That night Annabeth doesn’t sleep at all. They had all spent hours talking and discussing and gone to bed so late that most of them just collapse, but she twists and turns in her bed and the sheets tangle between her toes before she finally kicks them off entirely. At two in the morning she finally sits up and huffs, then rummages in the dark until she feels the humming of the laptop. She pulls it onto her lap and the screen illuminates. Across the room she hears a rustle and the quiet, sleepy voice of a ten-year-old ask her what she’s doing. “Nothing, Nicole,” Annabeth tells the little girl, “just go back to sleep.” The voice obliges.
Annabeth has always considered herself a master at searching now that the laptop has been hers for so long, but today (tonight?) it’s fruitless, because she can’t find anything, anywhere, about this mysterious Roman holding.
It’s three when she slams the laptop closed in disgust, and falls back on her bed. She doesn’t know how long she lays there before the wheels begin to turn. Near San Francisco, she realizes. Maybe it’s not a lot to go on, but it’s a start.
Annabeth has always been a fast thinker and it only takes her minutes to begin formulating an idea, and with that in mind she slides off her bed and into the first pair of shoes her feet land on. She sneaks out of her cabin, silently praying to whatever deity will listen that the harpies don’t choose then to patrol, and sprints through the frosty air to Percy’s cabin.
It’s always been mostly empty but it has never felt less lived in than now. Annabeth slams the door behind her and leans against it, sighing. The smell is starting to deteriorate, she realizes; she hasn’t come in here since she first discovered his disappearance and in fact barred anyone from entering, but that frightful morning, she remembered distinctly, it had still smelled just like him. That intangible something that just represented Percy, it had been there, but now it is starting to fade.
This shakes her a little bit, because it also makes her realize that she is starting to forget, too. Like when you haven’t seen your family in a while and you try to picture them in your mind but all you get are those hazy impressions. This scares her in a way she hasn’t been scared in a while, and she lunges to Percy’s still-rumpled bed and holds his pillow to her face, inhaling, just to try to remember.
It’s faint, beneath the smell of dust and winter, but it’s there, and she is reassured.
The fountain is still in the corner and the trickling of water is the only sound in the place, and Annabeth shakes herself, remembering why she came. She rises from the bed and even though there’s no one else around she feels the need to put on her face, start holding herself like the leader and hero she’s supposed to be, although she doesn’t feel brave at all.
Percy always kept drachmas in the bottom of the pool, just in case, and Annabeth fondly picks on up, because it’s a quick reminder of the small things, and the small things are important.
She throws it in the misty rainbow, whispers the words. Normally she’d never send an Iris message at this time, but she knows the recipient hasn’t gotten any sleep, either, so she’ll give it a try. It’s less loud and invasive than the phone, at least.
An unkempt woman is sitting in her kitchen, looking like she hasn’t slept in days, or showered in just as long, picking at her nails and staring at something beyond the window. The image is shimmery through the running water but it is the unmistakable portrait of a lost mother.
Annabeth still wears her face when she cautiously questions, “Sally?”
The ragged woman turns and her sunken eyes brighten considerably when she sees Annabeth’s face floating in her kitchen sink. “Annabeth?” she asks anxiously. “Is there news?”
Annabeth bites her lip but her eyes remain steely as she considers what to say. “Yes,” she finally answers, “but I don’t want to wait with everyone else to get him back; I want him now. Will you help me?”
Sally doesn’t hesitate a bit before telling Annabeth she’ll do anything she can, that the faster her baby is returned to her the better and whatever Annabeth needs she’ll do, absolutely anything. The desperateness shakes Annabeth a bit, and she wonders, just for a moment, if this is what it’s really like to have kids, because she doesn’t think she’d be able to handle it. Then she treats herself to the reality that most demigods don’t live long enough to have kids and she needs to stop imagining.
Annabeth explains the basics of her plan with the promise that she’ll share more later.
“I’ll be there as soon as I can,” Sally tells her, and her face has brightened considerably with just this one minute piece of news. She wipes her hand through the Iris-message and Annabeth is alone in Percy’s cabin again, alone in the silence, and she’s impatient now that she has to wait.
Annabeth doesn’t want to wait for diplomacy. Athena always has a plan, she thinks, but her plan doesn’t always have to be the same as everyone else’s. That’s her father coming out in her, even if she doesn’t realize it. The means are there, and she sees the way, now all that’s left is to jump in.
* * *
Camp Half-Blood is mostly running itself right now but even though she is a senior camper Annabeth doesn’t see the need for her to stay. Perhaps she does, and she knows they need her, but perhaps it is time to put her trust in something else for a little while. And camp, she convinces herself, needs to learn to get along without her anyway.
Annabeth cradles her knees, lying in Percy’s bed, at last allowing herself to touch him. She couldn’t before, she couldn’t face the possibility that maybe it would be all that would ever be left of him. But now, she feels, it’s so close, she can almost feel it, and she’ll finally allow herself to touch something concrete because the hope that maybe there’s something even more concrete coming.
She doesn’t trust easily, and thus she doesn’t tell anyone that she as another plan to set in motion now, besides the one they spend painstaking hours figuring out (they were kids, not diplomats). It’s still the early hours of morning before dawn, so she tells herself that she real reason she won’t say anything is because she doesn’t want to wake anyone up, even though really she just wants to do this herself. Thalia will tell her she’s foolish but jump into the fray with an overdose of enthusiasm and confidence at the same time. Clarisse, if she knew, will just want to tag along, and bring a hundred warriors that they don’t have with her, too. Her siblings will try to convince her that her plan isn’t sound and she hasn’t put enough thought into it. She makes excuses for everyone she knows, reasons she can’t say, for Nico, who is still missing, and for Grover and for Tyson and for them all. Beyond them, there are no real authority figures at camp anymore, not even Hestia tending the fire, so she has no one to tell her not to go, even if she does say something.
Well, there is one authority figure.
Rachel is sitting quietly and sipping from a steaming mug when Annabeth pulls back the curtain to her cave. It’s warm and comfortable, despite the fact that there’s virtually no protection from the elements in it, and Annabeth suspects Apollo has charmed it somehow to stay the same temperature.
“You’re awake?” she says, surprised, because Rachel is not an early bird at all and she has the look of someone who’s recently awoken as opposed to one who just never went to sleep.
“She saw you coming,” Rachel says solemnly, and Annabeth knows the ‘she’ referred to is the spirit of the Oracle.
“Well, don’t try and stop me,” Annabeth tells her defiantly. She crosses her arms over her chest and stands up just a little bit straighter.
“I wouldn’t dream of it. But when she showed me what you were planning, and that you were coming here, I thought I might as well prepare for it. Tea?” Rachel questions, holding up a mug.
Annabeth takes the cup, stares inside it, and deposits it on a table. She grabs Rachel’s own mug and pushes it aside in the same way, despite Rachel’s squawk of protestation. Her hands grip the other girl’s shoulders.
