Dad chats with Tristan and Aphrodite for what feels like forever, after Jason’s already gotten in the car between Piper and Leo. The McCleans laugh at the right jokes and make the appropriate gestures and “hmms” in response to mentions of God. Piper nods and smiles sweetly when appropriate. She’s wearing her hair in a ponytail, like she always does when she knows she’s going to see Jason’s dad, because she thinks it makes her look “virginal” — which Jason doesn’t really get, but okay. Leo is quiet. It is possible Jason’s Dad is the only person in the world who can silence Leo Valdez. He channels all of his energy instead into rapidly jiggling his legs and twisting pipe cleaners in his fingers, shaping them into various little pipe cleaner sculptures, dogs and helicopters and swords.
Whether Leo denies it or not, Jason knows he used to worry Dad would hear his voice and become suspicious. That isn’t a problem anymore, hasn’t been for months, but still, he doesn’t talk.
With one final shoulder slap and nod at the others, Dad finally says good bye and God bless and all that stuff, beaming through his beard, and they’re free to go. Every summer since it started, Jason has never really been able to believe this moment, but today it feels especially implausible — two summers ago, Dad was furious about this, and the summer after that, he was maybe one level down from there. Now, things should be more not fine than they’ve ever been, but here they go with a “God bless.”
Nobody says a word until they’re two streets away and the tiny, shaken up soda can that is Leo Valdez bursts with an incoherent yell and several kicks to the back of the driver’s seat.
“Leo, your life is in my hands,” says Tristan calmly.
“We outta heeeeeere!” Leo shouts, ignoring him as he thumps at the door next to him and brandishes his pipe cleaner sword in the air. “Jason, my man, how do you feel? From a leprechaun to a lion, from Jesus Freak to beach bum, let me hear you ROARRRRRR!” He cups his hands around his mouth to make this especially loud, in case they couldn’t already hear him.
“I missed the sound of your voice,” says Piper dryly. She turns to Jason. “Do you know what the fuck he’s talking about?”
“The Columbia mascot is a lion,” Jason grumbles; he knows he should be stoked, but he has no desire to think about school right now.
“You big Ivy League boy,” says Piper, giving him a ridiculously strong noogie.
“Can we — not, right now?” Jason says.
“Guys, please,” Leo says, deepening his voice the way he does when he mocks Jason. Jason still can’t get over how deep he’s been able to get it since around February; it fills him with a sense of pride and affection for his friend. “I’m embarrassed by my privilege.”
“God, shut up,” says Jason, his face heating up.
“You can just push him out, Jason,” says Tristan.
“He just doesn’t want me to steal his wife,” Leo says in a stage whisper, and Aphrodite laughs her high, musical laugh, throwing back her head.
Piper pretends to retch.
Aphrodite turns around and gives Jason her thousand watt smile, long, shiny hair blowing in the wind. As far as Jason knows, she has looked twenty for the past twenty years. “Jason,” she says warmly, “Now really.” She slips a pair of undoubtedly expensive sunglasses up onto her head, presumably to see him better. “How are you, sweetheart?”
“I’m good,” Jason says automatically, and when she raises an eyebrow, he actually thinks on it a moment. Leo is fumbling for the cord to attach his older-than-dirt iPod to the car stereo, his pipe cleaners now formed into a pair of glasses on his face, and Piper is beaming at Jason, ponytail whipping around in the wind. “Now I’m good,” he amends.
Aphrodite laughs. “Good. When we get in, we’ll get you a few margaritas and then you’ll be all set.”
“Isn’t this summer Jason’s twentieth birthday?” Tristan asks sternly.
Everybody but Jason, including Tristan, bursts out laughing.
Jason should be used to these people by now, but sometimes, after an absence, it’s weird to slip back into this part of his life — the part entirely opposite from the rest.
Not bad. Just weird.
“Awww, here it goes!” Leo shouts, and Gettin’ Jiggy With It starts playing. Normally, Jason wouldn’t know the name of a song like this, not just because it came out when he was a baby, but because normal music, radio music, wasn’t a part of Jason’s life until he was about fifteen — but this one is always, without fail, the first song on Leo’s beach playlist. Leo and Piper immediately start dancing, rocking back and forth and clapping to the music in a coordinated way Jason is never able to keep up with.
When they get to the chorus, Leo nearly smacks Jason’s glasses off his face with his wildly waving arms, and Jason says, “Watch it.”
“No problema, baby, if those break you can just take these,” says Leo, taking off his pipe cleaner glasses and slipping them over Jason’s own. His fingers smell like cheetos, which, at this hour, is especially nauseating.
“Thanks,” says Jason, wrinkling his nose. “I really appreciate it.”
“I know, I know,” says Leo. “I’m a great man, you’re welcome. You hear that, Aphrodite? I’m a generous man.”
“Leo!” says Piper. “Jesus! Stop flirting with my mom! Mom, don’t answer him!”
Leo blows Piper a kiss. Piper pretends to catch and then tear it apart. Leo grabs his chest like he’s having a heart attack.
“Speaking of flirting,” says Aphrodite.
“Mom,” says Piper.
“How’s your love life going, Jason?”
Piper groans and smacks her head against the seat behind her dramatically.
Jason prepared himself for this, but that doesn’t mean he likes that it’s happening.
“There’s, uh,” says Jason, “No love life.”
He’s not entirely sure whether this is a lie or not.
Unlike freshman year, when he didn’t do anything of this nature at all, this year he tried “talking to” girls. There was the girl from Intermediate Latin who he tried to study with, that friend of his roommate’s, and a girl from a party who he brought out for coffee a few times. Every single one of them was nice, and pretty, too. The girl from Latin was really smart. The friend of his roommate’s was really funny. The girl from the party was both, and also athletic, and he liked the way her ponytail bounced as she chatted animatedly about soccer and softball and her kid brother.
None of them actually stuck. And since there was nothing really wrong with any of them, Jason’s pretty sure the thing that’s wrong is him.
“Dude,” Thalia scolded him when he suggested this during one of their rare phone calls, “Hello, you’re talking to your aromantic, asexual sister.”
“I know that,” Jason said. “I just…”
“It’s okay for me, but not for you?” Thalia said gently.
“No,” said Jason. “I mean, I don’t think so. I don’t know.”
Thalia sighed. “Maybe the girl thing is the problem.”
“You mean, like…” said Jason.
“I mean, like, gay,” said Thalia. “You can say it. Probably even at Notre Dame.”
“Um,” said Jason. “I don’t think so. I mean, I never thought about it. Like, wouldn’t I have — I mean, for Nico it was — really hard for him, forever.”
“Everybody’s different,” Thalia said. “Listen, Jason — I know it’s rough, especially in college, but you do know you don’t have to date anybody, right? You don’t have to date anybody right now, whether you’re gonna stick with that for your whole life or not. You’re allowed to focus on school and lacrosse and not think about girls, or boys, or nonbinary people, or anyone, for your entire college career, or for forever. Whatever makes you happy.”
Jason knows, logically, that Thalia’s right. But that doesn’t stop him from feeling off about the whole thing.
Thalia’s always been a lot better than Jason at not giving a fuck.
This is why Thalia’s the one who hasn’t spoken to Dad in five years, and Jason’s the one who only just got the balls to transfer schools.
Aphrodite scoffs. “No boys for Piper, no girls for you, no anyone for Leo, what are the three of you doing with college?”
Piper rolls her eyes at Jason, and Leo says, “Trade school doesn’t give me that same campus life, Aphrodite.”
“What ever happened with that girl, the one with the pretty name?”
“What, Khione?” says Leo. “Don’t hit me where it hurts, please, she was like dating Elsa.”
“I’d love to date Elsa, personally,” says Piper, and Jason knows she’s trying to change the subject. If they talk about Khione for too long, one of them is going to end putting a fist through the window.
“Who’s Elsa?” says Aphrodite.
“The Queen of Arendelle,” says Piper.
“She’s not real,” Jason clarifies.
“She’s an ice queen,” says Leo.
“I see,” says Aphrodite.
“I meant Elsa in a real bad place, you know that,” says Leo. “Full on ice palace Elsa.”
Piper narrows her eyes. “Yes, yes,” she says. “I know what you meant.”
Piper and Jason both hated Khione from the moment they met her. Leo has a crush on every human being on the planet within five minutes of meeting them, so they’re used to Leo having some pretty bad moments when it comes to judgment of romantic partners, but Khione was the most recent and the most vicious. Leo’s not very good at realizing when he’s being mistreated.
Or at least — not very good at realizing he doesn’t deserve it. But thinking about it that way makes Jason stomach twist in a way he doesn’t feel like dealing with right now.
“You’re all attractive kids,” says Aphrodite. “Piper especially.” She winks in the rearview mirror. “You need to get out there more.”
“I don’t recall any of us saying we were actively looking for romance, Mom,” Piper points out, but Jason knows this is something Aphrodite will never get in a million years.
“I’m always looking for romance,” says Leo.
Aphrodite laughs delightedly.
“Leo, shut up,” says Piper. “Stop encouraging her.”
“Oh, Piper, you’re so mean to your poor mother,” says Aphrodite, but she’s still smiling. Jason knows Piper hates when she scolds her while smiling, as if the whole thing’s a joke anyway and Piper’s not serious about what she’s saying.
Jason squeezes Piper’s hand in reassurance, and she sighs, then smiles at him.
“Hey, hey,” says Leo, always conscious of being left out. He drapes himself over their laps, head in Piper’s and feet dangling in the seat next to Jason.
“You weren’t wearing your seatbelt!” says Jason, frowning.
“I’m a rebel,” says Leo, stretching.
“The top’s down, Leo, you really need to wear your seatbelt,” says Jason.
“Can you give me, like, five cuddle minutes?” says Leo.
“You won’t last five minutes,” says Piper.
“What, in life? We’re gonna crash in the next five minutes? I trust Tristan McClean with my life, he fought all those Spartans.”
“No,” Piper groans. Her dad’s an actor, and she is perpetually embarrassed about this. “I mean your ADHD ass is going to be in a different position before five minutes are up.”
“Just give me this!” Leo says, smacking at Piper and Jason’s still joined hands. “Pet my head,” he demands.
“Ugh,” says Piper, but she obliges with the hand that’s not in Jason’s. She goes to roll her eyes at Jason again, but she also can’t seem to stop smiling, and for a minute, with the wind in his hair and Piper smiling and Leo wiggling around, Jason actually feels — content. Like for a little while, he can forget about transferring schools and not knowing what the heck his deal is when it comes to romance and — whatever Dad might be thinking.
“Thank God it’s summer,” says Piper, and Jason feels the same way.
People are bustling around collecting their luggage from the overhead compartments, and Hazel is shaking him gently. “Sorry,” she says when she sees that his eyes have opened. She smiles. “You don’t wake up unless somebody touches you.”
