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and it's christmas (so no one can fix it)

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Jason is dead. It’s roughly fourty-four degrees in Oklamaha, Piper is alone in her father’s childhood home, a rom-com from the eighties is playing on the television, Christmas is in a week, and Jason is dead.

 

Piper is pinned to the couch beneath the weight of six fuzzy blankets. Her eyes are glazed as she stares at the movie on screen, watching two people whose friends say they’re perfect for eachother brush off the remarks and deny their attraction for one another. Jason is dead, and he has been dead for four months.

 

The two main characters are at a diner. The camera is focused on them, but Piper can see an extra in the background with cornsilk hair and blue sky eyes and she rolls away to face the back of the couch instead of the screen and Jason is dead.

 

As she stares at the beige fabric of the run-down couch, Piper wants to cry, she really, really wants to cry, but no matter how hard she squeezes her eyes shut, no matter how many times she replays the image of Jason falling from Tempest, no tears come out.

 

The anger subsided weeks ago. Her dad took Katoptris away during the worst of it, when Piper would pound on the walls and scream up at the sky and a girl from school Piper had became acquaintances with told her dad that she’d been talking about going to join her dead ex-boyfriend the few times she bothered to show up to class.

 

Only when the crescent shaped marks on Piper’s palms faded and the holes in the wall were left un-punched-through for two weeks did he give the blade back to her.

 

Her dad had sat next to her feet on the couch, a hand on her ankle as he placed Katoptris down on the coffee table. He didn’t say anything, but he bent down and kissed her forehead, pushing her long, greasy hair back. When he pulled away, he stared down at Piper and her unresponsive face, glued to the television. He seemed to be waiting- for tears, probably, Piper thought.

 

Her dad had seen her scream and kick things and throw her blade at the wall and rock back and forth on the ground, but he hadn’t seen her cry.

 

She didn’t cry, so with a sigh, he got up from the couch, and left Piper bundled under the blankets, Katoptris gleaming and left untouched, like she hadn’t realized it was there.

 

Since the anger was gone, so were, apparently, the rest of Piper’s feelings. The cycle of grief, it seemed, didn’t apply to demigods. There was no denial, no sadness, no acceptance.

 

Jason was dead, and Piper felt nothing.

 

Piper clenched her jaw tightly and prepared to exert the most energy she had in days. She wiggles her toes, exhales deeply, and then moves the layers of blankets off her.

 

She lays there for a second, cold air chilling her bare legs, and then she swings them off the couch and stands up fully.

 

Her legs are shaky, the muscle she’d earned from doing half-blood things like running from monsters and saving the world long since gone. Walking to the bathroom is like running a marathon with a sprained ankle.

 

She closes the bathroom door behind her and immediately leans against the sink, grateful her legs aren’t bearing the full weight of her body anymore.

 

Piper looks down at the marble countertop, counts the droplets of water stuck to it from this morning when her dad had brushed his teeth over it.

 

There’s thirteen droplets, Piper counts, and Jason is dead.

 

She looks up from the counter and into the mirror. Her reflection stopped shocking her a while ago, probably around the time she’d gone and tried to kill a cyclops by herself and ended up walking home with Katoptris covered in monster dust, a black eye, and a body littered with bruises and cuts.

 

According to the digital scale Piper’s dad makes her stand on once a week, she has lost twenty-two pounds since Jason died. If she loses three more, her dad warned her two days ago, he’ll have no choice but to bring her to a hospital. Piper had only nodded at his threat, then shuffled off to her couch.

 

It wasn’t that she was trying to lose weight, really. It was just that when she said she felt nothing, she really felt nothing- hunger included. She only ate when her dad made her, and as much as she loves her dad, he was busy a lot, sleeping in hotels in Los Angeles or wherever his job took him, so she was really only eating the few days he was off from work.

 

As Piper examines herself, all sharp cheekbones and pronounced jawbone, bone, bone, bone, she thinks back to the Aphrodite girls at camp who had fawned over her bone structure. 

 

“Ugh, you’re so lucky you actually have cheekbones,” one had said to her, looking envious. “I have to contour or else I look like a total pancake.”

 

“Seriously, Piper, your bone structure is insane!”

 

Looking at her sunken eyes and sallow skin stretched tight over her boney face, Piper wonders if they’d be even more jealous now.

 

Her hair has grown substantially, falling just to her ribs. Her hair has always grown fast, and she liked to give herself at-home haircuts with a pair of scissors often, but doing that now would require getting up from her couch for an extended period of time, and since winter break had started, nobody saw her anyway, so what was the point in keeping up with appearances? Also, Jason is dead.

 

Looking at her limp, greasy hair, Piper remembers a time when Jason had confessed to her that he’d learned to braid at Camp Jupiter- something about there being lots of scared little kids there who were suddenly without parents to do their hair and he picked up on it, like he did with all things, easily. Piper had smirked and placed a handful of rubber bands and feathers in his hand, spun around to turn her back to him, and told him to get braiding, then.

 

She thinks the memory will maybe make her cry, but she blinks one, two, three times, and, ladies and gentlemen, there are no tears.

 

“It’s okay to cry, Pipes,” her dad told her one night, her head on his lap as he ran his fingers through her hair the way Piper always wanted him to do when she was little and he was off being a movie star.

 

Forget stealing cars , she had thought. To get attention from your dad, just watch your ex-boyfriend die and then go crazy with anger for a while and then never leave the couch!  

 

“Sometimes it’s better to cry,” he says. “You’re releasing all your emotion, literally.”

 

Piper had nodded in response, something she did a lot, because she was scared if she opened her mouth to speak, nothing would come out.

 

It wasn’t that Piper thought she’d be weak if she cried, like everyone seemed to think. She just... couldn’t.

 

She thought maybe it’s because Jason and her weren’t together when he had died. They’d broken up over Iris Message- Jason off in New Rome constructing temples and Piper back at Camp Half-Blood running Aphrodite cabin. She’d given a long winded speech about how she needs to find herself, alone, and it came out in-between sobs. Jason had cried too, Piper remembers.

 

They’d said they loved each other one last time, and hung up. Then Piper decides that having the person you loved, then broke up with, die would definitely still be tear-worthy and she stopped trying to figure out why she couldn’t cry or feel anything anymore.

 

Feeling nothing is a lot harder than most people would think. When Leo visited for the first time, he’d whistled lowly as he plopped down on her couch.

 

“So you just get to chill here on the couch all day every day, huh, Beauty Queen? That’s living the life- wish I’d come sooner!”

 

And Piper knows it was just a joke, especially when Leo’s voice cracked at the end and he himself started crying and apologizing for real for not coming sooner and saying he’s sorry he ever left before and he’s so, so, sorry. But she also doesn’t miss the little looks of disgust the cleaner her dad has come around once a week gives her as she vacuums around the couch, and she pretends not to hear her mutter something about how she’s busting her ass and this little rich girl can’t even get off the couch.

 

Piper thinks if she was in anyone else’s shoes, walking into the rickety house and seeing a girl curled up on the couch for hours upon hours, the extent of her daily responsibilities being getting up to use the bathroom, she’d probably be throwing little glances and saying things about the girl, too.

 

But Piper isn’t anyone else- she is the girl on the couch, and Jason is dead and she was angry, so angry, at first, but now she doesn’t feel anything, and the rest of the seven are well past their mourning period and she wants so badly to join them but she just can’t and the couch she’s made home feels a lot like a prison and she feels nothing, nothing, nothing.

 

Her hands start moving on their own accord, yanking open a drawer, grabbing a pair of tiny scissors meant for cutting cuticles, and hacking at her hair with them.

 

It’s a tedious process. The scissors can barely cut through her hair, so she has to take small bits to compensate. Trimmings of chocolate brown are everywhere, littering the sink, floor, piling up on Piper’s stained t-shirt.

 

When she’s done, her greasy, unwashed hair has been cut right to her shoulders, the shortest it’s been since she was a little kid, but it’s choppy and uneven, the way Piper liked it before Jason was dead.

 

She bites her lip, scissors still in hand, and decides she’s not done, not yet. She remembers little Lacy bounding into the cabin one day, running up to Mitchell and shoving a photograph in his hands.

 

He had looked at Piper, like, gods help me , and she shrugged with an amused look on her face, because she was amused, because Jason wasn’t dead and Piper could still feel things like amusement.

 

Mitchell looked down at the picture, then up at Lacy. “Um, this is a picture of Taylor Swift.”

 

“Yeah, yeah!” Lacy was bouncing up and down on her feet, grinning wide.

 

“Is.. Is there a reason you’ve handed me a picture of Taylor Swift?”

 

Piper makes her way over and looks down at the picture, which, sure enough, is of Taylor Swift.

 

“I want her hair!”

 

Piper looks down at the picture, where Taylor is smiling at the camera, all long pin-straight-and-smooth blonde hair and blue eyes, then back up at Lacy with her crooked, curly pigtails.

 

“You wanna straighten your hair?” Piper asks.

 

Lacy shakes her head, exasperated, then snatches the picture back. She holds it up so Piper and Mitchell can see and jams her finger at Taylor Swift’s forehead, which is covered by short pieces of hair.

 

“Bangs!” Lacy declares, looking proud.

 

Piper looks at Mitchell, who shrugs, spins around to grab a pair of scissors from the vanity, and declares, “Yeah, okay. You’re lucky I watched, like, twenty YouTube tutorials last time I was back home. A friend from school wanted them. Pretty easy, let’s do it.”

 

Pretty easy , Piper repeats in her head. It’d looked pretty easy, she agrees. Lacy was satisfied, too.

 

So, Piper starts sectioning her hair the way Mitchell had to Lacy, and then chop, chop, chops with her tiny scissors.

 

If she ever sees Mitchell again, she’ll definitely have a bone to pick, because cutting bangs is decidedly not pretty easy. Little bits of hair keep getting in her eyes, and she isn’t really sure how short they’re meant to be, and for whatever reason the right side looks better than the left.

 

It’s a mess, really, and Piper keeps muttering curses under her breath, but when she puts the scissors down, steps back, and ruffles her thin, fresh-cut choppy looking bangs with her hand, she thinks she hasn’t done too bad of a job.

 

She wonders what Jason would have said if he saw them.

 

Piper exhales sharply through her teeth, then walks over to the shower, turning the tap on. She peels her clothes off, and wrinkles her nose a bit when her shirt slides past it and she gets a whiff of the stench.

 

Movies don’t really show you that hygiene tends to be neglected when a person is depressed, Piper notes, kicking her clothes into a pile on the floor and climbing into the shower.

 

She pours out way too much shampoo for her newly short hair, and she smears conditioner all over her chest where hair used to be. Her loofah gets covered in hair trimmings.

 

It’s just a little bit on the pathetic side as far as showers go, but she’s clean and that’s about as much as anyone can ask of her anymore.

 

Piper decides to run with this sudden burst of hygienic tendencies as far as it’ll take her, isn’t sure when the last one was, wraps herself with a towel, and brushes her teeth- another small activity that she tends to not have the energy to do.

 

She walks to her room, where her bed is made crisply in the way it only is when someone isn’t sleeping in it nightly.

 

Piper changes into a pair of flared jeans and an oversized band tee that belongs to her dad. She reaches for her snowboarding jacket, but then remembers scrubbing blood out of it after Jason died, the bile that rose in her throat when she wasn’t sure if it was hers or his or both, and how the smell of ozone from Tempest was almost impossible to remove, and lets her hand fall limp. 

 

A denim jacket will be just fine, she decides, shrugging it on and turning away from her closet and a Jason-filled snowboarding jacket.

