The two of them looked so comfortable together it made Nico glad. But it also it caused an ache in his heart – a ghostly pain, like an old war wound throbbing in bad weather.
‘No need for threats,’ Nico said. ‘Frank’s a good guy. Or bear. Or bulldog. Or –’
‘Oh, stop.’ Hazel laughed. Then she kissed Frank. ‘See you in the morning.’
‘Yeah,’ Frank said. ‘Nico … you sure you won’t come with us? You’ll always have a place in New Rome.’
‘Thanks, Praetor. Reyna said the same thing. But … no.’
‘I hope I’ll see you again?’
‘Oh, you will,’ Nico promised. ‘I’m going to be the flower boy at your wedding, right?’
‘Um …’ Frank got flustered, cleared his throat and shuffled off, running into the doorjamb on the way out.
Hazel crossed her arms. ‘You just had to tease him about that.’
She sat on Nico’s bunk. For a while they just stayed there in comfortable silence … siblings, children from the past, children of the Underworld.
‘I’m going to miss you,’ Nico said.
Hazel leaned over and rested her head on his shoulder. ‘You too, big brother. You will visit.’
He tapped the new officer’s badge that gleamed on her shirt. ‘Centurion of the Fifth Cohort now. Congratulations. Are there rules against centurions dating praetors?’
‘Shhh,’ Hazel said. ‘It’ll be a lot of work getting the legion back in shape, repairing the damage Octavian did. Dating regulations will be the least of my worries.’
‘You’ve come so far. You’re not the same girl I brought to Camp Jupiter. Your power with the Mist, your confidence –’
‘It’s all thanks to you.’
‘No,’ Nico said. ‘Getting a second life is one thing. Making it a better life, that’s the trick.’
As soon as he said it, Nico realized he could’ve been talking about himself. He decided not to bring that up.
Hazel sighed. ‘A second life. I just wish …’
She didn’t need to finish her thought. For the past two days, Leo’s disappearance had hovered like a cloud over the whole camp. Hazel and Nico had been reluctant to join the speculation about what had happened to him.
‘You felt his death, didn’t you?’ Hazel’s eyes were watery. Her voice was small.
‘Yeah,’ Nico admitted. ‘But I don’t know, Hazel. Something about it was … different.’
‘He couldn’t have taken the physician’s cure. Nothing could have survived that explosion. I thought … I thought I was helping Leo. I messed up.’
‘No. It is not your fault.’ But Nico wasn’t quite so ready to forgive himself. He’d spent the last forty-eight hours replaying the scene with Octavian at the catapult, wondering if he’d done wrong thing. Perhaps the explosive power of that projectile had helped destroy Gaia. Or perhaps it had unnecessarily cost Leo Valdez his life.
‘I just wish he hadn’t died alone,’ Hazel murmured. ‘There was no one with him, no one to give him that cure. There’s not even a body to bury …’
Her voice broke. Nico put his arm around her.
He held her as she wept. Eventually she fell asleep from exhaustion. Nico tucked her into his own bed and kissed her forehead. Then he went to the shrine of Hades in the corner – a little table decorated with bones and jewels.
‘I suppose,’ he said, ‘there’s a first time for everything.’
He knelt and prayed silently for his father’s guidance.
AT DAWN, HE WAS STILL AWAKE when someone rapped at the door.
He turned, registering a face with blond hair, and for a split second he thought it was Will Solace. When Nico realized it was Jason, he was disappointed. Then he felt angry with himself for feeling that way.
He hadn’t talked to Will since the battle. The Apollo kids had been too busy with the injured. Besides, Will probably blamed Nico for what happened to Octavian. Why wouldn’t he? Nico had basically permitted … whatever that was. Murder by consensus. A gruesome suicide. By now, Will Solace realized just how creepy and revolting Nico di Angelo was. Of course, Nico didn’t care what he thought. But still …
‘You okay?’ Jason asked. ‘You look –’
‘Fine,’ Nico snapped. Then he softened his tone. ‘If you’re looking for Hazel, she’s still asleep.’
