Percy is ten the first time death crosses his mind.
Oh, he knows the basics. Knows the whole Christian thing, though his mom isn’t a big churchgoer, and has a pretty good idea of what Buddhists believe, thanks to Mrs Twenty-Nine Downstairs.
But the first time he really thinks about death, thinks about it long and hard and everything it might entail, is when he’s ten and sitting in his room in the darkness. The bruises on his arms form a pretty constellation in varying shades of blue and brown. A couple of them, the really sore ones, have a nasty yellow tinge to them.
Each little imprint is a piece of Gabe.
There are some from a poker night that Percy ‘ruined’, when Sally was working a double shift and it wasn’t his fault the stupid meatloaf was burnt on top. Some from not passing a beer quickly enough or passing it too quickly, for looking at Gabe funny or getting too near his wallet for the big man’s liking. For trying to sneak a slice of pizza, when he hadn’t eaten all day.
And the ones from tonight, the ones that don’t yet show up in this kaleidoscope of pain? Well, Gabe should’ve known better than to come at Percy’s mom like that.
Laughter forces its way under the gap between the door and the floorboard, through the plaster that’s cracking at the ceiling. It’s poker night - again - and Percy sits and thinks about how life could be if Gabe wasn’t here.
Not ‘out at the appliance shop’ not here. Not ‘away for the weekend’ not here.
Forever, not here.
‘Not here’ in a way that he can’t ever come back, can’t ever grab hold of the Jacksons again and force himself into their lives. Isn’t able to come back, because Gabe’ll never let them go willingly. Percy, maybe - Percy’s got too many bruises to think his stepfather harbours any affection for him. But Sally? Never. And where Sally goes, Percy goes.
So he sits and he thinks about all the things that might go wrong. A heart attack, after a lifetime of eating grease and drinking beer. A freak accident at the appliance store, like a fridge falling on him. A piano falling from a window or a cab out of control or -
And then he stops, heart racing and short of breath. Footsteps come down the hall and pause outside his door, and something misshapen is slipped through the gap at the bottom.
Percy knows what it is without having to move. A blue cookie, wrapped in kitchen towel. His mom’s favourite colour, so his by extension; the little love language they’ve developed that Gabe can’t speak.
Percy is ten when he sits in the darkness, munching on a cookie that matches his mottled arms, and he stops thinking of ways to get rid of Gabe.
With his luck, they’d all be traced back to him, anyway.
At twelve, Percy’s come closer to death than any pre-teen should have to, both figuratively and literally. His life, he now thinks, is divided in two: a brief prologue that ends with a field trip to the Met and the rest of the story, which begins with vaporising his geometry teacher.
Since then, he’s been on exploding buses and fought a Minotaur, travelled cross-country, killed Medusa, mouthed off to the king and queen of the Underworld, and bested the god of war.
At twelve, there’s a ball of anger in his stomach that he can’t quite identify, wrapped up in sorrow he’s too young to know. He’s the product of a broken promise, a broken system that leaves too many kids in the Hermes cabin. He sits alone at the Poseidon table and goes to bed alone in Cabin 3, wishing he didn’t but hoping it stays that way.
At twelve, he’s already tired. He’s the royal flush Zeus brought out for his own gain, the prize target for gods and monsters alike (and maybe they are alike, when both lay traps for the kids sent in their direction). He’s too naive yet for Luke’s words to really sink in, but this poison is patient. They’ll lie in wait for him, hovering around the edges of his mind until Percy’s world of black and white is diffused with shades of grey.
At twelve, Percy can wield a sword and death is no longer an abstract concept. So he feels little compunction in leaving a head in a box in his mom’s hands.
The next time he goes home, Gabe is gone. Forever, gone.
And who’d link a concrete statue back to him?
Sleep comes in fits and starts.
In dreams Percy sees visions of the past and present, Daedalus’ sins and Kronos’ whispers and Annabeth holding the weight of the world. His head hits the pillow and he wakes seconds later, only to find hours have passed and he’s more exhausted than he was the night before.
And that’s to say nothing of the images his brain creates itself, images as terrifying as the visions.
Images of Grover trapped underground and Tyson being pummelled by Briares; the Camp set ablaze and his powers failing him, Riptide forever out of reach.
Of Paul Blofis learning the truth about him and walking out of their lives, never coming back.
Of a certain stench wafting its way through his mom’s apartment, except it’s a double shift night and Gabe’s on a losing streak, and Camp Half-Blood is nothing more than the escape Percy made up in the darkness when the cookies were gone and the bruises throbbed.