 

Piper walks back out to the couch. The blankets are all rumpled together, water bottles littering the floor. Boxes of Indian takeout her dad had brought her sits on the coffee table, along with Katoptris , untouched still.

 

She stands there for a minute, looking at the Piper-sized indent in the couch that calls her name, the unwashed blankets and Indian food rotting and plastic water bottles everywhere. And then it hits her.

 

Piper falls to the floor in a heap, and sobs wrack her body. She curls into a ball, hugging her knees tight to her chest, and she cries.

 

She cries for Jason, for breaking up with him because she wanted to find herself, whatever the fuck that means, for not regretting breaking up with him even after he was dead, for letting him sacrifice himself for her only weeks after she broke his heart, for the way she had felt so small and hopeless as a spear was thrown in his back and no amount of charmspeak could get it out. She cries for the weeks she spent screaming at her dad and the gods and her friends, for the way she’d up and left Camp Half-Blood with no warning, for the young Aphrodite kids who Piper had begun to feel so protective over who she left behind. She cries and she feels emptiness and longing and regret and sadness and she hurts. Everything hurts.

 

She doesn’t stop crying until the tears refuse to come and her throat is sticky and scratchy. She stays there on the floor then, curled up like a child, and she feels.

 

She feels even when she manages to get up on shaking legs and she feels the entire time she picks up water bottles and throws away takeout containers and tosses blankets in the washer.

 

Piper straps Katoptris to her belt, and she feels some more, but she feels stronger. She goes to the kitchen, opens the drawer she keeps her halfblood supplies in, nectar and ambrosia and the like, and fishes out a drachma.

 

She makes a rainbow with her dad’s reading glasses and a fine mist from the sink. Piper asks Iris to show her Annabeth Chase.

 

Annabeth is in the Athena cabin, judging by the books, blueprints, and half a dozen blonde-haired grey-eyed kids running around behind her. She’s hunched over her laptop, typing rapidly with her brow furrowed and blonde curls escaping their ponytail.

 

Piper’s glad she just had a Lifetime movie worthy breakdown on the floor and is officially out of tears, because the sight of her best friend looking so in her element makes her heart pull in a way it hasn’t in months.

 

“Annabeth,” Piper calls out, voice scratchy from lack of use. She clears her throat, and says louder, “Annie!”

 

Annabeth jolts up, and her mouth drops at the sight of Piper.

 

“Piper!” Annabeth’s eyes sparkle with excitement, and her smile is so wide, and so bright, Piper can feel the corners of her own lips start to twitch upwards in response. “Your hair, oh my gods, Piper, did you do that yourself?”

 

Piper lifts a hand up to ruffle her bangs again, still damp from the shower. “Ah, yeah. That bad, huh?”

 

“No, no! It looks great, honestly. It suits you,” Annabeth assures, closing her laptop and resting her chin on her hand. “It’s really good to see you.”

 

“You, too,” Piper says, honestly. She’d pushed away all her friends except Leo, because how can you push away Leo, ashamed to let them see her so weak, and seeing Annabeth looking so... Annabeth , and so happy to see her is like a breath of fresh air.

 

“You look thin.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Really thin. Like, scary thin.”

 

Piper worries her bottom lip and looks away from Annabeth. “Yeah, I’ve lost some weight, but it’s.. you don’t have to worry about it.”

 

“I do worry about it, Piper.” The way she says it makes Piper think she really means, I do worry about you .

 

Piper stays quiet because she doesn’t know how to respond to that, doesn’t know what to do when someone is worrying about her.

 

“Are you planning to come to Camp anytime soon?”

 

“I’m not sure,” Piper says with a shrug. “I wanna get out of my house and, well, I guess camp’s kind of the only place I can go.”

 

Annabeth smiles at that. “We’re planning a big Christmas party now, actually. Everyone’s supposed to come. It’d be really great if you joined us.”

 

“A Christmas party? Since when is that a thing?”

 

Annabeth shrugs. “Dunno. I think it was Rachel’s idea? Something about her parents going off to Switzerland for the holidays and not inviting her so she’s sort of made it her mission to prove Christmas here is better than skiing in the Alps.”

 

Piper finds herself laughing at that, and the warmth from it feels so foreign but so good that she clings to it, tries to laugh for as long as she can, fading out into short giggles.

 

Annabeth is watching with a smirk on her face and a twinkle in her eye. “It’s not for a week or so, so we’re all just preparing now. We could totally use your eye for design.”

 

Piper rolls her eyes, picking up on the sarcasm immediately. “Oh, really?”

 

“Absolutely. Anyone who wears denim on denim has nothing but the most immaculate taste.”

 

“Actually, denim on denim is making a comeback this year.”

 

“Is it?”

 

“Mhm. It’s the new black, they say.”

 

They’re both laughing now, and Piper swears that she can feel her heart growing three times in size. Talking to Annabeth has always been so easy . They were so close during the war, and it was rejecting her calls and IM’s after Jason that hurt the most. Seeing that they were still able to talk and laugh together, after four months of not speaking, is like a weight lifted from Piper’s shoulders, one she didn’t know was weighing on her. 

 

Jason is dead, Piper has only been feeling things for approximately twenty-seven minutes, but Annabeth doesn’t hate her, and that’s enough to make her say,

 

“Is it alright if I come to camp, like, today?”

 

Annabeth’s smile is so wide it looks like it’s painful. “Definitely,” and they just stand there for a beat, both smiling stupidly, until Annabeth adds, “As long as you’re not wearing double denim,” and Piper falls into a fit of giggles again as she holds up a pinky and promises she’ll squeeze a wardrobe change into her schedule.

 

“I’ll let Chiron know you’re coming. Mitchell’s been filling in as Aphrodite counselor, by the way. I’ve walked in on him stress-eating brownies twice now,” Annabeth tells her as she takes her hair down from its ponytail, curls flowing down. “I think he may be more happy to see you than everyone else.”

 

Piper knows that by everyone else, she means the rest of the seven. Percy, notJason, Hazel, notJason, Frank, notJason, Leo. Despite the months spent avoiding them, Piper feels her heart lurch when she thinks about seeing them all again.

 

“Everyone else? I’m hurt, really. My best friend didn’t miss me more than Mitchell?”

 

Annabeth rolls her eyes but smiles fondly. “Okay, he’ll be happier to see you than all of us except me.”

 

“Bummer, I was talking about Percy.”

 

“Ha ha,” Annabeth says dryly, sticking her tongue out.

 

Annabeth and Percy had broken up months and months ago, back while Jason was still alive. Piper had been there as Annabeth cried and cried into her arms, telling her about how she’d seen so many things that scared her in Tartarus, but Percy is what scared her most, and she just couldn’t be around him anymore. 

 

Percy had stayed in New Rome, in the apartment the Golden Couple had once lived in, and Annabeth came back to camp. New Rome is where Percy had rekindled his friendship with Nico di Angelo, who had moved into an apartment of his own to be closer to his sister, and, though he’d never admit it, to be away from his ex-boyfriend, Will Solace.

 

Piper laughed right in Jason’s face when he came back from a visit to Camp Jupiter with the news that Percy and Nico were dating, and didn’t believe it until Annabeth herself had nodded, and said simply,

 

“Makes sense. I think they’ll be good for each other.”

 

And that was that.

 

Percy and Annabeth remained best friends, because they were still Percy and Annabeth, but Piper found that teasing Annabeth about Percy always earned her a roll of the eyes or a childish face.

 

Piper smiles for what feels like the hundredth time in the five minutes she’s been talking to Annabeth when the blonde, sure enough, crosses her arms and rolls her eyes.

 

“I miss you,” Piper finds herself saying before she can stop it.

 

Annabeth’s arms drop back to her sides and her face softens. “I miss you too, Pipes,” she says softly, like it’s a secret just for her. “I’ve been so worried about you. Leo doesn’t tell us anything when he comes back from his visits. I’m just.. so glad you’re okay.”

 

Piper wants to tell her that up until today she really wouldn’t describe herself as okay but she can see that Annabeth’s eyes are misty and the smile on her face is so soft and fragile she doesn’t want to break it. “I’ll see you soon, Annie.”

 

“Bye, Pipes.”

 

The image of a teary-eyed Annabeth dissipates, and Piper is left staring at an empty kitchen sink with a fond smile on her face.

 

It only takes Piper fifteen minutes to pack a duffel bag, another ten to book a flight to New York, six to call her dad and leave a voicemail telling him where she’s going and not to worry, she’ll be back for the New Year, and two to shove her denim jacket into her bag and toss on a big green corduroy jacket in its place, smiling softly as she does.

 

Piper gets a cab to drive her to the airport, and ends up sitting in the plane sandwiched between a window and a twenty-something year old girl with red hair tied in a ponytail.

 

The girl is bouncing with excitement, literally, Piper notices from the corner of her eye. There’s a big grin on her face, and her legs jiggle up and down like she’s gonna jump up at a moment’s notice.

 

Her happiness is infectious, and because Piper is, you know, feeling things today, she decides to lean in and ask where the girl is going.

 

The redhead whips her head over. “New York City,” she squeals softly, looking past Piper and out the window dreamily. “I’m visiting my girlfriend and her family for the holidays.  We haven’t seen each other in four months.”

 

“That’s great,” Piper smiles. “How long have you been dating?”

 

“Two years and seven months,” the girl says, looking proud.

 

“Wow. Did you get her anything for the holidays?”

 

The girl’s face turns almost as red as her hair and she leans in close to Piper, whispers, “I’m gonna propose,” then pulls away and tips her head back against the seat, giggling breathlessly, like she can’t believe it herself.

 

Maybe it’s the whole daughter of the goddess of love thing, but Piper’s heart swells at how in love the girl looks and she’s always been a sucker for romance, so she talks to the girl, whose name, she learns, is Brianna, for the entire flight, listening eagerly as Brianna talks and talks about her soon-to-be fiance, Macy, and how they met and how great she is and how she plans to propose and Brianna even shows Piper the ring.

 

As Piper peers into the velvet box, Brianna asks if she has anything special planned for the holidays.

 

Piper thinks of Camp-Halfblood, a fine misting of snow covering everything like the scenery of a Christmas card, unfair snowball fights with the Apollo cabin, the looks on her friends’ faces when they see her for the first time in months, but mostly she thinks of Annabeth and building snowmen with her and her grey knit beanie and her nose red from the cold and the way she’d taken the scarf from around her neck off and put it around Piper’s last year when they were sitting outside drinking hot chocolate and Piper had shivered.

 

“I’m seeing some old friends,” Piper says.

 

When Piper crosses the border into Camp, hauling her duffle bag over her shoulder and cursing herself for not packing a heavier jacket, apparently forgetting the difference between a New York and an Oklahoma winter, she feels her heart ache at the sight of a winterkissed Camp Half Blood.

 

There’s a light dusting of snow everywhere, enough for the campers to make snowangels in and play in, but not enough to make anti-snow-people, like Nico di Angelo, aggravated. It’s breathtaking and beautiful, and Piper’s heart hurts when she remembers how amazed Jason was of it the year before.

 

He had grabbed Piper’s hand and spun her around in the snow, laughing the whole time. Piper had showed him how to make a proper snowball, and when Percy froze the lake for them to ice skate on, Piper shrieked with delight as Jason made his way across the ice with all the grace (no pun intended) of Bambi learning to walk.

 

Piper misses Jason, then, and she wonders if anyone else is thinking of how the snow made the blonde boy forget his usual stuffy Roman ways and giggle like a little kid. Piper doesn’t regret breaking up with him, she knows in her heart that if the whole prophecy and end of the world threat hadn’t happened, Jason would probably be with Reyna, happy and Roman, and Piper would… well, she doesn’t know, and that’s why they had to break up.

