Chapter 1: Uno
Nico wakes up to the sound of a sixteen-wheeler blaring its horn to the car in front of it. He jolts into awareness as the vibrations tremor under the dirt (dirt? ) and finds himself over a hilltop next to the highway. Confusion is the only emotion he feels. Nico isn’t one who shadowtravels in his sleep—to do that would mean that his mind would find absolute peace.
Seeing as his mind is in a perpetual state of utter chaos over why he’s sitting on a hilltop in the San Francisco Bay area instead of hugging Jason’s pillow and burying himself in the scent of Jason’s aftershave, Nico has no clue why he’s suddenly on the other side of the country. A trip like that requires at least a catnap of some sort—but Nico doesn’t think he shadowtraveled before waking up.
He stands to his feet and finds that his Stygian iron sword is strapped to his belt. That’d been the first thing he took off before going to bed last night. Nico’s jacket is missing. He’s cold. The only explanation that comes to mind is that he’s been dressed for this certain visit.
There’s a possibility that this is a Summons from a god.
Ugh. Nico can think of better ways to start out his morning. Hopefully Hazel has cocoa prepared for him when he arrives.
Stretching out his limbs, Nico can’t help but feel good. He doesn’t know why, but it feels like he received more than three hours of sleep. Once this visit is over (and he hopes there’s no life-threatening contract that goes with the deal), he plans on returning to Camp Halfblood. To Jason.
Shaking those thoughts from his psyche, Nico forces himself to focus on the matter at hand. There’s a reason he’s been given a summons. It’s rare for a Child of Hades, but the experiences Nico can remember have not been pleasant ones.
He steps into his own shadow and reappears at the bridge over the Little Tiber.
More chaos ensues.
“It’s…It’s Nico! di Angelo’s back! He’s finally back!”
Nico jumps. Before he can let the declaration sink in, someone tackles him and gives Nico a big bear hug. Frank? He recognizes Larry from the Second Cohort and Bobby from the Fifth. Hank and Dakota suddenly throw Nico over their shoulders and cheer.
Campers flood from everywhere, and Nico can’t seem to pinpoint what’s happening, let alone catch his breath. He shakes at the vice grip over his ankles, and he hisses, “Put me down!” but no one cares.
Frank is beside Larry, looking at Nico with a dorky grin. “Dude, you’ve been gone forever! I, uh—I like the hair.”
“What the Hades is going on?!” Nico demands. He wriggles to loosen the grip over his legs, but no avail—they march Nico all the way to campgrounds before he can feel the dirt beneath his feet again.
Larry and Bobby punch him jokingly on the arms, and Nico can’t get over the fact that this isn’t the camp he’s used to. Never in his life has anyone picked him up over their shoulders. A crowd this big doesn’t gather around him unless they’re dead.
He searches the faces for Hazel, but she’s nowhere to be seen. Nico rationalizes with himself—if he can find Hazel, then he can leave New Rome in one piece without screaming at the sky.
Jason’s suddenly in view as he descends from the clouds—wearing the purple robes and gold armor of a praetor. There’s surprise in his demeanor, and Nico mutters, thank gods that he isn’t in this backwards camp on his own.
(He thanks the gods and wonders why on earth Jason is wearing those robes if he resigned his praetorship three months ago, all at the same time.)
The crowd parts for the second praetor as she makes her way out of the forum. She wears the same robes that Nico often sees on Reyna, with the imperial gold breastplate and the many badges on the brown straps. Gods, maybe she can explain what’s going—
Nico’s throat swells. His eyes suddenly moisten with tears and he gets only a second’s glance at the other praetor before she throws her arms around him.
Jason wakes up to a hand on his neck. His entire body aches—which is something he should expect after he told Nico that he doesn’t mind sleeping on the floor. The first thing he sees are the glassy irises of his cabin mate as Nico tries to shake the sleep out of him. Then—Jason pulls out of his grogginess when he realizes Nico is touching him.
In an instant, Nico clamps a hand over Jason’s mouth. Jason sits up, now fully alert, and stares at Ni—the stranger in disbelief. He shakes off the boy’s hand and slides back two feet. Blue eyes scrutinize the body before him in disbelief. “You’re not Nico.”
That isn’t exactly the truth. Jason can tell why he mistook this boy for Nico. His uninvited guest has the same mad genius eyes and nose—but isn’t all angles and bones. This boy’s skin is creamy—almost gold from healthy exposure to the sun, and his jaw is soft. A half-smile, half-smirk curls against his lips—but it’s the vivacity of it that nearly blinds Jason.
On the boy’s forearm are three bars—akin to every year of service—and a glyph that resembles a Symbol of Pluto. His shoulders are broader, with lean muscle that fills out the rest of his body. Jason notices that the boy is also wearing a Camp Jupiter t-shirt in place of Nico’s usual jacket.
Not Nico smirks softly and brushes his fingers on the juncture of Jason’s neck. “I know you’re not a morning person, but we need to get out of here.”
It takes three seconds to realize how vividly Jason can see those eyes. Not Nico sports the Legion’s standard crew cut instead of the wily curls that usually covers Nico’s narrow face. Faintly, Jason tries to match this face with anyone back in New Rome but he can’t make it past Nico’s eyes and Nico’s lips and Nico’s nose and Nico’s overall face.
Electricity bristles at the tips of Jason’s fingers—his mind giving into the second instinct to attack. Not Nico notices immediately.
“Good,” the boy breathes. “I don’t know how we got here, or why you followed me, but we’re gonna get out. Let’s shadowtravel.”
“We’re at Camp Halfblood,” Jason says in a normal tone. He stands to his feet and ignores the firm hand on his bicep. Tries to keep his voice in solid. “Soldier, I don’t know what’s going on—but who are you?”
“Camp Halfblood?” the boy frowns. “What the Pluto is that?”
Jason ignores the close proximity between himself and Not Nico. Yet the boy remains only footsteps away, clearly comfortable with Jason, even though the former has never seen Not Nico a day in his life. The resemblance is there, but Jason can’t see the similarities past that. Which is when he remembers—“Where’s Nico?”
A dark eyebrow shoots in the air. Jason shivers because it’s another similarity between both boys. Even the meaning behind that one brow is alike—like he’s asking, Seriously? “I am Nico.”
Nico has a lot of questions. Which is fine because Bianca won’t let him out of her sight. He wonders if he’s dead and in heaven, but Nico has enough common sense to know that isn’t true. (Or a reality, in his own beliefs.)
Dark eyes remain open in order to spot the crack in this illusion, but everything is so…real. (The daunting part is that if Nico really wants to, he can convince himself that the past four years of hardships was just a dream. He’s tempted to do so.)
Frank claps a hand over his shoulder as Bianca and Nico retreat (which is an odd sentiment, because Nico is under the impression that Frank is afraid of him) and Jason eyes Nico in a disturbing stare down. Everyone mocks salutes like an awkward inside joke that Nico doesn’t understand, but Nico is Bianca’s for the rest of the afternoon.
Aurum and Argentum follow Bianca like noble guard dogs and Nico watches as she summons a bar of bronze for them to munch on.
Once the crowd disperses, she takes him by the hand and they head toward New Rome. The grip is surreal and he can feel her touch and the pulse beneath that skin. Bianca holds his hand like they haven’t seen each other in ages and Nico wants scream yes, it’s been years and he still can’t believe that she’s dead and that she left him and now she’s here standing in front of him, living, breathing, and beautiful.
The shock he feels is anchored by the fact that none of this can be real.
She changes out of her praetor garb into the camp t-shirt and jeans. The freckles are still dispersed across her nose and cheeks, like a branding that grounds Nico and assure him she’s his. He used to be jealous of those freckles. Used to ask Mama to buy him some. Bianca is beautiful with her creamy sun kissed skin and long black hair.
He’s taller than her, he thinks while at the brink of hysterics, but they’re both grown so much.
The difference between Nico’s Bianca and this Bianca has a long, off-color scar that starts at the underside of her wrist and spirals upward into her sleeve. Nico wants to ask about it, but he hasn’t come down from the high that she’s here with him.
So their conversation is one-sided, with Bianca addressing the mundane activities that have happened while “he” has been gone, asking how Nico’s been, and making fun of him for how scrawny he’s gotten.
Before he knows it, Bianca shoves a tray full of chicken, mashed potatoes, Cheetos, and plenty of other things toward him when they make it to a café in New Rome.
“Eat,” she announces with a soft smile. There’s hesitation in her eyes before she makes a gesture toward her mouth. Bianca’s four fingers glue together in a slight crook and she taps it against her lips. “You look like the dead.”
Several other gestures follow. Sign language? Nico blinks at the prospect but it doesn’t leave his mind.
The glimmer in her eyes lets Nico know that these are just formalities. Bianca has something that she wants to say, but she doesn’t know how to say it. (That’s how he’s avoided confrontation with her in the past after he hid her favorite hat.)
“I don’t really…” Eat a lot, he starts. But the look she gives him makes it impossible to refuse.
Nico plucks the apple off his tray and sinks his teeth into it. The juices soak in the misery he’s felt since he was ten years old. It’s cold. Sweet, as honey. It’s the best apple he’s ever eaten.
All the while, Bianca stares at him with a bittersweet look. He wonders where this universe’s him has been this entire time. Nico’s a little angry at “himself” for making his sister worry. Finally, he asks, “How long have I been gone?”
“Two months.” She uses both hands when she signs this time.
He nearly chokes on his second bite. “What?” Two months?
“The campers—I…” Bianca’s smile fades and that sad glimmer in her eyes takes over her demeanor. More gestures. Nico isn’t fluent, but Bianca’s hands are so solid when they sign to him. She catches him staring, mesmerized, and soon after stops. Talks a little louder. “I thought you died.”
“Bianca, I’m so…” Nico doesn’t know where to start. He’s sorry that his other self didn’t write or call. That he wasn’t more supportive of her when she became a hunter. That the last time she was breathing, beautiful in the moonlight and looked like she was happy she finally belonged somewhere, Nico couldn’t support it.
“Hey. Hey,” Bianca says, her voice wavering. She tries to keep it strong but they both know she’s failing. Bianca doesn’t sign this time. “Don’t cry, I’m not mad.”
She reaches out and curls her fingers over his.
Nico wants to laugh and shrug it off, but he’s so ecstatic that the tears are either out of guilt or because he’s just so happy. “Sorry, I just…I—I’ve missed you, Bee.”
“Just remember to call.” She catches his eye and another smile graces her lips. Her eyes start to water in the same manner as Nico’s own, and she looks grateful to have “her” brother back. “Don’t be weird, you dork.”
He sucks in a breath and forces himself to calm down. Nico wipes his nose on his wrist and his big sister makes a big deal out of it by saying, Ewwwww.
“So, did you find what you were looking for?” She asks if only to change the subject. Her gaze flashes wryly and Bianca pulls her own hair out of her eyes. “On what Octavian describes as—quote on quote—a ‘Journey of Self-Affliction to Preserve Stuffed Animals’?”
“Good,” she chirps. “You’ll be sparring me later.”
“So you’re telling me that Greek demigods coexist with Roman ones on the east coast and in this universe, I’m a grumpy Graecus with an inferiority complex, and my sister’s dead.” Not Nico—uh—Roman Nico sips his sweet tea and perches like a child over his chair in the rec room. He arches his eyebrow, which looks stupidly wrong on his face. “Am I right?”
“I…wouldn’t say inferiority complex.” Jason frowns. He’s gathered as many of the Seven as he could—which means anyone who’s currently living on the east coast. Leo takes the time to joke that they’re the new defense squad for all mankind. No one disagrees.
Roman Nico shrugs. He sips his tea once again and pulls out a deck of cards. He starts shuffling in them, suddenly disinterested in everyone else around him.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” Percy interjects, disbelief showing. He scratches his head. “You’re still into Mythomagic?”
“National Champion two years running.” Roman Nico smirks.
“And why are you drinking tea?”
He shrugs. “It calms me down.”
“Tea has caffeine in it.” Annabeth says. “It wakes you up.”
“Then…Jay and Bee have been playing it wrong for years.” Roman Nico stares at his cup carefully and then takes a long sip. Long and obnoxious.
“Oh, wow, a miniature British Percy,” Leo murmurs to Jason. He rolls his eyes and smirks mirthfully. “Do we have to deal with this? Can’t we just ship him to Britain and see him on Sherlock next week?”
Roman Nico stares him down, deadpan. “Do you have something to say to me?”
In that instant, Leo actually yelps. He shivers dramatically, and Jason can’t blame him. Roman Nico stares at their resident Repair Boy with a mixture of their Nico’s scrutiny and his own playful mirth.
The look of fear and nervousness lasts only seconds before Leo blinks and stares. Like, really stares. “What’s that thing on your ear?”
Jason looks over immediately. Sure enough, a line of silicone arches around the shell of Nico’s ear. It isn’t gaudy in the least—just a thin tan hook that everyone else in the room probably missed. For a technophile like Leo, Jason supposes it’s hard to ignore.
“My hearing aid,” says the Roman Nico. He taps at his jaw beneath the said aid and shrugs. “It’s not working right now, but I’m partially deaf in this ear.”
“Cool,” Percy chirps. “Do you know what this means?” He makes a sign with his hands that leaves everyone else in the room very confused.
Except Roman Nico sniggers. Rachel groans and covers her face with a hand, but then Jason swears he hears a giggle.
“What’d you say?” Leo asks immediately. He cocks his head back to Roman Nico and vocalizes—fairly loudly—“What did he say?”
“Nothing good,” Roman Nico retorts through an elfish grin. He clears his throat and tightens his grip over his thermos. Percy laughs with him, and everyone leaves it be as a mystery.
“Why’s it not working?” Annabeth frowns.
Nico only makes a face, which is up there with the question of how he got there in the first place. “I dunno. I might have shadowtraveled to avoid something bad. Shadowtraveling and hearing aids don’t mix very well.”
Sighing, Jason opts to sit beside Roman Nico—who seems to have taken a liking to him. (Or—Nico already does like Jason, just. This isn’t something Jason is used to.) It makes him wonder what Roman Nico’s and his relationship is in the other universe. Roman Nico pours a cup of tea and hands it to Jason.
After resettling on the couch cushion. Nico’s bent leg rests on Jason’s lap.
Flushing red, Jason arches an eyebrow.
“My back hurts,” Roman Nico explains, and it’s left at that.
“Do you have any idea how you got here?” Annabeth asks cautiously. She hesitates before squeezing next to Jason on the couch.
A tiny smile curls across Nico’s lips and he passes her a cup of tea. “No clue. Death Ray, maybe?”
They all stare at him.
“I’m kidding. It’s called a joke.” Roman Nico rolls his eyes. “I dunno. A god? All I remember is waking up in Jay’s bed and thinking we were being held hostage.”
Everyone takes a second to look at the said Son of Jupiter, and Jason knows his face is pink. Hopefully they shrug it off and assume that Roman Nico’s telling another ill joke.
“Do you remember which god?” Annabeth asks again.
Roman Nico squint s to the air. He doesn’t have Jason’s Nico’s—their Nico’s—calmness. His hands are everywhere, tapping on the teacup or playing with his cards or making various hand gestures. “Cupid, maybe? Janus?”
Ergh. Cupid. If that’s the case, then Jason knows when they get their Nico back, he won’t be a very happy camper.
Piper comes back into the room. “Just finished Iris Messaging Hazel. She said she’ll be here soo—”
Hazel appears from the shadows, Frank and Reyna in tow. The three stumble to find their footing, but it only takes seconds.
“Impressive.” Suddenly Roman Nico’s wryness is replaced with a real frown. He watches as his Roman sister plants her feet to the ground and sets the teapot over the table. “You can shadowtravel?”
She pushes the hair out of her eyes and looks up. Pauses. “Nico?”
Roman Nico scrutinizes her carefully. “You’re supposed to be dead.”
“Yes, and…you brought me back to life.” Hazel suddenly looks doubtful when Roman Nico makes a face, but it’s mixed with surprise that this is actually her brother. Or—an incarnation of him, at least. “You snuck me past the Doors of Death.”
“That would be breaking Father’s code.” Roman Nico’s lips press together. His voice is tight. He wants to say something else, but it looks like it’s at the risk of hurting her feelings.
Reyna and Frank shield her and glare at him. Frank, of course, immediately glares, but it’s mixed with a bit of disbelief, doubt, and fear, that this Nico is here. “Okay, you may be Nico, but you’re not in charge of who’s alive and who’s dead in this world.”
The other boy looks taken aback at the sudden accusation. Roman Nico touches his hair and then stuffs his pockets with his hands. “No, I—I was just going to say that I must really love you if I broke the rules for you to live again.”
Oh. The tension ceases immediately and Frank and Reyna pull away from shielding Hazel. Hazel looks to Roman Nico with furrowed eyebrows, trying to figure out if this is really happening, and Jason knows exactly how she feels. A smile graces Roman Nico’s lips and he crosses his arms, hands under his pits.
“So,” he says. “Frankie, we still dueling for the top bunk?”
They run into Jason. The demeanor that the still-praetor takes is exactly the same in comparison to the one Nico’s Jason gave him the first time they met. Stern. Regal. Feral, with the gaze a wolf in those sky blue eyes.
Eye, Nico thinks to himself. Like this world’s Bianca, Praetor Jason has a scar from an unmentioned quest too—a pale jagged scar that descends through Jason’s right eyebrow and ends at the contour of his cheek. Jason’s right eye itself is hazy—clouded, in comparison to the pure blue that Nico is used to seeing.
Nico wants to scowl. Jason’s intimidation is one thing that Nico can live without. Not if it’s this way.
“Jay.” Bianca smiles and places a hand over Aurum’s head. She foils him with that gentle demeanor. “Nico’s agreed to battling me. We should postpone the War Games.”
Truthfully, Nico’s nervous and anxious about facing her in a sparring match. It doesn’t sit well with him—the way she pushes for them to do it. He can tell that she doesn’t want to but also that there isn’t any way of talking her out of it.
“Oh?” Jason looks between the di Angelo siblings curiously and keeps his gaze on Nico. The scar feels more prominent when he smiles. He starts signing—and stops. “That’s the ultimate punishment. Seems fitting since you were away for two months.”
“So when do I get to duel you?” Nico asks without thinking. He doesn’t like that tone, nor the way this Jason looks at him. It’s…unsettling.
The request takes both praetors by surprise, and for once Nico cares about his ego being at stake here in New Rome. (Probably, he thinks, because it’s in front of two of the most important people to him.) Nico realizes Bianca’s still touching him when her grip tightens over his shoulder. She looks over to him, frowning. “Nico, I wasn’t kidding when I said you look like the dead. You need to rest.”
“Bee’s right, Neeks.” Jason’s condescending look breaks into concern, one eyebrow in the air, and he uncrosses his arms—and crosses them again when he realizes he can’t do much with them. Blue eyes look like the sky again, at least for a brief second, obviously trying to dissect the clouds for a way not to hurt Nico’s feelings and ego. “I don’t want to kill you.”
Ouch. “I could take you.”
Jason’s demeanor looks tenser.
“You just said that facing my sister is the ultimate punishment.” Nico frowns. He crosses his arms and finds himself in the same stance as the blond in front of him. “So taking you down should be a breeze.”
Maybe it’s just a trick of the morning sun, but Nico swears he sees something akin to delight in Jason’s face.
“You’re not challenging him for his position as praetor, are you, brother?” Bianca teases. “What’ve you been doing in the last two months?”
Not getting patronized like this; that’s for sure.
“Training,” Nico says. He can’t help but hold his head high between the two of them. It feels needed.
Bianca and Jason exchange reluctant looks, and that only fuels Nico’s growing irritation.
“I can take you,” he repeats. Nico’s hand falls to the hilt of his sword stubbornly and he glares up to him. “If you’re man enough to face me.”
It’s a pretty interesting morning, Jason decides. Hazel, Frank, and Reyna all spend it in Long Island with the rest of them. This is the first reunion they’ve had this month, and it’s not that crazy.
Even if Roman Nico’s demeanor is still off putting. Frank is ready to faint after Roman Nico spouts facts and menial things about his life. The thing is, Roman Nico knows that this Frank isn’t his Frank, and yet he takes the discomfort Frankie feels and twists it just to bother this Frank. Roman Nico scares Frank alright—by smirks and wittiness alone.
Despite the disturbing thrill Roman Nico gets out of teasing Frank (which is apparently a hobby of Roman Nico’s back in his own dimension), he’s kind enough to spend the day with Hazel and get to know her. An hour after meeting each other, Roman Nico teaches Hazel some basic sign language.
Roman Nico congratulates both Reyna and Frank for making praetor—‘Because Aurum and Argentum are the best fetch buddies in the world.’
Jason can’t tell if Roman Nico is pulling their legs or completely serious. When Mr. D and Chiron get involved with the ordeal, Mr. D waves it off—saying he can’t undo whatever god wants to mess with the ‘little creepy runt.’ Chiron confirms sadly that yes, Mr. D has a point. Dimensional travel means an extra cranky god. If Roman Nico can’t remember who bewitched him, then this will be a long week.
Roman Nico says nothing about going back to New Rome. They all get the feeling that he wants to scope Long Island out.
A Roman who has never stepped foot or heard of a Greek Camp is a dangerous combination. It’s never crossed Jason’s mind as a problem, but he realizes that for someone like this Nico, whose viewpoints aren’t fixed by the Second Demigod Civil War, this is a lot to take in.
“So old habits don’t change, no matter what universe you’re in.”
“Wh—whoa—” Jason almost falls off the roof of Zeus’s Cabin. He grips the rooftop and lets the realization sink in that Roman Nico is on the roof with him.
Snort. Roman Nico folds his arms and leans back while Jason tries to get a grip. “What? Your Nico doesn’t try to scare you?”
My Nico’s never looked like you, Jason doesn’t say. He catches his breath and maneuvers the wind to steady himself. “I just…have a lot on my mind. That’s all.”
Roman Nico stares at him blankly.
Jason feels like an idiot because that hearing aid is in full view now. If talking to his Nico doesn’t fluster him enough, Roman Nico clearly can do it without even trying. He opens his mouth to apologize and never gets the chance.
“Sorry.” Roman Nico’s face twists and he groans. “I’m used to you—my you signing to me.”
Ah. Jason can’t hide how he sighs in relief. Luckily Nico doesn’t seem to notice. Instead, he hunches over in defeat and curls his fingers together in his lap. “Is…there a reason why you’re deaf?”
