"When you get to my age, the most insignificant memories take on significance. Unrationalized blame, casual kindness, random gestures—one day you just need to tell someone about them." —Crispin Salvador, Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco.
The Bridges Ablaze
She could see him now. Running away. Running on the desert sand, to the distant mountains and into nowhere, about to disappear to the dead of the night, about to fade and become the darkness if he went any further. The very sight of him running away rang too many bells inside her. He needed to be stopped. Someone had to stop him.
She jumped from the deck of the Argo II and into the sand. All the bones inside her body vibrated, and her brain was shaking inside her skull. Then pain exploded from her feet. She didn't scream. She kept her mouth shut. And then, picking herself up, she ran. She started slow, but she picked up pace. She needed to know why he was running away.
"Leo!" she shouted.
He didn't stop in his tracks. He stole a glance behind him and sprinted faster. She kept pace. She ignored the pain that was climbing from her feet to her legs and then to her thighs.
The farther they ran, the more agitated she became. She kept shouting his name, telling him to stop. Gods, she was never this angry before. Why was she angry from the start anyway? She was already catching up. And he was already out of breath. Then he was only at an arm's length. She took a long stride and reached out, grabbed the collar of his jacket, spun him around, and punched him—really hard—in the middle of his face.
There was loud CRUNCH! And then he stumbled and fell wordlessly to the ground.
Her fists were still clenched. Her teeth still gritted. Beads of sweat trickled down her forehead. She was out of breath. And then, she tried to say, in her softest voice:
"You said you wouldn't run away anymore."
He didn't respond right away. He was too busy groaning and holding his nose and mouth, which were bleeding. Damn, how hard was it? Her fingers started to numb and shake. Her legs were on the verge of collapsing from all the running. But, right now, she didn't care about herself.
He only looked up to her. It was hard to focus with the night sky behind her, a thousand stars shining prominently above. But then he saw her kaleidoscope eyes, shining brighter in the dark, and then her lithe slender form, and then her face. She looked very angry, and that really stood out.
Leo opened his mouth to speak, but then the wind blew. Sand and blood entered his mouth, making him cough.
Far in the distance, the Argo II was the only odd thing in the middle of the desert, but its silhouette blended with the mountains surrounding the desert. The ship didn't appear to have any movement. Their friends were still asleep. They weren't aware with the commotion outside yet.
None of them spoke for a long time.
And then, after the long silence that hung between them, Piper spoke. "Why…why are you running away now?"
He tried to look dignified by readjusting himself, hoisting himself up a bit by placing his elbows on the ground, trying to remove the sand that made its way to his curly dark hair and the sleeves of his jacket. The blood was coming out from his nose and lips. Some drops were already dripping down his chin and into his clothes.
For a moment, he looked down.
"I…I don't want anyone to get hurt anymore."
Somehow, that only made her angrier.
"It's all my fault," he said.
"And why would you think that it's all your fault?"
He raised his voice a little. "Haven't you seen what happened? Percy and Annabeth are gone now, because of me." He paused, and then he said to her: "I'm bad luck."
She could charmspeak him back to the ship, lull him back to sleep, make him forget that this happened; maybe even make him erase the thought of running away. Yes. She had that power. But for some reason…there was this really good-moral-angel part of her that told her that she should do something else. She felt that she had to talk to him as herself. No magic between them. She had the nagging feeling that if she did, then Leo would leave for sure. Besides, it was no use trying to charmspeak him anyway. Leo knew it if his friend ever did that, and, believe or not, he could block it with his stubbornness. He'd find a way around it.
She took a deep breath.
"Running isn't always the answer, Valdez."
"Sometimes it is the only answer, McLean. Maybe one day you might see that."