 

But Piper misses him, and the snow and the reminder of how much Jason had loved it makes his absence sting at her skin.

 

She swallows thickly, closes her eyes for the count of three, not allowing herself to cry in the middle of a light dusting of snow about a lost love because she’s already had her Lifetime movie breakdown.

 

Piper makes her way to the Aphrodite cabin, and observes the winter activities of Camp. The Hephaestus and Athena cabins are sliding down Half-Blood hill in tricked out sleds, their shrieks of delight ringing in Piper’s ears.

 

Groups of campers are throwing snowballs at one another, and some little kids are building snowmen in a semi-circle, and at the sight of one of them holding an empty wine glass and another with a quiver, Piper realizes they’re building snowgods-- snowolympians? Either way, it makes her smile and wave at the kids, who are scrambling around for something to use as Zeus’ lightning bolt.

 

There’s a couple of cabins that have made an effort with Christmas decorations, lights strung around the outside, and Demeter’s kids even have a decorated Christmas tree planted next to their cabin. 

 

At the sight of the Aphrodite cabin, Piper feels a smile spread across her face. One of her first acts as counselor was a paint job, and she worked for days to paint layer after layer of a tasteful white paint over the garish pink, keeping only the trim and window panes a dusty rose hue.

 

The cabin has strung strings of pink and white lights around it, and a pink garland is wrapped around the door. There’s mistletoe, obviously, tacked to the sides of the cabin, notable ‘Lovers Lanes’ for the camp.

 

Piper imagines Mitchell running around, stressed out of his mind, organizing decorations and assigning their cabin mates jobs. She thinks about little Lacy probably begging Mitchell to let her hang up mistletoe, and pictures the entire cabin standing back and admiring their hard work, then shrieking as a group from Apollo pelted them with snowballs.

 

She realizes she’s missed her cabin and all of her half-siblings, though she’d never admit it. She misses the camaraderie between them, the generosity of each and every one of them. Piper had been so quick to dismiss Aphrodite and everything about her as stupid. She was so stuck on being not like other girls who wear makeup and like girly things that she was downright disgusted to be claimed by her. When Piper thinks back to how she had regarded her cabinmates with such disgust just because they preferred frills and lace over swordplay and adventure, she wants to go back and slap herself.

 

Her cabinmates have always been there for her- they’ve prepared bags for quests, sewed her clothes when she came back with shirts and jackets torn to shreds, given her advice for how to approach her breakup with Jason, let her borrow anything from lip gloss to pads to a dress the time Jason had told her to dress nice for a date and Piper tore through her collection of t-shirts and jeans in a panic.

 

In the middle of her nostalgia session, Piper realizes there’s a figure leaning against the door of the cabin, and squints to make out the bright blonde curls squished down beneath a grey knit cap.

 

“Annie!”

 

Piper drops her duffel and goes running, arms open wide. Annabeth meets her halfway, and wraps her arms tightly around Piper, squeezing gently. The hug warms Piper to her bones as she rests her head on Annabeth’s shoulder, breathing in the scent that can only be described as Annabeth.

 

When she finally pulls away, Annabeth is smiling, her eyes misty with tears. She rubs at her eyes with her glove-covered fingers and sniffles.

 

“It’s so good to see you,” Annabeth reaches out and touches Piper’s newly short hair.

 

Piper leans into the touch. “Like my jacket?” She asks teasingly.

 

Annabeth looks Piper up and down and guffaws. “ Corduroy?” She says in the same tone she used when Piper told her she found The Bell Jar to be entirely overrated and nothing but depressing. 

 

“I’ll take that as a no.”

 

Annabeth pulls Piper in for another hug and laughs in her ear, sending chills up Piper’s spine. “Corduroy is always a no from me, but you surprisingly pull it off.”

 

Piper feels her cheeks heat up, and hopes she can blame it on the chill of the snow when Annabeth pulls away and looks at her.

 

“I let everyone know you were coming, and they’ve all decided to throw a little welcome back party for you.”

 

“By they, you mean Leo, right?”

 

“Oh, absolutely.”

 

Piper groans and throws her head back. “Tell me he hasn’t got Fire Juice. I’ve still got a headache from the last time.”

 

Annabeth smirks and nods her head. “The first thing he did when I told him you were coming back was run off to go make some.”

 

As the drastically uncreative and immature name implied, Fire Juice was, as Leo would put it, a Leo Valdez special. He claims to have spent weeks slaving over the recipe to perfect it. Whether or not that was true, Piper wasn’t sure, but everyone agreed it more or less tasted like Leo had poured every type of alcohol he managed to buy off the Stoll twins together, then dripped in a few capfuls of Gatorade.

 

It was repulsive, really, but he somehow managed to talk everyone into having at least two cups anytime the group got together. Its most notable achievements included, but were not limited to: Frank streaking through Camp Jupiter, Leo in nothing but his socks after a game of strip-apples-to-apples, and, who could forget, Percy and Jason being dared to kiss as the rest of the seven howled and screamed with delight.

 

Piper thinks Annabeth must be recalling the same dare, because the smug smirk has faded into something bittersweet- half nostalgic, half mournful.

 

“I miss him,” Annabeth says softly.

 

Piper sits down on the steps to the Aphrodite cabin, and puts her head in her hands. “He loved Christmas time.”

 

Annabeth sits down next to Piper, close enough for their shoulders and thighs to press together. “Nobody has forgotten him, Pipes,” she says, putting a hand on Piper’s shoulder. “He died a hero.”

 

Piper doesn’t respond, just nods her head, because she’s tired of people telling her that it was okay Jason was dead because he died a hero, the way everyone had at his funeral service. She’d much rather him be alive and a coward.

 

“I think he’d be really proud of you,” Annabeth states after a beat of silence. “Proud that you’re here, I mean. It’s not easy to continue on after something like that, but you’re here, with people that love you.”

 

Piper puts her head on Annabeth’s shoulder, and Annabeth wraps an arm around her waist, pulling her closer. “I’m proud of you, too,” Annabeth says, softer this time. “You’re the strongest person I know.”

 

Piper wonders, for a minute, if Annabeth is just saying that. If it’s just one of those things you say to someone to make them feel better after they broke up with a boy then watched him give up his life to save you. But this is Annabeth Chase, and Annabeth never just says things unless she means them, and that means that out of all the people she knows, out of all the powerful demigods like Percy Jackson and Hazel Levesque and Nico di Angelo and Thalia Grace, Annabeth thinks Piper McLean is the strongest.

 

Somehow, that makes Piper feel like the months she spent on the couch were worth it, just to hear Annabeth say that, just to feel Annabeth squeeze Piper’s waist and let her rest her head on her shoulder.

 

They sit like that for a while, watching snow fall and campers run around, Piper never moving her head from Annabeth’s shoulder, and Annabeth not moving her arm from around Piper’s waist, until the door to Aphrodite swings open and a dozen campers scream Piper’s name and tackle her into a group hug.

 

As Piper greets her half-siblings, heart bursting with joy as she tells Grace how much taller she looks, and oh, wow, Mark, you got a haircut, and, yes, Mitchell, this means I’m counselor again, Annabeth stands off to the side, nose red from the cold, grey cap pulled down on her head, smiling with something that looks like affection in her stormy eyes.

 

Percy, Nico, Frank, and Hazel shadow travel in from New Rome together that night, and after lots of hugs and some tears and a demand that she start eating more from Hazel, and Piper teasing Percy and Nico, they make their way to join Annabeth and Leo for the party. 

 

They have this spot by the lake, one they found after the Giant War, shielded by enough trees that Nico is able to bend their shadows to hide them from the harpies, and close enough to the lake to enjoy the view in the warmer months. Annabeth and Leo have strung up Christmas lights around the area, and Leo extends his pointer finger to start a fire in the centered fire pit.

 

There’s music playing from a celestial bronze stereo, hot chocolate and vegetarian marshmallows, plenty of blankets and pillows to keep the group warm, and, sure enough, Fire Juice, which Leo carries in, sloshing around in a big bucket.

 

The rest of them groan as Leo places the bucket down next to a bag of blue solo cups, grinning wickedly.

 

“Leo,” Hazel scolds, hands on her hips like a mom disciplining her child. “I keep telling you, quit bringing this stuff! Nothing good ever comes from it!”

 

Leo waves a hand through the air dismissively, dunking a cup into the mixture. “Nothing good? Don’t you remember when Percy and Jason made out? That was a classic!”

 

Jason’s name hangs in the air, and for a moment, the only sound is Mariah Carey belting out a high note from the stereo as they all look at the ground.

 

Piper feels sick.

 

Maybe it’s the fact that she’s spent the past four months sitting on a couch feeling empty in a way she never thought she ever could, or maybe it’s the memory of Jason downing cup after cup of Fire Juice as Piper scolded him and told him he’d regret that, but Jason simply booped her nose and told her they’d all saved the world and deserved to party, or maybe it’s the fact that she can feel Annabeth’s gaze burning into her, but Piper waltzes over to the bucket like nothing has happened, Leo didn’t just say the name of someone who should be there but isn’t, Jason didn’t die, and she fills a solo cup to the brim, and takes a long pull of it.

 

She chugs the fiery liquid down, and finds that she likes the way it burns as it goes down her throat, likes the way that it makes her feel something, so she fills her cup again and starts taking sips from it.

 

It’s Percy who reacts next, with a loud whoop and a fist in the air as he walks over and fills his own cup. “I like the way you think, Pipes,” he grins at her and clinks their cups together, and Piper manages to smile weakly back, and that’s that, the party is on.

 

It’s all sort of a blur for Piper because she’s nursing her fourth cup of Fire Juice, but she has a warm, pleasant feeling in her stomach, her head feels light, and she keeps giggling, so she thinks she’s having a good time.

 

Everyone else has followed Piper’s lead, and the hot chocolate goes untouched in favor of Fire Juice. They all sit on the blanketed floor, curled up beneath wool blankets and drinking the bitter liquid. Their faces are all flushed and illuminated in firelight, and Piper’s heart swells looking at the faces of people she loves so much but avoided for so long.

 

Nico’s head is in Percy’s lap, Percy combing through his hair absentmindedly with one hand, the other wrapped around his cup.

 

Frank and Hazel are sitting close, knees touching, and Hazel keeps fanning herself after every sip she takes.

 

Leo is making his rounds, bouncing around from one part of the circle to the other, taking turns entertaining one, then the other, then both.

 

Annabeth is the only one who hasn’t refilled her cup, and she’s looking around with her lips pressed tightly together and worry in her eyes.

 

Piper decides to crawl over to her, Fire Juice sloshing over the side of her cup as she does. She plops down on her butt, puts her cup between her legs, and pokes Annabeth’s arm until she glances over at her.

 

“Having fun?” Annabeth asks, staring ahead.

 

“Uh huh.”

 

“That’s good, Piper.”

 

Piper swallows and pokes Annabeth again. “Why do you look…” her voice trails off as she looks at her, drenched in the fire’s warm light, curls looking like gold, and tilts her head from one side to the other. What was she going to say? Pretty? No, that can’t be it. Oh! “Worried?”

 

Annabeth laughs and finally turns to face Piper. “Besides the fact that you’re all completely wasted? Oh, no reason.”

 

“I’m not wasted.”

 

“No?”

 

“Nope!”

 

“You sure?”

 

“Yep!”

 

“Alright.”