“Yeah,” Nico mutters. And that’s the end of their conversation. Silence fills their void, and those dark eyes look toward the sky carefully. “I don’t get it. Why you like it here so much?”
“What?” The blond blinks.
“It’s so…unstructured. And carefree. There’s no aggression. What’s the point in my drinking sweet tea if everyone’s bouncing off the walls anyway?” Roman Nico asks. He pulls out a canteen and Jason guesses it’s just that—sweet tea. He looks to Jason with disdain, frown and glare combined. “I can’t believe you’d rather be here than New Rome. They’re so uncivilized.”
“It’s more complicated than that.” Jason settles against the rooftop and folds his legs.
The different Nico stretches backward, with his shoulders firm as his palms meet the roof. He lies down with his feet dangling off the rooftop and stares at the clouds.
The poor guy is stuck here until they can figure out why this is happening. Jason can’t help but worry that this might be a switch of its own kind. Part of him is screaming to prepare for another war.
“You’re my hero, you know,” Roman Nico says. “Back in my world?”
“Really?” Jason’s heart skips a beat, and he makes sure Nico hears his comment this time. He didn’t miss the fact Roman Nico barely looked at Percy earlier in the Rec Room. Jason doesn’t want to be forward—or quite frankly, come onto this Nico at all—but it’s…like he decided earlier. An interesting experience.
“Don’t get me wrong—you’re kind of an ass.”
(Jason nearly falls off the roof. Again.)
“But I dunno. It pushed us. Bianca and me.” Nico chews on his lip and stares at the sky. “We spent time at the Lotus Casino—and judging by your face, I’m guessing so did this world’s Nico. This guy…I think it was Percy, actually, who came into the Casino for a few days. He was with this girl, Rachel, and a cyclops. They were there for maybe two seconds before snapping out of it. And because of them, so did my sister and I—she and I were so scared that we bent the metal support beams of the hotel by accident and caused it to collapse.”
“You collapsed an entire Casino?” Jason asks. His eyes widen.
“We didn’t realize it was us.” Nico snorts. “But then Alecto came and ushered us to the west coast. When we got there, you, everyone’s Golden Boy, vouched for us to stay. They were terrified. Something about Children of Pluto being a bad omen.”
Ah. “You’re not…treated badly in your world, are you?”
To his surprise, Roman Nico smirks. His gaze darts to Jason’s face, eyebrow arched, and Jason sees that madman twinkle in those irises. “What would you do if I was?”
Jason doesn’t miss a beat. “I think you’re strong enough to protect yourself.”
The other teen snickers again. He rests his arms on his belly, and his tic marks peek out on his creamy skin. A heartbeat pasts, and the demeanor that lectured him only minutes ago morphs with quiet thought. “You really think that? Even with this?”
“You’re…” Pretty powerful in this world, Jason wants to say. But Roman Nico and Jason’s Nico are two separate people, even if they’re the same person. Jason’s own ego would be bruised if someone told him he was more powerful in another world than his own. He makes his words as sincere as possible. “You don’t get looked at a lot, do you? No one…really sees you as a—”
“Threat?” Nico finishes. He taps his hearing aid gently. “Yeah. Because of this.”
“You should use that to your advantage.”
Dark eyes look up and to Jason’s surprise, they look…surprised.
He jerks his shoulders to his ears and crosses his arms over his lap. Jason’s gaze flickers with the sun, and he smiles. “And I wouldn’t let them treat you badly. Your world, this world, or any other.”
Their gazes meet, and Jason can hear an audible click of lock and key as Roman Nico stares at him intensely. Takes him in. Roman Nico stops breathing for a moment, his attention completely fixated on Jason’s face. Fascinated by it.
“You…” Roman Nico starts softly, “You still have two eyes.”
“I beg your pardon?” Jason feels his heart flutter even if he doesn’t know why. He leans forward in attempt to inspect Roman Nico fully.
“Nothing.” Pink flutters in the younger demigod’s cheekbones. He studies Jason like the other teen’s grown a second head—and rolls his eyes. “Gods, you are so in love with me.”
(This time, Jason does fall off the roof. Into a pile of rubies that Roman Nico’s apparently summoned.)
Okay. Nico may be in over his head.
When he gets home, he’s limiting the time he spends with Percy and Jason in the same room.
Kids from the Fifth Cohort insist on strapping the Imperial Gold armor to his body. He’s nauseous. Part of it is from the plentiful meal that Bianca stuffed down his throat, and the majority of it is from the fact that he’s facing his sister in a duel.
The creepy part is when a Roman Connor Stoll straps the breastplate over his chest and then kisses his nose.
Nico wants to die.
Before he gets a chance to react, Connor’s hands push Nico through the gates into the replica Coliseum. Frank takes the brief moment of Nico being dragged from one room to the entrance of the Coliseum floor to roll his eyes and yell, Good luck!
(And something about postponing their Mythomagic Dueling for the top bunk for later next week.)
Demigods gather in all the seats as Nico enters—several Roman faces that Nico recognizes, and some Greeks that he’s surprised to see. He watches at the entrance on the far side of him, where Bianca is dressed in similar armor along with plentiful badges from years of apparent successes. She chats idly with this universe’s Jason, and Nico can’t help the irritating thought that they look so good together.
He pretends he isn’t jealous when Bianca reaches up and kisses Jason on the cheek.
Jason’s blue eyes flit to Nico, and the younger demigod ignores the chill as it grazes up his forearms. The male praetor scrutinizes him for all the reasons Nico thinks he’ll be killed. For a split second, Nico sees those eyes fall to the ground—and then Jason’s lips press to Bianca’s forehead in the most innocent way.
The blond murmurs something in Bianca’s ear—something similar to, Be careful, okay, and then her gaze makes Nico’s heart plummet all over again.
A smile graces her lips—and morphs into a Roman smirk.
The Imperial Gold armor does nothing but heighten her muscles—with an eerie glow that shows just how powerful she is as a Child of Had—Pluto. Bianca’s long braid winds down her spine and she wields a dark wooden bow and arrows tipped with more gold.
Like a Huntress.
(Looks like some things don’t change, he thinks. Bianca would serve well by Artemis’s side in either universe.)
Gusts of wind howl through the Coliseum and Jason, who is no longer hiding beneath the audience, descends on his majestic venti-horse. Tempest’s feet clap like thunder and his neighs are strong enough to create tornadoes.
Citizens of New Rome sitting in the stadium cover their heads as Tempest’s hooves clatter on the ground.
Nico rolls his eyes. You were just over there, he wants to say—but instead, holds his tongue.
Jason dismounts, and the smirk on his face is uncanny. His golden lance coats with electricity and he holds it proudly beside himself.
Cheers ring through the stadium for Praetor Jason, and he looked nothing but pleased.
“These two gladiators wish to prove themselves in a duel,” he says. Jason’s voice is as loud as a storm. “How do we feel about that?”
The shouts are distinct. AUT VINCERE AUT MORI!
Conquer or Die.
“I told him not to make a big deal about this,” Bianca grumbles under her breath. She rolls her eyes like the twelve-year-old big sister Nico remembers and he immediately smiles. She’s still as dorky as ever. “Well, you heard them, Neeks. Let’s get this over with.”
Warmth fills Nico’s chest and his smile morphs into a grin. He feels like a kid again. “You’re on, Hazel.”
And out of nowhere, Bianca arches an eyebrow. She eyes her brother carefully. “Who’s Hazel?”
“Let the battle begin!” Jason shouts.
“You okay?” Jason already knows the answer to his own question, of course. Roman Nico keeps fidgeting, body undulating and hands pinching his own back from discomfort.
“Yeah, I just—my back still hurts.”
Chewing on the inside of his mouth, Jason offers, “Do you want me to massage—?”
“Is that Connor Stoll?” Roman Nico cuts him off.
Jason squints. He casts a gaze to the middle of the Omega, where girls from the Aphrodite Cabin are shrieking out of anger. He sees a Stoll Brother running from the masses—with a sharpie in one hand and a mirror in the other. “I…think that’s Travis.”
Travis (Jason thinks) manages to escape by jumping onto the roof of the Hera Cabin beside them.
Roman Nico perks immediately. He crosses his legs and watches as the sly Son of Hermes parkours it across from them. “Hot. There are two of them?”
“Yes. Connor’s right there.” Jason points down to the alleyway between Zeus and Poseidon. The other Stoll Brother greets his sibling and they high five. Nico’s forethought crosses his mind. “You think they’re hot?”
“Mm.” As the Stoll Brothers make a run for it toward their Cabin, Roman Nico shadowtravels to them.
There’s a faint echo of, Hey, Roman-Neeks!
Frank and Hazel greet Jason before the shock and kinda-sorta-jealousy can sink in.
“Hey.” His eyes flash back and forth between the happy couple and Roman Nico, who suddenly has Connor down to his level.
The Son of Pluto looks coy and mischievous at the same time, feet straight with the tips of his toes against the ground. He tugs at both Stolls’ collars and whispers something quietly between the three of them.
In an instant, the brothers are blushing from their hair to the tips of their toes. Roman Nico grins.
“Get ‘em!” Drew shouts angrily.
Thus, Connor and Travis run for their lives before anything else can be said.
“He sure is something,” Frank grumbles. “Don’t you think?”
With a gust of wind, Jason lands to the ground and stuffs his hands in his pockets. He’s torn between the jealousy and his automatic (stupid) rationale of, maybe there’s a tactical reason for it. Those dark eyes just aren’t the same as his—as their Greek Nico. Yet Jason is dumbstruck, because he can’t deny that this incarnation of their friend looks…happy.
“He’s not as nervous as he was this morning,” Hazel says. Frank and Jason both look at her curiously. Her gold eyes flicker analytically in a way that’s synonymous to Annabeth, and she shrugs. “Jewels were popping up outside when we were discussing what to do with him. That’s what happens to me when people make me anxious. This Nico must not see the brothers as a threat.”
Ah. Jason wonders if Hazel heard Nico’s declaration of the Stoll Brothers’ hotness before he disappeared.
“I can’t believe that he thinks the Stoll Brothers are hot though. I mean, their hair is amazing, but I always thought he’d end up with…” Hazel trails off. She looks over to Jason, then to Frank, and shrugs.
“Doesn’t it bother you?” Jason blinks. “That he likes…?”
“Fellas?” Hazel finishes. The sudden past colloquium takes Jason off guard, but she only shrugs again. “It only bothers me if he’s not happy. With you, he’s…” Hazel makes hand gestures, unable to verbalize something she apparently wants to. “Content.”
“Content,” Jason repeats. It’s a word that makes the unsettling feeling in his chest melt away. “So how do you feel about him? I mean—this Nico?”
She doesn’t realize it, but her gold eyes give her away. Hazel looks defeated--conflicted--over what to say. Frank pulls one of her brown locks behind her ear and she leans against him, tiny palms pressed against his. “I’m not sure. I mean...on one hand, he’s happy. I feel like this Nico is how our Nico deserves to feel. And he still has Bianca--he has no idea how much our Nico wants that. But.”
“He doesn’t have you,” Frank continues for her. Dark eyebrows furrow together and he cradles Hazel in his arm.
The situation plays out well in Jason’s mind. He can’t help but pity her.
Instead of crying, however, Hazel just looks perplexed. “Is it wrong that I want him to be happy, but—but not without me? I mean, I don’t want Bianca dead, but I don’t want me dead either.”
“I don’t want you dead either.” They flinch when Roman Nico reappears. Gods—Jason’s gotten used to their Nico doing it, but there’s something twisted in the way this Nico pops up. His creamy poker face reappears, with a glimmer in his eyes that’s as obvious as Hazel’s. He looks to her, focused on her life and her...not-deadness. “You’re as much my sister as Bianca is.”
Hazel’s eyebrows knit together. She detaches herself from Frank. “Do you really mean that?”
“Yeah.” Nico doesn’t miss a beat. “It’s just—there are rules. And you were able to leave because—because of circumstances. I…”
“You can’t break them,” she responds. “I know.”
“I’m family. You see me as—”
“—family. Yeah.” Roman Nico’s demeanor matches hers. His brow wrinkles and he stuffs his hands in his pockets. “You’re my sister.”
She pulls him into a hug instantly. Hazel’s arms wrap around him, and Nico buries his nose into her hair. The embrace is warm and fragile--with either sibling hiding the need to break.
A happy moment passes and Frank and Jason both let the relief flood through them.
“So,” Roman Nico starts. “Do I need to give you the Big Brother Talk and Threat, Frankie?”
Six gold bars and four rubies promptly rise.
Nico dodges arrows as they shoot through the air. His sword is on the other side of the arena, and the irritation boils in his blood. Bianca’s aim puts most Apollo children to shame--and she lives up to her title as a Daughter of Pluto.
With one swift curl of her finger, the arrows follow Nico like heat-seeking missiles.
Bianca’s geokinesis is powerful enough to rival Hazel’s. (Nico wipes away the bitter realization and the obvious fact that Hazel was never revived in this universe--he’s going crazy at the thought, but this isn’t the best moment to dwell.) She’d manipulated his sword to shoot across the arena as soon as the battle started.
He’s lucky that she hasn’t confiscated his skull ring.
Holding his breath, Nico avoids another array of arrows by plopping to the ground, stomach against dirt. He rolls over in time to escape the golden tips as they plunge into the stadium floor and grits his teeth. Of course Bianca is nowhere close to killing him (aut vincere aut mori aside), but Nico can’t help but think he has better luck surviving against Kronos again.
Instantly, Bianca’s shadow looms over him. He sees the hard sun behind her as Nico raises his head and watches those dark orbs.
They stare back, disappointed.
Cheers around them are suddenly miniscule as Bianca’s brow furrows. She’s not even trying now—the end of her bow is only inches away from Nico’s face.
“C’mon,” Bianca says. Her voice fills with the needy concern from when they were little. When she would urge him to make a decision in effort to keep them from being outcasts at school, but also one of a very concerned and frustrated big sister. “Why would you leave me for two months and not have anything to show for it?”
His heart hurts.
All the terrible memories of learning his powers by himself—through an angry ghost who used him—flood back. It took Nico months to learn how to summon spirits at will—especially the ones he wanted. There was no big sister to turn to when he finally mastered something that made being a demigod semi-worth it.
She left him, he thinks. He was mad for it. At Percy, at Annabeth, at Lady Artemis—at Bianca.
In this world’s eyes, he left her. Nico doesn’t want to show his power—he doesn’t want to kill her—but he also wants to show off everything he’s ever learned so that she can be proud.
Out of instinct alone, Nico phases through his sister’s shadows. He can see Praetor Jason’s stern look from the other side of the arena—carrying the same disappointment as Bianca and him—but Nico doesn’t care. Can’t care.
The hilt of his sword meets his fingers as Nico reappears opposite of his sister. She looks at him, unsurprised but content, and cradles her bow. That’s my brother, her smile says. It twists back into a naughty grin and she waves her hand. The arrows lift from the ground and retreat until they’re back in her quiver.
“No holding back this time,” Nico says. “I promise.”
Bianca responds by shooting two arrows at him.
Using his sword, Nico deflects the first one and shadowtravels out of the way of the second one.
To that, Bianca looks pleased. “You’ve gotten the hang of shadowtraveling, have you, bubba?”
Her declaration echoes through the arena. She scrutinizes the air, the ground, the shadows—everything. Nico reaches out from her shadow and grabs her by the ankle. Bianca plunges toward the dirt—and Nico grabs her quiver when she lands.
Reappearing at her feet, Nico opens up his own shadow. He throws the quiver through the portal.
Bianca frowns. “Where did they go?”
“Underworld.” Nico smirks. “You can’t use them.”
Unsurprisingly, the crowd erupts with Ooooooooohs and Buuuurnns.
“You wouldn’t try to kill your own sister.” Bianca’s eyebrows furrow and she looks at him carefully. “Would you?”
Nico hesitates. “Do you really expect me to believe that?”
“Never hurts to try.”
She hooks her ankle and foot around Nico’s Achilles and trips the poor boy. Bianca clutches the hilt of a sword that blends all too well with her armor, and with a metal hiss, it unsheathes.
Opening his eyes, Nico is met with the tip of her gladius pressed against his neck.
“Nice try.” A smile curls against Bianca’s lips. Their audience yells with excitement, fists pumping in the air. She sheathes her sword and offers a hand that Nico gladly accepts. “You’ve gotten a lot better.”
“But I lost.” Ebony eyebrows furrowed together. Instinct tells Nico to curl into himself and hide his heart. But Bianca still gives him that twelve-year-old look and makes Nico feel like an upset ten-year-old. They had their problems, but problems never erased the fact that they were brother and sister.
“You didn’t even try.” Bianca nudges him in the arm jokingly—something that’s actually…what Jason would do. “Not until the end. I can’t believe you threw my quiver into the Underworld. You were always good at that.”
His eyes coat with tears again. Blinking them away, Nico tries to stuff his hands in his pockets before remembering he’s in Roman armor.
“Hey. Hey, don’t cry—I missed you too.” Bianca throws her arms around him and holds Nico tight.
It’s hard to fathom how someone as loving as her could aspire to being a huntress. She’s so…powerful, like their father has always spoken of. But. She’s also still the same Bianca that Nico never stops missing. That being said, Nico buries his nose into her braid and restrains from sobbing like a child.
Cries of JAY-SON, JAY-SON, JAY-SON pull their attention away from each other. The wind picks up beneath the setting sun, and Jason and Tempest trudge forward.
Bianca holds Nico’s hand (like Hazel would) as they release their hug. She squeezes his palm gently and smiles. “You better kick his ass, though.”
(Hearing her swear is something he’ll never get used to.)
“We can postpone the battle if you want me to.” To Nico’s surprise once again, Praetor Jason’s scrutiny morphs into the sincerest concern. He actually looks like…Nico’s Jason. So much that it hurts. “Family is important. You two should catch up.”
“I’m okay,” Nico mutters. He flashes his best poker face and glares at Jason. The guy only looks at him for two seconds before those cold blue eyes fall to Nico’s feet. Like he’s expecting something.
“You sure?” Bianca asks. She squeezes Nico’s hand again, almost painful in grip, and leans over. “I know they can be scary, but Jay and I can calm the masses if they get upset.”
“No, it’s…not that.” He just wants to pummel the other praetor until he looks like Nico’s Jason.
It all ends instantly.
“WHERE ARE HIS TATTOOS?” Someone on ground-level suddenly shouts at the top of his lungs. It sounds like…Octavian? “WHERE IS HIS MARK OF THE TWELFTH LEGION?”
Nico cocks his head over to confirm that yes, that certainly is Octavian who is now glaring at him, and his breath hitches.
Murmurs break loose through the audience. Bianca and Jason blink in the sudden interruption and stare at him curiously.
They turn his bare forearm over.
In a matter of seconds, Bianca lets go of him. She inches toward Jason, hand on her sword handle, and turns pale. “Who are you?”
“I’m the one who came up with shadowtraveling,” Roman Nico explains. He rips apart his loaf of bread and douses it in honey. “Or like, Cerberus taught me. He went missing, so me and Jason went on a quest—”
“Jason and I,” Percy corrects. Everyone looks at him like he’s grown a second head. “What? I do pay attention in class. Sometimes.”
“Never,” Annabeth snorts.
“Nick. Norah. To your separate corners.” Roman Nico rolls his eyes and stuffs the bread in his mouth. “Anyway, you thought I was crazy—” he points to Jason. “—but I swore the dog was there when I turned around. And so I realized he only showed up where there could be a large shadow and tried it for myself. Baboom. Here I am. Turns out that Thanatos was just playing a really far away fetch game with Cerberus and used the wrong squeaky toy. So Cerberus was scouring the earth for something that he didn’t have a scent on.”
“We once played fetch with Cerberus so we could get to your father,” Annabeth says. “He likes giant red rubber balls.”
“Really? He likes blue ones in my universe. Bold move, Annabeth Chase.” Roman Nico peels apart another loaf of bread and gives a fifth to the girl across the picnic blanket. “You’re pretty smart, even if you are a graecus.”
Comments like that usually don’t sit well with Annabeth. The general consensus is that Annabeth is the smartest person at camp.
“She’s a good one, Jackson.” Roman Nico’s expression doesn’t waver as he looks over to the Son of Poseidon. “You could teach my sister a thing or two about picking men. Octavian is our only augur, but Apollo knows that even his own legacy couldn’t lift a sword.”
Jason chokes on his pistachios—which is followed by an orchestra of the same reaction from his friends. Percy clutches his throat while Annabeth pats him on the back. Hazel turns so red that she nearly suffocates, and Leo looks like he’s about to set his hair on fire.
It doesn’t sound like a joke. Roman Nico, poised and calm, reaches out and grabs the bag of pistachios from Jason’s lap. Then—his grin makes him look like a child. “Kidding. Man, have you guys ever heard of a joke?”
“If he’s as bad as he is in this world, then Bianca’s too good for him.” Hazel makes a face and sips her tea. She rolls her eyes, but clearly she’s not annoyed.
“Don’t worry. He’s on janitor duty.” Reyna lets out a defeated sigh and plops a jelly bean in her mouth. “Aurum and Argentum are monitoring him. If he misses one speck of dirt, they’re allowed to eat him.”
Her mirth is so starch that Jason can never tell when she’s joking or not. However, instead of laughing, Roman Nico’s lips contort the slightest bit. He studies Reyna with a tiny frown, and his eyes draw a blank.
“Would you like to say something?” Reyna stares back, just as firm.
“I just can’t believe she’s dead.” Roman Nico’s gaze falls back to his pistachios and he glares at them bitterly. The light wit in his voice disappears until it’s no longer there.
Silence follows his response. Jason’s heart falls into his stomach. Rots. His gaze surfaces to both Percy and Annabeth, noting that the guilt and tentative pleasure from earlier is now gone. The way they did look at Roman Nico leaves a bitter taste in Jason’s mouth—like they’re wondering if this is who their (all of their) Nico would be if Bianca di Angelo never passed away. He hates it, because Percy especially is enjoying it bit too much.
Yet for a second time, Percy and Annabeth are there to watch as a Nico breaks down. No one can stand it. No one knows what to say.
Hazel opens her mouth to speak. Reaches over, to hug him.
Roman Nico leans into Jason and buries his face into the elder demigod’s arm. Surprised, Jason looks down to the small Roman teen at his side. He hesitates—then raises his arm around this boy. This…boy, who feels like he just lost his sister. Who is an incarnation of a friend he holds dear. Who Jason feels the need to comfort all over again.
Everyone else looks on in confusion or curiosity. Hazel looks torn. Frank looks lost.
