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The flight from JFK to Denver is only five hours, but Leo’s ADHD still hates it. He’d tried every excuse under the sun to avoid being on this plane - that he couldn’t take three weeks off work, that his license wasn’t valid, that he felt bad taking a vacation on Piper’s dime - but his best friends had shot down every single one.

Leo can’t tell them the real reason he doesn’t want to be whisked off to Tristan McLean’s new vacation home without bringing up Calypso, and he likes to avoid mentioning her whenever possible. She left months ago, but there’s still something raw inside of him that twinges whenever he sees the herb garden on their balcony or has to sit through dinners with couples all by himself.

Living with Jason and Piper is where he belongs, so third wheeling isn’t generally an issue for Leo. It’s when other couples get involved that he draws the line.

That’s really why he doesn’t want to be here.

The landing is bumpy enough for Leo to be jolted out of his thoughts. Jason winces and looks out the window, but Piper is leaping to her feet the moment the seatbelt sign turns off. Clearly, she's ready to get out of the plane, and Leo can't blame her. He and Jason hurry to follow her lead, scrambling to grab their bags so they don't lose her in the crowd of sore and irritated travellers. The airport is bustling, and it's all Leo can do to keep up with Piper's confident strides as she chats on her phone to Annabeth. Jason keeps knocking into people and muttering apologies, which get less polite the further into the airport they get. It's a little bewildering when Piper hangs up the phone without saying goodbye, but then Leo spots the small group of demigods waiting at their new gate.

He sees Frank first, because he takes up the most space even when he's just taming Hazel's curls into a tight bun; Percy and Annabeth are sitting with them and bickering about something that keeps making Hazel's lips twitch; and Nico, unsurprisingly, is hovering at the edge of the group with his arms folded across his chest and his glare directed at the large window, where snow is steadily falling past them.

Leo feels a surge of gratitude towards Nico. He wasn’t invited at first, and only reluctantly agreed to come when Leo sent him a desperate, all-caps text message about how being the seventh wheel was ‘worse than dying all over again’. They only text in emergencies, and Leo hasn’t seen him since well before Calypso got tired of him, but it’s nice to know that Nico has his back in uncomfortable situations.

"Hey!" Piper calls out as she approaches, half-jogging up to them and throwing her arms around Annabeth. "Have you guys been waiting long?"

"Nah, just half an hour or so," Percy shrugs, tugging on one of Piper's little braids in greeting.

Nico looks away from the window, his expression softening minutely when he sees Jason, but he just nods at the three of them. Leo gives him a considering once-over while he hugs Hazel hello, dismayed that Nico appears to be taller than him now.

"You're so thin," Frank says when he hugs Leo, frowning in a way that reminds Leo of a grandmother. "Have you been remembering to eat while you work?"

"Yes, mamá," Leo drawls, ducking out of Frank's grip.

While his friends catch up and compare flight experiences (Piper loudly complaining about Leo's attention span), Leo sidles up to Nico at the edge of the group and stops himself just short of elbowing Nico. He hasn't seen Nico in several months, but he remembers that the kid hates being touched.

The physicality between their friends screams 'triple date', the couples all touching in casual ways as they chat, and Nico lets out a short sigh.

"I see why you wanted me here," he says quietly, and his voice is deeper than Leo remembers, "this is already suffocating."

"Try living with a pair of them," Leo says with an easy grin. Nico - who is absolutely a couple inches taller than Leo, damn it - makes a face. "I mean, I like both of them more than pretty much anyone else in the world, but it can still be weird."

Nico shifts his weight so he's leaning a little away from Leo, but Leo doesn't take it personally. "Why isn't your girlfriend keeping you company?"

"Why isn't your boyfriend?" Leo retorts, knee-jerk.

The look Nico levels him with could freeze Hades itself over. He isn't nearly as scary as Piper, though, so Leo tilts his chin up and holds his ground. After a few seconds, Nico huffs and faces back towards the window.

"I don't have one anymore," says Nico, "not that it's any of your business, Valdez."

"Sorry," Leo offers, scratching the back of his neck. He didn't mean to piss off his ally for this holiday already. "Neither do I. It's still kind of a sore spot."

Before Nico can react, Piper calls their names and gestures towards the boarding area for the smaller flight to Telluride. A line is forming, and Leo awkwardly leaves Nico's side to follow his friends onto the cramped Embraer craft. There's a narrow aisle separating a row of single seats from the double seats, and Leo prays to his antisocial father that he gets to sit by himself.

He must have pissed his father off somehow, because his boarding pass leads him to a window seat near the back, and after a minute, Nico drops down beside him.

"I guess I shouldn't ask personal questions if I don't want to answer them myself," Nico says gruffly, continuing their conversation.

"I guess I shouldn't make an ass out of myself," Leo responds cheerfully, holding out his hand. "But nice to meet you, I'm Leo. I'm an ass most of the time, and when I'm not, I'm asleep."

Nico's lips twitch and he looks at Leo's hand for a long second before he reaches out and shakes it quickly.

It isn't a long or meaningful touch, but Leo still jumps a little at the chill seeping out of Nico's skin. "Jumpin' Jupiter, di Angelo, you're an ice cube - do you need another sweater or something? I've got one in my bag."

"No," Nico says shortly, pulling his hand back and shoving it into his hoodie pocket before adding a, "but thanks."

Leo is skeptical, but he doesn't push the matter. He settles into his seat and purposefully doesn't put his arm on the middle armrest, pleased when Nico claims it after some silence.

He doesn't want to be obnoxious on this flight, too, but he can already feel the restlessness thrumming under his skin, and they haven't even pulled out of the gate yet. Adjusting in his seat, Leo starts tapping his fingers on his armrest in vague Morse code. He's happy that Annabeth isn't paying attention to him, because she's the only one who understands the rhythm of his taps to mean I love you, and that's pretty embarrassing.

The plane starts to move, and Leo looks away from the window to avoid feeling nauseous. This is even rockier than the Boeing.

"You don't like flying," Nico notes, and it isn't a question, so Leo doesn't bother answering. After a minute, when the craft starts gaining speed, Nico reaches around Leo and slides the window shade closed. "I didn't know that. When we flew across Greece you were fine."

"I had things to do on the Argo II," Leo sighs, playing with his hoodie strings. "Don't you have ADHD too?"

Nico blinks. "I don't know. They didn't exactly test for that where I grew up."

"Italy doesn't know what ADHD is?" Leo asks in vague confusion. He hears Percy snort from the row in front of them, and he wonders what he's missing.

"They didn't in the 1940s," says Nico slowly.

Oh, right.

"I forgot you and Hazel both Captain America'd yourselves," Leo admits, and Percy's sniggers turn into a muffled laugh.

"I don't think anybody would call me Captain America." Nico flicks an annoyed look at the back of Percy's seat. "Jason looks the part a lot more."

With a big grin, Leo argues, "But he didn't skip six decades into the future - it isn't about looks or abilities, I was using Captain America as a verb. If you're really insistent, I guess I can call Hazel Captain America and call you the Winter Soldier."

"You're not funny," Nico informs him. "But yes, I'm from the 1940s like Captain America and his Bucky."

"So you don't know if you have ADHD," says Leo, remembering what they'd been talking about.

Nico jerks his head in the affirmative. "Isn't ADHD just good battle senses for us?"

"Sure, if you're misdiagnosed," Leo says, kicking the back of Annabeth's seat for something to do. "As far as I can tell, lots of demigods are. But it isn't just good battle senses, there's more to ADHD than that."

"Stop that, Leo," Annabeth sighs, turning to glare over the back of her seat at him. "I'd hate to have to break your legs."

"And how are you today, Annie?" Leo grins widely back at her, and he knows he's pushing his luck when her steely eyes narrow.

He loses track of the conversation again, as Percy joins in on teasing Annabeth and Nico slips earphones in, closing his eyes. Leo assumes that they're boring him or something and doesn't try to pull the earphones out like he would with Jason or Piper, because he doesn't want to piss Nico off for real.

It's a much shorter flight, especially with Percy cracking jokes with a straight face and Annabeth acting long-suffering.

Landing is... scary. Nothing bad happens, thank Zeus, but it's the bumpiest landing ever and Percy holds his breath until the seatbelt light turns back off.

Nico muffles a yawn behind his hand as he stands, and he takes Leo's bag down from the compartments first, handing it over.

"Thanks, man," says Leo.

Shrugging, Nico grabs his own carry-on and follows their little group off the plane and onto the tarmac. It's snowing and chilly outside, which doesn't bother Leo in the slightest - but right ahead of him, Nico's whole body shivers.

Leo frowns and pulls his extra sweater out of his bag, holding it out for Nico to take. After a moment, Nico sighs and accepts the sweatshirt, pulling it over his head without breaking stride.

Telluride Regional is a much smaller airport than Denver, and Leo feels a lot more comfortable moving with his friends towards baggage claim and trying to keep up with the overlapping conversations. Once everyone has their luggage, Piper leads them to the parking garage so they can pick up the SUV her dad left for her.

"Is the car going to fit us all?" Frank asks, frowning in undue concern.

"Not legally," says Piper brightly, "we have one less seatbelt than needed. I'm sure you don't mind sitting on someone's lap in cat or dog form, right?"

Frank heaves a sigh and helps cram everyone's bags in the SUV before, quick as winking, he turns into a calico. Hazel laughs and scoops him up, claiming shotgun before anyone can protest.

The very back seat is small and half taken up by luggage, but Leo climbs back there anyway. He's one of the smallest, it only makes sense. Nico joins him with only a slight grimace at the lack of space, requiring them to be pressed together from shoulder to hip.

Leo tunes out the music and bickering and Nico's arm against his, freezing even through all the layers between them. He's content to look at the snow falling for now, watching the mountain scenery flash by as Piper turns onto the highway.

"How far is your dad's place, Pipes?" Jason asks over the music, and Piper calls back that it's about twenty minutes before she turns the radio volume up further.

Twenty minutes isn't long compared to the day of travel Leo has already had, but something about Nico being so close makes his ADHD kick in, and the trip down the pretty highway feels like hours.

 


 

"How much did this place cost?" Leo asks, aghast.

The house is in walking distance of ski lifts and has beautiful chalet-style architecture, so Leo can only imagine that it was a hot commodity before Tristan McLean snapped it up.

Piper rolls her eyes and closes the SUV's trunk, shoving a heavy bag at Leo. "That's a rude question. I don't know, anyway."

Leo bites his tongue, but he feels a thrill of familiar anger as Piper leads them inside - whatever price the McLeans paid, it was too much. There are so many people less fortunate that could have used even a fraction of Tristan McLean's mortgage payments to survive.

He doesn't say anything, but he catches Percy's eye in the brand new kitchen and notices that his jaw is clenched, so Leo isn't alone.

"Bedrooms are down the hall," Piper says, cheerfully oblivious. "I call dibs on the master, and you nerds can fight over the rest."

Frank is suddenly human again, stretching and clearing his throat like something is stuck in it. "You can pick, Hazel."

His girlfriend is way ahead of him, already racing Percy down the hall with a peal of laughter. Leo sighs and hefts his bag higher on his shoulder before following them, resigning himself to having last choice. Not that it matters, since his third foster home could fit comfortably in the living room he passes. He's just grateful to have a bed.

"This place is a little excessive," is murmured close to Leo's ear, and he snorts when he turns and sees the look on Nico's face. "I was expecting a log cabin or something."

"You should see their main place in Los Angeles," Leo says under his breath.

Nico's face flashes with irritation, and it makes Leo feel justified in his ever-living hatred of the upper class.

Suddenly exhausted by the day of travel, Leo sinks onto the bed and kicks his boots off with a mumble of, "Tell everyone I'm taking a nap."

"Okay," says Nico. He unpacks in a silence that feels more comfortable than most that the two of them have shared, and Leo finds that it's easy to doze off for real.

He can't be asleep for long, because the sun is still up when Piper jumps on him and sing-songs, "Dinner time!"

"Who cooked?" Leo scrunches his nose a little. That's usually his job, since Piper and Jason are next to useless in the kitchen. He struggles into a sitting position, what with Piper mostly on his chest, and yawns hugely.

"Nobody, we ordered pizza," Piper admits, and Leo feels mollified. "Come eat, Valdez."

"Yeah, yeah, I'm too skinny," says Leo. Piper laughs musically and hops out of bed, holding a hand out to help Leo do the same.

"You are pretty scrawny. Are you sure you're eating properly?"

"Sólo las ollas saben los hervores de sus caldos."

"Excuse me?"

"Mind your own business," Leo loosely translates the idiom, stretching his arms over his head as he follows Piper out of the cozy bedroom. "I eat plenty, I just have a wild metabolism."

Piper makes a huffing noise that Leo expects is accompanied by a roll of her eyes, but she doesn't argue the point.

Leo's friends are gathered around the gigantic island, reaching across each other to grab slices of pizza and arguing about what movie they should watch. When Piper sidles up to Jason's side and kisses his jawline, Leo seeks Nico out to hover near. The guy is frowning at his phone as he leans against the stainless stove.

"What's wrong?" Leo asks, stealing a slice from Nico's plate. He definitely won't eat it all.

"There's no Pokémon around here," says Nico, not reacting to Leo's theft.

"Well, duh, we're on top of a mountain."

"I've made a terrible mistake."

It's hard to tell if Nico is joking or not, mostly because his sense of humour is so deadpan, but Leo grins anyway. He knows full well that Nico can leave anytime he wants. "I'll go into town with you later if you want, I won't be sleeping after a nap like that."

"I don't know," Nico hedges, "it still takes a lot out of me to shadow travel with passengers."

"I can drive, you little weirdo," Leo says with a laugh.

Nico's eyebrows do a very expressive thing that Leo interprets as I'm taller than you, but maybe that's his own fixation. Before Nico can respond, their friends demand opinions on the movie argument.

Unsurprisingly, Nico's opinion is a shrug. He probably doesn't know or care about most films, but Leo will honest-to-gods fight Annabeth if she makes them watch Inception. He'd lose, obviously, but it would be a worthwhile loss.

"Literally there are hundreds of better movies on Netflix," Leo shouts over the bickering. "Hundreds of movies that don't have such a white cast! Come on, Annie, you're better than this."

"Inception isn't the whitest movie I've ever seen," Percy says after a beat of silence, "but it is the most confusing. I'm with Valdez. I want to watch Moana."

"Of course you -"

"- but what about the -"

"- that's ridiculous -"

Everyone starts talking at once. Leo joins in, yelling his favourite Spanish titles despite the fact that nobody is listening to each other. This is the most comfortable he's felt since arriving in Colorado; he feels like part of the group rather than an outlier, but he knows that won't last.

"Why don't you just draw straws?" Nico asks at a normal volume.

Leo's the only one who heard, but it's not a bad idea. He reaches into the pocket of his sweater - the one on Nico's body - to retrieve the pipe cleaners he'd left there.

Nico tenses.

It's Leo's damn sweater, so he doesn't bother apologizing. After cutting off an inch from one of the pipe cleaners with a clearly brand new knife, Leo whistles loudly to get everyone's attention. "Short straw gets to pick tonight's movie, alright?"

There's some grumbling when Leo holds his fist out, but everyone takes a pipe cleaner.

Percy cheers, waving the shortest one in Frank's face. "Moana! Hell yes, I love this movie."

"You've already seen it?" Piper laughs.

"We've seen it six times," Annabeth responds for Percy in a very long-suffering sort of way. "Personally, I'm just glad I don't have to sit through Finding Nemo anymore."

"Finding Nemo is a classic!"

The bickering starts up again, but Leo doesn't feel like getting involved this time. He steals more pizza from Nico and embraces the feeling of belonging while it lasts.

 


 

Moana itself is good. Everyone seems to enjoy it, and Frank even cries a little.

The problem is all the cuddling. Hazel curled up on Frank's lap; Piper's legs thrown over Jason's and her head on Annabeth's shoulder; Percy and Annabeth holding hands, grinning dopily at each other. It's enough to make anyone single feel bad about themselves, and it's almost worse for Leo with di Angelo sitting at least half a foot away from him.

If he were at home, Jason and Piper snuggling on the sofa, he'd just join them without thinking twice. Here? Surrounded by couples? It feels weird.

Netflix recommends something else animated once Moana ends and they let it play without further argument, but Leo and his attention span are dying. He stands up and stretches, forcing himself to look Piper in the eye even though it means he's very close to staring at Annabeth's chest.

"I'm getting a bit restless, can I take the car?"

"Sure," Piper agrees easily. She gestures in the general direction of the kitchen. "Keys are that way."

Leo leaves the house with a wave and doesn't realize that Nico is at his side until he mumbles, "Thanks, I needed to get out of there."

"No problem," says Leo. He doesn't want to admit that he needed some time alone, because it would just be cruel to make Nico stay behind in couple-y hell. "Do you want to go to town for Pokémon or just drive around?"

"Let's just drive."

It's sheer habit that has Leo opening the passenger door for Nico, but he bows deeply to make it seem like a joke. Nico rolls his eyes and climbs into the SUV, shivering at the feel of the cold leather.

"Don't worry, I'm sure there are seat warmers," Leo says cheerfully, closing the door when Nico flips him off in response.

Driving has always come easy to Leo; he can get a feel for anything with an engine as soon as he's got his hands on it. He sees Nico out of the corner of his eye as he buckles in, watching each move Leo makes. It occurs to Leo that Nico hasn't spent a lot of time in modern cars.

"I work at a garage in Brooklyn," Leo says without prompting as he adjusts the mirrors, "but I never get cars this nice. You think Piper would let me under the hood?"

"Definitely not," says Nico. The corner of his mouth twitches.

Leo shoots him a grin. "Worth a shot."

Nico blinks back at him slowly, his dark eyes barely picking up the light from the ski lifts and headlights, and Leo has to look away before he thinks or does something ridiculous.

The thing is, Nico has grown up since the war. He's got a couple inches on Leo now, meaning that only Hazel is between Leo and the title of 'shortest', but that's not the only thing that's changed. He isn't skin and bones anymore, as far as Leo can tell through the two sweaters he's shivering in, he makes eye contact more easily, and the sun in California has made his skin freckled and olive.

Nico looks healthier. It's making Leo feel the weirdest sense of pride.

"You want to pick some music?" Leo offers, tossing his phone to Nico as he pulls out of the driveway. "The app's in my most used."

"Why do I have to pick from your library?" Nico sighs, but plugs the auxiliary into Leo's phone anyway. Leo probably should have thought before giving his phone away willy-nilly, because the next thing out of Nico's mouth is a genuine, "Is it Grindr?"

Leo almost crashes into a snowbank.

"Don't open that," he yelps. "No, no, no, Spotify is the app, that one's not for music."

"What's it for?" Nico asks, visibly startled. He appears to open Spotify anyway, because soft indie music flows from the speakers almost immediately.

"It's a dating app that you're definitely too young for," says Leo. He feels the hot flush of colour in his face and hopes that no part of him catches fire while driving Tristan McLean's car.

"I'm like seventy," Nico mutters, setting Leo's phone down without snooping further.

"You're like a teenager," Leo corrects him.

"You're barely an adult."

"Legality is all that matters here, chico. Trust me, you're not legally allowed to see half the stuff on there."

"Legally, I don't exist," Nico shoots back, putting his clunky combat boots up on the dash. "But whatever, I don't care enough to go through your sex apps."

The noise that comes out of Leo's mouth is involuntary and embarrassing, but he is determined to change the subject to one that will make Nico squirm instead. "Have you been talking to anyone since Solace?"

"No," Nico snaps, scowling out the window. "I've been busy making sure Camp Jupiter kids don't die on quests."

"You had time to date during an imminent apocalypse," Leo points out.

Nico makes a point of turning up the volume, pop-punk now blaring through the SUV's speakers in a way Leo is truly jealous of. He has to upgrade his car's system as soon as he gets home.

It's a peaceful drive, despite the throbbing bass of the music and Nico sulking beside him, but Leo is restless for a different reason than usual.

He spots a gas station and pulls in as soon as he can, fixing Nico with his best threatening look as he turns the engine off.

In the sudden silence, he says, "Don't you dare tell anyone, but I need a pack of smokes. You coming in with me or staying in the warmth?"

"Scout's honour," Nico deadpans, unbuckling his seatbelt. "Can I have one?"

"There's that pesky legality thing again," Leo says as they climb out of the SUV. "But sure, you can bum some if you don't tell anyone about it."

Nico shoves his hands into his sweater pockets as soon as the cold air hits him and mumbles something reluctantly grateful.

He hovers by the snacks while Leo pays for two packs and chats up the cutie behind the counter, but he's looking at the candy so forlornly that Leo grabs a bag with an exaggerated roll of his eyes.

"And these," adds Leo.

"You don't have to buy that for me." Nico sounds strangely annoyed, which makes the cashier grin at them.

"Get over it," Leo advises him, paying before Nico can protest further.

They lean against the SUV as Leo opens a pack for each of them to take a cigarette. The cold seems to really bother Nico, so Leo leans into his personal bubble until their shoulders are pressed together. Not surprisingly, Leo runs at a warmer temperature than the average person. He hopes that it helps.

"I don't have a lighter," says Nico. His shoulders are tense, but he doesn't move away from Leo.

"That's the dumbest thing you've ever said," Leo laughs. At Nico's affronted look, he makes a finger gun and sets the tip of it aflame. "I'm a lighter."

