It's never easy being alone.
Heck, nobody wants to be alone. Usually it's not a choice that you make, or if you do, you don't realize the impact your decision will eventually have on your life. In other words, the choice to be lonely is pretty stupid.
And that's exactly how Hestia felt as she watched the hustle and bustle of children around her. Dozens of demigods of all shapes, sizes, genders, and colors swarmed around her like a hive filled with busy bees. It physically hurt her sometimes to see those children, and know that she would never have one of her own. Even now, she could feel an aching in her chest where a goddesses's heart should be. It only pained her more to focus on the individual demigods themselves, although she couldn't help herself from the temptation of allowing herself such a simple pleasure as admiring their youthful faces. For a moment, she allowed herself to be absorbed into the hectic life of Camp Half-Blood around her, abuzz with the life of the campers.
A camper who had shaggy blond hair and blue eyes stood in the middle of a chaos, looking calm and out-of-place as he was donned in medical gear over simple shorts and a T-shirt. She saw a cocoa-skinned girl with dark hair, tied back in a bandana, stroll by, twirling a greasy monkey wrench while whistling and looking thoughtful. A young, pretty girl with braces and blonde hair in pigtails ran by, struggling under a stack of heavy boxes. In an inevitable collision, the eager blonde crashed into the oil-stained girl and they both ended up, sprawled onto the ground. Both girls just laughed at themselves, helping each other up, and going their separate ways with a friendly wave.
Hestia smiled at their exchange, and turned back to tending her fire. She continued to muse over how lucky the other gods were. Each one, besides Hera and Artemis, no matter who they were and what they had done, had a child. They all had that. Even the other two virgin goddesses had something closely related to being a parent. Artemis, although she appeared to be the same age as most of them, had her Hunters whom she loved equally as daughters and sisters. And Hera, that meddlesome goddess, was famous for picking certain mortals and demigods to be her heroes. Why, it hadn't even been that recently that she'd chosen her recent victims- er, champions. But never mind that.
The point was that each of the other gods and goddesses was a parent or an authority figure over someone younger than them. That special love that only a parent can give. That feeling of assurance that somewhere, there was someone who they had brought into life, had loved, if even from a distance.
Now, Hestia was not so clueless as to believe that the gods were 100% vigilant for their children. She knew that most of them only checked in on their children about once a year, if that, and that even the ones with the best parenting skills could visit their offspring no more than once a month. There were many, many important things to be done in the godly world, such as running a kingdom, saving the world from monsters multiple times, and managing affairs with mortals.
And also being fat and lazy all day, Hestia thought, surprising herself with the bitterness that was poured into the words. It was just that, she knew that if she had children, she would watch after and care for them as much as possible.
But in a way, she already did have children.
All of the campers here at Camp Half-Blood were her children. And she was here to watch over them every single day, even if they never saw her. Well, that wasn't exactly true. It was Hestia's own private tradition to allow each new camper to catch a glimpse of her as he or she first entered Camp Half-Blood. She always loved the surprise that lit up their innocent faces, the warm glow that overcame them as they beheld the hospitality of the hearth. The hearth was strategically placed here so that that first glimpse of the friendly flames would burn in their memories forever as a sign that their new home at camp would be a pleasant life. She doubted few campers even remembered seeing her though, as most were probably too young at the time or their minds were just too consumed with other matters, like surviving until the next day.
She did know of at least one camper that still remembered his first encounter with her. He had been so young, so innocent, so unassuming and wide-eyed. The delight that had lit up his face when he'd first seen her had warmed her to the core, and the memory of it still softened her heart, even now.
But he was gone now. Snatched away by her stubborn sister Hera, who insisted that she had only done be doing the right thing in thinking of the greater good of all. As true or not as her sister's claim may be, it had still deeply hurt Hestia when one of her favorite demigods had been taken away from his friends, his family, his home, and her. And now he was on the other side of the world, endangered in a place that she dared not go. It had been thousands of years since she'd been in Greece, and she knew that even she was not strong enough to venture into the wild land to save one of the few campers that she both wanted and needed to help.
