The café was an unassuming place. It wasn't expensive enough to be pretentious yet not so inexpensive as to feel cheap. The average sized crowd was young enough to make it popular but not yet old enough that Paul Blofis, a high school English teacher, didn't feel out of place. He sat alone at a table with two empty chairs, trying with every ounce of self-restraint he had not to fiddle with the straw of his drink. Sally, a lovely and kind woman Paul had been seeing for the last few week, should be here any minute now. And with her, the real reason for Paul's anxiety, would be her fourteen-year-old son, Percy, to be introduced to Paul for the first time.
Paul fussed with his straw, his leg bouncing as he watched the front door swing open and shut. He shouldn't be so nervous. He was great with kids, he was a teacher. He taught an entire classroom of students Percy's age every day!
But this was different. There was something between Paul and Sally, even though it had only been a few weeks, something deep and real. Paul honestly thought Sally might be the one he would spend the rest of his life with. That was terrifying enough by itself. But Sally was a mother and Percy her son. If Sally was the one then Percy would be a permanent part of his future as well.
No pressure, Paul thought wryly, taking a sip of his drink. The bell above the door rang and, although he jumped a little, Paul resolved not to look up this time. He lasted all of maybe half a second before he looked. Two figures walked through the door and the taller of the two he recognized immediately as Sally. She was smiling, her face relaxed and warm as she ushered the second figure inside, her arm around his shoulder. It was then, as the boy turned to smile up at his mother, that Paul got his first good look at Percy Jackson.
At the ripe old age of fourteen, Percy was just barely shorter than his mother, the top of his dark hair about level with Sally's nose. He was tan, like most kids his age were at the end of summer, and dressed casually. He seemed to feel Paul's gaze because not even a heartbeat later the boy turned and met his eyes. Striking green eyes, far too old to belong in the face of a child, raked over Paul's form, slowly, calculating.
"Paul," Sally greeted warmly, following Percy's gaze and finding him as well.
Her smile widened as she approached his table and Paul scrambled to get up, smiling in reply. She reached her hand out and he took it, letting her squeeze it as she drew Percy close to her side.
"Percy, this is the man I was telling you about, the one I've been seeing, Paul Blofis," Sally introduced.
Paul tried to make his face as open and polite as possible, inclining his head at the boy.
"Paul, this is my son, Percy."
"Nice to meet you, Percy," Paul said, holding his hand out.
Percy cracked a smile, half of his face twisted up as his too old eyes stared at Paul thoughtfully. He took Paul's hand in a surprisingly strong grip.
"Nice to meet you too Mr. Blowfish."
"Paul," Gean Baker said carefully, reaching up to pull his reading glasses off his face and prop them on his head instead, "you know I greatly respect your opinion. You're a phenomenal teacher, you work wonders with students that other faculty members would label as 'troubled'. Your English program is one of the best I've ever seen. But, this kid?"
Baker, Goode High School's superintendent, waved the file before him around, the small block letters on the front declaring it the complete academic record of one Perseus Jackson. Baker sighed, "This kid has been kicked out of every school he's ever been too. And he's been to a lot of them."
"I know sir," Paul said quickly, leaning forward in his chair to stare earnestly at his boss, "but I'm telling you, he's a good kid. He's thoughtful and kind—"
"'Has problems respecting authority,'" Baker read flatly.
"He's a ninth grade boy Baker, they all have problems respecting authority," Paul dismissed with a wave of his hand, "it's a transitional phase, you know that. And Percy isn't disrespectful by any means, I think the incident that report is referring to was grossly out of context—"
"He blew up a bus!" Baker exclaimed.
"He had no way of knowing the canon was fully operational! It was an elementary school field trip for heaven's sake, why was the canon operational is the real question we should be asking," Paul defended.
Baker sighed, leaning back in his chair as he pinched the bridge of his nose. "His grades are terrible, his average is a D."
"And that's exactly why we should admit him," Paul declared passionately, "isn't it our job to teach students? To take on the seemingly hopeless cases and show these kids that they can be great? Isn't that what education is all about? What kind of hypocrites would we be to turn down a student that needs help? One that struggles to learn. To only accept those that naturally excel? It's our job, our duty, as educators to reach out and help all students reach their full potential. Especially those who struggle. That's what teaching's all about."
"Alright, alright, enough," Baker sighed, rubbing his temple. "Okay Paul, we'll give the kid a chance."
Paul beamed, standing up and holding his hand out for the superintendent to shake, "Thank you, sir, you won't regret it."
"I hope not," Baker said, wearily taking Paul's hand, "for your sake."
Paul left the office with a smile on his face, pulling his phone out as he excitedly dialed Sally's number. Holding the ringing phone to his ear, Paul thought the world couldn't get any better.
Two months later, he was standing to the side of Goode's auditorium, hands clasped behind his back as he watched the upcoming freshmen class file into their seats. The auditorium buzzed with the excited hum of hundreds of young voices, laughter and shouting merrily echoing off the walls.
"Someone seems unusually excited. Got good expectations for this freshmen class, Paul?" One of his coworkers, one of their geometry teachers, stepped up to Paul's side. There was a laugh and another teacher, this one from their musical department, stepped up on his other side.
"Oh, I don't think that's it. Your girlfriend's son is in this class isn't he Paul? I heard you went all the way up to the superintendent to get him admitted," the music teacher said.
The geometry teacher 'oohed' and giggled, her eyes widening at the gossip. Paul smiled good-naturally in reply, still scanning the crowd for the now familiar face of Sally's son.
"He's a good kid," Paul repeated. "He just needs a little guidance. I believe Goode can offer him that."
The women cooed and the geometry teacher nudged him with her elbow.
"You're a real good guy, you know that Paul," she said kindly. "What's his name?"
"Percy, Percy Jackson," Paul said absently, frowning.
He'd been scanning the gathered crowd for the last five minutes and still couldn't find Percy. Sure it was a big auditorium but still . . . Paul had seen him earlier, walking into Goode. He talked to Percy so he knew the boy was here at least, somewhere. Paul knew he shouldn't be so concerned, yet there was a knot in his stomach, rolling and uncomfortable. His coworkers were amiably chatting on either side of him, blissfully unaware of Paul's inner turmoil. Their sophomore cheerleaders were riling up the crowd, smiling brightly and waving their pompoms as the crowd roared happily. Yet it felt distant and disconnected from Paul.
"Excuse me, I'm—" he started to say but the rest of his words were drowned out as there was a flash of blinding light followed by the harsh call of the fire alarm.
Everyone froze, a stunned moment of immobility as they all stared dumbly at the flashing fire alarm.
Paul spent half a second gaping uncomprehendingly at the alarm before snapping into action. Around him, other faculty members did the same.
