A/N: Here is the final chapter to Counting Stars! How exciting! I started this fic when I was 14 years old, wrote it over the course of several years, re-read it last Christmas, then rewrote the whole thing in a matter of a couple of months. This story has been a part of my life for over six years and it's crazy to me that it's ending. Thank you so much for all of the people who've stayed with me through it all and for all of the new readers as well. While I wrote this story for myself, it means the world to me that y'all enjoy it too.
I'd also like to say: as this is the last chapter, I know not everyone will be happy with the ending. I understand that people will have their opinions, but if you want to complain or criticize the story ending- please don't, at least not in my comments. I read each comment and those sorts of things can really set a negative tone for the rest of my day. I'm not going to change anything, I'm not going to write new chapters, and I won't add an epilogue, so negative comments don't do anything for you either.
Ultimately, I really hope everyone likes where I've taken this. Thank you so much for your favourites and reviews!
I'd like to thank my betasone last time: AlEmily360, SapphireTrafficker, tigerlilycorinne, AshenMoon42, Lesbian101, Shiuanc2, and LadyHW.
When Annabeth woke up, she was cold. It was so abruptly different from her last memory, the hot asphalt, and heavy July air, that she startled. The stiff sheets above her crinkled, and it was the first sound she heard before a cacophony of noise startled her even more.
"Get a nurse—"
Annabeth opened her mouth before she opened her eyes, only to ask the voices to be quiet, but nothing came out. Her throat was dry, as were her lips, and her breath rasped when she exhaled.
"Get her some water—"
"I don't know where the—"
The steady beeping of the hospital monitor calmed her, and she held onto that sound as the rest of her senses returned. Her head was pounding and her hands shook as a paper cup was placed into them and guided to her mouth. Someone helped her sit up with gentle hands, before positioning a stack of pillows behind her.
"Annabeth," a familiar voice asked, "Can you open your eyes?"
Annabeth shook her head, which made it hurt even more. "I'm not sure I want to," she said, and this time the words came out clear, if still gravelly. "Where am I?"
A new voice, loud and confident, answered. "You're in UCH medical center."
"You're not dead, Annabeth," the soft, familiar voice from before told her.
Annabeth opened her eyes. In front of her, Piper leaned over her bed, eyes red-rimmed and face tear-stained. Next to the bed, in a row of chairs lining the wall, her mother and father sat, watching over her with equally worried expressions.
"You were in a car crash," the loud voice from before said, coming from a tall doctor standing at the foot of Annabeth's bed. Annabeth blinked up at him. "Do you remember?"
Annabeth could remember the blinding lights and the screech of car breaks. She could remember heat and pain. She could remember calling for someone, someone who wouldn't turn around…
"Percy?" she asked. The doctor stared at her, perplexed.
Piper gripped her hand and Annabeth turned to look at her. Piper was shaking her head. "It wasn't him. I don't know, but he wasn't…"
He wasn't there.
Annabeth had been so sure it was him. It had to have been him. That was the only way she could explain how she was still here and not…
Piper shook her head again. "I don't know."
Annabeth looked back to the doctor, but he just shrugged.
"Timer's are not as exact a science—"
"—as they'd have me believe," Annabeth finished for him. "I know."
The doctor's expression turned awkward. "Well, I guess it's just a miracle."
"A miracle," Annabeth repeated faintly, shaking her head in disbelief.
"A twist of fate?"
Annabeth sighed. "Fate. I'm tired of fate," she said, but she was smiling.
"I don't think it was fate," Piper said, exchanging a look with Annabeth. She was smiling too. "I think it was all you."
Greying skied heralded in heavy storm clouds, chasing the slants of sunlight off of the hospital walls. Throughout the rest of the day, the doctor checked and rechecked her vitals. All the while, Annabeth stared at her timer and the long line of zeros that glowed from it. It hardly seemed real, that something she had been waiting her whole life for had never come.
"A miracle," the doctor kept saying. Annabeth had to reckon it was. But a part of her, perhaps the arrogant part that she couldn't seem to suppress, disagreed. She hadn't been ready to die, and so she didn't. She still had things to live for, so she was going to live.
