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The Other "Heroes"

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"What do you mean, he killed Zoe?"

It was a good thing the reveal had shocked Percy to the level it had, because that was the only reason he didn't scream the question at the top of his lungs. The walls and doors of the infirmary had demonstrably proved that they were not as soundproof as they had looked. He'd already earned the animosity of Willamina thanks to his half-naked presence in Alister's room, and the daughter of Apollo would not have taken kindly to the son of Poseidon waking up everyone in the building with his startled exclamation on top of that.

Nicola raised an eyebrow at him. "Uh... yes? What, did not that happen with you?"

"No, it definitely did not," Percy responded, shooting up to his feet. "Zoe got bitten by Ladon once we made it up the mountain. Even then, the poison didn't kill her until we defeated Atlas. How did it happen here?"

The daughter of Hades put a hand to her hip. "Look, all I know is what Percie told everyone after the fact. Maybe you should talk to him if you want the full story there. He'll be out in a minute, as soon he finishes checking on Janice."

The two demigods stood there, waiting. Percy was so thrown by the reveal behind Zoe's fate, he didn't notice that Nicola was sporting a different look until a few minutes had passed. Her hair, which the day before had been worn down around her shoulders, was now tied into a ponytail, hanging off the back of her head. A pair of bony earrings had been added, and unless Percy was mistaken, the younger demigod was rocking a subtle shade of purple eyeliner.

"Going somewhere today?" he asked her.

"What, this?" she motioned to her face. "Just... trying something new. Peter's always telling me that I shouldn't be afraid to experiment a little with my look, so I don't 'scare the pants off everyone I meet for the first time', I believe was the way he phrased it. Really, if I didn't know Mina liked it, I wouldn't bother. I like scaring people."

"Mina? Since when have you been one for nicknames, Ghost Queen?" Percy remarked, leaning against the lobby desk.

The daughter of Hades blinked at that. "You mean, the version of me in your world doesn't really do that? Like, at all?"

"I'm sure he does, but I've never heard him call Will anything other than Solace, annoyance, or when he's feeling affectionate, boyfriend. Nico isn't really the social butterfly that you seemed to have settled into."

"What part of me makes you think I'm anything even close to that?" she put forward, pointing at her eyeliner. "Because of this? Look, this is a rarity, okay? I just wanted to do something special for Mina. I had to wait until she left this morning so I could put it on. I want it to be a surprise."

That was... actually quite sweet. And if Percy didn't know any better, he would have guessed he saw the daughter of the Underworld redden a little at having to explain herself to him.

The door from the hallway opened, drawing their attention. Willamina stuck her head in, affixing Percy with another icy glare before she visibly brightened at seeing her girlfriend. "Neeks! I'm gonna need.... a... woah." The healer trailed off as she spotted Nicola's new fashion. "You look... really good."

Nicola giggled a little, something that would have sent off red flags for Percy if he ever heard Nico do it. Yet, he didn't feel the need to hit the deck when she did it. "I was wondering if you might be amenable to taking the next few days off," she said. "We haven't been able to go anywhere together ever since that mess in Tallahassee."

"Oh, you mean the mess you got us into with your shadow-travel, because you'd been teleporting us all over the country without rest?" the medic threw back, stepping into the lobby. "I was washing the scent of that skunk-ape out of my clothes for weeks, you know."

"Yes, I know," Nicola pouted, stepping up to her. "But I still miss you, even if we technically see each other every day. Would you please ask Rey or Faith if it's okay for you to leave for a bit? I promise not to overwork myself with the shadow travel this time."

Willamina squinted at her, cupping Nicola's chin in her hand and tilting her head upwards to get a better look. "Neeks, please tell me you didn't put all this on just because you thought it would make me change my mind about spending time with you."

The daughter of Hades got quiet. "I didn't do it... to bribe you, or anything. I just know you like it. And I wanted to do something for you. You've been... very patient, with me, and I sometimes feel like I'm not doing enough to justify tha-"

Nicola's sentence got cut off by the healer pulling her into a hug, Willamina's tan arms contrasting against the pure darkness of the coat the daughter of Hades was wearing. "Don't do that, sweetheart," the daughter of Apollo murmured in her ear. "If you want to put on some accessories or makeup, go right ahead. But don't ever feel like you need to change something about yourself for me, okay?"

