The night before Grover visits, Percy dreams of trees and reed pipes and cheese enchiladas and coffee.
Grover is sitting alone in the dark on a grassy hill, gazing up at a tall bell tower. There’s a pungent smell that Percy can’t quite place, but it lingers on the edge of the dream in a cloud of familiar stink.
“Percy!” Grover lights up and turns, as if noticing Percy next to him for the first time. “Hey, I saw Chiron a few days ago and he wanted me to pass on a message. Come meet me tomorrow when you wake up.”
Where? Percy wants to ask, but as always, he can’t speak or even move in the dream, so he can only watch as Grover hums softly, ripping bits of grass from the ground and chewing absently, and soon the link fades.
The next morning, he wakes up and promptly swears, because how could he not recognize the smell of weed in his sleep?
After inhaling a coffee and a stale granola bar, he stumbles into his clothes and takes the BART down to Berkeley, blending in with the rest of the students sitting on the green as he searches for a particular head of curly hair. He spots Grover sprawled on the green, a beanie covering his horns. There are still bits of chewed up grass sprinkling his mouth, and Percy jumps as he snorts himself awake. None of the other people sitting around them acknowledge the weirdness of it all, opting to continue zoning out like the proper zombies and college students they are.
“Grover,” he says, sitting down and nudging his friend with his elbow. “Wake up, man.”
Another snort, and the satyr is mostly sitting up. He rubs at his face, groaning, and Percy winces.
“Did you come straight from New York?”
Grover nods. “Haven’t slept much in the last three days.”
“Gods,” Percy frowns. “You should’ve come to my place. I didn’t have to come to campus.”
Grover shakes his head. “The fauns are so weird, and no one stops when I ask for directions, because they all think I’m going to ask for spare change.”
Percy winces again. “Sorry, man. What was the rush? Is there an emergency back at camp?”
“Nothing like that,” Grover assures him quickly. “They’re just getting ready for the beginning of summer, you know?”
Percy nods. “Yeah, I am too. I don’t think I want to grade another midterm in my life.”
“Ouch,” Grover pats him like the sympathetic good bro he is and offers a chocolate from his pocket. It’s a little squished and melted and gods know how long Grover’s been wearing that pair of jeans, so Percy declines. “Yeah, well Chiron and Mr. D have been thinking of implementing a new mentor system at camp. They want to set up more formal training regimens and find better people to train the kids than the oldest high schooler around.”
“That’s fair,” Percy nods a second before he realizes why Chiron sent Grover to tell him about it. “Oh no. Oh, no no no, dude, no. They want me to go back and teach them?”
“I may have put in a recommendation,” Grover says sheepishly. “I mean, you’re one of the best demigod swordsmen alive right now and you’ve been teaching for two semesters already, and I just thought you’d have a little more experience explaining things so kids could understand it better.”
“Grover, I’ve been teaching a bunch of college undergrads,” Percy deadpans. “The kids at Camp Half-Blood are kids. They’re like, twelve. I don’t know how to deal with that.”
“You were twelve when you first came to camp. Think about it, wouldn’t you have liked it if you’d gotten a cool older instructor to teach you stuff?” Grover gives him a wide-eyed, pleading stare, and that’s just not fair because Grover knows Percy can’t resist his baby goat eyes and even though Grover’s like sixteen years older than him, he still looks like he’s one of the little freshmen in Percy’s discussion sections who gets all teary-eyed at the first mention of the word cumulative. Fuck, he totally secretly loves teaching his kids.
“Okay,” he says, because when it comes down to it, he really doesn’t hate his job and his research and he has a soft spot for Camp Half-Blood and Grover and Chiron. Not so much Mr. D, but he’s made his peace with that a long time ago.
Grover’s grin lights up his whole face and he tackles Percy with a huge hug, bleating “Thanks man, I knew I could count on you!” And then he freezes, pulling back a little. His face looks like a weird twist of sheepish, guilty, and left-over elated.
“What’s wrong?” Percy frowns.
“Just—realized something I forgot to mention the last time I saw the Council,” Grover says, and Percy can tell immediately that it’s a big, fat lie.
“Is there something wrong at camp?”
Grover’s expression twists even more, and he hedges, “Well, I might have just remembered something about the mentorship program.”
“What is it?”
He hems and haws and finally spits it out: “Annabeth might have agreed to do it, too.”
Percy feels the bottom of his stomach disappear, an old, twisty confusion taking its place in his gut, and he chokes out, “Oh.”
Percy hates to admit it, but he spent the rest of spring semester avoiding Annabeth and all of their mutual friends. They hadn’t wanted to make a big deal out of it, and Percy couldn’t really bring himself to say it aloud.
He realized, the first time he met up with Frank, that it felt strange not having Annabeth right there next to him. After that, he kind of just stopped meeting up with people, his texts and Iris messages slowing.
She had been at his side for everything he went through, and suddenly, it felt like there was a gaping hole everywhere he looked. There was still an orange shirt under his bed, two toothbrushes in the bathroom, a stack of cheap novels on his dining table. He even had a secondhand coat rack sitting in the doorway that he’d gotten for her birthday the year before. She insisted that they keep it in his apartment because she was there most of the time anyway. He never got into the habit of hanging up his jackets, but there was an ornate owl carved on top, and Annabeth always slipped her Yankees cap over the little bird when she came over.
The week after she ran out of his room, he combed through his apartment and put all of her things in a box. He knocked over the rack while going through the shoes stacked in the entryway, and it had broken in half. He ended up hiding everything in the closet because he couldn’t bring himself to see her in person or throw any of it away.
I just need a little time to get over it, he told himself, and then midterms were looming and he never really let himself stop to think about her after that.
In the summer, Percy spent his three-month break in New York. He refused to get on a plane, even when Jason offered to fly with him. Instead, Blackjack showed up the evening after his last exam and he somehow managed to get to Camp Half-Blood by the end of the week.
He’d been exhausted by the time they landed, and not even standing in the Sound with his shoes off really helped him slough off the tension of his sudden proximity to the Athena cabin.
I gotta go take a nap, boss, Blackjack snuffled into his shoulder. Or a sleep. A sleep sounds good, too.
“Yeah, go rest up,” Percy said distractedly, patting his mane. “Thanks for the ride, buddy. I owe you.”
No problem, boss. I won’t say no to donuts, though.
When he finally mustered the courage to trudge up the beach to the newly-remodeled cabins, burnished bronze and ivory columns glimmering in the sun, he’d been tackled by all the newly-arrived campers, led by Leo and Connor Stoll, both wielding canisters of whipped cream.
After his hair dried enough to stick flat to his skull, he lay down in the strawberry fields with Leo and they played catch-up, tossing updates on both camps back and forth.
“Where’s Annabeth?” he finally forced himself to ask, voice as casual as he could make it.
Leo gave him a funny look. “Dude, she told us she wasn’t coming this year. Remember, for her internship thingy in San Francisco?”
“Oh.” It felt like a punch in the gut, even though he knew she probably did it to give him space.
“Is something wrong with you guys?” Leo looked worried and Percy felt really, really bad.
He’d assumed that Annabeth would tell everyone, and now he realized it wasn’t really fair to make her do all the work. Then again, a meaner part of him thought, she was the one who wanted to split in the first place.
Leo was still watching him expectantly, so Percy got it over with quickly, like tearing off a Band-Aid.
“We broke up.”
After that, the news spread pretty quickly.
