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all the world's a stage

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‘Alright, that’s it for today! Good job, everyone.’

The director’s booming voice cut through the enthralled silence that had descended in the wake of Piper’s stellar performance.

There was an immediate outbreak of noisy chatter as the actors began drifting through the curtains and towards the dressing rooms beyond. The carpenters and technicians rushed onto the stage, completely in their element, starting work on the scenes for the next day. Annabeth Chase was arguing with Leo about experimenting on the stage lights yet again, their gesticulating wild and emphatic and more than a little frustrated.

His shoulders slumped with exhaustion. There was a tell-tale itch in his throat- repercussions of not doing his voice warm-up rituals daily. Honestly, Will was just looking forward to curling up under the blanket at home- perhaps a night of Netflix and greasy Chinese take-out, maybe binge-watch the entirety of House of-

Wham!

Someone crashed into him, interrupting his musings. With a yelp, he went tumbling backwards and hit his head against the polished floorboards. Stars erupted in front of his eyes.

What in the name of Cupid’s misaimed arrows-?

‘Hey, watch where you are going!’

Will groaned pathetically and sat up. A pair of fathomless, dark eyes glared at him from a few steps away. He groaned even louder when he realised who it was.

Nico di Angelo, a prodigy in the world of art and theatre, his co-star and current bane of existence, was wincing and rubbing the back of his head. He shot Will a scathing look and began gathering the sheets of paper and folders he seemed to have dropped during the collision.

‘Sorry, I wasn’t paying attention,’ Will muttered reluctantly, but no less sincerely. He was well-aware of his habit of drifting into daydreams at the most inopportune times.

Nico’s mouth curled into a sneer. ‘I know that, dimwit. Be careful next time.’

Heat blazed into his cheeks, whether with embarrassment or anger, he was not sure. ‘I apologized, didn’t I? No need to be such a jerk!’

Nico merely huffed. Once he had collected his stuff, he spun on his heel and marched away, never looking back.

Will allowed a resigned sigh to escape his lips and carded his fingers through his mop of unruly blonde hair, making them stand up on end. He and Nico had been at each other’s throats since the first day of rehearsals. He did not know what he had done to incur the other’s wrath but Nico had always snapped, snarled and sneered at all his attempts at friendship. They argued unceasingly, whether it was about scene editing or about pointing out mistakes in their acting or even where they had to go for their after-rehearsals hang-outs with their other friends.

He shook his head and continued his trek towards the dressing rooms.

Nico di Angelo was a stubborn, arrogant douche who seemed to think he was better than everyone else simply because he had grown up with a silver spoon in his mouth (and probably silver toys to play with too). Will’s fists clenched momentarily before he forced himself to relax.

Not that it mattered. He did not care what Nico thought.

He could only hope that they were professional enough to not let their mutual dislike affect their performance. If he was lucky, after this play was done, he would not have to deal with the other again. The thought made him feel much better.

In the dressing rooms, he was met with a scene of organised chaos.

People rushed about frantically, packing up for the day; laughter and hollering and some swear words in what sounded like Italian and Portuguese filled the air; magazines, burger wrappers and makeup kits covered every inch of every available surface; Drew stood in the center of it all, screeching about someone having mixed glue in her expensive eye shadow palette.

‘Oi, Solace,’ a voice called over the din.

Lou Ellen was waving from her post at the very back of the room. A grin lit up his features. Will maneuvered his way towards her with expert ease.

‘What’s up, Willie? How was rehearsal?’

Will shrugged. ‘Pretty good. I think we finally nailed Scene 4 from the second Act.’

She hummed, not looking up from where she was trying to stuff a pair of scarlet stilettos into her bag. ‘So why do you look like someone backed their car over your puppy, then proceeded to stomp on all you pretty flowers?’

Will blinked. That had been... oddly specific.

‘It’s nothing. I’m just tired.’

Lou Ellen abandoned her attempts to put away the shoes and looked at him. Shoving an errant strand of brightly-coloured hair behind her hair, she narrowed her eyes critically. Will fought the urge to fidget like a guilty pre-schooler.

Fortunately, she decided not to press the issue. ‘Well, I’m almost done here. Get Cecil, will you? Before Drew gets her manicured hands on him. I’m not particularly looking forward to dragging his carcass home.’

Will snorted and turned to do as he was told. He found Cecil crouched behind a couch, sniggering and clutching a pair of binoculars. Will decided not to ask. Instead, he simply grabbed the other boy by the back of his shirt and dragged him away.

-//-//-

‘Ah, William,’ Mr. Chiron greeted him warmly, when he approached the man the following afternoon. ‘Thank you for joining us.’

 ‘It’s no problem at all,’ he replied, firmly ignoring the other boy in his peripheral vision. Instead, he flashed a smile at Malcolm Pace, the playwright, who nodded back.

Nico was leaning against the wall behind him, dressed entirely in a black ensemble and slightly slouched as though the weight of the world rested upon his shoulders. His dark eyes had flitted in Will’s direction for the fleetest of moments before he looked away with the barest hint of a sneer on his face.

Will’s own mouth had formed a distasteful scowl in response but he refrained from lashing out.

Mr. Chiron was an amiable and elderly man who had been in the business probably long before Will was even born. His eyes twinkled with mirth beneath a set of bushy eyebrows and his mouth twitched from his even bushier beard, as though amused over a private joke. The director gestured to Malcolm. ‘We would like your opinion on a little scene editing, along with Mr. Di Angelo’s.’

Malcolm held up his ever-present clipboard and sheaf of papers, his grey eyes somber. ‘I have discussed it with the producer as well. Our production Shot In The Dark, fictional though it is, has been based upon a lot of research and facts. As a result, the plot line is straight-forward and quite intense.’

Will nodded. Nico appeared as though he would rather be anywhere else but here.

‘The producer believes that in order to make the characters more relatable, we need to add a softer edge through more whimsical and... romantic scenes,’ the playwright hesitated at the word. ‘After all, in essence, this play is about the relationship between the assassin, Eren, and his target, Noah.’

There was a long pause.

Will mulled over the words. It made sense.

Malcolm cleared his throat and went on, ‘We were thinking of adding a short dance to Act Eight.’

Will’s eyes widened. He racked his brain to remember what Act Eight was. Ah, of course, Madame Elizabeth’s black-tie charity gala...

A thrill of anticipation shot through him at the thought. Will was nothing if not a romantic at heart, and he could already envision the scene in the head- the blooming flowers and crystal chandeliers that would be used, the feeling of a pliant body in his arms as they spun to soft strains of music-

‘No.’

For the second time in two days, Nico brought his pleasant reverie to a crashing halt.

What?

Will frowned at the other boy. ‘What?’

Nico straightened his posture, no longer appearing bored, but rather focused and determined. Will would have been pleased with it, if what the other was saying did not completely clash with his own wishes. ‘I don’t believe it’s a productive idea.’

Mr. Chiron did not seem perturbed in the slightest. In fact, he seemed to have anticipated this. He was stroking his beard in a contemplative manner. ‘And why do you say that, Mr. Di Angelo?’

‘Well, for one, it will be a strain on the budget,’ Nico explained, briskly. ‘Even a one-minute scene can add to the costs considerably and I doubt Reyna would be too pleased about that. And it will be time-consuming. We’ll have to go for a dance that is appropriate to the theme at hand. Waltz, perhaps?’

The last question was fired at the playwright. Malcolm nodded nervously.

