Author's notes: So, funny thing. I wrote this as an, "Eff you and your cliffhangers, Riordan!" fic. But...
Disclaimer: I don't own Percy Jackson and the Olympians or the Heroes of Olympus.
All Roads Lead to Rome
"Easy does it, Jason. Just a couple more feet. And by a couple, I mean like twenty. Please don't drop us and break the hull, otherwise I'll be really mad — "
"Leo," Jason interrupted, his voice strained. Sweat was beading on his forehead, his eyes skewed up in concentration as he manipulated the winds beneath the Argos II. "Shut. Up."
"I'm just saying!" Leo replied from the helm, keeping a close eye on the gauges as the ship sank inch-by-inch toward the ground. "We're already behind schedule! We don't have time for more repair work if you drop us."
Jason's concentration slipped for one second to glare to his friend. "Well, maybe if you had installed working landing gear — "
"Jason!" Annabeth shouted in warning as the Argos II swayed and shivered in midair, but it was no use.
Jason's face went white as the giant battleship lurched sickeningly downward, and Annabeth scrambled for something on the deck to hold on to, cursing under her breath and bracing herself. Thankfully, it wasn't a far fall – maybe only 10 feet or so – but it was hard one. Annabeth felt the jolt of impact all the way up to her jaw and she knocked her elbow hard into the side of the ship. She, at least, managed to stay upright; Jason had face planted into the floor and, from the yelps and shrieks coming from other areas of the ship, it sounded like several other people had too.
The Argos II swayed back and forth as it settled into the impact crater, and Annabeth prayed it wouldn't tip and capsize. That would be just their luck, arriving in complete disgrace to Camp Jupiter after being lateto help with the battle Nico had told them was coming.
Someone on Olympus must've been on their side today, however, because the ship righted itself and went still after a few uncomfortable moments.
"Is everyone all right?" Annabeth called, loosening her white knuckled grip on the ship's railing and stepping out onto the middle of the deck.
"Oh, sure, just fine," Will Solace said from her left where he was pulling himself out from under a pile of weapons that fallen off the wall. "Just nearly got impaled, no biggie. Good thing I've got abs of steel, otherwise..."
"Shut up, Solace, your abs are not that great," Clarisse snarled, fighting to disentangle herself from the rigging. "Will someone get me down from here? No, Travis and Connor, you little shits, not — AGH!"
There was a thunk as Clarisse landed on the deck and Connor Stoll grinned, holding up his dagger. "Sorry Clarisse. Should've spoken up faster!"
"I am going to murder you!"
The Stolls shrieked as Clarisse shot to her feet and attempted to chase them across the ship. Butch, however, stepped between them and held her back, causing her to curse some more and for the Stolls to take it upon themselves to taunt her properly from several feet away.
Annabeth felt a piercing headache coming on as she watched it all unfolding. How were they ever supposed to interact with the Roman camp without causing World War III when they couldn't even maintain the peace between themselves for five minutes?
"Will everyone shut up?"
Piper's voice, loud and magnified with the power of Charmspeak, floated across the deck and instantly, everyone stilled. Even the creaking in the mast and groaning of the ship's engines seemed to die down, and they all turned their attention to the bow of the ship.
Piper had helped a red-faced Jason to his feet. Leo, too, had recovered from his fall and was looking at all the gauges near the wheel frantically, making sure nothing was permanently damaged. Annabeth hoped not — they'd designed this ship to take on giants. If it couldn't handle a small drop like this, they'd be up the Styx without a ferryman.
"Sorry for the fall," Jason said, glancing over his shoulder to glare at Leo. "Won't happen again. I usually have better control, but … "
His eyes darted over to the side of the ship, where the sprawling Roman camp was spread out before him, and as a longing look came over his face, Annabeth immediately understood. As much as they had welcomed him at Camp Half-Blood over the last six months, Jason was truly home now. He'd been stressed to the breaking point over in the last few days, especially when he had learned there might not be a Camp Jupiter to come back to, and it had taken everything he'd had to concentrate to bring the ship as far as he had. He was allowed to have a few moments of vulnerability.
Annabeth stepped back toward the railing and the others followed, as if it was finally settling in their heads exactly where they are.
Even with its buildings and grounds pockmarked with signs of a recent battle, Camp Jupiter was breathtaking in its scope and size. Annabeth ignored the tingling sense in the back of her mind that was telling her to go home, and admired the view.
Was that an intact replica of the Colosseum over there? And the aqueduct! She was going to have to take a good, long study over those while she was here and perhaps supervise with repairs if they'd let her and — and —
"Wow," Clarisse said from beside her, sounding grim. "That's a lot of people."
