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oaths cracked lengthwise (don't let it go)

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postbellum

The campers operate on autopilot once the war is officially declared over.

Collect the dead. Take them to camp. Prepare the shrouds. Find the ‘off’ command for Plan 23. Find something to cling to at night.

They’re alive but not living for those first few days; blank-eyed survivors of battles with Titans and children who once slept in bunks at the other end of the cabin. Grover and Juniper’s dramatic reunion barely raises a chuckle.

They’re exhausted but they can’t sleep, and it’s beginning to dawn on them that their home isn’t set up for anything other than war. How many other summer camps have forges and a lava wall and a sword fighting arena, or a mound of rocks where the jailer of Tartarus was buried? Only the threats of revoked privileges, of the danger of getting sloppy when the fate of Western civilisation rests on their shoulders, keep the campers rotating through activities.

Turns out there’s not even much fun to be had riding pegasi, when the best trainer turned out to be a spy and their salvation.

The edges of camp start to fray as the barrier once did.

It’s subtle, at first; little tears in the fabric that makes them a family, despite all their differences. Snappy comments over breakfast and leading questions about what effect Givenchy perfume actually had on hellhounds. The Athena cabin refuses to yield shower privileges to Hephaestus after a long day smelting metal. A wide berth is given to the Hermes kids, as though treachery is contagious.

Almost worse is the handful of campers who didn’t come back from New York on the strawberry buses, who called up parents or called in favours, begging not to be taken back there. They’re immune to pleading Iris-calls and the charm speak deployed by the Aphrodite cabin. It’s hard to convince fourteen-year-old veterans, quick to draw swords and slow to trust, that they’re safer from the monsters at camp when the monsters turned out to be their brothers and sisters and cousins.

The dam bursts when Clarisse finds one of Silena’s scrunchies in her washbag.

Grief sweeps through the camp, a tidal wave reaching into every corner of every cabin. Activities are suspended and half-sharpened swords left abandoned in the arena. It’s always sunny in Camp Half-Blood but the tide draws out and storm clouds darken around the barrier, a maelstrom answering to Percy’s fluctuating moods.

Even Mr D doesn’t have it in himself to criticise. They’re Greek after all; desperate, unyielding mourning is in their blood.

Tears are wept over shrouds covering the corpses of children. The Ares and Aphrodite cabins raise Silena Beauregard on their shoulders and the campers think, we shouldn’t be burying sixteen-year-olds. The Apollo cabin burns a shroud for Michael Yew and still his siblings half expect him to turn up in the rec room, brandishing cans of CheezWiz and swapping CDs round until it’s impossible to tell which cover holds which.

Percy gets up to burn the shroud for Ethan and wonders if he’s doing him a disservice, if he was wrong not to take immortality and hold the gods accountable forever.

I made them swear, he tells himself, tells Ethan. They’re going to do better.

It’s quiet at camp that night, and waves lash the shore.

But they’re kids after all, in a summer camp where there are endless supplies of pizza and soda. All the nervous energy has to go somewhere.

Funny how distracting a construction project can be. New cabins pop up weekly and the Hephaestus campers work all hours of the day, trying to compete with Nico’s army of undead builders and refusing to accept defeat. It doesn't help that the rest of the camp is firmly on Nico’s side. Turns out that showing up late with enough skeleton warriors to decimate a Titan army and then building the ultimate zombie house is a sure fire route to popularity at Camp Half-Blood.

Apollo, true to his word, commandeers one of the empty caves for the Oracle and decks it out in enough purple gauze that it looks like the set of My Sweet Sixteen.

New campers arrive everyday and most of them get no further than Peleus’ tree before being claimed. The Hermes cabin is the emptiest it’s been in living memory, other cabins seeing their first inhabitants. The Stoll brothers tell their new siblings elaborate stories of historic hazing rituals, how the last camper not to complete their mission ended up as a mummy in the Big House… and wake up to find themselves being lectured at sword-point on how, for the last bloody time, the chariot belongs to Ares.

It takes ages to convince Chiron that Capture the Flag might actually be a good idea. Rachel gets halfway through a made-up prophecy, promising bounteous harvests and extra-clean cabins if he’ll let them play, but even then he only agrees if Percy is his own team. No one needs any reminders of how an invulnerable son of Poseidon can swing the odds, and Percy’s protests that he’ll go easy on the opposing team get shouted down.

