Title: A Thrill of Hope
Rating: K
Word Count: 3,758
Characters/Pairings: Annabeth and Sally centric, but Percy/Annabeth and Blofishipping too.
Summary: Sally reaches out to Annabeth, who finds herself coaxed into spending Christmas with Percy's family.
A/N: Christmas fic! Because I wanted to fic some of Annabeth's parental issues and also write Sally and Annabeth actually bonding, but I think what I ended up writing was some ridiculous fluffporn. (Which is not the same thing as fluffy porn, although it contains about the same amount of plot as your basic porn fic). Of course, it's past Christmas now, but if you followed me on LJ, you got this before Christmas. Which is a hint that you're better off following me on LJ if you want timely updates to my stories.

Warnings for some uncomfortable delving into Annabeth's background, if any of you have triggers for family issues.

Percy's room is chilly in the early November evening. Annabeth can't decide if it's because Percy is becoming immune to the discomfort of extreme weather, or if he's hoping that a chilly room will make her want to snuggle up to him.

It does, but that's about all they're doing. They started off kissing, and touching, happily greeting each other at the end of another school week that kept them apart more than they're really comfortable with, but while Percy's shirtless at the moment he's tucked up against her side, dozing off with his face buried in the warm space her arm makes against the pillow. She's on her laptop, entirely unsure how they'd gotten to this point, but suspecting it's ADHD related. Her shirt is still on, and Annabeth sometimes thinks Percy gets distracted trying to work off all the buttons on her school uniform Oxford shirt.

She glances at the clock. It's 6:24 in the evening. No matter if Percy is dozing now, she suspects they'll be making out again by 6:30. They're still searching for a routine with the school year messing up their schedules, but Annabeth is comforted knowing that some things never change. Percy can be distracted from her, but not for long.

As if he can hear her thinking his name, Percy stirs. "Whatcha doing?" he mumbles into her arm.

"Looking up flight prices to visit my dad for Christmas break," she answers easily, clicking the tabs between Priceline and Travelocity. She usually gets a better deal at Travelocity by entering the HERMES code at checkout, but it's still pretty expensive to fly around the holidays, even when she tries to look for flights out of Newark. Despite not being thrilled with the idea of a packed airport, she feels compelled to see her family – years ago, she wouldn't have given it a second thought, but she realized a few weeks ago that she hasn't seen them since the previous Thanksgiving, having spent her winter and spring breaks with Percy and her summer break at Camp.

Percy inhales sharply and tenses. She can feel it, every muscle pressing against her going rigid. "What?" she asks, tilting her head over her shoulder and looking down at him.

He sits up abruptly, his eyebrows furrowed. "You're going home for Christmas?"

"I was planning on it," she responds, unsure of exactly where the disbelieving look in his face has come from. "I haven't been there since last fall, remember?"

"Yeah, but," Percy licks his lips and runs a hand through his messy hair, a pouty, thoughtful look on his face. "I thought you could stay here for Christmas this year."

She blinks at him, her stomach curling. Sally and Paul are wonderful to her, and she feels comfortable in their home, but being invited as a guest? And during such an intimate family time? Annabeth grimaces. "I don't know Percy. The dorm's shut down. Only a couple of girls who don't have homes are allowed to stay."

"You can stay here," Percy says eagerly. Annabeth twists her mouth in response, and Percy must sense that she isn't entirely convinced, because he reaches out and takes one of her hands in both of his. "Please, Annabeth? You've never been in the city for Christmas before, have you? Christmas in New York City!"

She still must not look convinced – she certainly doesn't feel convinced – because Percy barrels on eagerly. "You have to stay Annabeth," he pleads, "My mom bought you a present!"

The words hit her like a wave of cold water. For a moment she sits there and gapes at Percy – and then the panic sets in. "Your mom got me a present?" she demands, sitting up straight, her eyes wide. "What kind of present? Is it a nice present? I don't have anything for her!"

Percy stares at her. Then he slowly reaches over the side of his bed, picking up his shirt and pulling it over his head. "It's – I don't know. It's a present. She didn't want me to tell you. She doesn't want anything back."

"Why would she get me a present?" Annabeth demands. The thought makes her nervous – why would Sally get her a present? She knows Sally likes her, doesn't mind her dating Percy, thinks highly of her because she's smart and a good fighter and has helped Percy, but didn't realize Sally thought of her like that.

Percy gives her a funny look. "Because she loves you," he says simply.

She's not on the receiving end of this look very often – though the gods know she shoots it at Percy at least three times a day, through text message if necessary. It's the how did you find something so stupid worth saying out loud look, and she's not used to seeing it reflected on Percy's pale skin and in his sea green eyes.