Of Annabeth, kneeling before the gods and rising with a silver circlet on her head, the new Lieutenant of the Hunt. Young and beautiful and forever.
True sleep - dreamless, painless, restorative slumber - comes in minute-long bursts and Percy wakes every morning with the dawn.
He rises to train again, to sacrifice foods to gods who give nothing back, to play war games with children who toss and turn at night as he does.
He’s bone weary.
Rachel Elizabeth Dare bursts into his life and for a while, Percy starts seeing in technicolour.
Rachel, with her bright red hair and her bright blue hairbrush and bright green eyes.
Rachel, with her paint-splattered clothes and cocky smile, who doesn’t beat around the bush or roll her eyes and say, “you know what? Forget it.”
Rachel, who - despite the clear-sightedness that makes her a modern day Ariadne - is so utterly human.
She’s never had to worry about falling off the climbing wall into the lava pool below. Never been chased by monsters or been turned into a guinea pig, never been swallowed by Charybdis or held the sky aloft. Never buried a friend.
And it’s amazing.
She’s got more money than she knows what to do with and Percy knows exactly how to save his pocketful of dollars. They sneak candy into movie theatres and leave halfway through when they get bored. They shop at the Salvation Army for clothes for Rachel to paint in or dress up as a statue in or just to annoy her parents in. They sing along to the radio at the tops of their voices as Percy inches Paul’s Prius along the boardwalk and the sun sets on their melting ice cream.
They spend a summer not talking about what makes Rachel human and Percy only half so, and it’s the best summer Percy can remember for a long time.
Until Blackjack lands on the hood of his car.
At fifteen, death is a dullness that’s settled like a rock in Percy’s stomach.
Maybe that’s what happens, when you’re fated to die young and your best friend and teacher have known it for years. When what matters is whether you save the world or destroy it, and the fact of your existence is just a stepping stone in between.
He’s leading a gang of teenagers into battle in New York and drakon poison has just melted the skin of a daughter of Aphrodite. Michael Yew disappeared on the Williamsburg Bridge, his bow the only sign he ever existed.
And that’s to say nothing of the friends lost along the way.
Bianca, who’d barely started living. Zoe, daughter of Titans and saviour of demigods. Lee Fletcher and Castor and Beckendorf and Nico…
Nico, who isn't dead but the child of death, the ghost king feeding happy meals to the earth to resurrect his sister, the girl Percy promised to protect.
Nico, who threw away his trading cards and figurines, little symbols of childhood, when everyone but Bianca returned.
Another little death on Percy’s shoulders. He’s not sure how many more of them he can bear.
He lets Nico talk him into bathing in the Styx but it’s easier than Percy would like to admit. On the surface, it’s logical. It’s playing Luke at his own game, levelling up instead of levelling out. After all, it’s going to take more than destroying some plumbing to beat the Titans.
But beneath the bravado is a little bit of selfishness. Everyone’s chances of getting out of this mess alive have to go be higher when their camp leader is invulnerable. How can the hero of the Great Prophecy die when he walks into battle unguarded and no blade can pierce his skin? And if the end result is one less child-sized shroud to burn, one less name Percy won’t have to remember forever - well, he’ll take the Styx any day if it means feeling it all a little less and not waking in the morning to think he could have done more.
So Percy throws himself into battle with abandon, rallying fighters and blitzing hellhounds. Nothing touches him or his campers, and he wonders briefly if this is how the gods feel, invincible and alive to a million possibilities.
With the curse of Achilles, he’s invulnerable and it takes Annabeth to remind him that he’s not, to bring him once again to the brink of death. Annabeth, who hadn’t even known about his tethering spot, who jumped in front of a knife because he’d set himself on fire to give her more time.
Annabeth, who reminds him that he’s human, when the Styx and the golden blood in his veins had started to make him think he was something more.
In a chintzy room in the Plaza Hotel, her rasping breaths bring Percy smack back to reality. She’s paler than he’s ever seen her, the silver streak in her hair caught by the lamp light. Matching souvenirs from Atlas, proof that once they were all that stood between the heavens and the earth.
Not gods, but so much more.
Death has never seemed closer and this is what the gods forget. They bleed ichor and fade over millennia, kept alive by the children they abandon and held hostage by their anger. They forget that lives are measured in minutes and friends, in dam inside jokes and cheeseburgers at midnight, pictures printed and carried in binders.
In the plush lighting of an expensive hotel, it’s not death that Percy fears. It’s what happens after, when you try to go on when your anchor is lost.
Death and lost hope come closer to killing Percy than any monster ever has.