Piper did not understand the logic behind his reason for running away. Leo ran away six times, he had said to her, before Wilderness School. The act of running away is easy. And it's easier if Leo Valdez was doing it, because he had done it in the past. But why did he run away? It was probably because he disliked his numerous foster parents and foster siblings, but she never really knew the reason behind it. And now, he was running away again. Running away so she and their friends could be safe. It occurred to her that maybe Leo didn't run away because he hated his foster families. Maybe he loved them. But he was a demigod, although he, at that time, didn't know that. Maybe back then, he thought of himself as real bad luck to the family. There were accidents that weren't really supposed to be accidents. Maybe that was why he ran away. So that they could be safe.
"But think about the others," she said. "How are they going to take it when they found out that you're gone in the morning? Have you always thought of them? Have you always thought of us?"
"I'm always thinking about the others. I'm always thinking about all of you. You guys are like my best friends in the whole wide world." He paused again. "Hazel and Frank can drive the ship. I thought them how, the navigation, controls, everything. You guys can get around easily, and they can teach you, too. I've reloaded all the ammos, made some weapons you all might be interested, everything we—you all need. It's down at the room besides the engine room. Go out and have some fun with it. And oh, I'm leaving Buford to you. You already know what he likes and doesn't like, right? Then good. Everything is set. I can bust."
"We're supposed to stick together. We need your help."
"I'm more of a distraction than help to all of you at this point, McLean."
"But we need you. Hazel…Jason…Frank, too… and me. Just…don't run away yet. You can run away, fine, and I won't stop you, but that's for the next time. Not this time. We need you now."
He didn't move for a few moments. But it felt like a long time. And then he heaved a sigh. A defeated, relieved sigh. He wiped away the blood from his face with the sleeve of his jacket, but he flinched when he tried to wipe the blood for his nose.
"Look at you. You're a mess."
"You made this mess."
"I'm sorry." He cracked a small smile.
She smiled back. She offered a hand. "Do you still like me?"
"Yeah, sure." He took her hand and pulled himself up. "Well, damn, I'm seriously tired."
"Me, too. Let's go back. Do you think they're all awake?"
"Don't know, but Hedge's probably going haywire right now…. Hey, let's not mention this to anyone. This…runaway scheme I failed to execute because you destroyed my plans."
"Destroying plans is my thing, Valdez. But how are you going to explain the broken nose and bloodied lip?"
"I was sleeping and fell on the floor. Period. Damn those spikes under my bed."
And then there was laughter. All was well for now.
There is too much snow falling. They aren't adjusted to this kind of temperature. They can't see beyond the hand-made structure they had just finished building. It's sloppy and looks like it was made in a rush. There's no grace in it. There's no enthusiasm in the work. They built it with heavy hearts.
There are only a few of them surrounding their creation. They are not looking at each other. They aren't even looking at the pyre. They are looking at a distance. Their eyes are still red from crying. Some are still crying.
Except for her. She's looking at the pyre. She has no tears.
The old jukebox inside the Bunker was playing an oldies tune that Piper was familiar with. She probably had heard in the radio numerous times a long time ago, maybe even sang it with her dad, but never really got the title. She found herself humming, and then later, singing with the lyrics that resurfaced from the dusty corner of her mind.
Leo was watching her. He had put down the tools, removed his greasy gloves, and changed his dirtied shirt into something cleaner. His sleeping bag was on the side. He could fix it and just go back to sleep, let Piper be in her own world. He spent more time here than anywhere in camp. He was comfortable here. But it was way past curfew to go back. The forest was dangerous especially around this time. He was worried about how she would go back to her cabin. Or worse: if she realized that, would she stay here in the Bunker for the whole night? No way in Hades was he going to give away his sleeping bag.
She asked, "Where did you find the jukebox? Here, in the bunker?"
He shook his head, grinning. "Not really. I kind of found a couple of spare parts in the Big House attic when I was looking for spare parts for the, uhh, ship, and then I pieced it together. I know I should be busy with the Argo, but I needed to take a break once in a while, you know? A little bit of fun and distraction from all the…the stuff going on here."
Buford the table was curled up near the sleeping bag. How the table was able to sleep peacefully like a dog, all solid wooden legs curled, Piper would never know how.