Jason mouthed, Oh, and gestured for Nico to come outside.
Nico stepped into the sunlight, blinking and disoriented. Ugh … Perhaps the cabin’s designers had been right about the children of Hades being like vampires. He was not a morning person.
Jason didn’t look as though he’d slept any better. His hair had a cowlick on one side and his new glasses sat crookedly on his nose. Nico resisted the urge to reach out and straighten them.
Jason pointed to the strawberry fields, where the Romans were breaking camp. ‘It was strange to see them here. Now it’ll be strange not seeing them.’
‘Do you regret not going with them?’ Nico asked.
Jason’s smile was lopsided. ‘A little. But I’ll be going back and forth between the camps a lot. I have some shrines to build.’
‘I heard. The Senate plans to elect you Pontifex Maximus.’
Jason shrugged. ‘I don’t care about the title so much. I do care about making sure the gods are remembered. I don’t w
ant them fighting out of jealousy any more, or taking out their frustrations on demigods.’
‘They’re gods,’ Nico said. ‘That’s their nature.’
‘Maybe, but I can try to make it better. I guess Leo would say I’m acting like a mechanic, doing preventative maintenance.’
Nico sensed Jason’s sorrow like an oncoming storm. ‘You know, you couldn’t have stopped Leo. There’s nothing you could have done differently. He knew what had to happen.’
‘I – I guess. I don’t suppose you can tell if he’s still –’
‘He’s gone,’ Nico said. ‘I’m sorry. I wish I could tell you otherwise, but I sensed his death.’
Jason stared into the distance.
Nico felt guilty for squashing his hopes. He was almost tempted to mention his own doubts … what a different sensation Leo’s death had given him, as if Leo’s soul had invented its own way into the Underworld, something that involved lots of gears, levers and steam-powered pistons.
Nevertheless, Nico was sure Leo Valdez had died. And death was death. It wouldn’t be fair to give Jason false expectations.
In the distance, the Romans were picking up their gear and toting it across the hill. On the other side, so Nico had heard, a fleet of black SUVs waited to transport the legion cross-country back to California. Nico guessed that would be an interesting road trip. He imagined the entire Twelfth Legion in the drive-through lane at Burger King. He imagined some hapless monster terrorizing a random demigod in Kansas, only to find itself surrounded by several dozen carloads of heavily armoured Romans.
‘Ella the harpy is going with them, you know,’ Jason said. ‘She and Tyson. Even Rachel Elizabeth Dare. They’re going to work together to try to reconstruct the Sibylline Books.’
‘That should be interesting.’
‘Could take years,’ Jason said. ‘But with the voice of Delphi extinguished …’
‘Rachel still can’t see the future?’
Jason shook his head. ‘I wish I knew what happened to Apollo in Athens. Maybe Artemis will get him out of trouble with Zeus and the power of prophecy will work again. But for now those Sibylline Books might be our only way to get guidance for quests.’
‘Personally,’ Nico said, ‘I could do without prophecies or quests for a while.’
‘You’ve got a point.’ He straightened his glasses. ‘Look, Nico, the reason I wanted to talk to you … I know what you said back at Auster’s palace. I know you already turned down a place at Camp Jupiter. I – I probably can’t change your mind about leaving Camp Half-Blood, but I have to –’
Jason blinked. ‘What?’
‘At Camp Half-Blood. The Hades cabin needs a head counsellor. Have you seen the decor? It’s disgusting. I’ll have to renovate. And someone needs to do the burial rites properly, since demigods insist on dying heroically.’
‘That’s – that’s fantastic! Dude!’ Jason opened his arms for a hug, then froze. ‘Right. No touching. Sorry.’
Nico grunted. ‘I suppose we can make an exception.’
Jason squeezed him so hard Nico thought his ribs would crack.
‘Oh, man,’ Jason said. ‘Wait till I tell Piper. Hey, since I’m all alone in my cabin too, you and I can share a table in the dining hall. We can team up for capture the flag and sing-along contests and –’
‘Are you trying to scare me away?’