The game starts off a little slow, a little friendly; parried strokes rather than over-excited lunges - until Clarisse gets bored of being polite and charges at the Athena cabin, and then all hell breaks loose. Pockets of Greek fire blaze around Zeus’ Fist and Percy has far too much fun dousing campers and creating mini storms that blow everyone off course. The Aphrodite cabin swears they fended off undead revolutionary troops, and Nico looks a little too innocent denying the charge.

Two hours later, bruised and high on adrenaline, the Apollo cabin claims bragging rights. And if Percy and Annabeth disappear down by the lake just as the game starts to wind down, and emerge later looking a little sheepish - well, it’s only tradition.

That night there are songs around the campfire again, ditties that get more profane as the night gets darker and the younger campers disappear to bed. Laughter rises as high as the flames and melted marshmallow sticks to calloused fingers.

In one of the summer’s greater surprises, Percy catches everyone off guard by actually being able to hold a tune.

“It’s siren song,” Clarisse yells, to general amusement.

“Well, that explains it,” Malcom says slyly, and ducks Annabeth’s arm coming his way.

Eventually, it’s just the old guard left around the embers: Percy and Annabeth, Clarisse and Chris, Katie and Will and the Stoll brothers and Malcolm. Even Nico’s there, perched on the end of a log and shooting furtive glances at his companions. A little corps of survivors, the backbone of this camp.

It’s hard not to think about who’s missing, about Beckendorf’s quick wit and how Silena would always gush that firelight really brought out Annabeth’s natural highlights. But tonight is a night for the living and making good memories.

“It’s going to get better,” Percy says very quietly over the crackle of burning wood. “It is.”

The campers look around their circle, squeeze hands tightly and smile, and Percy’s words carry on the breeze.

The sun shines on the Long Island Sound and campers spend lazy days picking strawberries and lounging by the lake, shrieking when Percy sneaks up underwater and douses them all.

And if they were a little slow at first to burn an offering at dinner, a little hesitant to give up the very best of their meal, a little dubious as to the point of it all, they follow Percy’s lead and the smoke drifts skywards.

Percy, who remembers the glow of the hearth when he offered up the pyxis and burns a little for Hestia as well as his father, who has more reason than most for cynicism.

Where Percy goes, Camp Half-Blood follows.

antebellum

One Saturday sees the largest ever influx of new campers, and a half dozen monsters lagging behind. Turns out the gods love the midwest. Will Solace, on boundary duty and ready to run forwards with ambrosia and bandages if the monsters get too close, waits for the inevitable glowing signs. They’ve been taking a little longer to appear over the past few days, manifesting at sundown or the next day, as if they’re an afterthought.

One kid who came through two Saturdays back is still waiting, but he’s as blond as butter and lugged an electric guitar with him across two states, so even the Stolls aren’t taking bets anymore on who his father is.

Will holds his breath as the children cross over the boundary, waiting waiting waiting for them to be claimed. The monsters lurk behind the barrier, safely excluded from this haven, but nothing happens.

Nothing happens.

All day.

Fourteen new campers traipse around after Annabeth, fidgeting through the induction film and the Hermes cabin goes through its usual process: tidy up, find more sleeping bags to cram into whatever space there is on the floor, warm smile on everyone’s face in three, two, one…

And don’t, for Hades’ sake, even think about Luke.

Dinner that night feels like Groundhog Day, the familiar exercise of explaining the never-empty cups and the burnt offerings, why the Hermes table is so full when the Poseidon and Hades tables only have one diner each. Why Percy Jackson (the Percy Jackson) has so much blue food.

“It’s gonna be fine,” Will mutters, his knee jigging in nervousness and rattling the cutlery. “It’s gonna be fine. It’s gonna be fine-“

“You won’t be if you don’t cut that out,” Kayla snarls, fetching her fork from the ground for the third time.

The Apollo table stills. Kayla is the closest any of Apollo’s children come to being an actual human ray of sunshine, admittedly one with lethal aim; and a snappy word from her is as rare as a downpour at camp.

