Nico was twelve when Percy walked into the living room with bright red and purple streaks across his face. Nico thought it was paint. He reached over the back of the couch, staring at him, wondering what he’d been doing.
When Sally walked in from the kitchen she gaspt and dropped the bowl she’d been mixing brownies in. For a moment she looked to the mess, then rushed over to Percy with a grin, touching his face. Her hand covered her mouth. She looked about ready to cry.
“Who is it?”
Percy blushed and looked down, shy, grinning. “Annabeth.”
Sally hugged him tightly with a laugh.
That was when Nico understood that it wasn’t paint. It was the leftover touch of Annabeth’s fingers on his skin, already fading.
Nico closed his eyes tight, waiting for the clutching of his chest and the dropping of his stomach to pass. He wasn’t stupid. He knew he’d never had a chance with Percy. He saw the way he looked at Annabeth. But finality hurt, so much more than he thought it would.
When he opened his eyes, Percy had already left, retreating to his room, leaving Nico on the couch without even sparing him a glance. Nico wasn’t even important enough to him to find out his reaction.
And Sally was so happy in the kitchen, humming softly to herself.
And Nico had lost the game without ever really playing. And heartbreak felt nothing like he’d expected it to.
He wanted to give up on love after that, to be alone forever and never face that overflowing, cold feeling again. But he couldn’t. He wanted to find his soulmate, to have those moments he saw when Percy and Annabeth argued about a movie, wrapped up in each other on the couch, or when Paul wrapped his arms around Sally’s waist and kissed the back of her neck, and she just smiled. He wanted those moments with a burning in his chest, dizzying him. He wanted to see someone’s skin dyed with him.
When he was a junior in high school, he met Will Solace, and he didn’t think anything of him at first. He was attractive, but annoying. And, for a while, that was it. They didn’t run in the same circles, or have any mutual friends. They had study hall together first semester, but sat on opposite sides of the room.
Nico would have expected things to end that way, with Will being nothing but the guy Nico occasionally looked at when he was in view, if he’d thought anything of it at all.
Then, during senior year, on the third day of school, they bumped into each other in the parking lot.
Nico turned to apologise at the same time as Will, and barely registered the pastel blues and pinks that ran up from Will’s elbow to his mid-bicep. When he did his eyes opened wide, his heart skipped. He twisted, holding his arm up to look at it.
He didn’t need to, he could see the soft yellow on his shoulder. It faded into orange and red as it wrapped around his arm.
He looked up to Will, throat tight, heart pounding, meeting his eyes.
Will took a step toward him, and Nico ran to his car. He slammed his door, and fumbled with his keys, his hands shaking. When he started the ignition, he gripped the steering wheel, taking long, deep breaths to even out his ragged breath.
He looked up at Will, locking eyes with him. He just stood there, staring back, looking as helpless and lost as Nico felt.
He shifted his car into gear and drove off.
He stayed out late that night, waiting for the colours to fade. He didn’t want Sally to see them, to get that excited grin and hug him.
What was wrong with him? His soulmate was someone he didn’t like. How cruel.
When he got to school the next day, Will intercepted him in the halls, rushing to his side. His cheeks were pink, and he didn’t look at Nico, shifting his gaze around awkwardly. “Can we talk?”
Nico pulled awkwardly at his shirt. He’d worn a long sleeve, despite the heat. “Class is starting in ten.”
“At lunch then.” He stared at the floor a few feet in front of him. “Please. I- We need to talk about this.”
Nico sighed, looking to the side, fixing his bag on his shoulder. He wanted to say no, to leave it at that, and just walk away. But this was about Will as much as it was about him. “All right.”
Will smiled. “Great.” He took a breath and looked at Nico, only to look away again. “I’ll see you later, then.”
He ran back to his friends, who didn’t act like him talking to Nico was anything out of the ordinary. They just went back to their normal conversation, and Nico was left standing in the middle of the hallway, staring at them with a melancholy running through his veins.
He straightened his bag strap again and went to class.
Will waited for him outside of the cafeteria, pushing himself off the wall he’d been leaning against with a roll of his hips, walking over to Nico. “Hey.”
