Admiral Commander Reyna Avila Ramírez-Arellano, recipient of thirteen Blue Bands for valor in battle, seven Krisoffians for leadership in office, and two Tykronian Medals, Praetor of the Twelfth Legion, the finest, brightest, youngest Admiral Commander the Empire of New Rome had seen in centuries, was going to deliver evisceration unto all members of Special Operations.
Ambassador Nico di Angelo will be the first one she fires upon, she decided. The rest of Corp can follow him into her line of fire.
Ambassador di Angelo turned away from her desk, sliding his hands in carefully choreographed movements to gain access to the ENR galaxyfighter mainframe.
She stared in momentary shock. Di Angelo was using her account. Her personal, Abyss Wall protected account that only she was supposed to have access to. She wasn't just going to eviscerate him. She was going to eviscerate him and then throw him off her ship and into space. Then she'll know for certain if the Ambassador doesn't have squishy guts inside him just like everybody else.
"This," Nico said as he navigated through the Twelfth spiral arm of the galaxy, Reyna's domain and responsibility, stars and nebulae flying past his fingertips, "was Praetor Grace's route. He checked in here," he pointed to a sparsely populated orange planet, "here," a way base satellite, "missed his scheduled check in here," a military outpost operated by the Third Legion, "and sent a message from here two weeks earlier than physically possible if he had used his planned route, made contact right-" di Angelo flung his arms outward and the simulation moved too fast for Reyna to follow "...here."
She stood quickly.
The Ambassador turned to face her with gave eyes, dark hair curling softly around his young face. "What message did Praetor Grace send?" she demanded, drawing herself up to her full height. Her spine has always been made of titanium. Di Angelo stared over her shoulder into a green nebula. "What was Praetor Grace's message, Ambassador?" she demanded again.
Di Angelo's eyes snapped to hers in eerie precision. "Do not attempt," he said haltingly, and frowned. He began again, enunciating each syllable. "That is restricted information. Do not attempt to access it again." He bowed quickly and turned. She did not call him back to finish his report on the disappearance of the war hero golden boy Jason Grace while on a classified mission for Special Operations, pride of the Empire of New Rome and her socius. She had seen this happen before, Ambassador di Angelo's strange behavior, and she had begun an inquiry, one that had been quickly been smothered. There was no point in attempting to figure out was going on- if the internal operation of the Empire of New Rome didn't kill it, then the 3HD Corporation would find it and smush it. She would bet her right hand Corp was deeply involved in whatever Jason had been doing and that was the reason why their Ambassador to the Empire of New Rome was informing her personally of his disappearance. Di Angelo left her office with quick steps.
The simulation of the dead planet Mycenae, designation CHB-314159, reformed behind di Angelo as he left, the wreckage slowly drifting through space.
Reyna barges through the doors to Jason's quarters without asking or knocking. His quarters are as cramped as her own; despite their rank they are only granted a small bedroom and bathroom with a small entryway. It's private, at least for Reyna. She can always guess Jason's access codes and he's never bothered to program them to specifically lock her out.
The golden boy of the Empire is standing next to his bed, wearing neither a shirt nor a pair of pants when she steps through the door. He turns quickly at the soft hiss of the opening door, crouching and reaching under his pillow in a swift movement. "Reyna!" he yelps when he sees her. He withdraws his hand from under his pillow and quickly pulls the blanket half lying on the floor around his waist. "Do you mind?"
Reyna crosses her arms and points at the clothes lying on the bed that are very obviously not his next to a slightly frayed bag. "I heard you were going somewhere."
"In fact I am," he said irritably, tugging the standard issue blanket closer to his waist. "Special Operations had a request. Who told you?"
"A little bird."
He squints up at her. "I'm not going to ask any more questions. Would you mind turning around for a second?"
She does turn to face the wall, even though Jason's embarrassment is a bit silly: she's seen him feverish and bloody, seen him puking into a toilet, and on one memorable occasion seen him drunk, naked, and dancing. There had been a lot of bad press she'd had to shush up that time, and Jason had paid dearly once he was sober. "Okay," he says.
She turns again. Jason has hastily pulled on a pair of ragged thick black pants with numerous pockets. As she watches, he pulls on a clean white undershirt and a thinning long gray shirt. "Civilian," she guesses, because she's done more than her fair share of classified missions for Special Operations. She rakes a critical eye over the gathered clothes and gear lying in piles on his bed. "Somewhere cold."
Jason sees her gaze and tries to hastily push everything out of sight, but there's nowhere for it to go. "Classified," he mutters and pulls on a worn brown jacket that's not his.
"I'm not supposed to know about this," she guesses and the little twitch of the corner of his eye tells her she's right. "What did they think?" she asks, pulling out and sitting down in the lone chair in the room. "I wasn't going to notice I was suddenly taking care of an entire arm of the galaxy?"
Jason shrugs and begins meticulously placing items in the bag on his bed. She watches him for a moment, snacks on the small candies he keeps in a plastic bowl on his orderly desk. "Nervous?" she asks.
Jason's hands still, holding softly onto the bag. He chews on the inside of his cheek and looks up at her, and she hasn't seen this sort of ancient and weary sadness well in his eyes for a very long time. "A bit," he admits.
"The mission specifications?"
It's usually the other way around. Out of the two of them, Reyna is the one the Empire likes to use for the secret stuff, dark projects that are best kept out of the view of the Roman public. Reyna is the one sitting on the bed with civilian clothes that aren't hers and a mission dark in her mind. Jason is the one who hands her a secret comm that can contact him from nearly anywhere in the galaxy and is left to govern an entire arm of the galaxy by himself, something he seemingly does with ease. Everyone loves Jason because he's noble and caring, but Reyna comes from places so dark people can see it in her eyes.
Reyna always hid those secret comms he gave her somewhere in her room (far too dangerous to take an object that would blow her cover wide open in an instant if discovered), but it always was a comforting gesture. Even halfway across the galaxy she could trust him to have her back.
"You'll be alright," she tells him, but it feels like weak assurance. She wasn't made for comfort.
"Reyna..." he says, looking down at hands.”...it's... it's bad, this can't-"
She moves from the chair to the bed, sitting down next to him and taking one of his hands in hers. "Sshhh..." she tells him, gently massaging the tense muscles in the palm of his hand. "You know you can't tell me."
"I know," he says, hanging his head. "But the person I'm supposed to be for this operation, this isn't- I'm not good at this."
"At not being you?" she suggests, letting go of his hand and packing the rest of his things in the bag, things that aren't actually his.
Jason nods. "My cover... I don't know how to be who he is."
They have a lot of bad memories between the two of them, and there have been many bad people.
Reyna doesn't know how to reassure him like he does for her.
Jason glances down at the watch on his wrist, her gift to him when he made Praetor shortly after she did. "I have to go," he says. "My flight leaves soon." She stands and hands him his packed bag, which he slings over one shoulder after he stands
"I have your back," she tells him.
"I know," he says, pulling her in for a tight warm hug. "Take care of everyone for me." Reyna nods into his shoulder.
It isn't until after Jason has left that she notices he has left his watch on his pillow. A necessity, she knows, but it still hurts something deep inside of her to see it lying there. She picks it up and tucks it into the pocket of her pants before half tidying his room.
She turns off the lights before she leaves, the doors hissing softly shut behind her.
"Your request has been denied," Octavian said, smug as a satisfied cat. "How very unfortunate. I'm afraid you'll have to leave this work to me, darling."
Reyna will someday leave this sneering sweet voiced weasel to die in some forsaken part of the galaxy.
"Believe me," Octavian said, "I share your desire to retrieve Admiral Commander Grace. I will do everything in my power to find him and bring him back to the Empire. But it for the sake of the Empire," he said gently,” that I must do my duty and use my good judgment. It is not in the best interests of the Empire to allow such a... fine and valuable officer as yourself to risk your life so needlessly in such a dangerous endeavor."
When Reyna would later recount this moment over drinks, she would swear her guns were humming in anger in their holsters
"Don't worry," Octavian continued without sincerity. Reyna wasn't even offended he wasn't bothering to thread sugar sweetness into his voice as he did when he was being overtly manipulative. He had at least some measure of respect for her and knew she saw through his lies. "I'll do my best to find Admiral Commander Jason." He steepled his hands on his desk and looked like a child who'd made off with the candy basket. "Rest assured, Admiral Commander, I will utilize all the resources at my disposal to find him." He handed her back her request absent of his red seal of approval. "Officer to officer," he said, smiling serenely up at her, "It's a good thing our friend Jason is such an upstanding, brave... loyal servant of the great Empire, isn't it, Reyna?" His tone was off; like he actually knew something she didn't and wasn't just pretending. His smile looked for all the universe to be true but his voice and eyes were as dead as deep space. He wanted her to know he was destroying her, that his power exceeded hers in this area and he was in control.
Reyna wanted to do many things. She wanted to destroy him, to rip apart the little kingdom he had built for himself among the ranks of the Empire, to burn it and choke him on the ashes. She wanted him to face a tribunal for his crimes, for them to hang him and pull his guts out of his stomach while his eyes bulged and his mouth burbled with blood. She wanted to take away everything he had ever valued. She wanted him to be the one to wake up one morning and find his battle partner, his other half, the back at his back, his anchor, lost among the stars. She wanted to make him suffer and to beat him with her fists and feet.
She did not say anything. She did not have to.
For a brief moment, Octavian's calm was disrupted and his eyes widened.
But Reyna forced the ever present drumbeat of violence thrumming in her blood to sink back beneath her skin. She wanted to see Octavian bloody and bleeding and begging for mercy. Yet all she said was: "Good day, Captain." She gifted him with a generous half bow and turned her back on him, walking out of his office.
Hazel Levesque, heir to a corporate empire, robed in armor and large guns requested a formal private meeting and proceeded to forcibly make Reyna do illegal things. At least, Reyna hoped the ENR records would show that.
In reality, Hazel stormed her way through the Twelfth Legion's central barracks in a skirt and sunglasses with fabulous twin D'Zorian-class assault razers strapped to her back. She entered Reyna's office without waiting for her permission and threw down a sheaf of papers on her desk. How quaint. She leaned forward, just the slightest bit taller than a seated Reyna. "You," Hazel said with her exaggerated high class accent as she peered over the edges of her sunglasses, "me. Lunch. Now."
"...I beg your pardon?"
Hazel sighed, her bracelets that likely doubled as deadly weapons dangling from her wrists. She dropped the exaggeration from and returned to her normal accent, one much like Reyna's had been before she had learned how to sound less like a low class street thief. "Come to lunch with me. Some shopping, too."
Reyna tried her best to look like an Inquisitioner. It would have scared off anyone. Yet Hazel only flashed her false left eye and forced Reyna to blink at the bright light. "You look rather cute from this angle," Hazel said as her dark pupil resized. "Come with me to lunch, Reyna. Finish that report later."
Reyna paused. Hazel was unusually persistent and forward today. "Is this a date?"
Hazel snorted and rolled her eyes. "Don't be ridiculous. No personal relationships between Corp employees and ENR officers. I suppose," she said as she smiled suggestively and winked with her real eye, "they might make an exception for me. But nevertheless, you're not my type."
"You have a type?"
"My type," Hazel whispered conspiratorially, "is that cute secretary you have. He's not terribly good at his job, is he?"
Reyna leaned to the right to look past Hazel. Fran-something was worriedly walking quickly towards her office. Franco? Frances? Fra- Frank. Frank Zhang, that was his name. Yes, Frank Zhang, the one who came with a lot of bad blood but was remarkably good at hitting the enemy. "He's not a secretary, he's security. You're bad news for him, Hazel."
Hazel smiled slightly. "Whatever you say, Reyna dear. Now: lunch."
Reyna considered carefully. On one hand, Hazel was a Corp employee, and the only living heir to the mysterious founder of the 3HD Corporation. On the other hand, she was filthy rich, almost a friend, and Reyna was hungry. "Are you paying?"
Hazel gave her a small pitying smile. "Of course I'll pay," she said as she sat on the edge of Reyna's desk and patted her arm. "ENR doesn't pay you nearly enough, do they?" Reyna closed her files, stood and walked to the door, Hazel following behind her. "My brother's offer still stands." Yet another mystery of the inner workings of Corp. Ambassador Nico di Angelo was no heir to the corporation, despite being related to Hazel. "Good private enforcement is hard to find and the tempers that usually come with? My goodness it's a nightmare." Hazel's voice had an odd lilt to it now, like the strange wash of wrong tides. It chilled Reyna's blood, ice spreading from her veins from the place on her forearm where Hazel had touched her.
Sometimes, Hazel Levesque's inhumanity scared her. But her completely false brother scared her more.
Reyna jumped when their arms linked.
"Relax," Hazel said. "You're not going to face a tribunal for going out to lunch."
Reyna looked at her. "Okay," Hazel amended, "you might."
Hazel guided her to the private launching pad, supposedly only for the use of high ranking ENR officers in cases of emergency. "Nice ride," Reyna said.
Hazel patted the side of the latest Evenrgy model; sleek, black, and slightly intimidating. Evenrgy was a luxury company, and they made one thousand exact copies of everything they made, including their small fliers, of which they had one model. "They don't even make them in black," Hazel said fondly as she walked towards the elegant machine.
She turned back as the door opened upward, the engines beginning to whir and blowing her hair around her face, and winked at Reyna. "I know just the place for lunch. You'll love the company."
"I've spotted fourteen health code violations already," Reyna muttered under her breath.
"Now do you know why I asked you to change on the road?" Hazel asked, twisting one of the bangles on her wrist back and forth while they waited just inside the seedy restaurant she had chosen for lunch.
Reyna would never dare say it aloud, but the uniform had its hazards sometimes, even in the heart of the Empire of New Rome.
The old woman at the counter waved them to a corner table in the back. Hazel gestured for Reyna to go first. "No," Reyna said, "you can." Hazel gestured again. "Fine." She sat down and moved over. The seat was sticky and made strange squishing noises. "When you said you were buying me lunch," Reyna told Hazel, "I expected something classier."
Hazel pulled off her sunglasses, folded them, and set them in the middle of the table. "It's not classy but it isn't cheap either." She pulled the assault razers from her back and put them down on the table next to her sunglasses, carefully avoiding suspicious dark patches. She sat down next to Reyna, ignoring the filth. "Do me a favor and say something."
"What did you eat for breakfast?"
"I didn't eat anything for breakfast which is why I was looking forward to eating some tasty, uncontaminated, expensive food."
"Good enough," Hazel said. Her sunglasses folded over themselves several times until they turned into a box.
Reyna watched the box carefully. It didn't move again. "What does it do?"
Reyna recognized movement from the corner of her eyes. Nico di Angelo had discarded the clean cut uniform of 3HD Corp and wore an enormous black jacket that seemed to swallow him within its depths. The dark smudges under his eyes were even more pronounced and he looked painfully young.
He also carried clean white bags.
In Reyna's experience, white equaled clean, and bags equaled food or drugs. Reyna raised a hand in greeting. Nico looked startled but he raised a bag towards her.
"You set me up," she accused Hazel as Nico made his way across the restaurant, carefully avoiding suspicious dark patches on the floor and some of the seedier clientele.
Hazel shrugged and withdrew a small bottle of water from her purse. "You're quite trusting."
"Not really," Reyna said.
"No, not really," Hazel agreed.
Di Angelo finally arrived at their corner table. He slipped in next to Hazel despite the much larger space on Reyna's side. "I brought food." He didn't look at Reyna but did shove one of the bags towards her.
"Thank you," she said politely.
"You set me up," he hissed at Hazel.
Hazel raised an elegant eyebrow. "You're quite trusting."
Nico frowned. "What is this about?"
Hazel sighed, opening one of the brown boxes from Nico's second bag. "Skiskaldian. My favorite."
"You're not very good at being an older brother you know," Hazel continued as she took a large bite out of her sandwich. Huh. Despite their varying degrees of strangeness, Reyna had always figured Hazel was the older one, staying closer to Corp while Nico, the younger one, was sent out to manage the ENR. That the Corp, having such success with Hazel Levesque, decided to experiment quite a bit more with Nico di Angelo and create life instead of merely augmenting it.
Nico straightened up a little bit. "Hazel."
Hazel finished chewing, put her sandwich down and threw her arms into the air. "I have to do everything, don't I? I think I deserve a raise. Jason, Jason Grace, missing Praetor of the Twelfth Legion? The reason you've been moping around the past few weeks? Who conveniently goes missing near Greek territory?" Reyna doesn't think it's her imagination that Hazel stresses the word Greek. Nor did she know that Jason knew Nico well enough for Nico to mope about him. Reyna was justified in her bad mood but she had thought Jason's interaction with the Ambassador was to the same extent as hers was. Clearly she had been incorrect in her assumptions.
Nico turned sharply to look at Hazel head on. "This better not be that field trip you were going on about. I am not flying across space with you."
"Oh no," Hazel said in what Reyna recognized as her gleefully victorious voice. "I'm not going anywhere. I have a date with an adorable secretary."
"Decorated security officer," Reyna couldn't help but mutter.
"Security," Hazel amended. "I still need to ask him about this date, but it's going to happen. So you," she said as she curled her arm around Nico, "and Praetor Reyna," she draped her other arm around Reyna as Reyna glared at her, "are going to find a nice ship and go find Jason!"
At the very least, Reyna Avila Ramirez-Arellano did have one thing in common with Nico di Angelo: an intense dislike for the machinations of one Hazel Levesque and a tendency to stare angrily at her when such machinations were revealed. "I can go alone," Nico said flatly and moved to stand while removing Hazel's arm from his shoulder.
Hazel curled her arm, pulling Nico closer to her and forcing him to remain sitting. "Space is dangerous place," she said quietly. "Humanity even more so. There are many out there who would not take kindly to you. If-"
Nico angrily pushed Hazel away from him. "I don't need a babysitter, and I sure as hell don't need a body guard."
"Nico," Hazel sighed sadly, "Nico, please just hear me out." He stiffened, and then sagged like a deflating balloon, sliding back into the seat next to Hazel. "Reyna, you don't have the resources to go looking for Jason on your own, not if you don't want to be constantly watched and investigated by the ENR, especially since you already asked to go. We have the resources." Reyna was doubtful. "Besides," Hazel added hurriedly, "Jason might be in a spot of trouble and one person can't pilot and battle at the same time."
"I can do that," Nico said quietly.
"Shut up," Hazel said kindly. "We already know that."
Reyna had been expecting a rescue mission with a rescue ship, emergency medical facilities and perhaps personal weapons but nothing beyond that. It was nice to have someone else to fly with and insure she didn't lose her mind or blow up in space. "What sort of ship are you proposing we fly?" she asked carefully.
Hazel opened her mouth but Nico leaned forward and began to speak before she could get a word out. "You weren't seriously considering flying all the way to Mycenae of all places by yourself in an unarmed ship?" he asked. "That's stupid. Where's the famed strategist I've heard so much about?" Had he heard about her from Jason?
"I never planned to fly alone to Mycenae in a 3HD Corporation ship against the indirect orders of my liaison from the High Council of the Empire of New Rome," Reyna said icily. She did not appreciate her intelligence or her capabilities being questioned.
"Anyway," Hazel said. Half her sandwich had vanished. "An ENR ship is out of the question. Tracking tech on every Corp ship made in the past forty three years means a no for that option."
"That's every decent ship in this half of the galaxy," Reyna pointed out. In fact, that was literally every deep black worthy ship in the Roman side of the galaxy; 3HD Corp had signed a contract with the Empire forty three years ago and had a de facto monopoly. At the same time Nico began to emphatically shake his head. "Absolutely not," he said. "There is no way in hell I am ever flying one of those gods forsaken dying monstrosities ever again. No way in hell. Hazel damnit no."
Hazel looked like Nico had just caught her with her hand in the cookie jar. Nico jerked sharply towards her. "You owe Dad a favor again, don't you?" He slumped against the edge of the table, covering his face in his hands. Reyna listened with interest; information concerning the mysterious ancient founder and current CEO of 3HD Corporation was rare and valuable. "Hazel, do you never learn?" he asked wearily. Reyna suddenly felt like she was intruding in on a profoundly personal conversation. "Father is- he's..." Hazel was hunched as well now, her head bowed towards her lap and her fingers unmoving on her sandwich. She looked close to tears. He looked up again and with quick and disjointed movements hugged her for a moment before releasing her and turning away. "Just... just try not to let it happen again alright?" Reyna understood none of their little exchange.
Hazel nodded quickly and took a large bite of her sandwich, finishing it off. She licked her fingers and wiped them on a napkin. She looked up at Reyna with slightly swollen eyes but a smile on her face. "I did tell you we were going shopping," she said. "Reyna, will you go?"
Reyna hesitated. On one hand was her responsibility and better judgment. One the other hand was Jason Grace and owed vacation time. "I'll go."
She noted the way Nico's eyes lit up and wondered if she had been played by the Corp children. She dismissed the thought. Even if it was true, it wouldn't matter. No matter how her mind protested with cold hard logic, her heart always held the final say when it came to Jason Grace.
There had never been a choice for her to make.
Reyna crossed her arms and let Hazel stew. Nico instead stared with an open mouth at the ship.
"This is..." he started.
"I'm sure it looks better on the inside," Hazel suggested weakly.
Nico cleared his throat. "This is worse than last one."
"It looks to be structurally unstable and I doubt it will ever be able to get off the atmosphere without dying a fiery death and taking out a couple more civilians in the process," Reyna said. Nico choked down a snort.
Hazel indignantly planted her hands on her hips. "You want to take an ENR ship, huh?"
Nico weighed his hands up and down. "An ENR ship won't kill us. This sad excuse for a machine will."
