Leo didn’t have to be told he was dead – that was a given. But then, logically, no one should have to be told they were dead – wasn’t the point of being dead staying dead? Which means he wouldn’t have stayed alive long enough to have someone tell him he was dead. Which means they’d be pointing out the obvious. To a corpse. Which would be dumb. And creepy.
He remembered a lot of things – but not one of those things was ever useful, or an explanation as to how he found himself floating in this sea of darkness. He would remember his friends, though, sometimes. Usually as if he were peering through glass, though – their faces, a little distorted, their names a little fuzzy – but they stayed with him. Through the darkness. And their smiles warmed him a little when he began to wonder if he would ever see light again.
He wondered aloud often, screaming until his voice hurt, and he remained hopeful – because, sore throats were a human thing, right? Ghosts never got tonsillitis or sore glands. Ghosts were cold and unfeeling. And Valdez liked to think he had a little humour – even down here, in the depths of the dark.
Sometimes, if he was lucky, he would have nightmares in the dark, and awaken to the disappointing sight of his own pale limbs. Many would consider this a thoroughly negative experience, but Leo – Leo remembered. His nightmares only frightened him because they were to be believed, down here in the dark.
They were so vivid, so tangible – he could smell, hear, and taste the air, the noise, and the world around him. He could touch things, and scream and shout and speak, and people replied. Reacted. In the dark, no one heard him cry. There was no food – and no air to inhale. The universe - this claustrophobic, infinite black hole - began and ended around him. It was void of life - a shadow. He was living in shadow.
Fourteen times, he had woken up and found he had not escaped to the surface. He saw things in the dreams. He remembered things he had forgotten, and each dream – though they came few and far between, brought new memories. New warmth. And he would wake up a thousand times in the darkness to the sight of himself, gaunt and pale and drawn, just to remember the names.
Percy – Piper – Frank. They were definitive. He knew them, they were his. Down here in the dark and the cold, he owned those names. They were his. The rest were a little more dubious – Hazel? For a long while he had thought of her as Harry, but after a particularly vivid dream about her, her and her eyes, oh, those eyes – so deep and clear and worried, he remembered. Hazel. He said it aloud to himself. Twice. Shouted it. Hazel! Her name – her name was Hazel! And she was mine. My friend. She was my friend!
A boy called Jackson had haunted his dreams once or twice – like Percy, the green-eyed hero who smelt of the sea. But this boy had smelled of the sky and he had the look of someone who had flown so high they had never wanted to return to the ground. His hair was tarnished by the sunlight. Over time, Leo had concluded that the boy’s name was not Jackson – but nothing else ever came quite that close again – Jace? Joe? James? Jim? So he called the boy Jack and was done with it. It didn’t matter – he told himself this frequently – it didn’t matter. But it did.
Leo took to holding the memory of Jack as though it were an injured bird – gently, tenderly. He remembered his eyes on the bad days, when he thought all the faces and names he had worked so hard to preserve might slip away into the darkness. How blue and big they had been. Jack held the skies inside his of eyes. And it rhymed. And Leo remembered. And so it went on.
Next there was another girl – another blonde – but this one was harder. In life, Leo felt she may have been cold at times. Otherwise, why would he have had to work this hard to get inside his own head? Her name was Annabelle. He was sure. But sometimes, when he thought about it long and hard, he could see her on the periphery of the darkness, head turned slightly, teeth gritted in frustration, shaking her head no. No, you’re wrong. But so, so close, Leo. And on the days where he wished he could close his eyes and be done with it, he imagined her. And he imagined her scolding him. And hating him. And her yelling at him. And a fire ignited inside of him. A fierce fury that kept him alive, kept his eyes open in the dark.
After he dreamt of her for the fifth time, he awoke with a start, and found his hand burning – burning, with real flame – and he could hear her laugh. Well done, he saw her nodding, well done. And as he peered through that darkness, by the light of his own flame, he thought he saw her for a second. He was warm. And her name wasn’t Annabelle. He wasn’t sure what it was. But he knew it wasn’t Annabelle. And he kept fighting the darkness.
