Percy watched in dismay as the men and women clad in distinctly luxurious clothes entered the theater, feeling very out of place in the formal clothes he had borrowed from his father. For the tenth – or maybe hundredth – time on that evening, he pulled down his collar, certain he wasn’t imagining the itching and the felling of constriction around his neck. Annabeth reached out and smacked his hand away from the tie almost instantly.
“Stop that. If you keep messing your tie, I’ll have to fix it, and I’ve got better things to do.”
Sighing, he reined his hands on his sides and kept watching the brightly lit building. There was a huge banner informing all presents that tonight, Temple of Dionysius would present to his public the first installment of the “Hades & Persephone” spectacle.
“Why am I here, again?”
“I need moral support”, she answered, distracted, looking for someone in the crowd that grew bigger by the second.
Watching her elegant presentation in a white, sparkly long dress that hugged her fit figure in all the interesting places, Percy doubted she needed any kind of assurance he could provide.
“Annabeth. You haven’t needed moral support since you were eight and ran away from your stepmother”, he drawled. “Try again.”
She turned her attention to him completely, lifting one pale and perfect eyebrow that wasn’t hidden behind her curly blond fringe.
“You have obligations. One of them is to accompany me in these kinds of events and be my arm candy.”
Now he rolled his eyes all the way up and snorted. “I seem to remember you releasing me from those ‘obligations’ you speak of, some good eight months ago. I think the conversation began with words like ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ and mentions of Luke Castellan.” He even moved his hands to form the quotation marks to make his argument more pertinent.
“I released you from your boyfriend obligations. I never said anything about best friend obligations. I keep coming to watch your swimming competitions all over the country; you have to do the same for me to keep this relationship healthy. So, stop whining and help me find Piper in this mob.”
Resigning himself to what would probably be the most boring night of his life, Percy let his ex-girlfriend take his wrist in an iron grip and pull him towards the entrance decorated with an explosion of flowers that probably cost more than his monthly rent. Watching Annabeth’s gold ringlets bob up and down in her artfully created ponytail, he wondered, not for the first time in the last months, if their relationship had changed at all since the breakup. Sure, they weren’t groping each other or sticking their tongs down throats or having sex, but he was surprisingly okay with it.
Maybe because he had been aware of Annabeth’s feelings for Luke since they were twelve and played flag during summer camp. Or maybe because Percy himself had carried a torch for Luke a while back. Either way, his only real fear regarding the end of their romantic relationship had been the possibility of losing their friendship as well. That was proven unfounded almost as soon as Percy got over his abandonment issues.
“What was Luke’s excuse for not coming, then?”
“He’s a post-grad student, he doesn’t need excuses. And there is Piper.”
She navigated then inside the building and towards the stairs to the left. Their friend was, as usual, looking exotically beautiful using a simple earth-toned dress with the feathers and wood accessories of her father’s people. She clapped her hands and smiled when they approached.
“Oh, there you are. We’re visiting the backstage before it begins. I want to wish Jason good luck.”
“And I want to see if nobody destroyed my stage designs while I wasn’t here supervising.”
Both women started to walk surely in the direction of what Percy assumed was the way to the backstage, leaving the boy to follow in their wake. Some doors and corridors later, it was like he had entered in a parallel world.
Instead of overpriced dresses, twinkling jewels and sharp suits, the pavilion the trio walked in was full of men and women wearing skin tight leotards and ornamented tutus. Some had wispy, see-through rags dangling from their muscled bodies; others wore dark costumes and Halloween-like make up. A group of young girls was clustered in front of a practice mirror, halfway dressed in colorful silks and looking like a garden of overgrown flowers.
He knew nothing about ballet, but assumed this spectacle must be kind of a big deal, with the number of people involved and the fact that Piper’s very famous and sought after mother had personally designed all the costumes he was seeing around. Also, Annabeth was very picky about projecting architectural designs and she had actually wanted to get involved with these ones.
The girls turned away from the open space to enter a corridor full of doors, probably leading to the private dressing rooms for the stars of the show. Piper entered one of the rooms without knocking, followed by Percy and Annabeth. Her mother was standing in front of a very large mirror, applying all sorts of colored dust in the face of a very pretty and petite black girl in a flowy pastel dress and hair braided with flowers.
“Mum, in Jason around?” Piper asked Aphrodite.
