Not for the first time, Leo couldn’t concentrate.
He muttered and cursed under his breath at the tangle of bronze and wires in his hands, but no matter what he did he couldn’t get his idea to take shape. It wasn’t just a matter of not knowing what he was doing, it was his inability to keep the image in his head without letting his mind wander. Concentration was difficult when you were in the midst of a weird identity crisis.
Leo had always known he’d had a serious problem with falling for the wrong girls. All his life he’d fixated on girls who were out of his league, the kind who were too beautiful and smart and generally perfect to ever give him a second glance. He fell for the unobtainable ones. He also had a bad habit of liking girls who were bad for him. Girls who were cold and self-centred, girls who used him, girls who led him on and girls who would never love him back. If there was one thing Leo knew about himself, it was that he had serious girl trouble.
What he hadn’t counted on were those girl troubles becoming guy troubles.
He cursed himself quietly. When had he started letting scary little sons of Hades get his thoughts all twisted? There was no denying the guy was attractive (from a purely impartial and objective point of view, obviously). He had that raven-black hair and the ghostly skin and dark eyes deeper than Tartarus. There was something unearthly about him, sometimes Leo would look at his willowy figure and translucent skin and wonder if he was even real. He was pretty sure there must be at least ten drawings of the guy in each of Tim Burton’s sketchbooks.
Get it together, Valdez! This is no time to be fantasising.
He shook his head and grumbled. Maybe he wouldn’t have been so ticked off if his first gay crush had been on someone… well, nice. It didn’t exactly help his mood that the object of his affections greeted everyone he saw with a scowl and a cold shoulder. It probably didn’t matter who approached him- guy, girl, god, goddess, weird genderless demon creature- Leo was pretty sure the answer would be a glare and a freezing gust of wind.
Hence the source of his problem. It was one thing struggling with your sexuality with a nice guy who might at least give you a smile from time to time. It was another hell entirely harbouring a secret crush on a daunting guy who’d sooner swim in the Styx than give you so much as a smile.
It’s just a phase. It’s just a stupid crush, nothing more. It won’t last…
He kept telling himself that, even muttering it under his breath.
It’s just a phase.
Just a phase…
It’s just a phase!
Just a phase, just a phase, just a phase!
“It’s just a phase!”
He clamped a hand over his mouth in panic. Damn, that was loud. For the fifth time that day he thanked his lucky stars that he worked alone, far out in the woods in the depths of Bunker Nine. No one around for at least-
“What’s just a phase?”
His eyes widened and he whipped round towards the voice.
Nico di Angelo stood in the shadows by the door, his eyes unreadable and his face in a frown; if Leo had to pick an emotion he’d say he looked confused.
Man, lucky stars, you guys are really losing your edge recently…
Not for the first time, Nico had wandered through the woods to Bunker Nine.
He wasn’t entirely sure why, it had just seemed like a natural thing to do somehow.
It was getting late and everyone else was slowly starting to peel off from the campfire to call it a night, so slipping away unnoticed wasn’t exactly difficult. But why he’d decided to head into the woods instead of back to his cabin was anyone’s guess. Maybe he just wanted the solitude. He couldn’t sort out his thoughts when he was surrounded by people.
The whole camp had turned out tonight. Everyone was dressed up and roasting marshmallows, singing silly songs and telling scary stories while the jack-o-lanterns glowed, the creepy faces carved in them by the campers sneered and smirked in the gloom. Nico didn’t really have anything against Halloween, but he didn’t celebrate it either. One trip through Tartarus had given him enough scares and monsters to last him a lifetime.
He’d been sitting with his friends, but he hadn’t really talked much since Hazel, Frank and Jason were back in New Rome. His half-sister was usually the only one who made an effort to talk to him, so with her gone he really just sat back and watched quietly as everyone else talked. Piper had been sad tonight, she was missing Jason already. Percy and Annabeth spent the evening trying to cheer her up.
Nico still couldn’t help the way his heart jumped in his chest when he saw him, just like he couldn’t help the knot in the pit of his stomach when he and Annabeth were together. He’d known from the start that Percy would never be his, but that didn’t make the truth hurt any less. Nico just did his best to forget about it and get by any way he can. If his horrifying mandatory vacation in Tartarus had taught him anything, it was that he probably had bigger things to worry about than guy troubles.
No matter which guy was troubling him this time.
Percy hadn’t been the only one on his mind tonight. He’d had to avert his eyes when he and Annabeth started kissing, but as he fought back the wave of envy rising up inside him his eyes had locked on the fire they were all sat around.