Nico means to say something along the lines of “it’s okay,” because almost everything is okay where Hazel is concerned, but instead he says something more along the lines of “mmmph.”
Hazel laughs. “Get adjusted, sleepy head, you know — ”
Papa, who is hunching stupidly over his seat instead of waiting to get up when he can, says, “Stand up, Nico, we don’t need the melodrama. The moment we can we’re out of these seats.”
Nico knows this is exactly what Hazel was going to talk about. You know him.
“The melodramaaaaaa,” Nico mumbles stupidly, partly because he’s still kind of asleep, and partly because Papa is stupid.
Papa narrows his eyes. “Get up, Nico.”
When he goes back to talking to Persephone, still hunching over, Hazel rolls her eyes. Nico rolls his eyes back. “Hurry up!” Hazel mouths dramatically behind Papa’s back. “The plane’s on fire!”
“If we don’t leave now we’ll never leave!” Nico mouths back.
Hazel smacks her hands to her cheeks like she’s in Home Alone. “Plane purgatory!”
“We’ll have to stay on the plane all summer!”
Papa has turned around. He probably can’t figure out what they’ve been mouthing dramatically from this angle, but he probably also gets the gist. “Would you two get up?” he says, frowning.
Nico considers staying here until every last person has left the plane, just to be an asshole, but his hatred of planes wins out over his desire to give Papa a coronary whenever possible, so he throws his button covered backpack over one shoulder and inserts himself into the shuffle of people escaping to solid ground.
Nico hates airports even more than he hates airplanes — there are way too many bright lights, way too many noises happening at once, and way, way too many people. Hazel knows this, and tentatively, she takes his hand. He squeezes to let her know this is okay. Nico will not accept comfort from most people, but he’ll take it from his sister.
He thinks Papa is a little baffled by their relationship. They only discovered each other five years ago, and they act like they’ve known each other their whole lives.
Nico wanted to hate Hazel. He went into meeting her completely convinced that he would hate her. He was 14, and she was 13, and he didn’t want a little sister. He didn’t want a replacement sister. He wanted his old life back, the one that fell apart four years before Hazel, and not this new life, this new life that didn’t just change everything in the now but everything that happened before, during which Nico apparently had a sister Papa didn’t want him to know about, that Bianca and Mama would never know about.
But Nico took one look at her, small and vulnerable, her mother gone, waiting to meet the father she’d never met, and he couldn’t hate her. She was wary of Papa, and Nico understood that. She was grieving, and Nico understood that. She was so lost, and it was obvious the moment he first saw her, and Nico understood that, too.
Persephone thinks they’re sweet. Nico doesn’t like to be considered “sweet.” He doesn’t particularly like Persephone, either, but now that she’s hit the four year mark, he can’t deny the feeling that this wife is really and truly sticking around. Which, considering the way Nico’s been imagining her as disposable all this time and treating her as such, is pretty fucking awkward.
The summer house is a couple hours from the airport. Jules-Albert is waiting to drive them, Cerberus already in the backseat. The enormous rottweiler lets out a booming bark of excitement when he sees them. Nico had no idea Cerberus felt this way about him personally, but the dog’s been absolutely beside himself since Nico returned from his freshman year of college, following Nico everywhere and slobbering all over his bedsheets.
“Yes, yes,” says Nico as the dog licks his face; Hazel keeps ducking to avoid his wildly thumping tail as she tries to slide in after Nico.
As the car sets off into airport traffic, Cerberus finally settled in with his big head on Nico’s lap, drooling freely on Nico’s ripped jeans, his phone buzzes.
Jason [3:23 PM]: I hear you’re on NC soil! :-)
Nico [3:23 PM]: yeh
Nico has two best friends, if Hazel isn’t included. Reyna is Nico’s home best friend, with whom he now goes to college. Jason is Nico’s summer best friend. He talks to them both year round, and neither of them holds any sort of position above the other, but this is when he sees them in person, so this is how he differentiates.
Nico meant to type “yeah” in response, but he can’t be bothered to fix it.
Jason [3:23 PM]: Yay!!!
Jason [3:23 PM]: Airplane/airport okay?
Nico [3:24 PM]: meh
Jason [3:24 PM]: Yeah, figured. As long as it wasn’t extra devastating!
Nico [3:24 PM]: i want to sleep more
Jason [3:24 PM]: I’m so excited to see you too :-*
Nico [3:24 PM]: ugh.
Nico [3:24 PM]: i’ll probably let u hug me
Jason [3:24 PM]: :-D
“Who are you texting?” asks Papa, because he needs to know fucking everything. Nico forgot, during his time at school, that it is impossible to text without Papa wanting to know who it is.
Nico scratches Cerberus behind the ears and says, “My crack dealer.”
Papa scowls. Persephone looks out the window and bites her lip like she doesn’t want to laugh.
“I don’t need the attitude,” says Papa.
“No attitude,” says Nico. “Just crack.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, with that haircut,” says Papa, because he will not let the undercut go.
“I mean, I could have a hairpiece, though, am I right?”
Papa bristles. “Is this how you’re going to behave all summer?”
“It depends,” says Nico. “Is this how you’re going to behave all summer?”
“Can we at least not do this in the car?” Hazel asks. “It’s a small space and I’m tired.”
“Whatever,” says Nico. The only person he stops for is Hazel. Okay, and Reyna. And maybe Jason.
The list is getting longer than he previously anticipated.
He doesn’t look Papa in the eye as he texts Reyna.
Nico [3:25 PM]: on the ground again
Reyna [3:25 PM]: congratulations. in one piece?
Nico [3:25 PM]: apparently. papa’s already being papa
Nico considers telling Reyna about Papa’s haircut comments — it was her who shaved the back and sides for him— but he remembers her own dad and…doesn’t. He feels bad, suddenly, for making the crack comment in the first place. He throws Papa a gratuitous glare, because he’d rather blame Papa than himself.
Reyna [3:25 PM]: before the summer’s out i’ll have the “kill all cishet men” initiative complete. don’t you worry your little head
Nico [3:25 PM]: thanks, i look forward to it. except my head’s not little
Reyna [3:25 PM]: :/
Nico [3:26 PM]: also. we did agree jason’s the exception, right
Reyna [3:26 PM]: :///
Nico [3:26 PM]: he tries so hard
Reyna [3:26 PM]: they all do, apparently
Nico [3:26 PM]: what if we traded jason for leo. got rid of leo instead
Reyna [3:27 PM]: wow. savage
Reyna [3:27 PM]: yeah we can do that
Nico [3:27 PM]: thanks. ok time to nap so dad stops giving me the evil eye
Reyna [3:27 PM]: sweet dreams, u tiny little bean
Nico [3:27 PM]: >:[
Reyna [3:27 PM]: i am very intimidated!
He’s pretty sure Papa did that on purpose.
The house is right on the beach, standing on stilts in case of storms, and is definitely too big for only five people (including Jules-Albert) and a rottweiler to inhabit. All the houses here have names, and theirs, Elysium, is over the doorway in neat red script.
It takes Nico a moment to discern that, along with the sounds of Cerberus barking and running around, Jules-Albert taking suitcases out of the trunk, and Papa griping about something or other, he can hear voices yelling, “di Angelo! di Angelo!” Music that reminds Nico instantly of Percy and his parents, summery and harmonica heavy, is playing somewhere.
“And Levesque!” a dude’s voice adds. In his sleepy fog, Nico can’t place it.
“And Levesque!” says the chorus of voices. “di Angelo and Levesque! di Angelo and Levesque!”
“You’ve made it really hard! For us to chant for you!” says the first dude, his voice still in the cadence of chanting.
Hazel rolls her eyes at Nico and nudges him. “The welcome party’s here. You hear that? That’s Leo.”
“Yeah, you might have noticed he…” Nico trails off, sarcasm dying when he realizes what Hazel meant. “Oh. Wow. Jesus. I haven’t heard his actual voice since August.”
“I know!” says Hazel, beaming like a proud parent. “I’m going to go say hi.”
Nico takes a few moments to orient himself to the real world before following. When he finally does, he sees Jason, Leo, Piper, Frank, Annabeth, and, naturally, Percy, scrambling down from the lower deck of the Jacksons’ blue house next door, Percy’s own rottweiler, Mrs. O’Leary, at the rear, clearly in a rush to reunite with Cerberus. Percy’s parents wave enthusiastically from the upper deck. Nico catches their eyes and waves back, embarrassment suddenly crawling up his neck.
He should have prepared better for seeing Percy and anything to do with him.
Percy is halfway down the steps when he yells, no joke, “Cowabunga!” and leaps over the railing. He clearly expects to stick a great landing, but instead he falls into the dune and slides down to the driveway, arms wind-milling, Annabeth yelling, “What the hell is wrong with you?” after him.
Nico doesn’t know whether he should be less or more embarrassed to be himself.
There are many things Nico likes, but will not ever, ever admit to liking — Pizza Hut pizza, Ariana Grande’s Break Free, sunshine yellow, Disney movies, fanfiction about Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy making out (well, Reyna knows about that one). Why, why, was him a year ago convinced Percy Jackson couldn’t remain one of those things? Why was he so convinced that now that he was out to everyone, he needed to confess his old crush to Percy, like it even mattered anymore, to properly exorcise his demons?
His past self is a fucking asshole.
Leo is laughing; his cackle, too, has swung down like his voice, but it’s still unmistakably his. Nico recalls that Jason told him, some time during winter, that Leo’s voice seemingly dropped overnight, but wow. The last time Nico actually heard him, at the end of last summer, Leo was just starting T, and there wasn’t much of anything going on yet.
Mrs. O’Leary leaves her supposed best friend Percy in the dust to enthusiastically sniff Cerberus. Once Jason has determined that Percy isn’t dead and Annabeth is taking care of it (mostly by smacking at him like she’s cleaning a rug), he jogs over with his arms open, saying, “You promised!”
“I said I’d probably let you,” says Nico, but he opens his arms, too, accepting a hug so big Jason lifts him off his feet a little. It’s not actually that hard for Jason to do this, considering he’s a full six inches taller than him, and way buffer. It’s logical that there’s going to be a difference in physique when one guy spends his afternoons at school hunched over a microscope and the other on a lacrosse field, but that doesn’t mean Nico has to like it.
Jason puts Nico back down and beams. The scar on his upper lip is always more noticeable when he smiles. “How are you?” Jason asks.
“Mostly awake,” says Nico.
Jason laughs. “You look it,” he says, and he gets in a good hair ruffle before Nico manages to duck out of the way.
When Nico met Jason, he certainly didn’t imagine they’d become as close as they are. He started coming here the summer before Hazel did, when it was still just Nico and Papa and Nico ate maybe once every few days and slept more than anything else. Looking at pictures from that time is like looking at pictures of a ghost. Nico still has semi-permanent dark circles under his eyes, and he’s still probably skinnier than he should be, but when he was thirteen it was like he wasn’t even there.
