Annabeth felt the warning take off ahead of her as she stepped off the banks of the bridge and onto New Roman land.
The river and the earth knew her, of course, so the warning was not urgent, but all the same, she stopped and politely waited for her escort. They did things a certain way here, and it was best for everyone when guests just followed along. The Romans loved their rules and rituals. Annabeth had chafed at it at first, but there was something to be said for precision and repetition, and the more work she did as an architect, the more she grew to appreciate the Roman way.
It rarely took long, anyway. No skin off her nose.
She spotted the escort on the road less than ten minutes later. There was only one, which was unusual, but then they did have two dogs trotting at their heels, both of which gleamed ferociously in the sunlight. A minute or two later, the person was close enough to identify by their face, and Annabeth smiled. They usually sent some first-year underlings, but apparently she was illustrious enough a guest now to warrant a more dignified welcoming party.
"Didn't you just leave?" Reyna asked coldly, when she was within a few paces of Annabeth and could say it without shouting. Her fists sat on her hips, the very picture of irritation.
"I missed Terminus," Annabeth said, keeping a straight face with every ounce of willpower in her body.
They held each others' gaze for a good fifteen seconds. Reyna broke first, to Annabeth's secret pride; she laughed softly and let her hands rise and reach out. "It's good to see you," she said.
Annabeth walked into the hug happily, holding it for a moment or two too long. "You too," she said. "I did miss Terminus. But I missed you more."
Reyna made a smart about-face, ostensibly to start escorting Annabeth back to the town, but her braid left her ears exposed, and they looked distinctly rosy. Annabeth grinned and followed her.
Reyna was still in the legion, and still a praetor, but she was mere months from the end of her ten-year service, and Annabeth knew she was more than ready to retire. That was part of why Annabeth was here.
She waited until they were in the garden to bring it up, though. There was plenty of small talk to make on the way; Reyna always wanted to hear about how things were going in Camp Half-Blood. Out of respect, Annabeth never left out anything major regarding Jason and Piper, or Percy, but she went into less detail on them than she could have. Reyna was a strong woman, and she was mostly over her failed loves these days, but Annabeth didn't feel like poking a stick at old wounds unnecessarily.
It was dusk by the time they arrived, but Annabeth had already eaten dinner out her pack, so she didn't mind going to the garden first. It was becoming something of a tradition.
The Garden of Bacchus was still Reyna's favourite place. It was quiet at the top of the hill, and the day had been warm enough that the air was still full of jasmine and honeysuckle. New Rome made a charming sight, arranged in a crowded fan of twinkling lights at the hill's foot. Camp Jupiter and Temple Hill glowed too, to the west and south respectively, though their lights were paler and more subdued. The river curled away from the lake, nearly invisible in the gloaming except as hollows where the valley's shadows thickened and gathered. It felt like the top of the world, even though the hill wasn't very tall. It was a gentle place, dedicated to trance and the transports of intoxication, not war.
Annabeth was Greek to the core, and Camp Halfblood would always be home to her, but she loved New Rome. Every time she returned from a trip, she tried to bring something Roman back to Camp Halfblood; not to change its nature, but to make her home a place where the best of both worlds could coexist. The first few things she'd brought back had been architectural sketches... and cuttings from this garden. They didn't grow as well on the east coast, but the dryads helped. Sometimes, on warmer nights when they were in bloom, she could close her eyes and feel like she was suddenly hundreds of miles westwards in a hilltop garden.
"Have you found a place yet?" she asked.
Reyna sighed; a sign of weakness she wouldn't have shown many other people. "Not yet. New Rome isn't very big, and people don't leave very often. I could always stay in the barracks longer, but... I...."
"I know," Annabeth said, putting a comforting hand on Reyna's shoulder. "You've put in your ten years, and you've been an awesome praetor on top of that, even when you had to work alone. It's okay to be tired."
Reyna turned and gave her a very complex smile. There was gratitude in there, and wistfulness, and guilt, and doubt, and half a dozen other things Annabeth didn't have time to pin down and name before it faded. "Thank you, Annabeth. You're a good friend."
"I hope so," Annabeth said, softly. "Which brings me to the reason for my visit."
Reyna arched a strong eyebrow at her. "You mean you didn't come to visit Terminus?"
Annabeth laughed despite herself. "Of course I did. But that's not all of it." She drew a deep breath of sweet, heavy garden air and launched into it without further preamble. "I kind of want to build you a house."
There was a long, long moment then where Reyna said nothing, only looked at her through the deepening gloom. Her eyes glinted in the torchlight.
Annabeth fidgeted. "I mean, I've been designing buildings for Olympus for years, I figure I could do a good job. I've already asked Tyson if he and his buddies from the forge would be willing to help with the heavy lifting, and they said yes."
"You don't have to do that," Reyna said slowly. "The council's been considering a new residential block for a while now anyway, I'm sure—"
"I know I don't have to," Annabeth interrupted. "You never asked me, and I know it seems kind of presumptuous. But I want to. I've been studying Roman architecture and I... I just want to. Okay?"
Reyna seized Annabeth's left hand and held it between hers, trembling just the slightest bit despite all her military control. She started to say something three times and failed, before finally managing to find some words that could survive the air between them. "Make sure it has two bedrooms," she said. "So you'll have somewhere to stay when you come to visit."
Annabeth grinned. "You got it."
There wasn't really anywhere to stay except the barracks, since she didn't know anyone else in the town proper, so she and Reyna squeezed awkwardly into Reyna's spartan praetor quarters and made do. It could have been worse; legionnaires below praetor rank stayed in bunk beds in the big communal cohort halls, and those were barely wide enough for one person, let alone two. New Rome itself was plenty luxurious, but the Romans seemed to think the legionnaires ought to live like ascetics.
Reyna always insisted on sleeping on the floor and letting Annabeth have her bed. Annabeth was good at arguments, but she never seemed to win when it came to Reyna. Annabeth could sleep anywhere, so it didn't really matter to her, but it was clearly a point of pride for Reyna, so Annabeth always gave in eventually to avoid offending her.
The bed was little more than a thin straw-stuffed mattress on a simple tarnished frame made of bronze. It was almost a formality, not much softer than the floor. Still, because she always bowed to Reyna's insistence on being as gracious as she could, she was pretty familiar with the bed's creaking metallic voice.
"Good night," Reyna said, once they were ensconced as comfortably as they were going to get.
"Sweet dreams," said Annabeth, and shut the lamp off.
She could sleep anywhere, but she had to admit to herself that it was easier here than it was anywhere but Camp Half-Blood, creaky metal bed and all. As for her dreams... they were sweetest here, bar none. Camp Half-Blood was where her heart was rooted, but in that metaphor, New Rome could be nothing but the sky.
She heard Reyna and the dogs get up for morning muster, but half past five was a bit early for her, even as a morning person, so she stayed in bed a while longer after Reyna left.
The little room felt much less comfortable and welcoming with Reyna gone, though, so she soon gave up on getting any more real rest and headed out into a perfect blue late June morning.
The sun had already been up for an hour and change. It was going to be a warm one, she could tell already. It was still cool, but the air had a hard, humid edge that she'd learned the taste of over the years of visiting the west coast. They weren't far from the sea, here, but far enough and high enough that most of the nicer winds from the sea never made it over the preliminary hills, only the drier ones that ran north-south.
Reyna met her on the way to the mess hall. She was a morning person too, but Annabeth could tell she would have stayed in bed for another hour or two if she hadn't had her responsibilities to take care of. Annabeth took her arm with a rueful grin. Breakfast wouldn't be anything to write home about, but she wouldn't complain. It did the job. If she wanted anything fancier, she could wander into town during the day and visit the shops and cafes.
