Sunlight streamed through the open window, joined by a chill breeze that iced the hairs on the back of Jason’s neck. Curls of dark hair brushed against his cheek, tickling him awake for the last morning at Camp Halfblood. Warmth stirred in his chest for a brief time, spreading to his toes as the body adjacent to his own moved like a hyperactive puppy. Pressing his lips to an eyebrow, Jason rejoiced in the snicker at his ears.
Each laugh fluttered, like wind chimes, singing into the wind for all to hear, and then disappeared.
It wasn’t like Leo to fall silent, but the feeling of numbness Jason had grown accustomed to in his chest made Leo’s reaction all more valid. The cadence of his heart slowed, with a nagging in his chest that never disappeared. ‘I told you,’ the miser whispered in his ear, sounding a lot like his own voice. ‘Why do you even try?’
Jason hastily told it to shut up as Leo unfurled from their bind, rolling to the nonexistent other end of his tiny twin cot.
Leo breathed in harshly after their dissipated laughter, his demeanor wistful. “You’re still gonna go, aren’t you?”
To California, to the Romans—away from Camp Halfblood. Away from Leo, and away from this, no matter how right being in the Zeus’s Cabin felt right now.
Pushing off the cot, Jason’s eyes wandered around the cold marble floor in search for his discarded shirt. The Greek version of his father’s statue burned harsh holes into his soul, ridiculously gaudy and domineering as it always was, and last night’s events were highlighted in Jason’s head. He was thankful that after a few hickeys that the wantwantwant and the touchtouchtouch had not gone too far—otherwise, this decision would be harder than it already was; weighing judgment in Jason’s chest to discuss the good and bad and what Jason wanted versus what he really desired.
He imagined even his promiscuous father, up in the Heavens of Mount Olympus, was redressing himself after a hardy night of a nameless nymph—or satyr or rock at this point—and wrapping himself in the next whim that seduced him—like flicking ants off his shoulder.
The thought made Jason sick to his stomach.
“—son?” Leo’s voice flattened his thoughts, smoldering like the flames in a tiny hearth. He sounded nervous—a little annoyed, and scared. It only hurt more, because Jason was the only one that ever heard that fear with Leo’s permission. Now it was being directed at him. “Jay.”
Turning around, Leo’s face glowed with the morning sunlight. A scar adorned his cheek, with eyes that had aged under the cruelty of warfare. He had trimmed his hair after months of having it in his eyes and blocking his vision, looking older than Jason wanted him to. Leo’s jaw had narrowed, aged and near malnourished; less like the Latino Santa’s elf that Jason met a year ago and more like a heartbroken warrior.
“You’re my comrade,” Jason said finally. They weren’t the words either of them wanted to hear. They were friends. Teammates. Partners. Leo was among the few people that Jason was attracted to and who Jason would open himself to—ever. There was still a grey area there that usually left Jason unsatisfied and spiteful. Comrade did not mean lover, nor did it have any close connotation to the word. Jason rubbed his aching neck, falling into awkwardness.
In a flicker Leo’s face fell, but he covered it up with an impish smirk. “Hey. One night, right?”
“Yeah,” the blonde breathed. He was visibly aware of the line of red blotches on Leo’s shoulder blade and neck.
“Guh.” Leo’s entire body animated like a robot with caffeine high and he smoothed his curls back. He hesitated—then reached over to kiss Jason platonically on the cheek, never making eye contact. “Thanks. For the…awesomely weird make out session. Sparks flew. You know—literally.”
“Happens,” Jason muttered. He blinked, watching Leo stand up, limb-by-limb. “We’re okay?”
“Yeah.” Leo assessed himself, looking for his own shirt, along with his tool belt and his socks. He made several unreadable gestures with his hands, twitching and wringing his fingers before shrugging. “We’re okay.” They sounded like words directed at himself, more than between them. “Well—whatever. Since you don’t want this big grand salute or whatever, I’m going back to Bunker 9. Getting better sleep. I’ll build myself a waterbed. Even better—a waterbed with singing fish. The naiads will be jealous and all, ‘Oh, Hotstuff Leo, I want to be in your bed’ and I’ll tell them they can’t. Your cot sucks.”
“Reckon you could install a nice bed for me while I’m gone?” Jason mused quietly. His voice barely rose above a whisper. Leo’s limbs tensed, his back turned completely away from the Son of Jupiter.
“Yeah,” Leo muttered under his breath. “I could probably do that.” His voice smoldered like a forgotten fire. Heat radiated off of Leo as he rolled up his pants legs and he slid his shoes on. He approached the tall door at the other end of the Cabin and jerked his head partially to the side, acknowledging Jason for the last time. “Bye, Jay.”
“See you next time.” Jason bowed his head.
Leo lowered his head slightly, with a tense nod. He opened the door, and Jason closed his eyes in defeat as it SLAMMED.
In truth, Jason had no duty that forced him to leave. He relinquished his role as praetor to Frank during the war, with a vocal consensus given by Reyna. The camps long signed a treaty between them, stating that the conflict between Romans and Greeks was annulled, and should ever a time come where war threatened either side, the other would come to aide as Allies.
The rest of Jason’s short summer was spent between both camps, aiding in the reconstruction of cabins and landmarks and putting up monuments under the names of the fallen. With school approaching for many of the Greek demigods, each camp would be spending the next few months until winter break rebuilding what had been lost thanks to Gaea’s treachery.
