“Oh, the Jacksons are charming people,” Miss Tanaka said, smiling too widely towards Jason. “But they do keep some...unpleasant company.”
“What do you mean, my lady?” Jason asked, looking around the room and trying to figure out who she was referring to. The room was full of well dressed people, all invited personally by Perseus Jackson or his mother. Jason couldn't see anyone that didn't fit in.
In a distinctively unsubtle manner Miss Tanaka pointed her fan towards two people in the corner. The girl had uncommonly dark skin and very curly cinnamon hair, barely kept in place in her otherwise elegant hairdo. She was wearing a tasteful purple dress, and Jason thought her quite pretty when she smiled towards her companion, a dark clad man, little more than a boy, with sickly pale skin and curly black hair. Jason would have thought he looked like a ghoul, had he not been smiling warmly in return.
“We have not been introduced. Who are they?” Jason asked. “They look like foreigners.”
“You are only half right, I’m afraid,” Miss Tanaka laughed. “Their names are Nico di Angelo and Hazel Levesque. They live down at Longfield cottage, which, I dare say, is far above their station.”
“They live together?” Jason asked, wide eyed. “But they’re not married?”
Miss Tanaka leaned forward in a conspiring manner. “They are half-siblings, the natural children of Lord Hayden Lowell. People say he met the mothers during his travels abroad,” she said, sounding scandalized. “Their father recognized them and gave them Longfield Cottage, as well as a decent sum to live on. There are even rumours of them being the heirs to the Lowell estate, but surely that can’t be true. I cannot imagine Mrs. Lowell would allow it.”
She waited a moment for Jason’s reaction, and the surprise on his face must not have been enough, because she soon continued. “The Jacksons have taken a liking to them, for some reason I cannot begin to fathom. If the young lord wasn’t already engaged to Miss Chase I would have thought they were after the money.”
“The Jacksons aren’t those kinds of people,” Jason said dismissively. “I must ask Percy to introduce me to those two.”
Miss Tanaka looked at him, disbelief written all over her face. “Surely you are joking,” she said. “A person of such good breeding as yourself shouldn’t keep a society such as theirs.”
“I've never cared much for breeding,” Jason said honestly. “I'll go and try to find Percy. If you’ll excuse me, Miss Tanaka.”
Jason gave her a quick bow, then left.
Nico hated dinner parties.
In fact, Nico hated parties in general. There were too many people, too many voices, all talking at the same time. Someone was even playing piano, but judging by the amount of chatter around him Nico suspected he was the only one who was listening. He vaguely heard his name mentioned a couple of times, but had learned not to pay attention to it by now. After all, it was rare that anyone said anything positive, and there was only so much gossip he could stomach.
“How are you feeling, Nico?” Hazel asked gently beside him, and Nico could feel her taking his hand.
“Tired. Everyone is so loud,” Nico sighed, knowing there was no point in lying to her. “But I will be fine. Don’t worry about me, go talk to someone.”
“I’m not going to leave you here like a wallflower,” Hazel said. “And I think Percy is on his way here.”
Nico might have recognized Percy’s steps if the surroundings had been quieter, but as it was he just took Hazel’s word for it. A few moments later someone stopped in front of him.
“Nico, Hazel,” Percy’s cheerful voice said. “Jason Grace has asked to become acquainted with you two.”
“How kind of him,” Nico said, directing it towards Percy, since he wasn’t sure where the other one stood.
“I’ve already introduced you,” Percy said, then someone shouted Percy’s name from across the room, and he quickly excused himself.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Grace,” Hazel said.
“The pleasure is all mine, I assure you,” a deep voice said right in front of them, and Nico was surprised he sounded sincere.
“You’re the one who bought Netherfield, are you not?” Nico asked. “I believe I’ve heard people mention it.”
It was an understatement. People, especially the young ladies, hadn’t talked about anything else for months. Jason Grace, heir to the Grace family fortune, already living at six thousand a year, and an eligible bachelor. Supposedly good looking, but since he was rich Nico wasn’t sure whether it was true or not. Hazel could tell him later.
“Yes, it’s a lovely house, and I’ve had the good fortune of meeting so many friendly people in the neighbourhood here,” Mr. Grace said. Nico couldn’t help but smile. He wondered just how many of those friendly people had unmarried daughters, or were unmarried themselves.
“New faces are always welcome,” Hazel said, and Nico could hear her smile. “Will you be spending long here in Meryton, Mr. Grace?”
“I believe so. The summer, at least,” he said. “Though I may have to spend the winter in town.”
“I take it you’re not too fond of London,” Nico said, trying to ignore the fact that many of the other guest were currently whispering about the fact that Jason Grace was talking to them. Nico wondered if they realized he’d be able to hear everything they were saying if he cared enough to concentrate on specific voices. Most likely they wouldn’t care.
“Not especially. I much prefer the fresh air and open landscapes of the country,” Mr. Grace answered, seemingly unaware that he was the subject of all gossip in the room at the moment.
“Well, you’ll find we have plenty of both here,” Hazel said, laughing a bit. “I hope you will enjoy your stay.”
“I already do, Miss Levesque,” Mr. Grace said, taking a breath like he was going to say more, but he was interrupted.
“Mr. Grace! Won’t you join us for a game?” an elderly woman's voice said, loudly enough to be easily heard over the crowd. Apparently someone had decided taken it upon themselves to stop Mr. Grace’s downward movement in society.