Nico licked his lips, his mouth dry. “Hey.”
“Do you need to get food first?”
Will waited for a moment before leading Nico into the courtyard.
It was weird being out here during lunch. Usually he found an empty stairwell and ate there. Only weird nerds and goths ate out here. Nico wasn’t a big fan of wide open spaces.
They sat under a tree, facing away from each other, neither speaking for several minutes, until Nico thought he might scream, just to fight off the suffocation.
Nico sucked in a sharp breath. “It seems so.”
Will turned to him. “Why did you run away yesterday?”
Nico waited, expecting Will to keep talking, explain why they should be together. But he didn’t, he just waited, watching him.
Nico ran his tongue over his bottom lip. “I don’t like you.”
“You don’t know me.”
He winced. “Well… Yeah…”
He sighed. “Don’t you think we should at least try hanging out or something? Don’t you think we both deserve that?”
Nico pulled one of his knees to his chest, leaning forward so his lips brushed his skin when he sighed. “Maybe.”
Will turned to face him fully, holding himself up on his arms, swaying slightly. “Please, Nico. I need to know if maybe this is meant to be. If we’re meant to be anything. Don’t you?”
Nico stared at him, sorting through his words, and looking for a reason to say no. But there was none. At worst things would be exactly as they were, and at best, he could fall in love with Will. He took a shaking breath at the thought, a bit of adrenaline shooting through him. “Yeah. Okay.”
He grabbed Nico’s arm and pulled his sleeve up, tracing a phone number on his skin.
Nico wanted to pull away, but the urge passed when he saw the rainbow of pastel colours left behind. They both stared, transfixed at the solid proof that they were linked, that the first time hadn’t been a mistake.
They looked up at each other at the same moment, Nico holding his breath. They held each other’s gaze, growing used to this- this thing, whatever it was. This maybe.
Will’s eyes shot to his lips, and Nico pulled back, breaking the spell they were under. Will took a shaking breath and stood up. “Text me, okay? We’ll make plans for after school or something.”
He rushed off, and Nico was left with a feeling of disappointment that didn’t make sense.
He looked to the number on his arm, trailing his eyes down to the sports on his wrist and hand, proof that Will’s hand had been there, losing himself in the thought that someone’s touch could create a rainbow on his skin. He’d thought it would never happen.
He pulled down his sleeve to cover up his arm, lingering for a brief moment on the visible colours of his hand. He shoved it into his pocket and went to his next class.
They met the next day after school, for a walk, coffee, ritual sacrifice, they weren’t sure. They’d decided to wing it.
Will waited for him with a cat held to his chest, scratching the top of his head. Nico couldn’t tell if it was asleep or not, but Will watched it with such a serene expression, like the cat was the only creature in his world.
Nico felt envy rip at him. He wanted that. He wanted someone to look at him that way, so desperately.
He took a breath, masked his expression, and walked over to Will.
When he looked up at Nico, he still had that perfect expression on his face, and it made Nico’s heart skip, even though he knew it wasn’t for him. He wanted to it be.
The cat hissed at Nico and jumped from Will’s grasp, scratching him with its back claws.
Nico watched it go, giving a sigh. “Animal’s hate me.”
“Really? They love me.” He gave Nico a smile, but it wasn’t that smile, and Nico’s greed made the gesture feel empty. “Maybe I’ll wear off on you, and then they’ll just like us.”
Nico rolled his eyes. “Sure, that’s how that works.”
“Well I have some basis for that thought.’ He took Nico’s hand and held it up, and Nico felt himself blush at the small touch.
He’d felt so conscious of Will over the last two days, looking up when he thought he saw him, or heard his voice, only to have it be someone else every time. And now he felt very self conscious, holding his breath until Will let go.
“Yeah.” He rubbed at the imprint of Will. “So where are we going?”
Will bit his lip. “I was thinking we could take a walk on the beach.”
Nico couldn’t help but smile at how cliche that sounded. “Wait, really?”
Will blushed. “I like the beach.”
