Yesterday Annabeth Chase would have said that she hated her life. She had the misfortune of being born a princess in a family who had wanted a heir, and no matter what she did to try and prove herself she was constantly overlooked, and the whispers of her illegitimate claim to the throne followed her through the castle that felt more like a prison.
She had never asked to be royalty, never wanted it. So she didn’t feel like it was a great loss when she tied up her hair, dressed in the outfit of a stable boy, and took off for the docks.
There was only a halfhearted search effort, due mostly to the fact that her father’s remarriage meant that the royal family now had young twin boys who could easily replace the lost princess. Annabeth still got on the first ship leaving the kingdom and didn’t look back as they sailed off into the distance, concentrating on the new life of hard labour and secrecy that she chose over silent scorn.
Adapting to life as a working boy wasn’t easy, and Annabeth found herself missing comforts that she took for granted, like a warm bed and maggot free food, but there was nothing on the seven seas that would make her regret her decision. At least, that’s what she believed until the storm came along.
As their ship was dashed up along a reef and Annabeth found herself in water and beginning to sink, she decided that she was actually rather attached to her life and really, really did not want to die.
Annabeth kicked with all her might and attempted to claw her way to the surface but only managed to sink faster, the water around her dark and choppy and oh so cold. This is not how I imagined dying, she thought, but there didn’t seem to be a whole lot she could do about it. The world around her gradually dimmed, although whether that was from the depth or from lack of oxygen Annabeth couldn’t tell. Before everything went black she almost thought she caught a flash of a fin in the corner of her eye, but before she could check darkness swallowed her whole as the cold settled into her bones like a shroud.
Percy had absolutely no doubt that he was in trouble. Despite his best efforts he usually ended up doing something that he shouldn’t, whether it was swimming too far away from the reef or getting into another finfight with another one of the mermen. But saving a human would probably ensure that his mother never let him leave the reef for the next century.
It wasn’t like it was a conscious decision to find her, as he’d been innocently swimming along, very quickly and in the opposite direction of the squid he’d just accidentally angered. Then she’d come floating down like an angel, her blonde hair fanning out around her face as a few bubbles escaped from her lips.
Percy had heard stories of the humans for as long as he could remember, and he hadn’t been entirely convinced they were anything other than warnings to keep mers away from the shore. That is, until she’d floated in front of him and he almost ran into her. He spent a moment staring at her in shock as she drifted downwards before he swam down and caught her.
She was surprisingly heavy, and he would admit to himself that she looked a little pretty despite the lack of a tail. And then she gave a little jerk and a few more bubbles floated up from her mouth, and he remembered that if she was a human she really should be breathing air right now.
Swimming up with the human was significantly harder than swimming up to the surface without the human. She was basically deadweight, and with each stroke of his tail Percy wondered if they were going to make it to the surface on time.
When he finally broke the surface he tried to hold her head above water and looked around for somewhere to put her, struggling to keep her head above water. He spotted an island in the distance and headed for it, hoping that she wouldn’t drown before they got there.
Upon reaching the island Percy discovered that calling it an “island” was a gross overestimation, as it was hardly more than a pile of rocks sticking out of the sea. Bereft of any alternatives he laid down the human and watched her, breathing a sigh of relief when he saw the tiny movement of her chest going up and down. She’s still breathing, he thought, sliding back into the water. So I could go.
For reasons he couldn’t fathom, he instead treaded water at a distance and watched her, willing for her to wake up and stand, wanting more conclusive proof that she really was alright. And come to think of it he couldn’t just leave her on the island, rescuing her from drowning only to abandon her to a much longer death.
He was just debating if he could manage to persuade a healer to come take a look at her when she coughed, and he instantly swam to the island and propped himself up on it, staring at her. He was just reaching out to touch her shoulder when she jerked and rolled over, hacking up water.
“What-” she finally gasped, sitting up and looking around. “How did…” she trailed off when she met his eyes, and Percy felt like the world had stopped for a moment. Her eyes were grey, a beautiful colour he had previously associated with stormclouds that had lightning lacing across them. Then she jerked away from him and he remembered that humans really, really weren’t supposed to see mermaids.
“Um,” she said, gaping at him (ironically, like a fish), her eyes huge with surprise. “What are you supposed to be?”
He waved his tail and she let out a little half laugh that sounded more hysterical that anything else. “That’s it. I’ve drowned and now I’m hallucinating cute mermen and I’ll die any minute now-”
“Cute?” he repeated, raising his eyebrows. If it was at all possible for her eyes to get rounder they did, and a blush spread across her cheeks.