“Rachel,” she says seriously, boring into her tired eyes, “you can’t come with me.”
“I know that.” Rachel squirms out of Annabeth’s grip and wrinkles her nose, standing up to meet her at eye level. She’s still shorter, though, and Annabeth feels that she has an ever-so-slight upper hand just because she’s staring down.
“Besides, Rachel,” Annabeth continues, “I didn’t come to talk to you as a friend. I came to talk with you as the Oracle.”
“I know that, too,” Rachel says, wringing Annabeth’s wrist with her fingers and pulling her into an anteroom. “She told me so.” Annabeth is surprised at the girl’s strength, and forgets to pull away.
“So,” Rachel asks, tugging Annabeth down onto a pile of jewel-toned beanbags ringed by pillars of incense, “what do you need her help with?” She has never been in this room before, but Rachel seems very comfortable, arranging herself into a half-lotus and leaning onto her elbows.
Annabeth has learned to be friends with Rachel, but it was always a bit more grudging for her, even though Rachel has been completely enthusiastic. It’s moments like these that annoy Annabeth the most, because Rachel, she feels, has no concept of preparation or, really, tact.
“Does she know what’s coming?” Annabeth asks tentatively, still trying to recover herself from that abrupt interruption.
Rachel sits up slowly and takes on that slightly imposing aura that represents the Oracle working through her but not fully possessing her. It disturbs Annabeth because it commands her respect, and that’s not something she gives easily, but the Oracle just takes it from her without her consent. She is uncomfortable, but also filled with an inexplicable feeling of awe.
Annabeth doesn’t want her feelings and emotions robbed of her, but the Oracle will do it anyway.
“I cannot see what is coming,” says Rachel in a voice which is familiar but not entirely her own. The small flames flutter and seem to murmur an echo of her words. “The place to which you travel is not known to me, but, you will find, it is known to you. Nothing can hide if one knows where one is looking.”
Because that was helpful, Annabeth comments sarcastically to herself. Rachel, or perhaps it is the Oracle, Annabeth can’t quite tell, continues. “You will find,” she says, “that you know not truly what you seek. Be open, and all will be revealed.”
This is one of the reasons Annabeth hates listening to the Oracle. Sometimes it’s really helpful, but more often than not it’s just confusing. Rachel slouches back to rest her head on her hands.
“So what does that mean?” Annabeth pushes.
“Dunno,” Rachel answers, and her voice is full of sleep. “I just deliver the message, sorry.”
Annabeth hmphs because she can’t stand not knowing the ‘why’ of things, but at least she has a message to puzzle out on her way.
“Go to sleep, Rachel,” she says, and she lets the friendliness seep through her lips in a way she doesn’t normally like to.
Rachel settles back into the beanbags and closes her eyes. “I hope you find him, Annabeth,” she whispers quietly. “If anyone deserves to be reunited, it’s the two of you.”
Annabeth doesn’t respond but she is comforted by these words and there’s a small, unfamiliar tug in her chest. She leaves quietly, wondering the best way to sneak back into her cabin and gather her things. The waiting, she knows, will be the worst, and she can’t wait on camp grounds lest she risk anyone finding her and questioning. She doesn’t want to answer their questions right now.
It takes her less than three minutes to throw her belongings into a duffel bag. She knows she may be gone long but she doesn’t want to give the impression that she will be. Be gone for a few days, she scribbles onto a notepad to leave on her bed. Need to think about things. She doesn’t bother signing it. It’s not going to fool anyone, but it may assuage them for a little bit.
The laptop, as much as she hates to admit it, is something she depends on but it’s just too heavy to take where she’s going, and she leaves it behind reluctantly. Annabeth ponders over her cell phone for a bit. To Frisco? she thinks, before leaving it in a drawer. Sally will have one if she really needs it, but she doesn’t want to risk carrying one, not when she’ll have to deal with enemies from everywhere. She finds that in doing this, it’s almost a symbolic movement. I’m really going now, it seems to say, and there is no turning back.
The speed with which she’s ready leaves her too much time to sit and think, despite her apparent symbolic abandonment. Too much time to reconsider and stop her plan, so Annabeth resolves not to waste it. Instead, she piles on coats and sweaters and sneaks to Thalia’s pine tree. It’s not the same as having her friend there, but it is, perhaps, somewhat comforting in that mental way. She gives Peleus a pat on the head (he’s used to her by now) and asks him to watch her bag. She doubts he understands, but he does rest his head gently on the duffel, and, now that he’s got a pillow, it doesn’t take long for his soft, smoky snores to resume. Annabeth shuffles her way up the tree past the fleece and through to the more stable branches. Pine trees are the hardest to climb but she’s become so familiar over this tree through all the years that it’s like greeting an old friend. She nestles herself in a crook of two adjoining branches and, comforted in the fact that she has a real solution now, that actions are being taken if only by her, lets her body take over and ease her mind to sleep.
* * *
She awakens, conveniently, just minutes before Sally arrives. The rosy fingers of dawn are just beginning to appear, and Annabeth slides down from her perch with a drowsy clumsiness, persuading the dragon to relinquish her bag. He does only reluctantly. Annabeth sees the car before she hears it, but the unmistakable sound of a door slamming is what really rouses her from partial slumber. She half-runs, half-stumbles down the hill and into Sally’s outstretched arms.
In this moment two things happen. The two women, despite divisions of time, feel at once the same exhausting emotion of relief and of hope, something both have been hanging onto by the thinnest of threads. And Annabeth, for the first time in a long time, knows what it means to be held by a mother, to be cradled to her breast and to be comforted and allowed to cry. It is alien to her, something she has never had with her own mother, and she finds that she likes it.
They stand wrapped in each other’s arms, Sally smoothing Annabeth’s frizzy, greasy curls and murmuring words of comfort with a halfhearted sincerity, and Annabeth letting herself for the first time fall prey to her emotions and cry. Because Annabeth does not let her emotions control her just as she does not let others control her emotions, but it has been too long, and when hope comes, so must pain. So she lets herself cry.
Annabeth finds that, when she is done, her tears were not just of pain but of happiness, shouting to anyone who would listen that something is about to happen and it will be incredible.
She steps back from Sally who looks at her with that most tender of motherly expressions and Annabeth looks back with soft eyes. She grips Sally’s hands in her own and they both smile, finding that for the first time in a long time they can laugh.
And they do, albeit hesitantly, but at last a big grin breaks on Annabeth’s face and she feels happily unguarded. “Thank you so much for coming, Sally,” she chokes out, and the mother smiles back and cradles Annabeth’s head in her hand.
“Anything for Percy, honey,” she says with tears in her throat, “and anything for you. Anything.”
It means a lot.
They throw Annabeth’s bag into the backseat and get into the car, and it’s a funny image since neither of them has been taking fantastic care of herself and any passerby, Annabeth notes with a hint of irony, would probably think they were hobos of some sort.
She doesn’t bother to look back at camp as they drive away, because, she tells herself with a note of finality, it’s not a goodbye. She’ll be back soon. And there’s not much there for her, anyway.
