“Are you fucking kidding me!? ” Annabeth throws her hands up in the air. The referee does not look impressed with her, but it doesn’t stop her from yelling, “She was offside. Anyone with a pair of eyes could see that!”
“Reign it in.” Clarisse warns from somewhere near the halfway line, but Annabeth is seeing red. It’s not the first time this game that the referee’s been ridiculously biased against them. She stomps over to her.
“This is bullshit.” She spits, getting perhaps dangerously close to the referee, who pays her no mind. Unfortunately for her, it only spurs her anger. “You absolute fucking cretin. There are dogs in this world who could do your job better than you. You’re goddamn horse’s ass. I’m gonna–”
Annabeth has some grand plans for this woman, but just as she’s about to lay it all out for her, the stupid blockhead’s whistle rings out across the pitch. The ref fishes out a single yellow card and holds it up. Annabeth has just enough time to think the word fuck before the referee flashes her the automatic red card she’s earned. A thousand curses come to mind, but Annabeth’s so angry she can barley speak.
“Fine.” She sneers. “Fuck you.”
“Don’t push it, Chase.” The ref says, whistle still between her lips.
“Or what?” Annabeth calls over her shoulder as she leaves the pitch. “You going to send me off? Make poor calls against my team? What are you going to do, asshole?”
It’s a good thing she isn’t expecting a response because she sure as hell doesn’t get one. Annabeth knows she’s in major trouble with Coach Ashton, but right now there’s adrenaline coursing through her veins and hundreds of people just watched her get in a row with the referee and she can’t quite bring herself to care. She wipes the sweat off of her forehead with the back of her arm and scowls at the manager.
“If you’re going to tell me I was wrong, I’d recommend saving it for when I’m feeling a little more receptive.” She snaps as she sits down on the bench. To her surprise, Diana actually smirks at her.
“I wasn’t about to say anything.” She says. “Two yellow cards in one game. I’m almost impressed.”
“She’s a fucking idiot. You see that, right? She’s a fucking idiot.” Annabeth fumes and Diana snorts.
“Yeah. I want to strangle her with that bloody whistle.” She says, not sounding half as angry as Annabeth feels. “You got benched. I’d be imprisoned if I were any closer to her.”
The game continues, seven minutes on the clock, and Annabeth deflates. There is no miracle to save them now– they’re zero for two. How on earth would they make up that difference? She buries her face in her hands and rests her elbows on her knees.
“You’re so calm all the time.” She says. “How do you do it?”
“I’m forty five years old, Annabeth.” Diana says, patting her on the shoulder. “I’ve had a lot of time to learn. Give it another twenty years. You’ll come around.”
“You’re not mad at me, then?” She looks up at Diana who throws her head back when she laughs.
“Oh, I’m livid.” She chuckles. “But I know just how you’re going to make it up to the team. How you’re going to make it up to me.”
Annabeth really doesn’t like where this is going. In her five years of working with Diana, she’s never known her to be gentle with her punishments. Her coach had a way of making you really regret your choices. On the one hand, it’s a great way to remember to avoid them the next time round. On the other– Diana Ashton is brilliant as she is cruel, and Annabeth isn’t at all looking forward to hearing what she’s got in store. Benched for the next two weeks? Assisting Piper, the equipment manager, during practice instead of actually playing? Cleaning the locker room on her own every evening?
Grudgingly, Annabeth stands back up to her feet as Piper fishes out her windbreaker for her. She shrugs it on and joins her coach at the edge of the football pitch as her team hopelessly tries to catch up.
“Alright, then.” She bounces on the balls of her feet. “Let me have it.”
“I’m really going to enjoy this.” Diana grins. “And you, my love, are really not.”
“Just spit it out already.” Annabeth whines. “Nothing you can say can make my day any worse.”
Diana nods up towards the owner’s box and Annabeth follows her gaze. It takes a second for her to spot him, but when she does, her blood runs cold. There is perhaps only one thing in the entire world that could make this moment more humiliating for her, and there he is– staring right at her. Even through the distance, Annabeth can see that infuriating smirk playing on his lips. When he notices her watching he leans away from the railing, turning to some redheaded girl Annabeth’s never seen before and planting a kiss on her lips.
“Ugh.” She shudders. “Who let the dog in?”
“I did.” Diana sounds too happy. “I wanted him to come watch you girls. We’re looking for someone to help out. I thought it would be good for the team to get some tips from a football icon.”
“A football icon.” Annabeth snorts. “Now you’re just taking the piss. He is a selfish, insolent little prick. If you think I’ve got anger problems, you should see what he was like.”
“Exactly.” Diana says. “He was worse than you. Look at him now. Ever seen a footballer so at peace?”
“Oh, please.” Annabeth rolls her eyes and crosses her arms over her chest. “I’d hardly call Percy Jackson a footballer anymore.”
“Most of the world would.” Diana’s voice takes on a more wistful note. “Just because he isn’t playing doesn’t mean he’s suddenly lost his place in our world. Take it from me, kid– this isn’t a game you quit. When you fall in love– you just don’t leave.”
Annabeth’s eyebrows pull together. Ashton was a huge name in football in her time– back in the day, Annabeth’s father had been a huge fan. She’d always suspected Diana had unknowingly played some role in convincing Frederick to push Annabeth into the sport– but that was a long time ago. She’d retired when she was only twenty-five years old– the same age Annabeth is now– from a broken ankle that never healed right. Looking at her now, Annabeth can’t imagine seeing her anywhere besides th field. Some people don’t seem like they can exist outside of the sport– Diana sure as hell doesn’t. Neither does Percy, a small voice in the back of her head says.
“I suppose so.” She says. “I can’t stand the guy, though. If he’s got any comments to make about my playing, I’m going to shove my foot so far up his ass, he’ll be tasting my feet for weeks.”
“That is both, graphic and disgusting.” Diana looks a little disturbed, but she shakes it off. “I’m glad to hear you say that, though, because it makes it so much more fun to break the news. Starting tomorrow, you’re putting in an extra hour of practice with Percy Jackson. One on one. Every morning before you come to our group practice.”
Annabeth pales. “No.” She says. “No, Diana, you can’t do that.”
“Oh, but I am. He’s a lovely boy, that Percy.” She says. “I’ll speak with him. After all, he’s here to help.”
“No, you don’t get it.” Annabeth says, panicking slightly. “I can’t work with him. I’ll do two– I’ll do three extra hours of practice in a day. I’ll run laps through the night. A thousand a day, if that’s what you’d like. Just don’t make me spend any time with him. We’ve got history, see–”
“Oh, no.” Diana grins. “Your behaviour today was unacceptable. Look at us– we’re dying out there and the team really needed you on the field. Early morning practice is punishment . I just don’t want to be the one tasked with babysitting you.”
“Di,” Annabeth says. All the rage she’d been feeling over the game returns with double the intensity. “Di, if you make me do this, I’m going to quit the team. I’m not joking.”
“That’s fine by me because if you don’t do this, I’m benching you. Indefinitely.” Diana says. “I mean it. I want one hour every morning– five to six, while you work with him, I want you to think about how you let your emotions get the best of you so that the next time you want to call the referee a shit-eating skank, you remember what’s at stake.”
Annabeth wants to argue, but it’s at that moment that the game finally ends– putting her team out of their misery– and the girls come slinking back in, taking up all of Diana’s attention. There really is no fighting this– whether she likes it or not, she’s going to have to spend an hour alone with the worst man on the planet every morning.
Or at least, a voice says in her head. Diana has to believe that you’re spending an hour alone with the worst man on the planet every morning.
Of course. As if Percy Jackson would want to spend any more time with her than he had to. If she can swallow her pride and ask for his cooperation, they could fake this stupid thing until Diana’s anger wore off. How hard could that be?
It’s a struggle to fight back the conspiratorial smile growing on her lips. Her teammates are shooting her looks that range from disappointed to admiration to downright dirty. The part of her that’s still raging over their completely unfair defeat knows it would be disrespectful to burst out laughing as they trudge back inside, but she allows herself one smirk in Diana’s direction.
Her coach might be tough. Her coach might be smarter than her, more experienced than her, and better, really, in every imaginable way than her. But Diana is underestimating Annabeth. Especially if Percy does choose to work alongside her to stay away from her– which she has no doubt he will– there’s no limit on the things she could get out of having to do.
Alright, Ashton. Game on.
Annabeth is late.
Percy lets out a grunt when he sees a familiar figure jogging across the field towards him and checks his watch. When she appears before him, face split into a wide grin despite the ungodly hour of the morning, he scowls at her.
“I know.” Annabeth beams with an enthusiasm he decidedly does not share. “Don’t worry. I don’t intend to stay long.”
“Speak for yourself.” Percy grumbles. “An hour with you is a lifetime with anyone else.”
“Charming.” Annabeth crosses her arms over her chest and raises an eyebrow. “Look. You don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be here. Here’s the deal. You tell Diana I was on time, that I was a delight and we ran a couple laps, did a drill or two, did some shooting practice. It was a lovely experience, and you can’t wait to do it again.”
Typical Annabeth. Percy rolls his eyes. “That might come easy to you, babe, but I have some integrity.”
“Integrity! Ha!” Annabeth cries. “Who do you think you’re talking to?”
Unfortunately, she’s right. It’s not something he’s particularly proud of, and it’s definitely not something he’d repeat to his mother, but he has, in his past– and only when the occasion called for it, mind you– resorted to some morally questionable shortcuts. Nobody gets as far as either of them have without compromising somewhere.
“Yeah, well.” Percy says. “I actually am trying to be better.”
“So you want to spend the first hour of your day with me in the freezing cold?” Annabeth demands and Percy steels himself.
“I know how to do my job, Annabeth.” He snaps. He’s exhausted and severely sleep-deprived, and the last thing he needs is to be taking ethics lessons from Annabeth Chase, of all people. “Maybe if you focused on yours, you wouldn’t be in this position right now.”
“I don’t know if you were too busy sticking your tongue down your girlfriend’s throat to pay attention to the game,” Annabeth crosses her arms over her chest and Percy feels his cheeks heat up. “But what happened last night wasn’t my fault.”
“Don’t talk about Rachel like that–”
“Don’t tell me her name. Ew.”
“That’s my girlfriend, Chase.”
“You sure know how to pick ‘em, don’t you?”
“Yeah! What was I thinking when I dated you?”
“You tell yourself what you want to help you sleep easy, darling.” Annabeth sneers.
“You know what?” Percy cries, throwing his hands up in exasperation. “This is your punishment. I don’t know why it feels like mine. Fine. I don’t want to see you either, Annabeth.”
“Good.” Annabeth beams, all the tension in her brow dissipating.
When Percy realises that she’d just tricked him into giving her what she wanted, he clenches hi fist. She’d baited him, just like she’d done through their years together– and he’d fallen for it, just like he’d done through their years together. His irritation with her quickly changes gears and he feels a little stupid.
“Very clever.” He says. Annabeth shrugs, not even trying to look apologetic.
“We have a deal, then?”
Percy takes her in for a second. Her face is pink in the cold morning air. She’s wearing a pair of leggings and a sports bra underneath her windbreaker. The message is clear: this is still Annabeth’s warm-up and practice time. Percy is just not invited. Fine by me, he thinks stubbornly. He isn’t desperate to be around her either. He scowls at her.
“I’d appreciate the extra hour to sleep in, anyway.”
For his part– and you really must believe him when he says it– Percy does his best.
“So I had my first session with Annabeth Chase today.” He flags down Diana Ashton as the women’s team practice starts to wind down. Her assistant coach, a short, stocky woman named Allison Alden, joins them. Percy feels slightly unnerved under her gaze. Diana raises an eyebrow.
“How’d that go?” She asks. “She show up on time? She show up at all?”
“Of course.” Percy says, giving her a tight smile. “She was great.”
“Really?” Diana says. “That’s good to hear, Percy. Thanks for doing this for us.”
Percy glances at the field– only Annabeth, Clarisse and Silena are still out there, but they’re clearly not at a formal practice anymore. They pass the ball aimlessly among themselves, but Percy knows them all well enough to know it’s really just a gossip session disguised as training. If Annabeth notices him there at all, she doesn’t pay him attention– although he doesn’t hold that against her. There was a time when it endeared him the most; how naturally she can lose herself in her game. He doesn’t know how long he watches her– but he only stops when he realises Diana and Allison are watching him suspiciously.
Diana narrows her eyes at him. The two women put their heads together and whisper between themselves for a moment. Allison glares at Percy and gestures animatedly for a while before they draw apart. Diana clears her throat.
“So, here’s the deal.” She says finally. “I might not know you very well, Jackson, but I do know Annabeth. Which is why I’m certain you’re lying through your teeth right now.”
“I–,” Percy starts helplessly.
“What are you covering up?” Allison asks.
“Well…” Percy stalls until inspiration strikes. There is another way out of this. He could tell the truth– or at least a part of it. It’s not like he has any loyalties to Annabeth anymore; throwing her under the bus doesn’t feel morally questionable. “She was late, for starters. Refused to participate. Spent most of our time together making nasty remarks and baiting me. I’m sorry, Diana, but I don’t think we can work together anymore.”
Diana looks across the field at Annabeth, and Percy finds himself doing the same thing. She’s a lot softer in the evening sun than she was in the morning light– the harsh lines of her body are less intimidating and more ethereal, and it’s a struggle to tear his eyes off of her.
“I hate to say this, Jackson.” She says. “But your only other option is to leave football behind for good. Nobody else wants you. This job might not be what you’d dreamed of, but it’s all you have.”
“I don’t need football.” Percy says quietly. “It was the easiest choice I’ve ever made.”
“It wasn’t a choice you made at all.” Diana corrects and he pretends it doesn’t sting. “And if you’d given it up you would never have come here.”
“I was doing my old coach a favour.”
“You were looking for a reason to come back.” Diana says. “You’ve got an honest face, Jackson. It gives you away.”
Percy purses his lips. He has no response to that. She’s right, of course. Retirement at twenty-four wasn’t really his idea of how his life would pan out. He’d been on track to become one of the greats– everyone said it; enough that he’d even nearly believed it. Pelé. Maradona. Jackson. If anybody could understand what he was going through, it was Diana Ashton. One bad fall, one badly-timed injury, and you could lose everything.
“Look, kid.” Diana’s tone softens, as if only now realising how harsh she’d been. “You’re meant to be on here. It’s hard, but you can get back to the top, alright? Maybe not the way you’d imagined, but you’ve got it in you. It’s plain as day.”
“I hate watching the game.” Percy confesses, shaking his hair out. “It makes me so angry– to see everyone else play while I got wiped out before I made a mark.”
“I know.” Diana says. “And right now, you haven’t got many options. You can help whip my girls into shape, or you can hang up your hat for real. I can’t promise you’ll take over for Allison or me one day, but it’ll keep you close. In the loop. Maybe even get you back into men’s football in some way. Right now, you’re a washed-up has-been. Give them a reason to look in your direction again. Trust me. Coaching isn’t half as bad as you might think.”
“Is that what I am?” Percy asks. “A coach?”
“God, no. I think Annabeth would murder me if I gave you that kind of power over her.” Diana laughs. “She really doesn’t like you.”
“Let’s say, assistant coach.” Diana says. “Some extra help on our way to excellence.”
