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If Your Heart Wears Thin

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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.

 

-x-

 

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?”

 

Hopefully Nico.

 

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?”

 

-x-

 

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.

 

-x-

 

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.

 

“Hello.”

 

“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.”

 

Nothing.

 

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.

 

-x-

 

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.

 

-x-

 

 

“Hello?”

 

“Piper? Hey.”

 

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.”

 

Di immortales.

 

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.”

 

Ouch.

 

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?”

 

Uh…

 

“Well?”

 

“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.

 

Silence.

 

“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.

 

Chapter Text

 

The next time Jason saw Nico di Angelo, there was a knock on the door.

 

He woke up groggy, body aching from menial tasks performed for a senile satyr the night before and—grateful, actually, because he’d had another dream about Leo.

 

Rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, Jason’s gaze wandered toward the drachma sitting in a small bowl next to his sleeping bag. October was coming to an end soon—making it a full two and a half months since the last time Leo and he were in the same room together. It would be so easy to just throw a coin and call, but.

 

Every time Jason thought about it, he chickened out.

 

Another rapt of knocks hit the other side of his door, and Jason jumped.

 

Knock Knock Knock.

 

Wow. Jason rolled his eyes. Son of Jupiter, Slayer of Krios—and greatest, Fatal Flaw: company.

 

The Gods could only hope that it wasn’t Stephen the Senile Satyr wanting him to spread manure on an imaginary field in the middle of Los Angeles. Again.

 

“Come in,” Jason said tiresomely. From the corner of his eyes, he saw the glimmer of the drachma coins and promptly shoved them aside.

 

The door opened slowly with a quiet creak, and Nico di Angelo stood there, hands stuffed in his aviator’s jacket and the flesh of his cheeks catching sunlight.

 

Wait a minute.

 

Jason squinted. Nico di Angelo. Aviator’s jacket, pale-but-not-undernourished face, sharp shoulders, droopy, tired eyes.

 

In his apartment again.

 

“Am I dreaming?” Jason murmured under his breath. Overhead, sunlight beamed brightly, like Apollo had brushed his teeth with Crest Extra Whitening today and felt the need to share it with the world.

 

The Nico-figure at the other end of his room snorted—quiet and deep, and an eyebrow raised in the air, flattening the pretty sunbeams just a little. “What kind of dreams are you having?”

 

Not very good ones. Jason ignored the voice in his head and gave Nico another once-over. “You’re here.”

 

“I am.”

 

“Because…?” He’d rather not tempt the Fates with the idea of Nico leaving again, but years of quests and training made him numb to the RISE AND SHINE of the morning sun. Jason was pretty sure he could sleep through the next war if it happened soon.

 

Nico’s nose wrinkled cutely, his eyes flickering with the slightest bit of disdain as they rolled. His hair shook with him at the smallest jerk of his head and lips curled into a grimace. “Stephen the Satyr was worried that you got eaten.”

 

“Why?”

 

A dark eyebrow arched in the air, accenting Nico’s facial expression of, Really? He gestured in the direction of DOA Recording Studios.

 

“Oh,” Jason said dumbly. He scratched head and heard the soft crackles of static electricity in his hair. “I’m fine. Kind of staying under the radar so I don’t have to go tractor tipping with him.”

 

“You’d be amazed how easy it is to find a tractor in Los Angeles,” Nico mused under his breath. His eyes took the sight of Jason in—once again dressed in nothing but his boxers, and hair that was radiating with electricity. Then—Nico squinted. “You don’t have a bed?”

 

“It was a water bed. Complimentary or something.” Jason rotated the knots out of his shoulders and touched his hair again. He shivered at the thought of what’d happened afterward. “Apparently a water nymph got stuck inside of it. Should have realized that the squeaky sounds coming out of the mattress were actually giggles. And then—of course there’s the angry Cyclops boyfriend that thinks you’ve been feeling up his girlfriend for the past week.”

 

“Guess I don’t need to ask about your broken window then,” Nico remarked.

 

The said window was above Jason’s head and completely shattered. Stuck to the ceiling were various horn-shaped projectiles and a rock that looked like Marilyn Munroe. “I like the breeze.”

 

Silence.

 

Nico snorted, and something tingled in his gaze. Mirth.

 

Jason couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

 

He’d seen the tender way that Nico would talk to Hazel, taking in what he could as a big brother. After she controlled the Mist for the first time and passed out, he took turns watching her with Frank, stroking her hair and making sure she was okay. He’d seen Nico’s rueful smiles and the miser that lurked beneath him every time Percy’s name had been mentioned—even if at the time Jason had no idea why. And he’d seen that face—the one that was stricken with tears in a dark cave when his biggest secret was let out, and then anger. Ferocity.

 

However here they were, with a single sound that left Nico’s lips that made Jason think was the most incredible thing in the world.

 

“You were there that day, weren’t you?” Jason asked. His eyes narrowed at Nico’s back as the other boy waltzed up to the broken window for observation. The other teen looked over his shoulder, ghosting the sunlight with his complexion. “When I went up to Malibu.”

 

Nico arched an eyebrow. He stretched the word flatly.  “Malibu.”

 

“I didn’t get to thank you for the apples,” Jason said. “They were juicy. You could have handed them to me yourself, you know.”

 

Malibu,” Nico said again, testing it on his tongue. “What does that have to do with anything?”

 

“You were there. In the shadows when I was talking to Piper,” the blond repeated. His eyebrows furrowed as Nico’s eyes glazed over, uncomprehending. “You heard what I said.”

 

“What did you say to McLean?” Nico’s tone dropped from a quiet murmur to a tight demand. His shoulders stiffened and his entire face scrunched into a glare at the boy in front of him. A rush of cold air blew through Jason, numb like death. The Son of Hades seethed, anger in his eyes. “What did you tell her?”

 

Okay. Ormaybe he wasn’t there.

 

“I told her that I was looking for you,” Jason responded instinctively. He watched as Nico’s cheeks flushed with anger and refused the impulse to reach for the knife under his pillow.

 

In an instant, Nico’s expression shifted—still wary, but looking more confused than enraged.

 

“I don’t go around and tell my friends’ secrets, Nico. I’d never do that.” The blond kept his voice calm, his hands placed firmly on each knee. He almost wished he had Piper’s talent to mediate, instead of saying all of the wrong words for Nico. “I swear—I swear on the River Styx that I will never tell your secret, Nico, unless I have your permission.”

 

The stiffness in Nico’s shoulders loosened, and his breathing steadied.

 

“I don’t do that,” Jason reiterated. “Okay?”

 

Finally, Nico’s shoulders relaxed. His eyebrows knitted together, rigid, and he looked up to Jason like he didn’t know what to do next—other than a grouchy, I’m still mad at you frown. The last time Jason riled him up like this, Nico had fled.

 

So…what was keeping him from doing this now?

 

“Why are you still in the area?” Nico asked finally. His voice deteriorated into a tiny sound, shriveled, and his gaze narrowed.

 

“Why did you bring me apples?”

 

“I asked first.”

 

The elder teen stared at the other for a moment, taking in Nico’s sneer. He was distrustful—and Jason blamed himself for tripping over his own words again. “I…didn’t know where else to go.” He rubbed the back of his neck and pulled himself to his feet—noting the quiet step Nico took back, if only to distance them. “I mean…it’s no guarantee that you’d even come back. But I don’t know where I could track you down if I left.”

 

It was taking everything for Nico to wrap his head around what Jason had just said. His eyes shrouded over with an unreadable expression, face scrunching into a demeanor, torn between the stoic mask Nico di Angelo wielded at their first encounter—and the dents that made Nico more than human. His gaze jerked, searching for the shadows to cower in about the room. Finally, “Why?” Why are you doing this? Why are you still looking? Why didn’t you quit?

 

“Because I’m your friend,” Jason responded without missing a beat. “You go around from place-to-place because you can’t find a home. I want you to know that that’s not the case with me. You can always find me if you need to talk about something.”

 

“Bullshit.”

 

“You think I’d spend two and a half months next to the gate to the Underworld if I didn’t think I had the chance to see you?” Jason’s tone mixed with quiet humor. He extended a hand, waiting for Nico’s reaction, and straightened his back. “I’m your friend.”

 

Jason supposed neither one of them knew what to expect next. Nico’s cheeks flushed with sanguine, bloody red as the apples that he’d eaten on the first day. His lips remained tightly locked together in a straight line, gaze wary as it inspected the blonde’s hand. “I told you that you’re making a mistake.”

 

“I don’t see it like that.” Shaking his head, the elder teen placed his other hand at the back of his neck. “You know that if you run away, I’m just going to hunt you down again.”

 

“You just said—”

 

“I know. I realized that I really want to be friends with you, but we never sat down and got to know each other on the Argo II, or share drinks and bond over camaraderie and all of that stuff. I don’t really know you,” Jason admitted. “But that’s what getting to know someone is for. Just—Gods, Nico, just can it, humor me a little, and shake my hand. Please.

 

Gods was Nico stubborn. He reached up, a pale white, ghostly hand rising in mid-air before he faltered.

 

Jason refused the urge to groan. This was just a way to test his patience. “Let me prove to you that I can be what you want me to be.”

 

The hesitation never left the Son of Hades’ eyes. They stood apart from each other like they were sealing a deal to a binding contract. And—if that was what it took, Jason was sure he was willing to do it.

 

Unfortunately, the younger teen shoved his hand back into the pocket of his aviator’s jacket. He straightened his back, standing taller than he did before, and looked up beneath tufts of unruly dark hair. A chill ran up Jason’s spine, and he shuddered, as Nico di Angelo looked up straight in the eye.

 

The glimmer of the mad genius remained in his darkened orbs, with a speck of rueful mirth that wanted Jason to regret what he’d just said. Still, it was the mirth that got him—humoring Jason’s words, but still consuming the thought anyway. It was an unspoken gesture of a challenge.

 

“Prove it,” Nico said.

 

Good.

 

“The rooftop, fifteen minutes. Bring your sword,” Jason said. He noted Nico’s arched eyebrow and continued, “I want to spar with you.” And maybe put some pants on, he said to himself with a roll of his eyes.

 

Nico snorted. Sure enough, through their entire exchange, Jason could see the tip of Nico’s sheath peeping from beneath the jacket. He took a step back, swinging his legs until the edge of his shoe met the visible shadow of the broken window.

 

Before he could disappear, Jason snatched the boy by his arm. “Fifteen minutes,” he repeated again. “Please be there.”

 

They exchanged one more look—and like the first time, Nico disappeared.

 

-x-

 

Know the soldier, and know your team. It was the motto that kept Jason’s head high back in his days in the Twelfth Legion. He had the advantage of knowing most of the people he’d grown up with in the Fifth Cohort, either as big brothers and sisters or as comrades before he became praetor. New recruits, however, he remembered were always tricky. They were either shy, cocky, or numb from the training with Lupa.

 

But as a soldier and a comrade, it was the quickest way to deduce the other person’s strengths and weaknesses, and their personalities. He’d done this with Reyna on various occasions when she first came to camp—Jason remembered that well. She never smiled. She kept every compliment tight to her heart, pierced her enemy with her eyes, and move with perfect form like she was one of the roman soldiers in a text book.

 

Battle styles were easy to read among his friends, too. Percy was fluid like the ocean, swinging Riptide in openings he could find. His actual strikes were like high tides slamming into rocky cliffs on shore—and he always had a smartass comment at the tip of his tongue, whether or not they were on the battlefield. Annabeth spent a lot of time fighting with her celestial bronze knife (along with her new sword made out of a drakon’s bone—she kept that as memorabilia, apparently, in Reyna’s office in new Rome.)

 

Once the war was done, Leo and she constructed a new dagger—one that just like the original, she used like an extension of her right arm. Frank preferred long-rang with his arrows, but with a spear in hand, he handled brute force the same way Clarisse did. Hazel relied on speed and force, which she gained with the help of Arion. The speed, she relayed to Piper as she taught his ex-girlfriend—and Pipes used a combination of charmspeak and her dagger, Katoptris, when her enemies were stunned. She didn’t like fighting, Jason knew. But hell hath no fury, when she had no choice.

 

As for Leo, Jason thought of him as a backup generator. Leo had options. One of the rare times that they sparred, Leo was hastily able to dodge most of Jason’s blows and tinker with his tool belt. And when that didn’t work—Leo used fire. In between each blow and bolts and nuts, Leo always added a cheesy or snarky comment.

 

(Ultimately, Jason loss—but at the time he didn’t mind it if that meant Leo was grinning from ear-to-ear.)

 

For Nico, Jason knew the other teen had better control over his abilities than any of them on the Argo II. Jason himself spent nine months recovering his memories and figuring out what his body was capable of. With Percy’s combined effort they were able to create an incredible storm—but it left them vulnerable and exhausted for a fairly long time. Nico wasn’t too far up there in exerting energy—but he did it plenty better than Jason ever could.

 

(He entertained the thought of spending a few months training in the sky, but Jason doubted his efforts would go noticed by Jupiter.)

 

If Nico was bent on refusing every proposal of Jason’s, then Jason would simply go after the other boy full force. Besides. A good swordfight would most likely do wonders for the both of them.

 

Thus, fifteen minutes after Jason brushed his teeth and put pants on, he flew out the window and landed on the rooftop six stories up. Examining the bare area (some TV satellites, a few beer bottles and a weird balloon animal in the shape of a wiener dog), he found Nico beneath the only square of shadows behind sunlight.

 

The younger boy had taken his jacket off, laying it gingerly on the ground next to him. Whenever he did that, the muscles Jason found always surprised him. Nico wasn’t anywhere near as big as Frank—or Percy, or Jason himself. He had lean muscle that clung to his bones, and sharp, bony shoulders that would widen with age.

 

The guy was only fourteen, but he stood at the same height as Leo—and no doubt, would probably grow taller, too. Swinging over his back was his sword, and the cluster of skull rings adorned his fingers remained pale—sucking out the sunlight as it drifted in his direction.

 

Nico’s eyes watched as Jason touched the ground. His lips pressed together and he stood flat on his feet. “You’re wearing pants.”

 

“Figured you were tired of seeing my boxers,” Jason quipped.

 

“I’ll miss the ducks.” A wry frown curled across Nico’s exhausted face and he took one step forward—yet still, remained in the shadows. He looked up to the sky, squinting like he was in pain and asked, “You felt the need to give yourself an advantage?”

 

 Jason shrugged as he came closer to the other boy. His hand fell to the gladius around his belt and gaze narrowed to Nico’s small square of shadows. “Besides. You have the most control out of anyone that I know. Giving you that plank means I might already be screwed.”

 

“You have that much faith in my powers?”

 

“I do.” Jason took in the sight of the stygian iron sword. It was three feet long, dark as the night, and seemed to suck the light out of everything as they spoke. Just looking at it brought chills through him. The sixteen-year-old could barely imagine actually wielding it. “This is an exercise that I started when I first became praetor. Sparring with your weapon of choice. You find out a lot about your new comrade when they’re backed against a wall.”

 

“Huh,” Nico said halfheartedly. With his hands out of his pockets, Jason could see the gloves Nico wore beneath his assortment of rings. Maybe they were there to keep his soul from getting absorbed into the sword. That being said, he went to touch the hilt of his blade over his shoulder and took Jason in thoughtfully.

 

Instantly, Jason responded, “I’m not going to kill you or anything. Don’t worry, I’ll go easy on you.”

 

“Is that so?”

 

“Yeah.” Jason unsheathed his gladius and caught the glow of sunlight against the imperial gold. “You ready?”

 

“As ready as I’ll ever be to take on the legendary Jason Grace,” Nico replied. (Which was exactly what Jason meant—he now knew Nico’s sense of humor involved mocking everything he said. Which. Uh. Wasn’t a far stretch from their norm anyway.)

 

“Set. Go.”

 

They circled each other, with Nico finally stepping out of the shadows. He almost looked like a different person with the light against his skin—but his tight-lipped expression remained. Silence. Jason’s pulse beat in his ears, and they both waited for the other to make the first move.

 

“I know you think it’s a stupid exercise,” he said after a minute of their guardedness. “But at least this way you can let out some anger you have against me.”

 

“While you go easy on me,” Nico continued for him, his expression warranted. “And all of this is supposed to let you get a better grip of what kind of fighter I am.”

 

“And what kind of person you are,” the blonde reminded him.

 

“You’re stupid.”

 

Maybe so. Jason shrugged. “What’s your favorite color?”

 

Nico gave him a look, like the elder teen was the stupidest person in the world, with a disbelieving ‘Really?’ behind them.

 

“Mine’s orange,” the elder teen said.

 

“Black,” he responded. Then he charged for a first strike.

 

The sword in Nico’s hand extended with the full intention of delivering a blow to Jason’s shoulder. Jason raised his gladius to counter—and then, Nico disappeared.

 

In the blink of an eye, Nico’s shoes touched the edge of the blonde’s shadow and he disappeared into a silhouette. Jason saw his shadow move beneath him—and the next thing he knew, there was a blade at his side. An ankle looped around his own, and he fell to the ground, head slamming against concrete.

 

Wow, was Jason stupid.

 

He suddenly had a flashback to Kansas when Percy and he were possessed by eidolons and fought each other. They spent a good amount of time as new bros, but also as rivals, egging the other on since they were both “leaders” of camp.  While Jason was concerned that he could have killed Percy, Percy had no trouble stating he could do the same. It wasn’t often that you actually met someone that could challenge you. In Greek terms, they were two of the Big Three: Poseidon, Zeus, and—well, Hades.

 

Jason was really, really stupid.

 

“So you like to use speed,” he speculated, orbs  aimed at the sky. In the corner of his eye, he could see the point of the dark sword—and Nico’s silently expressive smirk.

 

“Thanks for going easy on me,” Nico said.

 

Wow.

 

To his surprise, the next unpredictable move of the Agile Nico di Angelo involved an extended free hand to help Jason up. The change was apparent, apart from twenty minutes ago when Jason declared he was Nico’s friend downstairs. The younger boy was satisfied with the thought of one-upping him.

 

“I was right,” Jason said as he stood to his feet again. The grip between their hands didn’t last long—as soon as Jason was on the soles of his shoes, Nico let go. The sword in his hand tapped the ground, as though they were raising shadows. “You have incredible control over your powers, Nico.”

 

Nico grunted. They both knew Jason made his mistake when the words, I’ll go easy on you, came out of his mouth. But—“You’re right,” he said flatly. “Pounding you to the ground did make me feel better.” The corner of his lip curled into a smirk, with the gleam of the madman in his eyes.

 

“Can you do it again?”

 

“Is that a challenge, Grace?”

 

Oh, Jason lived for challenges. “Best two out of three. You knock me down again and you can tell Hazel that you kicked my ass.”

 

Albeit, he rarely swore—the word leaving his mouth caused one of Nico’s eyebrows to rise in the air. Jason realized he had a strange reputation for being a goody two-shoes. Regardless, the smirk across Nico’s face twisted to the other cheek. “Deal.”

 

Round Two lasted longer than round one. Jason now knew better than to take everything Nico did at face value (which he should have known in the first place, he chastised himself for later), and took in Nico’s battle style eventually. Stances he took reminded Jason of Hazel and her spatha—which made sense, given that the two children of Hades/Pluto often trained together. They both had speed—but Nico was definitely a master at feinting.

 

Twice Jason nearly slipped as he dodged the wrong blows. For someone who hated physical contact, Nico knew how to work his legs and twist around Jason like snake. He was more agile than Leo—with quicker reflexes, no doubt. Nico used his height as an advantage.

 

As for everything else—Jason took in as well. Nico’s eyes were everywhere during their battle, taking in shadows and the arena around him. When he made a blow, a ghost of a grin would twist across his face—clearly invested in their fight. He was enjoying every bit of it. Jason doubted Nico’d ever had a friendly spar with someone. Percy was the next closest person to him—and that was like saying Jason was close to the brick that’d knocked him over the head at the start of the Roman-Greek Civil War.

 

Nico knew how to read bodies better than anyone else Jason fought with. During his spars with Percy or even Annabeth, they described Jason like the winds: flexible and wispy, but the force of his sword was like a storm slapping someone in the face.

 

Nothing compared to a spar like this.

 

Because—

 

ZZZZTTTT

 

the only person—aside from monsters—Jason ever came close to electrocuting was Percy. Until now.

 

“Nico!”

 

Everything else was a catalyst of events. Nico had charged right, then feinted left, and Jason’s first instinct meant jabbing his palm into Nico’s chest and letting sparks fly.

 

The younger teen’s entire body convulsed, his pupils shrinking to pen points and eyes widening to the size of two celestial bronze shields. He toppled backwards over his leg, sword dropping with a deafening CLANG on the ground.

 

Instantly, Jason chased after him, his trembling fingers going to Nico’s neck to check for a pulse. The younger teen’s shoulders and chest expanded in a hurried rhythm, mouth inhaling whatever oxygen he could.

 

“I am so sorry,” Jason rushed. Despite everything, he gripped Nico by the shoulders and looked into the younger teen’s eyes. “Are you okay? I—it was reflex, I didn’t mean to—”

 

“So it’s a tie,” the younger boy cut off. He sucked in a deep breath of fresh air and curled his hands against Jason’s shoulders. His fingers shook, trying to get a better grip. “Powers are allowed now?”

 

Pause. “Are you…sure you’re okay?”

 

To Jason’s complete and utter surprise, Nico’s gaze once more glazed over with his dry, ‘Really?’ look. “You’re forgetting that I’ve had you on your ass this entire round.”

 

“But—”

 

“Glad to know that you’re completely shocked at the fact you were able to land a hit.”

 

“But, Nico—”

 

“Grace.” The Son of Hades pushed Jason’s hands off of him with less ferocity than Jason expected. A shadow tendril wrapped around Nico’s sword and swam toward its master (a long one—Jason realized. They’d been fighting for what felt like hours.) Both of them were a little bruised, but nothing too damaging. “Do I need to do a dance for you so you know I’m okay?”

 

Now that they were stopped, Jason could feel an ache in his side. Nico was right—that thrust was the first big blow Jason had landed since their match started.

 

“You know how to dance?”

 

“It’s called sarcasm.”

 

“I know you know how to do that.” Jason’s heartbeat slowed, now that he knew Nico was in better condition. He didn’t realize it’d sped up.

 

The curl of a smirk etched across Nico’s face, piercing black eyes looking up to meet Jason’s gaze. Beneath him, the shadows coiled around his feet like a living entity, reminding Jason vaguely of Jack Skeleton’s bony arms. He wondered if being in the shadows had the same healing effect as being in the water did for Percy. If anything, it held the gusto of home and comfort—just like being in the air was a second nature to Jason.

 

On instinct he reached out to touch Nico once more—and curled his hands, knowing they’d only be batted away. Touch wasn’t a privilege that he’d earned from Nico yet. The rigid look the younger boy suddenly gave him stopped Jason in his tracks—he’d been lucky before.

 

“I think I know you better,” Jason muttered under his breath.

 

“Likewise,” Nico murmured. Nothing else. He examined Jason—from the standard crop cut of a legionnaire that’d grown out a few inches since moving to Los Angeles, to the hands that’d dug into Nico like claws, down to Jason’s legs. The last one, Jason had no idea why.

 

There’d been no tension toward the end of the last round; nothing related to anger that motivated their blows. The beginning of their second round held harsher attacks Nico made—probably everything he’d wanted to do to Jason since their moment in the cave. Since then, Jason saw a side of Nico that was rarely expressed—not as freely as this.

 

“We should get something to eat after this,” Jason proposed. “I’m starving.”

 

He didn’t get a response—just Nico’s eyes on him. The younger boy turned his entire body, finger curling into a quiet C.

 

Right.

 

“One more round, di Angelo.” A grin split across Jason’s face—he wondered just why he was grinning ear-to-ear. “No holding back.”

 

“I won’t go easy on you then.”

 

If possible, Jason’s smile widened. They stood apart from each other with orange light fluttering behind them. With the pulse beating in the blonde’s ears, he charged forward to Nico—who melted into the ground.

 

What the—

 

“Grace!”

 

Before Jason knew it, he’d tripped over the ledge of the apartment building and went freefalling. He maneuvered his body, pushing the winds beneath him, and flew high into the sky.

 

Nico’s small face looked up to him, eyes wide and jaw unhinged.

 

A giddy grin spread across Jason’s lips. He blew a tuft of air—a quick gust that pushed the younger boy back. “Ready when you are, di Angelo!”

 

-x-

 

“You never told me why you brought the apples.”

 

Later, after the sun set behind the landscape of the city, they went out for pizza at a small restaurant-café two blocks from Jason’s apartment. Nico donned his aviator’s jacket, muscles once more hidden beneath the coat after Los Angeles chilled for the night. It was no Christmas in New York—nor would it ever get that cold in LA for it to matter, but it was obvious that the jacket had a lot of meaning to it. After their last round, Jason opted for food—and was pleased, that Nico agreed. (It was more like Jason asking, and Nico making a face before lowering his head an inch.)

 

Nico pulled apart a cheese stick and watched the mozzarella stretch and dribble in between. His gaze rose to meet Jason’s face—once again sporting the look that Jason assumed was meant just for him. “Why does it matter to you?”

 

Shrug. Reaching to their centerpiece, Jason pulled out another cheese stick and sprinkled parmesan on it. Not once did he lose eye contact with the other boy. “I like to know who leaves me fruit baskets in the middle of the night. It’s kind of my thing.”

 

The edge of Nico’s lips curled into a smirk. The context was different from what Jason had seen hours ago—with eyes that examined him all the same. Somewhere in the years since becoming a demigod, he’d mastered reading bodies too well. The hint of a smile faded away following Jason’s second onceover—serious, but not angry. “Los Angeles is a dangerous place for a demigod to be, Grace. For anyone. The entrance to the Underworld itself can latch onto your soul and drive mortals insane. Or worse.”

 

“Explains a lot about celebrities,” Jason muttered under his breath. He filled his mouth with bits of cheese as Nico scoffed. “Maybe that’s what happened to my mother.” 

 

The rhythm of their conversation hiccupped. As Jason looked up, he was met by Nico’s thoughtful gaze. “I thought you didn’t remember your mother.”

 

“I don’t. Not personally.” The blonde pushed the rest of his cheese stick into his mouth and leaned back in his seat. Flashbacks of what Thalia said about their mother returned to the forefront of his mind and he shrugged. “I’ve never even seen a picture of her. But Thalia told me she was a popular star in the 80s. She thought she was better than everyone else because she attracted the King of the Gods. Not once, but twice.”

 

He explained the story as best he could—how after his mother had given him away, Thalia called the police on her and eventually ran away, fed up with their mother’s antics. Then—the fact that she latched onto alcohol and died in a drunken accident two years before Thalia turned back into a human.

 

Eventually, Nico made a noise—some disgruntled sound as he wrinkled his nose and raised his eyes to take in the Son of Jupiter. “Do you feel the need to tell everyone about your personal life?”

 

Shrug. “Only the people I think have the right to know.”

 

“And how do I fit in the scheme of things?”

 

“You’re my friend.  And if I’m your friend, then it’d help if you knew some things about me.” As a second thought, Jason added, “And yes, you’re one of the few that actually know. Piper and Leo know because they were there. Annabeth knows, but Thalia was the one to tell her. I’m telling you because I trust you.”

 

“Gods, you’re a chatterbox,” Nico muttered under his breath. He fell silent, with a thoughtful expression across his face.

 

Not that Jason could blame him—it was a lot to take in when you were spilling your guts out to someone else. He never considered himself an open person, even before his memories were lost. Most of the days before coming to Camp Halfblood found Jason living in his head. There weren’t very many people who could relate to you when your father was King of the Gods.

 

Being a little Greek and finding his sister had changed that part of him. Not to mention being with Leo and Piper—then Percy, Hazel, Frank, Annabeth—and now, Nico, who understood what it was like to be the descendent of a powerful god and have no one relate to you. Not like they could to each other.

 

“So about the apples,” Jason said suddenly, remembering that’d been the center of their conversation.

 

The lull ceased. Nico snapped out of his trance, cocking his head to meet Jason’s curiosity—before rolling his eyes. “You’ve got guts, Grace. Either that or you’re incredibly lucky to be able to stay here so long unscathed. I’ve. Kept tabs on you since moving in.”

 

Wait, wait, wait. “You’ve kept tabs on me?”

 

“Someone has to.” This time, the younger boy glared, diminishing any surprise or shock Jason had and shrinking it. “Anyway, the ghosts have told me things. You exhaust yourself carrying out these duties for the magical creatures and take ill care of yourself.”

 

Jason took ill care of himself? Jeez—

 

“I was on the Argo II with you, Jason Grace. Despite your feats, you’re no Superman.”

 

Jason froze.

 

“The Fatal Flaw of Children of Zeus and Jupiter is Power, like Zeus’s power struggle with his brothers. Yours is somewhere along those lines,” Nico continued. “You think that just because he’s your father, you you’re some superhero that can fix all problems. But it’s the mortal half of you that supposedly keeps you grounded, so-to-speak. The apples were so you’d have something to eat, other than a few frozen dinners here and there.” He paused for a moment, his shoe kicking at concrete. “They aren’t much. But they were the easiest to buy, and you could eat them on the go—”

 

“They were delicious,” Jason interrupted. He watched as Nico’s face shriveled into something, as though the younger boy couldn’t figure out what demeanor he wanted to express. “You’re telling me that you put those apples outside my door because you’re a nice person?”

 

Pause. Eyebrow raise. Jason really needed to figure out what to call that look.

 

“Right—sorry.” He pressed a hand to his face, knowing everything he’d just said was utterly stupid. Pinching the bridge of his nose, Jason let Nico’s observations soak in. “I didn’t mean it that way. I’m just—”

 

“Thanks,” Nico said.

 

Um. “What?”

 

The Son of Hades’ made another face, clearly not expecting his own interjection. His eyebrows knit together, cheeks flushing red in embarrassment at the sudden outburst. Biting the inside of his mouth, Nico slouched in his chair and stuffed his hands in his pockets. After a moment, he spoke again. “Thank you. For what you did today. For what you’ve been doing. The thing about me…my secret. I…I’ve never accepted it, but—”

 

“Nico, with or without that secret, if I knew you were hurting than I would have come to you a long time ago.” Jason reached out to touch the boy on the shoulder—and then stopped. Eyebrows furrowing sheepishly, he shrugged. “It’s just who I am. I hate seeing people suffer. And—I’ve seen the way you look at Hazel. I—didn’t mean that ‘nice’ comment. I know you are. You’re just a little…a lot misunderstood.”

 

The younger demigod bit the inside of his mouth, dark orbs suddenly falling to his plate. He flushed once more, with the sanguine ripe in his cheeks. It wouldn’t occur to Jason until much later that this was it—this was Nico trying. Trusting. Instead, Jason ran Nico’s observations through his head again.

 

“You’re right.” Gods, was Nico right. “Sometimes I’m afraid even with all the power that I have, that I won’t be happy until I get more. You’d think that saving nymphs and mythical creatures would be enough, but…” He trailed off, unsure how to finish his sentence. Jason fiddled with his belt loop, his eyes falling to the ground.

 

Silence.

 

“Sometimes we’re so busy being godly that we’ve got to find the right people to remind us we’re human, too.” Piper. Leo. Thalia. For Nico, it was Hazel.

 

Funny that of all places to remind them, Jason chose a mortal restaurant that was currently in the process of whipping up their pizza. Looking around the terrace, there were plenty of kids in their age range—some with textbooks, others with their phones out and talking in fast-paced voices. They had no idea how easy they had it.

 

“I’ve had you pegged wrong, di Angelo. Not even that. I just—I didn’t try.” Jason looked up again, catching Nico’s startled gaze. He attempted a tired smile and ran a hand through his hair. “You’ve got amazing control over your powers. I’m jealous.”

 

“I…thank you.”

 

“Can you teach me?”

 

Evidently Nico’s ‘really?’ face also came in handy as a, ‘you’re crazy’ face. A flicker in the younger teen’s gaze let Jason know that Nico was running the scenarios through his head before he finally answered, “What I learned, I don’t think I can teach you. Literally.”

 

No—Jason knew that. He also knew that in their last around when they exchanged blows that they were both exerting the equal amount of energy. Despite Jason’s own endurance, it was enough of a struggle that made his body want to rest, rather than go out for a meal. Still.

 

“I was never trained by a descendant of Jupiter in New Rome. If there were any, I wouldn’t know. There are too many territories in the sky for me to actually train.” Jupiter had a wide domain—and along that, there were too many territories and deities that Jason would offend in the process of controlling his own powers. That was where he was jealous. Nico had the Underworld at his fingertips and Percy had the ocean. The Gorgon’s blood that he consumed, especially, made it easier for Percy to remember everything more easily. Jason, on the other hand, was still fuzzy on his details. “I want to train with you.”

 

“You’re insane.”

 

“I want to spend more time with you,” Jason corrected. He crossed his arms, pulse beating again in his chest. “There’s a difference.”

 

Despite everything, Nico caved into himself with his hands stuffed in his pockets. He touched his shoulders to his ears, hair falling in his eyes, and blew the bangs out of his gaze before giving the elder teen another wry look. “I don’t see it.”

 

Neither one mentioned that it wasn’t exactly a ‘no.’

 

-x-

 

The next few weeks were spent together. If someone told Jason earlier that he would be able to carry a full conversation with Nico di Angelo, he almost wouldn’t believe it. Most of what they discussed were the habits of demigods and tactics that were common between each child. As Nico had pointed out, Jason had major mastery over his powers as a Son of Jupiter—anything that Jason wanted, Nico couldn’t directly teach him.

 

“It’s not that you don’t know the extent of your powers,” the Son of Hades speculated one day. He sat next to Jason on a park bench, sucking the juices out of pomegranate seeds, one-by-one. The area they’d chosen was in a secluded space, covered by enough trees that no one would question where they were. (Jason thought it wiser not to mention it was a common make out place for teenagers when Nico suggested it.) “It’s that you spend so much time in your head, thinking that you don’t let instinct take over.”

 

Jason arched an eyebrow, amused. He took the seeds out of Nico’s hands as they were offered to him and popped one in his mouth. “You think you know how I think.” It wasn’t a question—Jason realized he had a fondness for Nico’s speculation shortly after their first spar with each other.

 

The younger boy snorted. “Seeing as you never shut up about your personal life, I don’t think I have a choice.”

 

“Shoot,” Jason declared. In the matter of three weeks, they’d gone from begrudging allies to comrades to—what Jason hoped Nico agreed—friends. Nico managed to visit him at least four times a week—whatever his motivation being, Jason was flattered to be a part of that decision. He’d spoken to his brethren in New Rome only a handful of times—each time with a request for him to come back. Leo had been pushed to the back of his mind for the time being—and talking to Percy was sporadic.

 

Knowing Nico’s secret and talking to one of his best friends was a struggle. Somehow it felt like a betrayal of Nico’s trust—something that Jason knew he didn’t want to lose. So he welcomed the company of the younger teen and was relieved that he had a friend to share his thoughts with.

 

“You say that you trained in the Wolf House until the age of four, when Lupa deemed you worthy to make the journey to New Rome. Everything you learned at that point was instinct as you trained with the wolves. Informal training that allowed you to tap into the raw, animalistic side of you to survive. After that, you spent time with the Twelfth Legion.” Nico’s gaze narrowed, observing the elder teen carefully before continuing. “Then you got formal training. You know every text book definition to run a roman militia, and it took precedence over your powers because it’s something you can do.”

 

“And?”

 

“Losing your memories was probably the best thing that ever happened to you.” The juices of the pomegranate leaked in Nico palms. He spun the fruit in his hands, letting the seeds collect at the tips of his fingers. “It let you rely on instinct again. You discovered your powers before you discovered your heritage, which made you whole.”

 

Okay. That was where Jason disagreed. “Just because I have a better understanding of my powers doesn’t mean that I turned my back on Camp Jupiter.”

 

“Yet here you are. Neither at Camp Jupiter, nor Camp Halfblood—”

 

“Yeah. To find you.”

 

“—urgh.” To Jason’s surprise, Nico’s face contorted at the hiccup of his own speech. The younger boy’s eyes widened, irises focusing on Jason at the corner of his gaze. He rolled them, refusing to mull over Jason’s words, and halted. He was quiet for a moment, before looking back up to Jason. “Yeah. To…find me.”

 

Had Jason been paying attention, he would have seen the tips of Nico’s ears darken. Instead, he took the flustered Nico in as a whole—knowing that it was unintentional. Jason had no idea how, but Leo’s bluntness had apparently rubbed off on him. And—well, Leo.

                                                  

The more days that passed since that fateful night at Camp Halfblood, the more of a jerk Jason like felt for not contacting his best friend.

 

“You were right, you know,” Jason muttered under his breath.

 

“At which part?”

 

“Power. I mean…” Leaning forward, Jason rested his elbows to his knees and twisted his brain until he could find the most concrete way to describe everything. “Heracles holds a bitter resentment because as a son of Jupiter, he had all of these expectations thrust upon him. He’s right. Thalia changed her fate and devotes herself to Artemis now. She resented our mother and hates our father. I feel like I’m the same way. The thing is—I get what’s expected of me. I became a Praetor, a leader in Jupiter’s name. I have all of these friends, and I still just feel…lonely. Selfish.”

 

“Selfish?”

 

“I got swapped with Percy because I was seen as the camp leader for Camp Jupiter,” Jason said. The corner of his lip rose sheepishly and he tapped against his fingers—suddenly nervous. “I should be happy that I filled out Juno’s prerequisite. But instead after the War, I’ve been spending my time figuring out if that’s really what I wanted. I think I was happy with being at Camp Halfblood because it wasn’t what was expected of me. But that didn’t help either. I don’t know what I want, so I feel…bad, when I can’t be what others want.”

 

“Seems to me that you’ve got high expectations of yourself,” the younger teen said. He made a sound and  slumped against the bench, legs apart. Peering from beneath his long bangs, he took in Jason’s form once more.

 

Jason shrugged. “I’m tired of disappointing people. But I don’t want to be selfish and…not try for them.

 

To his surprise, Nico’s next sound was a breathy chuckle. Cocking his head to the younger teen, he watched as Nico shook with disdain.

 

“What? Hey—I’m spilling my guts out here.”

 

“That’s cowardice, Grace. You’ve given yourself two options here: go along with what is expected of a Child of Jupiter, and go along with what you actually want with yourself.” Shaking his head once more, Nico picked the last of his pomegranate and flung the shell into the nearby trashcan. Three-pointer. His eyes flashed with an unreadable look and he focused in on Jason. “But you’re stuck. You created a third option for yourself by deciding not to go anywhere. Any decision you make on your own will be considered selfish—you’re going to hurt people on your way getting there, and you just need to accept that.”

 

“But—”

 

“No buts. No, ‘I think’-s. You’re not Superman, Jason, your other half is human. If you want to learn how to master your powers with better endurance, then you need to trust in them more than what you learned in New Rome.” Nico stuffed his hands in his pockets and eyed him warily. “You need to trust yourself more and go with your first thought.”

 

For once, Jason didn’t have a response ready for the other boy. In a few short words, Nico’d been able to examine what Jason couldn’t. It was certainly one exquisite way to say, ‘Bullshit.’

 

“It’s,” Nico continued—and he stopped short a breath before looking away. “It’s why Percy left the war the least changed. He never did change. People just realized how powerful he really was. He knows fairly well who he is and never forgot. So few people can be that lucky.” His last sentence tapered off into a whisper, and dark hair fell into his eyes.

 

Suddenly Jason wanted to do nothing more than brush the hair out of Nico’s way. Nico slapped his hand away before he could try.

 

Uh—right. No touching.

 

“Jackson has an awful tendency to rely on dumb luck,” Jason pointed out. He crossed his arms, recalling the story about how Percy had “outsmarted” Phineas in a game of chance.

 

“He can be incredibly stupid,” Nico agreed. “But he pulls through.”

 

Silence. It occurred to Jason that it was the first time that Nico had voluntarily mentioned the Son of Poseidon in their conversation—and so casually, too. He couldn’t help but wonder why. Also—“Did you call me Jason?”

 

Nico made a face. “What.”

 

“You called me Jason,” the blonde reminded him. “When you said that I was in over my head with my decisions—”

 

“Sorry—” Nico pressed the tips of his fingers to his forehead and closed his eyes, as though massaging his temples. “I got caught up—”

 

“You can call me that, you know.” Jason cut him off again, leaning forward to catch a better glimpse of the Son of Hades. This time when he smiled, he couldn’t help the satisfaction bubbling in his stomach. “No point in calling me ‘Grace’ unless you’re sizing me up, right?”

 

Another face to be made, another eyebrow to be raised. Nico put emphasis rolling his eyes theatrically and shook his head. “Jason—”

 

“You said it again.”

 

“Ergh. Grace, this fascination you have with me is stupid enough. Don’t make a show out of something that doesn’t need to be a show.”

 

“Maybe.” Jason bit the inside of his mouth and watched the other boy intently. He thought to reach over and touch Nico’s shoulder—but knew better than to mess with an already-irritated Nico. Still, he couldn’t overcome the satisfaction that came with talking with Nico. Something about having the other teen there always made Jason a little more aware, a little happier. Every discussion they had left Jason more satisfied than the last. “But if we’re going off what you said, then you’re the first selfish decision I’ve made in a long time.”

 

Ergh,” Nico said again. He pinched the bridge of his nose and leaned back to hide his face from the elder teen, like a sign of surrender.

 

At that point, Jason couldn’t help it. He laughed, head raised with the throaty sound leaving his mouth. When was the last time he felt this good?

 

The faintest hint of a smile curled against Nico’s lips, and that made everything all the better.

 

-x-

 

Two more weeks, fourteen more days with untouched drachma sitting in a bowl on the floor next to Jason’s sleeping bag.

 

He touched them half-heartedly with bare hands. They’d become a plentiful pile from duties carried out for the local creatures. Many of them had opened a tab, exclaiming to Jason that whatever he wanted in the future—he got it.

 

Looking up, Jason’s eyes fell to the charm that hung above the window of his room:one of Nico’s skull rings. While it seemed like nothing, it kept a barrier around Jason’s still-intact apartment to keep creatures away. The metal was an alloy found in the Underworld, near Pluto’s domain. The ring radiated with magic aura that would ‘ward off evil spirits.’

 

It wasn’t much, Nico explained to him one day, but it would keep water nymphs from swirling around in Jason’s toilet. That, among other creatures.

 

Callused fingers touched the brim of the bowl full of drachma. Beside it was a prism that’d been gifted to Jason by one Coach Hedge, for “having chutzpah.” What to say…what to say…

 

“You get Hazel’s message?”

 

Jason cocked his head. The Son of Hades stood at the other side of his open door, hands stuffed in his pockets and eyes narrowing straight to the elder boy.

 

“Nico—hi.” Pushing the bowl away from himself, Jason turned to face the other teen and offered a tired smile. He touched the back of his head and leaned back in his seat. “Didn’t hear you come in.” Man, the guy really needed a bell around his neck.

 

Nico’s expression contorted with a mixture of amusement and nonchalance. Somewhere in the past few months, blonde assumed that Nico was just disappointed that popping up on Jason didn’t scare him anymore. “Do you ever?”

 

“Good point.” A flood of relief suddenly drowned Jason’s pulse and he patted the area next to him for Nico to sit. “What’s up?”

 

The other teen looked around the room like he always did. Stepping forward, Nico plopped down across from Jason with his hands still stuffed in his pockets. Something about his expression caused Jason to forget what he was going to do earlier. “You get Hazel’s message?”

 

“What? Yeah.” Nodding carefully, Jason crossed his arms and offered up half a smile. “She’s planning on throwing a Thanksgiving celebration. Reyna offered her approval and arranged for one of the houses in New Rome to be rented out for the seven of us, you, her, and…well, anyone else who wants to go.”

 

“Right.” Nico looked down and bit the inside of his mouth. He wanted to say something, Jason realized. Jason couldn’t read bodies as well as Nico could, but the months they spent hanging out let Jason read the other boy better.

 

“You should go.” The other half of Jason’s smile twisted upward and he watched the other teen carefully. “It’ll be the first holiday you guys get to spend together. This time of year is all about family. Besides—she seemed really excited about making shrimp gumbo. One of us has to go and tell her how delicious it is.”

 

“So you’re not going?”

 

Ah. “Sorry. No.” Shaking his head, Jason’s fingers curled against his bicep. Thanksgiving and Christmas technically weren’t Roman holidays, but there was always a flood of halfbloods each year that were raised by their mortal parents with those celebrations. He already missed the Plebian Games and Epulum Jovis. While he considered the Fifth Cohort family, they all had some sort of siblings who consoled or kept them company. The most memorable Christmas he had was the first year Reyna came to Camp Jupiter, where he kept her company so being lonely was less unbearable. “I’m not really big on the holidays.”

 

Evidently that was one characteristic Nico didn’t expect. He made another face, his lips contorting. Jason could almost make out a flicker of disappointment in his eyes. “Oh.”

 

“But you should still go,” Jason insisted. “She’s your sister, the only family you have left. I want you to have fun.”

 

He had no idea why Nico was upset at the thought of him not going. It was enough for Jason to change his mind, just to appease him—but with everything going on—Piper’s judgment, Percy being there—Jason doubted he would’ve been good company. Still, Nico suddenly looked sick to his stomach.

 

“I think,” the younger teen muttered, looking a little green, “I’m going to tell Hazel that I’m gay.”

 

Pause. “Really?”

 

It was the first time Nico’d used the word since their run-in with Cupid. Since—ever. The word sounded foreign on Nico’s tongue, almost intrusive. Saying it looked like it took a lot more effort than conjuring all of the shadows in the state of California.

 

The younger boy shifted the weight off his feet and stared at the ground. “She’s my sister. She deserves to know. I. I want her to know.”

 

“Do you want me to be there with you—?”

 

“No. Yes. I.” Nico seethed and ducked his head. “I need to be alone with her so I can tell her, otherwise I might chicken out. But.” This time his voice fell completely, his eyes flickering sullenly. Getting the words out right now was already hard enough on him.

 

“But?” Jason stood to his feet and placed himself beside the other boy.

 

Nico was shaking.

 

Gods.

 

“Hey. Hey,” Jason said again. Biting the inside of his mouth, he reached out and gripped both of Nico’s shoulders firmly. He brushed a finger beneath Nico’s jaw line, forcing the younger teen to look up to him. An action like that would have been met with an immediate slap to the arm, but Nico was evidently too distraught to care.

 

Dark eyes looked up to him, their irises filled with the color of stone. For once they weren’t the eyes of a mad genius—but of a very scared young man.

 

“If you’re not ready to tell Hazel, it doesn’t make you any lesser of a man. The fact is that you’re thinking about it and that you want to tell her.” Jason squeezed the boy’s shoulder and he parted his lips into a small smile. “Whatever you do decide, you’re the bravest person that I know, Nico. Okay?”

 

A harsh breath tumbled out of Nico’s lips. He looked down to the ground again, his shoulders shaking from nerves and fear to the point that the shadows of the room were dancing around with them. “I’m going to tell her.”

 

“I’ll be there with you.”

 

“No. I.” Nico grew quiet again and his gaze met Jason’s, cheeks flushed with a mixture of green and red. “If it doesn’t go as planned…I’d like to come here. To you.”

 

Oh. “Are you sure?”

 

To his surprise, an anxious smile spread across Nico’s face. The decision itself had drained Nico far too emotionally, but Jason knew this was the face of someone who wouldn’t back down. A dark eyebrow rose in the air—and the signature look Jason was so used to seeing appeared on Nico’s face. “Where else would I go?”

 

Jason’s heart skipped a beat. It was so…incredible, how much Nico trusted him. Without another thought, he retrieved the small bowl next to his sleeping bag and extended it to the younger boy. “Here.”

 

Looking at them skeptically, Nico’s eyebrows raised beneath his hair. “Why?”

 

“Iris Message me as many times as you need to while you’re there. I want you to be there for Hazel.” Jason’s eyes flickered with concern. “But if it gets to be too much, I’ll fly to New Rome the first chance I have. I swear.”

 

He’d been doing a lot of that lately. All of it was worth it, though. One look at Nico’s demeanor and Jason knew he was making the right decision.

 

Long, meticulous fingers reached and wrapped around a singular coin. Nico’s hand curled around it as though judging the weight of the drachma before he stuffed it in his pockets. From Nico’s eyes, it was clear that the decision still scared him—but he wasn’t shaking anymore.

 

“Thanks,” the younger boy whispered. Looking Jason in the eye, he extended one of his own hands. “Thank you, Jason.”

 

A smile graced Jason’s lips. He shook Nico’s hand without a second thought and gripped it firmly, taking in every bit he could about the younger teen. This entire visit had been about easing Nico’s nerves—and hopefully, he did just that. Still, the younger teen looked ill at ease, like he wanted to talk some more.

 

“We can grab a bite to eat, if you want,” the Son of Jupiter said. “We can talk about it some more if you want.”

 

“Not right now. I have stuff to do.” Shifting uncomfortably from converse-to-converse, Nico’s eyes suddenly fell to the tips of his toes. Stuffing his hands back in his pockets, he shrugged. “How about in an hour?”

 

“Yeah. Sure.” Jason smiled once more and crossed his arms. “I’ll be waiting.”

 

“Right.” The younger boy nodded tensely. He hesitated—before stepping into a shadow and disappearing.

 

Ten minutes later found Jason sitting on his sleeping bag once more, with a spray bottle on one side of him and the prism and bowl of drachma on the other side. He tapped a coin to the floor board, with his heart leaping in his throat.

 

Finally, he took the plunge.

 

If Nico could face his biggest fear, then Jason had no right to be nervous over this. Right.

 

Wrapping his fingers around the squirt bottle, Jason gave the trigger three quick squeezes and tossed the drachma. “Oh Iris, Goddess of the Rainbow, please accept my offering.”

 

The mist remained, a rainbow glittering in the setting sun while the coin disappeared.

 

Biting his lip, Jason forced himself to talk. “Show me Leo Valdez.”

 

The tuft of mist shimmered with an assortment of colors before morphing into the shape of…a room. Jason made out curtained windows, with a pile of dirty clothes on the floor and textbooks on a desk that look like they’d never been touched in their lifetime.

 

Where was Leo?

 

Finally, the scene focused on a lump covered in the bed—

 

Jason?”

 

Percy?” Disbelief soaked Jason’s words and he leaned forward, taking in the sight before him. From the looks of things, Jason had somehow Iris-Messaged Percy’s room.

 

Sleepy sea green eyes watched him, with dark hair that stuck out in cowlicks. Percy rubbed the exhaustion out of his eyes and yawned before stretching. “Hey. Didn’t expect for you to call. What do you need?”

 

“Well.” Jason touched the back of his neck and felt weird. It wasn’t possible for a goddess to be wrong about her job. Was it? “I meant to Iris Message Leo, but I guess…wrong number?”

 

The Son of Poseidon watched him from the other side of the Iris Message with bleary eyes. He scratched his belly and made smacking noises with his mouth like an old man. Clearly, Percy must have been in the middle of a fantastic night’s sleep.

 

Then—out of nowhere, Percy tapped the lump beside him.

 

A head of familiar curls appeared from beneath the blanket, and Jason’s heart stuttered. Leo.

 

For a moment, the pair was lost in their own little world. They exchanged tender looks, muttered quiet words to each other and touched each other gingerly by their shoulders. Not to mention that Percy’d been shirtless.

 

Just. What?

 

“I’ll give you two a minute.” To Jason’s surprise, Percy’s tired eyes turned sour, giving the blond a harsh look. For Nico’s sake, Jason almost did the same thing. They sized each other up without a verbal explanation. Jason had no idea why Percy would suddenly look to him like a nuisance—but he knew very well why he’d give Percy the same look.

 

Finally, with one last meaningful look to Jason’s best friend, Percy tore away from the bed. The quiet click of the door let them know that Percy was gone.

 

“Hey,” Leo said tiredly, drawing Jason out of his thoughts.

 

For the first time in three months, Jason got a good look of his best friend. The wistfulness was almost overbearing as he got a good look at Leo’s face. Everything was the same—the same chocolate brown eyes, the same narrow face, and the same flurry of curls.

 

He had no idea how much he missed Leo. Until now.

 

The quirk in Leo’s lips remained the same—like an X-Acto Knife carving precisely against a wooden board. His eyes simmered with the same embers of mischief—reminding Jason of the same kid on the bright yellow bus to the Grand Canyon.

 

Leo smiled, and Jason couldn’t help but smile back. “Hey.”

 

Chapter Text

 

A symbol of Jupiter.

 

That was Jason’s first thought as he saw the large eagle circling the area with stunning poise. It was nowhere near the size of the giant eagles used in War Games back at camp, yet he knew better than to shrug it off. There was no way a bird like that would be circling Jason at a Subway for forty minutes if it didn’t want him to go somewhere.

 

So, after having lunch with a nervous Nico, wishing him good luck, and seeing the younger teen off (along with picking at his sandwich and knowing he’d be lonely for the next few days), Jason strapped his gladius over his back and threw the second half of his sandwich into the trashcan before taking flight after the bird.

 

As he continued toward it, the bird changed directions and soared north. They flew until they reached the outskirts of Los Angeles, landing on a long road near an elementary school. A frown contorted against his lips. Surveying the area, he found a street sign that looked something like, Aegle Rokc Buoelvard. Ugh—wait. Eagle Rock…something.

 

Okay. More eagles.

 

Sometimes help from the gods was like getting smacked in the face with a big duh. Other times they were so subtle that you wondered if the gods were ever there at all.

 

“Jason!”

 

Jason cocked his head. He heard his name—but didn’t know the voice.

 

The elementary school was small—one story high and spread out into separate buildings that probably indicated grades. The playground was fenced off, with what looked like kindergarteners running around like maniacs on the jungle gym.

 

He saw two kids in particular: a big brother and a little sister. One looked maybe nine or ten, the other four or five—both with the same eyes and same floppy head of curls.

 

The other Jason fell to his knees and scooped the little girl into his arms, despite how big she was. “Did you hurt yourself, sissy?”

 

The little girl trembled and sniffled, immediately burying her face into her elder brother’s shoulder. On instinct, the older brother dug into his back pocket and pulled out a bandaid. They went to a nearby bench—one that was closest to Jason himself, and the boy gingerly set her down.

 

“I fell,” she sniffled.

 

“You did! You klutz!” the younger Jason broke into a near-pompous smirk. Still—he peeled apart the bandaid and older Jason could make out the faintest image of Barbie on the surface. “Here, lemme fix it.”

 

Wow. How many ten-year-old brothers were nice enough to carry Barbie bandaids on hand for their little sisters?

 

As he watched the girl’s face light up, Jason’s fingers fell to the corner of his lip where he had his infamous staple scar. Thalia had told him the story plenty of times—Mom’s personal assistant was babysitting them at her apartment. ‘Ms. Stacy’ called them stupid brats, and left them in the living room while she went to do paperwork. While Thalia and ‘Ms. Stacy’ argued and shouted at each other, Jason had found a stapler—thought it was food—and pressed the cold metal down on his lip. Hard.

 

Apparently, Thalia said with a quiet chuckle, there was a lot of hysteria. It was the only time Thalia and ‘that wench’ got along while they cleaned up the blood. Jason spent the whole night giggling and getting his blood everywhere.

 

“Getting flashbacks?”

 

Now that was a voice that Jason knew.

 

Whirling around, he almost lost his footing when Thalia pounced on him. He lifted her up in a bear hug and laughed. “Thalia! What are you doing here?”

 

“I’m guessing the same reason you were.” Thalia grinned and motioned upward with her hand where the eagle had flown. Her hair had grown longer since the last time they met, with the silver circlet emitting a sheen in her dark spikes. She wore her leather jacket, her signature bracelet that turned into her signature shield, Aegis, and held a quiver filled with silver bows that were no doubt a gift from Artemis.