Jason arrives in New Rome three days before Percy’s supposed to leave, showing up at Percy’s door with three plane tickets and a threat of setting Reyna on him if he doesn’t agree to take a red-eye out of SFO together. It’s kind of ridiculous—first of all, Jason doesn’t even need to go to Camp Half-Blood, but apparently, he’s inseparable from his girlfriend and she got an offer to teach the beginners’ knife-fighting course, so he needs to escort her all the way across the country by plane. Needless to say, Percy decides it’s better to risk Zeus’ wrath than Reyna’s. Besides, Jason’s dad is pretty fond of him, so Percy’s pretty sure he won’t try to blast him out of the sky while they’re on the same flight.
As soon as the plane’s in the air, Piper knocks out on Percy’s shoulder and Jason pulls up Disney’s Hercules on his laptop because Piper thinks it’s hilarious he’s never seen it before. Percy taps a nervous beat onto the armrest with his fingers and pretends he doesn’t see Jason tearing up at the part where Megara dies.
When they finally land at JFK, Percy breathes a sigh of relief both at the fact that he hasn’t died by lightning bolt and that Piper’s finally awake enough to stop drooling on his sleeve. They grab their luggage and meet Paul at the pick-up area, and from there, it’s straight to Percy’s mom’s place so they can sleep off the flight, because gods know they won’t be getting a lot of shut-eye once they have to start policing a bunch of kids at magical summer camp. Percy barely manages to stumble through the doorway and plant a kiss on Estelle’s nose before she’s whisked out the door to school and he’s face-planting on his bed.
Percy sleeps through the morning and wakes to find Piper and his mom chatting softly over coffee and blue chocolate-chip cookies in the kitchen. Piper holds a finger over her lips when he walks in, pointing at Jason’s prone figure on the couch. His glasses are crooked on his nose and his mouth is open wide in a passable imitation of Charybdis, but Piper still gets a little lost in thought staring at him fondly.
Percy grabs a cookie and resolutely does not think about the people he’s going to see when they get to Camp Half-Blood.
He tunes back in to the conversation when Piper pokes him, mumbling a question through a mouthful of cookie.
“’ve you seen the rest of the gang recently?”
Percy shrugs, cramming a whole cookie in his mouth, and from the look on his mom’s face, she knows he’s deflecting.
“Not really,” he says after he swallows, licking chocolate off his fingers. “Grover came by with the news about camp just a few weeks ago. Hazel and Frank and pretty wrapped up in school, but I’ve gone to see them a few times. Nico and Will came in May.” He doesn’t mention that they stuck around for the anniversary of the break-up and the subsequent alcohol-involved meltdown. Their timing had been particularly suspicious, despite Nico’s half-hearted excuses about spending spring break in California. “Reyna’s around a lot, but she’s always busy with Senate work.”
Piper frowns at him, just like he knew she would. On the couch, Jason’s stopped snoring, and Percy thinks he might have been faking for the past five minutes.
“When was the last time you saw Annabeth?”
Jason falls off the couch.
His mom winces and stands, taking her coffee with her. “Time for me to go work on that book.”
“Well, Percy?” Piper raises an eyebrow.
“Five years ago,” he admits sheepishly.
She gapes. “Five years? Didn’t the two of you agree to be friends after you broke up?” She frowns when he twitches. “It’s been long enough, Percy. We should be able to talk about this now.”
“I just needed a little time to get over it,” he mumbles. “And then I kind of…lost contact?”
Camp Half-Blood looks the same as always, with its rolling strawberry fields and the glittering blue lake and lava-belching climbing wall, although there are probably close to thirty cabins, now. There are a bunch of kids milling around already, picking fruit and swimming in the lake and staring openly at the two adult(ish) people walking through the boundary. Peleus snorts a little fiery belch when they cross the hill and Percy has to admit, he missed it a little.
“Home sweet home,” Percy sighs, and Piper gives him a judgmental stare. He grimaces back.
Their first stop is check in with Chiron in the Big House, and Percy finds himself bowled over by a small figure haloed in red hair as he takes the first step onto the porch.
“Percy!” Rachel screeches in his ear, latching onto him like a koala. She pounds a fist into his back and, ow, that kind of actually hurts. “You idiot! You promised you’d come back and visit every year when you left for college!”
He wheezes a little through the pummeling and tries to ignore Piper’s pointed gaze.
“Yeah,” another, more restrained voice says in a deadpan, “Cabin Three’s probably got enough dust to suffocate a rhinoceros in it.”
“Nico!” Percy grins, opening his arms a little so Nico can turn the strangle-session into a group hug. Unfortunately, the son of Hades just adopts a faint look of disgust and Percy resigns himself to waiting for Rachel to tire herself out.
“Even I’ve been here more often than you after I graduated,” Nico tells him. “That’s kind of sad.”
Percy really doesn’t need another person telling him that, but he probably deserves it.
“Percy, my boy,” Chiron wheels out the door and (finally) Rachel lets go so Percy can give his old mentor a hug. “We’ve missed you here.”
Fuck, now Percy really feels bad.
“Come inside, now,” Chiron says, as if reading his guilt, “we’re only waiting on two more people, and you might as well introduce yourself to the head counselors.”
They walk inside to the familiar rec room, and before Percy can feel nostalgic, thirty pairs of adolescent eyes just about nail him to the door. Some of them are understandably wary, but there are a few who look positively hungry, and Percy shifts a little in the doorway before Piper elbows him through so the rest of the mentors can pass through.
The kids are pretty used to Rachel, but only a few seem to know Nico, even though it’s only been three years since he left for college. Suddenly, Percy feels really, really old. Even Meg’s been out of high school for a year, and Percy still remembers driving her and the mildly pimply, human version of Apollo to camp in his old Prius.
“Peter Johnson,” Mr. D drawls in the awkward silence, and Percy really shouldn’t be this relieved that someone recognized him, “I see I hoped for too much when I requested you never come back after you became a legal adult.”
“Hey, Mr. D,” he says, and a few of the kids relax at the way he addresses the god. Once a camper, always a camper.
He can’t really see an open space near the ping-pong table, so he shuffles around a little until Nico pulls him by the elbow to go lean on the wall in the corner with Will, who gives him a wave and a big smile. After a moment, the room fills with a hushed sort of hum as the kids fall back into distracted conversation, Mr. D takes a generous swig of Dr. Pepper, and the mentors mill around in the background.
“Who are we still missing?” Percy asks, a little desperate for conversation, and Will’s smile freezes for a moment.
“Well, Leo’s not here,” he starts a little slowly, and then the door opens with a bang and he doesn’t really need to answer the rest.
“Hel-lo Camp Half-Blood! I’m back babies! Harley, buddy, what’s cookin’?” Leo shrieks, and the rest is drowned out by an urgent hum in Percy’s ears as a second person walks into the doorway and he recognizes her blonde hair and stormy gray eyes the second they lock onto him.
She looks older—her face is lean and all the last traces of baby fat are completely gone—and her hair is swept into some kind of fancy bun that Percy’s never seen before. She’s wearing the same old orange t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers combo, but he feels like he’s seeing a new person. He’d like to wax poetic, except he can’t write a limerick for his life and her expression’s doing some kind of complicated dance like she’s biting into a piece of moldy cheese. Like, the kind of cheese-mold that’s not supposed to be there when you buy it (not like the chewy white stuff on the outside of brie). With nothing else to do, his heart does a little jig in his chest.
