“Here they are, fresh from the oven,” Percy announced, entering the living room of the Jacksons-Blofis’ apartment with a plate full of chocolate chip cookies.
“Did you make these?” Nico inquired, tentatively pulling one from the top of the haphazard pile.
Deja vu: Percy’s brain plucked him from the here and now and plopped him back in time to his 16th birthday. No, not the war parts—he’s repressed those memories—but the evening that followed, with the blonde curls and the blue cupcake and the unexpected dip in the lake.
Baked goods should not have been a trigger for his breakup.
“Um, yeah. They’re not as good as the ones my mom brings home from the candy store she used to work at, since they’re from a tub of dough, but…”
“It’s fine, Perce. They’re great. Hand me another, will you?”
Percy did, blindly, and tried to distract himself by saying, “So he finally eats.”
Nico scowled—that’s more like it. He noticed Percy’s frown, how the passion in those green eyes had been replaced with a blank stare into nowhere.
“Am I a terrible person?” It came out of left field.
Nico wasn’t good with emotional vulnerability, which is why his friendship with Percy usually worked so well. If he didn’t take this seriously, it would go away, right?
So he told his friend, “While I’m sure Athena and Ares would beg to differ, you’ve killed far too many monsters and Bad Guys to be eligible for that category.” It came out more sincere than he intended.
Percy groaned and buried his face into a yellow pillow, his mother’s favorite.
Panic: was he going to start crying? “Did I say something wrong?”
“She hates me, for sure. How could she not? She needed me, and then I broke her heart.”
Oh. Nico’s couldn’t give relationship advice on account of his lack of relationships, but he certainly was well-versed in the unrequited love bit, so it couldn’t be too difficult, could it?
“Listen, Perce...Annabeth is definitely capable on her own.What each of you want is another thing entirely, but neither of you literally need the other. It might be difficult for you both now, but you’ll get past this.”
“I guess so,” Percy replied unconvincingly. He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry. You don’t deserve to hear me angst about my love life.”
“I don’t care about that. It’s fine.” Nico went back to watching Saturday morning cartoons. Spongebob ended and a rerun of The Fairly Oddparents played.
They watched for a while as Mr. Crocker attempted to uncover the secret of Wanda and Cosmo yet again.
Then Percy dropped a bomb: “Nico...have you ever wondered what it’s like to kiss a guy?”
Nico’s face was a thousand shades of red as he stared at Percy. “Have you?”
“Forget it; it’s stupid.” Percy was almost as red as Nico by now, and he ducked his head, embarrassed.
“It’s not stupid,” Nico insisted nervously. “Are you bisexual?”
“I think I might be,” Percy admitted, chewing on his lip nervously. And Nico had never been more attracted to Percy than he was in this moment, the possibilities swimming through his head.
Percy was thinking the same thing about Nico.
Weird eye contact ensued, and suddenly their lips were touching, moving in sync with each other. Their lips fit together snugly like that was the only place they belonged.
Then Nico realized what was happening. Percy is kissing me. He pulled back abruptly.
“Oh.” Percy turned away, his heart racing, because here came the inevitable pain. That felt so good and he was never going to be able to do it again. He’d never experienced this before. With Annabeth, their relationship had crumbled apart piece by piece until it was shaped into something unrecognizable. But at least he’d had a chance for Annabeth to let him fall for her.
“You’re straight, aren’t you?”
Nico was still in shock. All the scenarios in his mind, and none of them were like this. Suddenly he snapped into attention. “No, Percy,” he said tiredly, sadly. He could hear his heart break and his voice crack as he muttered the next words. “I’m gay, you must know that. And I want this more than anything. But I can't. Not like this.”
“Like what?” It wasn't like Percy to raise his voice, but he was frustrated and confused.
“You’re clearly not over Annabeth. Don’t force yourself. I’m not going to be your rebound, Percy.”
Holding both halves of his heart in his hands, Nico melted into the shadows.
It was four years before they saw each other again. Percy worked as a paid staff member at Camp Half-Blood, and he had a nice little life.
