Well, guys, this is it. This is the last real chapter of It Takes Two. There'll be an epilogue with scenes from their later life, but that's all she wrote. There will be a longer author's note at the end of the epilogue, and for now, enjoy.
It Takes Two
Percy is a suffering student of marine biology at NYU. Against his wishes, his cousin signs him up for a tutor, and he resigns himself to endless boredom...but the tutor he gets definitely isn't what he was expecting. Percabeth, AU
Chapter Nine: Anything For You
I stood halfway up before falling back into my seat again. I reached out and grabbed Thalia's wrist. "What the hell?" I demanded, my eyes flickering from her to Annabeth and back.
"Why don't you ask your girlfriend?" Thalia demanded, her lip pulling back into something that could very well be called a snarl. Luke made a noise and moved forward, reaching out to touch Thalia, but as soon as his palm connected with her back she twisted violently and yanked herself back, her wrist torn from my hand.
"Look, she already told me, and you've clearly got the wrong story," I said, frowning. I spread my hands, palms out, placating. "She didn't realize she was helping Luke cheat on you. She ended it, Thalia."
"Then why the hell did she send him a text telling him how much fun their date was two days ago? Apparently they met up, had drinks. You know." She was pale and shaking now, her lips pressed into a taut line when they weren't moving. "And apparently the sleeping together thing didn't stop either."
I could feel rage and nausea warring with each other, a wave of hot bile rising higher and higher. I pressed my eyes closed and focused on breathing for a minute. I spoke to Annabeth without opening my eyes. "You said. You said that you guys didn't—that you weren't—that it was over. That you turned him away."
Her voice shook a little when she answered. "I didn't want to…you. You're just so…sweet, and caring, and you listen when I talk to you and you just…are everything I ever wanted in a guy."
I choked on a laugh—a sob, if I was being brutally honest. "So you lie to me about having sex with my cousin's boyfriend?"
"No! No, I didn't—"
"But you did." The bile was higher in my throat now, burning me from the inside out, and if I kept my eyes shut I could pretend the burning wetness behind my eyelids was bile too. I opened them anyway and looked at her, only at her. "You did, and you did it right to my face, and I can't deal with that. Why the hell would you do that?"
"Because you're you—you're so nice and open and—"
I couldn't blink back the wetness anymore. I stood up, my hands shaking against the table. "I'm so tired of being just that nice guy. I'm done, okay? I'm done."
I didn't look back when I walked away.
I woke up at five the morning of my Statistics exam. The half-gray light was filtering in through the windows. Nico was gone, having finished finals early and already headed to California. He and Thalia had caught an earlier flight together, leaving me alone with my despair. Athena sat at the foot of my bed, watching me with silver eyes. I clicked my tongue softly, beckoning her closer until she padded forward and curled up next to my hip, her tiny head butting against the bone in what I guessed was an attempt at comfort. I absently stroked over her fur fingers scratching behind an ear. She purred.
I sighed and stared at the ceiling, watching the shadows from the tree dance. I should use the unexpected extra time to study, probably—if I failed this test, I wouldn't graduate in four years with my family. My dad would be insanely disappointed. My mom would be disappointed too, but she would be kinder about it, which would probably hurt more. But I couldn't bring myself to get out of bed. It felt like all my weight was centered on my chest, pressing down, a hard pressure that made breathing a challenge, much less moving. It was like my whole being was centered on my sternum, a painful tight sensation that I was almost positive was physical as well as mental. Moving felt like a colossal challenge that I just couldn't find it in me to undertake.
But for all that I tried to find patterns in the shadows, all I could see was Annabeth, and for all that I tried to listen to Nico's sleep noises, she was all I could hear, too. It was like a sick torture: for the last few weeks, all my mind wanted to do was dream about her, about her smile and her laugh and all her little quirks and habits. But now, where my mind wanted to think about the positive, all it wound up doing was replaying yesterday's catastrophe over and over in hi-def 3D. All I could think about was the way the tears were swelling in her eyes, the dull red rising in her cheeks, and the way she couldn't defend her lies.
Suddenly I couldn't bear to sit still anymore. I scooped up Athena and threw the covers to the side, swinging my legs over the side. I set her down next to me and she cuddled up to my hip again. I dropped my head into my hands, tugging at my curls until my scalp tingled. She yawned.
I fumbled my way through a quick shower and dressed in whatever I found on my floor that didn't smell too foul. I swung my bag over my shoulder, grabbed a Scantron and a blue book, and left.
I hadn't been out of my building this early in a while. I went by the coffeeshop and got a large to go. I was jittery while I was inside; all I could think about was the fight yesterday. I managed to maneuver my way in and out without looking at that corner at all. I think that the barista would have judged me if he hadn't marked me as just another pre-caffeine student.
I sat outside the building with my class, waiting for the doors to unlock. I decided to sit on the ground, curling my knees up against my chest, pressing the hot cup between my knees and my chest, my hands cupped around it. My hair caught once or twice in the brick; the fabric of my hoodie got caught too. I picked at the paper on my coffee cup sleeve and tried not to think about Annabeth for an hour. I tried not to think about her lying. I tried not to think about her in bed with Luke, over him, under him, the way her face would move. I tried not to think about the way her hair dipped and curled and shone in the sunlight, or the way the corners of her eyes crinkled when she laughed, or the half-dimples that would sometimes show when she was biting back a smile.