"If everyone could please just remain calm, everybody just remain calm, we're going to start escorting you out of the building, please remain calm—" the principal was saying, his voice barely audible over the blare of the fire alarm.
Paul joined the teachers, shushing students as they tried to orderly evacuate the building. The next ten minutes flew by in a frantic blur. The school was on fire, a fire starting in the band room, firemen were on the scene; was it contained? Yes, it was contained. Was it going to spread? No, it was contained. Get the students out, please don't shove each other, everything's alright.
"Are all the students out?" Paul asked, his heart pounding as adrenaline still raced through his veins, gently patting a lost girl on the shoulder as he steered her towards the exit.
"We think so," the geometry teacher who stood by him at the assembly said, wiping her forehead as she opened the door for Paul, smiling kindly at the girl. "The firemen are doing one more sweep just in—"
Paul turned around, finding the superintendent stalking towards them, the slightly frantic principal on his heels.
"Sir?" He called, caught off-guard by the fury in Baker's voice. He was practically trembling with rage.
"That boy, Jackson—"
Paul's heart leapt into his throat, panic gripping him. Oh God, Percy.
"Is he okay?" Paul asked frantically, taking a step towards Baker. "Is he hurt? Where is he?"
"He started the fire after he attacked a cheerleader!" Baker spat, sharply rapping Paul in the chest with his finger. "Blofis, I took your word—"
"No," Paul interrupted, shaking his head in disbelief. "No, Percy wouldn't do a thing like that, he's a good kid. Where is he, Baker? I need to see him, is he okay?"
"We have eyewitnesses!" Baker snarled, "and the boy ran off before we could question him!"
"He's probably freaked out," Paul exclaimed. "The building was on fire! You scared him off. He could be hurt, I need to—"
He started to walk away but Baker threw his arm out, detaining Paul.
"No, Blofis, you're going back to my office to discuss—"
Paul stared at him in outrage and disbelief, taking a step backward and out of the man's reach. "What? No—Baker there is a student missing, one who may be injured! Get some perspective! Instead of assigning blame here we should be looking for him and making sure he's alright. Good God, it's our job to protect these students not prosecute them."
"No," Paul said firmly, holding his hand up, "I have a mother to call, to inform her that we lost her son during a school fire and that he may be injured. And then I'm going to find Percy and make sure he's okay. Once that's done, I'll come to your office and you can yell all you want, now if you will excuse me."
With that, Paul turned around sharply, his hands clenched into fists as he made his way out of the still-smoking building and into the courtyard.
It would be a while before Paul saw Percy Jackson again.
Paul was in his office, getting ready for the rapidly approaching school year when there was a knock on his door. Paul's pen paused, hovering over the notepad before him as he peered up in confusion. A coworker would have simply walked in, but there were no students back yet to nervously knock on his door. A concerned parent perhaps?
"Yes?" Paul called and the door creaked slightly as it opened.
Percy Jackson stood in the doorway, looking exhausted and a little worse for wear. His shoulders were hunched but jaw set as he met Paul's surprised gaze.
"Percy," Paul said in surprise, starting to rise.
"Hi," Percy said awkwardly. He hesitantly stepped into Paul's office. "Can we talk?"
"Yes, yes of course," Paul quickly agreed, his mind still catching up with his surprise visitor. Percy awkwardly hovered until Paul gestured towards one of the overly plush chairs that sat before his desk.
"I didn't—" Paul said, scrambling for words as they both sat. "I thought you were still at your dad's camp. Sally said he was waiting in the parking lot and picked you up in all the chaos."
"Yeah well . . . I just got back," Percy said, shifting in his seat. His jaw twitched, eyes flickering around the room like he was checking for exits or hidden dangers.
"I didn't start the fire," Percy blurted out suddenly. "And I didn't hurt any cheerleader, but I get it if you kick me out. I don't care. I'll never step inside Goode again if you want—but it's got nothing to do with Mom."
"Percy—" Paul tried to interrupt but Percy's jaw tightened and his eyes narrowed, casting his ashen face in shadow. He looked determined and perhaps a little desperate.
"It's got nothing to do with Mom," he repeated forcefully, leaning forward as though the action would force Paul to accept his words. "I'm the troublemaker, it's all on me. I can make myself scarce, you don't have to deal with me, just don't take it out on Mom. It's not her fault, she's nothing like me."
The shout drew the boy's attention, his speech cutting off.
"I don't think you started the fire or hurt that girl."
Percy blinked, his face painfully surprised. "You don't?" He asked dumbly.
"No, no Percy I don't," Paul gently assured him, pushing his notebook and pen aside so he could lean forward. "I was worried when I couldn't find you after the fire. Not because I thought you did anything wrong but because you could have been hurt."
"Worried?" Percy repeated, looking even more confused.
"The school was on fire Percy," Paul said, "and you were right in the middle of it. Of course, I was worried."
Percy didn't seem to know what to do with this information. He blinked once, twice. "So . . . you don't think I did it?" Percy asked slowly.
Paul shook his head. "You're not a bad kid Percy. No, I never thought you did it."
"But," Percy floundered.
Paul's lips twitched. "Percy," he teased, "are you trying to convince me that you are guilty?"
"Well no," Percy said but he didn't sound so sure. He was staring at Paul as though he'd sprouted wings and started to fly. "But I know it looked pretty bad."
"On the surface maybe," Paul shrugged. "But it resolved itself rather quickly. A Miss Rachel Dare stepped forward and told her side of the story. And when we watched the security footage—" here Paul frowned "—actually the video's not all that clear. It clearly shows you following the cheerleader with something in your hand, but the fire just as clearly starts near her and not you. In fact, it looks like you're trying to stop her. And would you get this, she was supposed to be a sophomore cheerleader yet we have no record of her ever having attended Goode?"
Percy gave a snort and Paul was sure he heard the boy mutter "not hard to believe" under his breath. Paul decided to ignore that for now, folding his hand in front of his desk.
"Not your fault," he concluded.
"Oh, okay," Percy looked a little dazed. "So ah—"
"But," Paul gently interrupted, "there are still a lot of unanswered questions, like why you were there in the first place and what you were waving around. I would like to hear your side of the story."
Percy's face froze, his fingers twitching. Paul had been a teacher long enough to know when a student was preparing themselves to lie.
"I'd rather you say nothing at all than lie to me," Paul sighed.
Percy shut his mouth with an audible snap, his face flushing and adverting his eyes. Paul couldn't help the disappointment that welled in his gut as he sadly stared at the stony-faced teenager. Percy reverted back to the expression he came in wearing, like a man ready to be condemned.
"Are you going to break up with Mom?" Percy asked the floor.
"No," Paul was thrown. "No of course not, why would I?"
