[A/N] And thus we come to the concluding chapter of our little saga, I thank you for sticking with us thus far and hope you've had as much fun reading as I did writing. And so we continue…
Shadows of the Hunt
Chapter 10: Aftermath
There is something fundamentally upsetting about seeing your mother cry. It hurts in a place I can't quite put my finger on.
I'm not sure how long I sat there with the goddess' small form in my arms as she wept in the rain, but I know I shed many of my own tears, in sympathy for the deity who surrounded herself with so many companions, and yet still seemed so very much alone...
Her sobs abated after a while, and I noticed that we were sitting in the center of a single calm spot in the storm. I glanced up to find a circle in the clouds above our heads, the moonlight shining down upon us.
I held her in respectful silence, keeping her warm as she knelt on the cold ground. I didn't want to speak first.
"I'm okay…" she whispered after a moment. She was still gripping tightly to the front of my tunic.
I melted away from her and offered her an arm to assist her to her feet. Her face was a mask of composure once again, although I suspected that's all it was: a mask.
I sighed and brushed myself down reflexively. This helped little, as I was soaking wet. "You want to go, don't you?" It wasn't a question.
She nodded slightly. "I… do not wish to be seen in this state. You can understand, can you not?"
I nodded and smiled as best I could. It was obvious she was retaining her composure for my sake, and the vast majority of her emotions were still waiting to be vented. That could only be done in her immortal state. Her body was already starting to shimmer with contained light. "Of course. I'll tell the others you had to report back to Olympus about what's happened. I'll bring the Hunters there as soon as I can."
She nodded and I turned away. "Armani…"
I paused, but didn't turn back. "Yes, mother?"
"Thank you." There was a flash of light from behind me, and then I was alone. The only sound in the quiet courtyard was the patter of the rain, splashing in the puddles formed in the upturned earth.
I stood in silence for a moment and then, after collecting Nico's blade, headed for the prison doors.
I stopped dead as I noticed something, lying forgotten in the rain. It was Orion's spear. I considered leaving it, but for some reason I just couldn't bring myself to abandon it there. I walked over, picked up the shade's weapon, and walked towards the prison. It was time to wrap things up.
Alcatraz is quite a big place, so I wasn't surprised to find the half-bloods had split up to search the various prison blocks. Percy was currently sleeping like a baby in the entryway office; obviously it would take some time for him to recover. It also didn't help that most of the blocks were sealed, and sound didn't carry, else we'd have just shouted out for the Hunters and solved the problem in a few seconds.
I joined Nico to assist with his search and return his sword to him. I found the demigod in the process of trying to force a large barred door.
"Here," I said, offering his blade back. He jumped, startled.
"Armani! What happened? Orion, is he-"
I nodded. "It's over." I didn't elaborate and Nico didn't ask questions. He just seemed happy to have his own sword back. I retrieved my own from him and sheathed it.
Once his sword was in his hand, his eyes seemed to go out of focus, and he melted clean through the shadows at the base of the doorway.
I shrugged. "I suppose that's one way to do it…"
There was a sound of sliding bolts on the other side of the door, and a second later it swung inwards. Nico stood with a self-satisfied smirk on his face. "Looks like that's how Orion did it; locked the place up and shadow travelled out. But lookie what I found…" He beckoned me inside.
It was a large twin row of cells on two stories. There was a long bar of dark metal running along the base of each line of cells; Stygian iron.
That must be what's been obscuring Iris' vision; she couldn't see through the darkness it makes.
But that wasn't what was of primary concern. What interested me most were the contents of the cells.
Dispersed in groups of two, with a cell's gap between them—most likely to stop them combining their strength to force the bars—were the Hunters of Artemis.
Thalia, who had been lying on her back on the bed of her cell, leapt to her feet and grasped the bars. She had just opened her mouth to speak when a voice dripping with smug enjoyment interrupted from behind me. "Well, well, well… Where do I begin?" Nico asked, his arms folded as he stood between the rows of cells. "Armani, I know I shouldn't be enjoying this, but I confess I really am…"
I rolled my eyes and turned back to Thalia. "Is everyone all right?"
She nodded. "Yeah, we're fine; the only one who's missing is Aren, do you have any idea—"
I began glancing around, looking for some kind of lock mechanism. "She's with us. I wouldn't worry; we beat the bad guys, all over now. I just need to find out how to get you out of here…"
Thalia slumped forwards against the bars as she breathed a sigh of relief. "We were attacked by…It looked like…" she trailed off.
I paused. "Let me guess…Zoë Nightshade?" Her silence confirmed it. "It was…well, it was a shade of her, anyways. The other guy was Orion, by the way. Like I said; I wouldn't worry, they're back in the sky where they belong," I summed up as I continued looking for a way to free them.
"Where is Lady Artemis?" the large Huntress who was sharing Thalia's cell asked. "Is she with you?"
I sighed. "Do you really think he would be so smug right now if my mother were here?" I asked, stabbing a thumb over my shoulder at Nico, who was happily rocking on the balls of his heels behind me. "I'll go into detail later, let's see If I can open these things," I said and headed off towards a control junction at the end of the block. I yanked open the steel cover to find most of the wires had been torn out into a jumble. Obviously Orion had been taking no chances, but if I could pick a lock and hotwire a motorcycle I was reasonably confident I could trip this simple circuit, since it was sort of a splice of both skills.
Needless to say, Apollo had given me a very eclectic education.
"Hey, Armani?" Nico called from his position between the cells.
"Hmm?" I mumbled as I began twisting wires together.
"You know what's nice?" he asked in a voice that was obviously meant to be heard by all.
"That when the elite, legendary Hunters of Artemis get captured by two dead people and a bug, there are always two good old reliable boys to rescue them! Isn't that nice?"
I groaned, sensing the building indignation from the amassed Huntresses. "Nico, if you're going to gloat outrageously, kindly leave me out of it."
"Of course, of course. You must save these damsels in distress before they start crying."
"Nico," Thalia began in a low tone, "You are aware I'm going to be out of here in a moment, right?" It wasn't a question.
I saw him turn to me out of my peripheral vision and when he spoke again, his voice was rich with delight. "Armani, you know what? This trip was totally worth it. And as for you, Thalia…how can you hurt what was never even here?" And on that the son of Hades vanished into the shadows, his laughter echoing through the prison hallways.
I cocked my head as I went back to work. "Well, at least he's happy…"
Guilty one indeed…
The Hunters were glaring daggers at the place Nico had recently occupied. The large Hunter who shared Thalia's cell spoke over the angry mutters of her sisters. "Armani, who else is here?"
"Annabeth Chase and Clarisse la Rue from camp, and Aren, of course. Oh, and Percy Jackson, a son of Poseidon, managed to get in on the action too." I hissed angrily as two wires sparked violently as I connected them.
"Wow, sounds like we missed out on all the fun."
I nodded. "Yeah, the giant scorpion was a hoot and a half. The army of the undead was fun too. Damn it!" I cursed as I nearly electrocuted myself again. It was like spaghetti junction in there.
"Armani? Maybe you should get Annabeth to have a look, she's good with that sort of thing," Thalia warned.
"Nonsense. Architecture and inventions may be her thing, but I assure you, locks are mine. Perhaps I was a son of Hermes in a previous life," I said as I used a small pocket knife to complete the circuit in place of the lever that had been torn off. There was a series of angry crackles, and a violent shunting noise came up from all around as the bolts were simultaneously released. I stood back and sighed happily. "See? Nothing to it," I said as the cells opened, releasing the Hunters.
Thalia strode out and stretched. "Thanks, Armani."
I smiled in response, but the grin melted a second later. "Just glad you're okay. Now, if you'll forgive my bluntness: what the hell, Thalia?"
Her face froze and she blinked in shock. "What?"
Any hint of joviality was gone from my face. "My mother will no doubt be happy to see you; so happy she won't even think of questioning what's happened. I, on the other hand am not so forgiving." Thalia's face fell as she saw where I was going. "Nico may have been in bad taste, but he raises a very good point. How did two shades manage to incapacitate every single one of you? You were in command at the time; that makes it your responsibility."
"Now, wait just a minute!" the big girl behind her objected.
Thalia shook her head. "No, he's right, Phoebe, I should have seen it coming."
I sighed. "Well?"
