"You look in the wrong place for gratitude," Hecate said.
"As for 'good work' that remains to be seen. Speed your way to Athens. Clytius was not wrong. The giants have risen- all of them, stronger than ever. Gaea is on the very edge of waking. The Feast of Hope will be poorly named unless you arrive to stop her...
The House of Hades is unstable. Leave now. We shall meet again."
An entire section of tiles peeled loose from the ceiling.
"Everyone, grab hands!" Nico yelled.
They made a hasty circle. Hazel envisioned the Greek countryside above them. The cavern collapsed, and she felt herself dissolving into shadow.
Hazel and the other demigods materialized on a hilltop.
They were alive, and mostly whole. Hazel took a step back and looked around. The River Acheron was flowing peacefully beyond the hillside, and the sun was just rising, making the water glitter and the clouds glow orange. The cool morning air smelled of honeysuckle. She wanted to live in that moment- free of monsters and gods and evil spirits.
Then her friends began to stir.
Nico realized he was holding Percy's hand, and quickly let go. Leo staggered backward. "You know...I think I'll sit down."
He collapsed. The others join him. The Argo II still floated over the river a few hundered yards away. Hazel knew that they should signal Coach Hedge and tell him they were alive. Had they been in the temple all night? Or several nights? But at that moment, the group was too tired to do anything except sit and relax and marvel at the fact that they were okay.
But a voice in the back of her head told her something seemed...off. Maybe it was because she had been so accustomed to danger, that the absence of it felt strange. Whatever it was, she pushed it down, and relaxed with the others as they began to exchange stories.
Frank explained what had happened with the ghostly legion and the army of monsters- how Nico had used the Diocletian, and how bravely Jason and Piper had fought.
"Frank is being modest," Jason said. "He controlled the entire legion." His face fell slightly, before he continued: "I just wish I could've done more. We wouldn't have made it out of there without a leader. A Roman leader."
Frank blushed. "I was just following my instincts. I'm glad you did, too."
"Yeah, I bet that promotion felt pretty good, didn't it?" Jason teased.
"Promotion?" Hazel asked.
"I resigned my office, gave Frank a field promotion to praetor," Jason glanced at Percy. "Unless you want to contest?"
A cold breeze passed through the group. Or maybe Hazel just felt a chill. Percy was almost in a daze, and Annabeth had to elbow him for his attention. He seemed to process what Jason just said, and put his hands up in mock surrender, "No way."
Jason didn't seem as amused anymore, and Hazel didn't know if he was actually disappointed, or if she was seeing things.
"That's a pretty big job," Percy went on. "If you want it back, Jason, I'll be happy to host a game of rock, paper, scissors."
Everyone laughed at that, but still, Jason's smile didn't reach his eyes.
"I never would've thought I'd make praetor," Frank said, looking bashful. "Especially next to you guys."
Jason put a hand on Frank's shoulder. "Not me, Frank. I knew you had it in you. A part of me feels like it's been waiting for a soldier like you. I couldn't be more proud."
Hazel could practically feel Frank's heart warm, but there was something about the word soldier she didn't like. She would've preferred "partner", or even "friend". But with Jason's history in the legion, as praetor, maybe he still wasn't used to that vocabulary yet.
After so many months, she still didn't know him very well.
"Way to go Zhang," said Leo. "Now you can order Octavian to fall on his sword."
"He can certainly try," Jason added. "Octavian's pretty sneaky. You order him to fall on his sword, and he'll fall on the handle, not the blade."
Frank ran a hand through his hair. "I'll keep that in mind." Then he turned apprehensively to Percy. "But you guys...Tartarus has to be the real story."
"Definitely," Piper chimed in. "When you guys fell...Percy, you didn't even think about saving yourself. You didn't hesitate. I know this is cheesy...but I don't need to have a love goddess for a mom to know that's special."
Piper's eyes went to Jason when she finished, but Hazel noticed he wasn't paying attention- busy checking Frank's arm wound. Annabeth put her arm around Percy's, and Hazel thought she saw him stiffen. "He knows I would've done the same."
Percy smiled, but it was pulled back somehow. Maybe even forced. He knows she would've, but he doesn't like it. That's just how Percy was. He'd rather suffer so no one else had to, and he'd rather do it alone.
"Is that how we're measuring relationships now?" Leo asked. He put an elbow on his knee and leaned playfully toward Jason. "Hey Lightning Boy, would you fall into Hell with me?"
Jason leaned back on his elbows, apparently deciding Frank was fine for now. "Sure, if you asked nice."