Percy's shoulders slumped, his entire body dropping with them as if all the energy was drained out of him, leaving him too exhausted to even hold himself upright. "Good," Percy sighed, bracing his hands against the desk to push himself to his feet.
Paul instinctively reached a hand out, afraid the boy wouldn't have the energy to stand. But Percy stayed upright, his legs somehow managing to get him to the door.
"Is that?" Paul floundered, clamoring to his feet and around the side of his desk. "Is that what you were worried about? Not getting expelled before you even started, but that I would break up with Sally?"
Percy gave a half-hearted shrug, "I don't care what happens to me as long as Mom's okay. And Mom . . . Mom really likes you."
He gave Paul a searching look, not as though measuring his worth but rather his resolve.
"I really like her too," Paul honestly replied. A smile flickered up Percy's face. "And I look forward to seeing you next semester."
"You're still admitting me?" Percy asked in disbelief.
"Like I said, Percy, we know you didn't do it. The letter should be in the mail any day now."
Percy's face contorted and Paul could only stare at the lost child hovering in his doorway. It occurred to him that whatever Percy came here expecting, Paul gave him something else entirely and the boy didn't know how to deal with that.
"Oh," Percy said, sounding as lost as he looked. "I guess I'll see you when school starts then."
And with that Sally's son slipped out of the office, his head jerking side to side as he surveyed the hallway he all but jogged down as he made his escape. Paul watched him go, his heart heavy.
No, Paul didn't think Percy Jackson was trouble; he thought Percy Jackson was troubled in the way a child should never be.
Paul almost spent more time at the Jacksons' apartment than his own. More than once, after a long night of grading papers, Paul found himself heading towards their apartment before he remembered, whoops, he didn't live there. Not today, however. Today his workload was blessedly light and he made the fully conscious decision to head towards Sally and Percy's apartment. Sally gave him a key a few weeks ago, a little slip of metal that weighed heavy and warm in Paul's pocket, but he raised his hand to knock on the apartment door. Behind the door, he heard the muffled sound of something dropping and some muttered curses before the door cracked open.
"Paul?" Percy asked in surprise, squinting at the smiling teacher on the other side of the door.
"Hello Percy," he greeted amiably, still smiling.
Percy opened the door all the way, revealing the slightly cluttered and untidy apartment. Percy glanced behind Paul, his eyebrows raised as green eyes returned to the man at the door. "Mom's not here, she's still at work," Percy said in bewilderment.
"I know," Paul laughed at his befuddled expression. "I'm here to see you."
"Me?" Percy repeated slowly, staring at Paul like one would a madman.
"Yes," Paul patiently told him. "It's a nice day out, and I know you don't have any tests to study for— " not that he would and the slightly guilty, slightly amused look that flickered across Percy's face confirmed that—"I have a car and you're fifteen now, so I thought . . ."
Paul reached his hand out, dangling the keys to his Prius. Percy stared at them as though he'd never seen a pair of keys before.
Things had been strange ever since Percy's father unexpectedly appeared at the boy's birthday. Percy had clearly been blown away at the unexpected guest. Paul was happy for him, but in Poseidon's strange departure, a tense feeling descended upon the Jacksons. Sally was obviously disturbed. She spent more time with her son, hugging him longer and more frequently. Often Paul would catch her gazing listlessly at the sky or, more concerning, at her son's face, as though she were trying to memorize it.
For his part, Percy was better at hiding his unease. He smiled more, laughed louder, and always made sure to kiss his mother's cheek whenever he left the apartment. But Paul had caught Percy staring at the wall, eyes wide and unseeing, lost to some distant worry. Paul didn't understand and neither Jackson would even acknowledge the tension. Sometimes Sally would look at him, her eyes deep and dark, and he thought she might confide in him. But then she would smile and take his hand, the moment passing. Soon, but not yet, her eyes seemed to say. Paul was okay with that, he was willing to wait for Sally.
In the meantime, though, Paul was determined to make this little family he was rapidly beginning to think of as his own, smile.
Percy wasn't smiling, but his befuddled expression was a start.
"What?" Percy asked as the keys clanked together.
"I thought I would take you driving," Paul said casually, holding the keys out to Percy and giving them a shake. "Like I said, it's a nice day out and I don't have to worry about interrupting your studying."
Percy's mouth worked, twitching and contorting in almost amusing yet slightly heartbreaking confusion, before settling on a grin. He reached out and took the offered keys, his calloused fingers brushing against Paul's soft ones.
"I can't promise not to total your car," he joked.
Paul laughed, reaching out to sling an arm around the teen's shoulders as they left the apartment and headed towards the street.
"I'll wear a crash helmet then."
Paul took Percy outside the city, pulling into an abandoned parking lot to switch drivers.
"Alright," Paul said, clicking his seatbelt into place as Percy adjusted his mirrors. "You all set? Buckle up."
Percy rolled his eyes but obligingly pulled the seatbelt across his chest and clicked it into place before setting his hands back on the wheel.
"Safety first," Paul said and Percy laughed, the sound filling the car.
"Safety's your concern and you're still letting me drive?" Percy teased.
"You'll do fine," Paul dismissed with confidence. "Go ahead and put her into drive."
Percy did as he was told—the car idled forward a little before he remembered he had to press on the brake to keep the car in place. The car jerked sharply as he stomped on the brake and Percy winced at the jarring motion.
"Sorry," Percy grimaced but Paul just laughed.
"Off to a good start, at least you remembered the brake," Paul assured him. "Okay, so I guess lesson number one is to apply the brake slowly. Gently put pressure on the pedal for a smoother stop."
"Slow and gentle, got it," Percy repeated, nodding. He side eyed Paul, eyebrows raised. "You sure you trust me?"
"Relax," Paul smiled, "you'll do fine. Go ahead and let up on the brake, slowly, and head towards the stop sign up there."
Looking determined, Percy complied. The car started forward, gravel crunching as they traveled down the backroad. The car jerked a little at the stop but Paul just laughed at Percy's little wince, "No, no that was better. Okay, you know where your blinkers are right?"
"Um, here right? Up for left, down for right?"
"Exactly, so go ahead and push down for right and we'll go right," Paul said cheerfully.
Percy did as he was instructed and down the right path they went. It was mid-evening on a Tuesday night so the outskirts of the little town Paul drove to were totally deserted. Paul rolled his window down and stuck his hand out into the cool autumn air as he gave instructions.
"Can you feel that? Perfect stop," Paul congratulated at the fifth stop sign.
"Why are there so many stop signs?" Percy asked, squinting suspiciously at the innocuous red sign.
"Go left, and because it's not the city. There's enough traffic here that they only need stop signs to regulate it. Don't be such a city snob."
"Hey don't knock my city," Percy laughed, "she's been great to me."
"Do you feel confident enough to try driving into the little town up here to see some real stoplights instead of all these annoying stop signs?" Paul asked, laughing.