"How long will you stay?" Reyna asked.
Annabeth shrugged. "I don't know. I didn't really have a schedule in mind when I left. I just wanted to scout out the area, see if I can find a good plot of land to put the house on."
Reyna's skin didn't lend itself to obvious blushing, but Annabeth knew her well enough to spot it.
"Yes, I really plan to do it. Did you think I'd cross the continent just to jerk you around?"
"No, of course not," Reyna said stiffly. "I just... I don't want to...."
"If I change my mind, I'll let you know. Until then, just assume it's fine, okay?"
There was probably more small talk they could have made over breakfast, but neither of them really felt like it. They sat together at the long table and ate in companionable silence.
Afterwards, Reyna left to attend to her duties again, and Annabeth wandered off into town.
New Rome was a good place. There were lots of fancier adjectives she could use to describe it—elegant, charming, colourful, warm—but they all came back to the same thing at the root. New Rome was a good place. Its people were happy, its gardens grew with joy and abandon, its streets were worn and loved. The presence of sadness was acknowledged, but it never felt permanent or insurmountable. The sense of community was palpable. There was a nameless feeling to the whole town that told anyone who walked there that even if it were razed to the ground, its members would just build it again, even better, and fill its new streets with laughter.
She loved Camp Half-Blood, she did, but in comparison to this it was so half-hearted and haphazard. Most teenagers didn't stay there year-round even during their most dangerous years. During school months, they were returned to their mortal parents, if possible. After they reached the age of majority, they went off into the world to make their way alone, and not many of them bothered coming back.
It was a good place, too, for the kids when they were there, but as a permanent support system it kind of sucked. Annabeth had been trying to change that for the past few years, and Jason and Percy helped out as much as they could. They were still at Camp Half-Blood now, even though they'd graduated a couple of years ago, helping out and providing adult mentorship to the newer kids. It wasn't enough, though. There was no way to earn a living there beyond the strawberry farm, no self-sufficient community, no way to support the possibility of more people staying behind.
Annabeth wasn't sure if it would or could ever be anything like New Rome, but she wanted to try. It was clearly better for demigods to have a community like this than to have to go it alone. A lot of the older Greek demigods lost much of their superhuman abilities after a decade or two living as normal people, and that seemed like a waste to Annabeth. The world needed more fully grown defenders, rather than just a raggedy bunch of terrified and inexperienced kids. The fight against Gaea would probably have been a fair bit easier if they'd had backup from a full cadre of adult Greek demigods to draw on, but they hadn't been able to reach most of them, and those who had answered the phone had had little power left to contribute.
There was so much she wanted to do, so many changes she wanted to make... but right now, she wanted to build her friend a house. It was a small project, but it would be good practice, and it would make her happy, and it would keep her away from Camp Half-Blood for a while.
The thought made her sad, but it was true that she could use the vacation. From the camp... but especially from Percy.
He was her best friend. He would always be her best friend, she was pretty sure. But nobody had warned her that romantic love just... ended, sometimes, without reason or warning. She'd fallen out of love with Luke, eventually, but he had given her a lot of reasons to give up. With Percy, she'd just... woken up every day a little less in love, even though he hadn't changed and she felt like she hadn't either. She still loved him dearly, and would die for him without hesitation, but the tenor of her love had changed somehow, and so had his. They were best friends, but they weren't together anymore, not like they had been.
It wasn't a clean break. They both had days when they rebelled against the ebbing of their love and tried to rekindle it, but it never worked, and then they would lash out at each other in frustration and grief. He left more often to guide kids on their quests, and she went west in search of sanctuary.
And found it, in the fragrant hilltop gardens of New Rome. She couldn't talk about it with Reyna, but she knew Reyna was aware of her reasons, and was silent about them, and it was just what Annabeth needed. She was grateful. She was really, truly grateful.
So for that—among other, older reasons that were bigger and easier to point to—she wanted to build Reyna a house. It wasn't as big a deal as Reyna seemed to think it was; the buildings on Olympus were much grander and much more challenging. This project was so small and low-pressure it was almost relaxing. She would experiment a bit with Roman architecture, and put together a beautiful home for her dear friend, and she would enjoy her vacation as best she could.
Annabeth realized she'd climbed the hill to the Garden of Bacchus without paying attention. That was all right. It was as good a place to start as any. Reyna loved high places, where she could see a long way and feel the wind. She'd want something east-facing, too, to catch the morning sun.
The west and south sides of the hill were pretty packed, but the east and north sides were sparser. There were quite a few places big enough to fit the sprawling ground-level complex she had planned, but size alone was not enough. It had to have something extra, something that would make it a good home rather than just a building.
She felt it the moment she found the right spot. The area was practically uninhabited, just an unobtrusive dent in the hill facing almost due east, and it was overgrown with wild grasses and weeds. It didn't look like anything special, but it was unmistakably the right place. The earth was quiet but aware under her feet, and she knew the garden that grew here would be sweet, fruitful and hardy. The valley winds would be blunted by the hill at the south end of the house, but be unobstructed at the north end, so that Reyna could feel the wind when she wanted to but still sleep in peace and quiet.
The reason the plot was still empty was obvious: an enormous boulder sat squat in the middle of the depression in the hillside. She was fairly sure Tyson and his friends would be able to move it, but she thought it might be better to leave it where it was and build the house around it, so that the stone would be the star of the courtyard. It was a good-looking stone, as stones went: pale, and round, and glittering with mica here and there.
Annabeth sat down with her back to it and closed her eyes, breathing in the feel of the place. Architecture wasn't just about the building itself. It was also about the ground it stood on, and the winds that blew around it, and where the sun would arc in relation to it, and how often and how hard rain would fall on it. The whole environment had to be taken into account before she could design something that would work with it instead of fighting against it.
It was a challenge, and she loved it more than anything.
This little plot of ground was ready to hold a home, it told her. It had been wild for a very long time, and it would be wild again before the end, but it was willing to try something different for a while.
Annabeth listened to the wind and began sketching the foundation in her mind.
Reyna refused to let the weariness win.
It was a hard fight, though. She'd been on her feet in the legion for nine years and ten months, and had been praetor for six of those years. Before then, her life on Circe's Island hadn't exactly been lax or easy, and what she remembered of Puerto Rico told her she hadn't had much rest there, either. She certainly felt like she'd been fighting all her life.
She would always be a daughter of Bellona. It wasn't like she thought she would retire and that would be the end, that she would just live out the rest of her life in undisturbed peace and quiet. She would be restless, her sword would sing for blood, war would always find her.
But it wouldn't be every day. There would be days when she could sit in the garden and watch the sky wheel overhead and be at peace. There would be days when nobody looked to her for orders, days when she wouldn't have to be a paragon of military discipline, days when she could just... relax.
Unbidden, the images flowed through her head, as they always did when her resolve to stick it out wavered. Mostly they involved sitting in the garden with a book, or taking trips outside the valley to see the world without the pressure of a quest. There were new ones in there now, though; mostly of the house she imagined Annabeth would build. A lot of them involved Annabeth herself, sitting at Reyna's side or at her back, silent and companionable.
She bit her lip and tried to dam the flow. Her ten years would be up in September. That was only three months away. The closer it got, though, the longer every day seemed, and the harder it was to get out of bed every morning. She wondered if it was like that for every legionnaire near graduation, and figured it had to be, at least a little. It was only natural to be more and more aware of the passage of time when anticipating something one wanted so much.
It might have been different if Jason hadn't vanished back then, leaving her to hold up the entire legion by herself for so long. She was strong, and she'd handled it, but it had exhausted her, as it would have exhausted anyone. Gaining Frank Zhang had made it possible to keep going, but she felt like she'd never really gained back all the energy she'd lost in those months. She was permanently more tired than she had been, somehow.
