Chapter 1

Jason's Point of View

"For your final this semester, I'm assigning you a project," Mr. Brunner begins. Inwardly, I sigh of relief. A project means one less class I'll have to study for. "Now, I'm giving you quite a bit of leeway here; your only guidelines are that it has to be a presentation- Yes, yes, quiet down. We haven't done a single presentation yet this year, and you all know that public speaking is one of our standards. It needs to be 5-7 minutes long and on one of the books we've read so far this year. You must demonstrate that you have a full understanding of one of the topics, themes, characters, etc. It'll be due the last class period before winter break, meaning you have two weeks to complete it. Are there any questions?"

Someone in the back of the class speaks up. "Do we get partners?"

"Ah, Yes,-" The class cuts him off to cheer. "But I've already chosen them for you," he finishes firmly, causing the class to groan collectively. Including me. Last time, I got paired with this girl named Clarisse. She didn't give me any say in anything, but bossed me around the whole time. Not to mention that she probably could have beat me up, despite me being on the varsity football time.

Mr. Brunner wheels his wheelchair around to the side of the classroom and starts reading out names from a list he's already printed out. "Piper and Leo…"

Ha, that sucks for her. Leo's been a close friend since elementary school, but I wouldn't want to do a project with him. He's this scrawny kid who spends all of his time in auto shop and never stops moving. Or talking.

"...Octavian and Reyna…"

That also sucks for her. Octavian is another scrawny kid, only instead of just being annoying, he's also an asshole.

"… Percy and Frank, Rachel and Grover…" I zone out until I hear my name. "Jason and Nico, Will and Travis…"

Fuck. I sneak a look back at him, and his look of annoyance probably mirrors my own. Nico di Angelo is quiet, friendless, and, if I'm being completely honest, a little bit creepy. He's dressed in all black with a skull both on his black shirt and a silver ring he wears on his finger. He wears an aviator jacket that he almost never takes off. His jeans are dark wash and ripped at the knee, but unintentionally, like they're just really old. His hair is dark, too, and curly. He never quite meets anybody's eye, and he seems to have perfected the art of blending into the shadows. He only moved here about a year ago; he lives with my friend Percy, because his parents didn't want him or something. I'm not really sure; there are a lot of rumors going around about him. I guess working with him wouldn't be that bad if it weren't for my friends. How do I put this? They've not exactly been very nice to him. I feel sorta bad about it, but I haven't done much to stop them either. And I mean, he kind of makes himself an easy target, sitting alone everyday with a pair of headphones in. But he probably hates me now, and sort of looks like he could kill me at any moment.

Awesome.

Mr. Brunner's voice interrupts my thoughts. "I'll give you the last few minutes of class to meet with your partner and brainstorm. Remember, I'll be checking to make sure both students give in equal effort!"

Reluctantly I begin to gather my things and head towards Nico, but when I turn around, he's standing right in front of me. I jump. He's already on the floor picking up my things before I even realize that I dropped them.

"Sorry," he says timidly as he hands me back my things. Weird. I didn't really expect him to have good manners, especially because he looks like if he could have killed everybody in the room by now, he would have.

I sit back down in my chair as he pulls out another from the desk next to me. As he does, I notice that his hand is shaking.

"So…" I say, unsure of exactly where to begin. "Got any ideas?" Maybe if I let us do what he wants, he won't be so bad.

He just shrugs. His apparent nonchalance is ruined by his shaking hands and his jiggling legs. I wonder what's making him so nervous.

I try again. "What's your favorite book we've read so far this year? As long as it's not Shakespeare, I'm down for anything," I say lightheartedly. He doesn't smile.

He considers this for a moment, then quietly speaks. He has to repeat himself because he's so quiet the first time. "I really liked To Kill a Mockingbird," he says. His voice shakes.

"Oh, yeah, me too!" I say a little too enthusiastically. He looks at me like I've grown another head. I cough. "Um, yeah, we should do that."

He continues to stare at me as I wait for a response. I realize that I'm not going to get one, and continue talking. "What do you want to do then? We could analyze themes, characters, I don't know," I say exasperatedly. "Help me out here."

