Seashells glimmered beneath his feet, countless as grains of sands and as silver as stars. He cupped a handful and watched them slide through his fingers. A familiar beach stretched from his feet, the soft, distant crash of its surf drifted to his ears with the scent of salt.
‘Percy,’ his mom called, standing in the shadow of the rising apartment building. ‘I found someone who needs our help.’ A little ball of grey fuzz and a bright yellow beak squeaked in her cupped hands. ‘Find the kale in the fridge, sweetie.’
He stood on graffiti-stained concrete, caged within the rising grey of the tower blocks as the sound and smell of the sea faded. ‘Don’t we need the kale, mom? For dinner?’
‘Not as much as this little guy needs it,’ his mom said. ‘Go on. I’ll keep an eye on this small one, you squish the kale up and bring it back here.’
The fridge hovered beyond his fingers, flanked by clean, white plastic tops. Pale lino stretched beneath his socks below the fridge.
Weird. Percy stared at the stains and splotches on the lino. Mom got these changed. Gabe paid for it. We have tiles. We’ve had tiles for years.
‘Hey, kid.’ His step-father’s voice caught him with his fingers on the handle. ‘Grab me a cold one, will you?’
Percy spun into his step-father’s chest, his arms full of kale. ‘I can’t.’
‘Ah, too busy helping your mom, good man.’ Gabe ruffled his hair and reached past him for a beer. ‘Look at you, a head taller than when I last saw you. You must be seven now.’
Seven? His head span. What?
‘She said we should help this bird she found.’ The words slipped through his lips as Percy held up the kale. ‘She wants me to squish the kale for it?’
‘Baby birds can’t eat it unless it’s been squished.’ Gabe nodded at the kale. ‘You should always help those who need it, even if it means having to give up something.’ He stuck his beer back in the fridge and rummaged through cupboards. ‘Let’s find that blender your mom has, shall we? If only I did less travelling, I’d actually know where some of the stuff is in this house.’
‘How long are you back for?’ The question tumbled off Percy’s tongue.
The blender whirred and rattled. Green leaves blurred into thick, dark-flecked mush.
‘A couple of days.’ Gabe tugged the lid off, wiping his hands on his creased, grey t-shirt. ‘I’m sure I can find an hour or so for another story, if you like?’
A grin spread across Percy’s face and his heart lifted. ‘One of those old ones, about the ancient heroes, and the gods and goddesses?’
A bright twinkle shone in Gabe’s electric blue eyes. ‘They’re the best ones. You can learn a lot from them.’
Thunder cracked beyond the walls and the rain hammered down against the windows. Fear’s cold fist tightened its grasp on his heart and Percy shrank back into the corner at the foot of his bed, clutching the duvet around him.
‘Hey.’ Gabe eased the door open and poked his head in with a gentle smile. ‘It’s okay, kid.’
Lightning flashed beyond the curtains and the thunder tore across the sky.
‘You don’t need to fear the storm, Percy. Be brave.’ He sat down on the carpet and crossed his legs. ‘Let me tell you a story while the thunder passes, five years old is old enough for me to start telling you stories.’
Five? His heart started to hammer against his ribs. Seven?
‘What’s the story about?’ Words burst through Percy’s lips. ‘Is it good?’
‘It’s good. It’s about another brave boy. He was called Perseus, too.’
A warm weight slumped over him and he jolted awake.
Bright electric blue eyes stared up at him from beneath scattered, dark hair, fast, frenzied, gasping breaths washing against his neck.
‘Gabe?’ Percy shook his head clear of sleep and scattered dreams into bright sunlight and the ring of swordplay.
Gabe’s away working. I’m at camp.
The blue eyes flickered closed and a weight thudded against his shoulder.
Percy leant back and stared down at the older girl sprawled over him. ‘Unless Gabe has been hiding a lot of things, you’re definitely not him.’ He glanced up at the golden fleece hanging from the branches of the tree and a chill trickled down his spine. ‘Surely not…’
‘Thalia!’ Annabeth’s cry tore through the camp.
‘Immortal gods,’ Percy muttered. ‘It is her.’
Annabeth gets her friend back. He smiled and gathered Thalia up in his arms. That’ll help her get over Luke’s betrayal.
‘Percy, what did you do?!’ Annabeth stormed over, her gold curls fluttering.
‘Woah, I did nothing, Wise-Girl.’ He shifted Thalia’s weight onto this right arm. ‘I was just resting, dreaming, and then she fell on me.’ Percy stifled a grin. ‘I was going to thank Aphrodite, but then I remembered who this girl’s Dad is.’
‘Ass.’ Annabeth kicked him in the shin. ‘We need to take her to Chiron and make sure she’s alright. The Golden Fleece must’ve healed her tree…
And then Zeus turned her back into a girl. He frowned. Why? Why now?
‘Let’s go, then.’ Percy glanced through the camp. ‘But let’s go around the back, it might be better if nobody knows just yet.’
