"But they're Percy and Annabeth!" Connor shouts as if this explains everything. "They saved the freaking world last summer! They can't just die on us here—"
"But what if they did?" Miranda snaps back, tear tracks etched on her cheeks. "Look, I hate to be the pessimist here, but they aren't gods. You can't expect them to—"
"Hell yes I can!"
Clarisse heaves a sigh and meets first Rachel's, then Thalia's gazes across the room. Both of them are clearly just as tired as she is of the arguing, but unfortunately all their best efforts to get Connor and Miranda to shut up have failed. The two of them have been progressing steadily towards the point of severe bodily harm for at least an hour, and it's nine p.m.—meaning Clarisse is seriously craving both dinner and bed.
(Normally, Clarisse doesn't mind a bit of good old-fashioned maiming, but right now it just makes her upset that they're arguing like little kids when there's work to be done.)
I wish Percy were here, she thinks miserably. He would have this under control in about three seconds flat.
Chiron looks like he's about ready to break his bow over his head when there's a BANG in the corner and the two arguing demigods dive for cover. Rainbow smoke rolls over the room; when it clears, an unfamiliar woman stands in the corner.
"Iris?" asks Travis uncertainly from the corner.
The goddess smiles. "Yes, son of Hermes. I come on behalf of your friends Hazel Levesque and Frank Zhang, two of the Seven. They wish to inform you that your two friends have been rescued."
"You're running messages for people now, Mom?" questions Butch amid the cheering that goes up from everyone in the room at the confirmation of Percy and Annabeth's survival.
Grinning at her son, Iris says, "Not quite. Hazel, Frank, and Percy came to visit me in June. It's quite a story—and one I'm sure they'd be rather interested in telling you when they return, for it's extremely interesting in how it played out—but I felt I owed them a favor. And their favor was allowing you to see Percy and Annabeth.
"They were just rescued about four hours ago, and it's late at night over there, so the message I'm about to show you is one-way: they can't see or hear you, but you can see and hear them. I'll cut it off myself when I have to. Good night, campers."
The goddess disappears in a shower of rainbow sparks that leave a dusting of glitter on the floor (seriously? Clarisse thinks disdainfully) at the same moment that the air shimmers behind Chiron and a screen vaguely resembling an Iris-message appears. There's a horrible moment where Clarisse can't place the black-haired boy shown in the image—and then her heart jolts.
"Is that Percy?" she hears Lou Ellen ask in a horrified whisper.
Her friend's face doesn't look too bad—one or two purpling bruises and a scrape on his temple that still sluggishly oozes blood—but other than that he seems okay. It's only from the neck down that it starts getting painful to watch.
Without a shirt, Percy's chest looks like it was attacked by a rabid hellhound and then cleaned up by a four-year-old, heavy blood stains marring the once-white expanse of the bandages. Angry red lines snake down his arms; his nails are broken, rimmed with dirt. The thick white scar on his abdomen disappears underneath the elastic waistband of his shorts, which are pretty much the only clean thing on his body at the moment.
His eyes are the worst, though. Clarisse doesn't think she's ever seen such a terrifying look in someone's eyes in her entire life—they're burning with anger and rage and a horrible, horrible sadness. Percy looks so broken, so weak…it's enough to make her want to scream. What did he ever do to deserve this?
"Oh my gods," Rachel and Thalia say at the same time.
Will buries his face in his hands. "I knew this quest was going to be dangerous, but…"
"That might be an understatement," says Travis gently, offhandedly patting Will's shoulder, but he sounds as dazed as everyone else.
Malcolm, who's sitting next to Clarisse, has tears running down his face. She can see his lips moving, but she has to lean closer to catch the words:
"He did that for my sister. What kind of guy would do…that for his girlfriend?"
"Someone whose fatal flaw is loyalty," replies Clarisse quietly. "Someone who loves her, Malcolm."
"I owe him so much—" Malcolm tries to go on, but he can't find the words and so simply falls silent.
