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(it was always you)

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Bianca kept a tight hold on Nico like she knew--just knew--what he was thinking, but she couldn't stop his eyes from following Jason Grace.

This morning, life had sucked. And now there was a guy with a xiphos--a xiphos!!--standing in front of him, talking about Greek gods and mythology and all of Nico's favorite things in life and how they were real. It was a dream come true.

Nico had known him for a grand total of thirteen minutes, but he was already certain--Jason Grace was everything he wanted to be. Jason was tall, fit, handsome; he was only a year older than Nico, but he spoke with authority and everyone, even the black-haired girl with the bad attitude, listened to him. He'd beat up Dr. Thorn, who Nico had always thought was a jerk, like it was nothing. He'd swan dived off a cliff to rescue that blond girl, and when he couldn't find her, flew back up to the group.


Nico wanted to be able to fly, too.

As soon as Bianca was distracted, Nico wriggled out of her grip and dashed over to Jason. Even though he was obviously the leader, Jason was sitting apart from the others--Bad Attitude Girl, Worse Attitude Boy, that nervous kid, Grover, from Bianca's Pre-Algebra class who was apparently a satyr (AWESOME), and all the weird teenage girls carrying bows and arrows and pitching tents in the middle of the snowy field like it was no big deal. His xiphos had turned into a watch, and he was twisting it around his wrist like he was nervous.

"Hi," Nico said, lacing his hands behind his back. He'd left his coat in the school, but he was too excited to be cold. "Are you really the son of Zeus?"

Jason looked up, startled. His eyes were brighter than the winter sky overhead--more like a Blue Raspberry lollipop. There was a totally badass scar on his upper lip; Nico wondered what monster he'd been fighting when he got that.

"Yeah, I am," Jason said. He twisted his watch again.

"Do you think I could be a son of Zeus, too?"

"Probably not."

Nico frowned, disappointed, and Jason laughed.

"You're definitely the kid of someone powerful," he said reassuringly. "Grover said so, and it's his job to sniff out demigods, so he'd know."

Nico kicked at the snow. He wanted to sit next to Jason, but there wasn't a ton of room on the big rock the guy was on. And Nico didn't want to bug him too much. Bianca was always reminding him not to annoy other people.

"Can I see your sword?" he asked. "It's a xiphos, right? Like, three hundred attack points, plus a lightning assist--do you have a lightning assist?"

Jason tapped the face of his watch, and it transformed into a gold short sword. "It doesn't have attack points," he said. "But it's good at cutting things, I guess. I summoned lightning with it once, but then I had to have it repaired. It's Imperial gold--not a great conductor."

He offered the sword to Nico.

Nico would have willingly died then and there. "I can hold it?"

"Don't swing it at anybody."

Nico seized the sword eagerly. It was heavier than he expected, but it didn't feel weird to hold in his hand. It felt right. He grinned. "This is so awesome. Can you cut down trees with it?"

"Uh--never tried."

"But it shoots lightning?" Nico swung it experimentally, and almost lost his grip. His face flushed. "Um, here. You should take it back."

Instead, Jason got to his feet and came to stand behind him. "No, you've almost got it," he said. "Don't overthink--demigods have a natural affinity for weapons. One of the few things we have going for us." He chuckled. "Just--use both hands to hold it. Yeah, like that, good. And remember, it's more about how you stand than how you swing."

He grabbed Nico's thighs, guiding his legs to a sturdier position. A flash of heat ran through Nico, similar to the excitement he felt when he picked up a new Mythomagic card. Nico didn't understand it, but he edged away from Jason's touch.

Jason didn't seem to notice, straightening up and coming around to stand in front of him. He raised his arms like he was going to fend Nico off with his bare hands. "Okay, try swinging towards me," he said. "Aim for between my arms."

It was a terrible idea, so Nico was all for it. He held the sword over his shoulder like a baseball bat, then arced it down, grazing the zipper of Jason's winter coat.

"Not bad," Jason said, grinning again. "Next we'll have to work on types of strikes." His eyes fell on something beyond Nico, and his grin faded. "But, uh, back at camp," he added, taking the sword out of Nico's hands.

Nico whirled around. Bianca was glaring daggers at the two of them, of course. She ruined everything. Jason probably wouldn't like him now and it was all her stupid fault because she treated him like a little kid.

"Sorry," Jason said. He sounded as miffed as Nico felt. "But my sister is giving us the stinkeye." He rubbed the back of his neck.

"Your sister?" Nico asked. Jason pointed to the black-haired girl, engaged in conversation with one of the Hunter chicks but still looking over at them every few seconds. Her eyes were the same shade of blue as Jason's.

"It's so embarrassing," Jason mumbled. "She acts like I'm five. She's probably afraid I'll decapitate you, or something. She didn't even want me to have a sword in the first place."

Nico went starry-eyed. Jason was speaking his language. And he didn't dislike Nico; he understood.

"Anyway," Jason went on, "there are sword lessons and stuff at that camp we mentioned. It's great, there--you can learn all sorts of cool stuff. Archery, sparring, rock climbing, aerial battles--we have Capture the Flag games and campfire singalongs and--" He stopped, his cheeks going pink. "Sorry. I mean, you'll see it soon enough so you don't need me rambling about it."

"It sounds cool," Nico said. He was actively fighting the urge to clap his hands and jump up and down. He settled for a little hop, unable to totally control his excitement. "How long have you gone there?"

"I live there," Jason replied.

"You can do that?" Nico grabbed Jason's arm, eyes widening. "Seriously?!"

"Well, some of us have to," Jason said. He looked sad for a minute. "We don't have another choice. But anyway, I've been at camp for--" he paused, ticking off on his fingers, "--six years."

"Holy cow. I've never been anywhere that long," Nico said. "The longest I ever stayed was at a hotel, a couple places before this. But I don't remember how long for." He frowned. Even his memories of the hotel itself were kind of fuzzy, which was weird. But it had always been like that, so he glossed over the lapse.

"Anyway, I--"

"Nico di Angelo." The Hunter that Jason's sister had been talking to came over, Nico's backpack in her hand. Nico had thought it was lost when he left it behind in the gym--he was over the moon to see it again.

The Hunter offered him the pack. "We have retrieved thy things from the school, and settled matters with the staff," she said. She spoke funny, like a character in one of those books Nico was supposed to read in Classical Literature (and never actually did, because the words all looked squiggly and never made sense). "Jason Grace." She acknowledged Jason with a nod. "Lady Artemis wishes to speak with thee."

"Oh--okay." Jason tapped the hilt of his sword, and it morphed back into a watch. If being summoned by a goddess at all fazed him, it didn't show. He glanced at Nico.

Nico didn't want to be left alone, and maybe that showed in his face because Jason slung an arm around his shoulders.

"You know who also knows a ton about sword fighting?" he asked, guiding Nico back to the others. "Percy Jackson. Percy's been stabbed more times than anyone else I know--right, Perce?"

Percy, the guy who'd been even grumpier than Jason's sister since the blond girl fell off the cliff, looked up at Jason and scowled. He was older than them by a couple years, and he looked kind of scary, his blue-green eyes way wilder than Jason's calm, steady gaze. There was a rip in his jacket where he'd been clawed by the Dr. Thorn-thing. Someone had bandaged his bare arm underneath.

"Just hang with him for a few," Jason went on, and followed the Hunter away and into a tent.

Nico looked at Percy.

Percy looked at Nico.

"So," Nico ventured. "What does your sword turn into? A necklace?"

"Don't be stupid," Percy muttered.