I tried not to think about a lot of things, and on the whole, I wasn't very successful.
The exam stretched on and on, for a thousand and one years.
Which is an exaggeration.
I mean, technically it was only ninety minutes. But every problem that was on the multiple choice was a problem just like one that Annabeth and I had worked on. I couldn't help but remember her little mnemonic devices, rhymes and songs and formulas that could be figured out by humming "" under my breath. The way her fingers drummed out rhythms against the table. The way her face would light up when I finally understood a problem.
I was the last person to turn in my exam, two minutes before time was officially called. Professor Stein peered up at me from his seat.
"And how confident are we about this, hm, Mr. Jackson?" he asked, shuffling his papers.
I opened my mouth to talk, and then realized I honestly couldn't think of anything to say. I paused and shook my head, shrugging. He frowned.
"An uninspiring answer," he harrumphed. I shifted my bag on my shoulder and left without a word.
The plane ride home was awful. I plugged in my headphones and slept. I dreamed about gold and gray, surrounded by water.
I woke up occasionally, when the plane hit some turbulence. I watched the mountains roll by, and then the fields, and then the clouds, and thought about how stupid it was to fly all the way across the country for three days before flying all the way back for graduation.
But I had always done things for my family that didn't make the most sense, or that I found stupid. I did them because it was my family, and that was what you did for family: everything. And regardless of how stupid I thought they were sometimes, they had never once lied to me. They had never once betrayed my trust.
When I stepped out of the airport, I scanned the crowds for Priya, the driver for my dad's company who usually picked me up for this kind of thing. Instead, I was met with Thalia, holding a cardboard sign with my name on it, and Nico, holding a sign that said "assbutt." I smiled reflexively, a chuckle rising in my chest against my will.
"I like you more," I told Thalia, pulling her into a hug. She huffed a laugh against my shoulder and squeezed me back harder than strictly necessary. I got the message: we were okay.
"Yeah, but I get points for accuracy," Nico huffed from behind us.
"Shut up," Thalia and I said in unison.
She drove us out to the country house where we had pretty much grown up, chattering about everything and nothing. She opened the sunroof and rolled down all the windows, letting the air whip at our skin and hair, shouting to be heard over the gusting winds. I watched the house come into view on the distant horizon, jutting out from the carefully trimmed lawns and the orchards. The gravel driveway crunched beneath the tires as we rounded the first bend. Thalia rolled the windows up and turned the music down.
"Are you guys ready to really face the music?" she asked, a grim smile set on her face.
From the backseat, Nico snorted. "Hell no. And if either of you say you are, I'm calling you on your bullshit right now."
"Fair enough," I said. "When's the business portion?"
Every family event had a business part—with family like ours, there was really no way to avoid it. After too many vacations and Christmases split between work and fun, the family had collectively decided to make a "business day" in every holiday to get the work out of the way in one fell swoop. Our respective fathers would invite business partners over, usually for a gala or dinner that all of us were forced to be present for. The attire was swanky, the food was questionable and French, and most of the talk usually went right over my head. I hated the business days.
"Tonight," Nico grumbled. "Formal wear. Dinner downtown in some swanky hotel. We are, as always, expected to wine and dine. In penguin attire."
"Men are hot in suits, okay," Thalia defended.
"Yeah, really hot penguins," Nico scoffed.
Their bickering started up again just as we rounded the final curve in front of the house. It looked deserted, even though I could see the cars farther up the drive—Uncle Zeus' deep blue Rolls, my mom's green station wagon, Dad's forest green convertible, and other more indistinct cars. Thalia pulled up behind her mother's powder blue Volvo and turned the car off.
None of us made a move to get out, content to sit in the quiet of the car and prepare ourselves for whatever the hell was going on with our family today. Well. I assumed that was what they were doing. I was certainly trying, but I couldn't quite get a handle on what I was feeling. Ever since Annabeth, everything was either emotional turmoil or a complete blank, as far as feeling thing went.
Nico sighed. "Okay then." I didn't look when he exited, shuffling along the seat and slamming the door closed behind him. He moved up the steps like a shadow, all long legs and dark clothes. Thalia and I watched him go.
"Is it okay?" she asked.
I sighed. "Yeah. I mean. It wasn't exactly the best way for me to find out, but it was something that I needed to know."
"Have you talked to her?"
I shot her an incredulous look. "Have I—Thalia, have you lost your mind?"
"Shut up, I'm serious. She was really torn up."
"You—you of all people—shouldn't be defending her!" I couldn't believe what I was hearing.
She went quiet for a while, her hands resting on the steering wheel, shoulders slumped. She didn't look at me when she talked. "I know that I should be angry at her, for lying to me. For doing…that with Luke while being my friend. But she honestly didn't know that we were together, and I have talked to her since, and. Honestly, she's one of my best friends. And I still have problems with the whole situation, and I'm still angry as hell at Luke, but…after I talked to her, what she did makes a little more sense."
