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.
Dionysus examined Nico at Chiron's insistence and figured out who'd placed his curse in ten seconds flat. Nico wasn't sure whether to feel smug or bitter about having been right in assuming Dionysus would be able to do so, and that only the god's careless nature had prevented him from being freed much sooner.
But regardless of the conflicted feelings he might have had about Dionysus' involvement, it led to Chiron leaving for Olympus and returning with Demeter in tow. The sight of her sent Nico's heartbeat skyrocketing.
Demeter wasn't pleased about the truth of the curse having come out – but she was even less pleased about people calling it that.
"It isn't a curse," she said, sounding deeply offended. "It is a blessing."
Nico was glad that Chiron hadn't allowed anybody else to stay for their audience with the goddess. Percy in particular had a history of insulting gods he didn't get along with.
"Did I not fundamentally improve his life?" Demeter asked. She sounded like she actually believed it.
"Your blessing may have been meant as a gift," Chiron said diplomatically. "A generous one, at that. However, I'm afraid it has caused... disruptions. Even danger."
Demeter narrowed her eyes. "You would prefer him as he was before? Rude? Disobedient? On his own?"
"We would prefer having him here out of his own will. In whatever capacity Nico feels willing."
Demeter sniffed. For a moment Nico was convinced she would refuse. "Perhaps you really are beyond help," she said, turning to him. "They could shape you into whatever they wanted, and still you have no place with them."
"My lady," Chiron protested.
But before he could go on, Demeter waved her hand. A kind of tautness in his chest unraveled, and Nico's eyes fell shut.
They'd left Nico to rest in a separate room of the infirmary only after Will argued that the kid didn't need anybody watching him as he slept.
Percy didn't know he agreed, but he'd caved after Will's insistence that he was a long way from being able to use his shadow-travel, and, even if he could, "Don't you think it'd be his right?"
Which. Alright, point taken. That didn't mean Percy had to like it.
But even though he'd let himself be convinced to leave Nico, that didn't mean he'd let himself be shooed out of the infirmary altogether. He and Annabeth (who'd resolutely refused to leave him on his own) hadn't left the building once – and probably looked like it, but Percy didn't care.
He'd failed Nico more times than he could count. He wasn't going to add to his ledger.
"If looks could kill, we'd be dead several times over," murmured Annabeth into his ear.
Will and his siblings had been throwing them irritated looks for a while now, even though Percy and Annabeth had set up camp in the one corner of the infirmary where they wouldn't be in the way.
"Even Ares couldn't do that," Percy whispered back. "They'll have to–" He cut himself off at the sound of harried footsteps from the hallway.
Nico came stumbling through the door on shaky knees, leaning heavily on the wall. He froze in the doorway once his eyes fell on them.
"Nico." Percy stood up from his chair so quickly, it teetered on its hind-legs and had to be saved from toppling over by Annabeth. "How are you feeling?"
"Tell me to do something," Nico rasped. His voice sounded like gravel tossed into a garbage disposal.
Before Percy could even begin to decide how to react, Will spotted Nico and sprinted through half the infirmary. "Woah, woah, hey! What are you doing out of bed?"
Nico let go of the wall that kept him upright and latched onto Will instead. A desperate glint flashed through his eyes. "Please. Tell me to do something."
Percy held up his hand and said, "Give me a high-five."
"Fuck you." Nico's eyes widened.
Percy slowly lowered his arm. Nobody said anything.
The sound of Nico's shaky, ragged breaths filled up the room. "Fuck you," he repeated, looking down at the hand that wasn't holding onto Will as though it might still betray him and raise for a high-five. "Fuck off."
He let out another breath, stuttery and uneven. And another. His next exhale sounded almost like a laugh. They kept coming: shrill, breathy huffs of air that slowly morphed into almost manic laughter.
"Nico..." Percy reached out with one hand, unsure what he wanted to accomplish.
Nico slapped it away before it could come anywhere near him. "Don't touch me," he snapped. His eyes widened yet again, and his lips curved gleefully. "Stay back." He shrugged off Will's touch as well and leaned back against the wall.
Another breathless laugh sputtered from his lips. The smile on his lips faded while the shine in his eyes dulled. Nico started to tremble. His breath hitched in his throat, laughter turning into one single gasping, heaving sob. Nico pressed his hands tightly over his mouth like he was trying to shove the sound back in.
Will didn't try to step closer. He pinched his brows and said, quietly, "It's okay."
Nico sagged like all of his energy had drained from his body. Percy launched forward and caught him before he could crumble to the ground. Percy wasn't sure what to do. Nico didn't shy away from his touch, but he didn't lean into it, either.
Feeling like even this was doing Nico a grand injustice, Percy tried to keep him upright with the least physical contact possible.
Nico didn't make any more sounds after that one, violent sob, but his body jerked with barely contained shivers as he tried holding them at bay. Nobody said anything. They did what they could to hide him from Will's siblings as they waited for Nico to pull himself together.