Annabeth turned her gaze toward the open field in front of the ship and her draw almost dropped in shock. There were hundreds of people flowing out onto the field in front of the ship — some of them coming from what had to be the camp's senate building and others from portions of the city or running on the stone paths from the barracks about a mile away. There were kids her age and a little younger, many of them dressed in glittering gold armor or purple shirts, and then ... then there were the older demigods, the ones holding children or with gray hair and hobbling along with canes.
She could barely believe it. What were older demigods doing at camp? Of course, some of them made it out of Camp Half-Blood alive and had families or made their mark in the world, but for many demigods, crossing the 30 year mark alive and well was a blessing in and of itself. Why did Camp Jupiter have so many of them? Why did this camp have so many residents in general?
Prior to the Second Titan War, Camp Half-Blood's population rarely, if ever, reached 100 campers. Maybe it had in the years before Annabeth come to camp, but it didn't seem likely. Most cabins only had the capacity to fit twenty or so campers, and only a few ever came close to filling that level. Even after all the recruiting they'd done in the last few months and the new cabin additions, they were still no where near having that high of numbers.
In all their preparation, Annabeth had never considered that they would be this drastically outnumbered. They had only brought a small delegation of campers, representatives from each cabin who wanted to come along and who could also fight well. She had just assumed they'd have close to the same amount of people and if a fight broke out, they'd be able to handle themselves. Had she made a horrible tactical error?
She glanced over her shoulder. Most of Jason's memories had returned in the last few months, and the ones that had alluded him had come back as they had flown to camp. He had told them about Camp Jupiter's defenses, but the look on his face indicated that he wasn't surprised by the amount of people coming out to greet them. She wondered if he had deliberately not told them about this, to keep them at a disadvantage.
As if he sensed her thoughts, Jason's blue-eyed gaze met hers and he shook his head slightly. No, he hadn't remembered and she read the frustration in his face. This was as surprising to him as it had been to the rest of them.
"They'll stop and make formation right about there," Jason said suddenly, pointing to a spot on the field about several hundred yards from the ship where people were already gathering. "Even if they got our message, they still won't want to get too close in case we fire on them. After the cohorts are assembled, the praetors will come out and meet our representatives at the halfway point. If all goes well, the rest of our delegation will be allowed to come off the ship. If not … "
Leo made a gesture with his hand across his throat. "It's sayonara for us?"
"Not helpful, Leo," Jason replied with a wince. "But accurate."
"But if Percy's here … " Will began, and Jason cut him off.
"It won't matter. We have to convince the praetors of our intent, not Percy. He might have managed to convince the Senate not to fire on us, but our fate is not his decision," he explained. "Camp Jupiter would have elected another praetor last night to fill my absence. And if it is who I think it is … "
He trailed off as a horn blew from the assembled Roman campers. Annabeth couldn't tell if it was a warning or greeting, but she motioned for one of the Apollo kids to respond in kind.
She tried not to scan the crowd for a familiar set of dark hair or let her thoughts linger on Percy for too long. She'd done well at keeping the ache in her heart silent in the last few months, to push down all her desperation and fears to the darkest corners of her mind, but now that she was so close, it was impossible to keep all her feelings contained.
Annabeth felt like a poorly constructed machine, ready to fall apart with one wrong tap.
If her dreams were wrong … if he didn't remember her...
Jason touched her elbow, drawing her out of her melancholy. "Annabeth? Will you go with me to greet the praetors?"
"Me?" she replied, glancing around at the assembled demigods. "But … "
"Don't get all modest now, brainiac," Clarisse snapped, although there was no harshness in her tone. "You've been camp leader for a while now. And if anyone can talk them out of gutting us, it's you."
Annabeth's cheeks heated as heads around the ship nodded in agreement, and she felt tears prick in her eyes. She would've fallen apart ages ago if it hadn't been for the support for all of the demigods surrounding her. She didn't know how she would ever thank them all for their small kindnesses and understanding, but she supposed she could start by representing them well.
"All right," she said, taking a deep breath. "I'll do it."
Jason smiled in approval as the Roman horn rang out again. One of the cohorts began shifting, as if they were preparing for someone to walk through their ranks.
"We should go," Jason said. "Leo, where's the gangway again?"
Leo's hands flew over the controls of the ship, and he pressed a few buttons. The gangway, which was supposed to slide down smoothly and automatically, rolled out with a bang, causing the son of Hephaestus to wince.
"Damn, another thing I need to work on," he muttered, pulling a notebook out of his tool belt and hastily writing it down.
"Good luck," Piper said, squeezing Jason's hand.
The two of them shared an inscrutable look before she let go, and Jason turned to join Annabeth at the edge of the ship. He looked a little forlorn and although Annabeth didn't know everything about their friendship, she knew they were not romantically involved, despite Piper's wishes to the contrary. Jason had kept his distance and if he had remembered if he had feelings for someone at Camp Jupiter, he kept silent about it.
