“Mm,” Roman Nico grumbles. He wiggles in Jason’s lap, hands still fisting the taller demigod’s shirt, and sighs.
Jason holds him a little closer, chuckling softly under his breath. “Well good morning, sleepy.”
“Jay?” Roman Nico sounds more awake, but only tightens his grip on Jason’s shirt. He stretches out, like a kitten, and legitimately makes a show of nuzzling Jason. Roman Nico even purrs. “Oh, gods, Jay, I missed you…”
“Close.” Jason scans their little room, where their four comrades are now either trying to hide their snickers or staring in awe. Frank looks at them like they’ve turned into goats, while Annabeth keeps a hand over her mouth, and Leo and Percy keep wiggling their eyebrows. “You passed out after we got to Sydney.”
“Oh.” Roman Nico hesitates before pushing away from Jason’s lap. The pattern of Jason’s jeans decorate the side of Nico’s face in red grooves.
Usually by this time, Nico’s hair would be standing up in awkward hedges—but the crew cut eliminates that completely. Jason kind of misses it. Red blooms in Jason’s cheeks and he can’t keep from looking embarrassed—not with Leo and Percy dying of laughter.
“Sydney,” Roman Nico repeats tiredly. He blinks the sleep out of his eyes, suddenly more awake, and his eyes widen. “Sydney?”
“Yeah,” Percy supplies, which makes Nico jump. “You kind of overshot it. That’s okay, though—you’ve never been to the Underworld anyway.”
Standing to his feet, Roman Nico curses under his breath. And collapses back to the floor, with a CLACK.
“Nico—” Jason starts—
“Hungry.” Roman Nico hugs his stomach, which growls on cue.
Oh. Jason looks over to his four friends, who now look at them in utter disbelief. Annabeth scrambles for a box of TimTams and toss them to him.
“Thanks.” Nico stares at the box tentatively before peeling it open.
“He sounded just like a slab of brick hitting the floor,” Percy whispers to Frank.
“How much does he weigh?” Frank whispers back in concern.
Roman Nico, who either can’t hear or doesn’t care, doesn’t bother to look up. Instead, he munches on his food and casually leans against Jason’s shoulder.
“You okay?” Jason carefully wraps an arm around Roman Nico, who happily complies.
“Yeah.” Roman Nico downs half the box in no time. “Just give me a few.”
Nico glares hotly at the screen as he watches the invisible camera zoom in on his Jason and the Roman Nico. Roman Nico looks content where he is—with his cheek pressed against Jason’s bicep, and Jason welcoming it.
For one thing, he doesn’t appreciate his—the other Nico’s—that personal life being broadcasted to all of Olympus. Second—Jason’s never worked up the nerve to put an arm around him. Rolling his eyes irately, Nico sucks on the inside of his cheek and tries not to let it bother him, but the insecure bubble in his stomach keeps gnawing at his insides.
He can’t help but glare at Praetor Jason, when Praetor Jason clears his throat.
“What?” Nico asks bluntly. He taps his skull ring against the side of his chair.
“Nothing,” Praetor Jason says back—but it hits Nico that he’s blushing. Red glows in Praetor Jason’s cheeks, while he still holds a look of sternness. “This is just—this is how my Nico and I act with each other all the time.”
Ergh. Nico chews on the other side of his mouth and glares at the TV. The live feed occasionally flickers back to them—but with the ticket counter being on 128 out of 5,029, there isn’t much to do and they’re not allowed to leave the station.
Frankie looks very confused by the whole scene and Bianca keeps shooting looks in Praetor Jason’s direction.
“Bianca says I spoil him too much,” Praetor Jason mutters—voice cracking. “Ahem.”
“I never would have gathered,” Nico grumbles. His thoughts automatically go back to the night of their conversation on top of the Temple of Jupiter, when Praetor Jason cupped his face. Immediately, his face blooms with red and he tries to hide it behind a scowl.
“I don’t understand why he likes you so much,” Bianca chides. Regardless, she rolls her eyes and smiles fondly at the screen. “I wish he realized you were just a huge baby.”
“Hey.” Praetor Jason shakes his head in good spirits and chuckles. “You know that I’d never date your brother without your approval.”
“Her brother is sitting right here,” Nico retorts.
Praetor Jason visibly shrinks in his seat, embarrassed.
“Ugh,” Roman Nico moans despondently. He wavers lightly before resting his head against Jason’s lap and curling into a ball.
“You still sleepy?” Jason asks in concern. He’s shadowtraveled with Nico before—but not to this extent. Jason doesn’t actually know how far their Nico can go in one sitting, but he doubts any further than Roman Nico. It just doesn’t seem…human.
“Yes,” Roman Nico mumbles. He looks ready to sleep for the next decade.
A clock in the airport reads 1AM. Most of the gates have shut down for the night. They’ve dodged security guards every forty-five minutes or so by picking open doors or hiding in bathroom stalls.
“Should we…rest here for the night?” Percy asks carefully. He makes a face.
“Can’t shadowtravel if sleepy,” is the response. Roman Nico buries his face against Jason’s lap. “New hearing aid good. Turning off now.”
“I’m assuming that’s a yes,” Leo concludes.
Nico’s head lulls against Bianca’s shoulder. He pulls away instinctively and mutters a quiet, “Sorry.”
“That’s okay,” she assures. A smile curls against her lips and he inspects her carefully before returning to their previous circumstance.
“Following their example?” Praetor Jason chuckles softly and gestures to the screen.
Nose wrinkling, Nico reaches up and whispers something in his sister’s ear.
She laughs and turns to Praetor Jason. “He says he’s not talking to you.”
“What?” Praetor Jason guffaws. “Why not?”
Bianca grins after Nico’s next string of words. “He’s mad at you.”
Of course, Praetor Jason’s expression melts into those dumb adorable puppy dog eyes, but Nico refuses to budge.
“Why?” Praetor Jason asks, his voice as similar as it can get to a sniveling puppy’s whimper.
Because you look too chummy with my other self, Nico thinks grumpily. He turns until his face is against Bianca’s shoulder fully and refuses to let Jason see him pout.
After all—Nico would rather go to Tartarus and back again than let Jason know he’s jealous.
Jason’s leg starts cramping. He taps his hand against his other knee and pretends it doesn’t bother him.
Of course—Roman Nico promptly sits up, stares at him with wide eyes that make Jason wonder if Nico was ever asleep at all, and frowns. “You have to pee.”
“Beg your pardon?” Jason blinks, befuddled.
“You need to pee,” Roman Nico reiterates, which garners the attention of the rest of the crew. “I can feel you shaking like a dog. Plus—I haven’t seen you take a whiz since this morning.”
Silence. Jason fidgets, semi-mortified by the awkward segue that leads them to this moment. He gathers himself to his feet and makes his way toward the rest room. Roman Nico waddles after him.
“Is a pee buddy a Roman thing?” Percy’s voice carries over.
“As a matter of fact,” Frank says, “it’s not.”
“He’s dressed like a praetor,” Frankie says in awe as the camera flickers back to Frank, Annabeth, Percy, and Leo. “That Frankie looks so cool.”
“He is,” Nico assures. He hides a smile and stops himself from telling Frankie that in his universe, it’s just Frank.
From the corner of his eye, Nico catches Praetor Jason frowning.
“What?’ he asks before he can help himself.
“My Nico…hasn’t been that affectionate with me in years,” Praetor Jason admits hesitantly. His cheeks singe pink and he smiles sheepishly. “I guess I’m just…I guess I’m jealous.”
Huh. At least one of them can admit it. Nico mulls over what to say next before taking his head off of Bianca’s shoulder and placing it on Jason’s. “Happy?”
Praetor Jason beams and nods wordlessly.
“Are you even sleeping anymore?” Percy asks.
Rolling his eyes, Jason nudges Roman Nico’s body.
Who looks up immediately and stares at Jason curiously. “Yeah…?”
“Percy wants to know if you’re feeling better,” Jason explains.
“Oh.” A mischievous glint flickers in Roman Nico’s eyes. “I know. I’m ignoring him.”
He promptly goes back to burrowing his way against Jason’s leg.
“I heard that,” Percy says, even louder, and Roman Nico actually giggles.
Huh. So maybe it isn’t off.
“So that’s Percy,” Praetor Jason says out of the blue.
“Yeah, so?” Nico responds without thinking. Then—everything comes rushing back and his eyes actually double in size. He cocks his head toward Praetor Jason—sees the praetor scrutinizing what can be made out as Percy Jackson, and hikes the hood of his jacket over his face, mortified.
“What’s wrong?” Bianca asks in concern.
Praetor Jason and Frankie look over curiously, and Nico’s gaze directs mostly at the former.
“Not a word,” he hisses quietly, cheeks red. Praetor Jason frowns and Nico only burns brighter. He nudges Praetor Jason’s leg gently, and emphatically adds on, “I mean it.”
“If you say so.” Praetor Jason shrugs like he’s the most innocent thing in the world. Then frowns again.
“So…do you like Percy now?” Jason tries to ask as casually as possible. Percy is off gallivanting through the stores with Annabeth, and Leo and Frank have started a fourth round of Go Fish.
Nico, again, cocks his head up, looking wide awake for a moment before drowsy again—follows with a look of confusion, then a cry of disbelief. “What?”
Stuck on, wow, that’s a lot of emotions to display at once, Jason almost forgets to answer before he starts twitching. “I mean—do you like, like like Percy now?”
“Are you kidding me? What—no! No!” Nico lands on his back, hands pinching his sides as he cackles. Frank and Leo look over in surprise, but decide not to budge.
“Okay,” Jason mutters under his breath. He sighs in relief. “Good.”
“Number 2,993, please come to the front desk.”
“Oh!” Frankie perks. He holds their ticket stub. “We’re getting close!”
Bianca yawns tiredly and looks around the room. “Is anyone actually getting up? We’re the only ones here.”
“We’re not,” Praetor Jason assures her. “A lot of the others here are aurae. They’re just hard to see.”
Nico groans loudly, which takes their full attention. “This is so boring.”
“You feel any better?” Jason asks about an hour later. He runs a hand smoothly across Roman Nico’s forehead and finds that, yes, he’s a lot less clammy. Percy is curled next to Annabeth, while Frank is dozing off and Leo tinkers with another airport seat.
“Mentally,” Roman Nico confesses. He squints at the wrinkles made in Jason’s orange shirt and scrunches his face. “Somewhat. Physically, not at all. If I shadowtravel now we may end up in a trench.”
Ah. Jason glides his hand down Roman Nico’s cheek. Realizes that Roman Nico looks upset. “What’s wrong?”
“I screwed up,” Roman Nico mumbles. He hides his face in Jason’s stomach. “We made that big dramatic exit and I—I really screwed myself over.”
It takes a minute for Jason to realize Roman Nico’s using modern day colloquialisms—which Greek Nico isn’t a stranger to, but rarely indulges. Then, Jason readjusts his lap, which forces Roman Nico up, and Jason has to stare in those insecure eyes. “You are not a screw up.”
