Disclaimer: It's all Rick Riordan's. No profit made.

Yeah, it did happen: I am finally updating! Things had been going on in real life and for a long time. I didn't have the mood or time for either reading or writing fanfiction. But now I', on the train again… I think.

Chapter 11

When the dawn broke, Leo groaned and tried to get out of the car to stretch his legs, almost falling to the ground – a very bad idea, given the fact that Mother Earth was currently angry with them. Angry? Substitute that for 'livid', and you'll get a better perspective, he thought. If they happened to stay on earth for longer than an hour, they started to get sucked. The only escape was to never cease moving. Whenever they needed to rest, they found a building – up until now, it made three houses and two hotels whose owners and managers probably wondered why on earth had they agreed to admit three kids without documents or money, one scorched like a charcoal and as responsive as a block of marble, all three of them incredibly filthy. For their next rest, Leo was actually hoping that they find a river or a stream… something with a bridge they could sleep under. How have the mighty fallen, Annabeth would probably say. Leo had no idea where this quote originated from.

Worse than that was the uncertainty just when the cops would get them. They had to… err… borrow a car. Two cars, actually. The one they had originally rented lay sucked in the earth where they had left it. Thanks gods for Piper's charmspeaking abilities! She had even arranged a helicopter to take them back to California, although the fuel had not lasted them to the Bay area, as they had found out the hard way. Well, at least we're all alive, Leo thought. What should they do about this pilot? How many pilots could Piper's father afford?

The beauty queen leaned over Dakota and felt his pulse.

"How is he?" Leo asked over his shoulder and she shook her head.

"There is no change."

Leo had not really expected that there would be one. Sun had risen and set twice since that nightmarish night when they had defeated Ixion and lost Bobby. All this time, Dakota had not as much as stirred. They practically had to drag him like a human dummy. He was about as conscious as that. The fiery wheel should have burnt his skin off and it had all right, but it had done something else, too. Something worse. It had sent him into some kind of hibernation where he could not eat, he could not swallow the few drops of water that they had forced through his lips and he could not even control his bodily functions. Guess who got to clean afterwards. Yeah, Valdez was in luck again.

"Leo!" Piper called after him and the urgency in her voice made him turn to her immediately with another groan. He shuffled back towards the car.

"Hurry up!" she cried.

"What's wrong?" he called back and felt silly. Really, what wasn't wrong? He broke into a run, though, to find that Piper had already turned the engine on over the way too high buzz of the radio.

"We have to leave immediately," she said. "They're coming."

Leo instinctively reached into his belt and brought out a short wide sword. Piper hated the fact that his instinct was not to bring out hammers or any other tools. Gaea and her giants had done this to him. She would love to make them pay.

"Who? Who is coming? A hydra? The lion that Hercules killed?"

She shook her head while he was jumping in. "It's the police. Somehow, I got tuned to their channel. They have spotted the car in Yreka and they are going down this road…"

"Hey!" Leo protested. "I'm supposed to be the jester here!"

She shook her head and they sped off. "I am not jesting, Valdez. They are after us. Besides, while we were shopping, someone spotted Dakota in the backseat. They think we have kidnapped him, given the fact that he is in such a state, he wasn't admitted in any hospital in the county and you and I, we're… well, car-thieves."

Leo spat a curse that he had learned during his life in the street. "I know you wouldn't joke about that but… Yreka? Who in Hades spotted us there?"

"I have no idea. No!" she screamed as he started flicking through the stations. "We must stay tuned to the police channel," she went on and the car lurched dangerously since she was taking it off the road.

"I know, I know. Holy Haephaestus, Piper, watch the road!"

After all they had been through, it would be preposterous that they should die in a car accident. Anyway, it would be even more ridiculous if the police arrested them for a car theft when they had been only trying, like, to save the world. Not that the cops would believe them. A year ago, Leo certainly wouldn't have.

Something hit heavily the back of his seat. That, of course, was Dakota. Leo struggled to squeeze between the front seats to get on the backseat and strap the other boy securely. Gods, but Dakota was giving them trouble even when he was unconscious! A sudden thought reared his ugly head in Leo's mind: maybe if they dropped Dakota here, the police would be satisfied with finding him and leave them alone for a while? More specifically, for the time they needed to get back to Camp Jupiter? He dismissed it immediately, of course. They did not leave people behind. And he could never face Jason with Bobby and Dakota lost.

Really, there was only one thing that they could do.

"For the love of the gods, Piper! Can't this thing go faster?"

