Actions

Work Header

strawberry fields forever

Work Text:

 

let me take you down

'cause I'm going to strawberry fields

/

The fall is long and boring, but Percy swears that he's never hated gravity so much in his life.

The dark walls close in on him quicker and quicker until he's gasping madly for breath and what was once a crevasse the size of a football field is now pretty much a water slide, and all he can hear is the wind rushing past him and the vague sound of Annabeth sobbing beneath him. He wants to tell her it's okay, but it sounds empty even in his own head, because who is he kidding? They're literally on their way to all he does (or can do, really) is clutch her hand tighter, close his eyes and brace himself for impact; he knows it's going to hurt.

/

Minutes later, Annabeth screams; he looks down and sees water swirling beneath them, but even as he watches, the last strains of light from above are fading away, and slowly, everything is going dark. Percy twists and the river copies, but the moment he sinks beneath the surface he wants to give up altogether. Voices tell him, there's no point, and maybe they're right, maybe they're right. Annabeth is trying to pull him when all he wants to do is sink, but he looks into her eyes and suddenly there's a point to it all again. Annabeth.

They collapse on the river bank; sand like broken glass pierces his face and chest and hands, and he feels himself bleed all over.

It hurts.

/

For a while, Percy just lies there, slowly growing accustomed to the dark and surveying the surroundings which he can barely see.

It's completely dark. And not even dark dark. Dark so dark he can't even afford to see a millimeter in front of him. A monster could be two feet from his nose and he wouldn't even know.

The floor is dark and damp and it's disgusting to the touch. Mist curls around his feet and oh, look. The bottomless pit has a bottom after all. Percy shuts his eyes for a moment, and takes a deep breath, then another. Against his will, a single tear drips off his cheek. He clenches his fists.

Annabeth makes a whimpering noise somewhere off to his left, or right: he can't tell because the sound bounces off the walls, which seem to have widened again, and jolts Percy out of his trance. He stirs, calls her name. Calls again. And again. And again and again and again.

"What?" she finally snaps, and out of nowhere he nearly laughs.

Percy finally sits up, and immediately knows he's in deep trouble. The fall was not exactly a soft one, and now his head, arms and legs are throbbing so hard he can barely move a muscle. But no, he reminds himself. He's not the one with a broken ankle, and so he steels himself and stands upright. Percy feels shards of something pierce the underside of his sneakers; it hurts to even move, but he makes himself take a step forward.

Ohhh. Percy nearly collapses again. He can hear Annabeth calling his name in the midst of a mess of whooshy sounds banging against his ear.

"I'm okay," he says, to no one in particular, but it helps him get a grip on himself, and he takes another step forward, placing his foot right into something squelchy.

"Urgh," Annabeth says from not very far off. "What in Hades was that?"

"Don't know." His voice trembles embarrassingly. "Don't want to."

He forges forward again, testing the ground in the way he imagines one would do for land mines. He can somehow kind of sense the contours in the ground and he moves gingerly, step by step, until he finally reaches Annabeth, or at least somewhere close.

"Say something," he calls to the darkness.

He can pretty much feel her rolling her eyes. "Marco."

"Polo," he says, with a small laugh, and he takes a few more steps forward before sinking down to his knees next to her. She is sitting up.

The darkness may be overpowering but it does not prevent their hands from finding each other; Percy feels, as always, a rush of warmth as Annabeth's slender fingers wrap around his own. And they sit there for a while, afraid to stand, afraid to travel into the veil of blackness for fear of what it might reveal.

Finally Annabeth says, "Percy…look. We'd better get going."

He sighs. "Yeah. I guess. Let's go."

/

They walk in the darkness, hand in hand, Percy supporting Annabeth because her ankle's not fully healed yet. They set off in a direction opposite to the recurring screams, and it's hot and cold and windy and rainy all at once, and he hates it, he hates it, he hates it. The weather changes so quick and so often he finds himself shivering and sweating at the same time, and when they take breaks all they can really do is clutch each other.

They don't know where they're going: Annabeth says that the rivers of the Underworld empty into the heart of Tartarus, so they path they're going on – downhill – seems like a good start.