Nico let himself be coerced back into bed with only minimal protest, which even Will didn't seem happy about. Though he clearly still needed the rest, Percy could tell that all of them would have preferred a more Nico-esque reaction, like straight up refusal or initial agreement followed by a stealthy escape via the infirmary's shadows.
Nico didn't move from the infirmary bed that had been his home for the past days. He didn't know how to react to Will standing in his doorway with his arms crossed, so he didn't say anything.
Will decided to take his silence as an invitation. "You haven't set a foot outside. Not that I'm not glad about you taking your bedrest seriously, but that's not like you."
Nico's lips curled unpleasantly before he could stop them.
Will didn't give him the courtesy of ignoring the slip-up and frowned. "What?" When no clarification followed, he added, "Could you please talk to me? You can tell me to fuck off for all I care. Just… something."
Nico looked away. "You said it's not like me."
"Like you'd know what is."
Awkward silence filled up the room. For a split-second it seemed like Will meant to sit down on the bed next to Nico, but he changed his mind and dragged over a nearby chair instead.
"Nico, please. Tell me wh–" He cut himself off with a wince. "Sorry."
Nico shrugged. They'd been doing that a lot, the past few days: second-guessing their words and cringing whenever something remotely close to a command slipped over their lips. Not like it mattered, now that he was no longer obligated to obey them.
"Do you want to tell me what's wrong?"
Nico closed his eyes and let his shoulders slump. He didn't get this, either. He and Will weren't friends. Neither were he and Percy, or he and Annabeth. Maybe it was their guilt yet again. Guilt at having played a part in stripping Nico off his free will these past few weeks, even unknowingly.
Nico knew he had no obligation to answer. He had no obligation to do anything anymore. "I don't belong here."
"The infirmary?" Will said. "Agreed. You could have left days ago."
Nico shot him a glare.
"So not the infirmary." Will paused. "Why do you think you don't belong at camp?"
Nico scoffed. He found it difficult to hold back his reactions (especially the ugly ones) now that the curse was no longer doing it for him. "Do you have to ask?"
Nico's expression soured. Something stirred deep inside him, something too fragile to be anger and too harsh to be sorrow.
"When I was younger," he started, but faltered almost immediately. He'd never put these thoughts into words, not even to himself. He had no reason to do so for the sake of somebody else, much less a guy he'd known for only a few weeks – some of the worst weeks he'd had in his depressingly short life.
Then again, they'd already seen him vulnerable and beaten down. He could hardly make it worse.
"When I first came to camp it was obvious I had no place here," he started again, more quietly this time. "Over the years I just... accepted that that wouldn't change. I don't have the right parents. The right powers. I'm just... not right."
"We like having you here," Will said. "You could make a place. If you wanted to."
"Do you, though?" All the bitterness and hurt and helplessness Nico hadn't been able to express in the past weeks seeped into his voice, and there wasn't anything he could do about it. "You don't know me. None of you do. The curse had me act however you wanted, and still I wasn't right. How can you say I'd fit in when you didn't even notice–"
He cut himself off and wiped a sleeve over his eyes harshly. "How could you know I have a place here when you don't even know what I'm like?"
They sat in silence, stifling and uncomfortable.
Nico didn't actually blame Will – or any of the others – for not recognizing the curse for what it had been. They didn't know him. He'd never given them the chance. They'd known that something was wrong, and it wasn't their fault that Nico hadn't stuck around for long enough that they might have realized the scope of it.
"We can change that."
Nico's frown deepened. "What?"
"I'm just saying." Will shrugged. "I'd like to get to know the real you. You said I didn't really know him – you – and yeah, you're probably right." He fell silent until Nico caved and met his eyes properly. He looked like serious expressions didn't come easily to him. "I'd like a chance to change that. I want to get to know you, if you'll let me. You, not... not whoever you've been all these weeks."
Nico dropped his gaze. His eyes prickled, so he clenched them shut. He could easily say no. There were no chains digging into his insides, no irresistible pressure forcing him into a direction. He could say no, and leave behind the camp for good.
He could have left the camp as soon as the curse had been lifted.
"Maybe," he said quietly, keeping his eyes stubbornly fixed in front of him.
Despite that, he could somehow still tell that Will's smile was lighting up the entire room.
Nico spent several days avoiding every other living being at camp, recharging his almost non-existent social batteries after weeks of having them forcefully depleted. He'd thought that after all the times he'd been forced to spend time with other people he'd be happy to be on his own, but while he felt less exhausted after resting properly, he couldn't seem to enjoy even a moment of it.
It wasn't fair. All this time he'd been among people, and still he'd felt alone. Now it was his choice to stay away – just as it had been his choice when he'd been ten-years-old – but somehow it didn't change a thing.
