Nico's first instinct had been to hit the trespasser with a brick from the hallway. Rage had overcome him when he saw the stranger hold Bianca's stress ball in his hand.
Only after he had recognized the person he knocked unconscious did he instantly regret it. He put the brick down in one corner where he wouldn't trip on it on the way out.
If it had been a complete stranger, Nico could have taken back the stress ball and left the person in the dark without an explanation. It might keep the rumor about the ghost in Wing Tree Medical Center going, especially if the person didn't know Nico. He was ghostly enough in appearance to pass for a real spectre anyway.
But this guy was someone who went to the same school as Nico. Worse, this was someone well-known in Olympus HS.
Jason Grace, basketball team captain of the Olympus Ocelots and way smarter than he looks, was the one Nico had hit on the back of the head with a brick.
Nico had seen the recognition flash on Jason's face as the blond laid his blue eyes on his face before he conked out. So he couldn't just leave Jason lying there. Nico had to wait for Jason to wake up. He'd apologize for what he did to Jason. And however Jason would want to react to his apology, Nico would want to- no, would need to convince Jason to keep their incidental meeting at the abandoned hospital a secret.
Whatever the impression he made on Jason was (besides a possible brick imprint on Jason's scalp), he really has gotten Jason's attention now. And Nico didn't like drawing attention to himself.
He didn't need Jason giving him a hard time on campus. Jason wasn't known for being the stereotypical jock bully, but Nico was afraid that Jason would start being one to him upon waking up.
He didn't need Jason acting buddy-buddy with him or acknowledging his existence in the hallways. Getting hit by a brick could have addled Jason's brain, but outright deciding to be friends with Nico after this event was still an unlikely choice for star player Grace to make, Nico thought. One chance meeting at an abandoned hospital does not a friendship make.
Most importantly, he didn't need Jason discouraging him from going to the abandoned hospital when Jason didn't know his reasons for frequenting the decrepit building. There was more to Wing Tree Medical Center than the quiet solitude it offers Nico.
If Jason would just go back to seeing Nico as part of the background, that would be great, Nico thought.
Maybe, if Nico was lucky, Jason might have gotten amnesia from the blow to his head so Nico wouldn't have to worry about Jason telling anyone about seeing Nico in the abandoned hospital.
Nico knelt beside Jason's body, laying him straight on his back. He grabbed the flashlight that rolled off to the side and placed it next to Jason's unconscious form so its light shone on the wall next to the open door. Nico then picked up the stress ball just to have something else to do, tossing it a couple of times in the air until he failed to catch it. He heard the thump as it made contact with the dusty floor.
Nico remembered that Bianca used to do the same thing with the stress ball. Nico would watch as his older sister continually tossed it up into the air like a juggler and caught it with the same hand that had thrown it.
The yellow stress ball had been a gift to Bianca from their father for her eleventh birthday. Bianca had gladly accepted it, knowing that Hades di Angelo tries his best to keep connected to his family despite being away a lot, and carried it with her at all times. Nico had seen Bianca squeeze it when she was feeling angry or frustrated. It had helped Bianca deal with her more negative emotions.
But after Bianca got into an accident by pushing some jaywalking kid named Percy Jackson out of harm's way, she had gotten confined in Wing Tree Medical Center because of her broken right femur and her dislocated dominant right arm. Nico and his stepsister Hazel would visit Bianca, Nico dropping by a lot more often than Hazel did. Bianca would miss catching the stress ball a lot with her non-dominant hand, and it would often bounce off her bed and land on the tiled floor of her hospital room, the same hospital room Nico was standing in.
The only time she had parted with the stress ball was a few days after the accident, when she had asked Nico to have it washed clean. Nico had to leave because visiting hours were almost over, so she had thrust the ball into his hand with a smile on her face and asked her brother to do her a favor of washing it for her. Nico had returned her smile in kind and made off with the stress ball.
Only a couple of hours after Nico had left the hospital did the building catch fire after a gas leak explosion. The fire, if not the gas leak explosion, had killed many of the bedridden patients, and that included Bianca. Nico had been left with only the newly-washed stress ball and the memories he had of Bianca to remember her by.
Since the hospital fire, Nico had adamantly refused to let anyone, even Hazel, touch the yellow stress ball.
Nico dropped the ball a lot less often than she had. He's had five years of practice.
Jason started to wake.
The blond groaned and sat up sluggishly, massaging the back of his head with one hand.
"Sorry 'bout the brick to the head. You surprised me," a voice said.
Jason groped for the flashlight and shone it on the speaker. The guy didn't appreciate having the light shine on his face, judging from the scowl that graced those thin lips and the hand that shielded his eyes.
Jason put the flashlight down on the floor so it shone on Nico's jeans-clad legs.
"You're Nico, right? We take the same chemistry class," Jason said, stretching his neck and folding his legs. He scrunched his eyes shut, feeling pain at the back of his head.
So Jason wasn't hallucinating before he got knocked unconscious. This really was Nico di Angelo. The pale and thin guy that always dresses in dark colors was always seated at the very last row in Chemistry class. Jason hasn't talked to him before, but Jason had noticed how Nico knows the answers to Mr. Chiron's questions whenever the elderly teacher decides to call on him. Jason just didn't have that good a grip on the subject of chemistry, so he was impressed.
