I sat at the kitchen table, carefully pouring syrup over my waffles. It was a tranquil, quiet Saturday morning, and I had no intention of wasting it on actually doing something.
My stepmother, Seph, opened the waffle iron to check on the fluffy cakes. "Nico, I heard some people are moving in next door. I was thinking of us going over with some flowers."
I spewed orange juice all over my waffles. My sister Hazel looked at me in disgust as she threw a napkin in my direction. It floated feebly to the ground and lay there in a crumpled heap.
"And by 'us' you mean you… right?" I asked nervously.
"Very funny, Nico. You're coming too, so are you, Hazel, and so is your dad. We're going to be good, kind neighbors and help them out in any way possible."
I catapulted out of my chair. "You can't make me!" I yelled over my shoulder as I ran away from Seph and those delicious waffles.
"Niccolo Stefano Marescotto Cesare Guientoli Davide di Angelo!" Seph called, a little slyly and a little impatiently.
"If you don't come to greet the neighbors I will tell your father who dented the side of his new car." God, I could see that smirk on her face!
"I. Hate. You." I mumbled dejectedly as I slumped into my chair. "I hate you with every inch of my being."
"That's not a whole lot of inches, honey." She rumpled my hair affectionately as she slid more waffles on my plate and dumped the orange juice-syrup ones in the garbage with a wrinkled nose.
"Now, Niccolo, you must be a good boy and take a shower when you're finished, okay?" Seph chided me in that 'mom' tone.
"Yeah, sure thing."
Three waffles and one shower later, I emerged from my room smelling like pomegranates and deodorant. My hair was still fluffy from being towel dried and messy and matted as ever, so I just let it be. Seph told me to 'dress nicely' so I wore the only pair of black skinny jeans I had that weren't ripped and my black good luck t-shirt with the words GHOST KING written on them in bold white characters and a crown hanging on the right side of the T like a hat on a hook. After a moment's consideration, I slipped on my black fingerless gloves and shrugged on my black aviator's jacket over it, not bothering to fully zip it up.
"Nico, you look so handsome! Is that the shirt I gave you?" She leaned in for a closer look and squealed. "It is!"
I jutted my lower lip out and scowled. "Hey, don't judge. It's my good luck shirt, cause I'm sure as hell gonna need it. I actually have to… ugh- socialize."
Hazel snickered but said nothing, skipping over to the doorstep. I followed suit. And no, I didn't skip.
"Nico, your hair!" Seph frowned at me around a huge bouquet of cut flowers. Dad gave me a run-away-while-you-can look. Too late, I caught it and Seph grabbed me by the shirt collar and started attacking me with a hairbrush from her purse.
"So tangled! Do you own a hairbrush? Do you even know what a comb is?!" She grunted and I yelped in pain as she snagged yet another knot.
I glanced at Hazel desperately. She stepped forward and for a glorious moment I thought I was saved… until she pulled a hairbrush out of her own crossbody.
"Seph, let me help. You have no idea how long I've been wanting to do this." She started aiding in the attack with only slightly less vigor.
Why do girls even keep hair brushes in their purses?! I thought bizarrely.
As a wild last ditch attempt, I looked at Dad pleadingly. He only shrugged. "I'm not about to say I don't think you really need a haircut and lessons on how to operate a brush."
I made a face at him and Hazel pulled her brush through a final knot, handing me a tiny compact mirror.
"I hate it." I pouted slightly as I tossed it back at her. She stuck her tongue out at me in a juvenile manner and ran down the steps, beckoning us to follow. She seemed genuinely excited about this.
Dad rang the bell while Seph adjusted the position of a pink rose. A young girl with flyaway red hair and a slightly older looking boy with cornrows answered, looking at us warily.
"Hi, we're your new neighbors and we wanted to say hello!" Seph smiled brightly and the girl relaxed a little.
"I'll go get my mom if you want to meet her." the girl said, and Seph nodded quickly.
The girl disappeared, dragging the boy with her. A few seconds later they came back, peeking out from behind a woman with curly blonde hair, calm eyes, and a sweet smile.
"Hi, I'm Naomi Solace. You are…?" Her voice was nice. Soothing to listen to. My mom used to sound like that.
"I'm Persephone di Angelo, but you can call me Seph. This is my husband Hades, and these are our kids Nico and Hazel."
Our kids… Hazel must have noticed to, because she discreetly elbowed me and smiled.
"We brought these flowers for you. I grew them myself." Seph added proudly.
"They're absolutely gorgeous, is your house the one with that amazing garden?" Naomi gushed.
