I hadn't thought that Percy would ever be more scared in his life than when he faced that Minotaur, but six hours up in the air changed all of my assumptions.
We took off from LAX at noon precisely—right on time—so I was surprised to see his fingers clenched so hard on the armrests that his knuckles turned white. I mean, I was nervous about getting there on time, too, but his face was paler than if he'd just been told he had to fight a pack of hellhounds by himself. His lips were pressed together in one fine line, like he was trying to keep whatever was in his stomach from coming out.
The plane had reached cruising altitude now. Just as the seat belt light turned off, I leaned over and gave him a gentle tap on the shoulder. "What's wrong, Seaweed Brain?"
He gulped, pausing for a moment before answering. "It's...nothing. Do you really think Zeus will, you know, let us get home without—well, blasting us out of the sky?"
Truth be told, I hadn't really thought about that part. I was just so preoccupied with finishing the quest and trying to not get killed that the minor details of getting home had slipped my mind.
"Well," I said, trying to think logically (as any good daughter of Athena should be able to do), "Zeus doesn't want to risk destroying his symbol of power, right? And we have it with us, so that'll probably help with the whole blasted-out-of-the-sky part."
"Probably," he muttered, but his face was still a delicate shade of green.
Well, this was a first—I had truly never seen Percy this scared of anything before, and it startled me. Before I knew what I was doing, I reached over and patted his hand in what I meant to be a comforting gesture.
"It's okay, Percy. Everything's going to be okay."
He attempted a smile, but it came out more like a grimace. "If I had a nickel for every time someone's told me that over the course of my life…well, I'd be rich by now."
That hit home, hard. I knew all half-bloods had tough lives before camp, but Percy had always seemed so... happy. It hadn't occured to me that the son of Poseidon might have had issues in the past. Maybe I was so caught up in my own problems that I had failed to see that I wasn't the only one who had them. Then again, there were a lot of things that I had yet to learn about Percy.
I laid back in my seat, settling in for what was going to be a long and uneasy flight. Trying to distract Percy from his worries, I held up the in-flight meal menu and said, "Look! They're serving fish sticks for lunch!"
Not the best thing to say. He turned even greener, if at all possible. "Annabeth, you do know I hate seafood, right?"
Oops. "Um…sorry, Percy." Not quite sure how to continue the conversation, I picked up the magazine in front of me and tried to make sense of the story. Maybe it was about a dream house, or was it a horse?
"Argh. Stupid dyslexia," I muttered under my breath.
That (strangely) seemed to distract him from the fact that he was in danger of imminent death. "What?"
"It's just frustrating, you know? I can't make sense of anything besides Ancient Greek. How am I supposed to get by in the world if I can't even READ?" I said, huffing out a long sigh of pent-up anger. I wasn't sure what exactly the look on his face was, but I felt bad that I'd just dumped THAT load on him when he was busy worrying about dying.
"I-I'm sorry," I said, running a hand through my tangled hair.
"No, Annabeth, it's okay—I know how you feel." He looked away, embarrassment evident on his face. "I've failed enough exams to know that."
"I don't know if you'll believe me, but I have, too."
He gave me an actual, genuine smile—and somenhow that made it all worth it. "Really, Wise Girl? Really?"
"You're laughing at me," I complained.
"Hey, I can't help it!"
My efforts to try to distract him seemed to be going fine—up until the moment we hit a spot of turbulence. Percy lurched forward in his seat and grabbed my hand. I gave a start and he let go quicker than one of Zeus's lightning bolts flashing across the sky—which, as a matter of fact, was what I then noticed in the distance.
"It's getting worse," I said, ignoring Percy's red face. Styx, that was not the right thing to say, I mentally chastised myself. Percy's eyes were squeezed shut, his lips moving in silent prayer. Great, Annabeth, that's not helping.
I imitated Percy and muttered a quick prayer to Mom, hoping that maybe, just once, she would answer. Or at least acknowledge my humble request to continue living. After what was probably only a few minutes but seemed like hours, the winds calmed down, causing Percy to breathe a huge sigh of relief. It was only then that I saw the faint sheen of sweat on his forehead.
"Percy." When I took his hand this time, he didn't let go. "Look at me."
Reluctantly, he met my gaze. Every inch of his face screamed abject terror.
"It's okay, Percy. I know you hear that a lot, but I for one mean it this time." His expression softened.
"Thanks," he muttered, not quite meeting my gaze. "Only a few more hours of this to go."
"Don't look at it that way," I said, trying for a coaxing tone.
Part of me noticed that my fingers were still laced with his…and I liked it.
The plane shook suddenly, and the look of pure terror returned to Percy's face. Okay, so obviously Zeus didn't want us to be that close.
Good to know, I thought sarcastically.
But that, as everything else in the past couple of hours, turned out to be nothing to worry about. In fact, time seemed to just fly by while we held hands, trading nervous jokes as Grover snored away in the window seat.
A voice came over the intercom suddenly. "Ladies and gentlemen, we are beginning our descent. Please fasten your seatbelts; we seem to be experiencing quite a bit of turbulence tonight."
Percy's eyes widened suddenly in fear. He let go of my hand again, and I rubbed it unconsciously Ow. I looked down to see there were purple marks ringed around it.
"Seaweed Brain, look!" I was fishing for something—anything—to distract him from our particularly bumpy descent. "You left bruises on my hand from where you were holding it so tightly."
"That's what she said," Grover mumbled from Percy's other side.
We both laughed. "Shut up, Grover."
There was a gentle THUMP, the squealing of tires on asphalt, and…silence.
A look of relief flooded Percy's face. "We made it." His mouth broke into a wide grin. "We made it!"
"Not quite, Perce," Grover reminded him. "We still have to get that—" he nodded to the overhead compartment, where I knew Percy's backpack and the master bolt were stored "—to the Empire State Building."
"Then what are we waiting for?" Still grinning like an idiot, Percy stood up and reached into the compartment for our bags. Up and down the plane, other passengers were doing the same.
It wasn't until we were off the plane and leaving the terminal that Percy finally stopped and turned to me. "Um…thanks. For, you know, keeping me calm up there and stuff."
"No—no problem," I managed.
Then he did something I didn't expect, and hugged me. Suddenly I was very conscious of my surroundings…and mostly Percy. He smelled like ocean air—salty and wild and…good. The colors of the terminal seemed to blur and smear together, become brighter.
"I appreciate it, Wise Girl." He let me go, but left his hand on my shoulder for a moment. "Come on, guys. We've got some explaining to do."
In the late-afternoon sunlight streaming in through the high windows, he looked older, almost. More like the hero that I knew he was now.
Strange, though, that I should have these revelations while up in the air.
A/N: HUGE shout-out to MostDefinitelyFlorentine and wombat-of-awesomeness for helping me with this and basically writing half of it :) You guys are amazing!