‘Right. So we’ll probably need a tutor for all the other actors out there, even the extras.’ Nico shrugged nonchalantly, resuming his slumped posture against the wall. ‘Frankly, it’s not worth the effort.’

Will felt fury thrum beneath his skin. He had to admit that Nico presented an extremely valid argument. But for some reason, the way Mr. Chiron and Malcolm were nodding their heads to Nico’s words irked him to no end. It felt like handing over another victory to the brooding boy.

He decided to add his two cents’ worth. ‘Well, I think it’s a good idea.’

‘You would,’ Nico muttered under his breath. Will managed to hear him though.

‘What is that supposed to mean?’

Malcolm intervened hastily. ‘It’s alright. We are all entitled to our opinions-‘

‘It means,’ Nico spoke over the distressed playwright. ‘That you are a rookie, a nobody in this business, who couldn’t possibly begin to understand the technicalities that go behind a major Broadway production such as this-‘

‘Well, what do you think we should do, O All Mighty Actor?’

‘Boys,’ Mr. Chiron broke in, his voice sharp. ‘That is enough.’

‘We need to add smaller, more inconspicuous scenes that portray Eren’s love for Noah-‘

‘I wouldn’t expect you to appreciate something as passionate or as whimsical as dancing-‘

'For your information, I-'

Enough!’

They froze.

Will’s chest was heaving and he could scarcely hear over the blood pounding in his head. He had never in all his life been riled up so easily by someone.

And he had never, to this date, ever heard their director raise his voice. He lowered his head in shame, unable to believe he had resorted to such petulant methods of stating his opinion on something.

Yet Nico knew how to push his buttons. He could not help but retaliate.

Mr. Chiron sighed wearily and sank back in his chair. Malcolm glanced from the director to the two actors, as though watching a very intense tennis match.

‘I have heard and noted your opinions and thoughts on the matter. We will take them into consideration when we speak to Ms. Avilla Ramirez-Arellano and Ms. Chase about it.’ He waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. ‘That’s all for today. You are free to go now.’

Malcolm offered a terse smile. ‘Thank you for your input.’

Nico turned immediately and walked away. Will exhaled a long breath and glanced at Mr. Chiron. He was contemplating apologizing to the older man. But he and Malcolm seemed to be engaged in a serious conversation now.

He shook his head and went to collect his belongings from the green room. Perhaps a night with his best friends would help clear his thoughts.

-//-//-

‘Budge up,’ Lou Ellen commanded and they moved obediently to make space on Will’s ever-faithful, weathered couch. She plopped down between them, the bowl of popcorn perched precariously on her lap.

Cecil pressed the button on the remote and credits for House of Cards began rolling onto the screen.

Will sighed and relaxed, the tension coiled in his muscles seeping away completely. It was only now, when he was seated comfortably with his best friends, that he realised how uneasy he had been the entire time.

Nico kept plaguing his thoughts.

He shook his head. He was not going to think of the other boy right now. It was supposed to be downtime. He was supposed to be forgetting the stresses of the day, not reliving them.

So what if his heart stung a little bit every time the other offered cold words? Nico di Angelo was a bitter, scornful person by nature and Will was better off without him. He forced himself to watch the show.

Outside the window, inky black darkness fell across the sky and the quiet hum of vehicles faded away. On this chilly December night, very few ventured out. As the show ended, the three of them lay there, throwing popcorn on each other and chatting about everything and nothing, moving smoothly from the topic of their familial lives to gossip at work. Lou Ellen explained how Paolo and Chiara had started dating and Damian’s extreme reaction to that particular bit of news.

‘He’s totally jealous,’ Cecil remarked casually as they snickered.

‘That’s obvious,’ Will added. ‘However, it’s his own fault for arguing with Chiara so often. He was obviously sending her mixed signals, and as a result, lost his chance with her.’

‘Nah, I don’t think he has lost yet,’ Lou cut in. ‘I bet he’ll be with her by the end of this month.’

‘The end of this month?’ Cecil exclaimed. ‘No way! Seeing as how oblivious those two are, they’ll be together by the end of February at least.’

‘I don’t know,’ Will mused out loud, humming and tapping a finger against his chin. ‘I think Lou is right. Those two are made for each other.’

To his surprise, his light-hearted words were met with giggles and knowing glances on the part of his friends. He frowned in confusion, looking from one to the other.

‘What is it?’ he asked.

‘Oh, nothing,’ Cecil replied airily. He flapped his hand and turned to the television where the ending credits were still rolling. ‘You are right. Those two are made for each other.’

‘Just like two other people we know,’ Lou added before collapsing in a fit of hysterics. Cecil was steadily turning red from holding in his guffaws.

‘What is wrong with you two?’

They only laughed harder in response.

Will was beginning to get impatient. He waited for some kind of explanation but when a few minutes passed without any information forthcoming, he gave up. He figured he would unearth their secrets eventually.

‘Fine, be that way,’ he muttered petulantly.

Lou wiped a tear from her eye and patted his knee. ‘Don’t worry your pretty little head about it, Willie. We’re just being idiots.’

Will rolled his eyes. ‘Yeah, I can see that.’

Even so, he could not help the fond smile from curling his mouth. Right here, in the comfort of his apartment and squished between his two, admittedly crazy, best friends, it seemed like all the hassle and stress of his of the world was miles away.

Chapter Text

Will sighed softly and stretched the muscles of his neck.

He was standing amidst the pre-rehearsal commotion, a staunch rock weathering the crashing tides. People hustled and bustled about him, hollering at the top of their voices; the seamstresses had haggard expressions on their faces as they begged some actor to please stay still for one minute; Lou Ellen was working on Drew Tanaka’s makeup, looking beyond frustrated at the girl’s lack of co-operation.

‘Alright,’ Mr. Chiron announced, his deep, bass voice easily carrying over the clamorous din. ‘Let us begin.’

Will hurried to his place in the wings. From there, he had a clear view of the stage. The familiar tingling sensation beneath his skin was back, the anticipation of running another rehearsal. No matter how many times he did this, he never tired of it.

He squinted his eyes and could make out Nico on the opposite side of the stage. Their eyes met for a heartbeat. Nico pursed his mouth into a thin line and looked away. For reasons unfathomable, heat crept up his neck. Will cleared his throat and looked down at the script in his hand. Fortunately, he was distracted by the stage manager marching past him with her customary blonde ponytail swinging behind her.

‘Everybody, get in position,’ Annabeth Chase snapped. The Stoll brothers hastened to obey.

The spotlights roved over the stage, once, twice, three times. Will spotted Leo on the catwalks above, scurrying to and fro, adjusting this or that. The lights finally stopped on one actor lounging against the lockers. The grey walls, the bulletin boards and the tiled floors (carefully made to appear as such) were thrown in sharp relief. The girl was intent upon her cell phone, a pair of earphones hanging limply off one ear, the spitting image of a typical college student.

Annabeth signaled with her fingers. Nico strode onto the stage.

Will felt a tug somewhere in his stomach, a bitter sort of resentment that always made its presence known whenever the other boy was in the vicinity. Yet, he could not deny that Nico was an exceptional actor. He was the pride and joy of Black Cat Productions. His slender frame was coiled with a tension that belied his true potential as an assassin, even as he leaned nonchalantly towards Hazel, who was playing Bonita, the main character’s best friend. It was in the little details that he always added to his expressions that set him apart from his peers. Nico would get completely absorbed in his role.

Yes, Will had to grudgingly accept, Nico was very good at his job.

‘Excuse me.’

There was no mistaking that rich baritone. It swept over the auditorium and some people stopped what they were doing to watch the scene unfold.

