High atop Half-Blood Hill, the Athena Parthenos towered over the camp, as activity wound down, and she watched the spring sun going down behind Long Island Sound across the valley.
Percy pushed the sleeves of his ambassador jacket up his arms as he leant against Thalia's pine. It had been Jason's idea to select a council of ambassadors from both camps to oversee the exchange programmes and mixed events – Hazel designed the jackets: dark grey, the sleeves were purple and the trim orange, Percy's had his name and the pegasus decal printed in white on the back, and a white trident on the front. Of course, he'd been so busy with schoolwork, he hadn't been much good on the council since it was formed.
Percy was actually busy with schoolwork... it made him shudder.
He at least had Annabeth to blame. But, even though they spent most school nights doing homework – consisting of Annabeth pointedly turning through her textbooks muttering to herself, while Percy leant against her back asking regular questions, mostly work related – senior year was proving to be the best of Percy's life. He and Annabeth saw each other every day, spent school breaks at camp, and not a single prophecy or quest or life endangering monster in sight.
The sun began to graze to hazy horizon line, and Percy caught glimpse of a shape growing over the Sound. He waited, his smile spreading.
Percy didn't see the eagle up close, but he saw a tall figure leap from it's back, a trench coat billowing around him. Jason caught himself on the wind and flew towards Percy, he slowed and walked out of the air to meet him.
'Now you're just showing off.' Percy told him, giving him a fist bump.
'Am not! I'm showing off in style.'
Jason was the only person – aside from Percy's mom – that could look eternally tired and still radiate health. While dark and ringed with bags, Jason's eyes still glowed blue and kind behind his slanted glasses. His hair hadn't been cut since waking up on the school bus so long ago, and was now a shaggy, straw-blond mess swept back on his head, with stands of fringe at his temples and over his eyes. He looked about five years older at least, with stubble beginning to emerge on his jaw. He wore a white shirt and jeans like he always did, with his Pontifex Maximus pin and his camp necklace with a single bead – a royal purple design with SPQR emblazoned in gold.
'So how's Easter break?' Jason asked, giving Percy's shoulder a nudge as they turned down the hill.
'Not bad, my mom and Paul have gone away to Wisconsin for a week. She wants to do some research for her next book. And Grover sent me an iris message, says he might be able to stay at camp for a bit now he's finished his projects in Utah.'
'Wait, I heard a rumour from Piper that Juniper -'
'Grover's going to be a daddy, yeah.' Percy laughed, unable to keep from grinning. It seemed not too long ago he'd have found such a thing unbelievable, the last time he saw Grover he looked as though he'd aged twice as fast rather than twice as slow. His horns had grown, so much they were starting to curl back into his hair, his acne was long gone, he'd sprouted an inch taller and his goatee was a full chin beard. The deepness of his voice was a little startling. Though they'd grown apart more as Grover got busier and more mature, Percy was happy for him, and he had things to keep him busy too.
'How is Piper?' Jason's voice wavered on the question, Percy wet his lips.
'Better, she came back to camp in February.' Percy glanced at Jason, his eyebrows were knitting, 'She misses you a lot, but she's done some amazing stuff.'
'Oh I know, I'm so proud of her. Last time I spoke to her they'd finished her track for her dad's movie. She was talking about one of the producers, that might want to record some demo's with her.'
'It's incredible, and she's been singing at the camp fire since she came back from Miami, according to Chiron she's a become kind of a superstar.' Jason smiled at that.
Piper had been fine for a few days, but after that, losing Leo had started to dawn on her. She would lie awake at night, and start crying silent tears until Lacy came and wiped her face and lay with her until she could sleep. She spent hours in the forges or Bunker 9 after dinner, as if some ghost of Leo would sneak up behind her and yell Boo! I got you Beauty Queen. Eventually, her dad bought a small, out of the way house in Miami where he was shooting his new movie, and Piper went to stay with him until she felt better. She surfed all day and sang all night, until her dad negotiated her the chance to record a song for his movie, and she poured herself into singing and learning to play instruments.
'And what about you? What's the secret project in New Rome I've been hearing about?' Percy prompted. They reached the bottom of the hill and faded into the cool camp atmosphere: the Ares kids and the Nike kids were playing a very aggressive game of volleyball, some younger Aphrodite and Hypnos kids were sitting on the grass not far from the court, making daisy chains and giggling.
'Well, there was a lot of damage done to the gardens and parks in the East of the city that hadn't been fixed yet, so I took over the rebuilding effort. I want to redo the gardens and put down paths around them, then statues and fountains and shrines to as many luck and good health gods I can think of.'
