Looking back on it, falling in love with Nico had been a little bit inevitable.
At the time, though, he’d just been another awkward new kid perpetually stuck at the bottom of the high school food chain. With his unkempt hair and messy clothes, Nico was the very picture of halfhearted teenage rebellion. He walked around with a slump, and though he answered every question correctly when called on in class, he did so with an air of indifference that set Jason’s teeth on edge.
He was the farthest thing from Jason’s type, and the way Jason’s heart traitorous heart had fluttered in his chest when Nico made eye contact with him over a flask of 1-molar hydrochloric acid was mere coincidence.
“Have you seen the new kid? He’s totally your type,” Piper said, dropping her lunch tray next to him. She hadn’t quite mastered the art of packing her own lunch, and anyway, putting up with the school’s shitty nutritional choices would strengthen her character. Or something.
Jason gritted his teeth. “He’s not my type.”
“What, dark-haired, smart, way too gorgeous for his own good?” Piper waggled her eyebrows meaningfully and added an elbow to Jason’s gut for good measure. He winced. That hurt.
Jason ducked his head, suddenly preoccupied with his sandwich. “Now you’re just fishing, McLean.”
“Hey, you dated me for a full two months, I’m allowed to wrangle compliments out of you.”
Piper broke out a pre-calculus textbook then, and they sat there in companionable silence, only interrupted by the occasional grunt from Piper as she worked through the problems. Jason could almost pretend Piper didn’t smirk when she saw Jason tracking Nico’s movements across the room.
He pretended so well he almost believed he didn’t.
Jason had never been particularly close to Frank, but he knew about the guy in theory. He was cool, noble in a way that Jason admired. Where Jason often doubted he deserved the attention given to him, Frank—well, he deserved more than he got.
And he definitely deserved more than he got when he suddenly fell prey to the stomach virus going around school, forcing Nico to pair up with Jason instead.
Jason barely suppressed a self-satisfied fist pump.
“Hi.” Jason stuck out a hand as he made his way to Nico’s desk at the back of the room. He’d chosen a seat just out of their teacher’s field of vision. “I’m Jason Grace?”
Nico continued to stare straight ahead. It was ridiculous, really, how much frustration one person could evoke in Jason. From this angle, Jason could catch a hint of green earphones stuck in Nico’s ears, covered by the hood of his jacket.
Well, here goes, he thought, before plucking them out.
Nico jolted upright, glancing in every which way. When his frantic eyes lighted on Jason, they narrowed.
“What do you want? “ Nico hissed, and oh boy, that voice should not be this attractive. He was wearing an aviator jacket today, and it hung off his thin frame, making him seem even skinnier. All angles and bones Jason wanted to run his hands over, just to see if they were as sharp as they seemed, or if Nico was hiding something soft underneath the prickly exterior.
“You’re not allowed to have earphones out at school,” Jason said. He winced as soon as he registered his own words. Here he was, Jason Grace, all-around good kid and extreme idiot.
Nico leaned back in his chair. His eyes held all the makings of a challenge. “What? Are you going to report me?”
Jason cocked his head. “According to the administration, we’re all hiding drugs underneath our hats, so I may have to. You know, for everyone’s well-being and all.”
Nico blinked before cracking a hesitant smile. Jason took it as an invitation to set his own lab notebook down next to Nico’s. While his cover was blank and boring, Nico had covered his in elaborate designs and doodles, drawn in with permanent marker. They covered the span of the front page, and oh—was that a picture of Mr. Chiron Jason caught? Even with the blunt head of the maker, Nico had managed to capture a remarkable likeness.
“You draw?” Jason said.
Nico flinched, flipping his notebook on its front before Jason could blink. “Not really, no.”
Perhaps there was more to Nico di Angelo than Jason had thought.
Chiron had another lab scheduled the following day, but when Jason got to class, he saw Frank milling around Nico’s desk, waiting for the signal to move to the lab tables in the back. Jason’s heart dropped to his stomach. His dragged his feet over to Reyna’s desk, and when he set down his books with a slump to his shoulders, she shot him a questioning look. Jason’s gaze shifted over to Nico and Frank longingly, but Nico didn’t seem to notice.
