“Why do people drink wine anyway?” Percy mutters into his glass. “It’s so gross and it hurts my mouth.”
“Maybe if you stopped brushing your teeth hard enough to make your gums bleed, it wouldn’t hurt,” Jason answers. His voice is tinny through the earpiece. “Now please focus. We don’t have much time.”
“Calm down.” Percy reaches for the hors d'oeuvres. “Neither of them looks like they’re in much of a hurry.”
“Okay, but keep an eye on them. And stop blabbing. Someone’s bound to notice the crazy guy in the corner talking to himself.”
As subtly as he can, Percy lifts his middle finger off the glass and into the line of vision of the lens camera fitted in his eye. He can hear Jason snorting over the sound of typing.
But Jason’s right, so Percy straightens his back – as well as he can in this itchy penguin suit, anyway – and puts a hand in his jacket pocket as he sips the wine and surveys the room.
Well, it’s not really a room. More like a ballroom, almost the size of Percy’s old high school building. The ceiling is high and carved to look cushiony – the edges swooping downward and meeting in the middle where an intricate golden chandelier hangs. Gleaming arched windows run along the walls, flanked by tall pillars and heavy velvet curtains. The entire marble floor is bare of carpet, except at one end of the room, where a grand piano sits on a raised platform, and is currently being played by some famous pianist guy straight out of Julliard. All around Percy, influential men and women dance and talk and laugh while draped in stupidly expensive dresses and suits, drinking disgusting wine and acting like they care about the charity they’re raising funds for.
Percy’s been to one too many of these kinds of things during his career, and even though he knows he has to go where the job takes him, he hates these society events each time. The whole atmosphere makes him feel uncomfortable, and he constantly thinks he’s sticking out like a sore thumb, which is the exact opposite of what he’s supposed to be doing.
The reason he’s here today is the man who owns the mansion they’re in right now, and the organizer of this event. Percy fixes his eyes on the fifty-year-old Donald Trump look-alike. The billionaire goes by the obnoxious name Bernard Harridan, and is quite commonly known among authorities to be an active partaker of the blood diamond trade. They’ve never been able to legally gather evidence that the diamonds he sells on American and Canadian soil are blood diamonds, so now Percy’s here trying to illegally gather the evidence.
Percy can feel the press of his gun against his wrist, the wires running underneath his clothes, the added weight of his bulletproof suit and various weapons. In his ear, he can hear Jason back in headquarters, busy typing God-only-knows-what and muttering to himself. He’s sitting at his station, probably dressed in a button-down, tie and black pants as usual, with his headset and concentrated frown in place, looking unfairly hot the whole time. Surrounded by screens and phone lines to every conceivable person in their bureau, occasionally murmuring to the people around him who sit in their own stations, including Piper, who is probably blabbing into Annabeth’s ear right now, like Jason is his.
As Percy watches, a beautiful dark-haired young woman walks up to where the guy is busy talking to same-faced old rich white guys and whispers in his ear. Percy clicks his tongue onto the back of his mouth twice to get Jason’s attention.
“She the one?” he asks.
“Yup,” Jason says instantly, “Olivia Glass. Harridan’s right hand. She has the beta key.”
“Oh my God, Percy, why don’t you ever listen during debriefings? No wonder Reyna’s always pissed at you.”
Percy coughs more firmly. A server in a black silk waistcoat instantly glides over to him, switching Percy’s empty glass for a new one before Percy can tell him he would never call a waiter over that rudely.
“The beta key can open most of Harridan’s vaults, with limits. The most important vaults need an alpha key and code too, both of which the old geezer has.”
Percy studies her. The lens in his eyes automatically zooms into her – he will never get used to that – and he watches as she throws back her head and laughs at something an elderly woman in emeralds said to her, her curls catching the gold lighting in the room.
Jason clears his throat and Percy guiltily, stupidly, cuts his eyes away.
“Paying attention?” Jason says. His voice sounds carefully neutral.
“Nothing to apologize for. I’m not angry.”
“Yeah, but –“
“Percy,” Jason sighs, “We promised Reyna that our personal lives wouldn’t affect our professional lives, and we have to show her that they won’t. So please don’t worry about me. I’m fine. Besides, we’re just screwing around. Things would only get messy if feelings were involved.”
Despite his off-hand tone, Percy can hear the tightness of his voice. He remembers two nights ago, lying with Jason in his bed, tired and sweaty and content, watching the moonlight spill through the window onto Jason, making him glow with an unearthly light. Like a Siren in arm’s reach.
