Annabeth was too stunned to move. She felt that if she got any closer to him, all the molecules in her body might combust. She’d secretly had a crush on him since they were twelve years old. Last summer, she’d fallen for him hard. They’d been a happy couple for four months—and then he’d disappeared.
During their separation, something had happened to Annabeth’s feelings. They’d grown painfully intense—like she’d been forced to withdraw from a life-saving medication. Now she wasn’t sure which was more excruciating—living with that horrible absence, or being with him again.
The praetor Reyna straightened. With apparent reluctance, she turned toward Jason.
“Jason Grace, my former colleague…” She spoke the word colleague like it was a dangerous thing. “I welcome you home. And these, your friends—”
Annabeth didn’t mean to, but she surged forward. Percy rushed toward her at the same time. The crowd tensed. Some reached for swords that weren’t there.
Percy threw his arms around her. They kissed, and for a moment nothing else mattered. An asteroid could have hit the planet and wiped out all life, and Annabeth wouldn’t have cared.
Percy smelled of ocean air. His lips were salty.
Seaweed Brain, she thought giddily.
Percy pulled away and studied her face. “Gods, I never thought—”
Annabeth grabbed his wrist and flipped him over her shoulder. He slammed into the stone pavement. Romans cried out. Some surged forward, but Reyna shouted, “Hold! Stand down!”
Annabeth put her knee on Percy’s chest. She pushed her forearm against his throat. She didn’t care what the Romans thought. A white-hot lump of anger expanded in her chest—a tumor of worry and bitterness that she’d been carrying around since last autumn.
“If you ever leave me again,” she said, her eyes stinging, “I swear to all the gods—”
Percy had the nerve to laugh. Suddenly the lump of heated emotions melted inside Annabeth.
“Consider me warned,” Percy said. “I missed you, too. ”
Annabeth rose and helped him to his feet. She wanted to kiss him again so badly, but she managed to restrain herself.
Jason cleared his throat. “So, yeah. …It’s good to be back. ”
He introduced Reyna to Piper, who looked a little miffed that she hadn’t gotten to say the lines she’d been practicing, then to Leo, who grinned and flashed a peace sign.
“And this is Annabeth,” Jason said. “Uh, normally she doesn’t judo-flip people. ”
Reyna’s eyes sparkled. “You sure you’re not a Roman, Annabeth? Or an Amazon?”
Annabeth didn’t know if that was a com
pliment, but she held out her hand. “I only attack my boyfriend like that,” she promised. “Pleased to meet you. ”
Reyna clasped her hand firmly. “It seems we have a lot to discuss. Centurions!”
A few of the Roman campers hustled forward—apparently the senior officers. Two kids appeared at Percy’s side, the same ones Annabeth had seen him chumming around with earlier. The burly Asian guy with the buzz cut was about fifteen. He was cute in a sort of oversized-cuddly-panda-bear way. The girl was younger, maybe thirteen, with amber eyes and chocolate skin and long curly hair. Her cavalry helmet was tucked under her arm.
Annabeth could tell from their body language that they felt close to Percy. They stood next to him protectively, like they’d already shared many adventures. She fought down a twinge of jealousy. Was it possible Percy and this girl…no. The chemistry between the three of them wasn’t like that. Annabeth had spent her whole life learning to read people. It was a survival skill. If she had to guess, she’d say the big Asian guy was the girl’s boyfriend, though she suspected they hadn’t been together long.
There was one thing she didn’t understand: what was the girl staring at? She kept frowning in Piper and Leo’s direction, like she recognized one of them and the memory was painful.
Meanwhile, Reyna was giving orders to her officers. “…tell the legion to stand down. Dakota, alert the spirits in the kitchen. Tell them to prepare a welcome feast. And, Octavian—”
“You’re letting these intruders into the camp?” A tall guy with stringy blond hair elbowed his way forward. “Reyna, the security risks—”
“We’re not taking them to the camp, Octavian. ” Reyna flashed him a stern look. “We’ll eat here, in the forum. ”
“Oh, much better,” Octavian grumbled. He seemed to be the only one who didn’t defer to Reyna as his superior, despite the fact that he was scrawny and pale and for some reason had three teddy bears hanging from his belt. “You want us to relax in the shadow of their warship. ”
“These are our guests. ” Reyna clipped off every word. “We will welcome them, and we will talk to them. As augur, you should burn an offering to thank the gods for bringing Jason back to us safely. ”
“Good idea,” Percy put in. “Go burn your bears, Octavian. ”
Reyna looked like she was trying not to smile. “You have my orders. Go. ”
The officers dispersed. Octavian shot Percy a look of absolute loathing. Then he gave Annabeth a suspicious once-over and stalked away.
Percy slipped his hand into Annabeth’s. “Don’t worry about Octavian,” he said. “Most of the Romans are good people—like Frank and Hazel here, and Reyna. We’ll be fine. ”
Annabeth felt as if someone had draped a cold washcloth across her neck. She heard that whispering laughter again, as if the presence had followed her from the ship.
She looked up at the Argo II. Its massive bronze hull glittered in the sunlight. Part of her wanted to kidnap Percy right now, climb on board, and get out of here while they still could.