Author's note: A year too late, but there it is. Hope you're all enjoying Son of Neptune.
Disclaimer: Don't own. Also, please don't sue me, Tyra Banks and J.K. Rowling.
"Forever is composed of nows." – Emily Dickinson
The end is much like the beginning.
Well, she thinks, this isn't how I imagined it would go.
When she opens her eyes, she knows in the pit of her stomach that she is dead. And this is the last time she will open her eyes to new death. It's a strange feeling, she decides. How is it, to know that she will never again take a breath and have it mean anything? How is it, to know she is frozen here in the same moment for eternity? Eternity is an unfathomable thing, scary even. The journey is over, and this is the destination. It's going to take awhile for her to figure out whether or not it is a good destination to be.
Annabeth keeps pinching herself while she waits to reach the front gates. It hurts. It leaves faint pink marks on her skin. They surprise her. She used to think dead people didn't hurt. The people around her look dazed. This is how she looks too, she realizes. We are all confused. And waiting. Waiting for what?
The line gets shorter and shorter. The placard above the door reads: Judging Hall. Ah, she remembers now. This is where they tell her what her final destination is. She glances at the people in front of her and behind her and think about what kind of stories they might have to tell. She rifles through her own memory and tries to figure out what stories she has to tell. But her memory is fuzzy at the moment, like vision after corrective surgery. There are colorful, blurry snippets of wonderful things. Her lives must have been good.
The woman in front of her enters the room. She'll be next. She straightens her clothes, suddenly feeling very ill-prepared for making her case. Will she even be given the opportunity to make a case? Will they just look at her and see everything they need to know? How long will this take anyway? She scans the line. Everyone looks so alone. Doesn't anyone have family? This strikes her as an absurd question. Where is her family? Why is she alone?
The door opens eventually, filling the hallway with light. The line behind her shuffles anxiously. She blinks and takes a step back. "Well?" a voice says. "Come in now. Don't dawdle."
Annabeth braces herself and walks into a courtroom. The front table is mahogany with a leather swiveling chair where her name tag is clearly displayed: Ms. Annabeth Chase and in smaller curly font, aliases Rose Parker, Liza Allen. She approaches the table but stays standing. The judges sit on an elevated platform with a desk of warm blond wood, two women and a man.
"All right, let's get this started." The judges all have identical manila folders in front of them with her name written on the front with a firm, square hand – black permanent marker.
For the first time, Annabeth looks at – no, really looks at who the judges are. The circles of their bland faces become recognizable features. "Oh," she says. Then, she wrinkles her nose. "Not who I expected. I know you." Her memory does a quick reel of the past few hundred years of pop culture, apparently the only thing she can recall.
Thomas Jefferson sits in the middle with a gavel, surprisingly accurate to the profile on the nickel. On his left is J. K. Rowling, blond hair in a bit of a mess like she just rolled out of bed. On his left is Tyra Banks, sleek brown hair and large hoop earrings, completely unmistakable. Annabeth allows herself a moment to take it in. She tries to not feel too put off by the fact that these are the people who are in charge of deciding her fate. The Thomas Jefferson part isn't that off-putting, as he was never alive when she was. But she keeps sneaking looks at Tyra who is smiling widely the whole time as if a television camera is trained on her face, and it's hard to take the situation very seriously. Meanwhile, Jo is looking quite bored with the whole thing and flipping through the manila folder the way one might flip through channels at three in the morning on a Thursday.
"Annabeth Chase," says Thomas Jefferson – Thomas Jefferson! – with a benevolent expression. Annabeth decides that he is the one she is going to like the most. Maybe the centuries on the job have mellowed him out. Maybe Jo and Tyra haven't gotten to that stage yet. "Good record," he remarks. "We certainly have some potential here."
"I didn't know you were demigods," Annabeth says.
Jo puts her elbows on the table. "Of course we are. It should be obvious, shouldn't it? Tom here is a son of Athena. I am a daughter of Calliope, the muse of epics. Technically, I'm a direct descendent of Homer. You might've heard of him, possibly." She says this as woodenly as one might make a passing observation on the weather. "And Ms. Banks is a daughter of Aphrodite. Shocking, I know. You probably could've guessed that."