 

“I’m serious! If.. If I was wasted, I’d do somethin’ stupid like… like, cry because I miss Jason or, like, um, get naked, or… or tell you you’re pretty or-“

 

Piper is cut off by Leo standing up and raising his arms up in the air, meeting his hands together in a loud clap that makes everyone jolt.

 

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he says in his best announcer’s voice. “It is time for a Prophecy of Seven tradition…”

 

Percy does a makeshift drumroll against Nico’s back, who tries half-heartedly to whack his hands away.

 

“Spin! The! Bottle!”

 

Everyone cheers, except Annabeth, who does little more than roll her eyes and smile just a bit, and they all start scooting closer to make their circle tighter, giggling as they do so.

 

The tradition started the first time they all met up in their spot by the lake, and it was Jason who had brought it up, only slightly tipsy at the time, asking if anybody actually played that game, or if it was just something people did in movies.

 

Piper had said it was strictly a movie thing, but then Nico said he’d definitely done it at a party or two, and Percy nodded in agreement, and Piper wasn’t about to be upstaged, so she grabbed the nearest bottle of smuggled orange Fanta, dumped it out, and slammed it down on the ground. Looking back, Piper is pretty sure Nico and Percy were lying about played the game before, but the seven were laughing so hard by the end of the first round that she didn't bother calling them out on it.

 

It was definitely a stupid game, Piper knew that. It was cheesy and dumb and nobody above the age of thirteen would do it if they weren’t a little bit buzzed. But once you were buzzed, the group had found, it was just a way to laugh and let off tension in a lighthearted way.

 

“Who’s goin’ first?” Piper plops herself down between Percy and Nico, staring down at the bottle Leo had placed in the center.

 

“It’s your party, Beauty Queen!” Leo grins at her from across the circle.

 

They all whoop and holler as Piper gets up on her knees and crawls forward to spin the bottle, and they all hold their breath, giggles escaping despite themselves, as it spins slower and slower before coming to a stop with the lip pointing at Percy.

 

“I’m sorry about this, Nico,” Piper pats the boy’s cheek and he rolls his eyes in response, taking another sip of his drink, looking unbothered.

 

Piper spins to face Percy, puts a hand on either side of his face, and meets him halfway to press their lips together.

 

As usual, when their lips touch, the rest of the group erupts with laughter and teasing.

 

It could be because it’s the first kiss she’s had in months, or it could be because her whole body is tingly from alcohol, or, probably some combination of both, but Piper finds that she likes kissing Percy, and she decides to take it further than the standard peck and move on the game usually calls for.

 

She wiggles her way onto his lap, lets a hand slide into his hair, tilts her head to get a better angle. Percy parts his mouth, and Piper finds that he tastes like vanilla cake, saltwater, and, unsurprisingly, Fire Juice.

 

Everyone is going crazy as the kiss progresses, Leo shouting, “Get it, Beauty Queen!”

 

Piper finally pulls away and gasps for breath, chest heaving. Percy’s hair is more messy than usual, lips swollen and cheeks flushed.

 

Nico flicks the side of Piper’s head and yanks her back into her spot, off Percy’s lap.

 

“Sorry,” she grins sheepishly, but Nico again rolls his eyes, looking away.

 

From across the circle, Piper can see Annabeth giving her a look that Piper is either too stupid or too drunk to read, but her attention is jerked away when Percy is giving Piper a high five and kudos for, “starting the game off right”, and she just barely misses Annabeth rolling her eyes with a scoff.

 

Piper goes back to embracing her buzz and watching as the game continues, giggling with the rest of them when Leo and Nico peck and Nico’s spin lands on Hazel, and, without hesitation, he immediately spins again, landing on Annabeth.

 

“Now I can say I’ve kissed both halves of the Golden Couple of of Olympus,” Nico says as he pulls away, earning him a smack up the back of the head from Percy.

 

Piper is too busy laughing to notice that Annabeth’s spin has landed on her until Annabeth is right in her face, and her eyes are closing, and, oh, Annabeth is kissing her.

 

It’s longer than a peck, but there’s no tongue, and her body is on fire and Piper’s head is spinning when Annabeth pulls away and her cheek where Annabeth’s hand rested is burning and she can’t tell if she wishes there was tongue or not.

 

Piper says something really smart, like, “That was cool,” and it sends everyone into another round of laughter, even Annabeth chuckles a bit, and Piper doesn’t know if they’re all laughing at her or with her, but decides to take the safer route of with, and giggles, too.

 

The game goes on until Nico’s spin has landed on Hazel for the third time, and he snatches the bottle up and says they’re done playing.

 

From then, there’s dancing and laughter and more Fire Juice and more dancing and Piper takes off her corduroy jacket and more laughter and more Fire Juice and she hears someone say Jason’s name so there’s more Fire Juice, and the next thing she knows she’s in the bathroom, vomiting into the toilet while someone is pulling her hair back and rubbing circles on her back.

 

“You’re okay, you’re okay.”

 

It’s Annabeth, Piper realizes, though she doesn’t have much time to do anything with that new bit of information because she sticks her head back in the toilet for another round of vomit.

 

She throws up until her puke is nothing but stomach acid that stings on the way up and her muscles are aching and she sits down on the bathroom floor, curling up and appreciating the coolness of the tile against her forehead.

 

“Piper,” Annabeth is crouched down, grasping at Piper’s wrists. “Let’s get you to bed, c’mon, get up.”

 

And Piper means to get up, to go to bed, like Annabeth wants, but her head is swimming and her stomach hurts and her throat feels raw and only this morning she was sitting on the couch feeling nothing and today she kissed Annabeth and she misses Jason and she doesn’t know what to do, so she starts crying. Again.

 

Annabeth slides down next to her and pulls Piper into her lap, running her fingers through her hair and telling her to let it out, it’s okay.

 

“He’s dead,” Piper chokes out through sobs that soak Annabeth’s jeans in snot and tears.

 

“I know.”

 

“Died for me,” Piper murmurs, muffled against Annabeth, body shaking.

 

“I know.”

 

“Broke up with him,” Piper’s voice is slurred, and her breathing is erratic as she tries to breathe in Annabeth and not the stark clean scent of the bathroom.

 

“I know.”

 

“Glad I’m here.”

 

“Me, too.”

 

"Did I make out with Percy?"

 

"Sure did."

 

"That's disgusting."

 

They stay like that, Piper, drunk and messy, sobbing into Annabeth as she plays with her hair and holds her hair back when Piper says she’s gonna vomit again, and Annabeth tells her it’s okay, it’ll be okay, and that’s all anyone has been saying since Jason died, but for some reason, when Annabeth says it, Piper sort of believes it, so she asks Annabeth to keep saying it, and she does.

 

The last thing Piper remembers is being carried from the bathroom to the Aphrodite cabin, one arm around Annabeth, and one arm around someone dressed all in black, who Piper realizes can only be Nico.

 

Annabeth leaves once Piper is in bed, something about going to get a jacket, and Nico stands next to Piper awkwardly, looking around like he’s not really sure what to do. He leans down and presses a kiss to Piper’s forehead, but before he pulls away, he puts his lips next to Piper’s ear and murmurs,

 

“I miss him a lot. He was my best friend. Visited him in Elysium a while ago. He said he doesn’t regret anything. He said he wants you to be happy, happier than he could ever make you.”

 

Piper wants to ask who he’s talking about, but she realizes she’s really sleepy, and Nico is walking away anyways, so she closes her eyes and sleeps.

 

When Piper wakes up, her head is pounding and she immediately closes her eyes again when the sun’s rays greet her upon opening. She groans a little, brings a hand up to rub her forehead like that’ll soothe the pain.

 

Piper opens her eyes slower this time, and sees that her green corduroy jacket has been folded neatly and placed on her bedside table, along with a glass of water, and two tablets of what looks like aspirin. There’s a sticky note stuck to the jacket, and when Piper clears the cloudiness from her vision, she makes out,

 

“Take these, they’ll help with the headache.

P.S.

Corduroy > Denim

P.P.S

You snore when you sleep.

 

    - Annie”

 

Piper smiles and immediately puts the note up on the wall above her bed, joining the pool of family and friend photos and concert tickets.

 

She downs the pills with a swallow of water, then swings her legs over her bed and onto the floor. Looking around the cabin, Piper realizes she’s the only one there, and makes a mental note to bake Mitchell some brownies or something as a thank-you for being counselor for one day longer.

 

Piper takes a quick shower, then brushes her teeth twice to get rid of the taste of alcohol and puke.

 

She pulls a baggy cream sweater on, then wiggles into a pair of jeans, tossing her corduroy jacket on as she walks out the door. She finds that she hasn’t slept too late, as everyone is still at the dining pavilion, having breakfast.

 

Piper scans the area until she finds what she’s looking for- a table full of five demigods looking just as miserable as she feels, plus Annabeth.

 

She slides into the seat next to Annabeth, plucking the bagel off her plate and taking an obnoxious bite.

 

“Morning,” she says through her mouthful.

 

Annabeth pokes her cheek with a smile. “Morning to you. How’re you feeling?”

 

Piper shrugs, ripping another piece of bagel off. “‘M alright. Thanks for the aspirin.”

 

Annabeth tugs at the sleeve of Piper’s jacket. “Not gonna give this up, huh?”

 

Piper grins at her as she takes another bite, shaking her head triumphantly.

 

Percy groans from down the table, his head in his hands and eyes closed tight. “How come you didn’t give me any aspirin, Annabeth?”

 

“Because you weren’t puking your guts out last night, Seaweed Brain.”

 

“Fair point.”

 

Piper winces at the mention of vomit. “I’m really sorry, guys. I didn’t mean to drink that much.”

 

Annabeth shakes her head dismissively. “Don’t worry about it. You were fine.”

 

Leo laughs loudly. “Yeah, real fine, Pipes. D’ya guys remember how she went around begging everyone to kiss her? And then I was all, Pipes, spin the bottle’s over, and she’s all, fuck off, I’m not done, and then that Taylor Swift song came on, and she started—“

 

Hazel cuts him off with a whack to the back of his head.

 

“Ow!” Leo says indignantly, rubbing his neck.

 

Hazel shoots him a stern look, and Piper buries her head in her hands in embarrassment.

 

“That’s so embarrassing, gods,” she moans. “I’m sorry, really, I don’t know what happened.”

 

Annabeth rubs her back soothingly. “We’ve all been there, Piper,”

 

Piper thinks she hears Nico say something like that’s doubtful, and Percy giggles, then grunts, and Piper assumes someone, presumably Hazel, has smacked his head.

 

“We’ve all been there,” Annabeth repeats, sterner this time. “We get it. You’re going through a lot, it’s understandable.”

 

“Besides,” Annabeth continues, putting her hands over Piper’s wrists and pulling them away to meet her eyes. “We’ve only got one more week ‘til the big party, and that means every day until then is gonna be spent planning and decorating. We need your eye for design now more than ever.”

 

Piper flushes, and Leo laughs again in that sharp, loud way of his.

 

“Eye for design? Do you see the jacket she’s wear- Ow, Hazel, don’t do that!”

 

Annabeth laughs and scoots her cup of hot chocolate over to Piper. “Finish the bagel and hot chocolate and we can get started for the day, okay?”

 

Piper realizes in the back of her mind that Annabeth is definitely doting on her in the subtle way only Annabeth can. She made no attempt to snatch her bagel back in that playful way she did back before the Argo II set sail and seems to relax everytime Piper takes a bite.

 

She cares, Piper thinks, so she lets her dote, and keeps eating the bagel, and takes big sips of the hot chocolate, pretending she doesn’t notice Annabeth watching her the whole time as everyone engages in conversation about the party.

