sorry this took me so long, but life has been a bit manic recently. anyway, hope you enjoy the chapter :) let me know what you think
Annabeth barely registered that this was her first slice of freedom since the rocks as she strode down streets, elbowing her way past people and attracting a few annoyed protests as she went. But her panic sliced cleanly through them and continued to drive her forward, down the oh so familiar path to where she hoped Piper would be. She could not understand why her friend had chosen to run. Piper suddenly had every opportunity at her feet; a mother, a position of wealth and prosperity, Jason. Why would she run if she could finally be with him?
Annabeth was panting heavily by the time she reached the small wooden door of Rachel's house. She hammered her fist against the wood and tapped her foot impatiently for the five seconds that it took for the door to swing open revealing a begrudged looking Leo.
'Took you long enough,' he said, opening the door wider for her to step through.
Everyone was, as usual, in the kitchen. It was strange to see Jason sat at the low wooden table, but Rachel and Hazel's presence was familiar and comforting. It felt like an age since Annabeth had seen them. But she was now drawn to Piper as she rose from her seat next to Jason and made straight for Annabeth, guilt plain on her face.
'I'm sorry,' she said, taking Annabeth's hands, 'I panicked.'
Annabeth pulled her into a tight hug and sighed into her friend's hair. 'I'm just glad you're alright.' Relief spilt through her and she held on tightly to her friend. But then she released Piper and fixed her with a stern look like a scolding mother. 'What were you thinking? Why did you run?'
Piper released a breath, her face was still crumpled with guilt. 'I panicked,' she repeated. 'My mother was about to make the announcement without allowing Jason to speak with his parents first. It was all happening so fast. Too fast. And it was not what you wanted.'
'Piper, what I want is for you to be happy.' She glanced at Jason, who gave her a rueful smile. 'Both of you. I was angry with Aphrodite before, not with you.'
'I still can't believe you're a princess,' Leo said, sitting on the table with an oblivious smile, and succefully breaking the tension in the room.
'I'm not a princess, Leo,' Piper said, rolling her eyes.
'Well, if you marry Prince Philip here, you will be.'
'Leo, enough,' Rachel scolded and he fell silent, a smile still sitting on his face.
Annabeth threw her a grateful smile but her gaze caught on the distracted look in Rachel's eyes, in the crease above her nose and the downwards tilt of her mouth. She did not mask her worry when she noticed Annabeth's lingering gaze; Rachel was not one to hide things. But that would have to wait.
Annabeth returned her attention to Piper and Jason as Piper returned to her seat. 'My mother has Aphrodite under control, it is now up to us what happens.'
Rachel spoke up first. 'I will send Leo to the apothecary-'
'You will?' Leo objected as Annabeth felt herself frown. 'Jason has already been seen by a surgeon.'
'I am quite well, I assure you,' Jason said, though he still looked pale.
Rachel shook her head. 'I know Will personally, he will administer something only to speed your recovery along. You can trust him, I promise.'
'Come on, Leo,' Hazel said, standing and tugging the boy's arm, 'I will go with you.'
They heard Leo continue to object as the two left the house and waited for the door to close before anybody spoke again. Piper sat close to Jason with an absent-minded hand on his arm. She stared at the table, chewing the inside of her lip, her beautiful face distorted into a frown.
Annabeth cleared her throat. 'Why is it that you both look like you are about to attend a funeral?'
Piper blinked and looked up at her friend, startled. She opened her mouth to speak and closed it silently a second or two later. Jason smiled.
'You are allowed to be happy,' Annabeth reminded her.
Piper sighed. 'I can't stop thinking about everything you said to my mother. And you are right, Annabeth, this is selfish; it's brash and unthoughtful and unwise.'
Jason spoke before Annabeth could. 'It does not have to be unwise, Piper. There is a right way to go about this; I can speak with my parents and come to an agreement with your mother and Athena.' He took her hands in his own and looked up at her through long eyelashes and enough innocence for Annabeth to momentarily forget that he was a skilled politician and a prince. 'I wish for us to be together, married. That is, if you will have me?'
Piper's eyes glistened as she stared at him and told him 'Of course I will, you fool.' And Annabeth had to look away as the couple shared an intimate moment. She caught Rachel's eye again and the Oracle narrowed her eyes, visibly resigning to some inner turmoil as she sighed.
'So I will speak with my parents,' Jason said, drawing Annabeth's attention back to him and Piper, 'and we will find some resolution to this without a war ensuing.'
Annabeth spoke up, 'My mother suggested that if this is handled in the right way, Piper will act as a partide in the same way that I was supposed to by marrying you. As Aphrodite's long lost daughter, you can distract the public's eye from our ended engagement.'
'Will that work?'
Jason raised his eyebrows. 'The council and uppers want an extravagant wedding. The public just want peace. And Annabeth does not need me to be queen.'
Their eyes fell to Annabeth's face and she avoided both of them by staring at the table. 'He is right, my mother will allow me to Ascend without a husband.'
'I thought it was law preventing you from doing so?' Piper interjected.
'Laws can be changed. And this particular one was held in place by tradition more than anything else. My mother knows as well as anybody that it is an archaic one.'