The smaller girl inhaled, then nodded against her shoulder, returning the embrace. They stood like that for a moment, before separating. "I was just coming in to tell Percy that I finished up with Alister," the medic continued, shooting Percy another dirty look. "As far as I can tell, he's good, so he'll be down in a minute. I've discharged him." She turned back to Nicola. "Let me go have a look at everyone else real quick. Once I've gotten an all-clear, I'll track Faith down and ask for some time off. Wait for me here?"

She got a nod in response, and kissed the child of Hades on the cheek. "See you then. Oh, and Neeks? As good as that stuff looks on you, it's still nothing compared to the original."

With that, the healer was gone.

Percy rubbed at his arm, not able to push down the feeling that he might have accidentally intruded on what should have been a private moment. "She's... just as compassionate as Will," he finally said.

"I would hope so," Nicola returned, her face not showing any emotion. "I'd hate to think of myself falling for a jerk, after all." The female demigod chewed on that statement for a second, then started for the door. "I'm gonna find a bathroom. Wash some of this infernal stuff off."

Her pace took her to the door in just a few steps, but moving at such a pace meant she didn't have time to stop when the door opened and Alister stepped into the room, bumping right into her.

"Doh! Gah... oh, Nicola!" the son of Athena exclaimed, steadying himself against the doorway. "Sorry, I didn't see you."

"No problem, Alister. Most of that was my fault, anyway. Serves me right for not being aware of my surroundings," she responded, brushing the front of her jacket. "Just heading for the bathroom."

Alister nodded, stepping aside, but as she passed him, the blonde demigod spoke again. "And thank you. For... helping me when I needed it, yesterday."

She paused, looking over to him. "No thanks needed, Alister. You would have done the same for me. Even... knowing my feelings for Percie, you still came when I needed you. So don't get hung up on me doing what anyone else with a heart would have done."

"Well, I'll mark this day on my calendar. Nicola admitted she had a heart."

"I also have an undead army at my beck and call. Maybe don't go around blabbing that first part to people, or I'll be forced to introduce you to them."

Alister chuckled. "Me? Blab? Perish the thought. Hermes himself couldn't get past the vault that is my lips when it comes to your secrets, Nicola."

Nicola returned the laugh. "See that you don't." With that, she left.

The son of Athena shook his head at her departure, then crossed over to Percy. "Well, I've got a clean bill of health, but Willamina has asked me to stay in New Rome for the next few days, just so she can make sure there's no lingering effects from Minerva's influence," he explained, giving Percy a quick kiss. "Guess we'll have to spend the intervening time making a plan."

"For Demosthenes, right? Can't forget about him, now that Lamia's been benched," Percy guessed. "Well, he might be called the Genius, but we've got our own strategist working against him, and forgive me for the boast, but I think ours is much more capable."

Alister made a face. "While I appreciate the compliment, I'm afraid I don't share the optimism. We may know our enemies, but we have no idea what their game is. Both of them want you dead, but we have no idea what Lamia was attempting with her first spell, or why Demosthenes is convinced killing you will fix everything."

His actions, here in this very lobby, from the previous night came flashing back into Percy's mind. He internally debated on whether or not he should tell Alister, but his conscience won out. Alister had shown him a level of trust that couldn't be ignored last night. He needed to return it.

"Can I tell you something?" Percy asked, taking Alister's hand and sitting down with him.

Instantly, Alister's expression became guarded. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah, yeah... well... now. I wasn't in a very good place last night."

"Because of me?"

"Partly. It was... right after Athena came in, and everybody else left. Admittedly, I was probably still scarred from seeing you get used like that, but the more I thought about it, the worse I ended up feeling." A small voice in his head said that he'd revealed enough, but he pushed forward. "I got upset, seeing Athena finally act like a mother, without seeing the same level of sincerity from any of the other gods. It's been a year since Kronos, and even though we're doing better, there's so much more room for improvement."

Alister nodded, letting him talk. He did take Percy's other hand, massaging the son of Poseidon's dorsals.