She wondered if there would be a garden in the house. Knowing Annabeth, knowing how well Annabeth knew her, there would be, and it would be beautiful.
Reyna ducked into the shadow of a barracks roof and leaned her head against the warm wood. She would not cry. She would be strong, she would finish her service in a dignified and unwavering fashion, and she would cry all she wanted the day after her retirement ceremony.
She'd been holding back so many tears, for so many years. Tears for her half-forgotten childhood in Puerto Rico. Tears for the loss of her island home, which had given her far more than it had ever taken. Tears over Jason, who she'd thought might have loved her, but hadn't. Tears over Percy, who had never been within her reach, who had already been in love with someone whom Reyna couldn't even have the satisfaction of resenting. Tears for the children who had died on her watch, tears for Scipio, tears upon tears of helplessness and guilt. Tears of frustration, tears of yearning, tears of grief.
She would cry for the loss of her place in the legion, because however much of a burden it had become in the later years, she was grateful for everything she'd learned, and all her experiences with them, and it would be a little like dying to leave it behind when it had been her entire life for ten years.
There would be tears of a kinder nature, too, now. She would cry over the house, though not in front of Annabeth. She would cry because Annabeth had cared enough about her to want her to have it, because she'd never had a friend like that before. She would cry tears of relief, and hope, as the rest of her life rolled out ahead of her like a garden, tilled but as yet unplanted.
There were thousands of tears waiting behind her eyes, but she would not cry them yet. Not yet.
Today she was still praetor of the Twelfth Legion Fulminata, a warrior and a leader and a role model.
She would not lose this battle.
On the eighth night of her visit, Annabeth swung her legs over the edge of the bed and looked down at Reyna, who was already well on her way to sleep, curled up on the floor and facing away from Annabeth. Her dark hair was tied back in a loose braid that coiled across the covers, and her thin blanket was drawn up to her chest. She looked younger, somehow... or maybe she just looked her age, for once.
"I'm probably going to be here for a while, you know," Annabeth said.
Reyna rolled to face her, brow furrowed. "I'm glad."
"I really don't want you to sleep on the floor the whole time. Should I find a place to stay in town?"
Reyna's jaw tensed. "No. I said it's all right, and I meant it. I don’t mind."
"Yeah, but I mind," Annabeth said, patiently. "Would you at least let me take turns? I'll take the floor every other night. I've slept on cave floors and concrete, it's really not a big deal."
"You're my guest," Reyna said stubbornly.
Annabeth sighed. "If you don't at least agree to switch off, I'm going to sleep on the floor with you."
Reyna stared at her, befuddled, then shook her head. "I'm not sleeping on the bed while my guest sleeps on the floor. End of story."
"Suit yourself," Annabeth muttered, then gathered up the bedding in her arms and dumped it at her feet. She steadfastly ignored Reyna's protests as she arranged it into a bedroll of sorts, and ignored them some more as she burrowed into it, and only turned to face her when she was good and settled. She'd tried to leave a couple of feet between them, but the room was very small and the dogs took up a couple feet along the wall even while sitting upright, which they weren't doing now. The resultant gap was barely a foot wide, if that.
"I like this much better," she said.
She wasn't even lying. She'd suspected the bed wasn't any softer than the floor, and she'd been right. Also, the floor didn't creak, and there was no straw to stab her through the thin mattress cover. And she was on the same level as Reyna. All told, a massive improvement.
"You stubborn, ridiculous person," Reyna said, in a tone that was very hard to name. It was hard to make out her face in the near-total darkness, so that didn't help either.
"That's me," Annabeth agreed, deciding to ignore that, too. "Good night."
"Sweet dreams," Reyna murmured, apparently giving up.
"Same to you."
After she heard Reyna's breath even out, Annabeth carefully arranged herself so that her back was to Reyna's. If either of them dreamed of battle, their backs would not go unguarded.
She knew how cruel demigod dreams could be.
Reyna woke up in a tangle.
She panicked for a moment, imagining an invasion of strangling plant monsters, until she woke up far enough to realize the truth: Annabeth had somehow ended up stuck face-first to her back, with her forehead pressed to the nape of Reyna's neck and her left arm carelessly cast over Reyna's waist. Reyna froze, trying to decide what to do. She was warm, and extremely comfortable, and not unhappy, but this was a first for her. Was there some etiquette for dealing with messy sleepers?
It would have to wait. She had to be at morning muster in half an hour, which meant she had to get up, and right now.
Extricating herself was an awkward and cautious procedure, and Annabeth ruined it anyway by waking up halfway through. "Oh, sorry," she mumbled. "I—"
She stopped mid-syllable and flushed, and Reyna could guess why: Annabeth was probably used to sleeping very closely with Percy, and had forgotten where she was and who she was with in her sleep.
"It's okay," Reyna said, ignoring the twisting in her heart. For some reason, it was worse than usual; she hardly flinched when Annabeth mentioned Percy these days, in her small-talk reports, but this... stung, somehow, in a way that didn't anymore. "Go back to sleep."
"Mmm," said Annabeth, and did that.
Reyna left her there, golden hair and long limbs sprawled gracelessly across the floor of her quarters, and tried to get her head in the game.
It was a weekend, so activities would be less intense, but she still had lots of work to do. The Senate would be meeting later in the day, which was always an exercise in frustration. In some ways, it had been worse in the past, when Octavian had still been an influential member, but... in peacetime days like these, they turned on each other like cannibals just for something to chew on. Reyna privately wished for the return of war sometimes, just so she'd have something to point them at that would distract them from gnawing at each others' throats.
She would be free by dinnertime, though. Maybe she would treat Annabeth to something in town. She wasn't rich by any means, but she didn't have much cause to spend what money she had, either. It would be nice to spend a whole evening with Annabeth and properly enjoy her friend's company. The osteria had a new dish in, and Bacchus made sure the wine cellar was always stocked. They were too young to drink by American law, but New Rome stuck a bit closer to its roots. Nobody would deny a praetor and a famous Grecian heroine a glass of some decent red with their dinner.
Thinking of that got her through the Senate meeting, but when she searched for Annabeth afterwards, she turned up nothing but air. Disheartened, she went to the garden to wait, just in case, and Annabeth found her there half an hour later.
"Sorry!" she said, sincerity all over her face. "I lost track of the time. I was... well, it would be better to show you. How hungry are you?"
"Not very," Reyna lied. She was ravenous, but she was also curious, and that won out easily. "Show me what?"
In response, Annabeth grabbed her hand and dragged her through a quick maze of streets and alleyways until they suddenly emerged on the east face of the hill, where there were no houses. "Over here."
It was an easy walk, not even five minutes, but most of the town was out of sight behind the hill when Annabeth stopped in front of an enormous pale grey boulder.
Reyna looked at it. "It's a large rock," she said, hoping more explanation was forthcoming.
Annabeth laughed. "Do you like it?"
Reyna scrutinized the rock. As rocks went, it was all right. She liked the symmetry of its rounded shape, and the glittering accents that spangled its broad surface. "It's a nice rock," she agreed. "I suppose."
"I was thinking of building a courtyard around it," Annabeth said, restlessly pacing off a squarish perimeter around it, twenty-five feet per long side, sixteen to the short sides. "The gardens would be right down here."
Reyna allowed the barest edge of the smile she was suppressing to escape, so that Annabeth wouldn't think she didn't like the idea. A garden. She'd been right, Annabeth had thought of it. Maybe even thought of it first, before everything else.