Although they can't see most of the time, there are occasional flashes of scarlet light that illuminate Tartarus in a deathly glow: Annabeth always squeezes his hand harder when this happens, though she says it might help to know their bearings. The place is deathly silent, silence only broken by brief noises of movement behind them – always behind them. There are screams, too – loud and echoing screams of pain, and fear, and anger. They echo around him until they are once again swallowed by the deathlike calm of the pit.

Still, it irks him - Where are the monsters? Percy recalls what Nico had said: that he was instantly overwhelmed by the forces of Gaea. So why are Percy and Annabeth being forced to travel alone through the darkness, knowing that the fight is coming but not knowing when?

/

 

Minutes and hours and days and weeks and months pass by as they trek through the endless pit of hell: he feels like a chicken in a broiler house, being prepped for slaughter, but all that matters to him is that Annabeth is by his side as always, telling him it'll all be okay soon and covering his back.

He cannot even begin to try and put his gratitude into words, but somehow, he knows she understands.

 

/

One night – or day, or whatever – when they've stopped to sleep, Percy has his first dream since the fall- and it's not a pleasant one.

He dreams of a light, and thousands of monsters ahead- he's fighting a losing battle and he knows it, but suddenly Annabeth screams behind him and he turns to see her fall, her torso covered in blood. He stops for a second before he realizes it's her own, and he surges forward, but is separated from her by a few hundred thousand monsters that refuse to give way: all he can hear are her tormented screams…

His eyes snap open, and the first thing he registers is that Annabeth's hand isn't in his – but how could that be, she was sleeping soundly right beside him, her body warming up his…

The screams continue: the same ones from his dream. Annabeth's. Annabeth's.

He's up in an instant – shouting her name, crying and cursing himself for allowing her to be taken from him. Riptide grows in his hand and although the suffocating blackness does not allow the sword to give him a little light, he feels a small bit of comfort in knowing that whoever has taken her will soon be dead.

He shakes so hard, so fast that he must be falling apart inside, every bone cracking neatly down the middle, and he calls "Annabeth! Annabeth!"again and again. His voice grows hoarse in seconds from lack of water, but he won't stop, he can't-

Suddenly something crashes into him and Riptide is knocked from his hand – Percy yells and thrashes in anger and fear until he realizes that the person containing him is not doing so out of wrath. Hands grasp his own: tightly and strong, and Percy realizes that they have definitely been there before.

But no, no, no – he can still hear her shrieking in pain off in the distance, what the-?

"Shhh," she says softly, bringing him to his knees, drying his tears. "It's okay. I'm here. It's okay, it's okay…"

"Oh my gods," he sobs, grasping her face and although the shroud of darkness has not lifted, she's possibly the most beautiful and radiant person he's never seen in his life.

"I love you, I love you so much," he cries, as her arm circle him, hold him close. "Please-I...I-"

The screams continue and she runs her hands through his hair.

"I love you too," she says. "Don't worry, Percy, I'm here. I'm alive. Okay? I'm not even hurt."

"Then what-?" he asks, but he cannot manage to complete the sentence. Annabeth lets out a shaky laugh as her screams rise and fall around them.

"Leucrotae," she says softly. "I've heard of them, they can mimic any human voice…just, it's okay now, all right?"

She puts his head in her lap and runs her hand through his hair, which has grown thin. She whispers words of comfort until he's sleeping again, but he never lets go of her hand, and he doesn't plan to, either.

/

They eat Percy's few squares of ambrosia, saving every tiny little bit until it's all gone. The scuttling noises behind them grow stronger.

/

"Hey," she says, when they stop for the day, "what day do you think it is?"

"I don't know," he replies. "Mid-July. The nineteenth. Or eighteenth, maybe? Heck, it could even be the twentieth-"

Annabeth traces a pattern on his palm. "Do you know what this means?"

"Yeah. Our…eleventh-month anniversary?"

She lets out a shaky laugh. "Brilliant. You've been missing for more than half, and now we're in Tartarus."

