Piper was just wanted to enjoy her PB and J sandwich, Unfortunately, before she could even take a bite, her body dissolved into millions of particles. At least it wasn’t wholly unpleasant, and somehow she could sense everyone else’s presence, which made her feel better. Not Jason or Nico, though. They were off to get the scepter in Split. She really ought to have been panicking, but given all the weird things that had happened, this fit right in. She was reminded of the story Hazel told her about being kidnapped by grass. Probably wasn't as strange a bodily sensation. Below, she could see the remnants of an old Roman town in a valley.
She was eventually reformed at the edge of what seemed to be a market square or plaza. The area was mostly in ruins, though a few spots seemed to have been excavated.
“Ok, what just happened? Also, where are we?
Nobody answered Leo, because they weren’t sure themselves.
Leo’s shocked voice snapped her out of whatever reverie she had been in. There, standing just a few meters away, were Percy and Annabeth. They looked surprised, confused, and relieved, all at the same time, which made sense as they had been in the pits of Tartarus just a few moments ago.
Piper tackled her, nearly sending them toppling over. She didn’t care how she got here, all that mattered was that she was here. Annabeth returned the hug as tightly as it was given, and Piper relished it. She was sweaty, sooty, hurt, and her clothes were torn, but Piper didn’t care. Annabeth was there, warm and real.
“Wait, where’s Jason and Nico?”
“They went to get Diocletian’s Scepter. Apparently, it has the power to raise a bunch of dead Roman Legionaries.”
“Well, that sounds super helpful. But it would be more helpful to know where we are.”
Frank moved to walk further into the square, only to apparently run into something.
“What the heck?”
He pressed his hand against something invisible in the air, and it looked for all the world like he was just pressing against a normal wall.
“There seemed to be an invisible barrier of some kind,” said Hazel. She held her hand out, and walked in a rectangle, presumably checking the extent of said barrier.
“It's solid. We aren't getting in or out without the help of whoever made it.”
She sounded a bit dejected but mostly annoyed.
“Once again, can I just ask where the heck are we?”
Leo huffed, frustrated that they were stuck up a creek without a paddle.
“‘Welcome to Salona, Capital of Dalmatia! Birthplace of Diocletian! But before that, long before that, it was the home of Cupid.”
The six of them jumped. But the voice wasn't talking to them. Near the center of the plaza stood Jason and Nico (Well, that explained where they were), talking to a guy with wings holding a basket of unripe fruit.
“Favonius,” muttered Annabeth. “He’s the god of the west wind.”
“Cupid? What, like the chubby baby that’s on Valentine's day cards?”
Leo seemed amused.
“Oh, he's not like that,” said the winged guy. Both Jason and Leo jumped slightly, but it seemed he was addressing Jason.
“You can read my mind?” Jason asked.
‘I don’t need to.” Favonius tossed a bronze hoop in the air. “Everyone has the wrong impression of Cupid … until they meet him.”
Nico braced himself against a column, and Piper was surprised to see that he was scared, his legs clearly shaking. He waved off Jason, and the grass at his feet withered, turning brown. It spread out like a poison seeping from the soles of his shoes.
“Ah …” Favonius nodded sympathetically. “I don’t blame you for being nervous, Nico di Angelo. Do you know how I ended up serving Cupid?”
“I don’t serve anyone,” Nico muttered. “Especially not Cupid.” Favonius continued as if he hadn’t heard.
“I fell in love with a mortal named Hyacinthus. He was quite extraordinary.”
Jason seemed just as surprised as Piper. Sure she had heard of gods falling in love with mortals, but stories like the one Favonius was telling never got much attention
“He …? Oh …” Jason seemed to have taken some time to process what the wind god had said, but now his face showed he understood fully.
‘“Yes, Jason Grace. I fell in love with a dude . Does that shock you?”
For Piper, now that her brain had taken a moment to filter that information, she couldn't say that she was, not that the wind god was talking to her. The ancient Greek and Roman world was filled with same-sex couples. It was even encouraged in some cases.