The woman did not look from her work to answer her daughter. “In the back, wrestling Nico inside his clothes. He’ll be right back. I still need to finish his make up.”
Piper nodded and pulled Percy from where he was, standing by the door, half in, half out the room.
“Okay. Percy, you know my mum, and that’s Hazel Lavesque, our prima ballerina. She’s playing Persephone”, his friend explained in a teasing voice, winking at the dancer.
Hazel turned slightly to smile shyly at Percy, who liked her instantly. She looked almost frail in her ethereal clothing and he would have believed she could vanish in a gust of wind if he hadn’t seen already how high ballerinas could jump using only their legs.
“Jason is doing Hades, then?” Percy asked, trying to sound interested for the sake of his friends (and Aphrodite, because that woman was scary).
“Gods, no. He is too blond and goody-goody to do the part”, Aphrodite explained, freeing Hazel’s painted face and nodding in approval of whatever she was accessing about her work. She did not see Piper’s scowl over the commentary about her boyfriend’s disposition, but Percy agreed wholehearted with Aphrodite’s assessment. Jason was like the real life version of Captain America, nobody would buy if he played the god of the Underworld.
“Hades is being played by Nico di Angelo, Hazel’s older brother. I told you that before”, Annabeth intervened, throwing a judgy look at Percy.
He shrugged, feeling blameless. It was not like he was actually interested in ballet. Long, boring coordinated dances with long, boring music were a sure way to trigger all the worst aspects of his ADHD. The closer he had come to like ballet had been while watching “Black Swan” and that film had left him uneasily scared of ballerinas.
Right on cue, Jason appeared from behind a folding screen, wearing white skintight pants and his ripped, naked torso painted gold. There was a crown of lightning bolts around his blond hair. If Percy had to guess, he would say Jason was going to be Zeus in the show.
“Hey, bro. Looking godly”, he greeted his friend, smirking a little. Jason smirked back and approached to engage in the mandatory male hand clasping and back clapping. “I hope Thalia is around with her camera.”
“You bet she is”, Jason retorted, reaching down to kiss his girlfriend, careful to not smear his golden body paint on her. Not that she would have minded, considering her completely smitten look.
Percy opened his mouth to make his usual smartass reply when another boy came from the back of the room, wearing black pants that looked painted on his skin. He was wiry muscled and absurdly pale, traits enhanced by the transparent-full-of-black-feathers-thingy draped over his back and covering half of his torso.
“This thing was not this tight last rehearsal”, the boy drawled, his voice raspy and low like he had spent the week screaming and fraying his vocal cords.
And, you see, Percy had a type. It was a blond, tanned and athletic type. Exhibit A: Annabeth. Exhibit B: Luke. Exhibit C: that time he had been dared to make out with Jason and was too drunk to say anything besides “YOU’RE ON”. Anyway, it was a consistent type, he had never strayed away from it since puberty, but.
Maybe he could make an exception for this guy and this guy’s perfectly round butt. He could totally make an exception, it really wouldn’t hurt.
He knew he was gaping when Annabeth discreetly tried to damage his kidney with a quick and vicious jab of her right elbow.
“No, it isn’t, sweetie. Maybe you got fatter?” Aphrodite answered, smiling angelically while pulling Jason to the chair besides Hazel and starting to make his chiseled face glow with godly power. It wouldn’t be too hard.
“Last rehearsal was yesterday”, Nico replied, his face contorting in disbelief.
“Yes. Maybe you shouldn’t have eaten anything since them.”
The boy slowly moved his head from left to right, watching Aphrodite’s carefully innocent face like she was a poisonous snake. A shock of dark hair moved to curl around the ghostly pale neck, distracting Percy from his thoughts as effectively as his Nintendo 3DS tended to do during boring classes.
Then, the boy turned to pick up his ballet shoes from the floor and Percy almost gasped when he was presented with the very accurate contours of muscled tights and that butt designed by years of ballet practice. Yep, those pants left nothing to imagination.
“Percy,” Piper began, regaining her friend’s attention and watching him with a calculating look, “this is Nico, Hazel’s brother.”
Nico straightened up, now holding his ballet slippers, and nodded towards Percy, staring at him as intently as a cat watching a mouse. Percy flashed him a helpless smile and stared back with the same interest.
