So, um, I was totally procrastinating writing the next chapter for my other story and wrote this. So make sure that you're not doing anything for the next, like, three hours, because this is ridiculously long.
Disclaimer: All PJO characters belong to Rick Riordan.
The Book Nook
"I wanna thrill you like Michael. I wanna kiss you like Prince. Let's get it on like Marvin Gaye, like Hathaway. Write a song for you like this. You're over my head. I'm out of my mind, thinking I was born in the wrong time. One of a kind, living in a world gone plastic. Baby you're so classic."
("Classic" by MKTO)
The sound of a bell jingling turned Annabeth's attention away from her book and to the front door. Walking in was a familiar seventeen-year-old goth girl, her electric blue eyes attached to the phone in her hand.
"You know, it's really gross how you just eat peanut butter out of the jar," she said without looking up from the phone.
Annabeth's hand froze in the process of moving the spoon to her mouth. She glared. "Peanut butter is the food of the gods, Thalia," she snapped and then continued putting a spoonful of the sticky stuff in her mouth, smacking more loudly than necessary just for emphasis. "I can't believe you don't like it."
"Well, I like it, but I don't go eating spoonfuls of it straight out of the jar."
Annabeth laughed and stuck the spoon back in the peanut butter. Glancing at the clock, she was shocked to see that her shift was already over. She began gathering up her things, stuffing her peanut butter jar back inside her bag and bookmarking the page in her book that she left off on.
"So what are you doing tonight?" Thalia asked, coming around the counter and throwing her bag on the ground. "It's a Friday, the night is young. Any parties you planning to attend?" Thalia's eyes twinkled.
Annabeth snorted and shook her head. "You know me. I don't go to parties. Besides, I've got a date with my book tonight. Can't miss it."
"You are the ideal bookstore employee, Chase."
Annabeth rolled her eyes. Thalia always made fun of her, saying that a bookworm working at a bookstore was the most cliche thing ever. Thalia only worked at the The Book Nook because her grandmother was the owner and she paid well. Annabeth worked there for, in fact, the very same reason Thalia made fun of her for. She was a bookworm and loved books. Of course working at the local bookstore would be an ideal job for her.
Annabeth shouldered her bag and grabbed her cell phone off of the counter. "It's been kinda slow today, so you'll have lots of free time," she told Thalia, who groaned.
"I hate slow days. It makes the hours just drag . . . on . . . ." she drawled, dragging on the last couple words for effect. Annabeth rolled her eyes and turned to leave, but Thalia latched onto her arm. "Oh!" she exclaimed. "I almost forgot to tell you. Luke was asking about you today."
Annabeth's blood began pumping faster. "He was?" she squeaked. Luke Castellan had been her childhood crush since kindergarten. Now, they were heading into their senior year, about to graduate. Annabeth's crush on him hadn't faded away with time, but had made it stronger, if anything.
Thalia nodded smugly. "He did. He was asking where you went off to everyday."
Annabeth's cheeks colored. She worked longer than the average teenager and had barely any time for social interaction with anyone, really. Her family wasn't the richest family out there. In fact, they were practically dirt poor. Annabeth's dreams of going to college and getting a degree in architecture had been born at a young age and squashed soon after when she realized how impossible getting into college would be for her.
She didn't quit dreaming, though. She worked hard at school and had been the top of her class from kindergarten to present day. She got her first job at a local diner at fifteen and after three months of spilling milkshakes all over herself and scrubbing dried ketchup off the tables, she scored a job at her favorite bookshop: The Book Nook. After saving for two years and applying for every scholarship imaginable, Annabeth's hopes had been rekindled. Colleges were watching her, seeing if she was a good applicant for full ride scholarships. Annabeth hoped nothing happened to diminish those dreams.
But Luke. Luke was a whole other story. He was the weak link to Annabeth's plan. For her entire life, she hadn't allowed herself to get distracted from her goal. Luke, however, loved to distract her with small smiles that held so much passion, regular compliments on her appearance or school projects, the brushing of his hand against hers that made her melt. He totally distracted her by just being himself and she couldn't do anything about it.
This summer had been different. She had to take her little brothers to the community pool everyday, which happened to be where he worked. On his breaks, he would sit on the edge of the pool next to her and talk about nonsense. He would brush hair out of her face and one time, he even kissed her on the cheek when she was hurrying her brothers out of the pool because she was running late. Needless to say, she had been late to work that day.
"What did you tell him?" Annabeth asked Thalia, who was leaning against the counter with a smug expression on her face.
"Told him you had a secret boyfriend who was in jail so you ran off to see him everyday."
"Thalia!" Annabeth cried, horrified. If another person had said that to her, she'd know that they were joking. You can never be sure with Thalia though. Annabeth relaxed, however, when Thalia began to laugh.
"Relax, Annie," she said. "I told him you left to go to work."
Annabeth rolled her eyes and moved towards the door. "Bye, Thalia," she sing-songed as she opened the front door and slipped out into the scorching summer air. She walked towards the bike rack where her bike stood locked up. Annabeth sighed. It was the only bike on the rack, which just made it look more pathetic. She wished she had a car. That would have to come after she pays for college, though. She couldn't afford a car now.
On the bright side, since she had to ride her bike everywhere, she was in great shape.
After unlocking the bike, she pulled it off the rack and felt herself bump into someone. She twirled around to apologize but stopped short when she saw who she had run into.
He was tall; really tall. He towered over her by at least a head, probably more, and Annabeth wasn't a small person. His shirt clung to his body, showing the hints of muscles underneath. He was wearing a blue tank, revealing the gorgeous creations that were his arms. He was in board shorts also, like he had just come from the pool. His shaggy, raven black hair wasn't wet, though. It stuck up at odd angles and curled over his forehead. Annabeth itched to run her hands through it. She moved her gaze down from his hair to his face. His lips were pink and full. His jaw was broad and defined, making him look older than he was. Her gaze stopped at his eyes. They were a beautiful shade of green, a dark emerald color that Annabeth had never seen anywhere else.
The clearing of someone's throat brought her out of her daze. She hadn't realized she had been staring at him and his smirk sent her cheeks flaming. She expected him to say something snarky. After all, she had just been staring at him like a lovestruck idiot. Instead, he just grinned and said in a low, rough voice, "Careful, princess."
Then he left, walking into the bookstore.
Annabeth shook her head, deciding to ignore that odd encounter. She got onto her bike and rode off down the street towards her apartment building, completely unaware that the boy she had just ran into was watching her through the window with a small smile on his face.
The thing about summer in Oklahoma is that it's hot.
Annabeth sat the next day at the Broken Arrow Community Pool in her pale yellow one-piece suit, watching her little brothers tackle each other in the water. She sighed and leaned back on her hands, basking in the sun's rays and kicking her feet back and forth in the water. She had two hours before she had to be at the store for work and she was going to make every second count. Despite being a total introvert, she loved the pool.
"Hey, Annie," a familiar cool voice said from above her. Annabeth peeked her eyes open and saw Luke standing above her in all his shirtless glory. Before she could stop herself, she began to blush. She prayed that Luke thought it was because of the heat.
"Hi," she replied as Luke took a seat next to her.
"I have a half hour break," he informed her before grinning. "I'm all yours for the next thirty minutes. Do what you want with me."
Annabeth rolled her eyes at his tone. She didn't know what to say so her eyes and Luke's drifted over to the thirteen-year-old twins, Matthew and Bobby. She smiled at her little brothers as they continued to beat each other up in the four feet water level.
"Thalia told me that you work at that bookstore," Luke said, peering over at her. "The Book Place?"
"The Book Nook," she corrected with a laugh. "And yeah, I do work there." She paused before going out on a limb and saying, "Maybe you could stop by sometime?" She said it as more of a question than a suggestion, like she was asking him if he wanted to.
"Yeah," he said and Annabeth couldn't figure out his tone. "I'd like that."
Then he smiled at her and it warmed her to the bone.
Two hours later, Annabeth was in shorts and her The Book Nook t-shirt (designed by yours truly for a fundraiser a year ago), sitting behind the counter of the store. She had her peanut butter jar again, a mouthful of the stuff in her mouth, and John Green's An Abundance of Katherines nestled in her lap. She sighed. She loved her job.
The sound of the bell jingling pulled Annabeth's nose out of the book. She plastered a friendly smile on her face but it slipped when she saw who it was that had come into her store. It was the boy from yesterday.
He was wearing dark, worn-out jeans despite it being over a hundred degrees outside. He had on a black t-shirt with some rock band Annabeth had never heard of displayed on it. His hair was just as disheveled as yesterday and he had on an annoyed expression, like the bookstore was the last place he wanted to be.
Annabeth cleared her throat and placed her book on the counter. The boy turned his attention from the overflowing shelves to Annabeth, who was gazing at him from behind the counter. She felt an electric shock go through her as he looked at her but it immediately died when his annoyed look melted into a lazy smirk.
"You again," he stated, sauntering over to the counter like he had all the time in the world. Annabeth started to get a uneasy feeling in her stomach. This green-eyed boy didn't look like good news.
"Hi," she replied, unsure of what to say. "Can I help you?"
His smirk deepened and he leaned onto the counter with his arms crossed over his chest. He shook his head. "Nah. Just here to see my grandma."
Annabeth stared at him, confused. Grandma? Then it clicked. "Mrs. Grace is your grandmother?"
Mrs. Grace was the owner of The Book Nook. She was a precious seventy-year-old lady who ran the store practically by herself. Her husband would've helped but he had been in an accident thirty years before and lost the ability to walk. The trauma hit him hard and he was never the same again. Mrs. Grace had to support both of them herself. Thankfully, she had done pretty well and was only doing better now that she had Thalia and Annabeth helping out also.
The boy grinned and reached out, tapping the tip her of nose with his index finger. "You're a smart one, aren't you?"
Annabeth scowled at him and brushed his finger away. "You're a cocky one, aren't you?" she mimicked.
The boy laughed, the sound filled with amusement and curiousity. He gazed down at Annabeth with an odd expression on his face. Annabeth stared up at him. "If you don't want any help, then can you please move away from the counter?"
He snickered and leaned close. "What?" he said in a teasing tone. "Am I distracting you with my gorgeous body?" He paused and whispered, "I sure was yesterday."
Annabeth's cheeks flamed but she offered the boy an indifferent shrug. "No, the amount of stupid radiating off of you is threatening to choke me."
The boy laughed again and looked at Annabeth, impressed. She rolled her eyes and opened her book again, deciding to ignore him and go back to Colin Singleton and his obsession with Katherines. The boy had other ideas, however. He leaned onto the counter again, leaning closer and closer until he was almost nose-to-nose with her. He grinned and said, "You're not normally the type of girl that I date, but I think I'll make an exception. You're hot."
"Thanks. I'm so flattered," Annabeth replied sarcastically.
"So, what do you think? Dinner and movie Friday night?"
"Unfortunately for you, I'd rather go dumpster diving behind a Mexican restaurant than go on a date with you."
The boy's cocky grin never faltered. "I'll make you eat those words, princess."
This time, Annabeth shot him her own arrogant smile. "Try me."
The boy was about to reply when a sweet old voice called from behind Annabeth, "Percy!"
Annabeth twirled around in her seat to find Mrs. Grace standing in the doorway that lead to the back, where her office and the break room that doubled as the storage room was hidden. The old woman wore her regular happy smile and held her arms out as she rushed over to the boy - Percy? - and enveloped him in a hug. Percy, much to Annabeth's surprise, welcomed her, even hugged her back. He gave her a smug grin over his grandmother's shoulder, to which she promptly smiled just as smugly back.
When Mrs. Grace pulled away, she gripped her grandson's shoulder and, though her back was to Annabeth, Annabeth knew she was smiling. "Are you excited?"
Percy gave her a sarcastic grin, even offered two thumbs-ups. "It's been all I can think about for the past week."
Mrs. Grace laughed, not at all put off by the sarcasm. She was probably used to it. "Well, let's get you started right away." She turned around. "Percy, this is my best employee, Annabeth Chase. Annabeth, this is my grandson, Percy Jackson." She lowered her voice, using a stage whisper as she asked Annabeth, "I'm just going to apologize now for anything he might have said that insulted you."
Annabeth laughed. "Oh no, Mrs. Grace," she said. "Percy has been nothing but a perfect gentleman." At this, she shot him a sickly sweet smile. Percy replied by sticking out his tongue. Mrs. Grace laughed.
"Well, I'm glad to see you two are getting along so well," she said. "Because, Annabeth, Percy is going to be working with you from now on."
Annabeth's blood ran cold. "Excuse me?" she squeaked and Percy silently laughed behind his grandmother. "He's going to be working with me?"
"That's right, Miss Chase," Percy announced. "I'm all yours from two to seven everyday."
Annabeth let out a breath and forced herself to smile at Mrs. Grace. "That's great. It always gets boring during the slow days. It'll be nice to have someone to talk to."
Mrs. Grace smiled and told both Percy and Annabeth that she had an appointment she was late for. Giving Percy a big kiss on the cheek, she told Annabeth, "You're in charge. Give him a tour. Show him the ropes. Give him a book to read. Gods know he needs to read more." She muttered that last part and gave Annabeth a kiss on the cheek before hurrying out the door.
That's why Annabeth loved working for Mrs. Grace. She was family apart from her family.
After watching the old woman pull away and drive down the street, Annabeth turned to Percy. "Well," she started, turning towards the shelves spread out before them, "over at the far left are the YA novels. The most popular ones are displayed up front, but there are others on a shelf behind it. Then next to those-"
"What does YA mean?" Percy interrupted, scratching the back of his head.
Annabeth stared at him. "Young adult," she answered slowly, like she didn't quite understand how he didn't know that. Mainly because she didn't. Percy, however, nodded and motioned for her to continue. She scowled but went on. "Next to those are the fiction books. They're divided into genres: mystery, romance, fantasy, adventure," she explained after seeing Percy furrow his eyebrows at the word genre. "And each section is sorted in alphabetical order by the author's last name. Then on the far right are the nonfiction books. Those aren't sorted into genres, just are placed in alphabetical order based on the author's last name again. And then in the very back," she pointed behind the shelves to make a point, "is a room filled with children's book. It's not really organized since the kids tend to mess it all up while looking at the books anyway."
"Did you know," Percy replied, totally out of the blue, "that I used to be one of the models on book covers? You know, the shirtless ones that are ripped? That are always on the romance novels?"
Annabeth scoffed and twirled around, returning to her perch behind the counter. She didn't know what she had done to make the universe punish her in this way, but it had to have been horrible.
"Okay, you win," Percy gave in, amusement in his tone. "I didn't model. I'm more of a person who inspires those characters."
Annabeth's hands clenched into fists. She wasn't going to survive this.
"You never told me that your cousin was a total jerkface," Annabeth accused Thalia of that night over the phone - the one expensive thing that she owned. "Or that he's working with me."
"Hey!" Thalia defended herself. "To be fair, I didn't know that he was going to be working with you, so really, there was no reason to tell you that he was a jerk."
"I mean, seriously!" Annabeth exclaimed, pacing the area of her bedroom. "All he could talk about was himself. For five hours. Five hours. He's obsessed with himself. He's like . . . he's like Narcissus!"
"Annabeth, remember what we talked about. Please refrain from using references that only nerds would get."
"He's a guy from Greek mythology that was in love with his reflection," Annabeth explained quickly. "But I swear, Percy Jackson is, like, the reincarnation of him. He kept going on and on about his body, his muscles, his face, his hair. And when he wasn't talking about his appearance, he talked about how he could get any girl he wanted. He's so arrogant!" At this, Annabeth flopped backwards onto her bed and stared up at the ceiling. "I don't know what to do, Thals. I can't work with him. I can't even tolerate his presence for more than five minutes at a time."
"Unfortunately," Thalia said, "neither can I. And unlike you, I don't mind having a murder on my record. So I think it's better if he works with you."
Annabeth sighed and curled up on her bed. "You are an evil person," she muttered.
"So I'm told," Thalia replied with a dramatic sigh. Annabeth rolled her eyes. "Anyway, I've got to go. Meeting some people at the movies. Talk to you later, Annie! Love you!"
Then the line went dead and Annabeth rolled onto her back, clutching her old flip phone in defeated anger. She looked over at her nightstand, where a picture frame stood, showing off a picture of her mom holding baby Annabeth in the hospital. Her smile had been so wide then. She looked like she had the whole world in her arms. Annabeth sucked in a sharp breath, her throat suddenly closing up. It had been years, but she still felt scarred by her mother's actions. Blinking away tears, she moved her gaze to the picture next to it, having promised herself long ago to never think about her mom. Her, Thalia, and her other best friend, Rachel, arm-in-arm in front of the Princeton campus on their tour last fall. They had been the youngest ones there, being only juniors, but Annabeth had wanted to see the campus of her dream school as soon as she possibly could. Thalia and Rachel tagged along because they were best friends.
And because it was an excuse to take off a week of school.
And because they had paid for the trip. But mostly because they got to miss school.
Annabeth smiled at the picture. Princeton was one of the schools that was looking at her for a full ride scholarship. It was her dream to go there. It was her ticket out of Oklahoma forever. She could handle working at the bookshop with that awful Percy Jackson if it meant going to Princeton in a year.
It wasn't like she had to actually talk to him anyway.
Annabeth arrived early to work the next day, hoping to get some peace and quiet before Percy got there. Mrs. Grace was working at the counter when she arrived. Annabeth smiled at the old lady. "Hi, Mrs. Grace," she greeted.
"Hello, Annabeth," she greeted back with her signature bright smile. "How are you today?"
"I'm good," she answered and took a seat next to the woman behind the counter. She gazed at the book Mrs. Grace had been reading. "Pride and Prejudice," she read, smiling. "How many times is this? Eighteen? Nineteen?"
The woman gave a wicked smile. "I'll never tell," she teased and Annabeth laughed. They grew quiet and Annabeth thought about Percy and how much she dreaded the shift she had to work. Sitting with Mrs. Grace, it was easy to forget that her and Percy were related. Mrs. Grace was so kind and sweet and caring. Percy was the spawn of Satan.
As if sensing Annabeth's sour mood, Mrs. Grace said, "It'll be okay, Annabeth. Remember, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade."
Annabeth smiled. That was Mrs. Grace's favorite saying. She was constantly saying it to Annabeth when she had a bad day or was in a bad mood. Sometimes, it didn't even really apply to the situation but for some reason, that made Annabeth love her even more. "Thanks, Mrs. Grace," she said. The woman smiled proudly before letting out a loud yawn.
Annabeth frowned. "Um, I'm not trying to be rude or anything," she said slowly, "but why don't you have Percy work the morning shift? Then I can do the midday shift and Thalia can do the night shift. Then you wouldn't even have to be up here some days."
"Mm," Mrs. Grace replied and she gave Annabeth a knowing look, a twinkle in her eyes. "There are reasons for everything, Annabeth. I have reasons behind every decision I make. And besides," she added with a chuckle, "there's something comforting about being surrounded by so many books."
Annabeth couldn't disagree with her about that.
They both gazed around the bookstore, their eyes lovingly gazing at every book in the room. That's how Percy found them, when he walked inside the store five minutes later. Annabeth's eyes immediately narrowed towards him, her mood turning sour.
He was dressed in board shorts again, and his hair was slightly damp. He had on a blue tank with the Captain America shield displayed on it and a towel was draped over his neck. Annabeth scowled at his appearance. Seriously? This was work. This was a paying job and he decides to show up right after taking a dip in the pool? He didn't even change!
Mrs. Grace, however, seemed unfazed. She smiled at her grandson. "Percy," she said. "How are you today?"
He smiled lopsidedly. "I'm great, Grandma."
She got up and walked over to give him a kiss on the cheek. Annabeth rolled her eyes and Percy shot her a smug grin. Annabeth managed to stick out her tongue at him before Mrs. Grace turned back around. "Alright, Annabeth," she instructed, "you're in charge. I promised Mr. Grace I'd go visit him this afternoon and you know how he gets." She winked and Annabeth smiled, remembering the time she had accompanied the old woman to see her husband. He lived in a home where nurses could help him move accident surrounding the injury had really traumatized the man and the only person who could really calm him down was his dear wife. That particular day, they had been late and Mr. Grace had been in a fit when they arrived, only to calm down when he saw his wife. Annabeth thought that was just about the most romantic thing she had ever heard.
"Tell him I said hi," she told the old woman. Mrs. Grace winked before walking out the door. Now that it was just the two of them, Percy's gaze drifted to her and he grinned his infuriatingly cocky grin. Annabeth scowled and pulled her book out of her bag, along with her jar of peanut butter. She opened the book and tried to focus on the words, not on the way Percy's tall figure sauntered behind the counter and to Mrs. Grace's abandoned stool, which happened to be placed right next to her.
"So," Percy started chirpily, "what's on the agenda for today?"
Annabeth shrugged, her eyes still on her book. "Nothing. Unless a customer comes."
Percy nodded and pursed his lips. "So, is there, like, a rush hour for a bookstore?" At Annabeth's confused look, he clarified, "You know, like at Taco Bell or something, there's always a rush hour where they just get hit by a ton of customers. Is it like that here also?"
Annabeth shot him a look. "It's a bookstore, Percy."
"I'm taking that as a no," he muttered and Annabeth rolled her eyes. He continued, "I guess I should have expected that. I mean, it is a bookstore."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Annabeth snapped, crossing her arms.
Percy threw his hands up in surrender. "Nothing!" he defended. "It's just...well..."
"What?" Annabeth demanded, glaring.
Percy grinned smugly at her as he spat out, "Who reads anymore?"
Annabeth stared at him before scowling. Her hands tightened around the book in her lap. "You're infuriating."
"You love me," Percy teased, flicking a curl. Annabeth jerked her head away.
"In your dreams," she shot back.
He grinned and leaned forward. Annabeth leaned back as far as she could without falling, hanging onto the counter for balance. Unfortunately for her, Percy just kept leaning forward until they were nose to nose. She held her breath as he said, "I'm still gonna get you on that date, princess."
"Yeah, then you'll wake up," she retorted, pushing against his chest to get him away from her. He smiled and leaned back, grabbing her hands in the process.
"Stop trying to feel my muscles," he teased. "I know I'm ripped, but there's no need to be all over me."
Annabeth faked a gag and made a big show of scooting her stool away from him. "Why are you even here?" she demanded. "You hate reading and you're obviously not working here out of free will, so what happened?"
Percy thought over her question for a couple seconds before looking at her seriously and saying, "Well, I was just walking down the street one day when I was abducted by aliens. While I was in their mothership, they told me that I had to work at this store or they would wipe out all humanity."
"I bet that was a hard decision for you," Annabeth noted.
Percy ignored her tone and nodded, like her observation was spot-on. "It was. I kept thinking, if they wiped out all humanity, then I wouldn't have to wait in line at the movies or at concerts or even to get ice cream. But then I also realized how horrible of a person I would be to make that decision, so I figured I should probably take the job. And I get rewarded by having to work with a snobby princess who thinks she's all that. Yay."
Annabeth stared, anger boiling up inside her. "Excuse me?" she squeaked, unable to think past her anger. "I am not snobby, I am not a princess, and I do not think I'm all that."
"Really?" he questioned. "Too bad. Those are usually the girls I end up dating. Your loss, though."
Annabeth let out an angry laugh. "Oh!" she cried. "Oh, it's my loss. I hate to break it to you, hot shot, but I will never in a million years date you or anyone like you."
Percy laughed. "Again, I'll make you eat those words."
Annabeth snorted. "Good luck. I've been told I'm stubborn."
Percy grinned and looked her straight in the eyes. "Good. I like a challenge."
They stayed like that, in their silent staring contest for who knows how long, only to be broken by a customer entering the store. Annabeth ripped her eyes from Percy's and smiled at the customer, who happened to be looking for a very specific book. Annabeth got up to help her and was very aware of Percy's hot gaze never leaving her figure.
Annabeth let out a rather long yawn as she stared at the clock on the wall, counting the seconds to seven o'clock. When the second hand finally hit the twelve, Annabeth gathered her things, ignoring Percy's mindless talking.
It had been a month since Percy had started working with her and she wasn't lying when she described that month as coming straight from Dante's Inferno. Thankfully, though, school started the next day and she would have to change her shift schedule to work with her school schedule. And hopefully that meant no Percy.
"Where are you running off to?" Percy asked as Annabeth stuffed her jar of peanut butter into her bag. "I'm not that bad, am I?"
Annabeth was really tempted to tell him that yes, he was, but she figured that would lead to another one of their battle of the insults and she didn't want to involve herself in one of those right then. Instead, she replied, "I have to go talk to Mrs. Grace about school."
Percy furrowed his eyebrows like he didn't understand. Annabeth sighed and tried to explain. "School starts tomorrow, so I can't work the two to seven shift. I have to talk to her about when I can work."
Percy snickered. "You start school tomorrow? Man, that sucks."
Now it was Annabeth's turn to furrow her eyebrows in confusion. "Don't you start tomorrow too?" A sick feeling began to blossom in her stomach. She groaned. "Oh, don't tell me you go to-"
Percy grinned. "Yup. I go to Vance."
Vance College Prepatory Academy was the best school in all of Oklahoma and, unfortunately, the most expensive. It was supposed to have the best teachers and offer college courses to sophomores, if they're ready to take it. The school was so advanced, they used tablets and laptops instead of textbooks and had a variety of different restaurants to choose from in their cafeteria. Annabeth would kill someone and offer the heart to the principal if it meant she could go there.
So she had absolutely no idea how a guy like Percy would attend that school.
"How on earth can you go to that school?" she asked with a distasteful tone.
He shrugged. "My dad is the superintendent and on the board. I go for free."
Annabeth's chest swelled with jealousy. Here was a guy who spent more time worrying about his looks than his homework and probably got straight Ds, and he got to go to Vance for free while people like Annabeth had amazing potential but couldn't afford a school like that. She almost wanted to laugh at the irony of it. Fate was a freaking jerk sometimes.
"I've got to go," she announced, voice strained as she tried to keep her temper in check. It wasn't his fault he was born into the family he was born into. She couldn't blame him. Besides, she was doing just fine in public school. She already had a couple colleges accept her. Granted, they were state colleges, but still. They were colleges. That had to count for something, right?
She walked into the back and knocked on Mrs. Grace's office door. When she heard the old woman call, "Come in," she slipped inside and put on a smile.
"Annabeth," Mrs. Grace greeted warmly. Bills were spread all over her desk and Annabeth tried not to look at them. She didn't want to see if they were behind in the bills. Why would they, though? They were the best bookstore in town. They stayed open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week just because Mrs. Grace had said that when the world had failed, the bookstore would always be there to comfort someone. And the occasional times that Annabeth had worked the night shift, a couple people would come running in at two in the morning, saying that they just finished a book and had to get the next one in the series immediately.
Annabeth always loved those people.
"Hi, Mrs. Grace," Annabeth replied, sitting down in the chair in front of her desk.
"Is there something you wanted to ask me?" she prompted and Annabeth stopped gazing around the office and focused on the reason she had come.
"Oh, yes. Um," she started, "school starts tomorrow for me and I won't be able to work my usual shift. Is there any way I can change it and work a later shift?" She started explaining that she was on the volleyball team and they practiced after school until four thirty, and though some nights they had games, the nights she didn't, she could be here at five. She explained that the season just lasted to the end of September, so she could work her usual school-year shift after that everyday.
Mrs. Grace smiled at her when she was done. "Well, that's fine if you work the evening shift. Thalia is starting school next week and working in the morning before school, so this works out perfectly."
Annabeth smiled. She knew that Vance started later in the morning than public school did and Thalia had free period her first hour of the day. Funny coincidence.
"Thank you, Mrs. Grace," Annabeth thanked as she got up to leave. "I guess I'll be here at five tomorrow evening."
Mrs. Grace smiled at her. Just as Annabeth was about to walk out the door, she said in a teasing tone, "Percy will be mighty disappointed when he finds out you're changing shifts."
Annabeth laughed and walked out of the door.
She sure hoped he was.
The first day of school in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma wasn't a fun day. At least, not for Annabeth. All the girls came in short skirts or dresses, their hair all curled to perfection and their faces painted with make-up. The guys on the football team wore their jerseys like they always did and kept a cheerleader under their arm. Everyone was separated into their cliques when Annabeth arrived, the nerds together, the geeks, the jocks, the princesses.
Annabeth didn't have a clique. She had friends, of course, but all of them either went to other schools, better schools (Thalia) or were older than her and already graduated. She had exactly on friend who attended Broken Arrow High School with her and her name was Rachel Elizabeth Dare.
Rachel was not like other kids. She was an artist. Her attire consisted of paint-splattered jeans, her shirts usually paint-splattered also and sprouting different punny jokes that nobody found funny but Rachel. Her hair was a ferocious, red, curly mess that she never tried to tame. She put on no make-up and wore her freckles with pride. With all those unique attributes, it was never hard to spot her in a crowd.
Annabeth locked up her bike on the bike rack, grabbed her bag, and walked hurriedly inside, hoping to avoid all the jocks and populars looking for new victims to feed on for the year. That had been Annabeth sophomore year and she did not want it to happen again.
When she made it to her locker, she found Rachel waiting there in all her paint-stained goodness. Today's t-shirt said: How do you organize a space party? You planet. Annabeth chuckled as she walked up.
"Nice shirt," she greeted, dialing in the combination.
Rachel smiled. "Thanks!" she said perkily. "My mom got it for me for my birthday this summer. I was surprised. Usually she just gets me those pencil skirts or short dresses that the Bees wear."
Annabeth laughed. The Bees was the nickname her and Rachel came up with their freshman year for Jamaica and her minions, Val and Lia. Those three girls had ruled the school since they were freshmen and both Rachel and Annabeth hated them. They came off as nice, but underneath was a shark. Annabeth knew. They were the girls who had bullied her.
"Yikes," Annabeth said. "I would hate to wear what the Bees wear." Her proof was her outfit: short shorts and a plain ocean blue v-neck shirt, paired with white Converse.
Rachel snorted. "Speaking of the Bees, incoming."
