Jason raised his eyebrows at Piper, obviously impressed, but Piper felt miserable. She didn’t want to twist people’s minds, convince them of things they didn’t believe. It felt so bossy, so wrong—like something Drew would do back at camp, or Medea in her evil department store. And how would it help her father? She couldn’t convince him he would be okay, or that nothing had happened. His trauma was just too deep.
Finally they got him on board, and the helicopter took off. The pilot kept getting questions over her radio, asking her where she was going, but she ignored them. They veered away from the burning mountain and headed toward the Berkeley Hills.
“Piper.” Her dad grasped her hand and held on like he was afraid he’d fall. “It’s you? They told me—they told me you would die. They said … horrible things would happen.”
“It’s me, Dad.” It took all her willpower not to cry. She had to be strong for him. “Everything’s going to be okay.”
“They were monsters,” he said. “Real monsters. Earth spirits, right out of Grandpa Tom’s stories—and the Earth Mother was angry with me. And the giant, Tsul’kälû, breathing fire—” He focused on Piper again, his eyes like broken glass, reflecting a crazy kind of light. “They said you were a demigod. Your mother was …”
“Aphrodite,” Piper said. “Goddess of love.”
“I—I—” He took a shaky breath, then seemed to forget how to exhale.
Piper’s friends were careful not to watch. Leo fiddled with a lug nut from his tool belt. Jason gazed at the valley below—the roads backing up as mortals stopped their cars and gawked at the burning mountain. Gleeson chewed on the stub of his carnation, and for once the satyr didn’t look in the mood to yell or boast.
Tristan McLean wasn’t supposed to be seen like this. He was a star. He was confident, stylish, suave—always in control. That was the public image he projected. Piper had seen the image falter before. But this was different. Now it was broken, gone.
“I didn’t know about Mom,” Piper told him. “Not until you were taken. When we found out where you were, we came right away. My friends helped me. No one will hurt you again.”
Her dad couldn’t stop shivering. “You’re heroes—you and your friends. I can’t believe it. You’re a real hero, not like me. Not playing a part. I’m so proud of you, Pipes.” But the words were muttered listlessly, in a semi-trance.
He gazed down on the valley, and his grip on Piper’s hand went slack. “Your mother never told me.”
“She thought it was for the best.” It sounded lame, even to Piper, and no amount of charmspeak could change that. But she didn’t tell her dad what Aphrodite had really worried about: If he has to spend the rest of his life with those memories, knowing that gods and spirits walk the earth, it will shatter him.
Piper felt inside the pocket of her jacket. The vial was still there, warm to her touch.
But how could she erase his memories? Her dad finally knew who she was. He was proud of her, and for once she was his hero, not the other way around. He would never send her away now. They shared a secret.
How could she go back to the way things were?
She held his hand, speaking to him about small things—her time at the Wilderness School, her cabin at Camp Half-Blood. She told him how Coach Hedge ate carnations and got knocked on his butt on Mount Diablo, how Leo had tamed a dragon, and how Jason had made wolves back down by talking in Latin. Her friends smiled reluctantly as she recounted their adventures. Her dad seemed to relax as she talked, but he didn’t smile. Piper wasn’t even sure he heard her.
As they passed over the hills into the East Bay, Jason tensed. He leaned so far out the doorway Piper was afraid he’d fall.
He pointed. “What is that?”
Piper looked down, but she didn’t see anything interesting—just hills, woods, houses, little roads snaking through the canyons. A highway cut through a tunnel in the hills, connecting the East Bay with the inland towns.
“Where?” Piper asked.
“That road,” he said. “The one that goes through the hills.”
Piper picked up the com helmet the pilot had given her and relayed the question over the radio. The answer wasn’t very exciting.
“She says it’s Highway 24,” Piper reported. “That’s the Caldecott Tunnel. Why?”
Jason stared intently at the tunnel entrance, but he said nothing. It disappeared from view as they flew over downtown Oakland, but Jason still stared into the distance, his expression almost as unsettled as Piper’s dad’s.
“Monsters,” her dad said, a tear tracing his cheek. “I live in a world of monsters.”
AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL DIDN’T WANT TO let an unscheduled helicopter land at the Oakland Airport—until Piper got on the radio. Then it turned out to be no problem.
They unloaded on the tarmac, and everyone looked at Piper.
“What now?” Jason asked her.
She felt uncomfortable. She didn’t want to be in charge, but for her dad’s sake, she had to appear confident. She had no plan. She’d just remembered that he’d flown into Oakland, which meant his private plane would still be here. But today was the solstice. They had to save Hera. They had no idea where to go or if they were even too late. And how could she leave her dad in this condition?
“First thing,” she said. “I—I have to get my dad home. I’m sorry, guys.”
Their faces fell.
“Oh,” Leo said. “I mean, absolutely. He needs you right now. We can take it from here.”
