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It Got Better

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I look around the room. It’s crowded with people, and there are streamers everywhere. Blue streamers, of course, with dolphins and seahorses, and grey streamers with owls. All our friends are there, and the mood is festive. I look at Percy, with his arm around Annabeth. Damn, he looked good in a suit. He’d taken his coat off for the dancing, and the shirt clings to his slightly sweaty chest. I thought back to when I’d first seen him. In all the excitement and fright, I still remember how I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I also remember those first nights in the Hermes cabin, when, under the sheets, my body betrayed my ‘dirty secret.’ I was so ashamed of how I felt, what I was.

I thought about how much I resented the way he looked at Annabeth then. Now here I am at their wedding, watching them dance together. Back then, I wanted to be the one he’d dance with. Now, I thought about watching him smoosh that first piece of wedding cake into her face, and how goofy he looked as she threw him over her shoulder and onto the floor for it. He laughed as she retaliated with an even larger piece of cake. He doesn’t look so suave with that little piece of frosting in his eyebrows. And then, Will swirls by, twirling his sister Kayla as they spin around the dance floor. His hair is still a mess, but he’s so much more graceful than Percy, much better looking than anyone else here.

I sit down and smile at them, but then Estelle runs past me, her arms extended for Tyson to pick her up. “Sister!” he calls out to her as he scoops her onto his shoulders, and a memory comes back to me, one that the drink of water from the Lethe had stolen from me so long ago.

It was hazy, but I remembered being dressed up for some formal occasion back in Venice when we were so young, and I ran for Bianca, calling out “Sorella!” in almost the same tone that Tyson had used. I thought back to when I knew I’d lost Bianca forever, that she’d chosen rebirth rather than to wait for me in the Underworld. When Estelle had been born, I’d secretly hoped that Percy’s baby sister would be my own sister reborn to come back to me, but when I scanned her eyes, peering as deeply into her soul as only a child of the Underworld could, all I could see was a fresh new baby, eager to see this world.

Then I feel a tap on my shoulder. “Brother, look,” Hazel whispers and shows me her left hand. There’s a new ring, one Frank had quietly shown me earlier that month when he asked my permission to propose to Hazel. It had been his mother’s, and he must have given it to her between the ceremony and the reception, when Percy and Annabeth were having their posed wedding photos taken.

I look at her, with Frank standing behind her blushing. I think about this sister of mine, so full of life and love, about to start a new chapter, and I was going to be their flower boy, and I think about how much better it is.

Hazel skips away to show Leo and Calypso the ring, Frank stays behind for just a minute and whispers “Thank you,” to me. As he turns to follow Hazel (he’d follow her anywhere; I know that feeling), his shadow falls across me. Frank is a big man. He casts a big shadow. I think about shadows. I think about shadows a lot. I remember when stepping into the shadows was so tempting.

I first discovered shadow travel by accident. Bianca had died. I felt it; it was like I’d been hit, and then I could see her before the judges, including that bastard, Minos. I guess that’s how he knew to come looking for me when I got lost in the labyrinth. At first, it was so easy to step into the shadows; coming out of them was what wore me out. Each time I went in, it seemed like the shadows wanted to keep in them, and the more times I went in, the harder it was to get out again.

And now Will is dancing past me again, this time with Lou Ellen. Every time he dips her, she threatens to turn him into a rabbit, which makes him laugh and Grover flinch. Will. I don’t have any trouble shadow traveling anymore, because whenever I go into a shadow, there’s sunshine that I want to come out into, and it’s so easy to do it.

Now there’s Coach Hedge clapping his hands and shouting, “All right, settle down, you cupcakes! It’s time for the toasts.”

Little Chuck giggles at this, and his daddy reaches down to tousle the hair between his tiny horns.

Will parks himself next to me and drapes an arm over my shoulders. Sally stands up and makes a little speech about how she’s grateful that someone else will be buying all that blue food coloring from now on and offers to give Annabeth her seven-layer dip recipe, which makes Percy do that ridiculous fist pumping gesture. Then she turns to us and says, “You boys will be staying at our place while you’re in town, right? You know you’ll always have a home with us.”

Home - I know what it’s like not to have one. It was a long time before I had a home at Camp Half Blood. My father always said that there was a room in his palace for me, but that wasn’t home and wouldn’t be for (I hope) a long time yet. I have a home with Will now, but I couldn’t help remembering what it was like to live on the streets, and I knew that there were still so many living on the streets, too many of them just kids.

Then, the next toast. “Hi! I don’t know how many of you know me, but I’m Annabeth’s cousin, Magnus.” He goes on to talk about his cousin always planning and asks if marrying Percy is such a good plan (which gets a laugh from everyone, especially Percy himself). And I think about Magnus. Magnus and Alex and Chase Place. Both of them knew life on the streets even better than I did, and because of that, at least in Boston there’s a safe space for the homeless kids, one watched over by mystical Norse warriors.

It’s my turn to make a toast. I look out into the crowd, and I see Drew, of all people. She, of course was the singer with Austin’s band. I’d heard rumors about their interactions back at camp. They hadn’t exactly gotten on well, but gods, she could cover the American songbook like one of the muses. All that aside, I hadn’t really gotten on well with her at camp either. She hadn’t been the only one, but she was one of a large crowd that hadn’t been exactly welcoming to a son of Hades. It didn’t help that she’d cast an eye on my Will when we were first going together and had made it clear that she didn’t think much of my taking someone she’d thought of as hers. And oh, look, there’s Miranda. We’d mended fences, but sometimes I could still remember how cold the Demeter cabin had been to me. I know that they’d been led on by their mother, but still…

I make the toast. I nod to Calypso and Rachel and make a joke about how much safer we all are now that Percy is out of circulation. Annabeth pantomimes a high five to me and we both laugh at that, especially when Percy blushes. After the toast, both Miranda and Drew come up to me. First Drew says, “I know this isn’t really your style,” and then she kisses me on the cheek. “Death boy,” she says with surprising warmth, “you have a silver tongue. Maybe you do have some Aphrodite in your family tree somewhere.”

Then Miranda looks at me and I can see a little tear in her eye. “I can never thank you enough for the rites you did for my uncle Sylvester.” That’s right, when her cousin Katie’s dad had died (nice one, step-grandmother, bagging twin brothers), Katie had asked me to speak. She continues, “Nico di Angelo, we didn’t know it at the time, but it was a good day when you came to Camp Half Blood.”

I think about this. I think about things I’ve been thinking about since this wedding reception started, about how I used to feel about Percy, how I used to feel about being gay. I think about losing a sister and gaining a sister, I think about how shadow travel used to exhaust me, how it almost killed me, and now, I move in and out of shadows like a true son of the Underworld, but I always come back into the sunshine. I think about how I didn’t have a home, and other kids who didn’t have homes. Now I have a home, and for some of them, only some of them, but for the ones who do, it matters so much, but they have a place they can call home. I think about belonging, how when I was younger, I was sure I’d never belong, and now I have people I’d never have believed it about, they want to claim me as family. Yeah, my life did get better.

Will comes up to me. “You look happy,” he says.

“It’s a good day,” I reply.

He kisses me, just like he always kisses me.

I think back to the first time we kissed. It was in the infirmary. We were young, we didn’t know what we were doing. When he kissed me, I felt like I was melting. Every time he kisses me, I feel like that. His kisses never get better. Why should they? They’ve always been perfect.