Jason, meanwhile, was big and blond, innocent and strong and sweet. He went to a private Christian school and was still going to youth group weekly. But he was friends with Piper and Leo, both constant runaways, one with a penchant for shoplifting and the other for hot wiring cars, which, together, resulted in the BMW incident that brought Piper to Christian school (the only place in the area that would still have her) and into Jason’s life, Leo dragged right in with her despite his inability to attend Whitefield.
And somehow, through table top role playing games and roller coasters and long talks at the pier, he became friends with Nico, too — small, depressed, at the time secretly in love with Percy Jackson, and the kind of person who was supposed to count it as this awesome victory, according to his therapist, if he ate a bowl of Kraft macaroni and cheese for dinner.
Now, Jason’s one of the only people who gets access to things like hugs from Nico.
Once Leo has finished picking Hazel up and twirling her around, he runs for Nico and Jason, yelling, “Me too, me too!” with his arms outstretched.
“I said I’d let Jason hug me,” says Nico, wrapping his arms around himself as a shield. “Not you.”
“Aw, come on,” says Leo. “I know he’s got the arms, but —” He squeezes Jason’s bicep to demonstrate, then gets distracted. “Eh, yeah. He’s got the arms.” He takes the other bicep in his hand too. “I understand. Even with my body pumping with testosterone I don’t think I’ll ever achieve this.”
“Can you stop it?” says Jason, slapping him lightly away.
“You look good, Leo,” Nico admits sincerely as Leo ducks away from Jason’s hands.
Leo beams. “I always knew you wanted me,” he says.
Nico scowls. “You ruined it.”
“Aw, come on,” says Leo. “No, really, thanks. Thank you. I’m so hairy. I’m like a sasquatch.” He waves his arms around in what is apparently supposed to be some kind of sasquatch impression, but looks a little more zombie or mummy. He’s right, though — his arms are hairier than Nico remembers.
“Is that good or bad?” Nico asks.
“Good!” says Leo. He dances closer to Nico. “And touch my jaw, man! I’m like the Crimson Chin. No, okay, Jason’s the Crimson Chin, I’m more like Cleft the Boy Chin Wonder. But it’s something.”
“I can see it,” Nico assures him.
“Is he giving you the Crimson Chin spiel?” says Piper.
“I’m not the Crimson Chin,” says Jason.
“Do you even know who the Crimson Chin is?” Nico asks.
“He has no fuckin’ clue,” says Leo.
“I know now,” says Jason. “They showed me. And I’m not the Crimson Chin.”
“Yeah, you’re right, you’re more like Larry the cucumber,” Leo cackles.
“There is a superhero version of him, you know,” says Jason.
“Oh my god,” says Leo. “Okay, that’s enough, I don’t want to hear any more wholesome pop culture facts from Jason Grace.”
“His name’s Larry Boy,” Jason offers.
“Anyway,” says Leo. “I’m Cleft the Boy Chin Wonder, and you, Nico, are surprising no one coming back from college looking mad edgy, look at that haircut!”
“Shut up,” Nico scowls.
“Yeah, shut up, Leo, it looks good on him,” says Piper, giving Nico a reassuring smile. Nico likes Piper. He knows she’d do anything for Jason — and probably Leo, too, but it’s the Jason part that really matters. That, and while she’s nice, she’s definitely a no-bullshit kind of girl. Nico likes no-bullshit kind of people.
“No, no, it looks good,” Leo says. “You, too, look good. I’m just sayin’, it’s not exactly a shock, Nico emerging from New York like that. I bet the boys there love it. I bet you’re fending off boys left and right.”
Of course, this is the moment Percy chooses to grace them with his presence, still covered in sand despite Annabeth’s efforts. His eyes flash from Leo to Nico. He totally overheard. He blinks. “Hey, Nico!” he says, overly cheery, as Mrs. O’Leary finally runs up to sniff and lick at him and make sure he isn’t dead.
It’s awkward. It’s so awkward. Nico looks to Hazel for some kind of help, but she’s too busy talking to Frank. Frank is chubbier than Jason but equally tall. There are too many tall boys in Nico’s friend group. It gives him a complex.
Nico would make fun of Hazel for obviously having a crush on Frank, but Hazel gives as good as she gets, and he would absolutely regret it. Plus, he has no right, he thinks as he puts all his energy toward not blushing while saying “hi” back to Percy.
“I like your hair,” says Percy as he rubs Mrs. O’Leary’s head vigorously, fending off Cerberus with the other hand.
God dammit. “Thanks,” says Nico as evenly as possible.
“I was just saying,” says Leo, because he’s the worst person to ever live, “That he looks so ‘just came back from college in New York,’ and I bet he had twelve boyfriends.”
Percy laughs weakly.
Jason’s expression makes Nico think if he was on TV or in a comic book, he’d actually facepalm.
“Shut the fuck up, Valdez,” says Nico. He’s blushing. He’s definitely blushing. No, Leo isn’t the worst person to ever live — it’s Nico.
“He’s just jealous of you, Nico,” Annabeth says smoothly, coming up to scratch Cerberus’ ears. “Was your flight okay?”
You wouldn’t think it, as she’s been dating Percy for as long as Hazel’s been around, but Annabeth’s Nico’s hero.
He’s never really disliked her, because she’s impossible to dislike — at least from Nico’s point of view. It’s possible she’s the smartest person in the world, she crushes bullshit beneath her feet harder than anyone else, even Piper, and she was so incredibly nice when Nico came out that he cried about it — and then she didn’t even tell anyone he cried. Nico has to keep up his image.
“It was, you know,” says Nico, shrugging. “A flight.”
Percy shudders. “Feel you, man,” he says. “You know, I’ve got a theory — ”
“It’s actually hell that’s in the sky,” everyone says at once as Cerberus and Mrs. O’Leary get back to playing excitedly.
For a second, Percy looks flabbergasted, and then he pouts. “Aw man,” he says, like he genuinely cannot remember repeating this as many times as he has.
“We just can’t stop thinking about your theories, dude,” says Leo.
“You’re a philosopher, Perce,” says Jason, lips quirking.
Frank and Hazel finally remove themselves from their private conversation to say hello to the rest of the group, which means Hazel passes more hugs around and Frank gives Nico a tentative smile. Frank is the only one who still looks at Nico like at any moment he might turn around and transform him into a toad, but he doesn’t think it has anything to do with his character and more to do with that seance they did last summer. That, and maybe he returns Hazel’s interest and is well aware Nico wouldn’t hesitate to flay anyone who dared to hurt Hazel.
But it’s not like Nico knows a fucking thing about romance.
“So, we were thinking,” says Percy, “Since you guys are the last to get here — maybe tonight we could have the official start-of-summer bonfire!”
“Unless you’re feeling too tired,” says Jason. “That’s totally fine, too.”
“We can do it tomorrow easy,” says Piper.
“Except it would be better tonight,” says Percy quickly.
“Gee, Percy, you’re so accommodating,” says Piper, and both Jason and Annabeth give him weird squinty looks, like they suspect something of him.
“What?” says Percy. “I just mean, like…well, nothing. Anyway. Tomorrow night’s probably fine too.”
“Did you do something weird?” Annabeth asks, and it sounds like it isn’t the first time she’s said that over the past couple days.
You know, maybe Nico dodged a bullet. Maybe Annabeth’s a saint.
“I didn’t do anything weird,” Percy huffs. “I just, you know, invited some people and tonight’s better for them.”
“Dude,” says Jason. “That is not up to code.”
“What?” says Percy.
“The Bro Code clearly states that some friends have social anxiety and the presence of any guests other than those who signed on the dotted lines need to be mutually agreed upon at least a full 24 hours in advance.”
The Bro Code is an actual document, with actual dotted lines, created in the summer of 2012 primarily by Jason, Leo, and Piper. It’s in a drawer in Jason’s room in the McCleans’ house, and is only removed during arguments over certain clauses or for important amendments or ceremonial purposes. Other than what Jason just cited, there is a Nico specific clause in there giving Nico a limit of 48 hours of full isolation (no phone communication), or 72 hours of partial isolation (phone communication). It isn’t quite fair that he is in the ranks of Leo and Percy, the only others with specific clauses (Leo Valdez shalt not light the bonfire and will stay a minimum of marshmallow roasting distance from the flames, Percy Jackson shalt not take off his clothes in the presence of more than one (1) consenting personage). But at the same time — well, Nico won’t say it out loud, but he appreciates it.
“Common courtesy, dude,” Frank agrees.
Nico huffs. Appreciating it doesn’t mean it isn’t embarrassing when it’s obvious who some friends are in cases like these. “God, guys, we can do the bonfire. I just might have to tag out before you all do.”
“You sure?” says Jason.
“Yes, Dad, thanks,” says Nico.
Hazel punches him lightly on the arm. “How about we unpack,” she says. “Take a break. Maybe a nap. What time do y’all wanna meet?”
“Sunset!” says Percy. “Sunset’s the best time.”
“So, like, 8:30ish,” Annabeth clarifies.
“In front of Atlantis!” says Percy, referring to his house by name, and he shoots them a thumbs up before calling in that stupid doofy dog voice straight boys do, “Mrs. O’Leary! Come on, girl, let our friends get settled in! Let Cerberus explore the house just like you do!”
Hazel giggles and takes Nico’s hand again. “See you guys later,” she says. Jason gets in one last hair ruffle before they head inside.
Being in it, Nico feels — ambivalent, as usual.
He plans to put clothes away, but instead he just falls onto the bed and naps.
He wakes up, again, to Hazel nudging him gently.
“Persephone ordered pizza,” she says.
“Hmm,” says Nico.
“She got half mushrooms,” says Hazel.
This is Nico’s favorite.
He considers, looking at the time on his phone. He’s been sleeping for a little over an hour. There’s a text from Reyna from about twenty minutes ago. He swipes and sees a spaghetti emoji.
“Okay,” he says, sitting up. He remembers that he hasn’t eaten anything since an apple that morning. He sends Reyna a pizza emoji in response.
When they get upstairs, Papa and Persephone are at the dark glass dining table, already having started in on the pizza. “I see Hazel’s convinced you to grace us with your presence tonight,” says Papa, giving him the Intimidating Eyebrow Nico has inherited despite himself.
“Yep,” says Nico, heading over to dig in the kitchen drawer for a fork and knife. “Sometimes I like to see how the commoners are doing.” He doesn’t see Papa’s response, because his phone buzzes, and he’s far more interested in looking at that.
Reyna [7:03 PM]: nice. mushrooms?
Nico [7:03 PM]: what else
Reyna [7:03 PM]: you just passing out tonight?
“Charming,” says Papa.
“That’s me,” says Nico, flopping into the seat next to Hazel and reaching for the box she’s left open for him. Once he’s got a slice on his plate, he returns to Reyna.
