Writings: Houses of the Gods


Like a lot of American kids, I grew up reading Greek mythology as a child and ate up everything I could get my hands on. I was excited when the Percy Jackson books came out and read the first few in the series before losing interest; I loved the idea but was turned off by some of the probably-unintentional casual misogyny (leading me to write "The Curse of the Smart Girl", for readers familiar with my blog). Plus, I couldn't shake the feeling that a really great idea was being used in a way that could be so much better.

I love the idea of demigod kids running around a modern setting, and an ensemble-cast place like Camp Half-Blood for gathering them all up to work and play together is my kind of tea. But so many of the gods seemed wasted or little more than an afterthought. There are two "honorary" houses with no children in them whatsoever (Hera, who is faithful to Zeus and doesn't bear children; and Artemis, the maiden) and then we see the cabin of Athena brimming with children because apparently the Virgin Goddess of Wisdom started churning out babies for the greater good. Nooooo. There are also houses which are criminally underused like the children of Aphrodite--characterized as sweet, empty-headed cheerleaders--and dear Dionysus who I'm not sure we even see in the first few books. Nooooooooooooooo.

So I've spent an unholy amount of time thinking about how I would handle the housing at Camp Half-Blood and here is a fic about adoption and chosen family. I hope you enjoy.


---
Houses of the Gods

A newbie's first two weeks at Camp Half-Blood are spent being introduced to each of the twelve houses. One house per day--twelve days in all--to meet the kids in each cabin and learn about their parent and patron. The thirteenth day is a day of rest and meditation in the garden, and on the fourteenth day I'll apply for a patron. If I'm lucky, they'll accept me; if I'm not, I just have to hope someone else will.

When I was first invited to come here, I blithely assumed I'd get to meet my father. Missing all my life, deadbeat dad, single mom; you know the drill. I was excited to think maybe it wasn't that my dad didn't love Mom and me so much as he had important King of Heaven-ing to do. Not that I was conceited enough to hope for Zeus, but it would have been a nice feather in my cap after thirteen years of classroom taunts. Who's my daddy? Oh, nobody special, just the thunder god of heaven. No big deal.

But I was quickly disabused of the notion of a happy family reunion on the ride over here. Camp Half-Blood doesn't care where your blood came from. You're a demigod because of your parentage but you're not worth anything until a patron claims you. Your patron is your real parent, even if they aren't your blood-kin. They're big on adoption here at camp, and I guess they kinda have to be. If kids were divvied up by bio-parents, the gods would have a numerical advantage over the goddesses; the guys aren't as big on chastity oaths as the girls, and they can spread sperm around faster than the ladies can grow babies. And there were issues in the past with kids who didn't want their bio-parent's patronage, or vice versa; funny how humans (even demihumans!) can be touchy about total emotional abandonment.

So I still don't know who my dad is. Maybe he'll let me know during my garden meditation or call dibs on me in the patronage ceremony. They do that sometimes: come forward and pull rank, claiming someone whether they asked or not. But it's rare, and you have to be something pretty special. I'm not special.

---

Day 1 is spent in Zeus' cabin, which is everything you'd expect in a dorm for children of the king of heaven. Tall scrolling columns stab upwards into a ceiling of roiling clouds which are white and fluffy in the day and at night turn dark and flicker with arc lightning in their depths. Moody for a nightlight, but amazing to watch when you lie back in bed and look up at the ominous purple tendrils splitting the clouds. Thunder rumbles with each flicker, but the sound is lost in the chorus of snores; all the Zeus kids snore and all of them look like snorers.

Zeus picks big, larger-than-life children to carry his name: tall, statuesque girls and broad-shouldered boys. They're athletes and fighters, yes, but the sort who conduct themselves with the total assurance that they will be kings and queens someday, whatever their chosen field. Zeus wants winners who care about style, the perfectionists who can not only win the big game but will look poised and pretty at the victory party after. They're beautiful, driven, and totally intimidating--as well as totally exhausting.

My day with them is spent playing soccer--a game I've never excelled at--in the rain and getting coated with mud even as my teammates uniformly manage to look glamorously rugged with their wet hair slicked back into perfect ponytails and neat one-inch-all-over trims. As I drift off that night to a chorus of thunder and lumbering breathing, I'm forced to admit Zeus House isn't for me. My dad could still be the king of heaven--it's not impossible, you know--but if he is, I didn't take after him.

---

Day 2 finds me walking next door to Hera's cabin, my entire body one big ache from yesterday's sportsball. The most beautiful girl in the world opens the door at my timid knock and looks down at me with knowing eyes. She takes in the sight of me--my muddy clothes, my worn canvas bag holding everything I own in the world, and the pained wince on my face--with a glance that makes me feel like the poorest little mouse in the kitchen, then utterly astonishes me by kneeling and folding me into a gentle hug that smells of lavender and coconut sunscreen. "Zeus House, right?" is all she says before taking my hand and leading me inside.

