Actions

Work Header

Kitchen Nightmares

Chapter Text

Nico di Angelo hated Thursdays.

Monday had the shitty rep as the worst day of the week, and Nico had to admit he did see some sense in that, but Thursdays had always itched at him, ever since he was a little kid. It was nothing, after all, not the release of Friday, not the numb apathy of Wednesday, not even the dull frustration of Monday. Just close enough to the weekend to give you hope, and just far enough to snatch it away.

As Nico wove his way through the New York City traffic, the sun beating hot on his shoulders, he couldn’t help thinking that this particular Thursday was the Ultimate Bad Day.

It was a long, long list he compiled in his head, starting with the incessant heat and trailing down from the unsticky Band-Aid on his thumb to the smell of garbage hanging thick in the air, doughy and damp. He’d been roused from his sleep at the ass-crack of dawn by his stupid neighbors’ stupid rat-dog; he’d been forced to dodge three separate calls from his father, probably asking why he didn’t show up for the di Angelo family dinner the night before; and his motorcycle had refused to start for approximately fifteen minutes, making him late and frustrated and cranky.

Traffic was worse than usual on the way into Hell’s Kitchen, too, putting the final flourish on Nico’s bad mood, and he ended up squealing into the alleyway behind Fantasma Re Ristorante close to half an hour late.

He yanked his helmet off and moved his bike as far to the side as he could, entering through the back door the restaurant used for deliveries and personal business.

And the first thing he heard, as he strode down the hallway that connected the back door to a collection of tiny offices and the kitchen, was, “I know, I know. Boss is gonna flip his shit.”

The second thing was, “No, Micah, that isn’t edible!”

Nico groaned.

Steeling himself for the worst, he shrugged off the leather jacket he’d rode to the restaurant in and shouldered open the swinging door to the kitchen. Boss is gonna flip his shit and that isn’t edible, while not particularly pleasant greetings, weren’t particularly rare coming out of his employees’ mouths, either. It couldn’t be that bad.

Yeah, not that bad; only crisis, disaster, fire raining down from the heavens

Instead of the foretold Day of Judgment, though, Nico found Jason Grace, his executive chef, and Percy Jackson, his sous chef, sitting at the spindly wooden table they used for planning meals and taking breaks. The sleek, stainless steel appliances and shining countertops were nearly spotless, almost precisely how Nico had left the room the night before. In fact, it still smelled a little like cleaning product. The only addition was a stack of coloring books and an aggressively orange sippy cup, balanced haphazardly on the edge of the counter.

Percy held his five-year-old daughter, Micah, on his knee, bouncing her gently and trying to pry a wooden spoon from her grasp. She kept leaning forward to gnaw on the end, and Nico breathed a little easier when he understood that that was what the ‘that isn’t edible’ comment was referencing.

“Hi,” he said, and both Jason and Percy whipped around to face him. Was it his imagination, or did they look a little shifty?

Jason lifted a hand and grinned at him. “Hey, boss. We were expecting you awhile ago.”

“Bike wouldn’t start,” Nico grumbled, pulling up a chair to sit down next to them.

Micah reached out for Nico, squealing, “Uncle Nicky!” in her lispy, toddler-high voice. Nico smiled and held his arms out for her, allowing her to scramble up into his lap. Percy reached out and ruffled a hand through her crown of blond curls, an affectionate, slightly exhausted smile on his face.

“We’re thinking of changing the menu for tonight,” Jason said, pushing his thick-rimmed glasses up his nose. “We’re running low on thyme and coriander, so we might have to go a different direction with the specials.”

Nico nodded. “That’s fine. Bring back the salmon from last summer; that was one of our best sellers, and I think we’ve got a surplus from this morning’s delivery.”

“Good call.” Jason scribbled something down on a pad of paper. “Other than that, I think it’s just business as usual…?” He glanced up at Percy again, and Nico definitely wasn’t imagining the shifty eyes this time.

Micah blew her nose in the collar of his shirt and Nico winced. “Ew.”

“Ah, sorry.” Percy reached over and scooped Micah off Nico’s lap, pressing a kiss to the top of her head. “That’s not nice, you little bully. Apologize to Uncle Nicky.”

“Ugh.” Nico pulled a face. “Please never, ever call me that again.”

The doors at the other end of the kitchen swung open, and Annabeth Chase marched in, already in the smart suit coat and pressed slacks of her position as maître d’. She crossed the room quickly, fixing Jason and Percy in a sharp glare.

“You told him already, I presume.”

The two men winced.

“I was planning to,” Percy defended himself, cradling Micah to his chest like she would protect him (instead, she gurgled and chirped, “Mommy!”).

Jason nodded, a little desperately. “Yeah! There just wasn’t…” His voice began to die at the extremely narrow, extremely dangerous look on Annabeth’s face. “Um. There wasn’t… a good… opening?”

“We really were going to—” Percy began, and Annabeth started snapping something along the lines of, “Thank you for exactly nothing, Seaweed Brain—”

“Tell me what, exactly?” Nico interrupted, raising his voice to be heard over their bickering.

All three fell silent. Percy leapt to his feet, swinging Micah up onto his shoulders and shouting, “Time for a potty break!”

After he was gone, Nico repeated his question, a note of frustration creeping into his voice.

Annabeth sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose, jerking her head towards the front of the building while Jason inspected his fingernails. “I think you’re going to want to see it for yourself.”

 

It turned out, there wasn’t much to see. And that was mostly due to the fact that, directly across the street from the restaurant, was a large, boxy truck the ugliest shade of luminescent yellow Nico had ever seen before, and it took up about seventy percent of the view out the wall of windows that made up the front of the building.

There was an enormous, smiling sun emblazoned on the side, along with the words FOOD FOR THE SOL.

“What the fuck is that,” Nico said.

“A food truck,” Jason supplied, and then he leaped about a foot and a half backwards when Nico swung around to glare at him.

“I can see it’s a fucking food truck, Grace,” Nico snarled. “What I would like to know is why the fuck it’s parked outside my restaurant.”

“Oh,” Jason said. “Good question. I don’t know.”

“It’s been there all afternoon,” Annabeth said.

Nico pressed his fingers against his temples. “It looks like a traffic cone and a Crayola crayon mated and their offspring threw up a vehicle.”

Jason snorted and then quickly muffled his laughter with his hand.

Nico sighed and pushed his hands through his hair, twisting his fingers and pulling a little. “I’m getting too old for this.”

“You’re twenty-five, sir,” Annabeth pointed out.

“Irrelevant.”

Jason bounced up and down on the balls of his feet. “Want me to go get rid of it?”

Nico scowled. “Not worth it. It’s obvious they don’t serve the same type of food as us, so they won’t really be affecting our clientele.”

“It’s more the fact that it’s an eyesore,” Annabeth said. “To say the least.”

“No kidding,” Nico muttered. He drew in another deep breath and straightened his tie. “It’ll be fine. One day of looking at an ugly-ass van isn’t going to kill anyone.”

Back in the kitchen, there was a crash and a yelp of, “Micah, no, don’t touch that!” Nico gestured for Annabeth to go help her husband and she nodded, touching a hand to Nico’s shoulder as she passed, leaving Nico to stand by the door, glaring at the offending food truck like that would make it leave.

 

Nico wasn’t lying: one day of having the truck parked out in front of their restaurant would be more than manageable. But then Nico showed up to work on Friday, and there it was, yet again, in the same godforsaken place, glowing the same godforsaken shade of minion-yellow.

“What do you think, sir?” Annabeth asked him, when he walked out into the dining area and almost collapsed.

“I think I’m going to punch whoever owns that piece of crap in the throat.” But Friday came and Friday went, and Nico kept his fury in check, consoling himself with the idea that surely, surely the truck would be gone in the morning.

It wasn’t. And it wasn’t gone the next day, either. Or the day after that. In fact, it was becoming increasingly clear – by the lines stretching out along the sidewalk, all leading to the truck, and by word of mouth Nico was catching when he walked on the street – that the truck was all set to become a regular fixture.

A week passed before Nico finally snapped.

The crowd outside the truck was especially rowdy that night, and the lovely owner had decided to blast the worst collection of pop music known to man, accompanied by flashing colored lights and the occasional cheer. Nico was seething, several customers were complaining, and it wasn’t even dark out yet, for God’s sake – was the disco ball really necessary?

“I’ll go talk to them, boss,” Jason offered, but Nico shook his head.

“Thanks, but I think I’ll take this one.” A muscle jumped in his jaw. Jason gulped.

“Don’t do anything that’ll get you arrested.”

“Great, thanks, Mom.”

Jason’s smile was closer to a shudder.

 

Nico stormed out onto the street after making sure that his clothing was pristine, his hair flopping the correct direction, his shoes unscuffed. He’d never much cared what people thought of him, but tonight there was a hot, knotted coil of anger in his stomach, and his veins were pulsing with the virulent desire to look smart, composed, professional.

After all, he had the distinct feeling that whoever owned the Kmart-knockoff Mystery Machine was an enormous, disgusting slob. And an asshole. Probably some fat-ass balding jerk-off having his midlife crisis.

Nico hated him already.

Instead of waiting in the winding, serpentine queue at the front of the truck, Nico crossed to the metal door in the back and banged on it sharply. He only had to wait a couple seconds before it was being swung open, and a dark-haired guy, probably around Nico’s age, was sticking his head out.

“Yo,” he said, his voice loud and brass and colored with a heavy Hispanic accent. “Line starts in front.” He paused, looked Nico up and down, and then drawled, “Obviously.”

There was something about this guy that set Nico’s nerves on edge immediately, his large, brown eyes too clever – almost dangerous – his grin too pointed, the set of his shoulders too cocky. He was probably good-looking, Nico thought, all dark skin and lean muscles and messy black curls. But his handsomeness was undercut by a kinetic sense of trouble, making him attractive in a call-the-cops, clutch-your-purse kind of way.

“You in charge, here?” Nico asked him.

“Nah, bro,” the guy answered. “Though, even if I was, I still wouldn’t let you cut the line.”

Nico raised an eyebrow. “I’m here to see the manager, not eat my weight in French fries.”

The guy looked a little surprised, and then he laughed. “Your loss, ese.” He looked over his shoulder and shouted, “Oi, Will! Some hot, angry dude in a suit is here to see you.” Inside the truck was an unintelligible answer and what sounded like a pan falling.

Truck Employee #1 – his nametag identified him as Hi-my-name-is Leo – looked back at Nico and grinned at him. “He’ll be with you in a second.” And then the door slammed shut in Nico’s face.

Nico shouted, “Hey!” but the door stayed shut, and so he slumped against the side of the truck, keeping his arms tucked tight across his chest.

There was more clattering from inside, Leo’s voice mumbling and another answering him back, and then the door swung open again, and the manager stepped out, walking backwards, carrying a crate full of empty bottles.

“Jeez, I’m so sorry about that, Leo can be a little… abrasive.”

“That’s one word for it,” Nico agreed, while Food Truck Guy set the crate on the ground, rolled his shoulders, and straightened up.

“My name’s Will,” he said, turning around to face Nico. “I’m the owner. Is there something I can help you with?”

Nico blinked.

He opened his mouth.

And then he closed it again.

The only thing he could think was okay, looks like I was a little off on the whole “fat, balding jerk-off” thing.

Actually, “a little off” was probably the greatest understatement known to man, because it turned out that Food Truck Guy was probably the single most beautiful person Nico had ever seen. There was something impossibly vibrant about him, something alive and kinetic and almost painful to look at. He matched the summer impeccably, his eyes the brightest shade of blue Nico had ever seen, his hair golden and flyaway and pulled into a messy stub of a ponytail at the base of his skull. The smile he offered Nico was wide and genuine, framed by half-moon dimples. He was taller and broader than Nico, wearing torn jeans and a ratty U2 t-shirt that looked like it was from the 1980’s, both splattered with food stains.

Freckles, Nico’s mind supplied, and Nico wanted to kick himself.

“You’re parked in front of my restaurant,” was all he could think to say.

Will blinked at him, and then over at Fantasma Re. “Oh, is that your restaurant? Wow, that’s incredible. It looks really nice in there!”

“That’s not really the point,” Nico growled, anger seeping back into his system and taking some of the edge off the shock. “You’re disturbing my customers. I keep getting complaints.”

Will’s eyes widened, his smile wilting. “Oh, my gosh! I’m so, so sorry! I didn’t realize the music was disturbing anybody. We’ll turn it down a bit.”

“Great,” Nico said. “I wouldn’t want you to damage your eardrums as you drive away.”

(Nice. Smooth, di Angelo. Way to break it to the guy easy.)

Will’s eyebrows furrowed, his expression becoming less open and a little wounded. “Sorry, what? Drive… away?”

Well, since Nico was already being a dick…

“Drive. Away. You.” Nico pointed at the truck, deliberately making his voice as slow and condescending as possible. “Tonight. Sooner rather than later would be preferable, though I don’t really care as long as you’re gone by tomorrow.”

The hurt on Will’s face was shifting, rearranging. It looked like he was struggling to re-find his smile, but without much luck. Awkwardly, he reached up and scrubbed a hand through his hair, shifting nervously from foot to foot.

“Ah,” he said. “Well. I’m sorry, but I don’t think that’s gonna happen.”

Nico narrowed his eyes. “Why the fuck not.”

“Business is good here.” Will grimaced. “All the other decent places are taken. I want to be in a nice neighborhood. This is close to most of my employees’ houses. I can’t afford the moving expenses right now. Lots of reasons.”

“You’re a nuisance,” Nico growled, “and I was here first.” Shit, was that too far? He was starting to feel like a whiny kid, and he wasn’t here to a pick a fight… His prickle of regret faded, though, when Will raised an icy eyebrow, the sunshine child persona all but vanished.

“Well, you know what they say. ‘All’s fair in love and war,’ and whatnot. I suppose you’re just going to have to deal with me.” He chuckled a little. “Sorry to inconvenience you.”

“I’ll call the police,” Nico said.

“I have a permit, short-stack.”

Short-stack?!

Nico’s jaw dropped.

Will’s mouth twitched. “Is there anything else I can help you with?”

If I haul off and punch him, right here, right now, how much trouble will I be in?

A lot, probably.

Nico took in a deep, shuddering breath through his nose and said, his voice extremely low, “You won’t move.”

“Nope!” There it was. The grin was back, in full force.

“Great,” Nico breathed. “Awesome. Really fucking brilliant.”

Will’s eyes stayed gentle, but his expression looked much less welcoming now, a lot more like the kid Leo who answered the door. “I really am sorry,” he lilted. “It’ll be a pleasure being neighbors with you! Please take care of me.”

Too fast – unbelievably fast – he reached out and shook Nico’s hand. His fingers were large and warm and calloused, and Nico thought he’d probably be swooning if he wasn’t so close to committing murder.

“It was a pleasure to meet you.”

The touch, as well as that dangerous grin, lingered just a little too long, Will's eyes searing holes into Nico’s skin. And then, abruptly, he spun around and jumped back into the truck, leaving Nico standing alone on the street, staring at the truck’s chipping paint and wondering if he’d ever been this close to homicidal.

Chapter Text

Like most of the things in Will Solace’s life, the food truck happened by accident.

His cousin and partner in crime, Lou Ellen, liked to say that Will lived a life of happenstance. This wasn’t a particularly good thing or a particularly bad thing, she insisted – it just was. Will lived and breathed and did his best, and the current swept him along for the ride.

Once, when they were teenagers, she pointed towards the sky and said, in her best, most dramatic whisper, “Something up there has a plan for you. You’ll see.”

At the time, that sounded cool to Will. Having a destiny was novel and special, like a hero in a story, like a warrior on a Grecian battlefield. Will grew up, though, and things fell apart, and now he knew better.

If what Lou Ellen said was true, and something up there had a plan for him, then that something had a really, really nasty sense of humor.

And so, he ended up parked by the sidewalk in a van the color of vomit, moving from city street to city street, trying to eke out enough money to make a living. As a kid, Will never planned on selling sandwiches on the cheap in questionable neighborhoods. That would be a seriously weird thing to aspire for: “Mom, when I grow up, I want to drive a shitty van and sell children underpriced food!” If he’d talked like that at the age of twelve, he’d probably have been kicked out of the house. But instead it was, “Mom, when I grow up, I want to be a doctor and travel around the world and save lives!”

Well, look which one turned out to be more realistic. Take that, College Board. Suck a dick, high school counselors everywhere.

He guessed he was lucky, in a way, that he knew his way around a checkbook and Lou Ellen made some of the best specialty sandwiches on the East Coast. If the stars hadn’t aligned in that way, at the beginning, they would’ve been sunk straight off the bat. But, by some miraculous twist of fate, they stayed afloat instead, and time passed, and word spread about how Lou Ellen’s fries were basically a religious experience and nothing short of magical. After a couple months, they’d made enough extra to hire actual, legit employees.

Piper McLean was first, to help with expenses and management. She also turned out to be a born saleswoman, with a kind of natural persuasiveness that made Will a little nervous, sometimes. She was the one who suggested they bring Rachel Elizabeth Dare on, who handled advertising and volunteered to paint the truck the ugliest color yellow she could find, “to raise awareness and visibility.”

Leo Valdez was last, because Lou Ellen needed help in the kitchen, and she wanted them to be able to stay open on the days she couldn’t come in.

It took a long time for Will to get used to other voices in the truck besides Lou Ellen’s and his own. But, just like he got used to the idea of owning a food truck, he got used to the extra help, too. And it turned out that Piper and Rachel were both great people, and Leo… Well, Leo tended to set stuff on fire a lot. Though he did make a mean hamburger.

So, yeah, the food truck – and the food truck’s staff – happened by accident. But it was one of the only genuinely good things in Will’s life anymore. So he clung to it, immersed himself in it, and let the current of happenstance drag him under, beat him bloody against the rocks, until the pressure was too much and his lungs were straining and he couldn’t breathe.

(After all, the truth is this: there’s nothing cool or novel or special about being a hero, a warrior. Heroes die tragic deaths, thousands of miles away from home, bleeding out onto foreign soil.)

 

Will didn’t really regret telling the restaurant owner from across the street to stuff it. Slamming the door in his face might have been a little excessive, yeah, and he probably shouldn’t have gone for the height jab (the guy really wasn’t that short, maybe four or five inches smaller than Will), but Will wasn’t one to put up with outright insults, especially not from people like him.

You know the type. People who ran around in pristine, neatly pressed, collared shirts, paired with fancy ties and shiny shoes that looked like they’d marched right off Fifth Ave. People who wore their affluence like a fact, a self-evident truth. People who wrinkled their nose when they looked at Will. Those people didn’t have the right to give Will a hard time. He’d decided that years ago.

After their argument ended, Will remained with his back pressed against the closed door for probably too long, straining his ears for footsteps over the canned drumbeat of Leo’s top-40 radio station. His blood was pumping too fast, adrenaline pumping through his veins like venom.

(This happened every time he was forced into a confrontation. His hands shook, his tongue tasted of sandpaper and regret, and his chest felt like there was something very heavy perched on top of it. It was an unfortunate side effect of caring about what other people thought of you.)

You’re a nuisance, he’d said, his fine, well-crafted, almost aristocratic features hardening. I was here first.

“Rude,” Will muttered.

“What’s rude?” a voice asked beside him, loud and cheerful.

Will very nearly jumped out of his skin. Next to him, Leo’s face split into a wide, silken grin, and he leaned closer, lowering his voice conspiratorially.

“So,” he drawled, and Will inwardly groaned. “What did Short-and-Hot-and-Angry want with you?”

Across the cluttered truck, at the open takeout window, Piper looked up from a customer to shoot Will a surprised glance. “Short-and-Hot-and-Who?” she demanded, before turning back to thank the woman outside for her business and to hand her a small stack of change.

“There was a guy outside asking for Will,” Leo explained, with an expression similar to an animal cornering its pray. “He was short, and hot, and angry. Now you’re caught up.”

Piper’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh-ho? Who was it, Will?”

“He looked pretty upscale, actually,” Leo added. “Like a lawyer, or… I don’t know. A male model, or something. No tattoos in sight.”

“My tattoos aren’t in sight,” Will grumbled, pressing a hand on his collarbone, where ink blossomed like springtime underneath the worn fabric of his t-shirt. “And, anyway, he wasn’t here for me personally. He’s the owner of the restaurant across the street. He came here to tell us to move.”

Leo straightened up, his hand on his hip and his countenance crestfallen. “Huh. Well, that’s boring. I thought maybe you’d finally gotten laid.”

Will grabbed the nearest package of hamburger buns and flung it at his head. Leo dodged neatly.

“Get back to work.”

“Sir, yes sir.” Leo crossed the truck, swaying his hips to the beat of an electronic amalgamation that barely passed for music. “You did think he was hot, though.”

“I thought he was a jerk,” Will muttered.

Leo raised an eyebrow. “A hot jerk.”

“Shut up, Valdez.”

Finishing with the last customer in line, Piper turned around and cleared her throat. “Boys. Focus. Not to rain on your awkward, testosterone-fueled parade, but I need to know what happened. What actually happened.”

“It was fine for, like, thirty seconds,” Will said, pouting. (That was only partially true. There was a current of anger that had seemed to run under the other man’s skin from the beginning, a kind of itchy kinetic heat that Will wasn’t sure he understood, but was hard to look away from. Plus, Will had felt supremely stupid, wearing his ancient t-shirt and ripped jeans next to that guy’s 007 get-up.) “He seemed… frustrated, I guess? And tired? And then he swore at me and called me a nuisance. And then it was decidedly not fine.”

“And did you tell him we’d move?” Piper asked, a little incredulously.

Will snorted. “No way in hell. I just told you, the guy’s a jackass.”

Piper hesitated, chewing on her lip thoughtfully. “You didn’t insult him, did you? Trouble with the neighbors would really, really not be a good thing right now. I know I don’t have to tell you that. This spot is good – great, actually – but if we have to move—”

“We’re not moving,” Will said stubbornly. “This guy could show up tomorrow begging on his knees, and I would not move this truck an inch.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Piper said, but the exasperation in her voice was tinged with affection. “Do you want to talk to Lou Ellen about it?”

Will scowled. “No. She’s back home until Monday. It’s not worth bothering her about.”

“Okay,” Piper acquiesced with a shrug. “It’s your decision. But please try not to antagonize this guy anymore. The last thing we need is a court case on our hands.”

 

Will spent the rest of the day in a distracted haze, losing track of what he was doing, putting spices back on the wrong shelves, trying to use dishwasher fluid to clean the countertops. When he cut his finger slicing tomatoes, he barely felt it; it was like Death Boy’s face was implanted into his brain.

Yeah, the nickname was stupid, but it was all he had, seeing as how, in his hurry to insult Will, he’d forgotten to introduce himself.

It was a little after the height of the dinner hour that Piper finally got fed up with him and told him to go home. “Leo and I will handle closing up,” she assured him. “You’ve been stumbling around looking like you saw a ghost all day.”

“Wait, I need to—”

“You’ll just be getting in our way, anyway,” Piper assured him. “Go get some rest, all right? And try to show up focused tomorrow, please.”

Will nodded and took his apron off, hanging on a hook by the back door, taking one last cursory glance around before Piper groaned, “Just go, Will,” and all but booted him out the door.

It had been a long time since Will had left the truck before the sun went down. Usually, it was well after dark, when there was little chance of anyone happening by and deciding on a whim they wanted grilled chicken. The sky was stained a million shades of red, above the jagged, iron skyline. It was like the city was bleeding, the susurration of millions of people moving and breathing and living akin to the pumping of blood through veins.

Will wasn’t sure how he felt about living in New York, yet. The expanse was too great, the churn of humans too strong. It made him feel small.

Across the street, Fantasma Re Ristoranteglowed with a golden sort of light. The front of the restaurant was all windows, and Will could see rows and rows of small, white-draped tables, arranged neatly and gracefully, stretching to the back wall. The interior looked warm and rustic, candle-lit, with wooden detailing and an arching ceiling. At the front of the restaurant, a pretty blond woman stood at the maître d’s podium, talking to a patron. She gestured at the domed fresco above, her face animated, and the patron nodded politely, casting their eyes upwards, as well.

Will wondered, briefly, whether Death Boy was in there, too, talking to customers, maybe cooking.

The scowl had fit his face so comfortably; Will wondered whether he ever smiled at all.

But that was stupid, and pointless, and pure speculation in any case. It didn’t matter to Will whether Death Boy ever smiled. What mattered to Will was going home, and walking around with no pants on, and potentially drinking wine until his vision got blurry.

So he turned his back on both the truck and the restaurant, setting off down a side street in the direction of his apartment. He walked purposefully, his hands in his pockets, thoughts of the disastrous argument fading away, replaced with the prospect of marathoning a season of Cutthroat Kitchen on Netflix.

Then he passed an alleyway, in which the single prettiest motorcycle he’d ever seen was parked, gleaming in the dying light, like the Holy Grail, sent by God himself. The owner was standing next to it, his back to Will, wearing a helmet and a leather jacket and a very, very tight pair of black skinny jeans.

Okay, fate was just mocking him now.

He couldn’t stop himself from making a small, surprised, rather embarrassing squeaking noise. The owner of the bike jumped a little and glanced over his shoulder, his torso twisting gracefully.

Will froze. “Ah, sorry! I’m sorry – I was just – your bike – is nice…”

The guy turned around fully, very slowly. He stayed mute, but Will could feel his eyes on him like they were burning holes into his skin.

Well, that was only fair. He probably thought Will was going to jump him and steal his motorcycle, or something. Will would be suspicious, too.

“Sorry for bothering you,” Will said again, backing up slowly. “I’ll just—”

And then the guy removed his helmet, and Will’s stomach plummeted.

“You can come look at it if you want,” Death Boy said. It almost sounded like a challenge. “I’m not gonna bite you.”

Will gaped at him.

He’d changed clothes – lost the slacks and the dress shoes, replacing them with a black t-shirt that just said ‘WHAT.’ in huge, white letters, and scuffed Doc Martins. His hair was mussed by the helmet and falling into his eyes, and he held himself differently, somehow, his shoulders more relaxed. Still, Will should’ve recognized him. The deliberate, artful slope of him, like he was built from premium parts. The iron in his gaze.

He matched the bike, Will thought, numbly.

“If you don’t want to, that’s fine, you know,” Death Boy said. Was it Will’s imagination, or did he seem a little uncomfortable? He kept shifting from foot to foot, twirling the helmet in his hands.

“No,” Will said, very quickly. “I want to look.”

Death Boy nodded hesitantly and then stepped back, allowing Will to approach the bike, brushing his hands over it almost reverently.

“This looks like the newest make.”

Death Boy nodded again, sharper this time. “It was a gift from my father.”

Will whistled. “Generous father.”

“Yeah, something like that.” Death Boy’s mouth twisted, and he reached up to run a hand through his hair. Will found himself following the motion, raking his eyes across the delicate lines of his features.

The setting sun sent shadows over his already olive-toned skin. His eyelashes were long and thick and dark, fluttering against high cheekbones. That leather jacket fit him really, really well, hugging the curves of his shoulders, the slope of his biceps. And the skinny jeans—

He’s beautiful, Will realized, with a blow like a punch to the stomach. Not hot. Hot didn’t cover it.

“I’ve always wanted one,” Will confessed, forcing himself to look at the motorcycle instead of the guy. “Never had the funds, though.”

“So you ended up with a food truck instead. Logical.”

Will stiffened, but there was no venom in Death Boy’s tone. In fact, there was an undercurrent of quiet amusement, his mouth twitching, his gaze locked firmly on the motorcycle.

