Many things were said that Reyna didn't understand. Leo shot off, riding into the sunset of his own mechanical mind, waffling about all of the techno-babble he could produce. And Reyna just watched him, her dark gaze softening, her arms relaxing, only catching odd words as the boy continued. Occasionally he would stop to take a breath, and, Reyna noticed, look her in the eyes. His were a deep brown, like the colour of coffee or tree bark, burning with enthusiasm and desire to impress like she had never seen. He'd promptly turn a bubblegum pink colour before casting his fascinated scrutiny elsewhere and launching off again.
But that was alright to Reyna. It was a strange thing to admit – even stranger for someone of her calibre – but she felt an odd twinge of jealousy when someone else had the luxury of being regarded by him. She wanted to know that his expression of delight behind his glass orbs was present because of her. Maybe that was obsessive, maybe she was being cautious. The girl wasn't sure; she wasn't sure about many things regarding Leo Valdez. He clamped at her fragile heart in ways she thought it couldn't be clamped, not by him.
Leo stopped talking. Reyna tried to bring her mind back to reality – what had he just said?
"My joke? Did you get my joke?"
Reyna was solid, unmoving. Leo's face dampened. She tried her best to recover from being wrapped up far too much into her emotions, "Wait – no. Could you repeat it? I'm…" she hesitated, "I'm rather slow at understanding jokes."
And Leo grinned; Reyna blew an inward sigh of relief, "Sure," he inhaled, "I was having conversation with Frank earlier. What did I say when Festus broke down?"
Reyna waited, her glance frozen on him as his grin spread across his face like butter on warm toast. The restaurant atmosphere in Nolita just seemed to suck in breath in anticipation – the noises from the other diners muffled as she concentrated on what mattered.
"I said 'I bett-Argo II fix him right away!'"
Her hand flew to her mouth to suppress her giggle. By the gods, that was so awful. So bad it was good, kind of comedy. Leo just chuckled as Reyna covered up her giggle, although her pearly teeth began to flash behind her delicate hand.
"You get it!" he cheered, "You see; you're not that slow."
Reyna wanted to counter that a bridge troll could probably understand the joke. But she didn't say that out loud. He was on a roll (like a fresh piece of bread straight from the oven), and she didn't think it would be good to puncture it. Not when he was grinning so wildly from her understanding his madness it was like he'd won the lottery.
"There are some exceptions," she merely said, between a split smile, "And that was… quite unique."
He chuckled, "I know it's bad. Bad jokes are just my forté. If there was ever a statue made in my honour, it would read 'Leo Valdez –The Gag Guru of Groan-worthy Garbage. Accepted currency is facepalms and headdesks'."
She placed her hand down on the table then, flashing a smile, "And I suppose you get a lot of those?"
Leo's smile turned sheepish, "If facepalms and headdesks were denarii, I could buy this restaurant and a house on the side."
Reyna laughed then. She hated her laugh – one of the reasons why she avoided doing it so much. It was a cross between a snort and a high-pitched squeal. If you hadn't seen it being emitted from her throat, you would have thought a pig was dying somewhere. Leo laughed too – much more masculine, deep, laugh with that edge of a girlish giggle – which covered up hers enough not to be too embarrassed. She did flush a red colour though, ceasing her pig-squealing noises and suddenly finding the table cloth extremely interesting.
Leo quietened, "Your laugh-!"
"Yes, I know," Reyna cut through; a rush of embarrassment knotted her stomach, "It's horrible."
She cast her gaze upwards; Leo was grinning.
"Actually, I was going to say it's really cute," he flushed the same cranberry colour then, "If you don't mind me saying…"
The girl tilted her head upwards now, eyes wide, "You find it… cute?"
Leo's face was hot – heat hot – with embarrassment. Was calling a girl's laugh cute a cliché thing to do? Percy and Jason had said, definitely in the top ten things to do, make sure to compliment her on something: her dress, shoes, hair, make-up, general beauty, voice, food taste… whatever worked. Of all the examples they had given, a laugh was not one of them, and he was pretty sure he'd seen at least five romcoms where the guy had complimented the girl's laugh (of which, he was forced sit through… purely for educational purposes, of course).