In the light from the streetlights, neon gas station signs, and flickering flame, Nico's teeth look strange and creepy. After a moment, Leo realizes that he's smiling, not baring his canines like Jason sometimes does.

He has a nice smile. Strange and creepy in the lighting, yes, but... nice.

"Thanks," Nico says, still smiling as he lights his cigarette. Leo follows suit before extinguishing his finger.

"I didn't know you smoked," Leo hums after taking a long drag, determined not to focus on Nico's teeth any more than he already has.

"It's recent," Nico admits. He has no trouble inhaling the smoke, so Leo doesn't feel too bad about enabling a teenage rebellion. After a few moments of silence, he adds a stilted, "Will... said I wasn't allowed to smoke. I don't like being told I can't do something."

"I mean, yeah, smoking is bad." Leo shrugs. "Like we're gonna live long enough for it to hurt us, though."

"Exactly," says Nico, hints of another smile playing around his mouth.

"I've been smoking longer than I knew I was a demigod," Leo confesses, because Nico told him something personal and it only feels right to reciprocate, "but I knew even then that I'd die young."

Leo pauses in case Nico wants to ask questions about that, but he only nods and tilts his face up to the stars. "I get that."

"Piper thinks I quit," Leo hums, following Nico's gaze.

"I won't tell."

They fall silent after the promise, watching stars begin to twinkle into view and finishing their cigarettes. Once they're done, Leo puts out the lit ends in the snow and pockets the butts to toss later.

He steps away from Nico with an apologetic grimace, and Nico shrugs around a shiver in response.

"You ready to go back?"

"Yeah," says Nico, schooling his expression into something determined and more fitting for a battle than simply dealing with their friends.

Leo grins and opens the passenger door for him with another bow.

 


 

As soon as they get back to the house, Nico starts getting ready for bed. Leo still isn't tired, thanks to his nap, so he stands indecisively in the hallway for a moment.

He can hear their friends in the den, voices and laughter soft with the time of night, but he doesn't want to join them.

If he brings his project notebooks to a different common area of the house like he wants to, he'll end up getting scolded for being antisocial. He sighs and follows Nico into their shared bedroom, resigning himself to staring at a dark ceiling for a few hours.

Something of that must show on his face, because Nico snorts when he looks back at him. "What's with the look?"

"I just don't want to sleep yet," Leo sighs dramatically, shrugging his hoodie off and tossing it in the general direction of his bags. "But also, like, I desperately don't want to join the triple date out there."

Nico rolls his eyes. "So, hang out in here. I can sleep with the light on."

"Are you sure?" Leo asks, perking up.

"Positive. Your sulking is way more annoying."

Despite the insult, Leo is grateful. He shoots Nico a megawatt smile and pulls his project notebook out of his backpack. "Which side do you sleep on?"

"Oh, we're sharing?" Nico asks, glancing at the bed. It seems smaller than it is, thanks to the situation, but it's a decently-sized queen.

"I'd rather not sleep on the floor, so unless you're volunteering..."

"No, no, that makes sense. I don't have a side."

"Cool," Leo says easily, dropping onto the left side of the bed and getting comfy with his notebook.

Nico hovers for a moment before grabbing his bright yellow toothbrush and disappearing into the hall. Leo flips to the sketches of tiny, animatronic ghost-type Pokémon he'd done when Nico agreed to come on the trip and starts to refine them into something he can totally get done before Christmas.

It's easy for Leo to lose himself in the numbers and diagrams. He acknowledges Nico with a nod when he comes back into the room, but he focuses on the project so he doesn't think too deeply about Nico slipping under the covers in trackpants and Leo's sweater.

Even through blankets and fleece layers, Nico manages to shiver. Leo laughs quietly and says, "I'm basically a space heater. You can use me as a pillow if it helps."

"Are you sure?" Nico asks, blinking slow at Leo like a cat.

Leo pushes down his uncertainty and nods, holding his free arm out in invitation. A few seconds pass before Nico curls into Leo, pillowing his head on Leo's chest and breathing a sigh of relief.

Before picking up his pen again, Leo runs his hand over Nico's back in a wide, comforting circle. He knows physical contact is hard for Nico.

It's hard for Leo, too, but that has more to do with the way his heart picks up speed when Nico's shoulders, surprisingly, relax into sleep.

He isn't thinking about it.

 


 

When Leo wakes up, he can't move. Sometime throughout the night, Nico apparently forgot that his heat source was a person, and is now now mostly on top of him. This situation would be awkward enough on its own, but since Leo has pissed off several gods in his lifetime, Nico's thigh is also pressed against far too intimate places.

Leo winces and tries to slowly roll out from under Nico, but Nico just grumbles in his sleep and clings tighter to Leo's shirt. Resigning himself to an awkward moment when Nico wakes up, Leo grabs his phone from the nightstand and checks his social media.

Friend request from Raphael, a visual reminder for Leo to decide if he wants his mom's family back in his life, that he continues to pretend doesn't exist; emails from his shopping lists that he deletes without reading; a message from a guy on Grindr that has "no rice or chocolate" in his profile - Leo blocks him immediately. If his hair and skin colour don’t give away his Afro-Latino roots and prevent racists from talking to him, he isn’t sure what will. He scrolls through the app for a bit, surprised by how many queer boys are hanging out near Telluride for the holidays, but he doesn't try to talk to any of them.

Just as Leo is about to text Piper and ask for rescue, Nico hums and arches into Leo sleepily before tensing. He opens his eyes slowly, like he hopes he's wrong about snuggling one of his acquaintances.

"Good morning," Leo says faux-cheerfully. "You mind moving your leg, chico?"

Nico jerks his whole body away from Leo and buries his face in his own - unused - pillow, blushing furiously as he does.

"Thanks." Leo sighs in relief and sits up, stretching and steadfastly pretending he isn't half-hard. "I'm gonna shower and make breakfast for everyone. How do you like your eggs?"

For a long moment, he's sure that Nico isn't going to say anything out of sheer embarrassment, but then he hears a muffled, "Scrambled."

Leo grins, fond despite his own embarrassment. He pats Nico's back as he gets out of bed to act like he's feeling more casual than he is, and then basically runs with his bag to the nearest bathroom.

The dating scene is bad for many reasons, not least of which is Leo's complete inability to be a normal, social being, but he's been doing alright in the casual hookup department. Definitely he isn't hard up for it enough to touch himself thinking about di Angelo's leg, so he takes the fastest cold shower of his life and starts mentally planning the minutiae of breakfast.

Leo enjoys cooking. At first it was just making sure he wouldn't starve if he were on the streets or in another uncaring home, but now he enjoys cooking proper meals, even when he doesn't have to. Nobody else is awake yet, which gives Leo the privacy he craves in order to start breakfast. The kitchen smells fantastic by the time his friends start wandering in. Frank first, dressed for exercise and smiling, and Percy last, shirtless and zombie-like. Nico doesn't come out at all.

Chatting aimlessly to his sleepy friends, Leo pours a coffee and makes two plates. He thinks he'll be able to sneak away while everyone fights over the last piece of bacon, but Piper frowns at him and asks, "Are you and Nico not eating with us?"

"Not this morning," Leo says apologetically, looking for a tray in the ridiculous amount of cupboards to load their plates onto. "I'm in the middle of a project, and I don't think he's getting out of bed this century."

"Probably not," Hazel hums, snatching the lone bacon strip while the others rock-paper-scissors for it like fools.

"You'll come skiing with us, though?" Piper presses. She's got a pucker between her eyebrows that only seems to appear when she's thinking about Leo's social life.

Leo really doesn't want to, but he knows he won't be getting out of it without a fight.

"Of course we will," he says with a big grin, finally locating a tray. "How about we leave right after lunch? I'll cook, just tell me what you want to eat and I'll make it if the stuff is here."

As he expects, the statement evokes an argument between his friends that gives him enough cover to slip away.

Leo doesn't have a free hand to knock with, so he kicks the bedroom door with the side of his foot until it opens, a wary di Angelo on the other side.

"Scrambled eggs," Leo offers with a smile, holding out the tray.

"Okay," says Nico. He steps aside, avoiding eye contact like a pro, and immediately gets back under his nest of blankets.

"How are you still cold?" Leo asks, momentarily distracted from the awkwardness as he sits at the foot of the bed and puts the tray equidistant between them. "I mean it, this is worrying. It's a pretty mild temperature out here, and you've got crazy layers going on right now."

"I run cold," Nico says shortly. He pulls his knees to his chest and uses them as a surface for his plate, eyeing the mug of coffee longingly.

"It's yours," Leo laughs, sliding it closer to him. "I don't like coffee. I assumed you take it black."

"I'm Italian," says Nico, like that's an actual response to Leo's statement, his eyes fleetingly meeting Leo's for the first time this morning, "I'd take it with several espresso shots if you had any."

"I'll keep that in mind." Leo impatiently brushes stray curls out of his own eyes and tucks into his breakfast.

The quiet that falls between them as they eat is awkward, which is something Leo doesn't typically do well with. He goes as long as he can without saying something - thanks to his trusty ADHD, it feels like two hours - but in the end, Nico breaks before him.

"What does everyone want to do today?"

"We're going skiing after lunch," Leo regales the plan. "I've never been."

"Me either," says Nico, "but it doesn't look very hard."

Leo laughs, stealing a fried potato from Nico's plate. "Speak for yourself, I've never once done something physical properly on my first try."

"Or even your third." The joke is a beat too late, but Nico seems like he's also trying to get past their uncomfortable waking. Leo can appreciate that. He grins and shoots something mindless back at Nico, helping to force the morning out of sight and out of mind.

 


 

Skiing is an unmitigated disaster. Leo expects nothing less, of course, so it's hilarious to watch Hazel take a nosedive for the fourth time.

"I don't know why Piper thought we'd all know how to ski," Frank says mildly from somewhere over Leo's left shoulder. Leo doesn't turn, because Frank grew up on the damn Rockies and hasn't even stumbled once.

"Oh, she definitely didn't," says Leo. "The lack of instruction is because she finds it funny."

"She's kind of an asshole," Annabeth chimes in, sounding far prouder than she ought to.

Leo snorts and leans back into Frank to get his attention, pointing down the slope. "Looks like Jason and Percy are trying to hit each other with their skis."

"Of course they are." Annabeth sighs and sets off down the mountain, no doubt to scare some good behaviour into everyone except Piper. She's stable on her skis and doesn't try anything tricky, so Leo assumes she's done this before.

He's lost track of Nico, but he tries not to let that bother him. He wouldn't be surprised if Nico had snuck back to the house.

"Are you sure you're eating enough?"

The question surprises Leo enough for him to turn his head, and he realizes that he's still leaning his entire body weight into Frank. He stands up straight with a slightly forced laugh.

"Yes, mamá," he says lightly, "you're just so big and muscley that I'm sure I feel like a feather."

Frank doesn't look convinced.

Before he can really start in on Leo - who has heard all of the lectures already, okay, he lives with Jason - someone hits Leo in the face with a snowball.

There's only two people in this motley crew of demigods who can throw with that amount of accuracy. Since Frank is standing in front of him and couldn't possibly be the culprit, Leo shouts, "You'll pay for that, di Angelo!"

He hears a laugh, a loud and genuine laugh that makes Frank's eyes widen, and then a figure in all black ducks behind a tree.

"Sorry to cut this short," says Leo, already kneeling to pack snow between his gloves, "but something's come up."

"I'll leave you to it," Frank says warily.

As he leaves, he gives Leo the strangest speculative look, like there's something he can't quite figure out. Maybe he's confused about Leo being able to hold snow without it melting. Well, gloves help.

Leo watches the tree like a hawk, poised and ready to throw his weapon.

There are actually three people in their group can throw with accuracy. The thing is, for Leo it isn't skill or natural talent - it's simple physics.

It seems logical that Nico will peek out from behind the tree eventually, so Leo basically shrieks in surprise when he gets a snowball shoved down the back of his coat with a "boo" laughed in his ear.

"Cheater!" Leo huffs, turning just enough to crush his own snowball in Nico's smug face.

"It's not cheating to use your powers," says Nico. His smile looks less eerie in the sunlight, but something about it still unnerves Leo. He yanks Leo's beanie off to wipe the snow off his face - rude - and adds, "Not my fault that this is the last place your powers come in handy."

"Oh, please," Leo shoots back, "you were more than happy to use my powers last night."

Nico might blush, but it could also be the cold air turning his cheeks pink. Either way, it's a good look on him, which Leo will never be admitting out loud.

"Shut up," Nico mumbles, shoving at Leo's shoulder none-too-gently.

"I've never shut up in my life," says Leo.

He flicks Nico's nose in retaliation for the shove, laughing at the way his whole face scrunches up in response.

"You want to try going downhill?" Nico asks, raising his eyebrows at the skis that Leo has stuck in a nearby snowbank. Like he's one to talk, Leo can't even see his equipment.

"Nah. Do you?"

"Not really."

There's a moment of quiet as Leo realizes exactly how close they're standing. He thinks he should probably take a step back, but Nico isn't moving, so it might be weirder if he draws attention to it.

Snow is falling lightly, dusting Nico's eyelashes and freckled nose. Leo briefly forgets how to breathe.

To break the strange, soft atmosphere, Leo flops onto his back and announces, "It isn't a real day in the snow unless we make snow angels, chico."

Nico snorts and sits down near Leo's torso, just out of range for the snow angel, but he makes no move to lie down.

"Essere uno stinco di santo, Valdez," Nico murmurs. It sounds like an idiom, possibly something Nico wouldn't be able to convey in English - Leo knows that feeling all too well.

There's a difference, though. Leo had learned Spanish entwined with English, both equally simple to reach for in the mess of his memory.

It isn't until now that Leo can tell, really tell, that Nico hadn't had the same treatment. His English is fluent and practised after so many years of immersion, but Leo would bet his own car that Nico hadn't learned English until later in life.

Nico's voice is surprisingly fond, but Leo is more fascinated by how it curls around the words, how honeyed and natural it is, how Leo's last name sounds with a sharp middle and a soft end. Nico hasn't spoken much Italian in front of Leo, and Leo is only now recognizing what a shame that is.

"Sei un idiota," Nico adds when Leo is quiet for too long. He doesn't need a translation for that one.

Leo hums in vague agreement and keeps moving his arms and legs long after his imprint is left in the snow, letting snow fall directly in his eyes so he doesn't have to look up.

 


 

A few days manage to pass until Leo is forced to think about Nico's freckles and eerie smile again.

He thought cooking for seven other people every day would get old after a while, but he genuinely enjoys being in the kitchen; loves the way he can create something intricate and awesome from mere elements, the same way he's trying to do with everyone's Christmas presents.

Movies get picked after dinner, and Leo usually ducks out before he can get roped into more family bonding. Nico follows him to the garage every time to bum smokes and complain about Leo's music library.

Sometimes they drive. Sometimes they sit outside and look at the stars. Every time, they go to bed together, and Leo wakes up with Nico enveloping him.

He's managed to keep busy enough with cooking, projects, bonding, and physical exertion via strapping wood to his feet and careening down a mountain, so it isn't until Piper decides to wake them up and finds them in their usual awkward position that Leo has to think about it all.

Piper doesn't knock, because she's an only child who had very little supervision growing up, and Leo wakes up to a faceful of Nico's hair and Piper singing Jingle Bells as off-key as she can manage.

"Ugh," Leo says with feeling, burying his face further into Nico's hair to hide. "You're a good singer, why do you make me listen to this?"

There's a long pause where Piper doesn't say anything, and that's weird enough for Leo to lift his head.

Piper has a candy cane behind her left ear and glitter all over one of Jason's school sweatshirts, but what draws Leo's eye most is the comical expression of shock on her pretty face. It takes him the length of a few breaths to realize what the issue is.

Ah. Nico, somehow both under and over Leo at the same time, mooching as much body heat as he can before they have to wake up and face the winter again.

"This isn't what it looks like?" Leo says with much less confidence than he feels.

Piper arches her brows in the scary way she learned from Reyna and crosses her arms. "Uh, okay, so what is it?"

"He's cold." It sounds ridiculous. Like it's going to help his case, Leo adds, "And I'm warm."

The look Piper gives him could peel paint off the walls, so Leo sighs and starts trying to extricate himself from Nico's koala-like limbs. Nico makes a lot of grumbling noises in his sleep, but allows Leo to get out of bed much more easily than he did on their first morning.

Leo leads Piper into the hallway and closes the door behind him. "Okay, I know it's a little weird. He's seriously got something wrong with his circulation, though, he's freezing all the time and -"

"Valdez," Piper interrupts, "do you like him?"

"I mean, yeah, he's a friend."

"That's not what I mean," scoffs Piper, pushing choppy bangs impatiently out of her face. "Did you invite Nico because you have a crush on him?"

Leo laughs, louder than he means to. At the expression on Piper's face, he says, "No, that's not at all why I invited him."

"You've been spending an awful lot of time together," she wheedles.

"We sure have. Still not why I invited him."

There’s a long moment of silence, where Piper looks at him expectantly and Leo refuses to budge. At some point, Piper gets impatient with him and throws her hands in the air. "So why did you invite him?"

Normally, Leo would never admit his insecurities out loud if he couldn't cloak it in at least one layer of humour, but he's tired and wants to crawl back into bed before Nico wakes up. He likes the physical contact, and there's no cuddling after Nico opens his eyes and gets embarrassed.

"I hate being surrounded by happy couples - and so does Nico, which is why we're spending time together," he says with another huff of laughter.

"I didn't know you felt that way," says Piper. "Does it bother you at home, too?"

"Not usually," Leo assures her, "since you and Jason like to include me even when I want to be left alone, but here... I don't know. It just reminds me of being on the Argo II."

Piper's lips twitch. "Like we're all about to die?"

"Like I'm an awkward virgin with a crush on every cute person I see," Leo corrects her, grinning wide when she laughs.

He wasn't sure if Piper would understand, since she's been in a relationship for so long, but she kisses Leo's cheek and says, "I get that. None of us want to feel like our teenage selves again, Leo. But... I think you should be more careful with Nico if you don't have a crush on him, I don't want anyone getting hurt to ruin my Christmas holidays."

"You know we aren't even supposed to celebrate Christmas."

"We'll make sure to pray extra hard on the Solstice so our parents don't think we forgot about them."

"Sounds like a plan." Leo glances over his shoulder at his closed bedroom door. "I want to get a bit more sleep, can you wake me whenever Percy drags his ass out of bed?"

With a dramatic roll of her eyes, Piper heads down the hallway to join whoever else is awake at such an annoying time.

Leo opens the bedroom door as quietly as possible, but he needn't have bothered. Nico's watching him through half-closed eyes, buried in blankets, and Leo tries not to be disappointed.

"It's still dark outside," Nico grouches.

"That happens in December," says Leo as he closes the door behind him. "Can I...?"

"Can you what?"

"I want to sleep more," Leo explains.

It's early enough that Nico takes a few seconds to understand. His cheeks turn pink when he does, embarrassed by the snuggling as always, but he lifts one side of the blankets in invitation.

Leo breathes a sigh of relief and slips under the covers, pausing before he presses his legs against Nico's, which are cold even through two layers of pyjamas, and uncertainly touches his fingers to Nico's waist.

"Is this okay?" he asks quietly, feeling Nico's whole body tense.

"It's fine."

Nico's voice is stiff, but he would have told Leo to fuck off if this bothered him beyond embarrassment, so Leo wraps his arm around Nico's torso and closes his eyes.

As Leo drifts back into sleep with his nose pressed to Nico's shoulder, he feels the boy relax and shift closer.

When they finally get up to face the day, there is glitter on almost every surface in the common areas. Leo is a bit confused, until he sees a homemade banner above the dining room fireplace with 'DANCING QUEEN: YOUNG, SWEET, NEWLY 17!' in purple and gold lettering.

"Will your sister even get that reference?" Leo asks around a yawn.

"I don't get this reference," says Nico. He doesn't look overly bothered by it, following Leo into the kitchen rather than joining Piper and Percy in hanging a strange mixture of Christmas and birthday decorations.

"I always forget Hazel is younger than me," Leo admits as he pulls Pop-Tarts out of the cupboard, handing a package to Nico. He's too lazy to make a proper breakfast. "Like, she dated mi bisabuelo. It just doesn't compute that she isn't old enough to vote."

"She dated your grandfather?" Nico asks, hopping up on the island to eat his Pop-Tarts raw, like a damn animal.

The toaster is packed away in one of the many cupboards, so Leo sets his palm alight to carefully sear his breakfast over the open flame. He must look ridiculous.

"Great-grandfather," Leo corrects him without looking up from his task. There are few things in life as disappointing as a burnt strawberry Pop-Tart. "And I think so? It's been a while since I talked about it with Hazel, but I know mi bisabuelo loved her."

Nico's head cocks to the side questioningly. "How?"

"We got to see him when she took me on a memory quest," Leo sums up as he extinguishes the fire, "and he kept doing this."

He taps the Morse code on Nico's knee. It would have been easier to tap the counter, maybe, but Leo likes the new superpower of being able to reach out without Nico flinching away.

Even Jason doesn't have that ability.

"I don't speak nerd," Nico says when Leo is taking too long to continue. "But I'm guessing that meant 'I love you'."

"Yeah, it does." Leo suddenly feels self-conscious, and he leans back against the far counter so he doesn't give into another physical impulse.

"I didn't know about any of that," says Nico. He doesn't draw attention to the fact that Leo can't meet his eyes. "I mean, we don't really talk about growing up. Hazel has told me her mom's name and stories about New Orleans, but it's almost never anything personal."