Percy lets out a breath. She seems to know just what to say. He misses the sport– how could he not? It’s all he knows– but he also misses this part of it. The training and the thrill of competition. The insatiable hunger and the obsession with pushing yourself to your limit so that when match day finally rolls around, you run out onto the pitch knowing you’re going to bury your opponents. If he gives up this job… he’s not really got any other way of living through that adrenaline rush.
“Fine.” He says. “I’ll do it.”
“That’s what I like to hear.” Diana claps him on the back. “Also Allison’s going to chaperone your mornings. Just because you’re a terrible liar doesn’t mean I trust you. And I definitely don’t trust your friend over there.” She nods to Annabeth and Percy sighs.
“We have some history.” He confesses. “I don’t… I’m not sure we’re a good match.”
“I don’t care. Work through it.” Diana tells him. “You’re not kids anymore.”
Percy bounces on the balls of his feet for a moment. “You know,” he says. “I don’t think extra practice really fixes the anger management issue there.”
“I’ve seen you play.” Diana says. “She’s an angel in comparison.”
“So what? You want her to realise how much better she is than me?” Percy gets defensive. “My hip’s all but guaranteed that. I don’t need your humiliation, too.”
“No.” Diana laughs. “Here’s another thing you’ll learn when you coach: not everything’s about you.”
“Then what is it about?” Percy juts his chin out. “Look at her form right now. She’s perfect.”
“Perhaps too perfect.” Diana says. “Not many people are in a position to improve her game. Trust me when I say this, Jackson. You need each other. Even if it takes some time for you to appreciate it.”
Percy stares at Annabeth, who’s now redoing the ponytail at the top of her head. His heart hammers in his chest and he bites his lip. Perhaps he should tell Diana the truth; tell her that he and Annabeth Chase had been in love– the real, deep kind of love– for eight of the most beautiful years of his life. Perhaps he should tell her that he can barely look Annabeth in the eye anymore.
But even as he considers it, he knows that isn’t a good enough excuse. Diana is right. This might be his way back into this world; his shot at building himself back from the ground up. If he’d done it once before, he can do it again. He knows he can. Something as stupid as an ex-girlfriend isn’t going to stop him from reaching out to his future. Trust me, Diana said.
It doesn’t seem like he has much of a choice.
The first time Annabeth drags herself to her coach-mandated morning torture session, she’s certain she’s going to die on the field.
It’s not just her form or her aim or even her focus that’s the problem. If she were in any better condition, she’d have been able to knock Percy’s teeth right in every time he blew that godawful whistle. No– her real issue lies with one single stupid decision she’d made last night.
In an act of defiance– a real stance against Diana’s cruelty and a historic step forward for the woman once scorned– she’d gone on a bender in an ill-advised attempt to stick it to the man. By the time she pulled into the parking lot this morning, her head was all but ready to explode and the man remained standing, arms crossed over his chest and whistle hanging loosely around his neck. Great, Annabeth had thought as the nausea started to kick in. Give the most annoying man on the planet a whistle. The last thing she needs now is—
“I swear to fucking god, Jackson, you blow that thing in my face one more time and it’ll be the last thing you ever do.” Annabeth growls and Percy grins at her, looking altogether too chipper for her liking.
“What was that?” He asks. “Talking back to the referee?” Phweeeeeet! “Penalty.”
Annabeth groans. She looks over her shoulder helplessly at Allison in the stands but receives little support from her coach who is preoccupied with painting her nails.
Massaging her temples, she takes a deep breath. It’s not that she has any moral qualms about tackling Percy to the ground right now— it’s just that she doesn’t want to get any closer to his goddamn whistle than she needs to. Gritting her teeth, she tries to think past her throbbing head and pay attention to the ball knocking against her ankle.
“I’m done with these stupid drills.” She whines and Percy responds first by whistling in her direction. She grimaces and he beams.
“You’re done when I say you’re done.” He says. “We’re going to switch to endurance now. Move the cones.”
“Isn’t that your job?” Annabeth grumbles as she rearranged the practice cones.
“My job is to boss you around for an hour every day.” Even with her back turned to him, she can hear the glee in his voice. “And I fully intend to take advantage.”
“Oh, trust me.” She says. “I can tell.”
“Annabeth,” Percy calls, sounding so sincere that Annabeth stops what she’s doing to look up at him. “You talk back to me again and we’re back to wall drills, you understand?”
“You’re a dick.” Annabeth doesn’t push. What else could she possibly have expected?
“Head down, Chase.” He says, kicking the ball to her. Annabeth plays with it for a moment, pulling it up to her heel and then back to her toe. “Body loose,”
“I know, I know.” Annabeth’s throat is running too dry to speak. She can’t remember what she’d gotten up to at Ginger last night, but her muscles are screaming for some rest.
“You’re wasting time, Chase!” Percy calls. “We haven’t got all day!”
“I’m—” Annabeth starts but her vision blurs and she sways on her feet. She tries to focus on Percy, but he’s too far away. “I’m–” she tries again, but this time she’s cut off by a bout of vertigo. She drops to the ground, vaguely hearing Percy’s stupid whistle sounding off.
It’s a battle to keep her eyes open, but the sun starts peeking out from behind the clouds overhead, and she groans, screwing them shut again and trying to bury her head in the ground. A shadow falls over her, affording her a precious moment from the sun before Percy mutters,
“For fuck sake.” His arms squeeze themselves under her and peel her body ungracefully off the grass. Percy sets her down on the bench, sheltered from the harsh sunlight, and holds her water bottle up to her lips. “Drink.”
“I’m okay.” Annabeth croaks, but she accepts the water anyway. Percy takes a second to respond.
“Good night last night?” He asks and she shrugs a shoulder. It feels odd– the familiarity of being around him. Conversation fits awkwardly between them now; there’s too much for them to talk about and too little time to do it. The last time they’d been truly honest with each other, Percy Jackson had broken her heart. It’s confusing in a way she can’t put to words; to let him look after her and tell him about her night. Not wrong; just confusing.
“Not really.” She confesses. “Kind of stupid of me, huh?”
“If you were trying to make a point,” Percy gives her a small smile. “Which, knowing you, I’m certain you were– it was a little stupid, yeah.”
Nobody believes her when she talks about this side of him; the part that’s responsible, grounded, rational. Even among her friends, the people who know Percy best– it’s easy to confuse him for the hot-headed, abrasive midfielder on TV. And perhaps they’re right, too. Percy on the pitch is a large part of the man he is– but so is this. Annabeth isn’t sure there are many people who get to see it. The night they’d broken up, she’d left believing she’d never see it again. Fresh embarrassment heats up her cheeks and she averts her eyes.
“Yeah.” She mumbles as Percy fishes out an aspirin from his gym bag for her. She accepts it gratefully and he sits down beside her. “Thanks.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Percy nudges her with his shoulder. “It’s what we do, right? Look out for each other.”
There it is again. He’d already tried that speech with her once before– let’s be friends, Annabeth. We’ve always been good as friends. The first time, Annabeth had been stupid enough to give in– she’d have given in to anything he’d said. Now, with a year and a half behind them, as the scars begin to close, she’s less inclined.
“I don’t want to get into a whole thing.” She sighs, fighting down eleven months of frustration. Perhaps she’d learned a little self-control from Percy after all. “I don’t know how long I have to do this with you, and I just… let’s just get through this without a fight, okay?”
Percy looks like he has more to say, but Annabeth blinks up pleadingly at him and he concedes, holding his hands up in surrender.
“So where’d you go last night?” He asks instead. When she looks at him, he shrugs. “We have to wait for the aspirin to kick in, don’t we?”
“We started at my place, then went up to Pryzym.” Annabeth says and Percy chuckles fondly. The two of them had had their fair share of memories at Pryzym. “And then… I remember someone saying we should go to Ginger.”
“Aw, come on. You hate Ginger.” Percy groans in sympathy.
“Because Ginger’s the worst.” Annabeth says. The floors are disgusting, the lights in the club make her dizzy, the staff is always so rude, and, if that isn’t enough, the cloakroom charges a fiver for a coat. “It’s a pain in the ass, but Connor insisted.”
“I don’t know why you hang out with him. He’s such a dick.”
“He’s my friend.” Annabeth pokes him on his side.
“He’s awful.” Percy says. “I still can’t look at pigs the same way after the Beauville incident.”
Annabeth shudders at the memory. She’d recount it for you, but she doesn’t think she could stomach it. “Yeah. Me neither, actually. I’m vegetarian now.”
“No you’re not.” Percy snorts, but when he realises Annabeth is serious his eyebrows shoot up into his hairline. “No, you’re not. Annabeth… no fucking way. You love meat.”
“Not as much as I love vegetables.” Annabeth says and Percy shakes his head.
“So what?” He asks. “We can’t go out to steakhouses anymore?”
It’s so funny, Annabeth lets out an involuntary giggle. Percy doesn’t seem to realise they hadn’t done anything together for the last year; their monthly steakhouse dinners included. When he realises what he’d said, his eyes widen slightly and he clears his throat.
“It’s okay.” Annabeth waves off. “If I’m being honest… it’s weird being around you.”
“Do you still hate me?” Percy asks in a small voice, and Annabeth despises the way he looks at her. She looks for a simple truth to tell– yes, yes, yes. She lets a beat pass.
The answer falls on his lips, even if he doesn’t say it. I hate you, I hate you, I hate you. It’s better this way– she hopes he hates the smell of her shampoo the way she hates how messy his hair always is. That he hates the scars on her knees that never fully healed the way she hates how his Adam’s apple bobs when he laughs. That he hates her soul the way she hates his heart. If he can’t love her, she hopes he hates her. Holds her close to his heart and spits her name like venom. It’s better; it’s a million times better than if he stops caring about her completely.
They sit in silence, neither comfortable nor uncomfortable. Percy plays with his fingers and Annabeth doesn’t move. When he speaks again, his voice is a little scratchy.
“We should probably get back to practice, then.” He says.
Annabeth takes him in for a second. In so many ways, he’s the same boy she’s known for over half her life. In some, he is a completely different person. He’s calmer, less angry, less broken than he was the last time she’d spent time with him. Annabeth knows him by the lines on his palms– it’s easy to see that he’s doing much better now. If she’s being honest, the pain is starting to dull for her, too. Maybe they were supposed to find each other only to lose each other, she thinks. Maybe this is something they have to go through to come out stronger on the other side. She stands up and gives him a small smile.
“What’s next, Coach?”
“It’s a fucking nightmare, is what it is.”
Percy’s best friend does not seem to care at all. Grover manages to make eye contact with one hapless student and hobbles up to her, stuffing a badge into her hands without giving her a chance to protest.
“Don’t worry, it’s made completely of recycled material.” He tells her as she tries awkwardly to work her way around him. “The world is dying, Ma’am, and it’s up to us to stop it. If you read your new button, you’d see that’s what we’re doing at The Fat Thumb– we’re trying to slow down the rate of decay on this planet, one green solution at a time!” His poor victim manages to break free from him and he calls after her, “Come visit us someday! Learn how you can be an Earth warrior!”
“She’s halfway to China by now.” Percy says sympathetically, and Grover sighs. “Try a less aggressive approach.”
“Why didn’t I think of that?” Grover asks flatly. A gaggle of teenage girls walks through them and Percy has to wade through the crowd back to Grover, who shoves a box of organic recycled buttons into his arms. “If you want to hang out with me, you’d better start handing these out.”
“This is not what I expected when you said you wanted to hang out at the mall.” Percy grumbles, but he offers a man a button politely.
“Just get rid of this last box and we can go… buy you some new shoes, or something.” Grover says, zeroing in on his newest victim.
“What’s wrong with my shoes?” Percy frowns. Both Grover and Annabeth always liked giving him a hard time about his fashion choices, but his shoes are just regular old Nikes. How could he have possibly gone wrong with these?
“You need a new pair.” Grover tells him as he gets shrugged off by yet another mall goer. “I just know it. It’s like telepathy, but for when you’re wearing shoes for uggos.”
Percy rolls his eyes. He offers a family a warm smile, and when they’re confused enough to slow down, he hands them each a button and thanks them for their time before sending them on their way. Grover shakes his head.
“You’re supposed to tell them about The Fat Thumb.” He says. “One green solution at a time.”
“I’ll get ‘em next time.” Percy says. The crowd thins after another rejection, and when they have a moment of peace, Grover turns to Percy.
“So what’s working with Annabeth like?”
“A nightmare. I just told you.” Percy sighs. It’s been two weeks of their morning practices, and it’s only been getting worse. “She’s hellbent on making me miserable. First thing every morning, too.”
“I can’t imagine it’s any easier on her, either.” Grover points out, and Percy really doesn’t want to hear it now. It’s his one day off and he’s still shaking off the disappointment of not going shopping with Grover.
“Don’t start.” Percy says. “I’m the mature one there.”
“Mature?” Grover repeats in disbelief. “That’s what we’re calling it? Mature?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Percy, all morning– all you’ve talked about are the extra wall drills you have her do. Taking your girlfriend to all her games.” Grover says. “You’re doing it to prove a point. You’re the one who ended things, Jackson. The least you could do– the very least, really– is make her days a little bit less terrible.”
“You don’t hear the way she speaks to me!” Percy snaps. “She’s out at parties all the time and comes to practice hungover. Has a different man dropping her off every time. You think that’s easy to see?”
Grover frowns at him, looking less angry and more disappointed. “And?”
“And it’s hard.” Percy cries out, throwing his hands into the air. “It’s hard to watch her live this life, okay? I was her favourite friend at the party. I got to take her home every night. I was the one she dropped off at practice and then picked up before we grabbed a meal and then we spent the entire day together and never got bored. I held a special place in her life– and now she throws that around for any asshole with a tattoo and half a brain. It’s… fuck. It’s insulting.”
“Do you really think who she hangs out with is about you?” Grover asks. Percy doesn’t reply, scowling at a mother and her son as he shoves two Fat Thumb buttons into their hands with no explanation. They accept it looking almost afraid of him, and if he wasn’t so damn angry at Annabeth, he might have found it funny. “She’s my friend too, Percy. I don’t like the idea of you hurting her.”
“It’s nothing she can’t handle.” Percy says gruffly, mind drifting back to their fight on their first day of practice. “Other people have said far worse about her. You seen the tabloids?”
“You’re not other people.” Grover tells him. “Not to Annabeth.”
“You’re overestimating her.” He says. “She doesn’t give a single fuck about me, and it’s a good thing because I don’t particularly care about her, either.”
“So all the arguments and the fights, they’re what? A way to show her you don’t care about her?”
Percy bites his tongue. Grover is his oldest friend– if he can’t talk to him about his Annabeth problems, he really can’t talk about them at all. And Percy really needs to get this stuff off his chest. They hand out badges in silence for a while before he can’t take it anymore.
“It’s not just about her.” He blurts. “I mean… yeah. I’m a little jealous, but… it affects me, too.”
“Yeah, it makes baby angry.” Grover rolls his eyes. “We know.”
“No.” Percy says. “It’s like… she goes out with these moderately famous men and gets photographed and splashed across the front page, and I just can’t seem to escape it.”
“Here’s some advice. Stop reading rags.” Grover readjusts his crutches. “You can’t take her just living her life personally. That’s insane. You know it’s insane, right?”