Nico [7:03 PM]: was just passed out. somehow got myself into a ~welcome bonfire, at which there will be strangers
“Looks more like you’re interested in what your phone is doing,” says Papa.
“Did you know that phones are a means of communication between actual human beings?” says Nico.
Hazel steps on Nico’s foot, and he shoots her a tiny glare before beginning to cut his pizza into smaller pieces. His glares toward Hazel never have much real venom in them.
As Nico puts a piece of pizza in his mouth, Persephone smiles at him encouragingly.
He avoids her eyes.
“We’re going over to Percy’s for a bonfire tonight,” says Hazel.
Nico checks his phone again despite anything Papa has to say.
Reyna [7:04 PM]: hmmm well good luck tiny
“That sounds nice,” says Persephone. “Has everyone arrived?”
As Papa and Nico eat in silence, Hazel and Persephone chat pleasantly about their friends and tennis and the weather for the upcoming week. Hazel, for some reason, likes Persephone, who often says things like, “Hazel, will you be a dear and draw me some flowers for the foyer?,” which Hazel always does, when she’s not drawing unicorns or designing a horse themed tarot deck. Nico admits it is probably nice for Hazel, after moving in with her unexpected white family, to have another black woman join — them. The family, he supposes. Sure. The family.
When Nico and Hazel leave for Percy’s, going down the back way so they’ll walk along the beach, Persephone calls after them, “Have fun!” Papa, predictably, says nothing. Only Hazel responds, with a smile and a wave.
“You good for strangers?” says Hazel, bumping gently against him as they start down the steps.
Nico shrugs. “If it’s weird I’ll just, you know,” he says, “Come down with something.”
“Want me to come back and take care of you if you do?” says Hazel. “You know, with medicinal Jurassic Park and New York Super Fudge Chunk?”
“Nah, that’s okay,” says Nico, leaning down to kiss her auburn curls as they reach the bottom of the steps. At 5’1”, she’s one of the only people he can lean down to interact with. “If I go back I’ll probably be ready to crash.”
“Yeah, three naps a day can really tire a guy out, I imagine,” Hazel says. She smiles, but she looks worried.
Nico nudges her. “Traveling gets to me,” he insists, and that’s true. Since he got back from school, he’s been sleeping a lot because he needs to catch up from all those all nighters with Biology and Chemistry textbooks, and that’s all.
They don’t have to walk far down the beach to reach the spot outside Percy’s where their friends are gathering. Jason has started the fire, and Leo is sulking because he wasn’t allowed to be the one to do it. Piper has attached her phone to a set of speakers and is scrolling through Spotify, her feet up on the bright pink cooler Nico knows belongs to her mom. Grover Underwood and Rachel Elizabeth Dare are there, too, Grover with his usual dreadlocks and the stim necklace he’s always chewing at, Rachel with her frizzy red hair pulled back with a big, very 90s multicolored scrunchie and her jeans covered in doodles as usual. Percy and Annabeth are down by the ocean; Percy has picked her up and is dramatically pretending to throw her and dip her into the water while she screams and yells, “You fuckhead!,” pounding on his back with her fists and obviously enjoying herself.
Nico looks away from them and says hello to Jason.
“Hey,” says Jason, and he gets up and pulls him into another hug like they haven’t seen each other in years. Nico sighs, but Jason just beams at him when he lets go. “Frank’s coming, he went to get s’more stuff.”
“Woop!” says Grover. “Hey Nico, hey Hazel. I hear Hazel’s gonna be in Baltimore!”
“Tell us all about it, Hazel, come here!” says Rachel, waving her over vigorously. Rachel loves Hazel; they’re both artists and Rachel seems to have decided it’s necessary for her to mother hen her through art school. Grover’s about to go into his senior year at SUNY ESF, intending to become a forest ranger, but he’s into all the same new age kind of shit Rachel is, so they get along well.
Hazel gives Nico’s hand a final squeeze and bounces over to sit with Rachel and Grover and chat about the college acceptance process and what she’s found out already about the fall.
Jason and Nico sit down by Piper, who selects Crazy in Love before saying, with a tap to the cooler, “Mom was at Mr. D’s first thing so — she provides. No pressure, though.” Mr. D owns a liquor store in town. Nico doesn’t drink often, as neither Reyna nor Hazel do, but he’s pretty neutral on it as an activity. He shrugs.
Leo, from where he’s sitting next to Piper, suddenly cups his hands around his mouth and yells loud enough to make both Nico and Jason jump, “PERCY JACKSON! YOUR FRIENDS ARE HERE!”
Percy whirls around and gives Leo a quizzical look, holding Annabeth bridal style at this point. Leo picks up Percy’s phone, which has been vibrating next to him with texts, and waves it in the air.
“Ah!” Percy says in realization, giving him a thumbs up and nearly dropping Annabeth in the process.
As he puts her down and kisses her in apology, Leo explains, “Whoever he invited. He says they’re from here year round, I guess. He just met them, like, last week. One dude works with him or something.”
“There are only three of them,” says Jason.
“Hey,” someone says, and Nico jumps again before realizing it’s only Frank, holding several bags of marshmallows, boxes of graham crackers, and a stack of chocolate bars. Jason gives Nico’s arm a quick squeeze, and Nico feels irritable; he really doesn’t feel all that anxious about these strangers. Comparatively.
He hates looking weak more than he hates feeling weak.
“Geez, how many marshmallows do we need?” Hazel asks.
“We’re growing boys,” says Frank. “And girls.”
“And others!” says Percy as he jogs by them to go retrieve his friends from the front of his house. “Cecil uses ‘they’ pronouns, so be cool. BRB.”
Grover gives him a peace sign in response. Nico’s not sure what this means, but Grover’s like that.
As Annabeth drops onto the sand in front of the cooler, Piper says, “Jason didn’t know this song, can you believe that?”
“Why do you guys keep expecting Jason to know songs?” says Nico. Jason was only ever allowed to listen to Christian music and watch Christian movies and TV, and Piper and Leo are always endlessly fascinated by the gaps in his pop culture knowledge, but Nico kind of understands it. His family has never been particularly religious, but from December 2007 to some time in 2011, Nico’s not entirely sure he even existed, let alone absorbed pop culture.
“Really,” says Frank. “Can’t you be nice?”
“Yeah, be nice, Pipes,” says Leo, elbowing her. “He’s doing his best. He’s just a talking cucumber.”
Annabeth snorts, then tries to pretend she didn’t.
“Leo,” says Jason.
“What is it, baby?” says Leo, getting up and plopping himself into Jason’s lap, wrapping his arms around Jason’s neck.
“Shut up,” Jason moans as Piper snickers, her head falling on Jason’s shoulder.
“Aw,” says Leo. “You love me so much.” He pinches Jason’s cheeks. “So, okay, how short technically is my marshmallow stick allowed to be?”
“I brought skewers,” says Frank. “We’ve got a uniform length, buddy.”
“Ugh, a guy sets himself on fire one time — ” When Jason and Piper make loud noises of protest, Leo corrects, “ — eight times, and suddenly he’s a pyromaniac. Suddenly he’s not allowed to roast a fucking marshmallow without regulation sticks.”
“That seems like the appropriate response, yeah,” says Nico.
“Shut up, Danny Phantom,” says Leo. “That hoodie’s real rich, by the way, for someone who once said Donnie Darko is the live action equivalent of Nightmare Before Christmas for Hot Topic middle schoolers.”
Nico looks down at his skeleton hoodie and groans. He didn’t even think of Donnie Darko.
“Nico said that?” says Grover. “Is he allowed to say that?”
“No,” says Annabeth.
“You’re not the boss of me,” Nico gripes.
“Talk to us after you remove that nail polish,” says Piper.
Nico looks down and realizes he never fully removed the black polish on his nails from a week or so ago. He considers burying his head in the sand.
“And after you grow your hair out,” Percy suggests from behind him, and when Nico whips around to glare at him, he’s greeted by the sight of three new people. The shortest of the three has thick, dark curls and ears almost as pointy as Leo’s. The one in the middle has green hair, twisted into two buns, and a nose ring. And the tallest — well.
Nico forgets whatever insult initially flew into his head.
“This is Cecil,” Percy says, gesturing to pointy ears, “And Lou Ellen.” He points to green hair. “And this is Will! He’s lifeguarding this year, too.”
Will is as tall as Jason, maybe even an inch or so taller, which is ridiculous and should be illegal. Nico does not need any more stupidly tall boys around, especially not ones who wear neon pink sweatshirts and fucking — beaded necklaces. His hair is curly and blond, his eyes are an unreal blue, and his bright smile has the same crooked quality Nico always liked about Percy’s. “Hey,” he says, with a little wave.
I have to leave, Nico thinks wildly. He needs to run. That, or he needs to punch the guy in the face and yell, “Get off my beach!”
He’s well aware that none of these are acceptable thoughts to be having.
As the newcomers settle in around the fire, Percy points to each of his friends, sharing their names, and saves Nico for last; Nico somehow manages an approximation of friendly acknowledgment. Sort of. He nods, anyway. He doesn’t smile, exactly, but he does nod, and he’s pretty sure he doesn’t blush.
Will keeps smiling easily, anyway, and then he flops right in front of Nico and looks directly at him. “So,” he says, “Percy says you’re Mythomagic people.”
Percy Jackson is the bane of Nico’s existence.
Here’s a cute slouchy tall boy, Nico, I told him you love table top role playing games! You’re welcome!
“Oh, yeah,” says Lou Ellen, taking a beer Piper passes her from the cooler. She has a pleasant, raspy sort of voice. “Who is this incredible game master Percy keeps talking about?”
“That’s Annabeth,” says Percy, beaming and reaching into the cooler himself.
“I wouldn’t listen to Percy about me,” says Annabeth. “He’s far too complimentary.”
“Lies,” says Piper. “Annabeth is the only topic you should listen to Percy about.”
“She’s a way better GM than me,” Nico admits.
“You’re not a bad GM, Nico,” says Jason.
“It’s just that Annabeth’s scary organized,” says Frank with obvious admiration.
“And ruthless,” says Percy, with that look he gets sometimes around Annabeth, like if he was a cartoon character there would be hearts floating around his head.
Just a couple years ago, that kind of look on Percy Jackson’s face would send Nico home right now, where he’d lie in bed and think about all the reasons he would never in his life find love and he might as well jump off the fucking roof.
As it is, Nico looks at Will’s rolled up sleeves and exposed forearms and takes a beer from Piper, too. He’ll drink tonight. It’s probably a good time to drink.
Nico’s phone buzzes in his pocket, and he checks it, expecting Reyna.
Hazel [8:51]: You okay?
He again has to fight a blush as he makes eye contact with Hazel. He nods as imperceptibly as he can, and she nods back and smiles.