No shackles chained the Son of Jupiter to one coast or the other. He worked diligently with the new installations in New Rome and Camp Halfblood for the sake of his comrades. But after that?
A long week in Camp Jupiter that was concluded with a trip back to Camp Halfblood (a trip home—to a place where he could let out the nervous breath he’d been holding for seven long days) and then he was the boy too Roman to be Greek. (The irony, since it was the other way around every time he visited Reyna and Frank.)
When he was still dating Piper (a churn in his stomach; just another person he disappointed), the thought of staying at Camp Halfblood was a pleasant one. Growing up in Camp Jupiter felt like a far-off dream that remained in the back of Jason’s mind the moment he woke up. Here, at Camp Halfblood, he had his two best friends, the comrades he played Capture the Flag with, and the better chance of meeting his father.
(He remembered the hard image of his father, dressed in Roman garb with thunderous blue eyes that addressed everyone, even his own son and daughter, as a king to mere peasants, and the tiny flicker, like lightning, in his eyes that acknowledged Thalia and Jason. It was so faint and unnoticeable, but made Jason think they were the eyes that fell for his deceased mother.)
Now, he could have that. Jason got everything that was expected of a typical hero: the girl, the animal companion, the comrades, the best friend, and the title. He even got a sister, after thirteen years of feeling like an orphan; lost in the world without a mother and praying to a father that never showed his face. But he was never satisfied.
Jason had never been content among the ranks as praetor to the Twelfth Legion, and having an amazing girlfriend was subpar. They expected him to rejoice in his achievements, but the nagging miser in his mind knew he was only doing what was expected of him. He settled, to soothe the nerves of everyone else around him.
Now, two months short of a year since his arrival at Camp Halfblood, Jason scared himself more. He had what he wanted and still didn’t feel full. Piper broke up with him when she understood that the words ‘I love you,’ wouldn’t leave Jason’s mouth. She revealed plans to live in Malibu, homeschooling with a personal tutor to be closer to her father. Leo had been his rock, listening to his distraught at three in the morning, and to whom was the only person Jason would reveal his fears.
‘It’s not that I don’t know what I want,’ he said, his head in his hands. ‘It’s that I don’t know how long that I’ll want it.’
Leo eased his nerves, if only for a bit. He couldn’t care less about ‘the Big Three’ or the son of the King of the Heavens, (“Technically a prince,” Leo had mused. “All you need is your Cinderella.”) and maybe Jason wanted that—even for a short time. For a whim. Like flicking an ant off his shoulder.
Obviously that wasn’t fair to anyone—especially not for Leo’s aching heart. Unfortunately, staying at Camp Halfblood just wasn’t enough.
There was a knock on the door around the time Jason was finally done packing. He didn’t have much—orange and purple camp shirts and some souvenirs from the long weeks on the Argo II. Jason’s gladius was strapped to his belt, attached to him like a limb.
Percy’s head peeked through, with a wry smile rising on the left side of his face. “Hey.”
They greeted each other with a fist bump, and Jason smiled back weakly, pulling his backpack over his shoulder. “Happy Birthday, man.”
“Thanks.” Percy’s lips remained cautiously pursed together, with his hands shoved into the pockets of his shorts. He’d lost a lot of weight during his time in Tartarus, along with muscle mass, but the humor in the corner of his grin still remained. It was an understatement that the war had changed all of them; corrupting the seven of them and suffocating them with their fears, until even the bravest person cracked.
But over everyone, Percy remained unscathed after war.
He still cracked jokes at the least appropriate time and felt the need to steal the last line. Albeit his humor dripped with crueler sarcasm, but no one contemplated heavy thoughts over it. Percy was the one who demanded the treaty without forethought. Out of the seven of them, he made it clear that reconstruction would be sought.
Envy churned in Jason’s stomach as Percy surveyed the empty space. Percy planned on finishing Goode High School and returning back to his mother and stepfather to be a family. As simple as the idea was—even with all of the unwelcomed interruptions in his life—Percy still managed to go with the flow and keep his head up. He was lucky and got what he wanted. Even worse—because what Percy wanted, he was able to keep.
Well, most things.
“Sorry about you and Annabeth, by the way. Guess…that’s not really the way you’d want to leave camp,” Jason said. He could almost see the pull in the Son of Poseidon’s gut, and further down in Camp Halfblood, the Canoe Lake must have shaken.
Any other person bringing it up may have ended with the said person’s face in the toilet. The past few weeks had been spent with endless mourning and busy bodies restoring both camps. But, in the few months that they knew each other, Percy and he had become bros. Big talk and big actions didn’t get you anywhere, when both of you radiated with power.
Some are less bothered by it than others, chimed the voice in Jason’s head.
Instead, Percy shrugged with his shoulders up to his ears. The breakup had happened maybe four days ago—and no one knew why. Annabeth revealed shortly after that she planned on going to school near her family and getting into college on the west coast. Percy turned to look Jason fully in the eyes. A message was hidden in his orbs, so blatant in the reasoning that it made Jason sad for him.
(Looking at Percy made Jason think of someone else—and it only supplied more things to be disappointed about.)
“What’d you do after Piper?” Percy asked, his voice nonchalant.
I made out with my best friend. “I had Leo.” The three words left a discomforting taste in Jason’s mouth—but Percy was none the wiser.