“Did you just… make a joke?” Will asked incredulously.

Death Boy sniffed. “What, is that not allowed?”

Will shrugged. “No, it is. Guess I just assumed you always acted like you had a stick stuck up your ass.”

For a second, he thought the guy might get on his bike and run Will over, but instead he just grimaced and twisted his fingers in his bangs a little harder.

“Ah, right. Yeah. About that—”

Will’s eyebrows shot up. “Really? An apology, too? You’re full of surprises, Death Boy.”

Oops.

“Death Boy?!”

“Heh.” It was Will’s turn to shift uncomfortably, trying to shake the weight of his gaze. “Well, you never told me your name, so…”

He looked highly affronted, his features arranging themselves into a deep scowl that made the nickname seem increasingly appropriate. “Don’t call me Death Boy,” he said.

Will probably should’ve left it at that. He’d decided he wasn’t going to get mixed up with this guy, that he was going to stay away and mind his own business and run the truck like the humble hamburger farmer he was. But there was something about him that stuck on Will, like a burr catching on clothes.

“Not Death Boy?” Will said, in mock alarm. “What should I call you, then?”

A pause, long and leaden. And then, grudgingly: “Nico. Di Angelo.”

Will felt, absurdly, like he’d won some grand victory.

“I’m Will Solace.” Will beamed at him. “You have a pretty name.”

“Eat my ass.”

Will snorted, and Nico’s mouth twitched again, like he wasn’t sure whether to laugh or not.

“I wasn’t going to apologize, I’ll have you know,” Nico informed him. “Not for telling you to leave. That truck is an eyesore.”

“Yeah, but she’s my eyesore.” Will shrugged. “What were you going to apologize for, then?”

Nico gritted his teeth, then said, albeit reluctantly, “I shouldn’t have yelled at you. That was… lame.”

Will tapped his chin pensively. “Hmmm. Not very heartfelt. Want to try again, maybe with more groveling and compliments? Here, I’ll get you started: Oh, great and powerful William Solace, lord of the food truck, please accept my humble apology. I am not worthy to—”

Nico looked genuinely scandalized. “That’s not gonna happen,” he said.

Will sighed. “Oh, well. I tried.” He took one last look at the bike, allowed himself one last glance at Nico, and then turned around, waving. “It was nice seeing you again, Death Boy!”

“Oi! Move your truck, Solace!”

 

The next day, there was a bang on the truck door a little before six in the evening. Will answered instead of Leo, trying to wipe a little of the flour off his face.

“At least turn the music down,” Nico growled, his arms folded over his chest.

Will grinned at him. “Want a sandwich? We’ve got extra.”

“No, I do not want a sandwich,” Nico huffed. “I want you to—”

Will spun around and flipped a burger off the grill, neatly dropping it onto a bun and covering it with veggies and condiments.

“Did you have to paint it yellow?” Nico was grumbling, when he returned. “Why not, like, white or black or something?”

“I do it all for the aesthetic, my friend,” Will chirped. “You want fries with that?”

Chapter Text

Riding a motorcycle was a lot like being weightless.

The feeling wasn’t the same in the city, where congested traffic and the constant hum of millions of lives sat on your shoulders constantly. There is something limiting about the reminder of humanity, and Nico felt it most acutely on the forty-some-odd-minute ride from the restaurant in Manhattan to his apartment in Brooklyn.

On the bike, on a highway, was the closest thing Nico had ever come to flying.

Even if it wasn’t quite the same on the congested city streets, riding still helped Nico think. It was like he was putting distance between his mind and his body, letting his consciousness do the thinking while his muscle-memory took over. Squeeze the clutch here. Brake now. Avoid this pothole. Breathe.

(“You’re going to want to take a look at the numbers for this month,” Annabeth had said, before he left that night. Just like that, like she was commenting on the Mets score, or the weather. Shit fell apart and disaster struck and Annabeth was always calm.

But Nico had known her for a long, long time now. And so it wasn’t hard to peel back the mask of professional detachment.

He’d known, without looking at the numbers – from the twist to her face and the glint of steel in her eyes – that it wasn’t good news.)

“Shit,” Nico whispered. The wind whipped his voice away. “Shit, shit, shit.”

The traffic stayed clogged as he wound his way onto the Williamsburg Bridge and out of Manhattan. Nico was starting to feel chained, trapped, itchy – he wanted to speed, to lose himself down a straight shot of road, nothing in front of him and nothing behind. Wanted to pull himself away from the earth and—

You have a pretty name.

“Shit,” he repeated. “God-fucking-dammit.”

As if the numbers weren’t enough. As if stressing about running the restaurant wasn’t enough. Now there was something else clinging to his skin, sitting in his lungs.

Nico didn’t understand Will Solace.

He didn’t understand Will’s smiles, how easily he dispensed them, no trace of cynicism or ulterior motives. He didn’t understand Will’s dedication to that goddamn food truck. He didn’t understand the way Will kept welcoming him with a sandwich and a good-natured wisecrack, even after he’d found an excuse to make his way across the street and complain every single day that week.

Worst of all, Nico didn’t understand himself.

That was one thing Nico couldn’t stand for. He’d lived on a borderline for so long, confused about what he wanted and what he felt and what he hoped. He wasn’t going back to that, to the fear and the shaking and the middle-of-the-night anxiety attacks. No way. No way in hell.

He needed to be in control of himself. But he couldn’t do that around Will Solace.

Squeeze the clutch here. Brake now. Avoid this pothole. Breathe.

It was nice seeing you again, Death Boy.

Shit, shit, fuck.

 

When Nico got home, the air in his apartment was thick with classic rock music and the smell of sautéed onions.

“I didn’t give you a spare key so you could break in here and pilfer my food,” Nico shouted. The volume of the music rose exponentially as he spoke, drowning out the end of his sentence, so he sighed and tossed his jacket onto a hook by the door, kicking his boots off.

Nico’s apartment was on the third floor of an elderly, mid-level, brick monstrosity in the Park Slope neighborhood in Brooklyn. The place had been a bit of a source of contention in the di Angelo family (although, to be fair, what hadn’t been a source of contention in the di Angelo family?); Hades had been reluctant to let him move out already, and announcing he was taking out a lease on this place wasn’t exactly good for the father-son dynamic.

If Nico was being completely honest, he’d say that the whole building seemed liable to collapse at any moment. The floors complained loudly when you stepped on them, the pipes groaned in a sonorous symphony, and, if you looked too closely at the windows, you could see the way the glass had dripped downwards, like liquid, after years and years of wear and tear. The air was vaguely musty, heavy with the smell of old building.

When Hades visited for the first time, he’d looked a bit like Nico had smacked him between the eyes.

“It’s got character,” Nico had assured him.

“Yes, well, so did Count Dracula,” Hades replied dryly, adjusting the lapels of his pristine business suit, “but I don’t see you trying to move in with him.”

It transpired pretty quickly that ‘Count Dracula’ wasn’t actually that far off from what Nico got: the landlady turned out to be one of Hades’ old employees. Mrs. Dodds was a decrepit woman about as ancient as the building. Her face was permanently twisted, as if she’d smelled something horrible once and the stench had clung to her ever since. It was abundantly clear from the get-go that any trace of personality in her apartment building was not only entirely unwelcome; she took quirkiness, art, and personality as personal insults.

And that was the only reason Hades had let Nico stay. “Alecto is a lovely woman,” he’d said, a little smugly, like he knew exactly how much Nico was suffering. “She’ll be sure to keep an eye on things for me.”

Unfortunately for Hades and his new favorite hag, neither had banked on Hazel Levesque. And when Hazel Levesque was in the kitchen, the world couldn’t help but take on color.

“Can you at least turn it down?” Nico shouted now, hopping on one leg as he tried to peel his socks off his feet. “I don’t want the Tanakas to call the damn cops on me again.”

“That was one time.” The volume on the radio decreased dramatically, and then his half-sister was sticking her head around the corner and pointing a large spoon at him. “One time. And it was Jason’s fault.”

“What are you making?”

“Stir-fry! Come help me.”

The kitchen was the only part of Nico’s apartment that he liked. The walls were covered in naked bricks, and the sloping ceiling and old windows retained the apartment’s “character,” but Mrs. Dodds had allowed him to completely replace the appliances, redo the floors, rearrange the countertops. Now, the room was the perfect mix of old-world and sleek, historical and modern. (Even Hades had had to give Nico props.)

Hazel was dancing around the island countertop, alternating between stirring the mixture of veggies and meat she had simmering in a large, cast-iron wok, and checking a pot of pasta, trying to keep it from boiling over. There were several cookbooks splayed around the room, utensils haphazardly dropped on the table, and the fridge had been left open slightly; Nico bumped it closed with his hip as he passed.

“Smells good,” he commented, turning the heat down on the noodles and replacing the pot’s lid. “What’s the occasion?”

Hazel pouted and blew a few stray corkscrew curls out of her face. “Does there have to be an occasion? Maybe I just wanted to spend time with my big brother—”

Nico snorted.

“All right, all right.” She sighed, added some more soy sauce to the mixture on the stove. “Frank told me you guys had a bit of a rough week. I thought I should stop by.”

He winced.

“You don’t need to worry about me. You should be concentrating on finishing your degree. Did you come here straight from class?”

“What if I did?” She raised an eyebrow at him, shook her spoon a little threateningly. “I’m your sister. It’s my job to worry.”

“Sister, not babysitter,” he reminded her gently, giving the pasta one last stir before lifting it off the stove to drain.

Hazel waved an airy hand. “Same thing.”

Nico grabbed plates down from the cabinets and passed them to Hazel. She spooned the food out in silence, making sure everything was shut off and settling down at the table before speaking again.

“So,” she said, around a mouthful of broccoli. “What’s going on?”

Nico took a bite before answering. “This is good, Hazel. What’s in it?”

“I’ll leave you the recipe. Are you ignoring me on purpose?”

He sighed, pushed the food around on his plate, and tried not to meet her eyes. “All right, all right. Sorry. We’re just having some money problems.”

Hazel clicked her tongue sympathetically. “Is the basement again?”

“That fucking basement,” Nico groaned. “The leaks are getting worse. We need to renovate if we want to comply with the city’s health codes, but we can’t do that and worry about making new hires. If business keeps expanding—”

She chuckled. “Never would’ve thought lots of customers would be a bad thing.”

“Tell me about it.” Nico took another bite of his dinner, probably a little more violently than was strictly necessary.

“You could ask Dad for help.”

“Maybe when I’m fucking dead and gone.”

“That’s the spirit.” She shook her head, the expression on her face torn between amusement and exasperation. “Is there something else? You look like there’s something else.”

He hesitated, then said, “Did Frank also tell you about our new neighbors?”

Hazel raised an eyebrow and leaned forward, cradling her face in her hands. “No. What new neighbors?”

Nico launched into the whole story, from the first day that the truck showed up, to his first confrontation with Will, to their weird acquaintanceship now. He could hear the volume of his voice changing as he spoke, and he knew he was betraying his frustration – he always gestured a lot when he got annoyed, talked with his hands, let the rhythm of his words speed up. Hazel watched with an expression of intrigued bemusement.

“And now,” he finished, his breathing a little irregular, his shoulders a little tense, “every time I go over there, he just grins at me and offers me a sandwich or French fries or – or – a bag of chips or something, like he’s trying to win me over. He’s so fucking stubborn—”

“It sounds like you like him,” Hazel observed cheerfully.

Nico stared at her.

“Were… were you listening to anything I said, just there?”

She rolled her eyes. “Of course I was. Look, I haven’t met the guy, but it kind of seems to me that you and Will Solace are a lot alike. You’ve both got a persistent streak a mile wide.”

“If you’re trying to say that we’re both idiots, I don’t think that’s a great common characteristic to base a relationship on,” Nico grumbled.

Hazel pointed at him. “He didn’t take your shit, and now you like him. Don’t lie to me, Nico. You hate when people tiptoe around you. Will Solace… well, I know you don’t want to hear this, but he’ll probably be good for you.”

Nico took another aggressive bite of stir-fry.

She laughed.

 

Hazel was right, of course (Hazel was almost always right, at least when it came to stuff like this). That was the problem.

Nico had spent most of his life being avoided. People broke eye contact with him because he made them nervous; they nodded and apologized too much when he spoke, like they were worried he was going to deck them one if they said something wrong; they whispered about him in low voices, cast dirty looks at his back, reached for their cellphones when he passed.

It was worse in high school. That was one nice thing about drowning in a concrete sea – it strangled you slowly, yeah, but at least it gave you some anonymity while you asphyxiated. But, back upstate, everybody knew Nico. The weird kid who lost his sister, who showed up at school with dark circles under his eyes, who spent three years of high school dying his hair flashy colors, and then stopped coming altogether.

Everybody looked at him, but nobody saw him. He was used to it by now. It was part of the trademarked Nico di Angelo Package.

But Will… was different. An exception.

(This was the first time Nico realized that Will Solace was always going to be the exception.)

 

The next morning, Nico slept through both alarms.

He wasn’t really dreaming, exactly. He wouldn’t have described it as a dream, anyway. There were just colors, all bleeding and blending into one, the half-formed idea of an emotion, the memory of a touch. Stars became freckles became gold. Fluid. Warm. Hopeful.

Shattered, when he woke up and he was an hour and a half late and had fourteen missed calls from Jason, as well as three texts asking him where the hell he was. He got dressed quickly, yanked a beanie over his head instead of brushing his hair, and didn’t bother making sure his socks matched before rushing out the door.

He called Jason on his way out, holding his phone between his cheek and his shoulder as he rushed around. Jason answered on the second ring.

“Thank God. I thought you were dead, boss.”

“Not dead, just sleeping,” Nico grumbled, shoving his jacket on one sleeve at a time. “What’s so urgent?”

“Oh, nothing, I was just worried.”

Nico almost flung his phone at the wall. “So nobody’s dying.”

“Right!”

“And nothing is burning.”

“Nope!”

“And there is no immediate crisis.”

“Well, unless you count the sorry state of your love life—”

“I’m hanging up now, Grace. Please take the time between now and when I get there to complete your last will and testament and pray to whatever gods you deem appropriate.”

“Oooh, scary, boss—”

Nico pressed the ‘end call’ button so hard he was surprised he didn’t dent the phone.

It wasn’t until he got off the bridge, back into Manhattan, that he realized what he’d forgotten.

“Coffee,” he groaned. “Son of a bitch.”

He was fine now, but only because he was running on adrenaline. Nico needed caffeine in the morning. He needed it badly. The day seemed to drain him, suck the life out of his batteries. Oddly enough, he was always wired at nighttime. Nocturnal, Hazel used to call him.

(In high school, she’d also gotten him a t-shirt that said ‘ALL I NEED TODAY IS A LITTLE BIT OF COFFEE AND A WHOLE LOT OF JESUS.’ Hades had not appreciated the irony.)

Nico parked in his normal spot, in the alley behind the restaurant, and walked to the nearest Starbucks. The line was pretty long, but the day would feel a helluva lot longer if he didn’t get some espresso in him, and real fast, so he folded his arms and prepared to wait.

And then.

“Death Boy?”

Of course.

Nico spun around to see Will Solace walking into the coffee shop, his hands stuffed in his pockets, yawning widely.

“Solace,” Nico said.

They fell into line next to each other wordlessly, almost naturally.

“Not lurking outside the truck, waiting to jump me today, then?” Will said, glancing at Nico out of the corner of his eye before looking up at the menu posted over the counter.

He looked good, Nico realized, a little numbly. Not that Will didn’t usually look good. But his work uniform (food-stained, ragged t-shirts and cutoff shorts) had been replaced by cuffed skinny jeans, scuffed sneakers, and a white-and-gray baseball tee that looked really, really soft. Too soft. And his hair was still sleep-tousled, his eyes heavy-lidded, his tongue poking out between his lips as he concentrated on reading the menu—

He had a tattoo.

Fucking Christ.

A tattoo, that trailed from his collarbone down his chest, just barely visible through the fabric of his shirt. Thick and black and curving, graceful.

Heat coiled low in Nico’s stomach.

He was staring.

(He couldn’t stop.)

“I don’t lurk,” Nico said, way late. “And I’ve never jumped you.”

Will smiled a little groggily, his gaze fixed on the line ahead. “You’ve never jumped me, but you definitely lurk. You’re a lurker, di Angelo.”

Nico sniffed. “At least I’m not an idiot.”

“Oh-ho. Ice cold.”

The line snaked its way forward. It wasn’t until they were both cradling their orders that Will finally looked at Nico properly, sighing deeply.

“Sorry I’m a little out of it,” he apologized, reaching up to rub a hand sheepishly through his hair. It looked soft. Nico wanted to push his fingers through it, too. “I’m kind of useless in the morning before my coffee.”

“It’s fine,” Nico mumbled. “I’m the same.”

Stop thinking about him, stop thinking about his shoulders and his smile and that stupid tattoo, and what it would feel like to have his hands on your skin while you kiss down his chest

Their hands brushed as they reached for the packets of sweetener on the countertop at the same time. There was this spark, a flash, like lightning. Just like the first time they shook hands. Worse now, probably. Nico felt himself color, drawing away sharply.

Goddamn it, di Angelo, you’re a fucking adult, aren’t you? Stop acting like a blushing schoolgirl.

“Oops, sorry,” Will said, cheerfully, but there was a flush of red in the tips of his ears, too.

Cute, Nico thought again.

This was really, really bad.

“I didn’t know the Ghost King drank Starbucks coffee,” Will said as they walked out, joined the stream of people on the sidewalk. “Seems a little base. For the lower classes, you know. Don’t you have some royal coffee shop to attend?”

Nico scowled at him. “You are not allowed to call me Ghost King. Death Boy is bad enough.”

Will’s eyes widened innocently. “That’s the name of your restaurant, though, isn’t it? I Googled it. Fantasma Re. Ghost King.”

“Ah,” Nico said.

“Why Ghost King? What’s the story?”

Nico shot Will a glare, positive, for a moment, that Will was messing with him, making a joke. But Will’s eyes were still wide and sincere, honest curiosity coating his features.

He was too blinding, too beautiful, too kind. Nico had to look away.

“It’s a long story,” he said, watching his feet on the pavement, “and I’m late.”

“Next time, then,” Will said.

Nico stumbled to a stop before he could police himself into stoicism. Will smiled a little at the look on his face, torn between shock and confusion.

“What, has nobody ever asked you out for coffee before?” Will laughed.

(Everybody looked at him, but nobody saw him.)

“Shut up,” Nico said. And then, “Okay.”

Will beamed at him.

I see you.

Chapter Text

“What, has nobody ever asked you out for coffee before?”

Smooth. Real frickin’ smooth, Solace. Smooth like sandpaper. Smooth like the fall of Rome.

Where had Will even found the balls to ask Nico di Angelo out on a date? Hell, since when did he even want to ask Nico di Angelo out on a date? To be honest, he was still at least seventy-two percent sure he was terrified of the guy. Since they’d met two and a half weeks before, the few, brief glimpses of quiet kindness Nico extended him were almost entirely buried by his near-constant barbed sarcasm. Nico glared at him a lot. He avoided eye contact. Lots of times, when they were near each other, he looked very close to punching a wall.

Call Will crazy, but that didn’t exactly scream ‘potential relationship material.’

What were they? Will wasn’t really sure. Not friends, that was for sure. After all, their only communication involved Nico yelling at Will to ‘turn the fucking strobe lights down’ and ‘pick a different goddamn radio station for once.’ And Will would laugh despite himself, hand over one of Leo’s famous tacos, make some wisecrack, and try his very hardest not to stare like an idiot.

So maybe they were rivals, then. That was a possibility. But rivals didn’t take each other on coffee dates, did they?

Maybe they were something new. Not friends and not rivals. Something completely unique, strung between the two of them like a secret. Their own personal take on a cliché as old as the universe.

Or maybe they weren’t anything at all.

(That possibility scared Will more than he cared to admit.)

 

After Will asked Nico out to coffee, he stopped showing up at the food truck.

One day, and Will barely noticed, sure that the restaurant was busy, or Nico had the day off, or maybe he just couldn’t think of anything to complain about.

Two days, and Will’s nerves were jumpy. He kept waiting to hear an annoyed knock on the back door, that musical voice at the window. Was Nico avoiding him? Was it because of the coffee thing? (Stupid, stupid, calm down, breathe.)

Three days, and Will started to feel itchy, strange. He glanced across the street too often. When he walked home, he looked in the alleyway behind Fantasma Re, scanning for Nico’s motorbike. The bike was parked in the normal spot. He saw no sign of Nico.

Four days, and his chest felt tight, his insides cold.

Five days, and Will was beginning to understand that he had tipped the balance, thrown off the scales, without even realizing he was doing it. He’d broken something that had never been whole to begin with.

Six days.

Maybe they weren’t anything at all.

           

Before he got the phone call, Will’s night was going pretty well.

Piper had called in sick in the afternoon, so it was just him and Leo working the truck. Outside, it was raining, a light, persistent sort of mist that clung to skin like a coat – the first time in months Will had felt like he wanted a sweatshirt. It was pretty inevitable that the stream of customers would end up being slow on nights like this, so Will and Leo fell into their usual habit when it was just the two of them: turning up an alt-rock Pandora station and making each other food out of the weirdest ingredients they could find in the pantry. Whoever’s food turned out most edible, won.

(It was a little bit unfair, because Leo could make a taco out of spit and old shoelaces and it would still taste delicious. It wasn’t like Will was going to complain, though. The day he complained about getting to eat Leo’s cooking was also the day he died.)

“Okay, tonight we’ve got jalapeños, squash risotto, guacamole, and apple juice,” Leo said, emerging from the pantry with his arms full. He shot Will a grin over the top of the provisions. “A good haul tonight.”

Will looked up from where he sat at the counter, balancing the week’s budget, to raise an eyebrow at Leo. “Why do we have apple juice?”

Leo pouted. “I was having a craving. Sue me.”

“You better have bought that with your own damn money, Valdez.”

“I guess I shouldn’t mention my drawer full of Fruit by the Foot, then.”

Will groaned and tossed a head of lettuce at Leo’s face. Leo caught it one-handed.

“So. It’s just the two of us…”

“Are you hitting on me?”

Leo stuck his tongue out. “Gross. No. Aren’t you going to tell me why you’ve been walking around moping like the protagonist of a bad southern chick flick for a week?”

Will sniffed. “Not if you take that tone with me, I’m not.”

Leo groaned dramatically. “Aw, come on, ese. Let me guess; it has something to do with Mr. Hot-and-Short-and-Angry.”

Will stuck his tongue out at him. “No.”

“It totally does. You’re a huge liar.”

“I am not.”

“You are too. Liar liar pants on fire—”

“Just because you literally set your pants on fire last week—”

“Don’t try to change the subject!” Leo pointed the knife he was holding at Will before getting to work chopping up a tomato. “Did you make a move on him? Did he reject you? Ay, dios. When’s the last time you got some, hermano? High school? Tragic.”

“I’ve gone on dates,” Will sniffed. “It just hasn’t ever worked out long-term. And you should talk, Mr. Asexual.”

Leo grinned. “Are you gonna tell me what happened?”

Will poured himself a glass of Leo’s apple juice and found himself wishing they had something stronger. “Nothing happened. I asked him out for coffee.”

Leo’s eyebrows shot upwards. “No way. Did he punch you in the face?”

Will shook his head a little numbly. “No. He said… okay?”

“Okay,” Leo repeated. “He said okay?”

Will nodded.

“Incredible,” Leo said. “Romance isn’t dead.”

“That was six days ago,” Will said.

Leo’s mouth formed a little 'o' shape of understanding. “Ah,” he said. “I see. So he said okay, and now he’s avoiding you.” He paused, and then said, “You know, I was thinking it seemed a bit quiet around here. Must be because he hasn’t been over to chew us out for breathing too loudly.”

Will’s phone rang just as he was launching himself at Leo, trying to avoid getting stabbed by Leo’s tomato knife. He answered the call one-handed, using the other to squeeze Leo’s face.

“Hello?”

“Ah, hi. Will. Um… It’s Piper.”

“Oh, hey, Pipes,” Will said, holding the phone between his cheek and his shoulder so he could fight Leo with both his hands. “You feeling better?”

“Yes. Well. No, actually. Look, I’m really, really sorry, but I need to ask a favor.”

Will ducked under Leo’s right hook. “Sure. What’s up? Can we bring you something to eat or something? Are you getting enough rest?”

“No, Will, just – just listen to me, all right? I need you to come across the street.”

“Across the street?” Will repeated. “Across the street from your apartment?”

“No, not from my apartment. From the truck. The restaurant. I may have – sort of – got caught trying to hot-wire a car.”

Will stepped away from Leo. Leo’s eyebrows scrunched together and he lowered his hands, leaning forward to try and hear what Piper was saying.

“I’ll explain everything, I promise,” she said, her voice a little too high, “but basically one of the employees at Fantasma Re… happened to own the, ah… vehicle in question… and he dragged me back here and won’t believe me when I say I work for you. I can’t get arrested again, Will—”

“Okay,” Will said, dragging a hand down his face. “Okay, fine, I’m coming. Stay where you are.” He lowered the phone and turned to Leo, who nodded before he could say anything.

“I’ll close up,” Leo said, his face uncharacteristically serious. “You go take care of it.”

“Thank you,” Will said. He cast one last look around the truck before heading for the door, pausing to look back over his shoulder and plead, “Please don’t do anything stupid, Leo. Just because Piper—”

“I know, I know. No trouble.” Leo saluted him. “You got it, Captain.”

Will winced and sprinted across the street.

The rain ran down his face like tears.

The door of the restaurant made a soft tinkling noise when he opened it. Stumbling to a halt, his breath catching in his chest, he probably would’ve been in awe if he hadn’t been close to panicking. The restaurant was even nicer on the inside, warm and neat and sparkling, the whole room bathed in a golden glow. It was the height of the dinner rush – Will hadn’t realized how late it had gotten – and the room was full, the tables populated by people in pressed ties and crisp white shirts and evening dresses.

Will glanced down at his t-shirt and cutoff shorts and winced again.

He met the eyes of the blond maître d’ and she raised an eyebrow at him. Her eyes were sharp, a stormy shade of gray, and he sort of wanted to sink into the floor.

“Sorry,” he said, quickly. “My name’s Will, I own the—”

“I know who you are,” the maître d’ said calmly. “You’re here for Piper McLean, right?”

Will forced himself to smile at her, even though he felt a little bit like throwing up.

“Yes, ma’am.”

The corners of her mouth twitched up slightly. “My name’s Annabeth Chase. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

Will blinked. “But Piper—?”

“Not from Piper.” Her smile widened at his bemused expression. “I’ll show you out back. She’s camped out in Nico’s office.” She glanced at the door and then gestured him forward. They wove their way through the dining area, to a swinging door that led to the kitchen.

“Does N—Nico know she’s here?” Will asked. The words felt clunky, rounded in his mouth. He hoped Annabeth didn’t notice.

Annabeth hesitated. “Not exactly.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means we snuck her in the back entrance. Don’t make eye contact.” With that, she pushed the kitchen door open and led him inside, hugging the wall as they moved towards the back of the room. The place was huge and gleaming, full of sound and movement. People rushed from station to station, the whole room cloaked in the smell of garlic and the chatter of voices.

Will spotted Nico, who stood at a counter with his back to the pair of them, wearing the white button-up smock of a head chef. He was talking to a big guy with a round face and an easy smile. The big guy said something, and Nico laughed.

