Frank couldn’t believe his eyes.
He had literally just changed into his pajamas and gotten ready to go to bed a few minutes ago. It had been a long day for the praetor; a year had passed since the war against Gaea and there had been a lot of casualties. The son of Mars could see the outlines of dark circles forming under his eyes and his back was hunched over as he walked sluggishly to close the blinds and call it a night. He was more than ready to just collapse and drift off. But, of course, that wasn’t the case.
As Frank was about to drape the windows with blinds, his hands paused when he noticed something… unusual coming towards Camp Jupiter. Out in the distance, in the dark starless night, a single shimmering bird flew closer and closer. Upon further inspection through squinted eyes, Frank realized that the object in the sky was too big to even be an eagle.
No, it wasn’t a bird.
It was a dragon. A metal dragon ship that looked all too familiar.
Frank rubbed his eyes, wondering if he had fallen asleep while standing upright. His eyes popped out of their sockets, his jaw dropped, his hands were shaking. No. It couldn’t be. There was just no way…
“Frank!” Reyna burst through the cabin door. He saw that she had been prepared for bed too; her hair was let loose and her usual armour had been replaced with the Camp’s T-shirt and shorts that she used as pajamas. Frank could tell that she, like him, wanted nothing more than to sleep, but at the moment, her face was frantic, confused, worried, and most of all, hopeful. “You have to go out there and see what’s going on!”
Without another word, the two of them rushed outside to the field where other demigods had already gathered, all waiting to see what the flying object was. The chilly air was like a slap to the face and Frank wished that he had grabbed a jacked on the way out. He ran barefoot in the somewhat wet grass and he could see his breath forming white clouds with each exhale.
“Do you think it’s really—?” He turned to ask his partner. No names needed to be mentioned; there was only one person Frank could be talking about.
“I don’t know,” Reyna replied, shaking some bangs out of the way, “but let’s hope so.”
They slowed down to a jog as they approached the open field where the flying ship had landed. Frank managed to regain his breath as he joined the other demigods, watching the door of the ship open down as a shadow stepped out. Even in the dim moonlight, the praetor recognized that figure immediately.
It was him—it was really him! The mechanic hadn’t changed much at all in the past year; his hair was still a mess, his clothes still covered in black soot. Leo looked around, almost nervous, until he spotted Frank in the crowd and made eye contact.
“Zhang!” Leo spared his arms out and waved widely, making his way through the crowd to where the praetor stood. “Long time no see!” He glanced down at Frank’s pants. “Uh, nice panda pajamas. They look good on you.”
Frank didn’t even care that after so long, the first thing the son of Hephaestus did was make fun of his favourite pair of pajamas; he ran up to the mechanic and caught him in a tight bear hug, biting back tears.
All Hazel could do was stare in bewilderment, mouth hanging open, hands shaking.
She was still, rigid as a stick, and the world around her froze in place. She could no longer feel the breeze howling against her exposed arms, or hear the hushed murmurs traveling through the crowd behind her. Her vision became a camera lens, zoomed in all the way until it focused on one single thing and everything else disappeared—until her amber orbs could only see the boy in front of her.
Then, time ticked again. The sounds and feelings all came rushing back to her. And she could move freely once more; little by little, she took slow steps towards the boy. Cautious, hesitant movements turned into desperate sprints. The distance between the two of them was quickly covered by a series of wide strides.
Hazel shoved Frank, who had been clinging onto the brown-haired boy, aside roughly and enveloped Leo in a hug herself. The tears flowed but she didn’t care.
“Leo, is it really you?” Her voice cracked. She struggled to hold herself together. It was a constant battle between wanting to hold the boy tighter so he couldn’t ever leave again and wanting to beat him up for disappearing for more than a year without a word. She settled for a question and let her words be her emotions. “Where have you been?”
“Here and there,” Leo laughed sheepishly, scratching the back of his head. “Sorry for making you worry.”