Annabeth turned around to spot the three girls entering the building. Their entrance wasn't like one in a movie, when the entire school stopped whatever they were doing to stare as the queens of the school marched through to the beat of some random pop song. No, it wasn't dramatic like that, but they still drew attention. As Jamaica walked through the hallway, Val and Lia on either side of her, everyone in the hallway would only sneak glances at the threesome. Mostly guys.
The girls looked in envy, though. Jamaica wore tight, dark blue skinny jeans rolled up to be made into capris. A white button-down Oxford shirt was half tucked into her jeans. The sleeves were rolled up and the buttons were unbuttoned dangerously low, revealing lots of skin and a chunky, mint necklace. On her wrist was a bunch of gold and mint bracelets and her mint heels clanked against the floor. Her dark hair was curled and half pulled back. Val and Lia were similarly dressed.
Annabeth turned back to Rachel and faked a gag. "All that make-up has got to be clogging her senses," she remarked.
"And those shoes?" Rachel replied, taking on the persona of a popular girl. "So last year!"
Both girls fell into a fit of giggles and Annabeth's worries about the school year faded away. Maybe it would be a good year.
"Hey, Annabeth," a deep, low voice said from behind her. Annabeth's insides went crazy, her stomach flipping and her heart palpitating. One look from Rachel in front of her and she knew exactly who it was behind her.
She turned around and smiled at Luke. "Hi."
She hadn't seen him all day, hadn't even thought of him. Her and Rachel had spent the first day of school wallowing in mutual hate for humankind. She had told Rachel all about Percy Jackson and his ability to annoy her to the nth degree and Rachel had told her all about her summer at the Bahamas (Rachel's parents were loaded and wanted her to go to this all-girls private school, but Rachel refused.) and how boring it was without her there. Not once had they talked about Annabeth's crush.
Luke rubbed the back of his neck, a movement that made Annabeth want to scream. "So, I was thinking," he started.
Annabeth stared at him. "Yes...?" she prompted, hoping, wishing desperately for him to be asking her what she thinks he's asking her.
Luke paused, looked down, then looked back up at her. She smiled. "Maybe you want to go to the opening football game with me next Friday?"
Annabeth's heart soared. She felt like jumping up and down and screaming like fangirls with Rachel but she couldn't do that in front of Luke. Instead, she just smiled and nodded. "I'd love to."
Luke grinned and breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank God," he breathed. "I was so nervous." Annabeth laughed as he continued, "I'll text you."
Annabeth nodded and waved as he walked off. When he was out of sight, she turned back around to face Rachel, letting her smile take over her face. She squealed. "Finally," she said. "I've been waiting years for this."
Rachel rolled her eyes. "Please, Annabeth," she said. "Luke is a jock. You should know better than to date him."
Annabeth smiled and leaned against the lockers. "But he's different." She paused, thinking of a certain someone. "And it's not like I'm dating a guy from one of those college prepatory schools."
Rachel laughed. "Yeah," she agreed. "They're pretty bad."
Annabeth grinned and the two girls separated.
Annabeth walked into The Book Nook at five o'clock exactly with a smile on her face. She had done awesome in volleyball practice (in fact, so awesome that her coach promised her a starting position in back row-Annabeth's favorite spot), she'd gotten through the first day of school without a rude comment from Jamaica and her minions, and Luke had finally asked her out. It was looking to be a promising year.
Her smile faltered when she saw Percy Jackson sitting behind the counter, scrolling along on his phone. Of course.
"What are you doing here?" The accusation slipped out of her mouth before she even thought. She found that she didn't want to take it back, though.
"I work here," Percy explained, like he was talking to a five-year-old. "I thought you had that figured out by now, Annie."
"Do not call me 'Annie'," she threatened, slowly making her way to the back. "And what I meant was, why are you here during my shift?"
Percy grinned his infuriatingly cocky grin. Annabeth heart dropped, knowing what he was about to say. "This is now my shift too," Percy said proudly, giving Annabeth his ever-so-bright smile. Annabeth scowled. "I'm signed up for all the same shifts as you."
Annabeth couldn't believe her luck. Seriously? Percy Jackson. Of all the people that worked here, it had to be him. Annabeth would have considered quitting her job, but then quickly vetoed the idea. It paid too much and she needed that money if she ever wanted to go to college. She'd have to talk to Mrs. Grace about switching either her shifts or his. She couldn't spend the rest of her career at the little bookstore with Percy Jackson. She wouldn't.
"Why?" she found herself asking a second later.
Percy grinned and leaned forward, answering, "I like you, Annabeth. When will you realize that?"
Annabeth scowled again at him and turned away toward the back break room, fuming. She hated him. She hated that Percy Jackson. How dare he sign up for her shifts and poison her time working at the store, the only thing she looks forward to all day? She had already worked with him for a month. She wasn't sure how much longer her sanity would last.
Taking a deep breath, she entered the break room and sat down at the table, massaging her temples. All of a sudden, her head was pounding. She turned to get some Advil out of her bag and silently cursed the boy outside.
Senior year was suddenly taking a turn for the worst.
Annabeth gripped her pencil so tight, she was afraid it would break. She tried to zone in on the math problem she was currently solving, but it was near impossible. The whispers of the students behind her was too much.
It was Advanced Maths, the last hour of the day. Annabeth liked math class, or she always had. This year, it had quickly become her least favorite simply because of three people: Jamaica, Val, and Lia. Not only were the three girls drop dead gorgeous, but they also were smart. At least, smart enough to be in the advanced maths class.
And all three Queen Bees plus a lonely Annabeth (Rachel wasn't in her math class) equalled a class equal to the ninth circle of Hell. The three girls sat right behind Annabeth and tittered to themselves. Usually it wouldn't bother the blonde, but then the Bees spoke just loud enough so Annabeth could hear what they were laughing about.
Apparently, the subject that tickled their funny bones happened to be her.
"I heard she lived in a trailer park and had to share a room with all of her family," Lia whispered. Annabeth swallowed hard, trying to calm herself down.
"That's old news, Lia," Jamaica giggled. Annabeth shut her eyes tight then opened them again, rereading the word problem again, trying to comprehend it. Then Jamaica continued: "Everyone knows she comes from the trash."
Annabeth tried hard to still her shaking hands. It seemed like all of her body was vibrating with nervous energy and anger. Thankfully, she knew how to control herself. She had experienced the Queen Bees' torture once before, in sophomore year, and she had survived. She could survive this too. After all, as Mrs. Grace would say, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
Soundlessly, Annabeth slid her phone out of her pocket and sent a quick text to Rachel, telling her that Jamaica was at it again. Rachel replied almost immediately and told her that she would wait around during her volleyball practice then go with her to work for a little while and talk. Annabeth knew Mrs. Grace wouldn't mind Rachel visiting for a little while. Rachel was nothing short of an angel in the old woman's eyes.
And Annabeth wouldn't mind having Rachel there to help keep the arguing between her and Percy down to a minimum. It had been a week since he had surprised her with the news that he was working with her again and their bickering only seemed to get worse. They argued about every little thing: from being on time to where the paper clips are supposed to go (she wasn't joking; Percy put the paper clips next to the bookmarks the store gave out for free at the front of the counter when clearly they belong in the drawer).
"Seriously, though," Val added to Jamaica's comment. "She looks like she shops for clothes at the dumpster."
Annabeth sneaked a peek at the little devils behind her. They were all giggling and flipping their perfectly straightened hair, and Annabeth thought for a second - just one measly little second - that she almost prefered Percy over the Queen Bees.
She thought of the way Percy teased her and argued with her, then thought of the way the Bees tormented her each passing day. Every comment about her mom's tragic death and the circumstances surrounding it. All the jokes about her family's lack of money. Every name called behind her back.
Almost. She almost preferred Percy. But that was something.
When Annabeth walked into the store with Rachel, Percy was already there.
Annabeth rolled her eyes when she saw him. Go figure the one day she didn't want him to be on time, he was there early. It was like he could read her mind and knew exactly what to do to get under her skin and make her want to tear her eyes out.
Rachel, however, had an opposite reaction. She blinked when she saw Percy, then fixed Annabeth with a wide-eyed glance. Annabeth supposed she couldn't blame her. Percy wasn't bad-looking. In fact, he was the exact opposite of bad-looking. And today, he was still in his Vance uniform: khaki pants that fit his slim figure nicely, a half-untucked, wrinkley white button-down with the sleeves rolled up to the elbow, a loose red tie, and black sneakers. His hair was sticking up at odd angles, as usual, his green eyes were bright, and his grin was as infuriatingly attractive as ever, but somehow seeing his usual appearance paired with his disheveled Vance uniform made him a thousand times more gorgeous.
It didn't affect Annabeth though. She knew exactly what would happen once he opened his mouth.
"You're early," Annabeth commented as she walked behind the counter, Rachel following close behind.
"Hello to you too, Annabeth," Percy grumbled obnoxiously, making Annabeth roll her eyes. "And why are you so surprised that I'm early? I do care about this job."
That last comment was so unnecessary. All Percy had ever done since he'd been hired was tease her, annoy her, or flirt with her. Annabeth was pretty sure she hadn't seen him pick up one book, ring up one customer, or even point one person in the right direction since he'd started working here. Annabeth had done everything. Clearly, the last thing he did was care about this job.
Percy grinned smugly, knowing he'd succeeded in making her angry. He jutted his chin towards Rachel, who Annabeth had momentarily forgotten was there. "Who's your friend?"
Annabeth glared at him a second longer before turning to her best friend. "Rachel, this is Percy Jackson," she said in the traditional introductional speech. "Percy, this is Rachel Dare."
Percy fixed Rachel with his most charming smile. Annabeth's heart even fluttered a little bit. But just a little bit.
"Pleasure to meet you," he said. "I apologize for my behavior. Your friend seems to bring out..." he paused, looking back at Annabeth. "...the worst in me," he finished. Annabeth rolled her eyes. Yeah, she was the one at fault here.
Rachel laughed. "It's okay," she said, shaking his outstretched hand. Annabeth groaned internally at that feature of his flirtatious introduction. "I thought you were quite charming."
"I am," Percy winked, causing Rachel to go red in the face. "Tell me, Rachel, is Annabeth always this unpleasant?"
Annabeth was fuming. Percy Jackson was going to be the end of her pure white record. She was going to murder him and be put in prison for life. She was going to grab him and choke him until he turned purple and then she was going to run him over repeatedly with his car and then she was going to dropkick him across the country and then she was going to run him over with a train and then possibly drop him out of a plane with a banner just for dramatic effect.
Rachel nodded her head. "Oh yeah. Everyone at school is scared of her." She paused just when Annabeth was about to wring her neck a few times. "She's a lot better once you get to know her."
Percy beamed. "A very hard task to accomplish, might I add."
Annabeth cleared her throat in an annoyed fashion and crossed her arms over her chest, glaring at Rachel. Rachel and Percy both peered back at her, Rachel with a scared look on her face and Percy with his usual smug one.
"May I speak with you in the back, Rachel?" Annabeth asked in a tone that told Rachel she didn't have a choice. The redhead nodded sullenly and followed her as Annabeth made her way to the back room.
"Sorry," Rachel immediately muttered once they were safely in the breakroom.
"What is wrong with you?" Annabeth demanded, ignoring Rachel's apology. She wasn't angry at her for saying that she was mean. She had brought her back here to slap some sense into her head. The girl was falling into Percy's trap just like every other girl and Annabeth was not going to let that happen.
Rachel shrugged. "He's hot."
Annabeth wasn't sure what to say to that. Truth was, Percy was, indeed, hot. But it was a fact that Annabeth opted to ignore, seeing as every time he opened his mouth, he seemed to offend her in some way, shape, or form. That did tend to lower someone's level of gorgeous.
"He's my arch nemesis," Annabeth countered.
Rachel rolled her eyes. "Please, Annabeth, you're being dramatic. He's just a guy."
"Whom I hate."
Rachel threw up her hands in a gesture of surrender. "Whatever. I'm just saying that you're being too judgmental. Maybe you should give him a chance. Not every hot guy is a jerk."
Rachel left the room without listening to Annabeth's reply. She heard Percy tell her bye and that it was a pleasure meeting her. Sighing in frustration, Annabeth walked back out to the counter and sat on the stool beside Percy.
"So," he started, "what did you two talk about? Were you fighting over me?"
What had Rachel said? Not every hot guy is a jerk. True. But this one was.
"When will you learn that not everything revolves around you?" she shot back. "We could have been talking about bologna sandwiches for all you know."
Percy laughed and leaned onto the counter. "True," he said. "But you were talking about me."
Annabeth's cheeks flamed up with anger. "You're insufferable."
Percy shrugged and didn't say anything, leaving them in an uncomfortable silence for the next few minutes. Annabeth tried to ignore the way the quiet weighed on her in a tangible way, but it was difficult. Finally, Percy broke it.
"Did you see her face when she first saw me?" he said, chuckling. Annabeth started when she realized that his laugh was a real laugh and not a flirty or a taunting one. She thought back to Rachel's face when they first walked in and had to hide her smile, because it was funny.
"It was all like, 'I just saw a god, what do I do,'" he said, cracking up. "What kind of guys do you have at public school?"
Annabeth shrugged, trying not to laugh, since Percy was making fun of her friend. "We're not entirely sure if they are guys," she said and Percy laughed harder.
And for the first time ever, and quite possibly the last, Annabeth looked at Percy and found herself laughing.
The sound of the crowds in the gym was louder than a lion's roar, but Annabeth was able to tune it all out. She focused on the server on the other side of the court, reading her shoulders and her stance. She watched the volleyball as it was thrown up in the air and once the ball was hit, she knew exactly what to do. It was coming straight down the middle, exactly where Annabeth stood. She took a couple steps forward, calling to the rest of her team that she had it so they wouldn't go running towards the ball when she had a perfect angle. She set her feet in the correct way and positioned her arms in the right angle. Sure enough, the ball hit her arms and she made a perfect pass to the setter.
The roar of the crowds fueled her. She played in the back row and passed up the balls most of the time, but every now and then she liked to hit the ball from the back row. With the crowds cheering her on, she called for a back row hit and the setter gifted her with it. Annabeth approached it, jumped, and hit the ball. It sailed over the net and landed in the center of the court on the other side, slamming into the ground with a sound as beautiful as a baby's laugh. Annabeth's team jumped up and cheered, giving her high-fives and pats on the back.
Glancing at the scoreboard, she was startled to see that her hit got them the last point they needed to win the last match. Annabeth's heart swelled with pride and she smiled wide.
Minutes later, Annabeth was standing at the edge of the gym, the room already half cleared out now that the game had ended. Rachel was talking to her. Their fight at The Book Nook on Monday had been entirely forgotten. Now it was Thursday and they were as good as ever.
"Hey," Rachel whispered, elbowing her. "Luke's coming this way."
Annabeth followed her friend's gaze and spotted Luke walking over towards her. He looked great in his jeans and BA Volleyball t-shirt. His hair was spiked up in it's usual 'do, not a hair out of place. She admired that about him. He was always so put together, unlike a certain someone she knew who always looked like he had rolled right out of bed. She had always preferred well-kept men over wild, careless ones.
Luke caught her gaze and smiled warmly at her. She smiled back. "Hi," she said once he made his way over to her. "I like your shirt."
Luke smiled and did an obnoxious little twirl to show off his shirt. "You do? I bought it to support the team."
Annabeth and Rachel both laughed. Luke grinned, then asked Annabeth, "So, why the different colored jersey? I was confused the whole game."
Annabeth smiled and continued to explain that she played the libero position and the libero was the best back row player on the team, so that meant that they could sub in for someone in the back row anytime they wanted, while the rest of the players could only sub in and out at certain times. So that the refs could see who was libero, they wore different colored jerseys.
Luke's eyes had glazed over by the time Annabeth was done. "Basketball is so much simpler," he said.
Annabeth rolled her eyes and playfully shoved him. "Says the captain of the varsity basketball team. I mean, I hope you have a good grasp on the concept of the game."
Luke gave a smug grin and both girls laughed. Luke asked if they were still on for tomorrow night and Annabeth's heart fluttered as she nodded. She had been looking forward to the football game all week long. She had daydreamed in class about sitting in the stadium and Luke casually putting his arm around her. She had wondered if he would kiss her or give her his jacket once the sun went down and she got cold. Really, the football game had been all she could think about this past week.
Once Luke left, Annabeth and Rachel made their way to the door, a few girls stopping them to tell Annabeth good job. It was the most attention Annabeth had ever gotten at school. Well, the most positive attention she'd ever gotten. She'd been the center of attention at school a few times, but because she was getting laughed at and taunted.
The two girls stopped short, however, once they got outside. Sitting in front of the building was a blood red Maserati, glinting in the sun. Leaning casually against it was none other than Percy Jackson, looking as rumpled and disheveled as normal in his jeans and t-shirt. His sunglasses were pulled down so Annabeth couldn't see his eyes, but his lips were pulled up in a smirk. She had a fairly good idea that she knew what he was thinking.
Glancing around, Annabeth was pleased to see that nobody was around to see Percy. She didn't want the Queen Bees to see this gorgeous guy talking to her. She would never hear the end of it.
"What are you doing here?" Annabeth demanded. Rachel was frozen next to her, smiling like an idiot.
Percy shrugged and pushed off of his car, stuffing his hands in his pockets. He took two long strides and was suddenly right in front of her. Annabeth heard Rachel's intake of breath.
"You see," Percy started, "I was going to watch your volleyball game, but I'm late."
"As usual," Annabeth muttered. If Percy heard her, he ignored it.
"So I decided I'd take you on a drive instead." Percy pushed up his sunglasses and looked at her through his lashes. Annabeth could feel Rachel's admiration emanating off of her and was grateful that she wasn't saying anything or pushing Annabeth towards Percy like she would be if Luke was the one doing this. The thing was, Annabeth didn't want to go out with Percy. A drive with him sounded like some sort of eternal punishment. Besides, she had a kinda-sorta-date with Luke tomorrow night, so if she went out with Percy wouldn't that be like cheating?
"I'm sorry," she said with no emotion, "but I'll pass."
She moved to walk by him towards the bike rack, but Percy grabbed her wrist. She was startled to feel a crackle of electricity at his touch. She jerked her arm away. That was the first time ever that Percy had touched her, aside from the time they had bumped into each other when they first met.
"I wasn't," Percy said, "asking."
His dangerous tone would make every other girl at Annabeth's high school smash their lips to his, but it did nothing to Annabeth except make her angry.
"And I said I'm not going," she retorted. "Take Rachel or someone else who actually wants to go."
Percy grabbed her wrist again and pulled her to him. Annabeth felt the electric feeling again zinging through her. It was unnerving and unwanted. She tried to jerk away, but Percy held her in place. He got right up in her face and said, "I don't want to take anyone else."
Annabeth couldn't breathe. She glared at Percy, silently cursing him for being so persistent and putting up an argument that she really couldn't argue with (which didn't make it an argument, really). She sighed and whispered, "Fine." When she jerked away, Percy let her, a victorious smile on her face. He walked around to the passenger side door and opened it for her.
Annabeth ignored the gesture and walked up to Rachel. "Would you mind taking my bike home for me? Is there room in your car?"
Rachel nodded, a wide smile threatening to emerge on her face. Annabeth would probably slap it off if she did show it. "Yeah, I've got room. Now get out of here. Go have fun."
Annabeth glared at her while she snickered. "I swear, if you tell anyone about this, I will kill you."
Rachel just laughed in response as Annabeth climbed into the car.
"So where are you taking me?"
Annabeth had been asking that question for the past five minutes. Percy sent her the same answer: a small glance and a mysterious smile. Annabeth huffed loudly in annoyance and slumped back into the seat. Percy chuckled.
"Annabeth," he finally said, "I told you that we were just going to just go for a drive. Why do you think I'm actually taking you somewhere?"
"Just a feeling."
Percy laughed and reached to turn up the radio. A old rock song came on and Percy started bobbing his head to the rhythm. Annabeth fixed him with a questioning eye. "Really?" she asked. "Rock and roll? That's your type of music?"
Percy shrugged. "It's good."
Annabeth shook her head and looked out the window, not saying another word. She pressed her forehead up against the window, watching as the trees whizzed by. The glass was cool on her skin and Annabeth relished the feeling. Percy kept his eyes on the road and didn't say a word to her, but Annabeth could feel his sneaky glances burn holes into her body.
Percy turned the music down and cleared his throat. Annabeth turned to look at him. "So, uh, how did you do?" he asked uncomfortably. "In your volleyball game?"
Annabeth stared at him with a puzzled expression on her face. She had never heard him be, well, polite like this. "Why do you want to know?"
Percy glanced at her. "Is it such a crime to want to know how my partner did in her game?"
Percy shrugged indifferently. "We work together," he said, as if that explained everything.
Annabeth rolled her eyes and tried to hold in her smile. She replied, "I did fine, I guess."
"Did you win?"
Annabeth nodded and eyed him suspiciously. He ignored her and said, "Cool. Um...what position do you play?"
Annabeth grinned. "You're not very good at small talk, are you?"
Percy shook his head and chuckled, looking up at Annabeth through his lashes. They hit a stop light. "No," he answered. "I usually end up doing things other than talking when I'm driving a girl around." He wiggled his eyebrows suggestively.
Annabeth scoffed and leaned back, arms crossed. "You're disgusting."
"You love it."
"Based on what I've seen of you, I'd say you probably take a new girl out, like, every week," Annabeth criticised in a sharp, judgmental tone. "You flirt with practically everyone and your favorite pastime is making out with girls. You're, like, the ultimate womanizer and you think that I love that?" When Percy began to laugh, Annabeth threw her hands up in frustration. "Take me home. Now."
That's when Percy stopped the car. "Sorry to disappoint," he said, "but we're here."
Annabeth looked out the window. The sun was setting, casting a hazy glow over the line of trees in front of the car. Percy had pulled over to the side of the road in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere. She fixed him with a skeptical look. He ignored it and climbed out of the car. Annabeth, not knowing what else to do, reluctantly followed.
Percy was waiting for her at the tree line, flashlight in his hand. Annabeth glanced at the sky. The sun hadn't set yet but it was getting pretty close. The sky was painted orange and purple.
"We're going through the woods?" Annabeth asked, as if the very idea was preposterous. It was, really. She was in her volleyball uniform, which consisted of spandex and a skin-tight, long-sleeve jersey, not to mention her kneepads and volleyball shoes. She was in no shape to take a hike through the woods. She decided to make this known to Percy.
He rolled his eyes in reply. "Man up, Annabeth," he said. "Besides, we're not going that far. There's something I want to show you."
Annabeth sighed and walked over to him, muttering that if she broke her ankle, he was paying her medical bills. He just chuckled and turned on the flashlight, leading her into the trees.
To say it was dark was an understatement. It was like she was entering the very presence of death itself. Percy hogged the flashlight, using it to only guide himself. Annabeth was left to stumble around in the dark behind him, desperately hoping that she wouldn't fall and twist her ankle or step on a snake or worse, a spider.
Five minutes into the trek, the sun had gone down. Annabeth was about ready to demand that they turn back around when the trees opened up into a small little clearing. Annabeth stopped dead in her tracks, only able to murmur the word, "Wow."
The small oasis looked equal to paradise. A huge oak tree stood proud and tall, its branches low and perfect for climbing hanging right over the small pond. Big rocks sat in clusters along the edge of the pond just like you'd see in a movie. The grass around the mini paradise looked as soft as a pillow and small white flowers decorated the soil. But the pond was by far the best part. It was illuminated by a purple glow from underneath, like there was something underwater that caused it to light up. The violet light illuminated the entire meadow and Annabeth had never seen anything more beautiful.
"It's crazy, isn't it?" Percy asked her. Annabeth jumped, not noticing that he had placed himself right next to her.
"How did you find this place?" she asked, not able to tear her eyes away.
"I honestly have no idea," he replied. "It was about a year ago. I got into a fight with my mom and just started driving around. I got out of the car to think and came across this place."
"I've never seen anything like this," she breathed. Percy smiled at her and then started making his way over to the large oak tree. Annabeth followed, no longer needing the light of the flashlight. They settled next to each other against the tree's trunk, but careful to keep a good twelve inches of space between them.
"What makes the pond light up?" Annabeth asked. Percy shrugged.
"I honestly have no idea. I'm pretty sure it's some sort of scientific phenomenom that has yet to be discovered."
"Glad to be the first to see," Annabeth replied sarcastically. "Does it light up during the day too?"
Percy shook his head. "Only at night."
Annabeth nodded. For the next five minutes, neither of them said a word. They just sat in the silence of nature, enjoying the peacefulness that they never seemed to find anywhere else. Annabeth wished that her life was like this meadow: beautiful, peaceful, calm. Instead, it was like that volleyball game. Hectic. Crazy. Unpredictable.
She looked at Percy. He had stretched out on his back, gazing up at the stars (though how he managed to do that through the tree's branches was a mystery to Annabeth). She sighed. "So," she broke the silence, "is this where you take all your girlfriends? On a midnight hike to paradise for a romantic evening only to dump her the next day?"
Percy turned his head to look at her. Annabeth was surprised to see that there was no suggestiveness in his eyes, no mischief or playfulness. "You say that like I've dated every girl in Oklahoma."
"Well, haven't you?" It slipped out before Annabeth could think.
Percy shook his head. "I've had one girlfriend, Annabeth. I know that comes as a shock, but I'm actually not a womanizer. I don't date and dump. I don't enjoy breaking girls' hearts. I don't sit in my evil lair and laugh while drinking the tears of past girlfriends. So you can quit assuming that."
Annabeth shut her mouth tight. She stared at the water as heat filled her cheeks and her body flooded with embarrassment. Percy was right. She shouldn't have been so quick to judge him. She just couldn't help herself. Annabeth didn't trust people easily. She had been made fun of too many times, been left too many times, been told that she just wasn't good enough too many times. After a while, the things people tell someone gets to their head and they start believing it. She should have known better than to do that to another person.
"I'm sorry," she said quietly. "I shouldn't have judged you like that."
Percy smiled at her. "It's fine," he said. "I think that maybe the way I've treated you was a good enough reason to think that of me."
Annabeth snorted, rolling her eyes. She smirked at Percy, who in turn sat up as fast as lightning. His face was mere inches away from hers and he wore a ridiculous grin on his face. "Friends?" he asked, biting his lip and making puppy dog eyes (which were actually pretty adorable, but of course, Annabeth was never going to admit to that).
Annabeth eyed him suspiciously, trying to see if he was sincere or not. Finally, she replied, "Acquaintances."
Percy's grin widened into a smile and he winked at her. "I'm gonna change your mind."
Annabeth's whole body hummed with energy as she stared at herself in the mirror. "Are you sure this looks okay?"
Rachel groaned dramatically from Annabeth's bed. "You look freaking gorgeous, Annabeth," she said, exasperated. "Luke is going to fall in love with you and then you'll kiss and get married and have babies and live happily ever after."
Annabeth turned around to glare at her best friend. She didn't even need to say anything before Rachel threw up her hands in surrender. "Well, you're freaking out over nothing," she said. "It's just one football game and it's just one guy. I would understand if you were going out with Percy - that hottie - but come on. This is just Luke."
Annabeth looked at Thalia, who was sitting at Annabeth's desk, her feet reclining on the surface. Thalia shrugged and took another bite of the cheeseburger she was eating. "I agree with Rachel," she said, mouth full. "This is just Luke, Annabeth. He'd probably still think you're hot even if you wore a trashbag." Then she wrinkled her nose in disgust. "Although I don't agree with Rachel when it comes to Percy. If you were going out on a date with him, I think I might shoot myself."
Annabeth sighed and shook her head, hiding her smile. She looked back at her reflection. After completely emptying her closet and successfully destroying her bedroom, Annabeth,Thalia, and Rachel had decided to dress Annabeth in a pair of tight, dark skinny jeans, a size-too-big, cream-colored, knit sweater and a red scarf, and an old, beat-up pair of brown combat boots. Her hair was pinned in a low bun with strands of her blonde hair framing her face. Annabeth liked the outfit, but she was afraid she was going to get cold. It was only September, but with Oklahoma's weather, it was going to be barely sixty degrees with strong winds. And Annabeth was always cold.
Annabeth's phone starting vibrating on her dresser and she tore herself away from the mirror, grabbing it and checking the screen. Her eyebrows furrowed when she didn't recognize the number but she answered it anyway.
Annabeth's eyes widened when she recognized the voice on the other end. Oh no. Not him. Not tonight. She plopped down on her bed, startling Rachel who gave her a puzzled look.
"Percy," she sighed. "How did you get my number?"
Rachel jumped up and covered her mouth, barely keeping in a squeal. She mouthed Percy's name and when Annabeth nodded, she fell back against Annabeth's pillows with a dreamy sigh which caused Thalia to fake a gag. Annabeth rolled her eyes. So dramatic.
Percy answered quickly. "You see, my grandmother owns this lovely bookstore that you happen to work at, which means that I have access to your records. So I did some research until I came up with your number. And hi, by the way."
Annabeth shook her head. "You're so infuriating."
"As are you."
"So why are you calling me?" Annabeth asked, playing the the sleeve of the sweater. She could feel Rachel's excitement emanating off of her, but she tried to ignore it. It was just Percy. She wasn't even really friends with him.
Percy was silent for a few seconds before saying, "Well, I figured since you don't seem like the type of girl to be doing anything on a Friday night, I would ask you to come with me to a football game. At Vance."
Annabeth's jaw dropped and she slowly turned to her friends with a wide-eyed look. They both gave her confused glances in response. "How is it," Annabeth answered slowly, "that you manage to insult a girl whilst asking her out?"
Percy was silent. Annabeth decided to continue and answer his question. "No, I do not want to go to a football game with you. Despite your harsh judgment of me, I do, in fact, have a prior engagement tonight. I'm going to my own school's football game with a friend."
Rachel's laughter almost drowned out Percy's response, but Annabeth managed to hear it. "A friend?" he was saying. "Like, a guy friend?"
"Why does it matter?" Annabeth snapped. "For all you know, I could be going with Rachel and Thalia. In fact, that's all you're ever going to know."