 

“So, what exactly is the party?” Piper asks between bites.

 

Leo smirks at her, twirling a fork between his fingers. “Well, Miss Casanova, it’s our Oracle’s idea of upstaging the Swiss alps. Big dance floor, lots of decorations, present exchange, mistletoe, blah blah blah.”

 

Just then, Rachel Elizabeth Dare herself appears right as she’s mentioned in that way Oracles tend to do, wearing a purple cable knit sweater underneath baggy overalls, scooching in next to Piper. “We’ve invited the gods,” she adds, wiggling her brows.

 

“Seriously?” Piper breathes out a laugh at that.

 

“Mhmm!” Rachel hums as she pulls the green scrunchie off her wrist and starts pulling her wild red curls into a bun. “Why not?”

 

“You really think they’ll come?”

 

Annabeth chimes in then, a smug smile on her face as she bumps her shoulder against Piper’s. “Athena, Apollo, Aphrodite, and Demeter have all already RSVP’d with a yes.”

 

Piper shakes her head in disbelief. It’s a small thing, coming to a party, especially if said party is being thrown by the people who have saved your asses a thousand times over, but Piper is still surprised the gods- her mom - have agreed to it.

 

“Ah, about the whole present exchange thing,” Percy has lifted his head off from the table, a red indent on his forehead from the table’s edge. “I kinda, how do I put this, don’t have any presents for anyone.”

 

Nico glares at him. “Seriously?”

 

Percy pokes his cheek with a grin. “Of course I got something for you, I just mean, like-“

 

“The people you’re not dating,” Annabeth finishes for him.

 

Percy sinks into his seat with a sheepish grin, and Nico sits a little straighter, looking content.

 

Annabeth sighs and puts her elbow up on the table, placing her head in her hand. “Rach, do you know if Argus is free today?”

 

Rachel nods, dropping her hands back to her lap from her hair, content with the messiness of her bun. “Should be.”

 

“Alright,” Annabeth addresses the group. “I’ll get Argus to drive us into the city so certain people can pick out some gifts. I’ve gotta get some things for the party, anyways, so you guys might as well come, too.”

 

“A field trip?” Leo places his palms on the table and wiggles his eyebrows at Annabeth.

 

“A shopping trip,” Annabeth clarifies. “You get a present for everyone, and that’s all.

 

Leo boo’s her, and comes to an abrupt halt when he realizes nobody else is joining in.

 

Annabeth stands up from the table and wraps her denim coat tight around her. “I’ll go get Argus. Everyone be ready to leave in ten.”

 

She spins on her heel and jogs off towards the Big House as everyone else focuses on shoveling their last bits of breakfast into their mouths. Piper drains the last sip of hot chocolate and tosses the rest of her bagel into her mouth and nearly chokes when she realizes Rachel Elizabeth Dare is staring at her.

 

“Gods!” Piper chokes out after a fit of coughs. “Why are you looking at me like that? Do I have something on my face?”

 

Her hands instinctively go to her face, patting around and feeling for crumbs, but Rachel just laughs and grabs one of her hands in her own.

 

“I want you to know, Piper,” she says, turning her hand around and trailing a finger over her palm. “Everything’s gonna be okay. Actually, scratch that, better than okay.”

 

Piper furrows her brows. “What’dya mean?”

 

“It’ll be different. Really different. But good. You’ll feel really alive .”

 

“Do I feel dead now?”

 

Rachel huffs a laugh at that and releases Piper’s hand. “Not anymore. But just trust me. Things’ll get better. Jason knows it too.”

 

Piper’s blood runs cold, as it always does, at the mention of Jason, but Rachel puts her hands on Piper’s shoulders and squeezes.

 

“It’s okay to live now, Piper.”

 

Piper opens her mouth to say more, but then Annabeth and Argus are both bounding towards them, and everyone cheers as they get up from the table and follow the pair to the van.

 

Rachel gives Piper one last knowing look- except it really is a knowing look and she hates having the Oracle as a friend- and then tells her she’d better get going.

 

Piper narrows her eyes at Rachel as the Oracle goes wandering off to the Big House, hands in the pockets of her overalls and walking with a bounce in her step, and, yeah, she really hates having the Oracle as a friend.

 

She jogs off to join the others at the van and squeezes into the back seat, pressed up between the door and Nico di Angelo.

 

Nico gives her a tiny little smile, something that he’s been doing more since dating Percy, but it still takes Piper off guard every time. She thinks she remembers Nico telling her something last night, and wants to ask what it was, but then Percy is wrapping an arm around his shoulder and pulling him in for a conversation.

 

Piper realizes she’s stuck in the back as a dreaded third wheel so she exhales deeply and opts to turn to look out the window until they arrive.

 

Argus has taken them to a Christmas market that stretches the length of a street, filled up with tourists and vendors and garish Christmas decorations.

 

They scramble out of the van with a promise to be back in two hours to Argus, then promptly peel off into groups- Percy and Nico, Hazel and Frank and Leo, and Piper looks at Annabeth with a smile.

 

“Guess that leaves us,” Piper says, looking down at her boots.

 

“Guess it does,” Annabeth says, and links her arm through Piper’s and drags her off, Piper’s heart racing.

 

They end up at a glass blown ornament booth, where Annabeth stands off to the side as Piper examines them all carefully until finally settling on one blown with gold and purple for Hazel, declaring it to be perfect with a big smile.

 

Then Piper uses her charmspeak to convince a wine vendor to let her buy a bottle of some aged red from Italy for Nico, and one that has an alarmingly high alcohol percentage and is all sparkly and red-orange-yellow, like fire, for Leo.

 

It’s at a vendor that’s selling board games, Piper searching for one she thinks Frank would like, that she realizes Annabeth has done little more than stand off to the side and watch Piper pick out gifts eagerly.

 

As the vendor bags up the game Piper points out, she turns to Annabeth with a raised eyebrow. “Aren’t you gonna buy anything, Annie?”

 

Piper takes the bag, adds it to her growing collection in her left hand as Annabeth shakes her head. “I got my gifts weeks ago.”

 

“Of course you did,” Piper grins and hops back down into the street.

 

“Nothing wrong with being prepared early.”

 

“I didn’t say there was,” Piper puts her hands in the air with a smirk. “Just, y’know, this is sorta weird. Me doing all the shopping, you just standing there.”

 

“I’m enjoying it,” Annabeth says simply.

 

“Really? But you’re just… watching.”

 

Annabeth laughs and reaches out to fix Piper’s bangs, a habit she’d picked up on in just a day. “Trust me, Pipes, I’m having fun. I just like spending time with you.”

 

Piper feels her face flush but keeps walking. “In that case, help me figure out what to get Percy.”

 

“How should I know what to get him?”

 

“You guys dated for years! You know him better than anyone.”

 

“Clearly not.”

 

Piper looks over to see if Annabeth looks solemn, but there’s a smirk on her face, and Piper bursts into laughter.

 

“Man, Nico di Angelo. I don’t think even Rachel saw that one coming.”

 

“I totally saw it coming!” Annabeth says defensively, smacking Piper on the shoulder lightly.

 

Piper looks at her hard. “Nuh uh, no way. Percy being bi is chill and all, but I’d never think he’d fall for Nico.”

 

Annabeth hums. “I think they’re cute. They’re total opposites, sure, but it works, don’t you think?”

 

Piper thinks back to the two of them cuddled up in the car, and all the times she’s caught Nico looking happier than she’s ever seen him, and the little moony-eyed looks Percy gives him. “Yeah, they are pretty cute,” she decides with a little smile.

 

“Annie?” Piper decides to ask, slowing her pace as they walk down the market.

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Have you started seeing anyone?”

 

Annabeth comes to a stop, and Piper follows suit, looking up in her eyes that Piper is never able to read.

 

“No, I haven’t,” Annabeth starts walking again.

 

Piper speedwalks to catch up. “Why not?”

 

“Don’t know.”

 

“Nobody you’re interested in?”

 

“Nobody who’s interested.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Hey, look, that’s a crystal ball! How hilarious would it be to give Rachel that?”

 

And then Piper is dragging Annabeth off, giggling and practically tossing money at the vendor as she points at the crystal ball to be purchased.

 

“You’re really good at picking out gifts, you know,” Annabeth speaks up as she side steps Piper to take the heavy bag from the vendor’s hands and the two start walking again.

 

“Am I?” Piper muses, adjusting the bags on her arm. “I really like it. Picking out the perfect gift for people and seeing their face when they open it. I got Jason-“

 

She cuts herself short and feels the familiar sting of tears at her eyes.

 

Annabeth is in front of her then, and Piper realizes they’ve come to a stop on the street. She cups Piper’s chin inbetween her fingers and forces her to meet her eyeline.

 

“You don’t have to do that,” Annabeth says softly. “It’s good to talk about him. He was a part of our lives- a good part. We can talk about him.”

 

Piper swallows, eyes flitting around to look anywhere but at Annabeth as she says, “I’m not, like, still in love with him,” and she’s not sure why she feels the need to say that, but she does, and she keeps talking. “I don’t regret ending it. I just wish we were on better terms before… and I wish it.. it wasn’t for me.”

 

Annabeth’s hand moves from Piper’s chin to the side of her jaw, rubbing her thumb over her sharp cheekbones. “I think he would have done what he did for anyone, Pipes. That’s just who he was.”

 

“I know,” Piper whispers, leaning into Annabeth’s hand. “Just.. it’s hard. I was there. I saw it. It was for me.”

 

Annabeth nods.

 

“I was really mad at first, y’know? I was such a bitch to my dad when I got home. Didn’t go to school. Just yelled a lot and cursed the gods,” Annabeth’s hand drops down to touch Piper’s, just a quick, barely there brush of fingers. “And then something snapped, and I.. I wasn’t angry anymore. I wasn’t anything.”

 

She takes a deep, shuddering breath.

 

“I would lay on the couch all day. Just doing nothing, feeling nothing. I’d think of him and feel nothing. The first time I cried was that day I IM’d you.”

 

“What happened that day?” Annabeth asks softly, moving her hand to brush against Piper’s again.

 

Piper shrugs helplessly. “I don’t know. I just.. woke up, I guess? I did this,” she flicks a strand of her hair. “And I showered and dressed and then I cried, a lot, and then I called you.”

 

“I’m glad you did.”

 

“I am too. I dunno what happened, but all I know is now I can feel things, but when I talk about him, I.. I start not feeling again.”

 

Annabeth laces their fingers together then. “I’m not a therapist, Pipes, but that sounds kind of normal to me. You’re feeling again because you’re healing, moving on, but talking about him makes you crash again, and you feel guilty.”

 

Piper looks up into Annabeth’s eyes and stares at her with something a little like wonder at this girl in front of her who always knows what to say, and reads Piper like the books Annabeth is always trying to get her to read, and Piper is just so in awe of her, and so confused as to why Annabeth would want someone like her in her life.

 

“Because you’re amazing, Pipes,” Annabeth says, and Piper realizes she’d said that last bit out loud with a flush to her cheeks.

 

“You’re so strong, and brave, but so gentle and good. You really believe in love, and see the good in everyone. You give everyone you meet your whole heart, and that’s so special.”

 

Piper doesn’t realize she’s been leaning closer to Annabeth until she feels her warm breath hit her face, which makes her jolt back and Annabeth’s brows to knit.

 

Piper stares down at her feet, absolutely refusing to meet Annabeth’s eye, her heart racing and head spinning. 

 

“Come on,” Annabeth says with a sigh. “I think I saw someone selling hand-made stuffed animals. Percy would go nuts for a dolphin or something.”

