Little White Lies - Part 2
Nico’s head was spinning, his stomach churning, a fact which must have shown on his face considering the apologetic look that crossed Jason’s features as he shrugged.
“Sorry, Nico. It’s just, almost everyone agrees it should be you.”
“But… why?” Nico had felt bad enough a few nights before when he not only suggested such a crime but actually agreed to help it along. But he hadn’t allowed himself to put much thought to it the past few days, and he somehow let himself believe that he might just be able to sleep at night, to look at himself in the mirror knowing he didn’t do anything. He should have known it was a childish way to think after what he’d already done.
Jason sighed. “Look, I know you’re new and it’s a bit overwhelming… but your age is the closest to the Prince’s out of all of us. We all agreed that would help you gain some trust and uncover some useful information.
Nico shook his head. To think that that morning had started out like any other. Nico allowed himself to fall silent as he walked through his morning again, trying to figure out how he had ended up in this situation; what he was doing standing there right then.
Nico groaned and shifted under his thin covers as the alarm clock blared obstreperously, relentless. No matter his efforts to block the sound with his pillow or attempting to burrow under his covers to hibernate for the approaching cold weather, the obnoxious sound still leaked through.
Groaning in annoyance once again, he gave in and dragged himself out of his bed and across the room, smacking the button, and the alarm quieted abruptly. He sighed quietly and let his arms go limp, wishing he could flop back into bed - but knowing he would fall asleep again if he did - and flicked on the light. After getting dressed and splashing his face with cold water in an attempt to wake up, he shuffled down the stairs and into the kitchen.
He glanced fleetingly at his little sister sitting at the table, staring mutely in front of her with vacant and slightly puffy-looking eyes, taking minuscule bites out of her bagel and chewing carefully. Hazel hadn’t been looking so hot for the past couple mornings after she was told about Nico’s decision. Whereas normally she would be awake and punctual in the mornings, recently, she didn’t bother getting dressed until twenty minutes before she had to leave, and left her hair up in the messy ponytail she slept in.
Hazel didn’t even look up at Nico as he entered, but he knew that she was aware of his presence. It didn’t take a genius to perceive that she was still upset. Not saying anything, Nico moved around the kitchen and made himself a small breakfast. Hazel cleared her throat.
“I’m not going to say that you should reconsider,” she started, her voice quiet and hoarse from lack of use - she hadn’t spoken barely anything to Nico in over 48 hours, “because I know you’re not going to listen to reason. And I know arguing will only make you more adamant about doing it. So if you’re so set on this,” she paused and met his eyes, “I really hope you know what you’re doing.”
Nico shook his head to rid himself of her tired voice. It had been following him all day, which was most likely her intention in saying what she did in the first place. Nico sighed and rubbed at a knot in his neck.
“So… what do I have to do?”
Jason cracked a small, seemingly proud smile, then draped his arm around Nico’s shoulders as he maneuvered him move through the abandoned dance academy. They pushed through the double doors into the studio, and Nico averted his eyes from his reflection in the mirrors on the opposite wall.
Lifting his eyes again, he noticed two more members of their gang standing in the center of the room, the girl from the meeting on Thursday - Clarisse - and another girl with dark hair and clothes, arms crossed. Clarisse had her brown hair pulled back into a low ponytail, the shorter locks of her hair - near the front - held back with the same blood-red bandana she had on at the meeting. Her dark-colored shirt was cut off at the sleeves and shortened so it barely came to the hem of her camo pants. She regarded Nico with hostility as he and Jason entered the room and faced them.
Jason clapped a hand on Nico’s back. “Alrighty. So, meet your tutors.” He told him, gesturing to the other two. “Myself included, of course.”
Nico raised a brow. “Tutors?”
“Well, you wouldn’t want us sending you into the castle blind, now would you? You have no idea how to go about… well, any part of this assignment, but that’s why we’re here - to teach you.”
As if on cue - like they actually practiced this, the three of them shared knowing glances. Nico’s brows furrowed as he regarded them, trying to decipher their silent language. Something about those looks made Nico feel like he should be worried.
“Why am I doing this, again?” Nico grumbled under his breath as he readjusted the book balanced on his head. “I feel ridiculous.”
“You look ridiculous,” Jason assured him, laughing. “But, most people in the palace do, so you’ll fit right in.” Nico groaned as the book slid off his head for the fourth time and landed on the wooden floor with a loud bang.
“Okay seriously, Grace. Why do I have to do this?”
