"Hi!" said a squeaky voice.
Piper's eyes lifted from her book and fell upon a small red-haired girl, not more than eight years old, in front of the stand.
"Can I have a small vanilla ice cream please?" said the girl. Piper noticed she had a slight lisp, due to one of her front teeth having fallen out.
"Sure, sweetie," Piper said, turning around and scooping the ice cream.
"LILY!" a voice yelled.
Piper turned around a saw a woman walk up behind the girl—Lily—and put her hand on her shoulder. "I told you to ask me before you got anything."
Lily's mother then trained her eyes on Piper. "I'm so sorry," she said with an apologetic smile. "My wallet is in my car, I'll go get it right now."
"No, no, don't be ridiculous," Piper said. "It's on the house."
"Oh, I couldn't ask you to do that," the woman said.
"It's fine, really," Piper said with a smile. "It's such a long walk in the hot sand, I wouldn't want to put you through that."
"Well, that's very nice of you," Lily's mom said, in that very mom-ish way, making sure to be polite. "Say thank you, Lily."
"Thank youuuuuuu!" Lily said in a sing-song voice, beaming up at Piper.
Piper laughed. "No problem, kiddo. You two enjoy the rest of your day."
Lily waved at Piper as they walked away.
In the time this encounter had taken, a line had began to form in front of the ice cream stand. Piper sighed, just wishing she could get back to her book.
As Piper's shift ended and she started packing things up, her boss, Reyna, appeared.
"Busy day today," Reyna commented.
"Yeah, I was swamped," Piper said.
"Right," said Reyna. "So I was thinking, and I've decided to hire someone to help you out."
When Piper said nothing, Reyna continued. "There's enough room in the stand for two people to work. And it'll really increase sales if we have two cash registers open, a lot of people get tired of standing in line for so long."
Reyna seemed to notice the expression of distaste on Piper's face. "Are you alright? If you're worried about this decreasing your pay, don't be; it'll draw in more customers anyway."
"No, it's nothing," Piper said. "I just... I don't know. Prefer working alone I guess."
The truth was, Piper preferred doing everything alone. Her favorite thing to do was to sit on the damp sand at the edge of the water at night, when almost no one was left at the beach. She loved the smell of the salty ocean air, as it whipped her hair around, and she loved the dark sky, dotted with stars, and she loved feeling like she wholeheartedly belonged somewhere. Honestly, that was most of the reason she had ever applied for this job.
Reyna gave her a sympathetic look—or at least as sympathetic as one could expect from Reyna, which was really just a slight wrinkling of her forehead. "I'm sorry, Piper," she said. "But it's what's best for the business. Besides, you're not the only one who needs a summer job."
Piper sighed and nodded reluctantly.
"Look on the bright side, though," Reyna said. "This girl seemed really nice during her interview; I think you two would get along well."
Piper raised an eyebrow. "So you just organized a job interview without telling me anything ahead of time?"
Reyna looked slightly abashed. "I... well I had a feeling that you might... protest a bit if I told you."
Piper laughed. "So you're springing it on me now, great. What's this girl's name anyway?"
"Annabeth Chase," Reyna said. "Do you know her? She's sixteen too, I think."
"No, I don't," Piper said, surprised that someone else her age would be working here. Most of the people who worked around the beach were in their twenties. "I guess she goes to a different school or something."
"Well, you'll meet her Wednesday, I guess. And, Piper?"
"Do try to talk to her, please. Just a little."
Piper grumbled her consent, handing Reyna the key to the cash register. She considered staying at the beach for awhile, but it was unusually crowded for this time of night, so she walked to her car, thoughts of this new co-worker swarming around her mind.
When Piper arrived at the stand at eight a.m. on Wednesday, the other girl wasn't there yet. Piper sat down on the stool behind the counter, noticing that there was now another one next to it.
Piper knew it would be an hour before people started arriving at the beach, and another two or three before anyone had built up the appetite for ice cream. She pulled a book out of her bag and began reading, the book in her lap and her forehead pressed against the counter.
About twenty minutes later, Piper's book was really starting to get good, when she heard a voice in front of her.