"Oh yeah," came the reply with a grin.
Paul smiled at his enthusiasm, the way Percy's entire face seemed to light up with the smile, as he pointed out the road to take. The rough gravel turned into smooth asphalt as they drew closer to the city, Paul casually reminding Percy to slow down once or twice.
"Smooth and slow," Paul reminded as the stoplight at the entrance of the town turned yellow.
"Nailed it," Percy declared as they came to a stop, peeking at Paul out of the corner of his eye with a grin.
"Nailed it," Paul indulged and they both laughed.
They wound around the little town and Paul let Percy burn the rest of his tank of gas as he explored the sharp corners and curves of the road. They hopped on the freeway for a short while, Percy laughing and needling until Paul agreed to let him cruise above the speed limit. Paul kept the window down, letting his hand trail through the rattling wind as it traced the horizon they raced beyond.
When Percy pulled into the relatively empty parking lot of a McDonald's a few hours later, his hair was windblown, unruly black strands angrily rebelling against gravity, and grinning broadly. He shut the ignition off, the engine sharply cutting off and plunging them into silence. His hands fell onto his lap as he turned to face Paul. His grin had lost most of its eager, carefree joy, tampering to a gentle half-smile.
"Thanks, Paul," Percy said, holding the keys out to the teacher.
Paul reached out and let Percy drop the keys into his hand. "Of course, anytime," Paul said, trying to keep his voice light and carefree as Percy glanced out the windshield at the storm clouds gathering in the distance. The smile had totally vanished from his face.
"And I mean that," Paul said, trying to recapture the boy's attention. "Any time you want to go driving Percy, you just let me know."
That earned him a flicker of a smile and a pair of contemplating green eyes.
"Okay," Percy said, nodding. "I'll keep that in mind."
They switched seats, Paul getting out of the car to walk around to the other side while Percy simply climbed over into his vacated seat. As Paul took his place in the driver's seat, having to remind Percy once more 'seatbelt', he realized Sally's son was staring at him. Key in the ignition, Paul looked up and met his oddly serious gaze. Percy was chewing on the inside of his cheek, his expression troubled.
"It's okay," Paul said. "Whatever it is that's bothering you and your mom; it's okay, you don't have to tell me. I just . . . I'm here, you know, if you need me. Either of you."
"Yeah," Percy said, nodding as his face cleared, "yeah I'm starting to get that. And I think Mom already does." He clicked his seatbelt into place. "I told her she should tell you."
Paul wondered why that sentence sounded so heavy coming from this young teenager beside him. Percy was looking straight ahead, eyes fixed on the storm clouds. He gave a weak smile, turning to stare at his lap.
"Well I'm here if she wants to," Paul said, finally starting the engine.
There were things people didn't expect to hear (someone you loved died, you won the lottery, it's sunny in Washington) and then there was this: Greek mythology wasn't a myth. The gods were real, monsters were real . . . demigods were real.
The Poseidon who visited them on Percy's birthday and disappeared 'through the fire escape' was the Poseidon, god of the sea. And Percy was his son. The strange things Paul had seen and tried to rationalize away since he met Sally suddenly made a lot of sense. The world Paul thought he once knew was suddenly very different.
Percy was a demigod. Percy had fought Medusa, the Hydra, the Minotaur; he fought gods. It was like the stories Paul spent a lifetime reading and studying had suddenly come to life around him. He knew a real, live demigod.
Sitting at the table in the Jacksons' apartment, Paul nursed a cup of coffee. It was late evening and he was waiting for Sally to return from her quick trip to the store. As he blew on his coffee, Paul noticed Percy's door was ajar. Curiosity getting the better of him, Paul stood up and walked over to it.
He rapped his knuckles lightly against the door as he peered in, "Knock, knock?"
Paul wasn't sure what he expected to find; the room and its sole inhabitant looked exactly as they had last he saw them. The room was disorganized and messy as all teenagers were, clothes in various degrees of cleanliness thrown everywhere, backpack spread out on the floor with papers and books spewing out of it. Nestled in the mess though, his eyes initially glazing over it but focusing when Paul forced them too ("it's called the Mist" Sally explained) was something large and bronze: a shield. Paul's fingers twitched, longing to examine it but he forced himself to look to the demigod himself.
Percy sat cross-legged in the middle of the mess, angrily chewing on a pencil as he muttered to himself and glared murderously at the book before him. He didn't jump at Paul's knock, didn't draw any ancient, magical sword or perform a mystical display of his father's power, just glared crossed eyed up at the intruder.
"Oh, hi Paul," Percy grumbled with an aborted wave with his pencil-free hand.
"You're doing homework," Paul said.
"Yeah, it's due tomorrow," the demigod muttered. Then, perking up, he glanced up, "unless you can convince Mrs. Mayis to extend the due date?"
"You know I can't," Paul said, grinning a little at the . . . well, the normal question. The kind of question Paul would have expected a week ago.
Paul sat down across from the demigod, taking a glance at the book his English teacher assigned.
"Ah, Macbeth I always tell her that's too scary for the freshmen class," Paul sighed, reading the cover.
Percy's eyes lit up, "Does that mean she can't teach it?"
"No, unfortunately not," Paul laughed, returning the book to the disgruntled demigod. "What is she having you do this time?"
"Just this worksheet for now," Percy sighed, digging the paper up from god—gods—only know where and holding the slightly crinkled paper out to Paul. "But I think she's going to make us do a report by the end of the week."
Paul glanced over the half-completed worksheet. "What part are you struggling with?"
"I know Macbeth's evil and so is his wife. And there was something about a moving forest? Maybe a couple of witches."
"Did you read the play?" Paul chastised lightly, opening Percy's battered copy of Macbeth.
"Most of it, but I was busy," Percy deflected immediately. Then he hesitated, momentarily stilling as he peered up at Paul. He licked his lips. "Hellhounds," he elaborated.
"Oh," Paul said, "right."
Demigod, his mind helpfully reminded. But . . . hellhounds? Here in New York, bothering Percy on a Wednesday night?
"Does that happen a lot?" Paul asked, clearing his throat and trying to sound casual.
"Hellhounds? More than you'd think. Hades should have them leashed," Percy muttered under his breath, like dropping the name of the lord of the underworld was nothing. "But monsters in general? Yeah, all the time."
"And it interferes with your school work?"
"Well, I mean yeah, but ah, I also just don't do it sometimes," Percy admitted sheepishly, grinning at Paul. "So, Macbeth?"
"Right," Paul said, trying to get back on track, distracted by the thought of Percy fighting hounds of hell on his way home from school. "Okay so let's walk through your worksheet here. The first question you're got right, about how Macbeth kills the king. Now the second question here's a bit more difficult because it's not clearly stated in the text and we have to look closely to find the answer."