He puts his arm around her shoulders and breathes in the faint scent of lemons in her hair. "For what it's worth, happy anniversary."

"You too," she says. It takes a few minutes for him to figure out that the wet feeling on his shoulder has been caused by her tears.

/

Percy realizes that stumbling around through hell is like chasing a rainbow to find the pot of gold at the other end: you try and try but you'll never get to the other side. Half the time they don't know where the hell they're going or what they're even walking on. It's like the labyrinth, only then Annabeth was acting confident and upbeat, like she knew the way. Now she's as clueless as him.

The only thing he can look forward to is sleep, because when he sleeps, he can dream: dream things of such beauty it hurts to look at. He can see Jason and Piper holding hands and laughing at Leo's jokes, Hazel trying to suppress a smile and Frank looking both amused and irritated, all lounging on the sofas in the mess hall in the Argo II. The whole scene is washed in a sickly golden yellow light, where everything glitters and gleams.

And then he wakes up and the moment has passed and Annabeth's smaller frame is curled up next to him, her hand clenched tightly in his.

He tries to feel resentment, jealousy, because his other friends are living it up in the world above, but then Annabeth lets out a little snore and it's all okay again; he'll always be okay next to her.

/

The first time he hears the ground react to his touch, Percy nearly loses it. It takes all his effort to stay still and not wake Annabeth, who is struggling for breath beside him. Of course, he thinks. Tartarus is living, breathing, watching. Tartarus knows exactly where they are; it would take one order, one monster, to finish them off. The thought sends his mind spinning, with worry and anger, and pure, complete defeat. He wants to cry, only a voice cuts through to him- "Aw, crap. Did I oversleep?"

"No, it's okay," he whispers.

"Did I miss anything?" she asks.

"No," he says.

/

The coughing begins a little while after: the air suddenly turns sulphurous and Percy and Annabeth are starved for oxygen. His ribs feel broken, and his lungs punctured. His skin is parched and his eyes grow droopy. The nightmares grow so terrifying he bites on his tongue to keep from screaming. When it's his turn to watch, he listens to the roars of vengeance of the monsters that are following them. He's almost certain he hears the battle cry of Polybotes, and he's not sure he can defeat him again.

/

 

As they reach closer and closer to the destination which they don't know about, dread begins to creep into Percy's stomach. It moves like ketchup in a bottle, slowly but steadily, until there's a complete jam and too much of it ends up on his plate.

Nico's words come back to him, coupled with new dreams. Leo telling the others: I think someone will have to stay back in Tartarus to close the Doors of Death. Nico denying, cheeks paling by the second. Gaea crooning: Stay here with me, sweet Percy. A true blow to the gods, losing such a noble hero. The gods on Olympus, debating on whether or not to help. Poseidon saying: If he finds out about the sacrifice, he'll do it for sure. Ares retorting sarcastically: Oh, sure. We wouldn't want that now, would we?

What? he thinks. What sacrifice?

He tells Annabeth, who reports similar events in her dreams. She speculates, then speculates some more. She figures Leo is right, that the sacrifice requires someone to stay behind in Tartarus in order to fulfill the prophecy completely. An oath to keep with a final breath.

"You won't do it, will you?" she asks him suddenly, taking his hand in a vice-like grip. He squirms, surprised at how much strength she still has left, but then this is the girl who held the sky.

"Um, I'm thinking no," Percy says. "But if-"

"Shut up," she orders. "We're going to get out of this, okay? And then have some peace and quiet and marry and die old and wrinkled and happy. We deserve that much."

"You want to get married?" he asks.

Silence. He can't see her, but he imagines her cheeks, pale from the dark and the lack of food, reddening.

"Don't worry," he says, before it gets too awkward. "As soon as we get out of here."

She laughs. "Good to know, Kelp Head. So don't plan on dying anytime soon." Her tone is light, and she kisses him and stretches out next to where he's sitting, but he knows she holds his hand tighter than before, like she knows what he's thinking. He isn't sure if that's a good thing this time.

/

More dreams. True success requires sacrifice, says a woman to a stunned Hazel and Leo as they stand on a white beach with the Argo II docked in the distance.