"Why a jukebox?"
"Why bring an old modeled jukebox back to life? Aren't you Mr. Future Guy who builds future stuff? Like that message scroll thing you made. That was pretty neat."
Leo seemed to consider for a moment. "Good question, McLean." He hummed along with the music for a while before answering her. "I guess…if you want to build things for the future, you got to rebuild the past."
He turned his head away to another direction. There was a faraway look in his eyes. It was the first time Piper saw him like that. What would he be thinking? He looked back to her, and he grinned again. "I'm deep, am I?"
They let the silence pass by them. They were both used to the constant silence between them, they grew into it and it wasn't too awkward anymore. The jukebox finished its song. And then it automatically played another song. In this one, they were both familiar with it. Buford seemed to stir on his sleep (but to be honest, Piper didn't know if the table was really sleeping or just lounging around).
Oh, the food's gone cold
Blizzard's at its worst, so you'll have to stay
You stood up and did something bold
Oh, come and let's dance, you say
Let's dance to the edge of the world
"You know, you'll have to go back to your cabin sooner or later."
Leo stood up from the table he had been sitting and walked across the room to her. She only watched him. He stood in front of her. And then he held out his hand. His head motioned to the jukebox, and to the wide-spaced floor. Piper looked skeptical.
"What? Do you doubt my dancing skills?"
"Oh come on. I'll prove it. Hell, I might be better than Jason."
"We'll see." She smiled playfully. No turning him down. Piper took his hand and Leo led her to the middle of the dance floor. Because of the upbeat rhythm of the song, their feet were faster and carefree, but they both held their hands together. They danced until the next song, which was slower. They danced on, their feet and hips swaying. They danced to pass the time. They danced through night. Buford was watching them the whole time.
The war is over. Everything is supposed to be back to normal.
But it's hard to get back to their normal lives. (Then again, the life of a demigod is never normal to begin with.) They can't go stand up for themselves when one of them is missing.
Or left them forever, to put it in a different way.
The fog was extremely thick. Their breath had already formed a mist. It was winter now. They were ready to go Epirus. They couldn't stand around any longer. They spent many months preparing. Percy and Annabeth were waiting for them.
The ship's air turbulence was busted, so they had to go through sea. It was even colder in air and sea. They layered themselves with coats and jackets and bonnets. They warmed the engines to keep them working. It was the coldest winter they had ever experienced.
And it looked like they were going to have the coldest Christmas.
And now, they were in the middle of nowhere. The total silence made all passengers of the Argo II uneasy, even the indestructible Gleeson Hedge wasn't causing too much racket. Jason called a meeting in the stern quarterdeck.
"This is the test the goddess told us about," he started when all their friends were present. "This is the Symplegades, the Clashing Rocks."
They did not appear to have heard it, except for Piper and Nico. Their faces were grim.
"So what do we do?" Hazel asked.
Jason took a deep breath. "First, we have to know if we could go through the Symplegades. We have to test the waters with a dove. If she passes safely, we can go safely as well. But if she dies, then we have to turn back and give up."
"But Epirus is right ahead after this," Nico said. "So we have to try."
"We have to," Jason said.
"But how do we find a dove?" Frank asked.
All eyes stared at him.
Frank's eyes widened. "Oh no. Not me! Not me!"
Jason, Nico, and Hedge kept insisting and trying to convince Frank to lead the way. Hazel held his hand, not exactly sure whether to agree with Jason or defend Frank.
Then a hand was slowly raised in the air. "I'll go," Piper said. "I can...see a bit through the fog. I don't know how or why, but I just do." Everyone stared at her next. "And the dove is my mother's sacred animal."
Behind her, she could hear Leo, leaning behind the controls, mumbling inaudibly.
"I don't have wings, though," she said.
Jason held her hand and gripped it tightly. He was shaking. "It'll be really dangerous," he said. "I can fly. I'll come with you."
