we'll fast-forward a year or so: Unexpected gift before NaNoWriMo starts! Okay, so what really happened is this story took me by the throat and demanded that I write it. In fact, I wrote half of it at work by emailing it to myself, that's how insistent it was. I've been toying with the idea of writing a backwards story, but I couldn't decide who it was going to be about. I thought, maybe Luke or Thalia, but then--well, clearly you can see that Annabeth and Percy had their way with this one. I love them and I love this story, which is not what I can say about most of the things I write. I actually teared up while writing it. This almost never happens. And now I'm not getting any sleep again, dammit; this always happens! Please review. I am actually quite proud of this story. I hope it makes sense since it came out in such a whoosh.
In case you missed it, the story is written with backwards chronology, and yes, you're supposed to read it from top to bottom. You're smart people, you can figure it out. Also, note that this is not in the same reality/universe as my other Percy/Annabeth fics, for reasons you will discover for yourself as you read on.
Song choice: Time Machine by Amy Kuney
Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards. - Soren Kierkegaard
Dying doesn't scare her.
The watery light of the sunset spills through the lacy, sterilized curtains. There's something about it that seems ironically appropriate. Annabeth shifts onto her cheek so she can get a better view. Her light, ashy-colored hair filters around her face. She pushes the morphine button, and it makes a click, clicking noise, loud in her delicate eardrums. This isn't how she expected to go, but it's as good a way as any. Better, maybe.
"Annabeth?" Percy takes her hand; hollow, insubstantial. She is floating away already.
"You hanging in there?"
The fog of drugs makes speaking hard. She can think of a hundred thousand things to say to him, a million, but her tongue isn't cooperating. It flops over itself like a silly dead fish, and she represses the urge to laugh. She can't, of course. Her ribs ache just laying still. "Just sit next to me," she tells him, her voice breathy, almost inaudible.
He obliges her, gently scoots down beside her, so that the bed doesn't bounce. He smoothes the wisps of hair away from her forehead. That's better. She can see his eyes now, perhaps the only part of him that hasn't changed. His hair shines silver. They still match. She forces herself to look at his eyes, to focus on them as her vision begins to slide away. She smiles at how green his eyes are; they make her laugh.
"You're slipping," he reminds her.
"No, I'm not."
"You are. Don't fall asleep yet. Wait just a little bit," he says.
He squeezes her hand, to tell her silently that he knows. His other hand comes up to stroke her sunken cheek, and in his touch, she can feel an inexplicable sadness. There is a hint of tears in the air, but just as quickly, it disappears. She swallows a lump in her throat, but it returns. He's making it too hard for her. But, she supposes, after a lifetime doing the same for him, it's only fair. And that makes it better. After a few moments of silence, he tells her, "Don't be afraid."
And she says, "I'm not."
She stopped being afraid a long time ago, when she found him. Now, there is nothing to be scared of. The only thing is leaving him alone. But even that's okay. He will follow her.
She will wait.
"I'll see you, Seaweed Brain," she says, and it's a promise.
She lays there for as long as she can, until the exhaustion sets in, and as her eyes sink closed, he is the last thing she sees—the first thing she'll look for when she opens them again.
Stomach cancer, metastasized and spreading to her liver and lungs. It is a late detection. When they give the diagnosis, brows and chins pulled solemn as if announcing a death, the light fades from Percy's eyes. She wants to grab it, put it back, like a lost butterfly fluttering to warmer climes. Nonsensically, Annabeth is not all that perturbed. It's as if her head is floating high in the clouds--she's watching this scene from above. It certainly couldn't be her, sitting back on the couch, raising a hand to her forehead. Her forehead, after all, is lingering somewhere in the sky. Poor woman, Annabeth thinks. Poor girl.