A quiet voice comes from the Iris-message: "Percy?"
"Annabeth?" murmurs Connor confusedly.
When the image expands to include Annabeth lying next to Percy (in an even worse condition than her boyfriend), Clarisse can't take it anymore—she whips out the knife at her belt and drives it with all her might into the Ping-Pong table.
"What did they do?" she yells, more to the silent gods than to her friends in the room. "Why did they deserve this? What more do you want from them?"
"Clarisse," says Jake Mason urgently from her right, "watch this right here."
Percy's eyelids flutter exhaustedly, and he turns his head a little to the left so his lips brush against her cheek. "It's okay, Wise Girl. I'm right here."
"Ooh, they're sharing the same bed?" whispers Connor, apparently still able to find a bit of humor in the situation. "Scandalous, I must find the nearest child of Aphrodite—"
Butch, sitting nearest to Connor, slaps a hand over his mouth before the son of Hermes can say anything else.
"Thought you were gone again for a minute," Annabeth says weakly, her fingers finding Percy's, lacing their hands together. "I'm glad it was only a dream."
He simply replies, "So am I. It would suck to come this far only to die."
There is silence on both sides for a long time. Then Percy says, "Annabeth, I'm tired."
"No freaking duh," Travis quips sarcastically.
"Of course you are, Seaweed Brain," says Annabeth gently, mirroring Travis's words. "If you want to go to sleep, I'll understand."
Despite himself, a half-smile curves across Percy's lips—but it doesn't spread to his eyes, which are colder than ever. "No, Annabeth. I mean I'm…tired of being a hero. Of having the gods expect me to do everything all the time."
Annabeth's gray eyes narrow in confusion. "Go on."
"It's like…I thought once we saved the world last time, we were safe. We could be happy. And I didn't want to admit it to you at the time because our relationship was still so new, but I really did kind of see a future for ourselves after a while. And then I got taken…" Percy heaves a sigh. "When we fought Chrysaor, I realized that I wasn't as big of a hero as everyone thinks I am—that my power has limits. It's hard having everybody look up to you and expect you to know what to do all the time, you know?"
"Yes," says Annabeth cautiously, "but you have to remember—"
"Remember what?" Percy sounds angry now, the ice in his tone matching the angry fire in his green glare. "Annabeth, I would never have said this a year ago, but…I understand now how Luke felt."
"Did he just say that?" asks Clarisse incredulously. "Did he just compare himself to Luke freaking Castellan?"
(As she expects, no one answers.)
"This is pointless. All these heroics and running around in circles and riddles that make no sense—why the hell do we even try? It only leads to more pain, anyway. Annabeth, I'm scared that I'm going to lose my family, my friends…and you." He murmurs the last word into her hair. "Wise Girl, I can't live without you anymore."
"Oh, Percy, it's okay. You don't have to worry about me. I'm not leaving anytime soon."
Percy sobs once—a horrible feral sound that seems to claw its way out of the very depths of his being—and buries his face in Annabeth's shoulder. Although she's clearly in pain, Annabeth rolls onto her side and wraps her arms around him, whispering things into his ear that Clarisse can't hear through the Iris-message, rubbing soothing circles on his back with her roughened, bloody fingers.
"I'm so tired, Annabeth," he whimpers.
The Iris-message dissolves at that, leaving a room full of shell-shocked demigods staring at the place where it had just been.
Thalia is the first to break the silence. "I had no idea he felt that way..."
"Maybe we do expect a lot of him, " says Malcolm quietly.
Clarisse stands up and turns towards the window as the others pick up the conversation again, staring out at the blue strip of Long Island Sound in the distance, glittering under the light of a full moon. She'd never admit it out loud, but Percy Jackson and Annabeth Chase are both terrifying opponents and incredible friends at the same time, and damn it—Clarisse is going to help them fight if she gets herself killed doing it.
Things just got personal, she says to herself. Forget just saving the world—this war is for Percy and Annabeth now.