It was raining when Percy came to visit her. Annabeth watched bright flashes of lightning turn the raindrops on the window into luminescent pearls before a peal of thunder shook them off the pane. His hair was windblown as usual, and his face was wet. In his hand, he held a clump of crumpled sunflowers, but they seemed to be forgotten as soon as he saw her in her bed.
"Annabeth," he said. His voice was a surprisingly wretched thing, clawing its way out of his throat painfully. He came to the side of her bed, his eyes welling up with tears. He laid the drooping sunflowers on the foot of her bed and pulled a chair over to him. He reached for her hand, but hesitated. Annabeth closed the gap for him.
His hands were hot in hers. She traced the ridges of his knuckles, the pale scar on his forefinger, as she held his eyes. "I'm sorry," she said.
Percy shook his head. "No."
She gripped tighter. "I am."
Suddenly, it was his hands gripping hers. "You don't have to be."
His eyes swept over her, tracing over her face, her back propped up on pillows, her legs under the stretched white hospital blankets. They flicked to her timer, and it was such a rare gesture from him that it surprised her.
"I'm okay," she said, but he didn't seem to be listening. She dropped his hands and cupped his jaw, lifting his face until his eyes met hers. "I'm okay."
"You said you'd be—" Percy faltered.
"I'm not." she said. "Feel." She grabbed his hands, which had tightened into anxious, white-knuckle fists, and pried them open to place two fingers on the inside of her other wrist. She waited until she was sure he could feel her pulse, beating as steadily as the heart monitor beside her. "See?"
He looked from her wrist to the heart monitor to her, eyes wide. "How can you be so…"
"I'm really not," Annabeth said, pulling her wrist away from his tight grip. When she found that she would prefer to keep contact with him, she brushed her fingertips against his. By the way Percy rushed to grab her hand again, he seemed to agree.
"I'm really panicking," she admitted. "I'm trying not to, but it's still hard for me to...not know why something's happening."
Percy's face was solemn as he said, "You said it was me."
She nodded. "I thought it was."
"When I realized it was July twelfth…" he trailed off, but his face said it all. Familiar guilt whipped through Annabeth. She closed her eyes, breathing deeply, and acknowledged it before sending it away.
"I'm still here," she said, instead of the sorry that was trained on her lips.
Percy still looked devastated, and scared, like he couldn't believe she was telling the truth, even though she was right in front of him.
"I thought I had to save you," he said. "I thought I failed."
Annabeth had a hard time looking him in the eye, but she did it anyway. "That's a lot of responsibility to put on you," she said. "I shouldn't have done that."
"I was willing to do it," he said.
"I know," Annabeth replied. "That's the worst part. You deserved better." Percy was loyal, almost to a fault, and for a long time, Annabeth had been ready to take advantage of that loyalty. "I want to be the sort of person that deserves you." He opened his mouth to respond, but she quieted him. "I want to feel like the sort of person who deserves you."
He closed his mouth and pressed his lips firmly together and nodded his head. He understood that she meant it would take a little more time and work, and that it was something she had to learn to feel for herself.
They were silent for a few minutes. Outside, the sky was nearly black, even though it was only late afternoon. A crack of lightning illuminated the room, brightening it a fraction even under the harsh fluorescents. Annabeth kept thinking that Percy would let go of her hand, would realize he didn't kill her, or let her die, and then leave, absolved of guilt. But, as the minutes passed, Percy remained.
"There are a lot of things I shouldn't have done," Annabeth said, finally. There weren't enough apologies in the world to make up for everything.
Percy shook his head, but there was a faint smile on his lips. "We all have regrets."
Annabeth studied his face—the scratch of stubble on his jaw, the arch of his nose, the deep set of his eyes. "There are a lot of things I should have done, too," she whispered, voice going unintentionally soft.
When Percy looked up, his hair fell into his eyes. He pushed it up and back, over his forehead in a familiar gesture. For once, it didn't look nervous. "Like what?"
The words were nearly silent when she said them, but she made sure Percy heard. "I should have told you that I loved you."
His eyebrows arched. "Loved?"
She rolled her eyes, and knocked his shoulder weakly. "Love, present tense. I do, and I forever will, Seaweed Brain."
He laughed as he pulled her in for a kiss. "Likewise."