 

Jason’s heart pumped four beats a second. But despite his excitement, both siblings’ eyes hardened. “We both followed Dad’s symbol. You know what that means.”

 

“The hunters won’t be happy,” Thalia replied. She made a face and stroked her chin thoughtfully, before looking at Jason. “I need your help.”

 

“Name it.”

 

“Someone had the audacity to steal Artemis’s symbol of power. Her bow.” Thalia’s face twisted and her eyes suddenly lit up with anger. “My hunters are suddenly split up all on the western side of the United States trying to find the perp, but no luck so far. We may have tracked them down somewhere near the Rockies, but searching by foot could take days.” She tapped her chin again. “Maybe that’s why I was sent to find you.”

 

“Makes sense. I can make rounds around the mountain area,” Jason agreed. His blood tingled with excitement as Thalia spoke. Despite how angry she was, he couldn’t wait to work with her again.

 

“But what on Gaia are you doing in Cali of all places?” Thalia’s nose wrinkled and she looked up to her brother with confusion. “I thought you said you were planning on staying at Camp Halfblood after the war.”

 

“I did. But. It’s—well, it’s a long story.”

 

“Right. For another time.” Thalia’s demeanor flashed with anger again. “When I find the chump who thought they could get away with stealing my lady’s bow, I’ll…” Her fingers crackled with electricity.

 

“I understand,” Jason said. He grinned. “I’m in.”

 

“Now all we need to do is—”

 

“On it.” Without another word, Jason scooped his sister up by her waist and took flight. Her voice split into the most girly scream he ever heard and she shrieked at the top of her lungs.

 

“Jason,” she shouted, “I’m going to fucking kill you—fuck, fuck, fuck—don’t look away, dammit!

 

A laugh fluttered out of Jason’s lips and he couldn’t help but grin as another round of curses left Thalia’s mouth. Maybe he wouldn’t be lonely for Thanksgiving after all. “Love you too, sis.”

 

-x-

 

The truth was, Jason envied Thalia. He heard the stories from Annabeth, Percy, and Thalia herself, but they never constructed a vivid picture as the one he got when he saw her in action. If Jason had a mastery over the winds, Thalia was powerful with her electricity. She glowed with moonlight in the darkest of caves, radiating with the power of Artemis and as a descendant of Zeus. One glimpse at her eyes said it all—how much she adored being the lieutenant for her lady, and how it was the best thing for her. Well—once they landed.

 

(In between that was another assortment of words that weren’t child-friendly and the occasional charge directed at Jason’s neck. Luckily those weren’t very effective.)

 

The more north they flew, the more Jason regretted that he didn’t bring a jacket. The Hunters begrudgingly lent one to him, adorned in silver and a bountiful amount of hidden pockets that had enough room to store the world’s food supply. Even with the fact he was Thalia’s brother, they gave him snide looks when she wasn’t looking.

 

However—it was clear that they respected her as their superior. The hunters followed Thalia’s instinct without smart remarks and she was open to their input, giving them an affectionate slap on the shoulder and a toothy grin when she liked the idea.

 

The way she acted reminded Jason of Percy. Before Percy and he had ever met, Annabeth had described her ex-boyfriend (back then, current) just the way she described Thalia—and they bickered all the time because of it. Witty, sarcastic. Percy definitely had more seaweed in his head than an actual brain, Annabeth said bitterly one day when she missed him especially, and sometimes Thalia’s pride could make her blind from other, safer alternatives.

 

Last winter, the amnesiac Jason found out the answers to questions he’d been asking himself for fourteen years. Why he was an orphan, what happened to his mother—who brought him to the Wolf House. Why would someone leave him to fend against wolves at the age of two. When Thalia described their mother to him a year ago, he was left feeling unsettled and upset. His father pleaded for their mom to name him Jason, just to appease his wife, and never looked at them again. Their mother was unstable and reckless until she drove herself to her own death.

 

Thalia was able to get away from it. She left her life with their mother behind as the Daughter of Zeus and paved her way now as the lieutenant to Artemis’s Hunters. She was so much more together, while Jason was left to sort out his feelings about his birth to the age of two.

 

Everything else about their mother was locked away beneath Thalia’s silver circlet and memories, where Jason wasn’t allowed access.  And somehow all of those unsaid secrets made her stronger.

 

Jason’s sister was a leader. She was the shining example of one of Zeus’s children, the proud leader of the hunters, and still knew who she was. Even with the white-silver parkas, Jason could see the punk leather jacket sticking out from beneath, along with her tattered black jeans and the words, ‘Shut up or Die’ stitched to her knee.

 

Yeah. Jason was envious. But most of all, he was proud.

 

I just wish we didn’t lose all that time together, he thought to himself as he watched her discuss plans with her hunters on the other side of the fire. A smile remained lax across his lips, watching her animate with a plethora of emotion. He’d felt that same charisma discussing things with Dakota or Reyna at the Forum back at New Rome.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

They’d settled in an open cave in the northern Rockies—somewhere near the United States and Canada border, but not close enough, according to Phoebe. Artemis had apparently gone in search for her brother—neither of them willing to show mercy to the perp. There was no telling what the motive was. And—if they were on the brink of another war, than there’d be plenty pissed off demigods that would want to tell the world to “can it.” (Jason remarked that those sounded like words Percy would say. Thalia snorted and rolled her eyes.)

 

A chill fluttering through the cave reminded Jason how impulsive he’d been agreeing to help Thalia. Guilt kept his heart beating, and the two drachma he had in his pockets suddenly grew heavy. Right about now Nico was probably in the same room as all of the others, watching Hazel’s smile light up the world and squeezing the insides of his jacket to calm his nerves.

 

He wanted so badly to go with the other demigod—but knew Nico was dead set on telling Hazel himself. Hopefully it would go over well.

 

“I remember the first time I met you again was in a cave.”

 

Jason snapped out of his thoughts as Thalia’s voice rushed through his ears. He looked up to her and gratefully took the mug full of hot cocoa from her hands. Around them, hunters started pulling out sleeping bags for the night, lying down row-by-row to share body warmth. The wolves sniffed around them all in search for a comfortable spot before nestling tight to their respective hunter.

 

From the way things looked, Jason would be sleeping nearest to the cave opening along with his sister. “I think you scared the crap out of me that day.”

 

“I tend to do that,” she said with a wry smirk. Plopping down next to him, they clanked mugs and took three big gulps each. Her wolf trekked over, paws clicking into the hard rock of the cave before it settled at their feet.

 

“I was more excited than I was scared,” Jason confessed as his kinda-of older sister smiled again. It was hard to wrap his mind around the idea that he would grow older while Thalia would still look this beautiful in a hundred years. “That entire winter, it was like…I found out that I wasn’t alone in the world. I have a sister and she’s already accomplished so many things, and she’s—she’s amazing.” Putting down his mug, Jason reached over and curled a hand over his sister’s. His gaze flashed with pride and he smiled. “You’re amazing, Thal.”

 

“Thanks.” The edge of her lip curled into a tired smirk and she squeezed back before leaning against him. “You weren’t paying attention during that debriefing. Were you?”

 

“Ergh…no. My mind was on other things. Sorry.” Jason bit the inside of his mouth, suddenly sheepish. “But I got the gist of it. Don’t worry—I won’t let you down.”

 

“I know you won’t,” she replied. “Tell me then, Jace. What were you thinking about?”

 

Too many things.  “Our family, for one thing. You, me, Dad…and Mom.” He watched in the glow of the fire as Thalia’s eyes sparked with a forewarning. “But mostly you and me. Just—how many years we’ve lost because we were on other sides of the continent.”

 

“Ah.” Thalia nodded slowly and closed her eyes. “Trust me. If I could get all of those years back…if it was just you and me, Jace, I’d do it. I would have taken you with me.”

 

“But our mom—”

 

Mom had no right to take you away from me. From us.” Thalia cut him off. “If she had any mercy she would have stepped away from the booze and tried. She would have realized the dangers of having both me and you and understood that we needed to be safe. She would have gotten help.”

 

“What if she did?” Jason protested. He spent a great amount of time laying in his sleeping bag back in LA trying to imagine their mother’s face. Her smile. Something about her that made her seem…human. “What if she tried?”

 

“Then she’d still be alive if it worked.” And maybe I would have hated her less, was the sentence that Thalia left out, with a bitter silence. She set her mug down and sat with a palpable distance between them.

 

For a moment, Jason thought he’d done the stupidest thing of all and angered his sister. Instead, Thalia’s eyes flickered again, less annoyed at their mother and more inquisitive.                                                                                                                                                                                  

 

“So,” she said with a lighter heart, “you going to tell your big sister what you were doing in nasty, smoggy Los Angeles?”

 

Uh.

 

Thalia arched an eyebrow—reminding Jason of every look Nico’d ever given him, but warmer.

 

Thus, with a hesitant heart, Jason explained his situation as carefully as possible. How after the war, it didn’t seem fit to him to stay in New Rome, nor could he settle with being in Long Island again. Nothing made him happy—and it kind of annoyed him how Percy was nonchalant about the whole ordeal. He broke up with Piper (“Uhuh, uhuh. Does she want to join the Hunters?” “I…don’t know?” “Damn.”), how…he hoped being with Leo would make him feel complete (“The Christmas elf?” “You think so too?”), until he finally found something that could actually steady him. Nico.

 

“Why?” Thalia frowned—but to Jason’s satisfaction, it wasn’t like the aghast look Piper had given him two months ago. (They hadn’t kept in touch since then, unfortunately. Piper’s reaction bothered him too much.)

 

“Because no one else cared enough to find him.” Producing a half smile, Jason wasn’t sure how to react. He knew based off of other people that this could go either way. Everyone at the Forum had given him weird looks the first time Jason asked if Nico’d stopped by. Piper was probably still against the idea. If Leo knew, Jason couldn’t guarantee that he wouldn’t go off on the Son of Hephaestus again if he made a snide comment about di Angelo. “The guy goes from both camps to the Underworld on a regular basis, but the only person he actually cares for is Hazel.”

 

“And Bianca,” Thalia said. Suddenly her entire expression morphed, thoughtful.

 

Right. “She was a hunter before you became one, right?”

 

“And died before I became one too,” she muttered—carrying the same sour tone Percy did when Jason asked for backstory at the beginning of the summer. Brushing the hair out of her eyes, Thalia shook her head in dismay and looked to the light of the fire. “Don’t be mistaken, Jace. The di Angelo siblings had a lot of baggage on their shoulders long before Percy, Annabeth, and I met them. The Lotus Hotel, the Great Prophecy…all of it.

 

“Finding out you’re a halfblood and that you can make something of yourself is a strong desire. Bianca became a hunter because she thought Nico finally had a safe place at Camp Halfblood. When she died, she died for him. Percy and I thought it was selfish back then—especially when we went out of our way to bring them to Camp Halfblood and lost Annabeth at the same time—but she loved Nico to bits.

 

“That kid doesn’t have it easy. None of the Big Three do. Percy was the Child of the Prophecy and you and I are the son and daughter of Zeus’s Greek and Roman half. We’re powerful. But if you think about it, no one looks at death and despair and admires its power. They’re too busy cowering in fear. Personally, gods willing, I would have taken him under my wing if he showed me half the affection that he did Percy all those years ago.”

 

“Guh,” was all Jason could say without revealing too much more.

 

From the corner of her gaze, Thalia eyed him and smiled sadly. “Seeing them together reminded me of you. We do have that in common, after all.”

 

It was rare for a god to find a human that interested them—but even rarer, that they would show their face twice to birth a second child. Thalia was right, in that sense. Just thinking about losing Thalia in the way Nico’d lost Bianca made him queasy. Jason could only imagine how Thalia felt when he was given away.

 

“I’m glad one of us has the common sense to take care of him, Jace.” Thalia raised her hand and they fist bumped. “Kudos.”

 

“Thanks.” Jason let out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding. He didn’t know what to expect based off of Thalia’s earlier reaction—but it was definitely better than anything he imagined. “I just…wish I could figure out myself half as well as you did, Thal. You make it look so easy.”

 

Thalia snorted. She gulped down the rest of her drink and set it aside. Her upper lip gleamed with hot cocoa, eyes suddenly clouding over with what looked like…heartbreak. “I was in a tight spot when I made the decision to be a hunter. The boy that I trusted with my life had grown into this…mad and insane thing that wanted to overthrow the gods. He did it because he thought it was what I wanted, but it wasn’t. The prophecy was on my shoulders, and this girl, Zoe…she was the bravest hunter I knew. Maybe I was too emotional when I made the decision to serve at Artemis’s side, but I’ve never regretted it. I can swear on the River Styx on that.”

 

“How did Dad feel?”

 

Another strange look twisted across Thalia’s demeanor and she halfheartedly shrugged. Her smile was a mixture of Percy’s wit and Nico’s calm ire. “He was shocked, but gods can’t directly interfere with their children’s lives. All they can do is grab some popcorn and watch us on Hephaestus TV. Maybe throw us a bone or a sponsor gift if they want us to win. If we’re too afraid to make the decision we want to make, then we’ll look at it like it’s the wrong decision.”

 

That sounded familiar. “Nico said something like that once.”

 

“Yeah? Well, he’s a good kid, despite what satyrs and nymphs get their whitey-tidies in a bunch about.” Thalia elbowed him in the arm, with an amused eyebrow arched in the air. “Jace. I can’t boss you around. But I can tell you that you should do what you want. Figure out how to do that, and I’ll call you a bonehead for it later when you tell me what you want to do in life. That’s what big sisters are for.”

 

“Technically—”

 

“No technicalities. I changed your diapers. That’s a job even Dad can’t handle.”

 

Something inside Jason lifted—as though Atlas no longer had to hold the weight of the sky in his chest. He looked to his sister, mesmerized as she whipped out two sleeping bags. Her wolf whined like a puppy, ready for her comfort, and settled happily on her bag.

 

Every single word she just spoke bristled through his mind with a chill, and suddenly he was on air again.

 

Thalia approved of Nico.

 

“You really are the best sister ever.” Jason couldn’t figure out why he was so…content.  

 

Another smile curled across her lips, looking like a smirk more than anything else, and her eyes twinkled at the compliment as she winked. “Get some rest, Jace. We’ve got a long journey ahead of us.”

 

-x-

 

Oh gods.

 

JASON!!!”

 

Oh, gods.

 

“Jason—no, no—I’ll…I’ll kill you, you are going to wish you didn’t have to deal with me! I’ll KILL YOU.”

 

In retrospect, Jason couldn’t think of a more honorable way to die.

 

His last moments of consciousness recalled the events leading up to getting pierced in the chest by his sister’s spear. They spent three days hiking up and north of the Rockies. Thalia and hunters alike reported nightmares and hearing demonic voices as they made plans about the bow. The longer their journey took, the more anxious and angry everyone got. They settled a dispute between satyrs that lived on the US-Canada border (as they debated about fruit falling in Canada even though the tree grew in the United States) and helped some distraught nymphs that lit the way toward their current whereabouts.

 

Which…were too…f…oggy for Jason to re…member right…now…

 

Laistrygonian Giants.

 

They’d stolen Artemis’s bow while she was asleep, planning to give it to…a new master…(what was his…her…name…?) and they broke out into…war...fare…Thalia had…whipped out her shield, Aegis, and some giants whimpered in fear—but…they stole her sphere. Right…before throwing her off the cliff.

 

Jason acted on…instinct, swerving to catch his fear-stricken sister. He saw the celestial bronze sphere from the corner of his eye, aimed at her head, and turned in time—only to get the sharp thing through his shoulder blade.

 

After that, he had no control of his body.

 

The pain was like getting skinned to the bone by a dull dagger. The point of the spear ripped between the ridges of taut skin, with at least a foot of it penetrating through Jason’s shoulder. He’d maneuvered Thalia so that she took none of the blow—and then they both went free-falling.

 

The back of his head hit a rock hard, with red flashing in his vision. His only thought was: don’t let go of Thalia. She was screaming in his arms—over, and over, his name—and suddenly, something grabbed him. He heard the voice of a goddess, but not the words.

 

Was the battle over? Did they win? Was that Artemis? Was…?

 

“Thalia,” he choked, with his vision going black. Something warm and wet was hitting his forehead, mixing with the crimson in his eyelashes. He was…laying down…now…

 

“We need ambrosia! Every last bit of it! Take the spear out—take it out!

 

“No,” someone said. The calmest of their bunch. “He’ll end up bleeding to death before he could gobble down enough ambrosia.”

 

“And if we don’t take it out, his body is going to heal around it. Or he’ll die. M’lady!”

 

“No,” he whispered. Jason choked—something warm was on the back of his tongue. “Too many…fallen hunters…they need it more than I do.”

 

“Jace—”

 

“Thalia.” Jason’s voice cut through his own daze. He…f-focused…on his sister as much as he could—or the red blob, at least, that he h-hoped was his sister. “S…saved…y…you. Couldn’t think of…a better way to go…think of your hunters. Please.” Think of your comrades.

 

Silence. All Jason could hear was the ringing in his own ears.

 

“My Lady—please, he’s dying. He’s my brother, I can’t—I can’t leave him. He’s all I have—”

 

Thalia,” Jason hissed with the last of his breath. “Think of your hunters, or I’m n-never going to forgive you for—”

 

“He’s not dying yet.”

 

At this point, Jason knew he was losing it. He heard voices, but not words, and felt pressure, yet couldn’t feel touch. He caught one word in the flurry and felt trembling arms around him. Who? Who? What were they saying?

 

Shadowtravel. 

 

“Shut up,” a rough voice said to him—one that tried to sound tough but was obviously cracking. “Stop being an idiot, Jason, I-I swear to god—”

 

Jason didn’t even realize he was talking.

 

He swore, the last voice he heard in his death-stricken delusion, was that of Nico di Ange…

Chapter Text

Nico had nightmares. He couldn’t remember the last time he had a good night’s sleep since Bianca’s death—but he had nightmares. Every night. They only got worse, when things got bad. And when he showed up at the Rockies—things had gotten bad.

 

The Son of Hades never wanted to be a dependent person. He tried not to be, since Bianca’s passing—but knew that it was only a hopeless desire. She was right—holding grudges was the fatal flaw of any Children of Hades. So when Jason Grace extended a hand the second he found out about Nico’s secret, Nico knew another grudge was swelling in his chest—one that hurt him so hard that it made it difficult to breathe. But the difference was, Grace tried a second time—and that was where Nico went from suppressing his grudge to not having it at all.

 

He didn’t want a dependent relationship on Jason—he really didn’t. But Grace was the type of a person who was loyal to his comrades and his words. (He wouldn’t shut up about comrades until the doctors gave him a sedative, Nico thought bitterly.)

 

When it came down to Thanksgiving—this stupid holiday—Nico knew it was time. He wanted to tell Hazel. Needed to. They were close siblings—and telling her meant he trusted Hazel with more than anything. If he had the chance, he would have told Bianca too. (But Bianca knew, Nico decided. She knew every time Nico sought her out.)

 

In the long run, whether Hazel’s reaction was good or bad, Nico entertained the thought of going back to Jason’s shabby apartment and spending the rest of the evening over there. It was the only thing that motivated him—all he needed to do was tell Hazel that he was…that, and then he could go to Jason. Not Camp Halfblood, not Camp Jupiter—not even the Underworld. He wasn’t wandering. He knew where he’d be going.

 

Then the nightmares happened.

 

“I saw him with you,” Nico muttered as an explanation, after the hysteria settled down. The last fifteen hours were absolute torture—from when Nico instinctively shadowtraveled to Jason’s location (he didn’t even have the site in mind—he just thought of Jason. Jason.) and saw him…covered in blood…to shadowtraveling to New Rome’s hospital, ran by several legacies and adults descended from Apollo.

 

The word had gotten out: Jason, Son of Jupiter and ex-praetor to the Twelfth Legion, was injured. Stabbed in the chest literally by his sister’s spear.

 

When that part became clear, Thalia brewed a storm so dangerous that lightning struck campgrounds. Nico’d never been so grateful that Annabeth Chase was there to calm down her best friend—and was annoyed that a strike of lightning missed Octavian by a few inches.

 

Right now, they sat in the waiting room while Jason was to be worked on in the ER. Nico was never comfortable at a hospital. He knew no one wanted death to show up here and ignored the uncomfortable looks he’d received from nurses and attendants alike. He’d be on his way, waiting as far away as possible to avoid the looks—if it weren’t for Thalia grabbing him by the arm.

 

They sat in a secluded corner at her tired, tear-stricken request. No one argued with a Child of Zeus when she was pissed off.

 

“At first I thought nothing of it—I just…knew it meant I needed to keep my guard up. Then I kept hearing voices,” Nico said. He recalled all of his nightmares in the past three days; the ones that kept him awake at night. Jason dying. Jason falling, even though he could fly. “And then I kept seeing him with the spear. One piercing him. And then just today, I could hear it. His heart beat fading.”

 

It was a curse and a gift as a Child of Hades—knowing when someone’s time passed. He had no idea that it could still happen, even with the distance Jason was at.

 

“And the moment I felt it, I came,” Nico muttered. “I knew I had to get to you guys as soon as possible, otherwise he would die.”

 

“I don’t like hearing those words,” Thalia said with a rough voice. “Not from you.” Her eyes were swollen with tears, with nails digging against her gloved hands. Her face had said it all, guilt-stricken that her weapon was the one to penetrate her little brother. Nico’s stomach churned at the thought.

 

“I should probably get going—”

 

“No.” Thalia latched on to his arm before Nico had the chance to escape. His first instinct told him to run—and yet he couldn’t help but bitterly muse that Thalia had the same grip as Jason did. She looked to him, with red-blue eyes and sniffled. “You saved my brother by bringing him here. You stay.”

 

“I didn’t…exactly save him—”

 

“You did better than I could’ve,” she protested.

 

Nico fell silent. He did so tangibly, unsure of what he could say to lull her. If Bianca were here, she would have known the right words to comfort Thalia. If Hazel were here, she’d know what words to spin.

 

(Just goes to show—no one gave you looks if Death had a pretty face.)

 

“He told me you’ve been taking care of him since he went off to Los Angeles,” the Hunter said. Her gaze narrowed to him—bold and a little intimidating, but broken. He knew it’d been said before, but even being fully related, Thalia and Jason barely looked alike. Her hair was dark—black, chopped up in several layers like bolts of lightning. She was more olive toned while Jason was fair, with an assortment of dark freckles at the bridge of her nose. Even their eyes were different shades of blue—where Jason’s were a warm sky blue, Thalia’s were harsh and hot like shocks of electricity.

 

And yet somehow—it was a gesture like grabbing Nico’s arm or her tone of voice as she talked to him calmly—that made it clear they were siblings.

 

“It’s really him that’s been doing all of the caring,” Nico muttered. A cruel chuckle threatened to fall from the back of his throat. He thought back to September, where he was now ashamed that he’d gone up to Jason Grace’s place for the first time and played along with the idea of someone actually accepting him. “He’s my friend.”

 

“Bianca would have liked him.”

 

Usually Nico’s first instinct was to glare at anyone who mentioned his late sister’s name. Just—what was it about the Grace siblings that made them think it was okay to mention her? Instead, Nico’s eyes wetted with the beginnings of tears since the cave and he smiled bitterly. “She would have loved him.”

 

He couldn’t control death. That wasn’t how his powers worked. He could sense it when it happened, how it happened—but actually doing it?

 

Never in his life did he feel more useless than he did now.

 

It never occurred to Nico how rarely he cried. When that happened, it was like all of the emotion that’d welled up since the previous time pouring out of his eyes like a waterfall, and it took forever to stop.

 

Jason was dying.

 

It wasn’t enough that the only person who ever cared for him had been taken away by the Fates, but the next person to actually try…to see Nico as more than just a person on the same team—his life was being taken away, too.

 

I just can’t have my way, Nico thought bitterly. Of course, he never did to begin with. That was the understatement of the century.

 

Out of nowhere, he felt an arm wrap around him. Thalia traded seats to sit beside him and hugged him close. Bianca would have been around the same age, he realized. If she never took the oath to Artemis. Just a few weeks shy of sixteen.

 

“I don’t like being touched,” the Son of Hades grumbled—but he couldn’t conjure the animosity he wanted.

 

“Neither do I,” she agreed, to his surprise. She let out a sour, empty laugh, and for the first time, Nico realized maybe he wasn’t so different from everyone after all. “I just really need a hug right now.”

 

Nico thought it wise to comply.

 

Then like rocket fire, everyone stormed through the doors of the waiting room: Chase, Reyna, Zhang, McLean, and most importantly, Hazel. He caught sight of his sister, who barged in hand-in-hand with Zhang before charging toward him. Nico winced. The past three days had been filled with Nico watching Hazel exchange stories and smiles with everyone else in their group of “comrades,” and Nico hiding in the corner. He had a feeling Hazel knew he was uncomfortable—and leaving first thing after his nightmare about Jason almost a day earlier probably didn’t help their relationship.

 

“Sorry, Hazel, I—”

 

She pounced him, nearly choking Nico in her hold while Frank stood nearby, helpless. “You have nothing to be sorry about—I-I just wish you told me what was going on, I would have come, we would have helped—” Hazel buried her face in his neck and trembled.

 

Nico gulped. Beside him, he could hear Chase whisper Thalia’s name, rich with emotion before they collided into hugs and sobs of their own.

 

“What took you guys so long?” Thalia asked. She wiped the last of her tears away and smiled tiredly. The latter action took all the effort she could muster.

 

“Word got out about Jason’s injury,” Chase explained, with a tinge of annoyance in her voice. “Hard to miss when you show up in the middle of camp looking for the hospital. The entrance is buzzing with people wondering if he’s okay. Everyone. The Five Cohorts—the entire legion, the past legionnaires. Everyone. Even people from Camp Halfblood have arrived.Piper had to charmspeak the guard in letting us through.”

 

To that, Nico couldn’t help but glare at both girls, like they were blaming him for making a scene in effort to seek help. Chase always irritated him. She was a fierce battler and knew what she was talking about—but her voice bugged him to no end.  (Along with other reasons, Nico mused cruelly, but he didn’t want to get into that.) Then there was McLean—who Nico knew meant well, but who was the most obvious about her discomfort—

 

“You did a good thing, Nico.” The said Daughter of Aphrodite pulled him out of his thoughts. A flicker of hesitation flashed over her kaleidoscope eyes before she pressed a kiss to his cheek. “Thanks for bringing him here.”

 

What.

 

“You did.” Chase came over, and without the same reluctance, placed a hand over his shoulder. She smiled warily. “If it weren’t for you, Jason would’ve been a goner.”

 

What.

 

“All I did was get him here,” Nico said dazedly. This wasn’t happening. There was no way. As an afterthought, he added, “I don’t like being touched.”

 

Chase let go a second later, but the weary smile remained.

 

What?

 

“Just because I got him here doesn’t mean he’s going to live.” If anything, what if Nico’d gotten Jason here too late? What if Jason was going to die because Nico didn’t act on his dreams sooner? Why were they—why were they applauding him? “And we didn’t get to eat Hazel’s turkey.”

 

“We can have the turkey another time. When Jason wakes up,” Hazel declared. She kissed him on the cheek and latched onto her brother’s arm, who’d long grown numb from shock.

 

“Props, man.” And finally, Zhang’s usual nervousness was replaced with a big smile. He raised a hand, and Nico hesitantly fistbumped his sister’s boyfriend.

 

“All I did,” Nico repeated, “was get him here.”

 

“Yeah,” Thalia said, with her voice cutting through them like lightning through the clouds. She turned away from her conversation with Reyna, and smiled at him tiredly. “You got him here, Nico. Just—gods, take the compliments like a man.” She took a breath. “And whatever happens, I owe you my life for trying.”

 

Nico fell silent. This time he had no rebuttal.

 

From the corner of his eye, he saw Hazel’s smile fade as her eyes met the ER door. Getting here was only half the challenge. Now they had to wait the countless hours until someone would actually talk to them.

 

Once Thalia told the story, the tears were imminent. Nico forced himself to blink the ones away while others clung to her words. Jason had been on a quest with Thalia and the other hunters to find Artemis’s bow. They’d gone up north the Rockies (the Rockies? Was that where Nico shadowtraveled?), locked in a battle with Laistrygonian Giants, when one took Thalia by the spear and flung her off a cliff. Jason had swerved—soaring to catch her the instant she screamed, and the next thing they both know, the same spear that Thalia’d lost was suddenly piercing her brother.

 

Nico came just in time, and Artemis granted Thalia’s wish to stay near her brother for the time being. Some girl named Phoebe would take up Thalia’s duties until she returned.

 

The mood worsened with everyone drowning in tears. In any other situation, the halfblood in question would be dead. No amount of ambrosia could be given to someone in that timespan to heal the wound without causing the demigod to fall sick and feverish. Jason was doomed to bleed to death in any of the outcomes.

 

But he wasn’t dead yet, Nico thought stubbornly to himself. The moment that happened, he knew time would stop.

 

“We’ve got the best medics working here, in New Rome,” Reyna said suddenly. She squeezed Chase’s hand, but it was clear she was trying best to keep her sanity. After all—she’d once worked with Jason. Not only that, but he considered her his best friend before Hera messed with them. “If Jason has any chance of surviving, it’s here.”

 

And that was the last thing said. They all held heavy breaths. All that was left to do was wait.

 

Another hour passed in silence, and they waited at the edge of their seats. No matter the demeanor Nico held, it was killing him inside. Another hour meant another hour that Jason was still alive—but more time, where his fate was inconclusive. Nico wanted to know if Jason was alive or dead—and if it was the latter, then he was willing to wait out the rest of eternity.

 

Hazel remained next to him the entire time, their hands bound tight together. A pang of anxiety shot Nico through the heart.

 

“Go sit next to Frank.” He reached over and kissed her on the cheek. “I know you want to.”

 

She frowned—like the words were a caffeinated drink that jumpstarted her brain. “But—”

 

“It’s okay,” Nico cut her off. “I’ll be fine.” Since she arrived, he knew Hazel wanted to ask what he’d been doing in the Rocky Mountains—but right now wasn’t the time to tell her. His gut twisted—knowing he was only using that as an excuse. She knew something was there between Jason and him since September, but the extent of it opened up all of the doors in Nico’s heart, and…without Jason…

 

Well. He’d cross that bridge when he got there.

 

The smile on her tear-stricken face was surreal. She gave him a quick hug before untangling herself from Nico’s side and wandering over to Frank, who’d taken a seat next to the Twelfth Legion’s other Praetor. Hazel glowed in the way she always did when she was at Zhang’s side—like the brightest gem in the darkest cave.

 

Biting the inside of his lip, Nico ignored how cold he felt. I’ll be fine.

 

-x-

 

Another hour, another sixty minutes without confirmation of any sort. Chase lay on Reyna’s lap, knocked out as the Roman ran fingers through blond curls. (Nico would question the empathy of that later.) McLean sat across from Hazel and Zhang, who had a protective arm wrapped around Nico’s sister. And Thalia—she watched, as Nico tapped his skull rings against an end table.

 

It was noon the next day—seventeen hours and twenty minutes since Nico got the Son of Jupiter to the hospital. He tried not to let it show on his face—but even Thalia was crackling with impatience. She’d shocked him four times now just from a brush on the shoulder.

 

Neither one of them were meant to sit still this long. It was the ADHD keeping them aware. Nico only wondered what McLean was feeling, considered she once dated the guy.

 

“Can you at least feel his heartbeat?” Thalia asked quietly, to keep from rousing the others awake.

 

Nico tersely shook awake. He tried not to let the distraught show on his face—but quickly understood Thalia wouldn’t let him hide anything. “Honestly I don’t feel like I could focus long enough to find it.”

 

“But—”

 

“But if he passes,” Nico said, and his voice cracked, “I’ll know.”

 

She fell silent after that. Thalia leaned forward, rested her elbows on her knees and pressed her hands against her mouth. “So he’s still alive.”

 

“That word isn’t as pleasant as you think,” he muttered darkly. Stormy blue eyes glared at him cruelly. “I’ll shut up now.”

 

He wanted to say death was inevitable—but even that wasn’t certain. Nico thought of the old hag Fates with their knitting needles and balls of yarn. He thought of his father, and—well, wondered if he was the right god to pray to right now.

 

Please let him live, Dad. Hades—who wouldn’t he pray to right about now?

 

Settling on a rhythm with his rings, Nico let out a quiet breath and squeezed his eyes shut.

 

Please don’t take him away from me.

 

Finally, the two-door entrance of the ER opened with an eerie creak. Will Solace wandered through—dressed in scrubs and covered in blood. Jason’s blood. Nico had to do a double take before he remembered word around camp that Solace dreamed of being a doctor.

 

Thalia and he stood to their feet at the same time. She looked over to him and he cut her off.

 

“Go.” Nico placed a hand on her shoulder for emphasis while the others slowly stirred.

 

“Jason’s doing better,” Solace announced. “He’ll live.” A collective sigh of relief filled the room—including Nico’s. Suddenly those blue eyes were focused on the young Son of Hades in particular.  “He wasn’t in good condition when you brought him here, di Angelo, but you brought him just in time.”

 

“So what happened?” Thalia asked, demanding his attention once more. “Can I see him?”

 

“You can.” The Son of Apollo held up a hand as everyone stood to their feet. “But not all of you. Not all at once. We have three doctors singing hymns to him right now so his body’s healing. Extracting the spear was a hefty task.”

 

“But?” Her voice thickened, hands curling into fists. Nico could see the beginning of new tears in her eyes.

 

“But we got it.” He placed hands on her shoulders and smiled tiredly. Judging by the bags around his eyes, he’d been working all of those seventeen hours. “The spear is shattered. We sawed it in half so we could pull it out of him more easily. Grace—ah, sorry, Thalia—your brother’s lucky. His lung was punctured, but it pierced straight between his ribs and missed his spinal cord. He took a pretty bad blow to the head, but we’ve bandaged up every injury. Once he wakes up we can do a full assessment on him.”

 

“So…” Her voice trailed off and Thalia hugged herself. “Will he make a full recovery?”

 

“He lost a lot of blood, Thalia.” Blond eyebrows contorted on his sun-kissed face, but he nodded regardless. “But he should. We’ve got liquids flowing through him for the time being and some liquid ambrosia that should help the healing process. With the gods on our side, everything will be okay.”

 

“Everything will be okay,” she repeated. Thalia let out a heavy breath. In that instant, Nico curled a hand on her shoulder once more—and he realized for the first time that he’d walked up to her without noticing. Her entire resolve crumpled—tears swelling in blue eyes and lips twisted into a crooked line. She wiped them away with the back of her palm, voice cracking. “Um…c-can I see him now?”

 

Yes,” Will said back, and he smiled tiredly for her. “Please. Right this way. I’ll let the rest of you know when he’s stable enough for all of you to come.”

 

“You coming Nico?”

 

What? Hearing those words knocked the breath out of Nico. He watched the fierce hunter crumple for the umpteenth time that morning into a crying mess, feeling just as disheveled. After everything they’d been through, Thalia was still smiling through her tears. She offered her other hand to him, blatantly ignoring the fact she was crying.

 

Thalia wanted Nico in the room with her.

 

Looking around for everyone else’s approval, he saw them welling up with tears again. They all looked to him—either surprised or tired, but not angered.

 

Hell, he thought. Why not?

 

After a second of hesitation, Nico reached forward and grabbed Thalia’s hand. They looped their fingers together and walked down the corridor behind Solace.

 

As she squeezed his fingers, he couldn’t help but think: Thank you, Father.

 

The room was painted with an assortment of colors and scores of music, with Latin that read as hymns to Apollo. Suns, lyres, laurel wreaths, bows and arrows, and other symbols of the Sun God were either painted or adorned the room in the form of sculptures, pictures, stuffed animals, and other things. What the pair focused on, however, was the hospital bed where their fallen Son of Jupiter laid.

 

Surrounded by three doctors, they were struck with the melody of the same hymns painted along the walls. Jason’s torso was covered by thick bandages, shrouding the injury to those around him. His face was red—stained with dried blood, but it was clear that they tried to clean him up as best as possible. Both cheeks were swollen, with a dark, purple-reddish sanguine that bulged in his gray cheeks, and a head wrap framed his skull.

 

“I think he looked prettier in the blood,” Thalia muttered under her breath.

 

Nico snorted. “You don’t really mean that.”

 

“I don’t.” Thalia pulled up a chair from an unnoticed corner once the doctors were done with their hymn and placed it as close to the bed as possible. Pulling the leather gloves off her hands, she thumbed Jason’s breast gently—no doubt imaging the hole her spear had caused. Her gaze turned to Solace—who Nico’d forgotten was in the room. “I want to stay until he wakes up.”

 

Solace looked ready to protest—but one look from the Daughter of Zeus kept him from doing so. “I’ll make sure food gets sent up here.”

 

“And I want di Angelo to stay with me.”

 

That was where Solace looked ready to rebuttal. “Thalia—”

 

“He stays.” She flashed him one more withering look, blue eyes electrifying. “I don’t care about the others. He saved my brother, and I want him here with me.”

 

“Okay—okay. Just don’t…electrocute me again,” Solace mumbled. He broke the image of a prim and professional doctor and looked scared for his life. “Jason’s stable for now. I’ll come back and check on him in a couple of hours. If anything happens, yell.”

 

“Duly noted.”

 

With that, the Son of Apollo disappeared down the hall—most likely to tend to other patients. Nico attempted to wrap his mind around Solace’s sudden fear when Thalia’d glared at him—and couldn’t hide his amusement (albeit how ill-placed it seemed.) “Do I want to know why he’s afraid of you?”

 

“Probably not.” Thalia’s eyes remained on her brother, transfixed with every visible bruise that presented itself to her.

 

“I don’t understand why you keep insisting that I come with you.” Not that he was complaining. Thalia’s stubbornness and fierceness allowed him to stay as close as he wanted to Jason’s side. That being said—with his heart beating cautiously in his chest—Nico walked closer and stood to the other side of her. He pushed the sound of the heart rate monitor to the back of his mind and watched the tubes that were laced intricately in Jason’s nostrils and mouth.

 

As his fingers traced a line down Jason’s bruised forearm, he felt it. Life. Full and luscious, and wrapping around him—embracing him, like the real Jason knew how with just a few words.

 

He’d be okay.

 

For the first time since their separation in Los Angeles, Nico knew he could relax. He curled his hand against pale flesh and summoned the closest thing he had to a smile.

 

“Because of that.” Thalia’s voice brought him back to reality, and her demeanor sobered. “I want you to take care of Jason when he’s okay, di Angelo.”

 

What. “What?

 

“I know. I—I know. I’m not leaving soon. But I’ll have to. I swore to stay at Artemis’s side for the rest of my life.” Blue eyes narrowed to him, suddenly as dark as the midnight sky. Her demeanor fell as she reached to stroke Jason’s hair—like Bianca used to do for Nico.

 

And it was the day he met Percy Jackson, all over again. The day Bianca decided to become a huntress, and the day that changed their lives forever. Nico’s jaw slackened as the realization struck him—and he couldn’t form his next thoughts into words.

 

“I know.” He didn’t have to. Thalia cut him off again, her face shriveling. “If I could turn back the clock and spend more time with him, Nico, I would. Gods, I would. I spent the rest of my life after losing him thinking I’d never find happiness ever again. You know the stories—I know you do.” Olive-toned fingers reached up and massaged her temples. She locked gazes with Nico, whom she’d spent the last seventeen hours bonding with in the waiting room, and her eyes regained the regal power they’d had before all of the waterworks and screaming. “Children of Zeus don’t have a sense of fulfillment. As soon as we’re born, we’ve made Hera our enemy and the rest of our lives are spent proving that we’re worthy of our father’s name. We want power and control, but every decision leading up to it doesn’t make it enough. Jason will always have me. Just like you’ll always have Bianca.”

 

This time when Thalia mentioned her name, Nico’s fingers curled at the hilt of his Stygian iron sword. The look in her eyes made it obvious that she noticed.

 

“Jason trusts you.  He’s told me himself. And he needs a pillar, other than me, New Rome, and other than Piper and Leo,” she continued steadily. Thalia’s eyes hardened and she stroked Jason’s wound protectively. “Please. I want you to take care of him. I want you guys to take care of each other.”

 

“Okay.” After a long internal debate, Nico’s grip on his sword relinquished. He didn’t like the idea of Thalia abandoning her only brother—but he understood.

 

A pensive smile fell across her face and she scrutinized her younger brother. “He’s a grown boy now. Jace doesn’t need me to be there twenty-four/seven to nurse his booboos. But he does need someone.”

 

Maybe that was why Bianca chose reincarnation. Because he was grown enough that he didn’t need her as his crutch anymore.

 

“I’ll watch after him for you,” Nico promised—even if he was still processing what’d just happened. He looked down to Jason’s pungent, swollen face and bit the inside of his mouth. The thought of leaving Jason never occurred to him anyway. Thinking about now—ever leaving Jason—made him sick to his stomach. “But you have to do something for me.”

 

Thalia’s blue eyes sparked like crisp lightning: fierce, harsh, and stubborn. “Name it.”

 

-x-

 

The next few days were spent with the rest of their friends (Nico used the word warily—knowing it was directed more at Jason than it was to himself) sporadically coming into the hospital room. Thalia’d been a constant presence at Jason’s side as her brother recuperated, and Nico did the same. Since his promise to her, going more than a few feet away made his stomach churn and anxiety well in his heart.

 

He knew better. He really did.

 

Going away for more than a few paces wouldn’t make Jason Grace’s heart stop beating. But. What if it did?

 

Nico wanted to smack himself every time the ridiculous thought came up. Based on one touch, he knew Jason was no were near death. The Fates had spared him.

 

Chase had gone back to school near her family, but requested to be updated about Jason’s condition. Zhang and Reyna had no choice but to return to praetor duties and assure everyone that their old leader was in stable condition. They came to the medical center every chance given.

 

 McLean was a frequent visitor, charmspeaking Octavian and other nuisances out the door whenever they demanded to be let in (Nico decided he liked her a little better, when she muttered something evil under her breath.) What irritated him the most was that McLean built herself a fort around Jason’s left side when she arrived (specifically where Nico would sit and play MythoMagic with Thalia over Jason’s lap. Funny—four years later and that game still popped up with him. Nico couldn’t decide if it was funny or if it made him a huge nerd).

 

She’d spend hours at Jason’s side, quietly muttering things to him or doing her geometry homework.

 

They weren’t on bad terms with each other. Not at all, since McLean was grateful that Nico saved Jason. But gods, Nico thought, he just wished he saw more of Jason by himself.

 

However.

 

“You really feeling up to talk to me?” Hazel asked. They walked the streets of New Rome four days after the incident with the Laistrygonian Giants. (They, according to Thalia, who’d been messaged by Phoebe, were very sorry, and were left shouting to the heavens about Queen Thalia, the Scariest Witch of the Sky.) She retrieved two cups of hot cocoa offered near a small café and handed one to her brother.

 

“Yeah,” Nico said tersely—even for him. The further they got away from the hospital (where McLean was probably knitting a scarf and chatting up girly stuff with Thalia), the more anxious he felt. The further away Jason was.

 

And the lonelier Nico felt, as his original motive for joining Hazel’s Thanksgiving Feast hovered in the forefront of his mind. He was sick to his stomach for more than one reason tonight. No amount of hot cocoa could make him feel better.

 

“Nico, you’re turning pale.” Hazel’s gold eyes flickered with concern. She set her drink down on a nearby bench and went to inspect him herself.

 

“’mmokay,” he mumbled under his breath. Gods, this was hard.

 

The last few days had been rough on everyone—but somehow Thalia was the one who kept Nico calm. He never understood how two people could become quick friends, but her brash personality grew on him quickly. Everything he knew about her from Jason wasn’t up to par with who she really was. She was better. More awe-inspiring.

 

Thalia knew what it was like being alone for years, being the only daughter of Zeus. Nico’s entire world had been tampered with in a month spent in a time-altering casino, but she was stuck in the present. She knew everything about the prophecy and what was thought to be her inevitable outcome.

 

Then there was the way she treated Jason—even unconscious. The way her demeanor went from rough and brash to gentle, loving, and grief-stricken as she saw her brother’s face.

 

He wondered if he looked the same way when he took care of Hazel. (Not that he’d ever been complimented on his smile—except for one time with Jason, before Nico adamantly tripped him.)

 

Watching the Grace siblings only reinforced what Nico’d thought earlier in the week. What he’d been debating for a long time, since coming around to the idea that Jason knew about him.

 

“If you want to go back to the hospital, we can.” Hazel’s demeanor fell with concern as she looked at her brother worriedly. “I know that you and Jason have been good friends since the war ended. This…entire thing, I know it’s not easy on you.”

 

“No—wait. Here. Sit.” Nico wiped his sweaty palms on his dirty jeans and plopped onto the bench. He patted the seat beside him and forced himself to breathe. Breathe. He looked to her golden eyes, which flickered with the same doting look Bianca used to give him when she was still alive. Back then it was all about Nico bumping into things and falling over. Right now—he didn’t think a bandaid could make him feel better. “You’ve been back in the living realm for a year now. When I went down to the Fields of Asphodel, I was looking for my sister. And I found her. You.”

 

Red bloomed in Hazel’s cheeks, her demeanor sheepish. She pulled a lock of hair behind her ear, and Nico placed his hand over hers.

 

“Dad let you live. He let you keep your life. And—I’ve been full of grief over Bianca since her death. I haven’t been fair to you because of that.” Nico burned holes into his pant legs with his eyes. Finally, he locked gazes with his sister for good. “But I want you to know that I trust you. I trust you with my biggest…secret. It’s…why Jason and I have been around each other so often lately.” Why Nico never wanted to leave Jason ever again.

 

“Nico.” Hazel’s expression shifted with concern this time, and she wrapped his given hand in her fingers, eyebrows knitting together. “What are you saying?”

 

His heart leapt into his throat, and Nico forced himself to swallow it down, alongside the urge to puke. “Hazel. I’m—I’m gay.”

 

Silence.

 

Hazel’s demeanor slackened—to something Nico couldn’t read. All he knew was, it made him sicker than he’d felt before he asked her to take the walk with him. Her eyebrows furrowed again and her lips twisted. Shock.

 

He knew it.

 

She never got the chance to respond—nor did Nico think he wanted to hear it.

 

The next thing they knew, Zhang was running down the streets with Aurum and Argentum at his side and yelling both their names. “Hazel! Nico! Guys—there you are!”

 

“Frank!” Hazel’s eyes flashed with one panicked look in Nico’s direction—before she latched onto her boyfriend as he came within six feet of them. “Frank, what’s wrong? Why were you running?”

 

Closing his eyes, Nico swallowed the disgusting taste at the back of his mouth.

 

“It’s Jason,” Zhang said between pants. His eyes widened—absolutely livid. “He’s awake.” 

Chapter Text

Did I lose my memories again?

 

—was Jason’s first thought when consciousness fluttered back to his mind. Waking up in one of New Rome’s hospital beds certainly made him feel like he lost his mind.

 

The bright lights and sounds were dizzying, and Jason could barely tell what was down or up or right or left. He felt like he’d taken Leo’s hammer to the back of his head, while the rest of his body breathed like Swiss cheese. His entire torso was wrapped in so much gauze that Jason was sure it’d molded to his skin in the five days since the accident.

 

All he needed to see was the back of Thalia’s head as it lunged out the door, with her voice shouting something indescribable. “—wake, he’s awake! Solace, get your ass over here, Jason’s awake!”

 

Thalia. Thalia, the Hunter, Thalia, his sister—

 

“Thalia,” he said. His throat choked on the name and air was forced through his nostrils. His throat burned, feeling swollen shut, moist, and dry all at the same time, and eyes were crusted over from too many days asleep.

 

Someone was to the side of him—Piper, he thought.

 

That didn’t matter as much, he thought to himself stubbornly. Thalia had priority over everyone and—that fuzzy voice, the one that told him to shut up the last time he was awake. No—Thalia first. He beckoned her over repeatedly, despite the singeing in his throat. Jason would have moved, but his entire body ached like a mutilated statue that’d been glued together again.

 

“I’m here, I’m here—I-I’m here, Jason.” His older sister came over and wrapped cold fingers around his warm hand. Gods, it felt so good. One look at Thalia let Jason know he wasn’t hallucinating. There she was—with her electrifying blue eyes, her olive-toned, glowing skin, and the frock of freckles that fell over the bridge of her nose, and her choppy black hair, and the silver circlet in her hair that signified she was lieutenant and—

 

Oh, thank Jupiter she was okay. That she was here.

 

“You’re Thal’ya Gace,” he slurred, articulating as best as possible. Jason’s heart leapt into his throat, like every force was against them interacting, and he trembled. “You’re my…sissster. My big sister, my best sister—my alive sister. I remember you—I didn’t forget you, you’re here, I’m—”

 

“Oh, gods,” she whispered, and her gaze brightened with the sheen of tears.

 

“I swear, I will kill whoever makes me forget you again,” Jason promised. And—ow. Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow, ow—he hurt. Why did he hurt?

 

“You fucking dweeb,” Thalia snapped—and she laughed before immediately throwing her arms over his shoulders.

 

“Ow—gods, ow, Thalia, that—”

 

“Sorry—my bad. You just—” She wiped away the tears at the creases of her eyes and stood apart from him. “Gods, you’re amazing, little brother.”

 

As Jason sorted out groggy thoughts, he remembered that Piper was in the room too—his tan, beautiful ex-girlfriend with her long, choppy hair and ripped up jeans and—geometry textbook, apparently. She had the same tears, hands over her mouth, and looked like she hadn’t slept in days.

 

“I remember you too.” Jason said finally, He reached with his uncasted hand to touch his face—which was currently bounded by a loose head brace. Gods, did he feel disgusting. As the blood circulated through his brain again, he knew there was a nagging in his head. He remembered Thalia, and even Piper. But. “Where’s Nico?”

 

They were in New Rome.

 

Oh.

 

“Where is he?” Jason repeated, and he whipped his head so hard that it hurt.

 

On cue, the Son of Hades suddenly appeared at the door with…with Hazel, and Frank. Dark eyes made contact with him, wide and mystified as Jason attempted to blink away fatigue—only for everyone to be pushed back by Will Solace.

 

Will appeared in the room before Jason’s three friends could, dressed in scrubs and a doctor’s coat. His face twisted, eyebrow rising beneath his fluff of blond hair and he lulled the room out of their hysterics. “As happy as I am for you guys, I should really check up on Jason myself. Even you should leave, Thalia. You guys can come back in a bit.”

 

Jason had no idea how disoriented he was until Will forced him to gulp down a cup of diluted gorgon’s blood to clear his mind. He felt feverish—which was a result of having liquid ambrosia being pumped through him from an IV. Growing up, he rarely visited the hospital unless someone needed to be dropped off. Camp Jupiter enforced the duties on campers to learn, for their future. Hospitals were meant for expecting mothers and citizens who hurt themselves in the city—meaning Jason must have really been in bad shape for him to be here.

 

Going to a hospital and rationing on quests were two separate concepts. For one thing, all of the ambrosia squares forced down your throat in the latter were usually burnt off while you ran away or swung a sword. Heroes were more aware of evading and striking, so getting struck in a vital organ the way Jason did put him at a disadvantage. No evading, no striking—just. Falling.

 

It was always a marvel to Jason how structured New Rome was in comparison to Camp Halfblood. The hospital he was taken to was run by plenty of Apollo’s children and even more legacies that had settled down through the years. Greek demigods could barely wrap their mind around the idea of living to adulthood. Still, hierarchy clearly didn’t matter. Will Solace, nineteen years old and one of the best healers at camp, already knew things that New Romans twice his age were still going to school for.

 

As the gorgon’s blood worked its magic, Will helped Jason sit up and unwound the first three layers of bandages. The indentation of where the spear hit him became more visible, like a portion of Jason was missing. Jason grimaced at the red and yellow stains on dirtied bandages, then felt nauseous when he saw the wound itself.

 

“You think it’s ugly now, but you should have seen it when you had a spear through your chest,” Will mused. “We’ve had hymns playing since you got out of surgery, along with a steady flow of liquid ambrosia through you. It’s why you feel so lightheaded. Don’t worry—you’re nowhere near a bad amount. New Rome’s technology is really amazing.”

 

“Always astounds me too,” Jason muttered weakly. He rotated his bad shoulder—and cringed.

 

“You won’t be flying for a while,” Solace said, reading Jason’s mind. “Or holding a sword any time soon. Maybe a week. Maybe two. Any mortal with your type of injury—well. They’re lucky to even be alive.”

 

“Noted,” Jason groaned hatefully. He ached all over, body exhausted from the whole experience, and felt downright disgusting.

 

“Seriously though, Grace.” Will’s voice darkened as he reached to a tray of medical bandages on the overbed table. “You’re lucky to be alive. Di Angelo got you here just in time.”

 

Yeah.

 

“Your jaw got a rough beating out there too. It may hurt to talk or do anything for a few days. We’ll do a color and vision test to make sure you’re not damaged from that. Now that you’re awake, the recovery process should go more smoothly. We can prescribe a stronger dosage of ambrosia to see how your body reacts, and then you should be on your way.” Will’s sunny blue eyes watched him thoughtfully and he raised Jason’s bad arm. “Did I mention all of this will have to be taken orally?”

 

Jason did his best to groan, and knew it came out as a ragged, zombie-like sound. “Hate you.”

 

“But you saved your sister,” Will reminded. The edge of his lip curled into a cheery smile, reminding Jason of the Statue to Apollo that they had down on camp grounds. Solace broke his professional demeanor for the time being, reverting back to one of the coolest campers Jason knew back at Camp Halfblood. “Props, man.”

 

Right. “And Nico saved both of us.” Jason swore on his life that he’d never forget what Nico di Angelo did for him.

 

A few minutes later after all of his bandages were changed, Will announced that Jason would need a good scrubbing later in the night (“By you?” “Oh, gods no. Jake would get a kick out of it, though.”) The gorgon’s blood numbed his headache and helped his vision as his friends were finally allowed back into the room. Will explained blatantly to them that Jason’s mind was running with drugs in his system—and quipped that Jason might be a little dazed.

 

(It only made Jason concerned about how he actually felt versus to how he was actually acting. Thalia was going to give him crap for it later.)

 

Speaking of his elder sister, she was the first to return to his side—and freeze—before she could accidentally fling her arms around him again. Instead, Thalia kissed him on the forehead and held his free hand close to her chest. “I love you, little brother.”

 

“You too,” he whispered to her. Jason reached up with his good arm and brushed the hair out of her eyes. He had no idea how she reacted after he took the spear to the chest, but assumed it wasn’t pretty. Thalia had either been treated beforehand or sustained few to no injuries. Good. “’mmglad you’re safe.”

 

She smiled bitterly and jokingly tapped his shoulder like a play-hit. “I’m your big sister. I’m supposed to take care of you.”

 

“And you did. So did Nico.” Speaking of which—Jason turned his head back to their group of friends. Piper and Reyna stood at one side of him, while Hazel and Frank remained latched together. He looked past all of them and found him—found his Nico.

 

Nico stood in the far corner, closest to the door with his hands shoved in his pockets. Nico tensed at the mention of his name, but he didn’t look up. In fact—his eyes remained at his feet, hands stuffed in his pockets and complexion as green as New Rome’s grass.

 

“Nico,” Jason repeated—and the boy in question turned away again.

 

“C’mon, Nico,” Frank reached over and tapped the younger boy chivalrously on the shoulder. “Jason deserves to know who saved his life.”