"But how can I talk to her?" I asked, struggling to keep the defeat out of my voice. "How can I—I looked her in the eye and she told me a straight-faced lie. She told me she hadn't slept with Luke, she told me it was a while ago. And then her reason for lying to me was because I was nice enough for her to get away with it." Thalia made a noise that sounded like she was trying to talk, but I spoke over her. "I'm so freaking tired of being the nice guy, Thalia. I'm always the nice guy, the guy who gets passed over—"
"Percy, you know friendzoning is a myth—"
"I'm not saying I'm being friendzoned, I know that's a stupid concept, I'm saying that even for girls who view me romantically, I'm ultimately not the typical guy that they want. And I just go with it because I'm a nice guy. And with Annabeth, I don't—I don't want to just go with it anymore, because she took advantage of my, my trust. And it hurt like a bitch, and I just don't think. I don't think…I don't think I can really trust her right now, if I were to talk to her. And honestly? I don't know if I would even want to."
The silence in the car pressed in on us after I finished talking. I heard her shifting next to me, and then her arms were around my neck , pulling me in for a hug. I pressed my eyes closed tightly and hugged her back. We sat there for another few minutes before she pulled away.
"Enough of this chick-flick stuff," she said. "Come on, Manly McMan, Nico's probably eaten all the food by now."
I tugged at my collar as I watched the floor indicator on the hotel's elevator slide down. My mother nudged me. "Stop fidgeting with it," she chided, smiling.
"Your mother's right," Dad said, moving up next to my mother and wrapping an arm around her waist. "Hello, love."
"Tell your son that he looks dashing in a suit and he should stop complaining."
"Tell your wife that dashing doesn't apply to twenty year olds and that even if it did, I'm not it."
"I'm staying out of this," Dad chuckled, checking his phone for messages. The elevator dinged and we stepped on, Dad pressing the button for the top floor. I'd been to the restaurant before, for my high school graduation. The walls were all windows, a gorgeous view of Los Angeles at night. My dad and uncles had rented out the venue for the evening.
The event was already going when we arrived. A small band was playing some kind of smooth jazz medley in the corner, and the long table against the far window gleamed with china and silverware, little placards indicating where we should sit. Around the room, catering tables and bars were serving the people milling around. My dad grabbed me before I could slip away with my mom. "Come on. You're going to have to do this on your own soon enough, you may as well learn now."
"I've been going to these since I was five, Dad." A lesser man would have said I was whining. I knew, however, that I was making a reasonable and adult objection.
He shot me a half-amused look, steering me towards a group of people. We made the rounds, socializing, laughing in the right places, looking serious and nodding when appropriate. I made small chat, usually of the, "Well yes, I have grown, yes, I am graduating soon" variety. I fended off several questions about my grades, answered several about my projected graduation date (five days), as well as fielding the bombshell "What are you doing with your degree?"
For all that my dad nagged me about needing experience, I really did know what I was doing—and he knew it, too. He sent me several approving looks throughout the evening, patting me on the back in congratulations when the head server announced that dinner was ready.
My mother met us at the table, near the center. Uncle Zeus, Thalia, and her mother were already seated at the center, facing the room. Uncle Hades, Aunt Maria, Bianca, and Nico were seated to their left, with my family to the right. The seats opposite all of us began to fill up gradually, as the guests made their way to their chairs. I fiddled with my silverware, trading jokes with my mother under our breaths, my father chuckling and chiding us when we got a little bit too loud.
"Well, I must confess surprise at this particular seating arrangement." The voice was cool and clipped, carefully modulated. I looked up to find a tall woman, beautifully built and dressed in a modest white cocktail dress with pearls, pearl earrings shining against deep gold curls and set off by steely, hard gray eyes. Athena cocked a perfectly plucked eyebrow at my father, standing aside to let the waiter pull her chair out for her. She sat gracefully, and then gestured impatiently with her hand. "Sit down, dear, don't drag your feet."
I fought to keep my eyes down, but they had a mind of their own, and I found myself looking up and over, right into the familiar gray eyes of Annabeth Chase.
"Poseidon, Sally, I would like to introduce my daughter, Annabeth. Annabeth, this is Poseidon and Sally and…I presume their son?"
"Yes, it is. Percy, you've heard of Athena, and now you know who Annabeth is. Annabeth, Athena, my son Percy." Dad's voice is carefully controlled, the businessman façade very firmly in place. "Are they about the same age? They look it."
"Annabeth is set to graduate from college in a little under a week," Athena replied, seemingly content to talk cordially about us like we weren't there.
"So is Percy!" Mom exclaimed, smiling. I fought the urge to say something and bit the inside of my cheek.
"Oh, and where will he be graduating?"
"NYU," Mom said, and Athena frowned.
"I guess it's a small world," she said. "So is Annabeth."
I glanced to the side and saw Thalia biting her lip, although I couldn't tell whether she was laughing at me or struck with worry. Further down, Nico was full-on frowning at us, and he looked pretty mystified. I hoped that Thalia had told him what happened. The table was nearly full now, and the waiters were beginning to bring out the soup, bread, and appetizer course.
"A very small world," Uncle Zeus interjected. "I apologize for butting in, but as my conversation partners don't appear to have arrived yet," he said, gesturing at the still empty seats in front of him, "I figured why not. Anyway, Thalia and Nico both are graduating from NYU this year as well."