Tyra doesn't seem to notice Jo's damp attitude. "Pleased to meet you," she chirps.
"Erm – yes, ditto," Annabeth replies. It hits her that she and Jefferson are siblings. Sort of. Wow, that's definitely not something that she can wrap her head around right now.
Jefferson puts on a pair of old-fashioned bifocals ("Originals from Ben Franklin's earliest batch," he says with a cheeky wink.) and adjusts them on his nose. "Let's see. This is your third time around. Ambitious one we have here. I suppose it's not a surprise. We've been placing bets since your first life. You see, it's been a very long time since someone as high-profile as yourself has entered the Isles. You might imagine. It's normally around ten or so a century, depending on whether or not there has been any worldwide upheaval. Oh, no, don't look so downcast!" he exclaims. "There are a hundred or more a century that get to Elysium, but most of them don't try for three times. And there's nothing wrong with Elysium. It's a lovely place, especially with the new renovations, simply marvelous. I might have to take a stroll around there myself when I finally get around to taking a day off." He has a sprightly twinkle in his eye; surprising, for a man who has seen the firsthand results of centuries of war and upheaval from unusually good vantage point of the underworld.
"It's fabulous!" Tyra cuts in. "You have to drop by, Tom, and see the new spa. It takes years off of your skin."
Jo very visibly rolls her eyes. "You're dead. There aren't any years you can take off."
Tyra flaps her hands like an overeager bird. "Girl, you know what I mean. That avocado facemask is divine. Literally! If I could spend the rest of eternity in there, I would."
"Please do," says Jo.
"Well, someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed today." Tyra flips her hair. "I bet a visit to the spa would improve your mood."
"No," Jo says through gritted teeth, "what would improve my mood is if Hades didn't screw up the scheduling and put me on Tuesdays and Thursdays. He knows there are certain people I don't like working with, and he does it anyway! Sometimes, I wonder just what exactly he's doing in his cushy throne room if he can't process requests correctly. Honestly!" She jabs her thumb at Tyra. "I changed the face of the literature in my lifetime. What the bloody hell did she do, eh?" She sits back in her chair, fuming. On the other side, Tyra is hyperventilating like she's about to rip out some of Jo's hair.
Jefferson leans forward with a pained, embarrassed expression – or perhaps he leans forward to prevent Tyra from launching herself at Jo. "Please, ladies. Can we leave the personal problems for a private time?" Neither of them responds.
"Thank you," he continues with a sigh. "Please offer me your judgments now." They all write something down on a scrap of paper and hand it to Jefferson. Annabeth feels uncomfortable. This is all the slightest bit awkward. She shifts her weight from one foot to another.
Jefferson's eyebrows jump to his hairline. "All right, then." He writes something down on the bottom of the page. He arranges his fingers into a steeple in front of him. "Has your memory improved any, Ms. Chase?" He smiles on her kindly.
"Erm, sort of."
"Yes, yes, it takes a little adjusting to. Some people are slower to recover their memories than others. Don't fret. It'll all come back to you soon enough. The good things come first, so don't be too upset when the rest of it trickles in. It is, um, a recurring problem. Some of the newly dead have a hard time coping with the bad things."
Annabeth wonders what bad things she might remember soon.
"We give them the option of forgetfulness. It is a – a kind of anesthetic, you could say. But most people choose to keep theirs. As a memento, of sorts." He scans her portfolio again, underlining some paragraphs in pen. She notices that Jefferson uses a quill while Jo and Tyra use ballpoint pens. Culture dies hard, even after death.
Then, she realizes what he has just said. "Wait – but only people who go to the Isles of the Blest have the option of keeping their memories. Does that mean—"
He smiles so broadly that his whole face beams. "Yes, dear heart. I have reason to believe you deserve it. Oh, you will love it. I'm so happy for you." He snaps his fingers and suddenly, Annabeth finds herself wearing a white sundress with a certificate of congratulations in her hand.
"You certainly have what it takes," Tyra says, twinkling fondly. She stands up and glides around the table, sweeping her long hair behind her shoulder, and before Annabeth has a chance to protest, Tyra swoops in for the hug. Her stilettos make it suitably difficult, since Annabeth is so much shorter. Tyra smells like Gucci perfume.