“You’re real,” she said, and then she turned away and stood, only to nearly fall over. Percy reached out his arms in a futile effort to catch her, fully aware that if she fell any other way than his arms he’d be useless. She recovered though, and looked around the island quickly.
“Where am I?” she asked, and Percy started to respond with their nearest reef but then remembered that humans would have no idea where the reefs were located so settled for shrugging. “Great,” she said with a groan, sitting down again. “Fantastic. Now I’m stranded.”
“Alive,” Percy offered, thinking she sounded awfully ungrateful for somebody he’d just saved.
“Stranded,” she shot back. “That’s as good as dead. I don’t suppose any of the other crew members survived?” Percy shook his head and her face fell, and he wondered if she’d been friends with any of them.
“Sorry,” he said uselessly after a moment of silence, and she wrapped her arms around herself.
“I’m going to die here,” she said. “With only a merman to keep me….” she trailed off and looked at him with a brilliant smile. “You’re a merman! You can get help!”
“No,” said Percy backing up from her and shaking his head.
“And why not?” she asked, and he tried to figure out a way to explain the laws that were put in place, the years of history he’d never been able to remember completely but he still knew that there were wars in the past, wars with the humans that the mermaids had lost.
“Forbidden,” he finally said, and the girl frowned at him like that was the most ridiculous thing he could have said.
“Nonsense,” she said. “If it were so forbidden you shouldn’t be talking to me.” Percy nodded glumly, thinking of how much trouble he’d be in if anybody found out he’d rescued a human, much less talked with one. A rescue alone would mean a sizable fine or a beating, both options that would hurt his mother the most. Talking? That might even warrant an execution, depending on how dangerous they thought this girl was.
“Oh,” she said, understanding seeping through her frowning. “So you weren’t-” she gestured to herself and Percy nodded, and for some reason that made her frown more, although this expression looked more thoughtful and angry. “So what happens if they find out you broke the rules?” Percy thought for a moment, and then slowly drew his finger across his throat. “Oh.”
They sat in silence for a moment, and then Percy broke it. “Percy.”
“What?” the girl said, and Percy pointed to himself.
“Oh, Percy,” she said, with a small half smile. “I’m Annabeth.” She held out her hand and he stared at it, not quite sure what she wanted him to do with it.
“You shake it,” she explained, and Percy cautiously held out his hand, half expecting Annabeth to yank him out of the water. But she only gripped his hand and lifted it before dropping it and letting go, in an odd ritual Percy could only assume was what humans referred to as “shaking”.
“Good to meet you,” she said. “Thanks for saving my life and all that.” Percy smiled at her. “Although I do sort of need a way to get off this island, or at least a way to warm up.” Percy’s smile vanished as he noticed how she was rubbing her arms, her flesh looking bumpier than he thought it had been when he’d pulled her out of the water.
“Warm up?” he repeated, and Annabeth gestured again, although he didn’t have the faintest idea what she was trying to say.
“Yeah, with a fire or something,” she said. “Heat. It’s a human thing, but my core temperature’s dropping and that’ll kill me long before starvation does.” Percy stared at her, wondering why on earth she would need “fire”, but decided he would oblige.
“Supplies?” he said, and she nodded.
“Yeah, like wood and some flint, preferably something dry although I doubt that’s gonna happen.”
Percy nodded and dove into the sea, deciding that he could at least scout the site of the shipwreck for something she could use.
Annabeth had honestly thought that Percy was abandoning her, but he soon returned with plenty of driftwood and objects she suspected were coming from her late ship. She tried to ignore the fact that yesterday she’d been surrounded by her crew and today they were all dead, choosing to instead concentrate on trying to build a fire. Percy continued to dive and bring her back knick knacks, a fork and a pipe and a few oddly shaped shells, while she repeated her request for some flint.
“You have no idea what I’m asking for,” she said finally, when he brought her a clearly terrified crab. He dropped it back in the water and shrugged, and Annabeth sighed. “Of course you don’t. You’re a merman, why would you ever make a fire, or… speak English…” she turned back to him quickly. “How are you speaking English?”
Percy looked confused, and Annabeth wondered if his earlier words had only been a fluke. But no, he’d understood she wanted wood, and had responded to her. Maybe he only understood some things?