She seemed unable to speak. Then another Hunter, a girl with cropped black hair who was small even by their standards and appeared no more than ten, said in a small voice, "But…it was Zoë…"
I glanced back at Thalia, who nodded mutely. "Walked in and gassed you all, huh? I guess Orion took care of Aren personally, then." She just nodded again, and I sighed. It's not like I enjoyed scolding people, but if it stopped something like this happening again… "Just… If you see any more walking dead, be on your toes, okay? To be honest I'm just glad you're all okay."
Thalia smiled weakly. "Thanks, Armani." Suddenly her eyes narrowed at me. "Was Lady Artemis injured?" she asked sharply.
I frowned. "No, why?"
She pointed at my tunic. "It's just…that looks like…"
I glanced down at my chest and suddenly realized it was splattered with small golden stains. I placed a hand over the marks. "That's…not her blood," I said, glancing away.
I saw her narrow her piercing eyes at me. "If it's not her blood, then what…" she trailed off as she caught the look on my face, and I think she worked it out. She was silent for a moment. "Orion, huh?"
"So…what happened?" she asked in a quiet voice. All the others looked equally solemn.
I smiled weakly; my mother's still-wet tears seemed to burn. "I don't know…I guess I wasn't paying attention."
She nodded; I think she knew that I couldn't repeat what I had heard, especially not to them. She had to be strong for her subordinates, and I sure as heck wasn't going to be the one to undermine her image. "Time to leave," I said, and headed off for the cell block entrance. The Hunters followed respectfully after a few seconds.
Annabeth greeted Thalia as enthusiastically as she had last time, with substantially more tears, having again swept the lieutenant into a bear hug upon seeing her.
"Hey, now Annabeth, I'm fine," the girl reassured her, but hugged she her back just as tightly. Then she turned to Aren, who was cheerfully greeting her sisters. "And I'm glad you're okay, too. Why is it that you always manage to get into twice as much trouble as the rest of…what are you wearing?" she asked with a frown, and the little blonde suddenly froze.
"Just borrowing it…" she muttered in a small voice.
I cocked my head. "Come now, I think she looks quite good in my colors," I said and patted her on the head, causing her face to turn the most adorable shade of pink.
I took a calming breath and clasped my hands firmly behind my back. "Okay, troops, we need to be making tracks. How far from Olympus are we?"
Thalia pointed out of the window. "It's a few thousand miles that way."
I frowned in thought as I walked towards the main entryway, the Hunters at my heels. "You know, Annabeth, if you ever change your mind, the invitation's always open," Thalia said after a moment.
Clarisse walked up, the slumbering form of Percy slung over her shoulder like a sack of potatoes. There was an oddly goofy smile on his sleeping face. Annabeth laughed and smiled warmly at the sleeping boy. "Sorry, Thalia, but Artemis usually goes for girls before they've forgotten themselves. I'm afraid that I've well and truly forgotten myself."
Thalia gave her friend a gentle one-armed hug. "Good for you, Annabeth."
I opened the doors and my frown deepened. The mist and Mist were fading, and now a new issue arose. "So…anyone got any ideas how we get off this rock?"
Thalia hummed. "I don't know. We could wait for the Coast Guard and then hit them with the Mist, but we don't know when they might come to check on this place."
Clarisse sighed. "So now what, we have to escape from Alcatraz?"
"Shame Percy's out; I'm sure he could just pull a Moses and make us a path to the mainland," Thalia observed.
Suddenly another option occurred to me; it wasn't one I found particularly appealing, but it would solve the issues of both how to get off this island and how to get to New York.
I gave a defeated sigh and pulled a golden coin from my bag. I lit an external spotlight, yanked a water pipe off the wall, and aimed it into the light, creating a rainbow.
Someone's going to have to fix that pipe, you know…
"Who are you gonna call?" Annabeth asked.
Don't say it! Don't you dare say it! You will not sink down to THAT pop culture reference!
I bit back a Ghostbusters remark, and was about to flick the coin into the spray when a familiar face suddenly materialized in it. She squinted her multi-colored eyes at me. Once satisfied, she nodded. "Ahh, there you are young…uhh…" she trailed off as if trying to remember something.
My eyes narrowed at the goddess. "Man! Young man!" I barked indignantly at the ironically short-sighted deity.
"Yes, yes, now I remember. That would've been my first guess, I promise."
I groaned drearily. "Just what can I do for you, Lady Iris?"
She smiled happily. "You'll never guess…"
I raised an eyebrow. "I think I'll try. Have you miraculously managed to locate the Hunters, by any chance?"
Iris pouted. "Aww, how'd you know? I wanted to help out!"
I sidestepped out of the way. "Because they're standing right here."
Iris reached into the pockets of the fluffy rainbow-colored nightgown she was wearing (which looked odd when combined with her ever-present headset) and withdrew a small pair of oval glasses. She wiped the lenses and put them on. "Oh! It's so nice to see you all okay. I've been up all night looking. Poor Arty seemed in such a kafuffle over the whole thing last time I saw her!"
I nodded and smiled slightly. "That's very kind of you, Lady Iris, and I don't mean to keep you up any longer, but I need one last favor."
Iris nodded. "Okay, but you know the fee."
I sighed and flicked the golden coin up into the image. I would've said the usual chant too, had the drachma not passed right into the image and hit the goddess square between the eyes. With a cry of panic Iris lost her balance and fell backwards out of the shot.
"Way to go, Armani," Clarisse muttered from behind me.
"Smooth," Thalia agreed.
"Iris! Oh, gods, I'm sorry, I really didn't think that would…" I trailed off as Iris stood up, looking very unhappy. She straightened her glasses and rubbed a small red mark on her forehead.
"That was mean," she said, sniffling as she massaged her head.
"Sorry," I repeated sheepishly.
"It's not nice having people throw coins at you all day, you know! I'm not good at catching things!"
"I can imagine…look, I'm really sorry, if there's any way I can make up for-"
Iris pursed her lips and waved a hand to cut me off. "No, no, it's not the first time it's happened and it probably won't be the last. Tribute is tribute, I suppose. What can I do for you?"
I felt bad for the rainbow goddess' lot in life, but I had to deal with my current situation. I turned to the Hunters. "I apologize in advance, girls." Thalia opened her mouth, but I cut her off as I spoke to Iris. "Lady Iris. Please show me my uncle, the sun god Apollo."
Iris' eyes widened. "Umm, are you sure? I mean, I don't normally-"
"I thought you carried messages to the gods all the time?"
"Well, I do, but just rarely from…y'know."
I knew what she was getting at. If half-bloods could IM the gods whenever they wanted, they'd have no time to perform their actual divine duties. "Trust me, Lady Iris; I'm sure he'll make an exception. Just tell him his beloved nephew is calling in a favor."
Iris cocked her head and leaned off screen as if typing something. "Okay, then…It's your drachma and your life, I suppose." Then Iris' image disappeared. The night air was then suddenly filled with what sounded like a badly taped recording of Beethoven's fifth symphony.
"What's going on?" Aren asked, glancing up at the rainbow spray.
I inclined my head. "I think we're on hold."
A second later the image shimmered and was replaced by a familiar face. Apollo sat dressed in a pair of worn jeans and a white t-shirt. He was lying back against the hood of his chariot, which was in red Mazarati form, hanging suspended in the night sky. His eyes flicked from me to the Hunters and my fellow half-bloods, and then settled back on me. A small smile spread across his face. "Well, well, well, and how's my favorite nephew doing?"
I sighed; he obviously wanted to go through our usual routine. "Technically…"
He cut me off, as expected. "…Technically you're my only nephew, yeah, I know. Can't you just take a compliment?"
I raised an eyebrow. "Usually not, since you'd want one in return, regardless of sincerity."
"Well?" he asked, grinning his usual blinding smile.
I sighed and hastily looked him up and down. "Nice, umm, baseball bat?" I offered. The piece of equipment actually looked somewhat dented, as if he'd been smashing it off a brick wall.
He smiled and twirled the dented weapon in his hand above his head. "Isn't it? I was just finished using it," he said, leaning back and tossing the bat through the open chariot window. "Now what can I do you for?"
I took a breath, steadying myself. "I need a favor."
"So Iris said; and here I thought we were even when I voted for you back on Olympus."
"That incident is irrelevant," I said levelly.
Apollo frowned. "Huh? How so? I saved your life, Armani."
