Disclaimer: You know this is Rick Riordan's.
University life was straightforward, reliable, regular. Monotonous, some might even say. But Reyna Ramírez-Arellano—only Reyna to the rest of campus, because who really wanted two last names?—had it under control, and that was far more important than having excitement.
She waited by the door for Annabeth Chase to finish debating her quiz grade with Professor Lupa. Eventually the blonde trailed over, lips pursed and ponytail bouncing against her backpack. The two girls nodded in sync at the prof and then let themselves out of the classroom so the next class's students could stream in.
"I just don't see why a question that was only a sidebar in the reading should be worth ten points," Annabeth complained. "If I get a B in this class, my GPA will tank. My mother will kill me. I will kill me."
Reyna's lips barely quirked upward. Grade anxiety—something else regular. But they were only in the second week into fall semester, not nearly late enough to ruin their academic careers. "Right. You know, it's really next year that'll tank your GPA."
"Don't remind me. But there will at least be a lot of actual design involved." Annabeth brightened a little at this thought. She was a transfer student majoring in architectural design, but she was a junior like Reyna, and the challenge of upper-level classes really only fueled her pride.
A lean guy with messy black hair and a mischievous grin rode by on his skateboard, planting a kiss on Annabeth's cheek as he passed. "Percy!" she complained, but he only grinned and kept going.
Percy Jackson was a transfer as well, Reyna knew. She'd contemplated him briefly when she first met him, but he and Annabeth had been together for years, and he'd had zero interest. Probably for the best—his skateboarder attitude was a little more rebellious than she could trust.
"And that damn assignment's going to kill me," Annabeth continued. "Two chapters to read and an essay to draft? I don't even want to know what Mr. D will be assigning in World Mythology." She straightened her pencil skirt and, when they came to the end of the hall, pushed the door open with her outstretched arm.
The crisp fall air stung a little at Reyna's face and bare arms. I knew I should have worn a jacket, she scolded herself. "At least World Mythology will be interesting," Reyna said, pointedly staring at a freshman named Dakota who was giving them both the once-over.
He turned red and turned away to gulp something that didn't look like Kool-Aid.
She returned her attention to their path to the student center. "We're where, now? The chapter on Ancient Greece?"
The blonde nodded. "Are you coming to lunch?"
They pushed through the double-doors to the lower level of the student center. "Can't; I have to work," Reyna said. She liked Annabeth, but she loved her student government job. It was something else she knew and could control. "How about lunch tomorrow?"
"Sounds great! See you at two, then." Annabeth smiled and waved before heading upstairs to the cafeteria, and Reyna walked around the staircase to the hallway just past the post office. Students milled around in throngs, torn between the need for coffee and mail and the need to get to class on time, but when she came near the masses parted for her to pass. She glided by with her chin high; heads turned and even conversations quieted to watch her go.
Hitching her book bag strap over her shoulder, she turned a corner and clenched her jaw: the Latino boy from Spanish club and World Mythology (how had he managed to worm his way into her schedule twice?) was waiting outside the student government offices again, wearing a stained T-shirt and a grin that seemed to split his face in half. His presence was one regularity she would have liked to dispose of.
"Are you from Tennessee?" he called to her as she came near. "'Cause you're the only ten I s—"
"Move," Reyna ordered, brushing past him to get into the office and then shutting the door firmly behind her. He peered in through the front wall, which was mostly glass, but she ignored him as she dropped her bag on the floor, folded herself into her favorite rolling chair, reached into her desk, and pulled out a few files she needed to sign. She tilted her desk label toward him—PRESIDENT, the wooden plaque said, in all caps—in case he thought he was messing with some underling.
A low laugh came from the next desk over, and she looked up to see her vice president, Jason Grace, smile and wave at the other guy.
"You know him?" she asked shortly, flicking her long braid over her shoulder as she stared, hard and unfriendly, out the window.
A tan girl with choppy hair came by and dragged the boy away, and once they'd disappeared Jason turned to look at Reyna. She looked him right in the eye, mostly so that she wouldn't linger on things like his broad shoulders or the scar on his lip. You would think that after ten years of being best friends, she would have calmed down about such things, but unfortunately you would be mistaken. As it was, she operated around the problem like she did most others involving feelings: she ignored it and hoped it would eventually go away.