“She’s not gone though.” Hazel makes her way over and perches herself beside her Roman brother. Hesitation flickers in her gaze before this Nico is willing to look up at her—and she is at a loss of words. “I mean…she’s alive. In your universe.”
In one where Hazel may not even exist.
His demeanor shrivels and he presses a hand to his face. Much like their Nico does. Roman Nico stands to his feet and turns back toward camp. “I just—I need to clear my head.”
“I’ll come with you.” The other child of Pluto follows after him.
Jason knows he can’t read Hazel as well as the others sitting around their picnic blanket. He rests his back against Thalia’s tree and watches her move—the cluster of emotions that flicker over her face. She wants to go. She doesn’t know she’s allowed.
A smile graces Roman Nico’s lips—weak, but willing. The madman glint in his irises flash back to Hazel. “Thanks.”
“We’ll be here when you get back.” Jason finds his voice before he regrets it. Without even thinking, he rolls up the bag of pistachios and places it beside him. “Okay?”
The smile on Nico’s face widens. He still looks distraught—like it’s hard to breathe—but something in that smile gleams in a way that lets Jason know the other demigod will be okay.
He wonders if the other Jason would say the same words.
“I’m your brother! I’m not lying!” This isn’t a conversation he ever imagined having. His jacket is missing for a reason. If whoever gave him this summons allowed Nico to keep it, then he could still—he could keep…fooling Bianca. Pretending this life is his.
The look on her face as she scrutinizes him tears his heart in two. She caresses Argentum’s head gently while Aurum naps at Praetor Jason’s feet. Bianca’s face is completely void of emotion—taught so well that Nico understands how roman she’s become. “But you’re not my brother. The one from my world.”
He isn’t. Nico swallows the lump in his throat and falls back in his seat. He stares at the ground, hands curled into fists and just…doesn’t know what to say. His heart pushes against his ribcage, uncomfortably tight and all he wants is to tell his sister how much he loves her. “I’m sorry.”
“He’s telling the truth,” says the third voice in the room. Jason is on the other side of the praetor’s office, legs crossed and hand scratching behind Aurum’s ear. Those eyes flicker, and through the cloudiness Nico can actually hear the real Jason. The one that is praetor, but is himself first. “Otherwise Aurum and Argentum would have ripped him to pieces.”
The Romans want to kill him. Once they step outside this room, Nico has a fair guess that Octavian has gathered an army.
“I don’t have proof that you are my sister, other than the fact that I’ve lived with regret for years because I couldn’t find you.” Not only that, Nico thinks. He swallows his own resolve and watches as Bianca’s eyebrows furrow together. Every solution to bringing her back has been void. Four years have been hard coping with the fact that he couldn’t save her. Now, Bianca is sitting before him and he still—
Nico still can’t get his way.
Bianca lets out a heavy breath. “Look, it’s not that I don’t believe you but I--I can’t just believe you either.”
“Our Nico has been missing for two months,” Praetor Jason pitches in. When Nico turns to look at the other demigod, he’s met with a look that his own world’s Jason would give. Pity, but guarded pity. Guilt, but cautious guilt. “We can’t take that chance that you really are him. Regulation dictates that we should have killed you an hour ago. Knowing Octavian, he’s probably already gathered an army.”
Funny. Nico has the same speculation.
“So you don’t know where the last place your Nico’s been.” Nico’s gaze narrows back to his sister. “He hasn’t contacted you in two months.”
The strain is written all over Bianca’s face. She looks down to her desk and brings her braid to the other shoulder--a habit, Nico thinks, that she’s had since they were little.
“That’s a jerky move,” he continues.
“It is,” both praetors reply.
Somehow, that makes him smile. Two of the most important people in Nico’s life are sitting in the same room with him. They don’t trust him—not one bit. Yet even at this state he knows that they care. Having them here reminds Nico of the intricate scar up Bianca’s arm and the jagged one that clouds Jason’s right eye. They’re an interesting duo—Nico can tell that they’ve been through everything together.
All who’s missing is Hazel. It’s the crack in this world that makes this reality shatter for Nico.
The curtsy of his lips makes Bianca smile too—laugh quietly, even. “Why are you smiling? You might die.”
“You’re smiling too,” Nico reminds her.
“Yeah, because—you’re smiling.” Bianca lets her laugh loose. Nico hasn’t heard it in years. “You’re turning this interrogation into a joke.”
“You can’t blame me.” Nico’s throat tightens and he relaxes in his seat. Even if it’s a terrible idea. “I’ve missed you.”
Bianca’s smile evaporates.
“You’re...dead in my world,” he explains. It took him months to accept that. Still takes him a while. Nico swallows hard as he watches her face pale. “You have been, I mean. Since I was ten.”
“What?” Bianca’s demeanor slips. “Jason found us when you were ten. He guided us to the Wolf House and we’ve been friends ever since.”
“Family,” Jason interjects. Both di Angelos forget he’s in the room.
“I’m Greek,” Nico says. “When I was ten, we were found by Percy Jackson. You...joined Artemis and her hunters and. You died.”
“Clearly she’s alive,” Jason says. His voice is tight.
“Hush,” both Nico and Bianca say in unison. The duet takes Nico by surprise—he jumps as he hears Bianca’s tone mix with his own for the first time since they were young. He looks at his sister again—the one with the beautiful braid interlocked in her hair and the freckles that still make her look like Nico’s big sister. The tears glisten in his eyes, even if he doesn’t want them to, and the smile fades across his face; a gesture he’s become so used to in the past several years.
“Hey,” Bianca murmurs. Her expression shrivels and she reaches out across the table. Nico meets her half way and allows her to grip his hand tightly and squeeze it. “Hey. Don’t cry.”
“I—I’ve missed you.” The words croak from Nico’s mouth and he wipes his tears on his shirt. A laugh falls from his lips and Nico wonders how it’s gotten so bitter after all these years. Gods, he thinks. For every day that he’s lived, Nico has thought of nothing but bringing his sister back. Bianca is his world that exists so sporadically for Nico that a bit of himself chips away every day that they aren’t together.
Here she is, standing in front of him, touching him, and staring at him. She’s alive and all of it seems so easy but Nico is too afraid of losing her to question it.
Eventually the touch is too much. It burns against his flesh because he can’t be happy unless Hazel is there. Nico is nothing without Hazel but lost without Bianca and he can’t afford being either one without driving himself insane.
“I was mad at you the last time that I saw you,” Nico confesses miserably. He can’t control the tremors of his voice or his emotions as they pelt at his unshielded heart for the first time in years. Nico can’t hide from Bianca. He can’t be bothered to try. “But I…I-I wanted you to be safe. I made someone make a promise I know now I shouldn’t have expected him to keep, ignored all of those dreams and nightmares and—and I lost you. Because I was weak. And I try—every day—to find you and come to terms with you but I can’t. Because you’re my sister, and I love you, and…”
He trembles. Nico can’t finish that sentence without the possibility of bursting into real tears.
As the frustration swells in his throat, he feels Jason reach over and squeeze his shoulder tightly. Through his bangs he watches Jason’s stern face morph until it’s soft. Argentum nudges Nico’s knee and keens against him.
“He’s not lying,” Jason murmurs.
“I’m sorry that I lied to you,” Nico continues. He honestly, honestly means it, but the shields in his chest wane and weaken his coherent heart. “I just—saw you. And I wanted to please you and show you everything that I haven’t been able to in four years.” To hug her, hold her, and know that she won’t disappear right before his eyes when he blinks at the wrong time.
She stands to her feet. The roman braid courses down her collarbone and dips at her t-shirt before she burns a path around her desk and—hesitates, two steps away from Nico.
He reaches out for her and hugs her, as him, for the first time in four years.
“Ti voglio tanto bene.” Nico breathes in harshly and sucks in the sensation of Bianca’s pulse pressed against his own. He holds her short body and hides the tears in his eyes.
“I love you too,” Bianca quietly says.
“What’s with you and not staying on the ground?”
Jason slowly turns from his nest in Thalia’s tree. He casts a glance to Roman Nico, whose face is darkening with the shadows of the forest. A mischievous smile curls against those lips, with a madman glint in Roman Nico’s eyes that makes him shudder. Jason can’t help but feel grateful that even in a different universe, Nico still has those dark eyes that send chills up Jason’s spine and make his heart flutter. Jason sidles down the tree and perches against the trunk. “It’s my sister.”
“Oh.” Nico’s nose crinkles and he settles beside Jason. The crew cut on those once-curls makes it easy to see Roman Nico’s eyes, unsheathed, and Jason’s chest soars all over again. Roman Nico snorts eerily in the way Greek Nico would and extends a second goblet toward Jason. “I wonder how many non-demigods would listen to this conversation and think it makes sense.”
It takes a moment before Jason remembers Nico has only been exposed to the mythological world for five years, Greek or not. He mutters thank you for the goblet and chuckles. “Purple Gatorade, please.”
The goblet hums as it fills to the tip. Jason sips it silently until it’s half-full and it magically swells with Gatorade once more. He looks up and catches Nico staring at him.
“Nothing,” Roman Nico murmurs. A smile coils at the edge of his lip and he leans back. “My Jason likes blue.”
The my puts Jason settles Jason’s nerves. He’s used to calling their Nico his Nico and hates getting confused over it. Usually Jason ends up descending into a really bad headache and has to disappear for hours to keep himself level-headed. However—he nurses on his goblet and stares at the sunset like it has the answers.
“So you have a sister?” Roman Nico asks quietly once sun is completely gone. Camp lights up with torches filled with Greek fire and through the distance, they see campers filing toward the bonfire. Jason can’t place his finger on how the silence feels, but he knows they’re both itching to talk. To say anything. “I mean—you have siblings from Jupiter in general, but—a sister, like me and Bianca? Or Hazel and me?”
“Yeah,” Jason says. Instinctively, he runs his fingers down the several scales of dark bark and lets every groove catch the pads of his fingers. Sometimes he thinks he can feel Thalia’s heartbeat pulsing against his palm. “She…she’s not a nymph or anything. Juno, as Hera, chased her down a lot way back when and tried to kill her. Then, when Thalia was at the brink of death…she got turned into this tree.”
“Oh.” Roman Nico falls silent again. He stares at the pomegranate juice as it reappears in his goblet and says nothing.
“She’s not a tree anymore,” Jason continues, his voice assuring. “Percy got the Golden Fleece and put it on her, so she turned back into a human. She’s Artemis’s lieutenant now.”
Roman Nico frowns. “You mean Diana.”
“No. Artemis.” Jason watches as Nico’s lips only twist further into a half-grimace, half-scowl before he gathers the nerve and claps a hand on Roman Nico’s shoulder. “You get to know the difference between their Greek and Roman forms. Trust me.”
“I never thought I would have to.” Roman Nico nods carefully at Jason’s assurance, but he looks unconvinced. He clasps his callused hands around his goblet and keeps his mouth in a straight line. “Hazel told me that you’re not actually Greek. You’re Roman.”
“Oh?” Jason shrugs when Roman Nico’s eyebrow darts into the air. He isn’t trying to keep it a secret. The day’s been really long and he suspects that tonight is going to be even longer.
“You were a praetor. A leader. Everyone looked up to you, even more than Reyna and Frankie.” Nico grips the base of his goblet and shakes his head in pertinent disapproval. “I wouldn’t be able to do it. I wouldn’t abandon my comrades.”
“I didn’t abandon them, Nico.” Jason takes great offense to that. He feels the coldness in his voice and even sees Roman Nico’s eyes flicker just a millimeter in surprise. The subject doesn’t arise often, but Jason knows that he’s a controversial topic amongst his own people. Octavian says he’s not an integrator, but a deserter. Others wonder what gives him the right to still be a leader if he’s been gone for nine months.
He stopped caring a long time ago.
Labels are labels, Nico—his Nico—told him when it first became an issue. Jason still remembers the nonchalant shrug Nico gave him—the tiniest twitch—and the glimmer in those genius eyes. It doesn’t matter what people said about you, Nico continued back then, because so long as you hold your head high, nothing else matters. You do what you do. It’s not your fault you have an audience for it.
“I did what was expected of me,” Jason continues. Roman Nico locks eyes with him and Jason doesn’t back down. “I became centurion and then I became a praetor. The only thing that I did by myself was choose the Fifth Cohort. Everyone criticized me for it, too.”
Nico’s eyebrows quirk briefly, and Jason assumes the other Jason did the same thing.
“I thought I was an orphan. The Fifth Cohort became my family, but most of them had families of their own. Some of them had been there for generations, but my family was Juno, who nudged me in whatever direction she thought was right.When I turned fifteen, I found out I could live outside that norm. I could have my ideas heard and not have them scorned because they went against tradition, and I found out that I had a sister who hadn’t seen me since I was two, and a mother that was dead.” Jason wraps his forearm around the base of the tree and scrunched his nose. “I had to wait thirteen years to find solace. This place makes me feel peace in a way that Camp Jupiter didn’t.”
Another frown works its way across Nico’s face. He taps his cup with his fingers. “But you’re a praetor.”
“I was. I’m a head counselor now.” Jason chews on his lip and stares Nico down.
Roman Nico only gets more frustrated. “You were a camp leader. You met Juno’s expectations.”
“I didn’t meet mine,” Jason quips back. He shrugs and tries to remember what being promoted to praetor felt like. It wasn’t fun. He remembers being proud for the first ten minutes with all of his comrades cheering him on, and the rest of his reign being filled with uncertainty. As a camp counselor, he feels that strain, but it’s not because he can’t express himself. Jason worries about Juno, about Jupiter, and whether or not he’ll succeed, but he never once has to have someone else think for him so he doesn’t screw up as Jupiter’s son and Juno’s champion. “Do you think you can look me in the eye and tell me your Jason isn’t just a little miserable?”
“He’s not.” It’s Roman Nico’s turn to get offended. “He’s a praetor and really proud of it.”
“You don’t think that he wants more sometimes? For different possibilities and to create new traditions?” Jason strokes his own arm and feels cold. Guilt and bitter resentment comes back from when he was still a praetor, back when he had slain Krios with his own hands. He remembers the blood dripping down the contour of his cheek, glistening over his vision with one shoulder swollen and a sprained wrist from wielding his sword.
The Legion celebrated as much as they mourned, shouting his name through New Rome and screaming victory for all. New Romans admired and congratulated them, and assisted with the graves for their losses. Soldiers became children the moment they saw their parents, and they ran toward each other in an embrace that was meant to last for all eternity.
But Jupiter never greeted Jason. Jason used to rationalize it in his head that his father was the god and was busy, but at the end of the day it never satisfied his query of what Jupiter actually thought of him. He sees Percy and Nico now, interacting with Poseidon and Hades in the most organic and natural way, and he can’t help but feel the ache in his chest because Jason has tried and Jupiter hasn’t cared.
The only god to ever seek him out is Juno, and Jason hates her for everything she stands for and for every fiber of her being.
“He doesn’t,” Roman Nico continues. The venom in his voice pulls Jason straight back, reminding him that he’s in the middle of a conversation and not the eternal battle in his mind. Nico’s tan face flushes red with anger and it shocks Jason because the ground actually trembles. “He’s proud of who he is and where he came from! He leads us! He’s led me! Just because you can’t speak with the same pride he does as a Roman officer does not make you any more of a demigod than him! It makes you less!”
Jason doesn’t let the words hurt him. He taps his goblet and stares at Roman Nico solidly. “You don’t think he wishes for more?”
His tone is calm. Soothing. Jason uses it all the time without realizing it when it comes to his own Nico, to quell Nico’s thoughts and put them both at ease. Roman Nico blinks at him, realizing that the tenor of Jason’s voice isn’t for a fight, but genuine curiosity.
“I—I don’t,” Roman Nico spats. He doesn’t yell or threaten Jason, but he isn’t happy.
“Then I envy him,” Jason says.
“This is where you usually sleep,” Frank says. Their bunk is four beds down from the door, decorated with two chests that Nico assumes are filled with clothes. He stands awkwardly at the entry of the barracks, fisting the hilt of his sword carefully before sauntering in.
Nico stretches out his limbs and unsheathes everything on the bottom bunk. Next to the window sill, he finds a collection of…Mythomagic toys. Nico stares at them carefully, along with one of the two gold trophies.
12th Annual National Mythomagic Tournament
Nico di Angelo
1st Place Mytho Master
Wow. Nico fidgets. He’s tempted to reach for the deck kept in his jacket—but remembers that it’s still missing. Nico scans the rest of the sill. Feels his heart ache when he sees the Hades figurine—bright and shiny in the center of things.
Chewing on his lip, Nico picks it up and inspects the quality. Top of the line, fantastic condition. Nico has no doubt in his mind that the other Nico takes perfect care of it.
“Um,” Frank starts, so Nico immediately turns his head. Frank grimaces nervously. “That’s…his most prized possession. I wouldn’t…I mean—”
“I understand.” Nico hears his voice crack. He places the figurine down gently and goes back to inspecting his bed. Nico gets as far as chucking off his shoes before Frank turns around again.
“You’re not…” Frank begins his sentence, then grimaces. He shoves his hands into his pockets.
“Yeah?” Nico asks.
“You’re not—like, gonna summon ghosts while I’m asleep and let them overshadow me, right? I won’t become an overlord of the dead?”
What? Nico’s nose crinkles and he whirls around in utter confusion. He waits for Frank to elaborate.
Frank, however, digs his foot into the ground and looks elsewhere, at the ceiling. He tugs on the collar of his t-shirt and shrugs. “Please say something.”
“I…uh,” Nico murmurs, his voice low and tired, “I’ve never met a ghost who can…do that.”
As he waits, Frank’s demeanor morphs into six different faces. His hands shove in and out of his pockets and he wiggles around awkwardly, some keening sound emerging from the back of his throat. “You’re not pulling my chain?”
“I swear on my life as a demigod.” Ebony eyebrows flatten, merging together in disbelief. Nico hasn’t seen Frank act this squeamish since before the war, and he doesn’t know how to stomach this. Frank is kind and firm—but this Frank is still twitchy. “I’ve never met a ghost that can possess other people.”
“I can’t,” he assures.
“Can they shoot ectoplasm?”
“I’m not even sure what that is.” Nico’s eyebrows make one straight line and he shakes his head. He and Frank have a civilized relationship but most of what this Frank blabbers sounds like Percy without the natural tendency to be impulsive.
“Okay,” Frank says finally. He settles into himself, posture slacking and a sigh of relief flowing out of his mouth. Then, he waltzes over to where Nico is standing and yanks out several sets of clothes. It takes a moment before Nico realizes all of it is for him. “You might want to wear a Camp Jupiter shirt. You’ll blend in better that way.”
The lie Bianca and Jason settled on was that a god altered Nico’s appearance enough to confuse people and gave him selective memory. Frank was the only one informed of the truth since he and the other Nico were apparently best friends. Nico is to stay with his sister, Jason, or Frank at all times so people won’t get suspicious.
“People really believe that I don’t have my memories?” Nico decides to ask. He chucks off his t-shirt and puts on the purple shirt. It doesn’t make him feel any less exposed.
“It would explain why you were so confused when you got here.” Frank shrugs and grimaces. “You…tend to let your mouth speak before your brain.”
“So I’m like Percy.” Nico groans. It’s the last thing he would like to find out about himself.
“Who’s Percy?” His bunkmate frowns.
Ugh. Nico shivers. There’s no way he’s going to get used to this world. Since the conference back in the Praetor Office, he finds himself conflicted between staying and wanting to go. Nico wants to stay for Bianca. But he needs to leave, for Hazel.
He doesn’t belong here. And that pains him, but Nico can’t live in a world where Hazel can’t belong either. “Look…Frank. I’m—”
“I beg your pardon?” Nico’s face scrunches and he reaches to shove his hands in his jacket before remembering it isn’t with him. Another groan escapes his lips and he presses a hand to his temples.
“Frankie.” Frank blinks in surprise, his own eyebrows high in the air. “You call me that. Everyone calls me that because of you.”
Oh. Nico didn’t intend to sound impersonal, but it’s second nature to him. Frank actually looks hurt though, now that Nico can’t switch gears fast enough to accommodate with the new nickname. His own demeanor twists and he settles onto the bed.
“We’re close in your universe, right?” Frankie suddenly blinks. He looks back and forth in the barracks before realizing that it’s empty. Then, he starts whispering. “You and me?”
“You’re dating my sister.” Nico has no choice but to be close-ish to Frank.
“Really?” The giddy tone of Frankie’s voice doesn’t escape Nico’s ears. Cocking his head, he suddenly realizes Frankie has this dazed look on his face, happy and swoony.Frankie perks, standing two feet taller, and grins from cheek-to-cheek. “Me and Bianca?”
Oh, gods. Nico’s face shrivels so fast that he swears he gets an ulcer. “No.”
“Oh.” And then Frankie looks sad again. “Is she as cool as Bianca?”
“No,” Nico snaps, and he resists the urge to smack Frankie when he sees this demigod pouting. It hits him that Frankie is attracted to his sister—the wrong sister—and Nico can’t make right of that, either.
His frustration translates back to his demeanor. He scowls up at Frankie—even if technically it isn’t an angry scowl, but a, ‘Why Do People Consider This Normal?’ grimace that he keeps especially for Percy and Leo.
Frankie’s demeanor slackens with nervousness. “Not a…big Frianca fan, I assume?”
“Is that a thing?”
“You coined it.” Frankie tugs at his t-shirt collar and stands erect. It’s funny how someone twice Nico’s size is also intimidated by him.
Nico sighs into his hand. Part of him wants to go big brother on the entire situation. He wants to tell Frankie to lay off, but considering what he’s seen today, he knows he shouldn’t break the mold of the other Nico’s world. Nico settles onto the bed and tries to put his hands in his jacket again before remembering it isn’t there for him.
“You okay?” Frankie asks him when Nico can’t pull himself together. He hesitates before plopping next to Nico.
“No.” Nico’s voice wavers. At this point he doesn’t even know who he’s addressing anymore. Hazel knows how to calm him down just from the way she smiles calms him down. He can’t enjoy this world without thinking about her, and if he tries to ignore Hazel for even a second, Nico knows he’s the scum of the earth.
“You can tell me, you know.” Frankie hesitates before clasping a hand over Nico’s. When Nico doesn’t slap it away, Frankie takes it as a sign to continue. “We’re best friends.”
“You’re not afraid of me?” Nico muses. His lips straighten to a tight, bitter smile, and he resorts to crossing his arms over his chest.
He waits, watching as Frankie’s demeanor twists uncertainly. Frankie asks, “No ectoplasm. For sure. Right?”