Piper looked up into the most startingly gray eyes she had ever seen. The girl in front of her was absolutely gorgeous, with a thin frame and wavy blonde hair in a loose ponytail thown over her shoulder. She was wearing short denim shorts, a seashell necklace, and the same tacky orange tanktop with the words "Cone Zone" that Piper was forced to wear, but it somehow looked good on her.
Piper blushed against her will. "Hi, I'm Piper," she said. "Piper McLean."
"I'm Annabeth Chase," the girl said with a smile. "I guess we'll be working together."
"Um...yeah," Piper said, wondering why she wasn't able to formulate proper sentences in front of this girl. After a second, though, she managed to compose herself. "So I guess I'm probably supposed to train you, but um... there's not really that much to it. Just scoop the ice cream, get their money, and smile. Any questions?"
"Just one," Annabeth said with a serious expression.
Piper tensed, hoping that it would be something she knew the answer to. For some reason, she felt a need to impress Annabeth.
"Do we get free ice cream?" she asked.
Piper laughed. "Yeah, we get free ice cream."
Annabeth grinned. "Awesome."
"Yeah, it is." Piper turned back to her book, but she could still feel Annabeth's eyes on her. When she looked up at Annabeth, she noticed that she was smirking.
"What is it?" Piper asked.
"Nothing!" Annabeth said, supressing giggles. "It's just you've kind of got this red circle on your face from leaning up against the counter." Piper blushed. "No, no, it's cute!" Annabeth said, which of course made Piper blush even more.
"So, what are you reading?" Annabeth asked, tactfully changing the subject.
"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," Piper said, holding up the book, torn and frayed from the dozens of times Piper had read it.
"Cool, one of my favorites," Annabeth said. "I loved reading about the moving staircases and stuff. Like I always wondered how that would work, you know? Like does the entire castle have to shift, because how else would the support work? And with that many staircases how would they move without crashing into each other? And—sorry, I'm probably boring you to death."
But Piper was anything but bored; Annabeth's face had lit up as she talked, and it somehow made her even more beautiful.
"No, no, it's... cute," she said, using Annabeth's choice of words. "So you're in to architecture then?"
That look returned to Annabeth's face, and Piper felt like her heart just might implode. "Yeah, that's actually why I wanted this job. When I was little, my dad used to take me to the beach all the time and I would build sandcastles. It sounds dumb, but that was the first experience I ever really had with architecture and I just sort of fell in love with it."
"That's really cool, I—oh shit, I think people are getting here, we better set up."
The beach was especially crowded that day, and Piper had to admit, it did make things a lot easier to have someone working beside her. Unfortunately, Piper didn't get much of a chance to talk to Annabeth, until about 12:30 when they decided to take their lunch break.
"You know," Annabeth said. "Since there's two of us, it would probably make more sense to take our lunch breaks at different times so we can keep the stand open."
"Probably," Piper admitted. "But what would be the fun in that?"
Annabeth laughed, and Piper led her to the food stand on the other side of the beach, where Annabeth got a hot dog and Piper got a tofu dog.
"Vegetarian?" Annabeth asked.
Piper nodded. "Yeah, I drove past a slaughterhouse once and... ugh." She shuddered involuntarily.
Annabeth laughed. "Fair enough."
They sat down on a big rock, close enough to the water that the waves would crash against it at high tide, and fell into conversation.
Piper learned that Annabeth had just moved to San Diego two weeks ago, which was why Piper hadn't seen her at school, that Annabeth's favorite color was dark red, and that Annabeth's mother, like Piper's, had left when she was young.
Annabeth was easy to talk to. More than that, she was fun to talk to, and Piper felt like she could really open up to her, which was strange since Piper had never really been able to open up to anyone.
Piper honestly could've talked to Annabeth for ages, but their lunch break soon came to an end.
Over the next few weeks, the girls grew closer and closer. Piper found herself arriving at work earlier and earlier every day, and, much to her delight, Annabeth did the same.
One early Monday morning, they had just finished setting up, with an estimated hour left until people started arriving. Piper went to sit down, but Annabeth seemed to have other plans. She grabbed Piper's hand and led her down to the ocean.
