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-

 

“You think it’ll be different?” Annabeth says. She’s splayed out on Piper’s bed like she’s done a thousand times before, bare legs and oversized t-shirt and freshly washed hair that dries soft and smells sweet. Piper swallows hard.

 

“Do you?” she says. It sounds garbled and strange. She hopes Annabeth will let it go. She does.

 

Annabeth hmms and shrugs, bumping their shoulders together. “I think I’m ready,” she says.

 

Piper knows that Annabeth is ready, too---she’s too big for their small town. Annabeth succeeds like it’s the only thing she knows how to do. There’s just not enough space for her, here, and as hard as it is to let her go, Piper thinks it would be harder to make her stay. The world needs Annabeth and Annabeth deserves the world. It was always going to end up this way.

 

Piper’s chest tightens. “Of course you are.”

 

-

 

She sees Annabeth’s face appear in the window of classroom door---she’s bouncing on her toes, the same way she’s always done when she’s excited, even back when they were little children chasing the ice-cream truck. Her smile is bright as she waves, and Piper smiles back just as wide, before she realizes what this means. She slumps a little lower in her seat and closes her eyes until the bell rings.

 

Annabeth tugs her aside by the wrist, laughing, breathless, and Piper tries to pretend that she doesn’t flinch away from the touch.

 

Piper takes the acceptance letter with shaking hands and reads it, not processing a single word, while Annabeth keeps bouncing.

 

“Can you believe it?” she says, finally bubbling over.

 

“I told you, didn’t I tell you?” Piper bursts out, sounding much more excited than she feels. She is excited. She doesn’t know what she’s feeling. “I knew you could do it!”

 

Annabeth laughs and Piper tries to hand back the letter, but ends up reeling her in, like magnets, like a seam. She feels Annabeth’s excitement rippling through her own body---Annabeth squeezes tight, Piper squeezes back tighter.

 

Annabeth’s hair smells like lemon and Piper doesn’t cry.

 

-

 

Annabeth rolls her eyes and sets down her controller. “Piper, you’re not even pretending to play anymore.”

 

Piper shrugs. “I hate this game.”

 

Annabeth finally takes her eyes off the screen and frowns at her. “What? You love this game, you’re the one who always wants to play.”

 

No , you love this game, Piper thinks. You frown when you play it, the same way you always do when you’re concentrating on something, but your eyes sparkle the way they do when you’re having a good time. You lean with the controller and sometimes our knees knock. I started losing to you in seventh grade because of the way you cheer when you win. It wasn’t hard to do---I barely look at the screen anymore, anyway, because I’m so busy watching you.

 

What she says is, “It’s harder, now.”

 

Annabeth gives her another funny look and Piper wonders if she knows that she’s not talking about the game.

 

-

 

She feels like she’s watching her own life flash by from behind a subway window, unable to get out from behind the glass and actually live it. She’s home, and so is Annabeth, but they’re only half here, one foot in the present and another in the future, stretched thin and far between. That’s how it feels to Piper, at least.

 

They have sleepovers and watch movies and make hot chocolate. They go on their annual ski trip with Piper’s dad, leaning against each other in the ski lift and coming back windblown with chapped lips and frosty cheeks. Piper thinks about sharing a fractal bright kiss outside in the snow and cuddling together in the lodge under thick blankets. She’s used to that kind of ache, but it’s worse, now, because they’re leaving, because this will most likely be the last one. There’s nothing to even hope for anymore, because the future is standing right in front of her, staring her in the face. And if it’s a future that Piper doesn’t want---well, it’s too late to change it now.

 

She doesn’t sleep the night of that realization---she sits up with her arms curled around her knees while Annabeth sleeps next to her.

 

“Look, nothing is going to change, okay?” Annabeth assures her. She sounds a little desperate and a little frustrated, like some part of her senses how senselessly livid, how utterly miserable Piper is. “We’re still us! We’ll always be us .”

 

You’re wrong, Piper tells her silently, from behind her sealed lips and clenched jaw.