“You’re talking,” she tried again. “My language… er, you understand, yes?”
“Yes,” Percy confirmed with a nod. “Understand.”
“So how are you talking?” she asked. “How do you understand?” Percy began to wave his hands but stopped, frowning as he chose his words.
“Ships,” he said. “Watch.”
“You’ve watched the ships?” she said, and Percy nodded.
“Understand some,” he said. “Little.”
“And you were allowed to do that?” she said, and his face fell as he shook his head. “Oh,” Annabeth said, seeing that she’d made him uncomfortable. “Sorry.”
Percy looked confused again, and Annabeth had to keep herself from laughing as she realised that his entire vocabulary was built of off sailors. He didn’t understand the word “sorry” or shaking hands, but she had no doubt he had quite a number of swear words to draw from.
“I wasn’t really supposed to be out here either, you know,” she said. “Although meeting a merman is a sort of princess thing, I suppose.” Her family would be thrilled if she ever made it off this pile of rocks alive.
“Princess?” Percy repeated, and Annabeth nodded.
“My family,” she said. “They’re like… captains, I suppose. But I don’t get along with them.”
“Fight?” Percy said, and Annabeth nodded.
“I ran away,” she said. “Which, before today, wasn’t actually working out horribly.”
“Family… hard,” Percy said. “Fight. But…” he trailed off, unable to find the word he was looking for which clearly frustrated him.
“How do your people talk?” Annabeth asked, gesturing to him. Percy brightened, and made a series of hand gestures. Annabeth stared at him blankly before realising that the gestures were him talking.
“Huh,” Annabeth said. “A manual language. That’s pretty neat.” She was already wondering if it would be possible for Percy to teach her before remembering that she had much worse problems at the moment.
Percy noticed as her face fell again and tapped the rock next to her to get her attention, then carefully placed his hand on hers. To her surprise Annabeth found herself gripping his hand back, his skin rougher to the touch than she expected but still oddly comforting.
“Family rough,” said Percabeth. “But return.” Annabeth found herself staring into Percy’s eyes, which were the exact colour of the endlessly blue sea she’d come to love.
“Maybe,” she said. “It’s complicated.” Percy nodded sagely and then swore, a word that Annabeth had only heard used once when a sailor had his finger shot off. She almost fell off her rock in shock. Percy looked startled for a moment before he realized that she was laughing.
“You said it,” Annabeth said when her laughter had died down, grinning wider than she could remember grinning in a long time. “But I’ll think about it.” She looked around again at the empty horizon, nothing but her and this oddly endearing merman and her pile of rocks. “I might need a boat first, though.”
“Boat,” Percy said, perking up, and Annabeth nodded.
“Sailing,” she said. “To a port.” Percy gestured again, and she got the sense he was trying to tell her something he’d just figured out. He looked disappointed when she didn’t catch on, but then pointed to her pile of too-wet firewood.
“Boat,” he said, and Annabeth whipped her head around to stare at the pieces.
“I’ll need some rope,” she said, and Percy squeezed her hand again before letting go and slipping back into the sea.
Percy highly doubted that the raft Annabeth had built could float, but then again he wasn’t at all sure why the majority of human ships floated anyways. After a few false starts Annabeth did managed to get it floating, having him fetch more wood and rope and tying it all together into something she could float on without being waist deep in water. Percy had her tie a rope to it and throw the other end to him, knowing that she wouldn’t be able to row in the condition she was in. She was shivering even more, and he understood that for some reason humans could die from being too cold. She moved a lot trying to warm up, and asked him to teach her a few of “his words”, as she’d put it. He was towing her raft towards the nearest coastline as quickly as he could but still tried to comply, using the few human words he knew and signing their counterparts. After nearly four hours of swimming she could sign “voyage”, “fish”, “ship”, and insult somebody by denouncing the past three generations of their family tree. She seemed to find that one particularly humorous for reasons Percy still wasn’t quite clear on, but he did understand that the topic of family was a hard one for her.
He wanted to tell her how while his mother was an angel he didn’t deserve she was also all he had, after his father had left them after he’d been born, and if Percy ever saw him again he’d likely find himself on the sharp end of a shark. Percy wanted to tell her how he watched the human ships and envied them for how mostly everybody seemed like equals, with a captain who lead a group of equals who all supported each other, and how he wished that his life could be a little more like that. He got the feeling that Annabeth understood, at least a little.