“Pray excuse me, Mr. Di Angelo, Miss Levesque,” Mr. Grace said, and the air moved like he was bowing. “It was a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“Likewise, Mr. Grace,” Hazel said, and a moment later Nico could hear Mr. Grace walk away to join the people playing cards in the corner of the room. He heard hushed voices ask if Mr. Grace knew who it was he had just talked to, then Nico tuned them out. He knew exactly what they would say already.
“He seemed like a nice man,” Hazel said.
“He sounded sincere enough,” Nico agreed tiredly. “So tell me, is he as handsome as everyone and their mothers say?”
“Nobody is that handsome,” Hazel laughed. “But he’s certainly good looking. Blond hair, tall, and looks pretty strong. He has a funny little scar over his lips.”
“Thanks,” Nico said, putting together a vague image to go with the voice. Hazel gently took his hand again.
“We can leave now, if you want to,” she said, intertwining their fingers.
“If you’re certain,” Nico said, not wanting to keep her from having fun just because all the noise was giving him a headache. Just then one of the ladies decided to accompany the piano with a song, probably to impress possible suitors, and Nico was unable not to make a face at the sound. Hazel laughed beside him.
“I’m definitely certain now,” she said. “Let’s go home.”
In hindsight, Jason was forced to admit that going out riding alone in the evening wasn’t a good idea, but he had felt so trapped inside after spending the whole day dealing with visitors, some of which were more pleasant than others. He was pretty sure he had met every unmarried girl in the county by now. It wouldn’t have been so unbearable if it hadn’t been so painstakingly obvious what their intentions were, but contrary to popular belief, Jason hadn’t come to Meryton to find a wife.
He had felt the need for fresh air, so he had taken Tempest out for an evening ride, but he hadn’t counted on the horse getting spooked and galloping off the road in panic before finally throwing him off. He had a pretty rough fall to the ground, and when he had collected himself enough to stand up Tempest was nowhere to be seen, and Jason wasn’t sure where he was. Not to mention his left ankle hurt when he put his weight on it.
He could see the a house in the distance, so he started walking towards it as darkness fell. Thankfully there were lights in the windows of the house, making it easy for Jason to find the right direction. Still, it was the only light for miles, and it was still far off. Jason tried to put as little weight as possible on his left leg, and winced with every step he took.
“Who’s there? Are you hurt?” a voice suddenly shouted, and Jason looked around, trying to pinpoint where it came from. It sounded somewhat familiar, as well. A low growling followed, and hairs on Jason’s neck stood up.
“It’s Jason Grace, I fell off my horse and hurt my leg,” Jason shouted back, and soon he could see something big approach him. At first Jason stupidly thought it was a bear, but then he realized it was actually a dog. A huge, mean-looking hellhound, growling suspiciously towards him. A person walked behind it, holding on to the leash with one hand and a walking stick in the other. He was dressed all in black, melting well into the shadows, but Jason still recognized him.
“Mr. Di Angelo,” Jason exclaimed, surprised. ”What brings you out so late?”
“The world is quieter at night,” the boy said, kneeling down to pet the dog, which seemed to calm it down a bit. It stopped growling at least. “And light matters very little to me. How bad is your leg?”
“It hurts, but I can walk on it,” Jason said. “I was trying to make my way to that house over there. I take it that’s your home.”
“It is,” Mr. Di Angelo confirmed, then handed Jason his walking stick. “Here, leaning on this should make it easier.”
Jason hesitated. “Don’t you need it yourself?” he asked.
“No, we’re close to home, and I know the path well enough. I’ve got Cerberus to lead me,” Mr. Di Angelo said, gently patting the dog’s head. Considering the look of the dog, being named after the guardian of the underworld seemed pretty appropriate.
“If you’re sure,” Jason said, accepting the stick. “Thank you, Mr. Di Angelo.”
“If it’s all the same to you, just ‘Nico’ would suffice,” the boy said, frowning a little.
“In that case, I would ask that you call me ‘Jason’ as well,” Jason smiled, and they started walking towards the house. Nico really seemed to know where to put his feet without seeing anything. Jason was stumbling around in the darkness a lot more than he was, despite having at least some vision. Cerberus kept looking at Jason like he was considering attacking, and frankly Jason was a little scared.
“I don’t think your dog likes me very much,” Jason said, and Nico smiled amusedly at him.
“People tell me that Cerberus look scary, but he has never attacked anyone, or anything,” he said. “He’s always slightly suspicious of new people, but you have nothing to worry about.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Jason said.
When they finally reached the house, Jason was exhausted and his leg hurt a lot. He was trying to put up a brave face and not complain, but Nico apparently realized the situation anyway.
“Thomas!” Nico shouted as soon as they walked through the door to the house. A middle aged man appeared a moment later. “I’m sorry, but I need you to ride up to Netherfield, and tell them Jason Grace is here, has hurt his leg and will be staying the night. They are bound to be wondering where he is.”
“Right away, sir,” Thomas said, putting on a coat and disappearing out the door as Nico removed Cerberus leash to let him loose in the house, then helped Jason into the sitting room and down on a couch. The dog sat down just by the edge of the couch, apparently determined to keep an eye on Jason.
“Wait here, I’ll ask Hulda to prepare the guestroom,” Nico said, then walked off, leaving Jason alone with Cerberus, who was still watching him. A while later Nico reappeared, carrying a tray with two cups and a steaming kettle. Jason was a little alarmed at the sight, but Nico moved like he had done it a thousand times.