"What if I kept joking about how things weren't 'boding hell'?"
"That's a freebie."
"Or that you could've flown down and saved me in one 'hell swoop'?"
"Okay, what if I said, 'I'd tell you to go to hell, but we're already there'?"
"That's it, I changed my mind."
Leo turned to Piper. "You wouldn't leave me hanging, right?"
Piper shrugged. "Can't help you. I have a low pun tolerance."
"Frank?" Leo asked.
Frank grinned at Piper's wordplay, enjoying the banter. "Sorry, I'm Canadian. That kind of heat just doesn't agree with me."
Hazel understood it was all jokes, but she didn't find it very funny. Not after what they just went through, what she just went through- and that Leo was the only one with her at the time. That Leo's life had been in her hands while she battled Pasiphaë and Clytius.
Maybe they could all joke about it, because they weren't there when it happened. When Percy and Annabeth fell. They didn't see it. Leo was securing the Athena Parthenos into the Argo, where Piper was safely aboard. Jason and Frank were flying around, helping him do it. It's not the same to hear about it. Not when you have to watch, when you're that up close.
Somehow, Percy and Annabeth weren't as disgusted as her.
"Don't worry, Leo, I'll draw you a map." Percy said. She didn't know why that was. Maybe if they weren't laughing about it, they'd cry. Hazel probably would.
She still wished she could've saved them when she had the chance.
"Hazel?" Leo asked. He and the others expected to hear some clever, funny response. She didn't have it in her.
"I wouldn't leave you. Not if I could do something about it."
Leo froze for a second, caught off guard. Then he gave a big, exaggerated sigh of relief. "Well, at least I have one real friend. The rest of you turds can lose my number."
Leo was trying to be funny. But Hazel thought she saw real relief in his eyes, and if that were true, there had to have been real hurt when everyone else said no. Even if it was a joke, even if Jason and Piper would never actually abandon him, maybe he just wanted to hear them say that out loud.
She glanced at Nico, and he gave her a half-smile of approval, as if he didn't like the jokes, either. Frank seemed to notice the differing moods in the air, and he turned back to Percy. "You don't have to talk about it if it's…"
Percy's grin faded, and he stiffened again. When Annabeth tried to hold his hand, he made no effort to hold hers, or even look at her, and Hazel began to worry if Tartarus had changed him the way it had changed Nico. But Percy responded nonetheless.
"It felt like an eternity, I wasn't sure if we'd ever escape. But here we are. Thanks to you."
Percy's focus was on Hazel when he said that last part, with sunlight reflecting in his eyes, adding a golden glint to the brilliant sea green. She felt a rush of pride. Maybe she couldn't have stopped them from falling into Tartarus, but without her, they wouldn't have gotten out.
Annabeth moved closer to comfort Percy, "We're here now, and we're together. That's enough."
Hazel happened to glance at Nico, and saw pain in his eyes. She wasn't sure, but maybe he was thinking how lucky Percy and Annabeth were to have each other. Nico had gone through Tartarus alone.
Annabeth squeezed Percy's arm, and he looked down at her, as if just realizing she was there. His goofy grin crept back on his face, and the tension in his body dissipated. Hazel wondered if that's what she'd looked like when she was dealing with flashbacks. Maybe Percy was dealing with something similar.
Whatever it was, he had Annabeth, and he had the rest of the team. He for sure had Hazel.
Annabeth nodded toward the river, "Uh, I think our ride is coming."
Hazel turned. The Argo II veered to port, its aerial oars in motion, its sails catching the wind. Festus's head glinted in the sunlight. Even from a distance, Hazel could hear him creaking and clanking in jubilation.
"That's my boy!" Leo yelled.
As the ship got closer, Hazel saw Coach Hedge standing at the prow.
"About time!" the coach yelled down. He was doing his best to scowl, but his eyes gleamed as if maybe, just maybe, he was happy to see them.
"What took you so long, cupcakes? You kept your visitor waiting!"
"Visitor?" Hazel murmured.
At the rail next to Coach Hedge, a dark-haired girl appeared wearing a purple cloak, her face was so covered with soot and bloody scratches that Hazel almost didn't recognize her.
Reyna had arrived.
Nico had only ever spoken to Reyna directly a couple of times.
His drifting in and out of Camp Jupiter, mostly to see Hazel, hadn't gone unnoticed. Even if most of the campers tried to make it that way. Reyna had confronted him about his intentions, and despite stating he was an ambassador from Pluto, and taking on the role of a senator, she was still suspicious. Still untrusting. But Nico couldn't blame her, he got that a lot.