But their language barrier seemed more and more pronounced with each passing moment, and he could tell that Annabeth was getting weaker. So he said nothing and swam faster, and it was a relief to see the black shape of a port looming up in the distance.
Percy turned to tell Annabeth that they’d made it only to notice that she’d fall asleep, and he had no idea if that was a good sign or not. He didn’t want to make a lot of noise this close to a human settlement, so he settled for pushing her raft towards the town and making certain she’d washed up on a beach before yelling for help as loudly as he could. When he saw lanterns in the distance he knew they’d find her, so he yelled one last time before turning and slipping back into the ocean, stopping only when he was far enough away that nobody would spot him and turning back.
People were clustered around Annabeth, the light from their lanterns flickering and casting long shadows as they chattered among themselves and lifted her up.
He didn’t know how to say goodbye, how to tell her that hoped she’d be alright and he would miss her, but he still regretted not even getting the chance.
Annabeth was half convinced that Percy had been a dream, which is why she hadn’t said anything to anybody. Not the doctors who brought her back from the brink of hypothermia, not the well meaning townspeople who tried to find her identity, not the crew that eventually took her and sailed her back to her kingdom after somebody had found a half ragged poster with her face on it.
It had felt like a dream, something delicate that would shatter if she told anybody else, something that looked ridiculous in the light of day when it had seemed so clear the night before. If it hadn’t been for the raft she would have been certain that it had been a dream, but there wasn’t really a way to explain away the raft that had carried her to safety despite the townspeople’s best efforts.
A miracle, they’d said, and Annabeth had let them say it, not caring what they thought. A miracle, her father had said when she walked into his hall escorted by the captain, and although she’d wanted to argue something about her father’s expression had made her pause.
After the captain had been handsomely rewarded and escorted out Annabeth had, for the very first time, seen her father cry as he’d apologised. That he hadn’t taken care of her, hadn’t listened to her, hadn’t loved her like he should have. That they’d only been able to dedicate so much to the search before the court had shut them down, claiming her dead or married off in some distant land. That he’d given up hope of ever seeing her again.
Family hard, Percy had said, in his own uncertain way. But return. Sometimes you didn’t need many words to be right.
Annabeth tried again to make things work, found virtues in her half mother and brothers that she hadn’t seen before, found something of the father she loved in the king she’d run away from. But she also found that her time at sea had left it’s mark on her, making her hate the walls and dresses and endless whispers of a life at court.
So many times had she wanted to scream at the court, to tell them that they were all prattling fools who failed to convey half as much sincerity as a merman with sea coloured eyes did with one word, but she kept her mouth shut, trying her best to fit in a place she no longer belonged.
“You’re not happy here,” her father finally said. “What do you want?”
“The sea,” Annabeth had told him, while her mind whispered Percy. So she’d bartered her way onto a ship, one that she would be a passanger on until the docks had faded from view because on the sea there was no room for anything other than equals, a ship that would search for new trade routes that Annabeth could have a hand in suggesting.
Annabeth couldn’t remember feeling as excited as she had that day on the deck of the boat, waving goodbye to her family in a dress she would soon exchange for the pair of trousers sitting on her bunk as the ship slowly pulled out of the docks.
Right now she wasn’t that excited, anxiousness warring with dismay as she stared at the tiny island of rocks she’d finally managed to track down. There were still a couple of lonely pieces of rope caught in the rocks, the rest of her unused building supplies no doubt washed away by the ocean.
“Milady,” the captain said behind her, and Annabeth couldn’t tear her eyes away from the island to look at him.
“Lower a gangplank and leave me here,” she said. “Come back in three hours.”
“What?” he said, and Annabeth waved for him to do it. Soon enough she was watching the ship sail off in the distance, fully expecting to sit there for a few hours alone before returning to the ship. After all, what had she been expecting? It had been months since she was here last, and for what reason would he return?
“Annabeth?” a voice behind her said, and Annabeth turned so quickly she almost twisted her ankle. Behind her was a merman with black hair and blue eyes and a stunned expression, and Annabeth realised that tears were brimming in her eyes as she finally let herself realise how much she had missed him.
“Percy,” she said, and suddenly she was moving forward and so was he. She went in up to her chest, hardly feeling the cold as she reached out for him, and although she knew that this was madness that would lead nowhere but trouble she had absolutely no regrets as they came together in a kiss.
It was messy and tasted salty and was far too quick, and Annabeth couldn’t imagine anything more perfect.