He no longer looked at himself and saw blue, thin limbs, or dead skin. He worked with the fire, and saw it lick away at his flesh like kindling. Each time he woke, he was glowing. But he didn’t mind. He didn’t care. This is what they make you give, he thought – this is how they break you. They make you burn everything until you have only yourself left as wood. And some people flourish. And some people wither. But everyone burns.
The dreams, he realised with an ache one day, came less and less as time passed. The dreams dwindled as the flame grew. Different people visited in those lessening fantasies, and the stronger he grew, the heavier he felt. He could hear himself crying now, instead of the cold sensation of tears falling off his chin. It was odd, the weight of feeling. It grew. It hurt. The flame burned on.
A girl called Thalia chased away the demons in one dream, and she stood, majestic in the moonlight as a wolf howled in the distance. Leo watched from the edge of the cave and smiled. And Thalia smiled back. But something was different this time – so different. It felt wrong. In the dreams, people felt real. They always felt real. But they moved to Leo’s desire, his manipulation. They were his escape. Should Jack and Piper be talking to him on a school bus near the Grand Canyon – and gods know where that dream came from – he could always tell when they were gonna make out and start shutting up. Should the Not-Annabelle girl shout very loudly at him for knocking something over, he always wanted her to beforehand. It was his world, it moved around him. To please him.
But in the moonlight, he had sat, contented, and not wanting her to do anything. He wanted to marvel in her beauty, revel in the safety she provided. He just wanted to enjoy the moment. He would soon wake. He knew this. He knew he would return to the dark. He just wanted to live in that moment, for nothing to change.
And then she had broken his tableau, and smiled, a small and secret smile, and for the first time in a long, long time – he had blushed. And then he froze. And then he woke up.
He didn’t dream a long while after that.
The next dream he had, he was perching on a swing below a small cherry tree. It was summer, the breeze blew softly and it was warm. The flowers swayed and bobbed. And he had watched a small gathering – of the friends and faces he had tried so hard not to forget, as they sang for a small child. She was tiny, and chubby, and her hair was curled and chestnut-coloured. Her skin was freckled, and she had two small hooves and hairy legs. A satyr and his wife sang for their child of two years, and Leo cried. So much he missed, had missed –would miss. So much life not yet lived. He rose from the swing, and turned to leave, but looked back, on a whim. The woman he had only known briefly looked up at him, and smiled. Coach Hedge looked up, confused, before seeing him. And Leo felt a jolt at the base of his spine as he realised the man really saw him. Him, as he was. The satyrs jaw dropped, before he smiled, slowly and rose two fingers in a mock-salute. As the rest of the party looked on, confused, Leo had grinned. He saluted in response, before turning and walking away, slowly. The flowers and the garden and the sunshine all seeped from view as he walked on and on – the faint touches of summer melted back into darkness. He didn’t need to wake up. He was standing up, alive, awake and the darkness seemed about as real as the dream.
He did not doubt he had visited that garden.
The last time he dreamt, he had been fitful, fighting against the darkness all day, testing the limits of the restrictive black blanket around him. He had burnt right into the edges of the void until it tore like material – by which point he fell back in surprise, yelping. Unnerved by the easiness of the task, he peered through the fist-sized tear.
He inhaled sharply in surprise. Nico Di Angelo, a face he had never remembered in the darkness until now, stood to the side of Leo’s vision. From the rest of the tear, he could see a field. It was dry and dusty. Wildflowers grew around Di Angelo’s feet. It appeared empty, and looked to be dangerously in-the–middle-of-nowhere.
But it was also, he begrudgingly admitted, very peaceful. The grass swept in waves as the wind crossed the prairie. It was ocean in the middle of a dry and parched terrain. And Nico Di Angelo was standing in the middle of it.
“I know you’re there.” Leo stepped back in surprise. It had been so long since anyone had referred to him. So long. The darkness split, falling away at Leo’s touch. The darkness fell to rags. He couldn’t step forward. The darkness was still holding on. Run, he would tell himself, run to your friend.
“We can’t talk. I can’t stretch far enough to reach you. To find you. You’re too far away. But I know you’re there, and I need you to listen.”
Di Angelo, he whispers, I’m right here. Help me.
“I know you’re not coming back. I know that.” His voice wobbles.
Di Angelo, are you crying? But his voice falls away into the wind.
“And I know that you’re never coming back. I know that. I know that. I’m not stupid.”
