The lock clicked under her hand and the door gave way; Annabeth adjusted the paper bag of Chinese takeout balanced on her hip and shuffled through the door, ignoring Percy’s awkward squawk and the heavy thunk that followed immediately after. It was a standard greeting, when she surprised him; Annabeth wasn’t sure exactly what Percy did, when he had their apartment all to himself, but by the time she got home he was usually asleep on the couch. Her arrival typically startled him out of it.
“You’re home, ah, you’re home—early! Very, very early, so early,” he said, voice about an octave higher than normal, coming from somewhere in the living room.
Annabeth slid the paper bag of food off of her hip and onto the counter. “It was a nightmare, so I left. I got you lo mein, because you didn’t answer my call.”
She might have been a little irritated by that, because they always answered each other’s calls; she never knew if he was calling because he was bored or because he was three states over, dragged into a sudden quest, and he gave her the same courtesy of answering her calls immediately, even if that meant Kathleen the barn manager giving him a talking-to about phones on the job. It was Saturday, anyway, and he had weekends off, and there was no reason for him to not pick up his phone.
“Thanks,” Percy called, still sounding deeply awkward. “Could you, ah. Um. I have something to—”
“It was a nightmare,” Annabeth said, ignoring him. “Deanna spent the entire time on the phone with her boyfriend, because apparently they’re fighting—it was supposed to be a get-together, right? It was supposed to be fun. But everything got caught up in Deanna’s relationship drama, for maybe the fourth time. She’s a great player, she’s nice enough, but I have no idea how she keeps getting involved with men that are—gods, she falls for the same three tricks every time. But the whole day’s just been Deanna yelling at Tristan, and finally she said Tristan was coming over to handle things, and you know how the girls are? They’re just letting it spiral out of control, it was a nightmare. So now you have the flu.”
“I’m sorry, that sounds—wait, why do I have the flu? Come here for a second, there’s—”
Annabeth dug out the plastic meal trays, spreading them out on the kitchen table. “You have the flu and I explained that you’re a baby when you’re sick, so I absolutely have to be here. They thought it was cute, they ate it up, don’t worry. Gods, it’s—why did you let me do this? Why did it have to be softball, of all sports, you could’ve—you could’ve told me to sign up for cross country, I bet they’re significantly less of a nightmare. Why did I think Ivy League softball would be a great way to make friends? I’d rather be friends with a fucking manticore. It was awkward, it was painful, it was—are you ever going to come get your food?”
“Just a second,” Percy said.
Annabeth ducked her head into the living room. Percy was sitting on the floor in front of the couch, a blanket bunched up over his chest, covering his arms; he twisted his head and looked at her, throwing her a dumb grin, but she could tell he was nervous about something.
“What did you do,” Annabeth said, lowly.
“Nothing! Why do you assume I did something!” Percy said.
Annabeth raised a brow. “This will go a lot easier if you just tell me what you did.”
“Okay, okay, just,” Percy kicked at the space on the carpet in front of him with a socked foot. “Just sit down.”
“I have to sit down for this,” Annabeth said. “I have to sit down for you to explain? What did you do?”
“I’ll tell you but I don’t want you to fall over and break your skull, you need that,” Percy said, looking at her desperately. He cut his eyes to the empty carpet space. “Please?”
Annabeth groaned, but she obliged, folding her legs beneath her and cupping her hands in her lap, schooling her breathing. “Care to share,” she said.
“So your birthday’s coming up,” Percy said. “And I had plans, for your birthday. But they were—uh, things got a little mixed up.”
Annabeth’s mouth thinned. “You forgot my birthday?”
Percy’s brows furrowed. “Have I ever forgotten your birthday, ever, what the—no, no, I didn’t. I just, uh, plans changed, and—”
The blanket over Percy’s chest wriggled, which would have been an ignorable motion, if the blanket didn’t continue to move. A tiny, dark gray head popped out of the collar of Percy’s sweatshirt, fixing Annabeth with baleful blue eyes that seemed to say, it’s hot in here and I would like to leave now. A miniscule paw pressed against Percy’s throat. The little thundercloud muzzle cupped and let out a long, high-pitched howl, as if to say, I’m leaving now and I will not be stopped. Percy was decidedly not looking at Annabeth through the entire exchange.