Hazel glanced up. The bored expression on her face was instantly replaced by eagerness- a young teenage hoping to catch the eye of the handsome stranger in front of her. Will wondered distantly if such acting prowess ran in the family.

He swallowed hard, feeling suddenly, unexpectedly, nervous.

A rookie, Nico had called him.

The resentment flared again, now settling on his bones and muscle like tar- impossible to ignore.

I’ll show him.

Nico and Hazel were conversing on the stage now, running through their lines smoothly and effortlessly. Annabeth seemed to relax as more and more time passed with no mishaps. Even Mr. Chiron was nodding now.

As he found Hazel nearing the part where he had to come in, Will took a deep breath. This was it.

Annabeth caught his eye and nodded. Taking his cue, Will strode onto the stage. The harsh lights blinded him for a moment and his eyes spasmed close of their own accord. It took a few precious seconds to reorient himself. He took a few measured steps towards Hazel and Nico faltered mid-step when he caught sight of him.

Nico’s motions were flawless, as always- including the way his surprise morphed into a smoothly blank mask, void of all emotion. Hazel glanced around and caught sight of Will.

‘Hey, Noah!’ Hazel offered a dazzling smile. Underneath the lights, her honey-gold eyes sparkled. ‘Come and say hello. He’s a new student.’

Will was acutely aware of the dozens of eyes fixed upon him like headlamps.

‘How do you do,’ he replied politely, perfunctorily, as he shook Nico’s hand. His brain was scrambling. His thoughts felt like broken strings scattering in the wind.

What was the next line?

‘Noah, was it? Are you one of the friends Bonita so graciously offered to introduce me to?’ Nico’s dark irises were harsh, calculating. They seemed to pierce right through him, as though they knew the turmoil he was going through, as though they were pleased to prove how inexperienced Will was.

Heat crept up his neck and to the tip of his ears. The indignation was thicker than ever. Will swallowed and tried to push past it.

‘Why? Will- will you be taking her up on that offer?’ He blurted out. He cringed internally at having forgotten his lines just because he found Nico’s gaze unnerving (what was wrong with him?).

It would have to do.

‘What? No, that’s not the line,’ Nico exclaimed, completely breaking character.

There was a loud silence.

Will blinked and started back, nonplussed and sheepish. ‘What- I didn’t-‘

Hazel reached out a hand towards Nico. ‘It’s alright, it doesn’t matter-‘

‘Cut!’ the director barked out. ‘What is going on over there?’

‘See, this is why I hate working with rookies,’ Nico cried in frustration, throwing up his hands. ‘They’re all incapable of the simplest things!’

Will gaped. ‘It was a small mistake! No need to get so worked up about it!’

Nico’s mouth curled in a derisive sneer. ‘The scene was going so smoothly too. You just had to ruin it.’

‘Well, you could have improvised,’ Will retorted. His heart was pounding against his rib cage and his vision was tunneling until all he could see was Nico and those cold eyes. He could barely hear the director calling for order or Hazel gripping Nico’s arm and advising them to knock it off. He took a step forward until they were nose-to-nose. ‘After all, isn’t that what great, experienced actors like you are supposed to be able to do?’

Annabeth strode onto the stage now. The loud click of her heels managed to permeate the haze of fury that surrounded his brain. Her expression was livid, stormy grey eyes flashing with the promise of incapacitation if they did not behave.

‘That’s enough, both of you,’ she snapped. ‘Get back in position. We’ll go over the scene again.’

Nico finally glanced away with a scowl. Will found himself breathing in deeply and slowly. It did nothing to help, however. He was still frustrated. He had never felt this angry before.

He moved back into the wings, glancing down at his script to once again memorise his lines. He was in a very bad mood and it was only ten in the morning.

-//-//-

At the end of the day, when inky darkness was spreading across the sky and people were starting to trickle out of the building in twos and threes, Will was summoned into the producer’s office.

He was not too frustrated to feel the apprehension licking at the edges of his consciousness, a myriad of barely-comprehensible thoughts crowding his head. It was most likely because of the... scene he and Nico had made earlier that day. But he could not help but fear it was something else. Was his acting not satisfactory? Would he be kicked out? Was there news about his mother?

He knocked and was rewarded with a brisk “enter” from within. Will entered the office hesitantly, taking note of the polished mahogany desk at one end and the morass of potted plants, hard-backed chairs and coffee table hindering his path towards it.

‘Shut the door, please.’

Reyna was typing away furiously at her laptop. She had yet to look up. The white glow of the screen threw her features into sharp relief, highlighting the severity of her cut jaw, the tightness around her mouth.

Will swallowed hard.

‘Calm down, Solace,’ she said crisply and suddenly, startling him. She typed a few more things, the soft click-clack of the keys the only sound for a few seconds. Finally, she leaned back in her chair and met his gaze. ‘I can tell you are envisioning all kinds of bad scenarios. I assure you, everything is fine. You...are not the issue.’

‘Oh,’ Will said. He relaxed considerably and waited for her to continue.

Reyna fiddled with the paperweight on her desk. She shuffled a few papers. It was uncharacteristic display of anxiety on her part that immediately piqued his interest.

‘I will get right to the point,’ Reyna began. ‘Shot In the Dark will be our very first production casting two male lead characters in a romantic setting. As such, expectations are high.’ She sighed wearily. ‘In order to attract a greater audience, we need good publicity. I don’t think I need to tell you how tough competition is at the moment. It does not help matters that one of our lead actors is a complete recluse who does not attend any promotional events, charity galas or even interviews. I am referring to Nico.’

As if she had needed to clarify. Will flashed back to their argument that day, the countless spats they had gotten into before.

‘I know,’ he finally responded. ‘What has that got to do with me though?’

‘Nico is an exceptional actor- he was a child prodigy, he has numerous accolades under his belt- and he has a very loyal fan base. But as opening night draws close, he has been receiving some very harsh criticism from leading magazines of this business, theatre critics and even some of our own sponsors due to his apparent lack of participation.’

Will frowned a little. ‘I see.’

There was no missing the derision laced in the low cadence of the producer’s voice. There was perhaps no one more invested in the play than Nico himself and even Will was loathe to admit that the accusation was quite unjust. But the business world was a brutal place.

He shifted uneasily. ‘So, what is your solution?’

Reyna laced her fingers in front of her face. ‘I want you to pretend you are dating Nico in front of the cameras.’

There was a beat.

Then Will sprang out of the chair as though he had been electrified. ‘What?’

‘Hear me out, Solace,’ Reyna said, placating. ‘Right now, this seems to be the quickest way to bring Nico into the critics’ good books.’

He spluttered. ‘But- how- I-‘

‘Statistics reveal that fans appreciate such romantic relationships between characters of the same movie, play or television series. This will significantly increase our target audience size, Nico’s fan base and if you are able to convince him to attend some interviews regarding your relationship, then it will be more than enough to bring good publicity to Nico himself.’

Will could only gawk at her.

This was... preposterous. He and Nico were incapable of spending five minutes in a room together without fighting, what made Reyna think pretend dating was even possible? They had only argued in front of the entire cast and crew this morning.

He shook his head. ‘I’m sorry, but it’s not possible. Can’t you ask someone else? Someone who, I don’t know... knows Nico better and actually gets along with him?’

Reyna sighed. ‘The only other people that Nico can actually tolerate are in long-standing, well-publicized relationships themselves. That only leaves you.’