Roman Nico looks away, his lips contorted into a scowl. “Then what do you call this?”
“A mistake,” Jason answers candidly, and he watches as Roman Nico’s confidence literally dwindle. “That’s how you learn. That’s how you know training has paid off.”
“Jay—” Roman Nico starts, and then corrects himself. “Jason, you can’t be that forgiving.”
“Why not?” Jason asks back, and he realizes that Jay is what Nico calls the Jason who’s still praetor and who still holds a special place in Roman Nico’s heart.
“Because I make a lot of mistakes,” Roman Nico mumbles. “I deserve to hurt for it, and—and learn my lesson the hard way, without Bee and Jay and Frankie still there for me afterwards. I get off too easy in life.”
Jason frowns and runs a hand through his hair, unsure if he heard that correctly. “Nico, I…”
“Do you think they’ll still want me when I get back?” Roman Nico asks. His voice is small and heartwrenching and scared.
“Yeah,” Jason hears himself saying. “Yeah, they will.” He’s still trying to wrap his mind around the fact that Roman Nico wants to get punished for his mistakes because Jason knows Greek Nico needs the opposite.
Hazel and Jason and Percy and Frank and everyone else have spent years letting Greek Nico know that everything is alright and they’ll still be standing there, so he doesn’t need to run away, but Roman Nico has that and is actually begging for the opposite.
Roman Nico’s confession hits close to home. Jason can feel his heart rate speeding up.
“You okay?” Roman Nico asks, his ear obviously attuned to Jason’s heart.
“Yeah,” Jason assures faintly, and he takes in a deep breath as assurance. “Nico, I…I know you think that you need to suffer, but…never doubt that you have friends to help you. Okay?”
Dark eyebrows furrow. Roman Nico looks doubtful. “Okay.”
Opening his arms, Jason guides Roman Nico into his grasp and holds him close, burying his nose into the scent of Nico’s aviator’s jacket. Roman Nico welcomes it just as graciously and falls limp in his arms.
Nico can feel tears shining in his eyes. He glares stubbornly at the ground, trying to hide it, and shoves his hands back in the pockers of the hoodie. From the corner of his eye, he sees Bianca staring intently at the screen—and Praetor Jason doing the same.
“We’ve babied him too much,” Bianca says lowly. “I’d…I never wanted Nico to feel like he couldn’t come to me. To us.”
“I know what you mean.” Praetor Jason’s voice is thick. He tries to chuckle, but it looks like the very action is choking him. “He never went on that quest with us—but I guess afterwards, you and I wanted to make sure that…”
“That he never suffered,” Bianca finishes for him, “or get scared the way we did.”
It’s no question what quest that they’re referring to. The thought alone makes Nico nauseous, and he can’t even imagine how the Roman Nico feels about the entire ordeal.
“He fought his way into the legion,” Frankie reminds them. He recoils when they look at them, but the earnestness of his words still shine through.
“And we held his hand the entire way,” Praetor Jason concludes quietly. His eyebrows furrow and he massages his temples. “And he knew that. That’s what drove him to leave in the first place, and now he’s wondering if he should even come back.”
But he can always come back, Nico thinks instinctively. He doesn’t know why people are willing to waste their time on him, but they’re always there for him.
He sucks in a breath when Jason nudges his arm. “You were right to be mad at me.”
“Mostly.” From the corner of his eye, Nico watches Jason’s scar, notes the way Jason looks at him, and his heart aches. “I…”
Nico’s mouth clamps shut. He isn’t sure how to phrase it.
They wait for him, anyway. Bianca touches his shoulder with her hand, and Nico memorizes the scars that loop around her arms. “Yeah?”
His mouth is moist. Disgusting, for the lack of a better word. Nico glares at his shoes, looks back at the live feed, and shivers. “I…don’t know your Nico very well. I…I can fill in blanks, but I can’t just think of what he’ll be like. But I. I know how I am. And he’s spent at least two days living my life. It’s…at a good place right now.”
Letting out a breath that hurt to hold, Nico’s gaze goes from Praetor Jason, to Bianca, to Frankie.
“But it took me a long time to get out of a bad place and realize what my Jason just told your Nico. He…I don’t want him to be in that place.” Nico shudders. “I don’t want him to lose himself. Because it’s hard to find it again.” So hard.
Bianca squeezes his shoulder, then his hand, and Nico has trouble breathing again.
“Please don’t let him go to that place,” he finishes weakly. “You can prevent it.”
Please don’t die, he wants to say, but he knows that it’s not a promise Bianca can keep. Being a demigod is hard, and he’s grateful that she’s survived this long.
“Please don’t leave him,” Nico says instead, and to him that means even more. Please don’t abandon him, please don’t let him be alone, please be the hand that pulls him out of that place. “Please…”
She squeezes his hand before Nico finishes that thought. Her face says it all. Hope. Security. Protection. “I promise.”
And they leave it at that.
“Hmm,” Roman Nico says after they hit the six hour mark since getting to Sydney. He stands to his feet and looks firm.
Jason inspects Roman Nico for himself—and the younger demigod definitely looks a lot better. Roman Nico’s little sound rouses the rest of their crew, who’ve all passed out in a different aisle.
“You feeling okay?” he asks as he watches Roman Nico proceeds to do generic stretches taught to new fledglings.
“Yeah. Fit as a fiddle.” Even his pattern of speech sounds better. There’s an airiness to Roman Nico’s tone that makes the blood in Jason’s veins tingle, and he can’t help but appreciate it. Then—Roman Nico studies him with a frown.
“Yeah?” Jason muses. The corner of his lips curls into a smile.
“You haven’t slept at all.” Roman Nico frowns. He pulls the aviator’s jacket back around his shoulders and straps his gladius to his hip. “You sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah.” Jason blinks. He debates it in his head, but he’s honestly not tired. Jason chalks it up to being concerned about Nico’s wellbeing—but the rest of him is now surging with electricity.
“We gotta think of a new battle plan.” Percy yawns and stretches—and unlike Jason, has gotten plenty of sleep. Jason thinks back to what people say about puppies—sometimes they just get too excited and end up tiring themselves out all on their own. That probably applies to that bunch.
“We could go to LA,” Annabeth suggests. “Remember, DOA Records is over there.”
“Not a good idea. That’s 12,066 kilometers.” Nico frowns and strokes his chin. He starts pacing the length of the room before realizing all eyes are on him. “What?”
“How’d you know that?” Annabeth frowns. “I mean—I’m good at geography, but that’s…”
“Geosense.” Shrugging nonchalantly, Roman Nico gestures to a confused Percy. “Don’t you have like a nautical sense or something?”
“That I do,” Percy confirms.
Leo sniggers. “If nautical nonsense be something you wish—”
“Yeah, no.” Roman Nico waves a hand like he’s dispelling the rest of Leo’s song—and then frowns. “Basically—traveling to LA is going to have the same effect as traveling here. I don’t think I could make a jump like that, either. Not today.”
“What about in small bouts?” Frank frowns. His eyebrows furrow together.
“That’d take forever. We don’t know what’s between here and Cali.” Cursing under his breath, Roman Nico proceeds to pace back and forth once more in frustration. He comes to a halt and stares at Frank wide-eyed. “Could you turn into a whale?”
All eyes fly to Frank, whose eyebrows furrow. Frank opens his mouth, then closes it again carefully. “I mean…I-I don’t think a whale could make a trip that far.”
“What about the islands between? There are several.” Annabeth frowns.
Nico shakes his head. “It’s easier if I’ve been there before, so I can envision it. If I can’t—well. I wanted the Underworld and we’re in Australia. I’d rather not screw up again.”
Jason picks up on the bitterness in Roman Nico’s tone immediately. His heart aches at the confession, and—
—Roman Nico fists what little hair he has and groans loudly. “Ughh. This is so stupid.”
Six hours pass before their number is finally called. Nico’s never felt so exhausted in his life, and he feels that tiredness as the rest of his teammates stagger behind him. They hand the ticket stub to the secretary, are ushered into a different room by a second secretary—who hands them to a third one—and, finally, are asked to sit down in a lavished room adorned with imperial gold, celestial bronze, and an automaton Pomeranian with fur made out of curls.
“Lord Hephaestus,” Nico greets the chair on the other side of the mahogany desk, which is turned around in a dramatic fashion like in a lot of old movies.
“Ah, yes! Why if it isn’t the star of my show himself!” Lord Hephaestus’s voice is gravelly and disgusting to the ears. Nico visibly cringes at it while chills run up his spine. The chair whirls around and—
—an automaton Hephaestus stares at them, with coke bottle eyes, a lumpy looking face with coils popping out of his mechanical scalp that look like they’ve exploded. He wears a tuxedo much like the automaton host that practically assaulted Nico before, and has a cheesy grin that’s designed as his mouth.
Nico tries to keep from scowling. An, ‘are you kidding me?’ thought runs through his mind.
“Something wrong, kiddoes?” Robot Hephaestus asks them in that mechanical voice again, with an overt perkiness that just screams Leo.
“Well, Lord Vulcan,” Bianca starts carefully, “I don’t think we expected you to look so…robotic.”
“That’s because he’s an automaton.” The workmanship for this automaton is terrible, too. Nico feels sorry for anyone that’s convinced this is the real Hephaestus because he’s seen what the God of Forgery can actually do.
“Ah! Yes!” Robot Hephaestus chortles, which sounds like jingling change, and grins again. “Mister Ares has ripped out my AI! He says I am too snoopy! So now all I do is press buttons!”
“You’re…not a very smart automaton, are you?” Frankie sounds uncertain.
On cue, Robot Hephaestus’s head spins in several circles dementedly and he laughs again. “I am Rophaestus 5000! I have over 25,000 functions and over 100,000 matching accessories!”
Oh, gods. Nico presses a hand to his face and sighs. “I take it you have no idea how the other Nico and I got switched then. Do you?”
Coke bottle lenses stare at them, the cheesy smiles sending heebie-jeebies up Nico’s spine. Rophaestus rattles—literally rattles—and shrugs. “I am Rophaestus 5000! What’s your name?”
“Nico,” Nico snaps. He can’t believe they spent six hours in line waiting for this.
“Nico!’ Rophaestus repeats. “You look familiar!”
“I’ve been on your TV station for almost half a day,” Nico retorts. His hands coil into fists in his sweatshirt and he grinds his teeth.
“Ah, yes. What a very popular show.”
“I haven’t the faintest idea why,” Nico mumbles under his breath. Which is the truth—he doesn’t know or like the idea of anyone being interested in his personal life. Nico would prefer all strangers at an arm’s length if he could help it.
“Yes! Jasico is very popular with the show!” Rophaestus chortles on.
“I said my name is Nico.”
“Yes! Nico is very popular with the show!”
Bianca places a hand on his shoulder, smiles tiredly and jerks her head toward the door. “Let’s figure out a Plan B.”
Finally, someone suggests something useful. Turning around so he doesn’t give into the urge of ripping Rophaestus’s head off, Nico marches out the door. “Yeah. Let’s.”