“Well, all right then.” He started to walk until he realised Will wasn’t following him. He stopped and turned around. “Are you coming?”
Will smiled at him, and he bit his lip to keep from blushing.
They didn’t exactly hit it off. They spent more time arguing than talking normally, and they did talk. They talked a lot. About everything. Small talk, those bits of nothings that don’t matter in the long run, were tossed aside almost immediately for more substantial discussions. Dreams, fears, insecurities just poured out in each others companies. Nico told Will about losing Bianca and staying with Percy’s mother because his own father couldn’t care for him. Will told him about having to take care of his younger siblings since he was twelve and his mother died.
They fell into each other, meeting every day after school and going everywhere to talk about even more things, things that didn’t matter, but did. Time travel, immortality, the afterlife. Sometimes they would wander to a coffee shop or a restaurant. But most often they’d go somewhere secluded, where people didn’t listen or look at them, and talk about the meaning of life while throwing leaves at each other in the park, or the fear of growing old while wading up to their knees in the ocean.
And Nico would always wait inside his car for Will’s colours to fade from his skin before driving home.
It was in late March that he slipped up. He’d grown used to large coats, hats, scarves, and gloves to protect himself from the harsh New England winters, giving his marks less and less time to fade before he returned home, because Sally couldn’t see them. It was late, and warmer than most winter days, and he was drunk on his laughter and Will’s fingers tracing swirls on his arms and neck. He could still see Will’s grin, outlined in stupid doodles Nico had traced for a picture on his phone.
He wasn’t wearing his gloves or scarf when he walked in the door, and Sally looked up from her manuscript to see colour all along his neck and fingers.
She didn’t have that same look she did when Percy had walked through that door six years ago.
Instead she sat him down on the couch, holding his hands between them, and took a deep breath.
“I want to make sure you can come to me with anything. You know that, right?”
He nodded slowly, oblivious to where this was going, and hurt that her reaction was so different from when Percy had come home the same way.
“Good. So I need to know that you’re being safe.”
“Safe?” He screwed up his face, then gaped, eyes wide, face red. “Woah, no. No. I- We’re not- No.”
Sally raised her brows, keeping eye contact with him. How was she so calm and not even the least bit uncomfortable?
“We’re not. We’re not even together. These are just us goofing around. They don’t even go under the shirt.”
Sally paused for a moment, looking to the colours at his neck, then back to his eyes. “You’re telling me the truth?”
“Yes.” He was starting to sweat. He wanted this conversation to be over.
“Okay. Then, when you do decide to have sex, you need to make sure you have the right size condoms. If you can’t afford them, then I’ll give you some money.”
“No, no, no. Will and I are not going to have sex.” He wanted to pass out just saying it.
“What do you mean you’re not going to have sex? No matter what your orientation, it’s always a possibility. Even if you don’t want it now, that may change. It’s only your first relationship. I’d rather you be fully prepared.”
He stood up, pulling his hands out of hers. “Will isn’t my boyfriend.”
“He isn’t? Why?”
Nico made a motion like he was going to leave, then turned back to her and collapsed on the couch. “Because…” He sighed. “Because I don’t want to.”
Sally smiled. “Are you sure about that?”
“What do you mean?” Nico’s chest clutched, waiting for her motherly wisdom to magically fix the rock in his stomach.
“You look confused and lost.” She touched his chin. “Just like everyone does when they first fall in love. Like Percy with Annabeth, and me with Paul, and even Percy’s father.”
“But-” It didn’t feel this way with Percy.
She cupped his cheeks with her hands. “Most often love doesn’t happen all at once. It grows and changes, so slowly you can’t pinpoint the moment it started. But that doesn’t make it any less than the love that grips us in the stomach and drags up forward. In fact, it’s often more, because it starts from a place of knowing. It’s falling in love with the person, and not a mystery or a moment.”
He bit his bottom lip chewing it. His head felt light, and his body cold, like he was nothing but a ghost. “You think I really do like Will?”
“I do.” She leant into him. “Do you?”
He began to grin before he managed to sort through his feelings. He already knew his answer. “I do.”