Percy runs his finger along the edge of the button box. “I know that. I just mean…” Percy sighs and fishes his phone out of his pocket. He opens up his Instagram messages and hands the phone to Grover. “Look.”
Grover squints at his screen. “‘You are a disappointment to the entire country. Hope your leg needs to be lopped off.’ That’s rough.”
“‘Your girl dumped your pathetic ass and is finally living her best life. Hope you die lonely.’ Percy, these are brutal.” Grover winces. “Most of these are just links.”
“To paparazzi shots of Annabeth.” Percy says. “With lovely reminders of who’s sticking it in my girl’. It’s not her fault… I just wish I could get away from it.”
Grover scrolls down on his screen. “Half of these are death threats.” He frowns. “Those you can handle but someone saying they want to have sex with Annabeth is too much?”
Percy considers it. He’s had insults hurled at him for years now– from the moment he went pro, everyone had something to say about him. On game nights, Twitter was downright demonic– but he’d never really been bothered by it. His game was good on some days and terrible on others; it hadn’t felt personal. His relationship with Annabeth, on the other hand…
“It’s dumb, you’re right.” He says. “I don’t know why it affects me so much.”
“You guys were together for eight years.” Grover points out. “That’s a third of your life. These things take time."
“Alright, whatever.” Percy rattles the box of buttons in his face. “Can we stop talking and get this done so we can do something fun now?”
“Fine.” Grover grumbles, but it’s clear they’re not done. Grover grabs a handful of buttons and shoves it into a passing kid’s hand. “Look how cute they are. Go give them to your friends.”
“Go!” Grover shoos him away and Percy grins.
“I like this Grover a lot more.”
“So how’re things going with Rachel?” He asks when there’s a lull in mall traffic. Percy sighs.
“She’s cool.” He says. “Really cool. We’ve only been together about two months.”
“And she’s your girlfriend?”
“She likes to take control of these things.” Percy scratches the back of his neck. “I didn’t really have much of a choice. One day we were hanging out, the next she was introducing me as her boyfriend.”
“You do attract the assertive sort.” Grover notes. A moment passes and Percy looks for something to say.
“She doesn’t like football. Doesn’t get it, doesn’t care to learn.” Percy says. “It’s cute, how her eyes glaze over when I talk about it.”
“Percy you can’t go two hours not bringing up football. What on earth do you talk about?”
“Other stuff!” Percy doesn’t know why he’s so defensive. “Well… not much. Mostly I listen to her. She’s super into books. Tells me what she’s reading. Oh! And she’s an artist. Like a painter. All her friends are super into art, too. I’m telling you– I’ve never felt more out of my depth.”
“Sounds like the perfect relationship.” Grover says flatly. Percy bristles.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I don’t know, whatever you want it to mean.”
“Okay, but what do you want it to mean?” Percy demands. “Is this about Annabeth not finding someone? Look. It’s not my fault she can’t do what I obviously could–”
“That’s just it, though!” Grover grinds his crutches into the floor. “You haven’t found someone. You’re hardly even looking and you’re playing it off like you’re so much better than her.”
“You haven’t even met her.” Percy says coldly. “I’m sorry I couldn’t make it work with Annabeth, Grover, but I am entitled to moving on.”
“Yeah?” Grover challenges. “Who’s Rachel’s biggest influence?”
Percy scowls at him and says the first name to occur to him. “Pablo Neruda.”
“You’re thinking of Picasso.” Grover raises an eyebrow.
“No. You don’t know Rachel.”
“I’m not mad at you for breaking up with Annabeth, Percy.” Grover admits. “I know– I know you both had to face challenges you weren’t prepared for. I’m really proud of you for breaking it off before you really hurt her, really– but what made you work was that she understood you. She shared your interests, your values, your passions. She brought out a side of you I loved to see. And maybe you have that with Rachel– but I just don’t think you’re bieng honest with her.”
“And what?” Percy asks. “You think somewhere there’s a girl exactly like Annabeth who’d find me?”
“No– god, no.” Grover laughs. “There’s nobody quite like our Annabeth. I just mean… you’re already closing yourself off to Rachel because you have this weird notion that being in a relationship is better than admitting you’re looking for someone better suited for you.”
“I could see myself falling in love with Rachel some day.” Percy says and Grover purses his lips.
“I’m not saying Annabeth was the perfect girl for you.” Grover says, and he’s wrong. “But you knew each other. Knew each other well enough to choose to be together. If you don’t open up to Rachel… if you can’t share your life with her… you’re not letting her care about you.”
Percy wants to tell Grover how wrong he is. That he is wrong about Rachel needing to see everything about him, and he is wrong about him rushing into a relationship, and more than anything in the world, he is wrong about Annabeth being anything less than the perfect partner for him. But Percy also understands that it’s a closed door and he’s missed his chance and he’s had the time to make his peace with that.
Whatever he has going on with Annabeth– arguing with her at practices and exchanging a ton of colourful words with her at parties and glaring at her at matches– it’s not ideal. Percy knows that; but it sure as hell beats not being around her at all.
His heart tugs painfully and he tears his eyes away from Grover, spotting a bin under the escalators. He looks down at the final six buttons in the box and takes an executive decision.
“Come on. We’re going shopping.” He says, matching over and emptying the box into the bins. Grover looks shocked.
“Percy–,” he starts.
“Stop being a baby.”
“I was just going to say you should have put them in the recycling. You heard me say they were made of reused material, didn’t you? The Fat Thumb– one green solution at a time.” Grover readjusts his crutches and joins him.
“Sorry I’m not, like, the king of the dumpsters.” Percy rolls his eyes. “Are we just going to stand around here chatting or are we going to go buy us some new clothes?”
“We can start by getting you a hat.”
“A hat?” Percy hisses under his breath, afraid for a second that someone’s going to overhear them, recognise him, and tell the world that footballer Percy Jackson is into hats. “Since when did hats come into discussion? I don’t need a hat.”
“They’re super in right now.” Grover nods sagely. “Trust me.”
“I’m not–” Percy gets cut off by a voice just as he steps onto the escalator.
“Hi, sorry to interrupt, but are you Percy Jackson?” A man asks and Percy looks over at him with a strained smile. This is the part of fame he really wishes he didn’t have to deal with. He holds his hand out and shakes the guy's hand. He’s taller than Percy, but not by much. Lean, shaggy hair and an easy smile.
“Yeah, nice to meet you.”
“Oh, man. My friends are never going to believe this. Hey, can you take a video with me?” He asks, holding up his camera and squeezing himself into the frame.
“Sure.” Percy mumbles as Grover shuffles out of the picture slowly. The guy hits the record button. “What would you like me to say?”
“How do you feel about your ex-girlfriend sucking my dick?” The guy wears a stupid grin and Percy straightens up.
“What the fuck did you just say?”
“Annabeth Chase, right? I hear she’s so easy, all you need is to not be a national embarrassment, and she’s dripping. You couldn’t even manage that.”
“Excuse me, sir, but I think it’s best you–” Grover starts but Percy’s already grabbed him by the shirt.
“Say her name again and it’ll be the last thing you ever say.” Percy growls. “Do you understand that? You talk shit about her and I will fucking kill you.” He snatches the guy's phone that’s still recording them and tosses it over the railing, where it clatters on the floor.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” The guy cries, wrenching Percy’s hands off of him. “It was just a joke, man. Like I’d want anything you’ve touched. God, Jackson. You’re even crazier than they say.”
He scampers off to get his phone and Grover falls into step with him. They walk in silence for a moment. Percy can hear his pulse in his ears. He can feel a lot of the other shoppers watching him and he glowers. Who wants some, he wants to yell. If it were up to him, he’d go back down and rip the guy’s head clean off his neck. Unfortunately, it’s not even the first time someone’s had something to say about his shorter-than-average football career or his too-popular-for-his-liking ex-girlfriend.
“So…” Grover says when they get to the shoe store. “Want to talk about it?”
No, Percy thinks sullenly. What is there to talk about? It’s not that he hasn’t gotten used to this. Only last week, some asshole found him on the street and demanded he apologise on national television for letting the team down only a year before the World Cup. A month ago some fan of his club threw his can of Coke– the entire thing, tin and all– at him. People really don’t take kindly to football injuries; fans of the game are a particularly savage sort, and Percy has learned to deal with it. It’s only the ones that have something to say about Annabeth that really bug him.
Their relationship had been partly public property when they were together. Whether they liked it or not, the paparazzi were everywhere. He’d been the most promising player on the Bloomsbury team and she was the youngest player in history to win the women’s Ballon d’Or. Neither of them particularly cared for any of the attention, but together they’d been football royalty. The same people who adored them together are the ones spewing poison at him in public, and maybe that’s why he takes the comments about Annabeth to heart.
“Do you know the one cardinal rule of professional football?” Percy says finally. Grover raises his eyebrows. “You back yourself. No matter what; even if you play the worst game of your life, you always, always back yourself. The moment you stop believing you’re great, it’ll consume you. If you ever want to fight to see another game, you have to remember that you’re one of the best there is.” He pauses for a moment, picking up a tan leather shoe and examining it for a second before replacing it on the shelf. “Annabeth taught me that.” Percy says. “When we started off– back at the academy– I’d question myself a lot. You know what I was like.”
“I remember thinking you wouldn’t last a day in the public eye.” Grover smiles. “Look at you now. You almost killed a guy.”
“And Annabeth changed that. I think a part of why I cared so deeply for her was because she made me care about myself.” Percy confesses. “She made me care about football in a way I’d never cared about anything.” In a way I’d never cared about anyone.
He isn’t only saying it, either. She’d always been by his side– on days he didn’t feel up to it and on nights after tough losses, Annabeth had been the one to find him. To take his hand and lead him home when his emotions got the better of him. Football is a rough sport, but she’d always offered him a soft place to land. Three things go hand in hand; Percy’s love for football, his love for Annabeth, and his love for himself. In one devastating moment, two of the most important things in his life had been ripped from him.
“For as long as I can call myself a footballer– whatever that means anymore– there won’t be a day that I won’t–,” his voice breaks and he clears his throat. There is no love without Annabeth. “I can handle football fans. Most of the time they don’t even mean what they say about me, they’re just saying it to fill up the space. Back there, I’m… I’m going to have to pay for that, I know.”
“He got it on camera, Percy.” Grover says. “Unless you broke that phone completely– it’s going to be a PR nightmare.”
But Percy would do it again. The rules around the way people treat his relationship with Annabeth has always been different. Now he understands why.
“When they bring her into it… it’s personal.”
Percy Jackson shows up to regular practice, and Annabeth’s certain that she’s the butt of some cosmic joke.
“What is he doing here?” She demands. Silena focuses on finishing her bicep stretch before she responds.
“Well… he is an assistant coach.” She points out. “You didn’t expect to keep him all to yourself, did you?”
“I thought Diana was joking.” Annabeth frowns. “I was really hoping to have done my time by now. Three weeks over a red card.”
“A red card .” Silena repeats. “When we really needed you.”
Annabeth snorts. “You think that I could have single-handedly managed a hat trick in the last fifteen minutes? I don’t say this often, but you overestimate me.”
“Don’t kid yourself.” Silena smirks at her. “I only meant you might have been of some use. You score one, give me an assist– we could have pushed into extra time.”
“And what about the four games we’ve played since?” Annabeth says flatly. “Four games, four goals and an assist– including the fact that I was suspended for one of them. Where’s the thank you, Annabeth, for saving our sorry asses?”
“What I’m hearing,” Clarisse cuts in. “Is that your extra sessions with Jackson are really helping. Four games, not one penalty. Whatever he’s doing– it’s working.”
“He’s not doing anything!” Annabeth protests. “We just pass the ball around. It’s not like we’re centering our rage through long sessions of guided meditations.”
“Speaking of,” Silena raps her in the side with the back of her hand. “I signed the three of us up for a hot yoga workshop this weekend.”
“I resent that you think I need it.” Annabeth scowls at her. “But I also just so happen to be desperate for a mellow weekend of hot yoga and winding down, so I’ll forgive you. Just this once.”
“Trust me, I need it just as much.” Silena says. “All this wedding planning’s driving me up the wall. A day of relaxation and some Shavasana with my girls is just what the doctor ordered–”
“Ladies, if we’re done chatting!” Percy calls in their direction. “I believe we usually begin this with five laps? Let’s get moving!”
“Ugh.” Annabeth rolls her eyes, but Silena, Clarisse and her start off with a slow jog. “He’s doing this to spite me. Go away. Save yourselves.”
“What do you take us for?” Clarisse grunts. “This isn’t so bad. At least he isn’t blowing that stupid–”
“Chase! La Rue! Beauregard! I want focus. One hundred percent!”
“I hate him.” Annabeth mumbles, picking up the pace. The faster she’s done with her laps, the less criticism Percy will have of her. Silena and Clarisse fall in step with her a moment later.
“No, you don’t.” Clarisse says.
“Yes, she does.” Silena gives Clarisse a pointed look. “You know what they say about love and hate.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Annabeth demands and Silena shakes her head, pushing forward until she’s in front of everyone else on the team. Annabeth follows after her. “Hey! What the hell was that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing!” Silena holds her hands up in surrender. Then she frowns at Annabeth. “How are you not even a little bit out of breath right now?”
“Percy and I used to do long-distance sprints all the time.” Annabeth shrugs. “And we’d talk the whole way through. I guess my lungs are used to it now.”
“Of course you and Percy did.” Silena mocks. “You know, in all my time knowing you, I don’t know one thing about you that doesn’t relate back to Percy in some way.”
Annabeth thinks about it. Was Silena right? Her favourite movies are the ones she’d watched with Percy, curled up in his lap while he drew patterns on her skin. She does her makeup the only way she knows how– following a tutorial from seven years ago that she’d practiced on Percy a thousand times before she decided to do it on herself. Even the way she plays football is inspired by hours and hours of one-on-ones with Percy. It’s been so long, just the two of them– she can’t really see the line where Percy ends and she begins anymore. She’s not even sure there’s anything left on either side.
“I grew up with him.” She says. “I’ve known him since I was twelve. That’s more than half my life. What am I meant to do, forget him entirely?”
“You don’t have to forget him to move on.” Silena says as they start their second lap. “But you can’t let him hold you back either, Bubby.”
“Oh, please.” Annabeth rolls her eyes. “He doesn’t hold me back. He bears no effect on how I live my life.”
Silena takes a while to respond. “Is that true?”
Annabeth purses her lips. “I don’t know,” she admits. “I want it to be. Is that not enough?”
“I wish it was, Bubby.” Silena sighs.
Annabeth risks a glance at Percy. He’s talking to Allison and her chest aches. There was a time not too long ago when his eyes would seek her out in any room, field, or arena. It was like he always knew when she was thinking of him; when she was looking at him or when his name fell on her lips. They had a way of connecting across miles and over a thousand people– nobody had even known her the way Percy Jackson did. Now she watches him, completely oblivious to her attention on him, and it hurts.
“I don’t think I can.” Her voice is only a whisper. “I just– I can’t. And it’s pathetic because everyone loves reminding me that he’s the one who broke up with me, so for him to have a new girlfriend means that he somehow indisputably ‘won’ the break-up, and it’s not like I don’t read the tabloids. I know what they think of me, and it’s not fair at all, because nobody knows what he was like. Nobody knows what we were like.”