“Campers, please calm down,” Chiron claps his hands, and Leo finally looks up from where he’s aggressively noogying a big buff kid with a wide smile. Fuck, is that Harley?
Over the next two hours, they go over all the administrative things that always have to be discussed at the start of the summer so the cleaning harpies don’t eat anyone. This year, the mentors have to be specially signed in as long-term visitors, and Percy nearly does a double take when Chiron tells them they don’t have a curfew, unlike the actual campers. That earns them a few death glares.
When Chiron finally introduces the mentors as the Greek members of the Seven from the Second Gigantomachy plus Nico di Angelo and Will Solace, they get quite a few stares. Percy squirms a little and breathes a sigh of relief when they finally move on to more mundane topics, like time slots for canoeing and wall-climbing.
At the end of the two hours, Percy steps out with a pounding headache and a new appreciation for the monotonous anonymity of mortal grad school that’s been his life for the past two years. He’s almost forgotten what it’s like with all the stares and whispers, although New Rome is nowhere near as small as Camp Half-Blood, even with all the new cabins.
The mentors are the last to exit, having been at the back of the room, and Rachel and Piper each have their arms looped through one of Annabeth’s, guiding her out the door and deliberately close to Percy. He catches Piper’s smirk as they walk by, and, unfortunately, manages to make eye contact with Annabeth again as he tries to look away.
“Hey, Percy,” she finally says when the girls linger by the door, clearly holding her back.
She’s got a queasy expression, as if she’s fighting the urge to barf or run. In Percy’s personal experience, doing both at once is certainly feasible, but he’s not about to suggest it to her. She looks so nervous, Percy finally takes pity on her and pastes a small smile on his face.
“Hey, Annabeth,” he shoots back, pretending not to notice when she flinches. Apparently satisfied, Piper and Rachel begin to meander down the hill again. “See you around. Don’t be a stranger, yeah?”
She nods hesitantly, chewing her lip, and flashes a small smile back. Percy tries not to think about the tiny somersaults happening in his chest.
“Man,” Leo whistles once she’s at the bottom of the hill, “that’s some sexual tension right there.”
Percy punches him in the shoulder.
Percy woke up on his nineteenth birthday with a raging headache and the taste of sour, sour regret on his breath. He unstuck his tongue from the dry roof of his mouth and moaned softly.
“Wow, you look like shit.”
He groaned again. It just made the headache worse. His back was sore, too, from a stray couch cushion that had wormed its way under him last night.
He felt a sharp jab against his ankle, and then another when he didn’t react to the first.
With painful caution, he peeled his eyelids apart and squinted up at Nico.
“Why are you here?” he rasped, wincing at the brightness filtering in from the window. Thankfully, Nico hadn’t opened all the blinds when he walked in.
“Your mom sent me.” Nico took pity on him and handed him a glass of water and an Advil. He lapsed into silence as Percy waited for the ibuprofen to set in and gingerly sat up on the couch.
Finally, when the pounding behind his eyes had eased, he spoke again, “You pack Advil with you when you travel?”
Nico rolled his eyes. “Will came with me. He’s using your bathroom right now.”
Percy sighed, leaning back into the cushions. “Okay. So why are you here again? Is something wrong at camp?”
“No, loser.” Nico gives him a funny look. “It’s your birthday.”
Oh, yeah. Between the vodka-fueled pity party and the relentless hangover, he’d almost forgotten.
Percy grimaced. “Shit.”
“Yeah, shit.” Nico waved at the bottle and shot glass on the table. “Did you get cake-flavor on purpose or was it a coincidence?”
“Coincidence,” Percy lied, leaning back into the cushions.
Nico’s expression was a little concerned. It was very genuine. Percy wasn’t sure if it was because Will had been trying to get him to show more empathy or if it was because Percy looked like an absolute wreck.
“Thanks for coming,” Percy offered when Nico didn’t say anything. “It’s a long way from New York.”
That seemed to jolt Nico out of his brief sympathetic bender.
“Shadow-traveled,” he waved dismissively. “It’s faster, and I didn’t want to damage the cake.”
Percy perked up at that. He dragged himself to his feet, padding to the kitchen. “You brought a cake?”
“Yeah, your mom and Paul made it.”
It’d been perfectly round, with blue frosting and two little candles in the shape of a one and nine stuck carefully in the middle. Percy swallowed around his tight throat, eyes stinging.
The weird sympathetic look was back. “Sure.” Something buzzes, and Nico pulled out his phone. “Frank and Hazel are on their way now. They’re bringing Tyson with them.”
After they finished the cake and left, Percy got the box from his closet and handed it to Nico.
“What about that? Do you want me to take it too?” Nico asked, nodding at the two pieces of the coat rack, and Percy shook his head.
“It’s broken anyway. I’ll throw it away later,” he told Nico, and he did.
For Percy’s eighteenth birthday, his friends threw him a surprise party that Tyson totally didn’t spoil for him until two days before. Afterwards, he and Annabeth video called his mom and Paul and ate the rest of his blue chocolate cake together. When he was a kid, his mom had found some way to dye the cake itself a deep ultramarine, and that year, she’d taught Annabeth how to do it too.
His and Annabeth’s cake was a lot lumpier and misshapen than his mom’s—he suspected Tyson helped this year, too—but he secretly liked it. It reminded him of the one they ate for his sixteenth birthday, right before they kissed for the first time.
Annabeth had smeared liberal amounts of blue frosting on his face as they shared the last slice, and he hadn’t even complained because she kissed it all off afterwards.
Leo is so mad when he hears that Percy gets Cabin Three all to himself. He, Piper, Annabeth, and Will all have to take spare rooms in the Big House because, quoting PIper, “it’d be weird for the kids to have to share living space with their mentors. Cabin time should be relaxing and full of inappropriate gossip you can’t talk about in front of adults.”
On the other hand, it hasn’t been that long since the Big Three ended the Pact, so Cabins One, Three, and Thirteen are still empty. Nico’s been doing major remodeling on the Hades cabin over the years as his tastes changed, which means the bunks aren’t shaped like coffins anymore and he sleeps on black cotton sheets instead of red satin. In other words, he’s been going for a more casual goth look rather than full-on vampire cave. Percy doesn’t really get either, but to each their own, right? Chiron doesn’t care, as long as Nico funds the renovations himself and provides manual labor in the form of his skeleton army. According to Leo, Hazel has more precious jewels and gold nuggets than she knows what to do with, and Nico’s definitely powerful enough to call up a few of the undead every time he wants to install new mood lighting, so the Hades cabin has been changing very steadily over the years.
Cabin Three, on the other hand, looks nearly the same as before. The inlaid seashells and coral on the outer wall still gleam like they were freshly buffed, and the inner walls still shine like abalone. When Percy opens the door, the familiar soft gurgle of water brings a lump to his throat. The fountain his father had gifted him and Tyson all those years ago still sits in its usual place in the back of the cabin, spewing water like it never stopped. The only difference is a vein of bronze holding together the crack that Percy had made when he bashed Riptide against the lip. Inside, drachmas twinkle with the pattern of water ripples.
He sets his suitcase down by his old bed and sinks down on the fresh white linen. There are two new bronze Hippocampi, obviously crafted by Tyson’s huge hands, and there’s no doubt in Percy’s mind that his brother was the one who repaired the fountain too.
At dinner, he sits at the head table with Chiron, Mr. D, and the other mentors and Rachel. He spots Will and Leo looking longingly at their old tables, but personally, Percy doesn’t mind leaving the Poseidon table empty. It’s not like he’d have anyone to sit with him, with both Tyson and Grover absent from camp.