“We could Iris Message Reyna and the Legion,” Jason suggests. He rubs his eyes and makes a face. “Or maybe there’s an Australian camp, like there was an underwater camp, you know?”
“Can’t open up a plane,” Roman Nico says. His demeanor twists and he crosses his arms. “Jupiter told me that the next time I was in his domain, he’d shoot me down.”
Jason’s attention immediately flits back to Roman Nico, mortified. “What?”
“Oh, dude. Me too.” Percy snickers and the two of them fistbump.
“Two months is a long time. You get acquainted with a lot of people,” Roman Nico says. He makes smarmy eyebrows and shrugs nonchalantly. “Plus your dad thinks I mooned him.”
Mooned—? Jason doesn’t even know where to go with that. He shakes his head in disbelief and wonders how Roman Nico manages to tread the gods’ line between utterly despise and somewhat tolerate so well. Roman Nico is like Percy in that sense, but Jason doesn’t know how Nico would take it if he mentioned that.
“Nico…?” Annabeth asks.
“Yeah?” Roman Nico cocks his head immediately to Annabeth.
“Are you doing that?”
She gestures to the floor, gaze never wavering, and soon everyone else’s attention follows. Their shadows dance in the moonlight, stretching into thin tendrils and darkening, before they twist into a vortex between their fee—
“ANNNABETH!” Annabeth plunges first, and Percy jumps in after her.
Frank follows with a yelp, and Jason’s first instinct is to take off into the air. “GUYS—!”
A hand wraps around Jason’s hand, and he almost mistakes it for a shadow tendril—almost shocks it—before he realizes Nico has a grip over him.
“It’s a summons,” Roman Nico explains. His gaze darkens, and Jason’s heartbeat stills.
“So what now?” Frankie sighs. They leave the building as soon as they can, and instead find themselves at a bench made of stone. Frankie has a slab of ambrosia on a stick—but instead of eating it, he puts it in his bow backpack and stares at his teammates nervously.
Nico sighs in frustration. “We spent six hours in the HepahestusTV station and got nothing in return.”
“What about what our Nico and your Jay was talking about on the TV?” Bianca suggests. “They mentioned the Underworld a few times.”
“Yeah.” Nico hesitates before he shrugs. “I just…figured that they were wrong.”
“We were at the TV station where they’re broadcasting this whole ordeal,” Praetor Jason says. He sighs too. “I don’t blame you. I thought you were right on the money.”
“Then you…want to focus on the Underworld?” Frankie’s eyebrows furrow together and he audibly gulps. “So you wanna go to the land of the dead?”
Out of instinct alone, Nico whirls around and arches an eyebrow at Frankie—neither annoyed nor amused. Part of him wonders how Frankie can stand to be around them when he’s positive that Frankie is scared of them. Yet—despite how nervous Frankie gets, he never stares at them like they’re freaks.
And it’s something Nico appreciates.
“We can go to the Underworld.” Nico sits up and focuses on the shadows at his feet. “I still have enough energy to do that.”
“You sure you want to?” Bianca frowns. She looks nervous again to shadowtravel, and Nico squeezes her hand gently.
“We’ll be fine,” he promises.
“Nico—is your shadow supposed to do that?” Jason asks.
“Do what?” Nico looks down to his shadow instinctively—which darkens, until it’s pitch black and stretches until it covers the entire platform. What the—?
Jason’s first instinct is to stay in the air. Darkness consumes them, suffocates them, in thick spirals that make Jason nauseous. It isn’t like shadowtraveling with Nico—shadowtraveling with him is gentle in comparison, with as much precision as an air current. This darkness feels like it’s ripping Jason’s soul out of his body, shattering bones as it tries to escape his essence, and despite being the son of the Lord of the Sky, Jason can’t breathe.
He holds a fist out and lets a strip of electricity crackle down his forearm to the tips of his fingers. It reflects in the distance, like a beacon igniting through mist. Then Jason can see bodies surrounding his light, and immediately, he grabs Roman Nico by the arm.
“Jason!” Percy and Annabeth cry, and Jason lunges for them next. He cuts off the current surrounding his arm and darts through the darkness until he feels Percy grip his leg and Annabeth at his ankle, and—gods, it hurts.
A giant eagle whizzes past them, and it takes a minute for Jason to realize it’s Frank with Leo on Frank’s feathery back—before they all finally crumple to the ground.
“Oh god,” Percy says with a shuddery breath. Jason can’t see the guy, but he’s convinced Percy is making out with the ground now.
“Lights, Leo?” Jason pants, suddenly regretting the fact that he didn’t take a nap like Roman Nico suggested earlier.
Leo makes a faint sound—and like a shift in momentum, the walls of their chasm lights up with Greek fire, crackling against the walls in beautiful, stygian iron torches. The green glow casts on ebony floors, lights the contour of Roman Nico’s cheeks, and reflect in his dark eyes.
Which look very confused. They look around in their surroundings—where paintings hang on the wall and the air of death is still suffocating Jason.
“We’re in the Underworld,” Percy confirms. He shivers and leans into Annabeth’s warmth. Holds her close.
“For the record,” Leo says, and he grumbles a curse in Spanish, “I did not light those up.”
“And I didn’t make the trip here.” Roman Nico’s expression contorts grimly.
“You okay?” Jason asks as he watches Roman Nico fiddle with the hearing aid.
“Yeah—just. It’s still working.” Roman Nico blinks in clear surprise and taps it with his hand. “It’s an amazing design.”
“Thanks,” say Annabeth, Leo, and Percy all in unison.
Jason has to roll his eyes at his friends—which doesn’t go unnoticed by Roman Nico. Roman Nico sniggers softly under his breath and jabs Jason in the ribs.
Hazel’s voice registers in Jason’s mind. He turns around—
And sees Nico running toward his sister.
There was lightning. Nico recalls Praetor Jason grabbing him by the arm, grabbing Bianca by the torso, and Praetor Jason throwing a gust of air beneath Frankie before they make a less than graceful descent.
But that doesn’t matter now—because he sees—
“HAZEL!” Nico feels all the air leave him as he rushes across the throne room. Hazel practically jumps into his arms, and Nico envelops her in a painful, beautiful bonecrushing hug. His limbs wrap around her waist as she curls over his shoulders, and Nico buries his face in her locks as she knots her hands through his hair.
Gods, Nico thinks as he breathes her in, gods, just, everything. He chokes on his own relief as he sighs, and hot tears burn in his eyes.
“I missed you,” Nico whispered in her ear. “Hazel, gods—I—”
“Me too,” Hazel says back, chest pressed firmly against Nico’s own. “M-Me too.”
“Bianca,” he hears someone say behind them.
Nico knows the voice—recognizes the voice, from several hours of watching this other self on a live feed. He feels Hazel slacken against him, hears the hitch in her voice as soon as Bianca’s name is mentioned.
They pull away, and Nico sees his nervous reflection in the pool of Hazel’s gold eyes. She loops her hand around his wrist, and they turn.
The resemblance between him and the Roman Nico is even eerier than Nico expected. He sees this Nico—this functioning, perfect Nico who’s the projection of his old self—and the love and relief that floods this Nico’s face when Roman Nico gets to see his big sister.
The look Nico was never able to give his own Bianca.
He chews on his lip as he watches the myriad of emotions run through Bianca’s mind. She looks uncertain, like the day she agreed to become a huntress and follow Artemis for the rest of her life. But instead, it’s her brother. Bianca’s demeanor is fearful and emotional and nerve-racking.
And Roman Nico’s expression is the exact same way.
Roman Nico’s eyebrows knit together, his hands trembling at his sides. He places one foot in front of himself—and lunges. Roman Nico throws himself into Bianca’s arms, and Bianca accepts his full weight without question. They tremble as they hold each other close, with Roman Nico’s ear pressed against the pulse of Bianca’s neck and his arms wrapped around her to know that she’s real.
“Hey,” Bianca says—her own voice weak—“It’s okay, Neeks. I’m here. I’m here…”
Hazel squeezes Nico’s hand firmly. “She’s beautiful.”
“So are you.” A smile curls across Nico’s lips. He chooses this time to scan the room and finds—everyone here. Reyna, Annabeth, Percy, Leo, Frank, Piper, Leo, and—Jason. Nico’s gaze locks onto Jason’s, his lips curling into an inevitable smile, and his heart skips a beat as he catches Jason’s eye.
Hi, Jason mouths to him.
Nico rolls his eyes. Of course—Jason has no problem with Roman Nico, but the second that it’s just them, things have to get awkward. He doesn’t miss the look of confusion on Jason’s face—but doesn’t have time to address it.
“Bianca,” he hears himself—and the other Nico say. They both jump, hearing the culmination of their voices together. Their tones mold together, but Nico can still hear the difference between them. Roman Nico’s is lighter, always lighter, brighter, and easily more hopeful.
The difference actually makes Nico’s stomach twist. He smiles—amazed, not bitter—and squeezes his grip on Hazel’s hand.
Bianca looks over to him curiously, and then to Hazel, and her eyes mist over.
“This,” both Nicos start. Nico looks to Roman Nico, who nods, and then continues for the both of them. “This is Hazel. My…our other sister.”
Hazel visibly shivers at the introduction. Her eyes widen, nervous, and her hands curl around herself.
“Hello,” Bianca whispers quietly. Her first instinct is to sign with shaky hands, Bianca’s entirety so dumstruck, but Nico can’t blame her. This meeting is so surreal that Nico is dizzy with excitement.
Carefully, Hazel peels away from Nico’s side and they step closer to each other. Hazel is small in comparison, but just as strong and beautiful. She hesitates. “I’ve…heard so much about you.”
A tiny, shaky laugh fumbles from the back of Bianca’s throat, her lips stretching into a firm smile. “A-All good things, I hope.”
“Yeah,” Hazel whispers. “Yeah, they love you a lot.”
They, being both Nicos. They look at each other, demeanors twisted in identical smiles that both disturb Nico and make him tingle.
“They love you even more,” Bianca whispers back. “I can tell. To be honest, I’m a little jealous.”
Her confession is met with a gasp. Hazel’s eyebrows furrow together, the initial shock of meeting Bianca, the most important entity in Nico’s life, gone. “I—I could never take your place—”
“No! No,” Bianca starts, voice gentle. She takes hold of Hazel’s hands, the big pools of tears in her eyes reflecting the Greek fire with much intensity. “Thank you so much for taking care of him.”
The words hit home for Nico. He lets out a breathy laugh, a tear cascading down the contour of his cheek. He wipes it against his hoodie, knowing that he’s caught the attention of everyone else in the room—and realizes Roman Nico is crying, too. Nico doesn’t like to cry, never did, but he’s done so much of it lately because of the two girls in front of him that have changed his life for the better—always for the better—and he’s so happy.
He finds Jason’s hand against his shoulder and immediately curls into the warmth of Jason’s flesh. Jason’s pulse is sturdy and strong, just like Nico remembers, and it only makes his heart soar.