He just looks up at me, with his big, dark eyes, and it's like he can see right through me. Like I'm transparent. It scares me a little bit, but I meet his eye anyways. We hold eye contact for what seems like ages, before he finally opens his mouth. "The bell's about to ring. Can we meet at your house-?"

"No!" I interrupt him, a little too loudly, and a little too quickly. Oops.

My mom doesn't exactly appreciate company. And even if she did, she would probably make even Nico uncomfortable.

He looks at me strangely. "Uh, my house then?

"Oh," I say embarrassed. "Uh- Yeah, I've got football though, 'till 5:30. You live with Percy, though, right? I've been there. And it's only a couple blocks from me, I can just walk."

He merely shrugs and nods before the bell interrupts the class and everyone scrambles to leave. He rushes off and disappears out of my sight before I realize he left his English textbook behind. I hurry out of the door, turning right and left and right again before I catch a glimpse of him turning a corner.

"Hey Nico!" I shout, but he doesn't hear me. "Nico!" I begin to jog, only to get yelled at by a teacher stepping out of his classroom. I resolve to walk quickly, saying "excuse me" repeatedly as I push my way through the crowd of kids on their way to lunch. I finally catch up with him, saying his name as I tap him on the shoulder.

And he flips out. He nearly jumps out of his skin, dropping his books everywhere, and, before I know it, I'm pinned against a locker, the lock digging against my back.

"Dude, what the hell?" I choke out. His forearm is blocking my throat and I can barely breathe.

His eyes widen in realization and he releases me. I see an apology start to form on his frantic lips, but it doesn't get any farther than that. Instead, he says, "I don't like to be touched. Don't ever do that again." He's threatening for someone so small, for someone who has to stand on his toes to even reach my throat. His cheeks are bright red, too, and I can tell he's embarrassed. That, or I really scared him. Maybe a little bit of both. People are staring at us as they walk by, and he looks around worriedly, before stooping down to pick up his books. Is dropping our books going to become a regular thing? I lean down to help him.

"You, um, forgot your English textbook," I say as I thrust it into his arms.

His cheeks turn an even darker shade of red when he realizes I was trying to help him, before he went all crazy on me. If I'm being honest though, I feel like I should be angry, but I'm not. I just feel… bad. I feel bad for him, I think. And confused.

He's been pretty much completely unresponsive to everything and everyone ever since he came here. He never speaks in class. He sits by himself every day. He ignores almost everyone who tries to talk to him, even when they shout cruel names. He talks to his half-sister, Hazel, and his cousin, Percy. Percy and I are friends- well, sort of. Acquaintances, really. Oh, we like each other, but there's always been a bit of a competition between us, as two of the most popular guys in school. We've hung out a few times, though, and have always gotten along relatively well. Percy won't talk about him, though. He half-heartedly tells off anyone who says mean things about him, but that's as far as he goes.

But anyways, this is the most I've ever seen him talk. And I'm not entirely sure what to make of him anymore. I could just write him off as being creepy and a loner, but… I don't know. I have this feeling I can't shake as I walk to lunch. What would have made him so nervous? And so jumpy?

After practice, though I'm exhausted, I walk to Nico's house. It's not a long walk; I've been in Percy's room, and you can see the school from his window. It looks like it's about to rain, though, and my hair is still wet from the shower, and all I have on is a thin sweatshirt. By the time I reach his front doorstep, I'm shivering and my hands look blue. I've barely pressed the doorbell when Sally, Percy's mom, opens the door. She's wearing a cream sweater with a pair of plaid pajama pants, as though she hasn't left the house all day. I'm betting she hasn't; she owns a pizza shop with her boyfriend, Mr. Blofis, who also teaches at our school, but it's doing so well that she rarely has to go in. She uses the extra time to work on a novel she's writing.

"Oh, come in, come in, you look freezing!" She says, and I am, so I do. The moment I walk in, warmth covers me like a blanket. She ushers me further inside and sits me down at their kitchen table, across from Mr. Blofis.