The inside of Hera House is like someone combined Agrabah Palace with a day-spa. Wide open spaces are divided by sheer curtains of bright jewel-tone colors. Water flows everywhere in little fountains, crystal clear and clean enough to drink. My guide leads me to an enormous bathing area full of steam and fluffy white towels. "I'll step out to let you shower," she says, and her smile is so much like my mother's I feel pinprick tears of sudden homesickness. "Leave your dirty clothes on the floor there and we'll launder them. Pull the bell when you're ready and I'll come back in." Bemused, I do as she asks and wrap myself in a towel twice as long as I am tall--only to learn when she returns that I'm going to be spending the rest of the day naked under a variety of sheets as salves are applied to my bruises and massages are administered for my aching muscles. Turns out the Hera kids are used to cleaning up messes from Zeus House, and I'm just the latest.

None of Hera's children are biologically hers. She's the goddess of marriage and faithful devotion, and her fidelity in the face of Zeus' philandering is a matter of centuries-long pride at this point. Her children are adopted from the cream of the crop: the beautiful, the poised, the kind. Queenliness--which is not the same as the kingliness of Zeus' house, though Hera's children do include boys--is her most prized virtue; all other things can be taught or achieved. Life in Hera's cabin would be one of beauty treatments for me, study of culture and art, and caring for others in preparation for a life of service. Her children run charities, reform adoption agencies, and provide counsel and succor for the needy--and they do so with a style all their own, beholden to no other than their majestic patroness. They are queens, every one of them.

I sleep that night in the softest sheets ever to caress my skin, listening to the musical babble of the water fountains, and wonder if I could ever measure up to the perfection around me. I feel healed and at home, mothered more thoroughly than I would have imagined here at camp, yet utterly out of place. When my guide kisses me on the forehead the next morning and sends me to Poseidon Cabin with clean clothes in my bag and a packed lunch in my hand, I know I won't be coming back no matter how much I might like to.

---

Day 3 whisks away any tears I might have shed leaving Hera Cabin with salt water of its own; I'm barely inside the open door before an ocean wave crashes over my head and drags me out to sea. I swim towards sunlight, coughing and sputtering, and find myself in an enormous pool that dominates a giant open-air cabin. Little islands spiral out from the sides of the pool--sleeping areas to the sides, and a dining hall at the back--but here there is only vast ocean, my water-logged luggage, and a little lunch bag drifting sadly away on the current.

"Well, you can swim at least!" A boy crows at me from atop a gathered wave that just hangs there in midair, impossibly stable. "Are you any good at water-manipulation?"

"I don't know" is the honest answer as I tread water and wonder how my clothes are ever going to dry in this humidity. Around me, kids play in the pool and work tricks with the water; one girl sits with her legs dangled over the edge as she spins a bauble of salt water the size of my head out of the pool with just the tips of her coaxing fingers. It hangs in the air before her, shimmering and impossible, before she snatches it up like an inflatable beach ball and hurls it to one of the other kids to bat as one would a volleyball.

"Won't find out until we try, wet-ears!" the boy on the wave tells me, laughing with unrestrained delight. "We got one day to see if Papi likes you--let's get started!" I'm given a minute to swim my bag over to the little cove where I'll be sleeping that night, and then it's diving, breast-strokes, water-manipulation, and wave-making until sunset. Dinner is a noisy affair where I eat twice my normal amount and my ravenous hunger makes every bite the most delicious I've ever tasted.

I like the Poseidon kids, rowdy though they are. Almost all of them have parentage from a sea-goddess or sea-god--if not the big guy himself--and they take to the water without hesitation. They will be sea captains, naval officers, or ocean ecologists; kings and queens in their own right, saving the whales and the ice caps and the coral reefs. They play hard in preparation to fight hard, and the sea thrashes and storms at the center of our dorm that night as a reminder of that. I lie in a swaying hammock, still feeling the rocking of waves around me, and marvel that anyone could be strong enough for this life. They serve a distant father who loves them in his own way, but it's not a way I think I could ever understand.

As much as I love the water, I can't bring myself to believe the water loves me.

---

Day 4 dawns on the Demeter Cabin and the difference from Poseidon House is like night and day. Her cabin is an exquisite garden, with soft loamy soil and silken grass tickling my ankles the moment I enter. "Shoes over here," the boy at the door tells me with a wink. His eyes are the softest honey brown I've ever seen and his lips are the delicate texture of rose petals; I realize I'm staring and he flashes me a wry smile. "C'mon. I'll show you your bower and then we're planting trees. Ever used a shovel before? You're still small, but don't worry; we'll show you the ropes."