Seph nodded dreamily. "I just adore the flowers I grow. It's such a tranquil thing, isn't it?"
Yeah, Seph. Tranquil, like my Saturday morning- oh wAIT.
"I always wanted to have a garden back where we lived before, but there was never enough room, now that we live here I was thinking of starting one." Naomi was saying.
"I could help you, if you'd like!" Seph offered.
"That would be amazing, why don't you come in? It's a bit of a mess, though, I must apologize." She led us in and Seph glared at us all as if to say, BEHAVE.
I shuddered. We didn't call her the Pastel Queen of Hell for nothing.
Naomi helped us weave through a maze of boxes piled high. She seated us in the living room and walked over to the stairs, still holding the flowers.
"Will, can you get me the glass vase please?" she called.
"Sure, mom!" A voice called. Then a pause. "Uh, which one?"
"The one your grandmother gave!"
"You mean the yellow one?" He sounded quizzical.
"No, the transparent pinkish-reddish one? The one that matches the kitchen theme?" Naomi gestured vaguely with her hands.
There was a scuffle from upstairs and a triumphant shout of, "FOUND IT!" Then the sound of footsteps, a crash, and a string of unflattering curses and another yell of, "I'M OKAY!"
Naomi rubbed her temples. "William, what happened?"
A figure appeared at the head of the stairs. "Sorry, mom. Tripped over Austin's box of comics. The vase is all right, though!" he added cheerfully, carefully stepping around boxes stacked in the stairwell.
"Thanks so much." Naomi carefully put the flowers in the vase and set them in the next room on the dining table, saying, "Will, these are our neighbors, the di Angelos."
Dad nudged my knee as if to say, introduce yourself, you fool!
I half-raised a hand. "Nico."
"Hazel." My sister smiled cheerfully.
"I'm Hades and this is Seph. Pleased to meet you, young man." Dad grasped his hand in a firm handshake.
"The pleasure is mine." Will grinned and I couldn't help but think how attractive he was. Blue eyes, curly blond hair that so obviously belonged to his mother, and that smile was practically blinding- in a good way.
I shook my head slightly as Kayla and Austin came tripping down the stairs. Their mom sighed.
"Kids, please calm down…"
Kayla huffed and sat down on the floor in front of Hazel, facing the both of us. She examined me and suddenly squealed.
"Ooh, is that a piercing? It's soooo cool!"
My hand instinctively went up to my right ear, where I had a single piercing with a tiny silver hoop in it.
"Uh, I- um, thanks?" Way to be normal, Nico.
"Do you have tattoos too?" She straightened up, hands eagerly clasped in her lap.
"Ooooh, do you?" Austin looked over from the dining table. "I wanna see!" He scrambled out of his chair and sat next to Kayla.
"Now, guys, you gotta be poli-" Will started but I cut him off.
"I-it's fine. Really." I said a little too loudly. "I don't mind."
Dad, Seph, and Hazel all gave me strange looks which I ignored while I rolled up my left sleeve, revealing a velvety black rose and a shining silver arrow.
"That is so cool." Austin whispered as he stared, his eyes wide.
"If only they would be so quiet all the time." Naomi said after a good minute of them staring in silence. "I would normally have Will watch them, but since their dad is out of the country on a business trip I need all the help I can get."
"Nico and Hazel could watch them." Dad volunteered. I glanced at him, panicked.
"Oh, are you sure?" Naomi furrowed her brow. "I don't want to be too much trouble."
"Oh, it's just fine!" Seph chirped. "They sit for my nephew Percy's baby sister Estelle all the time and they're just wonderful at it. They wouldn't mind, would you kids?"
"No, of course not!" Hazel nodded enthusiastically.
"I guess so…" I looked down at the carpet.
"Great, you guys can go with Nico and Hazel, alright? You're gonna have a lot of fun, so don't worry." Will patted both of their heads as they cheered.
"Okay! Nico is cool! Did you see his tattoos?" Austin said earnestly.
"Yeah, Austin, I saw them." Will half smiled and my heart skipped a beat.
"Did you see that awesome piercing? It's so cool!" Kayla jumped while she wriggled her feet into her shoes.
"Yes, Kayla, the piercing is very cool. Now, hurry up!"
Hazel, Will, and I walked the kids back to our house. Before he went back to his own house, he pulled both of us aside.
"Good luck. They can be real rugrats sometimes." He nodded, gave the thumbs up, and turned to leave. I had no problem watching him go from behind, but Hazel quickly pulled me along to where Kayla and Austin were removing their shoes in the hallway.
We stood there awkwardly for a moment. Then Hazel coughed slightly. "So, uh, who wants to make brownies?"