Instead, Percy’s lips contorted into another of his smiles—full of something that wasn’t synonymous to happiness. He ran a hand through dark hair, his wavy locks mussed by lake water. “Yeah. I talked to Grover, but he’s known both of us since we were kids. Annabeth even longer, you know? And…”
“And?” Jason pressed.
“And it’s nothing that I couldn’t have come up with myself,” Percy concluded cryptically. His tone was quiet, dripping with bitterness. Yet somehow, he was able to shrug. He debated something in his head, sea green eyes misted over by the statue of Zeus, before changing the subject altogether. “So you’re doing this, man. Going to LA. Just what do you expect to find there?”
Holding his tongue for one more thought, Jason shrugged. “Let’s just say the winds are calling my name. And…they’re asking me to follow a breeze.”
They slapped hands, standing beside each other as retired comrades. The SPQR tattoo shined against Percy’s flesh, freshly made as a sign of his loyalty to the legionnaires and the Fifth Cohort. Even Jason’s still felt new, after twelve years of being branded to his skin. His heart dropped—knowing that once he stepped foot out of camp, he was leaving both homes for the time being.
“Call me if you run into any trouble,” Percy said. His eyes shone with honesty, and a smile curled against his lips.
Jason nodded. “You too.”
“Please. Me?” A chuckle rose from the back of Percy’s joke, brooding and unsettling in its exaggerated mockery. Percy had changed the least since the war, but Jason was beginning to realize that his dry wit was how Percy dealt with it.
Their grip was firm, and they studied each other like the first day at Camp Jupiter. Percy’s smirk held more than a smartass remark, and his eyes bore a threat: Don’t fuck with my friends, or I’ll fuck with you. His hair was wavy and mussed from long days marinating by the lake, but no doubt it would be cut soon. Percy complained too much about becoming the Little Mermaid.
And at last between them, they realized they were losing a really good friend for the rest of the school year. Their comrade. Family.
“Best wishes,” Percy muttered. “Don’t know what you’re looking for, but good luck.”
“Thanks.” Jason nodded. As an afterthought, his eyebrows furrowed and his grip tightened around Percy’s fingers. “Take care of Leo for me, okay?”
The flight to Los Angeles hadn’t been a long one. Argus the Security Guy volunteered to drive him to the airport after he said woeful goodbyes to his other friends—the Stoll Brothers, Jake from the Hephaestus Cabin, Clovis—and strangely enough Drew Tanaka, who forced a wet kiss on him before Jason could blink. Leo wasn’t there. When he asked the other Hephaestus Kids, they simply shrugged and assumed their brother was in Bunker 9. Percy scratched his head, wondering if they’d gotten into a fight, but the entire situation was too complicated to explain.
Instead, Jason emphasized—take care of Leo, for both their sakes—and hopped onto the one-way plane that would take him to Cali. He’d flashed official SPQR documents, along with the legal form of his former praetorship (a tradition for all past praetors who’ve retired. The perks of praetorship usually remained, just without the power) to a descendant of Mercury, and had the entire aisle to himself.
Rolling up each document and putting them away, Jason felt a tug of betrayal at his chest. Two weeks ago when Jason revealed his plans to Leo, he could only describe it as a journey to self-discovery. Somehow stripping himself of Greek and Roman ties was the only way to do it. Here he was, reaping the advantages of a rank he could no longer call himself. His heritage—and what the last ten months revealed to him—had nothing to do with his current conflict.
Finding Nico di Angelo, however, was the first thing he’d wanted to do for a very long time. After the war, di Angelo had slipped away with no one to nurse his bruises or to help him cope with…everything. The only one who ever cared for me, Nico’s words rang in Jason’s mind from night-to-night, was my sister, Bianca. To everyone else I might as well be covered in blood or sewage.
One of the things Jason absolutely hated in the world was leaving behind a fallen comrade. In this case, Nico was still running away from everything. And to Jason, matters including his team mates were never just a simple whim.
He figured Los Angeles was a good of a place to start, if he was searching for a Son of Hades. Getting an apartment near the DOA Recording Studio was eerily too easy. Growing up in New Rome, Jason heard plenty stories of demigods who went to live in southern California—some were eaten, some lost limbs. Others, New Rome only knew that they left. Nothing else.
(Instinct—and Reyna, on several occasions—told him it was wiser to sleep with a knife under his pillow.)
Another flash of SPQR documents, and his new landlord was under the impression that Jason was living with his “estranged uncle.” Drachma and American currency that he’d made during his years in the Legion would be used for rent on a month-by-month lease and groceries. Who knew—in the next two weeks, Jason could end up as bait for an angry Cyclops in a muumuu.
(But at this point, Jason was sure he could slay anything.)
The furniture was quaint—all Jason really needed was a bed. He decided to keep the electronics bare minimum—so, no TV, no laptop. Not even an alarm clock. There was a little corner store up the street from his house, in case he needed to stock up on EasyMacs and frozen dinners.
He did a run through of his supply of ambrosia squares—which wouldn’t last long. If Jason managed to survive, he would have to make routine trips up to San Francisco to restock on secret magical goodies. Somehow a five and a half hour bus ride was a lot more intimidating than being on a plane for eight hours.
Finally after unpacking his sparse amount of belongings, Jason surveyed his apartment, surrendered to jetlag, and went to bed. In the morning he would find a steady job and ask around if anyone had seen the Ghost King.