 

Piper ends up with two bottles of wine, a board game, a blown glass ornament, a glass ball, and a jumbo sized plush blue seahorse for her friends, and then she turns to Annabeth with a stern look on her face.

 

“You know what we have to do.”

 

Annabeth groans. “Don’t say it, please, don’t say it.”

 

“I’m sorry, Annie, but this has to happen.”

 

“Please, gods, no, I can’t thirdwheel Percy and Nico anymore.”

 

“It has to happen,” Piper repeats, putting a hand on Annabeth’s shoulder. “You’re the only one I haven’t gotten a gift yet. You can’t be with me when I do.”

 

“What if I close my eyes and promise not to peek?”

 

“Annie!”

 

“Fine, fine,” Annabeth sighs. “I saw Percy and Nico back there. Guess I’ll just… go… thirdwheel… alone…”

 

With every word, she takes a step backwards with a pleading look in her eye and a hand outstretched to Piper like she’s inviting her to grab it. Piper stands with her hands on her hips and a smirk until Annabeth has turned around and gone off, and Piper begins what might possibly be the hardest, most life-threatening, most important quest any demigod has ever embarked on: finding Annabeth Chase the perfect Christmas present.

 

A half hour later, Piper is running up to Argus’ van, arms weighed down with bags as apologizes spill out of her mouth.

 

“Sorry I’m late, sorry, sorry!” She tosses her bags into the trunk carefully. “Lost track of time.”

 

Leo pops his head up from the backseat and makes a tsk, tsk sound. “Getting totally plastered and now late to the van? Miss McLean, you keep this up and you’re back to the Wilderness School!”

 

“Maybe it wouldn’t be that bad this time. Y’know, that annoying little elf boy won’t be there,” she muses, and slams the trunk shut on Leo’s shocked face and the rest of the group’s laughter.

 

Piper sits between Annabeth and Hazel this time, and Annabeth keeps nudging and nudging her. 

 

“What’d you get me?”

 

“I’m not telling you.”

 

“C’mon, you can tell me.”

 

“Nope.”

 

“Please?”

 

“Nope.”

 

“Pretty please with gelatin-free marshmallows on top?”

 

“Nope.”

 

They keep at it until they’re back at Camp and unloading the trunk. Annabeth beats Piper to the back, and snatches up the bag her gift is in.

 

“Hmmm,” she says, shaking it next to her ear. “Not too heavy. Not glass. Interesting, interesting.”

 

“Gimme that!” Piper snatches the bag from her and boops Annabeth’s nose. “You, Annabeth Chase, are a child.”

 

“But you love me anyway,” Annabeth says, sticking her tongue out and bending to gather the party supplies she’d bought from the trunk.

 

Something about the way Annabeth says it makes Piper freeze up and her cheeks flush, annoyingly, for what it seems like is the thousandth time that day. She’s noticed her cheeks color a lot around the daughter of Athena, and Piper really, really, hates it.

 

“Everyone take your gifts back to your cabins and meet at the dining pavilion to start setting up for the party!” Annabeth says in that one tone of voice she has that makes everyone listen attentively. It’s somewhere between strict mom and navy admiral.

 

Leo responds with a salute. “Aye aye!”

 

Annabeth turns to look at Piper like, can you believe him? , but Piper mirrors Leo’s salute and runs off before Annabeth can scold her.

 

Setting up for a party is usually pretty simple. You blow up a couple balloons, tape a couple streamers, blah blah blah. The whole process shouldn’t take more than an hour, really.

 

Setting up a party hosted by Rachel Elizabeth Dare and Annabeth Chase, as it turns out, is a whole to-do that takes a week, lots of sweat, lots of blood, and lots of tears.

 

The first day, Annabeth recruits Percy into making ice sculptures of all the attending gods. The poor guy is drenched in sweat by the time she’s satisfied with his likeness of Athena.

 

Rachel convinces Hazel to go digging for any gems that are red and green, and the Oracle has Hazel reduced to tears when she shouts that the red gems she pulls up are too maroon and the green are too emerald and she asked for red and green, really, Hazel, are you colorblind? This has to be perfect!

 

Nico calls on some skeletons to help set up the camp, and they get very upset when they realize their Ghost King hasn’t called upon them to slaughter enemies, but to put up streamers and install a dance floor. The scuffle that ensues leaves a very distressed Nico with a bloody nose and no workers to help with his job.

 

Piper mainly runs around as Annabeth’s assistant, checking in on everyone’s progress to make sure everything is how Annabeth requested. The strawberries are frosted, but not too frosted. The paths are swept clean and lined with two inch by two inch icicles. Every cabin, yes Clarisse, even Ares has to have some yuletide cheer , is at least lined with Christmas lights and a garland or two.

 

She’s there when Annabeth is yelling at the Hermes cabin that the balloons are for decoration, not for pitching your voice up with the helium. Annabeth looks like she’s ready to crack Connor and Travis’ skulls together until Piper comes up from behind and wraps an arm around her waist.

 

“It’s fine, Annie, we have way more balloons than we need, anyways.”

 

“I know but-“

 

“You’re doing great,” Piper assures her, squeezing her waist. “Just keep going.”

 

And Annabeth seems to relax, as much as Annabeth is capable of relaxing, and she moves on to checking on how the Demeter cabin’s garlands are going.

 

There’s lots of little moments like that. Whenever Annabeth is about to snap, Piper puts a hand on her shoulder or an arm around her waist, and Annabeth deflates a little, just sadly saying how badly she wants this party to be perfect, and Piper nods and nods and tells her it will be because she’s Annabeth and anything Annabeth does is perfect and Piper looks away when Annabeth’s cheeks turn pink at that 

 

They eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner together every day, Annabeth pretending she’s not making sure Piper finishes her plate and Piper pretending she doesn’t see Annabeth watching her eat. Annabeth fills her in on what she’s missed at Camp, and Piper tells Annabeth about the movies she watched while she was away, and Piper finds meal times with Annabeth to be the highlight of her day without fail, always filled with laughter and joy and sometimes Piper makes Annabeth blush when she compliments her and Piper holds onto the thrill that gives her until she goes to sleep.

 

It’s a solid week, Piper decides as she checks off another item from the to-do list Annabeth gave her. Piper felt all sorts of things she hadn’t felt in months- stressed as she ran around trying to finish her assignment, sad when she walked in on a homesick camper who wouldn’t stop crying for an hour, pure, unadulterated delight when Percy tests the thickness of the lake’s ice and falls straight in and Annabeth is doubled over in laughter. Piper finds that a lot of the good emotions- delight as she laughs alongside Annabeth, relief when she’s able to stop her from going off on a camper, pride when Annabeth comes by and compliments her on a job she’s working on, affection when she reaches out and adjusts her bangs- she feels that week have a lot to do with Annabeth, and she isn’t really sure what to do with that.

 

The week is almost over when Piper wakes up and feels nothing again.

 

She opens her eyes and there’s this pit in her stomach and Lacy’s baby pink bedspread across the room seems a little duller and Piper just curls up on her side and pulls the covers over her head and stares at the fabric.

 

It’s almost eerie, really, how if Piper closes her eyes and concentrates, it’s like she’s back in Oklahoma on the couch, hair long and greasy again, Indian food rotting, scarily skinny and feeling nothing and Jason is dead.

 

Even when she pulls the covers down and confirms that she is at Camp Half-Blood, not Oklahoma, it doesn’t make much of a difference in the way she feels, or doesn’t feel, so she pulls the covers back over her head.

 

Piper knows she has responsibilities now. She’s supposed to make sure Percy has actually frozen the lake thick enough to ice skate on, and Nico has finished installing the dance floor, and IM all the gods who RSVPd to confirm they’ll be in attendance, and on more personal notes, she has to wrap a few more gifts and bake Mitchell those brownies. But nothing seems as important, in that moment, as laying there and feeling nothing.

 

Looking back on yesterday, when Piper had burned herself against the stove while baking cookies and cursed as she ran her hand under cool water, Piper wishes she had appreciated the sharp pain more then. At least that was something. This? This is nothing. It’s less than nothing. It’s—

 

“Pipes?”

 

The door opens slowly and the floor creaks under the weight of another body. Piper stays still, very still, like if she just doesn’t move, nobody will notice the big lump under the covers.

 

“Piper.” It’s Annabeth, Piper realizes with a pang to the gut. Annabeth, who has been worried out of her mind about this party all week, is now in Piper’s cabin because Piper just could not get out of bed.

 

She feels the covers being pulled down and the bed dips on one side. Piper looks over and sees that Annabeth has crawled into the bed with her, tossing the bedspread back over the two of them.

 

“What are you doing?” Piper whispers, voice hoarse.

 

Annabeth rolls on her side to face Piper, eyes soft. “I’m laying here with you.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because you’re not out there, you’re here, and I want to be with you, so I’m here.”

 

There’s silence, just Piper and Annabeth looking at each other, Piper, with her eyes wide, and Annabeth, soft and content.

 

“I feel nothing again, Annie,” Piper says, and she sounds so pathetic, even to herself, that she regrets ever opening her mouth.

 

Annabeth scoots closer and wraps her arms around Piper, and Piper puts her head against her shoulder.

 

“I was fine all week. Why do I feel nothing again?”

 

Annabeth runs her hands through Piper’s hair, nails scratching gently against her scalp and humming against her ear. “I don’t know, Piper, but it’s okay. You don’t have to be fine all the time.”

 

Piper lets herself lay there, surrounded by Annabeth’s warmth and Annabeth’s touches and Annabeth’s humming, and it makes her realize then that she hasn’t felt this alive in a long time, and then she remembers what Rachel had told her about feeling alive and moving on and it makes her body still.

 

“You okay?” Annabeth asks, quiet as a mouse, hand still running through her hair.

 

Piper considers that for a minute. Considers that Jason is dead, and has been dead for four months. He died for her. And really all she’s done in return is lay on the couch feeling nothing. But now Annabeth Chase is here with her, even though she feels nothing, and suddenly Piper doesn’t really feel nothing anymore. She feels nothing in the sense that she’s just a little bit on the broken side, as most demigods are, and she probably should ask her dad if she can go to therapy next time she sees him.

 

But she also is so overwhelmingly aware of Annabeth. Annabeth, who had become her best friend in the scariest time of her life and kept her laughing with inside jokes and architecture facts. Annabeth, who was the first person Piper called when she woke up from her fog because she didn’t know what she was gonna say to her, but she just really wanted to see her. Smart, funny, pretty Annabeth who said all those nice things about Piper in the Christmas market and is associated with every good thing Piper has felt all week who is now holding Piper in her arms like she might break and Piper thinks at this point that it’s possible.

 

Piper considers Annabeth and feels her mouth twitch upward in a smile and she presses her lips to Annabeth’s ear and whispers, “I’m okay,” and she means it.

 

They stay in bed all day, after Annabeth assures Piper that Rachel is more than capable of handling the rest of what needs to be done. Piper’s cabinmates come and go, to use the bathroom or grab another sweater, but Annabeth simply looks at them and they’re gone in a flash.

 

Piper lets Annabeth hold her and protect her, and it’s nice, it really is. They don’t talk much, just when Annabeth says she’s getting up to use the bathroom, and Piper says okay, and Annabeth leaves to get food and makes sure Piper eats.

 

At nightfall, after Annabeth has brought back dinner and they’ve scraped their plates clean, Annabeth says, “Your cabinmates are gonna want their cabin back, I think.”

 

Piper doesn’t really know what she means, so she just rolls over and nuzzles back into Annabeth’s shoulder.