That surprises Leo, since Hazel has always been open with him about Sammy and the stables and the shitty town in Alaska where she'd died, but he takes a shot in the dark. "She probably doesn't want to encourage your brooding. Last time we mentioned Venice, you sulked for three days."

"Come on, that was a long time ago," Nico says around a mouthful of Pop-Tart.

"It was last year."

"A long time ago," repeats Nico. "Do you know how many years of my life I've managed to be conscious and relatively safe throughout? I did some growing up."

Leo can understand what Nico means. He can't relate, but he makes a sound around his own breakfast to avoid talking.

It seems amazing that Nico had managed to hold on to the childish reactions of someone who has never interacted with people. Leo would have died on the streets of Houston if he'd kept anything petty or naïve inside of him.

Sometimes, Leo feels like he lost his childhood in stages, and sometimes it feels like it happened all at once. Either way, he only got to be a child for eight years. After that, there were truancy officers to run from, gangbanger kids to make laugh, bruises to hide, and a war to fight.

"I wish I could sulk like that," says Leo. He coats the words in humour so that Nico won't be able to hear the feeling behind them.

Nico laughs, and Leo tries not to suffocate from the phantom smoke in his lungs. He doesn't want to ruin Hazel's birthday.

 


 

The Winter Solstice is usually a casual affair in the Valdez-Grace-McLean household. They order takeout, put on Clash of the Titans - the remake - to laugh at, and share a joint while they pray.

Piper has different ideas this year.

Maybe it's the fact that they're celebrating Christmas properly for the first time in years and she feels guilty, but when Leo and Nico finally stumble out of bed, Piper is supervising a shrine being set up in the dining room.

"Why not here?" Annabeth is asking, holding her half of the pedestal up with slightly more difficulty than Frank is having.

"Because the moonlight won't hit it at all," says Piper. She has tinsel in her hair.

"We're not praying to Artemis, so it doesn't matter." Frank sounds much calmer than Annabeth, which isn't all that surprising. He could probably hold the stone pedestal with one arm, but Annabeth must have insisted on helping. "It's more important that it's close to the fire, so we can give our offerings."

"Plus, my dad," Leo pipes up, opening the cupboards to start collecting sandwich ingredients. "Fire is best if I want to be on his good side."

"Okay, okay," Piper says with a sigh.

Annabeth and Frank set the pedestal down with grateful looks in Leo's direction, but Piper has already moved on to panicking about the lighting and whether or not they have enough candles.

"Is she always like this?" Nico mutters, passing Leo utensils before he even asks for them.

"She's never like this, but we don't usually do anything for Christmas," Leo explains as best as he can. "Since we're doing more than just exchanging presents this year, I guess she's worried that our parents are going to send us bad juju for the new year."

All he gets in response is a grunt, but he supposes that's all he can expect from Nico. Instead of skulking away, though, Nico picks up a knife and starts helping Leo chop vegetables. His fingers are slow, like this isn't something he does very often, but he obviously knows how to handle a knife.

Together, Leo and Nico cobble together a huge salad and platter of sandwiches to bring to the table for their harried friends.

"You're my new favourite," says Percy reverently. "I'm going to steal you from Jason and Piper so you can live on my couch and cook for me every day."

"Nico did a lot of the heavy lifting," Leo laughs, forcing Piper into a chair, "but thank you."

"Don't be stupid," says Nico. He knocks his hip against Leo's before sitting down, and either doesn't notice or doesn't care about the surprised looks he gets for voluntarily touching another human.

"It's my natural state of being."

Nico shoots him a small, crooked grin. Despite their nighttime snuggles and solo adventures to find Pokémon, Nico has been acting more or less the same as always when they're around everyone else, so his behaviour this morning makes Leo feel warm to his core.

The only person who isn't paying attention to Nico is Piper. She's mumbling to herself and counting on her fingers, though Leo can't tell what she's adding up.

"I still feel like we're forgetting someone," she announces, and it clicks - she's making sure none of their parents will be left out.

"Who could we possibly be forgetting?" asks Annabeth. She sounds exasperated, but still willing to entertain Piper, which is more than Leo is going to do. "We only need to honour our parents, really."

"No matter what, someone's going to get pissed off," Percy points out around a mouthful of bread.

"Are we drinking tonight?" asks Hazel. "Not that any of us drink, of course, since we're all too young and can't legally do so, but if we are drinking, we should make some time for Bacchus to prevent any hangovers. Not that I know anything about that."

"Dad has a liquor cabinet." Piper grins for probably the first time all day. "Not that we'd ever use it."

Jason rolls his eyes so hard that Leo worries they'll get stuck that way. "I'm actually not drinking, but I don't think our parents give a damn if we're twenty-one."

"Speak for yourself, my mom would kill me."

"Percy, you're going to be twenty-one in like, nine months. I think Sally will understand."

While his friends bicker, Leo turns to Nico to ask his opinion, but the question dies in his throat at the expression on Nico's face.

His eyes, which have been so expressive lately that Leo has been finding it harder and harder to look away from them, have dulled to something dark and unremarkable, and his mouth is pressed together in a thin line that makes him look absolutely miserable.

Leo doesn't understand what the problem is right away, but when he does, his heart feels like someone has put it through a trash compactor.

"Hey," he says, quietly enough that only Nico hears.

Somewhat reluctantly, Nico looks up from his sandwich. Leo offers his fist to Nico with the most solemn expression he's capable of.

"Orphan solidarity."

Nico's brow furrows - like maybe he'd forgotten he wasn't alone at the table - but after a long moment of just staring, he knocks his fist against Leo's.

"You aren't the only one here who's lost everything," Leo reminds him softly, nodding to Jason and Hazel as they argue and then to a quietly amused Frank. Nico's eyes flick between the other orphans at the table before he sighs heavily.

"It's easy to forget," he mutters, poking at his salad. "You're always so cheerful. I'm the broody one, you said so yourself."

"Everybody deals with grief differently," Leo says instead of laughing at the idea of being a cheerful person. He wishes, again, that he could have been the kind of adult who can get lost in his own head the way Nico does. "I know it's easy to think you're the only one who has ever felt this way before - I've made that mistake a few times - but you're with probably the only people in the world who can relate to every shitty thing you've been through."

He can practically see the gears turning in Nico's head, trying to find an argument and falling short. Eventually, Nico's eyes light up again.

"I guess you're right."

"I mean, I died, and I'm not even the only one at the table who has."

Nico shoves at his shoulder with a bark of laughter. Managing to cheer Nico di Angelo up is something of an accomplishment, and Leo can't stop grinning for the rest of the meal.

The rest of the Solstice goes well, to Piper's happiness and everyone else's relief. Jason leaves for an hour or so after lunch to escape Piper's inexplicable need to please gods who have done nothing for them and returns with bags full of far too many candles and a bemused expression.

"Did you know they just sell THC oil at regular shops?" he asks Leo as he dumps the bags onto the kitchen island. "It was weird. Cool, but weird. Do we have the stuff to make brownies?"

"Probably," Leo shrugs, elbow-deep in soapy dishwater.

"Brownies?" Annabeth narrows her eyes as she looks up from her notebook. "Jason Grace."

"It's tradition in our house," he says unapologetically, "and I don't drink, so I figured nobody would care if I got something for myself."

Flicking water at Jason, Leo says, "She's just surprised because you're such a boy scout."

Annabeth sniffs and returns her attention to whatever she's working on. "As long as you also make regular brownies and make it clear which pan is which, I won't say another word about it."

"I'll make brownies for everyone," promises Leo.

"Thanks, man." Jason grins and drops an easy kiss to Leo's curls. He and Piper had become much more physically affectionate after Leo came back from his brief death and the subsequent months of radio silence, and that affection had freaked out many of Leo's one night stands. None of the demigods milling around the common area even bat an eye.

Leo dries his hands and snaps the towel at Jason. "Get out of my kitchen if you aren't going to help."

Holding up his hands in a show of peace, Jason heads back outside. Leo is pretty sure some of his friends are building snowmen, but he's content to stay inside today.

After double-checking the pantry to make sure he has everything for brownies, Leo pulls a notebook from his sweater pocket and scribbles calculations in the margins. He's going to start building everybody's presents tomorrow, but he's not sure how to make sure Nico doesn't ruin his own surprise by wandering into the garage for a smoke. That's going to be a fun project all on its own.

Annabeth is good, quiet company, so Leo doesn't ask her to leave. Not that he'd try anyway, as he likes his limbs where they are, but he's always liked working on different things in the same room as someone else. His garage is nice for it, but nothing compares to Bunker Nine and the camp forge.

Every so often, Annabeth will rattle off numbers she needs crunched like Leo is a human calculator, or Leo will accidentally say something about lasers out loud, but otherwise they're silent.

It's almost sad when their friends start trailing back into the kitchen, laughing and shoving at each other. Leo slips his notebook back into his pocket and exchanges a long-suffering smile with Annabeth.

"Jason dumped snow down my shirt," Nico says plaintively, leaning against Leo's shoulder to warm himself up.

"Did you deserve it?" asks Leo.

He pats Nico's hair where it's visibly wet to help speed the drying process and expertly ignores the looks Piper is drilling into the side of his head.

Jason, like the amazing friend he is, ropes Nico into a good-natured argument about whose fault it was and acts like it's perfectly normal for Leo and Nico to be touching each other.

"I need to start dinner, chico," Leo says after allowing himself a moment of genuine contentment. "Go take a hot bath."

"I can help," says Nico.

"Not if you're dying of pneumonia, you can't." Leo rolls his eyes and gives Nico a little push. He knows that everybody can see the moment the air hits Nico again, making him shudder and grimace, and Leo hopes Piper will understand exactly how much Nico needs the extra body heat.

It occurs to Leo as he puts his friends to work on simple preparation tasks that nobody except Hazel is able to touch Nico without their hand getting ripped off, and so the fact that Nico has actual fucking ice in his veins isn't a well-known one. Knowing that, it makes a lot more sense that Hazel hasn't given Leo the same 'don't hurt him' talk that Piper had - she is all too aware of her brother's poor circulation.

Leo is glad for it. He's had a lot of practice with lying to Piper about his feelings, but Hazel has always had a way of seeing through him.

He pushes all thoughts of Nico and whatever is developing in his chest aside and focuses on making great food for his friends.

 


 

Honestly, prayer is boring, and Leo will stand by that if he ever feels safe enough to say it out loud. He barely gets to talk to his dad if the world itself is ending, and it feels strange to ask the low-burning flames for a peaceful year when Hephaestus has never allowed Leo a peaceful month in his life.

He knows how important it is for some of his friends, but Leo ends up watching Jason frown at his food through the whole meal to give himself perspective.

Hephaestus may be absent and clueless, but at least he isn't the whole reason Hera fucked up his son's childhood. Jupiter can't say the same. What do you even say to a parent who used you as a bribe, a weapon, a leader, and has never once spoken to you?

Quietly, Leo excuses himself to the kitchen under the pretence of getting wine for everyone, and he's sure to be discreet when he places a napkin-wrapped brownie on Jason's lap on his return.

Jason gives him a small, grateful smile and takes nibbling bites whenever nobody is looking. It's probably blasphemous in some way for them to purposefully ignore their prayers, but Leo doesn't care. Having your entire life purposefully shaped around a prophecy can mess with your sense of parental obligation. One of Leo's first memories is being put in a fireplace, and he wonders how Hera had turned Jason into her other little hero.

He's getting angry on Jason's behalf again. Leo does his best to project his thoughts towards the firelight as he sips the too-expensive wine. Hey, Dad. Thanks for not selling me to your angry wife and letting my mom leave me with a pack of wolves. Go fuck yourself, Jupiter.

As if on cue, lightning strikes outside the dining room window. It illuminates the slopes of the mountain, the trees, and the silhouette of something huge lumbering towards them.

"We've got company," Annabeth says with a sigh. She doesn't move to get up, though, continuing to dunk her pork chops in wine like that's something people do.

"I'm eating," says Percy. "Someone else can deal with it."

Leo rolls his eyes, finishes his glass of wine, and pushes away from the table. It's his own fault anyway, he might as well go fight the monster. Before he can crack a joke and head out, Nico frowns at him. "You're going out there by yourself?"

"Well, yeah," Leo says with a glance out the window. The monster is slow and dragging some sort of stick along the snow, leaving a clear trail for mortals to puzzle over in the morning.

"No," says Nico. He stands up, too, and points at Leo sternly. "I'm going to get my sword. Don't try to fight shit alone."

"Did he forget I saved the world?" Leo asks the room at large.

"You didn't do it alone," Frank points out, "and you're out of practice. When was the last time you and Piper actually went to camp and trained?"

"They haven't gone since we moved out."

Gods, Jason is such a tattletale. Leo is never making any kind of brownies for him again.

"I can handle one monster."

"Sure you can," says Nico, reappearing at Leo's shoulder. "But even rookie demigods know to bring backup."

Percy looks up from his meal for the first time since sitting down, expression disbelieving. "Dude, you're such a hypocrite. You never once took backup anywhere. I offered! A lot!"

"He's not a hypocrite, he just didn't bring you," Hazel hums. Her golden eyes flicker to the window and back. "Stop arguing before it breaks the glass and ruins Leo and Piper's hard work. Dinner is lovely, by the way."

"Thanks," Leo choruses with his best friend. He knocks his shoulder into Nico's a little roughly on their way out the door, but Nico doesn't even seem to notice.

He hates to admit that Nico is right, but after getting knocked on his ass for the third time, Leo has to accept the fact that he's severely out of practice. Although the aim of his fireballs are as accurate as the snow he'd thrown at Nico's face, Leo can't dodge counter-attacks nearly as fast as he needs to.

What's even more annoying is that Nico doesn't even say 'I told you so'. He simply stabs the monster through the eye and wipes the dust on his own jeans before holding a hand out to help Leo to his feet.

Leo has never been able to hold onto pettiness, so he grins sheepishly and allows Nico to pull him up like he weighs nothing.

"Thanks," he says, squeezing Nico's hand.

"I'm sure you wouldn't have died," is what Nico replies with, and he doesn't drop Leo's hand for several seconds. What he doesn't say, what Leo hears anyway, is I wanted to help.

 


 

Leo has had far too much to drink.

The wine is long gone, both pans of brownies are cleared out, and Leo had made the mistake of trying to match Annabeth shot for shot.

Being drunk is not at all a new experience for him, but he feels a lot dizzier now that the brownies have finally kicked in. He's sprawled out in front of the fireplace in the den, arranging the logs into the shape of a house while they're still on fire, and he keeps forgetting to listen to the stories his friends are telling.

The last thing he remembers hearing was Piper's insistence that aliens exist, and when he focuses on their voices again, it sounds like they've moved on to questions about each other's lives.

He finishes his log sculpture with pride and turns away from the fire, blinking away the lingering image of flames.

On one of the sofas, Piper has managed to sprawl herself across everyone's laps, while Jason and Nico share the other with a lot more space between them. The cushion has obviously been vacated by Piper, but Leo bets they left enough room for him, too, whenever he stopped playing with fire. Actually getting up and sitting on the couch is too much effort, so Leo grins at them and gets a lazy grin from Jason in return. Nico, who has been nursing the same beer since dinner, does something expressive with his eyebrows.

"We should play a game," Leo decides, probably interrupting someone.

"- and then my mom yelled because we put the baby in danger, like we expected to get attacked or something," says Percy, presumably finishing his story. "What kind of game?"

"I brought lots of card games," Piper says, "but I don't feel like digging through my bags right now."

"We play truth or dare at camp." Hazel moves Piper's feet out of her lap so she can slide onto the floor with Leo, golden eyes sparkling in the firelight. Leo can appreciate, somewhere in his hazy mind, that she is growing into a beautiful woman, but there aren't butterflies in his stomach like there used to be.

Jason groans, rubbing at his eyes and leaving his glasses askew from it. "I haven't had to play truth or dare since I was twelve. The cohort is still going strong with that, huh?"

"It's fun!" insists Hazel.

"It's fun until someone leaves the room angry," says Jason. "Or crying. Or both."

He's outvoted by bored demigods of various drunkenness, who think it sounds like a great idea. Leo has already decided to ask for a dare every time, since he has no idea how to keep his guard up in this state.

While the others argue over who has to start the game, Leo scoots closer to Hazel and starts to braid her hair the way his mom used to do her own. It's been a little over ten years since he's done this, but Hazel's hair is the same texture as his own, as his mom's, and his fingers remember what to do even if his brain doesn't. It's a good way to keep his hands busy and his heart calm. Hazel is a good sport, humming along to the songs on the radio and tilting her head helpfully when he gets to the bottom of each braid.

He keeps the game in the peripherals of his attention, not wanting to be surprised when it comes around to him.

Nothing too scandalous happens for a few rounds, but then Percy decides that everyone needs to take more shots. Leo downs his own after he finishes Hazel's hair, box braids piled on top of her head and secured with her silk scarf.

The vodka burns Leo's throat on the way down, but he can feel Nico's eyes on him, so he pretends not to be affected. For reasons he refuses to think about, he wants to impress Nico.

"Leo," says Piper, bringing him back to the present. Oh, he does not trust the look on her face.

"Dare," says Leo for the fifth time since the game started. When Piper smirks, he swallows down the urge to take it back - nothing she says would be worse than having to reveal something he'd rather keep to himself.

"I dare you to kiss..." Her kaleidoscope eyes flit around the room, and Leo focuses on them so he doesn't have to see the apprehension on his friends' faces. He feels Nico's gaze again, but Leo especially doesn't want to look at him. "Hm, how about... Jason?"

Leo feels a strange mixture of relief and disappointment that she doesn't say Nico's name, but he doesn't let either show on his face.

"You got it," Leo says with a crooked grin, standing up and blinking rapidly to clear the spots from his vision. "How long?"

"Five seconds," suggests Frank. He's playing with Piper's hair absently.

"Nah, ten." The correction doesn't come from Piper, but from Annabeth. A half-empty bottle of gin is in her hand, and she raises a defiant eyebrow at everyone's visible surprise. "What? It's the first good dare of the night."

Jason pulls a silly face at Leo, his glasses still crooked. Leo bites back a hysterical giggle and comes forward to park himself in Jason's lap, fixing his dumb glasses and stage whispering, "No homo."

"You're an idiot," Jason says at the same volume.

Shrugging his assent, Leo cups Jason's jaw in both hands and presses their lips together. It isn't the first time he's drunkenly kissed his best friend - Piper is nothing if not predictable when it comes to embarrassing her boys - and he feels just as much nothing as he always does. He knows Jason is hot in the objective way that he knows Hazel is beautiful; it's undeniable, but he doesn't want to sleep with either of them.

Sure, he's aware of Jason's stubble against his cheek, Jason's hands on his hips, Jason's glasses poking him in the temple, but none of it makes his hair start to smoke in desire.

Leo pulls away with an audible smack when his friends' too-loud countdown reaches ten and laughs when they start to catcall and cheer, like the dorks they are. He pats Jason's cheek before swinging himself out of a straddling position and onto the sofa between him and Nico.

Nico, who... isn't meeting Leo's eye.

He tries not to dwell on it. To distract himself, he makes Frank tell everybody the most embarrassing time he's ever turned into an animal.

The game goes on for a while longer before Percy sets off a chain of yawning, but Nico doesn't say a single word or even look in Leo's direction. If Leo didn't know any better, he'd say that Nico was brooding. Maybe watching guys kiss had reminded him of Will or something. Leo still doesn't know what happened between Nico and his ex-boyfriend, since Nico clams up whenever anyone mentions him, but he's too crossfaded and confused to puzzle it out at the moment.

Nobody else seems to find Nico's silence weird. Leo tries to push down anxiety that he's ruined everything before it bubbles to the surface.

Hazel puts on a movie when the game peters out and climbs back onto her sofa, snuggling against Frank's shoulder and being careful not to disturb Piper, who's already asleep with her head in Frank's lap.

Despite Jason's leg, warm and solid against Leo's own, Leo feels some sort of jealousy join the mess of emotions he's battling when he sees his friends in such a cute cuddle pile. It takes him almost half the movie to realize that it's because of the space that Nico has purposefully left between them.

Gods, he hopes he hasn't fucked it up.

 


 

The bed seems so much smaller when Nico won't look at him. Leo is keeping himself occupied elsewhere in the room by sorting his laundry, which is taking a lot longer than usual with the haziness that has settled over his mind.

He's waiting for Nico to fall asleep, so he can get in bed without uncertainty and worry, but he just isn't that lucky.

When Leo finally turns to their shared bed, he sees that Nico is still looking grumpy. He's on his own side of the bed for once, sullenly staring at the ceiling.

Leo, who can't stop himself from being an ass at the best of times, hears the words come out of his mouth before he's even considered them, "So, like, are we not friends anymore?"

"What?" Nico's voice sounds strange. Leo can't put his finger on the emotion Nico is exuding, but he pushes that aside for now.

At least Nico is looking at him again.

"You're ignoring me," says Leo, "and I thought - I know you didn't like me much before we got to Telluride because I'm the single most annoying person you've ever met but I kind of thought we'd gotten past that and were becoming actual friends and now you're acting like I don't exist and I don't know why -"

"Di immortales, Leo, you need to breathe."

"I am breathing," Leo says, ignoring the phantom pressure on his chest that says otherwise.

Nico sighs and runs a palm down his own face. "I'm... irritated."