"Dinner should be here soon, we ordered Chinese. Would you like some hot cocoa?" She asks, though she's already pulling out a mug before I can answer. "Paul, would you get the others?"

"Percy! Hazel! Nico!" He shouts, his voice carrying all the way up the stairs.

Sally turns away from the milk she's heating up and reprimands him. "I could have done that!" He shrugs and shamefully looks down at the floor, repressing a smile. Percy comes bounding down the stairs first, and then Hazel.

"Hey man," Percy says casually, already in a pair of pajamas with little surfboards on them.

"Hi Jason!" Hazel says sweetly, as always. She's wearing a long white nightgown with a sweatshirt thrown over it, and her hair has been lazily thrown up. Paul and I are the only ones who are actually dressed. That is, until Nico comes down the stairs.

He's still dressed, but he's changed out of his clothes from earlier. For once, he's not wearing his aviator jacket, but a white long sleeve shirt. His jeans are black too, but he ruins the look by wearing a pair of purple fuzzy socks on his feet. I eye them questioningly, and he glares at me. Wow, this is off to a great start.

Sally walks over to me with a mug of hot chocolate right as the doorbell rings. "Ah, that'll be the Chinese!" She pays the delivery guy, who does not look happy to be out in this weather, and thanks him. When she gets back to the table Nico is still standing up.

"Mrs. Jackson, do you think Jason and I can take ours to my room? We should really start our project," he says politely.

It seems odd to me that he's still calling her "Mrs.", but apparently she doesn't. "Of course, sweetie, whatever you need. Do you want me to pull out some trays?"

"No, that's okay. Thanks though." He walks over to the kitchen and pulls out two plates and some silverware. He hands me a plate and we both help ourselves before heading towards the stairs. I can't help but notice that there's barely anything on his plate.

Apparently, everyone else notices too. I can see concern etched upon their faces as they watch him, and I can see him tense up because he knows. Hazel speaks up. "Is that all you're going to eat?"

He stops, so I do too. He paints on a smile and says, "Yeah, I had a big lunch today." Then he continues up the stairs while everyone else looks around as if they want to argue, but don't.

I can't help but wonder what all of that was about.

His room is the first on the left side of the hallway. It's a lot different than what I expected: it's not so dark. The walls are a pale blue, almost like you would see in a newborn baby boy's room. His bed is against a slanted wall and is covered in a patchwork quilt of every shade of blue I can think of. There's a dark wooden nightstand next to the bed. On it sits a white lamp, a few half-empty water bottles, and a copy of A Game of Thrones. I smirk to myself; he's a geek. The bookshelf on the other wall holds Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Hunger Games, and dozens more I've never seen before. Next to the bookshelf is a desk of the same dark wood. It's stacked with textbooks and there are some loose papers, but it's relatively neat. His closet doors are shut and covered with posters of Doctor Who and some bands I've never even heard of. The window shares a wall with the bed, and its white curtains are parted to reveal a window that's closed, but has no screen. The screen leans up against the wall underneath it, leaving me to wonder if he ever climbs out to sit on the roof. I know I would.

He sets his plate down on his nightstand and sits on his bed. I notice that even in the safety of his own room, he's jiggling his legs up and down. His breaths seem shallow. Do I make him that uncomfortable?

I look around uncertainly, before eventually deciding to sit down on the floor. He looks at me strangely, but doesn't say anything. We hold eye contact again, and a silence falls over the room. It's not broken until my stomach lets out a loud growl.

"You can eat, you know,"

So I do, but he doesn't. I almost question him on it, but I decide that I don't want to make him angrier at me than he already seems to be.

I take a bite of orange chicken and look up at him. He sighs, and finally speaks, but as though it pains him to do so. "So we're doing To Kill a Mockingbird then?" He sounds oddly out of breath.

I swallow. "Uh, yeah," I say. "That's cool with me. We could do it about innocence, you know, as a theme. Or we could do racism," I finish, taking a sip of what's probably the best hot chocolate I've ever tasted.

"How much do you want to bet there'll be at least five other groups who do that?"

As soon as he says it I know it's true, but it still irritates me that he's so critical of my ideas when he hasn't given one. "Okay, well then what do you suggest?"