"Yeah, he's a good guy," Jason said, but Jason said this about almost anyone at Apollo University, so Reyna's eyebrows jumped but she didn't bother to argue. "He's from Central."
That explained why she didn't know his name. Central University had burned down over the summer, so many of its commuter students—including Annabeth and Percy—had transferred to Apollo simply because it was only ten minutes away. Some of those students, Reyna was certain, would have done better to find somewhere else to get an education.
"His name's Leo," Jason continued, "I think he's a chemistry, no, engineering major. He's pretty funny, once you get past the bad puns."
"Uh-huh." Pulling a granola bar out of her book bag, she went back to flipping through the papers to find the blank lines she needed to sign, and they fell into companionable silence.
They worked through the lunch hour and then some, and at ten til two, Reyna began to pack everything back up into her desk.
"You ready to go?" she asked, and when Jason gave a bright yep she stood, slung her bag over her shoulder, and stared at him as he leisurely did the same. The muscles in his arms and shoulders pulled at his Superman T-shirt—not that she cared. They were just friends. Best friends. And platonic roommates. If they were to become anything more, they would have already. Right?
She blinked back into the present and found him staring back at her, a quizzical smile on his lips. "You ready to go?" he asked.
"Yeah," she sighed.
He held the door open and let her walk through before he followed, and they walked side-by-side into the scattered crowd.
Unlike her trip toward their office, however, the reaction was split. Those closer to her drew back and averted their eyes, like before, but those closer to Jason brightened and reached out for him, as though they could gain some of his virtue by touching the hem of his sleeve.
"How's it going, Jason?"
"You look really nice, today, Jason!"
And if that wasn't unreasonable enough, he smiled and touched right back. "Hey, Michael. Good, Gwen, you? Thanks, Drew, you too!" Reyna would have been surprised that he knew all their names if that weren't ridiculously regular. As far as she knew, not a single person at Apollo University (or possibly anywhere else, for that matter) disliked him.
The masses dispersed as Reyna and Jason swept outdoors, where the wind had picked up and Reyna realized she should have had more than a granola bar for lunch. Now slightly grumpy, she looked down to root around her book bag for a second one, or a bag of jelly beans, or something to eat before World Mythology. Mr. D did bring great snacks when he could be bothered to show up to class, but he was about as reliable as the weather, and she would depend on him as soon as she stopped carrying an umbrella around on sunny days.
"Here you go." Someone matched their pace on her other side, a hand holding out a sandwich wrapped in plastic wrap. Reyna looked up into the slightly smug smile of Annabeth.
"Thanks." She took the sandwich, peeled the plastic wrap off the top, and bit down: creamy peanut butter and strawberry jam. Good, though it could be improved by more of both toppings, and possibly a sprinkling of jelly beans. But it was an understandable omission, since only Jason knew about her attachment to putting jelly beans on regular food, so she simply appreciated the gesture.
Percy wheeled up on Jason's other side and then kicked his skateboard up into his hands, slipping into a walk as easy as breathing. "Sup, man," he grinned, clapping the blond on the back as he too fell into step. The four of them in a row now took up most of the sidewalk, but no one tried to split off into pairs. It was the four of them, always the four of them, for this one class at least. The rest of the time, it was mostly just her and Jason. But she was okay with that.
"How's your Ancient Greek?" Jason asked Percy, who gave him a thumbs-up.
"Awesome, given that everything in this school is Greek," he joked. "Apollo University, with sports teams named the Demigods—"
"Apollo was Roman," Reyna said, leaning forward to look around Jason at Percy.
"Um, he was Greek first."
"He was Roman in the end, given that Rome conquered Greece. Decisively."
"Guys," Jason sighed as they swung automatically into a single-file line to get into the philosophy building. First room on the right—World Mythology. Mr. D was late as usual, so the students had parked on top of the tables for a few blessed minutes of non-academics.
Besides the subject matter, Reyna liked this class for its diversity of student levels. It was a general education course, so there were a few freshmen enrolled—Hazel Levesque, for one, and Callie Islet, a perpetually single flirt—but really any students who wanted their humanities requirement satisfied with minimal effort. Exhibit A: crouched behind the tech cart was Leo Valdez, grinning (did he exist in any other state?) and looking distinctly devious. She squinted in his direction from her place at Jason's side, unsure if it was worth talking to Valdez in order to put an end to his shenanigans.