 

“Piper,” she whispers. “They’re gonna wanna sleep.”

 

“Stay.”

 

Piper knows Annabeth can’t- not really. It’s camp policy that nobody can stay in another cabin. But Piper just wants Annabeth to stay with her that night, just once, and Annabeth looks down at Piper, bangs matted down to her forehead, curled up like a cat in the spot she hasn’t moved from all day, and Annabeth thinks that seniority at camp can surely earn her some forgiveness from Chiron in the morning, so she lays back down with Piper, lets her press her body back against hers, and closes her eyes.

 

Piper wakes up to Lacy and Mitchell hanging over her, mouths open and eyes wide. She feels a warm body next to her, and knows, just knows, it’s Annabeth, that Annabeth wouldn’t leave without saying goodbye.

 

Mitchell is mouthing, What happened? and Lacy is, bless her heart, trying to mouth something but she’s godsawful at it, and Piper only manages to make out girlfriend , which is still enough to make her flush.

 

She shooes them off after promising to fill them in later, then rolls over to face Annabeth again.

 

She looks years younger in her sleep, like no quest or prophecy has ever haunted her and she hasn’t lost friends to death and she’s just a normal teenager.

 

Piper smiles fondly down at her, her usually tamed and shiny blonde curls a squished frizzy mess underneath her head.

 

“Annie,” she whispers, gently shaking her arm. “Wake up- the party’s today.”

 

Annabeth mutters something and rolls over. Piper gets up on her knees and shakes her harder, then leans down and blows sharp and fast into her ear.

 

“Ew!” Annabeth jerks awake, rubbing at her ear.

 

“Did you just… blow in my ear?”

 

“Sure did!” Piper grins, stretching her arms up casually. “Couldn’t let you sleep in when the party’s supposed to start in t-minus 12 hours.”

 

Annabeth sits up and makes a vague attempt to smooth her hair down. “This party is either gonna be the best or worst ever. Haven’t decided yet.”

 

Piper grins at her. “Considering you planned almost all of it, I’m gonna go with best.”

 

“Flattery gets you nowhere, McLean,” Annabeth says, standing up from Piper’s bed and stretching.

 

“Does it get me breakfast in bed again?”

 

Annabeth pretends to consider this, tapping a finger against her chin. “You have exactly twelve minutes to get showered and dressed before no amount of flattery can save you from Rachel Elizabeth Dare’s wrath.”

 

Piper jumps out of bed at the threat, running past a laughing Annabeth into the bathroom to get showered.

 

The last minute tweaks for the party involve Nico flicking through the playlist Leo has prepared with disgust, removing and adding songs according to his taste, Percy helping the naiads string lights around the perimeter of the lake, Rachel convincing the satyrs to put up with just one more snow day, Piper confirming with all but Zeus that they’ll be arriving at 8 o’clock sharp, Annabeth setting tables, Hazel arranging centerpieces, and Frank confirming the menu with the harpies.

 

When 7 rolls around, Annabeth and Rachel gather everyone for one last group hug before the main event.

 

“Everything is perfect,” Rachel sighs. “Thank you so much for helping, you really didn’t have to.”

 

They all swallow down their Yes we totally did, we all were forced into this with no choice by the two scariest girls at camp and accept the hug.

 

When they pull away, Annabeth claps her hands together and grins proudly. “Now everyone go get washed up and dressed, and get ready to party!”

 

There’s a half hearted whoop from an exhausted Leo, and the rest shuffle off to their respective cabins.

 

The Aphrodite cabin is as busy as its ever been, with powder flying in the air and Piper’s cabinmates running around trying to get ready.

 

Lacy flies up to Piper in a lacey white skirt that reaches her ankles, and a forest green sweater. “Piper, Piper, Piper,” she gushes. “Do you think this skirt makes me look rectangular? Drew said it does, and I know you said not to listen to Drew, but it is a maxi skirt and I’m kinda short so-”

 

“Lacy!” Piper laughs and puts her hands on the younger girl’s shoulders. “You look great. Mom’s gonna love it.”

 

She flushes seven shades of pink then runs off to help the other girls get ready, who are all as equally anxious as her.

 

Piper realizes then, watching the chaos that is 18 Aphrodite kids getting ready for a formal event, that this will be the first time many of them meet their mother. Piper knew that not all of them had had as much one-on-one experience with Aphrodite as Piper had, but it only then sinks in that some of them have never even gotten a glimpse at their mother, and Piper’s heart starts to ache for them, and she feels the need to pull them all into a hug and tell them if Aphrodite isn’t around to be their mother, Piper sure as hell will be.

 

As Piper heads to the shower, she makes it a point to shoot compliments at everyone she passes, assuring everyone they look absolutely beautiful, and Aphrodite will love their outfit, but most importantly, they look so confident and comfortable and so themselves.

 

When she herself is clean, hair wrapped up in a towel, Piper pulls on a black turtleneck and tucks it into a short black and white plaid skirt before wiggling her way into a pair of black tights, and slipping her feet into black boots.

 

Her hair is almost dry when she releases it from the towel, and she watches it fall to her shoulders, still not entirely used to its shorter length. She combs out her bangs, adjusting them so they’ll dry just so, then sort of runs her fingers through her hair to muss it up.

 

Piper sticks her head out the bathroom door and shouts out for Mitchell, who comes running in a button up shirt and slacks, face flushed with nerves.

 

“D’ya wanna help me do my makeup?”

 

And if those 8 words would make Mitchell light up as much as he does at that moment every time she says them, Piper thinks she could get used to wearing makeup everyday.

 

He’s bubbling with happiness as he wiggles mascara onto her lashes and dots blush onto her cheeks. “I know you like a natural look, don’t worry,” he says while filling her eyebrows in. “I can’t believe you’re letting me do this, like, are you on crack?”

 

Piper laughs as much as she can as Mitchell is dabbing lipstick onto her lips. “No crack, promise. Just wanting to, y’know, look nice.”

 

Mitchell pulls back and caps the lipstick, wiggling his brows. “For anyone in particular?”

 

Piper feels her face flush, but she flicks her hair over her shoulder and sticks her nose up. “None of your business, now keep doing whatever it is you’re doing.”

 

She closes her eyes as Mitchell dabs some sparkly silver eyeshadow onto her lids, promising it’s natural and just to catch the light, and wriggles black eyeliner onto her upper lid.

 

It’s soft and intimate, just Piper giggling as Mitchell grabs her head between his hands and looks like an artist perfecting his masterpiece, and they both speak in soft whispers when Mitchell compliments Piper and Piper says something dumb and it’s nice, Piper realizes, having Mitchell use feather-light touches to put makeup on her and making conversation under their breaths. Piper thinks if she hadn’t been such a pretentious twat when she first came to camp, this kind of thing would have been fun even then, too.

 

When Mitchell finally gives Piper the okay to look in the mirror, Piper can’t help but smile at what she sees. Her face has filled out since she first arrived at camp, cheekbones and jawline still pronounced, but not in their once sickly way. The makeup Mitchell did is natural, as promised. Her hair has regained its shine, her bangs falling just beneath her eyebrows, and for once Piper feels like she really looks like a child of Aphrodite. She looks healthy and, she realizes with a start, happy.

 

“Do you like it?” Mitchell asks eagerly from his place behind Piper, bouncing on his heels.

 

“I love it,” Piper assures him, pulling him in for a hug. “There’s a tupperware of brownies in the bottom drawer of your vanity, by the way. As thanks for filling in while I was away.”

 

When Mitchell pulls back from the hug, he’s looking at Piper with awe. “Have I told you how much I love you lately?”

 

“You could stand to do it more.”

 

Mitchell punches her arm gently, sticking his tongue out at her, and Piper mirrors back the face before she walks into the main room and addresses her cabinmates,

 

“Okay guys, it’s time to head out. Just a reminder that if one of the gods or goddesses talks to you, it’s always wise to call them My Lord or My Lady,” Piper says as they all crowd around her, dressed to the nines in their dresses and slacks. “Mom’s gonna be there, as you all know, but just give her space and, y’know, treat her like.. Like, a mom.”

 

The mention of Aphrodite makes the excitement in the air palpable, and Piper can’t help but smile. “The most important thing is you guys have fun tonight, okay? Don’t follow Mom around or whatever. Talk to your friends, dance, and have fun. Now, go, go, go!”

 

There’s squeals and giggles as the cabin clears out, all racing to be the first one out the door. Piper watches them go with a fond grin, and waits for the last straggler to get out the door before walking over to her bed. On top is a big tote bag, filled to the brim with gifts for her friends.

 

She shoulders the bag, and walks out to join the party.

 

It really shouldn’t be surprising, given that Rachel and Annabeth organized it, that the party is as beautiful as it is. Every inch of Camp has some sparkle of Christmas cheer, whether it be garland or icicles or ribbon or sparkling lights.

 

The main event is where the archery targets usually are. The flat patch of land has been set up with a huge tent, courtesy of Leo, rigged with heating vents and speakers. The tent shimmers like the Artemis cabin, pure moonlight, and the dance floor is sparkling silver.

 

It’s like the two girls heard the phrase ‘winter wonderland’ and decided to make it as extreme as possible, really.

 

Piper can see there’s already kids dancing to Nico’s playlist, while others are crowded around the buffet table, and some are mustering up the courage to talk to their parents, who lounge on the Hephaestus-cabin-made thrones made for them.

 

Judging by the pulsing music and loud bursts of laughter from the tent, Piper thinks it’s safe to assume everyone is having a good time.

 

Piper makes her way to her friends’ spot by the lake, this time unhidden by Nico’s shadows. They’re all standing around with bags as big as Piper’s in hand, chatting amongst themselves beneath the stars.

 

“Pipes, you’re here!” Annabeth greets her with a beam, and Piper smiles back, looking at Annabeth fondly.

 

She’s wearing a long-sleeved, white button up, tucked into high-rise blue jeans and cinched with a thin brown belt. Her hair has been straightened, Piper notices, and her lips are colored with a bright red lipstick.

 

Piper thinks she looks beautiful.

 

“Everyone ready?” Piper asks, hefting up her gift bag.

 

There’s a loud cheer in response, and the gift exchange begins. Everyone seems to enjoy their gifts, much to Piper’s delight, and Hazel even gets a little misty eyed when she sees her ornament.

 

“It’s so beautiful,” she says, holding it up so it catches the moonlight. “Thank you, Piper.”

 

Even Nico is pleased with his bottle of wine, turning it over in his hand to read the label like he’ll know what any of it really means and he’s secretly a wine connoisseur.

 

“It’s authentic Italian,” Piper comments, tapping the bottle with a finger. “And from the mid 1900’s, just like you.”

 

Nico rolls his eyes at that, but lets himself be pulled into Piper’s hug and he’s got the hint of a smile on his face when she lets him go.

 

Percy reacts just as Annabeth told her he would, all dopey lopsided smile and a big, bone-crushing hug. “I’m gonna name it Pippy,” Percy declares, holding the blue seahorse up in the air. 

 

Frank says he’ll be busting the board game open as soon as he gets back to Camp Jupiter, and Piper makes him promise to convince Reyna to play, too.

 

Leo can’t stop laughing when he opens his gift. “Wine, seriously, Pipes?”

 

“Look at it, Leo! Doesn’t it look like fire?”

 

Leo holds the bottle up for further inspection and pulls back with a nod, but a smile still is stretched across his face. “I mean, yeah, yeah, but.. Nevermind, thanks a ton, Pipes.”

 

Rachel Elizabeth Dare cracks up at her crystal ball, and they go back and forth on how much Rachel could charge a camper for a fortune reading.