Jason shook his head, “I guess not. So … Cupid struck you with his arrow, and you fell in love.”
Favonius snorted. “You make it sound so simple. Alas, love is never simple. You see, the god Apollo also liked Hyacinthus. He claimed they were “just friends”. I don’t know. But one day I came across them together, playing a game of quoits.” He spun that bronze hoop around his finger. “I was jealous. Instead of confronting them and finding out the truth, I shifted the wind and sent a heavy metal ring right at Hyacinthus’s head and … well.” The wind god sighed. “As Hyacinthus died, Apollo turned him into a flower, the hyacinth. I’m sure Apollo would’ve taken horrible vengeance on me, but Cupid offered me his protection. I’d done a terrible thing, but I’d been driven mad by love, so he spared me, on the condition that I work for him forever.”
The name seemed to resonate within every object, almost like they were saying the name and not the wind god.
“That would be my cue.” Favonius stood. “Think long and hard about how you proceed, Nico di Angelo, Jason Grace. You cannot lie to Cupid. If you let your anger rule you … well, your fate will be even sadder than mine. Oh, and it might be prudent of me to point out that your friends are here. I'm afraid they can’t help you though. They are being held in place by a barrier of magic that even that Levesque girl couldn’t bypass.”
Piper watched as the boys saw them, all of them. Jason seemed both shocked and pleased that Annabeth and Percy were back, and Nico? Nico seemed to be fighting between wanting to scream and wanting to cry. There was no time to consider what that might mean, though, as the ground shook and the two boys drew their swords.
So, you come to claim the scepter.
The voice seemed to have no source, at least, none that Piper could see.
“Cupid,” Jason called, “where are you?” The voice laughed. It definitely didn’t sound like a cute baby angel’s. It sounded deep and rich, but also threatening – like a tremor before a major earthquake. Where you least expect me , Cupid answered. As Love always is .
Piper had trouble not understanding him. She understood perfectly what he meant, and she hated it. Now that she thought about it, he was technically her brother.
Something slammed into Jason and hurled him across the street. He toppled down a set of steps and sprawled on the floor of an excavated Roman basement. I would think you’d know better, Jason Grace . Cupid’s voice whirled the square. You’ve found true love, after all. Or do you still doubt yourself?
Nico rushed down to help him up, and Piper heard Jason say something about being fine but sucker punched.
Oh, did you expect me to play fair? Cupid laughed. I am the god of love. I am never fair.
Once again, Piper completely understood. The others inside the barrier with her just seemed frustrated that they couldn't do anything to help. Piper was trying to figure out what it was Cupid wanted. Maybe then she could be of some assistance. She realized charm speak would likely be futile, as it never worked well on other children of Aphrodite, not to mention Cupid was far more powerful than a demigod. He might have charmspeak of his own, and if he did it would be far more potent than Pipers.
An arrow materialized just before it hit Nico’s chest. Jason intercepted it, slicing through the shaft and sent it skittering away. They ran up the steps, dodging a column that got blown over by a gust of wind.
“Is this guy Love or Death?” Jason growled. Ask your friends , Cupid said. Frank, Hazel, and Percy met my counterpart, Thanatos. We are not so different. Except Death is sometimes kinder.
“Sure did, and Thanatos was nicer.”
Percy looked at Frank and Hazel, who nodded in agreement.
“We just want the sceptre!” Nico shouted. “We’re trying to stop Gaia. Are you on the gods’ side or not?”
A second arrow hit the ground between Nico’s feet and glowed white-hot. Nico stumbled back as the arrow burst into a geyser of flame.
Love is on every side, Cupid said. And no one’s side. Don’t ask what Love can do for you.
“Great,” Jason said. “Now he’s spouting greeting card messages.” Jason suddenly spun, slicing his sword through the air. His blade seemed to bite into something solid. On the paving stones, a trail of golden ichor shimmered – the blood of the gods. Very good, Jason , Cupid said. At least you can sense my presence. Even a glancing hit at true love is more than most heroes manage.