“Oh, you don’t,” the boy replied nonchalantly as he pushed himself off the wall and stood in front of Nico, barely able to contain his amused smile. Nico’s eyebrows came together.
“Then why did you tell me to do it?”
“Honestly, I just wanted to see if you actually would.” Jason burst into laughter as Nico growled in annoyance and punched his arm. Hard.
A loud and screeching clang echoed through the room as the swords came together once again. “You’re off balance,” Clarisse grumbled under her breath as she attacked again, Nico blocking her strike and trying to keep from stumbling under her strength. “Keep your body centered, knees bent and shoulder-width apart.” She parried Nico’s weapon and brought her own down on his shoulder. Nico didn’t have time to bring his sword back up from his previous attack to block the odd angle, and the metal clawed angrily at his sleeve.
Panting and feeling a small trickle of warm blood start to slip down his right shoulder, Nico paused and took a step back, staying on alert. He had learned not to let his guard down - even when Clarisse called for a break. He had been warned that she liked to strike when and where her opponent least expected it.
Clarisse relaxed and straightened, scowling. “Alright, maybe that sword isn’t the right size. Hold on.” She turned and walked over to the assortment of weapons of all shapes and sizes that she had leaning against the wall. Nico had been afraid to ask where he had gotten so many, and what use she could possibly have for them. After picking one out, Clarisse waited a moment while Nico set his current sword aside and she tossed him the new one. This one was slightly longer but made of a lighter metal, sharpened razor-thin at the point. He spun it in his hands a few times to get a feel for the new weight and adjusted his grip.
Bringing his hands into a ready position, he nodded and Clarisse attacked yet again, while Nico was on defense. She had explained before they started that he needed to be comfortable protecting himself in case his cover was blown. But he also needed to work on offense if he was going to best the castle guards. She had shown him a few go-to attacks and blocks, along with useful evasive maneuvers. But there wasn’t much need for more instruction as Nico caught on quickly.
They had mostly just been going one-on-one for the past hour, Nico staying silent and focused on moving his hands and feet, trying to ignore the pain in his arms as Clarisse barked orders at him, critiqued his stance and other things of the sort. Once Clarisse had accepted his comfort with a full-length sword, she tossed him a dagger.
Nico looked at her quizzically. “Uh, why?” He asked, not feeling it necessary to elaborate.
“You can’t waltz into the palace with a sword on your hip, now can you? That thing will be easier to hide, but you have to be quick with it. Now - don’t let me kill you.” And with that, she lunged forward and they started again from square one.
His last tutor was another girl, who introduced herself as Thalia Grace - Jason’s sister, apparently. At the mention of this, Nico sent Jason a bewildered glance, which turned into a glare. How had he not known Jason had a sister? He would have to yell at him for never passing on such information later.
Her clothes were just as dark as Nico’s, a small fact that he wasn’t sure why he’d taken such immediate notice of. Her raven hair was a few inches short of her shoulders, uneven and sticking out in places, almost as if she had tried to cut it herself. She had long, side-swept bangs which were dyed electric blue, and bright blue eyes.
When it was her turn to ‘teach’ Nico whatever she had planned, she simply stood a few feet in front of him, her arms crossed over her gray tank-top. Then she slowly circled him, her black leather jacket tied around her waist and brushing against her jeans with every step. Nico tensed. What the heck was happening?
“You got fast fingers?” She asked, out of nowhere.
“Uh… I don’t know?” Nico glanced at Jason and Clarisse, standing across the room and simply watching.
“Ever steal before?”
Nico glared at her. “What does this got to do with anything? What am I stealing from the palace?”
“Anything you need to,” Thalia replied. “You never know what could be of value to us. What the Prince is wearing on coronation day. A golden watch that the King never takes off. A freaking napkin he wiped his face with. Anything could prove useful, so you need to learn how to tell those things apart.” She circled around him once more before coming to stand in front of him again. “But, judging by how quickly you learned with Clarisse, maybe this won’t be a complete waste of time.”
For the next half hour or so, Thalia laid out random objects and Nico did his best to pick out the ones that seemed to fit the definition of ‘useful’ in each new scenario Thalia gave him. Then, once she was satisfied with his eye, she had him start figuring out ways to get them. He once had to figure out how to climb a bare wall of the studio to get a piece of paper caught in the air vent near the ceiling.
Next, once Thalia explained that the best way to pickpocket was to distract the victim, Nico had to practice walk by’s and swipe her phone, her wallet, a paper, from Thalia’s back pocket. She would then gauge how well he did; if she thought she would notice had she been an oblivious bystander, and had him do it again.