It was too much to hope that Percy had done the same. Six months was a long time and without a memory... she wouldn't completely blame him if he had moved on. It was hard to be faithful to a girl who was a figment of your imagination.
She cut that thought away as she followed Jason down the gangway, burying it under all her other hurts and horrible fantasies. She had to keep her focus on the Roman camp, not her bruised and battered heart. She would have time to mourn for everything she'd lost after all this is over.
The instant she stepped onto Roman soil, the wrongness of it all flowed through her body. She shouldn't be here, she should run away while she still had the chance, she was a unwelcome graecus —
"Now I know how you felt at camp the first time," she muttered, glancing at Jason, who looked more relaxed than she had ever seen him.
"It's so good to be home," he sighed, closing his eyes for a brief moment and savoring the sensation.
Annabeth had mixed feelings for this boy, Percy's would-be replacement. Jason was a good, honest soul and had been a steadfast friend since he had arrived at Camp Half-Blood. She trusted him with her life and maybe in another life, they might have been something more than friends. And yet a part of her still despised him. Although she knew it hadn't been his choice to come to Camp Half-Blood, he had been the reason Percy had been taken away and why her life had been thrown into disarray. She could never truly like him until she learned to forgive him.
"Are you ready, Jason?" she asked when he opened his eyes again. If he heard the thick emotion in her voice, he didn't say anything and she was grateful for that.
"You brought your knife with you, didn't you?" he asked quietly, as they approached the halfway point between the two camps. There was still no sign of the praetors, which wasn't unusual.
She wasn't sure what had brought on this question. She'd been watching the crowd of Roman campers, gauging their reactions as they advanced, and so far, the mood seemed to be improving, not getting worse. Seeing Jason alive and well had certainly made the air less hostile, at any rate. Although she couldn't hear the hissing whispers passing from soldier to soldier in the cohorts, she knew what they had to be saying.
"It's Jason! Jason Grace! He's back!"
"Of course," Annabeth said, touching the weapon at her side. "Do you think I'll need it?"
"I hope not," he said, motioning for her to stop. He turned to her — his back to the Romans, a clear sign of trust (or stupidity, depending on who you wanted to ask) — and while his body language read relaxed, there was tension in his face. "Reyna, one of the praetors, will hear us out. The fact that we were able to advance this far shows without being attacked shows that she has most of the influence at camp still. But if my replacement was Octavian … we need to be careful."
She arched an eyebrow. "Not a friend of yours?"
"No," Jason spat, eyes narrowing. "And not yours either. He's a bully and a snake, and he won't hesitate to knife you in the back if he thinks it will help him out."
Annabeth almost snorted. It was cute that Jason thought she'd let some power hungry upstart ruin everything they had worked for. She had sacrificed too much to fail now, least of all to someone named Octavian.
"Let him try," Annabeth said fiercely, smiling just a bit too sharply. "I'll welcome the challenge."
Jason laughed, turning back around and standing at her side. "Remind me never to get on your bad side."
"Six months and you hadn't figured that out yet?"
Jason grinned and began to say something, but Annabeth tuned him out, her attention drawn to movement at the front of the cohort nearest to them. Two people had stepped out in front of the others, wearing togas and purple cloaks, and were advancing toward them. One was a girl, dark haired and serious, around Annabeth's height — Reyna, probably. Her serious expression broke out into a grin when her companion stumbled over the front of his toga and swore.
"That's not Octavian," Jason said, confusion evident in his voice. "I don't know him."
"No," Annabeth replied thickly. "But I do."
Jason started, but she didn't pay any more attention to him. Her eyes were only for the demigod striding across the grass toward her.
Was it possible that he had gotten taller in the last several months? Or was she merely misremembering the difference in their heights? Had his chest really been that broad or was it just the way the toga fell across it? How could she have forgotten the way that one stubborn strand of hair fell right across his eyes and how his eyes were the same shade as sea glass?
She'd had to subsist on photos and memories the last six months, and if she had learned anything from this ordeal, it was that memory was a fickle, playful thing. She had forgotten so many and been so wrong about others, it was like she was seeing him for the first time all over again.
Before Jason could stop her, she was walking past the halfway mark, into Roman territory uninvited. But no one yelled out or tried to stop her, and the other girl fell back behind Percy, and suddenly it was the two of them, standing an arm's length apart under the same sky, breathing the same air and drinking each other in.
Annabeth had played this moment in her head a million and one times since they had been apart.
He had to remember her.
She knew how it should go — she didn't go anywhere without a plan, after all.
He couldn't not remember her.
She had a thousand things she wanted to say to him, a hundred she had practiced in the mirror on the way here, but of course none of them were what came out of her mouth.
"You're wearing a toga."
A familiar, easy grin spread across Percy's face, and her heart slammed so hard against her ribs, Annabeth was sure one of them would shatter to pieces.
"Hey to you too, Wise Girl."