Annabeth pats her back awkwardly. "Thank you," she says, not knowing how else to respond.
"This is just the best part of this job." She tilts her head to one side. "Making peoples' dreams come true."
Jo finally musters up the tolerance to put on a positive expression too. "I enjoyed meeting you, Ms. Chase. We were all in unanimous agreement, which I assure you, is not something that happens very often." She shoots a very definite look in Tyra's direction. "Therefore, I can say, you are a special young woman, and I wish you the best for eternity."
Annabeth is quite flattered, naturally. "No," she stumbles. "It was an honor to meet you, Ms. Rowling."
Jo looks pleased, which is something Annabeth hasn't seen this whole time.
The door on the left opens. "Follow the path and once you cross the river, you'll be at the gates of the Isles. Good luck, Annabeth. Have a good afterlife," Jefferson says.
She walks to the door and for the first time, sees real, true sunlight. She doesn't know where it's coming from, but it's as golden as anything she's ever seen on earth. She pauses and looks back. All three judges smile in her direction. Feeling considerably lighter and surer of herself, she steps through the door and onto the path to paradise.
Percy steps off of the Sky Train, feeling a bit curious about making the underworld his permanent home. It is nice, not being old anymore. He could run a marathon. He could spar for hours on end and not worry about snapping a bone. He stretches. Fantastic.
The last thing he can remember is being alone. He knows he wasn't always alone – there used to be someone there on the other side of the bed. But that person wasn't there, or maybe she was already gone by the time it was his last moment. He remembers the sterile white of the hospital and hoping to find a familiar face. He doesn't know, at this point, if he'd recognize a familiar face should he see one. His memory is obnoxiously blurry. And when he strains, it gives him a headache.
The smallness of the waiting room combined with the impatient jostling of people in line make him claustrophobic. He keeps looking around in hopes of seeing someone he knows. But there's no one. Or maybe there is, but he just doesn't know it. Maybe they don't know it either. That woman over there with the sleek brown hair and friendly dark eyes could've been someone in his life. He tries to remember her. He doesn't.
Everyone here is so wrapped up in their own world. He wishes desperately that he had someone to talk to. But no one seems particularly inclined to strike up conversation.
In his head, he daydreams of yellow hair and water. He dreams of bacon macaroni and cheese and nibbling perfect toes. Airplanes and maps.
The line moves forward and he shakes himself out of his reverie. Was it real or something made up?
He wishes –
The Isles are incredible, just like Jefferson and Tyra said they would be. It's as if every beautiful thing on earth has been perfectly copied and brought to illuminate this place. And the sky. Nobody will be able to convince her that it's not real. It's definitely real. Somehow, the sky has moved underground – she is quite sure of this. It's blue and infinitely deep and oh, she is sure she will be happy here. In the distance, craggy purple mountains scrape against the edge of the sky. She can see cerulean icy lakes too, nestled in the valleys.
There are fields of flowers and golden grass, crystal clear rivers, and even a sandy-pale beach with foamy ocean waves. Where the ocean ends, she doesn't know. Of course, there is also a city, a glorious city of marble, gold, steel, and cement, which somehow manages to look futuristic and classical at the same time, and not just tacky. Daedalus, she thinks with surprise, as the memory of him surfaces. She is sure Daedalus helped construct this. Maybe Daedalus is here, even.
She walks through the fields, picking a few daisies and working them into her hair absentmindedly. Over in the distance, a soft thunderstorm rolls in, as the blue skies shift to gray. Warm, summery raindrops dribble over the earth, moistening the soil and rolling off leaves like little iridescent beads. She doesn't mind it, but as if in response to the storm, she notices a yellow umbrella caught in the branches of a raspberry bush. The Isles really do provide everything. She wonders whether a roast beef sandwich would appear on a plate with a mug of hot chocolate if she suddenly decided she was hungry. Or if people even get hungry here. This could be good, she thinks. She was never a good cook when she was alive, after all.
There it is. Another memory. What else can she remember?
There was a place. A summer camp, and the images flash in her mind, one after the other. A pine tree that wasn't a pine tree. Long Island Sound. The way the sand clumped between her toes when she walked on the beach. She went to college. Or was it several different universities? Did she waitress or did she work in a cubicle? She furrows her brow. There was a boy. She can't remember now what he looks like, but he was important. Yes. Was he a brother? A best friend?