Paul spread the play out before them, pointing out passages and walking Percy through them. The demigod would lean forward, scowling as he squinted at the play before clumsily coming to a conclusion.
"No I get it, because he was born like with ye old C-section so not of his mom," Percy said, nodding as he scribbled the answer down. "S'just a play on words, heh, Annabeth would love that."
Percy looked up and the dying sunlight from the lone window in the room cast his face half in shadow, half in warm glow. There was a scar along his jaw Paul never noticed before, the edge raised up against the young, smooth skin; skin not yet old enough to hold a beard. His eyes were alert but half masked, dark shadows betraying many sleepless nights.
This is the face of a child, Paul thought in horror, his stomach dropping, the face of a child with the weight of a man.
Percy was fifteen. He fought monsters and devils and gods themselves, and he was fifteen here sitting crossed legged in the middle of his cluttered bedroom trying to understand Macbeth on the nights when he wasn't fighting hellhounds and other demons of the underworld.
Staring at Percy's confused, too old yet too young face, Paul thought he might be sick.
"You okay Paul?" Percy asked, brow furrowing.
"Ah, yeah sorry, spaced out there for a second," Paul said and his voice came out a little breathless and rushed.
Percy gave him an odd look but apparently decided the point wasn't worth pressing as he finished the sentence on his worksheet, before folding it up and sticking it inside the Macbeth book. It was something Paul saw hundreds of students do before, the casual disregard for the condition they turned their homework in or how easily it could be lost stuffed inside a book instead of a folder. Paul reached forward with only slightly trembling fingers as he took the book from Percy. The teenager frowned in confusion as Paul pulled the worksheet out, smoothing its creased edge over before carefully tucking it away in one of the folders in Percy's backpack. He held the folder out to Percy.
"You'd probably lose it the other way," he croaked.
Percy huffed, rolling his eyes but grinning slightly as he took the folder. "You're such a teacher Paul," he said but his voice was fond.
"Well, it's my job to look after kids you know," Paul said, clearing his throat as he tried to get the lump out of it. Percy was stowing things away in his backpack, perfectly normal pencils and books and papers, half-finished assignments and projects, and Paul's chest constricted.
"You know what?" He said, his voice perhaps a little too loud in the small room, "I feel like ice cream, do you want ice cream?"
Paul huffed a little as he pushed himself off the ground and to his feet. Percy cranked his neck up to blink at Paul, obviously thrown by the declaration.
"I mean, I'm always down for ice cream," Percy said, grinning a little.
"Let's go get ice cream," Paul said firmly as Percy climbed to his feet, throwing his backpack somewhere south of his bed, probably wrinkling whatever papers floated loosely around inside and bending the spines of his books.
"Okay, but you're the one who's going to explain to Mom why our appetite's ruined," Percy said, grinning cheekily.
Paul threw an arm around Percy's shoulder, squeezing it gently, "I'll take all the responsibility."
Paul opened his eyes, staring at the worn, faded ceiling above his head. The apartment was dark and silent, Sally breathing deeply and peacefully beside him, all but drowning out the sounds of the city outside their walls. Not entirely sure what woke him, Paul turned on his side to gaze at the sleeping angel beside him. Paul smiled slightly, reaching out to gently tuck a strand of hair behind his new wife's ear, his heart swelling. He closed his eyes, ready to turn over and fall back asleep when he heard the sound of water running. He frowned in confusion before his brain made the connection that it was probably just Percy up getting a glass of water.
He sighed, eyes still closed. He breathed deeply, half willing himself to fall back to sleep and half listening for the sound of Percy returning to his bedroom. The water stopped but instead of the creak of door hinges opening and closing, Paul heard the light scraping of a chair against the floor and then more silence.
Confused, Paul cracked an eye open and squinted at the alarm clock on his left: 2:37.
Mildly concerned, Paul gently untangled himself from the sheets, careful not to disturb Sally. He grimaced as his feet came in contact with the cold floor but he braved the cold as he left the warmth of their bedroom and wandered into the little kitchen. He could make out Percy's silhouette in the gloom and as he blinked sleep from his eyes and drew closer, his stepson's face came into focus.
Percy held a glass of water between his hands, fingers interlaced. He was half slumped over the table, legs stretched out beneath it as he stared blankly at the wall. He didn't stir as Paul approached, which almost bothered Paul more than his blank expression. Percy was never one to sit still. Paul hesitated, wondering if maybe he should go wake Sally up when Percy said;
"Sorry, didn't mean to wake you."
"You didn't wake me," Paul whispered back, slowly stepping forward until he was across from the demigod. Percy's face was ashen and he looked utterly exhausted, shadows dark under his eyes and lines heavy on his face. It looked like nothing held him together but pure desperate, stubborn will.
"You can go back to bed," Percy said dully. "I'm fine."
That was such a blatant lie Paul didn't know if he wanted to laugh or cry. He pulled the chair across from Percy out and sat down, folding his hands before him.
"I think I'll stay if that's okay with you," he said softly.
Percy didn't response, still staring blankly ahead, but that wasn't a no so Paul stayed. Condensation had gathered between Percy's fingers and little droplets of water ran down them, puddling at the base of his cup. He clung to the glass like a lifeline, his knuckles white. It seemed weak and feeble to ask Percy if he was having nightmares, he clearly was, or if he was okay, he obviously was the farthest thing from.
"Do you," Paul asked, wincing at how loud his whisper seemed in the darkness, "do you remember Maria Martinez?"
That got a reaction. Percy blinked, turning his face ever so slightly to stare blankly at Paul instead of the wall.
Encouraged, Paul continued, "She's two years ahead of you, she was in the paper a while ago because of her track record? Well, she made the nationals and competed in them two weeks ago. She came in third place in the hundred meter dash. Amazing isn't it? Her mother was so proud. We've already had universities calling in with scholarships. I believe NYU has offered her a full ride."
Percy blinked again, which Paul took as a positive sign.
"Little Amy over in 43B turned three last weekend. She was so excited, you should have seen her. She paraded up and down the stairs in the pretty pink princess dress her daddy bought her and the pirate hat and eyepatch she stole from her brother. She claimed she was the pirate princess and wouldn't let anyone pass her unless they said 'argh' and made a hook with their fingers."
Percy gave a little huff. It was just a quick exhale of air, his face didn't really change but it was better than nothing.
"Ms. Randalf, one of our art teachers I don't know if you know her, but she just got a new puppy. It's a, ah, some sort of lab and Sheppard dog mixture. Cutest thing you ever did see. She showed us all pictures when she got it. She's got last period free on Fridays so last week she went home and brought him back to school to show us all. As soon as the kids were gone we all raced to her office. He's the most adorable thing, his ears are like twice as big as his head and he's covered in these adorable little white stripes. Even Baker was smiling."
