Small fish nibbled at his feet, drifting about his toes below the still surface of the lake. At the far side of the water, the naiads laughed and skipped along the shore.
One more day. Then we go back in to find Grover Tyson and Nico.
Soft hands rested on his shoulders.
‘Aren’t you meant to be in the meeting I’m allowed to skip because I apparently have the tactical knowledge of a sea urchin, Annabeth?’ Percy asked.
A quiet laugh brushed the back of his neck and the sweet scent of figs drifted to his nose. ‘Is Annabeth the first girl who springs to mind, Percy?’
His heart fluttered. ‘Aphrodite…’
She sat behind him, dangling her bare legs either side of his into the lake.
‘What do you want?’ He watched the fish dart away from her gleaming red toe-nails into deeper waters. ‘If you could resist the temptation to say anything about Ogygia, I would really appreciate it.’
‘Me? Resist the temptations of the heart?’ Aphrodite’s laughter tickled his ear, sending little shivers down his spine. ‘Who do you think it was that guided you there, Percy? I told you, it doesn’t have to be you.’
‘Why?’ Percy whispered. ‘Why send me there? Why make me choose?’
Her arms slipped around his chest. ‘Did it hurt to leave her?’ One hand drifted up cup his cheek. ‘Does it still hurt?’
‘I feel much worse about leaving her than I do about letting Typhon out,’ he muttered.
‘Zeus is quite upset about that.’ The warmth of Aphrodite’s embrace vanished and she appeared beside him, staring out across the lake and smoothing the familiar plain white chiton she wore. ‘What was it that made you come back, brave one?’
Percy flinched and turned away. ‘Please don’t call me that.’
‘I thought you were going to stay,’ Aphrodite murmured, her red lips grazing his earlobe. ‘You woke up beside her and I could’ve sworn I heard your heart call out to me for the first time. Just a whisper. Not loud enough for me to even make out a name. But I heard something.’
‘I had to come back. To fight.’
‘Fight for who?’ She stared at him with familiar dark eyes, sending his heart into frenzied fluttering. ‘Annabeth?’ Aphrodite’s dark tresses shivered into golden curls.
‘I’m not in love.’ Percy crossed his arms and clenched his jaw. ‘I would know.’
Aphrodite laughed, melting his heart into a hot little puddle in his breast. ‘Oh Percy, I cannot read your heart, nor even your thoughts any longer, but I can feel the love in you.’ She slipped her arm around his neck and rested her head on his shoulder. ‘Like all who look upon the waves and know beneath them lies endless blue, I know what your heart holds.’
‘It’s not endless, there are rocks at the bottom. And sand.’
‘Your stubbornness is very sweet, Percy,’ Aphrodite breathed. ‘Did you know that when you set your jaw like that Calypso wanted to kiss you until she ran out of breath. She hoped you’d try to kiss her so desperately.‘
His heart wrenched, snatched away into the pit of his stomach with a sickening lurch like a leaf caught in frothing cold white water. ‘Don’t tell me that. It makes it so much worse.’
‘I know,’ she whispered. ‘But you chose to leave her. Isn’t it fair you know? I can tell you what she’s doing now. I could tell you how yesterday she broke down in tears halfway through watering her flowers and sat on the ground beside the well until the rain drenched her to the bone. How she screamed at the storm until her voice gave out and all she could do was sob into her knees.’
Percy turned away and squeezed his eyes shut until the heat of his tears eased. ‘Why are you doing this?’
‘Love is the one immortal thing mortals possess.’ Aphrodite reached out and turned his face toward her with warm fingers, smiling at the tears clinging to his lashes. ‘Love lingers even after passing into Hades. It should not be spurned without fair cost.’
‘Surely everything is echoed in Hades. Like misery.’
‘Ah, but while distance lets other feelings fade, absence just makes the heart grow fonder,’ she murmured.
Aphrodite laughed and brushed his tears away with one red-varnished thumb. ‘Tell me, brave one. If dear Zoë had not chosen her fate, do you think she would have been as great a hero as she was?’
‘You mean if she’d had no choice?’ He shook his head. ‘Maybe not. She chose to be brave and that’s what made her a hero. But if she’d not had to choose, she wouldn’t have died. No choice. No consequences.’