"The main part of the house would be up here, and the door would be here, on the south side. We'd make you a path back to the town so you wouldn't have to tramp through the grass every time. That is, if you like it." She looked suddenly self-conscious, which was a strange look on Annabeth. She was always so self-assured, it was unsettling to see her shifting her weight from foot to foot and biting her lip.
"It's perfect," Reyna said truthfully.
"The rock can stay?"
"The rock can stay."
Annabeth beamed at her, striding across the space between them to sweep her up in a brief but dizzying hug. "I couldn't imagine building it anywhere else, but I wanted to make sure you felt the same way. I'm so glad. The plans are mostly done. The only problem is the materials, but the dryads at Camp Half-Blood have offered to contact their western relatives about suitable wood, and Tyson says he has friends that can handle the stone for the foundations, and the smaller things... won't be hard to get."
Reyna narrowed her eyes. "Are you planning on using your own money for this?"
Annabeth sighed and made a face. "Maybe a little. It won't be much, honestly; I have some pretty decent savings built up from my more... mundane work as an architect. Most of it's going into renovating Camp Half-Blood, but I can spare some for this, and I want to. Okay?"
"I don't like it," Reyna proclaimed. "You're already doing so much."
Annabeth caught Reyna's face between her hands. Reyna froze. Against the backdrop of the deep June sky, Annabeth's eyes looked pale and inhuman, and they were all she could look at.
"Let me do this for you," she said quietly, "please."
Reyna stared, and stared, and couldn't think of anything to say. She felt herself nod stiffly, but had no recollection of deciding to do it.
Annabeth smiled and let her go. "If you really insist on paying me back, just let me stay here whenever I want."
"That's a given," Reyna said, her voice coming out more harsh and unsteady than she'd expected. "You're always welcome in my home, wherever it is and whatever it looks like."
"Then we're square," Annabeth said easily. "Dinner?"
Annabeth was true to her word: in the following weeks, she never once slept in the bed. Reyna remained true to hers as well, so the bed went entirely unused.
The floor arrangement became increasingly comfortable. Annabeth kept her limbs to herself for a week or so, embarrassed by the first night, but eventually Reyna started waking up with stray limbs on and around her again. She got less shy about untangling herself. If Annabeth woke up, it was her own fault.
Annabeth arrived at a Senate meeting one day to ask for the deed to the plot of land she'd marked out. Reyna promptly abstained due to her obvious conflict of interest, but stayed to listen. It was a fairly simple matter—all the undeveloped land in the area belonged to the town, so granting ownership was easy—but they hated losing, especially without putting up a fight, so there was a lot of shouting and stubbornness from both Annabeth and the Senate before the end. Annabeth won, eventually, but they made her work for it.
Reyna kept a straight face, but enjoyed herself immensely. It wasn't every day she got to see the Senate up against someone who was so obviously ready and willing to fight them all the way to the finish line.
The building materials started arriving shortly after that. Annabeth had to fight Terminus over some of the pointier tools, but she won that battle too.
Tyson came two weeks later with four artisans: two Cyclopes and two adult children of Hephaestus, both women. Annabeth stayed at the worksite all day, most days, directing the work and making alterations where needed. Reyna stopped by now and then, but Annabeth inevitably shooed her away.
"I don't like showing off my works in progress," she said. "They're messy and unimpressive. Wait, and I'll give you a tour of the final product when it's done, okay?"
So Reyna focused on her duties, and Annabeth worked, and at night they curled up on the floor together and fended off each others' nightmares.
July passed in a haze of heat and cloudless skies, and August followed suit, pale and dry.
The house on the hill took shape. A house that size should have taken nearly a year to construct, but it was amazing what a few Cyclopes could accomplish on their own. They were tireless, and unbelievably strong, and seemed to really enjoy the work. Tyson assured them that it would be done by the time Reyna's retirement ceremony rolled around, if only just.
"Guess I cut it a little close," Annabeth said wryly, one evening. "I've never done a project this small before, so I estimated based on my Olympian projects, but I had a much bigger team for those."
On weekend afternoons, when Reyna was free, Annabeth took her around to every house-related shop in New Rome, and some outside it, picking out furniture and shades of paint and kitchenware and a hundred other things Reyna never would have thought of. She'd never figured Annabeth for the domestic type, but slowly she realized it wasn't really about domesticity. It was just an extension of the building process, and Annabeth was pulling out all the stops for this project. An empty frame might be a house, but it wasn't a home. Annabeth wouldn't be satisfied until it was ready to live in and beautiful on top of that.
Reyna had no idea how to admit it, but it was fun. She enjoyed traipsing around town in search of the perfect rug, and she enjoyed their trips to San Francisco for the things they couldn't find in New Rome's limited marketplace, and she enjoyed sitting in her quarters with Annabeth and Annabeth's plans, arranging furniture with pencil marks. Despite the fact that her praetorship burdens hadn't lightened at all, she felt lighter in herself, and caught herself smiling more often.
It was hard to think about the end.
After Reyna retired, and the house was done and she had moved in and settled, Annabeth would probably head back to Camp Half-Blood to continue her expansion plans for it. This was just her vacation, and it was almost over. She would leave, and Reyna....
Reyna pictured living alone in her huge new home, and it didn't bring her the excitement it had at the beginning. She still wanted to be left alone for a while to recover her energy and decide what to do next. She wanted to be alone. She just... didn't want Annabeth to leave, either. She wanted to be alone, with Annabeth, and somehow those concepts weren't mutually exclusive.
She forced herself to avoid thinking about it, but brute force could only get her so far in that area.
The truth would out. It always did.
The night before Reyna's retirement ceremony, Annabeth had a nightmare.
It wasn't prophetic, or magical in any way. Just an old horror she couldn't quite escape: Luke in the tower, a blade, a choice. It came back to haunt her at random times, and it was always terrible.
She woke up the moment the blade touched his skin, unexpectedly, bewildered and disoriented. The dream never ended there. It always forced her to relive the end, always.
Reyna's face slowly came into focus in the gloom. "Annabeth?" she said, her voice pitched low and soothing. "Are you all right?"
Just a nightmare, she tried to say, but found she couldn't. The tears were too thick in her throat. She didn't cry every time, and she maybe wouldn't have if Reyna hadn't been there, looking so concerned and so... so....
Annabeth sobbed once, despite herself, and threw her arms around Reyna, dragging her down into the mess of bedding on the floor that no longer had any clear demarcation between sides. Reyna stiffened, but only for a moment; in the next, she curled herself around Annabeth more comfortably and held her closely, stroking her hair and murmuring comforting nothings Annabeth couldn't quite make out.
"I'm sorry," Annabeth mumbled, "I should be past this, it's been years and years, but it comes back when I least—"
"It's okay," Reyna said, "it's okay. You told me it was okay to be tired, remember? Well, it's okay to still be wounded, too, you know."
Annabeth heaved a heavy sob into Reyna's shoulder, trying in vain to regain control but losing her grip every time she thought she had it. She clutched Reyna tighter, feeling very young and very hurt in a way she'd managed to avoid for quite a long time now. Suddenly every wound she'd held at arm's length was bearing down on her: not just Luke, but Percy too, and the old horror of Tartarus, and every time she'd ever wanted to cry but refused herself the luxury.
"Do you ever cry?" she asked Reyna when it let up enough to let her talk.
Reyna went still. "I made myself a deal," she said after a long pause, quietly. "Not until after the ceremony. As long as I'm a praetor, I promised myself I would be strong."
"Not once in all this time?" Annabeth asked, her heart twisting. "Reyna, I know you're a demigod, but nobody's that strong."
"I did it, though," she said, shrugging uncomfortably.
"You should have leaned on your friends—"
"What friends?" Reyna said. She hadn't meant it to come out as dry and bitter as it did, but she couldn't take it back.