‘We don’t get along,’ Will argued. His head was starting to pound, white-hot jagged pain lancing through his skull. The old bitter resentment was returning. ‘We are always fighting! I hate him and he hates me! Nico is a pompous asshole who thinks everybody is beneath him-‘

The atmosphere seemed to drop by several degrees. Will shut his mouth with a click.

Reyna had not moved, had not even twitched a single facial muscle. Yet somehow, her expression was suddenly very cold and much less understanding- a solid marble veneer slotting into place. He felt that he had offended her somehow. Will was walking on very, very thin ice at the moment.

‘Don’t be so quick to judge. There is more to Nico than meets the eye. I know you two have your differences but I think there is a simple misunderstanding there that you need to sort out, nothing more.’ She offered a small smile. ‘I think Nico tolerates you more than you think. He would not argue so much with someone who made him uneasy.’

Will lowered his head. He mulled over her words, wondering what she meant.

‘You won’t be forced into anything, Will,’ Reyna said quietly. Vaguely, he registered the use of his first name. ‘But I simply feel very strongly about this. Not because of the play. But because Nico needs this more than anyone realises.’

‘What about everybody else?’

‘You can tell your closest friends. But most people will be kept out of the loop, just in case the media comes nosing around. We need their reactions to be as genuine as possible.’

That made sense.

There was another few seconds of silence. The fire in the grate emitted a faint pop!

In the end, he was not sure why he accepted. Perhaps because he was curious to see what Reyna saw in Nico, perhaps because he owed her for selecting him to play the lead in the play even though there had been much more talented people present during the auditions.

To be honest, he did not think that Nico had any redeemable qualities. All he could imagine were the blazing, hard eyes, the sneer, the words rookie and inexperienced filling him with trepidation and self-doubt, wondering if he was in over his head.

But for Reyna, he was willing to try.

 

Chapter Text

The entire building was enshrouded in the pearlescent grey pre-dawn light, its halls eerily silent and brimming with the indistinct, dark shapes of hundreds of objects scattered about- a scant reminder of its occupants in the day time. It felt isolated, surreal.

Just the way he preferred it.

Nico sighed, part-relief, part-exhaustion, as he dumped his bag onto the polished floor. It had been another sleepless night for him- his slumber intermittent with murky dreams full of things he would much rather forget. He had woken up in the middle of the night, only to find no relief in his waking hours either. Finally, he decided to come here.

He observed himself critically in the mirrors that spanned all four walls of the rooms. It was instinctive now, to push back his shoulders and straighten his posture. It had been a stressful few days, to say the least. He had been trying to slow his spiraling descent into the dark abyss that always came this time of the year. Moreover, the criticism and backlash from their sponsors and Reyna’s concern had been pressing over him like a dark cloud. It was all too much to bear.

Nico stepped over to the stereo and turned it on. It was already set on his favorite music. He found himself relaxing.

The faint strains of music lilted through the empty corridors like a lonely ghost. It was bronze-gold and polished-wood brown and midnight blue- there was sadness there in the gently resolving notes but also peace. Nico stretched his back, curled out his leg, feeling the song resonate in his bones and thrum beneath his skin.

And then Reyna had dropped the bombshell on him, as if the week he was having was not already enough. Nico gritted his teeth and tried to push away the tension in his muscles. But it was futile. His mind kept repeating their conversation, brief snatches of heated words and gentle concern. He wondered if he could have convinced Reyna otherwise if he had argued more, pushed farther.

He absolutely loathed William Solace.

It had not always been that way. He had not been comfortable with working with a new actor. He was supposed to guide the other, offer insight and wisdom, but he was terrible at making connections. But still, he had been patient. Or as patient as Nico di Angelo could be.

Then Will started getting on his nerves. That man had it in for him since the first day. He made Nico flustered- the golden hair that resembled a halo of molten fire wrapped around his head, the twinkling blue eyes. And whatever made Nico out of his depth, he ran from it.

After that, Will made his opinions on the other very clear- how arrogant Nico was, how he had been brought up on his father’s money. Nico had hated him after that, a whirlwind of hurt and fury and bewilderment swirling within him at the uncalled-for harsh words.

The music was still flowing from the speakers but Nico realised abruptly that he was standing still. He shook his head and exhaled sharply through his nose.

No use thinking about it, he reprimanded himself. Just relax.

So he threw back his shoulders, let his eyes flutter shut and danced. His movements were smooth and graceful and poised, borne of years of practice. He had to admit that calling Will out during rehearsal had been petty and fairly unprofessional. But he had still been burning with ire after his talk with Reyna and he wanted to unleash his fury on something, anything. If Will Solace wanted to judge someone based on their appearances and rumors, well... he could show the hatred was mutual.

He really needed to stop dwelling on this.

The song wrapped around him, a haunting melody. It seeped under his skin and to his bones and muscles. It set a hazy fog around his brain, blocking out all thoughts.

Nico shut his eyes blissfully. It was just him and the dancing.

-//-//-

He ended up spending hours in the dance studio, as completely engrossed as he was into the music. It was only when the familiar pandemonium of the people arriving for rehearsals seeped through the sturdy walls that he was brought down to earth. He groaned softly as he stretched his sore out his sore muscles, relishing in the pleasant ache that could only come after a hard work-out.  It also helped that his mind felt clearer and his fury was now a simmering presence in the back of his mind, rather than a full gale wreaking havoc in vengeance.

Nico showered quickly in the attached bathroom and swapped the soft grey sweats and shirt with his usual black jeans and a black turtleneck, before locking up the room. The dance studio was Nico’s own haven, a sanctuary where he could hide himself from the rest of the world when everything became too overwhelming. Since Black Cat Productions rarely, if ever, produced musicals, Reyna had handed over the keys to him. It was something he would be forever grateful for.

It was fairly easy to navigate his way through the winding corridors when anyone else might have gotten lost. He had grown up within these walls and it was like a second home to him. Although he preferred peace and quiet, the chaos that accompanied pre-rehearsal time was always soothing in its own way. It reminded Nico that he was not alone. Not as long as he had these people by his side. He weaved through men carrying planks and props and ducked beneath a ladder, smirking when Butch called out a “dude, that’s bad luck!”

‘Hey, Nico,’ a cheerful voice called out and Nico offered a faint smile to Piper as she hurried towards the dressing rooms.

He entered the green room, wincing against the lash of sudden noise that hit him. Stepping gingerly over a snoring Clovis in the doorway, he glanced around.

There he is.

Will Solace was, as always, surrounded by his usual mob of people. There was a perpetual smile on his face as he greeted everyone and inquired after their sister and their neighbor and their neighbor’s dog. His lips tugged downwards into a frown. It baffled him how anyone could remain so cheery all the time.

He took a deep breath. He was suddenly feeling queasy and had to tamp down the instinctive scowl he got whenever he was in the general vicinity of the golden-haired boy.

It was time to put the charade into motion. Never mind the fact he had no idea how they were supposed to go about this. Nico and Will had attempted to discuss their options the night before, but ten seconds into the conversation, they had been insulting each other’s fashion choices. Needless to say, there had been no further consultation that night.

Nico sucked in another deep breath. Well, here goes nothing. He strode towards Will with a purpose and confidence in his steps that he did not feel. He was acutely aware of numerous gazes burning into his back and the thought was sending him spiraling into panic.

Was he supposed to hold Will’s hand? Was he supposed to call him a loving pet name? Introduce him to everyone as his boyfriend? Perhaps shocking everyone once and for all would be a good idea-

Fortunately, the decision was taken from Nico’s hand by Will himself. He tilted his head sideways as he spoke with Rachel and in that moment, he caught Nico’s eyes. Instantly, his own lit up with an exuberance that seemed so sincere that Nico was momentarily winded.