He tried his best to quell his feelings of cheesy romance and spoke again, "Yeah. I mean… it's a lot more attractive that my laugh. My laugh sounds like a bodybuilder leprechaun lives in my throat."
Reyna snorted with amusement. It was great to see her so open with her feelings, Leo thought idly, as she struggled to keep her face straight.
"Well," she said, regarding him again with those dark-as-night eyes, "Thank you. And I can assure you, you do not sound like a bodybuilder leprechaun."
Leo practically glowed with happiness. He was pretty sure, if he became any happier, something on his person would catch fire. He was about to respond when the waiter came over. A tray of food was balanced perfectly on his hand and he placed the dishes onto the table with no trouble at all.
"Please enjoy," he said, slipping the tray underneath his arm and retracting his hand, "If there are any problems, do not hesitate to call someone over."
"Thanks dude," Leo said, and the waiter wet away on his business. The food he had left was sizzling hot – two half-chickens marinated in flavouring. The scent of lemon trees and herbal plants walloped his senses and sent his tastebuds into a frenzy, hungry to sample. Not to mention the side-dish, sweet mash potato in a little pot, looked so good he could have done with double the portions.
Reyna picked up her knife and fork. She had a delicate hand about her, the way she twirled and the cutlery like a professional ballerina twirls on their feet, which you wouldn't expect… not when she was slicing with a sword and commanding comrades to battle the other half of the time. She bit her lip, exploring the feast with her eyes.
"Does it look okay?" Leo asked.
She smiled, "It looks delicious," she said, gently forcing a fork into one half of a chicken and hauling it onto her plate, "Good choice."
"Great," Leo said, doing the same. The chicken was so hot steam was rising up. Sometimes Leo wished he was that hot naturally. He watched his date cut off a piece and pop it into her mouth, chewing laboriously.
He waited for her to swallow, "So… how does the chicken taste?"
She gave him a look he had never seen on her before – the expression of amazement. Eyes wide, smile curling on her plump lips. He must have matched her own when he watched her.
"It's absolutely delightful," she spoke, cutting another piece, "I cannot believe I haven't seen eaten here before."
Leo tried it too – she was right. It was rather good.
"Oh man, this is delightful," he said, "Now I wish I did have enough dough to buy this place out."
Reyna smiled, covering her mouth with her hand as she spoke, "So do I."
The two were mostly silent for the rest of the meal. The clanging of fork and knife against plate and occasional chomping sound, as well as the subdued chatter of the other diners and soft drumbeat music from overhead speakers, was the only thing that could be heard. That was fine with Leo – it provided him with the opportunity to relax, think of what to say, and, most importantly, enjoy his food. When Reyna reached for her drink Leo would do so too – maybe it was a psychological thing, but it was just to make sure she didn't feel out of place. They'd only speak to pass over the peri peri sauce or the salt.
With each bite, Leo felt like he was floating further and further into sweet paradise. And with Reyna opposite him, he had already been given a boost there. If he ever had the chance to come back here with her, he would.
But that was the thing. He'd already made total pants of half of the things on the date – Reyna may not have wanted a second time of utter catastrophe with this guy. The rule was if a first date goes badly, you don't get a second chance… well, you might, if you were Fortuna or maybe Venus' child. But he wasn't either, so that was out of the question.
It was times like these that he wished he had Piper's charmspeak ability. Then he could have easily recovered from his trouble with smooth pick-up lines or something.
All too soon Reyna put down her knife and fork in finished formation – Leo had been savouring the taste so much that she had cleared her plate and pot of mash, except from the bones. He felt an urgent need to hurry – he didn't want to hold her up. She took the napkin in her hands, gently dabbing her red lips before folding it up and placing it back on the table. Even when she'd just stuffed her face she still looked like a goddess herself.
