The first word of the Iliad is rage.
Jason doesn’t sleep.
He mostly waits under the covers, listening to the soft dripping sound of the fountain in his cabin, before the sun is high enough for him to take a walk around camp without catching curious glances. Sometimes, he doesn’t last that long; on the worst nights, he takes his sword into the forest and listens to the rushing water on a stump by the lake.
There are ghosts under his bed, in his closet, under his skin.
The first thing Jason tells the new kids is: Don’t swing your sword at anything you’re not prepared to hit. You have to mean it. You always have to mean it.
The first warnings he hears about himself are: Yes, it’s true, he lost his best friend. Don’t bring it up. Yes, it’s true, he dated that McLean girl. Yes, past tense. Don’t even try it. He feels their liquid eyes on his back, mouths gone soft with pity.
The thing that nobody understands is that Jason is fine. There’s just a lot to do, and there never seems to be enough time.
The first time Jason sees Percy after—just after, he’s all limbs, sprawled across the couch in the Big House like he hasn’t put his head down in days. For a moment, Jason thinks he’s sleeping, right up until Percy angles his chin and catches Jason’s stare.
Jason freezes in the doorway, feeling caught.
“Sorry,” he says immediately. “I didn’t mean to interrupt you.”
“It’s all good.” Percy sits up, hand across his side. His hair sticks up in a cowlick near the back, making him look younger than he is, if only his bones didn’t jut out so clearly. “You aren’t interrupting much of anything.”
“Hey.” There’s a dark spot on Percy’s t-shirt that looks like dried blood. He inches closer on reflex alone. “Are you okay?”
“Fine,” Percy says, getting to his feet. He angles his left side away from Jason.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah,” he says, shorter this time. “Why are you here?”
Jason hesitates, licking his lips. Briefly, he thinks about saying he’s there to speak with Chiron, maybe say he just came for some quiet. Then he decides on the truth.
Jason steps inside.
“I heard you’ve been leaving camp a lot,” he says, “and no one really knows why you’re leaving. Then I heard you were back, so I just—I’m just here.”
Percy considers him, weary. “Right. I’ve heard the same about you, you know. The leaving.”
“For a few weeks,” he agrees. “A few weeks here, then a few at Jupiter. I’ve only been here for one.”
“Must be nice,” he says. His voice doesn’t give anything away, but the stillness in him, like a coil pulled straight, speaks for itself.
It hits Jason that for all that they’ve stopped going at each other’s throats, they’ve never really learned how to be friends, either.
“It is,” Jason says, inane. “What about you. Are you—is it nice?”
He shrugs. “Anything is better than a war.”
Jason bites his lip. “I guess you’re right,” he says quietly.
Percy stares at him with a growing crease between his eyebrows, as if he’s trying hard to puzzle something out.
“Not that it hasn’t been a pleasure, but I should get going,” Percy says after a beat, turning towards the door. He gives Jason another one of those empty backwards smiles. “I’ll see you later, Boy Scout.”
“Yeah.” Jason feels like he’s just lost his grasp on the situation, as if somewhere along the way, he fell out of rhythm with Percy, if they were ever on the same wavelength in the first place. “Okay.”
Then Percy walks out the door into the sun. Out of sight, out of reach.
“You’re distracted,” Piper says, once they’ve managed to sneak out from Camp. It meant promising the Stoll twins they would play on their team during Capture the Flag and sacrificing their last hoarded 12 pack of soda, but neither of them are particularly upset about it.
They don’t say it outright, but sometimes it’s difficult to look around Camp and remember things they’d rather forget.
So they go to the most unhealthy fast food restaurant they can find. To cope.
“No, I’m not,” he says around his drink. Then, completely contradicting what he just said, adds: “What do you know about Percy’s weird absences?”
Piper almost spits out her burger. “Did Annabeth mention it to you?”
Jason frowns because no, of course not. He hasn’t exchanged a word with Annabeth in months, and even then, it was only a few sentences.
He pauses with a handful of fries halfway to his mouth. “No. Why?”
“I don’t know anything about it,” she says, ignoring him. “I don’t think Chiron even really understands what’s happening. Then again, he wouldn’t tell any of us if he did. Annabeth thinks Percy has made him promise not to keep tabs on him.”
“He can’t do that, right? He’s not eighteen yet.”
Piper shrugs. “Neither is Nico, but he’s never stayed in one place for long.”
“How is it different?”
“After Tartarus, he hasn’t been the same. None of us know what he might do.”
Piper frowns. “Nico got stuck there, too, and it’s not as if he’s homicidal, Jason.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“I know what you meant.” She chews on her lip. “I know this is worrying you, it’s worrying all of us,” (and it says a lot about Jason that he immediately understands “all of us” as the rest of the Seven), “but don’t get too involved in this one.”
He blinks. “Wait, what?”
She says, “I’m telling you now: don’t try and play the hero.”
“What? Pipes, I’m not trying to do anything.”
“Yes, you are, but Jason, listen to me: Percy Jackson does not need to be saved.”
Once, Piper asked Jason if he knew who he was.
You have all these kids looking up to you, she said, but you don’t belong to them. You’re something on your own.
You’re right, he said, easily enough, but the look on her face had told him she didn’t believe it, as if he were lying to her, and his lie had landed badly.
Do you? she murmured. Jason, really. Do you?
Jason is a lot of things. He’s the son of Jupiter, Praeter of the Twelfth Legion Fulminata, and Head Counselor of the Zeus Cabin. He’s a leader, and he’s nearsighted.
What else is there to say? Jason knows who he is.
Absurdly, he wonders what Percy might answer, if he were asked.
“Percy Jackson?” Malcolm echoes, once Jason catches him on his way out of the Athena cabin. He’s surprised enough that he stops halfway through his next step. He doesn’t stumble, but it’s a close thing. “What about him?”
He knows Malcolm takes reading breaks late in the morning, hidden between the trees and bushes. With Annabeth busy, Chiron unlikely to give him any straightforward answers, and not wanting to catch the attention of anyone who knows him well, Malcolm is his last option.
“You haven’t, I don’t know,” he says, trying to be subtle and ninety percent sure he’s doing a bad job, “seen him around? Have you?”
Malcolm gives Jason a strange look before sitting down under his usual tree.
“No,” he says, “I haven’t. Why?”
“Right,” he mutters. He taps an unsteady rhythm against his mouth, setting the book in his hand aside. “Well, I certainly don’t know anything about it. The only reason Percy and I ever talked was because we shared the same friend. You should ask one of the Seven. Or Grover.”
“I already tried. No one knows anything, or they won’t tell me.”
Jason thinks about that twisting, ugly wound across Percy’s side, the blood still seeping through his fingers despite the fact Jason’s almost a hundred percent certain Percy stapled it.
The Percy he knew would never run into a fight, but they’d been younger then. Not in terms of time, but in other ways. Percy’s eyes had less shadows, and Jason could still hold tools in his hands without shaking.
Maybe part of being young is thinking you can choose your battles. Then you get older and realize someone else chooses the battles, and most of the time, they weren’t even yours to begin with.