‘Nico!’ Will waved him over. When Nico sidled over to his side, feeling self-conscious at all the question eyes upon them, he wrapped an arm around his waist.

Nico tensed. Will’s hand on his hip was large and radiated heat as though a furnace was lit inside him. It required every ounce of acting prowess he had to not rip the limb off of him and instead to plaster a smile on his face.

‘Hey, sunshine,’ he murmured, loud enough for Cecil to hear.

Said boy emitted a sound akin to that of a cat coughing up cat-sized hairballs.

‘Hey yourself, Death Boy.’ Will was smiling.

There was a loud crash behind them, followed by a string of rather creative curses and Percy Jackson’s voice rising above all the ensuing din, sounding scandalised.

‘Dude, what the hell!’

-//-//-

Will collapsed against the wall and slid to the floor.

The silence in the bathroom was a blessed reprieve and he was sorely tempted to just curl up here for eternity.

Needless to say, there had been quite an uproar afterwards. Everyone was clamoring to know how two people who had seemed ready to throttle each other just a day ago had ended up dating. They surrounded the two and pestered them all day. For the first time since he had joined Black Cat, Will did not want to rehearse. He simply wanted to escape to his tiny, one-bedroom apartment and pretend this was all a bad dream.

As if answering all the nosy questions was not stressful enough- he and Nico had awkwardly fumbled through all the inquiries since they had not discussed the story beforehand- Will was on the receiving end of a cold glare from Jason Grace all day. And considering Jason was built like a brick house and could probably snap Will’s neck in a heartbeat if he dared to even look at Nico askance, it was needless to say he was jumpy and paranoid all day.

As soon as people had left them alone for their respective jobs- albeit with great reluctance and only due to Annabeth herding them away for their first rehearsal- Nico had pulled away from him and hissed, ‘Don’t touch me.’

‘Sorry, Death Boy, but if we’re going to convince everyone of this act, there’s going to be some PDA involved. Whether you like it or not,’ Will retorted.

‘Don’t call me that either,’ Nico snapped.

‘I am doing this for you. You’re the one bringing bad publicity to this production, you’re the one who needs to boost his image, not me. The least you can do is co-operate.’

Nico had shot him a look so scathing that even he had shriveled up from it. But he did not argue and allowed Will to hold his hand for the entirety of the day.

Now Will was hiding in the bathroom, of all places, contemplating his life choices.

‘This is ridiculous,’ he muttered vehemently.

Why was he doing this again?

A sharp knock on the door jolted him from his thoughts. Will flushed, realising that he was practically kneeling on the bathroom floor and stood up hastily just as Nico entered.

He felt a vindictive twinge of satisfaction when he noticed the irritated look on the younger boy’s face. He had probably been hounded by their colleagues for all the juicy details. Good. It was all Nico’s fault anyways.

‘Ready to go?’ Nico asked, bored.

Will straightened his shirt and carded fingers through his hair. It afforded him some time to put up his mental barriers so that he could face everyone outside. ‘Yeah, let’s go.’

They left the bathroom hand-in-hand. A smile easily slipped onto his face. After all these years, it was easy to put on this mask.

‘Hey, where are you guys going?’ Calypso called from the front desk just as they were about to leave the building.

Will beamed at her. ‘I was just taking Nico out, you know, since we haven’t yet had our first date.’

Her eyes widened. ‘Oh, I see! Have fun then, you guys. And may I say you two make the most adorable couple.’

Will did not have to fake the full-on blush that attacked his cheeks. He cleared his throat nervously and stared at the ground. Nico’s fingers in his twitched as though repressing a violent desire break something.

That brought a smirk on his lips, despite it all.

‘Thanks, Calypso,’ he said sincerely. They began to back away towards the doors. ‘Well, see you tomorrow then.’

‘See you,’ she replied cheerily.

They managed to not make a break for the door.

-//-//-

Their first “date” was at a coffee shop that Nico frequented after rehearsals.

The sky was overcast with roiling, dark clouds threatening a storm. The crisp air stung against the exposed flesh of their faces as they hurried along. Nico had pulled his hand free at the earliest opportunity and thrust them into his pockets, avoiding the other’s eyes. Fortunately, the awkward silence that hung between them did not last long.

The coffee shop was located only a few blocks away in a little, isolated nook of the busy street. Built of soft, grey stone, with white letters announcing it as Demeter’s Brew and large windows, it afforded a cozy feeling that Will immediately liked. The interior was even better. It was warm and the scent of coffee- dark, bitter, intoxicating- and baked goods wafted towards them as soon as they entered.

‘Wow,’ he said, looking around in curiosity. ‘I’ve never been here before.’

There were colorful sofas- yellow, moss green, seizure-inducing orange that Will absolutely adored- scattered around on the linoleum floor. Mismatched china decorated the cabinets on the wall and there was even a book shelf at the end farthest from the doors. It was empty except for an aged woman at the counter and a man with his laptop sitting near the books.

‘It’s not very well-known,’ Nico replied to his earlier statement. ‘But Demeter makes the best coffee I have ever tasted. And I am known to have high standards.’

Will snorted. He had to bite his tongue to refrain from tossing forth a scathing retort to that. It would not do to sabotage their charade as soon as it had begun.

They grabbed seats nearest to the windows, in full view of the public and any nosy reporters that might be lurking around. A preppy young waitress materialised out of seemingly nowhere to take their orders. Nico ordered a black coffee (surprise, surprise) and Will a caramel latte, and on a spur of the moment, added an apple pie too.

‘You’re not afraid of ruining your appetite?’ Nico quirked an eyebrow.

‘Nah,’ Will replied cheerfully. ‘I’m not exactly the best cook. It’s better to eat when something edible’s on the menu.’

‘Figures.’

Will scowled at him. ‘What is that supposed to mean?’

‘It means that you don’t exactly appear to have the cognitive capacity of being able to put together a decent meal.’

Nico was leaning back on the chair, a smirk curling his mouth. His anger flared.

‘Excuse you, I was pre-med student before joining theater,’ he shot back.

The smirk faltered. Nico’s eyes widened in surprise and he leaned forward, allowing the chair to drop to the floor with a loud thud.

‘Really? Why did you join theater then?’

Will huffed and glanced away. A maelstrom of emotions were erupting inside of him- frustration and regret and doubt about the path he had taken- and it would not be fair to take it out on Nico. In spite of what he thought of the egotistical actor, he did not think Nico meant any harm by that question. He seemed genuinely curious.

There was another awkward silence. After a moment, Nico got to his feet. Will looked up at him but the other boy merely moved towards the book shelf. He returned a moment later with a very familiar hardback in his hands.

‘Harry Potter? You read Harry Potter?’ Will’s eyes cleared, his usual felicity replacing the morose expression from earlier.

‘Yeah, so what?’ was the defensive answer.

‘I never took you for the nerdy type.’

The dark-haired young man rolled his eyes. ‘Reading books is not, as you put it so callously, nerdy. It is actually a very productive way of spending your time. And yes, I read Harry Potter. It’s actually one of my favorite book series.’

Will laughed softly, stilled a bit bemused. Before he could respond to that, the waitress reappeared with their orders.

As soon as she left, the two launched into a discussion about the book currently in Nico’s possession, The Half-Blood Prince, and the various personality traits of one of the most controversial characters of the series.