I gave her a look. "Brownies?"
"Well, yeah, I mean- it's a simple enough boxed mix recipe and it'll be fun. We can colour frosting and get sprinkles and pearls and stuff like that? Like Seph sometimes does." She shrugged.
"Boxed mixes? Awesome!" Austin pumped his fist.
"Mommy only lets us make stuff from scratch." Kayla explained.
I sighed, then tried for a smile. "Well, who wants to get started?"
Half an hour later, the brownies were in the oven and Kayla and Austin were seated on the sofas, kicking their legs and babbling happily.
I wiped my forehead and collapsed on the armchair. Hazel collapsed next to me and as about to say something when her phone rang.
She looked at me tiredly, then picked up the call.
"Hi, Annabeth, what's up?" she asked.
A few moments of silence, and then Hazel burst out of her seat, a look of complete panic on her face.
"It's today, Annabeth? As in, today? I thought it was next Saturday!" She was saying as she tried to tug on her sneakers with one hand.
Another thirty seconds of silence. "No, I didn't get your text, Annabeth, Nico and I were child-sitting for the neighbors and my phone was off. Listen, I'll be there in ten minutes, okay?"
A pause. "Piper said she had the flash drive with the PowerPoint on it." Hazel said, exasperated. "But it doesn't matter, I have a backup. I'll grab it. See you in ten, Annabeth."
She hung up the call and ran for the stairs leading to her room.
"What happened?" I called after her.
"Study group- they had to move it to this Saturday- huge project that we're pairing for- I'm sorry, you have to watch the kids yourself. This is super important, it counts for 50% of the project grade!" Hazel panted as she ran around trying to get her things together.
"No problem, I can handle this. You do your thing." I said, hopefully just loud enough for her to hear as she slammed the front door behind her.
I turned my attention to Kayla and Austin, who were still babbling to each other.
"So, how do you guys feel about a movie?" I asked.
"Cool!" Austin threw his hands up in the air and Kayla nodded excitedly.
I grabbed the remote and flicked to the Netflix channel on the TV. I skimmed the children's movies and let the kids decide what they wanted to watch until the brownies were done.
"How about The Nightmare Before Christmas?" I suggested.
"Yeah!" Austin shouted at the same time Kayla shook her head.
"No, too scary!" She looked at me with wide eyes.
"It's not scary!" Austin looked at her distastefully. "Don't be such a baby!"
"I'm not a baby!" Kayla said tearfully, crossing her arms over her chest.
"Yeah, you are!" Austin insisted in a childish manner.
I decided to intervene before things got out of hand. "Guys, how about a different movie? Like… maybe, The Lion King?"
This time both Kayla and Austin said no. "We've seen that a million billion zillion kajillion times!" Austin supplied.
Okay, this was going to be more difficult than I thought. I scanned the selection of movies before my eyes landed on one that looked promising.
"Maybe Lilo and Stitch, then." I said lightly. "It had aliens, you would like that Austin, right? And it's in Hawaii, a beautiful island where people have parties on beaches and it's always sunny and warm. Doesn't that sound nice, Kayla?"
The kids seemed to think so, so I turned on the movies and watched for the first few minutes with them. Just as Stitch was making his escape to Earth, my timer went off.
"Be right back, guys." I said, ducking into the kitchen.
I turned off the oven and put the hot brownies in the freezer, hoping they would cool by the time I coloured the frosting.
Hazel had set out the food dye and the containers of frosting beforehand, so all I had to do was put equal amounts of icing in six bowls, then squeeze a couple of drops of food colouring into each bowl in every colour we had.
After the frosting was coloured, I took the brownies out of the freezer and cut them into squares in the pan. I balanced the icing bowls on my arms and head and held the cool tray in my hands and brought them to the living room.
Kayla and Austin stared in awe when they saw my amazing feat of coordinated-ness.
"Will tried to balance stuff once." Austin noted. "He fell down a flight of stairs because Kayla and me jumped out from behind a door and scared him so bad he said he was going to have a my-o-cart-i-all in-fart-tion."
"No, it was a mi-o-tard-y-al in-farc-don, wasn't it?" Kayla turned to stare at her brother quizzically.
"Do you mean myocardial infarction?" I stifled a laugh, setting down the bowls and tray.
"Yeah! That was it!" Austin nodded. Then he cocked his head at me. "How did you know?"
"My cousin Percy's girlfriend Annabeth takes a little med. I guess it sort of rubbed off on me. Myocardial infarction means heart attack, so I guess you two really scared your brother. Now, you can take the brownies and start frosting them while I get the sprinkles and pearls."