“Are we going to acknowledge how weird it is to see you this hung up over Percy Jackson?” Malcolm asks.
Jason looks up. “I’m just curious.”
“All right,” Malcolm says, cracking his book back open to the page he left off on, “so we’re not.”
When Jason sees Percy for the second time since Before, it’s just as Percy walks out of the infirmary. His clothes are different, and he has a little more color to his face than he did a few days ago.
Jason knows it’s a bad idea, but he doesn’t know when he’ll get another chance, so he jogs through the crowd without the slightest idea of what he will say when he finally catches up to him. When his heart beats, his body pounds with it.
“Percy,” he says. “Percy!”
Percy’s eyes widen a little when he turns and sees Jason. It’s probably surprise alone that makes him slow down enough for Jason to make it within arm’s reach.
“Hey,” Percy says, blinking.
“Hey,” Jason says. “I—how’re you doing?”
“Fine. I was just let out today.” Percy tugs his shirt up so Jason can see the large white bandage taped securely above Percy’s waistband. “You can check this time, if it makes you feel better.”
Jason doesn’t know if Percy’s joking or not, so he hazards a small smile and says, “No, thank you,” as sincerely as he can.
“Sure.” When Jason doesn’t say anything else, Percy raises his eyebrows expectantly. “Is that all you wanted to ask?”
“Yes. No. I mean, it was the most important.”
“But I’d been meaning to ask you if you—do you always leave alone?”
This, somehow, seems to confuse Percy further. “Yes,” he says finally.
Jason licks his lips. “Do you think I could join you?”
“Join me,” Percy echoes.
“I.” Percy says, “Why?”
“I don’t know,” Jason says. It’s not a lie. He doesn’t know how to explain what it does to Jason to think about Percy outside the camp, working in the dark, in broad daylight, and getting golden dust splattered across his shirt. It doesn’t worry him, but he still can’t help but picture it constantly.
He doesn’t dream of it, but it is the first thing he thinks of when he wakes up, lets it play out while he takes laps through the forest. He imagines the twigs snapping under his feet are the sounds of swords clashing with intent, that at any moment, he’ll have to dive and roll.
“If you’re asking me,” Percy says, “you should know why.”
Percy moves as if to leave.
“I want to help you,” Jason blurts. “I just want to help.”
Percy turns back to Jason, and in a single instant, Jason can tell something’s changed. The vague good humor he’d been extending towards Jason is gone. It has something to do with Percy’s eyes, where he places his weight. Once again, the moment has shifted under Jason’s feet, and he can’t understand why.
“I can handle myself.”
“I know. Percy, asking for help doesn’t make you weak.”
“I didn’t ask for your help,” Percy reminds him, his voice low but no less unkind for it. Jason recoils, feeling his stomach flip. “You offered. Don’t turn this into one of your therapy sessions, Jason.”
“I,” Jason says. The rest of it dies somewhere on the way to his mouth. What can he say? What is there for him to say?
“Good seeing you,” Percy says. His tone isn’t layered enough to leave any doubt that he means the opposite.
For his part, Jason doesn’t make any attempts to stop him from leaving.
“I see the conversation went well,” Malcolm says as Jason plops down beside him on the grass. The sun is casting it’s lazy orange glow across camp. There’s still a phantom heat sticking to the ground. Jason presses his palms against it and breathes.
“How do you know?”
“It’s hard not to notice when kids of the Big Three are together. It’s like the world tips on its axis.”
“You should’ve waited before talking to him.”
“It wouldn’t have made a difference.” Jason rubs the bridge of his nose raw. “I don’t think we ever learned how to really get along. Maybe for a while, but never anything substantial. I’m stupid for trying.”
“You’re stupid regardless.”
Jason makes sure his expression tells Malcolm how funny he thinks that isn’t. Malcolm’s mouth tips up at the sight of it, twinkling with amusement.
“He asked me why I wanted to go with him.”
“What did you say?”
“That I wanted to help him.”
Malcolm raises his eyebrows. “Well, there’s the problem.”
“Percy Jackson doesn’t need a hero, Jason.”
Jason makes a frustrated sound. “I know that. Everyone keeps assuming I don’t know that.”
“Then you’re lying to him,” Malcolm says. Jason blinks. “Maybe you think it’s because you want to help him. Maybe that’s your truth, but have you ever sat down and really reflected on why you’re chasing him around like this?”
Jason goes silent. For a moment, all there is is the slight summer breeze, the sun fading past the horizon.
“No,” he admits. It feels more like a confession that it should.
Malcolm shrugs. “Try it. See what comes up.”
Jason doesn’t see Percy for the next two weeks, and not for lack of trying. It becomes a distraction, and Jason knows it.
During sword practice, Laila manages to slip out of his grip with an elbow to his chest. He gasps, shocked, and it allows her the second she needs to get his feet out from under him and tuck the tip of her blade under his chin. The campers around them still to a halt. She looks as surprised as Jason feels.
“I was testing to see if you knew what to do,” Jason says as calmly as he’s able when he’s pinned to the grass.
Laila laughs and offers him a hand. Her smugness is probably visible from space. “Sure thing.”
“You’ve lost your edge,” Alejandro tells Jason. “You’re getting old.”
“At least I know how to strap my armor on right.”
Rajan nudges Alejandro, grinning. “Ouch,” he says.
Laila pats Jason on the shoulder. “Don’t feel too bad. Think of it as making room for the younger generation.”
“I’m only three years older than you guys,” Jason reminds them.
“That’s a lot in demigod years,” Rajan says. “Like, nine, at least.”
Later, Jason runs into Piper, who’s sitting on the stairs leading to his cabin door. She’s shaking the braids out of her hair, though she’s doing a bad job of it. He watches as her fingers get tangled in the knots. She pulls, frustrated.
“Hey,” she says as he gets closer, getting to her feet. “I was thinking we could sneak out one more time before you leave tomorrow morning. I had to help out the Demeter cabin today. My deodorant is hanging on by a thread, and I’m starving.”
“I’m not leaving tomorrow.”
“I was kidding about the deodorant thing, Jason.”
“I’m serious. I’m not leaving for Camp Jupiter tomorrow.”
Piper frowns. “Is something wrong?”
“No,” he says, “I just decided to stay a little longer.”
“All right,” she says after a beat. She crosses her arms. “How long?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“Can you tell me why?”
“There’s some things I have left to do.”
“Okay.” She considers him. “You know, Rajan told me Laila got you to double over today.”
“She caught me by surprise.”
“Uh-huh. What’s really going on here, Jason?” she asks. “You haven’t been yourself in I don’t know how long, now.” She stops, then: “Is this about Percy?”
“Maybe?” He sighs. “I don’t know.” He’d been wondering the same thing.
She nods. “You want to talk about it?”
It’s been a month of the same question, exchanged between them. Do you want to talk about it? The words have gone tasteless and inert. Instead of ever going through with the offer, both of them have made a habit of the pantomime: declining just to dig up any other hurt they’ve buried, dancing around all the warning signs.
They both know the routine, even if it’s no secret neither of them like it.