They all talk about Mythomagic for a longer time than Nico expects, long enough for him to move on to a second drink some time during the conversation — apparently Lou Ellen got Cecil and Will into it, and they’ve been looking for people to have a bigger campaign with. They discuss past campaigns and weird online forum encounters and stupid things they’ve banned from their games, and this is familiar territory, easy stuff. Nico knows how to talk about Mythomagic. The combination of his inability to keep from talking about this game and the slow warmth he’s getting from consuming alcohol too fast, without a very intimate knowledge of his limits, makes Nico feel like a kid again, when he used to talk to anybody about anything.
Maybe this can be okay. Maybe it’s not the end of the world to be around a cute stranger. It used to seem like it, when nobody knew about Nico. But now everybody knows, and somehow Nico and Jason got all these people into something as ridiculous and nerdy as Mythomagic, and somehow Will, who looks like he surfs or something in his free time, is interested, too.
“Ready for s’mores?”
Nico realizes with a jolt that Will is talking directly to him again, holding the bag of marshmallows up.
Without thinking, Nico gives his default response — “No thanks.”
“Do you not like s’mores?” says Will, with a silly, dramatic look of shock.
Nico remembers that he does like s’mores, and maybe he could have one. It’s hard to stop saying “no thanks” to offers of food. It’s like muscle memory now.
Embarrassed, Nico says, “Um, actually — I could have one.”
Will’s face drops from exaggerated shock to an alarmingly sweet smile. “You don’t have to,” he says.
“No, I want one,” says Nico. “Changed my mind.”
“Well, good,” says Will, and he scoots closer to deposit the bag of marshmallows in Nico’s lap.
Too close, Nico thinks, lightheaded.
“So, Nico,” says Will, as he browns his own marshmallow over the fire. He has, like, eight new names to remember, but he remembered Nico’s. “Are you from New York, too?”
Why is he talking to Nico specifically? Have they not established that he looks like shitty Donnie Darko tonight? What about Nico would seem like conversation partner material to this dude in a neon pink sweatshirt?
“Uh, no,” says Nico, stabbing his own marshmallow on one of Frank’s “regulation” skewers. “I mean, I go to school in New York.”
“Oh, cool, is that how you know Percy then?”
“No,” says Nico. “We met coming here. I’ve known him since I was ten.”
“Oh, duh, he said he knew you guys a long time. What school?”
“Pace. University. For Forensic Science.”
“Oh, nice!” says Will. “I’m doing pre-med at UCLA.”
“Oh,” says Nico. He thrusts his own marshmallow into the fire. “Um — my family actually lives in LA now.”
“Oh, weird!” says Will. “You said ‘now,’ how long have you been there?”
“Since I was 14,” says Nico. “Five years.”
“Oh, we’re the same age!” says Will. “Nice. Where’d you live before that?”
“A lot of places,” says Nico, and he catches his marshmallow on fire on purpose, watching it burn to a crisp.
“Dude,” says Will. “You’re killing that.”
“It’s the best way,” says Nico, blowing it out.
Will watches him. “Wrong,” he says. “So wrong. Golden brown is what you want.”
“Too mainstream,” Nico says, and he’s totally joking, but for a minute he’s afraid Will will look at him and think otherwise.
Luckily, he laughs like he understands, then he says, “Oh, okay. What other places did you live?” He bites his lip, which is — way too cute for Nico to be forced to see. “I mean, if you don’t mind telling me.”
“It’s okay,” says Nico, squishing his burnt marshmallow between graham crackers. “I was born in Italy. In Venice. We moved to the US when I was 8, to D.C. And then we went to Nevada, near Vegas, when I was 10, stayed there for a few years. Now L.A.”
“Oh, cool!” says Will. “That is a lot of places. I’ve only ever lived here. And now, you know, school. It was my first time going to the west coast at all, going to school.”
“Really?” says Nico dubiously.
Will laughs. “Ya, really,” he says in a silly voice. “That hard to believe?”
Nico shrugs, embarrassed. “You just.” He shrugs again.
“I know,” says Will, laughing some more. “Everybody at school doesn’t believe me, they say I look born and raised California. But you know, there are blond people outside California. Beaches outside California, too.” He looks meaningfully around them.
“Shut up,” says Nico.
“So, do you like — speak Italian?” Will asks.
Nico hates this question. He looks down at his s’more and suddenly it seems enormous, and too sticky. “I haven’t for a while,” he says shortly.
“Sorry, that was a really dorky question,” says Will. “‘Do you speak the language of your home country then?’,” he mocks himself in a dopey voice. He pulls his marshmallow out of the fire and examines it from every angle. “See this — this is perfect.” He brandishes it at Nico’s face, and in his enthusiasm, it drops onto the sand. “Oh my god,” he gasps, and Nico bursts out laughing.
He realizes all eyes are on them now, and this time he knows he is unable to prevent a blush. He can’t help but remember that everyone knows he’s gay now. It’s never been exactly like this before.
“I dropped the most perfect marshmallow known to man,” Will moans.
Hazel is giving Nico a look, a stupid, smiling look. Nico gives her the Papa eyebrow.
“I’ll eat it,” Percy, Leo, and Grover all say at the same time.
Percy and Grover high five.
“You will not,” says Rachel, rolling her eyes. “Geez, sometimes I think you guys try to be as weird as possible.”
“Us?” says Percy incredulously. Nico realizes for the first time that Rachel’s shirt says, with no logo or picture or otherwise explanatory anything, “It’s just not fair I can’t be a bear.” “I will eat that fucking marshmallow, Rachel. I’ll do it for you.”
“Please don’t eat a sandy marshmallow,” says Annabeth.
“What stake do you have in this?” says Percy.
“Occasional proximity to your mouth.”
“Damn,” says Percy.
“Pass it over here,” says Grover.
“No, no, I’ll eat it,” says Leo. “Nobody’s gonna kiss my ass.”
“It’s not your ass anybody’s gonna be worried about, in this situation,” says Piper.
“Okay, then I’ll eat this marshmallow and you can still kiss my ass later, Beauty Queen, NBD,” says Leo.
“Good, I look forward to it,” Piper shoots back.
“As previous owner of this marshmallow, am I allowed to demand you don’t eat it?” says Will.
“Only if you’re gonna eat it,” says Grover.
“I’m concerned for all y’all’s health,” says Will.
Nico can’t believe he just “all y’all.” It’s…
Well, it’s cute.
“Don’t listen to him, he always says that,” says Cecil. “It’s his number one way to get people not to do things. Eat the marshmallow!”
Apparently pointy ears are a genetic sign of — well, something. Mischief. Idiocy. Maybe elves or fairies are real, and Nico’s among them.
“You make me sound so manipulative,” says Will. “I literally just care about your health.”
Leo ends up eating the marshmallow.
He declares it, cheerfully, “nasty.”
“That’s a shocker,” says Annabeth.
This experience seems to bring Leo and Cecil together — as the night goes on, they move on to a private conversation that seems to involve a lot of laughter. Lou Ellen, meanwhile, bonds with Hazel and Rachel, talking a lot about tarot and favorite artists and things like that.
And Will, for some reason, wants to talk to Nico.
Nico’s so confused by this and so nervous that he doesn’t really pay attention to the amount that he’s drinking, only that it gives him something to do with his hands and his mouth and makes Will funnier and a little easier to talk to. Maybe. Maybe he’s just funny and easy to talk to. But Nico’s not used to anyone being like that.
Will talks about his four siblings and single mom, and Nico cagily reveals, at least, that Hazel is his sister. That part of his family is the only part he loves to talk about. He’s proud to have Hazel as a sister. Usually, people want to know the whole story behind how a white boy and a black girl could be siblings. Will just says, “You have the same nose,” which is true. They talk about Will’s two jobs, lifeguarding and at an ice cream shop with Cecil, and Will tells ridiculous customer service stories, and Nico’s pretty sure he’s laughing too much. He does not laugh this much with strangers, ever. He is very intimidating, and brooding, and scary, and stuff like that.
“How you doing?” Jason asks him eventually, his voice low, as Will goes to get another marshmallow from the bag Percy is hoarding.
“Fine,” says Nico, leaning against Jason’s arm.
Jason raises his eyebrows. Nico realizes he does not normally initiate physical contact.
“Yeah?” says Jason.
“Good,” says Nico.
“Well, okay,” says Jason.
Will stands up from fishing around in the marshmallow bag just as Piper’s music changes to the only Maroon 5 song Nico knows for sure is Maroon 5; Will throws up his arms and says, “I love this song!”
“Yeah it’s, like, the only good part of the Maroon 5 song,” says Piper.
“What?” says Will, pausing and squinting, his arms still in the air.
“You know, like, they just have one single song,” says Piper. “All their music sounds like the same song. But I like this part.”
“Wow,” says Will, going back to waving his arms and moving his hips. “I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that.”
“You can shield yourself from the truth all you want,” says Piper, but when the words start, she and Will both sing along loudly.
He actually sounds — pretty good, singing, and Piper usually puts whoever is singing with her to shame, but the arm waving and rocking that is apparently supposed to be dancing is ridiculous.
“Cough it up,” says Cecil, reaching their hand out to Lou Ellen.
“No way,” says Lou Ellen. “God dammit, Will, I was rooting for you.”
“We bet on whether Will would sing,” Cecil explains. “Lou Ellen was generous.”
“I believed in him,” says Lou Ellen.
“Come on, Lou, we had to ban him from bringing the guitar,” says Cecil. “You can love your friends and know their faults.”
“This love has taken its toll on me!” Will sings, louder to drown them out. He twirls stupidly.
Nico absolutely doesn’t giggle. He — chuckles. Snickers. Something slightly more in line with his image.
Jason is raising his eyebrows at him again.
Nico scoots closer to Jason and whispers in his ear, “I think he’s cute.” He backs away and gives him his scariest glare, pointing his finger at him in a way he hopes is very threatening. “Don’t tell.”
“Oh my god,” says Jason. “Are you drunk?”
Nico smacks him on the arm. “I don’t even know what drunk is,” he says.
“Nico,” says Jason.
Will flops back down next to Nico. Possibly closer than he was before. Jason is still staring.
“Do you think all Maroon 5 songs are the same song?” Will asks, like Nico’s opinion on the matter is a very important one to gather.
“Will,” says Nico solemnly. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this. But yes. Yes, they are all the same song.”
“Wow,” says Will. “Wow. As opposed to My Chemical Romance?”
“Oh my god…”
“I can’t believe you just said that. That’s so, like, completely and entirely untrue that you have to stop talking to me immediately.”
Will honest-to-god pouts. “That’s not fair,” he says.
“Life’s not fair.”
“Thanks, Dad,” says Will, and Nico laughs so loudly that people other than Jason look at them, too. “But really,” he says, with that stupid smile. “If you stop talking to me, it’s going to ruin my night. No pressure.”
Nico feels very warm. “You twisted my arm,” he mumbles.
The whole thing devolves very quickly after that.