 

-

 

Annabeth gets three prom invitations to Piper’s none---not that that’s surprising. The same thing happened last year, and just like last year, Annabeth turns them all down. Piper is expecting her to roll her eyes at the prom preparations and suggest that they just stay in and order pizza and watch the event unfold on Instagram, like they’d done last year, but Annabeth surprises her by screwing up her mouth and saying, mock casually, “I think we should go.”

 

Piper blinks and looks up from her book. She’s not reading it---they’ve been spending most of their lunchtimes in the library since freshman year, because Annabeth likes to use it as a study hall. Piper doesn’t mind. It’s usually the best part of her day. Little known fact about superstar Annabeth Chase: she’s actually a giant dork. It’s what Piper likes best about her.

 

“Go?”

 

“To prom,” Annabeth says casually, dropping her eyes to brush an invisible crumb off her book.

 

“Oh,” Piper says. “Okay.”

 

Annabeth’s eyes flick up to meet hers. “I mean, just because it’s senior year.”

 

“Yeah, makes sense.”

 

“I mean---it’s going to be stupid and I don’t think it’s half as big a deal as people make it out to be but. I just want to get my stepmother off my back about it,” she says quickly. “And like, it’s only one night, I’ll just suck it up and then it’ll be over, you know?”

 

“Yeah,” Piper says again, swallowing hard. “So you said yes to Jake then, yeah?”

 

Annabeth makes a disgusted face. “Of course not, why would you think so?”

 

“Oh, I just thought…” she trails off lamely.

 

Annabeth gives her an odd look. “I just thought that we could go.” she gives her a quick smile. “But, like, if you don’t want to then I understand. It’s just… it would be a lot better if you were there.”

 

Piper raises her eyebrow with noticeable more humor than she’s feeling. “Annabeth Chase,” she says, “are you asking me out?”

 

Annabeth rolls her eyes and laughs and if something in Piper’s chest curls up and dies, well, no one has to know.

 

-

 

It’s the quiet things, the little things, that hurt the most: winks from across the room and hair spilling across the pillow, t-shirts that get lumped in with her own, sharing the same space, utterly inseparable from each other.

 

-

 

They graduate on the 17 of June. It’s late, this year. Or maybe it’s early. She doesn’t know, couldn’t tell you, because either way the date is ramming her in the chest and staring at her from the wall and cycling itself through her conversations. She can’t get away from it. She can’t get to it fast enough.

 

At night she draws her knees up to her chest and thinks, everything is different, everything is different, everything is different.

 

-

 

She almost turns her down when Annabeth urges her to stay over, but she can’t deny Annabeth anything. Her parents will stock up on Piper’s favorite snacks and she’ll forget to bring her toothpaste and have to borrow Annabeth’s and they’ll skip first period and go in late because they won’t get up when the alarm goes off and maybe it’ll be some semblance of normal again. She could use some of that.

 

-

 

“Look, can we talk?” Annabeth says one day. She tucks her hair behind her ear and holds a book open on her lap, but it’s a ploy.

 

“Yeah,” Piper says, dragging out the word as she drags out a chair. “Is this like, something ominous?”

 

Annabeth shrugs noncommittally, which makes her feel worse.

 

“I feel like something’s wrong.”

 

Piper swallows hard around the lump in her throat. When she speaks, it sounds brittle. “With what? Me? Us?”

 

Annabeth purses her lips and sets the book down. “Both. I just… I just feel like you’re upset. Like you keep pulling away. And when we’re together, we’re not really together.”

 

She breathes in through her nose, hard, and tries not to scream. “If you could give me some examples, that would help.”

 

Annabeth looks away, like the thought hadn’t occurred to her. “You just… don’t initiate anymore. I just don’t feel like we talk anymore. I know something is going on, but I feel like I’m not allowed to ask. And it makes me feel like you don’t care---and I know that’s not true but it just… I feel that way, lately.”

 

She feels like she could yell. She feels like she could walk out and never come back. She feels like she could hit something, curl her fists up tight and let the energy fizzle through her, making weapons from her body and her bones.

