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'cause you've been sinning in this city

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Percy meets his soulmate for the first time when he hands her a cup of coffee labelled Annabelle in his own scrawled handwriting.

 

It’s his first day at work. Everything has been going smoothly so far. Percy makes her drink as carefully as he can. Hands it over. Their fingers touch. Their veins glow. Everyone in the café is staring at them.

 

Their fingers are still touching. Their veins are still glowing. Their eyes meet. The light dies out, leaving tiny marks on the very tips of Percy’s fingers where they had made contact.

 

“Hello, Annabelle,” Percy says.

 

She fucking flees.

 

::

 

Pistachio cries when Percy tells her.

 

Like, actually cries. With real tears and everything, seeping into her work uniform, dripping off her chin. She throws her arms around Percy in congratulations, choppy chocolate hair sticking into his chin, up his nose. Percy sneezes. Pistachio only cries harder.

 

Percy’s mom has always said soulmates are people meant to be. Some people find theirs. Most don’t. Most don’t even have the genes. Percy thinks it’s cool he found his in the little café where he works. Deja Brew has grown to be one of his most favourite places in the world, along with his mom’s house, Franco’s dorm room with the little flowers in the windowsill, that one summer camp he went to when he was twelve, the cabin at Montauk with the beach right at their doorstep, and that little pub down the street with the drinks that fuck them all up.

 

“I’m happy for you,” Pistachio says, eyes gleaming all different colors, wiping her tears away. “I feel like everyone on campus has been talking nonstop about the soulmates in Deja Brew. I just wish I had been there instead of Will. Ugh, lucky bastard.” She’s still got that pimple above her eyebrow, the one she’s named Bob or Fred or something along that line. She names it different names whenever she feels like. Kind of like how Percy does.

 

The name thing – it has become kind of a thing with their little group of friends. And then, when Percy started working at the café, it became a thing there, too. A game of how bad can the barista fuck up our names? And Percy has to admit that it’s kind of fun.

 

“Don’t jump for joy about it,” Percy says. “She ran out of here the moment it happened. And that was five days ago.” He shrugs. “She missed the free celebratory cupcakes Harriet baked afterward.”

 

“It’s Hazel,” calls Harriet from the kitchen, sounding disgruntled. She’s a first-year, so she still hasn’t quiet gotten used to Percy’s naming habits yet – which Percy doesn’t get, because her boyfriend Francois seems to have given up just fine. She flips Percy off from the kitchen window. Pistachio – whose real name is Piper - guffaws unattractively.

 

“Ah yes. Mazel tov,” says Percy distractedly.

 

Distracted by the smell of warm pastries Harriet is making, Percy allows his mind to drift, to think about AnnaBanana or whatever her name had been, and he wonders if he’s allowed to feel disappointed that he’ll probably never see her again.

 

He hadn’t really caught a good look at her, but he remembers golden hair and black jeans. He hums. That description could be applied to anyone on campus – could even be applied to Pistachio’s boyfriend Jacob, who’s walking into the café right now.

 

He waves at Percy like a bro would. Ah, fellow sportspeople, Percy thinks with a fond smile, already moving to make Jason’s usual order – a white chocolate mocha that he likes really, really hot. He writes Jaime on the front of the cup and calls out the name loudly, grinning easily when Jason comes to pick it up.

 

“Nice,” he says. “Jaime. Like the Lannister?”

 

“The very same.”

 

“Call me Kingslayer,” Jason says smilingly. “Got any of the keesh?”

 

“Quiche,” Harriet corrects. “And no.”

 

“Oh well. This place is full. I’ll be at my table.” He pecks Pistachio on the lips and heads back to his table. She sees Percy looking at them, not even bothering to hide his repulsion, and grins.

 

“Don’t worry,” she says, beckoning the next customer forward. “You’ll be doing that with your lady lover soon enough.”

 

“Who says lover,” Percy says, disgusted.

 

“Taylor Swift,” Harriet calls from the kitchen.

 

“Doesn’t count,” Percy replies, bored. He rubs a finger around the rim of an empty cup.

 

“Would you stop moping,” says Pistachio.

 

“It’ll be fine,” says Jaime, who has evidently grown bored of his solitary spot and has now come to lean over the counter and give his girlfriend something to stare at. “She’ll be back soon. Everyone on campus comes here at some point.”

 

“I’ll keep my eyes peeled,” Pistachio promises. She fixes on Jaime with a sappy look plastered all over her face. “You going home?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Buy me some ice cream?”

 

“Pistachio?”

 

“You know me so well,” Pistachio beams, waving as Jaime leaves the shop.

 

“You guys are so cute,” Harriet gushes, peering over the kitchen window. She’s tiny, so she must be standing on her toes. “Like, so, so cute.”

 

“Calm down with the italics,” Percy says.

 

“Calm down with your snark,” Harriet fires back.

 

The door jingles open. Pistachio looks over from where she stands at the register and smiles. “Hey, Annabeth!”

 

Percy’s head whips around so fast his neck fucking does that weird thing where it sends this stabbing pain up his head and he yelps. Then he realizes he’s not fully turned his body around yet, and so he does.

 

It’s Annabelle, the girl from before, his soulmate. She looks horrified to see him. Her legs are quivering like she’s going to run again.

 

Pistachio is putting two and two together in real time. Her eyes widen. She seems to have lost the ability to speak.

 

“Wait, Annabelle,” Percy tries. “Don’t-”

 

The moment the name leaves his lips, the girl’s expression turns stony. She looks at Pistachio. “I’ll stop by later. When you’re on shift.” She says it in a way that leaves no room for misinterpretation. She says, when you’re on shift, but she means, when only you’re on shift.

 

Percy deflates. The girl leaves the shop.

 

Annabeth’s your soulmate?” Pistachio hisses. “You – she – Percy, you can’t call your soulmate the wrong fucking name!”

 

“I didn’t know her name,” Percy defends, even though privately he thinks that a name like Annabelle would suit someone with golden-yellow princess curls like hers, but Pistachio is already shaking her head.

 

“There are sixty-nine ways to get fucked,” she proclaims untruthfully. “You just invented number seventy.”

 

::

 

Leonardo is what Percy, a dedicated follower of the meme, would call Chaotic Evil.

 

Currently the little gremlin is pouring his special tequila shots into the row of tiny little shot glasses lined up in front of him, cackling all the while. It fills Percy with both anticipation and an impending sense of doom, a feeling that only grows as the guy hands him a glass with a toothy grin.

 

Percy stares at it.

 

“Thanks, Leonardo,” he says.

 

Leonardo blinks at him, considering, then shrugs. “Meh. I’ll take it. It’s better than LeBron, anyway.” Percy had called him for nearly a year straight.

 

Leonardo moves on to the next person. Percy stares at the glass in his hand. On his right side, Francois looks like he wants to leave, which is impossible, because this is his house.

 

Inevitably, everyone always ends up at Francois’ or Percy’s. Nobody really knows why. They’ve tried meeting up at Leonardo’s, Pistachio’s, and even (on one fateful day) Nincompoop’s, but nothing had really stuck, and before you know it here they all are again. Percy likes Francois’ place better than his, though. Francois has the softest bed and he always has food in the fridge and he has little flowers in the windowsills. Leonardo puked on them once, but the flowers are still pretty.

 

The bed belongs to the first two to vomit. It’s their ultimate rule. Everyone inevitably wants the bed so bad they’re willing to puke their guts out for it, which is equal parts hilarious and sad, watching ten or so college students nearly give themselves alcohol poisoning just to sleep on a comfortable bed with thick blankets.

 

Percy’s almost completely gone from the liquor. He’s had a rather disappointing week. His soulmate has rejected him not once, not twice – but twice, and his leg is still bandaged from when he tried to jump over his own kitchen counter during his last drunken escapade – an injury that had forced him to miss swim practice all week.

 

“I hate you all,” Francois moans. Everyone ignores him. Francois has this sort of breakdown every time they gather in his house, but he ends up always being the first one to get start doing stupid shit, like the last time, when he attempted to use his sofa as a trampoline to stick a glob of peanut butter on the ceiling. Harriet, the only one willing to indulge him, is a fucking lightweight and has been tipsy and giggly since her very first drink, so she merely giggles again and kisses his cheek. Francois makes a small hmph noise but looks pleased anyway because he’s a big old sap inside. Percy wants to cry just looking at them, which is how he knows he’s pretty smashed.

 

Across from Percy, Jacob has wrenched open the window, setting down Harriet’s swear jar on the floor, and is taking deep gulps of the chilly night air, an idea that seems so good that Percy knocks back his shot and joins him. Resisting the urge to join Nincompoop on the floor and laugh at the ceiling the way drunk people do, he winces as the alcohol burns a line down his throat. It tastes familiar, but it’s still horrible. Leonardo swears he’ll take the recipe to his grave.

 

“Where’s Pistachio,” Percy says when he reaches Jacob, who snorts.

 

“Bringing a friend, she’ll be here soon.” Jacob is smiling a very soft smile and he and Pistachio are very cute and it makes Percy want to cry. Again. Which makes it twice in the span of maybe two minutes. Maybe he’s allergic to cute things, cute people, cute people doing cute things together.

 

“Ah, heard about your soulmate disaster,” Jacob says.

 

“Didn’t everyone,” Percy grunts. “Deja Brew’s been full of people asking me if my veins glow every time I think of her.”

 

Jacob swallows like he’s keeping the vomit down, and he shoves his face into the flowers, probably to smell something other than alcohol. Percy can relate. He’s had maybe ten or so shots of something, each drink more vile than the last, and now he feels nice and loose, but also greasy and pukey. He sways lightly to the music Harriet is playing. It’s something slow and emotional, definitely not English.

 

“YOU SHINE LIKE THE STARS,” Leonardo howls at the ceiling fan, “YOU LIGHT UP MY HEART-” The rest of the words are a different language, so he just screams the tune in a yodel.

 

“Yo, Zhang!” Leonardo screeches, “Isn’t this your language? Shouldn’t you know the words?”

 

“That’s Korean,” Francois says, managing, even while drunk, to look at the shorter guy with disdain. “I’m Chinese, you flaming heap of garbage.” Jacob laughs so hard at this that he forgets that his entire head is inside the tray where Frank grows his flowers. He inhales soil. He falls back, choking. Percy screeches.

 

Literally nobody gives a shit. Nincompoop, the emo little fucker, is passed out right in the middle of the room, mouth open. Harriet cries over his prone body, something about being the only brother she’s ever had. Leonardo is trying to sing in Korean. Francois is sat on the sofa alone, head in his hands.

 

The door opens. Pistachio walks in with – with –

 

“Annabelle,” Percy says fervently.

 

She doesn’t hear him, obviously. She’s smiling, and it’s a smile of generic civility, but she’s pretty, which is very much an objective observation and not a subjective sentiment. He gazes at her in a fashion bordering on the creepy side, but it’s only because he’s been hit with possibly the most powerful surge of attraction, settling low in his belly, and he’s never felt anything like it before. Percy attempts to stand, but falls down right on top of Jacob, nearly cracking his skull. He groans. Jacob gurgles.

 

“Percy, Jason, you absolute cretins,” Pistachio hisses, hovering over them like an oversized moth. “I’m doing you a favour, Percy, it took me ages to convince her to give you a chance, the least you could do is not trip over your own fucking feet.”

 

Next to her is Annabelle, pretty blond curls and all.

 

Percy sits up with difficulty.

 

“Hello,” he says, vision swimming, eyes filled with tears.

 

“Oh no,” says Pistachio.

 

Percy holds out a hand for her to shake. She doesn’t. Percy moves his hand up and down anyway – “Nice to meet you. I’m – I’m –” Uh-oh.

 

He swallows. He needs water. He needs to swim. He needs water to drink, not the same kind of water he swims in.

 

“I’m puke free since ’93,” Percy says, a war cry, a victory cry, before he manages to throw his entire body across the windowsill and upchuck the contents of his stomach right over Francois’ tiny little pink and yellow blossoms.

 

::

 

“I’m never drinking again,” Percy vows the next morning. He’s woken up in bed next to Jacob, who had apparently lasted about one second longer than Percy, only he’d managed to make it to the bathroom before puking up the same vanilla drink Percy had made for him only a few hours before. At least they’d gotten the bed, Percy thinks, even though he smells of vomit and he’d woken up in nothing but a pair of shorts that weren’t even his.

 

“I should record all your lies and send them to your mother,” Jacob mumbles.

 

“I mean it this time.”

 

“You say that every time,” Jacob groans, rubbing his palms over his eyes. He tries to sit up, fails, and then begins to yank the blanket from Percy, who gives in after a moment’s struggle.

 

Then he begins to laugh. “I can’t believe your soulmate is Annabeth of all people.”

 

“Is she nice?” Percy asks.

 

“She’s…nice. I guess. One of Piper’s best friends. But she’s also kind of terrifying,” Jacob says. “But I dunno her all that well, so.” He laughs again. “It’s just. You two are total opposites, dude.”

 

“How?” Percy snuggles deeper into the bed, closing his eyes. “I like everyone. And everyone likes me. Remember what Raphael used to say – I’m everyone’s type.”

 

Once Jason laughs himself stupid about Rachel’s name being butchered into Raphael – Rachel would be happy enough, Percy thinks, being an artist and all that – Jason elaborates.

 

“You’re all. Carefree. Careless. Like - you’re like a shoelace without the shoe, like a noodle in the wind.” He nods as if this makes perfect sense. “She’s not like you. She’s neat and clean and smart. Scary smart. Honor roll and all that. I feel like she could beat you up. But even though it’s weird, that I can kind of picture you together.” Jacob hums. “You’d be cute.”

 

Percy is then hit with a bout of what he likes to call situational allergies, because his eyes begin to water and his throat gets all scratchy. He gives himself away by sniffing very loudly.

 

“Are you crying,” Jacob says in wonder.

 

“I have allergies,” Percy sniffs, turning away. “And also I’m still drunk.”

 

“Show me your face-”

 

“Get off me, you soggy little-”

 

They tumble off the bed together, a heap of limbs and blankets.

 

“I swear to god everyone told me you were gay, Jason, they even called you Gayson behind your back, and I didn’t believe them, but sometimes I wonder if I should really worry about you two,” Pistachio says, appearing in the doorway out of nowhere. Percy, who had been attempting to wrestle Jacob into submission, yelps and loses balance. Jacob squeaks as Percy’s elbow drills into his stomach.

 

“Maybe you should be worried,” Percy teases lightly, shooting Jacob what he hopes is a suggestive smile. It must work, because Jacob grins back, raising an eyebrow.

 

“You’d both set each other on fire,” Pistachio yawns.

 

“We’d be the ultimate couple,” Jacob says. “We’d be unstoppable.”

 

“I call top,” Percy says. Jacob bolts up immediately and cries out, “Bullshit you’re topping me.”

 

“I’ve found you two like this way more times than I can count,” Pistachio says mournfully. “Even though it took Jason months to be that rough with me in bed.”

 

Jason flails so wildly he smacks Percy in the head. Percy scrambles away to avoid further damage, leaving Jason windmilling uselessly on the floor, face turning redder and redder. For someone so shameless, he definitely flusters easily.

 

“Kinky,” says Percy.

 

“Thanks,” says Pistachio.

 

“Please stop talking,” Jacob moans.

 

Pistachio can drink like a fish, but she is clearly not as sober as she’s letting on. Dropping to the floor, she drapes herself over her boyfriend like some kind of brown-skinned snake and kisses his shoulder. Percy bolts out of the room as fast as he can – which means he has to crawl. Jacob kicks him in the ass. Percy squawks.

 

The mess outside is one Percy remembers. He feels like he might’ve caused some of it before he passed out – like…there. The mural on the floor made of cucumbers – Percy did that. He stares at it for a minute, admiring, then fishes for his phone from his pocket. He comes up empty-handed, which prompts a hunt around the flat for the device, which takes about twenty minutes in Percy’s head but probably around five in actual time. He finally finds it wedged into a sock. Percy vaguely remembers doing that, too, him and Nincompoop and Leonardo shoving their phones into their socks and swinging them around like bringers of death and feet-stink.

 

He clicks a picture of the cucumber art, then uploads it to his Instagram story – Grover responds to it at once with I wish I was there!

 

percy >> i wish you were here too. puked lmfao

grover >> You disappoint me. What happened to puke free since ’93??

percy >> i yelled that shit out right before puking i jinxed myself o nooooooo

grover >> LOL. Finally. You weren’t even born in 1993.  Impostor.

percy >> i would rather lie than not rhyme tbh

percy >> hey that rhymes

grover >> No it doesn’t, Percy

 

Because Percy and Jason had been lucky enough to tget the bed, everyone else has spread themselves across any other decent surface. Sighing, Percy lies down next to a sleeping Nincompoop, takes a picture of him as well for good measure, and then scrolls through his Instagram followers, looking for an Anna-something. There is none. It makes sense that she doesn’t follow him, but Percy can’t help the little pang of disappointment that runs through him when there are no results.

 

He clicks to Piper’s profile, checks her followers, and oh my god there she is.

 

Her profile picture is tiny, and Percy’s still far too drunk to make any sense of her bio. Her account is on private but she’s got 54 posts up and Percy wants to see them all. His finger hovers over the Follow button.

 

“Don’t do it,” says a groggy voice, and Percy drops his phone on his face.

 

Nincompoop lets out a huff of air. It smells of rum and morning breath. It’s disgusting. Percy squirms away.

 

“Sorry,” Nincompoop says, not sounding very apologetic, lifting a bony arm to wipe at his face. His arm flops back down to his side; the dark circles under his eyes stay.

 

“Don’t follow her,” Nincompoop continues. He’s always reminded Percy of some small animal that likes to skulk around in caves, with the deeply pessimistic personality of Charlie from Charlie the Unicorn. He clambers onto the couch, then hangs from it so that his head grazes the floor. He looks rather like an oversized bat. “That’s like the first rule. You gotta make the girls come to you.”

 

“Nincompoop, you’re gay,” Percy says. “You put the homo in homo sapiens.”

 

“Yeah, so?”

 

“There are no girls.”

 

“Yeah, so?”

 

Percy gives up. He puts his phone back in his pocket. “Hey, whose shorts are these?”

 

“Frank’s, duh.” Nincompoop sighs. “Don’t ask me how they got you to change clothes, I don’t know the details, I don’t want to know the details.”

 

“Do you think he’ll mind if I take them home?”

 

“Do I look like I give a single shit,” says Nincompoop tiredly. “You should probably put on a shirt, though, before you leave.”

 

“Good idea.” Percy looks around for one, finds none, and ends up having to pull someone’s hoodie on. “I’m going to go home and pass out. Tell Francis I’m sorry about his flowers.”

 

“You did.” Nico heaves a long, long sigh that ends with the air whistling out of his nose. “You cried. About puking on his flowers. I woke up because of it. Then Jason puked, and you cried again. Then you cried because you wanted everyone to be happy. Frank forgave you after that. And then you cried again.”

 

“I-” Percy struggles for a minute to find words. “Isn’t that the cutest, most wholesome reason to cry, though?”

 

“Go suck it.” Nico turns away so that his face is pressed into the carpet. “I was sleeping so peacefully, you dick.”

 

“Thanks, Nincompoop.” Percy brushes crumbs off the hoodie as he stands. “Bye.” He bends down and ruffles his hair. “Love you…as a friend.”

 

“Oh my god, fuck off, Percy.”

 

Percy fucks off.

 

He hums the tune for a song he can’t remember, jamming his hands into the hoodie. It’s dark blue, possibly the basketball teams’. He’ll have to remember to return it to Jacob later.

 

Franco lives in Block E of the students’ accommodation, not too far away from where Percy lives in C. Pinocchio and Jason are in A, and the rest are spread out over G and J. Luckily, Deja Brew is right along the way, and Jubilee will probably on shift, which means Grover will be in, and Percy wants to see Grover.

 

The café is open, and Juniper smirks when he steps inside. Percy figures he probably looks like hell, but this is college, for fuck’s sake, and he’d caught many others walking back to their rooms, looking no less wrecked. They had made eye contact like ah. You too. And it’s a nice kind of bond to share, the bond of mutual suffering and underage drinking, Percy thinks with a small burst of fondness.

 

Grover is sitting at a table for two by the window. Percy parks his butt into the empty seat with grace. Sike. He stumbles and nearly spills Grover’s latte. Grover glares. Percy lifts his hands in a sorry gesture and knocks over his fork in the process. It clatters to the floor. He bends to pick it up and ends up hitting his head on the edge of the table as he straightens, so when he finally emerges to throw the fork back onto Grover’s plate, it’s with tears in his eyes.

 

Grover is shaking with laughter, because he’s a monster who cannot understand human pain. “You’re still so drunk. Why are you even awake?”

 

“Am not. Drunk. Am awake.” Percy leans forward and breathes in the smell of Grover’s latte.

 

“Mmm,” he says. It’s widely accepted that Percy makes the best drinks – his shifts are usually the busiest because of it – but he’s never managed to master aroma quite like Jubilee.

 

“Don’t breathe your alcohol breath onto my drink,” Grover says. “Did you even brush your teeth?”

 

“No,” says Percy.

 

“You unhygienic swine –”

 

“Juniper,” Percy calls, “could you get me a Smoked Butterscotch Latte?”

 

“Got you!” calls Juniper.

 

“Percy, no,” says Grover. “Brush your teeth first.”

 

“Percy yes,” says Percy, swiping a bit of Grover’s scrambled egg. He moans – obscenely – as he chews, drawing the gaze of people at the other tables. “Oh fuck yes. This is heaven. I haven’t eaten since. Since like a year ago, feels like. I’m fucking starving. Puked at Franco’s, that wasn’t fun.”

 

“You played his ukulele,” Grover says amusedly. “Do you remember?”

 

Percy does not remember, not even when Grover shows him a video from Leonardo’s story, that shows Percy headbanging, plucking the same string of Frank’s ukulele at an alarming pace, belting out the lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody.

 

“IS THIS THE REAL LIFE,” the Percy in the video croons. “IS THIS JUST FANTASY?” A girl over at the next table giggles. Grover shuts the video.

 

“You still sound good,” he grunts.

 

“I do, don’t I,” Percy says in wonder. “You can take the Percy from the talent, you can’t take the talent from the Percy.”

 

“What,” says Grover.

 

“Dunno. Still hungover.” Percy massages his forehead. “I’m gonna hit the pool.”

 

“Don’t go to the pool, you’re wasted. And also you are wasted in the pool with a voice like yours,” Grover grumbles. “Are you sure you don’t wanna start a band? Tour the nation?”

 

“A one-man band, sure. Me and Francis’s ukulele.” Percy smiles gratefully at Juniper, who places his drink on the table with a cheese sandwich. “Ah, you’re an angel.”

 

“It comes out of your pay.”

 

“Snake,” Percy says.

 

“Don’t call my girlfriend a snake,” says Grover.

 

“That’ll be 5 dollars eighty-one, babe,” says Jubilee.

 

“Snake!” he screeches. Jubilee cracks an amused smile and hands him the bill; she blows him a kiss. Percy bats it away mid-path. Grover looks unsure of whether to continue being annoyed or laugh as Percy resumes massaging his own temples: honestly, it feels like someone’s swung at his head with a golf club and it’s gone and splattered all over the building. That’s what it feels like, Percy thinks. It feels like he’s rolled around in a puddle of vodka with his head off. That’s what it feels like.

 

He takes a big bite of the sandwich and moans.

 

“Do you have to molest your food every single time,” Grover asks.

 

“Mmmmfgh,” Percy says. He swallows. “Just showing my appreciate for Mother Nature and all the sustenance she provides. Thought you’d be into that shit.”

 

“You’re full of shit.”

 

“You saying you into me?”

 

The door swings open. Grover’s eyebrows shoot up.

 

“Perce,” he murmurs. Gestures over to the front, where Juniper is taking an order.

 

Percy looks. Looks again, and wants to melt through the tiles and into the underground.

 

“Your soulmate, in the flesh,” Grover says. “She was in my Theory of Structures class, back in sophomore year. Crazy smart.”

 

“Jacob said that, too.”

 

Grover hums. “You’re soulmates with one tough cookie.”

 

“She saw me puke,” Percy says. “I think she hates me. And apparently I cried right after that, so. Bad first impression. She hates me for sure.”

 

“I don’t think she could hate you,” Grover says. “She doesn’t even know you. Although it’s weird that you’ve never met before this, I think she’s pretty close to Piper and Thalia. We were pretty close back in sophomore year, lost touch with her after that, though.”

 

“No, she definitely hates me,” Percy says, “I mean, I puked within five seconds of seeing her at Frank’s. I really, really think she hates me.”

 

“Impossible,” Grover murmurs, though he sounds uncertain. “You know what Rachel says –”

 

“I’m everyone’s type.” Percy bites into his sandwich forlornly. “I know.”

 

And it makes him sad, he has to admit. Because Percy’s mom has brought him up on tales of true love and Percy’s glad to have a soulmate. And Percy’s a good person and he’s likeable and he would like to get to know Annabelle, even if she hates him. Which is weird, because he’s everyone’s type, but it’s like – it’s like. It’s like Percy’s chocolate, and everyone likes chocolate, but there’ll always be that one person who doesn’t. Percy is chocolate and Annabeth doesn’t like chocolate and that’s that.

 

Percy sighs. Sips his drink. Checks his phone.

 

Grover looks at him worriedly. Percy shrugs.

 

Annabeth passes by their table. She nods to Grover, who smiles back. Doesn’t look at Percy until –

 

She turns. Percy blinks.

 

A tentative smile spreads across her face. “You okay?” she asks. Percy is too dumb, too surprised, to do anything but nod.

 

“Cool,” she says. Smirks. “So, puke free since ’93, huh.”

 

::

 

Percy swims.

 

Being in the water makes him sharp, focused, much more aware and coordinated than he feels on land. The water is calm and cool and inviting when Percy dives in, and it feels like home. He’s moved around a lot – boarding schools and his mom’s house and now, here, but swimming always feels the same.

 

There’s no practice today, so Percy takes his time. Goes through the motions. Swims a lap of freestyle, a lap of butterfly, a lap of breast. He tries the backstroke but veers outrageously off-course and finally misjudges the distance to the end of the pool by a long shot and hits his head against the wall. It hurts like hell. He stops.

 

There are a couple of others – freshmen hopefuls to the team getting in some extra practice, pointedly ignoring Percy’s mishap. Percy’s a frontrunner for captain. He ought to know their names, but he can’t possibly find them in his head right now, so he settles for a smile and a wave. Like the penguins in that movie. The one with the animals that end up on an island, the one with the dancing lion. That was a good movie, Percy thinks.

 

He gets a couple more laps in. His leg feels much better than it had last week and Percy feels good about it. He’s got a couple of races, swim meets, lined up over the next couple of months, and he’s excited. Buzzed. Can’t wait. He can’t wait to cross that finish line and –

 

And what? Percy thinks, clambering out of the pool, trailing water. What happens then?

 

Just something else to add to the list of things. Percy’s List Of Things That He Hopes He’ll Get Answers For Before He Dies. Which holds all of Percy’s deep, unanswerable questions, like What is my purpose but also What was that one ice cream flavour I had the first time I tried weed. He’s never found any answers, even though Jacob has forcefed him nearly every ice cream flavour they’ve been able to think of.

 

His room is empty when he goes back. Officially, Percy’s rooming with Jacob, but Jacob has unofficially moved in with Pistachio, just like Grover and Juniper have done. So Percy lives alone. Which is okay. Which is cool. His friends come over a lot – too much, really - and this way he has more space for his shit, and it’s not like he uses his room for anything more than sleeping and dumping his stuff – it’s just. On days like these, especially. He feels a little lonely.

 

For all of his addictions to bad decisions and disasters, Percy’s apartment has always been fairly neat, all the cheap furniture colored that one beige color that things are because Percy’d never cared about choosing colors. It’s not sparkling, per se, it’s just a little smudgy. Which is cool. Which is fine. There’s a place for everything, and everything has a place in here.

 

Percy digs into some leftover soup. It’s still good even though it’s two days old. His mom’s taught him well. That’s another reason to like him, he thinks ruefully, Annabelle flashing in his head. He’s a good cook. People come over for dinner a lot – Pistachio and Jacob, Francois and Harriet, Grover and Juniper, Leonardo and Nincompoop and Wilbur and Raphael and Reynold and Clarinet and Christmas and Traffic and Corner, and Silicon and her massive boyfriend Charlie Chaplin, and his teammates from the swim team, and having people around makes it better, makes – makes the smidge of isolation he’s feeling feel less weird, less potent.

 

He goes downstairs to throw out the trash. He’s beat, man. Beat from the drinks and the swimming and the puking, beat from Annabelle’s smile and the way she’d said, Puke free since ’93. Mocking, playful. Almost like they’re friends, which they’re not. Percy doesn’t know her. And yet - he’d like to. He’d very much like to know her.

 

He stops thinking when he hears the small meow.

 

He turns. Stares. Crouches on his heels.

 

“Here, kitty,” he whispers, the way they do in the movies. The kitten moves away from him immediately. It’s yellow, with grey eyes. It’s beautiful, he thinks. Tiny and unsteady on its tiny kitten paws.

 

“Here, kitty kitty kitty kit-eeee,” Percy trills. “Here, come here, come here, kitty kitty.”

 

The kitten does not give a single ounce of fuck. It yawns. Percy’s voice falters, and then it hits him. He remembers some video – some shitty Youtube video he’d watched when he was bored. Some shitty recommendation of some dude just. Attracting cats. Making his noise. And all the cats just. Came to him.

 

“Pspspspspspspspspspspsps,” says Percy. The kitten stops yawning and looks over in interest. Percy can’t believe his luck.

 

“Pspspspsps.” The kitten inches forward.

 

“Pspspspspspspspspsps.” It’s a few feet away.

 

“Pspsps.” The kitten nudges his knee. Percy gasps.

 

“Hello,” he says to it. The kitten looks up, unimpressed.

 

“Pspsps,” he says again, to mollify it. He scoops it up in a hand. It tries to bite his finger.

 

“Hello,” he tells it. “Let’s be friends.”

 

The kitten meows and tries to bite his finger again. Percy takes that as an overwhelming yes, and, thanking the universe for a cure to the weirdness he’s been feeling these days, he carries it inside.

 

::

 

“How do you take care of cats,” Percy asks Pistachio the next day on shift.

 

Pinocchio stills, halfway through counting the money in the register. “What?”

 

“Cats. I have a cat,” Percy explains. “Do you know how to take care of one?”

 

“You don’t have a cat. You can’t have a cat, Percy,” Pistachio says, looking back at the money again. “Fuck. I have to start again.” She starts again.

 

“I can so have a cat,” Percy says. He pulls up a picture on his phone and shows it to her like a proud father. “This is her. I haven’t named her yet. Bought her some fish and gave her some milk. She stays under my bed most of the time. Bit my finger.”

 

“Oh my god.”

 

“She’s my new best friend.”

 

“Jason will be crushed.”

 

“I’ve told him a million times that Grover’s my best friend.”

 

“Grover will be crushed, then.”

 

“Grover loves kitty,” Percy says. “He came over to see her yesterday. She hid under my bed again. Took me hours to lure her back out.”

 

“This feels like it’s out of a fever dream,” Pistachio says, shaking her head. “Are pets even allowed in your building?”

 

“I asked the landlady and my RA, and they both said it was okay, but if Kitty gets too loud, then we might have to kick her out,” Percy says. “but it’s okay, because if Kitty walks, so do I.”

 

“That is…not a solution,” says Pistachio. “And I have no idea how to take care of one. I’ll ask around, though.”

 

“Thanks.” Percy finishes wiping down the counter with a flourish as Pistachio starts counting the stack of dollar bills again.

 

“What should I name her, though,” Percy wonders aloud.

 

Pistachio pauses, considering. “Fred.”

 

“What?”

 

“Fred.”