“Chill, everyone,” Austin tries, not so subtle in his attempts to glance warningly at the younger campers. “Everything’s gonna be fine.”

“What’s going to be fine?”

“What’s not fine at the moment?”

The barrage of questions continues from new siblings claimed as soon as they crossed the boundary. Will’s knee jigs faster, the cutlery dances higher on the tabletop, and Kayla’s face sets further into a grimace.

“It’s… nothing major, I’m sure,” Will says, trying for upbeat and achieving a hollow cheeriness. “Just odd that the new campers haven’t been claimed yet. It’s been happening a lot sooner recently.”

The new kids (Sam and Alison, Hades he has got to start remembering their names) look nonplussed. They’re too fresh to demigod life to have fought in New York, to know about the sacrifices made and the promises bought. They’ve been at Camp Half-Blood for ten days and the name ‘Luke Castellan’ means nothing to them. Mount Olympus still sounds exciting. They’ve never slept in the corner of Cabin Eleven, hoping every night that a sign will appear until that hope turns to resentment, a wish for godly parentage not to be revealed.

It’s hard to honour a parent who didn’t have five minutes to claim you.

“But it’ll happen, right? Didn’t Annabeth say it hasn’t always been quick? Maybe the gods are busy or whatever,” Sam says through a mouthful of barbecue rib, gesturing with a hand smothered in sauce. He’s a blond haired, blue eyed kid who might grow into his ego, if Will doesn’t knock him to the Styx and back first.

He settles for swallowing the bile that’s rising in his throat, the nerves that unsettle his stomach.

“Yeah, sure,” Will smiles wanly. “They’re busy. It’s gonna be fine."

Five of the fourteen are claimed over the next three days. Two to Aphrodite and one each to Apollo, Athena and Demeter. It’s Gracie’s misfortune to get the bunk next to Annabeth’s, to see the dagger hidden under her pillow that she reaches for in the night, the way she rises with wild eyes and disappears until dawn.

If any of her new bunkmates (siblings, really, though it’s hard to shift from being an only child one day and one of nine the next) notice, they don’t say anything. Gracie doubts they’d say anything even if they did; she’s been at camp for all of three days and Annabeth, with her long blonde hair and steely gaze, is both terrifying and everything Gracie wants to be when she’s older.

The figures on the clock in the corner of the room glow. It’s two oh-three am and the ragged breathing, the rustling of sheets in the bunk next to Gracie’s stop. Annabeth’s pale hand reaches for the dagger under her pillow, checks it’s still there, and then she’s out the door and scuttling towards Cabin Three.

Cabin Three, Gracie knows, is Poseidon’s cabin. It’s Percy Jackson’s cabin.

And Percy Jackson scares her more than Annabeth does, with a troublemaker smirk and the way he slashes at training dummies and empties Clarisse’s glass from across the dining pavilion.

Percy Jackson saved Olympus and nearly destroyed the Hoover Dam and he has a hellhound and a pegasus. Drew Tanaka says he once held the held the sky up for Annabeth, but she sounded kind of breathy and giggled a lot when she told the story, so Gracie’s not sure how much of that she believes.

Besides, everyone knows you can’t actually touch the sky.

The mid-August heat is almost too hot to sleep in at the best of times, and now Gracie’s wide awake from thinking about Percy and the weird green light that shines off the fountain in his cabin; and about why Annabeth, who knows Camp rules, breaks them every night to run over there.

She kicks the duvet down the end of the bed but hasn’t got any further than slipping her feet into slippers before Malcolm’s tiptoed down to her end of the cabin. So much for thinking Annabeth’s nighttime movements were going unnoticed.

“Are you alright,” he whispers, perching on the end of the bed. “It’ll take a bit of time before all this feels like home.”

Home. Nothing about this place, with its lava wall and swords and kids who can pull skeletons out of the ground, feels like home. Except, Gracie has to admit, there’s something nice about knowing she’s not the only one who sees monsters at the end of the alleyway and that her constant fidgeting is an advantage, not something else to be pulled up on by exasperated teachers.

“I guess,” Gracie says. “Malcom, can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“Why does Percy look so angry all the time,” she whispers, bottom lip quivering.

Malcolm’s stuck for a reply. If life were normal, Gracie would be tucked up at home in bed, and monsters would be a fear she’d grow out of. She’d be thinking about starting middle school and what colour backpack to get.