He remembers how Jason had rolled over to him with a shy smile on his face and had asked, in the softest of voices, if Percy ever imagined them being ‘something more’. He remembers how his chest had tightened painfully and the next thing he knew, he had told Jason he needed to go. Not even five minutes later, he had been out the door.
Neither he nor Jason has mentioned it, but it’s pretty clear to Percy that Jason’s going to be perpetually pissed at him. Which is not something you want from the person who’s responsible for keeping you safe while you go out on missions which are, essentially, the equivalent of jumping into a pit of snakes.
Jason clears his throat again, making Percy lift his eyes. “Annabeth’s got Harridan. Apparently, he has a thing for blonds that are way out of his league. Glass’s making her way to the top right of the ballroom. Relatively secluded, so that’s good.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Percy spots Annabeth appear out of the crowds of waltzing people, on the arm of a snobby-looking man who’s leading her to Harridan. She makes eye contact with Percy for a split second and lets him know without a single shift in her face that everything’s going smoothly.
“Okay,” Jason says, “Go time.”
Percy slides his empty glass onto a passing tray, fixes the lapels of his jacket, and then starts moving through the crowd. He passes close enough by Annabeth and Harridan to hear him say, “You look a lot like my next wife,” and rolls his eyes at the comment. The dude is about a hundred years old and so are his pick-up lines.
He sees Olivia Glass standing at the edge of the circling couples, back ramrod-straight even as it rests on the velvet-covered walls. Her thin tanned thumbs slide over the screen of her phone and her dark eyes scan it intently. Percy squares his shoulders, puts on the best charming face he can, and then stops in front of her.
“Excuse me.” She looks up at him. “Hi. Dan Wilder. I’m –“
“The owner of Olympus TV networks in Greece, one of the youngest in the world.” She gives him a blinding smile. “And one of our biggest donators tonight. Welcome to the United States.”
“Thank you,” he grins at her, “You seem to know a lot about me.”
She laughs, a high musical note. “I know a lot about everyone here. I looked over the guest list so many times I have the names and faces memorized already.” She extends one slender arm. Her ring digs into his skin when he shakes her hand. “Olivia Glass. Assistant to Bernard Harridan. I partly organized this event.”
“Well, you did a wonderful job.” Percy gazes around the room. He doesn’t even have to fake the admiration. “The guests all seem happy and,” he glances at her meaningfully, “everything looks beautiful.”
It’s the cheesiest thing he could have said, but it makes her blush. Percy waits for Jason to give him the go-ahead, but there’s silence from his end. Nevertheless, he got a positive response, so he takes the leap.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t help ask,” he holds out a hand, palm up, “May I have this dance?”
She gleefully places a soft hand in his and he leads her into the center of the room. He’s never been too good at dancing, but he recalls all the dance classes he had to go through with Hazel and puts it to good use, hoping Glass won’t notice his two left feet.
They talk about nothing in particular for a few minutes. Percy makes sure he seems attentive and interested, despite his main focus being scanning her person as discreetly as possible for the beta key. Jason warns him it probably isn’t in plain sight, and he thinks he might be right.
Glass converses with him easily, flashing him her perfectly straight pearly whites the whole while. He can tell how loyal she is to her job, though, by the way her eyes occasionally skip around to follow the guests, servers or, mainly, Harridan. Even while dancing, she’s acutely aware of anything happening in the room.
So is Percy. Three main exit points in the room – one leading further into the mansion, one leading into the kitchens, and the final one going out to the pool. Twenty servers, all rotating and busy, even though three of them are disguised bodyguards employed by Harridan. Twenty feet away from the point where he and Glass twirl – out the first door, up the mansion steps, towards the right, into the first door on the left – is Harridan’s main study, where the vault of interest is, full of papers concerning Harridan’s diamond trade.
Annabeth is about ten feet to his right, hanging off of Harridan’s flabby arm. The man himself is downing wine by the barrel and laughing loud enough to tear his strained waistcoat off. He keeps leering at Annabeth and by now, she’s cleared enough people off so that she’s the only one near him. His bodyguards still have a sharp eye on her, but knowing Annabeth, not five minutes from now, Harridan will tell them to stand at ease and will take Annabeth out of the ballroom for some ‘alone time’ in another room.
Which, if everything goes according to plan, will be his study.
“You can’t seriously convince me you don’t have a girlfriend, Mr Wilder? There must be some girl in your life.”
Percy huffs out an embarrassed laugh. How does he tell this very pretty girl he’s dancing with that he’s in love with a guy? “Well,” he repositions his hand on his waist. He doesn’t want her to think he’s trying to grope her. “There’s one, I suppose, but she doesn’t like me very much at the moment.”