Percy replied with a smile in his voice, "You're a very mean acquaintance, Chase."
Annabeth snorted. "And you're a very rude acquaintance, Jackson."
Percy laughed and Annabeth couldn't help but smile. "Talk to you tomorrow."
When he hung up, Annabeth fell back against her bed. She clutched her phone to her chest and sighed, shutting her eyes tight. Rachel fell back next to her, mimicking her actions, while Thalia continued munching on her cheeseburger at Annabeth's desk. They layed there for forever until Annabeth said, "He's a jerk."
Rachel nodded. "You might have made this known a couple of times." She propped herself up on her elbow and said, "You better save his number."
Annabeth clutched her hot chocolate tightly. The bitter cold wind was unforgiving against the rather peppy student section but Annabeth didn't care. Luke's body right next to hers warmed her up enough against the weather.
"Are you cold?" Luke asked, seeing Annabeth's rosy cheeks and red nose. Annabeth looked up at him. He looked really good tonight. He was always very well-dressed at school, but tonight he looked exceptionally dashing. His dark jeans fit his lean frame nicely and the gray thermal he wore underneath his black leather jacket really accentuated his muscles. His blonde hair was spiked up and Annabeth's fingers itched to run through it.
Annabeth shook her head, but Luke must have mistaken the rush of blood to her cheeks as a result of the cold and not her hormones acting up in a spectacularly dark blush because he shrugged off his jacket and draped it over Annabeth's shoulders. She was immediately enveloped in the smell of Luke Castellan.
"So," he said, leaning back in his seat. The game hadn't started yet, but already many students were here to watch the Broken Arrow Tigers warm up. Annabeth felt immensely uncomfortable in the large crowd and she huddled closer to Luke as the boy and girl beside her began to kiss passionately. Luke laughed at her disgusted expression. "You don't come out to these things very often, do you?" he asked.
Annabeth shook her head. "No, I-" Something bumped into her back. She had a feeling it was the couple, but she was too scared to turn around and look. "I tend to stay in on Friday nights."
Luke's laughter was music to Annabeth's ears. When he looked at her his eyes sparkled. "They're really getting into it, aren't they?" he asked, gesturing to the couple next to Annabeth.
She sighed. "Have they come up for air yet?" she asked in a whisper so the couple wouldn't hear her (though she was pretty sure they were too distracted to hear her).
"We can move if you want," Luke suggested.
Annabeth shook her head. "No. I'm a little too cold to move."
Luke laughed again, though Annabeth didn't think her response was that funny. But then he put his arm around her and pulled her into him and Annabeth froze.
And when he kissed her later that night, a good kiss right on the mouth, she turned to jelly.
"What'd you do last night?" Percy asked for the fifteenth time. "What'd you do? What'd you do?"
"Could you be any less annoying, please?" she asked, aggravated by his constant questioning. She glanced at the clock on the wall. Only an hour into her five-hour shift. Four more hours with the lovely Percy Jackson. Great.
"Well, maybe I would stop if you would just answer the question, Chase," Percy retorted, leaning onto the counter. He played with the keychains on Annabeth's bag, which was sprawled on the surface.
Annabeth sighed and looked at Percy. As usual, he looked as if he had just rolled out of bed. It was a Saturday, so she wouldn't be surprised if he had. His hair was rumpled and sticking up in tufts at odd angles. His khaki cargo shorts looked like he had pulled them out of the bottom of his drawer and his t-shirt looked like he had slept in it. On his feet appeared to be the newest pair of Nike kicks and an old, dirty pair of Nike Elite socks. She rolled her eyes. She'd never understand boys and their obsession with Nike products.
"I already told you," she finally said. "I went to my school's football game."
Percy rolled his eyes dramatically. "Oh, come on, Annabeth. You know that's not what I'm asking. Who did you go with? What did you do? I'm trying to be nice here and ask about your evening."
"What if I don't want to tell you?" she replied, fixing him with a smirk.
Percy was silent for a minute, just staring at her like she was a math problem he couldn't figure out for the life of him. She didn't dare break the staring contest, not succumbing to Percy's seducing eyes and pursed lips as he thought. Then he leaned towards her and Annabeth panicked, thinking that he was going to kiss her, but instead, he grabbed her book out of her hand.
"Hey!" she shrieked, reaching out for it and only grabbing thin air. Percy brought it to his face to study the cover while simultaneously keeping it out of her reach while she relentlessly struggled to reach it.
"The Fault In Our Stars?" he read, his voice twisting with disgust. "Why would you read something with a title that boring?"
Annabeth sighed and gave up trying to get back her book. She crossed her arms and said, "Well, it's good. Don't judge a book by its cover."
"I'm not. I'm judging it by its title."
"Oh, shut up."
Percy opened the book and began to flip through the pages. Annabeth suddenly felt very insecure. To her, books were a part of her and she hated it whenever people just began to flip through her books. It felt like they were flipping through a part of her; looking at all of her secrets and thoughts. She didn't want Percy to judge her.
"Huh," was all he said, though, much to Annabeth's relief. "Looks boring."
Annabeth quickly grabbed the book and Percy let her take it back. "Well, it's not."
She opened the book and found the page she had been on before Percy so rudely interrupted her. As she read, she was very aware of Percy watching her. She felt the heat of his stare like a hot iron rod on her skin. It couldn't be ignored. After spending five minutes trying to read the same sentence, she sighed and closed her book, fixing Percy with an expectant look.
"What?" she asked.
Percy furrowed his eyebrows. "What?" he repeated.
"Why are you staring at me?"
He opened his mouth to answer, but right at that moment, Mrs. Grace walked into the room from the back. She took in the two teens: Percy staring at Annabeth like she was a missing treasure and Annabeth giving him a confused look. She smiled. "Well, you two look bored," she said in that cheery tone of hers. Annabeth had never heard the old woman speak in a negative tone before. She was starting to think she never would. "Good thing I have a job for you."
Percy and Annabeth both looked at each other, then at Mrs. Grace. Annabeth, on one hand, was eager to have something to do. Sure, she might have enjoyed sitting at the counter and helping the occasional customer for five hours, but that was when she worked by herself. Nowadays, she was just itching to find something to do in order to get away from Percy, even if they were now "acquaintances". She had organized the bookshelves too many times to count, changed out the display books nearly every week, and cleaned up behind the counter until it was spotless. She needed something new for a change.
Percy, on the other hand, didn't sound so excited. He groaned next to Annabeth. "Aw, come on, Grandma. Annabeth and I were enjoying our bonding time."
Annabeth scowled. That got a laugh out of Mrs. Grace. "Percy," she said, "you probably need something to do more so than Annabeth does. And I'm not fond of paying you to sit around and flirt with my best worker."
Annabeth blushed - both at Mrs. Grace's compliment and what she was implying. Thankfully, Percy let it pass with nothing more than a grumble. Mrs. Grace continued. "I've gotten a few complaints from customers that the children's room is a mess. I need you two to clean it up and reorganize."
Annabeth nodded while Percy sighed loudly and let his head fall onto the counter with a thud. The back children's room was the one spot that she hadn't cleaned up during her crazy cleaning sprees to busy herself. She hadn't touched it for that very reason - it was just too messy. Books were everywhere on the floor and the ones that were on the shelves weren't in order or were stacked up instead of placed neatly in rows. The entire room was like that; a person's worst nightmare. Annabeth was looking forward to organizing it though. She enjoyed a challenge.
And working with Percy was definitely going to be a challenge.
"We're on it, Mrs. Grace," she replied, smiling. The old woman smiled back and returned to her office.
"Kiss-up," Percy coughed, elbowing her.
Annabeth shoved him as they both got up from their stools. "Shut up." They move towards the back room behind all the shelves, Annabeth getting there first. She stands in the doorway so Percy peers in from behind her. "Oh wow," he says. Annabeth nodded and walked inside. She had to step over mounds of books as she walked. Percy followed, cursing as he tripped foolishly over the very stacks she had stepped over. "Did a tornado run through here?"
"Worse," Annabeth replied, grinning at him. "Kids."
Percy faked a heart attack, placing a hand over his heart and twisting his face into a pained expression. "Oh, the horror!"
Annabeth laughed, but when Percy smiled at her like he had won a battle, it quickly diminished. She sighed. "Okay, so I'll start over there and you can start over here. Just start sorting the books and placing them in piles based on the first letter of the title. After that's done, we can put them all back on the shelves."
Percy looked at the corner Annabeth had assigned to him. Looking back up at her, he grinned wickedly. "You sure we can't work in the same corner?" His tone was seductive, but Annabeth was pretty much immune to it. She rolled her eyes and started moving over to her spot.
"You're such an idiot, Percy," she teased.
Percy nodded thoughtfully, like she had just told him a theory on the creation of the world instead of calling him stupid. "Not the endearing nickname I imagined," he said, "but it'll work."
Annabeth sat down and picked up the first book. Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendrak. She placed it on the ground, designating it as the "S" pile. "Oh, you want an endearing nickname?" she called to Percy over her shoulder. "I can give you one, but you have to give me one."
She could practically feel Percy's smirk. "Okay, Sweetcheeks."
Annabeth wrinkled her nose in disgust. "Not that kind of nickname." She picked up the next book. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. She placed it on the ground, creating a "C" pile. "Okay, here's one for you. What about flabby-spined lewdster?"
Percy laughed. "Yeah. Real funny, Annabeth."
Annabeth laughed also and placed another book in the "C" pile. "Okay, so that's a no. Let's try . . . bawdy doghearted foot-licker?"
Percy sighed and Annabeth turned around to look at him. His expression was one of utter disappointment. "You read too much Shakespeare," he commented. Then his face lit up. "Wise Girl! I'm going to call you Wise Girl."
Annabeth rolled her eyes and turned back around. She placed a book on the ground next to the "S" pile, making it the "T" stack. She mulled over nicknames in her head before blurting out, "Seaweed Brain."
Percy burst into a fit of laughter, literally doubling over and knocking down a few stacks of books in the process. "S-Seaweed Brain?" he asked. Annabeth shrugged, thinking it was a pretty impressive nickname. When he saw that she was serious, his laughter ceased and his lips turned up in a wicked grin. "I like it, Wise Girl."
Annabeth rolled her eyes and turned her back to him. "Okay, Seaweed Brain."
Percy chuckled and something weird happened to Annabeth. She found herself smiling to herself and not being able to stop. A fluttering feeling had formed in the pit of her stomach. Her time spent with Percy was becoming less and less excruciating. In fact, sometimes, she found herself enjoying spending time with him. It's not like her enjoying their time spent together was such a new thing, but those moments she liked to keep bottled up because hating him seemed to be a lot simpler than liking him.
Plus, liking Percy would probably lead to other feelings for him and she didn't want to go there at all.
The bell at the front door jingled, telling Annabeth that a customer had just entered the store. She jumped up and told Percy that she would get this one and to continue working back here. He flashed her a cheeky grin and saluted, saying, "Yessir." Annabeth rolled her eyes and walked to the front of the store.
A boy about her age was standing at the counter with his back to her. He was wearing jeans with Nikes and black hoodie. His golden hair was short and well-kept. Annabeth's stomach flipped like it was in the Olympics. "Luke?" she asked, her voice surprised.
Sure enough, when the boy turned around, Annabeth was greeted with Luke's dazzling grin. "Hey, Annabeth."
Annabeth smiled and ran into his open arms. After kissing her last night, Luke had asked her to be his girlfriend. It had been pretty much the best night of her life. She was still smiling when she pulled away.
"What are you doing here?" she asked as he brushed a curl out of her face.
"Well, I did tell you that I would come visit you at work one day," he said with a smile, "didn't I?"
Annabeth remembered that day at the pool a couple months ago, when Luke had said that he might come see her at work. Her smile widened and she couldn't help but plant a sweet kiss on his lips. He kissed her back, but Annabeth still pulled away with a blush hot on her cheeks.
"That was nice," Luke teased. Annabeth laughed but it was quickly silenced when he kissed her again. This kiss was deeper and made Annabeth's hands shake.
"Um, thanks?" Annabeth said when he pulled away. She was never sure what to say after he kissed her.
Her response made Luke laugh, though. He let go of her waist and leaned against the counter. "So," he started, "do you work here by yourself? Because I think I remember Thalia mentioning something during the summer about-"
Annabeth felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up just as Luke's eyes focused on something behind her. Annabeth turned around to find Percy standing by one of the shelves. And his expression was not happy.
"Oh," she said, her voice sounding extremely small to her. "Hi, Percy."
Percy wasn't looking at her. He was staring at Luke with the expression of a predator hunting its prey on his face. Annabeth swallowed nervously as she willed Percy to calm down. She didn't understand why he looked so deadly right then, but it was kind of freaking her out.
Luke was the first to recover. "You must be Percy Jackson," he said in a polite tone. "I'm Luke Castellan."
"You know my name?" Percy asked. His tone was polite and conversational. His face was anything but. He fixed his gaze on Annabeth. For a second, his lips twisted playfully and he was the old Percy. "Do you talk about me at school, Annabeth?"
Annabeth opened her mouth to answer, but Luke beat her to it. "Actually, your cousin Thalia told me that you were working with Annabeth. We worked together at the pool over the summer."
Percy's expression hardened again as he looked at Luke. "Oh. Well, that's nice, isn't it? Funny, but Annabeth never mentioned you."
Annabeth's face flushed. She glared at Percy, imagining all the different ways she could brutally murder him.
Luke stiffened. "Annabeth never mentioned you either."
Percy's glare sharpened. "What are you doing here anyway?"
Luke opened his mouth to answer, but Annabeth saw the anger flash on his face. He was no longer the nice gentleman that he started the conversation as. Annabeth placed a hand on his chest to keep him from saying anything he might regret.
"He's my boyfriend, Percy," she said and she would be lying if she said she didn't add a little smirk at the end, happy to see Percy's face change into one of shock. He thought she was a little bookworm with no social life, and to say that Annabeth didn't take joy in proving him wrong would also be a lie.
"Oh," Percy said and his tone was strained. "Well, I'll leave you two to it, then." Then he disappeared back into the children's room.
Annabeth sighed and ran a hand through her hair. She looked at Luke apologetically. "Sorry," she said with a small smile. "He's . . . he's not usually like that."
Luke looked at Annabeth for a few seconds that felt like an eternity. "Well, anyway," he said and Annabeth was so thankful he was changing the subject, "I think now would be a good time to tell you that I also came here for a book."
Annabeth smiled and went behind the counter to the computer. "How can I help you, then?" she asked teasingly.
Luke grinned. "I need The Great Gatsby. We're reading it in my English class."
Annabeth nodded and quickly typed it into the computer. Sure enough, she found that they had ten copies in stock (it was a popular book) and lead Luke back into the shelves. Triumphantly, she grabbed a copy off the shelf and handed it to Luke.
"Here you go," she said with a smile.
Luke grinned and planted a chaste kiss on her lips. "I sure am lucky to have an employee at the bookstore for a girlfriend."
Annabeth smiled. She thought that she was the lucky one. Luke was captain of the basketball team. He was popular and could have any girl he wanted, yet he had picked her to be his girlfriend. Of course, she would never voice that to him.
Luke paused and brushed a strand of hair behind her ear. "He likes you, you know."
It took Annabeth a moment to realize that he was talking about Percy. She scrunched her eyebrows together. "What are you talking about?" she demanded. Of course Percy didn't like her. At least, not like that. Sure, he flirted with her, but she had always assumed it wasn't of any importance. He was stuck working at a bookstore for five hours a day, so his flirting was just a matter of entertaining himself.
But then Annabeth thought of the time he had taken her to that oasis in the woods. And the time when they had laughed together at Rachel's reaction to seeing him. And just before Luke had shown up, when they were teasing each other with endearing nicknames. All those moments hadn't meant much to her, but what did they mean to Percy?
She shook those thoughts out of her head. That was ridiculous. Percy didn't like her like that.
Luke, though, had other ideas. "He does. You can see it in the way he looks at you. Like there's no other girl that could compare to you."
Annabeth's cheeks colored. "That's not true," she said.
Luke ran a hand through his hair and looked down at her. "As much as I hate to say it, it is. But," he paused and his lips lifted in a smile, "it doesn't matter. Because right now, you're mine."
Annabeth smiled and shoved him playfully. "Yeah, well, you need to get going," she said. "Believe it or not, I have work to do."
Annabeth walked him to the door. He left with a smile and a kiss on the cheek. Annabeth smiled as she watched him go, but inside, her stomach was churning. She shook her head. She refused to think about what Luke had said any longer.
Turning, she went back to the children's room. Percy was sitting on the floor, surrounded by stacks of books. Annabeth was pretty impressed that he had gotten so much sorted. "Nice," she said, moving back over to her corner.
Percy nodded and continued sorting, not saying anything. Annabeth looked over her shoulder at him with a curious expression on her face. He didn't meet her eyes. Biting her lip, she turned back around and began working.
She barely heard Percy's whispered apology five minutes later.
Two days after what she had taken to calling the "Percy Apocalypse", Annabeth's parents' fighting was so bad, she had to take her brothers out.
Matthew and Bobby were both in eighth grade and two of the sweetest, happiest kids she had ever met. Both went to a middle school by Annabeth's high school and despite the fact that they were her stepmom's kids, she liked the twins. They were turning out to be real lookers, she thought, with sandy-colored hair and bright blue eyes. Both had a small spread of freckles across their noses and cheeks and super long eyelashes that would make even the Bees jealous. They looked exactly alike. The only way Annabeth was able to tell them apart by the small, jagged scar Bobby had above his left eyebrow from an edge-of-the-fireplace incident that pretty much every kid had when they were little.
Despite the fact that they looked identical, their personalities were totally different. Matthew was more like Annabeth; he liked books and learning and was geniusly smart. He was constantly in his room (which, of course, he shared with Bobby) tinkering with things, fixing old toys and such. Bobby was the opposite. He was the sporty one and while he did good in school, he was more focused on becoming captain of the basketball team than he was on getting the top grade in his science class. His side of the bedroom was covered with posters of famous athletes and he spent more time out with his friends, playing basketball of football than he did at home. The two boys couldn't be more different, but they balanced each other out, and that made them the best of friends. They were also both pretty popular at school, from what Annabeth had heard.
It had pained Annabeth when they had both come into her room that day with worried looks on their faces. She had heard her father's and stepmom's screams as they fought about something stupid and tried to block it out. She knew this must have been harder on the twins. These were their birth parents and to hear them fighting and screaming profanities at each other would be scary to any kid.
So Annabeth did the only thing a big sister could do. She snuck them out of the house and the three biked down to the local diner Annabeth used to work at. It was a teacher work day at school so they had the day off. She wasn't doing anything that day anyway.
"What'll it be?" Katie Gardner - one of Annabeth's old friends from her days of waitressing - asked. She was working the counter that day, so Annabeth had ushered her brothers up there. She hadn't seen Katie in a long time.
Annabeth looked at her brothers before saying, "Three cheeseburgers with everything on it and an order of large fries, please." Katie wrote down the order and looked at Annabeth curiously.
"That's a traditional therapeutic order," she said. Annabeth cracked a smile. That was an inside joke from when she worked here. Whenever a person ordered that, they always had a look to them, like they were going through something rough. Annabeth and Katie over time had started nicknaming that order a therapeutic order. "What's up?"
Annabeth glanced at Bobby and Matthew. "Parents fighting," she answered quietly. "The twins got kind of freaked so we decided to come down here and give our parents time to cool down."
Katie nodded sympathetically. "Hey, we've all been there," she said. "My mom used to fight all the time with my dad over the stupidest things. Like, one day, I overheard them fighting about cereal. Cereal! How dumb is that? Two days later, she left."
Annabeth gave her a look. "You know, Katie, something tells me that wasn't really the best thing to tell the boys right now."
Katie looked over at them. "Don't worry," she corrected. "I've seen your parents. They love each other. They wouldn't ever leave each other or you. All couples fight."
Matthew sighed and looked down at the counter while Bobby pulled out his phone and started playing Clash of Clans. Annabeth looked back over at Katie. She sighed. "So how's college?"
Katie was a year older than Annabeth, and just as poor as her. She had worked since she was fourteen and saved up enough money and gotten high enough grades to go to one of their state universities. Now, she was on track to becoming a genetic engineer. She once told Annabeth that she wanted to genetically alter plants to be able to grow and thrive in even the most barren landscapes. Annabeth didn't doubt that she could do it. Katie had the greenest thumb Annabeth had ever seen.
Katie sighed. "Annabeth, it's amazing. The people in all of my classes actually want to be there. There's only a handful of slackers and all of my professors are amazing. You're going to love college, Annie."
Annabeth smiled. She herself couldn't wait to go to college. She'd been dreaming of it since middle school.
Katie excused herself to go deliver some orders. Annabeth turned to her brothers. "So," she said, "you guys want to go to the park after this? It's the end of September. It won't be beautiful like this much longer. Better enjoy it while we still can, right?"
Bobby nodded enthusiasticly and started texting his friends - probably to tell them to meet him at the park. Matthew nodded also, but he still had a sad look in his eyes. Annabeth elbowed him. "Hey," she said. "Afterwards, we can drag Bobby to the library if you want to."
He smiled at that, but the smile faltered after a second. "Are Mom and Dad going to split, Annabeth?"
Annabeth bit her lip. Matthew and Bobby were such innocent boys, still holding onto the last threads of their childhood. They hadn't been affected by the real world yet, hadn't known true pain and loss. Even though their family was slowly slipping into poverty, they were still happy and carefree. Annabeth had lost her innocence the day of her mother's tragedy. She had been forced to grow up too soon. She didn't want the same for the twins. She loved them too much.
"Of course not," she lied. "You heard Katie. Mom and Dad love each other and they love you. They're just going through a rough stage in their marriage."
Matthew nodded and he looked a little lighter. He pulled out his phone and asked Annabeth if she wanted to play Sudoku with him. She gave him a wicked grin. "I bet I can figure it out faster than you."
A challenging glint came into Matthew's eyes. "You're on."
They dove into a race, seeing who could figure out the puzzle first. Annabeth won. They were just starting a second puzzle when Annabeth felt a tap on her shoulder. She swiveled around in her chair and found Percy Jackson staring down at her with his signature troublemaker grin on his face.
"Hey, Wise Girl," he greeted. "Fancy meeting you here."
Annabeth rolled her eyes. "Seaweed Brain." Percy's grin widened and he sat himself down in the chair next to her. His eyes flicked to the boys on the other side of her.
"Your brothers?" he asked Annabeth.
"Yeah," Bobby answered, his voice defensive. "Who're you?"
"Yeah, who's this, Annabeth?" Matthew demanded. Both of them looked at Percy like he was a week-old burrito in a dumpster. Annabeth had to hold back a laugh when she saw Percy start to get uncomfortable. He narrowed his eyes at the boys.
"I'm Percy Jackson," he said tightly.
"He works with me," Annabeth said quickly. "At the bookstore."
Bobby and Matthew both looked at each other. "Annabeth, isn't he the one that you're always complaining about to Rachel and Thalia?"
Annabeth felt her cheeks flush. She gave her scariest death glare to the twins, who shriveled away from her. Then she risked a glance at Percy and was mortified to find that his cheeks were also red, although he was smiling. He chuckled and looked at Annabeth from beneath his eyelashes. "You complain about me to your friends?" he asked. Annabeth swallowed. "Hey," he continued, "at least I'm on your mind a lot."
Annabeth groaned as Percy went on to explain to her brothers that the truth was, Annabeth loved working with him and they just had the best of times at the bookstore together. He told them all about how they had endearing nicknames for each other, and that they were having a blast working together to clean up the children's room. "I'm in the process of getting her out on a date with me," he finished, leaning back in his chair proudly.
"And how's that going for you?" Matthew asked.
Percy turned his gaze to Annabeth and locked eyes with her. His voice was teasing when he answered, but Annabeth thought she heard a bit of truth in his words. "I think I'm getting there."
Annabeth tried to cover up her blush with an eye roll. Katie came over and asked if she could help Percy with anything. He ordered a chocolate milkshake and a deluxe cheeseburger with an extra large order of fries. Katie wrote it down than scampered off to turn it in to the cook, but not before giving Annabeth a wink and a thumbs-up. That just made her blush more.
Bobby and Matthew seemed to get bored with Percy. They both pulled out their phones and started playing on them.
"So what are you doing here?" Annabeth asked. "You're not stalking me, are you?"
Percy shrugged. "Eh, something like that," he answered. When he saw Annabeth's face go pale, he laughed and corrected himself. "Relax, Annabeth. I saw your bike outside when I was driving around and thought I would come say hi. It's not like I hid a tracker on your phone or something."
Annabeth rolled her eyes and shoved him playfully. He chuckled and looked at her, really looked at her. Annabeth felt the heat of his stare as she turned her eyes to the ground. "You okay?" he asked, his voice serious.
Annabeth hesitated before saying, "My dad and stepmom got into a huge fight today. Like, huge. Matthew and Bobby got scared, so we decided to leave for a little while, give them time to cool down."
Percy kept looking at her. Annabeth decided to brave it and looked up, meeting his stare. "What?" she demanded. "Why are you staring at me?"
Percy ignored her question and instead said, "You're sad and, lucky for you, I excell at cheering people up."
Annabeth rolled her eyes. "Seaweed Brain, I don't need cheering-"
"Yes you do!" Percy declared, making a few people at nearby tables glance over at them. Annabeth glared at him. Percy lowered his voice and said, "So, in a courageous effort to cheer you - and your brothers - up, I am going to accompany you to wherever you go today."
Annabeth's eyes widened. "Oh, no, Percy, please don't-"
"It's my pleasure," he said. Then he wiggled his eyebrows. "Besides, I think you're warming up to me."
Annabeth rolled her eyes. "I am not."
"Yes, you are."
Percy laughed and poked her in the stomach. "It's fine, Annabeth. I'm warming up to you too."
Annabeth rolled her eyes and once again denied that she liked him. But inside, she knew.
She kind of was warming up to him.
"You didn't have to pay for our lunch," Annabeth told Percy. "I have a job, you know. I have money."
Percy smirked at her. "I'm well aware that you have a job, Wise Girl. And really, when someone pays for your lunch, you shouldn't get mad at them about it."
Annabeth huffed. "I'm not mad at you."
Percy gave her another knowing smirk and continued walking.
After eating, Percy had offered to drive them down to the park for a few hours, then drive them back up to the diner to get their bikes. Annabeth glanced over at Matthew and Bobby, who were playing football with some friends of theirs who had met them here. Bobby, of course, was showing all of them up with his athletic skill, but she was glad to see that Matthew was having fun. Football was the only sport he played, and he was almost as good as his brother.
Percy and she had decided to take a walk on the trail that ran around the park. Well, it was more Percy's idea. Annabeth had wanted to stay and watch her brothers, but she figured that they were both old enough to not run off and get kidnapped. As they walked, their hands brushed each other's and it would send tingles down Annabeth's spine. More than once, she had caught herself glancing over at him and noticing little details that she hadn't noticed before, like the way one tuft of his hair stood straight up in the back and the small scar he had on the right corner of his lip. She had a strong urge to reach up and brush her fingers over it, but she fought it down. That would be ridiculous.
This was all ridiculous. She had a boyfriend. Of course, these tingles she kept getting whenever Percy touched her was nothing like the full body shivers that ran through her when Luke kissed her, so it shouldn't really matter. But still. If she had a boyfriend, then surely she shouldn't be feeling these things towards Percy. But ever since that time two days ago when Luke told Annabeth that Percy liked her, she'd been seeing Percy differently.
"So does this qualify as a date?" Percy asked, pulling Annabeth out of her thoughts.
"No," she answered immediately.
Percy shot her an amused glance. "Come on, Annabeth," he said. "It totally does. I sorta picked you up. We're alone on a romantic walk together. If we were holding hands, this would be a date. Admit it."
Annabeth laughed. "Yeah, no. A date would imply that we were dating, which we are not. And besides, a date requires, um, a movie or a candlelit dinner. It would require me to be in something fancier than a t-shirt and shorts and it would require me to wear make-up."
Percy shoved his hands in his pockets. "I think you're pretty without make-up."
Annabeth froze, but quickly recovered and swallowed down her embarrassment. "Um, okay. Thanks."
They were quiet for a few strides before Percy said, "Tell me about your family."
Annabeth looked at him to see if he was serious. She thought he was. She looked back at the ground and tried to figure out what to tell him. Usually, she didn't tell people about her family and how messed up it was. The only people who knew what had happened to her mom was Thalia and Rachel. No one else. Not even Bobby and Matthew. She decided to leave her birthmom out of it and tell Percy about her stepfamily. "Um, well, my mom . . ." she hesitated, not sure if she should tell him the truth, ". . . died when I was three," she decided on. "My dad remarried when I was four." She paused again. "My stepmom, Sharon, well, her and I didn't get along all that much when I was younger. I think she didn't like me because I reminded her that my dad had fallen in love with another woman before she came and that just didn't settle well with her. Right after her and my dad got married, she became pregnant had the twins: Matthew and Bobby. She'd built up this perfect family and I was the flaw in it." Annabeth stopped talking, remembering how awful those first few years had been. She had been so young, but she still remembered how scarring it had been for a four-year-old.
Percy nudged her, prompting her to go on. She shrugged. "There's not much else. I was about seven when her and I set aside our differences and became somewhat friends. Our relationship is fine now and I love the twins like they're my real brothers, not just my half-brothers. My father and I, um, have I guess a normal father-daughter relationship under the circumstances." She didn't mention the fact that there were some days when Annabeth didn't even see her father since he was always working.
Percy nodded but didn't say anything to Annabeth as they continued their walk. They were almost back to where they started now. "What about you?" she asked after a little while. "Tell me about your family."
Percy shrugged. "Not much to tell. Divorced parents. I go back and forth between living with my mom and stepdad or my dad. Got some uncles and cousins that live here and, of course, my grandma. But you know her."
Annabeth sensed that Percy had a much more complicated life than that, but she didn't press him. They reached a bench near where the boys were playing and sat down. Annabeth felt Percy's body press against the side of hers, but she didn't move away. She watched the football game in front of her and said, "I'm hoping to leave here next year."