He tried to decipher his feelings toward her as she circled the Athena Parthenos. For now, he was more or less indifferent.
"It looks newly made," Reyna said.
Leo patted the statue like he'd built it himself, "Yeah, we brushed off the cobwebs, used a little Windex. It wasn't hard."
The Argo hovered just overhead. With Festus keeping watch for threats on the radar, the entire crew had decided to eat lunch on the hillside while they discussed what to do.
Neither Nico or Reyna made an effort to greet each other when she sat down to join them.
"So, Frank Zhang...Praetor."
Frank shifted, wiping some crumbs from his chin. "Well, yeah. Field promotion."
"To lead a different legion," Reyna noted. "A legion of ghosts."
Hazel gave Frank an encouraging smile, and Nico was reminded that she'd found someone to make her happy. He was glad for her. Frank was a good guy. But his mood darkened when he thought about having something like that for himself. He unwittingly let his eyes slide to Percy, and fought to keep from scowling. It was stupid, thinking about that after all this time.
Annabeth was sitting next to Percy, so close they were touching. She leaned her head on his shoulder, and had a hand on his leg, like she was afraid if she let go he'd disappear. But Percy…he wasn't returning the affection. Something was off. Way off. Nico had felt it since the Doors.
Nico studied him close, shifting his eyes every so often to be discreet. Percy seemed to be into the conversation, nodding as Jason and Piper praised Frank.
But there was nothing behind his eyes. Like he was on auto-pilot. Nico was tempted to write it off as Tartarus-induced psychosis, after all, he knew what an extended stay down there was like. But Annabeth seemed normal enough. Exhausted. But normal.
"The legion will listen to you, Reyna," Frank was saying. "You made it here, alone, across the Ancient Lands."
Reyna swallowed her food with difficulty. "In doing so, I broke the laws of the legion."
"Caesar broke the law when he crossed the Rubicon," Frank said. "Great leaders have to think outside the box sometimes."
Reyna shook her head. "I'm not Caesar. After finding Jason's note in Diocletian's Palace, tracking you down was easy. I only did what I thought was necessary."
Percy was watching Reyna with amusement, but something about his eyes made him look harsh, and shrewd. Not at all the easy-going, fun-loving Percy that Nico was familiar with.
"Reyna, you're too modest," Percy said.
Reyna shrugged. "Says the demigod who fell into Tartarus and found his way back."
"He had help," Annabeth said.
"Oh, obviously," Reyna said. "Without you, I doubt Percy could find his way out of a paper bag."
"True," Annabeth agreed.
The others started laughing, and Percy smiled. Again, it was calculating. Like he wanted to see what everyone would do if he kept playing along.
Nico felt Hazel's eyes on him, and glanced her way. The look they shared seemed to confirm that this wasn't all in his head. No one else seemed suspicious. If they did, they didn't show it.
"So, the twenty-million-peso question," Leo said. "We got this slightly used forty-foot-tall statue of Athena. What do we do with it?"
Nico watched as Annabeth pulled Percy close, and kissed him on the cheek. Suddenly his empty stare was gone. He furrowed his brow, confused, looking at Annabeth, then at the others as they talked. Nico averted his gaze when Percy's eyes passed over him. He listened to what Reyna was saying.
"...According to Annabeth, it must be returned to Camp Half-Blood by a Roman leader. Do I understand correctly?"
Annabeth nodded. "I had a dream down in...you know, Tartarus. I was on Half-Blood Hill, and Athena's voice said, I must stand here. The Roman must bring me."
As Annabeth went on, Percy's expressions became more and more familiar, more lively. He relaxed, holding himself the way Nico knew. Maybe he was looking too deep into things. Tartarus could really screw with a person's mind, and Percy of all people deserved the benefit of the doubt.
Nico took his focus away from Percy, and joined the conversation.
"It makes sense," Nico said. "The statue is a powerful symbol, a Roman returning it to the Greeks...that could heal the historic rift, maybe even heal the gods of their split personalities."
Coach Hedge swallowed his strawberry, along with half the screwdriver he used to spear it with. "Now, hold on. I like peace as much as the next satyr-"
"You hate peace," Leo said.
"The point is, Valdez, we're only- what, a few days from Athens? We got an army of giants waiting for us there. We went to all the trouble of saving this statue-"
"I went to most of the trouble," Annabeth reminded him.