He’s just taken the first bite into his burger when Annabeth sits down on the seat next to him, her plate clattering as it hits the table. She gives him a tentative smile, and he doesn’t miss the way she maintains a careful two feet of separation between them. Piper, on the other hand, squeezes in as close as she can to Annabeth and gives Percy a menacing smile from behind her head.
“Hey, Percy,” Annabeth says, tucking a stray strand of blond hair behind her ear, and Percy tries not to choke as he chews as fast as he can. “I haven’t seen you at camp the past few years.”
“You’ve been coming every summer?” he ekes out around the lump in his mouth.
“Annabeth’s here year-round to keep an eye on the new cabin construction,” Rachel tells him from across the table. “She drops by at least once a month.”
Percy swallows, not quite looking at Annabeth. “Whoa, really? That’s awesome.”
She turns a little pink, fiddling with her fries. “Thanks. I’ve been drafting modifications to the throne room in Olympus, too.”
“Annabeth always visits,” Piper says, “So all the kids totally know her already. None of them even recognized you, though, Percy, because you never show your face around here anymore.”
Percy grimaces at her. “That’s because we travel to Australia every summer for data collection. I barely get the chance to visit my own mom.”
“You’re doing research right now?” Annabeth perks up.
“Yeah, I’m a grad student at Berkeley,” Percy rubs the back of his neck self-consciously. He laughs a little, “Never thought I’d stay in school longer than you back when we started college.”
“That’s great, Percy,” she says warmly, and he can feel a flush creeping up the back of his neck. “Tell me more.”
He’s already ten minutes into a description of the last trip he took to the Great Barrier Reef before he spots Piper smirking at him. He resists the urge to throw a fry at her, but only because Annabeth is still listening with rapt attention.
When dinner finishes and the campers stampede to the bonfire, Annabeth excuses herself reluctantly.
“I have a little more work to do,” she says to Percy. “See you tomorrow?”
“Yeah, I have lessons at eleven and two with the intermediate and advanced groups and canoeing at twelve,” Percy tells her. “Nico’s taking the beginners later in the afternoon.”
She nods. “I’m teaching the advanced knife-fighting class in the evening, but otherwise I’ll be around the cabins all day.”
“Okay.” Percy chews on his lip, “Okay, then. I’ll come visit you when I’m done with classes?”
“Yeah, sure.” She smiles a little awkwardly. “See you around, then.”
When he finally looks away from the small orange figure climbing the hill to the Big House, he finds Leo snickering into his soda.
Percy’s first lesson is at eleven in the morning, and he silently curses Chiron for setting the intermediate group on him just as the sun’s beginning to bake the dirt on the training grounds dry. Nico, Leo, Will, and Annabeth are sitting to the side, watching, and he can tell Nico is laughing at him behind the patented scowl.
Annabeth’s wearing a pair of running shorts and flip-flops today, with her hair pulled into a more familiar messy twist. It looks like the ones she used to make when she pulled all-nighters studying and couldn’t be bothered to smooth her hair down against her scalp. Percy used to drop by and make her eat dinner, sticking around to keep an eye on her glass of water so she didn’t spill on her notes when she got tired and distracted. When she was really sleepy, expression soft and open, he liked to give her scalp massages, running his fingers through the blond snarls and making her hair even messier. Now, he turns away before she can catch him staring.
The campers are just skilled enough to look bored through his explanation and just disinterested enough to not put any effort into their warm ups. They’ve just come back from the obstacle course with Coach Hedge and are not in the mood to obey any instructions from authority figures.
Sighing, he calls a break and asks Nico to come down for a demo. They spar for a little bit, nothing too serious, forgoing Riptide and the Stygian iron sword with plain celestial bronze replacements. After two rounds, he turns and finds the demigods are suddenly watching him like hawks.
“Uh,” he holds up his hands, “Five more minutes, and we’ll start again?”
Nico snorts, but when Percy turns to look at him, he just shrugs, trudging up the hill to sit next to Will again. Annabeth isn’t paying attention, staring closely at some tiny contraption Leo’s fiddling with.
The demigods eventually start again, and Percy walks around and critiques them one by one. The hair on the back of his neck prickles with the distinct sensation of being watched, and he catches a few kids staring at him before they quickly turn around. He touches Haley Yamanaka’s wrist to correct her stance and she drops her sword entirely. Weirdly enough, despite all the staring, no one seems to be getting more enthusiastic about learning the actual skills. In fact, they seem more distracted than before.
The sun climbs to full-on blazing overhead, and they slump with relief when he calls for another break. To be honest, Percy wants to sit down and not get up again, too. It’s been way too long since he’s last seen this much sun. He may live in California, but Berkeley and San Francisco are perpetually suspended in a haze of fog.
He walks to the water cooler with as much dignity as he can spare and draws enough water to dump over his head, groaning a little as energy spreads through his limbs again. He doesn’t bother willing his clothes and skin dry, letting the water soak into his shirt and act as a cool barrier between his body and the stifling heat.
When he opens his eyes, Linus Vu’s mouth is hanging open, and Haley looks red enough that he worries she might be seriously dehydrated. He’ll let them take an extra ten minutes to rest, he decides.
A sharp peal of laughter hits his ears before he can ask if she’s okay. He looks up, and Leo’s about to roll down the hill, he’s laughing so hard. Will waves, and Percy tries not to feel disappointed to see Annabeth getting to her feet and walking away.
In the last few minutes of his first class, one of the kids manages to stick another in the arm with a sword. Will’s on the scene in the blink of an eye, pressing down on the wound and reassuring Charlie Bowe that no, his arm isn’t going to fall off. That said, there’s a lot of blood gushing out, so Percy dismisses the rest of the campers and accompanies Will and Charlie to the infirmary to make sure the kid is okay.
After a light admonishment from Will to stop distracting the kids—which, what?—Percy finds himself booted out and left to his own devices for his hour break before canoeing class.
He wanders around until he finds himself loitering at the cabins and watching Annabeth supervise the ongoing construction. When she finally notices him hanging around, she gives a tentative wave.
“Hey,” he says, aiming for casual and landing somewhere in the range of breathless.
“Hey,” she answers, her mouth doing some sort of weird half-up, half-down thing. “Are you done with your class?”
“Yeah, yeah, I finished a few minutes ago.” He rubs at his head and regrets not pulling a comb through it when he dragged himself out of bed in the morning.
“You looked good out there. I mean—” she flushes, “You look like you’ve been staying in shape. Practicing. Your form is still good. Fuck, sorry.”
Percy can feel his face turning a little warm too. He hates how stilted she sounds, but he nods. “Yeah, thanks. It’s okay, I get what you meant. I tried to practice a little more last semester after I got the job. It’s been hard, with all the grading.”
Annabeth relaxes a teensy bit, smiling ruefully. “Yeah. It’s weird, trying to be a normal person. Can’t always fit the sword practice and knife-polishing into your schedule, right?”
Percy laughs, and then they descend into an awkward silence for a bit.
“So,” he starts softly and bites his lip when she jumps a little. She’s watching him warily, and he takes a deep breath, picking his words with care. “I just wanted to say that there’s no hard feelings on my part about—you know. It was good for both of us, I think.”
“Oh.” She scuffs her shoe in the dirt, looking down. “Yeah, me too. Well, I was the one to—yeah—but…” she trails off, looking a bit frustrated.