 

“Isn’t that what you named your pimple.”

 

“No. That was Bob. And this is Fred.”

 

“Are you insane,” Percy says. He stops when a customer walks in and orders a cappuccino. Percy makes it. He hands it over with a smile, then turns back to her. “Are you insane.”

 

“It feels right,” she says.

 

“It feels moronic,” Percy replies.

 

“Fred is a good name,” says Pistachio.

 

“My cat is female,” says Percy.

 

“Maybe she identifies as male, who knows,” Piper says.

 

“I mean,” Percy says, “it’s not like we can ask her, right.”

 

“I mean, it’s rude to just assume Fred’s gender,” says Pistachio.

 

“I’m not assuming, I lifted her up and looked under her tail and-”

 

“Okay, but Fred, though.”

 

“Alright, fine,” Percy says. “I’m going to name her something different, though.”

 

“Fine,” Pistachio says maddeningly. “Fred feels right. I’m calling her Fred.”

 

“Feel free.” Percy squints into the oven. “Feel free.”

 

“We should ask for a neutral opinion – ooh!” Pistachio squeals as the door swings open, revealing Annabelle in all her tanned, golden glory. “Annabeth! Help us name Percy’s cat!”

 

So last night Percy had decided to take things slow with this whole soulmate thing. Even though every instinct in him is telling him not to. But soulmates involve two people, which means it involves someone other than himself, and Annabelle seems to not want to acknowledge it at all, and Percy can respect that, for now. He can say hello and good morning and get her her order. Give her space. Give her time. Take it slow.

 

Taking it slow apparently does not exist in Pistachio’s dictionary, though. Percy wants to scream at her for ruining the delicate balance he and Annabelle have created, a balance where Percy remains mute and she smirks at him with her eyes glinting in that way it does. He’s fine if they start out like this. This-this stage of acknowledgement, really. Asking her to name Percy’s cat is – many steps away.

 

He just. Doesn’t want to scare her off. It’s not like he can go pspspsps and bait her back to him.

 

But Annabelle looks at him cautiously, much like the kitten had done, and takes a step forward to lean over the register. “A cat?”

 

“Percy’s cat.” Pistachio winks at him. “Show her, Perce.”

 

Percy slides his phone over, feeling warm all over. He doesn’t yet trust himself to speak.

 

Annabelle coos at the picture. “Adorable.” She gives the phone back to him, careful not to let their fingers touch, as though scared they’ll both light up again.

 

“I’m calling her Fred,” Pistachio declares.

 

“That’s a shitty name,” Annabelle deadpans.

 

“That’s.” Percy clears his throat, conscious. Pinocchio, the devil herself, grins at him, smug. “That’s what I said, too.”

 

Annabelle hums. “I’ll keep thinking about it.” She glances warily at Percy. “Percy, right?”

 

Percy clears his throat again. It’s the situational hay fever without the tears, back again, making him look like a dumbass. “Yes. I mean – uh. Yeah.”

 

“Could you.” She pauses, determinedly not looking at Pistachio, who is counting the same dollar bill over and over, very obviously listening hard. “Could you make me a Honey Citrus Mint tea? Everyone says you make the best drinks around here.”

 

“Uh. Yeah. Sure.” Percy blinks, then busies himself with the ingredients, his entire face aflame, because she’s asked about him. She’s asked about him.

 

Piper rings her up. Percy hands her the tea. She breathes it in and smiles, just a little.

 

“I’m Annabeth,” she says.

 

“Yo,” says Percy, which – fuck -why. Why did he say that.

 

“Thanks for the drink,” Annabeth says. “See you, Pipes.”

 

“Bye,” says Piper.

 

The door closes behind her. Pistachio stares at Percy with this – this smile spreading on her face, the kind of smile that makes him terrified.

 

“What,” Percy asks.

 

“Nothing,” says Piper, “nothing at all,” and she goes back to counting the money.

 

::

 

“Pspsps,” Wilbur tries. Kitty stays resolutely under his bed.

 

“Pspsps,” says Francois from under the book.

 

“Pspsps,” says Harriet.

 

“Pspsps,” says Percy, and the cat shoots out and onto his lap at once.

 

“What the fuck,” says Harriet.

 

“It’s like a party trick,” whispers Jacob in awe.

 

“This is so stupid,” Nincompoop says. “Why are we forcing this cat to put up with this shit. If I was a cat-”

 

“And that is why you are not a cat,” says Harriet.

 

“Pspsps,” says Leonardo.

 

“Pspsps,” Raphael tries.

 

“This is so stupid,” Nincompoop howls again. “We average age twenty, why are we psps-ing a cat.”

 

“She is not just a cat,” says Leonardo. “She is stealth itself. A creature of the night.”

 

“Did you overdose on the caffeine today?” Harriet asks him sweetly. “You’re being stranger than usual. And by that I mean absolutely insane.”

 

“You’re high,” Percy observes.

 

“Only a little,” Leonardo admits.

 

“That would explain it,” Raphael admits.

 

Kitty purrs in his lap. Percy strokes her head and she settles comfortably in his arms. Everyone awws, even Nincompoop, the soft bastard. Which brings him to his predicament.

 

“I need to name her,” Percy says. “Gimme cat names. Threetwoone go.”

 

“Festus,” says Leonardo at once.

 

“Starfire,” says Franco from where he’s lying on the floor, book open over his head, assignment forgotten.

 

“Aslan,” says Harriet.

 

“Churro,” says Wilbur.

 

“Noir,” says Nincompoop.

 

“Marigold,” says Grover.

 

“Vincent,” says Raphael.

 

“Fred,” says Jace.

 

“Fucking traitor ass bitch, taking your girlfriend’s side.” Percy points at him. “Disqualified.” Jacob gasps as everyone boos around him.

 

“I like Churro,” Percy admits.

 

“Go full condiment,” Leonardo says. “Paprika. Pepper. Cinnamon.”

 

“Fred,” Pistachio calls from outside the door, knocking. Jacob opens it. Pistachio bounds in and gives him a kiss. Anastasia trails behind a little warily, but she smiles in greeting at everyone. She really has no need to be nervous, Percy thinks absentmindedly, scratching Churro behind the ears. She pretty much knows everyone in their little group, shares classes with a bunch of them. Or so they’ve told Percy.

 

“Annabeth, this is the gang,” Pistachio says. “The gang, Annabeth.”

 

“We know who she is,” Harriet says. She waves at Anna Karenina. “Hey there. Good to see you again.”

 

“Hey,” says Annabelle.

 

“Damn, girl,” Leonardo begins, lifting an eyebrow the way he always does when he’s getting ready to drop some cheesy line.

 

“Don’t,” Pistachio warns. “Don’t even with your lack of propriety and basic common sense. Or I will banish you.”

 

“Jeez, fine,” Leonardo says, hands up.

 

Annabelle lets out a reluctant little smile as Pistachio makes quick introductions. She looks a little out of place, which Percy thinks is weird for her, but that’s only because he’d begged Piper to tell him more about her. Pistachio had described Annabeth as some kind of genius, with Jacob’s athleticism and Francois’ reliability and Nincompoop’s dark sarcasm, and Percy feels like he knows her now. Her gaze passes over the group of them one by one, resting a little longer on Percy and little baby Cinnamon in his arms.

 

“What’s going on?” she asks, sitting on the floor next to Pistachio. She points at Francois’ body. “Is he okay?”

 

“All good,” Francois says, gesturing a thumbs up with both hands in the general direction of her voice.

 

“Ah, the life of a college student,” says Leonardo reminiscently. “Makes you really wanna die.” Everyone voices their agreement.

 

“I know I’m only a freshman, but it doesn’t seen that bad so far,” says Harriet.

 

“You poor girl,” Pistachio says, darting over to wrap the smaller girl in her arms. “You sweet, sweet child. Please stay the same.”

 

“Hazel, lemme teach you a thing about life,” Leonardo says, with the air of Master Oogway from the movie with the fighting pandas. “The most important lesson you’ll ever learn in life is that none of it fucking matters. And if you accept it right now, it’ll be better in the long run.”

 

“Uh, okay,” says Harriet articulately.

 

“Don’t corrupt the children,” says Jacob.

 

“Please don’t call her a child,” Francois moans. “Makes me sound like a pedophile.”

 

Pippa is pspsps-ing Aslan, who doesn’t budge. “Fred is so cute,” she says.

 

“I want to call her Sunshine,” Jacob announces. “Because she’s yellow and she gives me a reason to live.”

 

“What about me,” Pistachio says, affronted.

 

“That’s like half your name, Jason,” Raphael protests. “So unoriginal.”

 

“I like Noir,” says Nincompoop.

 

“She is yellow,” Pistachio hisses. “She is the furthest thing from darkness, you absolute bat.”

 

“Don’t call my boyfriend a bat,” says Wilbur.

 

“I’m not your boyfriend,” Nincompoop says.

 

“Worth a shot,” Wilbur shrugs.

 

“Day fifty-seven,” reports Francois in a tinny voice like he’s narrating a documentary. “The Will moves closer to his prey. His thirst knows no end.” Wilbur flips him off, but Francois doesn’t see because of the book over his face.

 

“Are you all high,” Annabeth questions aloud.

 

“I am,” says Leonardo.

 

“Clovis?” Percy asks.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Clovis is actually really smart when he’s not stoned,” Annabelle says.

 

“Yeah, too bad he’s a pothead,” Raphael seconds. “He could’ve become like President or something if he wasn’t stoned all the time.”

 

“But he can’t be stoned all the time if he’s President,” Leonardo says wisely, as though this makes perfect sense.

 

“I had a drink a couple hours ago, but I’m totally fine now,” Wilbur says brightly.

 

“No you’re not,” says Harriet.

 

“Kiss my ass,” says Wilbur.

 

“I hope you don’t mean that literally.”

 

“I’m just. Done,” moans Franco from under the book. “I want to die. This is the end.”

 

“Hold your breath and count to ten,” Percy sings under his breath. He blushes when Annabeth stares at him as though stricken.

 

“Ah, yes,” Pippa says sagely. “Percy here has the voice of a rock god.”

 

“Sing a song, Perce,” Jacob yawns, sticking his feet on Percy’s lap. “I’m in the mood for a nap. Lull me to sleep, lullaby man.”

 

“Is that a remix of Piano Man?” asks Annabelle with interest.

 

“Song,” Raphael echoes at once, clapping, red curls bouncing.

 

“No,” says Percy.

 

“Song,” says Grover.

 

“Song,” says Pistachio.

 

Sunshine meows in his lap. Everyone awws again. Glad for the distraction, Percy stands, lifting Festus in a hand.

 

“Who wants what for dinner?” he asks, which sparks, like, a twenty-minute debate before everyone settles on pasta. Percy shepherds everyone out of his room and into the hall, where someone grabs his laptop and they begin to argue, again, over which movie to watch.

 

Percy smiles a little. He sets Vincent down on the floor by his feet, where she latches onto his jeans at once and begins to scale his leg. Unperturbed, Percy begins to cut tomatoes, stopping once in a while to declaw Fred and set her down again.

 

In the hallway, the argument continues. Jacob wants to watch Twilight. Pistachio wants to watch The Duff. Annaliese seems to have found her voice and is vouching for some war documentary he’s never heard of. Harriet is hungry. Grover is pspsps-ing for Marigold. Francois is asleep in Percy’s room, book still over his face. Nincompoop proclaims loudly that he wants to go home. Wilbur wants to go home – with Nincompoop.

 

Kitty latches onto his leg again, probably scared by the noise. “It’s okay,” Percy tells her, even as she begins her ascent up his leg again. “They’re like this. You’ll get used to it.”

 

Percy finishes the tomatoes. He scrapes them into a pan, then starts on the onions.

 

There’s finally a lull from the hallway. Percy hears the faint sounds of Circle of Life play from the laptop. Pistachio darts into the kitchen, plucks Fred from Percy’s pants without a word, and runs back outside, holding her up the same way the wise monkey is doing to Simba in the movie. Everyone cheers and claps. Percy cuts the onions.

 

“Hey, do you need any help?” comes a voice. “I’m not a great cook, but – holy shit are you crying?

 

“What? No.” Percy wipes his tears. Points. “It’s the onions.”

 

“Oh. Phew.” Annaliese looks relieved, and Percy flushes, remembering that he’d been crying back at Francois’ house when he was drunk, too. He hopes he’s not always going to be crying when he sees her. “But. Yeah. Um. You good here?”

 

“I’m good.” He holds up the knife. Which, again. Why would he do that. He probably looks like a serial killer. “Thanks.”

 

“No problem.” She looks like she wants to say something else, but closes her mouth and moves back towards the rest.

 

“Hey. Annabelle?”

 

She turns back to him, face carefully devoid of emotion. “It’s…Annabeth, actually.”

 

“Fuck. Shit. Sorry.” Percy is about two seconds away from stabbing himself with the knife in his hand. “Uh, you think of any names yet?”

 

“For Fred?” Annabelle tilts her head. “Still working on it.”

 

“Oh,” he says. “Okay.”

 

“But…” She rocks back and forth on her heels. “I’ll, uh, keep you updated on that. I guess.”

 

He smiles. Listens to his friends chant the dialogues of the movie. Watches Annabelle soften when Paprika toddles over to her on her little legs and clambers over her socks.

 

“You should do that,” Percy says. Then - “I’d like that.”

 

::

 

It’s a Sunday, and Percy opens up Deja Brew alone.

 

Sundays are slow days. Pistachio only shows up at around ten after a session of whatever kind of kinky sex she and Jacob have decided on this time. She tries to tell Percy how good Jacob is in bed, tales Percy will decline to hear, after which either Harriet or Jubilee or Wilbur will show up and force them to get their asses in gear.

 

Percy bakes.

 

He’s a fair baker. His pastries don’t come out the way Harriet’s do, all pretty and Instagram-aesthetic like, but they’re warm and taste good. His fudge is legendary. He makes it every holiday or when he’s feeling a little weird in the head. His fudge is so good it even made Thanos’ eyes roll up just a tiny bit into her head, so good even Silicon broke her model diet to have seconds.

 

The smell of chocolate fills the bakery. Percy inhales deeply, letting his eyes flutter shut as he slumps against the wall. It’s a nice feeling, the warmth of the oven, the sweetness in the air, the sunlight making lines on the floor through the blinds. Percy yawns, flips the sign on the door to OPEN, even though it won’t matter, nobody comes in this early on a Sunday. He makes himself some coffee, texts Traffic and Corner, his downstairs neighbours, to go check on Pepperoni and give her some milk and cream.

 

Something alerts him to look at the door a mere second before Annaliese pushes through it. She offers a nod in hello, looking around at the empty café. Percy wonders why she’s here at 6 in the morning on a Sunday, but there is a frown on her lips and bags under her eyes, so Percy decides to keep his mouth shut.

 

“Good morning,” he says. Annabelle grunts. He almost laughs. Almost. “Tea?”

 

“Coffee,” Annabelle says. “Black.”

 

“Black coffee isn’t even coffee. It’s dark water with a dash of caffeine and it tastes like ass.”

 

“You don’t drink it?”

 

“I’m a college student,” he says. “Of course I do.”

 

“Then gimme the strongest, blackest shit you got.”

 

“Racist,” spills from his tongue before he can stop himself. He claps a hand over his mouth in horror, because this is not normal for them. Percy and Annabeth’s tentative friendship consists of them laughing at everyone else, mostly. Playing with Fred. Brief hellos and small talk, even though she’s fit into their group with no issues, growing close to Grover and Francois and Harriet with ease. Exchanging semi-awkward smiles while Percy makes her her usual – the Honey Citrus Mint tea.

 

Instead of getting angry, however, Annabelle huffs out a laugh and drags a hand over her face. “I’m literally too tired to respond.”

 

“One black coffee, coming up,” he says. “Anything else?”

 

“Anything lemon?” she asks hopefully.

 

“Some leftover tart.”

 

“I’ll take it.”

 

Annabelle pulls over a chair from the closest table so she’s sitting at the counter. She probably does it because she’s bored, but Percy’s entire body grows lighter at the gesture and he doesn’t know why. He brews her coffee in silence.

 

“…Annabeth.” It shouldn’t be that hard to say her name, but then again, it’s one of those days for him, too. Hence why he needs some fudge. Hence why he’s making it.

 

“Mm?” She looks up from her phone.

 

“Could you. Throw me a…” Ugh. Percy hates when his brain gets like this, all slow and sluggish and annoying. “The thingy. The thingy that holds drinks. For the coffee.” He points.

 

Annabeth follows his gaze. “Oh. The cup?”

 

“That’s the word.”

 

She chuckles and hands him one. He pours her coffee into it and slides it to her, watching skeptically as she takes a sip. The coffee is so black it’s like tar. Like the soul of a Dementor. But Annabeth lets out a happy little noise.

 

“You’re insane,” Percy says, unable to help it.

 

“What, because I like my coffee blacker than hell? Don’t judge my methods for staying awake.” Her words are sharp but her tone is mild. Percy relaxes.

 

He hands her the heated lemon tart. She smiles, all soft and sleepy.

 

“Where’s Starfire?” she asks, taking another sip.

 

“Sleeping. My neighbours will check on her.” Percy checks on the fudge. Annamarie sniffs loudly.

 

“Wuzzdat,” she says.

 

“Fudge,” says Percy.

 

“Nice.”

 

“You wanna taste-test?”

 

She shrugs. “I mean – sure, okay. I like the fruit flavours mostly. Lemon and the berries and stuff. I’m…not a big fan of chocolate.”

 

His heart sinks, and he doesn’t know why. Okay. He does know why. His heart sinks because Percy is everyone’s type. Percy is chocolate and Annabelle doesn’t like chocolate but they’d been okay. They’d been okay, and here she is, telling him she doesn’t like chocolate, for real this time.

 

“It’s okay,” he says, trying to hide his disappointment. “I don’t wanna force you.”

 

“I want to try some,” she hastens to reassure. “I’d like to try some.”

 

“Okay,” he says. “When it’s done. If you don’t mind waiting for a while. If that’s. You know. Okay.”

 

“Okay,” she smiles.

 

Annaliese gulps her coffee. Percy wipes down the counter, even though it’s clean, checks on the fudge again, brews some more decoction for the teas he’ll make later. Annabeth’s staring outside the door with a kind of empty expression on her face, and even though it’s empty it looks…sad. Sad and lost and a little defeated. And Percy realizes, again, how much he’d like to get to know her. Soulmates or not. He would like to know her. He would like to see her laugh. Not the short huffy laugh she usually allows herself around him. A loud, ugly laugh. He would –

 

He would like to see that.

 

It is now that Percy sees that she’s pretty. Very pretty. In the kind of way a statue of a queen is pretty. Shapely and beautiful and made of stone. But Annabelle isn’t made of stone: she’s made of something harder, something sharper.

 

Steel, he thinks, looking at her eyes. They’re grey with flecks of other colors, and they glow warm in the sunlight. Her hair shines bright gold in its bun, and even though there are strands poking out all over the place, he still thinks she looks nice.

 

Her eyelashes are golden, too, and that’s when Percy figures he’s staring too hard, and so he looks away, his face warm.

 

“Thanks for this,” she says unexpectedly. “I needed this.”

 

“One of those mornings?” he asks.

 

“One of those mornings,” she agrees. She rubs a hand through her hair. “God, I can’t wait for winter break. I need to de-stress. I need, like, a spa day. A spa week.”

 

“Or you could. Like.” Percy searches around for the right word. “Find a hobby?”

 

“No time. Too much work.” She smiles warily. “What would you recommend, though?”

 

“Well - I swim.”

 

She makes a small sound of recognition. “Piper told me. You’re vice-captain? That’s pretty impressive for a junior.”

 

“Uh-huh. It’s alright. I guess. Tournament season is hectic, but the rest of the time it isn’t so bad. I mostly just like swimming.” He stares at a speck on the counter. “But I’m fortunate. My work is my play. Most people aren’t that lucky.”

 

“I love my work. It’s just that it’s been getting too much recently.” Annabeth sighs. “Or maybe it’s just one of those mornings. One of those morning where it feels like nothing is good about anything.”

 

“There’s always something good,” he says.

 

“Oh yeah?” Her eyebrows lift. A challenge. “List three things good about your life, right now.”

 

Percy counts on his fingers. “The fudge in the oven, Churro, and my mom’s seven-layer dip.”

 

She hums. “Fair, fair. All fair things to say.”

 

“What about you?” he asks.

 

She thinks. “The Parthenon, black coffee, and the inevitability of death.”

 

He snorts out a laugh. “Really bad morning.”

 

“Really, really bad morning.”

 

Feeling bold, Percy ventures, “Academia-related or…?”

 

“Not entirely.” She doesn’t elaborate, but takes a long gulp of coffee.

 

Percy knows when he’s overstepped. He checks on his fudge, pulls it from the oven. He feels her eyes on him as he cuts a tiny square for Annaliese to taste.

 

“Sorry,” she says. “I mean. It’s just a long story. Long and sad.”

 

“It’s okay.”

 

“Maybe I’ll tell you one day.” She smiles, pops the little square of fudge into her mouth.

 

He watches in anticipation. Percy shouldn’t dare to hope. Annabelle doesn’t like chocolate and he’s chocolate and. And she’s got. All these walls. And Percy would like to know her, but he’s chocolate and she just – isn’t into that. She doesn’t like chocolate.

 

But he still watches. Watches as her eyes widen and she stares at him, watches as she swallows and smiles, slowly, openly.

 

“I like it,” she says, laughing a surprised little laugh as though she hadn’t expected it herself. “I really, really like it.”

 

::

 

The best thing about being drunk is that you just stop caring.

 

Today they’re gathered in Percy’s place, because Reynold and Silicon and Thanos want to see Fred. Even more people have turned up, including Traffic and Corner from downstairs and Castanet and Pollen from Percy’s World Lit class. Two sets of twins – that’s way too much for Percy, who is already seeing double as it is.

 

Clarinet and her boyfriend Christmas turned up somewhere around Shot Numero Tres, following which Clarinet had challenged him to a drinking showdown. Percy had wanted to decline, but then she’d called him Prissy and. Well. Here he is.

 

Here he is, splayed out on his own couch, Spearmint curled up on his stomach. Pistachio and Thanos are petting the kitten’s ears, making soft cooing noises. Thanos in particular looks extremely gone, because she would never usually be caught dead looking as soft as she does now, blue eyes droopy, a silly smile on her face. She looks a lot more like Jacob’s sister when she’s like this, whereas she usually looks like an angry, spiky goth.

 

Annabelle and Reynold have hit it off spectacularly. Percy can hear both girls talking about – what in the world – martial arts. Whatever floats their boat, he thinks, amused, as their conversation turns into Annabeth’s flatmate moving out. Thanos stares at Annabelle, brow creased.

 

“Of all the soulmates,” she mumbles to Percy. “You got a real tough one.”

 

Percy blinks sleepily. “Everyone’s saying that. What do you guys even mean?”

 

“You don’t know?”

 

“I honestly know jackshit about her,” Percy admits, running a finger down Sunshine’s spine. Aslan squirms.

 

“She dated Luke,” Thanos says.

 

Percy suddenly feels very, immensely awake. “What? Luke? Who Luke? Luke-”

 

“Sssh, don’t be so loud,” Thanos says. She glances at Annabelle, who currently has her arms full with an emotional Reynold, who has apparently been offered Annabelle’s extra room. Then - “Castellan.”

 

“Ah.” Percy remembers him. He’d called him Castle in his head, and the guy was an inspiration. The kind of guys girls wanted to be with, the kind of guy guys wanted to be. Tall and blonde and hot as hell. He had been on the basketball team. Everyone liked him: girls, boys, the professors. He’d been a senior when Percy’d been a freshman. Percy’d known him long before he’d ever met Annabeth.

 

He never, ever would’ve guessed the two dated.

 

“Yeah. It was rough. Toxic as all hell.” Thanos sighs. “I don’t even know if I should be telling you this, but I’m drunk, so fuck it.”

 

“Fuck it,” Percy agrees.

 

“She’s known him since she was seven. They have history. Like. Actual history.”

 

“Oh,” he says. Then he thinks – oh. He watches Pistachio set five phones down on the floor, select the same Katy Perry song on Spotify, and attempt to play them all in sync.

 

“Don’t think too hard about it,” Thanos yawns, interpreting his expression correctly. “She’s fine now, but just don’t ask her about it. If she’s here that means she tolerates you-”

 

“High praise,” Percy drawls.

 

“She’ll open up to you eventually.”

 

“Could you give me a time frame?” Percy tries. “Asking for a friend.” Thanos grins.

 

“Can’t make it easy for you, can I?”

 

“Oh, as if you have a clue.”

 

“Fuck off.” Thanos yawns again. She puts a hand in Percy’s hair and ruffles slowly. “You’re a good boy, Percy. Don’t give up on her. She’ll warm up in time.”

 

“Thanks, Mom.”

 

“Fuck off.”

 

The thing about being drunk is that you just stop caring.

 

Maybe that’s why Percy places Fred carefully in her little cardboard box. Maybe that’s why he calls for Leonardo to pour him another drink, even though Francois screeches – actually screeches – for him not to. Jacob gets one at the same time, and they both stare at each other.

 

“May the best man win,” Percy leers.

 

“Is this some new kind of trash talking?” Jacob says, lifting an eyebrow, but they both chug their drinks anyway.

 

Tonight is going to be a good night, he thinks, as Raphael grabs his hands and they spin in the middle of the hallway to whatever shitty pop song Pistachio is playing on her army of phones. She hasn’t quite managed to sync them all, so they sound like echoes of each other.

 

It feels good. It feels great. Percy dances and laughs and falls down, but there are hands to pick him up, again and again. Someone finds a playlist of karaoke tracks on YouTube and Percy sings, sings until the weirdness in his gut dissipates, like the mist on windows after a good rain. Sings until his throat goes hoarse, sings until he can’t go anymore.

 

Annabelle darts in and out of the periphery of his vision, lingering just out of reach, and Percy is hurt. If her type is Castle – Castle with the blonde hair and blue eyes and surfer bod – well. Percy doesn’t even stand a chance, does he.

 

He thinks of soulmates. Thinks of his mother with her dark hair and kind eyes and warm, warm hands. Thinks of her silky voice saying soulmates are meant to be, but maybe not, not in this case, not in his case. He thinks of Annabeth and how she’s not really here, not really present, not really, not all the time.

 

Percy’s always thought a lot about soulmates. Well, not just about soulmates, but about just – people in general. And how people in love say they’re whole now, as though they had never been before. Which makes him question if people are just. Incomplete. And maybe they need someone to complete them.

 

(It’s entry two on Percy’s List Of Things That He Hopes He’ll Get Answers For Before He Dies.)

 

And Percy wonders if maybe people can be complete just by being with someone, and he wonders if there’s a piece of her that’s with Castle. And there is no way for him to compete with that.

 

He cant compete with history. He can’t compete with all that. Thanos was just letting him down easy, wasn’t she, with that soft, sympathetic look in her eyes.

 

God, he’s mad. He’s mad that he doesn’t even get to fight for it. He’s mad he doesn’t even stand a chance. He can’t be mad at Annabelle, and he can’t really be mad at Thanos, either. He can’t be mad at anyone, so he just watches Leonardo and Pistachio try to tap dance, and he tries to laugh.

 

The thing about being drunk, Percy thinks, is that – is that you care too much, in the end, after all.

 

::

 

Kitty grows quickly. Percy spends his winter break holed up in his room, catching up on assignments and swimming every morning. Kitty grows from a ball of fur into a slightly bigger ball of fur, from a baby kitten into an adolescent kitten. She’s a little heavier, a little longer, and she still tries to climb Percy’s legs, but her claws are a little sharper.

 

He takes a train to the city for Christmas, spends his holiday doting on his baby sister. Stella takes a shine to Fred (who she calls Butterscotch), and, surprisingly, Butterscotch seems to love the attention, purring contentedly in her lap. His mom makes the seven-layer dip, and then some more when Percy finishes it all in one sitting. He unwraps his presents and watches his family unwrap theirs and they watch cheesy Christmas movies and eat cake. Percy couldn’t have asked for a better holiday.

 

New Years’ Eve finds Percy back in his dorm room, on his way to being drunk as fuck, beer in his hand as he aims a Skittle at Francois. His mouth is open wide enough to swallow the sun, probably, but Percy misses anyway. The Skittle hits Francois on the nose and flies away somewhere.

 

“One more miss and I’m cutting you off,” Francois says, which is rich, because he’s about two shots away from getting to the stage where he can’t find the brains to utter more than one syllable at a time.

 

“Party pooper,” retorts Percy.

 

“Don’t poop on the party,” Leonardo says, grabbing a Skittle from Percy’s pile and adding it to his own. He’s got Skittles in five different little mounds, organized by color, and five bottles of vodka in front of him. Percy kind of doesn’t want to know what’s next.

 

“Don’t poop on anything,” says Pistachio from her perch on the sofa. “Don’t poop on anything but the toilet.”

 

“In,” says Nincompoop. “It’s poop in the toilet.”

 

“What’s the difference.”

 

Good grammar is the difference,” Nincompoop snaps. “God, I’m friends with a bunch of idiots.”

 

“We’re friends?” Pistachio shrieks, launching herself at Nincompoop, nearly sending them both crashing to the floor. “You’ve never called us that before.”

 

“And I’m taking it back,” says Nincompoop darkly, even though there’s a splash of pink on his cheeks, the tsundere little brat.

 

“Welcome to the family, son,” Jacob calls, piss drunk. “I will raise you like my own.”

 

“You don’t have any of your own!” Nincompoop screeches, losing all sense of calm at this new proclamation. “And you’re not my father! You’re, like, one year older than me!”

 

“Look at our son,” Pistachio tells Percy serenely, waving an arm in Nincompoop’s face. “He’s a little difficult, but we still love him.” Percy is laughing so hard he inhales his beer up his nose and he nearly kicks Leandro’s neat little hills of rainbow Skittles.

 

“Hit me,” Perce,” says Frank. Percy throws and misses again.

 

“Don’t cut me off,” Percy pleads at once. “It’s New Years’. It’s going to be a whole new decade. You can’t cut me off now. It’s like dangling a fish in front of Starship and not letting her eat it.”

 

“Starfire,” Francois corrects absentmindedly.

“Fred,” says Pistachio adamantly, arms around Nincompoop. Jacob hovers around them like a father (the parental kind, not the church kind). He’s pushed his glasses down his nose.

 

“No running in the hallways,” he says, and Francois screeches with laughter, falling over backwards, knocking over a chair.

 

“You’ve got your roles mixed up,” says Harriet, appearing out of nowhere to lift her boyfriend from the floor. “No running in the hallways is a teacher line. Dads say stuff like, good work, son. Or, Hey, son, I’m Dad.”

 

“They also say stuff like I’ll take good care of you,” Leonardo supplies unhelpfully.

 

“Leonardo, no,” Percy says. Slurs. “That’s a sugar daddy.” Francois squeals again. Harriet is laughing so hard her curls are falling into her mouth, and she keeps having to spit them back out again. It’s disgusting yet fascinating.

 

“Talk dirty to me, daddy,” Francois slurs.

 

“What is talk dirty,” Harriet asks, curious, bless her, the sheltered little angel.

 

Leonardo opens his mouth to answer, but Pistachio shoves her finger into it. Leonardo gags.

 

“Well, it’s not a group activity,” Jacob answers delicately, because it’s an unspoken agreement amongst everyone to keep Harriet safe from everything evil in the world.

 

“Dudes, let’s be real for a second,” Pistachio says. “We’d all have a sugar daddy if we could. Am I right or am I right, ladies.”

 

Percy lifts a Skittle. “Amen.”

 

Nincompoop petitions God. “Please let me go.”

 

“That’s Dad to you,” says Jacob, clapping a hand on his shoulder. “Luke, I am your father.”

 

“Do not quote Star Wars at me. Do not. Just. Don’t. You haven’t even seen it. You watch My Little Pony.”

