Frank fought to digest what had happened, as Mars and Ares shouted in his head.
Their voices left little room for his own thoughts, or feelings. Though Frank didn't know if he would've been able to decipher them anyway.
Bah! A Greek deception! Typical! Just be glad it wasn't you the son of Pluto betrayed! Mars bellowed.
Frank had stepped into the river- close to where he saw Jason place Percy- despite being unsure of his next move. He just wanted to do something. Anything. But Annabeth wouldn't allow it.
"Don't touch him." She'd hissed, and no one did.
No one knew where Nico had gone, or if he'd be back, and all the while, nothing could be done for Percy. That left a whole bunch of adrenaline-fueled demigods with nothing to do, but come to their own conclusions.
Hades has always been jealous of his brothers! He sent that scheming boy to kill the son of Poseidon! Ares shouted.
Frank and the others had heard Nico yell from the deck of the Argo, sounding terrified. He'd never heard Nico sound like that. To be honest, he hadn't known Nico to be capable of such emotion.
He didn't want to believe that Nico was responsible.
But there was no one else. No monsters, no other demigods...nothing. Frank just couldn't convince himself that, although they'd been somewhat friendly, Frank knew Nico well enough to determine if he'd done it or not.
If Nico had killed one of his closest friends.
Maybe even his best friend, other than Hazel.
Percy was always a sore spot for Nico. Frank assumed it was because he couldn't save him from Tartarus. Now...he wasn't so sure.
Annabeth had alluded to some history between Nico and Percy, but she wasn't willing to talk. She'd planted herself next to the river, refusing to move, or listen to anyone. A part of him wanted to believe she was just intent on waiting, like she'd said. Waiting for Percy to climb out, perfectly healed, ready to explain everything.
But Frank saw the body. He saw the blood on Annabeth. On Nico. On Jason.
He didn't see the point in waiting.
No one had to say it, but they didn't think Percy survived. Especially since Hazel hadn't told them otherwise.
A Greek killing a Greek, good! Means less work we have to do! Don't waste time mourning a graecus! Mars yelled.
Ares raged back: That puny "graecus" was worth more than a thousand Romans!
Frank suddenly remembered Percy telling him and Hazel, on their first quest, about his fight with Ares. Despite the fog in his brain, and the screaming match between the two gods, he thought it was funny Ares was defending Percy now.
His world came quickly crashing down again, when he realized Reyna and Hedge were unaware of what had just happened. That, as Reyna's fellow praetor, he should be the one to tell her.
Reyna had been left with Coach Hedge to discuss travel plans in the mess hall, and Frank's emotions were hard to wrestle as he debriefed her.
He told her what he'd seen. Jason taking Percy to the river, the altercation between Annabeth and Nico, all of it. The whole time, he could feel tears stinging at his eyes. Tears of sadness, and confusion. Reyna pretended she couldn't see them. Somewhere behind Mars and Ares, he heard his grandmother-
Fai, she said. Men do not cry. Not Zhang men, and especially not Roman praetors!
Mars joined her: Tears for the enemy, boy? I'll give you something to cry about!
Reyna clenched her jaw, tension taking hold of her body. Frank knew she wanted to run outside, to see evidence. To see Percy.
"Why isn't Jason telling me this."
Jason had been oddly insistent on Frank being the one to talk to Reyna, for reasons he claimed he couldn't explain. But Frank didn't know how to tell Reyna that. He swallowed, and hoped no tears were visible as he spoke.
"He's filling in Coach Hedge. Jason knows the Coach better than I do, he probably thought it would be more appropriate. Especially since I'm praetor now, next to you."
For a moment, Frank thought Reyna was going to call him out on his lie. Instead, she just looked hurt. Before he could blink, that emotionless mask she always wore returned.
"We must find Nico, regardless of Annabeth's wishes."
"If he doesn't want to be found, we'll have no chance. I think you know that," Frank said. Besides, he wasn't sure he wanted to see Nico again. At least, until he knew the truth.
One of Reyna's hands was clenched in a fist, knuckles turning white, yet none of her rage or sadness was otherwise visible. There were no tears in her eyes.
"He is the only one that can transport the statue. I understand Hazel shares some of his abilities, but I don't wish to separate her from the seven." Reyna's knuckles became whiter. "Six."
Frank didn't want Hazel to leave either.
"What if you brought proof?" Frank asked.
"Of the statue. Something to prove that it's been found and you intend on returning it to the Greeks. A picture, or something. With all of us in it. As a...symbol of unity."
Ares told Frank where he could shove his "unity".
Reyna silently deliberated.
"I don't know, Frank Zhang. A photograph will not possess the same power. Not at all."