"And you would have done it anyway. And I didn't ask you to do it as a favor; I merely said that I did you one and you saved me of your own volition. Besides, like I said, you would have done it anyway."
Apollo raised a golden eyebrow. "Oh, yeah? What makes you think that?"
I sighed. "Because the god of prophecy is as predictable as he is adept at predicting."
"I am not predictable!"
"You're as predictable as the sun rising every morning. That was a pun, in case you didn't catch it, by the way." I was being sarcastic, but, as usual, he didn't notice.
"I know it was! But as I see it, I owe you nothing," he said, folding his arms.
I knew he was going to help anyways; I think he just likes arguing with me. "Then you can help me as an apology."
"I've done nothing I need to apologize to you for!"
Then I said the three words that won the argument. "High School Musical."
Apollo averted his eyes, blushing, and scratched his chin. "Yeah… Sorry 'bout that." He groaned, sounding defeated. "Alright then, what is it you want?"
This was the part the Hunters probably wouldn't like. "We need a lift."
"Hah!" Apollo scoffed. "That all?"
I inclined my head.
Apollo spread his arms wide, a broad smile on his face. "Your wish is my command…" he snapped his fingers and the engine roared to life. A shaft of sunlight suddenly pierced through the clouds above us, and the Iris-image faded.
I rolled my eyes as the chariot descended into the courtyard, the sun god standing smugly on the hood with his arms spread wide, like an annoying cocky angel.
"Somebody call for a ride?" he called, ignoring the disgruntled mutterings from behind me.
"Sorry about this, girls; he's the best I could do at such short notice," I mumbled to the Hunters. Suddenly I noticed Thalia had turned deathly pale.
"Hey, now! What do you mean 'the best you could do'? There's nothing that beats travelling by Sun Chariot, eh, Thalia?" he said, winking at the Huntress. She merely yelped something unintelligible in response. "Aww, you're as adorable as ever, and how is Annabeth doing?" the god asked, flashing his usual smile.
I noticed Annabeth blush despite herself. "I'm fine, Apollo."
He turned to Clarisse next. "And the legendary daughter of Ares. It's true what they say, then; you're as beautiful as you are lethal."
I rolled my eyes.
Gods! He's going for a clean sweep; we'll be here all night!
Clarisse flicked a lock of her hair out of her face in a nonchalant way. "Y…yeah, whatever."
"Thanks for coming so quickly, Apollo" Annabeth said, composing herself.
"He didn't come quickly at all!" I exclaimed, frustrated. I narrowed my eyes at my uncle. "Just how long were you sitting up there waiting for me to call you?"
Apollo smirked. "I had a feeling you might need me, so I rushed here right after taking care of some business,"
I cocked an eyebrow curiously. "Business? What kind of business?"
He glanced inside his chariot and back, and smiled wistfully again. "Nothing you need to worry yourself about, Armani. Now then…" he shouted and slapped the side of his chariot. It morphed, to my horror, into a school bus painted like a hippie's VW van, ban the bomb symbol and all. "All aboard the Love Bus!"
It's either this or swimming…
I glanced at the murky waters, and then back at Apollo's chariot.
"Let's get this over with," I sighed, and strode off towards the celestial vehicle. Apollo plonked himself down in the driver's seat while I pushed my way through the hanging beads that covered the door and sat down in one of the rear seats.
The Hunters followed with extreme trepidation and filled up the seats from the back, keeping as far away from the deity as possible.
"Fine! Leave me all by myself! We're gonna have loads of fun, right, Annabeth?"
Annabeth froze as she passed and nervously sat down in the seat across from Apollo. "S-sure." She didn't seem to be paying much attention to my uncle; she was more focused on Thalia. Annabeth was leading the lieutenant by the hand. Thalia didn't look like she could walk much further; she was pale and her legs were quaking.
For a daughter of Zeus and the lieutenant of Artemis to be in such a state, something must be seriously traumatizing her…
"Oh, and what's wrong with you, Mr. Jackson?" Apollo asked the unconscious form slung over Clarisse's shoulder as she passed.
"Who, him? Idiot went and pushed himself too far; he'll probably be out for days."
"Nonsense!" Apollo said, and he snapped his fingers in front of Percy's face. The boy stirred and instantly regained consciousness.
He blinked as his eyes focused, and stared disbelievingly at the god. "You're upside down…" he muttered.
Clarisse rolled her eyes and let go of the son of Poseidon, dropping him square onto his head in a heap at the Sun god's feet.
"Howdy cuz'!" Apollo said happily down at the sprawled out half-blood.
"Hey, Apollo…" Percy mumbled out through his shirt. He untangled himself and leapt to his feet, glancing around. "Where… What?"
"We won! We're heading back; Apollo's giving us a lift!" I shouted from my position on the back seat. The Hunters had mostly settled into their seats, and all of them looked decidedly unhappy to be aboard. I didn't blame them.
Percy stared at me for a moment, and then at Annabeth and the others. "Oh hi, Thalia!" he said to the pale huntress, who was currently gripping Annabeth's arm like a lifeline.
"So! Percy, how's about I grant you that request?" Apollo asked cheekily.
Percy looked at him for a moment, confused, and then his face suddenly brightened. "You mean it?"
Apollo winked. "Sure!"
Oh gods, tell me he's not going to let him…
Apollo shuffled out of the driver's seat and stood in the aisle. "Take a seat, Percy! Tonight is the night you fly the sun chariot clear across the US of A!"
"Please no…" I thought I heard Thalia whimper in despair.
Apollo just waved her dismay off happily. "Oh, hush now, Thalia, you did fine your first time, remember?"
Thalia didn't reply but judging by the pained yelp Annabeth let out, her grip must've suddenly tightened to echo her trauma. The whimpers of terror from most of the surrounding Hunters didn't boost my confidence much.
"Now Percy, have you ever driven something like this before?"
"A bus? No, but how tough can it be?"
"That's the spirit! Now remember, this is night flying, so no lights."
Percy nodded and started the ignition. The engine roared to life beneath us.
Easy on the gas, please, easy on the gas!
The engine roared louder than the enraged Atlas as Percy floored the accelerator and the chariot shot off into the sky, evaporating a good portion of the bay's water in the process.
I would've spared the Naiads a moment's thought had the sudden takeoff not sent Apollo flying backwards down the aisle. I suddenly found myself with a face full of sun god.
Apollo was heavier than his slender frame suggested. "Sorry 'bout that, nephew," he muttered as he pushed himself off me and began clawing his way back up the aisle, using the backs of the seats as levers. "Level us out! Level us out!"
I sucked in a breath of air. "Are you okay?" Aren asked from her place in the seat to my left.
"Y-yeah, it's not the first time he's body-slammed me, but usually- hmm?" I paused as I noticed an item rolling its way up the aisle.
I bent down to pick it up, and realized it was Apollo's bronze baseball bat.
As Apollo tried to teach Percy the finer points of flying, I examined the bat. It was littered with small dents and I only noticed now the wet trail it had made as it rolled up the aisle. I touched the bat and examined the wet substance. It was slightly viscous and…gold?
"What's that?" Aren asked.
I frowned and turned the bat about in my hand. "Apollo's bat, and either he cut his hand very badly whilst swinging it, or…"
I suddenly noticed a large dent in the front. It was bigger than the others and looked almost amusingly like the side of-
Suddenly it struck me. My jaw fell open as I recognized what—or, more to the point, who—the indentation resembled.
Oh, he DIDN'T!
I gulped nervously as I glanced at the deceptively jolly sun god. Few knew that, as carefree and bumbling as he usually was, Apollo had a temper as burning and unforgiving as the sun he governed.
"Armani?" Aren pressed. I had fallen silent, staring at Apollo.
"It's nothing, Aren…" I said, and rolled the bat back down the aisle. It bumped into the back of Apollo's white Nike.
He turned and stared down at it. As he bent down to retrieve it, he caught my stare and simply looked at me with an unreadable expression on his face. After a moment, he gave a small smirk and stood up, sliding the bat under the front seat in the process.
"I guess it's true what he says," I said to Aren.
"Hmm?" she hummed.
"No one messes with his sister."
"Uh huh…" The small huntress mumbled. I turned my head to find hers resting on my shoulder as she snoozed.
It's been a long day for us all, I suppose…
I pushed down the affectionate feelings welling up in me as I stared at her, and nudged my shoulder up slightly. Aren blinked and sat bolt upright. "W-what?"