Then Leo noticed something. Reyna's post-food face-wipe session had missed the hot sauce on her upper lip. It was like a giant mole – except it was red, specked with black bits and protruding from her face like a peninsula on an island.
Reyna stared idly at everything else in the room, oblivious to the hot sauce chunk getting comfy on her skin. Leo panicked inwardly – what was he supposed to do? He wracked his brain – nothing in the mental checklist could have prepared him for this. Did he tell her and embarrass her in front of him or let her walk around and embarrass herself unknowingly in front of everyone?
He decided in a split-second decision that the first one was definitely better, "Um, Reyna?"
She turned to him, "Yes?"
He used his knife to indicate her upper lip, "You have peri peri on your lip."
Without another second to spare, Reyna seized the used napkin near her plate and shrunk in her seat, "Where?" she hissed, her face burning.
"Just below your nose," he replied, using his knife again. Quickly she removed the evidence with three thorough wipes, "Is it gone?"
"Yep," Leo said, as she sighed.
"Thank you," she breathed, "That could have been very embarrassing…"
Leo smiled, hoping nothing was stuck in his teeth, "No worries. But just so you know, you didn't need it."
"You didn't need hot sauce on you because you're already hot."
Only after her face contorted to surprise did her realise how forward he sounded. Calling a woman 'beautiful' would have been far more acceptable than 'hot', which was usually a cheesy way to pick up chicks (great example: Coach Hedge), but then he couldn't have used it in a joke. Maybe he should have just shut up and kept eating?
But she chuckled, dipping her tone to a dangerous (yet oddly appealing) level, "Were you hoping that would happen just so you could say that?"
Leo hadn't actually planned that joke at all – it would have never run passed Annabeth and the other girls as suitable for the occasion. But Leo Valdez rolled with it, with a cheeky smirk, "Maybe."
She laughed again, which, unlike last time, she was ignorant to how it sounded to others. Leo laughed too, trying to cool his pulsing heart. It was beating so loud that he could have joined a marching band.
Reyna's laughter died much earlier than Leo anticipated, slowly dipping into nothing. Leo had to try not to make himself look awkward, quietening until he stopped completely. His date had suddenly turned sombre – like someone had switched off the happy light in her brain. She regarded Leo with a gentle yet solemn gaze, her eyes like black glass orbs reflecting the darkness.
"I'm sorry," she said – which, to be honest, was the last thing he'd expected to come out of her mouth. He thought she might have been offended by the hot joke, "I'm just… just nervous."
"Nervous?" Leo couldn't help but echo, "Why?"
Reyna looked away, "This date, Leo. I'm nervous sitting here with you," she faltered then, "Not that I'm saying you make me nervous – well, you do, but not in a bad way… I mean-…" Reyna was the praetor of the camp, the leader, the idol that inspired hard-work. She probably hauled men into battle crushed the spirits of her enemies on a daily basis; a bundle of nerves was the last thing he'd expect her to become, since she was so sure of herself and confident in her demigod comrades for the rest of the time.
Leo wasn't sure how to reply. Hades yeah, he was nervous too. He thought it'd be difficult not to be nervous on a first date, when you're exploring new things.
"It's okay," he eventually responded with a smile, "I'm… I'm nervous too. I mean, you can probably tell – I dropped a vase on you."
"You didn't drop a vase on me," Reyna said back to him, with a weak smile, "It was an accident."
"I know," the boy said, "But I probably wouldn't have done it if I'm not as shaky as I am, hahah."
She didn't reply. Reyna felt that it was good to know that both of them were equally as nervous and that she wasn't alone – even if the majority of the date was almost over. She kind of didn't want it to be over; Leo had a strange appeal to him and his personality.
He spoke again, "I guess I'm a bit like the Titanic, trembling at the bottom of the sea."
She couldn't tell if he was being serious, comparing himself to a sunken ship. Reyna narrowed her eyes, "Pardon?"
Leo grinned, "I'm a nervous wreck."