A sudden rush of shyness reddened his face and he couldn’t keep his head up. He tucked his chin into his chest, which was filled with more butterflies than he was sure existed in the world. An involuntary laugh bubbled out of him.
Sally chuckled, her hand on his shoulder. “So, his name is Will?”
Liking Will was odd. It felt almost the same as not liking him. They still talked about all the unimportant things as before, they still drew on each other, they still parted at the end of the day with a wave and a promise of tomorrow.
But there was a bubbling burn under his skin as he looked at Will, smiling, glowing, beautiful. He was like a magnet to Nico. He wanted to be beside him at every moment.
It wasn’t a roller coaster like books had led him to believe. He had no passionate urge to throw Will to the ground and kiss him senseless. But he thought that falling asleep in his arms would be nice.
As the night’s grew warmer, they began to stay out later. School nights involved homework in the park and at the library. Glances were stolen over laptops, and help was drawn in purple on any inch of skin still bare, so Nico was coming home covered in equations.
Sally stopped expecting him before midnight.
College came up often. Neither of them knew where they wanted to go. Will said he didn’t care as long as they had a good pre-med programme, but Nico thought he just couldn’t afford his first choice. And Nico was holding back, because he wanted to stay close to Will.
It was ridiculous, working his life around a boy. But, at the beginning of the year, he had no real plan for after graduation. He had no dreams for the future, no career he wanted to pursue. He wasn’t even planning on going to college.
Before Will, his future had looked like a one bedroom apartment and a part time job. But being with Will had him looking forward to tomorrow, making him want more.
They were in the park one night in mid-May, the wind warm. Nico was leaning into Will’s side, watching his hands move as he made a crown of daisies. It was seamless, falling into this sort of physical intimacy with him. He wasn’t sure where it began. Probably between cavemen vs astronauts, and if plants lived on stars. Nico had been talking about something stupid that Jason had done the day before, trailing off into a silence that had become so comfortable and just watching him, the way his fingers braided the flower stems together, his wrists twisting.
“You’ll make a great doctor.”
Will hummed, and Nico could see his smile in his mind. “Maybe.”
Nico sat up, putting his hand on Will’s shoulder. “You will.”
He put the flower crown on Nico’s head, smiling at him. He somehow seemed to glow in the dark, his eyes even more blue. He continued to trace little swirls around Nico’s face, curling around his eyes and outlining his jaw.
He watched Will’s face as he drew, the way his smiling mask fell away as he concentrated, and a real smile fluttered on and off, and how his eyes would look at every feature on Nico’s face.
Will’s eyes landed on his, and his hand came to a stop. They stayed like that, just looking at each other, Will’s fingertips at the hollow of his neck.
Nico swallowed, his pulse racing. He thought that Will could hear his heart beating. Nico could. It drowned out the crickets that had become white noise.
Then Will pulled back, his mask back on. He stood up, brushing the grass off his pants. “It’s getting late. You don’t want Sally to worry about you.”
Nico’s ears rang. “Yeah. You’re right. We should probably head home.”
His fingertips felt numb. His hands shook as he pushed himself up and brushed his own pants off. He barely registered saying goodbye, or going to his car, or driving home.
He opened the door and saw Percy on the couch, home from college.
Percy’s greeting was cut short when he saw Nico, covered in colours, still wearing the flower crown Will had made.
Nico began to cry as he smiled, thrilled that he’d found his own soulmate.
Percy was beside him, pulling him into his arms, holding Nico tightly to his chest.
Nico gripped him, clinging to him like a child, like he’d clung to Sally when he was fourteen after coming out to her, losing himself to his convulsing sobs.
He was wrong when he thought that the worst thing would have been not falling in love with Will. The worst was not being loved back.
It wasn’t weird not seeing Will for a day. He had other friends and responsibilities. Jason whined at him every few days about being abandoned for a boy, and he had to spend a couple days a week doing chores and spending time with Sally, and called Hazel on Mondays.
But they always texted. All throughout school he would be stuck to his phone, when he was with other people, and during dinner. Jason teased him about it, accusing him of falling prey to the very same societal addiction to technology he’d once mocked.