"Annabeth, you don't get out as much as you let on…or you all run in very different social circles," Athena laughed.
"What? No, we all know each other!" Nico called down. Thalia bit her lip and I barely muffled a groan. "Thalia and Annabeth are, like, seriously good friends, and Annabeth and Percy—well—"
"Well, I guess Annabeth didn't have the chance to tell you how we met," Thalia interrupted with a bright smile. I watched Nico flinch as Bianca pinched him and shook her head emphatically.
"Percy," my mother said, "you know this lovely young woman and you didn't even bother to tell her hello?"
I opened my mouth and hoped something like words would come out.
"Lovely might be a stretch," I said.
Not what I meant, my brain shouted. Not what I meant at all.
"I—I mean—what I mean is—"
"I think your meaning is perfectly clear," Athena said, and if ever a voice could create ice from air, it was this one. I couldn't tear my eyes away from Annabeth's face, suddenly open to me again, stricken, hurt. It closed again just as quickly, her eyes shuttered, lips pursed. Two spots of color appeared high on her cheeks.
"No, I really—I'm bad with words, I did not in any way mean to imply that your daughter was not a beautiful, um, woman," I fumbled.
"Looks like we're saving someone from an awkward situation," a new voice joked. I looked over just in time to see Thalia choke on her drink. A tall, handsome older guy beamed at us, and moved over to grab the arm of someone behind him. "Zeus, Hades, Poseidon, I think you've all met my son, Luke." I saw Bianca grab at Nico's arm again, but he shook her off, gaze travelling between Thalia's face, drained of color, and Luke's, flushed with it. Then his gaze expanded, taking in Annabeth's dull flush and bitten lip, and finally meeting mine. I watched understanding begin to form.
"Wait. Wait, I'm sorry," Nico said slowly, rising to his feet. Bianca pulled desperately at his arm, but he shook his head emphatically and she let him go. He looked at me. "Him and her?" he asked me. I licked my lips and tried to say something, and then thought better of it. He understood anyway. "And what about you?" he asked Thalia.
She looked at him, and then at Luke, and then at the tablecloth. I'd never seen Thalia look so—so hurt in my life. It was like she literally had nothing left to say. And Nico saw her looking at that, and he looked at me, and then he really seemed to get it. "While she was—Percy?" he asked, and I looked at Luke.
"Percy," Athena said suddenly, "you seem to have a grasp on what's going on, although I personally doubt you have the capacity to handle much more communication, so—"
"I'm sorry, are you calling my son stupid?" Dad said, sharp.
"Well, I'm certainly saying that intelligent 'might be a stretch'," she said, a biting smile.
"Mom—" Annabeth started.
"Dad," I tried.
"You son of a bitch," said Nico, and he threw a glass of wine in Luke's face.
Luke gasped, and Mom cried out. Thalia stood up, and Annabeth's jaw dropped. Slowly, wine dripping from his face, Luke leaned forward and reached for a napkin.
"You don't deserve napkins, you two-timing bastard! You hurt my cousins!" Nico cried, snatching the napkin out of his reach and throwing a dinner roll at his head.
"Nico," Hades thundered.
A mashed-up spring roll bounced off the side of Nico's cheek. He turned, gaping, at Thalia.
"Thalia!" Zeus scolded. Beside him, Aunt June looks at the situation and downs the entirety of her champagne glass.
"You're defending him?" Nico gasped.
"No," Thalia said, licking her lips and smiling. "I just wanted to throw something at you." She picked up another spring roll, mashed it up, and dropped it into her wine glass. "I'm sure as hell not defending him." She threw the contents of the glass at Luke's face.
"Zeus, what the hell is going on?" Hermes demanded.
"Food!" cheered a small child next to Demeter, throwing a plateful into the air and liberally dousing everyone around her.
"Poseidon, as your son appears to actually know something about these events—"
"Oh? Your daughter appears pretty involved!"
"Yes, well, my daughter inherited her ability to distance herself from a situation from me—"
"And you're so good at that, really, because as far as I can remember your inability to distance yourself nearly cost us more than one client in the last three years!"
"Those were not my fault! If anything, you and your ludicrous and unrealistic business model was responsible for the completely righteous indignation from Odinson and Sons—"
I caught my mother's eye, and she flicked her gaze from me to Annabeth and back. I got the message, standing up and skirting behind my father and my mom, edging around the table. I stepped over to her, grabbed her wrist.
"Let's go," I muttered, carefully eyeing her mother.
"Yeah," she replied, stepping back to stand next to me. We turned to head for the doors, but a dripping Luke intercepted us.
"You can't keep running away from your problems," he said to Annabeth, his face red with anger (and probably with wine).
"I'm not running away. I don't run away," she said, wrenching her wrist out of my hand, standing up straighter to face Luke.
"See, it's funny, because I'm normally saying that to your back."
I saw her eyes flutter and press closed for a moment, holding back whatever her reaction was to that comment. I wasn't so good at holding back things. I stepped in front of her and grabbed Luke's tie in my fist, yanking him close to my face.
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" I demanded, and he snarled.