"At me," Leo finishes the thought. He doesn't feel surprised or upset when Nico doesn't correct him, because at least they're making progress. He gingerly sits at the foot of the bed and asks, "Why?"

With a deep scowl, Nico pulls himself up into a sitting position and meets Leo's eye. It would probably look more intimidating if he weren't in a blanket burrito.

"Just wondering what your first kiss with a boy was like. Think you said 'no homo' loud enough for everyone to know it was a joke?"

Leo tries to bite back the peal of laughter in his throat, because Nico looks genuinely annoyed, but he's drunk, high, and so damn happy there isn't an actual problem between them that the giggles escape anyway. Once he's started, it's hard to stop.

It seems like Nico is getting more upset the longer he laughs, so Leo manages to get a sentence out for his benefit. "You - oh my gods, Nico, I thought this was a real issue."

"This is a real issue to me," says Nico, his voice hard. "You shouldn't say shit like that."

"Dude." Leo gets his laughter under control as best as he can, but the grin is impossible to wipe off his face. "Cuate, I'm fucking queer."

"You really shouldn't say that word either."

"No, that's how I identify, like, I've been kissing boys since I was twelve," Leo explains. He snorts when Nico finally understands, looking a bit like he's been hit by a truck. "'First kiss with a boy', my ass. That's not even the first time I've kissed Jason! You had me panicking all night, and you just thought I was making fun of your sexuality or something? That is so funny, di Angelo."

Nico looks shell-shocked. The frown has been completely wiped away, replaced by an expression so surprised it's almost comical.

"You never said anything," is all Nico seems to be able to come up with.

"Old habits die hard," says Leo. He wants to leave it at that, but his mouth has other ideas. "When the boys you kiss like to turn around and punch you in the face later, you learn to keep your trap shut."

The frown comes back, but it's softer, more concerned than upset, and Nico reaches a hesitant hand out like he's going to touch Leo before thinking better of it.

Leo doesn't want to talk about this. He wouldn't have even said it if his brain wasn't being altered by substances, making his tongue loose and his protective walls crumble. He looks away and kicks off his slippers so he doesn't have to see the pity that's surely in Nico's eyes.

"I'm tired," he announces before Nico can say a word.

"Okay," says Nico. His voice is soft in a way that Leo has only heard when he's speaking to Hazel. "Let's go to bed."

"Can we still cuddle?" Leo asks hopefully.

"Um, sure."

Leo wants to avoid looking directly at Nico, embarrassed by how much he's said. He curls up on his side, facing the wall, and announces, "It's a tragedy that I never get to be the little spoon."

There's a long moment of silence and stillness where all Leo can hear is his own heart beating wildly against his ribcage, but then Nico shifts behind him and carefully slots himself into the curves of Leo's body. Even though his body is as cold as ever, it doesn't bother Leo.

He falls asleep like that, with Nico's hand on his stomach and Nico's legs bracketing his own, and he lets himself think about the emotion in his own chest for the first time.

It's been a while since Leo had a crush on a friend. He sleepily wonders if it's just as painful as it used to be.

 


 

Leo wakes up warm.

He is also hungover, embarrassed, and hard, but that's a combination he's become accustomed to over the course of his adult life, and isn't particularly worth noting.

The thing that's weird, that makes him open his eyes despite feeling like death warmed over, is the lack of an icy presence at his back. Leo turns around carefully, not wanting to trigger nausea with quick movements.

Nico isn't there, which has not happened before. Leo has always woken up first and either wiggled out of bed or shaken Nico awake with him. It isn't the end of the world or anything like that, Nico waking up first, but Leo knows that he'd have needed to make a conscious decision to leave his favourite heat source and blanket fortress, and since he was still acting strange after their conversation...

It's too early for this, honestly. Leo decides that he can figure out if Nico is still upset with him after another hour or two of sleep.

 


 

The rest of the day only gives Leo one real conclusion: Nico is officially avoiding him. He leaves rooms when Leo enters, spends time chatting with Hazel or playing video games with Jason and Percy instead of attaching himself to Leo's hip.

Leo, who feels no less like shit than he had when he'd first opened his eyes, distracts himself from what this behaviour could mean.

He locks himself in the garage for most of the afternoon and evening, building Christmas presents from scratch and never once needing to worry that Nico will walk in and ruin his own present.

His friends leave him be. Leo doesn't know if that's because they suspect he's making their presents or if they just think he deserves some time to be an introvert, but for once he isn't grateful for the solitude. To be honest with himself - something Leo avoids - he misses Nico being there.

Leo has accepted the fact that he has a crush, now, but that's not the only reason he misses Nico. He misses the barks of laughter when something surprises Nico, the playlist he created on Leo's Spotify for their drives, the way he always asks Leo's opinion on naming Pokémon. In short, Leo misses his friend. That is what Nico has become in these short weeks, isn't it?

The feeling only gets worse during the days leading up to Christmas, and Leo starts to sleep in the garage so he doesn't have to deal with the foot of empty space between them in their shared bed.

Piper notices, because of course she does.

"That's enough," she announces as she catches him coming out of the bathroom on Christmas Eve. She doesn't seem to care that she almost gives him a heart attack. "You've had your space to recharge, it's time to come back."

"I don't really get to decide when I'm ready to be with people again," says Leo. "I bet you just miss my cooking."

Without acknowledging Leo's protest at all, Piper keeps talking. "It's almost Christmas, and it isn't the same without you. Nico is sulking."

"Nico is always sulking."

"Not like this," Piper says, her eyes narrowing suspiciously. "He's even stopped talking to Jason. I thought I made it very clear that you were not allowed to break his heart on this trip."

Leo snorts and leans against the hallway's panelled walls, shoving his hands deep in his pockets.

"I did nothing of the sort, Beauty Queen," he says. "I told him I was queer and he stopped talking to me. But, sure, this is definitely my fault."

That visibly surprises Piper, her eyebrows curving upwards and her determination falling away. Leo wants to feel some kind of triumph for it, but whenever he reaches for a positive emotion, he just comes back with more anxiety. "He did what? That doesn't sound like Nico."

"No, it doesn't, but that's what happened." Leo pulls himself away from the wall and gives Piper his best 'everything is okay' smile. "I'll get over it."

"Will you at least come watch something with us?" Piper asks softly.

If Leo had heard even a trace of charmspeak in the request, he'd have left the room without a second thought. Piper is doing her best to respect his boundaries and autonomy, and Leo has to admit that he's missed more than just Nico as he's been holed up in the garage.

"Sure," he agrees with a more genuine smile, "as long as I get to be a part of the snuggle pile."

Despite everything, Leo still finds himself shocked at how warm of a welcome he receives on his way into the den. Yes, Nico looks like he's about to bolt, but Jason and Frank both half-stand like they want to hug him.

"Leo agreed to watch a movie with us," Piper tells the room, squeezing Leo's hand reassuringly. Maybe she also notices Nico's discomfort. It would be hard to miss.

His friends chorus their enthusiasm, Percy moving his legs off the sofa to make room for Leo.

With a mollified grin at everybody, Leo flops down between Percy and Hazel and tries not to get emotional when they curl around him like parentheses without being asked. Piper, true to form, gets comfortable on Percy's lap and spreads her legs over Leo's and Hazel's. Hazel giggles sweetly as she leans her head onto Leo's shoulder. She's still got her hair in the braids he'd done for her.

Leo had really been beginning to think that they were glad to have him isolating himself, happy to be rid of him - once a seventh wheel, always a seventh wheel - but his friends were worried about him.

He wonders if Nico has been, too.

For the first time, Leo is allowed to pick the movie. He chooses something mindless and explosion-y so he can let his friends' touch focus him to reality.

It's definitely one of the best starts to a Christmas that Leo has ever had, and he isn't shy about asking if they can all have a sleepover in the den once the movie is over. Annabeth sighs, but doesn't protest, and Piper is already moving the coffee table to make room for a pile of blankets in front of the fire.

Nico doesn't leave the room, but Leo tries not to look at him too much. He wants to keep his heart rate steady and his mood calm, after all, and neither of those things will work if he pays too much attention to his newfound crush.

He falls asleep on the floor with his ear pressed to Frank's chest, letting the slow rise and fall of it lull him into dreams.

 


 

Leo is making coffee for everyone when he senses someone behind him. He can hear the low murmur of whoever is awake in the den, but he doesn't bother trying to figure out who it is.

Acting on his gut instinct, Leo asks, "Two shots of espresso in a black coffee?"

"You got it, Valdez," says Nico.

It's the first thing he's said to Leo in days, but Leo doesn't want to spook him by bringing attention to it.

He makes a noise of acknowledgement and keeps pouring coffee into the boring mugs he'd found in the cupboards. The presence at his back comes even closer, and Leo can feel the chill coming off of Nico before the moment of contact.

Nico wraps his arms around Leo's waist hesitantly, like he isn't sure if he's going to get pushed away, and rests his forehead between Leo's shoulder blades.

The kitchen is quiet except for the pounding of Leo's heart and Nico's soft breathing. It's hard to concentrate on the task at hand, but Leo manages it. He finishes adding an outrageous amount of cream to Percy's coffee before resting his hands on top of Nico's and murmuring, "Help me carry these in?"

"Okay," says Nico. There's another beat before he actually pulls away from Leo's warmth to do as he's asked.

It isn't an apology or an explanation for his behaviour, but as Nico claims the spot next to Leo on one of the sofas, Leo has to admit that he doesn't care. All that matters is having Nico back, smiling at him over a steaming cup of coffee and accepting the Christmas wreath Hazel puts on his head.

"When are we doing presents?" Percy asks after being awake for less than a minute.

"Now!" Piper shouts, clapping her hands.

"I've never seen someone so excited to get a present," Nico mutters so only Leo can hear. His breath is cold and smells like coffee, but Leo is too happy to care.

"It's the rich kid in her," Leo whispers back, leaning closer because he can. His heart does a gymnastics routine in his chest when Nico barks a laugh and leans even further into Leo's space, pressing his entire side against Leo's.

Everyone seems to agree that presents are more important than breakfast, so Leo reluctantly pulls away from Nico and leaves to collect his things from the garage. They aren't wrapped, because Leo had meant to do that instead of cuddling with his friends, but he can't bring himself to regret it. He carefully puts each gift into separate garbage bags and carries them all back into the den in his arms.

The load is lightened when Jason takes pity on him and grabs a couple, startling when one of the bags makes a noise.

"Sorry, I didn't have time to wrap them," says Leo, distributing the bags between his friends before returning to his spot on the sofa. Nico is regarding his present warily, but the rest of their friends are already tearing into the plastic.

"Is it going to hurt me?" Nico asks suspiciously.

Leo rolls his eyes. "Pendejo."

The curiosity gets the better of Nico, though, and he carefully opens the bag. He stares inside for a few moments before pulling the palm-sized animatronic out.

"You made me a Gengar?"

"Yeah," Leo says with a smile, "that's your favourite, right?"

Nico nods, opening and closing his mouth a couple of times. No sound comes out, and Leo can only hope that's a good sign.

Over the sound of Jason and Hazel laughing as they spar with their new swords, Leo reaches into Nico's space and presses the button on Gengar's hand.

The Pokemon's eyes glow red and it says its own name in as close a voice to the television version that Leo could program. He'd only had a couple of days to make it, so its range of motion is limited to its arms and head. Still, Leo thinks it's pretty cool.

"Gengar-Gengar-Gengar!" it growls. Nico blinks.

"Do you like it?" Leo prompts, starting to feel a bit self-conscious about Nico's lack of reaction.

It's the only thing Leo'd made that wasn't practical in some way. Jason and Hazel seem to like their swords, Frank is handling his explosive arrows carefully, Percy is trying to make his new longboard turn into the shield it doubles as, and Piper, who's retired from the demigod life and can charmspeak most monsters to leave her alone anyway, is already trying out her protective phone case by letting Annabeth hit it with the brass knuckles that Leo had worried wouldn't be the right size.

The mechanical Gengar is useless, really, aside from being cute.

Nico shakes his head, a slow grin spreading across his face like the dawning sun. "Like it? Sei duro come il muro, Leo, this is the coolest thing anyone has ever given me. You built this?"

"I built a flying ship once," says Leo, fighting with a smile of his own, "and over a dozen cars from scratch, but this is what impresses you?"

"I'm a simple guy," Nico says.

He looks away from the Gengar to meet Leo's gaze, almond-shaped eyes brighter than Leo has ever seen, and for a moment Leo swears that they're getting even closer - but then Percy shouts as he finally figures out how to use the shield function, and Nico looks away again. Leo must have imagined it.

All in all, the day is probably Leo's best Christmas since his mom died. He gets a good haul of presents, most of which are gadgets for his workshop - except Jason's, who has a tradition of getting him pyjamas, and Nico's, which is a pocket notebook with wide margins to scribble in - but the real highlight is the company he's with.

He hates to admit when Piper is right, but this trip has really given Leo the opportunity to appreciate his friends.

As everyone jokes around, gives out hugs, and sings carols off-key, Leo wonders if this is what having a family is like. It's been a long time since he's had one.

Once all the presents are open and gratitude has been shown, the demigods all pile into the kitchen to help Leo make brunch. It's the single most chaotically domestic thing he has ever been a part of, and he loves every second of it.

Piper and Jason tend to break things when they're in the kitchen, so Leo gives them an easy job; Annabeth can follow a recipe well enough and informs them that Percy makes surprisingly good eggs; Hazel and Nico seem content to taste everything and 'supervise'. It turns out that Frank is at least as good at cooking as Leo is.

"You never asked," Frank says with a shrug, his mouth twitching, when Leo starts shouting about having to cook everything on his own.

Out of protest, Leo takes a seat at the island and announces, "You can cook dinner, then."

There's some looks exchanged that Leo doesn't understand. He wonders if they've been waiting to tell him how much they secretly hate his food, until Percy clears his throat.

"Uh, while you were hibernating," he says, "we decided tonight could be like a date night."

"Percy and I are going to the Chinese buffet," Annabeth adds, turning off the stove elements. "I think Piper made reservations a month ago or something, and Frank is going to take Hazel on a picnic after dropping us all off."

"Oh, cool, that sounds fun," says Leo. He means it, too. He doesn't mind the couples taking some time for themselves, since they haven't done much of that.

He does kind of mind that they're taking the SUV, because he'd had half-baked plans of taking Nico stargazing under the guise of looking for Pokémon. Still, he supposes a movie night will be just as nice.

"I'll cook dinner," Nico pipes up as he slides onto the stool beside Leo. "If you're going to be so whiny about it."

Leo flashes him a bright grin. "Thanks, chico."

"Don't burn the place down while we're gone," Piper jokes, stuffing her face with tofu bacon.

It's not the first time she's said that to Leo, not by a long shot, but he's been thinking about his mom all morning and he briefly forgets how to breathe. He takes long enough to react that Nico steps in with a dry, "It'll be our first act of revolution against the upper class."

"Don't you have money?" Piper asks over the room's laughter.

Nico gives her a blank look. "What in the name of Cerberus gave you the impression that I had any kind of money?"

"To be fair, Dad's the god of wealth," Hazel points out, nibbling daintily on a piece of rye toast.

"We don't exactly get an allowance," Nico snorts.

"You don't?" Hazel asks in sarcastic surprise. "He sends me cursed gemstones daily. I just know it's his little way of showing he cares."

It's easier to for Leo to breathe, with his friends bickering, and when Nico turns to start using dramatic hand gestures with his words, his knee knocks against Leo's. He leaves it there, and the contact helps Leo push down the wave of emotion Piper had caused.

Leo drops his hand to Nico's knee and squeezes it, grateful for the distraction even if Nico hadn't done it on purpose. Nico doesn't turn to him, but Leo can see the smile threatening to ruin Nico's argument.

 


 

"Not to be genuine about my feelings for once or anything," says Leo, "but I'm glad you're talking to me again."

They've gone through half a season of some comedy show they've both already seen, sprawled out on separate sofas and lazily making their way through the nachos Nico had thrown together for dinner. Their friends aren't due back for a while yet.

"Me too," Nico says, the flickering firelight and glow of the television making his teeth look weird and alien, like they'd looked on the first night in Telluride. "Sorry I was... being a dick."

"It's cool, I don't hold grudges," Leo says honestly.

"I really do."

"Glad I haven't pissed you off, then."

Nico pauses, struggling to get into a sitting position so he can take his phone out of his back pocket. "Speaking of which, I have to talk to you."

"About what?" asks Leo. He pretends like his heart isn't in his throat at how serious Nico looks.

"Your Grindr profile," Nico says, his face a cool and expressionless mask.

The rush of embarrassment hits Leo a split second before the confusion, and he feels his cheeks heat up as he groans, "Oh my gods, you looked up my profile?"

"Well, yeah," says Nico. Like that's a thing people do. "I figured the app had something to do with what you told me the other night. You were squirming so much when I first saw it on your phone that I thought you were hiding something explicit or, at least, humiliating."

Leo cannot breathe. "And what's the verdict?"

"You should be humiliated." Nico's voice is ice cold, and Leo feels like someone has dropped a weight on his chest until Nico holds his phone out and adds, "These memes are at least two years old. Also, you have memes on your dating profile."

His deadpan manner makes it hard for Leo's anxiety to abate completely, but he still laughs in relief.

"Oh, yeah. They're classic."

"They're shameful," Nico counters, flicking through Leo's photos. "I don't know how you expect to get any messages with your weird pictures and outdated memes."

"Hey, I do alright," protests Leo. He moves to Nico's couch in order to show him the log of messages he's gotten since coming to Colorado. "See, they like the memes! And I'm never changing my profile picture. The avocado in sunglasses speaks to me."

Nico squints at Leo's phone screen, and it takes a split second too long for Leo to realize that he's reading the previews of the conversations. He points his finger at some guy named Justin, whose profile picture is just a torso. "Why'd he say 'never mind'? Is it because you're just visiting?"

"Ah, no." Leo scratches the back of his neck, unsure of how to phrase it without causing both of them to die of mortification. "He wanted to hook up in a way I don't do."

"Anonymously?" Nico prompts when Leo doesn't give more information.

Snorting, Leo shakes his head. "Definitely not, I wish all of my hookups were anonymous. You sure you want to know, chico? It's a little bit of the explicit you expected to find on my profile."

"Tell me," Nico says firmly.

"He wanted to have, uh..." Leo scrunches up his nose, hating every descriptive option he has. "Penetrative sex. Which I don't do."

There's some colour in Nico's cheeks, but he just nods instead of changing the subject. "I guess that's something you'd save for a boyfriend, right?"

"Never had a boyfriend," admits Leo, focusing on Nico's eyebrows instead of looking him directly in the eye. "And I don't really care about that. It isn't about the emotion behind it, I just don't have sex that way with any gender."

"So, wait." Nico shakes his head as if to clear it, making a complicated gesture with both hands. "You've never..."

"Never."

"Why the fuck not?"

Leo would actually have died of embarrassment discussing this if he hadn't gotten all that out of his system when Piper and Jason first took a morbid interest in the specifics of his sex life.

"It's dangerous," says Leo. At Nico's uncomprehending expression, he adds a pointed, "I'm pretty flammable, chico. Friction causes heat. And, like, that's fine for other things, 'cause there's a quick getaway if I feel myself start burning up during foreplay."

"Not so much when you're..." Nico trails off, his cheeks staining red.

"Well, yeah. I don't want to hurt anyone."

While Nico considers the explanation, looking less aghast by the moment, Leo taps a message against the cushion beneath them. He gets through I wish I could trust myself in Morse code before Nico speaks again.

"That's rough, buddy."

Leo is surprised into laughing, the last thing he wants to do while talking about his deficiencies, and he catches Nico looking pleased with himself for a split second.

"It's not so bad," Leo assures him, allowing the laughter to make a home in his chest so he can smile more easily.

"It sounds pretty bad," says Nico. He's schooled his expression into something passably neutral, but Leo can see amusement dancing with the firelight in Nico's eyes.

"That's not all there is to sex," Leo says for what feels like the thousandth time in his adult life. "There's lots of things I feel safe doing, I'm not exactly hard up."

Predictably, Nico snorts at his choice of words. "I mean, if you say so. It just seems like the most boring consolation prize in the world."

"That's because you've never seen my blowjobs."

The retort comes out too fast for Leo to temper it. He hopes that in the dark living room, Nico won't be able to see the heat crawling up from his neck. Leo gives an exaggerated wink like he would to anyone else, anyone he hasn't thought about naked, and hopes that it'll be enough to stop his blush from turning into actual flames.

Nico, bless his heart, merely looks dumbfounded for a second before he rolls his eyes.

Thankfully, the conversation turns to safer topics after that - Leo telling horror stories about dating apps he's used, Nico regaling the tale of a determined girl at Jupiter with a crush on him - but Leo can't fully chase the heat away. It starts to feel like embers along his skin, in his veins, making his tongue heavy and his stomach twist as he tries his best to act normal.

Gods, he hasn't had a crush this bad in ages.

He thinks he must be imagining the strangely taut atmosphere when he and Nico are retiring to their bedroom, like there's a string being pulled tight between them just waiting to break, because there's no way Nico is feeling this too.

Nico is ensconced in his blanket fortress before Leo has finished taking off his jeans. He feels too hot, still, and hopes that Nico won't mind if he crawls into bed in boxers and a ratty shirt.

Part of Leo hopes that he does mind and that he does something about it so that maybe the fire can stop chasing itself around Leo's entire body.

