A/N: My hundredth story! I am so excited to be posting this, you have no idea. First of all, infinite thank you to my three betas! September Sorrows, believeinthegods, and oneoffour111 gave me such helpful feedback, this story's quality really goes to them.
Also, as I promised I would, I am dedicating this fic to my awesome friend ShadowPalace. She got me into writing for PJO in the first place.
Lastly, I beseech you: please review! Reviews have gone down lately, and while I'll don't usually obsess over it (I write because I enjoy writing), for this story, I would love to see what you think. So if you don't always review, or have read my stuff but never reviewed, please leave your comments. It would mean the world to me, and I really just want to know how this fic is perceived.
Feet planted firmly on the carpet, Percy let out a sigh. Grabbing the nearest pen, he crossed another day off the bedside calendar. They were certainly tallying up. Each streak of red ink cut him close to the gut, reminding him of how much time had passed. The days counted up so automatically now, he found it impossible to forget how many had passed him by.
564 days. And that didn't count the two months when he hadn't even gotten out of bed. Not quite two years, then. His eyes blurred from staring at the glossy paper for too long; he was tired of letting it laugh at him.
Annabeth's death didn't burn him like it once had. During those first few months, it had crashed over him anew every morning. He would almost forget, and then the day would break and he would remember all over again. That time had been the worst.
Now the pain had lessened to a silent tug at his heart, surfacing most readily when he crossed out the calendar days. His daughters worried about it. They thought his obsessive track of time was uncharacteristic, and frankly, suicidal. But he didn't know how to explain to them that this was not a death wish. He didn't want to die; he was simply ready to.
Feeling his brittle muscles splinter with age as he shifted position, Percy once again sensed the gravity of growing old. And invulnerability dulled the discomfort by about a thousand. He still couldn't bear to imagine the pain Annabeth had felt over her last few weeks.
Leaning his head on the feather pillow, he reached for the light and gave a last glance to the picture by his bedside. He and Annabeth stood arm in arm, with Claudia on Percy's shoulders. Jenny sat in Annabeth's stomach, barely four months grown. But his daughters were adults now. They had their own lives, their own beautiful children. They called every night, trying their hardest to make him Percy feel warm and wanted, but he knew that even their strongest love couldn't make them his little girls again.
As he shut his eyes, their face filled his mind. His three girls. Every night, every morning, he saw them. So he let himself drift away, hardly giving thought to the fact that he would be waking up again in the morning. It was just a routine now. Living half-asleep, day after day. There was no way for him to know that tomorrow wouldn't be the same at all.
The lightning struck his skull. Ripping through his mind, his memory; it ignited his entire brain with brilliant orange light. He was burning.
Even in his unconscious state, Percy could feel how this was different from dreaming. This was real. He could feel the heat devouring him, the bright light blinding him. And just as fast as the bolt had struck, the colors drowned him.
At first, they made no sense. Every color in the rainbow swam around and around, and Percy felt himself pulled forward. Then just as soon as the colors lapped against his feet, they receded. They took shape, and they formed a picture.
It was a picture of him. Percy gasped with recognition, hands groping towards the image. He struggled to reach for the image, but found that his hands remained lifeless by his sides. What was happening?
Soon the strain of confusion fell away, and something invisible stopped Percy where he was. All at once, the pictures enveloped him.
He was a baby. Chubby fists and feet, eyes as green as ever. He wiggled in his mom's arms, wailing as she tried to put him to sleep.
Just as quickly, the image changed. He was still a baby, but a little older. Maybe twelve months or so. Lying in the bathtub, he flailed around with a goofy smile on his face. Sally's gentle hands scrubbed his arms with a washcloth, and baby Percy giggled.
Percy was two. He was smashing unsavory green peas onto his cheeks, the concept of ingesting them beyond him.
Three years old, stuffing blue m&ms into his mouth. A fistful managed to fit into his cheeks until he swallowed.
Four years old and he had his first day of preschool. His hand tight in his mother's. He'd asked her to stay with him the whole day. She did, and that's when he decided he had the greatest mommy in the world.
Percy watched these pictures with a strange sort of nostalgia. He had forgotten most of these days. They'd been lost, somewhere over the swell of his lifetime. But now, as they returned to him, he felt them slide under his feet with a familiar ease. Hugging his chest with his arms – their flesh yellow and sagging from age – was all he could do not to reach out and catch the memories on his palm. It felt like years, watching his past swim by, but it was less than a fragment of an instant.