Hazel pulled out her sunglasses and turned to look up at the ship, the wind gently blowing her hair and skirt in a long trail behind her. Reyna had to squint against the yellow sun.
It was an old starship and had seen more than its fair share of wear and tear. It was a small dark silver thing, whether from dirt or from paint Reyna could not decide, suited for three people on a long distance journey, or perhaps two adults and two very small children. She could see in three places where the outside sheet had peeled up. The entire starship listed slightly to the left and it wasn't because the ground was not level. She started cataloging; the internal stabilizers could be adjusted to compensate for the listing, the sheeting was a surface problem easily fixed with a zeNez, which she happened to have on her today, one good fly through at a way station near the Inner Asteroid C6RZvY8 Belt would take care of the dirt, the ramp belt needed work but there was nothing she could do about that unless she completely took it apart and bought new parts. It was old, small, dirty, and made strange noises. It wouldn't be the easiest ship to fly, but it was not nearly as harder as some machines she'd had to pilot.
"It's a little sketchy," Hazel admitted.
"Just a little?"
"A little sketchy. But it flies, isn't trackable by most modern methods, and has a full bucket of fuel on it. If the Empire finds you guys flying too close to Greek space, they'll blast you out of the sky, decorated officer or not." Hazel spun around to face their skeptical faces and clapped her hands together. "All right then! Off you go!"
There was dead silence.
Reyna suddenly recalled the sheaf of papers Hazel had dropped on her desk and the ease in which Nico had accessed her personal ENR mainframe account when he had informed her of Jason's disappearance. If Nico could do that, surely Hazel could have as well. "What have you done?" she asked suspiciously.
"Dang it," Nico whispered under his breath. "I'm an idiot." He breathed in and out. "Hazel was asking questions, and I mentioned that Jason said you never take time off." What else had Jason told him?
"Three weeks of paid vacation," Hazel confirmed, stepping closer. "All set and ready to go. I even bought you two new clothes. And trust me, they fit. Honestly Reyna, Nico owns more normal clothes than you do."
Reyna glared down at Hazel, who melted a little bit. Good. At least her withering stare still worked when she needed it to. "I, uh, should I have asked first?" she asked sheepishly.
"You packed my sword?" Nico asked skeptically.
Hazel grinned. "How could I forget?"
"We'll do the necessary repairs at the first stop we make when we leave the Capitol," Reyna decided, uncrossing her arms and striding up the ramp. She had made her decision, and now she was going to stick with it and find Jason as soon as humanly possible.
"Who put you in charge?" Nico asked curtly.
"I did," she responded with just as much harshness in her voice. She turned to face him from the top of the ramp. "Praetor Grace is still the responsibility of the Empire of New Rome and he is my socius. Thus it is my responsibility is to make the most of my abilities to find him, whether in Empire uniform or on paid vacation. Do you have a problem with that, Ambassador?"
Di Angelo backed down. "No problem," he said slowly and with shuttered eyes. "No problem at all, Admiral Commander."
Reyna tucked herself under the controls and into the copilot's seat. Di Angelo kept his focus ahead and paid her no attention. He sat in the small pilot's seat with his knees tucked to his chest. He was wearing a thin black shirt and his heavy jacket was stuffed into a corner.
"Does this ship even meet safety code standards?" she asked him, noting several broken switches and a small device that frequently buzzed.
He smiled slightly. "Not even close. Does it not meet your expectations?"
Reyna did not let the frown escape and kept her eyes on the flight pattern. "We're not going very fast," she pointed out, "and this speed is already putting a strain on the outer shields." She waited for a moment. "We would make much better time if-"
He cut her off. "No way in hell am I ever setting foot in an ENR ship. You might have gotten on this ship just to keep Hazel happy but I will stay right where I am. Come with me if you want, but you sure as hell can't pilot an ENR ship by yourself."
Reyna waited, let him stew. The more uncomfortable he was the better. She had earned her rank as Admiral Commander and she would be treated with the respect her position deserved, especially by some Corp creation.
"Sorry," di Angelo finally muttered. "That was out of line." He folded his thin legs underneath him and leaned his arm against the dashboard. "Do you mind if I turn up the heat?"
"Go ahead," she told him. She wanted to tell him to put on his jacket. Nico flipped a few switches and temperature quickly began to rise.
A few minutes later, Reyna struggled out of her jacket with great difficulty and watched deep black, the nearly empty space between the trailing arms of the galaxy, speckled with stars, fly by.
Di Angelo muttered something.
He sighed heavily. "Hazel said you were trustworthy."
That would be one of the many reasons the first why Reyna would always secretly disapprove of ENR's close association with 3HD Corp.
A thought occurred to her. "Hazel told you to say that, didn't she, Ambassador?"
He shrugged. He was thin, she noticed, far thinner than the Corp uniform she had always seen him in showed. "Nico is fine, Admiral Commander."
Reyna persisted. "But she did tell you to say that, didn't she?"
He turned to her for the first time since she had entered the forward deck, his dark eyes sunk into his face, giving him the appearance of a dead man walking. "I don't know," he said flatly. "Did she? And if she did, does it matter?" He did not blink.
Reyna stared right back at him and was now completely aware of all circumstances and surroundings. She was in a strategically disadvantageous position that the potential to turn bad. She might be stronger and faster than him but he was likely already interfacing with the ship's computer. Looking at his skinny arms in her peripheral vision, he amended her earlier assessment. She could not be certain she was stronger or faster than him. The method of his creation was a well-kept secret and for all she knew he had bones of titanium.
Instead of turning away from him, she reached forward towards the dashboard. "Hey! What are you-" Reyna flipped a single switch, a big and important one outlined in red. The thrum of the engine faltered and the lights flickered momentarily. Before Reyna managed to even blink, the switch had been flipped back with a clicking sound, but Nico hadn't moved, his arms still tightly hugging his knees.
"You are interfacing directly with the ship's computer mainframe," Reyna observed.
"I'm flying the ship."
If di Angelo was interfacing directly with the ship he had control of everything. She didn't stand a chance outside of the ship or inside. If the situation went bad, her best chance would be here, right next to him, using close range weapons. She had two old style phasers, one strapped to the left side of her stomach and the other on her right side below her arm. Each held enough power for nine kill strength rounds against a human. She did not know if that would be enough against di Angelo. He had to knew she had them, if he had not known before she had removed her jacket, he knew now; they were strapped to the outside of her tank and under the loose black short sleeved shirt she had changed into in Hazel's Evenrgy cruiser, but it was not loose enough to conceal the bulges created by the phasers and their holsters. "It is illegal under Statute 46 Article 2 of the Code of the Empire of New Rome for artificial intelligence to directly control any mechanical device or computer system." The infamous Statute 46 had been passed shortly after Corp had released a statement stating they had successfully reconstructed a human known officially as Subject 17, but more commonly known as Hazel Levesque
"You want to arrest me?" he asked. He hadn't moved, his arms still wrapped around his knees and tucked to his chest.
Reyna straightened. "I may be off duty, Ambassador, but I swore an oath to neutralize all threats to the Empire of New Rome."
At this Nico finally tensed, the muscles in his shoulders locking. He raised his head and looked directly at her. "I do not know, Admiral Commander. Am I threat to the Empire?"
He wasn't blinking. She did anyway. "Why are you interfacing with the ship?"
"It's easier to fly this way. And I like to be in direct control of the metal tin carrying me like a sardine through deep black." Reyna noted the slight fear of deep space.
"Ambassador, does it not bother you that you are breaking the Code?"
His eyes narrowed at that. "You swore an oath, Admiral Commander of the Empire. I never did. Does that make me a dog that must be put down?" Animosity towards the oath of allegiance, seemingly both to the oath of the soldier and to the one said across the Empire in court, in schools, at funerals.
Reyna leaned forward, barely breathing. In another situation she could have assured her victory with ease. "You tell me, Nico di Angelo. Are you a threat to the wellbeing of the Empire?"
He stared unflinching straight back at her. "No. I just don't give a shit about it."
Reyna leaned back into her chair. "Very well. In the future it would be for both our benefit if you informed me of such decisions. We are, as you said, 'in a metal tin carrying us like sardines through deep black'." She grabbed hold of the hand bars on the ceiling and swung herself out of the copilot's seat and picked up her jacket. "Deep black is a dangerous place. For both of us." She squeezed through the narrow doorway and left him to overheat in the sweltering front deck, the drumbeat of her heart and her crystal clear awareness of her surroundings telling her she had just left a battlefield.
Reyna did not understand what Jason saw in him.
They were five days into deep black, flying above spiral eleven on the quickest route to Jason's last location. She had relaxed some time during the second day and had become restless, like a caged cat. At first she had tried to read from the limited ship library. Then she had started organizing things, bored out of her mind. In the end, she had no choice but to begin interior repairs on ship, or she would die from boredom.
Nico knocked on the door frame to the combined larder and dining area. There had once been a door there, likely solid sturdy metal, judging by the light quarter circle scrapes on the floor, but it must have been sold for scrap. Reyna set down her tools and pushed the small magnifying glasses to the tip of her nose. "Come in," she told him.
"We should stop soon," he told her. "Those repairs really need to be done and we also need to refill and resupply on food."
Reyna looked around at the larder. Hazel had filled it for two heavy eaters even though Reyna was the only one eating anything at all. "Could we stop somewhere with a decent darkspur?" she asked him.
He looked surprised for a brief moment but quickly closed himself off. "Why do you want to go to a darkspur?" She did not grace him with a response. He tilted his head several radians. "How do you even know what a darkspur is, dutiful and loyal soldier of the Empire?" he asked.
"That could not possibly be sarcasm," she said dryly. "And contrary to popular belief, the Empire does not grow clone soldiers in test tubes in secret underground laboratories." She lifted up the blue and green skin armor Hazel had packed for her that was laying on a nearby box. "While fashionable, it's neither ENR quality nor inconspicuous."
Di Angelo muffled a snort. "And what, the black skin armor you pick up in the darkspur is going to be any less noticeable? Would you like to purchase a mask and illegal weapons while you're at it?"
"We officially entered the Hydra Subspiral," Reyna checked her watch, "seventeen minutes ago. Here, if you don't wear black and carry a phaser as large as a small child then you are one of three things: incredibly stupid, incredibly dangerous, or dirt poor." She pointedly looked him up and down. "You'll fit right in, Ambassador."
Nico looked down at his all black ensemble and smiled humorlessly. "I suppose I will."
Reyna picked up the ear piece she had been fixing. "Cain and Abel are three hours from here. I've never been there myself but it's supposed to be quiet."
His face went completely blank for a brief moment, his every muscle devoid of any motion of expression. She wondered where he went when he did that. He looked up and focused his eyes on hers again. "There aren't any planets, moons, star systems, or nebulae in the entirety of the Hydra Spiral officially named, casually called, or nicknamed such in the entirety of the Hydra Spiral," he stated.
She stood and began to put her slim silver tools away, a gift from her sister. "That's because it doesn't officially exist." She knew a decent amount about the twin planets Cain and Abel, cruising around their star on the same orbit path, Abel the slower, lifeless planet, Cain the faster one, doomed to crash with the smaller Abel in half a billion years or so. Kyra had told her that the ENR had- Reyna had a sudden revelation and her hands stilled over her thin tools. "You're not connected to the ENR mainframe or the Corp mainframe any more, are you?" She knew he wasn't. The ENR mainframe broadcast didn't reach into the Hydra Spiral, it never had. Deep black was too empty a barrier for even the ENR to instantly communicate across, the reason why Jason had had to send recorded messages across space towards Capitol, to be picked up the ENR mainframe and transferred to the intended recipients. If the Empire couldn't reach across deep black, then Corp couldn't have the tech to or the ENR would have seized it by force. Nico shook his head and confirmed her suspicions. "Nor to any of the subframes?" She had left Hydra a long time ago and was not fond of remembering her childhood, but it was possible subframes had been installed since then for faster communication. He shook his head again.
Reyna took a step towards him. "Then what," she took another step, "was Praetor Grace's message?" she demanded.
The Corp Ambassador looked away and did not reply. "What was Praetor Grace's message?" she demanded again, walking around the table and quickly advancing on him. She had been stupid to trust him, he was Corp and all Corp ever did was lie and lie and lie. "What did Jason say?!" she shouted at him as she grabbed the front of his shirt with fisted hands and shoved him against the wall.
Nico shoved against her shoulders with surprising strength and forced her to come to her senses and to let go of his shirt. She took a step backward, and he took a step forward. "I don't remember," he said viciously before she had a chance to apologize for her behavior. "They took that from me."
Reyna stood her ground. "Explain."
He closed his eyes and exhaled. She wondered why he pretended to breathe when it was unnecessary. Perhaps it was a force of habit, something he did to ease the minds of the humans around him. Or perhaps, here her thoughts flew down darker rivers; perhaps it had been programmed into him. "I don't want to talk about it."
Reyna tried to consider his feelings, she truly did, but they had just entered the Hydra spiral and she already felt trigger jumpy, the small trust of careful words and a shared goal that they had built up over the past several days long since shattered." You don't have a choice," she told him.
Nico opened his eyes slowly. "You need a pilot."
"But I don't have a choice."
"This is Hydra," she said slowly. "The people here will rip the hair off my head if they think it will bring them a profit. You? The stupid ones will take you apart for scrap metal; the smart ones will take you apart for computer code."
He smiled mirthlessly and leaned forward. His words came haltingly. "Do you really want to know, Admiral Commander? Sometimes ENR, sometimes, they go into my head. It isn't that hard to do, or so I've heard. And although they may be too stupid to know how to put anything in, it isn't that hard to take a pickaxe and leave holes."
Reyna methodically walked back around the table and resumed sliding her tools into place. "Do the effects last?"
"It's not like they buried a memory or broke a pathway," he said, "not like they do with humans. Me, they take it from me. They take things from me and I can't get them back. There are holes in my memory."
She wished she could say she was surprised. "How do you know that ENR has removed information?" she asked. "Is it possible to remove information without your knowledge?"
"I lose time, and it always happens when I'm in direct contact with the ENR mainframe and have classified information that I know they don't want Corp to have." He hesitated for a brief moment, barely space to breathe between his words, but Reyna caught it. It was expected that he would be distrustful; he likely had never thought to access her background files though she knew he could with ease. "I don't believe it is possible to take something without me knowing. I lose time and I always know when I lose time."
It would barely be a struggle for her to find someone with the skill to take something from him and leave a false memory in its place.
"We'll head to Cain, then?" she asked him, softly. "From there, go to Mycenae?"
He nodded his assent. "If you are certain Cain is the correct choice."
"It is." None of Circe's people frequented this section of the Hydra Spiral, at least to her knowledge. She had hoped to avoid this part of the galaxy completely for the rest of her life, but flying straight through Hydra was the quickest route to Mycenae. Of course, fate must have been determined to send her here sooner rather than later. "It is likely there will be a few stray Greeks," she added, watching his body language carefully out of the corner of her eye as she set her tool pack on a shelf.
Nico wasn't bothered in the slightest, remaining completely relaxed and unfazed. Intriguing and worrying. "As long as you shoot anyone who tries to take me apart."
"I may have exaggerated slightly. Anyone with half a mind stays out of everybody else's way around here."
He tilted his head quizzically at her. "What?" she asked.
"You're from Hydra," he said cautiously, definitely gauging her reaction. "Aren't you?"
Reyna forced a twisted half smile onto her mouth. "Born and raised. Home sweet home."
She expected him to ask more questions as she had of him. He watched her tidy the area for a few moments before turning on heel and leaving the room.
Reyna ducked her head below a box in order to peer into the forward bridge. "I will land the ship half a league outside of the town you specified," Nico told her. He had long ago abandoned pretending to manually control the ship and was once again hunched in his seat. "We're dipping into the atmosphere now. You might want to hold on to something."
Reyna grabbed a metal pipe and braced herself with her left arm against the wall. The ship stilled for a moment as Nico glanced up at her. "Perhaps a little more securely than that," he said wryly. "Internal stabilizers have been malfunctioning for the past seven hours and I will be unable to control them while guiding the ship through the atmosphere." He gestured down at the gray covered planet. The fog and clouds blanketed the entire world. "I am having a hard enough time as it is."
"I noticed," she said as she once again squeezed into the copilots seat. "You nearly flipped us a couple of times." She strapped herself into the chair. "Try not to get us killed on landing."
Nico closed his eyes and did not reply. First came the feeling of weightlessness, but Reyna was still firmly attached to her seat, Nico was only turning off the internal stabilizers, likely to grant him greater control and processing power over both the ship and the already fragile shielding. Their small ship took a sudden dive towards the atmosphere. Dark panels slid over the false windows on the forward deck. Earlier, Reyna had checked on Cain's environment. It had been terraformed seventy eight years ago and the oxygen count was still two and a half percent higher than standard, a good sign the planet would last for a long time. Turbulent, cold, high speed winds reigned in the upper atmosphere, while the air below was mostly still. There were immense oceans and immense land masses, and the inhabited parts of Cain were largely uniform in climate year round- damp, cloudy, and foggy.
It was completely unlike her home, and Reyna liked that.
Before the last shielding panels slid into place Reyna glimpsed yellow flames licking the outside of the ship. Beside her, Nico inhaled sharply and his forehead furrowed in concentration. Her reflexes wanted her to demand immediate answers from him, but he was not a soldier trained by the Empire. Her old instincts, those still untouched by both the Empire and by Circe, wanted her to flee.
Instead, Reyna held still, the rational part of her mind overriding her training and her instincts and telling she was about to die.
The ship stopped quickly and she was nearly slammed against the ceiling of the ship. The gravity of the planet slammed her back into her seat. Reyna winced. The various belts and buckles that held her phasers and other weaponry in place were small but sturdy, meant to keep everything in place without making her uncomfortable, but an impact like that was going to leave bruises. Despite the padding on the chair her butt was sore. "Sorry," Nico murmured. The ship then continued moving downward at a slow pace before thunking against the ground. After several moments Nico relaxed and opened his eyes, exhaling. Again with the breathing. Reyna breathed out as well. She hadn't realized she had been holding her breath for so long.
"That was close," Reyna reflected. "We couldn't have been more than seventy five feet off the ground before the ship stopped."
"72.39 feet, to be exact."
Reyna released her death grip on the armrest. She had not realized she had been doing that either. "I thought I told you not to get us killed," she said with a slight smile.
"And I thought Hazel had better judgment," he snorted. "But apparently this is what she considers a space worthy ship."
Reyna couldn't help but agree with him on that point. She unbuckled herself from the seat and winced. Those would leave bruises as well. "How much damage has the ship sustained?"
The black panels on the front window opened and she could see Cain. It was... dreary. They were in a forest with widespread dark trees and fog stretched in every direction she could see. Nico did not close his eyes this time. They roved and darted across empty and seemingly random space, seeing something she could not see. His dark pupil expanded and then contracted. "The outer shields are almost completely wrecked. The sheeting has sustained heavy damage. Inner shields underwent near critical stress and should be replaced immediately. The outer hull has sustained damage."
"I think," Reyna said quietly after a long time, the two of them staring out of the window, "we need to find a mechanic."
"That is an excellent idea," Nico said in an equally soft voice.
"I need to change," Reyna said. "You should too." Once again, she swung herself over the copilot’s seat but this time she nearly fell. The sudden stop had done a fair bit more than give her light bruises. Normally she would consider it a waste of resources to use medicine to heal herself but the very sight of the Hydra Spiral had set her teeth on edge and she did not want to get into a fight while injured.
"Why?" he asked.
Reyna looked down at him critically. He wore a simple light black shirt and black pants, dark shadows graced like feathers under his eyes and he looked like he was barely able to hold himself up. It still surprised her how skinny and small and so very, very young he was, even after spending a week with him in a cramped ship. "I don't know if you can pull off intimidating but at least try not to look like an utter weakling."
"I do my best," he said dryly.
She snorted and left him behind in the forward deck, still shaking off her nerves from the landing. She ducked under the door frame to her room and motioned the door closed behind her. She grabbed the edge of the dresser, her breaths shaky and her thoughts swimming. Reyna had thought it would at the very least have been possible for her to step foot on a Hydra planet, especially one she had never been to before.
Evidently, she didn't know herself as well as she thought.
"Get up," Hylla said from behind her.
Reyna was already standing.
"Get up," Hylla said again. Her older sister was closer.
Reyna squeezed her eyes shut and dared not turn around.
Hylla snorted. "Princesita, as much as I disapprove you running wild across the galaxy for some stupid blond boy, get up."
Reyna couldn't move and she couldn't breathe. This is why she left home and never looked back. This was the exact reason. Her lungs were locked and she was shaking, digging splinters into the edge of the cabinet with her fingers.
Her older sister whispered in her ear and Reyna was six and starving again. "Levanta, Reyna. Levanta!" Hylla was desperately pulling on her arms and Reyna's vision was spinning but her legs refused to obey her. She couldn't move her legs she couldn't run her right leg was spasming but her left leg wouldn't move and she couldn't feel them she couldn't feel them.
Reyna spun around but Hylla had already vanished. Her breath still came in sharp rushes but her fists were up and ready, her stance calm.
She sat down carefully, leaned her head against the cabinet, and closed her eyes. She sat there until she forgot how long it had been since her breath had evened and her heart calmed.
When she finally came to herself she opened her eyes and reflected on the appearance of her sister. Reyna prayed to no god, but Hylla had, a very long time ago. Perhaps she still did. Reyna knew she should say some sort of prayer for her sister's soul but could not bring herself to honor a being that did not exist. Once this journey was over and she had returned to the Empire with Jason she would seek out her older sister, she decided. They had parted ways an age ago, but blood was still blood, oaths of allegiance to the dominating force in the galaxy be damned.