My bower is curtained off from the main chamber with hanging vines that I push through like a beaded curtains; the bed is a mattress stuffed with heather and lain in the hollow of an old tree. "Mother grows them for us," my guide explains when my eyes open wide at the roomy size of my bed. "Have you ever slept on heather before? You'll never sleep better. C'mon!" He grabs my hand, all warm skin and soft earth dusting his palms, and leads me to the back of the sprawling cabin where shovels are spread out and waiting. A tall girl with long brown hair and a crown of yellow flowers meets me with a hug and shows me how to plant a sapling that will bear fruit for the cabin kids when it matures. She places my hand on the soil and we pray to Demeter and a little green leaf sprouts from the trunk and curls to brush my cheek.

Demeter is the goddess of earth, fertility, and harvest, and as such a kind of mother to all the Half-Bloods here, not just the ones she gave birth to. She picks freely from the children who enroll, and I'm told over dinner that she never turns a child away. The cabin inhabitants are the most eclectic group I've spent time with so far; not the prettiest or the most regal, nor the most competitive. They laugh, they sigh, they giggle and tell tales. After dinner, they clear a spot for a campfire--mindful of sparks and making sure no embers can leap to the grass--and we toast marshmallows and tell ghost stories. Soft breezes stirs the vine curtains and I fall asleep among the perfumed heather to the rustling music of leaves and wind and something else. Love.

---

I'm still coasting on that euphoric love when I arrive at Ares House the next morning. A golden-skinned girl in full steel armor and dark eyes made smokier by perfectly smudged eyeliner pokes her head out at my knock and gives me a once-over look.

"Newbie? Excellent. Grab a wooden sword off the wall and get ready to rumble." I set down my bag on the inside step and eye the rack of practice weapons with misgiving; only a friendly slap on my back gets me going. "Haven't fought before, I'm guessing? Well, you will here at Camp Half-Blood. Combat classes are man-da-tory. Only question is whether you're gonna learn it coz you have to, coz you want to, or coz it's in your blood. Now c'mon, try to hurt me and don't hold back because believe me, kid, you can't."

The rest of the morning is spent learning all the ways I place my feet wrong, move my body incorrectly, and hold my sword like an inept fool. By lunchtime I'm sore and panting, soaked through with sweat. My instructor is all smiles and barely a flush to her cheeks; I haven't given her enough challenge in the ring to even get her heart-rate up. "You're not bad, newbie," she enthuses, though I'm pretty sure she's lying to be nice because I feel horrible. "Give me a couple years and you'll be something worth writing mama about. Hand me that kebab there? Hungry."

Steel rings against steel in the cabin, and the music never halts. Yells of triumph, anger, and sometimes pain punctuate the chorus of striking blades, along with the skid of skin against the sand in the fighting rings or the thud of bodies on the wrestling mats. The place smells of sweat, smoking meat, and a tangy aftertaste of blood, yet I'm not as afraid as I'd imagined. It helps that my guide smiles and chatters through the meal and never once threatens to take my head off and stick it on a spike outside. "Isn't everyone supposed to be angry here?" I venture to ask, plowing through my second kebab. "Like. Warlike? Grrr?"

She laughs and pushes my shoulder with a light shove. "You newbies. We are angry. We just know how to use it. You stay here with us, you'll learn to use it too." Biting off a grilled pepper from the skewer in her hands, she watches me with bright eyes. "You're not angry, then you're not paying attention to what's happening out there. You start paying attention, then you get plenty angry. Ares'll teach you how to use that."

Afternoon and evening are spent in a thousand exercises that leave me aching and ready to weep from pain blossoming in muscles I didn't know I had. I curl into a ball in my bed--an unexpectedly soft mat in a barracks bunk with two older kids above me--and shove my face in a pillow to cry. Another first year drags his mat to the floor beneath my bunk and silently reaches up to slip his hand into mine; the human contact a kindness I'd not imagined to look for here.

"It's okay to cry," he whispers, his voice soft in the darkness. "We all do when we hurt. Even Ares does. He understands. Pain hurts, even when it's worth it." I squeeze the boy's hand hard and nod, the grateful lump in my throat much too thick to allow speech.

---

Day 6 belongs to Athena and I'm expecting a respite after the rigors of Ares House. The air in her cabin is cool and dry, a soft breeze tickling my face when I enter and bringing with it the soothing scent of scrolls and library books. A boy with gray eyes--all her adopted children have gray eyes after she chooses them--waits for me by the door. "Today you're helping me organize the second-floor materials. How familiar are you with card catalogs, newbie? And do we need to use the lift or can you climb stairs? We're wheelchair accessible, even when the rest of the camp sometimes trails a century or three behind the times."

The center of the dorm has been built up with a high circular platform wrapped with staircases that curve around and meet in the back. Everything is dark polished wood and white light filtered through the opaque ceiling; the cabin has a calmness that stills my soul and makes each breath feel slower and more alive. I follow him up the steps, my eyes lingering on the vivid tapestries draping the circular structure. I've never seen anything quite like this place, and the stark beauty of the glowing white ceiling makes me think of a futuristic space ship or an underground haven. I could close my eyes and believe nothing existed outside this place.