He and Annabeth barely talk and the monstrous noises get closer and closer. They sleep in turns, one guarding over the other. Percy wakes Annabeth up later than required because she's weaponless and tired and he knows that she thinks it's her fault that they're down here in the first place. He doesn't want her doing something stupid, which is funny, because he's the stupid one, the reckless one. She's the clever, calculating one, who can get him out of just about any near-death instance.

Honestly? He isn't sure she can get him out of this one.

He looks down at what he knows is Annabeth's head lying in his lap, and he slowly inches his fingers over her hair. Her honey-blonde curls, which once used to be so thick and silky, now feel like dried grass between his callused fingers.

Suddenly and completely unexpectedly, a wave of red-hot anger washes across him, taking over his senses. After all they have gone through, this is their reward from the gods? Tartarus?They have won one war for the gods against Kronos. And Zeus, the king of the gods, because of his ego larger than his domain and his cowardice, and brought on this nightmare. Gods forbid, maybe if he'd taken action against Gaea immediately, they wouldn't be in this mess.

And the other gods? They could've done something. Anything. Even the smallest of signs from the gods, to let them know that they were watching over them. Instead, the seven most powerful demigods of this generation were blissfully ignored by their all-powerful godly parents.

"Percy?" Annabeth has woken up. Percy realizes that there is no weight on his lap anymore, he is wishing he could see her when she takes his hand and squeezes it tight with her own: he becomes conscious that his fingers have curled into tight fists and he is quivering in his fury.

"What happened?" she asks, and her voice is full of concern and sorrow and a teensy bit of fright; and in that moment, Percy wants to tell her everything, all his worries and bitterness. He wants to tell her he has a feeling he knows what's coming up, and he knows he has a pretty big role to play. Something big is coming: a sacrifice, and he doesn't know what he's meant to do and he's terrified, more terrified than he's ever been in his entire life.

"Nothing," he mumbes.

/

Percy's time in Tartarus is pretty much five full weeks full of eighty-hour days which are full of ninety-minute hours which are full of seventy-second minutes. It is painful, so painful, and every time they stop to rest every ligament and tendon and muscle and joint in his body hurt so, so bad, until he's on the verge of falling apart, like glass that has been struck with a sharp object.

Yelps and screams of tortured souls reach their ears and again and again he thinks: what if the monsters and people left here to rot aren't really evil? What if they're just...

Annabeth stumbles and he catches her by the waist. He can feel her ribs poking through her back.

"Thanks," she says. She kisses him on the tip of his nose, even though he can tell she'd aimed for his lips.

...misunderstood?

/

It's one time when they have stopped for rest that Percy remembers his mother. Annabeth is sitting as guard a few feet away, sniffling softly and murmuring silent prayers while he pretends to sleep.

Finally he can't take it anymore.

"Annabeth," he says suddenly, and she lets out a yelp of surprise, "what about our parents?"

She crawls over to his side and they both sit there. "Chiron would have told them."

He is silent.

"They'll be okay," she says.

They listen to a strangled scream from not far off. Gaea's army is closer. He tries not to think about what's going to happen when they catch up.

"Annabeth..." he moistens his lips with what little saliva he has left. "Are you ever…angry? About what happened?"

She touches his cracked lips with a touch that seems to him like raindrops falling on parched, cracked land: he closes his eyes and imagines that they are not in this dark, damp hellhole, but in the strawberry fields back at Camp Half-Blood, and he's talking too much so she shoves a strawberry in his mouth.

"All the time," she whispers.

/

"I wonder how close we are," he says one day.

"To what?" Annabeth's voice is hoarse.

"To the end," he says. "I…I don't know, it's just…can't you feel it?"

"Yeah," she says. "Yeah, I can."

"So?"

"We're almost there," she says, gripping his elbow. "Just think, this'll all be over soon."

He tries to push down his unease, but it's like swimming against a mighty torrent; like they're where they're inches away from plunging down into nothingness. "Yeah," he says to no one. "It's all going to be done soon."

/

Everything hurts.

