"A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer."
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
Somewhere in the back of her mind, Hazel wonders when everybody on the Argo II started to think of Percy and Annabeth as their surrogate parents. Something deep inside tells her that it wasn't a spontaneous thing, either—over the course of just five days, both of them had earned everyone's respect and gratitude.
She wonders if it was when Percy tackled Leo to stop him from firing on New Rome any more, or when Annabeth took one look at Jason's injuries and immediately knew what to do. She wonders if it was Percy's quiet jokes or Annabeth's sincerity, or maybe the way they held hands at dinner and didn't need to ask to know how the other one felt. She wonders if it was the way they always acted and fought like a team, providing an example for the rest of them.
Whatever it was that made them all start looking up to Percy and Annabeth, Hazel feels it threatening to crush her heart as Nico backs away from the edge of the pit leading to Tartarus, terror in his eyes and pain on his face, and whispers, "They're gone."
Hazel crumples to her knees, staring up at the patch of blue sky above as she mutters a silent prayer to the gods to keep them safe (as if it'll help). She isn't sure what good it'll be—not when they're going where they are—but she guesses that it's the thought that counts.
Her tears threaten to spill over as she glances at the Argo II and sees that her spatha is still tangled in the rope ladder.
"And I'm telling you that you need to sleep, Leo! You're not helping anyone by running yourself into the ground!"
Leo smacks his hand on the table so hard that the plates rattle. The heated rage that has settled over his face is unlike anything Hazel has ever seen before—something she would expect from Octavian, perhaps, but never Leo. It takes her by surprise, to be honest, but she stands her ground as she's trained to do and doesn't break eye contact with him.
"It's my fault that they're in Tartarus in the first place," says Leo coldly, his face hard. "It's my duty to make sure that they both get out—alive. So if I can't go somewhere on my own freaking ship without getting interrogated about how many hours I've slept, we're going to have a serious problem."
"I don't think it's your fault, Leo—" Piper starts, but Leo has already left the room, slamming the door behind him.
Hazel sinks into a chair and puts her face in her hands, emotionally spent. Their first day without Percy and Annabeth is winding down, and already Leo's turned angry and bitter. She wonders how long it's going to be before the whole team turns against one another, and if they can get to Epirus before then. At this point, she really isn't sure.
She hears footsteps behind her, feels a hand descend on her shoulder. "Hazel? Are... are you okay? That was a serious argument."
Looking up, she sees Piper's concerned face above her, watching her anxiously. She tries to smile, but it comes out as more of a forced grimace.
"I'm fine," Hazel mumbles. "Just... really tired, I guess."
Piper nods and turns her attention to one of the Camp Half-Blood live screens that line the walls. Hazel follows her gaze: the image it's displaying is of a semicircle of cabins, their lights out for the night. They're completely unlike the neat whitewashed buildings of Camp Jupiter; still, Hazel thinks they have sort of an eclectic charm.
"Do you miss it there?" asks Hazel tentatively, unsure of how she's suddenly worked up the courage to talk again. Honestly, she hasn't spoken to Piper all that much, and the older girl's beauty and strength are kind of disarming.
Piper keeps her gaze fixed on the screen. "Yeah. Yeah, I do. I haven't even been there for a whole year and already it's my home. Those people are my family. I guess I'm just thinking of—"
"The Romans," Hazel guesses, dread filling the pit of her stomach. "If we can't get back in time, they'll destroy Camp Half-Blood."
"Well, sort of. But I'm not really worried about getting back in time. With the Archimedes sphere, Leo will be able to upgrade the ship to do incredible things. I guess I'm worried about what will happen if we have to go back without..."
She doesn't say the names, but they hang over the room like a storm cloud.
"They're the only ones who can really command respect from people, short of the gods themselves, and who knows when we're going to get help from them?" Piper continues. "Jason says that the other praetor, Reyna, is still on our side, but I don't know if she can control Camp Jupiter long enough to prevent any fighting from breaking out."
Hazel thinks of Reyna, who is one of the strongest fighters she has ever known. She then thinks of Octavian, who has never been a particularly strong fighter, but can manipulate people into doing whatever he wants using his words alone.
She has never been more afraid.
Frank stops her in the hallway when the watch shifts change over at 4:30 the next morning. "Can I, uh, talk to you for a second? Like, alone?"
Hazel isn't quite sure what to make of it, but she pulls open the nearest door and nearly smacks her head on the doorframe in her haste to get inside. Frank mutters something about being careful and follows behind her.
It's not until they're both inside with the door locked and the lights on that Hazel realizes whose room it is.
"Percy," whispers Frank, sounding as if he's just been punched in the gut. "Oh my gods..."
Hazel looks around. The sheets on the bed are rumpled, sea green like Percy's eyes. A couple pictures—most likely from Annabeth—are taped to the wall by the door: Percy with his arms around his friends, Percy falling out of a canoe, Percy and Annabeth kissing with the sunset behind them and what looks like a blue cupcake on the table in front.
Percy. Percy. Percy. Every time she sees his face, she flinches as if she's been slapped.
She holds out her arms and Frank steps in immediately, and for a while it's just the two of them rocking back and forth and trying not to cry over their missing friends.
Finally Hazel looks up at him and murmurs, "What exactly did you want to tell me?"
"I just wanted to ask you if you were doing all right," he mumbles. "You've looked really sad, and I get that, because I'm sad too, but—"
"Shh." She lays a finger against his lips. "You're sweet. Thanks for noticing. I'm just a little stressed out right now."
"Aren't we all," says Frank cynically, but he manages a weak half smile and leans down to kiss her.
When their lips meet, it's the best feeling in the world.
"Thanks for being a good boyfriend," she says, and she can feel his smile get bigger against her lips.
Well, maybe this "save-the-world" business isn't all bad.
Nico explains their mission at the Doors of Death in hushed tones, glancing over his shoulder occasionally to check on Leo. The things he's describing give Hazel chills—how are we going to do this? she wonders—but she holds her chin up and tries not to show any fear.
