"Wow, it's awesome," Percy exclaimed as he tore off the wrapping paper. "I love it! But...how'd you...wrap it?"
"It must have been impossible, but you did a beautiful job," Ms. Jackson agreed. Though it was Christmas morning, she'd taken the time to dab on mascara and set her hair in curls. Her boyfriend was coming any minute, and she probably was freaked.
"It took some time," I admitted, beaming. The idea of getting him a full fish tank for Christmas was smart, it's true. I'd had to get him out of the way for a few hours to set up the pump and introduce the fish to the water, of course, but now that it was done, it did look pretty amazing.
Wrapping it was very difficult, though.
"It comes with fish food," I told him, handing him the little bottle. "For tropical fish. I got you a saltwater tank, duh."
"Thanks," Percy said as he sprinkled a few flakes in.
I watched him happily as he examined the tank. Amy Grant's Sleigh Ride played softly in the background, and we were truly having a white Christmas with softly falling snowflakes outdoors. The fir tree glowed, both "special" ornaments safely tucked where only we could see them. Garland was draped around the house. We'd even cleaned up the old top-floor apartment fireplace until it polished, filling it with logs and fire for the first time since who knows when.
And, obviously, both Percy and I were wearing the Santa hats with our pajamas.
"Oh, gosh, that'll be him," Ms. Jackson said frantically, rushing to the door. "Paul!"
"Hi, Sally," the guy said. His jeans and brown leather jacket matched with his gray-streaked dark hair made him look like someone from All My Children. It's my stepmom's favorite soap opera.
"Oh, come in, come in!" Percy's mom greeted warmly.
"Gladly," he dazzled us with white teeth. "Now, who is this?" he nodded toward me.
Ms. Jackson answered, "That's Annabeth. She's a friend of Percy's."
"Mom," Percy groaned.
"We're going out," I explained. You might expect Ms. Jackson to be shocked, but frankly, we weren't exactly secret about our...relationship as of lately. "Hi. I'm Annabeth Chase."
"Paul Blofis," he said as he shook my hand firmly.
"Nice to meet you."
He looked puzzled. "No blowfish jokes?"
"Huh?" I asked. "Blowfish? I would've never thought of that."
"Everybody else did," Percy laughed at me.
Ms. Jackson shook her head at him and gestured at the pile of unwrapped boxes. "It's a beautiful Christmas, isn't it? We were just opening presents."
Paul smiled. "Perfect," he said. "Because I wanted to give you a present myself."
She flushed with excitement. "Really?"
"Yep. Why don't we take a little stroll outside," he winked at Percy. "And I'll tell you all about it."
As soon as the balcony door closed behind them, I turned to Percy and demanded what was going on.
"Well, I guess we'll have to watch, huh?" he said mischievously.
We crowded around the small window, trying to keep ourselves hidden. Ms. Jackson and Paul chatted for forever, and I literally thought we would die of boredom.
"Will they get on with it?" I asked. "What's so special, anyway, Seaweed Brain?"
But he insisted, "You'll see."
Chatter, chatter, chatter. But suddenly Paul turned serious. He pushed away a wisp of Ms. Jackson's shiny brown hair and knelt on the snowy floor of the balcony, reaching into his tan leather jacket for a small velvet box.
"Oh my gods, he's proposing!" I breathed, gazing at the scene unfolding before me. "Paul Blofis is actually proposing to your mom!"
"Cool, huh?" Percy said. His face was hard to read -- a little broken, but mostly happy. "He told me he would a few months ago."
I sighed as his mom covered her mouth with her hands, then, overcome, shook her head excitedly and threw herself into his arms.
"That's really...amazing," I said softly. And it was; I was witnessing somebody's life changing -- make that two somebodies. Obviously, Ms. Jackson's life would never be the same, but Percy's, too, would be different. Would Paul be his dad? How could he, when his real father was so...um, imposing.
But I was also annoyed. "Hey, how come you didn't tell me?" I asked.
Any trace of sorrow vanished from his face and a snicker came. "I thought you'd like a surprise on Christmas."
"Well..." I got ready to punch him, but stopped. "Yeah, I do."
I kissed him lightly instead. Oh, that's another thing: kissing is actually very nice. Needless to say I hadn't had much experience in the area, but it's easy to see why it's so...popular.