Callie then sidled up to their group, and as no one was rude enough to shoo her off, she stared wonderingly up at Percy. "Hi, Percy," she said in a breathless tone. "How are you?"
He looked at her a little strangely. She was pretty, with caramel-colored hair and a free-flowing white dress that seemed impractical to Reyna, but he wasn't all that interested. "Um, good, you?"
"I'm good," she smiled. "Want to come sit by me?" She gestured to her seat by the window.
Annabeth was watching this exchange with a carefully blank expression, but Reyna could practically hear the amusement and jealousy warring inside her. MRS degree, the blonde mouthed over Callie's head, and Reyna pressed her lips together against a smile. The freshman had homeschooled through elementary and high school, and the solitude had made her a little too eager to snag a guy.
"Um, sorry, I'm kind of committed to sitting by Annabeth," Percy said, tugging on his girlfriend's shirt. She laughed a little and leaned into him.
Callie cast a brief, dark look at the blonde, but following her regular pattern, she promptly moved her gaze to Jason. "What about you?" she asked hopefully.
But for once, Jason was not paying attention. And then, throwing regularity to the wind: "Piper's not here," he mumbled, craning his neck to see the students across the room.
Reyna almost jumped. "Who?" He had never outright ignored Callie before, and he had certainly never mentioned a girl. They were best friends, roommates, fellow student leaders, attached at the hip, and he hadn't bothered to mention he was interested in someone?
—but Mr. D walked in then, sporting a plastic bag of groceries and what looked like a hangover. Leo jumped up from behind the tech cart and threw himself into his third-row seat, widening his eyes and cupping his chin in his hands in his best Innocent impression.
Reyna pursed her lips and slid into her front-row seat between Jason and Annabeth. Callie left them and dropped into the empty seat to Leo's left, smiling brightly and touching him on the arm as she chatted him up. He said something about her being "as pretty and fun as Caribbean music," a pun on her full first name, Calypso, and she blushed coyly.
Ugh. Idiots. Reyna took out her notebook and tried to block out the giggling. But her question hadn't been answered: who the hell was Piper?
That night, Piper McLean leaned over the counter of Nectar and Ambrosia, the student-run coffee shop, and tugged her sleeves down over her hands so that she could only see the ends of her fingers. The front of her apron stuck to the imitation-wood thanks to multiple spills and rascally syrups, so she didn't care about the little bit more the counter added. The fridge whirred softly, but there was no one in line—no one even in the area as a whole—so she and Leo could be, and were, plenty loud.
"And then right when he was going to start talking about Olympus, the speaker system went waaaaah and said 'the cow says moo!' He spent fifteen minutes staring at the tech cart!" Leo exploded in laughter, his curls vibrating as his whole body shook. Piper curled over the counter with her head down, and her uncontrollable laughter turned into a snort.
When she had air in her lungs again, she chortled, "You should have had it play 'What does the fox say'—then they would have had it in their heads all day!"
A string of Spanish words flew out of his mouth. "You're right," he huffed. "Mierda. An opportunity wasted."
"Next time, bro." She patted him on the arm. "Want to hear about the fire alarm I set off in the dorm?"
He brightened: "Every single detail!" he pleaded, twisting his hands together and squishing his shoulders up by his ears—a lovesick 12-year-old girl waiting to hear about a friend's crush. "Oh hem gee!"
She snorted again, shifting her weight to her other hip to get comfortable, but before she could say anything, someone coughed softly from the direction of the stairs. She glanced over, her little braids smacking her cheeks and neck with all the ferocity of bunnies, and she saw the hot blond VP standing alone in line, trying for a casual slump and not quite managing it.
Fresh meat. She smacked the counter between her and Leo, gave her best friend a meaningful look, and said, "One sec" before, louder, "Hey, sorry, I can get you now."
Vice President Tall, Buff, and Handsome stepped up to the counter. Piper knew his name full well, but it was more fun to pretend she didn't: "Grace, right?" she asked, cocking her hip out and suppressing a grin as she watched him almost drop his wallet.