Nico doesn't say anything, but his gaze drops a beat too long on Leo's legs and then again on Leo's lips. Instinctively, Leo licks them.

"I'm cold," Nico says, quieter than he normally would.

"You're very needy," says Leo. He licks his lips again, nervous, before joining Nico in the unbearable warmth of the bed and allowing their limbs to tangle as they have every night.

Nico's limbs feel cold as ice against Leo's, even through their clothes, and Leo is glad for it; for something to anchor him back to a normal temperature before he sets a bed on fire. Again.

Even Nico's breath is chilly. He's exhaling a little shakily onto Leo's collarbone, and his grip on Leo's waist is just this side of too tight.

Leo doesn't sleep for a very long time. He's too tense, waiting like a coiled spring for something to happen, someone to do something, and he's both relieved and disappointed when Nico's breaths even out into sleep.

He does think, for the first time, that he might not be alone in this.

 


 

Leo wakes up to Nico's hair in his mouth, Nico's knees digging into his thighs, Nico's drool on his shirt. He doesn't think he's ever woken up happier.

He closes his eyes and basks in the contentment, in case it gets chased away in the light of the day. While he's basking, he feels Nico start to shift against him and, selfishly, pulls him even closer.

"Your elbow is in my spleen." Nico's voice is soft with sleep and muffled by Leo's chest.

"So move," says Leo.

Even though he sighs dramatically, Nico doesn't. All he does is lift his head to blink up at Leo, eyes puffy and hair sticking up in weird directions. "Morning."

"What do you want to do today?" Leo asks, rearranging their limbs to be more comfortable without letting Nico go too far.

"I need a gallon of coffee," says Nico. He yawns as if on cue.

"What about after drinking all of Tristan McLean's coffee, what do you want to do then?"

Nico gives him an exasperated sort of smile, the kind that Leo gets from his friends often, but never before from Nico. It's a good look on him. "Okay, I guess I'm picking the plan. You feel up to driving?"

"You want to fetch another Gengar?" Leo teases, tapping embarrassing Morse code messages on Nico's hip.

With a grin in the direction of the dresser, where Gengar is powered off and displayed proudly, Nico shakes his head. He reaches over Leo to grab Leo's phone from the nightstand and presses the lock button against Leo's thumb.

"Your phone is closer," he says before Leo can complain.

Leo, who's rather enjoying having Nico even more on top of him than he was before, has no intention of opening his mouth to change that. He makes a show of zipping his lips and tossing the key.

It doesn't take Nico long to find what he's looking for, and then he's tilting the phone so Leo can see the screen as well.

"I want to see The Monument," he says, showing off the Wikipedia page for the Colorado National Monument.

"Hiking trails and horseback riding?" Leo reads from the page, raising an eyebrow. "Apoco, chico? You haven't exactly been the physical activity type since we got here. I don't think you've ever gone down the slopes."

"I just want to see it," Nico says with a little huff, returning the phone to its place. "It's a couple hours away."

The embarrassing reality is that Leo doesn't think he can deny Nico anything he wants, especially if he asks when he's mussed with sleep and tangled in Leo's limbs.

"I'll drive," says Leo.

"After coffee, though."

"After coffee."

It takes a few more minutes before either of them actually move to get out of bed, but Nico's stomach makes a distraught sort of noise, and Leo laughs as he rolls out from under the covers.

He isn't wearing pants, which is somewhat of a surprise until he remembers burning up with desire the night before. The memory makes him blush as he searches for the pyjamas that Jason got him for Christmas, purposefully avoiding Nico's gaze.

When you get attacked as much as Leo has in his life, you have to be able to sense when someone is staring a hole into your back. The fact that the sensation of being watched doesn't lift when he bends over to grab the elusive pyjamas off the floor does not help the blushing situation, but it does make Leo feel pretty good about himself.

Their arms knock together on the way to the kitchen in companionable silence, each brush of Nico's skin a chilly shock to Leo's system, and Leo wonders. Is this something he can actually have?

Hazel is leaning against the counter when they come in, scrolling through her phone. She smiles at them and nods to the coffee pot. "It's fresh."

As he leaves Leo's side to pour himself a mug, Nico starts mumbling something reverently in Italian. It sounds like he is speaking directly to the coffee. Not wanting to interrupt the tender moment, Leo joins Hazel and kisses her cheek in greeting.

"Hey. How was your date night?"

"It was really good," she says, her eyes twinkling mischievously. "How was yours?"

Leo glances over at Nico quickly, but he's too busy drowning himself in coffee to be listening to them.

"Shut up," Leo mutters.

"So it's going well," Hazel says with a happy hum of a noise. Sometimes Leo hates her. "I'm happy for you. You're both a lot more social when you're not fighting."

"I'm not sure we were ever fighting exactly," says Leo.

With a dismissive wave of her hand, Hazel turns back to her phone. "Frank packed everything but cutlery, and we had to eat with our hands and daggers. I had a nice time."

"Leo and I are going to The Monument today," Nico offers, and Leo's heart flutters at how he makes it sound like it's also a date.

"That sounds like fun!" Hazel gives Leo a very knowing sidelong glance. He ignores her with the ease of someone who has had a lot of practice doing so. "Isn't that a bit of a drive?"

"About three hours," Nico says with a nod.

"We'll miss you," says Hazel, "but I've heard you can really see the stars out there."

Hazel has probably not developed psychic powers, but the fact that she knows Leo wants to go stargazing with Nico is freaky enough that he excuses himself to take a shower. By the time he gets dressed, Nico is already packing snacks for the drive.

He's wearing two sweaters and a jacket, which is so endearing that it takes Leo a moment to actually help.

"Have fun," Hazel calls in a sickeningly sweet voice. Leo flips her off.

 


 

"Quick question," says Nico. "Why does all your music suck?"

He's scrolling through Leo's phone again, trying to find perfect road trip songs. He's been looking long enough that Leo is able to stop for gas and pastries before Nico finally speaks.

"It doesn't all suck!"

"You have maybe twenty good songs on here," Nico says, huffing. Leo thinks this is a clear exaggeration, as he has thousands of songs downloaded. "I already made a playlist with those, and we've listened to it every other time we go driving. Am I allowed to put new stuff in your library?"

A smile tugs at Leo's lips, but he doesn't let it show. He tells Nico to do whatever he wants.

Leo likes the idea of Nico picking music for his phone. He knows that he'll forget to delete them after the trip, so when the new songs come on shuffle, he'll think about this drive.

The sound of soft jazz spills out of the car speakers. The choice surprises Leo until the throaty vocalists start to croon about death. That's more on-brand for Nico.

Nico keeps the volume soft and puts his feet up on the dashboard, humming along and imitating air drums when the chorus hits.

"I like this," Leo says over the quiet instrumentals.

"So do I," says Nico. He switches from humming to singing the words under his breath, and Leo knows this is what he's going to remember when he's back home and this song comes on - the weak sunlight filtering through the car, the smell of gas station muffins, the breathy sound of Nico's voice as he sings along to his favourite songs.

It's a long drive, but Leo doesn't feel as restless as he expected to. Sure, it's all on one long highway with nothing particularly interesting or challenging on it, but Nico keeps telling him facts about the artist or lyrics for each song he plays. The hours fly by.

Leo knows far more about jazzy indie music than he ever expected to by the time Nico says, "You're taking the next exit."

"I knew that," Leo lies.

He manages to safely cross three lanes of traffic in the time before he has to pull onto the off-ramp, thanks to Nico's warning. He'll never admit that he'd been too distracted by Nico himself to remember where he was driving.

There's less snow now that they've left the mountains. It helps show off the spectacular view that they're driving beside, and Nico is so caught up in gawping out the window that he doesn't react when Spotify starts to play Leo's ukulele-pop playlist.

"If this is just what it looks like from the road," says Leo, "I can't wait to stand on a ledge I'm not supposed to and get the full experience."

"Jason isn't here to catch you," Nico points out, turning to smirk in Leo's peripheral.

Leo shrugs. "Then I guess you'll have to make sure I don't fall in the first place. Can I trust you to do that, chico?"

"You can trust me," says Nico. His voice is strange when he says it, but Leo chalks it up to the distraction of Colorado scenery they're zooming through.

"Good, because I fell down the Grand Canyon once," Leo says conversationally. He spots a sign for parking and turns into it, a little surprised by how few cars are here today. "I'm not exactly eager to repeat the horror of that experience."

"Of course you did," says Nico. If Leo didn't know better, he'd say Nico sounds fond.

"It wasn't my fault."

"Of course it wasn't."

As he's getting out of the car, Nico gives him a brilliant smile. Leo is stunned into stillness before he scrambles to open his own door.

Nico sways into Leo's space like a magnet while they make the trek out to The Monument proper, trying to keep the cold wind away. It takes everything Leo has not to tangle their fingers together and insist it's for Nico's benefit.

After a few minutes, the quiet starts to become too much for Leo, and he says, "You really wanted to spend the day here. Do you know a lot about it?"

"I don't know anything about it," says Nico. "One of the Camp Jupiter kids asked if I was gonna come see it and I got curious."

"You could have shadow travelled and saved yourself six hours of driving," Leo points out, pulling Nico's beanie further down over his ears where it's riding up.

"Maybe I wanted to kill a day," Nico says, allowing Leo to fiddle with his hat and grinning when Leo almost walks into a low branch. "Maybe shadow travel takes the fun out of the experience. Maybe I just wanted to drag you along with me. Who knows?"

His tone is sardonic, but Leo suspects the real reason is some combination of the three. Leo's stomach swoops the way it does every time Jason pulls him into the air.

Despite spending a lot of time purposefully ignoring the development of his feelings, Leo can now say for certain that he's crushing pretty damn bad.

Trying to figure out where Nico stands, though, is an exercise in patience and reading between the lines. Sometimes Nico will act in a way that gives Leo hope that they could potentially hook up, and those moments have been getting more numerous as time goes on.

On the other hand, maybe this is how Nico treats all his friends, and Leo just has a horrible frame of reference.

The trees thin and the canyon comes into view more suddenly than Leo expects. Nico makes an awed sort of noise and speeds up his pace to get to the lookout.

Leo can tell, in a detached sort of way, that the view is beautiful. The thing is that he's always been more impressed by things that are manmade; bridges, skyscrapers, the functional art that makes any city what it is.

Manhattan's brick and steel foundation is the whole reason that Leo wanted to stay in the city, despite Jason and Piper missing the sprawling valleys of California and wanting to be farther from their godly parents. Leo'd won that debate by virtue of being the only one of them with a job. Still, he suspects that his friends are going to leave him behind as soon as they can stop arguing about NorCal vs SoCal. That's mostly okay with Leo. He knows that they have to move on at some point. What bothers him is the idea of being the only one of his friends left on the east coast. Frank, Percy, and Annabeth are all in college at New Rome, and Hazel basically runs the camp at Reyna's side. Even Nico lives there. Leo has never had a desire to live in California, not when there are such easy ways for him to talk to or visit his friends. So, he's a little surprised that, when he watches Nico's face light up in excitement like a kid as he leans over the railing, he gets a passive thought of if I move to California with Jason and Piper, I'd get to see Nico smile like that more often.

Man, he is further gone than he reasonably ought to be. The 'I'll follow you anywhere and give you anything' schtick isn't something Leo has allowed himself to feel since Calypso left. He hadn't been in love with her, not exactly, but he remembers how quickly and deeply he'd fallen into a mentality akin to Echo with her Narcissus.

In short, Leo is fucked.

It's not that Leo is overly worried about rejection - he's a big boy, he can handle it.

What is terrifying, what makes him go quiet and let Nico do the talking as they look around, is the idea of not being in control of his own feelings again.

Leo's always crushed hard, but he has a guard up against anything more meaningful than that for a reason, and it doesn't feel unlike a dam breaking inside of him when he thinks about going to California for Nico.

If Nico thinks Leo's silence is weird, he doesn't draw attention to it. He takes pictures of the view and of the two of them in front of said view before he clambers over the fence to find a better and more dangerous vantage point. The smattering of other tourists are muttering amongst themselves, and one is waving over a park ranger.

Leo, who senses this will be a bad idea, follows Nico over the railing anyway.

Nobody dies or gets detained by the park police, but that's due to Nico's quick reflexes and Leo's quick wit more than anything else. They take a break from the canyons to visit the museum, but Leo can't focus on anything that Nico reads from the signs.

"You okay?" Nico asks when they're standing near an exit, the first time in hours that he's made a reference to Leo's mood.

"I will be," says Leo. It feels close enough to the truth, and it makes the crease between Nico's eyebrows lessen when Leo attempts an encouraging smile.

"Good."

Nico pinches Leo's jacket cuff between his fingers and drags him into the gift shop. He abandons Leo near the bumper stickers, giving him space and quiet time to start feeling like himself again. After a little while, Leo is joking around loud enough to annoy the store workers. Whenever Nico laughs, it feels like Leo's been hit in the gut. It might not happen overnight, but Leo thinks he'll eventually be comfortable having real feelings for another person at some point. That alone feels like a step in the right direction.

 


 

By the time they've finished their fill of The Monument, all of the cars from the other tourists have left Leo's chosen parking lot. In the dark and solitude, Leo decides this is the perfect time for stargazing. He hops onto the hood of the SUV with a wide grin. "Want to check out those stars Hazel talked about?"

"Sure, I've never seen a star before," Nico says, deadpan, before joining Leo.

He huddles close for warmth as he always does, looking up at the sky. After a beat of memorizing the line of Nico's neck, Leo follows his lead.

"Know any good constellations, Valdez?" Nico drawls, pulling his sleeves down over his hands.

Leo is always stoked to talk about space.

As he points up at the stars and traces invisible lines between them, Leo rattles off everything he's ever learned about this part of the night sky. It's the most he's talked all day, but Nico doesn't interrupt or make any indication that he's bored.

"And there's the one my mom named me after," Leo finishes, his voice going soft as he thinks of her smile. "She used to say it was the brightest in the sky when I was born, so..."

He trails off so the lump in his throat is less obvious. After a moment, Nico speaks.

"Bianca used to say that one was a turtle." Instead of pointing out the group of stars himself, he takes Leo's wrist and angles it a couple centimetres to the left.

"I can see that," Leo says with a huff of laughter, letting his hand fall between them. Nico's hand drops, too, and he seems to hesitate before setting it on his own thigh. "You don't talk about her a lot."

"It usually hurts, you get that. You don't usually talk about your mom." Nico's voice is soft. His words, the stars above them, and the faint sound of surrounding wildlife could be the only things in the universe, and Leo wouldn't even mind. At a particularly chilly gust of wind, Nico leans even more of his weight into Leo's side.

Leo pulls his arm out from between them and wraps it around Nico's shoulders, protecting him from the cold and the bad memories as best as he can. Mumbling something grateful, Nico tucks his own hair behind his ear so it doesn't tickle Leo's cheek. Leo is resolutely looking at the sky so that he doesn't say or do anything that one might call 'comically stupid'.

"I miss my mom," he says instead, the words slipping out more easily than he expects.

"I miss mine too."

For a long, long time, there's nothing but silence between them. Leo can feel the rise and fall of Nico's shoulders with each breath. It might be mesmerizing enough to lull him into sleep if he wasn't so painfully aware of every place they're making contact.

The stars twinkle, the pattern of them imprinting themselves on Leo's eyelids every time he blinks. He sees more constellations he recognizes and can probably ramble for hours about how cool space is, but this moment is so still and peaceful that he hesitates to break it.

Eventually, Leo's fingers start to twitch. He needs to do something, or smoke a cigarette, before he starts being annoying again.

He turns his head to ask if Nico has the pack, but he'd forgotten they were sitting so close for Nico's warmth. Leo's nose gently bops Nico's when he looks at him, and Nico tilts his face to follow Leo's lead.

Nico's eyes are very close. They're so dark that they're almost black, but just like the sky, they dance with light. When he blinks, Leo is transfixed by the length of his eyelashes. His question catches in his throat, unimportant in the face of something more beautiful than the vista before them.

After barely a breath of a second, Nico's wonderful eyes drop to look at Leo's mouth.

He doesn't know who moves first. Later, he'll say it was Nico, that the boy just couldn't resist his wiles any longer; the truth is that it could be either one of them. They're so close that all it takes is the smallest of movements for their lips to press together, and Leo cares far more about catching Nico's bottom lip between his own than he cares about who to thank for it.

Leo can appreciate, somewhere in his mind, that Nico's lips don't have the almost-uncomfortable heat that he associates with kissing, but he forgets everything up to and including his own name when Nico's icy fingers tangle in his curls and pull him closer.

The sound of Leo's heart is pulsing in his ears, and it almost makes him miss the tiny noise Nico makes when Leo bites his lip.

With great effort, Leo pulls back to let himself breathe. It doesn't work. As soon as he opens his eyes, he's met with Nico's freckled face, cheeks flushed and eyes half-closed.

"I was going to say something," Leo says breathlessly, feeling a goofy grin spreading across his face.

"Was it important?" Nico hums. It seems like he's trying very hard not to grin back. He tugs at Leo's hair, eyebrows doing something very expressive at the noise Leo can't stop himself from making. "No? Good. Kiss me again."

Leo is all too happy to do as he's asked, wrapping both arms around Nico's waist and kissing him with intent to impress.

When it gets too cold for Nico to comfortably stay outside, even wrapped around Leo as he is, they decide that it's time to head back to Telluride. The quiet between them as they get into the SUV is starting to get strained; Leo can feel the anxiety of the day catching up to him. When he tries to turn up the music, Nico turns it back down.

"Leo," he says. Leo can feel his piercing gaze without looking over.

"Do we have to talk about this?" Leo asks, tapping erratically on the steering wheel. "Like, I don't think that's necessary."

"Don't be a dick," Nico says sharply.

Leo huffs a laugh and says, "Nice to meet you. I'm Leo, and when I'm not a dick, I'm asleep." It's an intentional callback to their first conversation on this trip, but Nico doesn't laugh. "Oh, come on, chico. What do we even need to talk about?"

"What we want from this," says Nico. His voice is slow and still sharp, like he's ready to start a fight.

"How do you even know what you want?" Leo asks as he pulls onto the highway. He knows it's a low blow when he adds, "You've only ever had one boyfriend."

"That's more than you've had."

"...Touché."

There's a few minutes of quiet, only broken by the engine thrumming beneath them and the soft sound of Leo's Spotify playing at low volume. Leo's heart is in his throat, absolutely terrified of this part - he's avoided it so long for a reason.

Eventually, Nico breaks the silence. "Do you even know what you want?"

Leo sighs and allows himself to think about the question seriously. He knows he wants Nico, but that's as far as he's thought it through.

"I know," Leo starts, slow and careful, "that I don't want to sleep with you and never text you again. I know that we're friends, and that I like having you as a friend, and now that I know what it's like to kiss you, I know for sure that I want to keep doing it."

"I guess that's a start," says Nico.

"Hey, chico, that's more than I've known about anyone in years. You should be flattered."

"Sure," Nico says, deadpan. He makes a frustrated sort of noise and when he speaks again, his words are halted. "I... Will and I stopped talking about what we wanted, because we thought it wouldn't change. But all of a sudden we weren't fourteen anymore and we... wanted different things. It took us a long time to actually have the conversation."

"That's why you're having it now, with me," says Leo with a dawning sort of understanding. "Sorry that I absolutely suck at this."

With a tired laugh, Nico leans into Leo's space to press a kiss to his shoulder. It's too soft for Leo to actually feel through his layers of clothing, but that doesn't stop his heart from doing a backflip.

"I want to be with you." Nico's voice is so sincere that Leo can't breathe for a moment.

"That's a start," Leo echoes, his own voice quiet so that Nico won't be able to hear the suppressed emotion there.

"It's a start," agrees Nico.

Nico rests his forehead on Leo's shoulder and takes a couple of deep breaths. It makes Leo wonder if his heart is going wild, too, now that they've stopped dancing around the words that Leo has been biting back for days.

The highway seems to go on forever in the dark of night, a light dusting of snow gathering on the windshield every few minutes. Nico doesn't seem like he's going to move from Leo's shoulder anytime soon. Leo lets the silence sit until he physically can't anymore, too keyed up from the mess that his emotions have been today.

He blurts, "So can we start there?"

"Okay," Nico says, voice softer than Leo is entirely used to. He sits up straight again. "But, Leo, we're going to have this conversation again."

"I can deal with that," says Leo, even as his heart quickens its pace once more.

"Take this exit," Nico instructs. Leo gets into the proper lane without question, but he frowns in confusion when all he sees is unfamiliar trees after the offramp. He turns to ask Nico what they're doing, but Nico beats him to it. "Pull over, I want to kiss you."

"That couldn't wait?" teases Leo. Still, he isn't a fool; he pulls over and turns his hazard lights on.

Nico mutters something under his breath that doesn't sound complimentary before unbuckling his seatbelt and pressing as close to Leo's side as he can with a console between them. He drops kisses to Leo's cheek, Leo's jaw, Leo's ear, before Leo gets the wherewithal to join the party and turn his head for their mouths to slot together.

It's a little awkward, the console between them preventing Leo from pulling Nico as close as he wants to, but he cups Nico's jaw and licks into his mouth in the way he's been told he's good at. If the way Nico sags against him is any indication, that wasn't a lie.

The heat under Leo's skin flares. Before he can pull away and get himself under control, Nico's ice-cold hands slide around his neck to play with curls that have grown a bit too long at the back.