“I get why you did it,” Percy says. “So don’t worry. We’re good, right?”
“Yeah,” she nods, glancing up at him, “Yeah, we’re good.”
The way it happened had been supremely uneventful, given how adventurous their lives had been throughout their relationship.
Not that there’d been any disturbances throughout their first year of college. It was almost idyllic, how peaceful things were in Olympus. Apollo was back to his godly self, New Rome was shinier and more colossal than ever, and Percy and Annabeth were finally in college, living in dorms just five minutes away from each other.
It was perfect, he thought. He could take a break from all the monster fighting and heroics and just focus on getting his degree in marine biology while Annabeth bulldozed her way through her five-year masters’ in architecture. He’d been coasting, enjoying classes and hanging out with Frank and Hazel and Reyna and seeing Annabeth every day, and he didn’t even notice until she pulled him aside after spring break at Camp Half-Blood and sat him down on his bed.
She fixed him with a look that was both really serious and really uncomfortable, and he knew her well enough to wait until she spat it out.
“Percy, I got into the architecture program at Cornell.” She grimaced, like that was bad news. “I’m thinking of transferring next fall.”
Honestly, he was a little confused. “That’s great, Annabeth. I didn’t even know you applied.”
She twisted her fingers together, this way and that, and bit her lip. “I didn’t know how to tell you.”
He frowned. She looked way too troubled about this. “Did you think I was gonna be upset?”
She didn’t answer.
“I mean, yeah, I thought we were going to go to college together, but I’m really happy for you,” he said, and she still wasn’t making eye contact. “I’m fine with going long-distance if you really want to transfer. It’s not like we haven’t done it before. It’ll be like when you went to go stay with your dad and we can—”
“I want to break up,” she blurted, and then clutched her fingers tight in her lap.
The words sank in the ensuing silence, dragging it down between them.
“What?” he finally squeaked. “Why?”
She folded her legs up, hugging her knees to her chest. It was defensive, almost, and it somehow felt horrible and wrong.
“It’s not you,” she said quickly. “I just—I just really want to take a break from all the half-bloods and supernatural business. You know I’ve been at this since I was seven, and I tried to live with my dad, but everywhere I go, there’s always something related to the gods and Olympus and whatever chasing after me.” She took a deep breath. “We live in such a small, isolated community, and it feels like everyone already knows who I am. I know this is just how it is for demigods, but I really want to go to school somewhere else, get a normal degree from a normal place. I want to be known as an architect, and not a Greek or a soldier or a hero or whatever else the people here think of me. New Rome’s really nice, but I want to see the world and learn things beyond Ancient Rome and Greece, and I want to do it with a fresh start.”
She fell back into silence, chewing her lip in that particular way that Percy knew not to interrupt. She was collecting her thoughts.
“I like you, Percy. I like you a lot. It scares me sometimes, how much I like you, but there’s so much pressure all the time from our peers and mentors and parents and everyone for how we should be. I never even noticed until recently that I’m rarely ever just Annabeth anymore, and it’s always Percy-and-Annabeth or Percy’s girlfriend, and I just really want to feel like myself again.”
“But you are Annabeth,” Percy said, confused and, frankly, hurt. “You’re smart and strong and people respect you.”
She frowned. “Well, yeah sure, we’re all heroes, but you’re the hero. Sometimes I feel like people barely distinguish between the two of us. I never wanted to be dependent on you.”
“You’re not dependent on me,” Percy said, and his voice was getting kind of reedy, like he was about to cry. “We saved the world together. Twice. That’s a special kind of bond that a lot of people won’t ever have in their lives.”
“That’s what I’m talking about!” Annabeth gestured with a frustrated wave. “We defeated Kronos when we were sixteen, and then after that, people expected us to be the perfect couple, together for life! I don’t want people to know me for something I did when I was a teenager, no matter how great it was. This space we live in right now, with a handful of demigods and monsters and Olympus and whatever—it’s so much smaller than the world. Everyone here grows up in New Rome, trains to fight in New Rome, goes to college in New Rome, gets a job in New Rome, and grows old in New Rome, without ever seeing what else is out there. I want to learn more, see more, experience more without being forever tied to something I did when I was a teenager!”
“And what, you think I’m going to hold you back from that?” Percy could feel his voice rising, but Annabeth was already pink in the face from talking and her face was mulish. “I’m not trying to tie you down, Annabeth! We can talk this out, figure out how to work through it together.”
“No, you don’t get it!” She gestured wildly, tugging at her hair. “I need space. I need time away from New Rome and Camp Half-Blood and Olympus and you because I need to figure out what I want to do with the rest of my life. I like you, yes, but this is something I need to do by myself, and I really need to be alone.”
“So you’re going to cut us all off? What if monsters come after and you get hurt?”
“No, of course I’m going to stay in contact! You’re still all my friends, you know. I just want to be a little further away for a while.”
“Oh.” He sagged a little. The word friend had never felt so weirdly wrong before. He and Annabeth were best friends, had been since they were twelve. Seaweed Brain and Wise Girl, Wise Girl and Seaweed Brain, the dream team forever and always. He’d followed her into hell, for gods’ sakes.
Annabeth was watching his hands with an inscrutable expression. He looked down and realized he was tracing his SPQR tattoo absently, fingertips running along the sharp black lines as he thought.
“It’s nice here, but New Rome’s always been yours,” she said in a softer voice. “I want somewhere that’s mine. I just need a break to figure myself out.”
Percy wanted to tell her that he’d always thought of Camp Half-Blood as Annabeth’s, that this world belonged to her before it ever belonged to him, but the words stuck in his throat as she smoothed her hair back and he spotted the streak of gray, a twin of his own from when they had borne the weight of the world at age fourteen. For a moment, he saw what she meant, and he recognized her fear of living in the shadow of her younger self—of his younger self—for the rest of her life.
“Okay,” he said instead, and his chest tugged tight at the relief in her expression. “Alright.”
“Okay.” She bit her lip, unfolding her knees and reaching out to touch him before hesitating, pulling back. “Okay,” she repeated awkwardly, “I’ll give you a little space now, then.”
He nodded numbly, and then the door opened and closed and it was too late to say anything anymore.
Over the next week, it gets a lot less awkward talking to Annabeth. Even though they haven’t seen each other in years, it’s easy to settle into the pattern of teasing barbs they’ve been developing since they were twelve. Percy sometimes catches himself leaning in a little too close when she whispers a joke in his ear, but she doesn’t seem to mind, smirking when she can get him to choke out a laugh.
Then, in the middle of the second week, he gets a panicked call from one of his undergrads in the lab about some samples going missing. Jason isn’t around to escort him by plane, so he calls Blackjack and asks him to bring a friend for a short cross-country trip.
He takes a backpack, chucking in his laptop and notes, a plastic baggie of drachmas, a few protein bars, and a bottle of water and pounds on Nico’s door until he opens it, bleary-eyed and grumpy.
“Please please please, can you take my intermediate and advanced classes?” he begs, “I have to take a trip back to the lab in Berkeley because one of the lab techs lost some samples.”
Nico gives him a long-suffering sigh. “How long will you be gone?”
“I’ll try to make it back tomorrow night,” Percy promises, “but you might have to take the morning class the day after tomorrow, too.”
Nico nods, making shooing motions. “Alright. Let me go back to sleep.”
Percy makes the mistake of peering into the cabin and spots a head of golden hair crammed into the wall-side of one of the lower bunks.
“Dude, how do the two of you even fit into one bunk?”