“Pipes, no.” Her dad had been sitting in the helicopter doorway, a blanket around his shoulders. But he stumbled to his feet. “You have a mission. A quest. I can’t—”
“I’ll take care of him,” said Coach Hedge.
Piper stared at him. The satyr was the last person she’d expected to offer. “You?” she asked.
“I’m a protector,” Gleeson said. “That’s my job, not fighting.”
He sounded a little crestfallen, and Piper realized maybe she shouldn’t have recounted how he got knocked unconscious in the last battle. In his own way, maybe the satyr was as sensitive as her dad.
Then Hedge straightened, and set his jaw. “Of course, I’m good at fighting, too.” He glared at them all, daring them to argue.
“Yes,” Jason said.
“Terrifying,” Leo agreed.
The coach grunted. “But I’m a protector, and I can do this. Your dad’s right, Piper. You need to carry on with the quest.”
“But …” Piper’s eyes stung, as if she were back in the forest fire. “Dad …”
He held out his arms, and she hugged him. He felt frail. He was trembling so much, it scared her.
“Let’s give them a minute,” Jason said, and they took the pilot a few yards down the tarmac.
“I can’t believe it,” her dad said. “I failed you.”
“The things they did, Piper, the visions they showed me …”
“Dad, listen.” She took out the vial from her pocket. “Aphrodite gave me this, for you. It takes away your recent memories. It’ll make it like none of this ever happened.”
He gazed at her, as if translating her words from a foreign language. “But you’re a hero. I would forget that?”
“Yes,” Piper whispered. She forced an assuring tone into her voice. “Yes, you would. It’ll be like—like before.”
He closed his eyes and took a shaky breath. “I love you, Piper. I always have. I—I sent you away because I didn’t want you exposed to my life. Not the way I grew up—the poverty, the hopelessness. Not the Hollywood insanity either. I thought—I thought I was protecting you.” He managed a brittle laugh. “As if your life without me was better, or safer.”
Piper took his hand. She’d heard him talk about protecting her before, but she’d never believed it. She’d always thought he was just rationalizing. Her dad seemed so confident and easygoing, like his life was a joyride. How could he claim she needed protecting from that?
Finally Piper understood he’d been acting for her benefit, trying not to show how scared and insecure he was. He really had been trying to protect her. And now his ability to cope had been destroyed.
She offered him the vial. “Take it. Maybe someday we’ll be ready to talk about this again. When you’re ready.”
“When I’m ready,” he murmured. “You make it sound like—like I’m the one growing up. I’m supposed to be the parent.” He took the vial. His eyes glimmered with a small desperate hope. “I love you, Pipes.”
“Love you, too, Dad.”
He drank the pink liquid. His eyes rolled up into his head, and he slumped forward. Piper caught him, and her friends ran up to help.
“Got him,” Hedge said. The satyr stumbled, but he was strong enough to hold Tristan McLean upright. “I already asked our ranger friend to call up his plane. It’s on the way now. Home address?”
Piper was about to tell him. Then a thought occurred to her. She checked her dad’s pocket, and his BlackBerry was still there. It seemed bizarre that he’d still have something so normal after all he’d been through, but she guessed Enceladus hadn’t seen any reason to take it.
“Everything’s on here,” Piper said. “Address, his chauffeur’s number. Just watch out for Jane.”
Hedge’s eyes lit up, like he sensed a possible fight. “Who’s Jane?”
By the time Piper explained, her dad’s sleek white Gulf-stream had taxied next to the helicopter.
Hedge and the flight attendant got Piper’s dad on board. Then Hedge came down one last time to say his good-byes. He gave Piper a hug and glared at Jason and Leo. “You cupcakes take care of this girl, you hear? Or I’m gonna make you do push-ups.”
“You got it, Coach,” Leo said, a smile tugging at his mouth.
“No push-ups,” Jason promised.
Piper gave the old satyr one more hug. “Thank you, Gleeson. Take care of him, please.”
“I got this, McLean,” he assured her. “They got root beer and veggie enchiladas on this flight, and one hundred percent linen napkins—yum! I could get used to this.”
Trotting up the stairs, he lost one shoe, and his hoof was visible for just a second. The flight attendant’s eyes widened, but she looked away and pretended nothing was wrong. Piper figured she’d probably seen stranger things, working for Tristan McLean.
When the plane was heading down the runaway, Piper started to cry. She’d been holding it in too long and she just couldn’t anymore. Before she knew it, Jason was hugging her, and Leo stood uncomfortably nearby, pulling Kleenex out of his tool belt.
“Your dad’s in good hands,” Jason said. “You did amazing.”
She sobbed into his shirt. She allowed herself to be held for six deep breaths. Seven. Then she couldn’t indulge herself anymore. They needed her. The helicopter pilot was already looking uncomfortable, like she was starting to wonder why she’d flown them here.