A soft knock came on her door, louder than cannon blasts. Reyna settled herself and stood up. "Reyna?" Nico asked quietly.
She checked her watch and was mildly surprised. She had spent three quarters of an hour on the floor in her room in a state of shock. She could not help frowning at herself; her discipline was failing, likely due to too much change in a short period of time. Reyna decided she ought to start drilling again. "Pardon me," she said with all the composure she had, "but allow me three minutes more."
"Er, okay. Yeah. I'll be, I'll..." Reyna could imagine him gesturing vaguely down the hallway. "I'll be waiting outside.
Reyna grabbed her gear and dressed quickly. According to the data, this area of Cain had a cool climate.
Cain smelled like dark wet grass and a not unpleasant animal decay, Reyna noticed as she walked down the already lowered ramp. Nico was leaning against the ship and waiting for her. At the sound of her footsteps he straightened up and turned to face her.
"Isn't that a little..." he asked when he saw her armed to the teeth, "a little... overkill?
Reyna did not return the large, full length, Spartan Manufacturing Carvinian line phaser rifle to its place under her bed. "It will eliminate all threats."
Nico still stared at the rifle with wide eyes. "I never would have guessed."
"Which direction do we go from here?" she asked him. Preliminary topography scans had revealed a large mountain she had thought she would have been able to use as a reference point, but the fog and clouds were so thick she only had clear vision for twenty feet and unclear, clouded vision for an additional thirty feet. There was no chance she could use the mountain to navigate.
Nico pointed off to the right. His dark eyes seemed eerily brighter in the gloom. "That way for .47 leagues," he said. "We will likely be forced to make multiple trips back and forth."
"Why?" Reyna asked as she took the last step off the ramp and turned to survey the ship.
She took three steps backward to take in the ship and then walked around the ship, trailing her finger tips to seek out damage in the bruised and battered silver hull. "We need a mechanic," she said as she rejoined Nico at the front of the ship.
"What we need," he said with a dark humor she associated with her father, "is a scrap yard and a ride."
Reyna sighed. "We'll see if we can find someone to come take a look at it."
Reyna gestured in the direction Nico and pointed and they began walking, their footsteps falling soft against the dirt.
The trees were tall and dark, thick trunks covered in dark green moss, which spilled onto the ground in soft patches and speckled the otherwise dark brown dirt. The trees stretched high above their heads, reaching into the fog before disappearing with no branches in sight, although small sticks did lay scattered on the ground here and there. The air was heavy and the smell of animal decay had faded, to be replaced by the smell of rain before a storm. Reyna found she did not mind the place. There were no animals that they had seen besides a few small bugs and all was quiet.
The small soft hairs on the back of her neck shivered and Reyna stopped suddenly, Nico continuing for several steps more before realizing she was no longer walking and turning.
Reyna held two fingers to her stomach and began flashing symbols while she scanned the surrounding area before realizing that she was not with Jason and that unless Nico had programmed himself to learn martial arts she was going to be the one carrying any fight they got into.
Someone was watching them. She knew it, a heavy gaze coming from somewhere behind her.
"What-" Nico began. Reyna silenced him with a single upheld finger and raised the phaser rifle to her shoulder, the machine interpreting her motions and slightly elevated heart rate and powering up with quiet glowing lights. She strained to listen, the fog muffling all sounds, but she could only hear her own breathing and Nico's strange mechanical breaths. She waited. She could be patient and outlast anyone. The dank smell of rot had returned.
Reyna closed her eyes and held herself absolutely still for a full seven minutes before deciding to move on. She opened her eyes and slowly relaxed each and every muscle before lowering the phaser rifle and straightening up. In the interim, Nico had stopped breathing, and now he began again.
She strode forward and Nico, in surprise, had to rush to keep up with her. "What was that?" he asked.
"Nothing," she assured him blandly. "I just thought I heard something." His eyes narrowed in thought.
"I didn't hear anything."
Reyna had not heard anything either or perhaps she had. It was the tingling at the base of her spine, the slight flutter of motion behind her, the way the air currents were disturbed and she just knew. It was an instinct trained into her very bones.
They walked in silence for two minutes more before Reyna felt it again, the wrongness in the air. She inhaled sharply through her nose. The smell of decay had vanished.
She very nearly panicked, her thoughts rocketing through her mind. The phaser rifle responded and powered up quickly, forsaking subtlety for immediate action. She pivoted around on one foot and swung the rifle up in one smooth motion to aim at a spot beyond her vision.
This time, Nico stayed wisely silent, staying perfectly still and not breathing.
Reyna waited and was rewarded. The smell came wafting through the fog slowly, like the smell of good spice from Isthun, heavy in the air and moving forward like tides. This time, Reyna knew what to wait for, that pure, clean decay, unpolluted by trash and chemicals, something wild and natural.
She waited, breathing gently through her mouth for many long moments before inhaling sharply. Yes, she was certain now.
"Show yourself," she said quietly but with authority.
The giggle of a girl chimed through the trees. "You're quite clever," she said approvingly. Reyna guided the rifle in the direction of her voice.
"You're one of Circe's," Reyna said flatly. She pushed Nico out of her focus; he was a distraction and she could deal with him later.
There was an expectant pause. Then the sound of the girl stepping out from behind a tree came, and she began walking towards them, slowly becoming more and more visible through the thick fog. "You get around," she said while she was still a dark shadow. Reyna attempted to place her voice and failed.
"Name yourself," Reyna demanded in response.
The girl sweetly laughed again, the sound muffled by fog. "Since you asked eva so nicely... tha name's Nyssa. And who are you, ya strange little birds who crashed to earth?" The accent was familiar, but not yet placeable.
Reyna did not know of any Nyssa among Circe's ranks, but she had never known the full extent of her patron's influence, nor did she have knowledge of new members. She could not tell from the sound of the girl's voice how old she was, perhaps somewhere in her teens or twenties. She might have been following Circe when Reyna and Hylla were around or she might have been too young.
Nyssa stepped into Reyna' clear vision with slow deliberate steps, rolling her feet from heel to toe and slinking like a cat. She wore a heavy brown cloak, the hood over her hood and laying her face in shadow; along with dark green pants and small black boots. She could not clearly see her face or any skin.
Reyna adjusted her stance and heavy grip on the rifle.
"Cain isn't tha easiest place to find," Nyssa said, with her soft rounded a's, "And not that smoothest sailing for such a little ba-by ship like that." Commonlat was obviously not her first language. Her steps slowed even more, each one ever so rounded and soft. "Even stran-ger for ya to have a little pet dog A-I like that when ya're poorer than dirt." She was capable of producing a long 'a, but it was difficult for her.
In her peripheral vision Reyna saw Nico draw a weapon, and after noting that he was armed and capable of some minor defense she resumed removing him from her thoughts.
Nyssa stopped nine feet away from her, her left foot coming to a smooth rest next to her right. An old style phaser dangled in her left hand, which had emerged from the cover of her cloak. Hers was a dark green.
You two sisters are very special little darlings.
"Nice gun," Reyna remarked, slowly drumming once the fingers in both her hands against the rifle.
Nyssa laughed like a bell and twirled the phaser casually around her index finger. "It's old and a piece of crap, ya know?" she said as she removed her hood. Reyna committed her face to memory instantly; large dark brown eyes, dark brown skin, excellent make up, and of course, perfect eyebrows. Her hair was long and black, elegantly braided over one shoulder. That braid was one of two things Circe had gifted Reyna with that she had kept. "But it gets tha job done."
Markovian accent, Reyna decided. Street Markovian, but without the bad grammar. Nyssa's first language was almost definitely a mangled form of Kindir.
"How did you find us?" Reyna demanded.
Nyssa raised a perfect eyebrow. "Ya ship was on fire."
Reyna tilted her head in acquiescence. "What are you doing here on Cain?"
"None of ya're business. Maybe I live here."
"You're one of Circe's girls. You don't live on some forsaken planet on the edge of deep black."
Nyssa suddenly stopped twirling her phaser and looked up. "Ya're awfully fa-mil-iar with Circe."
"You said it yourself. I get around."
"But what're ya doing with dog product?" Nyssa asked, using a slang term for the 3HD Corporation and turning her gaze toward Nico. Nico stiffened, but wisely stayed silent. "Poor people don't get dog product unless thay steal it and then it blows up in thair faces."
Reyna could see the train coming.
Nyssa was young, painfully young, Hylla's age when Circe has first taken them under her gentle wing. She was a bit on the skinny side and the rest was all muscle, must not have been with Circe long. She had probably been a little street rat crawling around the dank underbelly of the great Empire on some Markovian planet filled with dead and dying things. She was stealthy and clever and would make a terrible soldier; she was too wild for that. Reyna had been too wild to be a soldier, once upon a time. Hylla too, but she had never chopped off her roots like Reyna had.
They even looked alike enough to be blood related. She didn't want to do this.
"Despite your crap ship, ya're not poor," Nyssa accused, tossing her braid back over her shoulder and on to her back.
"Ya're not rich."
"I'm not. He is." She jerked her left thumb over her shoulder at Nico.
"Ya're not one of hers."
Nyssa slowly raised her phaser until it pointed directly at Reyna's head. "You are Empire," she spat, pronouncing each syllable correctly in standard Commonlat.
Instead of responding, Reyna moved and ducked fast to the left as Nyssa fired a single blast where her head would have been. Reyna rolled around the rifle as the enemy fired another shot, this one barely missing her right ear. As the enemy stopped tracking her for a fraction of a second to draw out a second, stronger, newer weapon as Reyna had known she would, Reyna finished her roll and fired into the enemy's stomach as she settled into a kneeling position.
Nyssa was blasted backward against the tree, her dark green phaser flying out of her hands and arcing over Reyna to fall to the loamy ground with a soft thud.
Reyna waited until her pulse settled, kneeling with the rifle once again braced against the inside of her right shoulder.
Nyssa etsa'Circe did not get up again.
Reyna stood and the phaser rifle powered down.
The forest was quieter now as if it sensed the violence within her and was hiding.
Nico was trembling. "What," Nico said with deadly calm, "the hell was that?" He was not afraid or shocked, she realized, he was furious.
He jabbed a finger at Nyssa's body. "You just killed her."
Reyna could not understand, not yet, not so soon after the battle and the fear and a protective instinct she had though applied only to Jason. "She would have killed me. Then she would have killed you."
"You just murdered a young girl in cold blood." Nico's voice was rising, and Reyna could not recall the last time she had ever seen someone so angry.
"If I took her down without killing her, she eventually would have reported back to Circe. Circe would have summoned her back and then killed her."
"You didn't even try to do anything."
She shrugged. "Nothing to be done."
"There is always a chance."
She sighed. "I did what had to be done."
He was still furious but he was not the kind of boy to punch a tree because he was angry. No, she was sure he would keep it bottled up inside him and he would remember it. Then one day, when he couldn't hold it in anymore, it would rise within in him along with all his other grievances and spill over into the galaxy.
Nico tucked his gun into a small holster on his waist hidden by his jacket and looked up at the sky. "We should continue moving. It will be dark soon." He did not look at her.
Reyna nodded. She didn't want to carry the rifle into town, it felt tainted now that someone had else had accused her of needless slaughter. She laid it against the base of a tree trunk and walked on. "We can come clean up later." Another shadow passed over Nico's face at her words.
"Now you explain," he said as they walked, keeping pace with her.
"Start with Circe."
He was angry and still shaking. She did not need to allay any of his fears. She did not need to reassure him Jason was a good influence on her. She had no duty to him.
But Jason held some measure of trust with him, and Jason had always been a better judge of character than her.
This time, it was Nico who stopped. "You will explain," he said fiercely, "or I will leave you here and find Jason myself, fear of AI be damned." He was completely serious.
Reyna gestured for him to continue walking, and he did with guarded eyes. "What do you know of Circe?"
"I do not currently have access to Corp files."
"She's very old and very powerful, that's all you need to know for now. When-" Reyna hesitated.
"Do not presume to give my orders."
Nico did not bother to smile. "Then by all means, Admiral Commander, stay on this planet."
She was drunk when she had shared this part of herself with Jason, celebrating their official graduation.
"My sister was young. I was younger. We were poor," she said in staccato sentences. "We survived. We fought back. Circe took notice, saw us by chance as she was passing through out home planet once, and took us in. She does that a lot.
"The Greeks attacked during the Scycanthian Invasion and brought Circe low, very low. There were only a few of us who were with her at the time. Even fewer survived and saw her in the aftermath. Hylla and I were two of three. We ran, after that, and Circe chased, but she was too weak to catch up to us. That's the story."
"No," he said. "There's more. But you're not going to tell me."
Gold for you and silver for you.
"No," Reyna said as the first building came into sight. "I'm not."
Nico was still angry but it seemed he was willing to put aside their differences for the moment. "We can buy the legal stuff first. We need fuel."
Nico tried again. "Parts."
"We could buy one of those on the darkspur."
"This is entire planet is completely illegal," he said. "Isn't it?"
"This planet does not exist." The trees had been cut down a long time ago in this area and no stumps remained. Some of the wooden buildings were houses, while others appeared to be merely storage of some sort. It was the large storage sheds and not the houses with seven locks on the doors and were made of metal, not wood. Weapons and explosives, Reyna surmised, valuable ones.
"I'll have to add it to Corp archives." Reyna froze and Nico noticed. "It was a joke," he said hastily.
It was odd how the less safe he was the less he guarded himself.
The ground beneath their feet turned as they walked from dirt and moss to soft thin grass then to hard packed dirt, a slight semblance of a road. The large storage sheds with their invisible buzzing barriers gave way to compact houses with thick reflective windows and likely metal walls under a shell of wood. This small town, made up of munitions storage, several safety houses, a small square and a thriving darkspur, was called Rykenvis.
One of the houses had a wooden porch in front, and an old man was sitting quietly in a rocking chair. He had metal legs and a phaser rifle in his lap. Reyna ignored him.
They reached the small town square when the dirt road turned to stone. Reykenvis was an oddly quiet town and nobody was out and about, but it suited this fogged climate. Any business would be conducted behind closed doors; people tended to be paranoid like that. With good reason. Reyna recalled her most recent field assignment; leading six hundred ENR soldiers against a drug gang in the Tyflymyrh nebula. If the Empire knew that people populated this planet, they might forgo any measures and just poison the atmosphere. Cain had no natural resources worth preserving.
Reyna blinked at one wall of doors. Only one was open, and a sign had been etched into the metal above the door: "BAR". She blinked. Reykenvis was a town, a safe haven and trading place for criminals of all kinds, that didn't officially exist on a planet that wasn't supposed to be populated in the most crime ridden arm of the galaxy. Any permanent residents, or even temporary ones, were in hiding. But gods forbid people go without their alcohol.
At least it was a starting place. She walked towards the cracked door and Nico trailed behind her. "What are you doing?" he whispered.
"Order a drink."
But the moment Reyna set foot in the bar she knew they were in trouble. The neat sturdy houses and the fortified sheds had fooled her. The old man sitting on his porch should have made her realize what Reykenvis really was; a retirement community for criminals who had lost their touch or were no longer able to work. A different town on some other part of Cain might have yielded better results. As it was, this town was a graveyard. All of the bar's patrons had obviously been forced to abandon their illegal professions, as evidenced by the loss of limbs that could not be regrown or satisfactorily replaced and the general manner of everyone in the bar; there were no fights, no tears, no blood and no conversation. They all stared at their cups, most likely on their way to drinking themselves to an early grave at five in the evening. Only two people had glanced up when Reyna had opened the door, one younger man with buzzed hair and an obvious dent in the side of his head, the other an old woman with a poorly made right hand and a ferocious scar across her cheek. She did not know what the man had been, but woman must have been a thief.
Reyna took it all in within one quick scan of the bar and then stepped in. She and Nico were screwed. They were not going to find a mechanic here; a mechanic who could still work and would have gotten the hell out of this town years ago. She could probably still get supplies, and she would steal them if she had too. That was not the real problem. Their ship wasn't going to survive an exit out of the atmosphere and it would take them a week to figure out how to repair the ship and then do it themselves. She doubted Nico had ever worked with his hands, and she only knew how to tinker with little things, not how to rebuild hulls and patch shields and make a ship space worthy.
The bar was all wood on the inside, all of it a dark brown, nearly black. It must have come from the trees, the color it was. The bar was one continuous long shelf at the back of the large room, and in the long narrow space between the outside wall and the bar were small tables, two chairs at each. Each drinker nursed a glass of something and were not noteworthy. None of their scars nor vacant stares nor the one familiar face she vaguely recognized from ENR Department of Intelligence reports were worthy of her attention. That honor belonged to the crowded young heads that had pulled together several small tables in a far corner and were whispering furtively. They had not noticed the two new arrivals.
"Forget about the drinks," Reyna instructed Nico. She wanted one, but it could wait. Small vices. She made her way through the bar towards the inhabited corner, gently and quietly nudging stray chairs out her way. Nico grabbed her arm. "I don't think we should-" he started and she stopped. He seemed surprised that she had actually listened to him. "We should buy them drinks," he said softly.
Reyna considered that. It was a bar. Everyone here was a criminal, even that strange group who clearly did not belong here. Drinks were a wise choice.
She shrugged her shoulder lightly, motioning for him to let go of her and he released her arm immediately. This time, she did not reprimand him. "Sorry," he muttered anyway, and she regretted that this was the way she was, pushing away people who might be her friends. Reyna changed course and headed for the bar but not before counting the number of heads in the corner, still discussing in harsh whispers. She could not make out faces, but she counted six heads.
Reyna leaned across the shelf towards the bartender. "Seven Black Yinks, if you have them, and one glass of water."
The bartender lowered her spectacles and looked at her. She had a black eye patch over her left eye and vicious phaser burn streaking across her face. She was middle aged, perhaps forty or so. She studied Reyna for a moment, then said, "Pay first."
"Fourteen denarii." The woman had not blinked.
Damn that was expensive. “Ten."
"This ain't a market you little upstart. This is a bar. Now pay up."
Reyna reluctantly withdrew fourteen denarii from a hidden pocket and placed them on the table. Quick as a viper the woman swept them off the table and tucked them away. She produced seven Blank Yinks from under the table along with a tray. She filled a glass of water and placed it on the tray as well before lifting it up to hand over to Reyna. As Reyna reached for it she suddenly pulled it back. "Water's for the boy, right?" she asked suspiciously, looking past her. Reyna glanced over her left shoulder at Nico. The woman was right; Nico looked far too young to be the legal drinking age even though Reyna knew he was far older than he appeared. Reyna nodded and the woman handed her the tray.
Gods help her. Criminals with morals.
This time Nico led the way towards the group in the corner and it was Reyna who followed behind him, carefully balancing the tray of drinks. "Might we join you?" he asked softly as he pulled out a stray chair and slid into the seat. All six of them jerked away from each other and looked up. One of them, a young man with black hair and green glass eyes hurriedly swept assorted papers and other objects into his lap. Nico pulled out another chair for Reyna and she put down the tray before sitting down.
"Black Yinks," she said. A girl with fierce brown hair pulled into a ponytail and a strong arm grabbed one immediately. She drank quickly.
"Clarisse!" reprimanded a younger girl with dark thin braids on the side of her head. Reyna noticed the group had a penchant for wearing orange as well as bead necklaces. The female who had just spoken was the only one not wearing a hideous orange shirt of some sort.
"Free drinks," Clarisse said and took another long swig. "I'm not complaining." A black guy with fairly ridiculously attractive arms and a tool belt shrugged and took a drink as well, and then a curly haired kid with grease on his arms followed his lead.
"You could at least introduce yourselves first," said the lady at the other end of the table. Her hair was blonde and curled around her shoulder like waves, her eyes a light blue and clearly unamused at Reyna and Nico's intrusion. She wore an orange shirt and a beaded necklace like the rest of them, as well as the most ridiculous black tricorn hat Reyna had ever seen. She was their leader, then. While the others hunched in their seats or draped themselves across their chairs, she sat with impeccable posture, her forearms exposed by the rolled up sleeves of her slightly overlarge dark blue jacket and resting against the edge of the table, a graceful tilt to her wrists. She took a drink and sipped it. "What do you want?" she asked.
"We need a mechanic," Reyna said. It was likely this group was passing through and were not permanent residents; if they were visitors then they must have a ship and if they had a ship large enough to support six people one of them had to be a mechanic.
"Then you've come to the right pla-" said the shortest of the six of them, the one with grease smudged on his cheeks and a pair of goggles perched on his forehead. The young girl with the thin braids had slapped her hand across his mouth and was now glaring imperiously down at him.
"Annabeth Chase," their leader said as she took another elegant sip of her drink and extended her hand across the table. Reyna had to lift slightly out of her seat to shake; no doubt an intentional power play. "I believe we might be able to be of some assistance." Her handshake was firm and sure, and Reyna could feel callouses.
"Reyna Childstor," she said, quickly recalling the name of a low level woman under her command. Annabeth's eyes were a beautiful gunmetal gray, like the hull of a shiny new Empire Starship traverser.
Annabeth's hand suddenly stilled and she looked Reyna over with a critical eye and a frown. "Do I know you?
Briefly, Reyna wondered if it was possible before brutally squashing the idea. "I would remember if we had met." She definitely would. There was a... presence to her. Annabeth nodded and her warm hand left Reyna's. Reyna sat back down in her seat. "What sort of payment do you want?"
Annabeth crossed her arms and tilted her head, the jaunty tricorn hat making her look like a pirate. "Bronze." Next to Reyna, Nico tensed.
She couldn't help her surprise. "Bronze?"