‘So now I get the sceptre?’ Jason asked. Cupid laughed. Unfortunately, you could not wield it. Only a child of the Underworld can summon the dead legions. And only an officer of Rome can lead them.
“Just leave that to us,’ he said. ‘Nico can summon –” The third arrow zipped by Jason’s shoulder. He couldn’t stop it in time. Nico gasped as it sank into his sword arm.
“Nico!” The son of Hades stumbled. The arrow dissolved, leaving no blood and no visible wound, but Nico’s face was tight with rage and pain.
“Enough games!” Nico shouted. ‘Show yourself!’ It is a costly thing , Cupid said, l ooking on the true face of Love. Another column toppled. Jason scrambled out of its way. My wife Psyche learned that lesson, Cupid said. She was brought here aeons ago, when this was the site of my palace. We met only in the dark. She was warned never to look upon me, and yet she could not stand the mystery. She feared I was a monster. One night, she lit a candle and beheld my face as I slept.
“Were you that ugly?”
Jason seemed focused on something. His eyes were scanning the area, zeroing in on a wall on the opposite side of the plaza.
The god laughed. I was too handsome, I’m afraid. A mortal cannot gaze upon the true appearance of a god without suffering consequences. My mother, Aphrodite, cursed Psyche for her distrust. My poor lover was tormented, forced into exile, given horrible tasks to prove her worth. She was even sent to the Underworld on a quest to show her dedication. She earned her way back to my side, but she suffered greatly.
Jason suddenly thrust his sword into the sky calling down lightning on the spot he had been focused on. Piper was almost hopeful that he had succeeded in blasting the love god, but Jason was thrown across the stones, his sword clattering away from him.
A good try , Cupid said, his voice already distant. But Love cannot be pinned down so easily .
Piper wasn't sure when, but at some point, she had taken hold of Annabeth's hand, the warmth reassuring. She could feel a slight electric sensation pass between them, helping her focus.
“Stop it!” Nico yelled. “It’s me you want. Leave him alone!”
She wasn't sure why Nico thought he was the main target, but Cupid just laughed.
Perhaps, but I have just as much to say to Jason Grace as I do to you, Nico di Angelo. My beloved Psyche risked everything in the name of Love. It was the only way to atone for her lack of faith. And you – what have you risked in my name?
“I’ve been to Tartarus and back,” Nico snarled. “You don’t scare me.”
I scare you very, very much, Nico di Angelo. Face me. Be honest.
“Give us Diocletian’s sceptre,” Nico said. “We don’t have time for games.”
Games? Cupid struck, slapping Nico sideways into a granite pedestal. Love is no game! It is no flowery softness! It is hard work – a quest that never ends. It demands everything from you – especially the truth. Only then does it yield rewards.
Piper was starting to think that she liked her mother's version of love better; kind, considerate, beautiful, and warm. Jason had retrieved his sword as the ground around Nico shifted.
“Nico,” he called, “what does this guy want from us?”
Tell him, Nico di Angelo , Cupid said. Tell him you are a coward, afraid of yourself and your feelings. Tell him the real reason you ran from Camp Half-Blood, and why you are always alone. And Jason Grace, don’t think I’ve forgotten about you. Tell them why it is you hide behind the facade of a hero while your feelings burn you from the inside out. Why you skirt around the idea of it until there will be nothing of you left.
Nico let loose a scream, one that Piper didn't think she’d forget any time soon. It was made of pure anguish and pain. In other words, it was a raw scream made entirely of emotion. The ground split between Nico’s feet, releasing skeletons of all kinds. Some were covered in tattered cloth, others had glints of armor, and some had nothing at all.
Will you hide among the dead, as you always do, Nico di Angelo? Will you hide behind the facade of a hero, as you always do, Jason Grace?