Nico, well. Nico moved to California. He attended high school in New Rome, living off of the checks the government sent him for being listed an orphan. Nico was adamant about being unaffiliated with the Camp Jupiter program, and everyone knew he’d seen too much already, so they never disputed his decision. It got a little lonely since Nico couldn’t see Hazel as much as he wanted to, and it wasn’t like he had that many friends. There were a few, and then there was Jesse Henry.
It started out at a party. New Rome teenagers were just like normal teenagers, after all. Many of them were mortal half-siblings of Camp Jupiter attendees, and a handful of them were like Nico. Demigods searching, begging for a refuge that gave them universal protection instead of a sword and armor.
His friends there all knew he was gay because it was a lot easier to come out to people he didn’t know and who didn’t know him. First impressions and preconceived notions were a powerful thing, it seemed.
It was nice having friends for once. The years following Bianca’s death were so lonely, so lonely...
So Nico went to this party. There was some alcohol, but Nico got far less drunk than his mortal counterparts due to his quickened demigod metabolism. A game of truth or dare inevitably arose, and suddenly Nico was having his first real kiss. He didn’t really count that one time with Percy because A) that would require actively thinking about Percy and B) he never figured out if Percy actually meant the kiss or if was just a breakup-fueled bi-curious mistake.
Nico and the stranger kept kissing. He didn’t know the boy’s name, though one day he wouldn't be able to get that name out of his head. He had this scar on his shoulder that quite reminded Nico of one of Percy’s, but no, Nico didn’t think about that name anymore. The kisses deepened, and this was the most fun Nico’d had in years. There was something so cathartic about the whole thing.
Nico and the boy made out a lot that night, but they never spoke again, not for a long time.
See, Nico developed a pattern. No relationships, never relationships, but there was a lot of kissing. And sex. By the start of senior year, Nico had been around — he was quite familiar with the queer hookup scene. It was an impersonal thing, and it helped Nico deal. Not once did he pretend that whatever guy he was with was Percy.
It was surprisingly easy to get over Percy (when he was distracted, anyway). Nico’s schoolwork and flings consumed his life. He could recite every fact about the Russian Revolution on a college-level history essay and then spend the weekend with a pair of lips attached to his.
Senior year was a bit different. He and Jesse had four out of seven class periods together. They had this silent rivalry going on, valedictorian and salutatorian slated against each other. The party from freshman year was never mentioned.
The second time they made out happened at another party, naturally. Somehow their mutual friends got into a conversation about time travel theories. They were both content just sitting quietly and listening to their peers’ insights, but one thing led to another and they led the discussion, everyone else getting bored and eventually leaving. That’s what happens when the two smartest guys in their class and an unhealthy dose of unresolved sexual tension combine.
The discussion led to a debate led to Nico pushing Jesse up against a wall, connecting his lips and tongue to all the skin he could find. By the gods, he could never resist gravitating towards that fucking scar.
Jesse and Nico had a nice system going, but the system fell through. Sometimes feelings get in the way of things. It was just supposed to be some good, dirty fun. But by the end of September, Nico found himself counting Jesse’s freckles and memorizing his cowlick and buying him over-processed snacks from the corner store in New Rome.
And Nico never would’ve believed that he could fall in love with someone other than Percy Jackson, but goddammit it happened and it felt like he was drinking a bottomless goblet of nectar. He was on top of the world, but too much and he would start to burn from the inside out. Romantic love as a positive feeling was another change for Nico; with Percy, it was all depression and angst.
By early springtime, Jesse was growing curious. Nico had been going down to the Underworld more and more often, using duties to his father as an excuse for his often mysterious disappearances. Now that Persephone was gone for the next several months, the trips occurred every weekend. During the first few years of his stay in New Rome, Nico had been content ignoring his father, but now that was replaced with a sense of urgency, a feeling that he needed to help out down there, or else.
Nico’s friends were concerned about him. They all knew what was going on and the toll it was taking on the boy. Nico’s grades were slipping, and he kept blowing Jesse off. IMs were ignored, dates were stood up, arrangements for prom were called off. Jesse wanted to take this with a grain of salt; after all, it was difficult to make dates or study for an advanced calculus test whilst organizing a militia of ghosts and rearranging the sorting system for the newly dead. There was nothing Nico took more seriously than his duties in the Underworld.