Somebody puts on Total Eclipse of the Heart, which turns into a melodramatic group sing along Nico ends up participating in, because somewhere in his brain he’s aware this is uncharacteristic, but the rest of him doesn’t care. If Annabeth is doing it, it can’t be that bad. Halfway through Leo and Piper end up doing some kind of interpretive dance at each other, occasionally enlisting Jason to lift them and spin them around.
After Livin’ On A Prayer and Bohemian Rhapsody, during which Nico spends a lot of time laughing as Will sings directly at him and makes ridiculous faces, Hazel takes her turn to ask Nico if he’s okay, to which he responds, “I am one hundred years old.”
She bites her lip as if trying not to laugh. “Right,” she says. “I think it might be time to go home.”
“I’m wiped,” Jason admits.
“Traitor!” says Leo. “We’re gonna go all night!”
“Well,” says Hazel. “We’re not.”
“Speak for yourself,” says Nico.
“Nico di Angelo, you will regret it if you don’t sleep tonight,” Hazel says.
“You got full named, bro,” says Frank.
“I bet you will,” says Will.
“You bet I will what?” says Nico, rounding on him. “Sleep tonight? Then I won’t. I will prove you wrong.”
Will bursts out laughing. “No,” he says. “Jesus. Remind me to never actually bet with you. I’m just pretty sure you’ll regret it if you don’t sleep tonight.”
Nico pictures his bed. “Hmm,” he says. “I’m pretty fond of my bed.”
“You know, I thought you might be,” says Will.
“So, are we heading out?” says Hazel. “Do you admit defeat?”
“No defeat,” Nico insists. “It just turns out I realized…independet…independently. That I like my bed.”
“I didn’t help at all,” Will says, nodding.
“You are no kind of help,” says Nico.
“Bye, Nico,” says Jason, ruffling his hair.
“Bye bye,” says Nico. “Oh, hey, wait!” He rounds on Will again. “Give me your number.”
Jason makes a sound like he’s choking. Hazel’s eyebrows fly up.
“So demanding,” says Will, but his cheeks have gone kind of pink, and he’s smiling really wide. “How about you give me your phone, then?”
Nico does, and he watches while Will puts his number in. He’s so, so cute, slouching in his neon sweatshirt as he types in the number. The moment he hands it back, Nico texts him, u better not be straight.
Will takes his phone out of his pocket and bursts out laughing and texts back, Absolutely not.
“Oh, good,” Nico says out loud. “You’re too cute to be straight.”
Hazel and Jason both look like they’re going to have a coronary on the spot.
“Good night everybody!” Hazel says quickly.
“Good night, Nico,” says Will, beaming. “I’ll text you.”
“Night,” says Nico, and he has no idea what makes him do it — Will looks so delighted, and so bright, and Nico notices that there are freckles across his nose, and Nico just decides, in that moment, to stand up on his toes and press a kiss to his cheek.
Will looks bewildered but not unhappy.
Percy starts whooping like he’s at a sporting event, which would be annoying at any other time, but right now Nico’s preoccupied with those freckles. Annabeth swiftly kicks Percy in the shins.
Hazel grabs Nico’s hand. “See you later!” Hazel calls, and Nico turns around to wave at everyone cheerily.
When they’re nearly back to the house, still holding hands, Hazel says, “Geez, Nico.”
“Yesssss?” he says.
“Is this College You, or what?”
Nico doesn’t understand what she’s getting at. “I’m in college,” he says.
Hazel snorts. “Yes you are,” she says.
“Will’s the same year as me,” says Nico.
“I heard him say that.”
“He’s pretty dang cute,” Hazel offers.
“I thought he’d be straight,” says Nico. He sighs. “Boys are always straight.”
“Looks like that isn’t true,” says Hazel.
“Whoops, I have to text Reyna again,” says Nico. He lets go of Hazel’s hand to take out his phone and stumbles a little on the first step up to their house.
“Maybe wait until you’re not walking up stairs,” Hazel suggests.
“I’m my own boss,” says Nico, tripping again.
When he gets to his room, Hazel insists on watching him drink a full glass of water before refilling it and putting that and some Ibuprofen on his bedside table.
“I’m not drunk,” Nico tells her.
“Yup,” says Hazel. “Maybe you should stop texting for now and go to sleep.”
Nico sighs. “I’m not even tired,” he says, putting his head down on the pillow and passing out.
He squints at the screen of his phone (which, as he never plugged it in to charge before he went to sleep, is at a very low battery level) and tries to make sense of the messages on the screen.
Reyna [11:49 PM]: good night tiny romeo, remember that you are fine
Jason [11:50 PM]: Hey Nico, sleep well. I’m glad you had fun and I hope you still feel that way tomorrow. It was nice.
Jason [11:50 PM]: Please text me in the morning so I know you’re okay!
Will [11:56 PM]: Just drink lots of water for me ok?
Will [11:56 PM]: I think you should text me in the morning and let me know how you’re doing.
Percy [11:56 PM]: AYOOOOOOOOO ho should get a fuckin mathcmakin TROPY!!!
Will [11:57 PM]: Good night :)
A horrible feeling settles in the pit of Nico’s stomach.
Will’s name has three sun emojis next to it, which Nico’s pretty sure is not his own personal doing, but at this point, he’s not actually sure.
He unlocks his phone and finds there are several more texts he does not fully remember receiving or sending, which makes the feeling in his stomach worse.
Nico [10:37 PM]: SOS
Reyna [10:38 PM]: what’s up
Nico [10:38 PM]: boy
Reyna [10:38 PM]: omg
Nico [10:38 PM]: why is he talking to me
Reyna [10:38 PM]: you’re very charming, with your whole aura of darkness
Nico [10:38 PM]: i told jason i think he’s cute. i don’t know why i did that
Reyna [10:38 PM]: wait. pause. jason???
Nico [10:39 PM]: yea
Reyna [10:39 PM]: nico. like you told jason you think jason’s cute?
Nico [10:39]: omg no
Reyna [10:39]: ok omg
Nico [10:39]: jason IS kinda cute
Nico [10:39]: but at the same time. no. abslutely not. i just told him this other guy is cute which i have never thought in my life to share w jason
Reyna [10:40 PM]: nico. are you in some way inebriated
Nico [10:40 PM]: JUST. a little
Nico [10:40 PM]: finger nd thumb together verrrrrry close
Reyna [10:40 PM]: oh boy. sure tiny
Nico [10:40 PM]: i am not tiny at all, i am so big
Nico [10:40 PM]: he also is
Reyna [10:41 PM]: nico.
Reyna [10:41 PM]: what do u mean, buddy
Nico [10:43 PM]: reyna ew. he is very tall
Nico [10:43 PM]: i am very responsible and do not kiss boys
Reyna [10:43 PM]: ok nico. is hazel with you also?
Nico [10:46 PM]: yes yes
Nico [11:32 PM]: lied a little to you
Reyna [11:32 PM]: nico. about hazel?
Nico [11:32 PM]: no no we’re going home now
Reyna [11:32 PM]: ok good. you drink lots of water ok?
Reyna [11:32 PM]: what did you lie about
Nico [11:32 PM]: i do kiss boys!
Reyna [11:32 PM]: oh nico
Reyna [11:32 PM]: ok well. good for you. when you wake up in the morning please do not feel too bad about this
Nico [11:33 PM]: i feel great about this. i am a bird
Reyna [11:33 PM]: ok. enjoy being a bird. i’m texting hazel
Nico [11:33 PM]: she’s right here u fool i could give her your message
And then there’s her morning message, telling him to remember he’s fine. Except he is absolutely not fine, especially seeing the other texts between him and Will.
Nico [11:24 PM]: u better not be straight
Will [11:24 PM]: Absolutely not.
Will [11:39 PM]: So, I didn’t really realize you were as drunk as your friends are acting like maybe you were.
Nico [11:41 PM]: i am the opposite of drunk. i have never been freer in my head
Will [11:41 PM]: Okay. I’m gonna leave you alone now and say you should go to bed. But it was really really nice meeting you and I had a lot of fun talking to you and I hope I didn’t like…I didn’t mean to, like, encourage you too much, if you were drunk, and I hope we’re okay.
Will [11:41 PM]: I mean I’d like to continue to encourage you to flirt with me another time. I just hope I wasn’t skeevy.
Nico [11:42 PM]: you’re not sneezy
Will [11:43 PM]: Yeah, I’ve always felt like I was more of a Happy.
And then the rest, encouraging him to drink water, with the stupid — smiley face.
Nico rolls over three times in despair, covering his face, and falls out of bed.
He is never leaving this house ever again, except when they leave at the end of the summer, at which point he will leave in a veil of mourning for the friends he once had, so he can pay their friendships their final respects without anyone seeing his face.
He kicks the wall, then reaches up and fishes around on his bed for his phone. He’s too small to reach. He tries not to think about how tall Will Solace is. Was. “Oh my fucking god,” he groans, and his head throbs when he sits up.
His phone is dead.
He throws it at his dresser.
It doesn’t take him long to realize Leo is sitting on him, his laptop at full volume as he plays Never Gonna Give You Up. But the familiarity of this doesn’t stop Jason’s body from jumping before it gets with the program, sending a cackling Leo onto his back, legs in the air.
“Leo,” Jason groans. When he goes to pull the blankets over his head, he realizes he isn’t even in his own room. He’s in Piper’s enormous bed, where they all fell asleep last night after Leo whined about not wanting to be alone.
“If I were you,” Piper grunts from Jason’s other side. “I would start running.”
“Me?” says Jason.
She opens her eyes, and Jason is struck not just by their proximity but by their sleep warm color; her eyes are hazel and shift with the light.
“Are you the one rick rolling me?” she asks, lifting her head slightly. Her braid is falling out big time, chunks of hair falling in her face and sticking up.
“IIIII just wanna tell you how I’m feeling!” Leo sings. “Gotta make you understand!”
Piper sits up abruptly, and Leo leaps off the bed with the speed of the Flash. They leave the laptop with Jason, who has no real desire to get up and turn off the music.
He finds his phone under the pillows and checks it as his best friends thump around the house, Rick Astley in the background. It’s after 10:30, and there are no texts from Nico, despite Jason imploring him to text in the morning. The one other time Jason’s ever seen Nico drunk, it was a completely opposite experience, in which they were playing beer pong and at some point Nico escaped to sit on the floor angrily and eat cold pasta while blasting Lana Del Rey. It was definitely much better, seeing Nico laugh and sing songs and bond with someone who seemed really nice, but Jason knows Nico’s not an overly social person, and until last year, only Jason and Hazel and Reyna knew he liked boys. Nico’s more open about that now, and he’s spent a year in college, maybe even being more social than Jason knew, but Jason still worries he’s going to be embarrassed.
Especially considering Percy’s whooping and fist pumping. Piper’s analysis was, “Percy has no chill,” and Jason agrees and kind of uncharitably hopes Percy has a bad hangover. Before they parted ways, Percy grabbed Jason by the shoulders and said, “Bro. I’m so good at matchmaking. I beat Piper by a fuckin’ nautical mile.”