Jason thinks of it as a game of chicken, wondering which of them is going to address it first. He knows it won’t be him. Jason lost his bravery somewhere in Rome, right where the hole to Tartarus closed over, as if it were never there.
He smiles. “No,” he says. “I’m fine.”
Percy comes back on a quiet night a few days later, which Jason knows because he’s sitting alone by the lake when he hears a shuffling sound behind him. He glances over his shoulder to find Percy right there.
He has a backpack slung over his shoulder. He isn’t limping this time, either, which Jason notes with relief.
Jason arrived as soon as Piper passed out on his floor. He made sure to put her on his bed before leaving.
He knew he wouldn’t be sleeping tonight. He could feel restlessness under his skin like a gentle electricity. He has been slouched against a rock in silence since.
That means it’s most likely the early hours of the morning, by now. The water is still and dark. The faintest starlight slips through the clouds, but it’s enough to make out the shape of Percy’s face. His eyes shimmer like water over jagged rocks.
Neither of them move, caught in each other’s gaze, which is ridiculous, as if either of them should have to fear anything from the other.
Still, Jason considers leaving. He doesn’t want to entertain the thought that Percy has completely forgiven him for any missteps yet. Piper has a point; sometimes it’s better to leave things alone.
Surprisingly, Percy says, “Hi,” before Jason can act on it, which is the last thing he was expecting.
“Hey.” Jason bites his lip and asks, “Are you just getting back?” before he can think better of it. He prays to every god and goddess he can name that it came out as casual as he hopes.
Absurdly, Percy blinks, as if Jason asking after him hadn’t been what he was expected either. “Yeah.”
Jason nods. He doesn’t say anything else.
He sits there for another five minutes, which quickly becomes ten which then becomes fifteen, and to be perfectly honest, there’s nothing Jason can say about it that doesn’t involve his heart rate, guessing as to what might happen next. He doesn’t turn to look at Percy once.
He’s starting to think Percy left when Percy settles down next to him. “I don’t think I’ve ever been here. Apart from perimeter check. It’s nice.”
“It’s quiet,” Jason agrees. “It’s easier to focus here, away from everything else.”
“You mean it’s easier to stop thinking.”
Jason’s gaze flicks in Percy’s direction. “Yeah.”
When they were dating, Piper would tell Jason he had a staring problem. He’d press her into his mattress, put his forehead against hers, and just breathe her in. He’d trace a finger down her cheek, brush them through the baby hairs at her neck.
Are you just gonna sit there, she asked, expressions of frustration and amusement clashing on her face, or actually do anything.
You’re too careful, she shot back, pulling his weight on top of her. Talking took a backseat after that.
Right now, Percy’s eyes are on the lake, the light softening the sharp angles to his face. In this moment, he isn’t Percy Jackson, son of Poseidon, the Savior, the Praeter of the Twelfth Legion. He isn’t thinking about a life that comes after a war. He isn’t actively taking three steps away with every step Jason takes forward. He’s breathing in the night sky, the faint reflection of it across the water. He’s thinking about swimming in the stars.
Percy glances at Jason edgewise and asks, “Why do you look at me like that?”
“Like—“ Percy shakes his head. “I don’t know what you want from me.”
Jason bites his lip. “I don’t want anything you don’t want to give.”
Percy barks out a small laugh. Jason’s face floods with heat. It probably wasn’t the best thing to say. “Sure.”
They fall into silence for a while. The air is cold this late at night. Or this early in the morning, actually. Jason closes his eyes and focuses on the breeze brushing against his bare arms.
“You know, this kind of reminds me of Lake Tritonis.”
Percy hums, amusement in his voice. “Really? Is it because both of them involve a Jason, or is it because one of us here is in real danger of getting shot down by a lightning bolt?”
Jason opens his eyes. “That’s the Alcyonian Lake.”
He watches Percy shrug. “If you say so.”
“I meant the circumstance was similar.”
Percy smiles. It doesn’t reach is eyes. “The undrinkable water? A land of sand?”
“No. More like—“ Jason searches for the right words—“after so long of being unsure of what to do, to finally find a way back to sea.”
They fall silent for a while, and Jason spends the time thinking of different ways to describe the color of Percy’s eyes. When Percy speaks up, Jason has thought of twelve. “Why are you really doing this, Jason?”
He shrugs. “We fought a Titan.”
“I know that. I was there.”
“But you just look—you seem—I don’t know.” Jason swallows. “Are you ever furious? Because I’m—I’m angry, all the time. I don’t want to pretend like I’m not anymore, but I don’t know how to stop either.”
For a fracture of a second, Percy’s gaze on him is like—actually, Jason has never seen anyone look at someone the way Percy looks at him now.
“Yeah,” he says. “I’m angry, too. I’m so angry.”
They stay like that, gazes on each other.
What does Percy see, when he looks at Jason? A Japanese boy with a powerful dad who never learned how to step out of the spotlight? A string of unpleasant memories taken physical form? An ally? A partner?
Percy gets to his feet. “One mission,” he says. “Eight weeks. I’m leaving tomorrow night.”
“One mission,” Jason repeats. “Eight weeks.”
“Are you in,” asks Percy, “or are you out?”
It'll put the campers behind on training, until they can arrange for other cabin leaders to take on sword practices. Reyna will silently hate him for not giving her a heads-up.
Eight weeks outside of camp. Eight weeks of constant movement.
Jason nods as a cloud shifts across the sky, casting them both in moonlight.
Their first night staying somewhere is a few hours from the border of Maine. The woman behind the counter gives them a once-over when they walk in, bags hung over their shoulders and exhausted from so long on the road.
The expression on her face tells Jason she probably sees people who look like them as often as a third-string American soccer team sees a game, but she has the decency not to ask if either of them need a translator.
Jason is zoning out while Percy books them their rooms, right up until the woman asks, “Are you two together?”
“Yes,” Percy says, just as Jason says, quicker than he meant to, “No.”
They both turn to look at him, blinking slowly.
“Well?” she asks again.
“Yes,” Percy repeats. The woman clicks away at her computer, apparently satisfied, and Percy raises one eyebrow at Jason. “She meant if we were sharing a room.”
Jason closes his eyes and makes a small noise like dying, then he fantasizes about actually dying.
“Ah,” he says intelligently. He has no idea what expression he has on his face.
He knew going in that tagging along would probably end up being a bad idea. He and Percy haven’t been together like this since Before, and as much as Jason wants to pretend it doesn’t make a difference, it does.
So yeah. He knew going in that this would maybe turn out to be a mistake. He just didn’t think he would be this quick about seeing whether his hypothesis was true or not.
The woman hands Percy a key card. Her polished nails glint under the lights.
Percy pats Jason on the back on his way to the staircase. “Don’t worry. It’s separate beds. You’re dignity will stay intact.”
Jason doesn’t think he’ll manage to get through this trip with his dignity intact, much less the rest of the night. Still, he picks up his bags and follows Percy.
“I didn’t mean that in the way it sounded,” Jason says, once they’ve made it upstairs into their shared room and thrown their bags to the floor.