Annabeth cleaned her throat and snapped Percy from his observation of Nico’s dark, almost black eyes. They had a liquid light, like ink.
“Well, I need to see the stage. Good luck, guys! Break a leg! Aphrodite, marvelous work!” She pulled Percy to the door and kept chattering animatedly. “Bye!”
Percy tried to wave his hand to the room at large, but was still looking at Nico and wasn’t able to be properly polite.
The door had just closed when Annabeth turned to him with a speculative look in her face. Percy tried to ignore her, which wasn’t hard with the sound of his blood rushing through his ears. It felt like he had been running a marathon.
“I can’t believe this”, she threw her hands up in the air, exasperated with whatever she was seeing in his expression. “Let’s go before you embarrass yourself, for gods’ sake.”
By the time Annabeth had inspected her work and shouted at whoever had broken the fake trees of the Underworld’s garden, Percy had already composed himself and was just feeling happy. He had not been able to find people romantically interesting ever since the end of his three year relationship with Annabeth and had been kind of worried about that. Not that there was anything wrong with being single, but he was just feeling kind of lonely, these days.
They were already sitting on the places reserved for the important people involved in the production and their guests (that’s Percy) when she finally addressed the situation.
“Your timing is the worst.”
“He’s still underage.”
“I don’t even know if he’s interested in boys.”
“I didn’t, either.”
“At least I know I won’t have to keep waking you up during the spectacle, since you’re probably going to pay rapt attention.”
And that was exactly what happened. The music and the dancing were not as sleep inducing as he was expecting them to be, what with the very different choreographies and styles presented in each arc. Aphrodite’s costumes melted into Annabeth’s stage props and made nymphs appear and disappear behind strange trees, made flowers grow from the wood floor, made Hazel swirl around like she was weightless.
Nico prowled around the dark corners of the stage like he was a shadow himself, his feathered cape flowing around him flawlessly. His movements were pragmatic, sharp and direct, and he turned his head in a birdlike manner that made it easy to believe, for a second, that he was really the god of Death, inhuman and divine in his strangeness.
To say Percy was enraptured was an understatement. He watched the whole show. Persephone’s innocent dance amid her colorful flowers. Hades observing her from the places the light wouldn’t touch. Their meeting, tentative and captivating. The god convincing the goddess to visit the Underworld, where all kinds of spirits and monsters delved. The pomegranate eaten and the consequences when Demeter noticed the absence of her daughter.
Then, after the interval, the natural disasters provoked by the anguish of the inconsolable mother. A reunion in the Olympus to settle the impasse, with Zeus dancing amid his lightning bolts. In the end, Hades and Persephone’s last dance, full of the contradictions that created their relationship.
Percy got up and clapped like everybody else, mesmerized, when the whole crew appeared in the stage together to thank the public. He was still dazed while Annabeth and Piper navigated him around the crowd to go backstage again. Among tired and satisfied half-dressed dancers, they found their ways back to the dressing rooms.
Impressed, Percy congratulated sincerely all the artists inside the room, joked with Jason and complimented Hazel’s skills. There were still more than twenty people in the room when he accidentally tripped on Nico, who was sitting on the floor in the back of the room, nursing a bottle of cold water. After regaining his equilibrium by putting both hands in the wall above Nico’s head, Percy looked down and smiled.
“You were really great.”
Nico watched him for long seconds, taking a sip of his water and never breaking eye contact. Percy watched his Adam’s apple bobbing when the liquid went down his throat, feeling his own larynx move reflexively.
They stayed like that for what seemed like years to Percy. Nico’s make up was smudged and he was naked from the waist up.
“You’re Annabeth’s boyfriend, right?”
“Ex-boyfriend, actually. For months, now.”
Nico bit his lip and looked down, then up, then down again. Percy watched unabashedly.
“I really, really need to buy you a coffee. Or something.”
The almost inky black eyes moved to take Percy’s face, huge and earnest. The low lip, freed from the bite, was blood red in the middle of that pale face.
“Or something. Anything.”
A minuscule smile appeared on Nico’s face, and Percy felt like he had just won one of his swimming competitions.
“Okay. You can buy me a coffee”, Nico shrugged, and would have sounded almost nonchalant if it weren’t for the red cheeks.
Percy smiled his best smile and thought Annabeth was wrong. He had the best timing ever.