Leo jolts slightly at the drastic temperature difference, but - just as it had when Leo almost burned their blankets from desire - the cold anchors him.

He focuses on the slick slide of his tongue against Nico's and the freezing fingers on the back of his neck to stop himself from starting to smoke. It's surprisingly effective. He leeches the cold that Nico carries around with him everywhere and uses it, the same way Nico has been using Leo's heat for weeks. He's sure that's poetic, somehow, but Nico yanks on his hair again and all coherent thought flies out the window.

 


 

When Leo and Nico get back to the house, half an hour later than planned, most of the rooms are dark and quiet.

The TV in the den is on, so Leo leads the way to see who's still awake at this hour. He finds Jason and Piper cuddled up on one sofa and Percy sprawled across the other. Leo catches Piper's eye and grins.

"Hey, Beauty Queen," he says.

"Hey," Piper echoes, her eyes sparkling with mischief. "How was your adventure? Did you do anything interesting?" Leo feels the weight of Nico's gaze on the side of his face, letting him answer for them both. He fights down a blush at the memory of how they'd spent the majority of the night.

"It was awesome," Leo says honestly. He drops to the floor at Piper's feet and leans back against her legs. "Nothing too exciting happened."

"Did you have fun, Nico?" Jason asks.

For a long moment, Nico doesn't answer the question. Then, he sighs. "Yeah. It was cool."

"Want to watch Kill Bill with us?" Piper offers, playing with Leo's curls until he relaxes into it and lets his eyes fall closed. She always gives the best scalp massages.

"No. Thanks." Nico adds the gratitude like it's a reflex. "I think I'm just going to go to bed. Have a good night, guys."

There's a chorus of goodbyes and Leo opens his eyes, but Nico is already gone. Percy waves lazily, too caught up in the movie to notice that the person he's waving at isn't in the room anymore.

Leo stays for most of Kill Bill, cracking enough jokes that Piper threatens to beat him with a shovel if he doesn't shut up. He's seen the movie enough times that he's bored, though, and the idea of crawling into bed next to Nico is too tempting for him to resist any longer. He says goodnight to his friends and retires to his temporary bedroom.

He expects Nico is already asleep, or near enough to it, and will probably be cold and snuggly already. Maybe he'll even be amenable to more kissing, if he's awake.

What Leo does not expect is to open the bedroom door and immediately be pelted in the head with a soft projectile.

He blinks, catching the pillow before it falls to the floor. "Uh, hello."

"Porca puttana, ma che cazzo," Nico mutters as he paces back and forth beside their bed. "Leo è un culo, questo figlio di puttana, vaffanculo -"

"Are you mad at me?" Leo asks, recognizing his own name in the rapid-fire Italian. Nico stops pacing, but he looks like he's seriously considering throwing something heavier at Leo.

"I'm angry at myself," says Nico eventually.

"Okay... why?"

Nico scowls.

"Look," says Leo. He holds up his hands in a show of peace. "I just want to help. You gotta use your words, chico. Uh, and preferably English words."

Meeting Leo's eye, Nico crosses his arms in a defensive sort of way. "I'm angry at myself for ignoring the warning signs. Leo, I know you might be stuck in the 'no homo, hiding Grindr' phase -" Nico uses mocking air quotes before crossing his arms again, "- but I don't want to start something with you if I have to hide, too."

Leo sits down on the side of the bed, holding the pillow on his lap. He'd had no idea he was putting out a vibe like that. He takes a few moments to reflect on his own thoughtless behaviour.

"Okay, first of all," Leo says after what feels like an eternity of Nico glaring at him, "I don't hide, I'm just a private person no matter who I'm... with."

Some of the irritation leaves Nico's face, but he holds his ground.

"I'm not going to lie about this."

"You don't have to." Leo rubs a hand down his own face, suddenly feeling very tired. "Can we just, like, figure it out ourselves before we involve the peanut gallery? We don't even know if we'll still want to start anything after this trip, chico, we live on opposite sides of the country."

"We do," Nico says, slow like the fact is just now occurring to him.

"So we'll see if that makes a difference," suggests Leo. "If we still want to, y'know, try, then I'll hire a skywriter or something."

"I know you think you're funny," says Nico. He drops next to Leo on the bed. "Or maybe you just have no idea how to hold a real conversation, but this is important to me."

"Definitely both." Leo grins sheepishly.

Nico sighs and winds his fingers with Leo's. "You have to use your words, too."

"I'm sorry that I didn't realize this was so important to you," says Leo. He keeps his gaze on their hands, not wanting to see the sincerity in Nico's eyes. "And I'm sorry I was a dick. But... I'm probably not going to stop avoiding, like, emotions, and conversations. You should know that, in case it makes you not want to kiss me anymore."

After a moment, Nico raises their joined hands to press his cold lips to the back of Leo's.

"Gods help me," says Nico, "but I still do."

Leo laughs quietly and looks up enough to peck Nico's cheek. "Cool."

 


 

Not all that much changes between Leo and Nico over the next few days. They still go Pokémon hunting, cook together, share smokes and body heat, and make faces whenever their friends start to act too couple-y.

The difference, of course, is all the kissing. Nico keeps crowding Leo up against things - walls, the car, a kitchen counter if everyone else is occupied - like he expects Leo to try and make a quick getaway. Leo has no intention of doing anything except kissing Nico back until their mouths are too bruised to hang out with their friends right away.

Surprisingly, there isn't nearly as much kissing happening when they're in bed. Leo wonders if this is on purpose. It's possible Nico is making sure that things won't go too far, as Leo is fairly certain he wouldn't be able to keep his hands in decent places if they made a habit of horizontal making out.

Nico does give him soft, lazy smooches upon waking up, though, and that's a strong contender for Leo's favourite part of each day.

None of their friends seem to notice the shift, in any case, and Leo is ridiculously happy.

It isn't until the night before New Year's Eve, when his hands have found their way under Nico's shirt and his back is to the fridge, that Leo thinks they should probably have been more careful.

"Sorry to interrupt," Annabeth's voice says suddenly, causing Leo to almost bite Nico's tongue in surprise, "but I need past you."

Nico pulls back from the kiss with an expression that Leo can only classify as 'apologetic defiance' and guides Leo out of the way, since all of his limbs have locked up in a panic response. More conversationally than should be possible, Nico says, "You're up late."

"Had a nightmare," replies Annabeth. Leo still can't look at her, staring down at his own feet and trying to calm his heartbeat. "This is a new development."

"Please don't tell anyone," Leo blurts out, and Nico sighs.

For a moment, Leo is absolutely terrified that they're both about to turn on him, but Nico squeezes his hip and says, "We'd appreciate that."

"I'm not going to promise anything of the sort," Annabeth says slowly. Leo finally looks up.

Annabeth's curls are tamed into a French braid, she's wearing a Camp Jupiter shirt over a pair of pink and fluffy pyjama pants, and she looks as non-threatening as Leo has ever seen her. Still, he feels panic spread from his chest to every nerve in his body.

"Why not?" he asks, hoping his voice sounds more normal than he feels.

"Well, why are you sneaking around?" Annabeth retorts. She crosses her arms over her chest, but otherwise seems calm and unsurprised.

Leo wishes that made him feel better.

"Maybe it's none of anyone's business what we do," says Nico. His voice is dry and just annoyed enough that Leo believes, for a second, that this isn't just for Leo's benefit. "Or maybe we just want to figure out what this is first. Either way, it isn't really up to you to gossip about us."

"Is that what you want?" Annabeth asks shrewdly. Leo's heart sinks - she knows them too well.

"It's what we decided," says Nico, squeezing Leo's waist. "You know what he's like. If he had it his way, none of us would talk about anything real."

"Hey," Leo protests. They both ignore him.

"That's true." Annabeth's lips twitch like she's about to smile, but she holds it back. "You don't have to do what he wants."

"Hello," Leo says more forcefully, "you're not in this relationship."

"So this is a relationship," Annabeth says as she gestures between them.

"It could be." Leo tilts his chin up and avoids Nico's stare. He really, really doesn't want them to know how scared he is right now. "But you know what? Nico lives at Camp Jupiter, I live in Manhattan - we want to see how much that fucks us up before we go around announcing anything."

There's a long stretch of silence after Leo speaks. It makes him want to shrug it all off, crack a few jokes, run away... but Nico's hand on his waist keeps him grounded in a way he didn't know he could be outside of battle.

Leo doesn't look away from Annabeth's steely eyes, waiting in the breathless quiet for her to make a decision. She's smart, much smarter than Leo, but he knows she won't want Nico to hurt no matter the logic.

It takes several minutes before Annabeth finally nods and opens the fridge. With her head inside it, she says, "I'll give you two weeks before I'm telling his sisters."

"Don't tell Reyna," Leo half-whines, "she already hates me so much!"

"Good. Maybe you'll behave." Annabeth shuts the refrigerator and starts to chug purple Gatorade like it's going out of style.

"Everyone is so worried about Nico's feelings," Leo sighs dramatically. He leans back against the counter and puts a hand over his chest and everything. "What about my feelings, huh? Who's gonna protect them?"

Nico rolls his eyes, but Annabeth smiles.

"You know, Leo," she says, "if you keep hiding them behind that humour, we're going to forget they exist at all."

Despite being in fluffy pyjamas and having cherubic curls spilling from her braid, Annabeth manages to make the moment she leaves seem like a mic drop. Leo hopes she won't teach Piper that move.

After Annabeth heads back down the hall and her door closes with a soft click, Nico pulls Leo in by the waist with a faint grin on his lips.

"You never said this was a relationship."

"Shut up," Leo says on a huff of laughter, wrapping his arms around Nico's shoulders and relaxing at the comfortable chill there. "I've still got time to change my mind, you know. Not all of us can shadow travel across the country."

Nico makes an amused hum of a noise as he presses their lips together again, the vibration of it causing Leo to laugh into the kiss.

It would probably be easy to pick back up where they left off, but Nico's touch has turned gentle and Leo pulls back from the kiss sooner than he wants to.

"Something wrong?" Nico asks, his thumb swiping over one of Leo's ribs through the fabric of his shirt.

Leo suppresses a shiver. "No, I was just thinking that it's definitely time for bed."

"You're probably right." Nico sighs and glances at the oven clock. "We don't want to lose track of time and end up missing breakfast."

"I'm not opposed to that," Leo says with a crooked grin, "but I'd rather we missed breakfast in private."

The smile Nico gifts him with then is well worth the trouble of nearly having a panic attack in front of Annabeth Chase. Nico's eyes and nose crinkle, the barest hint of his teeth are showing through his stretched lips, and Leo can't resist kissing him again.

They do, in the end, lose track of time.

 


 

What do I want?

Leo keeps asking himself the question throughout the entirety of New Year's Eve. They're leaving the cabin in less than a week, and he still doesn't know the answer.

Does he want to keep working for Dominic? The guy's a nice enough boss, but Leo never really wanted a boss. He wants creative freedom, bigger challenges. He’s always wanted his own garage someday. Saving up for that dream has not been an easy task, but after three years of splitting bills with Piper and working his ass off, he has enough for the down payment of a small house in the Midwest or a cabinet in Brooklyn.

Which brings him to the next problem - where does he want to live? Leo loves Manhattan and its history, its architecture, its attitude. All in all, it's a beautiful city that Leo has had a wonderful life in, but he also has a much higher cost of living than Frank does in Oakland. Moving out west to start a business is risky, though, and Leo doesn't like how much it feels like running away. Maybe if he had something more stable…

He goes in circles like this as he makes an easy lunch, as he watches television with his friends, as he sneaks to the backyard for a smoke and a smooch. He can't make up his mind.

The only thing that gets clearer is Nico.

Nico chatters in his ear at lunch, talks about the kids he's training; he's got his arm pressed to Leo's on the couch and keeps smirking at him during commercials; he pulls the cigarette from Leo's mouth to finish it himself before pressing their gross, smokey mouths together in the dark. He just keeps getting closer and closer, more relaxed, and it makes Leo feel like something here is going really right.

At the end of the night, the countdown starts and Leo forces himself not to make eye contact with Nico. He isn't sure he'll be able to stop himself from kissing him, and that would absolutely lead to a panic attack in front of all their friends.

Ten. He knows that he wants Nico.

Nine. They only have two weeks before Annabeth spills the beans.

Eight. Two weeks, assuming they won't get caught again, which they might.

Seven. Nico's pinky links with his own. Leo's heart skips.

Six. Maybe it wouldn't be running away if he moved to California.

Five. Annabeth and Percy are smiling at each other. Frank is playing with Hazel's hair and laughing. Jason and Piper are already kissing.

Four. Nico's pinky slips out of his own.

Three. Isn't he supposed to be brave or something? He's a hero. He saved the world. Why can't he do this?

Two. This might not work out.

One. It also might.

"Happy New Year!"

Leo's friends cheer along with the crowd on television and the couples kiss sweetly, Nico groaning to make sure they all know they're disgusting. Piper flips him off.

It's too late, but only by a split second - Leo makes his decision in the aftermath of the clock turning midnight.

He's sitting close enough to Nico that it isn't an effort to turn and cup his jaw. Leo smiles in what he hopes is a reassuring way, rubbing his thumbs over Nico's sharp cheekbones. Nico's expression is wary, but it softens at the touch.

"You don't have to," Nico murmurs.

"Yeah, I know," Leo whispers back, leaning in to capture Nico's lips in a soft kiss.

Nico doesn't quite melt into him, too aware of the people surrounding them, but he puts one hand on Leo's knee and the other on the side of Leo's neck, squeezing both gently.

A small, surprised noise from behind Leo is what makes him pull back. He catches Nico's eye to make sure everything is okay before turning to look at the source of the sound.

"Close your mouth, you'll catch flies," Leo says with a nervous grin. Jason, bless his heart, just nods.

Piper, on the other hand, is much less on the same page.

"Are you kidding me?" Piper asks, much too loud for the moment. Everyone is looking at them now, and Leo - Leo's still tangled up with Nico di Angelo.

Leo has a split second to think that maybe he made the wrong call here before Hazel starts to laugh.

"Aw, you're so cute," she says, grinning at them. "It's nice of you to give my brother someone to kiss at midnight, Leo."

It takes Leo's brain a second to catch on, but he gets it. She's giving him an out.

There are so many eyes on him. This isn't like when he kissed Jason, because he didn't have feelings for Jason. He's holding a boy's face in his hands that he really likes and people are looking at him. The last time that happened, things didn't end so well for Leo. He can feel the phantom bruise from where he got kicked by more than one set of boots, and for a moment he can't breathe.

Nico's palm presses more firmly against the side of Leo's neck, giving him something else to focus on.

It helps to clear his head; these people are his best friends, and they'll only be annoyed they were out of the loop. Nobody's going to hurt him for kissing a boy he likes.

Leo doesn't take the out. He swallows around the lump in his throat.

"Yeah, well... I didn't do it as a favour. I did it because I like him." The surprise on Nico's face is easier to focus on than everyone else's, because it makes Leo smile. "What? You knew that."

"You didn't actually say it before," Nico says, in a low voice so that their friends will have to strain if they want to eavesdrop.

"That was dumb of me," says Leo.

Nico's lips curve upwards, and he squeezes Leo's knee. "It was. You're pretty dumb."

"Oh, you guys are super gross," Percy groans, throwing a pillow at them.

"Like y'all don't kiss in front of us all the time, pinche culero!" Leo laughs, letting go of Nico to throw it directly at Percy's nose. "You'll just have to fucking deal, won't you?"

There's a smattering of laughter at the dumbfounded expression on Percy's face, and then Jason's voice goes soft to say, "I'm so happy for the two of you. I can't believe we never tried setting you up before."

"In all fairness," says Piper with a reluctant smile, "I would have expected Nico to commit murder on the first date."

"You have no idea how close I've come," says Nico.

"I can guess. I've lived with him for ages." Piper and Nico exchange an amused look. Then, one of them frowns and causes the other to frown as well, or possibly they frown at the same time. It's too much frowning for Leo, who is happier than he's been in a long time.

"You'll have to come visit us now," Jason announces gleefully. Nico looks like he's having second thoughts about everything leading to this moment.

"I was thinking, actually -" Leo bites his lip, stopping himself in his tracks. There's no way he's going to bring up a possible uprooting in the first five minutes of the new year, in front of everyone.

An awkward beat follows his statement before Frank jokes, "And that's it! That's the whole sentence, folks. Leo's started thinking."

His friends continue mocking him, but Leo has always been able to take it as good as he can dish it out, and that was before Nico made things even better. Nico is grinning and trying to talk with his hands - difficult, when he's also refusing to let go of Leo's - and he's so cute that Leo just wants to kiss his ear.

He can do that, now, so he does. Percy groans again and Piper rolls her eyes, but Nico's snort of genuine laughter is all Leo needs for his heart to soar.

For the first time since Calypso left, Leo thinks this year might be a good one.

By the time everyone heads to bed, Leo is tipsy on champagne and bone-tired, leaning heavily into Nico and yammering on about plot holes in the movie they just watched. Nico hums in the right places, but otherwise doesn't engage with the conversation.

Leo flops into bed, making himself comfortable in the centre of it, and whines, "I'm tired."

"We're going to sleep now," says Nico. He's got his back to Leo as he rifles through his bags, but Leo gets the impression that he's rolling his eyes. "You don't have to be tired for long."

"Mm, good." Leo looks down at himself sadly. "I've got too many buttons."

Nico straightens up and gives Leo an exasperated sort of look. "I'm looking for pyjamas, I think you can handle your own shirt."

"I can," Leo agrees, drawing the word out, "but I want you to help me."

"I need layers first. You might be a space heater, but you aren't a miracle worker."

"Borrow mine," Leo offers with a shrug. He stretches his body out, starfishing on top of the blankets. He's going to miss having this much room when he has to go home to his double. "I've got tons in my duffel, and we're about the same size."

With a small smile of thanks, Nico starts digging through Leo's badly packed bag for something soft. He finds some old sweats with a hole in the thigh and one of Jason's sweaters, which Leo drowns in. Nico holds the garments to his chest and opens his mouth like he's going to say something before shaking his head.

Leo's brain isn't working at maximum capacity, so it takes a second to catch up. "You okay?"

"Yeah, I just." Nico's eyes drop to the floor, colour rising in his cheeks. "I was going to go get changed."

Even with the kissing development, Nico has been getting dressed and undressed in the bathroom rather than their shared space. Leo gets it, even if he doesn't have the same hesitation about stripping in front of people; it's scary to be vulnerable.

Still... "You don't have to leave," Leo says quietly, just in case Nico doesn't know that's an option. "You can get changed in here - I'll close my eyes, if that helps."

"You don't have to," says Nico. He matches Leo's volume, still not meeting his eye.

Leo's heart does something acrobatic. "Okay. I won't."

It takes a few moments of quiet before Nico moves, but Leo does his best to be patient. Nico is like an easily-startled deer sometimes. He waits, still starfished, until Nico sets the pyjamas on the foot of the bed.

Even if Leo didn't suspect that Nico hadn't undressed in front of anyone but his ex, he could have guessed by the way Nico's jaw clenched when he pulled his shirt off.

Leo wolf-whistles softly, drawing a surprised laugh from Nico's mouth. It's only a little bit a joke - Nico looks really good without a shirt. He unfortunately doesn't stay that way for long, protecting himself from the chill of the air by tugging the too-big sweatshirt over his head.

He struggles a bit with his jeans, and Leo guesses that they're too tight to come off comfortably. He has that same problem himself, when he feels like dressing up enough for jeans.

Leo is thinking too deeply about denim. He almost misses the flash of Nico's thighs, which are surprisingly defined and not sunkissed like his face and arms. The sweats are covering Nico back up before Leo can even comment.

"My turn," he says, plaintive.

"Yes, I'll help with your buttons," Nico says with a deep sigh. He crawls onto the bed but doesn't bother to lie down yet, starting with the button under Leo's throat.

His fingers are long, Leo can't help but notice. He's noticed before, but he can't seem to stop re-noticing with each button of Leo's flannel shirt that he expertly flicks open.

On the last button, Nico hesitates for a moment. Leo meets his gaze and sees the same uncertainty in them that he imagines he'd be feeling if the champagne wasn't dulling his senses. He nods, not really trusting his own voice, and does his best not to shiver as Nico's annoyingly long fingers brush against the sliver of skin above his pants.

Leo pulls himself into a sitting position long enough to shrug the open flannel off and onto the floor. Nico drops a quick kiss to his shoulder before Leo flops back again, causing Leo's stomach to tighten at the chill of lips where they haven't been before.

After a long moment, both of them just staring at each other and waiting for the other to speak, Nico murmurs, "You sleeping in these?"

His fingertips are back on Leo's lower stomach, brushing the hair there just gently enough for it to tickle. Leo makes a noise that's half embarrassing and half laughter, meeting Nico's eye as he makes the decision to lift his hips off the mattress. He'll blame the champagne if this goes wrong.

"Nah," he says, voice quieter than he intended. "Help me with them?"

"You're perfectly capable," Nico replies after a very scary beat of silence. His gaze drops from Leo's face to his hips, and Leo sees Nico's throat work as he swallows hard. "But... sure."

Nico is careful not to look at Leo's face as he shifts up onto his knees. Probably a good idea - Leo can only imagine the awe in his own expression when Nico moves his fingers down just a bit, popping the button of Leo's pants and unzipping him in the same breath. Leo feels very warm all of a sudden.