Five years old now. Hair unkempt, teachers yelling at him for being rude to another kid. They didn't know that he'd only done it to save a little girl from being teased.
Another year. In elementary school, rather than kindergarten. It was after school, and he was crying in his mom's arms. He wanted to know why he didn't have a dad like all the other kids. And that's when she told him. A little lie, but it was the beginning of a bigger one.
Second grade and he was marked as dyslexic. Third grade and he was marked with attention deficit hyperactivity.
Why was he seeing this? Percy couldn't help it. He wanted to know. He didn't understand. Or maybe he did understand, but he couldn't bear to believe it. The picture reel scrolled on, and he found he had only a moment to strive for clarity.
Fourth grade, fifth grade. Expulsion, embarrassment. Smelly Gabe. Absolute Hades for him, he was pretty sure.
Even as he pictured himself the way he looked today – thick white hair, wrinkled skin – he could feel the stale emotions as if they were coursing through him once again. He felt the sharp glare of frustrated teachers, the pungent hatred of his mom's boyfriend. He felt it as if he were that little kid again.
When he was younger, emotions had come in impulsive bursts. He'd felt them and acted, with very little in between. He'd always been passionate, brash. Often he made the excuse that it had something to do with being a demigod. But then he looked at Annabeth, the calmest, most reasonable person he knew, and decided it was probably just him. Either way, he'd grown less impetuous as he'd gotten older. It must have had something to do with being a parent. After accidentally flushing Claudia's doll down the toilet, he'd swore to never be irresponsible again.
All of sudden, the scene changed. Not just the image, but something about the lighting. The blue sky became saturated, darker. The snapshots changed. They widened, they moved. They became a slow-motion movie.
He watched as his mom told him his past, as they drove through the gates of Camp Half Blood. As Sally died. For the first time.
It was hard for him to watch, and he was glad he couldn't quite remember how it had felt. Of course, the memory of losing his mom for real, when he was an adult, was nearly as raw as losing Annabeth. But that wouldn't happen for years to come, and it didn't appear in front of him just yet.
Percy tried to take a breath, and realized that he couldn't. This wasn't the sort of place where one needed to breathe. He tried to blink, to clear his vision for only a second, and discovered he couldn't do that either. He had no body. His eyes and ears remained, but that was all.
Before he had a chance to process what this meant, to think about it for even a second, the images of Annabeth and Grover filled the screen. Grover had been killed in the war that came after the Titan War, along with Thalia. The two who were supposed to live longer than any of them… killed brutally in battle. It had taken years for the rest of them to get over it.
Percy had managed to avoid looking at their pictures ever since; it was too hard to do. But seeing Annabeth, whom he saw every night before he went to sleep, was even worse. She looked so innocent here. And even though she had died after a long and healthy life, it was rough for Percy to see her so young.
He wanted to inhale and exhale, to steady himself, but he knew he couldn't do that. He had no lungs anymore. Even so, it felt as if a part of him was filling up. With warmth, with comfort. As much as he missed them, he felt his fiery spirit returning to him.
The next images shown were ones he remembered well; in fact, he probably remembered them better than most of his life. And he got used to the discomfort of seeing everyone again, almost like they were hands to hold as he relived it all.
He watched the Titan War unfolding, just as he remembered it, and once again wondered what was happening. The flash of lightning, the loss of himself… He'd seen a movie like this before. It's A Wonderful Life. He and Annabeth watched it with the girls every New Year. Was this what was happening? Was he reliving his life? Was this a string of memories, leading to…? Well, that was what he had wanted. Wasn't it? Or not wanted, but…
As he spotted himself charge across the concrete, Riptide in hand, he realized that he was doing an awful lot of thinking. For anyone, but for him especially. Wishing he could sigh, release some of the pressure inside him, he decided not to think anymore. Just to watch.
Luke. His vision expanded, thickened, and he was pretty sure it was because his eyes were widening. Why hadn't the son of Hermes come up before? Why only now, in his last moments?
Same with Rachel, he realized with a start. Only now, at the very end of the war, did she appear. With a bit of guilt, Percy realized it was because neither had been that important in the end. Not Luke, not Rachel… They were just people, passing him along the way to his destiny. Not like Annabeth, or Grover. Or Sally and Paul, or even Nico.
There were other scenes after the battle. More from camp, more of he and Annabeth together. Each supplied a new kind of a prickle, but Percy soon grew used to it. There were more of he and Poseidon together. At least half of the moments Percy and he had ever spent together.