"I didn't say anything," I said, staring straight ahead.
"Mmhmm…" she mumbled and moved to rest her head down again.
"Aren…" I said.
"What are you doing?"
She yawned slightly. "I was just…" suddenly her eyes widened in shock, and she scrambled to sit up again. Her green eyes locked with mine in disbelief and borderline horror. "I- I don't know…"
"Aren," I began, grasping her hand, "if I kissed you, would you object?" I whispered, still staring into her eyes.
Her face turned the deepest shade of red I could imagine possible. "I… "She paused, her breath coming in short bursts."No…do you…want to?"
I frowned, and sat back. "Yes, as a matter of fact, I do." I went silent for a moment, then continued, "And therein lies our problem."
We both turned back to the front. I was glad the other Hunters were busy chatting amongst themselves and not paying us any attention. Aren spoke up after a moment. "I don't understand…I've never felt like this before."
"Nor have I. All I know is…" My voice was serious, and I squeezed her hand reassuringly, causing her to gasp in shock. "…I need to speak to Aphrodite as soon as possible."
Aren blinked and turned back to me. "What do you mean?"
"I'm suffering from the lingering after-effects of Aphrodite's power. As you know, she tried to force me to feel love; some of that power was left over when I awoke, and since you were the first person I locked eyes with, it created some sort of messed-up love spell effect."
Aren's eyes widened. "You mean…" she paused and glanced around to make sure no one was listening in. "…We're under Aphrodite's power?"
I inclined my head. "I bloody well hope so. Although I don't think she even intended this to happen. Like I said, it's some kind of lingering after-effect."
"You mean it's temporary?" There was an odd edge in her voice that I couldn't quite decipher. "And what do you mean you hope you're under Aphrodite's power?" she demanded with a pout.
I smiled. "I mean there's always the horrifying possibility that we've taken absolute leave of our senses and genuinely fallen in love with one another."
Aren stared at me wordlessly, and her small face suddenly creased into a grin. Before I could blink she had dissolved into fits of laughter. "T-that would be… really bad!" she said between gasps.
"Horrible!" I agreed, laughing as well. The other Hunters looking at us oddly, as if we'd gone quite mad.
And they're probably right…
I sighed. "Anyways, I figure it best I get Aphrodite to take back her power before we… slip."
"You really think she will?" she asked in a small voice, obviously scared her sisters would overhear that she was susceptible to the L word.
I inclined my head, "I don't know…" To be honest, I sincerely doubted it, but I felt it would be in bad taste to actually admit the fact.
She fell into silence from there on, which I was grateful for. The other Hunters, I noticed, seemed to be shooting glances at me as they spoke. The large one—Phoebe, Thalia had called her-seemed to switch from suspicious, to curious, to awed and back again, like she couldn't quite be sure what to make of me.
For the first time, I realized how thankful I was that my mother hadn't asked me to join her Hunt. Don't get me wrong, I had the utmost respect for her Huntresses, but there was still an air of confused and unintentional animosity between us. It was understandable; I suppose I took some getting used to. The only ones who seemed comfortable around me were Thalia, Steff and Aren (the latter uncomfortably comfortable). And, to be honest, I still wasn't good in large groups. Put me in a small group of five or six and I'm fine, but drop me in close quarters with a couple of dozen others and I just feel like I'm suffocating. I suppose I still had a ways to go.
I left Aren with Steff, to our mutual relief, and joined Apollo at the front of the chariot.
"What's wrong?" the god asked without turning around as I slumped down into a chair behind him.
"What makes you think something's wrong?" I muttered, leaning against the glass and staring out over the clouds below.
I saw Apollo cock his head out of the corner of my eye. "You reflexively hide your thoughts when something's weighing on your mind; you probably do it even when there aren't even any gods about."
I shrugged. "Maybe…"
"You used to tell me everything," he said melancholically.
I raised an eyebrow. "Just which Armani Dove do you remember living with? I barely spoke to you at all!"
"You're really not going to tell me what's beating you, are you?"
I decided to evade the subject of my unwanted feelings. "Whatever's beating me can't be half as bad as the beating you issued with that bat earlier on tonight."
Apollo went silent for a moment. "Are you implying I've done something wrong?"
I inclined my head. "Not at all. I'm sure whoever it was had it coming."
The temperature in the bus suddenly went up a few notches. "Let's just say I issued a reprimand for bad behavior."
I could tell he was trying hard to keep his cool, so I dropped it.
"You just totally dodged my question, didn't you?" he asked after a moment's silence.
I didn't respond, but then Clarisse interrupted the conversation.
"All right, I've got a question…"
"Go right ahead, my dear," Apollo said, flashing her a smile.
"It's just, you didn't grow up with any parents or anything, yeah?"
I raised an eyebrow. "Correct, what about it?"
"And Apollo was the one who found you…"
I nodded. "That's right."
"And then he dropped you at some orphanage, right?"
I wondered where she was going with this. "Also true, what's your point?"
"It's just, if all that's true, then who gave you your name?"
I opened my mouth to answer, but suddenly realized I had no clue. My brow creased into a frown.
Now that's a very good question.
I found it odd that it had never occurred to me until now. After all, to me I'd always just been me. I'd always classed my name as something of no more value than a thing used to confirm someone was addressing me.
"Apollo?" I asked
"You really want to know? You want to know the tale of your name?"
Percy turned his head around. "I want to know too, you've gotten me all curious now."
Why do I get the feeling I probably won't like what I'm about to hear?
"Well…" Apollo began and leaned against one of the seat rests. "I realized when I was getting dressed for the interview down at the orphanage to drop you off that they might just want to know what to call you."
I frowned. "You think? Wait, then what had you called me up until then?"
"Well, it had only been a day, so I'd just called you…well… Little Baby."
I rolled my eyes. "Typical. Anyway, go on."
"Anyway, I also had to decide what to wear for the thing, but then I realized since I always look fantastic I was fine with just what I was wearing, which just so happened to be…"
I smacked myself on the forehead. "Oh, gods, don't tell me…"
Apollo smiled. "That's right; my favorite white Armani tux!"
"And what about the Dove bit?" Clarisse asked, oblivious to my torment.
"Well, I thought that up while I was brushing my teeth with my favorite brand of Olympian toothpaste; Dove brand ultra-white!"
I groaned painfully from behind my hands. "So let me get this straight; the clothes on your back, and your toothpaste?"
Apollo rubbed his chin, suddenly seeming nervous. Maybe he was afraid I'd tell his sister how he'd named her only child. "Umm, kinda, yeah…"
"With all due respect, uncle, you suck."
Apollo's eyes narrowed dangerously at me. "Remind me why I haven't destroyed you yet."
"Beats me, but there are times when I really wish you would…"
By the time we had reached the eastern coast, Percy had pretty much gotten the hang of piloting the chariot and seemed to be having the time of his life. Although his occasional attempts to show off his skills to Annabeth had caused some near-fatal accidents, he was doing oddly well for someone who by all rights shouldn't really be up in the sky at all. I knew firsthand what happens to half-bloods who stray too far in to Zeus' domain. It usually involves said deity taking pot shots at you with lightning bolts.
To Percy's disappointment, and everyone else's overwhelming relief, Apollo took the wheel as we began to cross over New York City. "Sorry Percy, but I think it's best if I handle the landing. Don't think I could explain it to dad if you crashed us into Olympus."
I watched as the sun god steered us up into the skies above the Empire State Building. "Uncle, forgive me if I'm wrong, but didn't Zeus forbid you from landing directly on Mount Olympus?"
Apollo waved his hand dismissively. "I'm sure dad won't mind just this once. Honestly, you singe a few sacred trees, knock over a statue and reduce just a couple of temples to ashes, and you're paying for it for centuries. Father can be so unfair sometimes."
Apollo skidded the bus to a halt on the plateau just outside of the main temple. The landing was perfectly sound, although he did leave a few black tire marks in the otherwise pristine marble surface. "End of the line, people! Time to disembark," he said, hitting the door control. Percy got off first, since he was closest to the door. He was followed by Thalia, who couldn't seem to get off quick enough.
Both ran headlong into the waiting form of Zeus.
It must've been like hitting a brick wall, as both bounced clear off the sky god's chest and landed square on their backsides.