Nico's just finished his rather long-winded explanation when he gasps and staggers away from Hazel. She lunges to catch him before he can fall over, struggling to keep him upright.
"Nico, what is it?" she asks desperately, searching his face for any sign that the unthinkable has just happened. "Did someone—"
"No," he gasps, his eyes still blank and fixed on a point in the distance. "It's Percy."
"Is he hurt?" demands Hazel. "Oh my gods..."
Taking a deep breath, Nico closes his eyes and lets his head fall back. "Yes. Yes, he's hurt, and from what I can tell, he's going to need help. If we can't get to the Doors in time..."
He doesn't finish his sentence, but the meaning is clear all the same. If we don't get help for Percy and Annabeth soon, they're going to die.
The idea hits Hazel so suddenly that afternoon that she stops short in the middle of the hallway, causing Jason to plow into her back.
"Whoops. Sorry about that," she says apologetically.
Jason smiles tiredly at her, the scar on his lip curling upward. "S'okay, Hazel. We're all sleep-deprived right now. Is something wrong? You stopped kind of suddenly there... do you need help with something?"
It hits her then that Jason is the perfect person for the job she's about to do. "Actually, yes, I could use some help. Do you know if somebody packed shrouds?"
Jason looks slightly surprised at the question, but he nods. "Yeah, Annabeth left them in the storage room downstairs. Hang on just a sec."
He sprints off down the hallway and returns a few minutes later with a cardboard box in his arms. "Let's have a look, shall we?"
Hazel pulls out her sword and slices the box open down the middle. It opens to reveal several lengths of folded silk, each one a different color. She runs her fingers across them, trying to decide whose is whose; Jason sees her confusion and jumps in to explain.
"The one that looks like it's made out of chain mail is Leo's. Piper's is pink, mine is blue, yours is black, and Frank's is red."
Confused, Hazel glances up at him. "How did you guys even know which ones to bring?"
"We have a good Oracle," Jason replies, but he doesn't elaborate and Hazel doesn't ask him to. "Now, excuse me for asking, but why exactly did you want to see them?"
"I didn't just want to see them," she says, finding the two shrouds packed in the end of the box and pulling them out. "I had an idea."
"Care to tell me what the idea was?"
Hazel pushes the green piece of fabric into Jason's hands. "We're going to fly these from the mast until we get Percy and Annabeth back. Can you help me put them up there?"
Jason looks surprised for a few seconds, then meets her eyes and grins. "I would be happy to."
Later, they stand at the bow of the ship, looking back at Jason's handiwork. Percy's shroud, fluttering in the wind, is green with a white trident and wave designs. Annabeth's flies right underneath that, the same stormy gray as her eyes, the owl in the center glaring down at them.
"Good work, partner," says Jason, high-fiving her. "I liked your idea."
Hazel smiles. "The two of them deserve respect. I feel like this is the best way to give them that."
The sight of the two shrouds, flapping like flags in the wind, gives her confidence that she can't really explain. It's like Percy and Annabeth are still present, in a way—still watching over them.
"I won't let you guys down," she murmurs. "I promise."
Swinging through the doorway that leads to the lounge, Hazel is greeted with an unexpected sight: Piper, standing by the sink and frantically patting the pockets of her shorts.
"What's going on here?" Hazel asks, cocking her head and watching Piper intently. The older girl gasps as if remembering something, then bends down to dig around in the bottom of her running shoe. After a moment, she grins triumphantly and fishes out a golden coin about the size of a small cookie—a drachma. Then she turns to Hazel and says, "C'mon. I'm going to need you for moral support."
"Moral support?" Hazel crosses over to join Piper at the sink. The daughter of Aphrodite flicks the hot water tap on and waits as a rainbow begins to shimmer in the steam rising from the basin.
"Yep," Piper responds. "We have to tell Camp Half-Blood about what happened in... in Rome."
A nauseating sense of understanding washes over Hazel. The Greeks had been Percy as Annabeth's family for a long time—of course they'd want to know if something happened.
"Are we sending one of those Iris-messages?" she asks, and Piper nods as she flicks the coin through the rainbow. She murmurs something into the mist, and the colors shimmer, revealing a room full of people crowded around a table.
A girl dressed in red armor is the first to notice them. "Piper!" she cries, interrupting whatever the blond boy next to her is about to say.
The conversation in the room ceases immediately as all eyes turn to the two girls.
Someone else appears in the image. Hazel has to stifle a scream when she realizes that the man she'd originally though to be human is in fact a centaur, though his face looks much kinder than the ones she'd fought at Camp Jupiter.
"Piper, my dear," the centaur says warmly, turning to face them. His eyes turn to Hazel, glittering with curiosity. "And who is this young lady?"
"I'm Hazel," she says, although she doesn't know where the courage to speak comes from. "Hazel Levesque. I'm one of the Seven."
"Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Hazel," he replies. "My name is Chiron. Do you ladies need something?"
"Yeah," says a boy with curly brown hair from the back of the room. "It's got to be crazy late where you guys are. Did something happen?"
Piper takes a deep, shaky breath. Hazel watches as the Greeks reflected in the mist start to look concerned, glancing at each other worriedly.
"It's... well, it's Percy and Annabeth," Piper says finally. The reaction is immediate: people shouting questions, their eyes widening with fear and apprehension. It takes Chiron several minutes to get them all under control.
"What happened to them?" demands the blond boy sitting next to the girl with red armor. It doesn't take long for Hazel to place him as one of Annabeth's brothers; he shares her piercing gray eyes. "Are they dead?"
Piper seems too choked up to answer. Hazel doesn't blame her, so she takes the lead instead. "No, but—well, there's really not a nice way to put this—"
"Spit it out!" says the curly-haired boy. His elvish features harden suddenly. "We don't need you to sugarcoat it!"
"They fell into Tartarus, okay?" Hazel snaps back. "They're trying to find the Doors of Death so we can close them, and we don't know what's going to happen, but we're trying as hard as we can to meet them and get them out."