Clouds of darkness rolled off the son of Hades. Piper saw Jason’s knees buckle, but he stayed upright. When the wave hit the six waiting and watching on the side, Piper could see why Jason had nearly fallen over. She was hit with so much hatred, fear, humiliation, and above all, shame, she almost blacked out herself.
She saw Percy and Nico on a snowy cliff in the American northeast. Percy’s sword glinted in the moonlight. The first time Nico had seen a demigod in action, his favorite card game brought to life, even though it was dangerous.
It switched to the time on the wilderness school bus, when Jason had woken up with amnesia. The first thing he saw was a curly haired Latino kid with pointy ears and an impish smile looking at him, happy to see that he was awake
There was more like it, a collage of Jason and Nico’s memories.
The time Nico had unwittingly summoned skeletons but called them off because even though he was angry, he just couldn't bring himself to hurt Percy.
Jason placing a blanket around Leo’s shoulders when he fell asleep in bunker 9, an affectionate smile gracing Jason’s face.
Percy and Nico in the underworld, on the shores of the River Styx. Both looked anxious, as if they might never see one another again.
Leo bringing Jason food when he had been so caught up in his training that he had missed lunch, a grin on his face as Jason inhaled it.
There were more, but they got fainter and blurrier as the effect of the black fog wore off. In the time that they had been viewing those memories, Nico’s skeletal army had been grappling with an invisible being.
How interesting. Perhaps you do have the strength. Or will you run away? Your friends are watching, you know, waiting to see what you will do.
Nico and Jason both stiffened, as if they had forgotten that Piper, Annabeth, Percy, Leo, Frank, and Hazel were still very much there.
I must say, you two, I don’t think they quite understand me. Except, perhaps, Piper McLean. Tell me, Piper, do you? Love is not rational, much like hatred or fear. Perhaps that's why Ares and Aphrodite get along so well. It might be wise to teach that to your girlfriend, Piper McLean.
Piper was stunned that Cupid had stated she had a girlfriend so casually, but no one seemed to notice or care, because at the moment the god of love turned his attention back to the two boys, and everyone went along with it.
“I left Camp Half-Blood because of love,” Nico said. “Annabeth … she –”
Still hiding , Cupid said, smashing another skeleton to pieces. You do not have the strength. “Nico,” Jason managed to say, “it’s okay. I get it.”
Nico glanced over, pain and misery washing across his face. “No, you don’t,” he said. “There’s no way you can understand.”
And so you run away again, Cupid chided. From your friends, from yourself. They understand more than you might realize. Especially Jason .
“I don’t have friends!” Nico yelled. “I left Camp Half-Blood because I don’t belong! I’ll never belong!” The skeletons had Cupid pinned now, but the invisible god laughed so cruelly it made Piper's arm hair stand on end.
“Leave him alone, Cupid,” Jason croaked. “This isn’t …”
Jason cut off, and Piper figured she knew why. He was going to say it wasn't any of his business, but it was exactly Cupids business. Matters of the heart were in his sphere of control.
The story of Psyche finally made sense to her – why a mortal girl would be so afraid. Why she would risk breaking the rules to look the god of love in the face, because she feared he might be a monster. Psyche had been right. Cupid was a monster. Love was the most savage monster of all.
Nico’s voice was like broken glass. “I – I wasn’t in love with Annabeth.”
“You were jealous of her,” Jason said. “That’s why you didn’t want to be around her. Especially why you didn’t want to be around … him. It makes total sense.”
Piper watched as all the fight and denial seemed to go out of Nico at once. His knees buckled, sending him to the ground. The darkness subsided. The Roman dead collapsed into bones and crumbled to dust. “I hated myself,” Nico said. “I hated Percy Jackson.”
She heard Percy inhale sharply, and Annabeth's grip on her hand tightened, but there were other things to worry about.