Percy stops rummaging through his things to stare at him. He has a way of looking that makes Jason feels seen. It shakes him to the core, makes him want to check his reflection and see just how much he’s letting through.
Percy shrugs. “How did it sound, Jason?”
Wrong, the thinks of saying, uncomfortable, revealing, misleading. The words crowd his mouth. Jason shakes his head. “Never mind. The point is I’m sorry.”
Percy goes back to his bag. “There’s nothing to apologize for.”
“I know that it must’ve been uncomfortable for you, that’s all,” he explains. “With the whole Annabeth thing.”
“I can’t help but feel that you’re projecting a bit,” Percy says. He kicks his duffel away. He’s holding a couple grey bottles in his arms. “Listen, Annabeth was—” Percy bites his mouth. “It was a mutual decision. We’re both fine. We just need our space.”
Percy raises his eyebrows.
“Is there anything you want to get off your chest?” he asks. “Either something’s bothering you, or you really are just this bad at talking.”
“I am,” Jason assures him.
Percy snorts. “You’re really something.” Before Jason can think of answering, Percy tosses him one of the bottles. Jason fumbles.
“Shampoo,” he explains. “Since I know you’re a big enough moron to have forgotten it.”
Jason squints. “That’s a joke, right? I can never tell.”
“Did you or did you not forget a shampoo bottle?”
“No,” Jason straight-out lies.
“Like I said,” Percy says. “You’re really something.”
Percy never says it outright, but Jason figures out pretty quickly what exactly they’re meant to be doing.
Typically, satyrs are the ones who search for demigods, trying to catch their scents before a monster can. If the satyr and the monster make it to the kid simultaneously, sometimes there’s nothing else to do but fight. Ideally, they sprint back to Camp with the kid trailing behind them.
Percy rarely accepts an assignment to find a demigod. Jason doesn’t completely understand why, especially since they’re both about as qualified as one can be, but when he asks, Percy goes tense and changes the subject, so for once, he takes Piper’s advice and leaves it alone.
What they look for are monsters.
Grover told Percy that a few satyrs were sent further up north to pick up kids scattered across a few states. He knew there was one in Pittsburgh, two on the coast of Maine, and another in Vermont, which meant the monsters were probably concentrated in those areas.
That’s as much information as he had to offer. Luckily for them, monsters aren’t subtle.
Spending money turns out not to be a problem either. Percy has a card that he explains will never run out of money, though where he got it from and how it works is anyone’s guess. Jason suspects Annabeth had a hand in making it, but that’s another thing Jason decides he should keep to himself.
Jason wakes up to someone’s hand on his shoulder. He blinks his eyes open and finds Percy’s shadowed profile in the dim morning light. He must’ve thrown the window shades open.
“Something’s coming,” he says.
Jason hears it, past the fogginess still sticking to him: footsteps hitting the pavement. Or more likely: claws. Beyond it, the distinct sound of car alarms.
“This is becoming a habit,” Jason sighs. He kicks the covers aside and gets to his feet. Jason misses having enough time to brush his teeth first thing in the morning.
Percy pops off the window screen and sticks his head through it, gazing up. He pulls back in, stares at Jason, and says, “Huh.”
“There’s no way to get to the ground from here. There aren’t any ledges to grip onto.”
Jason takes a look for himself. There’s nothing below them, or not yet, anyway. The town is still asleep. “I could just fly us down.”
It would mean Jason would have to carry Percy in his arms. He imagines it and has to bite down on a grin.
Percy looks like he’s imagining the same thing. He makes a flat face. “You’re joking.”
Jason slides out from the window and hovers. “It’s that, or wait here.” He pauses. “Don’t worry. You’re dignity will stay intact.”
“Oh,” he says. “You have jokes. That’s cute.”
Percy takes another glance. It’s at least a ten foot drop. He’s weighing his options.
“Can you make it?”
“Shut up,” Percy says, sliding his way out through the window. Jason grins. “And don’t get excited.”
Tracking down the monster through an aquarium during open hours isn’t Jason’s idea. In fact, Jason thinks it’s the worst one they’ve had yet, but Percy insists it’s better to find it before it has the opportunity to slip through their fingers. Besides, they both were forced to wake up early for this, so they might as well make it worth it.
As they walk through, Jason spares a second to look around. He’s never actually been to an aquarium before. The light filters through the water and casts impressions of ripples across the walls. He watches a group of friends giggle as a dolphin swims past. A family pokes at a starfish sticking to the glass. And just beyond that—
Jason tugs at Percy’s sleeve.
Jason points at the glass, where some kids are staring, transfixed, at a stargazer’s goofy flat face.
“Are you two related?”
Percy’s voice is dry as dust. “He says fuck you.”
Oh. The monster wasn’t a problem. It was some kind of large-toothed, scaly—thing, Jason’s not sure what, and it was kind of difficult to focus when all he could think about was the way Percy angled his face away to hide a small, genuine smile.
One of the harpies makes it too close to Percy’s turned back. Jason’s throat closes up, panicked. It’s too dangerous to think of using his powers, not when he could accidentally drive a different harpy closer to him, and there’s not enough time for Jason to run; he’s too far away, and all he has in his hand is his sword. It’s not a throwing weapon, but there’s no other option.
Jason adjusts his grip, yanks his arm back, and throws it.
It strikes the harpy through the chest. It gives a high-pitched scream before it explodes into a cloud of golden dust.
Jason’s legs eat up the space between him and Percy on their own accord. His hands close around Percy’s shoulders.
“Are you hurt?” Jason asks. He smooths over every inch of Percy. He’s looking for any signs of blood, maybe a bone wrenched out of place. They’re fresh out of ambrosia, and there’s still a dozen of harpies hovering over them. All he can think of is that if Percy has to stay down, Jason will have to fight through the rest of them alone.
“No,” says Percy.
“Are you sure? You sound dazed.” There’s no cut on his head, though, as far as Jason can tell.
“It’s just—“ Percy huffs out a laugh. Amusement plays across his face. “You really can’t help but be in the spotlight, can you?”
His smile is utterly disarming. Jason’s heart jumps into his mouth. His hands on Percy suddenly feel like too much.
Jason must be red to his hairline. He doesn’t know what he’s supposed to say.
Luckily, that exact moment, one of the remaining monsters screeches. It dives towards them, claws out, and Jason is saved from having to respond.
Afterwards, once they’ve changed out of their clothes and collapsed into a small dining booth, Percy says, “I’ve never seen anyone throw a sword like that.”
Jason is heroically trying not to fall asleep on the table. The waitress is eyeing him warily from across the restaurant. At Percy’s comment, though, Jason tilts his face away from the crook of his elbow. “Yes, you have,” he says. “I learned it from you. In Europe.”
“I didn’t throw mine that far.”
“You could have.”
Percy grins. “Keep going, and I’ll start thinking you have a thing for me.”
“Keep smiling, and I’ll start thinking you have a thing for blondes.”
“We all have a type,” says Percy. “For example, you like the ones with good hair and zero brain-to-mouth filter.”
Jason opens his mouth to say—something, he hasn’t actually decided on what yet, when the waitress walks back up to their booth and asks, “You two ready to order?”