A long, stunned silence meets her outburst. One girl puts her face in her hands and starts to cry. The curly-haired boy wraps an arm around her shoulders as if to console her, but from the looks of it he's as shocked as the rest of them are.
Annabeth's brother, his expression frozen with horror, drops his knife to the table, stands up abruptly, and pushes his way out of the room.
The girl in the red armor simply stares at Hazel, seemingly dumbfounded. Then she says, almost to herself, "Dammit, Malcolm, do you want the whole camp to know?"
"That's not the point," Piper says quickly. "The point is, we're going to Greece and we're going to find them and get them out alive. You guys shouldn't worry about us—worry about saving Camp. Hold the Romans off for as long as you can if it does come down to a fight. We'll be there to help as soon as we can."
She slashes her hand across the mist quickly before anyone can say anything else, then slides down to sit with her back against the wall and her face in her hands. Hazel crouches down, looking at her with concern.
"I wish every war could be won without unnecessary violence," Piper murmurs. "I wish the Fates didn't think it was okay to screw with peoples' destinies like this. But a pretty voice can't solve everything, and that just makes me feel so useless."
But when Piper raises her head, there's an animalistic gleam in her eyes. "I hate feeling useless. And that's why Gaea's gonna be sorry she ever messed with my family."
Hazel awakes in the middle of the night to find a shadowy figure blocking the light from the hall.
"Hazel?" the person whispers. "Are you awake?"
"I am now," she mumbles, swiping at her eyes to rub the sleep out of them. "Who is that? What's going on?"
"It's Nico," he says, and for the first time Hazel realizes something is wrong: he sounds afraid like a little boy running into his parents' room in the middle of the night because he's scared of a storm. His thin figure, silhouetted against the light from the hall, is trembling.
"Jupiter Almighty," Hazel says, concern clutching at her lungs and taking her breath away. "Nico, what's wrong?"
He doesn't answer.
"Are you having nightmares?"
A small, almost imperceptible nod.
"Do you want to stay with me tonight?"
He nods again, more noticeably this time.
Obligingly, Hazel slides over and pulls back the covers. Nico gets in quickly, curling up against her. His cold fingers find her warm ones under the blankets.
"Mm, that's better," he mutters. "You're so warm."
"And you're freezing," she retorts, but her words are teasing. "Sleep now, Nico. We've got a long way to go."
He sighs and rolls over onto his back. It's too dark to make out much of his face, but Hazel can hear his breathing start to slow.
"Thanks, Hazel," he says sleepily. "You're an awesome sister. I'm glad I found you."
She opens her mouth to reply, but he's already asleep.
It's not until three days after they leave Rome that Nico and Hazel manage to get everyone in the same room at the same time; even then, the tension in the room is so thick that Hazel thinks she could probably cut it with her sword.
Leo looks absolutely murderous, his fingers drumming impatiently on the arm of his chair, his clothes burned and covered in so much oil that he smells like a gas station. Hazel tries to avert her gaze, but her eyes keep straying back.
The others are spread across the lounge in various positions, each one involved in his or her own activities. Piper, lying on her back with her legs dangling over the back of the chair, is cleaning off her knife, which is covered in monster slime and something that looks unpleasantly similar to blood. Jason and Frank are having a quiet "conversation" that consists mainly of grunts and monosyllabic words. As usual, Coach Hedge is nowhere to be seen.
"Guys," Nico says quietly, and everyone immediately looks up. There's something in his tone that demands attention, Hazel thinks.
"I think we need to strategize, or at least come up with some sort of plan—"
Jason laughs derisively. "What kind of plan is going to work in this situation? We're in a fine mess, if nobody minds me pointing that out—we lost Percy and Annabeth and they're barely hanging on, not to mention the fact that the Romans are about to unleash the full legion on the Greeks—and we don't even know what we're doing!"
"Jason, you shouldn't think like that—" Hazel starts, but Piper has already risen to her feet, seething with rage.
"Jason Grace, you will listen to what I am about to say and you'll listen so well that you'll be able to repeat it back to me word for word when I'm finished. Is that clear?"
She doesn't wait for him to answer but plows on.
"If you start thinking like that, nothing is ever going to get done, do you understand? We're all blaming ourselves for what's happened on this quest and all it's doing is turning us against one another. That isn't what Hera intended to happen—at least I don't think it is—but I'm not going to pretend to understand her motives. All I'm saying is that if we all turn into pessimists, we can't function as a team anymore. And if we can't work together, we'll be dead before we even get to Epirus, let alone Mount Olympus!"
Piper is breathing hard now, glancing from one shell-shocked person to another, and it takes Hazel a moment to realize that there was no charmspeak in her friend's words, only sheer desperation.
Jason, completely taken aback by his girlfriend's speech, has the decency to look ashamed. "I... Piper, I'm sorry."
Piper glares for half a second longer before her eyes soften. "I forgive you. All of you," she says with a pointed glance at Leo. "But don't make me give that speech again."
Hazel just smiles.
When she wakes up the next morning, the first thing Hazel hears is a great deal of shouting and some loud thumps from overhead.
She hurries through getting dressed and rushes upstairs to find Leo and Jason running around frantically, tripping over their own feet as they try to secure the ship and lower the sails. One look over the bow and she understands why.
She looks back frantically over her shoulder, ready to call for her brother, but Nico is already there. His face is set and white, eyes glazed over and unseeing. A look of resignation and grim determination is written across his face.
"We're here," she says unnecessarily, trying to keep her breathing even. "It's time."
Nico swallows and nods. Even though he's told her time and time again what their mission is at the Doors of Death, Hazel's heartbeat still picks up when she thinks of actually following through with it.
The rest of the demigods, one by one, join them at the rail. No one speaks—they don't need to.
"Are you guys ready?" Nico asks after a long period of silence. "Let's go. We've got friends to save."
Hazel has never fought this hard in her life—she's gasping for breath and her sight is fuzzy with barely controlled rage and there's blood running into her eyes and splashed up her hands and arms, but she can't find it in herself to care. There's no other option but winning.
And they're losing.