“My sister is already in bed, so she can’t come down to keep us company,” Nico said, pouring the tea with precision. “Hulda says the guest room will be ready soon. She has experience with treating injuries if you want her to take a look at your leg.”
“Thanks, that would be helpful,” Jason said, taking a sip of his tea. The warm drink made him feel a bit better. “Do you only have two servants?”
“Unless you count their two little children, yes,” Nico said when he sat down in the armchair facing the couch. The dog immediately moved to lay down beside the chair, a little to the side so Nico wouldn’t stumble over him. “We could get by with less. This isn’t exactly a big household like Netherfield, and neither Hazel nor I am opposed to doing things by ourselves when we can, though I admit my usefulness is limited.”
“You seem to get by very well,” Jason said honestly. “Both here and at the Jacksons’ dinner party.”
Nico scoffed. “Clearly you weren’t watching very attentively, though I suppose I should be thankful for that.”
“I suppose I wasn’t,” Jason admitted. “Though I must confess I didn’t even realize your predicament until Percy mentioned it before he introduced us.”
“I’m blind, no need to be polite and call it a predicament,” Nico said. “And I think that statement says more about you than it does about me.”
“I suppose it does. My apologies,” Jason said, unsure whether the boy was insulted or not. Nico’s face didn’t reveal anything, and he drank his tea in silence. Jason took a moment to study his features. Nico had a boyish, handsome face, though the dark circles under his eyes and the fact that he was too thin by far lessened it somewhat. His paleness had a sickly quality, though he was by no means unattractive. Had he been a legitimate child and not blind he would undoubtedly fight the same battle against Meryton’s unmarried ladies that Jason was.
“I have a feeling there’s something you wish to ask me,” Nico said. “Go ahead, I’m not easily insulted.”
“I’m not sure what to ask, I’m afraid,” Jason said. “I would like to get to know you better, though I’m unsure where to start.”
Nico looked surprised. “You are aware of my background, I assume? Surely someone at the party must have informed you of my family situation.”
“They did, repeatedly,” Jason said. “But it’s of little consequence to me, though I must admit I’m curious. Where are you from, originally?”
“Venice,” Nico said. “Hazel is from New Orleans, overseas.”
“I’ve never been further than Paris,” Jason said wistfully. “It must have been a long way to travel, for both of you. How long have you lived in England?”
“About seven years now,” Nico said, sounding distant. “Father sent for me and my sister Bianca after we lost our mother. There was an accident on the road, and I lost Bianca as well.”
“I am so sorry,” Jason said, and Nico nodded absently.
“I stayed at my father’s estate for a while, and when Hazel arrived he sent us here. That was about five years ago,” Nico finished his story, raising his head towards the door. “You’re not interrupting, Hulda. Please come in.”
A slightly overweight middle aged woman with a kind face appeared in the doorway, smiling towards them. “Sorry, sir. I did not wish to intrude on your conversation,” she said. “The guest room is ready now, and I can have a look at the young gentleman’s leg if he wishes.”
“Thank you, that would be most kind,” Jason said.
After a quick inspection Hulda announced that Jason had a sprained ankle, then bound up the foot and ordered him with all the authority of a trained physician not to put any strain on it for at least a week. Nico gave him an amused smile as she disappeared out the door to get them something to eat before heading to bed.
“She used to work for a doctor for many years,” he said. “I suggest you take her advice.”
“I will, though I admit sitting still for a week will be challenging,” Jason said. “At least I’ll have an excuse not to accept any invitations.”
Nico laughed at that, and Jason found himself unable not to smile. The boy had a very infectious laugh that seemed to brighten his features considerably. “I take it people are still competing for your attention.”
“I suspect you’re the only one left in the county who haven’t tried to push your unmarried relations at me,” Jason said.
Nico shrugged. “If Hazel was interested she’d take care of it herself,” he said dismissively. “But she already proclaimed you less handsome than people say you are, so I don’t think it’s likely.”
“Good to hear,” Jason smiled. Hulda reappeared, carrying a tray of sandwiches.
“If you have no further need of me I will be retiring for the evening,” she said, then gave Nico a stern look. “And please try to eat something, sir. You are far too thin for a boy of your age.”
Nico gave her a smile. “I will. Goodnight, Hulda.”
She made a quick courtesy, then disappeared out the door again. Pretty soon afterwards Nico showed Jason to his room, and then retired for the night. Jason fell asleep immediately, feeling like he was in good hands.
About a week later Jason went to call upon Nico and his sister again. He had hardly been out of the house since he injured his leg, and actually going somewhere was pretty nice.
“Jason! I mean Mr. Grace,” Hazel greeted him as he approached the house. She was standing outside in the garden, apparently sketching the flowers. “How is your leg? Should you really be riding around so soon?”
“Miss Levesque,” Jason said, getting off the horse to give a slight bow. “You can call me Jason if you wish. My leg is fine, thank you. It’s been a week already, and old Blackie here is the most gentle horse I own. Still, the doctor insisted I walk with a cane for a while.”
“That seems wise,” Hazel nodded, putting her charcoal aside to come greet them. She took the reins from Jason with a smile. “Let me take care of him, I have a good hand with horses. My brother is probably in the sitting room.”
With Hazel’s permission, Jason opened the door. The servants were nowhere to be seen, but he could hear the sound of a piano, and followed the sound. Jason didn’t recognize the melody, but the player was very good. When he reached the sitting room and found Nico by the instrument he felt he should have been surprised, but he wasn’t. Cerberus was lying just far enough from Nico’s feet that he wouldn’t step on him if he suddenly moved. The dog looked up at Jason, but didn’t make a sound, maybe because Jason opted to remain in the doorway until Nico finished the piece.