So being the good boyfriend he was, Jesse planned a surprise. It was a stupid idea, but it was sweet. Eighteenth birthdays were important. Nico denied any desire to celebrate this milestone—he was much older than that, really—but Jesse ignored him. See, Nico had this habit of pushing people away when he wanted them most.
Nico’s birthday was on a Sunday. Living in New Rome, Jesse had his ways of entering the Underworld, none of them very pretty. But a little bribery and blackmail was worth it to surprise his boyfriend on his 18th birthday, right?
Nico had just shadow-traveled back into the Underworld. He’d been on a mission to go fetch Taylor Burwell, a daughter of Hecate who had been commissioned to work on a project for Hades. Nico dropped her off at his father’s palace then resumed his duties. Next on the list was to dislodge any backup in the lines for each of the sects of the Underworld. There must have been a horrible tragedy that day because there were a lot of souls streamlined to Elysium. Nico tried not to think about it. Whenever he thought about innocents that didn’t deserve to die, he thought about Bianca.
He still thought about Bianca every day. Even on his birthday. Especially on his birthday.
But she would’ve wanted him to be as happy as can be, right, so he moved on. He had an inventory of ghost soldiers to keep track of.
Nico stopped by his quarters to grab the files on all of the Underworld’s troops, and that’s when he saw the balloons. Bright blue, they looked out of place in the dark, faded Underworld. Jesse knew many things about Nico, but he didn’t know that the color blue still reminded Nico of Percy Jackson. Every single time.
Nico opened up the door. There was still that dirt-stained t-shirt on the floor. There was still that empty can of Sprite on the nightstand. Nothing was different, except. There. Was. Jesse.
He stood there like he was standing in Nico’s room back in New Rome. Nonchalant, at ease, what have you. What terrified Nico the most was that Jesse didn’t see the danger.
This wasn’t some beach house in Florida. Nico was not taking a vacation and then getting back to everyday life. This was everyday life for Nico. Hades had allotted his son a few years off to sort out his shit, but now it was work work work. He had responsibilities. He could romance his boyfriend when all the bullets on the to-do list were crossed off.
Those years spent in New Rome were Nico’s vacation. The sex, the drinks, the A plusses, the friends. Not. Real. Life.
It kind of reminded Nico of the first month or so at Camp Half-Blood in that respect. It was Nico’s fantasy world, lifted straight from Mythomagic into reality. And that’s what it was — magic — until Bianca died. Suddenly it turned into a black battleground and Percy became the beast. He was no longer the prince.
Nico turned to Jesse, who was cutting him a slice of black forest cake. Jesse popped a cherry stolen from the edge of the cake into his mouth. He smirked.
“You shouldn’t be here.”
“Come on. I wasn’t going to leave you to be alone on your birthday.”
“I’ll be back in New Rome as soon as I finish up here. You know that. I’ve never broken that.”
“Ms. Hardy asked me on Friday where you’ve been.”
Nico stabbed one of the cherries on the cake with the white plastic fork Jesse provided. It oozed red.
“Our friends have been asking where you’ve been.”
Jesse stared at Nico, but Nico’s eyes didn’t move from the cake.
“Yes, well. They know where, exactly, you’ve been. Just...why are you here? You know, you’ve missed six parties in the last two months.”
“I had my fun. Now I have to work. It’s really not that difficult to understand.”
“Where were you when Gab’s dog died? Or when Josh got his driver’s license after all those failed attempts and we all went out to celebrate? What about when Macy got her acceptance letter to the California Institute of the Arts? They’ve all been there for you, and you’re too busy acting as a slave to your father that you won’t be there for them.” Now Jesse was yelling. “Fucking forget about it. I tried to do something nice.”
Nico sat, absorbing Jesse’s words. He had no idea about any of that. Last he could remember, Gabby’s dog was the featured star on her Snapchat, and Josh couldn't drive for shit, and Macy was as tight lipped as ever about the theatre schools she applied to, wanting to surprise everyone when acceptance letters came, and everyone knew they would. And they did. But Nico wouldn’t know. He wondered what else he was missing in his friends’ lives.