Later, after Percy had squeezed himself onto her bed with her, and been told off by two passing nurses, they watched the storm outside. It was violently pounding at the windows, loud and harsh and wild. Annabeth thought of the turn of the leaves, of the humid heat on the day she died.
"Did I ever tell you about going to the beach for storms with my dad?" she murmured against Percy's neck.
He hummed in affirmation and she felt it against her lips. "You have," he said, and Annabeth felt that too.
"I wanted to see this storm, too."
"You are seeing it."
She shook her head. "Properly."
Percy pulled her closer sleepily. "The next one," he said. "We'll see the next one."
The string of zeros on her wrist took a long time to get used to. Every time she looked down at them, she expected them to have changed, just like they'd been doing for the last year. Hazel, on her third visit to Annabeth's hospital room, told her it was normal.
"For about a month after, I kept expecting it to be in the negatives," she joked.
Annabeth didn't know how to feel about them. She debated putting the tape back on to cover them up, but decided against it. It didn't seem right to cover her wrist again, to hide again. Annabeth wanted to be done with hiding and done with lying.
The hospital kept her a week longer than they should have, especially since her injuries ended up amounting to a fractured ankle, a mild concussion, and a whole lot of scrapes and bruises. Annabeth suspected they wanted to make sure she didn't keel over dead, a little later than the promised time. She didn't bother telling them that she suspected that promise had been fulfilled, if only for a moment.
She had no proof, no data, no angels or white lights. All she had was a feeling, deep inside herself, that that was what had happened. The only memory she had was of blackness, but it was strangely accompanied by a surreal sense of peace. Annabeth was trying to be more careful about assuming herself infallible, but in this case, she knew what she felt, and she knew she was right.
She kept it mostly to herself, only whispering it to Piper in between afternoon check-ins with her doctor and then to Percy, on her first night outside of the hospital, as they laid together in his bed. Both had been solemn and ready in their acceptance, and she was beyond grateful for it.
Her father and mother stayed as long as they could. Work sent Athena back to New York after a week and a half, but Frederick stayed in town for two weeks, visiting Annabeth daily. On his last visit to her, he asked her the question that no one had asked her yet, though she knew they had been thinking it.
"So," he said, "what are you going to do now?"
Annabeth grinned, happy with the knowledge that she could answer easily. "Oh, I've got a few plans."
Annabeth watched the windshield wipers push themselves across the glass. Heavy rivulets of water streamed down the windows of the car as rain angrily pounded on the hood. It smelled like coffee and chlorine inside the car, familiar and comforting. The driver's side door opened and Percy climbed in, settling in his seat and swiping a hand over his dripping face.
"Here," he said, handing Annabeth a waterlogged plastic bag.
"When I asked for water, I was expecting it to be in a bottle," she replied, opening the bag and peeking at the contents within.
Percy just laughed and shook his head, hard enough to fling small droplets of water from his hair.
"Uhg, Percy!" Annabeth said, wiping her face, but she couldn't stop herself from smiling.
"Ready to continue?" Percy asked.
"Let's go," she said. At that, Percy pulled out of the gas station parking lot and back onto the highway.
They drove down the empty highways, slick with rain, as the clouds hung low and menacingly in the sky. The storm had come fast, forming suddenly out of a warm, cloudless day as all August thunderstorms tend to. It had only taken a drop of rain, an echo of thunder in the distance, the smell of ozone in the air, for Percy to call her, telling her he was right outside.
And then they were driving, and talking, and laughing, and driving, along a route Annabeth had only been on once, but had run over so many times in memory that it was familiar and known.
Outside, the dampened hills rolled past them, the rain a shadow on the countryside. The green fields and green trees stretched far and wide, on either side of the car, and Annabeth smiled, knowing that in a few months the trees would turn to shades of flame, and then after that, the leaves would be gone and snow would cover everything until it melted and the green would return. And she'd get to see it all.
"What are you smiling about?" Percy asked her. He looked at her from the corner of his eye, a crinkled smile hidden there even behind the strain of watching the road.
She told him, and his smile spread to the rest of his face as he said, "Well, technically you won't get to see it. Not this year at least."
"It's the thought that counts," she replied.