But if my muscles expected relief after yesterday's fighting, they're sorely disappointed. Bending and carrying take up most of the rest of the day, though I'm allowed breaks to read bits of the scrolls and books in order to verify I'm carrying the right things to the right places. Each glimpse is a look into another world, a quick windowed glance before I'm torn away on another task. "Do you ever get time to just read?" I ask in frustration when my guide whisks away a book I'd dwelt on just a little too long.

Canny amusement flickers in those gray depths. "Sure. Stay with us, newbie, and you'll read every scroll in our library. Twice, if you want."

I'm on the verge of agreeing, the words on my tongue, when I blink and laugh instead, shaking my head no. Not yet, at least. But it was a good try; of course children serving the goddess of wisdom would know how to construct a trap for new kids. I wonder if avoiding such snares makes me a better fit for this place or a worser one. Maybe a true child of Athena would see the trap but walk into it anyway with gray eyes open. At dinner I watch them chat and laugh as we sit on pillows and eat from low tables under the library platform. They're witty, clever, and devastatingly intelligent. If Ares provides the soldiers, Athena's cabin supplies the strategists and generals. Her children will be scientists, researchers, artists, writers, poets, and librarians. They shape the world with their wits, their cloudy eyes seeing sharply what others cannot.

I could belong here, but would I be a credit or a disappointment to the virgin whom her chosen children call 'Lady' and never 'Mother'? I already have a mother, it's true, and didn't come here in search of a second one, but am I ready to trade the possibility of love and affection for duty and devotion? The cool kiss of dry air feels like brushing fingertips on my face as I lie in bed, closing my eyelids in preparation for sleep. I drift away to the whisper of turning pages as the older students read late into the night, and imagine the soft shivery thrill of a goddess' gray eyes turned on me in affectionate approval.

---

Days 7 and 8 are spent under the divine guidance of the archery twins, Apollo and Artemis. Their cabins are identical by design and it's my job to pick one to stay in for the next two days. Most of the kids in both cabins are Apollo's brood, the god of medicine and music being the most prolific bio-dad among the twelve, surpassing even his own philandering father, Zeus. But Apollo's not out sowing his wild oats without reason: he sires children for both himself and his virgin sister, the maiden huntress.

Apollo takes boys and those willing to bunk with them, while Artemis takes girls and anyone willing to run the trails with them. Every so often a kid switches cabins, but folks adjust to new pronouns with a minimum of fuss. Both houses are fiercely loyal to each other; you can't piss off members of one without earning the enmity of the other, which makes sense when almost everyone is a half-sibling as well as a cousin. When I arrive at the dorms, I'm embarrassed to admit to the head girl and lead boy that I don't have my gender worked out; after a friendly squabble over differing enrollment numbers between the two cabins, they place me by coin toss and I end up assigned to the Artemis cabin in a little wooded bower by the front door.

The cabins of the archery twins are smaller and more crowded than what I'm used to; I swear the Hera cabin had half as many kids packed in twice the space. These two patrons are much less interested in the buildings where their children sleep than they are in the sprawling woods behind the cabins. My two days are spent running forest trails and navigating obstacle courses. Hop through tires, run over a tree trunk spanning a sticky mud pit, climb a log wall, shoot arrows at a target, repeat. My archery instructor--an older Chinese-American girl with full cheeks, short wavy hair, and aim so sharp she can hit a fly in a sandstorm--informs me that I will be an excellent archer under her tutelage by time I graduate Camp Half-Blood so I might as well accept my fate, unplug my ears, and listen when she talks so as to save us both time and a headache. I do try and by the second day I am deemed "not hopeless" to my abject relief.

Evenings are spent under the moon, cooking meals over an open fire and telling stories. Everyone makes up a piece, then passes the narrative to the next kid in line. It's easy to forget these children are artists as well as archers until you find yourself lost in their fairytales or sighing in time with music they play when food has been tucked away. One of the boys--a shy golden-haired second-year with eyes the color of a baby fawn--reads my palm and tells me I'm destined to be a great hero honored by the gods and feared by monsters. He admits he's new to palmistry and not quite 'Delphi-level' of accuracy yet, but I promise to tell everyone he prophesied my grandeur first, if it ever comes true. He steals a kiss from my cheek and I let him, giddy and bold from the smoke fire. Romances rarely develop within the cabins, given that cabin children share an adopted parent if not a biological one, but until I declare my choice I'm fair game for flirting and this boy is the picture of his father: beautiful, charming, and easily distracted by a pretty face.

Later, I lie in my sleeping bag on the soft ground of the Artemis cabin and inhale the sweet scent of drying herbs that hang from the rafters. The older students turn these into salves and poultices for the entire camp. Everything from beauty treatments to birth control is manufactured in the apothecary behind Apollo House, and every house here partakes of their pharmaceuticals. Demeter's cabin helps keep them in supply, and the Poseidon kids donate raw materials from the sea, but Apollo's children are the ones who turn straw into medicinal gold. Even if I never return to these cabins again the folks who live and work here will be a part of my life at Camp Half-Blood, supplying me with the medicines that keep me alive.