Will’s stomach twisted unpleasantly.

“Keep moving,” Annabeth said.

Will kept moving.

Annabeth led him out of the kitchen, into a narrow hallway lined with offices. She halted at the one at the end of the hall and gave him a soft, sympathetic sort of smile. “I’ll let you handle the rest on your own.”

“Thanks,” Will muttered grimly.

“Nico’ll be busy until the end of the dinner rush, but after that he tends to leave the kitchen and come finish paperwork. You’ve got twenty minutes, tops, if you want to get out of here without meeting him.”

“Thank you,” he repeated, a little more sincerely.

Annabeth turned on her heel and marched down the hallway, her blond ponytail bouncing with every step. “Good luck.”

Will pushed the office door open with some trepidation, expecting to find Piper panicked and crying, or being tortured, or being held at gunpoint by a masked madman. Instead, she was sitting at a grand, ebony desk, wrapped in a sweatshirt that was almost definitely not hers, talking to a tall, muscular blond guy who Will was pretty sure he’d seen in an Abercrombie and Fitch advertisement at some point.

“Hi,” Will said. “Hope I’m not interrupting.”

Piper’s head snapped up as he walked in. “Will! Thank God.”

Will squinted at the pair of them. This Abercrombie guy seriously worked with Nico? “Who’s this?”

“This is Jason Grace,” Piper said, grimacing like the introduction was putting her in physical pain. “I… sort of… um… borrowed his car earlier.”

“You were trying to steal my car earlier,” Jason said, but his voice was gentle.

“I had the intention of returning it,” Piper assured him.

“It’s the thought that counts,” Will said dryly. “Piper, honestly, what the hell? You promised me you were through with this shit. When I hired you—”

We don’t need this kind of trouble, he’d told Lou Ellen privately. I’m running a food truck, not a day care.

“I know, I know. You took a chance on me.” Piper scowled and seemed to fold inward on herself. “I’m sorry. I turned my life around. I really did. This is the first time since – but my dad called me tonight, and I just… I don’t know. Hearing his voice… I felt like a teenager again. I needed to—”

“Steal something,” Abercrombie supplied, looking a little baffled as to the nature of Piper’s relationship with her father. Will couldn’t really blame him.

Piper nodded miserably.

Will sighed and sank down into one of Nico’s spindly, modern office chairs, burying his face in his hands. He remembered his first encounters with Piper pretty well himself; her personality was blindingly compelling, her speech soft and pretty and almost impossibly persuasive, but she came leaden with baggage. He also remembered the absurdly fierce feeling of protectiveness he’d been struck by almost immediately when Lou Ellen introduced the two of them, back when Piper was a fresh community college dropout with an impressively lengthy criminal record. Piper never felt vulnerable to him, or delicate, but he’d still wanted to shelter her. Keep her safe. Off the streets. Out of trouble.

“I’m making you my responsibility,” he’d told her, one of her first days on the job. “Don’t make me regret it.”

He never had. Not for one second.

But she still scared him, sometimes.

“Look, Jason,” he began, sounding much more calm than he actually felt.

Abercrombie’s pretty-boy mouth twisted into a pretty-boy frown.

“Is this normal with you people?” he asked. “Like, am I gonna see you in the newspaper next to a headline about an armed robbery? Because if I am—”

“You’re not,” Piper said, while Will muttered, “Who the hell reads the newspaper anymore?”

Jason nodded. “Then the way I see it is, there was no harm done, right? Nothing got stolen, after all. And as long as Piper promises not to try and hot-wire anything else, I… don’t see why the police need to hear about this. We’ll keep it between us.”

Will felt like somebody had lifted a thousand-pound weight off his back. “Seriously?”

Jason shrugged, looking a little uncomfortable under the scrutiny. “Seriously.”

Piper looked like she was about to burst into tears. “Thank you,” she said. And then she shot to her feet and grabbed his hand in her own. “Thank you. You are a saint, Jason Grace.”

“Right,” Will said. “Okay. We’re leaving now.” He paused, glancing around Nico’s office, before adding, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I sort of hope we’re never back here again.”

Jason chuckled awkwardly. “Don’t worry, I know what you mean. I’ll show you out.”

Will didn’t miss the way Piper looked at him as he led them out: starry-eyed and adoring. Her personal savoir.

Will’s mouth twisted slightly.

The kitchen was just as packed as it had been on their way in, but the energy was lower, the pace of movement less feverish. “Don’t let Nico see you,” Jason muttered. “He’s been in a bad mood lately, and he was looking for an excuse to call the cops on you guys for weeks—”

Nico’s head lifted.

Black eyes met blue.

Nico’s eyebrows shot up and Will made a strangled sound that was disturbingly close to a squeak. He stayed just long enough to see Nico’s mouth haltingly form the word, “Solace?” before he sprinted out of the kitchen, tugging Piper along behind him.

 

“I’m going to kill you, Piper,” Will announced, once they were safely back on his home turf. Odd – he’d never in a million years expected to feel so relieved to be back within the tin walls of the food truck.

Piper backed away automatically, raising her hands in a gesture of surrender. Across the truck, seated on the counter, Leo waved a hand airily, shooting Piper a wink that she didn’t seem to appreciate.

“Oh, pull the stick out of your ass,” he chirped. “Everyone falls off the bandwagon every once in awhile. Half a cigarette. A can of beer. I set stuff on fire sometimes. And Pipes steals cars. It happens.”

“Don’t be an ass, Leo,” Piper said.

“I’m trying to support you.”

“Well, stop trying—”

“Stop fighting,” Will snapped. “Piper, you’ve put me in a royally shitty position. I really don’t want to be indebted to those people. We’re already too involved with them as it is—”

Leo snorted.

Will spun slowly to glare at him. Piper stared at her feet and Leo mimed zipping his mouth and throwing away the key.

“I don’t want trouble,” Will said, very slowly, in as dangerous a voice as he could muster.

And, like he couldn’t help myself, Leo blurted, “No, you want to suck his dick.”

Piper caught Will by the scruff of the neck when he flung himself at Leo. Leo screamed and toppled backwards. There was an unfortunate-sounding crash as several crates toppled over. Muttering obscenities, Piper tried to grab Will around the waist, only to stumble and pull both of them down, bringing a sack of potatoes with them.

There was a polite cough at the window. All three of them froze where they sat, tangled, on the floor.

“Um,” Nico said. “Sorry. I was hoping I could talk to Will?”

 

Outside the truck, the air was charged with that just-barely-there suggestion of rain. Nico was shivering slightly, still wearing his white chef-smock, clutching a small takeout container to his chest like a lifeline. The humidity made his hair curlier, clinging in graceful waves to the sharp, refined lines of his cheekbones. The white of his chef’s smock made his hair and eyes look darker, his skin warmer.

He looked oddly at home against the backdrop of clouds.

“I’m sorry,” Will said despondently, ducking into a half-bow. “I’m really, really sorry. We’ve given you so much trouble, and I—”

“Jason told me,” Nico said.

Will blinked. “What?”

“He told me why you were in my kitchen. And about your employee.”

“Oh,” Will said. His voice sounded very small.

What was he supposed to do if Nico decided to call the authorities? He didn’t have enough to post bail for Piper, and she didn’t have enough luck to get away with another charge of larceny. Persuasion can only get you so far.

He bowed his head and waited for the blow to fall.

Instead, he found the takeout container being shoved in his hands.

He forced himself to look up, meet Nico’s eyes.

“It’s cake,” Nico said, his cheeks dusted with a pretty, delicate shade of pink. “You feed me every damn time I come over here. I guess I thought I’d return the favor.”

Will opened the container. The slice of cake was beautiful, fluffy with whipped cream and topped with strawberries and chocolate.

“Why—?”

Nico frowned at his feet. “I dunno,” he muttered. “It just seemed like you could use some cake right now. You know?”

“I know,” Will said again, a little too quickly. Nico's mouth quirked up into a wry almost-smile.

“I won’t call the cops on Piper McLean,” he said, his eyes flicking over towards the food truck. The sound of Leo's laughter caught the air, lifted above the rush of traffic. “And I’m sorry.”

“You’re… sorry?” Will repeated.

“I’ve been avoiding you,” Nico said, blinking rain out of his eyes. "But you've probably already realized that."

Will sort of felt like he’d been socked in the gut.

“I kinda figured that, I guess. I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me why?”

Nico hesitated, then shook his head. He looked tired, Will realized. Tired and frustrated. “I think I’m a bit afraid of you.”

Will said, “It’s okay. I’m afraid of you, too.”

“No.” Nico’s mouth twisted, his shoulders hunching over like he was trying to make himself smaller. There was a charge in his voice, in his eyes. Not anger. Will knew Nico's anger, and he didn't think this was it. But close. Something close. “It’s not the same. I’m no good, Solace. I’m not nice and I’m grumpy and I’ve got a whole shitton of other issues, and I wouldn’t be any good for you. Just – just trust me on this. Coffee won’t work. We won’t work.”

“We can try,” Will blurted. Maybe they weren’t anything at all.

Nico smiled, a tiny, broken smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “We don’t fit right,” he said.

Will snorted. “I don’t care about that.”

Nico's gaze left Will's face, traced along the horizon, scorched lines into the sky.

“I know,” he said. “But I do.”

Chapter Text

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Nico regretted them. Will’s eyes went very round and his mouth – stop thinking about his mouth, di Angelo, you’re only making this harder on yourself – pressed into a thin line.

“Okay,” he said. There was steel in his voice, like the first day they met, and Nico tried to convince himself that it was better that way. That it made sense that way. “Okay, fine, I get it. You’re not interested.”

Right. I am interested in you just about as much as I’m interested in breathing. About as much as a planet is interested in orbiting around the sun. Jesus Christ.

Nico made himself shrug.

“It’s fine,” Will said. “It’s cool. It was just coffee anyway. No big deal.”

Nico stuffed his hands in his pockets and said nothing.

Will stared at him for another painfully long beat of silence (his eyes were so blue, and the night was so gray, and it sort of felt like he was the only color in the world). “Thanks for the cake,” he finally said, lifting the take-out container half-heartedly.

Nico forced one corner of his mouth upwards, fully aware that the attempt at a smile probably looked closer to a grimace. “No problem. If you need anything else, please don’t hesitate to let somebody know. We’ll try and accommodate you as best we can.”

Will’s eyebrows scrunched together in the middle. “I don’t—”

“I think it’s best if we keep this professional,” Nico plowed on. “Strictly professional.” When Will just stared at him, he took a deep breath and finished, “Good luck with… your employees, and… and everything.”

And then he spun on his heel and marched back towards Fantasma Re, towards the lights that he knew and the smells that he recognized and the work that he understood. He could feel Will staring after him the whole way across the street. When the door closed behind him, and the sounds of the restaurant enveloped him again, though, his chest still felt weirdly empty. Annabeth opened her mouth to say something as he passed, but he gritted his jaw down and kept moving, through the almost-empty dining room, and back into the kitchen.

With the dinner rush long past, only a few employees remained: Frank at the sink, washing dishes and humming along to a classic rock Pandora station, Thalia walking in and out, handling the last orders of the night, and Percy and Jason, perched on the countertop, their heads together, Jason recounting the riveting tale of his almost-hijacking that afternoon.

Nico liked it better this way – he was used to the near-constant crush of people in the kitchen, obviously, but it was nicer when it was quiet. More like he pictured it would be, back when he was still in college with a business major and an economics minor. Back when owning a restaurant was just a stupid pipe dream, something that made adults raise their eyebrows and say things like, where are you planning on getting the money for something like that? and, don’t you think going into science or math would be a little more realistic?

Well, whatever. He had his restaurant, and now he had a migraine, too.

Careful what you fucking wish for.

“Hey, boss,” Jason said, but Nico just scowled in his direction and kept walking, crossing the kitchen to yank a skillet off of its hook on the ceiling.

He grabbed a knife and a chopping board, too, grabbed some leftover vegetables from the pantry, and shouted, “Who wants a panini?”

Percy’s face lit up immediately and he jumped off the counter to rush to Nico’s side, hopping up and down a lot like his daughter did when she wanted candy. “Can you make mine blue?”

“You’re a disgrace to the culinary arts,” Nico grumbled, but he opened the spice rack anyway and rummaged through until he found the blue food dye.

“You just have no sense of adventure,” Percy said, bumping Nico with his hip. Nico fired up the grill and glared at him, and he took a step back, holding his hands up in a gesture of surrender. “Oops, sorry. I know. No touching.”

“What happened out there?” Jason asked, lifting his legs up so he could sit cross-legged on the counter.

“What makes you think that anything happened?” Nico demanded, greasing the pan and slapping two slices of Italian bread on it. They made satisfying sizzling sounds upon contact, and the smell of toast turned the air light and musical almost immediately. “And get your feet off my countertops before I make you clean the bathrooms.”

Jason jumped a little and adjusted his position, checking quickly to make sure he hadn’t left any scuffmarks. “It’s a bit hard to explain.”

“Well, our last customers of the night are finishing up out there, so you’re definitely not cooking for them,” Percy supplied. “And the only time when you cook for us is when you’re emotionally fragile. So, logically speaking, you must be having a minor meltdown right now. Or something like that.”

“Don’t call Nico emotionally fragile, Percy,” Frank said reproachfully, throwing an apologetic look in Nico’s direction.

Nico pointed at Percy with the spatula he was using. “I sign your paychecks, Jackson.”

Percy waved an airy hand, looking decidedly unconcerned. “Come on, spill it. Did you get in a fight with the food truck guy again? Annabeth won’t like it if you got in a fight with the food truck guy again.”

Nico scowled. Maybe he’d let the panini burn. Not a lot, of course. Just a little.

(As if. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d ruined anything by accident, much less on purpose. He was a professional.

Fuck. Professional. He was starting to really hate that word.)

“Look, it’s not a big deal,” he said, flipping the bread over so it would toast evenly on both sides. “I had the distinct pleasure of having a little chat with my father about our finances last night.”

The kitchen went silent. Percy’s face twisted into an annoyed scowl, and Frank looked like Nico had just announced an apocalyptic disaster.

No fire was raining from the sky, though. (Not yet, anyway.)

Maybe that would’ve actually been preferable to a night talking business with his dad.

“He heard about our issues with Food for the Sol.” When Jason looked blank, Nico sighed and prompted, “The truck. Outside our restaurant. There’s a huge neon sign on the side. Can’t miss it.”

“Right, sorry, okay. Continue.”

“Anyway. We’re having some trouble managing both the building and the number of employees we’ve had to bring on in the last couple months. Business is good, but not good enough to make up for the money problems. Talk to Annabeth if you want specifics.”

Percy shook his head. “I definitely do not want specifics.”

“Okay. Well. My father seems to think that our new neighbors are… bad for business. And that I haven’t done a very good job—” he made a face, forced the words out of his mouth like they were bitter, rotten “—handling the situation.”

Three stunned faces stared back at him. He flipped Percy’s sandwich off the skillet and onto a plate.

Percy took the plate wordlessly. “What does he want you to do?” he finally asked. “What can you do? You’ve asked them to move, and they won’t. It’s not like they’re violating any laws.”

Jason shook his head. “They’re not hurting our business – we have completely different clientele! That doesn’t even make sense!”

“We could talk to him for you,” Frank offered, even though the look on his face made it abundantly obvious that he’d rather face down a horde of demons straight from hell than talk to Hades di Angelo.

“This isn’t something you need to worry about,” Nico said. They were still looking at him, like they were waiting for him to shatter, break into a million pieces on the floor, and Nico wanted to be alone. He wanted to be alone with his thoughts and the stove and the memory of the hurt on Will Solace’s face when he said I get it. You’re not interested.

“We’re worried about you,” Jason pointed out. “Are you okay?”

And the look he gave him – confused, affectionate, vaguely pitying – made Nico want to throw something at a wall.

“I’m fine,” he snapped.

Percy tilted his head to the side slightly, green eyes searching his face.

“Goddamn it, Jackson, stop with the puppy-dog eyes and eat your damn panini.”

 

Usually, when Nico and Hades clashed, it was over stupid things. Like in high school, when Nico wanted to get his ears pierced. Or when Hades wouldn’t turn down his god-forsaken collection of classical music on vinyl. They’d once stopped speaking for several days following an incident involving a county fair, Percy, several dozen fried Oreos, and one of Hades’ best ties.

Nico and Hades were startlingly bad at fighting, an unfortunate tendency that, like a fine wine, only seemed to grow more ripe with age. Neither of them was particularly rational when angry – they were both fatalistic, overly dramatic, quick to snap. That was the di Angelo family modus operandi: Provoke At Own Risk.

But this time, when Hades had sat across the table from Nico and tore him a new one, there hadn’t been anything for him to say. This time, there was nothing irrational about Hades’ arguments. This time, Nico just sort of sat there and took it.

(He hated himself for that, a bit.)

“I was at Fantasma Re yesterday and saw you across the street, talking to a man outside that truck,” Hades had said. He pronounced the word truck in the same way someone would say used condom or Justin Bieber. It would’ve been funny if Nico wasn’t feeling so sick. “Your job is to run a restaurant, not make friends. You know that.”

“I’m not an idiot,” Nico snapped back, coolly, but the words rang hollow, even to his own ears. “I’m an adult, and I don’t need you holding my hand, especially not at work. I know what I’m doing. I tie my own shoes and everything.”

“Don’t act like a child, Nico. Your relationship with competitors cannot be anything except strictly professional. Please understand this. You’ll only get yourself hurt.”

“I’m professional,” Nico said.

Hades pressed his fingertips together, peering at Nico in a way that made him feel like he was being x-rayed, studied. Taken apart and pieced back together again.

“Are you saying that to convince me?” he asked. “Or are you saying that to convince yourself?”

Nico had opened his mouth to answer, but his voice never came.

 

The next day dawned suddenly, violently hot. Last night’s mist felt like a distant, dreamlike memory – when Nico tried to remember what cool air felt like on his skin, he couldn’t seem to. Instead, he thought of blue eyes and freckles like sugar spilled on a tabletop, and the words I get it. You’re not interested. Over and over again inside his head, like a mantra.

God, I need to get a life.

Traffic was lighter than usual that morning, and Nico sped just about the entire way. It was almost like a catharsis, a cleansing; the wind whipped his stress and his frustrations and his stupid, stupid crush on Will Solace away.

Wait. Wait, hang on. No. It wasn’t a crush. It definitely was not a crush.

When Nico got to work, the food truck was swamped – it looked like a boat, afloat in a sea of human bodies. Speakers pumped out a heavy bassline and synthesized guitars, huge signs proclaiming buy-one-get-one-free deals on smoothies and, for some reason, Fruit by the Foot. A beachball bounced from person-to-person and when Nico roared in on his bike, several people actually cheered.

That wasn’t what bothered him, though. What bothered him was Fantasma Re; the place was still locked, the windows darkened, the sign on the door flipped decidedly to CLOSED.

He couldn’t be that early, could he?

A quick inspection of his phone confirmed it: Jason Grace was late.

“What the fuck,” Nico muttered.

When was the last time Jason was late?

Never, probably.

Never.

Scratch that. He was late once, during a record-breaking snowstorm, because his car wouldn’t start.

Maybe he was hurt.

Maybe Piper McLean had actually succeeded in hijacking his piece of shit Toyota.

Maybe he was sick.

(He would’ve called if he was sick.)

Nico spun his phone around in his hand, trying to decide whether or not to call him – a half an hour wasn’t that late, after all, and everyone was bound to screw up eventually, even Clark Kent’s blond alter-ego – but the haze of panic creeping into his brain was shattered by a scream of, “Nico, run, it’s an ambush!”

Nico spun on the spot to see Jason, soaking wet, sprinting around the corner. Piper McLean followed hot on his heels, armed with a Super Soaker and several water balloons hanging off her belt like grenades.

“What,” Nico repeated, “the fuck.”

Piper slowed to a stop when she spotted Nico, allowing Jason to sprint forward and duck behind him. She inspected Nico with something close to trepidation, maybe because she knew he knew about her fondness for reenacting Fast and Furious, maybe because getting stared at was part of the trademarked Nico di Angelo Experience.

Plus he was wearing a t-shirt that said FUCK THE PATRIARCHY in huge letters.

Nico crossed his arms over his chest. “What the hell, Grace?”

“Sorry, boss,” Jason panted. “But I just saved your life. Some gratitude?”

Nico raised an eyebrow. “You’re on the clock right now, Grace.”

Jason slapped a hand to his chest. “I could be dead, Neeks. Dead. And this is how you treat me. Despicable.”

“Be dead on your own time, asshole.”

“And I was going to ask you to speak at my funeral.”

“I bet Percy would do it if you asked nicely.”

“No, thanks. I don’t want his crusty bum making dad jokes at my send-off.”

“You literally just said the word ‘bum’ and you’re calling Percy crusty.”

Piper McLean watched this exchange with an air of something akin to stunned fascination. Her mouth twitched.

“If you didn’t leave me your 3DS in your will, I’ll never forgive you,” Nico grumbled, and Piper’s composure broke; she burst into laughter, doubling over and dropping the Super Soaker so she could clutch her stomach.

Piper, it turned out, was the type of person who laughed with her entire body. Jason looked a bit dazed, like she’d smacked him between the eyes.

“Sorry,” she wheezed, when her laughter was more under control. “Oh, my God. Sorry. This wasn’t how I pictured you at all, Nico.”

Nico blinked. “How did you picture me, then?”

She paused, and then said, “Sort of like Marlon Brando in The Godfather?”

Nico winkled his nose. “Am I being insulted right now?”

“Oh, Piper, I found you,” someone lilted from behind them, and Piper lunged to the side, grabbing her Super Soaker and rolling on the pavement.

“Duck!” she yelled.

Jason responded immediately. Nico was a little too slow.

He stood there motionless, staring at Leo, dripping wet, for several seconds. Leo’s eyes widened as he realized that he’d missed Piper and hit Nico, the warm tan of his skin fading to an unhealthy-looking pallor.

Nico shook his head like a dog, flinging water everywhere.

Leo stumbled back a few steps, chirped, “Oops!” with a very pained-looking smile, and then sprinted into the crowd, back towards the food truck.

Nico shot after him.

Several people sidestepped with nearly identical looks of horror as the two of them wove through the crowd, Leo screaming something along the lines of, “Shit, shit, fuck, shit, oh, my God, don’t kill me, I’m too young and handsome to die—”

They reached the back door of the truck before Nico finally caught him, grabbing him around the waist and half-tackling him. Leo made an extremely high-pitched squealing noise that may or may not have been concealing a laugh. Nico, awkwardly positioned on Leo’s lap, grabbed the hem of his shirt and wrung it out over Leo’s head.

“I’m supposed to go to work, you fucking moron,” he snapped. Leo was definitely laughing now, one hand on Nico’s chest, trying to keep him away, and the other covering his mouth. “And, unlike you, dickwad, I happen to work at a respectable establishment where—”

“Um,” a voice said behind them. “Am I interrupting something?”

They both froze.

Black eyes met blue, and then blue flicked away. Will’s gaze travelled over the pair of them slowly – Nico straddling Leo’s lap, his t-shirt half-lifted over Leo’s head. Nico dropped it slowly, flattening it across his stomach despite the way the wet fabric clung to his skin uncomfortably.

Speaking of shirts, why in the hell wasn’t Will wearing one?

This is a test, Nico thought glumly. God or Buddah or Zeus or whatever is testing me. There is no other possible explanation.

Will was sort of… more muscular than Nico had pictured. Not that he’d pictured Will naked. Or shirtless, or whatever. Well-built, but slim, he looked vaguely golden in the stark sunlight, his constellations of freckles spreading down from his cheeks down his neck and across his shoulders and arms. And – fucking Christ – that was definitely a tattoo on his chest, what looked like a laurel wreath surrounding a sun and several curving words, in a fine, delicate script Nico couldn’t read. His shorts sat low on his hips, exposing the ‘v’ of his hipbones and a fine trail of blond hair that ran from his navel down to—

Fuck.

Nico launched himself away from Leo, whose mouth had curved up into a knowing grin that made Nico want to punch him. Will’s eyebrows were doing that crinkly thing in the middle, like they did when he got confused or annoyed. His eyes matched the sky today. Nico wanted to die.

“Leo,” Will said, “you should be manning the grill.”

Leo got to his feet languidly and gave Nico a theatrical wink. “Sorry, mi amor, but duty calls. See you around.”

“If you ever touch me again, I’ll kill you,” Nico said cheerfully.

Leo’s shit-eating grin became a little strained. His path back to the truck was more run than walk.

And then there were two.

Nico shoved his hands in the pockets of his shorts and tried his best not to stare at Will’s biceps. It didn’t help that Will was staring back at him, his forehead still wrinkled cutely. A single blond curl was falling into his face. Nico wanted to brush it back.

He also wanted Will to slam him against the truck and stick his tongue down his throat (and maybe his hand down his pants), but one problem at a time.

“What was that all about?” Will finally asked.

Nico gestured to his sopping wet t-shirt. “Is it really a good idea to let your employees carry around water guns?”

Will’s eyes went round. “Oh,” he said, and for a second, Nico thought he was going to apologize. But then his lips quirked up into a smirk and he said, “Did someone get it on video? Tell me someone got it on video.”

“Gee, thanks for the sympathy.”

Will lifted his hands. “Come on. At least a picture.”

“Fuck you, Solace,” Nico sniffed.

“Is that an offer?”

Nico’s stomach dropped to his toes. Will’s smirk faded a little.

“Ah, shit, sorry. Professional. Right.” He lifted a hand to scrub through his hair, and the light caught his skin and made it look luminescent, and there was a cluster of freckles like a galaxy on his collarbone that Nico wanted to lick. “I can do professional,” Will said and Nico’s brain screamed can you do me? so loudly he was stunned Will couldn’t hear it.

“It’s okay,” Nico managed. His voice caught on the word okay. “Don’t worry about it.”

Will’s mouth twisted, like he was about to say something else, but Nico backed away very quickly and stammered something about late for work and change of shirt and something that was very close to a groan.

“Oh, right!” Will said, his eyes roving over Nico’s torso. “You need a change? I’ve got an extra shirt.”

Nico made a noise that sounded like hnnnng. His face felt like fire. “Why aren’t you wearing your shirt?”

Will glanced down at himself with an air of surprise, like he was mildly surprised to discover he’d lost his clothing at some point. “It gets really hot in the food truck. No AC, you know. Does that mean you don’t want the extra?”

Say no, a voice that sounded suspiciously like his dad said in Nico’s head.

Say no right now.

“I – um. Okay. Thank you.”

Will gave him a half-smile and climbed back into the truck, returning with one of his ancient band t-shirts. Nico unfolded it; the fabric felt like liquid in his fingers, worn down with years of use.

“Maroon 5?” he said. “Really?”

Will grinned apologetically. “Guilty pleasure band. We all have one. Don’t pretend you don’t.”

“I do, but I plan on carrying the secret to my grave.”

Will laughed, and for a second it was like it used to be – teasing and awkward and a little bit okay.

And then he said, “I need to get back to work. See you around, di Angelo.”

Nico needed a cold shower.

Potentially in holy water.

Forgive me, father, for I have sinned.

 

He changed in the bathroom at Fantasma Re. The t-shirt was silky-soft and just the slightest bit too big.

Maybe it was the early start he got on the day, or just the excitement of the morning, or the warmth of the day, but Nico had a heavy, relaxed, safe feeling in the pit of his stomach that he carried with him until he left that day. He found himself smiling at nothing, closing his eyes and just breathing for the first time in a long time.