‘And no chance to be who she deserved to be.’ She smiled a soft smile down into the water. ‘I always knew she was meant for greater things than that garden. Her heart yearned too. If I’d not given her the chance to choose, she would just be another hesperide, as trapped as her father.’
‘But…’ Percy’s heart sank like stone into the lake. ‘Why? Why does it have to be that way?’
‘It is a gift you mortals are all given by Fate,’ Aphrodite whispered. ‘A double-edged blade sharper than any razor. The chance to be so much more than just fleeting souls veiled in crumbling flesh. Imagine if you’d chosen to stay with Calypso. How much it would have meant to her. How happy you both could have been. And yet here you are, alone. And there she lies sobbing on her tear-soaked pillow… alone. ‘
‘But I couldn’t stay. I had to come back and fight or I’d…’
‘You’d what, my dear Percy?’
‘Fall,’ he muttered. ‘Ruin everything.’
‘Still convinced that hearts are selfish, I see.’ Aphrodite’s sweet laughter snatched his breath away. ‘With every choice there are consequences, some more dire than others, but your heart is no siren, Percy. It makes you who you are. Did you not listen to it every time you chose well?’
Percy let out a long sigh and closed his eyes. ‘No more games, please. Should I have stayed with her? Was I supposed to?’
‘Fate is made of your choices, Percy,’ she said. ‘You are here now. And there is no way back.’
‘I don’t know what I’m doing,’ he said, staring out over the water. ‘I think I’m just going to get everything ruined.’
‘All the weight of the world hanging on every choice you make.’ Aphrodite ran her fingers through his hair, soft and warm as his mom’s embrace. ‘There are few mortals who would envy you that. No wonder you wish you didn’t have to choose.’
‘I’m going to get it wrong eventually. It’s inevitable,’ he mumbled. ‘I think you would all be much better off if it had been me who’d died and not Zoë.’
‘Or if you’d stayed on Ogygia,’ Aphrodite whispered. ‘With Calypso.’
Percy squirmed; the guilt swirled in his breast, churning his heart into a violent storm of cold waves and sharp winds. ‘You’re just playing with me. Aren’t you?’
‘Always,’ she murmured. ‘But love is a game for two, Percy. And somewhere in here—’ her hand rested over his heart ‘—I can feel her, welling up like a spring…’
‘I’m not in love. Not unless Calypso counts. And I think if that was it, I’d still be with her.’
‘Perhaps you don’t yet know what lies in your heart, Percy. Maybe that’s even why I cannot hear it.’ She leant to his ear. ‘But I promised to listen and whisper back when you can’t help but yearn for my favour. I gave my word.’ Her lips brushed his cheek, lingering at the corner of his mouth. ‘And I do not break it.’ She vanished in a puff of white smoke and a wash of fig scented air.
Percy glowered up at the sky, grappling with the storm tearing at his heart. ‘You made it so much worse,’ he muttered.
Distant laughter drifted down from above and a single white dove feather floated into his lap, bursting into a small wooden box.
‘My moonlace flowers.’ He cupped the box in his hands. ‘Except I’ll probably just kill them if I try and grow them.’ Percy dragged himself up. ‘Best to get someone who actually knows what they’re doing to look after them.’
Katie will probably know what to do with them. He wandered through camp toward the fields, spying her blonde hair amidst the strawberry plants.
‘Katie!’ Percy leant on the fence. ‘Can I ask you for a favour?’
‘Percy!’ She bounced to her feet, brushing dirt off her shirt and hands, clawing her blonde hair back behind her ears. ‘Er… hi? Of course.’
‘Can I come in?’ He patted the fence. ‘Or will I get strung up by angry strawberry vines.’
Katie beamed. ‘You can come in, but if you try and steal any of these strawberries…’
‘Some kind of plant violence will happen.’ Percy vaulted over the fence and hopped over the first line of strawberries. ‘How terrifying.’
She turned pink. ‘What’s the favour?’
‘I need your help with something,’ he said, holding out the box. ‘I was given these. They’re flower seeds.’
‘You want me to grow them?’ Katie poked the lid open with the tip of her finger, a curious gleam in her green eyes. ‘What are they?’