“Percy,” says Jason, “A nautical mile?”
Percy put a finger to his lips, inexplicably. “Yeah, dude, but what we’re talking about is my matchmaking.”
“Your matchmaking,” Jason said. “Wait. Oh my god. Did you want Nico to meet Will, specifically?”
“Fucking yeah I did, I’m the King,” said Percy.
Jason loves Percy. He really does. He also does not oppose the idea of introducing Nico to nice boys. But he also knows that this kind of gathering was not necessarily the Nico-proof way to do it.
Jason is contemplating how to word a new text to Nico when Piper walks in with Leo thrown over her shoulder. Jason didn’t know she was capable of this — like, he knew she rocked climbed, too, they’ve done it together a bunch, but man.
Piper throws Leo down next to Jason, crawls on top of him, and pins his wrists down. “It’s time for your punishment,” she says.
Jason expects some form of returning joke from Leo, but instead Leo’s eyes go wide, and his voice cracks when he says, “Oh my god, Piper.”
If genuine panic didn’t show up in Leo’s eyes, Jason’s brain wouldn’t have done anything weird. As it is, intense embarrassment sweeps from the pit of his stomach to his face to the tips of his fingers and toes, and for a moment he forgets about Nico. He feels very itchy, and like he needs to exit the bed immediately. He throws off the blankets.
And then Piper yells, “Tickle attack!” and dives in, her fingers digging into Leo’s armpits. Leo yelps. Jason rolls off the bed as Leo kicks and laughs and gasps and tries to escape Piper’s grasp.
Lying on the floor, Jason covers his face, which feels very hot under his fingers. The itchy feeling has dispersed and left him with a lingering nausea, and he realizes he’s doing that thing in his brain he’s not supposed to do anymore, a panicked, aimless repetition of sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry.
In the scuffle on the bed, Jason’s phone gets knocked off, landing by his right ear. The thump is enough for Jason to snap out of it a little and realize this is happening to him with Never Gonna Give You Up still playing in the background.
Jason’s phone buzzes, too close to his ear.
He seizes it, hoping for an adequate distraction, and finds a new text.
Hazel [10:46 AM]: Hey Jason. Just wanted to let you know Nico’s awake and alive, but his phone is dead. Didn’t plug it in before he passed out last night. On a temper tantrum scale of 1-10, we’re at about a 7. He agreed to eat some fruit but says he isn’t going to leave the house “ever again for the rest of his miserable life.”
Leo sticks his head over the side of the bed, apparently free from Piper’s tickling now. His curls are sproinging up everywhere, more than usual. “We still getting breakfast? Because I am dying for some home fries.”
Piper’s head appears next to Leo’s. “It’s fine, don’t even ask him if he’s okay after falling off the bed.”
“You dead, güey? No? Good, let’s get some home fries, home fries.”
Jason ignores them and turns to his phone.
Jason [10:46 AM]: Thank you. I’m sure he’ll say no but tell him he’s welcome to come to breakfast with us. We’re heading to the Argo II.
He knows Nico’s not gonna want to go with Leo and Piper, especially not when they’re in this kind of mood, but he feels like he should ask anyway.
“Yeah, yeah,” says Jason. “I was just inviting Nico.”
“How is he?” asks Piper, at the same time Leo says, “You mean lover boy?”
Piper smacks Leo on the arm.
“What?” says Leo. “I don’t blame him, his dude was mad hot. If I didn’t think Nico would have me six feet under I woulda gone for that.”
“Right,” says Piper. “Of course you would have.”
“Boys love me,” says Leo.
This conversation is not putting Jason in a good mood, so he says, “Nico’s okay. Not happy, really, but okay. I doubt he’s going to accept the invitation, I just thought I’d ask anyway. But if he does or like — even if he doesn’t, next time you see him, could you…not make fun of him?”
“Of course not,” says Piper, and she shoots Leo a meaningful look.
Leo sighs loudly. “I’ll resist,” he says.
To no one’s surprise, Nico turns down the invitation, but this doesn’t keep Jason from buying food for him. Nobody can resist the burgers at the tacky diner they frequent every summer — well, except Piper, who’s a vegetarian, but she’s obsessed with everything they can do with potatoes. The place has got an ocean view and is made to look like a ship, filled with tacky ship memorabilia — ship’s wheels, flotation devices, oars, prints of mermaids and sailors and treasure maps. It looks like the world’s worst tourist trap, but it’s definitely the best hangover food in town.
Jason knows there’s a risk of Nico slamming the door in his face, but this is his seventh summer of friendship with Nico di Angelo; he knows the power of persistence, in this particular situation, and he also knows not to take it personally if he does get a face full of sliding glass door.
He doesn’t go to the front door; he doesn’t want to alert Mr. di Angelo or Persephone to anything of which they might not be aware, nor does he really have much interest in seeing either of them. Well, Persephone’s alright, but Mr. di Angelo is kind of a scary guy. So Jason goes up the back way, to the lower deck, where a sliding door leads directly into Nico’s bedroom. Nico won’t be freaked out or anything; he’s used to Jason showing up this way.
There’s loud music coming from inside, guitar heavy and yelly like everything Nico likes, so Jason knocks hard, three sharp raps.
After a long moment, he does it again.
Nico throws aside the purple curtains, his eyes going back and forth from Jason’s face to the styrofoam take out container in his hands. His shoulders slump. He opens the door. A female singer is yelling “nobody likes you when you’re dead,” which could be a bad sign, but which could also just be…Nico.
“Hey,” says Jason. “I come bearing a cheeseburger.”
“I can see that,” says Nico. He’s wearing sweatpants and a holey t-shirt with a jolly roger on it, which Jason is pretty sure he’s owned for years.
“Did you eat yet?” says Jason.
Jason was worried about this. “Okay,” he says. He looks around the room and finds a bowl with some watermelon still in it on Nico’s bedside table, looking sad and pale in their juice. Next to them sits an enormous Britta pitcher Jason knows has been appropriated from the fridge upstairs. “I thought, you know. Hangover food. How are you feeling, in that regard?”
“Okay,” says Nico. He gestures to the Britta pitcher. Jason doesn’t see a glass and for a brief moment contemplates the horror of Nico drinking straight from the communal pitcher. He files that away for later — he never really goes further than Nico’s bedroom anyway, but if there’s ever occasion to go upstairs, don’t drink the water, Jason.
Nico looks at Jason for a few minutes like he’s trying to read his mind. Jason waits patiently. Nico sighs, grabs the take-out, and walks over to the laptop opened on his bed to turn off his music.
“Was that song about zombies?” says Jason.
Nico shrugs again. “Sort of.” He sits down and opens the container on his lap. He looks at it for a long moment, then abruptly picks up the burger and rips off a huge bite. “I was starving,” he tells Jason fiercely, like he’s going to argue.
“Thought you might be,” says Jason, smiling.
After a few more rabid bites, Nico says, “Thanks.”
“No problem,” says Jason.
Nico pats the spot next to him, and Jason sits down. He just watches Nico eat for a while, figuring if Nico wants to talk, he’ll start talking — and sure enough, when the burger’s gone, Nico says, “Wanna go for a walk?”
“Sure,” says Jason.
This is how they do things — they walk on the beach and they talk. Jason thinks Nico needs to be moving, and to have something else to look at, if he’s going to talk about anything important. Jason will talk in just about any situation. Nico knows about Dad, about Jesus, about guilt and loneliness. He knows both their moms are dead. He knows how much Jason misses Thalia.
It’s just that lately Jason doesn’t know how to articulate what he wants to say.
When they’ve walked far enough along the beach that their houses are no longer visible in the background, Nico says, watching his feet, “Just tell me. Is everybody making fun of me?”
“Nobody’s making fun of you,” says Jason, dodging somebody’s sand castle. “I think they’re just — you know — happy for you.”
“Happy for me,” Nico says.
“Yes, happy for you,” says Jason. “You know — it took a lot for you to get to a place where you’re okay, you know. Hitting on guys.”
“That’s the thing,” says Nico. “I’m not. I mean. I don’t know. Maybe.” He gestures hopelessly. “I’ve never acted like that with a guy.”
“Not at school or anything?” says Jason.
“No,” Nico scowls. “I told you.”
“Told me what?”
“That there were no guys at school.”
“Wow, you’re the only guy at Pace?”
Nico glares and punches him in the arm. “I mean, like. Guys.”
“Geez, Nico,” says Jason, rubbing his arm. Nico may be small, but he’s strong. Jason would not want to get in a real fight with him.
“Well, don’t be stupid,” Nico grumbles.
“I know, I know,” says Jason. “Sorry. I think Leo’s rubbing off on me.”
“I don’t even want to know what Leo thinks of this.”
“All he said was he thinks Will’s hot and he doesn’t blame you,” says Jason.
“I said I didn’t want to know,” says Nico, blushing. “Anyway, Leo thinks everybody’s hot. He thinks you’re hot.”
Jason thinks about Leo’s wide eyes under Piper this morning and feels very warm about the face. “What, uh, am I not hot?” he mumbles, watching as his feet sink into the wetter sand by the water.
“No comment,” says Nico.
“Wait,” says Jason, looking up, surprised. “Do you think I’m hot?”
“Oh my god,” says Nico, grabbing his head. “This is not the conversation we’re having. You know what you look like, you’ve got that, like, cookie cutter white boy jock thing going on.”
“Gee, thanks,” says Jason. “Is that what you would put on my Yelp review? Like you don’t like cookie cutter — freaking — beach dudes, or whatever.”
“Anyway,” says Nico, thumping Jason on the arm again, though thankfully not quite as hard. “There were no guys at school. There have been no guys ever. There has been one humiliating blot on my past that we’re not going to bring up — except actually!” He turns to look right at Jason, his eyes dark. “I’m going to kill him. He texted me at some point last night talking about being a matchmaker or something and if that means what I think it means, he’s dead.”
“He said something to me about matchmaking last night,” Jason admits. “After everything, I mean. He was very drunk. He also measured something metaphorically in nautical miles.”
“He’s an idiot,” Nico says darkly. “I’m literally going to kill him.”
“Think of Mrs. Jackson,” says Jason. “Think of Tyson.” Percy’s adolescent brother, who is currently at horseback riding camp. “Think of Annabeth.”
“I’ll only think of my rage,” says Nico.
“This is how you become Mike Yagoobian.”
“You’re right, but I don’t care,” says Nico. “My villain origin story is Percy Jackson.”
“He’s the reason you lost that really important baseball game.”
Nico scowls. “Years of my life, more like,” he says, and he’s blushing again. Jason knows Nico doesn’t like to talk about this. “Anyway. There were no guys at school. And I think I thought…”
“What?” Jason prods gently.