From the corner of his eye, he sees Praetor Jason doing close to the same, one arm wrapping shamelessly around Roman Nico’s torso. Roman Nico sighs, rolling to the tips of his toes, and buries his face in Praetor Jason’s chest.
“Hey, Jay,” Roman Nico murmurs, voice raspy. He fists Praetor Jason’s shirt and sighs.
“Well that explains a lot,” Nico hears Jason say above him.
Rolling his eyes, Nico looks up to the sight of Jason’s angular jaw and candid smile. “I saw the live feed.”
“Live feed?” Jason sounds confused.
“Let me know if you need to take a whiz later,” Nico continues wryly. He watches Jason flush red, hears Roman Nico cackle, and sees Praetor Jason shake his head in disbelief. Then, Nico’s gaze returns to Roman Nico, and he can’t help but frown.
They both pull away from their own Jasons, inspecting each other from head-to-toe. Nico doesn’t know how to feel about the standard crew cut, or the orange t-shirt. But—that aviator’s jacket is his and he doesn’t want to share it.
“Trade you,” Roman Nico says. He shucks off the jacket and holds it out at arm’s length.
The gesture confuses Nico at first before Roman Nico nods his head towards the hoodie Praetor Jason had given Nico last night. Nodding, Nico peels off the hoodie and they take a moment to change into their respective jackets. He doesn’t know if Roman Nico wears Praetor Jason’s clothes often, but it wouldn’t surprise him.
The warmth of his jacket folds around his body, and Nico has to sigh in relief. He stuffs his hands in his pockets and feels himself tingle all over again.
“You look good,” Bianca supplies. She smiles at him, and Nico smiles back.
The feeling of security disappears in an instant. Nico hears someone—Frank—choke on a breath. The room drops twenty degrees, which is exactly why his jacket is so important to have—and he watches everyone who has never had experience with the Underworld collapse to their knees, hands clutching their hearts.
Jason falls with a thud, his hands flying to his throat. Percy clutches Annabeth as they stagger tersely to the ground, while Hazel grips Bianca to keep her from falling. Nico hears Roman Nico shout in Praetor Jason’s direction, and Nico immediately grabs his other self by the arm.
“It’s part of the summons,” Nico explains. He feels his heart trembling, but Nico got used to his father’s presence a long time ago.
The Greek fire dims at the presence of eternal darkness and shadows, and the palace starts shaking. Nico shouts for everyone to turn away, his hands shoving Jason in the opposite direction as he feels his father appear in his godly form.
His hands reach Hazel—and it hits him, like an ongoing car—
“HAZEL! You can’t be here!” Nico shouts at the top of his lungs, but it’s useless, because the darkness is too loud, and he scrambles for her arm. “Hazel—”
He grips one arm while Roman Nico grips the other, Bianca covers all three of them like a shield and the Jasons cover her. The Greek fire crackles with violent light, only making the darkness grow behind it. Nico can feel his soul wanting to transcend is body, is used to it, but feels every person who has never come in contact with the Lord of the Dead hitch their breath.
The force comes to a terrifying halt. Nico sucks in, like feeling his soul ricochet back into his body, and the fires glow at ease—warm and eerie all the same.
“Lord Pluto,” Nico hears someone—Frankie or Frank—whisper.
“Lord Hades,” the other Frank says.
Turning around slowly, Nico understands why they’re in awe.
Pluto and Hades sit side-by-side with dark, brooding eyes. Hades is dressed in his robes, the evil souls swirling about in his fabric while Pluto is dressed in a delicately stitched suit with the same souls swimming across the lapels. Pluto is as pale as a corpse, his face looking as distasteful and dry like the dead, while Hades is as transparent as a ghost.
Nico gulps hard, his hand still looped around Hazel’s arm. He watches as both entities of his father scan them—at him and the Other Nico directly.
Neither one bother to look at Hazel.
“Father,” Roman Nico starts before Nico can come up with a plan. His voice is thick and oily, like their father’s, and he looks terrified beyond belief through the need to be brave. Roman Nico takes cautious steps towards the throne.
“My son,” Pluto says. He signs with it, bringing his right hand from the side of his head to his left elbow.
Roman Nico’s demeanor twists, his poker face poised and noble in a way that reminds Nico of Praetor Jason. He brings his hands up, responding from both his hands and his mouth. “I’ve offended you, and I am sorry for that.”
A frown curls against Nico’s lips and his heart tremors at the apology. He inferred Roman Nico crossed a god, but it never occurred to him that it was their father.
“But you—!” Roman Nico crosses his pointer fingers and then directs one toward Pluto. “You don’t believe in me!”
“That isn’t the reason that I put you in this situation.” Pluto matches each word with a sign, his voice stern. His demeanor is ambiguous as ever, his eyes even lighting up with fire. “You let your anger control you and wished for a world where your sister no longer existed.”
Silence falls across everyone in the room. Nico’s eyebrows furrow together, his eyes widening as he inspects Roman Nico for the truth. He would—he could never have wished for that. Nico’s attention flies back to Hades—
—and it all clicks.
He feels his mind being tugged in an entirely different direction.
Nico…sees Roman Nico, curled in an infirmary bed with his back wrapped up in several bandages. Roman Nico was as pale as Hades, his flesh white as death and a scrawny body to match. What scares Nico the most is the gruesome look that overshadowed Roman Nico’s demeanor.
Roman Nico’s expression was dark and angry—echoing how useless he felt. Nico knows that face because he’s worn it so many times throughout the years.
Then, Roman Nico bolted out of bed. He struggled to pull on a shirt, to dress himself properly without limping, and shadowtraveled out of the infirmary into a wooded area behind what appeared to be a cabin. Not like Camp Halfblood or Jupiter—but a cabin nonetheless.
The anguish written on Roman Nico’s face is so legible that it cuts through Nico.
Shadows danced and swirled around Roman Nico’s feet—and he didn’t notice them as they made a bind around his ankles. Roman Nico jumped, immediately whirled around, and gripped his gladius close. The shadow tendrils gnawed at his ankles, bold and violent, and Nico watches Roman Nico choke on a breath.
“Who are you?” Roman Nico demanded. “Show yourself!”
Pluto appeared from the depths of his shadows, dressed in his suit of souls and hair covered by a trilby hat. His skin was even more ghostly, more corpse-like, while his hands were decorated in the many jewels found in the bottom of the earth.
It took a moment for Roman Nico to recognize him. He frowned, body never trembling, and tilted his head curiously. “Why are you here?”
“Amazing,” Pluto said, his voice as thick as it is in the throne room. “You can’t even sense when you’re in trouble. What if I yanked you into the Underworld? What would you do? How would you fight the demons in my realm?”
A claim that that would usually rile Nico up. Instead, he looks at Roman Nico, whose demeanor tightened before Roman Nico shoved his sword back into its sheath. Roman Nico went on his gallant way, past Pluto.
Who followed, still looming in Roman Nico’s shadow.
“If you came here to gloat,” Roman Nico said, “then I don’t want to hear it.”
“Very well.” Pluto maneuvered the shadows so that they dwelled in front of Roman Nico. He stared at his son, lips in a firm, straight line. “I didn’t say to walk away from me.”
His hands breezed through several signs that Nico didn’t recognize, but assumes matches what he said to Roman Nico.
“Your sister would have survived two months just fine.” Pluto’s voice was sedating. His signs were swift and fluid, and Nico thinks that they’re accurate. It shocks him to see his father using sign language, but his father also uses Italian on a daily basis with him, so why should it?
Nico swallows hard, his chest pounding from the mention of Bianca. He’s been there, too.
“Your sister is a praetor. You are not. Your sister has had over six years of training to become a legionnaire and become praetor. You have not. You are not her.” Pluto matches each sentence with a heavy gesture, and he gazes at Roman Nico cruelly.
“You favor her,” Roman Nico whispers under his breath. He twitches before moving his hands. “I understand that, but what am I supposed to do? You—you and she never told me what happened to Mom!”
Pluto’s face remained unchanged.
Cringing, Nico wants nothing more than to intervene. He doesn’t want to hear the rest of this conversation.
“Bianca’s more powerful than me. I know that. I—I do.” Roman Nico’s eyebrows furrowed together and he scowled at their father. “But you and she made me this way. I could have gotten the training all of those years ago—you could have healed my ear or something, or—or—”
“You would rather put the blame on your sister and I,” Pluto signed back, “then take responsibilities for your own actions?”
“I’m saying that no one believes in me! Not even my own father, and you’re supposed to believe in me no matter what!” Roman Nico snapped back. His chest bobbed, fists trembling for the first time since the beginning of their argument. His anger was palpable, after years of containment. “Am I supposed to spend the rest of my life in Bianca’s shadow?”
“You are my son. You live in the shadows.” Pluto gestured with his right hand gliding beneath his left, his lips pressed tightly together.
“But not in the shadow of my own sister!” Roman Nico tapped his chest with a fanned out hand and closed it as he pulled away. “You’re standing here lecturing me about going home and yet you keep rubbing it in my face that Bianca is better than me! Does she need to die before you’re willing to care for me?!”
No, Nico thinks with a sense of urgency. His eyes widen and he takes a step forward toward Pluto. Say no.
Pluto’s body elongated, stretching four feet taller with the shadows dancing around him like dark little pets. Yet Roman Nico stood his ground instead of flinching, his eyes narrowed at their father, and Nico understands why Frankie, Bianca, and Praetor Jason have it in their heads that Roman Nico has a talent for angering any god because Roman Nico doesn’t care if he’s shouting at the top of his lungs.
Roman Nico doesn’t have the restraint where Nico does, and that’s where it hurts him.
“Is that what you think?” Pluto asked in a hollow voice.
A flash of regret shined in Roman Nico’s eyes, but he wasn’t willing to back down. Instead, he stood straighter, his head raising to match his father’s height. “I do.”
“Then so be it.”
Shadow tendrils shot out at Roman Nico again, this time attaching themselves to his arms, groping his gladius, his calves, and yanking him down into the earth. Roman Nico gasped, his eyes bobbing from side-to-side to swallow this reality. There wasn’t a flash—not like the other gods because Lord Pluto was the God of the Underworld. Nico hears the high-pitched screech of Roman Nico’s hearing aid shattering—
—and the shadows cloud even Nico’s vision.
Nico snaps out of his thoughts, breaking eye contact with his own father. He remembers waking up two days ago outside of San Francisco—which led them to this point, here, with Pluto staring down at his roman son with disapproval and Hades staring at Nico with a well-trained poker face. It occurs to Nico that he’s—they both—are more like their fathers than they’d like to admit.
There’s a rip somewhere, Nico thinks. Hades is his Hades and Pluto is Roman Nico’s Pluto. He can’t begin to imagine how they ended up at the precipice where their worlds have collided.
He opens his mouth to speak. Stops, because it isn’t his place.
Roman Nico’s hands shake at his side, and Nico realizes that they’ve both seen the same vision.