Now that she’s had her moment of catharsis she recollects, mentally grooming the distressed teenager back into the calm and collected daughter of Athena she masks herself to be. And with a deep breath she explains to Sally the finer points of her plan, realizing as she goes that she really does still need to think some things through.
Sally, gods bless her heart, listens without interruption and without judging, and Annabeth wishes for a moment that she had a mother like her before realizing she just dissed an all-powerful goddess. Then she realizes she doesn’t actually care, and a new feeling of power and freedom overcomes her.
Sally offers to take Annabeth to her home so she can clean up a little, but Annabeth refuses vehemently. “I just want to go,” she says. “I’ve waited long enough and there will be no wasted minutes.”
Sally smiles just a little bit and Annabeth imagines that she probably would have chosen the exact same thing.
They get to the airport and Annabeth tries to purchase a ticket with her own money but Sally insists. Flights have barely started going out since it is still so early, but luckily San Francisco is one of the first going out. (“That’s why we went to this airport,” Annabeth confides. “I looked it up.”) Sally walks with Annabeth to security and gives her another, more unexpected hug before she enters the line. Annabeth is surprised, and at first she doesn’t reciprocate, but then she embraces her back, because even though she won’t admit it out loud Sally’s the best mother she’s ever known.
“Bring him back for me, Annabeth,” Sally whispers into her ear, her voice thick with desperation.
“I will,” Annabeth says, nodding, and there’s no waver in her voice because there’s no waver in her heart.
* * *
Annabeth fidgets on the plane, and that coupled with her disheveled appearance has earned her more than a few odd looks. But now that she has landed she is nervous. She refuses to show it, though.
She slept on the plane so she is a little more rested when they land in San Francisco, and her first stop after deplaning is the gate bathroom where she tries to comb her hair and changes into a cleaner (and more climate-appropriate) outfit. She had to manipulate the Mist to get through security with her knife, but it was worth it, because she has a feeling she will need it. It buckles into its hilt and the weight of it against her side is comforting. She pulls a sweatshirt down to hide it and pulls her tangled mess of hair into something that resembles a ponytail and makes her way out of the airport.
She looks over her shoulder at every corner, even in the busy terminal, because any number of monsters could have followed her here or found her after her arrival, despite her best efforts to rid herself of anything that could amplify her smell. As she makes her way through the airport she does her best to look inconspicuous, and luckily there are enough businessmen glued to their phones that her job is not made hard. This is San Fran, she remembers with a smirk, and any number of runaway teenagers would be running around this place. Just like me.
Once on the streets she has a little more difficulty. She thanks Sally again mentally for the plane ticket because now she has enough to purchase a Greyhound bus pass out to the middle of nowhere. The driver, a chubby woman with a nametag that reads Roseanne, eyes her but Annabeth charms her with a smile and Roseanne shrugs, assuming, just as Annabeth has planned, that she’s just another runaway and will realize that the hard life is not for her soon enough.
It’s a relatively empty bus so Annabeth stashes her duffel next to her and sits on an aisle seat. She can’t help that she is already analyzing the bus for all escape routes, because by this point it’s just a reflex, but picking a seat nearer to the front is no mistake. Her instincts are perhaps not the sharpest but this is in some ways her not-so-old stomping grounds and she knows what is and what is not normal for this most abnormal of cities.
She has Roseanne drop her off in a remote farming town for no reason other than that there are forests nearby, and that is a start. She keeps a steel stare on her face to reflect any questions and it seems to work. Just another girl trying to find herself, she’s sure they think. She supposes that maybe this is a way to find herself, even if she’s looking for someone else.
Maybe that’s what Rachel was talking about, she muses. Maybe Annabeth isn’t looking for Percy, really. Maybe she is trying to recover herself.
It is only midmorning because of the time zone differences, but Annabeth knows that it will get hot soon enough. She wishes that she had weeded Jason for more information, pushed him to remember more, because even if she doesn’t like him and isn’t sure if she trusts him, the part of her that is all her mother is chastising her because there’s always a better option than going in blind.
She tries to tell herself that she isn’t really going in blind but for the first time since she set herself on this path she begins to feel doubt. She is prepared for him to not remember her; that she knows she can deal with. But for the first time she begins to doubt her plan. It isn’t her to jump in without looking, that’s Percy’s job.
But then again, she has been looking. No more doubts, she tells herself. When Percy’s not here, she decides, I can’t just be myself; I have to be him, too.
There is no Annabeth without Percy. There hasn’t been for years, not really, and now that he’s gone she has to be two people. It’s the only way she can stay balanced.
She stomps her foot involuntarily and resolves to start being the child of Athena she is, rather than the foolish girl she’s acting like. Her duffel bag is converted into a backpack, and she makes a pad for her shoulders out of her sweatshirt. There will be lots of walking, and she can’t overheat nor pass out from exhaustion, so she downs a bottle of water and munches on a snack bar she picked up from the airport. She has more where those came from. For the same reason she chooses not to don her hat – it is insulation she doesn’t need.
Annabeth is glad now that she packed her hiking boots, and doubly glad that she had dropped in on a few of the wilderness survival classes the Demeter and Hermes cabins had put on jointly. She had known it all, of course, already, but there are always more skills to be learned and she firmly keeps that in mind. Annabeth likes to think she knows it all. She has to remind herself constantly that she doesn’t.
She can’t let her fatal flaw hurt her again.
* * *
She’s about six miles into the woods, according to her internal compass, when she sees tracks. Silently thanking Thalia for all her shared Huntress expertise, Annabeth brushes away the leaves and puzzles over the giant print for a moment before she makes a connection.
Lupa, she realizes, the giant wolf, the Romans’ Chiron. It can’t be anything else. The track is too big, too deep. Annabeth eventually makes the connection: it’s fresh, too.
A new excitement takes hold of her; she’s tired after all the hiking and it’s hard for her to react to anything at all with more than a humble acceptance, but now she feels recharged even though she’s found little.
Annabeth has never been the greatest at tracking no matter how hard Thalia tries to teach her but she offers up a small vocal prayer to Artemis, who she knows has a soft spot for her. Whether or not the goddess interferes or even hears at all, it gives Annabeth a small boost of confidence in the way that anyone who has a strong faith has experienced when they speak to their deity, no matter the religion. Annabeth is skeptical about some things but in this case she will let the placebo effect take hold of her, because she knows that the placebo effect works.
She hikes her bag up on her shoulders and wipes a trail of sweat from her eyebrows, then finishes off a Gatorade and her last power bar. Her back is sore already and she’s a bit cranky about the fact that good tracking requires bending over, at least the way she has to do it, but she can’t let anything dissuade her now, not now that she’s so close.