“Annabeth…” Silena reaches out to her but Annabeth can’t stop running now. Not even when her heart is about to fall out of her chest and her vision is blurry. If she stops now, Percy will notice, and if he notices, he’ll know just how badly she’s doing.
“I get it, okay? I get that everyone just thinks I’m some superficial, loose moron who got dumped by her boyfriend, but at least the boys I go home with don’t ask questions.” She sniffles, wiping desperately at her eyes. “We were in love, Silena. The real kind. The kind where you grow up together and come into your own people and support each other through it all. The kind where– where after I won the most prestigious award they could give a footballer, my biggest achievement was still that I got to come home to him. He was home, and now he’s gone and I’m just expected to be okay with that and I’m– I’m not.”
“Babe…” Silena says softly. They slow down on their third lap to a leisurely jog and all the other girls overtake them. “I’ve been cutting you a lot of slack because I know how much you’re hurting. And I know how terrifying it is to be vulnerable with someone new, but if the only reason you aren’t putting yourself out there is that you’re afraid– that’s just not the Annabeth I know, and I refuse to indulge it any longer. You were fucking fearless when I first met you. I was dazzled by you. I was terrified of you.”
Annabeth lets out a watery laugh. She’d met Silena six years ago when she’d joined Bloomsbury after her time at the academy. She’d been with Percy then– three years into their relationship and young enough to believe she could do anything she wanted. It’s the wrong time to think it, she knows, but it was all because of Percy. He’d been her source of confidence when she was feeling low; he’d look at her with adoring green eyes like she was the last thing on earth worth looking at, and she’d think to herself– if a boy like Percy could see her the way he did, there had to be something special about her.
Without meaning to, her eyes flicker back to Percy, but this time he’s looking right at her and it sends an arc of electricity up her spine. Allison and Diana are speaking to him, but his arms hang loosely by his side and he catches her eye with intent and she can hear a thousand words he doesn’t say.
“We’re going to find that girl.” Silena continues, drawing her out of her thoughts. It’s an effort to drag her gaze off of Percy. “If it kills me, I’m going to dig her out of the rubble.”
“You’re so dramatic.” Annabeth’s laugh sounds fake even to her. Silena glares at Percy.
“The nerve of that man, coming here to your team.” She says. “I could ask Charlie to un-invite him to the wedding, if you want.”
“You want your fiance to un-invite his best man? For me?” Annabeth clutches her heart. “I couldn’t ask for a better friend.”
“Don’t get your hopes up.” Silena grumbles. “Sometimes I think he loves Percy more than he does me. ‘But Sil. He’s basically family!’. I should treat Percy like family. Give him the talking to of a lifetime. The last week all Charlie’s talked about is that stupid video from the mall going around. Keeps calling him chivalrous.”
“Wounds me to know Beck’s not on my side.” Annabeth monotones. “I can’t bring myself to watch that stupid Bluewater video. Everyone’s been sending it to me.”
“It’s kind of funny.” Silena grins. “Percy grabs the guy and it kind of looks like he’s going to shit himself.”
Annabeth knows the gist of what happened– Grover had texted her before the tabloids got a hold of it– but she’s really not in a position to dwell. The idea of Percy still feeling protective over her– still feeling something for her– it’s enough to ignite a little flame in her heart that she just can’t afford right now. She’s come so far this past year… it’s a horrible time to slide back into him. He did what any decent person might do; he did what Percy always did: he stood up for the girl who couldn’t defend herself. Annabeth has no business feeling any sort of way about it.
“I’m sure they’re fine.” Annabeth manages a little hoarsely. They’re just coming up on three laps while the rest of their team are an entire half-lap ahead of them. “Now can we get a move on? I hate being all the way back here.”
“You can’t cry and tell me to get a move on.” Silena protests, but they quicken their pace anyway, breaking into a full sprint until they pass Sam and Becca. Once they’re in the middle of the group, they fall into the familiar rhythm and Silena brushes her fringe out of her face. “I never asked you– you’re okay with coming to the wedding, right? Because I can’t get married without you, Beth.”
“You kidding?” Annabeth beams. “Sil, I wouldn’t miss it for the world and you know that. Besides, I imagine it’s a part of maid of honour duties to actually show up to the thing.”
“Actually, it’s just the strippers you’re supposed to organise.” Silena elbows her gently. “Really. Thank you. I know it can’t be easy having to see your ex-boyfriend at a wedding.”
“He’s going to be the last thing on my mind.” Annabeth promises. “My best friend’s going to be married in six months. Now that’s something worth thinking about.”
They push forward and catch up with Clarisse, who scowls at them as the three of them begin their fifth lap together.
“Where the hell did you guys disappear to?” Clarisse demands. She looks at Annabeth and her brows furrow. “And how the hell have you not broken into a sweat yet?”
“I made a deal with the devil.” Annabeth shrugs. “I could run twenty laps, no sweat.”
“You’re such a show-off.” Clarisse grumbles. “I wish Diana would make you do it one day– just to shut you up.”
Annabeth closes her eyes for a second, letting her legs guide her forward. The cool morning air tickles her face and she can smell the dew that hangs over them. God, she really loves being on the pitch. She pumps her legs, picking up pace until she’s in a full sprint. Behind her, she can hear Clarisse and Silena protesting, but Annabeth doesn’t care. She doesn’t care that she’s going too fast; that she has a whole practice ahead of her; that her ex-boyfriend is watching her in stunned silence. She runs. She runs and she runs, because she is free and she is weightless and she is so incredibly sick of standing still.
“Chase! What are you doing?” Percy barks.
Annabeth’s eyes fly wide open and she realises she’s almost an entire lap ahead of her teammates. Diana regards Percy with something that might even be respect. Annabeth slows down to a mild jog, holding her hand up in apology to Percy, who smirks at her. When Diana and Alison turn away, she flips him the finger and Percy’s only too glad to return it. What a fucking prick.
Practice goes by as well as she could imagine it would with Percy being around. Annabeth tries not to think about him so much and focuses on football. She finds herself turning to it a lot of late, especially when the rest of her life feels like it’s up in flames. Just her, the ball, and the net on the other side of the pitch. There’s something relaxing about the game she plays– she has never felt more comfortable than she does with the ball dancing around her feet.
“What?” Annabeth snaps, slowing to a stop so fast she nearly trips over the ball. Percy takes a second to clear his throat and she turns her attention to Diana. “That is the four hundredth time he’s stopped me this practice!” She complains. “Can’t you do something about it?”
“Hear what he has to say, Annabeth.” Diana says patiently.
“Your shoelaces are untied.” Percy tells her finally and she wants to strangle him.
“I’m going to kill you.”
“You can thank me when you don’t fall over your own feet in the game on Friday.”
Annabeth kicks the ball up to Silena and gets down to her knees, glaring daggers at Percy. Whether he senses her anger by everything about her behaviour or simply decides she needs some one-n-one with the assistant coach, he jogs up to her and crosses his arms over his chest, staring down his nose at her.
“What?” She scowls.
“Get up.” He tells her.
“No. I quite like it here.” Annabeth knows it’s petty, but she really needs a win.
“Fine.” Percy gets down to his knees beside her. “I need to talk to you about your game.”
“What, Percy?” Annabeth snaps. “My shoulders are too hunched? My knees are too wonky? My sweat shines too brightly? Because you’ve been giving me these useless ‘tips’ all day. I don’t want to hear it anymore, okay? I just… I don’t want to play your stupid games. This is meant to be my happy place and you’re ruining it for me.”
Percy studies her, and for one terrifying second, she has no idea what he’s thinking. His eyes catch the sunlight just right so they take on the same colour as the grass they’re on, and he licks his lips.
“You remember the Westfield Park?” He asks, catching her off-guard.
“Of course I remember Westfield.” Annabeth frowns.
When they were twelve years old, they’d spend hours on end at the park, working on every little trick they could pick off of their favourite players. From forward rolls to crossovers to rainbows– there wasn’t a single skill they hadn’t tried. On better nights– nights when they didn’t have any homework and there was no game on– they’d play until the moon was out and Percy’s mom came looking for them. She’d always find them the same; flushed cheeks and full smiles and hungry bellies, kicking a lousy, semi-deflated football between the two of them at Westfield Park.
“You were my first coach.” Percy tells her, playing with his fingers. “This isn’t me saying you were, at any point, better than I was, but… you were my first coach. You could spot all my mistakes from a mile off.”
“And this is payback?” Annabeth snorts.
“This is thank you.” Percy corrects gently. His tone feels so foreign, she feels momentarily dizzy. “Annabeth– I get it, okay? You don’t want to be around me, and that’s fair. But I can still see it in you– you’ve got this– you’ve got this ability, this grace around a ball and it drives me wild. You have so much potential… I want you to be the best damn athlete the world’s ever seen. Not the best footballer. Not the best female athlete. The best fucking athlete. Because you already are. I just want you to realise it.”
Annabeth wants to respond. She wants to say something; she wants to think something– but she catches the look in Percy’s eye and her brain screeches to a halt. He is speaking to her in earnest. He isn’t speaking to her as an old friend, not even an old lover– he’s speaking to her as she loves him the most– as a footballer, and that makes all the difference. She opens her mouth and shuts it.
Coming from Percy Jackson, a boy with dark hair and a naughty smile, it’s flattering. Coming from Percy Jackson, her ex-boyfriend and someone who, at least at one point in his life cared very deeply about her, it’s comforting. But coming from Percy Jackson, youngest Bloomsbury recruit with two records in the Premier League and one in the World Cup? It’s humbling, it’s awe-inspiring, and it’s life-changing.
Embarrassingly and yet true to form, Annabeth feels hot tears welling up in her eyes. She blinks them back, setting her jaw and turning her gaze stubbornly to the pitch before them and she feels Percy let out a breath.
“I push you real fucking hard, Beth. I know that. I’m not an idiot.” He says, settling into the grass and making himself comfortable. “And we’ve had our issues, but… I’d never jeopardise your career. I could never do that to you. You’re going to be fucking incredible and I’d be so lucky to have a place on the sidelines to cheer you on.”
“You mean it?” Annabeth manages finally. Her voice is hoarse, awkward and quiet, but Percy doesn’t seem to mind.
“When have I ever lied to you?”
Annabeth gives him a small smile. Percy gets back to his feet and dusts the grass off his shorts, holding his hand out for her. She lets him pull her up and hesitates for a second.
“Go back to practice, Chase.” Percy says quietly, holding up his whistle. “Don’t make me use this thing.”
Annabeth starts to make her way back to her position but stops when she’s a couple of steps away. She looks over her shoulder at him. “You’re going to help me out?” She calls. “Is that a promise?”
“Ballon d’Or again this year or my name isn’t Percy Jackson.” He grins. “Trust me. A win for you is a win for the game.”
Annabeth can’t fight the grin that grows on her lips. “You’re a dick, Jackson.”
“You’re an asshole, Chase.” He calls back, and he is almost familiar. “It’s the best thing about you. Use it.”
True to his word, Percy pushes her to her limit. It’s everywhere– during drills and practice games and it stretches into cool down as well. He tells her to tuck her head in lower while they’re touching their toes and Clarisse snorts beside her.
“I can’t wait for you to snap and kill him.” She says under her breath. Annabeth hums and Silena’s head snaps up.
“What was that?” She demands.
“What was what?”
“That?” Silena points an accusatory finger at her. “You hummed. You’re… you aren’t mad at him anymore!”
Annabeth spares Percy a glance. He’s talking to Diana and she’s pretty certain he’s talking about her because he points in her direction a bunch of times before locking eyes with her. Somewhere in there, she knows there is a young boy itching to burst out. A young boy who played one on one with her at Westfield Park and chewed his lip raw during the Bloomsbury Academy tryouts. A young boy who ate, slept, and breathed football– and he is watching her.
“I think you’re right.” Annabeth says finally. “I need to get over him.”
“You just now figured this out?” Silena slaps her shoulder, but Annabeth can’t tear her eyes off of him.
Percy can’t be everything– a boyfriend and a best friend and a coach– they’d tried that before and they’d imploded. She understands that now. After eleven long months without him, her feet finally find solid ground. For the first time since they broke up, she doesn’t see a man who might still learn to love her again. She sees a man who already does.
“I need to move on.” Annabeth says quietly. He might not love her the way he once did, but it doesn’t matter. There is no way back– but that shouldn’t mean there is no way forward, either. A wave of calm washes over her. “I need to move forward so we can built a relationship again.”
“Like you want to date him again?” Silena asks suspiciously. “Because I’m putting my foot down. You guys were miserable by the time you broke up. We aren’t going through that again.”
“No… I don’t want to date him anymore.”
“So what do you want?” Clarisse asks. Annabeth bites her lip and comes to a decision. He can’t be everything– but he can be one thing, and maybe that’s enough.
“I want him to train me.”
There is one thing that Percy often forgets about Annabeth– it’s that she is mean.
It’s been a particularly grueling practice, insults and curses hurled in either direction, but now that it’s winding down and Percy’s had time to lick his wounds, it becomes more bearable to be around her. She steps out of the showers, her face still pink and her hair damp and she gives him a wide smile.
“That was fun.” She says brightly and he shoves her shoulder.
“For you it was.” He says. “Most other people don’t like hollering obscenities at each other.”
“Oh, shut up, Jackson.” Annabeth laughs and for a moment she is his friend again. “You enjoyed it as much as I did. Don’t pull that shit on me.”
“I just don’t see why you had to bring my grandmother into it.” Percy sticks his tongue out at her.
Annabeth lets out a dramatic sigh and waves down the equipment manager– a short girl with choppy hair who’s name seems to evade Percy every single time– and is handed her water bottle. She takes a long swig before frowning down at it.
“What is this?” She pulls a face and the equipment manager beams.
“New electrolyte.” She says proudly. “All natural, all organic– it’s great for your immune system.”
“Learn that at hippie camp?” Annabeth sneers. Percy knows this routine– he adores Annabeth, but he also knows just how rude she can be when she wants. He shuffles his feet and shoots the equipment manager an apologetic smile.
“I’m so sorry about her–” He starts, but the girl waves him off with a grin.
“Don’t worry about it. I know her.” She turns to Annabeth. “Admit you like it.”
“Piper, it’s disgusting.” Annabeth says flatly, but it only seems to delight her friend.
“You’re a brat. Now get out of my sight before I kill you for giving me this shit.” Annabeth waves her hand dismissively. Piper rolls her eyes good-naturedly at her but doesn’t overstay her welcome.
“Wouldn’t kill you to be nice to someone, you know.” Percy says as they make their way across the field. “Like. For once in your sad life.”
Annabeth shrugs. “Piper doesn’t mind. She knows I’m kidding.”
They walk in silence through the hallway and out of the stadium doors. His car sits alone in the parking lot and Annabeth’s lips pull upwards.
“I see Lola’s in good health.” She says.
“She costs more to maintain than she did to buy.” Percy sighs. “A wiser man might get rid of her.”
“Don’t fool yourself into believing you’re wise.” Annabeth laughs.
“Shut up.” Percy grumbles. “You still owe me, by the way. For the dent you made in her.”
“What was that, two fifty bucks?” Annabeth sticks her tongue out at him. “You can afford it.”
“Try two-fifty grand.” Percy corrects and Annabeth grinds to a halt, mouth hanging open.
“Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars for a dent?” She cries. “You’re joking. Tell me you’re joking.”
“Of course I’m fucking joking do you really think I’d pay someone two fifty grand for a scratch?” Percy laughs and Annabeth catches up to him.
“Aha!” She hops on her feet. “You admit it was just a scratch. You said it, not me.”
“Slip of the tongue.” Percy rolls his eyes. “I’m never going to forgive you for it, though.”
“And I’m never going to forgive you for being the worst driving instructor in the world.” Annabeth protests.
“Sue me for thinking you were, you know, competent.”
“Fuck off.” Annabeth says, and Percy is struck with the overwhelming urge to throw his arms around her shoulders and pull her closer to him.
It’s been a month since they decided to work together, and over time their relationship had eased into something painfully close to friendship. Percy feels like he’s finally broken the surface, able to breathe air after months of drowning. It still hurts him; still haunts him, how natural it is to slip into the deceptive illusion of normality with her. Moments like these, when he’s close enough to touch her gently and her laugh echoes in her chest, he thinks she has always been a curse wrapped in pure gold. There’s so much here; the carefully carved history and the elaborately planned futures and the agonisingly consistent present. There is nothing in the world more liberating than being around Annabeth as she is again. It feels particularly unfair that these are the moments he must exercise the most self-restraint.
“Percy!” A voice calls. He looks up and it’s like the world is sending him a sign. Rachel Elizabeth Dare is walking through the gates wearing a large smile. “I have the most exciting news– oh.”
Rachel takes Annabeth in, and for a tense second, nobody says anything. Annabeth gives Rachel a once-over, the smile slipping off her lips as easily as it had fallen upon them.
“Hi. You must be Annabeth.” Rachel holds her hand out and Annabeth refuses to take it. Be nice, Annabeth. Percy frowns at her, but she doesn’t spare him a glance.
“Surely you’ve seen me play.” She says coolly. “Percy brings you around to games often enough. It’s nice to finally meet you, Rosa.”
“Rachel.” Percy corrects, but Annabeth doesn’t apologise.
“So how do you like coming to my games?” Annabeth asks sweetly. Percy doesn’t buy it, but Rachel doesn’t know Annabeth well enough to be weary.
“You know what?” Rachel says. “You’re great! I think. I couldn’t tell you. I don’t understand the rules and it kind of bores me.”
Annabeth raises her eyebrows at Percy, but he doesn’t dare meet her eye. For some reason, it’s harder to defend it to Annabeth than it was to do it to Grover. Being around Annabeth now, being on the pitch again, dribbling a ball between his feet– it’s becoming more and more difficult to justify it to himself. He hates to admit it, but Grover was right. Football makes such a large part of who he is… what does it say about his relationship with Rachel that she can’t even fake interest in it?
“Boring,” Annabeth repeats. “You know what? I get it.”
“Exactly.” Rachel smiles. Then her eyes light up and she starts speaking in that rapid-fire way she does when she’s excited. “Oh my god, you guys. I have the best news ever. I’ve been invited to put some of my work up at the new Liggy van Dijk showcase!”
“What’s that?” Annabeth asks, and Percy is grateful for her beating him to it. At least she can get away with not knowing.
“She’s this art curator.” Rachel explains, sparing Percy a glance. “And she’s having this huge showcase at the museum of modern art, and I’ve been emailing her for years and she finally saw one of my pieces and she liked it and now she wants to have it up in her showcase. I can’t believe it, I think I’m going to be sick.”
“You’re an artist?” Annabeth asks. “What kind of art do you do?”
“Painting, mostly. Some sculpture, but I wouldn’t say I’m very good. I’m trying to sell them to make more space in the studio, though. It’s hard.” Rachel says sheepishly. Annabeth raises an eyebrow.
“Here’s my honest opinion, Rachel. Nobody’s going to buy your sculptures.” She announces. Rachel gawks at her. Even Percy is taken aback.
“Annabeth.” He warns, but he’s never had any handle over her or her big mouth.
“I mean– I don’t even know you and I sure as hell don’t want to buy it.” Annabeth says. “It’s not your artistic prowess. You know far more about it than I ever will– it’s your attitude that’s the problem. Drop the humility act. Nobody wants to buy second best. If you want to sell it, you’re going to have to believe you’re the greatest damn thing to happen to marble since Michelangelo.”
Rachel stands there in stunned silence and Percy’s heart skips a beat– it’s just so typically Annabeth, he thinks. It’s her most sacred belief, and within a minute of meeting Rachel, she’s happy to impart her knowledge.
“You gotta back yourself out there, Percy,” she’d said only two days before his first public appearance. They were sitting in his brand new car, his gift to himself for being signed– a cherry red Maserati Spyder that he liked to call Lola. “And I don’t mean the way you do now. When you go out there… you have to believe in your heart that you are the greatest player on this planet. People will see through you if you fake it.”
“Is that how you play?” Percy had asked her. “Somehow convince yourself you’re god’s gift to football?”
“It’s how I win.” Annabeth played with her fingers, her cheeks tingeing a rare, shy pink. “And it’s not about convincing myself. It’s about knowing I can be. One day… one day there won’t be a single person who doesn’t know my name. And if that’s in my future, I… I’m the greatest player on the field already. Even if the public hasn’t noticed.”
“God, I wish I was like you.” Percy had laughed, lacing his fingers through hers.
“You can be.” Annabeth pressed a kiss to his jaw. “All you gotta do is trust me.”
It had been so easy, at the time, to trust her. Hell, it’s easy now to trust an eighteen year old version of her. She’s always been so much more confident than him. Sometimes he’d think it follows her to a fault, but looking at her now he can’t imagine why. She wears it so gracefully, an armour and a badge of honour rather than a step up over everyone else. A lot of people didn’t understand that about her– Annabeth doesn’t think the world owes it to her to see her as the greatest of all time. She believes, with everything she’s got, that it’s something she owes herself.
Even now, she isn’t asking that Rachel be the best. All she has to do is believe she is and the people will follow. Percy’s lips tug upwards. Annabeth always liked to think she made her own luck– but for the first time, with enough space between them, Percy can see just how she does it. A warmth spreads across his chest and his gut twists with emotion.
“Oh.” Rachel manages finally, and Percy wants to laugh at the look on her face. “You’re… right.”
“Of course I’m right. What kind of a statement is that?” Annabeth rolls her eyes. She checks her phone and sighs, looking up at Percy. “My ride’s late. Want to get some coffee?”
“Yeah, it’s on me.” Percy offers but Annabeth waves him off.
“It’s on Rachel. For selling your first sculpture.”
Percy stares at her and Rachel raises her brows. “You’ll buy it?”
“God, no.” Annabeth snorts. “I know how lowly you think of your work. Consider it a preemptive celebration.”
“There’s my girl.” Percy says before he can think better of it. “For a second I was afraid you were going to do something nice for someone.”
Rachel gives him a look that he doesn’t understand, but says nothing. They make their way down to an artisanal shop nearby and it seems Rachel takes exactly however many minutes the walk lasts to warm up to Annabeth. By the time they sit at their table, it starts to seem like Percy’s the one intruding into their conversation– and he does not enjoy that at all.
“You know what,” Annabeth says when her phone buzzes halfway through her oat milk flat white. “That’s my… friend. I should get going.”
“What? No! Stay a while.” Rachel pleads and Annabeth shoots Percy a helpless look.
“Yeah. Stay.” He says, and Annabeth bites her lip. She looks like she very much wants to decline the offer, but Rachel starts talking again and she lets out a sigh.
“Fine.” She settles uncertainly back into her seat. “Do you guys mind if my friend joins us?”
“Not at all.” Rachel says. Annabeth texts her friend nervously and drums her fingers against the table.
Two minutes later, a man Percy recognises all too well pushes through the door. He spots them across the room and holds his hand up, his face splitting into a grin. His hair is tousled and his shorts are loose on his lanky frame, and Percy clenches his jaw as Annabeth’s friend orders himself a drink before joining them at the table.
“You alright, Jackson.” Mason Becker claps him on the back before shaking Rachel’s hand. “Hello.”
“Mason, this is Rachel.” Annabeth is still watching Percy, and he suddenly feels like he’s facing some kind of test. He doesn’t meet her eye. “Mason’s…”
“A friend.” Mason finishes for her, but they exchange a look that makes it clear neither of them intends to stay that way for long. Rachel wriggles her eyebrows at Annabeth.
“Friends?” She asks and Annabeth purses her lips.
“Friends.” She confirms, glancing at Percy. “He’s a footballer too. Plays for… Bloomsbury.”
“Just like Percy!” Rachel cries and Percy tenses for a second. This is a test, he reminds himself. This is a test, and he’s failed too many before to fail this one too. What had his therapist said to do? Count to ten and focus on his breathing. “You guys know each other?”
One, two, three, four, five.
“We were like brothers.” Mason grins at Percy, who does his best to return it. “Jackson’s like, one of the best guys I know. You’re a lucky girl, Rachel.”
Six, seven, eight, nine, ten.
“That’s so cute. Babe, you never talk about your old team.”
Rachel slips her arm around his waist and for some reason, it’s at this exact moment that Percy knows it’s over between them. He looks down at Rachel, and a shadow passes over her face. Perhaps she understands it too. She pulls away from him awkwardly and plays with her fingers.
Whether it’s the pressure of facing his past, the beginnings of his new career, or the fact that he doesn’t seem to be able to run far enough away from everything he’d lost– it’s only now that he realises he can’t be in a healthy, loving, committed relationship with Rachel. Not when he’s got so many demons left to battle on his own.
“We… we can work our way to it.” He says lamely and Mason chucks him on the shoulder.
“I can tell you anything you need to know. Jackson was a fucking legend.”
“Was he, now?” Rachel raises her eyebrows at him and for no reason at all, Percy feels guilty. It’s not that he wanted to hide his life from her– it had just always seemed so painful to revisit it, he supposes he’d forgotten all the good times he’d had with his team.
“Yeah– oh my god, we have to tell her about the Rochester game.” Mason smacks Percy in the chest once before turning to Rachel. “Okay, so it’s the FA Cup final, right, and–”
“She isn’t interested.” Percy snaps, cutting him off. He’s worked hard to leave the footballer in him out of his relationship with Rachel– the last thing he needs is Mason telling her about a particularly aggressive game he doesn’t care to relive. A heavy silence hangs over them for a moment, but Annabeth saves him. She reaches out, placing a hand over Mason’s.
“Rachel says she’s not really big on football, right Rachel?” She says gently. “We could sit here for hours talking about it– I think Percy just doesn’t want to bore you.”
“Oh.” Rachel looks surprised for a second. Then she laughs and Percy exhales. “No, that’s… really thoughtful of you, actually. All I want to know is whether I’m missing out on not knowing football Percy.”
“Trust me,” Annabeth says smoothly before Mason can open his big mouth again. “You’ve got a mellower version of him.”
“So how’s coaching treating you, Jackson?” Mason asks then. Percy shrugs.
“Not too bad.” He catches Annabeth’s eye and he has to swallow down an apology creeps up his throat. “Has its perks. Has its price.”
“Can’t argue with that.” Mason shrugs. He asks Rachel what she does then and does an incredible job faking interest in it. Percy almost snorts– the Becker he knows thought Adam Sandler was the epitome of cinema. As if he’s going to care about Kooning or Kline.
But Annabeth is watching him while they talk, her eyebrows pulled together and her eyes wide, and he fools himself into believing it’s concern that she’s wearing. He raises an eyebrow at her and she gives her an imperceptible shake of the head. Thank you, he nods towards her. She tried to help Rachel today simply from the kindness of her heart. She covered for him when he almost lashed out. She’d been so careful around him before inviting Becker out. Really, Annabeth’s just been a good friend to him. It’s the one thing he never could hodl against her. Annabeth gives him a small smile and he sinks into his seat. It always happens like this– every time he thinks they’re getting closer, he’s reminded of all the reasons he has to love her; it makes him hate her that much more.
For most of the conversation, Percy watches her with her new boyfriend. She rests her chin on his shoulder when she speaks to him and when Becker speaks he looks her directly in the eye. He plays absently with her fingers and she wears a soft blush, and if Annabeth were anyone else, Percy might have thought them sweet together. He tears his gaze away from them to see Rachel frowning at him.
It’s over, he thinks for the second time. He’s lucky it ever began. Rachel looks over at him, her eyes bright with a hundred thoughts, but Percy has no idea what she’s thinking. Her features are smooth, unreadable, and empty, and his throat closes up.
The funniest thing, Percy thinks as he notes the exact moment his relationship crumbles, is that he really did believe he’d find love with Rachel some day. She’s funny and she’s attractive and she has an easy way about her that makes him comfortable being as he is. If he were even a little different, their differences wouldn’t have affected him. What does it matter, really, that she tells him what she’s thinking when he can’t see it in her face. What does it matter that she doesn’t know who Ronaldo is and he can’t tell the difference between impressionism and romanticism? They get along– and in a world where he had never met Annabeth, he thinks that might have been enough.
But Annabeth sits across the table from him, opening up her heart to another man, and Percy can see her every joy and her every fear and he realises Grover had been right all along. He can’t find someone to spend his time with; he needs to know what it is he’s looking for in a partner. Percy watches Annabeth falling in love, and he sees exactly what it is that he wants.
Annabeth wants to scream.
It’s not fair. She’d been so focused on the game at practice. Her, Silena and Katie had worked better than ever and Castle was meant to be an easy win. Only last season, they’d been on the edge of relegation and their stats this season hadn’t been much better. How on earth could she have fumbled so badly?
Her fingers itch to do the last thing anybody in her position should– she pulls her phone out and opens Twitter. The first few tweets are about some TV show she doesn’t watch, and it’s almost enough for her to put it away. Not many people care about women’s football; perhaps it’s better this way. Men’s football fans are horrible. She’s seen first hand the way Mason got attacked online after a bad game; the way Percy got harassed when he retired at twenty three years old. She wouldn’t have been able to take that kind of abuse– but Percy always seems to bounce back.
That’s really what makes him who he is– as much as Annabeth likes to believe she’s god’s bravest soldier, she wouldn’t be half the person she was without Percy. She thinks about the day she’d first met him. It’s hard, today, to reconcile the image of a shy little boy with a crooked nose and a lopsided smile with the man he’s grown into. It’s the one thing he’s always held onto; at his very core, Percy believes in forgiving himself. An inherent belief that he could still do better, be bigger than his problems and rise above the noise.
It had been her favourite thing about him. Maybe it still is– because somewhere in his heart, under al the poison he’d spewed at her when they’d broken up, there is still a sliver of hope for things to get better. The sliver of hope that tethered him to his underpaid, overworked assistant coach job at Bloomsbury’s women's team for the past three months.
Every morning, Percy drives up to work at the crack of dawn in that obnoxious Maserati, and every morning, without ever meaning to, he inspires Annabeth to do better. She almost laughs out loud to herself– Lola, she thinks, might be Percy’s most inspiring story to date.
“I’m going to go pro.” It had been one of the first things he said to her, only a few minutes after his team had lost a game at the local pitch. “And when I do, I’m going to buy a Maserati Spyder. A gear shift and custom wheels. It’s going to be the sickest car on the road.”
Annabeth had laughed at him. “After that performance?”