After a few hours, Nico was feeling slightly confident in his newly learned skill of pickpocketing. But Thalia still had ideas. The rest of the gang slowly started filing in through the doors, then stood around the room, striking up conversations among one another like everything was normal.
“Alright,” Thalia said, catching Nico’s attention again. “Someone in this room has something valuable. Your mission - should you choose to accept it - is to find it, and take it without them or anyone else noticing. Try not to get caught, because I gave full permission for these guys to practice some self-defense.”
Nico glared at her. “Was that really necessary?”
She nodded. “Of course. Now go.”
Unfortunately, it did not turn out as well as Nico had hoped. He looked too sketchy as he weaved through the crowd, glancing around obviously at people’s pockets and bags. When he finally decided to try to take something - which wasn’t even the right item - he had been caught and punched in the jaw. He glared at the guy standing over him, who shrugged and smiled apologetically before telling him he’d have to be more careful in the palace.
Nico went home that day exhausted and frustrated. He was fine with all the other things he needed to know. Jason’s job was supposed to be teaching him manners, but he had only taken the job because he knew he wouldn’t have needed to do anything. Nico was very courteous when he wanted to be. And after three hours of practicing, Nico had become very good at maneuvering his knife. The only thing he didn’t snag right way was thievery when it wasn’t the occasional ingredient from supermarkets.
He pushed through his front door, his arms sore and his mind going blank, and looked up to see Hazel on the couch, watching TV with her homework on her lap. Frank, her friend from school, was on the couch next to her, an identical textbook balanced on his palm. When they heard the door close, Hazel muted the sound and set aside her geometry notebook. “Hey, Neeks.” She tentatively. Nico could tell by her tone of voice that she was still slightly mad, which only made her uncomfortable with him.
Catching onto the tension in the room, Frank excused himself and promised Hazel they could study another time. Throwing Nico a small smile, he left and began his walk home.
Nico sighed and slumped down on the bar stool at the end of the island in the kitchen. Hazel came over and sat across from him, her eyes resting on the dagger in his hands.
“I’m guessing that’s for the mission,” She offered quietly, saying it more as a statement than a question. Nico nodded absentmindedly and began that finger game their dad had shown him, pressing his palm against the counter and spreading his fingers as far as they would go. He tapped the tip of the knife to the right of his left thumb, then in between the next two fingers, back to the first spot, and so on.
Hazel watched him for a few moments as Nico’s mind slowly began to reel. He knew why he had this knife, he knew what it was made for. He knew why it was so sharp, what it should do to someone’s skin. But for whatever reason, he couldn’t think of doing anything with it other than tapping it on the counter, narrowly missing his fingers as he tried to go faster, his anxiety building.
How was he supposed to do this? One day of simple training and he was exhausted, only one day closer to having to fulfill his task and he was already terrified, dread knotting his stomach.
Gently, Hazel reached out and caught the knife just before he drove it into his index finger. He let out a breath and let her take it from his hand. “Nico… I told you that I’m not okay with this… but it doesn’t seem like you are either.” She furrowed her brows. “Do you really want to do this? Out of spite? For revenge?”
Nico grit his teeth. “I want to do this for the money. I want to do this to keep us both alive.”
Suddenly, Hazel was on her feet, the knife clattering to the counter. “And what do you think is gonna happen if your cover is blown? If you end up… if they…” Her voice cracked. “What am I gonna do if I lose you, too? I can’t do this by myself, Nico.”
Nico sighed and got to his feet as well, moving across the island and bringing his sister into a tight hug. “You’re not losing me. I’ll make sure of it. I’m coming back; I’ll be fine.”
Nico nodded against the top of her head. “Promise.”
Jason honked the horn. “Will you hurry up?” He called from the driver’s seat. Nico sent an annoyed glare. He turned back to Hazel.
She wiped a stray tear from her face and sniffed. She opened her mouth, but closed it and threw herself onto him, squeezing his shoulders. “If you get yourself killed, I will bring you back and kill you again myself.” Nico chuckled and rubbed her back.
She let go and gave a weak smile. Nico turned to Percy and gave him a fist bump. “Be safe - wherever you’re going.” A twinge of guilt struck Nico. He still felt bad that Percy was kept in the dark, but they couldn’t risk anyone else knowing. Instead, Nico gave a small nod and a wave to the rest of the gang then clambered into the passenger seat of Jason’s car.
Nico glanced back out the window. He shook his head. “No.”
“Let’s go, then.”