There comes a point where the wave of monsters lulls suddenly, and at first Hazel thinks it's just Gaea messing with them again, but then she hears a familiar shout and her heart suddenly thumps into overdrive.
"Percy!" she cries.
The others stop in their tracks, looking from Hazel to the looming Doors and then back again, clearly confused. Piper opens her mouth, ready to say something, probably about how Hazel only imagined Percy's scream, but she's interrupted by two figures erupting from the gloom and skidding to a stop on the blood-slicked floor of the cavernous temple.
Percy and Annabeth.
Even from this distance, Hazel can see enough to be shocked at the condition of their injuries—Annabeth's ankle in itself is horrific (good gods, is that bone?), but when she starts forward meaning to help them, Percy raises his hand.
"Don't... waste time on us," he manages, his chest heaving with effort. "More monsters—"
He never gets to finish his sentence. A rumbling sounds from behind the Doors, and an army of monsters erupt through the opening, baying for blood.
"Go!" Annabeth screams, shocking the disbelief out of Hazel's system.
She does the natural thing. She turns around and charges the monsters.
"No," she gasps, stumbling forward. Her heart drums a staccato beat in her throat and she can't breathe, can't see, can't feel—
"I have to." Nico's voice is firm. "It's the only way. You know that as well as anyone, Hazel. It has to be me."
The Seven are clustered around Nico, standing by the Doors of Death, and Hazel can barely hear anything over the roar in her ears.
"But if I lose you, I won't have anyone left!" she says, half-sobbing. She wants to scream, to beg on her hands and knees to make Nico let her come with him, but the words won't come out.
"Yes, you will." Nico sounds almost...amused? "You'll have the Seven. They're always going to be there for you, Hazel. You just haven't realized that yet."
He turns to Percy and Annabeth, hugs them both tightly, mumbles something that Hazel can't catch. He shakes Jason's hand, squeezes Piper's shoulder, punches Leo lightly on the arm.
Then he turns to Frank.
"Keep my sister safe, Frank. When I'm gone, keep her safe."
Frank swallows, straightens his back. His face hardens. "I will."
Nico smiles at that. He turns back to Hazel finally, hugging her to him. She hugs him back. The tears are coming in earnest now.
"I love you, Hazel," Nico says as he lets go. "You were a fantastic sister. You're going to have a good life, and I'm grateful for that."
Hazel hides her face in Frank's shoulder, unable to watch. She hears pounding footsteps, unintelligible shouting, a loud grinding sound, and then—silence.
Nico is gone. And Hazel's left behind, all her goodbyes still hanging on her lips.
Jason looks at Hazel, his expression horrified, as the Doors grind shut and silence falls over the cavern. Hazel wants to break down right then and there, but Annabeth causes a slight diversion by collapsing into Percy's arms.
Piper—thank the gods for Piper—immediately goes into damage control mode. "Jason, you get Annabeth. Try not to jostle her too much. Frank, Hazel, take care of Percy. I'm going to go back to the ship with Leo and start getting stuff ready so we can leave."
Instantly, everybody springs into action. Piper and Leo sprint back in the direction of the Argo II, while Jason scoops Annabeth up into his arms. (She might as well be seven instead of seventeen, that's how tiny she looks compared to him.) Hazel pushes her shock out of her mind long enough to dart over and catch Percy before he falls flat on his face. Frank is there in an instant, supporting his other side.
"Just like old times, isn't it?" Percy mumbles. There's a large gash bisecting his cheek that's still dripping blood, the skin around it tinged green.
Hazel wraps her arm around his waist to help hold him up. She shudders when she realizes that she can feel every one of his ribs through his thin t-shirt. "You're going to be okay, Percy. Once we get back to the ship, Jason and Piper can fix you up."
"Annabeth," he says anxiously. "Where is she?"
"Jason has her," Frank replies. He's clearly trying to soothe Percy's nerves, but Hazel can tell he's just as shaken up as everyone else. "You can see her in just a minute."
The walk back to the ship is painstakingly slow—Percy stumbles over his own feet and his breath comes in short gasps of pain—but eventually they make it aboard the ship and down the two flights of stairs to sickbay. Annabeth is already there, with Piper bending over her and Jason nowhere to be found.
"What do you want us to do with Percy, Piper?" Hazel asks quietly, so as not to startle the older girl.
Piper straightens up. The amount of blood on her hands and clothes makes Hazel feel sick to her stomach, but she swallows against her rising nausea and tries to blink the spots out of her eyes. "Just sit him down on that bed over there. Frank, I need you to get me a bucket of water—as big as you can get it. See if Leo can help you get some ice in it, too. Hazel, have you ever done any kind of first aid before?"
As Frank slips out the door, Hazel thinks back to her training at Camp Jupiter. Come to think of it, the medics had taught her a few tricks... "Yeah, I've done the basic things.I don't know how much good that's going to do in a situation like this, but..."
"Any help you can give him right now is good," Piper says. "For right now, I just need you to get him into clothes that aren't destroyed beyond repair and start cleaning up some of the blood. Then we can figure out what needs to be addressed first."
As she speaks, Jason hurries back into the room with a stack of clothes under one arm and a cardboard box under the other. He drops the box next to Piper, then brings the clothes pile over to Hazel. "You look like you could use some help."
A wave of mingled relief and gratitude washes over Hazel. "Please. I really need it."
"Okay, let's see what we have here," Jason mutters. "Percy, do you think you can stand?"
"Probably, but not for long," Percy replies. His eyes are sunken and half-closed, gaze fixed on the floor. In the dim light from the two Celestial bronze lanterns that hang from the ceiling, his complexion is sickly pale, almost yellow. His cheeks are hollow and waxy. If Hazel didn't know better, she would have said he looked more like a monster than a demigod.
"I'll help you," says Hazel, gently easing herself off the bed. She helps Percy get to his feet and grips his arm to help him stay upright. As Jason starts helping him into the fresh set of clothes, she averts her eyes as well as she can.
