December 24th, 2009
It was snowing in Manhattan, and the glow of the city turned gentle in the quiet, wintry light. Just four months ago, a battle had raged on these streets; now they were bustling and illuminated by the soft light from shop displays. Just another Christmas Eve.
Percy was nervous. He and Annabeth had never spent time together like this before––they were always preoccupied with what was going on with the upcoming Titan war, or the next quest, or the previous one, or watching out for monsters on an almost daily basis. There was always some bleak inevitability hanging over their heads, preventing them from focusing on anything other than their demigod responsibilities for a long time. After the Battle of Manhattan, Percy had felt an uncoiling within him, like long-held tension had finally been allowed to release. For what felt like the first time in 5 years, in his whole life, really, he found himself able to relax. It felt like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders. At least temporarily.
The past four months had been great––well, as great as life could be for someone like Percy. Turns out, he and Annabeth were able to move past that strangle-each-other phase after all. In all honesty, they had moved quite a distance beyond that. It was nice to be in this rhythm with her. In many ways, it was just like how they’d always been, except even better because it wasn’t just internal tension that had been let go, it was tension between the two of them as well. Not from anything in particular, just from the strain of living life constantly at the brink of death and then underneath all that, grappling with the nagging feeling that they’re supposed to be at odds somehow. But they had overcome that and in the process transcended it, and now they were in a place that Percy dared call happy.
So he was nervous, because Annabeth was going to spend Christmas with his family for the first time and then she was going to stay overnight so they could all be together for Christmas Day. And he had a gift prepared. It would be the first gift he’d ever given her, the first gift he thought was good enough to be hers.
It was 6pm. Annabeth was due any minute now. He fidgeted at the kitchen counter while Sally bustled around smoothing out the dining table cloth, humming a tune. Paul was straightening the utensils for the fifth time in a row. Percy cracked a smile watching them.
Then the doorbell rang.
He nearly leaped out of his seat getting to the door. He took a deep breath, then swung it open.
It was Annabeth. She was already smiling, but when Percy came into view, she broke into a grin. Her blonde curls tumbled down around her shoulders, reflecting the mellow lighting. Her gray eyes twinkled, clear and sharp and familiar. She wore a trench coat cinched at the waist over a plain woolen sweater and black jeans, a leather purse hanging off her shoulder. She clutched a big shopping bag in her hand.
“Hey, Percy,” she greeted.
Percy thought briefly that he was probably never going to stop getting surprised and tongue-tied over how good Annabeth looked whenever she wore something other than her camp clothes (not that she didn’t look good in camp clothes), then concentrated on what she was saying. A grin took over his face like instinct. “Hey, Annabeth. Come on in.”
Sally, like always, embraced Annabeth with a warm hug and an even warmer grin and ushered her into the house, insisting on taking her baggage for her.
“It’s really okay, Ms. Jackson,” said Annabeth, which got a look from Sally. She quickly corrected, "I mean. Sally."
Sally grinned and nodded.
Annabeth looked around the living room. She smiled when she found the Christmas tree next to the fireplace. She placed her shopping bag under the bristles, where other presents were already stacked.
For a moment she stood, taking in the atmosphere. The house was cozy and felt familiar, even though she’d never really had the chance to appraise it before. Then she realised it was because the place reminded her of Percy––gentle, hospitable, comforting. She could tell the architecture had been retouched––the last time she was here things had felt more... dilapidated, drained. Now with all the Christmas decorations, it was rejuvenated. Colours were brightened. Rough edges were eased out. The walls stood taller, more firmly. And the entire place was cast in a warm homely glow that she’d never been able to experience before. She almost teared up right then and there, but Sally steered her gently to the dining place to eat. She was hungry.
Sally liked watching Percy and Annabeth interact. You could see the friendship, the connection––the way they conversed without effort, without inhibition, just two people matching the dynamics of the other so well and fitting into place like it was the most natural thing, that it was purely instinctual. The sight often made her wonder how two people could just find each other like that and grow until they converged, united.
She flashed back to when the two of them stood by the kitchen a summer ago, friction pulling the space taught between them. They were turned away from each other and looked miles away. Even then that distance felt wrong, like it wasn't the proper orientation and needed to be fixed. She watched them now, leaning towards each other as if pulled by some gravity that existed only between them, faces lit by a smile that belied their journey. She thought two people had never deserved each other more than this.
"You can sleep in Percy's room," offered Sally, when the lights had been dimmed and the movie had finished.