"I... got upset with my father. For not stepping in earlier in my life. For not being there for me when I was being bullied, and mocked by kids and teachers alike. For not doing anything to help my mom when we had to live with Gabe to keep monsters away from me. It made me remember something, something I shouldn't have forgotten, even with what's going on right now."

The son of Athena's eyes widened. "Oh, dear. Sally's pregnant, right? And pretty close to delivery?"

"Yeah. We still have some time, but we're officially in the zone, as it were. A stressful situation might induce premature delivery, or even worse... it could even lead to a miscarriage. Alister... if I lose my sister, like that..."

Percy had to stop, unable to continue. His eyes were tearing up, just at the thought. Alister pulled him to his chest, cradling Percy's head. "Easy, Percy. Sally's made of steel. If I know my Percie, she went straight there, and would have been careful about it. Both your mom, and your sister, are fine."

"She... would have gone straight there?"

Alister kissed the top of his head. "No, don't go there. Don't start kicking yourself for not checking in with her first. You had no idea what was going on; heck, you were nowhere near the city when you landed. Even once you realized the change had happened, you can't blame yourself for trying to find your friends. That was my idea."

Percy glanced up at him. "Alister... does she even know Percie's gone?"

His face faltered. "I... don't know."

"Then I have to tell her. I have to make sure."

"Okay, we can go. Give me a minute to talk to Rey, and we'll-"

"No!" Percy's response was abrupt. "You can't go! Willamina still needs to keep an eye on you. She might have given you a clean bill of health, but I'm not putting you at risk. Not after what happened yesterday. I've done enough to endanger you."

Alister touched Percy's cheek, leaning into him. "Percy, what are you talking about? I've been in danger my whole life; why do you think your presence here is somehow magnifying that?"

"I heard what Minerva said, Alister. She said your anger at Rey was born from his refusal to stand up against me when I tried to get you guys to swear not to sacrifice anyone for me. She was only half-right, wasn't she?"

The son of Athena got very quiet.

"Sure, you might have blamed Rey for not speaking up, but I know he wasn't the real target of that rage. You were really angry with me, weren't you?"

"I-"

"I get it. It was short-sighted and selfish of me. Especially to you. You've been nothing but accommodating to me, and I repaid your kindness with blackmail and manipulation. Please, don't try to justify what I did back there. Just listen."

Percy rested his head on Alister's shoulder, closing his eyes. "I was mad at my dad, but I was mad at myself, too. Seems like everywhere I went, I only ever brought misery and destruction onto the people who loved me. And most of that was brought on because of some stupid decision that I'd clung to. The only reason I'm here right now, instead of Percie, is because I went and goofed in my fight with Lamia. She should be here, teasing you about your cuddling habits, or giving you crap about not letting loose every once in a while."

The son of Poseidon felt Alister flinch against him, and locked their hands together. "I drove Nico to the edge. I sent everyone back at camp into a panic with my disappearance. I forgot about Calypso. I acted like a jerk, to a lot of people who were only trying to help me. And... I almost got you, and the rest of the Seven, killed, because I decided that my own worries about your lives overrode your concerns about both me and Percie. All of this was boiling underneath the surface last night. And then I remembered Demosthenes' words."

"You...didn't," Alister mumbled against him, stunned.

"Yeah. I let him brainwash me. I thought if I died, I could fix this. I could go back to my mother, and Percie would return. She'd be there for you when you woke up, and everything would be perfect again. And even if it didn't work, at least my death could spare you all the tragedy that was soon to be coming, like it always seemed to do at some point. I... almost did it. Athena stopped me."

"Mother..."

"Yes. She stepped in, knocked me back to my senses. Talked through my feelings. I wouldn't be here if she hadn't intervened."

Percy finally tilted his head, so he could look the son of wisdom in the face. "I've made a lot of mistakes, Alister. But dragging you along, when you could still be injured... that is not one I will commit. I promised Athena that I would be there for you. And sometimes, that means I need to know when to step away."