But a minute later, when Hazel looks over to check on Jason's progress, she sees that the son of Jupiter is clearly alarmed. "Hazel, you need to come and look at this."
Percy's wearing a new pair of elastic-waisted athletic shorts, but he's still missing his shirt. Jason sits him down on the bed again (he doesn't protest) and waves Hazel over. As soon as she sees Percy's back, she understands why Jason looked so alarmed: four long cuts have been raked into Percy's skin, sluggishly oozing blood and pus and something else that might be poison from the way it's sizzling and popping.
"Oh my gods," Hazel breathes, trying (again) to keep from vomiting all over the place. "What are we—can we put nectar on those?"
"Probably," Jason mutters. "But whatever that poison is, it's going to hurt coming out just as much as it did going in. Percy, when did this happen? Was it during the fight at the Doors?"
Percy groans something unintelligible, and Hazel realizes that she can feel the heat coming off his skin in waves. Sweat is beading on his forehead, and even as she watches, he pales another few shades. "Jason, enough with the Twenty Questions. We have to do something now, or he's going to die."
Just then, Frank comes back with an enormous bucket full of water, ice clinking against the sides. He catches sight of Percy's back and his eyes widen in horror. "What in the hell happened to him?"
"No time," Hazel says quickly, even though she's too shocked to register that this is the first time she's ever actually heard Frank swear. "Jason, if he's running a fever as high as I think he is, we probably shouldn't be using the nectar, right?"
"Right, because it'll overheat him too much," Jason says impatiently, "but what else are we going to—"
Hazel points to the water bucket that Frank's still holding. "He's the son of Poseidon. Water can heal him—he showed us how one time. If we can use that to clean these up..."
"It'll give his body time to bring the fever down," Jason finishes. "Good idea, Hazel."
Frank drops the bucket (amazingly, the water doesn't spill out) and runs over to the cabinet in the corner, where Leo saw fit to stock enough washcloths and towels to sustain the entire Twelfth Legion for a week. He tosses three cloths straight over Annabeth and Piper; Hazel catches them with ease and hands one to Jason, who has moved Percy so that he's stretched out on his stomach, lying flat across the bed..
"We'd better get started," Jason says quietly, soaking the washcloth in the bucket. "We're trying to beat the clock here."
He lets some of the water drip into the deepest cut, which has greenish poison smoking around the edges. The skin is already shiny and inflamed, with red streaks under the skin that can only mean blood poisoning.
When the water touches his back, Percy swears in Greek and flinches so hard that he accidentally slaps Hazel, who yelps and drops her washcloth under the bed. "Holy Rhea mother of Zeus, what the hell are you people doing back th—oh my gods!" He hisses through clenched teeth as Jason and Frank continue to clean out the cuts in his back, digging his elbows into the thin mattress beneath him.
Hazel gives up on trying to retrieve her missing washcloth and instead takes Percy's hand in hers. "Percy, will you please look at me?"
Percy somewhat reluctantly meets her gaze. His face is hard to read—anger and pain in his eyes, cheeks flushed from the fever, hair matted with blood and stuck to his forehead with sweat. The hard muscles in his arms and shoulders strain under his skin, as if his body is fighting against itself.
"You have to hold on, Percy," Hazel whispers as gently as she can. "Come on. For Annabeth?"
He bites down hard on his lip, as if he's trying not to cry out, and looks over at his girlfriend's unconscious form in the next bed over. His face hardens with steely resolve—the likes of which Hazel has never seen before—and he meets her eyes again. "For—for Annabeth."
For almost two hours they sit, treating Percy as well as they can with occasional help from Piper (although she's got quite enough on her plate as it is with Annabeth). Once they've given the two of them the best odds that they can, Jason leaves to go check on Leo—he's going to run himself into the ground if he doesn't kill himself first, and there's no way I'm going to be responsible for that—and the rest of them continue to clean up the mess they've made of the room.
Piper falls back against the wall, pushing her hair out of her eyes with a blood-spattered hand. "We really need somebody to sit with them, but—"
"I'll do it," Hazel says instantly. "I need some time to think."
"I'll stay with her," Frank says quietly. "Besides, Percy and Annabeth... they've been good friends to both of us."
Piper nods at both of them. "Thanks, guys. Make sure you both get some sleep, okay? I think the next week is going to be kind of crazy for everyone."
She says her goodnights and heads back upstairs, leaving Frank and Hazel alone with Percy and Annabeth.
Finally, Hazel breaks down. She cries into Frank's shoulder for the loss of her brother, and for the unnecessary violence that the Romans are about to unleash, and for Percy and Annabeth—two people who deserved nothing more than to be happy and instead got thrown into the pits of hell.
She comes to a realization, after a while—when her sobs have subsided and Frank is rocking her back and forth in his arms—that the gods are not good, nor are they just. They are lazy and corrupt and cruel beings that only care about themselves and exploit heroes to do their dirty work—never mind the fact that those heroes have only a limited time on the earth and shouldn't be forced to run around doing favors for the gods who could just as easily do them themselves.
Hazel doesn't realize that she spoke aloud until she hears a weak laugh from behind her. "Wow, Hazel, that was quite the tirade there. I never would have thought you had it in you."
She whips around, startled, to find Percy leaning back against his pillows, a half-smile on his lips and his eyes bright again. Immediately she drags Frank over to the bed and kneels down next to Percy, enclosing one of his hands in both of hers. He's pale and shivering despite the comfortable temperature of the room, and his skin is still too warm for Hazel's liking, but at least he's alive. That part's good.
"Percy, I—" Frank starts, but Percy shakes his head. Instead, he reaches for Frank with the hand that Hazel isn't monopolizing and pulls both of them in for a hug, which puts the three of them in a rather awkward position considering that Percy's flat on his back.
When he finally lets them go, the son of Poseidon fixes them both with a stern look. "Now that we've established that yes, I am alive and I plan on staying this way—Hazel, do you want to explain exactly what that rant was about?" His voice is grating and rough, and he sounds so exhausted that it makes Hazel want to break down in tears. Why did Percy of all people deserve to go to Tartarus?