(He scans the room to see if anyone else did—and concludes that no, they didn’t. Roman Nico and he have seen the same thing, but Nico doesn’t know how long they’ve been out of it.)
“You’re right,” Roman Nico says. He chokes on a breath, his eyes shutting closed. “You’re right. I did wish that. And I didn’t mean to because I love her. I—I don’t want her to die. I never want Bianca to die.”
He glances at Nico, his identical eyes flickering with both pity and fear.
“This guy—” Roman Nico taps Nico on the shoulder, startling the latter from the sudden intrusion of space. “This Nico has been through a lot. In more than just two days. I can’t compete with that and I—I don’t think I could go another day in his life.”
Eyebrows knitting together, Nico walks up to Roman Nico and intertwines their hands. He catches Roman Nico’s sudden look of confusion, but they stand together, strong, and Nico knows that their pulses have steadied into the same firm beat.
“I respect him for what he’s been through. I know that I’m not on par with his skill level in any way—and that’s okay.” Roman Nico locks gazes with Pluto. Refuses to falter. “But that doesn’t make me any less your son. You’re my father, and I want to prove to you that I can be powerful. Not just as powerful as Bianca, but powerful. I want you to notice me from the shadows. I’m not that little boy you couldn’t protect from the accident.”
Pluto’s expression twists, and Nico’s thoughts go back to what Bianca had said about their mother.
He glances over to see the smidgen of Roman Nico’s other ear and notices imperial gold—something that wasn’t visible in the flashback. Nico wonders if Leo built Roman Nico a new one since the previous one appeared to be broken.
“She’s dead in both worlds. You’re the Lord of the Dead. That fate—it’s inescapable. And Bee is dead in his world.” Roman Nico nudges Nico, his voice choking on dead and Bee in the same sentence. “If you’re trying to prevent that in our world because Bianca is alive, I…I feel like I haven’t even lived.”
Nico squeezes Roman Nico’s hand firmly, their heartbeats still coinciding with one another.
Roman Nico peels away slowly, uncurling his hand from Nico’s grip before he takes the small steps toward Pluto’s throne. He kneels respectfully, which Nico hasn’t done in years—hasn’t had to—and looks up to Pluto with the same expression of hardness that Praetor Jason gives almost instinctively.
“I want to make you proud. I want to be your champion.” I want you of all people to be proud of me, Nico can hear in Roman Nico’s voice. Roman Nico sits still, poised as ever with his cool demeanor as he awaits Pluto’s reaction.
On the other hand, Hades shocks everyone by making a sound. He sighs, his large hand coming to pet Roman Nico on the head. “You are so much like your mother that it hurts.”
A look of shock stretches across both Nicos’ faces. Nico stares at his father—his—father in disbelief at the sudden display of affection.
“I didn’t ask you to voice your opinion,” Pluto grumbles angrily. He shoots a glare at Hades, his arms crossed over his chest.
“You weren’t going to use your voice at all,” Hades retorts immediately. He rolls his eyes in a ridiculously human matter and gestures to Nico. “Come close, my son.”
Hesitating, Nico makes his way towards the alter next to his other self. He stares high, hands unfurled from his pockets, and stares at his father questioningly.
“Do you understand why we did this switch?” Hades asks.
“To teach a lesson and make a contract with HephaestusTV?” Nico snorts. He arches an eyebrow at his father, dwells on something in his mind, and kneels respectfully like the other Nico.
“Yes, well—the gods of Olympus are easily entertained. I do believe there is a Nicason, Jasico, Jaco, Nison war rising amongst the gods.” Hades bats his hand dismissively and rolls his eyes. “You were able to feel emotions you have not in years. Does that satisfy you?”
Nico frowns. He notes Hades has taken a very roundabout way of saying, You got to see Bianca again. He wonders if acknowledging her would pull her soul into their universe. Pushing the thought out of the way for now, Nico nods. “Yes.”
“And you, my Roman son?” Hades asks.
“He is my son,” Pluto grumbles.
“Don’t be such a brat,” Hades chides once more.
Rolling his eyes, Nico’s gaze darts to his other self, who meets his gaze after the same exact gesture. It’s hard to take a god seriously—a god that is your father seriously—when they banter like children.
“I am humbled by this whole experience,” Roman Nico offers.
“And you’ve learned better for next time,” Pluto finishes for him. “Am I correct in assuming so? Has Hazel taught you well?”
Behind them, Nico realizes Hazel’s stopped breathing. His eyes lock with Pluto, fear leaping into his throat because Pluto acknowledged her presence—and yet nothing happens. Nico turns to look at Hades, who remains silent, and it isn’t mentioned again.
“Yes, I…” Roman Nico’s eyes widen in surprise. His gaze slackens, and he stares at Pluto in admiration. A smile curls against his lips, shy in comparison to how he was only moments ago. He flattens his hands against one another and carries his right one over his left. “Next time?”
Pluto nods, even if he isn’t smiling. He mimics the gesture and taps his wrist. “Next time.”
“So we’ll see each other again. You and me.” Roman Nico clarifies. “The next time I decide to make a perilous, life-changing journey and—”
“Yes,” both Pluto and Hades say, deadpanned.
“This is how he annoys a lot of gods,” Nico hears Frankie whisper behind them. He whirls around, arches an eyebrow at Frankie, and watches as both Franks quiver a little.
With a tired sigh Nico turns back. He’s met with a hand on his head, which tingles with shadows and makes Nico’s heart tremor a little. From the corner of his eye he sees Roman Nico being treated the same way by Pluto’s hand—and both entities of their father are actually smiling.
“Make me proud,” Pluto concludes.
Roman Nico shivers softly, before nodding in confirmation. “I promise.”
Nico releases a breath he didn’t realize he was holding.
Then—their worlds jump.
Pluto and Hades disappear into black vapor, but Nico suddenly feels himself being pushed upwards. He looks over to Roman Nico, lunges toward Roman Nico as Roman Nico jumps towards him, sees Bianca grab Hazel protectively, the Jasons grabbing Bianca—and they get thrown into the air.
Someone screams—Nico can’t remember who, and his eyes glue shut. The feeling is so unlike shadowtravel that he feels himself ready to puke.
They land with a thud.
Birds chirp in the distance, and Nico’s eyes fly open to the image of the woods in the outskirts of Camp Halfblood. Stars shine brightly above them, almost audibly bright, and he sucks in the air around him to keep himself steady.
He turns his head and finds everyone else in a pile on the ground, one Frank eagle perched on a tree and everyone else huddled over his sisters. (Frankie looks at the Frank eagle in disbelief, but not another word is said.)
“Did we just get pingpong’d to and from the Underworld in one day?” Leo groans.
“I think so,” Praetor Jason mutters back.
“Hazel!” Nico shouts. He detaches himself from Roman Nico’s side and pants as he runs toward his sister. They envelop each other in a hug immediately, Nico fixated on the sound of her heartbeat as she presses her ear to his chest.
“I’m okay,” Hazel assures. Her breath is light, heartbeat wily, but Nico knows she’s telling the truth.
“Nico,” he hears Bianca say not too far away from them. Looking up, he finds Bianca throwing her arms around her brother, and they coil around each other tightly.
“Cool,” Roman Nico says out of nowhere. “Is this yours, Nico?”
Looking over, Nico realizes Roman Nico is holding a two and a half foot long gladius made out of stygian iron. He looks down to his own belt, where sure enough, his own sword lays, then shakes his head. “It’s a gift.”
“A gift,” Roman Nico repeats with a frown. He blinks, then directs his gaze down to the ground. “You mean from—?”
“Yeah.” Nico peels away from Hazel, but keeps his hand curled firmly around hers. “I can show you how to use it, if you’d like.”
A grin spreads keenly over Roman Nico’s face. “Really?”
Nico nods back, unabashed. “Yeah.”
“Hey—there’s a thermos that came with it.” Bianca picks it up from the ground, where Nico presumes is where Roman Nico found the new sword. Strapped to it is a note that Bianca takes the time to unfold. “Use when ready to go home.’ Huh.”
“There’s wind in there,” Percy explains, appearing from absolutely nowhere. He smiles down to her, solid and wistful. “Uh, hey, Bianca.”
“Hi.” Praetor Jason frowns back at him and pulls Bianca close. He narrows his eyes at Percy before slowly giving him a onceo—
Oh my gods. Nico covers his face in utter embarrassment and hears Roman Nico groan beside him.
“No,” Roman Nico says. “Stop, cease, desist—Jay, I swear to gods—”
“If it says ‘use when ready to go home,’” Hazel cuts him off, “does that mean…you get to stay a little longer?”
Oh. That’s…that’s good news.
Nico peels his hand away from his face, looks to Bianca, who looks back to Hazel, and then to Praetor Jason and Frankie. They all look back to Roman Nico, who looks as flustered as Nico feels.
Then, Roman Nico nods in agreement. He grins. “I could go for a picnic.”
In the end, they sneak into the Dining Pavilion to steal magical plates and chalices, swipe a picnic blanket, and set up a moonlit dinner near Thalia’s tree. Jason watches Praetor Jason stare at it in a mixture of fascination and disbelief before revealing a picture he’d taken with Thalia not too long ago. Praetor Jason takes it with gentle hands, curling his fingers around it with care, and Jason allows his other self to keep it.
There’s an air around Praetor Jason that separates Jason from him. The scar stands out in a haunting, jagged line that touches Jason’s very core, but the way Praetor Jason holds himself is…different. Even from when Jason was still praetor himself. This Jason smiles when he sees his Nico, or his Bianca, or his Frank.
(Frankie, Jason has to correct in his mind. Something about Frankie makes him seem less confident than theirs, but the way Frankie smiles is still the same.)
Praetor Jason looks more…open than when Jason was praetor. There’s still sadness in his face, carrying the weight of soldiers behind him, but also pride for his heritage.
Something makes Jason think his Nico had something to do with it.
Who, speaking of, spends the rest of his sister’s visit training Roman Nico in a way that’s neither Greek nor Roman. There’s no doubt that Roman Nico has standard combat training down to a tee, but Nico is able to teach his counterpart in a way no one else can.
By the time they’re done, Roman Nico is tired out and slumps across Jason’s lap.
(Praetor Jason and Nico both frown before Jason carefully plucks a sweaty Roman Nico of his legs and rolls him into Bianca’s grasp.)
Nico sighs and plops down next to his sisters, who spend precious time together discussing things from their mothers to the Legion. The look on Nico’s face practically kills Jason because he knows how much they mean to Nico. His smile says so much more than anyone else can see.
“Oh, gosh,” Frankie says quietly in the middle of eating his pizza. “Hazel’s as cool as you said she was, Nico.”
Hazel pulls away from her conversation with Bianca, eyes wide with surprise before red envelops her cheeks. “Thank you, Frankie.”
“Hey!” Frank shouts, a frown curling against his lips. “What about me?”
“Whaaat?” Out of nowhere, Roman Nico shoots up from Bianca’s lap. He wipes the sweat off his brow and stares at Frankie in disbelief while both Franks yelp in fright. “I thought you were a Frianca fan!”