She didn't know why she said it. But if they were sharing things about their life, she'd have to say that college was a big part of that.
Percy looked at her. "Really," he commented. "Where do you want to go?"
Annabeth smiled wistfully. "Princeton," she answered. "My dream college. I'm hoping to attend next year."
Percy clucked his tongue. "Hm. You know, when I first saw you, I figured you were a nerd."
Annabeth let out a sarcastic laugh and punched him hard in the arm. "You idiot," she chastised. "I am not a nerd."
"Only nerds go to Ivy League colleges," Percy retorted. Annabeth couldn't really argue with that.
Percy laughed at Annabeth's defeated silence and started talking about something, but Annabeth wasn't paying any attention. She had her stare fixed at a person on the playground, her eyes widening in horror. Jamaica. Head of the Queen Bees. Annabeth bit her lip. Just her luck. Annabeth didn't stop to think about what she was doing at the playground; probably babysitting. Annabeth had heard the Bees talking about Jamaica's babysitting business once. She dove down behind Percy's back as the girl's gaze turned in Annabeth's direction.
"Um, Annabeth?" Percy asked, leaning forward and turning around to see Annabeth. "What are you doing?"
Annabeth grabbed two fist-fulls of Percy shirt and rested her forehead on his back. She couldn't let Jamaica see her here with Percy. She would never hear the end of it. Annabeth could already imagine what rumors about her and the really hot guy at the park that would be circling around school tomorrow. Then she thought: what would Luke think when he heard the rumors that were bound to be created? She gripped Percy's shirt tighter.
"Why is that girl looking over here?" Percy asked her, pulling Annabeth out of her thoughts. "Do you know her?"
Annabeth nodded against his back. "Tell me when she leaves."
Percy's body relaxed a bit when he realized that she was hiding and not oddly throwing herself onto him. Annabeth's cheeks colored at the thought. "So, uh, who is she?" Percy questioned.
Annabeth decided she probably owed him an answer since he's somewhat hiding her. "She goes to school with me. She's one of the popular people."
Percy nodded. "Oh. So then why are you hiding?"
"She's also the biggest gossip."
Percy laughed. "Oh, so you don't want people knowing you were on a date at the park with a devilishly handsome man or something?"
Annabeth groaned. "You're impossible."
Percy chuckled before saying, "It's clear. She's gone."
Annabeth let out a relieved breath and pulled away from Percy. "Thanks," she said a little breathlessly. Percy chuckled again and said it was no problem.
"What's the deal with her?" Percy asked. "When she looked over here, she acted like she just saw Cinderella cheating on the prince."
Annabeth blew a strand of hair out of her face and said bitterly, "Let's just say she's Cinderella's stepsister."
"She makes fun of you?" Percy suddenly sounded genuinely concerned for her.
Annabeth shrugged. "Face it, Seaweed Brain. I'm poor and I work at a book store. I'm not exactly what you would call 'popular' at school."
"I like you," Percy said, like it was a wonder that no one else did. Maybe to him, it was.
Annabeth shrugged it off, saying it was no big deal. Then she got the boys and had Percy drive them back to the diner so they could get their bikes. She unbuckled her seatbelt and thanked him for driving them to and from the park and told him that she had a wonderful time. Without a word, he leaned in and kissed her on the cheek, his lips lingering for an extra second or two. Annabeth froze and when she was able to function properly again, she fumbled around with the door handle and took much too long getting out of the car. Percy just grinned at her like he knew the effect he was having on her. When she finally got out of the car, Percy drove off. Her brothers stared at her like they had just seen something they weren't supposed to. She ignored them and unlocked her bike from the rack with red cheeks.
"Is Percy your boyfriend?" Bobby asked, earning him a slap upside the head from Matthew.
"Of course not, you idiot," he scolded his brother. "Luke is her boyfriend."
Bobby rubbed the back of his head while glaring at his brother. "They sure act like they're boyfriend and girlfriend," he muttered. Annabeth took her turn and slapped him upside the head.
"Ow!" he exclaimed, glaring at Annabeth now.
"Then don't say stupid things," she said before riding off.
Her cheek still burned where Percy kissed her. She glared at the sidewalk in front of her. What was happening to her?
It was a month later when it happened.
Everything had been going great, or as great as Annabeth's life could be. Her parents still fought all the time and her free time was consumed with work, homework, and filling out and turning in college applications. But her and Percy were getting along great now. They acted like they were old friends. Best of all, she was able to put aside whatever emotions came up when she was around him and act pretty much normal. No one had said anything about her and a hot guy at the park, so Annabeth assumed that Jamaica had either not seen them or hadn't told anyone. And Luke and she were doing better than ever. They went on dates every weekend and Annabeth was a lot more comfortable whenever they kissed. She didn't feel quite as lightheaded afterwards and the electric shock whenever he held her wasn't so overwhelming anymore.
Annabeth told herself that was a good thing, but she wasn't quite so sure, especially whenever the shock she felt when Percy touched her was ten times stronger.
But one month later, everything started to fall apart.
It was a Saturday and Thalia had picked Annabeth up after work so they could go get something to eat. Thalia was treating her to this really good Italian place that she had discovered a few weeks ago. They had to park a few stores down and walk a little ways to get to the restaurant. They had reached the restaurant when Thalia said, "Isn't that Luke's car?" and pointed to a car peeking out of the alley next to the building. On instinct, Annabeth walked over and looked too see if it was his car.
She wished she hadn't.
The top of the convertible was off, giving Annabeth a clear view of the two people making out inside. One of them was, indeed, Luke Castellan. And the other was none other than Val, one of Jamaica's minions. Annabeth felt her stomach drop as she watched. They were making out in the front seat of the car. Like, really making out. Val was halfway in his lap already and her fingers were running through his usually so carefully styled hair. Luke's hands gripped Val's waist, rubbing tiny circles on her hips. His lips went from her lips to her jaw to her neck and then back up again. Annabeth could hear their heavy breaths and it disgusted her.
She could hear Thalia cursing behind her. Annabeth figured she should feel sadness, but she didn't. All she felt was anger. She turned around, grabbed Thalia's arm, and growled, "Come on. I'm hungry."
Luke was a no-good jerk anyway.
The next day, Annabeth was home alone.
Both of her parents were at work and her brothers had gone out with some friends. Rachel had invited her to go see a movie with her, but Annabeth had decided to stay back. She was off work today and really just wanted to stay home. She was still angry about yesterday and decided that laying on her bed and plotting her revenge on Luke was much more enjoyable than going to see the new Nicholas Sparks movie.
Occasionally, her phone would go off with a text from Luke. Annabeth would set it on her desk and stare at it, imagining her pelting him with basketballs while screaming, "Block that, Mr. Captain-Of-The-Basketball-Team!" while he pleaded with her to stop. It was a satisfying image.
The door bell to her apartment rang and Annabeth sighed. She figured it was just Rachel or Thalia coming to entertain her. Dragging herself off of her bed, she walked to the door and opened it.
"I really don't need company right now, gu-oh. Hi, Percy." Annabeth's cheeks colored as she took in Percy standing in the doorway in dark jeans and green t-shirt with a zip-up sweatshirt over it. His hair was messed up like it always was and his green eyes looked worried for her.
"Expecting Thalia and Rachel?" he teased. Annabeth bit her lip and nodded, letting him inside. Percy stepped inside and took in their tiny apartment. Annabeth eyed the pile of laundry by the sofa that needed folding and the dirty dishes in the sink.
"I wasn't expecting company," she said, folding her arms. "Sorry for the mess."
Percy waved her off. "It's fine."
Annabeth leaned against the kitchen table, watching Percy from under her lashes. He looked uncomfortable, rubbing the back of his neck and putting his hands in her pockets, then taking them out. Annabeth felt embarrassed. Was he uncomfortable because she had a small, old apartment and he lived in a giant mansion? At least, she assumed that he lived in one. He did go to Vance.
"Are you alright?" he asked, breaking the silence. He was gazing at her now with a worried expression. "Thalia told me what happened," he tagged on.
Annabeth scowled. That backstabbing snitch. "I'm fine," she answered. "Just angry, I guess, that I got played."
Percy grinned. "He can only play you if you let him," he said. Annabeth looked at him, surprised that such a profound thought came from him. "So what'd you do after you saw him?"
Annabeth shrugged. "Thalia and I had Italian."
Percy laughed. Shrugging off his backpack, he placed it on the kitchen table and unzipped it. "Well, I decided to be a good acquaintance," he said, emphasizing the word "acquaintance" mockingly, "and bring you a backpack filled with everything you need to have your required moping period after a break-up."
"Required moping period?" Annabeth questioned, moving over to the table next to him to see what he brought. Inside the backpack, she saw a Mac, four movies, and candy. Annabeth felt her face break out into a smile.
Percy pulled out the movies. "I brought The Avengers, 22 Jump Street, Transformers, and, since I know a lot of girls watch chick-flicks after break-ups, The Vow. Please don't choose The Vow."
Annabeth smiled and just to annoy him, pointed to The Vow. "Too bad. Because I want to watch it."
Percy groaned dramatically before saying, "Fine. Where are we watching our movies, then?"
Annabeth gestured for him to follow her. She led him to her room, closing the door behind them. She turned to find Percy looking around, studying her walls. "Huh," he said. "Funny, but this is just how I imagined you room would be like."
Annabeth felt her cheeks color. "You've imagined what my bedroom looked like?"
Percy looked at her and shrugged at her shocked face. "What?" he asked. "School is boring."
Annabeth shook her head, deeming that he was impossible. She hopped onto the bed and patted the spot next to her. "Come on," she said. "I'm in desperate need of my allotted crying-over-a-chick-flick-because-my-boyfriend-dumped-me time. Let's start the movie."
Percy rolled his eyes but climbed onto the bed next to her. He sat unnecessarily close. Annabeth's body burned everywhere she touched him. She felt like she should scoot over a little bit, but she was paralyzed. It seemed a little inappropriate after seeing her boyfriend cheating on her the previous day, but Annabeth suddenly didn't really care.
Percy turned on his laptop and started the movie. Twenty minutes in, Annabeth found his arm wrapped around her shoulders and it became all she could focus on.
Percy had told her that Luke could only play her if she let him. Well, she wasn't going to let him. She refused to mope around and she refused to waste her anger on him any longer.
So she slowly shifted her position so she was resting her head on Percy's chest. And though she couldn't see it, she could feel him smiling.
On Monday, when Luke came up to her at her locker and asked why she hadn't been answering his calls and texts, she told him it was because she was too busy making out with Percy Jackson. And when he finally realized she was joking, he also realized why. Annabeth had rewarded him with a few choice names, a slap to the face, and a knee where the sun doesn't shine.
Annabeth went home with a smile on her face. Luke went home with a grimace.
"So you really told him that?" Percy questioned before taking a huge bite of his burger. His green eyes were sparkling with pride and amusement. Annabeth was happy to be the source of both of those emotions.
Annabeth nodded. "Yeah. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing.'
Percy swallowed and laughed. "Ha! I'd say it was. Insinuating that you and I were a thing is something I would have to say isn't normal for you."
Annabeth smiled, happy that she was able to amuse Percy with her tale of her revenge on Luke Castellan earlier that day. When he had asked her if she wanted to get a bite to eat before work that day, she had eagerly agreed. Percy and she were becoming somewhat of best friends now, if not at least friends. She actually looked forward to work again and even spent the majority of her free time with him. She couldn't believe that he was actually becoming an enjoyable person.
"What was everyone else's reactions?" he asked, squirting ketchup on the corner of his plate to dip his fries in.
Annabeth shrugged. "Rachel kicked him in the stomach and then high-fived me. Everyone else watching just kind of laughed. A few even cheered."
Percy snorted. "I wish I was there," he muttered. "I would have given him a beating equal to the nineth circle of Hell."
Annabeth rolled her eyes and took the ketchup from him, squirting some one her on plate. "Come on, Percy," she said. "There's no need to overreact."
"Come on, Annabeth," he argued. "Any guy would have to be completely out of his mind to cheat on you."
Annabeth froze, her hands clenched into fists on the table. After Percy had left her house yesterday, she had scolded herself for what she had done. Snuggling up to Percy was definitely not something that would benefit her, and especially not for four movies straight. Thank goodness none of her family members had come home until later that night, or she would have gotten a crazy long lecture about not having boys in her room.
"Don't say that," she teased, trying to brush off Percy's comment. "Besides, I think I made my point quite clear that nobody cheats on me and gets away with it. I don't think he's going to be able to walk for the next week."
Percy laughed, all seriousness and anger seeping from his eyes. They changed the subject to some celebrity scandal while they ate their food. Once Katie came to pick up their plates and drop off the check, Percy pulled out his credit card and set it on the receipt. Annabeth pulled her wallet out of her bag to pay, but Percy grabbed her wrist. "It's on me," he said, giving her a dazzling grin. She shook her head and ripped her wrist free.
"No, no," she argued. "You paid on Saturday. Let me pay today."
Percy snorted and told her yeah, right. He would fail as a gentleman if he let her pay. Annabeth rolled her eyes, but didn't argue. She was running low on cash anyway. She needed to get paid soon.
Katie came and picked up the check. Once she was gone, Percy looked at Annabeth and she thought she saw nervousness in his eyes. "So, Wise Girl," he said, "Vance is having this . . . dance. It's our homecoming dance." He swallowed, now clearly nervous and Annabeth felt flutters in her own stomach. "And I was wondering," he continued, "if you wanted to go with me?"
His voice was so hopeful at the end, that Annabeth wanted to kiss his cheek. She smiled and leaned back in her seat. "And why can't you take any of the girls at Vance?" she questioned. "I'm sure any one of them would love to go to homecoming with you."
Percy bit his lip and said nonchalantly, "None of them interest me as much as you do."
Annabeth swallowed and stared at him for a three-count before saying, "Sure. I'll go. Sounds fun."
A huge, goofy, and endearingly lopsided grin spread across Percy's face. He looked like a kid who just won the grand prize at a carnival game. "Really? That's awesome." He continued to rattle off the details about when the dance was (two weeks away) and what time he would pick her up (six p.m. on the dot, so she better be ready). Annabeth could only focus on how breathless and relieved he sounded, like he actually thought she would say no.
Katie came back with Percy's card and while he signed the receipt and left her a rather generous tip, Annabeth sent a quick text to Rachel about what Percy had asked her. She knew that she would be more excited than Annabeth probably was.
Thalia was disgusted.
"I can't believe my stinky, dirty rotten cousin is taking you to the homecoming dance," she complained. "I'm not going to have to listen to the two of you flirt all night, am I?"
Annabeth made a face. "Please, Thalia. We're just friends. I didn't even really like him until about a month ago."
Thalia humphed and pushed the dresses on the rack together loudly as to show her disapproval. Annabeth glared at her before moving on to the next rack.
The two girls, plus Rachel, were at the mall, looking for dresses Annabeth could wear to the dance. It had been a week since he had asked her, so she had just one more week to find the right dress. Annabeth wouldn't admit it, but she was stressing out about finding the right dress. Not because she wanted to impress Percy, but because the dance was at Vance, and all the girls there were bound to be dressed in only designer. Annabeth hoped her dress, which was most likely to come from Macy's, was pretty enough to pass as designer.
"Oh, what about this one, Annie?" Rachel asked, displaying a mint, sleeveless chiffon gown with a sweetheart neckline. A cliche dress for a dance, but Annabeth thought it was pretty so she told Rachel to hold onto it.
Thalia gasped suddenly, like a horrible thought had just occured to her. "You two haven't kissed, have you?"
Annabeth shot her a mortified look. "Thalia!" she exclaimed. "Don't be ridiculous. We haven't even held hands, much less kissed."
Thalia gagged dramatically. "Just the thought makes me want to hurl."
"Shut up." Annabeth continued her search, moving on to the clearance rack. The sign read that the dresses on that rack were seventy percent off. Annabeth started sifting through, finding many short, skimpy dresses that revealed too much. She was about to give up hope of finding the perfect dress for seventy percent off when the last dress on the rack, a red one, caught her eye. It wasn't horrible, so she threw it on the top of the growing pile in her arms.
"Okay," she said, turning to her friends. "I'm gonna go try these on now." The trio headed to the fitting rooms. Thalia and Rachel sat in the chairs in front of the mirror while Annabeth headed into the room to change into her first dress: a plain white, floor-length gown with a sweetheart neckline. It fit well, but when she went to model it, Thalia said it wasn't fancy enough for Vance students. Swallowing, Annabeth nodded and went back to change into another one. She slipped into the one Rachel had chosen for her. It was similar to the white dress, but small diamonds made the neckline glitter. She walked out to Thalia and Rachel and when they could find nothing wrong with it, Annabeth decided to hold onto that one and try on a few other dresses.
She tried on three more, liking the mint dress better than all of them. Thalia and Rachel agreed. But when Annabeth slipped into the last dress, the red one that had been on clearance, she immediately changed her mind. It looked amazing on her. The color complimented her skin tone and the bodice hugged all her curves before falling to the floor in waves of chiffon. It had one sleeve over the left shoulder that was encrusted with glittering rubies and diamonds. The rest of her chest was covered by a sheer material that sparkled. As Annabeth studied herself in the mirror in her dressing room, she could picture herself with her hair and make-up done. She knew that the students at Vance wouldn't look down on her if she wore this.
Thalia and Rachel agreed. When she came out of the dressing room, Rachel had whistled and Thalia had said, "Dang, girl, you hot." Annabeth laughed and stood in front of the mirror out there, letting them admire the dress.
"I like it," she said. "And it's seventy percent off."
Thalia laughed. "No one at the dance would even be able to tell that this dress isn't designer. It's perfect."
Annabeth smiled at herself in the mirror. "And I think we have a winner." She went back into the dressing room and changed, happy and little less stressed out now that she had found a dress that was acceptable to wear to a prestigious school's homecoming dance. She changed back into her regular clothes, grabbed the red dress, and paid for it.
The best part? The dress was only thirty dollars.
"We're almost done," Percy announced victoriously as they started shelving the last few stacks of children's books. Annabeth smiled and looked around. After a month of working on the room, it looked better than it ever had. Percy and she had even designed a schedule for regular cleaning of the room so that they never had to spend another month cleaning and organizing again.
"What are we even going to do with our time now that we're done?" she asked, elbowing Percy in the side playfully. He grunted and elbowed her back.
"We could go back to normal," Percy suggested. "Sitting at the counter all day. You hating me. Me annoying you. It's going to be weird now that we're, like, you know, friends."
Annabeth rolled her eyes. "You're such a Seaweed Brain."
"And you're such a Wise Girl. We've already come to this general consensus a while ago."
Annabeth smiled and continued shelving the last of the books. When they were done, both of them fell to the ground and laid there. Annabeth stared at the ceiling, which was littered with glow-in-the-dark stars for their bookstore sleepovers they throw every once in a while for the kids. She sighed, remembering when she used to have those same stars up on her bedroom ceiling. She took them off when she turned thirteen, thinking they were too childish.
Percy seemed to be having similar thoughts as her. "I miss being a kid," he sighed. "Everything was so easy back then. So black and white."
Annabeth turned her head to look at him. "Yeah," she agreed. "I do too."
Percy grinned wickedly at her. "We still can be," he said, before jumping up and grabbing one of the toy swords from the toy box by the wall. He also grabbed a pirate's eyepatch and put it on. Annabeth burst out laughing. "What are you doing?" she giggled.
"Come on, Wise Girl," he pleaded, grabbing another toy sword. "Come be a pirate with me."
For some unearthly reason, Annabeth found herself getting up and accepting the toy sword. Percy wielded his and cocked a challenging eyebrow. "Show me what you got, Annabeth," he teased. Annabeth grinned mischievously and got her own sword ready. Before she knew it, they were engaged in an all-out sword battle, running around the room, screaming insults at each other and clashing their swords together. In the end, Percy knocked Annabeth's sword out of her hands and pointed the tip of his at her throat.
"Time to walk the plank, missy!" he said in his best pirate voice that caused Annabeth to explode into giggles. His face turned red as he peeled off the eyepatch and whined, "Stop laughing, Wise Girl, it's not-"
He was cut off by Annabeth swiping him off his feet. He fell to the ground with a heavy thud and a groan. His sword fell out of his hand during the fall, so Annabeth quickly picked it up and grabbed her own sword, planting a knee on his chest and pointing both swords at his throat.
"I win," she said cheerfully.
"So not cool, Annabeth," Percy groaned, but she just laughed and said pirates don't play fair. Then Percy hit her arm, knocking the swords out of her hands. In the span of one second, he had grabbed a sword and flipped Annabeth over onto her back, pressing the plastic blade into her neck. He hovered above her on his elbows.
"I don't get beat by girls," Percy said matter-of-factly. Annabeth rolled her eyes and opened her mouth to say something when she realized how close they were to each other. Their faces were only six inches apart and his legs were tangled with hers. Percy must have realized what position they were in at the same time she did because his expression changed. He didn't make a move to get off of her, but the sword did slip away from her neck. His fingers tangled up in her hair and Annabeth realized what was happening all too slowly as the inches between them shrunk until his lips hovered a centimeter above hers. Their breaths mingled with each other and Annabeth wasn't sure how she would feel if he kissed her. Sure, a part of her wanted him to. Who wouldn't want an insanely attractice guy to kiss her? But the other part of her, the more logical part, kept saying that she was only a week out of a relationship and she shouldn't go jumping into another one, especially with a guy like Percy Jackson.
Her hand reached up to brush a lock of hair from his forehead involuntarily. She mentally cursed herself for doing so but then her eyes locked with Percy's and she knew what she wanted.
"Now what's going on in here?" Mrs. Grace's voice cut through their reverie like scissors cut wrapping paper. Percy rolled off of Annabeth and they both turned blood red when they saw Mrs. Grace in the doorway with her hands on her hips. She eyed both of them with a knowing look on her face as they laid sprawled on the ground.
"Just cleaning, Grandma," Percy said calmly, despite his red cheeks. Annabeth shot him a sideways glare.
"Oh," Mrs. Grace said, nodding. Annabeth knew that she knew they were lying. "Just cleaning," she repeated. "I understand." The old woman caught Annabeth's eye and gave her a pointed look before walking away.
Annabeth flipped onto her stomach and buried her face in her arms. She groaned loudly. "I can't believe that just happened." She was never going to live this down.
Percy laughed. "Yeah," he agreed. "Next time I try to kiss you, I'm not hesitating."
Annabeth's cheeks turned an even darker red.
Annabeth stared at her English assignment, willing her eyes to work properly. At the moment, the letters on the page looked like they were playing Marco Polo. She put her hands on her temples and tried not to groan in frustration. She was in the public library after all.
Glancing at her phone, she saw that she was supposed to be at work in twenty minutes. She sighed and closed her notebook, putting away her noteook. She hadn't done any of it anyway. She grabbed her bag off the table and left the library, biking down to work. Thalia was still there when she arrived.
"Hey, Annie," she greeted from where she sat behind the counter. "How was school?"
Annabeth glared at her mocking tone. Vance had been given that Friday off since the homecoming dance was the next day, because apparently, dances were more important to the rich than education. Annabeth went to public school and had school that day even though her own homecoming dance was tomorrow also.
"Hey, don't rub in the fact that you didn't have school," Annabeth scolded. "At least I didn't have to work a double shift."
Thalia glared at her. Since she was out of school, Mrs. Grace forced Thalia to work both the morning and afternoon shift, whereas Annabeth worked only the evening shift today. "Loser," Thalia muttered. Annabeth gave her a sweet smile before making a beeline for the breakroom. She was a few minutes early, so she decided to treat herself to a snack before relieving Thalia from work and taking over the store.
She was sitting at the table in the breakroom, reading her book while eating a package of peanut butter M&M's and sipping a Dr. Pepper when a hand came from behind her and grabbed the Dr. Pepper can. Annabeth whirled around with a glare on her face, her hands reaching for her drink. Percy was standing behind her, taking a big swig of it.
"Hey!" she protested, standing up and grabbing for the can. Percy finished his drink and handed it promptly back to her.
"Mm," he sighed. "I love Dr. Pepper."
Annabeth felt the weight of the can in her hand. "You drank more than half of it!" She scowled at him.
He shrugged, like it was no big deal. "I'm a little thirsty."
"A little?" Annabeth muttered, but she finished off the drink, savoring every little drop. Percy was grinning victoriously at her.
"Thalia just left," he said. Annabeth nodded and began grabbing her things, shoving her wallet and book back into her bag. Percy watched her for a second before saying, "You're still on for the dance tomorrow, right?" His voice sounded unsure, like he actually thought that she would back out and abandon him.
Annabeth shot him a look. "Of course," she said. "Why wouldn't I be?" She grinned. "After all, I already have my dress."
Percy smiled in a way Annabeth felt like he only smiled for her. He chuckled and walked out of the breakroom and to the counter, Annabeth close behind. On the counter was a note from Mrs. Grace, saying that she had a doctor's appointment and would have to be out for the day and that there were a few things that needed to be done, like stocking the shelves with the new books that had come in recently. Annabeth glanced at the multiple boxes stacked behind the counter, seeing that they were untouched. In her head, she cursed at Thalia. She had worked a double shift and still hadn't found time to stock the shelves.
Annabeth looked back over to Percy, who was sitting on the stool close to hers, playing on his phone quietly. "I need your help," she said.
"Hold on," Percy said, eyes still glued to his phone. "I'm playing your brother in Clash of Clans."
Annabeth laughed. "Which one?"
"Bobby." Percy scowled. "And he just beat me. Dang it."
Annabeth laughed. "Remind me to give him a high-five when I get home."
Percy sighed and put his phone down. "What do you need my help with?" he asked. Annabeth explained that Mrs. Grace had left them a note and they now had to stock the shelves because Thalia had failed to do so. Percy cursed Thalia aloud before helping Annabeth open the boxes, using his car keys as a makeshift knife. Annabeth opened the first one he had opened and squealed when she saw the title. "City of Heavenly Fire!" she exclaimed. "Oh my word, I've been waiting for this book for, like, forever!"
Percy shot her a strange look. Then he looked at the book in Annabeth's hands and his eyes widened. "Dang. How many pages is that thing?" he questioned, walking over and grabbing it out of Annabeth's hands. "It looks like the equivalent of Hell. I would hate to read that."
Annabeth glared at him. "It's good," she defended. "And it's interesting. And if you had any brain cells in you body, you would like it also."
Percy acted like he was offended. "I'll have you know, Miss Chase," he said Annabeth's name with a mock acidic tone, "that I have, like, two brain cells."
Annabeth raised her eyebrows and crossed her arms. "Two?" she teased. "I can tell."
Percy shoved her and finished opening the boxes. They worked quickly, unpacking and putting them in stacks based on category: kids, young adult fiction, adult fiction, and nonfiction. Annabeth squealed a few more times as the new installments of a few of her favorite series were unpacked. Each time, Percy made fun of her. She ignored him. As a fangirl, it was her responsiblity to, well, fangirl.
They were done unpacking and shelving in an hour. Mrs. Grace hadn't asked them to do anything else, so the two collapsed onto their stools behind the counter. Percy leaned his forearms on the counter and looked at her. Annabeth looked back at him. "What?" she asked, raising an eyebrow.
Percy grinned wickedly. "I think it's cute when you get so excited over books. I mean, I don't understand it, but I think it's cute."
Annabeth rolled her eyes even while her cheeks turned red. A strange and all-too-familiar feeling was welling up in her stomach under Percy's gaze and she tried to push it away. "Whatever," she said. "You just don't understand."
Percy grinned again and flicked a curl. Annabeth suddenly felt extremely self-conscious. Percy's stool was close to her - probably too close. Over the past few months that he had been working with her, his stool had gone from the other side of the counter to about an inch away from hers. Annabeth could feel his body heat burning against her and from the look on Percy's face, she had a feeling that he knew what she was thinking.
"So," he started, "I'll pick you up at about 5:30 tomorrow. The dance starts at six, and there'll be refreshments and stuff there, so we'll just eat dinner after. I'm not planning on staying longer than an hour or two." His voice sounded bitter and resentful, like he hated the people who went to his school. Or maybe it was her who was the problem. Maybe he was ashamed of her and the public school student aura she gave off and didn't want all of his rich friends to see her with him. The thought made her cheeks burn. If that was true, then she would be more humiliated than she had ever been in her life.
Annabeth nodded. "That's fine," she said in a small voice.
Percy seemed to sense her discomfort because he said, "I can't wait to see you in your dress."
Annabeth threw her head back and laughed. Her nerves faded a little bit, but not completely. "I made sure that it was the ugliest one in the store when I bought it," she teased. "Just for you."
Percy put a hand over his heart. "I'm flattered."
They laughed and talked the hours away. Annabeth asked about what Vance was like and Percy asked what her school was like. Once the shift was over, the two girls working the night shift (who were newly hired workers) came and relieved Percy and Annabeth of their job. Percy offered to drive Annabeth home and after much debate, they managed to stuff her bike in his tiny trunk and he drove her to her apartment.
As they talked, Luke's words about Percy liking her echoed in her mind. It wasn't hard to imagine during days like this, when he laughed at her lame jokes like they were the greatest he had ever heard and when he brushed strands of hair behind her ears.
When he kissed her in front of her apartment, not on her lips but not really on her cheek either, Annabeth was more confused than ever.
The doorbell to the apartment rang. Annabeth jumped up off the couch and sprinted towards the door, ignoring her brothers' surprised stares. She flung open the door to reveal Rachel Dare.
"It's about time," she growled. "Percy's coming to pick me up in an hour and a half. How come it took you so long to get here?"
Rachel talked while Annabeth led her to her bedroom. "I tried to leave, but my parents kidnapped me while I was walking out the door and tried to convince me for, like, the seven hundredth time to attend Clarion Academy. Honestly, I don't understand why they keep pressuring me when I've made it quite clear that I can't just leave BA and my best friend to-oh, Annabeth, it's so gorgeous!" Rachel stared at the dress on Annabeth's bed. "I mean, it was pretty in the store, but seeing it again just makes it seem even more beautiful, you know?"
