A/N: Er. So, I was flipping through my notebook the other night and saw this little idea for a Luke-centric fic scribbled in the corner, and I thought, Ah sure, what the hell, because I've discovered lately that when you're annoyed with your novel and want a break from it, the solution is to write fanfiction. Go figure.
Funny thing: this was supposed to be relatively short. As in, 2-3k. I don't know how it became this monster of a fic, but…Well, I like it. A lot. Read, review, and give me your thoughts on it please? Constructive criticism is much appreciated.
"I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
And I took the one less traveled by
And that has made all the difference."
-Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken
The Road Less Traveled
It's just the three of them, him and Thalia and Annabeth. The rain is pattering down around them as they sit under the canopy of swaying tree leaves, cowering around a deadened fire.
He knows how dark things look. They're stranded in the middle of nowhere, cold and freezing and hungry; poorly armed and weak; and without proper shelter or food.
But he can't bring himself to cry. When he looks at the two of them, huddled up together for warmth with their eyes shut tight against the cold, he doesn't want to show that he's breaking. Because he's the leader; he's the one they look up to.
"Everything will be f-fine," he says, and shrugs off his soaking wet coat to throw it over them. The rain is like icy daggers against his skin, sharp and painful, but he doesn't say a word about it.
"L-Luke…no," Thalia stutters. "You'll f-f-freeze to death and—and—and—" And that's all she can say before she breaks down into shivers.
"Luke," Annabeth murmurs. It's barely above a whisper, just a tiny little sound, but he hears it all the same. "T-thank you."
"H-Hey, don't thank me. I'll always protect you two. I mean, we're a f-family, aren't we?"
And he smiles a glasgow smile, a smile that's wide on his face even though it hurts like Hades; even though he's bleeding on the inside and it's killing him.
He smiles for them.
(Because that's what heroes do.)
"Take care of Annabeth, okay?"
His arms are sleeked with blood, his hair heavy with sweat, and his mind is buzzing with the aftermath of Thalia's insane plan.
"Don't be stupid!" he shouts. He almost doesn't hear it himself; the roar of the monsters rushing after them up the hill nearly drowns out his voice.
Annabeth looks between the two of them curiously, her eyes darting between their faces as she tugs on Luke's arm. "What're you two waiting for? We have to go now!"
Grover is just over the hill crest, waving his arms around frantically and bleating as loud as he can.
He ignores both of them. "You can't take them all, Thalia! You'll d—"
He stops when she gives him that look—the one that's always seemed to pulse with lightning and thunder and life. She turns her back to him, the wind whipping her hair, and smiles thinly over her shoulder.
"I…I think I love you."
And then she's gone, yelling herself hoarse as she charges down the wet, grassy slope toward an army of monsters ready to take her apart; gone, with only a single jagged knife in hand to defend herself; gone, with those heartfelt words.
When she dies, it feels like a part of him dies too.
(But he doesn't cry, not once. He keeps his smile fixed in place.)
The blood is pounding in his ears.
He jumps, ducks, weaves past the dragon's claws, outsmarting it and outmaneuvering it at every turn. He's smarter, faster.
And of course he can do it; Hercules could, and he wasn't nearly as good.
He knows this is what he's been waiting for, knows this is what will prove him a hero and show even Hermes that he's worthy.
He skirts around Ladon's tail and feels the searing flames that just miss the back of his head. But he's there, at the tree, hand outstretched for the Golden Apples that shine like little lights of hope. Just a bit more, just an inch…
The tail smashes into his ribs.
There's an awful screaming sound in his ears, like someone's in terrible, terrible pain. He almost chokes on the blood in his mouth when he laughs. It's his. The scream is his.
Ladon looms over him, the beastly teeth of all one-hundred of his mouths curved into something that he swears is almost a wicked smile.
(He doesn't even scream when the claw rakes across his face.)
To Hades with the gods. To Hades with their stupid quests. They don't care about them, not even a little. He knows it's true because of what happened to him, what happened to her.
She loved him. He should have told her back then that he felt the same. He should have told her that he loved her, too.
But she died.
And the gods did nothing.
He's had years to think it over, actually; years to let the bitterness fester. They are the children of the gods; they are the children of the immortals who control the world—and they've never received an inkling of help.
It was raining the day Thalia died. Zeus, obviously, was watching.
When the dragon Ladon slashed open his face, he saw Hermes watching him, pity and disappointment all over his face, before the god disappeared and left his son to bleed to death at the dragon's mercy.
And he hates them. He hates them all.
He's asleep the first time he hears the voice. You can bring unrest and chaos to Olympus; you can bring the filthy gods to their knees, it says. It's bitter and angry, and sounds like it's mixed with loathing for the foul sloths who sit on their thrones in the sky and let their children die.
(And, more than anything, it sounds like him.)
So when the voice asks him, Do you want revenge? the only answer he has is Yes.
During the field trip to Mount Olympus, he makes his move.