Di Angelo, can you hear me? Dude, are you crying?
“But you were. You were my friend. You were our friend. And you didn’t deserve this. You didn’t. You were so stupid. This is so stupid.”
Di Angelo? He says, as he shakes the darkness from his feet and tries to step out onto the grass. He doesn’t move. The ground is stubborn and gets away from him.
“And I know you’re not coming back, okay? Can you hear me? I know that.”
Di – Di Angelo? Stop crying.
“But I know you’re not gone either. I can see that. The others . . . they pass it off as delirium, or dreams, or stress or fear or weariness but I know, I know it’s you. I know you’re not gone.”
Di Angelo, I’m right here. I’m here. I’m here! I remember you. I’m sorry!
“And so I guess I’m here to tell you that it’s okay. The only reason you’d be sticking around isn’t because you did bad things but because you’d be waiting for us. Trying to get out. I know you. Hazel knows you. Piper and Jason know you. Everyone knows you’re stubborn. Everyone.”
“And so, as your friend,” Nico’s breath hitches. Leo has cried silently so many times, he would recognise the shaking shoulders of quiet tears anywhere.
Di Angelo, stop.
“I’m here to tell you that it’s okay to let go. You can go Leo. You don’t have to stick around for us. You can go. We know – we know you’re holding on for us. You’re dumb, and stubborn, but you’re our friend. We know that you’re holding on for us. So I want you to do something for me, right now. If you are fighting, if you are shaking, tearing, burning your way back to us, just . . . stop. Okay? Just stop now. Just let go.”
What? No! Di Angelo! Hey, Nico! Nico! NICO!
But it is done. Leo knows it is. He has given up, and Nico has found his closure. The Di Angelo boy – his voice already forgotten as the darkness pools around his feet and curls around his arms – vanishes in a cloud of black sparks. And Leo finds himself stepping back, back, back into the darkness, and it swirls up and around in ways it has never before, and climbs up his legs and torso and arms and up his chin and travels down his throat and nose. His no longer sees the field, or his friend, or his body. He no longer even sees the darkness as walls and a prison cell. The darkness has become him.
He awakens, later, in the dark. He cannot see himself, but there is a woman by his side. She looks a little like his mother, he realises – and yet, that glint in her eye is too cold, too steely to be kind. To be a real mother.
“I am a real mother, you know. I love my children. I would do anything for them. I would kill for them. Do not doubt that I am a mother.”
Psychopath, Leo would like to think – but this woman can hear inside of his head. He instead thinks of his mother’s face again, a welcome distraction.
“Can you hear me?”
She nods. “I can hear you.”
He leans his head back, comfortable, as if on a bed, when he thinks he is in fact still suspended in the darkness.
He sighs. “Finally.”
“You are happy to simply be understood?”
“Huh?” Leo says, unmoving.
“You are easily-pleased?” The woman asks him.
“Heh, of course not. I want my old life back. I want my memories. I don’t want to have to fight to remember my friend’s names and faces. I don’t want to fight the darkness anymore. I don't want to fight at all.”
The woman smiles then, and Leo recognises her. “It’s you. I used to hate you.”
The woman laughs sweetly, which he recoils from, expecting a venomous response. Stay back, he warns, stay back.
Hera morphs to a pretty young woman. She looks, he decided, like a soccer mom. An edgy one, though.
“Quite rightly so. I am sorry, sweet child. I was not kind to you. I am usually kind to very few. But that is because love is precious resources. You have to save it for precious people. But my children are safe; Gaea is gone; your debt is paid.”
“Paid?” He frowns, still aching from the pull and the strain of the dark.
She smiles. “You gave your life nobly. And you fought well. And you deserved better. So in return, I will give you what I can. But know that I have only the power to do some things.”
“How convenient,” he wants to laugh, “You spent a lot of time, energy and power manipulating my friends and me.”
“To protect my children.” She insists, but Leo is not scared when her voice becomes firmer. She is not threatening him. She is happy.
“I want – I want my life back.”
She looks at him, pityingly. “You know I can’t do that.”
He sighs and closes his eyes. “Then I don’t want anything.” He opens his eyes again. It is still dark, except for the light she radiates. It illuminates his skin. He feels golden. Is this how it feels to be a god? To be loved and beloved by all? To be . . . golden?
