"Twas the Night before Solstice and all through the Camp,
Not a creature was stirring, not even the Hippocamp-"
"Percy," Annabeth said, leaning over my shoulder. "That doesn't even rhyme."
"It does!" I protested, belatedly trying to hide my work under my hand. Us half-bloods aren't so good with reading and writing most of the time, which is why our camp work is usually done in Ancient Greek. For some reason - Chiron totally explained once, but I don't really remember the specifics and they're not all that important anyway - it's about the only thing that doesn't get screwed up by my dyslexia.
"It's the same word twice," she said, "which means that it's not rhyme, it's repetition."
"Which is totally a valid thing for epic poetry," I argued. It is! If I had to hear one more time about the wine dark sea- and I'm sorry, but I'm the son of Poseidon, if I can't figure out how the sea looks like wine then I think the answer is just that Homer was full of crap.
"Uh huh," Annabeth said, and she sounded kind of dubious.
Okay, maybe she had a point. Poetry was not exactly my strong point. Pretty much anything that involved school was not really my strong point, aside from gym, which I also used to suck at but had gotten a lot better at once I learned about the whole demi-god and battle reflexes thing. I kick ass at rope climbing. Mostly because I spend every summer at camp where there's a climbing wall that doesn't yell at you or give you Fs; it just pours molten lava on you if you can't climb it fast enough. It's probably not something that would ever pass a school board, but it sure is motivational.
"Why are you doing this, anyway?" She sat down beside me, curled her legs up under herself gracefully. It must be a girl thing; I couldn't sit like that if you paid me. "I don't remember getting any assignments or anything, and you're ripping off mortal poetry, anyway-"
"It's not ripping off!" I protested. "Weird Al does this all the time!" Weird Al is a lot better at this than me, though. Probably it wouldn't be hard to suck more.
"Also, you get that Solstice isn't the same as Christmas, right?" she asked, and I rolled my eyes.
"Just checking," she said, and rolled her eyes right back at me.
"So," she said, after another pause, this one a bit more awkward. "Why poetry?"
"I wanted to do something different," I said. "Um, for you."
Probably bad poetry isn't the best gift you could give to a child of Athena - knowing they're smart enough to do better with both hands tied behind their backs and a pen in their teeth is a bit depressing, if nothing else - but what else did I have going? We couldn't really go on a date like mortals do without drawing every monster in a hundred mile radius, and nothing says "hey, want to make out now?" better than being chased by fire-breathing drakons halfway from the movie theatre to the closest open area. Not that I'm talking from experience, or anything.
We could probably go see a play here at camp, but Mr D has been on this huge Euripides kick for, like, the last hundred years, and all of those plays are just depressing. Nothing that really gets you in the romance mood, you know?
Besides which, I haven't actually seen all that much of Annabeth lately - we're both in the same place, sure, but considering we've been dating for months, we haven’t exactly had a lot of alone time. There's always other people around, or quests, or monsters, or any one of a number of things. It kind of gets a guy down after a while.
I would have asked the Aphrodite kids for some suggestions, but that just seemed embarrassing.
"That's sweet," she said. It was almost convincing, too.
"You'd rather have a really cool sword or something, wouldn't you?"
"Maybe. Hey, why don't we go out for a while," she said. "Blow off some steam."
"Yeah, it's been a whole week since you got to take out any monsters in Capture the Flag," I agreed. "Probably you might have gotten old and stale already."
"You really shouldn't talk about the Ares campers that way," Annabeth said, but she was grinning, so probably it was going to be okay anyway.
I'd love to say that we swung by the Apollo cabin, I picked up a guitar and then serenaded her by the campfire - smooth, romantic move, right? - but frankly, I have about as much musical talent as a wet noodle, so that was right out. (And for the record, Apollo really isn't so hot either. I think he should stick to prophecy, not that I'd say so out loud. The gods really don't take criticism well.)
Technically speaking, we still had a couple days before the actual winter solstice -- okay, we had two and a half -- but I had this weird kind of itch about it this year. Winter solstice is a pretty big holiday for my dad, especially, though I still hadn't been allowed to spend it in his palace or anything. At camp we usually have a feast, before we have to ignore Mr D telling us how back in his day it was all about him; all drinking and dancing and- and then Chiron usually has to remind him to stick to Diet Coke and that we're all too young to hear about the rest of it.
Not that we can't guess. We're demigods, none of us are stupid.
It's the first time I've spent an entire year at camp, not trying to go to high school with the rest of the mortals, and it's kind of weird. Annabeth at least spent half her life doing this, and she's got to be more used to it. Though I can kind of understand now why she was so desperate to go on a quest when Grover first brought me here. I'm about to go nuts if I can't get a change of scene myself.