'Garden of not catching a cold?'
'I was thinking Garden of Good Fortune, but that works too. It should be a really... tranquil place, when it's finished. But I'm staying here for Easter, I want to spend some real time with Piper, and maybe convince Chiron to let me get some statues of the muses carved for the amphitheatre.'
They were passing the Big House just as the horn blew for dinner.
'Man, I better run. My cabin will be waiting.'
Jason halted and barred Percy with his arm, 'Whoa wait, there are other sons of Poseidon?' he asked astounded.
'No, no, well not that I know of,' Percy shook his head, 'I have children of minor sea gods and goddesses crashing with me, they're not really in danger so they'll mostly just come to camp for a week in summer or a weekend in school holidays. I had four bunk with me for a weekend at Christmas.'
'No, actually it's sort of cool being a proper counsellor when they're here. Anyway I gotta run.' Percy left Jason at the Big House with Chiron, who put a firm hand on his shoulder and led him inside, and strode to the cabins.
The camp fire that night was crowded, at least a hundred extra campers stayed in school holidays, all children of minor gods and the odd Roman exchange campers, crammed into the cabins and the Big House's spare rooms. In fact, Annabeth and Chiron had been designing extensions for the cabins to accommodate Roman campers, as well as a whole new temporary accommodation block.
'We're actually struggling to find space for it,' Annabeth told him, slowly turning a marshmallow over the fire; the flames were a homely deep orange tonight, casting a warm glow over the statue of Hestia knelt beside the hearth. 'I think we might get it in in the fields around the climbing wall but it'll mean moving loads of trees and the nymphs are furious. Grover says he'll negotiate with them.'
'Dude's going to have loads on his plate when he gets back.'
Annabeth bumped him with her shoulder. Her marshmallow started to brown and slide down her stick. Percy loved crowded camp fires, he found them so much more intimate when everybody was absorbed in their own conversations around them. It was like looking out from a bubble where he and Annabeth were alone and invisible like never before – it was blissful.
He saw Clarisse and Chris Rodriguez laughing at the back of the amphitheatre, Coach Hedge came over bouncing Chuck to talk to her briefly, then Clarisse tickled the baby's chin and laughed at something Chris said.
Nico di Angelo was sitting with the Apollo kids, Will Solace was fiddling with the chain bracelets on his wrist as he held his hand. Percy had never seen Nico so happy, he looked without a care in the world, and so at ease. Nico had disappeared in January, he wouldn't say where he went, in fact he didn't say anything about his trip at all. When he got back, his shaggy black hair had been shaved into an undercut, the hair on top was silky black and wavy, his skin had gained some of it's natural olive colour, and he was wearing new silver chains and a new black sweatshirt rolled up at the sleeves. Will had been annoyed with him for weeks, or pretended to be; everybody knew it was a game, they bickered only in plain sight. Eventually they got bored, and they walked through camp hand in hand without a sideways glance at anyone.
Will was better at Mythomagic, apparently.
Annabeth put down her marshmallow stick and fit her head into Percy's neck, retracting her hands inside her sleeves as she relaxed. After a few silent minutes she said, 'Piper says you need to wear a bow-tie to prom.'
'What? Please don't tell me I've got to dress up.'
'That's kind of the point, Seaweed Brain.'
'Prom isn't for ages anyway.'
'You said the same thing about Easter break.'
Percy opened his mouth, closed it, and exhaled through his nose. After a moment he asked,'Do I have to wear a tux too? Maybe a flower in my pocket?'
'Of course not. The flower goes in the lapel.'
'What's a lapel?'
Annabeth laughed so hard she bent forward in stitches, Percy wasn't sure if he went red or his face was just warm from the fire. Hey, he didn't know clothes.
Clearly learning about tuxedos could wait, because Annabeth wiped a tear from her eye, told Percy 'You're head really is full of kelp.' and kissed his cheek.
'What's the joke?' Came Piper's voice, as she dropped down beside them and pulled up her knees. Annabeth just shook her head like Tell you later, or I'll embarrass him.
'Have you seen Jason yet?' Percy inquired, quickly changing the subject.
'Not yet, he's been discussing Camp Peacekeeper stuff with Chiron all afternoon. Tell me now – does he still need that haircut.'
'Oh I dunno, I think the wise-man look sort of suit him.'
'Please,' Piper leaned close and said slightly hushed, 'my dad mistook him for a girl on Valentine's Day.'