“That was beautiful,” he said, and Nico jumped, accidentally pushing down the keys and making a loud sound. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“It’s fine, I should have realized you were there,” Nico said, collecting himself and standing up to greet him. “What brings you here?”
“I just came to thank you for your hospitality the last time we met,” Jason said. “And to invite you and your sister to dine at Netherfield tomorrow night.”
“Thank you. I’m sure we’d be honoured,” Nico said, then was quiet for a while. “Um, was there something else?”
“Not really. I didn’t mean to interrupt your playing,” Jason said. “If you’ll allow me to, I’d love to listen for a while.”
Nico looked a little taken aback, but then he nodded slowly. “Be my guest,” he said, vaguely gesturing in the direction of the couch before sitting down by the piano again. As Jason moved to the couch, Nico continued to play, his fingers moving quickly over the keyboard. Jason watched him with fascination. He had tried to learn himself once upon a time, but he could never remember which key made what sound. Nico on the other hand clearly knew it instinctively.
Jason gave him a small applause as the piece finished, and he could see Nico’s face turn slightly red.
“That was really good,” Jason said.
“Thanks,” he mumbled. “But I’m hardly a prodigy. I pretty much cheated my way through the difficult parts.”
“I didn’t notice,” Jason said honestly. “Where did you learn to play?”
“My mother taught me when I was little, though I didn’t really have the patience for it at the time,” Nico sighed.
“Can you sing, as well?” Jason asked, and Nico shrugged.
“Good enough to entertain Hulda’s children, but not so well I’d like to do it in public,” he said. “I don’t usually play in front of people, either.”
“Why not?” Jason asked. “You play as well as any of them.”
“Thank you, but I wouldn’t want to rob the young ladies of the opportunity to gain attention,” Nico said with a wry smile. “Besides, my repertoire is somewhat limited. I have to know melodies by heart to play them, after all.”
“I don’t recall ever hearing the piece you played when I came in,” Jason said, and Nico blushed faintly again.
“I...I composed that one myself, for fun,” he said, sounding embarrassed.
“Truly?” Jason asked, eyes wide. “I thought it was beautiful. May I hear it again after dinner tomorrow?”
“No promises,” Nico said, turning back towards the piano to start another piece.
The first thing Nico noticed stepping through the doors of Netherfield was that the house had an echo. It was subtle, but it was there, quietly repeating every sound they made. Nico liked it. It gave him a better impression of how big the place actually was.
“Nico! Miss Levesque!”, Jason’s voice exclaimed somewhere in front of them, sounding genuinely happy to see them. Nico could hear the thud of the cane mixed with his footsteps as he approached. “Welcome to Netherfield. I’m glad you could make it.”
“Thank you for inviting us,” Hazel said. “It’s a lovely house, if a little sparsely decorated.”
“That explains the echo,” Nico said before he could stop himself, and Jason chuckled.
“Really? I’ve never noticed,” he said. “But yeah, I guess. I’ve purchased all the furniture I need, but not all of it has arrived yet. Follow me, everyone else is in the sitting room.”
“Everyone else” turned out to be Percy and Annabeth, and Nico calmed down a little. That meant he didn’t have to sit quietly and endure people talking behind his back. However, it did mean he had to sit quietly and endure the soft voices they used when they spoke to each other, but that didn't bother him as much as it once had. Nico decided not to reflect too much on that fact.
A couple of days after the dinner Jason went to call upon Nico again, and his sister directed Jason towards a hill a bit behind the house.
"He goes there sometimes, to be alone," she said. "But I think he would welcome your company, if you want to join him."
There was an old oak growing on top of the hill. Jason had expected to find Nico resting beneath it, but was shocked to see him several yards above the ground, sitting on a branch and lazily kicking his feet in the air like a kid. It would have been precious, if he hadn't been so high up.
“Nico, what on earth are you doing up there?” Jason asked in disbelief.
“Nothing much,” the boy said, shrugging slightly. Jason frowned.
“It looks dangerous. Let me help you down,” he said, removing his hat and coat and preparing to climb up after him.
“There’s really no need for that,” Nico said, but Jason ignored him and climbed up anyway. He hadn’t done this in years, and it was harder than he remembered. Still, he reached the branches just below Nico soon enough.
“Nice of you to join me,” Nico said dryly.
“Do you have any idea how dangerous this is? You could break your neck,” Jason said sternly.
“Your neck will break just as well as mine if you fall, you know,” Nico sighed. “Fine, have it your way. Let’s head back down.”
Jason climbed slowly downwards, constantly looking up to see how Nico was doing, preparing himself to try and catch him if he fell. To his surprise, Nico seemed as sure-footed in the tree as he was on the ground. Jason’s efforts would have been better spent concentrating on his own climbing. He accidentally stepped on a branch that was too weak to support him. When it broke, Jason lost his balance and tumbled down, hitting the ground hard. Thankfully it hadn’t been a long fall.
“Jason?” Nico shouted, sounding panicked. “Are you alright?”
“Fine,” Jason groaned, sitting up with some effort. “A little bruised, but fine.”
“Thank god,” Nico mumbled, then continued to make his way down, moving in a way that made it very hard to believe he was actually blind. After his feet were securely on the ground again, he hesitated, standing still for a moment before moving in Jason’s direction and kneeling down beside him, slightly closer than most people would have. Jason didn’t mind.