Cupid became visible – a lean, muscular young man with snowy white wings, straight black hair, a simple white frock and jeans. The bow and quiver slung over his shoulder were no toys – they were weapons of war. His eyes were as red as blood, as if every Valentine in the world had been squeezed dry, distilled into one poisonous mixture. His face was handsome, but also harsh – as difficult to look at as a spotlight. He watched Nico with satisfaction, as if he’d identified the exact spot for his next arrow to make a clean kill.
“I have a crush on Percy,’ Nico spat the words out like they were venom “That’s the truth. That’s the big secret.” He glared at Cupid, obviously wanting nothing more than to throttle him. “Happy now?”
For the first time, Cupid’s gaze seemed sympathetic. “Oh, I wouldn’t say Love always makes you happy.” His voice sounded smaller, much more human. “Sometimes it makes you incredibly sad. But at least you’ve faced it now. That’s the only way to conquer me. And what about you, Jason Grace. Will you have the courage to face me? Something tells me it could go either way. So, tell me, Jason Grace, what is it holding you back.”
Jason straightened his shoulder, glaring at Cupid. “I think it’s responsibility. I’m afraid of it interfering with my duties.”
“Very good. There are still things you need to face, both of you. But I think you will find it easy to do now. After all, once you've faced the parts of yourself that you hate and fear the most, everything else pales in comparison.”
Cupid dissolved into the wind, and for once Piper could almost believe Cupid was good. But he wasn’t good, nor was he evil. He was the uglier side of love, but perhaps, it could be argued, the more rewarding one.
On the ground where he’d stood lay an ivory staff three feet long, topped with a dark globe of polished marble about the size of a baseball, nestled on the backs of three gold Roman eagles. The sceptre of Diocletian.
Piper put a hand in front of her hesitantly. The barrier was gone. Hazel was the first to run to Jason and Nico, wasting no time enveloping her half brother in a hug. Piper, Annabeth, and Leo were right on her heels, Piper dragging Annabeth by her hand.
“Are you two okay?” Asked Piper.
Jason nodded, picking up the scepter as he stood.
Percy made his way to Nico. Hazel had stopped hugging him, but she clung to his arm like a child to a parent.
“Nico,” he said gently, “I’ve seen a lot of brave things. But what you just did? That was maybe the bravest. It takes a lot of courage to come out to someone.”
“And how would you know,” hissed Nico, clearly still peeved at being forced to come out to the whole crew.
“Because I myself came out to my mom, Paul, and Annabeth last year. Honestly, that was one of the scariest things I've ever done.”
Some of the others looked slightly surprised, but Piper realized that the signs had been there.
“Percy’s pansexual,” added Annabeth.
“So did you come out of the cupboard instead of the closet? Because that’s where the pans are.”
Nico shot Leo a glare, but Piper could tell he was grateful for the joke. Percy chuckled, “Perhaps I did. But there’s one more thing I need to say to you, Nico. I like you. A lot. We can talk about it later if you want, but you should know I feel the same way.”
As Nico’s face slowly turned red, Percy turned to Jason, grinning.
“What about you, Superman? If Nico’s going to confess, you need to too.”
Jason groaned, “Really?”
“Yes, really. We know who it is anyway. Those memories we saw were pretty clear.”
Piper pushed Leo towards Jason. The two stared at each other, neither of them willing to make the first move.
“Oh my gods, just say it already. It’s obvious you like each other,” said Piper. She had known about this longer than anyone, and she’d be damned if she was going to let them continue on like this.
“Jason, I didn’t just get humiliated by Cupid for you to back out now.” It came out a bit harsher than Nico intended, but maybe that’s what would get Jason to actually say it.
Leo took the initiative. “I like you a lot, Jason.”
“Me too, Leo. Me too.” Jason seemed a bit relieved that Leo went first.
They hugged, Jason planting a quick kiss on Leo’s check before pulling away. Piper guessed that, since they still needed to have a proper conversation like Percy and Nico, he was going to wait on any PDA for the time being.
“So, Piper.,” said Leo, grinning at her with that grin he only had when he was about to tease the hell out of someone.
“Cupid said you had a girlfriend?”