'So you will ascend alone?'
Piper's voice sounded sad, almost pitiful. Annabeth looked up at her friend and smiled. 'My mother will be at my side still, I will have the council's aid as well as that of the prince of Rome and his wife, I hope.'
Jason nodded solemnly. 'Of course, Annabeth. And I will instigate negotiations with my sister, she is incredibly eager to meet you.'
'I look forward to it.'
And Annabeth began to see it; their future. Piper and Jason as her friends in Rome, though they would of course stay in Olympus for a time; Thalia and her husband as allies, young and eager for change, for a movement away from their archaic states. Herself as leader of her city with her mother at her side.
It seemed so much more possible now.
And so much more imminent.
Everything was about to change and Annabeth was not quite sure she was ready for it to. The deadline of her Ascension had been in the back of her mind for so long now, shrouded by other worries; her marriage, her mother, the council, Percy. But now, she had nowhere else to look. In four days, Annabeth would become queen.
As Leo and Hazel returned with the apothecary, a tall, handsome man, Annabeth sat in silence at the table, stewing her fingers together and worrying her lip. Fear had suddenly gripped her and endless horrific possibilities presented themselves in her mind. What if the council turned against her? What if her mother was taken ill? What if Zeus and Hera did not agree to Jason's marriage to Piper?
Annabeth was barely aware of her surroundings until someone touched her arm and she looked up to see Rachel sitting next to her. 'I have sent Leo and Hazel on another errand to the castle,' Rachel said quietly. 'They will inform your mother of the situation.'
Annabeth made to stand up. 'I should return before I am truly missed.'
'Not yet.' Rachel held onto Annabeth's arm and stood with her, leading her from the kitchen, away from Piper and Jason and into the dark front room where Annabeth was first introduced to the oracle. 'We must speak privately first.'
'What's the matter?'
Rachel shook her head as she clasped her woollen cloak around her neck. 'Nothing is the matter, Annabeth. You must calm yourself; at this rate you won't make it to your own Ascension.'
'Rachel,' she protested, 'I do not have time for this.'
The redhead faced Annabeth and gripped her shoulders, staring solemnly into her eyes. 'Everything is under control, you have time.'
She felt her resistance crumble as Rachel held her there in the musty room. She inhaled lavender and burnt wick and tried to relax her body and mind. Rachel was right; everything was under control, everything would be fine. But she still wanted to know where she was being taken.
Rachel led her from the house without another word. The sun beat down on them from above, spilling yellow light across the cobbled stones that dug into the soles of her feet. The smell of baking bread and cinnamon filled her nose as they passed the bakery on Richmond street; and split ale outside the Runaway tavern on Newberry street; fish and spices from one of the markets. They passed the harbour and kept moving further through the city as seagulls called to their left, beyond the wall, and the city bustled to their right.
They passed the edge of the city, where packed houses trickled into thatch-roofed cottages dotted along a narrow desolate lane. As the track turned into sand, Annabeth's heart began to race. There was a hope in her chest that made itself known as they walked further down the path and the sounds of the ocean filled her ears.
She stopped and turned to face Annabeth. She lifted a hand to shield her eyes from the sun and stepped closer.
'Carry on down the path, and you will reach a small cove. It is a wonderful place to find yourself when you are feeling lost.'
'Trust me, Annabeth. I will be waiting here for you when you are ready to return.'
Annabeth gave her one final displeased look before walking down the sandy path alone. Rachel would always be cryptic; her dying words will be ones of vague wisdom and infuriating obscurity.
The path did indeed lead to a rock cove; almost a full circle of tall grey stone exposed to the sea air. At the base of the rock was cradled a small white sandy beach covered in shells and rocks. Annabeth wondered at its abandoned state, it was beautiful. But then again, people still feared the ocean and what dwelled there. There was a reason the vast wall still stood around their city, to keep them safe from the monsters on the outside.
Annabeth removed her boots and walked up to the shore, lifting the hem of her dress as the water stroked her toes. After a moment, she sat down, tucking her skirt and cloak underneath her and keeping her feet in reach of the shallow tide. The only sound was the ocean; rocking its way back and forth like the steady breathing of a cat curled up on the lap of its owner. The wind was cool but bearable, the water was too cold but she kept her feet planted where they were. The sight of golden rays on the water sent the worries in Annabeth's mind away. She began to think that Rachel had sent her for the sole purpose of therapy.
But then there he was. A shadow of black hair breaking the water some twenty feet away from where she sat. Too far away for Annabeth to see his expression but definitely, certainly, and beyond all deniability, him.
Alive and swimming towards her as she sat frozen on the sand. Part of her feared he was a mirage; dreamed up from her desperation. As he came closer, his face told her the same story of disbelief.
When she had last seen him, Percy had been trapped and terrified, about to die. Now he looked healthy and whole. And happy. His shock faded far sooner than hers as his face lit up with excitement and glee in its purest form. The widest, most beautiful smile she had ever seen pulled her forwards; delving herself of her cloak, forgetting the chill of the water as the sandy floor dropped steeply from under her feet and she was swimming.