 

  1. You have no idea what you’re talking about, what you’re asking for.
  2. None of this is my fault, I will not apologize.
  3. If I gave you all of me, even the ugly parts and the parts that don’t fit and the parts that you don’t understand and you think are disgusting, you wouldn’t want it. If I give you half of me, the part that hides, the part that lies, then it’s not good enough because it’s too shallow for you. I cannot win. I can never win. I was always going to lose you, in the end.
  4. Sometimes I think I hate you. I could never make you feel worse than you make me feel.

 

In the end, she manages to get the list out. It takes an hour and assurance that of course she cares and of course Annabeth is always allowed to ask and of course, they’ll both try to follow up.

 

Annabeth frowns and assures her that nothing, nothing would change how she thinks of Piper.

 

It’s a lie. It’s a lie. It’s a lie.

 

-

 

In seventh grade, back when Annabeth’s friends were her friends and truth or dare was supposed to be fun, she said it out loud.

 

It was less of admitting and more of vague statements and progressively feeling more and more like she wanted to crawl out of her skin, that the fear of making it real was stifling, but possibly not as bad as the pressure to keep it inside.

 

She’d said it quietly, alluded to it, at least. Annabeth guessed.

 

“I knew it,” Annabeth said. She whispered it. They were on the floor tucked under a large blanket. She shifted onto her side to see better, drawing her knees up to mirror Annabeth’s, knocking them together just a bit. In a way, Piper was grateful that the lights were off, so she didn’t have to decide what she saw in the expression. “I think about it too, sometimes.”

 

Piper’s heart throbbed painfully, hope rising in her throat. It was innocent, back then---that was before the crush, before the attraction, before the complete helplessness of standing before Annabeth Chase and feeling so completely, utterly destroyed by her. Just the possibility, the potential of having this in common, this strange and terrifying and fragile thing, still new, still developing.

 

The other girl, the one on Piper’s right, stiffened and went quiet, and she swore she could hear her pulse pounding in the darkness of the night, cold sweat breaking out against her neck. “Oh,” the girl said.

 

She’d swallowed hard. “Not like, actually , though,” Piper said quickly. “Just like, celebrities. Or like, when you like someone’s outfit and want to touch their hair. It’s just like, a girl crush, not like, actually . I’m not like that.”

 

They’d laughed about it and Annabeth had defended her and they’d gone back to being friends, friends who talked about boys and flirted with boys and tried to date boys. Piper watched dozens of Youtube videos about how girl crushes didn’t mean you weren’t straight and put the whole thing out of her mind.

 

Later, she thinks about it and laughs, laughs so hard that she’s crying and her chest cracks open and all the messy, ugly stuff that’s been trapped inside comes filling out while she curls up on the shower floor and tries to get air into her lungs again.

 

-

 

She has a freshman reception event at her college the week after, to schedule her classes and attend a mandatory club fair. She complains liberally about the club fair, but Annabeth urges her to get excited and get involved. She knows it’s mostly because Annabeth is terrified that Piper will go through college friendless without her, and quite frankly, she’d be lying if she said those fears were unfounded---even if she doesn’t have enough energy to panic as much as Annabeth seems to be.

 

A brightly colored girl approaches her, brimming head to toe with rainbows. Piper’s mouth feels dry. She wonders if she’s really that obvious , or if the girl just approaches everyone that she sees skulking around in corners trying to be invisible. Maybe, she thinks belatedly, skulking around in corners trying to be invisible is what makes her so obvious.

 

She tries to be polite and go on her way, but the girl doesn't flinch at her discomfort. “We’d love to have you,” she says, handing her a LGBT pin and a rainbow keychain, which Piper can hardly refuse without being rude.

 

Piper raises an eyebrow. “Oh, really?”

 

They make eye contact and there’s a moment of transparency there. It’s quick, because Piper clears her throat and looks away, but the girl’s eyes soften and she lowers her voice.

 

“Yeah, really. We really would.” She studies her for a brief second, and then smiles tentatively, like she’s afraid of pushing too hard. “Just---listen, okay? Our existence. Our survival. It’s… it’s brave. And you can definitely do it alone, but this makes it easier. I promise it does. Just… just think about it, okay?”

