this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart: Mentioning again that there are spoilers for House of Hades. Although I'm sure that I'm the very last person ever to finish the book, so I don't even know if the spoiler warning is super necessary. I really don't know how to write threesomes. Sorry. This is me, trying. I am rusty as shit, guys. Also, last thing. Hope there are not any extra bad inconsistencies or errors in this fic because a) I wrote it in like 3 hours without editing and b) I'm in law school on the east coast and all my PJO books are halfway across the country, so. All the apologies. Please enjoy.
And Three's A Crowd
i. liar, liar
See, the rumors aren't entirely wrong, because Nico didn't tell the truth. The rumors existed because Annabeth figured it out, and Annabeth is simply too goddamn smart to get the important things wrong. That she only got half of the equation this time isn't a mark against her.
It surprises him, not what she guesses, but what she doesn't. He really would have thought that the Percy part would be easier for her. She knows what loving Percy looks like. Whatever simmering resentment Nico has toward Annabeth, he knows that she is only his mirror. That they are one geode, cracked open in the middle, perfect halves with glittering purple hearts laid bare. He sees himself in her and thought that she would see herself in him.
They are the same, except for when there are blaring, obvious differences. Like the fact that Annabeth is in the middle of everything because people are always watching her, and Nico is always on the periphery because it's like attention can't stick to him. Why, he thinks sometimes, would anybody focus on him when she and Percy are around? They shine like morning light apart, but put them together and it's virtually impossible to look away. Nico, on the other hand—look at him for too long and it starts to get unnerving and uncomfortable. He used to think that was a characteristic of all his father's children, but then he met Hazel and she's not like that at all; no, it is only a characteristic of Nico's.
He is his father's son; all sunken hollows and dark undereye smudges, limbs that haven't gotten the message to wait for the rest of his body to catch up. His mother's darker complexion wears a bit strange on him. It was olive-smooth and warm on her, but she nurtured it under the Italian sun, and he spent decades in a fluorescent-lit casino resort and then in the underworld for a few spells, so forgive him if he looks off-color and somewhat worse for the wear. He's not handsome like Percy or beautiful like Annabeth, but those sharp, inescapably Greek features can't be suppressed and as a result, he's got an eerie prettiness to him. Which for a teenage boy, might be the worst thing ever.
So yes, he's kept off to the side, but Annabeth who notices everything and nothing, notices this, and Nico's self-imposed life of a loner can't save his secret. That, and Cupid's interference, of course.
But he thinks back on that time occasionally in flickers, because he won't allow himself to remember it too much—dodging arrows and other godly magic with his life and Jason's on the line. One admission from him could have saved the both of them in an instant. He weighed Cupid's bloodlust and delight in causing pain. He tasted the lie carefully on his tongue and decided to take a gamble. He placed bets that loving a boy was enough, just enough, to satiate Cupid's greed, that he didn't need to give up Annabeth too. Because for all of them, life is a perpetual Greek tragedy, and there's no weapon more valuable in a celestial war than a demigod in love. The real way you hurt someone is through someone else; later, much later, when he learns about Percy and Annabeth's time in Tartarus, their experiences prove to be another example of that fundamental, undeniable truth. To save Jason, to save himself, he could give up Percy because, let's face it, Percy was on everyone's kill list already, but Nico wasn't going to give up Annabeth.
Annabeth doesn't need anyone's protecting. Not the Camp's. Not her mother's. Not Percy's. But nobody needed to know about this one thing. Nico protected her the way he will always begrudgingly protect them, like he's compelled, like it's really no choice at all. Because it isn't. He is there in the shadows wherever he needs to be. Summon a legion of warriors to save them. Coax Bob into being Percy's friend.
Tell Cupid a lie about Annabeth.
Seems Cupid doesn't know everything about love, after all. (It existed before Cupid and will exist after he's gone, Nico reminds himself.) And maybe it's because Nico loves them so much it's lodged like a permanent stone in his ribs and hurts every time he moves, sits, stands, runs, and breathes, but he hates that he loves them. As if loving a boy weren't complicated enough, also loving the girl who loves the boy can destroy a person slowly. Maybe Cupid couldn't pick out the love intertwined with the hate, because Nico can't and probably never will, so Nico could hide Annabeth like a secret, cup her close to his chest and wish for her to disappear.
Love makes liars of us all, he read from a book some time ago. And Nico will lie and lie and lie—
ii. house of cards
It's impossible not to love Percy, because Percy loves everybody like it's the only thing he knows how to do. It's just that Percy can only be spread out so thin among the world's population, and Nico never knew how to not ask for more.
"Since when did you start smoking?" Percy asks him on a summer day before the second prophecy lurches into motion.