I've found a family here in these cabins, and I wonder if they could be my family too. Members of the twin cabins look out for each other, fierce and loyal to the end. I like the girls in the Artemis cabin and, if my gender sorted itself out in a more masculine direction, I'd like the boys in the Apollo cabin too. Switching would be a hassle if I did it more than once, of course, but I appreciate that the twin gods understand, at least. I'd come here fearing Artemis might not approve of anyone not one-hundred percent on-board with the whole "girl" thing, but it hasn't been like that at all. I don't feel like an outsider here. I feel welcomed. Safe. Accepted. There's sports and running and fighting, but stories and art and medicine, too. In some ways these cabins packed full with dozens of rowdy children all living on top of each other feel like the best of everything I'd sampled before. I feel calm, even in the midst of so many living, breathing bodies.

---

Day 9 is Hephaestus' day and I leave the forest to head to the forge. I've been dreading this day the whole two weeks, actively repulsed by the idea of being cooped up in a fiery room to pour swords in the dark. But while the boy who meets me at the door does wear a leather safety apron, there's not a speck of soot on him. "You ever make pottery before?" he asks, looking me over with a practiced eye that isn't unfriendly. I blink at him and shake my head no. "Welp. I'll get you set up on one of the beginner wheels. C'mon."

I follow him into a large studio with earthen walls and a smooth granite floor circled by a dozen tiny bronze automaton discs sweeping up debris. Despite the ovens dotted around the studio like huge beehives, the air is cool and clean; the scents of metal and baking clay are present yet not overwhelming, neatly dispersed by fans that lift the air through wide, sunny windows above. "Doesn't pottery belong to Athena?" I ask, trailing my guide. We hadn't done any on my day with the gray-eyed kids and it's hard to imagine where water and clay and fire would fit in that pristine library of a cabin, but I'm certain I remember this from the Camp Half-Blood brochure. Pottery was an art, up there with weaving in the list of Athena's domains.

"Yep." He catches up a cane as we walk past one of the kilns, leaning on it for support as he walks. From behind, I see he has a slight curvature of the spine and I recognize my own scoliosis in his strong frame. "But we've got the kilns and wheels, and the Lady and our Father buried their differences a few centuries back. So while Athena's children visit to make vases and urns and statues, we make cups and plates. Hardy stuff, twice as useful, and lasts three times as long. And don't tell Jada over there that cups can't be pretty. She's got a side-business on Etsy that's always running out of stock." The girl scrunches her nose at me in friendly acknowledgment as we pass, white clay coating her dark hands as she works a wheel.

That's how I end up sitting on a stool, foot on a pedal and hands on a lump of clay as a girl four years older than me and a good foot and a half shorter instructs me in a kind voice that never rises, not even when I press the pedal too hard and clay goes flying. She's either a dwarf or a little person--I'm too shy to ask the right term or indeed anything more than her name. Callista has olive skin and dark black hair that brushes her cheeks when she leans forward to place my hands. When I need breaks to stand, my back aching slightly from bending over the wheel, she shows me exercises and stretches that relieve my muscle tension.

"There's a lot of, um." I falter in my question during one of our breaks, panicking as I realize I don't know the right word. Disabled? Handicapped? Differently-abled? My eyes pick out the canes, the wheelchairs, the knee and neck and back braces among the other kids. A boy with glasses under his safety goggles works at the open forge hammering a sword into shape while a girl with a gleaming bronze prosthetic arm carves the final flourishing touches in a battle helmet. Not all the children in Hephaestus House have assistive devices, but this is by far the highest concentration I've seen in my stay at Camp Half-Blood. I feel a twinge in my own gently curved spine and my probing fingers linger where the ache lives.

Callista chuckles in response, running a thin file under her nails to remove any lingering clay. "Was a time most gods would reject a child if it came out anything less than their idea of perfect," she says, shaking her head in a rueful way. "But Hephaestus understands. What it's like to be born different, what it means to be beautiful and whole in a world that sees you as broken. He was one of the first gods to adopt the byblows of others, long before they saw the value of the system we have now. Hephaestus took their rejects and those kids did him so proud the other gods got jealous and tried to claim his kids back."

My eyes are wide as I listen to her tale, the clay on my wheel forgotten as it sags quietly back into a soft lump of potential. "What happened? Was there a fight?"

She flashes white teeth in a wide grin, confident and proud. "Almost! Or so I'm told. That was hundreds of years ago, newbie. Some of the kids went back to their bio-parents but most of them stuck with Father. The gods worked out a truce and the adoption system was born. Now nobody turns away disabled kids at Camp Half-Blood, but we still tend to gravitate to Hephaestus. There's accepting and there's understanding, you know? Isn't the same thing. Now c'mon, let's get a serviceable cup out of that clay before dinner."