For a moment, he could feel the envy subside. He felt the heat on his face and watched the flames dance and shimmer in front of him, warm and bright against the endless black of the sky, dispelling the shadows and lifting the spirits of everyone near it.
He couldn’t help being reminded of one particular son of Hephaestus with a similar power.
He didn’t know when he’d starting noticing things about Leo. Things like the way his eyes sparkled when he talked about his machines, the way his cheeks dimpled whenever he gave someone that elfish grin, the way he could spend a whole conversation insulting someone and still make them laugh because of how lovingly he said every slight. Even Frank had learned to just smile and grin whenever Leo mocked him- in the end, it was just his way of showing love. Nico liked that. Leo wasn’t like Jason or Piper or Hazel; he didn’t sugar-coat his words, he wasn’t particularly patient and he told things like they were.
Maybe it was just cynicism, but what Nico found the most amazing about it was how Leo could still look at the world with such optimism despite his habit of facing the reality. After all that had happened to him, to his friends and family, he could still tell bad knock-knock jokes and grin like a big kid at Christmas.
Nico envied him.
He didn’t know when he’d started letting thoughts of Leo Valdez take root in his mind, all he knew was they were here to stay. He cursed himself silently. One useless unrequited crush was quite enough without adding to the pile.
When will you ever learn, di Angelo?
Nico frowned at Leo, watching him carefully from across the room. The mechanic’s cheeks were red and his eyes were wide, like he was embarrassed about something. He still hadn’t answered his question. What was that he’d said? ‘It’s just a phase’? What did that mean?
Nico shrugged it off- it was probably nothing. “Hey, Valdez,” he said.
Leo was still staring at him, though now he looked more confused than embarrassed. “What’re you doing here?”
Nico didn’t know how to answer. How did he explain it? I was drawn to your presence? I forgot which way my cabin was? The voices told me to come?
In the end, he settled for the first ridiculous thing that came to mind. “Trick-or-treating?”
Leo looked taken aback, but he laughed. “Right- it’s Halloween today, isn’t it?” He said, running a hand through his tangled hair. “Completely forgot…”
“Not surprised,” Nico said, crossing the room and standing next to the workbench, looking down at the twisted hunk of wires that Leo had been tinkering with. “I’m guessing you don’t have much of a sense of time when you’re in here. No one’s seen you in three days.”
“Three days?” Leo exclaimed, looking at his watch as if it could tell him how much of his life he’d missed. Nico felt himself smile a little- trust Leo to get so wrapped up in his own thoughts he’d forget there was a real world outside the workshop.
“Yeah. Everyone missed you at the campfire tonight, I think a load of people were placing bets on what you’d dress up as. I think Percy’s money was on Doctor Horrible.”
Leo groaned. “Aw, man, that would have been awesome!” He looked at Nico, who was pretty much dressed the way he always was- same shirt, jeans and jacket, nothing new. “So what are you supposed to be dressed as?”
Nico gave him a withering look. “The ghost of a guy who doesn’t give a stuff about Halloween,” he said dryly.
Leo nodded his head approvingly. “Original. I like it.”
Nico frowned down at Leo’s unfinished project. “What’re you trying to make?”
Leo followed his gaze and started packing the warped scraps away. “Just some extras for Festus. Not got very far though- can’t seem to concentrate on anything at the moment.”
Leo hesitated a moment before he answered. “Oh, you know, ADHD and stuff. Sometimes demigodness can be a pain.”
Nico nodded, but he wasn’t satisfied with his answer- it sounded forced. “Well, I guess we’ve all got that in common… Hey, what were you talking about when I came in?”
Leo’s face turned red again. “Just… something.”
Nico stared at him, waiting for him to elaborate.
“Something on my mind,” Leo continued vaguely, shrugging. “Nothing to worry about.”
“Right…” Nico said, leaning back against the workbench. “Yeah, guess I’ve had a lot on my mind, too.”
Leo leaned against the bench next to him. “Anything you wanna talk about?"
Nico turned his head towards him slightly. “That depends- you going to tell me about yours?”
“Not a chance.”
“Then me neither.”
They stood in silence for a few minutes. After a while Leo sighed heavily and spoke.
“Okay, if you must know… I guess you could say I’m going through a slight identity crisis at the moment.”
Nico smiled a little- he knew the two things Leo couldn’t resist were the urge to talk and the desire to be in on a secret. “How come?”