Percy's face twitched a little, a ghost of a smile flickering over it as he bowed his head.
"I didn't think anything made him smile," Percy croaked.
"Puppies make everybody smile," Paul said, watching as Percy's fingers scraped along the side of his cup, drawing little rows in the condensation. With his head bowed, the shadows around Percy's face looked even more profound.
Paul reached out and hooked his ankle around Percy's. His skin was cold. Percy didn't pull away. He swallowed, licking his lips, and Paul thought he might say something more, but the silence merely continued. Paul didn't have anything left to say. What could he say that could chase away the memories of war and death and keep nightmares at bay?
When the sun peeked above the horizon and Sally emerged, sleep ruffled and wondering how her husband managed to get out of bed before her, she found them like that; Paul's ankle still pressed against Percy, who had finally let go of the glass.
Paul twisted half around from where he was erasing the chalkboard, a rather sprawling flowchart of the relationships in Wuthering Heights when he heard the call. A student stood in the doorway, one of his own freshmen but one who didn't have his class until after lunch.
"Hello Kathy," he greeted with a smile, erasing Isabella's name before dusting his hands off on his pants and stepping forward to properly speak to the girl. "Everything alright?"
"Yeah, I mean I don't know," Kathy said. "I have third hour with Percy, geometry with Ms. Steward? He asked to go to the bathroom towards the end of class and just didn't come back. I don't think Ms. Steward even noticed."
She held a backpack out to him and Paul immediately recognized it as Percy's. He took the blue bag from Kathy.
"Thank you, Kathy, I'll look into it," he said, trying to keep his face as genial and worry free as possible. "You should head to your next class."
"Yeah, okay," Kathy agreed, nodding. As she started to turn away, she added one more thing, her brow slightly furrowed, "He didn't look too good Mr. Blofis, I thought he might be sick or something. Maybe you should check with the nurse or in the bathrooms."
"Thank you, Kathy," Paul repeated and the girl disappeared in the last minute rush to get to class.
Paul stared at the blue backpack in his hands, worry churning in his gut. After all the school Percy had missed (not his fault, not on purpose, Paul never blamed him for that) the demigod knew how important keeping his attendance up was. Percy desperately didn't want to be held back. He worked hard to catch up, studying with all his might and determination. He just wanted some normalcy, to keep whatever regularity in his mortal life he could. He wouldn't have skipped class without a reason and that's what concerned Paul.
With a sigh, Paul glanced at the clock. He had enough time to run Percy's backpack to his office, but probably not enough to call Percy and ask if everything was okay. If there was a monster it was unlikely he would answer anyway.
"Alright there Paul?" One of his fellow English teachers called.
"Just going to put this in my office for a student," Paul distractedly called back, reaching for his office door and pausing in surprise when he realized it was slightly ajar. His surprise must have shown on his face, for the other teacher stepped forward as he pushed it open.
The lights in his room were off, blinds closed because Paul forgot to open them that morning, but he could still see the huddled form in the corner of his office and hear their sharp, uneven breaths.
"Percy?" Paul said, recognizing the face even in the darkness. He threw the backpack to the side, crossing the office in three long, slightly panicked, strides. Percy was curled up in Paul's office chair, pushed all the way into the corner of the room and facing the door, his knees pulled up to his chest. His eyes were squeezed tightly shut, hands tightly gripping his hair, tears running down his face. His breathing was erratic, coming out in strangled gasps.
His eyes snapped open when Paul called his name, panic practically oozing out of them.
"Can't," he gasped, half sobbing, his eyes wild, "can't."
"Shh," Paul immediately hushed, "it's okay."
Percy clearly couldn't understand, or maybe even hear, Paul, his breathing erratic as he shook and trembled, fingers tearing at his hair.
"Breathe, Percy, I need you to breath okay?" Paul said as clearly and calmly as he could, slowly kneeling in front of his stepson. "Hey, Perce, it's okay buddy, just breathe."
There was movement and Percy flinched, gasping, his muscles tensing. His hand went into his pocket and Paul hushed him, "it's okay, it's okay" praying Riptide would stay uncapped and unseen as he turned to glare at the disturbance. The other teacher had moved forward and gently shut the door, the sound, soft as it was, obviously jarring the demigod.
"Hey Percy, it's just the door. It was the door. It's okay. Hey buddy, I need you to breathe with me okay? Can you do that?" Paul cajoled, keeping his hands in Percy's sight the whole time as he gently and slowly reached out to lay them over Percy's. The demigod still had a death grip on his hair, drawing blood from his scalp as they dug in deep.
"Breathe in," Paul said, taking a long deep breath himself, "one . . . two . . . three—come on Percy breathe with me. In, one . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . five. Out, one . . . two—"
Paul kept softly counting, slowly breathing in and out. It took several tries but around the third or fourth time, Percy started breathing with Paul. His breath was still shaky and he couldn't hold it for five seconds.
"Good, that's good," Paul assured him regardless, "inhale, one . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . five."
Percy's eyes closed, tears clinging to his eyelashes as he tried to breathe.
"Just concentrate on me, I've got you," Paul promised, "Breathe, out, one . . . two . . . three—"
Paul wasn't sure how long he knelt there, gently coaching Percy until the demigod's breathing matched his own. Their long, deep breaths and Paul's soft counting filled the silence. Every once in a while a violent tremor would wreck Percy's body but Paul kept counting and gently running his hand through the parts of Percy's hair the boy wasn't tearing out.
"Hey Perce," Paul whispered gently, "Hey buddy, you're doing great. Do you think we could let go of your hair now?"
Paul gently tapped Percy's fingers, making sure to keep his breathing loud and deep as he did. Percy didn't respond, his jaw twitching and eyebrows furrowing. But his fingers were unresisting as Paul gently pulled them away from his abused scalp. Little black strands clung to his hands, glued there by the warm blood that covered the tough skin. Paul gave his hands a gentle squeeze and gently set them on the boy's lap.
"Hey Percy, would it be okay if I looked at your head?" Paul asked. He got a sharp nod in response.
"It might sting a little, just tell me if you want me to stop," Paul said, reaching forward to carefully push Percy's hair back. He hadn't torn enough hair out to be noticeable, but he had gouged his scalp in his panic. The wounds trickled a little, a tiny line of blood running down the side of Percy's face.
"Do you want some water?" Paul asked. Percy's breath hitched a little but it smoothed back out a heartbeat later. He gave a jerky nod.
"Okay, just a minute."
Unhurriedly, even though his worried muscles protested it, Paul straightened up and fetched a bottle of water from his desk. He broke the seal and gently pushed it against Percy's hand. Percy's hand only shook a little as he took it. He held it up to his mouth, taking a tiny sip.