Frank had almost hoped Reyna would be as lost as him. As confused. As hurt. But she was the perfect picture of a level-head, of controlling her emotions.
"I don't suppose we have much of a choice," She said.
Frank didn't know what else there was to say. But he couldn't help but ask-
"Do you think he did it?...Nico?"
There was a long pause, and still, Frank couldn't see through her mask. Nothing about her betrayed her thoughts on Nico's guilt.
"I don't know what to think, but I know we can't afford to waste time speculating when the damage is already done. Our course of action has been changed, but Gaea's has not. Documented evidence may help ease some minds about our coming civil war, as you suggested. A photo...Maybe your mechanic friend can alter it somehow, convey the statue's power…"
She trailed off in thought, but reoriented herself as she stood up from the table.
"The satyr and I will leave tomorrow. I'm sorry about Percy...but I suggest you don't take long in doing the same."
Frank had little desire to sleep. He wasn't sure he'd even be able to.
Instead, he wandered.
He headed down to the engine room first, sure that no one else would be there, but voices echoed up the stairwell.
"This doesn't feel right, it wasn't in the prophecy." Frank recognized Piper's voice.
"A lot of stuff wasn't in the prophecy. I don't remember any part of it going you'll pass through Italy, but not through France, by chasing dwarfs, you'll lose your pants. Still happened." There was Leo.
"You shouldn't joke around. Someone's dead. Someone you knew."
"I knew him about as well as you did. Meaning, like, not at all," Leo said. Piper didn't object, but sounded exasperated.
"Still. Think about Annabeth. Or Hazel."
That seemed to get Leo. There was a few seconds of silence.
"You talked to her, right? To Hazel?"
Frank heard Piper sigh.
"No. She wouldn't even let me sit with her. I think she wants Frank."
"I guess he'd be pretty upset too. That's Annabeth, Hazel, Frank, Reyna, and Jason who are all probably losing it right now. But you seem okay, and I feel okay. Are we jerks?"
"No. Just you."
Another pause. Then Piper spoke again.
"You said Jason, but...I don't think he's that upset either. If he is, he's not showing it."
"Maybe he and Percy were more like work buds than BFFs. It's probably hard to make new connections when your best friend is already so awesome."
"There you go again."
"Sorry, best friends. But girlfriend is technically a rank above best friend so I don't understand why you-"
"I'm talking about your dumb jokes, Leo. It just isn't the time. You never know when to stop."
Quiet filled the air again, aside from the hum of the engine, and occasional release of steam. Frank could already feel growing tension, and decided it would be best if he left them alone.
He headed toward the cabin area, and down the hall.
There was crying coming from Hazel's room. The door was cracked open, and he could see her, elbows on her knees and head down. Instinctively, he put out a hand to open the door, but stopped. He remembered Reyna, stoic and calm.
If he went to Hazel now, he wouldn't be able to let go of his emotions. He wouldn't be able to hold them back.
He stood there, debating. Through the gap in the door, Hazel suddenly seemed so young. Younger than how he normally saw her. She was smart and kind, but also impulsive. Sensitive, too. Like a kid. Because...she was one.
Her brother had just left, maybe for good, among other events Frank didn't want to think about. It was obvious she needed a shoulder to cry on, and Frank wished it could be his. But he couldn't stop thinking about Reyna.
Reyna had taken in what Frank told her with ease, and responded like a leader. Reyna, who was his age, and held his rank. That was the example he should follow. The example he knew he needed to live up to.
He couldn't let his emotions cloud his judgement. Especially now when the future was so uncertain. That's what would happen if he went to Hazel now. If he opened himself up to mourning like her.
He moved on, and found himself in front of Percy's cabin.
It was dusty from lack of use, seeing as Nico had refused it, but looked as it had the few times Frank had been in there.
He sat on the bed, staring at the walls and trinkets on the shelf and dresser. Most of what he saw were pictures of family and friends. A lot of them looked like they were taken in the woods, or a forest. Frank guessed that was Camp Half-Blood.
Percy wasn't in most of the pictures, which Frank thought was kind of odd. He saw a pair of twins in one, a girl with bright red hair in another, along with a faun- no, a satyr- holding some wooden instrument. Percy had told him about a satyr named Grover.
Besides that, the room was a bit of a mess, with various clothing items and trash littered on the floor. He couldn't have been able to imagine the Percy he saw carrying a god into New Rome having such a normal, teenage looking bedroom. Then again, it wasn't like he had time to clean up before…
Frank felt tears stinging his eyes, and blinked them away. What was he even doing here.
He put a hand on the pillow next to him, pushing himself off the bed- but there was a crunch.
He lifted the pillow. Underneath was a picture of Annabeth. It was recent, probably from the last couple of months. She was looking away, like she didn't know it was being taken.
