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Percy is two when his mother first explains colors to him.

They’re in Montauk, on the beach, and she says, “Oh, Percy, the ocean is almost as green as your eyes today.”

She smiles at him fondly when he looks up at her curiously, running a hand through his hair. “I wish you could see it.”

“Green?” he asks her, wrinkling his nose.

“Green,” she confirms, nodding. Then she kneels down in the sand and picks up a seashell, turning it over in her hand, before giving it to him. “It’s a color.”

“Color,” he repeats, frowning. He has heard the word before, but he doesn’t understand what it means.

“See the shell, Percy?” she asks, crouching next to him and running her finger along the edge. “See how it gets light, down here, but turns darker, up here?”

He nods in bewilderment, and turns to her for an explanation. She laughs at his expression. “You see it in gray. Lights and darks. But I see it in colors. Different shades, different tones.”

“I don’t get it,” he says, and his mother’s smile turns different: a little wistful, a little fond, a little sad around the edges.

“You will one day,” she whispers. “One day, you’ll meet someone who makes the whole world a little brighter, and you’ll see colors.”

Percy still doesn’t understand, but it’s okay. There’s lots of things he doesn’t understand, and lots of things he needs to learn. For now, he tucks the knowledge away, holding it close to his chest, knowing even then, that it was important, somehow.

As Percy grows, he becomes utterly, completely enthralled with colors. There is a whole world at his fingertips—just out of sight, and he won’t be able to see it until he finds his soulmate, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Still, he can feel the colors simmering under his skin, just waiting to burst to life once he meets that special person.

His mother explains it like this: one day, someone walks into your life and makes you see a whole new world of potential that you never would have imagined before. She makes sure to tell him that he doesn’t need a soulmate, that he has everything he needs inside him already; that he’s not incomplete without a soulmate, it’s just that having them makes everything more, somehow. There are exceptions, she says. Some people can find colors on their own, without a soulmate. Some people have more than one soulmate. It’s nearly always romantic, but it doesn’t have to be, if you don’t want it to be. Being soulmates doesn’t mean everything magically works out, she warns, and he knows that, because it didn’t for his parents. Sometimes there are uneven matches and sometimes there are deaths and sometimes there are people who are just unwilling to make the necessary sacrifices for a relationship.

She doesn’t talk about her own soulmate much, but somehow, he knows she met him on the beach—his father. He couldn’t stay, she explains. Lost at sea, she would say. He doesn’t understand how his father could find his soulmate and decide to just leave her, much less how anyone could decide to leave his mother behind, soulmate or not. It’s his loss, Percy decides eventually.

Percy doesn’t know which type of match it will be, for him, but he knows what he hopes it will be. He hears the boys in his class talking about it in the locker room—telling stories about how they know people who got stuck with another boy for a soulmate, listing off requirements of what the girl of their dreams will have to be like, teasing each other that their soulmates will be ugly and won’t put out. Horror stories and rumors spread around—someone’s sister whose soulmate died before they met, someone’s cousin who got colors randomly one day doesn’t know who gave them to her, somebody’s great aunt whose soulmate was already colorbonded with somebody else, somebody’s friend’s nephew who met their soulmate because they hit them with a car and accidentally killed them. There’s the other kind that goes around too; the good kind—like kids who grow up with their soulmates, or people who are born with colors, or some new technology that can find your soulmate for you. Most kids his age spend their time fussing and squealing about their soulmates. Percy doesn’t have any interest in these conversations, though. He never had a desire to put his soulmate in a box—that only leaves room for them to be disappointing. He doesn’t worry about gender, or looks, or even personality—he just hopes that whoever it is will click with him, the way that it always does in the movies, the way adults always talk about.

It’s not that Percy doesn’t care to find his soulmate; it’s just that he can’t find it in himself to worry about it. So many people have a list of requirements and a list of turn-offs, and panic over which cocktail of those traits their soulmate will have. There’s excitement leading up to finding your soulmate, but also a fair mix of terror that they won’t be what you hoped. Percy thinks this is completely stupid, though, because they wouldn’t be your match if they weren’t right for you. All relationships take work, of course, but the point is that your soulmate is the best possible person suited to being with you. If you have to stick your nose to the grindstone and struggle through a miserable relationship, then you aren’t soulmates. If you don’t like sex, then your soulmate is the most likely person to respect that. If you don’t want a romantic relationship, then you’re obviously not going to be paired with a hopeless romantic, because they wouldn’t be the right person for you. If you’re only attracted to one gender, then of course your soulmate will be that gender, otherwise they wouldn’t be your soulmate. After all, how can you share a piece of someone’s soul if you don’t want the same things and love the same way and understand them in a way that the rest of the world doesn’t? Hardly anyone else thinks of it in these terms, and Percy mostly sees it as a big waste.

More than that, Percy wants colors. He spends hours trying to understand what they might look like, urging his mother to explain. She tries her best, but he has a feeling it’s not the sort of thing that can be put into words. His teachers say that it’s kind of like learning to read—how when you’re little, you’ll see strings of letters but can’t make sense of them, and then one day, you can’t see a word without reading it. Percy doesn’t like this comparison, because reading was so difficult for him to learn, and he still struggles with it, and he really hopes that seeing colors won’t be that hard. His mother tells him that explaining a color is as hard as explaining a sound, but not to worry, because when he sees colors for the first time, he will know. Percy is insatiable, though, and his mother tries her best to satisfy his curiosity.

“You know, green was the first color I ever saw,” she tells him one night, while tucking him in. “Sea green, like your eyes. Like your father’s eyes. It’s been my favorite ever since then.”

“But what does it look like?” he demands.

His mother purses her lips, considering. “It depends on the shade. It can be sweet and fresh, like the smell of grass covered with dew in the morning, or the taste of mint, or the snap of a cucumber. It can be warm and soft, like the feel of sunbaked dirt between your fingers, or a gentle spring breeze. Or, it can be salty and cool, like the ocean.”

He smiles at the wordy description. “You should write that in a book.”

She looks down, embarrassed. “Maybe someday.”

After that, he asks her constantly to describe the colors. No one else can do it the right way. Red is hot and passionate, she tells him. It feels like the pull of excitement in your chest, it feels like anger, it feels like love. Orange is fun and quirky—it can be muted and soft, like the edges of a sunset, or wild and tangy, like a burst of citrus, or warm and homey, like a campfire. She says that yellow can be bright and fun like orange, or it can be even more gentle, like melting butter and the first rays of sunlight through the blinds, or the first breeze of springtime.

She spends the longest time trying to explain blue to him, before they get interrupted by Gabe. She’s going through the refrigerator, picking out the different colors of the foods, when he makes an offhanded comment under his breath that Percy doesn’t really catch. Her spine straightens and she whips her head around, like he’s personally offended her.

“Sorry, what was that?” she asks politely, but he can hear the steel underneath.

Gabe merely shrugs lazily and rolls his eyes. “It’s stupid. The kid can’t even see colors. Anyway, food can’t be blue.”

“How would you know?” Percy says snappishly. “You can’t see colors either.”

Gabe’s eyes narrow and his features twist into an even nastier scowl, but before he has time to respond, Percy’s mother grabs his arm and announces that they are going to the supermarket.

The rule, she tells him, is that they are only allowed to buy blue things until Gabe apologizes. Percy tells her that isn’t going to happen, but she only gets a playful twinkle in her eyes.

“Blue can be cool,” she tells him, grabbing a package of blueberries. “Like ice. It can make you feel cold all over.”