“I already said no.”
Nico blinks. He frowns blatantly and watches Frankie shrug before his bunkmate actually relaxes beside him. Very few do that. In his own world, Hazel and Jason are the only ones who trust him more than they fear him. Percy’s on the same boat—which took years and several months of Jason nudging them into the same room for that to happen. Sometimes Nico thinks Percy makes a conscious effort of not grabbing Riptide to tear Nico limb from limb if he ever turns on them.
“Why?” Frankie asks blindly. “Are people scared of you in your world?”
“Yes.” Nico can’t help how thick the word sounds as it comes out of his mouth. His eyebrows knit together and he instinctively crosses his legs on the bed to make a barrier for himself.
Death is something everyone fears. Even Nico. Every day he deals with the erratic ticking of heartbeats within a ten-mile radius, and he’s conscious of his friends’ pulse—even when he doesn’t want to be. People look at him like he’ll reap their souls and question why death is on their camp. He learned a long time ago that labels weren’t important. People are going to judge him, question his loyalties, talk about him, no matter what side Nico’s interests really lay. Nico’s done good twice over now in both wars, tried to make peace and get intel, and Percy still looks at him like he may kill everyone in sight.
So it doesn’t matter. Do what you think is right. Hold your head high and stand your ground. That’s it. Nico’s told Jason the same thing for months, and he knows Jason treats his philosophy delicately.
“Why?” Frankie grimaces. “Do you, like, throw jewels at people or something?”
“That’s Hazel’s job,” Nico murmurs. Along with riding the scariest horse known to demigod and creating Mists so powerful that she can fool gods.
“Who’s Hazel? And why are people scared of you?”
“You don’t understand the concept of death that well. Do you?” Nico shakes his head in dismay and clasps his hands together over his lap.
Frankie falls silent. His smile falters with it and he stares at the ground, hands clenching and unclenching. “I do.”
Right. Nico’s heart drops and he recognizes that tone all too well. His chest tightens as he looks over to Frankie and remembers everything about that tone. Frankie’s voice is quiet and even a little shaky—the one he uses exclusively for his mother.
“Was my mother…?” Frankie gulps. Dead is the word that fails to leave his mouth. “In your world?”
“Yeah.” Nico lets go of the breath he’s holding and stares at his feet miserably.
“Ah.” Frankie falls silent, but Nico can tell that he’s disappointed. Heartbroken, even.
They fall into a heavy silence. Nico half expects Frankie to get up and leave since neither one of them can think of anything else to say. He draws in another breath, his hands curling against his lap, and quickly murmurs, “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay.” Frankie glosses over the apology like it isn’t a big deal. Nico knows that it is—but Frankie is at ease without getting into an elaborate discussion about it. He shrugs and smiles timidly at the ground. “You know what you did when we first met?”
No is sitting on Nico’s tongue. He shakes his head instead and opens himself up so Frankie knows he’s listening.
“I told you my mom was dead. Since your dad’s also the god of death, I thought…I dunno. You could summon her so that I could say goodbye.” Frankie touches his cheek and smiles sadly. “You blew out your hearing aid trying to get us to Ontario, but when we got to the cemetery, you—you couldn’t summon her.”
Nico fidgets. “Sometimes that isn’t a good idea.”
He’s got experience to back up that claim. Years and years of it, trying to find Bianca without going insane.
“Yeah. Well, when we got there, you raised someone else’s grave marker and nearly beheaded someone in effort to summon my mom.” Frankie touches his neck and shivers, obviously recalling the memory. “It was very gruesome.”
Ah. “Uh. Sorry.”
“Nah. It was funny. You apologized back then too.” Frankie sighs in relief and shrugs. “We’re okay.”
“You’re not scared of me.” Nico’s demeanor contorts with a frown. “You really aren’t.”
“I’m not,” Frankie assures. He contemplates his own words for a moment before grimacing. “You’re not gonna poke me with the bed supports, are you?”
“Then no.” Looking pleased with himself, Frankie nods reassuringly and stands to his feet. “You ready for dinner?”
Jason blinks and silently agrees with Piper’s exclamation. They sit on the sidelines of Roman Nico and Percy’s sparring match the morning after Roman Nico’s big appearance, joined by several other campers as the former two duke it out. The imperial gold sword looks odd in Nico’s grasp—in any incarnation—but Jason can’t deny that Nico wields it well.
Canoe lake water comes up to Percy’s ankles as he flicks his wrist and swings his sword, while Nico rotates big columns of earth around him like a shield.
Campers swarm the coast of their canoe lake, several cheering for Percy and others gawking at Nico’s powers. Jason hasn’t been watching long. He quickly woke up when a tidal wave made contact with the roof of his cabin, and after one obvious explanation, went running.
“You can’t beat me!” Roman Nico gloats in a way that Greek Nico never would. He grins from cheek-to-cheek, with just a finger maneuvering his barrier. “Your sword is useless.”
“Haven’t you ever played pokemon?” Percy smirks back, unscathed by Roman Nico’s declaration. “Steel and Rock types are weak against water!”
“I’ve played every pokemon game!” Roman Nico exclaims. He looks like he’s having the time of his life. “Just wait until I give you a bloody nose!”
“Not if I land a critical hit!”
“Nico and Percy are getting along,” Hazel says faintly. She clasps a hand over her mouth, pulls it away, presses her lips together, lets her jaw dangle at the ground, and looks stumped. Jason can’t blame her. “I’ve seen everything.”
“It’s not like our Nico doesn’t get along with Percy,” Frank reminds her, but that doesn’t mean he’s any less astounded. “I just—oh my gods, he’s smiling.”
Jason feels a tiny ball of jealousy kneading at his insides shamelessly. He wants to sit back and stay quiet—but their argument the night before comes to the front of his mind. After Jason emphasized how much happier he was as a useless graecus, Roman Nico stormed off and Jason hadn’t seen him since.
Jokes aside, Percy thoughtfully caps Riptide and shoves the pen back in his pocket. He smirks before waving a hand in the air. A coil of water trails after him, and he thrusts it toward Nico.
Instantly, Roman Nico pounds the air with his fists. His columns fall around him, covering Nico like an earthy force field, and water slaps him with the force of a typhoon.
As soon as Percy knows Nico is incapacitated, he lunges forward, Riptide suddenly unsheathed, and—
—gets the tip of his celestial bronze sword shoved deep into the dirt.
Percy yelps in surprise, suddenly faceplanting when his leverage is literally taken out of his grasp, and hits his head against the barrier. “Owww—”
“Got you.” Roman Nico burrows out of the ground, roughly half a foot away from Riptide. He swiftly pins the edge of his gladius against Percy’s neck and the mischievous grin over his face is seen by everyone.
“Ugh.” Percy groans loudly. “Super effective.”
The crowd erupts in applauds and cheers, and even Jason can’t help a clap or two. He stares in amazement while Roman Nico yanks Percy from the ground. The younger demigod is a good four or five inches shorter than Percy, but he holds himself high with that charming smile.
“And here I thought you were just an idiot,” Roman Nico says brazenly. “Looks like you’re more than that. You’re an idiot that I can almost take seriously in a battle.”
For a moment, Percy looks satisfied with Roman Nico’s conclusion, but Jason knows that the second half of that sentence is now rubbing Percy the wrong way. Percy arches an eyebrow, his lips still curled into a smirk—although one that’s way less approving—and folds his arms. “You weren’t trying to kill me like you’re supposed to?”
The edge of Jason’s lips curls into a subtle smile. Roman Nico was right—mortals wouldn’t have a clue how to follow conversations like this one.
“S’not like you were trying to kill me,” Nico protests. He leaves it at that—and Percy doesn’t put up a fight.
In fact, Jason watches Percy’s eyes flicker from Nico, to the hearing aid, to Roman Nico again before Camp Halfblood’s leader consciously rubs his own arm. Percy has the decency to look embarrassed, at least.
Jason can’t blame him—water probably messes with them very badly. Having a good match is one thing, but Jason’s sure that the aid isn’t something that should be messed with in a fake fight. Percy usually lets loose and apologizes (a lot) later, but this is one match where he didn’t plan on screwing over Camp Halfblood’s special guest.
Which is probably why Roman Nico is mad.
Pulling out of his thoughts, Jason realizes that Nico is staring straight at him. Those madman eyes are dark, looking a little more insane with sunlight shining in them, but they don’t betray Roman Nico’s genuine demeanor of calmness. Roman Nico holds the hilt of his gladius (one that looks a lot like Jason’s) and stares expectantly at Jason.
“What?” Jason asks earnestly.
“Fight me,” Roman Nico says.
Jason’s hand flies to the hilt of his own gladius, the imperial gold sword stiff in his grip, and he stares at Roman Nico in disbelief. The next question at the tip of his tongue is why, but even Percy isn’t dumb enough to ask that question when it’s them.
“You scared?” Roman Nico continues. “Son of Jupiter?”
His tone is clipped and poignant. It rubs Jason in every wrong way possible and he stands tighter. Frowns, even. He doesn’t know what terms they’re on. Arguments with the Greek Nico vary in all shapes and sizes with different results at all times, but after Nico succumbed to Jason’s promises of trust and commitment, they always talked it out.
This isn’t talking it out.
Quite frankly, Jason is getting annoyed with Roman Nico’s insistence that Jason is pathetic for abandoning Rome.
“I won’t go easy on you.” Pushing through the horde of campers, Jason settles in front of Roman Nico and uses his height to his advantage. “Not like Percy.”
“We can take him two-on-one if you want,” Percy agrees. He rests an arm over Jason’s shoulder and smiles at their opponent intensely.
“No,” Roman Nico says, and he’s obviously surprised when Jason backs him up. The grin over his lips radiates with Pluto’s madman tendencies. He looks a little too alive to be a son of death; livid even, just from Jason’s one courteous response.
“Aw,” Percy says, but he’s far past this conversation. Instead, he walks off to the sidelines of their makeshift arena.
Annabeth swiftly makes her way to the center after a few nudges from Percy (with him chanting, “Athena! Fair war, fair war!”) and pinches the bridge of her nose from her boyfriend’s enthusiastic tactics. She stares at both Roman Nico and Jason, rolls her eyes at Percy, and puts an arm’s length of distance between them.
“This’ll be a fair fight,” she says, but Jason’s sure that both Roman Nico and he are big boys who won’t resort to cheating. “No killing, maiming, beheading, castrating, or any variation of the above allowed. Underst—”
“Feel free to cut off this ear,” Roman Nico interjects. He taps his earagain and a wily grin spread across his lips.
“Don’t plan on it,” Jason says flatly. He sighs and furrows his eyebrows together. “But thank you for the offer.”
“Ready?” Annabeth asks when she’s certain they won’t interrupt her again.
“Aut vincere aut mori.” Nico looks up to Jason with a half-smile. The glint in his eyes is desperately serious. It locks onto Jason, and he can feel Nico’s ambition through one quick glance. The grip on Nico’s gladius is firm.
“I won’t go easy on you,” Jason says.
The last thing Jason sees is Roman Nico’s maniacal grin—then he gets a slab of rock in the face.
“You’re not trying to hit me,” Nico snaps. He flings his sword into the ground and wipes the sweat off his brow.
A warm gust of air slaps him the face—intention unclear—and it only makes his scowl deepen. His mop of hair is combed and tied back (making Nico realize how long it’s gotten) since he refused to cut it in the standard crew cut. It makes the air flap against his bare neck and causes him to shiver, and Nico doesn’t know how much he likes that, either.
Praetor Jason looks to him with a frown, eyebrows clearly mushed together and javelin in hand. He leans against his venti steed, feet planted firmly to the ground, and sighs. In the sidelines, Bianca stands up, the same look of concern over her face like Jason’s.
They’re supposed to be close, she explained when they had breakfast this morning. Jason is the one who helped them when they were younger. He vouched for them to stay when Octavian demanded that they leave and for the first three years of camp, Bianca trained with Jason before Nico insisted to join the Legion as well.
She skips over some details, Nico notices. Bianca still has the habit of fleeing eye contact when she’s lying or if she’s nervous, but he doesn’t think it’s his place to ask why.
Jason doesn’t look too happy about Nico’s outburst. An irritating thought in the back of Nico’s mind wonders exactly what their relationship is. He tries to forget what he was like when he was ten, when the thought of being a demigod excited him the most.
Artemis isn’t here. She doesn’t recruit Bianca and take the most important person away from Nico’s life, so Bianca doesn’t die, and this Roman Nico doesn’t come into his own as a demigod until the age of thirteen.
This Nico is probably happier; a little more innocent and oblivious to the things that happen outside of New Rome. And…it wouldn’t surprise Nico if this world’s Nico still has the same mindset and optimism and complete trust in everyone around him—and is loyally, hopelessly, and shamelessly in love with Praetor Jason.
Maybe Nico needs to be less brash with this Jason. (Maybe he needs to be a little more.)
“I’m just trying to gauge your powers,” Jason fusses. His tone is a like a dagger, precisely cutting through Nico’s frustrating overabundance of irritation. It bruises Nico’s ego along with it, because that’s exactly what his Jason does. But his Jason has the modesty to be less in-your-face and domineering about it. “I don’t know the differences between you and my Nico, okay? At least this way I don’t accidentally kill you in the process because you’re weaker. It’s not like I intend to cut off his ear.”
“How does that benefit any of us?” Nico rages on. He doesn’t like it when people use that tone on him. It takes him a moment to realize this is exactly what the beginnings of his relationship with his own Jason was like. Patient, but frustrated. Kind, but strategically planned. But overall, Nico respects and appreciates his Jason. Because his Jason actually listens. “You’re sparring with me. You think a monster is going to be nice enough to avoid a disabled kid’s ear when it tries to kill him?”
He watches Praetor Jason’s jaw unhinge. There’s something oddly satisfying about that.
“Nico,” Bianca says. Her voice is cautious, yet annoyed. Nico’s heard it a thousand times. He’s ignored it a thousand times, too.
It amazes him how instinctively he wants to shrug off her warnings like he’s ten years old again. Nico sucks in a deep breath and fixes his posture. His mind is still whirling in a big ball of frustration and he tries to calm it. Maybe he’s just used to being with Jason. But he doesn’t like how untrusting he feels around Jason or how it’s leaking onto Bianca, too.
Nico doesn’t really like how he was, before Percy, Hazel, and Jason forced him to open up.
“I’m sorry.” He swallows hard and tries to stomach his frustration. Can’t. “That was rude.”
“Nico,” Bianca chides again, and Nico can’t ignore the mirth that bubbles in his chest. He clears his throat and tries to hide his smile, but can’t.
Praetor Jason arches an eyebrow at him.
“I’m sorry,” Nico says this time. He tries to mean it and release some of his frustrations, but this just feels…unnatural.
“We can talk later.” Jason’s voice is soft and understanding.
The honey-like tenor makes the blood in Nico’s veins turn to ice. He feels the air swell in his lungs and stops short of his next breath. Nico didn’t realize how much he misses it. That voice with Jason’s compassion and honesty shining through like a pure, cool breeze.
“You don’t have to go easy on me,” Nico supplies weakly. He has a venomous retort at the back of his throat, but it simmers down and he’s back in the endless loop of missing Hazel and Frank and Jason and actually liking his old life, even without Bianca, and wanting things to be exactly like they are now.
“I know—I just—” Surprisingly, Nico can see the crack in Praetor Jason’s armor. The other side is soft and sweet and tender and so much like Nico’s Jason that it hurts. It’s astonishing how this purity of Jason’s personality feels real, but veiled. What Nico sees is the true Jason—no matter what incarnation is out there.
“I’ll try,” Praetor Jason concludes. He pinches the bridge of his nose, looking unhappy with the decision, but Nico doubts he’ll go against it.
“Good,” Nico says back. His heart tremors.
They both have hard time getting those words out.
The fight is harder than Jason expects. He doesn’t know why he anticipated it to be easy. Roman Nico truly does not get enough recognition or praise in his own world. Jason can see it in Nico’s eyes—the passion, the excitement, the eagerness to please, the utter devotion to being Roman with a trace of being his own self.
(Jason wonders if their Nico would be happier as a Roman. Bianca would still be there, and their Nico would be able to smile. And…Jason would be there, if his Nico would want him to be.)
The thought doesn’t last long.
Swiveling his body, Jason nearly finds himself getting smacked in the head for the second time today by a big column of schist lifted from the canoe lake. He puts up resistance and slows its ascent, but still nearly gets hit in the face.
Roman Nico stands pertinently on the ground, a cheeky smile on his face that makes him look like a kid again. It’s always a look like that that sends chills up Jason’s spine because that’s how their Nico could be smiling.
(Even though Jason swears he can live off the tiny, fragile ones that are just as real as Roman Nico’s shiny ones; the ones that look frail but show a strong young man who’s faced everything.)
With a conflicted heart, Jason begins his descent toward the ground and creates a spiral around him. Their field is set in the eye of a miniature storm, zephyrs made of walls isolating them from the rest of the camp. A trail of lightning ricochets off of the cylinder, crackling with the booming sounds of thunder.
He can feel the strain and the livid energy flowing through him, but Roman Nico’s demeanor is like a beacon that Jason can’t shake from his ministrations. Roman Nico’s expression twists, and his eyes widen ever-so slightly—
I don’t plan on hitting you, silly, Jason can’t help but think. The thought is very much Percy, but Jason ignores that.
Out of nowhere, Roman Nico kicks his foot into dirt. A sliver of it enters Jason’s air current and turns it into a sandstorm. The sliver becomes a wave, and Jason has to cover his eyes so he doesn’t get blinded by the dust.
He barely gets the chance to see Roman Nico charge forward. Nico grins from cheek-to-cheek. “Gotcha.”
“No, you don’t.” in Praetor Jason’s tone is electrifying. Their swords meet with a violent CLANG, and Nico feels a jolt course through his veins and twists his body to avoid a hand in his face. Jason’s fingers crackle with lightning, only a hair’s length away from sending the current into Nico’s own skin.
But Nico sees it. He drops to the ground and roundhouse kicks his opponent into the dirt.
Despite the obvious size difference between them, Nico jabs his ankle into Praetor Jason’s with enough force that Jason at least doubles over. Which is when Nico slams the hilt of his sword into Jason’s breastplate. The force sends Praetor Jason’s heartbeat in tingling waves into Nico’s skin. Nico can hear the hiccup in Jason’s breath as their pulses just synergize, and he butts his sword in a broader motion to push Jason back.
Dozens of people watch on in the New Roman Coliseum, and Nico’s painstaking ability lets him hear everyone’s heart skip a beat like an intense vibrato. Bianca stands to her feet, at edge in the spectator’s seat, and the fight carries on.
The winds pick up around them, swirling—
—and Jason watches Roman Nico’s feet dangle from the ground, the earth’s hold no longer a friend to the boy of the Underworld. Roman Nico yelps while Jason catches his breath and watches on.
Then—Roman Nico waves his hand once he has a grip on a zone where he practically has no gravity, and Jason’s sword suddenly swings in the opposite direction of their fight.
“Whoa—” Jason chokes as he’s flung into the barrier of their arena. Dirt lodges into his lungs, clogging him like cement through a rubber pipe, and he chokes, unbidden by everything else around him.
He glances up. Sees Roman Nico’s triumphant look of victory once the younger demigod can plant his feet to the ground again.
Praetor Jason stumbles backward, hand clutching his chest in pain.
Swallowing hard, Nico moves his Stygian iron sword like the wand of a conductor of an orchestra. Instead of violins, there are souls—Jason’s soul—that moves like the strings of a marionette. Nico knows that it hurts.
The chills travel up Jason’s spine—like thousands of termites crawling over a dry corpse and trying to gnaw the soul free. Nico doesn’t intend to suck it out, but he knows that being on the brink is almost as scary as having it happen.
The audience gasps and murmurs and shout with worry, and Bianca’s jaw drops to the ground. Blue eyes look to Nico, skin nearly matching their tone, and—
And Nico has to let go of his grip over Jason’s soul because the look hurts too much.
Jason lunges into the water. He isn’t a son of Poseidon like Percy, but the sand is in his lungs and eyes and anything is better than sucking in dry air and taking dust along with it. The typhoon around them diminishes with Jason no longer able to concentrate on his element. He reaches the lake, open-eyed and open-mouthed, chokes again, and scrambles for a leg of the dock nearest to him.
Praetor Jason collapses, lungs sucking in as much oxygen as they can find. His heart beat is erratic, pulse sounding like an alarm in the shells of Nico’s ears.
The air around Jason rejuvenates him with strength. Through blurry eyes, he watches Roman Nico racing to the dock, sword forgotten and armor flying off with each step until he’s bare again, orange t-shirt looking odd against his skin and jeans sagging off his skinny body.
A crowd follows, dodging as Nico tosses the armor aside. He looks shaken, body trembling out of obvious fear. “Jason—I am so—HOLY PLUTO—”
Jason yanks him by the arm and pulls Nico off the dock. He catches Roman Nico before the latter can plummet into water, and grins against Nico’s screams.
His arm wraps perfectly around that lithe torso, and a sullen thought enters Jason’s mind. They may be two different Nicos, but they fit the same way against him.
When he looks over, Jason finds Nico twitching uncontrollably and glaring at the water.
“I hate you,” Roman Nico announces flatly.
“I win.” Jason grins.
Nico approaches his heaving opponent—comrade—slowly and drops to his knees.
Praetor Jason stutters on his next breath, but it’s clear that the air is making him feel like himself again. A dagger of guilt kneads at Nico’s side, and the chills run up his spine.
It’s not an image that he enjoys.
“Not bad,” Praetor Jason breathes gruffly, despite the fact uttering those words looks like it’s going to kill him.
Red flushes in Nico’s cheeks, despite his shaky hands. He remembers—barely—to draw his sword and press the end of his dark blade against Jason’s neck. The praetor actually lifts his head, to show the flesh of his neck between the imperial gold helm and breastplate.
The crowd cheers, victor clear.
Later that night, camp activities continue as usual. Percy proposes that they sing Hymns to Jupiter for Jason’s victory—then proceeds to butcher every single word until it sounds like the Wheels on the Bus go BOOM BOOM CLAP and manages to get the rest of the campers to follow with him.
Jason eats dinner alone, body still tingling from when he embraced Roman Nico so intimately. He doesn’t want to be frustrated and doesn’t want to be lost in his thoughts, but as soon as Jason dwells, he can’t stop. His heart can’t stop racing and Jason doesn’t know if he wants to stop it.
(Except as it races, it aches, and that doesn’t make Jason feel any better.)