Hazel's temporary relief and happiness fades as quickly as it had come. She quietly recounts the whole story of what had happened at the Doors—the fight for their lives, Annabeth collapsing, Nico diving back into Tartarus just as the Doors sealed themselves.
By the time Hazel's finished explaining, Percy has slid back down against the pillows. His eyes are closed, and it takes her a minute to realize that he's crying.
"Shit," he mumbles. "Shit shit shit shit shit. He's dead. Nico's dead."
And then Percy does something she doesn't expect.
Seizing his pen off the table next to the bed, he uncaps it and hurls it at the opposite wall. The blade materializes in midair and sticks, point quivering, in the seam between two bronze panels.
"Percy!" Hazel cries, concern turning to icy fear in the pit of her reaches for Percy's hand, but he rips it out of her reach, his eyes blazing with fury.
"No, Hazel! Don't you dare 'Percy' me! Nico is dead! He's gone, and he's not coming back—don't you get it?"
"Hey, Perce—" Frank begins, looking as if the world has just been pulled out from under his feet. Percy ignores him and plows on.
"He was only fourteen, remember? He had his whole life left! I knew I should have been the one to close the damn Doors—"
A guttural snarl rips its way up Hazel's throat. "Don't you dare say that to me," she hisses, and the ferocity of her voice surprises her. "I've already lost one brother today, Percy Jackson. Don't you ever—don't you ever make me remember that I could have lost another one!"
Percy, clearly shocked by her outburst, opens his mouth to say something and then closes it again. He looks lost and weak, like a sick little boy, not at all like the big, intimidating hero Hazel had met a few weeks ago. "I... I'm sorry, Hazel. I'm so sorry. I wasn't thinking straight."
Hazel shakes her head and tries to blink away the fresh tears in her eyes. "He was so brave—such a hero—how am I ever going to live up to him?"
Percy doesn't look at her. It takes a long time before he finally starts to speak.
"Haze, you have to understand something. He told you that he had to die in order to close the Doors, and you let him do what he needed to. You didn't try to stop him because you knew deep down that it would be selfish of you to keep him alive if it wouldn't help the world in the long run. And, if you want my opinion, that makes you just as much of a hero as Nico was."
Hazel sighs, looking down at her small hands enclosing Percy's enormous one. "I... thanks, Percy."
He gives her a weak half-smile and tells her, "You're welcome."
It takes a couple days, but eventually Annabeth and Percy are doing well enough to move into the lounge. Annabeth surrounds herself with maps and diagrams and all sorts of things pertaining to battle strategy, while Percy prefers to wrap his arms around her from behind and fall asleep against her shoulder to avoid lying on his back.
Hazel walks in on them one evening as Frank, Jason, and Piper head out for the night watch. Annabeth is focused on her laptop, but she looks up as Hazel slides through the door and offers a small smile.
"How's it going out there?" she asks, studying Hazel's face intently. "You look..."
"Tired?" Hazel finishes. "You're one to talk, considering you don't look much better yourself."
Annabeth laughs. "Well, thanks for that."
Percy sighs in his sleep and shifts against her shoulder, causing her to look around at her boyfriend and then back to Hazel. "Is he asleep already?"
Hazel grins. "Yeah, he is. What time is it, six-thirty? He's like a—"
"—big child, I know," Annabeth says. "Some days I can't tell if I'm his girlfriend or his mother." She absently pats one of his hands, which is resting on her abdomen. "He needs the sleep, though. I think we should probably let him rest."
Percy grunts like that's the best idea he's ever heard, but he still sleeps on.
"So..." Hazel starts, unsure of what to say. "Are you doing okay? Do you need anything?"
Annabeth shakes her head. "I think we're good. Thanks for your help, though."
Hazel smiles and says, "Okay. I'm going to go to bed, but call me if you need me, got it?"
"Got it," the older girl says with a grin.
As she slips through the doorway and begins stripping off her armor so she can hang it back up in the armory, Hazel overhears Percy's groan of, "What time is it?"
"About six-thirty," Annabeth murmurs. "The night watch just went out. Did you sleep okay?"
Percy gives a noncommittal grunt and sighs. "I feel like the nightmares are only going to get worse. That first night out, I think we just shut down because we were so tired—but now I'm kind of finding it hard to sleep, to be honest."
Annabeth hums like she's deep in thought. "You might be right—I don't know. I haven't really noticed anything apart from the usual nightmares, at least not yet."
"Hope you don't have to find out," he mumbles. "Still, I... I don't think we're out of the woods yet. We're still pretty much in shock from everything that went on in—" (Hazel can't help but notice that he doesn't finish his sentence) "—and maybe they'll hit later."
"Maybe they will," Annabeth says before lowering her voice to a half-whisper. "But let's not think about that now. At least we've still got each other... Percy?"
Her only answer is a soft snore—Percy having fallen asleep again while she was talking.
Annabeth laughs. "Get some rest, Seaweed Brain."
Hazel is the first to wake up on that long-dreaded morning—she knows instinctively that today is the day, that whatever happens will decide the fate of the world.
And, strangely enough, she feels pretty calm about it.
As smoothly as she can, she slides into a sitting position, glancing around at the other six demigods still sleeping around her. Percy and Annabeth are wrapped around each other in such an intimate way that Hazel blushes furiously—she's glad that everyone is asleep; the embarrassment is almost too much for her to handle.
One of Percy's arms is carelessly flung out beside him, his fingers tightly woven with Piper's. Piper herself is snuggled between Percy and Jason, her head curling against the latter's chest as she sleeps—and there's Leo, of course, wedged into the pile, curled in on himself and sleeping like a stone.
Hazel is squished in between Annabeth (whose gentle, even breaths cause a few of her curls to flutter against her nose and then fall into place again) and Frank (his stillness in sleep reminds Hazel of a hibernating bear).
Dimly, the memory of the previous night comes flickering back to her: falling asleep in a giant pile of demigods, all tangled hair and limbs and blankets. A family—a real one—one to call her own.