 

“I was caught between channels!” Jason protests, color high on his cheeks.

 

“I would have a sugar daddy,” Harriet says thoughtfully.

 

“How do you not know what talking dirty is,” says Jacob in horror, “but you know about sugar daddies. Who are you and what have you done with our poor, innocent Hazel?”

 

“Drank her under the table,” Harriet says.

 

“How old would you go?” Pistachio asks with interest.

 

“I mean, I’m nineteen.” Harriet considers the question thoughtfully. “So. I dunno. Maybe like mid-thirties?”

 

“Really?” Pistachio puts both hands on her hips like she’s a businesswoman on the job. “I’d go to sixty if he’s a silverfox.”

 

“Why are we having this conversation,” Jacob asks. “Also I am your boyfriend, and I am right here.”

 

“Pour me a shot, Leonardo,” Percy says, thrusting his cup under the other boy’s nose. Leonardo merely sighs as he pours Skittles into the bottles of vodka, turning the liquid red, yellow, green, orange, wine. Corner, watching the display from – coincidentally – the corner, whoops and claps.

 

Hey, you still call him Leonardo, that’s not too bad,” Francois says. “What am I?”

 

“Francois,” Percy says.

 

“Oh come on.” Francois looks at them all in disbelief. “That’s French, right?”

 

“That’s French,” Pistachio confirms, because somehow she’s a genius as languages and knows French. Like actual French and not just the oui oui baguette Eiffel Tower stuff.

 

“I can think of something French I’d like to be doing, involving the mouth, and no, I don’t mean eating French food,” Leonardo quips. Nearly everyone throws something at him.

 

 “That’s French,” says Francois, in a daze. “I’m Chinese. I’m Chinese, Percy. Percy, you didn’t even get the race right I can’t-”

 

Jacob is laughing so hard he’s bent over and is choking out unintelligible hiccups. Nincompoop sees his chance, scans the room for a safe place, and makes a beeline for the dining table. In a single fluid motion, he ducks and curls up underneath, eyes flashing in the dark like a possum’s.

 

“Nice,” Percy says.

 

“My son,” says Pistachio. “Come back to me.” Nincompoop flips her off from under the table.

 

“That looks fun,” says Corner, inching slowly from his corner towards the table. Nincompoop waves at him.

 

Raphael and Silicon join Percy on the sofa. Silicon is FaceTiming her boyfriend Charlie Chaplin, this giant dude who can lift Percy with, like, one hand, without breaking a sweat. Raphael is giggling at Corner and Nincompoop camped out under the table, taking pictures.

 

“Remember when Nico stubbed his toe and cried for ten minutes,” she recalls.

 

“I cried too,” Percy admits. “But that was because I was laughing at him.”

 

“Charlie says hi,” Silicon squeals. “Hey hi to Percy and Rachel, Charlie!” She turns over the phone. Raphael waves, “Hey, Beckendorf.” Charlie Chaplin in the tiny phone screen waves a massive hand back.

 

“Happy New Year,” says Percy.

 

Silicon grabs the phone back, apparently unable to, uh, not look at her boyfriend’s face for longer than ten seconds. “I miss you.”

 

“I miss you too, babe,” says Charlie Chaplin.

 

“Disgusting,” says Leonardo. He’s straining the extra sugar from each bottle of Skittle vodka. “Y’all disgust me.”

 

“Be a lover, not a hater.” Silicon has finally hung up. She stands, smoothens her dress, and falls face-first into the carpet.

 

“Come to me, lover,” Pistachio croons to Jacob, as Raphael helps Silicon back up. Silicon nearly kicks Raphael in the tit as she rights herself. Raphael looks at Percy with eyes that scream I want to join Nincompoop and Corner under the table.

 

Wilbur, meanwhile, is running from room to room like a hyperactive gnat, looking for Nincompoop. “Nico!” he screams. “Nico!”

 

Nincompoop sends a text in the group chat that says Nobody tell him where I am. Wilbur howls when he sees it.

 

“I miss Festus,” says Percy, thinking of Vincent with her soft golden fur and luminous eyes.

 

“Me too,” says Harriet, having deposited her boyfriend on a beanbag. She kneels next to Leonardo. “Need help?”

 

“Only with the drinking part,” Leonardo says.

 

“Would someone change the fucking music!” Clarinet growls from the kitchen, where her boyfriend Christmas is attempting to fit four slices of pizza into his mouth at once. She glares around at the room (effects of which are rendered completely non-threatening by the presence of her boyfriend choking on the pizza right next to her), probably looking for whoever’s playing DJ for the night. “I can’t listen to this crap any longer.”

 

“On it!” Pistachio says, far too happily. She untangles her limbs from Jace’s, darts around the house grabbing every phone she sees, and makes their respective owners unlock them. She lays them all down on the floor, opens Spotify, and selects the same playlist. She does all this with far too much ease.

 

“Percy, gimme a hand,” Pistachio says. “Silena, fucking – put down your phone, we know you love Beckendorf, you aren’t going to die if you don’t look at him for two seconds – oh! Thalia come here, and grab Reyna for me, would you?”

 

It ends up with Percy, Jacob, Silicon, Thanos, Reynold, Harriet, and Traffic all hunched over what looks like twenty or so phones, fingers hovering over the play button. Wilbur joins them, but from his place on the floor, he manages to finally spot Nincompoop and so abandons his post at once. He pushes Corner out of his spot in his desperation to get to Nincompoop, and so Corner joins them too, grumbling.

 

“Three,” Pistachio says, hushed like it’s a ritual. “Two.”

 

It’s 11:56 PM. Four minutes to the New Year, and Annabelle isn’t coming.

 

“One!” Pistachio screeches. Thumbs slam down on screens and there’s a lull that passes through the entire house. Everyone waits, holding their breath. And then –

 

Filtering through the house, the sweet strumming of a guitar. ‘We were both young when I first saw you-’

 

The girls whoop, like ohmygod this is my song, ohmygod I used to sing this every day as a kid, this is my childhood, oh my god. The guys all groan, like Taylor Swift, really? but everyone knows the words, even if they pretend not to, and by the time the final chorus swells up the entire house is chanting –

 

“ROMEO SAVE ME I’VE BEEN FEELING SO ALONE-”

 

[unknown number] >> Hey Percy

 

“I KEEP WAITING FOR YOU BUT YOU NEVER COME-”

 

Percy blinks, voice fading as he blinks down at the screen.

 

“IS THIS IN MY HEAD I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO THINK-”

 

[unknown number] >> It’s Annabeth! Got your number from the group chat lol

 

“HE KNELT TO THE GROUND AND PULLED OUT A RING AND SAID-”

 

Pistachio is on her knees in front of Jacob, holding up an invisible box as Jaime pretends to swoon, singing all the while-

 

“MARRY ME JULET YOU’LL NEVER HAVE TO BE ALONE-”

 

[unknown number] >> Sorry I couldn’t be there!

 

Grover throws an arm around Percy, swaying to the music tipsily. Leonardo hands each of them a cup of Skittles vodka so they can all take their first drink of the new decade together. Percy glances at the clock. Twenty or so seconds to go.

 

“I LOVE YOU AND THAT’S ALL I REALLY KNOW-”

 

Percy looks around at them all, Wilbur pulling Nincompoop out from under the table, Corner back in his corner, holding up his brother Traffic. Pistachio and Jacob arm-in-arm, marriage successful, Harriet slapping Francois awake. Silicon FaceTiming Charlie Chaplin again, only this time the screen is turned towards their circle so he can see everyone. Grover at his side, his other arm around Juniper, and Raphael burrowing under Percy’s other arm like the fucking hamster she is. Reynold sniffing the vodka distrustfully while Thanos laughs evilly at her side. Clarinet yanking the pizza crusts out of Christmas’s mouth. Leonardo handing the last two cups to Castanet and Pollen before holding up his own.

 

“FIVE!” Leonardo leads the chant. Glasses are raised in the air. “FOUR! THREE! TWO-”

 

“I TALKED TO YOUR DAD YOU’LL PICK OUT A WHITE DRESS-”

 

“ONE!” comes the call, and everyone lifts their glasses to their mouths. Percy only just manages to gulp it down before being pulled into a group hug so warm his entire body feels on fire, but maybe that’s just the alcohol. Raphael kisses his cheek. Grover is laughing. Someone’s setting off fireworks outside, and the room glows yellow and red and gold, and he loves it. He loves everything about this place and these people and this moment, he thinks. And Percy feels a grin split his face, allowing himself to be lost to the last few chords of the song.

 

“IT’S A LOVE STORY BABY JUST SAYYYY-”

 

[unknown number] >> Happy New Year, Percy! :)

 

“-YES.”

 

::

 

Percy’s New Year resolutions are as follows:

 

  1. To name Fred – otherwise known as Aslan, or Festus, or Marigold, or Peppermint, or Pepperoni, or Paprika, or Butterscotch, or Vincent, or Cinnamon, or Starfire, Sunshine, or Noir, or Churro, or whatever the fuck, honestly – for real this time.

  2. To not puke over Frank’s flowers this year.

  3. To learn to make his mom’s seven-layer dip.

  4. To figure out this whole soulmate fiasco. And to also maybe peel back one of Annabelle’s many many layers – jeez the girl is like an endless onion.

  5. To find an answer for one of his questions on Percy’s List Of Things That He Hopes He’ll Get Answers For Before He Dies.

 

He writes it down on a post-it, black ink stark and permanent against the paper, and sticks it to his wall. Butterscotch follows him out of his room; Percy scoops her up, plants an absentminded kiss to her little golden head, and drops her off at Traffic and Corner’s place before heading to class.

 

8 AMs suck. He has no fucking idea why he signed up for this absolute torture, especially on one of the only two days of the week he doesn’t have swim practice. He’s bleary-eyed and yawning when he gets to the classroom, and his brain head feels heavy and slow. He takes down notes the best he can and spends the rest of his time blinking dully at the professor. His neighbour seems to take pity on him, though, and she promises to send him her notes later.

 

“Bless you,” Percy says. His eyes may or may not be watering. It’s the allergies, he swears.

 

“Um, okay,” says the girl.

 

After class, Percy trudges to Deja Brew, where he’s greeted by Pistachio, who appears to be in a foul mood. Apparently she’d pulled an all-nighter to finish an assignment and had then forgotten to turn it in. Percy would laugh if he wasn’t so scared of her sneezing into his coffee or something. He’s seen her do it once. Right into Leonardo’s frappe on a day when he had been being particularly annoying. Pistachio is a good person, Percy knows, but she is petty as hell and not at all above underhanded tactics like these.

 

The café is fairly busy. Most of Percy’s weekday hours usually are – somehow word had spread around campus about the genius barista and now Percy gets the most tips out of anyone who works there, even though he’d been the last to join. And. Well. Percy doesn’t like to brag, of course, but he is pretty good at making drinks. Non-alcoholic, of course. It’s a talent. Some might even say it’s magical.

 

“Yer a wizard, Percy,” Piper says every time he brings it up. Which is fine. She can Wingardium Leviosa herself right out the door, thanks.

 

Nincompoop’s curled up at a smaller table at the very back of the place, wearing a black hoodie that’s far too big for him and glaring at anyone who gets close. He texts Percy his order, the lazy swine, but he gives Percy a tip, too, so he really can’t complain.

 

For an hour, Percy goes on autopilot. He makes drinks at top speed and makes small talk with the regulars and puts a fresh batch of chocolate chip muffins into the oven. He writes down wrong names on cups and grins when they come to accept it. Some even offer their real names, and Pistachio assures them that there’s no use to it.

 

About half an hour before Percy’s due to end his shift, Dreckitude walks in, and Pistachio stifles a groan.

 

Dreckitude is – uh. She’s something, and that something is not pleasant. She’s Asian like Francois but she’s not nice like him. She’s like the kind of bitchy mean Asians from that movie about the insane wealthy Asians that starred Constantinople Wool. He can’t remember the name.

 

She saunters up to the counter, ignores Pistachio’s gritted-out query of what she’d like to order, and smiles at Percy. Which is when he realizes with a sinking feeling that Dreckitude isn’t here to drink anything, she’s here to flirt.

 

“Hello, Percy,” she says, smiling stickily.

 

“Hello,” Percy says uncomfortably. “Would you like anything.”

 

“A bite of you would be great,” she purrs.

 

“Um, I’m not on the menu.”

 

“I’d like to place a special order, then,” she whispers, batting her eyelashes the way Percy does when something’s fallen into his eye.

 

“Um, you’re holding up the line,” says Percy.

 

“If you ain’t ordering anything, then move it, Drew,” Pistachio grumbles. She fixes a cold look at Dreckitude, the kind that would make Percy run for the hills, but Dreckitude doesn’t even move, doesn’t even bat an eyelash despite the fact she’d been doing it repeatedly and aggressively only a few seconds before.

 

“You’re holding up the line,” Percy repeats.

 

At that moment, Wilbur appears to take over for Pinocchio. He frowns at Percy, mouths, What the fuck is going on here.

 

Dreckitude seems to have found her voice again. Seeing Wilbur walk in makes her seem to think she has the upper hand, and she titters at him, too. “Your other employee – the ugly one –” She glares at Pistachio with unnecessary venom- “she was being so mean to me-”

 

“Oh, save it,” Wilbur snaps. “I’m gay as fuck, that shit won’t work on me. Try your professor.”

 

Percy’s mouth drops open and hangs there. Piper lets out a bark of laughter, then begins to clap, a gesture adopted by many of the others standing in line. Wilbur flushes and takes a bow. Nincompoop, frozen in the doorway, Percy is interested to note, looks equally horrified and turned on at the same time. He vanishes in a flash of black like he’s fucking Batman, or at least Batman’s smaller, scrawnier little brother.

 

Dreckitude stomps off. The line moves ahead smoothly.

 

“You’re too nice,” Pistachio tells Percy.

 

“It’s a curse,” says Percy distractedly, mixing some vanilla extract into a cup of steaming almond milk. “I was going to write Dickwad on her cup, though.”

 

“I appreciate you for that,” Pistachio says. She throws her apron in the back room. “Okay, see you losers later.”

 

“Bye,” Wilbur says.

 

“Bye,” Percy says. “Name?” he asks a customer.

 

“Barry,” says the human.

 

Barley, Percy thinks. “Have a seat. I’ll call you when your order’s ready.”

 

There’s a moment to breathe as Will hands Percy the last of the orders. Will grins. “What have you called ‘em this time?”

 

“Sarcophagus!” Percy calls.

 

Wilbur snorts. “What now?”

 

A hand goes up at a table like this is a classroom. “Um. Scarlett?”

 

“Yep.” Scarface picks up her drink. At least she doesn’t look offended.

 

Percy runs through the rest of them – Carwash (Carla), Federer (Frederick), Wonder Woman (“You didn’t even try with that one,” Diana mutters as she walks away). Barley picks up his order without complaint. By the way he nods at Wilbur, though, Percy figures he’s a regular, probably used to Percy’s insanity by now. But it’s cool, because it’s kind of a gimmick: even Piper’s started doing it.

 

He looks at the last name on the list, calls out without thinking –

 

“Annabel-”

 

“Annabeth.” She’s already waiting at the counter, drumming her fingers against the plywood. How had he not noticed her standing in line? How had he not noticed he was making her regular order – the Citrusy tea? Percy wants to punch everyone in this café and then himself.

 

He hasn’t seen her since. Since before Christmas, and she’d sent him a text at 12 on the dot on New Years’ Day, and he’d responded with a very cordial Happy New Year to you too :)  that had felt silly and impersonal but he had to do it, you know? And then he’d stayed in her chat for an embarrassing amount of time without finding a single thing to say.

 

“Oh. Yeah. Sorry. Hello.” Percy hands her the drink, expecting her to walk away, but she doesn’t, she lingers on, her eyes flickering up to his uncertainly.

 

“Hello,” she says. “Long time.”

 

“Yeah.” He chuckles nervously. “Uh, how was your break?”

 

“Could’ve gone better,” she admits with a sardonic little grin. “And yours?”

 

“Pretty good.”

 

“Saw you screaming Love Story on New Years’, couldn’t have been that bad.”

 

“It was worse.” Percy runs a hand through his hair. “You’ll see next year.”

 

She blinks, as though surprised. “Yeah.”

 

They look at each other – her phone rings. Annabelle – sorry, Annabeth - curses under her breath, says, “Sorry, I gotta take this,” and walks outside, cup in her hand. She waves at him as she pushes the door open with her hip. Percy waves back, turns around to find Wilbur staring at him.

 

“What?” Percy asks, suddenly conscious.

 

“What was that,” says Wilbur with interest.

 

“What was what,” Percy responds. “I make small talk with customers all the time.”

 

Wilbur is already waving his hand in a No, no gesture. “The small talk is fine. I’m talking about the apology. You’ve never said sorry to anyone for getting their name wrong, ever.”

 

“Oh.” Somehow Percy can feel his ears turning strawberry, and judging by the look on Wilbur’s face, he’s noticed it too. Which means that Pistachio will most certainly hear of this incident before Percy’s shift is over, and if Pistachio knows, everyone knows.

 

“I dunno,” he continues.

 

“Okay,” says Wilbur.

 

“Okay,” says Percy.

 

What follows next is an intense eye-contact showdown that involves a lot of eyebrow raising and narrowed gazes. Harriet walks in right in the middle of it, and Percy decides winning this stupid contest isn’t worth…well, anything.

 

“I’m onto you,” Wilbur whispers as Percy makes his exit. “Better watch your back.”

 

“Oh please,” Percy sneers. “I’m onto you. I’m onto you like a hump on a camel. Who’s gotta watch their back now, huh? Feel threatened.”

 

He’s grasping at straws and he knows it. Wilbur is hopelessly gone for Nincompoop and everyone knows it, so there’s really nothing for Wilbur to hide. Percy doesn’t have anything to hide, either. He thinks.

 

“I am not threatened,” Wilbur snarks back, pointedly avoiding Harriet’s gaze of Please, for the love of God and our customers, stop. “By someone who can’t even figure out what to name their cat.”

 

“That,” Percy points out, “is a low blow. Starfire would be disappointed in you. She will never answer to your pspsps-ing again.”

 

“Speaking of which, I have a new name,” Harriet cuts in. “Citrine. It’s a yellow gem, isn’t that precious?”

 

“Churro wins,” says Wilbur. Percy merely flips him off as the door closes behind him.

 

“Men have gone to war for less,” he grunts sourly, thinking of Wilbur and the curious look he’d given him, and heads home, where Citrine is probably waiting for him to feed her.

 

::

 

Pistachio has acquired a whiteboard, of all things.

 

“Why,” Percy asks, lounging on the couch, Festus on his lap.

 

“It’s useful,” Pistachio insists. “You can do all kinds of things with it. We could write reminders…and-and schedules, and even to-do lists, and daily goals, and grocery lists!” She glances at Jacob hopefully. “We could even leave each other cute little messages, Jason!”

 

“Okay, but why,” Percy says.

 

Annabelle sits next to Percy on the sofa, sipping from a juice box. She gazes coldly towards the front door, where Piper is struggling to haul the board inside. The whiteboard is abnormally large by itself, but its stand is the real issue here: it keeps getting caught in the doorway and doesn’t even seem to be foldable. Piper looks at them for help. Nobody budges – not even Jacob, her traitor boyfriend.

 

Percy watched with ill-disguised amusement as Pistachio battles the whiteboard. Jacob is watching with an equal amount of distress. He takes off his glasses, rubs the bridge of his nose, and puts them on again.

 

“Where exactly did you get this from again?” Jacob asks. A valid question, in Percy’s opinion. The whiteboard is so large Percy would have suspected Pistachio of stealing it from a classroom if he thought she was capable of stealing something so ridiculously stupid.

 

“It’s useful,” Pistachio huffs.

 

“How are we going to hang it up?” Jason asks, as though that is the problem here. “There aren’t any nails in the walls.”

 

“Forget about that, where the fuck are you going to put it,” Annabelle says.

 

Pistachio stops heaving and looks around the flat. “We’ll…make space.”

 

“You blithering idiot,” says Annaliese.

 

“I don’t even know if I should be surprised anymore,” says Jacob darkly.

 

“Would you guys help me,” Pistachio whines. “What kind of friends are you?”

 

“Pistachio, ditch the stand,” Percy instructs. “Just lean the stupid thing against a wall or something. When the apocalypse comes and the ocean floods over, you can use it as a raft.”

 

“I get to be Rose,” says Jacob at once.

 

I should be Rose,” Pippa argues, unscrewing the stand from the board. “I’m the one who bought the raft. I mean the whiteboard.”

 

“Fight for it,” says Annabelle, the brute.

 

“Rock-paper-scissors it,” Percy suggests, leaning back against a cushion and yawning. Noir stirs in his lap. Annabeth reaches over and pets her behind the ears. Peppermint purrs.

 

“Rock – paper – scissors,” Pistachio and Jacob chorus. Pistachio holds up rock; Jacob has paper. He whoops.

 

“Best two out of three-oof!” For Pippa has managed to remove one part of the stand. It clatters to the floor with a loud clang that makes Paprika hiss and dart under the dining table.

 

“Great, you’ve scared Fred,” Jacob says. “Pspspspspsps.”

 

“Pspspspsps,” Percy says, watching with fondness as Marigold darts back to him, rubbing her back against Percy’s legs and purring.

 

“Good kitty,” Percy praises.

 

“How the fuck does she like you out of everyone,” Jacob says, giving his girlfriend a distracted thumbs-up as she manages to detach another piece of the stand.

 

“I saved her,” Percy reminds him.

 

“You did not. You just found her and psps-ed at her. Anyone could’ve done it.”

 

“Do it, then,” says Percy. “Go and psps a cat out there right the fuck now.”

 

“I’ll do it,” says Jacob.

 

“Do it,” says Percy.

 

“Give me a time limit,” says Jacob.

 

“Thirty minutes.”

 

“Are you batshit crazy,” Jacob says. “Is your brain made of actual seaweed. It’ll take me half the time to get a cat to love me.”

 

“Okay. See you in fifteen.”

 

“Time me, bitches.” Jacob picks himself off the floor, disregarding his textbooks completely, vaults over Piper and the broken pieces of metal around her, and disappears down the hallway.

 

Thanos shows up not two seconds later. “Is there a reason my brother is psps-ing down the stairs?”

 

“Practicing his technique, probably,” Percy says. “Smart,” he admits grudgingly.

 

“Hey, Thalia,” says Annabeth.

 

“Wuddup wuddup,” Thalia says distractedly. She, too, hops over Piper without giving her a second glance, and settles down on the carpet in front of Percy. She clicks her tongue for Aslan, who inches toward her.

 

Percy is having flashbacks of the last time he and Thanos talked, and suddenly he feels all weird and he can’t meet anyone’s eyes. He turns instead to Pistachio who is wrenching the last part of the stand off the board. Thanos and Annabelle make small talk, about classes, Thanos’ final semester. Stuff like that.

 

“Yo, Perce, how do you like Deja Brew?” Thanos asks, lying down with her arms behind her head. “He took over for me,” she explains to Annaliese.

 

“Oh, that would explain why I’d never seen him there before,” Annabelle says thoughtfully.

 

“Wanna re-enact how you got hired?” Thanos sits up again, which feels like a waste of energy at this point. “Annabeth, I swear to god, it was the funniest thing. We put up like, these, Wanted: New Barista posters, and Percy was the first one who turned up.”

 

Percy cracks a grin despite himself. “Oh, man. So I show up there like, hey, who do I talk to about the vacancy.”

 

“And I’m like, me.”

 

“And I go, I wanna apply.”

 

“And I’m like, you’re hired.”

 

“She didn’t even wait for me to finish. She didn’t even look at my face.” Percy chuckles. “And I’m like, isn’t there supposed to be an interview?”

 

“And I was like nope, we’re desperate, welcome to the team.” Thanos shrugs. “And I was right. Percy’s a fast learner, started drawing in more people. Probably because of his good looks.” She pinches his cheek as Percy tries to wriggle away. Annabeth laughs, soft and easy, but he notices she’s avoiding his eyes.

 

Percy is a chill person. He’d consider himself that, yes. He’s the kind of friend who people don’t think twice about talking to, the kind of friend who doesn’t judge. People open up easily to him, which is why it’s hard for him to accept that that isn’t the case with Annabelle. He supposes though, that theirs is a special case.

 

Still, though, they’re getting a little closer. They really do get along well when they’re not being awkward, and Percy’s even been sending her memes and stuff. They’re not quite at the ugly-selfie-stage, but they’ll get there eventually.

 

Somehow, though, he can’t shake the image of Annabelle and Castle – together - from his mind. He wonders how he’d missed it. He wonders how he’d missed her all these years. Sure, they seemed to have run in vastly different circles, but she seems to at least be aware of most of his other friends. Maybe, he thinks, maybe they’ve been crossing paths all these years, they’ve just never made – and he glances quickly at her soulmarks, the tiny little marks on the tips of her fingers that mirror his – they’ve just never made contact.

 

Thanos is looking at him curiously. Percy realizes, too late, that he’s been staring too hard at Annabelle and looks away. Pistachio has finally broken the whiteboard free from its metal shackles and is attempting to cart the thing inside. It’s like trying to watch an ant carry a brick wall.

 

She finally rests it against the nearest wall and slides down to the floor, panting.

 

“Thanks for all the help,” she grits out.

 

“No problem,” says Percy easily, drumming his feet against the floor so that Festus, who had been slowly but surely inching her way to Thanos, comes right back to him. Thanos shoots him an ugly look.

 

Pistachio whips out a whiteboard marker and begins to write down…literally the most random shit Percy’s ever seen. Buy shampoo, she writes. Buy eggs. Buy condoms.

 

“Did not need to know that,” says Thanos.

 

“How’s the love life going, Thal?” Pistachio asks, leaning forward the way girls do when they sense girl talk on the horizon. “No man? No woman? No secret love child running around campus, sticking forks into electric sockets?”

 

“Yo girl is dry,” Thanos says boredly, picking a bit of fluff off the carpet.

 

“Yo same,” says Annabelle fervently.

 

“It’s like I’m not even here,” Percy muses aloud.

 

“Having a pet kitten is like growing tits,” says Thanos. “No girl will ever consider you anything more than a kitty daddy now. You are a mother, Percy. A mother to Fred here. So, like, get used to the girl talk. You’re one of us now.”

 

“What the fuck does that even mean,” says Percy, as Annabelle howls the most offensive laugh. Piper pulls out of a whiteboard marker from fucking nowhere and begins to scribble, sketching a small scoreboard at the corner of the board.

 

One side reads Jason. The other side reads Cats.

 

“Jason vs. the Cats,” Annabelle says. “Sounds like a shitty Netflix movie. I mean, I’d watch it, but I would complain the entire time.”

 

“Place your bets, people,” Pistachio says.

 

“Cats,” Percy says at once.

 

“Seconded,” says Annabelle.

 

“Thirded,” says Thanos.

 

Fourthed,” says Pistachio. Then - “I swear to god if he walks in here with a cat…”

 

And literally at that moment, Jacob pushes the door open. There’s a huge scratch across his cheek. He looks like he’s been crying. Percy takes a picture at once and uploads it as an Instagram story. Piper is laughing too hard to fetch the disinfectant, but she scrawls on the whiteboard: Jason 0, Cats 1. Thanos lets out a stream of curses.

 

“Idiot,” she says, again and again. “You fucking idiot.”

 

Idiot or not, Percy thinks he might owe Jacob one. He cuddles Butterscotch close and leans against the sofa.

 

Idiot or not, it is nice to hear Annabeth laugh.

 

::

 

Lonely Sundays aren’t so lonely when Annabeth is around, Percy thinks.

 

It has become something of – of a thing with the two of them. Annabelle shows up and Percy makes her a black coffee or something equally vile, and they both just…do their own thing. Sometimes (well, a lot of the time), Percy will gaze her way, trying to be surreptitious and failing grandly at it. Sometimes Annaliese brings her laptop. Sometimes she doesn’t, and they talk. About things. General things. Like classes and their friends, nothing too personal, and nothing ever, ever about the tiny marks on their fingertips. But they’re friends, he thinks, and he likes what they have so far, and somewhere along the way the weird, tense air about them has evaporated and when he’s with her, Percy doesn’t feel that weird lonely feeling anymore.

 

“Percy,” she says now, lifting an eyebrow, “those aren’t blueberry cupcakes, those are blueberries in batter.”

 

“Just how I like them,” Percy says.

 

“They’re not going to rise,” Annabelle moans. “They’re going to be half-baked blueberries and I’m going to die of starvation.”

 

“They’re going to be amazing, my mom used to make them for me all the time when I got home from boarding school,” Percy insists, shoving the tray into the oven and hoping for the best. “Trust me, I’m a baker.”

 

“You’re a faker,” Annabeth grumbles, and Percy laughs, feeling all light and happy inside.

 

She’s got her laptop out today, but she seems far more interested in distracting Percy. She doesn’t look tired, which is a first, and she’s ordered her usual tea instead of black coffee.

 

“Someone’s on top of their shit,” Percy observes.

 

“I know, and it feels great.” She swings her feet back and forth like a kid. “So today, because I’m feeling generous…” She smirks. “Cupcakes on me.”

 

“You trash human being, I made them,” Percy says, laughing.

 

“One for me,” she says, playing the obnoxious customer, “and one for my friend, here. He’s a dumbass. Saw him walking into a lamp post once-”

 

“I was distracted.”

 

“By what?”

 

Percy flushes, because he can’t very well say he’d seen Annabeth coming out of the Arts building, wearing glasses – glasses! – now can he.

 

His silence makes her think she’s won. “Ha.”

 

“Oh, suck it,” he says, a kneejerk response. They both grin at each other.

 

She settles back down again, a small, relaxed smile playing on her lips. “So this is your mom’s recipe?”

 

“Yep. It was like a school-is-over special. I spent, um…” he counts – “six years away from home at boarding school, from the time I was ten to when I was sixteen. I would come back for the summer and she’d make me these every time.” He smiles fondly at the memory. “Gabe hated blueberries. I loved them – and my favorite color is blue, right? My mom would make me all this blue food – pancakes, waffles, anything where she could mix in blue food coloring, she’d do it. It became kind of our little rebellion.”

 

“Six years is a long time,” she says delicately. “Did your mom and dad not like any schools in the city, or-?”

 

“Oh, Gabe isn’t my dad,” Percy says with a scoff. “Stepdad. What an asshole. Looked like a bald manatee. Smelled worse than one, too. I hated him with all my heart.”

 

“Wait, so did your mom have the soulmate genes or your dad?” Annabelle claps her hand over her mouth, cheeks flaring pink. “Ohmygosh that was way too personal, I’m sorry-”

 

It is, at least for them. But Percy doesn’t mind, and he says so, too.

 

“I mean. Both my parents had it.” Percy pauses. “After my dad left, my mom remarried Gabe. No clue why, but we both admit it was the stupidest decision of her life. Gabe was…trash. Like the shitty kind. He was scum, he gambled whatever money we had away, he used to throw these…these parties in our house like it was fucking Casino Night or whatever, ended up losing whatever my mom would bust her ass to make.” He clenches a fist. “That’s why I got sent to boarding school, my mom didn’t want me exposed to all that, I didn’t even know what was going on till I was sixteen. Then I convinced my mom to drive him out, get a divorce, and I moved back in. I got into a school in the city. Worked two extra jobs. I was on the swim team back then, too, and luckily I got scouted in my senior year. I’m here now on a sports scholarship, and my mom found a good guy who takes care of her now, it’s just…” He catches sight of the look on her face and colors spectacularly. “Oh my god, I just went off on you, didn’t I? I’m sorry, I tend to. Uh. Gush, sometimes. Set me off and I’ll go on for hours.”

 

Annabelle is already shaking her head, a tiny little smile on her face. “No, it was…sweet. Your mom sounds amazing. You didn’t overshare. It was nice, Percy.”