Annabeth nodded. ‘Not all seaweed up there after all.’
‘Thanks. You’re so kind.’
She swept her curls off her face and led him around the back of the cabins, checking around the corner of each. ‘Why were you even out there?’
‘Napping.’ Percy shouldered open the door to the medical bay and lay Thalia down on the first empty bed. ‘I told you.’
‘Out there?’ She caught his eyes with a piercing grey stare. ‘Not by the lake. Not in your cabin. Under that tree?’
He grinned. ‘It must be fate. Maybe I should thank Aphrodite after all.’
‘Ass,’ she hissed, swinging her foot into his shin again. ‘Keep saying her name and you’ll end up eating your words. You want to fall in love with a daughter of the heavens?’
Percy grimaced. ‘It probably would end up causing a lot of trouble, wouldn’t it?’
Annabeth scoffed. ‘You have no idea.’ She glanced at Thalia. ‘I’ll fetch Chiron, Percy. Don’t let anyone else in here until we’re back. If she wakes up, be careful, the last thing she remembers is probably us being attacked.’
‘The sea doesn’t like to sit around and wait,’ Percy grumbled.
‘You’re not the sea, kelp-face,’ Annabeth shot over her shoulder. ‘You’re not even a pond.’
‘That makes you a colouring book,’ he yelled after her. ‘One where someone crossed over all the lines and mixed colouring pencils and felt pens.’
‘Ass!’ She stuck her middle finger up at him as she left.
Percy dragged a chair up beside Thalia’s bed. ‘I get stuck babysitting the napping wannabe nymph.’ He studied her short, dark hair and sighed. ‘Still, way better than whatever class it was I was meant to be in. Oh, look at me, I’m Clarisse, I have a hoplon, I can swing it around even though it’s really heavy, such a shame it’s a math class and I can’t count more hoplons than I have fingers.’
A snort of laughter rose from the bed. ‘Wow, did not know Hades had a sense of humour.’
‘He doesn’t.’ Percy replied. ‘Not unless he thinks kidnapping my mother is funny. Which, to be fair, he might. I don’t know.’
Thalia cracked open her bright blue eyes. ‘You… I remember your face… There were monsters, and lightning, and then you…’
‘You fell on me, like a pinecone, but much heavier.’
‘Heavy?’ She sat up with a dark glare. ‘Did you just call me fat?’
Percy watched the hairs on his arm rise. ‘Fatter than a pinecone.’ He smoothed his hairs back down and ignored the soft tingling. ‘Annabeth went to get Chiron.’
‘Annabeth.’ Thalia seized his arm.
Percy flinched from a sharp jolt of electricity. ‘Ow.’ He tugged his arm away. ‘What was that for?’
Thalia glowered. ‘Where’s Annabeth? Where’s Luke?’
Luke. Percy inspected his hands. Best she hears about that from someone else. It’s not my place to tell her, it should come from someone she knows. And Annabeth will want to be the one.
‘Annabeth is just coming,’ he said. ‘She’ll want to tell you about everything, and she’ll do it better than I would.’
‘They’re both okay?’
‘As far as I know.’ Percy smiled. ‘Annabeth was looking a little mad, I don’t think she liked me calling her a colouring book.’
Thalia snorted. ‘Annie hates colouring books. I stole a bunch when we found her and she threw them at me.’ She folded her arms. ‘Who actually are you?’
‘Sally Jackson.’ He grinned. ‘The clue is the fact that we have the same last name.’
‘Cute way of saying you’re unclaimed.’ She shrugged. ‘Don’t sweat it, gods are gods. I’m Thalia Grace, daughter of Zeus.’
‘I know. I met your Dad a year or so back and you have the same eyes. Someone stole his favourite weapon and I had to go get it.’
‘Someone stole Dad’s bolt?’ Thalia gaped. ‘Who was stupid enough to do that?’
‘Luke.’ Annabeth stepped into the room. ‘Luke stole it. He’s betrayed us. All of us.’
Thalia’s eyes narrowed. ‘He wouldn’t—’
‘He has.’ Annabeth drew herself up as the sound of Chiron’s hooves echoed from outside. ‘Chiron will explain. Unless Percy blurted something out already?’
‘Fairly sure I haven’t.’ Percy feigned a frown. ‘I hadn’t even got to the part about compulsory pop karaoke night.’
Thalia turned white. ‘Compulsory pop karaoke night?’
Annabeth sighed. ‘I told him you hated pop music. I’m surprised he actually remembers.’ She shot him a long look. ‘Are you staying?’
‘No, I’d just be in the way.’ Percy stood up. ‘You know where my cabin is.’ He drifted out, wandering down to the edge of the pier and dangling his feet into the water, letting its gentle cool soothe him.
Maybe Thalia waking up is a good thing. He stared at the sun’s reflection on the smooth lake surface. At the very least, Clarisse’ll have to spend half as much time picking a fight with me.