Piper and Leo leave him alone, which he appreciates. After two years of friendship, Leo’s concluded that the “higher Jason gets,” the less he’ll lower his guard to talk to anyone.
So he does what he does best, and Jason perches on a rooftop for what feels like the umpteenth time since Roman Nico’s arrival. (This time it’s the pegasi stables. Jason figures that the quiet whinnying may help him think.)
He misses their Nico. His Nico.
Part of it, he realizes, is because he knows his Nico in and out, and his Nico trusts him, unbidden. Roman Nico has a specific image of him that Jason unfortunately doesn’t meet because that was the Jason of the past. And he wasn’t happy. Jason recalls the images he saw with his Nico while they were in Split, where the younger Nico was purely and positively smitten with Percy, to the point that devotion still follows Nico today and sometimes it hurts. If Roman Nico has at least one thing in common with the other Nico, it’s that he’s loyal.
And Roman Nico can’t be loyal to Jason if he isn’t the praetor and senate to his people.
But Jason can’t be loyal to himself if he goes back to that and picks it up like nothing has changed for the better.
Maybe…maybe he didn’t change for the better.
Jason snaps out of his ministrations. He blinks owlishly, the voice registering almost somberly in his mind. It’s the essence of their Nico—quiet and soft-spoken, but serious, like he’s putting the world at stake just by talking. He scurries across the rooftop—silently—and ducks his head against the window of the stables.
It’s not his Nico.
Instead, Roman Nico and Hazel are in view, sitting on a stack of hay and alternating between talking and fetching things for the pegasi.
“You weren’t too happy after he shoved you in the water,” Hazel speculates. She hesitates before adding some signs to her line of speech and ever-so-often, Nico corrects her gestures. “I mean, it probably wasn’t fair—”
“No. No one called the score yet, but it was fair. And I was happy—really happy.” Roman Nico sucks in a breath and hugs his knees to his chest. He has the face and even the look on his face looks so cautious and hopeful and distrusting at the same time. It’s a glimpse of what Jason’s Nico looks like and he—doesn’t know if he should be relishing the thought. “No one takes me seriously at the other camp. Especially not him.”
It takes Jason a second to realize that they’re discussing him.
“We had a fight last night,” Roman Nico confesses. His cheeks waver a slight pink over the comment and his hands fumble together. “I told him how he’s less than Roman and even less than a person because he’s no longer a legionnaire.”
Yeah. That hurt.
“And he—he was trying to tell me that he’s honestly happier this way!” Nico tosses his hands in the air, gets lost in his own frustration, and he shakes his head in disapproval along with it. “Him! Jason Grace, my hero, was miserable at being—at being a hero!”
Jason sucks the inside of his mouth and folds his arms together. His chest tingles, but he doesn’t know if it’s because the declaration flatters him or if it makes him even more nauseous.
“”Yeah,” Hazel says, “I didn’t like him too much for a while. He didn’t trust you.”
It breaks Jason’s heart as he watches Roman Nico’s eyebrows furrow together and lips contort in a frown. Roman Nico honestly looks hurt at the new piece of information, like it physically ripped him apart before he taps his hands into his knees and stare at the ground.
“Why?” Roman Nico asks, and it’s the quietest he’s been since they met him.
“It was when we were at war two years ago,” Hazel explains. She seems to sense the uncertainty and brokenness of his voice. “He…well, Juno put Percy in Camp Jupiter and Jason in Camp Halfblood, and our Nico at the time was the only one who knew that two camps existed. But there was a gap of time between finding Jason and Percy. Eight months, I think. Everyone was frustrated because it would have saved a lot of time if he just led us there, so then people wondered if he was on Gaea’s side instead of ours.”
“I would never turn my back on my friends!” Roman Nico hisses. He stands to his feet and throws his hands in the air.
Hazel doesn’t even blink. She reluctantly signs again. “Yeah, but you and my brother…you’re different. Very different.”
“How?” Roman Nico sounds legitimately offended at the idea of ever betraying his Jason’s trust. His hands shake and he knots them into fists before pacing about the small space.
“You trust more than he does. It took a long time before my brother realized that he didn’t have to run away from everything that came his way. Sometimes he still gets like that and thinks the only way to solve problems is if he does it himself. Nico—” Hazel stands up too when she sense that Nico isn’t going to calm down. “—I’m not saying that my brother is bad. He’s good, but sometimes people look at him for being the Son of Death and think that he’s evil when he’s not. I think he has to remind himself sometimes that he isn’t all that bad.”
She curls her hands over his shoulders gently but they still quake beneath her grip. Roman Nico is pale—not as pale as their Nico, but shaken by the thought. He stares at her, gaze tense. “I would never betray you.”
“I know.” Hazel sighs quietly.
“You’re my sister,” Roman Nico says. He then reaffirms, “I would never betray you.”
A smile curls against Hazel’s lips. It spreads until it stretches from cheek-to-cheek and she stares at Roman Nico, teary-eyed, and stands to the tips of her toes to throw her arms around him.
Roman Nico hugs her back and softly chuckles against her hair. “You didn’t think otherwise, did you?”
“No,” Hazel frankly replies, “well—yes, maybe.” She sniffles a little through her tears and wipes them off her face. To both Jason and her surprise, Roman Nico smiles and wipes off a salty bead as it dribbles down her cheek. “I just—I thought that I could never be the same way that…th-that Bianca is to you.”
“You can’t.” Roman Nico frowns. “Bianca is Bianca. But—you’re you. I can’t compare the both of you. That’s not fair to anyone.”
Hazel struggles as she sighs and wipes the tears from her eyes.
“But I like you like a sister as much as I like her. I’m gonna try and find a way to get my you out of the Underworld,” Roman Nico says. “I promise.”
She hiccups and smiles through her tears—some that Jason knows their Nico has always tried hard to keep from falling. Because in any and every universe, Nico di Angelo loves Hazel Levesque.
Chapter 2: Due
“Ah…uh.” Roman Nico’s entire demeanor twists. “I think I figured out how Nico and I switched places.”
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
“What’s on your mind?”
The silence only lasts half an hour. Nico sits on the rooftop of the Temple of Pluto, his arms curled over his body to make up for the loss of his jacket, and he leans forward so he looks like a big skeletal ball of yarn. Hazel and he sit up there whenever one or the other has something on their mind, but Nico can’t help but think he’s grown fond of sitting closer to the sky because of Jason. His Jason.
Below, Praetor Bianca stands beautifully with Aurum and Argentum on either side. She looks gorgeous in the Roman robes, with the purple garb tapering down her shoulders and several military badges pinned to her cape. The braid in her hair is exactly how Nico remembers it from when he was still ten and when she went on her first and last quest.
“You and me,” Nico answers honestly, which is a real feat in itself. He’s spent six years locking himself up so no one could ever read him. But the armor is thinner than aluminum foil now, after being unwound by both Hazel and Jason. They taught him how to trust again and how to slow down and kept him from going insane.
“What about us?” Bianca asks. “May I join you?”
“Sure.” Always, he thinks in his head. Nico scoots over to make room on the tiny temple roof. It’s as small as the one in his own New Rome, but it doesn’t disturb either di Angelo sibling when they settle right next to each other. The purple of her shirt stands out beneath the lowlights of the moon. It’s almost blinding when Nico observes it, and he can’t shake how it doesn’t feel right on her.
Nico wants to stay so he can be with Bianca and never lose her again. But he needs Hazel to keep him grounded and his Jason to keep him from going nuts. This Jason still makes him feel unsettled and frustrated at everything that’s right in this world but wrong in his own.
This Jason still looks at him with that look—the one that needs to play fearless leader and heroic protector. Nico knows he doesn’t need it. But he likes the fact that Jason is out there and cares this ridiculous amount for him.
“That was a great fight today,” Bianca murmurs quietly. She reaches over and slowly laces her fingers around Nico’s hand. “People are wondering if you should be the next praetor.”
“I’m not the one that they want.” Nico fistbumped so many people today. He’s gotten really good at throwing around a fake smile—and sometimes even real ones because he isn’t the freak that no one knows if they can trust.
“You were brave,” Bianca insists. She squeezes his hand firmly and he lets her. “You make me wonder if that’s how strong my Nico has gotten too.”
“Why has he been gone so long, anyway? Is he on a quest?” Nico tugs on her hand and stares at Bianca in confusion. His eyebrows furrow together.
She chews her lip and stares nervously at her feet.
“Bianca,” Nico says.
“Not exactly.” She sighs and automatically Bianca goes to hug herself like Nico had done earlier. “You left because I became praetor.”
Nico frowns. He turns fully to look his sister in the eye and can’t quite decipher what she’s saying. In his world, if Bianca became praetor, then Nico would honestly be proud of her.
“You and I…weren’t on the best of terms. I actually refused to let you become a legionnaire for the longest time. You finally became one around the time I became centurion,” she explains. Bianca wiggles her toes in her roman sandals and squeezes her eyes shut. “Did your mom die…because…Jupiter?”
“Zeus,” Nico corrects. His heart skips a beat in his chest. “But…yeah.”
“Because he tried to shoot the hotel,” Bianca continues. She elaborates when Nico confirms that it’s the exact scenario. “When Jupiter struck the building, my Nico got caught in the explosion. He lost the ability to hear out of his left ear. He and I always thought you were just born that way, but…right around my second quest, I found out that wasn’t the case.”
Out of impulse alone, Nico’s hand curls against his left ear. He stares at her oddly and recalls the Hunters. “Did you…when we came here, were you the only one who decided to become a legionnaire?”
“Well, yeah.” Bianca looks insistent at first, but then embarrassed, and then defeated. “We had a home here instead of just going from boarding school-to-boarding school whenever something messed up. We didn’t have to live by just getting money from a mysterious benefactor. I thought—I took care of you my whole life, and suddenly we didn’t have to move every few months. I knew you’d be safe and I could live my own life.”
“Did you ever think about how I felt about it?” The memories and emotions knot in Nico’s stomach and he forces himself to take a deep breath. He felt abandoned and useless because his best friend no longer wanted him. At one point, Nico actually hated himself for being so co-dependent on his sister, who was already gone.
“I…thought that you’d just get over it,” she murmurs softly. Bianca retracts her hand and places it on her own lap, but Nico doesn’t let her escape too easily. “And I promised to get you a souvenir after my first quest. You…you didn’t seem that interested anyway, so long as you could hang out with Jason when he wasn’t busy.”
Souvenir. At that point, Nico’s cheeks flutter pink. He tugs at his fingers. “You did the same thing in my world. Except, you joined the Huntresses. Not the Legion. And you didn’t come back.”
From the corner of his eye, he realizes Bianca’s gaze locked onto his. Tears swell, shining over her irises, but she says nothing.
“I was going to forgive you when you came back, but, I—” Nico’s mouth falls open but the words are stuck at the back of his throat while the tears keep trying to break free from his stiff demeanor. “I never got the chance.”
Then for three years after that moment, Nico spent trying to get his sister back before ultimately failing. He has Hazel now and loves Hazel every bit as much as he loves Bianca, even if she can’t see it sometimes.
“I have Hazel now,” Nico continues when he manages to get his emotions in check. He swallows the rest of his feelings and sits taller on the roof. “She’s beautiful, and she’s powerful. She’s a Daughter of Pluto, like you.”
Bianca sighs softly and leans forward.
“Without her…I would be nothing,” Nico continues. “And I’m afraid of what I would be if I didn’t have her after you.”
Hesitantly, Nico reaches over and curls his hand over Bianca’s again. It fits so well, like when they were kids just playing with each other, and Nico can’t think of anything that felt so good in his life—other than finding Hazel and befriending Jason.
“I…I refused to let our Nico to become a legionnaire after finding out what happened to our mom,” Bianca says quietly. Nico can tell that instinct wants her to sign out the sentence, but she’s trying hard not to. “But when you turned thirteen you decided you wanted to be one anyway, no matter what I said. Jason trained you. And you found out through him what happened to our mother. You were mad. You told me one of your goals is to surpass me.”
That doesn’t surprise Nico. He doesn’t know what it is—if it’s him, or if it’s their roots in the family—but he spent every second of his twelfth birthday feeling like he wasn’t good enough in the eyes of anyone—especially Percy. And back then, Nico hated how he put Percy’s approval in front of his own.
“So when I became praetor, you decided that surpassing me wasn’t going to be possible if you just lived in my shadow. We got into an argument,” Bianca says. She hesitates before signing what Nico assumes is the next sentence. “I said that when I didn’t have to do this—” Her hand jerks sharply with a particular sign. “—then you could be on your own. But…you were right today. There’s no point being hypersensitive if monsters are going to take you down anyway. They don’t just wait for you to understand something.”
She rests her hands on her lap
“And then one morning when I woke up, I found out you already left.” Bianca’s entire face shrivels and she presses her hands to her face. She lets out a quiet sob as her hair falls into her eyes, and bows her head in shame. “I…I was so sorry…”
“Hey. Hey,” Nico mutters. “Don’t cry. I’m here. For all we know, your Nico could be in my universe.” He wraps an arm around her and is reminded of how tall he is compared to her now. Bianca looks muscular and fit as a soldier but it doesn’t change how Nico can just hold her and feel her heartbeat soothing his own.
A rich laugh knots at the back of her throat. Bianca wipes away a tear in her eye and shakes her head. “What do you think he’s doing over there?”
The Roman Nico still has his sister and has only recently been inducted into the Legion. Nico assumes he’s a little more outgoing, more trusting, and several times more impulsive. With a snort, he shakes his head. “Probably the opposite of what I’m doing.”
“Whatcha doin?” There isn’t even a knock on the door. Roman Nico barges into the cabin, sporting an orange camp hoodie that looks odd on him. He smiles cautiously from cheek-to-cheek, with a madman glint in his eyes that lets Jason know that he’s up to no good.
Before Jason gets the chance to say anything, Roman Nico plops right next to him, legs crossed in a happy perch.
Jason blinks, his hands still fiddling with a box of Cheez-Its. He slowly offers the rest—and doesn’t have to reach very far. Roman Nico sits with his thigh pressed against Jason’s own, limbs milled tightly together even though the room is pretty large.
He also doesn’t say anything of it. Instead, Roman Nico digs for a handful of Cheez-Its and stuffs two in his mouth. “Thanks.”
After that, Jason watches Nico eat. This Nico is a little rounder and has slightly more meat on his bones than his Greek counterpart. As far as muscles go, Jason thinks their Nico’s had more training and experience, but the fight today proved that both Nicos are a force to be reckoned with.
Roman Nico is a little powerhouse, even if he’s a little rough around the edges.
“How come you’re missing out on your own victory party?” Roman Nico asks after a certain amount of time has passed. He’s met with a shrug.
“I have a lot on my mind,” Jason admits. He stretches out his other leg to inch away from Roman Nico, but ultimately decides to stay where they are. His flesh tingles where Roman Nico touches, and he can’t help turning a light shade of pink.
Mid-bite, Roman Nico lowers his hands and straightens his posture. He looks carefully to Jason and simply scrutinizes him. “You do that a lot.”
“Me? Or…‘me’?” Jason makes an abstract gesture and hopes it translates to himself and the other Jason. Roman Nico’s Jason.
It apparently does. Roman Nico nods and turns away to stare at the branding on his own arm. The SPQR is exquisite and looks exactly like the one in Jason’s New Rome. All three marks are bold. Jason wonders if those years of service were good ones, and how many quests Nico has gone on since his initiation.
“Both of you,” Nico says quietly. He sighs. “I’m sorry for what I said.”
“No. It wasn’t. I—I didn’t have the right to compare the both of you and make all of those accusations.” Chewing on his lip, Roman Nico reaches out and carefully sets a hand on Jason’s knee. The grip is firm and secure. And…nice. “I shouldn’t have said that you abandoned your comrades. That’s—that’s you, Jason. You are your comrades.”
A soft smile curls against Jason’s lips. His chuckle is strained, but it feels good to get it out. “Even if I’m not there right now? Not at my victory party?”
“Every leader needs time to recuperate.” Red dusts against Nico’s cheeks and he stuffs his hands in his sweatshirt. It dawns on Jason how embarrassed Roman Nico looks, and how respectful his tone is.
The talk Jason overheard from the stables comes to mind and he feels lighter.
“The…truth is, you’re my hero.” Similar to when he was with Hazel, Roman Nico stands to his feet and begins to pace the length of the room. The sweater looks as big as it would on Greek Nico, and doesn’t look right. Jason doesn’t know if it’s because Roman Nico is Roman or because Nico has to be in a league of his own.
Without thinking, Jason stands to his feet and retrieves Nico’s signature jacket from beneath his cot. He looks over and watches Roman Nico react to the sudden sight. Those eyebrows furrow.
“What are you…?”
“You’re cold, right? This is warmer.”
Before Nico can protest, Jason places it over his shoulders. Roman Nico dips from the sudden weight before slipping it on more comfortably. Red flourishes in his cheeks.
“It’s…my Nico’s jacket,” Jason explains. He nervously stuffs his hands in his pockets and stares at his feet sheepishly. “You…never fit in with Camp Halfblood or Camp Jupiter. But I think it’s because you stand so well as your own person. You…don’t need anyone’s approval, and you taught me that.”
Roman Nico looks great in that jacket.
(Jason wonders if he just misses his Nico that much.)
He’s had it since yesterday, when Roman Nico appeared. Greek Nico has gotten into the habit of visiting Jason at Camp Halfblood when he has the chance, and even with his own cabin, he’s always preferred staying with Jason instead.
Nico wants to belong, but at the same time he knows he doesn’t fit in. Jason, Hazel, Percy, and the rest of them have spent countless efforts assuring Nico that he has a family no matter where he goes. No doubts. No hesitation. Only trust. And Jason has promised to emphasize that so long as their Nico needs it.
On cue, Roman Nico tugs at the sleeves. He messes with the collar and hesitantly stuffs his hands in the pockets. It’s an odd image—this rounder, brighter Nico in a jacket that’s both a haven and a barrier to the other Nico, but it soothes Jason’s soul at least a small amount.
“Hazel told me that this universe’s me wasn’t a camper.” Roman Nico wrinkles his nose and stares down at himself. “This looks like it’d fit you.”
“I tried it on once it. It got stuck.”
“Ah.” Roman Nico shuffles between his feet and continues to stare at the cuffs of the jacket. “You know, I came here today because…I wanted to apologize. But I guess I keep getting it wrong.”
“Why?” Jason frowns.
“Because…this.” Roman Nico laughs quietly in defeat and bows his head. “I can’t get it right, can I—?”
Before he can finish the sentence, Jason clasps hands onto Roman Nico’s shoulders and stares down at him. “You are fine just the way you are.”
Again, Roman Nico’s demeanor twists. He looks away, unable to see eye-to-eye with Jason, and it’s so Nico that Jason wants to curl all over this one and never let go. Roman Nico looks uncertain and reluctant, but Jason just misses his Nico so much that it doesn’t matter.
“I…I came here,” Roman Nico repeats softly, “I came here to apologize.”
“Me too. I’m sorry too,” Jason whispers. It conjures a puzzled look from Nico, which is when Jason realizes he probably wasn’t heard. “I had no right to dictate how your Jason must feel. It wasn’t my place, even if, you know. He’s me.”
“That’s the thing.” To his surprise, Roman Nico’s voice constricts. With a sigh, Roman Nico sits carefully on Jason’s cot and covers his temples with the tips of his fingers. “I think you were right. I think—I don’t know if my Jason wants to stay Roman.”
A grim smile curls against Roman Nico’s lips and it occurs to Jason how big of a blow it is to Nico’s pride. The talk from the stables comes back to mind, and Jason remembers how hurt and panicked Roman Nico looked at the possibility of Jason not even trusting him. Praetor Jason is Nico’s hero and Jason is tainting that image by not even considering himself a legionnaire anymore.
But—“Because he’s part of the Fifth Cohort, like you. He’s the freaking Son of Jupiter and he decided to join the lowest ranked cohort in the Legion. And—I mean, the cohort itself isn’t a laughing stock anymore but he did it because no one expected it of him.” Pulling back to his feet, Nico once again walks to and from the room and throws his hands in the air. “And then he was the only one that vouched for us to stay and we did, and I always thought that was because it went against his code of honor to throw us out—”
“It is,” Jason supplies for him.
“—and sometimes he just locks himself away on some random rooftop to think for himself, like you—only not now since you’re eating junk food in your room—and whenever me or Bianca asks, you just—you lock us out.” Roman Nico finishes his sentence pathetically and pants. He sucks in the air, eyebrows crumpled and frustration apparent.
Jason reaches over and opens his arms, and Roman Nico practically goes running toward him. Reeling back, Jason feels the heels of Roman Nico’s feet roll off the ground, but neither care now that they’re linked together like this.
Roman Nico has an ear pressed to Jason’s chest, like the handful of times Jason’s felt his Nico do it, and claws Jason’s shirt to for more of him. The air of Roman pride escapes, crumbling now that they’re here, together, arriving at the same point where Jason can just loop his arms beneath Nico’s waist and Nico can just dig into him like a content cat. Jason can hear a quiet sigh of relief, and he wonders just how often they do this in the other world. Nico doesn’t just feel like a Roman soldier, but like a child who’s been far away from home for a long time.
“Thank you,” Roman Nico whispers softly.
With a firm smile, Jason carefully puts an arm’s length of distance between them. He presses a hand to his own lips and gestures with it. “You’re welcome.”
It makes him feel as light as a feather when he sees Roman Nico coyly grin. The shorter teen reaches over, coaxing a hand across Jason’s bicep again. He leans forward, once again rolling on the tips of his toes, and—
“Ah.” Jason plants Roman Nico firmly back on the ground and feels his cheeks turn red.
Roman Nico frowns. “I thought you liked me.”
“I—I do,” Jason stammers. He stuffs his hands in his pockets and nudges the ground with his foot, suddenly very shy. “I just…if I ever get to kiss Nico, then I want him to be…my Nico, you know?”
“Oh.” Roman Nico’s eyebrows pinch together and he shuffles between his feet awkwardly. “You’re really corny.”
“I’m sure your Jason feels the same way.” Jason squirms. His ears turn as red as the rest of his face, and he’s sure his voice even cracked. He chews the inside of his mouth and sighs.
His claim is met with Roman Nico’s snort. “I highly doubt it.”
“Why?” Jason smiles. He sees Nico’s cheeks flourish with color and is almost amazed.