A wave of comfort came to Piper. But then she thought, will he catch me when I fall? Would he save me when I'm going to die?
Of course he will! Another thought came to her. Just trust him. He's your boyfriend.
But the company of two didn't exactly reassure her if her experience proved right.
Then Hedge spoke up. "Yeah, you guys can go ahead, but with this thick of a fog, how can we know if you guys passed? Nobody here can see like McLean. It's better if we all come with her."
Jason must've known where this was going, because his expression tightened. "Alright, then how do I carry all five of you?"
Another hand raised itself. "Uh, hey, buddy, is me and my ship invisible to you? If we need something, everything is here, and I think everyone should stick together. No one goes ahead. No one leaves anyone behind."
Jason thought differently. "The ship is big. We could get everyone in danger."
"The ship has been through a lot of dangers! Us too! What's wrong, man? What's bothering you?"
Jason did not say anything for a long time. "Okay. Okay. We'll all go."
Leo grinned and placed his two hands together. "Awesome. Now here's the game plan."
Later, Most of the crew was down by the deck, loading ballistae in case sea monsters interrupted, and checking and double checking the ship's armor. Before Piper went down with the others, Leo handed her a headset. "You're going to be my eyes. I'm counting on you."
Piper nodded, grabbed her headset, and went down.
She went to the deck, and headed straight for the mast, where Festus greeted her with a snort and a couple of creaks. She patted the masthead and looked behind her. All her friends were in their designated places, nodding and smiling reassuringly to her. Hedge was beating his bat at the edge of the ship, grinning and shouting, "Come, Rocks, have at thee!"
She put on the headset and looked nervously in front of her. In the past few months aboard the Argo II, she and her friends went through a lot of things, together. Now she felt what it was like to be alone, all by herself, and the lives of the others depending on her sight. And she hated that feeling. Being alone, and then carrying a big responsibility on her shoulders at the same time; it was hard.
Jason came to her side and hugged her. "Everything is going to be okay. I know you can do it. And I'm here for you."
Piper smiled to him. He let go and stayed by her side, holding her hand. His attempt on reassuring her was sweet, but it didn't exactly do the charm. If something went wrong, the blame would still be upon her.
"Hey, you okay there?" A voice in the headpiece said.
She replied, "Yeah, I'm okay."
Jason turned to her, confused. She pointed at her headphones and mouthed, Leo. He nodded and looked back at the sea.
"Okay, good. Don't worry too much, alright?" Leo said. "All you need to do is to tell me where to turn. I'll be driving and stirring the ship."
She bit her lip. "But what if—"
"You're just gonna have to trust me. We still have that, right?"
She nodded. "Yeah."
"And if it bothers you that much, if anything happens, we both share the blame, okay?"
She turned around and looked up to the quarterdeck. There was Leo, wearing similar headset. He gave her a thumbs-up. She nodded and made a small smile. "You psychic or something?"
She rolled her eyes.
"Just kidding. I guess I finally mastered the art of reading both machines and people. Way to go, me. "
Piper shook her head playfully. He only nodded and gestured her around. "Turn around and keep your eyes on the road, woman. This is going to be a rough ride."
The Argo II is parked at a distance. It's gathering snow, and, in no time, the ship will not be seen. It will be hiding under the snow, unnoticed.
She looks back at the ship, and then back at the pyre. Everyone is still crying. No, no, stop. Stop crying. No one is supposed to cry.
He doesn't want any one of you to cry, I'm sure of that.
Leo could not stop coughing.
Every few minutes he would lean on the walls and wheeze, trying to regulate his breathing, covering his mouth. He could not concentrate on stirring the ship. Sometimes he would collapse. But he would shrug off everyone's help. I'm fine, he said. Let me drive the ship.
He grew worse. Both in condition and attitude. He started lashing out to everyone. I don't need your help, I'm fine! He started to have a high fever. It developed into something worse. Something they couldn't understand. They couldn't help him. They tried. They confined him into his room. When watching Leo, Jason himself looked grimmer and grimmer every day, like he knew that this would happen all along. And that he knew what would happen next.