Annabeth laughed and rolled her eyes at her friend's excited chatter. When Annabeth had told her about Percy asking her to go to the dance with him, Rachel had almost passed out. She was more excited than Annabeth was.
"Okay, work your magic," she told Rachel. Rachel led her to the only bathroom in the apartment and set her down on the closed toilet seat. Annabeth had already plugged in the curling iron and turned it on, so Rachel picked it up and started fixing Annabeth's hair. Annabeth sat still, not really listening to Rachel's mindless babble. She was so nervous about tonight. She was going to homecoming at Vance. Annabeth couldn't believe it. She'd been trying to push that thought out of her head all day by watching action movies on Netflix with her brothers.
She wondered if she would fit in with all the girls there. They were all rich, so Annabeth figured that they'd be dressed in designer and the most top notch make-up. Their hair would most likely be styled by professional stylists. Annabeth prayed that she wouldn't look out of place among them. Sure, her dress was beautiful and Thalia had assured her that it would pass as designer, but she didn't have Sephora make-up. She had the cheapest make-up from Target. Her hair wasn't being done by the best stylist in town, it was being done by her best friend. It's not that Annabeth doubted Rachel could make her look amazing, it was just that she was worried that Rachel's work wouldn't amount to people who make people look good for a living.
Annabeth clenched her hands into fists. She needed to stop acting insecure and childish. She would go to the dance tonight and she wouldn't worry about her appearance next to the other girls.
But what about Percy? Annabeth's mind trailed off again. Thalia had told Annabeth one time that Percy was probably the most popular guy in school. Everyone loved him, especially the girls. How would people react when they saw her on his arm, a poor public school girl who worked at a bookstore and spent her nights worrying about what would happen if she didn't get a scholarship to college? Would they hate her or would they look past her social status and like her? And how did Percy feel, taking a girl like her to the dance?
Annabeth shut her eyes. She needed to calm down. She was completely overthinking this.
"You okay?" Rachel asked. She had finished curling her hair wand was now twisting it and pinning it. Annabeth's back was to the mirror so she had no idea what she was doing.
"Hm? Oh yeah, I'm fine," Annabeth answered. Then she muttered quiety to herself, "I'm just peachy."
Rachel seemed to have heard her because she burst out laughing. "It's fine to be nervous, Annie," she reassured her. One of the pins bit into Annabeth's scalp and she winced. "Sorry," she apologized. "But I'm serious. If Percy asked you to go with him, then that must mean that he likes you."
Annabeth shrugged. "Yeah, I know. I'm not worried about that. I'm more nervous about, like, the actual dance. And the people there." She paused. "I keep thinking that they're all gonna be in designer dresses and I'm gonna be in a dress from Macy's. They're all getting their hair and make-up done by professionals. I'm getting mine done by a high schooler."
Rachel reached around and punched Annabeth in the stomach. Annabeth was so used to this, she didn't even grunt. "Rude," Rachel teased.
Annabeth laughed. She could feel Rachel smile behind her before she said, "And you don't need to worry about that either, Annabeth. If those people from Vance don't like you because you're not rich like them, then they sound like a bunch of pompous jerks anyway."
Annabeth smiled, still feeling nervous, but not quite as nervous as before. Hanging out with Rachel always seemed to lift her spirits. "Yeah," she agreed. "And Thalia will be there also, so it totally doesn't matter what anyone else thinks."
"That's right," Rachel said, pinning the last strand of hair back. "The only people who's opinions matter are me and Thalia. Remember that."
Annabeth smiled. Rachel prompted her to get up and check out her hair in the mirror and she better like it because there's not much time to do anything else. Annabeth stood and moved over to the mirror. Rachel had done an amazing job. Her hair was loosely pinned back in a mop on the back of her head, lightly brushing the nape of her neck. A few strands were braided into the bun and some smaller pieces of hair framed her face. Annabeth smiled. "It looks amazing, Rachel," she said.
Rachel shrugged. "I know. Now sit back down. It's time for make-up."
The make-up took the next hour. Rachel tried different pallets, sometimes even pulling the dress into the bathroom to see if it looked good with the red color. Try after try, Rachel scrubbed her face until it was raw. Then finally, twenty minutes before Percy was supposed to come pick her up, Rachel took a step back, looked satisfied and told Annabeth that she could look now.
Rachel's work was flawless. Any sign of acne or acne scars that marred Annabeth's face had disappeared underneath foundation and concealer and powder, giving her perfect, balanced skin. Her eyes had a smokey look to them, but not too smokey. Her eyelashes, already pretty dark and long, looked ten times bigger and more striking. They were a darker black than usual and looked like they were five feet long. Her lips were the same color of red that her dress was and Annabeth had no idea how she was going to get that stuff off of her later. It looked stained into her skin.
"Wow," she breathed, staring at herself, wondering if that was really her in the mirror.
"You look so hot, Annie," Rachel said. "Every guy there is gonna want to kiss you."
Annabeth's cheeks went red. She turned and glared at her friend. Rachel just shrugged and said, "It's the truth."
Annabeth rolled her eyes and glanced at her phone on the counter. She was surprised to see that she had fifteen minutes to get her dress on and make last minute adjustments to her hair and make-up before Percy arrived. She had spent five minutes staring at herself in the mirror.
"Oh crap," she muttered and pulled Rachel out of the bathroom. "Help me get into my dress."
They closed and locked her bedroom door. Annabeth stepped out of her sweats and t-shirt while Rachel took the dress off the hanger and unzipped it, holding it out for Annabeth to step into. She did and Rachel zipped it up while Annabeth sucked in her stomach. After some flouncing at the bottom and adjustments to the top to make it more comfortable for Annabeth, she stared at the shoes on her closet floor, trying to decide what to wear. She had a pair of old, strappy heels from one of her own school's dances last year. Next to those was her favorite white Converse. After thirty seconds of debate, she grabbed the Converse and stuffed her feet into them while Rachel gave her a look of utter disappointment.
"What?" Annabeth demanded.
Rachel shook her head. "I just don't understand how you can be so worried about what these students think of you and then put on sneakers instead of heels."
Annabeth shrugged. "They're comfortable."
Annabeth's mascara had smeared a little bit beneath her right eye. Rachel wiped it away and applied a little bit more mascara to that eye. Once she was satisfied that Annabeth was perfect, Annabeth grabbed her silver clutch she was borrowing from Rachel and stuffed her phone, wallet, apartment keys, and some lipstick and eye shadow in case of emergency into it.
When Annabeth entered the living room, her parents still weren't home. The twins were sitting on the couch, though, intently watching an NCIS episode. When they heard the girls enter, they looked back and their eyes widened.
"Crap," Bobby said, grinning. "Nice job, Rachel."
"Yeah," Matthew put in. "She looks nothing like the cow that she usually is."
Rachel gave the two of them high-fives. Annabeth put her hands on her hips and glared at the three of them. "I'm standing right here, you know," she reminded them. "And I don't normally look like a cow, Matthew."
Matthew grinned but ducked when he saw Annabeth's hand on a path to hit him. She still got him anyway.
"Hey, Mom made cakeballs," Bobby called from the kitchen, reaching into the fridge and opening a tupperware container full of the sweets. Annabeth hadn't even seen him get up from the couch. She walked over to him and grabbed a cakeball from the container and stuffed it in her mouth. Mm. Red velvet. Her favorite.
"Annabeth, you shouldn't eat that stuff before you go," Rachel scolded, even as she stuffed one in her mouth. "Percy will be here any minute." Annabeth wrinkled her nose at her and grabbed another one, taking a big bite out of it.
And, right on cue, the doorbell rang. Matthew jumped up and opened the door and, of course, it was Percy.
He looked amazing. Annabeth had to keep herself from staring. Thalia and Rachel had always talked about the "Tuxedo Effect", which basically meant that any guy was instantly more attractive in a tuxedo. Annabeth had always scoffed at that, but she had to admit that whatever this "Tuxedo Effect" was, Percy had it. He wore a simple black one, but it fit him perfectly. His tie was red, which Annabeth thought was a funny coincidence. Thalia must have told him that her dress was red. His white dress shirt underneath the jacket hung tight to his body. Annabeth could see the hints of muscle underneath it.
Her insides began to flutter and she realized, in horror that her mouth was still full of red velvet cakeball. Percy didn't seem to notice, though. He was too busy staring with wide eyes and his cheeks were tinted red. He opened his mouth, then closed it again, then opened it, then closed it. He seemed like he didn't know what to say.
Annabeth swallowed. "Hi," she greeted. Then, because she didn't know what else to say, she offered him a cakeball.
Percy's face broke out in a grin at that. He walked over, holding out his arms for a hug. The look on his face said that he ws joking around with her, so Annabeth rolled her eyes but let him envelope her in his arms. Despite the fact that the hug was totally a joke, his arms were strong and sure around her and she smiled to herself as her body filled with warmth.
Percy grabbed a cakeball and then took a step away from her. Annabeth stuffed the rest of the cakeball in her mouth while Percy shoved the whole thing in his. He looked over Annabeth and nodded at Rachel. "How are you today, Rachel?" he asked once he swallowed.
Rachel's cheeks were red, but she sounded calm and cool as she said, "I'm good. And how are you?"
Percy looked at Annabeth. "Excited," he answered. Annabeth grinned.
"Hey, Percy," Bobby greeted, even though he'd been standing there the entire time.
Percy shot a glare at him. "I cannot believe you beat me on Clash of Clans," he snapped. Bobby grinned.
"Yeah," he said. "You're not that good."
Percy's jaw dropped. "I've beat every guy at my school!" he exclaimed, genuinely offended by Bobby's words. Annabeth shot a look over to Rachel who rolled her eyes, as if saying, Ugh. Boys. Annabeth smiled and rolled her eyes back.
"Annabeth, I hope you don't mind me saying this," Percy said, shoving his hands in his pockets and leaning against the counter. He had a glare directed at Bobby. "But your brother is a total douchebag."
A laugh slipped out of Annabeth's lips. "You don't know how many times I've told him that."
Bobby widened his eyes at her. "You're seriously teaming up with your stupid boyfriend on this one?" he demanded, but Annabeth could see the gleam in his eyes. He enjoyed beating an eighteen-year-old at a video game and then said eighteen-year-old getting angry about it.
"He's not my boyfriend," Annabeth corrected. She rolled her eyes at Percy's muttered, "Yet."
Matthew, who had been sitting on the couch, ignoring everyone, laughed out loud. Annabeth glared at the back of his head. But then Percy's hand slipped into hers and her eyes flew back to him. Of course, he wasn't looking at her.
"Well, I hate to break up this lovely reunion, Bobby," he said bitterly, "but your sister and I have to go or we'll be late for the dance."
"And we don't want that," Bobby muttered, making Annabeth smile.
Percy dragged her to the door, but Matthew beat him to it. He stood in the way and crossed his arms, trying to look threateningly at Percy. Annabeth glared at him from behind Percy's back. Matthew ignored her. "Remember, Percy Jackson," Matthew spit out Percy's name, "that's my sister. You better be respectful, you hear me? No funny business. I want her back untouched, understand?"
Annabeth's face was blood red and she knew Percy's must be also. He nodded slowly, his grip on Annabeth's hand tightening. Matthew gave him one last threatening glare before moving out of the way. He sat back down on the couch like nothing happened. Bobby joined him a few seconds later. Rachel came over and hugged Annabeth, telling her to have a great time.
"Are you gonna go home?" she asked. "Because feel free to stay if you don't. I'm sure the twins would love to marathon NCIS with you or something."
Rachel nodded. "Yeah, I think I'll stay." She paused. "Actually, do you think I could sleep over tonight? I really don't want to go back home."
Annabeth smiled and nodded. "Sure. Yeah, you can sleep over. You can borrow my clothes so you don't have to go back home and get some."
Rachel smiled back, gaved her another hug in thanks before going to join her brothers on the couch. Annabeth grinned to herself. Rachel and the twins acted like they were siblings. They bickered all the time, but loved each other unconditionally. Annabeth felt thankful to have them.
Percy squeezed her hand, reminding her that he was still there. She turned and smiled up at him, prompting him to open the door. He followed her orders and they walked out into the brisk, cool October air. Annabeth pressed closer to Percy for warmth. She'd left her jacket inside.
When they were safely in the car and driving, Annabeth bit her lip and said, "Sorry. My brothers can be a little, um, protective at times."
Percy shot her a sideways grin. "It's okay. I thought it was sweet. Although Bobby can be a little competitive."
Annabeth laughed. "Oh, yeah. He's competitive in everything. Sports, video games, even who can finish their dinner the fastest. Everything's a competition to him."
Percy smiled and took a hand off the wheel, slipping his fingers into Annabeth's. Annabeth stared down at them, swallowing nervously before tightening her fingers around his.
She stared out the window. She didn't get it. Why did Percy act like this with her? Why was he always kissing her on the cheek and holding her hand? Since when had she given him permission to do those things? She really needed to sort through her emotions. She remembered when her and Rachel would promise each other to never date a guy from Vance because they were all preppy jerks. She remembered the weeks when she had seriously considered murdering Percy because of how annoying he was to her. And now here she was, sitting in his car while he drove her to his homecoming dance, holding hands with him. What had happened to her feelings? Was she hurt over the Luke situation and was turning to Percy? Was she telling herself that she had feelings for Percy when in reality she was just trying to get over Luke and using Percy to do so? No. She hadn't really felt any hurt over Luke cheating on her. She'd just felt anger and broken pride. So surely what she felt for Percy wasn't fake.
Did she feel anything for Percy? She'd always felt this fluttering chest and turning stomach around Luke for years. Could something like that come up in the few months that she had known Percy when it had taken a few years to feel that way around Luke?
And it would never work anyway. They were two different people from two different worlds. Annabeth, the girl who's family was slowly slipping into poverty, and Percy, the boy who had more money than he could ever wish to spend.
Annabeth shook her head, trying to get these thoughts out of her head. She couldn't like Percy. That just wasn't an option. They were just friends and that was it.
Percy cleared his throat. Annabeth turned to look at him as he said, "You look really good tonight, Annabeth." His eyes flicked from the road to her face as he said more seriously, "Really good."
She felt her cheeks go red, but she played it off with a laugh. "Thank you. You don't look too bad yourself." She squeezed his hand for good measure.
"I always look good, Wise Girl," he teased. "Don't act like I never look this good."
Annabeth rolled her eyes. "You're so full of yourself."
"But you love me."
"Don't know why," she murmured. Thankfully, Percy didn't hear her.
It was quiet for a while before Percy said in a serious, no-joking tone, "You know, I think it's kind of sweet, how close you and your family are."
Annabeth snorted and turned her face away from Percy, looking out the window. Yeah, that's what he thought. He had no idea how truly messed up her family was. How messed up she was because of it. She felt Percy move their entwined hands and then she felt an elbow jab into her side. She turned to look at Percy, who had a goofy smile on his face.
"We're just a family," she answered, only lying a little bit. "We love each other. Your family isn't like that?"
She knew it was a stupid question, but she couldn't keep it from slipping out. She knew firsthand just how twisted a family can be.
Percy didn't seem bothered by her question. He just shrugged and said, "My family is a little, um, strange, I guess you could say. I'd rather not get into it."
Annabeth let out a bitter laugh. "I know what you mean." Percy shot her a strange look before letting go of her hand to turn into the Vance parking lot. Annabeth wouldn't have admitted it if there was a gun pressing into her temple, but she found that she missed the warmth and pressure of Percy's hand in hers.
And then the Vance campus was right in front of her and Annabeth felt her stomach twist. It was a few minutes after six and Annabeth saw couples walking into the entrance to the gymnasium. She was too far to see clearly how truly preppy they looked, but just seeing them was enough to make her want to throw up.
Percy parked and, noticing her pale face, turned her chin so she was looking at him. "Hey," he said in a calm voice. "There's no need to be nervous."
"I'm not nervous," Annabeth protested, but it was too obvious that she was, in fact, totally nervous. Percy grinned and gave a light laugh.
"That's my girl," he muttered and it probably had slipped out because she saw Percy's face go red, but he continued talking like he meant to say that. "Tough as nails. Don't worry. Just stay by me all night. I've got you." Then he kissed her on the tip of her nose and got out of the car. Annabeth had to sit there for the next few seconds so she could catch her breath and calm her furiously beating heart. (Which was going crazy for a different reason other than nerves.)
Percy opened the door for her and she slipped out, letting her dress fall down to the pavement in pretty, glittering red waves. Percy slipped his fingers into hers and Annabeth had a feeling he probably wouldn't let go all night.
If Annabeth thought she was nervous before, it was ten times worse when she walked into the dance.
The room was decorated beautifully. Percy had explained to her before that the room where the dance would be held was an actual "dance hall" - a room whose sole purpose was to host dances. Annabeth thought that was a little ridiculous since every school she had ever known had just put on dances in the gym, but she wasn't going to comment. The hall had a stage on the opposite side of the room from the entrance, which was completely clear except for a microphone in center stage and two podiums where two crowns sat - for the homecoming king and queen.
The dance seemed to have a school spirit theme to it. The school's mascot was a wildcat, so everywhere Annabeth looked, she saw wildcats. The table centerpieces consisted of some flowers, a candle, and a stuffed wildcat wearing a Vance football uniform. At the entrance to the hall was a sort of decorated walkway. Pillars lined the navy blue carpet with a string of lights hanging from them, glistening like stars in the cool atmosphere. Annabeth remembered Percy telling her that Vance's school colors were blue and white, so she found these decorations quite appropriate.
All the tables were lined around the sides of the hall, leaving the middle open to a giant dance floor. A disco ball hung down, shining down all different colors of lights on the multitude of dancers. There was a DJ off to the side who looked like he was being paid a lot of money to do this. He seemed a little too into his work than your typical DJ.
Percy squeezed her hand, bringing her out of her state of awe and grounding her to reality. "Let's go find Thalia," he suggested and Annabeth could only nod as she swallowed down her nerves.
Percy pulled her through the throng of people. Annabeth was shocked by how many students were there. Sure, there were probably some people who were from other schools like her, but the majority were definitely students from Vance. Annabeth could tell by the way they carried themselves. And she could tell by the way they were constantly stopping to greet Percy. Especially the guys. Many of them would intercept their path and give Percy a high-five and ask how he was doing. Many of them looked her up and down before asking who she was. A lot of them made her feel incredibly uncomfortable under their scrutinizing stare that settled on certain areas of her body for far too long, so Annabeth could honestly say that she was satisfied when Percy would tug her closer to him and introduce her in the same tone that he had used with Luke. Of course, she would never admit that to anyone.
The girls too, Annabeth noticed, were focused on her and Percy. Annabeth saw many of them focus on their intertwined fingers and then shoot her angry, jealous glares. Annabeth felt extremely insecure under those glares. Not only were these girls rich and carried themselves with a level of authority, but they also were really, really hot. Their dresses fit every single one perfectly, hugging their curves and falling loose around their legs in waves of silk. Every girl whose gaze met Annabeth's had sharp, angular features - probably a result of heavy make-up work since no girl could be that beautiful naturally, but it was still more than Annabeth had done. If she remembered correctly, Rachel had just put on some very light eyeshadow and rubbed some stuff on her skin to get rid of acne and acne scars, not get rid of her childish roundness. These girls had defined cheekbones and dark, smokey eyes. Annabeth felt like she was in a room of young adults rather than high schoolers.
"Don't worry about them," Percy said, his lips pressing against her ear as he spoke. If he was any farther, Annabeth wouldn't have been able to hear him; the music was that loud. Still, his close proximity had her desperately trying to suppress a shiver.
Annabeth shot him a confused look, like she didn't know what he was talking about. Percy gave her a heart-warming grin and leaned back over to say, "All those girls who are glaring at you like you just ran over their grandma? Don't worry about them. They're all bark and no bite. That's why they never interested me all that much."
Annabeth shot him a surprised look. "And what does interest you, Percy?"
Percy shrugged and grinned wickedly before saying, "Girls that are all bark and bite. Kinda like you."
Annabeth tried so hard not to blush at that, but her face didn't listen. She blushed anyway. "Good to know," she muttered. Percy didn't hear her.
They found Thalia standing over by the stage, talking to a blonde-haired boy and a pretty brunette. Thalia saw her and Percy and immediately waved over Annabeth, completely ignoring her cousin.
"Oh my goodness, Annabeth, you look amazing!" she exclaimed before embracing Annabeth.
Annabeth laughed and said, "I could say the same about you!" And she really could. Thalia had gone with the short dress instead of a long one that so many other girls had chosen. It was black and ended right above her knees. It was tight and hugged all her curves, showing off her nice figure. The dress had a sweetheart neckline, but some sheer material came up and covered the rest of her chest and leaving her shoulders and arms exposed. Her short, choppy hair looked normal, but her make-up had a more sophisticated look to it instead of the normal heavy, I'm-a-teenager-going-through-my-rebellious-phase look she usually wore. On her feet were six-inch black stilettos that made Annabeth's feet ache just looking at them. She was so happy she had chosen to wear her Converse. While everyone else's feet were in pain at the hands of the torture devices they wore, Annabeth felt like her feet were encased in little clouds of heaven.
Thalia eyed Annabeth and Percy's interlocked fingers, but she didn't say anything. She just shot Annabeth a look that had hopefully gone unnoticed by Percy and began to introduce Annabeth to the two people with her. She pointed to the boy first.
"Annabeth, this is my brother, Jason Grace," she said. Jason smiled widely and shook her hand like a polite gentleman. Annabeth was surprised by that, considering who his sister was. Thalia was the queen of disrespect.
"I'm so glad to finally meet the incredible Annabeth Chase," Jason said kindly. "Thalia talks about you sometimes, but it's Percy who really won't shut up about you."
Annabeth felt her cheeks coloring, but she shot Percy a sideways glance. His face was tomato red, which made Annabeth feel better about herself. "Oh, really?" she questioned, but she squeezed his hand and elbowed him in the side to let him know that she was just teasing him. A half smile crossed his face, but it quickly disappeared when Annabeth asked, "And what does he say about me?"
This time, the girl spoke up. "Mostly about all the little things about you, like how you like your coffee and your favorite books." Percy was groaning now. "I feel like I already know you better than I know myself."
Annabeth couldn't even tease him about that. "That's so sweet," she said to Percy, an infectious grin spreading across her face. "I didn't know that you think that much about me."
Percy bit his lip. Annabeth was surprised that he hadn't let go of her hand yet since he appeared to be so embarrassed. "I notice things," was his only reply. Annabeth's smile widened and instead of pondering why on earth this new information made her so ridiculously happy, she turned back to Jason and the girl.
To some people, it might seem a little weird that she had never met Jason before since she was best friends with his sister. And it kind of was at first. But the Grace family was complicated. Thalia and Jason didn't actually live together; at least, not most of the time. Jason lived with their dad in his huge mansion. He had gotten custody of Jason when he was just a baby. Thalia wasn't so lucky. Her mother had custody of her, so she was forced to live with her for the majority of the time. Thalia's mom used to be a big-time actress, so she has a ton of money, but quickly after she had Jason, she had spiraled into the chains of drugs and alcohol. That's why Annabeth had never been to Thalia's house. Her mom was passed out half of the time, or high on drugs. And Thalia rarely ever got to go to her dad's.
Pushing all thoughts of Thalia's family into the back of her mind, Annabeth stuck out her hand to shake the girl's. "I'm Annabeth," she said, which was kind of stupid. Literally, this girl just told her that she was all Percy talked about.
Thankfully, the girl just cracked a smile. "I'm Piper," she replied and shook Annabeth's outstretched hand. That's when Annabeth noticed that her and Jason were holding hands. She had to hold back a smile.
They talked for a few more minutes. Some others came to greet Percy and Jason - apparently, Jason was pretty popular too. His dad was head of the school board, so it was only natural. Annabeth and Piper talked a lot, and Annabeth found that she liked the girl. Piper was the daughter of the big-time movie actor Tristan McLean and her mom was one of those ladies who went from husband to husband. Piper knew her mom and went to visit her quite often, but she had so many brothers and sisters, it was hard to keep count. Annabeth smiled and thought of her own mother wishing desperately that she was able to know her, even if she did have a ton of kids with a ton of different men. It was better than the alternative that was sadly Annabeth's reality.
Swallowing down sudden tears, Annabeth gripped Percy's hand tighter. He must have noticed her sudden discomfort, because he excused them and dragged her over to the refreshments. Annabeth had only noticed them before, but now that she was getting a closer look, she was shocked to see that these foods were so unlike the fruit trays, cookies, and cupcakes at her high school's dances. Displayed on the table was food for millionaires: cold shrimp and crab with a variety of different sauces, sushi, cookies from one of the most expensive bakeries in town, mini sandwiches with toothpicks sticking out of them, and a bunch of different veggies and fruits, all fresh. On the table next to it was a huge chocolate fountain and on the table next to that were the drinks.
Percy let go of her hand to grab them a plate filled with a couple cookies, some shrimp, strawberries with a promise to cover them with chocolate, and a few little sandwiches. Annabeth noticed he grabbed the turkey and cheese instead of the ham and cheese. She smiled. Turkey and cheese was her favorite.
After grabbing a bottle of sparkling water for them to share, they headed to an empty table. Annabeth grabbed a sandwich and took a big bite out of it. "Mm," she said, closing her eyes dramatically. "This is so good."
Percy chuckled. "It's literally just a sandwich, Wise Girl. I could probably make the exact same one and bring you one to work."
Annabeth opened her eyes. "Please do," she said after she swallowed. Percy smiled before grabbing a cookie and chomping off half of it in one bite. He offered the other half to Annabeth, but she shot him a smirk and grabbed the other cookie off the plate, trying to take an equally big bite. Needless to say, she failed.
"So," Percy said when the plate had been cleared and the water gone, "why did you look so uncomfortable when Piper mentioned her mom?"
Annabeth furrowed her eyebrows. "What do you mean?" she asked.
Percy shrugged. "Well," he started slowly, "you just looked really awkward. You kept fidgeting and wouldn't look anyone in the eye. And you had this really sad look on your face."
Annabeth bit her lip and looked down at her lap. Had she looked like that? She hadn't really even thought of what she had looked like in that moment. She had only been thinking about her mother and how lucky Piper was to still have her mother, no matter what the circumstances. Annabeth glanced up and found Percy watching her intently. Maybe it was his hot stare or just the need to tell someone, but she found herself saying, "I guess I just missed my mom."
Percy's face didn't change, but he took her hand again. Annabeth knew she should probably pull away before the warmth that ran through her at his touch caused her to open up and tell him everything about the circumstances of her mom's death that she had so carefully hidden away in her mind.
"I'm sorry," Percy said quietly. Annabeth smiled.
"It's fine, really," she assured him. "It was a long time ago. I barely even remember her."
Except that wasn't true. Annabeth did remember. You don't forget something like the death of your mother. Especially if you were the one who found her.
Annabeth bit her lip and stood, pulling Percy with her. "I want to dance," she announced, smiling at Percy's eyeroll.
"Of course," he teased. "Because what's homecoming without dancing?"
Annabeth dragged Percy to the dance floor, which was packed with students. They found their way to the center and stood face-to-face. Suddenly, Annabeth wasn't sure what to do. Rachel and she had always been the girls to steer clear of the dance floor at dances. She wasn't sure what had possessed her to ask Percy to go dance with her; maybe she just wanted to get away from the conversation about her mom. Nevertheless, she glanced around at the people surrounding her and tried to copy their movements. Percy awkwardly swayed to the music while watching Annabeth with an amused expression. She shot him a look.
"What?" she demanded.
Percy shook his head, chuckling. "You're just cute when you're trying to dance."
Annabeth stopped and glared at him. "Shut up," she demanded, but there was a small smile on her lips.
After a moment, the song ended and the crowd momentarily stopped dancing to catch their breath. Then the slow song started, and Annabeth felt her cheeks heat up. She wasn't sure she was ready for this, but there was no escaping it. They were right in the center of the dance floor and there were no outs. Annabeth looked back up at Percy, heart pounding, as he stared at her with a mischievous look on his face.
And she was in no way prepared for when he took her in his arms and pulled her close. There was barely an inch of skin where their bodies weren't touching. Percy's arms were locked around Annabeth's waist and she felt like she was strapped in an electric chair, but in a good way. If this was what being electrocuted felt like, then she would be happy being shocked forever. She slid her arms around his neck while butterflies fluttered around in her stomach. She refused to look him in the eye, instead choosing to stare straight ahead at his chest. She could feel his gaze like the blazing sun on her face, but she chose to not acknowledge it.
They started swaying to the music. Annabeth prayed that she wouldn't step on his toes.
Percy lowered his head and whispered in her ear, "So have we gotten past the 'acquaintances' stage?"
Annabeth had to fight the grin on her face. "No," she said, succeeding in having a completely indifferent expression.
Percy chuckled, his breath tickling her ear. "Well, I'd have to say that this type of thing is something acquaintances don't normally do," he pointed out. Annabeth rolled her eyes and finally looked up at him. He met her eyes and gave a gorgeous half-smile. "Friends?" he tried.
Annabeth smiled. "Friends."
Percy's smile was brighter than all the lights in the room. They danced for another minute or so before Percy said, "You know, I'm really glad that you came with me tonight."
Annabeth forced herself to continue moving to the music even though everything in her wanted to freeze at his words and let them wash over her. "I'm glad you asked," she replied coolly.
Percy bit his lip and looked down at her. "You look really good tonight."
Annabeth smiled. "I think you already said that, Seaweed Brain."
His cheeks colored but he played it off, shrugging. "It was worth repeating," he said before leaning down and whispering in her ear, "You're probably the most beautiful one here."
Annabeth had to swallow down her nerves multiple times. Goodness, this boy was going to be the death of her. Why was his pointless flirting making her feel this way? Was it even pointless? Did he really even mean it? These questions had been circling around in her mind for the past couple of weeks as his flirting turned from a joke to something that might be real if she let it.