When the evening whistle blows, the kids scramble to pull massive ropes that rise up to the windows set in the high ceiling. The windows pull back and out, sliding in such a way as to open for the outside air while still shielding us from any rain or snow. The forges cool and the kilns not in use overnight are allowed to rest, their dying heat rising to the sky and leaving us with only the breeze of the fans and the scent of rich incense. Dinner is lively and cheerful as the kids laugh and talk and pass food around on automated service trays and little spindly-legged salt and pepper shakers that look like mechanical spiders.

I end the evening in a soft therapeutic bed with ten reclining settings and a vibrate-to-sleep mode that feels like the patron god himself is massaging my back into placid jelly. I'd thought Hera House was comfortable, but this is heaven itself. I could be happy here, making cups and swords and gleaming bronze robots. I could even be a hero, using those cups and swords and robots to help people. Hephaestus' children go out into the world as engineers, scientists, teachers, and builders. Some of them build weapons, yes, but more of them build bridges and cities--raising phoenixes from the ashes of the places humans destroy. I could have a father who creates and nourishes, rather than the absence I've carried all these years.

---

Hephaestus is still in my thoughts when I leave on Day 10 to visit the cabin owned by his wife, Aphrodite. Today is something of a joke day, since there's no way I have what it takes to belong to the goddess of love and beauty. Still, I'm surprised when the door opens at my knock to reveal a boy who is decidedly plain.

"Newbie?" he guesses, eyes alighting at the sight of me as though I were the person he most wanted to see on the other side of the cabin door. "We heard one was making the rounds, but do you think anyone bothers to tell us when to expect folks? No!" He laughs and I find myself smiling with him; his grin is positively infectious, the way it lights up every inch of his face and makes his eyes dance with joy.

"I mean, you could just show me to my room and I could take a nap?" It's an offer not to be any bother, but also a statement of fact; he has to know just by looking at me that I'm not a child of Aphrodite. I'm pretty enough to look at, I guess, but if I were a stunner you can believe I would've fit in better with the Zeus and Hera kids than I actually did. I'm just me, not a supermodel ready for the runway.

"Are you kidding?" He grabs my hand with an excess of enthusiasm and pulls me inside. "We're decorating birthday cakes; we're gonna refrigerate them and pull them out for a big celebration at the end of the month. You ever pipe icing before? No? Oh, you are in for a treat. Can you eat sugar? Gluten? Any food allergies whatsoever? Don't worry if you have 'em, we can assign you to the right group. Zoë can't so much as touch peanuts or breathe them or anything, so we check everything over like a hawk."

Before I know it, I'm dusted in flour and confectioner sugar while gripping a pastry bag for dear life and learning how to make little icing-roses on the head of a nail. I don't get any of this. I'd expected, like, silken pillows covering the floor and a quiet lecture on sex education and the importance of using titanium condoms when sleeping with a god. I'd imagined girls as beautiful as the moon braiding each other's hair while boys with faces like the sun manscaped on exercise equipment. I'd not expected bright lights and clean white modernist lines and the air of a Manhattan skyscraper apartment I'd only ever see in movies.

The children, too, are all wrong. There are some lookers, yeah, but they're outnumbered by plain Janes. Every possible body type and face fill the kitchen around me; fat and skinny, short and tall, ugly and lovely, clear skin and speckled. Some of them laugh and joke and leave streaks of cake batter on the noses of those they tease; others are serious and quiet, working with perfect precision as they turn out golden cakes of uniform color. Yet all of them look happy, truly and genuinely pleased to be here. Each person I meet makes a point of learning my name and finding something nice to say about me, coming up with sweet pleasantries long after I'd have thought my virtues expended. I'd find it all disquieting, except there's no sarcasm I can find; they all seem capable of finding something they actually like about me. It's weird.

I ask Rufus about this later, once the cakes are made and we've been waved off to bathe in the lavish salt-water pool dedicated to the rising of their mother from the ocean. "Is it so strange that people would like you?" he teases, thumbing my nose at the question. But his eyes soften and he takes pity on me. "If it helps, it takes everyone a good month or two to convince themselves it's not all sarcasm or a trick. We're not raised to love ourselves, so we're surprised when other people do. But Aphrodite loves, and so do we."

"But I was expecting..." My voice trails away as my hand pats the water, looking for the right words. Not sex, maybe; I wasn't imagining a full-blown orgy inside the cabin. But preparation for sex, yeah. Hair-brushing and makeup-application and clothes and giggles and talk of pretty boys. Cheerleaders; not the kind I'd occasionally see at my schools who looked normal enough, but the movie kind. Giggly and blond.

He chuckles and dips his head in the water before shaking his curls dry again. "Most people do. But would you believe there's folks here who've never had sex before and maybe never will coz they don't like it or just aren't interested? And we've got kids who don't feel romantic love at all, and that's fine too! Love comes in a million different flavors and not a single one of them is inferior to the others. Aphrodite teaches us the different kinds of love."