Frank and Jason took turns on driving the ship. Hazel was in charge of taking care of Leo. And Piper was in charge of staying away from him. He was especially bitter to her. For reasons she was yet to find out.
She decided to break the rule by sneaking into his chamber room one night, before the group arrived at Epirus. He seemed more tamed and quiet in the evening.
"Go away," he said, turning his back to her, burying his head in a pillow.
Piper closed the door behind her quietly. Leo could only mumble and groan, bringing his blanket over his head. Piper dragged a chair and placed it besides his bed. She sat down. "Do you need something?" she said to him.
She expected that he'd say, yes, get out, I don't need you. Of all the people who would bother her the most, it would be Leo. If anyone else just ignored her out of the blue, fine, have it their way. But Leo? She would have to be worried. She would want to know what's going on.
Leo lowered his blanket, exposing his head, which was beaded with sweat. "A glass of water, maybe...?"
She managed a smile. She snuck out again to get what he needed, plus a wet towel. She came across Hedge, whose nose was literally puffing out smoke and who had the urge to shout at her when she was able to charmspeak her way out. She came back and found him sitting up on his bed. It took her a while to realize he was shirtless.
Piper took her time going back to her chair. She handed him the glass. He chugged it at one go. Then she handed him the wet towel. "Bath time for you, I guess," she said, glancing at his perspiring body (Was it possible for him to even feel heat?). "But I'm not washing you."
"You're a terrible nurse," Leo managed to say.
She watched him for a while. (Did Hazel see him like this everyday?) Then he handed the surprisingly dry towel back to her. "Thanks," he said. Leo lied back down on the bed, and stared at the ceiling.
Several minutes passed before any of them spoke up. "Are you feeling better now?"
He sighed. "I guess." He turned away. "I'm...I'm sorry."
Piper pretended that she didn't know what the sorry was for. "What for?"
"For...for...well..." Leo sighed. "For being an a** to all of you. I've been an a** to everyone. It's really a wonder how you guys put up with me. How can you put up with me?"
Piper wanted to say, because you're our friend. But from the way he said it, she knew that he was asking for another answer.
"I guess we manage. We just can." It was all Piper could think about at the moment.
"Well, you guys are cool for that. I hope to have my Wii controller tomorrow. I miss being Admiral."
"You're still sick."
"Screw that, I'm driving tomorrow. First thing I'll do when I wake up. I hate sitting here. I hate doing nothing. Makes me feel useless."
Piper did not say anything.
Leo looked down to his fiddling fingers. "I had a dream, a few nights ago. I told this to Hazel, so don't think you're anything special. Where was I? Oh, yeah, dream."
He sat up again. He told her the dream. He had not cracked down to the fullest details, but Piper understood enough.
"So we're all going to die," she concluded. "No matter what we do."
"I don't know. I really don't know."
Piper had seen Leo being unsure numerous times, but then, he still found a way around. There was no way around this time.
She reached out and held his hand.
But when she touched him, he was too hot, burning hot, that her hand recoiled. But she slowly placed it back on top of his, holding on, enduring the heat. Minutes that felt like hours ticked away. It took Piper to notice that they were both staring at each other. His breathing was uneven. His hair was soaked with sweat. His eyes, drooping, tired, with dark circles around. Just looking at him made her realize that she was tired, too. It will be over soon, someone seemed to say to her.
His hands didn't feel hot anymore, at least to her. It was just warm, endurable and comforting.
They both managed to smile. Leo gripped Piper's hand. And then he pulled her closer.
In Hazel's arms is a large cloth. Especially made for him. She hesitates to step up. Frank places an arm around her. She cries more loudly. Nico holds her hand. Jason wants to say something, but no word comes out.
She still looks up in front of her, but with eyes closed, letting the snow shut tight her eyelids, not wanting to open them.