It wasn’t until he was home, getting undressed for his shower, that he realized that it was the fucking shirt. More specifically, it was the fucking shirt’s fucking smell.

It smelled exactly, precisely like Will – like sandalwood and summer and salt. Nico hesitated, then lifted the shirt to his face and inhaled.

Nico was so, so thoroughly fucked.

Chapter Text

There were a lot of things in this world to be angry about, and Will was angry about most of them.

The economy, for example. Will was shit at economics, but he heard things were pretty bad.

Politics were also good (easy) to be angry about. The world went around and around and the sun went up and the sun came down and nothing ever seemed to get better. Change was a stubborn, reluctant thing, and society always seemed to be better at falling apart than it was at growing.

There were smaller things, too, that were itching underneath Will’s skin. The weather, which was Too Goddamn Hot, even for Will, who loved the sun. Leo, who decided spontaneously to make smoothies half-off and hand Piper a water gun. Lou Ellen, who’d called in the morning and announced her intention to return to the city from Alabama that Thursday. “I’ll need to crash on your couch,” she said. “I might bring Cecil.”

Will opened his mouth to say something along the lines of, next time you’re bringing a fuckbuddy home, how about giving me a little advance warning? but she hung up on him before he could.

Oh, gee. Look at that. Another thing to be angry about.

And then there was Piper, who wouldn’t stop talking about Mr. Abercrombie-and-Fitch, who, it turned out, was the executive chef over at Fantasma Re. Jason was nice, Piper said. And funny. And tall.

“I haven’t dated in a really long time,” she told Will while they scrubbed the food truck’s countertops, tucking a strand of choppy hair behind her ears in an almost shy way. It occurred to Will he might’ve fallen into some bizarre alternate dimension. He pinched himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. “Not since before the… the stuff with the police. And Jason seems… I don’t know. Interested? He’s taking me to Strand Bookstore this weekend, because I told him I’ve never been.”

Will’s eyebrows shot up. “You never told me you wanted to go to Strand. I could take you to Strand.”

Piper nudged him with an elbow. “Don’t be jealous. I’ll go with you another time, I promise.”

“I’m not jealous.” Will rolled his eyes. “If you’re gonna go for the chiseled-jaw, perfect-specimen type, I’m not exactly going to judge you for it. I just think… I don’t know. They’re our competitors. Don’t you think we should keep our distance?”

Piper’s eyebrows scrunched up in the center. “I guess I never thought about that. I don’t see why we should, though. Just because they’re competition doesn’t mean they’re not nice people.”

Will hesitated, then rubbed harder at a particularly stubborn spot on the stainless steel, mumbling, “I guess I don’t want to seem unprofessional.”

Piper’s hand closed around his shoulder and she turned him around to face her, her eyes searching his quizzically. “Where is this coming from, Will?”

“Nowhere,” Will muttered. “It’s nothing.”

She stared at him for another long moment before releasing him, saying, “Okay,” in a way that sounded a lot more like a question than an affirmation.

Having to dodge questions from the people he cared about. That was maddening, too.

Will was angry about how his alarm on his phone never went off at the right volume – sometimes too loud, sometimes too soft. He was angry about light pollution, about how some kids, growing up in the heart of the city, had never, ever seen the stars. He was angry about drivers with road rage, about people who made fun of things other people loved, about the fact that his mother hadn’t called him in months.

He was angry about inequality and cruelty and loss.

And, most of all, he was angry about cake.

One piece of cake specifically, which had been delivered to him in a nondescript Styrofoam take-out container by one of the most infuriating people Will had ever met.

To put it in the most basic terms possible: Nico di Angelo’s stupid consolation cake was the best fucking thing Will had ever tasted.

And he was so unspeakably pissed about it.

When Nico told him he wasn’t interested in getting coffee (which was fine, really, honestly; it was just coffee, after all. Not a marriage proposal. Not even a confession) Will’s intentions had been to back off. Will wanted the people in his life – even apparent rivals – to be happy, and if Nico didn’t want to be around Will, Will sure as hell wasn’t going to force himself on him.

“Okay, fine, I get it,” he’d said. “You’re not interested.”

And Nico had fucking shrugged.

(It had been a long time since Will had felt so stupid. So small and vulnerable and deluded. Somehow, impossibly, pathetically, he’d convinced himself that lingering glances and pointed banter equated interest.)

He watched Nico leave, and then he went back into the truck, found a fork, sat down, and ate the cake Nico had given him.

And, as it turned out, Fantasma Re’sreputation for being the best Italian food for miles was… well…. just about spot on.

In other words, the goddamn fucking piece of shit dessert was quite literally heaven disguised as a pastry. Creamy and fluffy and just-sweet-enough, topped with delicate swirls of feather-light frosting, pure white and milky and delicious. The cake melted on his tongue, seemed to soak into his mouth.

Hell.

Nico di Angelo had just beaten him.

Nico di Angelo had just beaten him.

All this time, he’d been giving Nico hamburgers and bags of Doritos, when just across the street, they were serving things like this on porcelain plates, to customers who ate on white-draped tables with tiny forks made especially for dessert. No wonder Nico wasn’t interested in Will; Will must’ve looked so small to him, so incomprehensibly Minor League. If Nico was Babe Ruth, Will was the captain of the high school baseball team.

Embarrassment and frustration sat heavy in Will’s chest.

@NASA please fling me into the fucking sun.

Almost like NASA listened, the next day dawned stunningly, blazingly hot. Will was angry. The food truck had a special deal on smoothies and Leo’s drawerful of Fruit by the Foot. Will found Nico outside the truck, straddling Leo’s lap. When Will handed Nico a spare shirt, Nico blushed.

Inside his mind, Will Solace declared war.

I won’t let you beat me, Nico di Angelo, he decided. One way or another, I’m going to win.

He wasn’t even sure he knew what the game was, anymore.

 

He woke up Monday morning to a text from Piper that just said, “too hot for the truck today. meet on the high line instead.”

Will squinted at his screen, his eyes still blurry with sleep, trying to decide whether to be annoyed or not. He finally tapped out, “Last time I checked I was the boss here????” but followed up almost immediately with, “yeah, all right. call leo for me, i’m not awake yet.”

Piper responded with a “sure thing, captain,” and the sunglasses emoji. Will rolled onto his back to stare up at the off-white ceiling of his apartment, stained with age and mildew.

“Am I going soft?” he asked the ceiling.

The ceiling, mercifully, said nothing.

 

The High Line was less than twenty minutes away from Hell’s Kitchen on foot. The name captured the essence of the thing pretty well: arching over the city streets, the High Line was a winding, serpentine, disused subway line. The city had repurposed it, made it into a surreal, almost science-fiction-like band of green in a city of black and white and gray. Walking up the stairs and onto the High Line was a lot like crossing into another world; where there should’ve been trains and ‘DANGER, NO WALKING’ signs and soot, there were flowers, art, popsicle stands, playful lines and twisting angles.

It was Will’s favorite spot in the city, despite the crush of tourists and the leaden smell of urban air. He liked going and feeling like another Will, a different Will.

Alternate Universe Will.

Piper met him near the entrance on West 30th Street. Her hair was swept into a messy bun that looked flat on one side, like she’d slept on it, and she wore a Mets Jersey over denim shorts. Leo was next to her, looking much more put-together in khaki cut-offs and a blue, short sleeve button-up.

“Will,” Piper said, very severely, when he approached them. “You didn’t wear what I told you to wear.”

Will glanced down at himself. White shorts. A blue and white striped tee with the sleeves rolled up. Sandals. “This is what I usually wear,” he pointed out. “I don’t even know where the cardigan you wanted is.”

“Work with me here, William. I told you, it brings out your eyes,” Piper said, pulling out her phone to send out a quick text.

Will stared at her. “Since when do you care about what my eyes look like, McLean?”

“Since forever,” she said, without taking her eyes off her phone. “I’m your friend, it’s my job to maximize hotness at any and all opportunities.”

Will glanced at Leo and Leo shrugged languidly, his eyes following the flow of people along the walkway.

“I want food,” Piper announced suddenly. “Let’s go to the food stalls.”

“Right on,” Leo agreed immediately. “I want some of that weird-ass green tea ice cream I had last time.”

Piper beamed at him. “Great! Let’s go.”

“You two are acting weird,” Will said, but Piper seemed to have mysteriously fallen deaf; she grabbed Leo’s hand and flounced away, in the direction of the small, pseudo-food court.

Will stared after them for a second, feeling a little bit overwhelmed, before muttering, “What the hell,” and following after them, smiling at a little kid with a gap-toothed grin as he passed.

                    

The food stands were packed as ever, long lines stretching along the walkways and generally annoying the pedestrians. Will fell into place behind Leo and Piper in the ice cream queue; Piper kept glancing at her phone like she was waiting for a summons or an instruction or a mission, should she choose to accept it. But the phone stayed silent until they got to the front of the line and placed their orders with the girl working the counter, who was auburn-haired and surly and looked about ready to spit in Will’s face when he asked for change for a twenty.

Leo seemed less enthusiastic about his green tea ice cream than he had been earlier.

“You two,” Will said again, when they had all paid and were wandering down the line, looking for a place to sit, “are acting weird.”

“Weird?” Leo repeated around a mouthful of ice cream. “Weird how? We’re not weird, hermano. You’re weird.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Piper agreed.

Will stared at them. “And you’re not arguing, either. What is happening right now?”

Piper’s phone buzzed. Will glanced at the screen. He caught a glimpse of the name ‘Jason’ before she snatched it off the table.

“Oh,” Will said. “So that’s what this is. You’re meeting Abercrombie here, aren’t you?”

Piper went scarlet. “Absolutely not.”

“You totally are,” he said, glancing over at Leo. “She totally is.”

The phone buzzed again. Piper’s eyes widened.

“You know what,” she said, a little louder than before. “You’re right. You guessed it. I’m meeting Jason. In fact, I have to go right now.”

Leo took a huge bite of ice cream. Piper elbowed him in the ribs.

“Oh! Right, yeah. I have to go, too.”

Will blinked. “You’re… both meeting up with Abercrombie?”

Piper blurted, “No,” while Leo said, very calmly, “Yep.”

Will said, very slowly, “Okay.”

Leo grinned. “Okay! See ya around, Captain.”

And then they were gone, and Will was left alone at a table, staring at three empty dishes of ice cream and wondering what exactly had just happened to him.

I think I just got dumped for Jason Grace.

He could go home. The apartment was quiet and cool, and he could get take-out pizza and watch Parks and Rec on Netflix, or something. But the sun felt really, really good on his face, and watching people live was… surprisingly relaxing.

That man there, over on the bench reading a paperback novel. He was a blue-collar type, probably a Wall Street guy. Maybe he was feeling unfulfilled. Maybe he was missing an ex-lover. Maybe he just wanted to be alone.

Those two girls at the table opposite him. A first date, probably. They kept knocking knees and exchanging glances, giggling quietly. Maybe they’d been childhood friends. Maybe they’d met online. Maybe they’d met in the grocery store when they both reached for the last container of non-fat Greek yogurt.

The dark-haired guy with his back to Will, who was helping a blond toddler eat a popsicle. A single father, maybe? He was wearing a leather jacket despite the heat, leaning in to wipe popsicle juice off the girl’s face. She was giggling and dodging him artfully, trying to duck around his arms.

The nape of his neck was graceful, sloping, his dark hair curling softly over the swath of bare, olive skin. He was laughing quietly, Will could see the movement from here. Slender shoulders. An angular outline.

Nico, thought Will, without really processing.

And then Will heard the little girl squeal, “Uncle Nicky, look over there!” and point in Will’s general direction.

Nico glanced over his shoulder reflexively and the girl pealed with laughter, jumping off her chair and under Nico’s arm. Nico’s head snapped back towards her and Will watched, frozen, barely breathing, as he snorted and reached down to grab her around the waist, lifting her onto his lap.

Will released the breath he was holding, adjusted the way his sunglasses sat on his nose, lowered his head and sunk down in his seat.

“You tricked me,” Nico was accusing the girl, adopting a tone of deep betrayal.

She giggled. “Yep!”

Nico groaned theatrically. “Et tu, Brute?”

“Was that Italian, Uncle Nicky?”

“No. It was Latin for, ‘You’re just like your father, I swear to God, Lord have mercy on my immortal soul.’”

Will choked on a burst of surprised laughter and quickly muffled the sound with his fist.

Nico finished helping the girl (his niece?) with her popsicle. There was something unspeakably soft in his voice when he spoke to her, something affectionate and quiet and warm that hooked in Will’s skin.

There was something bubbling in his stomach, some emotion he couldn’t name, and he felt cold, suddenly, despite the heat of the sun on his head.

He didn’t know Nico was an uncle. He didn’t know much about Nico at all, actually. He owned a restaurant. He liked coffee, but not enough to go get some with Will. He rode a motorcycle and wore a lot of black. None of that stuff meant anything, though.

None of that stuff meant anything.

And then Nico lifted the girl off his lap and swung her up onto his shoulders, saying, “Want to go look at the flowers again?”

She bounced up and down with excitement, tugging on Nico’s ears to turn his head, and Will didn’t register that they were turning this way until it was too late.

Eye contact.

(Why did Will want to fling himself off something tall every time they made eye contact?)

He offered a small, sheepish wave instead.

“Um. Hi.”

Nico blinked at him. “Solace. What—?”

“I was here with Leo and Piper,” Will blurted. “But they left…” To go hang out with Jason Grace, his mind supplied.

Jason Grace, who is not here.

Jason Grace, who almost definitely knew Nico would be.

No.

They wouldn’t.

Nico nodded and crossed over to his table a little hesitantly. The little blond girl squinted at him from on top of Nico’s shoulders. Her eyes were very, very green, and gleaming with something weirdly intelligent, for a kid.

“This is Micah,” Nico said, jostling the girl on his back. “Say hi, Micah.”

The girl blew a raspberry with her tongue. Will laughed.

“Hey,” he said. “My name’s Will. It’s nice to meet you.”

She blinked at him for another painfully long couple seconds before releasing one of Nico’s ears to point at him.

“You’re pretty,” she announced. “Like a princess.”

Nico snorted and Will glared at him before looking back at Micah and beaming.

“Thank you. But I’m not as pretty as Nico, am I?”

Micah paused thoughtfully, glancing between his face and the top of Nico’s head before saying, “No, you’re not. But almost.”

Nico had stopped laughing, his lips parting slightly, and it occurred to Will that calling him things like pretty probably fell into the realm of Not Okay.

He opened his mouth to apologize, but, before he could, Nico lifted Micah off his shoulders and set her on the ground, muttering, “No. I think Will’s definitely the prettiest.”

Will’s heart sputtered to a stop.

“Um,” he said, very eloquently. “Um.”

Nico glanced at him, one of the corners of his mouth twitching upwards. “Use your words, Solace.”

“You were going to look at flowers!” Will blurted. “You should do that!”

Nico’s almost-smile broadened. “You were eavesdropping.”

Will wanted to kick himself.

“Who, me? Eavesdropping? No way, bro. Buddy. Pal. I just had a feeling that you would… want to… look at some flowers.” Nico raised an eyebrow. Will dropped his head on the table. “Oh, my God, don’t look at me.”

Micah said, “Is this the one Daddy says you have a crush on, Uncle Nicky?”

Will’s head shot upwards and his eyes met Nico’s.

Nico flushed crimson.

“Oh, hey, I have an idea, let’s go look at some flowers!” he shouted, grabbing Micah’s hand. “Yay, nature!” Micah shot to her feet immediately and danced a little on the spot, singing flowers, flowers, I love flowers, to the tune of London Bridge is Falling Down.

Will smiled at them as they retreated, Nico chasing on Micah’s heels.

That was good, he thought. That was fine. Progress, even. No yelling, or name-calling, or uncomfortable almost-fights.

It’s like we’re almost acquaintances.

The thought made him want to slam his head on the table again.

And then Nico stopped and looked over his shoulder. “Aren’t you coming?” he asked, like it was obvious. Like there was no feasible reason why Will wouldn’t come.

Will stared at him. “Is… is that okay?”

“Yeah.”

Will got to his feet and nearly tripped over the chair. Nico rolled his eyes, a definite smile pulling at his lips now, and, when Will caught up, Micah reached up and grabbed one of his hands, holding Nico’s in the other.

Not acquaintances, then.

(Will wasn’t sure he knew what else there was.)

 

They wound their way along the High Line, swinging Micah between them every once in awhile. When she got thirsty, they stopped and bought her an apple juice and found a bench to sit at. They watched while she made friends with a little boy who spoke only Korean, and the two of them picked flowers for each other.

Will was smiling too much. His face was starting to hurt, and he probably looked absolutely ridiculous. But this felt good.

No, more than that. This felt right.

“You like kids,” Nico said, when Will laughed out loud at the sight of Micah and the Korean boy chasing butterflies together.

Will nodded. “Kids are great. They see the world so differently than we do. Everything is good, or, if it’s not, it gets better. It always gets better. That’s a good way to live.”

“They’re loud and smelly,” Nico said.

Will looked at him, at the laughter in his eyes, the way the sun lit up his hair and face and turned his skin to the warmest brown Will had ever seen. The lack of tension in his limbs. The lack of anger in his voice.

“You like them too,” Will decided.

Nico shook his head, but he was smiling.

“I didn’t know you had a niece,” Will said.

Nico’s smile faded a little. “Oh. No, I don’t. Micah’s parents are friends of mine. Her dad knows I hate being called Nicky, so he got Micah doing it.”

Will giggled. “A man after my own heart.”

“Percy Jackson is married, Solace. Really married. Don't get any ideas.”

Will sighed. “Well, darn. You’ve really blown my master plan, there, Death Boy. I was totally planning on putting the moves on this little girl’s father.” Nico chuckled, but there were high spots of color in his cheeks, and it was occurring to Will that he should probably change the subject.

“So. Micah and Percy Jackson,” he said slowly. Nice names. Steady names, like the sea.

Micah (and Percy) Jackson.

Will stared at Nico. “Are you seriously telling me that this girl’s name is Micah Jackson?”

Nico burst into laughter.

Will had never seen him laugh like this – with his whole body. He folded in on himself, wrapped his arms around his stomach. His whole face transformed, too, his nose wrinkling cutely, his eyes crinkled up at the corners. It was like he’d shed ten years, like Will was looking at the teenage Nico, and somehow the moment felt profoundly private, indescribably precious.

Will watched him laugh, breathless, and tried desperately to commit this to memory.

Please, please. Let me remember this forever.

“No, no,” Nico finally wheezed. “Her last name is Chase. Oh, my God. Oh, my God, I fucking hate Percy. I knew there was a reason that he chose Micah.”

“Why Chase?” Will asked.

Nico swallowed down a last few hiccupping laughs. “Well, that’s her mom’s last name, and they agreed to take turns –  Annabeth got this one, and the next kid’ll have the last name Jackson. They’re a little unorthodox.”

“Annabeth,” Will repeated. “Your maître d’?”

“Right, I forgot you met her. The night you people broke into my kitchen.”

The conversation shattered, ruptured, because the night you broke into my kitchen was still palpable in the air between them, since it also happened to be the night I told you I wasn’t interested.

“Can I ask you something?” Will asked quietly.

Nico nodded, his eyes fixed on Micah. His hands closed into fists on his thighs. It looked painful. Will wanted to grab his fingers, smooth them out.

He turned to look at Micah, too. “Was it something I did?” he whispered. “Like, I understand if you’re just not – or, I mean, if you don’t swing that way. I get it, you know. But if I did something to offend you, or – or freak you out—”

“No,” Nico hissed back, surprisingly fiercely. “That’s not why. You didn’t do anything.”

“Then why—?”

“I have to run a business.” It sounded like he was talking to himself more than he was talking to Will, his voice low and quick and more heavily accented than it usually was. He spat something rapid-fire in Italian and then continued in English, “The only reason I can keep the restaurant afloat is because my dad helps. You know. Financially. I need to have everything handled, you know? I need to be in control. Otherwise, I…” He looked away from Micah and at Will, helplessness etched into his features. “I don’t have you handled, Solace. I have no fucking idea how to handle you.”

Will’s heart felt full of hairline fractures. Fragile. Tenuous.

“We can move the truck,” he began. “If that would help.”

Nico shook his head. “No, no, that’s not the point. I’m not worried about the truck, Solace.”

Right. Different leagues. Babe Ruth and captain of the high school baseball team.

And then Nico said, “I’m worried about you.”

Will blinked. “What do you mean?”

Nico shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t know what I mean. You’re just… something. You’re something. I don’t know.” He hesitated, then said, “What you said, when I told you I couldn’t go out with you. ‘I get it. You’re not interested.’”

Will winced. “Yeah. What—?”

“I never said that. I never said I wasn’t interested.”

Silence stretched between them, long and heavy and startled. Nico looked like he was surprised at what had come out of his mouth, too.

“Nico, I—”

“It doesn’t matter, though. Nothing’s changed. I stay professionally detached, or my dad pulls his funding, lets me go under. As a 'learning experience.' And that restaurant is everything to me, Solace. It’s all I have.”

Will nodded. “I get it.”

Nico’s head lowered. His hair fell into his face, soft and curling, individual strands reflecting golden in the sunlight.

“I really do get it, Nico. You don’t need to worry about me.”

Nico shrugged. “I’m a worrier. It’s why I’m good at my job.”

Micah looked like she was getting tired out, her movements becoming slow and deliberate, her limbs lethargic.

“For the record,” Nico said, at a more normal volume, “you’re the only rival I’ve got. So we’re sort of exclusive in that way. Monogamous competitors.”

Will snorted. “Rival sort of implies level playing field, doesn’t it? That cake was the best thing I’ve ever tasted. I work in a food truck. You can probably find yourself a better rival. Like, I don’t know, Gordon Ramsay, or something.”

Nico’s eyebrows creased in the center. “Are you serious? The first time you gave me a carton of fries, I ate them in about thirty seconds and almost turned around and came back to buy more.”

“I was so angry when I finished it,” Will said, and Nico nodded enthusiastically.

“Like, who does this guy think he is? This is life-ruining. I’m so upset.”

“I wanted to beat you.”

“I still want to beat you.”

They stared at each other.

“Rivals,” they agreed, in the same breath. There was a sparkle in Nico’s eyes, a sharper tilt to his chin, a slight upward curve to his lips. It made Will feel breathless and exhilarated and good.

Nico liked his food. They were equals, after all.

Maybe that was a ridiculous consolation prize.

(A lot like a piece of cake in a takeout container, actually.)

Micah came over and tugged on Nico’s sleeve, and Will walked the two of them back to 30th Street. Micah smiled at him sleepily as they parted ways, and Nico nodded, his eyes lingering on Will’s face probably longer than was strictly necessary.

Will didn’t think he minded.

“See you later, Solace,” Nico said before they left.

It wasn’t until they were gone, swallowed up by the crowd, that Will whispered, “Yeah. See you, Death Boy.”

 

Piper texted him that night: “so. how was the rest of your afternoon? run into anyone interesting?”

He sent back: “I hate you.”

She responded: “no you don’t.”

 

That night, in bed, Will thought about kids. Micah and her friend, chasing butterflies. What Lou Ellen looked like at that age, all sharp elbows and blushing bruises and sudden, pointed grins. A boy, taller than Will, older, with blond hair like his and blue eyes like his and a kind, sad sort of smile.

When Will was twelve years old, he kissed a boy on the cheek.

Time passed and the years turned over and the memory faded, lost its potency. Now, all he retained was a vague impression of dark hair and sparkling eyes – brown, maybe, or green. Dimpled smiles and thoughtless touching (shoulders, hands, arms, hair). Maybe warmth. Nervous butterflies. Luck.

What he remembered most clearly now was the look on his mother’s face when she got the call from the school, the woman at the front desk informing her in a prim and proper voice that Will was engaging in inappropriate activities on school property and Mrs. Solace should have a talk with him if she didn’t want him to turn out odd.

“You have to understand,” his mom told him when she hung up the phone. “You’re growing up, Will. There are certain things you just can’t do.”

“You used to kiss Dad,” Will pointed out. “What’s the difference?”

His mother’s face twisted. Now, he couldn’t remember how she answered.

You don’t want him to turn out odd.

Well, turns out that you don’t always get what you wish for, because no matter how much his mother wanted him to be a normal kid, he wasn’t. He couldn’t be.

Will was irrevocably, unavoidably odd.

It was impossible not to notice, especially as he got older. Will was loud and easily angered and awkward around the other kids. He couldn’t sit still, and he was abysmal at reading and writing; the words rearranged themselves, played tricks on his eyes, danced dizzyingly off the page until he wanted to scream or cry or punch the wall.  He liked the way that girls’ hair sometimes smelled like strawberries. He liked their softer, kinder curves, and their smiles.

The thing was, he liked boys, too. And that was a crime for which Alabama was unforgiving.

Whispers followed Will, wind rustling in branches, flies buzzing inside his head. Lou Ellen kneed the captain of the wrestling team in the balls when he carved the word fag onto Will’s locker in high school. People called him things, meaningless words like brave and selfish and dumb. Will didn’t feel brave. He never wanted to tiptoe around the rest of the world, meet up with boys behind the bleachers, steal uncomfortable, fleeting, guilty glances in the hallway.

“You’re pretty heroic,” some straight blond girl told him, once, but he’d lived for too long, seen too much (lost too much), and Will didn’t have time for heroes anymore.

Things got better when he moved to New York for college. Lou Ellen was the only one who knew him here, the only one who could pick apart his smiles, the only one who knew what broken looked like on his face. There were pride flags in windows, gay bars on street corners. When Will told one of his friends at university that he was bi, almost as an experiment, they’d clapped a hand on his shoulder and said, “Nice.” Nobody asked what it felt like to grow up queer in the deep south. Nobody asked much about his childhood at all.

And, suddenly, he could breathe again, and it felt good. God, God, it felt good.

So that was it. The core of it. Will just didn’t want anyone to know him anymore.

And then Nico di Angelo looked at him with these wide, dark, baffled eyes, and there were patches of pink high in his cheeks, and his voice was quiet and his hands were graceful and his shoulders were slender but strong. He stuttered out a refusal when Will offered him a spare shirt. He stared at Will’s chest when he thought Will wasn’t looking. He smiled at children. The sun turned his hair metallic.

And suddenly, being known didn’t seem like such a bad thing, if Will was going to be known by Nico.

Chapter Text

After dropping Micah off at Percy and Annabeth’s, Nico went home, grabbed a bottle of beer from the fridge, and punched a zombie in the face.

He felt weird, pent up. Seeing Will had done something strange to Nico’s nerves; it was like his laugh and the way the sun turned his hair to firelight and the breadth of his shoulders underneath his shirt had pulled Nico apart piece by jagged piece and then reassembled him.

Playing The Last of Us was the perfect catharsis. Dodging bullets in a post-zombie-apocalyptic universe probably wasn’t the healthiest coping mechanism, but the game was violent enough to help him uncoil the knot in his stomach, and complex enough to keep his mind from wandering back to Will.

(Why did his mind always have to wander back to Will?)

He’d only been playing for twenty minutes or so when his phone buzzed on the couch next to him. He answered one-handed, wedging the phone between his ear and his shoulder so he could use his hands to continue to play.

“Nico di Angelo speaking.”

“Jason Grace speaking. No need to be so formal, Neeks, I think we’re past that point in our relationship by now.”

“Jason,” Nico groaned. “What do you want?”

“Gee, don’t sound so excited. Let me in, I have pizza.”

