‘Sorry. Sorry. Whatever you say, Nico. I’m just glad.’
The funny thing was Nico believed him.
Nico happened to glance towards the cabins and saw someone waving at him. Will Solace stood in the doorway of the Apollo cabin, a stern look on his face. He pointed to the ground at his feet, like You. Here. Now.
‘Jason,’ Nico said, ‘would you excuse me?’
‘So where were you?’ Will demanded. He was wearing a green surgeon’s shirt with jeans and flip-flops, which was probably not standard hospital protocol.
‘What do you mean?’ Nico asked.
‘I’ve been stuck in the infirmary for, like, two days. You don’t come by. You don’t offer to help.’
‘I … what? Why would you want a son of Hades in the same room with people you’re trying to heal? Why would anyone want that?’
‘You can’t help out a friend? Maybe cut bandages? Bring me a soda or a snack? Or just a simple How’s it going, Will? You don’t think I could stand to see a friendly face?’
‘What … my face?’
The words simply didn’t make sense together: Friendly face. Nico di Angelo.
‘You’re so dense,’ Will noted. ‘I hope you got over that nonsense about leaving Camp Half-Blood.’
‘I – yeah. I did. I mean, I’m staying.’
‘Good. So you may be dense, but you’re not an idiot.’
‘How can you even talk to me like that? Don’t you know I can summon zombies and skeletons and –’
‘Right now you couldn’t summon a wishbone without melting into a puddle of darkness, di Angelo,’ Will said. ‘I told you, no more Underworldy stuff, doctor’s orders. You owe me at least three days of rest in the infirmary. Starting now.’
Nico felt like a hundred skeletal butterflies were resurrecting in his stomach. ‘Three days? I – I suppose that would be okay.’
‘Good. Now –’
A loud whoop! cut through the air.
Over by the hearth in the centre of the common, Percy was grinning at something Annabeth had just told him. Annabeth laughed and playfully slapped his arm.
‘I’ll be right back,’ Nico told Will. ‘Promise on the Styx and everything.’
He walked over to Percy and Annabeth, who were both still grinning like crazy.
‘Hey, man,’ Percy said. ‘Annabeth just told me some good news. Sorry if I got a little loud.’
‘We’re going to spend our senior year together,’ Annabeth explained, ‘here in New York. And after graduation –’
‘College in New Rome!’ Percy pumped his fist like he was blowing a truck horn. ‘Four years with no monsters to fight, no battles, no stupid prophecies. Just me and Annabeth, getting our degrees, hanging out at cafés, enjoying California –’
‘And after that …’ Annabeth kissed Percy on the cheek. ‘Well, Reyna and Frank said we could live in New Rome as long as we like.’
‘That’s great,’ Nico said. He was a little surprised to find that he meant it. ‘I’m staying too, here at Camp Half-Blood.’
‘Awesome!’ Percy said.
Nico studied his face – his sea-green eyes, his grin, his ruffled black hair. Somehow Percy Jackson seemed like a regular guy now, not a mythical figure. Not someone to idolize or crush on.
‘So,’ Nico said, ‘since we’re going to be spending at least a year seeing each other at camp, I think I should clear the air.’
Percy’s smile wavered. ‘What do you mean?’
‘For a long time,’ Nico said, ‘I had a crush on you. I just wanted you to know.’
Percy looked at Nico. Then at Annabeth, as if to check that he’d heard correctly. Then back at Nico. ‘You –’
‘Yeah,’ Nico said. ‘You’re a great person. But I’m over that. I’m happy for you guys.’
‘You … so you mean –’
Annabeth’s grey eyes started to sparkle. She gave Nico a sideways smile.
‘Wait,’ Percy said. ‘So you mean –’
‘Right,’ Nico said again. ‘But it’s cool. We’re cool. I mean, I see now … you’re cute, but you’re not my type.’
‘I’m not your type … Wait. So –’
‘See you around, Percy,’ Nico said. ‘Annabeth.’
She raised her hand for a high five.
Nico obliged. Then he walked back across the green, to where Will Solace was waiting.