Nico realized that even if he tried, he wouldn't be able to go back to how things used to be.
Nico emerged from his self-imposed exile in the Big House with all the caution of a recently captured manticore. Nobody instantly pounced on him like he'd dreaded, so he had the chance to take in the progress that was being made in building the new cabins.
Somebody had marked off a space for the new Hades cabin, but since Nico was the only child of Hades currently at camp (or in existence), it hadn't gotten any further than that. It occurred to Nico that if he was actually doing this – if he was actually considering sticking around for longer – then this would be one of his responsibilities.
He tried to picture the kind of cabin he'd want, if he were in charge of designing it. He thought of what kind of place he might be able to call home.
It took him about an hour of hovering, but eventually he pulled aside the camper in charge: a child of Athena who'd volunteered to oversee the rebuilding efforts at camp, seeing as Annabeth was busy with her task of designing a new Olympus. To his immense relief, they only gave him a mildly startled look but accepted his tentative suggestions in a stride.
He returned to the Big House afterwards, already feeling drained. It would take time for the first new cabins to be ready despite the Hephaestus cabin's best efforts, and while tradition demanded he stay in the Hermes cabin... Nico couldn't. He just couldn't. He was willing to try to stay – he thought that perhaps he genuinely wanted to – but this... It was too much. If he was going to do this, it would need to be at his own pace.
"My sister liked to draw."
Rachel Elizabeth Dare looked up from her canvas. In stark contrast to all their other interactions, she was the one staying quiet while Nico was left to somehow carry on the conversation.
"Bianca," he said, feeling awkward. "She's not here anymore, but... I just. You talked about how you liked to paint, and she did, too. Not a lot, but. When she was able."
Rachel swirled her brush in a glass of dirty water before setting it aside. "Did you ever give it a shot?"
"Not really." Nico couldn't look her in the eyes. He was already itching to walk away.
"Look, I'm sorry."
Nico's eyes twitched at hearing Rachel's voice, but she carried on without his input.
"Not because I think I did something wrong," she said. "I know I couldn't have known. But still. I don't know if you'd have agreed to spend time with me, but you didn't have a choice."
"Not your fault," Nico muttered.
A smile split her lips. "I definitely like this more."
Nico couldn't tell if he agreed. It was hard having an opinion on a person when the only interactions he'd had with them had been involuntary.
"Would you want to talk sometime?" Rachel asked. "No hard feelings if not. I won't take it personally."
Nico hesitated. "Maybe," he said quietly. "Just... not right now."
Rachel nodded in easy acceptance. She picked up her brush and turned back to her canvas. "I'll be here if you want to tell me more about your sister. Or try your hand at painting."
Nico snuck into the arena while Percy was inside practicing. It took Percy a few minutes to notice that he was no longer alone.
He lowered his sword before gesturing vaguely towards the sparring area, looking terribly unsure of himself. "Do you want to...?"
Nico thought of all the times they'd done this over the past few weeks. Of all the times he'd had no choice but to join. "No thanks," he muttered, a clump in his stomach.
Percy's expression contorted. "Nico, I'm so–"
"If you're about to apologize, don't."
Percy kept his mouth shut, but his brows drew together in a tight expression.
"If anything you should be mad at me." Nico'd had time to think over the day his curse had been discovered. Most of it was a haze, but he remembered the delirious clarity of battle-induced adrenaline. He remembered being torn out of his apathy. He remembered the opportunity it had presented to him.
And what Nico had almost succeeded in doing.
"I am," Percy said after a brief pause. "I can't believe you would have made me a part of... that. If you'd actually... If you'd gone through with it–"
"I didn't see any other way."
They plunged into silence. Nico didn't feel guilty about what he'd done. He'd been at the end of his rope. But the fact that desperation and helplessness had driven him so far made self-conscious shame bubble up in his stomach like acid.
"You're better now, aren't you?" Percy hesitated. "Would you tell us if you weren't?"
Nico thought about it. He thought of Will, who'd told him he was welcome to pay a visit to the infirmary any time he felt like it, and who was easier to interact with than almost anybody else Nico knew.
Of Chiron, who'd helped lift his curse and who'd offered the guest room and who'd asked him to tell him whatever would make him feel more comfortable at camp.
Of Rachel, who'd offered her friendship whenever – and in whatever form – Nico was able to return it.
He thought of Percy, who – despite their history, despite the betrayal and the pain and the bad blood between them – had never once given up on him. Nico no longer felt about Percy the way he once had, but he recognized this loyalty as one of the things he'd admired about him from the start.
"I'd tell you," Nico said, fairly sure that he wasn't lying, even now that he was able to. "And I am. Better."
Maybe given time, Nico would relearn how to be more than that.
And that's a wrap! Thank you for being patient. :)
Beta'd by the lovely Igornerd, To Mockingbird, PyrothTenka and lilahri!
Let me know what you thought!