She realizes that there are three layers of memories, and they are all blending together, the distinct colors and sounds becoming murky into a one-dimensional plane. She must learn to separate them.
Then, there's a figure walking toward her in the rain under a red umbrella. It's hard to see through the curtain of rain, and the umbrella shields the person's features. The edge of the canopy lifts to reveal a smiling face.
Bewildered, she looks at him more closely. He is tall and handsome, about a head taller than her. Fair with blue eyes that dance and lips that lift a little higher on the left side than the right. He has a small, white scar right above his eye. "I always knew I'd find you here eventually," he says, his gaze never-wavering.
She is horribly embarrassed. This guy has clearly been waiting for her, and dear gods, she doesn't even know his name. She coughs lightly. "Um, I'm sorry, but I'm not positive – I mean – who are you again?" That came out well. Okay, this is only awkward if she wants to make it awkward …
He doesn't even seem fazed. Chuckles, even. "That's all right," he says. "I only came to greet an old friend. Family, you could even call it." He edges closer to her casually. "You know, it's been a long time since I've seen you. Hundreds of years, actually. You look really good. Just like I remember and not a hair out of place. Maybe a little older, but it does you well."
"Family?" she asks cautiously. "Are we related?" It's possible. They're both blonde.
"No, not in the blood sense. I'm Luke." He extends a hand and she shakes it, feeling a bit bemused and still very amnesiac. "I'm sorry I can't tell you any more. It's policy not to overwhelm the new arrivals on the Isles. They're supposed to come to their senses by themselves. It's always easier when it's slow recovery. Actually, I'm probably not even supposed to show myself to you yet, at least not until you get your memories back." He gestures toward the golden-gated entrance. "Luckily, I've never really been one for the rules."
"Nice to meet you, Luke. I'd love to tell you that wow, the memories are flooding back, and I remember that time you came over for Thanksgiving and we got along sportingly, unfortunately, I don't remember a damn thing. I'm sure I will soon."
Their umbrellas touch. "I'm sure you will." He grins at her, as if drinking in the very sight of her. She squirms slightly, uncomfortable under his searching looks. "I'm glad you got here first. Makes it much more convenient for me."
"What d'you mean, first?"
"Oh," he says, as something like guilt flashes across his face and he scratches the back of his head. "I'm botching this up pretty badly. Let's just say, we have a mutual friend who's a few steps behind. And the last time I saw him, we didn't exactly end on the greatest of terms, so it would be kind of strange if I ran into him right away."
Annabeth tries to wrangle with this. "Could you narrow things down for me, Luke? Because all of this, not gonna lie, is super vague." She stops for a moment and then squints in pain. "Owww, my head."
Luke bends toward her in concern. "You okay?"
She rubs her temples. It feels like her brain is swelling into her skull. She tells him this.
"Yeah, recovering your memories is a rough process."
Drawing small circles into her head with her fingertips, she scowls. "I thought going to the Isles meant the end of pain and suffering."
Luke laughs, and Annabeth decides it's a friendly – and familiar – sound. "Are you picking up some stuff yet?" is all he says.
She slows her breathing, closes her eyes, and probes deep into her mind. "I get these pieces, but I don't know how they fit together or how they're important." She burns with frustration. "Why couldn't they have just given me some potion to drink and then voila! everything gets restored. They have stuff like that, right? I mean, this is the underworld. They should have stuff like that."
"They used to. Now, they don't because, erm, something about how we're all supposed to be more organic with our consumption, and that potion is basically magical medication. It's a new fad that Persephone introduced. All the rage down here. Anyway, there are three layers, so it's hard. But I find it easiest if you focus on your first life," he suggests. "Your first life has the greatest essence of your soul, and it's the part of you that is carried from one body to another. Your brain never fully loses those memories. Not really."
"Okay," she says uncertainly. The rain gradually gets lighter and creates a soothing rhythm against the surface of her umbrella. "Camp Half-Blood. That was the name, wasn't it? I grew up there. And there was a centaur named Chiron. My father was – my father was who, I can't remember – but my mother" – she wrinkles her brow – "my mother was Athena." She looks up at him expectantly. "Am I right?"