Lupa must walk like a whisper, Annabeth realizes, because she leaves so few traces for what Jason described as such a large character. Tracking is hard enough anyways for Annabeth but she refuses to accept that she’s not good at it and continues to try, even though it’s made several thousand times harder when whatever you’re tracking doesn’t want to be tracked (and Annabeth’s not apt to exaggeration). She continues to pray to Artemis and repeat under her breath the instructions that Thalia drilled into her head.
It seems to be paying off because Annabeth manages to find some track or cracked branch or crushed leaf every ten feet or so. She knew before Lupa was big but she only realizes how big when she tries to mentally calculate the wolf’s size relative to her stride, and it scares Annabeth a little bit. She does not know what Lupa is, truly, beyond a giant wolf, either, and that scares her too because she craves to understand, to figure, to rationalize out.
As she slowly follows Lupa’s path Annabeth allows herself to think about what she will meet. She knows the Romans will be more militaristic than the Greeks; that much she has inferred. She dug enough into Jason’s past to know that most of the people there came when they were very young. She has a blueprint in her head of what the grounds will look like, which she knows will have little variation. Part of it is her architects’ sensibilities, but part of it is just knowing what a castrum looks like. She is ever so grateful that she taught herself Latin, now; perhaps her intention was to read Vitruvius and the other greats, but even though the language doesn’t come naturally to her as Greek does and she still has to struggle to waltz with the dancing letters, she has no doubt that nearly everything here will be identified in Latin. The Romans had let their conquests keep their identities, and the language was all that unified that empire.
Annabeth wishes she had brought the laptop but it would have been too much to carry. She tests herself on her Roman history and mythology, cursing that she has not become more ambidextrous in that respect.
Eventually the tracks grow deeper and less care is taken, at least Annabeth thinks, to hide them. Lupa is being careless, she tells herself. She must be drawing close. The sun is in the west now and Annabeth has long stopped measuring time in anything other than increments of the drinks she downs. She is sure without a doubt that the Romans will have their borders protected, and she suspects, although she does not care to confirm, that she will be able to see their settlement for what it really is, since Jason saw past Camp Half-Blood’s barriers despite his Roman identity. But she will not operate on assumptions, because it was, after all, the Romans who took over the Hellenic world and it is entirely possible that the ability to see through each other’s protections is only a one-way exchange. So Annabeth is careful.
From what information she has gleaned together and the facts she has learned Annabeth decides that entering the camp at nighttime will be an ill-advised venture. The Romans are sure to guard it at all times, this she will not question, but part of her also believes that the defenses will be stronger at night. There will be fewer holes in the net, Annabeth thinks. They will not have chosen undisciplined soldiers at night, and there is no chance of someone falling asleep and giving her a spot to sneak in through. The night guards will be their best.
She has decided that her best chance of overcoming someone is as the late afternoon fades into evening, as they are probably eating, and it is a logical strategy, Annabeth tells herself, that they will place the weakest guards at this time. When everyone is gathered they can more easily create a defense if needed, and it is, Annabeth thinks wryly with a smirk, a cruel but admittedly good punishment to force the weakest among them to wait and eat last.
“I will enter at sunset,” Annabeth says decisively out loud to break the haunting silence of the woods. Her voice is cracking with lack of use but gains strength as she swallows and continues to outline her plan out loud, an act which gives it a note of absoluteness.
It is after the resonance of her voice clears away that she realizes there is no wildlife in this part of the woods. No wonder the silence unnerved me, she thinks. She knows now that she must be very close, and she allows herself, once again, to hope.
Percy is within her reach and she is aching to see him again, and to kill, in all seriousness, whoever did this; she doesn’t care if it’s the damn queen of the pantheon, Annabeth is angry and the nearness of success only fuels her. But she can’t let her passions rule her head, she remembers, and at that thought she sits down and allows herself to rest against an ancient tree trunk.
She pulls her hiking boots off and massages her tired feet. She won’t even try to guess how far she’s walked; her internal compass isn’t that specific and it’s one thing she doesn’t care to test. The clunky boots will be too loud now that her aim is stealth and not to cover ground, Annabeth realizes, and she discards them. She didn’t think to bring another pair of more combat-appropriate shoes, but she’s lucky, because it’s warm enough for her to survive, at least for a little while, in just thick grey socks. She knows it will grow cold, very cold, at night, but hopefully she will have found a place to hide in the Roman camp by then. Indoors. For now, she will live.
She has been wearing a bright pink sweatshirt around her shoulders; she discards it, burying it in between the roots of the old redwood, and pulls on a dark brown sweater. It provides more camouflage, she tells herself, and it’s warm. Jeans, while always warm, are not always a maneuverable option, and cargo pants you can hear coming from a mile away. Annabeth knows this. She weighs the pros and cons before finally donning a pair of mossy green sweatpants. They don’t offer the warmth of jeans, or the practicality of cargo pants, but she has to sacrifice some things for greater freedom of motion and optimum silence, and that, Annabeth decides, is one of them. She fastens the leather belt for her knife sheath around her waist, practicing pulling it out again and again. The knife is an old friend in her hand; she holds it firmly but her grip is relaxed, and the markings on the hilt caress her palm in the way only a familiar weapon can.
She settles in to wait.
* * *
Annabeth does her best not to fret but by the time she deems it proper to enter the castrum she has thought of thirty-seven possible problems, and, collectively, eighty-two solutions. She pulls the sleeves of the sweater down on her hands and bites her lip as she stands, running through a mental checklist of everything she’ll need. She puts her invisibility cap on last, tucking her hair under it, and just like every time she is still amazed at how she can wave her hand in front of her eyes and see nothing, save for maybe a slight rustling wind. The novelty never gets old, when she feels her hair tangle in her eyes but her eyesight is unhindered.
She hides her bag as best she can, drinks the last of her water, and rises with determination. Not this close, she tells herself. I can’t fail when I’ve finally gotten this close.
Annabeth has always had some problems when it comes to knowing when to quit; she’s stubborn in a way she shouldn’t always be, and she’s too stubborn to admit it. She’s starting to realize, though, that maybe she needs to figure out how to reconcile that.
With that in mind she creeps gently through the trees in her sock-clad feet, glad she had paid attention when it came to stealth training. Percy, she remembers, wasn’t one for stealth. He liked to jump into things.
Then Annabeth yells at herself internally for thinking about him in the past tense. I can’t do that, especially not now.
She estimates that she has another mile or so before she reaches the true borders of the camp, although the woods have been devoid for a while yet. It’s slow going, since she can’t be quick when she wants to be seen, and she stops every few strides to look above and below for scouts, traps, or more of Lupa’s tracks. To stay concentrated she recites the Latin verb conjugations to herself (she’s going to need them, anyway, if all goes well). Porto, portare, she recounts. First conjugation. Present active indicative: porto, portas, portat, portamus, portatis, portant. Imperfect active indicative: portabam, portabas, portabat… The rhythm has a soothing effect and she is able to remain calm. She doesn’t remain calm under pressure very well; she is really just skilled at producing the illusion that she is, and this counterbalances her rising excitement and dread.