It's much easier for Nico to slide Leo's pants down and off than it was for his own skinny jeans, and Leo is happy that he was too lazy to fight with denim this morning.

Nico drops the pants off the bed and stubbornly meets Leo's eye to ask, "Do you want something to sleep in?"

"Nah, boxers are fine." Leo lets his ass drop back to the mattress, a second too late for it to be normal. Nico's cheeks are flushed pink, but he is doing an admirable job of keeping his focus on Leo's face now. "Is that okay?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I don't mind."

After what feels like an eternity, but is probably just a few seconds, Nico pulls a quilt around his shoulders and curls up to Leo's side.

Nico nuzzles into Leo's neck, throws a leg over both of Leo's, and rests his palm hesitantly on Leo's bare stomach. His toes and fingers and nose, all pressed to Leo's searing skin, are freezing cold. It helps Leo to put his energy into not catching on fire.

He has no idea how he's going to fall asleep like this, though, so he toys with Nico's hair and hums, "I wanna kiss you."

"Thought you were tired," Nico responds, the chilly breath on Leo's neck making him fight down a reaction. He sounds amused rather than annoyed, so Leo laughs.

"I am tired. I also want to kiss you."

Nico makes a big show of sighing, but he shifts himself ever so slightly to press his mouth to Leo's jaw.

It doesn't take long for Leo to get with the program. The position is a bit awkward for him, but he pushes the discomfort to the side in order to capture Nico's bottom lip between his own and wind both of his hands in Nico's shaggy hair.

Nico sighs again, sagging against Leo's chest and opening his mouth for Leo to lick into. They don't kiss like this when they're in bed, but Leo isn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Gripping Nico's hair more firmly to keep him in place, Leo swipes his tongue over Nico's palate in the way he's noticed gets a reaction.

It works. Nico arches into him with a breathy sort of noise, kissing him back with purpose.

Leo's neck is going to get one hell of a crick in it if they keep kissing, but he doesn't want to stop. The logical part of his brain, barely audible over the part that's enjoying himself, reminds Leo that he's fully capable of changing their position to be more comfortable for himself.

He slides his hands down from Nico's hair to his waist, squeezing once before hauling Nico up against him so their heads are more or less level. It helps with Leo's neck, but he almost bites Nico's tongue as the motion slots Nico's thigh in between his own.

If Leo could deal with Nico's thigh pressed against him on their first morning waking up together, he's certain he can manage it again.

At least, he was certain until Nico makes a noise into his mouth and shifts so he's mostly on top of Leo, very purposefully leaving his thigh where it is. With Nico's tongue in his mouth, Nico's thigh where it is, and Nico's hand tracing his ribs, Leo feels like he's about to combust.

Normally, that feeling is terrifying. Leo has to be so careful when he's getting into things - he's burned a bed before, and he refuses to do it again - but Nico's temperature is helping to regulate his own.

Huh. That's interesting.

Leo has to pull back from the kiss to breathe, his palms flat on Nico's waist, and he manages to grin.

"Y'know, I'm not very tired anymore," he says in the cadence of a joke.

Humming what sounds like an agreement, Nico ducks his head to press an open-mouthed kiss to Leo's throat. It pulls a groan from Leo's lips that he'll be embarrassed about in the light of day, pressing his nails into Nico's waist through the fabric of the sweater and letting his head drop to the pillow.

Nico's mouth explores Leo's neck and jaw, flicking his tongue against spots that get a noise out of Leo, and when his teeth graze Leo's skin it's actually mortifying how quickly his body reacts to it.

"Hey, chico," Leo says on a breathless laugh, "maybe we should stop - I'm getting hot."

"I'm not going to tell you you're hot," says Nico. The words are pressed into Leo's neck, and he bites back another groan.

"I mean my temperature, babe." The endearment slips past Leo's lips before he can even think it through. "Trust me when I say you don't want me to get too hot."

Nico pulls back to give Leo a considering look in the semi-darkness. He licks his lips, and Leo's brain stutters.

"Does me being cold help?" Nico asks, rubbing his thumb into Leo's stomach. When Leo nods, not sure if he can talk like a human yet, Nico grins and sits up. It takes a second for Leo to understand what he's doing, but Nico pulls the sweatshirt off in one fluid motion and sets it on the bed beside him. When he lies back down, more or less on top of Leo, there's more cold skin touching him than there's ever been before. "Does that help?"

It does, actually. Leo runs his hands up and down Nico's bare back, leeching his chill, and nods again before kissing the smug smile off Nico's face.

The kiss is a bit sloppy, but Leo has to assume that Nico doesn't mind.

Leo has no real intention of getting out of hand with this, too aware of the danger to lose himself in it, but Nico doesn't seem to have gotten that memo. He pulls his thigh out from between Leo's, which is a blessing until he uses the freedom to straddle Leo's hips and get properly on top of him.

"What are you doing?" Leo pulls back from the kiss to ask, breathing laboured.

There's still splotches of colour on Nico's cheeks, but he isn't too embarrassed to say, "What's it look like? I want you."

The heat under Leo's skin flares up suddenly at the words, and he almost rolls Nico off of him before the cold palms are back on his chest.

"I could hurt you," he says.

"Yeah, I know." Nico's fingers brush over one of Leo's nipples. He raises an eyebrow at the sound pulled from Leo's throat. "We'll be careful. I know you've been with people before, just do what you did then."

"I didn't like those people as much as I like you," says Leo, considering pulling Nico's hands away from him when he does something much more purposeful to Leo's nipples. The heat should be overwhelming by now, and even though it's tempered by Nico's skin, Leo doesn't want to risk it. "Hey, stop that. You know I want to, that's the problem. I've caught on fire during - stuff before."

"You can say sex," Nico says, sounding almost bored as he drops his lips back to Leo's skin, kissing along his collarbone.

"Are you trying to kill me?"

"No, just -" Nico huffs and moves his mouth back up to Leo's, pressing a surprisingly chaste kiss there. "You have to tell me what we can do. You can't just say you're a danger without limits, and I know you've had sex before."

"Not in some people's eyes," Leo reminds him, "since I can't safely... go all the way."

"You called it penetrative sex last week without batting an eye," Nico says with a snort. Leo grins apologetically.

"Sorry. I'm nervous. You're on top of me and saying shit like this, I'm surprised I haven't woken up yet. You know what'll happen to you if I catch on fire, right?"

"Yeah, I know what fire does."

"So we have to be careful," Leo says, swallowing hard when Nico's hips shift against his own. "That's... not being careful, babe."

Nico shrugs, moving his hips in a slow, purposeful motion. "I can handle it. Can you?"

"I don't know," Leo admits, but his resolve crumbles at the look on Nico's face when they press together through sweats and boxers. "I, fuck, I can try. Don't get offended if I have to throw you off, though."

"Uh huh."

Teeth are digging into Nico's bottom lip as he finds the best angle to grind down into Leo, and Leo can't stop himself from moaning softly.

He slides his hands down Nico's back and rests them on his hips. For a moment he just leaves them there, so he can catch Nico off guard when he grips Nico's skinny hipbones and changes the pace to something a little faster.

"Fuck," Nico breathes, pressing his chest against Leo's and slotting their mouths together again. Leo can feel how hard he is, pressed into each other as they are, and he groans into the kiss as he rubs their dicks together through the layers. Nico's hips stutter.

Their kissing is more tongue and teeth than lips, but Leo certainly doesn't care. He slides his hands down even further, squeezing Nico's ass as they grind against each other like teenagers in the back of a car. Well, he supposes that they are teenagers, but that's hard to remember when they had to grow up so fast.

Nico reaches behind himself to grab Leo's wrists, and Leo assumes that he's gone too far and his hands will be politely deposited back on Nico's hips - but instead, Nico slips them just under the waistband of his sweats and starts sucking a breathless mark into Leo's neck.

Never one to be slow on the uptake, Leo slides his fingers under Nico's boxers, too, and gropes his ass without the clothing between them.

It's better for sure, having Nico's bare skin against his hands, and the noise Nico makes into Leo's neck indicates agreement. Nico's own hands settle on Leo's chest, playing with his nipples every so often and making Leo's dick throb.

He hasn't been this turned on in a very long time. Sure, he's hooked up with people more recently than he's proud of, but he doesn't think he's been this close to coming in his underwear since he was sixteen.

"You wanna, um," Leo starts, forgetting what he was going to say when Nico bites down on his shoulder.

"Wanna what?" asks Nico. His voice is lower than usual, and the sound of it turns Leo on even more. He presses himself closer to Nico to stave off the building heat.

Leo snaps the waistband of Nico's boxers, laughing breathlessly when he jumps. "Do you wanna get these off?"

With a long-suffering sort of sigh, Nico squirms until he's sitting on Leo's thighs.

"I don't want to get up again, it's cold," he says, slowly tugging at Leo's waistband until Leo gets with the program and arches his hips. Nico only pulls Leo's boxers down enough to expose his dick, which Leo might feel embarrassed about if Nico didn't immediately make a noise in the back of his throat.

"You too," Leo implores, feeling himself blush despite - or maybe because of - the look in Nico's eye. Nico nods and rolls off of Leo's thighs to kick off his own layers.

Leo doesn't want to wait, not when Nico is naked and shivering beside him in bed, so he follows Nico and presses him into the mattress, kissing along his jaw. Nico groans softly and pulls him in for a kiss by the hair, tugging none too gently at his curls.

That's something Leo likes rather a lot. He moans into Nico's open mouth and puts his weight onto Nico, grinding into his hip.

Nico leaves one of his hands in Leo's hair, tugging every so often to drive Leo up the wall, and uses the other to guide Leo between his legs. Their dicks line up again, and Leo shudders. It feels infinitely better without anything between them. By the way Nico's hips cant upwards, Leo knows he isn't alone in feeling that way.

It takes a bit of effort, with how tightly they're pressed together, but Leo snakes a hand between them and wraps it around Nico.

"Non ti fermare," Nico says on a gasp, his head falling back against the pillows and giving Leo access to his long, pale neck. Leo jerks him off slowly and takes the unspoken invitation to bite a mark into Nico's skin the way Nico had done to him.

The combination of Leo's hand, mouth, and dick all pressed against Nico's skin proves to be too much for him, and he devolves into fast Italian punctuated by moans within seconds.

Nico's fingers are digging into Leo's back and twined in Leo's curls as he arches up and begs Leo in broken English to go faster.

All it takes is Leo's teeth on his earlobe and a whisper of, "You feel so good right now," to send Nico over the edge with a too-loud groan that sounds like Leo's name.

Leo grins triumphantly and pulls his hand away from Nico's dick, licking it clean to see if that gets a reaction. If vague amusement and exasperation is how Nico shows that he's into something, then Leo gets a point in his favour.

"What do you want?" Nico asks, his eyelids heavy.

"I'm good," Leo shrugs, kneeling up a bit between Nico's thighs to take himself in hand. It's the same palm that still has Nico's come clinging to it.

"Mm, that works," hums Nico, sliding his knuckles gently across Leo's cheek to help balance his temperature. It's effective, but Nico achieves the opposite effect by adding, "You're hot, y'know. I wasn't going to say it, but you're hot in both senses, and I've been thinking about you between my legs for two weeks."

Groaning at the praise, Leo speeds up his hand and winds the fingers of his free hand with Nico's.

Nico lying back on the pillows, cheeks flushed and stomach stained with his own come, is an image that Leo will be coming back to whenever he's touching himself, and it only takes Nico murmuring his name for Leo to come over his hand.

Some of it lands on Nico's abdomen, too, but he doesn't seem to care. He just grins lazily up at Leo and says, "That was fun. Do me a favour and help me find my clothes? I'm freezing."

 


 

Leo thought that it might be weirder, being publicly affectionate with Nico di Angelo, but the only thing that really changes is that they hold hands while watching movies with their friends. Sometimes Nico will surprise him with a kiss when Leo is trying to focus on cooking or sketching blueprints or talking someone's ear off, but it only takes half a day before their friends are treating it like the new normal.

Except Piper. Leo knows that she's waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting for Leo to fuck up and get them both hurt, and he tries not to take too much offense to that.

It had been his fault that Calypso left, after all, and it isn't like he's made any other attempts to be in a relationship since. To Piper, this probably feels like a bad idea - and Leo can relate. He thought that, too.

Now that he makes Nico laugh constantly and has seen him come, Leo has a harder time keeping up with the logic of it being a bad idea to pursue a relationship with him. Piper will come around eventually. Everyone else does so within hours, but Leo doesn't think it's fair to give her a time limit.

For the moment, he'll just avoid being alone with her. It's surprisingly easy to do, in a house full of people who don't think he's making a mistake.

"Does this dating thing mean you'll join us for Nico's birthday party?" Hazel asks cheerfully over dinner.

Leo glances at Nico. "What party?"

"My birthday's at the end of the month," Nico mutters, shooting Hazel a glare and stabbing at his chicken rather violently. "But I don't want a party, we talked about this."

Huh. Leo had always assumed he was two years older than Nico, but with Leo's birthday in October and Nico's so soon in January, it's closer to a year. He doesn't think that's very important, but it is nice.

"Tough luck," says Frank, "she's made up her mind."

"I don't think I can get time off work so soon," Leo lies, noticing the tense set of Nico's shoulders. Nico drops his hand to Leo's thigh and squeezes in what Leo assumes is gratitude. "Maybe... I mean, if you want to see me on your birthday, you could come to New York. We'll egg Olympus."

"Don't," Jason says, sounding very tired.

Nico laughs, which is something that Leo is still getting used to hearing - and he isn't the only one, from the look on Percy's face - and gives Leo a more relaxed grin. "Seeing you sounds good, not so much the getting killed."

"We have plans," Hazel reminds him rather sternly. "I've already bought the balloons."

"Come over after your party," Jason suggests, stealing carrots from Percy's plate.

"Sister ranks higher than boyfriend," Percy chimes in, taking the glasses off Jason's face in retaliation. "And your sister's scary. I'd do what she wants if I were you."

"If I want your opinion, Percy - actually, I'll never want your opinion."

Bickering erupts around the table, Nico accidentally flinging potatoes at the window when he gestures wildly with a fork and Jason trying to get Percy in a headlock. It's absolute pandemonium.

Leo never wants to leave.

 


 

"Last day here," Nico murmurs into Leo's skin when they wake up. The words are a welcome distraction from his fingers, which are tracing symbols on Leo's stomach and making Leo's sleepy brain fog up. "What do you want to do with it?"

"I think Piper has some plans," says Leo. His voice is rough with sleep, and he clears his throat to try and get it back to normal.

"Yeah, I'm sure she does." Nico dips his fingers under Leo's waistband, grinning when Leo's breath catches. "I asked what you want to do."

"Well, uh, I like this."

Nico hums contentedly as he kisses Leo's shoulder, but there's a knock on their door before he can wrap his hand around Leo.

"Valdez, I'm hungry!" Piper's voice comes through loud and clear.

Sighing, Nico retracts his hand and leans up for a quick kiss. "Sounds like you're needed."

"I've never been less happy to be an essential member of this group," says Leo, not letting Nico untangle from their blankets without a couple more kisses. "You think I can go on strike?"

"You're not unionized. Che palle, polpetto, let me up!"

Eventually, Leo makes it out of bed and starts pulling together pancake ingredients at the behest of a very emotional Frank.

"It's not like you're never going to see me again," says Leo. He looks down at the mixing bowl so he doesn't give away his own reluctance to leave.

"Yeah, but it isn't the same," Frank says on a sigh. "We never hang out, just the seven of us."

"Eight of us."

"Nico doesn't count." Frank waves a large, dismissive hand. "He'll always be a part of us, Hazel and Jason wouldn't have it any other way. But I only ever see you when we're around a bunch of other demigods, and I don't feel like we hang out enough as it is."

Guilt settles into Leo's bones. "Yeah, uh. That was on purpose."

"Why?" asks Frank.

"I don't like being a seventh wheel," Leo explains to the pancake batter. "I mean, I like you guys, obviously, but I hate being the single one. Everyone worries, and I have to be reminded of Calypso, and I hate it."

"That's why you invited Nico," Frank says, and it sounds like he's mostly talking to himself.

Leo nods anyway. After a moment, Frank's arms wrap him in a bear hug and almost cause him to drop the mixing bowl. "¡No mames! Put me down!"

"We love you, Leo," Frank says firmly.

"That's nice, but I don't want to clean batter off my pants!"

All the squawking gets their friends' attention, and the kitchen is full before Leo can dump the batter on Frank's head.

"What are you doing?" Hazel asks, amused.

"Leo doesn't like to be around us without a buffer," Frank informs them all. Leo can't believe he's friends with a narc, and tries harder to squirm away from the embrace. "We've been making him feel bad all this time and I didn't know!"

Quiet falls over the room, and Leo feels his fight or flight instinct kick in. Before he can make Frank regret restraining him, a cold pair of hands rescues the mixing bowl from certain death.

"Well, duh," Nico says, "being around couples when you aren't in one is the pits. That's just common sense."

"You don't avoid hanging out with us," Frank argues, grip tightening on Leo.

"Sure, just you and Hazel. If I had to put up with all six of you at once, I'd get myself blown up too," Nico huffs, and Leo feels a hysterical laugh bubble up in his throat. Nico making jokes about death isn't new, but this is the first time he's made a joke about Leo's.

"You should have told us," insists Frank.

"Why?" The hysterics are only getting worse, and Leo lets out a helpless laugh. "So you guys can feel sorry for me? No thanks."

"No, so we can make sure our friend is happy and taken care of."

"He is," Nico points out, sounding more offended than he really needs to. He reaches out and pinches Frank's arm, which surprises Frank enough that he lets go of Leo at last.

Leo takes the opportunity to sidle up to Nico's shoulder and glare around at his friends, who are all looking at him with the worst possible emotion - pity. "Nico's right, I am happy. I don't need anyone feeling sorry for me, I've got everything I want. If y'all could just, I dunno, accept that being a seventh wheel is horrible and I'll always want a buffer, that would be great."

His friends exchange sheepish looks, but Frank is stubborn. He crosses his arms over his barrel chest and glares right back at Leo.

"I still want to see more of you. I'll come to Manhattan alone if I have to."

"Don't be so dramatic." Leo rolls his eyes and links his pinky finger with Nico's. "I'm sure I'll see plenty of you whenever I come to Jupiter."

"Planning on making a lot of trips to Jupiter?" Nico asks, and Leo can hear the grin in his voice without turning to check.

There's a beat of silence that feels too long to Leo, who has never in his life been good at quiet. He has to swallow around the uncertain lump in his throat before he feels like he can respond in a passably casual tone. "My boyfriend lives there, so I expect I'll be visiting."

It's the first time he's said the word out loud, but his friends don't know that. Frank is still talking, and Annabeth has made the executive decision to leave the kitchen. They're probably boring her.

Leo can't make himself look at Nico, not after saying that and letting himself be vulnerable with his emotions in front of everyone. Luckily, Nico seems to get it. He shifts his hand so that all of their fingers are entwined and squeezes firmly.

"Get over it, babe," Hazel advises Frank. She's watching them with an unreadable expression, and Leo feels his palms start to sweat. Nico, bless him, doesn't pull his hand away. "I'm sure Leo likes spending time with us individually, he just doesn't like being with all of us at once if he doesn't have someone to talk to. Seems reasonable to me."

"I'm going to Manhattan, anyway," Frank repeats.

"That's fine," says Leo quickly, desperate to change the subject from his failures as a friend. "Pipes, what are we doing today?"

"Percy's gonna teach me how to snowboard," says Piper. The answer is immediate, and Leo feels a surge of gratitude. She always has his back. "I was thinking we could all try it."

"You've lived in L.A. most of your life and still can't stand on a surfboard," Leo says, grinning at her. "Now you wanna tackle the slopes?"

Piper grins back. "What can I say? I live for danger. You in?"

Instinctively, Leo turns to Nico. They're still holding hands, in front of everyone, and somehow Nico's smile still surprises him. He thought that, maybe, Nico would be annoyed by Leo's unauthorized use of the b-word.

"Yeah, I want to see you fall down."

"Fucking rude. Bet you five bucks I master it before Piper does."

"I'm not taking that bet - I saw Piper trip over air yesterday. Why don't you try to master it before Jason?"

"Because Jason's good at everything!"

"Hey, now," Jason interrupts, a smile tugging at his lips. "I'm not good at everything."

Leo ignores him. "You're on, chico."

"Race you there," Nico says, grinning wide enough to show his teeth. Before Leo can respond, Nico's hand slips out of his and he disappears in the shadows of the fridge.

"Well," Leo says into the sound of his friends' laughter, "that hardly seems fair."

 


 

The day goes by a lot quicker than Leo wants it to. He keeps hoping that the hours will drag, the way they so often do, but Leo's ADHD doesn't do things on command. If anything, his watch is ticking forward at an abnormally fast rate. Twice, he checks if it's broken, but he's let down both times.

Leo's got a pretty good memory. His mom used to call it photographic, pride in her voice, but Leo thinks that she was probably exaggerating. It's not like he can recite pages of information, he's just got good recall. Photographic or not, Leo knows that today's a day that will stick with him.

Here's what he's going to remember: Frank hugging him randomly throughout the day; Annabeth showing him how to balance on a snowboard after he makes a fool of himself; Percy practicing stilted Spanish and beaming when Leo praises his inflection; Hazel kissing his cheek in thanks when he gives her food.