Lightning crackled up and down his blue suit as his eyes burned into the fallen son of Poseidon. I watched as a blue bolt of energy formed in his hand. "So! Intruding upon my dominion again, Son of Poseidon? That was the last time you will make that mistake."
Percy gave what can only be described as a panicked 'eep' as Zeus raised his lightning bolt. Apollo poked his head off the bus. "Ahh, technically, dad, he was in my domain. You know, inside the sun chariot and all is my place, and it's up to me who gets in and out."
Zeus hesitated; Apollo was right, of course, but then he angrily turned his bolt on the sun god. "Then why don't you tell me, son, just what you think you're doing by daring to land in this place?"
Apollo stepped off the bus, oblivious to the danger, it seemed. "Oh, come on dad, I was just doing a favor for my sis. She's had a really tough day, you know? I thought it'd be nice to get her band of buddies back to her ASAP."
Zeus gritted his teeth in frustration, then clenched his fist and the bolt disappeared. He angrily swung about and marched back into the temple. "Just get that thing off my mountain!"
Score one for playing the old Daddy's Girl card…
Apollo sighed. Once he made sure everyone was off his chariot, he snapped his fingers, causing the vehicle to transform back into its red sports car form. The engine revved and the vehicle shot off into the night sky of its own accord, leaving a pair of flaming tire tracks behind.
Apollo winced as he eyed the scorched marble. "If anyone asks, I didn't do it."
"Didn't do what?" A female voice spoke up.
Apollo nearly jumped out his t-shirt and swung about to find Athena standing behind us with her arms folded. She was tapping her foot and had a very disapproving look on her face as she eyed the damaged architecture. "I'll fix it…" Apollo said, looking for all the world like a scolded schoolboy.
"See that you do; but first I need you to go and fetch Artemis from the Gardens of Solitude, she'll be needed at the meeting. You go with him, Armani."
Apollo frowned. "The Gardens of Solitude? What's she doing there? It's so…" he waved a hand, as if searching for the word.
Athena raised an eyebrow. "Solitary?"
"Yeah…What's up with that?"
Athena sighed. "Just go. She's been there ever since she got back, but it's about time for her to come out."
I opened my mouth to ask a question, but Apollo was already dragging me away by my elbow, leaving the others in the capable hands of the battle goddess. Once we were out of earshot I asked him, "What? You just do everything she asks?"
Apollo sighed. "Armani, when I'm around here, I have a saying: 'Don't question the scary owl lady'. It's just not worth the trouble; she has this nasty habit of always being right."
I frowned at him. "Noted, but just for the record, you called her the scary owl lady, not me."
We walked in silence; we didn't need to speak to know that we both knew there was more to Athena's request than simply fetching my mother.
The Gardens of Solitude were pretty much exactly what they said on the tin; as soon as you passed through the pair of short columns on their boundary, the droning hustle and bustle of Mount Olympus simply vanished, replaced by the sound of running water and the chirping of the various exotic birds that lived there.
We found Artemis sitting in silence on a stone bench overlooking the small stream at the end of the garden. The little goddess sat deep in thought as she stared into the running water. Neither of us approached her, but it was Apollo who broke the silence. "Hey, sis. Dad's called the council together; it's time to go."
Artemis remained silent for a moment. Then she said, without moving, "Understood."
Apollo looked oddly solemn as he stared at his sister's back. There was a strange look on his face; I could swear it was regret. He turned and walked off, but paused on the edge of the garden. "I was wrong, and I'm sorry. It may have taken a while for me to say it, but there you go. I also want to say that those eight hundred and fifty seven years, seven months, eighteen days, twelve hours, thirty-four minutes and twelve seconds were the most painful in all my existence. I'll see you inside, Artemis…" and with that he was gone.
I exhaled a breath that sounded strangely loud in the garden's silence, strode over and sat down next to my mother. I mirrored her poise unconsciously and stared into the water with her. "Did Apollo just say he was wrong?" I asked after a moment.
"Hmph. Only took him two and a half thousand years to say it," she replied bitterly.
"What was all that eight hundred and… umm… something years bit?"
"That was how long I didn't talk to him for after he…" she trailed off and went silent again
I instantly caught her meaning. "Ah…" I went silent too, but I had to ask. "Did he ever say why he tricked you into, you know, doing what you did?"
"He said it was for my own good and that of the order." She practically spat the last two words out. "For how many centuries was it that he protested that he had done the right thing?" It obviously wasn't a question.
"It would seem even gods aren't perfect, no offence."
She inclined her head. "None taken…"
We were silent for another moment. "Can I ask you a question?"
"Were you ever, you know, tempted?"
She paused, as if pondering how to answer. "I don't know…" I blinked; it was rare for a god to ever utter those words. "…But I do know that Orion was the closest anyone had ever brought me to it. I was a…different person, so to speak, back then."
I smiled. "Perhaps Apollo was, too."
Artemis scoffed again, "He's never changed"
"I'm not so sure. I think maybe his hiding me from you was, in a perverse way, him trying to make up for what he did."
She frowned. "In what way?"
"I think he saw a risk that you would actually kill me. In a way, it was him probably trying to show he could do the opposite of what he did with you and Orion, despite how much of an opposition to the order I might have been," I said, air quoting those two words.
"Perhaps. This is the first time he's actually apologized for anything, too."
I smiled ironically. "Two firsts in one sentence. I'm surprised the fabric of reality didn't tear itself apart."
The ghost of a smile tweaked her lips. "Indeed."
I sighed. "Look, mom, it's not my place to make observations about the gods, but-"
"-It's never stopped you before," she interrupted.
I laughed. "Guilty, but seriously, Apollo does love you. Even what he did back then was a twisted, over-protective way of showing it. The return of Orion probably hurt him because he knew how much it would hurt you." At that I reached over my shoulder and into my bag. "Here, I have something for you."
She frowned. "What?"
"Something to show you that, whilst you may feel alone in that area of your heart, there are always others who will lend you a supporting hand if you ever need it," I said as I withdrew the item.
Artemis took the dented bronze item I had stolen from the chariot and eyed it curiously. "What's this?"
I nodded at it. "That would be the bat Apollo used to express his…dissatisfaction with the current situation," I said, and twirled the bat around in my mother's hand until the largest dent was facing her. "Look like anyone you know?"
Her silver eyes widened in shock as she recognized the side profile that had been almost perfectly impressed into the bronze surface. It was the face of Hades. "Brother…" she whispered.
"I wouldn't worry about retaliation. If Hades does strike back, then he'd have to admit what he did, and then I'm sure Zeus would just see it as knock for knock." Suddenly another question occurred to me. "What were they, by the way?" I asked.
"What were what?" she mumbled, staring at the bat.
"The first words you said to him after all those years. I'm just curious."
She clenched her hands around the object and paused to think. "I had sworn to myself not to speak to him for a thousand years after what he had done..."
"Then why stop at such an arbitrary number?"
Artemis sighed. "He wouldn't get out of my way in the hallway one day. He just stood there, playing his lyre and dancing around in circles like a fool."
I raised an eyebrow. "So you're saying your first words to him after eight centuries were-"
"As I recall...'Get out of my way, you bumbling buffoon'."She frowned and twirled the bat again in her hands as if still remembering. "Unfortunately it had the opposite effect, as he hugged me for two straight hours, then spent the next three weeks sobbing tears of joy and singing my name from the rooftops…It was most embarrassing."
I smiled. "Sounds like something Apollo would do."
A smile spread across her small face. "Yes, wasn't it just?"I'm not sure what went through her head in that second, but she suddenly stood up. She ran a hand over the bat, and it fixed itself, with the exception of that one indentation. Then she turned to stroll out of the garden. "I'm going to join the others. I will expect you there shortly."
"May I just ask one thing else? While we're here, that is."She paused and I took it as a cue to proceed. "Back at Alcatraz, you couldn't say…certain things whilst the others were there-"
Artemis cut me off. "-and you want to know why I could show that side of myself whilst you were there?"
I nodded my head. "Pretty much."
She paused to consider it. "I suppose I could only show that part of me when no one was around but myself."
I frowned. "But I was there…"
She smiled a small mysterious smile. "Don't be silly, Armani. You were once a part of me, after all, and you still are to this day." And then she was gone, leaving me alone in the garden.