Nobody is holding her hand, or saying sweet words to her, or embracing her. Not with everyone trying to tend to their sorrows. With her eyes closed, her comforter is the snow.
They ran through the darkness, their feet urging them onward, away from their pursuers, getting colder and colder as they went further. Piper was searching in the darkness, praying that he was not left behind. Then someone grabbed her wrist and they kept running, going faster, growing tired.
"Where are they!?" she shouted.
Leo could only shake his head while running and tugging at his full speed.
They turned to another large dark hallway. Leo tried to summon fire, but the place was far too cold. Then he slipped and skidded on the tiled floor, dragging Piper along with him. He hit his head on a pillar. Leo tried to stand back up, but in a second, he was shivering and coughing back at the floor. Piper, who slid to another direction, was about to dash to him when she felt the presence of all eight dragons surrounding her.
They circled her, contemplated her, and there was nothing she could do but grip Katoptris tightly. She shut her eyes as the dragons opened their mouths.
Then someone tackled her to the ground and embraced her until there was no more air for her to breathe. But she smelled smoke and fire, and the colors of orange and yellow and red danced around her vision.
The dragons were shooting their flames, but Leo was a shield.
The flames only bounced harmlessly off them. The dragons were too stunned to continue, so they stopped. Leo's resonated coughing was far louder than their roars. The eight pairs of ruby eyes only stared down. Shaking, Leo released Piper, held her wrist again, and ran from the dragons. Piper matched his slow pace. The dragons did not bother to chase them anymore.
Piper walks towards Hazel. Jason watches her come near them, but does not say anything to her. She manages to smile at Hazel. "Let me take this," she says, so very calmly. She does not reach out to her. She waits for her reply. The others stare at Piper. It takes long for Hazel to decide. Then she extends her arm-the one with the cloth-to Piper. She takes it and holds the cloth in her arms. Hazel stops crying.
"Can you still move?"
Leo sniffed. He nodded. "Yeah, don't worry." He leaned on the wall of the cave.
Piper made him sit down on the ground. "Just hold on, Leo, we're almost there. We just have to find the others. Please hold on."
Their friends were waiting for them. Or maybe they were finding them. They couldn't risk any more danger.
Piper knelt down in front of Leo. She couldn't just leave him here.
"Leave me here, Piper," he said suddenly. "I'll catch up, don't worry about me." He waved his hand. "Go now. Jason needs you." He managed to stand up. "He's going to kill me if something happens to you."
Piper held him. "I'm not leaving without you."
"I'm fine, McLean. The others might be in danger. Go already!"
Behind them, the monsters they fought a while ago roared. The earth below them shook. It could swallow them at any moment. The dreaded evil atmosphere was everywhere, and they were breathing through it, obliterating all sense and thought of hope, trying to take away their will to fight through this.
"I'll hold them back," Leo said. He was forcing himself to breathe, making his chest rise and fall, breathing through his mouth. He was clutching his heart, his other hand on the wall for support. He started going back to the direction they went, leaning and sliding against the cave walls.
"This is no time to be a hero, Leo."
"Then what are we called? Villains? Cowards?"
Piper was clenching her fists, gritting her teeth. The roar of the monsters was nearer now. And the ground's shaking was more violent. The earth made a heavy lurch like it was going to jump up and swallow them. Both of them were forced on their knees, Piper scraping her arms on the rough black dirt, and Leo hitting his head again.
They slowly brought themselves up. Piper grabbed Leo's wrist and gripped it tightly. "I'm not leaving you," she said again.
Leo shook her hand away. "Then I'm leaving you." He turned his back to her and started to run, although it was sloppy and tired.
"Leo!" She ran to chase him. "Hey!" She managed to catch up to him. She grabbed his wrist and made him turn around to face her.
He glared at her. "Just go alre—"
She held his head and kissed him. It was a real kiss, or felt like it. (Although she didn't admit it, she could be a great actress.) Then she let go of him and took out Katoptris, and stood by his side. "I'm not leaving without you."