At sixteen, he stands in ruined clothes over the ruined body of a half-blood, and death hurts with every breath, a thousand jagged cuts that run red with anger at the gods who let this happen.
The twelve Olympians are in favour of making Percy a god, and he turns them down for a smile from Annabeth.
There’s more he wants to do with his life, he tells them; more that can be done with it. He extracts from them a raft of promises because the alternative is knowing that Luke and Ethan will have lived and died for nothing. He tells Hermes that he believes the gods can do better, that they too can change.
He doesn’t tell him that he thinks of godhood as a kind of stasis, that he’s caught between fascination and fear at the thought of giving up the mantle he’s been carrying for four years and existing outside of it all.
Doesn’t confide that his Achilles curse is the closest he wants to come to immortality, and yet isn’t close enough. That Luke’s words from all those summers ago are ringing in his head as he looks at the fallen campers being taken for burial and the gods worried about the state of their thrones. That it might be harder to pick a side the next time the Age of the Gods is challenged.
So for now, he’ll take a smile from his best friend and blue lights at the top of the Empire State Building, and leave the philosophical questions for another day.
Do gods dream, too? Do they feel death like he does?
Sleep, for once, comes easily that night, tucked up in Cabin Three with the remnants of Annabeth’s chapstick on his lips.
If death is not being, then Percy’s dead three times over.
The first time in Mount St Helens, when the water in his blood couldn’t cool the lava fast enough and burning alive was pain beyond imagining. When he’d given in to his powers and called the land and sea to him, claiming his heritage as Earthshaker and Stormbringer.
The next in the Underworld, when he’d put his faith in the teenage ghost king and waded into the Styx. If he’d been rent apart in Mount St Helens, in the river he’d bled out, his very essence leaking into waters of misery - until Annabeth rose in his mind and he clawed his way back to humanity.
The third time in a cave in California, when ‘Percy Jackson’ is an unfamiliar name on his tongue and a wolf is teaching him the ways of Rome, Camp Half-Blood a world away.
And each time, Percy comes back stronger and better, a thorn in the side of whichever immortal being is trying to destroy him this time.
He doesn’t fear death or the gods.
They should fear him.
The descent into Tartarus is endless.
Percy and Annabeth are wrapped so tightly around each other, you’d be hard pressed in the darkness to know where he ended and she began.
Down, down, down, clasping hands and whispering soft words in each other’s ears.
I love you.
Prayers to each other and not the gods who sent them on their way.
They tumble down until the Cocytus is in sight, their only hope of a safe landing, regardless of what comes next. The River of Lamentation cushions their fall and in the pits of misery, Percy knows he’d do it again for Annabeth, would follow her without question.
What choice did I have?
They walk on shards of glass and suffocate in poison, and persuade Bob to stab his own brother for them.
Still, it’s all bearable until they meet the Arai and suddenly consequences have voices and last thoughts and curses for the demigods who bested them.
One from Calypso, abandoned on her island by the boy who’d seemed different from the rest.
One from Polyphemus, with Nobody suffering as he did.
Annabeth’s pain drives a wildness in Percy.
Stab wounds from Geryon and fire from the telekhines and Phineas’ curse build until he’s on his knees, brought down by those he’s conquered in the name of the gods, and his best hope is the Titan he once betrayed.
What choice did I have?
In the Mansion of Night, Percy tortures a goddess, borne of the urge to make someone know what his suffering feels like and the knowledge that he can do it.
And it feels good.
It feels like the release of every pent-up emotion Percy has about being made a killer at the age of twelve, about being the child of a prophecy twice over, about saving the world and seeing the gods so casually disregard the sacrifices made for their salvation.
It feels like invulnerability, like the night when he laughed as Kronos’ forces came at him in endless waves and his sword was a scythe cutting through their ranks.
It feels horrendous, when he catches Annabeth’s eye again and she reminds him that some powers aren’t meant to be tested, some limits not meant to be pushed.
What choice did I have?
In hell, his hand finds Annabeth’s, bony and blistered. If he's gained anything in this gods-forsaken hellhole, it's the knowledge that they’re only human, not meant to be gods.
What he's lost doesn't bear thinking about.
What choice did I have?
The Doors of Death carry them out through Tartarus and deposit them straight back into battle, a fight they never asked to be a part of.
Gods, it’s exhausting trying to survive.
The Argo travels onwards to Athens, humming with plans and unasked questions and unwanted answers. Above the ship, stars stay silent and Percy makes good on his promise to Bob, the greater good in all of this mess.
He’s running out of excuses for the Olympians.