"Oh, hell no," I heard, and then there were two sets of hands pulling me back. Annabeth tugged on my right arm, while Thalia was pulling on my left. "This is my fight. And Annabeth's fight. You get third swing," she said.
Then she slapped Luke across the face twice, backhanding him after the first strike. "You threw chardonnay at me, really?"
I took it as my cue to get out, and I motioned to Annabeth to follow me. We slipped across the room, dodging fighting couples, food-smeared groups, and the small child (who I presumed was Demeter's kid) running around naked and covered in soup. When I finally shut the door behind us, it was with a sigh of relief.
I leaned against it for a long minute, taking a deep breath and preparing myself for the conversation. But when I finally got up the guts to turn around, all that deep breathing was for nothing. My breath abandoned me again when I really looked at Annabeth.
Even with the splashes of food and dark red wine against the white fabric, she still looked just as beautiful as that first night I'd met her. Her gossamer dress shone against her skin, the spattering of freckles just by her left collarbone highlighted by the lobby lights. Her hair had jostled a little bit loose, curls spilling around her face, curling just next to her eyes.
Her eyes filled with tears.
"Okay," I said, once I found my voice. "It has…been pointed out to me that I didn't exactly give you a chance to explain anything last time we, um. Talked. So. If you want to, uh, explain, I…I'm here to listen."
She took a deep breath, and even from six feet away I could hear it shaking. "All right. Well. I…" she trailed off and shook her head, curls flying, frowning. "I can't…" She made a frustrated noise and brushed her hair away from her face, curling it behind her ears. Her eyes glittered with tears she wouldn't let herself shed. She pressed her lips together and collected herself before she tried again. "You said, that day, that you were tired of always being the good guy. And. Well, Percy, I don't know many good guys. None, outside of you, actually, which, okay, yes, I don't exactly keep the best company with guys. I don't know how to talk to them, or how to be myself around them, and so I just don't even bother getting to know the right kind of guys, or getting to be friends with guys.
"I don't think I've actually had a conversation with a guy I thought could be a decent friend since I was…in seventh grade? And that's not to say that I viewed you as a friend, because—" she broke off, laughing without humor. "I mean. I. You were my friend, and you were so nice, and you were the first guy ever that I could see myself actually wanting to date. Normally I just, y'know, go to bars, meet a decent guy, and—ugh. See, this is what I'm talking about. I sabotage myself." She sighed. "Do you understand?"
"No," I said. "Not at all."
She gave a half-sob, half-laugh. "No, I guess not. Um, okay. I…I'm not used to having good luck when it comes to guys. I usually wind up with the jerks who don't really want me, they just want what I look like—I could be a cardboard cutout and they would be satisfied. And then I met you. And you, you actually looked at my eyes when we talked, and I hadn't had that experience in a long, long time. You were nice, and you stopped when I told you to, and you…you respected me. You weren't just in it to get me into bed, you were in it to talk to me and joke with me and to spend time with me. And that scared me, Percy."
"I scared you because I was nice?" I asked, mystified.
"Yes," she breathed. "Yes, that's exactly what happened. Have you ever—have you ever gotten so used to bad things that a good thing comes along and you just look at it and think This doesn't belong to me, this belongs to someone else or I don't ever get anything this good or What the hell is the catch? Because that's exactly what happened to me. I just kept waiting and waiting for a catch, and the longer I waited and it didn't come, the more freaked out I got. And…yes, okay, I don't exactly have the best judgment when I panicked, and I was going to tell Thalia, and you, eventually, but."
"But you lied," I said. She closed her eyes, and I saw the tears at the corners of her eyes. She brought up her hand and wiped the wetness away before real tears could fall.
"I didn't want to lose the first good guy that had come my way in ever, Percy. I didn't want to lose you, and I couldn't think of any way I could tell you the truth and you wouldn't leave. I was scared of that too, Percy, and if you know me at all, you know just how much it's killing me to admit this, to admit that I was afraid. To admit that I lied. To admit that I…that I was weak, for this part of my life. That I…that I did the wrong thing. And that I'm sorry." She nearly choked on her words. "And if you really are the kind of guy I think you are, you know how much this is costing me. So please, Percy. Just…please."
My head was spinning. I had a thousand different voices in my head all shouting different things, with one that sounded suspiciously like Thalia's screaming, "Take her back! Take her back!"
"Annabeth," I said. "I—"
The doors flew open and my father stormed out, asparagus dangling from his suit lapel, his shirt stained red, his hair dripping. "We're leaving! Now," he said, grabbing me by the collar as he passed behind me.
"Wait, Dad, I just—"
"No," he said sharply, jabbing the elevator button as my mother rushed out of the dining room, her coat over an arm. She passed by Annabeth and gave her a small, comforting smile before the elevator dinged. We stepped in, and I shot a desperate look at Annabeth. She bit her lip, and I watched her eyes fill with tears again. She slowly lowered herself to the ground as the elevator doors slid shut, and I felt my heart clench, tight, painful.
I hardly slept that night, waking up almost every hour. Eventually, around six, it got to the point that I'd rather be awake anyway. I pulled some pajama pants over my boxers and reached over to my phone, scrolling through Facebook notifications and checking my email. I had five unread messages—something from Sports Illustrated about a survey, two emails from the campus police with warnings about underage drinking, a message from Volvo about their new car line, and—and an email from Professor Stein. It had no subject. I opened it, my mouth dry and heart going a mile a minute.