There's a feeling in her stomach – a widening pit, like she kind of wants to throw up a little bit. Some part of her wants to refuse, wants to insist she should go see her dad and his family, doesn't want to risk the potential awkwardness that would be spending Christmas with Percy's family or face the total heartbreak if the worst case scenario happens and she does something stupid and pushes them all away forever.

But an even bigger part of her wants this, wants this more than almost anything on the planet, because she loves spending time with the Jackson-Blofis family, loves their cluttered apartment and the way it's always warm and lived-in. Paul always asks her what she's reading in her literature classes, and offers advice about essays, and Sally, who's spent years working the cash register at the candy store, is a whiz at math and wants to help her with homework and sometimes it's all so normal Annabeth can scarcely believe it's real. Sometimes she's terrified she'll wake up, find herself underwater, broken of a Siren song again.

She swallows hard. "Okay," she relents, and the look on Percy's face, the way he lights up, the grin spreading across his cheeks and crinkling his eyes, makes all of her anxiety completely worth it. "Okay, I'll stay. I'll call my dad, and tell the school."

Percy's still smiling when he kisses her; instinctively, she smiles to match his, and as they fall back onto the bed together, his arms locked around her waist, she sneaks a peek at the clock.


"Hm…" Sally is murmuring as she paws through the shoe box, the sound of metal clinking softly against the buzzing of the kitchen light above them. "We have enough stars. How about Christmas trees?"

"We have one batch of Christmas trees," Annabeth replies, looking up from the rolling pin to half-heartedly blow a piece of hair from her eyes. "What else do you have?"

"Angels?" Sally asks, holding up a bell shaped cookie cutter.

Annabeth peers over her shoulder, lips pursing in thought. "Angels are nice," she concedes, "but blue wreaths might be better."

Sally grins. "Yes!" She hands Annabeth the box, and returns to the stove where she's boiling a pot of water to eventually melt chocolate in.

They've been at it all afternoon. Annabeth's Christmas break started the day before, while Percy is finishing out finals this week. Her and Sally are alone in the apartment, and have been baking since lunch. The kitchen smells delicious, and Annabeth has managed to neither put her foot in her mouth nor set anything on fire. It isn't that she's bad at cooking – it's that she's never had to learn before. Camp has always given her food.

But it'S easy, with Sally showing her. Unconsciously, Annabeth finds herself looking forward to every batch of cookies out of the oven, finds herself wanting to show Sally that they are perfect.

And it gives her an excuse to avoid Sally's questions and insinuations. Nothing too weird, like anything about Percy. But Annabeth knows adults too well, and knows exactly where Sally's leading when she asks, "Didn't you bake for Christmas back home?"

There are some things Annabeth does not want to talk about. Like about Christmas, and how this is the first time she's cared about it in years, because it isn't like camp celebrated and back home…

She picks up the rolling pin to inspect the dough, checks to see how thick it is, to see if it's ready to cut shapes out of. There's a pan covered in foil next to her, ready for her to lay the cookies on, and she realizes suddenly that Sally has gone quiet.

Annabeth turns around, and watches Sally at the stove, stirring the chocolate block as it melts. Her dark eyes are locked on the pot, the corners of her mouth quirked as she licks her lips. "My mother," she finally says, her eyes still watching her hands stir, "My mother didn't really like chocolate."

Annabeth is silent. She's never heard Percy mention grandparents before; he told her once a long time ago that Sally was an orphan.

"She liked good chocolate," Sally amends. "Homemade, from a real candy store. She didn't like the pre-packaged, store-bought stuff. Didn't even like Hershey's. She called it cheap chocolate."

Annabeth opens her mouth to say something – she has no idea what, how do you even respond to that? – when Sally continues. "When I was married to Gabe, he would always ask for these cookies," she says, nodding at the dense balls of cookie dough that she's dipping into the chocolate. "He loved these. And, you know, I wanted to keep him happy." She looks up, makes eye contact with Annabeth, and there's a strange look in her dark eyes. Annabeth is used to worry in those eyes, or warmth, or kindness, or that kind of happy exhaustion that only a mother can achieve. Sally's eyes are hard as steel, glittering in the fluorescent light of the kitchen. "But I only used cheap chocolate for Gabe's cookies."

She smiles then, and there is the warm look Annabeth is more used to. "For me and Percy, we got the good chocolate," she says quietly, a tone of satisfaction in her voice.