She laughed. Leo laughed. It was as if neither had anything to hide, as if their nerves had dissolved into nothingness. It made Reyna feel relieved that it wasn't a strange thing to feel, she'd been holding up the walls for so long.
The waiter came over then. He appeared regretful for interrupting their conversation, "Are you finished?"
Reyna held up her plate as Leo did the same, "Yes, thank you. It was delicious."
The waiter took the empty plates gratefully, "Thank you. Would you like the dessert menu?"
She looked to her date for guidance, "I'm full, but you can order something if you like..?" She could see the temptation on his face – no doubt did he want ice cream or something to fill to cracks in his stomach. But he shook his head.
"Nah, I'm good. Could we get the bill, please?"
"Of course," said the waiter, whisking himself away to the counter again.
Reyna stared at him funny, "Don't you want dessert?"
He shook his head again, "Really, I'm good. Besides," he feigned sombreness, "I don't think I dessert it."
After a brief chuckle, Reyna spoke, "How long do you spend writing and memorising these jokes?"
Leo shrugged, "Ages."
The waiter came back over with a tiny, rectangular-shaped tray – a thin and crispy sheet of shiny paper with printed words and numbers, "Your bill."
Leo quickly seized it before Reyna could, she retracted her hand in surprise as he spoke, "Thanks." The waiter went off. Leo didn't look at the bill.
"We gotta' agree on how we're gonna' pay this."
Ah, payment. Reyna understood now. She bent down for her purse, in her bag on the floor, and reached it up so he could see it. Reyna knew that it was traditional on first dates to pay exactly half each, rather than one person paying for their whole share. She could understand why this worked – to be fair to your significant other – and was grateful too. The idea of letting Leo pay for the whole thing just because he was the one that asked the question seemed horrendously selfish.
She regarded him with a cool smile, "Half each?"
He smiled, "You read my mind." But she could tell from that relief in his eyes that he didn't want to pay for all of it either. She clicked her purse open – coins of bronze, silver and gold denarii were wedged into the sides, as much as she could fit in. She saw Leo browse secretively at the receipt before passing it over to her in silence, before he brought out his own wallet.
The price was reasonable. It was cheaper than she expected, and for such nice food it was in fact very good value. She selected the appropriate amount, popping the coins with a tapping noise onto the tray. Leo did the same, and the tray became a little goldmine for the restaurant.
Her date exhaled deeply, "I've put the tip in," he said, with a hint of relief, "Shall we get going?"
"Of course," Reyna went to stand up, bending down for her belongings. When she rose, the waiter was back at their table.
"Thank you very much, sir, ma'am. I hope you have a pleasant-" he froze, "Oh…"
Reyna's insides suddenly flared with nerves. He had the coins in hand but looked doubtful. She stopped, midway pushing her chair behind the table, "What's wrong?"
"There is a foreign currency in here – is that a drachma?" he held it up, a rough and shimmering grey coin with the head of Athena printed on one side and Athena's owl on the other. Leo suddenly went pale.
"Oh my gods, I'm so sorry," he took back the drachma from the waiter's hands, rummaging in his wallet again, "I must have mixed it with the denarii… denarii…" Reyna noticed that he gulped then, his face glowing with hot sweat and his eyes contracting to the size of full-stops in a sentence. He had frozen solid, with only his hands in motion. They searched, more desperately, in his wallet for the denarii that – Reyna dreaded to acknowledge – he didn't have.
Without saying a word to embarrass him, she opened up her purse again and gave the waiter a litter of denarii, "Leo, remember, you gave your extra denarii to me because your wallet was so full. Here-" the waiter accepted it gratefully, "We apologise for the trouble."
Leo just stared at her, stunned. The waiter gave a quick, curt nod, "Thank you, and not at all. I hope you have a pleasant evening." He left the couple, taking the tray of coins with him.
When he was out of earshot, Leo spoke, like a cold whisper, "Reyna-"
"Not here. Outside," she didn't mean to sound so commanding, as Leo flinched and sped outside, dodging the other tables and diners. She followed, weaving in and out of the labyrinth of the Nolita restaurant; she knew that his happy demeanour had just sunken into the lowest pits of Tartarus.