Kayla and Austin picked up the butter knives and started to slather frosting onto their brownies as I walked into the kitchen.
I grabbed three bottles of sprinkles and one bottle of pearls and went on my way back into the living room.
Kayla and Austin were enthusiastically discussing their brother.
"Ooh, Austin, remember that time Will almost killed Dad with a surgery knife because we scared them while he was working?"
"Yeah, that was really funny." Austin agreed. "Remember when Mom found out he drove a motorcycle and she grounded him for a month?"
Kayla snickered. "She said Will was turning into a punk."
I regarde them with a slightly amused expression. "You two really like scaring your brother, don't you?"
"Uh-huh! You wanna know about the time Will almost set the house on fire using straws, lemon juice, and powdered sugar?" Austin asked.
So I listened to their epic tale of valor and glory and how their father threw a towel on the flames while everyone else was busy panicking and how Will was banned from using the stove at age thirteen.
I was basically shaking in laughter by the time they were through telling me about their brother an hour later.
Until Kayla dropped this bomb on me.
"Will likes boys and girls, too!"
Then I was basically trying not to choke on my brownie.
When I calmed down, I asked, "He does?"
"Uh-huh." Austin nodded solemnly. "And that's okay. Because boys can like boys and girls can like girls and girls can like girls and boys and boys can like boys and girls and Mom says anyone who thinks that's bad is dumb." He looked at me suspiciously. "Do you think it's bad?"
"Wh- no, I don't. I swear!" I said quickly, feeling like I was being scanned under the scrutinous look he gave me. "I, uh, actually like boys too. I don't like girls, though."
Wait, did I just say that to an eight year old and a nine year old? Luckily, I was saved by my phone ringing. It was Hazel. I quickly picked up and held the speaker to my ear. "Hello?"
"Hey, Neeks! I called to ask how you're doing?" Hazel's voice responded.
"By me, I'm guessing you mean the kids?"
"They're doing well. I'll send you a photo." I quickly snapped a shot of them pouring sprinkles on the now frosting-clad brownies with the movie in the background and texted it to her.
"Wow, you guys look like you're having fun. Annabeth says those brownies look delicious."
"I can get Percy to send some over." I offered.
"Would you? You're amazing, Nico. I'll call you again when I'm on my way home. Love you! Bye."
The dial tone sounded and I scrolled down the list of contacts for Percy's number, which was labelled as Kelp Face. I hit the call button and waited a second.
He picked up on the third ring. "Wassup, Nico, my homedog?"
I cringed. "Don't call me that. Are you high?"
Percy sighed. "Did you really call me to debate the technicalities of the likeliness that I have been recently doing drugs?"
"It must be exhausting to use your entire vocabulary in a single sentence."
It was silent for a moment, and then: "HEY!"
I stifled a chuckle. "Well, anyways… your girlfriend wants brownies. Come pick them up from my house. I'm child sitting, so don't barge in."
"Are they blue?"
"The brownies, Death Boy. Are they blue?"
"What? No!" I sputtered. "They're chocolate, which means they're brown!"
"Then I cannot perform the delivery." Percy claimed stubbornly.
"You- UGH! I'll call Jason, you know he does whatever I want him to do."
Percy scoffed. "Yeah, sure. It's been, like, ten minutes since I talked to my bro anyway."
I groaned and added Jason to the call.
"Neeks! Hey, dude!" Jason sounded like an over-excited puppy.
"Hey, Jase. Percy won't deliver chocolate brownies that aren't blue to Annabeth's study group. Help me. Please." I begged. Kayla and Austin glanced at me funnily, probably wondering what their sitter was doing. At this point, I could seriously relate.
"So… they're not blue?"
"No, they're not, Jason. Now help me!"
"Then I cannot help you. Sorry, baby bro."
I stared in shock at the screen, my eye beginning to twitch.
"Neeks? Bro, you okay?" Percy asked tentatively.
I forced a smile. "Better than ever! Hold on, please."
I took a deep breath and added Annabeth to the call. "Hey, Nico! Seaweed Brain, Jason, how's it going? More importantly, when are the brownies coming? I'm starving."
"Your idiot boyfriend refuses to send over brownies that aren't blue. So does your friend's idiot boyfriend." I said quickly, taking enjoyment in watching Percy and Jason's facial expressions morph into complete terror.
Annabeth was silent for a moment. "Seaweed Brain-"
Percy gulped. "Annabeth, I-"
"You listen here. I have been up since 7 AM working on this project, without anything to eat except cold, leftover Ramen from last night. And god be DAMNED if I miss out on the opportunity to eat something right now, especially if they're brownies."