Every bit of Percy hurts: hurts more than when he'd held up the sky. Every muscle burns, every joint screams, his bones have turned brittle…he's about as close to breaking as you can get.

"Come on," he murmurs to Annabeth, lying through his teeth but not sure of the truth at all. "Come on, we're almost done."

What she says next scares him more than every monster he's ever faced.

"I can't."

And he knows, he knows, that she really, honestly, can't. They've been breathing the acid air of Tartarus for too long now, scraped so close to death he can taste it in the back of his throat, metallic and sour and nauseating.

His eyes sting but no tears come, and Percy makes a valiant attempt to stand. Standing will help, standing up will give him the illusion that he is in control, when he's this close to losing it.

Only he can't. His knees feel like jelly, and after a few useless attempts, Percy gives up.

He curls up next to Annabeth again: she's managing to breathe in and out but he gets the feeling that she's doing it for him, that if left the choice she'd die here and now.

"Do you remember the sun?" Her voice cracks. She shakes with silent sobs. No tears. She's barely strong enough to move.

"Yeah," he murmurs, closing his eyes. He can almost feel the beams of lights dancing on his skin, bringing him to life. The waves of the ocean lapping his feet. The sweet smell of strawberries in the breeze.

"We're gonna see it again," he says in a broken voice, and his hands clasp hers with what is unmistakable finality.

"As long as we're together, huh?" she murmurs.

He swallows down the swirling in his abdomen. "You know it."

/

Percy dreams of Cabin Two, and his apartment in New York, and the golden sands of the beach at Camp. He dreams of Capture the Flag, and light breezes sifting through the branches of Thalia's Pine. He dreams of him and Annabeth running down Half-Blood hill. He wakes up to deafening silence and blinding blackness, and he cannot see the strawberry fields anymore.

/

They have run out of ambrosia long ago. His insides are slowly being eaten by the acids in his stomach and he knows that Annabeth, instead of resting, often simply clutches her torso and rocks back and forth in a terrible lament of pain.

Sometimes everything hurts so much he claws at the ground and cracks his nails, again and again and again; they'll grow back, he thinks each time. All he knows that the only thing keeping him sane is Annabeth, who whimpers in pain beside him but still grits her teeth long enough to put her arms around him; Annabeth, who never lets go of his hand for fear of losing him in the gloom; Annabeth, whose heart he is going to rip away from and let fall onto the icy floors.

He hates himself, so much.

/

The place just gets even more oppressed: Percy chokes on the darkness before he is vaguely aware that the passage he is travelling on is slowly opening into a much larger space, like a cavern full of riches like in fairy tales.

But this is not a fairy tale, this is simply a chapter of his miserable life where all lamps have been extinguished and he is forced to travel of a path hidden from his view.

Wait.

Not hidden.

"Oh my gods," Annabeth whispers, her eyes widening – his own do too when he understands that he can see her again. There is light streaming out from a large opening to his right – light so bright it hurts to look at. After so much time in the dark, his skin cells tingle and itch. The cloudy blackness of Tartarus meets the streaming white light – that's such a sore sight to his aching eyes he wants to cry – to form some kind of grey, shimmery, misty material that reminds him of glitterfog. Percy looks at the ground and sees that it's blood red. So are the palms of his hands. Littered on the floor are bones, bloody weapons and more gruesome stuff.

Nausea fills his being to the brim, but he forces it down. His puke won't improve the ambience of the place.

Annabeth, he sees, looks a complete mess. She's so thin its plain unhealthy, she's gone pale, her hair has thinned and there are circles like voids under her eyes. She lifts a bony arm and points.

Holy-

The Doors of Death are just about the hugest things Percy has seen in his life: about a mile high and just as wide, made of a pitch-black metallic stone or stony metal, whatever. Even from the distance, he can make out words of ancient Greek and Latin engraved on the walls, which spout out a whole lot of rainbows and sunshine about stuff like those who are in Tartarus shall forever remain so and reversing death shall result in pain in ways one cannot imagine.

The Doors are formidable and absolutely massive, and they are thrown wide open.

"This is too easy," he says. "We could just walk up there and close them."