“He’s my big brother. Not my…boyfriend. Ahem.” Roman Nico clears his throat. He decides to change the subject back to the matter at hand. “I just—if doing what’s expected of him and not doing what’s good for him is bothering Jason, then I…I-I wanna help. He’s my hero. I need to help.”
The declaration runs through Jason’s mind carefully. He sighs and pulls Nico closer. Roman Nico stumbles a few steps, but he catches on. “I don’t think he’d let you.”
A fist knots into Jason’s shirt and Roman Nico almost whimpers. “Why not?”
“Because it took Juno making Percy and me switch places and erasing both of our memories for me to realize that being Greek was what was missing from my life.” Jason relinquishes his grip a little, but Roman Nico makes sure to keep them together. “I would still try though.”
“Why?” Nico sighs softly and squeezes his way around Jason’s waist. “You just said a meddling god forced that need out of you. I don’t think I have that…”
Nico pulls away and blinks, like he’s coming to a realization.
“You don’t have what, Nico?” Jason asks.
“Ah…uh.” Roman Nico’s entire demeanor twists. “I think I figured out how Nico and I switched places.”
“What?” Jason’s eyebrows dart into the air. He puts Nico at half arm’s length to get a better look at him—who immediately just drops to the ground.
Roman Nico legitimately just falls, like a rock. His eyes are wide, coated with something else running through his mind, and mouth curled into a tiny frown. Nico is so pale that he puts Jason’s Nico to shame. “This is my fault.”
“How?” Jason crouches. He inspects the fallen demigod, since the drop legitimately sounds hard enough to break bone. “Are you oka—?”
Then, Nico scrambles out of the aviator’s jacket, out of the camp hoodie, and out of his shirt. Jason opens his mouth to protest—but the bandages silence him before he can order Nico to keep his shirt on.
“You have a gash,” Jason breathes. Gash is an understatement, and his throat swells because he can’t get another word out. The wound starts directly above Roman Nico’s left shoulder blade, coursing down at his spine before disappearing at the groove of Nico’s hip, beneath the hem of the pants. It’s a disgusting shade of brown, looking like scales jutting out from battered skin, with medical work that is barely intact.
“I was fighting someone,” Nico murmurs, eyes still glossy. His voice is strained. “I can’t remember who, but—I almost lost.”
Jason stiffens, the smell of caked blood coursing through his nostrils. He presses his fingers against the wound, brushing ever so gently, and Nico immediately whimpers. “Nico—we need to get you help. C’mon, let’s go to the Apollo Cabin—”
He knows he’s not heard. Nico makes this strained sound in the back of his neck and just chokes on his next breath. Jason lunges to his feet, to the statue of Gaudy Zeus, and pulls out a baggie of squares he keeps in case of emergencies.
“I got into a fight with my dad,” Roman Nico continues, and it’s bitter. So, so bitter, like Diocletian’s Palace all over again.
“He…he did this to you?” Jason whispers softly. He yanks out a square and it takes all of his self-control to keep from ramming the square down Roman Nico’s throat. Once he sees Nico trembling again, Jason loops an arm around Nico’s shoulders and holds him close. Nico winces and cries softly in pain—but it’s the only time Jason loosens his grip.
“No. Enchidna, I think.” Roman Nico grits his teeth. He reaches over, slowly, and gnaws on a tiny sliver of ambrosia. “Mm…brownies.”
“Yeah,” Jason murmurs softly. He smiles, even if it hurts.
It isn’t returned. Roman Nico curls into Jason’s grip, in a more comfortable bind, and presses his forehead to Jason’s shoulder. “I managed to get some help, but, I—I ran away, and then Pluto kept…haunting me. He kept telling me I wasn’t as good as Bianca.”
Oh. Jason bites on his tongue. He remembers all the late night discussions he’d had with his own Nico. Sisters had been one of them, and Jason decided a long time ago that he’d rather have a statue of Thalia in his cabin rather than his own, absent father.
“He kept telling me to go back to camp because I’d get myself killed, and I yelled at him for—for every fault I had. I took it out on him, even though I was really mad at my Jason and my sister,” Roman Nico mumbles. His eyebrows knit together. “I don’t think I was even angry. I think I just missed them a whole bunch.”
“Why were you gone?” Jason reaches over and slowly strokes Nico’s arm. The square of ambrosia is gone now, and to Jason’s relief, the wound looks a little better. “Was it a quest?”
Roman Nico looks unbelievably tiny when he shakes his head. “No.”
“I ran away.” Roman Nico grimaces as soon as Jason turns to look at him, but the explanation thankfully doesn’t stop there. “It…wasn’t that at first. Bianca became praetor, and I…I was jealous. And I went to my Jason. I told him I wanted to train for a few weeks, and he…he yelled at me. So I left anyway because I was so tired of getting belittled by the two most important people in my life.”
“And then I got hurt, and Pluto told me to go back, but I angered him instead, and he put me here. As a lesson.” Nico chokes on a breath. He clamps hands over his ears and curls over, until his head is between his knees, and he looks so miserable that Jason doesn’t know what to do. “I can’t believe I got to meet my father and the first thing I did was blow up at him.”
“Hey. Hey, you’re human.” Jason peels a hand off of Roman Nico’s ear and makes sure that this small, defeated person his arms can hear him. The shift of Nico’s demeanor is still eerie to Jason, so sudden and poignant in its extremes that Jason is legitimately scared.
Then again, Jason realizes, it isn’t as sudden as he thinks. Within two days, Roman Nico’s landed himself in a universe where his sister is dead. Hazel has been his biggest comfort, like she had been for their Nico. It’d taken over three years for Jason’s Nico to come to terms with Bianca’s departure, yet in moments of vulnerability Nico still calls for her like the little boy with action figures in each hand. And now, at the age of sixteen, their Nico can look up with a smile that reaches his eyes.
“I’m only half. And none of me is looking good right now,” Roman Nico whispers softly. “I miss her. I miss my Jason, too. I wanna go back.”
“You’ll get to,” Jason promises.
He’s met with another bitter laugh.
“Do you know what it’s like,” Roman Nico says quietly, “to have a father who expects nothing from you? Like, expect you not to amount to anything?”
The exact opposite, actually. It’s Jason’s biggest insecurity. Sometimes the hole in his heart is so big that Jason tries to breathe in air to fix it and can’t. Everyone sees it, too. Percy and Poseidon are on amazing terms, and, actually, so are Hades and Greek Nico.
But for the latter, Jason knows there was a time where they weren’t. Nico’s told him that before the first war, Hades viewed him as nothing but a nuisance—as someone who was less than Bianca. However, Nico has spent years building up his relationship with the God of Death, holding his head high when others expect him to be six feet under the ground.
And years were not easily transposed into a span of two days.
“I know that my Nico worked through it.” Jason pulls away and sits across from this new Nico. Roman Nico reaches forward, immediately attempting to regain the touch. He’s only soothed when Jason squeezes his hand. “I know that you’re strong, like he is.”
Roman Nico swallows a lump in the back of his throat. “What if he doesn’t let me go back?”
“He will,” Jason says. As an afterthought, Jason adds, “If he doesn’t, I’ll make him. I swear by the River Styx that I’ll get you home.”
At the oath, Roman Nico cocks his head. His eyebrows furrow together, mouth parting at the declaration. He closes it, slowly unfurling his hand from its shield. Snorts. “That’s a really stupid promise to make.”
“Now you sound like my Nico.” A coy smile curls at Jason’s lips, and it broadens when Roman Nico can smile back.
“Your Nico…” This Nico trails off, his gaze falling to his twitchy hands. “Plu…Hades expected nothing of him?”
The nervous look doesn’t suit his round features well—and maybe that’s why the other Jason and the other Bianca have so much trouble with him wanting to fight. This Nico still has an air of purity, even with the wound on his back. Jason doesn’t see ghosts haunting those eyes, nor the tentative look of trust that still forms on Nico’s face when he hears a voice outside his own head.
Hell, Jason thinks. Roman Nico didn’t even blink twice when they explained the Greek Camp. Roman Nico was more upset that Jason wasn’t the old Jason, more than anything else.
“Yeah,” he says. Jason crosses his legs. “I think it hurt even more because Hades was his only relative after Bianca’s death. So to speak.”
“But Hades trusts him now,” Roman Nico says. He frowns. “My father respects me. Him.”
“I’m jealous sometimes of how much Hades respects him.” Smile faltering, Jason curls his fingers together in the same fashion as Roman Nico’s and hear the crack in his heart as it reminds him that it’s still there. “Our Nico’s been through a lot. That’s…there’s no other way to put it. He’s been through hell and back—figuratively and literally. He’s gone through it so many times to have what you have, and I think that it messed him up pretty bad for a while.”
“What fixed him?”
‘”Love. Lots of it,” Jason says. “Hazel.” Hazel is Nico’s solace, and there isn’t any way to measure how much he adores her. Jason knows, too, that the feeling is returned. The world could end and the first thing they would do is find the other one or die trying.
Roman Nico’s eyebrows furrow together. “Not you?”
“I could never mean what she means to him.” And Jason’s okay with that. “But in your universe—you have that too. In the other Jason and Bianca. The only reason they got mad at you was because they care. Don’t let go of that.”
Dark eyes flicker. Not like a madman, or a genius. Jason can pry both the human and the god parts away from Roman Nico and just see him—someone who loves, and hates, and is passionate as ever, whether good or bad, and it doesn’t matter which because Nico is Nico. “I’ve been a brat, haven’t I?”
“No. I think you did good for yourself by training for two months. Just don’t lock yourself up. I know how you can get.” Scooting back to Nico’s side, Jason runs a hand down Roman Nico’s spine and they exhale at the same time. The wound’s mostly healed, but Jason thinks it’s best if they visit the Apollo Cabin in the morning.
“Thank you, Jason,” Roman Nico murmurs after a small hiccup in their conversation. “And I’m sorry—I…I really am.”
“Already forgotten.” Jason pulls back—and immediately Roman Nico flings arms around him.
“Thenyoo,” is the muffled response.
Never one to turn down a hug, Jason returns it and embraces Nico tightly-if only to make sure Roman Nico is okay. He chuckles lowly against Roman Nico’s cheek. “How on earth did you forget that you were hurt?”
It comes out teasingly, but Jason’s honestly very concerned.
“I have a high pain tolerance and I’m very low maintenance.” Roman Nico bends his head back, chin still digging at Jason’s, and looks into the sky. “Praetor Jason once hit me in the nose with his shield and I didn’t realize it was broken until he was freaking out.”
“Were you concussive?” Jason frowns.
“Don’t remember,” Roman Nico answers honestly. “Is that bad?”
“Probably.” Another chuckle leaves Jason’s lips, but it’s definitely going to be a topic he brings up in the morning. More reluctantly than intended, he asks, “Do you…want me to walk you back to your cabin?”
“Not yet.” Roman Nico presses his nose against Jason’s heart, and he visibly melts. “If that’s okay.”
He moves into a more comfortable position, and Jason suddenly feels ten times lighter. He shuts his eyes and leans forward to catch a little more of Roman Nico. His smile stretches from cheek to cheek. “That’s totally okay.”
“I thought I might find you here.” Nico slowly climbs up the Temple of Jupiter, where he isn’t surprised to find Praetor Jason. He grimaces as his line of sight falls to the ground, but manages to crawl onto the rooftop without any mishaps.
Finally, for the first time since Nico’s arrival, Praetor Jason is out of the praetor robes and just looks like Jason. His shoulders are as wide and broad as Nico’s own Jason, with the purple camp shirt framing every bit of muscle Jason has acquired since he first became part of the legion. The scar is there and noticeable under the ethereal of the glow of the moon, but Nico drowns in the fact that this Jason looks closer to right since they crossed paths.
A gentle, but somber smile curls against Praetor Jason’s lips, but he refuses to turn his gaze away from the starlit sky. “Do I do this a lot in your world?”
Snort. Yup. Definitely Jason. “Yes.”
With a bit of hesitation, Nico slowly decides to put an arm’s length of distance between them. Down below, he sees Bianca slowly making the trek home with Aurum and Argentum at her side. His heart aches and tingles at the same time, ears tuned in with the sound of Bianca’s pulse even from this far away. It clams him down a little.
“Are we even friends in your universe?” Jason asks softly. The worry and bitterness in his tone shocks Nico a great deal. When he looks up to read Jason’s reaction, that somberness blares full force, so bitter and tired at the same time that it ends up hurting Nico, too.
“Yeah,” Nico murmurs softly. “Yeah, we’re friends.”
The short sentence is enough to put Jason to rest, and Nico ponders on how close they’re supposed to be in this universe. Praetor Jason has spent the last two days giving him stern looks, frowning, and even patronizing Nico’s abilities, but from one confirmation, Jason looks relieved.
“I’m sorry for yelling at you earlier.” Nico sighs and rubs away the incoming headache. He holds himself carefully and looks up to the sky, just like Jason. “I was just frustrated.”
Praetor Jason chuckles softly and crosses his legs. “Do you want to know something funny?”
“Shoot,” Nico murmurs encouragingly.
“My Nico would have done the exact same thing.”
Nico frowns. He sits straighter, annoyed, and stares at this Jason in surprise. “Then you…always give him a hard time?”
“No,” Jason offhandedly says. “The opposite, actually. Bianca says I spoil him too much.”
It takes a moment for Nico’s mind to catch up to him. He has to remember that yes, Jason found Bianca and the other Nico, Bianca and the other Nico have been living here, and although Percy and Jason are very different people, they’re easily substitutable as far as superheroes go.
(Then again, Jason and Percy being interchangeable in any way is a disgusting thought.)
“You and I got into a fight before you left for two months,” Praetor Jason explains. He straightens his posture and crawls closer until they’re touching. The sudden gesture catches Nico off guard—enough to nearly fall off the roof.
Nico’s Jason isn’t nearly as bold. Eyebrows furrowing together, Nico goes to shove his hands in his pockets—and forgets, again, that his jacket is basically nonexistent. “I’m starting to believe that I didn’t get along with anyone.”
“You did. As a matter of fact, you won MVP at our semiannual banquet,” Jason assures. He chuckles softly under his breath and it lulls Nico into security. His shields falter at the familiar sound, with Jason’s smile causing his heart to do somersaults.
It aches, almost. Nico sighs again. He jumps as a warm hand presses against his cheek—
“What are you—”
—this time scrambling to the other side of the temple roof without care of falling to the ground. Nico burns bright red and stares at Praetor Jason in disbelief.
Praetor Jason, who was n-not nearly this affectionate that afternoon. Who’s now staring at Nico in confusion, irritation, and only the tiniest bit of embarrassment. “I thought you said we were friends in your universe.”
“Forgive me if I misled you with my clarification,” Nico snaps angrily. His cheeks blaze with a worse heat and it takes every nerve in his body to keep from shadowtraveling back to the barracks and dissolving into conversation with Frankie.
“Oh.” Praetor Jason doesn’t look half as flustered as Nico feels. Instead, those perfect blond eyebrows knit together in a neat fashion and he actually strokes his chin. Jason analyzes the freaking situation and groans softly. “Sorry.”
A few breaths later, Nico’s heart is still unsteady. He unfurls his claws and shakes before sitting in a more upright manner. “It’s…okay.”
They fall into a silence so Nico can catch up with his brain. He hugs himself as cold air brushes against his skin and tries to fight off the blush. Can’t. Willing up the courage, Nico glances at Jason from the corner of his eye and—sees Praetor Jason Grace smiling.
Nico’s jaw tightens. “What?”
“Nothing,” Jason says. It’s an absolute lie. “You just…you spent all of this time barking at me and now, when it’s—it’s just us, you act like you’ve never been hugged before.”
“It’s not an act,” Nico snaps. His expression shrivels and he compresses into himself even more.
Another silence quickly follows the first one. Nico can’t be bothered to care, and he doesn’t want to look to see what Praetor Jason’s reaction is. This was a mistake, and he knows it. His cheek still tingles from Jason’s touch and he’s talked himself into a hole like he always does when he gets embarrassed, and if Nico leaves now he can still catch Bianca and grumble to her about it.
“I’m sorry,” Jason says again. “I keep messing up, don’t I?”
Nico forces himself to loosen up, if only to save them both the awkwardness of the rest of the night. “It’s okay. Just…don’t do it again.”
“Did…Bianca tell you how close you and I were?”
“Sort of.” Nico swallows hard and curls his hands together. “What did you two fight about?”
Jason looks as embarrassed as Bianca did. It kind of irritates Nico. “You told me about your plans to leave for a few weeks to train and I yelled at you.”
What? Nico’s demeanor twists and he scowls. “And you didn’t tell Bianca?”
“I did. After a few days.” Jason’s eyebrows knit together and he sighs. “Don’t worry, she was mad too.”
Good. Nico chews on the inside of his mouth and taps his skull ring against the roof. He sits straighter and stares at the ground. From the corner of his eye, he sees Jason’s remaining at the sky and rolls his eyes. The irony of this whole situation.
“You were right to be mad,” Jason continues, which is an interesting habit that carries over no matter any universe. Nico’s convinced that he could be asleep and Jason would still talk to him until the sun came up. He’s been meaning to test out that theory. “I mean—the stuff that I said was way out of line.”
“Let me guess. The hearing aid. Gauging my abilities. Getting killed because I’m deaf from one side. Does that sum it all up?” Nico’s gaze narrows and his expression tightens. “Letting this Nico into the Legion and then treating him differently gets you nowhere. It’s patronizing.”
“Bingo. I mean—the stuff you said today was right. I—” Jason stops short of the rest of his sentence. He grimaces and…looks frustrated. Devastated, almost. “I helped him train, even when Bianca didn’t allow it, but…I don’t know if I gave him enough training. I don’t know if he’s still alive, and that’s…that’s my fault, if he…”
“I’m sure he’s fine.” Nico reaches over and curls a hand over Jason’s.
Jason, of course, stares at the sudden gesture, everything else forgotten. He smiles weakly. “You’re allowed to touch me but not the other way around?”
“Yes,” Nico says. His ears flush pink in the dark and he quickly returns to the subject at hand. Figuratively speaking. “The gods wouldn’t bring me here unless there’s a purpose. My memory’s still with me, too.”
“So what?” Jason arches an eyebrow. “You think you’re supposed to find the other Nico?”
“No. I’ll tell you in the morning.”
“Why not now?”
“Because,” Nico starts. He struggles to finish the sentence. “Because if I’m right, then I…I want to spend as much time with Bianca that I can before I have to go back.”
It’s selfish. He knows it. Especially after Praetor Jason just told him how he misses his own Nico. But this is the only universe where Nico can reach out, find, embrace, apologize, and be at peace with Bianca. The theory he has in mind is ridiculous, but whatever reason for him being here, Nico wants to stay as long as possible—even if it’s only for another day.
Fortunately, Jason catches on quickly. “You could stay here. Bianca would be happy.”
“I wouldn’t be.” In the same train of thought, Nico can’t leave Hazel. Hazel is sister too. His heart aches at the thought of ever abandoning her because he knows what it feels like to be pushed aside for someone else. He needs Bianca as much as he needs Hazel, both souls stitched together so tightly in his heart to make up his own.
Silence. Nico has to physically hold his chest because it throbs. It hurts—it hurts so much.
Nico nearly falls off the roof when Jason flings his hoodie toward the younger demigod.
“What—?” Nico grits his teeth. When he looks up—Praetor Jason stares at him in concern.
“You look cold,” Jason supplies.
It’s a total lie.
Neither comment on it.
Instead, Nico murmurs a thanks and wiggles into it. He breathes in the fabric and instantly feels his heart beat at ease again. If Hazel and Bianca are his heart, then Jason is the stitching that keeps him sewn together. Nico wipes his tears against the sleeves and sighs softly. “You have a sister in my universe.”
Jason blinks. “Really?”
“Her name’s Thalia Grace. She’s Greek, like me. You two even share the same mother, like Bianca and me.” The musk of Jason’s jacket fills Nico’s nostrils. It’s ridiculously soothing. Sedating, even.
“Am I Greek too?”
Nico snorts. He only has to look at Jason and knows the praetor is treating his questions like defusing a bomb. Praetor Jason wants all of the answers but is afraid that he can’t have them all.
“Somewhat,” Nico says after a while. It isn’t a precise answer, but there’s no way to go about the subject without flat out saying Jason is mixed. “You were born Roman and became praetor. But some stuff happened and you came to the Greek camp. Camp Halfblood. You ended up liking it a lot better, so that’s where you were before I ended up here.”
He looks at Jason, hoping the explanation suffices, but all he sees is more confusion.
“That was about two years ago,” Nico specifies. “You and I didn’t grow up together. That’s how we met.”
“Oh,” Jason says. He sounds disappointed.
Nico frowns. “What—?”
“Nothing,” Jason cuts him off immediately. His entire demeanor twists when Nico flashes him an irate look. “I…just. You didn’t have that little crush on me then. Did you?”
“Uh…” Nico’s eyebrows shrivel together. His mouth dangles ajar and he twitches before shoving his hands in the pockets. His face heats up again and this time Nico doesn’t think he can hide it. Instinct tells him to shove the question away. He doesn’t want to open that jar and elaborate on ten-year-old Nico’s crushes, obsessions, and bitter resentment—even if it’s Jason that he’s talking to.
Fortunately, Jason continues that habit of one-sided conversation. He looks pink himself, the sweet hue glowing against his cheekbones before he chuckles shyly. “You thought I was the coolest thing when we met. My Nico went from calling me Superman to telling me how Zeus had 400 Attack Points.”
“500,” Nico corrects. He clears his throat and stares at his feet. It kills him how Jason lights up at the interjection. “Then why would you argue?”
The bright smile over Praetor Jason’s face dims. He curls his hands together and stares at his knuckles, a breathy, sad chuckle fluttering from his lips. “You got your first boyfriend and stopped doing it for a while. Did Bianca tell you about my father, and…your mother?”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t. We had this talk already in my world.” Nico curls tighter in the hoodie. He dips his face, nose resting on the indent of the collar between both drawstrings.
“I’m the reason why you found out,” Jason continues. He looks hesitant. “And you decided to become a legionnaire after that. I guess…I don’t know. I guess I babied you the whole way while thinking I was helping you. You grew out of that stuff, too. Out of just…following me around, coming to me when you had a bad dream…that stuff. And after Bianca became praetor, you told me you wanted to get outside of New Rome for a few weeks and train. I told you that it was dangerous, and that you weren’t qualified, and it escalated from there.”
Nico can imagine it. Almost every temperament of his is locked up in a small box in his mind, chained shut so they can never see the light of day because he doesn’t like who he was at ten. The Roman Nico is who he was at ten, with more perks than Nico can imagine. The broad and raw emotion he had as a child still leaves a bitter taste in Nico’s mouth.