She took a deep breath. "Now, is there anything you have to say for yourselves or to Nico?"
Jason half-heartedly glared at me. "Sorry, bro."
"Yeah, sorry." Percy echoed.
"Good. See you in ten, Seaweed Brain! Good luck, Neeks!"
And Annabeth left the call. Percy stared at me for a minute before saying, "That was low, Nico."
"Really low." Jason added.
I shrugged. "I'll throw in some blue frosting to make you shut up, Perce."
"Dude- you got yourself a deal! I'm already out of the house! Bye!" And Percy hung up.
I half-waved to Jason and he waved back before hanging up too.
I slumped back on the couch as Hawaiian Roller Coaster Ride started playing on the movie. I absentmindedly started humming the tune, then gradually started singing them.
I was snapped out of my trance by a scuffle from outside and several muffled shouts.
I glanced at Kayla and Austin, who were anxiously looking at the door as if it would cave in. I put my finger to my lips, muted the TV, and grabbed Hazel's baseball bat.
I slunk behind the door with the bat hefted over my shoulder, waited a five count, and then threw open the door and brought the bat down.
"OW!" Well, at least it hit a mark. Wait- was that Percy's voice?
I shook my head and Percy was sprawled on the porch, glaring up at me. Jason was kneeling to help Percy up, and Will was standing off to the side looking confused, awkward, and just a little pissed.
"Nico, what the actual hell." It was not a question, but a statement.
I huffed and dropped the bat. "Because, Jason, when there are scuffling noises and muffled shouts coming from my front porch while I am child sitting, I'm not about to sit back and let some lunatics bust down my door!"
"Alright, first of all, you were the one who called Annabeth. I wouldn't be here for those brownies in the first place if you hadn't told my very hungry girlfriend you were baking with the kids."
"And, more importantly, who is that?" Jason interrupted, pointing at Will.
"That, sei un fottuto idiota, is the new neighbor. Whose siblings Seph volunteered me and Hazel to babysit."
"Oh- uh… well, that makes things awkward." Percy scratched his head, now standing.
"How? What did you d- Gesù, cazzo, Cristo, if you're insinuating what I think you're insinuating-"
"Yeah, they are." Will spoke up, bristling. "They jumped me because I was going to ring the doorbell."
Kayla and Austin chose that exact moment to come rushing outside and dogpile on Will.
"Will, Will! It was so much fun! We watched Lilo and Stitch and baked brownies from the box and even Nico even let us put on frosting and sprinkles!" Kayla squealed.
"Sounds like you two had fun." Will ruffled Austin's dreadlocks, smiling slightly. "Were the brownies good?"
"Yeah! And Nico can balance stuff, Will!" Austin said with delight.
"Yeah! And he can use an oven without catching the house on fire and-"
"Alright, guys, time to get your shoes on!" Will interrupted loudly, turning bright red and steering the kids inside to grab their sneakers.
Once they were gone, Jason leaned in and whispered, "You're totally into him."
"No, I'm not!" I sputtered, blood rushing into my cheeks.
"Aw, our baby bro has a crush!" Percy cooed. I kicked him and stomped into the kitchen to get the brownies and blue icing.
I stalked back outside and shoved them into Percy's hands. "Take it, idiot. Your girlfriend's waiting. Now get off my porch!"
Percy shrugged and jumped the steps, running down the block as soon as his feet hit the porch.
Then Will and his siblings came out. I turned to him. "I'm really sorry about those idiots. They think they're my parents." I said that last part for Jason to hear.
Will shrugged. "It's okay. Really."
Austin tugged on Will's jeans. "And Nico said that he likes boys too!"
Yep, the blood is back in my cheeks again and back in his. We stare at each other for a moment and Jason takes the opportunity to swoop in.
"This is my baby brother, Nico di Angelo. He's fourteen, straight as a circle, and very much into you. I would appreciate it if you got married within the next month because god be damned if you aren't into him too."
Will coughs awkwardly. Then he shrugs. "Want to go out sometime, Nico di Angelo?"
Something is expanding in my chest and I can't speak. I look to Jason helplessly.
"Uh, he says heck yeah." he supplies quickly.
"Cool. So, uh, Monday, 3 o' clock good?"
I nod, slightly dazed.
"Great." He leads Austin and Kayla, who are cheering, down the steps and is about to cross the street when he turns around and calls, "Oh, by the way- I think you're really cute!"
I make a choking noise, no doubt redder than the spot on the planet Jupiter by now. Kayla and Austin wave as I watch them go and think what a good thing it is I dented my father's car.