 

“Don’t touch me,” Nico grumbled—and he instinctively slapped the elder boy’s hand away. “And for the last time, I didn’t save—” They made eye contact.

 

Nico’s dark, tired eyes that brimmed with shadows and the silhouette of a mad genius—and the twist of his eyebrows that made it hard to differentiate between his scowl and his frown—met blue. Sometimes—that was even the way they looked when he was smiling. Sad orbs met Jason’s lucid gaze, and his hands slipped out of his pockets like limp appendages.

 

Pulling his hand away from his sister, Jason curled his finger into a ‘C,’ the same way Nico’d done a long time ago when they met on the rooftop of his apartment complex. “C’mere.”

 

The Son of Hades obliged—walking forward as Reyna, Piper, Frank, and Hazel parted the way for him. He stood hesitantly next to Thalia, in closer distance, and extended a hand when Jason asked for it.

 

Then—Jason promptly yanked Nico forward with all the strength he had in one arm. Everyone yelped for his life, and Nico stumbled toward his bedside, hitting his stomach into a railing. One ebony black eyebrow raised into the air in disbelief. ‘Really?’

 

“Really,” Jason breathed. He wrapped his fingers around Nico’s hand and thumbed the skull ring on his finger. Securing their grip—feeling Nico’s flesh against his own, Jason brought the hand up and kissed Nico’s knuckles. “Thank you.”

 

Red flushed out the sickening green, and Nico’s lips parted—however, speechless.

 

“Stay with me tonight?”

 

This time, Nico made an ‘Errghh—’ and pressed his other hand to his face. It either meant, ‘Grace, I swear to god I will make sure you burn in the depths of hell,’ or ‘Yes.’

 

Somewhere in the background, Jason could hear Thalia scoff. “Oooooooh, yeah. He is definitely feeling the meds.”

 

-x-

 

“So an oath to Artemis gets me a +300 attack power and +1000 defense?”

 

“Yes. I think that represents the immortality given to hunters so that they never die.”

 

Thalia snorted. “I’ll take it.”

 

The last three days following Jason’s coming to involved a lot of doting from New Romans. It’d been the longest he stayed in San Francisco since Percy and he made the switch—not counting the weeks filled with reconstruction of New Rome. Several centurions requested meetings with him for advice, regardless of Jason spending a great deal of time reminding them that he was no longer praetor. New Romans brought him plenty of tuna casseroles and other foods, for all the times he was a “Good Samaritan,” even though it was still hard for him to keep it down, and get-well-soon baskets courtesy of Camp Halfblood.

 

Now that Greek demigods and Roman demigods got along, Jason saw a mixture of all his friends. Dakota, Bobby—Jake Mason, the Stoll Brothers, Clarisse La Rue—were visitors that came in different hours. La Rue mentioned something about “manning Franky up”—and Jason decided to pity his successor. Even Octavian had shown up to shred a Get Well Soon stuffed giraffe (courtesy of a pissed off Annabeth) in order to read Jason’s fortune as camp augur. Doctor Will ushered the Stoll Brothers out of the room when they discussed stealing some meds (which apparently didn’t keep them from stealing his wallet and a few casseroles.)

 

However, the weirdest thing to wake up to between naps and long rests—for the third day in a row—was Thalia and Nico sitting at the other end of his room playing MythoMagic—complete with a few action figures.

 

According to both demigod on separate occasions, they’d done some serious bonding while Jason was under the knife. Nico confided in Jason that Thalia made him think of Bianca. Not just her—but a little bit of Nico himself, too. Thalia put what she said at the cave into action—and treated Nico like she did Jason.

 

“How come it took two months of asking before you’d go eat ice cream with me,” Jason started, letting them know he was awake, “but you’re willing to play Mythomagic with my big sister?”

 

Neither bothered to look at him anymore when he was awake. Instead, Nico looked at his hand of cards before placing one across the small table. “Because you’re easier to say no to.”

 

“Ouch.”

 

“He’s got a point. I’m scary,” Thalia mused. Biting the inside of her mouth, she placed one of her own on the card template—and grinned when Nico muttered profanity under his breath. “I spent two hours trying to explain this game to you yesterday and you still didn’t get it.”

 

“Oh yeah.” Jason chuckled and pushed himself into a sitting position. This time, Nico and Thalia did look at him. “Because it’s super easy to explain a game like this to a concussive dyslexic. I see how it is.”

 

Three days didn’t erase the ache in his chest wound, but it did make the swelling go down enough for Will to remove Jason’s head wrap. The Gorgon’s blood had perfected his vision—and he no longer needed to wear the respirator in his nostrils. The shooting pain in his chest remained, however, when he breathed in too harshly. Nico had spent the past few days disregarding Jason’s whining and forced ambrosia squares down his throat.

 

“You hungry, Jace?”

 

Jason nodded.

 

“I’ll go get some food.” Thus, Thalia set her cards aside and focused on her brother once more. Standing to her feet, she made her way toward the door and—paused. “Once you get better, I’m gonna have to leave.”

 

“I know.” Rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, all Jason could do was smile sadly at his sister. All he could have wished for was to spend time with Thalia. Regardless of the circumstances, it’d been one of the highlights of his week.

 

She mimicked his smile, tired and wary, and disappeared down the hallway.

 

Once she was no longer in sight, Jason’s eyes fell back to Nico, who’d long since toddled over to his good side. The younger boy’s dark eyes flickered hesitantly as his gaze fell to Jason’s hand—and in return, Jason extended it. I know you want to.

 

Nico’s shoulders sagged beneath the aviator’s jacket (not that Jason ever realized they were ever that tense) and he took it gratefully. The blonde made room for Nico to hop on the bed, leaving a reasonable gap between their legs. (It was usually closed by the end of the night, with Nico trustfully resting his head against Jason’s shoulder.)

 

Despite the Son of Jupiter’s insistent (and incredibly embarrassed) apologies for his dazed behavior, he discovered Nico had no trouble complying with the strange wishes. Someone might actually say that Nico enjoyed the touch—given it were the right person, and if that person could read Nico well enough. Jason was proud how far they’d come since their truce back in September.

 

That being said, Nico finally relaxed when Jason curled his fingers around the other boy’s hands. He touched a skull ring and felt Nico’s thumb around his own.

 

“So I think Piper wants us to get back together,” the elder teen said as quiet conversation. He rested their intertwined hands between them and laid back to his pillow, gaze fixated on his friend.

 

Although Nico never actually looked at him when they did this, Jason still commanded his full attention. That being said, the younger teen snorted. “Oh yeah?”

 

“She hasn’t gone back to Malibu yet. She always brings her homework with her to come visit.” Not that she ever got it done, with the Stoll Brothers hanging around. Piper tended to visit early in the morning, greeting Jason with soyburgers and a cup of transparent, fruit Jell-O. They had a fun time freaking out the doctors, who were flustered at her presence, and spoke about everything that’d occurred since Camp was over.

 

Pipes was even nicer to Nico, like the first visit never happened. That was all that mattered.

 

“An amazing deduction,” the said Son of Hades responded between Jason’s thoughts. “If it wasn’t for the fact Travis Stoll was so sweet on her.”

 

“Wait. What?”

 

“You don’t actually think the Stoll Brothers come up here to terrorize the hospital, do you?” Nico’s demeanor mixed, eyebrow raised in wry amusement—and they furrowed for a moment. “Actually. I would blame you for thinking that.”

 

“You’re kidding me.”

 

“Why?” This time, dark eyes turned to him, flickering with both amusement and hesitation. Nico’s fingers tapped against Jason’s own and the edge of his lip curled into a smirk. “Jealous?”

 

“Actually…” Letting the shock subside in Jason’s mind, he reached with his other arm to scratch his head—and wrinkled his nose at the shooting pain. Nico’s eyes focused on that immediately. No. Not really. “No.”

 

“Really.” Nico’s expression changed warily, eyebrow and everything.

 

“I haven’t thought of her that way since we broke up after the war.” His own brow furrowing, Jason discovered that—yeah. He was happy for her. Pipes was moving on and—while Travis could be a pain, he was also one of the coolest guys Jason knew. Nudging the younger teen in the arm, Jason sat up more comfortably and locked gazes with his friend. “I’ve had more important things on my mind.”

 

Very more important.

 

Nico said nothing. Instead, he cocked his head to the side and looked away—with the tips of his ears glowing with the sweetest pink.

 

Now that Jason’s mind was in order, he needed to work on getting his life back on track. Admittedly, finding Nico was the most important thing to him when the school year started. He was so bent on finding the younger boy that nothing else really mattered. Now that they were back together, Jason had no idea where to go from there.

 

But he could backtrack, at least.

 

“How come Hazel and you have been avoiding each other?” His fingers tightened around Nico’s as supportively as possible when he felt the other boy tense.

 

To his surprise, Nico only ducked his head, allowing his hair to fall into his eyes and shroud the harsh smile that littered his lips.

 

It was a combination of knowing Nico too well and unintentionally spotting everything that was wrong. In the following days since Jason landed himself in the hospital, the other boy had been a constant presence next to Thalia—usually lurking in the corner with his cards or with a book in hand when the others arrived.

 

With Hazel in particular, however, Nico focused extra hard on his books or finally disappeared from the room until she left while she kept her focus on Jason or Frank when he spoke—and only looked to the door when Nico left. Jason knew Nico only used the door if he wanted that fact noticed—otherwise he would have shadowtraveled out of the room.

 

“Because I told her I was gay.”

 

The voice beside Jason pulled him out of his thoughts. It wasn’t that he didn’t know about Nico’s secret (obviously, really), or that he kept forgetting—but it was only the second time he’d ever heard the word ‘G’ come out of Nico’s mouth. The Son of Hades looked less sick to his stomach, probably having practiced it in his head a few times over, but it didn’t counter the hostile demeanor that overtook Nico’s face.

 

“Was…that why you were the Rockies that day?” Jason asked. His mind whirred at the (very faint) memory of Nico’s hands soaked in his blood before he had passed out, and the guilt bubbled back in his stomach. “I’m sorry, by the way—I knew I said I’d be waiting at my apartment—”

 

“No, that’s not why. I—” The younger teen cut himself off before he could go further. “I had nightmares. I knew I had to go see you. But that’s not why I was there. I told Hazel a little bit before you woke up.”

 

Oh.

 

“Thalia had been beating herself up over you and trying to figure out when she should return to Artemis,” he explained. Nico took his other hand out of his pocket and fiddled with the rings on his fingers. “She loves you, you know. A lot. Showing off how vulnerable she can be…that’s hard for her. For us. When I saw the way she was with you, I knew it was only fair if I told Hazel. She’s my sister. ”

 

“And?”

 

“And she hasn’t been able to look me in the eye since.” Smiling grimly, Nico stuffed both hands in his pockets and left Jason’s palm cold. He sagged against the reclining bed and stared at his knees. “I catch her staring at me once in a while, and she tries to say something, but it always ends up slipping away. Frank’s always with her if we’re alone together.”

 

“I am so sorry, Nico.” Without a second thought, Jason reached over and wrapped his arm around the younger boy. Nico fell into his grasp with ease—broad shouldered and angular, but still like a frail, broken boy. He wasn’t sure what to say. Jason never cared growing up who was what, and who identified as who.

 

It was always ingrained in his system that a person was a person. Romans didn’t care of your sexuality so long as you could fight well and show your pride. Sometimes with newer recruits, they showed disgruntled or shocked looks, but that mentality was quickly beaten out of them when they learned Senatus Populusque Romanus. It was always harder for Jason to understand why people cared so much about it than the other way around.

 

“I knew it would come as a shock to her.” Nico shook his head with disdain. His voice was mostly solid—and he must have coped with it while Jason was in and out of his senses. “She’s from the same era I am. I knew—b-but—”

 

“But you wanted to tell her anyway,” Jason finished for him. “Because she’s your sister. It’s like I told you, Nico. No matter how the weekend went, you’re still the bravest man that I know.”

 

The younger teen fell silent and tapped his fingers over his jacket—a nervous habit to get all of his anxiety out without actually having to show it. He leaned his head into Jason’s shoulder, hair over his eyes, and his lips fidgeted. Quietly, with a broken voice, he replied, “Thank you.”

 

They sat in silence, with the Son of Hades nestled tightly at Jason’s side. He shook and trembled, growing daintier in Jason’s arms. In return, the Son of Jupiter felt his heart constrict, unsure of what else to say. He wanted to say that everything would be okay. That Hazel would love him regardless. Jason was convinced she would—but he also knew those weren’t the words Nico would believe right now.

 

Brushing a hand through Nico’s thick locks, he played with the ends that curled against the younger boy’s neck. Thalia would return soon with food for all three of them and they could talk about something else. Right now all either boy needed was touch. Comfort.

 

“I didn’t tell her, by the way,” Jason muttered after a minute or two of silence. “Thalia. She’s nice to you because she thinks of you like a little brother. Not because—”

 

“I know,” Nico cut him off and looked up, dark gaze locking with Jason’s blue. “I trust you, Jason. I knew you wouldn’t.”

 

Oh. Jason couldn’t form his surprise into words. Instead, he smiled at Nico and felt the flutter in his heart when Nico smiled back. “You know, if you want to tell her though—”

 

“Maybe.” The Son of Hades cut him off once more and looked down to his knees. “But I don’t want to think about it right now.”

 

“It’s…not your fault, Nico. If Hazel can’t accept you—”

 

Nico snorted. Apparently Jason just couldn’t sort his pep talk out fast enough. “I don’t hate her for not accepting me, Grace. I hate the fact that I couldn’t keep our relationship in check.”

 

“Hey.” Jason squeezed the younger teen’s shoulder tightly and sat up—despite the pain. Nico’s hand instinctively went over his chest, forcing him down as the wince was visible in Jason’s grimace. “You told her your secret, Nico. Not only that, but you told yourself, too. Everything’s going to be okay.”

 

This time, Nico let a quiet chuckle bellow out of the back of his throat. He shook his head with a callous smile and looked to the ground. “Thank you, Jason. But it doesn’t work that way. I’m a Child of Hades. I should know by now that I don’t get my way. I never do.”

 

Shadows from medical equipment circled them, dancing in open sunlight and breathing with life.

 

“Nico—”

 

“No. No, okay? You wanted me to express my feelings—you wanted me to tell you why I’ve spent the past few years hating myself. Why being this—why being gay was just so wrong to me.” Nico’s voice tightened, but this time Jason didn’t stop him. He listened, as Nico’s dark eyes got even darker. “My sister. Bianca. Back then I made him promise to keep her safe now that she was a hunter. But he couldn’t—she died. I’m old enough now that I know why she left—but back then I hated him.”

 

Jason watched Nico’s entire expression change as those orbs ghosted over with the past. The shadows danced like fire—and even the sunlight looked gloomier outside the window.

 

“I kept asking myself—why did he get to live, when she died? Why couldn’t Artemis protect her? Just—why?” Nico spat. His face flushed red with anger. “But to make matters worse, I—I couldn’t hate Percy with all of my heart. I tried. I spent time honing my powers without him, without the camp. But as much as I hated him because he couldn’t save my sister, I hated him more because I still liked him. So not only did I have this inside of me—this mindset, that was just so wrong, b-but I had these feelings for this guy that broke his promise to me.

 

“And every time I saw him, he was with her. I never had a chance with him to begin with, but even when I had his trust, I never fully had it. I have to fight for it every time I see him, and at the end of the day, I still don’t have it. And you know what?” Nico’s tone boiled over in vehement rage. “I still get mad at myself because I am so ashamed that I can’t get him to trust me.”

 

Silence.

 

The air had tensed with death and fear since Nico’s confession. Beads of sweat moistened his pale face—birthed from anger, and hatred, and jealousy. His body trembled lithely—and for the first time, Jason felt like he truly saw Nico.

 

Since the fateful day back in July, several of Nico’s tiers were picked away by Jason’s hands as he tried to uncover the boy. Jason knew him as the brother who loved his Roman sister. The boy that ran because he couldn’t find a home. The one that loathed himself because of his secret—the one who cared deeply, and emotionally for the ones closest to him. The tier above—the one that had been Nico’s motivation for helping the war effort, was skinned raw by his own words as he unveiled it. All of it.

 

“That’s how I know I don’t get what I want,” whispered the younger boy weakly. He buried his face into the crook of Jason’s neck, with his flesh touching Jason’s shoulder, and said nothing. His voice spoke with such raw emotion, too tired to cry away his anger, and Jason didn’t blame him.

 

It took a long time before Jason knew what he could say. He twisted his body and grabbed Nico’s hand when it tried to push him back, and he raised Nico by his jaw line.

 

Sky blue eyes descended to the orbs shrouded by hopelessness.

 

“I’m sorry,” Jason said quietly. He held Nico with a firm grip and stroked the other boy’s hair. “I’m really sorry. I—I know that I…I’m not Percy, and I could never be a replacement for Bianca. Neither can Thalia—but you’ve got me. You’ve got both of us. You told me a week ago that after everything—good or bad, that you wanted to stay with me. And—I don’t know what to say to make you feel better, but that’s all I want to do right now. And it’s not much, but you’ve got me, okay?”

 

Nico’s eyes glistened with warm wetness, eyebrows furrowing together and lips twisting downward.

 

“You’ve got me,” Jason repeated, “and you’ve got Thalia, regardless of whether or not she knows. You’ve got the team, too—and it’s completely up to you. It’s always been.”

 

“I never asked for you, you know.”

 

“I know.”

 

“You’re so intrusive.

 

“I know. And I’m—”

 

“I hate you.” Nico reached up and threw his arms around Jason’s shoulder—surprising them both. “I hat…thank you…f-for not dying.”

 

Jason took the words in with a full heart and hugged the Son of Hades back.

 

The hole in his chest—the one that he’d had since the Rockies—and maybe before that, too—filled with warmth as Nico’s heartbeat fell in heavy cadence against it. Complete.

 

-x-

 

Later that night, Jason woke up when the heart rate monitor stopped. He looked to his finger—where sure enough, the clip was still there—and then to the actual monitor itself, which was stopped mid-paused.

 

Well. Jason wasn’t a doctor, but he was pretty sure it wasn’t supposed to do that.

 

Whaaaaat? You’re telling me that I only get a +400 health for a Hymn to Apollo? No fair.”

 

“Speak for yourself, nephew. At least you don’t look like a bag of bones.”

 

What the…this time, Jason looked to the other end of the room—where he literally could not believe what he was seeing.

 

Half the room was dark as night, shrouded in pure shadows and blacker silhouettes. The other half the room, nearest to the window, was lit up like someone had brought the sun inside—and then shut it off from shining in the other half. Light and dark literally split in the middle, drawing a line on the between a sleeping Nico and him.

 

At the small table where Thalia and Nico previously played card games were two people. The first person Jason almost mistook for Will Solace—with sandy blond hair and a sun-kissed glow that made him look like he just got off the beach. He wore swim trunks with little waves and suns with sunglasses—and over that, a doctor’s coat and stethoscope. Strapped to his belt was a toy car that gleamed like a nightlight.

 

The second person for a moment looked like a blond woman—with cold blue eyes that used to be happy, a nose that looked all too familiar for Jason, and bright red lipstick. She wore a stunning dress that could only belong to TV and held herself like queen.

 

Then—she changed, looking a lot like a younger, baby-faced Thalia at the sweet age of ten—and then Percy. Piper. Leo.

 

Finally, the person—god, Jason realized—morphed until he looked the same age as the surfer-doctor, with dark eyes gleaming like a madman or a genius and sleek black hair that looked combed for a special occasion. His skin was as white as milk, face and body angular like a skeleton—clad in formal wear that made Jason think of his father’s pinstriped suit. Only more…teenish, like a high school senior taking his date to the prom, in a brooding black button-up vest, coiled purple sleeves, and long dress pants. As he blinked, Jason swore he saw screaming spirits flying around in the fabric.

 

The person almost looked like an older Nico.

 

As a breath left his lips, Jason knew he commanded the attention of both gods.

 

The older-Nico looked to him first with wary, regal eyes that suddenly pulled at Jason’s soul. “Mortals say that they see their lives flash before their eyes when they’re at the brink of death. Or the people most important to them. Or even more simply, time stands still.”

 

Jason made an incoherent sound. He looked down to Nico, who was nestled tightly by his side, asleep—and reached to wake him. Shadow tendrils wrapped around his hand through the bright light, making the blood run cold in his veins.

 

“He’s had a hard few nights,” older-Nico said quietly. A paternal gleam flickered through his gaze, and Jason’s breath caught in his throat. “I would let him sleep. He is comfortable, Son of Jupiter.”

 

“Pluto,” Jason spoke. No. “Hades.”

 

Aaaand me,” said the other god. He shuffled through the cards with a blinding grin and plucked the first one between his fingers. “You think I look hotter in the card or like this?”

 

And Apollo.

 

“Ohhhh boy,” the demigod breathed under his breath, shocked. He’d seen gods before. Their Roman halves and their Greek halves—Boreas and Aquilon was just one example—along with Hercules/Heracles—but here he was, conducting an unexpected meeting with two of the most powerful gods out there. One, who was on terrible terms with his father and tried to kill his sister on multiple occasions before she became a tree. The other—well. Uh.

 

“Oh, me? I’m a messenger. Well, don’t tell Hermes that, he’ll throw a fit.” Apollo flashed another grin, directing it toward Jason like a spotlight and spun a card in his hand. “Let me explain why I’m here in form of a haiku. Ahem!

 

“Your sister is missed

The Huntresses are all babes

I got smacked today”

 

Seeing that eyebrow raised on Hades’ face the same way Nico would look at him was just too weird.

 

“I’m confused,” Jason said. He was pretty sure that Will commanded the nurses to lower his dosage of ambrosia squares and other medications over a day ago. “Are you…going to rip up a stuffed giraffe like Octavian?”

 

“What? Aw, no way.” Apollo hummed and threw down a second card. “I prefer sheep.”

 

He decided not to ask if the Sun God meant real sheep or stuffed ones.

 

“Artemis wanted me to send you a message. She thanks you for thinking of her hunters whenever they got injured with the giants.” Apollo hummed something similar to the hymns Jason had been hearing in the past few days. He suddenly felt ten times better. “She isn’t big on men, but she appreciates you. And as the brother of her lieutenant…she hopes you understand that Thalia needs to come back. For good.”

 

“I understand that.” Nodding, Jason tensed as he felt Nico’s body scoot closer to his own. He looked over to Hades, who looked none the wiser.

 

“The way things are going, you can’t see her until at least next summer, kiddo.”

 

Wait, wait, wait. “What?” Now Jason didn’t understand. Cocking his head to the sun god in disbelief, Jason’s mouth dropped to the edge of his bed. “You’re banning me from seeing my own sister?”

 

Despite the fact Jason was shocked, Apollo’s face remained relaxed and nonchalant. He was more interested shuffling the cards than looking up to the distraught teen. “I don’t agree with all the rules, kid, but this one’s a doozy. Thalia made an oath to my sister years ago, long before the second war. You’re her weakest link.”

 

“I’m her brother,” Jason snapped. The moral compass in his mind adamantly told him to shut up and forgive the god—because backsassing didn’t usually win wars in the past unless you were Percy Jackson. “I—we found each other last year after being separated for thirteen years, and you want to pull us apart again? I won’t stand for that.”

 

“Hey, hey, hey.” Apollo pulled the sunglasses off his face and set them down next to him. His eyes were like two golden stars gleaming in the darkness. Literally. “Trust me, I’m all for brotherly love for the sis, but let’s not forget, this is about my sister, too. Now, yours has spent a week by your side and not with the other hunters. It’s a shame, really—the first time I’ve seen one of those babes smile. But an oath to my sister is binding—unless she falls in love or in battle. The second one, you already took the spear for her.”

 

“But you’re talking about separating me from my sister. My only family.” Jason seethed, his hand curling protectively over Nico’s shoulder as the other boy slept against him. “I know that we can’t always be together, but…actually banning me?”

 

“Sorry, kiddo.” Apollo tsk’d and his expression changed—nonchalant and detached from Jason’s dilemma. “You two have had an interesting past. Hang onto my words though—next summer will be fairly interesting. You two will need some time apart until then. Trust me—that’ll make things a lot easier.”

 

Jason opened his mouth to speak again—and couldn’t form the words. Here before him was the God of Prophecy, after all—sounding eerily too indifferent for Jason’s displeasure. The tone of his voice rubbed Jason’s ears the wrong way, sounding too “absolute,” like Octavian.

 

“Skirting away from her duties is already damaging enough for your sister, Jason Grace. Take it from me—I’d do anything for my sister, but she also has her own duties.” This time, Apollo’s eyes softened, looking closer to Will. “When you two were separated, Thalia made a name for herself by becoming Artemis’s lieutenant. She faced monsters to get her two friends to Camp Halfblood. At the same time, you completed twelve years in the Legion, restored the name of the Fifth Cohort, and moved your ranks up to praetor.”

 

Unfortunately those were also accomplishments that Jason had given up.

 

“You also gave up all of these accomplishments, even though they represented everything that our big dad could be proud of. Wow,” Apollo commended. He cleared his throat again and raised his head.

 

“Hero Jason Grace

Inferior to himself

He seeks an angel

Or a Hot Zombie?”

 

Jason twitched. “That’s four lines.”

 

“I know—Uncle, which fits better?” Apollo turned to the Older Nico, who was currently busy shuffling through the cards and paying no attention to them. “A hot zombie or seeking an angel?”

 

“Zombies, angels.” Hades grunted and looked through his hand. “Simply Hollywood’s way to glorify death. Why, if I told you how many times I’ve caught Thanatos watching the Walking Dead—”

 

“We’ll go with angel.” Apollo clasped his hands together. With a puff of smoke, the card between his fingers turned into an index card with—with Jason’s face on it. “The point, Jason Grace, is that you’ve spent your life with everything under control. Your control. The pretty girl, the best friend, being the leader—that kind of stuff. Even now, living in a shabby apartment down the street from the Underworld, you’ve got it. You don’t want it.”

 

“I don’t want it?”

 

“Are you satisfied right now?”

 

No, said the voice in the back of Jason’s head. Yes. Turning his attention to Nico, Jason couldn’t help but think of earlier that day, when Nico spilled his heart out. The whole goal since July was for Nico to trust him—and for Nico to understand that Jason wasn’t leaving. Once Thalia returned with food, she had seen how close the Son of Hades and her baby brother really were. This, Jason knew, was the result of him catching up to the runaway demigod.

 

Four months ago, Nico wouldn’t have confided in him all of the things he’d done earlier. He wouldn’t have accepted himself—nor would he have been able to say the word gay.

 

They certainly wouldn’t be here right now, with the ebony hair pressed against Jason’s neck as the boy dozed off in silence—probably charmed to keep from waking—four months ago. What happened with Hazel was definitely more scarring than what Nico led on. Jason had no doubt that if they were back at his apartment—this would be what they were doing.

 

Uh. Not that Jason was hoping it would lead to being in bed together.

 

 “I—”

 

“You’ll get your challenge, Jason Grace. Something that’s out of your control. You’ll have to choose between doing what you think is right, and doing what you really want.”

 

“Shouldn’t that be the same thing—?”

 

“Ah, ah, ah.” Apollo placed his hands on his temples and took the posture of an old woman. “My powers. I, Fred the Amazing and Handsome Psychic, have grown weak. I cannot tell you the rest of your fate!” He unclipped the bright yellow toy truck strapped to his belt and instantly they turned into a pair of car keys. “New York’s expecting sunlight in an hour—I’ll be leaving you now.”

 

“Uh—”

 

Despite slumbering, Jason placed a hand over Nico’s eyes and turned away as Apollo revealed his godly form. A bright flash of light—gaudier than what Jason was used to—coated the whole room. When he finally opened his eyes again, the line between dark and light disappeared, replaced with the shadows and moonlight that gleamed through the window.

 

All who were left were Jason, and Hades—who in the entire circumstance had yet to move.

 

Instead, the god that sat across from him turned his head to make eye contact with the Son of Jupiter. Jason held his ground, suddenly feeling sick to his stomach. He curled a hand over Nico protectively, with anger knotting in his heart. “I don’t suppose you’re going to say you wanna take Nico away from me too.”

 

He was shocked at his own ferocity as it left his lips. Yes, the thought of Nico being taken away from him made him boil with frustration, but actually saying the words so fiercely caused anger to burn in his throat.

 

“Quite the contrary.” To his surprise, Hades’s voice teemed with quiet amusement—so subtle that Jason wondered if he’d even heard it at all. “You have a lot of nerve, Son of Jupiter, thinking that you could survive near the entrance of my domain. You exist as my least favorite brother’s offspring, and not only that—but you were graced as the second child to the same family. Do you know how many of us get to do that?” Hades scrutinized him—and the flicker of the madman pierced Jason’s chest. “How often I get to do that?”

 

“Not often enough,” Jason grumbled under his breath. He knew both of them immediately looked to Nico, who was sound asleep and evidently wasn’t going to wake up for this encounter. “I know that you were angry at my father—Zeus, for breaking the promise—and you went after my sister for years until her eventual death, but—”

 

“And yet somehow it was I who made the spear miss your heart. I let you live.”

 

“—what?

 

As they made eye contact again, Jason felt the air escape from his lungs. He saw visions—of a mother and her two children: a son and a daughter. Nico—and Bianca. And their mother. They faded away with a blink, and Hades’s somber face lit up with a hateful smile. “I’m sure you understand that Zeus killed Maria di Angelo before her time. She meant a great deal to me. And to our two children—Bianca, and Nico.”

 

“I’m sure,” Jason whispered quietly. She was beautiful. The vision of her disappeared, but what he could decipher was a very loving woman. And Bianca—there she had been for the first time, looking very much like her mother. Then there was Nico. A smiling, happy Nico.

 

“The day she passed, I was reminded that as an immortal—as the King of the Underworld, I must respect the rules of life and death. I am a god who honors my word, Jason Grace.” Hades’s darkened with shadows. “You weren’t destined to die. Not just yet. As my nephew stated, there are big plans waiting for you in the future. And I want you to abide by my wishes the best you can.”

 

“I…” Jason’s lips pursed together.

 

The shadows of the room danced, brought to life at the hand of death, and stroked the face of the Son of the Death God—like a father.

 

It occurred to Jason in bitter irony that he’d now seen more of Hades than he had his own dad.

 

“He is certainly no Bianca. She had all the potential to be a powerful demigod—to be the Child of Prophecy, once she realized her bloodline.” Hades did not move. His hands remained at his sides, with his vision locked on his youngest son. “Yet I’ve seen him work his way up from the pits of his internal hell until I admit—I am proud to have him as my champion.”

 

“He’s got the strongest control over his powers than anyone that I’ve seen,” Jason agreed. Pride swelled in his chest as the shadows kissed Nico’s cheekbone. “Better than me or Percy combined.”

 

“As it should be,” Hades responded, almost like a pompous, proud dad at a football game. “And so I conclude—if you wish to continue courting Nico in the way that you have, then I only warn you of the decisions that await you.”

 

Wait, wait, wait—“What?

 

“He is a fragile boy with a heavy past over his shoulders, and if you follow the footsteps of my stupid brother—”

 

“Hold on,” the blonde sputtered. Red darkened in his cheeks and Jason gawked. “You think that I—y-you think that I’m in love with Nico?”

 

The shadows stopped. Cold chills ran through Jason like all the blood in his body suddenly disappeared—and he sat as still as a corpse as Hades’ neutral expression turned frozen.

 

“If you follow the footsteps of my stupid brother,” the God responded with a chilling glare, “then I will make sure your death is painful.”

 

“But—”

 

As soon as he blinked, Hades was no more. The shadows returned to normal—with the tendrils disappearing from Nico’s tired face. In the corner of Jason’s ears, he could hear the heart monitor beep. Quicken in pace.

 

Jason’s entire body fell into shock.

 

Courting Nico. Him. Going…after Nico.

 

Beside the elder teen, he heard a soft whimper—and turned to watch Nico’s face twist in fear. Instantly, Jason leaned over and pulled an arm over the younger boy, before thumbing Nico’s cheek. He hoped good thoughts would melt through the touch. And then—stopped himself.

 

This…wasn’t courting. Was it?

 

This…was natural.

 

Jason gulped. This was what he wanted.

 

Uh-oh.

 

So, chuckled the miser in his voice—speaking for the first time in months, with a raw undertone that grazed Jason’s chest, how long do you think that’ll last? 

Chapter Text

I don’t like him.

 

“You alright?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

I don’t.

 

“Jason—”

 

“Nico, it’s my chestthat got hit—not my legs.” Splitting into a grin, Jason tested his legs around the open garden, with his bare feet tingling happily in grass. Wind hit him from the north, with a quiet chill from early December weather. It was never cold enough to snow in San Francisco, but he loved the change in temperature when he got to fly.

 

Which—wouldn’t be happening for a while, but he didn’t care.

 

Instead, Jason shot off with a jog to test his stamina. He’d lost a lot of muscle mass with the time spent in the hospital. Will forced him to focus on his healing process—which meant ambrosia squares, gorgon’s blood, and another assortment of magical medical items that would be worth a fortune in the underground market.  He would have to do a lot of training to regain his ideal stamina and endurance—but Nico fortunately agreed to help him.

 

I don’t like him. N-not in…that way.

 

Everyone expected the Son of Jupiter to remain in New Rome—at least for the time being until he felt comfortable with leaving.

 

The Twelfth Legion’s idea of his ‘comfort level’ to leave was about three months. Jason could barely stand staying another day.

 

Twelve years out of his sixteen-year-old life were spent in service for the Twelfth Legion. Being Roman was a part of Jason’s heritage—but he wasn’t as Roman as they wanted him to be anymore. Nor was he Greek enough for Camp Halfblood—no matter how badly he wanted to be. Going back to Camp Halfblood just didn’t have the same ring to it like going home.

 

So where was home?

 

With Nico.

 

I love him. As my friend. As a comrade. As a brother in arm.

 

But as a lover…

 

I can’t love him more than that. Pushing that particular thought out of his mind, Jason grinned and picked up his pace. Behind him, Nico shouted his name—the metal tab of a canned lecture waiting to happen. He laughed into the winds and felt them titter back against his skin. “C’mon, Nico! Race me!”

 

And while the Son of Hades would spend the rest of his life denying it, Jason knew Nico was smiling.

 

I can’t hurt him.

 

The garden was an exquisite field designed by legacies and prodigies of Vulcan, along with demigods to Ceres. It radiated with eternal spring—blooming with gorgeous flowers and trees that were charmed to hit you with their branches or vines if you tried to pick them up. Even the grass could get angry and make you trip into a cluster of rocks that just “happened to be there.”

 

However, Jason had always been told that even while running he was light on his feet. His heels brushed past blades of grass and he aimed his sights on a large tree in particular: big and bulbous, and perfectly climbable.

 

Nico was already under it—smirking.

 

With his feet beneath him, Jason continued to charge forward—until he saw Nico’s triumphant smirk twist into a cautious ‘o.’

 

“Jason—I swear to gods, Grace, if you run into me—JASON—

 

RSHHHHHHHHH!

 

Channeling his inner eight-year-old, Jason reached and grabbed the branch over Nico’s head with a laugh. It hung above them by at least three feet and left the blonde’s toes dangling over the ground. Leaves crackled and crunched until they fell under Jason’s weight.

 

About a yard away, Nico had shadowtraveled to that very spot with his hands braced for impact. Dark eyes—stone gray, with specks of silver, and that god damn glimmer of a mad genius—now stared at him with shock. “I’ll kill you.”

 

“Is that a fact?”

 

“I’ll kill—you—” And then the Son of Hades burst into a fit of laughter as Jason swung.

 

They joined in quiet snickers until the blonde could feel the ache in his chest—the one that was still healing after over a week of rest. Breaking his demeanor, Jason grimaced and landed at his feet. Instantly, Nico stopped laughing too—and went to inspect the damage himself.

 

“That’s what you get for trying to scare me,” he said with deadpan. Brittle fingers curled at Jason’s ab, and Nico’s gaze remained fixated on that very spot.

 

“Worth it. Mostly. Ow.” Jason tried a shrug—which only invoked a glare from Nico and pain for him. “You cheated.”

 

“I cheated?” Nico repeated half-heartedly. His focus remained on the mostly-healed injury and he muttered something about returning to Jason’s room.

 

“Yeah.” Jason smirked. “No shadowtraveling allowed. “

 

“I wasn’t aware that was in the rulebook.” A smirk of Nico’s own coiled over his face and his gaze narrowed—while his hands lingered over Jason’s chest. “Don’t be such a sore loser, Grace.”

 

“What—first you won’t teach me how to play Mythomagic because I was concussive and I’m dyslexic, and now you’re not going to let me win a race?”

 

“I didn’t think your pride would actually let you use those as an excuse.”

 

“Only when I know that on a fair basis, the other person could kick my ass.” A chuckle left Jason’s lips and he finally complied with Nico’s wish to head toward the hospital. He was right—now that he was no longer dangling off the branch, his chest really hurt.

 

“Damn straight,” the younger teen grumbled dryly. “Accept defeat. You were defeated by the Ghost King. Now bow.”

 

“Haha—seriously?”

 

“I’m a king, aren’t I?” Nico smirked and crossed his arms over himself. He held his stature in a mock-regal stance. “I am the Ghost King. Now, bow at my feet, you—what are you doing?”

 

“Bowing.”

 

“Jason—”

 

“I’m bowing,” Jason grinned, and he pulled at Nico’s right arm until his hand was curled against pale fingers. Between each word, he kissed each digit and its ring. “And now I am—” Smooch. “—kissing—” Smooch. “—the hand of my—” Smooch. “—king.”

 

Nico said nothing. Red bloomed in his cheeks, with his lips parting with pure stun. And still—Jason knew they both knew each other well enough that Nico couldn’t blow up in his face. Instead—that gorgeous ebony eyebrow raised into the air, and Nico flashed Jason’s favorite look. “Erghh.”

 

“What bothers you, my king?”

 

“Shut up, Grace,” Nico snapped. He turned away so he faced the hospital doors and shook his head. “Just—shut up.” Still—each syllable was filled with one of Nico’s laughs.

 

Jason adored the way it sounded.

 

-x-

 

 

They made the trek back to Jason’s hospital room hand-in-hand. Nico took care of all of the arrangements, discussing it with a nurse behind the desk and again with Will, who was awfully displeased that Jason snuck out.

 

“You’re as bad as Percy,” Will said with a roll of his eyes.

 

“Percy can step into water and he’s instantly healed,” Jason responded, with his hand over his torso once more. Ow. “Even Nico just needs a nap or to go to the Underworld to heal up. I don’t have that luxury.”

 

“You’d still have a better chance of healing if you didn’t climb a tree,” Nico supplied irritably.

 

He’d been like that since Thalia left that morning. They’d all gone to the hospital cafeteria to eat one last breakfast together—supplied with Hazel’s leftover turkey and some soda. Another round of stories were exchanged, with Thalia expoiting every embarrassing baby story she could until her little brother was red in the face and sputtering. Nico had sat on the furthest end, with Jason right beside him, hands intertwined beneath the table. (After Hazel left was when Jason suggested sneaking out, if only to get the unhappy look off Nico’s face.)

 

While Nico had always chastised Jason in some way for living in the most dangerous part of California—or not eating properly, or forgetting to restock on ambrosia squares—this was new. He looked at Jason differently, like the blonde could fall dead at the drop of a hat. The thought of Nico being afraid of Jason dying was just absolutely silly—after all, Nico’d been the one to save him in the first place.

 

“I’ll swing by to do a check-up on you in about an hour.” Will rubbed his chin and nodded thoughtfully to himself. “If all is going accordingly, you should be out of here by tomorrow afternoon. Dakota and Bobby say they want to help move things into your old room back at ca—”

 

“If you don’t mind, Will, I actually plan on going back to my apartment in LA.” Jason touched his shoulder immediately, suddenly feeling self-conscious. Will’s gaze flickered in surprise. His medical demeanor broke off completely. “I’m…not really ready to go back to Camp Jupiter just yet. N-not Camp Halfblood either. It’s nothing personal.”

 

“You lost a lot of weight waiting for your body to heal, Grace. Not only that, but you haven’t held a sword in over a week. You’re going to feel sore lifting or swinging anything. Especially if you put a monster behind that attack.” Will made another face—one that looked a little too much like a struggling Apollo. “Hades—you don’t even have a sword. You really expect to survive in LA without one?”

 

“That’s what Nico’s for,” Jason chirped.

 

The boy in question tensed. Nico turned his head and rolled his eyes. “Don’t bring me into this.”

 

“Grace, as your doctor—agh.” Will’s blue eyes flickered to the clock hanging on a wall and shook his head. “We’ll talk about this later. I need to check up on this woman before she kicks the bucket. But you’re not leaving without my consent!”

 

Both boys watched as Will scurried off down the corridors—nearly running over two other doctors.

 

“You enjoy making other people sweat?” Nico asked half-heartedly with a spark of amusement.

 

“It’s definitely more fun than I could have imagined.” The corner of Jason’s lips curled into a smirk. He curled his hand tightly over Nico’s own once again and started a path toward his room. “C’mon.”

 

“Wait.”

 

Jason waited.

 

Since coming in from the garden, Nico held a guarded look that was expertly hidden beneath wry amusement and sardonic humor. Someone had to know him fairly well to know that something else was on the Son of Hades’ mind. That being said, Nico’s eyebrows knitted together. He looked up, expression twisting with hesitation. A flicker of embarrassment flustered in his cheeks. “About…the other night. When I had…” Broken down about Hazel.

 

The blonde nodded his head, encouraging Nico to continue.

 

“Sorry that you had to see that. I—”

 

“You were upset, Nico. That’s perfectly okay.” Jason cut him off and placed his other hand over the boy’s shoulder.

 

Still, the look Nico flashed made Jason realize cracked that stoic mask really was. For a moment, the younger teen stepped back, his demeanor twisting with shame and face turning pale. “I don’t like being that way. Or letting people see me—”

 

“I understand. But one of the reasons why I wanted us to become friends is so that you knew that it’s okay to do that. To get…unraveled.” Jason bit the inside of his mouth. He wasn’t very good with his words. Not in the way Nico needed, no matter how hard Jason tried. “Sorry I wasn’t much help myself. But if you need to talk again, you know my door is always open.”

 

It wasn’t a lot that Jason could offer in his current state, but it was enough for Nico to smile again.

 

So, said the miser in Jason’s head. When are you going to tell him what the gods said?

 

He shoved the thoughts away, locking them in a wooden box that would hopefully never be opened again. Jason wouldn’t even know where to start with that.

 

Hey, Ghost KIng, I’m not allowed to see my sister until next summer. Not only that, but your dad thinks that I want to get in bed with you.

 

Ergh. If it was this frustrating to deal with the father of a demigod, Jason could only wonder what it was like dealing with Aphrodite. Then again—he’d rather face Gaia again than deal with Cupid or anyone with the power over love.

 

The moment they opened the door, Jason could hear Nico hold his breath.

 

Sitting at the small table at the end of the room were both Hazel and Frank—who were locked in intense conversation and fiddling with the cards set on the table. (Apparently everyone knew how to play Mythomagic except for Jason.)

 

“Nico!” Hazel stood to her feet the moment she saw her brother enter the room. Her lips curled into a pensive smile. “And Jason! We—we were waiting for you guys.”

 

“Oh?” Suddenly Nico’s voice was nothing above a hard whisper. From the corner of his eye, Jason saw the other demigod’s demeanor change—torn between interest and discomfort. He looked green in the face again—ready to run.

 

His sister’s face, in return, looked just as uncomfortable—swelling with emotions. Anxiety, anticipation, and pain. Hazel withdrew her breath and took heavy steps toward her brother. Cocoa-colored fingers reached out, gingerly pulling Nico’s hand out of his pocket, and her gold-colored eyes glimmered with hesitation. “We need to talk. Can…we do that?”

 

Nico’s gaze instantly flew to Jason, his orbs mixed with fear.

 

Go. The blonde nodded without hesitation and patted Nico on the back. “I’ll be waiting.”

 

The younger teen nodded back, with his eyebrows knitting together with one last bit of hesitation. Turning back to face his sister, Nico repeated the sentiment. “Where do you want to go?”

 

A smile curled across Hazels face, quiet and shy, but filled with hope. “Take your pick.”

 

With a silent breath, both shadowtraveled out of the room—leaving Jason with his successor.

 

The hairs on his arms stiffened, bristling with nerves. Gods—hopefully things went well. He faced the Son of Mars—who looked as nervous as Jason felt, and went to smooth out the sheets on his bed.

 

Frank fiddled with the cards before stacking them in three piles. He bit his lip, filling out the praetor robes incredibly well—and Jason observed the other demigod. There was no doubt that Frank had grown up during the war—finally able to walk with the confidence of his body and hold his head high as a son of the War God—but he still fidgeted like a nervous kitten in bath water. “So…do you know what they’re going to talk about?”

 

There wasn’t curiosity in the question. Frank just knew.

 

That wasn’t very nice of Hazel, Jason thought. “Yeah,” he said, hands stuffing beneath his armpits. “Do you?”

 

Reluctance flickered over Frank’s face—twisting with another emotion that made Jason’s heart skip a beat. “Yeah.”

 

“And?”

 

The thought of electrocuting Frank if his next words weren’t positive ones quickly passed through Jason’s mind. He shoved it away—even feeling the tips of his fingers hum.

 

“And it’s quite frankly none of my business.” The other teen shrugged nonchalantly and rubbed the back of his neck. Frank held himself steadier and looked to the other roman. “There’s no problem with Nico being…you know. And Hazel understands that too.” Quickly, Frank added, “She only told me because she wasn’t sure how to act around him.”

 

“So…she’s okay with it.” Jason interpreted Frank’s words carefully and pulled his hands away from himself.

 

“You’d be surprised how often we walk in on Reyna and Annabeth making out,” Frank said dryly. This time, his cheeks flourished apple-bottom red and he scratched his arm. “Th-that was an adjustment for her too, but it’s just not what she grew up with. After she got through the shock of it, she realized how much Nico must have trusted her to tell his secret.”

 

“And?”

 

“And that’s what they’re going to talk about right now. She just hopes Nico hasn’t spent all this time hating him.” This time Frank’s demeanor contorted for the first time—with hardness that mimicked Jason’s. “Anything else?”

 

Thinking back, the Son of Jupiter realized the tension in his words. Loosening his posture, it occurred to Jason that every single one of his muscles were tense—ready for an argument if need be. Frank was doing the same just now, like stating his leadership.

 

“Sorry,” Jason apologized—though even that word felt like a snap. “I just—I care about him a lot.”

 

“Yeah, dude—I get it. And I care about Hazel.” Frank’s wariness wore off into an anxious smile and he tapped the table. “This talk will be good for the both of them. I mean—I don’t know what it’s like to have siblings—other than Clarisse—who.” His eye twitched, which said it all. “—well, scares the crud out of me. But, uh. They need each other.”

 

“Yeah.” And then Jason fell silent, with his hands beside him. He could only imagine what would happen. Nico was in the middle of coming to terms with his sexuality and coping without his other sister. This…well. This changed a lot. All in good ways.

 

“Do you…have any idea how this talk is going to turn out?” Frank interrupted his thoughts with fear dancing in his voice. “Because I’d like to know if Camp Jupiter is going to be covered in cursed riches and zombies.”

 

Zombies. A glorified word for death.

 

Lips curling into a ghost of a smile, Jason made eye contact with the anxious teen. “Nico’s been dealing with a lot since he found out he was a demigod. It’s barely been four years with all of the stuff happening to him.” Thinking back to his own fourteen years of this knowledge, Jason couldn’t imagine not having time to recover from each of his losses. Nico literally jumped from knowing he was a demigod to losing his sister to the Hunters, to losing her altogether—to helping out in the war effort, to finding Hazel, to helping with another war—and to now, with his own personal vices.

 

“Which is why you’ve been seeking him out,” Frank realized, filling in the blanks for his predecessor.

 

“Nico’s got a gritty view of the world, but you can tell that he cherishes the people that he cares deeply for.” Nodding his head slowly, Jason knew their minds hover back to the same person. Hazel. “Hazel’s not a relationship that he’s ready to lose just yet.” Nico was barely over Bianca’s death. Which—probably didn’t help with Thalia being what the Daughter of Hades could have been.

 

“You’re right,” Frank agreed. “He was already a mess over you.”

 

Uh. “Was he?”

 

“Well…” The current praetor’s face changed, with his eyebrows knitting together in disbelief. “Yeah. I mean—what do you call shadowtraveling all the way to the Rockies in the middle of one of your sister’s most important weeks? He tried not to let it show since Piper and Thalia and everyone else were already bawling their eyes out, but…yeah. He was devastated.” As an afterthought, Frank added, “You’ve got my utmost respect, man. I don’t know if I could gather the courage to uh…bond with Nico the same way you have.”

 

“He’s really not that bad once you get to know him.” As soon as the words left his mouth, Jason corrected himself. “He’s not bad at all.”

 

The image of a mischievous Nico sitting at the other end of Jason’s empty living room conjured in his mind. He thought of the boy, with a bright red apple in his hand and a wry smirk hidden beneath a wary mask—and then the same face morphed into a triumphant demeanor after knocking Jason off his feet—to the concern that flickered beneath irritation, where not everything was a proud proposition—but a sweet gesture. Like—like—

 

Like bringing a basket of apples to someone’s front door after a tense argument, just to make sure Jason was eating. Or restocking ambrosia squares when Jason was too tired to get them himself. Wandering around Los Angeles and spending five hours trying to fix Cindy the Water Nymph’s fire hydrant after she kept breaking it. Insisting on finding a home for a stray cat.

 

Asking to be invited into Jason’s home, instead of running away from Camp Halfblood or Camp Jupiter, when Nico knew telling Hazel his secret could destroy him. Going all the way to the Rockies during the most important evening of his life—instead of staying with Hazel and enjoying their first Thanksgiving together as a family.

 

Saving Jason’s life and consoling Thalia when she blamed herself.

 

Nico was amazing.

 

“You…don’t think he’s going to kill me…,” Frank said steadily—with a touch of ridiculous fear in his voice. “Y-You know, now that I know? Like…he’s not going to maim me or something, right?”

 

Jason shook his head with humble amusement. It was only a few minutes ago that Nico threatened his life for Jason jumping into a tree. “You’re too important to Hazel. She’d probably kill him before he killed you.”

 

For a second time that day, Frank stared at him with intent. He’d yet to master a hard glare—but what Frank could muster let people know he was thinking. “Yeah. But I’m not important to him like you are.”

 

Later, the siblings of both Pluto and Hades returned hand-in-hand, with a huge smile on Hazel’s lips and a subtle one on Nico’s. A glimmer shone in the fourteen-year-old’s eyes, something so strong that it lit the darkness in his irises. Once Jason saw it, he knew it wasn’t there before. It was a sign—like a huge burden was lifted off the boy’s shoulders.

 

They went back to the cafeteria for a late lunch and discussed menial things—carefully tiptoeing around the subject all of them knew about. No doubt, Nico was aware that Frank knew. Fortunately, no blood was shed that day.

 

Instead they focused on Jason—particularly after Will gave him another lecture.

 

“It’s not that I don’t understand that I need to be healed.” Jason touched the injury over his torso, which was reduced to nothing but a swelled blemish. “But you wouldn’t…you know. It’s like trying to trap wind. It’s just not going to happen.”

 

“Maybe that’s why you have trouble committing to one place.”

 

Looking across the table, Jason saw Nico’s eyes glaze over observantly. Anyone else who told him this would probably double over in fear and apologize. Judging by the looks Hazel and Frank gave, they were expecting for Jason to bite his head off.

 

“What do you mean?” No one understood that when it came to Nico, Jason had the patience of a saint. They had private talks like this all the time.

 

The Son of Hades shrugged nonchalantly and tore apart a bear claw. He gave the other half to the blond. “You’ve gotten all of these titles thrown at you since you were a toddler, Jason. The Son of Jupiter, the centurion to the Fifth Cohort—eventually a praetor to the Twelfth Legion Fulminata. Then as Camp Halfblood’s first Roman Camp Leader. You’re put in these positions, but they’re not satisfying enough. They confine you, like the walls of your hospital room. So you keep running. Flying.”

 

The corner of Jason’s lips curled into a befuddled smile. That sounded about right, now that someone could articulate it. “Are you saying that I can’t land?”

 

Flickers of that mad genius fluttered in Nico’s eyes. He looked amused, but hid it behind his stern mask. “I think you’re waiting to be grounded. So to speak.”

 

Jason liked the sound of that. “You know me better than I know myself, Nico di Angelo.”

 

This time, an eyebrow raised and Jason knew he was satisfied for the day. Nico rolled his eyes. “You make it too easy.”

 

Once they finished up their conversation, they found Frank and Hazel staring at them like they’d joined heads.

 

“What?” Jason asked.

 

“N—Nothing!” Hazel hastily responded. “Well—”

 

Frank cut her off, waving his hands. “It’s not—”

 

“Really—”

 

“That important,” both teens sputtered across the hospital table.

 

A frown fell across Nico’s lips as he watched his sister—but he said nothing. All Jason could do is go along with it and maybe ask the younger teen later.

 

Finally, he yawned—signaling to his favorite demigod too many things.

 

“You need a nap,” Nico concluded.

 

“I slept for three days,” Jason countered.

 

“How badly do you want me to kick your ass when you get around to training again?” The other demigod snorted, his eyes narrowing at the Son of Jupiter.

 

Oh. Smirk curling across Jason’s lips, he took in the gleam of excitement that shone in the gaze of the Son of Hades. “So you’re saying that you’re going to kick my butt as soon as I’m out of the hospital?”

 

“You did say I know you better than you know yourself.” Nico’s fingers reached for another pastry to spoil his sweet tooth. His tone was nonchalant—casual in a, ‘Yeah, I killed a man last week and lost my shoe,’ kind of way. Unbeknownst to both Hazel and Frank, Nico’s leg brushed against Jason’s own as a message.

 

I want you to get better.

 

Jason smiled beneath his chalice and touched the younger teen’s ankle with his slipper. I know.

 

When they were finished, Frank was needed for praetor duties. Jason, knowing he would need an afternoon catnap, told them so. All the while, Nico looked torn between staying with Jason and going with his sister.

 

“You should go,” Jason whispered when Hazel went to dump her tray.

 

Nico’s face twisted with hesitation.

 

“I’ll be fine for the afternoon. You have some lost time to make up with your sister.” One of them should have had that opportunity. Smile gracing his lips, Jason brushed a hand over Nico’s beneath the table.

 

The paler teen didn’t look sold. His eyebrows knitted together before he nodded. “I’ll be back in an hour.”

 

“Okay. But you and Hazel—”

 

“I’ll be back in an hour,” Nico repeated, poignant. If Jason looked carefully, he would have been able to see that Nico didn’t want to leave at all. Frank was right—once you were important to Nico, he would never abandon you.

 

Curling his hand into Nico’s once more, Jason nodded, more understanding. “Okay.”

 

He didn’t know why, but Jason felt cold as he walked back to his room. And—alone, when he fell asleep.

 

Chapter Text

Hazel was giving him funny looks ever since they left the cafeteria. She had a pleasant gleam in her gold eyes when she looked over to her brother, which only made Nico more self-conscious. He bit his tongue and refused to take notice, knowing that it would only strike the question Nico knew was hanging in her mind.

 

Instead, they bid farewell to Frank when he announced that he was needed back at the Forum with Reyna. Jason may have been the golden boy at camp that everyone buzzed about, but it didn’t stop the need to organize and train campers as both praetors saw fit. He could only shake his head and ignore the looks given to him by New Romans and campers alike. Some saw him as The Hero Who Saved Our Golden Boy. Others gave him uneasy looks and wondered why he was still hanging around.