“Nope.” Nico pats Frankie on the shoulder and smirks. “Frazel is the way to go.”
“They argue more like siblings than anything else,” Praetor Jason notes with a chuckle.
Jason looks over to his counterpart, who sure enough sips blue Gatorade out of his cup. A smile curls against Jason’s lips as he sips his purple, and he shrugs. “We probably sound like siblings too.”
Praetor Jason nods. He stares at Jason thoughtfully. “Thank you for taking care of our Nico.”
“Same.” Jason feels his heart flutter as he looks back to their Nicos. Roman Nico grins mischievously to something spoken by Frankie, and Greek Nico promptly rolls his eyes.
“He’s a handful,” Praetor Jason continues, “but I wouldn’t trade him for the world.” His expression hardens, gaze fixated solely on Jason, and Jason agrees immediately.
“Same,” he says again.
“What are you talking about?” Nico demands, which makes them both jump. He looks at them with the same expression akin to both Lord Pluto and Lord Hades, and soon after Roman Nico matches the expression with a raised eyebrow.
“Nothing,” Praetor Jason and Jason both say innocently. They stare at each other before smacking themselves in the face.
A smirk coils on Roman Nico’s lips. He reaches over and whispers something in Nico’s ear—who flushes red immediately and rolls his eyes before whispering something back.
They all watch, in fascination, until Roman Nico grins wickedly, living up to the madman glint in his eyes before he chortles. Nico rolls his eyes again, flashes a dirty look in both Jasons’ direction and turns his body to face Bianca and Hazel fully.
“What just happened?” Percy muses.
Leo snorts loudly before he downs the rest of his sandwich. “I think Jay 1 and Jay 2 just got voted out of a foursome.”
He’s promptly met with a dinner plate to the face.
The rest of the night runs smoothly. Jason finds himself discussing Thalia and their mother—two people whom Praetor Jason so far haven’t met or heard of. Praetor Jason explains the story of the scar—and Jason looks at the di Angelos with a stronger need to protect them afterwards.
Frankie spends time shyly trying to get to know Hazel while Frank intervenes, Annabeth, Reyna, Piper, and Bianca discuss the duties of a camp leader and fighting side-by-side their people. At some point, Percy proposes a spar with Praetor Jason, who’s immediately talked down by both Nicos.
“There’s…one thing I don’t understand,” Nico starts carefully. His eyebrows furrow together, his gaze locking with Roman Nico’s.
Roman Nico immediately frowns back. “What’s that?”
“Pluto mentioned Hazel specifically while we were talking to him.” Nico looks up to his sister carefully, his lips stretched in a delicate line. “But Hades has to avoid it, otherwise Hazel will go back to the Fields. So…why would Pluto mention her?”
Hazel blinks, her eyebrows meshing together. “You think that I’m alive in their world?”
“It’s possible.” Nico shrugs back at her and stares at Bianca, Praetor Jason, Frankie, and Roman Nico expectantly. “After all, Bianca is dead here.”
“Wow,” Roman Nico murmurs. His gaze fogs over with an unreadable emotion—but before he can run of with his thoughts, Praetor Jason’s hand finds Roman Nico’s shoulder and Bianca’s arm around his waist.
“We’ll find her,” Frankie promises. He looks over to Roman Nico with a smile, and Roman Nico struggles through a happy smile.
Eventually, they have to leave. No one wants to see the end of their picnic playdate (if anything, the four romans look disappointed that they can’t stay for Capture the Flag), but there’s only so much time that they can spend together before they have to part ways.
“We should get back,” Bianca says after a shallow dip in their conversation. She flashes a solemn look towards Hazel before standing to her feet and helping Jason as well. “New Rome can only go so long without their praetors.”
“Understandable,” Reyna muses. “Knowing Octavian, he may be conspiring against us again.”
“Oh,” Praetor Jason chirps, “so he’s the same in both worlds.”
“I don’t think that’s something to rejoice about,” both Franks say in unison. They flash each other a look, smile, and fistbump.
Bianca clutches the thermos delicately, her hands folding around its base. She hesitates in pulling it, and instead redirects her gaze to Nico.
They meet each other’s eye with an audible click, Nico’s expression shifting into longing and Bianca’s gaze flashing with concern. Jason can feel their love, warmth, and affection as it radiates off of them, and slowly, they coax into each other’s arms.
“I’m going to miss you,” Jason hears Nico say. “A lot.”
“Hey—I’m your sister.” Bianca laughs quietly as she hugs him back, arms looped tightly around him. “I will always be with you.”
Jason hears a sniffle and watches Nico wipe a tear from his eye.
At the other end, Roman Nico has Hazel in a hug with the same amount of affection. He kisses her gently on the forehead, smiles at her, and Hazel smiles back.
“I can’t wait to find you in my world,” Roman Nico says.
Hazel’s smile widens, and she hugs him even tighter.
Nico moves on to Frankie. He observes Frankie carefully, taking in Frankie’s nervousness before extending a hand. “Thank you for being my friend.”
“Anytime.” Frankie smiles back timidly and—looks surprised, when Nico opens his arms for a hug.
“You be good to my sister now,” Roman Nico muses. He nudges Frank, his smile sad, and then gestures to Nico. “You’ll have to deal with us if you’re not.”
“Nico!” Hazel huffs.
Finally, both Nicos move onto the last people on their repertoires.
Jason looks down to Roman Nico, his cheeks still glowing pink as he watches the smile over Roman Nico’s lips. He smiles back, eyebrows furrowed together, and offers a hand.
Roman Nico rolls his eyes and curls the end of his finger into a hook. He gestures for Jason to come close.
Slowly, Jason leans over—and feels Roman Nico press a kiss to his cheek.
“Thank you,” Roman Nico murmurs softly, “for believing in me.”
Flushing red, Jason grins coyly and pulls Roman Nico into a tight embrace. “That goes without saying.”
Over Roman Nico’s shoulder, Jason watches Nico murmur something softly under his breath, hug Praetor Jason quickly, and peel away before a scene could be made out of it. Nico flushes as red as Praetor Jason does, and Jason tries to keep the envy in his stomach from boiling over.
Last of all are Hazel and Bianca.
They stand dead center, with only smiles on their faces. Hazel wipes a tear from her eye while Bianca blinks them away before she can start crying. The latter gives the thermos to Praetor Jason to hold, and slowly, Hazel and Bianca collide together in a throbbing hug.
Jason touches Nico’s shoulder as he hears Nico choke on a breath, and watches as Praetor Jason and Frankie do the same for Roman Nico.
“Take care of him,” Bianca half sobs, half laughs. She smiles into Hazel’s neck. “O-Okay?”
“Yeah,” Hazel breathes, and she hiccups against her sister’s skin. “I-I’m counting on you…”
They peel apart, putting three feet of distance between them. Bianca’s gaze never breaks from Nico and Hazel. She stands beside her comrades, thermos returned to her, and a tiny smile graces her lips.
“You have good people looking out for you, Nico,” she says. Bianca wipes the last of tears away from her eyes and her smile widens. “Never forget that.”
“Yeah,” Nico says back. He smiles, and Jason can’t help but think that they look so much alike.
“Hey,” Roman Nico says airily. He wipes his tears on his shirt, suddenly walking his way towards the center of their circle. “Nico, c’mere.”
Without hesitation, Nico trudges towards his counterpart. He stares at Roman Nico expectantly—and smiles, when Roman Nico extends a hand.
“Thank you for this experience,” Roman Nico says. A smile curls against his lips, an appreciative glint all too apparent in his eyes. “I’m never going to forget it.”
“Me neither. Thank you, for sharing your sister.” Nico pulls his hand away from his aviator’s jacket and meets Roman Nico in the middle. He narrows his eyes at Roman Nico, both wary and trusting. “Take care of her, plea—”
Roman Nico yanks Nico close.
Into a kiss.
“Holy—” Percy’s hand flies to his mouth before he finishes the sentence and deteriorates into inappropriate laughter.
Everyone else gasps in disbelief.
Jason can’t be bothered to blink—he sees Roman Nico yank Nico close, snaking Nico’s arm around his own body, before laying a fat kiss over Nico’s mouth.
“Mmmpphhh—!” Nico makes a sound of protest—a very big sound of protest—before he shoves Roman Nico very far away. He gasps for air, hands collapsing around his neck, and scowls at Roman Nico. “What the hell?!”
“Hah!” Roman Nico grins at the ground. “Bet you didn’t expect that, huh, Dad?”
Jason fidgets, his jaw dropping to the floor in disbelief.
Did that just…?
Nico scowls at Roman Nico, who only grins with a sick and twisted humor on par with the Stoll Brothers. Nico’s face is red from both embarrassment and asphyxiation, and the first thing he does is draw his sword. “I am going to—”
“Bye!” Roman Nico scampers back to his group and twists the cap to the thermos.
“Nico!” Bianca shouts shrewdly. “I can’t believe you just—”
The thermos flies open, unleashing a violent gust of wind that suddenly makes the group go airborne. Jason has to shut his eyes from the velocity of the air currents, his hands maneuvering to dispel most of the zephyrs from his friends.
“GET BACK!” he shouts, and luckily, most follow his command.
When he opens his eyes again, Roman Nico is gone.
Nico curses loudly under his breath, sheathes his sword again, and turns to face them.
Heart hammering in his chest, Jason gulps. “Was that your first—?”
“Jason.” Nico cuts him off venomously. “Don’t test me.”
“Don’t,” Nico hisses again. He stomps towards Camp Halfblood. “I’m taking a nap.”
“O…kay.” Jason flushes red. He turns to look at his teammates, who shrug.
It’s—well, it’s probably best if they don’t mention it again.
Hazel, of course, finds him sulking in his cabin. Not that Nico was really hiding—but, whatever. He doesn’t nap like he announced he would because his mind is still swirling with thoughts and impatient anger directed towards one person in particular. Seriously—Roman Nico is a wild card. Nico is glad to be done with that persona because he doesn’t think he can handle it.
She ushers for him to scoot across the bed, her hands curled over her lap. A smile curls against her lips, and she looks at Nico gratefully.
Unfortunately, Nico is still teeming with anger and embarrassment. He stares back at her, deadpan, and asks, “You’re not going to kiss me too, are you?”
“No!” Hazel shouts in disbelief and laughter. She shakes her head, fanning herself all of a sudden, and Nico faintly wonders what her reaction was to this whole ordeal. “Was that really your…?”
“I don’t wanna talk about it.” Scowling, Nico curls into a ball against his bed and glares at a wall.
Humming under her breath, Hazel rubs his back in soothing circles. “He’s really not that bad, you know. Just a bit of a firecracker.”
Nico shuffles against the bed, wary. “D’you like him better than me?”
At this point it’s just petty questioning because Nico knows Hazel loves him, and he loves Hazel back, and his temper is just getting the better of him. If it’s one thing that Roman Nico and he have in common, it’s the fact that they can only tolerate it so much. Nico can just hide it better.
