Familiar cliffs rose from the thin line of the beach as the raft drifted forward and the cabins loomed through the thin scatter of trees.
Home sweet home. Percy shifted Anaklusmos back into a pen and swallowed the bitter guilt. I’m sorry, Calypso.
The waves pushed him ashore at the edge of the camp into eerie quiet. Silence hung beneath still leaves and in the shadows between the cabins.
He clicked Anaklusmos back into a blade. ‘Did Luke already attack?’
A soft scrape came behind him and Percy whirled around.
The raft drifted back out to sea, slipping sideways and sinking beneath the waves. No way back. His heart went down after it into the cold dark water. Just like she said.
‘Gods—’ he blinked the tears away ‘—I’m never going to be sorry enough, am I?’
Fate can be cruel, Percy. His dad’s voice welled from somewhere beside the raft, a stream of cold, bitter silver bubbles drifting up from the dark depths. Sometimes the good choice is the best one available.
Percy sighed. ‘Is that good enough? Just do the best I can?’ He clenched his fist around Anaklusmos’s hilt and strode up the beach past the cabins. ‘It sounds like an excuse.’
Distant voices drifted from the arena.
Either Luke’s having a victory speech after killing everyone, or Chiron’s sent everyone to sleep teaching history. He glanced at the cabins as he passed, peering into the windows.
Heaps of shoe boxes sprawled across the floor between beds piled with pink and white cushions.
‘Well, if Luke has conquered the camp, then at least none of the monsters fancied raiding Drew’s shoe collection.’ He strode past the tables and cold bonfire pit to the edge of the arena.
A crowd of backs stared down from the seats at a single coffin beneath a blue shroud. The silver trident embroidered on it shone in the sun as Chiron’s eulogy echoed from the sand. Annabeth’s golden curls hung beside Clarisse’s dark hair in the front row.
They’re mourning me. This is for me. Percy’s legs turned to lead and a little ripple of rage swept through him. I’m not the one they should feel sorry for. I’m not the one who got left behind.
He mustered a grin and sprinted down the stairs. ‘Nooooooooo!’ Percy hurled himself to his knees and beat his hands on the sand. ‘They made the shroud design symmetrical! I’m so upset I have returned from Elysium itself to demonstrate my outrage! How could you do this Annabeth! It’s so horribly evenly-spaced!’
Silence hung in the arena and Chiron buried his face in his hands.
A titter rang through the front row.
‘I’m going to horribly even-space your face!’ Annabeth sprang from the front row and thudded into his side, clinging to a handful of his shirt as she swiped at him with her fist. ‘You seaweed-brained, kelp-headed—’ her voice shook ‘—stupid, idiotic, idiot!’
‘Those last two words mean the same thing, Feather-brain.’ Percy fended off her fist with one arm, side-stepping a kick. ‘Chiron! She’s trying to kill me! Don’t throw away that coffin yet.’
Clarisse doubled over snickering.
Annabeth shoved him away and rolled her eyes. ‘Gods I hate you so much, Percy. You’re such an ass!’
Mr D sighed and crushed his can in his fist. ‘Well, I can see I wasted my morning, Perry. Thank you for that. Alright brats, you have places to be, off you go.’
Chiron folded the shroud up. ‘I’m glad to see you made it back, Percy. Perhaps a less dramatic entrance next time?’
‘It would be hard to top it,’ Percy replied. ‘But you know me, Chiron. I always find a way.’ He stepped over and patted his coffin. ‘So, what’s actually in here?’
‘One really small fish,’ Annabeth snapped.
He laughed. ‘That’s harsh, fresco-freak.’
‘Do you even know what a fresco is?’
‘I do not. Not at all.’ Percy grinned. ‘In fact, the only way I’d recognise one even if it danced in front of me naked would be from your squeals of excitement.’
She shoved her fist over his mouth. ‘Gods above, just shut up.’
Chiron’s hooves clipped away up the steps.