A month would pass before Jason finally found Nico di Angelo.
Surviving Los Angeles proved to be a more interesting task than Jason anticipated. He learned the streets and the creatures that roamed around, doused in the Mist to blend in with ignorant city-goers. Instead of one job, he had four, like a list of quests on a forum. Once he was done, he procured the benefits of his rewards.
Neutral monsters like naiads and cloud nymphs found their way into his apartment (either through the window or through his plumbing system) and offered large sums of drachma or information to get rid of ‘pests.’ Exterminating the local venti or empousai was nothing like going on an actual quest—but the way Jason saw it, the less dangerous the mission, the less people got hurt. Some of the nymphs were so grateful that they offered themselves up—to which, Jason modestly (and blushingly) declined.
When he could, Jason asked nearby residents if they saw the Son of Hades. He tracked loose ends here and there—however, nothing connected. The days that he passed by DOA Recording Studios sent a chill down his spine. He could feel the physical pull of his soul extracting from his body—and Death whispering his name like a sweet comfort.
Death is the easy way out.
Jason shook the thought as he always did one day and went home to sleep off the current day’s events.
At about three in the morning, he found Nico eating an apple in his living room.
“Holy Heph—fuck.” Jason’s hands instinctively flew to his hip, where his gladius was normally found—before remembering that he went to bed into just his boxers. He’d wandered to the bathroom for a late night leak, grumbling obscenities under his breath when he tripped over a pair of dirty boxers.
Nico di Angelo sat on the floor with his legs crossed and left arm stuffed in a pocket of his Aviator’s jacket. The apple in his hand was flushed bright red, contrasting with pale ghostly skin like fresh blood. His eyes were tired—but surprisingly more well-rested than what Jason expected. A smile curled at the corner of Nico’s lips, resembling a pleased smirk. It was the kind of smirk that any fourteen-year-old kid held when they got to scare the pants off of someone. In this case—literally.
A sheen of moonlight caught Nico’s haphazard bush of dark hair from the window—and he turned, studying the orb in the night sky. “You kiss your mother with that mouth?”
“I wouldn’t remember.” Jason’s heartbeat hammered a mile a minute. His gaze narrowed to the teen sitting adjacent to his window, and he took a step forward over creaking wooden floors. One false move, he thought, and Nico may disappear. “Hi.”
“I hear you were asking for me?” Nico’s gaze reached the corner of his eyes, dark. They echoed in Hades’ wrath—with a stroke of genius and the spark of a madman—and scrutinized Jason, like they were peeling away at the layers to his soul.
Jason mussed his sleep-ridden hair, knowing it fluffed with static electricity in his sleep. Piper used to get shocked every morning on the Argo II when she came into his room. And Leo—well, being used to sparkplugs and wires, he once compared high-fiving a sleepy Jason to sticking a fork into a power outlet.
Wiping the grogginess from his eyes, he plopped comfortably on the floor across from the other demigod. He made visible note that Nico scooted closer to the wall. The last few days flashed before his eyes and he nodded. “Depends. Who’d you hear that from?”
“Hazel, while I was checking up on her.”
A few days ago Jason had visited New Rome in order to restock on ambrosia squares and catch up with his friends. Hazel and Frank were there to greet him—along with a disgruntled Reyna and Annabeth, who both gave him looks when he asked for Nico’s location. Obviously Jason’s inquisition had made it back to Nico himself—which meant Jason’s spending a month in Los Angeles was all for naught.
“I’ve known you were in the area since you moved in,” Nico confessed, as though he was reading Jason’s mind. His gaze narrowed, studying Jason like a piece of artwork. Instead of disposing of his finished apple, he observed it browning in his hands. “Figured you were here for a quest. Ghosts around here say that you’ve been asking about me. And here we are, a month later—and you’re still alive.”
His tone of voice was quiet, but piercing, like it knew exactly how to penetrate Jason’s skin.
“I was looking for you.” In return, Jason scratched his arm and made his way to the refrigerator to pull out more fruit. He threw a second apple at Nico.
The Son of Hades’ face twisted with a flicker of disbelief in his gaze, before burrowing back to a stoic mask. It broke Jason’s heart a little—flickers of Nico’s face, full of wonder and admiration, flashed in his mind, remembering the little kid that showed up in the cave with Cupid. Percy ignorantly told Jason once that Nico had been an “expressive little nerd” when they first met. “You said something about not remembering your mother.”
Yeah. Sinking his teeth into his apple, Jason shrugged and waltzed back to the little area that shined with light. Nico had taken refuge in a corner, playing with the apple core of his first apple and palming the other. “Roman halfbloods are put in the Wolf House to be trained by Lupa. She either deems you worthy enough to go to Camp Jupiter or you get eaten by the wolves. My mother offered me up when I was two.”
Under the tufts of dark hair, Jason was sure one of Nico’s eyebrows rose, almost like a, ‘Really?’ in the most deadpanned way possible.
Studying his own apple, Jason scrutinized it like it held his memories. It’d been roughly eleven months since getting them back, and yet he still had trouble believing what his mind told him. Recalling a memory felt like watching a movie; one that didn’t leave an impression and was easily forgotten between popcorn and making out in the back corner. “Even with my memories back it’s not like I’d remember anything before that age, anyway. Everything I know about my mother is information that I got from my sister.”