It's insanely easy. He sneaks away from the group, breaks into their chambers, stuffs the Master Bolt and Helm of Darkness into his bag, and then walks out. It's almost too easy, really.
And then Ares's sword is at his neck.
He dodges it, whips out his blade, and the two of them clash. Ares, he realizes, is a pathetic opponent. He twists the sword right out of the god's hands and smashes his fingers with the hilt. And Ares, god of war and battle, is cowering at his feet.
If only he hadn't forgotten that he was still, after all, a god.
The blast of light surprises him and knocks him off his feet. It's blinding, almost painful—but of course a god would cheat; of course a sniveling, weak god would use tricks to save himself when he doesn't have the skills that heroes do.
"You're going to die for your impudence, boy," Ares pants. His eyes burn like fiery coals against his skin, smoldering flames of rage and death and suffering. "I'm going to tear the skin from your flesh and break your bones until—"
This will bring about the greatest war in centuries, a voice says. It comes out of Luke's mouth, but it isn't his at all; it's His. Let the boy go, Ares, and you will have your war.
And when the god smiles at him and sheathes his sword, Luke feels the dread creep into his stomach. War isn't what he wants; just revenge.
But then, don't the gods all deserve to die anyway?
So he smiles too, all the way back to camp. He smiles in his sleep as he thinks over how this will play out. He smiles because, if Hermes cared enough, he would have been proud that his son pulled off such an amazing theft.
Of course, Hermes doesn't care, and that's why he's going to kill him.
(At eighteen, he gives up on being the hero.)
This 'Percy Jackson.' He's supposed to be the Chosen One? He's supposed to be the hero?
Luke almost laughs.
Percy's too gullible, too uncoordinated. He's slow-witted, he's clumsy—and he looks at Annabeth too much and too long. He doesn't like the thought of them together; she's his family, and no matter what, he'll always protect his family. Even from idiots.
So he watches Percy closely, befriends him, gains his trust easily; and when it's time, he gives him the winged shoes.
This will be it. This will be what brings about the fall of the gods. This is what will start everything he's worked so hard for.
Only, Annabeth isn't supposed to go.
But she does go, of course. Even though he argues with her and insists that it's Percy's quest and no-one else's, she's adamant. She's been waiting for this, too, he knows; the longing in her eyes tells him as much.
He's worried. He doesn't know what will happen to her, doesn't know if Kronos will spare her or roast her alive.
So he takes her hand and kisses it, just softly, and tells her, "Don't do anything stupid, alright? Come back safe and alive. You're all I have left now."
She nods, of course, and says that, yes, she'll be careful, because isn't she always? Gently, her fingers slide out of his hand, and she smiles.
But when she walks away, she doesn't give him a backward glance.
(This, he realizes, is when he loses Annabeth to him.)
He isn't even sorry when he leaves Percy to die. Actually, it feels…good.
His mouth is dry as he echoes the words of Kronos's empty golden coffin. It sits at the Princess Andromeda's altar, giving off an eerie light and foul air that makes the hairs on his neck stand on end.
He wipes the sweat from his lips.
"I can't poison Thalia's Tree," he grits. "I can't. We fought till our very last breath on that hill—it's nearly sacred to me. That's where she died."
And, more importantly, where he realized he loved her back.
You must, Kronos returns. You must, or else this will all be for naught. And it is only a tree, half-blood; the girl is long gone. She died in vain for the gods on that hill. Or have you forgotten?
"No," he whispers, and suddenly there's rage and anger boiling in his blood. "I'll never forget."
Then you will do this. You will do if for her. You will do what is necessary to avenge her pointless death and rid this world of the gods. You will poison that tree.
And he does. Silena helps him sneak into the camp at night, and with a single pint of Gorgon blood, the deed it done. Camp Half-Blood will be defenseless and in chaos, too distracted to stop him from obtaining the Golden Fleece.
When he looks up at the tree, it shrivels and withers as its woody veins swell with the black poison. The tree is dying, he thinks. Thalia's Tree is dying. Thalia is dying.
He smiles another bitter glasgow smile to hide his pain.
(He's the villain.)
Thalia would have been so disappointed.
When he learns that the Golden Fleece has brought Thalia back to life, he's happy.
Then he remembers that Kronos only wants to manipulate her for the Great Prophecy, and suddenly he hates himself more than anything.
And by now, she probably hates him, too.
The sky is like death is his hands.
He feels his bones breaking, his heart going still. He's dying. He's dying, he's dying, he's dying—
And he's relieved. Death won't have so much suffering.
But no. Kronos, he remembers, isn't that kind. He'll have to suffer first. And the Titan lord has always known how to twist the knife.
When he hands Annabeth the weight of the sky, it nearly kills him. Not because it hurts; not because his arms are broken; not even because his lungs are filled with blood.
It kills him because Annabeth is family. And he swore, he swore, to protect her.
But then, villains always go back on their promises, don't they?
If all does not go as planned, there is an… alternative.
"Alternative?" he repeats. He doesn't like the sinister implications behind the word.