Congratulations, Mr. Jackson, it read. A perfect score is commendable indeed. Enjoy your graduation.
A perfect score.
I gaped at my phone screen, in a trance. I had gotten a perfect score on that exam, an exam in a subject that I had absolutely no idea how to handle just a week ago. Before I met Annabeth.
And I was back full circle, back to the reason I hadn't been able to sleep, back to the reason I'd been closer to crying last night than any time in the last five years of my life. I didn't know what to do, or what to think. Truthfully, I had no idea what I would have said to Annabeth if my dad hadn't come barging out when he did. What she had said about herself—I knew that part of it was true, I knew that it had probably killed her to be so open and to sacrifice her pride like that.
And it was ridiculous that I knew that, that I knew her like I did—that I knew that she was prideful, that I knew that she didn't like to take off her mask, that she was protective of herself and those few people close to her, that doing what she did with Luke was so wrong, so un-Annabeth, that I knew how loyal she was. It was absurd that I knew all of these things about this random girl that I had met a week ago, that she had just walked in and turned everything in my life upside down. I growled in frustration and moved to stand up.
Athena pounced from under my bed—the kitten, not the terror that had thrown a plate of asparagus at my father last night—her claws sinking into the flannel of my pants. I quickly swooped her up before she could climb up and sink her claws into skin. She mewled indignantly and jumped from my hand onto the bed, prancing up to my pillow and curling into the indent left from my head. She yawned, stretched and then relaxed into the pillow again.
"I guess I won't be getting any more sleep," I said, tugging on her tail. I shrugged a shirt from the floor over my head, yawned, and left, heading down to the kitchen. I walked in on my mom making coffee and pancakes, a plate of bright blue eggs already on the counter next to blue-tinted bacon.
"What's all this?" I asked, smiling.
"You're up early! God, I haven't seen you awake before nine since high school," she laughed, flipping a pancake. "Want some coffee?"
"Please," I said, sliding into the chair by the island. She laughed again and began pouring me a cup, smiling. I had almost forgotten how happy my mom was, and how infectious. I could feel the weight on my chest getting lighter. I took a long sip of the coffee before I spoke again. "So really, what's with the blue feast? Nobody else is here, besides us and Dad. Everybody else stayed in L.A. for the night."
"It's a congratulations breakfast! I got your final transcript this morning, and you aced your Stats exam!" she cheered, setting a blue pancake and syrup in front of me. "Which, while unexpected, is still a cause for celebration. So: blue breakfast! I figured classics never go out of style."
I did my best to grin around the massive amount of pancakes in my mouth. I swallowed and chased it with another mouthful of coffee. "Thank you. And I…I didn't do it alone."
"Thalia got me a tutor," I said.
"Oh," she said, smile returning. "Must've been some tutor."
I sighed. I figured if anybody knew what I should do, it would be my mother. "It was Annabeth. Athena's daughter."
I saw the emotions run across her face. "Oh, Percy. So you do know what that was all about, last night?"
I nodded. "You remember Luke, right? And his thing with Thalia?"
"Well, apparently one of the girls he cheated on her with was Annabeth. Annabeth is friends with Thalia, but at the time she had no idea, and when she found out, she ended it with him. But…it happened right after she met me. And. She lied to me about it, to my face. And when Thalia found out, everything burst out into the open."
"Oh, Percy…when did all this happen?"
"Uh. Two days ago?" I offered, smiling weakly.
"Yeah. And I…I didn't really let her explain herself, which I thought was the right thing, you know? Like, she lied to me, so what possible reason should I listen to? But then, last night, she…she really did swallow her pride, and she opened up to me, and she explained what she was thinking, and she apologized, and I think it was for everything."
Mom didn't say anything. After a while, I looked up at her. She had this soft, happy expression on her face. "You're really gone for this girl, aren't you." It wasn't a question, but I nodded anyway.
"I keep thinking that it's crazy. I've only known her a week, you know? It happened so fast. But I know her. Like, I get her in a way that I've never really gotten anyone else before. And I don't want to see her hurt, or sad, or, or upset, and I know how big of a deal it was that she opened up to me, and I know what makes her laugh, and I know what she would name her dogs if she could get them, and I know that she puts her toilet paper roll over instead of under because she thinks that it's ridiculous any other way, and I think it's ridiculous that I know that. And I don't know what to do, Mom. I don't know how I feel, or what to say, because on one hand I can't trust her, and on the other hand I want to, because I just have this feeling that this could be so much more."
"And it's massive and intimidating you have no idea which way is up anymore, I know." She took my hands between hers and squeezed. "Percy, this isn't something that I can just hand you an answer to. It's something that's very personal for you, something that is up to you. I can help—I can tell you that that's how I felt about your father, I can tell you that if she's willing to sacrifice her pride for you it means something, and I can tell you that she's changed you for the better. That she helped you. But ultimately it comes down to you and to her." She raised my hands and kissed them. "Now eat your breakfast. Your father will be up soon, and he will take the food from your plate. You know that as well as I do."
I smiled. "True," I said, and went back to eating, her words spinning in my head.