Shit, he really did fuck up, didn’t he? Only, it wasn’t like he had a choice…
Jesse looked at Nico, anger and disgust corrupting everything about him that Nico fell in love with.
“You can’t? The Nico I know doesn't have that word in his vocabulary.”
Nico’s mind wandered to Percy.
“Enjoy the fucking cake. I know it’s your favorite.”
With that, Jesse left.
Needless to say, Nico didn’t end up checking on the Underworld’s army that day.
That one time with Jesse and the black forest cake was a wake-up call for Nico, definitely. He really had to start thinking about other people more. He still went down to the Underworld, but he was sure to not miss any school or important social events.
After a little while, Hades started to get the message. He made Nico come down for a few days each month, not each week. Maybe he had finally started to realize that there were other people willing to do his dirty work. So Nico got his life back without any backlash whatsoever from the Underworld.
He owed Jesse big time.
They didn’t speak to each other for a while; things had to cool down. When they did, Nico realized he just didn’t have time for a relationship, and Jesse accepted it. Personal stability was more important. They were still friends, though, and Nico was trying hard to be a better friend. He finally rode in the car while Josh was driving, and it was slightly terrifying in the best way possible.
Nico wanted to ride a motorcycle, and his friends laughed at him, because that would only contribute to his bad-boy image. Really, Nico was sweet. (When he wasn’t blowing off his friends for ghosts, that is.)
So, yeah, he concentrated more on his friends. They were wonderful people, and they deserved the very best from Nico. So that’s what he gave them. And while he didn’t get his grades quite to where they were before, Nico ended up at number three in his class of forty-five.
Graduation day brought a lot of change, naturally. It closed off the last four years of Nico’s life, and Nico didn’t know where’d end up. In the fall, he was supposed to be attending NYU (he missed New York, he really did) but suddenly he was worried about running into Annabeth or the Stoll brothers or Jason. Or Percy.
“You’re all grown up,” Hazel said, popping up out of nowhere into New Rome High’s commons. “I suppose I won’t see you as much next year when you’re back in New York.”
Nico smiled. “I’ll still be around. Look in the shadows.”
“Maybe Chiron will rope you into becoming a diplomat for CHB since you have such a tie to both camps.”
“You’re funny,” Nico told his sister, and he hugged her. She adjusted his button down for him. “I love you, Nico. See you after it’s over, okay?”
She proceeded to the theatrum and he walked over to his friends. Jesse did his tie, and he did Jesse’s. Bit of a ritual between the two of them.
“So this is it,” Jesse commend.
“This is it,” Nico echoed. After the mist had been punctured and he moved from Westover Hall to Camp Half-Blood, Nico never thought he’d have any semblance of a normal life. And New Rome wasn’t even that normal, but here Nico was, graduating from high school.
“Keep in touch, okay? I know things ended kind of badly a couple months ago, but I’ll miss you. San Francisco is a long way away from New York.”
Nico nodded. “I will, definitely. And thank you.”
“Everything. When I came here four years ago, I was running away. I shut down all my emotions. And I fucked a lot of people and I didn’t care about anything. I didn’t even care about school; that was just a fun challenge. But you brought me back, and I’ll forever be grateful.”
“We were good when it mattered, I think,” Jesse decided, going in for a hug. Gods, there were a lot of hugs that day. “And you’re the only one I’ve ever met who describes academia as a ‘fun challenge.’”
“Just shaking things up,” Nico replied with a smirk.
Later, when Nico was receiving his diploma, he scanned the audience for his sister. He spotted her in the on the left side, waving and clapping and screaming his name. Next to her was a boy with black hair and green eyes.
Percy cheered Nico on with Hazel. As the next person walked across the stage (a tall girl named Macy Albert) Hazel turned to Percy. “What happened between the two of you, anyway? Nico used to talk about you all the time, but he hasn’t mentioned you in almost four years.”
