It's not that he doesn't love her. He does.

It's just... different.

He's constantly thinking about her, but not when he doesn't want to be thinking about her. He can shut it out. He can censor it. And he thinks about her – he doesn't think of her. He thinks about how much he needs her. He thinks about how much less the hole in his chest aches when her fingers are intertwined with his. He thinks about her. Not of her. It's a difference. A small difference, to be sure. But it's still not the way it was.

It's different.

It's love, though. He's sure that it's love. It just takes a little more effort than before. It's not quite as natural. It's real love, he decides. This is what real love feels like. Real love is hard. Real love doesn't always have happy endings.

He learned that the hard way.

That other love, before this... that was never real, not until that defining moment on Half-Blood Hill, and by then it was too late. Love was screaming. His love screamed for him to run, run now, don't stop. His love keeled over, coughing horribly in the dark pool of blood. His love begged him to let her die, just let her die, and run, run now, don't stop. Don't stop.

Don't stop!

But he did stop.

It was the little girl who dragged him over the border, shrieking his name, but all he heard were the ragged gasps of his love. The little girl tugged his arm. Pulled him away, into camp territory, away from his love. His love, doubled over in the grass. Screaming.

Then she stopped screaming.

She couldn't.

She couldn't do anything.

She couldn't breathe. She couldn't move.

Her arms – one clutching a nasty gash on her chest as it gushed crimson, the other motioning for him to flee – they went numb. They hardened. They twisted up over her head, electric pain roaring through her bones.

The last thing his love's eyes saw was her fingers, stretched towards the sky. But they weren't her fingers. They were branches.

That was the first time he felt real love. He knows that now. He knows that the feeling in his chest, like something inside of him burst into open, roaring, wild flame, is the mark of true love. Real, unquenchable love.

Real love hurts.

That's part of what scares him.

This new love... it doesn't hurt. It doesn't feel like anything. It's numb. The flames that dance between them are icy. The desire he feels when her lips meet his is hard and cold. It's selfish. It hungers. It wants to pull her in and never let her go.

But it's love. He's sure of it.

What else could it be?

She makes him feel alive. She makes his heart crawl into his throat. She reminds him how it feels to breathe again.

He doesn't feel the need to seek her out. He already knows that she'll come to him. His pull on her is too strong for her to fight it. But all the same, it's different for him. It's more than passion, more than affection. It's need. He needs her. She's necessary. He knows that.

He doesn't just want her – and he does want her. She sings in his blood. The flickers of chemistry between them thrill his nerves. He likes the way her lips move with his. He likes the way she smiles awkwardly at him. He likes the way she is drawn to him, so effortlessly. He likes the way that scarlet climbs her cheeks when he complements her sparkling grey eyes.

But it's more than want. It's need.

He needs her. He can't go on without something to fill this hole. He can't handle these nightmares of the dark-haired, blood-soaked girl screaming run, run now, don't stop without someone to talk to. He can't face a world of myths and monsters without her hand in his. He's not ready to deal with the cold sweats, to handle the way his heart tugs, to face the way his soul shudders, without this new love. This real love.

Yes, this is love. It has to be.

But despite the flush of heat that climbs his new love's cheeks, all he feels is chills, rippling down his spine.

She is his stepping stone.

...

A/N: I am a Thuke shipper. I believe Thalia and Luke were a couple before the standoff on Half-Blood Hill, where she sacrificed herself to save him and Annabeth. But I think that, post pine-tree-incident, Luke needed something to numb the pain. So Annabeth became his replacement – his stepping stone – temporarily. Until he realized that it wasn't love, at which point he promised they would "always be family." That's why Annabeth feels so awkward around him in the first book. That's why she blushes at his name. They were something. Or at least, she thought they were.

But she was his stepping stone.

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