Paul let him collect himself, keeping a hand on Percy's arm in silent support as his stepson continued to just breathe. Finally, green eyes opened. They stared blankly at the bottle of water, like it was the first time he'd ever seen anything like it. He put the lid on, then a heartbeat later remembered he had to twist it shut. He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth before letting it fall, dangling listlessly at his side. He didn't look at Paul.
"Sorry," he croaked, his voice shattered.
"You have nothing to be sorry for Percy," Paul said softly but firmly, gently squeezing Percy's knee. He wanted to ask what triggered the attack, if this was the first panic attack he'd had but knew those weren't the proper questions for now.
"You have class right now," Percy said, his voice still just as heartbreakingly shattered.
"It doesn't matter," Paul promised, "One of the other teachers will just sub for me. All that matters is that you're okay."
He didn't add that his coworker had seen Percy or closed the door to give them privacy. He didn't want to make Percy any more self-conscious. Percy was staring fixedly at his bloody hands, his faced steadily flushing.
"It's okay Percy," Paul repeated. "There's nothing to be embarrassed of." You've been through hell, you're allowed to have moments. Even people who haven't been through what you have, have panic attacks. "You don't always have to be strong. Nobody will think any less of you."
Then, "You are without a doubt still the strongest person I've ever had the privilege of knowing."
Percy didn't respond, but Paul hadn't really expected him too. He gave Percy's arm one last squeeze before eyeing the drying blood on his face.
"I'm going to go find a first aid kit to clean some of that up okay? Would it be okay if I left the room?"
"Okay," Paul softly repeated. He closed the door as gently as he could before jogging down to the nurse's office. When he returned with a kit, making a mental note to keep one in his office from now on, his office was empty.
Paul set the kit down on his desk. His chair was returned to its rightful place, pushed into his desk. Percy's backpack was gone. Paul sighed but he understood. Well, he came as close to understanding as someone who'd never gone through what Percy had could. With a heavy heart, he picked up his cell phone.
"Hey Sally," he greeted wearily, "You have Annabeth's number right? You should give her a call, I think Percy needs her right now. No, no he's fine—well actually he's not fine, but he's not physically injured. Okay. I'm sure she'll know where to find him. Love you."
Paul turned his phone back on silent, leaving the office. As he started to shut the door, he thought better of it and kept it slightly ajar. Just in case.
His good coworkers had wrangled him a sub, a slightly out of her depth math teacher who happened to have a free period. She looked relieved to see him when he crept back into the classroom.
"Okay?" she asked, her eyes genuinely worried.
"Working towards it," Paul said with a tired smile.
"What's wrong, has someone else been kidnapped?" Paul panicked when he found Percy at their apartment door one summer morning.
Percy, who was hobbling up and down on one foot as he tried to take his shoes off, stared at him in confusion. "Ah, no? Hi Mom!"
"Hi sweetheart," Sally greeted, smiling lovingly as she walked passed Paul and pulled her only child into her arms. Percy was a full head taller than her now, but he bent down low and happily buried his face into his mother's shoulder as he embraced her.
"You didn't run into any trouble coming home did you?"
"Nah, just a few little monsters," Percy dismissed in what he clearly thought was a comforting statement (it wasn't).
Paul looked between mother and son in confusion. Sally was beaming up at Percy and the demigod smiled crookedly back, making some little joke that had Sally laughing. Neither of them seemed too concerned that Percy was home in the middle of the summer. Paul spared a moment to wonder if he was missing something (it was June last time he checked, not the end of summer or anytime around when Percy returned from camp). And now they were both staring at him, so he shoved his unease to the side and decided he simply must be missing something (he was still getting used to the demigod's world after all).
"Good to see you, Percy," he said, dragging the demigod in for a one-armed hug.
"Good to see you too Paul," Percy said, grinning widely as his eyes gleamed.
Or, maybe something was up, Paul thought.
Sally gave Percy a look Paul couldn't read.
"Well boys, I'll see you tonight," she said sweetly, motioning for Percy to bend over so she could kiss his cheek before turning and kissing Paul.
"Wait, where are you going?" Paul asked, confused.
"Errands dear remember?"
He didn't but apparently it didn't matter because his wife disappeared out the door, leaving him alone with the still grinning demigod.
"Wanna grab lunch?" Percy asked, bouncing on his heels.
"Okay," Paul agreed because that sounded nice and normal. "Let me grab my wallet."
"It's a nice day out," Paul commented as they left the apartment. It was warm and there wasn't a cloud in the sky.
"Yeah it's perfect," Percy grinned.
"Alright, what's got you so happy?" Paul asked, half teasing as he gently bumped his shoulder against the teenager's. Percy laughed and for a moment his face was bright and carefree.
"I," his stepson started meaningfully when a roar disrupted the bright air. Percy's smile faltered and as one they turned down an alley. Something, its figure heavily shrouded in the Mist, was tearing through the garbage, throwing things all over the place. It gave another roar that shook the very ground. Percy's face twisted.
"Go ahead," Paul said, understanding and feeling oddly calm even though there was a rampaging monster right next door. "I'll be at that café down the street when you're done."
Percy sighed but nodded, taking his pen out of his pocket. "Sorry," he started to apologize but Paul waved him off.
"Don't worry about it, just go save the world kid, I'll buy you a croissant," Paul smiled. Percy gave him a half smile in return.
"I'll be right there," he promised before diving into the alley.
Paul didn't stick around to see the carnage, knowing that the sight of his stepson fighting monsters would only cause him even more anxiety so he walked down the street until he couldn't hear the roaring anymore and into the café. The lady at the counter was plenty friendly and they chatted for a minute or two as she got his coffee and the promised croissant. Paul grabbed a table outside and settled in to wait. He was just eyeing the croissant temptingly, surely Percy wouldn't mind if Paul ate a piece of it, when Percy collapsed into the chair across from him.
There was gold dust showered in his hair and clinging to his shirt, which now sported a good sized hole in the side.
"Is your hair singed?" Paul asked in concern, reaching out to touch the still smoking hair.
"It breathed fire," Percy said, sounding a little dazed.
"Do you want to go home—?"
"No, I'm fine," Percy quickly interrupted, reaching out to tear a piece off the croissant. "Perfectly fine, sorry for the interruption but ah, I guess lunch is out now but does a single croissant really count as lunch—?"
Whatever he was babbling on about was cut off as there was a loud pop and suddenly a man was at Percy's side. The stranger looked frazzled, his jogging suit covered in dirt and blood.
"Hello Paul," the man greeted with an elfish grin. "Can I borrow Percy for a sec?"
"Lord Hermes," Percy said, scowling in irritation. "No, can't you see I'm busy?"
Paul choked on his coffee, staring wide-eyed as the god of messages turned to his stepson.