Yes. Kronos almost sounds like he's laughing. If the daughter of Zeus fails us, you will bathe in the River Styx to bear Achilles's curse. Your body will be the vessel to my soul.
He swallows in the lingering silence. "I…I don't understand. You want me to—?"
Bathe in the River Styx. Your body will be immortal, invincible. It will prepare you for the arduous task. Otherwise, you will burn to ashes.
"So…you want me to carry your soul?" Even as he says them, the words sound like nonsense. "But I…I can't. Bodies are meant for one soul, Lord, not two. It will be impossible for both of us to inhabit my body, and—"
Excuses. Kronos hisses the word at him. It was you who asked for this life; you who begged for revenge, for an opportunity to put the gods in their place and avenge your fallen comrade—and now you want out? Now you want to flee?
A mirthless laugh.
You are a coward, son of Hermes. But you will do this. You will bear my soul, and then all the world will tremble at the might of Kronos, Titan Lord of Time!
There's an echoing pause before the Titan adds, Is that understood?
When he smiles this time, it's more like the gaunt, hollow grin of a skull.
"Yes, my Lord."
(And he isn't even the villain anymore. He's just the pawn.)
"If you join me, it can be like old times. The three of us together. Fighting for a better world. Please, Thalia, if you don't agree…"
Her eyes are watery as she levels her spear at him, thundering with that look that always left him breathless. He almost wants to reach out and hug her, to tell her how much he's missed her; how much he loves—
"You aren't Luke. I don't know you anymore."
It's worst than any wound to hear her say it. "Yes, you do, Thalia," he pleads. "Please. Don't make me—" No, that isn't true at all. He won't even be around for that. "Don't make him destroy you."
Because there's only the alternative. Because there's only death. His, hers, and the world's.
When she rushes him and their weapons strike together, the sparks light the air between them. They're like tiny embers in the air; like tiny torches. And by their burning light he can see the tears running from Thalia's eyes as he parries her strike. The air seems to scream when they cross blades again.
"Yield!" she tells him. "You never could beat me, Luke."
The faintest traces of a ghostly smile tug at the corner of his mouth. The sick, horrible truth is, she's wrong. He always let her win—because he didn't want to hurt her.
"We'll see, my old friend," he murmurs.
"Friend?" She practically spits the word as she thrusts at him. "How can you even say that? I trusted you, Luke!"—she slashes at him again—"I loved you!"—he mistakes the searing pain in his chest for heartache until he sees the blood running through his fingers—"And you turned into a traitor!"
His scabbed and throbbing hands are empty, and Backbiter is skittering away, ringing on the ground. Thalia's spear is at his throat.
"Well?" he asks. It's a cruel thing to say, he knows, but a part of him wants her to do it. He wants her to be the one to finish this and take his life. She deserves it, more than anyone else.
Except maybe Annabeth. He can see her just behind Thalia, face streaked with dirt and cheeks wet with tears. "Don't kill him!"
Thalia's eyes are hard as she snarls, "He's a traitor. A traitor!"
"We'll bring Luke back," Annabeth begs. "To Olympus. He…he'll be useful." And she's trying so hard to save him, he realizes—him, the traitor who turned his back on them all. She still believes in him, still thinks he's redeemable.
He wishes she were right.
"Is that what you want, Thalia?" he says, throat hoarse and mouth salty. "To go back to Olympus in triumph? To please your dad?"
Thalia's face twists a little in pain.
And why not? He's hurt her so much already; just a bit more won't make a difference. Just a bit more, if he can get her to (hopefully, mercifully) end this.
So he lunges for the sword.
When she kicks him without thinking, he laughs. He laughs all the way down, laughs until his eyes sting with tears and his lungs scream for air.
It's such a long way down.
But he's fallen so much lower.
(It doesn't really matter. He's already dead anyway.)
Immortal, he hears the other demigods whisper. Thalia Grace has become Head Hunter.
She'll fight by Artemis's side, lead the Hunters into battle, and act as the goddess's right hand. She'll never grow old, never sicken. She'll stay strong and healthy and beautiful forever.
It's such a long time for her to hate him.
He visits Annabeth, once. Only once.
It's a cool, crisp evening for San Francisco. Even though it's summer, the wind smells like sweet autumn leaves. The sun, sitting lazily on the horizon behind Mount Tam in the distance, lets down a warm blanket of golden light as he walks up the path to the door.
The fact that he's here is a testament to his madness. It doesn't make any sense, even to him. He's turned his back on the two people he loved—still loves, now that he thinks about it—so he doesn't know why he shouldn't expect them to do the same. Thalia, he knows, already has.
Annabeth is all that he has left.
He raps his knuckles on the door and holds his breath as he hears the light footfall of steps coming from the other side. The lock clicks, the tiny little brass doorknob turns, and when the door swings open, Annabeth is looking at him with wide, shocked eyes.