“The huntress,” Nico murmured. His tone took a dip, despite his face. He’d worn a façade of impassiveness since showing up—clearly unsure of what to expect from this meeting. Jason was flattered that Nico even showed up.
But—this was getting them nowhere.
Rotating the apple in his hand, Jason could feel his heart palpating in his chest—cautious. He recalled the picture of Thalia that he kept in his back pocket, with her dark hair and electric blue eyes. The silver tiara fit perfectly as her headpiece, with the glow of moonlight that radiated off her as power. On the back of the picture were the words: This is Thalia Grace. Your Sister. Never let yourself forget her. He’d like to think that the next time he woke up without his memories, she would be the first person he could remember.
“Thalia told me the reason she became a Huntress is because she lost people close to her,” Jason explained. He looked up, observing Nico’s expression. “Annabeth says—” Nico glared. “—that your sister, Bianca, and her friend Zoe sacrificed themselves during the first war. She became one of Diana’s—Artemis’s hunters, to honor them.”
Jason knew at the mention of Annabeth’s name that Nico heard none of the other stuff. A long Italian finger tapped the hard wood; with its owner probably debating on shadowtraveling away. Or summoning skeletons as they spoke to rip Jason to shreds. It made Jason think of Leo—who tapped ‘I love you,’ out in Morse Code on his knee from time to time.
He remembered asking, once, repeating the summation of beats to his best friend. Leo had blushed a lovely shade of scarlet, with his hair steaming of fluster. It wasn’t until later did Jason realize it wasn’t the act of doing it that flustered Leo—but the fact Jason was doing it. His stomach clenched at the thought, and Jason ignored the fact that he hadn’t talked to his best friend since Leo ran out of Zeus’s Cabin.
Instead, he recalled his conversation earlier in the day with Percy over Iris Message, who had an odd tone when they spoke to each other. “They’re broken up now, you know.”
Nico made sound—something akin to a bitter chuckle. “So?”
Recalling thoughts of why Annabeth and Reyna may have been disgruntled toward Jason made him skim over the entire ordeal. Instead, Jason weighed his options. “I know that you didn’t want to go back to Camp Halfblood because of Anna—her,” he corrected himself when Nico’s eyes flashed with anger again. “But there was a reason they broke up.”
The look in Percy’s eyes was still hard, but he’d found some coping mechanism to help him. He could tell that much through the conversation, when Percy’s sea green eyes suddenly didn’t look as sad. Jason chickened out before he could ask if Percy’d heard from Leo at all.
“I know you’re still worried, but—”
“If you’re going to tell me that he’s suddenly fallen head over heels for me then, you’re the one I want to send to Hades, not him.” Nico stood flat-footed, with his boots hitting the wood like shattering glass. His entire face morphed into a sneer, his gaze narrowing beneath his hair. A cold breeze struck Jason’s spine. “None of this is your business. You are the last person who has any right to stick his nose where it doesn’t belong, and you don’t know anything.”
Jason winced. Through Nico’s hateful words, he’d clutched the Stygian Iron sword at his side. Jason refused to reach for anything.
“Understand something, Grace,” Nico snapped, “I didn’t tell you about that so you could work it out with me like a therapist. In fact, I didn’t tell you at all. You were just there when it happened, you got it? If I had it my way—oh, Hades, if I had it my way—you wouldn’t know.” He pulled a hand out and touched the shadows on the wall.
“Wait—” Jason grabbed Nico by the other arm before the teen could shadowtravel away. The Son of Hades shook with absolute rage, with his face marred by an unpleasant scowl that could have sent the other halfblood straight to hell. Fuck, was all he could think. In the long month that he waited to find di Angelo, this wasn’t how he planned on it going.
Nico slapped Jason’s hand away so harshly and quickly that it would have been an admirable move during Capture the Flag. He looked up with brooding eyes, waiting. Fuming.
“I know. I get it. And—the entire decision is yours. I don’t dictate whether or not you…come out of the shadows. It’s not my business, and I know you don’t want me to know. But it became my business because you’re my comrade.” Holding his breath, Jason prescreened the words in his head and—still, he knew they wouldn’t come out the way he wanted. However, his stature remained firm, and he made sure Nico could see his eyes. “I told you once that you could trust me as your ally. I took the chalice from your hand because I trust you with my life. I wouldn’t have come all the way to Los Angeles if I didn’t think there was any hope of finding you. The war’s over, but—I. I’m still here. For you.”
The trembling in Nico’s frame had either disappeared completely or reached a new level. He hunched over, his jaw tight and gaze burning holes into Jason’s form. His hand clasped over his sword, scraping against the Stygian Iron with his various skull rings—and yet, Jason thought it stupid to resort to defense. He kept his fingers curled against his palms, suppressing the instinct to draw electricity.
And by some miracle, Nico’s hand fell limp on the side of his sword. The look on his face had completely destroyed his facade. All that remained was an angry teenage boy to collect his bearings. And from the looks of it, he absolutely hated that fact, with his pride wounded.
It was then Jason realized neither of them knew what to expect out of this talk—other than the obvious. Nico remained calm earlier for a reason—either to amuse Jason’s determination or as a chance to actually listen. He was sure the Son of Hades tried for the former—but they were both out of luck.
“Keep flying, Grace,” Nico said finally, his voice constricted. His hand touched the wall once more, disappearing into the shadows. “Otherwise you’ll end up in the pits of hell with me.”
And with that, he left.