Huh… Moms are weird…
I found my fellow half-bloods waiting in the throne room. Annabeth and Percy were holding hands, and I couldn't help but notice the scowl on Athena's face as she stared at the pair. Something told me they weren't quite as oblivious to her discomfort as one might think. The fear in Percy's eyes and the intense determination in Annabeth's, combined with the death grip she had on his palm, were sort of giveaways.
Clarisse and Thalia had obviously already presented themselves, as they were already standing at attention to the side of the other two.
As for the gods, I was glad the room was mostly empty, but it wasn't entirely. Poseidon was still there; he obviously hadn't finished his remodeling. Athena, of course, was there too, along with my mother and Apollo. The only other throne occupied was Ares', who was glaring at Percy with undisguised loathing.
Zeus sat waiting for me to approach, and so I presented myself as before. "Great Lord Zeus" I said, dropping to a knee before him. He nodded his acknowledgement and I turned and bowed to my mother, "Honored mother." Artemis inclined her head, and I finished the introductions, "Lords and Ladies of your respected dominions… And you too, Lord Apollo."
"He- oh… Yes, yes of course…"
I turned back to Zeus. "I have returned, as requested, and very much alive."
Zeus nodded. "Indeed, you have proven yourself, and your companions deserve equal praise for their endeavors." He stared at Thalia. "I am moved to see you well, daughter. I was most distressed to hear of your disappearance."
I guess that explains the storm over San Francisco.
Thalia blinked. "Y-yes, thank you, father."
He turned to his other daughter, the twenty-foot-tall one in the throne. "And you, Artemis?" How fare you?" he asked, a definite note of concern in his voice.
Artemis inclined her head curtly. "I am quite alright, father, thank you for your concern."
Zeus nodded gravely and turned back to us. "To business. Armani Dove, you have proven yourself well, both to the council and in matters I am personally grateful for," he said, his stormy eyes flicking to my mother and back again.
I bowed. "I merely did my duty, sir."
"Indeed you did, and therefore you may retain your powers as an immortal Hunter, and carry on your existence unmolested."
"Thank you, sir." Needless to say, when Zeus just says 'well done, now you can go' without adding on a threat of destruction or ominous warning, it was something to be thankful for.
His eyes turned to Percy. "What are you doing here, Perseus Jackson? This was not your quest."
Percy held his head high; he was a brave one, I'll hand him that. "I didn't interfere as part of the quest, just as a half-blood helping his…" he paused and gave Annabeth a sidelong glance, "…friends." Athena scoffed in disgust from her throne.
"Why, yes, son, how did you come to know of this quest?" Poseidon asked. The innocence in his tone was almost mocking.
Zeus rolled his eyes. "Please, brother, you are as transparent as the waters you love so much."
"Why, whatever do you mean, Zeus? I told Percy nothing of this quest!"
I'm really starting to like that guy…
"And what do you have to say for yourself?" Ares demanded, and I saw Clarisse flinch.
"Saved by that boy again?" he spat angrily.
To her credit, Clarisse didn't back down a step, she just smirked back at him. "Please, the enemy just got lucky he got to them before I did. They should've been sending you prayers of thanks for what happened."
Ares scowl froze and he merely nodded mutely in response.
I glanced at a certain vacant throne and couldn't keep a small smirk from playing on the corner of my lips. "Why, my Lord Zeus, I cannot help but notice Lady Aphrodite is absent. I do hope nothing has befallen her."
Ares gripped the arms of his throne angrily. "You little-"
"Problem, Ares?" Artemis suddenly asked. She had materialized a small pair of scissors and was proceeding to trim her already immaculate nails. She stared at him and then snipped them closed.
Ares winced, for some reason. "No, nothing, it's all good." Then he did the oddest thing; he crossed his legs, almost protectively, and swerved away in this throne.
I obviously missed something here…
"I have not seen Aphrodite for some days now," Zeus responded. "And I am loath to ask, especially after what happened last time…but as you are the victorious hero…" he paused, as if really not wanting to ask me. "…Are there any more questions?"
"Armani…" Thalia said warningly.
I waved off her concern. "No, my lord. That will be quite enough for one day, if I might be excused?"
Zeus nodded again. "You and your companions are dismissed."
There was a collected sigh of relief but, as we turned around to leave, the oddest thing happened. A rainbow seemed to appear out of midair in front of us.
The multicolored stream spread out, shimmered and formed into a solid image. Within it stood a young man. I would've taken him for a normal mortal had I not noticed the horns growing out of the top of his brown hair.
The others were obviously acquainted, as Percy suddenly shouted happily, "Grover! It's been months, dude, where've you been?"
The satyr blinked in shock, but he seemed happy, too. "Percy? What are you doing there?" His eyes flicked from person to person and his shock level rose a notch with every face. "Annabeth, Clarisse…and Thalia?"
Now it was Percy who looked confused. "Wait, you weren't calling me?"
Grover shook his head. "The guys at camp were right, I was missing out on something big! They wouldn't say what since they were afraid I'd go rushing off trying to help. What's going on, Percy?"
Percy grinned. "I'll explain as soon as we meet up. Did you say you were at camp?"
Grover nodded. "Yes, that's why I'm calling. It's not actually you I was after, Percy. It's him." he nodded at me and I blinked.
I glanced about. "Me?"
Grover nodded. "Armani Dove, right?"
I narrowed my eyes. "That's me…"
Suddenly the small satyr seemed to do his best to go all formal on me. "A matter of the greatest importance has been brought to my attention. It is requested by myself and the Interim Woodland Council that you return immediately to Camp Half-Blood so that it can be addressed."
I clenched a fist at my side. "Yeah? And what if I refuse?"
Grover rolled his eyes. "Sweet Zeus, don't do this to me. I just-"
"Sweet WHO?" a giant voice boomed from behind me.
Oh, snap, forgot about him.
Grover frowned and tried to lean left and right to see past me. "What was that?"
I gave an exasperated sigh and sidestepped out of the way, revealing the giant forms of the gods to the image of the satyr.
The sound he let out can only be described as something halfway between a goat's cry and a yelp of terror, something along the lines of BLAH-HA-HA-HA! "L-Lord Zeus! I swear I didn't mean to interrupt!" Zeus didn't say anything, but he narrowed his eyes and, in the image, a bolt of lightning suddenly struck the ground a few feet behind the satyr, sizzling his behind slightly.
After leaping about eight feet in the air, he waved a hand in front of the image in a desperate attempt to dissipate it. "I should really, really go! Just remember, Camp Half-Blood, woodland council!"
I groaned painfully and rubbed my sinuses. "I suppose I'd best go see what he was on about…"
Suddenly my mother spoke up. "If I may be excused also, father, it is time I rejoined my Hunters."
Artemis shimmered and returned to her regular size as she stood up. The baseball bat, which had been out of sight before, due to her tremendous size, was now clearly visible under her arm.
Apollo obviously saw it, and he was about to speak when the goddess cut him off. "Brother…" she began as she walked away, "…Thanks." And then she was gone, leaving an utterly flabbergasted sun god in her wake.
The Hunters, I gathered, would be remaining with my mother on Olympus for a while before returning to their eternal hunt. I was about to bid my mother farewell halfway up the mountain when I caught a familiar scent on the wind; a sickly-sweet scent that was terrifyingly unmistakable.
"Mother, may I borrow Aren for a moment?"
Artemis narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "Why?"
"I can't say," I said, glancing anxiously at the surrounding Hunters, "but it's important."
The goddess stared at Aren, who was shuffling her feet nervously, then back at me. She nodded her head after a moment, and Aren took a place at my side as I forged down the hill.
"What's going on?" she whispered as we strode swiftly down the steps.
I waited until we rounded a bend and were out of sight before answering, "She's here…"
Aren frowned. "Who?" she asked as we reached the elevator.
The scent stops here.
I reached out and hit the call button. "Take a guess."
The elevator must've already been at this floor, as the doors opened immediately.
Aren reflexively went for her knife upon seeing the occupant, but I grabbed her arm and she froze, still tense as a tiger ready to strike.
Aphrodite stood leaning against the wall for support. Her appearance stunned me. "I wouldn't worry, Aren, I don't think she's here to make trouble." The love goddess merely averted her eyes in shame. Her right arm was in a sling. She was wearing a loose-fitting dress and I could see bandages wrapped around her midsection beneath. She also had another bandage across the right side of her temple and a nasty cut down the side of her face, which seemed to be healing as I looked at it.
