hand. It was still flickering.
Icy fear clawed itself out of Percy's chest. "Talk to me." A lump had lodged itself firmly in his throat. "What are you doing?"
"What you told me to."
"I didn't tell you to kill yourself," Percy snapped.
"No," Nico muttered. "You didn't."
Percy needed a moment to place Nico's tone. When he did, he wished he'd never opened his mouth. "Did you want me to?"
Nico sat back, slumping bonelessly like his actions were finally catching up with him. The ecstacy melted from his frame. "I'm tired," he muttered.
"Tired," Percy repeated, but the word didn't sound like anything coming from him. It felt so trivial from his mouth. From Nico, it sounded like all the weight of the world was contained inside.
"I just want to sleep," Nico whispered.
"Right." Percy's throat felt dry. He had no idea what was happening. "You can do that."
Nico looked up. His eyes were utterly blank – as blank as they'd been for weeks. Percy hadn't realized just how dead they looked until now. "I can't."
"You can," Percy insisted. "Really. Go to sleep. I'll protect you."
He expected protest. He expected something. But Nico only slumped to the ground properly, right then and there.
Percy waited for any sign that he was playing some weird prank. Finally he reached out, hesitated, then forced himself to grip Nico's shoulder. He didn't stir, but Nico's body felt firm under his touch. It had stopped flickering.
Percy sat back on his heels. His hand came back trembling.
When Nico woke up, his sickbed was surrounded by people. A part of him wanted to bristle at being watched in his sleep, but the larger part – the one that hadn't wanted to wake up at all – didn't feel anything.
Several of the people were arguing. Nico didn't care enough to identify who it was.
"We've got rules here. People usually honor them."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Solace. But this can't wait."
"I assure you, he's in no condition to try anything, even if he wanted to."
"You didn't see him, Will. If you'd been there–"
"Since you're already breaking one of my rules, at least stick to the one against talking about patients like they can't hear you."
The voices fell silent. Nico only realized it might have been in his better interest to keep feigning sleep after he'd already opened his eyes.
"What the hell, Nico!"
"Percy," snapped one of the voices. "Gods. He just woke up."
"And whose fault is it that he's in the infirmary?"
"You're gonna calm down and stop yelling in my infirmary or I swear to the gods, Jackson, I'm gonna throw you out myself."
Nico blinked. He hadn't thought the Apollo kid – Will – capable of looking anything other than friendly.
Percy scowled, but dropped back onto the chair he'd leapt out of.
"Mr. di Angelo," Chiron started. He sounded a lot calmer than both Percy and Will. In addition to them there was Annabeth, watching him out of unreadable eyes. "How are you feeling?"
"Were you trying to kill yourself?"
"Percy," snapped Will.
"How am I supposed to stay calm?" He scowled right back. "Just answer the question, Nico!"
"If you think this is going to achieve anything other than you being permanently banned from–"
"Yes," said Nico.
The infirmary fell silent. Will's mouth snapped shut, Chiron's brows furrowed and Percy's face lost all of its color.
"What?" breathed Annabeth.
"Can you– Did you just say you wanted to kill yourself?" Will hadn't gone pale like Percy, but his mouth formed a grim line.
Nico moved his eyes to the side so he'd no longer have to look at him. "Yes."
"I told you! I wasn't seeing things. Something's seriously wrong with him!"
"You're not helping," Will snapped.
"Nico." Chiron's voice was firm, but not unkind. "Have you considered this for longer?"
The others had gone silent again. Like even a single harsh sound would be enough to break him. Like everything around him hadn't been trying to do the very same for the past weeks of his life. Nico wanted to climb out of his own skin.
But, as it had for weeks, his mouth opened without his permission. "Yes."
"Nico," Percy started, but didn't seem to know how to go on. Any moment now they were going to wear out his name, with how often they were saying it.
Annabeth was the next to try. "Hey, it's... it's okay. We can help you."
"But why?" Percy sounded more baffled than anything. "Why would you say that?"
"You told me to."
Percy reeled back. "I didn't–"
"What do you mean?" asked Annabeth.
"What did Percy tell you to do?" added Chiron.
"Shut up!" Will glared at each occupant in the room other than Nico. "All of you. Just be quiet."
Nico felt the command snap into place even though he was pretty sure Will had meant literally everybody other than him. It didn't really matter. He'd speak if he was told to, and he'd stay quiet if he was told to do that. It wasn't like he had a say in it.
They asked more questions, but Nico was no longer able to answer them. He stared ahead with a blank expression, far beyond caring.
They gave up eventually, agreeing to let him rest. Nico wanted to scream.
"Just relax," Chiron told him. "We'll talk another time."
Nico settled back into bed obediently. The movement rustled an injury he hadn't even realized he'd gotten, and he opened his mouth in a silent gasp. No sound would leave it. His throat was utterly incapable of producing as much as a whimper.
Annabeth caught the motion. "Are you okay?"
"Are you hurt?"
She ought to ask Will. He'd know better than Nico at this point.
"Please say something."
"Sore," Nico immediately said.
Annabeth frowned. "Why didn't you answer right away?"
"I couldn't," Nico said dully.
"Do you mean you don't want to talk to us?"
"I can't." He kept staring ahead out of blank eyes.
This conversation would have frustrated him a while ago, but now he couldn't bring himself to care. The dullness had spread all the way to his chest. He felt nothing other than the monotonous, steady beat of his heart. He wished it would just give out.
Somewhere to his right, Will let out a sigh. "Look, Nico–"
Nico turned his head and met Will's gaze perfectly. His sentence stuttered to a halt at the sudden attention.
"What," muttered Annabeth, no longer in his line of sight.
"Nico," said yet another voice. Chiron, this time. "Come here."
Nico heaved himself out of bed ignoring both the pain flaring up in his side and leg, as well as Will's vehement protests.
"Sit back down," Chiron said quickly.
Nico sat down.
"Pick up your pillow and hold it over your head."
Everybody stared at him wide-eyed. Nico's heart raced.
"By Zeus," muttered Chiron.
Nico had no choice but to wait. After everything, after weeks of living in hell, was this–?
"Did you mean to do any of that?"
Nico's heart pounded like it was going to jump out of his chest. "No."
"Is something making you do it?"
"I can't tell you." That was a yes. That was so obviously, clearly a yes. Nico felt light-headed. He wondered if he was about to pass out.
Chiron and the others' shock was slowly morphing into horror.
"Put down the pillow," Chiron said.
Nico did as he was told. He closed his eyes and breathed slowly.
He felt a hand on his shoulder and opened his eyes to see that Chiron had moved his wheelchair right up to him. "We will figure this out," he said, though his face still carried the traces of his shock.
Though the touch on his shoulder and his inability to do anything about it made his skin crawl, Nico tried to feel confident. This moment was what he'd been hoping for ever since his nightmare of a month had started.
He found that his ability to feel optimistic had shriveled and died somewhere along the weeks he'd spent not being the owner of his own body.
A/N: Just one more to go. :)
Beta'd by the lovely Igornerd, To Mockingbird, PyrothTenka and lilahri!
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