Nico groans and kicks him out of the doorway, shutting it in his face.
Blackjack, bless his soul, is already waiting at the beach with Porkpie, both of them rearing to go. Percy calls a pit stop at Dunkin’ fifteen minutes out because his friends are the best.
He gets to campus around midmorning, stumbles off Blackjack, and waddles down to the labs to fret over samples and placate his poor undergrads. It turns out to be some kind of error in the filing system, which takes another few hours to sort because the department is horrendously understaffed. By nightfall, he’s climbing aboard Porkpie for the long journey back, trying not to think about how much his ass hates him.
The pegasi reach their limit sometime around three in the morning, when they land in Tennessee so Percy can buy them coffee and donuts. They rest for two hours, after which they take the last leg back to camp, arriving at dawn. Needless to say, all three of them are beyond exhausted, and Percy barely has time to thank Blackjack and Porkpie profusely and promise lots of apples and treats in the near future before he’s stumbling back to his cabin and falling face-first onto his bunk.
The first thing he registers when he opens his eyes is that the sun is way too high in the sky. The intensity hurts his eyes when he blinks, and he can tell that he’s already missed his first lesson. He groans, taking stock of his sore and stiff body, and slowly pushes himself out of bed.
After a change of clothes and a quick wash, he feels a lot better. Breakfast and lunch are already over, so he snags the last power bar from his backpack and gnaws on it as he heads down to the training grounds. He can see a half-ring of kids gathering around Nico’s dark head as he swings a bronze sword in a wide arc, demonstrating the proper movements for disarming. Just like the first day, a group of off-duty mentors are lounging on the hill, and Rachel waves to him when he gets close.
Annabeth shuffles a little to the side and smiles as he approaches, a clear invitation for him to sit next to her. He tries to look casual as he bends, but the last two feet are pure agony, and he can’t help the groan that pulls out of his very, very sore ass.
Rachel winces. “You took the pegasi?”
“Couldn’t take the plane,” Percy sighs, shading his face with a hand and peering down at the training grounds. “How’s Nico doing?”
“The kids love him.” Will smirks. “He acts like he doesn’t care, but I think he’s secretly thrilled. They listen to him really well.”
Nico glares up at them as if he can hear them talking about him. Percy raises his palms to placate him.
“Can I get a volunteer for a demo?” he calls up in retribution, and Percy can’t help but groan, thinking of his sore backside.
“I can do it,” Annabeth says, putting a hand on his shoulder to stop him from getting up. His brain gets a little caught up freaking out at the warmth of her skin through his shirt, but he manages to nod and thank her in a strangled voice.
On the Fourth of July weekend, the mentors pile into the back of a chariot and catch a ride back to Manhattan to celebrate three days of freedom from their responsibilities.
“Do you think anyone’s going to be mauled by the cleaning harpies?” Leo asks absently as Piper flies them in idle loops over the Sound for fun, watching the slow crawl of traffic in the distance.
“I hope not,” Will sighs. “I haven’t gone a week without someone getting gored this summer. We’ve been so busy.”
They get dropped off on the roof, because the chariot’s too wide to fit on the sidewalk, and climb down the fire escape through the window to get into the apartment. Percy’s mom just sighs in exasperation when she spots him helping Leo untangle his foot from where it’s stuck through the blinds, but Estelle thinks it’s the most hilarious thing ever and claps for each of them when they make it through.
Annabeth is the last in, and she hesitates for a moment before Percy’s mom swoops her into a hug. She stiffens a little at first, but quickly relaxes into the embrace, squeezing back tight as she buries a tiny smile in her shoulder. It’s been a long time since she’s smelled the scent of his mom’s cookies that seems to be embedded in her clothes, Percy reasons.
From there on, the night goes smoothly as they all try to eat their weight in chips and dip and enjoy their first gathering where everyone can legally drink. Estelle goes to bed at around nine, and she makes sure to single out Percy to accompany her and tuck her in, even though she normally insists she’s too old for bedtime stories. Percy indulges her with anecdotes about his travels over winter break and lays a smacking kiss on her forehead before turning her lights off for the night.
He’s walking back down the hallway when he spots Annabeth standing in the doorway to his room, her back facing him. Her shoulders are shaking, but when he steps closer, he realizes that she’s quietly laughing. She turns when he gets close enough to see what she’s looking at.
“That,” she whispers through the giggles, and she’s pointing at the framed t-shirt on the wall.
It’s pretty generic-looking green shirt, albeit extremely faded with a huge tear on the side. There’s a cheap print of a cartoon whale across the chest and it’s the kind of shirt that only gets worn on laundry day when Percy’s scraping the bottom of the barrel, completely at odds with intricate frame, which is covered in gold detailing and pale shells.
Percy starts defensively, “I know it’s weird, but there’s a story behind that shirt. I was wearing it—”
“The first time you touched a bowhead whale, I know,” Annabeth finishes for him. “I saw that lecture where you wore the shirt to class and told the story. It’s on YouTube.”
“She was one hundred eighty years old,” Percy hisses. “She told me! That’s forty years older than the oldest recorded age of a bowhead whale, and I couldn’t even say anything about it because I didn’t have the evidence to back it up!”
“Aside from the whale’s word,” Annabeth points out, chuckling.
“Exactly!” Percy throws up his hands. “I was so pissed!”
“I’m sure it was really frustrating,” Annabeth says when she finishes laughing. “Teasing aside, I’m glad that you really enjoy what you’re doing. That’s great, Percy.”
Percy smiles back. He leans against the doorway, gazing at the shirt. “How did you see that video, anyway? I thought it was private when they uploaded it.”
“Leo sent it to me,” Annabeth admits, flushing a little. “There’s a playlist for the class, and I ended up watching a few more. You’re a funny lecturer.”
Percy ducks his head in thanks and ignores the fluttering in his stomach.
The thing is, Percy got it. His friends might have disagreed and he might not have really cared at the time, but he really understood why Annabeth had broken up with him. At the end of the day, he knew her better than he knew anyone else in the world, and he got it.
You see, the truth of the matter is that at the dawn of his sixteenth year, Percy turned down eternal life.
Some said it was a foolish choice, the blindness of fleeting youth, but what people didn’t know was that in the moment, he’d known what he would be losing. He glimpsed the heady power—the sheer size of forever—and the appeal never once paled as he refused, eyes locked on a head of golden hair.
She’d been his best friend. His other half. Percy was the child of the prophecy, it was true, but he knew her role for what it was the moment she touched his weakest spot and held him to mortality by the tips of her fingers against his back. He never once forgot what she was to him, even when he could barely remember the shape of her smile.
They’d stood toe-to-toe with titans and giants and the scorching fires of hell, and Percy had never felt closer to godhood in his life than when they were back-to-back and he felt her breath align with his, wielding nothing but bronze against all that sought to harm what they protected. He’d gotten so accustomed to the feeling of being heroes, he almost forgot that they were mortal children in the end, so colossally small.
The sound of Annabeth running down the stairs faded, and Percy found that the weight of that loss was nowhere near the weight of the world. For all that he loved her, the fate of the earth was ultimately unaffected by the end of a single relationship and the ache of mortal heartbreak was hysterically light.
He knew, like all demigods with mortal parents who remarried knew, that there wasn’t really a final someone in life. You fell in love, you saw people. Sometimes it was the first one that worked out long-term, and sometimes, it wasn’t.