Frank, however, was a different story.
When his eyes met Jason’s, they widened almost imperceptibly. Jason wouldn’t have noticed if he weren’t braced for a reaction. The quirk of his lips held the barest hint of sneakiness, and when Jason matched his stare, he gave an quick nod.
“You know what?” Frank said, loudly enough for both Nico and Jason to hear, “I think I’m going to work with Reyna today.”
That left Jason with Nico, who looked even more wrong-footed with each passing minute.
“I guess we should start,” said Jason.
Nico frowned, scrutinizing him. He could feel himself wilting under the other boy’s gaze. “Sure,” Nico said, “let’s get started.”
To everyone’s surprise, they worked well together. Jason had expected clash, fire, maybe even a moment where he’d be tempted to stuff a rag soaked in ammonia into Nico’s face. But where Jason refused to take the lead, Nico picked up the slack. He could tell Nico wasn’t suited to leadership—he wore it like an ill-fitting suit.
The first time Nico had taken charge with a chromatography lab, Jason had to physically restrain himself before he leaped over the table and hugged Nico. The other boy gave him a tentative smile in return and said quietly, “Just soak the paper in alcohol, Grace. You’re getting lazy.”
The next time Chiron made his rounds to their table, watching Jason’s body bent over Nico’s as they heated some copper oxide, he only shook his head, smiling.
They’d been chugging along up until then, somewhere between friends and acquaintances. It became harder and harder to say no to Nico, especially when he blinked those dark eyes at Jason. Jason had always harbored a soft spot for the underdog. Piper told him he had a hero complex, Leo said he just wanted Nico’s dick, but Jason thought Nico was simply fascinating, from the scuffed toes of his black boots to the aviator jacket he always hugged tight around his body, even when he had no need of it.
Piper had warned him against it, of course, she’d always been a better judge of character than he was.
“You’ll scare him off,” she’d said when he proposed the idea. Flicking a piece of notebook paper at him, she continued, “Are you prepared for that?”
Jason only shook his head emphatically. A bit naïve, maybe, but Piper would chalk it up to sheer idiocy. “I think we’re friends now.”
The best way to do it would be slowly, to ease Nico into the idea. Nico had perfected the art of running.
The titration that day had been particularly strenuous, and sometime between spilling another flask of sodium hydroxide and overtitrating the acetic acid yet again, Jason seemed to have lost his mind. As he slumped back against the counter, sweat matting the hair to his forehead, Jason blurted it out with no preamble.
“So, I was thinking, Percy’s throwing a party, nothing big, do you think you’d want to come?” Jason said in a rush.
Nico avoided his eyes. “…Percy Jackson?”
Jason could tell what Nico was thinking. Percy Jackson, the guy everyone loved? Small party?
“He’s cool, I swear.” Out of the corner of Jason’s eye, Nico still stood stiffly, hands straight at his sides. This had been a mistake. Their flasks stood unwashed on the table, and Jason focused on them instead of the bitter disappointment settling in his gut. He’d been so sure their budding friendship outweighed Nico’s reluctance to socialize.
“Look, Jason, you don’t have to be my friend,” said Nico carefully.
Jason only scrubbed harder on the Erlenmeyer flask. “I know, but what if I want to be?”
“I’m fucked up.”
Just pour the dissolved water, Jason. “You’re a junior in high school, you’re kind of supposed to be.”
“You just want to fix me!”
“Do I look like the male protagonist of a young adult romance novel?”
“I like boys,” Nico said, a little desperately, as if that would turn Jason away. Like Jason’s heteronormative mind wouldn’t be able to take the strain of it.
“Cool, me too,” Jason told him.
Nico stared, slack-jawed. “Does that mean you…?” With his head cocked to the side, Nico looked like a confused puppy, though Jason wasn’t sure how much he’d like the comparison. Nico shook his head. “You know what? Never mind. I’ll come.”