“You don’t know the future.” He’d crossed his arms over his chest and glared at her. “It was one game.”
“I suppose.” Annabeth remembers having an inch over him at the time.
“What would you do with all the money you make playing?”
Annabeth had stuck her nose up in the air, and five years later Percy would admit that was the moment he fell in love with her. “I’m going to go pro when I’m nineteen.” She’d sworn. Between the both of them, she’d always been more sensible about her dreams. “Win at least five Ballon d’Ors. Win the World Cup at least once. Then, when I’m really rich and famous, I’m going to marry a prince and live in a palace big enough that all my children will have a room of their own.”
Maybe it didn’t occur to Percy to ask why a twelve year old was thinking about her children. Maybe he wasn’t interested. Maybe he had the same kind of dreams. He’d furrowed his brows.
“How many children will you have?”
“Fourteen.” Annabeth had declared. Bear in mind– this was before she’d fully understood the process of having children. Percy had looked both confused and satisfied by her response. He’d shrugged his shoulders and held his hand out.
“We’ll get there together, then.” He’d said. “I’m Percy, by the way.”
Annabeth taps her fingers absently on the screen, debating looking up her name. Games are always difficult, even the ones they win. There’s always going to be someone saying something about her– but she can hear Percy’s voice in her head. Why do you choose to punish yourself? She sighs, closing the app and tapping her thumb against her screen absently. All the nasty comments can wait until tomorrow, if she still feels like ruining her mood.
Too wrapped up in her thoughts, Annabeth doesn’t realise she’s been standing in front of her building for a full ten minutes in the cold evening. She bites her lip, tilting her head back and squinting up at her window on the third floor. Her lights are the only ones that are off in the building, and the bedroom window’s cracked open just enough that she knows she’s going to be walking into a cold home.
Annabeth hesitates, worrying her lip while she looks down at her phone.. Do you want to come over? I’ve got some rosé to get us through the night.
Percy is a gracious enough guest to arrive with a bottle of white wine of his own exactly twenty four minutes later. He greets her with a wide smile and hands her a box of chocolates.
“I know you’re not meant to,” he tells her as he adjusts his way around her and lets himself into her apartment. “But it’s my treat. Just don’t tell Diana.”
“She’s going to kill me if I touch these.” Annabeth looks wistfully down at the box. “But if I leave them lying around and Silena finds out I eat chocolates that aren’t her father’s… she’ll kill me too.”
Percy has already disappeared into her living room. She finds him in the open kitchen, rifling through the drawers to find a corkscrew. Without really asking, he pours them both a glass and follows her back to the couches. Annabeth slinks to the ground and Percy joins her on the carpet without a word. He holds his glass out and she clinks hers against it before taking a long sip.
“Wanna talk about it?” He asks finally and Annabeth shakes her head no. Percy shrugs. “That’s cool. What’s on TV?”
He turns it on and flicks through the channels, finally settling on a documentary about a herd of Asian elephants. He leans his back against the couch and tilts his head back so it rests against the cushions. After a moment passes, he speaks again;
“I have to get my hip checked out tomorrow.” He says. “I’m kind of nervous.”
“Why?” Annabeth frowns. “Georgina’s a great doctor.”
“I know, I just… it feels like the old times. I think a part of me’s still hoping for a full recovery.” He says. “And knowing that this is just a pain I have to live with… it’s hard.”
“Yeah.” Annabeth says quietly. She shuffles closer to him and rests her head on his shoulder. “It’s hard.”
A beat passes between them. She can feel Percy’s breathing– rhythmic, soft, even in comparison to the bundle of nerves and frustration in her belly.
“I never thanked you.” Percy says suddenly. She pulls away and looks up at him, but he can barely face her. “For… everything. Taking me to the doctor. Helping with the meds. Looking after me when nobody else could. I– I said a lot of things back then, but I don’t remember ever saying thank you.”
“You didn’t need to.” Annabeth says. She had always imagined they’d finally have this conversation, but today was the last day she’d expected to have it. “You were my–,” her voice breaks and she tries again. “You were my best friend, Percy. I didn’t want to see you suffer.””
“What I said to you…” Percy trails off. “It was unforgivable.”
“If anyone else had said it, yeah.” Annabeth shrugs. There had been some really difficult nights that she can remember– when Percy’s pain got overwhelming and he’d say the most terrible things to her; the most terrible thing about her. He’d lost football; the one thing he’d prided himself on– and he’d taken it all out on the closest thing to him. Annabeth can’t lie and say it didn’t hurt; but she also knew nothing he ever said came from hatred of her. “You told me once that it felt like your whole life was falling apart. I don’t know how you got through it, but if it were me… I’d have been a lot worse.”
“Is it easier to say that now?” Percy asks sheepishly. “When it’s all behind us?”
“I don’t know if it’s completely behind me.” Annabeth admits. “I think it’s a part of me. You… you were a large part of me.”
Percy is quiet for a long time and Annabeth sips on her wine. On the screen, one of the elephants gives birth to a baby calf. She watches the mother play with her baby before he speaks again.
“Do you ever… regret me?” He doesn’t dare look her in the eye, and Annabeth gapes at him.
Her first thought is to cry are you kidding!? Percy was the greatest part of her life. He’d held her hand and they’d grown up together– and he’d made what would have been a painful phase of their lives the most magical time. How could he even think that? For a second, she wonders if he’s asking because he regrets her.
“No.” She frowns. “Do you?”
“Of course not.”
“So why would you think I did?” Annabeth asks and Percy shrugs his shoulder. He turns his attention back onto the screen.
“I’m terrified I’m growing tired of Mason.” She blurts. Percy looks at her and waits patiently for her to elaborate. Under his gaze, she stalls. “I don’t– I don’t know why I said that.” She says sheepishly. “I’m sorry. I’ll… this isn’t something you want to hear.”
“Of course I do.” Percy says. “I want to hear everything going on in your life, Annabeth. I just… I don’t know when I can ask for that.”
Annabeth considers it. “Yeah, I don’t think I do either.”
“I never asked you how you felt about me dating Rachel.” He says after a moment. “I’m sorry. I think I regret that a bit.”
“You didn’t need to check in on me.” Annabeth waves off. “I’ve come a long way since Westfield Park.”
“You have.” Percy smirks. “Who was that one girl you’d get so jealous of. Amy something, do you remember her?”
“Amy Wong. I was sure she was going to steal you from me.”
“Yeah.” Percy laughs. “As if that would happen.”
“You don’t know how powerful girls can be.” Annabeth tells him. “With our feminine wiles.”
“I’d like to think I’m smart enough to see through that.” Percy grins. Then he hesitates. “Rachel and I broke up last week.”
Annabeth doesn’t really know what to do with that. She wants to ask for him to say more, but like Percy only a moment ago, she knows she’s not quite in that position. She swirls her wine around in her glass and waits for him to say what he wants.
“We didn’t have much in common.” Percy confesses.
“Yeah, I got a feeling.” Annabeth says.
“There’s nothing else to say, really.” Percy says. “So if you wanted to do, like, an exchange of information– now you can talk about Becker.”
“I appreciate your sacrifice.” Annabeth says flatly and Percy grins as he sips from his glass. She thinks about it for a while. “We hung out today, after the game.”
“And he said something– and this is so stupid, but he said maybe I played badly because I was nervous because of the crowds.”
Percy snorts. “Please. You play even better when people are watching.”
“I know that. You know that. Mase doesn’t.” Annabeth says. “And I shouldn’t… I know it’s wrong to think this, but for some reason it made me start picking apart everything he does. He kisses my knuckles all the time. He’s always touching me. He’s super into feet.”
The last one slips out before she can stop herself and Percy’s eyebrows shoot up into his hairline. He looks like he wants to say something, but Annabeth shoots him a pleading look. She really doesn’t want to talk about it anymore than she has to.
“It’s a good thing you have pretty feet, then.” Percy says finally, gesturing for her to go on.
“And he’s great. He’s absolutely wonderful.” Annabeth says hopelessly. “These are all things I can and should be able to deal with, because he really likes me. He does everything for me and I just– I’m scared that it means I’ll have to do everything for him.”
That might have been what she feared telling Percy the most. I’m scared that I’ll have to devote my time and my energy to him like I did to you, and he’ll leave me the way you left me. For his part, Percy’s features remain neutral. He searches her face for a moment and purses his lips.
“I’m going to ask you again. Do you regret doing that for me?”
“No.” Annabeth says. “You needed me.”
“What makes you think you’ll regret doing it for him?”
But it isn’t regret she’s afraid of, Annabeth wants to scream. It’s everything else that comes with the territory. When Percy was injured, looking after him was the easiest decision she’d ever made. When he was angry, when he was hurting, when he was jealous of the fact that she still had a career when his felt over– she’d never once regretted staying by his side.
It’s the heartbreak that killed her.
“It’s… he wants to do so much for me.” Annabeth says quietly. “I don’t know if I’m there yet. It was so hard the first time, Percy. I don’t– I’m not ready to leave myself open to that again.”
Percy purses his lips. “Becker’s good to you. He cares about you and obviously if you’re afraid of what you feel for him, you care a great deal about him as well.”
“Of course I do.” Annabeth sniffles. “But today, it was like everything he said just annoyed me so much.”
“You’ve been with someone for almost your entire adult life, Annabeth, and it broke down. It was a bad break up. I think it’s natural to feel a little scared about committing like that to someone new.” Percy twiddles his thumbs. “But… take it from me. It’s lonely out here. I feel it all the time– and it doesn’t feel good. You could use a friend, a companion. Don’t look for excuses to get rid of it. It’s hard to find people like that. If you’re asking me what to do, I don’t know. If you’re asking me what I think– Mason Becker, for better or for worse, isn’t me.”
Annabeth closes her eyes and bangs her head against the edge of the couch as she digests the words. It’s a little bit of everything, she thinks, that led her here.
At any other match, she’d have been able to sit down and figure out why she’d fucked up. Sometimes it was because she was weaker on her right kicks. Sometimes it was because the other team was just better. Sometimes it was because the referee was biased. Every one of her losses had a reason; but tonight was nothing like that. She was so badly off her game just because, and it angered her to no end.
And what about days like these, Annabeth wants to ask Percy? Gloomy days when nothing goes right, when her boyfriend, lovely as he is, feels like yet another grey cloud hanging over her head. Mason had done everything– he’d tried to study the play with her, given her some industry advice, hung out with her equally bummed out team to cheer them up. Still, with every right move he made, Annabeth felt herself growing more and more irritated with him. Thinking about it now, her eyes begin to well up. Why would she want to hurt him? He’s the last person in the world she’d ever want to make feel bad.
“There was a phase in my life,” Up until this moment, she’s never said the words out loud before– but with a glass of wine in her, she doesn’t feel as afraid. “I lived with this fear that you’d leave me. After your injury, I’d just kind of… count the days.”
“I know.” Percy says, taking her by surprise. When her head snaps up to him, he gives her a sad smile. “Maybe if I hadn’t, I’d have broken it off earlier. Saved us both a lot of trouble.”
It’s hard not to feel the sting. Annabeth winces. “You were just waiting for the right time?”
“Yeah.” Percy admits. Annabeth can’t move. “My life was crumbling, Annabeth. I was depressed, and angry and– I think I knew that I was on a journey I had to take alone. If we hadn’t broken up I’d have taken you down with me without any promise of either of us coming back. How could I do that to you? There’s nobody in the universe I care about more than you.”
“Why did you never tell me that?” Annabeth asks. “Why did you tell me how you hated me, how you wished you’d never met me? Do you know how hard it is to hear that from your best friend?”
“What would you have done, at the time?” Percy gives her a humourless smile. “You’d have said I was being silly. That we could work through it, and I knew you’d be wrong. I didn’t mean the things I said, I swear it on my life and I’ll do everything I can to make it up to you– I curse myself every day for losing you, Annabeth, but never for setting you free.”
When she doesn’t say anything, Percy flicks through the TV until he settles on a radio station. He wrings his hands and refills their wine glasses and sucks in and then puffs out his cheeks. Anything, really, so he doesn’t have to absorb the full weight of his own words. Tears start to cloud her vision– tears of relief or heartache, she really doesn’t know.
“I really hated you, Percy.”
Percy holds his hand out to her and she lets him pull her up to her feet and into his chest. He sways them around the room gently to the sound of the music. Annabeth rests her chin on his shoulder, her nose grazing his neck, and she closes her eyes.
For fourteen months, she’d been desperate for this conversation. Closure, Silena calls it– but Annabeth doesn’t want to close anything with Percy in it. She would much rather embrace the breakup– everything he gave her and everything he didn’t. Now that she understands where they stand; knows just how far they’ve drifted and just how perfectly alright she is despite it– and it breathes new life into her.
“Do you like him?” She asks Percy. “Mason.”
If he’ll have her after her bratty outburst this evening, she has to be honest with him. He’s different– he adores Percy despite him being Annabeth’s ex-boyfriend. He hasn’t once felt threatened by the amount of time they spend together and he’s never gotten angry with Annabeth when she’s acted like a child. How could she let an old relationship ruin a new one? She owes it to Mason– no, she owes to herself to rise above her fears.
“You know how I feel about him.” Percy’s hand tightens around her waist momentarily. “We’ve been friends for years. He’s… he’s a good guy. Of everyone you could date– I’m glad it’s Becker.”
Percy takes both her hands and pushes her out carefully, twirling her around before leading her back into him. Annabeth presses her cheek into his chest and exhales. She doesn’t know if he knows how much his approval means to her.
Charles Beckendorf and Silena Beauregard get married on the first Saturday after the season ends.
It’s a beautiful day in May, sunny with a cool breeze, and it’s impossible not to get swept up in the moment. The venue is intimate and beautifully decorated, with lights on strings and flower petals scattered on the grass, and Percy finds himself wondering if there will be a day all of this could be for him.
“Hey, Jackson,” Beckendorf calls, startling Percy. He turns around to see his old friend in his boxers and his shirt half-buttoned. “You planning to attend my wedding in your pajamas or what?”
Percy rolls his eyes. “Depends. Are you planning to get married in your underwear?”
“Married.” Beckendorf repeats with a giddy grin.
Percy hasn’t seen Beckendorf like this in his six years of knowing him. The first time he’d met the guy was when he and Annabeth had gone on a double date with Beckendorf and Silena and they’d hit it off instantly. At the risk of sounding corny– which Beck would hold against him– being his best man today is an honour.
“You nervous?” Percy asks as Beck buttons up his shirt.
“No. Should I be?” Beck asks and Percy shrugs.
“They are in the movies.”
“Sil and I’ve been waiting for this moment for months.” Beck says. “I think the difference is that in movies, these characters just aren’t sure about the people they want to spend their lives with. I’ve known I was going to marry Silena the moment I met her.”
“God, you guys are disgusting.” Percy says and Beck laughs. A beat passes and Percy swallows nervously. “How did you know that you’d marry her?”
The smile falls off Beck’s features and his brows pull together. “Oh, fuck, Percy. Sorry, I wasn’t thinking about you when I said that.”
“No, it’s fine.” Percy waves off. “I just– I wonder, sometimes, you know. Because I thought I knew and I couldn’t have been more wrong.”
“So Annabeth’s definitely with this guy? Becker?” He asks and Percy shrugs.
“Yeah.” He says. “Have been for like four months now. I’m happy for her.”