 

Those looks Nico was used to. He was just happy that Hazel and he were on speaking terms again.

 

Their talk had been a long one—longer than Nico would have liked to be away from Jason (he shook his head—Jason wasn’t going to die just because he wasn’t there. Nico cursed his own paranoia for coming up with something so ludicrous), but one that was definitely needed.

 

He missed Hazel as much as he thought he would, being away from her for a few days. Watching Thalia dote on Jason in her rough, affectionate way only made Nico feel worse about the circumstance. Part of him—the angry part—told him that he should have just pulled Hazel aside again. That he should have just told her that he was who he was and Hazel was his sister, and that Hazel should have trusted him. But the other part—the part that loved her like the brother he was—just made it harder to like himself.

 

Nico thought back to last night when his frustration had gotten the better of him and could only cringe. He wasn’t the type of person to break down—especially when there was no one around him to break down to. Jason coaxed it out of him in the earnest way he knew.

 

The tenor of Jason’s voice nowadays was all Nico needed to feel even an ounce of sanity. The way Jason smiled warmly at him like the perfect idiot he was—even if he was gnawing at Nico’s nerves because of the liquid ambrosia—made life worth living. And—

 

Ugh. His thoughts were crossing the line between sappy and unnecessary. Again.

 

Wrinkling his nose, Nico pushed his ministrations away and stared at the sugar cubes Hazel placed in his hands once they reached the stables. She apologized outright for avoiding Nico for so long—and told him how she didn’t feel worthy as his sister anymore.

 

I’m not disgusted, she’d told him quickly, soon after. Her eyes glowed their gorgeous hue of gold and she clasped her hands over his. Just…surprised, at first. And then honored. She was so glad that he told her, since they were siblings.

 

He almost cried when she hugged him.

 

After that was a flurry of awkward questions on her part, followed by a lot of apologies—When did you know? Did Bianca know? Do you like anyone right now? Oh—sorry, s-sorry you don’t have to tell me! Nico, visibly flustered by the questions, only smiled at her.

 

In present time, he sat on a haystack away from the pegasi while Hazel zigzagged back and forth from each stable and shook his head in disbelief. Once the war was over, she’d been promoted to centurion because of Gwendolyn’s death and Zhang’s rise to praetor. Yet that didn’t stop her from doing what she loved by tending to all of the horses that the Twelfth Legion Fulminata owned. Hazel made one of the most hated duties at camp one of her favorites.

 

“So,” Hazel said once the last apple was given out. “Jason’s not angry that you’re…you know. With me instead of him, right?”

 

“He’s the one who suggested it.” Shrugging, Nico plopped a sugar cube into his mouth and eyed her warily when she studied him. He knew that look that she was giving him. And it wasn’t one that he was overly fond of.

 

Still, Jason’s request fluttered through his mind again. Jason had a talent of making Nico feel better—which was good. Very good.

 

And bad, he chastised himself.

 

“I can’t believe that he’s known about you since July,” Hazel said wistfully. She plopped down beside him and plucked a sugar cube out of Nico’s palm. “He really is amazing.”

 

And here we go.

 

Nico let the sugar dissolve in his mouth before gulping hard. He wasn't one of the people freaking out in the waiting room—not as loudly, anyway. Still, Hazel knew how to read him when he didn’t notice. She was probably—definitely formulating an image in her mind as they spoke. “What makes you say that?”

 

“Nothing,” Hazel said quickly—almost as quickly as she’d done at the cafeteria. Instead, golden eyes narrowed at her brother and she studied him thoughtfully. “But he went out of his way to go and find you, Nico. I mean…everyone was scratching their head and trying to figure out why he didn’t return to either camp. Even Percy.”

 

A dagger hit him hard at the mention of Percy. Nico insisted on ignoring it.

 

“He was stubborn about it,” Nico admitted. He rolled his eyes, thinking back to September. “Part of me gave in just so that he’d finally leave me alone.”

 

But that wasn’t the truth. Far from it, if Nico was honest with himself. He never would have thought that a simple visit to amuse Jason Grace’s current “goal” would turned into looking forward to seeing him once or twice a week.

 

Every time he looked to Jason in his hospital bed or caught a glance at the Son of Jupiter wincing when he moved too abruptly reminded Nico how terrified he’d been when he shadowtraveled to the Rockies. Each breath he saw and felt Jason take was a little more soothing than the last.

 

“I didn’t know what to think of him,” Hazel admitted, pulling Nico out of his thoughts again. She tied her hair behind her, revealing the lovely cheekbones she’d inherited from the lovely Marie Levesque. Nico often was called a skeleton with some skin thrown in somewhere, but Hazel was the cruel beauty of jewels and riches if it were given a warm face and child-like eyes. (Still, never let that fool you, he mused. Hazel was an absolute terror on the battlefield.) “I mean, I knew him for a month before he went missing and all. And he welcomed me with open arms in the Fifth Cohort.”

 

“I would have maimed him otherwise,” he snorted. Nico remembered those days before the prophecy ran its course. Pluto was treated worse than Neptune by the Romans, while Jason was held on a pedestal because of the Jupiter Optimus Maximus. As praetor, he was a stern person and a stickler for the rules—the complete opposite of Percy. Being away from New Rome for eight months and losing his memories washed away that sternness once he was exposed to the Greek world.

 

Jason looked happier, for one thing. If he was ever happy at all with the New Romans.

 

No. Nico shook his head. That wasn’t right.

 

Thinking back to how defensive he had been when Nico pointed that out (a mistake on his part—Nico had a forgotten tendency to ramble when he knew something too well. Jason was too ignorant to pick up on his embarrassment.), Jason didn’t abandon his heritage as a Roman. He was too stubborn to admit that he might have liked being a Child of Zeus more than a Child of Jupiter, but Nico’s brain broke at the idea of Jason suddenly wearing leather jackets and black eyeliner like his sister. He was just waiting for Jason to crack with the desire for social interaction.

 

“I know you would have.” Hazel laughed softly under her breath and nudged him in the elbow. “When we were on the Argo II though—after Percy and Annabeth were taken by Tartarus and he took the reigns as leader, I barely talked to him. After Hecate told me that I would have to control the Mist…he was supportive. And he basically threw a tantrum whenever someone mentioned you in a bad light.”

 

Nico rolled his eyes and bit the inside of his mouth. He was used to the nervous looks Zhang and McLean exchanged, Valdez’s backhanded comments—and by now, Jason’s unnerving nature barely brushed him. But it was still utterly stupid of him. They barely knew each other back then.

 

“He has this thing about him,” the Greek demigod mused wryly, “where he puts this ridiculous amount of importance in his comrades.”

 

“It’s why it was easier to persuade the Legion to take me in,” Hazel reminded him. “Why our team was able to survive until we made it to the Necromanteion.”

 

“I know.” Jason was without a doubt a natural born leader—which stemmed from the fact that he empathized with every one of his teammates and could move armies with his words. Before Jason let Nico into the little world he reigned, Nico would have been fooled to believe that soldiers followed the Son of Jupiter because he was that—a Son of Jupiter.

 

Which was what a lot of people believed. Jason had all of these expectations thrust upon him the moment he was born—to be a leader, to be perfect, and to be the golden boy.

 

Nico had plenty of issues to sort out on his own, but he wouldn’t have been able to take that much exposure based on his bloodline half as well as Jason did. He felt an insurmountable degree of hatred for Jason after their run-in with Cupid—but with every one of Hazel’s words, it only made him think of how much easier Jason made it for him to accept himself.

 

“So…do you like him then?”

 

A solemn smile curled against Nico’s lips. “I can’t afford to think like that.”

 

Hazel sat up abruptly from their position, with her eyes more alert than before. It’d definitely been the topic of discussion between Frank and her in the cafeteria, then. “But why not?”

 

“Well for starters, he’s straight, Hazel.”

 

“Just because he likes girls doesn’t mean you can’t like him.”

 

“It’s every reason why I shouldn’t.” He learned his lesson the first time when it came to Percy. Nico remembered being that ten-year-old boy—the one who absolutely adored the idea of being a demigod with all the perks of Mythomagic cards and innocently—semi-casually and hoping it wasn’t true—asking if that pretty blonde girl was Percy’s girlfriend. Everything after Bianca’s death made that stupid crush and his sexuality harder on him.

 

But it was Jason, his own personal savior, who made Nico feel better. He was embarrassed to no end for falling asleep in Jason’s hospital bed—along with all of the other ridiculously blithe frolics Jason pulled in his ambrosia-induced delusions—but. Falling asleep with Jason was different from an arm draped over the shoulder or a kiss on the hand with the words Ghost King at those lips.

 

It scared Nico how fond he was of it. Of dozing off next to Jason—another human being—another boy—to the lullaby of the other demigod’s heartbeat.

 

But it wasn’t just because he’d slept so close to a boy. It was because that boy was Jason.

 

“Nico,” Hazel cut him off with disbelief in her voice, “oh my gods, you’re blushing.”

 

Ugh.

 

“Of course I like him,” Nico murmured under his breath. It burned in his throat like saying the word gay did—yet it pained him even more. Heat swelled in his cheeks and Nico wretchedly looked to the ground. “But he’s my friend. That’s all we can be.”

 

He would rather be dead than ruin the relationship they had. There was a bitter irony in all of this: he was finally getting over Percy, but at the cost of screwing up his friendship with Jason.

 

Part of him wondered if his plea to save Jason meant sacrificing the idea of a normal love life. Well—as normal as a gay fourteen-year-old demigod could actually achieve. Taking in a harsh breath, Nico ate his last sugar cube. He was finally able to say gay—in his mind and aloud to those he trusted around him—but making that a reality was an entirely different obstacle. Having a crush on an unachievable person—on someone that the camps basically admired like a god twice in a row—did nothing for his self esteem.

 

Having a crush on one of the few people that made him feel like a decent human being just made it worse.

 

“Yeah…” Hazel’s voice trailed off and she fiddled with the loose ends of her cinnamon colored hair. Sliding off the hay, she flashed her brother a look of concern, eyebrows furrowed together. “But it’s going to eat you up inside if you don’t do something about it.”

 

“No it’s not.”

 

Nico.” Hazel reached over and curled a hand over Nico’s. He almost jumped at the force of her tone. “You said you trusted me enough as your sister to tell me your secret. And I know when something’s eating you up.”

 

Nico blinked.

 

“I’d be a bad sister if I didn’t.” Cheeks blazing pink, she looked to him like she was proving a point.

 

“Hazel.” He shook his head and touched her arm. “How could you have known I was gay if I never talked about it?” They were a different time period.

 

 The things Nico knew about Hazel’s past life involved being berated as the witch’s daughter and dealing with harsh nuns—with absolutely no exposure to…queers. It amazed him now how insistently she was pushing the subject of his pathetic love life, regardless of how unfazed she was about Annabeth and Reyna.

 

“Still.”

 

“Still, nothing.” Withdrawing his next breath, Nico pushed away all thoughts of Jason and focused on his beloved sister. He often had trouble defining the relationship he held with their father, but allowing Hazel to keep her place in the mortal realm gave Nico a reason to respect with the God of Death even an ounce. “I’m just glad that you know.”

 

A smile curled over Nico’s lips, matched by the one that smoothed over Hazel’s face. She sighed quaintly and curled a hand over Nico’s, her touch teeming with content.

 

He couldn’t imagine ever going days without his sister ever again.

 

She pressed a kiss to his cheek and laughed when a horse whinnied for her presence. With a quick apology, she tended to it—and came back, with the same hesitant look across her face. “Jason’s been awfully affectionate with you he woke up.”

 

“He’s been high on liquid ambrosia since then. It doesn’t count.”

 

“But you’re letting it happen.” Gold eyes narrowed at him before he could summon a response. “I saw you two holding hands under the table.”

 

“Ugh.” Nico couldn’t think of a response to that. He ran his fingers over his skull ring, with the dull red fluttering back to his cheeks as he remembered the kiss on his knuckles. Jason had sobered as he healed, but he was acting ridiculously childish.

 

Like trapping wind, Jason reminded him. Flirting with Nico was probably the only way he could exert energy without picking up a sword.

 

It was a cruel thing to do to himself, NIco knew. Part of him enjoyed the fact Jason was giving him this kind of attention, even if it was hazardous to his health. But the idea of Jason actually pursuing him—asked for Nico to ground him was the mean punch line that was never to be.

 

If anything, Jason would probably apologize a thousand times after they left the hospital for his bad behavior. And Nico would get mad at that idiot because the epitome of their relationship involved Jason doting on him, and making it impossible to be mad.

 

Of course—Jason had asked him if all of this touching as okay. Nico had shrugged and stuttered an, “I don’t mind,” when those blue eyes flashed a look of concern—and once that was over with, they’d adopted a warm and fuzzy ritual of holding hands and resting against each other.

 

“Jason’s straight,” Nico repeated. He drew in a sharp breath. “And he’s a Child of Jupiter.

 

(A low blow, maybe. he was stricken with as many comparisons with his father as Jason was to the Lord of the Sky.)

 

Hades knew what would happen when Jason started dating again. He could land any girl he wanted based on that title and his smile alone. Nico’s heart missed three beats just thinking about it—with the same ache that’d surfaced the day Nico found out Percy and Annabeth were finally an item. Only worse.

 

 It was probably better to draw the line and tell Jason to quit it, Nico decided. His heart would hurt less then, when Jason fell in love and found “the one.

 

“Oh, Nico…” Hazel bit her lip and curled a hand over his arm empathetically.

 

He ignored the sorrow in her voice and forced a smile on his face for her sake. Standing up, he spun the shadows at his feet and opened up a portal. “C’mon. We need to make a trip to the Rockies.”

 

-x-

 

Great.

 

Nico looked back to the line in front of him after McLean, who sat near the wall with Travis Stoll, averted her gaze when he caught her staring. There were ten minutes left before he had to be back at Jason’s hospital room. Hazel immediately lit up at the sight of their old teammate and went over to greet her before she dismissed herself to check the Fifth Cohort barracks. She’d been the one who dragged him into the New Rome café, advising him to sneak Jason some treats that weren’t hospital-friendly.

 

Solace would probably have a cow, but Nico’s heart fluttered at the little grin Jason would give him for bringing brownies. The poor guy was losing it as it was.

 

“Brownies, huh? Those are Jason’s favorite.”

 

Dark eyes flitted to the right, where McLean had arrived to great him after the cashier handed him the paper bag. She shook the cup in her hand, ice jingling.

 

“I came to get a refill.” McLean stared at him warily and visibly bit her lip. They’d stood on equal ground in mutual silence on the days before Jason woke up, but the tension had been palpable.  She knew that Jason had gone down to Los Angeles…for him, and Nico knew that she knew. “I know you give send me death glares when I’m not looking.”

 

Uh. “That’s not under my repertoire of powers.” He flushed red at the thought of Piper catching him glaring—Thalia usually busied him with something else so Jason’s room didn’t become too crowded.

 

“Still.” McLean studied him carefully—suddenly looking more in her element. Which Nico didn’t like one bit. “I didn’t know that I could speak French until I was babbling in front of Boreas in Quebec. It’s apparently the Language of Love. Gods claim the weirdest things as their own.”

 

“You’re reducing my talents to death glares?”

 

“More like stroking your ego and giving you an extra item to add to your repertoire of talents since you’re such a powerful demigod.” She arched an eyebrow in the air, casually exchanging words with him and making a face between half a smile and half a grimace.

 

He wrinkled his nose with a smirk, hearing part of Jason’s wit in his ex-girlfriend’s voice, and paused—realizing this was the longest string of words McLean had ever exchanged with him. This was her attempt at a conversation with him.

 

McLean’s kaleidoscope eyes and satisfied-looking smile blurred Nico’s thoughts for a brief moment as she worked her charm as a Daughter of Aphodite.“About Jason—”

 

Too bad he was gay. “Why are we discussing Jason?”

 

“Because his best interest is something that we both care about.”

 

Grip tightening over the paper bag, Nico’s gaze bore holes at the Daughter of Aphrodite—waiting for it. Stop distracting Jason. Let him come back to New Rome or Long Island. Don’t be the nuisance he needs to take care of.

 

“He’s a lot happier now that he’s found you.” Instead, she thanked the cashier when he returned with her refill. “Jason was pretty lost when he came to visit me in Malibu.”

 

Snort. “That’s because he waited an entire month to ‘find’ me without anything to do.”

 

“No.” McLean managed to pull him aside without actually touching him—to which Nico admitted he was impressed. She looked to the ground, nervously biting her lip, and sighed. “Do you know why we broke up?”

 

“Because you couldn’t…” Nico thought it wiser to cut himself off when he realized that no, that was definitely not a question he should answer. Not with his careful tactlessness or with those eyes suddenly glaring icicles at him. “Go ahead.”

 

“Because in the nine months we were dating, he never said ‘I love you’ to me once.” Pressing her lips to her cup, McLean took a nice long sip before shrugging. “And then he told me that between getting all of his memories back and the war, he didn’t know what he wanted. He stopped knowing when the Argo II first set sail.”

 

That sounded about right. Including the frenzy of whether or not Jason was returning to Camp Halfblood or Camp Jupiter.

 

“But you’re good for him. I think that it’s good that he went to find you. He doesn’t look as confused anymore.” McLean’s eyes flickered hesitantly before she reached over and placed a hand on his shoulder. “So thank you, for taking care of Jason.”

 

What. Nico’s demeanor twisted with disbelief. He moved to slip out of her grip instinctively—and was met with another kiss on the cheek.

 

Keep taking care of Jason. Please.” A smile graced her lips before Nico watched her she walk off and return to a giddy Travis Stoll. 

Chapter Text

An hour later, Jason woke up to the sound of a paper bag settle on his overbed table. He peered up from his pillow sleepily, taking in the sight of Nico shutting the blinds on his window.

 

The boy shuffled back and forth—quite, while Jason traced his path—before turning to meet him. “Good nap?”

 

“Yeah.” He felt sluggish from over a week of inactivity. The blood in his veins was replaced with sand from days of disuse, and all Jason did was sleepand tucker himself out from too much unused energy. So far all the hospital taught him was that he didn’t want to come back to one any time soon. “I’m going crazy here, Neeks.”

 

Nico snorted softly, with a humming laughter that knew how to twist all of Jason’s whines and moans into the most amazing symphony in the world. “That’s part of why you can’t stay in one place, Jason.”

 

Jason was willing to complain a thousand more times just to watch the amusement spark across the other boy’s face because of his own idiocy. “Then ground me.”

 

The younger teen froze—his body tense at the words echoed across the room.

 

Pressing his cheek against the pillow, blue eyes locked onto Nico’s tense stature while Jason’s heart somersaulted in his chest. Was that too forward? Something like that was a bold move even for Jason—but it felt like the right words. The right rhythm.

 

But—regardless of Jason’s impulse, he would never forgive himself if he lost Nico’s trust.

 

A nervous silence suddenly hung in the air.

 

“You’re not ridiculously sick anymore, you moron.” Nico rolled his eyes, a gentle refute beneath his breath, and turned to unroll the paper bag. “It’d be….wrong, if I hopped onto your bed right now.”

 

“Wrong because you feel like you can’t,” Jason responded without missing a beat, “or because you don’t want to?” His tone was patient, but on the inside, the blonde couldn’t help but demand for Nico to just say yes already.

 

Instead, Nico did none of that. He stood his ground with both hands coiled into fists and lips pressed together. Tight. Scared.

 

Oh.

 

Jason berated himself—and realized the subtext of his words. The shock hit like a cold shower.

 

Crap.

 

“You don’t have to, Nico—I. Sorry. I don’t know what came over me.”

 

Holy Cerberus.

 

“I—am so sorry. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.” Wow. Just. Wow. Jason sat up, suddenly more aware of what he’d just done. He’d just…crossed a very sacred line in their friendship by propositioning the other teen.

 

“It’s fine, Jason.”

 

There was no way in Hades that it was. Jason felt worse than scum.

 

Across from him, Nico’s shoulders settled. Yet his expression was still suspicious and wary—like that for the first time since their friendship formed. “I brought brownies.”

 

It was an empty attempt to change the subject. Jason was never more grateful in his life. Still—his heart raced with shame and he wanted to crawl under a rock.

 

“You said the ambrosia squares tasted like brownies from your favorite bakery in New Rome.” Nico pulled the said desert out of the little brown bag. “I figured you’d like to have the real thing instead of through a needle in your arm.”

 

Wow. Feeling his heart ache, Jason took the brownies out of the Son of Hades’ hand and broke it apart with the tips of his fingers. “Thanks, Nico.”

 

He could see Nico’s fingers curl inward toward himself the moment Jason took the delicacy from him, and bore the scrutiny of Nico’s tired eyes as he nibbled at a chocolate chip.

 

Crap. Just…Crap.

 

They sat in silence, with Jason throwing brownie bits in his mouth and Nico nipping at the edge of his. They used to carry a warm taste in Jason’s mouth—like home. During the war, Roman brownies felt like they didn’t fit the mouth of a Greek Son of Jupiter—and now, Jason felt like he was choking them down with shame.

 

Suddenly Nico stopped chewing—and instead looked up to Jason with speculative eyes. “We’re okay. Right?”

 

Cocking his head, Jason took in the sight of the Son of Hades once more—reluctant, confused, and frightened. Jason was the only relationship Nico had apart from Hazel that could be considered close. Frank’s moot point earlier—how distraught Nico was while they waited for news about Jason’s condition—rang in his head like an alarm. How privileged he was to have Nico’s respect and his trust. Nothing would change how Jason felt honored that he was one of those people—but he knew that he was walking on thin ice. Flirting earlier when they were in the garden was bad too.

 

Plus…just what he was doing made everything worse too. Why hurt the boy who you couldn’t love?

 

And—argh. That love word.

 

None of this would make Jason question their relationship if it wasn’t for that word.

 

“—son,” said the other boy quietly, and Nico was less sure of himself. His tone melted tensely—coating in fragile armor. “We’re okay. Right…?”

 

“Yeah,” Jason muttered—and he looked the younger teen in the eye. “Yeah, yeah. We’re okay. I’m just…maybe I’m still delusional. No—uh.” Breathing between his teeth, Jason reached over and placed a hand against the other teen’s jacket. He locked gazes with Nico firmly, eyebrows furrowed. “We’re okay, only if you’re okay with this. If not, we…we can talk about this.”

 

Hesitation fluttered across Nico’s expression as he scrutinized Jason once more. His lips swelled with a twitch, and he looked away aversely like Jason was unworthy of his gaze. “Yeah. We’re okay.”

 

-x-

 

“Here.”

 

“What—is…is this my gladius?” Jason’s eyebrows raised above his hairline as the imperial gold was placed in his hand. Disbelief flickered in blue orbs as he inspected it—but sure enough, that was his sword. The tip of the blade was singed from use as a conduit for lightning. His fingers molded into the hilt of the sword, turning it into his well-known extended limb, and Jason held his breath. From the corner of his eye, he saw Nico smile. “Where did you find this?”

 

“Sticking out of a ledge in the Rockies.” Nico leaned back against his chair and nudged his head in the direction of Camp Jupiter. “I took Hazel out there with me. She pointed her fingers and then it came flying into her hand like it belonged with her.”

 

He had a sword. Nico brought his sword back. Jason had his sword again. “Did I ever mention that you’re my best friend?”

 

Nico’s nose scrunched, with little wrinkles at the bridge of his nose between his eyes. “You don’t really mean that.”

 

“Of course I do.” Jason flipped the blade to inspect it—recognizing every blunt scathe that remained like battle scars. Looking up, blue eyes shone against astonished dark grey, and the corner of Jason’s lips curled into a smile. “You’ve been taking care of me since September, man. Not only that, but you saved my sister and me and sat with her for seventeen long hours while I was getting a spear out of my chest. I know that killed you. And then…this, all of this.”

 

Red fluttered across Nico’s cheeks and he looked away—causing a pang of sadness to shoot up Jason’s heart. Ever since the incident a few days ago, the boy had a hard time Jason in the eye. The Son of Hades wanted to say something, but something inside Nico wouldn’t allow him to do so.

 

Jason knew what that really meant was that he lost part of Nico’s trust.

 

Still—he tried what he could to remind Nico he was there. That being said, Jason reached over to curl a hand over the younger boy’s lap. “You’re my friend, Nico. My best friend.” He thought of the incident again—how Jason needed someone to ground him because he couldn’t land. If he took the romance possibility out of the equation, then—yes. In some perfect way, Nico was what Jason needed. “I couldn’t do this without you.”

 

Since the touch, the Son of Hades’ eyes had narrowed to the placement of Jason’s fingers. When the words left the blonde’s mouth, the wary gaze returned to blue eyes—and after some debate, a more self-assuring smile graced the lips of one Nico di Angelo. “Then you’re my best friend too.”

 

The Son of Jupiter’s heart hammered happily in his chest.

 

A knock on the door caught both of their attentions. Followed by a—“Hey, Superman, you up for another visitor?”

 

“Leo?”

 

Sure enough, the door popped open and the curly mop of the Latino Santa’s Elf peered through the cracks. A mischievous grin decorated Leo’s face as he looked to the Son of Jupiter, and Jason mimicked it.

 

“Leo! Hey, man!”

 

“No, no, don’t get up—let me inspect you. Gotta figure out how badly your kryptonite poisoning is.” Leo rubbed his chin thoughtfully and inspected the blond—the smile never once leaving his face.

 

“Erggh.” Behind him, Percy slowly appeared at his side—green in the face from airsickness. Sea green eyes inspected Jason themselves as Percy oriented himself with the room, and then he plopped onto the hospital bed. “Hey man. Sickness. Hate the air. Gross.”

 

“Good to see you too, man.” Jason split into a grin and bumped fists with the Son of Hephaestus. Amusement teemed in Jason’s smile as he looked over to the Son of Poseidon—and he leaned forward so only Leo could hear. “What happened to him?”

 

“Airsickness. You know your dad hates him. Promised to shoot him out of the sky the next time Percy dared to be in his domain and stuff. Yada, yada.” Leo batted a hand casually like it was no big deal—his hands moving twenty places in one gesture. Still, his pupils flickered worriedly to his co-inhabitant back at New York. That was probably why Leo was nervously fidgeting to begin with. Not only that—but this was the first time Jason and he had seen each other in four months.

 

“You were in the air fifty percent of the time during the war,” Jason pointed out. Sometimes he thought Percy could be a real baby over his fear. If Jason’s gladius was a second limb, then the wind was Jason’s essence. Nico mused once that Jason was probably a cloud in his past life.

 

Percy Jackson—the only known Son of Neptune, the once-Praetor to the Twelfth Legion, slayer of Kronos, survivor of Tartarus—and contributor to the ultimate downfall of Gaea—only groaned, like a wounded puppy. “That doesn’t count. You were on the Argo II, too. Shooting me down meant you were coming with me.”

 

In some roundabout way it was like saying Jupiter actually cared for his son. Sort of.

 

Since before Thanksgiving, Jason and Leo kept contact with each other at least twice a week. A few days after Jason came to, someone finally had the common sense to contact Percy and Leo. Nico—surprisingly, had come up with the suggestion.

 

That being said, Jason’s eyes fell to the boy—who looked queasy and uncomfortable with the current situation.

 

Right. Percy.

 

Suddenly Jason’s stomach knotted with jealousy—but he couldn’t figure out why. The past few months, Jason was so caught up with coaxing Nico into a comfortable position with himself that he forgot about why being gay frustrated the younger boy so much. It was the only other day that Nico confided in Jason about his feelings—why liking guys—liking Percy pained him so much.

 

If you and Jackson died, the miser in the back of his head hummed, who do you think Nico would mourn for?

 

Shaking the thought out of his head, Jason tapped Nico with his own leg and smiled when the young teen looked up. “I think Hazel needed help with something. You should go see her.”

 

He was so used to Nico’s soft smiles and airy sarcasm that seeing a cynical, discomforted demeanor on the younger boy’s face made Jason wonder if this was the same person. However, there was a spout of relief in dark orbs meant just for Jason. Nico opened his mouth to speak—and Jason finished the sentence for him.

 

“I’ll see you later.” Probably in an hour. Longer, depending when Leo and Percy left.

 

Standing to his feet, Nico nodded quietly and made his way toward the door. Only to be stopped by Leo.

 

“Hey.” They stood parallel to each other—with Leo’s hands placed over Nico’s shoulders—for roughly two seconds before Nico slapped them away. Still, Leo continued with wild gestures in the air. His gaze narrowed—from one mad genius to the other—and his expression sobered. “Thank you, for saving him. I can’t thank you enough for doing that.”

 

Nico’s lips twitched into something unreadable—with the words You’re welcome at them. His cheeks tinged the softest shade of pink—hidden beneath the layers of his hair.

 

Oh my gods.

 

Jason couldn’t believe what he was seeing. In retrospect, all the interaction everyone had with Nico was on the Argo II. Grouchy Nico, angry Nico. Frustrated Nico, brotherly Nico. He spoke when spoken to and when he had new information that would help them in the war effort—otherwise, he amused himself by the fact everyone on the ship feared him. This—however, with all of the temperamental insecurities beaten out of him—proved to have no motive for him to speak.

 

Leo didn’t seem to notice. Instead, he slapped Nico wholeheartedly on the shoulders and grinned in Jason’s direction. “You owe him big time, you know.”

 

“He has my life.” The corner of Jason’s lip rose as he looked up to Nico—who rolled his eyes. 

 

“Erghh.” Nico’s voice was too soft for Leo to hear. Instead, he disappeared out the door and the Son of Hephaestus planted himself in the chair next to his longtime best friend.

 

Once the door shut, Leo’s eccentricity faded away. His gaze hardened—lips tight, hand tinkering Morse Code nervously into the table, and the other making circles with his finger. “Can I…see it?”

 

Jason obliged with ease. He pulled off the sleeve of his hospital gown, where the wound was nothing more than a round scar front and back. Leo’s eyes flickered with heat—anger boiling like wildfire. For a moment, Jason saw the gaze of the boy he woke up to on an August morning—caring and powerful.

 

The shorter teen let out a low whistle and reached out to rub a thumb over the wound. “You feel like Swiss cheese?”

 

“Without the holes,” Jason assured. “I felt holier last week.”

 

“Holier. Oh, gods, you are the cheesiest person I know, Superman.” Leo wiped a fake tear out of his eyes and sniffled. “I’m so proud of you.”

 

A quiet laugh passed between them.

 

Jason’s eyes fell back to Percy, who’d placed a hand over his eyes to control motion sickness. The same Son of Poseidon finally sat up, green in the face. He crossed his arms over his chest with a tired look—and narrowed his sights to both Leo and Jason.

 

“You…want me to get Will over?” Jason asked inquisitively. The knots in his stomach coiled tighter—especially since he knew the look on Percy’s face.

 

A gesture of surrender—at least for that moment—passed between them and Percy bowed his head. “I think I need a walk. Or to go jump in a bucket of water.”

 

“How long do you guys plan on staying?”

 

“Hopefully just the weekend.” Leo patted Jason’s wound with meticulous fingers—then stuffed them in his pockets. “We’ve got finals coming up soon. Sally won’t let us—”

 

“Who’s Sally?”

 

“Percy’s Mom.” “My mom.”

 

Leo and Jason both looked back to the brunet, whose hands were currently stuffed in the pockets of his pants. Percy’s attention turned to the window—to the lights, to the suns painted on the walls—anything other than Leo and Jason themselves.

 

Which was kind of annoying.

 

Jason didn’t say it often—because most of Percy’s ill-mannered humor usually went without care—but Percy was kind of being a jerk. While he suppressed his own irritation against the Greek demigod, it was getting hard to do when Percy didn’t find Jason worthy of his time.

 

Percy scrunched his nose and pushed wavy bangs out of his eyes. “I think I’ll go visit camp grounds. I’ll…meet up with you later, Leo.”

 

“You sure?” Jason asked—if only to get a rise out of the other teen. The tone of voice he took was better met for the battlefield—with clever taunts that let you know what you were up against. He didn’t have it in him to be a smartass—that was up Annabeth, Percy’s, or even Leo’s level. (The latter two usually got themselves into deep shit because of it.) But he knew how to hold his ground when need be.

 

“I’m sure.” Percy took a harsh breath—either from lasting airsickness or from irritation. Regardless, his eyes met Jason’s, challenging every bit of the blonde’s tone.

 

Hey. Percy had no reason to be mad here. Just looking at the guy reminded Jason of Nico’s hurt face—and the words Nico spoke. Percy went with everything and he still didn’t trust a boy that’d literally given up everything for him.

 

It just made Jason angry.

 

“We should spar before you leave,” Jason suggested in a steady tone. His arms crossed over his chest.

 

The corner of Percy’s lip twitched, eyes never wavering. “We should.”

 

As soon as the door shut behind him, Jason turned to his friend with a disapproving look. Leo had long busied himself by examining the walls and fiddling with the pockets of his jacket—which only made Jason a little more annoyed. “Is there a reason for him being a jerk?”

 

“He’s airsick.”

 

“That’s no excuse, man.”

 

“Oh please, Jay. You were egging him on, not calling him out.” Leo snorted and sagged in his seat with both hands jingling in his pockets. Fluid brown eyes looked up to Jason—with a sliver of mirth burning in his orbs. “Excuse me, I didn’t realize I had to whip my dick out for this conversation. Let me know next time so we can measure.”

 

Jason’s cheeks stained red and he frowned. Leo, on the other hand, simply looked at him with the joy mischief in his gaze.

 

They sat in contemplative silence, where Jason examined his old best friend—who he hadn’t seen in almost four months. Leo must have grown a few inches, with his jaw becoming more defined under his mane of curly hair. His shoulders were more prominent, with a bit of taut muscle peeking out from under his light hoodie. If Jason didn’t know any better, then he would have thought that Percy’d given Leo some sword fighting lessons.

 

The look in Leo’s eyes still remained—morphing from his frenzied sarcasm to the same demeanor that it held back at Zeus’s Cabin. They hadn’t actually talked about that stuff since then. Not face-to-face.

 

“So,” Jason started quietly, “you’re living with Percy now?”

 

Leo bit the inside of his mouth and tapped his fingers against his knees. “Yeah.”

 

The whole story unfolded from there. Chiron found Leo busying himself in Bunker 9 since Jason’s departure. Normally campers were allowed to come or go as they pleased—and most usually did, with their mortal parent. However, Leo’s mother had already passed away a long time ago—leaving the boy an orphan. Usually there were a handful of campers that stayed year-round to begin with—but Leo had literally spent the beginning of his stay up to the present preparing the Argo II and helping out in the war effort. Not only that, but his two closest best friends decided to stay on the other side of the United States for two very different reasons.

 

Chiron’s whole intention was to have Leo feeling like himself. Thus—as dangerous as it was, Leo was sent to Goode High School where Percy happened to run into him. Through Percy, an expecting Mrs. Jackson-Blofis offered a home to one orphaned Leo Valdez—and refused to let the half-Latino boy go anywhere else.

 

Thus—Leo had a home he wouldn’t dare run away from and a mother figure for the first time in eight years. He adored it. The words never left his mouth—but Jason picked up on how much Leo must have treasured the woman.

 

“She never lets me get away with anything. I wash the dishes twice a week and help her do some house chores since she can’t lift anymore. We spent two hours yesterday figuring out baby names.” The corner of Leo’s lip raised with an excited smile—which split into an ecstatic, satisfied grin. “How do you like the name, Leona?”

 

He was doing a lot better than Jason could have hoped for.

 

It was almost enough for Jason to almost feel bad. After all, he did ask for Percy to take care of his best friend for him.

 

“How does she?” Jason counteracted with amusement teeming in his voice.

 

“She loves it.” Another smile curling against his lips, Leo tapped his fingers against the table—and Jason automatically knew the summation. “Well—either Leona or Ariel. Personally I could go for either. Or both. Ariel Leona Blofis.

 

“Blowfish?”

 

“Blofis.” Tilting his head back with snickers, Leo shook his head with delight. “I love it.”

 

He was definitely in better hands.

 

Jason wondered if he should push his luck and ask about what he’d seen a few weeks ago. The Iris Message where Percy was awfully happy cuddling with Leo. They didn’t mention it then—instead passing over the subject like they were talking about the weather. But now—Jason could only wonder.

 

“So what does that make you and Percy then?”

 

Leo froze at the sudden inquiry.

 

The blonde only took it as a sign to egg on his question. “Leo, I—saw what happened in one of the Iris Messages. But…do you see yourselves as brothers, or…you know. More?”

 

Red simmered in Leo’s cheeks and his hair caught fire. He batted it away with a curse under his breath and sat straighter in his chair. Twitching and spazzing, Jason wouldn’t have compared this boy to the one he knew on his last day of camp.

 

“He,” Leo started with a subtle sputter, “just got out of his relationship with Annabeth. A long one. I don’t know if…it’s…my place to suggest it.” He looked to his fingers thoughtfully and continued—deflated. “I don’t know how I’d feel to be sloppy seconds, Jay.”

 

Ah. Swallowing hard, Jay couldn’t help but think those words were directed at him. They both agreed it would only be one night—but if that were the case, then it shouldn’t have taken three months for them to start talking again. “About…what happened back in August, man…”

 

“Hey.” Leo looked to the ceiling suns and batted his hand around easily. “One night, right?”

 

One night and four months where they lost contact with each other. “Leo, I…don’t want to go this long again without seeing you. You’re one of my best friends.”

 

Behind that nonchalant mask, Leo shrugged—but he continued tapping his fingers against the table. “Jay, we didn’t even do much. We made out and had a few days of bliss and couple-y stuff where you used your magical Jupiteran powers to alter my sexuality.”

 

“Leo, please stop joking.” Jason seethed softly, with his hands on both knees. He reached out to touch the other teen’s knee and watched Leo’s expression morph once more—unreadable. “Four months is a long time without seeing each other. That entire night shouldn’t have happened.”

 

A flame burned in Leo’s eyes—subtle, but glowing against the nervousness in his gaze. Jason could only wince. “Okay, Jay. I get it. You need redemption.”

 

“That’s putting it a little overdramatically—but. Yeah.” Jason’s eyebrows furrowed together and he curled his hand firmly over Leo’s knee. It was met with Leo’s own hand.

 

“If I was mad at you,” Leo murmured quietly—and he took effort to examine Jason this time, “then I wouldn’t have come all the way across the country to make sure you’re alright. We’re okay, Superman. Okay?”

 

Silence.

 

Jason bit the inside of his mouth and took in the sight of Leo’s smoldering chocolate brown eyes. They were warm and sweet—faintly reminding him of the hot cocoa Jason could summon in the chalices back at the Dining Pavilionl or Forum.

 

“Tell you what,” the Son of Hephaestus continued, and an impish grin adorned his lips. “You get out today, right? Come to New York sometime next weekend and we’ll catch up. Something about hospitals and Will Solace running around telling me not to mess with medical equipment makes me lose my mind.”

 

“Next Saturday?”

 

“It’ll be the start of our winter break. Kind of the anniversary of when we technically met.” Leo crossed his arms and continued to smile at his best friend. “I’ll get Aqualad to stop being a pain in the butt by the time you come. He and I will be prepping to go to Camp Halfblood for the rest of break.”

 

Aqualad, huh? It certainly had a more affectionate ring to it. More than Superman.

 

“Sounds good.” Jason squeezed Leo’s knee carefully and smiled coyly to the other teen. “Just…make sure you’re happy. You deserve it.”

 

Leo looked to him, eyes catching with subtle amusement. He crossed his arms over his chest, shoulders turned inward, and a wistful smile spread across his lips. “The other night I got home from work and she was waiting up for me. Sally spent her time bustling around the kitchen to make me hot cocoa and some lasagna even though she could’ve been asleep. Then in the morning, Paul said something about teaching me how to drive when the snow cleared up.”

 

“You have control over every manmade machine.”

 

“Yeah—I told him that. But it’s the thought of it that counts.” Leo shook his head in disbelief—literally steaming in his seat like Jason’s own personal heater. “I’ve been running away fo so long that I forgot what it was like to have a family, man. I think I like it.”

 

A pang of envy hit Jason’s chest, but it was quickly overcome by pride and satisfaction for his best friend. Leo really was enjoying himself.

 

“Okay,” the blond responded after a heartbeat. “I believe you. That’s all that matters.”

 

“Yeah.” A grin laced against Leo’s lips—satisfied and absolutely incredible—before Leo propped his legs over the table and rested his arms behind his head. “So. You finally gonna tell me what the Hades you’re doing not in San Francisco on a regular basis, and why you and di Angelo were looking so chummy earlier?”

 

Um.

 

“Let’s not forget that you snapped at anyone who said anything about him on the ship. Mostly at me. And at Percy. A lot at Percy. And at me.” Leo stroked his chin and eyed the other teen carefully. “To the point where even Hazel was concerned and we just stopped mentioning him. Is he the reason why you’re not at camp?”

 

“I can’t tell you.”

 

“What—why you’re not at camp?”

 

“No, I just can’t tell you.”

 

“Because…?” Leo’s demeanor flexed—then morphed into worry and surprise. It wasn’t often that Jason wouldn’t tell him a secret—not unless it wasn’t directly addressed. If anything, Jason was more surprised that Leo wasn’t angry about being lied to. “Did he make you swear on the river of-you-know-what?”

 

Actually, Jason forgot about that. Regardless, he shook his head and tapped his fingers against the table—clicking his fingers in a familiar summation. He missed Leo’s eyes bulging. “Because he trusts me the same way I’ve never told Piper about Calypso.”

 

Leo fell silent. For like—two seconds. Jason knew the Son of Hephaestus would never forget about Ogygia—and not only that, but Leo’d harbored some anger over Percy for what the other Greek demigod had done to Calypso. He clearly got over it, if Percy and he were on speaking terms. And again—Leo only fell silent for two seconds before giving Jason a weird look. “You’re telling me Jack Skellington’s in love?”

 

“I’m saying you should probably shut up.”

 

“Yeah, but Jay—we’re talking about di Angelo here. You’ve got dirt on him and—okay. Shutting up.” Regardless of super close best friend status or not, Leo knew Jason wasn’t going to tolerate hearing Nico getting ragged on at that moment. He grew silent, with his hands crossed over his chest. “Well he did save your life, so he can’t be that bad.”

 

“He’s not bad at all, Leo.”

 

“You must really care about him.”

 

Jason stumbled before his growing irritation could bite Leo’s head off. While he wasn’t proud of hurting his friends, what Leo said about Jason’s behavior during the war was true. Jason jumped on anyone who badmouthed the Son of Hades before Nico and he ever formed their bond. What the blonde saw now was a contemplative look over Leo’s face on a downturned mouth—and wavering eyes that went from wanting information to not.

 

Jason thought back to their conversations on warm summer nights, when he was still distraught about Piper and why it didn’t last like she wished.

 

It fell along the lines of what Apollo said. Piper breaking up with him wasn’t in his control—but he knew he wasn’t upset because she left him. He was upset because he couldn’t make himself love her.

 

“Say no more, Superman. I can tell you don’t want to.” Leo’s feet planted to the ground and he reached out to shake Jason’s hand. “Just…come. Next week, alright? I don’t get to see enough of you.”

 

“I can agree to that,” Jason murmured. He took Leo’s hand and they ended with a fist bump.

 

Just a glimmer in Leo’s eyes and Jason knew the shorter teen didn’t want to mention Nico again. Which was fine—because Jason couldn’t be bothered to ask more about Percy.

 

Instead, they caught up on current things. There was a sense of formality between them that bothered Jason—too civil to be considered friends, but still informal enough that they were laughing at each others’ jokes. They were avoiding certain subjects, which only made it worse.

 

What good was having a best friend if you were more worried about pissing him off than making conversation?

 

Eventually, Percy came back with Piper in tow.

 

“Beauty Queen!” Leo exclaimed.

 

“Leo! Oh my gods, you’re almost tall now!” Piper threw her arms over her friend and pulled him into a bear hug. Ironically, Leo was trying to do the same thing.

 

“We’ll stay in the Fifth Cohort barracks for the night and then leave in the morning. Blackjack’s having too much fun in the stables with Arion,” Percy said quietly as the pair exchanged words. He was definitely a lot calmer than before.

 

And looked more contemplative, with the SPQR tattoo glowing against his skin. Jason’s guess was Reyna and he had a quiet discussion.

 

“People in the Fifth Cohort treating you like a praetor?” Jason asked cryptically.

 

The quick glimpse at Percy’s eyes and Jason realized maybe Percy hadn’t settled back at Camp Halfblood as comfortably as he earlier assumed. Percy used to shyly ramble on the Argo II about building homes, going to college, and starting a family in New Rome with Annabeth before she feared him because of his powers. Once the war was over, all of those ideas were likely thrown out the window.

 

Not all of them, apparenty.

 

That being said, sea green eyes hardened and looked sideways to Jason. “I’d like to work my way up to that title.”

 

“But…?”

 

“Can’t jump in headfirst. Can’t even get my feet wet yet.” Percy shrugged and offered a halfhearted smile. Definitely less jerkish than an hour before. “From my experience, it usually leads to drowning.”

 

“I can’t…exactly follow all of those metaphors, Perce.”

 

“What’s a metaphor?”

 

“Uh…never mind.”

 

Shaking his head with dismay, Percy unrolled his sleeves and stuffed both hands in his pockets. He caught the other teen’s eyes and they remained firm.

 

Four months ago they stood in Zeus’s Cabin, alone—staring each other down and sizing each other up to get a feel of the other Big Three demigod. They worked mercilessly as comrades—which only made spar sessions between them all the better. Jason couldn’t believe the tension he was feeling over Percy’s immature jealousy. It only made him feel worse thinking about Nico.

 

However here they were—treading thin lines, but treading nonetheless.

 

“You plan on staying the extra day for us at least?” Percy pondered curiously. “Or you gonna go back to LA and do weird Cali things?”

 

“Coming from someone who won’t eat something unless it’s blue,” Jason responded wryly. Shaking his head, he refused. Nico wouldn’t be comfortable staying an extra night just to appease Percy. “No. I need to get back to the swing of things down in LA. I’ll just have to…”

 

“Dive in?” The Son of Poseidon guessed.

 

“Again. Good metaphor.”

 

“Sure.” Percy kicked his feet against the tiled floors and bit the inside of his mouth. “So you’re really not coming back to the camps any time soon?”

 

“Not unless I need it.” Jason shook his head. He saw a glimpse of disbelief in Percy’s eyes, but didn’t think to question it. For the most part, the resident smartass of their crew was...in his head. Surprisingly. “It doesn’t mean I turned my back on everything.”

 

Still the skeptic, Percy eyed the younger teen—and said nothing. Instead, he let his shoulders sag in defeat and tilted his head. “You need help moving anything?”

 

“No. Nico’s going to help me out with that.”

 

Something else caught in those sea green eyes—not that Jason could put his finger on it. Percy’s expression made the blonde think back to a few weeks before his accident happened, when he was caught off guard at finding his old best friend and Percy spooning in bed together. If Percy had something to say (and he almost always did) he definitely chose to leave it out this time.

 

Good. Jason didn’t have the energy to deal with the crap his friends would say about Nico.

 

Instead, Piper and Leo finished their adieus. They gathered in the room together, promising to meet up in Camp Halfblood for Christmas—and then Percy, Leo, and Piper spun a story about their academics.

 

Weird. That was definitely the word to describe it. It was hard to think of these people as the comrades Jason fought aside in a war—and then imagine them in a classroom in cramped desks studying the mortal version of American History.

 

Everyone was coping with the aftermath of the war. So of course it made sense.

 

Piper was now homeschooled to be closer to her father. Hazel rose in the ranks as a centurion to the Fifth Cohort, with rumors amongst them all that she would one day be praetor, and Frank worked with Reyna to restore what was lost of the Twelfth Legion—along with integrating Greek demigods who were interested in serving ten years.

 

Annabeth didn’t want to admit it, but she was relieved now that she didn’t have to think about the extent of Percy’s powers on a daily basis. They were actually on good terms with each other, apparently—there were just too many secrets that should have stayed in the dark. Instead she worked as an advisor for Reyna alongside attending school in New Rome to become an architect, and they spun an eloquent (and pretty weird) dance around each other.

 

That left him, living in LA and trying to figure out his life. With Nico.

 

Well—that was definitely one way to cope. Jason didn’t regret it once.

 

“You sure you don’t want to stay, Jason?” Piper’s voice brought him out of his thoughts a little while later, after Jason received the seal of approval from Will to leave.

 

Pulling out of his ministrations, Jason glanced over to his ex-girlfriend. She was finally able to look at him with a whole-hearted smile. “No, uh. Nico should be back soon. I really just want to…” Get out of New Rome. For now, at least. Staying too long reminded Jason what he left behind.

 

“Okay,” Piper said. Then, she obliviously took Leo by the hand and walked over to give Jason a big hug.

 

He hugged her back.

 

“Next time I see you,” she mused quietly beneath her breath, “don’t let it be in a hospital room. Okay?”

 

Oh, gods. “Trust me, I’m going to try and avoid this place.”

 

“Right,” Piper said cryptically. The tone of her voice caught Jason’s ears. He thought better not to ask. “I’ll see you eventually. Right?”

 

Warmth ignited in Jason’s chest as he looked at her. Smiling at the stunning daughter of Aphrodite and Tristan McLean, Jason nodded. “Soon.”

 

They said their goodbyes outside the hospital, where Jason waited with his gladius strapped tightly to his pants. Grateful to be out of hospital smocks for the first time in nearly two weeks, he decided that yes—Jason was never coming back to the hospital if he could help it.

 

Nico and he were only one shadowtravel away from going home.

 

Except—as hours passed—Nico never showed up. 

Chapter Text

 

 

A week.

 

It was a week before Jason saw Nico again—and it was spent with him on edge.

 

When the Son of Hades didn’t show up at the hospital to pick him up, Jason assumed Nico had gotten caught up with his sister in the stables. Although it was one of the hated tasks on camp, she adored caring for the horses and pegasi—not to mention riding freely on Arion with her spatha strapped to her thigh when Hazel had the chance. Nico hadn’t been there.

 

According to Hazel, Nico disappeared a long time ago, before Percy came back. Once he left, she’d assume he retreated to Jason. Now that she knew that wasn’t the case, she was worried.

 

It wasn’t a big deal. Maybe. Nico disappeared all the time. But part of Jason was disappointed.

 

Two weeks before Thanksgiving, Jason was asked to be the home of one Nico di Angelo. Nico wasn’t going to run to the Underworld, or between camps—or anything like that. Nico wanted to come with Jason. And…gods, Jason was hoping that they could go back to his apartment back in LA together.

 

But it wasn’t a big deal. It shouldn’t have been, he kept insisting to himself. Because before the whole spear-in-ribcage ordeal, Nico popped in at menial times during the week to keep Jason company or have a random spar. That was normal.

 

And somehow that was what bothered Jason the most. Why wasn’t there more there?

 

Because there can’t be, reminded the miser in the back of his head. Right?

 

Eventually, Jason got over himself. Cindy the Nymph certainly hadn’t forgotten about him. She complained about a “harsh LA winter” and begged for his help to fix her fire hydrant a dozen times within the first day of getting back—the moment Jason stepped foot into his apartment.

 

The week went slower than molasses as Jason woke up every day waiting for Nico to pop up. The apartment was under safe keeping with the skull ring warding scared creatures off. Nico once mused that monsters that lingered near DOA Records were usually incredibly stupid—not amazingly brave. The ring, however, provided a fresh face of death and caused monsters to U-turns that put New York taxi drivers to shame.

 

Jason stocked up on frozen dinners and fruit—just waiting for Nico to show up. The doubts and fears came back from the instance before—because he knew Nico was uncomfortable about what Jason said. Snuggling. Grounding him. That entire week Jason was delusional from ambrosia pumping through his veins—and Nico tolerated all of it. Tolerate didn’t necessarily mean like.

 

If anything, it only blurred the line and made him feel worse.

 

But…Nico looked happy, right? When Jason called Nico his best friend?

 

Then the Son of Jupiter tried to get a hold of the said Ghost King. He tried Iris Messaging twice with no avail. After that, he got mad.

 

Nico was ignoring him.

 

They promised to return to LA together. Nico promised to show up after Percy and Leo left.

 

Just…none of it made sense.

 

And on that early Saturday morning, Jason sat on the ledge of his apartment complex still steaming about it. Seven whole days where Nico didn’t turn up. Seven whole days where Nico decided to ignore him.

 

But he couldn’t think about it. Not now.

 

Instead, his eyes glanced over the smoggy LA street beneath his dangling feet. The clouds above were as light as stone—maybe the most ruthless they would be for a warm winter. The scent of automobile fluids and fuels, along with the nearby pizza joint and various cafes, and the ashy scent of parks, with the sturdy whiff of Jason’s apartment complex mixed into a gusto of what he would have called home.

 

All that was missing at his side was one Son of Hades—with pale, alabaster skin, dark, brooding eyes of a mad genius, and messy hair that was as soft as a pillow. Jason missed that scent. That…piney smell, of fertile dirt at the end of tree trunks, mixed with moth balls like the aviator’s jacket spent sixty years soaked in it.

 

Jason couldn’t remember the last time he felt so crazy and yearned for something so much.

 

Maybe Hades had the right idea. Courting Nico wouldn’t be so bad.

 

But. No. It’d also be terrifying.

 

He decided to end the argument in his head before it could even start—knowing it would only make him miss Nico more.

 

Hanging off the ledge of his apartment complex, Jason could feel his heart somersaulting in his chest. The soles of his shoes were further off the ground than he would have liked—and with one nudge, he could be freefalling.

 

(His chest painstakingly ached at the thought of it.)

 

Leo expected him in an hour, when school was over. They were to meet at a small café, and then maybe take the bus over to Camp Halfblood—to which Jason was still debating. He promised to celebrate Christmas with his friends a long time ago, so there was no point in getting out of it. Going to Long Island would get his mind off of things and allow him to build up his endurance again.

 

One hour until he was supposed to meet Leo. Jason had been sitting on the ledge for at least eight now, trying to convince himself to take the flight. It’d take three just to get over the Midwestern states.

 

Just then, he spotted a cloud—darker and smokier than the others, with crackles of lightning that hummed like a horse’s neigh. It soared over the city with brusque speed and descended—straight at Jason.

 

“Whoa—”

 

Tempest molded out of the clouds and pushed his snout in Jason’s face—nostrils whistling like an electric current. He whinnied, with his legs clacking against concrete like thunder, and actually licked Jason like, ‘Hey man! Been a while!

 

“Tempest,” Jason shouted. He stood to his feet and raked his fingers through the puffs of his ventus. “I take it you heard about my accident too?”

 

The wind spirit neighed deeply, sounding like the swirl of a tornado. He clicked his thunderous hooves again and nudged Jason until the demigod stumbled on his feet. Jason could only take it as, ‘You got hit pretty hard, dude. The other wind spirits and I are laughing.’

 

Toying with the thought, Jason’s hand ran through the horse-ventus’s mane again and he smiled. “I don’t suppose you could take me to New York, could you?”

 

Seconds later, Tempest tapped his hooves like Horse Code and Jason found himself on the back of a storm spirit. Oh, gods.

 

Riding a storm spirit was the closest Jason felt to air. Tempest was charged with electricity and wind, with sparks of lightning that ricocheted off the undefined inner walls of his body. His airy skin coated the demigod like a second skin, whirring and buzzing against the hairs on his arms. It was perfec—

 

“Whoa!” In the blink of an eye, Jason fell. WOOOOOSH.

 

Oh—crap, crap, crap—

 

He went freefalling toward the ground in an instant—and would have slammed into asphalt if Tempest didn’t catch him. Jason gripped the ventus with a constricting bind—his heart drumming rapidly in his chest. He let out a puff of panicked air, eyes wide and fingers trembling. All the while, Tempest wriggled to get the demigod on his back again.