Except life isn’t normal and whether she’s ten or twenty, Gracie will be followed by monsters and her skin will bruise from fighting and the gods will let her down.

But that can wait, and the truth, can wait for the morning.

“He’s been through a lot, that’s all. He and Annabeth both have. But hey,” Malcolm says, wrapping an arm around Gracie’s shoulders, “it’s all gonna be fine.”

It’s not a real answer and they both know it. Nowadays it seems like Camp Half-Blood trades in ambiguity and half-answered questions, when the truth is too painful to speak.

In Cabin Eleven, nine new campers toss in their sleep, each settled in their own patch of space that’s beginning to feel familiar. Mealtimes are no longer fraught with worry: they sacrifice to Hermes, the only god who’s consistently claiming his children, who seems to be a nice guy if the stories are true. Mel seems to have a real knack for archery and Kyle’s become the Stoll brothers’ go-to guy for planning camp store raids, but no shining symbol appears. Maybe they’re just talents, after all.

Unease begins to ripple through camp. Things aren’t quite as dark as they were straight after the war, but something seems off. More campers, fewer claimings, fewer prayers being answered. It’s radio silence from Mount Olympus and the storms that begin to batter the Long Island shore pass as soon as they begin.

Arguments break out in the rec room, at a counsellor’s meeting to discuss changes to the building programme: Cabin Eleven needs more space but there are still empty plots of land where cabins to the minor gods should stand. Ideally, more campers would be claimed, they’d move to their own cabins and you’d be able to at least fit a sofa inside Cabin Eleven.

It’s hardly a unanimous vote.

“So we come in last, as usual,” Lou-Ellen sneers. “Not one of the Twelve so we don’t count as much. You promised you’d build more cabins- maybe if we built them, the gods would claim-“

“The gods promised anyway,” Percy says from the corner. “They promised they’d claim all their kids. And they’ve stopped sticking to their word.”

The room as a whole seems to hold its breath, waits for the inevitable rumble of thunder. Only Percy would call the gods out, and only Percy could get away with it.

Except the thunder doesn’t come.

“It’s not gonna be forever, Lou-Ellen,” he continues, unconcerned at the gauntlet he just laid down. “Hermes cabin needs more space, it’s beyond cramped in there. It’s not like we can just move kids to the empty cabins. We’ll add more room and then keep building cabins. Although I’m not holding my breath for more kids being claimed.”

The motion passes, with some grumbling. Once again, where Percy goes, Camp Half-Blood follows.

In the middle of the night, their backbone is snatched from them. And no one promises that anything is fine.

bellum

Katie Gardner hears the morning bell, knows she’ll be stuck with the last trickle of hot water if she doesn’t get up, and still doesn’t move.

Demeter’s never been one of the busier cabins; most years they’re lucky to gain two new siblings, and they’re not all hillbillies from wheatfields in Kansas or Iowa, whatever the Ares cabin says. They’re children of one of the Twelve but never at the front of anyone’s minds. Must’ve been nice to be a Demeter kid when farming actually mattered, and a good harvest was the difference between life and death.

They’re a long way from that now.

But still, she can’t help thinking that a couple of the kids in Cabin Eleven might actually belong in her cabin. Avril turned a whole line of training dummies into sacks of flour during sword practice and if Delia’s brownies are anything to go by, then gods she can cook. Two kids stuck in sleeping bags in the corner of the Hermes cabin, when Katie’s cabin so many spare beds, she could sleep in a different one each night.

Two lonely kids, more than an inkling on Katie’s part, and not even a hint of them being claimed, almost two months into summer. It’s too risky to move them before they’ve been claimed and Demeter can get a bit testy. Percy might have allowed it, said what the hell and helped carry their bags himself, but she isn’t Percy.

And Percy’s gone.

Bar the whole ‘Saviour of Camp and Mount Olympus, Like, Five Times Over’ thing, Katie is admittedly not Percy’s biggest fan. He’s laid-back where she’s headstrong (bossy, if she’s being honest), and he and her mom have had their moments. Sure, Katie will follow him into battle and she’d rather be on his team for Capture the Flag than against, but he’s flooded her tomato plants one too many times for her to be too fond of him.