Annabeth flinched. "You have me."
"Thank you," Reyna said, "but I didn't always. We haven't always been friends, and even then you were usually on the other side of the country and busy with your own quests. Here, I've made a lot of allies and some enemies, but no friends, not really. I have subordinates, and they respect me, and some of them might even like me, but I can't trust them with anything... personal."
Annabeth had no response to that. The ache of her nightmare still wandered through her veins, but she found it easier to ignore with Reyna in her arms, tearless but vulnerable.
"I won't tell you to let it out now," she said, quietly. "I understand that this is a pride thing for you. But I'll be here tomorrow, too."
Reyna hugged her a little tighter, winding a hand into Annabeth's loose curls.
Annabeth woke with Reyna this time.
"Let me do your hair," she mumbled.
It was the morning of the graduation ceremony, and Reyna had no duties, but she was up with the sun anyway. Annabeth figured that was probably due to nerves, and politely refrained from teasing.
"I'm just going to braid it," Reyna said.
The muscles in her throat were taut and shifted visibly when she spoke. Annabeth watched, drowsy and mesmerized.
"Let me do it anyway."
Reyna rolled her eyes, but sat down with her back to Annabeth. Her hair spilled to her waist in lazy black waves. There was a lot more of it than the usual braid let on. Annabeth ran her fingers through it to work out the tangles, and found that despite its luster it wasn't all that soft. Smooth and glossy, yes, but the hair was strong and dense and didn't bend easily to her fingers.
A slow shiver ran visibly down Reyna's spine whenever Annabeth touched her scalp. Annabeth hadn't figured her for the ticklish type, but she was sensitive enough here.
"Hurry up," Reyna grumbled.
Annabeth refused to. The ceremony was two hours away. Putting on her armour would only take a few minutes, and then Reyna would be ready to go. There was no need to rush, and she was too sleepy to be efficient about anything anyway. It made much more sense to go slowly, work the tangles out painlessly and watch the long black waves spill through and around her pale fingers.
It was strange, she thought. At Camp Half-Blood, she always felt a bit uptight and straight-laced in comparison to her comrades. When she came to New Rome, though, suddenly she was the uninhibited free spirit in comparison to the tightly disciplined legion. She woke earlier than just about everybody at Camp Half-Blood, but later than just about everybody here.
She liked that.
"How tight do you want it?" she asked.
Reyna shrugged one shoulder. "As long as it's away from my face, I don't particularly care."
Annabeth opted to make it tighter than she knew Reyna usually did it. Her reasons would have been hard to put into words, but when she pictured herself in Reyna's place up on the stage, she figured she'd be grateful for anything that helped to hold her together. She would lace her armour tighter and scrape her hair back and do everything to make herself feel as bold and invulnerable as possible. Especially if she didn't want to cry. Especially if she thought it was likely she would.
Reyna didn't complain. She sat still and silent under Annabeth's hands, aside from the occasional twitch and shiver when Annabeth brushed the sensitive spots behind her ears and at the sides of her throat and the nape of her neck.
Sometimes Annabeth revisited them on purpose, just to make sure it wasn't a fluke.
All told, it took her almost half an hour to finish the simple braid to her satisfaction. She got halfway through and then undid it half a dozen times, unsatisfied with the symmetry or the angles or the curves. Reyna still didn't complain.
When at last she tied it off and regarded her work with grudging acceptance, she immediately regretted not dragging it out longer, sleepy as she was.
"Thank you," Reyna said, running a hand down the length of it appreciatively.
Annabeth smiled. "You're welcome. Now, what are you going to do for the next hour?"
A tortured look crawled up Reyna's face and dragged her eyebrows down. "I... don't know."
Annabeth sympathized. It had to be hard, to be so close to something she'd been waiting years for and feel every second slow down as it approached, an unavoidable event horizon. "How about breakfast?" she suggested. "Not at the mess hall. In town."
"All right," said Reyna, though she looked dubious.
Coffee was a bad idea for Reyna, considering how tight her nerves already were, but Annabeth was more than ready for a good cuppa. They made good stuff at the only café open this early; it was strong enough to put hair on her chest, but still tasted good, despite the bitterness. She nursed her tall mug for twenty minutes, gulping down the bottom third all at once when she realized it was going cold. All of a sudden she was as jittery as Reyna, and not as good at hiding it.
"Are you going to have to make a speech or anything?" she asked. "Because you're a praetor?"
Reyna nodded curtly. "Yes. It's traditional to keep it short, though."
"Thank the gods for small blessings," Annabeth said wryly. "Have anything in mind?"
"Of course," Reyna said, in the most false and unconvincing tone Annabeth had ever heard out of her.
Annabeth stared, then shifted her gaze to Aurum and Argentum, sitting silent at Reyna's heels. "Hey, guys, why aren't you chewing on her?"
The dogs stared back, impassive, but she thought she caught a glimpse of longsuffering patience in their glittering golem eyes.
Reyna winced. "I've thought about it, but I really don't know what to say. I figured I would just tell them to work hard and keep their eyes on the big picture, or... something." She sank her forehead into her left hand. "But I'm sure a hundred praetors before me have said the same sort of thing."
"Well, they weren't praetor to the kids you know," Annabeth pointed out reasonably, "so unless they're bookworms and have read the minutes of past ceremonies, there's no way for them to know that."
"I still feel like I should give them something... better," Reyna said helplessly. "Something meaningful. Special. I don't... I don't want to..."
"Go out with a whimper?" Annabeth supplied when Reyna faltered.
Reyna huffed under her breath. "I suppose so."
"You should have asked," Annabeth reprimanded, gently. "I would have helped you. I'm not exactly great at speeches myself, but I... uh, know a few people who are."
"Too late now," Reyna said glumly. "And besides, it should really come from me. And I'm no good at memorizing the words of others anyway."
Annabeth shrugged. "Don't worry, you'll do fine. Just... don't lie to them. Whatever you say will be good enough."
Reyna met her eyes, and reached across the table to catch her hand. "I'm glad you're here," she said, her voice a little too high, a little too rushed. "I truly am."
Her hand was damp and unsteady. Annabeth turned hers over and laced her fingers into Reyna's, just tight enough to hold them still. "Same goes for me," she said. "Just breathe. When it's over, I'll help you pack your stuff up to the house, and we can get you settled in. Just think about that, okay?"
"All right," Reyna said shakily. "It's... it's about time. I should go."
"I'll stand somewhere you can see me," Annabeth told her with a flashing grin.
Reyna bit her lip and nodded, then stood, disentangling her hand from Annabeth's and cradling it in her other as if to preserve the warmth. "Heel," she said, and the dogs gracefully took up their positions at her sides. She strode off towards the camp with a straight back and an aura of strength that was both entirely genuine and entirely an intentional facade.
Annabeth admired that for a minute or two, until Reyna turned the corner at the end of the thoroughfare and vanished. Then she stood and followed along at a more leisurely pace.
She had a lot more faith in Reyna than Reyna did. It would be fine. She was sure of it.
A little of Annabeth's confidence had definitely leached into her through her hand, and helped her a lot on the walk over, but somehow she found that finally having arrived at the definitive moment was doing more to calm her nerves than anything else. There would be no blood shed today, and this was not a battle, but warriors were always more comfortable facing their enemies on their feet, in the moment, rather than laying siege and waiting for fortune to make decisions for them.
She stood on a five-foot tall wooden podium at the head of the practice field. The legion were arrayed in perfect ranks before her. Not a toe out of line, she noted with satisfaction. She'd done well by them. They were good soldiers.