‘So, did you get Ariadne’s String?’ he asked.
Annabeth glanced down at her feet. ‘No. Hephaestus said I’d know if I’d succeeded.’
‘Well, I hope nobody was fond of that mountain.’ Percy chuckled. ‘Because it got blown up in vain.’
‘Where have you been?’ she whispered. ‘It’s been days, Percy. And if you’d come out of the labyrinth, you’d’ve come down from Zeus’s fist behind Chiron and Mr D.’
It was weeks for me. Weeks with her.
‘I went flying.’ He pointed up into the sky. ‘I went so high I touched the clouds. And then I fell…’
Annabeth’s face paled. ‘How are you even alive?’
‘No idea.’ Percy grinned. ‘I woke up on an island. Dad just told me the sea wouldn’t ever hurt me, so I guess I landed in the water and somehow I was fine because it’s the sea.’
‘And you what? Found a boat and sailed back?’
‘No…’ Percy glanced down at Anaklusmos. ‘I came back on a raft. The island… it was Ogygia.’
She turned pink. ‘Ogygia? With Calypso? Are you sure it wasn’t Circe again?’
‘I’m very sure,’ he muttered. ‘I had to leave her behind. I think that might have been the hardest and most horrible thing I’ve ever done.’ Percy glanced away and blinked hard, mustering his fading humour. ‘And you know how I feel about English literature.’
‘Don’t ask me about English literature.’
‘Percy… Only heroes in love can find their way to Ogygia… They’re the only ones certain to break Calypso’s heart.’
He flinched. ‘I didn’t want to do it. I had to come back. I told her I was sorry.’
But I’ll never be sorry enough. Her singing tore at his heart like storm winds ripping at the waves. Never.
‘Why did you have to come back?’ Annabeth studied the hilt of her knife. ‘What stopped you staying?’
‘Well, I couldn’t disappoint all of you, could I?’ Percy waved a hand at the cabins. ‘You’d make the whole camp symmetrical and feng shui if I left you to run rampant unchecked.’ He pried open the lid of the coffin and peered at the empty inside. ‘Wow, it really is just an empty box. You could’ve at least put some sand in here or something. Maybe my fish pyjamas, you always hated the design of those.’
Annabeth yanked him away from the coffin, red-cheeked. ‘Well, I’m glad you’re back, Percy. Losing you was like losing my brother.’
Percy snorted. ‘Don’t let your mom hear you say that.’
She sniggered. ‘Yeah, mom would be mad. You’re much too stupid to be hers.’ Annabeth shoved the coffin shut. ‘So who did you come back for?’
‘To stop Luke.’ He shot her a mock glare. ‘Don’t say that means I’m in love with him. I’m pretty sure I’m not in love with anyone. Well, not anyone here.’
‘Here at camp…?’
‘Here.’ Percy swallowed and stared away toward the sea. ‘Or anywhere in the world that’s not Ogygia.’
Her shoulders slumped. ‘Oh Percy…’
‘It’s fine. It was the right choice. I wasn’t going to let you all fight alone. I do feel a bit sorry for the poor mountain I blew up, though.’
‘Wait.’ The blood drained from her face. ‘Did you say you blew up the mountain?’
‘I tried. And the telkhines laughed at me. And then the whole thing just went bang and I went flying. I assume I did something. Mountains don’t usually go bang like that for no reason.’
‘Oh gods.’ She groaned. ‘Oh Zeus is actually going to kill you.’
‘Clearly he’s been studying English literature,’ Percy muttered under his breath. ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, and try again.’
Annabeth growled. ‘You let Typhon out. Typhon!’
‘I take it that’s bad.’ He frowned, groping for Gabe’s stories. ‘You’re saying it like it’s bad. I can’t remember what or who Typhon is, though, so it can’t be that bad.’
‘He nearly destroyed Olympus last time!’
‘Okay that’s pretty bad.’
A cold chill trickled down his spine. Did I make the wrong choice? Should I have left the telkhines be?