"So... what do you do with that?" I ask, peering at him with fresh curiosity. I know the children of Aphrodite can be heroes--one of them was the ancestor of Rome itself--but I'd assumed the lion's share of her children were less likely to shine in the spotlight of the gods. "I'd assumed everyone here was, uh."

I blush and he laughs again. "What? Escorts and sex workers? We've got quite a few alumni who excel in those fields, actually! We also have diplomats and politicians, silver-tongued movers and shakers who can read an opponent's desires and work out mutual solutions that make everyone happy. We have counselors and clinic workers and foster parents; people who bring love to those most in need of it." He spits a playful arc of salt water through his front teeth, looking pleased at the distance he gets. "And we have sneaky assassins who learn their targets well enough to know precisely how to get close in to plunge the knife. You don't piss off the goddess of empathy, newbie!"

My night is spent in a perfumed bed that smells of lavender and honeysuckle and home. Not the home I've come from, and not the home I would have imagined if I were building one in my head, but a home I never knew existed. Older students make the rounds, whispering quiet reassurances to homesick kids and giving out hugs and stuffed animals as needed. I hold my pride to my chest until a girl with soft hands and a gentle voice touches my shoulder and asks if I need anything. Somehow I end up crying in her arms, telling her about the mother I miss and a father I can't find and a home I'm not confident I'll ever see again. I don't remember what the girl says as exhaustion steals me to sleep, just that I feel better for having her there.

---

I creep to Hermes Cabin early on the morning of Day 11, mortified by my emotional display the night before. I miss my mother and I still don't know who my father is, but that much puts me on something of common ground with the god of messengers. His dad turned out to be Zeus, but he wasn't acknowledged as his son until after he'd made a nuisance of himself acting out for attention. So I'm not terribly surprised when a bean bag the size of my fist sails through an open cabin window and smacks me square in the face before I can even knock.

The door whips open and a girl with bright black eyes, frizzy black hair, and tawny skin looks up at me with a dubious expression. "Well, come on! We're playing Calvinball and you're it!"

I know what Calvinball is courtesy of my mother's old Calvin & Hobbes comic strip collections: the game is a chaotic little-kid make-believe sport that doesn't have rules because the rules are always changing. I hold the bean bag in my free hand and rub at my aching nose. "Calvinball isn't real, though."

"Uh, well, we're playing it," the girl says, jutting her head forward to express her total contempt for my wrongness. "Come on!"

The inside of Hermes House has all the floor-pillows I was expecting in Aphrodite's cabin, but each and every one of them is scattered and out of place. Kids run and jump and whoop with wild abandon, trying to catch each other inside a house that looks more like a jungle gym or an enormous playhouse than a home. Bunk beds line the walls on either side of the cabin and I can only think they must be sturdy to be able to bear so many bodies climbing them and running on them at full pelt. "But, I- I don't know how to play Calvinball," I point out, the protestation weakened by my distraction as I stare open-mouthed at the chaos.

"Which is why we're going to teach you," explains my pixie-faced companion, rolling her eyes. "Now catch me! You're it!"

For the rest of the day I'm 'taught' how to play Calvinball, which consists of making up increasingly bullshit reasons why you're winning and convincing others to agree. Merida, my guide, talks faster than I can run, can come up on the fly with twelve reasons why she's winning (at least four of which are unassailable by logic known to mankind), and knows exactly when to say "whatever!" and dart off again in the face of unconquerable argument. When we pause for lunch--and I nearly upend a pitcher of lemonade onto my face in the race to get liquid into my mouth as fast as possible--she jabbers my ear off about the game of land-Quidditch we'll be playing later, and the oversized-Jenga tournament scheduled after dinner.

"So are you one of Hermes' kids?" I ask, when I manage to get a word in edgewise. "Biologically, I mean?"

"Who me?" She giggles, shaking her head. "Gods, no. I'm only magic on my mother's side. Don't ask me who did the honors because I don't know. But I'm happy as a clam with two daddies. Yourself?"

I shake my head. "I still don't know my father. I... was sort of hoping I might meet him here." I look with dismay around the room and its chaotic mess of colors and bodies and noise. There's a pattern to it all, like musical notes under the roar of an orchestra, if only I knew how to decipher it. She follows my gaze, tilting her head at me like a bird as her bright black eyes flick back to my face.

"It isn't always Calvinball," she offers, extending the olive branch even as she clearly marvels that such a thing could be a comfort to hear. "I mean, tonight there's Quidditch and Jenga. You'll like Jenga; the blocks are as long as your arm! Saturdays are our poker tournaments and on Sundays it's Spades and Hearts. You can cheat as much as you like, as long as you don't get caught--cheating is part of the game!"