"Happy to hear it," he said. "I don't think I've given you my present, though."
"Oh?" I asked. "And what would that be?"
He laughed. "Well, it's not an engagement ring."
I sighed. "Shoot."
"Sorry to disappoint you," he said as he went behind me and covered my eyes with his hands. "Keep your eyes closed. And don't peek."
"That's a pretty tall order," I muttered, but I kept my eyes shut tightly. I felt his warm hands lift off my face, to my chagrin, and heard his soft footsteps back toward the tree. Soft footsteps back. I wondered what he'd gotten me. Maybe something really nice -- D'Aulaire's Ancient Architecture book, bound in leather, or something. With this bright thought I got even more thrilled.
Then I felt something cool and hard wrap around my neck. No way. No way was it what I thought is was. I'm sure he had gotten me a very nice necklace, but not what I was dreaming of. My eyelids were fighting to stay shut just as my expectations were fighting to stay down.
"Can I open now?" I finally relented to say.
"Yeah, I guess you can," Percy sounded amused. "As long as you don't look down, you can."
"But that's the whole point!" I said as I opened my eyes. You have no idea how difficult it is to look dead ahead when you know your present is around your neck.
"Turn around, there's a mirror," he told me, a smile playing at his face.
Excited, I turned around as fast as I could. But when I saw my reflection, I simply and absolutely melted.
"YOU BOUGHT THE NECKLACE?!" I cried, flinging my arms around him in what I'm sure was a very embarrassing way. It was beautiful, I'm not going to lie, and its platinum chain gleamed as if it had been polished only seconds ago. The owl clutched its diamond serenely, smiling back at me as if to say See? I told you so. There are happy endings.
I really and truly loved the necklace. None of my shouting and hugging had to be acted, let me tell you.
"How did you get six thousand dollars?" I asked incredulously. "This is...amazing! It's gorgeous!"
"Do you like it?" he asked, muffled beneath my tight hug.
"Are you kidding?" I cried. "I love it! How did you--"
He pointed behind me. "Look out the window, Wise Girl."
I whirled around and peered out the window overlooking his room's balcony. At first I didn't understand, and my brow crinkled as I stared out, confused. But then I realized it wasn't what was there, but what wasn't.
"The Moonlace," I realized.
"Yeah," Percy rubbed the back of his neck self-consciously. "There are a couple of botanists in New York. I took the Moonlace to one of them, way early, before you were up, and he'd never seen anything like it...he offered me five thousand dollars."
"Woah," I said quietly. That was a decent price, to say the least.
"Yeah, Dr. Swellington specializes in unusual plants."
"But the necklace cost..."
"Yeah, I had to bargain with him for the last thousand," he winked.
I looked, extremely pleased, at the fresh white balcony outside -- free of Moonlace. Free of Calypso. Free of Rachel Elizabeth Dare -- she didn't even have a mark in this house.
And the world seemed right again.
My eyes flicked over Percy."You really don't miss her anymore, huh?"
He hooked his arm around me and nodded. "Not at all. Sorry."
I buried my face in his arms, embarrassed at how lucky I was. "Oh, no..." I mumbled. "You really love me, don't you, Seaweed Brain?"
He lifted my face back up with one of his hands, and his expression can only be described as honest. "Yes," he said plainly.
"We're standing under mistletoe," I whispered under my breath.
He gave me a look. "Don't think I didn't hear that," he said.
So we both gave each other one more gift: the Christmas Kiss. Maybe some people in the world -- adults, most likely -- would say that whatever Percy and I shared wasn't nearly as serious or as real as the relationship Ms. Jackson -- now almost Mrs. Blofis -- and Paul had. But if you'd seen us, I'm pretty sure you'd change your mind. Look at Romeo and Juliet: they were fourteen. Fourteen. If we'd lived four hundred years earlier we could have been married already.
I could spoil this and tell you about what was yet to come: arguments, battles, invented deaths, engagements, weddings, the dedication of lives, careers, the loss of dear friends. But frankly, I don't want to ruin the memory of that one Christmas. So instead, I'll leave you here, with a proposal on the balcony and Percy and I kissing under the mistletoe, snow falling lightly.
It was the perfect end to that frosty winter.