‘Why are you making that stupid face?’ Annabeth demanded.
‘I was just wondering if I’d made a terrible mistake.’ Percy tucked Anaklusmos into his pocket. ‘I thought I was making the right choice when I decided the prophecy wasn’t about me and tried to destroy the forge, but…’
‘Logically, you did.’ She twisted a curl of blonde hair around her finger, chewing her lip. ‘We only knew what we knew. It’s not really your fault.’
‘I don’t think Zeus is going to see it that way,’ he muttered. ‘But oh well. I’m pretty sure he’s tried to kill me a few times already. What’s once or twice more.’
‘He won’t try to kill you now, you’re the strongest half-blood and our leader.’
‘I don’t do any leading,’ Percy replied. ‘I’ve not led anything. At any point. You always boss me around on quests and when you weren’t there it was Zoë doing the bossing.’
‘You always chose what,’ Annabeth said. ‘I only helped with how.’ She started back up the steps. ‘Come on, I feel stupid standing next to your fake coffin. I can’t believe I was crying while you were making out with Calypso.’
I didn’t kiss her. Percy trudged after her, grappling with the guilty nausea sloshing in his gut. I didn’t even think to do it.
A thick, tanned arm barred his path.
He glanced down into a silver can. ‘Mr D? I thought you’d wasted your whole morning already.’
Annabeth glanced over her shoulder and froze, a glimmer of worry in her grey eyes.
‘Go do whatever silly thing you were going to do, girl.’ Mr D pushed the cold can into Percy’s hands. ‘I need to have a small talk with Percy.’
He got my name right.
Annabeth bit her lip. ‘Mr D… Percy didn’t mean—’
Mr D’s purple eyes flared bright as fire.
Percy shook his head at her. ‘Go, Annabeth. It’s fine.’ He waved the can of Diet Coke. ‘I even got a free drink. Who obliterates the demi-god they gave a free drink to? That’s just rude. And wasteful.’
Mr D tilted his head toward the can. ‘Drink, Percy.’
‘It is Diet Coke, right?’ He sniffed the can and flinched from the familiar tang. ‘That’s raki, Mr D. My mom would be really upset with me. I’m quite a long way away from twenty-one.’
‘It wouldn’t be the first time she was upset with you. Or the first time you’ve tasted raki, either.’
‘Yes. Well. That was… different.’
I couldn’t say no to her. Not just one little drink.
‘One sip,’ Mr D said. ‘Go on. It won’t kill you.’
Percy sighed. ‘If it turns me into a dolphin my dad’s going to be upset too.’ He tipped the can and took a little gulp of the raki. It stung the back of his throat as he swallowed and somewhere in the back of his mind he heard Calypso’s bright laughter at his splutters. ‘Happy?’
‘Have you heard the saying in vino veritas?’ Mr D snatched the can and drained it in one go with a scowl. ‘Turned straight back into Diet Coke. Unbelievable. Even in battle he won’t relent.’
‘Isn’t that Latin?’
‘It still applies right now.’ Mr D melted the can on his palm in flickering violet flames. ‘How was Ogygia?’
Percy swallowed the thick lump in his throat. ‘The same as it always is, I think.’
‘Quite so.’ Mr D dug in his pocket. ‘Do you know, Percy, that madness and great love are not so far apart? Few of us expected you to choose to return. But here you are and I’m left wondering what you were thinking when you left that place.’
Love again. Did Aphrodite put him up to this? I bet she did. Somehow.
‘Can’t you just tell what I’m thinking?’ Percy asked.
‘If I could still do that, I would not be left wondering, foolish boy. No, your thoughts are curiously beyond my reach. I daresay unless you direct them to me they will remain so.’
‘I was wondering if Aphrodite had put you up to this,’ he replied. ‘So far when someone pops up to talk to me about love for literally no reason it’s been her.’