“I’m busy,” Nico said. On the screen, the music swelled in a sudden crescendo and an enemy swung around the corner and leaped onto Nico’s character’s back. “Shit! Fuck shit. Oh, my God.”

“You’re not busy. You’re playing The Last of Us.”

“Am not.”

“Are too.”

“Whatever. How do I know you’re not lying about the pizza? You could be trying to take advantage of me.”

Jason huffed. “Ye of little faith! Would I lie to you?”

Nico considered this, and then hit pause on the game. “No. Stay there, I’ll buzz you in.”

By the time Jason arrived at the door of his apartment, pizza in hand, Nico was back at the computer and halfway through a second beer. Jason grabbed plates from the cabinetry and sunk down on the couch, placing the food and then his feet up on the coffee table.

“You’re still trying to get through this same part?” he asked, opening the box and rotating it on the spot to get a good look at each slice.

Nico rolled his eyes and focused on the screen, crossing his legs underneath him. “It’s fucking impossible. I hate this fucking game.”

“I did it. Hazel did it. Annabeth did it in, like, fifteen minutes flat.”

Oh, sure, hit me where it hurts.

“Choke on a dick, Grace.”

“Language, Neeks.”

“I’m close, anyway.” Nico’s voice faded out slightly as he worked his way through a ruined bedroom, listening for the sounds of people on the other side of the door. When he was greeted with nothing but silence, he finished the thought: “I just need to make it past those guards, and I’m set.”

Jason folded his slice of pizza in half and took a huge bite, ignoring the dirty look Nico threw him. “Why don’t you look up a YouTube tutorial or something? A full walkthrough? There’re a ton of those, especially for this game.”

Nico snorted. “Did you use a tutorial?”

“Of course not.” Jason looked affronted. “That would be cheating.”

“Yeah, well. If you can do it, I can do it.”

Jason laughed and took another bite.

“So,” he said, around a mouthful of cheese. “How was your date?”

“It wasn’t a date,” Nico said automatically. And then, “Wait, what the fuck are you talking about?”

Jason widened his eyes innocently. “Well, I don’t know. You went out this afternoon… to the High Line… I guess I thought you might’ve—”

“I took Micah. You know I took Micah.”

“You could’ve… met somebody there?”

Nico squinted at him. “Jason. What the fuck did you do?”

Jason put his hands up quickly, scooting backwards until his back hit the arm of the couch. “Nothing! Nothing, I swear. I just… may have mentioned to Piper that you were planning on being there. Alone. And that it was probably a good time for you and Will to talk—”

Nico’s jaw dropped.

“You’re kidding me.”

“Um—”

“I’m going to fucking kill you, Grace.”

“I was trying to help!” Jason protested. “You’ve been way out of it lately – don’t make that face, you know I’m right – and I figured, I don’t know, if you made up with Will, you might be happier?”

A muscle jumped in Nico’s jaw.

“So Will was, what? Following me?”

“No, no, not at all. I told Pipes you always take Micah for a popsicle so she may have sort of… brought him there and left.”

An image pulsed through Nico’s mind, of the look on Will’s face when their eyes met – shock and horror and this unnamable tinge of confusion, like he wasn’t quite sure what was going on, how he’d ended up in this position. The memory was weirdly endearing. It wasn’t very often that it felt like he and Will were on the same side.

“I hate you,” Nico grumbled.

“No, you don’t.”

“No, I definitely do. A lot. You’re the worst.”

Jason pouted and lifted his feet onto the couch, tucking his knees under his chin. “Are you really upset? I’m sorry. I honestly thought I was helping.”

Nico opened his mouth, a bitingly sarcastic response resting on the tip of his tongue, but something caught the words, and his voice died in his throat.

Was he really upset?

It sort of didn’t feel like it.

Professionally detached was one thing; never speaking was another. A relationship with Will couldn’t happen (not that Nico was thinking about a relationship, nobody ever said anything about a relationship), but radio silence wasn’t what Nico wanted, either. And talking to Will – actually talking to him? like a normal person? – had been kind of… nice.

That kind of thinking was stupid and dangerous, though, so Nico shoved it down and just said, “It’s fine. Thanks for trying.”

Jason’s expression melted into a look of relief. “Okay, good. Great. Good.”

Nico grabbed another slice of pizza and tried not to roll his eyes again.

And then Jason said, “So it went okay, then.”

Nico blinked. “What?”

“Your date.”

Jason dodged the pillow Nico lobbed at his head, but just barely.

 

Back at work, the routine was the same. Jason kept throwing Nico side-eye, vaguely suggestive glances, and Nico kept throwing inanimate objects back. Annabeth fumed when a fork ended up lodged in the wall (“I swear, I didn’t aim for his head, it was never going to hit him—”), and her mood didn’t improve when Percy showed up for his shift with their daughter on his shoulders.

“She didn’t want to stay with the babysitter,” Percy mumbled. “She cried, Annabeth. It was terrifying.”

Annabeth groaned. “You are so weak.”

Percy hung his head. “I know.”

Micah waddled across the kitchen and tugged on Nico’s pants. He stooped down and swung her up into his arms, and she proceeded to yank his head down and start clumsily plaiting tiny braids into his hair.

“Ow, ow, ow,” Nico muttered, trying to extract her fingers from his bangs. “You tryin’ to make me go bald, woman?”

“You should look extra pretty for the princess,” Micah announced. “He said he already thinks you’re pretty, so I’ve gotta make you extra pretty.”

Percy and Annabeth stared at their daughter with almost identical expressions of blank confusion. Jason muffled his laughter in his fist.

“What’s she talking about?” Percy hissed to Jason.

“I’m not seeing the princess today,kiddo,” Nico said, glaring daggers at them from over her crown of blond curls. “I’ve got to make dinner for people. It’s my job.”

Micah stuck her lower lip out. “That’s boring. You should make dinner for the princess instead.”

Jason was practically wheezing at this point.

Nico mouthed I’ll kill you at him over the top of Micah’s head.

“I’ll help you!” Micah squeaked, grabbing Nico’s nose, and it took him a second to realize that she was still talking about cooking for Will.

Nico winced. “I don’t know, kid. I’ve got to work—”

“I’ll cover for you!” Jason chirped.

Nico turned, very slowly, to face him.

Jason visibly flinched backwards.

But Micah shouted, “Yay!” and squirmed out of Nico’s arms, toddling her way over to the pantry, where she stood on her tiptoes, grabbing at a basket of fresh pasta. Percy, still looking deeply befuddled, crossed the room to help her, hoisting it up and bringing it over to the counter.

“What’s going on?” he whispered to Nico.

Nico shrugged. “It’s a long story.”

“Does Princess Will like spaghetti?” Micah asked.

“Will,” Percy repeated contemplatively. “Will. Do we know a Will? Annabeth, do we know a Will?”

“Will Solace?” Annabeth demanded, her expression growing more mystified by the second.

Percy wrinkled his nose. “No… that doesn’t sound familiar… I think it was something with an F…”

Nico sighed and rubbed his fingertips against his temples in slow circles. “Yeah, Will Solace. I ran into him yesterday when I was out with Micah and now she thinks I—”

“Uncle Nicky likes him!” Micah announced.

Annabeth raised her eyebrows. “Is that so?”

No,” Nico growled.

“Yep,” Jason said.

“I don’t think I know a Will Solace,” Percy decided.

“The guy from the food truck, Seaweed Brain,” Annabeth said.

Percy’s eyes went wide. “Oh! That Will Solace! Oh, yeah, you totally like him, Nico.”

Annabeth had to grab Nico’s wrist to prevent him from chucking another fork, this time at Percy’s throat.

 

Nico ended up giving in and making a simple spaghetti Bolognese. Micah perched on the countertop next to the stove and kicked her legs, humming Disney songs under her breath; Nico had her stir the sauce and keep an eye on the pasta. “You know what boiling looks like?” he asked her. “When the water gets all bubbly and crazy? Let me know when that happens, okay?”

She beamed at him and proceeded to stick the wooden spoon in her mouth and suck on it.

Nico showed her how he measured spices (rather haphazardly, almost by instinct at this point), how he diced vegetables, how he tested the pasta to make sure it was cooked to a pleasant consistency. Micah barely paid attention, crawling over the countertops and shouting greetings at the other restaurant employees as they clocked in for the day, but she did get excited when he let her taste the sauce.

“Do you and Princess Will hold hands?” she asked when they were done, and Nico was doling the meal out into a tupperware.

Nico shook his head. “Princess Will and I are just friends, kiddo.”

Micah squinted at him. “So what? Friends can hold hands!” She reached over and grabbed his pinky with her little fingers, lifting it up to show him. “See?”

Nico laughed and leaned down to press a kiss to the crown of her head. “It’s a little different when you’re older.”

Micah stuck her tongue out. “Grown-ups are dumb.”

Nico thought of what his father’s face would look like, if he knew Nico was allowing a little kid to crawl all over his kitchen, biting his utensils and bugging him about his love life.

“Yeah,” he mumbled. “Grown-ups are really dumb.”

When he finished with the food (God, what a tragic waste of a beautiful meal, packaging it in plastic), he waved Percy over and handed him the container, before turning and lifting Micah off the counter.

“Will you run this across the street for me?”

Percy stared at him. “Wait, seriously? You actually want me to do it? I thought you were just humoring Micah.”

Nico shrugged. “Why not? I already made it, it would be a waste to just throw it out at this point. Plus, the last time I gave him food, it really pissed him off. If we’re lucky, that’ll happen this time, too.”

 Percy looked utterly baffled. “You want me to just… give the guy dinner.”

“Yes.”

“With no context.”

“Correct.”

“And no charge.”

“Uh-huh.”

“And… what am I supposed to tell him, exactly?”

Nico hesitated, then said, “Tell him ‘your move.’ He’ll know what you mean.”

He was working through a couple small menu adjustments with Jason when Percy returned, holding a white take-out bag and carrying Micah on his shoulders. He held the bag out and Nico took it gingerly, the way someone might handle a bomb or particularly volatile toxic waste.

“He said, and I quote, ‘Please tell Death Breath he can get over here and fight me,’” Percy announced. “And then he gave Micah fruit snacks and let her draw on his menu display.”

Micah beamed at Nico. Her teeth were stained blue. “I love Princess Will!”

Jason giggled. Nico jabbed an elbow in his ribs before he could say something stupid like so does Nico.

There turned out to be a large container of tacos at the bottom of the bag.

“That smells really good,” Percy commented, eyeing the tacos shamelessly. “Micah was grabbing at it the whole way here.”

Well, shit.

They ended up splitting the tacos between the four of them, Jason and Nico each getting their own and Percy sharing with Micah. When they were done, the three men stared at each other blankly for about a minute and a half before Jason whispered, “What in God’s name—”

“We never mention this again,” Nico hissed fiercely.

Percy looked like he’d been smacked between the eyes with something extremely heavy. “But that was—”

“Oh, my God,” Jason finished. “That was oh, my God.”

“I feel like I just ate the food of the gods, or something,” Percy breathed reverently.

Jason nodded fervently. “I want to… like… preserve this memory forever. I want to be buried in these tacos. I want one of these tacos to punch me in the face.”

“We. Never. Mention. This. Again.” Nico glared between the two of them until they both nodded, Percy still looking blankly rapturous.

 

The next day, when Nico arrived at work, Percy pulled him aside and demanded, “What are we sending over today?”

“What are you talking about?”

“We can’t let Solace have the last word! Then he’ll think he won, sending over those stupid orgasm-tacos! I cannot allow it!”

Nico raised an eyebrow. “Orgasm-tacos. Really.”

Percy jabbed a finger at Nico’s chest. “You’re really going to let him show us up like that?”

“And just what, exactly, do you suggest we do?”

Percy winked at him. “Leave it to me.”

 

After the height of the dinner rush, when there were only a few customers remaining in the dining room, Annabeth shouldered her way into the kitchen, followed closely by Piper McLean. Annabeth pointed Piper in Nico’s direction and she wove her way through the labyrinth of countertops, pausing to wave at Jason before turning her smile on Nico.

“What’s up?” Nico asked, toweling off his hands.

 “Will told me to give you this? And then he said ‘tell di Angelo he can suck my dick’ and then he got all blushy and was like ‘oh wait no never mind’ but here I am and it’s too late now.”

Nico accepted the container she offered him and tried not to read too much into the last part of that sentence. “Right. Thanks.”

“No problem.” Piper clapped a hand on his shoulder and he jerked away on instinct, but she didn’t seem particularly fazed. “Say hi to Jason for me?”

“Sure.”

He watched Piper leave before opening the box slowly, carefully, and immediately wasn’t sure whether he wanted to storm across the street and murder Will or storm across the street and kiss him.

Was it possible to be sexually attracted to a sandwich? Because Nico was pretty sure he was gay for this stupid fucking hamburger.

There was a note included, too, in a messy, lopsided scrawl, with several words scratched out and rewritten, sometimes multiple times. Duel. You and me. Mano e mano. To the death. Pick and time and place and let me know.

Underneath was a phone number.

 

“What did you send the poor guy?” Nico asked Percy, after the restaurant was closed and they were headed home for the day.

Percy’s mouth turned up in a poisonous grin. “Those cannolis that made that one food critic cry last month.”

“With the coconut? And the good chocolate?”

Percy nodded and flashed Nico a thumbs-up.

Nico couldn’t help smiling back.

 

Throw it out.

Hours ticked by. The note burned a hole into Nico’s pocket. The phone number burned ideas into Nico’s mind.

How are you supposed to keep your distance if you’re texting the guy during your free time? Throw it out.

Will’s handwriting sloped downwards. When Nico brushed his fingers across the back of the scrap of paper, he could feel indentations left behind by the pen. An image knocked on his brain, of Will leaning over the countertop in the food truck, his tongue poking out between his teeth as he tried to coax words onto the page. His bangs –yellow and copper and teak, shot through with gold – flopping over his forehead, obscuring his eyes.

Throw it out, Nico, goddamn it.

He went through the motions mechanically that night, moving through his apartment on instinct. His dinner tasted like sand in his mouth; he felt sick to his stomach, feverish, jittery.

Maybe he was coming down with something?

He could feel the scrap of paper with Will’s number on it sitting in his pocket like a physical weight. He was almost afraid to touch it, like looking at it again would give him an electric shock.

Throw it out, throw it out.

It was two in the morning before he could calm his racing heart enough to stop pacing and go to bed. He changed out of his street clothes and into pajamas, pausing, half-dressed, to pick up his discarded jeans and pull the number out of the pocket.

It was just a fucking phone number, and Nico was a fucking adult. People had asked him out before. People had given him their number before, too. Hell, he’d had relationships, hookups, one-night stands. It wasn’t like Will was offering to fuck him in the ass, or something. It was just a fucking phone number.

“I’m losing my mind,” Nico whispered into the silence of the apartment.

Two in the morning, and all Nico could picture was the breadth of Will’s shoulders, the dimples in his cheeks, the way his voice sounded like singing, the way his hands were dusted with freckles and looked like they’d fit around Nico’s perfectly.

Two in the morning, and Nico was awake and kicking himself, because why couldn’t he just run with the rival thing and leave it at that? Why did he have to want more, want Will’s breath on his skin and Will’s hands on his chest and Will’s lips on his own? Selfish and stupid.

Two in the morning, and Nico couldn’t sleep, because he was picturing what Will’s tongue would taste like in his mouth. And his chest felt tight (and, suddenly, so did his boxers), and he was furious with himself.

A little bit angry and a lot afraid.

His hand rested on the waistband of his sweatpants. He paused, briefly, to convince himself it was unrelated, to convince himself it was innocent, to convince himself Will’s face wasn’t on his mind, Will’s name wasn’t on his tongue.

He let his hand drift lower.

Chapter Text

On the Friday before things changed, Will found Nico asleep at his desk, his head resting on a pile of papers and his hair falling into his eyes.

The world seemed to slow, settle, and suddenly Will was somewhere else, somewhere kind and quiet and empty. Nico’s shoulders moved slightly with each breath, up and down, ever so slowly.

Will stared.

Okay. Sure. So Nico was… cute while he slept. A little cute. Just a little. So his lips were parted slightly, his eyebrows a little furrowed, the sleeves of his button-up rolled haphazardly up to the elbows. So he looked about five years younger, less afraid, more gentle.

So what?

It wasn’t a big deal.

Will had everything under control.

And then Nico sighed quietly, shifted slightly, and Will’s heart stopped beating.

Shit. Shit, shit.

This had to end.

Will crossed over to the desk swiftly, carefully, and placed a hand on Nico’s upper back. His skin was warm through his shirt, and a shiver traced teasing fingers up and down Will’s spine; he forced himself not to physically shudder, to shake Nico slightly and say, “Hey, wake up. Hey. Hey, DeathBoy, wake up,” like nothing was wrong.

Nico’s eyes shot open, and he sat up so quickly he almost took Will out.

Will scrambled backwards several steps, putting his hands up in a gesture of surrender when Nico whipped around to face him and almost fell out of his chair.

“What—”

“You were sleeping,” Will said, his voice too loud and too high-pitched.

Nico’s eyebrows scrunched together in the middle. “Fucking shit.”

“Um.” Will reached up to rub a hand through his hair, trying very hard to maintain a neutral expression. “Is… everything okay?”

“Yeah,” Nico grumbled. “I just slept like shit last night.” He sat up, stretched luxuriously, his mouth splitting into a huge, cat-like yawn.

And then Will noticed the paper he’d been sleeping on, and pointed to it without giving himself time to think.

“Is that my phone number?”

Nico’s face went white.

“No.” He grabbed the piece of paper, made to shove it into his pocket, but Will leaped forward and caught Nico’s wrist, tilting his head to read the scribbly, slanted writing.

“It is,” Will said. “It is my phone number.”

“Let go of me,” Nico snarled, trying to wrestle his hand out of Will’s grasp.

“Why were you sleeping on my phone number?”

“I hate you.”

“Aw, come on, Nico—”

“Get off, Solace—”

And Nico’s chair tilted, and the world tilted with it, and, with a deafening crash, they toppled to the floor, limbs entangled, foreheads knocking together.

Will squeezed his eyes shut and tried to keep the world from spinning. “Ow. Ow. Shit, ow.”

“Get the fuck off of me,” a very small voice said, beneath him.

Will blinked the stars out of his vision and looked down, realizing for the first time that he was straddling Nico’s hips, hands braced on either side of Nico’s head. Nico was looking determinedly to the side, splotches of color high in his cheeks.

A sudden, disconcertingly vivid image – of Nico lying underneath him, just like this, bare-chested and flushed and beautiful – forked through Will’s mind like lightning, and, for a second, he couldn’t move. He couldn’t breathe.

Then the feeling returned to his limbs, and he shot to his feet, scuttling backwards until his back hit the office wall.

“Sorry,” he managed to squeak. “Sorry, sorry.”

Nico sat up, rubbing his head. “It’s fine, moron. It was my fault.”

They stared at each other for a couple seconds, several feet of distance separating them, until Will blurted, “That totally was my phone number, though.”

Nico groaned. “You are the actual worst person I know, Solace.”

Will crossed his arms over his chest. “Were you actually going to use it to text me, or were you just planning on using it as a pillow?”

Nico hesitated, looking down at his lap.

“I didn’t give it to you expecting you to drool on it, Death Boy.”

“I don’t drool,” Nico snapped, his discomfort melting off his features, replaced by indignation, and Will fought back a triumphant smile.

He stuck his hand out. “Give me your phone.”

Nico’s eyes widened. “What? No way.”

“Just do it.”

“I’m not fucking giving you my phone.”

Will waved a hand. “It’ll be fine.”

“It will not!”

“Don’t you trust me?”

Nico froze, blinked a couple times, and Will realized with something close to panic that he was actually thinking about it.

“I’m not sure,” Nico finally decided. “You’re… I don’t know. You’re an easy person to trust, I guess. I’m just not sure I should.”

And then, bizarrely, he dug into his pocket and tossed Will his phone.

Will stared at him.

Nico stared back. “What? You don’t want it anymore?”

“I need your passcode,” Will offered weakly.

“9-4-5-5.”

Still reeling a little bit, he added himself as a contact, lifting the phone and snapping a quick selfie to set as the picture. Nico watched in silence the entire time, and caught the phone one-handed when Will tossed it back to him.

“There. Now you can sleep on the note all you want.”

Nico rolled his eyes. “Great.” And then he stuck his hand out.

Will squinted at his outstretched fingers.

Nico groaned dramatically. “Your phone. Give me your phone, dumbass.”

“What for?”

“Oh, I’m planning on trading it on the street for crack-cocaine.” When Will’s eyebrows shot up, Nico sighed and said, “I’m going to put my number in it, moron.”

Nico typed a lot faster than Will had, barely looking at the screen as he plugged his name and number into the contacts. When he handed it back, Will changed the contact name from Nico di Angelo to Death Boy and took a picture of Nico, still seated on the floor beside an upturned chair, before Nico could stop him.

“What were you even here for in the first place?” Nico grumbled, getting to his feet and glaring at Will’s phone like it personally attacked him. “Besides to fulfill your daily obligation of annoying the shit out of me.”

“Oh!” Will helped Nico set his chair upright again and then shoved Nico’s pile of papers aside, hopping onto the desk to sit. “Right. We’re trying to get a new sign for the food truck, and I wanted to run it by you first. It’s probably going to be a little bigger.”

Nico shrugged. “At this point, how much worse could it possibly be.”

“Is that a challenge?”

Nico grumbled and dropped his head onto the desk, only a couple inches away from Will’s leg. “Do whatever you want,” he muttered into the wood.

Will beamed at him.

 

Will was doing maintenance on the truck that evening, his flannel shirt knotted around his waist, oil caked over the knees of his jeans, when his phone buzzed in his pocket. He shoved his hair out of his eyes impatiently, smudging grease over his eyebrow, before checking the text, fully prepared to tell Piper to get back to work, or remind Lou Ellen that he had a job to do.

It wasn’t from Piper, though. It wasn’t from Lou Ellen, either.

The first text message Will Solace ever received from Nico di Angelo said, If you don’t turn that fucking music down over there, I swear to all the gods I’m going to stick my foot so far up your ass you’ll taste it.

Will mouthed the words, formed them in his mouth, pictured Nico – in his crisp white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, his hair still sleep-mussed and fluffy – standing in the back of Fantasma Re with his phone in his hands.

His chest felt weird. Tight. Like he wanted to cry. That was stupid, though. Who cried over a text message? Nobody. Nobody cried over a text message.

“Hey, Will, do you need help out there?” Piper shouted from inside the truck. “I know it’s Leo’s day off, but he wouldn’t mind coming in—”

“That’s okay,” Will said, too quiet, like he was talking to himself. He repeated it, louder, but his voice wobbled.

His hands felt sweaty and shaky and strange.

The first text message Nico di Angelo ever received from Will Solace said, Why don’t you come over here and turn it down yourself?

 

Texting Nico was easier than talking to him. When they texted, Will didn’t have to worry about the way Nico’s eyes were a thousand different shades of black. He didn’t have to keep himself from staring at the graceful lines of Nico’s shoulders, the curve of his mouth. He didn’t have to stop himself from cataloguing the tiny, pale scars on Nico’s neck and cheeks, crossing the bridge of his nose, framing the line of his jaw. He didn’t have to worry about zoning out, listening to the pretty, almost-accented rhythm of Nico’s voice instead of the content of his words.

He had time to self-edit, keep himself from saying stupid things like what, has nobody ever asked you out for coffee before? or is that an offer? or I’m not as pretty as Nico, am I?

(Will had found that he was very, very good at saying stupid things around Nico.)

They texted a lot, that day. They texted about stupid things, like the food truck’s new sign. About Micah Chase, who’d apparently spent the night drawing on the walls of Percy and Annabeth’s home with Crayola crayons. About the sunset, about politics, about an annoying customer who sent their dinner back to the kitchen three times, with a different complaint each time.

And Will was smiling at his screen, watching as Nico misspelled fucking four different times, when he realized that he was in love.

It was a funny thing, small and fragile and strange, fluttering in his chest like a bird, and nothing at all had changed, but somehow everything had. The entire world had shifted out from under his feet, because he was in love with this stupid, grumpy, beautiful boy, and he barely knew him.

God. God, he barely knew him.

Will finished the maintenance on the truck mechanically, more on instinct than with any sort of deliberation. When he was done, he clambered back inside, and Piper physically recoiled at the way dirt clung to his hair and his clothes and his skin.

“Hold still,” she said, immediately, lifting herself up to sit on the countertop. “I’m putting your hair up. You look like you just wandered in off the street.”

Will bent his knees obediently and allowed her to reach up and wrestle her fingers through his hair, gathering it into a stubby ponytail at the base of his neck.

“What’s the matter? You look funny,” Piper commented, around the hair tie she held in her mouth.

Will shrugged noncommittally and was rewarded with an irritated grunt.

“Nico gave us permission for the new sign,” he offered.

“Okay,” she said. “But that’s not why you look funny. All done, by the way.”

Will straightened up and stepped away from her. She crossed her legs on top of the counter, folding her hands on top of her feet and tilting her head to watch him. Silently. Steadily.

Will’s phone, in his pocket, vibrated roughly, and that weird, almost-crying feeling rose up in his chest again.

“What would you do,” Will blurted, “if there was this… person. A really important person. And at first you hated them – they were an asshole and a jerk and they insulted your food truck, so you hated them – but then you got to know them, and things… changed. They were different. Not like anyone you’d ever known before. And you… liked them. A lot. You liked them more than you could believe. But you knew, if you told them you liked them, it would ruin everything. Make it all fall apart.”

Piper tilted her head, raising a single, dark eyebrow. “Are we talking about anyone in particular?”

Will looked down at his dirty jeans. “This is purely hypothetical.”

“Of course.” She kicked her sandals off and tucked her knees under her chin, wrapping her arms around her legs. Piper had interesting eyes – impossible eyes, somehow containing both a million colors and no colors at all – and they made it very difficult to look away from her. “And why would telling them your feelings ruin everything?”

“Because they don’t feel the same way.”

Piper’s mouth formed the word oh. “I see.” She hesitated, squinting up at Will from behind her curtain of bangs, before announcing, “I think I’d try and tell them, anyway.”

Will shook his head, and she laughed.

“Oh, shut up, William. You asked for my advice, so I’m giving it to you. I’m a pretty stubborn person, and I haven’t been lucky enough to love a lot of people. If someone I cared about like that came along, you can bet your ass I wouldn’t let it go just because things were tough.”

“I think I’m afraid,” Will whispered.

“That’s okay,” Piper said. “Being afraid is okay.”

“I don’t want to lose him,” Will said, “before I’ve even had him at all.”

Piper reached over and twined her fingers through Will’s. His hands were sticky with sweat and grease, but she lifted them to her mouth anyway, pressing a careful kiss to his knuckles.

“Listen to me, Will,” she said. “You’re not going to want to hear this from me, but I think you are one of the most genuinely, honestly good people I’ve ever known. And whoever this completely hypothetical person is, they would be lucky to have you love them.”

“Thanks,” Will muttered. He wasn’t going to cry, was he? And in front of one of his employees, no less.

Piper rolled her eyes. “You big baby,” she giggled affectionately, stretching to brush the tears off Will’s face.

“Sorry,” he sniffed.

“You should be, you enormous goon. You got dirt all over my nice clean floor.”

They cleaned up together, Piper singing along with the radio dramatically, breaking into ridiculous dance moves to try and get Will to laugh. She helped him get some of the stains off his clothing, too, and, by the time they closed up for the night, Will had almost forgotten his Nico-shaped crisis.