She pushes the cart down the candy aisle, stopping every so often to pick out blue gummies. “It can be smooth and steady, like the sky. Or, it can be refreshing, like when you dive into a pool. It can be deep and mysterious, like the bottom of the ocean. It can make a bold statement, like the edges of a gemstone,” she continues, pulling a package of food coloring off the shelf and dropping it into the cart. “It can feel like an ocean breeze. It can feel like rocking in the water out at sea. It can be bright and pretty, like the blue of some people’s eyes. It can be soft and chilly and sometimes a little sad, like waking up in the middle of the night and seeing the moonlight across your bed, or looking up at the night sky and suddenly feeling very small.”

As they’re checking out, she says, “It can be consistent, steady as a compass needle. But you should never underestimate it, because it’s very strong.”

When he sees the firm set of his mother’s jaw, the gleam in her eyes when she unpacks the grocery bags in front of Gabe, the strong set of her shoulders while she puts the food away, he decides that blue is his favorite color.

He carries his mother’s words with him everywhere he goes. It makes him feel like he has a special secret, like even though he can’t see the colors yet, he’s still far ahead of everyone else his age. He would never discuss it with anyone other than his mother—it seems too personal, too intimate to share aloud.

When she sends him off to boarding school, she buys him a copy of Spectra Color Key. He keeps it well-hidden from everyone at school, because usually the only people who buy it have recently colorbonded with their soulmate. It’s a total cliché—the newly found soulmates will wander around arm and arm, pointing out different colors and matching them to the swatches in the book. The book isn’t even really necessary now, since Google exists and you could just ask people what the name of the color is anyway, but it’s such a cultural staple that everyone owns one anyway. It’s traditional to buy one for your soulmate, once you’ve colorbonded. It gets updated with new shades and alternative names for the hues constantly, and there’s about a thousand different versions to choose from—some focus on just one color, some have scientific explanations, and there’s all different languages and different editions.

Percy’s is the original, or at least the most recent version of the “original.” His mother writes him notes under the swatches, explaining how the different colors feel and doing her best to describe what they look like. All he can see is monochrome, but he loves looking at it anyway. When he gets stressed, he pages through it, running his fingers across the various shades of gray, imagining what it will be like to see it bursting with color, one day.

When he wakes up at Camp Half-Blood, Percy is happy that he doesn’t have colors for the first time in his life. His mother is gone, and if Percy never lives to see a single color in his lifetime, then it will make sense, because he cannot imagine witnessing a beautiful world if she is not in it. Grover retrieved Percy’s copy of Spectra Color Key from the wreckage, but Percy doesn’t need that to tell him that his feelings are ranging from dull, bland gray to thick, weary black.

Honestly, he shouldn’t be so surprised that his father is a god. He can tell that Chiron and Annabeth are skeptical that his parents were really soulmates, and honestly, Percy can’t explain. He doesn’t know how colorbonding works with gods, but he knows beyond a doubt that his parents were a match. He wishes his mother was here, so he could ask her about it, but it’s just one of the many things that she took with her.

He muddles his way through his first week at camp, everything a smudge of monochrome. He’s grateful that he can’t see the red of his blood when Clarisse slices his arm open, or the bright lava of the climbing wall. He’s relieved that he can’t make out the flare of the campfire, because he doesn’t think he could stand seeing it so ablaze with life and color. Most of all, he’s happy that he can’t see the glow from the trident over his head when his father claims him.

Still, by the end of the week, it seems a shame that he can’t witness Camp Half-Blood in all its glory. He has a feeling that all the colors are brighter here, bursting with life. He only wishes he could show it to his mother; she would be able to describe them all. He takes up adding notes of his own into Spectra Color Key, and it feels like he’s keeping her with him, keeping her alive. The t-shirts at Camp Half-Blood, he writes, underneath the section of hues labeled, “bright orange.” The smell of the strawberry fields in the sun, he writes in the “red” section. Thalia’s bravery and her commitment to her friends, he puts under “evergreen.” He flips to the swatch labeled “red wine” and writes Dionysus, underneath where his mother had written sour grapes.

He wishes desperately that there was someone he could ask about the colors, but it’s left up to his imagination. His cabin must be blue and green, like the ocean. It makes him think about how his mother had described it—a kaleidoscope of colors, changing with the waves and the reflection of the sunlight, and the mood of the weather. The walls are some kind of glassy, patterned shell that must be breathtaking in color—he imagines it must be psychedelic, the way his mother described an opal, or the fragments of a rainbow through a prism. He would bet that the hills are the brightest shade of grassy green, and the sky is always a perfect sky blue. He wonders what the other cabins look like—if Ares is a garish red (hot anger, argumentative), and if Athena is a royal purple (mysterious and wise, with the coolness of blue and the passion of red), and if Zeus is navy (regal but also subdued, tasteful, imposing like a thunderstorm on the horizon).

Annabeth catches him flipping through it one day when he’s supposed to be listening to her prattle on about Greek letters. She stops midsentence, and her eyes go wide.

“You see colors?” she whispers reverently.

“No,” he says abruptly, slamming the book shut.

She raises an eyebrow. “Well then why—”

“It was my mother’s,” he snaps, which isn’t exactly true, but it might as well be. He can’t explain it to Annabeth, anyway. She wouldn’t understand. Anyway, it gets her to drop the subject, which he is immensely grateful for.

She doesn’t bring it up again until they’re stuck in the back of some smelly zoo truck on the way to Vegas, staring at a bunch of abused animals, courtesy of Ares. He still doesn’t feel like telling her, but he figures he might as well, since she just told him the ugly details of her past, and he probably owes her something in return.

“My mother bought it for me a while ago,” he says carefully. He didn’t bring his copy with him on the quest, because he couldn’t bear to see something happen to it. He’s itched a few times to write something down in it, but he’s grateful for the decision, since it probably would have been destroyed six or seven times over by now. “I’ve always wanted to see colors. And she… she always wanted to be a writer. She loved trying to describe the colors, and I loved listening. So she started writing them down for me, and I sort of picked up the habit.”

Annabeth seems intrigued. “How do you describe a color? Especially if you’ve never seen one before?”

He shrugs. “Feelings. Experiences. The other senses. It’s not easy to do, but my mother always had a way with words.”

“Oh,” she says softly, still picking half-heartedly at the Oreo in her hand. “So you like… really believe in that stuff.”

He raises an eyebrow. “What’s not to believe in?”

She shrugs, looking uncomfortable. “Well, I mean, it’s kind of dumb, isn’t it? How do we actually know that meeting your soulmate makes you see color for the first time? And how can you tell if your soulmate is actually your real match? And even if we did all see in gray, would that really be so bad?”

Her opinions are not unpopular. There are some people who are very vocal about not needing, or wanting, to see in color. There have been movements that encourage people to stop looking for their soulmate, or to walk out on them, because it’s a society-fueled lie that you can only be happy with your divine match. There are monochromat couples and activists, who formed to challenge the notion that you’re an incomplete person without your soulmate, and argue that you don’t need them to have a fulfilling life. Lately, society has been generally pessimistic about soulmates. Some of it is good, like encouraging people to have relationships before colorbonding, reminding everyone that not all soulmates need to be sexual and romantic and there are some people who don’t have soulmates at all, promoting the idea that your life doesn’t have to revolve entirely around your soulmate, and insisting that you have no obligations to your soulmate. It’s certainly better from a couple decades ago, when you were basically expected to scour the globe for your soulmate, and marry them as soon as possible once you’d found them. Ultimately, the movement has been a good thing, but it has the unfortunate side effect of minimizing all the really great things about soulmates.

“My mother always said that that’s the wrong way to think about it,” Percy says eventually. “Soulmates and colors aren’t something you need, and you don’t even have to want them. It’s not like your divine mate is just going to drop from the sky, and you have to spend the rest of your life with them, just because they give you colors.”

“Well then what is the point?” she says, sounding on the edge of frustration. “And why is everyone so obsessed with it?”