‘Of course you’d like Snape,’ Nico cried in exasperation. He threw up his hands, as he was prone to do when particularly agitated. ‘You seem the type to fall for tragic love stories and such nonsense.’

‘Hey,’ Will exclaimed indignantly, stabbing his fork in the apple pie to enforce his point. ‘Snape sacrificed so much for Lily. Do you have any idea how painful unrequited love can be?’

‘Oh, yeah.’ Nico snorted and crossed his arms over his chest. ‘He sacrificed so much when he tormented Harry throughout his time in Hogwarts. And Neville too. Real mature way to handle the situation.’

‘You’re such a cynic.’

‘I’m being realistic.’ Nico grabbed a fork and attacked the apple pie. Their utensils clinked for a moment, but both of them were so engrossed in their argument that they failed to notice the absurdity of the situation. ‘If Snape had really loved her, he would have proven it by not going into the Dark Arts. And what did he do? Oh, yeah. He entered the Dark Arts.

Will gasped dramatically and wrenched the plate towards himself. ‘That’s it. No more pie for you.’

‘Hey! Give that back, you pig.’ Nico launched himself over the table and a quiet tussle followed as they fought over the plate and bickered over the finer points Rowling’s plot in The Half-blood Prince.

It will be only later, when Will is curled up under the blankets, the drone of the television a soothing buzz in the background, that they will realise that they had not fought once during their pretend date. That the stoic and standoffish Nico was, in fact, a huge geek and was proud to call himself a Hufflepuff. That they had, despite all odds, found a common ground from which they could work forwards.

But for now, their easy laughter and boisterous voices filled the tiny coffee shop, as rain began to pelt against the windows. Demeter watched silently from her post at the counter and smirked to herself.

 

Chapter Text

His dreams were the same- murky, indecipherable, a coagulated mass of darkness accumulated from years of regrets and bad decisions. He rose from it with difficulty, as though it was dragging him under.

Nico pressed his face into the pillow for a long moment, his breathing labored and heart beating a tempo against his rib cage. It always took a few minutes for him to regain his bearings. It did not matter if he could recall his dreams afterwards or not, it always left him with a crushing sense of foreboding and despair.

The familiar sensations now permeated his consciousness and helped ground him- the scratchy fabric of his sheets against his skin, the low hum of cars outside, Jason’s footsteps in the corridor as he passed the bedroom door. His walk was quite distinct and soothing in its predictability- firm, purposeful, confident. Nico breathed in and out for a few moments before rolling out of bed.

He was still feeling a little out of it as he showered and threw on a pair of faded black jeans and a grey shirt which had materialised from the depths of his closet some time ago. He padded out into the kitchen where a plate of bacon and eggs had been set up on the table- along with a cup of authentic Italian coffee.

Nico groaned aloud in gratitude as he latched onto the cup. The warmth from it helped ease the lingering stress from his not-quite-nightmare and he shot his housemate a smile. Jason grinned back at him from where he was perusing his copy of the script at the table.

‘Feel better?’

Nico nodded earnestly, took another scalding sip and dug into the food.

‘How was the “date” then?’ Jason asked, a mischievous smile and a wiggle of eyebrows accompanying the question.

‘Oh my God, Jay, stop.’ Nico threw a piece of toast at him. He caught it and promptly put it in his mouth. ‘You sound like Leo. He’s a bad influence on you, I swear.’

Jason laughed. ‘Alright, alright, but seriously though. How did it go?’

Nico thought about that. The pretend date had actually gone much smoother than he had anticipated. He had not had the urge to brutally murder will, at any rate. It was progress.

He said as much to Jason.

The smile faded from his friend’s face, replaced by a more pensive countenance. ‘That’s good, right? It means you two might be actually be able to pull it off,’ Jason hummed.

‘I know,’ replied Nico, in a voice that betrayed his bemusement. ‘When Reyna suggested this charade, I thought it was crazy. Funny how things work, huh?’

‘Did he treat you alright though?’ Jason glanced sideways at him. ‘Just because this is all fake doesn’t mean he gets to treat you anything less than ideal.’

‘It’s fine, Jason. I can look after myself. I am an adult now.’

‘Even so,’ insisted the other. ‘If he gives you trouble, I can guarantee that you’ll find his body floating in a canal somewhere.’

Nico had just taken a sip of coffee and promptly choked. ‘You can’t do that. You don’t have a mean bone in your body!’

‘I can too!’ Jason huffed petulantly, put down the sheaf of papers and turned fully towards him. There was a flash of something in the electric blue eyes, a darker emotion that Nico had not seen in a long, long time. He dared not identify it out loud. ‘If push comes to a shove, I can make Solace sorry. I think it’s time to give him the old shovel speech.’

That prompted a laugh out of Nico. Jason’s shoulder’s relaxed, his eyes clearing of the fearsome expression he had been sporting before.

‘Alright, alright, there won’t be any need of that,’ replied the younger boy, secretly relieved to have his good-natured friend back. He shoveled some eggs in his mouth. ‘So what’s on the agenda for today?’

There was a loud screech as Jason pushed back his chair and stood up. ‘We have got a new sponsor. Reyna texted me saying that he was eager to meet you.’ He walked out of the kitchen, his voice becoming more muffled. ‘Oh, yeah. We’ve also added a scene to the script apparently. Something about a ballroom dance?’

Nico nodded. It took a beat for the words to register in his brain. Then he sprang to his feet as though he had been electrified.

‘Wait, what?’ he screeched. He marched out of the room towards Jason, who was packing his stuff for the day. ‘You’re telling me they took Solace’s advice over mine?’

‘Uh,’ Jason dragged out the word hesitantly. ‘Yes?’

Merda.’ Nico threw up his hands. ‘I can’t believe this! All my case points were logical! They were in the company’s best interests! Adding that scene would only put a strain on our already measly budget! Why on earth did Reyna agree to this?’

‘I think it’s something to do with that new sponsor. He expressed interest in seeing that scene and offered to make it happen.’ Jason shrugged. ‘It was too good a chance to pass up.’

‘Oh, so now we’ll take tips from pretentious, old, filthy rich sponsors who don’t know a single thing about theater or budgeting?’

Jason sighed. ‘I don’t know, Neeks. You can vent out your frustrations to Reyna about it but it won’t do much. It’s all been decided. The makeup and props departments have already received clearance to start working on it.’

He had a fair point. Nico hated it when Jason was reasonable and practical. He grumbled and grouched away as he grabbed his wallet and phone and raced out of the door towards the car.

-//-//-

His mood only worsened once they arrived at the theater. Not only Will Solace awaited him at the doors, providing an unnecessary reminder of the roles they had to play, but an air smug satisfaction hung about him as he proffered his hand to Nico.

Gritting his teeth, he had no choice but to accept. He could feel the curious gazes drilling into the back of his head.

‘Hey, sunshine,’ he muttered. ‘What a hideous sweater you are wearing this morning.’

Will merely laughed at the assessment, glancing down at the seizure-inducing orange adorned with a dancing reindeer on the front. ‘Thanks, Death Boy. I know you secretly love my sweaters.’

They pulled away, slowly, discreetly, from the onlookers and Nico let go of the hand as though it was scorching him. The ire in him burned hotter, though. It bubbled viciously, steadily, until it was a raging inferno threatening to explode any moment. The Cheshire grin now on Will’s face did absolutely nothing to help.

‘Shut up,’ he growled.

Will widened his eyes innocently. ‘But I didn’t even say anything.’

‘You’re thinking it.’