“You scared me for a moment there,” Nico said, and Jason gave a slight laugh.
“You scared me first,” he pointed out. “Why were you up in a tree in the first place?”
Nico shrugged. “I like climbing trees. I never used to before my eyes went bad, but I guess it’s a way to prove I can still do something by myself.”
“Well, you certainly succeeded better than I did,” Jason said, earning a smile from Nico. “If you don’t mind me asking, how did you lose your sight, anyway? I always assumed you were born blind because of how well you get by.”
“I’ve been losing my sight gradually ever since I was a child. No doctor have been able to treat it,” Nico said. “When I came to England I could still see rough shapes, but now I can only vaguely tell where the sun is on a bright day.”
“I’m sorry,” Jason said sympathetically. “It must have been hard on you.”
“The hardest part is not really knowing what my sister looks like,” Nico said sadly. “I know the shape of her face, and she has described the colours, but it’s not the same.”
“She’s a very pretty woman,” Jason said. “You two actually look quite a lot alike, colouring notwithstanding.”
“Somehow I find those two statements contradictory,” Nico smiled.
“You’re not bad looking, you know,” Jason said honestly. “Though Hulda is right. You could do with a bit more meat on your bones.”
“Thanks, but there’s no need to flatter me,” Nico said. “I don’t particularly care about my looks, for obvious reasons.”
“I wasn’t flattering you, just being honest,” Jason said, reaching out remove a leaf stuck in Nico’s hair. The boy stilled when Jason touched him, so he hurriedly explained what he was doing.
“I suppose that’s to be expected,” Nico sighed. “Hazel always complains about me being dirty when I come home after climbing trees.”
“You’re not nearly as dirty as I am,” Jason laughed, and Nico smiled.
They sat beneath the tree in comfortable silence while the sun started to go down over the rolling field.
“I have a request,” Nico said quietly after a while. “And I won’t get offended if you refuse.”
“What is it?” Jason asked.
“May I touch your face?” Nico asked, blushing slightly. “I know it must seem weird to you. But it’s the only way for me to get a decent idea what you look like.”
“Go ahead,” Jason smiled, a little surprised. “I don’t mind.”
Nico hesitated for a moment, then reached out for him. His aim was a little off, so Jason gently guided his hands towards his face, then remained still as Nico’s fingers slowly and carefully moved from his forehead down to his chin. It was a bit strange, having someone touch him so intimately just to get a first look at him. As Nico’s hands moved over his mouth, his thumb followed the outline of the scar on Jason’s mouth.
“How did you get this?” Nico asked, and Jason smiled beneath his hands.
“I tried to eat a letter opener when I was a baby,” Jason said and Nico raised an eyebrow in amusement. It felt odd to talk with Nico’s hands following the laugh lines caused by his smile, but when Nico withdrew his hands, Jason found he wouldn’t have minded if they had stayed longer.
“What colour are your eyes?” Nico asked. “I don’t think Hazel mentioned that.”
“Blue,” Jason answered, slightly flustered.
“Sky blue or ice blue?”
“More sky blue,” Jason said. “Piper says it’s the colour of lightning, if that helps.”
“It does. Thank you,” Nico nodded. “Who’s Piper?”
“My ex-fiancée,” Jason said. “My stepmother arranged the engagement, but Piper and I agreed we weren’t right for each other. We still exchange letters every now and then. I think you’d like her.“
“Perhaps. Though unless she visits Meryton I’m unlikely to ever meet her,” Nico said. “I don’t have much interest in travelling.”
“Understandable,” Jason smiled. “You know, being friends with you has really given me a new perspective on things.”
“Glad I could help,” Nico said dryly, turning his head against the wind. He closed his eyes as the breeze played with his hair. The warm, red light from the sunset in front of them gently coloured his face, making his features softer. In that moment, he was beautiful, and Jason found himself staring in silent awe.
“Is something wrong?” Nico asked, turning towards him with a slight frown on his face. “Your breath hitched just now, and you’re being very quiet.”
“Nothing’s...” Jason choked, and had to clear his throat before continuing. “Nothing’s wrong. I just wish you could see yourself through my eyes, that’s all.”
“I wish I could see anything through anyone’s eyes,” Nico sighed, and Jason mentally chastised himself for his thoughtless choice of words. Nico slowly got up from the ground, brushing himself off. “It’s getting late, we should head back.”
“As you wish,” Jason said, doing the same. His back hurt a bit from the fall as he bent down to pick his coat up, and he unintentionally winced.
“Are you in pain?” Nico asked, sounding concerned.
“Not much. I’ll be fine,” Jason said reassuringly as he walked over to him. “Do you want my help down the hill?”
“I know the path well enough,” Nico said, then sighed. “But I guess it can’t hurt. As used as I am to counting steps, it’s still tiring.” He reached out for Jason and after finding him took a hold of his arm, just above the elbow. Jason smiled widely as they started walking down the hill, happy Nico trusted him enough to rely on him.
They met quite often over following weeks, taking strolls if the weather was pleasant. Today they had walked further than usual, enjoying the sunlight and the light breeze. There wasn’t another soul in sight, just Jason and Nico, walking slowly and aimlessly around the hills.
“I’m getting tired,” Nico said. “We should rest here somewhere.”
“Agreed,” Jason said, leading Nico to sit under the shade of a large oak tree.