"Celestial bronze." The request was strange enough that Reyna took a moment to carefully observe this motley group. At the head of the table sat Annabeth with perfect poise and her odd tricorn hat and ridiculously intense and beautiful eyes. On her right sat the girl with the thin braids who had earlier shushed the grease covered boy. Her back was straight as Annabeth's and she too was now sipping a Black Yink. She was quite beautiful. Reyna continued her scan, then glanced back at her for a moment longer and realized she was emulating Annabeth, her posture and her drink and even her style of dress. She had a little bit of dirt on the tip of her nose. Next to her sat Clarisse, the girl with power in her frame and easy anger in her eyes. Impulsive, a fighter. On Annabeth's left sat a man lazily sprawled across a chair and half, he too now with a drink in his hand, with sea green eyes and black hair. Reyna knew immediately he was from the same mold as Jason. Next to him sat the boy with grease on his face and curly hair. Then came the man who had been the second one to take a drink, his skin black, strength in his shoulders, a strength unlike Clarisse's, a strength more steady.
"That's an interesting request," Reyna said at last.
"Is it a request you can fulfill?"
"We do not have any Celestial Bronze on hand." Reyna could count on one hand the number of people she knew who had access to a supply of the stuff. One of those people was her.
Annabeth leaned forward. "That's my deal. Celestial bronze, amount to be negotiated later, for a look at your ship. Take it or leave it."
Annabeth must really want the old stuff. "If I can get off planet, I can get enough in two hours." Just because she had left her home behind did not mean she did not have deposit boxes.
"Your ship is grounded," stated the black guy, sipping his drink.
"Your ship is grounded," repeated the curly haired boy next to him.
"It sounds like we need two mechanics," Nico muttered.
"It speaks," the curly boy said sarcastically.
"Shut your face," Clarisse told him before gulping down the last of her drink.
Annabeth exchanged a glance with the man and nodded. "We'll take a look at your ship, but no promises," he said as he turned to Reyna. "Charles Beckendorf." Reyna shook his offered hand. "Call me Beckendorf. This monkey," he jerked a thumb over his shoulder, "is Leo. He's my assistant."
Leo sulked. "I'm not your assistant! I'm learning."
"He's my assistant."
"Is now a good time?" Reyna asked. "We're in a hurry."
Beckendorf finished his drink, wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his orange shirt, mostly covered by a black vest, and stood. "If the Captain has no objections..."
"Hey!" Leo protested. Half of the Black Yink remained in his glass "I'm still-" Beckendorf cut him off by hauling him up by the back of shirt.
Annabeth's eyes left Reyna and settled on Nico's face. "Clarisse, go with them," she said after a moment. She was watching Reyna again.
Reyna stood and Nico followed her lead. The glass of water remained untouched on the tray. Clarisse stood as well, but not before reaching under the table to pull out a massive illegal black weapon that was a cross between a machine gun and a phaser rifle. "Pleasure doing business," Reyna said and was about to start walking toward the door when Annabeth held up a finger.
She pointed to Nico. "That one stays with us for now."
"There are only two of us."
Annabeth's eyes glittered and she leaned forward. "What are two people doing out here in the middle of a retirement community?"
"I could ask you the same," Reyna shot back. "Also, we nearly crashed."
"You're Roman," Annabeth said, in a manner that suggested that she herself was not. Even as her mouth formed the last syllable Reyna could tell Annabeth knew she had made a mistake.
"Oh," Nico breathed, his eyes wide in realization.
Reyna wished she could say she had expected this. Her skills were getting rusty; she should have been able to identify them as Greeks on sight. For gods' sake, they were wearing orange. But the only Greeks in the heart of the Empire were buried in dirt under seven feet of concrete and she had not left the Seneca quadrant for a long time. Too long, it seemed. "What's a Greek crew doing in the Empire of New Rome?" she asked pointedly.
The entire room went still, from the woman at the bar to the young man with a dent in his hand to the old lady with the cheap hand. Glasses stopped between mouth and table. Reyna had forgotten. These people were criminals, most of them ones who had hovered between life and death on a daily basis. One slip up, one drink too many, one wrong turn had meant death. She had been foolish to ever think that they did something as civilian as retire or grow old and slow. Of course they had been listening to every word, marked each narrowed eye and thud of glass on table.
The patrons of the bar were neutral territory, Reyna sensed. Despite their criminal tendencies, they were still Romans, through and through, if the little purple flag that hung above the bar meant anything. They spat on Greeks while flipping off the Empire. She would receive no help from them if this turned into a fight, but they wouldn't help Annabeth either. She slowly moved her hand under her unzipped coat towards the old silver phaser strapped to her the left side of her stomach. Clarisse hefted the massive weapon, still keeping the business end pointed toward the ground, but it was now angled towards Nico and Reyna.
Lucky for all of them, Captain Chase was an intelligent woman and diffused the situation with a simple sentence. "I never said we were Greek." Her gaze was steady as she looked up at Reyna.
"My mistake." The room deflated and simple movement resumed.
"Percy, up," Annabeth ordered the man next to her and he stood. She pushed the chairs out of her way and Piper followed behind her. Her boots were gray and worn. Percy followed her as well. Beckendorf led the way out of the bar and Reyna now saw that both he and Leo wore tool belts around their waists.
Beckendorf stopped outside the door to the bar. "Which way?"
Reyna pointed to the right, a direction she only knew was the right one because it was of buildings, but beyond the sheds and houses she would be completely lost. All the tall dark trees were the same and she had no internal compass. She glanced at Nico at the same he turned to see her. He sped up until he was keeping pace with Beckendorf and was guiding the direction of the entire group. Leo trailed after Beckendorf, walking quickly but always a half step behind Beckendorf's long strides. Percy and Annabeth slowed until they were several lengths behind everyone else and Reyna could hear them speaking in hushed whispers, but strained to make out actual words. Nico asked Beckendorf a short question in low tones and tilted his head towards him. Reyna hoped he was hearing what Annabeth and Percy were saying.
The gradual separation of the group, Nico leading the way with Beckendorf alongside him, Leo a half step behind like a lost puppy, and Percy and Annabeth in the back left Reyna between Clarisse and the yet unnamed Annabeth emulator with braids in her hair.
Reyna could not understand what the point was as having a weapon large enough to take down a legion. Unless of course, that was the point. Reyna made a mental note to rearm her legion when she returned with Jason.
"Why would you think we're Greek?" smaller Annabeth asked.
"Just an assumption." On her left, Clarisse snorted.
"You shouldn't assume things like that." It was very nearly adorable, how hard this slip of a girl with skinned elbows was trying to convince her that she was wrong and that all the clues pointed in a different direction. "The assumptions you're making could get people hurt."
Reyna paused for effect before answering. "You're all wearing orange."
"You aren't," Reyna agreed. "And I suspect the reason the Empire hasn't had you hunted down and executed for trespassing on ENR territory is because everyone assumes you're not actually Greek because any Greek worth their salt would not be as foolish as to wander around this side of galaxy while wearing orange."
"Blood is blood," Clarisse said and scowled. "Don't you forget that, Roman."
"Clarisse!" It seemed that this lot needed a babysitter, and with Annabeth busy captaining their ship, wherever it was, it fell to Piper to be the one holding the leash.
Clarisse shrugged, but her scowl softened and a corner of her mouth turned upwards. "Nothing we can do about it, Pipes. Just know," she said casually to Reyna, "If you get us caught. If you turn us in to the Empire, if anyone of my crew gets hurt because of you or that sickly little boy, I will hunt you down and violently remove your every organ."
"Lovely." Reyna nervously tried to recall if she had anything purple on the ship. Clarisse still believed she and Nico were criminals, that much was clear, and it appeared her opinion and character judgment held some sway with the other members of the crew. It was now all the more important neither she nor Nico did not blow their cover. Clarisse had just confirmed that all members of her crew were Greek, and if it was revealed that Reyna was not only a member of the Empire of the New Rome but a Praetor, Admiral Commander, and highly decorated officer, then they were dead meat walking. The same went for Nico, if they learned that he was an android, then surely they would connect the dots and realize he was from 3HD Corp, because only they created such lifelike artificial intelligence.
The two of them would just have to keep their mouths shut.
"You have nice hair, um, is your name Piper?" Reyna asked awkwardly.
Reyna did not notice Nico had stopped until Leo walked into Beckendorf and Piper in turn almost walked into Leo. Her companion held up a hand for silence then crouched down against the soft earth. He did not move for several moments, carefully observing the dirt and moss. They formed a small circle around him, Annabeth and Percy catching up and craning their necks to see the source of their halt.
Nico stood and wordlessly held something out to Reyna. She took it in her fingers and held it up to her eye to examine it. It was a small white piece that Reyna did not immediately recognize, warm to the touch. Upon turning it over, she found a gash in the material where a serial number might have been, had it been a legal weapon.
"It's the casing," she said upon realization. "It was full and I only fired once."
"What model was it?" Nico asked.
"Fourth generation Terminus line, I believe. Maybe fifth generation." Hazel had given it to her and Reyna had not had the time to ask.
"Twenty four packs?" Clarisse was the only not completely confused by their terse conversation.
"I assumed so. I know third generation had eighteen."
"Twenty four packs, four full shots each. You fired one."
Reyna examined the casing again. "I thought it would have killed her," she said quietly.
"I thought it did kill her." His face was long and grave.
Annabeth took a step forward. "Would either of you mind sharing?" she asked curtly.
Reyna answered for the two of them. "We were attacked by a young girl. I killed her," she said flatly. "Or so I thought. I left the weapon near the body. One shot, phaser rifle, fourth generation Terminus Line from Corp, or so the seller told me. This casing," she held the small white piece higher, "is discharged every four full shots. This happened recently; the casing is still warm. I estimate twenty five minutes but I don't have much experience with Terminus line."
Clarisse and Beckendorf shifted their stances and Beckendorf withdrew what Reyna assumed was a weapon from his tool belt.
Annabeth breathed out her nose. "Lovely."
This looked like it was a trap, didn't it. "We should check for the body," Nico suggested gently. "Just in case it wasn't her."
"Someone else might have seen us come down and come to investigate," Reyna realized. "And found Nyssa instead."
"Seen you?" Beckendorf asked. "Just how bad was your landing?"
"Our ship was on fire," Reyna answered curtly.
"Your shields should have stabilized conditions." Beckendorf began, his mouth curling into a frown.
"I guess our shields weren't working properly."
"Take us to where you left the body," Annabeth said shortly, interrupting their small conversation. No questions, no masked disgust, no wonder at the carelessness with which Reyna spoke of killing a girl. Although she might be suspicious, she calmly accepted the situation, put the facts together, and came to a solution. Reyna liked that.
Nico looked to her in question and she inclined her head in the general direction of the site, but he turned in the opposite direction and led the way. No one had ever said she had a good internal compass.
This time, Annabeth walked next to her and Clarisse and Piper walked several steps behind them, Percy trailing after the group with a drawn phaser. "Tell me what happened," Annabeth said, her eyes never straying from a constant scan of the trees around them.
"She witnessed our... fiery descent and came to investigate, tracking us for a while. When we confronted her, she attempted to kill us. I shot her," Reyna said tersely. Nyssa was one of Circe's.
Annabeth digested the information, then asked, "How old was she?"
"Where was she from?"
"I don't know. We were too busy shooting at each other to properly introduce ourselves."
"Don't get smart with me," Annabeth said, reaching up to adjust her hat slightly to better peer into the fog. "What language did she speak?"
"Commonlat." Reyna was not particularly fond of sharing with pirates.
Annabeth snorted delicately, if such a thing were possible. "Everyone and their mother speaks Commonlat. You're educated, so I'm guessing Amiritannat and Fylyid at the least. Answer me straight: what else did she speak?"
"Give me a straight answer, Ramirez-Arellano, or this deal is off."
Reyna glanced over at the captain. Annabeth had not looked at her once during the entire conversation, gaze obstinately focused on some distant dark tree, her face serious and frowning. Reyna sighed. "Markovian street accent, so I thought Kindir."
Annabeth tilted her head and considered for a full minute before coming up with an answer. "Tha's and yare's?"
"Impressive," Annabeth said grudgingly. "Markovia is quite a ways from here."
"That it is."
Annabeth looked directly at Reyna for the first time during their walk and she could not escape the feeling of being trapped. "So tell me, Reyna, in what multiverse did you think that I would swallow your story about a crew of two being attacked by a seventeen year old Markovian, Kindir speaking girl in the middle of the gloomiest forest in all of Hydra?"
So tell me, Reyna dearest
Ahead, nearly disappearing into the fog, Nico and Beckendorf stopped. Reyna peered left and right and could not quite believe what she saw. A thick black tree identical to all the ones around them lay horizontal, extending in both directions into the fog and blocking their path. The trunk was seven feet in diameter at the very least and showed neither signs of shrinking on either end nor any sign of branches. Nico walked alongside the side of the trunk slightly slanted upwards, brushing the bark with his fingers, then he knelt again in the soft dirt and held up another small white rectangle.
"Seven shots," Reyna said. "Nyssa's fired seven shots."
"You know her name," Annabeth said and pursed her lips as if disappointed.
"She's angry and armed," Nico announced curtly, a distance away. The group drew closer and he pointed to the trunk. Dark black scorch marks had scoured the base of the trunk and cut deep splintered holes deep into the trunk that revealed a dark gray wood underneath. The shots from her stolen weapon had been enough to bring down a giant.
Clarisse whistled. "Damn. I've seen them take these things down before, usually took more than just one weapon."
"It's a high grade weapon," Reyna said, but she could not help wondering if Hazel had personally made some... adjustments to the phaser rifle before giving it to her.
"Let's pretend I'm actually giving you two the benefit of the doubt right now," Annabeth said as she leaned against the felled tree with one arm. "And a seventeen year old angry Markovian girl is actually running around with a phaser rifle. Riddle me this: One shot was discharged where we found the first mysterious white piece that could belong to literally anything. Another was discharged when you shot her. Six would have been fired here, maybe more, maybe less." She stabbed one angry finger in the direction of the ravaged trunk. "What sort of god is she that she could survive a single blast from these?"
"She had rudimentary body shields," Nico said. "But she was definitely dead."
"You checked?" Percy asked.
Nico hesitated slightly. "I checked." Reyna distinctly remembered anger and disappointment but no confirmation that Nyssa was dead.
"Good boy," Clarisse said. "Either you're lying or you're wrong."
Why aren't you a good girl anymore, Reyna dearest
They made their way back to the ship without further incident, though Piper did spot another cartridge on their way, but there was no sign of the shots. Annabeth was the first to tilt her head towards the unseen sky and sniff the still air. "Does anyone else smell something?" she asked, her hand drifting under her long coat towards a phaser. Everyone stopped and breathed in deeply.
"It smells like a forge," Beckendorf said immediately. "Bit heavy on the burn."
"Yeah," Leo said quickly, "I smell it too." Charles rolled his eyes at him. Reyna could not smell anything, only the cool damp of the forest.
Annabeth withdrew her phaser, an old fashioned clunky piece of metal with some rather modern upgrades, Reyna noticed. She motioned to Percy, and he withdrew his as well, another old piece, of a make and model she did not recognize. His was longer and thinner than hers; a small, entirely unpractical bayonet attached to the end.
"I'll take point," Clarisse said softly, moving with careful measured steps and a strong grace Reyna had not thought her capable of while drawing her phaser. Hers was a brutal piece, also old and of an unknown maker, long and narrow and painted wicked with black and red. She thumbed a small clasp on the top, flicked it towards the ground, and a long sharp blade crackled out.
Reyna moved to take rear guard on instinct. The last several times she had been in the field in close combat had been with Jason, and he always took point while she always took rearguard, except for the one time they had been infiltrating a House of Life. But Annabeth motioned forward with her ground pointed silver phaser. "I want you where I can see you." She glanced meaningfully at Nico. "Both of you." She backed up several steps and took rear guard for herself. Nico looked at her and Reyna nodded to him, assuring him that it was fine to listen to Annabeth. The group slowly drifted into a semicircle as they moved forward with Annabeth hanging back, like the end of an arrow, making the rest of them the bow; and Reyna found herself on the left end, Piper to her right and holding a dagger like she knew how to throw it.
This crew was very Greek with their quaint weapons.
"A hundred yards to the ship," Nico said. He had drawn his gun, the one Reyna had glimpsed earlier out of the corner of her eye. It was even older than the weapons the crew carried and something Reyna had only seen once before in person, which was two times less than she had seen it in her history textbook at the Madeline Academy she had attended before becoming a soldier. It was, quite literally, a gun that fired metal bullets, and not just a hand held weapon that fired something in order to cause harm. It was then, moving forwards in tight formation with people she neither knew nor trusted on a foggy planet in the very last spiral of the galaxy she had ever wanted to return to, that she realized that she had no idea how old Nico di Angelo was or how old he could be, not if he was older than Hazel.
"If you still have some ulterior motive," Annabeth said after their ship drew into view, "it must be worth an awful lot of money." Their semicircle gradually drew together in an awkward huddle and Reyna found she couldn't say anything.
"Well," was all Reyna could say, staring at the wreckage of their ship.
"We could give you a lift?" Annabeth suggested without replacing her phaser. "Drop you off on our way. No need for the bronze, if you can transfer money, we'll take that as payment. If not, we're doing a few side jobs here and there and some help won't go unwanted."
Reyna tilted her head toward Nico. "Give us a moment?" she asked.
Annabeth shrugged. "Go ahead."
Reyna and Nico walked away until Reyna glanced over her shoulder and Captain Annabeth and her crew were a smear between trees, and only then did she speak to him. "Well?" she asked.
"I heard what Chase and Jackson were saying, earlier," he said as he lowered himself to sit at the base of a tree. Reyna did the same, a few feet from him but on the same tree trunk. "They're Greek, and not masters of subterfuge. They know we're Roman, obviously, and they're suspicious. Annabeth thinks we're smugglers. Percy doesn't care what we do and wants nothing to do with us. I wasn't able to pick up on why Annabeth wants Celestial Bronze, sorry."
"Okay. Thank you for doing that." She paused. "We need a ride."
Nico closed his eyes and exhaled. Still breathing. "We do."
"And do you think it's a good idea for us to hitch a ride with them?" she asked. She already had her opinions and logic, but she wanted to hear his, to know how different they really were in their priorities and values and to hear a much needed second opinion.
Nico hesitated. "It's dangerous and we'll be outnumbered."
Reyna snorted. "Not like that's hard to do with a party of two. I think we could take a few Greeks."
"Exactly," he said as he slumped against the black tree trunk. "A crew of Greeks waltzing around in the middle of the Empire. They can't possibly be complete idiots to have survived for so long. If we're on their ship in the middle of space and we're outnumbered and outgunned and they find out that you're a Roman, a soldier and a Praetor and a war hero no less, they'll destroy us."
"But they're the only people on this forsaken planet who will give us a ride."
"Exactly," Nico said, opening his eyes.
"Hot Greek space pirates it is then," she muttered underneath her breath and stood because, dear gods, Annabeth's ass was a thing of beauty.
"Pardon?" Nico said, just a bit too sweetly. She ignored his question. She could assess risks and doing what had to be done while appreciating the view, thank you very much. "You better do your fair share of the work," she said as she extended her hand to him. He hesitated before grabbing it and she pulled him up. He did a lot of that, hesitating, but he did not hesitate to quickly let go of her hand. "Which means you have to try to shoot just as many people as I do."
"Be careful," he said, suddenly serious. "You are very... Roman, in what you say and what you do. Much more than Jason is. Everything about you screams military."
It took Reyna actual conscious effort to curve her shoulder slightly and leave hard taught precision behind. "And you?" she asked. "You'll be okay with acting like a common Roman citizen?" He wasn't the most normal child.
"I'll be fine. Most people assume I'm strange, that's all," he said, and shrugged. Reyna wanted to ask him if he was really so nonchalant about being the most valuable piece of technology walking around in the most crime ridden part of the galaxy, but she didn't want to press so instead she asked, "What's our cover?"
"They know our names and they know we're not exactly common law abiding Roman citizens," he said, walking slowly as they started to move back to the wrecked ship, his feet nearly tangling with hers. "They know we've bought large illegal weapons and that I carry an ancient weapon, that we know what we're doing and that you're not afraid to kill. Chase, at least, assumes we're criminals, smugglers."
"Not a fire proof cover," she said. "So we remain mysterious. We tell them nothing when they ask, we slip in a few details, we let them make the assumptions and neither confirm nor deny. We remain distant with real, valuable information but we're friendly and polite."
"And what's our basic cover?" he asked, shoving his hands into his dark jacket and looking at the ground. "Who are we?" He doesn't look at her.
"Are you familiar with the 59-Kimon options?" she asked him in return. 59-Kimon was a series of basic covers the Empire had created and forced all soldiers to memorize. They were easy to remember and easy to adapt, providing simple cover stories that didn't need much evidence to back them up. Nico shook his head, and Reyna decided to take a chance. "Siblings," she said, watching his shoulders hunch and his body curl around itself out of the corner of her eye. "Born and biologically true? Probably not. We're not classy enough to be engineered babies but we don't look alike enough to be born blood siblings." Nico relaxed a gentle fraction of an inch, his shoulders just the slightest bit more relaxed. "Half siblings? Could be. Adopted? Possibly. Best childhood friends or even partners in crime? We don't have to tell them the truth, we let them think they know what it is and that they've got us all figured out." She reached out quickly with her right arm and rested across his shoulders and squeezed his arm once. Nico tensed again, but they kept their slow pace. "Is that okay with you?" she asked.
"I guess," he said, too quickly and too untruthfully.