Hazel sniffed, wiping away the last of her tears. The answer he gave was less than satisfying, but she knew that wasn’t the important thing right now. “I-it’s okay.” She inhaled. “I forgive you.”
And she did forgive him because, gods, it was his voice vibrating through her ears right now—after twelve long months, she was finally hearing wards come out of his mouth. He was alive—he was alive!—and he came back in good condition. She could feel his rusty hands, his ash-filled hair, his half-smile, and everything else she remembered so clearly—everything that she thought would she never get a chance to experience again. Hazel hugged him again and again, never getting enough of the contact.
From behind Leo, another person stepped out of the Argo II. Momentarily distracted, Havel craned her neck to get a better look at the newcomer: a girl with beautifully braided auburn hair and a thin white traditional Greek dress. As the girl looked around at all the Roman demigods surrounding the ship, Hazel felt a vibe of magic coming from her, though it felt dim, as if it had once been powerful but has now faded.
“Who’s that?” Hazel asked, eyes flickering in the stranger’s direction, wondering if she was a demigod.
The son of Hephaestus followed her gaze and his eyes immediately brightened when he saw who his friend was referring to. He motioned for the auburn-haired girl to come over. “Hazel, meet Calpyso,” Leo beamed as if the goddess of Ogygia man a prize he finally managed to get his hands on. He was tempted to add my girlfriend but decided against it to avoid the embarrassment and teasing that was sure to follow. Plus, they weren’t even official. Not yet, anyway.
Hazel understood why Leo couldn’t shut up about the goddess after he returned from Ogygia now; she was absolutely gorgeous and Hazel noticed some of the male demigods crowding around them eyes Calypso, whispering to each other about the “hot chick” that had suddenly appeared in front of them.
Too bad she was already taken, Hazel smiled secretly.
Nico, after twelve long months, finally got the nagging feeling off his chest.
When he had gone out for a late night stroll, he had planned to just cool his head a bit before going to bed. He had wanted to walk around by himself for a while since the dark always calmed him down. He hadn’t planned on finding the familiar-looking metal ship sitting in the middle of a field near Camp Half-Blood.
It was the Argo II. But it couldn’t be the Argo II.
Nico drew out his sword. His heart clenched. If this was some cruel joke, he would make sure the prankster wouldn’t live to see tomorrow morning.
As he walked closer to the ship, he noticed two shadows emerging from the entrance to his right. He spun around, slashing his blade forward almost blindly, hoping to hit whoever dared to approach the Camp with this prank of all things. His sword sliced through the air, just barely missing his target.
“Whoa!” A non-monster-like cry came from beside the son of Hades. “Easy there, Nico, we come in peace.”
At the sound of his name and the all too recognizable voice, Nico gripped his weapon even tighter and narrowed his eyes. “Whatever joke you’re trying to pull, it isn’t funny.” Because the creator of the Argo II was gone and the owner of the familiar voice he was hearing right now was dead. He’s been dead for almost a year and Nico felt his soul leave.
“Wait, wait!” The voice was closer now and more frantic. “It’s not a joke! It’s really me, Leo!” When Nice still didn’t lower his blade, the son of Hephaestus produced a small flame in the palm of his hand for a light source and shone it at himself. “See, I’m not lying! Now please put down your sword before someone—most likely me—gets injured.”
Although he was still skeptical, Nico sheathed his blade, relaxing ever so slightly. He took a long look at the demigod in front of him. The boy certainly did look like Leo, with the same lopsided smile and pointy ears, and Nico really wanted to believe that it was him. But—
“Uh,” Leo blinked, answering after a few seconds of surprise. “No, I think I’m alive.” He poked himself on the arm, suddenly feeling self-conscious. “Definitely not dead.”
Nico shook his head heard. “I felt your death, Leo. I could tell that your soul left your body after the war with Gaea a year ago. You disappeared. We searched for days but couldn’t find you. I… I told everyone that you were dead.”