Leo shrugged and looked at the floor. “Just struggling with some feelings, I guess. So come on, what’s up with you?”
Nico looked at him sideways. “Not much- I suppose I’m just conflicted.”
Leo frowned. “About what?”
Nico smiled bitterly. “Feelings, eh? They’ll be the death of me.”
Leo gave a short laugh. “Same. I guess I’m just not good with organic life forms.”
“Me neither,” Nico said with a shrug. “Well, unless you count dead ones. But they don’t exactly make for lively conversation.”
Leo stared at him and grinned. “Nico di Angelo, was that an actual joke?”
Nico smiled. Not a bitter one or a forced one, this time it just spread across his face without him even meaning it to. “Contrary to popular belief, I do have a sense of humour. I simply hide it beneath the angst.”
Leo was grinning like a maniac. He found himself wishing Nico would smile more, the effect on the atmosphere was incredible. He had a textbook example of a contagious smile. “Well aren’t you just a lovely ray of sunshine triple-dipped in psycho?”
Part of Nico told him to be offended, but somehow he couldn’t bring himself to do anything but laugh. “That might just be the most accurately anyone’s ever described me.”
Leo couldn’t quite believe what was happening. Nico was here, in the middle of the night. They were sitting together, talking. Nico was next to him, laughing. They were so close now that their arms almost touched. Leo could feel the cold radiating from Nico’s body. Leo had almost forgotten what cold felt like- it felt so refreshing, it felt soothing on his superheated skin. All he wanted to do was lean into it.
Nico was having a similar problem. Leo was sitting next to him, mere millimetres away; his body heat flowed into the cool air. Nico could feel it on his skin, warming him down to the bone, every instinct screamed for him to get closer. Nico couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt this warm. He looked up at Leo’s beaming face, his eyes sparkling as he laughed, that delicious warmth flooding Nico’s mind.
For the first time in months, Percy Jackson was the last thing on his mind.
Don’t be a coward, di Angelo. Take a leap for once.
“Hey, Leo?” He said, looking down at the floor, his cheeks burning. Leo looked at him expectantly.
Nico cleared his throat self-consciously and continued. “You know, I got here twenty minutes ago and you still haven’t given me a treat…”
Leo raised his eyebrow. “Dude, don’t you think if I had any candy here, I would’ve eaten it myself?”
Nico shrugged. “I guess it doesn’t have to be candy…”
Heavy silence descended upon them. Nico inwardly cursed himself. He’d scared him away. Trust him to completely misjudge the situation- Leo probably wouldn’t even talk to him now, he’d probably just lost the only friend he had in this camp thanks to his pure, crippling social awkwardness. Leo probably thought he was a freak.
Something warm touched his cheek. He jumped silently and looked up. Leo’s hand was resting lightly on the side of his face, pulling it up to meet his gaze. His cheeks were red and his eyes were wide, and he chewed his lip nervously.
“Leo-“ Nico began.
He didn’t get time to finish before Leo stopped him with a kiss.
For a few seconds he just sat there completely frozen as Leo kissed him, too shocked to do anything but sit perfectly still. It wasn’t long before he felt Leo start to tense up and pull away.
Nico reached a hand out without thinking and put it behind Leo’s head, pulling him back down. He felt Leo smile against his lips as the kiss continued, and he felt his arms wrap round him and his hands rest on his waist. He felt the warmth from Leo’s lips spread through his face, and the heat from his circled arms dispelling the chill that had resided deep in his bones for years. It felt like their skin sparked wherever it touched, fireworks crackling at the contact. Nico’s free hand moved to Leo’s neck all by itself, the fingers of his other hand tangled in his tousled hair, pulling him as close as possible.
Leo felt like his entire being was going to combust- if he was kissing anyone else, maybe he would have. But as he wrapped his arms around Nico he felt coolness seep into his skin from the contact. A refreshing calm flooded his senses, he felt himself relax into the kiss as Nico’s cool lips brushed his own. He felt a giddy smile spread across his face as Nico put both his hands behind his head and pulled him closer, and he tightened his arms around his waist, pulling him so close he could feel his heartbeat against his own. For the first time in years Leo felt his chaotic thoughts fade and a cool serenity settle over his mind and body.
Nico had no idea how long they stayed like that, but when they finally pulled away gasping for breath he thought Leo’s lips looked swollen. Leo loosened his grip around his waist slightly and rested his forehead lightly against Nico’s. His eyes twinkled and his grin spread slowly across his face as he whispered.
“Happy Halloween, Nico.”