But Percy shakes her shoulders, and she sinks back to the ground, back into her body. Where is she? Oh yes. It doesn't sound real as they tell her how long she has left to live. They tell her to be optimistic. They tell her to be strong. She is a seventy-six year old woman. There is nothing she hasn't done before, except chemo. She is a little bit scared of that. Still, she's going to live, right? Chemo can't be any scarier than a nine-story titan. She is almost in a good mood. She can do this.
When they leave the hospital, driving home, Percy looks over from the driver's seat, wrinkles illuminated by the harsh cloudy light and says, "We were going to grow old together." His voice is fragile and in it, he carries all of the frustration and hope and sadness of this life and the next.
It's when she hears that—she begins to cry.
"And now," he tells her, a grin spreading across his face, "we are going to travel the world, have adventures, and live the good life." He picks her up, knees creaking just a little—she hears it all the same—and spins her around.
"Yep," she says, puffing with laughter. "We're going to be the least boring old couple ever. No retirement homes for us."
He scoffs as he sets her down on the kitchen tiles. "We're not old. Sixty is the new twenty."
In the pantry, he picks around the wine cellar and draws out a good bottle of wine. "Courtesy of Mr. D." He winks. "Finally got out of his gig at Camp Half-Blood. Oktober Fest is going to be especially lively this year. He'll drink himself into a hangover that'll last fifty years."
"Well, he knows what he's doing," she says. "Don't try to emulate him. Your alcohol tolerance is pretty terrifying. And not in a good way."
He gives her a peck on the cheek. "Very funny. But I'm in too good of a mood for you to ruin it, today. Where would you like to go first? Asia? Europe?"
"Italy," she says. "Greece."
"Austria and Spain and Switzerland and Russia and Australia! And everywhere! I want to go everywhere with you," she screams, and they're laughing and laughing, and it is the beginning of the world all over again.
Central Park is beautiful late at night. Annabeth loves the stars, spinning in patterns called constellations. They amaze her. In her head, she traces the lines between stars, creating images in the sky.
"Hey, Wise Girl, what are you thinking about?" Percy asks, interlacing his fingers in hers.
"How big the world is," she says. "How small we are. How alone." She throws her head back, face open to the heavens. The universe spanning endlessly above her makes her feel as if she is falling, falling the wrong way, contrary to gravity. She is falling away from the earth, and for a panicked moment, her toes scrunch inside her shoes in a lost attempt at a better grip.
But Percy wraps his arm around her waist, and she refocuses her gaze a little closer to home. He holds her here. There is nowhere in the vast expanse that she would rather be. Maybe the world isn't so big after all.
The other moments of the day skitter away with his kisses. In Central Park, they are alone. She doesn't need anybody else.
The doctor's prognosis is bad. No, it's horrible. It's the worst thing she could've ever imagined. "I'm sorry," he says, pained, as if an apology can make things better. Nothing will ever be better. Nothing will ever be good. She knows she is doomed to loneliness forever, and it hurts. Gods, it hurts so bad. She can't remember the last time she felt her heart pulsing with pain, lancing through her like fire. She imagines someone—the doctor perhaps—holding up a blowtorch to her chest and searing the skin until it blisters.
Everything, everything is wrong. In her pocket, she wraps her fingers around the pregnancy test that reads negative, will always read negative, with that hateful pink minus sign. She would give anything for a positive. But it will never happen. There is only blood, and blood, and sadness, and a tiny fetus swimming in red, deader than a doornail. There is only pain. And there is only barrenness.
She will never walk into a department store again, no; she doesn't want to see the tiny baby shoes lined up. She used to laugh at the absurdity of tiny crocs and marvel at tennis shoes the size of new potatoes. When she and Percy grow old, the apartment will be silent and the rooms will echo with the unrealized sound of children playing. She will never walk her firstborn to the bus stop, never step over the borders of Camp Half-Blood with the thrill of introducing a new world.
Nothing, not even Percy rubbing her back and talking into her ear can help her. This is the one time, that she would rather curl into a corner by herself, face the darkness alone. She wishes he wasn't here. The broken parts of her that can't make babies clatters around inside her, louder than the doctor's voice, louder than Percy.