Tap, tap. I love you.
The next few days were spent between Jason dreaming and mulling over a guilty conscious. He dreamt of a curly head resting at his shoulder with a throaty snicker that was both mischievous and insane. The scent of fire burned like incense, and he yearned for a happy ending between the two. Brown eyes, lighting up like the embers on the Fourth of July as they looked to blue. They held the same stroke of passion as they would with metal scraps thrown in front of them along with a big shot idea—one that sometimes backfired, but still held together, secured by someone who absolutely adored tinkering.
Jason knew those eyes. He’d seen them flicker with delight after fixing a rabid celestial bronze dragon, and at the same time saw them break into tears at the mention of a lost mother and a lost friend. He saw them emotionally invested in rebuilding an idea, so the loneliness would fade away, and the conflict between falling for Hazel and creating tension or letting it pass.
He saw the heartbreak of the lost boy who found love on an island and lost it at sea. They saw him, sitting on a hammock back at Bunker 9 where Jason revealed his own insecurities.
I want. And when I get it, I can’t want it long enough.
And most gut-wrenchingly, Jason saw the eyes that looked back to him at the end of the summer, that were accompanied by a hollow, eerie snicker, and heard the scratchy voice in his ears.
Hey. One night, right?
He knew those eyes wanted more. And Jason hated himself for not wanting more too.
Jason wiped the sweat of his brow with the sleeve of his shirt and looked at the clear image of his ex-girlfriend through the Iris Message. She looked as beautiful as ever. Somewhere between the war, she’d let her hair grow out, unnoticed, until it looked like a hairdo that girls wore on high school soaps. Thin locks were still beaded, making Piper still look like Piper. Yet in a way, she looked more confident about her beauty. He told her just that.
“You look great,” he said with a smile. He sheathed his gladius, and—
“Oh, Jason!” The water nymph he’d bee helping out—Cindy—suddenly flung her arms around him, automatically dousing Jason in the fire hydrant water he’d been working with for an hour now. He groaned as the red metal exploded from the pressure, again. “Thank you, THANK YOU, for fixing my hydrant, you know I hate it when those stupid Cyclopes throw it around like—like a hot potato.”
“Cindy, you broke it again. I keep telling you, water’s not my thing.” Jason sighed in frustration, burning holes at the broken thing. Never in his life did he wish so badly for Percy to be here and fix it himself. At least Percy could, like, tell it to stop or something.
“What?” She turned from him, with her body moving like the Wicked Witch after she melted. “Oh, no worries! It means you can just spend more time fixing it.”
He eyed the Iris Message, where Piper was patiently waiting for him to extract the naiad clinging to his shirt. Talk about awkward. “Cindy, I, uh. I really have to take this. Raincheck?”
She eyed him with a giddy look, like Jason had asked her to do the dirty deed, and he resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Zeus Almighty, Los Angeles nymphs were scary. He’d woken up in the shower with her body flowing out of the drain. The next ten minutes were spent in screams and giggles that put Moaning Myrtle to shame.
“You know where to find me if you’re feeling…wet.” Her entire body glistened a clear color before she threw herself into the fire hydrant. The water ceased—and if that were the only problem, then Jason would have never agreed to take the ‘quest.’
“That your new girlfriend?” Came Piper’s voice from the forgotten Iris Message.
Cringing, Jason turned his head and touched his hair. “No. I—uh.”
It wasn’t like the teasing tone she offered when they were still dating. She’d taken advantage of that tone plenty of times when Reyna was involved just to make him squirm. Still miles away, her charmspeak did its charm, flustering him to no end.
But again, Piper looked wary, instead of amused. She’d worn that face plenty times since the war ended. “You could have told me in Los Angeles.”
Jason swallowed hard. “Hazel told you?”
“I can see the Hollywood sign behind your head.”
This was where Leo would dramatically ‘ooooooh,’ in the background, and Jason would have to tell him to shut up. Instead, Jason touched his head, hoping something good would come to mind. “I didn’t know if you and I were on speaking terms,” he finally confessed.
Piper made a face.
“You left the day after we broke up,” Jason pointed out. “That was…what? A month ago?”
“Two months,” she corrected. If possible, she sounded even more hurt than before. Jason was the jerk that didn’t care that they were no longer together. “It’s fine. I just—I wanted to check up on you—”
“Do you want to talk about something?”
“No. It’s fine—”
“Pipes.” Jason’s voice softened and he looked at the girl that he once called his girlfriend. One look from those kaleidoscope eyes used to make him forget his name. Now he saw them, feelings wounded and pride crushed the same way Nico’s was about five days ago. “What’s your address? I’ll be there in an hour.”
Her eyebrows rose, surprised, and she shook her head. “No, Jason—”
“What’s your address?”
She hesitated, before finally telling him.
An hour later, after soaring through the winds and asking grumpy cloud nymphs for directions, Jason landed on the front yard of Tristan McLean’s Malibu home. Someone chucked a rock at him.
“What the—” Jason dodged promptly, whipping a stream if wind to knock it off course. He looked back to the house—where another rock was thrown at his head, alongside a jar labeled Cere-ous Baby Food. “Hey!”
“Stand still so I can hit you in the head! Stop being a daisy, you stupid daisy! I’m going to destroy you!”
“Coach Hedge! What did I say about throwing baby food at the mailman?” Piper appeared over the balcony, talking to the satyr that was apparently too short to see over the railing.