 

“Um, thanks.” He waits, because according to Percy’s Law of Information Exchange, when one person reveals way too much about himself, the person to whom he is talking must then reveal the same amount of equally embarrassing information.

 

Percy waits, but Annabeth just hums and rests her head on her hands.

 

“Wanna watch a movie?” she asks.

 

“What,” says Percy.

 

She rolls her eyes. “A movie. A film. A motion picture.”

 

“Okay, calm it down, snarklord.” Percy considers it. “What do you got?”

 

They end up on the floor, in front of the oven, so Percy can watch his cupcakes. Annabelle’s browsing through the movies she has on her hard drive. Most of them are documentaries – “Booooring,” Percy complains. “Don’t you have anything fun?”

 

“These are fun,” says Annabelle earnestly. “Oooh look. Shawshank Redemption, what a classic – stop yawning, you absolute orc.”

 

Percy barks out a laugh. “Okay, but please. I want to watch a movie that doesn’t require using my brain.”

 

“One action flick with a poorly-developed romance, badly-written plot, and colourful, loud explosions coming right up,” says Annabelle with a roll of her eyes, double-clicking on Knight and Day.

 

The movie passes quickly. Percy and Annabeth talk at it more than watch it, laughing at the overdramatic acting and the predictable dialogues. Halfway through, Percy replaces one tray of muffins with another, and Annabelle grudgingly admits they’re fucking incredible, as usual.

 

They watch the second and first Little Mermaid in that order, because Annabelle argues that the plot of the second far exceeds that of the first, even though the first has the superior music. It’s a slow day, and although they have to take breaks every once in a while to serve a customer, the morning goes by smoothly.

 

Percy flips the sign to closed around lunchtime and joins Annabelle to finish the movie; the credits are playing when a weight drops onto his shoulder and oh. Oh.

 

He glances down at her – she’s got her head resting comfortably against Percy’s shoulder, which he knows can’t be comfortable because Raphael complains about it all the time. Nevertheless, Annabeth looks relaxed enough, eyes closed and mouth slightly open. There’s a rosy dust spread across her cheeks, but when he checks her forehead she’s not too warm.

 

She looks a lot softer like this, Percy thinks. He’s seen her like this a couple of times with Thanos and Pistachio, and he wonders if an expression like this will ever be directed his way.

 

Even if it never happens, he has to admit it’s nice to see this side of her up close, even if it is involuntary. It makes him feel all hot and tingly deep down, down in his very core where there’s no surefire way to extinguish the heat.

 

Percy shifts slowly, trying his best not to wake her, but the at slight movement something incomprehensible, something subliminal must pass through her, because she lets out an annoyed little huff and – there’s no other word for it – nuzzles closer to him, burrowing her head into his shoulder.

 

Percy freezes.

 

Slowly, almost unconsciously, in an bewildering display of spur-of-the-moment stupidity, his hands lifts and cards through her hair, and he’s reminded of Sunshine and her golden fur, and it feels – it feels good.

 

Her hair is really soft.

 

Fuck.

 

She opens her eyes.

 

Fuck, he observes further.

 

Percy panics trying to think of a way to justify what he’s doing, because My hand did it by itself doesn’t seem like a justifiable excuse. He slowly pulls it back, glaring at it, because clearly he cannot trust his own limbs anymore; they are not at all working with his best interests in mind.

 

“That…feels nice,” she whispers, so softly that she almost doesn’t catch it, and then she looks up and meets his eyes, and then awareness floods into her expression, and then she sits up so hard her head bumps into his chin, making him yelp and sending them both sprawling across the floor.

 

“Sorry,” she breathes, almost hysteric in the way she’s grabbing her laptop and charger and phone, standing and practically sprinting to the door. “So sorry. I’ll. Uh. See you later. Okaybye.”

 

She doesn’t even give Percy a chance to say anything in return before she’s gone, fleeing the café much like she’d done the very first day they’d met. Percy watches the next batch of muffins rise slowly in the oven, mystified.

 

He’s starting to get slightly annoyed by always being the one who’s left speechless.

 

::

 

“We need to talk,” says Annabelle.

 

It is another lonely Sunday, and today her hair tumbles down her shoulders, slightly damp and smelling of lemon. Percy pauses halfway through making her coffee.

 

“Okay,” he says.

 

She threads her fingers together, then releases them. She repeats the motion, and then repeats it again.

 

“There’s no real way to say this, I guess,” she says. “I was talking to Piper about, well, I dunno, stuff in general. And she…brought up the whole. Thing.” She does a little wiggle with the fingers of her right hand, the one that has the marks. “The whole…soulmate thing. And then she said you were a believer.”

 

“Ah,” he says, already knowing where this is going. “Yeah.”

 

She blinks, as though she’d expected a denial. “Oh. Well.”

 

“You’re not,” Percy guesses, and every single bit of hope – hope that, after the last Sunday after their impromptu cuddling sesh, something might’ve changed between them – dies inside him, melts right through the floor at his feet.

 

“No.”

 

He nods. “Okay.”

 

“What, that’s it?” she sounds astonished. “You’re not disappointed?”

 

“I mean. A little, to be honest,” Percy admits. “But, I mean, it’s okay. I don’t know you that well or anything. It’s not like I expected something miraculous to happen.” He pauses. “Just…out of curiosity. Who has the gene in your family?”

 

“My dad,” Annabelle says. “And it…it didn’t end well.”

 

“Oh,” he says. “I’m sorry.”

 

“It’s fine.” Annabelle looks thoughtfully at her own feet. “It just…it kind of snapped me out of my bubble, y’know? We’re in charge of our own lives. Soulmates are just fantasies. And.” She looks at Percy straight in the eye. “And I fell in love. He wasn’t my soulmate. But it was real.”

 

She might as well have hit Percy in the skull with a sledgehammer.

 

He nods. Manages to pour her drink into its cup without spilling a single drop. Manages to hide his disappointment by squaring his shoulders, turning away, taking long, silent breaths through his nose. She must be talking about Castle. She must still be in love with him. She – he –

 

“Which kind of reaffirmed my whole belief about soulmates, y’know?” she is saying. “And…I’m sorry, Percy. God I’m so sorry.” She deflates just a little. “I mean, I just…didn’t want to lead you on, you know?”

 

“You didn’t,” he manages, even though every cell in his body is screaming that she did. And okay, maybe she didn’t but they’d definitely had a moment and she’s definitely scared of what it could mean, and it pisses him off.

 

“I know.” She cracks a smile. “But just in case.”

 

“Look,” he says, “don’t worry about me. And besides, soulmates can be platonic, right?”

 

“They can be,” she says, looking at him hopefully.

 

He laughs, and it sounds fake to his own ears, but she doesn’t seem to feel like anything’s wrong, she even looks heartened at the sound. “So it’s cool. I’m cool.”

 

“We’re cool?”

 

Percy is most definitely not cool. Percy feels cooler than cool, like ice. He feels stupid and he’s not sure why. It’s not like he’s in love with her. It’s not like he’s made a move. It’s not like he even wanted to – or at least, not yet, anyway. He just wanted to get to know her a little better, somehow, anyhow.

 

Annabeth is guarded. He knows this. Guarded like a fucking fortress, the kind that was probably known in ye olden days for being fucking impenetrable. After – how many months has it been again? He still knows next to nothing about her, other than the fact she’d dated Perfect Boy Luke, even though he hadn’t known she’d been in love with him.

 

Of course she’s running. They’d had something of a real connection yesterday and it had freaked her out and she’s running. He should’ve expected this – but -

 

But still. But still disappointment cuts through him, sharp like a knife, and all he wants to do is yell, or hit something, or cry. He feels like someone has punched a hole through his chest. He feels the same anger he’d felt when he’d found out Gabe had hit his mother. He feels the kind of numb he feels when he jumps into the pool on a winter day.

 

Now he just needs to start moving. Kick himself up to the surface.

 

“Yeah,” he lies, sounding like a fucking idiot, probably. “We’re cool.”

 

::

 

Percy swims.

 

He swims with every breath he’s got, every breath he has. It’s easy to dive into this. Tournaments are around the corner and he needs this. It’s easy to do this. It’s easy to just. Swim, and swim, and forget everything else.

 

“Holy shit, Perce,” Pollux says with awe as Percy’s hand slams the wall and he surfaces, gasping. “You’re on fire, bro. You’ll probably beat your personal best this year.” Percy manages a smile as he drags himself out of the pool, his limbs heavy and his head heavier.

 

He passes the basketball court on his way out of the building. Frank and Jason are both leaned on a bench, talking quietly to each other. They look up when they spot Percy and wave. Percy waves back.

 

Home is quiet. It’s nice. Vincent meows a greeting when he gets back, and Percy settles in for a quiet night of studying.

 

Texts messages flood his phone, leaving the damn this buzzing and buzzing on the kitchen countertop.

 

piper >> yooo where are you, we going to frank’s for a study session and shots

jason >> come to frank’s NOW

frank >> are you coming??

piper >> wru we miss you :( feels like i haven’t seen you in weeks omg

 

Two, to be exact. Two weeks since Annabeth told him she doesn’t believe in soulmates, doesn’t want to be his. Two weeks since Percy threw himself into studying and swim practice, two weeks since Percy started declining invitations to hang out. He tells himself he’s better off this way, at least until he gets out of this funk.

 

It may not be working, to be honest, and he knows it. All the time he’s spending catching up on shit, all the time he’s spending taking his feelings out on his coursework and the pool, means a whole lot less fun, and the stress isn’t good for Percy’s brain. He feels slow and stupid at the end of each day, and it is getting harder and harder to smile. Percy wants a break. Percy wants a vacation. Percy wants –

 

He doesn’t know what he wants.

 

He wants to be happy. He wants to be okay. He wants to feel how he felt before all of the intense soulmate shit, because even feeling nothing must be better than…all this.

 

Is it possible to get over something – someone you didn’t even date?

 

Which is the stupidest shit he’s ever thought, possibly ever. Annabeth has been - an acquaintance, at best. Maybe a friend, but nothing more. Nothing more.

 

She doesn’t owe him anything. Really she doesn’t. She couldn’t have…foreseen this, whatever this is. Whatever Percy’s feeling, which even he isn’t sure of, honestly. It isn’t her fault that she doesn’t care for soulmates. But it isn’t his either.

 

He puts on a playlist of soundtracks, the best for when he’s working. Lord of the Rings’ theme of Gondor begins to boom from the speaker, and Percy pours himself a bowl of soup, settles on the floor near a sleeping Cinnamon, and puts his last few brain cells to work.

 

Near midnight, a knock sounds on his door, followed by muffled voices.

 

Percy picks himself off the ground. Aslan stirs but doesn’t wake. He opens the door.

 

“Wha-” He swallows, thinks. “Piper?”

 

Her scowl only grows at the sound of her name. She pushes into his apartment, followed by Grover, Thalia, Jason, and Frank. Percy shuts the door behind them. They all reek of alcohol but look almost disturbingly sober.

 

“Um,” he says, watching the lot of them settle down around Churro. “What’s going on?”

 

They all look at each other.

 

“You called me Piper,” says Piper.

 

“That’s your name,” says Percy.

 

“You haven’t called me Piper a day in our lives,” Piper retorts. She sounds angry. “You haven’t called me Piper since the day I met you. What’s wrong, Percy?”

 

He lets out an incredulous laugh, looking at Jason and Frank for support, but they look at him blankly. He turns back to Piper. “I thought you’d be happy about it.”

 

“I’ll be happy when I know what’s wrong,” Piper says sternly. “We’ve barely seen you in two weeks. All you do is swim and go to class and come back here. You aren’t being your usual self at Deja Brew, and you’ve been avoiding us, and…” She balls her hand into a fist. “Is it something we did? Something we said?”

 

“No,” Percy says at once, feeling sick to his stomach. “No, not at all, how could you even think-”

 

“We don’t know what to think,” Jason says. “We just want to know why. And we wanna know if you’re okay, y’know? Because…no offense, man, but you don’t look too great.”

 

Percy hangs his head.

 

“Percy,” says Piper. “Look. I know – I know you’ll be okay. But you have these moments. Where you just look off. Lonely.”

 

His breath catches. His friends are all giving him the same sympathetic look, and he hates it. Mostly he hates that they’d figured it out, though. Has he been so transparent?

 

It’s quiet for a while.

 

Then Grover says, “Is this about Annabeth?”

 

Percy has never been too adept at hiding his emotions, so it should really come as no shock when he drops his spoon and begins to cough like a man possessed. Hot tears burn at his eyes.

 

“Oh shit,” says Thalia.

 

“Do you need – oh my god, drink some water,” says Frank.

 

Percy drinks some water that Grover hands him and sits down, a little sheepishly, next to Marigold. Piper gets out a pastry from her bag. Lemon tart from Deja Brew, Hazel’s specialty, Annabeth’s secret favorite.

 

“Eat your feelings,” she instructs.

 

“I’m good,” he says. “Calm down. It’s not like I’m going to cry about how unlovable I am or anything.”

 

“Eat,” Frank commands. “Hazel made this special for your feelings of sadness.”

 

He eats.

 

“Oh, Percy,” Piper whispers softly. “What happened?”

 

“Nothing,” he says. ‘We just talked.”

 

The boys all look confused, but Piper lets out a little aah sound like it makes sense, and Thalia looks concerned. “About soulmates?” she asks.

 

“Yeah.” Percy runs a hand through his hair.

 

“Soulmates?” Frank questions.

 

“Annabeth doesn’t believe in them,” Percy explains, and the temperature of the room seems to drop about ten degrees.

 

“Well, fuck,” Jason says finally.

 

“That…isn’t what I was expecting,” Frank agrees. Grover just leans over and pats Percy on the arm. He looks at him and Percy appreciates the fact that there is no sympathy in his gaze. Percy doesn’t need pity or anything of the sort. He’s a little sad, a little mad, but it’s okay, because shit happens in life and this isn’t the end of the world, even though it feels a little like it right now.

 

“I kinda did,” Piper says in a small voice, and Thalia nods. Jason rounds on her angrily.

 

“You knew this would happen and you didn’t say anything?” he demands. “What the fuck, Pipes?”

 

“I didn’t know. I just knew her parents were soulmates and that it ended with her mom leaving,” Piper says defensively. “And then Annabeth found Luke. I don’t know much of the details either. It’s just…I dunno. I knew she was stubborn, but. I dunno, okay? She seemed to really like you, Perce. I thought…if anyone could change her mind…”

 

“You still should’ve said something,” Jason argues.

 

“Don’t blame her,” Thalia says, ruffling her hair even worse, her blue eyes – so like her brother’s – clouded over. “I knew, too, and I thought Annabeth was over it.”

 

Piper looks near tears. “I didn’t think it would end up this way,” she says. “I’m so sorry, Percy.”

 

“It’s okay,” Percy says. “It’s done now, anyway.”

 

“It’s not done,” Piper says.

 

“God, don’t give him hope for no reason,” Jason grunts.

 

Piper exhales noisily. “I’m not. It’s just, she asked after him twice last week. Asked if he was okay. She wouldn’t do that if she cared about him even a little, right?”

 

“She asked if you were coming today, too,” Frank agrees.

 

“Doesn’t mean anything,” says Percy.

 

Grover eyes him. “You sure you’re okay if that’s the case?”

 

“Yeah,” Percy says. “I can be…her whatever, if that’s what she wants. I don’t want to…force something that isn’t there.”

 

“It’s there,” Piper says. “It’s there, she’s just being difficult-”

 

“God, Piper.” Percy lets out a long, long sigh. “There’s nothing there, and even if there could’ve been-”

 

“I know her.” She glares around at them all, daring them to dispute it. “I know her better than anyone here, I know her better than anyone ever save for Thalia and Luke, and I’m telling you I saw how happy she got just talking to Percy.” She fixates on Percy, focused like a laser beam. “That first Sunday when she met you at Deja Brew? She’d just had a panic attack before. When she came over later it was the calmest I’ve ever seen her. The happiest, too, probably, since the breakup.”

 

“What-” Percy hadn’t been aware the others knew about their lonely Sundays.

 

“I remember,” Thalia recalls. “I don’t think she’s had an attack since, either. And she always wakes up early to meet you on Sundays, Perce. Has a special alarm and everything.”

 

“That’s why…that’s why I thought she might be coming around to the idea of soulmates,” Piper says guiltily.

 

“Well, she’s not,” Percy says. “Last I checked, she was still in love with her ex.”

 

“She isn’t,” says Piper.

 

“How do you know,” Percy shoots back at once.

 

She bites her lip. “Ugh. I-I can’t say. It’s not for me to share. But…Perce, don’t give up on her just because you think she isn’t over Luke-”

 

“Give up?” Percy says quietly. Piper falls silent.

 

“It’s not giving up,” Percy says, shaking off Grover’s hand, “when I didn’t even get a chance to be her friend. It’s not giving up when she just…decided, all by herself, to cut herself off from this. It’s not – it’s not giving up, because I didn’t give up.” He glares at his own carpet, hating himself. “She did.”

 

He closes his eyes. “It’s not like I was asking for much. We were good, we were friends, and then one day she just. She just. She just ran away and then shows up the next day like oh hey, I don’t believe in soulmates and I don’t care how you feel about it.” He crosses his arms. “I don’t care how scared she was, I don’t care what any of you say, but that was a dick move. Because I felt shit afterwards. And I just. Don’t wanna talk to her.”

 

“You can do whatever,” Grover says finally. “Okay? We’re not going to force you to do anything about this. But – but you should know she did – she does consider you a friend. She’s a bit. Um. Selective, about who she lets in. But she does consider you a friend.”

 

“I don’t care about what she thinks,” Jason says bluntly. “But I’m here for you, bro, anytime you need me.” Frank nods in agreement.

 

Piper squeezes his hand. He meets her eyes; they’re full of silent apologies. Percy lets out a breath and squeezes back.

 

He picks up Peppermint, buries his face in her fur. If his friends see the tears leak from his eyes, they don’t say anything about it at all.

 

::

 

Harriet is a fifty-year-old mother in the body of a college freshman.

 

“Oh no, you too?” she groans, when Percy shows up at Francois’ door with a fever and a runny nose. “You’re the third one this week.”

 

“I’m fine.” Percy sneezes. “I just want soup.”

 

“The fact that you haven’t made it yourself is evidence enough that you are not fine,” Harriet says tartly, pulling her curly brows hair into a tight ponytail and fixing both hands on her hips. “Now go. Get into the quarantine room. Where’s Citrine?”

 

“With Pistachio.” Percy sneezes again. “I’m fine. Just gimme soup.”

 

Get your ass in the quarantine room,” Harriet demands. She could put most mothers to shame and she doesn’t even have any children. “I’ll get you soup in half an hour.”

 

Percy allows himself to be herded into Francois’ room. He sneezes on the way and Harriet pushes him through the door as though manhandling something disgusting. Francois’ room is nice, at least. More flowers in the window, with no puke on them, so it feels like a nice kind of hospital room and not the jail it really is.

 

“Stay,” she orders, and then slams the door shut behind him.

 

The quarantine room, she had called it. Percy spies Leonardo sleeping under Francois’ thick blanket, damn him – and there’s Annabelle exiting the bathroom. Which is. Um. Literal ambulance noises are going off in his head. Uh-oh.

 

In the few weeks that have followed since his friends pulled his head (at least partially) out of his ass, Percy’s been trying to push his life down the path of something resembling normalcy. At least he’s found time to hand out with the gang more – and it’s made him feel better, but he’s still been avoiding Annabelle like the plague. He can’t face her just yet. He needs time to think. To move on, which still sound ridiculous. But he needs time, and space – so this –

 

This is not ideal.

 

To be fair, Annabelle’s eyes brighten when she sees him, and Percy realizes with a pang that he hasn’t spent time with her, one-on-one, in over a month. He’d even cancelled on their lonely Sundays, blaming swim practice, and he hadn’t felt bad about it at the time, but now he remembers the text he’d gotten from her that first Sunday: Hey, I’m outside, where are you? and he thinks of her standing alone outside Deja Brew, waiting for him to let her in, and feels the slightest bit guilty.

 

“Hey!” she says. “It feels like it’s been a minute since I saw you last. Where you been?”

 

She sounds so. Friendly. That it’s making him angry and happy all at once.

 

“Just busy.” He tries for a smile. “How have you been?”

 

“Good.” She wipes her hands on the back of her jeans and sniffs. “Missed our lonely Sundays.”

 

Percy can’t help it: he lets out a tiny scoff that he tries at once to disguise as a cough, but Annabelle’s eyes narrow: she’s heard.

 

“What,” she says, immediately guarded, wary.

 

“Nothing,” he responds.

 

“I’m not an idiot, Percy,” she says, annoyed, grey eyes flashing. “So why don’t you explain what was so funny?”

 

Percy doesn’t respond. The tension in the room could be cut with a knife. Leonardo snores and turns over. Percy doesn’t respond.

 

Annabelle makes a small, disbelieved, exasperated noise. “Look, Percy, I’m trying here, so –”

 

“You’re trying?” Percy turns to her. “You’re trying? Well, if you’re trying so hard, why’d you run away, then?”

 

She takes a step back, mouth open, eyes wide. “I-I didn’t-”

 

“I tried to give you space. Before all this. After we found out we were soulmates. I tried to give you space.” Percy exhales noisily through his nose. It’s hard to breathe through all the phlegm in there. “And you ran.”

 

“I thought you were okay with it,” she says, almost accusingly. “You said we could be friends. I thought we were friends before, it wasn’t- it wasn’t like we were – together, or anything-”

 

“We weren’t,” Percy agrees.

 

“So then what?” she demands.

 

“We weren’t friends,” Percy says, watching with some kind of sick please as her face crumples at his words. “It’s not a friendship if-if I tell you everything and you don’t say shit. You had – you had every opportunity to tell me you didn’t want to be soulmates and yet you do it the minute I told you about my family, the minute we had that moment on that Sunday. You were scared and you ran.” He lets out a humourless laugh. “You even had to say you loved someone else just to kick me while I was down.”

 

“I-I didn’t do it on purpose,” she says in a small voice.

 

“It doesn’t matter if you did or you didn’t,” Percy says. “I just. Felt like shit, y’know? It’s fine if you love someone else. Or loved. Or whatever. And all I wanted to do was be your friend. And I thought I could do it, but…” He rubs his palm into his forehead. “I can’t. Not now. I just. I need some time. Maybe I’m being dramatic, but I don’t want to act like I’m fine, because I’m not.”

 

It’s quiet for a while. Percy glances to the side and sees Leonardo, eyes wide open, lying stiff as a log, and he has to fight off the sudden desire to laugh.

 

“I’m sorry,” Annabelle says finally, after five minutes or so of uncomfortable, tense silence. “I-I was being selfish.”

 

Percy doesn’t say anything.

 

She moves towards the door. “I would still like to be friends. And I mean it. But I know-I know I’ve hurt your feelings, and I have only myself to blame for all this, so I’ll wait.” She fixes him with a gaze sharp and steely. “I’m sorry for assuming you were okay, and I’m sorry if I invalidated your feelings in any way. I didn’t mean to. I wasn’t thinking. You were right. It was selfish of me. I-I’m just.” Her voice breaks as she opens the door. “I would really like to be your friend, Percy. If you’ll have me.”

 

She leaves the room; Percy strongly suspects that she might have burst into tears, but he doesn’t follow. He hears her deny Hazel’s offer for soup, hears her thank her for the time and space to rest.

 

The front door closes. Percy sinks to the ground. He wants to scream, because he’s weak and it’s hard to just forgive and forget when he put his heart on the line and didn’t even know it. And it feels like Annabeth took a piece of him when she walked out, and he doesn’t want to give her a chance. But she’d sounded genuine and sad and he’s just. Not sure of what he wants to do anymore.

 

“Bro, what the fuck,” says Leonardo.

 

::

 

“Would you shut up, you oversized gumdrop,” Percy says, beer sloshing in his hand as he whirls around. “Someone, anyone, tell this oversized gumdrop that it’s totally possible to surf on Pistachio’s whiteboard.”

 

“Oh my god, you guys, you guys it’s time,” Wilbur screeches, totally ignoring the oversized gumdrop comment. “Oh my god you guys Percy’s started the dessert insults. Everyone come here this instant.”

 

“It’s been so long,” Jacob cries, raising his glass in one hand and his glasses in the other. “Percy, what am I?”

 

“A banana split,” says Percy instantly, grinning dopily when Jacob screeches with joy, toppling off the couch.

 

Everyone has gathered around now. Some have even taken out their phones.

 

“What the fuck going on,” Percy hears Annabelle ask Pistachio under her breath. “Why is Percy naming people after desserts.”

 

“It’s a rare sight,” Pistachio whispers. “You have to get Percy the right amount of drunk on the right drinks. Nobody knows the combination yet, we’ve been trying to narrow it down for years. But the point is that he gets drunk and he starts calling people dessert insults. It’s hilarious.

 

“Hey,” Percy snaps, pointing directly at Pistachio. “I can hear you, you bonbon.”

 

“Oh, nice,” says Pistachio appreciatively. “Last time I got KitKat, that’s so boring.”

 

“Do me,” says Raphael.

 

“Again?” Percy quips back. Leonardo is laughing so hard he’s just shaking, emitting no sound at all. Annabelle’s raised her eyebrows high enough to merge with her hairline. Percy looks at Raphael, thinking.

 

“Cherry Starbursts,” he says. “No wait I’ve got it. Gingerbread.”

 

“I’ll take it,” says Raphael.

 

“Wait, I don’t want to be a gumdrop,” says Wilbur plaintively. “Gimme another.”

 

“Once a gumdrop, always a gumdrop, you wilty-ass macaroon,” says Percy dismissively. “Next.”

 

“Oh god, I’ll take the gumdrop,” mutters Wilbur.

 

“Good,” says Percy. “Now go find your boyfriend, the raisin.”

 

“I’m not his boyfriend and I’m not a raisin,” Nincompoop howls from somewhere in the house. “Just because I wear black and I’m a little wrinkly from no sleep-”

 

“You should eat a raisin,” Jacob says. “I feel like I’ve never seen you eat in my entire life. How do you get nutrients to, like, survive?”

 

“I don’t eat, either,” Silicon admits. “I just sit outside in the sun for a while to get my vitamins.”

 

“Dude, that shit is all kinds of wrong,” says Pistachio.

 

“If you want that vitamin D, you’re gonna have to get it from other sources,” Leonardo says, waggling his eyebrows.

 

“Oh Jesus,” says Raphael.

 

Percy points to Silicon, struck with inspiration. “You are a gummy worm.” Then he points to Pistachio. “You are a KitKat.”

 

“No no no no no,” says Pistachio. “You gave me bonbon, let me be the bonbon.”

 

“No take backsies,” says Percy. “Tit for tat, Kit for Kat.”

 

“Okay,” says Leonardo. “That, I admit, was a good one.”

 

“Thank you,” Percy says. “For that, you can be a lava cake.”

 

“Oh fuck yes, bitches!” Leonardo screeches, scaling the couch with both arms in the air. “I got the best one, nobody can beat me!”

 

“What about me?” asks Reynold, sipping on her drink.

 

“Tiramisu,” Percy drawls.

 

“Ooh nice,” Reynold says, tipping her cup in salute. “Thanks, Perce.”

 

“Francois is mochi,” Percy decides.

 

“Is it because I’m Asian,” Francois says at once.

 

“What the fuck are you complaining about?” Pistachio yells. “You love mochi. Everyone loves mochi. I got fucking KitKat. I was so close to being a bonbon.”

 

“Can I be mochi,” Wilbur asks.

 

“No, didn’t I give you candy cane already?” Percy asks.

 

“Wait wait waiiit a second, why are mine getting worse and worse,” Wilbur says.

 

“What am I?” Harriet asks politely.

 

Percy takes one look at her flyaway curls and knows his answer. “Cotton candy.”

 

“Ooooh, everyone’s getting good ones,” says Pistachio. “What about me?”

 

“Nutty M&Ms,” Percy says.

 

“Fucking hell,” Pistachio grunts.

 

“Join the club,” says Wilbur.

 

“Grover can be blue jellybeans, because he’s my favorite candy,” Percy says. “And Jubilee can be Skittles.”

 

“What is Fred?” Pistachio wonders aloud.

 

“A Ferrero Rocher,” says Percy.

 

“Why does your cat have a better dessert than me,” Wilbur whines.

 

“What about Annabeth?” Silicon asks, pushing Annabelle forward. Almost everyone goes silent, waiting for the verdict. Fucking gossips. Percy narrows his eyes at her.

 

He’s had time to think since they last talked. The sharp pain he’d felt at her words from before have faded to a dull ache. True to her word, she’s given him the space he asked for, and he’s grateful for it, but avoiding her in a group setting is hard. Like now. It’s like running into an ex, but she’s not even that, which is more frustrating. It is also hell because she’s hard to ignore. It is also conflicting because he still feels a tiny rush of fondness just at the sight of her. He hates that he still cares, and he still does, unfortunately. He care so much he’s forgotten what it’s like to live in indifference. Percy blames the hormones.

 

Raphael squeezes his arm for a moment, a silent Are you okay, and he squeezes back a fine so far. Annabelle looks like she wants to leave, like she’s not expecting a response. But Percy is not a coward. And though he might be angry at her, everyone deserves a dessert.

 

“Lemon tart,” he decides finally. Annabelle’s eyes widen infinitesimally.

 

“Because she’s blonde? Come on, we want more originality,” Wilbur says. Pistachio, Percy notices, is looking at him in an almost hawklike fashion, lips pressed tightly together.

 

“Of course not, you Fruit Loop,” Percy jeers. “She’s a lemon tart because she likes it even though she pretends to not like anything sweet at all, and also because her hair smells like lemons, duh.”

 

The room goes utterly silent for seven beats of Percy’s heart, during which he looks around, confused, unable to really register the gradual reddening of Annabeth’s face and the slow delight lighting up Pistachio’s.

 

Then everyone begins yelling at once.

 

::

 

“I did not say that,” Percy groans. “Tell me I did not say that.”

 

“Oh, you said it,” Pistachio cackles. “You said her hair smells like lemons, and we all lost our shit, and Leonardo was trying to get the answer out of you and you just. Fell asleep. It was the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen.”

 

“Oh my god,” Percy mutters. “Thank god I didn’t say more.”

 

“She wasn’t mad, though,” Pistachio assures. “Her face was this comic mixture of shocked, embarrassed, and flattered.”

 

“Great to know, thanks.”

 

“Why are you acting like you hooked up with her, oh my god,” Jubilee pipes up. “She just said she fell asleep on you. Which is. Good to know what y’all get up to on Sundays.”

 

“You weren’t even there,” Percy howls. “How did you find out?”

 

“Annabeth told everyone after they interrogated her, and then Piper told me,” says Jubilee. Pistachio winks.

 

“Fuck you,” says Percy.

 

“I can’t believe you remember what her hair smells like,” Pistachio crows. “Whipped.”

 

“It was a very distinct smell of lemon,” Percy defends weakly.

 

“There are three smells of lemon,” Pistachio rattles off at once. “Lemon in bathroom cleaner lemon, lemon in lemon pastries lemon, and actual lemon.”

 

“Lemon shampoo lemon,” Jubilee adds.

 

“Alright, four lemon smells,” Pistachio concedes.

 

“That’s what it smelled like, then,” Percy says. “Lemon shampoo lemon.”

 

“I don’t believe you,” Pistachio sing-songs. “I think you smelled the lemons of love.”

 

“What’s not to believe,” Percy gripes, irritated. “And there’s no such thing.”

 

“Hello hello hello,” Jacob says obnoxiously, bursting into the shop with his arms spread open. “What is up, my underlings.”

 

“What happened to you?” Piper asks suspiciously. “And why are you using a British accent?”

 

“I can’t do a posh British accent, but I can speak like the girls in Love Island,” Percy offers.