“The point is that when you do find your soulmate, you would love them anyway, even without the dramatic colors, because you’re perfect for each other,” he says, thinking of how passionate his mother sounded when she described it. “The point is that somebody else’s soul is completely compatible with your own, and when you finally find them, you know that they understand you better than anyone else in the whole world. There’s somebody out there who gets it, even those weird feelings that you can’t put into words and the things you don’t want to tell anyone about. The point is that you’re better together, even if you were both fine when you were apart.”

Annabeth studies him in the poorly lit truck. He can’t decipher her expression, but it’s intimidating. He suddenly realizes how deep and romantic all of that sounded, and feels a flush of embarrassment.

“That makes sense,” she says softly, and they let the subject drop after that.

Sometimes, though, Annabeth will ask him to describe a color for her. Hesitantly and self-consciously, at first, but with increasing boldness when he doesn’t mock her and answers seriously. Annabeth, in turn, takes it upon herself to explain the scientific logistics of colorbonding, which is actually fascinating if he can find it in himself to pay attention. It’s something super technical about a stream of hormones and endorphins triggered by your soulmate that unlock a section of the  brain that connects to the optic nerve—it makes more sense when she says it, but he gets the general idea well enough. The exchange of information becomes something of a game, between them. They share different opinions of what the colors might look like, and she’ll rattle of an interesting fact. She says her favorite is purple, and he tells her it definitely suits her. It’s really hard to sort Annabeth into a category, but purple comes the closest (mysterious and wise, with the coolness of blue and the passion of red). They use colors for compliments, and colors for insults, and colors to describe moods and emotions and ideas, almost like their own language. They’re still young enough that they can do things like that without it being weird—just on the edge before all the romantic nonsense and the hormones kick in full swing. Percy grew up speaking this language with his mother, and Annabeth’s a fast learner. It works well when they need to communicate while other people are listening.

The rest of the summer is a blur, but everything doesn’t feel quite so gray anymore. He has genuine friends for practically the first time in his life, and his mother is alive again, and his horrible stepfather is out of his life. When he sees his mother again, there’s a tremendous black weight lifted off his shoulders, and even in the grayscale, he can register that the world gets much brighter. He finally feels at peace with the world, like this is where he was born to be. That’s the point of Camp Half-Blood, he supposes: an in-between, for kids like him, who don’t quite fit in either world.

It’s also the summer when he meets his father for the first time. He’s still not sure how he feels about it, even by the end of the summer. “Your mother is a queen among women,” he’d said, which Percy is inclined to agree with. “For eons I have lived, but she opened my eyes to things I have never seen before. Colors I have never seen before.” Annabeth has told him that gods don’t colorbond, especially not with mortals, and are born with colors, but the phrasing was so deliberate that Percy knows he meant it. Maybe his mother is some kind of divine color that only gods can see. He would believe it.

Grover sets off on his search for Pan in July, which is surreal.

“Stay green for us, yeah?” Annabeth says. Satyrs see colors—an important aspect of appreciating nature in all its glory, Grover claims—so Grover really doesn’t understand the point of their game, but he nods like he understands on a spiritual level, and maybe he does.

The summer comes full circle, and ending almost as terribly as it began. He almost dies, again, and wakes up to Annabeth, again.

“You idiot,” she says, looking exasperated but also relieved. He makes some kind of self-derogatory comment and she rolls her eyes, and then Annabeth suddenly pulls her head back sharply and blinks a few times.

“What?” he asks her.

“Nothing,” she says, frowning in confusion. “I just thought I saw something, but it’s nothing.”

“Okay,” he concedes, too exhausted to press further.

He explains to them about Luke, and although they’re devastated, neither one of them looks particularly surprised. Go figure; that sends a crystal clear message about the kind of person Luke is, if people who love him are so ready to believe that he’s a traitor.

He and Annabeth both go home for the schoolyear, with a promise that they’ll track down Luke and get to the bottom of this mess next summer.

“Don’t do anything too firetruck red,” she tells him warningly. He promises not to, as long as she doesn’t get any more ice blue.

Leaving Camp Half-Blood feels a little bit blue (sad, like waking up in the middle of the night and seeing the moonlight across your bed, or looking up at the night sky and suddenly feeling very small), but he feels the (red) pull of excitement in his chest at the thought of living in a new apartment with his mother, and a (yellow) throb of hope in his chest, daring to think that maybe, everything will work out just fine.

Percy doesn’t need colors to tell him how sick Thalia’s tree is. It hurts terribly, seeing the pine needles in such a pathetic pile around the base, like they just couldn’t find the strength to hold on anymore. He imagines the poison as an unnatural neon color (acidic, a sharp burst, but without the excitement and anticipation part). He writes sickly, like Thalia’s dying tree and the failing borders underneath one of the pages of “brown.”

He spends a lot of time thinking about Thalia, that summer. It would be impossible not to, really. He remembers what he’d written about her under “evergreen,” and thinks it’s desperately sad that her tribute is being dishonored. He can’t imagine how awful Annabeth must feel about it.

He finds himself thinking about Annabeth’s promise last summer—that they would ask for a quest to find Luke, and go anyway if they didn’t get permission. That ends up being exactly what they do—it’s not as though they have much of a choice. They set of with gifts from Hermes and the backs of the hippocampi. Tyson names his Rainbow, and Percy tries not to feel too bitter that he can’t see it.

The quest is successful, in the end. He lost Grover and he loses Tyson and he comes close to losing Annabeth, but they’re all, amazingly, fine. It seems a shame that they can’t see Polyphemus’ island in full color, because it must be breathtaking. The colors look more saturated, even on the grayscale. Grover, on the other hand, shudders and tells him he should count himself lucky that he can’t see Polyphemus’ baby blue tuxedo. He makes a mental note to write down healing under “gold” once he lays eyes on the Golden Fleece. It’s strange, because he’s pretty sure that Kronos’ sarcophagus is gold, too, but its aura is totally opposite of the fleece. It fills him with frigid dread. He wonders how the same color can represent healing and utter destruction.

“You’re a genius,” he whispers into Annabeth’s ear after she falls asleep on the neck of the hippocampus.

He falls asleep on Annabeth’s shoulder, watching how her skin shimmers from being in contact with the fleece, and wondering idly if her hair is the same shade of gold. The fleece’s magic is so strong that he swears, just for a second, he can see it in full color.

When Percy is 14, he sees someone get colors right in front of his eyes. It’s a humbling and also exhilarating experience.

Apparently, joining the Hunters of Artemis is the same thing as finding a divine match for your soul, or whatever. Zoë Nightshade explains it.

Bianca di Angelo cries as she finishes the oath, looking around like a newborn baby.

“It’s just… so much,” she tells him later, when they’re standing alone on the porch in Cloudcroft, New Mexico. “Usually people get colors gradually, right? The process can take years. But it just happened all at once. It was… amazing. A little overwhelming, but amazing.”

Percy is happy for her, really, but he feels terrible for Nico. He also feels terrible for himself, because Annabeth is gone. The world is darker without her, and the few days that pass while she’s missing are some of the grayest he’s ever known. Thalia doesn’t look much better, and he feels bad that she had to come back into such a messed up world. Zoë and Grover are also miserable, which makes for a pretty depressing quest. It only gets worse when they lose Bianca.

Aphrodite makes a special trip to see him, which is. Well. Too much, honestly. His life is enough of a mess already; he doesn’t have time to go soulmate hunting. He doesn’t know which god is in control of soulmates—Aphrodite or Eros or maybe just the Fates, and he hopes that he never meets them, because his love life is really the last thing that he wants immortals involved in. Luke told him once that he was a pawn, and although Percy doesn’t agree with Luke’s choices, he really wasn’t wrong about that. He doesn’t think it’s too much to ask that they let him have his colorbond all to himself, without any meddling. Apparently, Aphrodite doesn’t agree, which is more than a little terrifying.