It took Leo for a while to get out from his shock. For a few seconds, he let himself go without breathing, and then he restarted again, looked at her, and then back at the direction where the monsters would appear, then at her, and then he shouted in frustration, throwing his hands in the air and scratching his head. "Ngah! Fine! Have it your way! Stay if you want to! Fine!" His foot stomped on the dirt before setting his hand on fire and facing back to meet their attackers. "You just ruined me."
She could only smile.
The distance between them and the pyre is small, but it takes her the longest time to march up with the shroud in her arms. Each step becomes heavier and heavier, and the cloth in her arms is gaining weight. Snow has already gathered around the wood. Piper places the shroud on top of the wood. There will be no body on the pyre. Unlike many of the demigods, he will be buried.
The next part, though, was all a blur. It was all because she had forced to forget this memory.
Nothing was vivid. Her Technicolor eyes were forced to paint the gray and dull surroundings around her, blinding her. Time was both slowing down and going fast for Piper. She only stood there, looking at the two roads that were laid to her. Two choices. Two lives on the edge of the cliff. Two lives that was about to be snuffed out if she didn't react quickly.
Her mind was racing with thoughts and plans, but she knew that if she had stayed in where she stood, then she would lose both of them. She hated choosing. Letting someone choose for her was not an option either.
One was yelling, the other was silent. One was trying to fight back, one was on the verge of letting himself go, wanting to forget everything, wanting to disappear. One was telling her to save herself and forget himself, go on onward and get the rest. The other wasn't saying anything.
In every second, the moment became more blurry for her, and beyond this part there were many cuts and blurs and blacks. Parts that she didn't want to remember. She had already forgotten who the loud one was, and who the quiet one was. Who was the determined one, and who was the one who was going to give up.
Piper ran for Jason. She was sure it was Jason. She was able to save him. How and from what, she forgot already. All she remembered for the next part was that Jason was giving her a look. Not a look like he was relieved or glad that he was saved. It was a look that she didn't expect from him. Why me?
She looked back. This part she chose to forget, too. This part she tried so hard to forget, in which she forcefully erased from her mind. But she remembered the pain of her legs as she forced herself to run her fastest, her hand outstretched, her heart hammering against her chest, and in her eyes what could be tears that she couldn't decide if she should force it back or let it flow, but nonetheless it was making her vision all the more blurry.
(You said we're all supposed to die.)
The last memory she has with Leo Valdez is when she held his lifeless body. She could feel the warmth seeping away from him, his skin gradually becoming cold. His eyes she was forced to close.
(Or was it Jason? Hazel?)
She lays the shroud on the top of the pyre. She lingers for a moment, just standing and staring at it, and then, she sets fire at the base of the wood. She steps back, and watches the fire envelop the whole pyre. The flames look glorious and overwhelming. Some manages to reach to her, in which she keeps stepping back to avoid getting touched by the flames. But it seems that the flames were reaching out to her, trying to catch her. Trying to embrace her…
(She's going crazy now.)
Jason comes behind Piper. He embraced her tightly. "It's…it's alright," he whispers.
(Of course it's not alright!)
She can only grip his arms. The tears are starting to come. But she's holding it back. She can feel that he is crying, too. He doesn't show it, but he is.
(He's you best friend!)
"It's not your fault."
(It's all my fault.)
Piper doesn't say anything. Percy comes besides them, looking at the pyre.
"What about the body?" he asks.
(The body. Do we have to do this twice?)
Jason is quiet for a while. "We can't burn his body," he says. "We just can't."
("They can't burn me.")
At this point, she can't hear them. She shuts herself from the world. Inside to her mind. She closes her eyes again. Who is Leo Valdez to her? Why does this affect her so much?
He is—was—a little bit of everything. A brother and a friend, mostly. That is for sure.
(Maybe even a lover? Although nobody knows that, even Leo himself.)
But does she love him?