"-because the prophecy called it the giants' bane," The coach continued. "So why aren't we taking it to Athens with us? It's obviously our secret weapon. It looks like a ballistic missile to me. Maybe if Valdez strapped some engines to it-"
Piper cleared her throat. "Uh, great idea, Coach, but a lot of us have had dreams and visions of Gaea rising at Camp Half-Blood…"
The talk continued for some time, and Nico tried to avoid looking, or even thinking about Percy. Who was now acting completely normal. Nico scolded himself for even speculating. Percy was fine. Percy was always fine.
They decided that Reyna would take the statue to Camp Half-Blood. But she would need help.
"I could go," Frank offered. Reyna gave him a weary smile.
"No, Frank Zhang. I hope we will work side by side in the future, but for now your place is with the crew of this ship. You are one of the seven of the prophecy."
"I'm not," Nico said.
Everybody stopped eating, and he could feel Percy staring at him from across the circle.
Hazel set down her fork. "Nico-"
"I'll go with Reyna," he said. "I can transport the statue with shadow-travel."
He didn't mention that leaving would also get him away from Percy, and whatever drama or tension that would arise if Percy decided to confront him about Camp Jupiter. That, and one other reason.
"Uh…" Percy raised his hand. If Nico hadn't dismissed his earlier suspicions, he'd say the shrewd look was back in Percy's eye. "A year ago you said transporting just yourself was dangerous and unpredictable-"
Percy laced his fingers through Annabeth's.
"-A couple times you ended up in China. Transporting-"
Hazel put an arm around Frank.
"- a forty-foot statue and-"
Jason pulled Piper close.
"-two people halfway across the world-"
Nico felt more and more alone.
"I've changed since I came back from Tartarus." Nico couldn't control the anger in his voice. "Maybe you had an easier time, but some of us weren't so lucky."
Percy looked hurt, and instantly Nico felt guilty. He was projecting all his problems, his conflicting thoughts. Seeing things that weren't there.
"Nico," Jason intervened, "we're not questioning your power. We just want to make sure you don't kill yourself trying."
"I can do it," Nico insisted, now more than ever wanting to get far away from Percy Jackson. "I'll make short jumps- a few hundred miles each time. It's true, after each jump I won't be in any shape to fend off monsters. I'll need Reyna to defend me and the statue."
He stared straight at Reyna, as they all waited for her response, not even daring a peek in Percy's direction.
"Any objections?" Reyna said.
No one spoke.
"Very well. I see no better option. But there will be many monster attacks. I would feel better taking a third person. That's the optimal number for a quest."
"Coach Hedge," Frank blurted.
Percy seemed to have already moved on from Nico's outburst. "Uh, what, Frank?"
"The coach is the best choice," Frank said. "The only choice. He's a good fighter. He's a certified protector. He'll get the job done."
"A faun," Reyna said.
"Satyr!" barked the coach. "And, yeah, I'll go. Besides, when you get to Camp Half-Blood, you'll need somebody with connections and diplomatic skills to keep the Greeks from attacking you. Just let me go make a call-er, I mean, get my baseball bat."
The Coach jogged toward the ship's ladder, looking a bit too cheerful for the situation. Nico decided now was the time to leave.
"I should go, too, and rest before the first passage. We'll meet at the statue at sunset."
He left before anyone could protest.
Half an hour before sunset, Hazel came to see him.
Nico had been tying ropes around the pedestal of the Athena Parthenos, and taking his time in doing so. It was a good excuse to stay away from the rest of the group. Hazel sat down a couple feet away, and watched him work.
"Long day?" She asked.
"Long life," Nico replied. Hazel smirked, she could understand that. He stopped messing with the ropes, admiring the pink sky and soon-to-be golden sunset.
"It's hard to believe we just got here, and now it's over," said Hazel.
"Not quite. But I get what you mean." Nico's eyes unfocused, and he stared into space. "Percy was in so much danger, I thought for sure…"
Hazel regarded him with sympathy. "Is that why you were upset?"
"After we defeated Clytius, I thought maybe you'd been crying. Was it because you could sense what was happening with Percy and Annabeth?"
Silence filled the air. That and the slight howl of the wind. It was a personal question, but if anyone could get him to talk, it was Hazel. Jason was also pretty close to reaching that point. Though Nico would never tell him that.
"For a while there, I didn't think they'd make it," Nico said. "But you saved them. I'm proud of you."
Hazel smiled, but it quickly faded away, and her expression became concerned.
"Did you notice something...off, about Percy?"
Nico had hoped she'd forgotten about that. He was ready to move on, and leave Percy and the Doors of Death behind.
"He's not the same. Probably won't ever be again. But that's the price you pay, being able to go down there and come back alive."