Annabeth moistens her cracked, bloody lips. They look deflated; Percy figures his can't possibly be any better.

"Look," she says. "What you said before…about the monsters not being there. You're right, Gaea must have put them up to something, but where are they? I would've attacked us now. We've lowered our guard, one of us is unarmed, and we're so weak…"

Feeling like his heart has dropped even further, Percy and Annabeth turn simultaneously to look behind them. It's no surprise that they are already surrounded.

"Oh look," Annabeth says with something like amusement. "There they are."

/

Percy somehow feels like his whole life has led up to this moment. This is every demigod's nightmare, fighting pretty much alone against a whole army of evil creatures. And there's barely any time for him to think at all: only stuff like oh damn that was close as he ducks and dodges multiple swords.

Any sympathy he had felt for them is now gone. Right now, he does not see any poor misunderstood monsters. All he sees are lean mean killing machines who work for Gaea.

Annabeth immediately kicks a sword away from one monster and beats him to it, grabbing it midair and slashing through the creature's armor. Percy fights double-handed for the first time in his life, and, while it's difficult, he quickly realizes it's far more effective than just one. With Riptide clenched tightly in his right hand and another random sword in his left, Percy finds himself whirling around like a small, spiky tornado and killing everything in his path. He and Annabeth fight back to back as they always have done, using each other's senses as well as their own to sense danger, and Percy occasionally throws Riptide high into the air such that it reflects the white light into his adversaries' eyes, temporarily blinding them. Annabeth then snatches from the air it as it falls and flings it away, boomerang-style, hitting the monsters right in their weak spots.

He soon realizes, however, that they are fighting a losing battle. While Percy and Annabeth are skilled warriors, they are weary from their time in Tartarus, and the monsters know it. However much they stab and slash and jab and thrust, more and more come up in front of them. He looks up for a split second, and, feeling any bit of hope vanish on the spot, realizes that the Doors are producing the monsters. There seems to some kind of neutral ground, where Tartarus meets the outside world, where the defeated monsters are regenerating. As he watches, another batch comes to life somewhere between the doors in a swirl of dust. This, literally, creates wave after wave of monsters rushing at them, eager for blood.

Percy makes eye contact with Annabeth long enough for her to understand. She probably figured it out even before he did.

Slowly but surely, they push their way forward, filling up gaps and simply refusing to back down. Percy feels new wounds explode over his back, his torso, his face. It feels almost like there are layers of cursed wounds settling over him like a dark cloud, and it's taking everything he has to keep himself from giving in. Annabeth breathes hard next to him, wheezing like every breath is causing her pain. They aren't far from reaching the mortal world now: the white mist pouring from the other side of the doors seems to be healing him slowly, but Percy's whole body feels on the verge of implosion.

It's chaos. Percy is knocked to him knees, but he feels water beneath the scaly ground and uses all his effort to bring it up to the surface. There's a flurry of steam as the rivers of the underworld all clash and merge, knocking another wave of monsters back.

He throws Riptide one last time; it catches the light perfectly, blinding all the closest enemies. Percy yells, and the ground erupts again; then Annabeth grabs his hand and they run.

/

Crossing the border into the living world is the weirdest feeling ever. It's like, literally, coming back to life: Percy immediately feels fresher, more alert, more alive, more active, but immediately much more aware of just how tired he is.

The monsters do not follow, and Percy just keeps running forward until he bumps into Annabeth, who's come to a standstill in front of him, bringing them both to the ground.

The floor is cold and made of white marble, which shines in the sunlight like it's just been polished. His hands, scraped and bloody, look so out of place. He groans, and is helped up by strong arms that he assumes as Annabeth's, but no, Annabeth is weaker than he is.

He looks up into Frank's face.

Frank is crying as he hugs Percy so tight it breaks his already calcium-deprived bones.

"Oh my gods!" he's saying. "Oh gods, you're alive…I didn't think I'd ever see you ever again…I mean, oh man, I never stopped blaming myself…I-I just…"

"Dude, don't freak," he says, but his tears are soaking Frank's shoulder. He feels Jason pat his back from behind, can hear Piper and Hazel sobbing over Annabeth. He opens his eyes and sees Nico smiling widely and Leo consoling Hedge somewhat amusedly whilst pulling Kleenxes out of his tool belt.