(Almost.)

“Lou’s back this weekend, isn’t she?” Piper asked as they stepped off the truck for the night, standing on her tip-toes to pull the rolling, metal shade down over the window.

“Yeah, she’s flying in tomorrow.” Will sighed, turned his gaze towards the sky. “She’s going to get an ulcer when I tell her everything that’s happened, man.”

Piper laughed, slung an arm around Will’s waist. “She bringing Cecil?”

“Yeah, she said she was. Would’ve been nice to have some advance notice for that one, I might add.”

“It’ll be good to see them.”

“She’s going to murder me, but okay.”

Piper jumped up, ruffled his hair rather aggressively, and then careening off down the street in the other direction. “See you later!” she shouted. “And stop thinking so much! Your feelings are your feelings, Solace – just feel them, for once in your life.”

He watched her go until she disappeared from sight entirely, swallowed up by the semi-darkness. Alone, Will glanced at the golden lights of Fantasma Re, once, before shoving his hands into his pockets and setting off towards home.

 

Will closed the truck that Saturday, in preparation for Lou Ellen and Cecil’s arrival.

His apartment was about half an hour’s walk south of Hell’s Kitchen, located in an old art studio, converted into living spaces about a decade ago. The neighborhood wasn’t the greatest, and there was a rather disturbing scent of moss around the place, but the rent was decent, all things considered, and there was a guest bedroom – a definite bonus, because after Lou Ellen moved back down to Alabama, following The Incident, she sold her condo in Queens. Will’s was the only place she would stay when she was visiting.

Which meant that Will’s place had to be absolutely spotless when she was visiting.

Will didn’t live like a slob, or anything, but he was also a twenty-six-year-old, ADHD male, living alone and working full time, which didn’t exactly add up to America’s Neatest Living Space. It took most of the morning to get the place even close to meeting the patented Lou Ellen Standards, which were extremely, inordinately high.

His phone rang around noon, the caller ID proudly showing a picture of Lou Ellen and Will outside the Broadway show Wicked last winter. He picked it up immediately, holding the phone in one hand and wiping down the table with the other.

“Lou, do you think you’ll be here by dinnertime? Because I’ll get a large pizza if—”

“Hello, William.”

Will’s stomach plummeted.

That wasn’t Lou Ellen’s voice.

He knew that voice.

(That voice belonged to Christmastime and brownies and his first loose tooth – to careful hands, rubbing his back when he was sick – to laughter with scrunchy eyes and brows and noises – to the words I love you, repeated over and over again, like a promise – to loss and frustration, and to “You have to understand. You’re growing up, Will. There are certain things you just can’t do.”)

“Mom,” Will said.

His mother laughed, clear and high and pealing, like a bell. “Lou Ellen and I wanted to surprise you, so we didn’t let you know ahead of time, but—”

No.

“I’ll be joining you both for the weekend! How exciting is that!”

“Great!” Will said, praying to God he didn’t sound as shaken as he felt. “When will you get in?”

“Hopefully sometime mid-afternoon, so if you could have something ready for dinner, that would be absolutely wonderful. Lou Ellen tells me you’ve been making quite a business out of that food truck of yours.”

“Ah. Yeah. I’ll, um… tell you about it tonight, I guess.”

“I’m so glad to hear that. I’ll talk to you tonight, sweetie!”

“Y—yeah. Bye, Mom.”

She’d hung up before he had time to say anything else.

And then it was just him, alone in his apartment with the smell of cleaning spray and leftover Chinese food.

“Shit,” he announced to the emptiness. “Son of a squeaky grocery cart.”

Okay. This was fine. This was his mom, after all, and, no matter how weird their relationship had become over the years, she still loved him. It’s not like she would make him move back to Alabama if he fed her some questionable shrimp or something.

Shit. Shit, shit, holy fuck.

What if she made him move back to Alabama if he fed her some questionable shrimp or something?

Help, he realized, with a rather numb sort of panic. I need help.

Also, I’m going to die.

His phone was in his hands before he could think better of it, the contact pressed, the number dialed.

The call was answered after only one ring, and Will’s heart felt like it was going to pound its way out of his chest.

“Solace?” Nico’s voice was quiet, surprised, the undertones of his restaurant rumbling like the current of a river behind him. “What’s going on? The truck’s not open and we thought you were dead—”

Will took a deep, shuddering breath. “I know, I know, I stayed home today to get ready for my cousin – she was coming in from out of town – but I just found out that she’s bringing my mom, too, and I’m panicking a little bit because my mom wants dinner and the only thing I can make is heart-attack-inducing snack food so I was wondering if maybe you had a recipe or like a frozen meal or something that I could potentially feed her and I don’t think I’ve been able to breathe for the last five and a half minutes, so—”

“Solace.”

“This sounds crazy, I know, but my mom and I have this really weird relationship and I really don’t want to disappoint her so if you have something – anything – literally anything I am so desperate—”

“Solace.”

“When I was a kid she was always riding me about not living up to my brothers’ standards and like I don’t know what to tell her because we can’t all be war heroes and I don’t know how to be anything except a screw-up and now she’s going to do her normal disappointed thing and I can’t—”

Will.”

Will’s voice died in his throat.

“I’m coming over,” Nico continued. “Don’t move. And don’t hurt yourself. Where the fuck do you live?”

 

Nico showed up to his door about forty minutes later, dressed in his normal white dress shirt and slacks, with his leather jacket thrown over his shoulders a little lopsidedly. He carried a bag full of groceries, a bouquet of flowers, and a package of Reese’s peanut butter cups, the latter of which he tossed at Will immediately.

“Eat a couple of those and take deep breaths,” he commanded. “I’m making gnocchi.”

His hair was wind-tousled, his eyes bright and alert, and, to Will, he looked like a gift from the gods. Like everything Will had ever wanted or needed.

“You’re my hero,” he whimpered, sinking down onto the couch.

Nico snorted. “Not so fast, cowboy. You’re going to help. Start chopping vegetables.”

 

When Nico cooked, he shifted.

There was a serene, almost joyful expression on his face; he moved through Will’s kitchen, small and dingy and falling apart, like he was born there, like he’d spent his entire life walking on the cracking, off-white tiled floors.

It was almost magical to watch, like Nico had peeled off a layer, shed his skin, and suddenly Will was seeing the essence of him. The stuff that really mattered.

Will pointed him towards cookware and cutting boards, showed him where he kept the knives and utensils, and mostly just tried to stay out of his way. He opened his laptop and pulled up Spotify, and just about passed out from the shock when Nico started mouthing the words to One Direction’s Drag Me Down.

“Are you kidding me?” Will deadpanned. “Are you kidding me?”

Nico pointed at him dramatically and belted out the chorus at the top of his lungs, using a wooden spoon as a microphone.

And he was really, really good.

He had the kind of singing voice that made you want to stop and listen, high and clear and deliberate. There was just a hint of his almost-accent in his vowels, guttural and soft.

“You sing, too,” Will said. “Sure. Of course. Is there anything you can’t do? You should probably tell me right now so I don’t die of shock or something.”

Nico shrugged. “Nope, I’m good at everything.” He paused, and then repeated, “Everything.”

Will rolled his eyes and threw a Reese’s cup at Nico’s head; Nico dodged gracefully and went back to stirring his gnocchi.

“Nico,” Will said, crossing the kitchen to watch him work from over his shoulder. “Why did you start cooking?”

Nico’s mouth turned downwards into a pretty sort of frown. “It’s kind of a long story.”

Will shrugged. “We’ve got until six o’clock. Take your time.”

Nico offered a small, reluctant smile, glancing up at Will out of the corners of his eyes before refocusing his gaze on his cooking. “When I was ten, my sister died.”

Will froze.

“She was the best cook I knew, an absolute genius. And she loved it; she refused to call it a chore, because she said chores couldn’t be fun. The two of us, growing up… well. It was just us. She was everything I had. And, when she died… I needed to keep something of her. I needed pieces of her to live. So I started to cook.”

Nico shook his head slightly. “It was really hard, losing her. I was a wreck, for a really, really long time. It’s still hard to talk about her.”

“You’re doing fine,” Will murmured.

“I know.” Nico shrugged. “Because it’s you.”

Will’s eyes widened; Nico glanced over his shoulder. Their gazes met, and Will felt electric, alive.

They were standing… close. Closer than Will had realized. He could feel Nico’s breath on his chin, Nico’s warmth on his chest.

“I changed my mind,” Nico whispered. “About what I said yesterday.”

Will blinked. “What…?”

“I trust you. I think I’ve always trusted you. I don’t know why, though.”

It would be so, so easy. Will could lean forward, close the inches between them. Their lips could meet, and Nico could touch him, whisper in his ear, sigh against his skin, and they could press their bodies together, draw each other down, lose themselves in the smell of each other’s hair and the color of each other’s eyes.

Nico’s gaze was hot on his, steady. Like a dare. Like a mantra.

In those seconds, there was nothing. Nobody in the world. It was all empty, and there was nothing but Nico and Will.

Nico took a small, stuttering half-step forward, his hair tumbling artfully over his forehead, his eyes wide and questioning and maybe a little afraid.

Will reached up, very slowly, and brushed his fingers across Nico’s cheekbone.

The door to his apartment slammed open and Lou Ellen’s voice shouted, “Hey, honey, we’re home!”

Chapter Text

In Nico’s mind, he kissed Will that afternoon.

In Nico’s mind, he got brave, shed the layers of iron he wore in place of skin. He closed the distance between them, right there in the middle of Will’s kitchen floor. He touched Will’s face in the same gentle, reverent way Will touched his.

In Nico’s mind, Will’s lips were soft and careful and a little chapped, and he smiled against Nico’s mouth, like a secret, shared between the two of them. Pressed between their palms.

In Nico’s mind, Will kissed him back.

In reality, though, they sprang apart like an elastic band snapping in two, just in time to turn and watch a very, very pretty dark-haired girl saunter through the door, a beat-up lavender backpack slung over one shoulder.

“Oh, dear,” she said, drawing the words out in her mouth and raising an arched eyebrow. “Am I interrupting something?”

Will flushed a rather aggressive shade of pink, the tips of his ears flaring almost crimson. “Lou!” he blurted, practically launching himself backwards. Stumbling until his back hit the cabinetry.

(Away from Nico.)

There was something very, very cold inside Nico’s chest as he turned to stir the tomato sauce bubbling on the stove, focusing on keeping his face blank.

“Hi!” Will was squeaking, his voice about four octaves too high. “Um… Mom – sort of made it sound like – you guys were — getting in later—”

The girl’s mouth twisted upwards in an extremely dangerous-looking grin. “Surprise.”

Will looked slightly nauseated.

Nico looked over his shoulder, and his eyes met the strange girl’s from across the room. Her irises were surprising, venomous green, veiled slightly by a choppy, uneven line of pitch-dark bangs. She wore ripped skinny jeans, an olive green army jacket, combat boots, and huge, feathered earrings, which were just barely visible from behind her curtain of shoulder-length, straight hair.

Her gaze looked like a challenge; her eyes looked like a war.

Nico thought, if he was meeting her under other circumstances, he’d probably like her.

“Um,” Will was sputtering, his face still an alarming shade of red. “Lou, this is Nico, my… friend?” Nico raised an eyebrow at him, and Will glared at him and mouthed shut up, Death Boy. “N—Nico, this… is my… Lou Ellen.”

Lou Ellen’s eyes widened. “Oh. Oho. You wouldn’t happen to be Restaurant Nico, would you? Short-and-hot-and-angry Nico?”

Nico’s eyebrows lifted and he looked pointedly down at the food on the stove, the vegetables cut up on the countertop, the line of spices directly to his left. “Could be.”

Lou Ellen snorted. “Okay, point taken. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Restaurant Nico. Will’s mentioned you once or twice.”

“Oh. Lovely,” Nico said.

“It smells great in here.” Lou Ellen dropped her bag on the couch, spinning around on the spot to inspect the apartment. “And it looks like you cleaned, too. Damn, Will, look who’s getting his life together.”

Will sniffed. “I’m not completely incompetent, Lou.”

Lou Ellen laughed and crossed the room to wrap her arms around his waist, physically lifting him off the ground. “I know!” she chirped. “You’ve gone this long without blowing even one applianceup. My little cousin’s growing up! I’m very proud.”

Will looked mortified. He patted her head awkwardly and hissed, “Please put me down.”

She opened her arms theatrically and let him go. He hit the ground with a rather dramatic crash.

“Wow, yeah, that was exactly what I had in mind,” he snapped, scrambling back to his feet.

“Still so touchy,” Lou Ellen said. “Will was the actual worst when he was a teenager, Nico. He went through this phase in our freshman year of high school—”

Will pointed a finger at her. “Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare—”

“—where he’d just lock himself in his bedroom for hours on end to blast My Chemical Romance songs at frankly offensive volumes and write slam poetry—”

“I did not,” Will said, stricken, “write slam poetry.”

“You did.”

“I didn’t.”

Nico broke down laughing.

Will froze, an expression of vague horror breaking over his face, and – possibly inevitably – Nico found himself unable to breathe, doubled over, clutching his stomach, trying to speak between coughs of laughter.

“Sorry,” he gasped, wiping tears out of his eyes. “Sorry, sorry, holy shit. You would have a scene phase, Solace.”

Will sniffed. “At least I grew out of mine.”

Nico sucked in too quickly though his nose and found himself wheezing.

And then Will was giggling too, the tension releasing in his limbs, the fluster fading from his face, and the maelstrom inside Nico’s soul settled, calmed.

That crooked, sunshine smile. That furrow in the bridge of Will’s nose. The way his whole body moved with his laughter, his breath. His face changed when he laughed; he looked younger. Less heavy. Less afraid.

Nico wanted ferociously to protect that particular side of William Solace.

(He was beginning to realize that he would walk across continents to protect William Solace.)

Inside the architecture of Nico, a tiny bit of iron had been irretrievably lost, disappearing into the nothing.

Not long after that, Nico resumed his place in front of the stovetop, adding seasonings to the marinara sauce, keeping an eye on the water he’d prepped to boil. Lou Ellen winked at him roguishly before flinging herself onto the couch. She was snoring softly within seconds, her curtain of hair tumbling in her face, a few stray strands lifting as she breathed.

Will settled down at his spindly kitchen table, twisting his hands in his lap. He glanced over at Nico, eyes wide and blue and worried, and Nico mouthed, It’s okay. You’re okay.

Will took a deep, shuddering breath before nodding fiercely, and Nico turned away to hide his smile.

The knock on the door that followed hung in the air like a gunshot. Will leaped to his feet immediately, but the door was already swinging open, and a woman’s voice was shouting, “Will, baby, oh, my goodness, I missed you so much!” in a very, very Southern accent.

Nico was vaguely aware of a flowery sundress, a flash of a smile, startlingly blue eyes. And then there was a flash of movement like a hurricane-force gale, and then Will was being just about swept off his feet by a very tiny, very freckled woman in five-inch heels.

 

Upon reflection, Nico realized that he’d rather pictured Ms. Emily Solace as being taller. As it was, her head barely crested Nico’s chin, even in her high heels.

She was still kind of frightening, though.

Will’s mom possessed a timeless sort of beauty. She wore her auburn hair up in a neat bun, a few stray curls tumbling out of the knot and into her face artfully. She was just as freckled as Will, her limbs soft and compact and vibrating with a boundless energy that made Nico feel slightly exhausted just looking at her. Her dress was old, the print faded and a little threadbare, but she wore it proudly, with her shoulders back and her eyes bright.

The way Will had sounded on the phone, Nico had assumed that he and his mother couldn’t stand to be within sight of each other. But when Ms. Solace wrapped her arms around his neck, covered his face with kisses, he hesitantly returned the embrace, stiff for a second before his eyes fluttered shut and his shoulders relaxed.

My mom and I have this really weird relationship, Will had said. And then, like he was about to burst into tears, I don’t know how to be anything but a screw-up.

Nico didn’t know what that meant, but the words tasted sour in his mouth, like he himself was being personally attacked.

“Mom,” Will said, placing a hand on his mother’s head and trying to push her off of him. “Mom, stop. I can’t breathe.”

She released him immediately and sprang backwards, holding her hands up in a gesture of surrender. “I’m so sorry, Will, I’m sorry. I just missed you, baby. It’s so quiet back home without you there.”

“I know,” Will said. “I missed you, too.”

She reached out again, grabbed his hand eagerly. “You could come back, you know,” she said, and Nico’s insides went cold. “You don’t have to move back in with me; you could get a job in town and—”

“You and I both know why I can’t do that, Mom.”

Will’s face looked very hard all of a sudden, wrought from steel instead of starstuff. Their eyes met over Ms. Solace’s shoulder, and Will took a deep, slow breath.

Ms. Solace turned around, and some of the dejection disappeared from her face.

“Oh! Will, you should’ve told me you had a guest. How rude of me!” She rushed across the room and clasped Nico’s hand between her own. “I’m Will’s ma, but you can call me Emily, if you want.”

(Oh, yes. Good. Touching. Lovely. Nico loved being touched by strangers.)

He tried his hardest to extract his hand from hers without yanking it away. “Nico di Angelo,” he managed.

“It’s such a pleasure to meet you, Nico,” Ms. Solace said warmly. Nico looked over the top of her head at Will, rather desperately, who shrugged in a you’re on your own kind of way. “Lou and I have tickets to a show this evening, so we might be rushing about, but I hope you’ll join us for dinner—”

Nico shook his head immediately. “No, no, it’s fine, I was just headed out. I don’t want to impose—”

“You’re absolutely not imposing,” Ms. Solace said obstinately. “It looks like you’re cooking for us, and there’s no way I’m letting you out of this house before we eat. It smells divine.”

Help, Nico thought in Will’s direction, and Will winced like, Just say yes, it’ll be less painful for everyone involved.

Emily Solace beamed at him, and her eyes were so like Will’s – bright and alert and clever and kind.

“Okay,” Nico found himself saying. “But you have to help me make the garlic bread.”

Will looked floored.

His mother clapped her hands. “Wonderful. I’m gonna go put my bags in the guest room, so y’all hang tight. I’ll be right back.”

She swept out of the room just as quickly and gracefully as she’d entered it, leaving behind a rather numb sense of shock and the smell of vanilla perfume.

“So,” Nico said, when he heard the door of the guest bedroom click shut. “A southern accent, huh.”

“We’re from Alabama,” Will mumbled.

Nico raised an eyebrow. “You don’t have one.”

Will sighed. “That’s because I trained myself to actually pronounce consonants correctly,” he said, and, this time, the words were slightly distorted in his mouth, the vowels elongated, the endings of the words clipped. “But I can still sound like this if I want to. Y’all. Over yonder. Pecan pie.”

Nico stared.

“Wow. Shit, yeah, that sounded totally real.”

“That’s because it is real, jackass,” Will said, his nose wrinkling and his accent reverting abruptly to the one Nico recognized.

“No need to snap. We’re all friends here,” Nico said cheerfully.

“I hate you.”

“I think it’s hot, you know.”

Will’s face turned scarlet.

“You what?”

Nico shrugged. “Your accent. Is hot. And that’s a compliment, Solace, so you can stop looking like you want to throw yourself out the window.”

Will gaped at him for a long, painful moment, and then he mumbled, “Thanks.”

Nico nodded and went back to his cooking.

 

They ate early, around Will’s rickety wooden table; the air was heavy with the smells of butter and garlic, and the early evening light trickled golden through the windows. It was warm, and Nico was full, and Will was laughing, telling Lou Ellen about some stupid thing Leo Valdez had done the night before.

“So then he calls me,” Will choked out, his eyes watery, “and he’s screaming something about being chased by the cops for stealing a pig, and I look out the window and he’s running down the street half-naked, a piglet in one arm and a pair of stilettos in the other—”

Lou Ellen choked on her water.

Ms. Solace leaned over the table towards Nico, gesturing him closer to murmur, “Is… William’s life always this hectic?”

“Pretty much,” Nico admitted. “Never a dull moment, and whatnot.”

“You seem so calm and collected, though,” she said. The way she looked at Nico made him feel small. Like how his mother used to look at him when he was in trouble, like she knew and saw and felt every transgression he’d ever committed.

Nico laughed nervously and shook his head. “Not really. I’m just used to chaos. I own a restaurant.”

“You do?” Ms. Solace looked stunned. “At your age? That’s incredible!”

“I’ve got a lot of help,” Nico mumbled. “And my dad handled most of the finances.”

“Still.” Ms. Solace slumped back against her chair, still looking impressed. “Y’all are made of different stuff up here.”

Beside him, Will’s knee bumped into his own. The conversation continued, Lou Ellen and Ms. Solace talking about developments back home, Will telling stories about the food truck, Nico picking at a piece of garlic bread and listening in careful silence.

Below the table, Will’s knee bumped into him again. Nico glanced at him sideways, without turning his head; Will’s jaw was tight, a note of fear still lingering in his eyes.

Wordlessly, Nico shifted his body so that their thighs were pressed together.

Will closed his eyes and sighed.

 

There was a weird sort of electricity in Nico’s veins throughout that dinner, running underneath the skin like a current. Sparks, born during the almost-kiss, flaring up in every single solitary moment of contact since. His hands felt shaky, his chest tight, every nerve in his body hyperaware of the point where Will’s leg touched his.

 

They finished eating just in time for Lou Ellen and Ms. Solace to get cleaned up and rush out the door for their Broadway show. Ms. Solace kissed Nico on the cheek when she left, thanking him profusely for the meal. Lou Ellen nodded to him with an almost-smile twisting her lips, eyeing the space between him and Will like there was a physical entity there, like she could see it as clearly as Nico felt it.

Nico stayed and helped Will clean up. The sunset broke across the sky, a thousand million shades of golden-scarlet-midnight-eggshell-violet. Will was quiet, drying the dishes in silence.

When they were finished, he crossed to the fridge and offered Nico a beer.

“It’s cheap,” he warned. “And probably older than the last ice age.”

Nico popped the top open and took a swig. “It tastes like piss,” he announced.

Will gave a half-hearted smile, opening one for himself and collapsing onto the couch. “I thought I was going to pass out,” he said.

Nico took another sip of the beer and forced himself not to gag. “You did fine,” he said, moving over to sit on the floor across from the couch, leaning against the wall and tucking his knees up to his chest. “You didn’t even need me here.”

Will’s eyes went wide. “No. I did. I really, really did. I can’t – I can’t even begin to express how much it means to me that – I – that you—”

“It’s fine, Solace,” Nico said, rolling his eyes. “It’s more than fine.”

Will said, “It’s not.”

Blue eyes met black. Nico waited.

“Growing up in the south,” Will began, in a very small sort of voice, “is not the same as growing up here. In this small hick town in backwoods Alabama, I was always, always wrong. Not fitting isn’t an option, where I grew up. And Mom had always wanted to… to protect me, you know. To keep me safe and sheltered and… and small. But then, she found out that I liked boys, too – everyone found out that I liked boys, too – and, suddenly, she had to figure out how to protect me from myself.”

“You’re not wrong,” Nico snarled. “Just because you’re – you’re bi, or pan, or whatever—”

“Bi,” Will said. “Not that it matters.”

Nico frowned. “It matters to you.”

“She loves me,” Will said. “She’s always loved me, but she doesn’t see me, Nico. She can’t see me, she’s never seen me, and it is so scary to have her look at me like I’m a stranger. I couldn’t… I can’t…” He took a deep, shuddering breath. “I’ve never been enough.”

Nico stood up, set his can of piss-beer on the floor, and crossed to the couch, crouching down in front of Will. He gently put his hands on Will’s, guided them away from Will’s face.

They were inches apart, and Will’s eyes were like galaxies, and Nico could count every single freckle, every single sandy eyelash. He wanted to kiss every single one of them.

Instead, he twined his fingers with Will’s and whispered fiercely, “You’re enough, Solace. Do you hear me? You are enough.”

Will stared at him, his eyes wide.

“I said, do you hear me, Solace?”

“I hear you,” Will whispered back.

(I hear you.

I love you.)

Nico stood up, dusted off his pants. “Good. Now get your ass off this couch and go eat some fucking ice cream or something. I’m getting the fuck out of here before your mom gets back and starts trying to get me to move in.”

Nico grabbed his stuff, threw another Reese’s cup at Will, dodged the answering barrage of candy aimed at his head, and then sauntered to the door, trying desperately to keep a straight face, to keep walking forward, to keep from falling backwards.

“I’ll see you around, Solace,” he said, glancing over his shoulder, and then, suddenly, Will was crossing the room and the Reese’s cups were falling to the ground and his hands were fisted in Nico’s leather jacket, and then their lips were meeting.

Oh, Nico thought.

And then he stopped thinking at all.

Chapter Text

Kisses, Will thought, are not supposed to burn.

And yet. And yet. Nico’s lips were searing, scorching hot against his, and Will felt tattered, torn apart, like every atom in his body had been peeled open, laid bare for the world to see. Will could feel Nico’s intake of breath, feel the way his shoulders tensed, feel the way his hands came to rest on Will’s biceps, like he wasn’t sure if he wanted to push Will away.

Will released his hold on Nico’s jacket, jumped backwards. Nico’s eyes were blown wide, splotches of color high on his cheeks and the back of his neck. His lips parted slightly, and Will watched him release his breath, long and slow.

“Sorry,” Will whispered. “Oh, my God, Nico, I’m so sorry.”

Nico lifted a hand to touch his mouth. His fingers were shaking.

“I’m sorry,” Will repeated. “Sorry, shit, shit, I’m sorry. We’ll just… forget—”

“Forget it ever happened?” Nico supplied. His voice was flat.

Will nodded, fast, sharp. Desperate. “I’m sorry. I was way out of line. I did that without your consent, and I know… I know you wanted to be… professional—”

“I did,” Nico said. “I did want that.”

Will remembered heat. He remembered that Nico’s mouth felt like fire against his own. It existed, somewhere. Somewhere, there was fire. But, right now, his insides were built of ice, and all he felt was cold.

“Will,” Nico said.

And then he stepped forward, cupped Will’s face in his hands – Will had less than a second to be shocked, less than a second to register Nico’s eyelids, fluttering shut – and then Nico guided their mouths together.

It was surprisingly gentle. For someone Nico had once hated, he kissed Will very, very carefully. His hands were careful on Will’s cheeks, too, fingers tracing delicate patterns on Will’s cheekbones.

It was unhurried, measured, and Nico’s lips tasted like marinara sauce and Will’s cheap beer, and it was everything, everything Will had ever wanted. Everything he’d ever needed.

Will was having trouble breathing.

Nico broke the contact first, let his hands drop from Will’s face. His eyebrows were furrowed, his jaw clenched down, and Will saw that he was crying, fragile, spun-glass tears chasing each other down his face.

“Now we’re even,” Nico growled, his voice low and suspiciously wobbly. “And you don’t have to forget anything you don’t want to.”

He was even pretty when he cried, Will realized, a little numbly.

(Life isn’t fair.)

“I’m not exactly an expert on these things,” he said quietly, trying his best to offer a shaky smile, “but I’m pretty sure first kisses aren’t supposed to make you cry.”

“I love you,” Nico said.

Will blinked.

I love you.

I love you.

We can’t.

I love you.

You said.

I love you.

I’m afraid.

“What?” Will whispered.

“You heard me, Solace. I’m in love with you,” Nico said. His face was impassive, expressionless. “Don’t look so fucking shocked. You’re honestly going to tell me you didn’t know? I think I’ve been pretty fucking obvious about it.”