Percy was faster. His arms came around her and closed her to his chest. He was holding her too tightly, but she failed to object as she clung onto his neck and allowed him to keep them both buoyant. His heartbeat thrummed against her own and his breath was hot on her neck. As she stroked the hair at the nape of his neck, Annabeth felt a calm settle through her.
'You're here,' he breathed, his lips moving against the skin of her neck.
'I'm here.' Was all she could manage.
Annabeth dipped her head back enough to draw his mouth to hers and relished the familiar softness of his lips and the hard jut of his teeth. He kissed her desperately and fully, until she felt light-headed and had to draw her mouth away from his.
She cradled his face, breathing hard. 'You're alright? You're completely fine?'
He tucked a wayward strand of hair behind her ear and smiled softly. 'I'm fine, Annabeth. Better now that you're here.'
'I wish I could stay.'
'Forever?' he teased, a hint of longing in his voice.
'For a little while,' she appeased, feeling shamefully gleeful.
They ended up back on the beach, splayed out in the sun like puppies. Percy wanted to know every development since his abrupt departure, his happiness of Piper was sincere despite only having spoken to her a handful of times, his concern for Marcus was also genuine; apparently Marius was incredibly eager to see his older brother again.
'And you,' Annabeth said, 'what stories do you have to tell me?'
'Oh dozens,' Percy murmured, his eyes closed against the sun as he lay on his back, gathering sand on his skin and the scales of his lower body.
'Percy.' She nudged him. 'Tell me.'
'There's nothing to tell. I told my father of our unfortunate last meeting and he almost gathered the troops. My mother calmed him down and reminded him that the last thing we need is another war.'
'Do you really think he would have started a war?' she asked, disturbed by Percy's casual tone.
'No. My father is just a little bit dramatic sometimes. He sent out half the city on a search party for me when I went missing when I was eight.'
'Where did you go?'
Percy opened his eyes to roll them at her. 'I was hiding under my bed; I didn't want to wash.'
'Why would you need to wash when you live in the ocean?'
'My eight-year-old self's sentiments exactly. But the ocean isn't exactly clean; mostly thanks to you lot.'
Annabeth sat up and frowned at him. 'By you lot, I suppose you mean our fishermen?'
'Fishermen, sailors, anyone who dumps anything into the water. Which is everyone.'
Annabeth's frown deepened into one of concern. 'I didn't realise it was so bad.'
Percy pushed up onto his elbows and frowned, looking out over the ocean. 'It's getting worse. More and more waste is being dumped into our water every day.'
'Why didn't you tell me this?'
The corner of his mouth pulled up. 'You have had enough to worry about.'
'This is important.'
'So are other things.'
'No, Percy. Don't dismiss this, this is your home and I want to help.' She held his stare. 'This is important.'
He nodded slowly. 'Okay.'
They sat quietly for a moment. Annabeth's dress was beginning to dry, as was her curly hair which was stiff with salt and sand. Her skin felt a little raw from being exposed to so many elements and she hoped she wasn't burning. But she didn't want to leave.
Percy's voice interrupted her thoughts, 'Annabeth, what happens now?'
Annabeth looked at him. He looked so young and innocent with sand in his manic black hair and worry painting his features.
What would happen now? She would become queen and face the gargantuan task of changing opinions that went back generations to bring peace between her people and Percy's. It was likely that she would fail.
'I don't know,' she told him, but in his eyes she saw that he comprehended the reality of it.
'I want to see you again,' he said. 'Soon.'
'That might not be possible.'
Percy nodded seriously. 'I still think you should come and see me.'
She laughed a little. 'Believe me, I would much rather stay here.'
He reached for her hand and pulled her down next to him on the sand. 'Then stay,' he whispered into her hair, following his words with a kiss.
'You are not making this easy for me.'
She stayed like that a little while longer, curled against his side, her head on his shoulder and her arm over his stomach, feeling happier than she had in days. But eventually she dragged herself away from him; lingering at his lips and watching him disappear into the great big blue as she stood with her toes in the sand. She brushed off her feet and laced her boots up slowly before she left the cove. It seemed like a dream; a little bubble away from the real world, the one to which she must now return.
Rachel was waiting were Annabeth left her and did not say a word as they began walking back up the path towards the city. But Annabeth's curiosity got the best of her. 'How did you know he would be there?' she asked, facing forward as they walked.
She saw the quirk of Rachel's smile from the corner of her eye. 'I told you once that I see a great many things—'
'Rachel, please. Keep the prophet speech to a minimum; it's been a long day.'
'I saw your purest desire, Annabeth. And it was him, in that little cove; safe and sound and waiting for you to find him. That is all.'
'Percy is not the only thing I want,' she objected. She was sure she loved Percy, but there were a great many more things she wanted and needed.
'I never said that he was. But he is not someone whom you should deprive yourself of; it is not a requirement to be miserable as a queen.'
Annabeth bit back her retort and they walked the rest of the way in silence. The sounds and smells and bustle of the city brought with them her worries again. She held onto Percy and their cove as tightly as she could, but he slipped away like soap through her fingers.
As they walked back into the small house and were greeted by their friends, Annabeth swore to herself that she would see Percy again before she became queen. There must be a way.