“Not quite yet,” Percy says, twiddling with the menu. They haven’t actually opened theirs yet. He shoots her a winning smile. “But can we get some more free chips and water, please?”
The waitress stares on at him, unimpressed, and gives a curt nod. As soon as she disappears, Percy throws all his pocket money on the table and says, “Let’s go.”
“Are you serious?”
“We needed to sit somewhere with working AC, and I wouldn’t have had enough for a tip if we ordered.” At Jason’s pointed glance, Percy says, about the chips, “They’re free. ”
Jason empties his pockets, too, before they head out, leaving the waitress a solid $15.83 tip, while Jason is forced to listen to Percy mutter about how it’s not really stealing when a bunch of white people own an allegedly “authentic” Mexican restaurant.
“The salsa wasn’t even spicy,” Percy adds. “I was the one robbed.”
Jason listens and agrees with this, having had his own similar encounters with Japanese bars, but doesn’t want to encourage Percy, either.
“My mom could have made a better one with a single tomato,” Percy continues.
Jason raises his hand to flag a taxi. They don’t have a map, but it shouldn’t be difficult to find somewhere to stay.
“Yeah,” says Jason. “Your mom makes really good food.”
Two taxis fly past Jason in succession. Briefly, Jason wonders if it’s the state of his clothes or something else.
He turns to say this to Percy with a wry smile on his face, when he notices Percy’s gaze is already on him.
Realization rushes to meet Jason full force.
“A few weeks after,” Jason explains, “when she came by to see you, she gave me some food. I think it was meant for Nico, so I don’t know why—I thought she told you,” Jason adds quickly.
(You’re looking thin, she’d said. Your color is off.
Jason and Piper were growing distant, and the nightmares had just begun to keep Jason awake through the night. He must have looked like death.
It’s an off kind of day, he said. It wasn’t a lie, but looking at her knowing, kind face, it felt like it was.
I can understand that, she said. You like spicy food? she asked, not giving him a real chance to answer before she handed him a plastic bag filled with containers. Because that’s mostly chile relleno. If you don’t, there’s some milanesas in there, too.
I couldn’t— Jason had begun, but she cut him off with: Of course you can , and a huge, stubborn grin. It smoothed over the lines on her face. Jason remembers thinking she must smile a lot.)
“No,” says Percy. “She didn’t.”
A minute passes.
“Did you return the Tupperware?” Percy asks, light. When Jason winces, Percy breaks into laughter.
Grover iris messages them two weeks into their trip. It’s the first time Jason sees one up-close. The mist forms a perfect, shimmering rainbow. It creates an impression across Percy’s face that he can only begin to describe as magical.
Then Grover opens his mouth, and the image is ruined. Percy’s expression goes cold.
“No,” Percy says. Grover winces, looking pained.
“You know I hate asking you,” says Grover.
“Then don’t ask.”
“If there was someone else, I wouldn’t be.”
“Don’t.” Percy shakes his head. He clenches his fist until his knuckles bleed white.
Percy rarely takes assignments to pick up demigods. Jason knows this, even if he doesn’t comprehend why.
“There is someone else,” says Jason. Grover and Percy turn to him in sync. They both look as if they forgot he was there. “Percy, I can do it. I’ll go.”
“No. You can’t go alone.”
“You just said you didn’t want to.”
Jason tosses his hands up. “I can’t do nothing, Percy.”
Percy works his jaw. “Doing something doesn’t mean we’ll do it perfectly.”
“Doing nothing means we’ve already failed.”
Jason never thought of Percy as someone who wore a mask as much as he thought of him as someone who acquired layers over the years, if only because it kept him from cracking open.
But defense mechanisms aren’t only meant to keep something in, but to keep something else out.
“Percy,” Grover says,“you’re our best bet. You’re close, and you know what you’re doing.”
“I have no idea what I’m doing.” Percy holds Jason’s gaze for a moment. A thought passes over his face like a shadow, there and gone as quickly as it came. “I don’t like this,” he says.
“Noted,” says Jason.
“This makes them our responsibility. We fail, that’s on us.”
“You know,” Percy echoes, voice hollow.
“I’m going to do this,” Jason says, loud enough for Grover to hear. His legs eat up the space between himself and the door on their own accord. “If you want to come with me, you can.”
“Percy,” says Jason. “Calm down.”
Percy hisses through his teeth, face almost buried in the wet dirt at Jason’s knees. Their clothes are soaked through from rain and blood, mostly, with flecks of golden dust splattered over their clothes. Jason has one hand on the back of Percy’s neck, trying to force the air through his throat, while the other grips his sword. He feels less like a hero than he usually does, has an overwhelming urge to drop it like it burns.
He can’t help but wonder when that feeling of heroism was stripped from him. He wonders when Percy felt it for the last time. When did it become a flicker, a dying flame?
A sharp pain bursts across his right thigh. His jeans feel too tight and wet, sticking to him in a way that makes him taste nausea at the back of his throat. He digs his nails into his wrist, focuses on the formulating pain, shapes himself around it, and breathes. This isn’t the time.
“Percy,” Jason says again, “you have to breathe.”
“I—I can’t .”
“Yes, you can.” Jason grabs Percy’s hand and shoves it up against his ribcage. “With me, okay? In and out.”
They can’t stay here for long; they’re mostly hidden by the low branches and the sun setting past the high hills, but it doesn’t take away that being on highland isn’t going to be a good idea once it’s dark. If they’re caught up here, they’ll have sealed themselves in a box with no openings.
After a moment, Percy whispers, “There was so much blood.”
He sounds like he’s been crying. Jason can’t tell by looking at him, just like he can’t tell if the water plastering his hair to his face is from the rain or sweat. His jaw clenches.
“They just burned it down.” Percy shakes his head as if to clear it, as if to get the ugly taste those words leave behind out of his mouth. Jason knows the feeling—he saw the whole thing, ran into the smoldering, splintering walls of wood left behind. “They knew we were coming. They knew we’d come.”
“Stop blaming yourself.”
“We came here to take those kids back to camp. We were supposed to help them.”
“They were all in there,” he says, and the rest of whatever Jason might’ve said dies in his throat. “There were clothes – there was a stuffed bear under the debris.” Frantic, trembling hands reach under his armor. Percy pulls out a piece of paper for Jason to see. “They were all inside when it happened.”
Jason averts his eyes, but he knows immediately that the image will be seared into his memory for the rest of his life: two children, no older than twelve, with a man’s arm wrapped like a ribbon around his wife’s neck. He wonders what the children’s names were, if the father kept this picture, old and worn thin as fabric, in his wallet. Bile curls in Jason’s throat.
“Our responsibility,” says Percy. It echoes in Jason’s head.
He nods after a brief moment of hesitation. “My responsibility. I pushed you.”
Death, mistakes, responsibility; they rattle in Jason’s chest. The wind blows through him like he’s a reed, making his whole body sing a few notes too high. It’s a familiar, unshakable feeling. Jason recognizes a new nightmare when he sees one.
“Your leg is bleeding,” Percy points out.