Annabeth bites her bottom lip, because she's thinking less about Sally Jackson, quietly separating out cookies by good chocolate and cheap chocolate, and more about her stepmother offering to let her help with cookies, and the inevitable mess as Annabeth got bored and mixed up directions and, of course, those were her brother's favorite cookies which meant it was the end of the world, and the story is right there on the top of her tongue, a dam in her chest about to overfill with water, when the front door slams open and she hears Percy gleefully inform Paul, "Cookies!"

Instead she snaps her mouth shut, and practically bolts into the living room to greet Percy, silently reminding herself to wipe up the trail of flour that follows her from the kitchen.

Sally Blofis' favorite version of Jingle Bells is the one sung by Ella Fitzgerald. Annabeth has never heard it before today, but since they've dragged all the boxes out of their storage space in the basement and started to assemble the Christmas tree and decorate the living room it's come over the stereo at least three times.

When it picked up again she turned and looked at Sally questioningly, only to be met with a small, embarrassed giggle. "It's a mix CD. Paul made it for me. He knows how much I like this song. I think it's on there five times total."

The living room is in total disarray, boxes scattered and the tree propped up in the corner. They own a fake, but Sally insists that's only because the branches from real trees aren't strong enough to hold up her glass ornaments. She takes stringing lights very seriously; there are three or four strands spread out across the carpet, intermingling and mixing colors and throwing funny shadows on the ceiling.

It's the first time her and Sally have been alone since the afternoon they baked cookies; she hadn't told Percy what his mother revealed about Gabe, nor had she brought it up again in conversation with Sally.

She's thinking about it though – it's hard not to, given the glimpse into Percy's life before he arrived at camp. It isn't like she doesn't know that he had it rough – he talked about switching schools, and living with Gabe, but she noticed a long time ago that he never really went into detail about it; he always turned the conversation back to Sally, and how hard she worked to take care of him.

"Colored lights first?" Sally asks, holding up one strand. "Or white lights?"

Annabeth considers, twisting her lips and stepping back to look the tree over. "White lights first," she finally suggests. "If you put them a little farther back on the branches, they'll give a nice sort of background glow for the color lights."

Sally looks up from the floor, considering, before she nods in agreement. "I like that," she comments, scrambling to her knees so she can reach the lower branches.

Annabeth steps to the other side to help, and as the strains of O Holy Night start wafting through the living room quietly, she takes a deep breath and says in a soft tone, "Christmas was why I left."

She hears the rustling of the branches stop suddenly; the room is entirely quiet except for Josh Groban crooning faaaaaaaall on your kneeeeeees and mentally Annabeth finds herself filling in the words along with the stereo, anything to really keep from thinking about what she's just said out loud.

Then she sees Sally's dark eyes peering at her from around the edge of the tree. "What was that?"

The strand of lights in her hand has somehow become tangled. She stares at the knot, trying to straighten it out, not wanting to see the look on Sally's face as she spills: "Christmas was why I ran away from home. When I was seven."

She's never told anybody but Thalia and Luke the entire version of this story; for most people, I ran away when I was seven because fighting freezing temperatures and horrible monsters was a better alternative usually suffices.

"It was my brothers' first Christmas," she says quietly. It was the first time in her young life she could remember not enjoying Christmas the way all the other kids seemed to; just one more way she was different from everyone else. She didn't want to be home though. It seemed like ever since the twins were born she spent all of her time at home in trouble. "And Christmas morning when we woke up to open presents my dad opened the door to let the dogs out and a basilisk got in."

Sally's eyes are big, but now that Annabeth has started telling the story she can't stop. "It tore through the house, tore up the tree, destroyed all of the Christmas presents. My stepmother grabbed up the boys and ran upstairs and left me and my dad to try to deal with it, and by the time we did it had messed up everything - our kitchen, our dining room… almost the entire first story of the house."

Even now, the part of her brain versed in architecture can barely comprehend how much structural damage had been caused to her house. It must have cost her parents a small fortune to repair. She lookes at Sally and shrugs helplessly. "I got into trouble, my parents got into a fight. I ran away the next night. That's why I ran away."

Sally looks stunned, like Annabeth's just hit her in the face, or announced that she's pregnant or something. She feels herself flush, the tips of her ears burning, when her brain orders her to distract Sally, tell her something happy.

"After Luke and Thalia found me," she blurts out, "they wanted to do something for me, so Luke stole an entire pie from a bakery window. I still have no idea how he did it. I don't even think Hermes himself could have done it, but we went back to our hideout and split the thing into three pieces and ate the whole thing in one sitting."

Annabeth is talking too loud, too quickly, and she knows it. She's Greek, she was raised at Camp Half-Blood, there were classes in debate and she's directly descended from some of the greatest orators in history, but she's talking too loud, and too fast, her voice pitched higher than normal. "I almost threw up, my stomach hurt so badly, but it was the best night ever." It actually was one of her best nights ever, one of those memories that she returns to when she's upset and cocooning herself in safe thoughts like a child might wrap themselves up in blankets.