Funny—as a rule, she never put too much effort into her appearance. Today, for example, was just a couple of layers of T-shirts and a pair of ripped jeans. There were more important things to spend her time on, like figuring out how to pickpocket the fanciest pants on campus. But Jason was looking at her like he'd never seen a girl before.
"Yeah," he said, his face reddening a bit. It was kind of cute, to be honest; almost enough to crack her flirty front and turn her into a stammering idiot too. But she just focused on his open wallet, and she was good. "Jason—Jason Grace."
He paused, waiting like he wanted her to say something in return, but she pulled out a cardboard cup instead. "What can I get you?" she prompted him.
"Uh—" He blinked, like he'd forgotten he came here for coffee. "Right, sorry. I need a mocha, extra chocolate, extra whipped cream, and then a triple shot of espresso."
Two orders. She pulled out a second cup and scrawled an order on each one. "These both for you?" she asked.
"No, one's for Reyna."
Her lips parted in a knowing ah. "Must be a long night ahead for the two of you," she teased.
"It will be," he agreed before her double-entendre tone caught up with him. He reddened even more as he stammered, "Not that we're—I mean, tests. We have research papers and a couple of tests to study for—I mean, we do live together, but it's not—We aren't—" He trailed off in embarrassment.
"Hey, it's none of my business what student gov does on their nights off," Piper smirked, holding up her hands.
Leo snickered, and Jason looked over, bewildered.
Piper swallowed a laugh, shook her head. "So which one's Reyna's?"
It took him a second to recover his voice. "The extra-chocolate one."
That surprised her, given the lady president's normal image of Regal and Grown-Up, but she was the first to admit appearances weren't everything. For example, most people didn't peg her as a smooth-talker and a thief, which was why she was so good at it. So she said nothing as she wrote the right name on each cup.
"It'll just be a second," she said with a waving-off gesture to give him leave to talk to Leo or something while she threw the coffees together, but he lingered by the cash register.
"How long have you been working here?" he asked over the whir of the espresso machine. "I mean, I stop here pretty much every day, but I've only ever seen Drew or Malcolm working the late shift."
She glanced his way and found him looking at her intently. "Yeah, I'm new," she allowed. "Put the newbie on the worst time slot, right? But a job's a job. Gotta make money somehow."
Leo cackled. She glared. Not the time, she projected at him. She had zero desire for a lecture on the morality of theft, and if Leo thought her skills were funny, she'd take back the Camaro she'd picked up for him last year.
Piper slapped lids on both coffee cups and slid the drinks toward Jason. He gave her exact change, and she gave him his receipt. "Have a good night," she smiled, but as he began to say thanks she winked at him, the most flirty and suggestive wink she could manage, so it came out more like thaang.
Jason Grace took his coffee and fled up the stairs.
Leo was practically rolling on the floor, he was laughing so hard. "You did the Thing," he gasped.
She ran her fingers through her choppy hair and made a face. "I have no idea what you're talking about," she said loftily, but she could feel her face smoldering into what she knew was a bright red. Then, her concentration on obnoxious flirting broken: "He's cute!" she protested in an embarrassed hiss, making Leo laugh even harder.
"I'm cute. He's, like, a blond Superman." He waggled his eyebrows suggestively.
"Shut up." Against her will, her eyes glanced up the staircase, looking for blond hair and broad shoulders and not finding them. Why would she? He had homework and tests and coffee and Reyna. But she unconsciously began to smooth her right hand over her throat, stroking from under her jaw down to her clavicle. A nervous habit, a comforting gesture left over from the way she used to pet Nunnehi, the last cat her dad gave her. Why did she need comforting? That was stupid.
Her best friend grabbed a fistful of her hair and tugged on it lightly. "Dude, Piper. Earth to Piper. Did you at least pull anything?"
She started, then shook her head. "Nah, didn't get the chance." He gave her a look. She had had plenty of chances—Grace had practically thrown his wallet at her. Twice. But she didn't want to discuss why exactly she had left the VP un-pickpocketed, so she crossed her arms over her sticky-aproned chest, and Leo took the hint.
"Fine. Then tell me about the fire alarm," he said.
So she did, even though she was still blushing, not to mention irritated at her stupid, slight disappointment at the empty staircase. But as she talked, it occurred to her that if Jason made a nightly caffeine stop here, she might volunteer for the late shift more often.