They're paying at the register of a gas station (Twizzlers, five bags of chips, three boxes of cookies, beef jerky, the September issue of Cosmo for Drew, and a pack of Marlboro Reds) about half a mile outside the border of Camp Half Blood. Chiron hates it when the campers go there, and it really is out of the way and a total target for monsters because of its proximity, but Nico doesn't much give a shit about the rules and Percy has kind of gotten a pass for any and all transgressions after the great war.
"What's that like?" Nico asks instead. "Having Chiron turn a blind eye to everything you do that might be against the rules?"
"Well, the Stolls are incredibly jealous," Percy says, grinning. "They've spent most of their time trying to get me in trouble, but you're right. Chiron is going to unbelievable lengths to look the other way. I mean, I guess it's my consolation prize for the whole immortality thing, since I turned it down."
"And you're so modest about it. Plus, a get-out-of-jail-free card at camping and living forever totally seem like comparable rewards," Nico deadpans.
Percy shrugs, hands Nico a ten, and it pretty much splits the costs down the middle. Except. "Whatever. By the way, that's not covering the cigarettes. If you want them, you're paying for them yourself."
Nico rummages through his pockets and comes up with three drachma, a quarter, and a nickel, and looks at Percy as if to say, please. Really, it's practically a gold mine for Nico. He almost never carries money because he barely ever buys things, and never American dollars because well, when does he ever mingle with mortals? If being among demigods is isolating already, it's nothing compared to being in a supermarket with people. None of these people have ever lived in a time without cell phones, he generally catches himself thinking in horror while they text and shop at the same time. And you know, the other stuff. Like constantly dodging death-by-tentacled-monster or having to give up a sister to an eternal sorority of man-haters only to have her die weeks later.
Percy stares at him in a remarkable imitation of a disappointed father and ponies up another fifteen dollars. "How did you leave without checking if you had money?"
"You were coming with," Nico says and absentmindedly fumbles for a lighter in his pocket. They go outside. He lights up under the awning, tips the carton to Percy, who turns away.
"You're ignoring my first question."
"I've smoked since Bianca died," Nico says baldly and lets those words sink into Percy for a moment. A little cruel, but Nico can't help sticking him with reminders every now and then. Just because it was an accident, doesn't mean Percy shouldn't have to live with the guilt. He inhales and lets the smoke seep into the crevices of his jacket—unnecessary in the sweltering heat of August—the marrow of his bones. "It's not that frequent. I'm not at like a pack a day or anything."
"Jesus, Nico, you weren't even a proper teenager then. How'd you get your hands on cigarettes at that age?
Nico raises his eyebrow, as if to say, I regularly reanimate rotting corpses and teleport through darkness and your biggest source of confusion is how I obtained drugs as a kid?
Percy, at least, has the decency to look chagrined. "Okay, fine."
"The same way I get cigarettes now. The guy here has never carded," Nico points out. "And it's not like he's an anomaly. What, are you going to give me a D.A.R.E. lecture now? Upset that I missed out on this crucial part of the modern child's schooling experience?"
"Hey, hey, I get it," Percy says, putting his hands up. "You don't have to worry. Nobody is going to find out from me. It's just not that great of a habit, is all."
Nico shoots a sharp glance at him sideways and thinks it would be just like Percy to give him this speech, to be just the right amount of concerned but hands off, because it's Percy's job, isn't it, to care about poor, orphaned Nico and his soon-to-be-diseased lungs. It's not like he asked to be rescued by Percy in the very beginning, but conveniently, Percy was there, and happened to be the very first demigod Nico ever laid eyes on. And Nico, like some stupid animal, imprinted on him—a baby on its mother, a hand on a frosty window.
And that's how a normal story would end. Hero comes in and saves the victims, gets the glory, and slips out of their lives to go on doing the whole thing over again. Except with Percy, the hero doesn't know how to turn off the hero gene, and ends up being a permanent-ish fixture in Nico's life, like an unwanted social worker who checks in every few weeks. To make sure he hasn't died. To get him to eat green vegetables. To tell him to stop smoking. Nico wants to scream.
He's not sure Percy does this with everybody else, but maybe since the guy promised Bianca, he can't just leave Nico alone. But that's just it, the bad part of it. Percy loves everybody, but he loves Nico just a little bit extra. Not enough for it to matter, but just enough for it to hurt.
Nico crushes the cigarette butt under his heel and gives Percy a skull smile. "I guess there are some things I can't quit."
iii. the forest for the trees
There are times—very brief moments, mind you—that he's grateful Jason knows part of it. The secret is too big for him to keep by himself, and even though he's in a terror that someone will find out, it's a relief to spread the burden. Not the way he would have chosen to do it, personally, but all things considered, it turned out better than expected. Jason is a pretty okay dude.
Jason's got a face like an open book, though, and can't keep a secret for shit. It's written all over him every time Nico looks the slightest bit discomfited, Jason comes in guns blazing to get everybody off his back, which actually, just makes it super fucking obvious that the two of them share some kind of major revelation nobody else knows about. Piper can tell right away that something's up, and Nico can tell that Piper can tell. And Hazel isn't an idiot either. The fact that Jason is all about spending time with Nico now when before, he wouldn't come within two feet of the Hades boy is sort of telling.