 

Oh, gods—Jason had fallen.

 

You can fly, said the voice in the back of his head. Stop being such a wuss.  

 

Tempest crowed as he flew over the California-Arizona border, saying, ‘Sorry, man!’

 

“I’m okay,” Jason breathed as he caught up to his heart. Gripping his steed tighter, he settled on Tempest’s back as firmly as possible. And again, Jason swallowed hard as he looked at the landscape thousands of feet beneath them. “I’m okay.”

 

He could fly. Even if he fell off again—there was a way to get back in the air.

 

Regardless, his shoulder ached with fear and pain.

 

-x-

 

Jason didn’t open his eyes again until he saw Goode High School in the distance. His hands remained tight around Tempest’s neck, fingers firmly tangled in his mane while his body was securely mounted on the horse’s back. A gust of New York wind hit him hard, nearly knocking him off his ventus. His teeth chattered against cold and snow, and the moisture in his eyes froze over from harsh weather.

 

Curse his stupid luck for dressing in just a jacket.

 

“H-Here’s good, Tempest,” Jason seethed. He jerked his head at the sight of a familiar bus station and the nearby café where Leo and he promised to meet up. Tempest neighed as they made their descent down the street. Oblivious city goers ignored the pair as Jason made it to the ground, probably thinking it was just a kid on his skateboard or something.

 

The moment the soles of Jason’s shoes met the asphalt, he let out a breath that he’d been holding for a full hour. HIs entire mind felt out of place from the cold and speed. Storm Spirits usually knew how to fly fast—and leave you feeling inside out.

 

Tempest neighed and nuzzled his snout into Jason’s hair—creating a hum of a static current that made Jason laugh. Puffs of white air left his lips, and he almost whined in search for more warmth in the storm spirit’s static. Gods, was it cold. Was it always this freezing?

 

Then again, he was too busy trying to find his memories last year that being incredibly cold probably didn’t occur to him. Jason mused that he was wearing the same black jacket that brought him here from the Grand Canyon.

 

Around this time he would have woken up from Piper’s lap, wondering where he was. There’d be a Latino Santa’s Elf involved, some crazy storm spirits, and in a few days they would be flying around on Happy the Dragon.

 

Letting out a breath of snowy air, Jason could only shake his head. Man, had time flown.

 

His thoughts must have been loud, if Tempest felt the need to nuzzle Jason with a flurry of electricity once more. Right. About a year ago, Jason would have met his steed too. Puffing white smoke with laughter, the blonde wrapped an arm around his good friend and smiled. His heart pounded in his chest.

 

“Thanks,” he said finally. “I’ll fly again eventually.”

 

The streets of New York were as hustling and bustling as ever. Stepping out of the alleyway made Jason feel like he never left it. He remembered back before the Argo II was completely built when Annabeth took them on tour around Percy’s regular hangout places. Before they got to know each other, Jason pegged the guy to be…well, more like him. Disciplined. Campers spun the tale of how Percy Jackson was the Child of the Prophecy and how he led a battle through the streets of New York. Jason imagined having that responsibility thrust upon himself, other than slaying the Titan Krios, and immediately knew whoever the Son of Poseidon was, he had guts.

 

(Sure enough, Jason thought with a queasy stomach, Percy did. Enough guts that fluttered into stupidity.)

 

As he trekked down the streets to the designated café, Jason recalled his eight months at Camp Halfblood and around New York. Pipe’sr and his first date had been to a snowy Central Park for a picnic, then to a small vendor for delicious hot cocoa that would warm them up before a movie. Or—supposedly, that was the plan.

 

Instead, Jason remembered Piper obliviously turning the offer down to console a distraught Annabeth, who took it especially hard that day for being separated from Percy. He ended up taking Leo out on a “date” instead, since he found the Son of Hephaestus pacing around Bunker 9, covered in soot (with the later realization that Leo was buck-naked from being too invested constructing the Argo II and burnt all his clothes off from lack of focus on his own personal hygiene.) Leo spent the entire incident with a ridiculous falsetto and even put a pretty pink bow in his hair for emphasis.

 

During the same night, Jason crashed at Bunker 9 in a nearby cot while his best friend tinkered with wires and pipes. It was there that he discovered Leo was the best personal heater ever. (In retrospect, Jason had apparently manhandled Leo sometime in the middle of the night and decided to keep the shorter teen in his arms like a teddy bear. Leo said he didn’t mind up until the point Jason accidentally electrocuted him.)

 

Another puff of air left Jason’s lips as he hiked up the collar of his black jacket. Who knew so much would change in a year. Piper and he were no longer dating, Annabeth was off with Reyna in San Francisco and Percy was…here. With Jason’s best friend. Man, were things weird—

 

Nico.

 

Jason turned his head as he caught glimpse of the Son of Hades from the corner of his eye.

 

Across the street was sure enough, the Son of Hades—donning his signature aviator’s jacket, a scarf, and a grey Sherpa hat that was clearly a gift from Hazel—meaning he must have paid her a visit sometime this week. Without dropping by to Jason.

 

What the hell.

 

The other demigod stood at the other side of the street with his hands stuffed in his pockets. Sanguine bloomed in his cheeks—nose as red as rose petals from the cold. He looked flushed and annoyed from the winter weather, with flakes of snow sprinkled in his ebony black hair—but also like he was waiting for Jason. They made eye contact.

 

Impulse took Jason by surprise, and he charged across the busy New York street. BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP.

 

 Er—well, tried. The moment he stepped foot on the road, an irritated taxi driver honked his horn and yelled a colorful vocabulary. Yup—he was definitely back in New York.

 

Dumbly looking at the row of traffic, Jason debated his options before joining New Yorkers at a street corner to wait for the light to change. All the while, Nico looked to him across the street—one penchant eyebrow arched in the air and lips parted between puffs of cold air. Just that alone made Jason forget he was annoyed. All he needed was to see Nico.

 

And—

 

“You could just fly, you know.”

 

“Nico!” Before he crossed the street, the Son of Hades appeared behind him, toes buried deep in the shadows of the crowd. Jason whirled around and flung his arms over the younger teen. He picked Nico up in a bear hug and breathed in that scent. Mothballs. Grungy earth. Gods—Jason didn’t realize how much he missed it.

 

A disgruntled sound left Nico’s throat. The younger boy fidgeted, eyes wide, but not protesting.

 

“Dude!” Jason exclaimed, exhilarated. He grinned cheek-to-cheek, excitement sparking in his chest as his hands gripped Nico’s shoulders firmly. “I’ve missed you!”

 

The other demigod looked at him like he’d grown a second head—and then observed him cagily. “You’re not mad at me.”

 

Well.

 

It occurred to Jason as he sorted through his thoughts that he still had Nico three feet off the ground—arms wrapped tightly around the younger teen’s waist. Nico’s face leered at him from a foot above, with snowy locks dangling in the air and puffs of white air whispering from his lips. Dark eyes locked with blue—shrouded in a way that left Jason unsettled.

 

The blonde’s mind blanked at that moment as he looked back up and studied Nico’s face. Silence. He tried summoning words—and couldn’t.

 

Instead, Nico pulled a hand out of his pocket and rested it over Jason’s wound. Delicate fingers tangled with the weather-resistant cloth of his jacket, and Nico curled them into claws. “How is it?”

 

“It’s fine.” Suddenly feeling uncomfortable, Jason lowered the boy to the ground—and Nico looked tenser than he did ten seconds ago.

 

“You’re not mad at me.”

 

“Do you want me to be?”

 

“That’s not the way it works.” The Son of Hades’ voice tightened. Immediately his eyes fell to the ground and the gall radiated in his tone. Cold. “Stop letting me make the decision here. That’s—that’s dumb.”

 

While Jason couldn’t grasp his own anger, he knew by that tone that Nico was angry at him. Taking in a deep breath, Jason decided he had no choice—and tested the waters. “You…promised to be back in an hour, Nico. And then you never showed up, and you ditched me for an entire week. So…yeah. You could say I was mad.” Eyebrows knitting together, Jason’s own fury melted in his stomach. He couldn’t even remember what the word angry meant now that they were standing with each other. “I just thought that…with everything that happened, that. You’d…come home. With me. To LA. And you didn’t.”

 

“I’ve had a lot on my mind.”

 

“Yeah—and that’s okay. You know that I’m here to talk about it with. C’mon, let’s…go somewhere more private.” Jason’s eyes darted everywhere skittishly before he ushered them to a quiet alleyway. Everyone in New York was too self-absorbed to care about two teenagers chatting at a streetlight—but no one would be happy if they were roadblocks. As he inched them toward a closed off block of sidewalk—Nico slapped his hand away. “What the—Nico—?”

 

Nico’s voice cut through him like a spear. “Exactly what do you plan on doing with me?”

 

What? They weren’t in a quiet alleyway. Too far away to get there. Instead, Jason’s eyes widened incredulously as Nico looked at him for the first time—cheeks flushed with red fury and eyebrows shriveled in confusion. He looked torn.

 

“Nico,” Jason started steadily, as he looked at the younger teen, “What are you talking about—?”

 

His cluelessness didn’t help. If anything, the shadows of that tiny alleyway were whirring with anger as Nico’s eyes lit up with irritation. Suddenly Nico’s hands were everywhere—and they conducted each dark tendril like instruments to a symphony. “I’m talking about the fact that ever since Thanksgiving you’ve been k…kissing m-my hand a-and holding me close and inviting me to…to bed with you! Do you think it’s fun to be messed with like this? A thrill?

 

Jason didn’t know what to say. His jaw slackened, mouth parting in utter surprise. Yes, Nico’d looked bothered since the whole ground-me-in-bed thing but not even that seemed to be the root of the source. Or Jason was just that bad at reading the dark-haired boy. His thoughts flew back to the second option. The one that involved Jason getting another weapon aimed at his heart. “Did your father tell you I was courting you?”

 

No, that wasn’t the case.

 

Immediately Nico’s expression shriveled in confusion and he gestured his hands again. His eyes glinted with cold death and lips stretched into a grimace. “My father…? What?!

 

Uh-oh. “Nico—”

 

“I’m talking about the fact that you and Valdez had a thing before you came to see me,” Nico spat. Jason’s blood froze like ice in his veins—something that read like a confirmation in Nico’s face. The Son of Hades’ entire demeanor morphed—upset, and Jason couldn’t find the right words of it destroyed him. Instead, Nico teetered back with clumsy steps, seething. “So Percy was right.”

 

Percy? Oh, Jason was going to kill him. “Nico—listen, you’ve got to hear me out—I didn’t tell you because I didn’t plan on that ever getting out—

 

“You know, I thought you were my friend.” Nico’s voice cracked painfully—and Jason couldn’t fathom why he was so hurt by this. “You can’t just go back and forth as you please. If I don’t put out for you too, are you going to stop talking to me for four fucking months?”

 

Jason’s chest tightened. He choked down the irritation as the other teen glared at him and coiled his hands into fists. “That’s not the full story.”

 

“You can’t play with my feelings and bully me because I’m gay, Grace—”

 

“Nico! I wasn’t playing with your feelings and I’m not courting you. I’m not doing any of that!” Jason planted both hands on the other teen’s shoulders in attempt to cut him off.

 

Once he did, Nico’s tantrum came to a full halt. The Son of Hades looked up to him with his shoulders stuff and entire body reading with fury. Most importantly—his complexion went to pale and ghostly white as the snow, and eyes widened—shunned from whatever other thoughts that were shooting through his head. Jason cursed himself.

 

“Yes,” he breathed, and he bowed his head to get a better look at Nico. His heart rammed against his ribcage, waiting explode from anxiety, fear, shame, panic, and irritation. “Leo and I had a thing. We experimented. I was upset because Piper and I just broke up and I—I wanted someone. To not disappoint someone. But it was mutual and we knew it wasn’t going to last long, okay? And then—I left to find you, and I was too ashamed to talk to him again because I couldn’t be there. You make me happy, Nico, you really do—and—I do see you as my best friend, but I’m not after you. I’m not interested in you that way, okay?”

 

Nico trembled.

 

“I—I was wrong that entire time in the hospital. First it was the ambrosia making me act a little crazy and then maybe I enjoyed it too much—but I never asked if you were okay with it, and maybe I was a little too relieved that you never said anything, and that wasn’t right. I’m sorry—I am so sorry—I didn’t mean to mess with you like that.” Jason’s own voice cracked, hopping over his heart as it leapt in his throat, and he tightened his grip over Nico’s shoulders. “I’m not courting you and I’m not out there to mess with you. I-I’m just a jerk that overstepped my boundaries and I hope you can forgive me for that. I don’t want to mess with your feelings, Nico, you’re too important.”

 

Dark eyes fell to the ground, and Nico’s entire body shrank into himself.

 

Jason felt two inches tall, with his knees buried deep in dirt. Even the realization hit that he didn’t want to hear it out of Nico’s mouth that the younger teen hated what they were doing. Part of him was pleased with the idea that he was the only one allowed to touch Nico in an intimate way and—wow, it made Jason feel even more like a jerk.

 

So he spoke words. Better ones.

 

“Even if I were to court you,” he whispered under his breath, and he stuffed his hands back in his pockets—knowing he was too undeserving of skin contact with the other boy, “I wouldn’t be half the man that you deserve.”

 

The other demigod cocked his head, locking gazes with Jason queasily for the umpteenth tense moment between them. Nico was green in the face, with lips glued firmly together, and eyebrows distraught.

 

Maybe this was what Apollo meant, muttered the miser in Jason’s head, when he said you’d lose control, Grace.

 

“I want you to be with someone that can’t hurt you. Not like Percy. And—not like me.” This was why Jason suppressed the selfish thoughts in his mind. They led to stupid things. “He’s going to be the one that grounds you. Who you can run to at the end of the day.” A part of Jason suddenly deflated—because he knew it wouldn’t be him.

 

Silence. The yelling between them ceased—but that didn’t mean everything was mended. If Jason was wiser, he would have understood two weeks ago why everything he’d done was so stupid. So much had happened to Nico in the past four years that some innocent flirting could easily be misconstrued as cruel teasing. Nico was right to be uncomfortable then—and Jason had pushed the edges and blurred lines.

 

Question was—did he stop himself soon enough?

 

Once the other demigod finished studying his face, Nico opened his mouth to speak. He never got the chance to say a word.

 

“Hey,” Leo’s voice said at an ill time. He walked down the sidewalk—hand-in-hand with one Percy Jackson with the silliest grin on his face. “Oh—hey, you brought di Angelo along. Sup, Nico?”

 

-x-

 

Percy and Leo were definitely flirting more than they were a week ago.

 

In retrospect, Jason had no idea why Nico stayed. Once the two other demigods joined them on the side of the road, Jason knew that it’d become too crowded for the Son of Hades. Nico’s demeanor as the pair waltzed up remained tight-lipped and unreadable—like he felt the need to say something else, but he couldn’t think of it. The entire week of absence, Jason realized as they walked into the small café to grab lunch, was a buildup of well-deserved irritation from Nico’s part.

 

He couldn’t understand why he felt so empty, after setting the facts straight.

 

Jason wasn’t courting Nico. That was never the plan when he moved down to LA. Everything that involved brushing fingers with Nico and holding him felt…good, but if he blinded himself thinking about that, then he knew in the long run that it would only hurt the both of them.

 

And to be honest, Jason couldn’t afford to hurt Nico. Especially not now.

 

Even as he reminded himself that it was for the best, Jason’s chest felt hollowed out and void of some…satisfaction out of that. Between his words, a line had been drawn between them—creating a barrier that he wasn’t sure he liked.

 

Something kept him afloat. Like Jason couldn’t land.

 

“—son? Jay. Jay.

 

“What?” Snapping out of his thoughts, Jason looked across the booth where the Son of Hephaestus was waving his hand frantically.

 

Suddenly Nico leapt in his seat—demeanor morphing from its blank slate for the first time into a scowl. “Stop touching my leg, Valdez.”

 

“What? Oh—sorry, man. Was reaching for my spacey Superman’s leg over there.” That being said, Leo’s eyes suddenly fell beneath the table to inspect their seating arrangements before he tapped the tip of his shoe to Jason’s ankle. “I’m short. You get that, right?”

 

They sat at a booth near a window—undeterred by the cold air radiating from the glass with Leo as their to-go heater. Percy and Leo sat in one end while Jason and Nico sat at the other. The irony was, Jason wasn’t sure if any one of them wanted to be there.

 

Looking at the other end of the table, Jason could see Percy’s eyes dart everywhere but toward Leo or Jason himself, with a flicker of irritation dancing in sea green orbs. Out of nowhere, he saw those eyes look back to the Son of Hephaestus, with the corner of lips curling into a smile.

 

They were probably playing footsies under the table.

 

Glancing at Nico from the edge of Jason’s peripheral vision, he saw those dark eyes narrowed at the drinks sitting parallel to the east coast demigods. Nico’s lips pressed together tightly, his entire expression unreadable unless you knew him well. And—right now, Jason wasn’t sure if he could do that.

 

But he knew Nico could read bodies. Nico knew body language better than anyone else Jason ever knew.

 

Percy and Leo weren’t being shy about what they were doing, either. While a week ago, Percy’d immediately evacuated the room when Jason and Leo fell into step with each other, this was Percy and Leo being unadulterated them. Percy reached over to take sips of Leo’s sweet tea. Leo nudged Percy goofily when the eldest demigod wouldn’t pay attention. They were probably holding hands beneath the table, where Jason and Nico’s views were blocked.

 

And a part of Jason was envious, as he watched Nico study all of this.

 

“Ahem,” Percy said for the first time since they met up. He sounded ill at ease, ready to leave this meeting altogether. “I’m…glad that you decided to come up to Camp Halfblood for the winter, Nico. Thalia’s looking forward to you visiting.” Jason cocked his head at the mention of his sister. “It’s important to her for you to be there while they contribute their piece to the memorial.”

 

“Hey, a bunch of hot babes that know how to kill you in forty different ways at camp,” Leo mused. He arched an impish eyebrow—and made wide gestures with his hands that let Jason know he was nervous about this meeting. “I’m game.”

 

At that point, Percy only arched an eyebrow back to the fiery demigod, with his lips drawn into a crooked smirk. Still, he focused his tentative attention on the Son of Hades, which felt all too suspicious to Jason. “She wants you to be the one that puts Bianca’s...name on the plaque when it’s time.” No one missed the way Nico glared as the Son of Poseidon mentioned his sister’s name.

 

Wait a minute. “Is that why you’re in New York?” Jason turned his attention back to the youngest teen. It didn’t cross his mind as to why Nico would be in Manhattan—other than maybe to see Jason.

 

Nico shrugged, refusing to look him in the eye. He feigned disinterest by looking out the window to mad New Yorkers.

 

“I invited him,” Percy explained casually. “You know—to lunch with us and stuff. I’m glad you said yes, man.”

 

This was all some stupid way of eliminating the third wheel. And suddenly, Jason couldn’t help but feel like the fourth one. Across from Jason, Percy looked way too pleased with himself. Looking over Nico, Jason recognized that bitter smile anywhere, which was the only way the youngest teen could vent his frustrations.

 

“Not a problem,” the youngest demigod muttered sourly.

 

Irritation coiled in Jason’s stomach, and he didn’t care. Nico didn’t come here for him. He came for Percy.

 

The blonde snapped out of his thoughts when he heard Leo’s fingers nervously tap against the table—those wild chocolate brown eyes darting everywhere and the ADHD driving his attention span. Swallowing his wounded pride, Jason decided to address the matter at hand. “What are the hunters doing in New York?”

 

Leo and Percy turned to him.

 

“Right,” said the half-Latino demigod. Leo messed with his hair and crossed his arms to keep from twitching too much. “You haven’t been to camp in a while. Other than the whole spear-in-the-chest thing. Cabin 9 is building a memorial for all of the fallen.”

 

“I thought that was already decided when the war was declared over,” Jason said. He frowned, eyebrows knitting together. “Memorials have been built at both camps.”

 

“Yeah, kind of.” Percy interjected with his own voice and caught the blonde’s attention. “It’s more like…since the war with Kronos. Camp Halfblood is putting up a shrine for the fallen. Since the Hunters lost both their lieutenant and newest member during the uproar of everything, they want to contribute too. Even though, you know, they don’t like us.” Sea green eyes looked over to Nico again, but it was like dyslexia made it hard for Percy to decipher the younger teen. Or he didn’t try hard enough. “Thalia wants Nico to be there to honor Bianca. You can do that, right?”

 

“I can do that,” Nico replied in a clipped tone. Still—he looked at none of them.

 

The Son of Poseidon’s demeanor twisted—deterred by the response he’d gotten. The look on his face read, ‘Just what’s your problem?’ as he looked over to Nico, who was none the wiser, and then turned to Jason, like the blond had all the answers. “Hasn’t Thalia told you?”

 

Jason shrugged. From what he could see, Percy was swiping food off of Leo’s plate. They traded a quiet smile between them, reminding Jason of the Iris Message from long ago when the pair talked to each other in their own little world. Another rapt of taps—and this time, Jason knew it wasn’t Leo fiddling with Morse Code. It sounded more like a ring against the wooden brim of a booth.

 

“I haven’t seen Thalia in a week,” Jason explained when he knew the silence was running too long. Technically he was banned from seeing her. And—if she hadn’t told him, then maybe Thalia was banned from seeing him, too.

 

No—she had a more important life to lead. More planned in it too, as she reeled in her power as lieutenant again. That made more sense.

 

“You okay with that?” Leo’s voice caught him before Jason could wander off in his thoughts again—this time soft. “Not seeing your sister on a regular basis, I mean. You…okay with that, Jay?”

 

Again, Jason only shrugged as he thought about Apollo’s words. They’d come to him as a warning, like seeing his sister again before the time was right could do something bad for all of them. The rebel inside him wanted Jason to see Thalia anyway. They’d been separated far too long, and being together for a week just wasn’t enough.

 

“Jay,” Leo said sternly—again, pulling Jason in before he could float into his own thoughts. “Did something happen?”

 

For the first time, he detached himself from Percy’s limbs in favor of scooting close to look at his best friend. Percy looked disappointed, but Leo was more focused on Jason—reminding the blonde that they’d been best friends for over a year now. Give or take a few months.

 

“It’s complicated,” Jason started carefully. He didn’t know if he liked where this conversation would go. One glance at Nico and he saw that even the Son of Hades was suddenly interested in the turn of events. “I’m not allowed to see her for a while.”

 

Leo frowned. “Wait. Like. As in, you’re grounded, or by like godly demand?”

 

“Godly demand.”

 

“Tell me everything.”

 

Ergh. With all eyes suddenly on him, Jason wasn’t sure if he wanted to talk anymore. Getting a visit from a god was different when it wasn’t on a quest. Not just one god, but two—and somehow it was scarier. When a god talked to you on a quest you knew it would happen soon—that it was forthcoming. In the casual way Hades and Apollo addressed him, Jason had to anticipate anticipating.

 

Eventually Percy seemed to grasp that Jason didn’t want to continue with the conversation. Instead, he placed a hand on Leo’s shoulder to calm the boy down. His eyes shone to Jason, bright and sea green with a heavy flicker. They could talk about this later.

 

It was the same look that Jason gave Leo, as his best friend immediately ceased upon Percy’s hand on his shoulder. They were way touchier than last week. Leo’s eyes caught Jason’s gaze—and there was a visible gulp. They were definitely talking about this later.

 

At the same time, Nico remained silent in his seat, like a ticking time bomb. Jason wasn’t sure what to do. If he had the gall to do something.

 

“So,” Percy said anyway, still not reading the right cues, “Nico. When you come to Camp Halfblood, do you think you could…stay?”

 

Nico’s head cocked the teen’s way as soon as the words were mentioned. His eyes glazed over with suspicion, lips tight, and shoulders tense. Coldness accompanied his tone—something Jason always forgot that the younger demigod could conjure. “Why?”

 

“Or over at Camp Jupiter. You’ve got Hazel over there now.” Percy continued—either oblivious to Nico’s lack of friendly conversation skills or too invested in his own goals to care. He did that a lot. “It’s just…you spend all this time in the Underworld, but you’re a demigod too, you know?”

 

“I don’t follow.”

 

 “You don’t have to run away from place to place. I don’t think Bianca would have wanted that for you.” Percy’s eyebrows furrowed together, sincerely worried—which only irked Jason. Nico, too. “I mean…you saved Jason, Nico. You’ve got people that care about you.”

 

A bitter sound left the back of Nico’s throat, nearly inaudible. The smile he wore on his face was wary and tired—akin to the one that greeted Jason one early September day when Nico fist showed up in LA. Blood or sewage, was probably what the younger demigod was thinking, which only made painful knots twist in Jason’s stomach. “That’s a cute thought, Percy.”

 

“Hey.” Percy’s tone matched the one aimed at the gods whenever he spoke to them at the Empire State Building. His stature was bolder as he addressed the boy, sea green orbs hardening instinctively. “Don’t shut me out here, man. I’m just trying to look out for you.”

 

“But why?”

 

“Because we’re friends. It’s what Bianca would have wanted, isn’t it?”

 

SLAM.  

 

With that, Nico stood abruptly from his seat and stomped out the door of the diner, leaving Percy in shock and without a word to be said. Jason looked at the trail left behind by the Son of Hades, dumbstruck. And then angered.

 

“What’s his problem?” Percy voiced instantly—annoyed. “I was just trying—”

 

“That’s the problem,” Jason snapped—and he scooted out of the booth himself. He looked hurriedly to a confused Leo, and then to an irritated Percy, and pulled his jacket over his shoulders. “You didn’t try sooner.” Before he left, Jason looked between his two ex-teammates and bit the inside of his mouth. “I—sorry, Leo, I’ll—I’ll Iris Message you soon. But I gotta go.”

 

He left without saying goodbye.

 

And found Nico waiting for him in the dark alleyway where they’d met up for the first time in a week. The sky had dimmed to a cold blue, with bright yellow lights illuminating the cold streets of Manhattan. Nico’s pale face boiled red with fury, his fists trembling in violent spasms and teeth bared with rage.

 

Worse. Nico looked on the verge of tears.

 

“Nico—”

 

“He can’t do that.”

 

Jason halted for steps in front of the other teen. The wet glisten of tears streamed down the Son of Hades’ distraught face, voice wavering in and out of existence, and knuckles reaching up to brush them out of his eyes—ashamed. Jason was speechless.

 

“He doesn’t get to change the rules that way,” Nico spat bitterly—and he laughed cruelly in his own mess. “He doesn’t get to like guys too and—and get to parade around like it’s not a big deal!”

 

So he noticed. Jason’s heart clenched tightly in his chest and his eyebrows furrowed together. “So you saw.”

 

Of course I saw!” The Son of Hades covered his eyes, sheathing them from the dark world around him, and he laughed hatefully again. “Valdez and he are all over each other in there. Are you kidding me?”

 

Right. Having Leo and Percy in the same room together at that very moment wasn’t the best idea. Jason couldn’t even fathom why Percy needed to tag along. He wanted to punch the guy in the face. And do worse. “Nico—”

 

“Why can they do that,” the younger demigod hissed, “and I barely get the words out of my mouth that I’m—I’m gay?

 

“Nico, I’m sorry—”

 

“It’s not fair!”

 

Silence.

 

“It’s not…fair.” Nico’s voice deteriorated into a small whisper, and his hands curled into fists at his sides. He took in a harsh breath with a dagger of hatred in his lungs, and buried his eyes in the cuffs of his jacket. “I-It’s n-not…”

 

“I know,” Jason whispered back. “I know—I’m sorry, I know.” Without other thought, Jason threw his arms around the younger boy, encasing him broad arms and burying his face in Nico’s shaking body. The younger demigod clawed at the front of Jason’s jacket with hot, shaky breaths.

 

Regardless of what Jason felt, or how Nico felt about being touched, neither cared. All that mattered was Jason was blanketing Nico. Shielding Nico. Protecting him, and pushing away his own rage. Just—gods.

`

“I’m so sorry,” Jason whispered. He couldn’t believe what just happened. What made Percy think he had the nerve to do any of that? And then talk to Nico like he knew him? “I’m so sorry, Nico—I’m sorry.”

 

“I wanna go home.”

 

Jason sucked in a harsh breath. He honestly didn’t know where that was. The Underworld? Italy?

 

“Take me with you,” the Son of Hades murmured under his breath—tone breaking and ceasing. Nico sucked in a trembling breath, his fingers still curled against Jason’s body, and hair matted to his face with wet tears. “I don’t care. Just—t-take me with you.”

 

Breathing sharply, Jason held the teen close. “Your way or mine?”

 

They shadowtraveled through the streets of Manhattan without another thought.

 

-x-

 

 

“We’re friends.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

In the few months that Jason knew Nico, he’d only seen the guy cry twice. Thinking back on it—he would change only to already, because Nico wasn’t the type of person that spewed his guts out upon the first meeting. The common misconception about him was that he didn’t care. That Nico was apathetic, and he’d only give up the world if Hazel asked for it. He was cold, and uncaring.

 

None of that was true. Nico helped. He cared—he really did, but it was hard not to be grounded when everyone feared you. Flowers wilted at his feet, and most people thought he was out to suck the souls of mortals and humanity. It was hard to be optimistic when you knew people hesitated around you.

 

In Jason’s case, he was the golden boy who wanted a higher status. Everyone else wanted, and he couldn’t deliver. But he wasn’t important right now—Nico was.

 

An hour later, after Nico settled, the younger demigod had shuffled over to Jason’s refrigerator, retrieved an apple, and planted himself firmly next to Jason beside the bedroom window. His face was red—swollen from rubbing away tears from dull eyes. Locks of ebony black hair stuck to bony cheekbones, barricading his gaze so he wouldn’t have to look Jason in the face. Other ends stuck up in hedges above his head, with the Sherpa hat, scarf, and even Nico’s jacket sitting at the other end of the room.

 

The few times Nico actually discarded of the aviator’s jacket could be counted on one hand. In some way it left him exposed—without the suit of armor of who he was before being claimed. Jason thought about it like Thalia: she wore her leather jacket, her multiple pins, and her short hair to be her and not just to be Artemis’s lieutenant or Zeus’s daughter.

 

It took an hour before things calmed down—a long hour holding a shaky Nico, muttering, ‘I’m sorry,’ over and over, and letting the demigod ride through his emotions. But now—they sat beside each other, with Nico perched a foot away from Jason and refusing to make eye contact.

 

Just because they came back to LA didn’t mean it erased the fight they had before meeting up with Percy and Leo. Jason had the realization once Nico placed the space between them—and his chest ached at their datum.

 

Stroking his own sneaker, Jason added his apprehension to their reticence. A million thoughts flew through his mind, but he was too slow to catch even one. “Are you mad at me?”

 

Nico snorted—quiet, with blank, sardonic eyes. “Do you want me to be mad at you?”

 

His tone was a tiresome—with a little mockery buried in between. Jason cringed. Finally, he stood up to his feet, then moved to sit parallel to the other teen. Nico looked up to him, expression obsolete and blank.

 

He was heartbroken. Frustrated. This…guy that he had a crush on as a kid—and continued to have a crush on, no matter how much he hated Percy Jackson for not protecting his sister, made it impossible for him. Nico continued living anyway, with the bitter knowledge that he was infatuated with a straight guy. And now—that wasn’t the problem. Percy being all over Leo was like a punch in the stomach and a sword to his heart.

 

Or so Jason could presume. He was torn between being happy for Leo and devastated for Nico. Worse—because Jason didn’t want to see Nico upset over Percy. Especially not like this.

 

“I want to know what you’re thinking,” Jason muttered. He stared at the wooden floor, reading the patterns like they were Latin characters—and just cursed himself. He thought by now that he’d be able to say something helpful.

 

“Hm.” The back of Nico’s head pressed to the wall and he leaned to the side. Hateful eyes studied the empty sunlight, and his lips pulled into a straight line. “I don’t know if I can do that.”

 

“Nico, you know that you can tell me any—”

 

“I know,” Nico cut him off, and he sucked in a breath. “I know, Jason. I’ve told you things that I haven’t even told Hazel. Things I don’t even know if I will tell her, but. I need my thoughts in my head. I need them to be mine.”

 

“Why can’t you tell me?” 

 

In an instant, Nico’s eyes narrowed to him into a weak glare, one brow arched in the air. Like saying, ‘What did I just say?’

 

“Oh. Right.” Jason couldn’t help it. He was furious at Percy for having the nerve to say he cared about Nico. Percy had the last four years to try and make peace with Bianca’s passing and to mend things with her brother—yet it was only now that he was willing to try. Like he knew Nico.

 

It was easy to forget how much of an influence Percy was in Nico’s life—especially when they got around to never mentioning him. Nico liked Percy. It was killing him inside, and Jason wasn’t sure he liked that. He knew more about Nico in the last four months than Percy did in the last four years.

 

Coming back to LA only made him hope that Nico would talk to him, but evidently that wouldn’t be the case. Nico was too emotionally drained. He’d probably even leave soon, if this was the extent of their conversation.

 

“I’m not mad at you—”

 

“You’re not?” Jason perked at the words—but the moment he looked up, Nico’s lips pressed together once more. “Sorry, I.”

 

A thoughtful gleam passed over the younger demigod’s tired eyes. He sunk his teeth into his apple for the first time, sucking on the sweet juice as his gaze narrowed at Jason, and he swallowed hard. “Tell me what my father said to you.”

 

Jason froze. He forgot all about that.

 

“Or,” Nico whispered under his breath, with his eyes scrutinizing the other teen, “tell me what happened with Thalia first.”

 

On that command, Jason hesitated once more. The other demigod examined Jason’s stature warily, finally readjusting his composure into a more lively position. Jaw slackening, Jason ran a hand through his hair and looked to the ground again. Apollo’s words ran through his head and his heart dropped.

 

“Would you rather tell Valdez?”

 

A frown twisted on Jason’s lips as he looked over to Nico. The tone was neither irritated nor accusing. Just quietly curious. Looking at the Ghost King, Jason realized there was no ill harm meant by his words. “I don’t know.”

 

Leo was his best friend for a year now. He was there for Jason since waking up on a bus to the Grand Canyon, when he was struggling to find out his memories—and when he found out who he was for the first time from his beloved sister. But Nico knew him inside and out—and some part of Jason felt inclined to tell Nico. All of it.

 

Still, Nico lowered his head in defeat, eyes fluttering close. “Okay.”

 

“But I know that I want to tell you. That it needs to be you.” Even Jason was shocked by his own words. Maybe it hurt a little too, knowing Leo had moved on. He had a family now in the Jacksons—and a potential boyfriend in Percy, who didn’t seem as heartbroken over Annabeth as people assumed. “It happened that night. The one where you…decided to stay with me in the hospital.”

 

That wasn’t exactly specific. Thinking about it now with painful tension, Jason realized he never set the boundaries on what was friendly and what was more-than-friendly between them. Nico only refused once, when Jason insisted for the younger demigod to hop into bed with him. The rest of the time Jason thought he was too shy to ask.

 

A lone eyebrow rose in the air, expression tired and stoic, and Jason took that as his cue to move on. He thought of Apollo’s words again, gnawing at his insides. He’d lost Piper the moment she knew he wasn’t in love with her. He abandoned Leo on Long Island in hopes to find Nico—and since this afternoon, Jason wasn’t sure if Nico was still with him. But Thalia—he had Thalia, and the gods were prying them apart, too.

 

Thalia was more together than Jason was. She was traveling the States with her hunters while he wallowed away in a lofty apartment in hopes to find a demigod that didn’t want to be found.

 

Heaving a tired sigh, Jason finally relinquished his thoughts. “Artemis doesn’t want me to see her anymore.”

 

He explained how Apollo showed up one night at the hospital. Jason assumed they’d induced Nico into deep slumber, since he remained asleep through the entire encounter. He left out the part where Apollo revealed that Jason was going to “lose control,” and it’d be too much for him. Fight or not, a protective instinct inside Jason refused to let Nico get involved. Not until Jason knew what he was getting to.

 

Instead, he revealed that Apollo was there to thank him on Artemis’s behalf, and basically banned them from seeing each other.

 

To that, Nico shook his head in silent fury, annoyed. “That’s cruel.”

 

Again, Jason wondered what the other demigod was thinking. Nico tapped his skull ring against the wooden floor in a clipped melody, his lips contorted into a frown.

 

Taking a breath, Jason asked, “How’d you feel when…Bianca decided to join the Hunters?”

 

Unlike with Percy, Nico didn’t look phased at the mention of his late sister’s name. Instead, his eyes glued to Jason’s demeanor, with a subtle, tired expression. “I was mad.”

 

“I know,” Jason responded. The moment the words left his mouth, he realized how dumb they sounded.

 

Nico didn’t think twice about it. Instead, his lips curled into a wistful smirk, eyes falling to the dark shadows that’d entered the room from a setting sun. “Believe it or not, I’ve had my worse days after she died. Ones that I’m not proud of. Her ghost…or her spirit, would appear in front of me and tell me what I did was wrong. She knew how to break me. What could hurt me. And then—when I went down to the Underworld to find her, I found out she chose reincarnation.”

 

Sinking his teeth into the apple once more, it was the only sound that passed between them.

 

Jason bit the inside of his mouth and studied his feet. “I’m sorry, Nico.”

 

“No. I think I was supposed to take it as a sign. She didn’t need to watch over me anymore.” The younger demigod wiped his face on his wrist. Again, the sad glow appeared in his eyes as he smirked at the window, and he ran his free hand through his mussed hair. “As much as it kills me she thinks that way, she knew I needed to move on. That’s why I was able to find Hazel instead. Why I have you. Thalia thinks the same way.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“You two are the same age now. She doesn’t need to stick around and take care of you while your mother gets wasted.” Nico shook his head, with his eyes casting a glance through the window. “She knows you’re safe. When Bianca made the decision to go with the Hunters, she thought I would be safe and that Percy and the others would take care of me.”

 

“But you’re not—”

 

“I know.” Nico cut him off instantly. He sucked in a breath, eyes shutting close, and then looked back to the ex-Praetor. His eyebrows knit together before he could speak again. From this point on they weren’t talking about Thalia anymore. “He tried tonight.”

 

“Yeah.” Well—Jason didn’t know if he liked the way Percy tried.

 

“But it didn’t…feel right.”

 

“Yeah—wait. Really?”

 

“Percy’s stupidity lies in his loyalty for his friends,” Nico muttered. “But I’m not sure it applies to me.” He wasn’t even sure if Percy’s trust would stay with him for the day. Expression scrunching, Nico set the rest of his rotting apple aside and crossed his legs. “But him trying, and you…having tried. It feels different.”

 

“It might have to do with the fact that you like…,” Jason’s voice trailed off, throat falling dry. They were in unmarked territory here. “Him.”

 

Dark orbs looked up to him—befuddled, but they weren’t accompanied by a smart remark. “I like the way you tried better than he did.”

 

Oh. “I’m glad you feel that way then. I mean—yeah.” Wow. Jason’s gaze fell down to his feet and he felt…twitchy. Almost Leo-twitchy. The difference being he had no idea how to tinker. “You know that I won’t give up chasing you.”

 

To his surprise, Jason’s sputtering evoked some kind of smile on Nico’s face. It was guarded—but also let Jason know that the younger teen would be okay. “Thank you.”

 

“Nico. I…I. If I have to spend every waking moment in search for you, so that I knew that you were okay, then I will.” Jason placed his hands firmly beside him. “I’m not going to stop trying. That’s a promise.”

 

An air of content passed between them, and a breath left Jason’s lips as he saw Nico’s cautious smile widen. Dark eyes fell to the ground, still thoughtful, but this time Jason knew better to let Nico tell. When—if Nico wanted to tell him, then it would be by Nico’s terms.

 

“About your sister,” the Son of Hades whispered abrasively, “you have every right to be mad.”

 

“I am. I was,” Jason corrected himself.

 

“Will you see her?”

 

“How corny is it if I say it’s up to the gods to decide?”

 

“Incredibly.” Nico snorted and shook his head. He glowered at his rings before looking up to Jason again. “And about my dad.”

 

Crap. “About your dad.”

 

“You mentioned…something earlier. About courting.”

 

Jason felt is cheeks heat up as the memory stirred in his head. Hades had come to him, with his milky white, alabaster skin, and long, polished black hair that was as dark as night. He looked like an older Nico, and—well, older Nico was kind of hot. “I’ve got his blessing, to, uh. Romance you.”

 

Red exploded in Nico’s cheeks. For the first time in an hour, he animated, eyebrows shriveling together, mouth ajar and slouch shriveling in mortification. “What?

 

Explaining the night in better detail, Jason added that Apollo and Hades had seen him at the same time. Apollo was there to thank Jason on Artemis’s behalf, but Hades was there specifically to address Jason’s actions in the last few months. As the words left his mouth, Jason’d never seen someone grow so pale and red at the same time.

 

“He told me that he’s fine with the idea of me courting you,” Jason said. He fiddled with his sweaty palms, and they felt extra static-y from his nerves. “But if I do anything that’s…you know, Jupiter-like, then I’m dead.”

 

Nico didn’t speak for a whole minute—eyes wide and mouth aghast. Then, “He knows I’m gay.”

 

“Yes.” Jason did a double take. It was nearly impossible to keep secrets from the gods, since they were everywhere all the time. But as a parent to child, he understood why Nico looked so panicked. “He wasn’t…you know, shocked, or…mad about it. Gods aren’t really that…picky, about gender.”

 

“He knows I’m gay.”

 

“And he’s okay with it. He’s proud of you. Very proud.” Thinking about it, Jason wasn’t sure how often Nico saw his father. Certainly more often than other demigods, since he spent a third of this time in the Underworld. But there was still familiarity that lacked in the way Hades addressed his son like in all families, when Hades used the shadows to stroke Nico’s face from a distance.

 

Clarisse La Rue described godly visits once like an owner coming to check on a pet before handing it over to the sitter for the next year or two. Jason knew from the way Nico described Hades that the Lord of the Dead was incredibly harsh and austere about his decisions. Life and death had a line drawn between them, so it was no wonder that Hades drew lines too.

 

“I have a headache,” Nico admitted under his breath. His gaze remained locked with Jason’s, demeanor frozen with utter shock. Dumbstruck as he was—this would have been funny if it didn’t involve so many complications.

 

“Me too. When he told me,” Jason explained.

 

“You must really be on his good side if you have his blessing.”

 

“Well. He did threaten to kill me. I don’t think Elysium’s an option for me if I break your he—art.” Jason stopped himself from finishing the sentence. Nico didn’t notice.

 

Instead, the younger demigod shook his head. “The Judges would decide where you end up. He’d just try to make your death excruciatingly painful.”

 

“And he’d do that for you?”

 

“Apparently.” Still wide-eyed with shock (at which part, Jason wasn’t sure anymore), Nico finally blinked and let the information seep through in his head. Strangely enough, he looked a lot better than when they first arrived to the apartment. Still confused and baffled—but better. There were now four people who knew about Nico’s sexuality—and with each additional person, the nausea of it all seemed to subside more quickly.

 

Jason withdrew a breath and crossed his fingers over his lap. He’d been thinking intensely about these facts since Apollo and Hades visited him. It was like they both handed him a burlap sack and told him to carry it somewhere—and he didn’t know where. The past week and half was spent racking his brain about all of the facts—and still, that got him nowhere.

 

“Listen,” he started tersely, and Nico cocked his head in Jason’s direction. “About the me courting you part.”

 

Nico’s eyes darkened, lips contorting into a frown. “What about it?”

 

“I don’t want to do it. I can’t. I mean—” Jason’s heart leapt into his throat and he crossed his arms over his chest. “I meant everything that I said before, man. That…you deserve a guy that can’t hurt you. And I’m…I’m fickle. I don’t want to hurt you. I—I can’t hurt you.” Blond eyebrows knit together and Jason bit the inside of his mouth. “Every relationship that I’ve had, I couldn’t live up to the expectations of that other person. And that still kills me. That’s why Leo and I…why we weren’t a possibility. I needed him back then. But you and I. We have a good thing going on right here, and I don’t…want to ruin that.”

 

He didn’t know what he hoped for—maybe a frown or a little of Nico’s own tears. But—no. Nico obviously still had a thing for Percy, and Jason was too busy with his own life to fall for Nico. It wasn’t a good idea. No matter how much the former thought bothered him.

 

So instead, a wry and tired look shrouded Nico’s demeanor and Jason couldn’t read much else into it. If he listened extra hard, he would have guaranteed that he heard sadness. “I understand.”

 

“We’re friends.”

 

“Yes. We’re friends.”

 

A sigh of relief left Jason’s lips—but just like earlier, he couldn’t help but feel empty. Hollow. Reciting those words felt like an empty declaration to his ears.

 

Why did that keep happening?

 

“Can I stay the night?” Nico’s voice floated in his ears again. He stood to his feet for the first time since retrieving food and waltzed to his belongings sitting in the corner of the room.

 

“Always, man.” Looking out the window, Jason counted that they still had a few hours before sleep was needed. Still, this entire day had been incredibly exhausting—from trying to fly from LA to Manhattan to straightening things out with Nico. He felt like he could sleep for the next three days. It occurred to him that he still hadn’t called Leo yet.

 

Nah.  

 

Glancing over to Nico, he saw that the boy had bunched up his aviator’s jacket into a makeshift pillow for himself beside the window.

 

“Take the sleeping bag,” Jason said.

 

The Son of Hades startled—apparently deep in thoughts. He caught a glimpse of Jason’s face, inquisitive, and Jason only shrugged.

 

“It’s the furniture I have. What kind of host would I be if I let you sleep on the floor?” The corner of his lip rose in good humor, and Nico only snorted.

 

Dark eyes studied the sunlight the same way Jason did, and then looked back to him. “We still have a few hours before we should call it a night.” 

 

“You want to grab dinner?” Actually—neither of them had done much eating in the café anyway.

 

Nico nodded.

 

With a smile at his lips, Jason stood to his feet and gestured out the door. He extended a free hand to the Son of Hades. “C’mon. Let’s go.”

 

Calling Leo could wait for another time.

 

A smile of his own graced Nico’s lips—subtle and content, yet so very him. It lit his eyes probably for the first time in a week, now that everything was sorted out between them, with a bit of relief shining in the irises of his gray orbs. Nico took Jason’s hand without hesitation.

 

And suddenly Jason regretted ever saying anything.

 

You really love him, he asked to himself. Don’t you?

 

 

 

Chapter Text

You like him.

 

“Will you still be attending the ceremony?”

 

“Yes. I’m doing it on Bianca’s behalf.”

 

You want him.

 

“Plus, Thalia would probably kill you didn’t.”

 

“And that. Do you know why Solace is so afraid of her?”

 

“Well—actually, no.”

 

You like him. Jason laughed quietly under his breath, recalling the sneers Thalia threw Will’s way at the hospital. He sat beside the sleeping bag on an early December morning, where Nico was finishing off a slice of leftover pizza from the night before. The younger demigod stayed with him in the past three days, with idle talk and light spar matches.

 

Because they’d spent so much time with each other since September, Nico knew every one of Jason’s tricks. He also knew when those tricks were poorly executed and of bad taste. It hurt his pride to think Nico would take it easy on him, so Jason took his face full of dirt when Nico won their matches. Stamina would be the biggest worry for Jason to retrieve. His entire arm tingled with an odd pain when he summoned lightning or swung his sword—so much that they would have to stop for ten-minute breaks every half hour. Nico thought nothing of it, other than to rebuild Jason’s endurance.

 

Fixing pipelines for Cindy the Water Nymph had nothing on fighting Nico one-on-one. That was the understatement of the century.

 

You like him, the tiny voice in Jason’s head whispered again—sweet and enticing like a smug little siren. He had no choice but to shove it out of the way.

 

Nico’s laugh filled the near-empty room, with his hands placed strategically at his sides. Jason didn’t think he’d ever heard a sound more beautiful. It was another day with the aviator’s jacket shoved aside—to which he couldn’t help but be pleased with. It acted too much like a security blanket, guarding Nico from everything else. (Not only that, but Jason got a better look of Nico’s lanky frame beneath his t-shirts and lean muscles.)

 

You like—

 

I lost my chance, Jason thought. Now shut it. It took three more days to figure it out—but Jason did. Maybe, just maybe, he did like Nico. Every time he reminded himself about Nico liking Percy, a part of him twisted into knots. Thinking of the words that passed between them only made Jason feel worse. Hollow, like the shell of a tree that’d had its innards gutted.

 

He was jealous of Percy. Not only that, but Jason was also adamant about not pursuing Nico. Even if Jason changed his mind, Nico still liked Percy too much for it to matter.

 

Not that they talked about that stuff. Jason was careful to avoid anything that involved Percy, Leo, or even Hades for both of their sakes. Nico looked nauseous during the whole confession on Hades’ part, so Jason took it as a (cold) sign that dating wasn’t part of either of their itineraries, either. Other than that, Nico was really easy to fall into conversation with.

 

“Will you be staying here?” The younger demigod pulled the blonde out of his thoughts—voice curious. With each passing day, he was in a better mood and more at peace with himself. Jason couldn’t recall a time he’d ever seen Nico look so…conversational.

 

This time, he shook his head. “I’m going with you.”

 

“Really?” Nico cocked his head back to the elder teen with an ample amount of surprise in his tone. He sounded alarmed—and at the same time anxious, and worried. “But—”

 

“Thalia will understand. Maybe Artemis gave her the same talk while I was away.” Nodding accordingly, Jason leaned back and firmly placed the palm of his hands to the floor. “But the entire ceremony is to honor all of the fallen. They’re—”

 

“Your comrades,” Nico finished for him. His eyes flickered knowingly.

 

“Well. Yeah.”

 

“You throw the word around too often.”

 

“It’s what I live by.” A firm smile coiled across Jason’s lips and he looked down to the tattoo branded on his forearm. All twelve years showed in pure black ink, fresh as the day that he’d received his first tick mark. Stuffed in his closet were old camp clothes—a variety of oranges and purple that Jason realized he hadn’t worn since August. “You’re my—”

 

“I’m your comrade too,” Nico finished for him with a calm droll. He rolled his eyes, but Jason didn’t think anything caustic of it. “Yes, I get it—I know a lot more about your personal life than need be.”

 

“Does that bother you?”

 

“Did I say that?”

 

The corners of Jason’s lips curled into a smirk, fully enjoying Nico’s wit. The last three days was the first time they spent every waking moment with each other—which was amazing, he decided. Jason realized he could talk to Nico for an eternity before ever getting bored with the younger demigod’s conversations. Something pleasant tingled in his chest at this awareness; something that wasn’t there before the Rockies. Jason liked it a lot.

 

They weren’t much. It was a pattern they fell into since getting to know each other, where Jason spoke long strings of words and Nico filled in the silence with his own comments. An air of casualty passed between them—light and quaint as the clouds. Nico never looked more comfortable sitting next to him before.

 

And that was all Jason could ask for.

 

He ignored the miser in his head, when it reiterated the same three words. You like him.

 

“I’ll leave early if I have to,” Jason whispered softly in the sunlight. It was always a calm before the storm whenever he set foot somewhere. And especially those same storms would hit full force without warning. The thought of abandoning Camp Halfblood a second time didn’t sit well with his stomach, nor did he like the idea of abruptly leaving his sister, but it wasn’t like he had a choice. The logical solution was to wade out the rest of the year and await next summer.

 

Nico nodded curtly and fiddled with the skull ring over his finger. “Then I’ll leave with you.”

 

“You sure?” Jason asked. He didn’t bother to hide the thrill teeming in his tone this time.

 

“Positive.”

 

A few days later found them preparing for Christmas Break over at Camp Halfblood. It was upon Reyna and Frank’s requests to integrate the camps for the festive holiday—which was why they were to attend what was now called the Mourning Ceremony, and then celebrate Roman and Greek camaraderie.

 

Gods help us all, Reyna had grumbled through the Iris Message when Jason called her. It was the first time they spoke fondly to each other in a year because of the second Civil War and Percy and he being switched. Nowadays it wasn’t unheard of to see Annabeth walking the streets of New Rome with the Twelfth Legion’s praetor. Still, Reyna confided in him how nervous she really was being on Greek campgrounds since Bellona was strictly a Roman goddess. Their idle chat lasted for about an hour while Nico was off doing things in secrecy. (When Jason had asked in good nature, Nico’s face scrunched together and he changed the subject immediately.)

 

Jason packed orange t-shirts, a few purple, and his gladius to use during Capture the Flag. Just in case he could stay long enough for a game. Nico noticed is excitement, like he noticed most of Jason’s nonverbal acts.

 

“You’re certainly looking forward to being there,” he commented lightly.

 

The Son of Jupiter dropped his backpack like he’d been caught red-handed, but Nico seemed to think nothing of it. Opening his mouth to speak, Jason found that he couldn’t form that same eagerness into words.

 

Again—Nico seemed to think nothing of it. He studied the backpack full of clothes and gathered his few belongings with him. An eyebrow raised into the air—chiding and amused. “I was wondering how long it would take you to crack.”

 

“It’s not that I’m sick of your company or anything,” Jason said quickly. Far from it, if that little nagging voice in his head was any indication. It was easier not to think about Nico and Percy if he invested himself with going back to Long Island. Even if it was just temporary.

 

“I didn’t say that.” Nico’s expression morphed thoughtfully, however, and he shifted between his feet. “I just meant that you must be getting sick, wallowing around here.”

 

Oh gods, yes. The more Jason’s thoughts fell over Camp Halfblood, he was reminded of singing songs around the campfire, or eating in the Dining Pavilionl with his friends—or sparring. Basket weaving. All of the weird stuff that didn’t involve fixing sewage lines for Cindy the Nymph or laying out manure for Stephen the Satyr.“But I’m not sick of you. In fact, I—” Really, really like you. “—I think of you as my best, best friend, remember?”

 

To his surprise, the edge of Nico’s lips was laced with wry mirth. “Do I look upset?”

 

“Well…no.”

 

“Then I’m not upset.” The younger demigod bit the chewed on his lip—once again looking thoughtful before he scrunched his nose. “One game of Capture the Flag wouldn’t kill me.”

 

Jason’s heart skipped a beat and he grinned. “Really?”

 

“Really.” Feigned distaste teemed at his words, overturned by one of Nico’s derisive smirks. Once more, Nico’s expression morphed—but he ducked his head away before Jason could see.

 

Later, when Jason was assured he had all of his things, they stood in the alleyway between his apartment and the next building over. Nico’d placed his aviator’s jacket over his shoulders again, going as far as zipping it up, before tucking in the standard SPQR purple scarf around his neck and placing the matching Sherpa hat over his head. Jason blinked. They weren’t even out of LA yet.

 

Nico noted this. “What?”

 

“You look…” Adorable, was the word Jason would have chosen. He was reminded of Nico’s red-stained cheeks from the cold last time and his glowing nose, and just about had an aneurism. “Cozy.”

 

“Hazel’s gift,” Nico explained nonchalantly, like it was no big deal. Completely skipping over the ordeal, he looked up to the sky in smoggy LA air. “I’d rather not fly.”

 

Thank Jupiter. “We’d get there faster by shadowtravel anyway. If you’re up for it.”

 

A shrug. During the war, Nico was in a perpetual state of exhaustion from navigating everyone to the House of Hades, keeping watch of his sister, fulfilling a promise for Percy, and aiding Reyna to bring the Athena Parthenos to Camp Halfblood. However, the way he gestured now made shadowtraveling sound like picking a booger—

 

“Buckle up,” the younger demigod mused with a quiet snort. He surprised them both by stepping forward and firmly planting a hand around Jason’s waist—definitely more contact since discussing everything after New York.