Leo held the door open for her. As she approached, a rush of cool evening air singed at her skin. She shuddered, regretting not bringing some form of warmer clothing. The sky was dark, like drapes of indigo and navy littered with tiny white holes had been sewn across the horizon, and the crescent moon provided a reflected glow over New Rome. Many shops were still open, mostly restaurants, and those that had closed for the night blending and blurring into the background like melting butter onto a pan.
Her date was frightful, she could tell. The shine of his sweat was even more noticeable outside, where the light of the moon gave him a more angelic glow, like cinnamon. His hair, one combed, was now back to its curly and loud consistency on his head – like the mane of a lion.
She smiled, hoping to quell the fear that was obvious on his face. But it didn't go away.
"Reyna," he started, "I'm so, so, so sorry-"
"It's alright, Leo," she said, but he didn't stop.
"I thought I'd converted all of my drachmas into denarii, but apparently I missed a few – oh my gods, how did I miss it? They don't look alike – they don't even weigh alike," he turned slightly more happier, "Of course I'll pay you back. You just tell me how much I owe you and I'll repay you – with interest, if you like. I feel so bad-"
She cut him off, placing a finger to his lips. It was the only approach she thought would work – and it did. He went a bright red.
"Leo," she said firmly, "It's alright."
"No, it's not," he mumbled – his breath was warm against her fingers and sent a tingle down her arm, "It's like the most awkward and un -gentlemanly thing on this planet ever to do."
She shuddered then, partly because his lips were soft against her skin, but mostly because she was cold. Her arms back at her side, she was about to launch into a speech as to why she didn't mind when he cut her off.
"You're cold," he said. She saw his breath appear in the air, like puffs of whispy cotton candy.
"Only a little bit," Reyna replied, "But, Leo-" She froze as she saw him, removing his coat. It was black, plain and simple, contrasting with the checkered shirt that he wore, but completed his outfit well. He placed it over Reyna's shoulders, and she could feel the heat rise not only in her body but also on her face.
"That should keep you warm," he said, apparently ignorant of how red she had turned, "Here, I'll walk you home so you can enjoy inside heat instead."
She had to fight to keep her voice in one piece, "What about you? Aren't you cold?" Only after she had said that did she realise how stupid she sounded. Leo chuckled.
"Nah. I'm like a living furnace. The whole 'conjure-fire-from-my-fingertips' thing keeps me warm enough," Reyna could hear the pinch of nervousness back in his tone. He didn't sound so confident in himself anymore, and she missed it.
"Thank you," she said, shivering again. His jacket even smelt of him – a sweet scent she couldn't name that reminded her of a beach, as well as an aftertaste of engine grease. Just how she liked it.
The couple walked along in silence, Reyna with her arms wrapped around herself and face hidden from his view. Not that Leo had cared, pretty sure she didn't want him to look at her – he had severed whatever connection they had when he'd been unable to pay up his share. On his mental checklist, it even said, right at the top in screaming capital letters, MAKE SURE YOU CAN PAY. It had been Percy and Jason's first piece of advice, the first thing to be absolutely sure about. And he'd gone and ruined it anyway.
He felt hollow inside, like a black hole had sucked up all his innards and left him feeling nothing. Reyna, luckily, had been sympathetic enough to save him from eternal embarrassment in Nolita and paid up for him (what other choice did she have?), but that was going to be about it. He could picture it now – she would politely decline a second date before avoiding him for weeks and weeks after, never to look at her pretty face again.
When they reached her house – an expansive Roman villa, with wooden window blinds to keep the cold out and a low-lying slanted roof – Reyna removed the coat from her shoulders and handed it back to Leo. Finally, she looked at him in the eyes, smiling.
"Thank you, again," she whispered, before turning her head away, "And thank you for the date."
He took back his coat, flinging it over his free arm, "You're welcome… and I am really, really sorry. I owe you-"
"Indeed, you do," Reyna's expression had changed of one to complete seriousness, like the very strong stone columns holding up wide arches over her front door, "But, instead of repayment in denarii form, I am expecting a time and date for our next outing."