She abandons the verbs at docens (genitive docentis) and instead takes up a mantra: I will not fail. I will not fail. I will not fail. She hikes in time to the words as much as she can, although the terrain tries its best to stop her. Annabeth knows that her fatal flaw is pride, and she has sworn that she will not fall prey to it again, but this, she thinks to herself, isn’t pride. It’s the damn truth; she cannot let him slip through her fingers again.
As she approaches the line where she predicts the boundaries lay she slows, letting a one track mind be an advantage for once. Her eyes are sharp (a gift from her mother, she likes to think, because she is identified with owls), but she listens, as well, forcing herself not to rely on just a single sense. She is still invisible and moves with the awareness that any twig cracking beneath her weight will sound like an anchor crashing onto a coral reef, and that anyone who wonders where it comes from, since she is in Roman territory, will need to investigate where the sound came from.
So she moves like a wisp of smoke, or at least she tries to, because she can see an image ahead that shouldn’t be there, and she hears the heavy sound of labored breathing like someone has just been in a fight. Annabeth knows beyond a doubt that she is drawing near, she is closing in, and for a moment she feels that she is the snake getting ready to strike the oblivious mouse. She knows that she is not to let her pride take over but she can’t always help it, and she feels a malicious smile coat her face. She is not anything now but a girl on a mission; nothing will stop her, not even death.
Annabeth knows when she passes the barrier because of the shiver that runs through her body; not cold, but not inviting. It is a warning: we have let you enter, but we can still kill you. Annabeth is haughty and tells herself that it won’t happen. No one has defeated her in a proper spar for ages, save for Percy, and she beats him, sometimes, too.
Annabeth is right about the guards. She passes between a gangly teenager and a small child who can’t be more than eight; the former is idly looking for split ends in her long hair and Annabeth can’t help but think Aph- no, Venus with a little snort. The latter, a boy, looks wildly around with fear in his eyes, but while normally Annabeth would have stopped and maybe pondered how like her he could be, now she just gives herself a mental high-five for her aptitude and passes on, taking advantage of their distraction.
The guards past, she scales a wall, which she expected, fingers deftly finding impurities in the brick. She jumps down and winces when her ankle cracks, hoping she hasn’t made too much noise. She hasn’t. Then it’s a ditch, Annabeth recalls, and she paces for yards until she finds a thin spot she can leap across. She lands in a somersault; luckily it’s grass on the other side, and she leaves no traces of her presence there.
Their intervallum is uncharacteristically small, coated in sparse grass and dirt, but Annabeth can see everything from her vantage point. Her blueprint, she finds, is largely accurate, but she has to make a few adjustments. And then she runs across something she doesn’t expect. A second ring of guards, more formal, dressed in purple and red, and she has to be careful because while she’s on solid ground and not forest now, her feet might still make impressions on the dirt. She’s glad, now, that she opted for the sweatpants; they rustle far less than anything else would have. Annabeth stops her trek for a moment to consider the second ring of guards.
It’s smaller and spaced out but it looks more disciplined, and Annabeth can’t admit that she guessed wrong. It frustrates her, and that, though she doesn’t realize it, makes her slip up. She lets one foot fall just a tad too hard onto the ground, and one of the guards whips his head around to discover where the sound comes from. Annabeth turns her head back and sees that she’s left a print in the dirt. She curses.
My stupid pride… why did I think I could get past them again? Why didn’t I plan better? I told myself I wouldn’t let it take me over again; oh, gods.
She remains still, crossing her fingers and hoping that the boy will turn his attention elsewhere. But it’s no use. He must have seen the skid mark, because he walks over, gesturing silently to a companion, somewhere in the distance.
Annabeth fights not to breathe, not to make a sound, not to move, but her ambition is fighting her. Her instincts tell her just to take off, to run, but there’s also a small part of her that says she can take them, and that’s the part she listens to.
Her cap stays on, but she pulls her knife out as silently as she can, twisting her fingers around it. She looks at where she thinks her hand is, since the knife is invisible, too, as long as she holds it, and grins. She can do this. She’s Annabeth, and she’s been here for ten years and no one defeats her. She’s letting her pride take over again, but she doesn’t even mind because that’s how desperate she is, no matter whether or not she realizes it.
The guard and his companion draw near and Annabeth repositions herself as best she can without alerting them to her position. They puzzle at the mark on the ground and Annabeth analyzes their armour while she can. She’s confident, maybe too much, but she doesn’t care.
“What do you think it is?” one asks, muffled behind his helmet. The other shrugs.
“Well, best to investigate it anyway,” says the first. “I know you’re new, but the Praetorian Guard don’t ever let something slip by us.”
Annabeth has found a weak spot, a chink in the armour, and takes that as her chance. She lashes out with her knife. The first guard stumbles back, clutching his shoulder. The second yelps and steps back, arms outstretched in front of him. Annabeth smirks. She’s always been one for the element of surprise.
The injured guard tries to draw his sword but Annabeth made sure to hit his right side and he’s good enough left-handed to fumble around a bit but it’s not going to be great fighting, especially against an opponent he can’t see. “There’s someone invisible there,” he hisses at the other, “get them!” He falls back, biting through the pain, and manages to pull out his weapon, but Annabeth’s not paying attention to him anymore.
The second one, the one who’s new to this, steps forward, and Annabeth can see from the way he stands that he is a confident fighter. She operates on the assumption that she’s more confident.
Some people wonder why Annabeth chooses to fight with a knife. It’s partly sentimental, she says, although she never elaborates on why, but the real reason, she’ll continue, is one I can’t tell you because it’s all part of my fighting strategy.
The strategy is thus: the closer you are to your opponent, the harder it is for them to strike you, with a weapon like a sword, and the easier it is for you to get to them. The invisibility cap is an incredible aid in this respect because only the most aware of fighters can sense where she is when she wears it. This one, she decides, is more attuned than most, because he aligns his body towards her even though he can’t see her and she isn’t betraying her position.
She darts at him and he must hear her clothes rustle because like a flash he raises his sword in front of him defensively and steps to the side. Annabeth checks herself and dodges with him, trying to lay her knife into the chink in his side where the front and back of his armour connected, but he’s moved to fast and she doesn’t have enough room to change course. She feels the tip of the knife nick against something but it doesn’t connect where she wanted it to. She falls to the ground with a groan; it’s her right side, her bad side, the spot where she was stabbed in Manhattan, and all the weight and momentum is a sharp icicle into that pressure point.
She rolls onto her back and whimpers slightly, realizing with a start that she can see her hair tangled in her eyelashes again. Her arms fly up above her head to fetch her hat but that sharp pain shoots through her right shoulder again, and she muffles a shriek. At least her knife is still firmly in her grip, and she flips onto her feet, angry and in pain and with an expression akin to that of an angry dog which has found itself caught in a trap. She hugs her one arm to her side and switches to fight with her left hand, knife slashing wildly in the other, but the guard recovered faster than her and she no longer has invisibility on her side. Of the eighty-two solutions she had thought of none of them are going to work in this, because this was not one of her thirty-six potential problems.