PIPER WISHED SHE COULD CHARM HERSELF TO SLEEP.
It may have worked on Gaia, but for the last two nights she’d hardly slept a wink.
The days were fine. She loved being back with her friends Lacy and Mitchell and all the other Aphrodite kids. Even her bratty second-in-command, Drew Tanaka, seemed relieved, probably because Piper could run things and give Drew more time for gossip and in-cabin beauty treatments.
Piper kept busy helping Reyna and Annabeth coordinate between the Greeks and Romans. To Piper’s surprise, the other two girls valued her skills as a go-between to smooth over any conflicts. There weren’t many, but Piper did manage to return some Roman helmets that mysteriously made their way into the camp store. She also kept a fight from breaking out between the children of Mars and the children of Ares over the best way to kill a hydra.
On the morning the Romans were scheduled to leave, Piper was sitting on the pier at the canoe lake, trying to placate the naiads. Some of the lake spirits thought the Roman guys were so hot that they, too, wanted to leave for Camp Jupiter. They were demanding a giant portable fish tank for the journey west. Piper had just concluded negotiations when Reyna found her.
The praetor sat next to her on the dock. ‘Hard work?’
Piper blew a strand of hair out of her eyes. ‘Naiads can be challenging. I think we have a deal. If they still want to go at the end of the summer, we’ll work out the details then. But naiads, uh, tend to forget things in about five seconds.’
Reyna traced her fingertips across the water. ‘Sometimes I wish I could forget things that quickly.’
Piper studied the praetor’s face. Reyna was one demigod who hadn’t seemed to change during the war with the giants … at least not on the outside. She still had the same strong, unstoppable gaze, the same regal, beautiful face. She wore her armour and purple cloak as easily as most people would wear shorts and a T-shirt.
Piper couldn’t understand how anyone could take so much pain, shoulder so much responsibility, without breaking. She wondered if Reyna ever had anyone to confide in.
‘You did so much,’ Piper said. ‘For both camps. Without you, none of it would’ve been possible.’
‘All of us played a part.’
‘Sure. But you … I just wish you got more credit.’
Reyna laughed gently. ‘Thank you, Piper. But I don’t want attention. You understand what that’s like, don’t you?’
Piper did. They were so different, but she understood not wanting to attract attention. Piper had wished for that her whole life, with her dad’s fame, the paparazzi, the photos and scandal stories in the press. She met so many people who said, Oh, I want to be famous! That would be so great! But they had no idea what it was really like. She’d seen the toll it took on her father. Piper wanted nothing to do with it.
She could understand the appeal of the Roman way, too – to blend in, be one of the team, work as a part of a well-oiled machine. Even so, Reyna had risen to the top. She couldn’t stay hidden.
‘Your power from your mom …’ Piper said. ‘You can lend strength to others?’
Reyna pursed her lips. ‘Nico told you?’
‘No. I just sensed it, watching you lead the legion. That must drain you. How do you … you know, get that strength back?’
‘When I get the strength back, I’ll let you know.’
She said it like a joke, but Piper sensed the sadness behind her words.
‘You’re always welcome here,’ Piper said. ‘If you need to take a break, get away … you’ve got
Frank now – he could assume more responsibility for a while. It might do you good to make some time for yourself, when nobody is going to be looking at you as praetor.’
Reyna met her eyes, as if trying to gauge how serious the offer was. ‘Would I be expected to sing that odd song about how Grandma puts on her armour?’
‘Not unless you really want to. But we might have to ban you from capture the flag. I have a feeling you could go against the entire camp solo and still beat us.’
Reyna smirked. ‘I’ll consider the offer. Thank you.’ She adjusted her dagger, and for a moment Piper thought about her own blade, Katoptris, which was now locked in her hope chest in her cabin. Ever since Athens, when she’d used the blade to stab the giant Enceladus, its visions had stopped completely.
‘I wonder …’ Reyna said. ‘You’re a child of Venus. I mean Aphrodite. Perhaps – perhaps you could explain something your mother said.’
‘I’m honoured. I’ll try, but I have to warn you: my mom doesn’t make sense to me a lot of the time.’