 

Piper thanks her quickly and says that she will. Unexpectedly, without wanting to, she finds that she does think about it.

 

-

 

In late May, Annabeth gives a speech to the student body of their high school on the stigmas leveled against neurodiverse children in the education field, particularly in public schools.

 

Piper has seen her do it half a dozen times before, twice in their English class and three times sitting on Annabeth’s bed while she held her notes in her hands and practiced, and once in the living room with the rest of Annabeth’s family.

 

At this point, she thinks she could recite the speech herself from memory, which gives her the chance to get lost in how powerful Annabeth’s voice is when she believes in something, in how her eyes light up and her body language is sharp and definitive when she talks about something she’s passionate about.

 

She thinks of how that passion might be translated into the lines of their bodies coming together, she thinks of that voice crying out loudest of all at a pride rally, she thinks about her eyes lighting up like that when she looks at Piper, and in spite of herself, she hopes against all hope.

 

Her face is burning when Annabeth comes up to her after the ceremony is over, breathless and vibrant and more than Piper could ever hope to have.

 

-

 

They used to go shopping together all the time, before Piper couldn’t stand it anymore. She makes excuses and Annabeth never thinks anything of it. She takes pictures in the dressing room mirror and texts them to her, and Piper commends herself for declining, because at least if her mouth is dry and her ears are hot and her eyes are stinging, she can do it in the privacy of her own bedroom, rather than having to put on a brave face and pretend.

 

-

 

“Stop fidgeting,” Piper instructs.

 

Annabeth puffs out her cheeks and glares at her.

 

“Shh,” Piper says, leaning in closer.

 

“I didn’t even say anything!”

 

Piper raises an eyebrow at her and pauses for a second to look her in the eye. It’s a mistake. Annabeth is looking up at her through her lashes, biting the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing.

 

“Oh, forget it, then,” Piper says flippantly, cheeks burning, but not from annoyance. There’s no real heat in it. Annabeth starts laughing.

 

“You’re taking this so seriously ,” she says, breathlessly. “You should see your face.”

 

Excuse me if I don’t want you to look like the corpse bride at your senior prom,” she says indignantly.

 

“It’s eyeliner , not a calculus problem,” Annabeth says sardonically.

 

“It’s hard!” she whines dramatically. “You have to do it carefully!”

 

Annabeth smirks at her and rolls her eyes indulgently. “Whatever, I really don’t care how it comes out. Either way it’s going to feel like there’s cement on my face.”

 

“Oh, really?” Piper taunts, darting forward with the pencil and drawing a line across Annabeth’s cheekbone.

 

“Piper!” she shrieks, hand flying up to cover her cheek. Piper darts forward and makes another line on her forehead. Annabeth screams and lunges forward to grab Piper’s fists in her hands, trying to squirm away from the eyeliner pencil. She manages to wrestle it out of her grip and makes a streak across Piper’s face.

 

“HA!” she says, standing up proudly with her hand on her hip, brandishing the eyeliner pencil like a weapon. “Victory!”

 

“You’re ridiculous ,” Piper tells her truthfully.

 

I’m ridiculous!” she protests, turning around to face the mirror and starting to scrub the eyeliner off her face. She screws up her cheeks cutely as she does it, and Piper stops laughing.

 

You are, she thinks. You’re ridiculous and beautiful and strong and stubborn and brilliant, and I can’t tell you and mean it, I can’t tell you seriously, otherwise it stops being a game, it stops being funny, and I become strange and new and different and I lose you.

 

-

 

When she was fourteen, she cut off all her hair. She cried when she did it. She used safety scissors and left it in the bathroom sink for her father to see.

 

Her father asked her why, and she had burned with shame and stared at her feet.

 

“Someone said girls couldn’t have short hair,” she said quietly. “That only boys and lesbians could have short hair.”