“Hmm,” says Jason. “How about I go first, and then you let me know if it’s similar?”
Nico frowns. “I don’t know how it would be, but okay,” he grumbles, stuffing his hands in his pockets.
“When I first went to college,” Jason says, “I thought life was going to be a lot different. I wasn’t at, you know…Whitefield anymore. And school was Christian, but it’s not, like. It isn’t like high school was. I thought like — this was an opportunity to be different, to start over, to not be the person that Piper and Leo made fun of for, you know. Not ever doing anything or knowing anything. Like maybe I could loosen up in college. But it didn’t happen like that. In freshman year I just…Piper and Leo weren’t there, and that was weird, and I didn’t actually know what I wanted to do, or how much I wanted to do, and I just kept being the same person. I went to, like, one party and hated it. And you know how my roommate went.”
Nico snorts. Octavian was the world’s weirdest and most awful dude. Jason hasn’t seen him again in person since they moved out of their freshman dorm, except from the distance on campus, at which point he would duck into doorways or behind other people, but Leo and Piper still like to do dramatic readings from his social media accounts for what they call “white male tears hour.”
“All I did was school work,” Jason continues. “I thought college would be this opportunity to change, but it turns out you have to actually…take the opportunities. You can’t be a passive agent in it. So this year I tried to be more active, but it still…didn’t really work out. I tried to meet girls, and meet friends, but it just wasn’t…none of them really seemed right to me. I wish I could tell you being more active was helpful, but mostly I missed all you guys.”
Nico looks at him thoughtfully, allowing this little speech to wash over him. A couple of guys playing frisbee nearly run into him, one yelling, “My bad, dude!” as they stumble into the waves. Nico gives them his best death glare and finally says, “Yeah. It is kinda like that.”
“Yeah?” says Jason.
“Yeah,” says Nico. “Like — things didn’t change like I thought they would.”
“Yeah,” Jason says again.
“I think maybe Reyna being there was, like, too easy. Like maybe I hid behind her. And I thought maybe I’d — have more courage, like, about being — you know. Out. But it turns out that doesn’t happen overnight.”
“It doesn’t seem like it would,” says Jason.
“I didn’t really meet anyone,” says Nico. “Mostly I — you know. Did labs and Reyna and I played video games and, uh, read, and had dinner dates to make sure we. You know.”
“Did dinner,” Jason offers.
“Yeah,” says Nico. “Mostly if somebody was a guy I just, uh, didn’t talk to them. Which I know is weird, okay, I — have a lot of guy friends here, as you — are aware.”
Jason watches as they approach a baby splashing in the waves with her grown up, a little sun hat on her head. He smiles. “Yeah,” says Jason. He looks back at Nico as they pass the baby. “I can see how it could be — I don’t know. Intimidating. Like. Even if you weren’t, like, crushing on them, you don’t know how people are going to react about things, and — I can see how with guys it’d be scarier.”
“Yeah,” says Nico. “And, uh. You know. If you don’t meet guys, you can’t, uh…have, uh, an embarrassing crush on them for six years while you’re super mentally ill so you end up, like, emotionally stunted and bad at everything.” He scrubs vigorously at his hair.
Jason knows if he tells Nico he’s not bad at everything, Nico’s not going to want to hear it right now. He just says, “I’m sorry, Nico.”
“Whatever,” says Nico. “I’m not the only guy in the world who has ever liked a straight guy. And apparently I just met someone else, which I guess I’m supposed to be happy about, though I made a total fool of myself, so who knows about that.”
“You didn’t make a fool of yourself,” Jason sighs.
“You don’t have to sugarcoat it for me, Jason.”
“You got tipsy and asked a guy for his number,” says Jason. “Both Piper and Leo have done that more times than I can remember. And you actually got the number. Leo’s got like a 1 out of 15 record. And he’s danced on a table to Lady Marmalade. Nico, you could be Leo. Imagine that.”
“I demanded his number,” says Nico, naturally ignoring anything that makes him look better. “Like a lunatic. And then kissed him without asking.”
“Not on the lips,” Jason points out.
Nico groans. “No, not on the lips.”
“Has he texted you?” Jason asks.
Nico hugs himself and looks out at the ocean, scowling again. “Ugh,” he says. “Yes.”
“So?” says Jason. “Does he think you’re some huge fool?”
“He’s afraid I think he’s skeevy.”
“Because he didn’t realize how drunk I was. He said something about how he wouldn’t have encouraged me if he realized.”
“Oh,” says Jason.
“I mean, it was nicely,” says Nico. “Like he also said…” His voice drops into a mumble.
“Didn’t catch that,” says Jason.
Nico heaves his biggest sigh yet. “He said he’d like to encourage me to flirt with him more at another time, however, he doesn’t want to have taken advantage of me.”
“Aw, Nico,” says Jason. “That’s nice. I like that. He seems nice.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Nico says.
“I mean, if he turns out not to be nice, I’ll stuff him in a locker and then run him through with a sword, but like, he seems nice.”
“A locker?” Nico repeats. “Where are you gonna get a locker? Or a sword, for that matter. Oh my god, did you stuff people in lockers in high school?”
Outraged, Jason says, “No, I did not! I was and am an upstanding citizen. I freed people from lockers. I have freed Leo from lockers.”
“Oh my god,” says Nico. “I’m so glad I have this information.”
“Look,” says Jason. “This guy really does seem nice, Nico. Are you going to text him? Or are you going to blow him off?”
“I know you’re embarrassed,” Jason says. “I know you don’t like things to be so public and I’m sorry that happened, but — don’t ghost him, man, that’s mean. At least let him down gently.”
“I’m sure I’m not going to be that hard to forget,” says Nico.
“He barely talked to anybody else. He was obviously into you. And if anything, we might run into him. He does work with Percy, and Percy likes him. And then it’s going to be super awkward.”
“I swear Percy has ruined my entire life,” says Nico.
“He’s trying his best,” says Jason. “I think.”
“And yet I still want to die,” says Nico.
“Nico,” Jason says sharply.
“Ugh,” says Nico. “A guy gets hospitalized one time…” His mouth twists into a self deprecating sort of smirk, but when he sees Jason’s face, Nico drops it. “I’m joking,” he insists.
Jason wants to say, “Don’t,” but he doesn’t, because — it’s Nico’s thing, not his. But that doesn’t stop him from wishing he wouldn’t.
Nico stops walking. Jason stops, too. “I don’t want to actually die, okay,” Nico says, looking out at the ocean and not at Jason, which is how he has delivered most important revelations to Jason. “I haven’t actually wanted to die for like — two or three years. They should give you a chip for that, too. Guess it doesn’t actually work like that, though, does it?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Jason admits, feeling hopelessly inadequate, like he always does when Nico talks about this, though Nico insists it’s nice for somebody to just listen and not think he’s a freak.
“Sometimes when I’m talking to you and Hazel I feel like I’m in Lilo and Stitch when she’s talking to the social worker. ‘I’m adjusted. I eat all four food groups and look both ways before crossing the street.’ I’m adjusted. I eat food, I sleep, I take my meds every night and only my meds, I look both ways before crossing the street. I can even tie my shoes by myself.”
“I don’t mean to be patronizing,” Jason mumbles.
Nico deflates. “I know you don’t. It’s, you know…since Papa doesn’t give a shit, it’s…thanks. But I’m okay, Jason. I didn’t sleep very well at school, so I’m still catching up on that, and, you know, I’m working on — food. But I’m okay. I get out of bed in the morning. I have friends. I no longer have to see Papa’s face as much as I used to. If I think really hard I can, like, picture graduating college.”
“Am I allowed to hug you?” Jason asks.
Nico snorts. He opens his arms, and Jason hugs him tight. Jason loves hugs. He’ll hug anyone within hours of meeting them. He hugged Will, Lou Ellen, and Cecil good bye last night. Every time he hugs Nico, who is the complete opposite on the touchy feely scale, he feels lucky to have become such a friend to him.
“I’m proud of you,” says Jason as he lets go.
“Okay, okay,” says Nico, his face red.
“I love you!”
“Okay, Jason, Jesus,” says Nico. He looks at his feet and says, “Love you, too.”
Jason grabs him, ruffles his hair, and allows Nico to be free of torture for the rest of their walk. They talk about how crazy it is Hazel’s only just joining them as a college student, when they’re going to run their first Mythomagic campaign of the summer, and how they wish J.K. Rowling would stop adding to the Harry Potter universe. Jason had to read Harry Potter in secret in high school, at Piper’s house, the first event in the long, drawn out, secret rebellion that has culminated in transferring schools and feeling like there’s no anchor in his life.
They’re returning to Nico’s when they both get a text at once.
It’s in the group text titled “Framily Feud,” which is comprised of the core friend group bound by the Bro Code.
Percy [1:49 PM]: hercules????? tonight?????
Frank [1:49 PM]: zero to hero
Leo [1:49 PM]: yeah that’s the song in there!!! good job franky
After Frank sends back a middle finger emoji, Nico says, “Should I tell him I never want to speak to him again?”
“Follow your heart,” says Jason.
Piper [1:50 PM]: you’ve got to space out the rituals, percy. we can’t do them all at once.
Piper [1:50 PM]: not that we’re NOT singing zero to hero right now. but i’m js
“What do you think?” Jason asks.
“I want to do it,” says Nico. “But not tonight.”
“What about tomorrow?”
Jason [1:50 PM]: How about tomorrow?
Nico rolls his eyes, but the “Thanks, Jason” is at least partially sincere.
Annabeth [1:50 PM]: He’s pouting but I think that’s the better option.
Annabeth [1:50 PM]: Love you all but I think I need some time to hear myself think.
Hazel [1:50 PM]: Yeah same here.
Jason watches Nico type, backspace, and type as they hover by his back stairs.
Nico [1:50 PM]: i will come tomorrow. but percy better know he’s #1 on my shit list.
Jason laughs. “I’ll see you tomorrow, man,” he says. “I look forward to seeing you thrash Percy.”
“I look forward to seeing myself do that also,” says Nico.
Leo [1:50 PM]: HE’S ALIVE
Percy [1:50 PM]: what!!!!!
Leo [1:50 PM]: HE’S ALIIIIIIIVE
Percy [1:50 PM]: not u fckass
Leo [1:50 PM]: ik that i was finishing the joke pendejo smfh
“Text your guy,” says Jason, when Nico’s already heading up the stairs. “Okay? Even if it’s just to say thanks but no thanks.”
Nico stops and wrinkles his nose. “I’m not making any promises.”
“Whatever, Nico,” says Jason, knowing he can’t make Nico do anything, but feeling bad for the guy. He really seemed alright. And he knows Nico thinks he’s cute. He said so, and whether he was drunk or not, Jason knows he wouldn’t just make that up.
But what the heck does Jason know anyway? He’s a mess in this arena. He got all messed up this morning because his two best friends had a tickle fight.
He has no idea what he’s doing.