"Thank you," she whispered back, not bothering to say what she was thinking. She was totally not the most beautiful girl there. Not by a long shot.
Percy smiled again (he was smiling a lot tonight) and looked down. Annabeth watched as he furrowed his eyebrows before smiling again. He looked back up at her. "Are you wearing Converse?" he asked, his tone unreadable.
Annabeth knew her face must be a flaming red. She bit her lip and answered, "I might be."
Percy's smile grew. "Only you," he muttered.
And then everything changed. Suddenly, their close proximity became something more. It became intimate and Annabeth could feel the air changing around them as powerfully as when the seasons change. Her arms tightened around his neck and Percy pulled her even closer to him. His eyes flicked to her lips and lingered, if only for a few seconds, before meeting her eyes again. And that's when she knew. She was falling for this boy, who had become a complete mystery to her. He was a walking oxymoron. Selfish, but sacrificial. Arrogant, but kind. Rich, but not spoiled. He was everything Annabeth had told herself to stay away from, but had suddenly become everything Annabeth had ever wanted to fall for.
She wasn't sure if she could call what she was feeling love. She didn't think so. But it was so much more than attraction, so much more than a crush. It was a living, beautiful thing inside of her, breathing out emotions Annabeth didn't even know that she had. And as the space between their lips grew smaller and smaller, Annabeth wanted nothing more than to let him kiss the oxygen right out of her.
That's when she remembered where she was. Her breathing stilled. What was she doing? She was in the middle of a dance. She was surrounded by people, the majority of whom had to be watching her. Wondering who she was, who their great Percy Jackson was about to kiss. And as quickly as all of these emotions had come, they were destroyed by a rising fear inside of her.
What if all of the things she was feeling towards him wasn't being returned? What if this was all one big joke? What if he really was a womanizer and Annabeth was his new project? What if he really did have feelings for her, but once he really got to her, he would find her extremely unextraordinary? What if she really did fall in love with him? She carried around so much baggage from her past. What if he wasn't prepared to help her carry it? What if he found her way too messed up for his tastes and left? What if he found that she wasn't good enough for him? What if?
His lips were almost on hers. She could feel his breath against her mouth. And at the last second, she turned her head so his lips pressed a kiss into her cheek, feather light. They lingered there, unmoving, as a small sigh escaped Annabeth's mouth. She bit her lip, shut her eyes tight, and buried her face in his neck, praying that he would understand why she pulled away, even if she wasn't so sure herself. She prayed that he wouldn't get angry with her and walk away, leaving her alone on the dance floor.
Thankfully, he didn't. He tightened his arms around her and rested his cheek on top of her head, swaying the two of them to the music.
They didn't say much for the rest of the dance, but Annabeth was afraid she had just made the biggest mistake of her life.
Annabeth shut the door to her apartment, every inch of her body still tingling from the dance. She closed her eyes and leaned against the door, trying to think through the night's events. Especially the almost-kiss.
All the lights were off in the apartment. Annabeth walked down the hall to her room, her brothers' and parents' doors closed and lights off. When Annabeth entered her own room, she found Rachel curled up on her bed, watching a movie on the laptop she had brought with her. Once she saw Annabeth's face, she immediately turned off the movie and scooted over on the bed, making room for Annabeth. Annabeth collapsed onto it and buried her face in the pillows.
"What happened?" Rachel asked, starting to take out the million bobbypins in Annabeth's hair.
"I am a complete and total coward," Annabeth said into her pillow. Then she told Rachel everything.
The good news was that she didn't have work the next day. She was free to sulk around all day that Sunday, moaning and complaining to Rachel about how much of an idiot she was.
The bad news was that she did have work on Monday after school. And Percy was going to be there.
Annabeth was like a zombie during school. She was so worried about that afternoon that she hadn't put any effort into her outfit; she was dressed in some old skinny jeans, a hoodless sweatshirt, and some really old knee-high brown boots that she'd had for forever. She hadn't even bothered to put her hair up in a ponytail. It hung down in it's natural state of crazy-curled rage because Annabeth hadn't wanted to put anything in it to tame it. She knew she looked bad, but she knew it was really bad when Rachel saw her and asked her if she had been run over by a truck.
"No," Annabeth snapped. "I'm just tired."
Rachel rolled her eyes. Annabeth knew that she saw right through her. "Come on, Annie," she said. "Stop worrying so much about Percy. I doubt he's gone into a state of plunging deep depression like you have over one little awkward moment at a dance."
"Oh, so is that his name?" Jamaica's voice came from behind them. Annabeth shot Rachel a withering glare before turning around and looking at her.
Jamiaca stood proud and tall, flanked by her minions, Val and Lia. As usual, they all wore their skimpy clothes that were completely against dress code, but they somehow got away with. Jamaica wore a pair of dark blue jeggings with a tight, extremely low-cut red shirt. A black leather jacket covered part of the shirt, but her cleavage was still glaringly obvious. On her feet were black, six-inch strappy heels, even though it was getting cool outside. Her dark hair was playfully curled and her lip gloss, while usually perfect, was smeared all over her lips. Annabeth could only imagine what that meant. Jamaica wasn't really known for her commitment to whatever boy was her current boyfriend.
Val and Lia didn't quite have the whole "bad girl" theme going on in their outfits. Val wore a tight black mini shirt with opaque black tights and some less obnoxious heels than Jamaica. She wore a white button-up and a chunky peach necklace. Annabeth wanted to slap her. Even though she had mostly been angry at Luke for doing the cheating, Val was still a part of it. Annabeth pressed her lips together and looked over at Lia, who seemed to be having a lazy day, like Annabeth, and wore tight skinny jeans with a size-too-big gray sweatshirt, pink scark, and brown combat boots. Her hair was up in a messy bun.
Annabeth bit her lip. She wasn't sure where this was going to go, but she had a feeling it wasn't going to end well.
"Who's name?" Annabeth asked, playing dumb. She noticed a crowd forming around them made of students who wanted to see what humiliation their queen had in store for Annabeth today. She spotted Luke in the crowd and was shocked to see that he had a hint of lip gloss on his lips. She felt like laughing out loud. So he was Jamaica's new boy toy of the day, despite the fact that he and Val had gone public only a little while ago. Annabeth was so glad that she had broken it off with him. He was such a player.
Jamaica rolled her eyes. "Oh, come on, Annabeth," she drawled. "The boy I saw you with at the park a few weeks ago?" Annabeth felt her face heat up. She must have been really red because Jamaica smiled. "Yeah. You know what I'm talking about, don't you? I saw you try to hide."
Annabeth's hands closed into fists. She didn't know what to say. But now the crowd was getting larger and she could feel Rachel getting angry next to her. She had to say something before Rachel did.
"What about him?" she went with, trying to sound cool and nonchalant even though her face had to be bright red by now.
Jamaica smiled viciously. "Kinda hot, isn't he? Definitely hotter than any of the guys here." She glanced around and gave a sweet smile to all the boys surrounding them. "No offense," she said. Then she turned her attention back to Annabeth. "Probably an incredible kisser too, don't you think? I'd like to find out, if you know what I mean." She giggled and Val and Lia quickly joined in. Annabeth rolled her eyes. She seriously doubted that those two had minds of their own.
Rachel took a step forward. "What's your problem, Jamaica? Why can't you just leave us-"
Annabeth elbowed her friend in the side, ignoring her grunt of pain, and said, "Well, good luck with that."
Jamaica's laughter ceased. She furrowed her eyebrows at Annabeth and said in a viciously cool tone, "What do you mean?" She paused for a second, then laughed. "Is he your boyfriend or something?" A few people in the crowd laughed along with Jamaica, like the very idea was preposterous. Whenever Jamiaca deemed someone hot, they had to be incredibly attractive. Apparently, the idea of Annabeth dating one of these people was ridiculous.
She swallowed down a wave of hurt. Glancing around at the people laughing, she saw that Luke was one of them. Tears of anger pricked at the back of her eyes. Before she could think, she found herself blurting out, "Yeah. He is my boyfriend."
The laughter died down a little bit. Jamaica, Val, and Lia stared at Annabeth like she just spoke in another language. "Seriously?" Val said, before giggling a little bit. Annabeth shot a glare at her and nodded defiantly.
"Why would I joke about something like that?" she asked, crossing her arms. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Rachel crossing her arms also. She was so happy that Rachel was the type of friend who would stick by her even if she was completely and totally lying.
Jamaica seemed to recover. She pursed her lips and nodded, before smiling a cold smile. "Well, if he is your boyfriend, maybe you could introduce me to him one time?" she asked, but Annabeth heard the underlying message. Jamaica was telling her to prove it.
The first bell rang and the crowd began to disperse, including the Queen Bees. Val hopped over to Luke, giving him a long, disgustingly deep kiss before glancing over at Annabeth with a snide smile. So apparently, Val didn't believe her about Percy and was rubbing in the fact that she had Luke. Jamaica gave her a sneaky glare before walking off with Lia on her heels.
Annabeth groaned and turned back to her locker. "What did I just do?" she asked Rachel.
"Um, I think you just announced to the whole school that Percy is your boyfriend," Rachel recapped. Annabeth groaned again, and hit her head against her locker.
"I am a total idiot," she moaned. She looked over at Rachel. "What am I supposed to do? If Percy finds out, I'll never hear the end of it."
Rachel shrugged. "Don't let him find out, then."
Annabeth shot her a look. "Easier said than done."
Rachel shrugged. "Hey, don't blame me. You were the one who got yourself into trouble. By the way," she paused, leaning closer and lowering her voice, "did you see how Jamaica's lip gloss was all smeared? Guess who had lip gloss all over their face?"
In spite of herself, Annabeth cracked a smile. "Luke," she answered. Her and Rachel shared a knowing smile.
"I'm so glad you broke up with him," Rachel said. "He's a cheating jerk. He cheated on you with Val and now he's cheating on Val with Jamaica. That's just disgusting."
Annabeth sighed, grabbed her books, and closed her locker. Her feelings were so mixed up right then, with the almost-kiss at the dance and now her lie that Percy was her boyfriend, but at least Rachel could always make her laugh.
Percy was late to work that day. Annabeth herself was running late, if only by a few minutes. She was cold and her hair was tangled by the wind from riding her bike from school to The Book Nook. When she entered the shop, she found Mrs. Grace sitting at the counter, reading a book of her own. She looked up when Annabeth came in, and immediately a smile took over her face.
"Annabeth," she greeted. "It's so nice to see you."
"I'm so sorry I'm late," Annabeth said in a rush. "I had to stay after class to ask my teacher about some homework and then-"
Mrs. Grace laughed. "Relax, Annabeth," she said cheerfully. "It's okay. I was having fun watching over the store. I've gotten new workers recently, so I haven't gotten much of a chance to actually work up front."
Annabeth furrowed her eyebrows as she went to sit behind the counter with the old woman. New workers? She hadn't heard about that. Did that mean that Percy and she weren't going to work together anymore? As embarrassed as she was over the way she had left things when they were last together, the thought of not working with Percy anymore was, in a sense, devastating.
Mrs. Grace must have sensed where her train of thought had gone because she patted Annabeth's hand. "Don't worry," she reassured her. "I haven't changed yours or Percy's schedules. You two will still be working together as long as you want."
Annabeth nodded, her face heating up. Judging from Mrs. Grace's sly smile, the old woman wasn't oblivious to the recent tension between Percy and Annabeth. And then Annabeth thought, maybe that's the reason why she wasn't separating them. That thought made her body temperature rise up ten degrees.
Annabeth looked over at Mrs. Grace. She had always admired the old woman. She had a certain grace to everything she did, whether it was talking to her customers or paying the bills. Ever since she had gotten a job here, Mrs. Grace had sort of become a mother figure to Annabeth. She felt like she could talk to her about anything. And even though the topic on her mind right then was Mrs. Grace's grandson, Annabeth found herself saying, "Um, can I ask you about something?"
Mrs. Grace smiled a kind smile. "Of course. You can ask me anything."
Annabeth bit her lip, unsure of how to phrase what she was trying to say. "I actually, uh, wanted to talk about Percy." Mrs. Grace's eyebrows lifted, but she didn't say anything. "Well, we sort of hated each other at first, but lately, we've been getting closer. A lot closer. And I just, well, I'm just confused, I guess. I don't really know how I feel. And I don't know if he's feeling the same way or if I'm just making all of this up in my head. So I guess what I'm asking is, well, do you have any advice for me?"
Mrs. Grace was quiet for a minute and Annabeth fidgeted uncomfortably. She was starting to think that the woman wasn't going to answer her, but then she said, "As you know, my favorite book in the world is Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice." Annabeth nodded and smiled. "Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy hated each other in the story. Loathed each other entirely. But over time, that hatred turned into love. I think that's what makes the story so beautiful. The fact that two people who hated each other fell in love."
"So you're saying that Percy and I are going to fall in love?" Annabeth furrowed her eyebrows. Sure, she sort of expected that they had crushes on each other. But love? No way. She was seventeen. She was too young for that.
Mrs. Grace paused. "They say that no one can hate you more than someone who used to love you. But I think it can also go the other way. No one can love you more than someone who used to hate you. So, Annabeth, if you ever question whether or not Percy really does like you, remember that. Because I'm sure no one could resist falling for a girl like you." She paused. "And, as always, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade."
Annabeth smiled, happy that Mrs. Grace thought so highly of her. She didn't. She thought the exact opposite, actually. How could someone like Percy fall for someone like her? Too many people had left her. She was too damaged, too broken and scarred. But if Mrs. Grace believed it could happen, then maybe it could.
"Thank you," Annabeth said. Then, as a second thought, she added, "Please don't tell Percy that we had this conversation."
Mrs. Grace grinned. "Don't you worry, Annabeth," she reassured her. "I don't tell you about the conversations I have with Percy, now do I?"
Annabeth looked over at the old woman. Her heart raced. What did that mean? Did Percy ask Mrs. Grace about Annabeth? And if he did, what did that mean? Her mind was filled with questions and she was about to voice them when the door opened and Percy walked in.
"Sorry I'm late, Annabeth," he apologized. Then he saw his grandmother next to her and said, "Oh, hi, Grandma."
Mrs. Grace smiled, stood, and walked over to her grandson, placing a big kiss on his cheek. He winced and stood still, letting her ruffle his hair and love on him. Annabeth sat behind the desk, trying not to laugh at his embarrassment. He looked over and met her eyes, giving her a half-smile. Annabeth felt her face heat up and she looked down at the counter.
After kissing her grandson's face until his face resembled a ripe tomato, Mrs. Grace excused herself to her office in the back, leaving Percy and Annabeth alone. Percy sighed, ran a hand through his already messy hair, and took a seat beside Annabeth. She looked over at him.
"So. Why are you late?" she asked, noticing that he was still in his school uniform. Annabeth would be lying if she said that his rolled-up sleeves didn't make him look ten times more attractive.
Percy shrugged. "I had after school detention." At Annabeth's disappointed look, he threw his hands up in surrender and said, "What? We can't all be goody-two-shoes like you, Wise Girl."
Annabeth rolled her eyes. "So what did you do?"
Percy grinned mischievously. "Principal caught me and this other girl making out in the hallway during class. Gave both of us detention."
A feeling ran through Annabeth, hot and all-consuming. She bit her lip and looked down at the counter, not saying anything. She didn't look up until Percy started laughing.
"What?" she demanded.
"You're jealous," he stated before bursting into a fit of laughter again.
Annabeth glared at him. "I am not."
"Oh yeah?" Percy challenged. "Than what do you call that?" He gestured towards her with a triumphant grin.
"Call what?" she said stubbornly, even as her face heated up. She knew that she was completely and totally jealous, which was ridiculous. He had the right to kiss whoever he wanted.
"This." He made a bad imitation of her, staring at the counter with a wicked glare on his face. Annabeth punched him in the arm, but it was hard to keep in her grin.
"That is not what I look like," she argued. "And I am not jealous."
Percy rolled his eyes and elbowed her. "You totally are." At Annabeth's groan, he leaned closer and said, "So I think you'll be happy to know that I am totally kidding with you. I wasn't kissing someone. I called a teacher an old sot."
Annabeth, against her will, let out a small sigh of relief. Percy grinned victoriously. He leaned back, resting his chin in his palm and looking at her. Annabeth tried not to meet his gaze. Percy seemed to sense her discomfort because he nudged her and said, "Hey. Look at me."
Annabeth followed orders, glancing up and meeting his eyes.
Percy pursed his lips. "Look, if this is about what happened Saturday night . . ." He trailed off with an uncomfortable look on his face. Annabeth leaned forward, wanting to hear where he was going with this. "I'm really sorry," he continued. "I'm sorry if I made you uncomfortable or pressured you into doing something you didn't want to. But I just want you to know that, um-"
Annabeth stopped him from finishing by placing a finger against his lips. "Hey, listen to me." She smiled. "Let's just not talk about it, okay? I'd feel better if we just didn't talk about it." Maybe then she could forget about it and he would never know about how he was kind of her fake boyfriend.
Percy nodded and Annabeth continued to change the subject to a movie she wanted to go see. But it was hard to ignore the way Percy's face fell when she told him she didn't want to talk about it.
"So let me get this straight," Thalia said after slurping up about half of her shake. "You," she pointed at Annabeth, "have a crush on my cousin. My cousin, Percy Jackson, the idiot bad boy who has some major daddy issues and who could be quite possibly the worst person in the world for you to ever like."
Annabeth nodded, taking a drink of her own shake. "Yes, that about sums it up."
Thalia faked a gag. "I can't believe this. I am so disgusted right now. How could you do this to me, Annabeth, how?"
Annabeth rolled her eyes at her friend's dramatics. "Sorry, I'll just go have a conversation with myself about not liking him and clear this all right up."
"But come on, Annie!" Thalia cried. "Why did you choose him, of all people? What's so special about him that has you like . . . this."
Annabeth raised her eyebrows. "Do you really want me to answer that question?"
Thalia wrinkled her nose and shook her head. "Yeah, you're right. I don't want you to go on about how beautiful his eyes are and how many butterflies flutter around in your stomach when he's around." Annabeth laughed and leaned an elbow onto the counter, sipping up the rest of the chocolate ice cream in her cup. It had taken everything in her to tell Thalia of her growing feelings for Percy. Thalia and her might be best friends, but telling her that she might have a crush on her cousin was not something that she wanted to do. Rachel had found out immediately on the night of the dance. Thalia had been a little more difficult to talk to. Annabeth was just thankful that she didn't actually throw up. Sure, it might have seemed kind of dramatic, but Thalia was the most dramatic person Annabeth knew.
The girls finished their drinks, paid Katie, and then left the diner. Annabeth hopped onto her bike, but didn't drive off immediately. Thalia grabbed her wrist and when Annabeth turned to look at her, her face was suddenly very solemn. "Annabeth, be careful," she said seriously. At Annabeth's confused look, she added, "With Percy, I mean. I love him to death, but he has some major issues. Don't get caught up in all of that, okay?"
Annabeth swallowed and nodded. Thalia let out a sigh and let go of her wrist, waving goodbye and walking to her car. With a growing curiousity about what Thalia meant, Annabeth headed back towards her apartment.
Percy couldn't be that bad. In the few months they had worked together, Annabeth felt like she was seeing a different side of Percy, the real side of him, not the side he showed to everyone else. Was she wrong about that? Was he actually putting on a nice guy act in front of her and he was actually a bad boy? Should Annabeth stay away? Her thoughts were so jumbled, instead of going home, Annabeth turned and started riding towards The Book Nook. Mrs. Grace should be there. She would know exactly the right thing to tell Annabeth.
Right when she entered the shop, Annabeth knew something was wrong.
No one was at the counter. Mentally, she reviewed the work schedule, trying to remember who had the morning shift. When she remembered that Mrs. Grace herself had taken that shift, her stomach dropped. Something was wrong. Something was very wrong.
Annabeth walked towards the break room. Maybe Mrs. Grace was in there, taking a five minute break or something. She was getting older. Annabeth tried to convince her to stop taking shifts and just work the behind the scenes stuff, but the old woman would never listen. As Annabeth entered the small room, she didn't find anyone in there. That only increased her worries. Had the shop been robbed? Had Mrs. Grace been taken captive? Had she been killed? Annabeth knew these thoughts were extreme and probably not true, but she was worried.
Without thinking, she pulled out her phone and called Percy. He answered on the third ring with a groggy, "Hello?"
"Percy, it's Annabeth," she said quickly. Her voice sounded strained and scared. Mentally cursing, she tried to sound calmer. Nothing was wrong. It would all be okay. "Um, I'm at The Book Nook."
"Is everything okay?" Percy asked. Just a second ago, he'd sounded like he had just woken up. Now, he sounded like he had been awake for hours. "Are you alright? You're not hurt, are you?"
Annabeth shook her head, then realized that he couldn't see her. "No, no," she said. "I'm fine. But I can't find Mrs. Grace. She's supposed to be working this shift and she's nowhere to be found."
As she talked, Annabeth exited the break room. She glanced down the hall, where the office was. The door was cracked open and the light was on, which Annabeth found odd. If Mrs. Grace was supposed to be working the store, why was she in her office?
"She probably went next door to grab a coffee or something," Percy was saying. Annabeth started walking towards the office. "There's nothing to worry about, Annabeth."
"Yeah, you're right," Annabeth breathed into the phone. She grabbed the door handle and pushed it open. "I'm just being paranoid. I-" She stopped dead in her tracks. Her entire body froze and Percy's voice on the other line, demanding to know what's wrong, what's happening, is she still there, was drowned out by the loud static of fear that buzzed in Annabeth's brain. A sound escaped her mouth, something along the lines of a scream, gasp, and sob. Faintly, as if she were underwater, she could hear Percy's voice starting to rise and get more panicky as he demanded her to say something and let him know that she was okay, that she wasn't hurt. But all she could do was stare at the frail body of Mrs. Grace on the floor of the office.
She couldn't tell if she was breathing. She thought she might be, but she was way too scared and panicky to be able to properly study her. Tears began to blur her vision and fall down her face. This scene looked so familiar. She couldn't believe it was happening again. Not to Mrs. Grace.
"Annabeth!" Percy was yelling now and that seemed to jarr Annabeth back to reality. "Annabeth, what is happening? Are you hurt? Talk to me!"
"I'm fine," Annabeth said in a gasp. "But, Mrs. Grace . . . " She trailed off, her throat becoming too tight with tears to speak.
"What about her?" Percy's voice was strained also. "Annabeth, tell me what's going on!"
His voice was so harsh, it shocked the tears right out of her for a moment. "Mrs. Grace is lying on the floor of her office," she sobbed. "I think she might be unconscious."
Percy cursed into the phone. Annabeth placed a hand over her mouth to keep herself from letting out the deep, nasty sobs that were pushing to claw out of her throat. "Okay, Annabeth," Percy said, this time a lot calmer, although he still sounded stressed, "I need you to check for a pulse, okay? Can you do that?"
Annabeth swallowed. She was still staring at the old woman's body, her mind flashing to a picture almost like this from so long ago.
"I can't," she admitted. "I can't touch her."
"Yes, you can." Percy's voice now was soft and soothing. Annabeth gripped her phone tighter, wanting nothing more than for him to be there so he could hold her and let her cry. "Listen to my voice, Annabeth. It's going to be okay. You can do this. Mrs. Grace needs you. You could save her life right now. All you have to do is check her pulse. Please, Annabeth. You can do this."
Annabeth bit her lip. Percy was right. She had to do this. If Mrs. Grace still had a pulse, that meant she was still alive. And if she was still alive, that meant she was in danger. People don't just pass out left and right. But still, every time Annabeth looked down at the body, she pictured another body of someone she loved very much, lying cold and dead on the ground. Her mother.
Annabeth squeezed her free hand into a fist. She had to man up and do this. Mrs. Grace needed her.
Slowly, Annabeth bent down and placed two fingers on Mrs. Grace's neck. Lo and behold, there was a faint pulse. Annabeth breathed a sigh of relief. She was alive.
"There's a pulse, Percy," Annabeth sobbed. "She's alive."
"Oh, thank God," he breathed and for the first time, Annabeth realized how scared he must be. This was his grandmother. Annabeth knew that Percy adored her and loved her more than life itself. Annabeth loved her too, but she wasn't related to her. She couldn't imagine how hard this must be to Percy right now.
"What do I do?" she asked, starting to cry again. She added on quietly, "Percy, help me."
She heard Percy let out a panicked sigh on the other line. She squeezed her eyes shut tight, trying to block out the image of Mrs. Grace on the floor, so similar to the image of her mother.
When Percy began to talk, his voice was calm and soothing again. He seemed to have himself pulled together right then, unlike Annabeth. "I'm on my way, Annabeth. I'll get there as fast as I can. What you need to do is call 911 once I hang up, okay? I promise, I'll be there in a few minutes. Just stay where you are and call 911. Got it?"
Annabeth swallowed. "Yeah. I got it. Hurry."
She could practically see the sad smile Percy must have had on his face at that moment. "I will. Bye." Then he hung up.
Annabeth sat there for a second. Then she grabbed Mrs. Grace's hand, forcing herself not to pull away when she realized how cold it was. "It'll be okay," she whispered, dialing 9-1-1 into her phone. "I promise."
Mrs. Grace was not going to have the same fate as her mother.
Percy found Annabeth sitting on the curb in front of the store, watching with tears streaming down her face as the paramedics pulled Mrs. Grace out on a stretcher. Immediately, once Percy got out of his car, Annabeth jumped up and ran into his waiting arms, burying her face in his chest. His strong arms wrapped around her as she shed the rest of her tears, soaking the front of his shirt. His hand rubbed up and down her back and he pressed his lips against her ear, whispering reassurances about how it would all be okay, Mrs. Grace would be fine, she had done good and he was proud of her. Annabeth just gripped the front of his shirt and sobbed.
"Hey, Annabeth," Percy said, pulling away a little bit. "Look at me." Annabeth did as told, looking up at him with red eyes and wet cheeks. "I'm proud of you. You saved her life, in a way. Imagine if you hadn't come to the store this morning and found her. She would have died. It was your actions that saved her. She's gonna be okay. You're gonna be okay."
Annabeth nodded, not wanting to say a word. She was afraid that if she did speak, everything about how scared she was would come flying out of her mouth because she had been through this before. She had seen this before. And it only made her hurt worse.
Percy pulled her back to him and this time, she didn't cry. She just rested her cheek against his chest and listened to his heartbeat and reveled in the fact that he was here and she wasn't alone and for the moment, she was safe, wrapped in the circle of his arms.
Someone cleared their throat next to them and Annabeth took a step out of Percy's arms, looking over to find one of the paramedics standing there. He smiled at her. "You were the one who called us, right?" he asked. Annabeth nodded. "We just wanted to thank you. If you had found her any later, she would have been dead. But you called us just in time. You saved her life."
Annabeth nodded, not trusting herself to say anything. Thankfully, Percy asked the question that had been on her mind: "What's wrong with her?"
The paramedic shrugged. "We don't know yet. We have a few suspicions, but nothing can be confirmed until we get to the hospital and check her out fully. You two are free to follow us to the hospital."
Percy nodded and thanked the paramedic, who promptly left. He turned his attention back to Annabeth, even brushing a light kiss on her cheek. Annabeth was too miserable to think about it, though. "Told you," Percy said in a smug tone that didn't hold it's usual smugness. Annabeth just stared at the ground and let him lead her to his car. Faintly, she noticed Thalia's car parked next to his. She must be coming to take over the store. Annabeth smiled internally at that. Mrs. Grace would never want the store to close, even if it was for something as serious as her body failing.
Which, when they got to the hospital, Annabeth found that it was a pretty good guess. Because that's exactly what was happening to Mrs. Grace. The doctor came out to the waiting room, where a small crowd had gathered to hear what had happened to Mrs. Grace: her sons and daughters and their spouses and her grandchildren. Annabeth gripped Percy's hands as she listened to the diagnosis from the doctor. She felt her stomach drop and fear making itself at home in her heart when her mind caught on to two words and wouldn't let go.
Percy drove her home, saying he would just pick her up for work the next day so they wouldn't have to go back for her bike. Annabeth was glad for that. She was so distracted that she would have accidentally ridden out into traffic and gotten hit by a car.
When they got to her apartment building, Annabeth found herself inviting Percy in to hang out for a little while. None of her family was home, except for maybe her brothers, and she couldn't stand the thought of being alone right then. Thankfully, Percy didn't argue. He just took the keys out of the ignition and climbed out of the car.
They walked to her apartment without saying a word to each other. When they entered, Annabeth found that her brothers were indeed home and sitting on the couch playing video games. Both of them looked up when they heard Annabeth come in. Matthew's eyes widened slightly when he saw the condition she was in: red eyes, blotchy cheeks, defeated expression. He opened his mouth to say something, but out of the corner of her eye, she saw Percy give a slight shake of his head. Matthew closed his mouth and went back to his game, not saying anything.
Bobby must have noticed something was wrong also, but he didn't say anything. He just greeted both Annabeth and Percy and asked Percy if he wanted to play. Percy glanced at Annabeth before saying, "Nah, I can't right now. I'm gonna hang out with your sister today. Maybe another time."
Annabeth gave an apologetic smile to her brothers before walking to her room, Percy following in suit. He shut the door without her asking him and took a seat on the chair at her desk while Annabeth collapsed on her bed, curling up in a fetal position. She refused to look at him, but she could feel him staring at her.
They sat in silence. Annabeth felt like there was a void between them that she couldn't cross, even though she desperately needed Percy right then. She felt like she needed to tell him everything, including what had happened to her mother and how much the incident today had scared her. How much it still scared her. But she couldn't. The thought of telling him scared her even more. If she told him that, then he would know pretty much everything about her. She would be completely vulnerable to him.
Thalia's words from earlier echoed in her ears. I love him to death, but he has some major issues. Don't get caught up in all of that, okay?
By opening up to Percy, she ould be giving him the power to destroy her. And she just couldn't do that. So she resolved to just being silent, sinking into the depths of the storm of emotions that raged inside of her.
"I can't believe she has cancer," Percy said quietly, being the first to break the silence. "She's the nicest person I know. She doesn't deserve this. She doesn't deserve to die."