They find Artemis and Annabeth, Percy holds the sky, Zoë dies, and Luke survives, so quickly that it gives him whiplash. Percy is grateful that Zoë’s aura is metallic silver, because he can see it for exactly what it is even without color. Later, he’ll write down Zoë’s eyes when she faced Atlas, Zoë with her bow drawn, hunting across the sky underneath “silver.”

They manage to make it to Olympus without dying, and by some miracle, the gods decide to spare his life. Thalia joins the Hunters, and Percy smiles when he sees the silver aura settle on her shoulders.

Percy finds himself pushing through the crowd looking for Annabeth. He can’t even put it into words, but he has this feeling somewhere in his chest, like there’s something important that he needs to tell her. The feeling only intensifies the longer he waits, but she’s nowhere to be seen.

He gets intercepted by Athena on the way there, and suddenly, the moment is broken. He can’t explain how, but it snaps, like a rubber band stretched too tightly. She gives him a lecture about fatal flaws and prophecies and how his relationship with Annabeth is bad for both of them, and he wishes he could argue, but he has an awful feeling that she’s right. He can feel the dread settling over him already, the weight of this stupid 70 year old prophecy that has to be about him. He sees his future hanging over the horizon, and it feels like holding the sky all over again.

And who is he kidding, anyway? He doesn’t get to be in charge of his own future. He should have realized that a long time ago. He doesn’t have the privilege of thinking about colorbonds and hoping for a future—his only real purpose is to be the linchpin of some massive prophecy that was issued before he was even born. He finds his thoughts drifting again, unwanted, back to Luke, and realizes that he really is the pawn of the gods. The problem is, there’s nothing he can do about it—either he faces the prophecy or the world ends.

“Was she giving you a hard time?” Annabeth asks quietly as Athena drifts away through the crowd.

“No,” he says, because she wasn’t, not really. She didn’t say anything he didn’t already know, it just sucks to have it all laid out so plainly. “No, it’s… fine.”

Annabeth doesn’t seem convinced, but she lets it slide. She reaches out to touch the new gray streak in his hair, the one that matches hers, except it’s almost impossible to see it in her hair on the grayscale. It’s kind of funny, really—it could be any color, and it would still look gray to him, but he can still tell that it really is gray.

“You’ll have to write that down, later,” Annabeth says, smiling softly (and later, he will: feels like the weight of the world).

“What did you want to tell me, earlier?” she presses, looking expectant and possibly even… excited? A little nervous? He isn’t sure, but it doesn’t really matter, because he doesn’t have anything to say, anyway.

He thinks about the sick dread he felt when he realized Annabeth was seriously thinking of joining the Hunters, and how he was overcome with not only a sense of panic, but a sense of wrongness, like their destinies were tied together, somehow, and that her place wasn’t meant to be with Artemis, it was meant to be with him.

Except Percy’s own future is riddled with indecision and fear. He’s a threat to the whole world, should he screw up. He’s a wild card, a massive risk that the gods decided to take. And however much he wants her to be part of that future, he just can’t bear the possibility of letting her in, only to lose her later on.

He wants so much more, but for now, he’ll settle for a dance.

The rest of the schoolyear finishes about as well as he expected it to, which is to say, he gets expelled. Honestly, he’s not even sure what for, at this point. Sometimes it’s easier not to think about it. Either way, he finds himself in the car with his mother, waiting to go in for freshmen orientation, and definitely not looking forward to it. He figures high-school would be bad enough without the impending doom hanging over his head all the time.

His mother is nervous and he promises her that of course he’ll try to be good (he always tries to be good). And, just because she can, she decides to tease him about hanging out with Annabeth later, which is annoying, but Percy can never really muster much exasperation toward his mom.

“You know,” she says, and he sighs, because he knows where this is going. It’s not the first time that she’s brought it up and it’s absolutely mortifying, to say the least. “People colorbond over a period of years. They say that on average, you meet your soulmate a year before you realize it’s them.”

Percy doesn’t bother to point out that he has known Annabeth for three years and has never seen a color in his life.

Still, she’s not wrong. It’s a very delicate process, and it can’t be rushed. It depends on how quickly you fall in love, apparently, except that not everybody does and not everybody even has a soulmate, but the world loves to paint it as a horrifyingly cliché and romantic process, like getting a new color every time you kiss or learn something about them. His mother always said that it’s all about figuring out your own feelings, and taking the proper time to sort through them before you’re ready to share that process with another person. She says that finding a soulmate is a life-altering event, and the lengthy process of getting colors allows you to get comfortable with the idea beforehand.

She’s kind of full of it, though, because he knows that she got colors all at once, probably at first sight, too. She’s never told him that, necessarily, but he just has a feeling, mostly because she said the first color she ever saw was green, and green is a secondary color, and nearly everyone starts off with primary colors. Percy also has a feeling that it will not be as quick or easy for him. It’s kind of okay, though. He’s not really searching right now, anyway. Doesn’t really have the energy, much less the time, to be fantasizing about soulmates. He hopes that he’ll see colors before he dies—but then, if he dies this young, then there will be tons of things he’ll have to miss out on, so honestly, he’s not all that torn up about it.

He rolls his eyes and waves her off, getting out of the car and figuring that this will probably go better if he just hurries up and gets it over with.

Of course, that is the same moment that he lays eyes on Rachel Elizabeth Dare, and then his day gets a lot more complicated.

Really, there’s nothing he could have done differently, but the school gets set on fire, he gets branded as a criminal, and Annabeth stops speaking to him anyway. He almost wishes it was his fault, so he could at least be mad at himself, but his luck just sucks.

He gets about two words out of Annabeth on the way to camp, although it’s hardly fair that she’s mad at him, which makes him mad, too. The pattern continues through the entire rest of the summer, and only gets worse the more time that passes.

Funnily enough, he has the urge to call Rachel—he feels like he owes her something, for some reason. That’s not really an option, so he puts it out of his mind, but he can’t help staring at the number on his wrist from time to time.

Percy hates feeling out of the loop, but unfortunately, that’s where he spends most of his time. Apparently Clarisse and Annabeth are working on some super-secret something or other, which is annoying, and apparently Annabeth has been back to New York since December, which is even more annoying, and then Annabeth decides to drag him on a quest with her while refusing to tell him the last line of the prophecy about the stupid quest. He would have happily volunteered anyway, but it still rubs him the wrong way.

He asks about it when they’re alone in her cabin, figuring that maybe he can get a little more out of her without a crowd of people staring at her expectantly. Instead, she starts crying and asks for a hug, which is more than a little unexpected. Annabeth doesn’t typically welcome his comfort so openly, much less ask for it. His skin tingles where it comes into contact with hers, and he feels like he’s hyperaware of everything in the room, from the scent of her hair to the fine print of the books on the shelves. Out of the corner of his vision, he sees flash of something—something soft and also bright, almost like a ray of light, resting on Annabeth’s hair. He’s a little bit startled and a lot confused, but when he tries to focus on it, it’s gone. The hug lasts long enough to feel intimate, and honestly, he’s not sure what might have happened next if Malcolm hadn’t walked in. He doesn’t know if he should be relieved or disappointed, and ends up leaving with a mix of both.

Since they have to keep up their track record of setting off on a doomed quest every summer, they find themselves in the Labyrinth. It’s their most miserable adventure yet, and it’s only made worse by the two of them sniping at each other all the time. He hates it—he hates being snapped at and he hates snapping at Annabeth, but he can’t figure out what’s going on with them, or how to fix it.

There’s Something there that they don’t talk about, keep skirting around. If he were less pathetic, he might have the courage to confront her about it, but he mostly just avoids it, which is probably why she’s so mad in the first place. It’s just that there’s a lot of… stuff that they have to deal with, before they can deal with the Something. The stuff mostly involves Luke, but Annabeth won’t talk to him about Luke, and he can’t listen to her talk about Luke without getting angry, so instead it just festers. There’s a huge gap between them, and he can feel it getting wider, and as terrifying as that is, he just doesn’t know if he’s willing to take the leap to close it.