Probably it's that which makes me have my really bad idea.
"Hey," I said, casually slinging an arm around Annabeth's shoulders as we walked, and silently cheering when she didn't go all Hunter of Artemis on me. "Want to sneak out and go play in the arcades in town?"
For some reason, I have no idea why, she actually agreed.
"I bet Connor can hotwire the camp SUV for us," she said enthusiastically. "We won't even have to bother Blackjack and the other pegasi. It'll be totally stealth."
"Um," I said, trying to hide how reluctant I was to actually go along with this plan. The bit that frosted my cookies was that Annabeth was right -- we had way less chance of getting caught in a car. For one thing, Zeus still got cranky any time I did even treetop level flying, and if you think turbulence is bad enough in a plane, you don't even want to find out what it's like on a flying horse. Besides, anyone hearing the car would just think it was Argos, the camp security guard. But I really didn't want to ask Connor Stoll - or his brother Travis - for help. For one thing, you can't trust him - unless it's actually the end of the world, at best you're asking for shaving cream somewhere unpleasant or to lose your wallet or your best knife - and for another... he and Annabeth had been hanging out a lot recently.
Like, a lot.
It was maybe starting to get kind of irritating. I mean, don't get me wrong, I like the guy; he's good fun to have on your side and a more sneaky pair of children of Hermes you'd never find. But there's something kind of unsettling about hearing your girlfriend talk about another guy ten times a week. All "Connor got me in touch with this artist in Cleveland who might be able to do some of the statuary for the Olympus rebuild", and "Connor picked up the mail and brought me my Amazonian architecture book instead of leaving it piled up with everyone else's stuff," and "Connor said we shouldn't sit too close to the bonfire tonight because he and Travis have been cooking up a little surprise."
Okay, that last one I had actually been pretty glad to have heard, especially after what happened to all the kids in Demeter's cabin, and half of Hephaestus' campers too. I think it took them about a week to get the stuff out of their hair, and the last time I saw Jake Mason he was still sticking to basically every surface he walked past.
"Okay," I said at last, and it was probably too long a pause, because Annabeth was giving me a Look, but she didn't say anything at least.
She tucked her hair up under her ballcap and disappeared under the invisibility spell attached to it, while I skulked around the back of the Big House and practiced my story for if anyone caught us. Frankly, I was hoping no one did, because nothing I could come up with sounded even remotely plausible. Maybe I'd come up with something on the fly, if necessary.
Thank the gods, it wasn't necessary, because ten minutes later the black camp SUV pulled up besides the clump of bushes I was in, Annabeth grinning behind the wheel.
"Awesome," I said, buckling myself into the passenger seat beside her as we pulled out of the gate, successful escape in hand. "We're young, free, and- oh shit, I only have a couple drachmas. Uh. You have some mortal money left, right?"
Annabeth rolled her eyes at me again, but it was fondly this time. At least, I hoped so.
"Yes, I do," she said. "I traded some drachmas with the Stolls for a couple of rolls of quarters. We can air hockey and DDR to our hearts content, and if you want to get real ambitious you can probably even do your laundry."
"Ha ha," I replied, not even bothering to fake amusement. If I needed to clean up, all I needed was a couple seconds and a water source; detergent made me feel kind of scummy and sick. Annabeth sometimes gave me a hard time about it, but I could tell she didn't really mean it. If nothing else, Grover always said I didn't smell nearly enough like a hippie to even make it worth the insult, and that was good enough for me.
We found a park in the tiny hick town closest to camp and piled out of the car, heading straight for the arcade games out front of the movie theatre. They didn't have many, but it was enough to just soak up the atmosphere of normal for a while, of being ordinary kids out having fun, and not so incidentally kicking ass at video games while we were at it.
That's another thing they don't actually tell you about demigod battle reflexes: they give you killer pinball scores and unless you're playing another half-blood, you actually have to pull your shots with air hockey unless you want to knock someone out cold with the little plastic puck.
I was well on my way to annihilating Annabeth (which is to say, it was 6:7 in her favour, but I totally had two goals in hand there) when a flash of something caught the corner of my eye.
A flash of weirdly familiar green.
"What-?" I said, squinting, and then "Crap!" as there was a heavy thump and rattle as the puck slid straight into the slot and tinny electronic noise marked up another goal for Annabeth.
"Victory!" she crowed, a little preemptively I thought, but it was one of her mom's big Things, so whatever. I could still win this. Maybe.
And that was when the smell hit me.