It looks like she's aged decades over the few short weeks since he's last seen her. When he looks into her eyes, it's like she's seen all the horrors and betrayals of the world. The laughing lines around her mouth seem to have faded, somehow; her mouth is set in a grim line instead. The grey streak in her light blonde hair—the one he gave her, he reminds himself, and winces at the thought—doesn't help.
"Why are you here?" she asks him. Her voice is hushed, but her jaw is clenched. She doesn't trust him, of course, and he honestly can't blame her.
"To talk," he says honestly. "I just want five minutes to talk, Annabeth. That's all."
She narrows her eyes. "Why now?"
Because this is his last chance.
Because there isn't anything else after this.
"I want you to run away with me."
Her eyebrows rise into her bangs. It's so very like her, so very Annabeth that he almost smiles genuinely. "What?"
"I want you to run away with me. I want the two of us to leave this whole crazy war behind and just forget everything else. We can roam the countryside, sneak onboard trains, fight monsters. It…it can be like the old days again, when it was just you and me and Thalia. Please, Annabeth. Please."
She laughs bitterly. "You'll have to do better than that, Luke."
"If you want to lure me into a trap, you'll have to make up a better excuse than that."
"I'm serious, Annabeth!" he says. So serious that he's breaking. "I'm not joking; I'm not trying to hurt you! I would never—"
"Liar." She curls that strand of silvery-grey hair around her finger. "This is proof that you've hurt me enough, Luke. That you've hurt all of us. It wasn't enough trying to kill Percy; you had to poison Thalia's Tree, too. Thalia's Tree, Luke. If you aren't even loyal to her anymore, why should anyone trust you?"
He wants to give her a reason, but there isn't one.
Annabeth shakes her head sadly. "Go home, Luke—Kronos and his army are your family now." The metal joints creak and moan as she closes the door, and his heart is pounding sickeningly in his chest. He has to make her listen to reason; he has to make her understand.
"He's going to take over the world, Annabeth!" His voice is so broken and pathetic that she pauses long enough to look at him. "You don't understand what he's going to do! He's…he's going to use me like a stepping stone. That's all I am to him! I'm just the last piece of the puzzle that he needs to become more powerful, and he already has me! If you don't come with me…it won't matter who's immortal or not—we're all going to die."
Annabeth shuts her eyes tightly. "Stop it, Luke. Just stop."
"I'm telling the truth!"
"And I'm supposed to take your word for it? I…I don't think I can." She lets out a watery chuckle. "The sad part is, I want you to be telling the truth. I want us to runaway, for everything to be simple and easy like it was in the old days. But it isn't the old days anymore, Luke. Things have changed. You've picked your side, I've picked mine."
"Please, don't come back. You've already broken my heart enough."
He swallows, throat dry, as the tears run quietly down her face. And he's angry. He's doesn't know why, but he's angry. She's Annabeth, the smart one; she's his family. Why won't she believe him? Why won't she listen to reason? She has to; she has to, or else…
"Fine," he snarls. He doesn't care that she winces. "Fine, if you don't trust me—your family—enough. You might as well fight me right here while you can, because there isn't anything else for me after this. I'm unarmed, completely defenseless. It would be so easy, too. All you'd have to do is drag the knife across my throat and—"
"Please, Luke!" She buries her face in her hands and cries in earnest. "Please, just go."
Smile, a part of him says. Smile for her and make everything better.
Instead, he gives her something hard and cold.
"You don't get it, Annabeth. I'm already gone."
She slams the door as he storms away.
He should be admiring the beautiful golden color of the sky, or wistfully taking in the taste of the wind. He should be soaking in the sun's warmth and memorizing its feeling on his skin. He should be appreciating all the world's wonderful gifts and beauties while he still can.
Instead, he kneels down in the dirt road and cries.
(Even Annabeth has lost faith in him. There really is nothing left for him in this world.)
The dark river streaming by seems to be bubbling and boiling at his feet—liquid fire, he thinks, death in solidity.
He doesn't hear a word Achilles says to him. It all seems to fly by, gone on the wings of time, as if Kronos were controlling it. Just like his life.
He tries to crack a bitter smile at the irony, but he can't even manage that.
He feels so alone on the shore, so afraid. Kronos wasn't even kind enough to send an empousa or a dracaena to accompany him. But then, they would've just taunted him, in the end.
You're better than this, Luke, Thalia's voice whispers in his ear.
For a moment, he swears she's there. Then he realizes it's all in his head.
It makes him think of better times. He can smell campfires and pine needles; can see the starry sky spread out over the heavens like a soft blanket. He can hear Annabeth giggling, snuggled up against his side for warmth. And Thalia. She's blushing, eyes so bright and beautiful and just a few breadths away…
He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and steps into the River Styx without letting that image go.
(This…this isn't how the story's supposed to end.)
He burns slowly in the black waters.
He barely remembers walking into the Labyrinth, barely remembers the dank, musty smell of rotting corpses and dried, crusted blood. The cool shadows are like hands on his back, guiding further down into the darkness, closer to the end of the tunnel, the end of the line…
The giant, Antaeus, slobbers over himself as another opponent dies down in the arena. "No, no, no!" he shouts, dribble spilling over his chin and spraying the air as he pounds his fists like some sort of infant. "I want more entertainment! More blood!"