They walked a bit more, slowly, Reyna nearly holding her breath and about to remove her arm when Nico relaxed and leaned towards her, just a little bit, but enough to rest his head on the curve between the end of her shoulder and her arm. "Yeah," he said, a small smile almost tugging at the corners of his mouth. "I'd be fine with that," and Reyna knew he wasn't talking about a cover story for some Greek pirates.
"Good," Reyna said, leaning toward him as well. "Good."
"Welcome aboard Argo the Third," Annabeth said, waving with both arms towards her ship, the gangplank lowering in front of them. "Please enjoy your stay."
She and Nico looked at each other at the same time before walking up into the belly of the beast, the gang plank closing up behind them with an air of finality.
Reyna learned of the crew during that first week aboard, speeding on towards Annabeth's first destination, Chicago. She learned that Clarisse could hold her drink and had an undying competitive streak, at times taunting and at others coldly serious, that she would not speak of her father but would brag of the triumphs of her mother. Percy Jackson was Annabeth's second in command and her confidante and very much like Clarisse; he too would not speak of his father and was fiercely competitive, but was always to fall first while drinking. Charles Beckendorf kept himself tucked away behind smiles with sad corners and elbow grease, and Nico told her one night under the cover of darkness and whispers that he had loved and lost. Leo trailed after Beckendorf fiddling with something in his hands and searching for some, for any approval, which Beckendorf gave freely. Piper McLean, Annabeth's little shadow, was capable of several marvelous feats using her tongue and regularly swore in different languages Reyna had only ever heard of in passing.
Then there was the Captain herself, speaking to Reyna only in passing, but free with her affection for her crew. She was... gods, she was brilliant.
Their first day on board, Annabeth had shown them their shared room (one bed, a chair, a chest, and a tiny bathroom off to the side) and apologized for the cramped quarters, then proceeded to hold a conversation with Nico on the structural integrity of an inner balanced auto-guidance system in D-class fliers. In Yviraya. Reyna spoke five phrases of Yviraya. Hello, Thank you, Goodbye, Grapes, and Please pass the wine.
Their second day on board, the crew dropped off a delivery and Clarisse decided to celebrate by hauling out a crate of whiskey. Nico politely refused and excused himself, but Reyna drank enough to be a little tipsy, enough to stare for too long at the curve of Annabeth's neck and the way her shoulders shook when she laughed too hard. Piper asked her a question about something while Percy engaged in enthusiastic but hopeless arm wrestling with Charles, jolting Reyna back to reality.
"Pardon?" she said.
"Ever been around to Scycanthia?" Piper repeated drowsily, swirling the last of her whiskey in her glass.
No one was sober enough to understand, except Annabeth. She sat straight up in her seat next to Reyna and leaned forward. "Hey," she said softly, placing a gentle hand on Reyna's knee. "Hey. Are you okay?" Her eyes, her beautiful grey eyes... they were so kind.
"Yes," Reyna said hoarsely, unable to look away. "I just- I was there once. Scycanthia. It- it didn't end well." She tried on a smile, but her face wouldn't work right. Piper was the only one paying any attention to them, all eyes were on Percy as he valiantly attempted to bend Charles' arm. "I have to-" Reyna said. "Excuse me." She pushed her chair back and fled from the room.
Their third day on board, Charles and Leo spent the day holed up in the engine room, Percy and Clarisse entertained Piper with some "friendly" sparring, and Nico joined them, telling Reyna with a silent glance he was going in order to assess them.
That left Reyna and Annabeth sitting together in the forward deck. Annabeth wore cargo pants and a soft orange t-shirt, and she fiddled with the beads on her necklace as they talked. She sat curled up on her knees in the captain's chair while Reyna sat in the navigator's chair, sipping on a strange warm drink Leo had insisted she try. They talked for a short while about meaningless matters before Annabeth seized a lull in the conversation and asked, "Do you want to talk about it?"
Reyna had prepared herself for this, for a few questions, lying wide awake in her berth the night before, smoke and fire running rampant in her mind. But when Annabeth spoke, so open and concerned, uncaring that they were near strangers who met only by chance and not close friends, not bothered that she had no real information about Reyna, when she asked, Reyna nearly broke and told her. "Not really," she said. "It was a long time ago." Annabeth nodded, a sad understanding in her eyes, and moved on to other topics. Inane, unimportant small things.
Halfway through her cup of... whatever it was, as she laughed at Annabeth choking on her own drink and spraying some of it out her nose, Reyna realized her drink was not the reason her insides felt warm and fuzzy.
Annabeth pawed her pockets for her napkin and laughed again, tossing her golden hair over her shoulder.
No, Reyna knew, smiling genuinely, it was definitely not the drink.
Hylla's hand is pressed tightly over Reyna's mouth and she pulls her closer, burying her head in the warm cavity form by Hylla's curled stomach an legs. "Close your eyes," she commands with a voice roughed by dust, and Reyna does because Hylla told her it was an emergency, and Reyna has always been excellent at following her sisters orders during emergencies.
"Khan," Reyna hears Hylla say, the vibrations moving through her warm body and making Reyna feel a little bit safer. "Dorestay vu." She hears Khan crawl over, through their little hideyhole to tuck himself under Hylla's other arm. Reyna peeks over to see him cradling one of his arms close to his chest, red staining his white sleeves at his wrist.
Khan is a new boy, Reyna knows, only here for a week so far and unable to speak Commonlat. Circe hasn't even given him a phaser yet. He starts babbling in whispers in Macedonian, his first language, and Reyna knows only a couple words but Hylla knows more. "Mar vu," Hylla whispers to both of them, gently carding her fingers through Reyna' short hair and hugging Khan close to her side. "Mar vu." Stay here.
Khan begins to speak again- he must think Hylla knows Macedonian, but she doesn't, her older sister has only been learning it for a half a year. "Bie amate," she says roughly. Safe with me, Reyna thinks it means. Hylla's hand leaves Reyna's hair and carefully grasps Khan's right wrist, moving away his bloody sleeve. Khan whimpers slightly as she gently examines his wrist, twisted at an odd angle, a large gash bleeding sluggishly on the back. Hylla takes out a knife and uses it to cut a long strip out of the lining of her coat, and wraps it lightly around Khan's wrist. He clenches his teeth at first, tears in his eyes.
From outside of the temple comes a loud boom, and the shrill enraged cry of a woman comes after. The vibration from the explosion shakes the walls and a shower of dust rains down on their heads. Hylla tugs them closer and Reyna watches with interest as Khan turns and buries his curly haired head into the crook of Hylla's shoulder, tears welling up in his eyes as he murmurs in Macedonian.
"Do you have your phaser?" her older sister whispers in her ear. Reyna nods once, quickly. She unzips a hidden zipper on the side of her right pant leg. Underneath, her phaser holster is strapped to her thigh. Circe had given the grey pants to her last week, smiling and saying they would fit her perfectly. Reyna takes out her silver phaser, holding it tight in her hands but not flicking off the safety.
She stays there for a long time, listening to the sounds of the fight as the temple shifts around her in its foundation and crumbling plaster turns her hair gray, curled up against her older sister and clutching her weapon with short fingers while a foreign boy with curling purple hair whispers in a tongue only he understands.
Kai is sick and the roots of his hair are turning blue. At night, she and Hylla curl around him and smother him in blankets, but still he shivers uncontrollably, his green eyes rolling back in his head. At least he now manages rough sentences in Commonlat after two months, enough to tell them his name is really Kai, Kai afta'Khan Mori. He tells them he's sixteen in Macedonian suns; ten or so in Commonlat years, as Hylla calculates one night with a piece of chalk on the floor of the cold metal crate they've bought passage in.
Tonight, Kai, sleeps somewhat soundly and doesn't shiver too much. "We have to stop," Reyna softly tells Hylla as she braids her hair. He own was choppily cut again, a week ago while they waited for everyone to board the evacuation transport; it had been long enough to get in her eyes but too short to pull up in anything but three pigtails, so scissors again it was.
"I know," Hylla says tiredly, making Reyna feel like she's the older sister. She glances over at Kai. "This can't be good for him. But we can't stop," she says.
"Why?" Reyna asks, finishing the braid an tying it off tightly with a rubber band. It hangs straight down her sisters back. Whenever Reyna braids her own hair, it ends up hanging over one shoulder.
"She's getting closer."
Reyna' fingers freeze. "How close?"
"I don't know," Hylla says scooting backwards to sit next to Reyna. "We have to get far enough away that she won't ever come after us again. You know the first thing she taught us."
"Keep," Reyna whispers, and it is still a fight to stop herself from reciting the rest of her lessons, even after two months. She hugs her knees to her chest and leans against her sister.
"And she'll keep chasing," Hylla says, absently braiding a little piece of Reyna's hair. She glances over at Kai. "So we have to keep running. Reyna doesn't say anything more. " You doing okay, princesita?" she asks, nudging her with her elbow.
Reyna shrugs. She can't stop remembering the temple, once the dust cleared, uneven, dragging footsteps down the hallway and Hylla tucking them behind her against the wall, aiming the gun at the twisted door. She had hoped whoever had won the fight would pass by their door without stopping, but it did, breathing heavily, waiting. She had not been able to breathe, but she had pulled Khan close to her and put a hand over his mouth anyways.
"Darlings?" Circe had called through the door, her voice rough. Panting. "Girls?"
Hylla is still sitting, legs straight in front of her like a pike, and she does not lower Aurum, he hands steady on her gold phaser. Circe leans against the door, pushing it open a crack and peering through with one emerald eye. "Dear Hylla," she coos, and her sister slowly lowers her phaser as Circe limps through the door, her beautiful silk robes burned and ripped. One hand is behind her back, the other braces her against the wall. He hair is mussed and angry, her face drawn and old. Tears begin to well in her eyes, now as blue as sapphires. "My darling girls," she cries, extending one arm. "I was so worried about you. I have found no one else-" as Circe continues, Reyna first pictures the mangled bodies of her fellow initiates, smashed to bloody pulp by falling stone, then she irrationally pushes Khan down, trying to hide him behind Hylla. Her heart is fluttering captive in her chest and she is afraid. Her palms are sweaty and she constantly readjusts her grip on her phaser.
Circe lowers herself down to the floor. "You were so brave," she says to Hylla. "My dear child, I am so proud." Hylla is seventeen and intelligent, so when Reyna sees her lowering her phaser she assumes it is because all is well again. But when she peers around to see her sister's face she finds glazed eyes, black pupils blown wide. "Reyna," Circe says, looking at her now, and Reyna ducks he head to avoid her gaze. "I was so worried. Come here, darling."
"Who won?" Reyna asks, staring resolutely at the ground. "Was it the Greeks?" She wants so badly to crawl over to Circe and let her clean Reyna's face and kiss her elbow where it hurts and promise everything will be all right.
She can feel Circe's stare turn stony and bore into her forehead. "You might still be worth something," she finally hissed. "And, oh?" she asks as she catches sight of Khan's purple head. "Who's this?" She leans forward, her left arm snapping forward like a snake whip and grabbing Khan by the chin. Her fingers dig into his jaw and she tilts his head back and forth like she's inspecting an animal for purchase. "Ah," Circe says, lips stretching in a grin that borders on feral. "I remember now. I picked you up a week ago, didn't I? A violet headed little Macedonian scamp." Khan trembles under her fingers. Hylla turns her head back and forth between them but does not see.
Circe slowly draws out her other hand from behind her blood stained robes and Reyna sees the glint of silver. "You're not family yet," she says as she lifts the small silver knife to Khan's dark neck and Reyna fumbles with her phaser. "Maybe in some other-"
The next thing Reyna can fully remember is Hylla pushing them into a small spaceship and flying away from the temple as fast as the ship will go the engines occasionally shuddering from the strain and making the entire ship lurch.
She remembers pieces and bits, sometimes, in her dreams.
The sound of phaser shots, mostly.
Hylla pulling on her wrist.
The recoil of her phaser.
Reyna and Nico had negotiated a deal with Annabeth. Food and passage to the York star system in return for enforcement assistance on two drop offs and a thousand denarii. Annabeth had flat out refused to take her ship to the most populated planet in the York system, but Reyna pointed out that it was the only one with a federal bank and the only way she could access her funds. Nico had said he would stay behind while Reyna and someone else went to retrieve the funds.
Now they were holding up their end of the deal, looking scary and holding big guns while Annabeth's crew dealt with a sleazy corrupt Empire government official and the illegal cargo that he was buying. "Did you catch her name?" she asked Nico under her breath while they stared down the official's guards standing down the hall. "Jisuye Jenners," he said back, and Reyna committed the name to memory. Greek pirates wandering mostly harmlessly in Roman space was of no interest to her, but officials dealing with illegal cargo who had sworn an oath to the Empire were.
Annabeth and Percy stepped out of Jenners' office with two small duffel bags. The rest of the crew followed behind them. As they walked past Jenners' guards, she flashed Reyna a triumphant grin, one Reyna couldn't help but return. Annabeth had a very nice smile.
Predictably, that was when it all went to shit.
First, the loud boom, sending Reyna ducking for cover and pulling Nico down to the ground with her, protecting his head while moving and reaching towards Annabeth. Then the walls started to shake, plaster raining down on their heads, and a section of the ceiling fell down between them, leaving the crew stranded. Two more loud explosions rocked the mansion before Reyna dared to lift her head and try to peer through the settling dust. Shit. Half of the ceiling had come down in this hallway and it was a miracle they hadn't been crushed. She moved carefully along the wall towards the blockage, avoiding debris as they went. It was too tall and too unstable to climb over, and it looked to be quite deep. "Annabeth!" she shouted.
She tried again.
Nico stood up behind her. "Reyna."
Shit fuck damnit- she didn't know what to do. There was too much, just too much; Annabeth and her crew were there, stuck behind rubble and away from her and probably dead or bleeding and almost dead and she could run. She could run. She and Nico could take their ship and leave them here and run away and find Jason. They would die here. Annabeth would die here, her crew too, and she would never wear a stupid tricorn hat ever again and maybe if she was still alive she would be picked up by a rescue crew and they would help her get better until one of their tests showed she was genetically Greek and then question would be asked and records search and Reyna knew how these things went, and they all ended the same way. Execution or imprisonment, forced labor for ten years if they could get it.
"What?" she snapped back at Nico, but now she realized her hands were shaking and she kept sliding her hands over her sides, checking for her phasers.
He held his hands out. "What do we do?"
"I don't know, I don't- we need to do something we- oh. Ah." Reyna spun around, looking at the long stretch of windows. "You can fly their ship, right? Good. Because, you have to go get it now. Now."
Nico turned towards the windows. Looked back towards the ceiling. "Are you going to be okay?"
"I'm fine," Reyna said, and she was, now that she had a purpose. "Hurry." Nico took off.
She started digging.
It took fifteen minutes for Nico to get the ship to the mansion. She was talking to the stone (how much money did Jisuye Jenners have, exactly?), talking to Annabeth for ten before she heard "Reyna?" and it was trembling and cracked and stained with tears and oh gods.
"Annabeth?" she shouted. "Annabeth!"
"Reyna!" Annabeth yelled back and it felt like a cold tide washing over her, this relief. "Gods, are you alright?"
"I'm fine," she said, grinning. "I'm fine, Nico's fine, I sent him to get the ship and I have a plan, it's all good."
Annabeth did not respond for a moment. "He can fly my ship by himself?"
Shit. Reyna should have thought of that. "He's a trained pilot," she said and hoped that she and Nico could agree on a story for later and that Annabeth wouldn't ask too many questions. "Are you okay? Is everybody else okay?"
Annabeth's pause was longer this time. "I'm fine," she said heavily. "I'm fine. Everyone else is okay too, but Beckendorf's ankle is funny and Piper- oh gods, Piper, she's breathing but she won't wake up-"
"Annabeth." Reyna pushed away a heavy chuck of ceiling and squeezed through chucks of stone to get as close as possible. "Annabeth, you need to calm down. You need to talk to me, all right? Calm down a bit and talk to me. Where are you?"
"I'm trapped- I, Piper's with me." Her voice grew stronger. "I can't see anyone else, but I can hear them. They're all okay. Percy is the closest." Annabeth must have instinctively grabbed Piper the way Reyna had grabbed Nico.
"Okay. That's good. It's going to be fine, Annabeth. You're doing good. Okay, what does Piper look like?"
"I have her," Annabeth said, choking on her words. "She's breathing, she's breathing, she has a pulse, I looked at her eyes but she's not responding and she should have woken up by now, right?"
"You don't have bright enough light to tell if her pupils are responding or not, okay? This is what you're going to do now... you're going to feel around her head for any bumps or hidden cuts, okay? And then you're going to..."
Nico arrived, the Argo the Third hovering outside the window. Without any instruction from her, he blew apart the windows and began moving the rubble with the 3HD Corporation patented MirHook, designed for moving things around in space and almost definitely not installed on the Argo through any legal means.
They left the atmosphere mere moments before the battle between a literal fleet of pirates and Jenners' defending forces ended and Jenners' forces descended in a protective ring surrounding the mansion. Percy had managed to hold onto his duffel bag full of cash and Clarisse had rescued half of the other bag.
Reyna spent the next half hour taking care of Piper and setting up a scanner that hadn't been used for years. While the scanner did it's work, she took care of Charles's ankle, which was only been twisted a little bit, luckily. The scan finished, she figured out the results and gave Piper an injection. "She's fine," she told Annabeth as she washed the dust and dirt off arms. She had stood waiting outside of the ship's tiny medical room the entire time, watching Piper and crossing and uncrossing her arms. "Piper is going to be fine. The scan did pick up some broken vessels and a little bit of swelling, but I gave her something for that. She should wake up in about an hour, but it's okay if she takes longer."
Annabeth nodded tersely. "Good. Okay. That's good, that's good."
Reyna nodded back. "I'm going to go take a shower, then. I'll check up on her afterwards." She turned to leave, but Annabeth grabbed her wrist.
Her grip was loose, but it was like fire. It felt like an accusation, even though Reyna knew it was not. Annabeth's hands were strong and calloused, her fingers covered in dirt and dust.
"I just wanted to say thank you. For what you did today." She would not look at Reyna. They could have run. She and Nico could have taken the ship and run, and Annabeth knows it.
There was blood on Annabeth's hand. "Hey," Reyna said, taking Annabeth's wrist and examining the cut on the back of her hand. Annabeth's head jerked up. "Let me take care of this for you."
"It's fine, really-"
"It'll only take a moment." Gods, why did she do this to herself? Annabeth could take care of a small cut on her hand. She didn't need Reyna. But she nodded anyway and walked into the small medical room.
Reyna grabbed wet wipes out of a drawer as Annabeth hopped up onto the low counter. There was only room for Reyna to stand in front of her because she had shoved the cot against the wall, the one Piper now lay on. It didn't seem too bad at first glance, just a scratch along the back of her right hand, but upon further inspection, Reyna found that the gash was fairly deep. "I'm going to disinfect this," she told Annabeth, frowning as she let go and began searching for something slightly closer to what she was used to and not something out of the Stone Age. Annabeth noticed. "You used to better?" she joked.
Reyna shook her head and smiled. "I'm familiar usable medical supplies." In the end, she had to settle for a bottle of liquid disinfectant, a bandage, and some soft stretchy white cloth to keep the bandage in place. Annabeth gritted her teeth while Reyna swabbed the disinfectant around the gash. She focused on Annabeth's hand, not knowing where else to look. She positioned the bandage, then wrapped the white cloth around her palm, tying it off tightly on the back and drawing out a knife to cut the white fabric. "There you go," she said, backing away a step, suddenly very uncomfortable. The smallness of the ship's medical room only allowed for a little more than a foot of space between them.
Even if... even if Annabeth returned her ridiculous crush, anyway, this could not happen, not when it was built on a complete and utter lie, that if she hadn't been on paid vacation she'd be tossing Annabeth and her crew into a prison. Reyna liked to think she had more honor than that.
Annabeth lifted up her hand and examined it in the light. "You're good at this." Damn right she was. She'd done her time in the Madeline Academy, done it well, and she had the battlefield experience. She had earned her skills. "Where did you learn?"
Circe had taught them that the most believable lie was the one closest to the truth. "The military."
"A mistake." Some days, usually when she was sent out on a special op, doing the dirty work of the Empire, she wondered.
Annabeth nodded. "I see." She smiled wryly. "We all do that." Her grey eyes told of a great sorrow.
Then she was pulling Reyna close to her, between the slight spread of her legs, one hand on Reyna's waist, her bandaged hand cupping the back of Reyna's neck, and she leaned towards her. Reyna's eyes flew closed and gods did her chest hurt. There was dust and dirt on Annabeth's lips but gods- she grabbed Annabeth's waist with both hands and kissed harder, because this was better than anything she could imagine, the way Annabeth's mouth crushed against hers so gently she might die, the way Annabeth's hips seemed to fit perfectly against the spread of her hands, the way her knees and the beginnings of her thighs hugged Reyna, the utter beauty and perfection of it all. Annabeth tasted so human, so perfect, and she kissed the way she seemed to do everything, with determination and a heady grace and an intelligence brighter than all the stars in the sky. Reyna thought she might break, shatter into pieces right then and there. Then Annabeth's tongue flicked softly against Reyna's lips and she was gone, nothing existing in the whole universe except for this, this fragile and desperate and beautiful thing.
She didn't know how long she stood there, pulling Annabeth closer and closer until their bodies were touching, her tongue busy, letting go of Annabeth's waist and running one of her hands up Annabeth's side, the other hand busy exploring the soft planes of Annabeth's neck and cheek. The knot high in her chest had unwound itself completely and disappeared, replaced by something high and hopeful and trembling like the wings of a butterfly.