“So who did you bring today?” Nico asked with a smile. Jason reached for the book from his pockets.
“Shakespeare,” Jason said. “Hardly original, I know.”
“But never the wrong choice, or so they say,” Nico said. “And I’m not as familiar with his works as I should be. The poets I grew up with were mostly Italian.”
“A good thing then,” Jason smiled. “I brought the sonnets this time, but the plays are actually more interesting, though I doubt my ability to do either one justice.”
“I shall be the judge of that,” Nico said. “Go on.”
Jason cleared his throat, then started reading. “From fairest creatures we desire increase…”
Nico was listening quietly while Jason read on. He wasn’t a particularly good reader and his voice didn’t last very long, but Nico seemed to appreciate it nonetheless.
“How are you finding it?” Jason asked when he had stopped reading.
“It’s very eloquent, but sometimes I find it hard to understand,” Nico said uncertainly. “While my mother taught me English from an early age, it’s not my mother tongue. Poetry can still be a bit challenging.”
“I can bring something easier next time,” Jason smiled. “A novel, perhaps?”
“That would be nice,” Nico said. “Thank you for doing this. I truly appreciate it.”
“It’s my pleasure,” Jason said, putting the book away. “I enjoy spending time with you.”
Nico’s cheeks turned red at that, and Jason watched fondly as he turned his head away as if to hide it.
“People in the town seem to be under the impression that I’m tricking you somehow,” he said. “‘Praying on your sympathy’, I think they said.”
Jason laughed. “Let them gossip. It’s what they live for anyway,” he said, getting up and brushing his pants off. “Let’s head back.”
Nico got up as well, but when he took a step towards Jason his foot slipped on a rock, and he lost his balance, crashing into Jason’s chest. Jason caught him easily, and held him steady while he regained his footing.
“Sorry,” Nico mumbled, clearly very embarrassed. “You can let go of me now.”
Jason hesitated, contemplating the fact that he really didn’t want to let go of the boy. If anything, he wanted to bring him closer.
“Jason?” Nico asked uncertainly, tilting his head upwards as if to look at him. He was frowning slightly and biting his lip, and Jason got caught staring down at him, seeing him closer than he ever had before. In a moment of madness he leaned down and pressed their lips together.
Nico went completely still against him, and when Jason’s wits caught up with him he immediately pulled back, walking backwards a few steps with his hands in the air.
“I...I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do that. I just...” Jason tried, but his mind was reeling and it was hard to form words. Nico remained frozen for a few seconds, then spun around and stalked away without a word.
“Nico, wait!” Jason shouted, hurrying to catch up with him.
“Leave me alone,” Nico said angrily. “Just...just go!”
“Nico, I’m so sorry. I won’t ever do anything like that again, I promise,” Jason begged. “Please just wait!”
“No!” Nico shouted. “You’re not allowed to do that! It’s...it’s inappropriate!”
“I know, and I’m sorry. But Nico, please wait,” Jason said. “Let me at least lead you back home.”
“I don’t need your help!”
“Nico, you’re going the wrong way,” Jason said, and Nico came to a sudden stop. His shoulders were shaking and Jason could see the threat of tears in his eyes.
“Please, Nico,” Jason said quietly. “I swear I didn’t mean for that to happen.”
“Of course you didn’t,” Nico said, his voice barely audible. “You’re not a freak like I am.”
“What are you talking about?” Jason asked, confused. “You’re in no way a freak.”
“I am,” Nico insisted. “Since I was little, I’ve always had an inclination for men rather than women. I never meant to drag you into the mud with me, and I’m the one who’s sorry. You should get away from me.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Jason said, gently putting a hand on his arm. Nico flinched, but didn’t push him away, so Jason continued. “And you’ve done nothing to be ashamed of. I kissed you, not the other way around. The blame falls on me.”
“But you’re not like me,” Nico said helplessly.
“I’ve never given it much thought,” Jason admitted. “But I kissed you because I wanted to, and I still want to. You’re the most incredible person I’ve ever met.”
“I’m not a woman.”
“I know,” Jason said. “If you were, I would have asked for your hand a long time ago. But even so, I feel I should tell you how much I..."
“Jason,” Nico interrupted, choking. “This can’t happen. It’s not allowed.”
Jason sighed. “I understand. You’re right,” he said dejectedly. “I hope we can still be friends. I don’t want to lose that.”
“If we both promise never to mention this again, then maybe we can be,” Nico said, drying his tears with the back of his hand.
“Agreed,” Jason said with a heavy heart. “Let me lead you home.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Nico reached out to take his arm, and Jason did his best to ignore the warmth that spread through his body at the touch. Silently they started walking back towards the house.
Nico felt his resolve crumble every time he heard Jason's voice. All he wanted was to reach out and touch him, to feel him close again, but he couldn't do it. He couldn't destroy Jason's life like that. Nico did his best to act like nothing had happened, like everything was still the same between them, but it was almost impossible. Nico was a mess after every meeting with the other man. He wished Jason had never kissed him. Things had been easier when Nico thought he was the only one with feelings like this.
Hazel noticed something was wrong pretty quickly, and Nico reluctantly told her everything. He wasn't afraid she'd push him away for being a freak, she already knew he used to have feelings for Percy, but he still didn't like admitting what had happened.
"Nico," Hazel told him sternly. "You have to consider your own happiness first and foremost. If Jason makes you happy and the feelings are mutual there's no reason not to do it."