Quintus told him that the Labyrinth adapts to your state of mind, which makes sense, because it is complicated, difficult to navigate, and impossible to understand. They’re pretty miserable on the first day of the quest, wandering around aimlessly, before finally deciding to just sleep and try and figure it out in the morning.

He feels bad for Annabeth, because it’s really not her fault, but she’ll blame herself anyway. Truthfully, if Annabeth is having a hard time leading this quest, then he can’t imagine how anyone else would be able to do it. He drags his bedroll over to her, because he’s restless and unable to sleep, and also because she looks small and sad in the dark.

He reminds her that they’ll figure it out—they always do. Flying by the seat of their pants is what they do best, honestly, and they always manage to wiggle out of impossible situations, like Wetland and Circe’s Island. She smiles weakly, but genuinely, which is nice to see, but it doesn’t last long. She asks what Hera meant—if he actually knows the answer to navigating the maze, and he tells her that he honestly doesn’t. He pushes her for the last line of the prophecy again, because it must be significant if she’s refusing to share it. She protests weakly, claiming that she can’t think about it in the dark. He wants to press about the choice Janus mentioned, too, but before he has the chance Annabeth abruptly straightens up, her spine going rigid.

“What?” he asks. “Is everything okay?”

Annabeth starts to say something, but it comes out sounding strangled and squeaky. He follows her line of sight and sees that she’s staring at her lap, eyes wide. She runs her hand over the fabric of her jeans slowly, almost reverently, like she’s in a trance or something.

“Annabeth, seriously, what?” he asks again, because it’s freaking him out. She snaps out of it and shakes her head vigorously, although she’s obviously unsettled.

“Nothing, it’s nothing, it’s really nothing,” she says quickly, but her voice is fragile and breaking at the edges. “I just… had a thought.”

“Annabeth…” he says again, hesitantly. She covers her face with her hands and shakes her head again.

“I said it’s nothing,” she says quietly, desperately, like she needs him to drop it or she’ll start crying. He wonders if it’s about the last line of her prophecy.

“If you say so,” he sighs. She looks so shaken that he offers to take first watch, and it must really speak to her state of mind that she curls up without protest.

It’s not until Mt. St. Helens that Percy finds himself staring that Something in the face again. He’s not thinking about much else except how he can get Annabeth out of here alive, but apparently she has other things on her mind, because she lurches forward and kisses him. Like, a real kiss—a deliberate, intense, kiss, square on the mouth—not remotely in the neighborhood of friendship.

For a second, he can’t breathe at all—and then, something happens. There’s a bright flare in the corner of his vision, and before he has a chance to comprehend what’s happening, the lava shimmers into color. Not all of it, and he doesn’t even know what color it is, but he definitely knows that it is not gray.

Annabeth doesn’t even give him a chance to respond before she’s jamming her cap on and, hopefully, running away as fast as she can. He catches a glimpse of her hair before she vanishes—the same color as the lava, sort of, but a softer and muted shade, gentler and prettier, somehow.

He’s so stunned that he doesn’t even hear the telkhines come up behind him, but once they get there, all thoughts of colors flee his mind. His last thought as he hurtles out of the volcano is how disturbing it is that he can see the flames burning his skin in color.

He’s in so much pain when he wakes up that he doesn’t even register the new color in his vision. He hasn’t the faintest idea where he is—all he has is a vague memory of a girl singing and his current surroundings to go by. The inside of the cave sparkles like the inside of a geode, but he doesn’t process the fractals of color until he gets up.

He looks awful, but once he gets over the shock of his appearance in the mirror, he finds himself staring at his clothes. They’ve been changed, and once, they might have looked simply white, but… they’re not quite white. They aren’t quite as bright, not like snow or milk or teeth. It looks a little softer, a little like—like a much more faded, almost white version of the color of lava or fire or… or Annabeth’s hair.

It’s only then that the full revelation hits him—square in the chest, hard enough that he feels like he might pass out again. Because—because he colorbonded with Annabeth, which means that—

He sits back down on the edge of the bed and takes a deep breath, and once he gets over the shock of it, the world kind of seems to get soft and warm around the edges, matching the pull he feels in the base of his stomach. Because—because he found his soulmate, and it’s Annabeth.

He finds himself smiling, and tucks his face underneath his arms. He’s happy to have this moment to himself, without any pressure of who to tell. He allows himself to bask in it for a minute, before assessing his surroundings again.

The world looks different, even with just one color. Percy was sort of hoping to wake up in full color, but that hardly happens to anyone. Most people get a primary color first, and develop the other two over a longer period of time. Apparently, he’s no exception. The only question… is which color is it? It must be either blue, yellow, or red. It’s not blue, because fire isn’t blue and neither is hair. It could be red, but he’s pretty sure that Annabeth is blonde, which he’s pretty sure is different from being a redhead. So… yellow, then.

He knows that this is the right answer once he looks around again, and smiles when he realizes how well his mother described it. Like melting butter and the first rays of sunlight through the blinds, or the first breeze of springtime, he thinks dazedly, as he finally gets up to leave the cave. He pulls out Riptide to check, and gasps at the faint glow that comes off the sword. He thinks that he’ll write an essay on yellow when he gets his hands on Spectra Color Key.

Unfortunately, Percy doesn’t really have the luxury of wandering around in awe like a colorstruck teenager (although he is a colorstruck teenager), because he still needs to figure out where he is and how he got here, and most importantly, how to get back.

He would leave right away if he could, but the problem is, he really can’t. His body is so weak that he can’t stand for more than a few minutes, much less trek from the middle of nowhere to Long Island. He sort of appreciates the break, because it gives him a chance to mentally rest. He’s more drained than he’s ever been in his life, and Ogygia is the perfect place to rest and heal. On the other hand, it gives him a little too much time to think… and panic. Mostly about seeing Annabeth again, because he is feeling such a tumbleweed of emotions that he might just fall to pieces in front of her.

It’s only after Hephaestus visits that he really begins to doubt his own resolve—because if the world is better off without him, if he can cause that kind of destruction, then maybe he really should stay out of the way. There’s also Calypso, who he would be leaving all alone… again. He finds himself walking along the water, thinking about it. It’s nice on Ogygia; a regular paradise, with good company, where he will never have to worry again about dying or destroying the world. And yet… he could never stay here. He has camp and friends and family and a soulmate to think about, and he would rather face the constant threat of painful death and total destruction than leave them all behind. He watches the sun climb over the horizon, yellow light spilling over the gray, and knows in his core that leaving is the right decision.

As it turns out, leaving is hard, but it’s still easier than coming back.

It’s startling and amazing how different the world looks with only one color. He sees the Golden Fleece glittering in the trees, and remembers fondly how he’d caught a glimpse of it last summer.

He races towards the amphitheater in a daze, just in time to see Annabeth lift his shroud into the fire. He just stands there, stunned, watching the bright yellow flames eat away at it. It looks ghostly, because he can see the center of the flame in color, but there are still parts of it that are gray, since he doesn’t have all his colors yet. And then, of course, there’s Annabeth—who is crying, over him, no less, who looks exactly the same as he remembers her, except for her bright, beautiful hair spilling over her shoulders, catching the flickering of the firelight. The gray streak stands out boldly, now—he could never see it before, because it just blended in with the rest of it. He’s so transfixed that he barely notices all the commotion he has caused, until Annabeth is elbowing her way through the crowd and curling her arms around him tight enough to bruise.