And…Percy? Percy's there, with…Annabeth? Ah, Annabeth. He'd almost forgotten about her. He imagines that she's probably cut all ties with him now, disowned him from her and Thalia's family after all the horrible things he's done. But at least she's still alive. At least she's alive.
He's grateful to Percy for that.
But none of that matters, does it? There isn't hope for any of then. After this, there's nothing; nothing but destruction, suffering, and then darkness.
He offers Percy's head to Antaeus without a twinge of regret—as an act of kindness. Dying a glorious hero's death is always better than what's next.
Of course, Percy does just what the hero's supposed to do: he wins.
"Let us go, Luke," he says. "We had a sworn agreement with Antaeus. I'm the winner."
I know, he thinks, only because it's true. He wants to let them go, he honestly does. But the monsters will still attack them, and there's nothing he can do about that. Because he isn't the villain they obey. He's just the castaway character.
So he says everything he's supposed to, acts just as menacing and cold as before, even though the entire ruse is empty. The only thing that feels real is the pang in his chest when he looks at Annabeth and knows that she's about to die; knows that he'll be the one to kill her.
When Percy blows that silly little ice whistle and the entire army is thrown into disarray by the hellhound, he's actually glad.
There are screams, shouts; the banging of spears on shields; the sliding of swords from their sheathes. The dirt on the arena floor is suddenly up in the air, a cloud of dust as the horde of monsters surge after Percy, Annabeth, and their mortal.
And they're gone.
It's a bittersweet feeling.
They'll live to see another day.
But their deaths will only be worse in the end.
He remembers lying in the sand and staring up emptily at the ceiling, waiting for the world to come crashing down. Waiting—hoping—for Atlas to shrug and let everything tumble down down down—
"Sssir?" a dracaena hisses. "Lord Kronosss demandsss your presence."
He stands up, brushes the dirt from his shoulders, and nods.
(A part of him is almost thankful. From here on, there will only be sweet, blissful oblivion.)
Now. Now is the time, Luke Castellan. Now is the time when the Titan lord will rise again. Now, you will finally make yourself useful.
The word "whatever" nearly slips from his numb lips. He just wants this to be done with.
The sky is swirling just above Mouth Othrys, like a funnel ready to swallow the world and plunge everything into darkness. It's an accurate description, actually. Or, at least, close enough to the truth.
Two telekhines shove him over the black marble floor towards Kronos's coffin, and he can see the anticipation in their stares.
"Open it, boy!" one shouts. It rubs its hands together eagerly. In excitement. And why shouldn't it be excited? The life of one foolish, rueful half-blood in exchange for the resurrection of their master and the return of the world to a state of chaos. It's a small price to pay.
He raises one pale, clammy hand and places it over the golden sarcophagus's lid. It's unnaturally cold under his skin, as if all the warmth of life is gone. It's like a corpse. It is a corpse, because that's what coffins hold. The dead remains of life. Kronos's. His. They're all the same.
Now, Luke. Remove the lid and let us begin.
There are two sword points pressed at his back urging him onward, so he doesn't argue. He slides the lid over the side of the coffin; it clatters to the ground with a hollow ring. Inside, he expects to see shredded body parts wriggling. He expects to see hands reaching up to claw out his eyes, or drag him down into the endless chasm to death.
When he opens the coffin, there's nothing but a few wispy tendrils of black and grey smoke.
This entire time, he's been suffering, for Kronos; cowering from him; serving him with the fear of death in the back of his mind. He's caused death and sadness, turned his back on the few people he cared about, and hurt his dearest, most precious loved ones—for a box of hot air.
Then he laughs. He puts his face in his hands and laughs as the tears drip along his chin; laughs, as he doubles over; laughs, until he's wheezing so hard he's nearly gasping for air. It's like his lungs are trying to squeeze out a lifetime of breaths in their last moments—a valiant effort.
"What's so funny?" one of the telekhines growl. It prods him sharply in the back.
He wipes the tears from his eyes and shakes his head in mirthless humor.
"Nothing," he laughs, half-crying. "Nothing."
The smoky fingers float up from the coffin and curl over his cheek softly, like fingers touching a lover, or like a predator sniffing its prey.
And then the smoke rushes into his mouth, his nose, his eyes. It floods his lungs with blackness, blinds him with foul smog, coiling into the pit of his stomach and wrenching around his bones. His heart feels heavy and black, and even as he thinks it he can feel his lungs seizing and his body going cold.
And then the traitor died, he thinks. The end.
At the end of all things, he closes his eyes and thinks of Thalia.
(And it almost feels like he's resting under her shady tree.)
It's like he's on autopilot.
He catches glimpses of things, hears snippets of conversations every now and then, but he isn't really there for them. Instead, he's drowning in the darkness, drifting and suffocating in it.
It isn't so terrible. Oblivion could be worse.