 

“Don’t do it-”

 

“So, like, he gave me fanny flutters.” Percy’s voice goes up a pitch. “And I was like, oh my god he’s so fit.”

 

“Oh Percy, have some mercy,” says Jacob in the same voice.

 

Percy has to think of Jacob’s name for a minute. “Oh Jason, you mason.” Pistachio lets out a bark of laughter.

 

“Sometimes I worry about you two,” says Jubilee.

 

“Oi,” says Jacob.

 

“That’s harsh, mate,” says Percy.

 

“Jolly good,” says Pistachio.

 

“Marvelous, old chap,” says Percy.

 

“Quite brilliant, good sire,” says Jacob.

 

“Ah, don’t you love the queen, ain’t she a crafty old bird,” says Pinocchio.

 

“Y’all need help,” says Juniper with feeling. “And I mean the kind from a psychologist.”

 

Grover chooses this moment to make an appearance. He stumbles in, weighed down by what looks like half the library, and collapses at the counter next to Jacob.

 

Kill me,” he says. “Why did I think college was a good idea?”

 

“I went to college, to get some knowledge,” Jubilee sings softly.

 

“It is as Pink Floyd said,” Grover says wearily. “We don’t need no education.”

 

Jubilee pats him on the cheek. “Aw.”

 

“Aren’t they positively adorable,” Percy whispers to Jacob loudly.

 

“Quite adorable, yes, positively delightful,” says Jacob.

 

Pistachio holds up a mug, pinky extended. “Fancy a cup of tea, lads?”

 

Jubilee looks impressed at their tenacity. “Not gonna lie, I thought you’d have run out of material by now.”

 

“I do not take kindly to that statement – you – you crumpet,” Percy says.

 

“Atop your head I will wallop,” Jacob says wildly, waving his arms, “for you are a dollop.”

 

“I’m out,” Piper admits, switching out of the classy voice. “All I’ve got left are Harry Potter references.”

 

“Expelliarmus,” says Jacob at once. It’s the only spell he knows. Jacob hasn’t read or watched Harry Potter, something Pistachio considers highly offensive.

 

“It’s not Expelli-ar-mus, it’s Expelliar-muhs,” Percy gets out in a poor imitation of Hermione. Pistachio laughs so hard she nearly falls out of her chair, while Jacob, the uncultured swine, blinks on in confusion.

 

“Why are you my friends,” Grover moans.

 

“We fuel your drive for caffeine,” Percy says, pouring Grover his coffee. Grover grasps the cup with both hands, closes his eyes as he breathes in the steam rising off of it.

 

“Sometimes I forget why they pay you actual cash instead of Monopoly chips,” he whispers, reverent, “but then you make me my coffee and I remember.”

 

“Aw, he looks like a faun,” Jubilee says loudly to Pistachio.

 

“True, true,” says Pistachio, contemplating. “Grover does have that lost-woodland-creature vibe about him.”

 

“Creature?” Grover asks at once, offended.

 

“You are very woodland-y,” Jacob agrees.

 

“I could definitely see you playing a flute in a forest,” Percy says, “making all the squirrels come to you.”

 

“What am I, the Pied Piper?” Grover demands.

 

“No, that’s me,” says Pistachio.

 

“When you’re in bed you’re the tied Piper,” Jacob says, having lost any sense of shame at birth.

 

“Oh god, I do not want to hear any more of your kinky sex life,” Jubilee groans.

 

“At least you have a sex life,” Percy deadpans.

 

“It’s not your fault Annabeth’s being a bitch about it – oh, don’t give me that look,” Jacob rolls his eyes at Pistachio. “Percy’s my guy the same way Annabeth’s your girl, and I know we don’t know her deep dark history, but I’m on Percy’s side on this one.”

 

“That doesn’t mean you need to ignore her when she comes over, though,” says Pistachio, sounding disappointed.

 

“Yeah, don’t do that,” Percy says, secretly a little pleased. “I’m good, really.”

 

“Stop smiling, you goblin, you’re not fooling anyone,” says Pistachio.

 

“Sorry.” Percy tries to school his expression into something neutral, somber. “Is she okay?”

 

“After you said you didn’t wanna be her friend anymore and then made her expose your cuddling sessions? She’s good,” Pistachio says.

 

“It was just one time, and we didn’t cuddle,” Percy says. “She just slept on my shoulder. It was just a moment.”

 

“A cute moment?” Pistachio presses further shrewdly.

 

“Yeah,” he admits. “Her hair is soft.”

 

“That’s adorable,” says Jacob. “I’m even more pissed off now.”

 

Grover seems to have gotten a little life back thanks to the coffee. “I gotta admit, I thought something was gonna happen between you two. I mean. We all know Percy’s a sap for soulmates and shit, but Annabeth seemed to like him back. That was the surprising part.”

 

“Thanks,” Percy says. “Good to know I’m so unlikeable.”

 

“Please,” Jubilee scoffs. “You’re like the golden boy. Like Rachel says, everyone’s type, right?”

 

“Not Anna…beth’s,” Percy says moodily.

 

Everyone stares.

 

“You said her name right,” says Pistachio.

 

“You’re still hella whipped,” says Jacob.

 

“Am not,” Percy retorts, well aware that he’s been spending the last week as acting Pharaoh of de-Nile and hating every second of it.

 

“Don’t worry, she’ll come around,” says Grover reassuringly.

 

“I don’t want her to.” Percy turns away to start an order. “Ball’s in her court now. I’m not doing shit.”

 

“That’s my boy,” Jacob beams.

 

Pistachio shares a look with Grover that Percy’s too tired to decipher. He squeezes lemon juice into a bowl. Jubilee hands him another order and he sticks it to the wall next to him. It’s for a mint tea, dangerously close to Annabelle’s order. He doesn’t know what he’d do if he saw sees her, to be honest. Probably melt into the floor to avoid looking her in the eye or something.

 

His anger has faded into hurt has faded into embarrassment has faded into bitter acceptance. Percy has to admit that he hadn’t even know Annabelle half as well as he’d thought he had, and that their closeness might’ve just been in his head. He’s willing to accept he’d been a little overdramatic about the whole thing, but then again, he’d been hurt about it. But then again times two, he’d been hurt only because he’d set his expectations too high. But then again times three –

 

“Percy. Percy. Percypercypercypercy-”

 

“What,” he asks.

 

“You’re coming today, right.”

 

“Nico’s thing,” Pistachio reminds him.

 

“Oh shit, yeah.” Percy grins. “Got him a cool gift and everything.”

 

“Bet it won’t beat ours,” Jacob says. “I’d bet my right buttcheek on it. And maybe even my left, too.”

 

“Ours? You’re already gifting people shit as a couple? Get married already,” says Percy in disgust. He looks at Grover and Jubilee. “And I know you guys did the same thing. You guys are like, past marriage at this point. You’re like expecting your first kids. Gross. Very gross.”

 

Both couples shoot each other soppy looks. Percy mimes puking; a customer sees him and shoots him a worried look. Percy stops.

 

“See you tonight at the place,” Jacob says.

 

“Could you be a little more vague, please,” Pistachio says sarcastically.

 

“Okay, see you tonight at the place at the time we’re supposed to be there,” Jacob says.

 

“Is Annabeth coming,” Percy asks, too late.

 

“What the fuck do you think,” Pistachio says, smiling. Percy smacks his head into the counter.

 

I’m going to die, he types out on his phone, and he sends it to everyone he knows.

 

::

 

Early shifts on weekends suck, swim practice right after that sucks even harder, and the very thought of a birthday part, of all things, is making Percy sick.

 

It had been Jacob’s idea, because of course it had been Jacob to scream himself hoarse the moment he found out Nincompoop had never had a real birthday party before, of course it had been Jacob to decide to throw him one, even though Nincompoop is turning twenty years old and had said vocally and loudly multiple times that he wanted to spend his birthday sleeping and playing Call of Duty.

 

Well. That ain’t happening, so Percy has to wear a clean t-shirt and drag his ass over to Sotally Tober or The Brady Punch or The Green Dragon (yeah, like the one in Hobbiton) or The Subpar Bar or whatever it’s called now. It’s advertised as a café-type place but it serves drinks to college students as long as there’s a senior (bless Thanos) in the group. It’s got pretty lights and an open rooftop and Percy loves the place, but tonight is not the night.

 

“Pspspsps,” Percy calls out as soon as he reaches his place. It’s a routine for him now. Percy goes to class and drops Citrine off at Harriet’s and then he picks her up and takes her home. He feeds her and she sleeps and Percy leaves for swim practice, dropping his extra key off at Traffic and Corner’s so they can go check on her. Usually when Percy comes back from practice, he’s greeted by the sight of Churro darting to him, meowing and butting her head gently against his legs.

 

Today, though, there is no sign of her.

 

Percy’s heart sinks.

 

“Pspspspsps,” he says urgently. “Pspspspsps.”

 

But Peppermint is still worryingly absent, and Percy’s close to panicking when he notices the open window in what used to be Jacob’s room. He curses, then curses again, pulling out his phone and dialling Traffic.

 

“Yo,” Traffic says. “Wuddup, where are you?”

 

“Home,” says Percy. “Dude, when’s the last time you saw Aslan?”

 

“Cinnamon?” Traffic asks. “Like half an hour ago, just before I left. Gave her some cat food, played with her a little. Figured you’d be home soon, so I left. Why? Is something up?”

 

“It’s fine, thanks,” Percy says quickly, hanging up. He swear again, then grabs his keys and runs downstairs.

 

Percy reaches the front of his building when he realizes, with a horrible kind of feeling, that Percy is just one Percy and Festus is just one cat and they are both alone in this humungous campus. She could have gone anywhere, Percy thinks, his horror doubling, and it’s getting dark, too.

 

He circles his building, psps-ing until his throat goes dry. Then he does the same for B Block. Some students give him a weird look, but he doesn’t care. He’s about to start on A when –

 

“Percy?” comes a voice, cautious and stuttering, and Percy turns to see Annabelle standing there with a bag slung around her shoulder, looking at him with concern in her eyes. “Uh, you okay?”

 

And no, he isn’t, and oh god he’s not in the mindspace to deal with how his stomach swoops at the sight of her, all cleaned up and pretty in her t-shirt and skinny jeans, but he can’t focus on that – he can’t focus on her right now because Sunshine is the priority.

 

“It’s Vincent,” he says in a choked voice. “She’s gone – and my window – and -”

 

Annabelle seems to get the picture immediately. Her face hardens into something raw and focused. It’s horribly attractive. Percy nearly chokes on his own spit.

 

“Okay,” she says. “Don’t worry, we’re going to get her back. When did you notice she was gone?”

 

“Like ten minutes ago,” he says, gut churning. “Traffic – I mean Travis…he saw her half an hour ago.”

 

“Forty minutes, then.” Annabelle breathes out. “Okay. Let’s split up. You cover A, then go to D and E. I’ll do F and G, and we can both go do the rest together. Is there anyone else you can call to help us?”

 

“They’re all at Nincompoop’s thing,” Percy says brokenly. “I-I don’t wanna make this a big deal. J-Jason’s…been planning this for a long time.”

 

“Marigold is a big deal,” Annabelle says, but she looks at his face and seems to give up. “Okay, never mind. Let’s start searching.”

 

“Psps for her,” Percy says, as Annabeth jogs away. “She likes you, she’ll come out.”

 

“Okay,” Annabelle calls.

 

Blocks A, D, and E are a dud. Annabeth calls him not a moment after he’s circled Block E and tells him F and G were dead ends, too. He joins her at the door to block H, but he’s kind of lost hope at this point and it must show, because she reaches out her hand to touch his shoulder.

 

“Don’t freak out,” she says. “Kitty loves you. We’ll find her soon enough.”

 

“She’s smaller than most cats and – and what if some other stray cat finds her and scratches her like what happened to Jacob,” Percy groans, squeezing his eyes shut. “I’m the worst. I shouldn’t have her be alone.”

 

“You’re not the worst-”

 

“I am,” says Percy passionately. “I’m the worst cat dad.”

 

“You are not, oh my god, so pull yourself together,” Annabelle says in a voice so stern that Percy obeys. “You raised her and you feed her and you cuddle her all the time and you always make sure she’s okay, even when you’re not home. This was a mistake, that’s all, and you’re allowed to make them. This isn’t the end of the world, Percy. We’re going to find her. Okay?”

 

When he doesn’t answer, she repeats, with a little more force, “Okay?”

 

“Okay,” says Percy.

 

“Good.” She straightens, looking pleased with herself. “And also, you’re a great feline father.”

 

It’s bad enough to actually draw a snort out of him. “That was horrible,” he says.

 

“Couldn’t have been that horrible if it made you laugh,” she points out, grinning. “Now come on, let’s cover the rest of the blocks.”

 

They pspsps around the remainder of the accommodation buildings, covering areas much faster than Percy had done alone. Most of the department buildings are locked up, and each security guard tells him that no, they have not seen a yellow cat pass them.

 

“Should we give up,” Percy asks mournfully, as his phone buzzes again. No doubt it’s Pistachio or Jacob or someone else wondering why he’s so late.

 

“Maybe we should check your building again,” Annabelle says, frowning. “Just to be sure.”

 

“Okay,” says Percy.

 

They’re heading back towards C when Annabeth stops him.

 

“Do you hear that,” she says.

 

“What?” Percy listens.

 

“That.” Annabeth frowns. “Like…splashing.”

 

He strains his ears, then nods. “I hear it.” Which doesn’t make sense. The pool is way off in the other direction.

 

Annabelle looks around until she spots an inflatable pool hidden in the shadows of the nearby trees. She points.

 

“No way,” says Percy.

 

“She’s your cat,” Annabelle says, sounding close to laughter.

 

“Pspsps,” tries Percy.

 

The splashing stops, then resumes again, this time followed by the faintest of meows.

 

Annabeth nearly loses it as Percy takes off towards the tiny pool. It’s sat on the lawn between buildings C and D; Percy wonders how the hell he’d missed it.

 

“I can’t-I can’t even,” Annabelle wheezes, right on Percy’s heels. She breaks off into another peel of laughter as they both reach the pool and look down into it incredulously, watching as Pepperoni paddles around, meowing gleefully at the sight of them.

 

“You idiot cat,” Percy says, taking off his jacket and using it to grab Butterscotch and towel her dry. “Who the fuck do you think you are, the god of the fucking ocean? You stupid cat. You gave me a heart attack. Oh my god.”

 

Annabeth is wiping actual tears from her eyes, mostly from her laughter, but there’s relief on her face.

 

“God of the sea,” she says, grinning. “Percy, oh my god.”

 

“What?” he asks, pressing a kiss to Paprika’s damp fur.

 

“Poseidon.” Annabeth reaches out an arm to rub behind Kitty’s ears. “That’s what you should name her.”

 

“Poseidon,” Percy tries.

 

“God of the sea,” Annabeth says, still grinning dopily. “Poseidon. But also, like, you could spell it like P – S – E – I - D - O – N. Because –”

 

“Because pspsps,” Percy says, realization dawning on him, his lips lifting. “Oh my god.”

 

“You asked me to keep you updated,” Annabeth says. “On the name ideas.”

 

“I did,” Percy agrees.

 

“What do you think?” She looks almost nervous. Her grey eyes have clouded over, as though suddenly realizing their proximity and the fact that they have been on – well, not the best of terms as of late.

 

Percy looks down at Pseidon. She sneezes, then mews again. She must be cold.

 

“It’s the best one yet,” he admits, and Annabelle’s face bursts into a smile so bright he finds himself looking away.

 

::

 

They drop Pseidon off at Castanet and Pollen’s – Pollen is sick with a fever and looked very much in need of something to cuddle, so Percy doesn’t feel too horrible about letting her out of his sight, at least until the door closes shut behind him.

 

“Oh, would you chill,” Annabelle says, interpreting his expression correctly. “She’ll be fine.”

 

“I know, but-”

 

“Do you realize,” she cuts in, “that you’re worrying about the God of the Sea? The Lord of all things water?”

 

“Oh, shut up,” he says, as she cackles.

 

They walk side by side. Annabeth’s on the phone with Pistachio.

 

“Yeah, we’re on our way, so stop screaming. Yes, Pseidon is okay.” She rolls her eyes. “Yeah. Fred.”

 

Luckily, the place isn’t too far away. Annabelle spends the walk humming softly and tapping on her phone as Percy attempts and re-attempts to flatten his hair and dry his t-shirt. It’s red. On the front, in big bock letters, it reads SWEATSHIRT. Annabeth had laughed herself silly at it. Percy had tried to feign offense.

 

The sign outside Sotally Tober/The Bardy Punch/The Green Dragon/The Subpar Bar is now labelled The Rustic Roof.

 

“That’s interesting,” Percy says.

 

“That the birthday boy is making out with Will instead of cutting his cake?” Annabeth says, a single eyebrow lifted. “Yeah, that’s interesting, I guess.”

 

“What.”

 

Annabeth points. There, in plain sight, pressed up against the wall on the side of the building, are Wilbur and Nincompoop, all up in each other’s space and kissing as though tied together by the tongue.

 

“Oh my god,” says Percy.

 

“Oh my god,” says Annabeth.

 

“I mean. Should we break it up.” Percy shuffles awkwardly. “We came here for him, after all.”

 

“I’m not doing it,” she says.

 

“I don’t want to, either,” Percy whines.

 

“Rock-paper-scissors it.”

 

“Fine.”

 

Annabeth wins. Percy yelps, “Best two out of three-”

 

“You fuckin’ coward, just go do it, it was your idea!”

 

“But look at them.” Percy points.

 

Wilbur and Nincompoop finally separate, alerted by the noise, probably. They both looked wrecked. Nincompoop looks like he wants to melt into the shadows. Wilbur is beaming.

 

“Hello, Percy,” he says, the sun itself in every one of his teeth. “My man. My main man. How are you.”

 

“Don’t go blowing this out of proportion,” Nincompoop says at once. “We were just kissing.”

 

“Call it what it was,” Percy says. “And what that was is softcore porn.”

 

“Please don’t tell anyone else,” Nincompoop begs. “Jason and Piper and Reyna – they’ll be unbearable.”

 

“Oh shit,” Annabeth says unapologetically. Nincompoop rounds on her.

 

“You didn’t,” he says. “Tell me you didn’t.”

 

“She asked where you were!” Annabeth says defensively, holding up her arms in surrender. “I didn’t wanna worry her!”

 

“Oh god, I can’t face them,” Nincompoop groans, pressing the heels of his palms into his eyes. “I’m going to die.” He looks at them with eyes full of pain, like he’s been through a war and is now seeing flashbacks. “Someone end me. Here and now. It’s been a good twenty years-”

 

“RIP,” says Percy.

 

“It won’t be that bad,” Wilbur says.

 

“Jason is going to give you the talk. The don’t-hurt-my-son talk,” Nincompoop points out.

 

“On second thought, death sounds good,” Wilbur says, with far too much cheer in his tone.

 

“The sooner you face it, the sooner you’re done with it,” says Annabelle rationally. “I mean, you can’t avoid them forever.”

 

“I’ve done it before,” says Nincompoop, suddenly determined.

 

“He has,” Percy confirms. “Vanished during a game of hide and seek. We found him two weeks later.”

 

“I went to Connecticut,” Nincompoop reveals. “Don’t tell Jason.”

 

“What the fuck,” says Wilbur.

 

“The limits were B and C block,” Percy points out. “You’re disqualified.”

 

“Oh my god, I could not give less of a fuck right now.” Nincompoop grabs Wilbur’s hand, ignoring how wide the other boy smiles even wider at the gesture. “But fuck it. Whatever. Fine. Let’s go get this over with.”

 

They walk in to tremendous applause. Wiblur holds up their intertwined hands. Pistachio whoops, “Heard you got some!”

 

Reynold claps Wilbur on the shoulder. “Use protection.”

 

“It’s so romantic,” Silicon sobs. “It’s like the sun is dating the moon.”

 

“The moon isn’t dark,” Traffic points out.

 

“The moon reflects the light of the sun,” Raphael says.

 

“The dark side of the moon is dark,” says Harriet.

 

“Oh my god, I wasn’t aware I came to NASA,” Percy snarks, and is ignored.

 

“Okay, what’s dark, then,” Silicon says, sipping her cocktail.

 

“A black hole,” Francois offers.

 

“Okay, redo,” Silicon says. “It’s like the sun is dating a black hole.”

 

Nincompoop looks on the verge of passing out. “Thank you.”

 

Jacob hovers over Wilbur like a large, imposing shadow. “That is my son.”

 

Wilbur blinks. “Ah yes.”

 

“That is my son you have defiled!”

 

“We just made out,” Wilbur says, placating. “We haven’t even thought of sex-”

 

“That is my son you are thinking of defiling!”

 

“Get away,” Nincompoop howls. “Someone just. Get my cake. So I can bash my head in it and forget everything.”

 

Reynold shows up with the cake. It’s black fondue all over with a single candle sticking on the top.

 

“Happy birthday, Nino,” she says. “Hope you get some dick tonight.”

 

“Kill me,” Nincompoop begs.

 

Pistachio materializes at Percy’s side as Reynold and Jacob begin to argue about whether or not to light the candle. Reynold says it should remain unlit because it represents death. Jacob wants to light it because tradition and he wants to see his little boy blowing a candle.

 

“That sounds so wrong,” Corner says.

 

“He’s definitely gonna be blowing someone tonight,” Leonardo hoots.

 

“Not what I meant,” Jason howls.

 

“I need a drink if I’m going to be stuck here for more than five minutes longer,” says Nincompoop.

 

“Okay, we should cut the cake before the underage baby boy exposes all of us,” Traffic interjects.

 

“So,” Pistachio drawls into Percy’s ear. “You and Annabeth. Showing up together. What’s that all about.”

 

“Jesus, you’re a nightmare,” Percy says with zero remorse. “Why are you like this.”

 

“It’s just interesting. In-ter-es-ting,” she grins. “You guys looked happy, too, which is a big improvement, because you’ve been moping defensively and she’s just – been moping, so –”

 

“She’s been moping?” Percy asks before he can stop himself, because the Iron Soldier Annabeth in his head is incapable of something as human as moping.

 

“Yes?” Pistachio raises an eyebrow. “I’ve told you, she’s not all strong, not all the time. And she definitely considered you a friend. So when you rejected her –”

 

“I didn’t, she rejected me-”

 

“I know you didn’t, but still. She was disappointed. Y’know?” Piper looks away thoughtfully to where Jacob is attempting to light the candle whilst Reynold flaps her arms about like some kind of villainous eagle, creating a surprisingly enormous gust of wind that put out the flame every time Jason moves his hands away.

 

“But I’m glad you seem okay again.” Pistachio studies his face. “Tell me you’re okay again.”

 

Percy thinks about how Annabeth had dropped everything to help him find Pseidon, how she’d touched his cat’s fur and named her.

 

“We’re okay, I think,” he says. Pistachio smiles.

 

“Good,” she says. “Annabeth finds it hard to open up to people. She’s been hurt a lot in her life and she’s scared. I meant it when I said I didn’t want you to give up.”

 

“Woah woah,” Percy says, shaking his head even as his cheeks warm. “I just wanna be friends, I don’t wanna uncover her whole life story just yet.”

 

Piper hums in response. “Okay, then.” She glances back to where Jacob is trying to put a stop to Reynold’s impressing windmilling. “God, these idiots. I’d better take care of that.”

 

“Godspeed,” Percy says, as Piper moves forward and Reynold smacks the glasses right off Jacob’s nose.

 

Percy spies Annabeth talking in a low voice to Grover at the edge of the circle. They’re both smiling and nodding and something like envy erupts in his gut.

 

He joins them. “Hey.”

 

“Hey, Perce.” Grover smiles. “Annabeth was just telling me about Pseidon. Great name.”

 

“I like it,” Percy admits.

 

“Better than Marigold,” Annabeth scoffs. Grover elbows her and she dodges.

 

Percy silently envies their friendship and wonders if he’ll ever feel close enough to Annabelle to elbow her without a second thought. He feels like if he does it now he’ll just hit solid rock and dislocate his shoulder.

 

Grover moves away, something about finding Jubilee. Annabelle sips her drink, a fruity cocktail like Silena’s, and sighs, eyes fluttering shut. Percy jams his hands into his pockets. Thinks of Pistachio saying, Don’t give up on her.

 

“They’re all idiots,” Annabeth says, nodding to where Reynold is still flapping around like an oversized toucan, Pistachio is attempting to grab the cake, and Jacob is howling over the loss of his glasses. Leonardo is wearing them, but Jacob can’t see that. Nincompoop is at the center of it all, his hands over his ears, as Will gently massages his shoulder. The little batling is muttering profanities that even Percy hasn’t heard of, and as Reynold whacks Leonardo in the face, sending Jacob’s glasses flying off again, his cursing only doubles in speed and vitriol. But then – to Percy’s utter astonishment, Will whispers something in his ears. Nincompoop’s head snaps downwards but not before Percy sees the hintiest hint of a smile.

 

“Well,” he says.

 

“The sun and the black hole,” Annabelle says aloud, equally astonished. “Not bad at all.”

 

Percy glances sideways at her. The dim lights of the pub make her gleam gold rather than steel, an effect only magnified by the softness of her hair.

 

“Hey,” he says.

 

She turns to him, eyes wide and questioning.

 

“I’m…going to be opening early this Sunday,” he says hesitantly. “You could stop by, if you’re free. If you’d want to. Possibly.”

 

Annabeth smiles, one that has Percy grinning from how infectious it is, and it’s a beautiful thing, watching it happen. It makes her face glow and her entire body seem made of pure light, and how do people say Wilbur is sunshine when she does it better?

 

“I would want to,” she says softly, as though she’s speaking in a dream. “I would want to a lot.”

 

::

 

“School.”

 

“Horrible. Grover?”

 

“Lived the next street over. We went to the same middle school, high school…I’ve probably spent more time with him than anyone else. Except for my mom, of course. Favorite candy.”

 

“Sour Skittles.”

 

“You would like those, you’re kind of like a lemon yourself.” Percy jumps as Annabeth kicks out a leg.

 

“Favorite book,” she says.

 

He snaps his fingers, his mind suddenly blank even though he’d had the name in his head the moment he’d heard the question. “That one with…the four girls and the mom and the dude next door.”

 

“Little Women,” she says.

 

“That’s the one.”

 

She raises an eyebrow. “Okay, that I did not expect. Why do you like it?”

 

“Dunno,” he shrugs. “First book that made me cry, I guess. I still cry. Cried for the movie, too.”

 

“Ah.”

 

“Favorite movie?”

 

“That’s tough,” Annabeth complains. “Do trilogies count as one movie? Because Lord of the Rings.”

 

“Okay, rank the three Lord of the Rings movies.”

 

“Two Towers, Return of the King, Fellowship,” she rattles off. “Biggest disappointment of your life?”

 

“We getting’ deep,” Percy says. Then – “When my Hogwarts letter didn’t come on my eleventh birthday.”

 

Annabeth is laughing, bent over her laptop. Percy’d thought she was actually working, but really she’d been adding random shit to her Amazon cart to kill time.

 

It is their second Lonely Sunday post-reconciliation and their small talk has become this. This rapid-fire question game where all they have to do is answer honestly. The questions have never gotten too nosy and Percy is grateful for it because he’s getting to know her all the same. Which is both a good and bad thing because the pro is that he’s found out more about her in these two Sundays than he had in the months leading up to their semi-breakup, but the con is that the more he knows her the more Percy feels himself slipping and he can’t afford to do that again.

 

He watches with some fondness as Annabeth recovers. “Any siblings?”

 

“Two half-brothers and a cousin I haven’t seen since I was a kid.” She pauses as though she hasn’t thought about that particular cousin in a long time. “Favorite subject in school.”

 

“English and History.”

 

“Oh,” she says, surprised.

 

“Yeah, I know,” he says. “Doing the same shit now.”

 

“I could never fully get into Lit,” she says. “I mean, I enjoy reading, but it’s the analysis after that that fucks me up. We’re supposed to come up with all these opinions and mine we always wrong.”

 

“What did you like in school, then?”

 

“Math and science,” she says a little sheepishly. “Surprise.”

 

“Yuck,” Percy says. “I don’t think I learned anything further beyond one plus one equals two.”

 

“Two plus two?”

 

“A mystery,” Percy deadpans, and she laughs.

 

“Math’s fun. There’s only one answer and I was good at it, so.”

 

“History?”

 

“I hated history,” she says.

 

“How the fuck can you hate history,” Percy demands. “You study architecture.”

 

Annabeth is grinning. “I’m joking, jeez. I love it, and even if I did hate history, there would be no escaping it given my major. Architecture is nothing without the historical context. Everything in history has an impact on the buildings of that age. We have whole books dedicated to ancient monuments.”

 

“Fun,” he says. “The Parthenon, then?”

 

“A favorite,” she admits. “I would have loved to see it way back when. In it’s prime. It would’ve been glorious.” She rubs a hand over her knee. “Swimming?”

 

“Natural,” he says. “Joined the club in middle school. I wasn’t good at first. My first memory is of my coach pushing me into the water because I was crying too hard to jump in myself.” He smiles. “It was okay once I got in, though. Felt like home. It’s just the first jump that’s the hardest.”

 

Annabeth looks like she’s lost in thought. “You say a lot of thought-provoking shit, you know that? You just let out all this surprising knowledge at the most random moments.”

 

“I’m really not as shallow as I let on,” Percy says.

 

“You’re like a swimming pool,” Annabeth says, still with that distant look in her eyes. “There’s a shallow end, but there’s also a deep end.”

 

“That is the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me,” Percy says, oddly touched.

 

“Don’t forget the shallow end,” she reminds him.

 

“Doesn’t everyone have one, though?” he points out. “Guilty pleasure?”

 

“America’s Next Top Model,” she admits. “Oh, and the Bachelor.”

 

“ANTM is a whole-ass gem,” Percy says.

 

Why am I not surprised you’re a whore for reality TV?”

 

“Don’t get me started on Love Island,” Percy groans. “I would go on for years.”

 

“Next question, then?”

 

“Hit me.”

 

“Love Island.”

 

“Oh, fuck off,” he says, mimicking her grin. Then he answers, “The reality show to end all others. It’s like Bachelor in Paradise…but hornier.”

 

“I didn’t think that was possible.”

 

“They literally have sex in a public bedroom. Literally it was the worst. One girl started riding this dude like –”

 

“Oh god, stop,” she giggles.

 

“I hated it but I couldn’t stop watching.”

 

“Perv,” she screeches.

 

“I’m sending you the episode,” he tells her, grabbing his phone.

 

“Please don’t.”

 

“Done,” Percy grins, as Annabeth’s phone lets out a little ding.

 

“You’re evil,” she says. “Ask me the next question.”

 

He considers. “Parents?”

 

“Pass,” she says. “Maybe another day.” She meets his eyes. “Promise.”

 

Something in him stutters and then comes back to life, just the thought that she might not run this time. “Okay. Re-question. Favorite color.”

 

“Changes every day.”

 

“What is it now, then?”

 

“Um, blue,” she says, dropping her gaze. “Pseidon.”

 

“Opinions on the name or the cat?”

 

“Both.”

 

“Great name, thanks for that,” he says. “And greater cat. Miss her right now, to be honest.”

 

“You giant sap.”

 

“I live and breathe in it. Movie genre of choice?”

 

“I like documentaries because they’re informative, but I can’t stay away from a good romcom for long,” she says. “You?”

 

“I like romcoms, because – as you said – I’m a giant sap,” he says, “but like. Haven’t you thought about how illogical they are? Romcoms, I mean? They always end the story with the protags getting together. I’ve always found that weird. I mean, love is when the story should start, you know.”

 

“Jesus fuck, calm down, deep-pool Percy,” she exclaims. “Although you’re right. I’ve never thought about it before. It makes sense, to be honest.”