 

“Okay—”

 

Shadowtraveling was different from flying. Jason had a conversation about airtravel once with Percy, while Percy described swimming. Swimming had resistance, as your body torpedoed through the waves. When you were flying, you were the resistance, manipulating currents to fit your needs and flying through them. There was a lot of freedom that came with shadowtraveling—only more disorienting. Less tangibility, no resistance. It was like someone took the bones out of him and he was left running like a pile of goo.

 

Stopping felt like slamming into a wall, even though you were in full control of your body.

 

Last time when they left of Manhattan, Jason grabbed at his apartment wall to steady himself while Nico heaved. This time, he stumbled forward blearily, only to be stopped with Nico grabbing him by the back of his jacket. Maybe that was why they were so close.

 

“Never gonna get used to that,” Jason mumbled, and he pinched the bridge of his nose.

 

Nico shrugged again, casually reeling Jason to his feet. He looked up to the sky, like proving a point. “You’re airbound. I’m hellbound.”

 

“That—is eerily accurate.”

 

They stood in the forest that bordered Camp Halfblood—and in the outskirts, Jason made out the entry. Trust Nico not to shadowtravel in the middle of things. Not that Jason minded—he suddenly felt his heart leap in his throat at the thought of stepping foot on campgrounds again. The home that he left, after resigning his rank as praetor.

 

Then it leapt again, when he turned to catch a glimpse at the Son of Hades.

 

Despite preparation for the elements, Nico was shuddering to adjust to cold weather. Pale lips parted with huffs of white air, with a body that was shaking like a bag of bones. Sanguine bloomed in Nico’s alabaster cheeks, polishing his face in search for warmth, and clumps of dark hair curled against his forehead beneath the ridiculous knit hat. He’d grown a little taller in their time together, with less emphasis on the need to raise his head when Jason addressed him. His face was narrow, with more definition on his jaw line, and eyes less tired than usual. No—instead of Nico’s usual demeanor that demanded sleep, he had the most gorgeous mad genius eyes that Jason had ever seen.

 

Consequently, Nico’s mouth contorted into a grumpy scowl—evidently done with the cold weather.

 

Jason had to laugh. He was thankful to be wearing a standard thermal shirt beneath his jacket. “C’mon. We can get hot cocoa when we get into camp.”

 

He took a step forward—and found that he couldn’t. A shadow tendril mounted firmly around his ankle—like a loose branch in the dirt or a stone to trip over. Cocking his head, he found one playful ebony eyebrow arched high beneath Nico’s knit cap.

 

(Well—that was one word Jason thought he’d never use for Nico di Angelo. Naughty felt like a better word—like a child stealing a cookie from the cookie jar.)

 

Another shadow tendril latched over Jason’s leg, nearly knocking the teen off balance. If it wasn’t for the fact Nico was smirking, Jason probably would be freaking out.

 

“Not fair,” Jason called out—but he only laughed. Shadows wrapped around his calves like tiers, and he stumbled forward beside the tree. “We’re not in the air.”

 

Nico’s eyebrow darted beneath his hat. He gestured around himself halfheartedly and snorted. “The last I checked, that wasn’t in low su—” WOOSH. Jason threw a snowball at him. “—pply. You’re dead.”

 

A chortle left Jason’s lips as the other demigod, gobsmacked, wiped the snow off his face. He waved a gust of wind, and snowfall lightly pummeled Nico from the back—toward him. “C’mon Nico—don’t you have enough shadows?”

 

As they spoke, the tendrils around Jason’s legs loosened. He toppled over with the sudden release—clumsily bumping heads with Nico, and—“OOF!”—toppling over on top of him. Instinct took over for Jason at that point while he collapsed over Nico’s ganglier limbs. His hands reached out to steady himself, while his feet bent at a safer position.

 

“It’s amazing that your last name is Grace.” The sound of Nico lightly seething pulled Jason back into orbit, as he looked down to the Son of Hades.

 

Jason’s heart did somersaults into his throat—fueled by Nico’s subtle ire and mirthful smirk. The younger demigod touched his forehead where Jason had bumped into him—to which Jason ran a finger on his own, too. Sure enough, there was a slight pain. Nothing that they couldn’t handle, but a bump nonetheless.

 

“Sorry,” he said offhandedly. Then he thought about it. “Aren’t you technically an angel?”

 

Snort. “If you let Valdez turn us into a pun, then next time I’m leaving you in the Rockies.”

 

A laugh fluttered out of Jason’s lips before it ached in his chest. He saw Nico’s eyes harden, lips pulling together into a straight line—and then stopped. When a look of unease passed over Nico’s face, Jason knew it was time to disentangle from the boy beneath him. Coming to Camp Halfblood for Nico was harder than he let on.

 

“You gonna be okay?” Jason asked as he helped Nico to his feet. After that, he shoved his hands in his own pockets and kept an amiable—platonic—distance between them before mentally slapping himself. He’d spent the week being mindful of mentioning Percy and Leo, but they’d be unavoidable here.

 

Once more Nico shrugged, but it was no longer in the casual way like in LA. His shoulders lingered at his ears as he dusted the snow out of his hair, and eyes lingered at the ground. “Hazel will be there. And…Thalia, she’ll be there.”

 

“And I’ll be there too.”

 

“And you’ll be there too,” Nico muttered under his breath. Dark eyebrows knitted together. He wasn’t one to display his emotions all at once, but Jason knew that stepping through the gate was meant for a long week. Suddenly a game of Capture the Flag didn’t feel necessary anymore.

 

Despite what he kept insisting to himself, Jason touched Nico’s back. His fingers played with the end of Nico’s jacket, and he hoped calm thoughts could be felt through the touch. Dark eyes looked up to him—hesitant and a little afraid.

 

“Hey,” the blonde said with a gentle nudge. “We can go straight back to LA whenever you want. I won’t be mad.”

 

The look that followed on Nico’s face seemed to think otherwise. Jason was excited for Camp—but above all else, Nico meant more to him than roasting smores around a campfire again. he shrugged carefully, hoping that message was clear—and Nico sighed shortly into white air.

 

“We can stay.”

 

“Okay—” Before he even let go of the younger demigod, Nico’s hand snatched Jason’s up.

 

The next glint in Nico’s eyes looked painfully pleading. His fingers shook against Jason’s—and. Gods.

 

Jason squeezed back without another thought, and heard the slightest breath of relief from beside him. They walked together, hand-in-hand down the hill to Camp Halfblood, not once mentioning their intertwined fingers.

 

He could only imagine how Thanksgiving went, and how Nico coped with that by himself.

 

-x-

 

Clarisse punched Jason good-naturedly in the arm when he showed up at the Big House. The moment Clarisse came over to greet them, Nico stuffed his hands back in his pockets, shying away from questionable looks in their direction. Jake Mason gave Jason a fist bump, and Drew Tanaka made her way to Jason—only to be steered in a different direction when she saw Nico next to him. Piper threw her arms around his shoulders as soon as they saw each other, with the Stoll Brothers not too far off.

 

She grinned, with a joy in her eyes that hadn’t been there since before the war—back when Piper told her dad that she found a “new school.” No doubt that she missed being on the east coast, too. Piper faltered in her smile and moved to hug Nico, too—who took a cautious step back.

 

“Hi,” Nico said uneasily, “Piper.”

 

Piper halted in her steps, and Jason’s heart pounded in his chest. But instead of distaste or a grimace, she kissed him chastely on the cheek and stuffed her hands in her ski jacket. A feeble smile curled against her lips, tone soft. “Thanks for bringing him back again.”

 

From the corner of his eye, Jason saw Nico was having trouble keeping calm. He laughed before slapping a hand over the younger demigod’s shoulders. Good thoughts, Jason reminded himself. He hoped the meaning passed through their subtle touch.

 

“Hey, Jason, Nico.” Connor’s lips split into an impish grin and he crossed his arms. Nico especially turned his head, hearing his name pronounced with an emphatic, Nee-Ko. “Need some help putting your stuff away?”

 

“No,” was the unison reply between them.

 

“Aw, c’mon,” Travis started with good nature, “Don’t you—oof.”

 

“Travis,” Piper annunciated sweetly—so sweetly that Jason had a hard time differentiating it between charmspeak and her real tone—“I missed you while you were in Maryland.”

 

Red fluttered across Travis’s cheeks while his brother animatedly rolled his eyes. Travis’s usual wicked smirk was replaced with a goofy smile and he stuffed his hands in his pockets, almost anxious. “Piper! Yeah?”

 

She shrugged—which just left Jason really bemused. He couldn’t believe the red in her cheeks until he saw it himself. Whether it was Piper’s attempt to distract the Stoll Brothers or the truth, she was definitely enjoying herself. “Yeah.”

 

“You need help unpacking, Peems? Uh—how long are you staying?”

 

“Whole winter.”

 

“The whole winter. Whoo.” Travis Stoll grinned from cheek-to-cheek and he even jumped a little, like a puppy.

 

“Kill me now,” Connor drawled to Jason. He wiped a fake tear from his eyes and gagged for emphasis. “I think I lost him.”

 

“Do you want to sit together at the sing-along tonight?” Travis asked. If he had a tail, it would’ve been wagging. But for now, he looked like he was having enough fun just standing next to Piper. No touching or flirting—just some casual conversation.

 

Piper’s own kaleidoscope eyes lit up at the question. No—that definitely wasn’t charmspeak. It was all genuine her. “I’d love that.”

 

“Yeah? Cool. Cool,” Travis said again, and he grinned before lowering himself into a grandiose bow. “Well then, m’lady—M’Clean, I’ll escort you from the Mess Hall at 6PM sharp!”

 

“Do you own a watch?”

 

“No, but I’ll steal—find one.”

 

“I really don’t know what to make of this,” Jason muttered to Nico under his breath.

 

The other demigod chuckled quietly—raspy and almost honey-like despite his earlier nerves. “Jealous?”

 

“No,” Jason admitted. He could honestly say he was happy. Even happier now that Nico’s nervousness had wound down—almost sedated. The kiss to his cheek must have been enough distracting for Nico to reel his thoughts elsewhere. Piper’s own nervousness, too, seemed to have dissipated. When she gave him that contact, Piper was trying to relay some affection without overstepping her boundaries. Good.

 

“Nico!”

 

On cue, Hazel appeared from the Big House with excitement teeming in her voice. She ran straight for her brother and threw her arms around Nico the same way Piper had done to Jason. The Camp Halfblood orange peeked out of her halfway-zipped hoodie, looking as just fitting and warm as a Camp Jupiter one. Strapped to her back was her spatha—deadly as ever.

 

This should be interesting, Jason thought suddenly. Looking around now, he saw a mix of purple and orange camp shirts as Romans new to Camp Halfblood explored the grounds. The shirts didn’t label them, either—he saw Dakota and Pollux wandering around the grounds, with the Greek demigod deep in conversation. Each teen wore the others’ signature color. He recognized Larry and Hank both, along with Katie Gardner, Mitchell from the Aphrodite Cabin, and Malcolm from Athena. Several mixed in Greek and Roman, and colors interchangeable.

 

“It’s the largest gathering of us since the war,” Piper commented good-naturedly. She pulled him out of his thoughts. The ex-mediator stuffed her hands in her comfy ski jacket—which was when Jason realized that Hazel must have dragged Nico off elsewhere. Even Connor and Travis left, leaving Jason with his ex-girlfriend outside the Big House.

 

Realizing he was taking too long to respond, Jason nodded in agreement. “Everyone spent time reconstructing their here or New Rome. I’m surprised Frank and Reyna were cool with coming down here.”

 

“Some centurions didn’t,” Piper explained. She turned to him with a nonchalant shrug. “So plenty cohorts are intact over there. New Rome’s more of a…city, compared to here, anyway. They can manage. It’s part of the mediation process for everyone to get along.”

 

Jason nodded with mild confusion, taking in the sight of Greek and Roman campers as they mingled. It was the first time that he was out of the loop for either camp. (Well, second. But it hit him that he was even less involved with the camps than he thought he was.) When he glanced back at Piper, he found her studying the scenery just as intently.

 

“I miss it,” Piper admitted. She smiled sheepishly, playing with a bead that was braided in her hair and shook her head. “I like spending time with my dad, but I…”

 

“Don’t want to shut this out of your life,” Jason finished for him. He was surprised how quickly he was able to come up with that conclusion. “I totally get it.”

 

Piper was half Cherokee and half demigod. She loved her father to bits and cherished every moment she could spend with Mr. McLean, but at the end of the day, there was half of her that embraced the ADHD, charmspeak, and slaying monsters that made her whole.

 

Jason felt that nostalgia hit him full force. He didn’t have a family outside of New Rome or Camp Halfblood, but he left for a while, regardless. This was everything he missed out on in the past four months, as Nico and he grew closer.

 

Not that he regretted that part. Jason would take a chest to the shoulder again before ever saying that he hated Nico’s company.

 

Speaking of, “How’s the wound?”

 

He fiddled for a moment before pulling the collar of his t-shirt and thermal shirt over his CHEST. The circular scar was now a pasty pink on his skin. Jason had stopped taking big chunks of ambrosia for it to heal, knowing it’d all just be wasted.

 

“Will’s apparently around here too,” Jason confided. “He wants me to drop by the Apollo Cabin for a last examination, even though I keep telling him I’m fine. Jupiter knows that Octavian’s probably going to drive everyone crazy in there.”

 

Piper guffawed at the thought—which was worth hearing. She groaned and rolled her eyes in agreement.

 

Jason’s lips curled into a smirk. “So…Peems?”

 

She blushed and abashedly elbowed him in the arm. “Peems. PM. Short for Piper McLean. Don’t ask me how he got to that, but he’s proud.”

 

“Cute.”

 

“Very,” she agreed, and that was the last of the subject. Still, Jason didn’t miss the way a smile was etching across her lips. “So.”

 

They stopped before they could entire the Big House. Shifting between his feet, Jason edged her on. “So?”

 

“Leo told me about what happened between the two of you.”

 

Jason froze. “He did?”

 

“When Leo and Percy came to see you on your last day at New Rome,” Piper supplied quietly. “He pulled me aside and confessed why…why he hasn’t talked to me in the last three months.”

 

“He did.” Jason swallowed hard and tired to figure out what he was feeling. Mostly, mortification. Then, fear. Lots of it, making it hard for him to even read her tone. He tested the waters with a heavy heart. “Are you mad?”

 

“I was.” Piper clicked her tongue and her gaze dropped to the light snow on the ground. “But I got over it.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Jason.” Piper’s voice shook for a moment, and he felt the daze of charmspeak in her voice.

 

No—not that. Piper had addressed on the Argo II that she didn’t want her charmspeak to accidentally come through when she talked to Jason or Leo. It felt too manipulative—and made her uncomfortable. This was Piper, again, commanding attention without her charm. She sighed. Back when they were dating, Piper did that to keep her temper at bay. She wasn’t the type to lash out, but she knew what words would make you want to crawl under a rock.

 

“I’m not mad that you two got together,” she started carefully. “We weren’t dating. But I was mad that you two kept me out of the loop and stopped talking to me. We used to be a team. The three of us.”

 

Immediately, Jason felt the need to crawl under the nearest rock. He’d seen her multiple times at the hospital and the one big time back in September—all reasonable times to confess. He already felt like dirt not talking to Leo until Thanksgiving.

 

“I’m sorry,” he said. Jason knew it wasn’t enough. “We really didn’t plan—it didn’t last very…”

 

“I know,” Piper replied, cutting him off. She let go of her breath. Something told Jason that she’d spent the last two weeks trying to put those feelings into words. “I don’t care that you two had a fling. It just. Hurt, that I lost my two best friends.”

 

“You didn’t lose us,” Jason responded. He bit the inside of his mouth and stuffed his hands in his pockets. “I just…I fell under the radar. A lot.”

 

A guilty frown fell across his face. Jason kept marveling in the changes that’d happened over the year, but Nico was right. He’d been wallowing in LA doing nothing about it and whining when he thought about leaving both camps. Jason left New Rome as soon as he was healed—but with every second in the present, everything jumped at Jason full force and he wanted to absorb every bit of it.

 

Jason had Nico now. Well—as much as he could have Nico. But other than that want, what was it that he needed?

 

“We need to hang out. The three of us.” Piper’s voice remained steady and she tilted her head carefully. “Can we do that?”

 

“Of—” Nico. “—course. I mean…” Jason muttered a curse under his breath and his eyes immediately fell to the shadows—where Nico would usually rise from.

 

Piper seemed to get the gist of his next worried look, even if Jason couldn’t. They stood silent for a moment, before she said her next sentence. “I want to know if you’re happy, Jason.”

 

The way she spoke made her sound like she knew more than her sentence let on. Jason stared at her nervously—and couldn’t help but think it was true.

 

-x-

 

Nico handed him hot cocoa as Jason entered the Big House. He’d taken off the standard Sherpa hat and scarf, letting his tousled black hair stick up in its usual hedges, and looked relieved now that he wasn’t doused in snow. Piper gave both of them a hard look as they perched next to each other around the pool table—one that had Jason nervously fiddling with the zipper on his jacket and Nico noticeably arching an eyebrow in the air.

 

From what Jason could assume, all of the camp counselors were gathered around the table, along with the centurions from all five cohorts and their two praetors, Frank and Reyna. The centurions spared one look in Jason’s direction and another at Percy’s (who gave Jason a half-smile, half here-goes-nothing grimace), but Hazel, Dakota, and Percy kept their gazes locked on the two current leaders of Camp Jupiter.

 

The arrangement was weird, to say the least. There were the ten centurions, along with their two praetors, and a counselor from every cabin—which was saying a lot. Even Thalia was there representing Artemis’s Cabin. As soon as they made eye contact, Thalia’s lip twitched into a firm smile and Jason’s heart writhed in his chest.

 

‘Happy Birthday,’ he mouthed to her.

 

Thalia tapped at her leather jacket silently and nodded in his direction.

 

Yeah. Artemis and Apollo had definitely talked to her.

 

There had to be at least thirty of them altogether, crowding around the ping-pong table in order for everyone to get a look at each other. Jason never felt more out of the loop than he did now. He was given a few pats on the back by counselors who missed him and fistbumped with a lot of the centurions.

 

“So we’re still trying to integrate both Roman and Greek campers,” Percy started. He had a clueless look on his face—clearly going with the flow of things and saying whatever came to mind. “Obviously not everyone showed up. There’s gonna have to be a better system for rooming and stuff.”

 

“I think you mean expansion of the cabins, Seaweed Brain.” Annabeth elbowed him good-naturedly in the arm with an eyebrow darting in the air. It was freakishly scary how they rebounded off each other—like they were still dating, but no kisses.

 

Jason’s instinct told him to seek out Leo next, who was the shortest among all the thirty people there. He stood next to Connor in a fit full of snickers. They made eye contact for a brief second—where Leo’s eyes clouded with smoke and Jason grimaced.

 

He never got around to Iris Messaging Leo after New York.

 

The urgency in Leo’s gaze meant something, at least—smile flickering at the edges. We’ll talk, they said.

 

Yeah. They definitely would.

 

“Yeah, yeah,” Percy grinned, elbowing her back. He was completely in his element amongst everyone, even though it was a new situation. Stuffing his hands into the pockets of his hoodie, he shrugged. “All I know is: this’ll be the most epic game of Capture the Flag ever.”

 

A lot of cheering echoed through the room. Jason’s eyes immediately fell down to Nico—who’d remained calm and was currently enjoying his hot cocoa. Most everyone probably overlooked the fact he was there, too invigorated by Percy’s last suggestion. Given Nico wasn’t much for crowds to begin with, scaring them mindless was probably how he amused himself.

 

“How will we split that?” Jason decided to ask. Instantly, all eyes were on him—including Annabeth’s beloved ex-Seaweed Brain, whose demeanor had something tense across it.

 

“Um,” Percy hummed before shrugging, “draw straws?”

 

“I say we play it traditionally!” Shouted a voice—Octavian’s, who was squeezed between Will Solace and Larry from the Second Cohort. Both demigods rolled their eyes as he piped up again. “Romans versus Greeks!”

 

That definitely would have been fun. Jason caught the coil in Percy’s grin and felt his own blood thrumming through his veins.

 

“No,” Frank called out, which silenced them all. It was amazing what a few months as praetor had done for him. He still had a gentle look in doe eyes, but the way he held himself was prouder—as the best representation of a son of Mars. He’d gone from a shaking kid with arrows to a proud Roman. “While that’s great and all, not everyone is fully comfortable with the integration of both camps just yet.”

 

“Frank is right,” Reyna said in agreement. It dispersed any counter argument immediately. “We want to combine the camp as best as possible. I say we split the teams into the bigger cabins versus the remaining few and sort each cohort with each team.”

 

Quiet murmurs of agreement fluttered around them, but one voice stood out.

 

“That’s a dumb idea.” Octavian. Who quickly got a slap upside the head by Will. “Ow!”

 

“Well, I agree with it,” Annabeth decided. She flashed a knowing look between all of them, and then to Reyna, which held a lot more emotion than Jason could imagine. He quickly looked over to his old partner, who looked better at ease now that her girlfriend was smiling.

 

“Soooo, that leaves one question then,” Leo started, shouting above the masses. “Who are Percy and Jason going to be fighting for?”

 

To that question, Jason startled. Another flurry of chants and murmurs fluttered through the room while Jason once more looked over to sea-green eyes. He expected Percy to look discomforted, or annoyed as they made eye contact, but they weren’t. Instead, Percy’s hand unconsciously flew to his forearm, where Jason knew fingers were resting at the SPQR tattoo. Something about his look—the way his eyes flickered with quiet distance in his orbs—reminded Jason of the day at the hospital.

 

Percy was thinking of rejoining the Legion. And judging by the tone Leo took, he knew that too.

 

Coming to Camp Halfblood, Jason’s first thoughts were flooded with his old cot in Zeus’s cabin. While the integration of Roman and Greek campers was exciting, his ranking never crossed his mind with the Legion. Technically Jason hadn’t retired altogether—just his title as praetor. He was ranked only a little higher than a normal camper, but technically not a praetor, and definitely no longer a centurion.

 

Then there was a part of Jason that itched to fight Percy. They did promise each other a spar once he got out of the hospital.

 

“We should split Capture the Flag as usual,” Jason started, even if it probably wasn’t his place. “Larger cabins versus the smaller ones. Blue Team versus Red. In return, we can invert the Cohorts. First and Second with Red, Fourth and Fifth versus Blue. Third can be split. They can draw straws or whatever, like Percy said.” That way, the cohorts with the fewest members could fight at an advantage.

 

Percy caught on immediately. Unless they both picked to fight for the same cohort or the same cabins, they would be facing each other.  Neither one of them were as tactical as Annabeth or as cunning as Reyna, but a healthy game of Capture the Flag charged both their instincts. He surprised Jason by going along with, “Let’s make it interesting. I’ll fight for the Fifth Cohort.”

 

Dakota and Hazel cheered, grins on their faces.

 

“Then I’ll fight for Zeus’s Cabin,” Jason mused. They held matching smiles with a twinkle of eager combat in their gazes.

 

Another round of murmurs filled the room. It’d been four months since Jason stepped foot on Camp Halfblood grounds, but it seemed that no one questioned his popularity. The same evidently went for Percy. He may have been missing for eight months, but his camp was loyal to him as ever. Even better—because both were also recognized as once-praetors at New Rome.

 

“As cute as it is to see my little brother and this idiot over here whipping out their dicks—” Thalia’s sudden exclamation caused a collective gasp to round out the room. A silent Nico choked on his hot chocolate, Annabeth chortled in disbelief, Leo cackled, Hazel looked horrified—and the rest of the room turned to listen to Artemis’s great lieutenant, who only joined Annabeth in a fit of laughter. Male centurions and counselors were suddenly more aware of an important appendage between their legs. “—we’ve got more important things to worry about. The Mourning Ceremony will be tonight. If we expect to get everything done efficiently, then that should be our focus.”

 

It was certainly a sudden shift of power, Jason thought. Campers silenced. Percy was the Greek Camp Leader who slew Kronos and led the Battle for Manhattan. Jason was the first Roman to ever step foot on Camp Halfblood grounds since the first Demigod Civil War. Thalia was another Greek Child of the Big Three—the Daughter of Zeus and the intimidating lieutenant to Artemis’s hunters.

 

There was the Seven of them, who were part of the prophecy.

 

Reyna and Frank—the latter to whom Jason renounced his title. Beneath them were the two centurions from each cohort, along with every camp counselor for each cabin. Jason found himself feeling out of place again, after four months of not being at either. It was kind of an ego bruiser coming to Camp and not having…some kind if power.

 

Nico read him like a book. “A little power hungry?”

 

Jason jumped at the sudden contribution—heard only by them. Nico never raised his voice, even if the situation called for it—most people silenced at his quiet tone anyway. Looking down, he saw the Son of Hades hoarding a third cup of hot cocoa (with two empty containers beside him) and dark eyes looking to him with some subtle amusement.

 

“Maybe,” Jason muttered softly, embarrassed. “I think I missed this more than I thought I did.”

 

No one noticed Jason’s lack of input from then on out. Instead, he breathed. Beside him, Nico discreetly leaned against Jason’s side in some sort of soothing notion—something that could have been easily mistaken as a too-crowded pool table by thirty people. But between Nico and he, Jason knew Nico was trying to keep him leveled in some way.

 

Who knew, Jason mused, that they’d go from Jason calming Nico to the other way around. Especially all in one day.

 

He didn’t miss Piper’s knowing glance on the other side of the pool table.

 

-x-

 

“They told you more about what’s going to happen than they told me,” Jason said, “didn’t they?”

 

“Yeah.” A frown adorned Thalia’s face, expression torn like it was the hardest decision in the world. They had dinner in the Dining Pavilion as two of the only children of Zeus. And—well, technically, Jupiter. Sitting across from her, Jason wondered if this what it would have been like if he was never separated from his family and if Thalia never became a huntress. He tried to imagine being at Camp Halfblood during hot summers and then going back with Mom for the school year in south California.

 

And then couldn’t. Jason mulled over the fact that after sixteen years, he still didn’t know what his mother looked like. How she sounded when she spoke, or the way she would laugh. Having a normal life didn’t necessarily fit demigods—and it definitely didn’t fit them. If all of the obstacles in their lives hadn’t happened—if Jason was never taken to Camp Jupiter, if Thalia hadn’t run away at the age of thirteen, if he didn’t become praetor, if she didn’t become a tree—she would still somehow land herself as the lieutenant to Artemis. Jason knew better than to doubt that.

 

Technically Thalia would have been twenty-four today. Someone of that age in New Rome usually retired from the legion after their ten years of service, went to school, got a job, and started a family. Jason doubted they would’ve been as close as they were now if it weren’t for everything that happened since his birth.

 

Close, but not close to each other, Jason corrected in his mind.

 

“And now you’re going to tell me that I can’t know because it’ll put me in a bad mood and risk the unraveling the fabric of the Immortal World and Eternity,” Jason replied, “Right?”

 

To his chagrin, Thalia only snorted. “You sound like Percy.”

 

“Thal, I’m serious.” The irritation budded in his stomach and Jason broke into his own scowl. Across from them, Nico was nowhere to be seen at his own table. When dinner came, the younger teen saw Thalia’s look and opted to disappear for the next few hours. Jason felt a pang of betrayal, but Nico insisted that it wasn’t a big deal. His demeanor read that Thalia’s talk was dire.

 

“Jace, I can’t play yes and no with this.” Thalia’s tone was suddenly annoyed. She moved her fork around her plate of spaghetti and glared at it. They were both on edge here--this talk wasn’t supposed to happen. “Our lives are at stake here. And to be honest, I’m not willing to risk that. Not ever. Artemis only allowed us to take this detour because of the Mourning Ceremony, so we can write down Zoe’s name on the tablet. The hunters and I are going to leave when she beckons—or the moment as something bad happens. Whatever comes first.”

 

“Is she the one that wants us to stay apart?”

 

“She thinks it wiser that way. Jace, stop.” His sister’s tone took a sterner approach as she noticed his fingers tapping at the table with a small hum of electricity. A gust of unpredictable wind whispered in the room. It bristled past startled campers, who began to search for the cause of it--but no gaze fell upon them.

 

Jason felt obligated to look over to the Poseidon table, where Percy was nowhere to be seen. He was probably with Leo, who was occupied with the rest of his cabin hauling the memorial to the center of the cabins right now.

 

The younger demigod’s gaze would have wandered again, but Thalia took grasp of his hand, sending the lightest shock between them to keep their emotions centered. Electric blue eyes narrowed at him sharply, with cool lips curled into a frown. “You need to listen to me on this. I don’t want you getting hurt.”

 

“I’m getting hurt now because I’m not allowed to see my sister the way I want to,” Jason counter-argued. Thinking back to the day Thalia left, he remembered instantly what he felt. Remorse. Confusion. The entire week they spent together was painful and bittersweet, with both of them knowing that Thalia couldn’t stay long. But this was different. Jason used to cope with the idea of not seeing Thalia with rocky ease, but now the gods were forcing it. “I miss you, Thal.”

 

Her demeanor expression softened at that. Good. Thalia’s eyebrows pressed close together beneath her silvery tiara and she looked down at her things.

 

He used that time to unfurl the brown bag beside him and pulled out a singular cupcake--chocolate, with a little moon-shaped spoke sticking out of lavender icing. He’d bought it from the bakery across the street from his apartment before Nico and he arrived.

 

Thalia’s eyes widened, mouth parted in surprise.

 

“This is our first birthday together,” Jason murmured. “Well--that I remember, anyway.”

 

On cue, she snorted and pressed her elbows to the surface of the table. A small, wistful smile curled against her lips and she ripped out the plastic spoke to lick off icing. “I remember. Mom forgot.”

 

“She...did?”

 

“It was better that way. I got Ms. Stacy to buy a cake and you basically destroyed it.” Her eyes flickered with glee and she peeled off the paper cup to split the sweet. “It had Barney on it. I think it made you angry enough that you needed to kill it.”

 

Jason snorted. Muttering a thank you for his half, he let his mind wander to her other words. “So what ended up happening with Mom?”

 

She shrugged and plopped cake in her mouth. “Ms. Stacy drove all the way to Phoenix to bail her out of jail. Mom had gotten drunk and hit a cop.”

 

“Oh.” Jason’s tone deflated.

 

Thalia’s exchange was apparently supposed to be casual, like picking off a scab after it’d dried enough. Instead, it left Jason feeling more unsettled than he already did. He really just couldn’t catch a break today.

 

They sat in tangible silence, where Jason couldn’t decide whether or not it was welcoming or tortuous. Instead he looked at the plastic spoke of the moon sitting at the edge of Thalia’s plate and crushed the remains of his cupcake between his fingers.

 

Another minute passed before he could summon the nerve to address his sister again. Thalia beat him to the punch once the last of her cupcake was in her mouth. Electric blue irises studied the linen cloth over their table, and Thalia’s hand curled over Jason’s. “The huntresses and I are leaving after the ceremony.”

 

“What? You’re not staying for Capture the Flag?”

 

“I can’t even stay to say goodbye to you.” Thalia’s eyebrows pressed together and she smiled sadly before pulling herself to her feet. “I’ve got to get ready, Jace. Thank you, for the cupcake.”

 

“But—” Jason couldn’t even finish his last thought. She looked too resolute about leaving his side.

 

Before Thalia made it back to the Artemis’s table, where all of the huntresses had been leering at everyone since the beginning of dinner, she stopped and scraped the last of her food into the bronze brazier in the middle of the hall.

 

She muttered a quick prayer, and Jason knew it wasn’t for their father.

 

-x-

 

The ceremony went beautifully. Torches lit up the night sky in hues of reds and oranges, and the pathway to the monument for the fallen was marked by cohorts and cabins that stood in groups based off their Godly parent and made an outline of the campground’s omega. The monument stood at twenty feet wide, perched with the nose pointed toward the sky, ready to take flight as an Argo II. According to Jake Mason, it was designed as a backup means of transportation in case it was ever needed, with a second one to be built on New Rome grounds shortly. 

 

Percy was the announcer. Of course he was. His hair was combed neatly (no doubt Annabeth’s doing—she looked incredibly proud of herself), and he wore a nice pair of jeans followed by an orange shirt with a purple design—apparently a symbol of the melding of both camps. Once Chiron explained the gathering of Romans and Greek campers, everyone fell silent for Percy’s announcements.

 

He’d only been a camper for five years. He made the best friends and felt accepted, like other campers. Not only that, but there were options for them—Camp Jupiter, Camp Halfblood, Artemis and her Hunters. A lot of fallen. Too many to die young, too much bloodshed. A depressing ceremony—gods, way to start out winter break. Two wars to go through—Kronos. Gaea. But they were here. That was all that was important. And now, siblings, cousins, and legacies alike were here to honor their fallen. Because it was what their deceased half-brothers or half-sisters would do.

 

Once that was over, the ceremony commenced. Cabins marched forward one-by-one with a designated leader to inscribe the names of their fallen siblings on the side of the miniature Argo II. Jason noted that Clarisse  joined the Aphrodite Cabin to write the name Silena Beauregard on the mast, while Percy joined the Hephaestus Cabin to write Charles Beckendorf. Another assortment of names filled out the beautifully carved monument of celestial bronze—Michael Yew, Lee Fletcher, Ethan Nakamura—all names that went before Jason’s arrival at Camp, and then names that Jason wished weren’t on there. He noted that for the Dionysus Cabin, Dakota marched alongside Pollux to cave the name Castor toward the top.

 

The cluster of purple and orange shirts had all been changed to match the one Percy wore—either orange with purple writing or purple with orange writing. Cohorts still wore purple and Cabins wore orange. The Hunters glowed regally and beautifully beneath moonlight, with their silver parkas and pale bands. Beside them stood Nico—who surprised Jason and dressed nicely. Neither wearing purple nor orange, he stuck out all the same in his black slacks and gray sweater. He was straight-faced—undeterred by the cold despite the red nose that said otherwise.  Once it was Artemis Cabin’s turn, Thalia led with her hunters behind her and Nico marching beside her.

 

They walked hand-in-hand, despite the quick look of surprise that mixed across Percy’s face. Nico’s eyes glued firmly to the Argo II monument.

 

The name Zoe Nightshade was written in clumsy scripture, causing the corner of Jason’s lips to etch into a quiet smile at his sister’s less-than-perfect handwriting. Her gaze lingered solemnly at the celestial bronze, longer than the symphony of heartbeats of the dozens of demigods, satyrs, and nymphs around them before she handed the carver to the only boy beside her.

 

Nico’s gaze remained even longer. His lips pulled together in the concentrated look Jason knew him for—the one that breathed with self-contempt as it screamed at him, before it was muted by Nico’s own desires. He wrote Bianca di Angelo in elegant, wispy letters and let out a quiet breath. Done.

 

Thalia ran a smooth hand across his back before giving his shoulder a tight squeeze.

 

Despite all of the confusion Jason felt, he knew where to stand for this one—alongside his brethren in the Fifth Cohort. He stood toward the back in their scanty group and watched the two centurions—Hazel and Dakota—carve Gwendolyn’s name when it was their turn.

 

Pyres didn’t need to be lit that day to honor these deaths. Jason couldn’t help but think that instead of following Greek or Roman tradition, the intention of the sculpture was just to be…them. Their generation, as the newly rejoined family of demigods.

 

Flags were planted outside every cabin, each with pride for their respective parent or ancestor. Tears were shed, even though it was four months after the end of the War with Gaea, and hugs bound them all together, with flesh against flesh. Life poured through all of them, once again connected for the first time as civil comrades, and they revered in their alliances. Mourned. Cheered.

 

With a withering heart, Jason thought it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.

 

-x-

 

Soldier of the Fifth Cohort. Centurion. Praetor to the Twelfth Legion. Slayer of Krios. Head Counselor of the Zeus’s Cabin. One of the chosen Seven of the Great Prophecy.

 

The Fifth Cohort now had five new faces Jason couldn’t recognize. Dakota and Hazel were the two leading centurions. Reyna ruled Camp Jupiter alongside Frank, as two Children of War. Yeah, there was Krios, but that was so long ago. Zeus’s Cabin—the only camp counselor. One of the seven, yes, but he’d walked away from that.

 

Jason walked away from all of that.

 

Campfire songs were sung around the circle, much more relaxed than over at Camp Jupiter. After eight months of living as a graecus, Jason understood this sense of camaraderie better. It was like Percy said: coming from a mortal school, where you were labeled the troublemaking ADHD dyslexic, to stepping foot on camp grounds was heart wrenchingly amazing. Anyone who ever had to do second grade arts and crafts probably thought their chivalry was stupid—but it wasn’t. Being a demigod meant that you had a place where you belonged when the outside world couldn’t accept you.

 

Yeah. It was no wonder why at the penultimate age of seventeen, Percy was thinking about rejoining the Legion. It meant ten more years of serving under his real heritage—the only thing that ever accepted him.  Jason pressed his fingers against his own tick marks—all twelve of them, earned before the age of sixteen. When he received the tenth one at the age of fourteen, Jason ultimately decided to continue his years in the Legion. The thought of settling down and attending school in New Rome like a handful of legacies was far-fetched for him. Reyna was a big reason to why he stayed—and eventually they both rose to praetorship together.

 

Percy was right. Jason stayed with the Legion because he thought there was no other option. He was a child of Jupiter, for Gods’ sake.

 

But the satisfaction of being praetor only lasted a few short seconds before he was thrown into Camp Halfblood and into the Greek World of the Gods. And after that, he yearned to stay. To be what—Top Dog? To be a leader?

 

It only sounded fair. Percy rose to the rank of Praetor in New Rome in a matter of days, so didn’t it make sense for Jason to become a leader at Camp Halfblood?

 

And now… He’d given them both up, like flicking ants off his forearm one-by-one as a sick and twisted form of entertainment.

 

“You’re upset.”

 

The corner of Jason’s lip rose in a tired smile as Nico’s voice brought him back to reality. Thalia and the Hunters had disappeared an hour ago after spilling woeful goodbyes to everyone (with only Percy, Grover, and Annabeth showing any gratitude. Most of the other campers feared them), leaving the camp to resume the rest of its activities for the winter break. Jason and she didn’t say goodbye to each other. Saying goodbye felt too permanent, like Jason would never see his big sister again.

 

Since then, he’d remained perched on the rooftop of Zeus’s Cabin, gazing up at the stars that illuminated the night sky. With each glimmer, he was able to make out the outline of his sister’s favorite constellation: The Archer. Campfire songs were still going on from a distance—where Jason could see Piper’s head resting on Travis’s shoulder clearly, Hazel and Frank cuddling, and a cluster of all of his other friends.

 

Nico barely raised his voice above a whisper, and yet Jason could hear everything in his tone: a bit of jollity, exhaustion, and relief.

 

Below the columns of Zeus’s Cabin, Jason saw the silhouette of his favorite demigod, who went back to the purple Sherpa hat and fluffy scarf over the nice sweater he’d worn at the ceremony over two hours ago. In his hand was what was probably Nico’s twelfth Styrofoam cup of hot cocoa.

 

“May I come up there?” Nico asked quietly. Dark eyes glittered with the far-off embers of the bonfire, and the shadows of his face danced with the light of warm flames.

 

“Did you bring me a cup of hot cocoa?” Jason teased. His heart thrummed lightly beneath his thermal wear and shirt—feeling a lot more uplifting now that Nico was there with him.

 

On cue, the younger demigod shrugged. He slipped into the shadows and materialized beside Jason—before sure enough, handing Jason a second cup of hot chocolate.

 

They sat in silence. Jason let the burn of warm liquid slip down his throat and swallowed hard as it tingled through his lungs. Leaning over his lap, blue eyes stared off at the oak tree that protected their home.

 

“So you think I’m upset?” he asked softly. He didn’t expect his voice to crack. “Ahem.”

 

To his surprise, Nico snorted and let out the closest thing he knew to a laugh. One hard sip of hot cocoa later, and then Nico outlined the stars with his eyes. “I know you are.”

 

“You’re good at that. Knowing how I feel and stuff.”

 

Something twisted over Nico’s alabaster demeanor, but he censored himself before he could utter the words. Instead, the younger demigod grazed his skull ring over the Styrofoam cup and closed his eyes. He took in a harsh breath before saying, “Seeing Thalia here upset you.”

 

“It’s not just that.”

 

“Tell me, then.”

 

Jason hesitated. He shook the cup in his hand, imagining it to be the beer Dakota once snuck into the barracks when no one was looking. Being the smallest cohort honestly hadn’t been that bad when authority turned the other cheek on you. No one would have believed that Jason Grace had a wicked streak once in a while.

 

“I miss it,” he said quietly. “I miss being praetor. Being a legionnaire. Being a camper.” With hesitant debate, Jason decided—much to his embarrassment—“I miss having power.”

 

“Oh?” Nico downed the rest of his drink with ease. Jason passed his cup over to the younger demigod without second thought.

 

“Thalia knows who she is. She spent all of those years as a tree, but as soon as she got out, she made a name for herself. She didn’t settle. After I became praetor and the first Roman in Camp Halfblood, I thought that I’d settled. But. I took it for granted. All of it.” Jason rubbed his fingers together and glared at the snow below them. He felt the shame bubble in his stomach. It wasn’t his place to stomp into camp and demand his rank back. His blood screamed that he was a leader, but his pride demanded him to earn it.

 

For once, the miser in the back of his head almost seemed pitying. That hurt, too. It’s not that you don’t know what you want, it said, you just want to be selfish.

 

“We don’t have to stay for the Capture the Flag game,” Jason said, despite himself. Maybe this was what Apollo meant about losing control. Part of his ego was bruised at the idea of not reclaiming leadership—which scared him more.

 

Nico shrugged nonchalantly, despite everything. “I know you want to stay.”

 

I want you more, Jason didn’t say. What he wanted was to keep his sanity intact, but still be with both camps, and sing songs around the campfire, and hang out with Leo and Piper, and to stay in Los Angeles, and for Nico to just…hold his hand again and tell him everything was going to be okay. But that wasn’t a possibility anymore. It never was. Instead, Jason knotted fingers in his hair and stared dismally at the campfire. “I don’t know what I want anymore.”

 

Silence.

 

At some point, Jason expected for Nico to reel off and change the subject—maybe make it easier on Jason. But instead, the Son of Hades sipped the remains of Jason’s cup and set it beside him. He let his legs dangle off the edge of the rooftop and stuffed his hands in the pockets of his black jeans before pulling out what Jason knew to be a brownie square. “I don’t mind, you know. Coming to visit you here.”

 

Jason froze.

 

“It’s like I said back in New Rome. Like you said. You’ve been…confined, but you put yourself there.” Nico shrugged and broke off half the brownie for the blonde. Dark eyes looked up from messy, tousled hair, with an eyebrow raised beneath the bristle of bangs. Sweetness twinkled in his irises—quiet and subtle, but very much there like the glimmer of a star in darkness. “Hades, Jason. I’ve gone to the Underworld more times than you’ve left that apartment in the last week.”

 

“I went all the way to LA to find you.”

 

“And you have me,” Nico said without missing a beat. He quieted for a heartbeat before continuing, “You have me. You’ve been…the greatest friend I’ve ever had. And we both know that you didn’t plan anything past finding me in California.”

 

Well…no. Not really.

 

“I don’t have a lot of friends,” the Son of Hades whispered softly. He studied the brownie between his fingers—enriched with the finest chocolates in New Rome. “But I know that it’s supposed to be filled with mutual benefits for both parties.”

 

“You make it sound like a business transaction.” Jason chuckled softly and dabbled a clump of chocolate at his tongue. He ran his next thought through his mind as a long debate before pointing out, “If I decided to leave LA, I wouldn’t know where to go, Nico. Besides, I mean…if I stayed here, or over in San Francisco, you’re going to run into Percy a lot more.”

 

He took note that Percy was no longer around the campfire with the rest of them. Neither was Leo. Both Piper and Leo had looked in Jason’s direction earlier—knowing the Son of Jupiter’s old habit of disappearing to high places to think when he was troubled—but Jason shook his head and hoped it read as a, “I just need to be alone.”

 

Nico shrugged nonchalantly. Dark eyes flickered dangerously, and out of habit, Nico’s hands went to his abdomen where his pockets normally would be. He placed them beside him, and Jason couldn’t help but notice that their fingers were almost touching. The younger demigod snorted. “I’ve done this dance, Jason. I’m not going to burst into tears every time I see him.”

 

“Yeah, but…” Nico was still upset about the whole Percy-switching-teams-situation, but it was one thing that Jason couldn’t wrap his mind over. Orientation labels were ingrained in Nico’s brain, despite everything. He still raised an eyebrow at Annabeth brushing the hair out of Reyna’s face, or the way they looked at each other when they thought no one else was watching.

 

“Valdez isn’t a problem either,” Nico said. He rolled his eyes. See? Mind reader. Drawing in a breath, Nico let out a quiet sigh and leaned forward—enough for Jason to instinctively wrap an arm around Nico’s shoulder. It was quite a leap from here to the ground. His heart hammered at the thought of it. “Percy and I talked.”

 

“What? When?”

 

“A little before I came to find you.” The other demigod fell silent, with his eyes studying the bonfire across from them.

 

“What did you guys…?” Jason trailed off. It was one of the things between them now. He wasn’t sure if he was allowed to know, or if Nico wanted it to be outside his head. In all honesty he felt a little stupid for not picking up on Nico’s cues since getting up here. Nico seemed okay, but that was only a matter of speaking.

 

The Son of Hades took Jason’s nervous conversation with a nod. Dark eyes looked to Jason, striking up a hundred beats a second in Jason’s chest. “We talked about Bianca. He…explained what happened again. And why he was pestering me about staying in one place.” Nico hopped in his own rhythm of speech and continued. “He cares about me.”

 

Jason’s heart hurt. “That’s…good. Right?”

 

“In a matter of speaking. He’s grateful.” Nico fell silence once again, eyes wandering back to the ground. His skull ring tapped nervously at the rooftop and shoulders sagged. “I don’t think I’m ready to tell him yet. That. I’m…gay.”

 

“Is it any of his business?”

 

“I think Bianca would have been proud of me for telling him.”

 

“But is it any of his business?” Jason had to lower his voice. Nico looked back to him—suddenly studying his body. “Sorry.”

 

Then, Nico continued with a sardonic look. “I should be flattered that Percy’s willing to extend a hand in my favor. Otherwise I might find my head in a toilet when he gets too tired with reasoning with me.”

 

“I’ll kill him if he does that.”

 

“And then I’d guide his spirit to the afterlife.” Nico rolled his eyes and Jason almost laughed at his own animosity. Annabeth would have dubbed this the Circle of Big Three Morons, or something along those lines. The Son of Hades drew another, singular breath with his shoulders to his ears and finished off the last of his brownie.

 

The space around them dropped maybe a tenth of a degree, with the shadows dancing to Nico’s whim.

 

“I’ll tell him,” Nico decided. He clasped his hands together and heaved a sigh. “But not yet.”

 

“It’s got to be on your own time,” Jason agreed. He touched Nico’s shoulder comfortingly, eyebrows furrowing together. His chest ached at the thought of…this. Of someone other than himself knowing Nico’s secret, but he knew that was selfish. Worst off, it was the greediest desire Jason could ever imagine. “But I’m glad you’re telling.”

 

“Yeah,” Nico agreed. His voice cracked with fear.

 

“Nico—”

 

“Now it’s time to make you happy.”

 

“What—? Whoa!”

 

The next thing Jason knew, he landed on a bed with the rush of turbulence burning his skin alive. Jason sucked in a breath, eyes wide, and blinked away the colors in his vision.

 

The new room was painted in various hues of dark purple and blue. Green torches lit up the walls, revealing the various posters of music scores, pianos, cellos—anything that could be found in an orchestra, or a jazz band. An old record player sat near the nightstand between two neatly made beds decorated in black plaid sheets, playing a raw sound of a woman singing Italian.

 

Nico plucked his aviator’s jacket off a dark coat rack, which sat beside a floppy green hat, and threw it on himself like armor. Jason jumped as he heard a crinkly giggle and swore the skeleton in the corner laughed.  

 

“Is this…Hades Cabin?”

 

“What’s the start of it.” Nico snorted softly and readjusted the hat over his head. He looked relieved to be wearing layers now. Jason had to laugh at the fact that the cabin came with its own hot cocoa machine. Perfect. “I want to fly.”

 

Then he sputtered. “What?”

 

Just the look on Nico’s face told that he wanted to do the exact opposite. Between Percy and Nico, Jason was usually tolerant of their mode of transportation. However, Nico hated being carried and Percy’s impression of an “ideal flight” was being no more than ten feet off the ground.

 

Regardless of his reaction, Nico sucked in a torturous breath and stared out the dark-tinted window. “We’ll shadowtravel to Eagle Rock, and then fly east. It’s been a while, right? Since you’ve flown?”

 

Well… “Yeah, but…” Jason couldn’t recall the last time he flew. The truth was, falling down the Rockies scared him a lot more than he liked to think about. Nightmares came and went, where he was stabbed repeatedly over and over in the back before plummeting toward Mother Earth. He’d been in shock when the spear stabbed him, unable to manipulate the winds so he could catch both Thalia and himself—and that was what freaked him out worse.

 

He almost died and almost killed his acrophobic big sister too.

 

“I know that you’re scared,” Nico called out quickly, causing Jason to snap out of his thoughts. The younger demigod’s demeanor contorted, concern flickering in his gaze before he tucked his hands in his pockets. A frown curled against his lips. “But you wouldn’t be much of a Son of Jupiter if you couldn’t fly, now would you?”

 

“Thalia manages just fine.”

 

“Yeah, because she’s a badass.” He snorted and shook his head with quiet mirth. “Trust me. You’ll like this, Jason.”

 

Trust. Now that was a word that was suddenly hard to swallow. Jason pressed his hand to the back of his neck. He felt…fidgety.

 

“You trust me,” Nico continued, as though reading Jason’s thoughts off of index cards, “Right?”

 

“I do,” Jason replied quickly. He did. He just…didn’t trust himself. “Where are we going, exactly?”

 

The Son of Hades only shrugged, and his hand suddenly shot toward the basket full of apples sitting on the chest at the end of his bed. “It’s a surprise. Just trust me.”

 

-x-

 

Jason never should have trusted Nico.

 

“Would it help if you looked at me?”

 

“I’m pretty sure we’d crash if I looked at you.”

 

Snarky, Grace. There might be hope for you yet.”

 

The light chiding was supposed to keep Jason leveled while he was in the air. Part of him—the part that wasn’t panicking from how high they were from the ground—sniggered at the exchange of wit, whether or not it was intentionally funny. After a horrid internal debate with himself (which lasted a span of about five seconds before he agreed to Nico’s somber face), Jason agreed to shadowtravel once more across the continent to Eagle Rock.

 

The nearby elementary school was empty for winter break, as with many other schools in the country. The air was laced with cold weather—blue and dim, but not as spiteful as Long Island weather. It didn’t keep Jason from whirling around, debating, for two seconds before Nico reappeared with a thermos full of hot cocoa in his hand. He was way too good at that.

 

The thoughts passed through Jason’s mind again when he got a good look at the elementary school, remembering little Jason and his littler sister. He wondered if Thalia went to a mortal school, or was homeschooled because of their mother’s busy schedule. What it would’ve been like to actually go to a mortal school.

 

Probably hell, if Percy’s experiences were anything to go by.

 

After that was the awkward debate of how Jason was to carry Nico. Shadowtraveling was much easier—even if twice, Jason was confused by the action of Nico fastening an arm over his waist. Nico wasn’t overly fond of the way Jason had manhandled him the first time—and since then, it apparently left an impression. Nico disliked the idea of riding Jason’s back like a child. Or the idea of a full-body hug. Or being scooped up like a bride.

 

(In the end, Nico swallowed his pride and discomfort and allowed Jason to carry him like a bride over a threshold—it was the safest position that Jason could think of without too much dangling on Nico’s end.) They headed east, silent for the first mile and a half before Nico pointed out that Jason was shaking.

 

“Would it help?” Nico repeated gently under his breath—soft enough for only their ears. They were the only ones airbound at that second, but Jason felt the cocoon of worry and concern that Nico coated around them—like armor.

 

Taking flight was the easy part, Jason thought. The wispy wind grazed his skin in gentle gusts, whispering sweet things in his ears as the trees rustled. With one jerk of his head or a wave of his hand, Jason could have taken flight easily. The gusts had danced against his body, with an upward breeze that lifted both Jason and Nico a foot off the ground before Jason sucked in a breath and allowed them to become airborne.

 

To appease the other boy, Jason’s blue eyes flashed over to dark, stone gray orbs for a brief second. His cheeks burned from fire and from icy weather that hummed beneath his skin. An ebony eyebrow arched high in the air, and Nico maneuvered his arms so that he could touch Jason’s cheek.

 

Erghh.

 

“I-I might drop you.”

 

“You won’t drop me.” Nico’s gaze narrowed pointedly and he placed the same hand firmly over Jason’s healing wound. “You got stabbed in the chest, fell down the side of a mountain, and still didn’t let go of Thalia.”

 

“But I landed myself in the hospital.”

 

“You’re not much of an optimist right now.”

 

“I never thought I’d see the day where you were the one telling me to be optimistic.” Despite the nervousness in his voice, Jason flashed a hardy smile that was returned by Nico’s own smirk. He took the time to look at those dark eyes, with the flicker of the genius that was up to no good, and sucked in a breath. Breathe. Air. Air was very much his element. His domain.

 

He’d never be able to control it if he was too afraid of it.

 

“Go northeast for another mile,” Nico muttered at his ear. “And then we’ll be there.”

 

He wasn’t the type of person to give pep talks or sit there and offer advice—but Nico was definitely trying. Jason was drunk on the empathy he felt in that one touch.

 

So despite every pilot instinct in him, Jason looked down to dark eyes once more, which were currently fixated with the layout of the land. They’d traveled northeast for what felt like at least an hour now, without one mention of where Nico planned on taking him. It couldn’t be that bad, now could it?

 

“Here. Stop—we’re here.”

 

Jason slammed to a halt with a gust of wind acting as a wall in front of him. Nico yelped at the abrupt stop, to which Jason clinched him tighter in his arms, and began his descent to the ground. The winds brushed up against him, like running the tips of his fingers through soft hair and giggled in his ears. Jason didn’t even want to think about how many aurae must have been in the air.

 

Instead, he landed on the solid blacktop of a highway road, shrouded in the blue of the winter night with Nico nestled tightly in his arms. Breathing in the scent of icy air, Jason’s stomach coiled with the familiar spark of energy that kept him solid. Whole, instead of a finicky cloud ready to spread apart by the nearest collision. It was Nico holding him like the night at the hospital, when the chest wound didn’t matter.

 

Buried tightly in Jason’s arms, he could see Nico’s dark eyes glimmer with the light of stars, and his sharp, angular face that was riddled with bags and hidden beneath tousled black hair. Nico’s nose was bright red from the exposure to the cold—probably ice at the touch. Nico’s face had narrowed with age into a pointed chin, with a skeletal body hidden beneath his thick jacket. One look at him and others might have called him sickly. Close to death.

 

He thought Nico was the most handsome thing in the world.

 

“—go of me now.”

 

Uh. What? “What?”

 

Nico’s eyes snapped back to him, with that classic ebony eyebrow arched high in the air. He swung in Jason’s grip until it loosened around him and landed on his feet. “I said you could let me go.”

 

“Right. Sorry.” Jason thanked the dark night for keeping the red in his cheeks hidden. He made a gesture to help Nico down—before remembering Nico was already standing beside him. Oh, Jupiter. Nico’s demeanor flickered with amusement while Jason stuffed his hands in his pockets. Again, he spoke—“Sorry.”