It’s overwhelming, and he feels guilty for putting her through so much, even though he really didn’t have much of a choice. He doesn’t explain everything—he can’t bring himself to talk about Calypso, who saved his life, and who he thanked by leaving her in solitude forever. What he really wants is to talk about them, about how she kissed him and, hey, they’re soulmates, but he wouldn’t know how to begin. Anyway, Chiron is right there, which would be awkward to say the least. He’s tempted to seek Annabeth out later, alone, but she storms out angrily after he explains they need Rachel to navigate the Labyrinth, and she stays mad at him for the rest of the day, so he doesn’t get the chance.

They visit his mother the next day, and it’s kind of surreal to see the apartment he’s been living in for the last two years in color. Well, just yellow, and there’s not all that much of it, so it’s still mostly gray, but he definitely gets stuck staring on a few objects—like the bowl on the kitchen table, which he always figured was blue, or the painting on the wall with bold yellow flowers. He wants to share it with his mother, but he can’t bring it up in front of Annabeth. He wants to tell Annabeth, too, but he can hardly share it in front of his mother. It’s a weird feeling.

Anyway, he has a feeling that his mother already knows something’s up. She’s got that way about her—especially when it comes to him. She gives him a knowing glance, and he blushes and looks away. She serves them her specialty cookies, which he knows are blue, and thinks, a little giddily, that he’ll be able to see them soon enough.

Annabeth inspects the cookie curiously, like she’s never seen one before.

“What?” he asks her, and she jumps and drops the cookie on the table guiltily, like she’s been caught doing something she shouldn’t be. He can see her face flush, even on the grayscale. He’s about to ask what that was all about, but he gets interrupted before he has the chance. His mother raises an eyebrow at the pair of them and asks if they’ve been fighting, to which neither of them respond. His mother fights back a smile and says, “I see.” He shoots his mother an exasperated look, begging her to drop it, please. She gives him an excuse to leave the kitchen by telling him to use the phone in the hall to call Rachel, and he decides that she’s forgiven.

Rachel Elizabeth Dare is painted entirely gold when he and Annabeth arrive at their meeting place, and Percy cannot stop staring. It’s weird to see a person entirely bathed in color like that, even down to her skin and hair. Skin tone is one of the last things that develop in color—Annabeth told him awhile back that it’s because skin pigmentation is so complex, with all the undertones and overtones. Living matter is always more difficult to see, she said. So it’s the first time he’s ever seen human skin in color, even if it is painted gold, and it’s kind of mesmerizing. It’s also pretty amazing that Rachel can stay so still for so long, but Annabeth looks annoyed when he says that to her.

Amazingly, Rachel agrees to accompany them on the quest, and they’re back in the Labyrinth before sundown. He can see flecks of gold clinging to her cheeks and hair, standing out prominently against the murky gray. He wonders what her hair color is—since she’s apparently not blond, like Annabeth, but her hair looks lighter than brown. He almost asks her, before deciding that that would be weird.

They fight their way through Antaeus’ arena, find Nico and Daedalus, and part ways with Ethan Nakamura. Percy finds out that Luke is also blond, which he would actually rather not know. Daedalus’ workshop is brilliant even in yellow and gray, and he can only imagine what it looks like in full color. They break out of the workshop on (bronze) metal wings and take to the sky, only to have to descend back in the Labyrinth in order to get to camp fast enough. Fortunately, they find Grover and Tyson in there, and Percy also finds out that Tyson’s teeth are more yellow than they are white, which he really would rather not know. And, as fate would have it, they also find Pan. The cavern is another one of those brilliant magical places, the type that feels like an insult to only see in grayscale. He’s happy to see the shimmering yellow light reflecting off the fractals of stone, though.

And then he finds himself on Mount Othrys, again, except this time the black obsidian castle has really begun to form, and scarcely even looks like ruins anymore. He shudders when he sees Kronos’ golden sarcophagus—it looks cold, somehow, with none of the warmth that yellow is supposed to have. Kronos’ eyes are the same way—freezing and deeply disturbing. It’s the first time he’s ever seen someone’s eyes in color, and he is overcome with a sense of wrongness when he does (he’s kind of miffed, to be honest, because he would kind of have liked to see Annabeth’s eyes in color for the first time).

They escape Kronos by the skin of their teeth… thanks to Nico, weirdly. Percy isn’t sure what to make of the kid, really, but he feels personally responsible for Nico’s safety. He spent the better half of the year searching for him, and is happy that at least Nico is where Percy can keep an eye on him, now.

They make it back to camp in time for the battle, and Percy finds that he is very relieved he can’t see how red all the blood is. Daedalus dies and Nico forgives him and Grover is exiled, but not really, and for the first time in his life, Percy watches (yellow) flames burn up real corpses, and worries that he will be seeing a lot more of them if the war keeps progressing at this rate.

Weirdly enough, the summer goes back to normal. As normal as it can be, that is. There are practical jokes and Capture the Flag and trading around the best activity slots, all the while trying to ignore the constant threat of the future. He watches Silena and Beckendorf colorbond and tries not to get violently jealous, which sort of works because they look so happy that it could melt anyone’s heart. It’s not the same as his first summer—before Luke had left, and started the reign of Kronos’ havoc—but it’s close enough. He figures everyone has the same feeling of foreboding—that next summer will be awful, so they might as well enjoy this one while they still can. It sounds morbid to say it aloud, so nobody does, but they’re all thinking it. You might not even know that something was wrong, except that the campfire still stays mostly gray at night and there’s not as much laughter. Percy doesn’t objectively know that the campfire is gray, of course, but it’s enchanted, and somehow Percy can feel that it’s gray. He gets to see it a soft, tentative yellow on good nights, but for the most part, it stays the color of lint. He can sympathize with it—he’s starting to feel pretty gray himself.

Percy and Annabeth skirt around each other, for the most part. He misses her with a tangible ache, but it kind of hurts to be with her, too. He wants to talk to her so desperately, but she freezes him out after Luke’s… decision, and he can’t get through to her without making them both angry. Partly it’s because all Luke ever does is hurt her, and she can’t let him go anyway, and it makes him nauseous. There’s also the small part of him that protests that she is his soulmate and how dare she spend so much time and energy thinking about someone else—particularly when this someone else has tried to kill him, several times—but that comes from the jealous, possessive part of him that he’s not proud of and tries to ignore. He knows that jealousy really isn’t acceptable, because no one is yours unless they give themselves to you, soulmate or not. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t feel it, though, and it feels awful.

They’re stuck in limbo, and Percy feels like he’s suspended in thin air, on the edge of a freefall that could either end in heartbreak and disaster, or something amazing. They fight—angry, hurtful, fights, where he doesn’t mean what he says, and hopes that she doesn’t mean it, either. They don’t really make up afterwards—just come to a mutual silent agreement to let it go. Percy can’t really let it go and he’s pretty sure that Annabeth doesn’t either, but sometimes things are just too painful to dig up and inspect, so they let it lie. There are softer moments, like laying on the blanket watching the fireworks on the beach, when Annabeth’s hair is spread out over the blanket and the explosions are brilliant yellow in the sky that he swears he’s going to tell her—but he never does, and the moment always passes.

Mostly, it just feels like there’s a weight sitting on his sternum, or a hole carved in the center of his chest. It kind of feels like watching your other half walk around, oblivious to your existence. His mother always stressed that he wasn’t incomplete without a soulmate, and that he was his own person, a whole person, even if he never did find a soulmate—and he gets that now, kind of. But he’s still a half, just of a different whole—a greater whole, something that they could be, if they could just pull it together. Vaguely, Percy is aware that he’s entirely too young to be fussing about this in so much detail, and it’s probably a good thing that the majority of people colorbond older than him, because he feels like he’s going insane and slowly dissolving into a million pieces, and, well. He’s being dramatic, but it doesn’t make the feelings any less genuine. Being soulmates doesn’t mean everything magically works out, his mother’s voice whispers in the back of his mind, and he curls in on himself and thinks, I know, I know, I know.