 

“Yeah. Well.” He shrugs. “Thanos. I mean. Thalia.”

 

“A sister.” Annabeth says the word like it’s sacred. “She’s been there for me at a time when nobody else was. Piper too, but Thalia is…family.”

 

“That’s nice,” he says.

 

“Yeah,” she agrees. “How’d you meet Jason?”

 

“Bumped into him here on week two. Boys’ shower room. We compared dick sizes.”

 

“You did not,” she gasps, sounding horrified.

 

“No, we didn’t,” he laughs. “We both ordered the same thing at the cafeteria and we argued about who got to have it first. After that we kind of kept butting heads. Like it’s not that I hated him, we were both just combative. We started giving each other stupid dares, it became like a competition. At least until we almost got caught trying to skinny dip in the pool one night. We ran away in our boxers. That kind of shit bonds you for life.”

 

“That beats just about every meet-cute story ever.”

 

He laughs. “You believed the dick thing, though.”

 

“I mean, I have no idea what you bros-” she does the air quotes – “are like when you’re all together.”

 

“We don’t compare dick sizes, jeez. That’s like saying you girls have pillow fights and do each others’ hair at sleepovers. Although Jason has seen my dick. Please don’t ask about that one.”

 

“Fair point, and we don’t wear just underwear during sleepovers either,” she admits, having some mercy. “So what do you do then?”

 

“Mostly we play Monopoly and get drunk. Wilbur ends up in jail. Corner cried once. Grover laughed so hard he actually peed a little. Don’t tell him I told you.”

 

“Wild.”

 

“Fun,” he corrects. “Girls’ sleepovers, then?”

 

“Pizza and chick flicks and gossip and face masks we can’t show our boyfriends. The doing each others’ hair part is true, sometimes.”

 

“Face masks?”

 

“I use a bamboo-charcoal one. It’s fun to peel off.”

 

“The things you do to stay pretty.”

 

“Self-care,” she shrugs. “Hydrate. Exfoliate.”

 

“I don’t moisturize.”

 

“You should,” she says. “Piper gave me this body cream. It’s got shea butter and all that hippie shit. Smells amazing. Admittedly, I never used to be too into this stuff, but Piper has converted me.”

 

“She brings out the worst in everyone, doesn’t she.”

 

“Can’t deny it, but sometimes it’s a welcome change.” Annabeth scrolls down on the laptop screen. “Avatar.”

 

“Hope you don’t mean the blue people.”

 

“God no.”

 

“Aang over Korra overall,” Percy says, “but the last two seasons of Korra were fuckin’ lit.”

 

“True. I’d be an Earthbender.”

 

“I could see you as a metalbender. Or like Ty Lee, just blocking everyone’s chi, fucking shit up. Ooh, I take that back. You’re totally Mai. I’d be waterbender, myself.”

 

“A shock,” Annabeth says with a roll of her eyes. She’s given up on her Amazon cart and is now playing Minesweeper.

 

“I never figured it out,” Percy admits. “How to play. I bombed it more of the time.”

 

She shoots him an unimpressed look at the pun. “It’s easy. Look, you just click the spot that isn’t a mine – flag the spots that are – so see, here? Not a mine, mine, mine, not a mine, not a mine-”

 

“Comfort food,” Percy says, changing the subject.

 

“Mac and cheese.”

 

“A classic,” Percy hums.

 

“Can’t go wrong with it. I’m not much of a cook, but I make a killer mac and cheese.”

 

“What can you cook?”

 

“Mac and cheese,” she answers promptly. “And I can reheat just about anything.”

 

“You’re hopeless,” he laughs.

 

“You haven’t tried my mac and cheese, though!”

 

“You haven’t tried my mom’s seven-layer dip. It’s heaven on a plate. I’ve been trying to recreate it since Christmas, but I can’t seem to get it to that level of perfection just yet.”

 

“You’re a good cook,” she says. “I had your cookies once. Back when I didn’t even know who you were. I had just – I was having a bad time and Piper came by and gave me a whole box of them. They were great.”

 

“The blue ones? I remember Piper asking me for a whole batch of them.”

 

“Yeah. The flavour was great, even though I thought I was gonna get poisoned at first.”

 

“Mixed some mercury in there, just for you.”

 

“Oh, you shouldn’t have.”

 

They grin at each other. Percy resumes mixing the batter.

 

“Your turn for a question.”

 

“So,” she says, with a wicked little smirk, “about the time Jason caught you naked-”

 

“Pass,” he says at once. “Damn it. Damn you. It was going so well.”

 

::

 

“This might be the stupidest thing we’ve ever done,” Francois says.

 

There are seven decks of Uno at the center of the circle. Leonardo is shuffling them as best he can, an arduous task. Nobody is attempting to help, though.

 

Jacob is still complaining. Apparently he’d had a romantic dinner planned, but Pistachio had already made plans. When Jacob asked her what kind of girl didn’t want to have a romantic dinner with her boyfriend today of all days, Pistachio had kissed him and said savagely, “The kind of girl that doesn’t conform to your gender stereotypes, sorry.”

 

It is Valentine’s day. The girls had called for a celebration of Galentine’s day, whatever that was, so they’re all camped out at Pistachio’s, which means the exiled Jacob had camped himself in Percy’s place and called for the first Palentine’s day, “A day for bros,” he said.

 

It was bring your own booze and bring your own board games. Which was fucking dumb because Harriet owned most of the board games they used on game nights and Leonardo had access, somehow, to far too much alcohol, so they end up with what looks like the stores of half a liquor factory and no board games – or, indeed, any games at all – other than five decks of Uno.

 

“There are no friends in Uno,” Jacob says, throwing down a draw two. “Sorry, Frank-” The words die as Francois, on Jacob’s right, throws down another. Leonardo throws down another. Percy throws down another. Traffic throws down another. Wilbur throws down another. Grover throws down another. Corner throws down another. Charlie Chaplin throws down another. Castanet throws down another. Pollen throws down another. Everyone looks at Jacob. Jacob screeches.

 

“I take it back!” he screams. “I take it back, no additive draw twos-”

 

“That was your idea,” Francois reminds him austerely. “You declared that we play like men, that every time someone had to draw cards, we’d also have to take a shot.”

 

“Yeah, well. How are we supposed to finish all this?” Jacob waves a hand at the booze. “I don’t mind taking the shots. I just can’t draw –”

 

“Twenty-two,” Wilbur says, as Leonardo hands Jacob what appears to be half the deck. “Twenty-two cards.”

 

“You suck, Jason,” Nincompoop observes, from where he’s leaning against Will’s back, having exhausted all his cards about ten minutes prior.

 

“This is injustice.” Jason takes a shot, winces. “Oh my god this is fucked up.” He can barely hold all his cards with both hands. “I’m so fucked.”

 

“Okay, I propose a new rule,” says Leonardo. “If you have to draw a card from the pile, or you get hit by a draw two or a draw for or whatever, you can either take a shot… or… remove an item of clothing.”

 

“Strip Uno,” Francois mumbles. “How low can we go.”

 

“Ay, limbo,” says Percy absently.

 

“I’m gay and I say hell no,” says Wilbur. “I don’t wanna see any of y’all unclothed.”

 

“Hey, we’re attractive,” Jacob protests.

 

“Not my type,” Wilbur says, making a simpering face at Nincompoop, who ignores him completely.

 

“Oh yeah, forgot that your time was tiny and creature of the night,” Corner grunts. Grover, who’s had five shots already, chokes on a nacho. Traffic thumps him on the back.

 

“So, strip poker, right?” Leonardo confirms.

 

About an hour later, they are all obliterated from the liquor and very shirtless, giggling into their cups.

 

“Who decided to get chocolate ice cream,” Corner whines.

 

“It’s my house,” says Percy dazedly. “And I am chocolate.”

 

“Chocolate is boring. Strawberry ice cream is the shit. Strawberry reigns supreme.”

 

“Pistachio is growing on me,” Jacob says. He’s on a spree of trying out all those Instagram filters like What Disney character are you? and Which Beauty guru are you? He’s currently on Which Pokémon are you? and he keeps getting Drowzee, the yellow pedophile Pokémon with pants, and with every failure his protest cries are hitting pitches higher and higher and it’s just about the most hilarious thing Percy’s ever seen.

 

“Mint chocolate chip,” says Grover.

 

“Cookies n Cream, you ignorant sluts,” yells Wilbur passionately. “Nico, babe, back me up.”

 

“I like vanilla,” says Nincompoop sleepily.

 

Cries of protest echo through the room, drowned out by Jacob, who has finally broken out of the Drowzee phase, only to get Weezing instead.

 

“Why does Instagram think I’m ugly,” he moans.

 

“You’re not that ugly or anything,” Percy says. “but if I was gay I would not do you.”

 

“I respect you,” says Wilbur.

 

“What kind of a friend are you,” Jacob cries, falling into the sofa. “I was ride or die for you, man. How could you do this to me. Even sports guys have feelings, dude. I was willing to start a boy band for you.”

 

“If I was a girl in a girl band,” Charlie Chaplin announces, “I would call my band Tits Out.” Percy had forgotten what a lightweight the big guy was.

 

“I would call my girl band Time of the Month,” Corner says. Jacob squeals into the sofa cushions, his ass in the air. Francois tries to stand and ends up using Jason’s butt to balance himself. Jason falls. Francois falls.

 

“I would call my band Ass of Hearts,” Percy declares. “Like ace of hearts, but ass instead of ace.”

 

“I want to play the violin,” says Corner.

 

“Same, but I’ll play the electric violin, which is basically the violin of rock, which automatically makes me infinitely cooler than you,” says Traffic.

 

“Oh dude that’s good,” Leonardo says. “I want to name my band Hotman. It is a one-man band and I will play all the instruments, and also sing, and also light fireworks on my body.”

 

“Flameo, hotman,” Corner and Castanet say at the same time.

      

“Jinx,” says Pollen and Traffic together. They all stare at each other, mute.

 

“Oh my god, a quadruple jinx,” says Francois. “I need to watch this.” He sits up and looks between the four of them like he’s watching a tennis match.

 

“No, wait, Connor and Castor didn’t say jinx at all,” Grover says. “They can both talk.”

 

“Jinx,” Corner and Traffic say at once.

 

“Now what does it mean?” Wilbur asks.

 

“I can’t keep track, my mind is too full of booze,” says Leonardo. He leans against Francois’ broad-ass back. “Bro, what the fuck, you’re solid.”

 

“Told you you should’ve joined the football team,” Charlie Chaplin says from his spot on the floor.

 

“Thank you,” says Francois. He spreads his arms, displaying his vast chest. Francois is built like a brick shithouse – he could probably take them all out with a single punch - and only gets showy when he’s drunk. On a normal day he would be blushing his entire face off. “Who wantssa piece o’ me.”

 

“I don’t think even a butcher would dare to take a piece of you,” Percy says.

 

“I am hurt,” says Francois in a monotone.

 

“I am drunk,” says Jacob.

 

“Tanked,” Grover agrees.

 

“I’m hungry,” Percy decides.

 

“Whaddaya wanna eat,” Jacob yawns.

 

It takes about ten minutes for Percy to decide on, “…Chips.”

 

“Just chips?” Charlie Chaplin grunts.

 

“I want apple pie,” Jacob says.

 

“I want the clilli mushroom thingy we got at that Indian place that one time,” Leonardo says.

 

“No,” Jacob says at once. “Just because you were born straight from Satan’s asshole and you can handle some spice-”

 

“Have you ever wanted to learn to twerk?” Wilbur asks the room at large. He’s on his back, staring at the ceiling fan, his arm around a prone Nincompoop. “I mean, girls get to twerk. Haven’t you ever wanted to try?”

 

“Honestly?” Jacob asks. “No.”

 

Wilbur is already pulling up a Youtube tutorial. He opens up a video and gazes at it intensely. Grover gets up, joins him in staring at the phone screen, and jerks his butt upwards experimentally. Jacob chokes on his beer. Leonardo begins to laugh so hard his head hits a pillow and he begins to snore at once.

 

“Boo,” says Percy.

 

“This is the worst Palentine’s day ever,” Jacob groans. “Four of us can’t even talk.”

 

“This is our first Palentine’s day,” Percy reminds him.

 

Wilbur is running a hand across Nincompoop’s face gently, twerking video forgotten. Grover and Pollen are now staring at the screen intently. Grover is echoing the instructor word-for-word as though Pollen cannot hear the woman in the video. Percy wants to tell Grover that Pollen can hear, he just can’t speak because of the jinx, but he’s too drunk to do anything more than sigh.

 

“I miss Pseidon,” he says.

 

“I can’t believe you let Annabeth steal her,” Jacob says.

 

“Pistachio said…that Pseidon was a girl and so she belonged with her people. I mean her species. I mean her gender.” Percy shrugs.

 

“How are you and Annabeth, anyway?” Jacob asks. “Any progress?”

 

“I mean,” Percy says, “we’re friends.”

 

He looks up to find all of them – save Leonardo and Nincompoop – looking at him like he’s insane.

 

“You’re nuts,” Grover says finally. “You know that, right.”

 

“You’ve renamed Sunshine,” Jacob points out. “You call her Pseidon now exclusively. The name Annabeth gave her.”

 

“That’s because Pseidon is the best name,” Percy defends.

 

“Okay, true,” says Jacob.

 

“Percy, last weekend you both had an hour-long conversation about alien life,” Grover says. “You were teasing her and she was teasing you and it was horrible. I wanted to put you guys on mute.”

 

“That was a normal conversation,” Percy says.

 

“That was flirting,” Grover says.

 

“Who the hell flirts like that,” says Percy.

 

“Annabeth does,” Grover grins, “and, apparently, so do you.”

 

“Do not,” he says under his breath. “I don’t even know how to flirt at all.”

 

“You’re like a ten year old with a crush,” Grover says. “If Annabeth had pigtails, you’d be pulling them.”

 

“I do not have a crush.”

 

“Percy, you bumped into the kitchen door because you were too busy watching Annabeth tie a ponytail,” Charlie Chaplin says.

 

“Fuck, I’d hoped nobody saw that,” Percy admits.

 

Leonardo has woken somewhere during the conversation.

 

“Why do you like Annabeth?” he asks bluntly. “Besides the soulmates thing. And okay, admittedly, she’s hot, but she’s scary as hell, dude. And the scariness overpowers the hotness.”

 

“That’s exactly Percy’s type,” Grover mutters, almost to himself. “She’s tall and pretty and she could kick his ass. She hits every weak spot Percy has. I should’ve seen this coming from miles away.”

 

“Leo, You can’t just ask people to explain matters of the heart,” Wilbur says with a dramatic little sigh.

 

“Just saying,” Leonardo shrugs. “But then again, maybe she’s like me.”

 

“A shameless attention whore?” Jacon asks.

 

“No,” Leonardo says. “Someone with hidden depths.”

 

“I think she likes Percy too, though,” Francois says.

 

“And besides,” Jacob says, “the sexual tension around you two is like soup. And not some weak broth shit. A thick soup, like a potage. Or a bisque.” The four mutes – Pollen, Castanet, Corner, and Traffic – all nod emphatically in agreement.

 

“Thicc,” says Francois absentmindedly.

 

Nincompoop has woken up. “I would like a bisque,” he says. “Or a biscuit.”

 

“Cookies in the cupboard,” says Percy.

 

“Score,” says Leonardo, but doesn’t move.

 

The others begin talking again, but Percy finds himself thinking of tease-flirting and long conversations and creamy bisque tension. Despite it all, despite the fuzzy feelings and his jumping heart, he likes Annabeth – likes her as a friend. He likes Annabeth with her slow, bold, curving smirk, and her hard eyes and her all her sharp angles that go soft for the people she loves. He likes Annabeth with her determined, fiery temperament and the way she can go from zero to a hundred in a second. He likes the creases in her forehead when she’s thinking and how happiness looks like wonder on her face. He likes Annabeth – he does. In…whatever way.

 

And then he repeats Leo’s statement in his head. He’s right in a sense, because Annabeth is really scary and she could definitely kick his ass. She’s like an icicle. Beautiful, but cold and intimidating, like she could castrate you with just a look. And then he thinks that Annabeth has all these walls up, and it’s not that nobody cares that she’s all alone within, but maybe it’s that nobody dares.

 

Percy is – Percy is stupid enough to dare to attempt it. But it’s a dumb thing to think about, he knows. Because nothing could ever come of it. Not when she won’t let him in solely because he is her soulmate.

 

The rest are singing to something Beyoncé. Percy knows this because Grover is trying to twerk again. Wilbur loses it every time Grover moves his butt, and ends up falling right over his boyfriend, who wakes with a shout and punches. Wilbur screams.

 

Ignoring the chaos, Percy grabs a water bottle and strikes a pose.

 

“Lemme show you nooblets how it’s done,” he says, and begins to sing.  

 

::

 

annabeth >> What do you mean you bathed in beer

percy >> I mean we poked the beer cans with knives and tried to chug it all but we couldn’t and so we took a beer bath

annabeth >> Holy shit

annabeth >> We all watched Freaky Friday and Mean Girls and drank cocktails. It was c l a s s y

annabeth >> I suppose you’re never drinking again

percy >> i’m never drinking again

annabeth >> LOL

 

 

“Corner,” Percy calls, stifling a yawn. “One Matcha Latte for Corner.”

 

Corner, whose jinx had ended sometime during the night, bounds from his seat, a smile on his face.

 

“Did you guys hear that,” he crows. “He said Connor. He said my name! He said –” He gets a look at the cup, where Percy has penned Corner in round, neat letters. “Aw, fuck.”

 

Pistachio eyes him worriedly. “You reek of beer and coffee.”

 

“You reek of judgement,” Percy grunts.

 

“Beer baths are such a bad idea,” Piper moans. “The last time you guys did one, Jason smelled like he’d puked up a river of alcohol. He couldn’t even stand. I had to help give him a real bath and let me tell you, there was beer pouring out from places where the sun don’t shine.”

 

Percy would laugh but he’s too tired to. “God I hate you.”

 

“It wasn’t sexy at all, in case you were wondering,” says Pistachio.

 

“Good for you.”

 

“Ouch, someone’s still hungover,” she grins. “Go sit down with the rest of them. Juniper and I can handle it.”

 

“I can handle it,” says Percy.

 

Annabeth walks in.

 

“Your regular?” Percy asks. She nods, strangely mute.

 

“Hey, Annabeth,” Piper sings. Annabeth glares as Percy turns around to make her drink, still yawning. “You’re here really often these days. Caffeine addiction?”

 

“You know she drinks tea, Pistachio,” Percy says around a yawn.

 

“Oh, true.” Pistachio sounds awfully smug. Annabeth, strangely, hasn’t said a word. “Wow, you’d almost think she was addicted to something else.”

 

Percy manages to turn around in time to see Annabeth poke Pistachio in the stomach; Pistachio retreats, giggling, as Annabeth turns an interesting shade of crimson.

 

“We saw you sing last night,” Pistachio says conversationally. “Didn’t we, Annabeth.”

 

“Uh. Yeah,” says Annabeth in a strangled voice.

 

“How,” Percy asks tiredly, adding a spoon of honey to Annabeth’s drink and stirring it. “Nobody posted it.”

 

“Jason sent me a video,” Pistachio says, playing it. The video shows Percy swaying on the spot, eyes closed, singing Time in a Bottle like he’s the one who wrote the song.

 

“If I could save time in a bottle,” video-Percy sings, “the first thing that I’d like to do…”

 

“Is to save every day, till eternity passes away, just to spend them with you,” real-Percy completes, in perfect harmony with himself.

 

The video ends when Jacob drops the phone on his own face with a yell of “Fucking hell!” and there’s a flash of a bright blue eye.

 

“You sound good,” Pistachio says. “As usual. Is it too late for you to become America’s next Boy Wonder?”

 

“Much too late,” Percy says, frowning. He hands Annabeth her drink, and she determinedly seems to be avoiding his eyes, which upsets Percy, but maybe he’s still drunk and imagining shit.

 

“I have work,” Annabeth says in a rush. “Bye, Percy.”  To Pistachio she says, “Choke.”

 

“Babe,” says Pistachio.

 

“Yeah?” Jacob calls from his table, where Wilbur is nursing the black eye Nincompoop gave him, Grover is leaning against the window looking like a dead man, and Corner is sipping his drink like a normal person.

 

“No, not you.” Pistachio waves a goodbye to an irate Annabeth and turns to Percy with gleaming eyes and the worst kind of smile.

 

“Oh, Percy, you wonderful boy,” she says. “Good things are coming.”

 

“What?”

 

“Good things are coming,” she says, like it’s some big secret. “Good things are coming and it’s great, because you don’t even know what I’m talking about.”

 

::

 

Swimming season is finally underway and Percy finds himself swamped. Between classes and swimming practice and swimming meets and Deja Brew and Pseidon, Percy finds himself finding little time for anything. He feels annoyed and lonely and spread thin. And it’s like. It’s like he’s so overwhelmed with things to do that he ends up accomplishing nothing at all.

 

He ends up having to cancel on a Lonely Sunday to finish an assignment, which sucks because he misses Annabeth and he feels like he hasn’t talked to her properly in a while. Which is why he’s looking forward to Friday night at Francois’, because it feels like a month, at least, since they’ve all gotten together as a gang and hung out.

 

Carting Pseidon in a hand, Percy shows up at Francois’ an hour late, because swim practice had been brutal and Percy had been in the need for a warm shower.

 

Harriet opens the door. Everyone is in a circle in the living room, playing Monopoly.

 

“Percy!” they chorus as one.

 

Percy sets down Pseidon, who gloms onto Annabeth at once. “Did you practice that?” he asks.

 

“We’ve been doing it for everyone,” Leonardo says.

 

“Yeah, you aren’t special,” Pistachio agrees.

 

“Way to kill my confidence.” Percy settles down on the couch next to Raphael, who leans her head against his shoulder.

 

She slides his phone neatly from his hand and unlocks it. “Ooh, you downloaded Tinder again?” she says. “Lemme swipe.”

 

“Go for it.” Percy stretches out on the sofa. He smiles at Annabeth, who is watching him closely, but she turns away, a frown growing on her face. He wonders what’s up.

 

Raphael, meanwhile, is swiping right on literally everyone. She cackles as she superlikes a girl in a sloth costume, like in the Bachelor. Could even be the same girl. In any case – “No,” Percy says.

 

“You’re no fun,” Raphael grins, her freckles standing out prominently against her pale skin. “Come on, she could be the one.”

 

“I have to pee,” Annabeth says suddenly, sounding like she has water in her ears, shooting to her feet and tottering away.

 

“Is she drunk?” Percy asks, interested, because he’s actually never actually seen Annabeth well and truly drunk at one of these things.

 

“On her way there,” Pistachio admits, rolling the dice. “She’s a fuckin’ lightweight.”

 

All the girls nod like they know what she’s talking about. It makes Percy worried and the slightest bit jealous.

 

“Not all of us can hold our liquor,” he says wisely.

 

“The only thing you can hold is beer in one hand and a puke bucket in the other,” says Leonardo.

 

From Harriet’s room comes a distinct scream of “Eeeeeeeeeee! Spider!”

 

“Oh jeez,” says Pistachio.

 

“What,” says Percy. “Will she be okay?”

 

“She’s terrified of spiders,” Pistachio says, calm. Then she raises her voice and calls out, “How big is it?”

 

“Thaaat’s what she said,” Leonardo murmurs. Harriet glares.

 

“Huge!” Annabeth calls.

 

“Thaaat’s what she said,” Leonardo repeats. Harriet kicks him.

 

“That means the spider is small to medium-sized,” Pistachio translates. She shoots Percy an evil smile that has him on edge. “Percy, you should go help her.”

 

“Yeah,” Raphael says with an equally wicked grin. “Go help her, Percy.”

 

Percy, who has nothing against spiders or helping people, says, “Uh, okay,” and goes.

 

He kicks the door like some kind of barbarian, finds Annabeth in the corner of the bathroom, practically hugging the walls. She looks terrified. Eyes wide, hands shaking, the real deal. Percy can’t believe he never thought to ask her what her biggest fear was during their questionnaire sessions.

 

“Where’s the spider?” he asks.

 

Annabeth points and Percy nearly pees himself.

 

The spider is gigantic. Percy has seen smaller tarantulas. In cages. At the zoo. “Oh my god.”

 

“This is how I die,” Annabeth hyperventilates, her eyes round and unfocused because of the liquor. “Oh my god I’m going to die in a bathroom because of a spider.”

 

Percy runs back outside to Francois’ room.

 

“Don’t leave me!” Annabeth screeches. “What the fuck, Percy!”

 

“I’m just getting the trash can!” Percy yells back, finding it and emptying the contents onto Francois’s bedroom floor, because he might not have a problem with nice, normal-sized spiders, but this thing is clearly sent from some kind of sick, spider hell. He grabs a random textbook, too, and squares his shoulders.

 

Back in Harriet’s bathroom, Annabeth stands as stiff as a rod, her eyes still fixed on the spider.

 

“When I say run,” Percy says calmly, “run. Then open the bedroom window.”

 

“You just said run,” Annabeth says nervously. “Does that mean I-?”

 

“Run!” Percy yells. Annabeth darts past him so fast the shower curtain lifts. A second later, he hears the sound of her lifting the window open.

 

Quick as lightning – or at least thunder – Percy brings the book down over the spider, scoops it up into the trash can, and makes a run for it. He runs out into Francois’ room and upends the bin out of the window. The spider runs down the wall and into the darkness. Percy watches it go, gazing down into the little flowers Francois has planted on the sill, and then shuts the window, breathing hard.

 

Annabeth is flattened against the wardrobe. “Did it try to get back in?”

 

“Don’t think so.” He smiles. “You’re safe now.”

 

She doesn’t move, just eyes the bed warily. “How do you know there aren’t more?”

 

“You would’ve spotted them, wouldn’t you?”

 

This seems to be a satisfactory answer, and she nods, and suddenly her fear is melting into a familiar coldness that makes Percy flinch. The look on her face now is similar to the way she’d looked at him in the first few days following their whole soulmate revelation moment, and Percy takes a step back, feeling a weird kind of chill go down his spine.

 

“Um,” he says. “Is everything okay?”

 

“Yeah,” she says, in a voice that alerts him at once that everything is not fine. “All good. Thanks. You can go back now, to Rachel or whatever.”

 

His eyes nearly bug out the way it happens in cartoons. “What? No. I mean, she was just going through my Tinder-” He winces, realizing he’s said the wrong thing. Annabeth flares up.

 

“Oh, then go back, by all means, to whoever you were talking to on Tinder,” she spits. “Don’t let me and my st-stupid spider phobia distract you from…all your conquests.”

 

“There are no conquests, oh my god.” Percy pulls up his Tinder profile. It’s a picture of Leonardo’s face photoshopped onto Francois’ gargantuan body. “Look. We did it as a joke on Palentine’s day.”

 

“Oh.” Annabeth seems to deflate. She covers her face in her hands. “I’m…I’m so stupid.”

 

“You’re not stupid,” he says kindly. “Just drunk.”

 

 “Oh god – I just. Oh god.” She slides slowly to the ground, where she stays. “I’m so embarrassed.”

 

“Don’t be,” he says, amusement and affection warming his voice. “Everyone is afraid of something.”

 

She looks at him. “What-that’s not what I-”

 

“So what was wrong, then?” he persists.

 

She glares. “Nothing.”

 

“Tell me,” he says.

 

“No,” she grouses.

 

“Oh, come on, Annabeth, I thought we told each other things now,” Percy says.

 

Annabeth stands so suddenly Percy nearly loses his balance himself. “Really?” she sounds pissed. Outside, Leo’s playing some loud music. Sounds of chatter and laughter filter into the room. Percy feels like his heart is slowly being encased in ice.

 

“Yeah,” Percy says. “I mean, we’re friends, aren’t we?”

 

“You didn’t say anything about you and Rachel,” Annabeth says, in a voice so quiet he has to lean forward to hear it.

 

He frowns, trying to hold in his hurt, reminding himself that she is drunk and he is not and therefore he is required to be the bigger person, here. “Well. You didn’t say anything about you and Luke.”

 

She flinches as though she’s been slapped. Percy wants to feel bad for her, but he’s also kind of angry, now, too.

 

“It’s just-” She paces beside the bed. “It’s just that – you said all this stuff about soulmates, and then – and then like. You can’t even remember my name, Percy,” she bursts out. “You say all this stuff about sharing and-and caring and soulmates and friends, but then you can’t even remember my name!”

 

She’s breathing hard, her face tortured, like this is bringing up some old memory, but Percy can’t help it: he has to stifle a laugh.

 

She glares at him, and he would be more scared if he didn’t find this entire situation so ridiculously unnecessary, so ridiculously avoidable.

 

“What?” she demands, unsteady on her feet.

 

“Nothing,” he says, still smiling. “I just – I can’t believe nobody’s told you yet.”

 

“Told me what.”

 

“That I have dysnomia,” Percy says, matter-of-factly. “It’s a condition where I can’t remember the names of things or people very easily. I was diagnosed when I was eight.” He pauses, running a hand through his hair. “That’s why I call people other names. It’s not that I don’t know their real names, it just takes me a while to kind of – reach for them in my head.” He taps the side of his forehead with a finger. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but-”

 

“I’ve noticed,” she whispers. “You forgot what a cup was called once. You called it the thingy that holds drinks.”

 

“Stuff like that,” he agrees. “I’m a lot better now, it was much worse when I was younger. I stuttered, forgot a lot of what I was saying while I was saying it. Made me an easy target for bullies and stuff. When I said I had Grover through middle school, I meant it. He was all I had.” Percy smiles, looking outside the doorway. “I mean, I’m lucky. Mine wasn’t a severe case or anything. I did a lot of speech therapy sessions, took some meds for the first few years. But. Uh. Yeah. That’s why…yeah. It’s a thing. I swear.”

 

“Oh my god.” Annabeth is near tears; her eyes are sparkling and Percy is suddenly overcome with the need to hold her, but he can’t move. Not when she’s this drunk and there is a whole bed between them.

 

“I’ve been horrible,” she says, and a tear falls. “I’ve been. The worst. I’ve been so selfish. I-I just assumed-”

 

“No, I mean, it’s okay,” he tries, shoving his hands into his pockets. “I should’ve tried harder, especially since you showed a stronger…uh, aversion, to being called Annabelle or whatever.”

 

“I-I…” She hiccups, buries her face in her hands, and now Percy has no choice but to walk over to her and place a hand on her shoulder.

 

“It’s okay,” he says. “You didn’t know.”

 

“I just-” she sniffles, “it’s just my dad and-”

 

“You can tell me later. When you’re, uh, sober.”

 

“Percy, I-” She stares up at him. “I don’t want to run away anymore.”

 

He stares at her, stunned. She blinks rapidly. He’s never seen her like this, and yes he wants answers, but not when she’s drunk and helpless and exposed like this, she might not be in her right mind and she will probably whoop his ass tomorrow morning.

 

But still her words have made him so wonderfully buoyant he could probably float right out the window.  

 

“Annabeth,” he says, and she stills. “You’re drunk and emotional and – it’s fine, okay? I promise. Tell me tomorrow, okay? We’ll talk tomorrow.”

 

“Tomorrow,” she says doubtfully.

 

“You’re sleepy,” he notes, looking at the way her body sags. “Let’s get you some sleep, okay?”

 

“’M not sleepy,” she says immediately, then contradicts herself by letting out a huge yawn. Unenthusiastic though she might be, she allows Percy to lie her down on Harriet’s bed and throw a blanket over her.

 

“Tomorrow,” she whispers. “Promise?”

 

“Promise,” says Percy.

 

“Okay,” she whispers, closing her eyes.

 

He watches her for a moment. She is vulnerable in sleep, one hand tucked under her chin. Percy reaches out a hand to brush the wayward strands of hair from her face, but thinks better of it and the last minute, and then, head reeling, steps back outside to the living room. Grover is trying to twerk again. Raphael does a double take when she sees him and gives him a hug. She doesn’t tease him or anything, no doubt seized by a rare fit of compassion that touched her every once in a blue moon.