There's no more pain, no more suffering. His heart is free from guilt, from worry, from sadness. He doesn't have to think about how much he's hurt others, or how much he misses them. He just drifts listlessly in his own personal hell.
Once, he remembers feeling something heavy and prickly, like a hairbrush, strike him in the eye. But then he was lulled back to sleep, pulled back down into the dark waters.
"The army is prepared, my Lord."
Ethan is kneeled at his feet, staring up at him with his single brown eye in terror. He doesn't know why. He's never done anything to harm him; the two of them have almost been like…friends. Friends, in this twisted, crazy world that they've both fallen into.
Ah. But he's Kronos now, isn't he?
The scene shifts. It's nearly dawn, and he's looking up at a gnarled oak tree. Even as he watches, the leaves shrivel, die, and fall to the ground. He crushes them under his feet and laughs. It isn't his laugh—it's darker, scarier.
But he can't focus on the details. He's so tired. Sleep. He only wants to sleep.
"…so you'll have to forgive me for not believing that you're just out taking a stroll, Kronos."
There's a Hunter floating in the air before him, arms and legs stiff at her sides as if she's been bound. Her head is a mop of messy black hair, and her eyes are a fierce blue, pulsing with lightning and thunder and life.
Thalia? Why is Thalia here?
"To stop you," she snarls, and he realizes he thought the question into her mind.
He nearly offers her a crooked smile. Stop him? She should have run him through on Mount Tam and made sure she finished the job. It would have been better for everyone, then—for him, for her. There wouldn't be this stupid war that he started; there'd be no Kronos, no Titans. Of course, then there'd be no Thalia either, and there has to be a Thalia. To see her again, maybe, this fall from grace and into madness has been worth it.
Her lips twist in confusion, and he knows that she heard him again. "Luke?" she says hesitantly.
When he tries to consciously move his lips, it's like there's lead in his mouth. He nods instead.
Thalia lets out a breathy sigh of surprise and—unless he's mad (and honestly, he remembers, he is)—hope. "I thought you were—and your eyes—but you're alive." The rest of her words dissolve into sputtered phrases.
He feels his eyes crinkle a little in humor. Thalia. She's still the same, immortal or not.
"Can you let me down?" she says.
Without thinking, he does. The invisible bonds holding her break, and she drifts slowly back down until her feet brush gently against the sand.
He takes a moment to look around him. They're at a playground in Manhattan, standing in the sandbox. The rusty joints of the swings just behind Thalia squeak loudly and unpleasantly as they sway in the light breeze. Somewhere to his left, a set of monkey bars stands like a monument of child conquerors.
And in his hand, the wicked blade of Kronos's scythe glimmers with the light of the setting sun.
He swallows in the quiet twilight. Just looking at the curved sickle makes him nervous; it always has, but it seemed less intimidating, somehow, as a sword. Now, looming over him, he feels like it's just about ready to lean over and sever his soul from his body and—
Thalia hugs him.
Thalia hugs him.
Thalia hugs him.
For the next few breathless moments, that's all that he can think. Kronos's scythe is lying facedown in the sand somewhere, and he couldn't care less because Thalia is hugging him. He doesn't ask why she's forgiven him, or even if that's what it means. He's even content to think that maybe she's going to use the move to stab him in the back. He wouldn't mind. Dying like this, in her arms—
"No," Thalia whispers quietly. She rests her head against his chest, listening to the slow, rhythmic beat of his heart. "I don't want to hurt you, Luke. Of course, I did want to kill you for being the biggest idiot ever, but I…I'm just glad you're back."
"Back?" It takes a moment to register that he's said the hoarse word out loud. He licks his lips, clears his throat, and continues: "I don't think…I'm not back Thalia. I'm his now. I'll always be."
She hugs him tighter. "Shut up. You don't know that. I mean, look. You're here, right now, talking to me. Your voice doesn't have that creepy, evil echoing effect, and your eyes aren't gold anymore—they're blue. You're you again. You're Luke."
He swallows around the lump in his throat. He wishes she were right, but she isn't. "I am," he says quietly, "but only for now. It happens sometimes. I'll be drowning in darkness, and then suddenly I'm in the middle of a conversation, or somewhere I wasn't the last time. It's temporary. Eventually…eventually, he'll just take over again. He always does."
She shoves him roughly and he tumbles into the sand. "Stop talking like you've already given up! We haven't! Right now, Olympus is completely unguarded except for a handful of demigods and the Hunters! Right now, the only thing standing between Kronos's army and the end of the world is a bunch of kids. And we're still fighting." She fixes him with that intense stare of hers that he's always willingly succumbed to. "We haven't given up yet, Luke. You shouldn't either."
But he has. A long, long time ago.
"This is all my fault. If I'd never left camp…if I'd never joined Kronos…" He runs a hand through his hair tiredly. "Do you hate me?"
Thalia crouches down beside him in the gritty sea of brown. She doesn't answer, only sits and watches the sun sink slowly like the last hope of the world dying in a blanket of smothering dark. But it's alright. He doesn't need to hear her say it. He's been resigned to the fact for a long time.