Will winced. “Okay, let’s tone down the vitriol, there, Death Boy. I think we’ve already established that I’m an idiot.”

Nico snorted, and Will couldn’t really decide if he sounded amused or angry.

“If you love me,” Will said, very gently, “why are you crying?”

“Because nothing’s changed.” Nico shrugged. “I still need to run the restaurant normally. I still need to prove to my dad that I’m competent. I still don’t know how to be in a relationship without fucking things up. Only now I need to figure out how to live with myself, because I’ve hurt you, too.”

“I’m fine,” Will began, but Nico shook his head.

“You don’t need to lie to me, Solace.”

Will stared at him, at this beautiful, slight-shouldered boy, standing in the foyer of his apartment, his hair mussed and his jacket askew. Nico’s eyes were lowered to the floor, his eyelashes impossibly dark against his skin, and Will was still afraid. He thought he’d probably always be afraid. But he was a lot of other things, too, and in love with Nico di Angelo was one of them.

“I don’t think,” he said quietly, “that loving you has ever hurt me.”

Nico froze, his eyes still fixed on his feet, his hands clutching at the bottom of his shirt.

“I don’t like pretending,” Will continued. “I’m pretty shitty at it, actually. And I think I’ve loved you for a long time, Nico. So, when you said you wanted us to be professionally detached, or whatever, my first thought was, well, shit, this is going to break my heart in half. But then we became… I don’t know… friends.”

“Friends,” Nico echoed, and Will took it as an affirmation.

“And it was nice. It didn’t hurt like I thought it was going to. Well, it hurt, but not in a shitty way, you know?” Nico gave a watery chuckle, and Will brushed his thumb against Nico’s cheek again. “And you came here today, and you made my mother dinner, and you forced me to… to eat my feelings, and just seeing you made me feel better. Seeing you made me feel real. So I don’t care. I don’t care if we’re friends or boyfriends or lovers or whatever. I’m fine with whatever. Whatever you want. Whatever you can give me. That’s enough. That’s more than enough.”

Nico sniffed, rubbed at his face with the back of his hand.

“See, this is exactly the problem,” he grumbled. “You’re too fucking nice. All the damn time. And your eyes are too fucking pretty. I’m so pissed off.”

Will laughed, tilted his head forward so that their foreheads were pressed together. “Aw, gee. I think that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me, Death Boy.”

“And your freckles are fucking cute. I hate them.”

“Thank you.”

“And you get this little dimple when you laugh and it makes me want to punch you.”

Nico was smiling a little now, and Will was beaming so much his face was starting to hurt. Their noses brushed, and Nico’s breath was soft and steady against Will’s mouth.

“Can I kiss you again?” Will whispered.

Nico sniffed again. “Aren’t you supposed to take me to a movie or something first?”

They were both grinning when their lips met. Will reached up to brush one hand through Nico’s hair, while the other twined with Nico’s fingers. Their mouths opened against each other, slowly, incautiously, and then there was nothing in the world but heat and electricity and the feeling of Nico’s tongue, tracing Will’s lower lip, sliding into his mouth.

Nico made a soft, contented sound in his throat, and Will was full of flames.

Their movements were strangely confident, for two people who had never so much as held hands before. They stepped in tandem, lips still moving together, until the back of Nico’s legs hit the couch and they toppled onto it.

“You’re heavy,” Nico grunted, and Will laughed and lifted himself slightly so that Nico could lie down, brush the hair out of his eyes impatiently.

Will leaned down and pressed a kiss to the tip of Nico’s nose.

“You’re so beautiful,” he murmured.

“You’re a dork,” Nico said, but he was smiling, and Will lowered himself down again so that they were chest to chest, their legs tangled together.

Will’s body felt deeply, profoundly alive, every inch of him aware of Nico underneath him.

He kissed Nico softly, reverently, and Nico reached up to twine his fingers in Will’s hair.

I love you, Will wanted to say. I have never loved anyone like I love you.

Instead he pressed his hands on Nico’s hips and dragged them upwards, underneath his shirt. Nico’s breath hitched and his hips lifted into the touch slightly, and Will traced his fingertips up Nico’s stomach, along the planes of his chest, against his nipples.

“I do not want to be wearing this jacket anymore,” Nico informed Will against his mouth, and Will sat up and allowed Nico to slough it off like a second skin, toss it aside, and then unbutton his shirt.

Nico was slender and dark and beautiful, and Will pressed a kiss to his bare chest and told him that, over and over again, in a voice like a prayer. “You’re beautiful. You’re beautiful. You’re so beautiful, Nico.”

Nico helped Will with his t-shirt, too, and then Will lowered himself back down and kissed his way down Nico’s throat, his shoulders, his collarbones. Nico’s hands traced meteor showers onto Will’s back, across his shoulder blades, and Will felt transcendent. Otherworldly.

Will’s hips shifted slightly, and Nico shifted with him, whispered, “Shit, Solace,” in a way that made it very, very difficult for Will to think.

“Maybe we should. Um,” Will tried, but the thought wasn’t really formulating in his brain, and Nico’s hands were slipping under the waistband of his jeans. “Bedroom…?”

Nico sighed. “Maybe.”

His hands slid lower. Will’s did, too.

“It would be more comfortable,” Will managed.

Nico’s hand brushed along his length; the both of them moved in synch, in unison; Nico was half-hard under his fingertips.

“Probably,” Nico groaned.

Nico’s hand traced the tip of Will’s dick and Will’s teeth clenched. He hissed, his back arching, stars bursting in his vision, and the bedroom suddenly felt absurdly remote. An impossible possibility.

Nico caught Will’s earlobe between his teeth and Will moaned his name, soft and breathy.

They got each other off like that, entwined on the couch. Nico’s fingers were calloused from years of working in the kitchen, and they felt ungodly good against Will’s skin, careful at first and then urgent, hungry. Will gave as good as he got, and Nico’s head tipped back as the pace quickened, and Will kissed the base of his throat, the line of his neck, and Nico gasped, “Will, Will, oh my God, Will,” as he came, and Will’s blood felt like lava in his veins.

I was born for this, he thought. I was born to fit Nico di Angelo. I was born so my name could sit on his lips. I was born so my mouth could meet his.

What a profoundly strange thing to feel. Another impossible possibility.

It seemed that Will was built of those.

Afterwards, Will forced himself to get up and change out of his (now-sticky) jeans. He grabbed clean boxers and a pair of sweatpants for Nico, too, and Nico changed in front of him without so much as a blush, despite the fact that Will’s face felt so hot he was pretty sure his cheeks had passed crimson and gone straight to purple.

They lay back down together, and Nico tucked his face into the crook of Will’s neck. Will buried his face in Nico’s hair, breathed in the scent of him, tried to memorize how this felt – how it felt to be held by him, how it felt to have his hands on Will’s arms, his lips on Will’s jaw.

“We can’t do this again, can we?” he asked.

Nico’s breath caught sharply in his throat.

“It’s okay,” Will said, quickly. “I told you, didn’t I? Whatever you can give me is more than enough.”

Nico nodded, dragged his nose along Will’s cheek. “I want this,” he whispered in Will’s ear. “This is all I want. But I—”

“Can’t,” Will offered.

“Not right now, anyway. Not yet.” Nico sighed and Will smiled, drew his lips along Nico’s cheekbone.

“That’s okay,” he said. “I can wait.”

“I can’t ask you to do that.”

“You didn’t.” They were so close. Tangled together. Two halves of a whole. How could Will force himself to be separate, after this? “You didn’t ask. I’m saying I’ll wait because I want to. Trust me.”

“I trust you, asshole,” Nico chuckled.

They kissed again, soft and slow, and then Nico got to his feet and stretched. The borrowed sweatpants sat too low on his hips, and Will found himself staring at the line of skin there, the angles of his hipbones.

He watched as Nico put his shirt and jacket back on, pulling his boots on. Nico moved slowly, deliberately, and didn’t look at him until he was completely dressed, motorcycle helmet in hand.

Nico glanced over his shoulder. His eyes caught, snagged on Will’s.

“I love you,” Will said.

Nico’s lips twitched upwards in a rather pained smile. “I’ll see you around, Solace,” he said, very quietly. And then the door shut, and he was gone.

Chapter Text

“We’re expecting a food critic tonight,” were, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the worst words in the English language.

Nico slept like actual, literal crap after he got home from Will’s. His mind was full of broken pieces, shattered images. Half-formed memories, closer to wishes, prayers, pleas. Will’s eyes – his hands, warm on Nico’s skin – his lips, searing scars onto Nico’s memory – the way he said Nico’s name, whispered it, low and easy and natural.

Nico arrived at work the next morning equal parts exhausted and terrified, battling violently against stupid, pointless, loud fantasies, crowding his head. Domestic bullshit. Good morning kisses. Sleepy smiles. Linked fingers. Cold feet on bare legs underneath a mountain of blankets.

Could-be’s and would-be’s and help-me’s. It was beginning to feel like Nico was made of the things he could not say.

Good God.

He was officially losing his edge.

And then, as if getting off with the man who was supposed to be his rival wasn’t enough, there was The Announcement, handed to him oh-so-graciously by Annabeth the second he walked in the door.

“We’re expecting a food critic tonight,” she told him, her nose buried in a pile of invoices the size of a small child, and, if Jason and Percy hadn’t been watching, Nico probably would’ve curled into a ball and burst into tears right then and there.

Fuck it, honestly. Fuck everything. Fuck it all straight to hell.

Please engrave Bad Decisions™ on my tombstone instead of my name.

“Great,” he said instead. “Spectacular.”

“Who’s coming?” Percy asked, leaning over Annabeth’s shoulder to peer at the paper she was scribbling on.

She covered his face with her hand and pushed him away. “We’re not allowed to know. That, or when they’re getting here. To ensure that we’re not just catering to the critic alone and serving garbage to the rest of our clientele.”

Percy looked put out. “We’ve never served anybody garbage.”

“Of course not. But they don’t know that.” She handed Nico a small pile of papers and rose from the desk. “All set here.”

 “Super,” Nico grumbled.

“Is everything okay, boss?” Jason asked. “You look—”

“Fucking terrible,” Percy supplied.

Jason scowled. “I was going to say ‘tired,’ but, yes, thank you, Jackson.”

Percy bowed graciously. “My pleasure.”

“I’m great. Absolutely perfect,” Nico snapped. “I just didn’t sleep much last night. It’s nothing.”

Percy lifted his eyebrows in a way that made Nico seriously consider firing him on the spot. “Oh. Oh-ho. You have a hot date or something?”

Nico’s stomach gave an excruciatingly painful twist.

“Oh, my God,” Jason gasped. “Oh, my God, you did! You did have a hot date! Holy shit!”

Percy reached over and grabbed Jason’s shoulder, slumping forward dramatically. “Bro. Bro, oh, my God, bro. Our little Nico is all grown up and getting laid—”

“I’m going to kill you in your sleep,” Nico said.

Percy waved him off. “Who’s the victim, Lover Boy? Anyone we know?”

“I didn’t have a hot date.” Nico gritted his teeth and tried to breathe evenly. “And, right now, we all have a lot of work to do. So if you want to get paid in full today…”

Annabeth got to her feet and grabbed Percy by the ear. “We’re going to go finalize the menu.”

“Sorry, boss,” Percy said, snapping into a mock salute before allowing Annabeth to lead him away. He glanced over his shoulder to shout, “We’re not done talking about this!”

The office door swung shut behind him.

Nico collapsed onto the chair at his desk and pressed his forehead against the wood.

“Why me?” he asked the table.

Next to him, Jason cleared his throat.

“Nico,” he began, just a little bit meekly.

Nico whirled on him furiously, but there was a look of immense, almost overwhelming concern in Jason’s eyes that made Nico deflate.

“You really do look sick,” Jason said. “You should go home, get some rest. We can handle the restaurant for the day.”

“I can’t. There’s a shitton of paperwork I need to get done today, and I am definitely not leaving the kitchen in the hands of you and Tweedle Dumber over there.” He jabbed a thumb towards the doorway, where Percy had been standing. “Not when a critic is coming. No offense.”

“None taken.” Jason sighed and reached forward like he was going to touch Nico’s shoulder. He paused before making contact though, and shoved his hand back in his pocket like he’d thought better of it. “It’s about Will, isn’t it?”

Nico froze.

Jason laughed a little nervously. “I thought so. Did something happen between you two?”

“I don’t,” Nico said, “want to talk about this.” Jason opened his mouth to respond, and Nico cut him off. “Don’t go into mom mode.”

Jason looked affronted. “Mom mode? I don’t have a mom mode.”

“You definitely do.”

“I don’t. I am not motherly. I’m just cautious. There’s a difference—”

“Whatever you say, Mom.”

Jason pointed at him accusingly. “You’re trying to distract me, aren’t you?”

Nico pressed a hand to his own chest. “I would never.”

They glared at each other for a long moment before Jason sighed again, allowing the corners of his mouth to twitch upwards. “All right. Fine. Look, boss, I’m not gonna pressure you into telling me anything, but I do want you to know that I’m here if you want to talk. Or, if you don’t want to talk to me, talk to Hazel, or something. You’ll feel better.”

“Awesome. Thanks. Any other mushy shit you want to get off your chest, or are you done?”

Jason screwed up his face thoughtfully before saying, “I’m done.”

“Great. Now get the fuck out of my office, Grace.”

Jason laughed and turned to go. He was halfway out the door before Nico said, in a slightly softer voice, “Hey, Mom? Thanks.”

Jason stuck his tongue out at him, and Nico muffled a smile.

 

The visit from the food critic turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The rush of work that needed to be done meant that Nico didn’t have time to lose his mind over Will Solace. The memories of the night before were kept to a dull roar instead of a deafening rush, and Nico could almost pretend everything was okay.

He managed to pull himself together pretty well, all things considered, anyway. Damage control should be an Olympic sport.

The staff was just as rambunctious as usual as they opened up for the night –maybe rowdier, actually, because the Stoll brothers were both working the same shift tonight, which Nico usually tried to avoid at any and all costs. They kept bursting into giggles and pulling faces at each other.

“Those two put the fear of God in me,” Nico whispered to Jason, after a near miss involving Travis, Clarisse la Rue, and three bowls of hot soup.

“Heard that, boss,” Connor said as he walked by.

“Just try not to blow anything up,” Nico begged.

 

The night, mercifully, passed without catastrophe. No complaints were filed, no critics left stormed out of the dining room in a rage, no ambulances were called, which, honestly, was beginning to feel like a miracle given Nico’s luck.

Nico left just after closing time, practically shoved out the door by Annabeth and Jason. “Get some rest,” they both shouted at him, just before slamming the door in his face.

And then the buzz of work, the hum of the restaurant was gone, and Nico was alone.

The night was cold – the sharp, angry kind of cold that stings in October but feels like a reprieve in January. Nico hugged his jacket around himself and shivered, watched his breath billow up in front of him and dissipate into the darkness.

The air felt thinner, somehow. Like Nico was standing on the edge of a precipice, a thousand miles high, staring over the edge.

It was quiet, and Nico was alone, and suddenly the only thing he could think was Will.

He should go home. Eat dinner. Maybe take the day off tomorrow. He should try and sleep off the emptiness inside his chest, the insurmountable desire his body could not seem to contain – the desire to see Will, to touch him, to make him smile.

Instead of heading for his bike, though, he shoved his hands in his pockets and walked around to the front of the building. The street was quiet, abandoned except for a loud, raucous group leaving an apartment a couple doors down. The food truck sat silently. The sign hanging over the take-out window proclaimed ‘CLOSED’ in huge, neon-green letters. The color made the street looked strange, warped.

“You lookin’ for someone, Death Boy?”

Nico froze, spun around sharply. Will stood in the doorway of Fantasma Re, wrapped in a gray peacoat and a thick scarf, his hair tucked under a knit cap. A few flyaway curls escaped over his forehead, tumbled over his eyes. His hands twisted the ends of the scarf absently.

His face split into that sunshine-leaden, uniquely Will smile that made Nico’s stomach feel like gravity had momentarily shut off. (Cute, Nico thought, despairingly.)

“I, um,” Nico started, quietly, before letting the sentence die in his throat.

“Did you want to see me?”

The question was gentle, Will’s voice controlled and careful, but there was a hint of teasing in his eyes, in his smile.

Nico snorted. “Jackass.”

“So touchy.” Will stuck his lower lip out theatrically, stepping closer almost imperceptibly.

Nico’s breath caught in his throat, despite himself.

Will was beautiful. Under the poor, parchment-colored light of the streetlamps, with his cheeks flushed with cold and his hair mussed, Will was the most beautiful thing Nico had ever seen.

“I wanted to see you, too, you know,” Will said.

Maybe the flush wasn’t entirely from cold, after all.

 “It’s freezing out here,” Will continued, his gaze moving from Nico’s face to the ground. “And I’ve been craving hot chocolate all day. Do you… maybe… want to—?”

Nico found himself smiling. “Yeah.”

Will blinked. “Y—yeah?” he repeated incredulously.

Nico raised an eyebrow. “You know. Yeah. Yes. Yup. Indeed. You’ve probably heard the word before, once or twice.”

The surprise on Will’s face melted away, became amusement, affection. He bumped Nico with his shoulder and muttered, “Who’s the jackass now?” before marching off down the street towards Starbucks.

Nico jogged to catch up and fell into step beside him.

They walked closer than they needed to, with their arms brushing often enough to make Nico’s heart beat faster. And Nico knew that this was not what he needed – what he needed was to quit Will Solace, cold turkey – but it was what he wanted. God. He couldn’t remember ever wanting anything else in his life.

Not like this.

Another thing to add to the list of things Nico couldn’t say.

And then Will reached down, threaded their fingers together. “Is this okay?”

Nico nodded.

Will squeezed, and Nico squeezed back.

 

Will’s cheeks were even pinker in the better lighting of Starbucks. The flush was pretty, like flower petals, and it made his eyes look bluer, his hair look lighter. He took his hat off when they walked in, and his hat-hair was absolutely absurd, sticking up every which way.

“You’re staring at me,” Will pointed out, looking pleased with himself.

“Your hair is literally defying gravity right now.”

Will pouted and reached up to flatten his curls with his free hand. He kept the other one twined with Nico’s.

 

(When they sat down after getting their drinks, Will stripped his coat off gracelessly, battling with the sleeve to try and pull his arm out, swearing softly under his breath. His tan sweater was wrinkled, the button-up he wore underneath only tucked into his pants on one side. He took a sip of cocoa, and whip cream stuck to his nose.

Nico was so, so in love.)

 

They were halfway through their hot chocolates, knees brushing underneath their table, when Will said, thoughtfully, “This is where I first asked you out.”

Nico choked on his drink a little. Some of his cocoa spilled out of the cup and onto the table.

Will burst out laughing and handed Nico a pile of napkins to clean up the spill. “Sorry, sorry. I’m not trying to guilt you, or anything, I swear. I just… do you remember when I asked why you called your restaurant Ghost King? You said it was a long story.”

Nico nodded, looked down at his cocoa, cupped it with both hands. “Yeah. I remember.”

“Do you have time to tell it now?”

Did he have time to tell it now?

Could he tell it now, without breaking down?

Will’s knee was warm, even through his jeans and Nico’s slacks. The contact made the static in Nico’s mind settle, quiet.

“Do you remember,” Nico said, “when I told you about my sister?”

Will’s expression grew serious. He nodded.

 “In high school, that was my nickname.”

Will frowned. “I… I don’t…?”

“After Bianca died,” Nico murmured, “I just sort of… stopped. Stopped caring. About anything. I wore all black, I dyed my hair purple, I never said anything in class, and I smoked cigarettes outside the gym. There was a stretch of about three months where I never spoke to any of my classmates at all. So I became the Ghost King. Since my only friends were made of air and memory.”

He hesitated, took a sip of his hot chocolate.

“And then I moved here, and I went to university, and I was less… angry, I guess. Less alone. I started talking again. I made friends. And by the time I opened Fantasma Re, I wasn’t the Ghost King anymore. I couldn’t find it in me to grieve like that.”

“So the name was… a tribute to her?” Will guessed. “You weren’t the Ghost King anymore, but your restaurant could be?”

Nico smiled a little. “Something like that.”

Will nodded. He shifted slightly, so that their legs were pressed together, knee to ankle.

His eyes were so, so, so blue. When had blue become Nico’s favorite color?

“My brothers died overseas,” Will said.

Nico’s insides froze.

Will lowered his head, twisted his hands together on the table in front of him. “Michael and Lee. We got medals, you know. They called them both heroes.” He shook his head sharply. “As a kid, I thought the word hero meant invincible. Like Superman, you know? Your only enemy is a glowing green rock from outer space. But Michael and Lee were heroes, and that didn’t stop them both from coming home in a casket.”

Nico felt shattered, broken. Torn apart.

“It was… hard on Mom,” Will continued. “After they died, she wanted to… to keep me from ever hurting again, right? But she couldn’t. And I had to go and be bi, too… I just—”

“Will.”

Will’s eyes came up at the sound of his voice, his eyebrows scrunching together.

Nico said, “I get it,” and the look of relief that passed over Will’s face was so sudden and heartfelt it was almost staggering.

“I know,” Will whispered.

It was even colder outside when they left, the wind picking up and tugging at Nico’s hair, dragging icy fingernails along his bones. Will wrapped his scarf around Nico’s face so that only Nico’s eyes were uncovered and Nico shoved him away, laughing. They walked back to the restaurant, hand-in-hand, Will glancing over in Nico’s direction from time to time and beaming at him, like Nico was the only person in the world he wanted to see.

His eyes still looked sad, though.

“If you could do anything,” Nico found himself asking, “anything in the world, right now, what would you do?”

Will snorted. “Getting sentimental, now, Death Boy?”

“Oh, so you're gonna bully me, Solace? I thought you were supposed to be the nice one.”

They reached the alley where Nico parked his bike. Will paused, tilted his face up to inspect the sky.

“I think,” he said, finally, “that I want to go back to med school.”

Nico didn’t say anything.

“I wanted to be a pediatrician,” Will continued, too quickly. Nervously? “I’ve always… that’s what I’m meant for, I think.”

“Kids would love you,” Nico said. He rubbed his thumb on Will’s in slow, careful circles. “But I wouldn’t let you near me with a needle if you were the last man on earth.”

Will snorted. “Gee, thanks, sunshine. You sure know how to butter me up.”

“It’s a chef thing.”

And then Nico was on his tiptoes, tugging Will down, and their mouths were meeting, soft and brazen and easy, like they’d been kissing like this for years.

They broke apart, and Will rested his forehead on Nico’s, and Nico found that he was heavy, heavy, heavy. Weighed down by the things he could never say.

Like, I’ll make you happy.

And, Your eyes are the color of my dreams.

And, You are everything, everything I have ever, ever wanted.

“This was sorta like a date, Death Boy,” Will chirped, as Nico got on his bike.

I love you.

Nico rolled his eyes. “In your dreams, freckles.”

I will always, always love you.

Chapter Text

I think that I want to go back to med school.

What?

I what?

Okay, for starters, Will had no idea where the actual hell that statement came from. He’d never even considered going back to med school. The thought had never once crossed his mind. Money was tight for his family, the food truck was actually doing pretty well, and reapplying for university after all this time would be a major pain in the ass. It just wasn’t realistic – at least, not right now.

(All right, fine, maybe he’d considered it a little. But not that much! And never seriously!)

Was Will constitutionally incapable of keeping his mouth shut about Nico? As if spilling his guts about Michael and Lee wasn’t enough – he had to go and confess his undying dream of becoming a doctor, too?

“I was over it,” he muttered. “I was totally over it!”

The elderly woman sitting next to him on the subway shot him a look.

 

For the first time in seven years, Will arrived home to the smell of his mother’s cooking. Or, more accurately, he arrived home to the smell of his mother burning bread.

Inside his apartment, his mother and Lou Ellen ran in circles around the island countertop, their faces covered in flour. His mom’s laptop was set up on the table, Frank Sinatra’s smooth voice lilting softly through the speakers; across the room, Lou Ellen sprinted to open the windows and his mother flapped a towel through the air to try and dispel the smoke.

Will dropped his jacket on the back of the couch and climbed onto the table to turn off the smoke alarm on the ceiling.

“Sorry, baby!” Emily said, gazing at her charred loaf of bread with an expression close to mourning. “I really thought it would work this time.”

“Why didn’t you help her?” Will asked, raising an eyebrow at Lou Ellen.

Lou Ellen raised her hands in a gesture of surrender. “She didn’t want my help! She said she wanted to do it alone.”

Will squinted at his mother. “Seriously?”

Emily sighed. “I really thought it would work this time,” she repeated morosely.

 “She was inspired by Restaurant Nico,” Lou Ellen said. “Kept going on and on about ‘level-headed kids’ who are ‘driven’ and ‘talented’ and ‘would make excellent husbands—’”

Will flushed. Emily smacked Lou Ellen on the back of the head with a towel, the tips of her ears reddening.

“Don’t worry about the kitchen, Mom,” Will said, once his heart rate had returned to normal. “We can get take-out. Thanks for trying.”

Emily beamed at him. “Chinese?”

“Whatever you want. We’re in New York; you could ask for the strangest food on the face of the planet and I could probably find it somewhere within a two-mile radius.”

“Speaking of restaurants,” Lou Ellen said cheerfully, “You’re late tonight. Did you have a date? Maybe with someone short and hot and angry?”

Will stuck his tongue out at her. “Shut up.”

“That’s not a no, William.”

“I will kick you out of this house, Lou.”

Lou Ellen smirked at him, an expression made about ten times less dangerous by the flour smeared on the tip of her nose. “Dodging the question. Classic evasion technique. Alas, I thought I raised you to be more creative than that.”

“Nico is not my boyfriend,” Will said firmly.

“Why not?” Emily blurted.

Will’s mouth fell open.

Lou Ellen’s smirk widened.

“What do you mean, why not?” Will finally managed.

“Well,” Emily said, slowly, carefully, like she was already regretting saying anything at all. “You’re in love with him, aren’t you?”

What?

I’m what?

“I’m… what… w—why do… how…?” Will sputtered.

Lou Ellen grinned. “You get this moony-eyed look when he talks. Like oh, Nico, please bear my children. It’s borderline nauseating, actually.”

“I do not,” Will said, “want Nico to bear my children.”

Emily shot Lou Ellen her trademarked Mom Look, and Lou Ellen stuck out her lower lip.

“Sorry, sorry. I’ll stop ragging on him.”

Emily smiled and shuffled around the counter to clap a flour-coated hand on Will’s shoulder. “It’s okay, baby. I like him. He seems like a good kid.”

 “He… he does?” Will said, a little numbly. “Are you sure?”

Emily shrugged. “Well, yeah. Why? Is he not a good kid?”

“N—no. He’s… he’s good, he’s more than good… but I… He’s a guy, and I thought that you…”

“You thought I wouldn’t approve,” Emily supplied, her face falling.

Will stared down at the floor. “Yeah.”

She sighed and gently brushed Will’s bangs off of his forehead. “I just want you to be happy, baby,” she said. “Happy and safe. And if you’re happy with Nico, and you feel like you can be yourself here, without being afraid, and without apologizing… then that’s good. That’s what I want for you.”

“I’m not like Michael and Lee,” Will muttered, doing his best not to look her in the eyes. “I can’t be… I can’t be a hero like them.”

“I don’t want you to be a hero,” Emily said. “I want you to be Will.”