In the actual world, less than a second had passed. Yet Percy was exempt from time; the images going too fast for comprehension, but in this otherworldly state, each one seemed to take years. He felt as if he'd lying there for longer than his lifetime itself. And as much as he liked seeing it all again – or seeing parts of it, at least – it was starting to feel like a river, performing the impossible task of drowning an invulnerable son of Poseidon.
And all at once, he felt the invisible thread of his past give him a shove, and he was pushed up and out of the water. Floating. He was floating now.
Annabeth seemed to glide down the aisle, a bouquet of hyacinths in her hands. Her father had died a few years before, and so Grover received the honor of walking her down the aisle. Their arms were linked, both beaming wads of happiness.
She looked so beautiful. It sounded dumb, when he reminded himself of this over and over, but it was something he never wanted to forget. The most important day of his life.
They kissed, those images of them, and then it changed again. Pale and loud, the sound of whistling winds was unmistakable. The war.
Percy was aware of himself – both past and present incarnations – screaming. Grover was shot to the ground. With an actual bullet, ironically enough, not with anything mythical. Then he watched a pair of strangers' hands carry Thalia's body away.
He had to watch Grover's funeral again. They hadn't been allowed to Thalia's, and Annabeth had cried until she made herself sick. There were a million other horrible moments from that week too. They'd won the war, but no one cared. The subjects of the new prophecy, the heroes, were mostly gone.
But worst of all, even after seeing Annabeth's tears and Grover's corpse and Nico's traumatized daze, was watching himself give the eulogy. So pale and pathetic, he delivered the most pitiful speech in the world. It was heartfelt, but the words were barely audible and the meaning barely what he'd wanted to come across. He hadn't had to watch how insincere it seemed before, and seeing himself fail so miserably was almost as bad as living it the first time.
Even so, Percy couldn't quite summon sorrow. He could feel himself emptying, becoming lighter. He didn't know what was happening.
All at once, the tragedy – the horrible tragedy that he'd spent years trying to forget – disappeared. Annabeth's belly was round and bloated. Claudia's birth.
For just this moment, Percy allowed joy to overcome his sorrow. His daughters' births were moments he'd always wanted to experience again, if he had the chance. He wished he had lips to smile with, because his faceless form felt as if it were splitting open with happiness.
Claudia was born. Such a beautiful baby, blonde hair like her mom and green eyes like her dad. She was like her mom in every way, though. So quiet and intelligent. The smartest girl in her class. She had won the spelling bee in third grade, and Percy decided he had never been prouder in his life.
Jenny was the mirror image of her mother, but she was Percy in every other aspect. So passionate, so vibrant. She had a short attention span, but the biggest heart in the world.
There was a picture from Claudia's graduation. He had one daughter on each knee, their heads resting against his shoulders. He'd decided then that he would never let anything happen to them; that they would lead the happiest lives in the world. That, at least, was something he had succeeded in. As far as he knew, his daughters had known little sadness.
Surprisingly, he mused, the gods had played little part in his life. They'd popped up every now and then, especially after the girls attended Camp Half Blood themselves, but for the most part they stayed away. They let their kin live normal lives, and kept the controlling to a minimum.
In this between land of memories and epiphanies, Percy was almost content. And he had a feeling, an instinctive thought twisting his gut, that the gods were the only ones who knew where he was right now. Or a god. Hades, Lord of the Dead. Vision flickering, images swimming, Percy thought he might know what this was.
And still not a second had passed.
He felt a tug, and suddenly the memories were slick enough to skate on. He wasn't sure how he knew – but he knew – that he was nearing the end.
First Claudia's wedding. Then Jenny's. The birth of his four grandchildren. These were a collection of happiest times for him, and also some of the last peaceful days he remembered. As the last one ended, the birth of Jenny's son Daniel, his nonexistent stomach dropped.
Sally. Paul had died a while before her, but for some reason they hadn't shown that to Percy. Maybe because, as much as he did love Paul, it was like Rachel and Luke. He was an important person Percy's life, but he was not one of the stones that completed it, the way that the others were.
She died of a stroke in the end, but it seemed it was only the climax of a bad year. Her health had been failing her for a long time. And Percy had stayed with her the whole time, holding her hand and waiting to fall apart until she was too far gone to see. And Annabeth had tied herself tight to his side, anchoring the son of Poseidon to his world. They were both in their fifties, yet he fell in love with her all over again.
The worst now. But it was the last one, and he almost knew if for sure. After all, the time since then had been… meaningless, really. Nothingness.