 

She wasn’t sure, exactly, what the act of rebellion had meant at the time. She hadn’t been thinking clearly. She’d wanted to prove them wrong, she’d told herself. But she’d also wanted to sentence herself to that life, to brand herself as a lesbian, to show the world that she was that ugly word that people spit through their teeth, dripping with disdain. She wanted punishment, to suffer, to have people raise their eyebrows at her when they walked past. Maybe she wanted someone to yell back at her all the reasons she hated herself, or maybe it was some half-baked attempt at having pride, or maybe she was aiming for her wrists and only narrowly managed to redirect her emotional outburst. She still isn’t completely sure.

 

Looking back on it, though, she thinks it was fitting. She had been raised to believe that she shouldn’t cut her hair unless it represented the death of someone close to her. And in a way, that was what she had done, because she truly believes that a piece of herself died that day, and she hasn’t gotten it back ever since.

 

-

 

“It was an ordeal to get this,” Annabeth’s step-mother assures her, presenting her with a corsage. She snorts under her breath and rolls her eyes in the general direction of her husband. “He was going to stop by and pick it up with Annabeth! Wouldn’t want them to think she had to pick one up for herself, I mean, how awkward,” she says scandalously. “And then he just told the florist it was for another girl, so I said, ‘Frederick, they’re going to think they’re lesbians!’”

 

She laughs and rolls her eyes like it’s funny. Piper keeps her mouth glued shut and smiles indulgently. Her step-mother slides the corsage on her wrist and it feels like a death sentence.

 

-

 

When they were small and Annabeth’s father was getting married, they used to talk about weddings. Annabeth’s house was always surrounded in flowers and dress magazines and invitations. Sometimes Piper and Annabeth would help lick the envelopes closed. They used to take the catalogues and sneak them up into her room, as though they were doing something mischievous and disobedient.

 

“Do you want to get married?” Annabeth asked, frowning intently, always far too mature for her age.

 

Piper blinked. “Right now?”

 

Annabeth shrugged. “Why not?”

 

“Oh,” Piper said, puzzled. “I didn’t know that girls and girls could get married.”

 

Annabeth thought very intently about it. “I don’t think so either. Two brides is weird.” she seemed deterred for a few seconds, before jumping off the bed with determination. “It doesn’t matter. I’ll be the groom, I hate wearing dresses.”

 

“That’s not fair,” Piper said, feeling cold and strange for reasons she didn’t understand back then.

 

“Why, do you wanna be the groom?” she asked matter-of-factly, always the leader, always the organizer. Bossy, really, although Piper had never minded.

 

“No,” she said. “But---you can’t be the groom. You’re not a boy.”

 

Annabeth gave her one of her famous, slightly exasperated, put-upon looks. “We’re just playing pretend , Piper. It’s not real.”

 

“Oh,” she said. “Right.”

 

Sometimes when Annabeth looks over her shoulder at her or tosses her head back and laughs or asks her how she looks in this outfit, Piper hears the words ringing over and over again. We’re just playing pretend, Piper. It’s not real. It’s not real. It’s not real.

 

-

 

Annabeth finds her curled up in the corner of the room staring in disdain, converse peaking out from under her dress.

 

“This is awful,” she says.

 

“Terrible,” Piper agrees.

 

“The worst.”

 

“Can we leave?”

 

Annabeth turns to her and smiles, brighter than the sun. “They’re all heading up to Addie Kenley’s beach house later tonight. Let’s beat them to it.”

 

Annabeth’s hand is warm where it fits into Piper’s, tugging her along, and for all the pain that this girl has put her through, the truth is that Piper lives for moments like these.

 

They call an Uber and order a pizza and change clothes at the Kenley’s beach house, and spend the night on the shore. The water is way too cold to swim but they put their toes in anyway. Annabeth glows in the moonlight and Piper thinks about all the things she will never say.

 

-

 

They go camping for their senior trip, some last attempt at bonding with people that have mutually ignored each other since the eighth grade or whatever. Piper dreads it, but she goes, of course she goes, because she can tell that Annabeth wants to go and she can’t bear to ruin the trip for her.