Jason opens his mouth to say he’s fine, then decides not to. Percy would shape it into an argument, and they just don’t have the time.
There never seems to be enough time.
“We can’t stay here,” he says. “If we leave soon, we might be able to beat them before they make it back.”
It takes a moment before Percy can bring himself to nod. He doesn’t take Jason’s outstretched hand. Percy gets to his feet and doesn’t give the burned house a backwards glance.
They make it back to their motel room hours later, once the gash has become a blatant problem. Jason’s jeans are completely ruined, and he can’t hold his own weight anymore.
Jason knows what the employees see: a stumbling Japanese kid hanging off a Mexican boy’s shoulder, recklessness radiating off of them like water dripping from a leaky faucet, thinking they’re probably drunk. They wouldn’t be half wrong; Percy forced Jason to practically gulp down an entire bottle of vodka when they remembered they were clean out of ambrosia. He spilled the rest of whatever Jason didn’t swallow over the wound on his leg.
At the very least, Jason’s current condition has seemed to put Percy in a better mood. It must be very amusing for him, Jason thinks. Dick .
The woman behind the counter asks: “Rough night?”
“The worst,” Percy says, “which means it was also the best.”
Her mouth tugs up. Jason isn’t surprised; he’s never met anyone who could last very long against Percy’s smile.
Jason can feel Percy breathing, each slow inhale and exhale. It’s almost a rocking motion, soothing Jason further and further into liquid. He feels the furthest away from solid.
Percy smells really good, which makes no sense since neither of them have showered in two days. Jason goes to tell him this, but he has trouble controlling his mouth. Instead, he says, “I can’t feel my tongue.”
It takes them a while to get to the second floor. When they hobble inside their suite, Percy throws Jason into the first bed he sees. Jason lands face first, immobile.
He listens to Percy walk back into the hallway. He doesn’t know how long Percy’s gone. The world seems to be tilting on him, up until Percy puts his hand on Jason’s shoulder and says his name.
Jason turns over on his back, blinking up at the face hovering over him. Percy’s hair is wet, and he’s wearing his Camp Half-Blood shirt, the one that’s gone soft and faded. He must’ve showered, though Jason will be damned if he heard the water running.
“I’ve never had a drink before,” Jason says. He doesn’t know why. Somehow it feels important.
Percy snorts. “Clearly.”
Percy hooks his finger in the rip on Jason’s jeans. He pulls, tearing it wider open. He’s careful as he does it, like Jason’s something he has to be gentle holding.
“Once,” he says. The grin on his face grows wider. “Didn’t like it much.”
“Why is that funny?”
“It’s not,” says Percy, still smiling, “it’s just weird seeing you like this.”
Percy grabs a washcloth from beside the bed and applies it to the gash on Jason’s thigh. It’s wrapped around handfuls of ice, but Jason can still manage to feel the heat of Percy’s fingers. He doesn’t know if it’s Percy’s proximity or the sudden chill that makes goosebumps rise on Jason’s skin.
“Like you’re not overthinking everything you say.”
Percy’s smile from this close goes through him like a bullet, like heat stroke, like a heart attack. Even Percy’s smell hits him again full-force: soap and fresh linen. Jason tells himself to not breathe it in. Then he breathes it in and finds he can’t stop.
“I overthink a lot of things,” Jason says at the exact moment his brain tells him he’s swaying way too close. “It’s a personality flaw. Yours is—“ his lack of thinking, his inability to keep away from a fight, the absence of selfishness; these are all things Jason means to say, but what comes out instead is—“that you smell too nice.”
Percy chuckles. Jason, through the haze, is immediately certain he wants to hear it again. A million times over. “That’s not a personality flaw.”
Jason can’t bring himself to follow the conversation any longer (if he was ever truly following it in the first place), not when he’s relishing in the narcotic intensity of having Percy Jackson’s undivided attention.
Percy still hasn’t moved away.
Jason leans in.
Percy slips smoothly out under Jason before he can make it halfway, getting to his feet. Jason thinks maybe he didn’t clock the movement, figured it was from a lack of balance, but then they meet each other’s gaze, and Jason knows better.
“Go to bed before you hurt yourself, golden boy,” says Percy. His tone stays light, but his eyes have changed.
Percy goes into the bathroom and closes the door behind him before Jason can even think of responding.
They stop by Camp Half-Blood for more ambrosia, after that.
Percy wakes him up that morning by tossing a pillow over his face. When Jason raises his eyebrows at him, Percy stares back, unaffected.
“Is this how you treat all the boys the morning after?” Jason asks him.
“Only the ones who drool.” He glances down at Jason’s bare leg at the same time Jason does.
There’s gauze wrapped around the wound, and a soft cotton pad secured safely under it. It doesn’t hurt as much as it did.
Percy must’ve done it some time after Jason fell asleep.
Percy turns away. “It wasn’t deep enough to need stitches. There’s painkillers on the nightstand. It should heal once we can get some ambrosia in you.” When he turns to face Jason, it’s with a friendly, casual smile. “Sorry I made you break your Boy Scout oath for nothing.”
“It was a pledge.”
Percy beams. “Flip for first dibs on the shower? As long as you don’t ruin it again.”
“I didn’t ruin it.”
Percy digs through his bag and pulls out a quarter. He lines it up on the edge of his thumbnail. “Sure,” he says. “Still, do me a favor and try not to call it in the air again.”
“I was trying to make up my mind.”
“You said, ‘h—t—‘ and then made a sound like a radiator on the fritz. Trust me on this. Call it once it’s back.” The coin flies up and lands on the back of Percy’s hand in the matter of a heartbeat. Percy slaps his other hand over it. “Heads or tails?”
“Heads,” Jason says. “No, wait. Tails.”
“You really need to talk to a psychiatrist about this. Heads or tails?”
Percy lifts his hand.
“Tails.” Percy shoots him a smug, satisfied smile before patting him on the cheek. “Next time, go with your instincts.”
Jason only realizes later that Percy didn’t mention anything about last night, so neither does he.
The first person he looks for once they make it to Camp is Malcolm. It’s late afternoon, by now, and surprisingly, Jason spots him in the middle of sword practice, showing some of the younger kids how to properly follow through. It’s the first time Jason has ever seen him in armor.
“Huh,” he says, once Jason is within earshot. “Look who’s here. I hope you’re not looking to take back your class. I stole it while you were gone.”
“I’m sure you’re much better at it than I was.”
Malcolm gives him a small, pleased smile. “Probably not,” he says, “but I am quite good.”
Jason doesn’t doubt it. Malcolm avoids participating in Capture the Flag to the best of his capabilities, opting for a small defensive position if not avoiding the event altogether. Jason used to think it was because he didn’t want to show where he lacked, but if he really has handled practices for this long, he must know what he’s doing.
Jason has a sudden memory of Annabeth karate flipping Percy over her shoulder like a sack and laughs to himself.
Definitely not lacking , he thinks.
“Thank you,” Jason says. “Not just for this, but for everything else.”
“Everything else,” Malcolm echoes.
“Yeah. You know, with Percy.”