A bed. The small grandchildren stared up at their grandmother with wide-eyed fear. The oldest of them
was eight, but they all knew enough to realize that this wasn't good. What was happening to Grandma?
She kept coughing. A hideous, scary rasping sound. At one point, little Megan had fled the room in terror. Percy stayed next to Annabeth on the bed – their bed, because she refused to die any place but in their home – and moved her head to his chest. He let the blood from her choking lips stain his shirt, stroking her hair and calming her as best he could. But he couldn't fix this, for either of them, and his heart broke even as he told her it would be okay.
His daughters and sons-in-law had left the room at last, and he was alone with her.
Until now, the words in the memories had glided past him without much thought, but these he heard as clearly as if he were speaking them again.
"I love you Annabeth."
"I'm dying." It was no question. Even in her current state, Annabeth was the strongest person in the world. It killed him worse than it killed her, just a little bit.
He only stroked her hair, deciding that even with the bloody lips and yellow skin and white hair, she was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. Two seconds away from saying she was more gorgeous than Aphrodite, he allowed himself the smallest of smiles.
"I love you too," she said, realizing she had never reciprocated the sentiment this time. Her letters were all squeezed together, the sound pitiful.
"Save your breath," Percy whispered, holding her hand just loosely enough not to hurt her.
Her eyes shut, as slowly as if they were floating shut. "Goodbye Percy." She coughed again, blood and saliva dribbling down her cheek. Her voice was nearly gone, but she kept talking. "Seaweed Brain, I love you."
"No," he said. But she was gone. Met by her father, maybe, or Hades himself. He gripped her arms against him, his tears falling onto the sleeves of her nightgown. After several minutes, he pressed a kiss to her forehead. "I'll see you soon."
And he knew as he watched this instance, the one that had been more painful than all the others in his long and jagged life, that it was time.
As soon as he had started sailing, he stopped. His limbs returned, his fingers stretched in the their sockets. His eyes and ears reattached themselves to his skin. But it was not wrinkly nor sagging like it was when he went to sleep. He was no longer the old man he'd become. Even without looking, he knew he was seventeen again. A strange age to be for eternity, but it was the body he was handed. The age when he met first told Annabeth he loved her.
Coming to a halt, he realized that he was not yet dead. But certainly no longer alive. In the restored ability to think, his chest stung for his daughters. One of them would have to discover him, or his body rather, and he didn't want to know how much it would hurt them. He'd hoped they would never have to know pain, or at least not the pain of losing someone. But it was impossible to evade forever, and so he continued to move his feet. One in front of another.
The path was milky. Light crystals, stuck together. So deep and yellow, he was surprised they didn't swallow him up.
Suddenly, he was standing at a gate. It looked nothing like the Underworld, and he was taken aback. For a moment, he paused.
His head whipped, his eyes flashed. He found he liked the way his younger body moved. He'd forgotten what agility could feel like.
And there she was. The same innocent face he'd seen from his memories, only there was a higher wisdom to her expression. Proof of their life together.
She smiled, tiny teeth parting to welcome him. He wanted to rush at her, hug her, kiss her, but she put him a hand to hold him back.
"This isn't scary, Percy," she said, "I promise."
He almost laughed. "Believe me, I'm not scared."
She returned the humor. "I thought you might not be."
And now they embraced. She was light, feathery. So easy to hold onto.
"Come on, Percy," she said. "You need to let go of it all, okay? It's your time to come."
"I did let go of it," Percy said, frowning.
"No," Annabeth replied, her eyes meeting his, her lips brushing his cheek as she stepped right against. "You didn't."
"You… um, you didn't have the memories too?"
"The flash," Annabeth said, her voice small. "Yes, I had it too." Pressed together, they were united in everything they'd shared. The romance, the tragedy, the adventure. They'd had a whole world together.
"It's time to let it go, though," Annabeth said.
"You mean forget?" Percy asked, aghast. His daughters. He never wanted to lose their faces.
"Never forget," she whispered, kissing him. "Just… don't hold it so tightly to you."
Because that's what he did, Percy realized. With his stubbornness came a tendency to clutch the past. "Okay," he whispered, willing to try and let them go. Here in her arms, it was as if those five hundred and sixty four days had never passed them.
Unclenching his fists, relaxing his every muscle, he felt his life… not leave him, exactly. It was more like it floated above him, turning the memories into a flimsy shadow.
"It's time," Annabeth said, again. She took his hand, and he felt his tingling body seized by warmth. Holding one another, they stepped through the gates with as much courage as they could possibly have. Together again.