Yeah, Jason wanted to say, it does mean what you won’t allow yourself to hope.
A clatter came from the back of the room, jolting Nico and Jason out of the silence that had settled over them. Annabeth was crouched on the ground over a broken flask, and from the look on her eyes, Jason could tell she’d heard every word.
“Don’t mind me,” she said with a smirk, “I’m just cleaning up.”
Jason should have known taking Nico to the movies would suck. Maybe Jason was really just one big teenage cliché in the body of a blue-eyed, blond-haired lacrosse player, but at least that meant he’d end this particular movie riding off into the sunset with his equally young and attractive love interest, 80’s music blasting in the background.
He’d been surprised Nico had even agreed, honestly. Sure, they’d been building up their friendship lately, and Nico even managed to step out of his comfort zone a little, hanging out with Jason’s friends instead of communing with the dead or whatever it was he did in his spare time. But the unspoken words still hung between them like a layer of tension, threatening to spill over any minute.
Still, Nico had a thing for zombie movies, and Jason had a thing for Nico, so here they were, caught in between friendship and something more.
If only Jason could define that something away from Octavian’s judging eyes.
“What would you like?” Octavian droned with practiced cordiality, not looking up as Jason approached the counter. Shit, Octavian worked here. Jason had forgotten. They had history Jason would rather not dredge up again, and definitely not here, with Nico standing only five feet away.
Octavian’s eyes widened when he saw Jason standing in front of him. “I didn’t know you even liked this theater, Grace.”
Jason shrugged. “Maybe I’m trying something new.”
Octavian’s gaze shifted to the side where Nico was approaching the both of them, two packs of Twizzlers in his hands. He smirked, and Jason felt his blood run cold. “Trying something new, huh?” Octavian said with a nod at Nico and an exaggerated wink.
Nico’s face turned a bright shade of red. “I’m not, we’re not…” Nico rubbed the back of neck, blushing to the tips of his ears. “Yeah,” he finished eloquently.
“Really?” Octavian urged. “Not even a little bit?”
Octavian gave Jason a pointed raise of his eyebrows, but Jason refused to rise to the bait.
Nico and Jason spent the movie in silence, only broken by Nico’s tentative, “Can you pass the popcorn?”
“The art of wooing is subtle,” Piper had said when he asked her for advice. In retrospect, maybe this had been a bad idea. Piper was more full of “don’t do this” than legitimate advice, and the biggest “don’t” on the list was apparently “don’t be Jason Grace.”
Piper rolled her eyes when she noticed Jason’s attention slipping away. “You have to handle it with nuance and expertise, both of which you lack.”
Subtle. He could do subtle.
Three days and a poetry assignment later, Reyna forced him to take it back.
“It was subtle!” he insisted, somewhat futilely. He ducked his head behind the stack of textbooks, but Reyna took none of his shit.
“You could have picked any poem to analyze, and you go with Neruda.” Reyna threw her hands up in defeat. “Are you even trying?”
“It’s famous, Nico won’t know I picked it for…less than academic reasons.”
Reyna snatched the paper from Jason before reading aloud, her voice clear in the silence of the library. “I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, secretly, between the shadow and the soul.” She shook her head, her lips twisting in disgust. “Neruda, shit, you really are the epitome of awkward white boy.”
“I heard that you’re wooing Nico di Angelo,” Leo said when he called.
Jason leaned against the kitchen counter, absentmindedly thumbing through his planner. Annabeth had insisted he get one to keep his school assignments in order, but he’d never used it before planning his and Nico’s study date. The meeting was written down in permanent marker and circled to boot, not that Jason would actually forget.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Jason.
“I didn’t know you had a thing for awkward hipsters.”
Jason only sighed, and there was a pause before Leo perked up and said, “If you ever manage to win him over, we could double date!”
“You don’t even have a girlfriend.”
“Stop crushing my soul, asshole,” Leo said, before slamming the phone down with a resolute bang.
He knew he’d have to deal with the family eventually, but he didn’t know it would come so early. Still, as soon as Hazel cornered him during lunch that day, he knew.