Alister reached his hand up, running it through Percy's hair. It took him a while to meet the sea-green eyes with his own grey ones, but when he did, Percy could tell the demigod was letting the son of Poseidon's story run through him. "You... just want to talk to Sally, right? You're not running away from me, so you can protect me?"

"Is there really a difference between going somewhere, and running away, for demigods?"

"Yes." Alister's voice was unshakable. "If you're just going somewhere, and it turns out the new place doesn't work out, you can always go somewhere else. But if you're running away? Nowhere will ever be the right place."

Percy's entire being trembled at that. But he understood. He could never run away from Annabeth, and expect himself to carry on. Alister was no different.

"I promise: I just need to talk to my mom. When I'm sure she's safe, I'll come right back," he told the other boy.

"I'm going to remember you said that, Percy Jackson."

"I'm sure you will, Wise Guy."

This time, it was Alister who took the lead, pressing his lips against Percy's. They stayed there for a moment, taking in as much of each other as they could, before pulling away. "Any idea how you plan to get to New York and back, though?" the son of Athena questioned.

"Uh......"

No. He had nothing.

Fortunately for Percy, he was spared the awkwardness of admitting that by the door to the lobby swinging open, and Thomas sauntering in.

"Alister! Since when have you been here?" the son of Zeus interjected, throwing a huge hug around the son of Athena as he stood in greeting. "How long has it been? Three, four months?"

"I think... five, actually," Alister wheezed, his face straining at the force. "Thomas... I'm kinda sore, right now. Would you mind..."

The taller man instantly pulled away, looking guilty. "Whoops. Sorry, bud. Didn't know."

"That's okay. How's Janice doing?"

"Fit as a fiddle, or so she'd have me believe," he answered. "I know she has a bad habit of getting herself into mischief, almost as much as Percie, but getting impaled by a lamp? That's got to be a new one. Thank Hades Willamina was on shift here when she arrived; no offense to the Roman healers, but I'd trust that woman with anything from a paper cut to a decapitation."

Thomas's eye twitched as he spoke that last word. Percy sucked in his cheeks, glancing over at Alister. The son of Athena had gone stiff as soon as Percie was mentioned, something Thomas noticed as soon as he'd finished speaking.

"You okay, Alister?" he asked, putting a hand to his shoulder. "Is... Percie okay?"

"We... um... don't know, actually."

Thomas's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean you don't know?"

"She's... gotten herself into a bit of a mix-up, as it were," Alister explained, rocking on his heels. "Knowing her, I'm sure she's making it work, but we've got a situation on our end, too."

"Well, we've dealt with Kronos, and Gaea, back to back. What could possibly outdo those two knuckleheads?"

Alister tried to force a grin, but the effort just made him look a kid who got into his dentist dad's supply of laughing gas. "How about this," he gestured at Percy. "Care to make a guess as to who he is?"

The son of Zeus gave Percy a solid once-over, but shook his head. "I mean, he looks capable enough, and I saw him when I came in earlier, but I've never met him before. Sorry about not introducing myself by the way, man," he said, extending his hand to Percy. "Thomas Grace, if referring to Janice didn't give me away. Son of Zeus, but that's not really all that special; half of ancient Greece could make the same claim."

Percy accepted the handshake, which nearly made him choke in surprise. Wow, this guy had a strong grip. And he didn't even seem to be trying all that much! At least he carried over Thalia's sense of humor, at any rate.

"Nice to finally meet you, Thomas," Percy answered. "You can call me Percy Jackson."

"Sounds good to me, Per..." he trailed off. Thomas's gaze shifted to Alister, who only gave him a very deliberate nod in response.

"Yep," Percy acknowledged. "That's my name. And unless this whole thing is one big elaborate dream concocted by Morpheus as a way of paying me back for that little misunderstanding with the cucumbers and that Russian taxi driver, something tells me you're gonna need an explanation."

At least the son of Zeus didn't question him too much. He let Percy do most of the explaining, only occasionally throwing a shocked look in Alister's direction every few minutes. Percy did have to repeat that Thalia ended up joining the Hunters multiple times, but aside from that, Thomas seemed to get everything down the first time through.

"And our Percie is now stuck on the opposite side, as it were?" he asked once it was finished, his hands locked on his knees.