I dropped everything and reached for my sword on reflex, opening my mouth to yell for Annabeth to do the same. She was already moving, too, vaulting over the table in a move which would've gotten her on any high school track team in a heartbeat.
"What are those?" I yelled, while the mortals around us shrieked and ran for the doors. They couldn't see through the Mist, most of them, so I had no idea what they were seeing, but it had to be pretty scary; the reality was sure bad enough. A shrunken-headed creature stalked into the room, what I thought were its eyes fixed directly on us, though it was kind of hard to see given that it was dripping something green with every step.
It was a toss up as to what part was scarier: the fact the carpet was steaming gently and dissolving underneath it, or the fact it walked like one of those dinosaurs from Jurassic Park.
"Annabeth," I yelled, shoving the hockey table over on its side for what little cover that could give us, "what is that thing?"
"It's-" she stuck her head over the top of the table for a closer look, and ducked back again fast when it spat a glob of green spit right at her. It hit the table and hissed as it started to eat through the plastic. Gross, gross, gross. "I think it's Zelus," she said, and before I could ask what exactly that meant, she tucked herself more carefully behind the table and said "it's a demon. Watch out for the venom, it's-"
"Poisonous?" I said, because seriously, I can put two and two together and make "killer bad breath" pretty easily. I didn't know who Zelus was, or what he wanted, or when he'd last seen his dentist, because boy was he past time for a checkup - I didn't even want to know what a monster could be eating to make its teeth black like that - but it was clear that he was after us, and we were going to have to do something to get rid of him. Before we got eaten. Or slimed to death.
Either way, we were probably banned from the arcade now. That sucked.
"Hey, slimer," I yelled, sliding out from behind the table.
"Percy!" Annabeth hissed, but I was on a roll, and I was pretty sure she'd be able to anticipate me, anyway. There are a lot of benefits to fighting together for like the last five years like we have been, and one of them is you don't have to be able to read minds to act in concert.
"Come over here and get me," I taunted him, and it worked - it always does; somehow most of the monsters really don't learn every time they get out of Tartarus, thank the gods.
Zelus focused on me, and I couldn't explain it if you paid me, but he was... hungry. I gulped. I might be mostly immortal still, but it doesn't mean I like getting hurt. And any monster could get lucky, could find my vulnerable spot.
"Hero," he hissed, little bits of venomous spittle clinging to his teeth before splattering onto the battered carpet as he moved closer. Seriously: gross. So disgusting.
"Monster," I said, as calmly as I could. Mostly I was trying not to puke. He smelled really, really bad. Like decomposing roses and unwashed minotaur. It was not a good combination.
"Now, die," he said, and braced to leap at me. I whirled and threw myself in a twist, commando-rolling behind a frantically beeping Addams Family Pinball, knocking my shoulder against the arm and sending a little silver ball rocketing up the table, firing off all kinds of buzzers and bells and flashing lights. Totally unnecessarily, of course, because Annabeth had done the same thing in the opposite direction, popping to her feet behind the demon and sinking her Celestial bronze knife into its back.
The popping and hissing increased in volume, and it started to fold in on itself, melting back into Tartarus where it belonged.
"Nice work," I said, with a careful eye on the rapidly decomposing remains. You never could tell when a monster would try to trick you, but I had a feeling Annabeth had gotten that one dead to rights.
"Percy," Annabeth said, stepping over the Zelus demon, and hugging me - which was nice - before smacking me upside the back of the head - which was less nice.
"What was that for?" I protested.
"We should get back to camp," she said, tugging me towards the door. I could hear sirens in the distance - the regular mortal kind, not that scary ones from the Sea of Monsters, thank the gods - and figured she was probably right, but that really didn't answer my question. I couldn't think of anything I'd done which deserved a headslap.
"Yeah, before the harpies figure out we're missing and try to eat us," I agreed, tapping my fingers on the dashboard impatiently while Annabeth started the SUV and drove very carefully, spot on the speed limit away from the smoking remains of the arcade and a whole lot of expensive damage. I had a feeling it'd be too much to hope for that the Mist would have knocked out our images from their security cameras. Most Wanted Delinquent here I come. Again. Sheesh.
Annabeth didn't say anything else until we were pulling into the driveway at camp, bouncing over the ruts on the drive from the main road and past the pine tree where Peleus was wound around the Golden Fleece, snoring contentedly. He flicked one eye open as we passed, but we clearly looked and smelled all right, despite the fact that I was pretty sure we actually smelled like eau de Battle right then.
We left the SUV parked up in the garage, and crept around the Big House and back towards the cabins.