Frank should feel bad for her. But a part of him thinks that if it weren't for her, Percy wouldn't have fallen into Tartarus. He wouldn't have been alone with Nico. Despite whatever actually happened out there, he'd still be here.
He threw the pillow back, and stood up, prepared to walk out. Just as Jason appeared in the doorway.
"Jason, I didn't-"
"I didn't know you'd be here either, but I guess we both had the same idea. Can I come in?"
Frank sensed that they were about to have a talk, and shut the door. The air suddenly felt colder, like the air conditioning had just come on. Maybe it had. Jason studied the room.
"This feels so weird now. Like being in a museum," Jason said. Frank wasn't sure if he'd put it that way, but didn't disagree.
Frank sat on the bed again, suddenly very aware that all the people on the walls- in the picture frames or the polaroids, or under the pillow...they'd just lost someone important to them. He accidentally spotted a photo of a middle-aged woman, standing next to a salt-and-pepper haired man, and forced himself not to think about what that meant. Or how they'd find out. Or when.
He looked into the eyes of the woman, who could only be Percy's mother, and wondered if she was just as kind and gentle as his own mom had been. Did she know her last good-bye to her son would be the very last? Did she get to say good-bye at all?
Unable to bear that thought, he interrupted whatever Jason was saying.
"How's everyone holding up?" Frank asked. If he couldn't ignore his thoughts, he'd talk over them.
Jason sighed. "Leo and Piper are shaken, but fine. They didn't know him very well. Coach Hedge is in his room, probably talking to his wife. He didn't believe it at first. Annabeth…"
He didn't need to say anything about Annabeth, but Frank noticed he didn't say anything about himself.
"What about you?"
Jason let his fingers run over a photograph, tracing people's faces.
"I keep waiting for it to hit me, but it feels like it already has. Like it happened a month ago, and I'm just remembering it. He was only here for a couple of hours, it just feels like...he fell into Tartarus and never came back."
Frank wondered if that's how he felt. Is he sad? Is he really going to burst at the seams like he thought? Does it feel as far away from him like it does for Jason?
"What about you and Hazel?" Jason asked. "You guys knew him the longest. Other than..."
Frank doesn't want to unload on Jason. But he couldn't do it to Hazel, and he didn't have anyone else.
"Hazel's upset. Miserable, actually. But I don't know what to feel. I don't even know what I'm supposed to be doing right now. I'm supposed to be a leader, a praetor. But I feel so lost. How do you take charge from this?"
Jason put a hand on his shoulder, with determination on his face. Golden light from a nearby lantern seemed to dance in Jason's eyes, and Frank felt chilled. He felt goosebumps on his arms, and the hair rose on the back of his neck.
"By not doing it alone. I'm with you, Frank. What happened today has really put things in perspective for me. I thought I'd made a choice, about where I belonged, and what I believed. But I was wrong."
Frank knew what Jason was talking about.
For a while now, Jason struggled with choosing the Romans or the Greeks, and Frank thought he'd finally chosen the latter. That was why he'd been promoted to praetor in the first place- Jason was no longer Roman.
"Wow...Are you sure? That's kind of a sudden change of-"
"It is. But we don't have the luxury of time. And I don't have the luxury of flip-flopping between what I do or don't want. What matters is what we need. Leadership. Direction. I was praetor back at camp. With Percy gone, and Nico, and Annabeth...that's what I need to be now. No matter how I feel."
Now that's a Roman! Mars said. Duty and sacrifice, Frank, I told you they mean something. Jason here understands. Do you?
Frank was filled with a sense of pride. For Jason. For Reyna. For Rome. He felt a newfound sense of duty.
"You and me, Frank. We have to keep the quest alive. We have to keep going."
Jason was right, and so was Mars. Their mission was bigger than one person, no matter how close to that person Frank had been.
"What do we do?" Frank asked. Jason moved toward the door, taking one last look at Percy's cabin. His expression almost seemed forlorn, but one of certain authority quickly took its place.
"We'll need to set sail after Reyna and Hedge leave tomorrow. Then, whether she likes it or not, we'll need to get Annabeth back on board."
Jason didn't elaborate on how they were going to do that, and Frank didn't comment on how he thought that task was going to go.
That authoritative look remained as Jason stepped into the hall, but it was strangely manic. Frank couldn't blame him. He felt that same energy- that urge to fight, to keep going no matter what.
"Percy was a good friend, and an important asset. But we can't stop now. For his sake, for our friends at camp, and the world."
Jason fixed him with an impassioned stare. A wolf stare. A challenge.
"I granted you the rank of praetor, now I need you to earn it."
Frank stared back.
He knew what his purpose was now.
To finish the quest.
No matter the cost.