“I don’t,” Hazel assures, and for some reason it puts Nico’s heart at ease. “He…”
Her voice trails off, so Nico nurtures his curiosity and looks at her.
“I think he was trying really hard to be you,” she confesses. Her eyebrows furrow together and she stares sadly at the ground. Nico sits back up and pulls a lock of hair behind her ear. “He wanted to be powerful by walking alone and coming back to open arms.”
“That’s not how it always works,” Nico admonishes quietly, but he doesn’t delve into how it’s supposed to work.
“It works for you,” Hazel assures. Because she knows. “But I know it killed you seeing him trying to adjust to this life.”
Yes. Sighing, Nico glares at the ground right beside her. He feels her hand on top of his. “I think he’s better off without this world.”
“Mm.” Hazel leans back, her fingers trailing off of Nico’s knuckles. She stares at the ceiling this time, and from the corner of Nico’s eyes he sees the Greek torches reflecting in her gold irises. “Well, he liked me a lot.”
“What were you doing in the Underworld to begin with?” Nico frowns. “You know you can’t go down there.”
Once he hears his own tone, Nico cringes. He flashes her an apologetic look once Hazel raises an eyebrow at him, and they leave it there. Sometimes Nico forgets his own bluntness.
“He forbade me to go. That Nico knew I was dead as soon as he saw me.” She shrugs, her hand once again creeping across Nico’s wrist. Nico presses his knuckles into the bed and flattens his palm beneath Hazel’s grasp. “But he never wanted to send me back. I…I think that you lit a fire in his eyes when you said I might be alive in his world.”
“That means it’s only half the journey to find you,” Nico explains. He curls his hand over hers, his attention focused on his beautiful sister. A sigh leaves his lips, heart hurting at it. “That…world was terrible, you know.”
“How?” Hazel cocks her head to him, demeanor twisted in absolute disbelief.
“It had a lot of nice things. It had Bianca—” And for years Nico was convinced that so long as he had Bianca, then he would be okay. “—but I wasn’t able to enjoy it when I found out you weren’t there. I—can’t—enjoy if you’re not there. I need you in my life.”
Her gold eyes soften, and another onslaught of tears moistens her irises. Nico knows how that feels—and he doesn’t want to stop them because they’re happy tears.
“I’m glad, though. You know?” Nico continues. He sucks in a deep breath and shrugs. “I’ve…always wanted Bianca to meet you, more than I wanted her back.”
His throat constricts, he knows that’s not exactly what he meant.
“I want both of you,” Nico corrects himself. “But I wanted her to love you as much as I do.”
She wipes a tear away from her eyes and gives a breathy laugh. Hazel leans against his shoulder. “Well—I love her too. She’s amazing.”
“You’re amazing,” Nico interjects. He nudges her shoulder gently.
“Well, she was reincarnated in this world,” Hazel reminds him. “Two years ago. Do you think…we have a chance of running into her?”
“At the age of two?” No way. Not unless her name is Jason Grace. Nico snorts and rolls his eyes at the thought. To his surprise, Hazel laughs. He frowns. “What?”
“Nothing. I just—” Hazel laughs again and a hand flies to her mouth. “I like it best when you do that.”
“Do what?” Nico arches an eyebrow—and rolls his eyes again when Hazel has to topple back from her own giggles.
He waits until she stops, a beautiful grin adorning her lips. Nico has to smile back because it’s Hazel.
Then, he weakly shrugs. “I don’t want to think too much about it.”
Nico doesn’t want to set himself up for disappointment if he thinks he’s tracked her down again and is wrong again.
Before his thoughts can get bad—to that place—Hazel pulls him into a half-hug. She smiles again, hopeful. “We’ll find her.”
Of course, Nico has to smile back. He can’t help it when he’s with Hazel. “Yeah.”
That’s a promise.
Later, at a more reasonable hour, Jason wakes up and resigns himself to the rooftop of his cabin. The sun rises, light slowly fluttering against the darkness in a fragile dance before all of Long Island is glowing with an orange hue. He breathes in the cool summer dew of morning and feels every cell inside his body rouse as well.
“Hey.” The tone of voice echoes like Roman Nico’s. Jason has to hide his disappointment when he sees Percy instead.
“Hey,” he replies, a smile forced across his lips. “Wanna come up?”
Percy’s expression twists, clearly torn between a smile and a grimace. “Yeah. Just…gimme a few…minutes…here—”
“There’s a ladder.” Jason points to it, to which Percy sighs at with great relief.
Seconds later, Percy trots up the side of the cabin and nests next to Jason the roof. He grins, lips spread from cheek-to-cheek, and Jason decides to humor him.
“It’s 6AM,” Jason says. “What are you doing up?”
“Thinking,” Percy confesses. He yawns—which doesn’t surprise Jason. They said their goodbyes to Roman Nico five hours ago. But Jason doesn’t know how the guy does it—he feels ready to pass out for the next month, yet Percy looks like he’s only lost a day of sleep.
(He racks it up to Percy having made several trips to the Underworld already since finding out he was a demigod. Jason knows they’re going to fight someday, but he thinks he’ll need a few weeks of rest before he attempts even a spar with Percy.)
“Then,” Percy says while Jason is mulling over his thoughts, “I thought, ‘Jason must be staring at the outskirts of camp outside.’ Wha’d’ya know, I was right.”
“Am I that predictable?” Jason snorts.
Percy smirks at him. “A little more than you think, man.”
“That goes both ways, you know.” Jason punches Percy in the arm jokingly and smirks back. He rolls his eyes, gaze making its way back to the sky.
“So…you have any idea why Praetor Jason hates my guts?” Percy asks. He arches an eyebrow, genuinely curious and somewhat offended at the same time.
Jason has to grip the rooftop to keep from falling off. If it’s anything like the anger Jason felt when he found out about Nico’s feelings for Percy, then Percy has only scraped the surface of it. Jason feels his face flush red and clears his throat. “Ahem. Not a clue.”
“You’re lying,” Percy follows up with.
“Like you can tell.” Jason arches an eyebrow at Percy, but his heart shivers at the thought.
“I can,” Percy assures. He lays back on the rooftop, back flat against Zeus’s Cabin, and sighs. “But whatever.”
“Whatever?” Jason repeats. He tries to follow up with something else—can’t, and deflates right beside Percy. “Alright, whatever.”
Neither speak after that. Jason rubs the sleep out of his eyes as the sun blares against him. At a glance, he sees Percy’s demeanor tight, in a thoughtful demeanor.
“I always wondered what Nico would have been like if I was able to protect Bianca,” Percy says finally. The words slip out of his mouth after what looks like two days of omission. When Jason looks Percy’s way, he sees Percy’s entire demeanor twisted into a pensive frown. “Seeing that other Nico made me kinda happy.”
“But?” Jason continues for him. Because he knows Percy as well as Percy knows him.
“But I don’t think Nico and I can keep dwelling over what happened.” Percy shrugs. He makes a face before correcting himself. “All I can do now is make sure Nico is doing well. We don’t have the…best relationship, like yours, but…we’re not on bad terms.”
“He likes your relationship enough,” Jason assures. He hesitates before adding, “He treasures it a lot.”
“Yeah,” Percy agrees. His gaze glitters with mirth and he chuckles under his breath. “But not nearly as much as he values his relationship with you.”
Jason rolls his eyes. He wouldn’t be surprised if Percy overheard his talk with Leo at the airport. “Nico and I aren’t like that.”
Percy laughs, obviously disbelieving. “You just spent the past two days as his cuddle buddy. You don’t just do that with anyone, Jace. I know you.”
“Yeah, but that’s—”
“And that’s okay.” Percy cuts him off. A smile curls against his lips and he stares at Jason expectantly. “Just know that since Bianca isn’t around, I’ll play big brother for him.”
“He’s not going to like that very much.” Jason rolls his eyes. Especially after dealing with Praetor Jason and Roman Nico. Percy and Nico may be on good terms, but Jason knows Percy still manages to push buttons without meaning to.
“I’m looking out for him.” Percy shrugs nonchalantly. “He needs someone who can beat you up if you don’t get your head out of your ass.”
“As if.” Jason nudges him again.
“Wanna bet?” Percy smirks. He dodges another punch to the arm. “Just tell him how you feel. What’s the worst that could happen?”
Several things, Jason thinks, but he’s already gotten beef from Roman Nico, Leo, Praetor Jason, and now Percy. “I…”
“There’s your chance.” Percy slaps Jason on the back roughly and stands to his feet. “Hey, NICO!”
Nico—whom Jason now sees from the corner of his eye—freezes at his spot. He rolls his eyes irately and suppresses a glare as he looks in Percy’s direction from six yards away.
“Jason likes you!”
“PERCY—” Jason bawks—
And with several times more grace, Percy leaps off the roof and goes running. He leaves behind a cackle and a, “Good luck!”
Which leaves Jason standing on the roof with some early morning campers staring in their direction. Nico looks at him, eyebrows furrowed and lips turned into a frown.
“Ignore him,” Jason sputters. His cheeks flush with a bright red hue as Nico approaches from the Hades Cabin. “We were just talking about—”
“Do you really want to explain yourself?” Nico smirks, watching as Jason’s face flushes with a darker shade of red. He shadowtravels up to the rooftop of Zeus’s Cabin. Watches as Jason makes room for him, and an audible sigh leaves Jason’s mouth.
Still, Jason refuses to look him in the eye. It’s an interesting sight, Nico thinks. Jason looks like a deer caught in headlights, his shoulders hunched to his ears and hand pressed to the back of his neck. The red flourishes handsomely across his cheekbones, dusting across the bridge of his nose.
Enthused by the sight, Nico remains silent, and the nervousness only grows in Jason’s stature.
“So,” Jason says finally, because he can never keep silent long whenever it’s just the two of them. “How do you feel?”
“Tired,” Nico replies with deadpan. He glares at the sun and rubs the exhaustion out of his eyes. Hazel has finally gone to sleep after spending the rest of their night reminiscing and gushing about Bianca and Roman Nico.
They love each other a lot, Nico thinks. He wishes Hazel and Bianca were able to spend more time together.
After that thought, Nico had to leave the cabin to collect himself. He thinks back on Frankie, Bianca, and Praetor Jason, and can’t believe that only yesterday they were all standing together in the principia.
Before they left, Praetor Jason had given Nico a teasing look and told him, Follow Your Heart. Nico hid his blush with a scowl at the time, refusing to make eye contact with such an insufferable praetor, but it wasn’t…bad advice. He’s sure Jason knows they were going to lead up to this.
“I thought you took a nap,” Jason says instead. He arches an eyebrow, looking surer of himself.
“I lied,” Nico responds simply. His heart hurts too much to sleep now, still coming to terms with everything that’s happened in the last few days. He misses Bianca. A lot. But…he’s okay. Because Hazel is here, and Hazel always makes everything better.
Jason fiddles with his belt loops and looks uncomfortable. “I’m sorry about what the other Nico did to you.”
Ugh. Nico pouts at the air and taps the roof tiles with his skull ring. “What did I say about mentioning it?”