She is angry, now, angry at herself, angry at her shoulder, angry at the guard, and now it’s time to take on Percy because he’s not here, she decides, and improvise, which is what he’s best at.
But Annabeth is not Percy, and she’s hurting, and she’s fighting out of anger, and her mind isn’t clear. She is tired and in unfamiliar territory, the guard is on his feet and brandishing his sword at her, and someone has called for help because there are others approaching and a crowd is pouring out of the building she is sure is their oversized triclinium. Annabeth recognizes defeat when it is in her face, but she is also stubborn and convinced that she can fix this, somehow, for Percy, so she collects herself and lashes out wildly. Perhaps no one has ever told Annabeth not to fight in passion, but even if they have she forgets this advice and lets her instincts take over. All that matters, she thinks, is getting to Percy. There is nothing else. If she has to kill them all, she will.
She runs at the guard who evaded her and he is surprised, because she tackles him to the ground and slashes across both his uncovered forearms, slicing his tendons, one cut going right through his tattoo. It won’t kill and they’re shallow, but he won’t be able to use them for a while. Darkly satisfied, Annabeth pounces up and whirls around to the next person who reaches her, a girl this time, older than her and larger but not as tall, and Annabeth throws her knife. It lodges into the girl’s side just above her hip, and she moans but like the Roman she is continues to run at her. Annabeth runs to meet her, dodges her blow, and ducks under her arm to jerk the knife out roughly. That has to hurt, and she doesn’t look back as she rushes towards the next trio of Romans. They are not in armour and they obviously did not expect a fight, but like any good Roman, they are ready to fight at any moment. One has a bow and arrow, the others have swords of varying lengths, and Annabeth stops in her tracks and skids when she sees the archer aim. The ground is rough and grinds through her socks; she grits her teeth at the burn she’ll surely earn for that. The archer checks himself and stops to get a better aim, but the swordsmen keep charging at her.
Annabeth knows she will never win this, but she is desperate and so she clenches her jaw, tightens her grip on her knife, and slows to a walk. They will come to her. She is in control now. They will fight on her terms.
* * *
It was not Annabeth’s most acclaimed plan, she reminds herself in frustration as she sits in a cell. But she has accomplished something, at least. She’s in the camp now and Percy is too, she can feel it. It surprises her that the Romans do not kill or even maim her at all, but rather take her captive. She had fought this, lion’s mane of hair flying and knife whirling, but there had been too may. She is in a cell under their arena, now, albeit a fairly nice one, and they’ve even let her keep her knife. There are no guards, but there is a spider sitting on the door which Annabeth refuses to approach no matter what, and she can’t convince herself to get close enough to kill it, either, so a guard would be useless since she can’t bring herself to even near the exit.
It has not taken her long to figure out the Roman camp. The Romans, she quickly discovers, don’t live at a summer camp in the same way that the Greeks do. Rather, it is more akin to a boot camp. The Greeks just want to have a little fun, and learn to survive along the way. For Romans, it’s all war, always a chance of danger, like bread and circuses but they put on the circus themselves.
She forces herself to sleep that night.
* * *
In the morning she wakes to stiff muscles and the smell of soup. The Romans, at least, she grants grudgingly, feed their prisoners, although soup is not a breakfast food. The spider has disappeared but Annabeth still approaches the door cautiously and grabs the food before retreating back into a corner. She keeps her knife in her hand as she eats, more of a comfort than anything else. It’s a friend, her oldest, in some ways.
She doesn’t even bother to chastise herself this time, because she knows she’s done something stupid and incredibly un-Annabeth. She hates herself for it. She runs through everything she could have done differently searching for an answer instead, and she still can’t believe that she let her heart rule over her like that.
“A daughter of Athena always thinks before acting,” she tells herself out loud, and the sound of her voice acts like a confirmation, the echoes reassuring her that she has come to the right conclusion.
Her new task, she decides, is to decide the next course of action. For a girl who loves the past Annabeth spends a lot of time trying to avoid it, and she does this now, because she can’t change that, she’s just got to keep going now. She is wary but curious, more than anything else, but this time she will be sure not to let her guard down. Never had a good thing come from her walls falling, Annabeth decides, not the emotional ones nor the external ones. She needs both now.
But it tugs on her heart, too, to know that Percy is so close, she can almost touch him, feel him in the air, and yet he is unreachable. It is going to drive her crazy. So she makes plans instead. If she can explain it and quantify it, Annabeth is comfortable with it. She makes the realization that maybe this is why she is acting so irrationally; she doesn’t understand whatever that feeling she has with Percy and it bothers her and eats at her. It is repulsive and magnetic at once.
She shakes her head and clears her thoughts. The now, she thinks, the present. What to do?
* * *
She does not know how long it has been when someone comes to fetch her, and Annabeth is busting with questions.
“Where am I? Why didn’t you kill me? What do you want from me? You stole my boyfriend; give him back! You don’t know who I am, do you?”
She rambles, which isn’t normal for her, because she always picks every word with careful consideration. She finds that the further she progresses on this journey the farther away from herself she becomes, and that scares her, but at the same time is exhilarating.
The Roman, a scar-marked, dark-skinned boy no older than she, smiles at her apologetically. Annabeth notices that he is carrying a big oblong shield. “My name is Marcus,” he tells her. “Who are you?”
“Annabeth Chase, daughter of Athena,” she says haughtily; “supreme architect of Olympus, veteran of the Battle of the Manhattan…”
Marcus snorts in the middle of her introduction and Annabeth looks at him, affronted. She has spent a long time preparing herself to look unafraid.
“Yeah, I don’t really care about that,” he tells her, “but hey, it’s nice to meet you anyway.”
Annabeth stares at him warily from across the cell. She doesn’t want to return his greeting because she doesn’t feel like she can be kind to anyone keeping Percy here, merely civil at most and violent at worst.
“Well, I’m really, really sorry about what you’re going to have to do,” Marcus continues, unlocking the cell door. Annabeth does not trust anyone who opens a prisoner’s cell without first restraining them and she shrinks back. “But Lupa says you’re an exception, or something.”
He tosses her the shield and she catches it, surprised. “You can keep your knife if you want,” Marcus tells her. “You’re Greek, right?”
Annabeth nods and sits up a little straighter, stares at him a little harder. She’s proud of her identity, if not always her heritage.
“How much do you know about Rome?” Marcus asks her.
Annabeth is tempted to start blurting facts but satisfies herself with a comeback: “Probably more than you ever will.”
Marcus chuckles a little like he doesn’t believe her, but Annabeth is content for now to bask in her own knowledge.
“You should know, then,” he says, “that we like our prisoners to be gladiators for us.”
* * *
Annabeth is armed with her knife – she refuses any other armament, and she thinks it makes Marcus respect her a little more – and carries a shield strapped across her left arm. Her right arm, although she would never admit this out loud, just isn’t strong enough to carry it, even though she’s almost as good at fighting left-handed as right. She had to be, when her shoulder had been injured. It’s a skill she doesn’t forget.