 

“Not a problem.” After that, the younger demigod fell into a perch on the ground.

 

Not a streetlight could be seen for miles. They stood on the smooth, deserted ground with freshly-painted yellow marking off three lanes, followed by the cement divider in the middle that separated the those for those who were coming and going. The area was walled off with a forest of dark green trees on either side, extending off until Jason saw the peak of a mountain range.

 

“C’mon,” Nico said—and Jason had no choice but to follow.

 

It was too dark to see anywhere but forward, where Nico was leading. They walked in silence for ten minutes while Nico’s eyes scanned the ground in full concentration. Then—they stopped. Nico turned and slid down the steep edge of the road until he was at the first tree, and Jason followed.

 

“Where are we, exactly?” Jason let his curiosity get the better of him. As much as he liked to play follow-the-leader, Nico’s secrecy was seriously killing him. They’d left camp at three in the morning to shadowtravel across the country and were now wandering around in the darkness.

 

Making use of resources, Nico finally pulled out a flashlight from his pocket—narrow and slim, fitted perfectly for his hand. He let the light show—and Jason cringed.

 

Tire marks were embedded deeply into the ground. Two trees concaved toward each other, broken halfway through with bark angles jutted in several painstaking directions like a porcupine. One had to wonder if they were ever trees at all.

 

“What if I told you this is where your mother died?”

 

Jason’s heart stopped.

 

Before the thought could process in his head, Nico turned around with his eyes flashing—saying that no, he certainly was not kidding. His demeanor was the most serious Jason had ever seen it—nervousness in his orbs and lips tight, ready for whatever reaction Jason was going to throw at him.

 

“Back at the hospital, Thalia and I made a deal. I would keep tabs on you for her, in exchange for something else. And it’s not that I don’t keep tabs already—” Nico’s face twisted, his expression ill at ease and hands fidgety. “The moment I heard your heart beat weaken, I…didn’t want to leave your side. You’re my friend. And I think you’re an idiot for risking your life—”

 

“I get it,” the taller demigod heard himself weakly respond. He tried to let the amusement flutter through, but even for Jason, his shock made everything sound distant. His mother had died here. Here. He was standing in the same place that his mother had been years ago.  

 

The shock flooded through his system, pulsing where his blood ran cold. Jason’s hands shook at his sides, and suddenly his hands were shaking at tenfold. He paled to a pasty shade of white, scrutinizing everything he could of the scene once more. The tire streaks started maybe five hundred feet south, skewing left and right before they took a sharp turn into the ditch. Jason took a step forward to the dented trees and absorbed the sight of broken tree trunk. His fingers curled against coiled against sharp bark—dented and askew and even completely mutilated. Branches were missing at some parts, clearly cut off by something sharp.

 

His mother had died in a car accident—roughly…six years ago? Jason had to have been ten or eleven when it happened. It’d been the worst part of slowly regaining his memories when he reunited for the first time with Thalia. He found out he did have a family—a mother and a sister. One who had moved on from her past life and the other who’d ended it before Jason could ever meet her.

 

“Are you…sure that this is where she died?” Jason whispered inaudibly, dazed. Part of him wanted it to be the truth. The other part of him—the part that disagreed with Thalia’s hate for their mother—hoped it was a lie. The image of his mother dying from a drunk driving accident made him sick to his stomach.

 

“Definitely. It…goes with the whole death sensing thing,” Nico replied, his voice weak. He sounded hesitant to mention these facts. “It’s what Thalia and I agreed on. If I took care of you for her, then she’d tell me your mother’s n—”

 

“What was her name?” Jason’s pulse quickened.

 

“Tiffany. Tiffany Grace.” The younger demigod dispelled another breath and—like magic, reached into his jacket for a folded piece of paper. “Once I knew that, I could look her up down in the Underworld. Then in old obituaries and newspapers.”

 

Jason took the folded paper with trembling hands and unfurled it between his fingers. Surely enough—it was an old newspaper that dated back six years ago, with the running headline: OLD 80s SUPERSTAR DEAD.

 

The woman back at the hospital now stared back at him—both in the form of a candid picture and a mug shot right beside her. In the candid picture, her hair was pulled in an exquisite do that belonged in an old-fashion movie. Her eyes were a startling sky blue, staring back at Jason with all the confidence in the world with an air of arrogance, and her lips were shaded with a dark red lipstick. She wore a dazzling dress that showed off her petite physique.

 

It was terrifying to believe the next picture was of the same woman. Her eyes were a blank blue—cold as ice, instead of warm like the sky, and looking back at Jason like he was absolute scum. She was older, with her hair tangled and lipstick crooked and smudged down her jaw.

 

Phoenix, was Jason’s only thought.

 

The biggest picture showed the scene they were at today—of an ambulance with his mother in the stretcher, and a tow truck pulling the car out of the mauled trees. Jason choked on a sob and read the article through his dyslexia. Hot 80s Star. Spiraling career. Runaway daughter. Jail. Alcoholism. Ultimately—death.

 

“Her soul was sent to the Fields of Asphodel.” Nico’s hands crunched in his jacket again. “If you want, I can—”

 

“No,” Jason said with a thick breath, “don’t summon her. It’s just…” Too freaky. He let his nerves settle in his stomach, gaze shifting from the picture in the newspaper and the remnants of where his mother had passed on into the afterlife. The entire experience was too surreal for him.

 

He finally got to see his mother for the first time, and it was still in the most unorthodox thing Jason could ever imagine. Figures.

 

To his surprise, Nico snorted. The Son of Hades took a step back, creating a gap between them, and touched the hairs hanging at the back of his neck nervously. Jason turned to him in his confusion.

 

“What?”

 

“Nothing,” Nico said, and he looked anxious. The, maybe-this-was-a-bad-idea, kind of anxious. “This…was supposed to be some kind of Christmas gift. Tracking down your mother, I mean. I—I didn’t mean to…make it all depressing—”

 

“No—No. I love it. I can’t believe you would do this for me, Nico.” Despite everything, Nico’s words were…pleasing. The fact that Nico had gone through all of this trouble for him. Jason swallowed his initial distress, finally, and folded the newspaper article in his hand. He stuffed it in his pocket, letting it burn with emphasis, and memorized every mark that scarred the bark. “H-How long did this take you?”

 

“I’ve been looking into it since October.”

 

What? Blue eyes darted to the younger teen, disbelief rattling his brain.

 

Nico nodded sagely with a tense, wry smile etched at the corner of his lip. “I’m a nice guy, remember?”

 

“Yeah.” Jason held his breath for a heartbeat. The soft crows of owls filled their ears, buried too deeply in the forest for them to find. His chest constricted, overwhelmed and drowning from the whole situation. It was still too hard to wrap his mind around. “Can you…tell me how she died? Other than…you know. What the newspaper can say?”

 

The Son of Hades bit the inside of his cheek with a hesitant gaze before nodding. “I can do that.”

 

They started with the tire tracks. Nico knelt on asphalt when it became clear that not another soul would drive down the road and ran his fingers over the gritty marks. He looked in his element, with both feet planted to the ground and fingers tracing the remains. Jason had lightning and wind, Percy had the ocean and earthquakes, and Nico—Nico had shadows and death. Ghosts.

 

Dark eyes narrowed at the rugged pathway before looking up in the direction they’d come from. “She was coming here from southwest. Los Angeles. You said she lived there. Closer to Eagle Rock. I’m pretty sure that’s where Thalia went to school. Yeah. She’d gotten out of the spotlight for a while before her career spiraled, I think. She was drunk. An alcoholic.”

 

Nico did a one-eighty with his body, with a two-finger gesture in the opposing direction. His eyes studied the hill top as it rose from the darkness—a missed route because of the car.

 

“It was tonight. Six years ago tonight. She was drinking to ease out her problems. But…not the drinking that you said. Not because her career had gone downhill.” He wrinkled his nose, like the thought of drinking utterly disgusted him. Nico took two steps forward, his eyes remaining on the far-off hilltop. “It was to ease out the fact that she’d lost Thalia and you. She got in the car to go find you. To go to Long Island and find Thalia. Something on the road must have frightened her.”

 

They took slow steps, with Nico’s feet clacking at the ground. He touched the tree with his hand and shivered.

 

“That’s when she swerved.” Falling silent, Nico’s hands curled against the ashy wood and he looked back to Jason. He sighed uneasily, gaze shrouding with remorse. “The windshield must have shattered. She lunged forward, hit her head—and died on the spot.” Another hitch filled Nico’s conversation and he shook his head. “She thought about you when she died though. And she regretted not being a better mother. She loved you, Jason. Both of you.”

 

Jason remained where he was with both feet planted to the ground—silent. Warm tears trickled down his face, with awed, parted lips catching the salty liquid as it ran off course into his mouth—and he scrutinized every evidence he could once again. Jason let every word Nico spoke flow through his mind, spinning and whirring like a miniature tornado in his head. The corner of his lips twitched in the saddest of smiles.

 

His mother had died trying to find them. She loved them.

 

With that, Jason broke down and cried.

 

He clasped trembling hands over his mouth and fell to a crouch, blue eyes scrutinizing the dark tree. Sadness caught in Jason’s throat and he breathed roughly between the tiny crevasses of his fingers.

 

Tiffany Grace. The name sung in his ears like a Hollywood socialite—absolutely perfect. She had Thalia’s nose, and his eyes, and his hair, and her smile and just—she was beautiful. She’d been beautiful. He tried to play the day of the picnic out near the Wolf House in his mind even though he knew he was too young to remember—and imagined what it must have been like to give him up. How it must have been, lying to Thalia for years about where he’d gone, and…losing both of them.

 

He didn’t need to imagine what it was like having a mother anymore. No thought could come close—but now…

 

Now Jason could stop wondering how she felt about them.

 

A hand grazed his shoulder when Jason knew he’d been silent for way too long. He tingled at the gentle gesture, eyes rising to meet the mad genius who figured out the missing puzzle piece in Jason’s life.

 

And then there was that feeling again—that feeling of completeness.

 

Nico fell to one knee, with his hands splaying over his thick boots. He touched Jason’s shoulder once more with an analytical look and pulled out a handkerchief. “Um. Here.”

 

It was the same whole feeling that Jason felt in the hospital when Nico had hugged him for comfort. Even earlier, he realized. His heart swelled in his chest, feeling full since the first night that Nico shadowtraveled to his apartment in Los Angeles. It distended with Nico’s mischievous smirks, with the madman’s glint in his eyes—with the regal and not-so-regal way Nico held himself despite the exhaustion in his eyes, and the soft tone of his voice.

 

In present time, Nico’s tenor was still soft and calming to Jason’s needs. Jason liked it that way.

 

He liked the way Nico’s eyebrow raised whenever Jason did something out of the norm—like extending a hand to accept the Son of Hades, or abandoning both camps and shedding his identity as a Roman or a Greek. He loved the sensation of Nico’s fingers tangled in his own, and the way Nico’s dry wit accompanied his cruel but well-intentioned humor.

 

He loved the fact that Nico had come to trust him this much.

 

The fact that Nico was able to express himself more easily, so that he was whole too.

 

That Thalia took care of him like a little brother, and Nico returned the sentiment.

 

The fact that no matter what happened, Nico came back to him.

 

He loved that Nico had gone through all of this trouble over a thought that Jason intended as a passing thought and—a-and went through the trouble of searching for his mother’s tracks for him.

 

Nico was the reason why he knew what his mother looked like now.

 

He…

 

Jason loved him.

 

He loved Nico.

 

“Hey,” Nico murmured in a sweet tone when Jason still hadn’t responded. He stroked Jason’s shoulder with brittle fingers and leaned closer to catch the other boy’s attention. “Hey, it’s alright. You’re gonna be oka—mmph.”

 

Jason laced a hand over Nico’s jaw line and padded fingers over Nico’s brazened cheek. He breathed in the earthy scent of Nico’s jacket and old mothballs and pressed chapped lips against Nico’s own, securing Nico firmly at that spot.

 

He loved Nico.

 

I’m in love with him, Jason thought. His hands curled against ebony black hair and heart hammered in his chest. He was in love with Nico. He—

 

“I love you,” Jason whispered when they parted. Blue eyes exuded sheer loyalty and affection and sweetness and endearment and pure earnestness as he looked upon the Son of Hades. “Gods—I-I…love you, Nico.”

 

He snapped out of elation when Nico’s demeanor flooded with horror.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Oh no. Nononononono—

 

That wasn’t supposed to happen. That—never should have happened.

 

Jason’s panic got the better of him, seeping through his ears and numbing his thoughts to everything else around him. He still had Nico’s face in his grasp, fingers curled around the contour of Nico’s narrow face like a canvas, so he could see everything. And he didn’t want to seeit.

 

Nico stumbled backward with his hands burying into cold soil, his eyes wider than the celestial bronze cannon balls shot from the Argo II. His face paled to a ghostly white, entire body trembling. From fear. Shock. His demeanor slackened into something Jason couldn’t read above fright and alarm. Pale lips parted—attempting to conjure some speech, but he couldn’t. Jason racked his brain because he could barely conjure a sensible thought either.

 

That wasn’t supposed to happen.

 

“Nico—”

 

The younger demigod scurried three steps back, unblinking, and—afraid. Red bloomed in Nico’s cheeks, but Jason could only grimace at the eyebrows knitted together—toward him—and the way Nico wavered. 

 

He loved Nico. But Jason had decided long ago that Nico would never feel the same way—and that he didn’t want to ruin their relationship. Nico deserved the world and—Jason didn’t have it. He just lost it.

 

“Nico, I’m sorry, I—” Jason stood to his feet and took a hesitant step forward. Nico’s Adam’s apple bobbed as the younger boy gulped. “I didn’t mean to kiss you—” Gods, he wished he hadn’t done that, no matter how right it felt to have Nico in his hands. “—I didn’t mean for that to happen. I swear.

 

The ridge between Nico’s eyebrows deepened—and suddenly he wasn’t scared anymore. He narrowed his gaze, fixating on Jason’s nervous demeanor and steadied himself over the ground.

 

Jason didn’t know how to take it.

 

“Let’s just forget what happened,” he pleaded, and every bone in Jason’s body screamed no. His heart sank and drowned in his chest and he took another step forward, hands curled together. The word love sung in his head as a desolate melody, dissipating into the darkness as he fell to sober ground. “I-I didn’t mean—”

 

“You didn’t mean it?” Nico’s voice cut through him like his sword.

 

Jason meant every word of it. He loved Nico’s quiet smiles and the gentle way he took care of Hazel and the thought that he put into such menial things. He loved the madman glint in Nico’s dark eyes when no one else was watching and the dry wit that passed when no one cared to listen—and Nico’s inaudible sniggers when that pause of fear appeared in someone’s eyes after he managed to scare them.

 

Every thought and reason why loving Nico was so right spun in his head, but was halted in his throat with every reason why it was wrong. Jason had horrible luck with relationships. Everything that got his attention was usually flicked away, ant-by-ant by the next day. He was fickle, and that wasn’t what Nico needed.

 

But finding Nico had to be the only thing that made life worth living these days.

 

“Well?” Nico’s voice snapped Jason out of his flurry of thoughts, with a tremor in his voice. He looked positively red with absolute rage, with his glare burning a hole in Jason’s chest. “A-Answer me, Jason.”

 

Jason cringed, with his heart sinking further down his chest until he could no longer breathe. The hole in his abdomen ached. “Yes,” he said softly, voice rigid in his throat. “Yeah, okay? I meant it. I—I do love you, Nico—but I know that I’m not what you’re looking for, and I don’t want to ruin our friendship. I-I never meant to actually tell you. That kiss was over the line.”

 

Dark eyes clouded over with an unreadable expression, with Nico still settled firmly on the ground. He collected himself at his feet, eyes glued to dirt—and he said nothing.

 

“Nico,” Jason muttered—begged. “I’m so sorry.” He urged himself closer to the younger teen to touch him—to place a hand on Nico’s shoulder and apologize for how rotten he sounded.

 

Nico took two steps back instead. “Why?”

 

“Why, what?”

 

“Why do you think it’s okay to do that? To take my first…” Nico’s voice caught in his throat and he shook his head fervidly. Gods. He threw his arms in front of him, trembling hands directed at Jason with a hard gulp. Then Nico scowled. “You don’t get to do that.”

 

What? “Nico, I swear to gods, I never want to hurt you—”

 

You don’t get to yank around my feelings like—like they’re a game to you!” Nico hissed. He drew a shaky breath and the shadows around him swirled at his shoes. “You can’t just change your mind just so it suits your feelings so you don’t have to think about it! You can’t toy with me like that! You can’t…” Fingers curled at his lungs, with Nico’s eyes falling back to the ground with his chest heaving. “You can’t just say you love me—” Jason didn’t miss the way Nico’s voice cracked when he said love. “—and then take it back. You can’t…

 

The blonde stood there, speechless, mouth parted and heart pounding. He took a step forward—and couldn’t.

 

Shadow tendrils cuffed his ankles, binding the Son of Jupiter to the ground while Nico took another step back. This time it wasn’t a joke. It wasn’t for fun. Jason’s head hurt too much to summon even a light breeze.

 

“I don’t love you, Grace.” Nico’s throat constricted and he glared miserably at him. “I barely want to look at you.”

 

No.

 

And with that, he shadowtraveled away.

 

Nico!”

 

-x-

 

Jason flew back to Camp Halfblood with heat thrumming in his chest. He torpedoed through frosty clouds and through the cluster of gray nimbuses—the ones that formed around him because Jason couldn’t calm down—and shot through the sky until Long Island came to view. His ears burned with the beginnings of frostbite, with shallow huffs of air freezing in his throat.

 

He was panicked. Angry. Confused. Frustrated.

 

He wanted Nico. Needed Nico. And he—didn’t know what to say to Nico.

 

Winter blue lit up the sky in an eerie dawn, shrouding the white snow in disturbing twilight as Jason continued to fly east. He choked on his heart, catching sight of the forest, and remembered stone gray eyes that gazed back at him—entrapped by heaps of icy white.

 

The bonfire burned at the center of camp, with the gusto of home and warmth drowning Jason’s senses—but still not powerful enough to clear his mind. He landed within the borders of the omega and darted for the Hades’ Cabin.

 

His mind stirred like lightning ricocheting through every nerve. Jason hit the front door with his fingers and darted inside before his next heartbeat.

 

Hazel’s shriek registered in the furthest corner of his mind, while Jason searched every lit crevasse he could find. He swept the skeleton and coat rack aside with a harsh gust and pushed the standard chest away with another gale.

 

Where was he? Where was Nico?

 

WOOOOOSHH

 

Wind whistled in Jason’s ears and a surge of electricity crackled off the ceiling.

 

“Stop!” Hazel screamed. “Jason, what are you doing?!”

 

Her words didn’t sink in until Jason found himself shoved against the wall with his gladius pressed lengthwise over him. Gold eyes scrutinized him—as big as chariot wheels—and Hazel’s palms were pointed his way from her bed.

 

Frank was at her side in seconds—which was when Jason realized that the door was rattling outside the cabin walls with a violent flurry. Campers had ran from their cabins, still dressed in their PJs and groggily pulling out their weapons—a mix of imperial gold and celestial bronze—in response to the s they must have heard.

 

His mind spun—like the distressed satyrs that were whirling outside over the hearth with distraught whinnies.

 

Jason forced himself to breathe. To calm down. He couldn’t.

 

“I—I was looking for Nico,” he supplied weakly.

 

Hazel’s eyebrows darted beneath her hairline. She moved the gladius and spatha away from Jason’s neck and immediately demanded, “What happened to him?”

 

“Nothing.” Jason’s throat ached with pain as his senses finally caught up with his adrenaline. He lowered himself into a crouch and picked up the floppy green hat he’d knocked over earlier. “I-I…he ran away from me. I thought he’d be here.”

 

What?” was Frank’s shout of angered disbelief. The murmurs that stirred all concluded with, Jason Grace finally lost it, and Grace is crazy!

 

Percy, Annabeth, Reyna, Piper, and Leo all forced their way through the crowd—no doubt stirring when they heard their old comrade shout.

 

He’d been the one to do it, Jason realized miserably. His hands shook over the frayed visor while his old teammates finally took in the scene. He could hear Leo’s long drawn out whistle, Piper’s gasp, Annabeth’s ‘what the—?’, and most importantly—

 

Damn,” Percy murmured under his breath as he took in the sight of the room. He turned around, recapping Riptide as he did so. “Alright, guys. Clear out. Nothing to see here. And not a word of it in the morning. Got it?

 

-x-

 

They sat in the rec room of the Big House, where Jason was ostracized to a stool in the center of the bean bag chairs and couches while his friends scrutinized him. Chiron had been ushered back to bed, with a unison wince shared by all when he worked his record player to soothe him back to sleep. Mr. D called them brats before hauling himself back upstairs, and Argus stared at them tiredly before dozing off with all of his eyes.

 

Leo brewed his special, Leo Fantastico Cocoa-ccino for all of them after fixing the broken heater and the short leg on the ping-pong table. Reyna and Annabeth were quiet in their own debate, occasionally steering hard glances in Jason’s direction when he was the point of their conversation. Percy stared at him unabashedly from across the stool, arms crossed and lips arched into a frown. Pissed.

 

Piper sat right next to him, feet together and studying Jason with her charming gaze.  Hazel and Frank joined them minutes later (the latter shooting daggers at Jason for nearly destroying his girlfriend’s living arrangements) and sat at empty chairs.

 

Jason could have cared less.

 

He stared at his feet, trying to steady his breaths against the erratic beat of his heart—and only found it worst. Each breath forced shattered pieces of his heart to dig into his lungs. His chest hurt. His heart hurt.

 

The fact that he almost hurt Hazel made his head spin more violently, with the guilt and panic and sadness and distraught suffocating his nasal passages. Jason tried to breathe. He choked on all of the emotions that flowed through his pulse and forgot words on his tongue.

 

“Do you wanna talk?” Piper asked softly. The lull of her voice sang in his mind—halting the flurries and thoughts for just a moment for Jason’s thoughts to straighten themselves out.

 

He was heartbroken.

 

In one night, he’d understood every reason why being in love with Nico di Angelo made perfect sense—a-and yet it all stalled into a deafening halt at the fear in those dark eyes.

 

 “Okay,” his ex-girlfriend murmured, with a mute agreement that was heard by everyone else in the room. She raised her voice, and Jason felt his brain dance at her soprano. “Raise your hand if you’re possessed by an eidolon.”

 

A collective sigh of relief flowed through the room when Jason’s hand remained in the nook of his mug. It lasted two seconds.

 

“Then what the hell were you doing terrorizing Hazel’s Cabin?”

 

Silence. Another ache pierced Jason’s heart and he closed his eyes with a shivering breath.

 

“Jeez, Frank,” Leo mused inappropriately, with his arms crossed over his chest. “Using bad words now, huh? Jason, you must have pissed him off real good.”

 

Frank’s gaze flitted to the Son of Hephaestus, with a frown marring his lips. As a Son of Mars, his irritation and anger radiated in the room in disturbing energy. “You don’t expect me to believe that it’s normal to ransack other peoples’ cabins.”

 

“It’s not,” Leo quipped. He brought his hands up in defense, demeanor unfazed, and shrugged. “We have a time out box with a dunce cap and stuff. Everyone else gets to wear a shirt that says, ‘I survived INSERTNAMEHERE’s rampage.’

 

Leo—”

 

“Hey.” Percy touched Leo’s shoulder like tugging a hyperactive puppy on the leash. Instantly, the shorter teen retracted, settling nicely into the couch with his arms crossed and the dry amusement in his eyes. “We’re here to figure out why Jason’s gone insane. It’s not going to help if we turn on each other.”

 

“Wise words, Seaweed Brain.” Annabeth tilted her head in approval and stood to her feet, assuming her role as the rational leader between all of them.

 

If Jason was in better spirits, he would have realized this was the first time all seven of them were gathered in one place since the War. Percy, Annabeth, Leo, and Piper all settled like they were back home around the ping-pong table, but the seven of them together would have offered another type of synergy—like it hadn’t been four months since the last time they were together.

 

“—son. Jason.” Piper’s charmspeak bubbled in his mind like a drunken sensation—setting Jason off kilter if only for a moment.

 

“What?” he murmured, cocking his head up to his ex-girlfriend.

 

Across from him, both Annabeth and Piper stood, with concern consuming both their demeanors. Piper’s face twisted, eyebrows meshing together, and she approached him slowly. “Annabeth was calling your name.”

 

“Jason,” Annabeth said as if proving her point, “you’re facing some serious consequences hereif you can’t tell us why you lashed out at Hazel. It’s not like harassing someone else outside the pavilion or having a sword fight out in the woods. You assaulted another camper in their cabin. You can get suspended from camp because of that.”

 

“Suspension?” Percy intervened with a frown, like it was the first time he’d heard of the rule. “What—like at school?”

 

“Basically.” She studied Jason like a complicated enigma and shook her head. “You can get suspended up to a year because of these things. And while that doesn’t sound like much, being a demigod knowingly means you might not even come back by the time your suspension period is over.”

 

“Not to mention the commotion it stirs between both camps.” Reyna chimed in, causing everyone’s eyes to fall on her. “You heard Octavian earlier. He’s a powerful speaker and is probably trying to cause a commotion as we speak between Greeks and Romans again.”

 

“What—because Superman over here attacked Hazel?” Leo frowned and gestured over to the blond. “But they’re both—”

 

“Jason’s about as Roman as I’m still Greek.” Percy cut in, with his hand running a smooth line over the sole tic mark on his arm. Sea green eyes looked up to sky blue observantly, eyebrows pressed together and lips sealed. “More so than me. I mean—you spent eight months here in Long Island, man. You’re a pretty good balance of both.”

 

Frank groaned. “I swear to Mars. If Octavian tries to start another war—”

 

“But Jason didn’t attack me!” Hazel finally intervened, standing to her feet.

 

Jason cocked his head to her immediately and watched her face scrunch. With each passing second that she studied him, he felt sicker to his stomach—coming to the realization that he’d nearly attacked Nico’s sister. And that made him feel utterly worse.

 

“He didn’t attack me. I swear.

 

“That’s not how everyone out there is going to see it, Hazel.” Annabeth shook her head and looked like she was playing devil’s advocate. “You know that even if the treaty’s been signed that there’s still tension between both camps. This is going to be the golden gossip in the morning.”

 

“Oh hell no. I am not going through another war over this.” Leo.

 

“Yeah, like that’s your decision to make, Leo.” Frank. “Just tell us, Jason. What happened?”

 

“You’re not putting yourself in graces, Jason.” Reyna. “And boys—stop it.

 

“I told Nico that I love him.” Jason.

 

 

“And he—” Completely freaked and had every right to be angry at him. Hated him. Jason seethed. “And he doesn’t feel the same way. I—I thought I could find him here. Okay?”

 

He sucked in a breath as seven pairs of eyes bore holes at him in utter shock. Shards of pain traced his lungs with their sharp edges and he sunk in his own misery as the realization continued to hit him hard.

 

“I’m not trying to start a war. You can say whatever you want to everyone else—I don’t care.”

 

All he cared about was Nico. And Nico was scared of him. Hated him.

 

Nico wanted nothing to dowith him.

 

“Uh.” Percy was first to respond—tone unsure. His voice made the electricity bristle through the hairs of Jason’s forearms, irritation crackling in his chest. “You can’t expect him to be okay with that, I guess. I mean…he’s from the 1940s, Jason. Greek or not, being gay wasn’t exactly…welcomed.”

 

The Son of Jupiter sucked in a breath and cocked his head to Percy for the first time. A mix of uncertainty, doubt, discomfort, confusion, and disbelief stared back at him through sea-green eyes, and a surge of anger forced Jason to his feet. Fury boiled in his heart and he bared his teeth at the roman Son of Poseidon—who jumped to a crouch on his couch cushion and tensed. “Do you seriously think you know anything about Nico?”

“Jay!” Leo gripped him by the arm, yanking him back while Piper took the other end. “Hey, hey, hey—I get that you want to throw a few punches at each other, but assaulting another demigod isn’t helping your case right now!”

 

“This isn’t assaulting! It’s reasoning.” Jason tugged forward weakly, with the scowl over his face.

 

Percy stared back at him with the goddamn poker face he’d kept since after Thanksgiving. His body language read preparation for a fight, but the eyebrow raised and lips tight like he was the most civil being in the world. “He’s right, Leo. It’s reasoning.”

 

“Boys!” Annabeth stood between them and tapped Jason’s chest lightly in a desist motion. “I swear by Athena that I’ll murder both of you if you kill each other.”

 

Jason glared at the Son of Poseidon, with his hands crackling with electricity. “We’re not killing each other—”

 

Percy’s gaze narrowed. “We’re reasoning—”

 

“Quiet!” Piper shouted. Both of them shut up immediately. “Jason, go sit down. Percy, stop egging him on.

 

With that, Jason felt the full force of his ex-girlfriend’s charm speak and ushered himself back to the stool in the middle of the room while Percy sat down as a prim and proper demigod, legs crossed and hands folded over his lap. He looked as dazzled and stunned as Jason felt, with his eyes haunted by a child of Aphrodite’s tone. The force of her voice was so strong that Jason couldn’t breathe until she commanded it.

 

“You know, Thalia was right.” Annabeth paced between them with the irritation bubbling in her expression—enough to calm both teens. Annabeth was the last person anyone wanted to be on the bad side of. “You two need to keep your egos in check. I don’t know what happened to your bromance in the past four months, but I am not spending the next two weeks playing peacemaker between you two.”

 

Percy seethed. “All I’m saying is—”

 

“And I’m saying you should butt out.” Jason snapped.

 

Piper made a frustrating, incoherent noise. “SHUT UP!”

 

Everyone in a ten-mile radius must have heard her command. The Big House was suddenly devoid of all sounds—to the point that even Chiron’s obnoxious records stalled. Jason tried to sort out his fuzzy mind to speak, but couldn’t conjure the words he needed. Everyone else silenced at her chilling command.

 

She threw her hands in the air and muttered a curse under her breath. “No one speaks unless I say so!”

 

Hazel raised her hand reluctantly.

 

“Hazel can speak!”

 

“If it’s all the same to you all, I’d like to speak to Jason myself.” Gold eyes turned, flickering with both irritation and pity—and reminding all of them why their meeting in the Big House was currently taking place.

 

Jason was too ashamed to look her in the eye, and instead focused at his feet. The situation had strayed far away from his punishment. Hazel took a step in his direction, which was when he realized everyone was standing at their feet—aside from Percy and he, who were forced to remain seated apart from each other. Everyone felt the need to separate them.

 

They certainly weren’t fistbumping anymore, Jason mused sarcastically.

 

“Okay. That seems fair.” Piper nodded slowly and looked wearily to Annabeth. “It’s five in the morning. We’ve got to be up in three hours.”

 

 “You’re right.” Annabeth sighed forlornly and ran a hand through her hair. She laced a hand through Reyna’s and looked over to the Daughter of Pluto for the last time that night. “You can decide Jason’s punishment, Hazel. We’ll try to calm the masses in the morning. And Seaweed Brain?”

 

Percy cocked his head, annoyed.

 

“This goes for you too, Jason. If you two are within ten feet of each other, I’ll kill both of you.”

 

Both boys cringed. It didn’t take a genius to tell you that no one wanted to be on Annabeth’s bad side. They may have been children of the Big Three, but only an idiot was willing to piss her off. The six demigods gathered toward the door at Piper’s command, leaving Hazel to sit perfectly parallel to her old praetor. Frank gave her one last kiss, while Reyna caught Jason’s eye.

 

She squeezed his shoulder, sharp gaze narrowed toward him, and Jason bit the inside of his mouth as he saw her pity. Leo and Piper lingered, both sharing glances and looking at him with concern.

 

All of them did, actually. Every single one of his friends watched him at the door way like he’d been diagnosed with an incurable disease. Jason sucked in a breath and shoved his pride aside. He knew from Reyna’s look and Piper and Leo’s worried glances that all they saw was a hot mess.

 

Throwing things around in a room, scaring Hazel, and readily welcoming the idea of killing Percy Jackson—one of his closest friends—weren’t thoughts that a rational Jason Grace should have had. Even if Percy did kind of deserve it.

 

“Sorry,” Jason whispered when his old teammates left. 

 

“No, I—” Hazel’s voice faltered before she withdrew a tired sigh and hugged herself. He didn’t miss the sarcasm in her voice as gold eyes narrowed at her. “My night’s not complete without someone bursting into my room.”

 

Jason bit the inside of his mouth, ceasing any thought from becoming spoken word, and curled his hands over his mug once more.

 

“So you love my brother.”

 

Truly, madly, deeply. Jason’s heart swelled in his chest, choking the air out of his lungs and making it difficult for him to breathe. He glimpsed upward with his head spinning once more like a typhoon, and found Hazel studying his besotted face.

 

“Do you really?” Hazel asked.

 

“I’ve never loved anyone more.” Jason squeezed his eyes shut and saw pain. Fear. The flash of fright in Nico’s eyes as the other teen hurried away from him hurt Jason for the thousandth time. It hit him that he’d never told someone he loved them before.

 

Piper and Jason had broken up for that very reason. Leo and he…they were just a summer fling. There wasn’t a guy or girl back at Camp Jupiter before his memories were stolen away that he’d given his heart to. Gwendolyn had been a big sister to him, and while Reyna was the closest girl friend he had at camp, Jason couldn’t devote himself to her. Not her, nor the position as praetor over at camp.

 

Thalia was his sister. Of course he loved her, no matter the difficulties they were facing.

 

But this was Nico. Nico, who he spent four months with, separated from his half-god heritage. Nico, who had gone all the way to the Rockies to find him. Who went out for pizza with him, even if he hated pepperonis, and who shared pomegranate seeds and idle chat with like it was breathing.

 

Who consumed Jason with an earthy scent and with mothballs, and gave a shy smile behind his cautious, worried eyes. Who told him to get over his fear and fly again. Who leaned into him to hear his heartbeat, so Jason could do the same.

 

“Gods,” Jason whispered, and he buried his face between his knees, trembling. Gods. “I love him, Hazel. I-I…”

 

“Jason.” She breathed his name, faltering with worry. Hazel stood to her feet and brushed a hand over his shoulder.

 

“He found out my mother’s name for me, Hazel.” As soon as those words left his mouth, the rest of the tale followed: how after the Memorial Ceremony, Nico helped Jason fly again, and where they had disappeared off to. That also meant telling Hazel about the kiss—and about Nico’s sheer shock.

 

Hazel’s eyes had widened at every point. She pressed her tongue with a slow sound, Jason clung onto the melody. “I don’t know what to say, Jason.”

 

“He asked Thalia to tell him our mother’s name in exchange for looking after me. And he’s been working on that search since October. I—I can’t think of any way to every thank him.” Jason’s eyebrows furrowed together and he tightened his grip over his mug. He wanted to laugh, thinking of all the other reasons why falling in love with Nico di Angelo felt right. “He’s done so much for me. You and he went up to the Rockies again. To get my sword. All on his request.”

 

“You mean a lot to him.” Hazel frowned—an emotion running in her demeanor that Jason couldn’t sort.

 

He ached, blood burning as Percy’s twisted demeanor of confusion flashed in his mind again. “But I don’t mean as much to him as Percy does.”

 

 Images of Nico’s conscience—of Nico’s idol stirred in Jason’s head again. The living existence of Nico’s favorite game, Mythomagic. His childhood hero.  Only hours ago did Nico confide in Jason that he was preparing himself to tell his old crush that he was gay.

 

Even if Jason loved Nico, it’d been the other reason why loving him wasn’t right. Nico’s heart was for someone else.

 

And realizing it now hurt more than any spear through the chest.

 

“I shouldn’t have kissed him.” Jason buried his face in his hands miserably. “I knew that I liked him but—I never wanted to tell him. I told him that I couldn’t like him like that. That…I didn’t want to ruin what we had—”

 

“Wait. You told him that you couldn’t love him?” Hazel cut him off, voice running thin. Her eyebrows pressed together and she stared at him in disbelief.

 

The route her tone took forced Jason into a rough halt. He looked up, meeting her gold eyes as they searched him for the hidden truth—like he’d just told a really terrible joke. Jason hadn’t been trying to play the victim as he explained his case—he only meant to tell someone why he hurt so much. But somehow Hazel’s pity had morphed into an accusatory glare.

 

“I asked if we could take back what happened,” Jason said steadily. He set the cold cocoa down next to his stool and curled his hands together. “And he got mad from there.”

 

Because Jason changed the rules. Because he flipped wanting to be friends to wanting to be more—and then pleaded for nothing else.

 

“That’s not fair to him, Jason.” Anger consumed Hazel’s tone and she sat higher on the couch. “You told him you loved him and then you took it back.”

 

“Because—”

 

“How many people do you think have ever told Nico that they loved him?”

 

He froze. His mind suddenly went blank, jaw slackening while Hazel looked increasingly more offended. “I…”

 

“He took care of me because he thought it was his duty. But the first time I told him that I loved him like the brother I wished I had in the past, he didn’t believe me. He told me that I couldn’t. Nico hasn’t been told something like that since before Bianca died.” The Daughter of Pluto shook her head, gaze never pulling from Jason as she made him wither with her eyes. A hand fell to her heart. “That trust we have? Both of us had to earn it. And you have no idea what it means to me that he trusts me so much to tell me that he’s queer.”

 

Nico had been heartbroken at the idea of destroying his relationship with Hazel. He’d been sick to his stomach just thinking about telling her his secret and had broken down in tears for the first time in Jason’s presence when he told Jason that Hazel could barely look at him.

 

“I wasn’t lying when I said you meant a lot to him. You didn’t see him in New Rome the way I did while we were waiting for news on you. Not all of his nervous ticks.” Hazel bit her lip and grazed a hand through her dark hair. “Jason, you spent four months finding my brother and earning his trust. He trusts you back—otherwise he wouldn’t be around you all the time.”

 

And Jason had said the most intimate words in the English dictionary to him. Ones that Nico blatantly made clear that he didn’t hear often.

 

“Nico likes you back, Jason.” What?

 

But—”

 

“From the things that I hear you’ve done for him, I see why. But,” Hazel continued, and she made a frustrated noise, “when I asked if it was true, he gave me the most miserable look I’ve ever seen on his face and asked me to drop the subject. He hates almost every aspect of his life as a demigod because of the stuff that happens to him.” Gold eyes flickered with disappointment and disdain.

 

“But I’ve always thought of him first. I’ve always asked, I—” Jason always filled in the blanks when Nico was too shy or refused to answer him.

 

The other Roman shook her head, nose scrunching. “You took away any choice he had in the matter, Jason. You should have let him answer for himself.”

 

He should have. Jason’s eyes widened and his gaze fall to the ground as the entire situation replayed in his memory again. This time, with every spout of bullshit that he uttered. Then Nico’s shaky reaction. “He yelled at me and said that he didn’t love me back. That…he could barely look at me.”

 

“Do you think you really deserve him loving you back?” Hazel’s tone settled—like Jason had finally found the problem.

 

Jason choked on his own madness. He’d fallen for Nico, just like Hades said. He refused to act on those feelings but did so anyway. He kissed Nico and lost Nico’s trust. He lost control—just like Apollo said he would.

 

He lost Nico.

 

“No,” he said hoarsely. “I don’t.”

 

-x-

 

So this was what heartbreak felt like. Like a thousand knives through the heart and every ounce of verbal speech knocked out of you by a backbone that was shattered by wounded pride. Like every next heartbeat would be the last, because it was hard to look up and believe you could go on, and with a head that pounded from empty, recurring memories of every sweet whisper from a non-lover and the reminder that you were the one that ruined everything.

 

Wasn’t that the feeling he’d given Piper after they broke up? After they finally realized they couldn’t live in blissful ignorance where he never told her, just once, that he loved her? Then there was Leo—to whom Jason agreed that there was nothing going on other than a few makeout sessions and some release of tension. But he knew that pained look in those brown eyes—the one that knew that Jason would be abandoning Leo only hours later.

 

What about the Fifth Cohort? Reyna?  He grew up with a Roman family when no one else by blood could take him in. Reyna and he formed a bond since her first day at camp, with the vow that they would rise as praetors together. He left them.

 

And now he sat beneath the window sill of Zeus’s Cabin, Christmas Day, with his head buried between his knees and choking on his own misery. Even the tiny, mocking voice at the back of his head pitied him.

 

The knives of anguish pierced his heart every time he swallowed a breath, and Nico’s shaken face blinded his vision every time he closed his eyes. Every. Single. Time.

 

You deserve it, Grace, he thought to himself on more than one occasion. He screwed up with Nico. With everyone. He deserved to wander in confusion, missing everything that still beat with life while he’d secluded himself in a tiny apartment in LA. The one thing that kept him there no longer wanted anything to do with him.

 

Jason could die without Nico by his side. (And the cruel irony, he thought to himself with a bitter laugh. He was in love with Death.)

 

If this was what heartbreak felt like, then he deserved a thousand deaths for every person that he ever hurt.

 

He had trouble sleeping with the hiss of Nico’s hatred filling his ears in slumber and the bitter, I don’t love you! that struck him to the core. Every time there was a pause in his Nico-induced hysteria, Apollo’s declaration filled the void. The lapses between Nico and Apollo were filled with Hades.

 

“You’ll get your challenge, Jason Grace. Something that’s out of your control. You’ll have to choose between doing what you think is right, and doing what you really want.”

 

“…if you wish to continue courting Nico in the way that you have, then I only warn you of the decisions that await you.”

 

Funny—when Jason thought challenge, he didn’t think it meant matters in the heart. He chose what he thought was right—and it was wrong. So, so stupidly wrong. Hades must have had corpses rolling in their graves out of anger for Jason hurting Nico—and yet that was the furthest worry from the blonde’s mind.

 

He could only think of the tender stroke of shadow tendrils as Hades addressed his son the night at the hospital. One glance at the Lord of Death and Riches, and Jason remembered the cold image of his mother and the forgotten memory of what Nico used to be.

 

A healthy boy who still had the color in his cheeks, who played an old game with his sister under the watchful eyes of their loving mother. He had a pure, unadulterated smile that lit up with his madman eyes—a gaze that wasn’t hidden by curly hair that was in dire need of a haircut. Jason imagined the mother covering both her children in kisses, and Nico throwing tiny arms around his sister in gratefulness for playing a game with him.

 

He met those eyes when they’d hollowed. When they looked at the world like everyone was a ghost. When that pure, unadulterated grin was nothing more than a meager smile that barely reached his eyes when Jason finally accomplished something sensible to them.

 

Nico had only a handful of people that he cared for on the surface world. And only one of them did he care for like his mother and sister.

 

Frank mused the thought that Jason was as close to Nico as Hazel was. He never considered himself a tactless person—Jason received twenty too many jokes on the Argo II that he was a stickler for the rules. His un-Roman ideas didn’t fit the norm for a society that strived on tradition.

 

Yet Nico was the only one who Jason ever felt like himself around.  Searching for Nico was something that felt neither Greek nor Roman—it just felt like the right thing to do.

 

Jason couldn’t remember the last time he’d cried the way he did after finding his mother. Hell—he couldn’t remember the last time he could feel a real smile on his face before Nico and he were finally friends.

 

A crunch met his ears and Jason flinched as the sound reverberated off the walls. He moved his arms and stared down at his jacket. It’d been two days since he’d taken a shower, let alone change clothes. Catching his breath, he pulled out the neatly-folded sliver of newspaper that’d been given to him only three days before.

 

It would have been his Christmas present today.

 

Tiffany Grace’s sky blue eyes brimmed with the sun in her candid shot. He thumbed her paper cheek with his hand and imagined that same smile directed at him when they were still together. Thalia’s impish smirk tingled in his mind. He imagined a new picnic at the park, with his mother’s confident, blissful grin and Thalia’s smirk brimming with mischief beside her. Thalia and he would spar while their mother watched, and they’d all sit around the campfire exchanging stories of slaying monsters and idiots that inhabited Hollywood.

 

The dream Jason had about his family wouldn’t be complete without his father. Despite everything, Jason found himself wanting Jupiter there to pull Thalia and him into a lovely embrace and pat his head like a proud father to his son, recognizing everything that Jason worked for since birth. Leo would be there, decking out the jungle gym into an obstacle course worthy of Camp Jupiter, and Piper would be there, laughing at all the jokes that weren’t funny so he could keep telling jokes for her to laugh out of pity for.

 

Then there would be Frank and Hazel, off in their own little world as he treated her like a perfect lady and flustered at her laughs. Annabeth would be sitting under a tree, with Reyna, Aurum, and Argentum, and wrapping her mind around an idea for a beautiful building as she sketched in a drawing pad. Even Percy would be there, grinning as Thalia shoved him. They’d bicker like siblings, and Jason would laugh as she threatened to punch both of them.

 

His mother would be there, covering her mouth with the tips of her fingers and hiding the eloquent smile beneath. She’d separate the pair and press a kiss to Jason’s cheek like the doting parent he never had.

 

Wrinkling the slab of paper in his hands, Jason’s fantasy broke as he was reminded of the mugshot in Phoenix. His dream was only that—a dream.

 

And neither one made him happy, Jason thought as his chest tightened, because Nico wasn’t in them. Nico didn’t want to be.   

 

-x-

 

“Jason. Jay, it’s Christmas. I don’t want to rain on your sulky parade, but it’s kind of a time for family. And believe it or not—we’re family.”

 

“Jason, c’mon...house arrest doesn’t mean you’re grounded from the holidays.”

 

“Christmas isn’t a Roman holiday. It isn’t Greek, either.” Jason snorted softly and pressed his cheek to his wrist.  Hazel’s ultimate punishment for him was the look of frustration and pity she’d given him before they settled for the night. She declared that he would be under cabin arrest until New Year’s (meaning Jason wasn’t allowed to leave campgrounds for the next week. Which was fine—he barely had the energy to move) when Annabeth insisted that they needed to shut everyone up somehow.

 

“I don’t remember Superman putting labels on anything.” Leo returned Jason’s wit by patting the taller teen on the shoulders. He bent over to press the pads of his fingers over Jason’s coat, eyebrow arched and frown decorating his lips. “Help me out here, Beauty Queen.”

 

“No offense, Jay, but Leo’s right.” Piper pinched her nose and knelt to one knee to look her ex in the eye. “You…kind of stink.”

 

“I haven’t showered in two days.”

 

“We can tell,” both his best friends responded in unison.

 

If Jason was in better spirits, he would have laughed. Instead, he buried his face in his arms and veiled himself from the image of both his friends, who were currently scrutinizing him like a piece of rotton meat.

 

“Hey,” Piper started. She tugged on the slab of paper in Jason’s hands. “What’s this?”

 

“My mother.”

 

He raised his head to the rush of silence as both brown and kaleidoscope orbs widened. Leo leaned over Piper’s shoulder with his eyebrows raised beneath his cluster of curls—for once in his life utterly stunned while Piper’s lips parted in effort to continue their conversation.

 

“Oh, Jason…” She pressed her mouth together and smoothed out the picture in her hands. “She was beautiful.”

 

Leo snorted and tugged on one of his curls. “Looks like we found the secret to getting Superman to fall in love with one of us, Beauty Queen. di Angelo messed him up big time.”

 

He didn’t mess me up.” Jason snapped at the Son of Hephaestus instantly, with the irritation building up in him like a second nature. It was like being on the Argo II all over again, when someone would say something ill about Nico di Angelo and Jason quickly defended the younger demigod. It’d been the same feeling that throbbed in his veins when Percy voiced his rebuttal in the Big House—but with less ferocity.

 

Regardless, Leo jumped at the frustration in Jason’s voice—a flash of fear smoldering the tactlessness in his eyes.

 

Instinctively Jason’s heartbeat stuttered and he sucked in a breath. His old teammates visited him on-and-off in the past two days. Frank begrudgingly apologized for his outburst at Hazel’s request and Annabeth and Reyna kept watchful eyes over him so he didn’t terrorize another cabin—while Percy was under strict orders to leave him alone. Hazel brought him food, but Jason knew that she was worried over her brothers’ whereabouts.

 

It was bad, if Hazel was worried about her nomad brother.

 

Piper and Leo were trying their best to hide the odd feeling of their threesome being reunited again. Both of them were literally on different sides of the country since August, and none of them kept contact with each other. Not since the hospital.

 

“Sorry,” Jason whispered when it occurred to him that Leo never gave him that look of irritation before. “Gods, Leo, I’m so—”

 

“No—I am.” Leo chewed his lip nervously and smoothed the curls over his forehead. They made tentative eye contact, where the tan demigod’s gaze narrowed in apprehensive scrutiny. “I’m not doing a very good job of making you feel better.”

 

“No. I’ve been a complete jerk to you for months, Leo.”

 

“Yes you have,” the Son of Hephaestus replied without missing a beat. He made a gesture with his hand and shook his head. “But still.”

 

“How about you both are sorry?” Piper cut them off before they could get wrapped up in a huge apologizing showdown. “And you accept each other’s apologies?”

 

Jason’s chest pounded with both guilt and frustration. Looking over, he saw his once best friend’s demeanor slacken from its poorly time humor into its own folly. The smoke in Leo’s eyes hardened into solid remorse, and the shorter teen twitched.

 

Gods. Leo wasn’t looking at him to make the call here, was he?

 

“It’s been a while since all of us were together,” Piper said when neither one of them uttered a word. She placed the tiny sliver of newspaper back in Jason’s grasp and made a space for herself next to him. “I think we spent Christmas in your cabin, too.”

 

The memory fluttered back to Jason’s mind, and Leo’s laugh echoed through the empty room. “Yeah,” the latter said. “That’s when I rigged that helicopter mistletoe to follow both of you around. It was set to make you kiss every five minutes.”

 

“And you had at least ten.” Shaking her head, Piper blew a bang out of her face and rolled her eyes. “I gave up trying to disassemble them.”

 

“Consider it my Christmas Present last year. I got you two lovebirds together.” Leo sniggered softly under his breath. He crawled into the small place on the other side of Jason and pressed the back of his head against the wall. A shoulder nudged the taller demigod to call his attention. “You woke up Christmas day freaking out. You did that a lot. Like you were going to wake up without your memories again.”

 

“You guys made me a scrapbook,” Jason finished. His eyes made a pathway to the tiny pedestal/bookshelf Leo built specifically for said book and warmth fluttered in his weak heart. It was enough to trigger a smile upon Jason’s lips—with the memory fluttering back of when he opened the book for the first time a year ago.

 

Piper and Leo teased him like playful kids, jesting and joking until all Jason could do last year was laugh and agree to whatever antic they planned. His ex-girlfriend creepily and flawlessly mimicked Leo’s personality for the day before they screamed, TADA!! and handed him the book that consisted of every little memento they’d gained since meeting each other. There wasn’t a lot, Leo apologized. Until two weeks before that instance, they technically didn’t know each other.

 

They were the best friends that Jason could ever ask for. Even now—after four months of separation when they all had their reasons for not talking to each other, with Leo and Piper thrusting their concern upon him.

 

“Aw, there we go. Mission accomplished. We got old Stapler Mouth to smile.” Leo slapped Jason mercilessly on the shoulder and grinned elfishly while Piper genuinely laughed. Another smile found its place across Jason’s lip—and he even managed to laugh.

 

“Okay, okay. I get it—you can stop slapping me now.”

 

“You know there’s only one thing left to do then, Valdez.” Piper grinned as Jason nudged the shorter teen away.

 

At the same time, Leo blinked. Obviously this wasn’t part of the plan. “And what’s that, Beauty Queen?”

 

“Well—we’ve both made out with Jason on one occasion or another—” Both boys winced at her declaration—but her voice radiated with no spite. Instead, Piper’s gaze narrowed at the pair and she smirked—boyish mischief teeming in her kaleidoscope eyes. “Now we need to make out.”

 

Jason blinked and Leo gagged.

 

“Oh, ew.

 

“Hey!” Whack.

 

“Ow! Jeez!” Leo muttered a curse in Spanish and cowered behind Jason’s shoulder. The blonde did his best not to laugh while Leo’s complexion paled. “Don’t get me wrong, Beauty Queen—you’re hot and all, but kissing you would be like kissing my sister. Plus you’re kind of—I dunno—out of my—”

 

“Oh, shut up.”

 

A yelp left Jason’s lips as Piper leaned over his lap and yanked Leo toward her by the jacket. She cupped the Son of Hephaestus by the face and drowned his protests with a penchant kiss on the lips. His fervent cries of, “MMPHHHmmphhhMPHH” tapered off into a pleasant hum. Ten painfully slow heart beats passed before they released each other—and left Jason staring.

 

His gaze flitted between the two while Piper wiped the saliva off her lips and scrutinized their short friend—who looked mostly unfazed, save the wiggling. She clicked her tongue. “Did you…roll your tongue?

 

“He does that,” Jason dizzily responded.

 

“Travis isn’t going to be happy about you sucking lip with your foster brother,” Leo quipped. Foster brother? They waved their hands at Jason as he took in the words, in an, I’ll-tell-you-later gesture. Clearly by the way Leo gagged and Piper shrugged, there wasn’t a romantic future in the works.

 

“Percy’ll be confused.” She settled on her knees in a calmer pose and smirked as Leo childishly rolled his eyes. “That is, if he ever makes a move.”

 

“Could you two do me a favor?” Jason called their attention carefully before the pair got carried away in their own little world. The knot in his throat had loosened with laughter from the two animated friends in front of him, but it only reminded him how much he missed their company.

 

How much he hurt them.

 

Piper’s expression softened at his gravelly tone. The laughter ceased, and Jason’s miser pointed out the two guests at his pity-party. “Anything, Jay.”

 

“I want both of you to yell at me.”

 

They looked at him like he’d grown three heads.

 

“I hurtboth of you so much. I’ve been such a jerk.” Jason clutched his chest. He could barely feel his own pulse through his frustration. Whatever was left in the empty space of his ribcage only hurt. “And here you two are right now trying to get me in better spirits. I—” He couldn’t be more thankful to have them. “I.”

 

“Jay. Dude.” Leo’s surprise was evident in his tone. Scooting closer to their favorite girl, he only looked at Jason like he’d gone crazy. “We wouldn’t have come here if we were angry at—”

 

“Leo, I left you in Manhattan without a word.” Jason’s miserable laugh fluttered out of his lips before he had the chance to stop it. Blond eyebrows knitted together in confusion. Why were they letting him slide with this? Just—gods. “I completely blew you off—I flat out asked you if you were cool with messing around, and—and I lied about where I was going. I didn’t talk to you for two months and you didn’t find out about my being in the hospital until days later.

 

“Hey,” the other demigod snapped. He shook his head, brown eyes wary and smoldering with impending distress. Of course—Leo didn’t want to go there. They were treading ice and keeping up a friendly façade for a reason. “You were unconscious, Jay. I didn’t expect you to pick up a phone, you know.”

 

“I just snapped at you. And you’re just taking it.” The blonde shook his head and automatically flew to his feet. He threw his arms in front of him, like turning all of his problems into a palpable worries and anxiously looked upon his open-mouthed best friends. “I-I feel like I had my heart ripped out of me and spit out by a laistrygonian. And you know what? I don’t like that feeling. I’ve made every single person I knew feel that feeling when I turned my back on them. I made both of you feel like that.”

 

The pair looked at each other once more like they were passing a secret message, and Jason took the sight in. It hurt—to think that maybe they were the creators of the We-Hate-Jason Club.

 

Hesitation flickered in the irises of Leo’s eyes until it sparked the natural fire in his orbs. Leo bit the inside of his mouth and scratched his head with an offset demeanor. “Okay. We can turn this into a little venting session if you really want to.”

 

“I do.” Jason swallowed hard and folded his legs beneath him as he sat down again.