“Excuse me,” Annabeth said, quietly. “Did your hoodie just give birth to—”
“Listen!” Percy said, and the loudness of his voice startled the puppy, who flopped forward into Percy’s lap. Percy pulled his hands from beneath the blanket, which he must’ve used to try and disguise the puppy-sized lump hiding beneath his hoodie, and smoothed over the puppy’s muzzle. “Remember when we were thirteen and you told me the story of the stray dog that you took care of, and you said he was a gray pitbull, and that he was your favorite, and if you could ever get a dog you’d get a gray pitbull just like him?”
Annabeth stared at the puppy licking eagerly at Percy’s hands, seemingly forgiving Percy for being trapped in his hoodie. There was a distinctly pitbull-ish look to its face, the thick jowls and smooth, short fur, and big broad eyes—and it was dark gray, like the summer thunderstorms that hung low on the horizon in the evenings. “I don’t even remember telling you that,” she said, in mild fascination. “Percy, we can’t, our lease—”
“I, uh, did, some—persuading,” Percy said.
“Please define persuading,” Annabeth said. “I really need you to define persuading for me, right now, this instant.”
“Um, my mom’s devil’s food cake recipe, and I might have told him that I was trying to save our relationship through the dog, and if we move out because we broke up he’d have to find new renters, so I figured he might like that reasoning,” Percy said. One hand was now rubbing the back of his neck, and Annabeth was sure if she kissed his cheek, it would be flaming hot. He looked less nervous now and more deeply terrified.
The puppy crawled forward and tumbled off of Percy’s lap, making its ungainly way towards Annabeth.
“You got me a dog,” she said, softly, “because of a story I told you once when we were thirteen.”
“Yes?” Percy answered, clearly not understanding if that was the right thing to say.
The puppy licked Annabeth’s bare knee, its tail, still chubby with stored puppy fat, wagged clumsily. Annabeth swallowed once, twice, against the lump forming in her throat.
“Do you remember what I named him? The stray?” Annabeth asked.
“Brutus,” Percy said, immediately, but one brow was cocked quizzically.
Annabeth cupped the puppy in her hands, thumbs pressed in its armpits and against its tiny ribcage, and cradled it to her chest. “Who are you,” she cooed at it.
She wasn’t looking at Percy, but she could hear his relief when she spoke. “I haven’t named her. I tried to find a boy, for, uh, similarity’s sake, but the litter ended up being all girls.”
Annabeth swiped at her eyes, quickly, with the back of her hand. “You got me a dog,” she said.
“I know a dog isn’t a great surprise present,” Percy said. “Maybe I should have—”
“I can’t believe you remembered,” Annabeth said, her hands roving over the puppy’s fur. The puppy lunged for one of her fingers, mouthing it, and Annabeth pulled her finger away and tweaked the puppy’s nose. “I can’t believe you. I was expecting, I don’t know, I just—”
She thought of Brutus, his flea-bitten muzzle pushing at her cheek. The sourness of his breath, the way his ribs had pressed through his skin, her own desperation to keep him; Luke and Thalia had entertained her for a week or two, but then they’d lost Brutus in Maryland’s countryside. Annabeth knew now that he must’ve been too sick to keep up, too thin, too flea-bitten, maybe riddled with heartworms or parvovirus or any of the number of things that befell unwanted, hated dogs. But she’d loved that dog, because maybe he was the first person to follow her, because Brutus hadn’t wanted anything from her but food and affection and to sleep curled up against her back.
She looked at Percy, while the puppy explored her lap and nibbled at the belt loop of her jean shorts. Maybe Brutus had the first person she thought listened to her, but he was far from the last.
“Oh, gods, please don’t cry, I’m sorry,” Percy said. “I’m sorry, I can call—”
“If you try and send my dog back I’ll skin you alive,” Annabeth said, thickly, swiping again at her eyes. “I’ll figure out a way to break the Curse of Achilles specifically to skin you alive.”
Percy beamed. “You like her?”
Annabeth ran a thumb over the puppy’s cheek. The puppy yipped and tried to bite her thumb. “Her name is Achelois,” she said, hating her voice just a bit for sounding so small, hoping the part of Percy’s brain hardwired for Ancient Greek wouldn’t translate the word to the English, she who washes away the pain.
Judging by the way Percy’s face impossibly softened, Annabeth wasn’t so lucky.