“Oh?” She frowns, but not like she’s annoyed. Like she’s concerned. Percy feels strangely worried about her safety all of a sudden. “Why not?”
Percy spins her slowly, trying to gather his thoughts. “Because I’ve been a jerk to her lately. I’ve made a huge mistake. Which is horrible enough in itself, but she also happens to be my best friend, and I don’t like hurting my best friend.”
In his ear, Jason is breathing soft and even, like he does when they’re together and happy, watching a movie or planning a mission. Except this sounds measured and tense, like he’s straining to hear Percy properly.
Olivia pats his shoulder consolingly. “That’s sad, but I’m sure she’ll forgive you soon.”
“I hope so.” He smiles sheepishly. “I don’t want her to hate me forever.”
“I don’t hate you,” Jason mumbles. “I could never hate you.”
“Is she very beautiful?” Olivia raises her eyebrows.
“Oh yeah,” Percy laughs. “Blond hair, blue eyes, the works. And she’s a really good person too. The best person.”
“I’m assuming you don’t love her,” she says, brown eyes sparkling, “if you’re dancing with strange women at charity events.”
Percy’s smile falters. “To be completely honest, it doesn’t matter if I do. She doesn’t feel the same way.”
He can hear fingers tapping on wood – Jason’s nervous tic. Olivia moves closer to him. “I, for one, am glad,” she says in a low voice, “She doesn’t know what she’s missing.”
“Inner strap of her dress, to your right,” Jason says.
Percy drops his eyes to trace the right seam of her dress that’s pressing into her chest. Inside, barely visible, is a glint of ridged metal. Percy would assume it’s some part of her bra, but he doubts she’s wearing a metal bra.
There’s a smug edge to her smile. She’s thinking he was ogling her chest. Percy encourages the thought with the sleaziest grin he can manage. “Is there somewhere we can go that’s… more private?”
They’ve been dancing close to the exit that leads to the pool, not at all by accident. Just as planned, she leads him out of the ballroom and into the fresh air outside. Two men from Harridan’s guard start to follow her, but she waves them off. Annabeth meets his eye before he leaves.
The door opens into the large outdoor pool area. The water is a clear calm blue, all of it hidden beneath a sheet of clear glass that extends from the upper edges of the pool and over it. Towards one end of the pool is a smaller, circular area big enough to fit ten people – a hot tub. The pool is surrounded by pool chairs and canopies, and further away, by trees and bushes that eventually merge into the woods at the back of the mansion.
Percy can see a door a little ways to his left that leads back into the side of the house. He blinks at it twice in quick succession, and Jason starts clacking away on his keyboard. “That door opens into the west wing of the house,” Jason says. “Leads to a set of stairs that go up to the first floor, where the study is. You can bypass the main grand staircase if you go through here.”
Glass draws him closer to the pool. “This is one of my favorite places in the house,” she says, spreading her arms. “Do you swim, Mr Wilder?”
Percy used to be swim team captain back in high school, and even now, he manages to squeeze in an hour worth of swimming into his day. It makes him feel relaxed and carefree, something he only ever feels when he’s with Jason “Not much, to be honest.”
“That’s a shame. It’s blissful being underwater.” She stands at the edge of the clear blue pool, her expression wistful, like she wants nothing but to jump in. “You can’t hear or feel anything. It’s like nothing can hurt you.”
Percy steps up beside her, flicks his wrist so the thin syringe between his fingertips. “I’m sorry,” he says, and pierces the side of her neck faster than she can move. She slumps against him heavily, burying him in thick dark hair and a cloud of perfume.
Percy locks his arms around her waist and quietly starts pulling her over towards the bushes.
“You didn’t need to apologize to her,” Jason tells him. “It’s not like we’ve hurt her. She’s going to be awake in an hour or so.”
Percy grunts. “But we hurt her job prospects probably. Harridan is not going to leave her with good references.” He lays her down behind a bush, under the shade of a sprawling tree, making sure not to bump her too hard anywhere. “I like her. She seems nice. Not like an evil sidekick.”
“Definitely one of the better people we’ve had to knock out,” Jason agrees. “Okay, go for the key. Carefully.”
Percy turns the strap inside out as gently as he can. The key is slender, small, plain silver – almost like a dollhouse’s plastic key. Inconspicuous. It’s stitched into the strap of her dress. Percy starts cutting through the strings binding it.