 

The shorter teen sucked in a breath like it would be his last. He stood to his feet, hands automatically going to the toolbelt around his hips, and shifted the weight between his legs. “You hurt me. You both hurt me.”

 

Jason reached over to place a hand over Piper’s as her eyebrows raised.

 

“Jay—you went to the other side of the country and lied to me about what you were doing. But Beauty Queen—you broke up with him and ran all the way back to your dad the next day—even though you were questioning for weeks before that if Jay loved you back or not. You both left Camp Halfblood.” Leo bit his lip and his voice cracked. “You left me without a second thought. We’re supposed to be the three amigos and yet neither one of you thought how much it would hurt me not to have you anymore. Nemesis already thought that I was the seventh wheel, and Calypso didn’t want me either.

 

“And then I had to wait two months because I wasn’t sure if calling you was okay, Jay. I wanted to talk to you, Beauty Queen, so badly, but I felt like I betrayed you. The moment we were all together in New Rome, both of you fled.

 

Leo studied Jason closely, and he shook his head in disbelief. “Piper and I both wanted to come see you, Jay—but stepping through the doors to get here…it felt weird. I wasn’t even sure what I was doing there.”

 

Jason nodded, his heart trembling in his chest. “I understand.”

 

“But,” Leo continued before Jason could move on. He sat back down next to his best friend, one hand latched onto the blonde’s shoulder. Dark brown eyes narrowed at Jason solemnly and the corner of his lip curled into a tentative smile. “We only agreed to dick around until you left, Jay. Yeah, you hurt me, Superman, but if you were a gentleman about leaving me, then I’d probably still be pining over you. Which I’m not. Promise on River Styx and everything.” He gave the blonde’s shoulder a tender squeeze. “Man, I’m so over you. Your self-righteous goody-two shoes qualities outweigh any of the bad stuff you’ve ever done to me.”

 

“O…kay.” Jason’s frown morphed into a smile when Leo flashed a cheeky grin his way. He turned to Piper, whose eyes darkened like a storm. His chest ached as he saw the pain on her face, and he thumbed circles over the knuckle in his grasp. “And you?”

 

“Jason…we had closure back in September.”

 

“No. You tried not to yell at me the entire time and I didn’t let you yell at me.” Jason scrutinized her. He could tell the guilt about leaving Leo. Their interaction with each other may have ended in the hospital room, but Jason had no idea how often Leo and Piper kept in touch—just enough that Piper knew everything now.

 

She looked like she was debating on jumping into the pits of hell or worse—letting everything out. Finally, Piper settled. “We spent nine months together in the best relationship that I’ve ever asked for. The only relationship I’ve ever had. And then on the bus, when it turned out that all of those memories we had were nothing more than the Mist messing with us—that hurt. I felt like I already loved you.

 

“And then we went on the mission to save Hera, and I fell for you all over again. Everything you told me was more real than any of the lies the Mist ever constructed for us.” She pursed her lips, hands curling into balls and eyebrows furrowing. “But somewhere down the line I realized that you didn’t love me back. That you were just confused. And it hurt more because you realized that halfway through and never planned on telling me. If I didn’t point it out to you, then you’d still be leading me on now.”

 

As he lowered his head in shame, Piper made a gesture over to Leo. Her eyebrows pinched together and expression shriveled. “Maybe it was a silly hope—no. It was. I thought that maybe you would come after me if I left, Jason. And when you didn’t—when you didn’t speak to me for two months, I thought that it meant I wasn’t worth your time at all. And then I found out about you and Leo, three month safter the situation happened—and I find out that you two shut me out.  

 

“Leo’s right—we’re not the friends we were last year. We’re different. But I want us to be the same again. I-I—” Piper’s voice cracked the same way Leo’s had earlier and her gaze glistened with tears. “I want us to be us a-again.”

 

Oh, gods.

 

“Pipes,” Jason breathed. He stood to his feet at the same time as Leo—who flashed him a worried expression—and they circled their favorite daughter of Aphrodite.

 

A tight laugh fluttered out of her throat and she pushed both of them away pitifully. “I’m fine—I-I’m fine, really.”

 

She’d been so calm before when she told Jason that she knew—but he berated himself for being so stupid. They knew each other well enough to spot a lie between them.

 

“Hate to break it to you, Beauty Queen, but this is a No Crying Zone.” Leo nervously grinned. He laced an arm over Piper’s shoulder and glanced over to Jason, who did the same on the other side.

 

“Shut up,” Piper snapped. She laughed quietly. Minutes later, the tears ceased, left with a pink-faced Piper who shook her head in dismay at them.

 

A heavy sigh left Jason’s lips and he pulled them closer to each other. “I miss this.”

 

The scent of Piper’s coconut shampoo mixed with the musk of metal and oil from Leo’s dwelling at Bunker 9.  It swelled in Jason’s stomach in a forgotten gusto and filled the places where his heart had cracked.

 

“So we’re all basically pissed off at each other, including Jason, who’s extra pissed off at himself.” Leo’s voice was nothing above a calm tenor as he kept an arm around Piper. He made a face, eyes crackling with new flames of warmth as he looked to them. “Or. I was. All I care about is this. That we’re together again.”

 

“Same.” Piper’s breath caught in her throat and she smiled through the tear over her cheeks. “Let’s agree that we’re never going to leave each other ever again.”

 

Never.” “Never, Beauty Queen.”

 

-x-

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

-x-

 

Act VIII: The Brother

 

-x-

 

Later upon Jason’s insistence, Piper was in the company of Travis Stoll to exchange Christmas presents. He reassured both his friends that he wasn’t going to burst into tears just because he was alone again. Besides—Jason happily gave the blooming couple his blessing when he saw Travis shuck off his dark sweater for a cold Piper to wear. Travis had grown up most of his life with Grecian influence, but he wholeheartedly welcomed Piper’s mortal, more American traditions.

 

“Did you know his nickname for her is Peems?” Leo snorted as they watched Piper wander off with the Son of Hermes to who-knows-where. “If they have kids, they’re going to be gorgeous and really good at stealing.”

 

“I can only imagine,” Jason replied wryly. He shivered at the thought of Piper’s beautiful eyes combined with a Stoll Brother’s naughty grin. Their child could probably steal the stars with no worry. Outside the window, red hues glowed in Piper’s cheeks as she giggled under the door of the Aphrodite Cabin. Travis only smiled and pushed the hair out of her face. “So where’s Percy?”

 

Leo made a face, which only called Jason’s attention. “He’s confused.”

 

“Confused, or confusing?”

 

“Both,” the other teen said simply. He jingled a hand in his tool belt and waved the second around dismissively, with fire simmering at the tips of his fingers. Chocolate brown eyes glanced to blue with befuddled frustration. “He went back home to his mom and Paul for Christmas. He’ll be back by tomorrow morning or so.”

 

“And you didn’t go with them?”

 

Leo shrugged and Jason frowned.

 

“Leo—you didn’t stay because—because of me, did you?”

 

“Don’t get your panties in a twist.” Leo nudged Jason in the arm and snorted. A snigger left his lips and he sighed. “Of course I did.”

 

“Dude, you didn’t have to. You shouldn’t have had to—” Jason’s lips morphed into a frown and he nudged the other boy with his hand. “You said you finally found a family.”

 

“Yeah? Well, family will be there when you get back. Besides—it’s not like I ran away or anything like that.” A smile coiled over Leo’s face, penchant, and he sighed again. “He’s not so bad, you know. Percy might be a jerk to you, but he doesn’t like that you’re cooped up in your cabin either.”

 

“Yeah, but—”

 

“You’re not so nice to him yourself.” Smirking, Leo readjusted himself until he sat cross-legged in front of Jason and made a face. “Look. As much of a smartass as he can be—which is a quality I like about him, by the way—he still puts his friends in front of his pride. He’s worried about you the same way you’d be worried about him if the situation was the other way around. But like him, you let your thickheadedness get in the way of actually helping each other sometimes.”

 

“I know. But—”

 

“You get defensive because of Nico’s honor or whatever for how Percy took the guy for granted the same way Percy has it in his head that you betrayed me as a friend or something.” Leo waved his hand and tapped something against the cement floor—a summation of Morse Code that Jason knew by heart. Smoldering chocolate brown eyes glanced Jason’s way and the Son of Hephaestus shrugged. “I don’t know di Angelo’s story, but I know that Percy regrets not trying harder to get close to Nico when he could have. And we all know that you’re in love with Nico, so Percy’s probably jealous of how much Nico likes you better than him.”

 

Like that wasn’t the furthest thing from the truth. Jason shut his eyes and seethed. “Leo—”

 

“You really do love him.” Leo’s lips twitched and he stuffed his hands into his pockets. “You tapped that on the table back at the hospital.”

 

Jason ceased. Was that what Leo’d freaked out about back in New Rome?

 

“It’s the only phrase you know in Morse Code.” The shorter teen shrugged nonchalantly, his hands jingling in his pockets. “I mean—let me tell you that I get it. The war, making everyone emotional. Being able to stay with one person. Someone who understands you. I don’t know how di Angelo did it, but you seem happy. Well—seemed. I’m a bit concerned about your emotional state as of late and destroying the Hades Cabin—but if he liked you back, then I’m not opposed to it. Question is. Does he like you back?”

 

“He doesn’t.”

 

“Does he even like boys?”

 

Jason stiffened. He looked to his knees and ducked his head so he wouldn’t have to look Leo in the face. That was another thing. The more people that knew that he was in love with Nico (depending whether it would or would not get around camp), the closer everyone was to finding Nico’s secret. Jason could love Nico all he wanted, but he didn’t want to be loved back at the expense of outing Nico when Nico didn’t want to be.

 

“Okay. Normally I would brush this off because hey, I don’t care about him the way you do anyway. But you got defensive when Percy said the same thing the other day.” Leo leaned over, eyebrow arched in the air in both curiosity and concern. He reached over, nudging Jason in the arm, and tried to catch the other teen’s eye. “C’mon. It’s not like di Angelo made you swear on the River Styx to keep his sexuality a secret, right?”

 

 

“Oh my gods.” Leo’s eyes widened and he pulled Jason in by the shoulder. “You—”

 

“Drop it, Leo.” Jason’s voice was nothing above a whisper. He tried to keep the anxiety and anger out of his throat and simply looked to his friend pleadingly. “Please.”

 

Usually Leo was so excited off a discovery that it was hard to get him to stop jumping up and down. But Leo only stared back at him, brown eyes burning with disbelief before he settled back against the wall. “I have your Christmas present.”

 

“You got me a Christmas present?”

 

“Well. Made you one.”  Leo dug into his pocket—

 

—and pulled out an imperial gold coin.

 

Jason blinked. He sat up against the wall to observe the coin, and Leo’s nervous smile morphed into a smirk. “What...is that?”

 

“Flip it.” Leo tossed the coin to him.

 

Catching it, Jason observed the coin as best he could. Leo was the best forger, mechanic, blacksmith, and engineer that he knew. He blinked as he saw the carvings. “Is that...Thalia?” Thalia was carved on one side, beautiful and intricate with piercing eyes, while a wolf was on the other.


Flip it, man. C’mon!” Leo batted away a flame of excitement and grinned.

 

Hesitation fluttered through Jason’s chest before he tossed the coin up in the air. He heard a WOOOSH, and suddenly the coin turned into a javelin. It landed in his hand as Jason stood to his feet, and he inspected the narrow rod. It was seven feet tall, pure celestial bronze with a firm grip at the base, and was sharpened to a tee. Jason could grip it firmly in his hands and feel a firm weight that wasn’t too heavy or too light.

 

He held it like he was going to throw it and gave an experimental swing. The resistance stiffened in his muscles—enough for Jason to propel it wherever he wished an allow it to sink into a monster with sheer force. “Leo—it’s perfect.” It was better than his old coin.

 

“It was made by me. What do you expect?” The Son of Hephaestus smirked, standing to his feet all the same, and looked comically small compared to Jason’s new weapon. The idea of Leo actually wielding it was worth a laugh or two. “If you flip Thalia, then you’ll get your sword. I figure this is a lot easier to carry around than strapping your gladius to your belt loop.”

 

Ah. Jason looked down to the very thing, which was lying dumbly against the floor since Jason returned to the cabin. He picked that up in his other and stared at it hesitantly.

 

Or you can look guilty for some reason that I don’t know about.”

 

“It’s not that. I mean.” Jason strapped his gladius to his belt just like Leo said and tossed his javelin into the air. It turned back into a coin, and he tucked it in his other pocket. “Nico went through the trouble of finding my gladius for me when I lost it in the Rockies, and—”

 

“Okay, okay.” Leo batted his handa round and rolled his eyes. “Obviously you’re not going to drop liking di Angelo. So if you want me to take it back—”

 

“I’ll keep both.”

 

“—that’s a good choice too.” Leo sniggered and slapped the other demigod on the back. He leaned forward, curling a hand over his Jason’s shoulder, and arched an eyebrow. “So. You think things would have turned out differently if you never left for Cali?”

 

“I dunno. I’m still confused about who I am like I’ve always been.” Jason shrugged. “Maybe I wouldn’t have fallen for Nico. Maybe…you and I would have—”

 

“Yeah.” Leo patted Jason gruffly over the chest before he could finish that thought.

 

“Oof!”

 

“Let’s not open up a can of worms that shouldn’t be opened.” The shorter teen smirked, his feet shifting back and forth over the wooden floor before he slipped away and stood parallel his best friend. “We’re cool. Really. Okay?”

 

Jason hesitated hesitating. Being at camp again brought a surge of excitement that he thought he’d lost long ago. He thought about what it must have been like—to be Piper and not have contact with either of her two best friends, or Leo—whose best friends both left for the other side of the country. Even in LA, he never forgot how valuable they were to him. But just like camp, he took them for granted.

 

“Are you going to wear that face all night? Geez, Superman, I’m telling you that you’re off the hook. I’m in love with the other thickheaded demigod. For good reasons. Even if he is an idiot.” Leo elbowed him in the side. The corner of his lip rose into a coy smile, and tiny affectionate embers flickered in his irises. “Okay?”

 

Blinking, Jason took is favorite blacksmith’s expression in. Maybe Leo was right. Besides. There was no point in causing more tension between them when they were finally comfortable around each other again. He clutched the coin in his pocket and smiled back softly. “Okay.”

 

-x-

 

In the next few days under his house arrest, Jason felt better. He got visits from all of his old teammates—Annabeth, who gave him a few books to read before he reminded her they were both dyslexic, Leo and Piper, who made sure he was eating, and a begrudging Frank and forgiving Hazel. All except Percy—who, like everyone insisted, was not allowed to see him.

 

Jason went around in circles trying to figure out what to do next. Nico was right—he had nothing else planned past leaving the hospital. All Jason cared for when they got back to his apartment. Together. He toyed with the thought of trying to Iris Messaging Nico—but even if Nico answered, what was he supposed to say?

 

I really do love you. I never want you to leave me. I—I never want to leave you. I don’t care if my life doesn’t make sense, but having you, friend, boyfriend, or comrade, is all I want. I just want to be with you.

 

That was what he wanted to say. But what he wanted to say and what he needed to say were two things.

 

(Or were they? Jason couldn’t tell where his problem lied anymore. He just wanted Nico back.)

 

He spent hours simply dribbling a gold drachma over his knuckles and pondering over what words to say. Nico undoubtedly would only listen to a select few—and every word in Jason’s mind had to be the right ones.

 

There was no point going back to his apartment after New Year’s. The only reason he had it was to rest and search for one Son of Hades. He could talk to his landlord and move out (given there wasn’t much else there other than some rotten apples and a sleeping bag)—and maybe come back to his cabin. Percy and Leo would be occupied with school (and Jason was going to kill Leo if his best friend decided otherwise) while Piper continued homeschooling for the rest of the year near her father. Mr. McLean was happy to have her back.

 

So, even if he came back, Jason wouldn’t have either of his best friends at his side. New Rome was always an option (and if Jason wanted, he could retire as a legionnaire), with an endless amount of people requesting his help. Yet he’d feel more like a hero than like a person with family. Thalia was out who-knows-where, and Apollo banned them from seeing each other.

 

A sour taste bled on his tongue as he clutched the newspaper clipping in his hand and stared at it. Jason spent hours memorizing the contour of his mother’s cheeks, the way her hair fell, and the smile that graced her lips before Juno took him away.

 

Jason pushed his frustration out of the way when he heard a knock on the door. “Come in.”

 

“Hey.” Percy popped his head through. “Mind if I join you?” 

 

Uh. “What…are you doing here?”

 

“Apologizing.”

 

Jason blinked. He went from dabbling with a drachma in his hands to stuffing it in his pockets, where his new weapon lay. But instead of the ire from days of frustration, he caught himself staring at the other teen like Percy’d grown a second head.

 

“But,” Percy said quickly, “I’m not doing it unless you do it.” He stuffed his hands in his pockets in the same gesture Jason did.

 

“You’re kidding, right?” Jason faintly wondered if Percy was holding Riptide between his fingers.

 

“Technically we’ve both been jerks here. It could be worse.” The elder teen shrugged nonchalantly. “I could say you need to defend your honor and we could duel till death.”

 

“I think I’d like that better.”

 

“Me too.” Percy wrinkled his nose and dared to step closer, touching the back of his head with his knuckles. Reluctant, he stood parallel to Jason, who had no choice but to step up on his own two feet as well. “But Leo won’t get off my back until I do it.”

 

“So you two made up?” Jason crossed his arms and arched an eyebrow.

 

“We were never fighting.” Percy shrugged with one shoulder, still facing Jason with an expression that was mixed between weariness and his usual nonchalance. Jason wondered how the guy managed to get in here without Annabeth chewing Percy out. Then again—Jason knew that if he willingly left his cabin, he would probably try to swallow his pride to make up with one of the friends he respected the most, too.

 

And then probably fail.

 

“You’re kind of hurting him, man.” Jason tched under his breath and shoved his hands back in his pockets. To his surprise, Percy actually looked bewildered by the fact. “Do you have any idea how crazy he is for you?”

 

Percy frowned. Evidently, that was news for him. “I don’t think that’s any of your business.”

 

“He’s my best friend, dude.”

 

Funny. What do you call the last few months?”

 

“Hey—you’re no better,” Jason snapped. He felt the hairs on his arms stand erect and surge with electricity as he jabbed a finger at Percy’s chest. A frown marred his lips and he glared. “You’re the one who gave up on Nico—you made him promise to take us to Necromanteion and you didn’t even think about his feelings!”

 

“What does he have to do with anything?” Percy’s jaw tightened and he shoved Jason. “It’s not my fault that he likes you better than me!”

 

“You have no idea, do you?” Jason grabbed the collar of Percy’s camp shirt as he faltered backward and pulled the elder teen with him.

 

“What am I supposed to know?!” Percy yanked backwards, hands clutching Jason’s wrists, and he scowled. “I’m so tired of hearing that! I don’t care, you know, if you have a crush on him! So long as he’s happy.”

 

“Shows what you know—”

 

“I don’t know anything, okay? I’m usually the last to find out, actually—” Gripping Jason’s hands tightly, Percy unhinged the blond from his collar and pushed him against the wall.

 

“What the—” Jason blinked at impact—and opened his eyes to a sheathed Riptide at his neck. Immediately, his hand slipped to the coin still sitting in his pocket while Percy scowled at him.

 

The Son of Poseidon seethed, with his blood boiling under his skin, and he tapped Jason’s Adam’s apple with Riptide’s cap. “Do you really want to settle this with a fight?”

 

They both knew this was coming. They’d go down this road because of some bad, bad argument. Bad words, then violent fights. It only made sense for it to be this one. But. Jason bit the inside of his mouth and ignored his stomach growling like a whiny child. He hadn’t eaten properly in two days—and wasn’t in the shape that he used to be.

 

“Good,” Percy breathed, when he decided that Jason wouldn’t budge from. He tucked away Riptide with a cautious flicker in his orbs—but said nothing along with it. Instead, Percy backed away at least three feet, giving Jason the room he needed.

 

There was a storm brewing outside.

 

Winds shrieked, while thunder and lightning roared—and a faint sound of the Canoe Lake roaring in waves could be heard.

 

Percy tapped Jason’s pocket again when the blond wasn’t looking. “Did Leo give you your new weapon?”

 

Jason bit the inside of his mouth and nodded.

 

“He’s been working on it for a long time now.” Percy bit the inside of his mouth and stuffed his hands in his pockets. “Even when he was mad at you.”

 

“I had a feeling.” As great of a mason that Leo was, it wasn’t a gift that looked like it’d been made in haste. Leo and Piper were the only ones who really knew what he could do with his Ivliv coin. The craftsmanship in both the sword and the javelin were finer than any mason in New Rome. “We made up. He and I talked.”

 

“Yeah.” Without warning, Percy fell to the ground and crossed his legs. Jason followed, realizing that this conversation would take longer than he wanted. Percy’s lip twisted into something abstract—simply looking like he couldn’t grasp his thought.

 

Pressing against the wall, Jason pulled his hands out of his pockets and crossed his arms. His gaze fell to his pocket, and then back to Percy. “Look—”

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

“I’m sorry too.”

 

“It’s not…easy, okay?” Percy touched the back of his neck and thumbed the ends of his hair. He grimaced, gaze going to the statue of Zeus in the center of the room. “I’m confused.”

 

“Well, Leo’s confused too—”

 

“No. About the war.” For the first time in four months, Jason saw the post-war frustration shrivel in Percy’s demeanor. He blinked, while Percy pressed a hand to his own head. “Do you know what this war meant to me?”

 

No. The blond frowned and played with his tennis shoe. “Percy, you were the calmest about this. The one that made the camps—”

 

“I’ve had every mistake I’ve ever made thrown back in my face. Ones that I was wrong for when I didn’t know I was wrong for something.” Percy scowled and glared at his sneakers. “Annabeth spent the rest of our time outside of Tartarus looking at me with this fear because of what I did while we were in the Underworld—like I’m a different person. She’s been my best friend for five years, and I loved her—and we had nothing.”

 

“You two get along just fine.” Jason’s eyebrows furrowed together. Like Piper and him, Annabeth went to the west coast to try living with her family again. Camp was only a drive away where she would have a haven if things got too dangerous. All that was left was to brand her arm with the Symbol of Minerva.

 

“Yeah. We do now.” Percy smiled grimly and ran his fingers across the two bars on his forearm. Jason could taste the irony in his comrade’s tone—Percy’s aspirations during the war was a safe life in New Rome where Annabeth and he could grow up and raise a family together.

 

Percy’s speech came back to Jason’s mind—of how being a demigod was the only thing that felt right. No wonder Percy was debating on returning to the legion.

 

“Look—I’m not saying you didn’t contribute to the war. You and I were the bridge, and we know both Romans and Greeks were part of the fall of Kronos. But you don’t know what it’s like to be the Child of the Prophecy twice.” Percy chewed on his lip before shaking his head. “The moment I found out I was the Son of Poseidon, I drowned in everything that came with being a demigod, okay? But Leo was the one who—”

 

“Who pulled you out of the water.” It finally made sense in Jason’s head. Leo wasn’t the type of person who cared about your heritage—godwise, at least. He cared about personality first—whether or not that person was nice to him or not—and bloodline second. All he cared about, Leo told Jason one day, was that he finally knew people accepted him. Evidently Percy included.

 

“He’s good about that.”

 

“Yeah.” It was one of the reasons why Jason clung to Leo after the war and after Piper. Everyone was distraught over what the war had done. Jason knew without a doubt that Piper, Leo, and he clung to each other as the best of friends and as siblings. Percy and he had the same mindset. He often wondered what it would have been like actually growing up Greek. If being Roman was just a fluke and if his mother was still alive.

 

She cared, Nico’s soft voice reminded him. That sliver of information was so important to Jason that if someone ripped it away, they’d take his heart along with it. Leo used to joke that Jason’s heart was with everyone he knew, and Jason never denied that thought. Thalia would have been his mentor if she was never turned into a tree, and maybe they could see each other more than just in passing when someone got hurt.

 

“I think that’s the problem with you and me, Perce.” Jason touched the back of his head and sighed, letting his favorite idea disappear from reality. Shaking his head, Jason knew having Thalia with him wasn’t possible. She was a traveler all on her own—sort of like Nico, only cocky. She had abrasive smirks while Nico had gentle smiles. And—as of that moment, Jason still couldn’t go more than five minutes without thinking about the boy who had been with him for the past months. “You and I are loyal. I wouldn’t trade my friends even if it cost me my own life and neither would you.”

 

“It’s a problem alright.” Percy lowered his head and curled his hands into fists. His gaze flickered thoughtfully, and Jason braced himself. Of all ways that this confrontation could go, he didn’t expect for Percy to lower his shields.

 

And he didn’t expect to lower his own, either. Jason reached over and placed a hand over Percy’s shoulder. His eyebrows knitted together. “I don’t…want that to be a problem. I don’t want you and me to go at it and kill each other.”

 

Come to think of it, the last time they were both standing in Zeus’s Cabin, Percy and he were wishing each other good luck for the year.

 

“Hey. That’s going to happen.” Percy shrugged. His lips curled into a smirk and he stuffed his hands in his pockets. “According to our fathers, you and I are destined to kill each other.”

 

“I’m not my father.”

 

“But you want to be.”

 

Jason bit the inside of his mouth.

 

Percy shook his head with a quaint smile at his lips, like he couldn’t believe he was right. “That’s okay, you know. You can be like your father and not be all sides of him. I feel that way about my dad too.”

 

“Percy…you’re not—”

 

“I’m a son of Poseidon. I know. But what you don’t realize is that Zeus only has one domain. Poseidon rules the seas and Hades rules the Underworld. That’s common knowledge. And like I said. I was the child of prophecy in the First War. You and I were switched because we were considered the camp leaders of both Camp Halfblood and Camp Jupiter.”

 

Percy’s gaze hardened, eyebrows knitting together. Jason swore that he could actually see the sorrow in that sea-green hue that usually belonged to Nico.

 

“Thalia became the lieutenant to Artemis’s huntresses and Nico became the Ghost King within a year of losing his sister and finding out that he was a demigod. You’re not the only one that worries about the people that follow him, Jason. That’s part of the reason why we think alike. You and I both know personally what’s at stake.”

 

Oh. Jason blinked before his gaze fell to the ground, distress filling him again. He’d been so busy sulking about Nico that Jason forgot the other thing that bothered him. There was no longer a sense of identity with him now. Starting out in Los Angeles meant shedding both his Roman heritage and Greek identity, to which Nico’d pointed out several times. He was no longer the praetor, the camp leader, the one that people followed—and at that point he was barely a teammate.

 

And now he wanted it back. He wanted to be praetor, camp leader, and to be a teammate again. But coming back and picking things up wasn’t as easy as it sounded. It wasn’t like he’d gone away for the school year and then came back—Jason had every intention of finding a new him while he was gone.

 

 “You may not realize it, but I see how lost you are. Like you don’t know what you want, so you try to go with the flow. Going with the flow is usually my thing. Following an air current seems more like yours.” Percy gestured to the statue of Jason’s father in the corner and shrugged. “You can be as free as the wind, but if a gust is blowing, it blows. You just need someone to…I dunno—gr—”

 

“Ground me.” Jason finished the sentence for him. He frowned, thinking back to what Nico’d told him weeks ago, and felt his heart tremble in his chest. That feeling…really wasn’t going to leave, was it? The gaping hole in his chest was ready for that blast of air to rush through him and remind Jason that he felt empty. The pain was so incomparable that he wondered if it was a god’s doing. “I know.”

 

Their conversation was met with a gap, where Percy’s lips pursed together and Jason rubbed his temples in effort to make his headache disappear. Hazel told him precisely why Nico’d ran away: the sudden confession of raw emotion, intimate contact, and the fact that Jason ripped it all away only seconds later before Nico could even process what happened.

 

His mantra since and before realizing how badly he was in love with Nico di Angelo was that Nico needed a guy that would give him the world. Someone great who Nico deserved—who even after years of commitment was still undeserving of Nico. Jason may have spent months getting close to the Son of Hades, but he was at the bottom of the list of people who should actually have him.

 

“You’ve looked lost since after the war, Jason. Every time I saw you after that, you looked like you couldn’t find yourself.” Percy shrugged, finally speaking once again. “Hanging out with Nico was the first time you looked like you knew what you wanted.”

 

“That’s because the only thing I wanted to do with myself was help Nico accept himself.

 

“I know. I don’t get why he likes you so much. I mean—you kind of screwed up,” Percy continued. His lips twisted into a frown and gaze flickered with the frustration and guilt that’d tormented him earlier. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have dipped in the River Styx. Having that armor on me was one of the reasons why I was still alive during the first war. I promised to keep his sister safe and I couldn’t follow up on that. Somehow, you get him to stay with you. To trust you. I can barely get him to stand next to me for ten seconds before he runs away.”

 

 

“You’re…trying to make amends with him?” Jason arched an eyebrow. If this was an ongoing problem, this was the first time he’d ever heard about it. (Then again, this was the first time Percy and he were having a peaceful conversation in a long time.) The first part of Percy’s speech ran through his head and he tasted something bitter at the back of his mouth.

 

He doesn’t like me, Jason thought. Nico liked Percy.

 

Sea green eyes raised upward, wary, before Percy bowed his head again in shame. He sighed sharply and shook his head. “He’s the only reason why Annabeth and I were able to survive in Tarturus, Jace. I…” Percy’s voice broke, and he grimaced. “I couldn’t go back. Not without knowing he’d help me in some way.”

 

Oh. “You need to talk to him.”

 

“He won’t listen to me.”

 

“He didn’t listen to me either when I went to find him. You have to make him listen.” Jason watched Percy’s doubt morph carefully. “Nico wants you to trust him as much as you want him to trust you. But he’s given up trying.

 

The other teen studied him. “Is it going to bother you if we do?”

 

“Yes.” There was no hesitation in Jason’s answer. Understanding his feelings for Nico meant knowing that Percy was a big part of Nico’s life too. But—“But I want him to be happy. More than I want to be happy. And…talking to you will let him do that.” He would rather be miserable and lost for the rest of his life if it meant Nico could make peace with his old crush. “Let’s…put it this way, Percy. He’ll listen to me even less than he’ll listen to you the next time he pops up.”

 

“Mm.” Percy’s demeanor broke, gaze fogging over thoughtfully. He plopped next to Jason and shrugged. “So that’s it then. I hated you because of how you ignored Leo and you hated me because I…”

 

“Because you were a jerk,” Jason finished for him. “And…because it felt like the right thing to be for Nico’s sake.”

 

“Okay.” Percy touched a hand to his hair and shook his head. “But for the record—”

 

“We’re both jerks.” There really wasn’t anyone out there who could ignite Jason’s impatience like Percy could. He figured it went with the idea that they thought alike. Thalia already found her path, but Percy and he were still two kids trying to sort out their lives. Percy had some out-of-the-galaxy strange ideas a lot of times, but it was a distinct quirk that made getting along with the other teen a blast. “So are you even…gay? I mean, I never expected you to pick yourself back up so quickly after Annabeth. Especially with—you know. My best pal?”

 

Percy’s face twisted, lips curling into a frown. “Does it matter?”

 

It did to Nico. Jason could see why even if he didn’t agree with that mindset. But it wasn’t like he could point out how badly finding out about Percy and Leo hurt the poor demigod.

 

“I guess…I’m…me?” Percy shrugged and rolled his eyes. “Please. I grew up in New York, Grace. Plus, how am I supposed to sit down and think about my sexuality if ten seconds later, a monster is going to set the cafeteria on fire?”

 

Jason opened his mouth to protest. He couldn’t. Growing up Roman meant he didn’t understand the concept of being interested in just one sex or the other. “Okay.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

“Hm.” Percy snorted and slouched against the wall. His eyes glimmered with wryness and he shook his head. “Now look at that. We were able to talk everything out without killing each other.”

 

Huh. “I…guess you’re right.” They’d been subtly threatening each other since New Rome. Speaking to Percy like this was a lot more satisfying. “Bros?”

 

The Son of Poseidon smirked and looked to Jason from the corner of his eye. They fist-bumped. “More than that. You and I are brothers.

 

-x-

 

The night before the first Capture the Flag game of the new year, Jason saw Nico in a dream.

 

With Thalia.

 

They sat in a diner against the window, where Jason could make out a freeway and a sign that read, Ohio, 36 miles. The walls were a burnt orange, tiresome to the eyes, with animal heads hanging near the counter. Several plates covered their table, and Jason watched as Nico pushed around a strawberry covered in red syrup.

 

To his surprise, Nico looked like he’d shirked off his jacket a long time ago, along with his scarf and hat. Without it, he looked his age. Like a kid that was growing into his own skin. Jason didn’t think he’d recognize Nico—not with the way that he had his elbows resting on the table, fork digging into the remnants of his cake, and with a hand that ruffled through his own hair.

 

Thalia was no different. For once she wasn’t wearing the silver tiara that defined her as Artemis’s lieutenant—instead having it beside her in the booth seat. Both her leather jacket and winter parka sat in her lap, while she ate what seemed to be her fourth burger.

 

Once she finished with her milkshake, she spoke. “Nico, we’ve been sitting here for two hours and you haven’t said a thing.” Electric blue eyes flickered mischievously, and she pushed a choppy lock out of her face. “I love American food as much as the next person, but my Huntress paycheck is only so much.”

 

“Sorry,” Nico breathed. He looked tired. Unhealthier than usual. His bony face was narrower. Bags sagged around dull black eyes—and Nico looked like he hadn’t eaten in a week. Less than usual.

 

Most of those plates were Thalia’s, Jason realized. She probably ordered all of that food back-to-back, just waiting until her current accomplice uttered a word.

 

That…sounded an awful lot like something Jason would do.

 

“I don’t mean to rush you, kid.” Eyebrows gluing together, Thalia rested her elbows on the table and leaned forward to get a better look at the Son of Hades. “If I had it my way, I’d let you vent about whatever you needed to. But I really need to—”

 

“Apollo and Artemis forbid you and Jason to see each other.” The tenor of Nico’s voice grinded against his throat like gravel. It was painful music to Jason’s ears, but it also made his heart flutter. A bitter chuckle echoed from the grim teen’s lips and he shook his head while Thalia fell silent.

 

“He told you that?” He being him. Jason.

 

“He tells me a lot of things.” Nico’s virulent smile faded until it was a frown. The corner of the teen’s mouth rose in attempt of a wistful smirk, but it was clear that it was just a pitiful attempt. “You know what Jason’s biggest dream is?”

 

“I can take a guess.”

 

“He wishes that your mother was still alive. That you and he got the chance to grow up together instead of being separated. He’s so Greek now that he wouldn’t care about being Roman. And if that were the case, then he’d either wish you never turned into a tree so you could be together or that he was there when you were yourself again.” Nico shrugged and plucked the strawberry from his plate.

 

“Yeah, well—our mother’s not one of my favorite people in the world. He is the only reason that I stayed.” Thalia’s gaze narrowed at the other teen. She had a cautious demeanor on, but Jason could tell she was also trying to consider Nico’s words.

 

“I showed him where she died.

 

What?”

 

“He deserves to know what really happened to her. And how she felt.” Nico’s demeanor hardened and he sat back against his seat.  At this point, Jason remembered they were only a year apart. Nico was fourteen, and before her birthday, Thalia decided to remain eternally fifteen forever. From gaze alone, they looked more like siblings than Jason and she did. “That was the deal. I watch Jason for you, and you give me a name. I never told you what I’d do with it.”

 

Thalia scowled at him—only for a moment. After that she shook her head in dismay and sighed. Her fingers laced around her glass of Pepsi and she leaned back in her chair. “You’re right.”

 

He was?

 

Nico nodded slowly and tightened his own hands around his glass.

 

“There were moments where the three of us were a happy family. And then the moments where you wondered how our mom was the same person that would sing my little brother to sleep.” Shaking her head, Thalia ducked her head and glared at the ice at the bottom of her drink. “I want to tell him the good things about her. But every time I look at him, I think about what our stepmom made our mother do. And how easily that our mother obeyed her wishes. To Zeus and Hera—Jupiter and Juno—he’s just been the pawn to go against Percy.”

 

“He’s more than that.”

 

“I know. Look—I should be mad at you for sticking your nose in someone else’s business, but maybe Jace really did need someone else’s opinion. I’ll give you that.” Sitting higher in her seat, she reached over to place a hand over Nico’s fingers. Electrifying blue eyes narrowed at the younger teen and Jason saw the sisterly look on her face that was usually directed at him. “But you and I both know that that’s not the reason why you came to me. I’m flattered, actually. I’d think you’d go to Percy or Haz—”

 

“I came to you because you get it.”

 

Nico’s breath was shaky. He slouched against the booth seat and inhaled as much sanity as his lungs would allow. Yet Thalia watched his reaction calmly. Pulling Nico’s hand toward her, she squeezed his fingers beneath her palm and stroked his knuckles in circles.

 

“What do I get?” she asked.

 

“You had your mind and body messed with.” Rattling his ring against the table, Nico held the face that Jason saw right before the other teen had left. Confusion. Distraught. Anger—anger at the world like it didn’t make sense and never would. “Your fate was altered so there was a chance that you would be the Child of the Prophecy. You had no choice but to move on when you found out your best friend in the world would no longer be there when you woke up. Even though nothing had been wrong before that.”

 

Although he leered at Thalia, there was no anger directed toward her. Jason could sense the mix of miserable rage (directed at him) and sad morning in those orbs.

 

“You left Jason by himself after you two finally found each other—like…like how Bianca left me.” The Son of Hades choked on his own words and smiled unhappily. “Because you both understood that neither of us needed your protection anymore.

 

“But you’re like me too. You can’t sit still every single day at Camp Halfblood and just do the same pattern. People know of you because you’re Zeus’s daughter and because you protected camp for years, but people don’t know you. That’s why being a huntress is so good for you.”

 

Nico shook his head and choked on another breath.

 

Jason cocked his head to his sister, whose demeanor remained undeterred since they entered this conversation. She only nodded—returning Nico’s tense words with short, calm nods.

 

Were sisters supposed to do that? Were they supposed to be so calm even when little brothers thought their world was going to collapse around them?

 

“You get to have your heritage as a Daughter of Zeus and be Tiffany Grace’s daughter.” Nico retracted both his hands and set them beneath the table. He looked at her with a hard gaze, but Jason couldn’t read the emotions he saw. “But you also get to shed the past so that it only becomes fact, and live your life under a new god—Artemis.”

 

“So you know what it’s like to know your background as your mother’s son and your godly father’s offspring. And to want to get as far away as possible from it as much as you want to take pride in it.” Thalia lowered her head and bowed it curtly in return. Pressing her lips together, she sat back against her booth and crossed her arms over her chest. “And we can’t commit to anything because it’s hard to find a middle ground. Is that why we’re the same?”

 

The younger demigod chewed on his lip and nodded.

 

“As a big sister to a little brother, I can tell you that Bianca was being selfish. About everything.”

 

Jason winced.

 

She arched an eyebrow when Nico stared at her in disbelief and pulled her hands away. “I’m the same way. You know that too. You’re right in saying that I joined the Huntresses, but I did it because I didn’t want to be reminded of who I was before: the Daughter of Zeus who lost her brother and dealt with her mother all those years. Hera tried to kill me at every turn, di Angelo. Artemis let me move on with my life, and I haven’t regretted it. Which means I can’t throw away everything just to be with my brother, who barely needs me anymore.

 

“Bianca was there for you for years since the end of the first war. We both know that she thought you’d be better at Camp Halfblood. Maybe she would’ve been right if she was alive. I don’t know what to say about the current situation. But even in the afterlife, she had to leave. She could be waiting for you to summon her any time that you want, but she wouldn’t have been able to live. So to speak. You wouldn’t have been happy for her if she stayed a ghost for the rest of her life, if she had the choice of reincarnation.

 

“I will always love Jason, Nico. And I will always be there for him.” A sad smile graced Thalia’s lips and she fiddled with the bracelet over her wrist. “But I’m not the defining point in his life. He has to learn to accept himself in the only way he knows how, and so do you. Percy’s done it. I’ve done it.” The quaint smile curled into a half-joking smirk. “It’s a Big Three thing.”

 

She really was the best sister in the world. Jason was so entranced by her words that he didn’t realize how moist his eyes had gotten.

 

Nico ducked his head and nodded slowly. He swallowed the frustrating lump in his throat and scowled at his empty plate. “Then may I make my own selfish request?”

 

“Always, kid.”

 

“I can’t keep my end of the promise. I can’t keep up with it.” Shutting his eyes, Nico touched his temples with shaky palms and held back his own tears. “I can’t…see Jason anymore.”

 

 

 

All the air in Jason’s lungs suddenly depleted and his throat dried. His heart felt like his own gladius was piercing through him. The blood keeping him alive disappeared into nothingness and that was it. He felt empty.

 

Thalia’s blue eyes widened and for once, she broke her composed stature.

 

“It,” Nico breathed, “just…hurts—”

 

CLING!

 

The diner door opened, and instantly both demigods tensed.

 

Thalia tapped her silver bracelet once more—and Jason woke up.

 

-x-

 

Jason had a headache.

 

His mind was spinning with all the possibilities that Nico and Thalia could’ve been facing. Who came into the diner? Why did Thalia reach for Aegus?

 

No—they’d be fine. They were Nico di Angelo and Thalia Grace for crying out loud. He chastised himself for worrying so much, but the way they both dropped everything for whoever arrived made Jason impatient.

 

And Nico’s confession only spliced his heart in half.

 

Every time the words crossed his mind, Jason’s chest had another hole through it. His lungs felt empty, like he could no longer take his next breath, and Jason would have to keep from wanting to die right on the spot.

 

He messed up. Big time.

 

Nico no longer wanted to see him, and the last time the younger teen purposefully avoided Jason, they were without each other for a week. (One that had Jason on edge for what felt like an eternity.)

 

“How are you feeling?”

 

Snapping out of his thoughts, Jason sucked in the air around him through his mouth to feel like him again. His oldest friend and partner, Reyna, looked at him with concern. Her brow pinched together beneath the imperial gold helm and he could see her frown in the moonlight.

 

They were split up exactly how Jason proposed it on the first day: Smaller Cabins and the First and Second Cohort versus Larger Cabins and the Fourth and Fifth. The new purple shirt looked good on her.

 

“I’m okay,” Jason lied. He held his gladius close to him and smiled at her lightly. “I’m glad you’re team captain instead of me.”

 

He was playing for Zeus’s Cabin while Percy played for the Fifth Cohort. Jason didn’t think he’d seen Percy look so humble before when the Romans greeted him like a guy returning to family. He looked like he belonged with them so much that Jason went from being jealous to being content for the guy.

 

Leo was supposedly unfazed by Percy’s debacle of going to New Rome after high school. He planned on getting an engineering degree and then going back to Texas to open up a workshop under his mother’s name. Even though Jason was worried, he knew it was an issue that Leo and Percy would have to work out themselves. You know—when Percy finally got the nerve to ask Leo out.

 

“That’s not what I meant.” Reyna reached out and adjusted the strap on Jason’s breastplate. Piercing eyes narrowed to him, inspecting Jason like he was a book. “You’re my oldest friend, Jason. I know when you’re hurting. Just like when you know I am.”

 

That was true. Jason had friends who were willing to do anything for him. Like making sure he didn’t get into serious trouble for wrecking another camper’s cabin.

 

The rumors about his outburst were close to zero. (The latest, apparently, was that Mr. D struck him with hysteria and Jason was driven mad to murder Hazel. Mr. D mutilated that rumor all on his own.)

 

“He doesn’t want to see me anymore.” The blond smiled sadly and fell from his couch behind the shrub. Jason sighed. “I had a dream.”

 

There was no question about who he was referring to. No one suspected it had anything to do with the other Child of Hades/Pluto. However, Jason’s confession only threw Nico under the bus with their friends.

 

Yeah. Their friends.

 

One of Nico’s more personal confessions was how he felt about the second war. The first one ostracized him from everything he knew and loved: his sister. He spent years honing his own powers so that being a Son of Hades would be mildly bearable. Nico didn’t want to feel the way he did for Percy, but the other Greek demigod was the reason why he didn’t think of himself as half dead. Everyone on the Argo II saw Nico being human. Crying. Sleeping. Frustrated. Angry. Relieved.

 

Even if there wasn’t a mutual companionship (or really, any at all), Nico considered them closer to him than anyone else on the living plane.

 

“What are you going to do about it?” Reyna asked finally.

 

It pulled Jason out of his thoughts, and his heart only ached. “I never meant to fall in love with him.”

 

That was the truth. His moral compass led him to Nico di Angelo to help him. To save Nico before the guy was whole dead. Falling in love with Nico was the worst thing Jason could have ever done.

 

Standing to his feet, Jason gestured to Team Red’s territory in front of them. Capture the Flag was supposed to keep his mind off of the guy. It was the first time Jason ever said I love you to someone. And now Nico was all he could think about. Bringing the said Son of Hades up wasn’t going to help. “C’mon. I know my way around this forest.”

 

Fighting alongside Reyna was like old times—where she filled his blind spots and he maneuvered around her moves.

 

However, being at Camp Halfblood was what Jason missed the most. Here, he had friends who weren’t just comrades—they were family too. They could laugh around a forum and make jokes around the ping pong table, even if the Roman in Jason was screaming that it was against…well, common sense. No one cared about his status as Zeus’s Roman son, and his sister’s legacy as the Daughter of Zeus reigned with a zest of pine in the air.

 

This was the haven his sister never had.

 

Jason would never be disgusted with his upbringing, but he could think freely without tradition or dwelling on how he was going against tradition and say it all aloud without being chastised by the campers around him.

 

Here Jason was a leader and he didn’t have to be a leader.

 

Jason forgot why he loved it so much.

 

“Behind you—”

 

Reyna shoved the end of her javelin into someone’s chin and the blood went flying from Kevin Bushman’s mouth. Jason grimaced.

 

“That’s…kinda violent, don’t you think?”

 

A dark eyebrow darted in the air and she planted her javelin against the ground. Reyna snorted. “I think you’re thinking a little too greek here, Jason.”

 

“I think…that I’m still afraid of you.” Jason couldn’t help but chuckle against Reyna’s serious tone. It was amazing how easy it was for them to fall in step since they hadn’t seen each other in over a year. Conversation during the war was kept to swift battle plans before Gaea could make her attack. They still had their bond from years of tag teaming, but it was faint.

 

Now—Jason was reminded why he loved his upbringing as a Son of Jupiter, too.

 

They smirked at each other and then Reyna was off. Jason pushed the winds around him, causing branches to rustle as he leaped into the air and soared right after her. The atoms crackled at his finger tips and surged through his gladius as they trudged through the forest. Reyna disarmed two soldiers from the Third Cohort and flipped a girl from Demeter Cabin.

 

“I see the flag,” Jason announced after ten minutes of trekking. He took Reyna by the hand as she shot it through the air and they flew together.

 

The good thing about being a Son of Jupiter was that no one saw him as intimidating. Greeks were themselves first and “war-like,” like the Romans second. But they did love a challenge. Leo declared after two months at Camp Halfblood that the secondary goal of Cabin 9 was to “DESTROY” Jason Grace. AKA: find out what Jason’s kryptonite was.

 

Ever since the three of them came to camp, they made changes happen. Cabin 9 was described as the most explosive (and unpredictable) cabin in all of Long Island while the Aphrodite Cabin was more respected—especially when Piper taught her siblings how to hone their charmspeaking and other skills. (Plus—some Hermes kids contributed into reshaping Cabin 10 once they were done pulling every prank in the book to get Piper and Travis together. According to them, the “one-unit” name for them was “Triper.”)

 

Of everything that being Greek taught him, Jason relearned what he loved the most out of either camp: camaraderie.

 

A wall of water shot up in the air and forced Jason into a dead halt. It morphed into columns, spiraling around them like twin tornadoes. At the bottom of the eye, Percy gave them an impish grin.

 

“Throw me,” Reyna said.

 

What?”

 

“You stall him, I’ll get the flag.” Reyna swiveled downward and waved her javelin at a tree.

 

“That’s at least a fifteen feet drop, Rey.” Jason swallowed hard when he saw Reyna’s smirk.

 

“It’ll be fun. Like bungee jumping. I’ll land in that tree.”

 

Percy morphed the two columns back into a wall and slammed it against the pair. Before they were hit, Jason flung his partner toward the nearest tree and summoned a gust to help her land. At the ground, Percy’s forearms were wrapped with water from the creek like armor. Riptide gleamed in his hands and the teen grinned—like saying, ‘Hey man, we knew this was gonna happen.’

 

Of course it was.

 

And with that, Jason grinned from cheek-to-cheek.

 

He struck a hand through the torrent tower beside him and let sparks fly. Electricity clapped like a hissing cat in the whirling water and Percy jerked backward in surprise. When he recovered, Jason rocketed downward and spun. Winds followed his every turn coating him over the lightning that crackled against his skin. Percy put up the blunt side of Riptide in effort to repel the blond—but he failed. He doubled backwards as Jason shoved his gladius into Percy’s breastplate and fell into his natural element.

 

As Jason landed, water froze from the creek and froze around his feet.

 

“Nice moves,” Percy commented. He grinned like a child and held his sword in a Roman formation. “Mine are better, graecus.

 

“We’re gonna go there then? Jason arched an eyebrow and smirked. In an instant, Percy charged forward with Riptide prepared to cut Jason’s head off.

 

Touching his fists to the wet dirt, Jason sent a light charge through the water.

 

Percy stepped on a rock and swung his sword against Jason’s gladius. The imperial gold weapon shot through the air and stabbed a tree. As soon as that happened, Jason broke the ice at his feet and flipped backwards in standard Roman formation. He tossed his new coin straight in the air and caught his new sword.

 

Once more, the brunet charged—shoving his elbow into the blonde’s chest plate. Water followed, dousing all of Jason’s clothes beneath the elbow pads, shin guards, breastplate, helm—and every other piece of armor that he wore. Instantly, it froze into thin ice and Jason felt a surge of frozen air against his flesh.

 

His teeth chattered, and despite the cold he slammed his sword against Riptide. “Y-You’re pretty good, Jackson.”

 

“Avatar: the Last Airbender.” Percy smirked triumphantly and aimed his sword at the younger teen’s feet. “Good TV show and good ways to learn new moves. Like…this.” He lifted his fingers once again, and a cold fog surrounded them. Percy shoved Jason at least three feet away once they were shrouded in white mist.

 

Jason had to hand it to him. Living with the self-proclaimed Boy-On-Fire probably helped Percy strengthen what he could do. Flames were like breathing to Leo, which was why it was hard for him to suppress—so Percy taught Leo how to fight, and Leo taught Percy how to…well, breathe water.

 

In Jason’s case, it was the same thing. He breathed in. A turbulent of hot air left his mouth and separated the mist before him. As the fog split in half, Jason caught glimpse of at least a dozen campers (on red and blue team) watching Percy and him like they were the favorite show on Hephaestus TV.

 

He took wind and shot into an aerial view of his opponent, then torpedoed downward on Percy, who, predictably, was standing with his feet in the creek.

 

One sword met the other, with the collision sending excitement into Jason’s veins.

 

Percy released their bind with a naughty grin and aimed the sharp edge of his sword at the blond’s left shin guard. He feinted—once Jason tried to dodge that attack, the Son of Poseidon summoned a whip of water to engulf Jason’s entire face.

 

The Roman demigod grunted in surprise and fell to his knees. The moment his fingers touched water, Jason let a jolt of electricity course through the stream. Percy jumped, with the sudden shock paralyzing his calves, and instantly fell forward.

 

Jason’s new sword collided with Percy’s breastplate. If this was a battle without armor, then Percy’s heart would have been floating through the bloody wound of his chest by now. Instead, Percy rolled over onto his stomach and sucked in a harsh breath of air. Water soaked him from feet to hair—and the next breath sounded less ragged than the last.

 

Sea green eyes flitted upward—mixed with a serious demeanor and the emotion of a guy that was having the time of his life. Most of the wounds Jason caused were gone—thanks to the dumb source of water that Jason should have led them away from a long time ago.

 

The elder teen jumped to his feet and rammed the blunt side of his sword through Jason’s teeth—who faltered backward immediately.

 

Whoa!” Another column of water shot upward, encasing Jason before he and the tower were sent rocketing toward the clouds. Percy’s hand was balled into a fist, and he grinned. With one jerk of his pointer finger, Jason went twirling.

 

 

Think, Jason. Think. He gritted his teeth and shut his eyes as Percy forced him to do a figure eight in the air. They always joked about how they could kill the other person—but both of them knew that it’d be one hell of a fight before that happened. (And—well, it wouldn’t be this fight. If he weren’t so frustrated and close to drowning by water tower, Jason would be grinning and whooping like Percy did.)

 

The idea struck him as hard as Riptide would have. Jason squeezed his eyes shut and forced the winds to spin counter-clockwise to Percy’s forced twirling. The zephyrs matched the speed of the water around their master until Jason could finally come to a dizzying stop.

 

“Uh-oh,” Percy muttered.

 

A smirk spread widely across Jason’s lips and he tossed his sword into the air. It turned into a javelin immediately, and he held it high into the gray sky.

 

After that, three things happened:

 

Jason’s team, Team Blue, burst through the forest with the Red flag in Piper’s hand. She was held by the Stoll Brothers, despite them being on the other team, with all of her siblings (along with members of the First and Second Cohort) cheering from behind.

 

Percy and he stopped for two seconds to register that fact, while Piper was beaming like the sun.

 

“PERCY!”

 

“Tyson?” Before they knew it, Percy’s big-little brother burst through the waters and pulled the other Son of Poseidon into a big bear hug. The cyclops jumped for joy and giggled—and while a hug like that should have snapped Percy in half, he was laughing too. “Hey, bro, what are you doing here?”

 

Towers of water shot up from the creek once again—bigger. Faster. Better. They swirled around a glowing entity as it rose from the waters—until a man appeared. He had a tan that one could only get at the beach, and wore roman robes that bore the colors of the sea. Over that was a breastplate with the carvings of Ancient Greek—Atlantean?—and entwined in his left hand was a thick imperial gold trident.

 

The man tried to look fierce—with a stern face and a military crop cut that looked like it spent the last thousand years in the water—but his eyes gave him away: gentle sea green pools as calm as the ocean.

 

Like Percy’s.

 

Suddenly, a glowing yellow orb appeared over Jason’s head—like what happened when a Greek demigod was claimed by his godly parent. Above him was the symbol of Zeus: a lightning bolt. But…he wasn’t born Greek.

 

“That’s not right,” Percy said. Jason turned to him and saw that a sea green trident was resting above Percy’s head, along with Tyson’s as well. In the crowd, a dark purple sphere hovered over an astonished Hazel, who reached to touch the light for the first time. “You’ve already claimed me, Dad. Why are you here?”

 

Jason almost frowned. He couldn’t believe how casually Percy was talking to his father—but he knew Piper and Leo to do the same thing.

 

Suddenly, the waters parted for the Lord of the Sea, who took steps forward—toward Jason. His voice was all-powerful—but as soothing, as powerful, as terrifying, and as calm as the ocean. “Jason Grace.”

 

Remembering his presence amongst a god, Jason fell to one knee. He could hear tiny footsteps—of Hazel slowly coming to the middle to join Percy, Tyson, and him—and the four of them knelt respectfully. “Lord…Neptune?”

 

He confronted gods before. Hades and Apollo were only two examples, and even in the way they greeted him both excited and terrified Jason. Hades was supposed to hate Children of Zeus. And—so was Poseidon.

 

Yet the god in front of him went from looking stern and fierce to a gentle smile. “You must prepare. You four have a long quest ahead of you.”

 

---