"I will not tell you not to be afraid," she said. She still had no speech planned, and no clear idea of where she was going with her opener, but she knew what she wanted them to know, and that would have to be enough. She scanned the field, and found Annabeth standing apart from the ranks on the left, her hair a riot of gold in the morning sun. Annabeth smiled and gave her a thumbs up, and Reyna took a deep breath and faced her soldiers again. "I will not tell you that victory is yours by right. You will lose, sometimes, and you should not be surprised when it happens. Sometimes you will deserve it, and you must be willing to accept that and be better next time, whether that means improving your skills or improving your understand of right and wrong." She paused, remember every time she had been on the wrong side of a conflict, and every time there had been no right answer. She saw an echo of understanding in the eyes of her audience, who were listening in respectful silence instead of throwing tomatoes, which was encouraging.
"You will get hurt. You must be ready for that, too, and be ready to stand up and fight again as soon as your wounds are stitched. I will not tell you to look forward to the end of war, because there will not be one. I will not tell you that war is good or just or always worth it. But sometimes... sometimes it is. Even if you leave the Legion to become a seamstress, or a baker, or a gardener, there will still be things worth fighting for in your life; things that you cannot allow to be taken from you or destroyed, not while you live. Sometimes it will be necessary to stand and put yourself between whatever looks to do you harm and whatever it is you need to protect. Sometimes it will cost you your life. That is a price that you are never obligated to pay, but you should be aware that it may be asked of you anyway."
She paused again. Her mouth was dry. "I can only hope that when you run afoul of hard days, there will be others willing to stand at your back and keep you upright. I hope most fervently that some of those will be the comrades and friends you have made among the legion. If there is anything this system is good for, I hope it is that. Be good to each other."
One more deep breath. She could feel it all ending around her, an era drawing tight to the close. "Your life after you graduate will not be wholly new and strange. Everything you have learned and gained here will still be yours, if you wish to keep it. So hold on to anything you value. Never forget how to be part of something larger than yourself. Keep your sword sharp and your hands gentle. That is all. Dismissed."
With a smart salute, she turned and marched off the podium. There was no applause, but that was right and proper; this was a solemn occasion, not entertainment that was meant to be judged.
Behind her, she heard the ranks disperse, murmuring amongst themselves. She fingered the golden medallion at her chest that proved she had completed her ten years of service with honour. It was done. She was... finished.
The realization sank in like water soaking thick cloth, slow and heavy. Her steps faltered as she reached the edges of New Rome. She was done. She would never have to get up at half past five to order sleepy, miserable children around again. She would never again be responsible for the blood and scars and deaths of those under her command. She was just herself, now, a singular person whom nobody would look to for strength or direction.
She felt incredibly small, and incredibly light.
She turned to face Annabeth, who was coming up at a boisterous jog, a radiant smile on her face. She couldn't remember how to react when Annabeth enveloped her in a hard, close hug; she just stood there, waiting for reality to return to her.
"That was quite a speech," Annabeth murmured into her ear.
Reyna shivered. "I'm glad it was passable," she said, faintly. "I don't remember half of it."
Annabeth laughed. "It was a little too 'blood and guts, death and glory' for me, but I think it was perfect for them. A sense of unity and perseverance was just what they needed. And I think... hold on, are you okay?"
"I..." Reyna began, then trailed off. She had no idea what she wanted to say, or how to answer that. "I need to get out of here," she said, and was surprised, as she hadn't planned it or known she was going to say it ahead of time at all. "I'll come back for my stuff later. Can we... can we just...."
"Yes," said Annabeth, "yeah, for sure. Follow me." Annabeth caught hold of her hand and directed her patiently through the streets. Mercifully, she said nothing else the whole way up, just held Reyna's hand and kept her moving.
The house was finished. Reyna beheld it with a kind of dumbstruck awe as they rounded the final corner. The morning light lit it dead-on, making it look almost too perfect to be real.
It was one storey high for the most part, but the western run was two storeys, and its windows looked down on the courtyard in a tidy row. It was longer north-south than it was east-west, and its stuccoed walls were a creamy colour, and its tiled roof was red. The gardens were just bare earth right now, but the sections were neatly boxed in with dark-stained plywood. The long and narrow plots were separated by pale gravel pathways, and the black soil was tilled in rows.
"It's beautiful," she said; simply, because it was, and because she was never one to wax poetic.
Annabeth grinned. "You haven't seen anything yet. Come on inside."
She'd had some idea of what it would look like, since they'd spent so much time poring over the plans and picking out the niceties, but it was another thing entirely to see it all put together. The walls of the foyer were painted a warm, deep cream colour, and the floor was set with dark grey flagstones. The hallways beyond were laid with golden hardwood, and the walls deepened in colour to a warm autumnal shade of orange. There were skylights spaced here and there to cast natural light into the corners. It was spacious, but comfortable.
Further in, the palette varied to include shadowy shades of green and touches of wildflower reds here and there, and wood and stone underlaid everything with reassuring solidity. The furniture she'd chosen fit well within it: simple and muted, but elegant.
It was her home. She could feel it down to the foundation, in the earth beneath it, in the air above it. It was built for her, with the willing cooperation of the land. Every rafter was carved to be permanent and enduring, and every single part of it was meant to make her feel safe and comfortable and content.
Reyna burst into helpless tears and sank to her knees in the middle of the living room.
Annabeth caught her halfway down, as if she'd expected it. Perhaps she had. She drew Reyna's head to lie close against her chest and provided her with something solid to lean on. "It's okay," she said, "it's okay, you kept your promise. You can let it all out now. I have nowhere to be, I'm not going anywhere, so just go ahead and cry until you're done. And if you need to cry more tomorrow, that's okay too. It's all good."
Annabeth's words eventually faded into a meaningless but comforting litany. Reyna held onto the sound of it as the torrent of her suppressed grief and exhaustion and guilt and loneliness dragged her under and tossed her mercilessly against the rocks.
She cried first and foremost for all the children who had died on her watch, in a war not of their making. She had known going into it that they would not all survive the titans, or Gaea, or even the smaller evils, and she did not think she could have done much better by them, but even so... even so. Their names were burned on her heart, and that was at it should be.
She cried for Scipio, remembering the agony of guilt, how easily the golden blade had cut his flesh, how she'd opened his throat and how the blood had covered her hands. The gryphon bore some of the responsibility, for wounding him so badly he couldn't come back, but she had made the final choice, and it was only right and proper that she carry that for the rest of her life. She had cared for him, and he had died for her. That was at it should be too.
She cried out of relief, for the lifting of her heavy responsibilities, a little Atlas unburdened at last. She cried for the loves she had chosen badly, and then she let them go, recognizing that they had never been right for her and never would have been what she needed them to be. She cried tears of happiness, too, for her beautiful home and the beautiful woman who had built it for her.
She cried for hours, for a hundred reasons, until exhaustion swamped her like a dark wave and she fell asleep in Annabeth's lap to the feel of Annabeth's hand stroking her hair over and over and over again.
She slept like the dead.
Reyna wasn't light, Annabeth discovered. She was shorter than Annabeth, by a couple of inches, but her bones were solid and she was very well-muscled. Annabeth was a swordswoman, and fairly strong herself, but it still took some doing to haul Reyna down the hallway to the master bedroom.
It was the middle of the afternoon, so she wasn't really tired herself, but the temptation to just lie down with Reyna and relax for a bit was too much to resist, especially since she had no earthly reason to try.
Reyna stayed soundly asleep as Annabeth shucked both their shoes and arranged their bodies comfortably under the covers, and didn't stir when Annabeth pulled her in close and tucked Reyna's head under her chin.
"I'm glad you like it," she said softly, smiling to herself.