Annabeth nodded, tears burning her eyes. She clutched one of her pillows to her chest, squeezing it tighter until the sobs building up in her throat went away. Percy continued talking. "She's my dad's mom. At first, I kind of resented her. I mean, she had raised my father and what did he do? He abandoned us before I was even out of the womb. I guess, when he came back into my life, bringing along his entire family, I sort of hated her just as much as I did my father. But while my father tried to get me to like him by buying me gifts and sending me to this amazing school, Grandma tried to get to know me. She knew I didn't care much for material things, so right off the bat, she started to pick me up from my middle school and would take me to that diner down the street from the store. She'd call me almost every weekend and ask if I wanted to do anything. She even brought me with her to the home where Grandpa lives and introduced me to him. After only a few months, I loved her like I had known her all my life." He paused. "I had no idea she had cancer. I thought all those doctor's appointments were because she was just getting older and had more problems. I never even considered that it could be something more serious. I never even knew that she was leaving me. And now, it's too late."
Annabeth was crying. Tears streamed down her face, which she buried in the pillow she was holding. Her entire body shook with each sob she tried to hold back. She could hear Percy get up from the chair, felt the bed shift as he crawled over to her and scooped her up like she was a rag doll, letting her curl up on his chest and cry. She couldn't tell whether he was crying also, but it didn't really matter. She was crying enough for the both of them.
Mrs. Grace had become a mother figure to Annabeth. In the three years that she had worked at The Book Nook, she had felt like she truly belonged somewhere, that there was someone who truly loved her for who she was. For the first time since her own mother died, she felt like she could still experience a mother-daughter relationship, even if the mother figure wasn't really her mom. And now all of that was gone in one single, fleeting moment.
Fate was so, so cruel.
Annabeth didn't know how long she cried. She didn't know how long she sat in silence, enveloped in Percy's warmth. She didn't even remember deciding to talk. But before she knew it, words were pouring out of her and she couldn't stop.
"I loved Mrs. Grace like she was my own mother. I guess, in a way, she was. I grew up without a mom. I barely even remember her. My stepmom didn't really start acting like a real mom until a few years ago. I felt like it was me against the world. I had no one to guide me. And then I got a job at The Book Nook when I was fifteen. Mrs. Grace was so kind to me. She told me stories about her life: how her husband and she fell in love, the night she had her first kid, the time she accidentally left her oldest daughter at the grocery store when she was only three years old. And she counciled me. I would talk to her about all of my problems and she would tell me how she had handled those situations when she was my age. In just a short amount of time, she became my best friend and a motherfigure to me. The only one I've ever had. I can't imagine what my life will be like without her."
Percy shifted, causing Annabeth to look up at him. He looked so beautiful then, so vulnerable. His eyes were glossy and sad, his lips forming a thin, straight line across his face. And right then, Annabeth threw Thalia's warning and her doubts of Percy's character to the wind. This was the true Percy Jackson, no matter what anyone told her. The true Percy wasn't the boy who had flirted unrelentlessly for the first month of working together. The true Percy was the boy who paid for her and her brother's lunches, then took them to the park. He was the boy who brought her chocolate and movies when he found out Luke had cheated on her. He was the one who had held her hand all night at the homecoming dance, not letting go once, just like he promised. He was the one who talked her through her moments of panic, even when he was scared himself. And he was the boy who held her right now while she cried and talked about how much Mrs. Grace meant to her. No one could ever change her opinion of him, no matter what they said or showed her.
"What happened to your mom?" he asked quietly. Annabeth bit her lip and looked away. Everything in her was aching to tell him, to share the burden that she had carried around with her since she was three years old. But she couldn't bring herself to do it.
"She died," she said instead.
Percy actually chuckled, which was surprising to Annabeth, considering the morbid mood that permeated the room. "You don't have to tell me if you're not ready," he murmured, leaning down and kissing her on the forehead. Annabeth's eyes fluttered closed before she laid her head back on his chest.
"I'm going to miss her so much," she muttered, her hands twisting the fabric of his shirt.
Percy rubbed his hand up her back, then back down to her waist. "She's not dead yet," he whispered.
Annabeth smiled. She had never heard truer or more powerful words. Mrs. Grace wasn't dead yet. And even if she was dying, Annabeth had to make these last few weeks with her count.
They laid there for a few more minutes before Percy announced that he had his laptop and they should watch a movie. Annabeth agreed and while he grabbed his laptop out of his backpack, Annabeth went to the living room and grabbed Transformers 3, a birthday present for the twins last year. She brought it back to her bedroom and Percy put it in his laptop while she snuggled back up to him.
Halfway through the movie, both her and Percy were sound asleep in each other's arms.
School on Monday was horrible. Percy had told Annabeth that he would come pick her up that day so they could go visit Mrs. Grace in the hospital. He had also informed her that the doctors told him she had been given about two weeks to live. The cancer had attacked fast and furiously, leaving almost no time for everyone to say their goodbyes.
So with that news on her mind, she went to school that day with a frown. Rachel met her at her locker and immediately wrapped her up in a hug. "Thalia told me the news," she said in Annabeth's ear. Annabeth squeezed her tighter before pulling away. Rachel smiled and handed her a package of Hershey's Kisses. Annabeth smiled for the first time since she had found Mrs. Grace in the bookstore. Hershey's Kisses were Annabeth's favorites.
"Thanks, Dare," she said, putting the bag in her locker for later.
"No problem, Chase," Rachel replied.
Her day didn't get much better from there. She never cried, thank goodness, but she had a hollow pain inside of her that wouldn't go away. She felt like she was a shell of herself, which was horrible. In Annabeth's experience, nothing hurt worse than not feeling anything at all.
The only thing she had to look forward to was Percy picking her up. At least Percy was feeling the same pain she felt. At least when she was with him, she didn't feel so alone.
When the bell rang, signaling the end of the day, Annabeth jumped up and ran to her locker. She didn't think she had any homework that night, which was sort of a miracle within itself. She couldn't remember the last night when she didn't have any homework. She grabbed the bag of chocolate out of her locker, stuffing it into her bag, then shut her locker and made a beeline for the parking lot. Rachel was right behind her.
Percy was parked right up front, of course, and his red Maserati stood out next to all the "public school kid" cars. He was leaning against it, still in his Vance uniform, which was extremely disheveled. his hair was playfully messy, like someone had been repeatedly running their fingers through it. Probably Percy. He had a nasty habit of doing that. He was leaning against the passenger side door, arms crossed, beautiful green eyes flickering from person to person, probably searching for her. Even from a good distance away, Annabeth could feel the air of superiority he emanated. She noticed with a smile how many students kept a considerable about of distance between him and his car. Quite a few girls shot him glances and giggled to their friends. Everyone knew he was from Vance, so everyone knew not to mess with him. Annabeth got a good laugh out of that.
She approached him slowly. When he saw her, his eyes lit up and he grinned. "Wise Girl," he said, nodding. He looked over and saw Rachel there also. "Rachel," he said also, causing her to blush.
"Hi, Percy," she said. They traded polite conversation, and watching Rachel interact with him made Annabeth smile. Rachel totally had a crush. It might just be one based solely on appearance, but hey. Who didn't have one? Besides, Annabeth was well aware that Rachel didn't consider dating a priority. She always told Annabeth that her career and where she was going in life came before any guy. She didn't intend to date until she was older and had her life put together.
Annabeth feared that she herself would never get her life together.
"Well, I have to get Annabeth to the hospital," Percy said, a painful reminder of why he was there in the first place.
Rachel nodded, hugged Annabeth, then waved goodbye to the two of them and ran off to her car. Percy looked at Annabeth. She saw a sort of quiet pain in his eyes. She knew that the same pain reflected in her own eyes.
"You ready to go?" he asked her, shoving his hands in his pockets. Annabeth swallowed and nodded. She hadn't taken more than a step forward to the door when an all-too-familiar voice behind her said, "Annabeth, is this your boyfriend?"
She froze and closed her eyes, asking the universe why he hated her so much. Why did Jamaica have to come right at that moment? What did Annabeth ever do to deserve this moment of humiliation?
She remembered telling Jamaica and pretty much the entire school that Percy Jackson was her boyfriend. At the time, she had thought that there was no way he would ever find out. Well, that plan backfired drastically.
She turned around, deciding to let Jamaica have her moment of triumph so she could go and die of embarrassment more quickly. The girl was standing there, arms crossed, hip popped, and eyes narrowed triumphantly at Annabeth, knowing that she had cornered her.
Annabeth decided to play the dumb card. "Um, what are you talking about?" she asked.
Jamaica rolled her eyes. A small group of people were surrounding them and everyone else outside at that moment was watching them. "You know," Jamaica prompted, "the guy you told us about. Percy Jackson. He's a student at Vance and he works with you at the bookstore? He's your boyfriend? Is this the same guy?" She paused, lips curling into a cruel smile. "Or are you a cheater?"
Annabeth swallowed, hands clenching into fists. She wanted to beat this girl up so badly. She wanted to grab one of those six-inch heels and poke her eyes out with it. She wanted to hit her and break her nose. But she also wanted to be the bigger person and that, sadly, meant refraining from doing anything she wanted to do towards her.
"Um . . . " she trailed off, unsure of what to do. Percy was standing right next to her. Her face turned bright red when she realized that he was hearing everything Jamaica was saying. He now knew that she had lied about him. She was so humiliated, she wanted to burst into tears.
"Who are you?" Percy asked. Annabeth glanced over at him and saw that he was glaring at Jamaica like she had offended him instead of embarrassed Annabeth. She gave him a curious look but he never once looked her way.
Jamaica looked over to him and Annabeth saw that her cheeks flushed a little bit. She fluttered her eyes and said in a flirty voice, "I'm Jamaica. And I would like to know who you are."
Percy's face split into a dazzling grin and he said in a firm voice, "Didn't Annabeth already tell you? I'm Percy Jackson, Annabeth's boyfriend."
Jamaica literally choked. Annabeth had to hide her laugh behind her hand. The look on her face was priceless. Jamaica hadn't believed Annabeth. Now, finding out that this guy actually was Annabeth's boyfriend (or at least, that's what they had led her to believe) she was struck speechless.
Percy wasn't done. "You know, Annabeth told me about you. You and your two friends, uh, what were their names, Annabeth?" He looked over at her and Annabeth happily delivered.
"Val and Lia," she supplied.
Percy nodded. "Thank you. Annabeth told me that you, Val, and Lia constantly make fun of her. And you know what? That doesn't settle well with me." Jamaica visibly swallowed. Her eyes were wide and her cheeks were bright red. Annabeth wished she didn't, but she took great joy in seeing her embarrassed for the first time. She only grew happier as Percy continued, "You listen, here, Costa Rica, or whatever your name is. Annabeth isn't only my girlfriend. She's my best friend. She means everything to me. So whenever you make fun of her, you make fun of me. Annabeth tells me everything. So text time I hear that you were making fun of my girl, I will personally come and make sure that you never say another word again."
Jamaica blinked, completely shocked. Annabeth heard a few people in the crowd surrounding them making comments and cheering on Percy. Annabeth herself was too shocked to process any of it. He had just gone along with her lie, and then he had stood up for her, and it could have just been Annabeth, but she thought he heard some truth in his words. Maybe Annabeth did mean a lot to him. The thought made her feel warm inside.
Percy wasn't done. His eyes turned to Luke, who was standing in the crowd, trying to appear as inconspicuous as possible. He couldn't escape Percy's sharp gaze, though. "And Luke," he called, his voice so full of anger, Annabeth almost thought it was real, "if you ever hurt Annabeth again, I will personally come and beat you until you can't even call for your mom."
At this, the crowd really got excited. Luke's face was bright red, as was Jamaica's and Val's and Lia's. Annabeth felt like she was flying, and her light feeling only increased when Percy took her hand, gave her a small kiss on the corner of her mouth and dragged her to his car. He opened the door for her before running around and climbing into the driver's seat.
He was still seething with anger as he drove the first two miles to the hospital. By then, Annabeth couldn't contain herself. She burst into a fit of giggles.
Percy shot her a confused look as she sat in the seat, laughing until tears were coming out of her eyes. "What?" he asked.
Annabeth couldn't get out any words to answer his question. Percy's eyes were flicking from the road to her face. Finally, she calmed herself enough to say, "That was the most awkward, hilarious, and sweetest event that has ever happened to me in my entire high school career."
Percy shrugged, keeping his eyes on the road. "They shouldn't do that sort of stuff," he justified. "You know, make fun of you. That shows poor character and bad morals. They needed someone to put them in their place."
Annabeth nodded, still trying to smother more giggles. She wasn't really focused on that part of the entire thing. She was more focused on the fact that he had just totally gone along with her whole boyfriend charade. That was the thing that made her cheeks burn.
Percy pulled up to a red light and stopped the car, looking over at her. "And, uh, did you really tell them that I was your boyfriend?" His tone was hard to decipher. Annabeth couldn't tell if he was disgusted or pleased.
Annabeth looked back, trying to fight off the inevitable blush rising on her cheeks. "So maybe I did," she replied. "But as I recall, you went along with it."
Percy grinned and leaned a bit closer. "Yeah," he said. "Maybe I did."
Annabeth swallowed nervously. She could definitely read his tone now: seductive. Tempting. Annabeth glanced down at his lips, inches from hers. She got the message. Those lips were hers to kiss. She knew now that Percy liked her. He cared about her. And he was more than willing to be her boyfriend . . . if she would let him. And so maybe Annabeth wanted to be his girlfriend. But there was so many other things going on. Her first semester of her senior year was halfway over. Before long, she would be headed off to college. Mrs. Grace was dying. And as much as she liked Percy, she had to put their relationship on hold. Mrs. Grace was a priority.
Annabeth pulled away, glancing at the light. "It's green," she said, prompting Percy to go. And he did, but not without pulling away with a sigh. Annabeth herself sighed and rested her chin in her hand, looking out of the window.
Mrs. Grace. She was Annabeth's first priority. Not Percy and whatever her feelings for him were.
Percy came out of the hospital room, his eyes glossy. Immediately, Annabeth glanced down at her lap, feeling uncomfortable at his sudden vulnerability. When he told her that Mrs. Grace wanted to talk to her alone, she got up without a word and brushed past him into the room, doing her best to ignore the electricity running through her body at his touch.
Mrs. Grace was sitting in the hospital bed, looking as bright and as healthy as ever - if you didn't look at the million tubes and IVs attached to her. Annabeth swallowed down tears at the sight and took a seat in the chair next to the bed. "Hi," she greeted quietly.
"Annabeth," Mrs. Grace said and her face split into a bright smile. "I'm told that you were the one who found me?"
Annabeth nodded, remembering that horrible moment two days ago when she had found the old woman laying on the ground. "Yeah," she said in a tight voice. "Percy helped, though," she added. "I called him."
"So he told me." Her smile was a knowing one and Annabeth wondered just what she thought of Annabeth's relationship with her grandson. Sometimes, Annabeth wondered if she wanted the two of them to be together. It sure seemed that way.
"How are you?" Annabeth asked, changing the subject. "How are you feeling?"
Mrs. Grace chuckled. "Oh, as well as you can be when you're slowly dying." Annabeth's eyes widened. How could Mrs. Grace joke about this? Annabeth had done nothing but cry for the past two days about her dying. She couldn't believe how optimistic she was being about all this.
Mrs. Grace must have known what Annabeth's thought process was, because she took her hand and said, "When life gives you lemons, Annabeth, make lemonade."
It was an old saying, but it still sent Annabeth into tears.
Annabeth and Percy ran through the hallways as fast as they could, Annabeth taking the lead. Her heart was pounding and there were tears clogging her throat. She rounded the corner and entered the waiting room, where all of Percy's family sat, along with most of The Book Nook staff. Everyone was in tears.
Percy ran up next to her, grabbing her hand with his. Annabeth knew he was just as scared as she was, but she was thankful that he was standing by her through this.
The doctor came over to them. Percy demanded that they go in and see her, that they needed to see her, Annabeth needed to see her, but the doctor just shook his head.
"She's gone," he said in a soft, sympathetic voice. "I'm so sorry. She passed just three minutes ago."
Annabeth stood frozen as tears streamed down her face. The noise around her drowned out. She felt like she was underwater, in a sea of emotion, of sadness and pain. She knew she was sobbing ugly sobs that had to be louder than all the noise in the waiting room. She didn't care. She had just lost everything. The one person who had loved her and become a mother to Annabeth just died. No, she hadn't died, she had left. Annabeth had been left behind again, left in the destruction after a storm. Just like she always was.
She let Percy pull her into his arms. She let herself cry into his chest. She let him hold her even after she stopped, let him cry into her hair, let herself bury her face in his neck. But she didn't feel anything. She felt empty. Broken. Abandoned.
For the first time since the store opened up nearly fifty years ago, The Book Nook closed. It was to stay closed for the next week in order to honor the owner's death.
Annabeth sat in the pew at the church where the funeral was being held. She was long out of tears and instead stared blankly ahead, not even feeling Percy gripping her hand a little too tightly next to her. She knew Percy was worried about her. She knew it was for a good reason. It had been a week since the death of Mrs. Grace and Annabeth had entered a depression that she was afraid she wouldn't be able to come back out of. When Percy tried to talk to her, she gave him one-syllable answers. She wouldn't eat for a couple days and then spend a day where she would do nothing but eat. She was worried for herself also.
She heard her name being called. Percy nudged her and she came out of her misery and realized she had been called up there to give her speech. On shaking legs, she scooted past Percy and into the aisle, walking up to the stage and praying that she wouldn't trip. She made it up to the podium in one piece, smoothed out the piece of paper she had been toying with throughout the ceremony, and looked over at the crowd. Almost the entire town had come. Under normal circumstances, Annabeth would feel nervous. Today, she didn't feel anything.
Addressing the crowd of sniffling citizens, she began, "Mrs. Olivia Grace was probably the best person I knew. I first came to know her about two years ago, when I was fifteen. I came to her, asking about getting a job at her bookstore, The Book Nook. I was young and I lived in a poor family and I was in desperate need of money or I would never be able to get into a college. So even though I was underage and I didn't have a whole lot of experience, Mrs. Grace hired me. And not only that, she took me under her wing. My first few shifts at the store were with her. She would sit at the desk with me and we'd just talk. And during those conversations, I'd forget that I was talking to a seventy-something-year-old woman. I felt like I was talking to my mother. She guided me by telling me of her own mistakes, like a mother should." Annabeth paused, taking a deep breath. "You see, my mother passed away when I was little. I grew up without having a maternal presence in my life. I was messed up and I knew it. But Mrs. Grace, she loved me like I was her own daughter. So over the past two years, I began to see her as a mother." Annabeth paused again, gathering courage to say the next part. "So I'm not here today to mourn the death of my old boss. I'm here as a daughter to mourn the death of her mother." Annabeth looked down at the coffin and said directly to the old woman, "Mrs. Grace, I love you. You meant so much to me and now that you're gone, I don't know what to do. But the last piece of advice you gave me was this: when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. And I don't know about everyone else, but I know that I'll live by that for the rest of my life." She sighed and walked off the stage, heading back to her seat. Percy grabbed her hand immediately and gave it a squeeze. Annabeth knew that he was telling her she did a good job. Annabeth swallowed and didn't look at him for the rest of the service.
When it was time for the viewing, Annabeth got in line just like everyone else. Percy was a few people behind her and Thalia was way ahead of her. Annabeth watched in pain-filled silence as the people in front of her walked past the coffin, glancing at the body of Mrs. Grace that was inside of it, whispering things to her or placing flowers and other small items on the coffin. With each shuffle forward, Annabeth felt rising emotion inside of her. Mrs. Grace was dead. Her body was inside of that coffin. Her dead body. And no matter how dressed up people made her or how much make-up they used to make her appear to be sleeping, she was still dead.
The emotion quickly turned into panic and Annabeth backed up a step, bumping into the woman behind her. She muttered an apology and tried to move forward again. She couldn't. Her body wasn't listening to her mind. All she could think about was the way she had found Mrs. Grace, lying on the office floor, and how much that was like her mother. And she couldn't help but remember the viewing of her mother's body and how traumatizing that had been on three-year-old Annabeth. And suddenly, Annabeth couldn't do it. She whirled around and walked against the flow of the line. She couldn't see Mrs. Grace like that. She whispered apologies as she shoved past people. Every second she fought against the mob of people, her panic only grew. She was swallowing down more tears and kept muttering more apologies until she felt strong, familiar arms grab her and pull her out of the line and into the rows of pews, then into the other aisle and out the door. Annabeth wondered why she had never thought of that.
Percy dragged her outside before turning and looking at her. "What's wrong with you?" he asked. His tone wasn't mean, though his words were. He just sounded concerned for her. He had good reasons to be. Annabeth could feel herself falling apart.
When she didn't answer, Percy shook his head and ran a hand through his hair. "Listen, Annabeth, I know this is hard for you. This is hard on all of us. But you've got to stop doing this to yourself." He paused, trying to catch her eye. "You can't keep starving yourself and laying in bed all day. You can't keep avoiding my calls. And when you do answer, Annabeth, you need to talk to me. I'm hurting too. We all are. You're not the only one, okay? You're not alone in this." He lifted a hand and moved it towards her shoulder, which was exposed in the spaghetti-strap black dress. It hovered of her skin before falling back awkwardly to his side. "Talk to me," he finished quietly.
Annabeth shook her head and ran a hand through her loose hair. "I couldn't see her, Percy," she admitted quietly. "Not like that."
Percy let out a sigh and took her into his arms with a strained, "Oh, Wise Girl." His arms wrapped around her torso and before she knew it, she was slipping her arms around his neck. She buried her face in his neck and breathed in the scent of Percy - something that had grown comforting to Annabeth in the past months.
"It's okay, Wise Girl, he whispered into her ear. "We're in this together."
Annabeth went back to school the next week. Her dad had insisted that he drive her and then insisted that he pick her up. Annabeth knew something was up. It was never a good thing when her dad offered to take her places. It usually meant that he had something to tell her. And Annabeth really wasn't in the mood to be told things just then.
Right when she got to school, Rachel bombarded her. She threw her arms around Annabeth and hugged her tight, then pulled out another bag of chocolate. Despite herself, Annabeth smiled. "You've got to stop bringing me chocolate," she said. "I'm going to get fat."
Rachel shrugged. "Chocolate always cheers you up. That's what you eat when you're sad, just like how you eat peanut butter when you're happy."
Annabeth cocked an eyebrow even though her chest swelled with emotion. She was so glad to have an amazing best friend. No one had ever taken the time to notice the little things like that, not even her dad. She felt lighter all of a sudden.
Rachel hooked her arm through Annabeth's and they walked into the school together. Rachel demanded to know every detail about the funeral and, of course, Percy. Annabeth was happy to provide those details for her. There wasn't much, but at least it kept her mind off of Mrs. Grace. And talking about Percy made her happy. She even opened her bag of chocolate and her and Rachel chowed down in homeroom. It was a good morning.
The best part was watching the Bees. Ever since the Percy fiasco about three weeks ago, they had kept their distance. Never once did they speak a word to her. And when Luke passed her in the hallway, he kept his head down and eyes adverted. It was wonderful.
"So are you working with him later tonight?" Rachel asked.
Annabeth shook her head, swallowing a bite of chocolate. "I'm not working my usual shift. Thalia took that one today. Percy and I are working the night shift for the first time."
Rachel raised her eyebrows. "That sounds fun. You two are gonna be tired tomorrow, though, thats for sure."
Annabeth shrugged. "We split the night shift in half. Percy and I are starting at eight and working until midnight. Then these other guys who aren't high school students are coming and working until morning."
Rachel whistled. "Long night for them."
Annabeth snorted. "Yeah. Tell me about it."
The bag of chocolate was gone by the end of the day. Rachel teased her about being a fatty, but she didn't really have a say in it. She'd had half of the bag. Annabeth laughed and said goodbye to her friend, walking out of the school. Immediately, her good mood turned sour. Her dad was waiting in the front of the parking lot to come pick her up. Annabeth's stomach churned.
Quietly, she walked over and got into the passenger seat of the car. "Hi," she greeted.
Her dad looked up from his phone and gave her a small smile. "Hey, sweetie. How was school?" He started to drive out of the parking lot.
Annabeth buckled her seatbelt and said, "It was fine. School's school." Her dad just nodded and didn't say anything else. Annabeth knew that he was at war with himself, trying to figure out how to tell her the bad news. With every silent second that passed, Annabeth felt more and more scared. She wasn't sure she could take any more bad news. What was it going to be this time? She had to transfer schools? They were moving? She'd had that conversation before. Or maybe it was the worst and her dad had cancer now. Maybe he only had two weeks to live.
They pulled into the apartment comples parking lot. Her dad parked in his usual spot and Annabeth thought that maybe there wasn't any bad news this time. Maybe he really did just want to pick her up from school.
Of course, there was no such luck.
"Annabeth," her dad said, turning in his seat to face her. "I . . . I don't really know how to tell you this." Annabeth swallowed nervously, not saying a word. "Um, as you know, your stepmom and I have been fighting a lot recently."
Annabeth's heart stopped. Oh no. Not this. Anything but this.
Her father continued. "We have come to an agreement that our marriage is crumbling. We tried to repair it for you and the boys, but we can't. We can't live with each other anymore. So we've decided to file for divorce. Your stepmom and the twins are leaving for San Francisco in a week."
Tears clogged Annabeth's throat. She coudn't believe this was happening to her. For years, Matthew, Bobby, and her stepmom were really the only family she had ever known. Sure, she hadn't liked her stepmom for the longest time, but she was still the only mother Annabeth had. She'd given her the talk when she was younger, she'd bought Annabeth's birthday presents, she'd taken her to and from elementary school. And the twins. Annabeth loved them with all of her heart. She loved them like they really were her brothers. And she knew that they loved her as well.
How was she supposed to go on when the only family she had ever had was leaving her? First, Mrs. Grace, now this. Who was next?
"Way to go, Dad," she snapped, taking out her anger on her dad. "Another wife left you. Another mom left me. Maybe one day, we'll be able to keep a woman."
"Annabeth-" her dad started. But Annabeth was already out of the car. She ran to her apartment and slammed the front door behind her, ignoring her father, who was yelling at her to stop throwing a fit and talk to him, and her stepmom and brothers, who all sat in the living room. The twins were crying, so Annabeth assumed their mom had just told them. They tried to get her to stop and talk to them, but Annabeth ignored them also. She loved them, but she needed to be alone. Locking herself in her room, she threw down her backpack, grabbed her phone and started typing a text to Thalia and Rachel. They needed an emergency girls date stat. But then something on her desk caught her eye. She looked over and saw that it was a letter from Princeton University. Gasping, Annabeth threw her phone down on the bed, text forgotten, and grabbed the letter, tearing it open.
Princeton was her dream college. It had been the college her mom attended, and where she met her dad. Annabeth wanted to go there and follow in her mother's footsteps, studying architecture. She'd dreamed of that college for as long as she could remember. And if she had gotten in, that alone might turn this horrible day into an amazing one.
She pulled out the letter and started reading, her eyes flying too quickly across the words to actually register them. She took a deep breath to calm herself, and then started over.
Dear Miss Chase,
We're sorry to inform you that you have not been accepted into Princeton University. After reviewing your application and carefully evaluating you, we have come to an agreement that you are not what we are looking for here at Princeton.
Annabeth stopped reading there. For just a minute, it shocked the tears right out of her. That couldn't be right. She'd made Princeton her top priority since she was in elementary school. She'd studied harder than anyone she knew, done as many extracurricular activities as she could, done every possible thing that would make that college choose her.
Then the tears came, fast and quiet. She sat down on her bed, the letter falling to the floor, and thought about what she had just learned in the past twenty minutes.
Her parents were getting a divorce. Her stepmom and brothers were leaving her in a week to move back to San Francisco. And she would be stuck here in Oklahoma forever because she hadn't gotten into a university she had dreamed about since fifth grade.
Life wasn't fair.
Annabeth cried herself to sleep.
The sound of her alarm clock woke Annabeth up. She realized with a start that it was seven-thirty and she had to be at work at eight. She hadn't even eaten yet. Jumping out of bed, she grabbed a sweatshirt out of her closet and her bag and phone and rushed out of the door, only making a pit stop in the kitchen to make herself a sandwich for dinner.
There were boxes in the living room. For a second, Annabeth was confused as to why. And then she remembered.
No one was in the kitchen or living room. She was thankful for that. She didn't feel like seeing any one of her family members at the moment. She ate quickly, stuffing a jar of peanut butter in her bag just in case she got hungry during her shift. Then she walked out of the apartment, slamming the door as hard as she could for good measure. She was angry.
She rode her bike with one hand and ate her sandwich with the other. As she rode, she looked at all of the little buildings and stores that she passed. She thought bitterly about how for the rest of her life, she'd be stuck in this little town. Princeton hadn't been the only college she applied for, but it had been the only college she wanted to go to. Now that they didn't accept her, she wondered what other colleges would see her as unfit.
She made it to The Book Nook just in time. Thalia was still at the counter, so Percy must not have been there yet. Thalia tried to talk to Annabeth, but she just walked right on past without saying a word. She didn't want to talk to anyone right then.
She sat down in the breakroom and opened the peanut butter jar. She bought a bag of chocolate chip cookies out of the vending machine and started dipping them into the peanut butter. While she ate, she sat and stared at the table, just thinking about what she was going to do.
She'd yelled at her dad that it was his fault because he couldn't keep a woman. But Annabeth wondered if maybe it was her own fault also. Had she had a hand in the divorce? Did her stepmom hate her? Was that why she was leaving? That's why everyone else left. Or that's what it seemed like sometimes.
She blocked those thoughts out of her head. She couldn't afford to think like that. She had to figure out someway to move on from all of this. She had to figure out someway to put the pieces of her life back together and make something beautiful out of it. But she was so lost. Sometimes, she just wished that life would just hand her the tool she needed to fix herself.