"No." She doesn't even look at him as she says it; her eyes are fixed determinedly on the horizon. "I don't hate you, Luke. I thought I did, back on Mount Tam, but I was just angry. Angry that you'd changed so much, angry that you'd gone back on what we had. But when I pushed you…when you fell…" She shakes her head. "I was scared for you. I thought, I killed Luke, and all it did was make me want to cry."
He lets out a ragged breath and turns his stare to the sunset, too. "The thought of me dying…made you cry?" He blinks once, a long hard blink against the encroaching night. "Why? After all that I've done to you, all the pain that I've caused—"
She kisses him.
It's a featherlight touch, just a soft brush of her lips against his, before she wraps her arms around his neck and pulls him into her. He can't breathe, can't think. The only thing he can feel is her against him and the slight jolt of electricity tingling in his spine and running through his mouth. The only thing he can taste is Thalia—Thalia, Thalia, Thalia. He's full of her, drunk on her kiss, and it's the single greatest moment of his short, wretched, miserable life. He doesn't ever, ever, ever want to let her go.
When she breaks the kiss, they stare at each other for a long time in silent wonder.
Then, she turns away from him and says to the skyline, "In case you're wondering, the answer to your stupid question is because I love you. Even after everything, I still love you."
And suddenly, he realizes that he's never said the words back. He's never told her how important she is to him, how the only thing that's kept him alive is the thought of her face and her smile. But he won't let her stew in agony, thinking she's alone. Not anymore.
The rest dies in his throat; he chokes, sputters, gags. He can feel it—can feel Him—coming back, can feel Him crawling and slithering his way out from the depths of his soul and back to the surface.
Not now, he thinks desperately, not now.
"Luke?" Thalia looks at him in confusion for only a moment, and then he sees the golden light from his eyes reflected in hers. Her confusion turns to dread.
He should tell her to kill him. He should tell her that this is her last chance. He should tell her that his weakness, his Achilles mark, is just under his arm and within her reach.
What he says is, "Thalia, I love you. I love you, I love you, I love you. I always have. I always will."
The tears well in her eyes as she parts her lips. "Luke," she whispers, "I—"
He doesn't hear what comes after "I." Kronos is there, bubbling like scalding fire under his skin and filling his senses, and he feels himself drowning again in the darkness; drowning and being crushed under it.
So he runs. He runs as fast as his two legs that aren't really his anymore can carry him. Time, he knows, is stopping all around him as the Titan lord surges inside his chest, his soul; the birds freeze in the air, the rustle of the wind dies down. But he runs. He runs and runs and runs and runs until he feels like he's going to die. Because his death would be worth it; his death wouldn't mean the end of the world. But she can't die. She has to live. She matters.
Thalia matters. So much.
When he looks back, the park is gone, and the sun has disappeared from the horizon, ready to bring the world back to nightfall, to dusk. Thalia is safe. No one can hurt her—not even him.
(But for good measure, he keeps running; runs, trips, and stumbles back into the darkness.)
The next time he comes to, he's standing in the wrecked hall of Olympus.
The sharp, metallic tang of blood filling his nose, tinged with the taste of copper, is the first thing he notices. It's overwhelming, sickening. The Hall of the Gods is in ruins. A chasm is gaping open in the floor, exposing the long, long descent down to the mortal world below. But something else feels off. He tears his eyes away from the sight just long enough to notice.
His sword is crossed with Annabeth's.
He almost blanches. He doesn't want this, not at all. He's hurt her enough; at the very least, he wanted to able to say that he never raised his sword to her. But he has, obviously. Even now, he can see Backbiter sliding down the jagged edge of her knife and growing closer to her.
"I will crush you, child!" The words slither out of his throat, but they aren't his.
Annabeth grits her teeth as he—as Kronos—bears down on her. "You won't," she says confidently. "You promised. You're holding Kronos back even now."
I did, didn't I? he reasons. But only heroes keep their promises. Never villains.
"LIES!" Kronos screams through him. He wants to stop him, but he can't. His hand flies out and strikes Annabeth across the face, sending her body crashing and sliding against the floor.
Please, stop. Stop, stop, stop.
Kronos ignores him.
His footsteps echo on the floor, his feet moving on as he fights to pull them back. But it's useless; Kronos is stronger. Already, he's looming over Annabeth as she lays sprawled on the ground, blood trickling from her mouth and sweat running down her face. Her arm is bent at an odd angle, and with a sickening feeling he realizes it's broken. It hurts to see her like this, so frail and damaged. This isn't how it should be. This isn't what supposed to happen to her.
"Family, Luke," she whispers weakly. "You promised."
"Promise," he repeats hoarsely. "Annabeth, you're bleeding…" He promised her and Thalia that he'd never hurt them; he promised them that they were a family and that he would take care of them.
The villain always goes back on his word—but I was never even that.
So he'll keep his word. He'll do what little he can to protect them. He'll do what he should have done a long time ago.