Watching Reyna cry herself out hadn't exactly been pleasant, but it had been a relief in some ways, to see her finally be entirely herself, finally free of all the pressures and constraints keeping her trapped in the form she'd chosen out of self-defense. Annabeth was glad she'd been there to catch her, and she was glad to be here now in the aftermath. She was especially glad that Reyna had felt safe enough in Annabeth's presence—and in the house Annabeth had built for her—to let herself go so completely. It was an honour, in a way, to be allowed to bear witness to the emotional dissolution of so magnificent and radiant a person as Reyna. Annabeth hoped she'd be allowed to be present for the eventual reformation, too, as that was what she looked forward to most.
For now, however, they were both in limbo, just resting and breathing, and that was fine with Annabeth. She would be there when Reyna woke up, and they would go from there.
She had some thinking of her own to do, and maybe a little dissolution too. The thought of leaving New Rome and returning to Camp Half-Blood was hurting more than she'd expected, and she had some hard introspection to do as to why that was. Some of the answers she already knew, but hadn't accepted yet. Some of them were still entirely mysterious. All of them would require her to be honest and pay attention.
Not right now, though, she decided. She would face all of that head-on soon, but... not right now. Right now she was warm and comfortable and Reyna was burrowing into her collarbone and she was happy, happy in a way she hadn't been in quite a while.
It wasn't a bad thing to appreciate moments like this when they came along, she knew. That had been a hard enough lesson that she wouldn't soon forget it.
She held Reyna and watched the sunlight tilt across the floor and let herself be content.
Reyna woke to the smell of dinner. It was dim outside, but she couldn't tell whether it was the gloaming of sunset or of sunrise through her blurred eyes, so she wandered out and followed her nose to the kitchen.
Annabeth was standing in front of the stove, frowning at a pot full of something reddish that smelled like hot tomatoes. The clock on the wall indicated that it was a little after eight in the evening. She hadn't slept the whole night through, then, just a few hours.
"Ah, good timing," Annabeth said when she noticed Reyna standing in the doorway. "Have I mentioned I'm a terrible cook?"
"Don't look at me," Reyna muttered, "I've been known to burn water."
Annabeth laughed. "That makes two of us. I figured you wouldn't want to go out again tonight and eat in town, so I got some ingredients and figured I'd break in the kitchen, but... this might have been a bad idea, maybe I should have gotten take-out."
"It smells good," Reyna said. "Spaghetti sauce?"
"Yeah," said Annabeth. "Figured we could celebrate your graduation with a good traditional Italian meal... kind of forgot that I don't really know how to make spaghetti."
Reyna wandered over and peered into the pot. "Looks good enough to me. How's the pasta?" The other pot was full of slightly gluey looking noodles. "Overcooked?"
"Maybe a little," Annabeth said with a wince.
Reyna smiled, then let out a soft laugh. It felt good. She felt... cleaned out, scoured, hollow in a good way. "Still edible, I'll wager. Is there any wine?"
Annabeth pointed to the fridge. "You bet."
"You're a Roman at heart," Reyna said appreciatively. "You know what's important."
Annabeth stilled for a moment, the look on her face shifting the mood to something more somber. "You know," she said, "I've had the same thought a few times, over the last few months. I love Camp Half-Blood so much, but I'm always trying to make it more Roman, and I'm always glad for the chance to come back here. Jason..." She paused to gauge Reyna's reaction, then continued when Reyna only nodded slightly to encourage her. "Jason is kind of the opposite of me, I think. He was born Roman, but he says he's so much happier at Camp Half-Blood than he was here, even though he still cares about everyone. I'm... I should fit in better at Camp Half-Blood, but I don't. I'm grateful to it, and always will be, but I'm always so glad when I find an excuse to come here for a while."
Something Reyna had kept walled away suddenly broke free in her chest. She sucked in a deep, startled breath. "Annabeth," she said, "if you... if you feel more at home here, then I think you should stay. I think you should stay here with me. I would like it if you stayed here, with me, in this house."
Annabeth stared at her, and stared, and stared.
Reyna thought she ought to feel uncomfortable, or nervous, but there was nothing left in her but a still and endless certainty. "If that's not what you want, that's fine. I'll thank you for the house most sincerely and welcome you whenever you come to visit. However... forgive me for saying this, but I don't think you built it just for me."
Annabeth dropped the ladle. It landed with a sucking sound in the sauce and sank. "I..." she said, then stopped, the words visibly dying in her throat. “I hadn't let myself think about it yet."
"Then think about it," said Reyna, "and let me know. I think that sauce is done."
Dinner was a quiet affair. The spaghetti was indeed still edible, though it wouldn't win any awards anytime soon. Annabeth picked at it and managed to eat enough to calm her belly, but her appetite was a sad thing this evening, and she knew why.
She'd come up against problems like this a few times in the past, where her heart knew the answer already and was screaming it at her, begging her to listen, but she had reasons to argue with it and couldn't just lie down and let it be what it was.
Camp Half-Blood had earned her loyalty a dozen times over, and she had so many plans for it. She owed it to those who had been so good to her all her life to do right by them. There were half a dozen reasons why should tell her heart to stuff it, but she knew from experience now that it would never work in the long run. Even if staying the course was theoretically the right thing to do, it would be the wrong thing for her, and really, wasn't it a bit arrogant to assume Camp Half-Blood wouldn't get along just fine without her?
But then, wouldn't it be irresponsible to assume it would? She'd played a large part in saving it many times over the years, it wasn't entirely off-base to assume she might be needed again in the future.
She knew what she wanted, but she couldn't bring herself to weight that over the theoretical wellbeing of many of the people she loved most in the world. How much was she responsible for? To what extent was it acceptable to put her own needs and wishes first?
The war went back and forth in her head as they ate dinner, and the lovely pinot noir didn't help at all. By the time it ended and all the dishes were washed and neatly stowed away, she hadn't come anywhere near a conclusion. The arguments for and against had battled each other to a near-perfect impasse within her heart, and she was just as lost as she had been at the start.
Reyna caught her elbow. "Let's go for a little walk," she said. "To settle dinner and clear our heads."
"Okay," said Annabeth. Her heart wasn't in it, but she figured it wouldn't hurt.
The sun had just set when they stepped outside, and the western horizon was still visibly scorched by its passing, a harsh and passionate wash of red and gold. Overhead, where the sky was clearest, the first of the stars were glimmering into sight, high and pure against the deep blue backdrop. The wind was cool but gentle, sweeping down from the north and eddying around the skirts of the hill.
They forged a path northwards, facing into the wind, leaving the town further and further behind as the hill sloped subtly downwards. The scrub brush scraped at their ankles, the long grasses tickled their knees, and the air tasted sweet and clean.
"This was a good idea," Annabeth admitted after a few minutes. The warring forces in her heart were still locked in their uneasy armistice, but it was easier to accept them both out here, where the wide open spaces stretched away to the north and east and the world felt big enough to be indifferent to her tiny personal problems.
"I've come here often," Reyna said, letting the wind carry her words back to Annabeth. "When the pressure got too much, when I had to figure something out for myself, when I just needed a little peace and quiet... many times, over the years."
"I can see why," Annabeth said. "Or... I guess I can feel why. This is a good place. It's more of what I felt when I found the right place to build the house, I think. The earth is awake here."
"Yes," agreed Reyna. "I'm... not as much in the habit of listening to it, but I understand what you mean. I never felt alone when I walked here, even though nothing spoke to me. I was alone in the way I wanted to be, but not alone in the lonely way, if that makes sense."
Annabeth nodded. "You bet it does."
They walked a while longer in comfortable silence, and then in silent agreement, turned back and walked towards the house. The way back was uphill, but felt oddly easy on their feet, and they were both refreshed when they reached the doorstep.