Finally Frank steps backward, his cheeks red and wet. Percy is immediately almost knocked over by another hug from Hazel, who is howling so hard he finds himself comforting her instead of the other way around.

Finally they all take a good look at each other: Percy feels somewhat resentful when he sees them all lined up before him, looking so healthy and clean. Leo even seems taller.

Piper steps forward and offers them a box of ambrosia, and Percy and Annabeth lunge forward like the starved demigods they are and soon everybody is offering them handfuls ambrosia and nectar and Percy devours more and more and more, sighing in relief as he finally feels the cut on his forehead start to close.

"I can take more," he says when it's all over. Annabeth nods.

Piper shares an amused glance with Hazel. "We don't want you burning up, guys. We've lost you one time too many."

They all stare at the Doors. The white mist is stronger here; it pushes the black smog from Tartarus back, forming a swirling cloud of black and white and grey.

"Look," Piper breathes.

"I see them," Leo interrupts. "It's closing them that's the problem."

"I've been telling you that for a month," Nico grumbles. He looks better, not so pale, and he stands close to Percy and Annabeth as if sacred they'll run back into Tartarus again.

"No, look," Piper says patiently. "The way they're positioned. Gaea has thought this through. It's not going to be easy."

Percy, feeling a jolt of electricity travel like lightning down his spine, sees for the first time that Piper is right. Each Door is open on one side of each world: one must be pushed from the side of the living, the other shoved shut from the side of the dead. Piper is right; it will not be easy. There's a risk that someone may get stuck in Tartarus in the process.

There's a silence while everyone drinks this in, and Percy observes each of them. They look so determined, so fearless. Frank's gotten taller and bulkier, Hazel seems more lithe, Piper more deadly, Jason more at peace. Leo's hands are not twitching, as Percy is so used to seeing, and he looks more solemn. Nico avoids his gaze, but his eyes have grown steely. And Annabeth stands close to him: she gives him the shortest of glances but her shoulder touches his back and he knows that, as usual, she's right by him. Percy feels warmth encase him. He's so completely lucky to have friends like these; he would gladly give up his life for them and is about to offer himself as some kind of bait when Jason speaks.

"So," he says, gripping his gladius, "You guys look pretty beat up. The monsters…are they…?"

A collective roar emerges from within the Doors and Percy turns to see just about a million monsters charging straight at him, weapons raised. He looks at Annabeth.

"This is getting irritating," she says.

/

Turns out, Percy doesn't get to fight that many monsters at all, because Frank, who seems to have vowed to never let Percy out of his sight again, changes into a dragon and whacks away monsters with his tail.

That doesn't really help, though, because soon they are both left alone in the sea of monsters and he can only hear Annabeth scream his name in the distance.

Sand swirls around them like a hurricane. The dust storm has come out of nowhere, but it must be one of Gaea's little tricks, because he can hear her soft, crooning laughter echo around them. That laugh creeps him out so much he can barely lift up his sword without his arms quivering.

"The Doors!" he hears Jason scream in the distance. "We need to close them!"

Percy nods to Frank The Big Golden Dragon. "You get the one on the outside."

Frank nearly snorts fire on him, but he changes into human form and stares at him like he is speaking Japanese. "Are you crazy? What about you?"

"I'll get the one in Tartarus," Percy says, ducking so Frank can fire an arrow at a monster who's come too close for comfort.

Frank makes a sound of protest as Percy chucks Riptide into a nearing monster so hard that the blade emerges from its backside.

"Look," Percy says, "I've been in there before; you'll be sucked in before you can even blink. I know what it's like, I'll go."

"You're wounded," Frank whines. "And winded, too. I'll go."

The swirls of dust accelerate around them and he stumbles. "Fly us out of here!" he yells.

Frank glares at him, but changes into a dragon again and allows Percy to climb on his back. Frank spreads his wings, breathes fire out at another monster, and vaults into the air. The dust storm pushes him around but Frank holds firm and Percy nearly loses his teeth in the swirling cloud.