“I just…wasn’t sure what to expect,” Praetor Jason mumbles. “And you kept giving me this look, like I was empty to you. So I was mad too.”
Ah. “That’s not why I gave you that look.”
Praetor Jason frowns.
“You’re not…my Jason. You’re the opposite of what he wanted to be.” Nico shrugs. He shirks his hands away from the sleeves and curls into himself. “I know you don’t want to be that, either.”
It doesn’t surprise him how Praetor Jason suddenly looks uncomfortable. A frown flattens across Praetor Jason’s lips and he sits back. “Oh?”
“You chose the Fifth Cohort because it wasn’t expected of you. I asked Bianca. She told me it was true.” Nico shrugs. He sucks in his cheek. “And in my universe, you took my other sister, Hazel in. Not just because she needed a home, but because you thought you’d feel a little less lonely with her there.”
“You know all of this from spending an afternoon with me?” The reply is quiet. Strained, even. Jason doesn’t answer right away, and Nico knows it’s because Jason fears how accurate the situation is. He knows Jason too well—all of those insecurities, those loves, those hates, this dislikes, those fears.
Everything, because Jason knows everything about him.
“You and I are close in my world,” Nico murmurs. “You know everything about me.”
“Is our relationship really that important to you?”
“Yes,” Praetor Jason answers truthfully.
Nico wrinkles his nose. His face warms, mouth hidden beneath the collar of the sweatshirt, and he sighs. “You…like me in my world. At least I think you do.”
A quiet, warm laugh flutters from the back of his throat.
“I know you do,” Nico mumbles shyly. His face burns now, but he can’t help the smile that curls against his lips. “Because I know you and you know me in my world. It’s so stupid though. You’re so obvious and awkward about it, but I think you don’t think I’d ever say yes to going out with you.”
“And would you?”
Nico doesn’t have to look. He can hear the smile in Jason’s tone and the satisfaction that comes with it. Immediately, he hikes the hood of the jacket over his glowing ears and scoffs. “You could have this conversation with your own Nico.”
“It wouldn’t be nearly as fun,” Praetor Jason says. He sounds smug.
“You could ask him, you know.” Nico chews on his lip and turns so that he’s facing the praetor.
Jason’s face is long and firm, just like the one Nico knows.
The blond hair is still short—so short that it’s almost invisible on a head like Jason’s, but his eyes are almost the same. His irises are still pools of pristine water, reflecting the stars above and clouds with vast purity. The scarred eye is translucent and beautiful, shimmering in an eerie way that makes Nico’s heart clench.
But it’s the smile that kills Nico: sweet and humble, and at the same time so assured by the person sitting right next to him.
He sucks in a breath, scrutinizing Praetor Jason for as long as he can. Nico sighs. “Bianca wouldn’t mind, either, if her reaction to me means anything. You could stop being praetor and be…yourself. Your camp would still love you.”
In an instant, that smile disappears. That doesn’t surprise Nico, either. Jason’s demeanor twists with turmoil that carries over from years of doubt and over a decade of insecurities thanks to the statue that they’re sitting on top of. “You wouldn’t.”
“I would,” Nico insists not half a heartbeat later.
“No. You wouldn’t. I’m your hero. Everything that you based your ideas off of.” Praetor Jason shakes his head, self-loathing and ire still present in this form. “My Nico knows the book better than me. I’ve…thought about quitting praetorship, and roaming off like my Nico did. Gods—” Chills run up Nico’s spine, from just that one word. Jason’s anguish stings like salt on a wound. “—I’ve thought about it a lot. But I can’t…break that image he has of me. It’d break me too.”
“I would still love you,” Nico reiterates.
Praetor Jason looks back to him with furrowed, bitter eyebrows. “You wouldn’t.”
“I would, and I have,” Nico says a third time, and he decides that’s the last time he’s going to repeat himself. He’s loved so hard that it hurts because it’s hard to let go. It’s the other side of holding grudges. Because Nico has a hard time letting go, whether it’s anger or love, or a mixture of the two. It’s only recently that he’s able to look at Percy without his chest feeling like it’s going to cave into itself. “You don’t value our relationship as much as you say you do if you think I’d leave you just like that.”
Jason looks at him with a thoughtful frown. He looks freed in some way, able to fly out of the box of his mind, and that’s when Nico can finally breathe.
When Nico can shut his eyes and sigh tiredly. He leans over and buries his face in Praetor Jason’s shoulder, heartbeat already blasting loudly against his ear drums.
“Not one word,” he murmurs after realizing Jason is clearly confused.
“Two, then,” Jason whispers back. His chuckle is music to Nico’s ears. “Thank you.”
“Mm.” Nico flushes red. “Another.”
“I’m glad you came,” is the next immediate response.
Nico smiles against Jason’s shirt. Yawns.
The rest of their night is spoken in soft and quiet words. In brief pauses Praetor Jason starts signing out of habit, and Nico criticizes him for the sudden hiccups and hitches, but otherwise it runs smoothly. Nico learns, and Jason listens, and Nico knows it only makes him miss his Jason more.
Percy Jackson does inevitably get mentioned, but Jason is kind enough not to mention it again.
By what Nico’s internal clock dubs as 4 o’clock, he’s ready to just sleep there, with Jason’s heartbeat as his lullaby and Jason’s jacket as his blanket.
“I’ll walk you back to the barracks,” his pillow whispers.
“Okay,” Nico says back. And they call it a night.
Hazel gasps when she sees the wound on Nico’s back as Will Solace inspects it. It hasn’t reopened since last night, looking close to fully healed, but Jason can understand Will’s frown as he scrutinizes it more closely. Roman Nico’s wound looks like a wicked, angular scar.
“You did well by eating some ambrosia,” Will assures. “It’s a huge gash, though. Whoever helped you treat it the first time saved your life.”
Roman Nico squints at him.
“What?” Will frowns.
“Nothing,” the former assures. “But I think you were a legacy of Venus in my world. With pink hair.”
“Cool.” Will runs a hand through his own hair and grins.
“Can you numb the pain for him for a few hours?” Jason asks. It’s a guesstimate at best, but he honestly doesn’t know how to break it down.
“Numb him for what?” Percy frowns and shoves a handful of blue popcorn in his mouth. He kicks his feet over the coffee table and Annabeth quickly shoos them off.
The next morning finds them in the Rec Room once more, plus Will Solace and Rachel Dare. The latter sits comfortably between Reyna and Annabeth, while Will keeps running his hands up and down Nico’s spine, practically petting the wound.
“I can,” he confirms. “You’re lucky, di Angelo. Nothing out of place. No infections, no misplaced bones, no internal bleeding—you’re as fit as a lyre.”
“You mean fiddle,” Jason says.
“Lyres are cooler.” Solace waves his hand dismissively.
“Wow.” Roman Nico’s voice is nothing more above a whisper. He reaches for the mirror provided to him earlier and bends awkwardly to inspect himself.
“Maybe it’s not so much luck, as it is Dad’s way of saying he cares.” Hazel reaches over and squeezes Roman Nico’s hand. “Maybe Pluto helped heal your wounds before sending you here.”
“Not possible.” Roman Nico shakes his head immediately. “He hates me.”
“I disagree.” Percy arches an eyebrow—sounding surprisingly adamant about the claim. “If there’s anything Lord Hades loves most in the world, it’s his children. Hazel’s supposed to be dead, and yet he ignores her presence to keep her alive.”
“Yeah.” Leo snorts. “That’s love.”
Frank smacks him upside the head.
Reaching over, Jason loops an arm around Roman Nico’s shoulders and feels his pulse calm once he leans in. “You said Lord Pluto was trying to get you to return to New Rome. Maybe he was just concerned.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” Annabeth frowns.
Roman Nico smiles grimly. It’s off-putting how the room suddenly drops ten degrees before he raises his head. “Because after I got this wound, I got into a fight with Pluto and wished my sister didn’t exist.”
Eyes widen, with a palpable ‘Oh,’ running through everyone’s mind. Jason sees them drawing comparisons in their heads and can’t blame them. Their Nico has years of experience addressing gods and even Titans. It’s hard to imagine such a diplomat arguing with a god and using a six-year-old’s logic.
“So,” Roman Nico continues, “that’s how we switched. I ended up here, where Bianca is dead and I’m assuming your Nico is in my universe where she isn’t. I need to go to the Underworld to Pluto’s palace and beg for forgiveness. And…hopefully he’ll send me back after that.”
“Have you been there before?” Percy asks.
“No. But.” Roman Nico rubs his chin and shrugs. “I can guesstimate.”
“Like hell you can,” Percy continues. He pauses—looking a little amused by his own statement. “I’m coming with you.”
“Why?” Ebony eyebrows wrinkle together. Jason can see Nico trying very hard not to roll his eyes.
“You’re not going alone,” he says. Jason pulls Nico closer for emphasis. It garners a few odd looks, but he decides it isn’t the time to address it.
“Well, that, and of everyone in this room, Seaweed Brain, and I are the only ones that have actually seen Lord Hades’ Palace.” Annabeth elbows Percy in the rib and frowns at him. Her gray eyes harden, concern clear as she intertwines their fingers together next. “And you’re not going. Not without me.”
“I expected as much,” Percy mutters before kissing the corner of her mouth. “But Wise Girl, it’s not safe.”
“You never have been, SB.” She smiles weakly.
“Oh, ew. Fine, fine—you can all go! We can make a field trip out of it!” Roman Nico shouts loudly enough for everyone in the room to hear. He rolls his eyes. “But for the love of gods, don’t do that when we’re down under.”
“Huh,” is Percy’s next response. He rubs his chin. “Is there anything magical in Australia?”
“Oh, no, just the phoenix,” Leo chirps. He pulls a nail file out of his tool belt and begins work on his nails.
“No, Percy. The phoenix is in Phoenix, Arizona.” Annabeth makes an effort to punch him in the arm. Hard.
“Like that,” Roman Nico fumes. He rolls his eyes again towards Jason and throws his hands in front of his body. “Like that!”
Neither Percy nor Annabeth feel compelled to apologize. Instead, Jason shakes his head with mild amusement and sits back against the couch.
“It’ll just be the nine of you,” Rachel says. She shakes her head and sighs tiredly. “Someone’s gotta stay behind and make sure the Stoll Brothers don’t terrorize the new campers.”
“Right.” Will Solace shakes his head in disbelief and chuckles lowly. “That’s worse than Gaea.”
Not one person disagrees with that statement.
“You mean eight,” Roman Nico corrects. His lips curl into a frown before he peels himself off the couch and crouches in front of Hazel. Nico stares at her, mouth parted open, before clamping it shut once gain. “I…would really like it if you could see me off, but…I-I know you can’t go.”
Hazel’s eyebrows furrow together, and her expression matches Roman Nico’s. Tight, guarded, and heart-wrenchingly painful. “I—”
“I forbid you to go,” Roman Nico cuts her off. “I’d rather have an undead sister than…well, the opposite—”
She throws her around him, and immediately Roman Nico twists to meet her embrace. They hold each other like they’re the only souls that exist in the world, fitting together like joint and limb, and separating looks like it’d be too painful to do.
“You’ve been a great brother,” Hazel whispers. She follows with a handful of signs and kisses him softly on the cheek.
“I’ll find you,” Roman Nico promises. His eyebrows furrow together and he brushes his lips against her knuckles. “I promise, I will.”
Frank stands to his feet and reaches over to touch his girlfriend’s shoulder. He trades looks between both siblings, smiling sheepishly. “You, uh, want me to go in your place, Haze?”
A grin spreads from cheek-to-cheek over Roman Nico’s lips. He elbows Frank in the rib jokingly. “Wouldn’t be a trip without you, Praetor Frankie.”
“Well then,” Jason says. He picks his gladius off the floor and looks around the room curiously. “Who all is going?”
Annabeth and Percy, for sure. Along with Frank and Jason. Jason looks over to his best friends—where he’s met with the scene of Piper painting Leo’s toes. He doesn’t bother to ask—they’ve been doing weird things like that ever since they started dating.
“Like I could let my Superman go all the way to Australia without me.” Leo smirks and mock-salutes Jason. “Someone’s gotta make sure that you’re still around to protect me.”
“Thanks.” Jason smirks back.
Piper shoves Leo playfully. “I’ll stay with Hazel to make sure she’s okay.”
“As will I,” Reyna says. She sighs warily and rolls her eyes toward Rachel. “I’ll help you detain the Stoll Brothers, too.”
“Let’s get that wound healed up and then you should be all set for your trip.” Will Solace pats Nico gently on the shoulder and pulls him out of the crowd of people. He sings a soft Hymn to Apollo under his breath, and from the sweet words, Roman Nico just sits better.
Reyna makes a face. “You may overshoot it the first time you go. Maybe it’s best you wait—”
“No, I’d rather go now.” Roman Nico stares at the ground as he redresses himself in both an orange t-shirt and their Nico’s aviator’s jacket. His demeanor twists, unreadable, but Jason can understand the stance easily. Roman Nico wants to get home as soon as he can, back to his life. “I’ll take naps in between just in case.”
The six passengers stand closer to the ping pong table, Jason squeezes Roman Nico’s hand a little tighter and hears Roman Nico sigh quietly.
“Oh—yeah. Wait, bro.” Leo lets go of Percy’s arm and wiggles into the center of their circle. He digs in his tool belt and whips out a tiny, circular box before holding it out to Roman Nico. “This is for you.”
“What?” Roman Nico blinks. He peels his hand away from Jason hesitantly before opening the box between his palms. Stops breathing.
“It’s made out of imperial gold. All the wires and metal that went into it should be demigod proof. Shadowtravel proof, too.” Leo grins elfishly and shakes Roman Nico’s hands enthusiastically. “Go on, man—put it on!”
Jason looks over and inspects the handiwork carefully. Sure enough, Leo’s hand-made hearing aid is shiny imperial gold, with carefully carved dials and—even more, from the looks of it, compared to the one that Nico already has.
“How’d you figure out how to do this?” Roman Nico looks skeptical, but carefully peels the aid he has on already before replacing it with Leo’s gift.
“Well,” Percy starts. He grins, which only makes Roman Nico look even more confused. “I pitched the idea after mine and Jason’s fight, and Annabeth thought of the ways to make it work. Leo built it after that.”
“Does it work?” Jason asks. Roman Nico jumps at the intrusion of his voice, but before Jason can get an apology out, Nico starts grinning.
“Very well,” Roman Nico confirms. “It’s not a duplicate of my other ear, but…yeah.”
“You’re a pretty efficient fighter.” Hazel smiles from her place at the couch and it earns a blush from her brother.
“You really are. I mean—you use earth more than you do riches like Hazel does, but you’re also freaking awesome at it.” Percy reaches over and fistbumps Roman Nico. “If you got that under control like me with water, or Jason with lightning, then you’d be unstoppable—with or without that hearing aid.”
“Thanks.” Roman Nico flushes even brighter, cheeks swelling into a bright red. Shuffling between his feet, Roman Nico chuckles under his breath and smiles back at them. “Looks like this Nico’s got a great group with him.”
“He does,” Reyna assures sweetly, and it flusters Roman Nico even more.
“Good for him, then,” he mutters.
“You ready to go?” Jason runs a hand up Nico’s back in soothing strokes. A smile curls at his lips.
This time, Roman Nico looks hesitant. He gives the room a careful looksee before intertwining his hands in both Frank’s and Jason’s. “Yeah.”
The shadows of the Big House curl beneath their feet. Jason feels the room drop another twenty degrees, goosebumps rising up his forearms, over his shoulders, and up his legs. He shivers, darkness groping at his skin.
And then they descend.
“You’ve got this dopey smile on your face.”
Nico opens his eyes. Morning sunlight gets into his line of vision—and after that, the second thing he sees is Frankie’s face as it dangles over from the top bunk. Frankie cringes at first—then just stares at Nico like he’s grown a second head.
“So you two are dating,” he chirps enthusiastically.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Nico mumbles. He feels warm. Almost feverish and tingly—which is when Nico remembers he’s still wearing Praetor Jason’s hoodie. It occurs to him that last night was the only one where he slept comfortably. Sitting up, it doesn’t cross Nico’s mind that he should probably give Jason the sweatshirt back.
Instead, he shoves his hands in the pouch and shimmies out of bed.
“You were gone for a long time.” Frankie follows in suit, grabbing a towel and toothbrush before toddling after Nico. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” Rubbing the last of sleep out of his eyes, Nico starts for the door.
“You’re…not gonna brush your teeth?” Frankie sounds mildly disgusted.
“I’d be using someone else’s toothbrush,” Nico mutters under his breath. He turns around to deliver a pointed look, but Frankie only looks disappointed.
“You could stay a little longer if you want.” Frankie rubs the back of his head and shrugs. “I wouldn’t mind.”
Huh. Nico hesitates before curling his hands in the pocket carefully. “We can go grab breakfast. If you’re up for it.”
Breakfast is mostly a one-sided conversation at best, filled with Frankie’s nervous discussion and occasional comments about the weather. Eventually, they decide that Mythomagic is a safe topic, but Nico doesn’t have the heart to geek out about the game with someone who’s clearly a rookie. Frankie twitches a lot, like the old Frank before the war, and it has a quiet air of nostalgia that twists in Nico’s gut.
“I like your company,” Frankie says out of the blue when they finish half-heartedly debating the aesthetics of Zeus’s Heaven and how inaccurate of a card it is. His demeanor twists, like he realized how stupid that sounded.
Nico blinks. “You and this world’s Nico are best friends, aren’t you?”
“Yeah,” Frankie assures. He looks at the ceiling of the Dining Pavilion, nose wrinkling, and bows his head. “But I mean, you too. You could stay here, you know.”
Snort. “And what, replace the other one?”
“No!” Dark eyebrows dart into the air and Frankie erratically shakes his head. “I mean—no. You know, both of you. My Nico and you. Praetor Bianca wouldn’t mind, and Praetor Jason seems to like you enough.”
“I’d mind,” Nico says. He rubs his eyes and sighs. Nico’s already had this conversation with Praetor Jason.
“Oh,” Frankie says. He falls silent, eyes on his plate, troubled, and Nico’s usual mask of awkward ire disintegrates completely. “I dunno. I guess I just want you to be happy.”
Again, Nico blinks and lets the confession run through his mind. He chews the inside of his mouth and sinks back in his seat. “I’m already happy, just being able to see Bianca. But…I can’t stay here without my Hazel.”
Or his Jason, or his Frank, or without Reyna in any form. Hell—Nico was almost certain that he needed Percy in his life too. And Nico’s okay with that. This world’s Bianca isn’t his—will never be his. Yet she mended the holes long forgotten in his heart with ease, and that’s all Nico needs to feel like the little boy who loved his sister as much as he loved action figures and card games again. Even if it’s a sliver—because he knows that they’ve grown and Nico can finally look back at his past with a smile.
“Thank you, Frank. Frankie,” he corrects himself. Nico stares at Frankie, gaze hard, and a tentative smile curls against his lips. “You’re a good friend.”
On cue, Nico gets tugged by the hood of the jacket and a pair of lithe hands cover his vision. Bianca giggles softly behind him while Aurum nudges Nico in the shin.
“Let me guess,” he says sarcastically, “Argentum?”
Bianca snorts. “You were never good at that game.”
“You were bad at it,” Nico chides. “I always let you win.” The teasing doesn’t last long. He breaks into a wider grin as Bianca throws her arms around his shoulders and hugs him close.
“Jason says you figured out how you got here,” Bianca mutters.
Nico’s smile falters. “Yeah.”
Over her shoulder, Nico sees Praetor Jason walk into the Mess Hall. Praetor Jason pauses, his eyes scanning Nico up and down in pleasant surprise—rather than his usual straight-lined sternness that makes up his demeanor as a leader.
“What?” Nico asks bluntly. The sudden drop in his tone makes Bianca guffaw and Frankie squeak in surprise.
“Nothing,” Praetor Jason replies curtly. He smiles smoothly. “You look nice.”
Red glows in Nico’s cheeks. He tugs on the drawstrings of the hoodie and tightens the collar before shoving his hands in the pockets. Nico flushes an even darker red when Jason’s grin only widens, and he rolls his eyes.
“We should go to the office,” Jason continues softly.
“Yeah.” Nico isn’t eager to leave—but it doesn’t feel right to stall, either.
His mind shifts gears, whispering, Get It Over With, like ripping off a Band-Aid. Nico wants to be numb to this of all things, but he knows—just knows—that he’s going to be bawling the minute Bianca and he are no longer together.
“You coming, Frankie?” he asks. Cocking his head, Nico turns just as Frankie makes another unguarded sound.
“You want me to be there?” Frankie frowns.
“You’re family.” Shrug. Nico smiles when Frankie does, and they start the path towards the principia.
As the office comes into sight, Nico realizes Praetor Jason and Bianca take steps half their normal pace, and Frankie follows in suit since he’s trotting behind the two camp leaders. Wedged between them, Nico feels like a child pushing against a wall.
And not really pushing.
They haven’t even confirmed Nico’s theory yet, and both Bianca and Praetor Jason have it in their heads that it’s wrong, and that Nico can stay as long as he wants. He chokes on his emotions as they knot in his throat, and gnaws on his lower lip to keep from saying something he knows he’ll regret.
Snaps out of his thoughts when Bianca reaches out to grab his hand. They plant their feet to the ground, gaze fixated on one another. Neither smiling. Jason and Frankie carry on through the principia, pretending they didn’t notice. From the corner of his eye, Nico knows both Jason and Frankie had glanced over at them before chalking it up to sibling discussions and giving them space.
“What’s up?” Nico keeps his voice calm as he squeezes Bianca’s hand firmly.
She squeezes back, which calms the small influx of panic in his mind. Bianca makes a face.
“I wanted to let you know,” she starts. Her voice is broken, and Nico’s mind backtracks to last night on the rooftop of the Temple of Pluto. “That the only reason that I agreed to become a legionnaire was because I knew you were going to be safe. If that weren’t the case—if for one instance, I thought you might be in danger because of this place, I would’ve quit the Legion and take you out of New Rome as soon as I could.”
Nico’s heart aches.
“I know it doesn’t excuse leaving you here. And that your world’s Bianca never came back, so you two could explore being demigods together.” Bianca reaches up and fixes the drawstrings to Nico’s hoodie. Her eyebrows furrow together and she struggles to smile. “But that’s what I thought. Maybe that’s what she thought, too. Because I know we love our brothers a lot.”