“He latches on to people, you know,” Hazel told him. Jason paused where his fork hovered an inch from his mouth, but Hazel either didn’t notice or didn’t care. Either way, she dropped her textbooks down next to him, tucking herself into the nook where Jason had stolen away. “That’s just how he works.”
Hazel stared at him expectantly through her dark lashes, and Jason’s breath caught in his throat. Nico and his half-sister had the same eyes. “I’ve noticed.”
“He did tell you about Bianca, right?” Hazel asked hesitantly. Jason nodded. Nico had mentioned her once, during one of the rare moments he let something slip about his private life. She’d died the year before in a car accident where she hadn’t even been driving.
Nico had ducked his head then. “The last thing I told her was that I hated her for leaving me,” he’d said tremulously.
Jason hadn’t known what to do. Nico hated being touched, but Jason wanted to tuck Nico into the crook of his shoulder and hug the shit out of him until he felt whole again, or somewhere close.
But Nico made the choice for him. He leaned into Jason’s side, just a slight press of his body at first, until Jason wrapped an arm around his shoulders to pull him near, letting his warmth invade Nico’s body.
Hazel played with the fringe on her backpack now before whispering, “He loved her a lot. Loves her. But he never learned how to live without her. I just—“ Hazel sucked in a raspy breath and before meeting Jason’s gaze head-on. “I care about him a lot, even when he doesn’t know it. Especially when he doesn’t know it. He doesn’t care about many people, but he does care about you so,” she chuckled mirthlessly, “don’t waste that, Jason. I know I wouldn’t.”
“So you’re dating Nico, right?” said Percy in English the next day. Nico was absent, and Jason had to be grateful for small miracles.
Jason only grunted in response, letting his silence speak for him.
Leaning over to Jason’s desk, Percy propped his chin on his hand. “Any lube recommendations?”
Jason chucked a textbook at Percy’s head. It connected with a satisfying crack.
Jason had never been too keen on meeting Nico’s father. He’d heard tales about the man, and none of them particularly positive. He’d like to live past the age of eighteen, thanks, and meeting Hades may come in the way of that goal, just a little. Hell, the man was named after the Greek god of the Underworld. If that wasn’t an ominous sign, Jason didn’t know what was.
Hades had caught them slogging through homework one day though, and even Jason wasn’t stupid enough to refuse the invitation to dinner, no matter how reluctantly it had been given. Besides, Jason could feel Nico at his back, paling. Nico’s body language said no, but the glint in Hades’s eyes said challenge, and Jason had never been one to back down.
Like the little shit he was, Jason agreed almost immediately.
Thirty minutes into dinner, Nico excused himself to the bathroom. Hades turned to Jaosn as soon as his son left the table, smile stretching over his face. “So you’re the kid who’s in love with my son,” he said. “Does he even know?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Jason took another stab at a meatball. He couldn’t be that obvious, could he?
Hades ignored Jason and continued to size him up. “I don’t like you, but at least you seem pretty harmless. Don’t break his heart.”
“Is there an ‘or else’ at the end of that? Sir?”
Hades grinned, baring all of his teeth. “Does there need to be?”
Jason got the call before he slipped back from a quick trip to Wal-Mart. Their mother hardly bought groceries these days—hardly did much of anything, really—and the fridge had been stripped bare for dinner the night before. And maybe Jason really was a bit of a sap, wanting to do something nice for Nico.
Dear lord, he was fucked.
“Jason, why the hell is there a sleeping Nico di Angelo on our couch? And why is he wearing your pajama bottoms?” Thalia barked. “You didn’t…”
Jason rolled his eyes. As if he hadn’t caught Reyna and Thalia doing worse around the house. “Nothing happened. He just needed a place to crash. His dad’s out of town, and he didn’t want to be alone.”
“And he chose our house?”
“What’s wrong with that?”
Nico and Jason had stayed up late the night before, working through Thalia’s extensive collection of musicals. By the time La Vie Boheme came blasting through the TV, Nico had even agreed to turn the volume up, singing the words along with the actors. His pitch fell just shy of in-tune, but Jason loved it just the same. Nico had smiled then, bright and grand and happy.