‘I’ve never seen them before,’ she said, holding one up to the sun between her thumb and forefinger. ‘Are they pretty?’
Percy closed eyes. Calypso smiled behind his eyelids, cupping her moonlace blooms in her hands.
‘Very,’ he muttered.
‘So Percy Jackson, the mighty son of Poseidon, likes pretty flowers.’ Katie grinned. ‘Who would’ve guessed.’
‘They were a gift.’
She laughed. ‘Who gave you flowers?’
Katie flushed bright pink. ‘Oh.’
‘Yeah.’ Percy stared down at the dirt. ‘So… will you?’
‘Of course.’ She dropped the seed back in the box, flashing him a bright smile. ‘But in my little garden, not here. I can look after them better there.’
‘Thanks, Katie.’ He eyed the strawberries. ‘I’m still faster than you, right?’
‘Don’t you dare.’ Katie pouted. ‘You leave my strawberries alone, Percy.’
‘Fine. Fine.’ Percy laughed. ‘I won’t mess with your plants, Captain Crunch.’
She giggled. ‘Captain Crunch? Really?’
‘Don’t worry, I’ll think of more. And they’ll be even worse. Just ask Annabeth.’ He stepped back over the line of plants. ‘See you about, Katie.’
‘Wait.’ Katie grabbed his arm. ‘I’m glad you’re okay, Percy. Like, really glad.’ Bright pink crept up her cheeks. ‘D-did you come back from Ogygia for Annabeth like Drew is saying?’
‘Why does everyone keep asking me that?’ Percy glared up into the sky. ‘No. I didn’t come back for Annabeth.’
Katie’s green eyes went wide. ‘Really?’
‘W-who did you come back for then?’ she whispered, staring down at their feet as the colour rose up to the tips of her ears.
Percy swallowed. Just like Bianca.
He nudged her toes with his foot. ‘You’re standing on your strawberries, Cheerio-girl. You beat the Stolls into the ground with a huge eggplant for less than that.’
‘Oops,’ Katie squeaked, hopping back. ‘Oh dear. I’d better fix my poor babies.’
Percy chuckled. ‘Babies?’
Her lower lip stuck out. ‘Yes. My babies. So no thieving.’
‘I promise I won’t.’ He pointed at the box. ‘Thank you, Katie. If I can, can I come and see them grow? I’d like to see them.’
And remember her. So I don’t forget my promise. Percy gave Katie a little wave as she crouched down over the strawberry plant and clambered back over the fence. Or the consequences of my choice.
He wandered up the hill to Zeus’s fist and gave Clarisse a thumb’s up. ‘You can go take a break if you want. See how that meeting’s going. I’ll watch here for a bit.’
‘I don’t need a break,’ Clarisse snapped, folding her arms over her white hoodie. ‘I’m fine.’
Percy shrugged. ‘I’ve got nothing else to do. And you do.’
She tossed him a bronze-bound horn and snatched her hoplon and spear up. ‘Don’t use that unless you actually have to. It was a gift from my dad.’
Clarisse scowled. ‘You better not have come back from Ogygia for me, sea-boy. I’d rather kiss Tyson.’
Percy burst into laughter. ‘I’m going to tell Tyson you said that. You’re not his type, but you can go on a nice little date by the seaside with him.’
She flushed and jabbed him in the ribs with the butt of her spear. ‘Shut up. You know what I mean. Drew and her gaggle of airheaded sisters won’t shut up about you and Ogygia. Just tell whichever poor girl it is so she can reject you and the rest of us don’t have to listen to those doll-brained nail-painters.’
‘I’m going to tell Drew it’s you now.’ He grinned. ‘Have fun.’
Clarisse shot him a flat stare. ‘Don’t you—’ she broke into a cackle ‘—no you do that, I’ll tell my dad. He’d love an excuse to fight you properly. He’s still mad about that cheapshot you caught him with. Wants a proper rematch.’
Percy grimaced. ‘Nope. Once was enough. I tried to fight Atlas properly and that went about as well as I assume fighting Ares would.’
‘Got your ass kicked.’
‘Holding up the sky was the easy option.’
‘Have fun on door watch.’ She smacked him on the shoulder with the butt of her spear and jogged down toward the Big House.