Hazel will protect these people to her dying breath.
They wait in the horrible eternity of those who wait for death.
It's not exactly a conversation—more like a running dialogue to make sure no one passes out from exhaustion, or nerves, or both—but it goes something like this:
"Are you guys ready?" Percy.
"I think we've all been ready." Jason.
"I can't wait to punch Gaea in her stupid face." Leo, of course.
"With snarky one-liners like that, it's a wonder the girls aren't throwing themselves at your feet." Piper, relentless in her teasing, although her words are surprisingly gentle.
"Thank you, Pipes—hey, wait a second—"
"Will you two knock it off already? I think I hear something."
That's Annabeth, and as anyone with any sense knows, when Annabeth talks, people pay attention. Of course everybody immediately shuts up and listens, and—yes, there it is—a faint rumbling in the distance, tremors in the earth under Hazel's feet.
She slides into a battle crouch.
Hazel has never been more terrified in her entire life.
She doesn't think before she swings, just blindly wields her sword. Every time she kills a monster, another one takes its place. She's exhausted and on the verge of collapse and the giants are dead why can't we be done already good Jupiter above—and then, suddenly, the onslaught stops.
From across the field, Aphrodite begins to glow, a beautiful bright pink light washing the blood-soaked grass with its vibrancy. She shrinks down to human size. Piper steps up next to her, and together they walk toward where the form of Gaea is half-risen from the dirt at the base of Mount Olympus. For a horrible instant Hazel thinks they're going to sacrifice themselves to the goddess, but then something even stranger happens.
Aphrodite takes Piper's hand, and they begin to sing.
Hazel doesn't recognize the lyrics—she assumes they're in Greek—but the whole field of gods and demigods watches with bated breath as slowly, ever so slowly, the half-formed figure of Gaea sinks back into the mud. A single flower—a white lily—snakes from the soil and unfurls its petals.
Stars blink into being in the night sky.
They have won.
They're all sitting around the lounge again, waiting for nothing in particular, when Leo's voice crackles over the intercom. "Attention demigods and satyr, we are currently ten minutes away from Long Island. I repeat, we are ten minutes away from Long Island."
Barely an instant after Leo hangs up, Percy shouts excitedly, leaps out of his seat, and sprints off down the hall like his life depends on it. Hazel reflexively looks to Annabeth for an answer and finds the older girl grinning back at her.
"Percy was born in New York," Annabeth says, obviously understanding Hazel's unspoken question. "He hasn't been home for almost a year now. I would imagine he's pretty excited."
What they see when they arrive at Camp Half-Blood is definitely not exciting.
"THAT IS ENOUGH!" Percy roars, and his voice rolls across the fields like thunder. He storms off the gangplank, elbowing people aside left and right, ripping fighters apart as he goes. Both groups of demigods fall back before him, staring in shock and disbelief as the other six demigods follow him off the Argo II.
"This is deplorable," Percy snarls, his eyes glittering with concentrated fury as he surveys the field of exhausted fighters. "We are demigods. We're supposed to be above this kind of depraved behavior. And yet here we are—fighting each other as if we're the monsters." He shakes his head sadly, and Hazel realizes that there are angry tears in his eyes. "I am completely ashamed of each and every one of you. This is not how I expect my family to act."
To Hazel's shock and horror, a lone figure speaks out from the front of the crowd—Octavian, his eyes alive with malice, clutching a knife in his hands. He is the only one not bearing marks from the battle; in fact, he looks completely unscathed. Something in Hazel's gut boils with rage at the sight of him.
"Well, Jackson, if your stupid oaf of a 'brother'" —he gestures to Leo, sneering as he does so— "hadn't fired on our camp, then maybe we wouldn't be reduced to—"
He never gets to finish his sentence; Percy swings around, hauls off, and punches Octavian squarely in the mouth, sending the augur reeling backwards with blood dripping off his chin. Then he draws his sword and goes to work, slashing and stabbing and driving his opponent back into a wall of Greeks. Octavian attempts to put up a fight, but Percy ducks around him and effortlessly sweeps his legs out from under him, putting him flat on his back with Percy's sword at his throat and his own knife in Percy's other hand.
Percy himself is breathing hard, glaring at Octavian with absolute hatred in his eyes the likes of which Hazel has never seen before. He towers above the cowering centurion with one knee planted firmly on his chest.
"That was a shameful display of cowardice," Percy growls. "It was never his fault that it happened, but you've only brought yourself down by trying to blame him for starting a war that was your godsdamn doing in the first place! Nobody—and I mean nobody—will ever threaten my family and live to tell the tale, Octavian." He spits out the name like it's poison on his lips. "Don't play games with me. Don't you ever, ever think for one second that you're capable of that."
Octavian makes a very dignified squeaking noise and immediately proceeds to faint.
Percy gets to his feet and nudges Octavian with the toe of his sneaker as if he's a bit of roadkill on the highway. "By the way, you piece of scum, I am your praetor. You should address me as such." He sighs and turns back to the assembled demigods, all of which have been watching in stunned silence. "Somebody do me a favor and get him out of my sight."
Immediately, two burly boys in bloodied red armor push through the crowd and heft Octavian up by the straps of his armor. The augur's head flops to the side like he's nothing but a rag doll—and with the two muscular boys flanking him, he looks just like that.
"Where'dya want us ta take him, Perce?" one of them asks.
Percy considers this for a moment. He glances over at Reyna and the two of them seem to have a silent conversation. Then he turns back to the boys and says, "Just take him to the Big House, Sherman. Argus will watch him until Reyna decides what to do."
The boy—Sherman—nods and motions to the other boy to start walking. The three of them disappear into a big blue farmhouse on a nearby hill.
Percy watches them go before turning back to the assembled crowd. "Does anybody" —he jerks his thumb over his shoulder, indicating the direction in which the two boys and Octavian have just disappeared— "have a problem with that?"
"I thought so."
Annabeth steps up next to Percy, her eyes flashing dangerously. "Everybody drop your weapons—now. Anybody who tries to fight will get the same treatment you just witnessed."
