Nico glanced inside my room. His eyebrows furrowed. "Is that… is that blue birthday cake?"
He sounded hungry, maybe a little wistful. I wondered if the poor kid had ever had a birthday party, or if he'd ever even been invited to one.
"Come inside for cake and ice cream," I said. "It sounds like we've got a lot to talk about."
- Rick Riordan, The Battle of the Labyrinth
When I introduced Nico to my mom, you would have thought I'd introduced her to a half-drowned hungry kitten or something. She took one look at him and started fussing, in a way that I think only moms can. Nico just looked uncomfortable and took it. If Mom noticed, she didn't let on. She just steered him over to the kitchen table and sat him down before giving him a paper plate with a slice of cake on it.
Tyson stayed in the living room with Paul and the Monopoly board. I hung back too, trying to convince Paul for the second time that day that it was normal for people to come and go using the fire escape (even though it really wasn't). But it wasn't like we could have told him the truth about Dad. Well, not yet.
It was the strangest thing – the whole time I was there talking to Paul and Tyson, my eyes kept being drawn back to Nico. He was like a black spot in the middle of Mom's bright kitchen, talking to her awkwardly and taking bites of blue cake with a white plastic fork. I couldn't help but notice the blue frosting smudged at the edge of his mouth. Thankfully Mom noticed it too, and she chuckled and wiped it away for him.
It was pretty late by that point. Mom insisted that Nico stay over for the night. "Oh, really, it's no trouble at all! Percy doesn't bring home many friends, and you shouldn't go out alone at night." I rolled my eyes, but when she was like this it would be no use telling her that Nico was technically older than I was, and that he was the son of Hades. He could handle himself in New York. I guess the fact that he'd had to leave his Stygian iron sword in my bedroom didn't help.
Nico didn't have much choice but to agree – my mom's a force to be reckoned with sometimes. You'd think with all we've done and seen, one mom wouldn't be so intimidating, but you'd be wrong. So Nico stayed, which was fine with me, because he'd said he wanted to talk. And so did I.
But when Mom sent us to bed and turned out the light, shutting the door behind her, there was silence. Nico was on the floor in an old sleeping bag that Mom had pulled out of the closet. I wasn't sure how long we'd had it, or even if it was all that comfortable, but Nico didn't seem to mind. I kind of minded, though, because he had my pillow. Sure, I'd slept plenty of times – and in worse places than on a bed – without a pillow. But that didn't meant that I liked it.
I wanted to say something, but I didn't want to scare or anger Nico out of saying what he'd come to say. I didn't want to change his mind, because I knew how he felt about me. So I laid there and stared at the ceiling, waiting for him to say something first. I might've laid there for hours. Or it might've been minutes. It was hard to tell in the dark. But finally, he said something.
I rolled over onto my side, glancing down at the inky figure on the floor. The only part of him that reflected the light from the window was his face and eyes. He looked kind of otherworldly, but not in a bad way. "Yeah?"
"Can we talk?"
It was a weird thing to ask. I mean, he'd been the one to show up at my window and say that he wanted to make me an offer. Something about beating Luke. About the only way to beat Luke. Of course I wanted to talk.
"Yeah, sure," I said, and tried to look attentive, though it probably didn't matter. Even with the light from the window, it was pretty dark in my room.
I heard shuffling, and I could see enough to tell that Nico was sitting up. "It's kind of… weird," he said, and his voice sounded strange. Kind of strained. Like he was afraid to talk to me. I felt my stomach twist a little – I had to convince him we really were on the same side. That he was doing the right thing by helping us. I knew it was still an uphill battle, even though he'd been the one with the offer.
"Well, it's about Luke, right?" I asked, sitting up myself. "That's not weird – I mean, we both saw what happened to him. We can't let Kronos – "
"No," Nico said, interrupting me. "It's not about Luke. It's not about any of that. I mean, I do want to help. I do have an offer. But that's not what I want to talk about right now."
Now I was confused. What else could he want to talk about? Was he still mad at me about Bianca? He'd been mad at me for a long time – I mean, up until only a couple of weeks ago I'd thought he was coming after me to trade my soul in to bring her back from the Underworld. But I thought he'd gotten over that, especially after… Well. After the battle. "What is it, then?"
"Have you…" I saw him twist his blankets in the dark, as he hesitated. "Have you ever liked someone?"
For a minute, I was sure I hadn't heard him right. Nico was asking me for dating advice? I couldn't imagine why he'd want to ask me something like that. I mean sure, I'm older than he is. And I guess I've had more experience with girls, but I'm not sure that experience would be what I'd call it, exactly.
"Nico – " I faltered, feeling as awkward as he sounded. "I don't think I'm exactly… um, right. To be talking to about this, I mean. Maybe you should talk to Grover." He and Juniper seemed pretty okay. They'd probably have loads of advice for Nico. Loads better advice than I could give him, anyway. Lately I felt like I had a big sign over my head that said GIRL TROUBLES HERE or something. I mean, even Paul had picked up on it. Though maybe it was just because he was a guy, too.
There was silence for another minute. I cringed, thinking he was probably mad at me again. But then he said, "I guess I just mean… Do you think I should tell someone if I like them?" He sounded a little defeated. It made me feel bad. And even though it was weird, I wanted to help.
But I still wasn't really an expert or anything. And the question sounded like it would be an easy one to answer, but it really wasn't. Should he? How should I know? It probably depended on the person he wanted to tell. I thought about Annabeth for a minute – but then I frowned, thinking that things with her didn't make sense either. I mean, sure she'd kissed me underneath Mount St. Helens that one time, but she'd said it was because she was afraid I was going to die. And then she got mad at me any time I said anything about Rachel, and it wasn't like she and Rachel got along either. But neither of them seemed like they wanted to say anything to me about it. Was I just supposed to know?