Yes, it was true. None other than Percy Jackson. But could anyone really blame her? She admired the boy for countless reasons: his unwavering bravery in the face of danger, his indestructible bond of loyalty for his friends, and, most importantly to her, his true sense of the importance in a good family and a home. His moral compass always seemed to point North, the arrow never faltering in its routine spin that tested the boundaries of life, of which direction to go when faced with a decision. For that she was grateful to him, that his sense of right and wrong and his internal courage would never waver.
Still, despite the boy's undeniable valor, she worried for him. He was far away in a very dangerous place, susceptible to the vicious whims of the earth goddess Gaea, and out of Hestia's reach so that she would not be able to assist him in any way. Basically, the past few months had been nearly torturous here at camp and on Olympus. Every day, she could only imagine the horrible things that could happen to him, and she was only able to imagine such things, since she had no means of vigil in the ancient country. Her jurisdiction as a Greek goddess didn't let her vision venture that far.
But, she thought with a tinge of ecstasy, my vision does goes as far as my hearth. She hurriedly turned back to her hearth, barely daring to hope that she would be able to view her child through the vision.
The hearth at Camp Half-Blood was similar in appearance to the one in the Hall of the Gods on Olympus, but not entirely the same. Whereas the one on Olympus was nothing more than a flame hovering in midair, the one at camp was slightly different, with the flame residing in a fire pit with burning coals. Glowing embers seemed to leap out of the coals and drift down to settle on the polished tile that lined the pit. With one glance, the camp's hearth may not seem to be more than an ordinary fire pit used for a campfire on a trip in the woods, but it took a closer look to discern it from the ordinary.
Vague, fuzzy images appeared in the coals, etched in the light so that the ashes and soot marked the shaded, darker parts of an image. The pictures constantly changed, switching from ordinary scenes in a warm, comforting home. A small child opening presents on his birthday. A large Southern family sitting down to a barbecue meal. A little girl brushing her older sister's hair. A poor family happily decorating their sparse, yet merry, Christmas tree. These were the moments that were the very essence of the gods' hearth, and, essentially, Hestia herself.
With a single breath, Hestia closed her eyes and let out a whisp of air that cleared away the other visions in the hearth, and wished to see the one that she was thinking of. Show me a sign that Percy is alright, she prayed.
With a swirl of smoke and a sudden jump of the embers, a new image began to appear out of the ashes and soot in the hearth. Hestia leaned forward and viewed the scene before her. What she saw was enough to surprise even her.
She saw herself, clothed in dark robes, huddling by a lonely fire, rocking back and forth. The flame was sad and pathetic, with no warmth at all and a glow so faint that it nearly seemed to suck out what little light and heat was left in the room. In her darkened state, the Hestia in the past barely noticed the approach of two new figures to the image. One was a girl with a wild, fiery mane of red hair, and the other was a sturdy boy with radiant green eyes and unkempt black hair.
Rachel Elizabeth Dare and Percy Jackson.
"Lady Hestia," Percy said as the two knelt beside her.
She acknowledged them with a nod of her head. "Percy Jackson." Looking around, she seemed worried and fussed, unlike her usual self. "Getting colder. Harder to keep the fire going."
"I know. The Titans are near," he agreed.
Past Hestia turned her head to the girl and studied her carefully, fixating her dark eyes on her with interest. "Hello, my dear. You've come to our hearth at last."
The girl seemed startled. "You've been expecting me?"
Past Hestia's eyes seemed to sparkle, and Hestia remembered, even before the scene unfolded that way, that she had allowed the two children before her to view warm, hospitable memories from their past, and whatever images they had seen in the fiery flame of the hearth seemed to ease the tension in the shoulders, ever so slightly. Hestia took some pleasure in the fact that her simple hearth could momentarily make young Percy forget a few of his troubles. The hearth and the home tended to do that to you.
Now that there weren't any troubles to inhibit their thoughts and prevent their thoughts from being clear, Past Hestia told the Dare girl, "To claim your place at the heart, you must let go of your distractions. It is the only way you will survive."
"I... I understand."
"Wait," Percy interjected. "What is she talking about?"