The Greeks immediately sheath their weapons, although some of them don't look particularly happy about it. Most of the Romans follow Annabeth's instructions as well, except for a few of Octavian's more loyal supporters from the First and Second Cohorts. One more pointed glare from Annabeth, however, has them scrambling to put their swords away.
"Greeks, everyone except for the head counselors should return to their cabins. Lights out is at ten-thirty, as usual."
"Romans, you can stay in our empty cabins for tonight," Percy says. Cabins eight and thirteen are completely empty. Once those are full, you're welcome to spread out into cabins fourteen through twenty or find any empty space you can in the main cabins. Please stay out of cabins one through three, and remember to respect the campers who are willing to host you."
The Greeks move off, muttering among themselves. The Romans hesitate slightly longer, glancing at Reyna to see if she objects, but she fixes them with a stern look and says, "You heard your praetor. Move!"
Eventually, Hazel finds herself in a circle of Greeks and Romans, all watching each other suspiciously. She meets Frank's eyes over the top of Leo's head and mouths, What's going on?
Frank shrugs and mouths back, Some kind of negotiation, or a truce? I don't know.
"—don't care what happened," Percy is saying. "I want him dead. He's a traitor to Rome."
Reyna nods seriously and adjusts one of the medals on her golden armor. "From what you and Frank told me, he was the one who killed Gwen—"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Jason says suddenly, his expression somewhere between one of grief and rage. "You mean to tell me that Gwen is dead, and—and Octavian killed her?"
Hazel shakes her head, trying to stay calm even though she can feel the eyes of the Greeks on her. "She came back through the Doors after she was killed, but there was plenty of evidence to suggest that Octavian was the one to kill her in the first place."
"Not to mention the fact that he made up quite a lot of his so-called prophecies just to get ahead," Percy says. His fists are clenched, as if he'd like nothing more than to punch someone. "And he attacked a superior officer. And—"
"Percy, we know he's a scumbag," Jason says, cutting across whatever the son of Poseidon is about to say (and judging by his expression, it's not very complimentary or polite towards Octavian). "The question now is what to do with him."
On instinct, Hazel looks at Reyna. The praetor's face is troubled, and her eyes are far away as if she's deep in thought.
"I do not want this to come down to an execution," she says finally. "I think we can do better than to stoop to that level. But we do not condone blatant murder and rebellion in the Twelfth Legion, especially not when the victim is innocent."
Percy's face hardens. "Then what are we going to do with him? He's guilty of pretty much every war crime we can throw at him—"
"That's it!" Jason says, his eyes lighting up. "Dishonorably discharge him from the legion. His name will be wiped from all our records, and that'll be the end of it."
"Perfect," Percy says, and even Reyna smiles with relief before jogging off in the direction of the cabins—presumably to go tell the centurions what's happened.
Hazel taps Percy gently on the shoulder and gestures to the crowd of Greeks that are still waiting in perfect silence. "Hey, Percy? I think your family is waiting for you."
It's not until several hours later, when everything is said and done, that Hazel looks around and wonders how Camp Half-Blood ever survived without Percy Jackson.
They're sitting around a massive campfire, which is so hot that Hazel can feel the heat all the way from the back row. Some sons of Apollo are leading a singalong of a song called Zeus May Be Your Father, But Hera Is Not Your Mom.
People have been walking by all evening, shaking hands and giving hugs and congratulating the Seven on a job well done. Hazel tries to remember the names—there's Clarisse, tall and muscular with dirty blonde hair, swinging her sword almost absentmindedly; Connor and Travis, sons of Hermes that look so much alike they could be twins, are chasing a daughter of Demeter (Katie, Hazel thinks) in circles around the amphitheater. Clearly this is a normal occurrence, though, because nobody looks alarmed when Katie pulls out a wickedly sharp sword and advances toward the boys with it.
(In fact, Hazel thinks a few people might actually be laughing.)
There's Rachel Dare, the Oracle, sitting among the members of Apollo's cabin. Her bright red hair stands out like a beacon in the middle of the crowd of blondes, but she sings along just like the rest of them, smiling the whole time.
Jason's sister, Thalia, is there as well, sitting with one arm wrapped around her brother's shoulders. She's talking animatedly with Piper, her blue eyes sparkling in the light from the fire, and Hazel can't help but think that Jason is lucky to have a sister like that.
A faun—no, a satyr—is sitting between Percy and Annabeth, laughing with the two of them like they're all old friends.
There's laughing and talking and speeches and songs and some really excellent marshmallows, and even though the shrouds number far too many, and the fields of the Greek camp are still wet with blood, Hazel doesn't think she's ever had a better night.
It's not until much later in the night that Clarisse stands up and yells back to where they're sitting, "Yo, Jackson, I found a new weapon I'm good at! You on for tomorrow at noon in the arena?"
Percy blinks several times in shock before spontaneously bursting into laughter.
Clarisse stares at him, clearly affronted. "What, you don't think I can take you? Is that a challenge, punk?"
"No, Clarisse," Percy says when he's finally gotten himself under control. "It's just good to be home."
A/N: THE END!
Sorry for the super-long unexplained hiatus, guys... I know, I suck. But hey, this is the longest oneshot I've ever written—and finished—so YAY EMMA!
This fic is dedicated to May (who is not only really pretty but also a super-talented writer) for being literally the coolest Tumblr friend ever. I LOVE YOU AND WE NEED TO TALK MORE KTHXBAI.
Also, super-special mega THANK YOU to wombat-of-awesomeness (aka Hope), who helped me edit this monster undertaking of a story until her fingers practically fell off. This girl is a goddess among women, y'all.
PLEASE REVIEW OMFG. I cannot stress this enough, dudes—I've been slaving away on this fic since May, and I feel like if I can put so much of my time and effort into something, you can be bothered to leave a quick review for me. :)
oh yeah, one other thing: HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU, HAPPY BIRTHDAY DEAR PERCY—HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO *soulja boy voice* YOOOOOOOOOUUUUUUUUUUUUU!