 

And then Annabeth is standing in front of Piper, arms behind her back and face beaming.

 

“Fancy seeing you here,” Piper begins, putting her almost-empty tote behind her back and meeting Annabeth halfway.

 

“Indeed, indeed. Come here much?”

 

“Ah, only when some bossy Athena kid demands I be here at 8:05 sharp.”

 

“That Athena kid sounds like she knows what she’s talking about.”

 

“I think she talks out of her ass most of the time, but to each their own.”

 

“Does this mean you don’t want that bossy Athena kid’s present for you?”

 

“Depends, does the bossy Athena kid want her present?”

 

Annabeth grins and produces a wrapped up box from behind her back, and Piper pulls out a box of her own, and they swap gifts eagerly.

 

Annabeth lets Piper open her gift first, and Piper takes one look at the gift and thinks there is no way in Tartarus, no matter how many lives she lives or how many times she ends up in Elysium, that Piper McLean will ever deserve Annabeth Chase.

 

It’s a scrapbook almost as thick as a dictionary, stuffed to the brim with photos of all of Piper’s friends. Annabeth has taped movie ticket stubs from all the times she and Piper had snuck out of camp to see some movie that was never as good as the time Piper had with Annabeth running through the city to the pages, receipts from particularly eventful dinners they went out to. There’s dried flowers picked from all the places Annabeth and Piper have ever been- there’s one labeled Great Salt Lakes, another Charleston, Ithaca, Camp Jupiter, and Piper tries, really, really hard not to cry.

 

The photos taped to the pages are much more than just staged photos of Pipers’ friends grinning at the camera. There’s ones where it looks like they don’t know they’re being photographed. There’s Nico and Percy napping together on the couch in the Big House. Leo covered in grease navigating the Argo II. There’s Jason staring out at the sky as the ship flies. Hazel and Frank engaged in a deep conversation. Piper staring down at Katoptris with her brows furrowed.

 

“I’ve got this film camera,” Annabeth explains, rubbing at her neck and looking down. “Been taking photos with it for a while, and they take a while to get developed, so I never showed them to you, but, ah, Merry Christmas.”

 

Piper pulls Annabeth in for a tight hug, whispering “I love it,” right into her ear.

 

Annabeth starts tearing into her gift with a big smile on her face when they pull away, and Piper suddenly feels seized with panic, desperate for that smile to never leave Annabeth’s face if it’s Piper’s fault.

 

“I, um, I bought it. I feel bad, ‘cause your scrapbook probably took forever to make, and I just, like, bought something, but, um, yeah, I think it’s pretty cool?” Piper rambles as Annabeth takes her gift out of the box and holds it out in front of her.

 

It’s a thick, burnt orange corduroy jacket, the collar lined with faux fur. There’s a silver owl with big blue eyes pinned to one side of the collar, and a shimmering empire state building on the other. Piper enlisted the help of Lacy to embroider a tiny ‘Pipes’ on the sleeve, barely noticeable unless you know it’s there, and she even let Lacy make the dot of the ‘i’ a little heart.

 

“You said corduroy is better than denim, in your note, and I noticed you only wear that one denim jacket, and, like, I remember you telling me your favorite color is orange? And the pins, well, you probably get those. The vendor told me the coat’s vintage, seventies I think, but who really knows, and, um, the pipes on the sleeve might be too much but--”

 

Annabeth cuts Piper off with a hug of her own, and as soon as they pull away, Annabeth is yanking the coat on with that big grin on her face, and Piper thinks she’d do anything, would buy a thousand stupid vintage-but-probably-not-really-vintage coats if it makes Annabeth smile like that.

 

“It looks good on you,” Piper states, hugging her scrapbook close to her chest and hoping the blush Mitchell put on her covers her flush.

 

Annabeth looks down, inspecting it, and fiddles with the pins on the collar. “I love it, seriously, Piper,” she does that thing again, the one where she reaches out and smooths down Piper’s bangs, and as she stands there in her big orange coat and bright red lipstick, tongue peeking out as she focuses on Piper’s hair, Piper thinks she wants to kiss Annabeth, she really, really does, but then Leo is whooping and hollering and saying it’s time to party.

 

“Shall we?” Annabeth gestures towards the rest of the group clambering up towards camp with a flourish and smile.

 

Piper swallows thickly, tries to ignore the fact that she was seconds away from kissing her best friend who she’s only just now realized might be what Piper had meant when she told Jason she needed to find herself all those months ago, and follows the group with a squeaky, “Let’s.”

 

They arrive at the tent to find it bustling, and they scramble over to the nearest empty table to dump their gifts on. Piper puts a cloth napkin over her scrapbook, to protect it from any clumsy demigods, and when she looks up, Annabeth is looking at her with a look on her face that makes Piper want to kiss her again.

 

The seven of them dance in a big circle, laughing at how pathetically bad Percy is at dancing and how Frank can’t stick to a beat to save his life. Piper’s heart feels so full she thinks it might burst, and she’s holding onto this night as tightly as she can. 

 

She holds onto the little giggles that leave Hazel everytime Rachel spins her round and round, and the way Frank sticks his tongue out as he tries, and fails, to keep beat. She holds onto Nico’s grin that keeps getting wider the harder he tries to hide it while watching Percy dance like an idiot. She holds onto Leo’s shouts of encouragement whenever one of them steps in the center of the circle for a solo. She holds onto the way a song by The Strokes comes on, and Percy says that Jason loved this song, and they all glance over at Piper to see her reaction, but she’s dancing harder than she was before, giving the dance her all because Jason died so Piper could have moments like these with her friends and she’s not letting a single second of it pass her by, and then the seven of them are dancing like mad, jumping up and down and singing at the top of their lungs, and there’s an unspoken agreement that they’re doing it for Jason.

 

As they’re dancing, Piper catches a glimpse of who she thinks is Athena from the corner of her eye, and maybe months ago she would have immediately stopped middance and drop to her knees spewing “My Lady”, but Piper realizes that up until then she’d forgotten the Olympians were in attendance and she’d chalked the energy in the room up to the bright smiles on her friends faces and she thinks she preferred it that way. Piper grabs Annabeth by the hand and spins her around and she tells herself that no amount of Olympians in one place could ever match the radiating warmth of Annabeth’s laughter.

 

Jason’s song ends, and then it’s a slow song, one that makes all the non-coupled people groan in annoyance and step off the dance floor. Leo waves his hand dismissively and makes a pssh sound as Rachel drags him off to the buffet, yelling over his shoulder, “Whatever, whatever, Leo Valdez will be back!”

 

Piper scoots backwards until her back hits the back of a chair, and she watches as Percy persuades Nico into dancing with him, and Hazel rests her head on Frank’s chest as they sway back and forth.

 

Annabeth strides over to her with the confidence only someone who has saved the world twice could have, and extends a hand to Piper with a quirk of her lips, 

 

“Wanna dance?”

 

Piper doesn’t hesitate when she puts her hand in Annabeth’s, and lets her take the lead as they step on the floor. Annabeth wraps her arms around Piper’s waist, and Piper reaches up to drape hers around Annabeth’s neck.

 

Comin' back from the country

For the good food and lousy beer

This winter's so dry and the dirt road so dusty

At the lightest fall of rain, the bacteria bloom

 

A girl’s voice croons out from the speakers, and the song sounds a little sad, but maybe, just maybe, a little hopeful, too, and Piper finds herself closing her eyes as she rests her forehead against Annabeth’s.

 

“I’ve been meaning to tell you,” Annabeth says softly, breath fanning against Piper’s face. “You look really pretty tonight.”

 

You don't have to be alone to be lonesome

It's easy to forget

The sadness comes crashin' like a brick through the window

And it's Christmas so no one can fix it

 

Piper opens her eyes, and finds that Annabeth has led her to the edge of the dance floor, out of sight from most of the Olympians who sit on their thrones and watch the party before them. Piper thinks Aphrodite is definitely somewhere in the room watching this, considering they’re the only couple this close to the edge, swaying alone to the song that, the more Piper listens to, is really too sad for anyone to be dancing to, but with Annabeth she doesn’t care, she’d probably dance with her to a funeral march even if Aphrodite pulled up a chair inches away and watched them intently.

 

“Look at that,” Annabeth hums, low and steady. She flicks her eyes up, tilting her chin upwards so Piper gets the hint.

 

Piper looks up, and feels her cheeks turn hot as she examines the mistletoe that dangles from a silver string attached to the roof of the tent.

 

“Y’know, I’ve always thought that whole tradition was a little cheesy,” Annabeth says, tilting her head down to face Piper, whose face is as red as Annabeth’s lipstick.

 

Piper nods, tight and quick. “I mean, yeah, for sure. What’s it even mean, anyway? Like, what is mistletoe? I’m sure it comes from Greece, like, everything does, but seriously, who came up with it--”

 

And then Annabeth is kissing Piper, and Piper feels her hand on her cheek, the other on her waist, and Piper is frozen for a moment, too overwhelmed with the fact that Annabeth is kissing her, Annabeth is kissing her, Annabeth is kissing her , until she remembers that, oh yeah, she has hands. So she brings her hands up to cup Annabeth’s face, tilts her head, and lets out a gasp when she feels her bite down gently on her lower lip, and this is so much better than a 3 second drunken spin the bottle kiss.

 

Piper licks tentatively into Annabeth’s mouth, hums when she tastes cinnamon and nutmeg and hot chocolate, and absentmindedly thinks that the smells and flavors of Christmas time will now forever be one and the same with Annabeth Chase for her, and she’s okay with that.

 

They pull away and Piper tilts her forehead to rest against Annabeth’s, breathing heavy and smiling wide. The same sad, slow, song is playing, crooning about how it’s Christmas and no one can fix it, but Piper is pretty much living proof that that’s wrong, she has Annabeth Chase, and Annabeth was there when Piper started to feel again, helped her hold onto feeling, told her it’s fine when she doesn’t, and maybe she’s not entirely fixed, but Piper feels alive and she wants to scream on every roof top that Piper McLean is alive and she just kissed Annabeth Chase but settles instead on kissing Annabeth again and again and again.

 

Annabeth smiles into a kiss, and then Piper smiles back, and then both girls are pulling apart breathless and laughing and Annabeth reaches out to run her thumb over Piper’s chin, pulling away with it coated in bright red lipstick.

 

“Maybe I shouldn’t have worn lipstick tonight,” Annabeth muses, rubbing her thumb and forefinger together.

 

Tethered to the table

 

With that happy holiday crowd

 

And it's anchors away, looks like smooth sailing

 

But the merest hint of waves could capsize you

 

Piper just laughs, laughs at how warm and alive she feels then, laughs at how Annabeth’s once perfectly crisp lipstick is now smudged everywhere, laughs at how ridiculous it is that they’ve just made out to a song that’s all about the misery of Christmas time.

 

Piper cups Annabeth’s face once more, pulling her forwards to kiss her again because she can, because Annabeth lets her, and Piper thinks that Annabeth Chase is just a little bit on the wonderful side, and with her everything is so easy and full and lively and this is what Piper was missing before, this is exactly where Piper should be, and a little part of her thinks this is where she’d be if that prophecy had not existed, and Piper knows tomorrow she could wake up and nothingness will be pulling her back into the bed covers, but she also knows that tomorrow Annabeth will be right there with her, keeping her afloat, telling her she will feel again soon.

 

Maybe Piper will wake up tomorrow and feel nothing, but right now she’s kissing Annabeth Chase with everything she has, and every inch of her body feels like it’s on fire, and Piper thinks she can face a tomorrow of nothing if Annabeth is there with her.