“You said DON’T WASTE THE BABY FOOD! So I’m throwing the empty containers at him!”
“Coach, it’s Jason!”
“Who? Grace? That’s not Grace, he’s too human!”
“Jason is human!” Piper threw her arms in the air. “You’re going to stop. Now!”
“Sorry, McLean! This is for your own protection!” On cue, forty baby food jars rained down from the balcony like baseballs, targeting Jason at every angle.
The rebel in Jason thought about whipping out his gladius like a baseball bat and swinging. Percy probably would have loved that thought. Instead, Jason created a wind funnel with his hands and let the containers land neatly on the lawn. Grabbing at the masses, he could only smile at the pretty girl that came out from the front door to help him.
“Dammit, Grace! You’re lucky that I ran out of baby food!” Coach Hedge’s voice boomed from above.
“Coach!” Piper hissed. Her voice sent a rhythmic chant straight to Jason’s ears. He shook off the daze that came with charmspeak, knowing that if he fell into it now, conversation with Piper would end with him feeling very confused. She sucked in a breath, her shoulders rising, and narrowed her gaze at the grumpy satyr on her balcony. “It’s okay. You were going to go grocery shopping, remember?”
“I? What?” Coach pulled out a tin can and sunk his teeth into it like an apple. “You’re right! I was going to go grocery shopping! For baseball bats!”
“No. The baby’s running out of diapers.”
“The baby’s running out of diapers. And daggers!”
“No—diap—ugh. Right. And you need to go buy some more.”
“I need to go buy some more,” Coach repeated. His voice laced with charmspeak as he echoed Piper’s words. “And go kill monsters.”
“No! No killing monsters!”
“Kill all monsters!” A few minutes later, Coach Hedge disappeared from the balcony and galloped toward the pair on the front lawn. He burped up a metal tab and picked at his teeth. Behind Jason, Piper groaned. “McLean, I’m going grocery shopping. And to kill monsters! Tell the wife and baby that I’ll be back in a few hours.”
Piper covered her eyes, ashamed.
“And you—” Coach Hedge grabbed Jason by the shirt and yanked him down until they were nose-to-nose. “If I come back and you’re not gone, there will be some serious decapitation. I’m watching you, punk.”
“Uh. Yes sir.” Jason resisted the urge to roll his eyes.
With that, Coach Hedge left, leaving the ex-couple on the lawn to pick up old containers of baby food.
Jason turned to see Piper’s back. She busied herself by collecting jars, no word to be said between them. Great. Mussing a hand through his hair, Jason collected what she didn’t—and helped her, when two fell out of her grasp.
“Thanks,” she said finally after five minutes of silence. She started the path toward her house, and Jason had no choice but to follow. “So you wanted to talk to me?”
“You were the one that Iris Messaged me, remember?” Jason searched for the recyclable can labeled glass and set the containers in them behind Piper.
She looked over to him, her gaze suddenly hesitant. He knew her well enough that this was her embarrassed face—especially with the hue of shy pink in her cheeks. “You didn’t have to come all the way over here.”
“The least I could do for not telling you that I was in the area.” Looking around again, Jason opted to sit on a faux-leather, sleek vegetarian friendly million-dollar couch. His heart was beating so loudly in his chest that Jason wouldn’t have minded dealing with Khione the Ice Goddess again instead of what they were doing now. Still, his point remained. “I had to find out from Annabeth that you were moving to Malibu, you know.”
“It’s not exactly what you tell someone right after they’ve broken up,” she shot back, arms crossed.
“So what makes what I did different to what you did?”
“It doesn’t. It—” Piper huffed and took in a deep breath in the same manner as when she addressed Coach Hedge. As radiantly beautiful as she was, Pipes also looked like a very frustrated friend. And very, very hurt.
Guilt seeped into the empty crevasses of Jason’s chest; they’d left things too out in the open after the war was over. He knew what Piper wanted to say. That he was the jerk who didn’t love her back. No amount of charmspeak could change the fact that their nine-month relationship was lived with a halfhearted Jason—even if it didn’t start that way at first.
“I still care about you, you know.” Jason’s hands fell to his lap and he watched Piper’s expression changed. It reminded him of the mask that Nico wore days ago—only Jason could point out every dent. “Just not in the way that you wanted me to.” Not in the way that I wanted to.
“I’ll be wrong,” he decided. “Is that okay?”
“I don’t want that either.” To his relief, Piper shed the mask that she was keeping on. She fiddled with her choppy hair like she always did when they were dating and sat down across from him on an ottoman. The furniture in the living room alone put Jason’s entire apartment—and wardrobe—to shame. “I just want to make sure we’re still friends.”
What? “Of course we are. Why wouldn’t we be?”
Piper’s gaze narrowed and a tired smile spread across her lips. “I haven’t talked to Leo in a long time either.”
Jason visibly winced at the mention of his best friend’s name. His eyebrows furrowed. Ever since Nico showed up in his apartment, Leo had been in the forefront of his mind, reminding him that it’d been the most memorable last two weeks of camp that Jason could wish for. He missed Leo’s touches; the heat against his skin. He missed the light snickers in his ears.
He wanted nothing more than to show up at the Hephaestus Cabin and make sure Leo and he were still friends.
And here he was, standing in front of his ex-girlfriend recalling secrets with their best friend that would probably never be mentioned ever again.