 

“All good?” she asks.

 

“All good,” Percy says, looking at Pistachio. She gives him a subtle thumbs-up.

 

Good things are coming, Percy remembers, and, like the tiniest spark lighting up in the darkness, he feels hope again.

 

::

 

Annabeth walks into Deja Brew with purpose in her step and grim resolve in her gaze. It is not a Lonely Sunday. It is a Slightly Less Lonely Saturday, which means there are quite a few people in the café, nursing a coffee in their hands, probably trying to get rid of their massive hangovers.

 

“Hey,” she says, stopping at the counter. “Percy, do you have some time to talk?”

 

Percy had told Jubilee beforehand that he would be ending his shift early, so he nods, mute, gathering their drinks in his hands and following her to the furthest table from the counter.

 

She sits. Percy sits across from her and slides her the drink.

 

“Thanks,” she says. There is determination in her gaze. The sky is a gorgeous blue today, reflected in the windows, which reflect into Annabeth’s eyes. They shine like forget-me-nots, and as if Percy could ever forget.

 

“It’s no problem,” he responds.

 

They stare at the table, at least until Annabeth asks, with a small smile, “Biggest fear?”

 

Percy lets out a breath, his own small smile breaking out over his face, because sometimes, it really can be that simple. “Drowning.”

 

She makes a small noise of surprised interest, eyebrows raised in disbelief. He continues. “I know it seems weird. Me being a swimmer and all. But – water is inviting, but it’s unforgiving. My dad- my real dad – he was lost at sea. So I guess…I don’t know. One wrong move, one wrong breath, and I could just – just go. Y’know?” He smiles ruefully. “Remember I told you my coach pushed me in the pool, day one? Well, I’ve gotten over it, mostly, but I’ve never been able to fully shake the panic. From way back then. It’s like choking on your own fear. It was horrible.”

 

“I’ve never told anyone this before,” he admits, sipping his cocoa.

 

She smiles at him. He says, “Biggest fear.”

 

“Spiders,” she says at once. “But you already knew that.” She takes a long, deep breath as though readying herself. Her hands are shaking. “I kind of raised myself after a point. My family was wealthy – not like Beverly Hills wealthy, but we had money, y’know?” She sighs. “My mom left us – me and my dad – when I was five. After-after she left, my dad kind of. Shut down. Didn’t cook, didn’t clean. So there were spiders everywhere.” She drums her fingers on the table. “On every surface, under my bed, in my closet. Again, it’s stupid, but – just seeing them, like they were following me around…” She heaves a breath, gives him a small smile. “You can keep asking questions, if you want. I’ve got way more to say, anyway.”

 

Percy thinks. “Your name.”

 

“A great movie.”

 

“Annabeth.”

 

“Okay, okay,” she laughs. “Well, it’s kind of along the same lines, you know? My mom was the one who named me, who wanted me to be called Annabeth. And after she left, my dad would – he’d call me other stuff, like Annabelle or just Anna or just Beth. It wasn’t like a cute nickname. He would honestly – just forget my actual name. Or maybe he just didn’t want to use it,” she says, and there are tears glistening in her eyes. “That’s-what’s why-”

 

“That’s why you hated me calling you Annabelle,” he fills in, filled with a strong desire to smack himself. “Oh shit, Annabeth, I’m so sorry.”

 

She’s already shaking her head. “It’s not your fault. It’s just – how we are, I guess. I wish I’d told you this a long time ago. I should’ve told you that day – that day you told about your mom.”

 

“Have you…” he clears his throat. “Have you tried, uh, reconnecting with him, maybe?”

 

“This winter break.” She sighs, and it sounds like regret and bitterness. “It could’ve gone worse, but it ended off badly. That’s why I was having such a bad morning that first Sunday back home. Our first Lonely Sunday. And. You made me feel better. About so many things, even though I never told you anything, even when you opened up to me.”

 

She looks at him, sorrowful. “I’m sorry.”

 

“I’m sorry too,” Percy says, relief and gladness seeping through to his bloodstream, making it boil. “And – and I wanted to tell you this yesterday, but I wasn’t sure if you’d remember or not, or whatever – but.” He breathes in. Breathes out. “You-you haven’t been anything but Annabeth in my head for a long time. I want you to know that.”

 

She bows her head, but he catches her smile.

 

“In your head, huh,” she murmurs. “What do you call the others in your head?”

 

“You know most of the names,” he says, “but you probably don’t know why I call them what I do.”

 

“Shoot,” she says, smiling.

 

He lists them off one by one. “Jacob because Jason admitted he was he had a Twilight phase and he was team Jacob. Pistachio because that’s her favorite flavour of ice cream, Raphael because Rachel did a whole wall of one of his paintings. The School of Athens, I think. She did it on a huge wall in her house, her dad was furious.” He pauses. “Jubilee because that’s where she and Grover met – at the Silver Jubilee of this non-profit where they both were interns. Leonardo because Leo asked for it. Silicon because chemistry is Silena’s major and she told me it was her favorite element once. Thanos because she really goes give off the impression that she could off half the world with a snap of her fingers. Clarinet because she hates the sound of it. Christmas because…why not. Reynold because we dared her in freshman year to put on a fake moustache and kiss a girl under a fake name, and she managed to do it without the moustache, but the name stuck anyway. Harriet because Hazel’s mentioned that Harriet Tubman is her hero. Traffic because Travis could get stuck in traffic on an empty fucking road, he’s late all the time to places. Corner because he peed in one when we were drunk in junior year. That same night, Will cried for thirty minutes about Charlotte’s Web. Hence Wilbur.” He grins. “Nincompoop and Francois because it pisses them off.”

 

She gapes.

 

“Did I miss anyone?” he asks.

 

“Uh…” she thinks about it. “Grover?”

 

“Grover is just Grover.” Percy tilt his head. “Like I said, I’ve known him forever, you know? I don’t need any extra brain power to know him. He’s been there through everything…like.” He looks at her. “My dysnomia was bad, when I was a kid. And on top of that I was tiny. I was like the perfect target for bullies – so was Grover, in a way, which is what drew us closer together.”

 

“What’s it like?” she asks softly, but it’s not rude. “Having dysnomia?”

 

“It’s like…” He rolls his shoulders. “It’s like having…whatever you’re trying to say, on the tip of your tongue, all the time. And you just can’t get it out.” He points at the table. “It’s like, I know what this is, right? I know it’s a table, but I’ve just forgotten the word. It’s annoying as fuck. Like your brain won’t work properly. And I felt shit for a long time. School was tough. Talking was tough. Had little to no friends. My mom was far away, putting up with Smelly Gabe so I didn’t have to see her getting hit.” He accepts the tissue Annabeth passes him. “Thanks.”

 

“You’ve been. Really strong,” she says. “that couldn’t have been easy.”

 

He laughs. “You make me sound like a war survivor. It wasn’t that bad, in hindsight. Like I said, my case wasn’t too severe. It wasn’t horrible. But I won’t deny how much it sucked.  I kind of…had zero confidence, all through those years, y’know? So, yeah. It was hard. It was really hard.”

 

There’s a pause as he wipes his eyes and she leans over to touch his hand gently.

 

“Grover was small, too,” Percy says. “He kind of has this bone disease in his legs, which made it hard for him to run. Or walk, even, back then. You notice his limp now?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“It used to be way, way worse when we were kids. Like, imagine being of that age, and you can’t run, you can’t play with anyone else. He was bullied just as bad as me.” He laughs. “We were kind of a pair, man. We were both small and scared and alone, but we stuck up for each other. He was so happy for me when I won my first race, y’know? He’s like…gone past the stage of best friends. He’s like family now.”

 

She takes a measured sip of tea. “Next question. Rachel.”

 

Percy grins. “Met her in high school. Hated her for a solid week before realizing she was pretty cool. She’s just – on her own plane of existence, I think, sometimes. She introduced me to art and music and she kind of helped me break out of my shell a little bit. I mean, this was high school, and I was winning races, getting some attention from people, and it wasn’t the bad kind. I was still going for speech therapy classes, I had, like, no idea how to deal with people suddenly acting all friendly with me. Rachel would. Y’know. Crack jokes. Doodle on her jeans, then on mine. She was so unapologetically herself, and she taught me it was okay to be that way, too.” Percy smiles. “She’d come over, doodle all over my walls. She hated her family, so my mom kind of adopted her.”

 

“And then?” Annabeth asks, with a knowing smile.

 

“We kinda dated,” he admits, feeling shy for reasons he doesn’t want to explore right now. “And then we figured out pretty quick we got super awkward on dates and decided to stick to being friends. But like.”

 

“Like,” she echoes with a shit-eating grin.

 

“She was my first everything,” he says, swiping at Annabeth with his tear-stained tissue. “Kiss, sex, whatever. I mean, you might think it’s weird, but I’d rather do all that stuff with someone I knew and trusted rather than some bimbo in a club. We have one of those best-friend pacts. If we’re single when we’re forty, we’ll marry each other. That kind of thing.”

 

“Foolproof,” she snorts. “But. I guess that’s kind of nice. In a weird way.”

 

“Tell me about Thalia, then,” he says.

 

“Thalia…Thalia saved me,” Annabeth says. “In more ways than one.” She moistens her lips. “So I told you my mom left when I was five, right?”

 

“Yeah. That’s…I can’t even imagine it.”

 

“It was the worst. She was like god to me, y’know? She was an architect and she and my dad…they loved each other so much.” Her eyes squeeze shut. “They were this…this picture-perfect soulmate couple, and I thought we were perfect. But then one day she was just gone. I didn’t know why. I still don’t, really. But my dad just withdrew. He spent long hours at work. He barely came home. I had to take myself to kindergarten and teach myself to read and write and get myself ready, and then one day…he turned up with a woman. He said she was going to be my new mom. I was seven. His new wife had two kids of her own, and they all moved in to our house.”

 

“Shit,” Percy says. “What did you do?”

 

“I ran away.”

 

“You what?”

 

“I literally just. Walked out of the house that morning and I didn’t go back home. I didn’t want to. I couldn’t. Thalia and Luke found me. They took care of me for months in Luke’s old house until the neighbours suspected, and then they called the police, who sent us back home. I honestly thought I’d never see her again, but I found them both again when I was a junior in high school. It was probably the greatest day of my life.”

 

They’re both silent. Percy takes a breath, speaks out the next question, half-afraid that she might just stand up, bid him goodbye, and fucking run. “Luke.”

 

She takes a long, shuddering breath. “He was family to me, too. Three or four years older. He took care of my better than my dad ever did, y’know? And…well. You’ve seen Luke.” She laughs a little. “He had that…charm about him, the kind that just draws people in. And man, I was hooked. Like stupid hooked. I adored him as a kid, and when they took me back home, I pined like every soppy girl in every shitty romance novel there is. I mean, it was unhealthy, and I know that now. Luke loved me like a little sister and I loved him…I loved him in every other way possible. And when we met again, it was just. I just. I realized I hadn’t ever stopped loving him at all.”

 

It hurts to hear, but he nods like he understands.

 

“Luke had a lot of anger about a lot of things. His own dad left and his mom drove herself to madness. I mean, imagine growing up in that kind of environment.” She shudders. “I knew how mad at everything, everyone, he was. It’s just. He made me so much better and I thought – I thought I could make him better, too. And the worst part was I really thought he did.”

 

“Well,” he says, “how do you know you didn’t?”

 

“Because he left,” Annabeth whispers. “Right after he graduated. He up and left, didn’t take his phone, didn’t leave a note, deleted all his social media. I filed police complaints. Searched for him for weeks. Months. It took up all my time. When I wasn’t studying, I was out in the city, putting up Missing Person posters, calling up police departments in different states, you name it.” Her smile is bitter. “I bet you wondered, the first time when we met, why you’d never seen of me before. It’s because I was barely here. I spent all my time looking for Luke, it consumed me. I lost touch with a bunch of good friends, like Grover. I barely got through the second semester. I’m smart, but I nearly failed all my classes because I was doing so bad.”

 

“But…”

 

“Piper found me crying in the library one day and brought me to her place. It took me months before I felt okay enough to talk about him, to tell her everything. She helped me realize that our relationship probably…always meant more to me than it did to him. And it was a bitter fucking pill to swallow. Because I was so depressed, Percy. Like…it’s like the one person you thought was on your side. The one person who would be there for you through whatever, they just leave like you’re nothing to them.”

 

He is silent, because suddenly things are making a whole lot of sense.

 

“The worst part is,” she breathes, “there was nothing really wrong with us. I mean, we were on totally different pages. I see that now. But. It’s just. I never got any closure. I never got anything. When I say he left me, he really did. In every way possible.”

 

“That’s why,” he murmurs. “That’s why you don’t believe in soulmates.”

 

“My mom and my dad were soulmates. Luke and I…we were soulmates in every way but mark. Maybe it wasn’t romantic. Maybe we would’ve broken up anyway. But I loved him.” Annabeth pinches the bridge of her nose. “It’s not that I don’t believe in soulmates, Percy. I mean. You’re mine and you’re a great guy and I’m glad we met. It’s just.” And she seems to collapse a little. “Everyone leaves eventually. And I’m not going to put myself through that again. I can’t.”

 

They’re quiet for a long time. Annabeth cries quietly and wipes her eyes using the cuffs of her sweater. Percy takes periodic sips of his drink and breathes.

 

“I’m glad we did this,” she says finally.

 

“Yeah. Me too.” Percy’s head is all dizzy but he feels like he can understand her better now. And he doesn’t regret talking to her, and he’s really, really touched she’s finally loosed a brick, or several, from her fortress, just enough to let a single limb of his through. “We should do it again sometime.”

 

“Oh nooo,” she laughs – mission accomplished. “I’ve bared my soul enough for one lifetime, thanks.”

 

He smiles, sips his cocoa. Wonders if this is what it’s like to talk about everything and nothing until there are no secrets left between them. His drink is lukewarm. Annabeth looks out the window. He studies the sharpness of her cheekbones and the curve of her nose; like this, she looks less like a statue and more like. The girl next door who smiles at you everyday: someone approachable, touchable, real. She looks peaceful now, with a small smile playing on her lips, which is good to see. Percy wonders how she walks around carrying all these burdens. Atlas and his sky ain’t got nothing on Annabeth Chase.

 

“What do you want to do?” Percy asks. “Like, in life. Or just from here on.”

 

“Well, it might sound stupid, but. I’ve always wanted to…build something permanent,” she says softly. When she looks up, the sunlight flits across her face and her grey eyes go silver and luminous. “Because if you don’t make something that lasts, what’s the point?”

 

He nods. “Architecture.”

 

She smiles. “Exactly. I’d like to build a monument that lasts a thousand years. Maybe more, if the planet hasn’t imploded on us by then.” She runs a finger along the rim of her cup. She’s got nice hands, artistic and elegant. “And you?”

 

“I’m just going with the flow,” he admits. “For a long time I thought I was a lost cause, thought everything was definite. Flunk out or finish uni. But then I figured I have time to get my shit together. I’m taking one step at a time.” He grins. “Well. I made a bunch of resolutions. We named Pseidon, so that’s one down. And I wanted to figure out the soulmate thing too, which I guess we just did, so there’s two. I haven’t puked yet, even though it’s only March – touch wood – and I practice recreating my mom’s seven-layer dip every week, so I’m on my way. The last thing left is to crack one of the life-altering questions on my list.”

 

“List?” she asks, cocking her head.

 

“My List Of Things That I Hope I’ll Get Answers For Before I Die,” he answers promptly, and she chokes out a laugh.

 

“Is assistance allowed?” she asks.

 

“Always welcome.”

 

“Gimme a question, then.”

 

“Have you ever thought about…if people are incomplete?” he asks hesitantly. He might be straying too close to the soulmate topic, but she just hums thoughtfully.

 

“I’ve never thought that people are incomplete,” she says, “but maybe their lives are, you know?”

 

He blinks. “What do you mean?”

 

“I mean,” she explains, “it’s like – I dunno how to explain it. People aren’t incomplete, you know? But I just think that someone’s life can be full or empty or hollow or whatever you want to call it. It’s not about the people – it’s about the lives they’re living.”

 

He thinks about it. “That…make sense, surprisingly. I’ll take it.”

 

“Yay,” she claps, “gimme another.”

 

Percy searches his head for another. “I mean, so the other day, while I was swimming, I was kind of like, after I win – then what? And don’t say cheesy shit like you’ll get the medal. Because that’s not what I mean. I mean, I don’t really know what I mean. But…it’s just. What’s after the race? What then? What’s waiting for me?”

 

He leans against the table, sighing. Annabeth’s phone beeps.

 

“I have tutoring today,” she mumbles. “I totally forgot.”

 

“It’s okay, you can go, you answered one question, which is more than I can say for myself,” Percy grunts. “I’ll just be here, contemplating life.”

 

“Dumbass,” she says, and her voice is fond. There’s a scraping noise as she pushes her chair back to stand up. Her hand touches his hair, carding it through her fingers. It reminds Percy of the moment they’d shared before when she’d slept on his shoulder. That feels like it had been so long ago.

 

“Hey,” she says. “After the finish line. I’ll wait for you.”

 

His head snaps up, a sharp warmth flaring in his chest. Annabeth’s gone from pink to red to purple, and she’s already moving away, dodging the other tables. She’s out the door in the blink of an eye. She’s out the door and Percy can’t move, so he just sits there and burns.

 

::

 

To be honest, he’s terrified at the thought.

 

“What do you mean you think she still likes Luke.” Pistachio hits him over the head with a pillow. “Are you a grown-ass human being or a child, Percy. You are a sock, Percy. You are a sock if you think she likes Luke after all that.”

 

“I mean, what if, though,” Percy moans, shoving his face into the sofa.

 

“She can’t like him anymore,” Pistachio says casually. “Besides, they didn’t look good as a couple, they were too blonde together.”

 

He snorts. “You amaze me.”

 

“On a serious note,” she says. “I know she doesn’t like him anymore, because she told me.”

 

He lifts his head a little. “She did?”

 

“She said she feels much better than before. Said she’s in a better headspace.” She looks over him critically. “So you can pull your head out of your ass now and stop being so negative.”

 

“I have a healthy level of nihilism, thanks,” he grumbles.

 

“Oh, shut up,” Pistachio glares. “I’m right and you’re wrong, so drop it.”

 

“But-”

 

“No buts.”

 

Percy sniggers. “You sound like Edna from the Incredibles.”

 

“Pull yourself together,” says Pistachio in a very Edna voice. She switches back to her real voice, adds, “I mean it, though. Annabeth will be fine. And so will you. And so you both will be, together.”

 

“Stop it,” Percy whines.

 

She cackles. “Calm your ginormous man tits, Percy. You’re such a worrier about the most useless things. What you should be worrying about is your poor choice of clothing.”

 

“What’s wrong with it?”

 

“It’s hideous. And your t-shirt says Pants.” She wrinkles her nose. “Where do you even get these horrible, horrible designs.”

 

“eBay.”

 

“You disgust me more every day.” Pistachio sighs. She doesn’t look much different than usual: only her hair looks combed. Which is a relief, because the first time Percy had seen Pistachio in a dress, he hadn’t even recognized her and had walked past her a grand total of seven times, calling out her name. This way he can find her quicker and get out of the party if he has to.

 

She tries to flatten his hair to no avail.

 

“Stay still,” she orders. “There’s a decent haircut under there somewhere. We can salvage this mop if you just – stay still, Percy, oh my god!”

 

“My toe is itchy!”

 

She’s pressing down on his head so hard his brain is leaking out his ears. “I – don’t – care.”

 

“Why do I have to come,” says Percy for the tenth time.

 

“Because Jason has an away game and I need a man to scare the creepy boys away,” Pistachio says.

 

“Take Leonardo,” Percy groans.

 

“Leo is an angel but Silena’s model friends are going to make an appearance and we all know it will take Leo all of three seconds to turn into a creepy boy himself.” Pistachio flicks a stray lock of hair from her face. “Look, if you really hate it that much, we can leave after an hour.”

 

He narrows his eyes at her. “Promise?”

 

“Pinky.”

 

He sighs. “Fine. But I’m not changing the shirt.”

 

They can hear the chatter from Silena’s apartment far before they actually reach the place. Silicon lives off-campus with Charlie Chaplin in an apartment far too lush for Percy to even dream of affording at this point in his life. Silena only can because she models part-time and gets paid an insane amount for it. She’s already paid off her student loans. Percy is drowning in them.

 

“Can’t wait to get money,” he murmurs.

 

“How rich do you wanna be?” Pistachio asks distractedly.

 

“Rich enough to get on the Forbes list. Rich enough to buy quality junk food, easy as pie.”

 

“Oooh, goals.”

 

Drunk people stagger out of the place, doing whatever it is that drunk people do when they bump into every available surface like they’re trapped in a Pinball machine. Percy’s no better when he’s that inebriated, he’s sure, but tonight he’s staying sober and he knows none of these people, so he’s free to judge as he likes.

 

“Percy! Piper!” Silicon squeals when she spots them. She’s surrounded by a bunch of girlfriends, Charlie Chaplin looming over her like a thundercloud, glaring at anyone with a penis who gets too close. “I’m so glad you could come!”

 

“Happy birthday, Silena,” they both chorus, as though they’ve rehearsed it. It takes a lot of effort for Percy not to say Silicon. Pistachio beams at him for it.

 

“Hey, Perce.” Charlie Chaplin sounds tired. “Finally, a boy who won’t hit on Silena.”

 

“Finally a boy I can show off, someone tall and cute, even though what you’re wearing is hideous,” Silena trills, wrapping a manicured hand around his wrist. “And you’re single. The girls will love you.”

 

Percy shoots Charlie Chaplin a look to convey his utter and complete discomfort at this. Charlie Chaplin is a bro, he’ll understand.

 

“You don’t even need to show him, but make him sing,” Charlie Chaplin rumbles. Percy shoots him a look of betrayal, taking back all his charitable thoughts at once.

 

“Oh my god yes!” Silicon screeches. “Charlie, you’re a genius! Let me go hook up the karaoke machine!”

 

She vanishes. Piper is hooting with laughter.

 

“I want to leave,” Percy tells her. To Charlie Chaplin he threatens, “How could you do this to me. I will start calling you Beckoning again.”

 

“What?” Pistachio wheezes.

 

“He used to call me Beckoning,” Charlie Chaplin winces. “Like the Reckoning.” Pistachio begins to laugh again.

 

“Look, she’s gone now,” Pistachio says, in a poor attempt to soothe Percy. “Let’s just lay low for a while.”

 

“As Silena’s boyfriend, I approve of this plan,” Charlie Chaplin says. “You guys should go.”

 

Piper grabs his arm and drags him through the crowd. Percy thinks she’s actually taking him away, but they end up outside Silena’s room, which is filled to the brim with chattering girls complimenting each other’s outfits and makeup like oh my god, girl, your boobs look so good in that dress.

 

He recoils. “No.”

 

“I need to pee,” Pistachio says apologetically. “Wait outside for me.”

 

“You better fucking – pee like your life depends on it,” Percy says uselessly. He tries to sound intimidating but comes off as horribly desperate. Pistachio smirks.

 

“Aye-aye, captain,” she says.

 

“I can’t hear you,” Percy drawls.

 

“Are you really going to break out into the Spongebob theme song?” Pistachio leers. “I expected better.”

 

“Fuck off, go empty your bladder,” Percy sneers back. Pistachio vanishes with a quick salute.

 

Unsure of what to do, Percy leans against the wall and pulls out his phone. He’s not against socializing at parties, it’s just that Silicon’s crowd runs slightly older, given that she’s a senior, and they just don’t seem to be his kind of people at all, even though Silicon herself is a really nice girl. Her friends, though – the ones wearing the glittery dresses and the too-high heels, giving him sideways glances – he doesn’t feel comfortable around them at all.

 

Glancing down at his phone quickly, he replies to Jason’s story, a quick clip of his team doing practice lay-ups, and wishes him good luck, although the match is probably well underway by now. He likes a bunch of photos and begins to stalk some old friends when someone clears their throat beside him and he looks up, hoping for Pistachio.

 

It’s not her. It’s a girl with hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, wearing a tiny – and that means practically minuscule – red dress. She’s linked her arms with a friend, a blonde wearing a pale blue dress, the kind with no straps. Percy straightens and tries to blend in with the wall.

 

“Hey,” says Red Dress. “I’m Kelli. This is Tammi.” The blonde simpers at the sound of her name.

 

“Um, hello,” Percy replies.

 

They both smile. The sight of their glossy lipstick makes Percy sick. He tries to smile back but fails spectacularly.

 

“Look, I’ll be straight with you,” Kelli says. “You’re the cutest guy we’ve seen around tonight and Tammi and I are both totally in if you are. You single?”

 

“Um,” Percy stammers, as the full implication of her request sinks in. “Um, I’m-”

 

“Percy?” comes another voice, and even though it’s not Pistachio, he turns towards the source at once to find Annabeth, dressed in a black long-sleeved top and demin shorts. She holds a drink in her hair and her blonde hair falls freely down her shoulders. She looks great, and it’s taking him way too much effort to keep his eyes on her face and not on her long, long legs, but -

 

“Oh,” she says, stopping short. “Am I…interrupting something?” She sounds almost hurt. Percy tries to scream HELP ME HELP ME SAVE ME with his eyes.

 

“Not yet,” Kelli puurs. She taps Percy on the cheek. “Let us know if you’re interested, cutie.” She walks away with Tammi, a deliberate swing to her hips. Percy looks at Annabeth. She looks like she’s been dunked into ice-cold water and been stepped on by high heels. Repeatedly.

 

Pistachio chooses this moment to emerge from Silicon’s room with Thanos, who looks like she would rather walk the streets naked than deal with frills and fluff.

 

Pistachio looks between Percy, who no doubt looks petrified, and Annabeth, who is still staring off into space like her best friend has just stabbed her in the back. She looks terrified, her pallor ashen and her eyes so wide open her irises have reduced to pinpricks. She looks like she’s just found out she’s failed all her exams or something else equally chilling. It sets him on edge.

 

“Um, what’d I miss?” Pistachio asks.

 

“Two girls offered me to join their threesome,” Percy says thinly. Thanos begins to snort so loud she draws the attention of everyone nearby.

 

“Jesus, Perce, I leave you alone for two minutes,” Pistachio says, although there is a slow grin forming on her face.

 

“Don’t tell anyone,” Percy demands at once, jabbing a finger into her face. “If it wasn’t for Annabeth, I don’t think I would’ve even been given the chance to say no.”

 

“Annabeth?” Thanos asks. She’s stopped her fit of chortles and there’s real concern lacing her words. “You okay?”

 

Annabeth seems to snap out of whatever daze she’d been in, although she looks a little hollow and she seems to be avoiding Percy altogether. “Yeah. Fine. Just not feeling too good. Must’ve been the fish we had earlier.”

 

“Ugh, these rich people and their fish,” Thanos grumbles. “Why couldn’t Silena have just bought KFC like the rest of us?”

 

Pistachio is grinning but Percy’s eyes stay on Annabeth.

 

“You wanna leave?” Thanos asks. “I don’t mind, I’ve got Piper and Percy now.”

 

“Actually, Percy, you should drop her home,” Pistachio interrupts at once, her words sober but her eyes absolutely oozing mirth. “You wanted to leave too, anyway, right? I’ll be fine with Thals, she’s probably better than you at scaring off creeps, and we can just drink expensive wine and judge people.”

 

“I’m so in for that,” Thanos agrees.

 

Percy doesn’t need to be told twice. He wants to get out of here. “Let’s go,” he tells Annabeth. She nods.

 

They have to dodge a bunch of other drunk people before finally making it outside. Percy breathes in the night air, relieved that they hadn’t run into Tammi and Kelli on their way out. The fresh air seems to do Annabeth good, too: she begins to regain a little color.

 

“You good?” he asks her as they begin to walk slowly back in the direction of their university.

 

“Yeah,” she says quietly. Her face has exploded into a canvas of color and she ducks her head. “Sorry for dragging you away, though.”

 

“Are you kidding me,” he laughs. “I didn’t even want to go. I mean, I’m sorry you’re sick, but holy shit you saved my life. Did you see those two vultures. I was so scared, oh my god.”

 

She lets out a small laugh. “They really made you uncomfortable?”

 

“Did you see my face,” he says. “Did you see it.”

 

“Okay, okay, point taken. I just thought…” She hesitates. “I just thought guys liked girls who are forward like that.”

 

“Not that forward!” Percy shrieks. “And for a threesome! Do I look like the kind of guy who’d be into that?”

 

“You look like the kind of guy who probably listens to the Pokémon theme on repeat,” she grins.

 

“Oh bitch you didn’t,” Percy laughs. “Don’t you dare, you evil brat. Now I’m going to have that song stuck in my head for the next week at least. Hope you’re happy.”

 

“Ecstatic,” she says, and she really does look it.

 

He smirks. “You look like the kind of guy to carry extra pencils to class.”

 

“It’s good to be prepared.”

 

“Well then, you look like the kind of girl who reads the Terms and Conditions before downloading things.”

 

She shuffles awkwardly. “Well…”

 

“Oh my god.” He stops, points in her face.

 

“I was bored!” she shrieks, dancing away. “And you should really look at the iTunes agreement, you have no idea what you’re signing up for just by checking the little box-”

 

“You are evil!” Percy screeches.

 

“Well, you’re a fool! A heathen!” she yowls. “Fucking sue me! Do it!”

 

“Not worth my time.”

 

“Or you’re just lazy.”

 

“I have watched way too many lawyer shows, Annabeth,” Percy says. “Do not test me.”

 

“I feel like you want me to be scared,” Annabeth says, “but I’m just amused.”

 

“Better to be amused than bemused,” Percy says.

 

“Do you even hear yourself half the time?” she demands, but there’s an undercurrent of fond exasperation in her tone. “You sound like you’re on crack like, 24/7.”

 

“It’s in my blood,” he says seriously. “I get monthly injections.”

 

“I hate you,” she says. “Why are we friends again?”

 

“Because I amuse you,” he says. “Like a jester in front of a king.”

 

“Now there’s an acceptable answer,” she points out. “Amuse me, peasant.”

 

“Jingle jingle,” Percy says, thinking of the hats with the bells on them, and Annabeth breaks into giggles.

 

“You’re nuts,” she says.

 

“Yeah, but I cheered you up, didn’t I?” he grins.

 

She blinks. “What?”

 

“I cheered you up,” he repeats. “Do you feel cheered up? Are you sufficiently cheered, my lord?”

 

She shrugs, although her face blooms with a rosy glow. “Maybe. Maybe not. Mostly not.”

 

“Fuckin’ liar.” He tries to elbow her and she sidesteps easily.

 

“But seriously,” he says, as they reach her building and walk inside, “you’re okay, right? You looked kind of ill back at Silicon’s.”

 

“I’m…” she seems to be struggling to get the words out. Percy can relate. “I’m not…sure what came over me. I just…”

 

Seeing how uncomfortable she looks, Percy takes some pity on her. “As long as you’re okay now.”

 

“I am,” she says quickly. “Okay, I mean.”

 

They stop outside her door. There’s a bright pink sock right over the handle. Annabeth’s head hits the wall.

 

“You’re kidding me,” she says. “Fucking hell, Reyna. Tonight?

 

“Ah, the good ol’ sexile,” says Percy.

 

“I mean, good for her, hope she found a, uh, capable guy or girl or whatever. But. What do I do now?” she groans. “Wait?”

 

“You could come to my place,” Percy offers. Grover’s there, keeping Pseidon company, and I’ve got leftover of my last seven-layer dip attempt.”

 

“Percy…I don’t know. I don’t wanna impose.”

 

“Oh, put a sock in it,” he grins, gesturing at the pink one on her door. She glares. “It’s no problem. We could play Battleship.”