Sometimes she regrets decided to fight that second day in spite of her injury because now it will never really fully heal. Like arthritic knees that know when it’s going to rain, there’s always a little tinge in Annabeth’s arm.
She fights through it.
Marcus leads her through a narrow passageway, not an ominous one, though, just a normal one. She is barefoot and they’ve given her light armour in an unfamiliar style, and out of anticipation Annabeth has sliced her sweatpants into long Bermuda shorts. As they walk Annabeth rotates her arms, trying to stretch out the kinks and work through the soreness. She has an idea of where they are going and she wants to be warmed up. Marcus is silent but she sees him watching her out of the corner of her eye and she feels the need to ask him: “Nonne agnosces me petere te aliquando posse?”
Marcus seems a little surprised at her fluent, if rough and untrained, Latin, but he doesn’t show it and instead simply answers in kind. “Etsi viceris me numquam fugiet,” he says, faster than Annabeth can translate and still keep up. “Ceteri te capient, necaberisque priusquam sternuere potes.” He looks at her thoughtfully for a moment, his hazel eyes both calculating and excited. “Nihilominus…”
He reaches out to grab Annabeth’s arm, wringing his fingers around her bicep, and his other hand holds her wrists together in front of her. He’s strong, much stronger than he looks, and while Annabeth hadn’t really been planning to attack him anyway she’s definitely having second thoughts about it now. But nonetheless, Annabeth feels a slight victory, her intelligence proving itself superior once again, and she’s smug when they walk into the light.
Marcus frees her arm before her hands, then steps back. “Res secundae,” he says quietly, his tone begging for forgiveness. “You’ll probably need it.”
“Εὐχαριστέω,” she responds in kind, and she doesn’t say it grudgingly. Rather, she means it, and she’s not quite sure why.
A gate clangs shut behind her and Annabeth observes her surroundings, squinting, to see where she is. The sand under her feet caresses each of her toes, and she notices that the purple nail polish from when she and her roommate had a spa night the week before has started to chip off. The noonday sun is bearing down even in the winter. She wishes she had drunk more water when she could have, but her hydration levels can’t be helped anymore.
She’s in a big arena, a coliseum, really, not the biggest she’s ever seen but it’s big enough for the gladiator fight she’s been recruited for. The sand has been freshly raked and the seats which surround her, while not packed to the brim, are occupied by people. The youngest one she sees is maybe four, and the oldest are adults, and it makes her a little sick to think that the four-year-old sitting on his big brother’s shoulders has to watch this. That maybe he even likes it.
But she shakes her curls and erases that image from her mind, reminding herself to focus on her task now. She lost her hairband sometime in the night, and it bothers her that she’s about to have to fight with her hair flying into her face. She does her best to tie it into a knot around itself – it’s certainly greasy enough to stay in place on its own. Then Annabeth looks up again and sees something on the far end of the arena, something that pisses her off, really. The giant wolf is sitting right there, and Annabeth scowls. She’s toying with her, she realizes, and she’s too frustrated to even think about how different the real Lupa looks as compared with what she imagined. But what really bothers her is the expression on the wolf’s face: Annabeth could swear that she is smirking.
She wants to charge across the arena and shout at Lupa, scream and throw a fit, but it’s hard to charge in sand and she’s halfway across the arena when another human body intercepts her.
Oh, fuck, she thinks, temporarily blinded, and then she mutters prayers to absolutely every deity she can think of, not caring whether or not they’re listening, or able to respond, or if they even like her. And so it begins.
Well, not quite, because it never starts until the order. Annabeth steps back, hikes the shield up on her arm a little higher, and rolls her knife through her fingers. They’re a team, she and that knife are, and it’s comforting to hold such a familiar weapon in such an unfamiliar place.
Annabeth circles to get the sun out of her eyes and look at the opponent she’ll be facing. He’s about her height, perhaps a little taller, and the first thing her eyes jump to is his forearm. This boy doesn’t have the tattoos that most Romans do, and she’s a little puzzled. Is he a prisoner like her? He seems too comfortable with his weapons, though, too confident in his stance, and Annabeth is having a hard time figuring him out. He’s a gladiator, too, although of a type she can’t remember the name for. A helmet covers his face and neck, and part of his shoulders, but he wears little else in the form of armour. Just a blue tee-shirt and cutoff jeans. He holds a trident in one hand, a net in the other, and a dagger hands at his waist. It twinges inside her a little to remember what else tridents can mean, but she orders herself to get over it and the pulling sensation is gone.
The boy looks her over and Annabeth can’t help but feel self-conscious. She remembers that she hasn’t showered in days, her legs are covered in peach fuzz from seven days of not shaving, and she probably smells like dried sweat and dirt. She shouldn’t feel like this, but she does, because Annabeth can’t deny the fact that she does, actually, care about what she looks like on occasion.
When he looks away, up towards where that wolf is sitting, Annabeth analyzes him. He stands with his weapons relaxed in his hands, to either side, leaving him vulnerable. He’s too confident in himself, Annabeth concludes, and she’s going to take advantage of that because in gladiator fights they don’t get many knife fighters. She’ll be a different challenge for this one, she hopes, but she has memories of training at Camp Half-Blood against this type of fighter, if only once or twice.
She has an advantage against the net because her knife is maneuverable enough to cut herself free if she’s caught in the net. Annabeth’s light, fast. It’s hard to throw a trident (although she’s never actually tried) but it’ll also keep her from getting in close, to the place where it’s easiest for her to disable people.
But Annabeth doesn’t want to kill for these people, she realizes. She’s not going to hurt to please a sadistic Roman wolf, she doesn’t want to. It’s not right.
Lupa gives the command, though, for the fight to start, and Annabeth has to stop thinking and let her reflexes take control. This type of fighting is mostly waiting and watching for the right moment to strike, which Annabeth is best at because her body can go into autopilot while her brain works to come up with the best plan of attack. Her opponent does not like to wait. Typical demigod, she mentally scoffs when he moves towards her, brandishing the net like it’s a flag, and in the moment between her thinking and him striking she moves to the side opposite the net and her arm shoots out toward him. He steps to the side as well, dodging her, and Annabeth curses under her breath. Just two steps carrying that shield are tiring; she’s a fast, lithe fighter, not built for heavy armour and definitely not built for playing defense.
So she dumps the shield, throwing it from her arm into a cloud of white sand, ignoring the jeers of the crowd. She sneaks a glance at Lupa and can’t read the wolf’s steely expression. Just you wait and see what kind of fighter I am, she thinks defiantly. All offense and good at it, too.
She rushes at the boy, bare feet slogging through the sand, and he must be a little taken by surprise because it takes him longer to react than it really should. At the same time, though, he’s not at all shaken by her change of tactics. “But no worries,” his posture seems to say, “I can take this cocky little girl. She thinks she’s good enough to fight me without any real protection? Hah. I’ll show her.”