"What—?" Piper was cut off by a clump of sand exploding in her face.
"Sandball fight!" Annabeth said.
Piper's eyes widened. "You are the biggest dork in the entire world!" she exclaimed.
"Very true," Annabeth said with a smirk. "But I'm a dork who's gonna beat you in the sandball fight."
Piper raised her eyebrows. "Oh really? You think you can—mmf!"
Annabeth doubled over with laughter. "What's that you were saying?"
Annabeth's laughter was so infectious that soon Piper couldn't help but let out a giggle herself. "Just don't aim for the face, alright?" she grumbled.
"Wouldn't dream of it," Annabeth teased, throwing another sandball that hit Piper straight in the nose.
"What?" Annabeth said. "I was aiming for your arm, I just... missed."
Piper fixed a death glare upon her. "You're gonna die, Chase."
"Maybe so," Annabeth said. "But..."
"But you'll have to catch me first!" Annabeth sprinted off, Piper tearing after her.
Twenty minutes later, after both girls were caked with sand and a truce had finally been made, they went back to the stand.
"Hey, Annabeth?" Piper said.
"Well... the beach is always really pretty at night, actually it's kind of my absolute favorite place in the world, and I was thinking, maybe you wanna go down there tonight? We could build a bonfire and stuff and I can take the keys to the stand from Reyna and we can get a bunch of ice cream and go down there or whatever if you want, I don't know." Piper said this all in one breath, surprising herself immensely. The seaside was her favorite place, and she had never shared it with anyone, but somehow with Annabeth it felt right.
Annabeth smiled widely, seeming to sense how important this was to Piper. "That sounds great," she said.
That evening, Piper was buzzing with excitement. She didn't really know why, but she just felt like it had to be perfect.
Reyna had reluctantly given Piper the keys to the ice cream stand, muttering—much to Piper's horror—something about teenage love.
At around 9 o'clock, when the last couple of people left the beach, Piper turned to Annabeth.
"Okay," she said. "So I'll go start the bonfire—I think there's already wood in the pit—and you can bring us some ice cream, okay?"
Annabeth grinned. "Okay. What flavor do you want?"
Piper feigned a gasp. "Miss Chase! It's as if you don't even know me!"
Annabeth laughed. "I'll take that as strawberry?"
"Naturally," Piper said, turning to walk to the bonfire pit.
After she got the fire started, Piper took off her flip-flops and stuck her toes into the damp sand, letting the water crash over her feet. She sat down and looked up at the stars in front of her, noticing one of her favorite constellations, Zoë the Huntress.
After a minute, she felt Annabeth slide up next to her, handing her a dripping ice cream cone.
Piper could feel the heat radiating from Annabeth's body, and somehow that was it, that was the one thing that made Piper's perfect scene exactly perfect.
"It's beautiful," Annabeth said. And that was all that either of them said all night, and somehow it was all that needed to be said.
That Friday night, Piper found herself once again sitting by the ocean, the sea spray against her face and the sound of the fire crackling beside her.
She and Annabeth had been staying there late every night that week, and by this time, Piper didn't need to ask if Annabeth would be staying, she had automatically made a beeline for the bonfire.
"You know," Annabeth said softly, while they were lying on their backs looking up at the stars. "I think I sort of get how the staircases and stuff worked in Harry Potter now."
Piper smiled, propping herself up on her elbow. "And how's that?"
"They just... worked. Because magic doesn't always need an explanation, you know? It's just... there."
And then, Piper wasn't really sure how it happened, but the small space between them was closed, and Annabeth's lips were against hers, and she truly believed Annabeth.
Piper pulled Annabeth on top of her, and their kisses deepened, and Annabeth's mouth tasted like strawberries and summer and love and everything that was good in the world, and she was kissing her, and her lips were soft, and it was incredible, and she was kissing Annabeth Chase.
When they finally broke apart, Annabeth smiled and softly kissed Piper's forehead, before curling up against her chest, and Piper put her arm around her, and as Piper fell asleep her last thought was of how good the world must be for magic like this to exist.