He didn’t read the messages, but he couldn’t manage to turn his phone off. Every time it buzzed, the sound ripped at his throat, and he would look to it. Three, four times an hour he would look over to it, unable to breathe.
Just as he was thinking about explaining things, Percy took his phone, shutting it off, and tossing it under his bed. “Come on. We’re gonna watch a movie, just the two of us.”
He dragged Nico to the couch, wrapping an arm around him. And Nico felt comfortable against his side. Percy was warm and familiar. He was like Will, but not like him at all for the same reasons. He made Nico’s chest warm, but he didn’t make his heart flutter or pound. He wanted Percy to always be with him, but he didn’t love him, not in the same way he did Will, not anymore.
He took a breath and closed his eyes, letting Percy help him pretend reality didn’t exist, let him protect Nico from the heartbreak he once caused. Maybe one day he could be like this with Will.
Someone knocked on the door as he began to drift off, the movie almost over. He made to get up, but Percy gripped his shoulder, and he relaxed back into him.
Sally got the door, and Nico thought he was dreaming Will’s voice, already half asleep again. But reality came back to him, blaring in his ears, and he looked up at him, gripping at Percy’s shirt.
Will stared at him, that fake smile on his face, barely holding. “I- um, I wanted to check on you. You’ve never gone this long without responding, and I wanted to make sure you were okay.”
Nico stared at him for a moment, at Will, in his home, standing in his doorway. “Yeah. I’m okay.”
“Right. Cool.” He looked to Percy, pursing his lips. “Can we talk?”
Nico turned to Percy, almost like he was asking for permission. Was this a good idea? Should he send Will away? Should he have Percy send him away?
Percy must have seen something in his eyes, because he left the room, leaving just Nico and Will inside.
Will sat down on the couch beside him, looking at the paused movie just as Nico did. He took a deep breath, but said nothing.
It was weird, Will being so close, but not touching him. For Nico, who’d never touched easily, it should have been the most natural thing. But it was like fighting against a wave.
“Did I do something wrong?” There was a desperation to Will’s voice Nico wasn’t familiar with that ripped at his chest.
“What? No. Of course not. You didn’t do anything.”
“So did I not do something I should have?”
Nico looked over at Will, locking eyes with him. He swallowed on a nervous reflex. “That’s…”
“So that is it.” He leant into Nico. “You wanted me to kiss you last night.”
“I didn’t-” He cut himself off, staring into Will’s eyes. There was more in them than he’d ever seen before.
He owed it to their months together and all the colours that had been drawn on their skin to tell him the truth, even if it ruined things and made his voice and hands tremble.
Even if it meant losing Will.
“Yes, okay. I thought you were going to kiss me, and I wanted you to.” His face, down to his chest, was hot. He looked away from Will, his eyes watering. “I have-” He clenched his jaw and stood up, ready to bolt to his room.
Will’s hand wrapped around his waist, pulling him back onto the couch beside him, and kissed him.
Oh god, kissing Will was better than he’d imagined. His chest was hot, and he felt like he couldn’t breathe. Will was a soft pressure that nearly crushed him.
“You ran away because I didn’t kiss you once? You couldn’t just talk to me about it?” He kissed Nico again, leaning into him, pushing his back to the couch.
Nico took a deep breath, his lungs collapsing. “I was hurt and scared.” He struggled to keep his voice even with Will’s lips at his jaw. “I needed time.”
“Because I didn’t kiss you?”
“I thought you didn’t like me.”
“You were the one who didn’t like me. I’ve been holding back for months.” He pushed himself up on his forearms. “You never gave me any sign that what you wanted had changed. I didn’t want to overstep my bounds.”
Nico had no argument. Will was right. Nico had no idea what he was doing, and had jumped to conclusions.
He touched Will’s neck, looking at the particular smudges of colour over Will’s lips, looking messy, unlike the careful designs they had been staring at over the last few months. The pastel blue of Nico’s kiss. He could only imagine what his own face looked like.
He pulled Will down for another kiss.