"Hey." A voice came from the doorway. Annabeth looked up and saw Percy leaning against the doorframe, arms crossed, watching her with an affectionate twist of a smile on his lips. Annabeth gave him a small smile in return, which seemed to be enough invitation for him to join her at the table.
"Thalia just left," he informed her. She nodded. He paused and continued, "She told me that you didn't seem in a very good mood when you came in. Want to tell me what's up?"
Annabeth grabbed another cookie and dipped it in the peanut butter. When she looked up at Percy, he was watching her with his wide, gorgeous green eyes. He looked concerned and for the first time, she realized that his concern was for her. For some reason, Annabeth found herself talking.
"My parents are getting a divorce," she said quietly. "My stepmom and brothers are moving back to San Francisco next week."
Percy cursed angrily. "Man, I'm sorry, Annabeth," he said.
Annabeth shook her head. "I didn't get accepted into Princeton either."
Percy didn't say anything. Annabeth knew he was looking at her, but she couldn't bring herself to look at him. She didn't want to see what she knew he was thinking: she was a failure. A failure of a student who had tried so hard to get into her dream college, but apparently didn't try enough. She was a total failure.
When she finally did look up, Percy wasn't looking at her with disappointment. He was looking at her like he shared in her pain. "Annabeth . . . "
Annabeth shook her head. "I failed. I wasn't good enough for them. They literally told me that in the letter. I wasn't 'what they were looking for' or whatever. But you know what that translates into? Failure."
Percy tried again. "Annabeth, you're not a failure."
Annabeth ignored him. "And then my family is leaving me. And I know it's just because my father didn't get along with my stepmom, but I can't help but feel like I had a hand in it too. We hated each other for the longest time. Maybe that caused a crack in their marriage. I don't know. But there's this little voice inside of me that keeps telling me that it's my fault."
"It's not your fault, Wise Girl," Percy said. He took a step towards her and that's when Annabeth realized that she had stood and was pacing around like a nervous person. "Never blame yourself. You had nothing to do with any of this. You-"
"Oh, shut up," Annabeth snapped before she could stop herself. She felt bad for a second, but she couldn't listen to Percy try to tell her that everything would be okay. Because it wouldn't. He had no idea how she was feeling. He couldn't help her. No one could, really.
Percy looked taken aback. "Excuse me?" he said.
Annabeth swallowed. "You heard me. You can't sit there and tell me that everything will be okay. Because you don't know that. You have no idea what I've gone through. You don't have a clue about the things I've felt and dealt with. I've gone through things that no child should ever have to go through. So talk to me when you have even the slightest clue about how I'm feeling because I don't feel like taking advice from someone who doesn't know a thing about true pain."
Percy stood there, silent. He stared at Annabeth and she knew that he was angry. She could see it in the firm way he set his jaw and the way his hands clenched into fists. And she could definitely hear it in his voice when he said, "Have you ever even asked me about my past? Because news flash, Annabeth: not everyone's pasts are squeaky clean."
"I know that your dad left your mom," Annabeth argued. "I know that you hate him."
Percy let out a sharp laugh and ran a hand through his hair. "You wanna know something else about me? My mom remarried when I was five. We weren't doing very good and needed another source of income. The man she married seemed nice enough. Until he got drunk. Then he turned into a monster. He hit my mom all the time and it wasn't long before I followed."
Annabeth stared at him. A sick feeling churned in her stomach. What had she just done?
"For seven years, I lived under the same roof as that man," Percy continued. His voice was strained. "For seven years, I was abused and tortured. I would have to go to school with a black eye and lie about getting into a fight with some kid in my neighborhood. Can you imagine how horrible that would be for a kid?" He swallowed down tears. "He died when I was twelve, but I still have nightmares about him. My dad came that same year. I found out then that he hadn't died like I thought. He had abandoned us and I began to hate him. It was because of him that I had been through so much. It was his fault. So don't you dare tell me that I don't know anything about pain, Annabeth. I know more about pain and loss than most grown adults." He gazed over at her. She leaned against the counter, head hanging with shame. Percy was sitting on the table in front of her. He didn't seem angry anymore. Just sad. Annabeth knew the feeling.
Percy wasn't finished. In a soft voice, he said, "My dad chose to leave me, Wise Girl. Your mom loved you."
A sob clawed up Annabeth's throat. She clamped her mouth shut, telling herself she can't tell him. This is the one piece of information she never told anyone. Not even Thalia or Rachel knew. But she found the words slipping out as easily as her tears did.
"My mother killed herself."
She couldn't look at Percy. She couldn't see the way he was looking at her. She couldn't look and see that he saw her in a different light. So she kept her head down and continued, "I grew up thinking I was worthless. I guess I still do. Because, honestly, why would a mother leave her only daughter if she didn't love her? I wasn't good enough for her. I have a fear now that I'm never going to be good enough for anybody."
"Annabeth," Percy said, walking towards her. He tried to put his hands on her shoulders and pull her close, but Annabeth pushed his hands away.
"It's true, though, isn't it, Percy?" she asked. She still wouldn't look at him. "Not only did my mother leave me, but so did Mrs. Grace. Luke cheated on me. My brothers and stepmom are moving away in a week and there's a chance I might never see them again. Thalia and Rachel are leaving to go to college next year." She pasued, taking a watery breath. "After years of being left behind and abandoned, it's easy to think of yourself as not worth it."
Percy took a step forward. "But you are," he whispered.
Annabeth shook her head, eyes shut tight. She was on the verge of exploding. She could feel it. "You can't say that," she replied in a tight voice.
Because I might believe you. Because I might be falling in love with you, and that will just make it hurt worse when you leave. Annabeth didn't say any of these things, though. "Because it's not true."
Percy scoffed. "Of course it's true. Why would I lie about something like that?"
Annabeth opened her eyes and mustered every ounce of courage and anger she had. It wasn't hard. Her entire being was swimming in a sea of anger right then. It had been for weeks. As for the courage, well, maybe it was more impulsiveness that made her shout at Percy, "I might be worth it to you, but what about everyone else? What about my father? What about my brothers? My stepmom? My mom? If I was worth it to them, then why are they leaving me? Why is my dad ripping apart my life?" Percy didn't answer. Annabeth gave a satisfied nod at that. "Exactly. I might be worth it to you, Percy, but face it. You're hormonal eighteen-year-old kid with daddy issues."
Percy's face went red at that, but Annabeth was so miserable right then, that she couldn't muster up enough emotion to feel horrified by what she just said. Percy shot her the scariest glare she had ever seen him give and snapped, "Luke was a hormonal eighteen-year-old also, but you seemed to give yourself right over to him. Look where that got you, princess."
Annabeth took her turn and glared at him. "Don't you dare bring Luke into this."
Percy gave a bitter chuckle. "You don't like being proved wrong, huh, Annabeth? You always want to be right. You want people to look at you and see little Miss Perfect, not the broken girl you really are. That's why you try so hard at everything you do, isn't it? Because you think that if you try to do everything perfectly, eventually your life will straighten out and you'll become perfect also. Nobody's perfect, Annabeth. Why can't you realize that?" He ran a frustrated hand through his hair. He wasn't looking at her. Instead, his angry eyes flit around the room, looking everywhere but her. "You just don't get it and it's so freaking frustrating!" Percy yelled. "You have a ton of people who love you and admire you and think you're worth everything and you're sitting here telling me that you're the exact opposite."
"Because it's true!" Annabeth screamed. She stared at Percy with wide, tear-filled eyes. She found that she was exhausted after their argument, physically and emotionally. She was panting hard.
Percy looked up and met her eyes. He was staring at her with such heat and passion that Annabeth burned under his gaze. She stared back with wide, watery eyes, unable to look away.
In three long strides, he was right against her, his arms on either side of her body, caging her against the counter. her breaths came out in short gasps and she backed away as far as she could into her counter, but Percy just followed. He was pressing into her so much that it should have hurt, but it didn't. She just felt electricity crackling in her skin and the wild pounding of her heart.
"It's not true," he whispered. "You're worth everything to me." Then his lips found hers and oh. Oh.
Dear gods, he was a good kisser. His lips moved at just the right pace, in sync with hers. She was timid at first, so Percy was gentle with her. Her body tingled with energy and nerves and after a couple seconds, she grabbed the material of his shirt and pulled him closer to her, deepening the kiss. Percy became less gentle, giving her an intense, deep kiss. His hands moved from the counter to her hips and his grip was tight. He pressed his body forward, smashing her against the counter. There wasn't an inch of space between them.
A flood of different emotions flooded through her. Her pain and anger and frustration disappeared. Her nerves melted away with her surroundings and every coherent thought in her mind became a wisp in the wind. There was only Percy, sweet Percy, who was kissing her like she was sunlight and he had been in the dark far too long. He touched her like she held all the secrets of the universe. He drank her like she was water and he hadn't drank in days. And she kissed him back thinking that if this was a movie, then this would be the part where the music played at a crescendo and the prince kissed the princess and magic circled around them in beautiful gold ribbons, mending everything that had been broken. Mending her.
They both pulled away, panting like dogs. Percy rested his forehead against hers and when he smiled, his lips brushed hers. It sent a shiver down her spine.
"You don't know how long I've been wanting to do that," he whispered and Annabeth smiled. "Seriously. Sometimes, I would even catch myself daydreaming about it."
Annabeth laughed. She opened her mouth to reply, but Percy kissed her again, promptly cutting her off. When he pulled away, he asked innocently, "What were you going to say, Wise Girl?"
"I don't even remember," Annabeth said in a happy voice. She pulled his face down to hers and kissed him again.
So maybe they stayed in the breakroom for the next hour, kissing and whispering to each other. No one came into the store anyway. And Annabeth felt a hundred times better when they went out to the front, her lips probably red and swollen. For the first time, she felt worth something again. Percy had been there when she shattered and now he was going to help her pick up the pieces and put her back together. She wasn't completely healed, but she felt like she was on the road to recovery.
So when Percy dragged his stool right next to hers and sat with his body pressing against hers for the rest of the shift, she decided to let him.
Annabeth woke up with a start. She glanced around her bedroom, immediately relieved when no one was in there. Something had woken her up, though.
She glanced at her clock and saw that it was a little past midnight. She rubbed her eyes and climbed off of the bed, checking her phone on the desk. There was one text from Matthew, sent three hours ago, saying that he missed her already and couldn't wait to see her over Christmas break. Annabeth's throat closed up when she remembered the events of that day. Saying goodbye to her brothers had been the hardest thing she had ever had to do. They had left that morning and Annabeth had cried for the rest of the day.
She sent a quick text back, totally ignoring the fact that it was midnight. Then she set the phone down and moved back towards her bed. She figured that whatever had woken her up had been something in her neighbor's apartment or something. She was a light sleeper and her neighbor's were loud.
The sound came again and Annabeth jumped, biting back a scream. She whirled around to her window and glanced out into the dark, wondering if she was being shot at. She made out a figure in the dark and hesitantly opened the window, trying to get a better view of the person. A rock came soaring at her face and she jumped out of the way just in time. The rock clattered on the floor.
"Crap," came a voice from below. "Sorry, Wise Girl."
Annabeth let out a sigh of relief. Percy. Her eyes adjusted to the dark and she made out the familiar shaggy black hair and green eyes.
"What are you doing out here?" Annabeth asked, trying to keep her voice low since her dad was asleep just next door. That was difficult, considering that her apartment was on the second story of the building. "And why are you throwing rocks at my window?"
Percy grinned. "My spidey senses were tingling. I figured you needed a night out on the town."
Despite herself, Annabeth smiled. "Seaweed Brain," she said affectionately. There was a blush on her cheeks.
The night that they had kissed happened a week ago and it had gone unsaid between the two. They hadn't kissed again or even mentioned that night. Something had changed between the two, though. Every touch held new meaning. Every glance was charged with electricity. And while they never hugged or held hands anymore, Annabeth felt like their relationship had taken on a more intimate feeling.
"I'm in my pajamas," Annabeth argued, crossing her arms defiantly.
Percy rolled his eyes. "Well, then let's go in your pajamas."
Annabeth pretended that she was scandalized. "I can't go out in my Winnie the Pooh pajama pants," she called down to him. He grinned.
"Are they really Winnie the Pooh?" he asked.
Annabeth rolled her eyes and didn't answer because they were, in fact, Winnie the Pooh and revealing that to him was too embarrassing. "Hold on," she gave in. "Let me change."
"Can I watch?" Percy teased. Annabeth gave him an endearing glare and he chuckled saying, "Just kidding. Hey, and grab a couple blankets before you come down."
Annabeth closed her window and shut the curtains so Percy wouldn't peek. She grabbed a pair of jeans that were laying on the floor and put them on in the place of her pajama pants and then threw on a bra, a graphic tee, and an old brown leather jacket. Then she stuffed her feet into combat boots, leaving on her fuzzy socks, grabbed a couple blankets off her bed, and opened her window again. Percy made a noise when she threw the blankets down on top of him.
"You're coming out the window?" he asked.
Annabeth shot him a look. "Trying to escape the wrath of my father. He'd never let me out this late."
Percy chuckled but didn't say a word as Annabeth expertly scaled the tree next to her window, jumping down safely in front of Percy. She gave him a dazzling smile. "I'm ready," she said.
Percy grinned and grabbed her hand. "Let's go."
"So we have blankets, Taco Bell, and a flashlight," Annabeth stated as she trudged through the woods behind Percy. "Why do I have a feeling that we're going to your little oasis?"
"Because we are," Percy said right as they stepped out next to the pond, lit up in purple. Annabeth smiled and moved over to the boulder under the big tree that overlooked the pond. She dropped her blankets down to the ground and a second later, Percy's blankets joined them. Working in silence, the two spread out the five blankets that they had, making a makeshift bed. Settling down on the material, Percy handed her the taco she had ordered from Taco Bell.
"Mm," she said, savoring the taste. "So much better than Taco Bueno."
"I'm glad someone agrees with me," Percy said with a mouthful of burrito. "Every time I say I like Taco Bell more than Taco Bueno, I get, like, persecuted."
"Persecuted?" Annabeth questioned, taking another bite. "Nice wording, Seaweed Brain."
Percy glared at her. "I'm not joking. People look at me like I'm high. It's ridiculous. People are entitled to their own opinions. I mean, this is America."
Annabeth rolled her eyes. "You're so dumb."
A piece of meat fell onto Annabeth's shirt. She cursed, then picked up the piece and put it in her mouth, forgetting momentarily that Percy was there. "Nice," he teased. Annabeth swallowed and stuck her tongue out at him.
"No food goes to waste," she retorted.
They finished their food with very little conversation. Annabeth marvelled at how much had changed between them. She remembered when she couldn't even stand his presence. Now, she felt most comfortable in his presence. It was strange how things changed.
"So why'd you feel the need to bring me out here tonight?" Annabeth asked, using a napkin to wipe her mouth.
Percy shrugged. "A few reasons. The main one being I remembered that your family left today and figured you could use some cheering up."
Annabeth looked down at her lap. She preferred not to think about that, but if Percy wanted to know about it, then she'd tell him. "Yeah, they left today," she said. Then, before she could stop herself, she said, "It was awful. I was doing fine while saying goodbye to my stepmom. She was crying, but I was able to fight down my tears and all. But then I had to say goodbye to the twins and they were sobbing and telling me they loved me and they didn't want to leave and I broke down."
Percy scooted closer to her. "Are you going to see them again?" he asked.
She nodded. "Yeah. I mean, they are my dad's kids also, so I'll see them over the summer and during breaks and stuff. They're going to come back for Christmas."
Percy smiled and elbowed her affectionately. "See? Only a couple more months and you'll get to see them again."
Annabeth smiled sadly. "The house is so empty without them, though."
"I'm sure it is," Percy agreed. "But, hey. If you're ever feeling lonely, call me and I'll be over faster than you can say, 'I'm lonely, Percy come save me.'"
Annabeth laughed. He gave her a goofy grin, which made Annabeth blush. She found herself glancing at his lips, doing her best not to stare. Over the past week, she'd catch herself thinking about how they felt against hers and then she'd burn with a red hot blush. She did so now. It was so inappropriate to think of kissing Percy right then.
It didn't help her train of thought when he scooted over, their arms touching. Annabeth acted on instinct and laid down on her back, gazing up at the stars. She could see them clearly, now that she was away from the city lights. In order to distract herself, she began to make out the constellations she knew.
"Did your mom really kill herself?" Percy asked, leaning down on his elbow and looking at her.
Annabeth shot him a glare. "You think I'd really joke about that?"
Percy ignored her hurt tone. "How?" he asked.
Staring at him for a few seconds longer, she battled with herself. She had never told anyone about that day. She'd never even allowed herself to think about it up until the day that she had found Mrs. Grace. But then again, she hadn't told anyone that her mom had committed suicide in the first place. Percy already knew that. Where was the harm in telling him how it happened?
"I was three," she began quietly. As she talked, Percy's stare became less distracting. She lost herself in her memories. "My dad had gotten a call from the architecture firm she worked at. They told her that she had left at lunch and hadn't come back. My dad figured she just hadn't been feeling well and had gone home. When he called the house and she didn't answer, he came and picked me up from the early education center I was at. Then we went home." Annabeth shut her eyes tight. She remembered so clearly that day. She remembered finding her lifeless form sprawled out on the ground. She remembered being confused, not understanding that the sleeping woman on the floor was dead. She remembered shaking her like Simba in The Lion King. "I found her," she said, voice breaking. "I walked into the bathroom and she was just lying there on the floor. There was an empty bottle of Tylenol PM on the counter. Of course, being three, I didn't know she was dead until I touched her. She was cold. Still. Lifeless. Even then, I was confused."
Annabeth opened her eyes to find Percy hovering above her, blocking her view of the stars. He brushed a strand of hair off her forehead. "I'm so sorry," he whispered.
Annabeth gave him a half smile. "It's fine," she replied. "It happened a long time ago."
Percy shook his head. "Clearly, it's not fine," he argued. "You've been dealing with this for fourteen years, Wise Girl. It still affects you today. But you know what? You need to realize that your mother's choice wasn't your fault. I'm sure she loved you more than anything. You're not worthless. You tell yourself that you're not good enough for anybody, but the truth is that no one is good enough for you. Your mom's suicide was her choice. Albeit, it wasn't a good one and it had drastic consequences. But you wouldn't be the woman you are today without having gone through that."
"I wouldn't be a girl with major trust issues who cries too much?" Annabeth asked, trying to crack a joke.
Percy chuckled. "No. You wouldn't be the girl who has fire in her eyes when someone insults her. You wouldn't be the girl who feels everything so deeply, who indulges in her emotions, which is so often considered a weakness. You wouldn't be the girl who's so passionate about words and stories. You wouldn't be the girl who fights with everything in her and loves unconditionally. You wouldn't be the girl I've come to know and love over the past few months, the too-beautiful-to-be-real girl I took to homecoming with the cute blush and huge appetite. You wouldn't be my Annabeth."
Annabeth bit her lip. She tried to ignore that Percy had said the L-word, something she hadn't allowed herself to think about until now.
"You act like being broken is the worst thing ever," Percy continued in a soft voice. "But the truth is, you're not broken. You're glued together by gold and even more beautiful than you were before. I never understood what people meant when they said the most beautiful things are broken, but then I met you."
Annabeth smiled wider than she ever had before. She was probably crying, which was kind of embarrassing, but Percy's speech was the sweetest thing anyone had ever said to her. Without thinking, she grabbed Percy's shirt and smashed her lips to his. Percy wasn't surprised at all. He kissed her back eagerly, his fingers snaking into her hair and brushing lightly over her scalp. His touch was gentle and feather-light but his lips were hard and unforgiving. Everything in Annabeth's mind went blank. There was only her, Percy, and this all-consuming kiss they shared.
Percy pulled away first, breathing heavily. He rolled off of her, and just as Annabeth began to feel the cold of his absence, he pulled her close and tucked her into his side. Both of them gazed up at the stars in comfortable silence, Annabeth in a state of euphoria.
Annabeth, be careful. With Percy, I mean. I love him to death, but he has some major issues. Don't get caught up in all of that, okay?
Annabeth wasn't sure where those words had come from. But suddenly they cut through her bliss and felicity like a butcher knife. She gripped the material of Percy's shirt in her hand. What had Thalia meant? Was she trying to hint at Percy's backstory, the abuse and emotional torture he had gone through? Surely, that had to be it. Yet, something inside of her felt like Thalia was trying to tell her something else. Everyone had issues from their past. Nowadays, it was hard to find someone who didn't have a rough childhood. So what had Thalia meant?
Slowly, Annabeth turned her head and looked up at him. Percy met her eyes, silently prompting her to ask her question. Annabeth did as told. "Why did you get a job at the store?" she asked.
Percy sighed and looked back up at the sky. His fingers absentmindedly played with her curls and the way they brushed her scalp with every carress made Annabeth shiver. This moment, their position, was so beautiful and blissful. Annabeth felt horrible for ruining it.
"Sorry," she apologized, pushing herself up on one elbow, looking down at him. "It's just, well, Thalia told me a while ago that you, um, you had a rough past. She didn't want me to get caught up in all of that. I was just wondering what she meant."
Percy didn't seem angry, which was a good thing. He looked up at her, one hand underneath his head, the other still playing with one of her hanging curls. Then his hand fell and he sighed. "She was right," he said. "You probably should have stayed away from me."
Annabeth snorted. "Yeah, okay," she said. She had no intent to stay away from him from now on, if that's what he was suggesting. She was far too attached to him for that. "So why did she tell me that?"
Percy sighed and sat up, sitting with his legs crossed in front of her. Annabeth scooted forward a bit, giving him a small smile. As if that was what Percy needed to begin, he started talking. "I had a girlfriend. Her name was Calypso."
Annabeth blinked. She honestly hadn't been expecting that and the information came so fast and suddenly, she didn't have time to feel jealous (but if she had been told that under different circumstances, she would have totally felt jealous; let's be honest). "Okay," she said slowly, unsure of what else there was to say.
Percy cracked a grin and looked at her from beneath his lashes, but the smile quickly faded as he continued: "We had started dating freshman year and we broke up only about a couple weeks before I met you." Annabeth nodded, letting the information sink in. Percy kept talking. "She was bad news, and I totally knew that when I met her. I don't really know why I dated her in the first place. It was freshman year and after going through three schools in three months and getting kicked out of all of them, my dad enrolled me in Vance, hoping that he could prevent any expulsions in the future. I guess I was angry at him so when I met Calypso and her group of friends, all with piercings and a knack for shoplifting, I immediately made it my personal mission to become involved with them to sort of, I don't know, get back at my dad or something. Show him that he couldn't control me."
Percy paused. Annabeth sat there quietly, waiting for him to continue. He finally did, saying, "Calypso and I were dating after three weeks. For the remainder of my high school career, we ran around with her friends doing stupid stuff, like crashing upperclassman parties and stealing from the convenience store down the street from Vance. And sure, I got a few lectures every now and then from my parents about making better choices and being responsible and all, but I never listened to them. My dad kept me from getting kicked out, just like he'd promised, so I never saw a point in trying to be better."
Percy closed his eyes. Annabeth didn't say anything, wondering what he had done that he was so ashamed of. From what he had told her so far, it seemed like typical teen rebellion.
Percy opened his eyes and looked at her. "Please don't hate me after I tell you this, Wise Girl."
"I won't," Annabeth promised and she was telling the truth. She didn't think she would ever be able to hate him no matter what he did.
"One night, Calypso and I went too far," Percy continued. "We were at a party with all our friends and someone had brought drugs and alcohol. Calypso started getting into all of it, and of course, being her boyfriend, I did it also. Before we knew it, we were drunk and high. I barely remember anything that happened after that. All I can recall from that night is seeing Calypso and some other guy making out against a wall and then there was a big fight, which I was a part of, and then here were police sirens and I was getting handcuffed and arrested. I passed out sometime after that. When I woke up, I was told that apparently, the drugs I'd gotten high on were totally illegal and that the guy Calypso had been with that I had beaten up was in the hospital with several broken bones. The family of the guy would have pressed charges, but my dad thankfully got them to change their minds. I walked away scotch free in the legal department." He paused shamefully. "But both of my parents freaked. My mom took away my allowance and my car - though I'd gotten that back after a couple week - and told me that I wasn't allowed to run around with those guys anymore and I definitely wasn't allowed to see Calypso anymore. That wasn't really a problem. I was going to break up with her anyway. My dad told me I had to get a job to pay him back for all of the money he spent trying to get me out of legal trouble." At this, Percy cracked a smile. "I'll be in debt to him for forever."
Annabeth was shocked, which was a major understatement. Her mind couldn't wrap around the fact that this boy in front of her, this sweet little boy who she had come to know and love, was also the same guy who had gotten high and almost killed a guy. She shook her head. "No," she stated.
Percy shot her a confused look. "No?" he questioned.
She shook her head again. "No," she repeated. "I know what you're thinking. You're thinking the way I did. You think that you're a failure and a horrible person and that you don't deserve me or anyone else for that matter." Percy looked away, ashamed. Annabeth reached out and tilted his chin up so he was looking at her. She gave him a soft smile. He had helped her, so now it was her turn to help him. "Guess what, Seaweed Brain?" she said. "You know that boy you just told me about? The boy who made some bad choices and got into huge trouble because of them? That's not you. And don't try to argue with me," she added when Percy opened his mouth, "because I will win that argument. I know exactly who you are, Percy. You're the boy who puts others before himself. You're the boy who goes through a crapload of trouble just to get one girl to like you. You're the boy who's a little player and almost kissed me on the dance floor at homecoming, where a ton of predatory girls would have been waiting to stab their heels into my eyes if you had. You're the boy who dropped everything to come see me when he found out that my boyfriend had cheated on me. You're the boy who held me while I cried for Mrs. Grace even when you were crying yourself." Annabeth paused, scooting a little closer to him until his knees where pressing into hers. "But most importantly," she whispered, "you're the boy who had managed to get the most cynical of girls to fall hopelessly in love with him. And that's no easy feat, may I tell you."
Percy laughed and when he looked at her. He looked at her like she was made of the universe and her eyes were filled with stars. He leaned forward and kissed her on the nose. Then on the forehead. Then on her right cheek. Then on her left. And while he left feather-light kisses all over her face, he gently pushed her back until she was lying on the ground and he was hovering above her, the same position they had been in earlier. Finally, he pressed a sweet kiss on her mouth, his lips lingering once they pulled away.
"So you're in love with me?" he teased, kissing her again before she could answer.
Annabeth smiled against his lips. "Maybe," she muttered.
Percy grinned. His fingers were in her hair. "Good," he replied, kissing her again. "I love you too."
And then he kissed her again and again and again. Somewhere in the midst of all their kissing, he had asked her to be his girlfriend. And the details were a little fuzzy, but Annabeth thought she might have said that she pretty sure she already was or they wouldn't be in their position. And then she had kissed him again.
They kissed for who knows how long. Annabeth fell asleep in his arms, lips swollen, and when she woke up the next morning, she kissed him. Again. Because she could.
Monday morning, Annabeth found Rachel immediately and pulled her aside. Rachel gave her a puzzled look until Annabeth whispered in her ear and said, "Don't freak out. Percy asked me to be his girlfriend."
Rachel freaked out.
Six Months Later
Annabeth didn't look up from her book when she heard the door to the store open. She just turned the page and said, "You're late."
Percy sighed and came around the counter, placing a kiss on her cheek. "Yeah, I know," he replied, sitting down next to her. "Sorry." He set something down on the counter and she looked up to find a double chocolate chip frappucino from Starbucks sitting in front of her. Her favorite. She smiled and grabbed it, taking a sip and sighing.
"You are a horrible person," she told Percy, taking another sip of the drink. "Kissing up to your boss so she won't get mad when you're late." She clucked her tongue to show her disappointment. "That's only something sinners would do."
"Then call me a sinner," he said, taking a sip of his own drink, "but I like to think that I have a little leeway in that area. After all, my boss is also my girlfriend."
Annabeth rolled her eyes and playfully shoved him. He chuckled and scooted closer to her until his stool was right against hers. "Whatcha reading?" he asked, looking at the book in her hands. When she showed him the title (Looking For Alaska), he sighed like he was disappointed. "Another John Green novel? I'm starting to think you like him more than me."
Annabeth rolled her eyes. "Is wittle Percy a wittle insecure?" she asked in a baby voice, tapping him on the nose with her finger. He made an adorable little face, scrunching up his nose and furrowing his eyebrows. Annabeth had to try hard not to kiss him.
"I hope you don't ignore me this much when we move to New York in a couple months," Percy commented. His words sent chills through Annabeth. She had been accepted into Columbia on a full ride scholarship just a month ago, right before graduation. Immediately, she'd taken it. It wasn't Princeton, but Annabeth figured it was time to make her own path rather than let her mother's choices define her. Also, Percy would be attending NYU and moving to New York with her. Annabeth couldn't wait to start a life with him.
"If you keep bugging me, I might," Annabeth threatened, even though she knew she couldn't ever ignore him. Percy just chuckled and grabbed her chin in his hands, turning her face until she was looking at him.
"You wouldn't dare," he teased and when Annabeth opened her mouth to argue, he covered it with his own in a soft, tender kiss. Annabeth happily obliged, kissing him back, her hands going to his waist. Her fingers brushed the skin where his shirt had ridden up and he shivered at her touch. The action made Annabeth smile.
"How're you holding up there, hot shot?" she teased, pulling away a little bit so he could see the smug expression on her face.
Percy rolled his eyes, but his face was red and that made Annabeth very happy. "Come 'ere," he muttered and pulled her face to his, giving her another kiss. Annabeth laughed a bit before giving in and melting at his touch.
Annabeth had spent her life building up walls to keep people out. In the past year, those walls had been pretty much demolished. And sure, the idea that she was going out into the world, completely exposed and vulnerable was extremely terrifying, but as Percy and Annabeth kissed, Annabeth thought that maybe, just maybe, things would be okay. So when Percy muttered, "I love you," after the kiss ended, Annabeth felt her heart practically bursting with dreams and desires for the future. A future the two of them could share.
"I love you too," she replied.
If you actually took the time to read through all of this, I love you. Please leave a review!