Before Percy has a chance to really sort out his feelings on the matter, the summer is over, and he’s heading to Goode High School. He finds himself on Half-Blood Hill bidding Annabeth goodbye, feeling like he’s in a daze, watching himself from miles away. He finally gets the last line of the prophecy—

—and then wishes he hadn’t.

A horrifying thought strikes him for the first time: what if they aren’t a match? It’s relatively rare, but not unheard of, and anyway, he’s pretty sure that it would be just his luck. He makes himself sick thinking about it, and, weirdly, is saved from responding when Hera appears. He isn’t sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, because it steers the conversation out of dangerous territory, but at the same time… maybe it’s time that they stop avoiding it.

His heart crawls into his throat, and he can feel the words on the tip of his tongue, except they get jammed when he tries to say them. And he’s thinking, I don’t really know what this is but I know that the way things have been going lately is not what I want, and I don’t really understand what’s going on but I would much rather figure it out with you than without you, and we’re soulmates; at least, you’re mine, doesn’t that count for anything, except the bus boards and Annabeth takes off down the hill before he can figure out a way to articulate that.

The next year is one of the worst he’s ever had—so far, at least. Camp enrollment drops sickeningly, morale is terrible, and meanwhile, Kronos’ army grows every day. Percy is always on some mission or another trying to patch things up, while trying to navigate freshman year. He sees Annabeth sometimes, but it’s tense at best and furious at worst.

Percy’s tired. He’s too young to be this bone-weary, but it can’t be helped. He takes up refuge with Rachel Elizabeth Dare most of the time, because she’s funny and easy and blessedly, amazingly, mortal. He doesn’t have to think about the impending war when he’s with her if he doesn’t want to. If he needs to talk about it, she can listen, without getting upset, because she’s not living it the way his friends at Camp Half-Blood are. He has his mother, too, but she worries about him so much that he doesn’t want to heap extra stress on top of her.

He needs the time to unwind; to just put the world on pause for a little while and take a deep breath. Sometimes he wonders if Kronos is messing with him—making time speed up, rushing at him faster than he can react, hurtling the prophecy toward him at the speed of light.

His mother gets married, and Percy is so happy for her that it hurts. They’re not a match, but then, they don’t need to be. It gives him a bit of hope. Annabeth stops by for the wedding, looking breathtakingly beautiful, but she leaves quickly and they’re both so polite to each other that it’s intolerable. His mother knows about the colorbond, at this point, but she mostly lets him work through it on his own. Percy appreciates the space, but he kind of wishes she would tell him what to do. That defeats the purpose, he knows, but Percy really just wants to be a kid, sometimes.

Every day brings him closer to his birthday, and Percy wonders if this one will be his last.

The war begins when the Princess Andromeda blows up, and Percy knows it in his core. He drags himself back to camp and watches Silena Beauregard shatter right before his eyes. He sees Annabeth looking nearly as torn up about Luke, and tries to swallow the sharp taste of bile in his throat.

He reads the Great Prophecy—out loud, no less, to a crowd of people anxiously waiting for his reaction—and discovers that in fact, he is not going to survive this war. It’s kind of funny, really, because he never expected to, but he still feels shaken to his core.

Annabeth is fickle, even more so than usual, which is endlessly frustrating. She makes leading comments and gets frustrated when he doesn’t take the bait, and skirts around discussing that Something between them without ever really spitting it out. And he can sort of feel sorry for her, because he knows what that’s like, and he cares deeply for Annabeth, and it’s not like he enjoys watching her struggle through their muddled relationship, but Percy is tired. He just doesn’t have the energy to be dealing with this right now; certainly not on top of everything else going on. He can’t handle mind games and double meanings and walking on eggshells right now; there’s just too much else to concentrate on. He’s just confused, mostly. And it hurts, too, which is even worse.

He mentions his dream about Rachel, which is asking for trouble, he knows, but he needs answers and Annabeth is the smartest person he knows. They can be mature about it, can’t they? Apparently not, because it dissolves into fighting and Annabeth storms away. He would go after her, except there’s nothing to say.

He stays frustrated and maybe a little angry at her, but Nico distracts him sufficiently by shadow traveling him all over the place and getting him locked up in the Underworld. And then, before he knows it, he finds himself standing on the edge of the River Styx, about to go in, because apparently, he is that desperate.

Achilles warns him away from it, and even Nico starts to look less than thrilled with the idea, but it’s too late. Percy’s never been particularly good at abandoning a promising idea once he’s got his head around it.

The Styx hurts worse than anything he’s ever felt in his life—worse than being on fire in Mt. St. Helens, worse than the Chimera’s acid and the pit scorpion’s venom, worse than any wound he’s ever had. If he had the presence of mind, he would have realized that this is what it feels like to have your soul ripped out of your body. He can feel everything he is, his whole identity, all of his memories, hopes, and dreams, draining away into the river, joining all the other discarded tokens down at the bottom.

And then—and then Annabeth is there. And somewhere in the back of his mind he registers that this is a vision, but he doesn’t care, because he’s never needed anyone more in his life. She extends her hand and he latches on to it, gratefully, desperately. The memories come flooding back, sharper and more colorful. Just before their hands touch, the scene bursts into full color—brighter and more vivid than anything he’s seen in his life; colors that he can’t name, and doesn’t have the chance to really observe, because then he’s bursting out of the river and dragging himself onto the black sand beach.

Nico scrambles back in surprise and starts fussing over him, and Mrs. O’Leary sniffs at him in interest. Somehow, instinctually, he knows exactly what just happened, but his conscious mind can’t really comprehend it yet. He’ll need time to mull it over, to be able to put it into coherent words, but his whole body trembles with the impact of the vision’s significance. Disappointedly, he sees that his vision has returned to gray and yellow, and sighs, because now he knows, really knows, what he’s missing. The world is so bleak without color. So bleak without Annabeth. He wishes she was here. He’s not sure what he would have said to her, but he would have figured something out. Or maybe he would have just stared at her like she’s the single most amazing thing on earth. Frankly, he doesn’t care either way; he just wants to see her.

The next time he does see her, she’s dressed for combat, striding over to him purposely, and he definitely goes weak in the knees. He can admit it. He feels his stomach swoop ridiculously when he gets a good look at her eyes, because they’re gray, and this whole time he’s been seeing them exactly as they are without even knowing it. The terror of the upcoming invasion is probably the only thing that keeps him from staring at her like a complete sap, and he manages to pull it together enough that she doesn’t seem too suspicious. Honestly, he doesn’t even care if he’s shown his hand anymore—he’s tired of pretending like half of his heart isn’t walking around in her body. And to think, she calls him the clueless one.

Of course, nothing in Percy’s life ever comes simply or easily, and there’s still the gaping crater of Luke between them, not to mention the Great Prophecy, which says that Percy is going to have his soul reaped by the end of the week.

And he understands Annabeth’s fixation with saving Luke, and he has faith in her, it’s just that he sort of feels like she’s twisting a knife in his gut every time she talks about him in that voice with that look in her eyes, like he’s her beloved, her hero. He wonders how much danger he has to be in to get her attention, which he knows is a selfish and unhealthy way to think, but he finds himself thinking it anyway.

Before he even has the chance to panic, the battle begins. It’s surreal—like his entire life has been leading up to this moment, and now here it is, staring him in the face. His mind shifts into combat mode in order to cope with the stress of it, because if he lets too much personality through, he’s going to lose it; he’s sure of it.

And then Annabeth takes the knife, and for a second, he is so overcome with panic that his vision fades to stark gray, before he remembers to breathe. He doesn’t need red to see the blood soaking her shirt, and he swears something vital in his chest collapses when he sees her curled up on the couch in the Plaza, trembling and entirely too pale.