“Annabeth’s got Harridan in his study. Everything’s going good so far. You just have to – oh. Ugh.”
Percy looks around. “What? Something wrong?”
“Piper is just being unhelpfully descriptive of what Annabeth is doing. It’s not pretty.”
Percy laughs quietly. “I can imagine.” He lifts the key into his line of sight. “Good enough?”
“Seems about right. Take position, then go through the west door when I give the go-ahead.”
Percy nods. “You’re the boss.” He stands up over Olivia. She looks incredibly vulnerable lying there, like a baby bird with broken wings. “Her dress is really thin. She’ll probably get cold, won’t she?” He reaches up to take off his coat.
“Your DNA is all over your jacket, Percy.”
“A little more trouble.” Percy sets it gently across her torso, tucking it into her sides. “Like I can’t handle that.”
Jason sighs like he’s exasperated, but Percy knows him well enough to sense the undercurrent of fondness. “Just don’t do anything else, okay?”
Percy smiles and presses his back to a tree. “Annabeth sure is taking her time.”
“She’s thorough. It’s a good thing.”
They’re silent for a few minutes. The music and laughter from the ballroom filters outside, and on the other end of things, Jason taps at his computer and murmurs commands to others with him at HQ. After a while, Jason falls silent too. Percy’s starting to feel stupid for sedating Olivia so early. He could’ve used the company. Jason’s obviously not up for conversation, although Percy can’t really blame him for giving him the cold shoulder, even if he desperately wishes he wouldn’t.
Just when he’s about to give into his hyperactive self and burst through the west door, Jason says, “You were wrong, you know. About what you said to Glass.”
Percy’s leg stops jiggling. “What part?”
Jason draws in a deep breath. “I would feel the same way.”
Percy stares at his thumbnail. His blood is rushing in his ears, but strangely, Jason’s voice is crystal clear to him. “I was telling her the truth. I really did make a mistake. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t have to say that. We’re going to be friends regardless.”
“I’m not saying that because I want to be friends. I mean, I do, of course, but... that’s not all I want.”
Silence for a few seconds. Percy’s eyes dart all over his surroundings restlessly. “But you said –“
“I know what I said. I –“ his voice falters, the threat or rejection cutting him off. He lifts his chin. “I didn’t mean it. Not one bit.”
Jason doesn’t reply. Percy waits, but he hears computer keys being clacked before he hears anything else.
“Stand by next to the door. Seems like Annabeth might need help.”
Percy does as he’s told, pressing against the wall behind a potted plant, close by the door. He has a good view of both entrance points, and the bush behind which Olivia lies. “So are we not going to talk about this then?”
Jason huffs, frustrated. Percy can picture the cute little wrinkle that must be forming between his eyebrows. “This isn’t exactly the best time, Percy. You can’t afford to be distracted.”
“You talk in my ear during every mission, Jason. I’ve been pretty much distracted ever since you started working with me.”
“Oh. Well, that’s just –“ he sounds breathless, which makes Percy smile, “– irresponsible.”
Percy shrugs. “Probably. What do you say?”
“Annabeth’s given the signal – get ready.” He pauses. “What do I say to what?”
“Want to maybe go out with me?” Percy draws his gun. “After we’re done here, of course.”
Jason’s laugh is bright and surprised. “You have the worst timing.”
Percy cocks it. “Didn’t answer my question.”
“What do you think I’m going to say?”
Percy’s cheeks are hurting, he’s smiling so hard. “I’m hoping an elaborate declaration of love, but I’ll go with a yes too.”
“Well, you’d be right.” A pause. “About the yes thing, not the declaration of love.”
Percy has to hide his smile in behind his gun, which is surprisingly, not the first time he’s done it. “I’m heartbroken.” He looks over his shoulder at the west door. “Go time?”
As if on cue, a loud screeching siren cuts off Jason’s words. It blares out of the mansion in all directions, pressing painfully onto Percy’s eardrums. He can hear the music cut off abruptly, the guests all talking in panic, and – most importantly – the telltale drumbeat of big burly henchmen running into position.
“Annabeth accidentally set off a tripwire,” Jason says quickly. “Twenty armed men making their way to the study from either side of the hallway. You’ll have to go through ten to make it to the first floor.” He groans. “If you die on this mission, Percy Jackson, I will kill you.”
Percy laughs. He rises, lifts the gun and is by the door in a flash. With a hand to the doorknob, he pauses and says, “Walk me through it?”
“With pleasure.” He can hear the grin in Jason’s voice.
With his heart flying and adrenaline pumping, Percy throws open the door and leaps into the fray.