"You know you don't have to say anything until you're comfortable with it," Jason says once when they're by themselves on deck the Argo II at night.
Nico laughs, and it sounds like ice cracking. "I appreciate your reassurance, but you kind of have the worst pokerface ever. If my being creepy and off-kilter at camp didn't already something away, you acting weird after we emerged from the lair of freaking Cupid probably finished connecting the dots."
Jason flushes. "Nobody would care. Not even Percy."
"It's not about that."
"Okay." Jason is trying so hard, Nico can tell. He deserves more than the resentment Nico can't help giving him. "Annabeth would understand."
Nico's heart seizes up. "What are you saying," he says quietly, dangerously.
"Annabeth," Jason says, sounding unsure. "You don't have to be afraid of her. Or mad at her."
It's almost funny, really. "I'm not jealous of Annabeth," Nico replies archly. "I don't have anything against her." He can't have one of them without the other. The two of them are part of one piece. He can't take that apart, even if he tried. Wouldn't want to. Tartarus can try, too. Nico wagers that it will fail.
"You don't have to do this all by yourself, Nico," Jason says.
And he is so, so wrong about this, because that is exactly what Nico has to do. In a strange way, Jason reminds him of Percy and Annabeth, some elements of each. Striving to reach Nico, wanting to fix everything for him. "Would you promise to keep it to yourself if I told you something?" he says suddenly, the secret, the real one, on the very tip of his tongue.
"You know I would." Jason is solemn.
Nico pauses and watches the edge of the open sea come up to the horizon against the monochrome gray sky. What is it that they say about those who fall in love with heroes? They always get a horrible ending. If that's true, then Nico has earned himself the very worst ending that ever was. "I know," Nico tells Jason and leaves him on deck alone.
iv. through the looking glass
Nico loves Percy because everybody else makes it easy to, and he loves Annabeth because Percy does.
Sometimes, Nico wonders if it's just because he's greedy. Because one person isn't enough, since his life has pretty consistently starved him of the normal amount of love and care that people need to survive. With his parents, and then his sister, and now he's going to overcompensate by wanting more than anybody can give him. First of all, wanting Percy sucks, because he's fighting just about everyone in the entire world for attention on that front. What he really hates is that it's the most predictable thing anyone could have ever done, and up until that moment, Nico had prided himself on not being such a follower.
But look at him now. He, like basically everybody else in Percy's life, has fallen in that pothole, the one that everyone sees coming but can't swerve in time to avoid regardless. Annabeth, Rachel, Calypso, now him, and hell, he's seen how the other campers looked at him during the war, like Percy was the only oxygen left in a gas chamber. They can't help it. And Nico can't help it either. It's just one of those things.
And second, wanting Annabeth is a natural consequence of wanting Percy. The worst is that Annabeth actually likes him, treats him well, and it's absolutely unfair to hate her for getting Percy. So Nico loves her instead, because his brain works in linear ways like that.
"Do you think you could design it this way?" he says to her one day as they're poring over the sketches of the new Hades cabin at camp.
Annabeth's fingers run over the fine, spidery pencil lines. Nico drew tentative designs for the cabin, because hey, he would be the only one living in it, so he should get some say in how it looks at least. He can tell, though, that Annabeth is surprised at his skill. He doesn't know the architecture behind stuff, whether it will work or not, so he relies on her for that assessment.
"Yeah," she says finally. "I think I can do that." She looks at him searchingly. "You're—you're going to stay here, after it's built, right?" She's not quite as straight-shooting as Percy; she'll go from the edges, add some nuance to how she phrases her questions. But she wants Nico to stay of his own volition without laying on any pressure, and he wants right then and there to lean in those few traitorous inches and kiss her. But he doesn't.
He grants her a smile, small but real, and feels her relax beside him. "I might."
She rolls up the blueprint and says, "I'll ask you about the details once we finish up Hecate's cabin. It's close, I think."
"Hey," she says, turning halfway up the steps. "You should come play Capture the Flag with us. You know, since you've never played before."
He nods, but doesn't speak.
He won't play Capture the Flag with them. He lets himself watch, though, and Annabeth and Percy are captains of the opposing teams, which means they're-shit-talking the entire way through. They're both so good, it's hard to tell who actually has the tactical advantage, but from the way they talk, you would think the other person was the worst player on the entire planet. He just watches from the sidelines, silent. At last, Percy's team comes out on top, just barely.
At the end of the game, both teams line up to shake hands. Nico watches Percy and Annabeth come up to each other, the space between them shrinking, until it closes and there's no room for anyone else, no room at all.
author's note: Thanks for reading. Sorry I'm literally only here once a year.