‘Interesting.’ Mr D studied him with a sharp glint in his purple eyes. ‘Well, you seem sane enough to me and I would know. But those who choose to leave Ogygia… they’re never as far from my domain as they think, Percy.’
‘I’m just confused right now.’ Percy shrugged. ‘I came back to fight. I didn’t want to disappoint anyone.’
I’d know if I was in love. Unrest stirred in the pit of his stomach, spreading like faint ripples across the surface of a pond. It seems like the sort of thing you’d know.
‘Well, thanks to you I have to go fight a mountain-sized calamity.’ Mr D’s eyes flickered with violet fire. ‘But it does get me out of this hellhole, so I’ll generously call it even.’
‘Here. A token of my gratitude.’ Mr D pressed a full can into his hands. ‘Go find Annabel, she’s worrying that I’ve turned you into a dolphin, and her contingency planning is making my headache worse.’
‘Right. Thanks.’ Percy sniffed the can and sighed. ‘You know I’m not going to drink this?’
Mr D shrugged. ‘I don’t care.’ He flickered with purple light. ‘But you should look away if you don’t want to become a small patch of dust, Perry.’
Percy clapped a hand over his face as a violet flash seared his eyes.
‘Right.’ He peered through his fingers at the can of raki. ‘I really can’t drink this.’
But I can’t just throw it away.
Calypso’s shy smile and flushed cheeks as she offered him a small clay cup of clear raki tugged at his heart.
Was I really meant to stay just because I’m not in love? He wrestled with the cold waves sloshing about in his belly as he plodded up the steps toward camp. I wish Zoë was here to tell me if I was right.
Annabeth lingered by the bonfire and sacrifice brazier, fiddling with the hilt of her knife.
‘I’m still alive.’ Percy drifted to the brazier and weighed the can in his hand. ‘And not a dolphin either, although it would probably make my life much easier.’
She sniffed and frowned at him. ‘That’s not Coke, Kelp-head.’
‘I know,’ Percy murmured. ‘It’s raki. Calypso likes to cook and bake with it. We drank some together.’
For Artemis. He emptied the can into the flames. I’m so sorry I had to leave her. I hope it was the right thing to do, but if it wasn’t, could you please save Calypso from what I did? Like you did with Zoë and Heracles.
‘Who was that for?’
‘Someone I hope can help Calypso.’ A small smile crept onto his face as a gentle breeze swept down from the trees. ‘She’ll know the right thing to do.’
‘Zoë’s not a goddess, Crab-brain. She’s a constellation. You can’t pray to her.’
‘Gods you worry me,’ Annabeth whispered. ‘If you suddenly love Calypso so much, who did you even come back for?’
‘Something more important than selfish love.’ Percy dropped the empty can into the bin. ‘What are we doing about Luke and the labyrinth?’
‘I don’t know.’ Annabeth scowled. ‘Hephaestus said I’d know, but I don’t.’
‘Nico, Tyson and Grover are still in there,’ he said. ‘Tomorrow we should go back in.’
‘There’s a meeting the day after. I’m helping set up the defences just in case Luke makes it through.’ She took a deep breath. ‘After that, we can go back in.’
‘Someone has to pass both halves of Ariadne’s test to get that string,’ Percy told her. ‘I think I failed my part. I left Calypso behind on her island…’
‘Just like Theseus and Ariadne,’ Annabeth murmured. ‘Oh Seaweed Brain, you’re such an idiot.’
‘I know.’ A rush of guilt swept over him, breaking in bitter tears on the hot lump at the back of his throat. ‘I’ll never be sorry enough for leaving her. Never. She must hate me so much…’
Annabeth wrapped an arm around his shoulders and gave him an awkward smile. ‘I’m sure she understands. She won’t hate you. You’re not the first, remember. And you won’t be the last. She’ll be okay.’
‘I will be the last.’ Percy smeared his tears away on the back of his hand. ‘I promised her I’d set her free.’
She paled. ‘On the Styx?’
‘It doesn’t matter. Does it.’