Eventually, they both had to breathe, but Reyna still felt like she was drowning in this precious thing. She dared to open her eyes while they stayed there, still close together, gently trading air in soft pants, and she found herself staring into Annabeth's impossibly grey eyes. Annabeth was warm and steady beneath her hands and Reyna couldn't bring herself to move them. All she could do was stare back, transfixed at the sight of her beautiful eyes and beautiful cheek bones and her beautiful, beautiful mouth.
Annabeth reached back with both her hands and began to undo Reyna's braid.
When Annabeth was only half done Reyna stopped trying to stop herself and leaned forward again, slower and deeper this time. It was so good, so right, so beautiful, some product of aligning stars; it hurt her to her very bones. Her hands started wandering again, stroking Annabeth's sides and her stomach through the soft cloth of her tank top, grasping her gorgeous bare shoulders and gently exploring her neck, her cheek, brushing stray strands of blonde hair behind her ears. Annabeth's strong thighs pulled her closer, and her hands stayed where they were, the bandaged one soft against Reyna's neck, until the other one slipped beneath Reyna's tank, her other shirt dust covered and thrown in the laundry long ago, and then Annabeth's hand started moving up.
And then, and then, Piper McLean snorted and rolled over in her drug induced sleep.
They leaned back from each other, and Annabeth withdrew her warm hand from under Reyna's shirt, but left her other hand curled around Reyna's neck.
Reyna couldn't quite look her in the eyes, not after she had completely forgotten while making out about the unconscious girl lying behind her on an ancient cot so she looked down, which unfortunately meant she was looking straight at Annabeth's chest. Great. Wonderful.
Annabeth started giggling, placing her free hand across her mouth like she was trying to hold them in. Reyna started laughing too, because this was ridiculous and there was literally an unconscious girl lying right behind her that she had spent half an hour taking care of, and she had just forgotten all of that because Annabeth was a really great kisser.
"I should- I should take a shower," Reyna said.
"Mm-hmm," Annabeth hummed, looking up slyly through her eyelash and wrapping a hand around Reyna's waist. "Maybe I should take a shower too." Reyna's surprise and embarrassment must have shown on her face because Annabeth started laughing again. "Oh my gods," she said. "I was kidding!"
"You have really small showers on your ship."
"My ship is amazing."
"And it has small showers." Reyna tilted her head. "Well," she added, attempting a wink, "we'll never know for sure if we don't try..." This time, it was Annabeth who blushed.
Piper snorted in her sleep again, causing both of them to startle. "I do need to shower," Reyna said awkwardly.
Annabeth looked down. "Me too."
"Piper is going to wake up eventually."
Reyna leaned up for another kiss anyway, this one smooth and soft and nearly chaste except for a hint of something more, something hungrier. She stepped back, her hands reluctantly leaving Annabeth. "I really need to shower."
Annabeth leaned against a cabinet and smiled, small, but somehow content. "Good night, Reyna."
"Good night, Annabeth," Reyna said.
Then she realized they were four days in. They made landfall in the York star system in two days. Jason had been missing for how long, now? "I can't," Reyna said, her heart twisting, "I'm sorry, I want to, but I just can't." Cold fury flashed across Annabeth's face for a moment, followed by a brief moment of dismay that was replaced by sadness. "I'm looking for someone."
"Yeah," Annabeth said, turning away. "I get that. Me too."
Reyna backed out of the medical room and nearly ran down the hall.
Nico was already in bed, reading an honest to the gods paper book. "I was thinking," he said as she came in. He paused. "Oh. Oh. What's wrong?"
Reyna sighed and dropped her wet towel over the back of the chair. "It was great. She. Annabeth. It was great, and then I told her it couldn't happen."
"Did you tell her why?" he asked, setting his book down.
She shook her head. "Kind of. I told her I was looking for someone." Since when had Nico become her confidante?
Nico winced. "That may have made things worse."
"She told me she was looking for someone too."
He winced again. "That's not... good. How about this," he proposed. "Talk to her, tomorrow. Actually talk. Don't do the dismissal thing Jason says you do and talk to her."
"Okay," she said. "Tomorrow. Piper's fine," she added. "She just needs a day or so and she'll be good as new." Reyna tossed her hair into a quick braid and got into bed. Instead of sitting in the chair with closed eyes as he normally did, Nico climbed in next to her.
"You'll figure it out," he told her.
It felt good to hear someone else say that.
They rush Khan to a medical center when he starts coughing up blood, but it's already too late. After one day, he starts bleeding from his eyes, and after another, the doctor refuses to let them in at Khan's request.
It takes another three days for him to die.
The one harried doctor who has been looking at their case tells them it was not their fault, that it was a rare incurable genetic disorder triggered by a certain set of conditions during early childhood and eventually manifesting after exposure in adolescence to this or that. She asks them where their parents are; Reyna tells them they don't have any. The doctor registers time and cause of death, and draws blood from both of them to check that neither of them have the disorder. They don't, of course.
Reyna knows she should tell the doctor to stop, push her away before she draws blood, grab her by her short hair and slam her head against the wall before she enters in Khan's death, putting them on Circe's radar, grab Hylla's hand and run out of this sterile white hell before they're permanently entered into an Empire of New Rome medical database. But she doesn't. She's too tired.
So she lets the doctor snap a picture of each them, watches her list Khan as her dead brother, tells her yes when she asks if they can freeze Khan's body and send him to the heart of the Empire for study (that's what Reyna hears, even though the doctor says it nicely).
She gives the doctor one condition: they accompany Khan's body, to say goodbye. The doctor looks surprised, despite Reyna answering all the questions even though they've all been directed at Hylla, but she says she'll try.
Only when the doctor leaves them does Hylla look up. She touches Reyna for the first time since Khan has died and pulls her into a tight hug. "I promise," she whispers tightly, "my princesita, we are never coming back."
Reyna hugs her like she's drowning.
Reyna doesn't know it, but a year later, the 3HD Corporation will use the knowledge obtained from careful study of the body of one Khan Avila Ramirez-Arellano to successfully save the life of one Hazel Levesque.
In the early morning, before a group breakfast, before she had seen Annabeth, Nico pulled her sharply down behind some large wooden crates. "When we passed by the Legion outpost last night," he said in a low voice, pulling his sleeve up, "I picked up some coded transmissions from the outpost heading back to Seneca. I don't know what they say but the origin code comes from Mycenae."
"It could be about Jason," she realized.
"Excellent deduction, Admiral Commander." He rolled his eyes at her and extended his arm. Little blue lights sped from his wrist to the crook of his elbow underneath his skin. He looked healthier now, a bit less sallow and pale. Reyna nearly jumped at the lights. "What?" he asked, smiling slightly.
"I didn't know you could do that," she said, smiling back, and reaching out a hand to mess up his hair. "You did that on purpose. Show me the transmission," she ordered him.
Blue symbols started scrolling quickly down his arm. She raised a hand. "Slow down a bit."
Nico shifted and the transmission slowed. "I can decode the rest of the transmissions if you know how to crack it."
She watched for a while. "It's a Temerian code," she said. "I'd need a few hours and a pen and paper to figure out the key."
"How old fashioned of you. Temerian, huh?" he said. "The message has to be something so important that the Empire encodes it a language they made up that I- ah, that I am completely unaware of because that is Section 8 classified information," he said with a smile as Reyna shot him a look.
"Yes," she said, "yes it is. Give me a few hours. We should go now," she said, standing up, Nico with her, and staring down into the blackened barrel of a gun.
"Fuck," Clarisse said, aiming straight at her with one hand, sighting down the barrel. "Fucking Romans." She shook her head once in disbelief. "Fucking Empire."
Reyna was already reacting, drawing both her phasers and aiming straight for Clarisse's eye sockets before she could finish her first expletive. Nico stood frozen before he started to slowly reach under his jacket for his pistol, but Clarisse's weapon jerked towards him. "Don't move!" she barked. "Hands where I can see them." She motioned towards Reyna with the end of the gun. "Same goes for you, Admiral Commander. Why don't you slide those across the floor, yeah?" Just how long had she been listening? Reyna frantically tried to rewind the conversation in her mind to the point where Nico had addressed her by title. Early on, she realized. Damnit. They were screwed.
"Clarisse?" Piper called from somewhere nearby. Reyna cursed under her breath. They had a wall on their backs and several cargo boxes that could be used as cover, but that was the extent of their advantages. "Have you seen my-" she came through the balcony door. "...Clarisse?" She looked down and saw their standoff and without questions immediately drew two sleek black phasers, aiming one at Reyna and the other at Nico, despite the fact that it was probable that Reyna had saved her life yesterday. Shiny silver bayonets slid out within a breath from the end of barrels with a snick. "What's going on?"
"They're Empire dogs," Clarisse called up without breaking eye contact with Reyna.
The blood drained from Piper's face and she turned her head to call into the halls of the ship while her aim remained steady. Reyna couldn't help but be impressed; so far Piper and Clarisse were handling the situation with calm and efficiency. Piper spoke in Greek, and Reyna cursed every ignorant politicians who had outlawed the use and teaching of the language before the war, a policy that had remained in place and heavily enforced for the past ten years. "Είναι Ελληνική!" she shouted. "Reyna και Nico είναι γαμημένο ρωμαϊκή σκυλιά!" Clarisse was too focused on Reyna to stop Nico from swiftly drawing out his pistol and aiming it up at Piper.
Within moments of Piper's call to arms, Percy raced in through the lower level door, unarmed for the moment, but Leo close on a heels with a gas tank strapped to his back and carrying what suspiciously looked like an antique flamethrower. Percy withdrew his overlarge phaser and assumed the beginnings of a stance with his feet, but he kept it pointed at the floor. "What in the name of the gods is going on?" he barked. Beckendorf followed through the same door, dirt smudged on his face, his sleeves rolled up over his arms, and a hammer in his hands. He did not limp, and Reyna cursed herself. "όπλα έτοιμα," Annabeth commanded, her voice ringing against the walls of the ship as she strode out onto the balcony, holding a nasty looking phaser rifle, her hat tilted down over her face. Her entrance was accompanied the harsh clicks of safeties being removed. "What is going on?" she demanded in Commonlat.
"Empire dogs," Clarisse snarled. "They're both Empire dogs."
"They- what?" Annabeth said, looking down at her. "They're from ENR ranks?" It was the first time Reyna had ever seen naked surprise on her face. Nico muttered something angry under his breath.
"They're from Seneca," Clarisse continued, her voice trembling in rage. "I overheard them. They're from Seneca and she-" she jabbed her weapon in Reyna's direction, "-is no less than an Admiral fucking Commander."
Reyna watched their faces, the minute shifts of the shape of their eyes and the lines of their mouths, and she knew there would be no clever lies to get them out of this. The only thing she could try to do now was minimize the damage. It all made sense to them now, didn't it? Their secrecy, their apparent wealth, her shooting and his strangeness. Their half-truths and little deflections. They hadn't been reluctant to share, they had been lying.
They were Greek, and she was a hero of the Empire. Someone must have seen her face, some time, heard her name, and it certainly wouldn't be that hard to look up Admiral Commander Reyna and see what came up.
She looked up at Annabeth. She understood now, didn't she?
I can't. I'm sorry, I want to, but I just can't.
Annabeth lived through her eyes, now sharp and gray and hurt and stung and angry.
I'm looking for someone.
Reyna felt the last shivers of Annabeth's deep sigh as she leaned away, her lips bright.
Yeah. I get that. Me too.
Clarisse would relay the entirety of the conversation to Annabeth, and Annabeth would connect the dots. Reyna's slip up was a sentence on her head and on Nico's. Jason was a popular name these days, but it wouldn't take much to connect the dots. There was only Jason an Admiral Commander might be chasing after, one person Reyna might be looking for, and that was Jason Grace, hero of the Empire.
Annabeth leaned against the railing with one hand and looked down coldly. "Well?" she asked. "Are you?"
Nico's aim shifted to the left to a space between Piper and Annabeth. "Are we what?"
"Enlisted soldiers of the Empire of New Rome." Reyna searched through the shadows cast by her hat, but she could not find Annabeth's eyes.
"I am not," Nico said.
"I am," she said.
Everyone was silent.
Nico moved to speak again and Reyna wanted to stop him, to warn him, that this would just make the situation worse, but she couldn't. "Nico di Angelo," he said. "Ambassador of the 3HD Corporation to the Empire of New Rome."
"γιος του άδη," he said in Greek. Adis, it sounded like, Hades.
It stole the breath from her lungs.
Nico continued to speak in Greek, but Reyna didn't bother to try to piece together his confession with the few Greek words she had picked up over the years.
Her sister used to tell her she had a big heart, and now Reyna knew it was a warning, not a compliment
So when Annabeth turned on heel in the middle of their conversation without a word and Percy told her in Commonlat to kick her phasers over, kneel on the ground, and put her hands on her head, she did. She did not resist while Clarisse patted her down for weapons or when Beckendorf did, even thought it would have been all too easy for her reach up to hook the crook of her elbow under the soft skin of their chins and twist. She considered it when Clarisse patted her down again and found the little knives tucked into the sides of her phaser holsters.
Reyna wondered where her anger was as they locked her in the brig, Nico next to her.
The brig was rusted and unused. In one corner of her cell lay a neat pile of artificial pillow feathers and in another cracked metal pipes. Their cells were offset and Reyna could not see Nico.
"So," she said, sitting down and leaning against one wall.
"Reyna," he pleaded quietly. "I..."
"Explain," she commanded, but she could not bring herself to clear her throat and hide her exhaustion.
"It's complicated," Nico said, and they fell into silence. Reyna laid her head against the wall and closed her eyes, unable to stop thinking about soft lips and a warm hand on her waist, and Nico did not speak again for the rest of the day or night.
"You're going to become a soldier," Hylla says flatly, "for the Empire." She holds the hand delivered letter with a broken red seal that contains Reyna's test results and the resulting invitation to Madeline Academy. "You're going to go to military school."
Reyna stares at the accusing wax seal. "I just wanted to see if I could do it."
Her sister gently sets the letter on the table. "Of course you could. You're better than all of them."
A near perfect 1788 on the written tests and a 1790 on the physical. Of course she could. "Yeah."
"When were you planning on telling me?"
In some stupid fit of teenage rebellion, she wants to tell her 'never', because most nights her sister isn't even home and it feels like this, them, her measly little family is falling apart. Instead, Reyna shrugs. She's sixteen now, but she's been making her own decisions for far longer.
They lost something when they lost Khan.
She backs down, sits down stays standing. "I don't know if I want to go or not." She's lying to her sister, and somehow this is the norm. She wants to go the Academy. She would do well, she'd graduate in four years, she knows how to work the system and she would rise quickly after she graduated. It would just feel right, being a part of something, knowing her worth and her usefulness.
Her older sister does not speak for several moments. "That company I've been doing freelance for," she finally says. "They've offered me a job."
Reyna looks at her knees. "What's the catch?"
"It's in Xiyatu. I have until noon tomorrow to accept and the ship leaves at four."
Xiyatu is in another spiral arm of the galaxy, under the jurisdiction of the Seventh Legion.
"When were you planning on telling me?" she echoes. She looks up.
Hylla smiles wryly and Reyna spots a scar over her left eyebrow she doesn't remember. "When I decided whether or not I was going to accept." She looks up and laughs. "This star system was never big enough to hold both of us, princesita."
Reyna nods, stands up, and hugs her sister. "Call me when you get there."
Hylla leaves Reyna her phaser. "I'll have to come back for it," she says with a wink. Reyna tucks Aurum into the back of her waist band and makes a mental note to buy another holster.
She checks her phone all through orientation. Afterwards she combs through accident reports when she calls and Hylla's number doesn't connect. She makes calls to people impressed by her entrance exam score, but when someone ask if this means she'll no longer be attending the academy, she stops calling.
Reyna never sees her sister again.
There is a charismatic, intelligent tall blond boy with a scar on his lip in several of her advanced classes who wears their semi military uniform like he was born to it. And he has groupies. Reyna isn't jealous at all, she really isn't, because she knows she would have groupies too if she actually talked in class instead of writing all her notes in snarky Macedonian with accompanying doodles.
She actually talks to Lip Scar (even though she supposes they were always on a collision course) because the second week of classes, her Higher Maths A teacher goes on a rant after everyone he calls on is unable some theoretical gravity problem he's written down. Rena looks up from her doodles while he yells for an impressive five minutes. Finally defeated, he points at Lip scar. "Cadet Grace, can you solve this correctly?"
Reyna managed to be assigned a nice seat in the middle row along a long set of windows. Now she turns to watch the spectacle. Grace squirms slightly in his seat and has the grace (ha) to look uncomfortable. She can't tell if he's faking. "I believe so, sir."
The instructor sighs and buries his face in one of his hands. "Cadet Grace, what were your marks on the written portion of the entrance exam?"
Grace looks even more uncomfortable and doesn't look at anyone. Probably not faking it. "A 1750, sir," he says softly.
The instructor looks up in surprise. "Damn. That's- wow, that's actually very good. Well done. The rest of you," he says, voice rising as he begins to rant again. Reyna tunes him out until she realizes he's just trying to scare them into working harder, even though by doing so he's isolating the one kid with the most potential who's going to need a network of his peers and despite the "everyone starts equal here" mantra from orientation. This is the way it's going to be here. "Give me one good reason any one of you deserves to be in this class, besides him!" he yells, red faced, and jabs a finger at Grace.
Reyna is already mostly isolated from the rest of her class simply because she's stayed quiet so far. That's not something that's going to take more than six months of the three years she's planning to spend here. She just can't resist an opportunity like this, and she blames her former mentor. She half raises her hand and it takes her instructor ten seconds to see her and another ten seconds to locate her on his seating chart and call on her. "Cadet Ramirez-Arellano." He pronounces the double 'l' incorrectly.
It takes him a second. His jaw drops. "One thousand seven hundred eighty eight?" He squints at her.
He leans back. "Gods almighty. Out of curiosity, Cadet, what did you get on the physical portion?" He's definitely forgotten her name already.
"And you, Cadet Grace?" Not only is he intent on isolating them, it seems he is intent on pitting them against each other as well.
Grace looks at her while he answers. "1792, sir."
...and gods damnit she knew she should have tried harder on the quarter marathon.
Their instructor whistled. "Your valedictorian and salutatorian, cadets, though it will be up to them to determine which is which. Moving along, the basic concept behind artificial gravity environments aboard-"
Reyna turns away from Grace and resumes her doodles, but she can feel his gaze on her back.
Grace catches up with her between Strategic History of the First Aegean War and her lunch period. "Ramirez-Arellano!" he shouts across commons, surprisingly pronouncing it correctly. She turns instinctively, as do twenty other people. He waves furiously and dashes towards her across the grass even though there are clearly numerous sidewalks for a reason. "Jason," he says, grinning and juggling a few textbooks before extending his right hand. "Jason Grace."
"Reyna." She shakes.
"I've been looking for you all day!"
"Oh?" Several people in her Strategic History Class had been whispering loudly until a kind cadet by the name of Taverners had budged into their conversation and pointed out that the mystery girl in question was sitting on the other side of the room.
"Did you really get a 1788?" he asks eagerly.
"Yes," she says, wondering what he wants.
"Gods, that's amazing. Hey, I was thinking, do you want to get lunch with me? Or something?"
Reyna blinks. "Didn't you have lunch last period?" She's been eating outside, but she hasn't seen him in the common cafeteria.
He fiddles with his textbooks. "Yes?"
"You're going to skip class?" It's their second week, this is the highest ranked military college this side of the galaxy, and Jason doesn't seem like the type.
"That depends if you would like to share a terrible meal with me in the cafeteria." He's a bit like a puppy, she decides.
Reyna lifts her lunch. "I prefer my own food and the roof."
Jason grins and it looks like sunshine. "Awesome."
Reyna woke and crouched into a ready stance, heart pounding and muscles tense, her fingers curling into fists and itching for the steadiness and comfort of a trigger.
"Whoa there," Clarisse said as she pushed a disposable plate through the bars. She had an old phaser holstered at her waist. Reyna eyed it- she might be able to make it, slam herself up against the bars, grab Clarisse and yank her hard enough to whip her head against metal, enough time for her to grab the phaser and free herself. Clarisse took a step back, and the moment of opportunity was lost. "We- we're talking."
Reyna acknowledged her with a nod and sat back down. Gods, she wasn't at her best. She wasn't thinking ahead; she needed to rub the sleep out of her eyes, eat the food, and plan how she was going to outwit a crew of Greek pirates who had good reason to hate her and everything she represented.
Clarisse slid a plate to Nico then went back to the door. "Like I said," she said, making eye contact with Reyna, "we're talking. About both of you." She closed the brig door with an air of finality as she left.
Reyna ate, pushed the plate back through the bars, and waited.
Finally, after what feels like a small eternity, Nico began to speak. The story flows from him like a flood, unstoppable and churning; he told it in circles, leaping back and forth through time and space. He paused at points, as if waiting for her to shut him down, tell him to shut up and throw his confession back in his face.
Yes, I am Greek, he told her. She already knew this part, had been guessing at it for a long time, even before he had confessed it to a bunch of smugglers. But what came next is like something out of a story Hylla used to tell her.
I was a soldier, he told her, a fighter in the First Aegean War. A treasured son, commander of many, one of the most promising officers of the Greek armed forces. A real boy, once upon a time.
Reyna did a little math, and came up with seventy eight years.