"Reyna," Annabeth said as they left their shoes in the foyer and moved towards the living room. "I don't know what to do."
"Sit down," suggested Reyna, motioning towards the long green couch that was the centerpiece of the room.
Annabeth obediently sat, and waited for Reyna to sit down next to her before continuing. "I want to stay," she said. "I really, really want to stay. But I feel like I can't abandon Camp Half-Blood."
To her surprise, Reyna smiled. "You wouldn't be the person I admire so much if you didn't have difficulty making this decision," she said gently. "Why don't you return, and ask them what they think? You might be surprised."
Annabeth sat very still for a minute. "That... never occurred to me, somehow," Annabeth admitted, a little astounded at how obvious it was. "For some reason I thought I had to make this decision alone. That was... a bit stupid, huh."
"No," Reyna averred. "Not stupid. You're just used to carrying responsibility, like me. It's always easier to give other people advice than it is to come up with solutions for ourselves. So I will give you advice. Go back to Camp Half-Blood, ask them what they think, and then make your decision, and don't look back."
"Have I told you lately that you're amazing?" Annabeth said, meeting her eyes with a rueful smile. "I'll go tomorrow, then. Whatever I decide... you know you'll still see me all the time, right? I can never stay away for long."
"I will be waiting," Reyna said. She had obviously meant for it to come out as a light-hearted and reassuring joke, but instead it took on a depth of its own, a weight of honesty that Annabeth couldn't and didn't miss. "I'll be waiting right here, and I'll keep the second bedroom made up."
The second bedroom wasn't really any smaller than the master bedroom, just inconveniently located up the stairs. Annabeth knew all her reasons for that, and couldn't face a single one of them.
"Thanks," she said, and that was the end of her supply of words for the night.
They went to sleep in their respective bedrooms, and neither of them slept very well.
Nearly a month had passed since Annabeth's departure, and Reyna was surprised at her own patience.
A lot of it had to do with all the new discoveries she had to make. What her life was like without the legion and her praetorship. The luxuries of an adult existence in New Rome. Every nook and cranny of her house, of course; she spent days just sitting in one room or another, noticing all the little details and making them familiar to her, familiar enough to walk blindfolded if she had to. There were days of battening down the garden for the winter; she probably should have told whoever had tilled the boxes that it was much too late to plant anything this year. Days of memorizing the hillside around the house, too, speaking to the earth and stones and waving grasses, learning their language. It didn't come as naturally to her as it did to Annabeth, but it was worth the effort, to be on friendly speaking terms with the land that had become her home.
A few days she spent easing the transition of her praetorship to her successor, a young girl with strong Mohave blood and fierce dark eyes. Frank had been prepared to be patient with her, but she didn’t need it; she adapted to her position of responsibility and power immediately, and had very little difficulty winning the legion over into loyalty. Reyna privately thought she hadn't done half so well herself, and was glad to be able to leave her position in such capable hands.
A few more days were spent in stocking the larders of her home and adding a few small necessities here and there. She dragged those out as much as she could, wandering the town in search of things she didn't really need in order to distract herself.
The days in between, she spent reading and learning to identify every plant and grass and wildflower that grew on the hill, and in silent contemplation at the temple of Bellona.
She thought about Annabeth a lot, despite herself. Though she had everything she'd thought she'd wanted, her entire life felt as if it were on hold somehow, waiting for the next stage to move into place. She was waiting, like she'd promised. Waiting for Annabeth.
Waiting for the beginning of the rest of her life.
Annabeth made the journey back both as quickly as she could and as slowly as she could manage, to give herself time to assimilate everything.
Reyna had been right. She had been surprised. Chiron had told her something that hadn't occurred to her: the reason there were so few adults at the camp was because they were usually sent off to make their own lives and find their own fortunes once they came of age, and that applied to her, too. Sticking around and trying to change things was something of a new invention, one that was simultaneously appreciated and resented. Percy and Jason were having some success, but only because they were coming at it from a fundamentally Grecian point of view, despite Jason's actual blood heritage. Valid and valuable as Annabeth's Roman ideas were, they would take a lot longer to accept and implement, and in the meantime they were more than adequately protected by the current staff and participants. Her contributions in the past were honoured, to be sure, but there was no reason at all for her to stick around just in case they found a use for her again.
Chiron had then patiently explained that she did not exist just to benefit the camp, but rather, she existed for herself, as all sentient beings did, and would have to make her own choices based on what she needed in order to be whole.
Percy had hugged her and told her to follow her heart, because he was Percy, her best friend, and he knew her better than anyone else in the world.
The war in her mind had ended with a whimper.
Now she was on a Greyhound bus headed westwards, and was rehearsing what to say in her head. It was stupid, she knew; she would never be able to anticipate every possible scenario. Reyna was a whole other human being, and she was not and would never be entirely predictable. Even so, she couldn't stop trying to find the best words.
She pictured a hundred different futures while she watched the Midwest scenery scroll past, and none of them felt real or solid enough to satisfy her.
She was a warrior, after all, and couldn't be at peace until she faced her enemy head-on.
She just wasn't entirely sure what winning would even look like.
When the knock came, Reyna momentarily found herself split into two simultaneous existences, one that was surprised and nervous and one serene thing that had done nothing but wait for this exact thing for an entire month.
She walked to the door in a state of elegant comport, and then froze solid when she opened it and found exactly what she'd expected to be there.
Annabeth grinned at her, a little disheveled from the road and packing an enormous military green knapsack over her right shoulder. "Sorry it took so long," she said. "There was a lot of talking. A little crying. Some yelling. It took a while."
Reyna found that her mouth was opening even though she had no idea what she was going to say. That seemed to happen a lot, lately. "I said I'd wait, didn't I?" she said. "You don't need to apologize."
Annabeth beamed at her, and shrugged the knapsack off her shoulders. It hit the ground with a thud that was full of a promising sense of finality. "Even so," said Annabeth, "I'm sorry for making you wait so long. I...."
Reyna stepped off the threshold towards her. "Annabeth," she said. "Are you staying, or not?"
Annabeth bit her lip, and her eyes brightened. "Reyna," she said, "if it's all right with you, I'm definitely, absolutely staying."
"Of course it's all right," Reyna said, "of course it's—of course—you ridiculous woman—" Words failed her, so she reached out and drew Annabeth into a powerful embrace. "I was waiting for you, not waiting for your answer. I knew you'd come back. I knew."
A crooked grin spread across Annabeth's golden face. Reyna felt it against her ear, felt the radiance rolling off Annabeth, felt the joy saturating the air around her, and couldn't think of anything else to say. Annabeth took her arm and pulled her inside, and Reyna let herself be dragged about, just this once. Annabeth left her shoes and the enormous knapsack haphazardly scattered across the foyer. When at last they stood within the privacy of their sanctum, the refuge Annabeth had built for the two of them, Annabeth took Reyna's face between her hands and met her eyes with painful earnestness.
"I think you should know that I'm in love with you," she said, "and that's why I came back."
Reyna held her gaze, fearless, and settled her hands at Annabeth's waist. "You should know," she said, wondering again at the calm certainty of her own voice, "that when I said I'd wait for you, that's what I meant, too."
"Oh, good," said Annabeth, "really good, that's great—"
Then she pulled Reyna's face up to meet her own, and it was like the ending of another little era, the age of uncertainty and anticipation. Reyna let it happen as it wanted to this first time, unhurried and deep and warm as the September sunlight. Then she made it happen again, for good measure, and then again, because she could.
When at last they subsided, Reyna drew in a breath and buried her hands in Annabeth's hair, her golden tumult of sunlight hair. "Welcome home," she said, and felt the rest of their life begin.