"Hmm, I guess so," he conceded. "Do they even have seasons in Greece?"
"I'm not sure." Annabeth shrugged. "Guess I'll find out."
Percy sighed. "Damn, maybe I should take a semester off too. Could you imagine me in Greece?"
She studied his profile, taking in the easy smile over uneasy eyes, the steel grip on the steering wheel, and the tense hold of his shoulders.
She frowned. "Are you okay driving in this? I know you said—"
"It's okay, I am fine," he said quickly. " I just keep thinking about…" He glanced towards her and away again, too quickly for it to have been casual.
"I know," she said, pressing a hand over her timer. "Me too."
It was an effort not to slip into old habits, to keep herself from treading paths of destructive thoughts. She had spent her whole life thinking about her death, trading one worry for another was almost too easy. Annabeth had never been good with not knowing things—not knowing her new death time bothered her more than most. Sometimes she would keep herself up, wondering when and how and when.
It worried her, and she could admit that. Moving past that worry was another thing altogether, one she was still working on.
"Is it—what's it like?" Percy asked. His eyes remained trained on the road, but one hand dropped off the steering wheel to rest open-palmed on the center console.
Annabeth brought her hand to his, wrapping her fingers around his. "Haven't you talked to Hazel about this?"
"But she's not you. How do you feel?"
Annabeth thought for a moment, trying to put words to the feelings of anxiety and freedom, and thrill that came with having her future wide open. "It's like… you know when you're running down a hill and you're going so fast you can barely feel the ground below you?"
"And any second you could slip and fall and get really, really, hurt. But your heart is pounding so fast and the world is a blur in your periphery, so a little part of you thinks that maybe if you go fast enough, instead of falling, you'll fly." Annabeth paused. "I guess it's kind of like that."
Percy was silent for a second before he said, "So it's good?"
Annabeth smiled, relieved he understood. "Yeah, it's good."
The ocean was slate grey under a steely sky. Waves kicked up froths of white foam and left trails of it on the sand. It was thunderously loud, even before they stepped out of the car. Wind pressed the beachgrass flat against the ground, and whipped sand into the air. It whistled in the cracks of the windows, only adding to the cacophony outside.
Percy whistled, low and impressed. "This is a good one," he said.
"Just wait," Annabeth said, peering through the rain-streaked windshield. They sat still for a moment until—a flash across the horizon, bright and fast, over before she could realize it had started, and then a crash, a rolling boom that spread across the coast and under Annabeth's skin to bring goosebumps to its surface.
"Damn," Percy said, and Annabeth was happy to find him sounding impressed.
She sat up, unbuckled her seatbelt, and reached for the door handle.
"Woah, woah, you're going out there?" Percy asked, grabbing her hand.
"Yeah, Seaweed Brain, that's kind of the whole point."
"But—" He looked out the window at the storm. Twisting around, he reached to the back, and dug around underneath the back of his seat. He pulled out a crumpled, blue raincoat. "Here."
Annabeth smiled. "Thanks, but you should keep that for yourself. I'm okay, seriously."
She opened the car door and it was nearly pulled from her grasp from the force of the wind ripping it open. She struggled out of her seat and closed the door behind her. The rain pelted her and she was soaked within seconds. If it had been loud before, it was deafening now. When Percy climbed out of the car and yelled something to her, she had to shout back.
He cupped his hands over his mouth. "What next?!"
Annabeth looked towards the raging ocean and the low sand dunes. She gestured for Percy to follow her and began across the sand. It was wet and sturdy, packed like [brown sugar]. With every step she took, her feet sunk and the wind pushed her back. It was slow, and hard, and reckless, but she knew it was worth it for that one moment.
Standing at the edge of the sea, her heart would beat faster than she knew it could, and her hair would whip around her face as she watched the lightning stretch the horizon. The tide would pull at her heart and she would look over the ocean she would soon find herself across for the first time ever. It would be wild and free and she would stand there and feel alive, alive, alive.
Annabeth paused, turning back to Percy, but he was still leaning against the car, shielding his face from the rain.
"What are you waiting for?" she called to him, smile as wide and wild as the sea behind her.
Percy returned her smile before pushing off of the car, taking the hand she held out for him.
A/N: Thanks for reading!