"Yeah. We think she's trying to solve this problem on her end, but so far we have no way of making any sort of contact with the other world," Alister added. "If it's any comfort, I'm pretty sure Annabeth, who would be me, would at least stick with her regardless of what they might have to do."

Thomas paused, eyeing the two boys. "So... if you two are technically still yourselves... are you still, um... you know?"

Percy actually snickered at that question. The son of Zeus seemed to be the first one to make the obvious connection, or at least voice it. He wouldn't have put it past Peter to have figured it out the moment Percy showed up on his doorstep, carrying Alister like a groom late for his wedding.

Alister seemed amused by it, too. "Yes, we are," was all he said in answer, leaning his head on Percy's shoulder. Percy pressed a quick kiss to his temple, just to hammer the point home. Thomas laughed, holding his hands up.

"Okay, okay. I get it," he said. "No need to prove it. So, what's the plan, Alister? Got any ideas for figuring this mess out?"

The son of Athena blew a wild hair dangling down his face away. "Sadly, we've been kinda busy here lately, and no new leads have surfaced. Really, the only reason we came here was because Rey specifically asked us to. The Seven needed to meet Percy for themselves."

Thomas nodded along. "I see. It's just like Rey, to try to keep everyone together on the same page. Can't say I'd have done it any differently. So, we're stuck here, until someone gets an idea?"

Percy coughed. "Actually... I was thinking about breaking off back for New York. I don't know if anyone's told my mom about what's happened, and I don't want her worrying about Percie."

"Back to New York?" Thomas asked, raising his brow. "Were you planning to do that by yourself?"

"He doesn't even have a plan for getting back there, much less taking anyone with him," Alister jumped in, giving Percy a gentle jab in the ribs. "Willamina's put me on watch, anyway, so I'm stuck here no matter how much I may want to go with him."

"Since when have you been such a stickler for following rules, Alister?" Thomas joked.

"Ever since we saw what happened the last time you broke off on your own, and ignored a prophecy, Thomas," the son of Athena shot back, his tone not joking.

The taller demigod's face clouded, with several emotions. "Alister... what happened to Zoe is in the past. I don't know what Percie told you, but it's over. I payed the price for my actions; it's done. There's no need to trudge it up."

"Actually, I think I need to trudge it up," Percy admitted. "What happened to your guys' Zoe? On our quest, she died to Ladon, but not before she ended up taking a blow from Atlas that was meant for Artemis."

Thomas jerked his gaze to Percy. "You mean... Zoe died in the final fight? Not on the way up the mountain?"

"No. She got us all the way to the end, before dying at the hands of her father."

Alister jerked his head over, as well. "Wait, Atlas was her dad?"

Percy stared at both of them. "Uh, yeah? I mean, how else could the final line of the prophecy be fulfilled? One shall perish by a parent's hand?"

"What?!" both of them exclaimed.

The son of Poseidon knotted his eyes together. "Wait... are you guys saying your prophecy was something else? That Zoe wasn't damned to be killed by her father at all, and in fact died before she ever confronted him?"

Thomas shuddered, leaning back in his chair, his eyes falling to the ground. Alister shot him a weird look, then shook his head.

"No. The final line of the prophecy for us was close, but not that. Instead of perishing at a parent's hand, Zoe died to an unwavering hand. Which ended up being Thomas's, the way everything shook out," the son of Athena informed him. "He snuck onto the quest, antagonized her, and ending up killing her when the conflict reached a boiling point."

The son of Zeus sighed, finally looking back up. "Yes. I did. And I don't regret it. She had it coming." His voice was layered, and solid... but Percy got the sense there was more to the story. Something behind Thomas's eyes said he wasn't being forward about the smaller details.

"Unwavering, all right," Percy muttered, drawing another flinch from Thomas. "Guess we had more differences than I was expecting. I mean, I already knew you couldn't have been a Hunter, since you were a guy in this world, and Alister told me the gods put you in the Lotus Hotel so they could hold off the Great Prophecy."

"Did he now?" Thomas's voice was low, hard. "I wasn't very... pleased, by that decision, but now that I know the alternative was joining the Hunters, I think I ended up with the better side of the bargain, after all."