Instead of laughing or smiling like she's hoping, Sally sits back, her knees collapsing, and presses the heels of her hands into her eyes.

Time stops.

Oh gods. Oh gods. Sally's crying, and Annabeth is helpless to do anything but watch. She's going to have to explain to Percy, and then she's going to die, and at camp when they burn her shroud Chiron will give a speech about Annabeth Chase, who took on Kronos but died of awkward when she made her boyfriend's mother cry.

Annabeth takes a cautious step towards Sally, entirely unsure if she should say something or make a break for the door, but Sally climbs to her feet and reaches for her, wraps her arm around Annabeth's shoulders and pulls her close.

She sniffles, but there is only the barest hint of a shake when she smiles and says quietly, "I'm so glad Percy found you."

Annabeth is limp in her arms. Part of her wishes more than anything that she could take back the story she's just told – but there's another part of her that's satisfied in a way she hasn't felt in years, a warmth in her chest that's been missing so long she hadn't realized it was gone. Finally she smiles and returns the embrace cautiously. "Me too."

Annabeth is woken up on Christmas morning by Percy shaking her shoulder, calling her name urgently. She groans and rolls over, spying the alarm clock sitting on Percy's bedside table.

"It's only six Seaweed Brain," she mumbles, snuggling back into the warmth of the covers of his bed. "I know for a fact your mother said you weren't allowed to wake us up until eight. Go back to the couch."

"Annabeeeeth," he whines, half-heartedly rocking against her shoulder again, "It's Christmas! Come on, get up!"

"I'm tired," she complains, her voice half-muffled by the pillow. "We were up late last night." It was true. They had a late dinner, and then stayed up telling stories by the light of the Christmas tree alone. Paul could recite from memory some of the worst papers that have ever been submitted to him, and Annabeth told some stories about breaking in new campers; they went to bed well after midnight, smiling and exhausted.

The mattress dips under Percy's weight as he kneels on the edge of the bed and slips icy fingers under the edge of the covers, against her neck. Annabeth yelps and glares at him, unamused.

He's smirking at her. "Come on," he promises, holding out a hand. "I'll make you coffee."

With a sigh she allows herself to be led from bed and down the hallway to the living room, where Percy has already plugged in the Christmas tree. Curling up at the end of the couch, she pulls Percy's still-warm pillow into her lap, her eyes sleepy and barely open.

Percy's banging in the kitchen, letting drawers slam shut and utensils clang together; she's entirely unsurprised when she hears footsteps behind her. Sally looks resigned, drawing her robe tight around her body and sitting close to Annabeth on the couch. Annabeth gives her a look; when they make eye contact she smiles and rolls her eyes. "I know, I know."

Paul appears holding a tray of coffee cups, and Percy practically dives to the floor to divide out the presents. It's hard not to be charmed at the sight of him, smiling a mile wide and tearing through the presents like a five-year old; he's completely relaxed in this moment, free of the burden of being the Invulnerable Hero of Olympus, something she knows weighs on him more than he'd like to admit.

"It's Annabeth's turn!" he declares, dropping a box into her lap. "That's from my mom."

Annabeth looks down at the box, then up at Sally, who smiles and nods encouragingly. Slowly, she lifts up one corner of the wrapping paper, only to hear Percy snort impatiently. "Come on, you Athena wimp," he urges. "Tear the paper!"

She scowls at him, but listens – a few quick rips, and Annabeth is blinking down at the gift in her lap. "An iHome?" she asks uncertainly, glancing between it and Sally.

"For your iPod, at school," she says, sipping her coffee. "I heard that the kids in the dorm put them in the bathroom. I know you're not going to college until next year but I figured you could use it now…"

Instantly she recalls Percy telling her once that Sally was taking some classes but had never been given the opportunity to go to college properly; something indescribable rises up in her chest, and Annabeth reaches to hug Sally, murmuring thank you quietly as her throat closes up.

Paul reaches over to the stereo and hits a button; the first few jazzy notes of Jingle Bells start to play, and with a laugh Annabeth sits back, pushing a lock of hair behind her ear. Percy's sitting at her feet, leaning against her knees as he examines her gift. It's comfortable in a way that almost makes her embarrassed, how right it feels to have Percy's weight against her, Sally laughing next to her and Paul smiling at them.

"Hey Seaweed Brain," she says leaning forward so far she nearly falls off the couch and pointing under the tree. "You haven't gotten to any of my presents yet, and it's Sally's turn."