“If it helps, the other Nico wanted to kiss me too.” Jason responds as Nico gathers the nerve and patience to look over. Pristine blue eyes reflect the morning sky, pooling with the panorama’s clouds and tender hue. “I said no.”
And there are two of them, Nico thinks. Two beautiful, gorgeous eyes staring at Nico in a way that makes his stomach flop.
“That doesn’t help,” Nico replies. He swallows down his nervousness and finds himself looking away from embarrassment.
“What,” Jason jests lightly, “so Praetor Jason didn’t put any moves on you?”
“He’s a gentleman,” Nico retorts, and then leaves it at that. His voice is faint, mind blurring with the charm and ire of Jason’s smile. Nico curls his hands on his lap, gaze tearing away. His mind goes back to the night on top of the Temple of Jupiter when Praetor Jason reached over to cup his face, where Praetor Jason shared a smile just as sweet and painstaking.
And so long as they live, Nico doesn’t plan on telling Jason about it.
Jason hums in agreement to their aforementioned topic, and then settles back in his seat. He crosses his hands over his lap and chews on his lip. “I really did say no. I told him that…if I ever got to kiss…a Nico, then I’d want it to be…ahem. You.”
Huh. Nico blinks. He cocks his head to Jason, who at this point is watching his every move. Jason looks close to puking through his nervous smile, and Nico feels his own face tingling with a red glow.
“Did you like being in the other world? With Bianca? And the other Jason?” Jason asks in good conversation immediately. He turns away, blushing to his ears and lets out a breathy sigh.
“I did,” Nico agrees. And it’s like talking to Hazel again. There were several things that he loved about that world, but other things that made him want to leave as soon as possible. Like Praetor Jason. “But that Jason wasn’t you. He wasn’t…”
Nico trails off for the lack of a better word. He respects Praetor Jason. Knows Praetor Jason tries his hardest to keep order, but Praetor Jason is…caged, in comparison to Nico’s Jason. Praetor Jason lives in a large coop where he can only fly around so much before he gets tired, while Nico’s Jason can soar wherever he wants.
“He wasn’t happy. Or open, like you are. I can’t look at him like he’s my hero. Because…he’s not my Jason. You are. And I know that you’re happy. Praetor Jason is still trying to figure that out.” Nico mulls over his thoughts, his heart doing somersaults in his chest before he elaborates. “He has the other Nico to help him figure that out. You have me. I—I have you.”
Jason stares at him, eyebrows meshed together. He opens his mouth to speak. Closes it, because he can’t.
“Thank you for standing by me after all these years. For still standing by me and believing in me.” Nico sucks in a breath. “It means a lot to me.”
“You mean a lot to me,” Jason says quietly. He smiles, fully this time, and straps a hand to Nico’s shoulder. “I would do anything for you, Nico.”
Yeah, Nico thinks, and he shivers. Nico reaches up—slowly—and presses a kiss to Jason’s lips.
He feels Jason tense under the newfound contact, and then pulls away to inspect his handiwork. Blue eyes are double their usual size, eyebrows raised behind Jason’s hairline. Jason blinks at him, dumbstruck.
“I-I…” Jason begins. He looks too flustered to finish it.
“Hah,” Nico teases softly, his gaze never leaving Jason’s. He creeps closer until his leg presses against Jason’s. A smirk curls against his lips. “Bet you didn’t expect that.”
“Very funny.” Snapping out of his stupor, Jason smirks back at him and nudges him in the shoulder.
Nico nudges back just as playfully, a quiet chuckle under his breath. He doesn’t expect it, as Jason leans over and kisses him this time. Jason’s lips press against his much fuller than before. He hums into it, feeling Jason’s hand press against his knee, and kisses back with just as much yearning. Each touch feels secure and firm and Nico can’t help but shudder into it and relish over the fact that it’s Jason that he’s kissing.
They part to breathe, and Nico leans back on the rooftop, resting on his elbow. Jason’s arm loops around his waist, and they meet each other in the middle. Grinning.
“Hey, Nico?” Jason whispers as he kisses Nico’s forehead.
“Yeah?” Nico shivers, feeling Jason’s hand graze his back smoothly as they move in closer.
“Please don’t leave anytime soon.” Jason rests his chin above Nico’s head. Breathes in Nico’s scent. “Okay?”
Pressing his cheek to Jason’s chest, Nico sighs and shuts his eyes. “Will you come with me next time?”
He feels Jason laugh above him. Jason releases his hold on Nico’s waist for only a moment and smiles when Nico frowns.
“Always,” Jason promises.
Good. Nico shivers. “Good.”
He presses his lips to the corner of Jason’s mouth and tucks himself beneath Jason’s chin. Jason follows up, his grip secure around Nico’s waist, and they lay in comfortable silence.
And it’s perfect that way.
In the early morning, Nico packs new supplies in his backpack, careful not to wake Frankie up from the top bunk. He sneaks some ambrosia bars from the Dining Pavillion, along with brownies in case he gets hungry while out on his search for Hazel, and shadowtravels outside of New Rome.
Nico sucks in the dewy air, heart throbbing as it recognizes home.
And it’ll be Hazel’s home, too. Soon.
“I’m going to find you,” Nico murmurs. And he clutches the hilt of his new Stygian Iron gladius because it’s the one thing that links him back to everything. He stands at the hilltop overlooking the entrance to New Rome, eluding it to Halfblood Hill and the pine tree of Not-Roman Jason’s sister.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“Ack.” Instinctively, Nico draws out his sword and—nearly hits Bianca square in the chest with it.
“So that new hearing aid Leo gave you is working out swimmingly,” Frankie comments. He grins, looking so proud that Nico can’t help but blush. “Nice.”
“I can fight without it too.” Nico’s voice drops an octave, and he likes to consider it threatening. His gaze slowly makes its way to Jay, who’s also in this little bunch of People Who Want to Scare Nico di Angelo in the Morning When He Wants to Exit Dramatically.
Jay smiles softly, but approvingly, and Nico tries to keep his knees from buckling beneath him.
“Nico,” Bianca scolds, “you just got back last night. You don’t think we’d let you go off on your own this quickly, do you?”
“Ash Ketchum’s mom let him,” Nico grumbles under his breath.
“Ash Ketchum doesn’t age,” Frankie points out. His eyebrows contort together. “And his best friend is a mouse, and he goes around hitting animals with balls.”
“Are we watching the same TV series?” Nico retorts.
“They’re called pokeballs, man.” Jay nudges Frankie in the arm, his smile even more firm. “Sometimes they’re called best balls.”
“Great balls.” Nico rolls his eyes. He has a feeling he’ll miss Percy a little more—but only for accurate references of pokemon.
“Anyway,” Jay reiterates, “we’re going with you.”
“Because she’s my sister too.” Bianca’s voice hits Nico hard. She stares at him warily through the smile, her gaze hard and painful at the same time.
When they got back last night, Bianca and he spent the entire evening talking. Catching up, discussing two months of absence that Nico keeps regretting. Jay stayed for a portion of the night, but even the great Golden Boy of Camp Jupiter has to rest once in a while.
(Nico showed them him the remnants of the wound on his back last night. He expected an I told you so, or a, You can’t be a legionnaire anymore—which he was ready to fight—but when Nico turned around, Bianca and Jay exchanged sad smiles and told him, “Looks like we’re a matching set now.”)
Frankie remained, and there’s an air of confidence around him. He exudes it even now, head held higher after meeting Praetor Frank. (Which Nico doesn’t know if he’ll ever get used to, but wow, he’s so happy for his best friend.)
“She’s already family.” Jay wraps Bianca in an affectionate hug, and he arches an eyebrow in Nico’s direction. “Let’s make it official.”
“Okay.” Nico’s heart stutters, still dumbfounded by the fact his best friends in the entire world are…here. He stares at them hesitantly.
“So,” Frankie declares, “where to?”
Nico blinks. His eyebrows knit together and he stares at them in confusion.
And now he doesn’t know if the hearing aid is working properly, or if he read the sign properly, and his heart is racing because what if he read it all correctly?
Jay chuckles, which is as deep as thunder. He walks over and winds an arm around Nico’s lithe shoulders. With one hand, he signs and speaks, “We’re following your lead.”
The pulse of Jay heart reigns strong behind Nico. He feels a lump swelling in his throat and as to admit—he missed this a lot. Not Roman Jason is sweet and gentlemanly, but he isn’t a replacement for Jay. Never will be.
“Okay,” Nico murmurs quietly. He can’t even hear himself.
“And one more thing—” Jay kisses him.
Oh, gods, Jay is kissing him.
Butterflies soar in Nico’s chest and his skin tingles with electricity and his lips feel attached to Jay’s in the most natural way and holy Hades—Jay kisses as well as Nico used to dream.
Then, Jay pulls away. He stares at Nico shyly, lips still glowing with a sheen of Nico’s saliva. “Is that okay?”
“I dunno,” Nico murmurs dazedly. He stares at Jay’s eyes, wondering if this is really real. “I’m gonna need a second trial.” And then a third, and a fourth, and a fifth, and—if they’d done this the first time, then Nico doubts he ever would have left.
(That’s a lie. He totally would have left, but Jay kisses are worth coming back to.)
“We’re wasting daylight here.” Bianca cuts in, quickly tugging at the back of Jay’s shirt, and she’s freakishly strong. Jay stares at him with this adorably goofy smile and Nico feels like he’s on cloud nine.
(And while Bianca is having fun cockblocking, she’s totally smiling a little too.)
“I know a place we can start,” Nico declares. He snatches up Jay’s hand before they can get too far away from each other and he hears Frankie chuckle behind them. “New Orleans.”
Bianca stops dragging Nico’s new sorta-boyfriend and pauses. “Hazel is from there, isn’t she?”
“Plus a really good shrimp gumbo joint.” Nico swirls the shadows at their feet, his hand intertwined securely with Jay’s, and smiles up to him. Frankie grabs his other hand and Bianca completes their circle.
“No Sydney this time,” Frankie warns. He squirms. “We saw the livefeed.”
Snort. “I know where New Orleans is, thank you very much.”
“I trust him.” Jay gives Nico’s hand a loving squeeze.
Nico’s heart flutters. He stares up to Jay, stopping the shadows before they can transport. “Hey, Jason?”
He doesn’t address Jay by his full name very often, but it almost always summons Jay’s full attention. Jay looks at him curiously. “Yes?”
“You can tell me anything, you know.” Nico shrugs nonchalantly and he knows it comes off awkward. “I like that about our relationship.”
A smile curls across Jay’s face—stronger—and Nico’s never realized it before but Jay’s eyes are a shade brighter than the sky. Better, even. “Thank you, Nico.”
“This is going to be a long trip, isn’t it?” Nico hears Frankie murmur.
“Yup.” Bianca sighs. “I can’t wait.”
“Ahem—attention all shadowtravel passengers! Find a buddy and buckle up!” Nico grins wickedly. “We’re in for a bumpy ride.”