The whole thing made me confused, and so I considered Nico's question in light of that. And finally I said, "You know what? Yeah, I think so. I mean, how else are they supposed to know? Nobody's a mind reader." Well, at least I didn't think anyone was. Chiron sometimes had the ability to make it seem like he was, but I didn't think it was exactly Chiron Nico was talking about. I sure hoped not, anyway.
"Oh. I guess you're right, yeah," was his reply, and I could tell he was thinking about it. He shuffled a little more, turning towards my bed. "I guess it is hard to figure out how they'd react if they didn't even know."
"Well, yeah," I agreed, rubbing the back of my neck with one hand a little uncomfortably. It was weird talking about this with Nico – I mean, I wasn't really good at dealing with it myself, so I didn't exactly feel qualified to be giving anybody else advice. Especially someone as touchy as Nico. But it sounded like he'd kind of made up his mind. Maybe he had before he'd even asked me. Maybe he just wanted some reassurance, a little confidence from someone else. It wasn't like he had a lot of friends. I owed him that much, at least. He was all right. I thought it might be good if he could talk to someone honestly about his feelings. Especially if it was someone who could make him happy.
"Right," Nico said quietly, and I figured that was the end of it. Which was good, because my stomach still felt like it was kind of in knots, and it was a weird feeling to be getting around a guy. The only other times it had felt like that were when Annabeth would get all teary-eyed at me – especially when she got angry at me right afterwards. Or when Rachel would say something in that way she sometimes did, where she could make you feel really stupid and really smart all at the same time.
"So," Nico continued, and I told my brain to shut up. It sounded like he was ready to talk about more serious stuff now. Maybe now he wanted to talk about Luke. "I know we haven't always… well, you know, gotten along."
"It's okay," I said – I mean, I understood. He'd been confused for a really long time. His sister had died. I mean, who wouldn't be confused? And if he hadn't been angry, I guess it probably would've been weirder. Although he could've joined our side a lot earlier and I probably wouldn't have complained. "Go ahead. You said you – "
But he interrupted me then. And he didn't say anything about Luke. What he said was, "No, listen. This is still… About before. Percy, I just… I like you."
I felt like I'd been hit by a seven-ton Cyclops running full-tilt. Or maybe just a subway train. It was like my brain shut off, but a second later it started back up again, trying to go in a thousand different directions at once. Me? Nico liked me? Was that even possible?
Okay, sure I knew it was possible. I was a half-blood – we studied Ancient Greek history a little at camp, and it was kind of impossible to keep that sort of stuff from coming up sometimes. The counselors always kind of glossed over it – well, the same way they glossed over a lot of stuff in the myths. Especially when they got to the parts about how most of the heroes had been conceived. I guess they thought they could keep stuff like that from us and we wouldn't notice. Or maybe they knew they couldn't but they felt like they had to at least put up a front.
So why were my insides still all in knots? I mean, it felt like the kind of knots you get before you go on a roller coaster you've been dying to try. Not like the kind of knots when you're going into a reading comprehension test with dyslexia like mine. My stomach felt like it had dropped through the floor of the apartment to street-level, and my heart was pounding and suddenly all I could think about was the blue cake crumbs on Nico's lips and his pale face and his shaggy black hair…
"Percy? Aw, crap, I'm sorry." There was movement – Nico had detangled himself from the sleeping bag and I could see him grab his sword up from the floor as he stalked over to the window. He was going to leave. He thought –
Suddenly I didn't want him to leave. I was out of the bed and at the window before he was, blocking it so that I had to squint into the room as I blocked the only source of light. "Nico, wait! I didn't mean… you kind of took me by surprise." I didn't really know where to go from there, but I definitely knew I didn't want him to leave. I guess that was a start. But I didn't think it would be enough.
I could just make out his frown as he stood awkwardly before me, like he really wanted to go now, more than ever. My heart was pounding so loud that I wouldn't have been surprised if everyone in the apartment could hear it. My legs felt a little weak and my stomach was still in knots, but everything was kind of tingly. I didn't get it, but it felt familiar.
And then I realized what it was. It felt kind of like that time when Annabeth kissed me. Frantically, I tried to stall for time. "Nico, look. Believe me, you just surprised me. I… I've been having some, uh…" I tried to think of the best way to put it, but he beat me to the punch.
"Girl trouble," he said flatly. I cringed. "I should've realized before I said something. Look, Percy –"
"But that's just it," I went on, because suddenly things were untangling. It was weird, like there had been this big knot in my head and I hadn't even known it was there, but as soon as Nico had said something it had started unraveling until I understood what was going on. Why Rachel and Annabeth were so weird around me, why I was so weird around them…
Why I couldn't tear my eyes away from Nico now.
"I have been having a lot of girl trouble," I admitted. "But," I continued, not giving him the chance to break in, "I think I realize what that means now. I mean, I just… don't get them. They don't… They don't tell me stuff. Not like the way you just did now." I paused, looking at Nico in the dark. I thought about what I'd just told him a few minutes ago, about how no one's a mind reader. If Annabeth or Rachel had wanted me to understand something, then all they had to do was tell me. But they hadn't. And Nico had.
I finally understood what all of it meant, like one of those epiphanies that you read about in books. It hadn't exactly come to me the way I'd though it would – not that I'd ever exactly expected to have an epiphany in the first place. But there it was, at the end of the untangled string in my head, and it made so much sense that I almost wanted to laugh.
Nico was sullenly silent, like he was daring me to get to the point. So I did. "I like what you just did. I get it. It's not like with Annabeth. Or even Rachel. I like… I like hanging out with you, Nico. I think…" I took a deep breath, thinking of that white plastic fork and the blue birthday cake and Nico sitting in my kitchen talking to my mom. "I think I could like you, too."