 

She hesitates. “I’m great at Battleship.”

 

“I know. You told me.”

 

“Okay, fine,” she relents. “Get ready to lose.”

 

Grover is asleep, Pseidon splayed across his lap, when Percy unlocks the door. Annabeth smiles at Grover and perches neatly on the kitchen counter, watching as Percy reheats the food, and it’s stupid how fluttery he feels, how stupid it is that he’s so happy just because she’s here in his kitchen, and it feels so stupid, so familiar. Familiar in that comforting way that Percy can’t really even begin to explain.

 

It’s nice.

 

She opens the Battleship app on both their phones; Percy grabs his and positions his ships.

 

“Have I ever told you,” Annabeth says excitedly, “that I get competitive for the smallest shit.”

 

“I can see your face,” Percy says. “I figured as much.”

 

“Battleship is the best game,” she says. “B3.”

 

“Miss. You need a new hobby besides Battleship and reading the iTunes conditions.” He sniffs at the pan. “E5.”

 

“Miss. And oh my god, I have other hobbies, too. I used to run track in school.” She holds out a plate. “E6.”

 

Percy spoons some of the food into her plate. “Miss. Let me know if you need more salt. D3.”

 

“Miss. Oh my god, this is so good,” she moans, covering her full mouth with a hand. “A1.”

 

“Hit.” Percy winces; Annabeth makes a small noise of satisfaction. “And my mom’s is better. I’ll perfect it one day, though. F9.”

 

“Miss. A2. Please ask your mom to send some over.”

 

“Miss.” Percy snorts. “My mom would love you. F3.”

 

“Miss. B1.”

 

“Hit,” he moans. “Where the fuck are your ships?”

 

“Placed strategically,” she says, smug. “C1.”

 

“Hit. Ship down.” He ignores her whoop of victory. “F1.”

 

“Ah, fuck. Hit. G2.”

 

“And he strikes back!” Percy crows. Pseidon, alerted by the noise, pads her way over to them, settling quietly at his feet. “Just like the Empire. What’d you say again?

 

“G2.”

 

“Miss. F2.”

 

She glares at him. It’s a startling sight. Her eyes are flashing and her mouth is curved into a tempting pout.

 

“Hit and sink,” she says. And-

 

Same, Percy thinks dazedly. Same.

 

::

 

“Here’s to our last drink as juniors,” Jacob says solemnly, holding up his cup above their heads. “It’s been a good year, folks.”

 

“Aye,” says Percy, trying not to laugh.

 

“Jolly good,” says Pistachio.

 

“God, I hate you freaks,” says Jacob.

 

“Drink, you slugs,” shouts Leonardo, who has downed his glass in one.

 

Percy shares a look with Annabeth, who shrugs as she holds her glass to her lips. Percy follows suit, wincing at the taste as he drinks.

 

“After summer break, I’ll finally be able to drink legally,” Jason crows.

 

“July, baby!” Annabeth crows, and they both bump fists, then turn to Percy with twin grins.

 

“Awww, poor widdle August baby,” Jason coos, puckering his lips. “Poor widdle August-y Percy can’t drink for another month.”

 

“Is that stopping me now?” Percy demands, glaring fiercely at the two of them. To Pistachio he says, “You let him kiss you with those lips?”

 

“I’m ashamed of myself,” Pistachio says.

 

Jacob turns to her. “You’re just jealous because you’re an October brat.”

 

“As Percy said, it’s not stopping us now.” Pistachio refills her drink and chugs it, a dangerous glint in her eye.

 

Percy stares at Jacob. “Are you - you’re actually turned on, oh my god.”

 

“It’s hot when she’s angry,” he admits.

 

“Disgusting. Dis – gust -ing.”

 

He leaves them to it, wandering over and leaning over Grover as he talks to Wilbur. Automatically his eyes find Annabeth, who’s giggling into her drink, talking to Reynold.

 

He’s had a good year, he thinks. He’s found a soulmate and lost her, kinda, and found her again. And he’s made good friends and he’s got Pseidon, who is bundled up in her favorite box, using Percy’s old camp t-shirt to keep warm. And he’s good. He’s good, and content and happy, and yeah. He’s a little buzzed from the alcohol and it’s making his head spin and his steps unsteady but his entire chest feels light and happy. Annabeth catches his eye and winks, and Percy smiles harder.

 

Pistachio, back from making out with Jacob, grabs his arm. “So, Percy, it’s our last day of junior year. Which begs the question: why haven’t you made a move yet.”

 

He sighs the same way he always does when she asks him this question. “I’ve told you a million times. She’s not ready for anything. I’m not ready for anything. I don’t want to rush into anything. I don’t even know what I want, to be honest.”

 

“Stop with the act, it’s not cute,” Pistachio says bluntly, brutally. “You know you like her. Can’t you see that she’s the only one who understand you? Been here all along so why can’t you see? You belong with her!”

 

“Did you just quote Taylor Swift at me?”

 

“Besides the point. The point being that you like her.”

 

“I don’t!”

 

“Stop being so defensive!”

 

“I’m not being defensive, I’m being truthful!” Percy shoots back, infuriated. “I’m fine with us being friends, and she made it clear that she’s not getting into anything anytime soon.”           

 

“It’s been months,” Pistachio hisses. “Months since she told you about Luke.”

 

“She hasn’t changed her stance on soulmates or anything,” Percy says adamantly. “It’s not like she came and said, I didn’t believe in soulmates but now I do. No, she said, you’re a great guy, Percy, but I don’t believe in soulmates. That’s what she said, so drop it.”

 

“But that was in March!” Piper screeches in a whisper. “It’s been so long, and you guys have been attached at the hip since. She could’ve changed her mind!”

 

“And I trust that if she changes her mind, she’ll tell me,” Percy grunts lowly.

 

“You dumbass,” Pistachio says. “You don’t know shit about girls. She’s probably been dropping hints all over the place and you haven’t even noticed.”

 

“I would’ve.”

 

“Not a chance. You’re dense as a brick and obtuse as all hell.”

 

“That’s mean,” Percy says, laughing even though he’s slightly stung.

 

“God save us all,” Pistachio moans. “You guys are going to be seventy when you finally admit your feelings for each other, and by then it’ll be too late to have sex, and even if you do decide to whip out your wrinkly dick, one of you will probably die from the shock of it.”

 

“We will not,” Percy says. “Besides, I don’t even know if she likes me like that. Hell, I don’t even know if I do.” Which is true. Because Percy really enjoys Annabeth’s company and the way she can bounce off his dry humor easily, but he doesn’t want to push anything, doesn’t want to get his hopes up like last time.

 

Pistachio stares at him blankly.

 

“What,” he says.

 

“Leo, get me another drink,” she instructs. “Actually, just get me the bottle. We’re all going to fucking die.”

 

::

 

Summer break passes quickly. Percy spends most of his time assisting his stepdad Paul at the museum, and even sits on a few of his classes at school. He’s never considered a degree in education, but Paul urges him to think about it. It’s an interesting thought, Percy has to admit, even though he’s scared he might suck at teaching.

 

He visits the local pool a lot, where his old coach and friends rib him a lot and call him a hotshot. Home is great. Home is, well, home. And it’s more lively than ever now that Paul’s trying his hand at the plumbing and Stella is growing older.

 

He still misses his friends, though. He still misses Annabeth.

 

She’s taken an internship with some major architecture firm and although they text all the time it isn’t nearly enough. She sends him a lot of pictures of herself in front of her drafting table, making stupid sleepy faces, and they make his heart jolt with something every time. He misses their arguments and the way she smiles and the way she completely kicks his ass at anything they do together. Percy’s not stupid. He knows what a budding crush looks like. It’s just that he’s about ninety-nine percent sure Annabeth would actually skin him if he brought up the whole soulmates thing again. So yes. This is a dilemma.

 

The day he gets back to college he heads straight to Francois’, which is already bustling with most of their little group.

 

“Yooooooooo,” Harriet calls.

 

“Perce!” Jacob yells, standing up. He’s wearing a sleeveless t-shirt and shorts. It’s not even that hot yet, but Percy has learnt Jacob takes summer very seriously, just like everything else he does.

 

“Look at what Nico got me for my birthday,” he beams, displaying a World’s Best Dad mug.

 

“I regret everything,” Nincompoop says forlornly. “I meant it as a joke. I didn’t mean to make him cry.”

 

“Hey, man!” Francois says clapping Percy on the back. “Had a good summer?”

 

Percy is about to reply when spots a flash of blonde – it’s Annabeth and Raphael, arguing about the differences between alpacas and llamas.

 

“Llamas are bigger, aren’t they?” Annabeth says.

 

“I literally thought they were the same fuckin’ animal,” Raphael says. “Like ostriches and emus.”

 

“Those are different, too,” Annabeth says.

 

“I know. But did you know,” Raphael goes on, in an anecdotal tone of voice, “why emus stick their head in the sand?”

 

“Ostriches do that,” Annabeth corrects. “And it’s to get away from the world, obviously.”

 

“What a mood,” Raphael marvels. “If I were an ostrich I’d stick my head in the sand for my entire life. Dude. Annabeth. We should do it. We should just. Find a good patch of sand. And stick our heads in it.”

 

“Oh, daddy, how you tempt me so,” says Annabeth in a low, bored voice that kicks him right in the gut and it’s not fair, it’s not fair, the effect she has on him, because it’s the first time he’s seen her in two months, and here she is, talking about giant birds like it’s the Sunday news in a voice like pure sex. His heart does a massive flip. She notices him looking and waves.

 

Naturally, Percy freaks the fuck out, acting like he hasn’t seen her and slipping away quickly to scan the room for Grover. He finds him talking to Pistachio – perfect. Percy darts over to them as fast as he can, grabs them by their shirts, and yanks them inside Francois’ room, slamming the door shut behind them.

 

“Nice to see you too, Percy,” Grover says grumpily, smoothing the wrinkles on his shirt.

 

Pistachio narrows her eyes. “What do you want,” she asks, point-blank.

 

“Who are you avoiding, more like,” Grover says suspiciously.

 

Percy shrugs noncommittally.

 

“Annabeth,” Pistachio deduces. She glares at Percy. “What – did – you – do.”

 

“Nothing!” Percy squawks, holding up his hands.

 

“Did you sleep with someone else?” Pistachio demands, her multicolored eyes flashing dark and dangerous. “Did you kiss someone else?”

 

“I didn’t do anything!” Percy yelps. “I just. Can’t face her right now and I need help.”

 

“Oh my god,” Pistachio says, her expression going from furious to exhilarated with astonishing speed. “Oh my god, it’s happening.”

 

“We can’t be sure,” Grover whispers, staring at him as though he’s some rare, exotic animal. “His skull is as thick as Frank’s thighs.”

 

“Wrong use of thicc, but I’ll allow it,” Pistachio whispers. “And you’re right, those things could crush watermelons. Those thighs could pin a mountain lion.”

 

“Shh, shh, we’ve got to ask him,” Grover says, as though Percy has not been stood right in front of them watching their baffling exchange the entire time.

 

“Percy,” Pistachio says, with clearly-restrained excitement, “What do you mean, you can’t face her?”

 

“I mean.” Percy thinks about it, pacing up and down. His mind feels like it’s full of little gnats eating away at his brain, and all he can think of is Annabeth on their last Lonely Sunday, stirring her tea and smiling that soft smile, soft like sunset, smiling that I had a good time smile, bathed in the sunlight streaming in through the windows, and Percy wants to actually bury himself alive at the memory of it.

 

“Why do you look so distressed,” Pistachio asks, but she’s grinning so, so wide, and Percy doesn’t know why.

 

“Because,” he says.

 

Grover grasps his hand, tight, encouraging, and it’s so steadying, so Grover. “Because?”

 

He thinks of Annabeth again, and how he’d like to put an arm around her and hug her to his chest and kiss her, maybe, and, like a snap of fingers, like the shot of a gun, Percy knows that this will never, ever be just a crush.

 

“Oh my god,” he says, feeling a blush rise, hot and fast, up his neck. “I’ve in love with Annabeth.” He glances at his friends, who both burst into applause, laughing and high-fiving. “How long have you known?” he asks, mortified.

 

“Since forever, you oink,” Pistachio says, but she throws her arms around him. “Oh my god, finally. How does it feel to be honest with yourself for once, Perce?”

 

“Have I been that obvious?” he groans, running a hand down his face. “Shit, do you think she knows?”

 

“No.” Grover rolls his eyes. “Annabeth is so smart, but in this case-”

 

“Oh thank god. Because I can’t ever tell her,” Percy says fervently. “She can never know.”

 

“Oh fuck,” says Grover.

 

Pistachio pokes him in the chest. “What the fuck is wrong with you? Of course you have to tell her.”

 

“This is a new development,” Percy wails. “I mean, I literally had this revelation a second ago. Can’t I just keep it to myself for a while?”

 

“I would honestly be okay with that if I didn’t know that your definition of a while is for-fucking-ever,” Pistachio snaps. “Don’t you wanna be with her?”

 

 He bristles. “It’s not like I’m some kind of monster that just wants to hug her all the time. I can hold myself back.”

 

“Oh my god,” Piper breathes, “you want to hug her all the time?”

 

“N-no,” Percy says uncertainly, because now that he’s started thinking about all the things he’s been forcing himself not to think about, he realizes that he definitely kind of maybe wants to kiss her, too.

 

“Percy, you can’t do this to yourself all over again,” Grover groans. “And you can’t do this to Annabeth, too.”

 

“You guys don’t understand,” Percy yells, throwing himself down on Francois’ perfect bed. “She doesn’t believe in soulmates, still! She doesn’t want a relationship. She wants to build something permanent and she will flay me alive if I say I’m in love with her! And she doesn’t even like me like that! It’s going to make our friendship awkward and strained and I can’t do that! I can’t risk it!”

 

His words are greeted with total silence. Then-

 

“He’s an idiot,” Grover says, right before Percy is about to wave his hand in front of their faces to get their attention. He looks at Percy. “You are a grade-A idiot.”

 

Percy fiddles with his thumbs. “I don’t know what else to do.”

 

“What you need to do,” Pistachio hisses, “is to gather your balls and tell her.”

 

“No,” says Percy immediately.

 

“I give up,” says Pistachio, throwing her hands up in the air.

 

“Didn’t you hear a word I said,” Percy argues. Because – he is so scared. Percy’s not a very good liar and there is no way he can hide this for long. And what happens when Annabeth finds out? There is no way she’s going to take it well. There’s no way.

 

And Percy is in love. He’s in love and there’s no denying it now that he’s finally – finally – said it out loud. He’s in love and he can’t get enough of Annabeth with her sharp wit and cool gaze, and how she’s fierce and kind of scary and way, way too good for him. What is he supposed to do now? Cry? Laugh? Scream? Give up all emotion forever, retire to the mountains and live off of berries and snow?

 

“I read the iTunes Terms and Conditions,” he says miserably. “She was right, we really should pay those things a little more attention.”

 

“Oh my god you’re so in love,” Pistachio moans.

 

“I feel like we’ve gone all over the world and we’ve returned to the same spot we started from,” Grover mumbles tiredly.

 

“Percy, listen to me, for the love of all things sane in the world,” Pistachio says, nearly begging. “You and Annabeth – you have something special. I’ve never seen two people click the way you do – reluctantly for sure, but you still click, and it’s amazing. Everyone can see it.”

 

“Blind men can see it,” Grover says. “Deaf men can hear it. N-noseless men-”

 

“Voldemort,” Pistachio supplies.

 

“Voldemort can smell it,” Grover finishes proudly.

 

Percy only crosses his arms, defiant. Because they don’t get it. They haven’t seen how terrified Annabeth gets sometimes on bad days, how terrified she is of someone leaving again, how terrified she is to love again. And Percy does love her, or at least he really really really likes her, and he distinctly remembers the moment, a tired night at Percy’s, when they’d been watching movies. Annabeth had cracked some shitty joke and was laughing aloud at her own damn self, and Percy’s hand had hovered over the popcorn and he had thought, with an alarming sort of clarity, that he would very much like to kiss her.

 

She trusts him now. She trusts him with her secrets and all the shit she’s been through – and Percy – Percy would love to be with her. But what if she gets freaked out again? What if he just drives her away?

 

And Percy is stupid and selfish but he would do anything, he thinks, anything to keep what they have now.

 

“Percy, you’re happy with her,” Grover tries again. “Happier than I’ve seen you be in years – years! It’s like. When you’re with her, you don’t feel that void in you anymore.” Percy scowls, knowing just how true that is, but -

 

“I’ll hide it,” Percy decides. “This is just. A phase. And it sucks but I have to deal with it, and everything will be nice and normal.” He repeats it. “Nice…and normal.”

 

“She likes you back, you twit,” Piper snaps. “Annabeth has like four moods in total, one is when she’s drunk, one is when she’s snarky, one is when she’s all think-y, and one is when she stares at you like she wants to ride you into the sunset.”

 

Grover is choking. Percy shakes his head. “She doesn’t like me. This is an unrequited thing.”

 

“OH MY GOD, YOU PEA BRAIN,” Pistachio bursts out, grabbing his shoulders and shaking him. “IT’S NOT EVEN UNREQUITED, HOW COULD YOU BE SO STUPID, YOU STUPID WASTELAND.”

 

“She’s right out there,” Percy whispers, maniacal. “Please shut up!”

 

She looks defiant. “I’ve been told my voice is one of my most appealing traits.”

 

“You know what else is an appealing trait?” Percy hisses. “Silence.”

 

Pistachio releases him. She runs a hand through her hair. She shoots a grim look at Grover.

 

“I’m going to do it,” she says. “He’s too dumb to get it.”

 

“Piper, you might scare him off-”

 

“This fool is has shoved his feelings so deep in the closet they’re in Narnia,” Pistachio snarls. “Squirrels have more tact than him. Annabeth is just as blind and she’s ten times more stubborn, and at this rate she’s going to give up and find someone else and get married to him, and Percy will be circling the edges, wailing about the one who got away.”

 

Grover sighs, then waves his hand, like go ahead.

 

“Okay, Percy, look,” Pistachio says, turning to him, a ferocious look in her eyes that makes him shift away, wary. “I’m sorry it has to be this way, but you’ve left me no choice. I’ve lost too much money over this.”

 

“Wait, what,” Percy says.

 

“You will go out there,” Pistachio says, in a voice of deathly calm. “And you will tell her-”

 

“No,” says Percy.

 

“-or, so help me God, I will,” she finishes.

 

::

 

Percy is stressed.

 

It’s been two weeks since he’d – for lack of a better phrase – come out to Grover and Pistachio, and Percy’s life has since turned into a living hell.

 

With every day that goes by, Pistachio is upping her game, pointing at her watch and whispering “Tick tock,” under her breath like she’s a serial killer. Percy knows she won’t actually do it, she’s not that cruel, but he also suspects she’s enjoying putting up this little act way too much. He’d also made the mistake of allowing her to tell Jacob, and now the two of them make kissy faces at him and Annabeth whenever they’re within ten feet of each other.

 

Today is the second Lonely Sunday since classes have started, and Percy is on. Fucking. Edge.

 

The first Sunday had been unbearable. Luckily, Percy had managed to avoid Annabeth all week, and he’d spent the first Sunday dodging conversation about himself and directing as many questions as possible towards her internship, which she’d enjoyed immensely. The week after that had been another form of torture. He’d tried to duck out of sight at their first get-together at Francois’, but Jacob had called him out for it and Annabeth had actually looked suspicious by his behaviour. Which is. A huge problem. He can’t have the smartest girl on campus wondering what his problem is, because she’ll figure it out inevitably, eventually, and he’ll crack in two seconds flat.

 

Annabeth raps on the door, smiling as she pushes it open. She grabs a chair from the closest table and seats herself opposite Percy, who vibrates at the proximity.

 

“Hello,” he says. It’s so awkward. It’s so, so awkward. It hasn’t been this awkward since their very first meeting, when their bodies lit up at their first touch. Annabeth must notice the change, too: she sags, and Percy hates seeing the unhappy downward pull of her mouth.

 

“You’re still being weird?” she sighs. “You’ve been acting off ever since we got back, and don’t think I didn’t notice you evade all my questions last time. I thought you’d be okay by now, but…” She breaks off, gazing at him hesitantly. “Are you okay?”

 

“Fine,” he says quickly. Her frown only deepens, darkening her features.

 

“Did something happen at home?” she asks, and there’s so much worry in her eyes that Percy wants to actually die. “Did someone say something?” She pauses. “Did…did I say something?”

 

Her eyes are wide, horrified, so horrified, at the very prospect of hurting Percy, that something inside him snaps. It’s like a dam breaking, and the force of it makes him stumble, nearly spill the coffee in his hands. Annabeth startles at the movement.

 

“Oh,” she says, looking down at the counter. “So it was me.”

 

“No,” Percy gets out in a rush, trying to put as much feeling into the words as he can without giving himself away entirely. “No, not you.”

 

She doesn’t look convinced. “What is it, then?”

 

“It’s.” He breathes. “It’s…”

 

“You can tell me anything, Perce. You know that,” she encourages softly, and oh my god it’s too much. It’s too much and he has to tell her. He’d tried to hold on, really he’d tried, but he keeps thinking about what Piper had said about Annabeth finding someone else and Percy just. He probably wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he let that happen. And she’s probably going to laugh in his face. Or run. Again. And maybe one day in the future, the far, far future, he can edit out the sad parts, but right now he has to just pull off the Band-Aid and tell her, because he can’t let down Future Percy by not even trying. He can’t. He has to say something, he has to tell her how she feels like home, and that Grover is right, that there’s a missing part of him, there’s a missing part of his life, that she just fills, and he feels honest to god complete around her. Or maybe it’s just his life, like she’d told him once. Percy is complete, but his life isn’t when Annabeth’s not around. And he has to say something because he’s going to explode if he doesn’t, and how, how did Percy manage to fall for the one person who drives him absolutely bugnuts? He’s going to die. He’s going to collapse in onto himself like a dying star and –

 

“I’m chocolate,” he says.

 

Her eyebrows crease. “What?”

 

“I’m chocolate,” he explains, almost in a frenzy. “Rachel says I’m everyone’s type, which is true, because I get along with most people. I like people. But I like you too, not because you’re people, and not even because you’re my soulmate, but because you’re you and you’re way too good for me. But you hate chocolate. And I’m chocolate, because I’m everyone’s type. But you don’t like chocolate. And you don’t like soulmates. Or relationships. And you want something permanent. And you named my cat. Which everyone did, but you were the only one out of everyone who named Pseidon for me and not for themselves. And I loved you so much for it and it was so hard to be mad at you after that. And just. Being around you makes me so happy that it’s sad. Like Jacob after three glasses of wine sad. And I’ve probably ruined everything just by telling you, so you can go now and we can both forget I said anything. Which is. It’s fine. Because there’s always someone who hates chocolate, and that’s you, and that’s okay.”

 

Annabeth is silent for ten long, long seconds. Then she crosses her arms and says, very slowly, “I have no idea what you just said to me.”

 

Percy deflates, half out of relief and half out of disappointment. “That’s…fine.”

 

“No, I still heard it all,” she says, and Percy goes rigid. “It just makes no sense.”

 

“It does so,” he grumbles, like he’s a child.

 

“So,” she says, lifting her head, clearly thinking. “So you’ve decided I don’t like you.”

 

“Not…not like that,” Percy mutters, ducking his head, embarrassment curling at his stomach. “Not…the way I like you.”

 

She hums. Glances at him and he knows, he knows she can see right through him. She’s trying very hard to stifle a smile and Percy wishes she would just let him down quickly so they can go back to normal. “You’re right about some things. I don’t like chocolate, and I never really believed in soulmates. And I do want to build something permanent. And, to be honest…” She looks him right in the eyes and Percy feels a jolt travel up his spine.

 

“I’m terrified,” she says, with a short laugh. “I’m really, really terrified by how I feel, but I’m not going to run this time. Even though half of me is screaming to just. Slap on a magic cap and turn invisible. But it’s not that easy, and you’re making it worse by just how obtuse you are. This is so uncomfortable, oh my god. Jason was right. Your brain really is full of seaweed.”

 

“What,” he says, feeling rather like Annabeth’s moving at normal speed while he’s stuck in slo-mo.

 

“I’d thought it was obvious,” she’s saying, looking caught somewhere between vexation and joy, “when I told you that I’d wait for you after the finish line or whatever.” She cringes. “I told you my favorite color was blue. And how I froze up around you after Valentine’s day, because I was super fucking drunk when I saw that video of you singing and I told Piper I’d marry you if you sang to me like that. And then I thought for sure you figured it out at Silena’s party, when I got mad at those two girls that hit on you. I mean. I thought I’d been transparent as glass. Like. Oh my god, Percy.” She smiles, bitter. “I felt sick when I saw them all over you. I felt sick and I was like oh my god, if I was with him I would have the right to slap those bitches away. But I couldn’t say anything because – because I’d already told you I wasn’t a believer and I didn’t deserve you. I didn’t deserve you and how kind you were to me, even though I’d broken your heart.”

 

She lets out a sigh, then lifts her gaze to his. Smiles in a way that makes his entire body seem to melt, and it’s kind of crazy how giddy and stupid she makes him feel.

 

“I’m still not a believer,” she says, “if I’m being honest with you. But I believe in you and I believe in me, and that’s good enough, and it feels good to me right now. And about the whole. Building something permanent thing. I’ve been thinking. About life. And stuff. And I figured that going with the flow could be good for me, too. Take things as they come. And. And, uh, I’ve liked you for a long time, probably, longer that I’ve realized. I’ve just been too caught up in my own head, and I was scared. Scared that you would leave like my mom, my dad, Luke. So I ran, which is no excuse, but then I realized how much I missed you during that period when you were mad at me – rightfully so – but I missed you.” She runs a hand down her face, trying to hide her growing grin. Percy feels like he’s inside a dream.

 

“I’m not a fan of chocolate in real life,” she goes on, and she actually sounds a little flustered, now, which is a miracle in and of itself, because Annabeth’s always so cool, like there’s ice water in her veins. “But in whatever alternate universe your brain is in - in that world…I like chocolate a lot. I might even love it, but I don’t wanna jinx it, in case the chocolate doesn’t love me back.”

 

She waits expectantly. Percy blinks, feeling slow, stupid.

 

“Wait,” he says, breathing hard. “So-”

 

“Oh my god, Percy,” Annabeth groans. “I like you too, and it’s not because we’re soulmates, it’s because you’re you, and even though I’m this close to whacking you on the head with my own damn shoe, I still want you to kiss me.”

 

“Hold the fuck up,” he says, floored, suddenly feeling buzzed, like his entire body is thrumming with electricity. His, ahem, allergies might be making a reappearance because his eyes have begun to water. “You want me to-”

 

“You know, usually people have stopped questioning things at this point,” she says dryly.

 

“We-we can’t all have the movie romances,” he gets out.

 

“Oh my god, I’m saying kiss me, you absolute baboon,” she growls, leaning forward, leaning so close that he could probably count every single of her sunlight-colored lashes. “Unless you don’t want to, in which case I’ll be the one to walk out of here brokenhearted – ooh-

 

She doesn’t get to finish. Percy’s brain has finally, finally caught up.

 

::

 

“I thought you’d be more of an Eye of the Tiger person,” Leonardo admits, smirking at Percy’s phone, which balances precariously on the railing, blaring out music. He cradles Pseidon in his arms, who looks alarmed by all the chatter. Next to him, Raphael is psps-ing.

 

Percy slaps his cheeks to psych himself up. “Okay, you can do this.”

 

“Are you talking to yourself,” Jacob asks with interest.

 

“This is a private conversation,” Percy fires back, “so I would appreciate it if you stopped intruding.”

 

The phone spits out more music.

 

“Be a man,” Harriet and Pistachio chorus. “You must be swift as a coursing river-”

 

“That’s pretty apt, honestly,” Annabeth admits in a faraway voice.

 

“You’re ogling the other swimmers,” Percy complains.

 

“Would I ever,” Annabeth says, her eyes still on the pool. She waggles her eyebrows at him suggestively. “Damn, is that Ricky in the Speedo?”

 

“You’re the worst,” Percy says.

 

She laughs, which is always awesome. Percy loves it when she laughs, all free and loose and careless.

 

“You like me for it,” she teases. Which. Uh. He can’t really deny it, so he settles for flipping her off and concentrating on the music.

 

The first whistle sounds. Percy’s stomach flips.

 

“You’re going to do great,” Annabeth says, pulling him in for a quick kiss, and it’s like waking up from the best kind of dream, only to find out he wasn’t actually dreaming, and everyone around him whoops and claps, wishing him luck.

 

Percy only realizes he’s smiling when Annabeth thumbs the corner of his lips.

 

“Don’t worry,” she says. “You’re like a fucking shark in the water, you’ll beat everyone by a long shot. And I thought you’d want something to eat after the race, so I bought you a really great salad.”

 

He stares at her. She grins. “Kidding. Got you a cheeseburger. Extra mustard.”

 

“Awesome,” he grins, squeezing her hand, and it should not feel so special, but it does, just as everything else is with her. Even the most stupid, silly, mundane things, like studying together or washing the dishes. The initial punch of heat in his gut he’s always felt before has doubled, tripled, and now it’s like his feelings are on steroids, and he remembers what Annabeth had told him long ago about people being complete, just living incomplete lives, and he thinks he really, really gets it now.

 

“You ready?” she asks. Her grey eyes search his face for some sign or nervousness, and when she finds none, she smiles, satisfied.

 

“Yeah,” he says, squeezing their hands together quickly before letting go. The soulmarks on the tips of his fingers pulse happily, and Percy feels light and bouncy as he makes his way to the diving platforms.

 

The other swimmers are gathering, too. Percy takes his lane, looks up quickly at the stands opposite, where all his friends – Piper and Grover and Jason and Juniper and Leo and Frank and Hazel and Travis and Connor and Reyna and Will and Nico and even Clarisse and Chris – all wave madly (well, Nico just smiles) when they see him looking. He shoots them a thumbs up.

 

A few rows lower, right at eye-level, are Annabeth and Pseidon. She grins at him and holds up Pseidon’s tiny little paw in a wave. God he loves her.

 

He loosens up, flaps his limbs around, gazing at the pool. Today feels like a good day, and Percy is happy. Annabeth is a challenge and they’re not perfect, but they’re real and they work. That more than ever makes everything feel secure. Permanent, as Annabeth would say. It’s a good feeling. A good start.

 

Today is a good day. Annabeth is jumping up a little in her spot, her curls bouncing and her eyes alight, and Percy is so lucky. He’s so lucky because he has her. Annabeth, who is stubborn to a fault, who can be overly sensitive at times, who takes too much responsibility, who can get petty and insecure and close herself off, who likes doing logical puzzles for fun, which Percy will never understand. But she’s also encouraging and unbelievably patient with him, and gutsy and a hard worker and too smart for her own good and a master at everything she tries to an almost ridiculous degree, and beneath all the steel lies a heart kinder than anyone’s Percy’s ever known.

 

Best of all, she puts up with him, and isn’t that just the icing on top of the cake?

 

Percy’s soulmarks send electric currents down his body. It’s halfway through the year, and Percy’s named his cat, figured out his soulmate shit (with the best results), perfected his mom’s dip, not puked once (yet – but let’s not jinx that), and he’s finally, finally getting some answers to the questions on Percy’s List Of Things That He Hopes He’ll Get Answers For Before He Dies.

 

It’s a good day.

 

“Swimmers,” booms a voice of the announcer, “take your marks.”

 

Percy bends, grasping the edge of the platform, eyes focused right on the water. It shimmers from the sun, waves rolling like smooth velvet.

 

He’s fine. He’s good. He’s not worried. He’ll just do what he does best. Swim. Swim for his life. Swim for the medal. Today is a good day, after all. He might even win it.

 

Besides, Annabeth will be waiting for him at the finish line.