Percy's heart started making noises in his chest. "Um," he said, glancing at Annabeth, who was shaking her head. She looked calm but her ears tinged red.
"Really, the couch is totally fine, I don't want to––"
"Nonsense! I will not have you sleeping on the couch on Christmas Eve, of all days. We have an extra mattress, it'll fit just right."
Percy swallowed. You would think after all they'd been through this wouldn't be a problem, but Percy's room was small and the thought of sleeping in the same space together, in this context, made him want to run. They'd been on many quests before, been confined to the same space a lot, but always under weary circumstances, too preoccupied with survival, or in the company of friends. Even after all the life-threatening stuff was over, they didn't actually spend that much time purposefully together, since they were already in that state regardless. They didn't feel the need to change anything. Sometimes Percy even forgot they were actually a thing now, and then would be momentarily surprised when he was reminded of it––when Annabeth pulled him in for a kiss, or when she slipped her hand in his in broad daylight, or when he couldn't sleep at night and the memory of her lips on his the night of his 16th birthday popped into his head...
"Percy," Annabeth was saying. She was looking at him, amused. Was that a smirk...?
Percy cleared his throat and tugged at his shirt collar. "Mum's right. We can't make you sleep on the couch when there's a perfectly good mattress waiting. Besides," he made a face, "The couch is uncomfortable."
Annabeth couldn't help it. She smiled. Her heart fluttered in her chest. She sighed and said, "I guess. If you insist."
It was so quiet.
Percy's back was facing Annabeth, who was on the mattress on the floor, probably asleep, but he could hear his heart pounding. Why was he getting all hyperconscious over this? They weren't even that close together.
Maybe the fact that Annabeth was in his room. Right there. Sleeping. It was peaceful. There was nothing to focus on but her, there. An arm's length and a little more away. At his home, in his room that was basically an extension of himself, with Annabeth. No big deal.
"You know, I can feel your tension from all the way here," she muttered.
Percy nearly jumped out of his bed. He flipped over to look at her. She was faced away from him, hair splayed out on the pillow. "Do you want me to just take the couch or something? 'Cause I don't want to––"
"No!" said Percy, a little too loudly. He rubbed a hand over his face and sighed. "No, I'm sorry, I'm just... I don't know. Being weird. Ignore me."
Annabeth turned over to look at him. The moon illuminated a slant across her face, turning her hair silver. Her gray eyes were trained on him, eyebrows raised, just slightly. The ends of her lips quirked up. It was the look she made when she was trying not to laugh.
"I said I wasn't going to make things easy for you, but you kind of do that yourself, you know that?" she said, smiling but trying to hold it back. Her gaze softened. "You're cute like that."
Percy was smiling before he even registered it. It was like his body moved faster than his brain when it came to Annabeth. He was also blushing but he hoped she couldn't see it in the dimness. "Good to know you find it cute."
Annabeth laughed softly. "Oh, you're adorable. It's annoying."
Percy frowned. "Wait, so which is it? Cute or annoying?"
Annabeth pretended to think for a while. She shrugged a shoulder and said, "I'm in a good mood so, cute, I'd say."
"Wow, thanks," said Percy, but he smiled. He couldn't feel his heart banging in his chest anymore so that was good, though now he felt like he could talk all night and watch the moonlight reflect off Annabeth's hair until it was sunlight again.
He shifted his weight to lay on his back and stared at the ceiling. There was a long, comfortable silence that stretched and enveloped.
Percy glanced at the clock. 12:05am.
"Merry Christmas," he said.
He turned away from her again, really trying to sleep this time.
The nighttime silence relapsed.
A minute passed.
Percy was at the brink of falling asleep. Another few beats passed.
Then, he heard rustling behind him.
His eyelids were getting heavy. Silence, shuffling.
He felt his bed sag, and a presence right behind him. Cool air rushed in as his blanket was lifted. Then––
Annabeth's arms wrapped around his waist. She tucked her head into the base of his neck, where skin meets fabric. He felt her hair curl around his shoulder, her breathing against his shoulder blades. Her legs bent to meet his, tingling cold. She was warm and familiar.
Percy was too busy being frozen to register anything else. All he could feel was skin on skin, in a way that was simultaneously foreign and completely known. They had never been here before, this tenderness amidst the repose. Annabeth's arms were loose around him, but solid and firm. They were just barely touching, close enough for contact, close enough that Percy could feel the tingling in the small of his back, close enough to ache.