‘Damn right, I am,’ crowed Will. He crossed his arms over his chest and after glancing around surreptitiously to ensure no one was eavesdropping, he added, ‘Don’t be such a sore loser, di Angelo.’

‘Stop gloating. You didn’t even offer a coherent argument to Chiron. All you did was blow hot air about whimsical notions and- and- wax lyrical about passion or whatever-‘

‘Just because you have the emotional capacity of a teaspoon, Nico di Angelo,’ interrupted Will sweetly, ‘doesn’t mean we all do. Some of us actually appreciate a bit of whim in an otherwise hard-hitting plot.’

‘Did you just quote Hermione Granger at me?’

‘Yeah,’ said Will delightedly. ‘I have been waiting to do that for a long time, you know.’

This was it. Nico was completely, utterly, one hundred percent done with this conversation.

He spun on his heel and marched away from the little niche they had hidden themselves from the rest of the crew. He did not know why it was so important, only that it absolutely stung to have his clearly more judicious reasoning overridden for the sake of pleasing a sponsor. Reyna should have sided with me. It was a foolish though, immature, petulant. But the taste of defeat burned on his tongue- bitter, acrid.

‘Nico!’

The familiar, sweetly joyous voice preceded a set of flying footsteps before he found himself with an armful of little sister. He squeezed her tightly, burying his face in the cinnamon curls and breathing in the jasmine scent. Hazel clung just as hard, as though they had been separated by years rather than just a few hours.

She pulled back. Tawny, golden eyes observed him critically. ‘How are you? How did it go yesterday with Will?’

Nico shrugged. Right now, he was too infuriated with will to admit a single good thing about their date.

Her eyes slid from him to over his shoulder to where Will was. She seemed to understand at once. Hazel linked their arms together and started dragging him towards their group of friends. Leo seemed to be regaling a tale involving Jason, a brick and a wayward Frisbee to much laughter.

‘Don’t worry about Will,’ Hazel added in a low voice, as they were seamlessly integrated into the conversation. ‘If anyone asks, I just pulled you away from being all lovey-dovey with your boyfriend because I missed my brother.’

Nico squeezed her hand on his forearm. He was truly lucky to have a sibling like her.

But he knew he could not avoid Will forever. They had a farce to enact after all. So, as Annabeth announced the day’s schedule and everyone geared down for another gruelling rehearsal, Nico found himself migrating towards Will again. He kept his head down and expression closed off. Will did not attempt to make conversation, apparently getting the message. But he took Nico’s hand and ran his thumb over the knuckles. The touch was feather-light, barely there.

It was... it was quite distracting actually.

Nico peeked over at the taller boy but Will seemed completely unaware of his actions. He quickly faced the front again, face burning, afraid of- what?

He was not sure.

And when Leo suggested heading over to a karaoke bar to celebrate another job well done- they had tackled a particularly tricky scene that had been troubling them for some time- Nico had no choice but to invite Will as well. Out of his friend group, only Jason, Hazel and Reyna were made privy to the secret and so he had to continue the act even with his inner circle.

He sighed to himself. He felt suddenly quite exhausted. A pressure was building behind his eyes. He did not want to be in Will’s presence any more than he had to but it seemed he would not be able to shake the other off any time soon.

 

-//-//-

Contrary to the impression one might get because of the name, Wine and Dine was not a high-end restaurant catering to bureaucrats and Hollywood stars. It was actually a karaoke bar, located in one of the numerous upscale districts of New York City and owned by a man whose actual name no one knew but everyone called Mr. D. However, there was little doubt that the bar was infinitely better than the ones teenagers were apt to frequent after school hours. With flashing neon lights in hues of bubblegum pink, highlighter green and periwinkle blue, a dance floor occupying most of the polished redwood floor and sturdy wood furniture scattered over the remaining space, it was the perfect relaxation spot for the more well-off youth- people like Nico and his friends, children of prosperous business men, Arab royals.

Nico and Will had entered hand-in-hand, the older boy beside him regarding everything with wide eyes. His jaw had dropped open even further when the bouncer at the door recognised Nico in a heartbeat, pulled aside the velvet rope and ushered them inside with a “have a nice night, Mr. Di Angelo.”

Nico had revelled in the gobsmacked expression on Will’s face as he had replied, ‘Thank you, Argus.’

They were all crowded at a single table in a corner that might as well have had their names on it. Nico was pressed into Will’s side, their thighs brushing and the other’s warmth seeping through the clothes. Piper was watching them with a knowing smirk on her face, her kaleidoscope eyes glinting in the dim lighting. Nico determinedly avoided her gaze. The last thing he wanted was for someone to goad him and Will into more affectionate behavior.

Jason and Percy were up on the stage, singing a terribly off-tune rendition of Adele’s Set Fire to the Rain, complete with dramatic swooning and erratic hand gestures. The rest of them were in hysterics. Even Nico caught himself smiling at their antics. Leo was arguing with the bar man, something about letting him add lasers to the karaoke machine.

‘You are all insane,’ Reyna muttered, as Jason and Percy finally finished their song and threw themselves in their seats, flushed and grinning.

Will wiped tears of mirth from his eyes. ‘That was hilarious. You guys do this every week?’

‘Sometimes twice a week,’ replied Percy, laughing. ‘I always feel like I am rediscovering my inner Beyonce when I get up on stage, you know?’

Annabeth rolled her eyes and kissed his cheek. ‘Yes, Seaweed Brain, you were born for the stage. We have heard this story a dozen times.’

Nico averted his eyes from this display of affection from the couple, his gaze roving over the dance floor instead. But his attempts to pull away from the conversation did not matter in the least because Percy swung his arm around his shoulders. He was slightly sweaty and the whiff of cologne that Nico was all too familiar with wafted towards him.

He tensed almost imperceptibly.

He was over Percy, he was. Thanks to Jason's pushing and prodding, he had been able to move on, to confess his crush on Percy to Percy and even had a good laugh about it with Annabeth afterwards. But there was that residual awkwardness that made him avoid the others for a week after that ordeal just because he could not look into those sea-foam eyes anymore. Something had been shattered within their friendship, something irreparable.

But Percy was trying. And the least Nico could do was try too.

Across from him, Jason was eyeing him shrewdly. With years of knowing someone, of sharing your darkest secrets and your most primal fears, of living together under the same roof and acclimatising to each other’s idiosyncrasies, came an understanding so innate that no words were needed to communicate. One golden eyebrow arched ever so slightly. The blue eyes asked a silent question. Are you okay?

Nico raised his glass and took a sip of his soda. I will be.

That seemed good enough for Jason. He offered Nico a small smile and turned away to chat with Piper.

Will seemed to sense the quiet exchange. He glanced from one to the other in slight confusion.

‘Hey, Will,’ Percy exclaimed, breaking into Nico’s thoughts. His arm was still around his shoulders. ‘I guess you’ll be hanging out with us now, huh?’

An eyebrow wiggle accompanied the words. Nico groaned and slapped his palm on Percy’s face, pushing him away.

‘Shut up, Jackson.’

‘What? It’s a legitimate question!’

‘Wow, big words, Percy, be careful you don’t choke on them.’

Percy rolled his eyes and addressed Will again. ‘That means you have to perform the initiation ceremony.’

‘Uh, initiation ceremony...?’

Will was beginning to look apprehensive. Given how his friends could be, Nico did not blame him in the slightest.

‘Oh, yeah,’ Jason added. Nico shot him a withering look. ‘You need to sing at least one song tonight.’