Percy shrugged, keeping his eyes on the graduating seniors. “I kissed him, he basically said he was in love with me, then he left for California. It wasn’t long after Annabeth and I split for the first time and he wouldn’t be with me because he thought that he was my rebound.”
“Was he right?”
“Maybe a little. I’ve had a lot of time to think about that day, and I know it wouldn’t have been right if we had started dating then and there. How’s he been?”
“He was kind of a party animal the first few years, but I’m fairly certain that was just his manner of coping. He never dealt with his feelings for you very well in the first place, or any of his other baggage, for that matter, so I’m sure it was not very easy to leave like that. But then he dated this guy Jesse for most of this year. Jesse was really good for him, and he helped Nico better than you or I or Jason could have.”
“That’s good to hear. His depression always made my heart hurt.”
“He’s going back to New York, you know. He got accepted to NYU.”
Percy smiled. “Everyone at camp misses him. More than he would believe. He always thought no one cared about him, but he couldn’t have been further from the truth. If nothing else, he’s brilliant and great at battle plans.”
“It sound like someone still has some unresolved feelings,” Hazel noticed. “You should go for it. Right now he’s the best version of himself I’ve known.”
“For once, the timing is right,” Percy agreed.
When it was all over, goodbyes were ignored and delayed at a friend’s huge graduation party. And, well, there was a long-standing tradition of Nico and Jesse making out at parties, but traditions were meant to be broken, weren’t they?
They had fun, but it was nice just being friends. They made excellent friends. They’d made excellent lovers, too, once. In a different time.
Somehow Percy ended up there. Nico didn’t know why or how, but the moment he saw the boy with the black hair walk through the entrance, he hid behind his friends.
“There was this guy I was in love with for years, ever since I met him when I was ten. I haven’t seen him since before freshman year, and he’s here. Quick, what do I do?”
“Would going up to him and making out with him be good advice?” Josh asked.
“It worked just fine for me,” Jesse commented with a laugh. “Go over to him!”
So Nico did. Percy was pouring himself a Coke, and when he saw Nico approaching, he grabbed a second cup, filling this one with Sprite. That always was Nico’s favorite soda. Percy remembered.
“Hi,” Nico said, at a loss for words.
“Hi,” Percy replied. “I’m Percy. You’re….”
For a second Nico thought that Percy had gone and gotten his memories wiped again, but then Percy grinned.
“It’s been a long time.”
Nico nodded. “It has.”
They fell into an awkward silence fueled by wanting to say everything at once, until Percy said, “Hazel told me you were valedictorian for a long time.”
“Yeah, then I kinda went off the rails and spent half my time in the Underworld. Mmm — I was probably already off the rails before then, I guess. But those things happen.”
When did Nico become so open? Percy seemed to bring it out of him, Nico thought, remembering how easy it was to confess his feelings so many years before.
“It sure did happen to me,” Percy laughed humorlessly. “Annabeth and I got back together a couple months after you left, but it was forced, so it didn’t last. I spent a good while going crazy, but I regained myself. Experimented with my sexuality, figured myself out. Then I was here, chaperoning a group of young campers on a field trip, and we ran into Hazel. She mentioned that you were graduating today, and I thought...Well, look—” Percy poked his arm. “I’m here.”
Nico laughed. “I fell in love, once. It started out as a friends with benefits thing, actually. Relationships are different than I thought they’d be, back when I would fantasize about the two of us.”
That definitely sent thoughts racing through Percy’d head. His heart was racing. What if…
Nico smiled at Percy, staring up into his eyes. He had forgotten how beautiful those eyes were. Percy leaned in a bit, and for the second time, they were kissing. This time it lasted longer. This time it was completely different.
When they pulled away, Percy linked their hands together. “Nico...have you ever wondered what it’s like to kiss a guy?”
Nico laughed, remembering. That felt like a lifetime ago, honest. But here they were. “So funny.”
“I think so,” Percy chuckled. “And I’d like to cross ‘make out with Nico di Angelo’ off my to-do list as soon as possible, so just fucking kiss me again.”
Now Nico had a new tradition about making out at parties.