He smiles at her. "Yep. Keep going."
Percy enters the Judging Hall. Up until now, standing in line with everyone else, he's been trying desperately to conjure up some memories of his past, half-hoping they'd be good ones so he could be like, see, see, I deserve to go somewhere good, yes? and half afraid they would prove the opposite. He could've been a terrorist in a past life. Obviously, he doesn't have any urge now to go blow up some people, but hey, he could have been radically different before he died.
So this is what he's thinking about, panicking about, before he sets foot into the room, and then all of a sudden, it's like a small bomb has gone off. Chairs scraping and gavels banging on wood.
"Percy Jackson, oh my gods, it's Percy Jackson!"
He blinks against the fluorescent lighting. "That's me," he says, not knowing what else to say. "I think." He has no idea what he's done to inspire such enthusiasm.
"Sit down, Tyra, sit your arse down, seriously," another female voice snaps in a British accent. "This is supposed to be fair and balanced, and that's going to be rather difficult if you insist on acting like you've just soiled yourself."
And now, he is really confused. His eyes adjust enough so that he can make out the figures sitting behind the mahogany table. "Whoa." The one on the right, the one who is practically bouncing out of her chair, is Tyra Banks, complete with caramel-highlighted weave and million-watt grin. The other two – well, he was never a big reader and he definitely doesn't recognize a lot of old, dead guys on sight, but the placards in front of them read, J.K. Rowling and Thomas Jeffjerson. He swallows hard. "Hey."
"Hello, yourself, Mr. Jackson," Thomas Jefferson says. "You've been a much-anticipated arrival, as you can see." He glances at Tyra, who actually does look like she might be wetting her pants. "Two high-profiles in one day. Well, isn't that something."
Percy doesn't know what the last part means, but apparently, everyone knows who he is. "I hope I didn't, like, accidentally blow up something giant in my lifetime or cause Olympus to come crashing down. Because," he says frankly, "I really hope that's not the reason everyone is so excited to see me."
"No, certainly not." He arches an eyebrow sternly. "You did cause several massive explosions and destroyed a couple of national monuments, though."
Percy blanches, but Jefferson only chortles. "Forgive me. I do like to tease the new arrivals. No, Mr. Jackson, I can say, we have nothing but good things to say about you. Even if almost all of the gods have hated you at some point, they seem to like you more and more as time passes. Probably because they don't necessarily remember interacting with you in person. You could be – what's the word – abrasive, but of course, now they recall all of the good things. Even Dionysus. He had quite a sour perception of you while you were alive, if I recall.
"Mr. D," Percy starts out, and then stops. "Wow, I think I remember him. Pudgy guy, red nose, really grumpy without his booze fix?"
"Erm," Jefferson says.
"Yeah, that's definitely him!" Percy beams. "I haven't seen him in forever. Probably up to his old shenanigans by now."
"Hmm, I can see why the gods had a problem with this one," Jefferson says to the women. "Such irreverence! It's a marvel he's made it this far without being blasted to bits somewhere along the way."
For a second, Percy thinks Jefferson might be peeved or shocked, but the twinkle in the bespectacled old man's eyes indicate that he is only amused. He puts down the gavel and opens a manila folder with formidable contents. The stack of papers is at least three inches thick. "Your records," he says, with a quirk of a smile. "Yes, there are secretaries in the underworld who keep track of this kind of thing. We have a well-populated firm here." He adjusts the glasses on the bridge of his nose and peers over the rim. "So, Mr. Jackson. Tell us how your memory is faring. What do you remember?"
Well, what does he?
"Camp smelled sweet in summer with the splitting and rotting strawberries in the fields. A big wooden house with chipped blue paint. My favorite thing was the way Long Island Sound would sparkle on sunny days, and the way the colors always seemed better at camp than anywhere else in the world. I wanted to get away when I was young because all I wanted to do was see everything outside. All I wanted was a quest. But I remember, after coming back from the first one, that the colors were so much better at camp. Like someone took a paintbrush and went over everything within the borders to make it deeper and brighter." Once she starts, she can't stop. The more she thinks about it, the clearer everything gets. It's as if this whole time she's been trying to see through a grimy window, and she finally took some damn Windex to it and the light is coming through. Luke has gone absolutely still, and now, Annabeth knows why. Her heart aches. She takes a quivering breath.