"My knife," Annabeth says. Her hand is trembling, bruised and purple and broken, but she's still fighting. She still hasn't given up. And he should have never given up either.
He wants to reach out a hand to her, but his arms are like stones at his sides, heavy and unmovable. Annabeth looks at him, looks at the knife, and then she blinks the tears out of her eyes. Still; she still believes in him. "Percy," she says softly, and for the first time he notices that they aren't alone. "Please…"
Percy's there before she can say another word, holding the knife menacingly and knocking Backbiter out of his hands. "Don't touch her," he snarls.
He feels his face twist into something like a sneer. "Jackson," Kronos growls, and suddenly, his entire body is on fire; Kronos is preparing to cast his stepping stone to the side. It's like the River Styx again, only worse. There are no memories of better times, no Thalias or Annabeths. There's just endless, scorching pain. He wishes he told Thalia back in the park how to kill him. He wishes he died.
"He's changing. Help. He's…he's almost ready." The words tumble out of his mouth in panic as he fights the burning. "He won't need my body anymore. Please—"
His hands move without him wanting them to. He thrusts Percy out of the way and sends him crashing down.
"The knife, Percy," he hears Annabeth mutter. "Hero…cursed blade..."
Before he can stop them, his hands are groping around for his sword; they find it in the fire, and close around the hilt. A stupid thing for Kronos to do, he thinks, because then the Titan lord is screaming through his mouth, hands black and skin peeling.
But the pain is enough for him to break Kronos's hold. "Percy," he manages, through the searing in his hands. "Please…"
Percy staggers to his feet and eyes him warily, knife in hand. It almost makes him cry. Because Percy can't do this, hero or not; he can't beat him. There's only one person who can stop Kronos—and it's him.
Only I can beat the villain, he thinks.
When Percy looks at him, face white, and reluctantly turns over the knife, it's like the blood is singing a song of hope and victory in his veins. If he had enough energy, he'd cry tears of joy—but he doesn't, of course. The little life he has left will all go into the next few dwindling breaths so that he can finish this. So that he can stop himself.
So he takes the knife, fingers sweaty and slicked with blood, from Percy's hand. He takes it, holds the glimmering, wicked blade steady, and plunges it deep.
Agony tears through him, rips his soul apart and leaves his body empty and ragged and defeated. A scream rings in the air, rebounds against the shaking walls of the Hall, until, suddenly, he's limp on the floor. Kronos, he knows, is gone, dead—defeated.
There's blood soaking his side and staining his shirt, and his face feels blistered and dry, but for the first time in forever, he smiles. "Good…blade," he manages to croak. It's a joke—a pathetic one, true, but at least he means it.
Annabeth is standing over him, shushing him and running her fingers through his hair. "Shhh," she murmurs brokenly. "You were a hero at the end, Luke. You'll go to Elysium."
He upturns his lips again as he shakes his head, trying to fit a lifetime of smiles into his last few breaths. "Think…rebirth." The words are wheezed and quiet. "Try three times. Isles of the Blest." If only so he can see Thalia's beautiful, smiling face again. It'll be worth it.
"You always pushed yourself too hard," Annabeth says. She smiles; it's a little sad, but there's undeniable love under there for him, too, and he couldn't be happier for it. Through it all, she still, always—
He holds up his hand, just barely, and she grasps his fingertips. "Did you…" He coughs, the blood spilling into his mouth and wetting his lips. "Did you love me?"
Annabeth wipes the tears out of her eyes. "There was a time I thought…well, I thought…" She doesn't finish the sentence. Instead, she looks at Percy, a long, intent, lingering stare that he knows means there's something deep and real between them: love.
"You were like a brother to me, Luke," she says softly. "But I didn't love you."
He nods, just a little, because it's both the truth and a lie.
She does love him. She loves him just as much as he loves her—because they're family. Because they have always been family.
"…ambrosia," he hears Grover say in panic. "We can—"
"Grover," he cuts in. Because Grover is a part of their small, misshapen family too, and it's time he make amends—at least, before the end. "You're the bravest satyr I ever knew. But no. There's no healing..."
He turns to Percy and grabs his hand as another cough tears through him. "Ethan," he pleads weakly. "Me. All the unclaimed. Don't let it…Don't let it happen again."
"I won't," Percy whispers. "I promise."
And he's glad to hear it. Because Percy's the hero; because heroes always keep their promises.
And he understands, actually. Being the hero doesn't mean doing great and dangerous deeds, doesn't mean falling in love and getting the girl, or even being liked by the people you save. Being the hero means you have the courage to make the right choices.
And he's made so many bad ones.
But he's found it now—his redemption, his coup de grace. Now, he's surrounded by the family that he hurt, that he loved, that he fought so hard to protect. He wishes Thalia were with him, too, holding his hand as the darkness rushes in, but he doesn't blame her. And at least he can go knowing that he kept his promise.
For the last time, he closes his eyes and thinks of Thalia.
(And in the end, he's the hero after all.)