He swallows the lump in his throat. Nico ducks his head, a raspy laugh in his throat, and shoves his hands in the pockets of the jacket. “Do you…wanna know how she died?”
No, she doesn’t, Nico thinks, because no one wants to know how they died—different world or not—yet Bianca nods on anyway, with the look on her face that Nico’d seen several times when she was still a ghost. When she was still with him, in some form.
“On her quest, they went through the Junkyard of the Gods. You’re not supposed to take anything out of it, but…she did.” Nico shuffles between his feet, struggling to breathe, and wipes a tear out of his eye before it could fall down the contour of his cheek. “It turned out to be—”
“Hades. The last figurine in your Mythomagic collection,” Bianca finishes for him. Her eyebrows dart in the air, and Nico matches her surprised expression.
“How did you—”
“I told you. I brought back a souvenir to my Nico after my first quest. I—I barely got out of it alive. I’d probably be dead if Jay didn’t fly in and save me.” Bianca’s eyebrows furrow together. She rolls her sleeve up, showing the intricate scar in all its glory. Lines and tendons stretch out around her shoulder, off-color against her skin tone, and extend even further under her shirt.
His heart stills. Nico’s eyes widen, and he knows he’s suddenly frozen.
Bianca moves ever so slightly, making the scar maneuver like a flicker of lightning, and it dawns on Nico that she was electrocuted.
“I was able to destroy Talos from the inside out since he was made of metal.” She turns slowly and looks toward Jason, who immediately returns the look, curious—and says nothing. “And when I got electrocuted in the process, Jason jumped in and redirected most of the voltage. That’s how he got the scar on his face. He got hit in the eye from shrapnel when he pulled me out of the machine.”
And they survived.
Because Praetor Bianca can bend precious metals and Huntress Bianca, Daughter of Hades, can’t.
Because Jason can fly, and Percy can’t.
And this world’s Nico might’ve gotten mad that his sister nearly died, but she didn’t die and Jason, his hero protected her with all his might, losing his eye in the process, and they took care of each other.
And this world’s Nico got a souvenir from his sister’s first quest, which is sitting brightly on a window sill beside his bed in the barracks.
Nico swallows hard, suddenly feeling nauseous. The similarities are just eerie and disturbing.
If…his Bianca had been a Child of Pluto, then things would have been different. If Jason was there, instead of Percy, and Jason was as intoxicating as Percy was back then, then Nico wouldn’t be as hurt. He would stay, have a normal semblance of a life—
—and he can’t go back to that place.
He clutches the crown of his forehead, headache drilling its way between his temples, and shivers.
If he goes back to that place—the one where he locked himself up in his own living hell for three years before Hazel, then Nico knows he’ll hate himself for it. Nico doesn’t want to feel like an empty carcass anymore. He needs to stop being haunted by this because the ghost is no longer there.
“Nico?” Bianca whispers. She wipes a tear cascading down Nico’s cheek.
“It’s nothing,” he mutters back. Pulling out of his ministrations, Nico sniffles and pushes his emotions back into the box at the bottom of his heart. A smile curls against his lips, shaky, before he looks back up to her through unruly hair. “I’m glad I came, Bianca.”
“She died in the junkyard,” Bianca says. Her eyes widen, the fear visible, and covers her mouth. “She died in Talos, didn’t she? After trying to get that figurine.”
“Yeah,” Nico mutters. He coughs, feeling pathetic misery at the edge of his throat once more, and nods. “Yeah, she did.”
The light in her eyes morph into something Nico knows well: fear. Nico wasn’t there, but from the way her eyes flit back and forth between Nico and the scar, he knows that she’s reliving everything that happened.
Bianca shivers, her hand going to her arm. He reaches out and holds her before Bianca’s mind can go to that dark place too.
“We should get going,” he mutters quietly in her ear. Don’t look back at the dark. Always go forward, towards the light. It took Nico a long time to understand that, and he’s not going to let Bianca bear that pain.
“You’re so brave,” Bianca says back. She holds him tightly.
“You’re my sister.” Nico smiles weakly and kisses her on the cheek. “It only makes sense.”
She scans him, for all the cracks Nico used to have in his heart and mind and body and soul, like she’s suddenly seeing him in a different light, and then smiles. Bianca reaches out for his hand once more. This time without the intent of ever letting go.
“Took you long enough,” Praetor Jason teases as they approach. He smiles, but the worry still shines in his demeanor. Sunlight broadens the scar on his face—pale, but as broad as a dagger. Nico can’t help but worry about Praetor Jason’s relationship with the other Nico.
Because Jason is a hero, needs to be the hero, and the very thought of failing crushes everything that Jason has carved his essence to be. Jason can’t fail. He isn’t allowed to. Bianca doesn’t mention what happened after the quest, but Nico sees how attached Praetor Jason is to both Bianca and him. Knows.
Are we even friends in your universe?
It occurs to Nico that if he’d said no instead of yes, that the answer would have crushed Jason.
“Sorry,” Bianca and he reply in unison. From the corner of his eye, Nico watches Bianca smile, and they both tighten their grip on each other.
They make the rest of the trek inside the office without a word. Hesitantly, Bianca releases Nico’s hand and leans against the walls while Aurum and Argentum trot after her to remain by her side. Jason takes a seat in the office chair, while Frankie and Nico stand awkwardly in the middle of the room.
“So?” Praetor Jason asks reluctantly.
Nico actually smiles a little at how concerned they are. Clearing out his throat, Nico’s hands return to the hoodie pockets and he sighs. “I…think that your Nico enraged a god.”
“Sounds likely,” Frankie supplies immediately. Bianca and Jason sigh warily before nodding at each other in confirmation.
“The problem is, I can’t figure out which god.” Nico crinkles his nose and grimaces. “Two months is a long time to be out there by himself. I’m confident he’s still alive. Whatever way you look at it, someone switched us.”
“Then where are we supposed to go from here?” Praetor Jason frowns.
“Dunno,” Nico admits. “But our best bet is going to Hephaestus first. He runs HephaestusTV, and this whole ordeal may have enough viewers to land its own thirty minute TV special on his station.”
He loses them from there. Nico scans the room, receiving looks of confusion, and a tiny smirk curls against his lips.
“We’re going to Mount Olympus,” Nico rephrases. He stands firmly at his spot. Shadows swirl beneath the soles of his shoes, and immediately all three other demigods stand up straighter, eyebrows darting high in the air.
“Wait a minute—wait, you expect us to just walk in there?” Praetor Jason sputters.
“Yes,” Nico responds smoothly. His conscience starts ratting in his brain, telling him that going to Mount Olympus is a bad idea. “We’ll avoid the throne room. If your Jupiter is anything like mine, then he’ll shoot me down the moment he sees me.”
Praetor Jason’s expression hardens. His eyebrows furrow together, demeanor morphed into a wolfish demure. “I won’t let that happen.”
I know, Nico says quietly in his head. “That’s why I need you.”
Jason nods in response, his lips still set in a straight line, and Nico’s heart skips a beat.
“Our main focus is Hephaestus. I’m hoping of all the gods, the Other Nico and he have stayed on neutral territory.” Arching an eyebrow in the air, Nico surveys the room for a confirmation. Bianca makes a face before nodding, and Nico hopes that translates to, Yes, the Other Nico hasn’t done anything stupid with Hephaestus yet. “We should also look out for Mercury, since he’s the God of Travelers—”
“Ergh,” Frankie starts with a grimace, “You told me you once pulled a prank on Lord Mercury and his reaction was…ambiguous. We should stay clear of him just in case he wants to turn us into a goat or something.”
Of course, Nico thinks. He rolls his eyes. “We’ll wing it after Hephaestus then.”
Game plan decided, Nico waits for his comrades to collect their weapons. Bianca has a new quiver filled with imperial gold-tipped arrows, while Jason changes into the military garb of a praetor—purple robes and several official looking badges—and Frankie settles on a spear. (Nico frowns at the last one—then he remembers that his Frank hasn’t used a real weapon in years.)
Nico reaches out for Bianca’s hand—and is surprised when she recoils.
Praetor Bianca grimaces when she realizes Nico noticed. “Sorry.”
“What’s wrong?” he frowns. “I know the plan is faulty—” Nico decides to place the blame on Percy, who—as Leo and Annabeth put it—is the king of Making Things Up as I Dick Around and Making Things Even Worse But Sometimes Actually Better.
“It’s not that.” Bianca cuts him off, breathy, and then looks embarrassed. “I’ve never shadowtraveled.”
“But—in the arena, you said—”
“Nico knows how. I don’t.” She shifts nervously between her feet. “I’ve never tried.”
He grabs her hand before she can recoil again, squeezing it reassuringly while Jason holds her other one. Frankie makes his way between Nico and Jason—shaking a little, as he laces their fingers together.
“It’s…scary,” Nico confesses. He still remembers the first time he shadowtraveled, with long limbs of darkness reaching out to him as he tried to escape them. It took him a long time to realize that they were guiding instead of pulling, and now Nico feels he can freely lurk in darkness. “But it’s better when you go with friends.”
Praetor Bianca looks doubtful. Judging from Praetor Jason and Frankie, Nico assumes the Roman Nico has given them some semblance of what shadowtraveling feels like.
“Okay,” she says softly. “Just…don’t let go of my hand. Promise?”
“Promise.” Nico wonders how many quests Bianca has gone on, how many she’s nearly escaped death from, and how badly they’ve messed with her psyche. He loves her because she’s strong. Adores it.
The shadows curl beneath his feet once more. He hears Bianca inhale a deep breath—and then they descend.
Jason scans their surroundings, crowds of people suddenly suffocating them. His eyes dart back and forth—down the airport terminals to slumbering people, to several others who are still making leaps and bounds down the glossy halls to other terminals in the facility. The mist—though faint—swirls around them in fragile puffs. Some mortals stop to stare at them, but Jason catches someone grumbling, “—umb kids blocking the entry way—” and chocks it up to them being a group of teenagers looking like they’re up to no good.
“Where…are we?” he asks.
“Well,” Roman Nico grumbles softly beside him, “judging by the banner that says Welcome to Sydney, I’m assuming we’re in Australia.”
“Hah!” Percy fistpumps into the air and proceeds to fistbump Leo. “Called it!”
Roman Nico immediately groans before stumbling into Percy’s arms.
“Nico—” Jason starts. He lunges toward his fallen comrade, but Percy makes just as much haste to catch Roman Nico. Nico moans in pain, head nestled tightly against Percy’s chest, and whimpers.
“Oh-kay. Did not call that.” Percy frowns—and the brief flash of panic in his expression catches Jason off guard. He doesn’t have time to ask about it—Percy shucks Roman Nico into Jason’s arms instead, and Jason quickly places Roman Nico in a chair far away from mortals.
“You okay?” Jason has a hard time keeping his voice solid—or at a volume that Roman Nico can even hear. He wipes the sweat away from Roman Nico’s brow, realizing the skin beneath his palm is clammy, and sun-kissed flesh quickly pales to a sickening green.
“Mm,” Roman Nico moans softly. His head lobs to the side, eyelids fluttering open and closed before they close permanently. “Longer distance than intended. Overshot it. My bad.”
“You gonna be okay?” Jason kneels beside the chair. He caresses Roman Nico’s cheek, runs his fingers down the vein of Roman Nico’s wrist, inspects the Roman Nico’s neck—anything to assure that Nico’s okay. His hands find themselves at Roman Nico’s back, and immediately Roman Nico whimpers out of pain.
Great. The Hymn to Apollo’s basically useless.
“’Mmmkay,” Roman Nico mutters in slurs. He yawns softly and wanders off of the gate chair before curling into a ball in Jason’s lap. “With great power comes great…”
He drifts off to sleep before finishing the sentence.
“I…think he meant responsibility,” Frank chimes awkwardly as a passage of silence passes.
“It definitely wasn’t that,” Percy assures. He chuckles softly despite the severity of the situation. Jason kind of wants to punch Percy for having the nerve to giggle, but doesn’t work up the nerve to. Percy doesn’t find the situation stressful, so Jason doubts they should, either.
“What now then?” Leo snorts. He nudges two seats with his foot and smirks. “I can make a bed if you get too uncomfortable, Superman.”
“Not too bad,” Jason responds. He blushes, but keeps his attention to Roman Nico, who fits in his arms like a small child.
“He just needs to nap,” Annabeth assures. Her eyebrows knit together and she stares at Roman Nico in disbelief. “A jump like this should have killed us, though. Our Nico doesn’t have the mental or physical capacity to shadowtravel at this velocity. We just traveled 16,000 kilometers across the world.”
“So we’ve gotta wait for the booger to come back.” Leo frowns. He whips out tools and starts fiddling with two empty chairs sitting beside him. “This is anticlimactic.”
“Don’t mess with the chairs.” Annabeth swats him. “That’s private property.”
“I’m improving it!” Leo insists. “This is one of your only chances in Australia; why don’t you find a blueprint of the building or something?”
“You think we could find a kangaroo around here?” Percy smirks and nudges Frank in the rib. “You could finally transform into one.”
“That…would be cool.” Frank’s original demeanor screams to take care of Nico, but the thought of turning into a marsupial apparently makes even him excited. He flashes a look Jason’s way, somewhat pleading and also stiff, like, this is out of my jurisdiction as a camp leader.
Lips curling into a wary smile, Jason hikes Roman Nico and himself against the floor so the latter has his head against Jason’s thigh. Almost out of instinct, Roman Nico latches onto him, fisting Jason’s shirt and burying his nose against Jason’s stomach. “I’m okay here. Bring some food back for when he wakes up?”
“Deal.” Percy fistbumps him and the rest of the group disperses. Annabeth to an information counter, Frank and Percy to some windows, and Leo—well, right here, currently dismantling a chair with his bare hands.
“So’re you gonna ask him out when he gets back from the Romanverse?” Leo muses. He manages to weld seat cushions together and proceeds to prop onto the makeshift bed like it’s a hammock.
Jason flushes red. “Who said I was gonna?”
“Oh please.” Leo scoffs. He coils one hand into a fist and waves it freely in the air. “I can count on one hand on how many people aren’t betting you two are gonna get together. You see this? No fingers left!”
“Shush,” Jason responds immediately. His face burns even hotter.
This time, Leo laughs.
“What?” Jason asks, and he can’t be any more flustered than he is now because Leo is one of the only people who can get a rise out of him that way.
“Nothing,” Leo assures. He wipes a tear from his eye, snickers again, and shakes his head in disbelief. “You sound just like him.”
“Do not.” Jason chuckles softy and runs his hand across Roman Nico’s forehead. His touches are light and feathery—and Roman Nico doesn’t hesitate to hold him even closer. He wishes it was his Nico, with the narrow face and soft hair—but the other part of him is just delighted that this Nico wants Jason to take care of him.
“You…really are happier with him, Jay,” Leo says quietly. “Piper and I think that you’re good for each other.”
“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean much if he doesn’t love me back.” Jason shakes his head and strokes Roman Nico’s back in long, smooth circles. “I’m okay with this.”
“What—you’re not gonna tell di Angelo that you’ve spent the past two days being cuddle buddies with his other self?” Leo rolls his eyes comically, like he always does. The only difference is Piper isn’t here to hit him when Leo says something inappropriate. “You do realize you kept quiet about wanting to be Greek, like, all your life, and that started a war, right?”
“I think you’re making up some details.” Jason snorts—which only gets another cackle or two out of Leo.
“Say what you want, Superman.” Leo wiggles his eyebrows at Jason. “But you’ve got it bad.”
By the look on Bianca’s face, Nico assumes that the trip is as disorienting as he promised. They reappear at the front of the Empire State Building, where Nico coaxes the security guard (and fails) to get the key to the six-hundredth floor, Frankie tries and fails, Bianca tries and fails, and Praetor Jason only opens his mouth before the guard jumps excitedly, asks for an autograph, and shoos them toward the elevator.
“Hnghh.” Bianca moans and clutches the reflective wall as the elevator makes the heavy lift that indicates their ascent toward Olympus. Nico rubs her back in soothing circles, guilt bubbling in his stomach.
Looking over, he sees Jason’s eyes fixated on the ceiling.
“What’s wrong?” Nico asks.
“Nothing,” Praetor Jason breathes, which really means everything. Nico doesn’t point that out—Jason catches himself sighing and smiles nervously at him. “I’ve…never been to Olympus before. It’s just a little surreal.”
Nico stares at Jason in disbelief. “You’ve gone toe-to-toe with Titans.”
“Yeah,” Praetor Jason agrees. “This is just…my father.”
Right. Even Jason back home has only met Jupiter once—when Percy unwittingly forced the Gods to agree to new policies between the newly unified camps. Jason had been conflicted between agreeing with Percy and wanting to scold the other camp leader for putting Lord Jupiter on the spot. To this day, Jupiter hasn’t gone out of his way to contact Jason for anything else—and Jason actually wonders if he should have argued with Percy.
It makes Jason feel insecure and regretful, that his father didn’t even bother to look at him through that meeting.
These circumstances aren’t any better. Praetor Jason probably expected more than barging into his father’s domain and request assistance in getting a son of Hades home.
Praetor Jason reads Nico’s expression before Nico realizes he’s extracting the situation. “Do I ever get to meet him?”
“What?” Nico cocks his head toward the taller teen.
“My father.” Praetor Jason smiles weakly—but hopefully—at Nico. “Does your Jason ever meet him?”
No. The scar on Jason’s face suddenly takes Nico’s full attention—off color, but rigidly beautiful, and an emblem that represents how far Jason is willing to go for his friends. Nico doesn’t know what this Praetor Jason has been through, but he knows Jason. Jason Grace, whose essence is as beautiful as gold. Jason, who is a protector, a hero, and a leader who carries the pride of Rome and is still humbled by the presence of his comrades. He isn’t a god among men because of his lineage—those who are close to him would never see him that way.
Because those who adore him see Jason for the hero he’s built himself up to be, for himself. Jason Grace is a beacon for both camps.
Which is why Nico feels like the answer to such an innocent question is choking him. It’s agonizing. Nico doesn’t want to tell Jason that his beacon isn’t bright enough to reach Jupiter’s throne.
“Once,” Nico forces himself to say. “It…uh. It…it could have gone better.”
He’d give anything to take back that answer. Praetor Jason’s expression shifts faintly, the smile across his lips just a watt less bright. His eyes dull with disappointment, but he doesn’t allow his composure to slip. “I see.”
“We’re still proud of you.” Bianca jumps in immediately. She squeezes his shoulder, showering him with tons of empathy that makes Jason’s frustration disappear.
“Thank you, Bianca.” Jason is more reserved in comparison to Bianca’s shyness, but Nico can tell that they love each other from the way Jason’s smile is more exposed—strained, but stronger under Bianca’s touch. It’s one of those looks—where the emotion just radiates from his eyes.
The elevator arrives on the 600th floor with a jolt. Nico slips out, quickly surveys the Mount Olympus Directory, and points east. “Hephaestus TV studio should be this wa—”
Bianca, Frankie, and Praetor Jason inspect Mount Olympus in awe. They survey the area, mouths dropped, and Nico feels a little bad. He’s made this trip on a regular basis, and forgot how the first time being here felt. Camp Halfblood even takes the demigod on a fieldtrip to here every winter and summer solstice.
“Are those the Muses?” Frankie asks. He gestures to the nine figures singing in the middle of the plaza.
“Yeah.” Nico smirks, amused.
“You’re enjoying this,” Jason remarks.
“Shush.” Nico rolls his eyes when he sees Praetor Jason’s own wily grin, and paves the way towards the TV station.
Frankie trots beside him. “You think we’ll have time to explo—oh.” He stops his own question before he can complete it.
Glancing back, Nico realizes Bianca and Jason are giving him the same exact look of sorrow, followed by the one Frankie quickly sports. He resists the urge to roll his eyes and chews on his bottom lip instead. “Maybe.”
They all know that they can’t, but no one argues.
The station is perfect. Like—ridiculously gorgeous and well-accented, which makes Nico’s inner interior designer tingle inside.
—which all stops as soon as Bianca gasps. “Nico, look!”
She points to a TV located above the reception desk—which stands at about 60 inches in width. Nico looks—and immediately sees Jason on the screen.
His Jason, with a crumpled boy curled in his arms, while Leo lounges in some new invention. Four different cameras reveal Annabeth, Percy, and Frank too in different corners of what’s clearly an airport.
“Our Nico,” Praetor Jason whispers.
Nico’s heart leaps into his throat, his eyes growing moist, as he trudges to the receptionist. Jason has the same smile as Praetor Jason—sweet and firm and endearing all the same. He holds the Other Nico like Nico would love to be held if Jason weren’t so obtuse, and the way Jason looks at the Other Nico makes Nico feel at ease.
The aura—a woman-shaped construct of clouds with a nametag that reads Misty—smiles at Nico, surprisingly. “What can I do for you, sweet—”
Sirens go off. Confetti blasts from the ceiling in violent bursts, causing all four demigods to whip out their weapons, and an automaton—dressed like a card dealer from Las Vegas—rolls out of one room and latches onto Nico.
On screen, instead of the Roman Nico and Nico’s Jason, Nico sees himself—wide-eyed and on guard—with Praetor Jason, Bianca, and Frankie on either side of him.
“Here he is, folks! The first half of Hephaestus TV’s new popular show, Double di Angelo!” The automaton, laughs robotically and curls an arm around Nico. “Greek Nico! Do you have anything to say?!”
“I…uh.” Stunned, Nico stares at the automaton, at himself on the screen, and twitches. “I need to see Lord Hephaestus.”
“Oh.” The automaton unlatches himself from Nico’s side. The happy music stops, confetti gone, and the spotlights return to normal. He points to a ticket dispenser with Lord Hephaestus’s face on it. “Take a number and go sit down until your name is called.”
Huh. Nico blinks in disbelief—and watches the live feed showing him look incredibly stupid—before grabbing a ticket and guiding his group to the lobby.
“What number do we have?” Frankie asks curiously.
“5,029.” Nico grits his teeth.
“Huh.” Frankie taps his hands against his knees. “Well this is anticlimactic.”
Chapter 3: Tre
“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…”
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
“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.”
Thank you everyone who's read this story! I've had a really fun time making it, if you guys are interested in a full fleshed out story (where we find out where AU!Hazel is, mebbe? malin-j has made these awesome pictures here with some Roman!Nico stuffs, a little for Vampires Like Coconut Milk, and some other stuff
Again, if you liked the story please let me know! I look forward to showing you guys more jasico stuff!! :D