Will chuckled nervously and scratched the back of his neck. ‘Uh, well, okay, I guess.’

He got to his feet and, amidst much cheers and yells of encouragement, selected a song on the karaoke machine. Nico watched with morbid fascination, curious despite himself to see how good of a singer Will was.

Will was... he was not terrible. His voice was low, with a soft raspy quality to it and he was on tune at least. He was much better than Percy and Jason, although a yowling cat might be better than them. But Nico had a good time laughing at him for it.

‘Good thing we’re not doing a musical then,’ he said, smirking.

‘What? It wasn’t that bad, was it?’

‘William Solace,’ said Nico, his voice solemn, face grave. A smile cracked through a second later. ‘You sucked.’

Will clutched his chest in theatrical dismay. ‘You wound me, Death Boy. And here I thought you liked me for my sensational singing abilities.’

Nico snorted and shoved his shoulder in a playful gesture. He did not even think about the action, it just came. ‘I keep you around for comic relief.’

‘Ah, you have shattered my fragile heart! Oh, the agony.’

A giggle brought them crashing to the present. Heat blazed in his cheeks as Nico suddenly realised that they had an audience. Calypso was watching them with amused eyes.

‘You guys are so cute,’ she squealed.

Frank shot them a supportive smile, clearly under the impression that he was helping matters. ‘You really are good for each other.’

‘Ah, well- I don’t-‘ Nico floundered. Beside him, Will cleared his throat and looked away.

Fortunately, Leo swooped in right at that moment and rescued Nico from digging up an appropriate response.

‘Hey, you guys! What are you all sitting around here for? Let’s dance!’

‘Good idea,’ Jason agreed. Everyone started getting up.

‘You too, Nico,’ Leo added cheerfully. ‘Show your boy some of your moves!’

So much for the rescue.

Nico shook his head and tried to sit out but Calypso and Frank and Piper were watching him curiously, and perhaps a tad suspiciously, and he had no choice but to agree. He could not afford to mess this up.

‘Come on,’ he said gruffly, grabbing Will’s hand and practically dragging him away.

He thought he heard a whistle and a catcall behind him, followed by Leo’s voice saying, ‘Wow, someone’s eager!’

Gritting his teeth, he attempted to shove his way through the bodies, trying to find a secluded spot on the dance floor. But it was packed and everyone was too close to him. He could barely breathe. The air was humid and sluggish, the smell of perspiration and tile cleaners invading his nostrils, clogging his wind pipe.

And suddenly, he was not on a dance floor in a karaoke bar, but a car, with its horribly mutilated door pressing down on him as he tried to scream, tried to breathe, and won’t somebody help, please-

‘-...co? Nico! Nico!’

He came to his senses abruptly. He was swaying dangerously and strong arms came up to wrap around his waist. Nico could make out a fuzzy outline, golden hair glinting in the flashing lights. His eyesight cleared and he recognised Will.

‘Are you okay?’ Will’s eyes were concerned, and perhaps, pitying.

Nico pushed him away violently.

‘I’m fine.’

Will pursed his lips. ‘You’re obviously not. Come on, let’s go out. I can’t breathe in here.’

It was a tactic Nico was overtly familiar with. Will was pretending that he was the one bothered by all the noise and pounding music, when in fact, it was all for Nico’s benefit. But he was bone-weary by this time and had no desire to refute the other. So he followed Will outside.

A bracing gust of air greeted them as they stepped outside through a side door. Nico gulped in lungful of breaths as though he was starved of oxygen. His head was beginning to clear now. He felt calmer.

Will regarded him warily. ‘Are you feeling better now?’

Nico collapsed against the brick wall. The rough brick texture pressed against his shoulders, grounding him. He managed a shaky nod but found that he could not look the other in the eye. He could not believe he had showed weakness in front of Will. He did not want to be pitied, or mocked.

There was silence for a long time.

The temperature was dropping. The heavy wooden door muffled the ruckus from the inside, blanketing them in an awkward silence. Will’s breaths rose in front of him like silvery wisps of clouds. His eyes glittered in the semi-darkness.

‘Do you want to head back?’ said Will softly after some time. ‘We could take a walk.’

‘Honestly? I’d love to,’ said Nico wearily. ‘But the others-‘

‘- can take their time,’ finished Will. He stood straighter now, pushing back his shoulders and his mouth set in a stubborn manner. ‘You’re obviously not comfortable in there. They’ll understand why you had to duck out.’

The door swung open again as someone stepped out, bringing with them a snatch of music and laughter and sounds of tinkling glasses.

‘Okay,’ Nico said finally. ‘Let’s go.’

He sent a quick text to Hazel, explaining why he was leaving early. Her response came almost immediately, full of love and concern. He smiled slightly and then set off after Will.

They walked in silence for a while. Not surprisingly, it was Will who spoke first.

‘Hey, Nico...?’

Nico hummed noncommittally.

‘Do you really despise dancing that much?’

He felt a scowl beginning its ascension on his face. He had feared this- the curious, “well-meaning” curiosity, the intrusive questions, as though Nico was an exhibit at a museum. He would deal with it the same way he had dealt with therapists and nurses his whole life. But before he could speak, Will noticed his displeasure and hastened to add:

‘I’m talking about the play, not- not what happened tonight.’

Oh.

‘You just- you seemed pretty angry about the whole ballroom dancing thing.’ Will rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. ‘I just thought- never mind.’

Nico stared at him, bemused. They had come to a halt underneath a street light. Beneath its soft, incandescent glow, he could see the faint blush spotting his cheeks, the nervous shifting of his eyes as though Will expected Nico to lash out.

Which was... which was a fairly valid concern, to be honest.

Nico exhaled heavily. Any lingering resentment he may have had about their little spat this morning bled out of him. And besides, it was all beginning to seem a little childish in his eyes now. Maybe he had over-reacted. Maybe they both had.

‘It’s not that.’ Nico shook his head. ‘I was simply speaking from an objective point of view. But Mr. Chiron, Reyna and Annabeth know best. And I guess we need to keep our sponsors invested in the play.’

‘Oh.’ The relief in Will’s voice was palpable, even if Nico could not see it on his face because of the shadows that had befell them as they moved away from the street light.

They resumed walking. After that, conversation flowed easily, swiftly. They meandered down the street, the asphalt winding into the darkness beyond like a black ribbon, discussing some more about their shared love of reading, their conflicting opinions about various characters in the stories.

Nico was so engrossed in validating his opinions on Peter Pettigrew- he was a traitor, who valued his life over his best friends’, how could Will excuse his behavior? - that it was with a jolt of surprise that he realised they had reached the theatre building. The feeling was surreal, as though he had missed a step going down the stairs. Since when had the two of them felt this comfortable in the other’s presence?

‘So,’ Will said. He seemed awkward. Nico felt the same. ‘This is it then.’

‘Yeah. I guess it is.’

‘This was fun.’ Will grinned at him with such genuine pleasure that Nico could not begrudge him for it. ‘Much better than if he had stayed at the karaoke bar.’

Nico rolled his eyes. ‘Now you’re just buttering me up.’

‘I’m telling the truth,’ protested Will.

‘Okay, okay.’

They reached Nico’s car and looked at each other for a long moment.

‘Well, goodbye then,’ Will said.

He turned on his heel and walked away, not towards one of the few remaining cars in the parking lot but towards its entrance. He probably took the bus to go home. The thought unsettled Nico for some reason and he almost called out to the other boy, almost offered to drive him home.

But he did not. Instead he just watched the figure disappear around the corner and out of sight.