(Of course she does.)
If she does, then why did she let this happen?
(If something wrong happens, the blame would be upon her.
And yet they are not blaming her.)
Her friends are standing besides her, watching the pyre burn down to the last bit. Ash and smoke have joined the heavy snow. Everything is dull and white and gray, except for the fire, which burns bright and strong.
(She wants to run away from here. It seems like the only option to escape the pain.
But she can't.
She's not Leo Valdez.)
Piper finds herself at her knees. And she's screaming, crying, and cursing the gods and every powerful deity, entity, force. She blames her enemies, the world, and the universe. She blames Leo, she blames herself. Her friends are embracing her, now holding her hand, telling her soothing words.
(Try to fix me now, Valdez.)
If everything had gone well, if everything was just different (even only a little bit), this could have been the ending, Piper thought. Of all the endings she had imagined about, she liked thinking about this ending.
The sky was blue and clear of all clouds and the sun was shining right at the top. Below were their friends, both Greek and Roman. They were all shaking hands, hugging, laughing, exchanging words, congratulating themselves, and some had even started snowball fights. The war against Mother Earth was over. Both camps were in peace (for now). There would be many plans for many things, many bonds were going to be created and forged.
Leo was watching from the deck of the Argo II, sitting at the edge besides the masthead of the ship. He tried to find his friends from the sea of purple and orange and gold and bronze and white.
"Hey, Hot Stuff," Piper called behind him. "What are you doing here? We've been looking everywhere for you."
Leo looked behind him and grinned. "I'll come down later. I just don't feel like being in a crowd right now."
"Ooooh, why's that?"
"No reason other than just wanting to hang out with Festus." He patted the masthead, "Festus and I are having plans on getting a new body for him. Isn't that right, boy?" The bronze dragon head snorted flames in reply.
"That's cool." She sat besides him. She scanned through the crowd for the others. She found Hazel and Frank together with their cohorts. Frank's arm was around her, and they had huge smiles on their faces. Percy and Annabeth were hugging other fellow campers, and later, they hugged, too. And, a little bit farther from where their other friends were, in an area where it was less crowded, there was Jason talking to Reyna. He seemed to be talking really fast and his eyes were apologetic. Reyna's face was almost unreadable. Almost, because in her eyes there was look of triumph of sorts. Piper felt a pang of jealousy, but she eased it quickly, smiling to herself.
Leo was looking at their friends as well, but the jealousy in his face was obvious.
"Didn't get the girl, I see?" Piper said.
Leo sighed. "Well, you can say that. It wasn't my girl from the start, anyway." He mumbled some more, but it was all nonsense. He sighed again and let himself smile. "I'm like some sort of girlfriend stealer."
"I'm kind of-sort of a boyfriend stealer as well. But you know me."
He wrinkled his nose. "But you managed to steal the guy."
"I sort of see that maybe I'll…I'll let him go for now."
"For now?" Leo snorted. "You really think you can steal him back if you want to?"
Piper punched his arm. "Oh, shut up, Valdez." But she couldn't help but smile.
They watched the people below for a while. Then Leo stretched out and yawned. "Well, now that I'm aware I'm still single, do me my usual request and hook me up with one of your lovely siblings, McLean."
Leo stared at her. "What?"
"You just said you would do it."
"Yes, I said that."
"Oh wow, what happened to you. Any sane reason why you're accepting my usual always-denied request?"
She looked below her. "Well…maybe because there is one Aphrodite kid who's interested." Then she reached out and held his hand and then smiled.
Leo stared down at her hand, which was on top of his, slowly taking in the image of their hands together. He looked up to Piper's face and tried to read her expression, her eyes, if this was all just a joke to tip him off,. But when he saw that she was serious (well, she looked like she was serious), his gaze went back to their hands and he muttered, "Oh, you're kidding me."
"I thought you like any thoughts and acts of insanity."
Leo grinned again. "I do."
They went down to meet their friends, hand-in-hand.