Here's what he's going to remember: Piper and Jason, happier than he's seen them in a long time, relaxed and giggling and surprising their friends with compliments. They don't give Leo as much attention, but that makes sense - he's going home with them.

Here's what he's going to remember: Nico. It's impossible to memorize every glance, every smile, every brush of icy fingers against his skin, but Leo's going to try his best.

By the time they're trudging off the slopes, ducking the snowballs that Percy and Hazel have decided to hurl at each other, Nico pocketing the five dollars Leo has to give him, Leo is surprised by how sad he is. He doesn't want to leave.

These people are his family - the only real family Leo has left. He's got siblings that send him memes and postcards, a friend request from Raphael that burns in his inbox, and even birthday dreams from Hephaestus sometimes, but these seven people are the ones that Leo trusts with his life.

Sometimes, he wonders if his mom would have liked his new family. In the back of his mind, Leo knows that if he wants to know the answer to something like that, his boyfriend is the best place to start.

Honestly… he isn't sure he would be able to go through with that. He's a little scared to even ask about it.

Leo's scrubbing the last of the dishes from dinner and trying not to dwell when he feels arms wrap around him from behind. Nico kisses his ear, which is sufficiently distracting.

"My turn to pick a movie," Nico tells him, hooking his chin over Leo's shoulder. "Think they'll mind if I throw on something old and Italian?"

"Probably," Leo says with a grin down at his soapy hands. "Most of us are dyslexic, babe, subtitles are such a headache."

"Good point," says Nico. "I'll just pick whatever has the coolest poster."

Laughing, Leo drains the sink and dries his hands. "Alright, that works for me. You'll have to let go of me if you ever want to leave the kitchen, though."

Nico makes a big show of sighing, but he moves away from Leo's back and winds their fingers together instead. It's strange, having Nico cling to him, but Leo isn't complaining. He's just always been so sure that Nico doesn't like to be touched. He tries to remember if Nico had been so physically affectionate when he was with Will, but his definitely-not-photographic memory isn't cooperating. Although, that might not be a fair comparison - Will, to Leo's knowledge, doesn't have a supernaturally warm body temperature.

"Sure you don't wanna ditch and go make out in the car?" Leo teases, letting Nico lead the way to the den.

"Shut up," says Nico, "you'll make Frank cry if you don't cuddle him."

"Fine," Leo says on a long sigh.

Lips twitching, Nico shakes his head. "I'll make out with you later, you big dork."

Leo laughs, but they're too close to the den for him to respond the way he wants. Squeezing Nico's hand, Leo tugs him into the warm room.

The fire is burning low and crackling pleasantly, snow is slowly falling past the dark window, and their friends are all piled onto one sofa in a way that looks both uncomfortable and awesome. It isn't the easiest thing in the world to make Leo feel calm, but he does as soon as he walks in the room.

Gods. He's going to have to listen to Piper's ‘I told you so's for the next decade, at least.

"Looks like a party," says Leo.

Out of the corner of his eye, Leo sees Nico looking at their pile of friends with an expression he can't immediately place.

"Come cuddle," Percy says, fruitlessly trying to make room on the sofa for them. He ends up mostly in Jason's lap, and there still isn't enough room for one more person to sit.

"I think I'm good on the floor," Nico says slowly, before looking at Leo. "But you should."

Leo gives him a quick, grateful kiss. He's glad that, even if Nico is put off by the idea of a cuddle pile, he isn't going to expect Leo to do the same. He clambers into the small space that Percy tried to make for him. His legs tangle with Annabeth's and he has to put his arm around Hazel's shoulders so it doesn't get crushed, the entire couch shifting to accommodate him. Nico sits cross-legged in front of them and leans back against Jason's shins, just enough that he isn't completely apart from them.

He looks just as comfortable on the floor as Leo feels, surrounded by his friends the way he is. Someone's elbow is in Leo's spleen, but that's not important. He is comfortable, and he's happy that Nico is too.

Maybe Piper was right. Maybe he should spend more time with his family. Maybe, just maybe, California really wouldn't be just another pin in Leo's runaway map.

As Leo watches Nico scroll through movies, grinning in the soft light of the fire and the brighter glare of the screen, Leo feels absolutely certain. For the first time in a long time, Leo has something to run to.

 


 

Even though it's in the drama category on Netflix, the film that Nico picks has such bad acting that Leo's stomach hurts from laughing by the time the credits roll. His friends start making noise about going to bed, since they're supposed to leave for the airport at five the next morning. Percy, who firmly declares that no living being should know what five in the morning looks like, decides to stay awake and play Monopoly with Piper and Jason. Hazel looks tempted to stay, but Frank gives her such sad puppy eyes that Leo would have gone and snuggled him if she didn't.

"You want to stay up?" Nico asks when Annabeth stretches out on the empty sofa and conks out almost immediately.

"Maybe, but not playing Monopoly," Leo says with an exaggerated wink. Nico rolls his eyes and Percy makes a gagging noise, so Leo's pretty happy with the landing of the joke.

"See you guys in the morning," says Nico. He waves vaguely at their friends, who are crowding around the coffee table and setting up the board game.

Jason gives them both a warm smile. "Night, you two."

"Don't do anything I wouldn't," Piper tells them faux-sternly, already trying to take money out of the bank. Well-versed in her tricks, Jason just smacks her hand away with a card.

"Not a super long list, but sure," says Leo. He winds his fingers with Nico's and wishes his friends a non-lethal game of Monopoly before tugging Nico down the hall. Nico laughs, surprised, but gets with the program easily enough.

On the way to their room, he stops Leo twice to press him into the wall and make good on his promise. It's a bit distracting, but Leo doesn't mind. Only the very real fear of Nico's sister catching them making out in the hallway gets Leo to pull back each time. They make it to their room without incident, but as the door shuts behind them, reality sets in.

"I haven't packed," Leo groans, looking around the room.

Nico snorts. "You should have done it this morning when I did, coglione."

"Yeah, I should've," Leo agrees sadly. He kisses the corner of Nico's lips, apologetic. "I won't take long."

"Alright," says Nico. He doesn't look bothered - or, at least, no more bothered than usual.

With a dramatic sigh, Leo starts gathering up his stuff. It's strewn everywhere, because he kept thinking it would be a problem for future Leo. Nico sits on the edge of their bed to watch him. He's mostly quiet, but when Leo picks up the pyjamas that Nico has been wearing since they hooked up, he makes a small noise of protest.

"What?" Leo asks, grinning.

The baleful glare he gets is so reminiscent of the Nico he first met that Leo has to bite back a laugh. "I didn't say anything."

"Uh huh. Do you want to take them home or something?" Leo's only partly joking. It sounds nice, honestly, Nico wearing his clothes to bed while he's in California. Something of the sincerity must show in his face, because Nico's expression softens.

"If you don't mind, I guess. I also wanted to wear them tonight. If that's okay."

Leo ducks his head to hide a smile and tosses the clothes into Nico's lap. He's had the sweats since he lived at camp, and the sweater is something he stole from Jason months ago.

"I don't mind," he says. "Keep ‘em."

Nico grins up at him and stands, pulling his sweater off over his head. Leo doesn't want to get distracted from his task, so he turns his back and starts shoving things into his bag. Hearing the fabric shift against skin behind him is almost enough to make him turn around.

"What do you want for your birthday?" he blurts.

"I like my Gengar," Nico hums. Denim hits the floor, and Leo gives up on folding entirely. "But I don't really have a lot of material, uh, stuff? I'm pretty much always ready to pack up and leave."

"Big mood," Leo says as he zips up his mess of a bag. At least everything's inside it. He turns and laughs at the blank expression on Nico's face. "Means, like, ‘me too'."

"No, I know what it means," says Nico. He pulls on the old sweats with a shake of his head. "I just can't believe you said it, out loud, to a human person."

"Get used to it, babe." Leo's grinning as he unbuttons his own pants, and it only gets wider when Nico's eyes automatically drop. He leaves the pants on the floor so he doesn't have to dig for them when it's five in the morning and he wants to die.

Nico is still standing, and Leo takes the opportunity to step back into his space and press his lips to Nico's cheek.

"I just got dressed," Nico sighs, winding his arms around Leo's waist and pulling him closer in contradiction to his words. "And I want to get some sleep."

"Uh huh."

Another kiss, this one to Nico's jaw.

"I'm serious."

"You usually are."

"Leo."

Leo pulls back to meet Nico's eyes, which are dark and amused. "Yeah?"

"For my birthday, I want to see you," says Nico. His voice is quieter, like he isn't sure if he's allowed to ask for this. "It's probably easier if I shadow travel to Manhattan, and definitely cheaper."

"You didn't shadow travel here," Leo notes, toying with the hem of Nico's sweater for something to do with his hands.

"Piper paid for my ticket, that would've been rude," Nico laughs.

At the sound of Nico's laugh, Leo smiles instinctively. "That sounds good to me. Don't skip your party, Hazel will make my death look like an accident, but I totally want you to visit. Ooh, I'll take you to the best Thai place on the subway line. Jason used to skip his GED prep to meet me there, it's that good."

"Romantic," Nico says dryly.

"It's better than most Michelin restaurants," Leo says, pinching Nico's side under his sweater. Nico twitches, but he doesn't jump. "Piper's taken us to some fancy-ass places, and trust me, they're more stressful than romantic."

"Okay, Thai it is."

For a moment, Leo just smiles at Nico, who is trying and failing to keep a straight face. They're close enough that Leo can see more freckles across Nico's face than he ever has before. Nico's nose is crooked, he finds himself noticing as he admires the constellations across it, and he wonders how it got broken. There are no shortage of ways a demigod might have gotten hurt, especially one who fought in two wars, but Leo still wants to know.

Nico's eyes, terrifyingly, are roving over Leo's face. Leo starts feeling self-conscious about his breath, his most stubborn acne scars, the oil stains on his shirt.

"You have a birthmark," is all Nico says, though, moving Leo's curls aside to brush his thumb over the darker patch at Leo's temple.

Leo nods, a joke rising and dying on his tongue. "You've broken your nose," is what he says instead, poking lightly at the bridge of it. Something about either the touch or the words surprise Nico - maybe he, too, was expecting Leo to see something he didn't like.

"Yeah," says Nico. He's quiet, but Leo is so close that it doesn't matter. "When I was a kid. Hit it off the road after I fell in a riello."

"You fell in a canal?" Leo guesses at the Italian, laughing when Nico makes a ‘sorta' gesture.

"It hurt," Nico says, petulant.

Still snickering, Leo leans up just a bit to kiss Nico's nose. He likes that it's crooked, likes the freckles scattered over it. He likes Nico. "Aw, poor baby."

Nico rolls his eyes and tugs on Leo's curls in retaliation. A jolt of pleasure goes up Leo's spine, but before he can react, Nico is murmuring, "If you're gonna make fun of me, we'll just go to sleep."

He shows no sign of moving away, so Leo grins and catches his lips in a soft kiss.

Loosely gripping Leo's curls to keep him in place, Nico leans into the kiss with a hum. Leo feels heat flare in his spine when Nico licks into his mouth.

That heat is normally something Leo shies away from. He's always hyper-aware that he could burn his partner if he stops concentrating, but when he slips his palms up Nico's sweater to run over his back, the flare cools to a pleasant simmer.

Interesting. Nico doesn't just have bad circulation - Leo has touched people with bad circulation before, and their skin will always warm when left under his. Nico is different.

Somehow, the chill of Nico's skin is ever present and encroaching, like it wants to spread instead of subside. Leo doesn't know much about Hades or Tartarus or the powers Nico has never made public, but he suspects Nico's temperature is as unnatural as his own. It's just a theory, but it makes a lot of sense.

It's… new. If Leo's theory is right, Nico might not be a fire hazard for him after all.

Leo pulls back to kiss along Nico's neck, and the grip in his hair tightens. Gods, he hopes his theory is right.

"Can I go down on you?" asks Leo. He keeps his tone conversational, like he's asking if Nico wants a drag of his cigarette. Nico's breath hitches.

"Sure," Nico says, matching Leo's tone, "but we do have to be up in three hours."

Leo kisses Nico's neck again and grins up at him. "I'll be quick," he promises, before dropping to his knees.

 


 

If Leo had been bemused by Nico's clinginess the day before, he's downright bewildered now. In the rush of everyone getting ready, eating breakfast, and loading the car, Leo almost doesn't realise that Nico hasn't let go of him the entire time.

It might be annoying, if Leo wasn't feeling a tug in his abdomen every second Nico's hand isn't in his own or on the small of his back. The tug isn't the regular sad-to-be-leaving sort of tug - the timing is too perfect, which gives the impression of it being engineered. Leo has a sneaking suspicion that Aphrodite is giving them a nudge, but there’s no way for him to be sure.

Leo gets it. He's on board. He doesn't need the physical reminder that being away from Nico sucks. Still, he doesn't voice this theory.

Instead of potentially making his friends angry at a goddess that, for all intents and purposes, has never done Leo wrong, he decides to soak up the atmosphere of home. By the time they're crowding into the SUV - Frank a cat again, purring on Jason's lap - Leo has made up his mind.

He texts his boss and says that he wants to come in when he lands, even though he isn't scheduled until tomorrow. It's not arrogance for Leo to say that he's the best in the garage, so he isn't surprised that Dominic agrees to cut his vacation off a few hours early. Leo almost feels bad, but Nico is dozing on his shoulder and Hazel is singing softly along to the radio, and he can't bring himself to feel bad about the decision he's made to put his notice in.

This decision still needs to be run by Piper and Jason, so Leo will wait before he goes announcing a plan to move cross-country to the half-asleep demigods surrounding him.

The weight in Leo's gut settles as soon as the text goes through. As he watches the mountains pass by too quickly, he sends a silent prayer of thanks to his stepmother in case she is responsible for giving him that last push he needed.

Leo feels like the ride to the airport passes in the blink of an eye, which doesn't seem at all fair.

"Hey," Leo murmurs, shaking Nico awake as Piper parks in the long-term parking garage. Leo doesn't want to know how much Tristan McLean is shelling out for that.

Nico blinks up at him and yawns, butting his forehead against Leo's shoulder like a cat. "Didn't mean to nap."

"Nothing wrong with napping," says Leo. "You can nap more on the plane."

Sleepy as he is, Nico leans against Leo's side and back through the entire airport, glowering at anyone who looks at them twice. It's a bit like having a very affectionate guard dog. Leo grins, amused by his own tired brain, and pets Nico's hair as they wait in the security line.

Nico turns the glare on him, but doesn't move away. He's probably too comfortable. "Are you making fun of me?"

"Kind of," Leo says honestly.

"Well, stop it." After a moment, Nico grumbles, "But I guess you can keep touching my hair."

That's how Leo ends up playing with Nico's hair while they lounge in the boarding area, chatting quietly to Annabeth as Nico dozes on his shoulder again.

Annabeth's eyes are rarely soft when she looks at Leo, but today they are. He doesn't know if that's because she's thinking about missing him when he's in Manhattan, or because he keeps losing his train of thought whenever Nico shifts in his sleep.

The Embraer plane is just as small as Leo remembers. He and Nico jostle for the armrest before Nico puts it up and wraps his arm around Leo’s shoulders instead. It’s a little funny to watch Nico struggle with untangling his earphones one-handed. Leo reaches out to help, stealing one of the buds for himself. It’s so easy to drift off, tucked into Nico’s chest with soft jazz lulling him to sleep.

It's too good to last. They find out when they land that the flight to New York is cancelled due to engine problems, and Leo has to bite down an offer to fix it. He probably could fix it faster than whoever's working on it, but it isn't likely that he'll get a chance to try. Not like he'd trust a random kid with a Boeing either. He's about to text Dominic and reschedule when Piper comes back from the information desk, brandishing three boarding passes.

"Talked us into an earlier flight," she says, and Leo doesn't understand why she's talking so fast until, "and by earlier, I mean boarding in five, so we gotta boogie."

"Oh," says Leo. His grip on Nico's hand tightens instinctively, and Nico squeezes back.

"We'll have to do this again," Jason is saying, giving everyone hugs, but Leo can't bring himself to move and do the same. He watches Piper kiss Percy's cheek and almost blurts out his entire plan.

Nico is what stops him. He pulls Leo into a hug that's too tight to be very comfortable and says, "I'll see you at the end of the month. For Thai."

"Yeah," Leo says, gripping Nico's sweater. "See you soon, chico."

He doesn't want to pull away, but he also doesn't want to spend all day in the Denver airport waiting for another flight. This place gives him the creeps, if he's honest - more than most airports do. He disentangles himself and presses a quick kiss to Nico's frown.

"Do the rest of us get kisses, Valdez?" Frank asks, trying to lighten the atmosphere that had so quickly fallen over their group.

"Sorry, I don't have that kind of time." Leo finally drags his eyes from Nico and gives Frank his most convincing grin. "I'll just have to dole out kisses next time we all go away together. My vote's on somewhere warm."

The smiles he gets from his friends are almost worth walking away from them. Almost.

 


 

"Can I talk to you guys?"

Jason and Piper look up from the TV in almost eerie synchronicity. They're curled together in a comfortable way and watching something that Leo's fairly sure they've seen before. Leo hasn't even shed his jacket yet, too keyed up from his talk with Dominic to be cool about it.

"Sure," Jason says, a bit surprised. "I thought you went to work."

"I did, but not for a shift." Leo strips off his jacket and hangs it on one of their dining chairs, ignoring Jason's sigh. He'll pick it up later. Probably. "I needed to give Dominic my notice, actually."

Neither of them seems as taken aback as Leo had banked on. They exchange a look that Leo can't interpret.

"San Francisco," Jason says at the same time Piper says, "San Diego."

"Actually," Leo interrupts before their argument can really get going. He grins, feeling warmth spread through him at how easily his friends had understood and supported him. "Different San entirely. I'm probably going to be in San Jose, if my job interview in March goes well, and I'd appreciate both of you coming with me."

"Of course we will," says Jason.

Piper looks disappointed and ready to argue until Leo mentions the interview, and then her face lights up. "You have a job interview? How?"

"Dominic cleaned up my station, because it was apparently a quote-unquote eyesore, and some of my blueprints were interesting and confusing enough that he sent them to his cousin." Leo pauses for effect. "At the Ames Research Centre."

What should be an incredible announcement is met with two very blank stares.

"Is that good?" Jason asks hesitantly. Leo has to resist the urge to smack him upside the head. He'll have to text Annabeth the news in a few minutes to get the reaction it deserves.

"I don't know, Jason," Leo says, voice dripping with sarcasm, "is getting NASA's attention good to you?"

"You got a job at NASA?" Piper shrieks, leaping to her feet and hugging Leo. Jason winces at the volume, but stands up to wrap his arms around both of them.

"Congratulations," he says sincerely.

"It's just an interview," Leo reminds them, grinning from ear to ear. He's trying not to burst with excitement, but this is, like, a dream job. He should probably be annoyed that Dominic took initiative like that, but he's been working for the guy since the war ended. Dominic knows him better than any mortal, and maybe he knew Leo just wasn't happy working in someone else's garage. Fixing cars was fine, but he wasn't inventing, he wasn't building, and he's pretty sure Dominic understands Leo's restlessness without even knowing about the flying ship.

"I guess I can live in San Jose," Piper sighs, knocking her hip against Leo's. "But I'm sick of the apartment life. Gonna call my dad and see if he can arrange something."

"Are you seriously going to ask your dad to buy us a house?" Jason asks. He sounds more resigned than anything else.

"I'm going to ask my dad to buy himself a house, and then we'll live in it."

"Pipes, come on, that's a lot to ask."

Leo decides this is his cue to leave. It's an argument he and Jason are destined to lose, after all, and Leo is still tired and jetlagged. "I'm going to take a nap," he says before Piper can do more than glare at her boyfriend.

Inexplicably, Piper's lips twitch. "Alright, we'll try to keep it down."

Jason is smiling, too. It's weird, when they're on the cusp of an argument that has the potential to last hours, but Leo figures they're just happy that Leo finally agreed to move west with them.

Giving them a suspicious look, Leo heads to his room. He pulls out his phone as he opens the door and texts Annabeth his news. He wonders if it's too soon to text Nico or if that'll make him look desperate, but that train of thought is cut off when he looks up and sees a lump under his blankets move.

Leo approaches his bed warily and prods at the lump, unsure if he's seeing things. He nearly jumps out of his skin when it makes a noise, and then Leo is faced with Nico's bleary eyes poking up from a familiar blanket cocoon.

"Why'd you poke me?" Nico asks plaintively.

The warmth that settles in Leo's chest at the sight of him isn't hazardous at all. He grins, crawling into bed and pressing a kiss to Nico's hair. "Thought a raccoon got in through my window. I wasn't too far off."

Nico hits him, but it's half-hearted. He looks even sleepier than he did at Denver airport - Leo bets that cross-country shadow travel still takes a big toll on him.

"Mean," Nico mumbles, already curling into Leo.

"Didn't want to sleep without me, huh?" Leo teases. Nico nods into his chest, and his heart does something acrobatic. "Well… good. I didn't want to sleep without you, either."

He's about to tell Nico that it isn't something they'll have to do for long, that he's got a job interview in two months in a city less than an hour from Camp Jupiter, but Nico's breathing is already getting slow. Leo doesn't want to interrupt his sleep more than it's already been interrupted today, so he nuzzles into Nico's soft hair and closes his eyes.

The news can wait for Nico to wake up. They've got time.