Leo frowned. “Is that what everyone thinks now? No wonder…” He ran a hand through his hair. “The truth is that I did die, but I had the medicine from Asclepius with me so that I’d revive afterwards. Didn’t Frank and Havel tell you that? Anyway, after that, I went back to Ogygia to find Calypso.” On cue, the former goddess stepped out from the shadows and greeted the son of Hades politely.
Nico’s eyes widened. He had to force himself not to let his jaw drop. “Calypso,” he echoed, voice flat. A pause. “So after the war, while we all thought you were dead, you went to find Calypso. For a year.”
“Well, not exactly…” the mechanic glanced around nervously under Nico’s intense stare. “We went traveling for a while after that. We’re sort of… you know… yeah,” he gestured with his hands, too embarrassed to finish the sentence, a light blush creeping onto his cheeks.
Nico sighed. “Right. Well, it’s nice to have you back, Leo. Although you should probably go visit Jason and the others soon; they’ve all missed you a lot. I’m sure Piper can’t wait to beat you up for disappearing like that.” And the bitter, unspoken message: You really shouldn’t have done that without telling anyone.
Nico bid them goodbye and watched Leo and Calyso make their way to Camp Half-Blood. Behind him, another shadow was approaching Nico. “You didn’t have to be harsh on him, you know. They look like they’ve both been through a lot.”
The dark-haired boy turned around. “Shut up, Solace.”
Piper thought she was dreaming.
After all, ever since a year ago, she’s had a hard time accepting the fact that one of her best friends was gone forever. It wasn’t rare to have the son of Hephaestus appear in her dreams, laughing and casually cracking cheesy jokes like he used to; that reality was much easier to accept than one without the talkative mechanic. And just when Piper thought the nightmares had stopped for good this time, the boy was back to haunt her in her dreams again.
This time, he was beside her bed, shaking her awake, his warm hands on her shoulders, calling her name softly. His voice was so strong, so real, that she almost burst into tears right there because she regretted not being able to hear his voice anymore every day.
And when she woke up, feeling drowsy, she could see him there, sitting on the side of her bed, grinning. She buried her head in his hands, choking back tears and forcing himself to swallow the lump in her throat, reminding herself that it wasn’t actually him, that this Leo was nothing more than a fragment of her imagination. He wasn’t real. Of course he wasn’t. He’s been gone for over a year.
So why was she currently staring into familiar brown orbs? Why did his touch feel so warm? Why did he seem so… alive?
“Leo?” Her voice came out only slightly louder than a whisper, not daring to give herself any false hope. “Is it really you?”
She had never gotten an answer before, when she had previously asked this question; she wasn’t really expecting a reply this time either. But her eyes widened and her jaw dropped when the boy actually opened his mouth and loud rumbling vibrations flooded her eardrums.
“The one and only! Leo Valdez is back!” He exclaimed in that dramatically flamboyant tone she missed so dearly. Piper’s ears were ringing and she could hardly register his words, not to mention the self-control it took to stop herself from latching onto him and never letting go.
She did it anyway.
The daughter of Aphrodite threw herself at the boy, ignoring the fact that she probably woke up the entire cabin when she hit her elbow on the bed frame by accident and gasped. She knew from the wheezing sounds, the harsh pats on her back, and the muffled cries for mercy that she was squeezing him with too much force and that she should loosen her grip to give him some room to breathe—after all, she couldn’t have him dying on her just when he’s come back—but Piper really didn’t care about any of that at the moment. She was focused solely on the fact that she was actually truly touching him right now. And he was solid; not like the usual ghostly images that she conjured.
When she finally released him, she leaned back and let out a breath of air. The anger and frustration and the mouthfuls of lectures that she had originally planned out in her head suddenly all escaped her and she was only left with relief.
“Leo Valdez,” Piper’s voice was stern and she noticed the mechanic gulp nervously. There was a pregnant silence before her face softened and she broke into a grin, hugging him one more time. “Welcome back.”