He spoke for a long time about his people, the tightly knit group of fighters he was in charge of. How his older sister easily integrated herself with her own unit, but he never could find a place among the people he was supposed to command. When he spoke of the their two forces moving in Comodirisan space like an spear, his voice grew soft and slow. The Comodirisans cut them off from the Greek support force following behind them. Bianca's and his forces were decimated, and he remembered dying, but he did not tell her how it happened. "They recognized us, preserved our bodies," he said like his heart was breaking, and she just wanted to say something to make him feel better but she couldn't find the words. "When the Treaty of Parisa was signed, my father bargained with them and got us back." Here he skipped details. "He worked for twenty years and developed the technology to recreate me. It's not- it never will be perfect. I have missing memories, from before. I can't remember a lot."
He stopped for the first time in half an hour.
She didn't want to do it. She hated herself for it. But she had to- "And Bianca?" she asked.
"Her head," he said, and choked. "Her head was - her brain was too damaged. My father- he brought her back. Five years after me. But it was- gods, she wasn't there. There was nothing there. Nothing at all."
There was just one more thing. One more thing, and maybe they can put this behind them. "And Hazel?"
"Half-sister. Born way after us. She was sick, almost died, but my dad- he managed to put her back together."
"That's good," she said. "Okay."
It was a lot to process.
"So," she said. "Are you with me or are you with them?"
"With you," Nico said immediately.
Reyna smiled for the first time since Piper had rolled over and snorted in her sleep. "Good," she said. "That's good."
"That's something you never had to ask me."
"Really? Because I've seen the way you look at Percy Jackson."
"...Percy Jackson just has a really nice ass."
"I've seen the way you look at Percy Jackson's ass," she amended. "And it is a really nice ass."
"Do we need to take the ship? Is it not possible they'll drop us somewhere and leave us?"
"Yes," she said grimly, "we could take that chance, and we'd likely be fine. But Jason." She did not add that at least one of the crew must have some sort of bone to pick with her. Mycenae had been heavily populated at the time of its destruction.
"Jason." Nico sighed. "The stakes are too high."
"Exactly. I've made too many mistakes already and I'm not going to take risks I don't have to. We take the ship. And as you have pointed out before, we are outnumbered."
"If we can seize and hold the forward deck or the auxiliary navigating station then I can take control of nearly everything on the ship. I have to make physical contact with the system, though, unlike the garbage my sister dumped on us. The Argo's systems are a bit more advanced than that."
"But will that give you away?"
Nico hesitated. "They'll know something is up when they can't take back control and... someone might connect the dots."
"What exactly did you tell them about yourself?"
"Who my father is," he said softly. "He's old and well known. But it's not like they can really do anything," he added, "if someone does figure out. They are Greek smugglers in the middle of Roman space holding an Admiral Commander of the Empire captive, after all."
"Our first objective is to take the ship, we can figure out what to do with them later."
"So here's what I was thinking..."
"That's a terrible plan."
"Really? I know it has its rough spots, but I thought it was decent considering our situation."
"You were wrong. That's a terrible plan. That would get us killed. This is what we're going to do:..."
"No. I refuse. Absolutely not."
"Sometimes, Nico, you have to take one for the team."
"No! I'm not going to- launch myself at him and 'climb him like a tree'!"
"... you said he has a great ass."
"Maybe I put in that part as a joke. But you have to tell me you at least considered it for a moment..."
"No, I did not."
"Maybe for a moment. He does have a really nice ass."
Clarisse came again in the afternoon with two sandwiches and two cups of water.
"This is what is going to happen," she said, setting down the sandwiches. She was well aware of Reyna and kept a careful distance away from the bars even though Reyna sat against the far wall. She took no such precautions with Nico, who sat nearly against the bars. "We know you guys are trying to-"
She listened for the sound of Nico reaching his skinny arms through the bars to grab Clarisse by the shoulders and slam her against the bars, and as soon as she did she ran to the other side of her cell and grabbed the phaser sliding on the ground. Reyna took a step back, fired three quick shots at the weak bar joints on the top of the cell and then three at the bottom. She had to jump back to avoid the falling bars, and she stepped out, grabbing Clarisse's phaser by the barrel with her left hand before smacking it across the back of Clarisse's head. She dropped like a stone and Reyna dropped the phaser, shaking her left hand furiously before picking it up and shooting off the bars of Nico's cage.
"You okay?" he asked, stepping out and glancing at her left hand.
"Fine," she said, handing him the phaser (grip first) before grabbing one of the fallen bars. "But that phaser is so ancient there's no automatic coolant system for the barrel.
"Damn. That's older than I am."
While Reyna braced the long bar against the door and the corner created by the metal cell door frame and the door, Nico grabbed Clarisse's keys off her belt and dragged her into the third cell. She grabbed another bar. The temporary blockade wouldn't last for long, but it would buy them enough time.
Nico unlocked the fourth cell, used only for spare miscellaneous supply storage. Most of it seemed not useful or forgotten. Unfortunately for the crew, Reyna had once destroyed a battalion of resting ships using far less. "You were right about the orange container," Nico called, "it's Grade B Iris-7 fuel."
"B26A63 dash 7."
"It's good. And the other stuff?"
"It all checks out."
"Good, good," Reyna said, jamming another bar between the door and a wall. "Please tell me you have some sort of measuring device back there as well." Neither of them had been able to spot something, earlier, but she had assumed it would have been fairly easy to find.
"Nothing except a bunch of disposable forks."
"Do you think you can eyeball the percentages?"
A minute later, Nico called hesitantly, "Reyna? What happens if I mess up?"
She paused. "...nothing, hopefully. Or it might blow up in your face. What did you do?"
"Too much rocket fuel."
Reyna cursed softly. "Can you go back and fix the others?"
"Yeah. Yes. I can try. I think I've got the hang of it now."
"Careful." She systematically patted down Clarisse and removed all her weapons, keeping the ones she deemed useful and tossing the rest into a corner.
"Clarisse?" Piper called through the metal door. "I heard something- are you alright?" She banged on the door when there was no reply. "Clarisse? Clarisse! Hey! Clarisse, answer me!"
"Nico!" she hissed. He appeared, dragging a large orange bucket with him.
"Annabeth!" Piper yelled. "Annabeth!" She tried to wiggle the door handle, but Reyna had blocked it. She grabbed the bucket handle and helped Nico drag the bucket to the door, careful not to spill a drop of sloshing liquid. They stepped back from the bucket and Reyna handed him one of Clarisse's phasers after setting both of them to stun.
"I've got this part," she told him, holding out her hand for the jar of Greek fire.
"Yeah," Nico said as he backed away from their homemade explosive. "I'll let you handle this."
She excels at battle, she learns, despite the long years where she did not have dirt and blood underneath her fingernails and the heady taste of smoke in her throat. It is a surprise to everyone on the field except Jason and herself. This is their first field mission, called out of school in the month before graduation. It was supposed to be an easy operation, in and out, sixteen cadets gaining field experience under a single leader while contributing to the war.
Then their commanding officer stepped on a bomb and blew himself in half and then they found themselves not destroying a fringe operation on an enemy freighter as per their mission objectives but surrounded about to die.
Reyna orders everyone into an unused storage room and is sneaking through the ship with a handful of cadets she picked towards what she assumes must be the armory before she realizes she's taken control and nobody has questioned it. She realizes this as she rounds a corner and comes face to face with two surprised guards and she drops both of them without thinking, breaking an arm and choking him on the ground with her boot while wrapping her arm around the neck of the other and twisting.
The crack is audible.
She stamps on the first guard's neck and he rolls on the ground.
The three classmates she's chosen stare at her in shock; only Jason has the mind to help her relieve the guards of their communicators and their phaser rifles; to replace the wimpy trash hand phasers they've been issued by the Empire. She takes one rifle, Jason takes the other.
This part blurs. She can't stop thinking about Khan, about how cold the metal walls or this freighter are. She has one objective: move forward, and it is only once it that is accomplished, the entire freighter under the control of sixteen cadets, the enemy locked up in storage rooms or trapped between freezing hallways, her forearms brown and sticky where she tried to wipe the blood after a messy knife fight on her pants, only then does she come back to herself and look out long forward deck windows at the stars and the black. And the enemy ships, helpfully colored red by the ship's tracking system.
"Reyna?" Jason is asking her. "What's our next move?"
She is standing on the bridge, leaning forward, her hands resting on the primary weapons console. It is impressive assortment for a freighter. She turns around to look at Jason and finds herself facing fourteen cadets in a range of emotional states. She zeroes in on the ones whose skill sets she knows and seem the steadiest.
Reyna squares her shoulders and lifts her chin. "We finish our mission."
The Empire nearly blows them to pieces in the sky when they finally limp back, and it takes Jason Grace's retinal scan and bellowing to convince them after they refuse to believe Reyna. When they try to debrief them, Reyna puts her foot down and refuses to cooperate until a trustworthy General is called in and she and Jason can relay what they've found.
By the time they finally come back to Seneca and the Madeline Academy, they've become the stuff of legend.
The rumors are out of control until the official press release, which only confirms most of them. A critical blow to the enemy, dealt by sixteen cadets after Jason Grace and Reyna Ramirez-Arellano took initiative after their commanding officer was killed in action (a stretch) and communication was blocked by the enemy (a lie). Eighteen major ships destroyed (the truth) and an enemy conspiracy discovered, subsequently all enemy infiltrators have been rooted out of the army (she doesn't know). She is no longer capable of sparring, she finds, because she is too efficient, too overboard, perfect control but no restraint, her instructors say. The therapist the Empire makes all of them talk to tells her she will heal, in time, and she tells him she knows.
Two weeks after graduation, just two days before they receive their official assignments, she wakes violently in the night, vaulting off her bed and slamming the intruder to the floor, jamming her phaser into its neck before she even opens her eyes. Something crashes to the ground and breaks. When she does open her eyes, straddling the enemy, her knees digging into the crook of his elbow's she finds Jason Grace's eyes wide, Argentum digging into the pale skin of his throat.
It took her two years to learn to not sleep with her hand on her phaser under her pillow. Now she sleeps with her right hand on Argentum, her left on Aurum.
She gets off of him. "Sorry."
Jason is hesitant to sit up. "You too?"
Reyna rocks back on her heels, crouched on the floor, feeling like a child again. "Yeah." When she does dream, she can never run fast enough, no matter what she does.
"I guess I should have knocked."
She eyes the broken bottle. Brown liquid, definitely alcohol, spills out between the broken glass and onto the floor. "It's okay," she says, feeling her lips twist into a grimacing smile, "I'd rather the officers not know you're sneaking in to drink with me."
He looks at the broken bottle as well, gingerly wipes at the puddle with the edge of his shirt. "We don't exactly have anything to drink." She shakes her head at him and pulls out bottle of terrible Yingan gavasse from under her mattress. It's not exactly Jason's expensive brandy in a glass bottle, but it does well in a pinch.
"Hallelujah, socius," her best friend says grimly, and she passes him the bottle. It makes her heart warm a little, to know that he knows as well, that after their little adventure, there's no way they won't be assigned together as battle partners, that she will continue to have someone in her life who hasn't died or hurt her or run away. Someone she trusts, with all her heart and soul.
Reyna gently poured the jar of Greek fire into the orange bucket, careful to disturb the mixture as little as possible. She quickly backed away as Piper continued to bang at the door, quickly joined by others. The bars groaned as the pressure against the door grew, likely Clarisse and Charles joining their efforts. She aimed Clarisse's phaser at the bucket and was about to fire when Annabeth arrived, the pounding on the door ceased, and the girl she had fallen head over heels for was saying her name.
"Reyna, open this door," Annabeth said calmly, knocking. "Stop this. We're on the same side. We know you're looking for Admiral Commander Jason Grace."
Reyna tightened her grip and her resolve, clicked off the safety of Clarisse's phaser. Nico grabbed her arm. "Wait," he said softly, his gaze distant. "She's telling the truth."
"Jason, he likes warm breakfast food, right? He doesn't drink anymore. Walks too casually when he's under pressure, right?" It's true, he's always just a tad too conscious of his gait.
"And if he does?" Reyna called back to them, caution in her tone but her heart already soaring.
"He was here, on our ship. He bought passage, then tried to take the Argo. We didn't let him," Annabeth said, pride coloring her voice. "And after a few, um, instances of miscommunication, he told us what he was after. Mycenae, Tartarus- the Minotaur, all of it."
"Yeah? What was his mission?" Nico glanced at her, and she shrugged. She still had no idea what Jason's mission parameters from special operations were.
"If we're telling the truth will you unblock the door and help us get rid of the bomb you've put in front of the door?"
"The same bomb Jason put in front of the door," Percy piped up. "And you've blown off all the bars to block the door, haven't you? And knocked Clarisse on the head and locked her in the third cell?"
Jason had been here. Standing in the same place she now stood. They were that much closer to finding him. He had had the same plan she had, done the same things she had done. Out of all the infinite possibilities in the universe, of all the things he could have done, of all the ships in the galaxy he could have chosen for his mission, she had miraculously followed in his footsteps.
There gods were real, and later, she promised, later she would pray her thanks and maybe sacrifice a few animals if she felt called to do so.
"Yes," she said, grinning, "Yes."
There was a heavy silence. "Yes," Annabeth said cautiously, "as in, there is bomb behind this door? Why do you sound so happy?"
"It can easily be disposed of if you guys have a medium disposable vedlock."
"Jason used our last one to get rid of his bomb."
"Do you have a large one?"
"No. No small ones either."
"Ah." Reyna eyed the volatile liquid. "I'm sure we'll be able to figure something out."
It took an hour and a half, but eventually they managed to throw the bucket off the ship and into the endless black vacuum of space.
"So," Reyna said the when she could catch a moment alone with Annabeth in a dimly lit hallway. "Jason."
"Yes. Jason." Annabeth scratched her neck. "Can we do this in my quarters?"
Yesterday, Reyna would have been extremely pleased to be in Annabeth's quarters, but now all she could taste was the regret on her tongue. This was not the sort of thing easily fixed, not even by sudden miracle revelations. "Lead the way," she said anyway.
"We picked him up on a way base satellite," Annabeth said as they walked. "Asked where we going, we told him Calladan, and he said, surprise surprise, he was looking for passage to Calladan. You know of it?"
Annabeth opened the short door to her quarters and ducked in. "It's in the general direction of Mycenae. He bought passage, tried to take over our ship, we didn't let him, there was a little conversation, we threw out the bomb and made Percy put frozen peas on his head-"
"Percy?" Reyna interrupted.
Annabeth laughed as she opened a small fridge and pulled out two bright blue bottles. "Yeah. Jason took him out with a single blow. Speaking of Percy, don't tell him about these- I stole them from him." She winked at Reyna as she handed her a drink, but after a brief moment her smile dropped and she sat down, perched on the edge of her neatly made bed.
"I don't actually know Jason's mission objectives," Reyna admitted into the awkward silence, rolling the drink from one hand to another. It was bubbly- bubbly and blue. For all she knew, she might have been discharged already- there was no harm in telling Annabeth, especially since she seemed to know more about what Jason was doing than Reyna did. "It was a classified Special Operations mission, and even I didn't have the clearance to know about it." She shrugged. "It's the way it works, most of the time. He never gets to know what I'm doing and where I'm going, and this time was no different, our positions merely reversed."
Annabeth tilted her head. "But aren't you the... partner he mentioned? You don't share?"
"Socius, yes. Battle partners, companions, friends. But the Empire takes precedence, always."
She considered. "I can... understand that. Comprehend it. But I don't agree with it." She hesitated, twisted off the cap, and swallowed. "Jason was looking for a woman who goes by the handle of 'the Minotaur'. You recognize it?" Reyna shook her head. "Good authority says they're based somewhere near Mycenae, which is reason enough for the do- Empire, sorry, reason enough for the Empire to go check it out."
"But you know more," Reyna said softly, rolling the cold glass bottle around in her hands. "Jason knew more."
Annabeth stood abruptly. "I don't know if I want to tell you this." She walked to the other side of the room and leaned against the lower ledge of the reinforced window.
Reyna stayed where she was.
"What did you get," Annabeth said flatly.
"What did they give you for the destruction of Mycenae?"
She is alone on her dying and broken ship. Their mission orders were strange and nearly nonsensical, but she has followed them to the letter and accomplished what they told her to do. The last barrage destroyed the tatter remains of their shields and shattered her right arm against a metal computer console. Her crew members are dead or dying around her, a Greek squadron made up of smaller fighters are quickly closing in, and planet CHB-314159, common designation Mycenae, looms large and green and blue in her view screen.
She has one bullet left in her gun, so to speak. The latest, largest weapon from Corp, a 12th generation Cormine Driller explosive.
Reyna is new to the captaincy of this ship, this is only her second voyage. Now, her vision murky and she cannot remember the name of this ship for the life of her, but she knows every detail of the green and blue planet lying below her. Planetary circumference is 45,538.33 leagues, atmosphere is approximately 73.2% nitrogen, 29.4% oxygen... she ignores the rest of it, because there only several pieces of information that matter.
Crust: 1-7 leagues thick.
Below the crust: Liquid. Highly reactive with the Driller weaponry.
Space worthy fighter planes: Able to see but unable to target without triangulation with Mycenae surface command.
Population: Upwards of 8 billion.
Evacuation Procedures: Unknown.
"Captain Reyna Avila Ramirez-Arellano," she says, unsure if she's slurring syllables, "authorization charlie-seven-thomas-four-sixty-eight-seneca-eight. Cormine Driller, code thomas-seneca-cerebrus-nine-titan, load and prime."
She thinks she hears the computer tell her "Loaded and primed, Cormine Driller, code thomas-seneca-cerebrus-nine-titan," but she's not quite sure.
Reyna raises her left hand. She tries to look at her crew. Without Mycenae's projected shielding, the larger Empire ships will be able to break through within minutes. It will... immediate heavy damage to the surface will quickly spread from impact point, but it will take several days by her rough calculations for the entire planet to implode on itself.
"Fire," she says, and drops her arm.
In debriefing, they tell her Empire freighters pushed through the nonexistent barrier within three minutes. They tell her about how she saved 40% of her crew, they tell her about the memorial service being held for those who didn't make it, about the forward advances the Empire has made into Greek territory. They tell her many things. They don't tell her the body count.
Her sister doesn't call, even after Reyna's face is splashed across half the Empire until they realize she's more useful as an agent slipping behind enemy lines and create a gaping hole in the middle and Jason's face is splashed across the other half for something great he's done. A lot of early morning drinking happens.
Reyna never asks for the numbers, but most nights she dreams it's all eight billion.
Reyna stiffened. "A Tykronian Medal."
Annabeth sighed, deep and heavy. She laughed. "Highest honor in the Empire, huh?"
"Aside from a Constantine Award."
"Which is only awarded posthumously."
Annabeth laughed again. "I mostly grew up there, you know? Mycenae. Since I was seven."
"Are you really," Annabeth said, and there was a cruel twist to her voice.
Reyna told the truth, because somehow she'd gone from hope to fallen ramparts. "Most days." She twisted off the cap of the bottle and drank. It was fizzy, nonalcoholic. She wished it wasn't.
"Well? Aren't you going to ask what I lost? Who I lost?"
"No," Reyna said, "I never do." Something has been lost, and she's chasing after it. She just doesn't know what it is.
"I didn't," Annabeth said, even though Reyna did not ask, "lose anybody. We all got out okay. But I lost my home."
"How-" she started to say, but her throat closed up. "How many."
Annabeth didn't answer. She shrugged it off and laid it over the back of a wooden desk chair without looking at Reyna before flopping on her bed and covering her eyes with her forearm. "You don't know?"
Reyna shook her head mutely.
"Evacuation started as soon you pushed through the shield. Mycenae had always been too heavily populated to be so close to the Roman-Greek border- it was mostly organized. Did you know you were the first to ever push through that shield? It stood for nearly six hundred years, and then you pushed your ship through it like a knife through butter."
"What was it called," she whispered.
"What was what called?"
"You don't know?" Reyna looked down at the blue drink. "Sphinx. It was called the Sphinx. That's- your ship is the most famous Roman ship in all of Greece, everyone knows the story, everyone knows your name which is- gods, I should have realized who you were. I should have realized who Jason was but I never would have though- he's the poster boy for a good soldier, too many people know his face. Mycenae- you have no idea, do you? Mycenae gave Rome the edge it needed."
"I didn't. I didn't know."
"You didn't want to."
She was hyper aware of her right arm, of the phantom pain that sometimes lingered when she woke. She rubbed it. "Do you blame me?"
Annabeth paused. Her tricorn hat hung by a hook next to the door. "I don't know," she said at last, slowly sitting up. "I tried to forget."
Reyna wanted to tell her that she did that too, that she plowed ahead and tried to never look back, tried to never think about the part of her soul she had sacrificed when she had fired on the planet. "How many," she repeated again. "How many died." It's been five years.
Annabeth told her.
"Better or worse than you expected," Annabeth asked, resting her elbows on her knees and peering up at her.
"Better," Reyna managed, gods wasn't she supposed to be happy, or something? Relieved, at the very least? "Better."
"The Empire got everyone who wasn't evacuated in the initial evacuation off the planet before it started blowing up. It was around the impact point where the damage occurred."
"I'm sorry." Reyna closed her eyes. "I'm so sorry." She wanted to ask Annabeth for her forgiveness, but that wasn't something she got to ask for.
"Some good came of it. I joined the army because of you." Reyna opened her eyes in surprise. Annabeth wryly pulled at the hem of her tank top. "I don't wear the orange just for national pride or anything like that. Where else do you think I met this lot?" she asked as she waved her hand vaguely at the surround ship. "Percy and I were in the same unit, Clarisse and I go back, Beckendorf was the Chief Engineer on our ship and Leo just sort of showed up one day."
Red rose in Annabeth's cheeks. "She was too, but a different division. I met her, ah, it's a long story." Yeah, Reyna would bet that.