 

They’re sectioned off in groups of five, leaving Piper to pretend to be friends with Annabeth’s friends again. It’s not that she doesn’t like them, it’s just that she’s too strange, too different to be around them. It’s more trouble than it’s worth; she’d given up pretending to fit in years ago. But it’s only for a week. For Annabeth. She spends as much time as she can bear with their group, and leaves to find her guy friends when she can’t take it anymore. It’s not completely horrible.

 

She laughs along when one of Annabeth’s stupid friends says how relieved she is that Macie Karis isn’t in their group, because, oh my god, imagine having to share a bed with a lesbian! So awkward! She giggles about boys and whines about not having a boyfriend with the rest of them. She doesn’t flinch when one of Annabeth’s stupid friends tells another one, See? You’re so weird, this is why people always think we’re lesbians! She leaves the room when they’re changing and changes by herself after they’re finished.

 

Actually, she takes it back. It is completely horrible.

 

-

 

Sometimes, on bad nights, she keeps the rainbow keychain next to her bed and threads it through her fingers.

 

Brave , she thinks. She tries on the word to see how it feels. Brave. Your existence. Your survival. It’s brave.

 

-

 

It used to be easier, back when Annabeth didn’t care about boys. When she wasn’t sure if she even wanted to get married, or if she wanted kids, or when a boyfriend was too much trouble to manage and she turned her nose up when boys hit on her. It was almost normal, back then.

 

But Annabeth grows out of that, eventually, and Annabeth’s boy problems become Piper’s problems. She stops turning everyone down and starts saying yes, sometimes. She decides that she really does want a boyfriend, and worries about finding the right person. She starts talking about how she’s crossing her fingers that she’ll meet someone in college.

 

Piper gives the best advice she can and reminds herself that this was always going to happen, no matter how much she’d dreaded it.

 

-

 

They graduate on the 17 of June. It’s late, this year. Or maybe it’s early. Either way, it comes, and then it’s over, and everything is different.

 

“Congratulations,” Annabeth says that night. She’s smiling softly, amused with herself,

 

“Congratulations,” Piper tells her. It sort of feels like saying goodbye, and she wonders if that’s because this is what it really means.

 

-

 

Three years after the first time she’d said it at that sleepover, after she had stopped pretending to be friends with Annabeth’s friends and enough time had passed that bringing it up again wouldn’t rock her fragile boat too much, she brought it up again. She looked for an opening into the conversation for months, desperate to be honest, burning with curiosity, itching for a reaction. And then Annabeth slid into the lunch table and told her that Macie Karis had a new girlfriend, and it had come tumbling out before she could stop it—

 

“You ever think about that?”

 

Annabeth blinked at her. “Think about what?”

 

She turned back to her salad, cheeks burning, pushing her lettuce around with her cheap plastic fork. “You know. Girls. You said that you did, sometimes. Awhile ago. We never talked about it since then.”

 

Annabeth had frowned for a second, still perched with one leg over the cafeteria table bench, and then she’d pulled her head back and laughed in bemusement. “No,” she said, waving a hand dismissively, sitting down next to Piper. “I was like, thirteen. I think it’s normal to wonder, but it means nothing to me now.”

 

“Oh,” Piper had said. “Oh, okay.”

 

-

 

Sometimes she wonders how many of the monumental moments in her life had absolutely no significance to Annabeth at all.

 

-

 

Summer is a strange medley of excitement and terror, of lazy days and beach trips, of feeling remarkably normal and remarkably odd. They do all the same stuff as always, except that Annabeth will be leaving in August and they won’t be in school together for the first time since kindergarten. They talk about it, sometimes. They ignore it other times.

 

“I think it’ll be okay, right?” Annabeth says one night, rolled over on her side with her head propped up on her fist.

 

“You’re going to be great,” she says truthfully. “And you know what? If it’s not great, then you come home, and try it again. It’ll be fine.”

 

“Yeah,” Annabeth hmms. “Yeah, I think so, too. I think I need to get out of here.”

 

“Of course,” she says, smiling. “You’ve been ready for a long time.”