"Percy," Paul started to say. He didn't have any experience dealing with gods but he was fairly certain that telling them off wasn't the way to go about things.
"Clear your schedule then, I need you do something for me," Hermes said, taking the demigod by the arm.
"What? No, do I look like the god's errand boy to you? That's supposed to be your job, leave me alone I'm busy," Percy scoffed, tearing his arm free.
"Ah Percy maybe you should hear him out," Paul weakly intervened as Hermes' eyes grew dark.
"But, but, we were—"
"I'll be here whenever you get back," Paul said faintly.
"See, we're good," Hermes said, grabbing Percy by the arm and disappearing before Paul's wide eyes.
He swallowed heavily, downing the rest of his coffee. He pulled the croissant towards him. He would buy Percy a new one when he got back.
Paul finished the croissant and listlessly sat there, watching people go by for a while. There were a gaggle of little kids and their families, all smiling and laughing. At the table next to him, a little girl was proudly presenting her father with a shabbily wrapped gift. Paul smiled at the hubabalo. Clouds rolled in from the east, bringing a cold front with them so Paul retreated inside. He felt funny going in empty handed so he went back up to the counter and ordered another coffee and, after a moment of deliberation, another croissant. He munched on it, feeling slightly guilty. Percy never got his lunch, he didn't even get a bite of croissant. Paul wondered if he was hungry fighting whatever monsters Hermes needed help with.
He struck up a conversation with a sweet grandmother after some time when the lady had trouble reading the menu.
"Waiting for a sweetheart, dear?" She asked him while they waited for her coffee.
"My stepson actually," Paul said. "We were going to lunch together but something came up. I told him I'd wait. He's a good kid."
"So sweet," the lady crooned, patting his cheek. "He's a lucky kid."
Paul smiled congenially as he took the coffee from the barista, stirring milk and sugar into it and sliding a cover over the stylized cup. "I'm the one who's lucky," Paul said, handing the coffee over to its rightful owner.
"So sweet," the lady repeated and he held the door open for here as she left. As he held the door open, he recognized a familiar face rushing across the street.
"Oh good, I was starting to get worried," Paul confessed as Percy ducked inside the shop, gasping for breath.
Percy's shirt had acquired more burn marks and slashes. One of his pant legs was torn clean up to his thigh, dried blood clinging to the fabric that Paul really hoped didn't belong to him. His face was smeared with dirt and some other weird black stuff, his hair standing up on every end. He looked just this side of frantic, eyes darting around the café. Paul had the fleeting thought that Percy might appear a little deranged and dangerous to anyone looking in and hoped nobody called the cops on them.
"Hey Percy it's okay," Paul started to say.
"Yeah, yeah, it's fine, it's all fine," Percy said, still gasping for breath as he leaned over slightly, bracing his hands on his knees. "I got this. It's past lunch but we can—"
Just at that moment thunder rolled, the sheer ferocity of it practically shaking the building. There was a heartbeat of silence before the heaven's opened up and it began to pour. Rain pelted New York, harsh and unyielding, the sidewalks filling up in mere seconds. Percy stared out the window in horror, his eyes wide and mouth agape.
"No! No, no, no that's not fair!" He shouted.
"It's just a storm Percy," Paul said uncertainly, not sure why he was so upset. "We can—"
"No, you don't understand, it was going to be perfect I had it all planned out," Percy complained furiously. "I finally convinced Mr. D to let me go for the day, Jason agreed to take my duties until I got back, we were going to lunch and I was going to tell you how I appreciated all you'd done and I got you a present that I'm pretty sure the monster ate and— "
"Whoa, whoa, wait, what?" Paul asked, thrown and confused as he instinctively reached out to try and steady the slightly swaying demigod. Percy crossed his arms and collapsed onto one of the café chairs.
"Happy Father's Day Paul," Percy muttered at the floor.
Paul's throat tightened as he stared at the disgruntled, weary demigod.
"You did all that for me?" He asked in wonder.
"Didn't do anything other than leave you at a café all day and let a fire-spewing Hades-spawn eat your present," Percy grumbled. "Worse stepson ever."
Paul leaned over and hauled Percy to his feet, dragging him in for a tight hug. He smelled like burnt clothes and something weird and mossy but Paul didn't care.
"What are you doing?" Percy asked in confusion.
Paul pulled back to look Percy in the face, beaming as he kept his hands on Percy's shoulders.
"No," he said, squeezing Percy's shoulders and giving the demigod a little shake. "No Percy you are the best stepson anybody could ever ask for and I'm so proud to be your stepdad."
Percy blinked, suddenly looking very embarrassed and maybe a little misty eyed. "Oh."
"So proud," Paul repeated firmly, giving his shoulders one more squeeze as he grinned.
Face still kind of red, Percy grinned a little in return.
"So hey, what if we just get a pizza, rent a movie and head on home huh? Doesn't that sound nice?"
"Yeah, yeah Paul that sounds great," Percy said, his shoulders relaxing.
Paul slung an arm around Percy's shoulder and led the way out of the café.
"But you're going to have to buy because I spent all my money on your present," Percy added as they walked away.
"The present the fire-spewing Hades-spawn ate?"
"Yeah that one."
"And this will be your classroom," Paul said, smiling at the young woman behind him. Julia Hudson peered into the classroom, making the appropriate noises.
"It's perfect," she said, smiling.
Paul laughed, glancing into the barren, worn and slightly worse for wear room, "I don't know about that, but it's yours. So, my office is just down the hall there, room 232E you can't miss it, it has my name on it."
The new teacher humored him and gave a laugh. The students were just starting to file in as Paul gave Hudson the grand tour, uninterested in their new fine art's teacher. A familiar flash of red and black caught his eye amidst the throng and Paul turned just in time to see Percy and his friend Rachel Elizabeth Dare, who Paul learned was actually the oracle, because of course she was, coming towards them.
"Here meet some of your future students," Paul said, smiling and holding his arm out in beckon. "Ms. Rachel Dare and Percy Jackson."
"You're the new art teacher?" Percy asked as the pair responded to the beckon.
Hudson smiled back. "Yes I am, it's so nice to meet both of you. Mr. Blofis here was just showing me around."
"You're in good hands, Paul's the best," Percy said sincerely, grinning over at Paul. "He's my stepdad you know."
"I didn't," McName said, amused as she raised her eyebrows at Paul.
"Yep," Percy said as the five-minute warning bell rang out. "So I should know; he's the absolute greatest. Good luck Ms. Hudson."
Rachel gave them both a smile as her and Percy walked off to class. She said something and Percy laughed, waving over his shoulder at the two teachers as they disappeared into the building.
"Your stepson?" Hudson giggled, raising an eyebrow at Paul.
Paul grinned. "Yeah, yeah that my stepson, Percy."