“Honestly,” Jason muttered under his breath, and he touched the back of his neck, “I haven’t kept in good touch with anyone lately. Been busy.”
“So it’s not that he doesn’t want to talk to me.”
If Leo felt any bit as awkward as Jason felt at that current moment, then he understood why the pair hadn’t spoken in a month. Jason felt more like a jerk now than he did ten seconds ago.
“Then,” Piper said, commanding his attention before he could drift off to La-La Land. Her gaze contorted with confusion and she tilted her head. Something told Jason that the empathetic, emotional Aphrodite side of her was picking up on his guilt-filled cues. He thanked Jupiter that she didn’t address it. “What about you?”
“What about me?”
“I was talking to Annabeth and Hazel about it not too long ago.” Piper fiddled with her hair, suddenly looking nervous, and she held what she could of her expression. “Don’t get me wrong. I came to Malibu to be with my dad. The…fact that you were on the other side of the country made it a little easier, since you said you’d be staying at Camp Halfblood. But—you weren’t there. And you didn’t go back to New Rome. Not because of a quest or anything like that, and it’s not even like Hera swept you away and stole your memories again. It’s like you fell off the face of the planet. And—”
“Knowing Gaea’s accursed words of vengeance, that wouldn’t be a long shot,” Jason speculated. He almost smiled—because neither one of them was kidding. “I’ve been on a quest to find my inner self.”
In the midst of breaking up over two months ago, he tried to explain to her what he wanted and what he truly yearned for. All of it was selfish—he knew, but Jason understood that he would never truly be happy if he strung people along and let them think more than what could be. It was the same attitude his father held—the Lord of the Sky, who reigned over everything. He could only hope that closing off these connections didn’t come off as cold as Jason truly felt.
Right now he didn’t have the answers for everything he looked for. He wanted Piper to be happy. For Leo to be happy. To be what they wanted him to be—so they could all be happy. But most importantly—Jason wanted to find Nico.
Once those words left Jason’s mouth, Piper’s demeanor morphed, looking at him like he’d grown a second head. It was the Argo II all over again. He suddenly understood why Nico would seclude himself to the mast, in the shadows and away from the others.
“He barely stayed for the celebration feast,” Jason pointed out. “If it weren’t for him, Reyna would have never gotten the Athena Parthenos to Camp Halfblood.”
“It’s not that I’m downsizing his contribution to the war effort,” Piper replied. Still, her face said it all, twisting with discomfort. “But you really want to seek him out? Don’t get me wrong, Jason, but…he gave me the creeps. When he left with Reyna, I was actually glad.”
“Piper, he’s our comrade.”
“Yeah, but he never trusted any of us—”
“Can you really blame him for not trusting anyone when everyone onboard was—was talking about him like you are right now? No one actually sat down and treated Nico like a person.” Except Bianca di Angelo, rest her soul—even if Jason never got to meet her. Hazel. Jason. Hopefully one day it’d actually sink in to Nico that Jason wasn’t leaving. “If I was in his position, I’d leave too.”
“Jason, you can’t be serious.” He could see it in her eyes—the discomfort, and a blatant grimace.
Another pang of guilt stabbed Jason in the chest. He could actually see what Nico saw whenever people looked at him. Gods—Jason had given Nico that look, too. No wonder the Son of Hades found it unbelievable that Jason would suddenly do a one-eighty.
They looked to each other, attempting to stare the other down. Piper’s kaleidoscope eyes themselves scrutinized every bit of Jason—before she relinquished. Her mouth contorted into a thin line. “You really want this.”
“I’ve never wanted anything more in my life,” Jason responded without missing a beat. He leaned over and clasped his hands together. Beneath him, he could make out the silhouette of his own shadow. Sunlight beamed in the room like a newfound day and his silhouette darkened, like a portal. Nico overtook Jason’s mind immediately.
The whole reason he moved to Los Angeles was to find the other demigod. It was the entrance closest to the Underworld—even if all of them were fed up with Hades by this point. Los Angeles. Di Angelo. Jason entertained the thought that it was destiny.
It took a long month before Nico was actually found—and even then, he appeared. Jupiter knew whether or not Nico would even show up a second time. And if Jason left, he had no idea where to go to find the younger teen again.
It occurred to him that he knew nothing about Nico di Angelo—other than what he looked like, who was his Godly parent, and Nico’s secret.
(The last one—it was a secret that bonded them and yet sent Nico running.)
“So what happens when you get bored of finding him?” He knew Piper couldn’t help it—there was a tone in there that wanted him to know he hurt her. It was a conversation Leo and he had gotten into before they established there were “more-than-friends-type-feelings-things” going on between them.
Through their conversation, Jason’s eyes remained to the shadows. They were darker in the sunlight—more defined, with the steady line drawn between Piper’s norm and the depths of the unknown. Nico’s face came back to mind during the night of their conversation. Maybe to himself, Nico was just playing along, but the Son of Hades cared enough to entertain Jason’s whim. With the glow of moonlight against him, there was something in those dark eyes that made everything worth it. Something that was pleased.
Finally, Jason answered her back, his gaze fixating on the light against the contours of her tan face. “I won’t.”
An hour later, Jason had no choice but to leave an unconvinced Piper. He’d given her a hug and amended her for staying near her father—even if her doubts rubbed him the wrong way.
He found a basket of apples outside his apartment, waiting, with a simple note card: To Jason Grace.