I was about to head back to my own cabin - it wasn't exactly the best end to the night, but hey, that's being a half-blood for you - when Annabeth grabbed my arm and stopped me.
"Annabeth?" I said, not sure what she wanted. It didn't really seem like a good point for a goodnight kiss, is what I'm saying.
"Percy," she said, "have you been- were you worried about anything, today? You've been kind of quiet lately. Like, more than usual." She toed the ground, digging her sneaker into the side of the flowerbed and getting dirt all over the sides of it. Go figure, she can get through a whole fight with a monster without hardly a hair out of place, and then one awkward conversation with me, and boom, shoe-polishing time.
"Um," I said, but Annabeth and I have always been honest with each other, except for those times when we've been sneaking off to save the world or whatever, but I was pretty sure that wasn't one of those times.
"Because," she said, "that whole poetry thing was kind of. Not you. I mean, I'm not looking for a boyfriend who's going to write poetry and bring me flowers or anything, you know that." Weirdly, hearing that did make me feel a lot better.
"I might," I said, stopping to clear my throat, and hoping like Hades no one was eavesdropping on us, "I might have thought you didn't want to be my girlfriend anymore. I mean, you haven't been around that much recently." As soon as I said it, I knew how stupid it sounded, but hey.
Annabeth clearly knew how stupid it sounded as well, because she punched the side of my shoulder - hard, and said, quite clearly, "Percy, you idiot. Of course I want to be your girlfriend. I've just been busy. And, I don't know, I guess it's seemed like with us both at camp, it's not so urgent? We can see each other more often now, I guess I just didn't think about it that way until now."
"You have been spending a lot of time with Connor," I admitted, a little sullenly.
It didn't help my mood when Annabeth's eyes widened as she took that in, and she burst into an entirely unstealthy peal of laughter.
"Hey!" I protested, and when she stuffed her hand over her mouth, her grey eyes alight with some kind of totally inexplicable amusement, I said it again. "Hey! Annabeth, what's so funny about that? You have been!"
"Percy," she said, getting herself under control belatedly, although a few tiny giggle still sneaked out in between words. It would've been cute if I wasn't feeling a sudden resurgence of my earlier urges to introduce Connor Stoll to the business end of Riptide. "Connor's a child of Ganymede."
I blinked. What?
"I-" I started. "What? I thought he and Travis were children of Hermes! They've been in the Hermes cabin since I started camp, Hermes said-"
"No," Annabeth said, her mouth still twitching. "I mean, Connor is a child of Ganymede." She was trying to make that sound all deep and significant, but I was totally lost. Sometimes she forgets that I haven't spent over half my life knowing this hero stuff, and I'm not dumb, but I don't have her crazy photographic memory, either.
"Seriously, Annabeth, use small words. That I understand." I said, not caring anymore if anyone overheard us arguing - we were back in camp grounds, no one knew we'd left, basically all we'd get was gossip about us fighting, and it wasn't like that was exactly new, either. Sometimes Annabeth was seriously annoying. She's been known to say the feeling's mutual. "Who in Hades is Ganymede, and if Connor's his child, why doesn't he have a cabin now, too?"
Annabeth rolled her eyes - probably at me. Okay, definitely at me - and deigned to explain further. Well, kind of. "Hermes is Connor's dad. He's just- Ganymede is Zeus' cup-bearer," she said.
I blinked. Yeah, that didn't help at all. All I had now was a seriously disturbing vision of Zeus with a dirty athletic cup, and that couldn't be what Annabeth meant, because I don't think even anyone damned to Tartarus would have a punishment that bad. Also? Ew.
I think Annabeth must have followed my train of thought, because she shook her head impatiently and went on. "He pours Zeus' wine."
I still had nothing. And I was worried Annabeth was going to pull something, what with all the eye-rolling going on over there. Gods help us if anyone ever made us play charades for our lives. We'd be dead in seconds.
"It's a metaphor, Seaweed Brain."
A what-? A. Oh. Oh. "Oh," I said, feeling kind of stupid. Stupider. "You mean he likes boys."
"Yes," she said, sounding somewhere in between deeply amused and mildly disgruntled. It was better than actively cranky, I would totally take that. My improving mood was in no way tied to the thought that Connor Stoll had no actual interest in getting his hands on Annabeth after all. Or vice versa.
"Well, that's okay then," I said, and pulled Annabeth in for a hug. Somehow, even after the crazy day we'd had, her hair still smelled like lemons.
"You're ridiculous, Percy," she said, but she was smiling when I ducked my head down to steal a kiss, and her laughter tasted like a victory to me.