It's all you can think about this summer: kissing Percy Jackson. Which is a total waste of energy, because there is entirely too much for you to think about. Kronos. The Titans. Mount Olympus. Preparing the Camp. Preparing yourself. And while you're trying to focus on all these other, more important things—like not dying—Percy Jackson walks around with his stupid, clueless face and those stupid lips of his and creates maelstroms inside you just by smiling.
And it's not like you don't know what would happen. He likes you. You've caught him glancing at you enough times this month to be sure. You've kissed him before, last summer, right before everything went to hell, as it does. It'd been brief. A forceful press of your lips against his, a momentary lapse of judgment, a last-call kind of kiss, if you're honest. He'd seemed pleasantly surprised at the time.
And you? All the winding eddies of your tightly locked-down emotions have nowhere to go but your heart, have nothing to do but overpower your logic, usually so unflappable, and make you think that this is the best idea you've had.
And it's not.
Of course, Percy Jackson is stupid and brave and reckless and has never listened well to reason, so when he refuses your help, you're not surprised. Disappointed, maybe, but never surprised.
"Percy," you say when he draws his sword, when that me and me alone look comes over his face. "Let me come with you."
And when he says it's too dangerous (and doesn't that burn in your throat), that he needs you and the others to protect the people while he runs around being a distraction for a horde of monsters who won't hesitate to kill him, who don't understand that he is Percy Jackson and that means he's more than his name—that he's more—
You nod, mechanical. He has to do this. There's nobody else. And for a moment, a snap-second of a moment, his eyes are green and blazing and near swallow you whole. "All right," you say. "Get moving."
He swallows. "Don't I get a kiss for luck? It's kind of tradition, right?"
And you think about it, kissing him; think about it like you've been thinking about it every day you've seen him since arriving at Camp. You think about striding up to him, pulling his face to yours. You think about the pressure of his lips, the long line of his nose alongside yours, and the close, downward tilt of his face, because he is finally taller than you, just so.
And then you think about luck and how little you've had, the people standing around, the danger marching ever closer. You turn away from him so that he cannot see the smile threatening the corners of your mouth, the worry around your eyes. "Come back alive, Seaweed Brain. Then we'll see."
Which means yes, and if you don't come back alive I will kill you, and I hate that you're out there without me.
It doesn't last long. You're drawn toward one another, endlessly circling the same disastrous sinkholes, and even as you stand at his back you wish there were a way you could protect him from all sides. Surrounded. Disbelief and hopelessness pull a hysterical giggle to your throat, but you bite it down, because some of these kids you know. How will you draw your knife against the throats of your friends?
And then you feel it—something against your own back, a tingling, almost-there warmth, ghost fingers brushing against the base of your spine.
Intuition or instinct?
Your body moves. There's a knife and a searing pain and shouting, quick bursts of motion and noise, the too obvious pulse of your blood, and you think to yourself: I've been stabbed. And as Percy stands over you, form hazy and near glowing, you think: Giving away your weakness. Stupid. And you think: I am his weakness.
And then there's air, and the heavy weight of your body, and you are gone.
It's war. There are injuries, casualties, heavy losses—you just never thought you'd be the one bleeding out on a lounge chair. Your arm alternates between numb and burning, and you're not sure which you'd rather have. You pass in and out of consciousness. The sun falls. Campers mill about the area, look at you before quickly glancing away. Silena damps a rag across your forehead and you don't have the heart, or the energy, to tell her to stop.
You wait for Percy. It was for nothing if you didn't save Percy.
And then he's there, and his worry is written clear across his face. Something grabs tight to your lungs. "You're cute when you're worried," you tell him, raising your good hand to hover at his face, the furrowed intersection of his brows. You are saying this not because it needs to be said, but because he needs to see that you are okay, that you are going to be okay, even if neither of you are convinced. "Your eyebrows get all scrunched together."
He ignores the deflection. "You are not going to die while I owe you a favor. Why did you take that knife?"
And it's the easiest thing to answer: "You would've done the same for me."
He exhales. He leans toward you, close enough that you can see the flecks of dirt on his cheek, the scrape on his forehead splits his skin. "How did you know?" he asks.
"My Achilles spot," he whispers. "If you hadn't taken that knife, I would've died."
Something tugs at you again, a warm trickle down the ridges of your vertebrae. Instinct or intuition? How are you so tied to this son of the sea? "I don't know, Percy. I just had this feeling you were in danger." And then, because you have to know, "Where… where is the spot?"
The first thing you notice about his hand is that it is shaking, sweaty, that he guides your fingers slowly to the bare skin at his back, right where you feel the warmth in yours. You hold your breath. His eyes, again—whirlpools, dark in the fading light, pupils gaping wide. This is a moment, you think, as he reveals his greatest secret to you, puts himself at the tips of your fingers. This is a man you could ruin, if you wanted to. Percy Jackson, the greatest demigod, and you hold his life.