Nico laughed bitterly at that. "Except that we would be cast out of society, and worse. I can't do that to him," he said, and Hazel took his hand.
"I'm not saying you should announce it to the world," she said, gently kissing his forehead. "What they won't know won't hurt them, and it might make you happy."
"It doesn't matter. It's too late now," Nico sighed.
One evening Jason visited and told them the rest of town had pressured him into giving a ball at Netherfield, and both of them were invited, to the ball and to stay the night at Netherfield afterwards. Nico didn't want to go, but Hazel couldn't go alone, so he decided to bear it for her sake.
It was as worse than he expected. The music was loud, and echoing through the large house, making him disoriented. There were dozens of people, all talking on top of each other, but somehow he still managed to make out the voices of young women clearly attempting to woo Jason. Since he was the host, he was engaged on the dance floor the whole time, barely exchanging two words with Nico before being dragged off again.
The only positive thing during that whole evening was the introduction of a young officer named Frank. Nico could tell Hazel liked him immediately, and Nico approved of him. So far, at least. He looked forward to an opportunity to talk in a quieter environment. However, while Hazel and Frank were out on the dance floor, Nico sat alone in a corner, just waiting for the evening to end.
It was already pretty late, but Jason hoped Nico would still be awake. He knocked nervously on the door to the room Nico was spending the night in.
“Come in,” Nico said from the other side, and Jason entered. Nico was sitting on the bed, still dressed though he had removed his coat. His expression was guarded, but not completely uninviting. “Did you want something, Jason?”
“How did you know it was me?” Jason asked, closing the door behind him.
“I recognize your footsteps, among other things,” Nico said, growing slightly red. “What brings you here?”
“I just wanted to check up on you,” Jason said. “You seemed very tired earlier at the ball.”
“It’s hardly my favourite form of entertainment,” Nico said dryly. “Hazel had fun, though, so it was worth it.”
“She and that young officer, Frank, really seemed to get along well,” Jason said with a smile. “You might have a new brother soon.”
“I’m not opposed to it. He seems like good man,” Nico sighed. “Jason, I know you’re not here to gossip. What is it you want?”
“I just wanted to make sure you were alright, and have everything you need,” Jason said. “And I guess I wanted to talk to you. Too many others demanded my attention at the ball.”
“Yes, I heard you were forced to dance every single dance,” Nico said, and Jason wondered if he imagined the bitterness in his voice. “My bet is that half the ladies you danced with are already planning your wedding.”
“I hope not,” Jason sighed. “It’s a pity, really. Many of them would be delightful acquaintances if the prospect of marriage didn’t exist.”
“You can hardly blame them for it. You’re rich, good looking and have decent manners,” Nico said. “They would be stupid not to at least try.”
“Perhaps, but it is tiring,” Jason sighed. “I’ll let you rest now. Goodnight.”
“Wait,” Nico exclaimed, and Jason stopped, already half turned towards the door. Nico was blushing rather furiously, looking dangerously lovely in the light of the gas lamp. “Sorry, it’s just that I’ve been standing alone for most of the night. I wouldn’t mind company for a little longer, but if you’re tired...”
“I’m not that tired,” Jason smiled, moving to sit down beside him on the bed. It wasn’t entirely appropriate, especially given the situation, but the chair by the desk seemed too far away. “I’ll stay as long as you want me to.”
Nico was still blushing, turning his head away. All Jason wanted to do was close the distance between them, but he had promised, and would keep his word.
Nico remained silent for a long while. “Is everything alright?” Jason asked, concerned.
“I was jealous,” Nico admitted quietly, and Jason could see his hands shaking a bit. “All those women talking to you and dancing with you and offering everything I can’t ever give you.”
“Nico,” Jason said gently, his heart beating fast in his chest as he reached out to put an arm around the boy’s shoulders. “I thought you didn’t want us to talk about this.”
“I’m sorry,” Nico said, his voice shaking. “It’s been so hard not to, because this was never supposed to happen. I'm sorry.”
“Nico, it’s alright,” Jason said gently, pulling him into his arms. Nico closed his eyes as he leaned against Jason’s chest, resting his head on his shoulders.
“You don’t understand,” Nico whispered. “I was meant to be alone. I was never supposed to find anyone who returned my feelings.”
“Nico,” Jason said, slowly caressing the boys cheek and lifting his face up to be able to look at him. There were tears in his eyes and his lips were quivering. Jason couldn’t stop himself from leaning down to kiss him.
Nico made a muffled sound of surprise, but this time he didn’t freeze. Instead he slowly responded to the kiss, his hands finding their way around Jason’s waist.
Nico was breathing heavily when they parted, looking beautifully flustered. Jason ran a hand through his hair, itching to close the distance again.
“I love you,” he said, recapturing Nico’s lips for a quick kiss before moving down to taste his neck, thoroughly enjoying the sounds he was making.
“Really?” Nico breathed. ”But there’s nothing I can offer you. Not marriage, not children, nothing. And people wouldn’t approve. It would be a scandal.”
“I don’t care,” Jason growled. “All I want is you.”
“I was yours a long time ago already,” Nico said, moaning quietly as Jason moved downwards on his chest, opening his shirt as he went.
“Jason,” Nico said breathlessly as Jason’s fingers moved inside the edge of his pants. “Stop. This isn’t fair.”
“What do you mean?” Jason asked, pulling back to look at him. “Did you change your mind?”
“No,” Nico said, smiling slightly. “But you’re not giving me a chance to touch you, and I want to know what you look like, not just your face.”