A thought occurred to her. "You two didn't- you did, didn't you."
"It wasn't like that!"
Reyna tried not to smile and failed.
"I told you- it's a long story." A story for another day, then. "The person going under the handle of Minotaur- they've appropriated something of ours, something very important."
"Of what importance?"
"Personal. A friend of ours who passed away- she's taken something that once belonged to her. It was on Mycenae and Rome picked it up before it blew. The Minotaur stole it from Rome."
"Which is why Jason was sent after it."
"Exactly. It's an artifact Thalia had had ever since I could remember." Annabeth hesitated. "We buried it with her. Luke- my friend, he'd known Thalia forever- I saw him put in her grave. We buried it. I don't know how Rome got their filthy hands on it..." she trailed off and Reyna realized she was staring. "What?" she asked, searching Reyna's face for... something. "What is it?"
"My orders," she said slowly, "were to break through Mycenae's outer shielding and proceed as was necessary to firstly defend our ship and secondly to clear the way for Empire reinforcements, which was a gross underestimation of the shielding capabilities of the planet. In the end, I had no choice."
"You and your crew and your mission or an entire planet? I can't say I would've done the same." Reyna closed her eyes again, bracing herself. "Never- never mind. Forget I said that. That's a discussion for another day."
"I wondered about my orders before we left. Afterwards- afterwards I didn't. Mycenae was a strategic target, yes, but the sheer amount of ships they had behind mine waiting to come through would have been put to far better use elsewhere- I, I don't remember where, anymore, but I know there were other places, several of which desperately needed the backup of even one freighter. It was only such a morale boost because it was an against all odds story, and they spun it as a clear military victory."
"What are you saying?" Annabeth asked, her right hand clutched tight around the glass bottle.
"I don't know this is too much- I don't know. I'm not sure. I'm grabbing straws, it could be nothing."
"You're saying that the Roman Empire destroyed my home for a stupid headband." Annabeth's head was bowed, her hair falling too close to her face for Reyna to see her eyes.
"No- I'm not, I'm trying to say. Maybe. Possibly. If they came for it- if they sought it out and if they already knew it was there- it could have been a factor in the decision to try and break through the shield. To invade. Do you- do you know why it's so valuable?" A headband, she had said.
Annabeth lifted her head, her lips moving in a soundless, wordless prayer. "Later we're going to talk about a lot of things."
Compartmentalization. It was obviously difficult for her at the moment. Admirable. "Yes." It was conversation she was not looking forward to.
Annabeth shook her head out and took a long sip of the blue drink. "First priority is Jason and the headband, second priority is dealing with the Minotaur."
"You called the operative 'she'."
She frowned. "It's only hearsay, but in the circles we run in, hearsay is usually close to the truth. Clarisse was the one who first picked up the information; her friend Silena was asking if she'd heard about the woman who was running several operations coming from Mycenae. At first we thought it might be organized competition. Clarisse looked into it- she found out that the person running it went by the handle Minotaur in all transactions, most rumors agreed that Minotaur is a woman and Greek. She's built up an extensive network of underlings over the past three or four years to run several operations- money laundering, Krymion production and sales, weapons movement, you know- the usual major scale criminal stuff."
"A Hydra special variant of Delx, just way more addictive." Annabeth pulled open the bottom drawer of her old wooden nightstand and grabbed a small metal strip encased in a plastic box, a long black cord of leather on one end. "Ever since she stole Thalia's headband we've been gathering information on her when we can, but, well-" Annabeth shrugged. "Crews have to eat." She handed over the metal strip, holding the cord. They did not touch. "This is everything we've picked up so far. There's a picture too, someone got if off the facility she took the headband and it's been circulating ever since, but there's no confirmation that it's her. Take a look at everything and tell me what you think- or, actually, give that to Nico. He should be able to summarize it for you, right?" Reyna nodded. "Then you work on cracking the Temerian code you two were talking about earlier."
Reyna stood. "We need to talk. At some point."
Annabeth quirked an eyebrow. "If we go after the Minotaur, we'll be on the Empire's radar. Amnesty of some sort might be necessary."
Reyna hesitated, put on a smile. "Yeah. Of course."
But Annabeth got up and walked back to the window again. "Reyna," she said, and something about her was so painfully honest it nearly broke her heart. She waited. "I like you. I really do. You're a good person, you work with Beckendorf and Leo on some of their silly little projects, you help Percy with the dishes, you spar with Clarisse, you sit with Piper while she pilots through meteor belt and talk about whatever you guys talk about, you tell funny stories about incidents that I now know probably haven't actually happened, and you're admirable, you saved Piper from what could have been a deadly head injury and instead of taking our ship and running you pulled us out and made sure we were okay; and you're intelligent and thoughtful- you'd be perfect."
"But I am who I am."
"It's not that you're Roman or a Praetor or even an Admiral Commander, it's that you're you, specifically you. You- you are obviously still upset at what you did, you obviously haven't forgiven yourself- am I being too honest?"
"No," Reyna said as she sat back down. "Honesty is good. Honesty is very good." She needed honesty, she wanted to say.
"I never thought I'd actually ever meet-" Annabeth gestured at the stars. "-you. I mean, I always had expectations, in my head, of what you'd be like, but you don't fit, at all. Actually," she said with a half laugh, "I always thought it was someone like Jason who had done it. Celebrated hero of the Empire of New Rome and all of that, but harder and meaner, angrier and crueler and and- victorious. But you? I just don't understand. You don't ask how many people died because you don't want to know, you don't remember the name of your own ship or what you did for the war- not because you don't care, it's the exact opposite, because that's what you do best, isn't it? That's what happened. You cared too much when you were supposed to be a soldier, so you shut yourself down and tried to forget about it. Gods that just- that just makes things worse."
"I'm sorry," Reyna said, because the only other reason she might be able to ask Annabeth was if the gods had ever before created someone as clear and open as she was.
Annabeth sat back down on the bed. "The thing is, though, I can follow your path of logic. It's easy for me to understand where you're coming from and why you've done what you've done- not just Mycenae, but coming after your friend alone and undercover, and I- I would've done the same, if I were in your shoes. And I can see you doing what I've done, but you might've done it for different reasons. I know I would, and that's the worst part, because the Sphinx and its crew have been my enemies since I was twenty. You were- you were twenty at the time, yeah?"
"I'd just turned twenty one," Reyna said softly, feeling once again like she was standing on softly sinking ground. "My birthday was a week before we left, right after I was assigned to the ship. I think- I remember that the bridge crew took me out for drinks."
Annabeth reached for her and Reyna was shocked enough to startle. But Annabeth only took Reyna's right hand in both of hers, gently rubbing the palm of her hand and uncurling- oh. Reyna hadn't realized she was making a fist, her fingernails just long enough to push red crescents into her hand. "Yeah? Do you remember anything else?" she asked gently, pulling Reyna back to the present, watching Annabeth gently pull the knots out of her fingers and explore her finger bones. It made her feel almost hollow, light limbed as a bird.
She did, though. Remember facts about her birthday party, if not images and sounds. That was okay, though; her older memories were all like that. Just something that happened as time went on. "Enough," she said, smiling faintly. "It was the first night I could legally drink, we were going off to war; the obvious choice was to get their new captain as drunk as possible before I got alcohol poisoning or got angry enough to discipline them in the morning."
"I drank them all under the table."
"Of course you would," Annabeth said, smiling as well, but with a tiny hint of worry.
"I try not to do that anymore."
Annabeth looked up, looked her in the eyes. Her hands stilled. "Do what?"
Reyna looked away. "Drink my problems away." She glanced back. Annabeth was still looking at her. She looked away again.
"That's good." Annabeth released her hand.
"I need to go break the code," Reyna said, standing. She put the drink on the nightstand.
"No, no, take it," Annabeth urged her. "Just don't let Percy see you with it- he'll kill me."
When she left, it was with a lighter heart.
Reyna shouldn't have been surprised. Somehow, everything always catches up to her in the end.
She was halfway to breaking the code when Nico slipped in and quietly closed the door behind him.
"Remember how I picked up this transmission?" Nico asked. "We passed close enough to a Legion outpost that I could pick up a transmission. After Cain, I set up an automatic system search for if we ever came close to a piece of the Empire criminal database."
"Circe," Reyna said, the word bitter and stinging on her tongue.
"Yes. Circe. I didn't even notice that I'd taken the information- but they do have a file on her, and I haven't gone through it yet, but-" he touched the computer on her desk. Nothing happened. "Damn it, all this tech is too old." He pulled out the small metal strip and pressed it into an indentation on the screen. He began scrolling as quickly as he could. "The facility the Minotaur took this headband from was an Eagle 5 facility, and the Minotaur went in and completely decimated it. This is the only camera footage the Empire managed to salvage before some looters came in and started taking weaponry. The Empire focused on the looters and by the time they were dealt with, everything else was already gone. Most of the looters escaped, and one of them had this." He clicked on a short video, not even a full second long, continually looping over and over again. It was a woman, walking down a hallway that was collapsing, something silver shiny clutched tight in her hand. Just as she looked up towards the camera, the video started over again.
"I saw the photo," Nico was saying, "and I have my systems set up to automatically search for photos or faces in my memory for match. Reyna, it's a match."
"I know," she said distantly, the video looping again and again. "Can you run this slower?"
He did, and she watched as frame by frame, the woman took three steps and looked up at the camera. "Stop." The image froze, and Reyna could clearly see that one eye was brown, the other a jade green.
"It's her." She stood, and was relieved to find she was neither shaking nor crying. "It's definitely her. I have to- I'm going to tell Annabeth."
No matter how far she runs, she always ends up in the same place she started.
The crew of the Argo was a single being of action, it seemed in the days they spent flying towards Mycenae, the engine groaning and stuttering at the high speeds Charles and Leo forced it into. The walls sometimes creaked with it. Reyna had cracked the Temerian code, but the transmission from the Legion outpost to Seneca proved to be a false hope; nothing more than a very... descriptive love letter from an encoder at the outpost to a high ranking civilian official.
They were a good crew, Piper and Percy pushing the ship through the straightest course possible to Mycenae, everyone else preparing to wage an eight person crusade against the main object of Reyna's adolescent nightmares. She shared facts with Annabeth and everyone else, no more than she had told Nico. She hadn't spoken this much about her former teacher since... forever, really. Hylla and her had never talked about it; they had cried together a few times, in the dead of the night, and never talked about it in the morning.
Piper was the one to ask the good questions. How old Circe was, her motivations, her strengths and weaknesses, and why she wanted an old silver headband everyone had thought was made out of a heavy plastic, or maybe some sort of cheap metal.
"I don't know," Reyna had answered. "It was fourteen years ago." But then she had thought of Circe, holding off an airborne Greek army by herself, of the distinct lack of projectile weaponry at the front of the temple, and of Circe's ever changing eyes. She had never questioned it, she had always assumed- she had thought it was the way of the world, a strange, kind woman with jewel colored eyes who had taken them in and fed them and taught them to fight. She had not questioned the way Circe always knew when she had skimped on her language lessons, or the way she had spoken all the languages Reyna had ever heard of plus a few more, or how Circe had never wanted for anything, anything except to erase Kai and Hylla and herself from existence so that the immediate aftermath of her downfall would be remembered by no one. She might have questioned these things, one day, but she had wanted to forget.
Piper had nodded and moved on, but Reyna remained troubled.
They had a plan. It was a decent plan, a good, solid plan that the soldier inside of her approved of.
It was a great plan, past tense.
Because they were now being chased straight towards the largest of Mycenae's six moons, which was the original plan, because that was where Circe was, as Nico had determined by skimming though some of the moon's broadcasting systems. The difference from the original plan was that in the original plan, they were not being chased by a guard array of ships that had been using advanced cloaking technology that the old and shoddy sensors on the Argo had not been able to detect.
"Aw fuck," Clarisse said. A fairly accurate description of Reyna's current emotions.
"Front landing pad," Reyna ordered, something about it feeling so right, "as close to the main doors as you can get. La Rue, Beckendorf and di Angelo, take the rocket blasters and go to the below deck and prepare to jump out onto the windows, di Angelo, your primary objective is control of all the digital systems. Valdez, McLean, and Jackson, your primary objective is to keep the focus of any ground defense by blowing everything but the main building and the gazebo thing we identified to hell, your secondary objective is to inconspicuously drop me and Chase off at the gazebo thing, and your tertiary objective is to remain in the air- you're our exit strategy." It was a radical departure to their nice neat plan.
"The gazebo thing?" was Annabeth's only question.
The universe had clicked into place like the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle.
"She's learned from her mistakes. She's using the wonders of modern technology to defend herself and what matters to her, but at her heart she's a creature of habit and a creature of deception. She built herself a temple above ground, but the heart lies hidden."
Annabeth nodded slowly. "As she said. The windows in the below deck won't open unless the ship registers it's landed, and even that takes a couple seconds."
"I can force them open," Nico said.
Reyna watched the moon come closer and closer. It had been terraformed when Mycenae had still been habitable planet and not a steadily spreading mess of rocks and dust, pale green and blue spreading across it in a mockery of the planet it had once revolved around. Perhaps the first evacuation stop had been here.
"I need to get something," Reyna said abruptly, turning on heel and bracing herself against the walls as the ship dodged missiles. She walked through the bay, down the tight hallway that seemed as familiar as her own quarters, and into the room she and Nico shared. Kneeling, she reached under the bed, pulled out the black cloth bag she had pushed the phaser rifle into, and stared for a moment before strengthening her resolve and undoing the drawstring.
"Assume positions," she said as she arrived back on the forward deck, a black strap diagonal across her chest.
"Atmo in 10," Nico said, filing past her behind Clarisse and Charles. Leo followed him.
She looked at Annabeth, and Annabeth looked back.
"The bay." Annabeth inclined her chin in the general direction.
Reyna took a quiet deep breath when they were alone in the ship's bay before speaking. "If this goes sour. If I'm wrong about Circe or if we get ourselves killed anyway, I just want you to know- I'm sorry. About everything. Also," she said as the bay ramp began its protesting and screeching incline downward and they both inched closer to the opening. "I like you too. You're a good person and I wish we had met under better circumstances."
Annabeth watched her with a clear gaze. "Me too," she said when the gap between the ramp and door had widened enough for them to roll under. "And if things don't go sour, call me, if you like. I wouldn't mind figuring something out."
In lieu of an answer, Reyna slid under the ramp and out into open air, catching herself on the edge. Annabeth did the same, the whipping wind dragging strands of her hair free of her ponytail. Reyna looked down; the ground was five feet below and rushing by at a scarily fast pace. The distance increased to six feet when a dark blue lake appeared. Reyna dropped one arm, Annabeth following her lead, and then they were both falling into the dark water.
"My ass hurts," Reyna complained, trudging out of the lake and onto dry land. Thank gods all her weapons were water proof. "I underestimated that drop."
"Me too." Annabeth wrung out her ponytail and stood, facing the gazebo thing. Reyna stared up at it, perched on the top of a hill like some sort of false monument to victory. "It's larger than it looked in our scans." Reyna nodded, still staring at the white marble structure, strong, simple columns standing up to the sky and holding up either side of an angled roof. There were no walls, but she could not see from this angle and distance what was inside.
"Shall we?" Annabeth asked, pulling out her phaser.
Reyna reached back to grab the phaser rifle and nodded. "I'll take point."
The grass was a healthy green, the sky a deep blue, white puffy clouds moved lazily, the sun bright and high in the sky, and the light wind smelled clean and like lavender. But at the edge of one soft gust, Reyna caught the bittersweet smell of incense, the kind that brought back memories of sitting cross legged in long robes on white stone tiles, learning how to breath, then how to focus. Later, the lessons would involve learning to stand, her teacher gently correcting her with her hands or a stick, then finally, how to shoot.
She was certain. "Circe is here."
They moved into the temple. On the end that they had entered, a silver bowl stood on a black stone pedestal, several sticks of incense burning. A circular stone fountain three tiers tall gurgled softly on the other end of the temple. The bottom bowl was gray stone, the middle plated in gold at intervals, the top gray again.
Reyna shivered involuntarily and Annabeth noticed. "What is it?" she asked.
Reyna shook her head and continued moving forward, but she adjusted her grip on the rifle. "Nothing." She moved past the incense on the right side, and Annabeth moved past on the left. "Oh. Oh no." Gods, what she was going to do to this woman.
Annabeth reached over to her, placed a hand on her shoulder and came around to look at her. "What is it?"
"The silver was for me," she replied hoarsely through the fingers over her mouth, "The gold was for my sister. And that-" she pointed at purple orchid growing in a small brown pot with her rifle, "that must be for Kai."
"Just this kid- this random kid, my brother, he's how we got to Seneca in the first place," and she was babbling, she knew she was babbling, but she couldn't stop the words that spilled out of her mouth or stop the well of tears that threatened to roll down her cheeks. "He died," she finished. "We were the three people who saw her lose against the Greeks in the Scycanthian invasion and she was going to kill him and maybe us so I shot her and we ran away but she chased after us and Kai was sick and he died."
"Breathe," Annabeth coached her. "Reyna, breathe, it's over now."
Reyna breathed, but it still wasn't over. "This is- this is still about her loss, this is a- some sort of shrine to her defeat. Whatever she's trying to do, why she stole that headband, she's doing it because she's still angry- or she wants revenge, I don't know. It's all- it's a circle."
"Okay." Annabeth was calm. "Then find her. Show me how to find her. We find her, we end her, and we break the circle."
"Oh my." Reyna raised her rifle as she turned around."
"This is unexpected," Circe said. She looked exactly the same, her hands held loosely at her sides, two knives held loosely in her hands. She tilted her head and smiled slightly. "It seems the prodigal daughter has returned." The silver headband rested on top of her dark head, polished and shining- not a headband at all, it was a circlet, reminiscent of royalty.
She was as tall as Circe was, Reyna realized. Maybe even a little bit taller. "Hello," she said, and swallowed, realizing her hands were shaking.
Circe looked her up and down, her eyes catching on the dripping wet outlines of weapons, on the breadth of Reyna's shoulders, across her neck and down the braid Reyna still used. "You've grown up well," she said, almost like a proud mother.
"No thanks to you." Reyna began to squeeze her trembling right index finger, but Circe waved two fingers and she found herself unable to move.
"Don't be rude," she chided. Reyna desperately tried to move, to look at Annabeth, to blink, to do anything at all, but she found herself completely frozen. "I remembered you."
Reyna could not reply, even though she tried to scream and scream and scream.
"You and you sister. Beautiful girls, the both you. You could've gone far if only you had listened to me. The little boy died, didn't he? A... rare genetic disorder, wasn't it?" Circe frowned. "His name, was it Kyle? He was Macedonian, if I'm remembering correctly."
She continued to monologue, but Reyna could not use the time to her advantage, she couldn't move a single muscle, she was trapped in her own body and this wasn't some grisly nightmare, this was real and so was their loss. They had already lost. If Circe could stop them from moving with a simple swish of her fingers, then there was nothing she could do to change the tide, nothing at all. Jason was here, somewhere on this moon, and she had failed him and the crew of good natured pirates she had dragged into this mess and Nico. She had failed a sister that had left her and ignored her and a brother that wasn't hers. She had failed herself.
"Circe!" a young girl shouted from somewhere behind Reyna and it was all the distraction she needed.
An inch was all it took, the muscles in one finger, a quick contraction. Circe was knocked back and off her feet, her head snapping against a stone pillar. She started to move.
Reyna fired. Again. And again. And again.
Annabeth brings her back. "Reyna," she said softly. "She's dead."
Reyna looked up. The pillar had been cracked into pieces and pounded into dust. She turned around to face Circe's young acolyte, who was staring in wide eyed shock at the strangers who had come in, killed her teacher, and were about to bring down the rest of her life and her home. "Show us where the prison is."
Annabeth laced her fingers in Reyna's, and Reyna looked down to see the silver circlet, untarnished and intact, clutched in Annabeth's other hand.
"Remember what I told you," she said, and Reyna did not know what she was talking about.
Jason lies in a hospital for four days even though he wakes on the second day and looks over at her. "Hey," he says softly.
He blinks slowly. Reyna isn't entirely sure if he's high on the drugs they've pumped into him. "You came after me."
"Of course I did. You would've done the same for me."
"The woman," he says, the bridge between his eyebrows wrinkling, "her name was Circe. Your Circe?"
Jason hums softly, a tune she doesn't quite recognize. "I met this girl," he whispers as his eyes drift shut. "I think you might like her."
"Yeah," Reyna says, her heart aching.
"'M gon go to sleep now," he mumbles, and Reyna smiles through her tears and squeezes his hand.
She did the right thing.
Reyna has an absolute fuck ton of paper work to do. Literal paper, sitting in large piles on her desk, because Octavian is a shithead and enjoys making her do more work than necessary. Then there's the four hundred some urgent messages she needs to respond to, half of them from the Council regarding her "vacation".
She groans inwardly and takes her first break six hours later, only to realize that she's the only one awake in the entire goddamn building besides security.
She steps outside her office. "Go home, Frank." He shakes his head, and she shoos him when he tries to follow her on her walk.
Reyna is unsurprised to find herself on the top of the building, searching for a few bright stars not drowned out by the city lights. She drinks the bottle of water she brought with her before going back to her office.
Somewhere between the roof and her work, she makes a decision.
"It's two in the morning." Nico is irritated.
"I'm aware of that. Now tell me, how would I go about getting in touch with a Greek girl of the criminal persuasion?"
"Gods," Nico says, "couldn't this have waited six hours?"
"No," Reyna says, breathing deeply, a smile slowly spreading across her face. "It really couldn't.”