Past and Present Hestia watched with a quiet pity and slight dismay as Rachel Dare explained the situation to him, and as Percy's care-free face transformed from one of warmth and happiness to one of confusion and anxiety. His brow furrowed and his lip turned into a slight frown, turning down at the corners. When his sense of confusion was cleared away by a form of anger, tensions seemed to begin to rise, and Past Hestia tried to step into prevent them from mounting any further, lest they reach an unnecessary peak.
"Percy Jackson," she said, "Rachel has told you all she can. Her moment is coming, but your decision approaches even more rapidly. Are you prepared?"
A torrent of emotions crossed Percy's face in a matter of a few seconds. Desperation, anxiety, longing, frustration, followed by compassion, sensitivity, wonder, love, and indecision. But the most important expression that appeared on the boy's face revealed itself when he stared between Past Hestia and Pandora's jar, pondering the great force that was held inside. Hope. Hestia could tell when he had reached a decision, because she registered a sign of determination in his eyes that one attains after making a hard yet necessary choice. He held the jar close to his heart as he neared the hearth, as if the fluttering of Hope inside were like tiny wings that could somehow warm his heart where it needed comfort.
"Hestia," he said, having reached the hearth, "I give this to you as an offering."
Present Hestia's movements mirrored that of the Hestia in the past, as both goddesses curiously tilted their heads like a tail-wagging dog who is expecting a biscuit. "I am the least of the gods," Past Hestia said. "Why would you trust me with this?"
"You're the last Olympian. And the most important." Hestia's heart and Hope were twins as both seemed to flutter inside their cage.
"And why is that, Percy Jackson?"
"Because Hope survives best at the hearth. Guard it for me, and I won't be tempted to give up again."
Both of the goddesses smiled as the one in the vision accepted the offered jar from Percy's hands, the touch of it in her hands instantly warming the hearth a tidbit and making the flames dance a little brighter.
"Well done, Percy Jackson. May the gods bless you."
Past Hestia was already turning away from the images in the hearth, and she just managed to catch Percy's final words before the vision faded: "We're about to find out."
Those words stung harsher than anything Hestia could have thought. Here was this boy, who had devoted far too many years in service to saving his loved ones, like his friends and family, in addition to those who he probably didn't care about, like the gods, or know, like random mortals one might meet on the streets of New York. He had offered himself to the world as a bodyguard, always going above and beyond in what he needed to do. And yet, as much as he had done for the well-being of others- even the gods- he had never been awarded the prize of peace, which he deserved.
And now he was in Greece because of Hestia's stubborn sister and her meddlesome ways. Did the boy never get any rest? Any peace? Any calm state of mind? There was no denying that he deserved even that much.
But perhaps things were turning up for the young demigod. Chiron approached the home goddess at her hearth in the center of the courtyard, seemingly being one of the few in camp who could see her repeatedly on a day-to-day basis. And even before Chiron had opened his mouth, Hestia could sense that the old centaur brought good news.
"I bring word from Greece. News of the young demigods who are part of the prophecy of Seven." With a questioning look from Hestia, he confirmed, "Good news. I just got back from delivering the same news to one of your relatives." If he was going to tell her which relative, he gave no incentive. "Apparently, the demigods have found the Athena Parthenos! A few of them are scheduled to bring the statue back here. They should be here in a matter of days."
As a hot air of happiness permeated her heart, Hestia felt like rejoicing. Percy was alright. He was safe. He had completed part of his mission. She was so happy for him, and she knew why. He was the camper that had found a special place in her heart, and wedged a permanent home there. It certainly looked like her child wouldn't be going anywhere. But Hestia's joy was short-lived, and the bubble of warmth that had started to spread quickly dissipated into a cold hand that hovered over her heart. Her smile faded.
"You said only a few were coming back? Who is staying behind, and why?"
The attempted smile that had been on Chiron's face turned into a frown, and he paled. "There is also some bad news." Hestia braced herself. "Percy Jackson and Annabeth Chase have...have..." He blinked rapidly and cleared his throat. "They've fallen into Tartarus," he managed.
Hestia felt the icy hand practically squeeze her heart until it burst. No. This could not be happening. It wasn't right. It wasn't fair. Percy Jackson deserved none of this, and she wanted none of it for him. He was special to her, and she had nothing but the utmost admiration and respect for him. When would things be made right?
Would her child ever be safe?