Annabeth choked a little, Piper's mouth twitched and they both started laughing hysterically. Piper managed to clarify, 'It was from a distance, Dad saw the back of him first before he came down to beach and saw him properly.'
The camp fire flames took on some yellow as the campers' energy raised. Percy decided to rest his head on Annabeth's shoulder silently and doze – the last time the girls got into a chat like this, it had ended with the Aphrodite cabin cutting Percy's messy black hair for him. They made the back and sides short and his fringe swept above his forehead like a wave. His mother had said 'So you'll let the girls at camp cut your hair, but you never let me brush it?'
'Mom I'm seventeen now, you don't need to brush my hair for me.'
'Someone should.' Percy had shook his head. He couldn't help pretending to be all grown up - he definitely wasn't a kid anymore, but that didn't stop him from watching movies with his mom late on Saturday nights, a bowl of blue sweets between them.
A half hour later, the flames had been allowed to die down. Piper had left with Jason, and now the rest of the amphitheatre slowly trickled out with campers heading to bed. The sea sounded like someone running their hand through pebbles, absently probing for the smoothest one. The dull moonlight turned the camp into shadows against the misty hills ringing the valley.
With his arm around Annabeth, they headed to the cabins. Percy walked Annabeth to the door of the Athena cabin and said goodnight. Malcolm awkwardly muttered 'Excuse me,' as he slid through them to get inside.
Percy must have looked embarrassed, even though such a thing had happened countless times before, because Annabeth messed with his hair like a little boy and smirked at him.
'See you tomorrow, Percy.' She kissed him and went inside.
As Percy ambled across the green to his cabin, scuffing his sneakers in the grass every few steps, he wondered about Camp Jupiter. He wondered how Frank and Reyna were doing, if they'd made many changes since Greek campers started training the Romans. Hazel visited from time to time. She and Arion had raced into New York on her visit in December and met Percy, Annabeth and Rachel Dare at the local Monster Doughnut, and gone to see her first 21st century movie – starring Tristan McLean as Jake Steel. She taught a lot of equestrianism, and was thinking about setting up Mist workshops. Not everyone would be able to do it, she'd said, but Chiron was certain with the right teacher it was a valuable skill.
Percy concluded he was one of the people that simply couldn't do it, he remembered when he first saw Thalia use it back when he was only thirteen, he'd felt cheated like there was a secret demigod power he'd been left out of. It was funny, now he'd trade demigod powers for some extra hours in the weekend... most days.
At the door of the Poseidon cabin, Percy froze. The air on his neck seemed to have been disturbed.
It was probably nothing, but Percy liked to listen to his instincts. He turned.
The green was deserted. The statues were still. The only light came from the windows of the Hermes cabin, and the moon.
Nothing, he shrugged and turned back to the door.
Suddenly, a gust of wind pulled every blade of grass in Percy's direction, his hair parted as he swung round and looked up. He could swear he saw a tiny shadow against the pale moon, peering out from clouds. He squinted, there was something.
The way the bird-like shape moved, randomly and without direction, Percy wondered if it was a harpy that got lost and confused, or a pegasus that had found an overturned sugar cube truck. After watching a few minutes more, the thing seemed closer, it glinted like metal.
A rust inside Percy made his chest tighten. It couldn't possibly be...
'Festus?' He whispered to himself.
But, as he said it, the shape vanished. It might have disappeared into the clouds, it might have never been there at all. Was Percy hallucinating? It wasn't that late.
He wanted to do something, tell somebody. He wasn't sure if he'd seen something to unearth some hope for the impossible. Percy had seen what happened to Festus, and to his rider. He pictured the son of Hephaestus in the middle of the explosion, clinging to Festus, the comet of fire hurtling into them that nobody could survive...
A tear prickled his eye, and he blinked. Then the wind died down to a gentle breeze again.
No, he decided. How could he give Piper, or Jason or Hazel, or any of his friends, a false hope that Leo and Festus had survived? It would rip the wound open again, and they'd have to start the healing process from scratch. No, if Leo had made it, he'd find his way back to camp – he'd ride in on some fantastical machine and yell Guess who totally blew up Dirt Face and survived? I think we need some applause for the awesomest Demigod on Fire.
Percy pinched the bridge of his nose and rubbed his eyes. He was definitely ready to crawl into his bunk, pull the covers up to his ears. He'd earned every hour of rest he got.
He slid into the Poseidon cabin, breathing in the salty air that smelled like home, and shut the door behind him.