"My name's Jason," he said, opening his eyes and watching Nico's hand fall to his side. He searched for Nico's eyes in the dark and saw a faint gleam in them akin to those of a genius' or a madman's.
"I'm also aware of that, Mr. Basketball Team Captain." Nico sounded apprehensive.
Right. Like Jason wasn't popular for that reason.
"What are you even doing alone in this place?" Jason asked. Nico didn't look like he had a flashlight on him, which Jason found strange. "There are rumors floating around that there was a ghost of a teenage guy here at night."
"You found him," Nico said resolutely, bending down to retrieve the stress ball from the floor. "I'm the ghost in the rumors."
"Pretty sure you're not dead enough to be a ghost," Jason grinned at him. Nico may be an almost sickly shade of pale and stick-thin, wearing a loose black shirt, skinny jeans, combat boots, and an aviator jacket at least two sizes too large for his frame, but Nico was certainly breathing judging from the slow rise and fall of his chest.
"… What are you even doing here, Jason?"
Jason's smile faded. "I should be asking you the same question."
"I asked first," Nico said tersely, his hand squeezing the stress ball tightly.
After a beat, Jason replied. "I went here on a dare. My friends asked me to go here and see if the rumors were true. And it looks like they weren't true after all."
The hand wrapped around the stress ball didn't loosen up. "Please keep it a secret that you saw me here. That rumor about a ghost in Wing Tree Medical Center is the only thing keeping people from going to this place." Nico's quiet pleading tone reached Jason's ears.
Although Jason thought that no one in their right mind would ever go to Wing Tree Medical Center in its current ruined state, he decided to keep quiet about meeting Nico there.
"Okay," Jason said after a pause. He felt that it wasn't his place to ask what Nico had been doing in Wing Tree Medical Center, so he didn't bring it up again.
Nico took a deep breath and let it out slowly, sounding relieved. He sank down to sit on his haunches, almost eye-level with Jason with a few feet's worth of distance between them. Nico cradled the stress ball in his hands.
"But you gotta let me come here from time to time," Jason blurted out, unsure of why he had suddenly decided to say that himself. Maybe he wanted to get to know Nico a little better. He certainly found the guy interesting enough. And even if the abandoned hospital gave him chills, Jason felt eager to explore it.
Maybe it was the thrill of the unknown that had urged him to say that.
Nico looked at him with disbelief. "… I didn't exactly want to share this place with anyone. Kind of defeats the purpose of solitude, don't you think, Grace?" Nico frowned.
"We can be lonely together." Jason tried for a smile.
Nico made a soft hesitant noise. "Whatever. Just as long as you come here in secret." Nico pointed a finger to him.
"Sweet." Jason beamed at him.
Nico stood up, stuffed the stress ball in the pocket of his aviator jacket, and headed for the open door.
"Wait, Nico," Jason said, grabbing the flashlight and scrambling up to stand. He dusted his hands on his pants. "You don't need a flashlight?"
"I got certain areas of this place mapped out in my head. Every turn, every brick, every hole in the floor, I know where they'd be that I wouldn't need light to see where I need to step. I can probably navigate my way through here with my eyes closed," Nico replied, not looking back at Jason. "Not using a flashlight does help with not attracting attention. But in case I need light, I have my phone in my pocket."
Nico left Jason in that room without another word. Nico's steps echoed silently in the hallway.
Knock knock knock.
Leo answered the door. His brown eyes ran up and down Jason's form at his doorstep.
"You're early. It's only 11:34," the Latino said, stepping aside to let Jason come in.
"The place is huge, Leo. I should have brought a pen and paper with me to map it out so I wouldn't get lost in there. I went back while I still knew my way back. And you gotta agree that three hours is too much," Jason said.
"I guess." Leo shrugged.
"Dude, why's the back of your shirt all dirty?" Leo asked as he walked behind Jason. Jason guessed that dirt and dust clung to the back of his shirt when he had been lying down on the floor of the hospital room.
"Tripped and fell on my back," Jason lied.
Jason entered the living room as Leo made his way to the kitchen. Percy was sitting upside down on the couch before Leo's TV. The sea-green-eyed basketball team co-captain was watching Zombieland on DVD.
"I'm back, Percy," Jason said, plopping himself down on the couch next to Percy's legs that hung over the back of the couch.
"Did you see the ghost?" Percy didn't take his eyes off the screen, but he sounded eager to know.
"I didn't see any ghosts." And that wasn't a lie.
Leo chose that moment to enter the room with three cans of soda in his arms.
"Did I hear you right, Jason?" Leo asked as Percy groaned in defeat. Valdez was rubbing it in.
"No ghost," Jason repeated. He couldn't suppress an amused smile at how Percy almost fell over, trying to sit up straight.
Leo grinned impishly as he set the cans down on the coffee table. "You know how I like my pizza, Percy. Extra pepperoni and not on me."
Percy slunk off the couch and grumbled as he went to use Leo's telephone.