"I went to the pine tree a lot when I needed to do serious thinking, because – because, the tree was a girl. Her name was Thalia, and she took care of me when I ran away from home." Her voice gets quiet. "When I ran away at seven years old, I thought I'd always be alone. I thought I'd spend the rest of my life wandering around, never finding anybody. It was awful. But then Thalia found me." She doesn't dare meet his eyes – it's too much – but there are tears melting in her own. "And Luke, oh Luke, I remember you!"
She drops her umbrella and lunges at him. He catches her in his embrace with one arm and whispers into her neck. "Annabeth, I've waited for you forever." She can't tell if he's laughing or crying.
She blinks wetly. "You made it! You made it to the Isles. I knew you would."
"'Course I did. What else did I have to do with my time?" He releases her. "I knew I'd catch you here."
"Shut up," she says, punching his shoulder. "You did not go all the way through three lives to meet me here."
"Okay, okay," he says. "So I kind of enjoyed proving myself too. It was something I had to do. I was a bit of an asshole in my first life until the last five minutes. Sorry about that."
"What happened to your scar?" She holds him at arms' length and really looks at him. He is like before he went on the first quest that destroyed him. He is young and clean and not-Kronos, and the scar that marred the entire side of his face and defined him for the last few years of his life is reduced to a tiny white circle above his eyebrow. And he is smiling, which is probably the most obviously different thing, because Annabeth can't remember the last time Luke actually smiled for real, without a cynical edge or anything.
Luke's fingers reach up to rub it. "I don't know, this is how I came down here. I like to think it's almost gone because I did a decent job atoning for my hideous behavior, but that's probably just me being optimistic." He takes her hand. "I'm really sorry, Annabeth. I mean, I apologized a long time ago, but that was when I was half-dead and after I hurt you. I didn't do right. I wanted so bad to do right."
She leans her forehead against his. "You don't have to apologize. I forgave you a long time ago. You have to know that. Anyway, I'm just glad you're here. And that I know you. Good gods, I know you. I know somebody."
The rain intensifies as they stand under Luke's umbrella.
"I never thought you'd try three times," Luke says. "I thought you'd go to Elysium and be happy there. What made you change your mind?"
"I dunno," she replies. "Actually, I don't even remember making that decision."
"Not much," Percy admits. "I think I was famous?"
Tyra giggles and bats her eyelashes at him. Wild guess, he muses, daughter of Aphrodite. Gods, there was that one time when the goddess of love herself intercepted his quest in the middle of the desert invited him into her limo and gave him a chat about his love life; can you say super awkward – wait. He stops, marveling at this new bit of the past. Can he actually remember that? No way. He definitely recalls holding up the mirror for her flawless face. And her giggling, which sounds exactly like Tyra's. Or maybe the proper way to think about it is that Tyra's giggles sound exactly like Aphrodite's. But why would Aphrodite ever care about what happened to him? His memory isn't that great yet, but he's almost one hundred percent sure he was not a son of Aphrodite. Makes a face. Definitely not. His fashion sense is proof enough of that.
"You know, it's funny that we're even here talking about this," Jefferson says conversationally. "You almost never would've made it here."
"What do you mean?" Percy says cautiously. Why can't they just tell him what's up with his past life? How much easier would it be! This cryptic shit is really starting to piss him off. Also, he'd like to know where he's going instead of this drawn-out business. That would be kind of nice. Percy gets the sneaking suspicion that judging usually doesn't last this long, but they're enjoying having him here. Which freaks him out even more, because he still doesn't know why he was so important or whatever.
"You could've been immortal," Tyra bursts out. "You could've been a god."
"Do you even know how often the gods make that kind of offer?" Jo demands, her words like little punches.
"No?" Percy says. "But I have a feeling you're about to tell me anyway."
"Centuries! A millennia, even. I think you were the last, because the gods couldn't deal with another demigod turning down the offer."
"Wait. Hold on for a second. So you're telling me I was offered immortality? And I turned it down?" Percy can hardly believe his ears. "Is that what you're saying?"