I hefted my bag higher on my shoulder as I left the airport, my other hand occupied with Athena's carrier. Behind me, Nico and Thalia were spitting insults at each other a mile a minute. I hailed a cab for us and we all piled into the backseat.
"Bitch, you love me," Thalia said to Nico. He scoffed.
"No, you really do, and after Friday night, anything you say to the contrary will be completely ignored." I grinned at his betrayed face. "What? You proved you care," I singsonged, Thalia cackled.
"I hate you both so much," Nico grumbled, shoving himself as far away from us as he could, pressing against the door. "I really, really do."
"You luh-luh-looove us," Thalia sang, a grin spread wide across her face. "Ha."
Nico groaned and smacked his head into the window. I watched out the window as the cabbie navigated the busy streets, swerving in and out of traffic, the buildings looming above us. The neighborhoods grew more and more familiar as we neared school. We had him pull in behind campus, dropping us off closer to the dorms. He joked with us: "I thought you guys were seniors, huh? Still livin' on campus with the fresh meat!"
"Hey, I didn't want to have to live in an obscenely expensive shoebox halfway across the city," Thalia grinned. "Dad only pays the bills if I keep 'em low, after all."
"Plus it makes getting to seven o'clock classes a hell of a lot easier," I grinned, forking over the fare.
"Makes sense," he allowed. "You kids take care."
He sped off, and we went our separate ways—Thalia to her apartment, and Nico and I to ours. We waved to the desk assistant, flashing our IDs. I fed Athena, plugged in my laptop, mindlessly flipped through my books, trying to catalogue how many boxes I'd need to pack. I didn't really want to think, but when Nico left to meet some guys from his class for a last celebration, I didn't have much else to do. I tried watching TV, reading, Facebooking, even made a foray onto Tumblr, which usually distracted me for hours. But nothing seemed to stick, and after four hours I found myself lying on my bed staring at the ceiling.
It wasn't just the Annabeth thing, although that was still a pretty heavy issue. It was everything piled together. It was the end of my schooling career, the end of classes and teachers and second chances. It was the end of people officially educating me. It was the end of my friends and I gathered around a table eating Chinese with cheap beer at two in the morning because it was the only time we were all free; it was the end of rooming with Nico, frantically swapping study guides and textbooks; it was the end of grades and exams and bar runs. Most of the friends that I'd made in college I wouldn't ever see again, except at a reunion.
I always had my family, and we were always close, but it was still a lot to come to terms with. Between finals and the…fiasco, I didn't exactly have time to really look at what was going on and come to terms with it. Now it was staring me right in the face. In two days, I graduated from college. In two days, I would start under my dad as the vice president of affairs. I would have a job, which was more than most graduates had, but it was hardly an easy one, and I knew that there was no margin for error. If I screwed up, I'd be out on the streets looking for a job, regardless of who my dad was.
This was the last door in the beginning of my life, and in two days, it would close forever. The next door was getting ready to open, and while I was sure it would have its own ups and downs and challenges, it would all be new. Nothing would be the same. I would be at sea without a compass, without ground. It was one of the scariest prospects in my life.
But a week ago, failing my Statistics exam was one of the scariest prospects in my life. And, with my family and my friends, with Annabeth, I had systematically reduced it in size, in scariness, until it was something I knew. Until I could handle it. I could never have done it on my own. Annabeth had made me see something in myself that I couldn't, and…and that was big.
There was something there that tugged on the corner of my mind, that wanted to be understood, that I couldn't grasp. Frustrated, I punched at my pillow until Athena hissed at the noise and movement of the mattress. I picked her up and dropped her on the floor and rolled over to face the wall, feeling the minutes pass by, listening to nothing until I finally fell asleep.
My mom waved at me from her seat beside my dad, beaming. I could just hear her "Oh, you're so handsome in her gown" from here. I waved back, wiggling my fingers, and then went back to thumbing through the program of the thousands of my classmates, their awards, their honors. The glossy golden embossed logo glowed on the cover. I raised my head again, fingers tapping nervously, scanning the crowd. I saw Thalia's glossy black curls across the aisle and a few rows back, with the sleek shine of Nico's hair catching my eye five rows from the front. Grover's messy blonde curls were a few rows ahead of me…and Annabeth's hair was nowhere to be seen. I knew that she was here—had seen her walk across the stage to receive her degree what felt like five million years ago. I wondered where she was, if she had just left after her name had been called—not like her.
I huffed out a breath and shifted in my seat again, waiting for the last few rows to file in. The applause rippled across the audience, and the Dean ascended the stage and stepped up to the podium.
"Today, I stand before a group of adults. I remember your class as freshmen, wide-eyed and terrified at your orientation speech. Since then, you have grown strong. You have blossomed here at the school, assuming leadership roles in all of the student associations, starting new clubs and activities, leading rights marches, and helping those younger than you. The young woman I am about to introduce has done all of these things and more—taking charge of the Student Government Association, leading the tutoring program, journeying on several mission trips to aid the less fortunate, donating time and effort to her school, her friends, and to strangers. Ladies and gentlemen of the class of 2012, your valedictorian, Annabeth Chase."