“Oh, Leo. Stubborn, stubborn Leo. Your mother would be so proud.”
He remains silent. He grits his teeth. He will not succumb to her whispers and her wheedling.
“Oh, Leo. Sweet, sweet boy.” He is standing now. He is not sure how he came to be. He floats before her, arms spread. “Sweet child.”
Her eyes cloud, turn golden. They are solid, murky, like molten gold. “Child of Hephaestus,” she commands, “I give back to you,” she raises a finger to his forehead and touches him once, “your memories.”
It is overpowering, like swallowing lava. For a second, his vision is obscured, a white hot light consuming his vision, a heat burning his body. Then, suddenly, it is done. He breathes deeply, overcome.
Then the memories return. Piper Mclean and Jason Grace on a bus. The Grand Canyon. Piper and Jason making out. Percy Jackson falling into the underworld. Falling. Annabeth Chase making out with Percy on the glass floor of the Argo II. Falling. The Argo II. Khione, Thalia, the hunters. Cute unattainable girls. Festus. Falling. Hazel, beautiful Hazel, lumbering, noble Frank. Nico. Creepy and honourable and kind Nico Di Angelo. Reyna. Octavius. Camp Half-Blood. Falling. The tattoo on Jason’s arm. Camp Jupiter. Being a seventh wheel. Being an outsider. Annabeth standing by the Athena Parthenon, Annabeth and Percy retuning, miserably watching the skies, waiting for something, anything. Falling. Gaea, and the bloody red quality of the sky. Watching Piper and Jason about to be slaughtered. Time slowing. Running, running, running, pushing, falling. The world tilts. The memories become fuzzy. The memories slot into place. He remembers his entire life, birth to death, he remembers knowing he was going to die, that precise moment when he realised, he remembers his mother and his friends and himself and how he saw the world around him.
His name is Leo Valdez, and he truly knows the value of it now.
He thinks he may puke, but at least the whispering voices have gone. When he opens his eyes, Hera is gone. And there is light, there is so much light. And he can smell the sea. And there is sand in his mouth, up his nose, on his tongue and teeth. And there is so much light. He pushes himself up by his arms, legs and feet still trailing in the sand until he brings himself up into a squatting position.
So much light.
He looks out, and the ocean is crystal blue and distinctly Mediterranean. He glances around. The surrounding beach is tropical and warm and beautiful. And so he wonders; is this heaven? Hera had plainly refused, and even though he asked for his life back, he knew. He had known. She hadn’t refused. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to – she couldn’t. She couldn’t.
It’s then he realises he isn’t breathing. And not figuratively – he physically isn’t breathing. His chest doesn’t rise or fall – panicking, he reaches below his jawline and reaches for a pulse that isn’t there.
He removes his hand from his jaw and places it over his chest – his heart is not beating. By definition, he is dead.
But he is alive. And he laughs loudly, looks back up at the sky, and thanks Hera.
“Leo?” A girl calls from somewhere. “Leo? Oh my god! Leo! Leo!”
And he knows that voice. He hears a different voice, deeper and older, laughing gently, and feels a light pressure on his forehead once again from some invisible source. Confused, he lowers his head, suddenly dizzy.
Waiting for a boat that never came. That would never come. A beautiful girl who had her heart broken countless times. The boat inexplicably retuning. The girl’s bitter smile. Her kisses. Her touch. Her goodbye. Leaving on the boat. Watching her fade into the distance. He remembers.
Leaving her behind.
“Leo!” She is running, he can hear that. She is closer than ever before. He feels his chest swelling with an indescribable emotion.
He will never live again. He will feel more alive than ever.
He will never see his friends again. He doesn’t need too.
Maybe, he thinks, he is okay. He will be okay.
He is dead. He has been given a second chance.
Hera could not give him anything. Hera has given him everything.
He is laughing.
“Leo?” The voice says from above him now, he can feel her shadow, smell her, sweet and fragrant, he can feel her closeness to him. A few inches, maybe. A tiny distance, a small gap.
Close the gap, Leo, the voices will say for the last time. Live again. You are reborn.
“Leo?” she says again, crouching.
He looks up.
“Hello,” he begins, but, upon feeling this is an inadequate response, tries again; “I think I may be in love with you.”