"Well, essentially, yes," Jefferson says. "Part of the reason for your notoriety. Not many demigods reject the offer of immortality. Actually, none except for you." He tips his spectacles down. "You really don't remember anything yet?"
Percy shakes his head mutely.
"Hmm. I thought that would almost certainly spark your memory. You're supposed to remember the big things first, you know, and that seems like something you could pick up quickly. Ah, well. I suppose it will happen when it happens. Seems like that's your style, anyway."
"Right," Percy says. "Okay." The judges stare at him as if waiting for him to do a backflip or something. He shifts uncomfortably on his feet. "Are you going to let me go now? Or am I not allowed to leave until I remember something?"
"You have a choice," Jefferson says. "You can either choose to remember or to discard your past memories. For some people, it's easier to forget. Oedipus, for example. There are some heroes who for one reason or another, come here with too much pain and too much suffering. For them, it is easier to start anew. Although, I should tell you, this is a privilege offered only to certain people. People who are granted the Isles of the Blest."
For once, the other two fall silent. Jefferson gestures to Jo, who produces a scroll, her expression unreadable. "You have come a long way, hero. It is finally time for you to rest."
He takes the scroll, which welcomes him to the Isles, and even he feels a sense of awe. He has been waiting for this. He's not sure for how long or what trials it took to get here, but a deep calmness settles upon him, like the ocean after a storm. And when he says thank you, he really means it.
Yet somehow, he can't shake the feeling that something is missing. Then it dawns on him.
"I'm waiting for someone," he tells the judges.
Gently, Tyra leans in, breathing a tiny sigh. "No, Percy. Someone is waiting for you."
Luke holds her as she cries softly. She feels as if she might burst.
"You have to take the bad with the good," he says. "It's okay. Everything is going to be okay."
All of the bad things, the terrible things, crowd her head, forcing her to think about them. Three lifetimes worth of loneliness, betrayal, and heartache insist on being remembered, and she has to remember them.
"Everyone warns you about this part if you choose to keep your memories, but nobody can show you how awful it feels." Luke rubs her shoulders, wipes away her tears.
"My father left me alone in a grocery store," she says in a small voice. "It took him five hours to come back. A monster broke my leg, and I had to drag myself under a dumpster to escape." She looks at him. "I lost a child." She shivers. "Once, I died alone."
He has nothing to say to her, because nothing he says can make the hurts of a past life go away. It's a curse, but nothing can be sweet without the contrast of something bitter. It might have taken three lifetimes to learn it. That's why the Isles are a special place. But for now, Annabeth draws the little hurts to her and lets them sink into her heart.
The rainstorm rolls away and leaves drops of water behind that shine like tiny crystals. Luke shakes out his umbrella. Beside them, a daffodil plant blooms spontaneously. Somewhere inside, all of the loose parts settle into place – the bad, the good, and everything in between, for all three lives. She wants to laugh. Of course, here at the end of things, she would be the one who was waiting. He was always late. "You're right," she says eventually. "It's okay. Once, I watched someone die, but before I did, I made him promise to find me."
Beside her, she hears Luke inhale, and she squeezes his hand. "Don't worry," he says quietly. "He doesn't break his promises."
Annabeth smiles and lets the wind dry her tears. "I know. I'm glad."
Percy leaves the judges and sets out on the path to the Isles. Ahead, there is sunlight. The path winds down and down the hill until it reaches golden gates and through the bars, far away, he can see the most amazing architecture, which he knows someone there probably appreciates a lot.
There's so much he wants to tell her, it's almost impossible to wait. He doesn't know what he will say, and irrationally, he's sort of worried about botching up the first meeting. He does that a lot. This is actually his last chance to do it right. He probably won't though, because that's just how they are. Messy, argumentative, ridiculous, and completely haphazard. It's not bad, he thinks. It hasn't been bad at all.
For once, they might have gotten lucky. But who knows? He has really been lucky all along, if he looks at it in the right light. A long time ago – an extremely long time ago – she gave him a kiss for luck.
Annabeth has been his good luck charm all along.
He puts his hand on the gates. They swing open silently.
This is it. Somewhere out there, she is waiting, and finally – finally – he is here.
Author's note: Thanks for all the reviews. It's been a long ride.