"Drop me now!" Percy yells as they near the Doors again. Frank grunts but does a flip and Percy slides off his back and into Tartarus again, squashing a monstrous…thing in the process.

Do you really think this will work? Gaea sneers. Percy looks back outside: Annabeth, Hazel and Piper are demolishing the monsters and Frank, who has changed into an elephant and is slowly pushing one door forward. Jason, Leo, and Nico are forming a barricade at the Doors; Nico has summoned several hundred skeleton soldiers to help.

"Percy!" Annabeth screams. "What are you doing?"

Percy turns, but he can still hear her yelling for him. His eyes have not adapted to the dark yet and everything looks spotty when he blinks, but he makes it to the giant open door and pushes. And pushes. And pushes, until his eyes nearly pop out.

Slowly, the door gains momentum, but it isn't enough. There seem to be no monsters inside Tartarus, but there is that continuous flow of regenerating monsters appearing from that invisible line where both doors will finally snap shut, and, although none of them have noticed him yet, they will soon, and Percy will have to make it outside in time.

The Door isn't moving fast enough. A few monsters see him and charge. He kills them before they draw more attention.

Percy pushes.

Frank's door has closed. Sweet sacrifices, Gaea hisses. The dust billows up again.

"Percy!" Annabeth screams.

Percy grunts. "Frank, pull!"

Frank, still in elephant form, charges over and pulls the Door with his trunk. However, he's too big, and is immediately noticed by the monsters.

"D-Diversion." Percy is gasping.

Frank stomps away with a bunch of slimy things in pursuit. They do not notice Percy.

Percy gives the Door one last push and it's finally gained enough drive for it to close fully without his help. Now all he needs to do it overtake it.

He runs.

Monsters turn. They charge.

Percy fights madly but the Door is closing too fast.

"Percy!" Annabeth shrieks. "Percy, no!"

He can see her now as he slashes away. She's running towards him, but at least a million monsters separate them now, and they keep getting in her way.

He kicks out in desperation and runs forward, but is immediately intercepted again. He realizes that that's all they need to do: slow him down. His heart feels clenched and his arms heavy, like they're not getting enough blood, but he keeps his legs moving towards Annabeth's voice.

You're not going to make it, Gaea says.

She's right. He's not.

"Percy!" Annabeth yells. Her voice is hoarse and cracks at the end. Percy looks over at her one final time and tries for a smile, and in his eyes there are no monsters, there's only her, only Annabeth, grinning at him and motioning for him to sit beside her, and he does, but he doesn't see the strawberries there and when he gets up, there's a huge red spot of his pants…

He raises his hand in farewell.

"No!" Annabeth sobs. She's forging forward, hacking away at everything in sight, but it's useless.

He shakes his head, still fighting, but only because he can. It's over.

And in that moment, he thinks of everything: his dad saying he was proud of him, Grover giving him a hug, his mom making him cookies, Chiron smiling, Paul teaching him a math concept, all his friends at camp dunking him into the lake. And Annabeth, smiling and kissing him. He will never forget that.

Everyone else is screaming now, too, waving their arms, gesturing wildly. Frank's changed into a giant eagle and is flying at him, ignoring all the arrows lodging in his shoulder.

The light is receding fast.

My little pawn, Gaea laughs. So you will fall with me after all. My, the Olympians will never recover. After all, I knew your flaw would be the end of you.

"Go to hell," Percy says. He raises his sword.

"Please," Annabeth howls. "Please, no, no. You said you wouldn't. No. No, please. Percy!"

"I'm sorry," Percy says, even though he knows she can't hear him.

The Door has almost made it to the midpoint. The monsters all roar, realizing what is happening, and, in a massive wave, try to reach Tartarus again. Some try to push against the Door, but their plan has been foiled. He almost smiles through his tears. Gaea will not rise. Not now, not ever. His sacrifice will not have been in vain.

And right before the doors shut on him, Percy Jackson closes his eyes.

/

nothing is real

and nothing to get hung about

strawberry fields forever