“You seem it.” Beck says and Percy runs his hand through his hair.
“I am, really.” He says, shucking off his robe and shrugging on his shirt. He plays with the buttons while he speaks. “It’s, like… it’s complicated, though, because I always say how football’s my first true love, right?”
“I’ve only heard that a few million times.” Beckendorf rolls his eyes.
“Yeah, but the thing is– I fell in love with football with Annabeth. I practiced, I learned the basics– all of it with her. She’s just deeply intertwined with my game that at some point they became the same thing.” He admits, glancing out of the window. The guests are just starting to arrive– Diana and her wife are one of the first to come. “And it’s hard now because I’m not allowed to love her anymore, and I’m not really allowed to love football the same way either, and the more distance I have, the more desperately I want it.”
“Coaching not doing it for you?” Beck asks sympathetically as he works on his bowtie.
“No, coaching’s a blast.” Percy says. “But… I miss the men’s team. Maybe because it’s a bigger deal, maybe it’s something else– I don’t know. Being on the women’s team feels like I’m home but someone’s moved all my stuff an inch to the right. I think I’d kind of hoped to be back in men’s football when I got back on my feet.”
“These things take time, though.” Beck checks his watch and frowns. “Where the fuck is everyone else?”
“Sleeping off the hangover.” Percy supplies. “I don’t want to wait, though. I’ve been gone for two years already. What if I lose my touch?”
“You’ll get a break.” Beckendorf promises. “Everyone does. I think your old manager is going to be at the reception. Why don’t you speak to him then?”
“Jürgen’s going to be here?” Percy isn’t sure why he’s surprised. The women's team had played with them a hundred times before. Silena must have invited him. “I don’t know if I’m ready to face him again.”
“Percy, you can’t keep acting like you’re afraid of your past. You’re not.” Beck says. “The worst thing that’s ever happened to you was your injury, and look at you now. You’re on your feet, you’re on the pitch. The hardest thing you’ve ever had to do was let Annabeth go. You work with her six days a week. You’re already better.”
“I am.” Percy agrees. “Sometimes I think I’m better now than I was before the injury. I’m– I used to have this ridiculous rage in me. Maybe that’s what made me so good. But it’s also what made me terrible to Annabeth when I was bed-ridden. What made me horrible to my teammates. I was furious.”
“I remember.” Beck winces at the memory. “Annabeth was a good girl, you know. Standing by you like that.”
“Yeah. She didn’t deserve that.” Percy sighs, pulling his tuxedo trousers over his shirt and adjusting the waist. “I feel like… maybe I found my Silena, you know? I found her, and I knew I wanted this future with her– sports cars and fourteen kids– and then I realised that’s not going to happen, and now I don’t know what to do.”
“Have you considered telling her?” Beckendorf asks flatly. “Percy, that girl’s like my little sister. I know she would do just about anything for you.”
“She has a boyfriend, Beck.” Percy thinks of their somewhat drunken conversation from a month and a half ago. “And she was struggling to be happy, and I did that.”
“Your injury did that.” Beck corrects. “And why the hell are you beating yourself up over it? Where’s the Percy who knows when to let things go? What happened to ‘there’s going to be other games’?”
“She isn’t a game.” Percy says. “There isn’t going to be other Annabeth Chases.”
“No, I don’t suppose there will be.” Beck agrees. Percy looks at his reflection in the mirror and sees a sad, lonely man staring back at him. “You never did tell me what happened with that girl you were dating for a while. Rachel.”
“I realised she deserved more than what I could give her.” Percy says hollowly. How long is he meant to carry this around with him? “I swear I never meant to hurt her, I just… I think I was hoping she’d save me from myself. From this emptiness, really. It’s a lot to put on a person, especially..” He tastes the words on his tongue before he speaks them, wondering when they turned so sweet. “I’m still in love with Annabeth.”
“We know.” A voice says from behind them and Percy looks up to see Jake and Travis sauntering into the suite. Jake shakes his head. “Which is why it brings us no joy at all to announce that Becker is also here.”
“Becker?” Beck bleats. Percy looks at him and he straightens up, clearing his throat and trying again in a deeper voice. “Becker? He’s here? I remember being clear about not wanting to invite him.”
“Yeah.” Travis glances at Percy. “He… had to drop off some of Annabeth’s makeup that she forgot at his place.”
Percy hates the way his friends are watching him. He turns away from them, the back of his neck burning, and looks out of the window at the venue two floors below them. Funnily enough, he catches the exact moment Becker and Annabeth come out of the building, walk past the wedding guests and stop by the car park where they must think nobody can see them before Annabeth whirls around to face him. He doesn’t know what they’re talking about, but there’s a lot of gesturing and Annabeth burying her face in her hands. Finally, Mason takes her face in his hands and presses a kiss to her forehead, gets back into his car and leaves. Annabeth stands there for a moment, tilts her head up towards the sky like she’s trying to reabsorb her tears, and heads back into the building.
“It’s funny.” Percy says. “Just when I get to a stage in my life when I think I can be a good partner… when she gets to a point where she can be a good partner– it’s like we just missed each other.”
“Timing’s everything, Percy.” Travis says gently. “You should know. You’re a footballer.”
Percy gives him a small smile. “Yeah… we should get ready. You guys were so late– Beck’s about to get married!”
“Sorry we’re late, Snorlax.” Travis flicks him in the forehead as Jake pours them each some scotch. “We struggled to fall asleep over your loudass breathing.
“Oh, fuck off.” Percy says as Jake hands him a glass and he clinks it with his friends. “I’m not going to argue. This is a happy occasion. To Beckendorf and Silena!”
Once Beck’s parents come though and the boys are all suited and booted, they head downstairs to officially begin the wedding. Percy trails back, looking for Annabeth, but he doesn’t see her until she walks down the aisle before Silena, and it just about knocks the breath out of him. She’s wearing a red bridesmaid’s dress, much like Katie and Clarisse before her, that ties around the back of her neck and falls to her knees. Her hair is set in gentle waves that’s been tied into a low ponytail. Her eyes are rimmed the fainsted red and her blushed nose peeks out through her makeup, and Percy’s heart breaks all over again. Nobody else seems to notice that she’s been crying– but Percy knows what it means when she’s wearing concealer, and he knows what it means when she matches her blush to her skin. Instinctively, he steps towards her, but she turns away from him, taking her place on the aisle and looking to where Silena would walk from, and he stops himself.
It’s a short, sweet ceremony, but Percy can’t look at Silena and Beckndorf without imagining himself up there with Annabeth in another world.
He wants to talk to her– wants to tell her he saw her fight with Mason, that he’s concerned because she’s his friend and he really hates to see her look so sad– but he’s standing here now at the altar of a lovely wedding, and she is the single most extraordinary sight and it’s all he can do to think to her, over and over again, I’m sorry. I love you. I’m sorry. I love you. I love you.
“Charles,” Silena says, drawing him out of his thoughts. He tries to focus on his friend. She takes a moment to compose herself before she says her vows, “I’m not great with words so I’m going to keep this short. You are the one person in the world I look forward to spending time with the most. I love you. I love being in the same room as you, I love sharing a space with you. You exist with me, and in that you make me want to be the best version of myself. You inspire me by being everything I have ever wanted to see, everything I’ve ever wanted to be, and I can’t thank you enough for that. Instead, I will make you this promise. I vow, from here on out, to give you the best of me.”
Percy looks at Annabeth and catches her wiping a tear out of her eye. She presses her lips together when she notices him watching her. I love you, he hears her louder than she’s ever been. I’m sorry. I love you.
“It’s a little annoying that you took my words from me.” Beckendorf says with a small laugh. He takes Silena’s hands carefully in each of his and ducks his head, pressing a kiss to her wrist. “But I think that’s what makes me certain we are going to have the greatest life together. You understand me, Silena– you value everything that I do, and I think it’s poetic, really, that you love in me what I love in you. I don’t claim to understand soulmates, but from my heart I believe that you are mine. There isn’t much we as individuals are in control of– but there will never be a day that I breathe when I don’t look to you first. So to begin our marriage, let me say this: I love you. I loved you from the moment I met you and I will love you until the day I die. True, honest, and pure. That is my promise to you.”
Percy catches Annabeth staring at him and his heart stutters. I’m so, so, so sorry we lost each other. Silena and Beckendorf share a tender kiss, and Percy is grateful they don’t put on their usual performance. Beck presses another kiss to Silena’s temple while the rest of the guests cheer. Annabeth doesn’t move, fresh tears spilling onto her rosy cheeks. I am so, so, so in love with you.
“Ladies and gentlemen, for the first time,” The minister says. “I present to you– Mr. and Mrs. Beckendorf!”
Percy tries to find her at the reception, but Annabeth keeps weaving through the crowds. He spots her dancing with Silena’s dad once, and again when she and Samantha are giggling with their heads together. The whole time she looks unsteady on her feet, like she might burst into tears at any second, but she keeps her head high and smiles brightly. He’s about to interrupt her anyway, but he notices the new couple and chooses to make a quick detour.
“Look who finally thought to come over.” Silena calls when she spots him, pushing the veil off of her face and giving him a big hug. “I was wondering when I’d see you. How does the dress look?”
Percy presses a kiss to her cheek and pulls away, fully taking her in. She shows off her dress to him, her hands lingering on the plunging neckline and the detailed bodice and she wiggles her brows. They’ve had their ups and downs, but he knows exactly what Silena wants to hear from him.
“Jesus, Sil.” He lets out a low whistle. “Your tits look great in this dress.”
“I was hoping you’d say that.” She laughs, smacking him in the arm playfully. “You know me. I never skip tit day.”
“It’s nice to know that in five years, you haven’t grown at all.” Percy tells her amiably. “But seriously, you look fantastic.”
Silena gives him a soft smile, searching his face. Her smile falls slightly and she cups the side of his face.
“What’s wrong, Perce?”
“Nothing.” Percy tries to pull away but she holds him steadily. Something horrible swells in his gut and he feels nauseous. “I don’t want to talk about it.” He pleads and Silena looks over his shoulder to where Annabeth is sitting.
“I think you should.” Silena says. He never had been good at keeping secrets. “I love you like my own brother, Percy, but I’m always going to be protective of Annabeth. She’s not got as many people looking out for her. I need to know– if you’re going down that path again, I need you to really think before you do something because I can’t bear to pick up the pieces again.”
“I just want to talk to her.” Percy says. “I saw her fight with Becker– I just want to ask if she’s alright.”
“And then what?” Silena asks. “When she isn’t sure and looks to you for advice, what is it you’ll say?”
“The truth.” Percy says. “That she deserves someone who’d never make her cry like that.”
“I love you.” Silena repeats, firmer this time. “I love you so much, Perce. But you can’t do that to her. The hardest part about loving someone is letting them make their choices and living with them, okay? She has a boyfriend. Don’t confuse her.”
“She’s my friend, Sil.” Percy says. “Am I just supposed to see her be miserable and stand back?”
Silena looks like she wants to say something and thinks better of it. Percy wonders how many times it was her, watching Annabeth and him be miserable together and not saying anything. Silena purses her lips.
“Unfortunately, Percy, that’s what being a friend is.”
If Percy has more to say, he doesn’t get the opportunity. Before he can respond, a large hand claps him on the back and a voice booms,
“Percy Jackson. Just the man I was hoping to find.” His old manager beams down at him. Silena looks between them and slips away quietly and Percy shakes Magritte’s hand.
“Hey, Jürgen.” He says. “It’s been too long.”
“Partly because you haven’t been taking my calls.” Magritte doesn’t look particularly offended. “I was calling you because I have a proposition. I spoke to Diana– she was very impressed with you, you know. Says you’ve really embraced coaching.”
“She’s got a great team.” Percy says cordially.
“And a great assistant coach.” Magritte says. “She says you’re looking to get back into men’s football.”
Percy isn’t really listening to him. Over Magritte’s shoulder, he spots Becker enter the hall. When Annabeth notices, she excuses herself and all but runs over to him, throwing her arms around him. Becker stumbles back but laughs into her hair, and Percy lets out a breath. He turns his attention back to Jürgen just as he’s saying,
“–want you to come work with me at Bloomsbury men’s.”
It knocks the air out of Percy’s lungs. He grapples for something to say, eyes wide and mouth dry. This is his shot, he knows– if there ever was a triumphant return, it’s this. He can come back into the spotlight, coaching the number one team on the league tables starting next season. For a moment, he’s sure Magritte is joking– but his old manager looks deadly serious.
“I don’t know what to say.” He manages.
“Come on, Jackson.” Magritte says. “Just say you’ll do it. We both know you want to.”
Percy glances at Annabeth, who’s whispering into Mason’s ear. He laughs and plays with her hair and he doesn’t know when his dream had shifted. He looks back at Jürgen. Men’s football, he thinks. There are some stuff he’s missed. Being in the public eye again– it might even save him from the constant abuse he receives on social media. This is the good omen he’s been waiting for since the day of his injury.
On the other side of the room, he sees Diana watching him with a giddy smile. She shoots him a thumbs up and claps her hands excitedly. Trust me, she’d said six months ago when he’d begun to work with her. Coaching isn’t as bad as you think.
Percy spares one last look at Annabeth and nods weakly to Magritte, taking his outstretdched hand.
“Yeah, okay.” He says. “I’ll do it.”
“Fantastic! I will see you next season, then.”
“Yep.” Percy says. Annabeth is introducing Mason to Silena’s parents now. “See you next season.”
“You still haven’t told me where it is we’re headed.” Annabeth frowns, looking out of the window, even if that doesn’t really help her much. If you left it to her, she’d get lost in her own bathroom.
“It’s a surprise.” Percy grins at her. “Well– it’s not really a secret, I’m just really grateful you have no idea where we are.”
The car pulls to a stop and Percy rushes to hold the door open for her, his picnic basket wobbling dangerously. He takes the football he’d asked her to bring along out of her hand and leads her around what looks like a brand new building.
“Oh my god.” Annabeth stops in her tracks when she realises where they are, and Percy grins at her.
“I told you you’d like it.” He says.
“What are we doing here?” Annabeth isn’t even embarrassed by loud giggle that escapes her. She runs ahead of Percy, pushing through the gates and twirling around.
“Playing football.” Percy calls as he follows her. “The old fashioned way: no nets. No rules.”
Annabeth can’t believe what’s become of Westfield Park now. It’s been thirteen years since she’d last come here. It looks completely different and just the same all at once. The trees form a bough over the clearing and she plops down on the grass. Percy tosses her the football and she catches it, absently bouncing it on her head while he catches up to her.
“Percy, this is the single greatest birthday gift I could have asked for.” She says. “How did you come up with it?”
“Oh, it’s easy.” Percy shrugs. “I just didn’t want to spend any money on you.”
“So I assume this means you like it?” Percy asks and Annabeth shakes her head at him.
“What do you think?”
Percy beams and Annabeth feels her heart melt a little at the sight.
It’s a lovely July morning– the first cloudless sky in a while– and Westfield Park brings back every good memory she’s ever had. Annabeth adores the downtime she gets at off-season, don’t get her wrong; but there is one thing she holds sacred over everything else in the world, and that is football. She can’t imagine a day, an hour, a second that she doesn’t want to play. She gets back on her feet and dribbles the ball between her feet before kicking it to Percy.