Well, it would certainly explain her absence from the crowd. I managed to pull myself together just enough to clap for the last few seconds as she stepped up to the podium. She looked beautiful in the deep indigo robe, her hair falling in loose curls from beneath her cap, waving in time with her tassel. "Thank you." I imagined I could see her smile even from my seat in the middle of the crowd, imagined the way her eyes would crinkle. "Over the years, I learned thousands of lessons—some of them inside of the classroom, but so many of them outside of it, with all of you. I learned that the windows in the dorm are prone to leaking, and how to use white vinegar to get rid of mildew." Laughter from the crowd. My lips twitched in a smile.
"I learned that communal bathrooms aren't always scary. I learned that when you stay up so late you stop seeing in three dimensions, it's probably time to go to bed." More laughter. "And I learned some more serious things, too. I learned that sometimes it doesn't matter how hard you try, you just might not be able to do it. I learned that no matter how independent you are, there will always come a time when you need to ask for help—and that asking for and receiving it does not make you weak. That when the time comes, and you're in a position to give help, it feels amazing." I could hear the warmth in her voice.
"I also learned things about myself that can apply to everyone. About why it's not always in your best interest to hold back. So often today, we're told that our emotions stunt our careers, our futures, our relationships. We're taught to go through life and make everyone like us just enough to move higher on that ladder that, we're assured, will end in happiness, somehow. But I've seen some of the top of that ladder, and if what I saw was happiness, it's not anything I want a part of." I frowned, squinting at her, shining gold and perfect so far away, and wondered if she could possibly be talking about what I thought she was.
"And I don't think that holding part of who you are back leads to happiness. I think it leads to lying, and to loneliness, and to alienation. I think it leads to pain and to regret. The most important thing to remember as we head out into the world is this: if nothing else, we have to be honest with ourselves. If we deceive ourselves, we have no chance of getting to that happiness. And we can get to the top of the ladder, and we can achieve anything else we set our minds to, but without that honesty, happiness is the one thing beyond our grasp."
And I knew that I wasn't imagining the weight of her gaze on me, and I couldn't suppress the way my heart was beating double-time, because I was suddenly and completely certain that this was about me. That it was about more than the way that she had changed me—it was about the way that I had changed her, too. I wasn't the only one that was scared at how intense it was. I wasn't the only one who was intimidated at the idea of trusting again. Annabeth was right there with me, and she was telling me so in front of five thousand of our classmates and our families.
I kind of zoned out for the rest of her speech, just listening to the rise and fall for her voice, staring at her until she was nothing more than a distant, brightly colored blur. I was snapped out of my trance by the sudden thunder of applause rippling through the student body. "Congratulations, Class of 2012! We made it!" she cheered, and then we were all rising to our feet as one giant purple-blue mass, thousands of caps and tassels suddenly flying through the air. I watched mine rise and fall, jumping up out of the crowd to snatch it from the air.
Everything melted together after that, into a press of warm bodies and knees bumping against chairs. I eventually found my way to my parents, and then to my aunts and uncles and Nico and Thalia. Grover waved at us from a distance away with his family, a near-manic grin lighting up his entire face. I laughed and shot him a thumbs-up. And then, behind him, further away, I saw a glint of gold, and my heart leapt into my throat.
"I'll be right back," I said, tearing myself away from Thalia.
"Where are you going?" Mom asked, hand on my shoulder.
"It comes down to me and her, right, Mom?" I said, smiling down at her. "So I should probably go talk to her."
She smiled at me, her eyes shining with tears. "Go get her, before you make my mascara run again."
I slipped through the crowds, keeping my eye on my goal. She saw me coming, which didn't really surprise me. I saw her make her excuses to her mom, smile at the guy I guessed was her dad, before she turned to face me.
We met in the middle of a clearing of people, plastic chairs scattered askew all around us, people murmuring and laughing and cheering. We didn't say anything for a few moments, and when we finally spoke, it just had to be at the same time. We laughed, a little awkward, and then we went quiet again.
"You were right," I said. "And you're not the only one who should be sorry. Who is sorry."
She huffed out a small laugh. "Percy, you don't have to—"
"But I do, because I am." I sighed and met her eyes. "You lied to me, but I didn't let you explain. And, okay, it hurt me, and it hurt my trust. But I didn't…you didn't…I can't talk."
"There is a reason you didn't get a degree in English," she teased. She reached out and took my hand. "You, um. You changed how I see a lot of things, Percy. How I see the world. How I see pizza. How I see myself. And, I…I like to think that I'm not the only one? That, that changed?"
I laughed, tightening my grip on her hands and stepping closer to her. "Hell no, you're not the only one. I would never have…never have stood up for myself, never would have reconsidered you, if you weren't so…you. There's something about you that I don't understand, that I can't ignore. And. Annabeth. I know that we're adults now and that we don't really know each other, but, I mean, I loved having pizza in flip-flops with you, and talking about Calvin and Hobbes, or about food fights, or ranking the top nerdiest celebrities, and, and, oh, having you magically teach me Statistics in a week! And I think about the way your eyes look when you smile, or the way you take your coffee completely black with like twenty sugars, or—"
"You seaweed brain," she laughed, eyes bright, and she reached up and pulled my mouth down to meet hers.