"You saved me," he says, voice low, curling deep in your gut. "Thanks."
You move your hand away, because you are a little in love with him, a little more than afraid of this trust he's shown you and all the things that could go wrong—but then, it's not power he's given you, but a gift.
Percy keeps your hand.
You'd like to kiss him, now. It's you talking, not the poison, not your unfeeling arm. "So you owe me," you say instead, trying to ease some weight from your chest, lighter than the sky. "What else is new?"
There's never any time. You wonder if it's always going to be like this. Running, fighting, trying to escape death. You are sixteen and trying to save the world. All you want to do is capture this stupid boy's smile.
The ground is pulled from under your feet. As you hang above Olympus, there is nothing around you but air. Percy's got you, barely, with the very ends of his fingertips. It's your bad arm. Fire burrows itself into your muscles, rips and tears at your scabbed wound, blinds you for a moment, and then, with a great heave, you are back on solid ground.
You can feel Percy's heart beating against your forehead.
Wait, you think.
And while you pull away from his arms, mostly because you have to go, now, and partly to save yourself from doing something rash, you take the feeling and bury it, keep it close. You pull from it when Luke asks if you love him. Loved him. You did love Luke. You loved Luke when he was alive, when he taught you to protect your own life, when it was you and him and Thalia against the world.
It feels so long ago, now.
Percy catches your gaze, as Luke's life continues to wane. You love Luke, present tense; will love Luke when he's gone, but Percy?
You tell him—them—what they need to hear. "You were like a brother to me, Luke. But I didn't love you."
You've thought about it. At one point, you teased the idea of joining Artemis and her eternal hunters. At multiple points, you tried to imagine the impossible length of eternity and realized that your heart should not tick onwards forever, that good things die, that life is worth living, fully, until it's gone. Permanence is an ideal; life is truth. A gift. It's learning and making mistakes and trying. It's a boy, holding your hand, giving you himself.
You don't want this for Percy, but it is not your choice. He is a hero. He deserves to sit beside his father in glory. He deserves so much.
You listen to the loud thundering of your heart instead of the agreement of the gods, listen to the rush of your blood like pounding whitewater through your body. Stand tall, you tell yourself, because this is the moment, and while nobody dictates your fate but yourself, you aren't so proud that you can't admit your tie to Percy. Whatever he chooses will ripple across your future.
"No," he says.
Percy Jackson, stupid and reckless and brave. Surprise and relief bloom hot through your chest. And okay, it could be that you're just overwhelmed, that it's been the hardest day of your life, but you stop breathing for just a few seconds, and while your vision blurs and wavers, you don't take your eyes from him, not for a moment.
The sun begins to fall. The shrouds are burned. You try to impress into your mind each camper's face as the cloth disintegrates and turns to ash, reunites with the stars; you try to trap their laughter, the way they spoke, the choices that made them heroes. There's a perfunctory sing-along, but mostly Camp is a somber kind of quiet, tentative and fragile and still.
You find Percy alone at Poseidon's table, hand over the wannabe-cupcake you and Tyson created for his birthday. When you tell Percy to make a wish, he looks at you and smiles before blowing out the candle.
And it's almost unreal, the teasing, the dual conversation you have, right on the edge of revealing the thing you've been toeing around for years. There's a bubble in your chest, buoyant and excited, and you keep your eyes on the horizon as he fumbles his words, as he tries to explain his heart.
"I thought—I didn't want things to stay the same for eternity, because things could always get better. And I was thinking…"
Say it. Say it, Percy, you think. Your hand itches to reach out to him. He's trying so hard. "Anyone in particular?"
"You're laughing at me," he moans, and before he can shut down, you show him a grin.
"I am not!"
"You are so not making this easy."
It is an unfair happy ending to a bitter and difficult war—you think, briefly, about all the people you've lost, all the people you've hurt, the mistakes you've made, knowing that they will keep, that you will certainly come back to dwell upon them later—but right now you are standing and happy and alive, and Percy held up his end—he came back. And who are you to go back on a deal? So you reach up and wrap your arms around his neck, finally releasing your laughter. "I am never, ever going to make things easy for you, Seaweed Brain. Get used to it."
And so you kiss him.
And Percy Jackson, with his stupid, warm lips of his, and his wide palms at your back, and the strength of his shoulders leaning into you—Percy pulls you in, pulls in your focus, allows everything to fall away while he has you in the circle of his arms.
You don't even hear Clarisse and the others until Percy starts shouting.
It's fitting, you guess, that they throw you both into the lake, fitting that you've never had a sense of family until you found your own, here, at Camp. In the dim waters, you still your lungs until Percy creates a pocket of air for you, until he holds your breath in his hands, until you lean forward, suspended, nothing but water around you, as Percy presses himself against you, fits his lips against yours.