 

“I know,” Annabeth says darkly, rolling her eyes. “It’s just… it seems like it’s all so fast, all of a sudden. I’ve been waiting for this since middle school, and now it’s here. It still feels too soon.”

 

Piper swallows and rolls over onto her side to face Annabeth. “We’re moving on,” she says thickly. “We… we’re moving on. We’re growing up.”

 

Annabeth studies her in that uncanny way of hers, and then sighs, flipping onto her back and staring up at the ceiling, fanning her hair out on the pillow like a halo.

 

“Yeah,” she says. “Yeah, we are.”

 

-

 

In ninth grade, Annabeth left her shirt at Piper’s house. She’d found it half under the bed. She’d picked it off the floor and pressed her face against it, feather light, briefly. It certainly wasn’t the first time it had happened, and it wasn’t the last time, either. But that one time, Piper kept it. She thinks that if she had to pick a moment when she fell in love, that would be it. She still has it, tucked away in her top drawer like a secret.

 

-

 

She says goodbye to Annabeth in August. They’re going to keep in touch. They’re going to see each other again. Piper knows it’s true, but it still feels like the most final ending she’s ever lived through. Because it’ll never be the same, they will never have this , these teenage years, this free-sprawling friendship without responsibilities, ever again. And Annabeth will become successful and fall in love and move on, and leave Piper behind, maybe without even realizing it.

 

-

 

“I’m sorry,” she’d told her father the night she cut her hair off. His eyes had looked deep and pained, and it was only then that the gravity of what she’d done, of what this meant, had sunk into her. He had gathered it up in the sink and tied it with a ribbon, all three feet of it. It looked final and harsh in his hands; he held it reverently.

 

“I’m sorry,” she said again, sitting on the toilet, covering her face with her hands and starting to cry.

 

He crouched down next to her and cupped her face in his hands. “It will grow back,” he said quietly. He didn’t say it was okay. He didn’t say it didn’t matter. He didn’t say it was just hair. He brushed a tear off her cheek, looked her in the eyes, and whispered again, “It will grow back, and you will grow past this.”

 

-

 

She thinks that maybe it’s a good thing that Annabeth is away. That having her out of her town and out of her house and out of her space has given her the most clarity she’s had for a long time. As soon as she thinks it, she feels terrible. She goes through the videos they made on her Mac when they were children that night, laughing at them. She doesn’t realize that she’s crying until her tear hits the keyboard. She thinks about texting Annabeth, or sending her one of the video clips. She doesn’t.

 

-

 

On the first day of classes, she slips the keychain onto her car keys. Her hands shake while she does it. She almost takes it off.

 

But then she stops, breathes, thinks.

 

She wants to be new, here. She can’t live high school again, she can’t . She wants to be different. Wants to be seen . Even if the hate is targeted to her face---she would rather that than behind her back.

 

Brave , she thinks, pursing her lips and closing her hand around her keys. You’re brave .

 

-

 

It happens slowly, and strangely, in in-between moments and unexpected times: Piper moves on.

 

She spends most of her time drifting around like a ghost displaced from her body, true, but it gets better. She stops feeling the ache of a phantom limb. She stops looking over her shoulder for someone who isn’t there. She stops refreshing Annabeth’s social media pages quite so often. It still hurts. It hurts a lot. But as surprising and unexpected as it is---it gets better.

 

-

 

At the kitchen table one morning, her father stretches his arm out and tugs on one of her braids, like he used to do when she was little.

 

“It’s getting long again,” he says.

 

She looks down in surprise. “I guess it is.”

 

-

 

When she walks through the door to the first club meeting, sweating palms and shaking hands, still with the rainbow keychain laced through her fingers, the girl from the club fair waves at her and smiles enthusiastically.

 

There is no disgust, no judgement, no recoiling away like Piper is a rare specimen that should be quarantined.

 

Piper smiles back.

 

-

 

When her hair has grown back down to her waist and the word brave beats in her chest and she can wear the word like a badge of honor rather than a mark of shame, Piper decides that she is okay. She will be okay.

 

She holds it tight to her chest like a promise, and keeps going forward.