This was a goddess that wouldn't be seen in public if she had so much as a single split end. For her to be out in such a state must have been utterly unheard of. She looked absolutely pitiful.
"I thought all gods on Olympus had to answer the call to the council when it sounded."
Aphrodite didn't look up. She just shrugged, the effort causing her to wince. "I never left the elevator…"
Seems gods spend most of their time trying to circumvent their own rules.
"I just want to talk," she said after a moment. "Please, I don't want to be seen like this…" In that instant I actually felt sorry for her, in spite of all she had done to me.
Aren grabbed my arm. "Armani, you can't, what if she-"
"-I have to risk it, for your sake and for mine."
Her hand slipped away and she followed me inside.
I pushed the next floor down on the control panel and the elevator began its swift descent to the top mortal floor. Aphrodite spoke in a quiet voice over the elevator music. "It's not supposed to hurt…"
I turned. "Excuse me?"
She wasn't meeting my eyes. "Love does hurt, but it's not supposed to hurt like that."
My eyes narrowed. "Well, it did hurt. You did hurt me, Aphrodite, and in a way you can't possibly comprehend. See, that pain you're feeling right now? That's not a shadow in comparison to what I went through because of you." I tried to contain my temper around the injured goddess, but I was failing badly. In the end I simply shut up and waited for us to reach our floor.
The elevator bell signaled our arrival, and the door opened to the observation deck. Aphrodite attempted to push herself away from the wall but let out another groan of pain. I shook my head and did the only thing that came to mind: I offered her my arm.
She nodded her thanks and took it as I assisted her out and sat her down on one of the benches. The deck was deserted, and the barest hints of dawn were starting to peak over the horizon.
I stood back and folded my arms, waiting for her to speak.
"There was never a vendetta to begin with, you know, between Artemis and me. At first I only saw the one being in all creation that needed my help most. I saw someone whose cruel fate stopped them from feeling love. Artemis is the greatest romantic tragedy of all. I also pity you in the same way, and so I came to say that…I'm sorry."
More gods apologizing, what's the world coming to?
I stared at her in silence. Then I answered, "Accepted. Now take it back."
Aphrodite frowned. "Take what back?"
I clenched my teeth angrily. "Whatever it was you did to me and Aren!"
The goddess stared at me, and her eyes widened in shock. "Oh! That is so adorable! The two little Hunters in love. You know what they say; like mother like son!" For a moment she sounded quite giddy.
"Aphrodite…" I said warningly.
The goddess sighed. "Of course. By way of apology I'll tell you how to break it. See, since it's just a minor echo of the power of love, all you need to do is break the tension."
Aren and I glanced at each other. "What do you mean, 'break the tension'?"
Aphrodite ran her uninjured hand across her jaw in thought. "With a pair of adult mortals I'd normally say go all the way, but I think between you two kids a kiss should be more than sufficient."
Aren gasped in shock, her face turning that impossible shade of red again. "You can't be serious!"
Aphrodite scowled. "Oh, come on! How old are you, eight? It's not like I'm telling you to lose your virginity or anything."
Aren gasped and I snapped, "I should damn well think not!"
Aphrodite giggled. "Sorry, sorry, forgot how stubborn you Hunters are over the whole maidenhood thing."
"Can't you just, you know, wave your hand or something and make it go away?" I asked.
"Nope, sorry, you have to break the spell for yourselves. I'm the love goddess. If there's a falling out of love goddess, then I suggest you go crying to her, or you could just do as I say."
She was probably lying, but I sensed this was the best I was going to get out of her. "Fine then…"
Aphrodite smiled. "Good, now make it a nice deep one!"
"Careful…" I muttered, and the goddess went silent. I turned to Aren ,who was blushing and wound tighter than a coiled spring. "…Right, I'm pretty sure I know how this goes," I said, unable to prevent my own cheeks glowing beet red.
Just get it over with, like taking off a band-aid. Gods, she is cute though… Alright, THAT'S IT!
I grasped her by the shoulders and she gasped in shock. "Sorry about this, Aren…"
"'t's okay…" she whispered. I was vaguely aware of Aphrodite watching with excitement.
I shook my head at the silliness of the situation and leaned in closer to her. Her breaths were short and slightly panicked. I could smell her sweet scent, like lotus and apples. Then I brushed her trembling lips with my own.
Her breath caught, and for the span of a heartbeat she kissed me back, a low whimper escaping from the back of her throat.
A moment later (at least I think it was a moment) we pulled away from one another. I coughed nervously and we both turned away in utter embarrassment.
"That was so sweet! You really should count that as your first kiss, and not the one I gave you," she said seriously, as if she were giving me sage, profound advice.
I paused for a second and rounded on her as it hit me. "What's the big idea, Aphrodite? I don't feel different at all!"
Aren swung about too. "Me neither! What's going on?"
Aphrodite shrugged her one uninjured shoulder. "Hey, that only broke the spell that ensured you fell in love. It didn't erase the memory of it or your feelings for one another. The only difference now is you have a better degree of control over them."
I gasped in exasperation. "Then what was the point of us kissing, then?"
"Well for one, like I said, it was a very sweet moment."
I clenched a fist. "Apollo always says to never hit a woman, but you are bringing me very close to it, Lady!"
Aphrodite sighed. "If you're that intent on not being together, then you should just spend some time apart. Perhaps your feelings will fade, or perhaps not. I'm not the goddess of prophecy, after all, you'd best check with Apollo on that."
The annoying thing was, I both did and didn't want those feelings to fade, and I could tell Aren was in the same conundrum.
I went silent for a moment to settle myself down, letting the calm song of the wild sooth my mind. "I suppose it's time we departed, then."
"I hope I was of some help."
I shook my head as Aren and I walked away. "Sure, Aphrodite, tons of help…" suddenly I squeaked to a halt, as I felt there was one thing that had to be addressed."You are wrong about something, though, Aphrodite."
"Oh, and what's that, my cutie?"
My hand unconsciously went to the spot where I swore I could still feel my mother's tears. "The truly cruel thing, about Artemis and me, I mean, is not that we don't feel love. No, the really cruel thing is…we do."
My mother was waiting just outside the elevator with her Hunters. Percy, Annabeth and Clarisse were there, too.
Aren left my side to rejoin her sisters, and the three half-bloods crossed over to join me. "Did you find out what you needed to know?" my mother asked.
I glanced at Aren and back again. "More or less. It would appear it's time we parted company once again."
Artemis nodded. "It would seem that way. I wish you luck with the council."
I nodded. "I'm sure it's nothing," I said, backing onto the elevator with the other half-bloods and bidding the Hunters farewell. "Love you mom, see ya 'round!" I waved as the doors closed, and she was gone again.
And the last word goes to me…
My finger froze. I pulled it back from the ground floor button as I suddenly realized that it was the first time I'd ever said those words to her. I smiled.
I'm sure she'll reprimand me accordingly at our next encounter for embarrassing her like that…
I had been looking forward to a nice long trek though the forest on the way back to camp, but Annabeth had insisted we take a cab, which, quite frankly, took all the fun out of it. Although she made a valid argument when she reminded us we'd been fighting all day and been up all night. I had forgotten, to be honest.
It's funny how long a single day can seem…
Nico drummed his fingers against the black marble of his father's throne. The room was oddly peaceful, as the lord of the dead himself, oddly enough, was nowhere to be seen.
Nico flinched as the great doors were suddenly thrown open. In crawled, on his hands and knees, a very battered-, beaten-, burned- and bruised- looking Hades.
"Father!" Nico shouted and bolted to the god's side. "What happened?"
"Nico. Nico, Nico, oh dearest Nico, child of mine. Oh precious fruit of mine loins, Oh apple of my eye…" Hades droned, sounding half-delirious.
Nico backed away. There were few things scarier than Hades being mad at you. One was him being nice to you.
"Next time you find yourself with some simply must-have information that I simply must hear about, or some great indignation that you're sure I simply must know about, do me a favor, would you?"
"KEEP IT TO YOURSELF!" he spat, and dragged himself up into his throne. "Now, where's Persephone? I'm in dire need of a neck rub."
"B-but, dad, it's spring. Persephone won't be back for months."
Hades groaned. "Oh, so it is. Well, Nico, good news…"
Nico backed up a step nervously. "What?"
"Today daddy gets to teach you another new skill."