He turned around, careful not to disturb her, until he was facing her. Her eyes were closed, eyelashes brushing against her cheekbones. This close, he could make out her features in the dark, trace the edge of her hair with his eyes, follow her jawline, memorise them all over again, feel the warmth coming from her. Always the warmth coming from her.
Again, as if his body moved without his brain, he leaned forward and kissed her forehead. She murmured something against his chest. Percy's heart pounded. He was pretty sure she could hear it. His skin tingled, as if it had been activated. He was trying not to think too much about the fact that Annabeth just crawled into his bed and was currently falling asleep an inch away from him. As if guided by instinct, he put his arms around her waist, gently pulling her closer until her head was tucked neatly into the crook of his neck. She shifted to make herself comfortable.
Percy's drowsiness was gone, replaced by nerves and something much bigger.
It occurred to him that it might be love.
December 25th, 2009
Annabeth woke up to the sunlight on her face. She winced and turned away reflexively, breaking away from Percy.
She cracked open her eyes and saw Percy's sleeping face, cast in sunlight. His hair was a tangled mess, and he still had an arm slack over her. Their legs were tangled in the bedsheets.
Heat shot up to Annabeth's face as she almost fell off the bed extricating herself from his limbs. He groaned from the disruption and turned away.
Annabeth stood by his bed, heart pounding, cheeks warm, slightly dazed.
She had crawled into his bed last night on pure impulse and it was like how she'd predicted it'd be, except better because he fitted himself to her, as well. And then he kissed her forehead.
Annabeth tingled all over, but she also kind of wanted to evaporate on the spot.
"Annabeth?" mumbled Percy as he shifted again in his bed, one bleary eye opening to squint at the sun.
Annabeth glanced at the clock. 9:35am. She gulped. Were Sally and Paul already up?
She looked back at Percy and his still half-awake face, and smirked. "You still drool when you sleep."
He stared at her, eyebrows scrunching together. "Is this how it's always going to be with you?"
Annabeth shrugged, trying not to smile. "Take it or leave it."
Percy rubbed his eyes and sat up, yawning. His shirt was rumpled and his hair stuck up all over the place. Even half awake he managed to be endearing. Annabeth sighed inwardly and said, "We should get ready."
Percy really wanted Annabeth to like his gift.
She was pushing away the wrapping paper, getting to the box underneath. Percy's heart thudded.
Annabeth removed the cover, and stifled a gasp.
It was a necklace, a simple brown fabric cord leading to a beautiful red coral at the bottom. It was rough around the edges like it came from a wild place but maintained a strangely symmetrical shape. The red was deep and rich and distinct, hard to find in nature, but here it was. For a moment, Annabeth's breath caught in her throat. She looked at it in awe. It glinted in the light.
"Percy, I love it," she whispered. She looked up at him, eyes shining. He grinned.
"I found it in the ocean," he said, blush creeping into his cheeks. "I, uh, was just wandering around and stumbled across this reef. It was beautiful––all blue and green and yellow, but there was a cluster of red corals at the bottom, and one of them had fallen off, and... I don't know. Thought it would make a good necklace." Percy didn't say it, but he saw the coral and it had reminded him of Annabeth; something about the deep red and the fact that it fallen off its cluster and somehow looked like a mixture of design and coincidence, really struck him.
Annabeth traced the ruggedness of the coral with her fingertips. It felt like she had a part of Percy now, with her. A part of the ocean. She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. "Thank you," she said.
Abashed, he rubbed the back of his neck and shrugged, like it was no big deal. Because it wasn't. Not because it wasn't important, but because it was a simple gesture and people deserved that bare minimum. Annabeth deserved that bare minimum.
Annabeth stood by the front door, facing Percy. She smiled, pushed up on her toes, and kissed him. "Thanks for having me over, Seaweed Brain."
"Your family is so nice."
"You gonna be okay without me?" She smirked.
Percy grinned cheekily. "If you want to stay, you can just say so." It was his turn to smirk.
Annabeth's cheeks heated up. "I was thinking it, but on second thought..."
Percy laughed and exaggerated looking offended. "Well, it's your loss."
Annabeth raised an eyebrow at him, turning to go. "Nah, I'm pretty sure it's your loss."
She turned fully, smiling as she walked away.
"Bye," called Percy from behind. "Don't be a stranger."
Her smile widened. She lifted her hand to wave.