Except that they really wouldn’t be here without him, and camp just doesn’t feel right. There’s an uptight, boring blond guy wandering round with memory problems and the sense that, even though Percy wouldn’t have a clue what was going on at first, he’d at least get to the bottom of the problem- and probably nearly die in the attempt.

He’s only a summer camper, but the Poseidon table looks empty without him and the training arena too quiet. They’ve stopped singing campfire songs and Annabeth switches between blinding anger and despair in her search for her boyfriend; why the gods dare to cross either of them, Katie doesn’t know.

She’d rather have the two of them sneaking off around camp, Annabeth making a run for Cabin Three in the middle of the night when she thinks no one can see her, than this. The weeks they spent making up for lost time were pretty painful, but this is worse: Annabeth’s tongue is as sharp as her dagger, and her patience as short. And no one, if Katie’s being honest, thought they’d ever see the day when Percy wasn’t around to save them.

They’re the special ops team, him and Annabeth; sent where the fighting is thickest. Now they’re fighting on the home front, and their talisman is missing.

So what’s the point, really, in rising and showering and training when the gods haven’t made an appearance or sent a sign for months, and Hermes cabin is full to bust. Prayers go unanswered, sacrifices at dinner get smaller, and all this after they fought and died for Mount Olympus.

Promises lose their currency at Camp Half-Blood, and Katie turns over in bed. If the gods can ignore their responsibilities, so can she.

Months later - after being kidnapped by Hera and sent cross-country, fighting in Alaska and crossing the Mare Nostrum and traipsing through Tartarus, raising the giants and defeating Gaea - Percy ends up back at camp. It’s only the pressure of Annabeth’s hand in his that keeps his temper somewhat in check.

They haven’t been back to camp since Reyna and Nico returned the Parthenos and Greece fought Rome; and even their arrival feels like the beginning of a departure. Coming back to camp used to feel like coming home and as they approach the Big House and the cabins, all Percy wants to do is leave.

In four years time, he’ll be 23. Well past the age he thought he’d die at, longer than he ever thought he’d live for. And reaching the age when monsters stop paying attention to demigods in the wild, when their scent loses power and some semblance of an ordinary life is possible.

Four years to get through, and everything between there and now is a minor obstacle. Including camp, which stands only as a monument to lives ruined and a system that doesn’t work. Including sacrifices and prayers which don’t seem to have made much difference to the grand scheme of things.

Gods, everything feels so insignificant. Little cabins built to house children who’ll spend their childhood fighting monsters and years after fighting the terrors that only come at night. Who can’t use cell phones like normal kids or go to school like normal kids, whose godly parents don’t visit and whose mortal parents don’t want to visit.

Sword fighting arenas that hem you in and teach you which foot to put your weight on, when the world beyond the camp’s barriers doesn’t pull its punches and everything stands to be lost. Little cabins and little shrines and little lives, all subject to the whim of gods who fight by proxy and don’t bother to bury their children.

Next to him, Annabeth’s so tense it’s a miracle she can actually keep walking. They pause by the Hermes cabin, the door practically hanging off its hinges and inside, chock full of campers. Travis Stoll’s voice just about rises over the din, a futile attempt to get everyone to at least tidy something before cabin inspection begins and they’re last in the dinner queue again this week. Sleeping bags are rolled up, shoved into corners or on shelves; it’s only Hermes’ kids who get bunks and they’re outnumbered 3 to 1.

It’s tempting to turn and run back to the car, to leave the misery and uncertainty and responsibility to someone else. It doesn’t always have to be them.

Except, to both of them, promises matter.

Promises that the gods can’t be bothered to keep and can’t be punished for breaking. Promises that friends have died for and died because of. Promises that no child goes unclaimed.

Maybe the little things that do matter, Percy thinks. Little traditions like campfire songs and an offering for Hestia. Little victories like one-upping the Stoll brothers and beating Ares cabin at Capture the Flag. Little moments, like standing unarmed in front of your enemy or refusing to go on a quest.

He looks at Nemesis’ cabin, on the outer corner of the massive rectangle formed by the cabins, the scales hanging above the door; and thinks of Ethan Nakamura.

I made them swear, he thinks. And if they won’t do better, we will.