Leo's skin turned cold, and then blisteringly hot in a moment's notice. He spluttered out a reply before he could help himself, "A-another date?"
Reyna cocked an eyebrow, her expression even, "Yes. You do 'owe me', after all. Is there a problem?" She smiled gently then, a little hope in her eyes.
Leo gulped, "No, no, of course not," he said, too overwhelmed to fully comprehend the situation. She… wanted another date? Somehow he had done it – despite the mess he'd made of himself the entire evening she had requested another date. Confusion welled up alongside his triumph.
"It's just…" he spoke again, "I'm surprised you even want to look at me because I bungled so badly – I was a disastrous date…"
But Reyna laughed, puncturing the night silence with her commanding noises. He wasn't sure whether it was good-natured or a snigger, but by the way she looked like she was enjoying herself, he guessed (and hoped) it was the former. Then, to his surprise, she took a step closer. The scent of her perfume drifted into his nose, like a field of flowers, and Leo could swear the fire was crackling underneath the skin on his cheeks.
"Yes, but you do it in a masterful way… it's sort of… appealing," she said, standing on the tips of her feet and whispered luxuriously, "Besides, mistakes often set us on the right path."
Without warning, she pressed her lips against his cheek in the form of a small kiss. They were soft and plump, like someone was massaging him with silk. Sunshine and rainbows and unicorn happiness burst inside his stomach, coursing through his entire body. For five whole seconds this sensation lasted, before she withdrew. Leo was left in a daze; his legs had turned to bags of jelly and his vision blurred.
That kiss was awesome.
But then Reyna screamed.
"Oh my gods, Leo! You're on fire!"
She was right. Leo's hair had caught fire. The feeling of overwhelming delight disappeared, Leo yelped in surprise ("Gah! My hair is on fire!"), before running around in circles and madly patting his hair with his hands. The fire died out as quickly as it came, leaving only a smoky stench in the air.
Reyna had held her breath, which she exhaled in a shaky motion. Her hands had flown to her mouth, and now she was holding Leo by the arms, "A-are you alright?"
"Oh, yeah," he said, panting hard from the shock, "I'm sorry… Some things just send me into a frenzy… Are you okay?"
"Of course I'm okay!" she protested, going red, "Honestly, my boyfriend sets himself on fire and asks if I'm okay?"
But Leo had ceased all movement, "Boyfriend?" he echoed. Reyna, still holding onto him, let go immediately. If she could go any redder, she did.
"Well, yes…" she faltered, "Why? Do you not want to be my-"
"No! I mean – yes, I do, but-" Leo shook his head to free him from his stupidity, "I mean… yes. I'd love it."
Reyna smiled, "Good. But don't you dare even think about pampering me, okay?" She shivered again, "I suppose I'd better be going now."
"Okay," Leo said, letting his disappointment show, before recovering with a smirk, "I guess I'll see you soon, girlfriend?"
Reyna smirked back, "Yes, you will be, Valdez," she said, making her way to her front door, "And I'm still expecting a time and date soon."
"Of course!" she smiled, before the front door shut behind her. The date was over, and Leo was left alone at the front of her house.
He drew in breath before exhaling deeply. Even though he had been late, never eaten there before, spilt water on her, ordered the wrong drink, failed at small talk, rambled about mechanics, embarrassed her with hot sauce and bad jokes, been a nervous wreck and unable to pay for his meal, she still wanted to go out with him again. Even better, they were now… a thing. His brain felt like someone had wrapped it up in a cashmere scarf – that fuzzy, pleased feeling that only Reyna could make him feel. His friends would be proud and his mental checklist ticked with the bets point of all – get a second date.
He turned on his heel, back to his place, and clasped his hands together.
"Thank you, Hephaestus for helping me through this. You really pulled through," he said, before dropping his head down in defeat, "And for the sake of my soul, please please please help me with the next one."