He glares at me, though I'm not sure if it's intentional or not, and I shiver. "We could always analyze one of the characters," he says. He shrugs though, as if he's purposefully attempting to look nonchalant again, like he's afraid of sounding stupid.

"Yeah, we could do that," I say, grateful that he's giving me something to work with. "Which one though? Scout, Jem…"

He shrugs again. "Maybe we could… I don't know, I think it would be interesting if we did Boo Radley,"

This takes me by surprise. I guess it makes sense that Nico would take an interest in him. Boo was a recluse, Nico's a loner. I have a feeling that Nico would lock himself up alone and away from people if he was given the choice, too.

"Yeah, um, that works. I mean, we're not given very much information on him though."

"You're right," he says, shaking his head. "We can just do Atticus or something."

I don't know why I say what I do next, but it seems like a good idea. "No, I think we should do Boo. We can talk about the different things that might have like, affected who he became."

He looks at me as if he's surprised by my answer, but doesn't say anything.

I continue. "And we can talk about how he must have felt, too, with so many people making him out to be a monster, or some kind of tragic story."

The way he looks at me changes again, like he's more than just surprised. Like he's confused, or like he's never seen me before. He stares at me, and after a while it becomes uncomfortable so I stare back at him. He turns bright red, and then goes pale. His eyes widen and he stands up quickly.

"Um, yeah. I'm just gonna go to the bathroom really fast. Wait here."

He stands up and rushes out of the room before I really even process what he said.

Okay, what was that all about?

Hazel barges in almost the second Nico disappears down the hall.

"Hey, did he-" She cuts off, eyeing the untouched plate on his desk. She sighs, and says, "Of course not."

"Uh, what?" I say stupidly.

"Do you think you can tell me if he eats that or not?"

"Um, yeah, sure," I say.

I've always liked Hazel. I don't know her that well, but she's good friends with my best friend, Piper, and she's dating this guy on my football team, Frank. She's only 13, but she's already a freshman. She has dark skin, cinnamon colored hair, and warm, gold eyes. She's just about as sweet as she looks, and I can't understand how she's related to Nico. She came to live with the Jacksons shortly after Nico did, when her mom passed away. Their dad- Now that I think about it, I don't know where their dad is; Percy won't say anything about it. But anyways, she would have just gotten stuck in the system if it weren't for Mrs. Jackson. From what I understand, getting her was nearly impossible, but I guess they thought it would be good for Nico. I think they must have been right, seeing how she's the only one he ever shows any affection towards. But he still doesn't seem to be doing very well.

I want to ask her what's going on with him, but I don't. Why should it even matter to me? Once this project's over, we'll never have to say another word to each other. But I can't help but feel curious.

Hazel smiles warmly at me, but she still seems exasperated. "Thanks, Jason," is all she says before heading back down the hall.

Nico takes what seems like ten minutes to return. In the meanwhile, I finish my hot chocolate and most of my plate. I start to wonder if he's ever going to come back when he appears in the doorway.

"Sorry about that," he says with a shaking voice. He crosses the room and sits back down on the edge of his bed, with his feet on the floor.

He doesn't look any better than he did before. "Um, are you feeling okay? I mean, we can always do this later if you're not-"

That's when I notice that his white sleeve is turning dark red. He's bleeding.

"Dude, what-?"

He notices me looking down at his arm and does the same. "Shit," I hear him mutter as he jumps up from his bed. "I, uh, must have- I must have scratched it on-"

Something dawns on me; this is an all too familiar scene. I stand up and step closer to him. "Nico, did you-"

He jumps away from me, like a scared cat. He backs up straight up into his bed and falls onto it. I hold up my arms in surrender, like I have to let him know I won't hurt him.

"It's okay, man, calm down," I start. I walk closer to his bed and kneel down in front of it. "Let me see, yeah? I can help. That looks- that looks pretty serious." And it does. His forearm is completely soaked, with three different lines of dark red running together. Three different, completely straight lines.