If Sally Jackson could fall in love with a god and then find someone else to share her life with, Percy would make it through his first break-up just fine. He would miss her, sure, but he was alive and she was alive and at the end of the day, he would still be her best fucking friend in the whole world if she really needed him. It wasn’t the greatest tragedy to befall the world, and Percy had lived through too much to think otherwise.
Not to say that he wasn’t completely and utterly miserable for a while. He drank too much coffee and forgot to shave and skipped sleep to finish homework assignments. He let Leo tug him out of his dorm room to parties and got drunk and took weekend trips to San Francisco so he could sit on the piers and stare out at the ocean without ever dipping a toe into the water. The world took on a calmer quality—more soothed than soothing—and Percy tested the limits of utter mundanity, tasting it thoroughly and not quite picking apart the satisfaction from the restlessness in his brain.
For the first time in a long time, he felt completely and utterly human again.
The first capture-the-flag game occurs at the beginning of July because Chiron wants the campers to take their time and experience the wonders of a mentor-lead education before they use their newfound skills to rip each other to shreds in the forest. Naturally, the mentors are allowed to participate, and bets are placed as soon as the teams are formed.
Piper wants someone to teach her lessons for the two days when Jason visits, and Annabeth needs someone to take over supervising construction so she doesn’t chop Nico’s skeletons to bits in a fit of sleep-deprived rage whenever they get in the way. Percy agrees to the competition only because he’s been home exactly once since the summer started and Estelle misses him.
In the end, the kids relegate him to guard duty. They tell him that he has an advantage when he stands near the flag because their base is right next to the river and they want a strong defense against the mentors on the other team, but Percy suspects they just want to go on the offense because they think it looks cooler.
He’d like to think he’s past the age where he wants to hog the spotlight for himself every opportunity he gets, so he lets them have the glory and perches on a rock a few feet from the flag. Honestly, he spaces out a little and almost misses the sound of footsteps crunching until they’re nearly right in front of him.
“Hey, Percy,” Annabeth says as she whips off her cap, shimmering into sight with her red-plumed helmet tucked under her arm, and Percy barely holds back a scream.
“Aren’t you supposed to be trying to steal the flag?” he says as evenly as he can manage.
She shrugs. “I got disqualified a while ago when Chiron caught me with the cap. The kids insisted it would be a good idea, but I should’ve known better.”
“Huh. I can’t tell if this is supposed to be a trap.”
She smiles a little at that. “Well, I can sit right next to you. Does that sound better?”
He scoots over on the rock and tries not to lean away from her body heat—or worse, into it—grinning when she pretends to nudge him off. She leans back on her palms and stretches out her legs, sighing with satisfaction.
“it’s been a long time since I’ve played capture the flag. This is making me feel a little nostalgic.”
“Just like old times,” Percy agrees. “You, me, and two dozen blood-thirsty kids in full ancient armor duking it out for scraps of cloth in the middle of the dark woods.”
Annabeth laughs. “When you put it like that, our childhood sounds so weird.”
“Right? I couldn’t believe my eyes the first time I got a helmet shoved into my head and Clarisse electrocuted me. I thought I was gonna die.”
“It was pretty normal to me at the time,” she muses, “I guess it takes a few years living with mortals to really get how absurd this place can seem.”
Percy nods. “I always thought it was a little boring when I was a kid, after I first came to camp. I hated not having anything to do.”
“What about now that you're older?” The words slip out easily, like an off-the-cuff question, but Percy knows Annabeth well enough to see through it.
He thinks for a bit. “It’s different. Risking my neck at every turn doesn’t appeal as much now that I’ve got a job and a life that I enjoy. I’m not going to lie and say I don’t miss it here at camp, but I’m not exactly chomping at the bit for a quest like I was when I was twelve.”
When he looks at her, there’s a small, relieved smile pulling at her lips.
“How about you? Do you like your life now?”
She nods. “It’s great. It was worth it.” She looks at him nervously, but he just smiles back.
“I get it. Really. I told you I got why you had to do it, remember? No grudges.”
She relaxes a little. “Thanks.”
They lapse into silence, and for the first time this summer, it feels comfortable.
“I missed you, you know. It was a great experience, but I missed you so much.”
Percy looks up in surprise. She knocks into him with her shoulder.
“Don’t be stupid, Percy. Is it that shocking that I would miss my best friend?”
He can feel a grin spreading on his face, mirrored on Annabeth’s face. “I missed you too.”
She throws an arm around his shoulders, scrubbing at his hair with her hand, and her expression softens a little. “I’m glad you came back.”
It’s a platonic gesture, but Percy’s chest feels like it’s filling with bubbles anyway. He knows he’ll worry later about what that means, but Annabeth’s always been his best friend first, with everything else coming second. He feels fuller already from the sensation of her fingers against his scalp and the sight of her open face, unabashedly fond.
He opens his mouth to say, “Me too,” and a scream erupts to their left as a small herd of children, red- and blue-plumed alike, bursts through the trees, followed by a large, charging shape.
“Hydra!” Annabeth shouts, springing to her feet, and Percy has half a second to mourn the cold air her body leaves behind before he’s rolling away from a spray of acid.
They don’t need to tell the campers twice to get behind them as the hydra stalks forward, heads hissing and waving around.
“Six,” Percy counts and groans, “I hate donut chain stores.”
“No you don’t,” Annabeth retorts without taking her eyes off the monster.
“No I don’t,” Percy agrees. “The pegasi would never give me a ride back to school again if I stopped feeding them. Monster Donut isn’t even good, though. Guido says they use a ton of preservatives and the dough is always dry, even when I buy them fresh out of the oven. I only get them if we’re really running on a tight schedule.”
“You still give them business?” Annabeth says, sounding affronted, then shakes her head, “Actually, not relevant right now. Stop being a baby, Percy. We need to kill it. I don’t think there are any mentors nearby.”
Percy can’t help but groan again. “Seriously? Gods, where are Clarisse and her dad’s battle cruiser when you need them?”
“She’s been a ranger at Yellowstone for the past two years, Percy,” Annabeth reminds him helpfully, as if he’s actually forgotten. They both know he hasn’t, but she says it just to get on his nerves.
“This would be so much easier if we had a cannon like last time,” Percy grumbles, dodging a probing head and yelping as another swoops in from the other side, spitting acid.
It’s been years since he last fought seriously, and he’s embarrassed to admit that he’s a little rusty. Sure, he’d trained regularly in New Rome, but he’d also been a college student who spent most of his time cooped in a lab staring at bacteria through a microscope and staying up way too late rushing essays and projects. It’s perfectly reasonable for him to not be in as good shape as before, okay?
“You’ve been slacking,” Annabeth smirks, and he resists the urge to roll his eyes, because the hydra is still there and they have a huddle of crying kids behind them.
“I distract and you get the fire?” Percy suggests, and he’s taking off before she can even reply, lapsing into old habits.
Fortunately, Annabeth’s still on the same wavelength when it comes to fighting monsters. He has no idea how she found a burning branch so quickly, but the next time he looks up from his dodging and rolling, she’s holding it and shouting at him to start cutting off the heads.
They make quick work of the first three, although Annabeth has a close call when one of them shoots acid close enough to singe her hair. Percy jabs at the two remaining heads as she backs away, branch still held aloft.
“Damage?” he calls over his shoulder, deflecting a pair of gleaming fangs.
“Superficial,” Annabeth shouts back. “Thanks for the cover.”