Annabeth holds her breath to see how he’d react. He hasn’t really physically played since the injury– she still sees him wincing in pain on occasion and dragging his leg around in a funny waddle on some days– but he stops it without any trouble.
“Were you expecting me to be shit?” Percy grins. “Hoping you’d finally beat me?”
“As if.” Annabeth says. “I was just thinking I should go easy on you. Heard you’re not doing so well.”
“Rude.” Percy says, passing the ball back to Annabeth, who stops the ball, rolls it over her foot and scoops it into the air. She bounces it off her head back to Percy, where he lets it drop back to the ground. “Stop showing off.”
Percy then proceeds to show off himself. He plays with the ball, knocking it outwards, spinning it over and over again just to irritate her. Annabeth huffs.
“Well, well. If it isn’t Jackson not wanting to pass the ball. Who could have seen this coming?”
“You whine so much.” Percy laughs.
Two kids and one ball and nothing else– it’s a wonder how long they can keep themselves occupied. Annabeth loses track of time until Percy decides he’s hungry and lays out his picnic. Annabeth sits on the bench with him that they’d sat on so many times, and she listens to him retell all the stories he’s already told, and she thinks this is the happiest she’ll ever be.
“Okay, cards on the table?” Percy says and Annabeth pulls her feet up onto the bench and gestures for him to go on. “What happened between you and Becker?”
Annabeth had known it was coming, but she still takes a minute before she responds.
“He said he could see himself marrying me, someday.” She confesses, unable to meet Percy’s eye. “And I just… I remember what you said, Percy, and I couldn’t do it.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Not really.” Annabeth says.
What does she have to say, anyway? That she can’t see herself marrying anyone, ever, unless it’s the man in front of her? That she’d do anything to be able to fall back into a routine with Percy, because nobody sets her at ease the way he does? Even if she did say it, it’s not up to her. It’s Percy’s choice, and judging by the fact that they aren’t together now, it’s clear he doesn’t want a relationship with her at all.
The last eight months have been eventful. Percy had come back into her life without any regard for her feelings, and he’d turned her world upside down. Just when Annabeth had really committed to resenting him for it, he’d done it again– by being a great coach, and just when Annabeth had thought they might settle into this new arrangement, she’d started dating an old friend of his. Which, by the way, made her relationship with Percy even more confusing because of how supportive he’d been of her. And now, she’d just begun to think maybe they do work as friends, he’d looked at her with the intensity of a thousand blazing suns at their friends’ wedding and was taking her out on intimate friend dates all the time since she’d broken up with her boyfriend. It’s as if everything he does is designed to confuse Annabeth. Perhaps it’s time to test the waters again.
“I really like hanging out with you, Percy.” She whispers.
“I like hanging out with you, Beetle Bug.” He says, nudging her with his toes. “But I do actually have something to tell you.”
“Okay, let’s hear it.”
“I’m not coming back next season.” Percy says, looking guilty. “I thought– I thought I’d have to watch you and Becker all the time, and you know I’d kind of always wanted to go back to the men’s team and Magritte offered me a job, and I… took it.”
Annabeth stares at him. His ears turn bright red and he can’t meet her eye, and she feels as though on some level she’s failed him monumentally.
“Percy if you feel guilty about chasing your dreams,” Annabeth crawls up to him, swinging her leg over him and straddling him. “Because of me– I will never be able to forgive myself for that. This is good news. It’s great news. Please tell me it hasn’t rested heavy on your conscience.”
“It means I won’t see you as often.” Percy wraps his arm around her to steady her. “I’m going to be pretty busy.”
“That isn’t a bad thing.” Annabeth says. “I’m happy for you. Did you think– did you think I’d hold it against you?”
“We have a good thing going. I didn’t want to ruin it.”
“And what is it?” Annabeth pushes. “That we have going?”
Percy takes his time to respond. “We’re friends, right?”
There’s no reason to say why hearing it this time is what pushes Annabeth over the edge, but she pushes off of him and throws her hands up in the air.
“You’re kidding me.” She says. “You have got to be kidding me.”
“What?” Percy leans forward, brows furrowing. “Did I say something–?”
“Of course you said something!” Annabeth cries. She’s been bearing this stupid burden since the day he broke up with her a year and a half ago. This isn’t working, Annabeth, but we should stay friends. “Fuck that! Fuck that, seriously! I don’t fucking want to be your friend.”
“Yeah!” Annabeth cuts him off. “Yeah, you should be sorry, actually, because I am so sick of you constantly pulling the same card!”
“The friends card! Why can’t you just be honest with me and tell me what you want from this relationship?”
“Annabeth,” Percy takes a deep breath. “You are two months out of a relationship. You’re in no position to be dating again.”
“That isn’t your choice, Percy.” Annabeth stomps her foot into the ground. “Just like it wasn’t your choice to break us up because you felt guilty. I’m a grown woman, I can make decisions for myself.”
“Oh, yeah?” Percy gets up, a flash of anger in his eye. “So fucking make one, then. Because all I have heard from you is how you want to move on from me, but you don’t want to move on from me, but– oh wait! You’re moving on from me, except not really because the guy you’re trying to move on with isn’t me. Don’t stand there like you’re somehow better than me, Annabeth.”
“You want me to make a decision?” Annabeth sneers. “Here’s one: I don’t want to be your friend. Not now, not back when, not any time in the future, you understand?”
“Well fuck you, then–”
“Because I don’t want to stand by your side and watch you fall in love with someone else.” Annabeth’s on a roll now. She’s only partially aware of the words spilling out of her mouth. “I’ve tried that, Percy. I’ve tried being happy to see you move on from me, and you know what? It fucking sucks. I don’t want to see you move on, because… because I don’t want you to move on. I want you to stay here, with me, and I want you to fall back in love with me and the more time you spend being friends with me, the more it fucks with my head and I can’t take it anymore. I can’t.”
“Are you still in love with me, Annabeth?” Percy asks. His jaw is set and his frown is deeply set, but he isn’t shouting anymore.
“You make it really hard not to be.” Annabeth’s voice breaks. Hot tears are spilling out of her eyes. “And you look at me sometimes and I can swear you feel the same way but then you say stuff like how we’re good friends and it hurts. I dont’ want to be your friend, I want you to be in love with me and Percy, if you can’t do that, all I’m asking is that you let me go because this is downright cruel.”
Percy stands still for a moment, completely gobsmacked. Annabeth purses her lips, only now realising just how far away from her apartment is and that she had, in fact, come here with Percy and had no way of leaving. Then he walks towards her with intent and takes her face in both of his hands gingerly before he searches her face.
“I’m going to ask you again. Are you still in love with me, Annabeth?”
“Yes.” Annabeth hates how weak she sounds. She fixes her glare on the ground, but Percy squeezes her face slightly, demanding her attention. The corners of his lips tug upwards and he steps impossibly close to her.
“Then I’d quite like to kiss you now, if that’s okay with you.” He says, tilting his head to the side and ducking until his breath fans over her lips. “Because it has never been my intention to remain just friends with you.”
“Then why did you not just say it?” Annabeth asks. “Do you have any idea how much agony you put me through?”
“I didn’t want you to rush into it with me.” Percy says. “Silena was right. If we were to do this again, it had to be right. And you were just coming out of a relationship and I’m way too excited to begin a life with you and– and I don’t want to fuck it up this time.”
Annabeth knows better than to argue. She doesn’t think she’d survive another breakup with Percy. She wraps her fingers around his wrist and meets his eye.
“So what are you saying?” She asks and Percy lets out a breathy laugh, knocking his forehead against hers.
“I’m saying I’m ready to do this.” He says. “And if you’re not ready, that’s okay. I’ll wait. And if you never come back, that’s okay too– I just want you to know that I’m all in, okay? And I don’t ever see myself not being all in because you are it for me. I don’t know how much you believe in soulmates, but I’ve been thinking about them ever since Beckendorf’s wedding, and I’ve found mine. I want to be here– for all your wins and all your losses and I want to be able to laugh at your red cards and missed goals and I want to watch you achieve all your wildest dreams, Annabeth. That’s where I am, and if you think you are ready for that, you should kiss me now before I begin to regret everything that just came out of my mouth–”
Annabeth can’t bear to listen to him anymore. She links her arms around his neck and stands to her tiptoes, taking his lips into hers.
For all their time apart, kissing Percy Jackson is exactly the same as she remembers, except maybe made better by the sheer amount of time she’d waited to be able to do this. Annabeth feels little shame in the way she runs her tongue along his lower lip before slipping it into his mouth. He is soft under her touch and sweet as pie and Annabeth’s pretty sure that all her internal organs have melted into a pile of mush. To make the kiss impossibly sweeter, Percy moans softly into her lips, pulling her closer and deepening the kiss, his arms finding their way around her waist so he can lift her off her feet.
“Fuck me.” He mumbles against her lips when she pulls away to catch her breath. Her chest is heaving and his face is flushed. “Where’d you learn to kiss like that?”
“I might have picked up a thing or two.” Annabeth whispers and he presses himself to her.
“Don’t tease me.” He warns. “I know I’m not a prince, but I believe I owe you fourteen children.”
“Shut up.” Annabeth laughs and Percy chases her lips to give her a chaste kiss. He blinks up at her, his hands sliding lower and lower down her spine before doing it again. He does it one more time and Annabeth’s heart flutters.
“It’s a lot of effort, you know,” Percy says between kisses. “Making children.”
“Not to mention all the time we’ve lost.” Annabeth laughs into his mouth and Percy smiles against her.
“We have so much to make up for.”
“ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME!?” Percy’s on his feet in seconds. “REF, WHAT THE ABSOLUTE FUCK WAS THAT? DON’T MAKE ME COME OUT THERE!”
The crowd is booing, but Percy’s voice rings louder than anyone else’s. He leans over the railing and squints down at what’s going on on the pitch. He can see the referee saying something to Annabeth, who looks pretty shaken but doesn’t argue back. Pickford, the woman from the other team, picks herself off the ground and shoots the crowd a thumbs up, but isn’t met with the support she must have expected. Finally, the referee seems to come to a decision and holds up a yellow card to Annabeth.
“FUCK YOU! That wasn’t a penalty!” Percy yells, but his girlfriend puts her hands up in surrender. The rest of the audience is jeering at the referee enough that she consults the video assistant referee. Annabeth places her hands on her hips as she and Pickford wait for a decision to be made.
Percy looks up at the clock. Bloomsbury is tied 0-0 with three minutes on the clock. He settles back down on the edge of his seat and cranes his neck to watch, feeling more aware than ever of the cameras that are on him. He supposes he’ll see whatever stupid headline they come up with in tomorrow’s paper– he just hopes he’s giving them a good angle this time.
The VAR finally decides against Annabeth’s yellow card and there’s a flood of relief that travels through the game-goers. Percy claps his hands together absently, his eyes fixed on where Annabeth and Katie are standing. Spread out, he thinks aggressively, as if it’s going to somehow reach Annabeth. Why are you standing right beside her?
In a stroke of what can only be called magic, she seems to understand just what to do. She moves aside, going dangerously close to being offside but not quite crossing the line. The ball is still in the defending half, but Bloomsbury gains possession. Alexander to James, James to Robertson, Robertson back to Alexander, who passes to Arnold. Arnold has a rough go but manages to avoid losing the ball to Richarlison and passes to Beauregard– Percy leans forward. Hampshire is too slow– Silena can take the short if she wants, but no! She passes to Gardner, who passes back to Beauregard, Beauregard to Chase, who’s wide open and Chase shoots, and—
The crowd erupts in applause. Even Percy jumps to his feet again, punching the air. Bloomsbury leads 1–0 with forty seconds left in extra time.
Everyone else settles down to watch the game, Percy’s already making his way downstairs. His hip’s been acting up and he knows it’ll take a minute to get down. The game ends officially when he’s just around the corner.
Annabeth spots him the second she’s out. She struggles out from under her teammates who are all taking turns grabbing her and ruffling her hair and races over to Percy. He holds his arms out and she leaps right into them, letting him spin her around before setting her down.
“Your hip!” Annabeth cries.
“You won!” Percy yells over the noise. “Do you know what that goal got you?”
“A Ballon d’Or nomination!” Percy says, grabbing her by the face and planting a wet kiss on her mouth.
It’s funny, he hasn’t been on the pitch in two years now– but watching Annabeth play gives him the exact same rush. Adrenaline is coursing through his veins now as he looks at his girlfriend, face flush and at the prime of her career, but he sees the girl he fell in love with thirteen years ago at Westfield Park staring back at him.
Annabeth wears a wide, lopsided smile and her eyes sparkle with life and there’s a sheen of sweat on her forehead that makes her positively glow, and it’s perhaps the high of seeing her like this; the happiest, most bewitching version of something he’d already held so dear that pulls the words out of his mouth.
“Marry me.” He says and Annabeth lets out a high-pitched cackle.
“Marry me!” He repeats, more forceful this time. “I don’t want to wait– there’s nothing to wait for. You’re brilliant and you have my undying devotion and I swear that the way I feel for you will long outlive me, and I don’t know what we’re waiting for. You should marry me.”
Annabeth grabs his face and pulls him in, kissing him hard on the mouth. There’s very little tenderness in the way she holds him, but it makes all the difference. His hands find her hips and he digs his fingers in, pushing her roughly against the wall and he trails hungry kisses down her neck. She’s sweaty and pink and she is by far the most beautiful woman he’s ever laid eyes on.
“That better be a yes, Chase.” He slips his hand under her jersey and runs his fingers over her abdomen. “Because I want to do things to you that would be really awkward to do if you said no.”
“Of course I’m going to marry you.” She says breathlessly. “Fuck, Jackson, of course I’m going to fucking marry you. I’ll marry you right now.”
Percy laughs, resting his forehead against hers. He closes his eyes, trying his hardest to take in the moment. This is the story they’ll tell their kids– he wants to remember every little detail. How their mother’s chest was heaving and how she made a little sound when he kissed her. How her hair was pulled into a ponytail but the little strands that escaped clung to her face. How unimaginably gorgeous she was and how they’ve all taken after her.
He holds her hands and he kisses every finger. “Are you serious?” He asks.
“I’m going to shower.” Annabeth tells him. “I’m going to rub the fact that I remained patient when the ref was being a dick in Diana’s face. Then you can take me home and tomorrow we’ll sign the papers. I don’t care how we do it I want to be married to you.”
“You’re so insane.” Percy says, drawing away from her.
“I’m going to sneak you into the shower first.” Annabeth whispers, as though her team isn’t still out celebrating on the field. “So be quiet.”
“I have to say, Annabeth,” Percy says. “I’m impressed with how calm you were with the ref today. Seems the extra practice sessions helped.”
Annabeth snorts, pushing him into the locker room an shutting the door quickly behind her.
“I just couldn’t deal with any more of that punishment.” She tells him as she shimmies out of her shorts. Percy grabs her face and kisses her again. God, he thinks. The walk down the hallway was never-ending. He really misses those lips. He takes her lower lip between his teeth and tugs on it lightly before letting go.
“I can think of a couple of punishments you might like, Chase.”
Annabeth pulls her jersey over her head and raises an eyebrow at him.
“Yeah?” She asks, taking his hand in hers nad leading him into one of the shower stalls. “And it’s Jackson now. You’d better get used to that, Jackson.”