Night was falling. Below deck, the walls flickered with scenes from back home in Camp Half-Blood: the sunset making the golden fleece glow pinkish, the strawberry fields awash with lavender evening light, the sacrificial fire burning bright and warm as their friends tucked into dinner. Annabeth couldn't hear what they were saying; her heart ached when the Athena cabin—her brothers and sisters—burst into silent laughter, like she'd been purposefully left out of the joke.
"I don't think I really thought this through," Leo said from behind her. He tried to sound upbeat, but there was an uncharacteristically sour look on his face when Annabeth turned her head at the sound of his approach. Both his hands were on his hips, and his brow was knitted as though he was trying to remember the command to turn the pictures off. He always made them too complicated.
"Hm." Annabeth didn't know what else to say. It sounded rude to agree with him. The walls always made her homesick, made her second-guess the wisdom of accepting this quest. Reyna was right: what they were doing was suicide.
"Think the others want to see Rome?" He didn't sound very enthusiastic, but after being possessed and blowing up New Rome, Annabeth couldn't say she blamed him. Except she did, a little bit. It was easier to be angry at Leo than to admit that she'd messed up. She should've spoken up earlier, trusted her instinct.
"I don't think it'll help morale to watch the call to war," Annabeth pointed out, "It's not even useful for intel, without sound."
"Yeah," Leo said. He forced a laugh. "You're right, of course. Stupid plan, I guess. I told you, I'm not really good at thinking things through." But she noticed his shoulders sag with relief at her rejection. It made her painfully aware of her own tension, the tightness in her shoulders and neck. The heaviness of the cursed coin in her pocket. Her head throbbed from all that was behind them and still lay ahead, from everything behind her and that she still had to do.
The daughter of wisdom walks alone.
The mark of Athena burns through Rome.
"I need some air," Annabeth said abruptly. He looked surprised—and a little hurt, although she told herself to ignore it—when she turned and walked past him so briskly that her hair whipped behind her before she was even topside. The sunset was less beautiful on the Argo II, tainted by the harsh reality of their quest. There was no ignoring the impending future anymore; it was here. No more distracting herself with research and planning. Now was the time for action. She knew she wasn't the only one afraid, but she was the only one not allowed to show it. Not that she would anyway, but she wished she had the option… the choice of fear. She took a shaky breath. How did she become the leader on this stupid quest, anyway?
She expected to be the only one on the deck. Hazel wasn't very happy to be on the ship; even when they weren't actually on water, like they were leaving the lake, she looked anxious. She and Frank spent most of their time in Hazel's cabin as a result, and Piper was with Jason… For a moment, she felt a pang of guilt for leaving Leo alone down below. But then she saw a familiar silhouette at the bow, and she forgot about Leo. Percy was leaning his elbows on the railings, looking small compared to the looming animated figurehead that Leo called Festus, although Annabeth still had a hard time seeing it as anything but the rampaging metal dragon that terrorized her camp for months. She was careful to keep her distance from it, usually. Tonight, she walked up behind Percy and slipped her arms around him, leaning her cheek against his back. She felt him stiffen in surprise, but then relax again.
"Hey," he said. His heartbeat was reassuring. He was really here.
"Hey," Annabeth said.
She held him tighter as she felt his hands cover hers. "You're freezing," he said. He sounded bewildered. "How are you freezing? It's hot out."
"Some of us aren't walking space heaters," Annabeth retorted. "Besides, my fingers are always cold, remember?"
"Of course, I remember," Percy said defensively. A beat delay. Annabeth felt her heart race, the fear that made her breath catch in her throat. She forcibly squashed it down.
"Why aren't you below," Annabeth asked instead. Voice determinedly nonchalant. She wouldn't allow even Percy to see her fear.
"I don't recognize like, half the faces in those pictures," Percy said. There was a bitter edge to his voice; despite the friends he had made at Camp Jupiter, he missed the time he'd lost with his old friends. With her. There was something reassuring about that. But she remembered that hesitation in his answer, and felt cold again.
"Imagine how Hazel and Frank feel," she said. "At least you know some of them. And you know that there are nymphs sitting on the floor of the lake, and you know that the lava wall is just beyond the weaponry, but you can't see it from that angle."
"Which I definitely think was on purpose," Percy said. She smiled.
"Even if it wasn't, I appreciate it."
"Who needs to scale a wall of lava on a regular basis, anyway," he demanded.
"Who goes for a swim in the River Styx," Annabeth retorted.
"Holds the weight of the world on their shoulders. Literally."
Annabeth laughed. Percy always had a way of making even the worst memories seem not so bad. Just another day in the life.
"Hey," Percy said. His voice was lower, quieter. Annabeth's smile faded. Percy didn't get serious very often.
"Hey," she said, determined to keep her voice level. But she thought she heard it waver.
"Can I turn around now?"
Annabeth loosened her hold around him, and he turned himself around—carefully trying not to elbow her in the head or something, because she didn't completely let him go. He tilted her head back, and he was still smiling when he kissed her. But when he pulled back, he wasn't smiling anymore.
"What's wrong," he asked.
But this was Annabeth he was talking to, and he knew her well enough that she didn't feel the need to answer. She just buried her head into his chest. There were no tears. She was just relieved to feel the weight of his arms around her shoulders and the folds of his shirt in her fists.
"We're together," she murmured.
"From now on," Percy said. She was surprised. She hadn't expected him to be able to hear her, but then Percy was always full of surprises. "You and me, Wise Girl."
"See to it, Seaweed Brain."
Percy laughed and squeezed her tighter, and she allowed herself a smile. They were together. Nothing was ever going to be perfectly alright; something was always going to be wrong. It was part of the package, being demi-gods. But they were together. They could see to that, at least until she got to Rome. And that had to be enough.