The fourth head is the fastest, and it puts up a good fight. Percy jumps as it bears down on him, lifting his sword up with both hands and plunging it straight down through the roof of its mouth and pinning its jaws shut. The head lets out a muffled scream of pain, jerking and pushing to get away, and Percy feels himself losing balance as he fights to tear his sword free without getting shot with a jet of acid.
“Percy!” Annabeth yells a moment before he sees the fifth head snapping towards him.
“I got it,” he grunts, flexing his hands and wrenching the sword straight through the side of the fourth head’s jaw, tearing a rent through its mouth and letting the momentum slice the fifth head straight off.
Annabeth’s already darting forward as he finishes the swing, torching the stump until it’s charred, and it isn’t until she turns back with wide eyes that he realizes the other head’s not quite dead, despite having a gaping new hole through the side of its mouth.
He turns straight into a stream of acid and barely manages to jerk his head out of the way before white-hot pain engulfs his entire left shoulder. He screams even as he swings blindly up, severing the final head, and when he resurfaces from a brief black-out—because, ow—Annabeth’s already kneeling by his side, inspecting the damage, and the hydra carcass is disintegrating behind her. He can hear the faint sound of panicked kid voices rising in the background, and he swears there’s a sniffle or two mixed in there, despite Annabeth’s reassurances that he’s not dead, just in a lot of pain.
“How bad is it?” he croaks, and from the look on Annabeth’s face, he knows he really shouldn’t try to look at it.
He lets out a string of extremely non-kid-friendly curses as she tries to get him to sit up.
“Percy, language!” she scolds, hooking a hand carefully around his waist and slinging his right arm over her shoulder.
“Gods, Annabeth, this really hurts,” he whines, and he’s not even trying to hide it in front of the kids anymore. “Are there any medics around?”
“I sent Brandon to look for Will, but we’re pretty far from camp,” Annabeth says. “How far do you think you can walk?”
“None,” Percy groans as he tries to take a step and his entire left side lights up on fire. “None, nope, can’t walk.”
“Shit,” Annabeth says, bending to a knee so he can slump gratefully back to the ground.
“Language,” he gasps, smirking when she gives him an exasperated look.
“Is Mr. Jackson going to die?” someone pipes up from the peanut gallery.
“Fu—Ares’ balls, that makes me feel old.” Percy grimaces.
“Please never say that again.” Annabeth shudders. “He’s my uncle. He’s your cousin.”
“Godly relations don’t matter,” Percy rolls his eyes. “That’s, like, the second thing you taught me when I came to camp.” He clenches his teeth as another wave of pain eats at his side. “Fuck, Annabeth, I really need some running water right now.”
“Will’s going to yell at me about exposing open wounds to infection,” she sighs, but stands anyway.
With one smooth movement, she hooks one hand behind his shoulders and the other behind his knees and hauls him up. She walks a few steps to the river and dumps him in unceremoniously. He only yelps a little as he falls, hard pebbles hitting his ass. The kids start screaming as soon as he hits the water, and they only quiet down when Annabeth sits them down and reassures them twice that he’s going to be okay and explains why the burns are receding already. Meanwhile, Percy slumps and submerges himself in the shallows, letting the water soothe his side. He can’t help but moan in satisfaction and lie back until he’s neck-deep.
“Feeling better?” Annabeth kneels next to him in the water. Her face is slightly pink and, despite the wry twist of her mouth, the relief is stark in her eyes.
“Yeah. Thanks, Wise Girl.”
Her smile widens a twitch at the nickname.
“Anytime, Seaweed Brain,” and they sit and watch his skin stitch itself back together under the water until Will arrives, eyes blazing and armed to the teeth with bandages and ambrosia, to yell at the both of them about river bacteria and the wonders of modern-day disinfectant.
He’s confined to two days of bedrest while the burns heal, and Will won’t let in any visitors to punish Percy for exposing his bloody wounds to dirty water. When he’s finally released at the end of the second day, he skips dinner to stagger back to his cabin and sink into the comforting scent of salt water and clean sheets.
In the morning, he wakes disturbingly early and moans into his pillow for a solid ten minutes before coming to terms with the fact that he’s not going to fall back asleep. It’s the weekend, meaning no classes to teach, but he ambles out into the training grounds anyway.
As he walks over the crest of the hill, he sees that the dirt arena is empty, save for a familiar golden head bent over a crate of knives. When he gets closer, it becomes apparent that Annabeth is taking inventory, her gaze intent on a clipboard clasped in her hands.
Her hair looks soft in the morning light, pulled back in a tangled ponytail, and her eyes are as sharp as ever as she inspects the crate of celestial bronze knives. He watches her, and in the process of watching, a weight in his chest expands, as heavy as it was when he was sixteen, as old as it is new. He still recognizes it for what it is.
She turns to him, raising an eyebrow at his expression. A pink flush sits high on her cheeks, but she’s wearing a small, amused smile.
“You’re up early. How are you feeling?”
Like he could probably float, honestly. The early morning sky casts the world in a dreamlike haze, and he thinks, dazed, that if he had the chance, he would give anything to hold her hand again, even if he had to jump into Hades a second time.
“I still love you,” he blurts and then blanches, because who says love to someone who broke up with them five years ago?!
She stares at him, the smile dropping, and he feels his stomach drop with it.
“Really?” she asks, and before he can answer, she quickly adds, “You can take it back, if you want.”
He frowns. She looks tense, her grip on the crate hard enough to turn her knuckles white.
He thinks about lying, but suck it up, Percy, “It’s okay. It’s true.”
Annabeth’s face runs through about two dozen emotions, and then she’s turning away and setting the crate down. She clenches and unclenches her fists a few times, and then turns and resolutely strides up to him so that their noses are inches apart.
She looks him in the eye and turns as red as a lobster and says, “When we were sixteen, I told you that I was never going to make it easy for you.”
He can feel an uncontrollable smile spreading across his face. “I know.”
“It was what I needed.”
“I needed it too.”
“Do you still want,” she says, taking a deep breath. "Do you still want that?”
Percy reaches out and grabs her hand, feeling the familiar shape of her knuckles slide between his. The feel of her calluses is different because she writes and draws more now and holds her knife less, but she still shivers a little when he rubs his thumb in tiny circles.
“Yes,” he says, and it comes out in a croak, but he’s past the point of embarrassment now. She’s seen him in a lot of compromising positions, and she’ll see him in countless more.
There are about a million things he needs to tell her right now, like how she’s brilliant and smart and really, really good with her knife and she always makes him laugh and she’s his best fucking friend and saving the world together was only a bonus and after all these years, he still feels like his brain is melting through his shoes when she gives him that look, but he can’t force another word out of his throat and just stares.
Miraculously, Annabeth seems to get it. She nods and licks her lips and sets her jaw and pulls him in hard for a kiss.
He makes a garbled noise against her mouth that he will later deny vehemently, and then a voice that definitely doesn’t belong to either of them says, “FUCK!”
“Language!” Annabeth pulls back first, face flaming.
Percy almost feels bad for poor Brandon, who looks like he’s going to pass out. Almost, because he knows as soon as the shock wears off, the kid’s going to run off to the cabins and squeal to everyone and then Leo’s going to try and do something drastic to celebrate, like throw them in the lake. He’d bet good money Connor Stoll told him that story before leaving for college, and Leo’s been waiting all summer for a repeat performance.
Annabeth seems to read his thoughts. “Let’s get out of here. I love you and everything, but getting thrown in the lake once was enough for me.”
Gods, he needs to buy a new coat rack for his apartment.