He shakes his head, and seems to struggle to find his voice. "I don't need any help. I just scratched it. Just- just go away. We can do this later," he pleads. I should listen to him. I shouldn't get involved in this. But for some reason, I can't tear my eyes away from him. Maybe because I've seen this before.

I grab his arm, gently, at first, but he struggles against me. I grip it tighter, and he's no match for me. I could easily break him in half.

"Let me go!" He protests, and I know I should. I barely know him, and here I am, invading his privacy.

"Nico, did you do this to yourself? I mean, like, on purpose?"

He looks me straight in the eye and says, "Fuck off."

But I don't. I use my other hand to reach for his sleeve. I pull it up, and-

He slaps me hard across the face.

It takes a minute for the shock to register before I stumble back.

"Leave," he says.

And so I do.

By the time I get home, I'm still trying to process what the hell just happened. My cheek is still stinging; he must have hit me pretty hard.

Nico cuts himself. I feel surprised, but part of me thinks I shouldn't be. All of the signs were there. The long sleeves, the isolation, the sad look he's always wearing. I should have recognized it sooner. He's the third person I've known to do this to himself.

I walk into the front door and see that my mom is already asleep on the couch. Her arm is draped over the side, and she has a knife held loosely in her hand. I sigh. She usually sleeps with one under her pillow, for fear someone will break into the house in the middle of the night. I pry it gently from her hand and set it down on the coffee table. Then I scoop her up in my arms and carry her down the hall to her bed. I can do that, because I doubt she weighs more than 90 pounds.

I tuck her into bed and kiss her goodnight.

I remember the first time I realized my mother was sick. It was only about a week before my dad left. I guess that's because when her crazy became too much for him to handle, it was also too much for her to hide. Sometimes, I think I can almost understand why he left; I know that she's not easy to take care of. And I know he probably felt that he shouldn't have had to take care of a grown woman, because I feel that way sometimes. But mostly, I just feel angry at him for abandoning her, and leaving a nine year old kid to watch over her. I barely even knew what was going on. But I didn't have a choice; I couldn't leave like he could. I sometimes wonder if he ever thinks about us, or if he just walked away and never looked back.

The weekend before he left, she had been crying more than usual. I mean, she always cried a lot. I remember feeling sad that she was sad, but I don't think I realized how abnormal it was for someone to be that sad. That Saturday night, I think, I woke up from a nightmare; I had those all the time back then. I heard this loud sobbing coming from the bathroom. Of course, I automatically assumed there must a monster, or a robber or something. But what I found was worse. My mom was sitting in our bathtub, with steam rising up all around it, and the water stained red. To this day, I have this image of her like that stuck in my head, with a razor blade poised over her wrist. Her eyes in it are wide and frantic, the way Nico's were today.

When I was fourteen, I found out that my best friend Piper did the same thing. She's gay, and figuring that out was a really confusing time for her. When she told me, I was supportive, but she started bawling in the middle of our conversation. And by bawling, I mean ugly, snot-dripping-down-her-nose bawling. That's when she told me what she had done, and when I started to cry too. I told her about my mom and, after that, she stopped. I mean, it was a lot complicated than just stopping, even though she had been doing it for only a few months, but I think what I told her scared her enough for her to make a genuine effort. Now, at 17, she's completely happy, and so is her girlfriend, Reyna.

But for some reason, I have a feeling Nico's case is more similar to my mom's. Piper was alone and confused and I don't want to understate how hard it was for her. But my mom… Like Nico, she's skin and bones because she barely eats anything. She carries around this little notebook with her, and in it, she records everything she eats. And she's usually too anxious to even leave the house; she only does if she absolutely has to. I assume Nico must be anxious, too, given the way he was shaking. And… his arms were really, really fucked up. Most of Piper's scars are white lines, where his are red and purple and raised from the rest of his skin. Even the ones that looked like they were old.

I wonder how long he's been doing this.

I wonder why.

And I decide that I'm going to help him. I'm not going to be like my dad and abandon people I can help.

Author's Note: Hello! I hope you enjoyed this chapter! I would be really grateful if you could review this because I plan on giving it to my sister as a present, and I want it to be as good as possible when I do. Thank you for reading! xxx