Annabeth is not usually this good at reading people. The battlefield, she finds, can change a person.
She had stumbled when the boy stepped away, her knife arm, her bad arm, stretched out to stabilize herself on the sand. Now that her other arm is free she switches to the left and stands. The crowd cheers and Annabeth can’t help but crack a small smile. It’s always exciting to see someone who’s ambidextrous fight, because it adds another layer to the challenge. It’s much harder to incapacitate a person like that. Like her.
She shakes her head and grins, perfecting her stance. It’s not a happy grin, but rather that unconscious kind when you’re doing something that you enjoy, even if it’s something horrible like drawing blood.
The two warriors circle each other, each now just a bit more familiar with the other. The boy rotates his grip around the trident and gathers the net tighter into his hands. Annabeth firms her hand on the dagger’s hilt, reminding the submissive fingers of their job. She still struggles to keep a clear head; bloodshed, for some reason, wreaks havoc on her higher mental functions and she’s about to get lost in the rage. She’s taking it out on somebody, anybody, now.
This time Annabeth makes the first move, again, and the roar of the crowd is lost to her ears now that she’s in a trance. She comes at the side with the net, which he isn’t expecting, but in one smooth movement he climbs his hand up the trident and catches her left hand between its prongs. She twists her wrist against it; it’s painful but it gives her the leverage she needs and the boy is forced to drop his weapon. He bends at once to pick it back up and Annabeth uses that chance. She throws out her hand before dashing backwards.
She’s not fast enough. She feels the knife hit something but he stands up in a flash like nothing is wrong, and he’s scooped up a handful of sand. He throws it at Annabeth’s face as he rises and she didn’t back away quickly enough to get out of the spray. It catches her from the side and her hand jumps instinctively to her eye. She’s blind in one, now, the sting of the grains causing her eye to water and lid to pinch closed.
Annabeth feels a cry escape her throat and then a growl. The audience is loud as ever but she blocks them out. From her working eye she sees the boy standing, smug like he’s accomplished something no one’s ever done before (he hasn’t). She stops rubbing; she needs her hand and she’ll have to live half-blind for now.
The boy knows she can’t see, though, and he darts in and out of her blind spot, taunting her. Annabeth’s frustration grows and grows. No matter where she moves, he anticipates. It’s like he’s fought her before and she’s angry because that’s impossible, right?
She stands as still as possible and does her best to block out the jeers and the suggestions of the audience. She has to rely on her other senses, now, listening for the rustling of metal and wire, feeling the rush of wind against her bare skin. They want blood, this crowd, and there isn’t any yet.
It’s like he’s set up a perimeter around her. No matter where she turns, he dashes right back into that spot on the right where she’s lost all her vision. Annabeth waits to hear something, anything that will let her know what his plan is.
And then it happens. The skid of sand, the laboured gait of someone running through a moving surface, the swishing of the net. She tosses the knife to her left, whirls, and one arm flails above her and to the side. She feels the bones in her forearm crack against metal and the trident flies from his grip, falling, she guesses from the sound, too far away to retrieve just yet. Her arm, she barely registers, is probably broken, but in the heat of the moment she can’t feel the pain. The knife in the other hand flies up towards where Annabeth judges his neck will be. It’s unprotected. The net falls around her wrist but she’s small enough to slip her knife through.
She misjudges. The knife slides harmlessly against his skin, leaving no more than a shallow cut at most, and while she disarmed him now Annabeth is tangled. He pulls against the net and she’s tugged to the side, losing her grip on the knife. It falls harmlessly to the ground behind him.
The crowd is screaming now, because things have gotten interesting. Annabeth’s arm hangs limp by her side, the other caught in her opponent’s net. She uses the only weapon she has left and kicks him, using her entangled hand like a lever. She connects with his shin but he doesn’t react; her bare toes throb. She twists, frowning, because that should have hurt, and with an involuntary snarl rams her foot into his stomach.
He bends over, he has to because of the momentum, but again he is silent, not even a grunt of pain. Annabeth braces herself and rolls around the shoulder caught in his net. It tears it from his grip, but she’s still trapped without the time or the power to free herself. He straightens and draws his knife. Annabeth’s other eye is starting to sting now, too, and her vision is iffy. She stumbles backward.
The boy reaches forward and grabs the net. Annabeth’s feet can’t find traction in the sand. She slips sideways and falls onto her back, his face above her own. She tugs against him again but his fingers are tightly woven into it now; he’s not going to let go again and Annabeth knows this. So she twists and writhes, the slippery footing seeping into her clothes but at the same time giving her greater freedom of motion. She vaults up, her bad shoulder like a springboard, and pulls her arm close to her chest.
He’s tugged forward and loses his balance, just a little bit. Annabeth capitalizes on it. Her knife is just a few yards in front of her. She sprints, shoulder twinging when she meets resistance. It’s an aching stretch but her fingers manage to grasp around the hilt and she feels a spurt of confidence. This knife and her, they can do anything together.
She’s forced to turn when the boy gets up, and the net he holds is still controlling a part of her. The knife flips upside-down in her hand as she tries to saw through the threads that connect them together. One snaps, then two, but it’s not enough.
He runs across the few feet that separate them, brandishing his own dagger. Annabeth rights her knife and holds it against his neck but he doesn’t heed it at all, instead knocking her down.
This time her knees are pinned beneath him in a way that won’t allow her to use them. He crushes his hand against her wrist, forcing her to drop the knife. He’s on a pressure point. Annabeth shuts her eyes completely and a strangled noise escapes her throat, something halfway between a silent scream and a wince. The rebelling nerves in her broken arm come rushing back to her and she realizes, much as she hates to admit it, that she’s not getting out of this one.
Then the pressure on her wrist fades, just a bit, and she sees more spots of light against her eyelids instead of the shade from her opponent’s body. She opens just one, cautiously, and tries to move the fingers on her still-pinned, if less painfully, hand.
Although his face is covered by a helmet there’s something deathly familiar about this that gnaws at Annabeth, something below all the rage and insanity. Her fingers touch the metal of the knife but can’t get a grip around it.
He leans back, and Annabeth swears he is confused.
Her fingers enclose around her knife’s hilt, and, almost imperceptibly, she prepares to pivot upwards on her elbow.
“You’re Annabeth,” says a muffled voice, but she doesn’t hear it. All that she registers is that he’s let his guard time and she flips upward onto her knees, knife poised at his throat.
A hand catches her swing and wraps around her own. It’s warm and Annabeth doesn’t want to shake it off. She’s been craving human contact, much as she won’t say.
“You’re that annoying one,” the muffled voice continues, and this time Annabeth hears it. She does a double take and realizes that the fingers embracing her own aren’t trying to hurt her.
“The one that calls me Seaweed Brain,” he says.
It’s the third time Annabeth drops her knife, but the first time she lets her voice crack and tear like she’s refused to let it for so long.
“You know me.”