At Jason’s raised eyebrow, Nico punched his shoulder playfully. “Shut up.”
Jason held his hands up, still grinning. “I didn’t say anything.”
Jason wondered if it was possible to be this in love with an absolute dork, but maybe they were destined for this, spending the rest of their lives in mutual dorkdom. Jason could live with that.
“It’s not that I don’t approve,” Thalia said now. “I’ve just never seen you this invested in anyone before. Are you sure about this?”
Jason fingered the sketch Nico had slipped into his pocket the day before at school, with Jason as the leader of his own merry band of Argonauts bearing striking resemblances to his friends. The one in the front even had Percy’s dopey smile and was currently in the act of stuffing his face with blue cake. The Jason in the sketch wielded a gleaming sword, and when Leo had glanced over, asking if Nico had drawn in a metaphor, Nico only flushed bright red.
“More sure than I’ve ever been about anything,” Jason replied.
Nico looked so peaceful sleeping there that Jason was almost reluctant to nudge him awake. Even his snores were adorable. Sap, he could practically hear Thalia whispering.
As soon as Jason touched his shoulder, Nico shot up like an arrow. His eyes darted around the room warily before his shoulders slumped, relaxing. He rubbed his eyes blearily. When his gaze fell on the plate of eggs Jason held out in front of him expectantly, Nico let out an indignant squawk.
“You didn’t have to make me breakfast! You could have woken me up before now,” he squeaked.
Jason jumped down on the couch beside Nico, pressing their thighs together. “You’ll find that I rarely have to do anything for you,” Jason said, and hoped it was enough.
Nico bit his lip nervously. “Jason…”
Jason sighed, defeated before he even tried. He should have known Nico wasn’t ready. “Let’s just—let’s just enjoy this. You don’t have to say anything. I’ll back off.”
Jason inched away slowly, but with a jerk of his arm, Nico reached out to where Jason’s hand wrapped around his knee. He laid his own hand down on top so that they fit together like puzzle pieces. Jason’s mouth fell open, and Nico looked equally shocked. His eyes fixed on where their hands joined, thoughtful.
“Are we dating?” Nico said, his voice small. He looked fragile like this, like Jason could break him with one blow. When Jason didn’t answer immediately, Nico shrank into himself and sprang back on the couch, gathering together his school supplies frantically. Jason felt the loss. “Sorry, sorry I shouldn’t have asked that—I don’t know what came over me, it’s just that Hazel thinks we’re dating—“
He stumbled as he jumped up, heavy backpack throwing off his center of gravity. Maybe it was Nico’s bad luck, maybe it was an act of fate, but either way, Nico fell right into Jason’s lap.
Jason’s arms came up to bracket Nico’s body, stopping Nico’s fall before the other boy fell against his chest. Nico’s lips were an inch from his.
“Well, hello there, come here often?” Jason drawled.
“Dork,” Nico said.
Jason would have come up with a better retort had the circumstances been in his favor, he swore. He’d always been intelligent enough, but as Nico’s breath ghosted over his lips, Jason’s brain short-circuited. He could hardly cobble together the syllables of his own name, much less a witty comeback that would have Nico falling head over heels in love with him.
“I know what you are, but what am I?” Jason said, and winced as his own words hit him. He kissed Nico to cover up his embarrassment, just a peck on the lips he wasn’t sure he was even allowed to take. The momentary pressure was bliss, and Nico whimpered as Jason drew back.
When Jason tried to turn away and hide his blush, Nico stopped him.
Nico held Jason’s face in his hands, fingers smoothing over the corners of his lips. A warmth coursed through Jason’s body and settled somewhere at the base of his spine. “I’m going to kiss you right now,” Nico said matter-of-factly. “It’s for your own good, really. You’ll only embarrass yourself more if you try to talk. It’s only my citizenly duty to kiss the crap out of you.”
Jason nodded before Nico lost his courage.
And Nico proceeded to fulfill his duty.