Alister exhaled. "Thomas. I just don't want you going off halfcocked again, and getting us into more trouble. Both Percy and Percie are at stake, along with the universe itself, if Hecate's warning holds any weight. We can't afford to get cute with our solutions."

The son of Zeus folded his hands together, closing his eyes for a moment. "If I promise not to allow myself to become... embroiled like that again, may I assist you, at least?" he asked, opening his eyes again. "Percie is still my friend too, Alister. If she's in trouble... I want to help."

"Of course you can help," the son of Athena responded, his voice softer. "Just... be careful, okay? Percie would never forgive herself if you got hurt on her behalf."

"Then I guess it's a good thing I don't die easily," he said in turn, rising to his feet. "You said you wanted to get to New York, right?" he asked Percy.

"Yeah, that's right."

"Well, what are we waiting for? Let's go."

"Now?" Percy stumbled. "But... how will we even get there?"

Thomas flashed him a cocky smile, gesturing at himself. "What, did you think I went with the biker gang look just because I liked the aesthetic? I've got my own ride; we can be in New York in five days; four, if I push the speed limit."

Riding with Thomas, on the highway? That... actually sounded like a lot of fun. And terrifying. But fun. Percy almost whined when Alister objected.

"That's still too much time, Thomas. It'll take you at least nine days to get back; nine days I don't want to spend just waiting while Demosthenes builds up his strategy without any action on our part. Not to mention I'm sure Lamia will get back into gear in that time, too."

The son of Zeus rolled his eyes. "Fine; his loss. Then how do you suggest we get there? And yes, I am going. Percy will need a bodyguard, right? I'd hate to miss out on a fight because I was stuck at base camp, babysitting the Romans."

"Don't let Rey catch you saying that," Percy suggested.

"Oh, and if he did? Rey and I have been spending plenty of time together, since my role as ambassador between camps was decided upon. Trust me; we can both dish it out as well as we take it."

That would be a matchup Percy wouldn't mind seeing, but gladiatorial spats would have to wait.

"Well, if the motorcycle is out, and the pegasus union is boycotting us, what's left?" the son of Poseidon asked.

"I'm sorry, what?" Alister asked, startled.

"Got a message in my head last night: turns out using pegasi to run over a horde of gargoyles violates Commission 23-65 of the Winged Horse Federation of Hooved Aerial Transport," Percy relayed. "As such, Calico and Shortstop are off-limits, until Chiron pays a fine to the union boss, some mare named Windcloppel."

"Please tell me he's making this up," Thomas begged Alister.

"What, the union, or that name?"

"Either, or both! Something!"

Percy shook his head. "Nope. None of that came from me. I'm actually really sad that I didn't make that up. Seriously, who names their daughter Windcloppel?"

"Probably the same people who came up with that union name," Alister joined in, making a face. "But that does pose a problem. If we can't fly, what's the quickest way to New York?"

The answer hit Percy a few moments later, when his eye fell on the door that Alister and Nicola had been heading for when they had their little collision. "Oh, great," he complained, covering his eyes. "Willamina is going to kill me."

Did she? No. That would have violated the Hippocratic Oath, or some variant of it. However, Hippocrates did not specify that doctors couldn't scream at the top of their lungs at their patients. Or at least, the people dating their patients. And were currently testing their patience.

"Absolutely not!" the daughter of Apollo roared, after Percy made his request to let them take Nicola with them to New York. "Traveling like that is dangerous enough, without making such a massive jump. She almost faded from existence entirely, taking that stupid statue across the world. I'm not risking it; end of discussion!"

Nicola, sitting on the countertop of the apartment she and Willamina were renting while in New Rome, looked rather pensive at the argument. All three boys were standing in the living room, Percy taking the brunt of the healer's monologue.

"Willamina, I know it's a lot to ask, but Sally deserves to know what happened to her kid," Alister argued. "And we can't send an Iris-message, since we know Lamia or Demosthenes could be listening in."

The medic's face softened, but she still refused. "And my heart breaks for Ms. Jackson, but I cannot in good standing as a doctor condone that kind of stress on anyone, much less my girlfriend. Alister, you saw her after that trip. The wind could have knocked her over."