And, suddenly, inside Will’s mind, the entire universe resolved itself. It was like he’d lived his entire life in the darkness, and suddenly he was able to see light. Tear tracks carved their way through the flour caked on Emily’s face, and Will was probably crying too, and the open windows made the air feel freezing, and the whole kitchen smelled like charcoal.

And none of that mattered, because, to Will, the world made sense.

“Thank you,” he managed.

Emily gave him a large, watery smile. “You don’t need to thank me, kiddo.”

Lou Ellen sniffed loudly and rubbed her face impatiently with the palm of her hand. “Great. Awesome. Is there anything else you people need to get off your chests before I eat my weight in lo mein? Or are we done playing Doctor Phil for the day?”

“I want to go back to med school,” Will heard himself say.

Lou Ellen stared at him for a long, silent moment before saying, “I’m gonna need more wine.”

 

The next day passed relatively uneventfully – or, at least, as uneventfully as possible, considering the circumstances. Will and Lou Ellen talked over the possibilities of Will going back to school to finish his degree. Emily called her financial advisor, down in Alabama, to ask about funds. Will dug his old textbooks out of the closet, found some of his old notebooks, looked up what tests he’d have to take to qualify for graduate programs.

And then, around dinner, Lou Ellen announced that she was taking Emily out to dinner.

“And probably shopping, too,” she added, pulling her coat on and adjusting her boot at the same time. “I want to pick some things up before I leave, and Aunt Em could use some time away from,” she gestured at the paperwork spread out over the table, “all this.”

Will nodded, opened his mouth to tell her to have fun; before he could, she added, “We probably won’t be back until late, you know. So you don’t have to wait up for us.”

Will squinted at her. “Um. Okay. What—?”

“So that means you can do whatever you want. Have a party. Meet up with friends.” She waggled her eyebrows. “Maybe invite a certain someone over for dinner.”

Will’s voice died in his throat. “Oh,” he managed.

“Just a thought.” Lou Ellen shrugged. “See you tomorrow!”

They left almost immediately after that, leaving Will with an empty apartment and the strong desire to scream into a pillow.

Asking Nico over for dinner felt a lot like asking him out on a date. And, while Will knew what they weren’t – they weren’t boyfriends, they couldn’t be boyfriends – he wasn’t sure he knew what they were. Was hanging out at Will’s apartment over the line? How was Will even supposed to know?

“I’m dying,” Will told his empty kitchen.

An abbreviated list of things that Nico di Angelo is not:

  •       Scary
  •       Patient
  •       A lizard in disguise as a human being (probably)
  •       An actual, literal ghost that only I can see because I’ve been dead all along
  •       My boyfriend

An abbreviated list of things that Nico di Angelo is:

  •       Extremely attractive
  •       Funny
  •       Smart
  •       My ??????

“I’m definitely dying. This is death. I am dead,” Will told the kitchen.

On the countertop, his phone buzzed. He answered without checking the screen.

“What did you forget, Mom? I’ll buzz you back up.”

“I hate to disappoint, but unless I have gotten the nature of our relationship very wrong over the past couple months, I’m not your mother, Solace.”

Will dropped his phone.

“Shit,” he muttered, dropping to his knees to fish for it underneath the table. “Shit, shit, holy shit.”

His hand closed around the phone and he scooted backwards, pushing himself off the floor, only to slam the back of his head on the bottom of the table.

Shit,” he repeated, and, on the other end of the phone, he could hear Nico burst out laughing.

Will stuck his tongue out at the table and took a deep breath, before bringing the phone back up to his ear and squeaking, “Nico! Hi. Sorry, I, um… didn’t read the caller I.D.”

Nico chuckled. “Oh, good. Because if you were gonna start calling me Mom, I was going to have to kinkshame.”

Will flopped down face-first on the couch. “You’re never going to let me forget this, are you?”

“Nope,” Nico sang, popping the ‘p’ at the end of the word.

“What did you even want, Death Boy?”

“Your cousin texted me? She said that you needed help with something and you weren’t going to ask me yourself so she was… doing you a solid, I think she said? I don’t know, it was hard to read. She misspelled your name four different times.”

Will groaned into the couch cushions. “Lovely.”

“What’s the problem? If it’s something electronic, Leo would probably be better—”

“It’s not,” Will blurted. “It’s not something electronic.”

“Oh. Then what—?”

“Do you want to come over for dinner?”

There was silence on the other end of the line, and Will briefly considered smashing the phone and fleeing to Siberia. And then Nico laughed again, quietly, the kind of laugh that made Will’s chest feel like it was full of bubbles.

That’s what you needed help with?”

Will mumbled, “I’m going to kill Lou Ellen.”

“Why do you sound like you’re contemplating flying into the sun?”

“I’m not,” Will said, definitely contemplating flying into the sun. “I’m really sorry to bother you. You can say no. I won’t be insulted, I promise.”

“I’m not saying no.”

Will said, “Oh.” And then he added, “Okay,” in a slightly strangled voice.

“But not for dinner. I’ve been around dinner all day. I’m sick of dinner. I want to watch Netflix and eat my weight in shitty theater food.”

Will laughed. “Counterproposal. How about we watch Netflix and eat really awesome theater food? I have this recipe—”

“Counter-counterproposal. We make it a competition. Whoever brings the best snack wins.”

“You’re on, Death Boy.”

“Give me half an hour.”

 

Nico showed up thirty-five minutes later, with a bag of chocolate chips and two jars of peanut butter. He smiled tiredly when Will opened the door, pulling off his overcoat immediately and loosening his tie, collapsing onto the couch.

“Please tell me that’s popcorn I smell,” he said.

“Better than popcorn. Popcorn’s prettier and more talented twin. Trust me.” Will squinted at the peanut butter jars. “Is that your snack?”

“Don’t knock it till you try it, sunshine,” Nico said. “Also, can I borrow a t-shirt and sweatpants? I’ve been in slacks since seven this morning and I’m about ready to strangle someone with this belt.”

Will nodded. “I’ll grab you something. Hang tight.”

When he got back, Nico was curled up on the couch, one arm curved around his stomach and the other flung across his face.

“You can change in my bedroom. The shirt might be a little big, though,” Will said.

Nico said, “I’d like to thank not only God but also Jesus.”

While he was gone, Will pulled the popcorn out of the microwave and mixed it with the other ingredients – caramel, nuts, M&M’s. He grabbed spoons for Nico’s peanut butter jars, pulled a blanket out of the closet, and opened Netflix on the TV.

“Oi, Solace, can I grab socks, too?”

“Bottom drawer on the left.”

“Thanks.”

Will finished spooning the popcorn mix into bowls before Nico remerged. The shirt, it turned out, was too big on him. So were the pants, actually. They rode his hipbones torturously low, the shirt slipping down one gracefully sloping shoulder. The blue of the shirt made his eyes look lighter, his skin warmer, his hair darker.

And then he announced, quite happily, “I found your lube.”

Will could literally feel his entire body flush red. “Shit. The sock drawer. Shit.”

“Warn a guy, next time.” Nico laughed loudly at his expression. “Christ, Solace, I’m joking. I have seen lube before.”

Will extended one of the bowls to Nico, who took it cheerfully. “I promise I’m not trying to seduce you,” he mumbled.

 “Well, that’s boring. What are we watching?” Nico said, padding across the room to perch, cross-legged, on the couch. Will settled down next to him.

“Whatever you want,” he said.

“Great,” Nico said, and then, without missing a beat, “The X-Files.”

Will’s jaw dropped. “That’s what this is about. This is just your passive-aggressive way of getting me to enable your crush on Fox Mulder!”

“That is a disgusting accusation, and I refuse to confirm or deny such slander,” Nico sniffed, grabbing a handful of popcorn. His eyes widened immediately. “This is really good, holy shit.”

“I know,” Will chirped smugly, putting his legs up in Nico’s lap.

“Now I feel bad for just giving you a jar of Skippy.”

“Does this mean I win?”

Nico groaned. “I guess.”

“What’s my prize?”

“What do you want your prize to be?”

Will paused, pretending to think it over, before announcing, “A kiss on the cheek!”

“Are you literally twelve?” Nico shook his head, reaching out and shoving Will’s face away with his hand. “Dork.”

Will pouted. “Please.”

And Nico leaned over, grabbed Will’s collar, and drew their mouths together, pausing for a brief moment to whisper, “Congrats, winner,” before allowing their lips to meet.

Will sighed, reached up to twine his fingers in Nico’s hair. He could feel Nico fighting a smile, feel the rumble of a happy groan inside Nico’s chest. Their mouths slid open against each other; Nico tasted like garlic and cold air.

Nico broke the kiss first, traced his fingertips across Will’s jaw. “X-Files time,” he murmured.

“I can’t believe I’m being cockblocked by Spooky Mulder,” Will grumped.

“Hey. You call me Mommy, I like watching a grown man run around looking for UFOs. We all have our kinks.”

“I hate you.”

“You don’t.”

Will kissed him again, quick and gentle. “Someone’s got a high sense of his own importance.”

Nico’s arms wrapped around Will’s waist, and Will put his own around Nico’s shoulders, tugging him down. They fit together so perfectly, hip to hip, chest to chest, and Nico’s skin was so, so warm against Will’s, his breath soft and steady and even.

They were hardly five minutes into the episode before Nico’s eyelids fluttered closed. Will smiled and pressed a kiss to the crown of Nico’s head, and Nico sighed and nuzzled closer, burying his face in Will’s shoulder.

After that, Will drifted off to sleep pretty quick.

(Lou Ellen and Will’s mom found them around midnight, wrapped up in each other, Mulder and Scully still on the TV, arguing about the existence of extraterrestrial life.)

Chapter Text

Nico woke up warm that morning, for the first time in what felt like decades.

There was a long, blurry moment of sleepy disorientation, during which he couldn’t really remember where he was. Not in his bed, definitely – his right arm was trapped underneath something heavy, and his face was pressed against something hard and flat. Nico took a slow, stuttering breath.

The world smelled like sandalwood and summertime and salt.

And then Will sighed, shifted, pulled Nico tighter against his chest, and Nico remembered.

He shifted, glanced over his shoulder. The TV was turned off, now – Lou Ellen and Will’s mom must’ve come home at some point during the night.

The clock on the cable box said 8:30. Nico groaned and turned back around, misjudging the distance and finding himself staring right into Will’s face.

Shit, Nico thought, absently.

Will was so pretty, when he was sleeping. His mouth, his messy hair, the color of his skin, the warmth of his hands. His eyelashes, long and sandy, fluttering against his cheeks. Nico was close enough to count his freckles. Close enough to feel his breath against his skin.

He leaned forward, pressed his lips to Will’s throat. Buried his face in Will’s shoulder.

Five more minutes, he promised himself. Five more minutes, and then I’ll get up. Five more minutes of this, and then I’ll never ask for anything else ever again. Just let me have five more minutes.

His phone buzzed in his pocket.

Ugh. Fine.

“Solace,” he mumbled, trying to extract himself from Will’s arms, trying to untangle his legs from Will’s. It was like trying to escape from quicksand; the harder he fought, the tighter Will clung. “I gotta get up.”

“Mmm,” Will said.

“Oi. Solace.”

“Mmhmm. Yeah.”

“I need to go to work, you huge nerd.”

Will’s nose traced along Nico’s jaw. “Hmmm. What time is it?”

“Time for work. Now, get off me.” When Will just pressed a sleepy kiss to Nico’s temple, Nico sighed and added, “I’ll make you breakfast.”

Will shot upwards and released his hold on Nico’s shoulders. Nico squeaked in surprise and teetered, toppling over backwards off the couch and landing with an enormous crash on the floor.

“Fuck.” Nico rubbed the sore spot on the back of his head before grabbing a pillow off the couch and whacking Will with it. “Jackass.”

“Sorry!” Will yelped. “Ah, sorry, sorry, jeez. Have mercy.”

“I’m gonna burn the bacon.”

Will gasped, clasped a hand to his chest. “You wouldn’t.”

“Watch me.”

Will chased him into the kitchen, Nico dodging gracefully and pulling eggs and buttermilk out of the fridge.

“Waffles?” he asked.

“Waffles,” Will affirmed.

“Do you have whip cream?”

“Do you even have to ask?”

Like the rest of their relationship, cooking with Will wasn’t exactly simple. Nico was too used to having the kitchen to himself – or, at the very least, being surrounded by people who were paid to do as he told.

Will got distracted. He used cooking spray instead of butter. He let his hair fall into his eyes when he stirred. He kept waiting until Nico was busy and then lunging across the countertop to smudge flour on his face.

It was stupid, and clumsy, and nothing at all like anything Nico had ever done before.

Nico never wanted to cook alone again.

They ate quickly, kicking each other under the table every once in awhile, before washing the dishes and getting dressed. Nico hadn’t exactly come prepped for a sleepover – none of Will’s nice clothes would fit him, so he’d just have to wear the same (slightly smelly, absurdly wrinkled) shirt and slacks he wore the day before.

“They’re gonna know,” he muttered while Will helped him fix the knot on his tie. “They’re just gonna look at me, and they’re gonna know, and then I’m going to have to live with it all day.”

Will grinned. Nico leveled a glare at him and he lifted his hands in surrender. “They’re just going to think you didn’t have time to do your laundry, or something. And, anyway, it’s not like we did anything.”

Nico’s face felt a little hot. He scowled down at the floor. “Percy’s probably going to cry tears of joy.”

“Leo, too.”

They winced at each other.

“Let’s get this over with,” Nico mumbled.

He was halfway out the door when Will caught his hand.

“Um,” Will said. His ears flushed that pretty pink color. Nico resigned himself to his fate.

“I wanted to say thank you,” Will continued. “For – for hearing me out about the… the going back to school, thing.”

“Oh,” Nico said, surprised. “Yeah, of course. Are you… are you thinking more seriously about that, now?”

“Maybe?” Will said, scrunching up his face. “I don’t know. It’s still really unrealistic, but I told my mom and Lou about it—”

Warmth blossomed in Nico’s chest. “That’s awesome,” he said honestly. Will’s ears turned a little pinker; Nico fought back a smile. “I’m really happy for you, Will.”

And then Will’s hands were cupping Nico’s face, and they were kissing, Nico’s fingers closing in the fabric of Will’s shirt automatically. Will’s mouth was soft and warm and earnest, and Nico’s heart felt too large for his chest.

Will pulled away first, still cradling Nico’s face. Their noses bumped, and Will murmured, “Sorry. No impulse control.”

“It’s okay,” Nico whispered back.

This was dangerous.

This was so, so dangerous.

Because it truly was beginning to feel okay.

(Safe. Real.)

Will breathed, very close to Nico’s ear, “We could call in sick today.”

Nico laughed shakily. “I thought you said you weren’t trying to seduce me, Mr. Solace.”

Will pouted. “That was last night.”

“Is that so.” Nico tugged him down again, tried to burn the feeling of Will’s lips on his into his mind. Will sighed, his mouth sliding open against Nico’s, dragging his tongue along Nico’s bottom lip.

“Eager.” Nico smiled.

“Just thirsty,” Will corrected.

Nico snorted. “Dork.”

“Jerk.”

“Loser.”

“Ass.”

“You know, when I first met you, I thought you were going to be old and bald,” Nico said.

“I might be bald someday,” Will pointed out. “I think I could make it work. Although I haven’t rocked that look since I was about two.” He paused thoughtfully before adding, “I thought you were going to be some greasy rich wannabe.”

“Looks like we were both wrong.”

“Well. I was sorta wrong. You were more wrong than I was.”

Nico shoved him. “See you later, sunshine.”

“Bye, Nico.”

It wasn’t until he was halfway to work that he remembered that Lou Ellen and Will’s mom were in the apartment, too.

 

In a shocking turn of events, Nico arrived at work a little late; in the kitchen, Percy and Annabeth were debating some new menu expansion heatedly, Jason was pulling his chef’s smock on over his shirt, and Micah was perched on Piper’s knee, playing with the feather braided into Piper’s hair.

“Uncle Nicky!” she cheered when she spotted him, holding her arms out. He lifted her up and spun her around a couple times before setting her back down on Piper’s lap.

“Hey, kiddo. You keeping all these people in line for me?”

Micah puffed her chest out proudly. “Yep! I’m in charge!”

“That’s my girl.” He ruffled her hair while Piper muffled a giggle behind her hand.

“You’re a little late, boss,” Jason observed. “Everything okay?”

Nico nodded, crossed the room to grab his own chef’s smock off a hook on the wall. “All good. I overslept a little.”

(Across the room, Percy waggled his eyebrows at Annabeth and she slapped him on the back of the head.)

“You have been working a lot lately, sir,” Annabeth said, still glaring at Percy severely.

Nico shrugged. “I love my job,” he said, simply. Then he turned to Piper and added, “Speaking of jobs, don’t you have one?”

“Sorry,” she said. “Micah’s really cute, though. I wanted to say hi.”

“She was telling me about Princess Will!” Micah announced. “Did you know his favorite color is gray? And his favorite food is—”

Micah carried on while Nico met Piper’s eyes over the crown of her head. He whispered, “Gray? Really?”

Piper laughed and tickled Micah’s feet. “The color the sky turns just before a sunset.” Nico rolled his eyes and Piper nudged his leg with her foot. “Micah absolutely adores Will. The only other person I’ve seen show so much interest in him is you, Nico.”

Nico groaned. “Okay, that’s it, out of my kitchen. I get enough of this from my actual employees.”

Micah grabbed Nico’s sleeve. “Are you and Princess Will in love, Uncle Nicky?”

Nico seriously contemplated sprinting out of the room.

And then the back door swung open, and Nico was practically being tackled to the floor.

“Hazel,” he managed, before she started covering his face with kisses.

“You haven’t called me in weeks,” she accused. “I was worried, Nico, I thought you were sick and dying—”

“I’m fine,” he coughed. “I’m great. Um, could someone please—?”

“Sorry, sorry!” Frank’s voice said, and then Hazel was off him, one of Frank’s arms around her waist instead.

“Missed you too, sis,” Nico grumbled, massaging his throat. “Jesus fucking Christ.”

“Language,” Annabeth said sharply.

“Micah knows not to say bad words, right, Micah?”

“What bad words, Uncle Nicky?”

Nico smiled at Annabeth innocently. “See? All good.”

Hazel reached down and helped him to his feet, brushing imagined dust off his shoulders. “I wanted to come by and check in on things. Dad said he was going to try and stop by to go over some financial things with you today.”

“Yeah, I got that text this morning,” Nico said, nodding towards his office door. She followed him in, and he collapsed onto his chair. “How’s school?”

“Same as always. Busy. Tiring. Fun. How’s your boyfriend?”

“Same,” Nico said without thinking. Then he paused. Blinked.

“Wait. Wait, what? My what?”

Hazel laughed. “I was talking about the food truck guy from this summer. Who were you talking about?”

Nico buried his face in his hands. “The same guy.”

“You guys are actually together, then?”

“Sort of? Kind of. I don’t… know.”

“But you like him.”

“I—” Nico nodded, looked down at his lap. “Yeah.”

Hazel’s eyes widened. “You love him,” she gasped, and when Nico nodded again, frowning this time, she reached across the desk and squeezed his hand. “Then it’ll work out.”

“So optimistic.”

“It turned out well for me and Frank!” Hazel said. “And we’re the two densest people on the planet. So if we can figure it out, I know you can.”

“Gee, thanks for the vote of confidence, sis.”

Hazel giggled, the bridge of her nose scrunching up a little bit. “I knew he’d be good for you. You always were good at picking them.”

“Back then, I wasn’t picking him.”

Hazel shook her head. “Honestly? I think he was picking you.”

 

Nico met with his father around noon to go over the bills from the previous month; Hades stared at the food truck across the street like he was planning to off Piper, Leo, and Will in a triple homicide.

Nico tried his hardest not to look over there at all.

(“What are you doing?” Jason asked, when he got up to grab some paperwork from the office.

“My very best,” Nico hissed back.)

And then, about half an hour into the meeting, the bell above the front door chimed cheerfully, and Nico and Hades both turned to watch Lou Ellen stride in.

She wore her hair up in a messy ponytail today, and a black blazer over a dress instead of the tattered jeans and army coat from the night they met. That was something, at least. Her expression still felt like a challenge, though, and Nico felt Hades bristle at the intrusion, even from across the table.

“Oi, di Angelo, I’ve got a proposition for…” She trailed off, eyes landing on Hades, and grimaced. “And I’m interrupting. Again. Wonderful.”

The bell chimed again and Will sprinted in, shouting, “Lou, you can’t just barge in… Oh. Hi.”

Nico’s stomach had vacated his chest cavity and was now residing somewhere in his throat.

(Will’s eyes were bright and his hair was tousled, his cheeks reddened with cold, and his jeans hugged his hips stupidly well, and, like always, Nico wanted to touch him. Wanted to brush his fingertips across Will’s face, memorize the slopes and lines of his constellations of freckles.

Wanted, wanted, wanted.

All Nico seemed to do nowadays was want.)

“Hi,” he said, as calmly as could be expected considering the circumstances.

Will’s smile softened slightly and he repeated, “Hi.”

Lou Ellen’s eyebrows shot upwards and Nico thanked his lucky stars that Percy was on break in the back.

Hades cleared his throat.

“Nico, are you going to introduce us?”

Nico said, “Do I have to?”

Hades’ eyes crinkled upwards slightly in the corners – the smallest suggestion of a smile, just barely noticeable, but definitely there.

“Fair enough.” He got to his feet swiftly, easily, and crossed the room, holding out his hand for Lou Ellen to shake. “My name is Hades di Angelo. Am I correct in surmising that you two are friends of my son?”

Will blanched. Your father? he mouthed at Nico.

Nico shrugged helplessly.

Lou Ellen took Hades’ hand and said, “Actually, Will and I are co-proprietors of Food for the Sol. The truck across the street.”

Hades’ smile froze in place.

Will looked just about ready to keel over dead.         

“Oh?” Hades said, softly. “Is that so?”

“Yep! And they were just leaving!” Nico said, probably a little more loudly than was strictly necessary. “Isn’t that right, William?”

Will slung an arm around Lou Ellen’s shoulder and grinned so broadly it looked like it hurt. “Yep! We’re headed out! Right now! Let’s go, Lou!”

Lou Ellen ducked underneath Will’s arm easily. “Actually, it’s probably better that you’re here, Mr. di Angelo. My proposition affects you, too.”

Hades raised an eyebrow. “Really, now?”

The temperature in the room seemed to plummet. Nico threw Will a wide-eyed, rather desperate glance, but Will looked just as baffled as Nico was, and almost as horrified.

Lou Ellen turned to face Nico and said, very calmly, “I’d like to suggest a partnership.”

Wait.

What?

Will reached forward and grabbed Lou Ellen’s shoulder, hissing, “I told you, it was just an idea. We can’t… I don’t…”

Nico blinked. “Wait. Hang on. What are you talking about?”

Lou Ellen lifted Will’s hand and removed it from her shoulder primly. “This trip to New York will be my last. I’m going to be moving back home for the foreseeable future.”

“Oh,” Nico said.

Will lowered his eyes. “I can’t run the truck in the winter,” he said, quietly. “So I’m going to have to close for the next couple months anyway. But I probably can’t manage to re-open alone. Lou always was the brains of this operation. And I… assuming everything goes okay, I think I’m going to start reapplying to university medical programs this December.”

Lou Ellen cast an unusually serious look at him before looking back to Nico. “This leaves my employees in a tough spot, you understand. Will and I have considered selling, but our family can’t afford to lose the income from the truck.”

Hades looked rather like she’d smacked him over the head.

“I don’t understand,” he said, very slowly, “how this affects my son’s business in any way.”

Lou Ellen’s eyes were steady on Nico’s. “I’d like to propose that you employ Leo and Piper during the off-season, and then use the truck during the summer as an extension of Fantasma Re. You take fifty percent of the truck’s profit, we take the other fifty.”

“Lou would manage everything from Alabama,” Will said. “So it wouldn’t be any additional work for you.”

 “Partners,” Lou Ellen repeated, like that cleared up everything.

Hades opened his mouth to respond, but Nico cut him off.

“I’m going to need to think about it,” he said, getting to his feet to stride forward, stand in front of Lou Ellen, so that they were eye-to-eye. “And I’m going to need to see your paperwork, your licenses, and the terms of the contracts for your employees. This would be a rather large step for Fantasma Re, and I’m not willing to make any decisions without knowing what I’m getting into. Do you understand?”

The corner of Lou Ellen’s mouth twitched upwards. “I knew I liked you for a reason, di Angelo.”

Nico managed a small smile back. “We’re going to need to meet to work out the rest of the details.”

“I know, I know. You have my number.” Lou Ellen waved him off, turned for the door. “Sorry for interrupting your lunch. It’ll be a pleasure doing business with you. Will, what do you say?”

Will was staring at Nico, wide-eyed. He said, “Please take care of us,” and suddenly, with an earth-shattering, ice-age-inducing blow, Nico understood.

If Fantasma Re and Food for the Sol were partners, now…

If Will and Lou Ellen weren’t competition anymore…

If Will was just another med student, and Nico was just another restaurant owner…

“Thanks for coming by,” he heard himself say.

Outside the window, the front door shut behind him, Will punched the air with his fist and shouted, “Yes!”

 

Nico forced himself to finish the day as usual, but he carried the enormity of what had just happened on his shoulders, sticking to his skin, beating in his veins. When it was closing time, he went out the front door instead of the back, in his wrinkled, twice-worn clothes and a too-thin coat.

It was snowing, just a little. The light from the streetlamps and from Fantasma Re made the flakes look golden.

People were watching him from the doorway. Jason, at least. Probably Annabeth. Percy. Nico couldn’t bring himself to care.

He crossed the street and knocked on the back door of the truck. It swung open immediately, and Leo Valdez beamed at him, in a way that made Nico want to duck and cover.

“Looks like you’re my boss now,” Leo said.

“Looks like,” Nico answered, evenly.

Leo’s grin softened slightly and he stuck his hand out. Nico hesitated for a split second before taking it.

“You’re a good dude,” Leo said cheerfully. “But I won’t be taking it easy on you.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it.” Nico raised an eyebrow. “Is Will around?”

“One sec.” Leo winked and spun around, sticking his head back in the truck. “Oi, Will! Some hot, angry dude in a suit is here to see you.”

Will emerged almost immediately, offering a sheepish wave and a smile. Leo bowed him out of the truck with a flourish, and Will hopped down, shaking his head tiredly.

“He hasn’t changed at all,” he sighed.

Nico shook his head, shifted from foot to foot. He opened his mouth – probably to say something stupid – but then—

“So,” Will said. “I guess we’re not rivals anymore.”

Nico laughed. “Guess not.”

And then Will’s arms were around his waist, and Nico’s face was buried in Will’s shoulder, and the world was tilting, spinning on its axis. They hit the pavement hard, the breath going out of Will’s lungs with an oof, and Nico was laughing (God, these days he could never stop laughing). They kissed with a quiet sort of need, with snow falling around them, with cold hands and noses and lips, with the entire city watching.

The universe made sense, in those seconds. Everything, everything made sense.

Nico was vaguely aware of Leo making a noise that sounded like a victory screech, of Jason shouting, “Oh, my God, oh, my God, oh, my God,” of Percy gasping and telling Annabeth to cover Micah’s eyes.

“I love you,” Will whispered, against Nico’s lips. “I love you.”

Will’s tongue tasted like summertime, like doomed rivalries and careful glances and knees bumping below tabletops.

“I’m glad you parked in front of my restaurant, asshole,” Nico said, when they parted.

Will smiled at him, wide and genuine and so, so Will.

“Me too,” he said.

“Me too.”