Hazel nodded, biting her lip. She still had doubts.
"This seems different. It was almost like I could feel it before I even knew something was wrong. There's this energy about him I can't really explain."
Nico knew exactly what she meant, perhaps because they were both a child of the underworld. If they both sensed something, it would be hard to deny it was there. He tried anyway.
"It'll pass. Just give him some time." Nico made sure to put enough certainty in his voice to set her at ease. He was a little older and wiser, she trusted him.
"I suppose…" She bit at her fingernails. Nico dropped the ropes he was holding and took both her hands in his.
"Hey," He said. "It's all gonna work out okay? We're gonna be fine. Percy's gonna be fine."
That last reassurance was more for himself, but Hazel took it anyway.
"You're right." They hugged each other, Nico held her close, not knowing when he'd be able to again.
"I'll see you again, when this is really over, right?" Hazel asked. Nico kissed her forehead.
"Of course you will." They split apart, and Nico called after her as she headed back to the ship.
"Try and stay out of trouble, okay?"
"No promises!" She called back.
Soon she was gone, and Nico was back to tying the ropes.
Their good-bye had lifted his mood, but it soured when he saw Percy approach. Nico pretended to not see him, and Percy stopped about ten feet away. He was probably here to confront him about earlier.
"Thank you," Percy said.
Nico frowned. "What for?"
"You promised to lead the others to the House of Hades," Percy said. "You did it."
Nico tied the ends of ropes together, making a halter. "You got me out of that bronze jar in Rome. Saved my life yet again. It was the least I could do."
He really hated owing Percy Jackson.
"Also," Percy said, "you visited Bob…"
Percy came closer and sat at the base of the statue, then began to tell him all about his journey through Tartarus. Nico tried not to think about the fact that Percy wouldn't tell any of this to the group earlier, but was now telling him.
He tried to keep busy with the statue, but found it difficult when he was so engrossed in Percy's tales. Nyx, Damasen, the empousa...
"...Our invisibility got us to the doors unnoticed, then it was a matter of making sure the demigods weren't paying-"
"What?" Nico said.
Percy paused, like he was short-circuiting. Then he blinked and fixed Nico with an equally confused expression.
"What?" Percy asked innocently.
Nico finished tying a knot.
"You said something about...other demigods?"
Percy stared at him, almost accusingly, before softening.
"Maybe I meant to say 'drakon' or something."
"Are you sure?"
Percy's eyes unfocused, like he was trying really hard to remember something, or getting lost in those memories...
"Nevermind," Nico said. "Keep going."
No matter how gripping the rest of the story was, even when Tartarus took a form of his own to fight Bob, Nico couldn't let it go.
Percy had stood up and started pacing while he talked, and now he was a ways away, as Nico went back to the ropes.
"You convinced Bob that I could be trusted, even though I never visited him. I never gave him a second thought. You probably sav-"
Percy went quiet, and Nico heard a slight choking noise. He kept his eyes on his work, giving Percy some space. Choking up while thanking him...that made it hard for Nico to be angry.
He let a minute or two pass, waiting for Percy to compose himself, before finally looking up.
But Percy wasn't there.
Then he looked down.
Percy was writhing on the grass, blood pooling in his mouth, and blossoming from his side, near his lungs. Nico ran over, and saw what looked like a stab wound. He pressed down on it, hard, while looking for the attacker. But there was no one.
"What happened? What happened?!"
But Percy couldn't speak, he could hardly even breathe.
Nico kept searching for a monster, an attacker, anything. Anything to keep from watching Percy die in front of him.
Percy opened his mouth but his face was turning purple, no air was getting in or out. Nico kept looking up and then reluctantly down at Percy, desperate for any sign of an attack- something he could stop, because he couldn't stop this.
Annabeth was coming over the hill. She froze when she first saw them, then sprinted over. Nico was still trying to stop the bleeding, but Annabeth just put her hands on Percy's face, as if hoping he would snap out of it.
Tears welled in Annabeth's eyes as she tried to get Percy to look at her.
Nico could feel the life draining from Percy, but the more he willed it to stop the more it slipped through his fingers.
He took his hands off Percy's wounds, and stepped back- needing to get away.
"I'll-I'll go get help."
He took off for the Argo. A part of him thought if he looked back he would see everything was fine, just a hallucination. Another part told him Percy would already be dead.
He tried to forget about the blood already beginning to dry in between his fingers. The blood under his nails, on his clothes. He tried to pretend it didn't exist, that it didn't belong to anyone he knew.
He failed, and it made him run faster.