Three hours later…

Julia Reynolds was the first one to spot them and run to them when they entered the camp borders – Leo would like to know where the lookouts were! They had prepared for answering to numerous questions but to their relief, there was no "What happened?" or "Why is he like this?" She did not even ask where Bobby was. She just screamed for the Apollo kids. Turned out she was a good screamer, loud and shrill. In less than a minute, the healers had sprung to their aid, followed by basically the whole camp. Leo could not help but notice that when Reyna leaned over Dakota to examine him, she suddenly turned so white, as if she herself would need urgent healing. She looked so frightened that Leo understood: there was a horror coming. He had known beforehand, of course; he simply hadn't wanted it to be true.

They lifted Dakota on a stretcher. Jason came running and hugged Piper so strong that she groaned, absolutely convinced that she had broken a few ribs. Jason let her go and turned to Leo, assessing his state immediately. The relief that his friends were in one piece was short-lived, though. He did not ask the question they had rehearsed to answer. No, he did not lose his time to ask "What happened?" He asked the most important question. "Where is Bobby?", and when they told him the story of his friend's disappearance, for a moment there was such a cold glint in his eyes that they were uncomfortably reminded that he was, in fact, son of Zeus. It was gone in a minute, though, and Leo wondered whether he had not imagined the whole thing.

"I must tell Gwen," Jason finally said. He was obviously not relishing the task.

"No, I will," Piper answered. It was only fair: they were the ones who had lost Gwen's boyfriend, so they should face the music. Besides, if Jason delivered the news, it would look as if he was trying to get his Greek friends a free pass. Of course, they were innocent, but still!

A few minutes later…

The healers applied potions and nectar to Dakota's freshly bathed burns but it did not help. They tried to pour some nectar into his mouth but he wouldn't swallow and they stopped before they choked him to death. They tried singing a hymn to their father but Apollo seemed to have gone deaf. The demigods, Greek and Roman, shared a dark look: they hated losing patients.

But they had not lost this one. Not yet, though. Still, Reyna knew that there was nothing they could do to save him. There was nothing they could do to even heal him a little. She looked at Will Solace, hoping beyond hope that maybe the Greeks knew a secret, a remedy unavailable to Romans. Anything that could give them hope.

Will shook his head. "I am sorry. I can't feel anything about him. It is as if… as if his life-force had been drained out. All his functions are down. None of his systems is working. I've never seen such a thing."

Neither have I, Reyna thought and tears sprang to her eyes. She had dreamed of losing him, of course. Many times, during the Titan war. But in her nightmares, it was always an honourable death. Never… just shutting out, technically living but dead.

"No," she said. "It can't end like this. It can't. He won't give up."

"Reyna," Lily said gently. "He has no say in that. It's already over."

Reyna whirled on her half-sister, hissing like an angry cat. She resisted the urge to slap Lily for stating the unthinkable. Barely. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Jason entering the cabin. Thankfully, the Greeks weren't with him, otherwise she might have had no control over her action, blinded by her anger that they had made their escape to camp safe and sound while Dakota had come back in such state and Bobby had not come back at all. With a huge effort to overcome her anger and panicky fear, she went to Jason. "Where is Bobby?" she asked, and he just looked at her sadly and shook his head. "Oh gods, no!" she said barely audibly. "Not him too…"

Now, it was Jason's turn to blanch. "Not him too?" he echoed. "Reyna, how is Kota? Is he…?"

She flicked her hair back, impatiently, and willed herself not to cry. "No," she said, sharply. "He isn't dead. And he isn't going to die, I'm telling you."

By the looks of the other Apollo campers, she was the only one who did.

"Such a death," someone spoke with contempt. "Is highly unbefitting a son of Mars."

Mars himself had materialized in the middle of the cabin, looking darkly at Dakota's prone form. Even the light behind his sunglasses was dark. Dark red.

Reyna felt a surge of hope.

"Have you come to heal him?" Jason asked while around them, everybody was kneeling to the god. Everyone but Jason and Reyna, that was it. Then, they reasoned that if they wanted to stay in Mars' good graces, they'd better show respect, for Dakota's sake. The war god was not exactly what one would describe as a caring father. He could let Dakota die if angered enough. So they knelt.

Mars shook his head heavily. "I cannot change my children's fate. And I am not here to sob. Do I look like your kindly little grandmother?" he demanded. Under any other circumstances, that would have been funny. "I just came to check on him. I'll soon come to honour his passing."

And he disappeared before Reyna could scream her disappointment. All that was left in the cabin were the healers. And Jason. And a dying demigod.