The other demigods peter out slowly, and finally, they’re alone. The urge to sort of just curl up next to her and pull her into his arms is almost overwhelming, but it’s just not the time for that. Still, he can’t resist kneeling next to her and running his hand across her forehead. She makes some probably half-delirious comment about how he’s cute when he’s worried or whatever, and a comment like that might have stopped his heart if he wasn’t so preoccupied. He appreciates the quiet, like the world is holding its breath for them.

He guides her fingers to his Achilles spot without hesitation. He trusts Annabeth more than he trusts himself. Her hands are his hands, anyway. Not to mention that their souls were already tied together, before there was a physical manifestation of that on his body. He trembles when her fingers come in contact with it, and he wonders if it’s the vulnerability resting there, or if it’s just Annabeth’s touch. The world comes back into color while her hand lingers there, and slowly fades out again as she withdraws. He’s desperate to ask her if she knows—if she can feel the pull between their souls as strongly as he can, if she can tell that she gave him color a full year ago and he still hasn’t found the right time to tell her that. Now’s as good a time as any, and he almost blurts it out right then, but right as he opens his mouth to do it, Annabeth starts talking about why Hermes was mad at her and how she’d seen Luke before the Labyrinth, and he is stunned into silence.

He can’t be mad at her; not when she sounds so small and conflicted, and certainly not while she’s recovering from a knife wound she took for him. Still, he feels sick with the knowledge. He doesn’t want their relationship to always revolve around Luke; why does that keep happening, anyway? Annabeth is trembling again as she nears the end of the story, and he almost stops her, but she seems desperate to tell him, desperate for him to understand. She feels guilty, he realizes. For a second, he wonders if she’s holding as much back as he is; if there’s something she’s trying to say indirectly, because she isn’t ready to say it outright. But, as always, the moment passes before he can get to the bottom of it.

As the battle progresses, he sees flashes of color, which almost gets him killed several times. It’s incredibly distracting, and he wishes he had the time to appreciate it, but alas, he’s too busy fighting for his life.

And, by some miracle, they save the world. He’s not entirely sure how it happens, admittedly, but they do it. He finds himself alive, kneeling next to Grover and Annabeth over Luke’s body. He catches Annabeth’s eye, who looks about as awed as he feels, and sees another color bloom into his vision—red. For a moment, the throne room seems to blur away, as if it’s just the two of them. It doesn’t last long; soon enough, the gods are flooding in and they’re swept away for healing and rewards, but it’s long enough for him to see everything he needs to.

He finds himself at Camp Half-Blood that night, paging through Spectra Color Key in the dining pavilion, long after dinner is over. There are still a few colors that remain frustratingly elusive—blue, green, and purple—but for the most part, the world is absolutely blazing with color. Along with the red comes orange, brown, and pink, and just that alone is almost overwhelming. The wood on the tables, the strawberry fields, the bright flare of Rachel’s hair, the Camp Half-Blood shirts, and the burning shrouds are sort of enough for one day, and Percy finds himself pretty grateful that this whole colorbonding thing takes its time, because apparently science and love know what they’re doing.

He closes the book guiltily as Annabeth slides next to him. He should tell her. He really, really should tell her—he’s been sitting on the knowledge for a full year now, and even without the colors, he’s never been more certain about anything in his life. He finally understands what his mother had tried to teach him: that the colors don’t make you fall in love, the colors come because you fall in love anyway.

He’s trying to figure out how, exactly, one goes about sharing this, but, as usual, Annabeth throws him off kilter. She says, “Happy birthday.”

“What?” he asks, blinking. His mind is in a million different places, and that was definitely not one of them. Of course, it makes sense, though. Prophecies are weird.

“It’s August 18,” she says matter-of-factly, setting a cupcake down on the table. “Your birthday, right?”

He doesn’t say anything, probably because he’s busy staring at the cupcake, which is a color that he has never seen before. Definitely a very different color than yellow and red and anything like them. Not a warm color, then; a cool color. Blue. The color doesn’t solidify, like the red and the yellow did, but the cupcake doesn’t fade back to gray, which means that it will soon enough.

“Did you bake this yourself?”

“Tyson helped.”

He smiles at the thought of them knocking around in the kitchen together, and wonders whose idea it was. “That explains why it looks like a chocolate brick,” he says, “with extra blue cement.”

Honestly, he wasn’t planning on calling attention to the color, and doesn’t even realize he did it, until he sees Annabeth go stock still next to him. Then it dawns on him. There’s no way to play it off, and it would be essentially pointless, anyway, so he figures this is it, then. The only minor complication is Annabeth’s reaction, which is utterly silent and stone-faced. His mind races and his breathing shallows, trying to come up with a way to explain a little bit better, and then—

Annabeth slams both her palms on the table and screeches in frustration, and then promptly bursts into tears. He turns to her in shock and horror, because no, this was certainly not the reaction he was hoping for.

“Annabeth, what—” he stutters.

“Why didn’t you say something?”  she wails, clapping her hands over her eyes. “Three years, three years, Percy, I thought we weren’t a match, and then you didn’t even tell me—”

“You’ve been seeing color for three years?” he demands, stunned, because, what? Who even colorbonds at thirteen, anyway?

Annabeth stiffens slightly and seems to get ahold of herself. “Oh. Um. I mean, not exactly, but enough that I knew it was coming. Just… you know, flashes, here and there. I didn’t really start seeing until last year.”

“Me too,” he says softly.

“Siren Bay,” she whispers. “The water, just for a second—”

“On the back of the hippocampus, the Golden Fleece—”

“On Mt. Tam, and then again, later that night, on Olympus—”

“The day before we left for the Labyrinth—”

“In the Labyrinth, I saw blue, I was sure of it—”

“And Mt. St. Helens,” he breathes, “The lava, your hair—”

“Your eyes!”

“And then, in the Styx,”

“I know,” she gasps. “I had a dream.”

They’re facing each other, now, suddenly having gotten very close together, both of their chests heaving. The tear tracks have dried on her cheeks, but he sees fresh ones welling in her eyes.

“I mean, you know, you could have said something,” he says dryly.

She laughs a choked laugh, and then bites her lip. “I didn’t know… I wasn’t sure if… and there was so much else going on…”

“I know,” he says, and it comes out as the barest whisper of breath between them.

It’s not a big deal to close the gap, and for all that it’s massively monumental, it’s the easiest thing in the world. Her arms curl around his neck, and he could probably stay like that forever, except then the world bursts into full color, and it stays this time. His heart throbs almost painfully in his chest, and Annabeth gasps, and he knows she’s seeing the same thing he is. It’s surreal and utterly captivating.

The other campers choose that moment to storm the dining pavilion and carry them off, but it’s okay, because her hand is warm in his and her cheeks are flushed pink and they’re both laughing, and nothing can take that away from him right now.

The next morning finds them early, on the edge of the beach, staring out at the sunrise over the water, complete with two copies of Spectra Color Key.

“Gods, it’s… it’s so many different colors,” Annabeth breathes, watching the horizon. “I mean, look at that! It’s gorgeous!”

It is gorgeous, with all the oranges and pinks and yellows spilling out over the water, slowly taking over the inky blue of the night sky. Percy laughs quietly to himself.

“What?” Annabeth demands, whipping her head around to glare at him.

“Are we going to be that couple?” he asks. Annabeth gives him a withering look, but he only laughs harder when he sees her desperately flipping through the pages of Spectra Color Key to categorize the colors of the sunset.

Annabeth closes the book and shoves at his shoulder weakly. “We colorbonded at sixteen, Percy,” she says, laughing. “We’re basically a teen romance novel. Might as well give into the cliché, you know?”

She has a point there, he has to admit. And with Annabeth tucked under his arm, watching their first sunrise in color together over the water, he’s the happiest he’s ever been, even if it is a cliché.