She will never be a mother.
"We'll be okay," Percy whispers.
For once, she doesn't believe him.
They move the boxes into the brand new apartment, still smelling of fresh paint and recently laid carpet. Annabeth wrinkles her nose. "We have to get the new-house smell out."
Percy sets a box filled with miscellaneous things—clocks, a toaster, a few books—down next to the door and surveys his new land. "Well, you can only get out that smell by living in it, so we better get started, huh?"
She wanders into the kitchenette, runs her hands across the cool, granite countertop. She is coming to grips with the idea that this place is all theirs, to live in, to intertwine in and make their own. This is where they will cook together (or order out, most likely), where they will watch TV together (she's been eying that nice flat screen while window-shopping), where they will make love together (in every room and on every surface, oh yes), have babies together (there can never be too many little Jacksons), and live together (and they will dance through the empty spaces until the day they die). It's so beautiful.
"D'you like it?" he asks, scratching his back nervously.
She throws her arms around him, and his mouth finds hers.
"Is that a yes?"
The gods, their mortal parents, their friends, the earth, sky, and maybe even underworld, are watching. Annabeth can't breathe in the slightest, although it might be because of the damned corset that's choking the life out of her. The entire cosmos is watching, and she can't find her voice. Everything comes to a head, balancing on the thinnest of slivers.
She turns her head ever so slightly and catches Percy's eyes. There is no fear now. This is exactly what wants, everything she's ever wanted.
Two words—I do—the whooping and clapping are thunderous, and she is sure even the spirits in Tartarus can hear.
The first time he tells her "I love you," she knows that nothing can ever go wrong again.
Incidentally, he is flushing so red, she thinks he might turn into a fire engine, but that's okay. It was pretty brave of him, considering she had to make the first move. She says it back, every word making her veins, muscles, and bones vibrate with sincerity.
"Yeah?" he says, sounding rather dazed.
"What?" she demands. "You thought I was going to leave you hanging? Just what kind of girlfriend do you think I am?"
"I love you," he repeats, grinning this time. "No, really, I do."
"Well." She pats his knee complacently. "It's good to know that you were just pulling my leg the first time."
"Wha—that's not what I meant! Way to screw up the first time I say something meaningful."
"It's the first of a long standing tradition," she tells him. "Better get used to it."
When she goes home that night, she dances on her bed in the moonlight, absolutely giddy. She falls asleep watching cheesy chick flicks and thinking in the moments before she succumbs to dreamland that real life is so much better.
"What? I'm not leaving you!" she screams.
He proceeds to fumble out some nonsense about having a plan—which is a total lie—Annabeth knows he's got nothing. He just wants her to go because he's a selfless idiot, tragic hero, and damn it if he dies she's never going to have a chance to tell this stupid boy that she wants to be with him—she loves him so much, and gods, she's going to cry.
Why can't he see it?
He's so clueless, pushing her away, and there's nothing to do except grab his collar and pull him in for a kiss.
Well. At least he's not going to die without being kissed. His lips are a little red when pulls away, and it's all she can do to keep from confessing everything to him. But she can't. Instead, she says, "Be careful, Seaweed Brain," slips her Yankees cap onto her head, and runs away, heart pounding a mile out from her chest. There are tears streaming uncontrollably down her face. She can't decide what's worse—knowing that he's probably going to die or knowing that she waited until he was probably going to die to do what she did.
At Camp, she'll wonder if he made it out of Mount St. Helens, and more—she'll wonder if there was ever a moment that so clearly laid out what she wants for the rest of her life.
He's just a stupid son of Poseidon and she's a daughter of Athena, so she knows nothing will ever come of it.
Still, when he wakes up from the poison, a little green but otherwise okay, she lets out a sigh of relief. His hair, all mussed up from his restless sleep, makes her insides go all twisty for some unknown reason. While it's not love—can't be love—she thinks, there just might be something there.