“I didn’t do anything.” Malcolm sidesteps two passing campers who are intensely focused on their spar. He doesn’t look away from Jason. “Regardless, I’m glad you figured everything out.”
“Yeah,” Jason says faintly, feeling like there’s a meaning in that he’s meant to and failing to grasp.
It must show on his face because Malcolm tells him flatly: “You really are clueless.”
“Maybe if you didn’t talk in code,” says Jason defensively.
“You know, you’re the only one complicating things. Try simplifying them for once.”
These are the basic principles.
Jason’s first rule of sword fighting is to keep his footing. The opponent will always try to make you waver, he used to say. It eventually comes down to who can hold their ground. Keep your footing, and you’ll win the fight every single time.
Of course, this isn’t entirely true, as Percy will point out often, but Percy Jackson had an entire four days of sword training in his life, so as far as Jason is concerned, he’s not exactly an authority on this one.
Jason says it because it’s an excellent way to teach the students to believe in their abilities over someone else’s.
Jason has spent the last year and a half on this rule, grappling for stable ground punch after punch. War, Piper, Percy; Rome, regret, and last night.
Regain your footing, and you’ll win the fight every single time.
The problem is Jason has spent half the time unsure of what the goal is, and now he isn’t sure if this is something he should be fighting for.
Piper tackles him to the ground not long after, arms wrapped tightly around his neck.
They take a walk around Camp and talk about what Jason’s missed, for the most part. Nico dropped by a few days ago to say hi to Will. Apparently, he wasn’t impressed to hear that he and Percy were going out on suicide missions. Piper says he had opinions, many of which made Reyna laugh so hard she cried.
After she gets done ranting to him about what she and her dad argued about last—Hollywood scandals and Bitcoin (as if he’s supposed to understand what that is)—she asks, “Anyways, how’s the Percy thing going?”
“You know, at this point, it’s kinda weird to call it the ‘Percy thing.’”
Piper waves a dismissive hand. “How’s the booty call?”
“Pipes,” Jason says. “Really?”
“I just want to know what you two are up to.”
“You or Annabeth?”
It’s a petty thing to say. He knows that as soon as it leaves his mouth, especially since there’s only one reason he would bring her into this.
He isn’t jealous; he hasn’t been since somewhere around the first few days Piper talked to him about it. There’s a lot both of them have to move on from, and it’s only fair they start with this one.
He brings it up because Percy feels more and more like a sensitive topic every day, especially since Jason tried to kiss him less than 24 hours ago. A kiss which Percy clearly dodged and has mercifully pretended never happened. Probably to save both of them the embarrassment.
It was a lapse of judgement fueled by alcohol and the electric intensity of being touched.
It’s not that he’s at all surprised. He knows Percy is attractive; he isn’t blind. There is no way he wouldn't have noticed the way his thick, curling hair falls around his face, or the strong shoulders his athletic shirts have no intention of hiding, or the softness of his mouth when he bites at it absently, or his siren-like voice that makes Jason lean forward—
The point is: all it took was for someone to give Jason a taste of attention for him to turn into a pathetic, panting mess. If it should mean anything, it should be that Jason is even more touch starved than he imagined.
But if it should mean anything else, if Jason allows himself to tread into dangerous territory, maybe there might be something of substance. Maybe the little thrills of seeing their shoes together, to rub shampoo through his hair and know it’s identical to the one Percy uses have to do with something else. Something with a name.
( I’m glad you figured everything out, Malcolm said.)
But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because that’s not what’s going on, and honestly, Jason doesn’t want to think about it.
He can feel static crackling over his cheeks, which has never been a good sign.
“Sorry,” he says. “I didn’t mean to say that. It wasn’t fair.”
“You could’ve just said ‘no comment.’” She considers him. “I shouldn’t have pressed. I don’t want any details. I just want to know if you’re okay.”
Jason wants to tell her that he doesn’t know how he lived before, trudging through routine because he thought it’d give him the momentum he needed to feel like he was back on his feet. He wonders how he survived it.
Even in the worst of it, when Jason is kneeling beside Percy on some damp street corner, or when he’s half certain one of them is going to bleed out on the floor of some cheap, tacky motel, or even when he’s nursing a splitting headache after a night of making a fool of himself, he wouldn’t trade it for the world.
“Yeah,” he says. “I’m good.” He drags her in and plants a kiss on her hairline. “I’m great.”
“How do you do it?”
Percy rolls over in the sheets. Jason listens to him settle on his side. “What do you mean?”
“How do you—how did you learn to talk about it?” The room is completely dark, and Jason is alone in his bed, but still he finds he has to squeeze his eyes shut. “I can’t even name it in my head.”
Percy’s quiet for a moment. “We don’t have to do this right now.”
“I do. I have to. Piper wanted to talk today, and I lashed out at her.” Jason swallows. “I can’t do that to her for the rest of my life.”
“Don’t you ever want to remember that there’s no more war to fight?”
Percy pauses again. Jason listens to him breathe, that soft inhale and exhale. “Annabeth helped me,” he says finally. “Grover. Doing this.” He hesitates. “Being with you has helped a lot.”
“It’s not flattery,” says Percy. “Isn’t that why you came? To help?”
“I told you why I came. Not because I thought I could help you.” Jason says it like he’s realizing it for the first time. “I thought we were alike. I thought you could help me.”
Said aloud, Jason knows it can be nothing but the truth. As soon as he found out about what Percy was doing, there was nothing else Jason could think about.
Have you ever sat down and really reflected on why you’re chasing him?
What’s really going on here, Jason?
Do you know who you are?
Jason is eighteen-years-old.
He’s the son of Jupiter, one of the remaining Seven, and forms a part of both Camp Jupiter and Camp Half-Blood.
He has trouble sleeping at night.
He has a thing for people with no brain-to-mouth filters.
He wants to stop dissecting every little thought in his head just to avoid the bigger ones. He wants to stop the build up before it drowns him from the inside.
He wants to be Jason Grace, period.
Percy says quietly, “I don’t know if I can help you.”
Jason closes his eyes. “You already have.”
Jason falters with his hand half-way to Percy’s cheek, thinking of the last time they were in this position. He feels himself ice all over.
A brisk wind blows past them, sweeping Percy’s curls away from his face. The thought Jason has then is so trite someone should slap him, but he can’t help but notice, not for the first time, not for the millionth, that Percy has the most astonishing eyes.
“You’re stalling,” Percy murmurs. The flickering street light halos him, and the tacky, blinking signs of the remaining open bars bounce off his skin.
Percy drags his tongue over his lips without thinking. Jason tracks it helplessly.
“Maybe I’m savoring.” His voice comes out even enough, but still, Jason doesn’t move.
So Percy meets him halfway.
His fingers close around Jason’s, guiding them to Jason’s cheek instead. A crack of electricity kicks up his spine.
“You know,” Percy whispers, “this has never been so scary.”
“Out of my mind. You?”
“Terrified,” says Jason. Then he slides their mouths together.
Percy sighs, steps in even closer, if that was even possible. Jason wraps his other hand around Percy’s neck.