The dorm at night is quieter than I had expected, although this is partly because half the inhabitants have sneaked out to play a variety of pranks on the other cabins. I listen to pan flute music that drifts through the dorm as a boy plays from his bunk. I know that Hermes isn't just a god of play; he is the patron of messengers, travel, and border crossings. If his children are taught to be quick-witted and fleet-footed, it is because they intend to use those gifts; some of them grow up to be athletes, yes, but they also form the ranks of the ambulance drivers and emergency medical technicians who race to revive the dying. Hermes is not all frivolity and gambols, though he is perfectly happy to let others dismiss him as such.

I won't make the same mistake with him as I made with Aphrodite, assuming his children to be empty-headed pleasure-seekers instead of shadowy power-brokers behind the oh-so-visible kings and queens of this world. And yet, the question remains: Do I belong here? Is Hermes my father? Would I like him to be? I drift away on the music, seeking an answer I don't know how to find.

---

I'm exhausted on Day 12 when I drag myself to the last cabin: Dionysus House, god of ecstasy and madness. Madness is this twelve-day endurance test, I decide as I knock on the door, dreading what I will glimpse inside. How can I shuttle from cabin to cabin like this, glimpsing every good thing and agonizing over all the wonderful experiences my choice will wall me off from forever? How can I decide who I want to be when I don't have the slightest clue who I am right now?

The most beautiful boy in all creation answers my knock. His hair is a deep black verging on purple in the dawn light and his eyes are as clear as the sky. The smile on his face is so gentle I almost ask if I've stumbled in the wrong direction and gone back to Aphrodite House, but the cabin behind him isn't her sleek modern aesthetic. Every surface is dark wood hung with climbing vines and each vine explodes with clusters of fat grapes in every color and hue imaginable. "Hello." His voice is so rich and warm I'm seized with an urge to press my ear against his chest so I can listen to the rumble as it emerges. "Thirsty?"

He offers me his glass and I hesitate. I've never been drunk before and I wasn't planning for my first time to be my morning at Dionysus House, flinging sheets to the wind before the sun has barely crept over the horizon. But when in Rome, I suppose; and besides, I'm meant to be experiencing what the cabin would offer me as a resident. I take the glass from his hands, only trembling a little, and drink a long careful sip.

I don't know what I was expecting except that this isn't it. The drink isn't sour like the sips of wine I've had at holidays, but it's not sweet like grape juice. It's savory and rich, bittersweet like the darkest chocolate I've ever tasted. Liquid pools in my stomach and reaches out to my fingers and toes, bringing warmth and light where it touches. I'm not drunk--I know that much--but a weight lifts from my shoulders. No, from my heart. My cares melt away, along with even the memory of pain in my back and legs and shoulders.

"You know," the boy says, watching me with those gentle eyes that seem so out-of-place on the doorstep of a place built by the god of maenads, "no matter who you choose at the end of this, your home isn't a cabin."

My head whirls with slow giddiness, confused by his words even as the colors around us seem so much sharper. I could swear he glows with inner light, or maybe it's just the orange-pink dawn making everything hazy at the edges. "What... do you mean?"

His smile quirks at the edges as he reaches to take my hand. "Your home is Camp Half-Blood," he says in his velvet voice. "Each of the twelve cabins here house your cousins and siblings. When you choose your patron, you aren't losing eleven wonderful worlds and you're not rejecting eleven prospective parents. You're moving into a place that shapes and supports you, like a trellis supports a growing vine. All those beautiful cabins? They'll still be there for you to visit." He squeezes my hand with gentle affection. "And you're always welcome to visit Dionysus, no matter where you go or what you do, little one."

"I don't..." My voice trails away, unable to remember what I was going to say. I think I was planning to tell him I don't understand, except that in some small way I do. I nod my head, unable to find the right words. For now, words seem less important than the soft warm glow in my fingertips.

"Why don't you come inside?" he offers, drawing me into the cool darkness of the cabin. "We're harvesting grapes today and if we're very, very lucky Adrián may let us take a turn in the grape press. Have you ever stomped grapes with your feet? No? Oh, we must make this happen, then."

The rest of the day passes in a blur. I remember dark vines and the way the sunlight dappled them as it trickled through the canopy above us; I recall harvesting grapes and eating the smushed ones and treading them while I wore booties to keep the stain from my skin. There is laughter and happiness and a sorrow so sweet and perfect it pierces my heart and yet I can't imagine giving it up for all the world. The food here is rich, the drink even better, and the company so fine I feel almost in the presence of gods. Real ones, I mean, not just the demi-flavor the other children and I are. My guide not once leaves my side, sitting on the floor beside my bed as I drift away and stroking my hand with his gentle touch.

"You're going to be just fine here in Camp Half-Blood," he promises, watching me with those clear eyes that seem so accepting of everything I am, my flaws and faults as much as my triumphs and successes. "No matter who you choose, no matter what you become. You're always welcome to visit me here. I promise."

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