"Do I just not get a say in this?" the daughter of Hades asked from her perch.

"You can, but my authority as your primary care-giver can override you," she shot back.

Thomas groaned. "Please? She'll be going with Percy and myself. We can keep an eye on her, if she needs a break in between jumps."

"Keeping an eye on her isn't going to help if she ends up getting swallowed by the void itself!"

Nicola cleared her throat, but when the four other demigods turned to face her, her spot was empty. In a flash, she appeared next to her girlfriend, looking pleased with herself. "Oh, yeah. I still got it," she boasted.

The daughter of Apollo did not look amused. "Traveling across the room, and traveling across the continental United States, are two different things, love."

"Mina."

Nicola's voice was soft, vulnerable. The healer's scowl vanished in an instant.

"I want to help," the child of Hades pleaded. "Sally could be suffering. We need to make sure she's okay. I know you're worried about me, but I'm a lot stronger now than I was months ago. And I'm not having to lug around a giant statue this time. I won't try to force it all in one jump. We'll stop, recover, and continue. Percy and Thomas can watch me. If I start... fading, they'll be there to bring me back."

"Couldn't I at least go with you?" the healer asked, ruffling her girlfriend's hair. "I... don't want to lose you, Ghost-girl."

"I know, but you have to keep an eye on Alister, remember? I'll be fine; I'm not the weak little girl I was a year ago."

Percy swallowed. "You've never been weak, Nicola."

The daughter of the Underworld paused, then sighed. "I appreciate the thought, Percy. But I was. I let my own demons get the better of me, time and again. Not any more." She hugged Willamina, pressing a kiss to her neck. "I'll come back. But you can't coddle me forever, Sunshine. There are some things I need to do on my own. This is one of them."

The daughter of Apollo quivered, but returned the kiss. "Okay. If this is what you want... I won't stop you. Just be careful."

"I will." Nicola turned to the boys. "I need to pack some things. Meet you guys at the Forum?"

"That'll be perfect," Thomas agreed.

The smaller girl headed off into another room, leaving the four alone. "Please... keep an eye on her," Willamina begged, looking at Thomas and Percy. "She's... all I have, right now."

"With everything I've got," Percy swore.

"Anything so much as looks at her funny, I'll turn it into a puddle," Thomas promised.

As they left, Alister took Percy's hand. "Don't think I've forgotten about your promise, Seaweed Brain. You better come back in one piece, too."

Percy squeezed him back. "I wouldn't dream of disappointing you, Wise Guy."

They got one more kiss in, before Alister left, leaving him and Thomas to walk to the Forum alone. "You guys really are meant for each other, huh?" the son of Zeus observed, glancing at Percy.

His tone was casual, but once again, Percy would have sworn that something was bubbling under the surface. He'd never gotten this kind of read from Thalia, so this had to have been connected to that aberration they'd discovered in the prophecy about Atlas and Zoe. Unless there was some other flagrant change he hadn't noticed yet.

"Guess we are, since I can't go ten minutes without wanting him around," Percy confessed, thinking about the look in Alister's eyes as he told Thomas off about sneaking onto the quest to free Artemis.

He didn't reach an answer by the time they reached the Forum, and in the ten minutes it took Nicola to arrive with a bag loaded down with supplies, Percy still had no clue what he was missing.

"We ready to do this?" she asked, extending a hand to each of them.

"Ready. Never shadow-traveled before," Thomas added. "Kind of excited, really."

She turned to Percy. "And you?"

"Yeah. If it means seeing my mom again, I'll do anything," he told her.

Nicola nodded, taking their hands. "It's funny, isn't it? The children of the Big Three, together again. Wonder what sort of unlucky baddie we'll inevitably cross paths with."

Hopefully not one that could cast a spell that transported them into some alternate universe where the Norse gods were still kicking. Percy didn't even want to think about what that might entail. Probably some sort of talking sword, which would end up crushing on Riptide. His love life was complicated enough; he didn't need his weapon getting its own subplot.

That was the last thing that went through his head before Nicola closed her eyes, and the three demigods were yanked into a pitch-black vortex.