“I’m all yours,” Jason grinned happily. Nico’s hands found their way to his face again, then slowly moved through his hair and down his neck. Jason helped him open the buttons on his shirt, then forced himself to remain still as Nico slowly slid the fabric off his shoulders and all the way down his arms. Nico smiled as he moved his fingers over Jason’s bare chest, and it sent pleasant shivers down his back. It was hard to keeps still, and it didn’t feel fair that Nico was doing all the touching now, but on the other hand he could watch with appreciation how Nico’s surprisingly well toned body moved, and Nico only had his hands to see through.
When Nico finally reached Jason’s pants he hesitated, looking uncertain.
“Go on,” Jason urged gently. “I told you, I’m all yours.”
“Then help me take these off,” Nico said, and Jason was more than happy to obey.
Jason pulled Nico closer again, holding on tightly as he struggled to regain his breath.
“I love you,” he said.
“I love you too,” Nico smiled, then his expression fell. “But...”
“Please don’t tell me this was a mistake,” Jason said quickly. “Please don’t make me promise never to mention it again. I couldn’t bear it.”
“I wasn’t going to. Maybe I should, but I just can’t. Not anymore,” Nico said. “But you should probably head back to your own chambers. We don’t want anyone to find out about this.”
“I can stay a little longer,” Jason said sleepily. “I don’t want to move yet.”
A few hours later Jason woke up to Nico gently caressing his face. The room was dark, but he could still see Nico’s naked upper body leaning over him. Smiling happily, Jason reached out to bring their lips together in a deep kiss.
When Jason’s hands started wandering lower on Nico’s body, the boy pushed away from him. “We can’t,” he said, sounding regretful. “We don’t have time, people are already starting to wander around the house. You need to head back to your own chambers.”
Jason groaned, but Nico had a point. He pushed himself off the bed and started to get dressed. When he was finished, he looked over at Nico, who was sitting up in bed with a frown on his face. He was still naked, which was more than a little distracting.
Jason cleared his throat. “I’ll see you in a couple of hours, then?”
“I suppose,” Nico said, then hesitated. “Could I ask you to do something for me before you go?”
“Anything,” Jason smiled, leaning over to gently kiss his forehead. “What do you need?”
Nico looked slightly embarrassed. “I have no idea where my clothes are.”
Nico was sitting by the piano practicing when Hulda opened the door to the sitting room.
“Mr. Grace is here with a young lady, sir,” she announced, and Nico barely had time to stand up before the visitors entered. Cerberus growled a bit by his feet, indicating the lady was a stranger. Nico couldn’t hear the rustle of skirts, though, which was a little strange.
“Good afternoon, Nico,” Jason greeted him, sounding happy but slightly nervous. “Sorry to interrupt your playing.”
“No need to apologize, it was only idle practice,” Nico said. “Will you not introduce me to your friend?”
“Right, my apologies. Nico, this is my sister, Miss Thalia Grace,” Jason said.
“A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Di Angelo,” a female voice said. She had the same sincere quality to her tone that her brother did.
“The pleasure is all mine, I’m sure,” Nico said, bowing.
“My brother has told me a lot about you, or as much as an evening can allow,” Miss Grace said, and there was something knowing about her tone that made Nico a bit uneasy. “I insisted on meeting you immediately. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Not at all,” Nico said. “Though I regret that my sister isn’t currently here to receive you.”
“I will be staying with my brother for a couple of weeks, so I’ll have plenty of time to meet her,” Miss Grace said. “Would you join us for a stroll?”
“I’d be delighted to,” Nico said uncertainly. He could have asked Jason to lead him, but opted to take Cerberus instead. He had a feeling Miss Grace wanted to talk privately to him and Jason, and quite frankly it scared him. Having Cerberus nearby made him feel slightly less vulnerable.
When they left the house behind to head up the hill, Miss Grace sighed with relief.
“I had forgotten just how tiring all the polite small talk is,” she said. “I’m so glad I chose to leave all that behind me.”
“Jason mentioned you’ve been travelling around a lot?” Nico said curiously.
“Yes, with a research team consisting only of women,” she said, laughing slightly when Nico raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Is it so strange to you?”
“No, I just imagine that it might be difficult for you to be taken seriously in certain societies,” Nico said hurriedly. “Undeservingly so.”
“Undeniably true, but we’re not looking for anyone’s approval,” Miss Grace said dismissively. ”Speaking of, I wanted to talk about your relationship with Jason.”
“Thalia,” Jason groaned.
“You told her, then?” Nico asked, trying to stay calm. He had talked to Hazel about it, after all, so he didn’t really have room to complain.
“He did. And no need to look so frightened, Mr. Di Angelo,” Miss Grace said, sounding slightly amused. “Or can I call you Nico as well, since we’re basically brother and sister now?”
“Nico is fine,” Nico said, baffled by the whole conversation.
Thalia left them alone soon afterwards, and Nico felt Jason take his hand.
"Sorry for introducing her so unexpectedly," he said. "I wanted to give you some sort of warning, but she demanded to see you right away. I think she approved of you, though."
"We both have our sister's blessing, then," Nico smiled. "I doubt we will get anybody else's."
"We don't need it," Jason said, gently tugging at his hand. "Come, let's find a more secluded spot."
Nico couldn't help the wide grin spreading across his face as Jason lead him forward. It might have been a secret happiness, but it was theirs, and Nico wouldn't have changed it for the world.