Nico's face paled even more than usual. It seemed it was comeuppance all around today…
I left Orion's spear in Cabin Eight, beside my bed and thankfully avoided any great hero's welcome. I simply wanted to tie up my loose ends. I got a few hours sleep to set my body-clock back on almost normal time and awoke to the sound of someone knocking on my cabin door.
One of these days I'm going to wake up of my own accord…
Annabeth was waiting outside. She didn't look like the world was ending, which was always good. "The council has gathered. Are you ready to go?"
I yawned and stretched my arms. "Yeah, don't see why not, let's go see what I've done this time…"
The stroll through the forest roused me as it normally would, but it was oddly intense here. Annabeth led me through a path marked by a twin row of ancient trees. The nature felt odd in this place. It wasn't like my mother's; hers was more to do with the environment and the wild beasts. This was something old. It was in the trees, the earth and the grass in the very natural substance around me. This was a different kind of nature. Not unpleasant, just different…
I emerged into a glade; the sun was bright and high in the sky. I had to squint to get my eyes to adjust.
We were not alone.
In fact, the glade was positively packed. The outsides were lined with satyrs of different ages and sizes. There were numerous tree and water nymphs chattering excitedly amongst themselves. At the head of the glade stood the satyr named Grover, whom I'd seen earlier. He wore a strange robe that seemed to be made of moss and leaves, which looked oddly formal in spite of its composition. He had his arm entwined with that of a small wood nymph who was chatting happily with some of her kin.
The satyr himself was deep in conversation with Percy, who seemed to be excitedly reiterating something to him whilst Grover listened with rapt attention.
Chiron was there, too. He was talking to an elderly satyr. The atmosphere was very excited.
I coughed once and silence swept the clearing like a blanket. I suddenly saw a mop of long chocolate hair sweep through the crowd and do its best to tackle me to the ground.
I skidded back a foot and glanced down to find Lya, the wood nymph whose tree I occasionally frequented, with her head buried in my chest and her arms wrapped around my midsection.
She was wearing a strange long, flowing dress and had a circlet made of flowers on her head.
After a moment of hugging she looked up at me with green tears in her brown eyes.
Oh, gods, what've I done that I don't understand now?
"I was so worried about you," she whimpered. "You didn't even drop by to say goodbye when you left!" She sniffled and wiped her eyes on her sleeve.
I did suddenly feel bad. She was quite a brave little thing, and I suppose she's the best friend that I had amongst the nymphs. "Sorry, Lya, it was sort of an emergency, but I was only gone for a day."
"Felt like forever…" she mumbled, still not letting go.
"I'm sorry. Well I'm here now, 'kay?" I said, rubbing a chlorophyll tear from her cheek.
She nodded once, and Grover coughed for attention. I glanced up to realize everyone in the glade was standing in formed lines as if they were in church or something. "Armani Dove, Lya, approach…" he said, beckoning us closer. Lya melted away from me and slid around to my side, hooking her arm into my own.
I took a step forward-
I froze dead… Did my instinct just-
I'm telling you! RUN!
I shook my head to clear it and glanced around for a source of danger. There was nothing I could see, so why was something deep inside telling me that it would be best if I were bolting in the opposite direction like my pants were on fire and the water was that way?
I forced it down and my instinct let out what can only be called a defeated groan as I took another step forward, trepidation in my heart. The sinking feeling was back.
I suddenly noticed a familiar face, sitting in a chair that looked like it was made entirely out of vines. "Lord Dionysus?" I asked, frowning. "What are you doing here?"
The god just smirked. "I took some time out, just so I could catch this very moment. Got my camera and everything," he said, lifting up what appeared to indeed be a small Fuji camera.
I took a steadying breath and turned to Grover. Lya was excitedly rocking back and forth with her arm around mine. I couldn't help but notice some of the other satyrs grumbling, as if disapproving or jealous of something. The other Nymphs all appeared to be in various stages of teary-eyed awe.
What did I just walk into?
"Armani Dove, it has come to our attention that you have been dodging your responsibility and neglecting your duties," Grover spoke up.
I frowned. "But I just got back. I've been very dutiful, all saving lives and fighting monsters and everything."
"Not that!" Lya snapped. "Your other responsibility!"
"What other responsibility?"
"Wait! Wait, I've gotta turn my camera on, just give me a sec!" Dionysus said, holding a hand up as he fiddled with the device. "Stupid mortal- oh, there we go, carry on."
Lya frowned, "Me, of course!"
One of my eyebrows shot up involuntarily. "Say wha-?"
Dionysus was holding up his camera. "No, not yet…"
Grover coughed for attention again and I turned back to him. "Armani Dove, is it not true that you did ask this here Nymph to lay with her in the sacred branches of her tree?"
I suppose I did…
Grover nodded. "Good, and did you not receive upon your person the symbol of her reciprocation?"
Up went that eyebrow again. "The what of her what?"
"He means that first braid," Dionysus said from behind his camera. "…Just say yes, say yes," he said excitedly.
"Ah, yes, I did at that."
Grover nodded and I felt Lya tighten her grip on my arm. "Good, good. And now, did you not, Armani Dove, offer to allow her to lay, by your own request, her symbol of claim upon your person?"
I opened my mouth, but again had no answer, so I glanced at Dionysus, who was still grinning from behind his camera. "He means did you ask her to braid your hair in return, again."
I glanced at the second braid, curious as to why they would make such a big thing of hair adornments. "I suppose I…" I paused as I suddenly noticed Grover's short hair had been twisted into two short braids as well. "-huh, so they got you too, did they?"
Grover glanced up at his hair and down at the Nymph who was happily hugging him. They smiled warmly at one another. "She sure did…Now, if you please-"
I inclined my head. "Yeah, I did, is it import-" I was cut off as Grover suddenly spoke up.
"It was heard, in front of all present: the claim was made and was in turn accepted. Acting in place of the disbanded council, I utilize my power to make it official, and so it is done." He withdrew a pair of pipes from his robes and blew a long note. A tiny stream of vine wound its way up my arm and tied it together to that of the Nymph, who was now beaming the most brilliant smile I've ever seen, including Apollo's. A tiny bud formed at the point where we were joined, then grew and blossomed into a dazzling rainbow-colored rose.
There were awed ooh's and ahh's amongst the council, and more tear wiping.
Okay… I hope this wraps up the whole braiding thing.
I suddenly realized I couldn't move away from her now. I glanced pleadingly up at Dionysus, who was still doing his Cheshire Cat impression. "Any moment- oh, you have to undo it and tie it around her arm," he said, twirling a hand about in the air to mimic it.
"Fine…All seems a bit much for a simple… I don't know," I said. I carefully untangled the vine from around us and tied it around her upper arm in a bow.
Lya stared down at it with fresh green tears in her eyes; it was quite a fetching ornament on her, I had to admit.
I glanced back at Grover. "And now?"
Grover put his pipes away. "And thus the ceremony is concluded! May your winters be mild and your springtime bountiful!"
I glanced about. "So, what, we're done?"
"Yup…" Dionysus said, his smile becoming a dark smirk. "…You're done, all right."
As if his words had broken some kind of spell, a great cheer suddenly went up from within the glade as the various assembled beings clapped happily.
I suddenly felt myself twirled around as Lya jumped up, using my shoulders for support, and gave me my third kiss in as many days. She entwined her small arms behind my head to hold herself up as a series of 'ooh's and catcalls went up around. "I'm so happy" she whispered, her eyes had become even tearier, if that were possible.
I, for one, was bewildered. "That's nice…"
Lya smiled, and I was glad when she finally placed herself back down on the ground, but still settled on hugging onto me like she was sharing a liver or something.
"Congratulations, man!" Percy said, patting me happily on the shoulder.
I stared at him blankly. "For what?"
"It was the first time I'd ever seen it, but Grover was right, it really was cool to watch!"
"What was?" I snapped angrily.
Percy flinched. "You know, getting married."
"What do you-" suddenly every neuron in my brain ground to a shuddering halt as a million puzzle pieces clicked together.
Oh, sweet merciful Zeus…
I'm not sure what happened afterwards, but the last thing I remember before passing out was a camera flash going off somewhere in the background.
[A/N] And so our tale comes to a close, I thank you all for reading and special thanks to Shrrgnien for her awesome beta work and managing the impossible and ironing out the kinks for this entire fic. And so, until we meet again, I bid thee adieu…
To be continued in Broken Bow Book 3: Counterpart
I'll see you then…