The kiss goes slow. Jason takes his time, relishing in the impossibility of finally, finally stepping into Percy’s space. It feels like a blessing, like Olympus’ most treasured gift, and Jason takes it reverently. Percy tastes like the smoky combination of salt and sugar. Feeling daring, Jason slides his fingers through Percy’s hair, the briefest touch.
Percy fists his hands in Jason’s sweater. “Apply yourself,” he mutters.
Jason snorts. “Romance is truly dead.”
Jason kisses him again, a firmer press of mouths. Percy’s body radiates warmth, and Jason plasters himself against it. He takes Percy’s bottom lip between his teeth. Percy’s breath hitches.
Percy pulls away. His face resembles that day in the alley, when Jason saved his life.
“Still afraid?” he asks, breathless.
He clearly isn’t expecting an answer, but Jason responds anyway. “Nothing sparks bravery like fear,” he says. He can’t seem to catch his breath. They’re still sharing the same air. “I learned that from you.”
Percy wraps his arms around Jason. “Stop talking,” he says, and pulls Jason back in.
“After that time in the motel,” Jason says later, “I thought you wouldn’t want to.”
They haven’t booked a room anywhere yet. They’re sitting under a park bench, watching over the sleepy town. Their shoulders brush when they breathe. Jason wonders if it would be too forward to grab Percy’s hand.
“You were drunk, and I thought maybe,” says Percy, “you were just lonely.”
“I liked you.”
“I know that now ,” Percy says. He dimples and scoops Jason’s hand into his own. He brushes his lips against Jason’s knuckles. “I like you, too.”
Some time later, Jason says, “When this all started, people kept telling me you didn’t need a hero, that I was stupid for trying to be one to you.”
“It was stupid,” Percy agrees, muffled against the pillow. “I tried to push you away. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I didn’t think I needed anyone, so when you offered I was—“
“Yeah. Sorry about that.”
“So am I. I know I must’ve sounded entitled.”
“No,” Percy says, surprisingly. “I mean, a little, but mostly, you just sounded sincere. I couldn’t stand it.”
Jason cradles Percy’s face in his hands and plants a lingering kiss against Percy’s hairline. “I’m still sorry.”
“I can’t forgive you,” Percy says as Jason rolls them over, dropping his full weight on Percy. Jason traces his thumb across Percy’s bottom lip. He’s trying hard not to smile. Laughter bubbles up his throat. “I need time.”
“Should I leave you to it on your own, then?”
Percy doesn’t answer. Instead, he tucks his face into the space between Jason’s neck and shoulder. “God, you smell so good. I never stood a chance.”
“I smell like you.” Jason laughs. “Narcissist.”
“How’s it going with Annabeth?”
Piper smiles into her hand. “Good. We’re—we’re good. She’s with Reyna right now. Apparently they’re planning on making some kind of memorial?” She adds, quieter: “Probably one for Leo, near where Thalia’s tree was.”
Jason runs a hand through his hair, a faint memory-sensation to Percy’s fingers. He flushes and pretends it’s from the sun. “He deserves it.”
“Yeah,” she murmurs. “I know it’s been hard for you, and we never talked about it. I never even tried to talk to you about it when I knew how upset you were.” She shakes her head. “Who does that?”
“It’s not your fault. I didn’t say anything, either.” Jason closes his eyes and takes a deep breath to steady himself. “Leo loved us. He wouldn’t have wanted us torturing ourselves.”
Piper runs her fingers under her eyes, barking out a short, wet laugh. “He wouldn’t have wanted us to forget him, either.”
“I didn’t forget him. Not for a second. You?”
“Then we’re okay. You’re okay.”
Jason thinks about the nights he spent awake in his cabin, images of Leo cracking jokes flooding his head. There was Leo falling asleep in the middle of the hall, still gripping a screwdriver. There was Leo’s face when Percy handed him a cup filled with cafe con leche. Jason never found out how Percy knew Leo chafed for it, not even why Leo didn’t think to simply ask the cup to make it for him.
The drink had left Leo’s tongue blue. Jason doesn’t think that he minded.
Leo’s face, soft and bleeding and open, had been hoarded in Jason’s chest, only ever glimpsed at.
He’d felt guilty about it before, would mourn that he wasn’t strong enough to let Leo cross his head without mentally stepping back.
Right now, all he feels is peace.
They’re okay, he thinks. He’s okay.
“You haven’t asked me how it’s going yet,” Jason says. He waits until they’re both composed enough.
She shrugs. “Last time I asked, you got pretty uncomfortable really fast.”
“That was different.”
“You’re right. This time, I’m the one opening old wounds.”
Piper drags him in just to blow a raspberry on his cheek. Jason shouts out, laughing.
She pulls away and throws herself against the grass. “How’s it going?” Then, after a thoughtful moment, adds: “With Percy?”
A warmth starts in Jason’s stomach. “Good,” he says. He’s probably smiling like moron. He closes his eyes and decides he doesn’t care. “It’s great.”
“I’ve been waiting for you to say that,” she says. “After the whole, well, everything, I was just waiting for you to figure it out. You have figured it out, right?”
“Yeah.” Jason feels the beginnings of a glorious ache in his cheeks. “Yeah, I think I have.”
“We should head out before dawn,” Percy says into the dark, “if we want to make it on time.”
Jason rolls over in the bed. All he can see is Percy’s eyes. Even in the dark, they don’t dull.
“Alaska?” Jason asks. At Percy’s nod, Jason says, “That’ll take longer than a few weeks.”
The unsaid thought hangs between them: one mission.
Cautiously, as if he’s doubting himself even as he does it, Percy lays his hand on Jason’s face. “Only if you want to. It could end here, you know. You could stay home.” Percy’s voice sounds like there’s a small, wry smile on his face. “There’s no more war to fight.”
Percy’s right. The war ended. Life reset itself, even if all of them were left a few paces behind. It’s their responsibility to catch up to it, to pick up a new rhythm. Jason knows this, he can’t count how many times he’s repeated it like a steady chant in his head, but he’s never put it into practice.
Percy’s back against his, Percy’s mouth on Jason’s skin. The movement of him, his smell. Sometimes, Jason thinks there’s nothing more the world can offer him, and then Percy smiles, wide and brilliant, and Jason is proven wrong.
He likes the travel, likes the freedom of impermanence. He feels outside himself. He feels, for once, free of the name Jason Grace, and is, in this small way, absolved of all responsibility.
There’s a lot Jason hasn’t been brave enough to take. He’s working on getting better at that part.
He reaches out to hold Percy’s hand. He puts his lips gently against the inside of Percy’s wrist. He hears Percy take a quick intake of breath, as if of all the possibilities, he wasn’t expecting this. He should know Jason better than that, by now.
“Home is wherever you are,” Jason says. He says it because they’ve always been more honest to each other in the dark. He says it because if Jason is ever going to say it, it should be now.
He says it because it’s the plain and simple truth, and Jason knows how Percy feels about honesty.
Beyond them, over Jason’s cabin door, the wind chimes ring: a soft, sweet sound to break the silence of early morning.
me: (pops champagne)