Time Without End
IOf all the worlds…
Of all the lands…
Of all the loves…
It's you I will be coming home to for all time./I
The newborn infant's squall tore through the mahogany rafters of the impressive San Francisco mansion. "There now, baby. There now," murmured the large bespectacled man as he laid the child over his shoulder and rubbed its back. "Now, princess, you just cry and cry. We'll feed you in a while." He turned to the uniformed maid behind him. "Did you find one?" The maid shook her head. The man glared at the locked doors of the master's bedroom. "She's going to die if we don't get something in her soon!" The child's sobs lessened, and he was worried. The baby was losing strength fast. He turned his daughter in his arms and murmured, "You're probably thinking the world is so harsh, don't you, baby? Two hours born and still no nourishment." The child was suffering, and he would not allow this. "Get the key and open the door," he commanded the servant.
"What the hell more do you want?" screeched the woman on the bed. "Haven't I given you enough service for today bringing that scrap of humanity into the world?"
"She needs milk."
"I'm not giving her any! I've already ruined my body by carrying her. I am not going to let that bite and suckle at me."
"Have a heart. She's going to die. This is your daughter, too." He carried the baby over to the blond woman in the silk night gown.
The beautiful face scrunched up in disgust. "Argh! Get that thing away from me."
"Sir! The wet nurse is here."
The man glared down at his young wife and turned on his heels. "Come on, Piper. You're going to eat. And be strong."
He could see his own reflection on the shiny leather boots. The three year old boy climbed the winding stairs head down, watching the way the reflection distorted with every movement. Upon reaching the second floor, he dragged his feet as he followed his father. "What did I tell you about carrying yourself, son? Chin up and straight back." The boy immediately complied, and imitated the dignity with which his father moved.
His father twisted the golden knob and entered the large library they always visited. He greeted the man seated inside. "Linberg."
"Have a seat, Wyatt. Good morning, Leo. It's nice to see you again."
Leo's chest rose at having been noticed by his father's associate. His stubby legs took him behind the desk and he proudly stood in front of Max Linberg, offering his hand. The large hand took and shook it. "Good morning, sir."
"What fine manners your boy has, Wyatt." He turned back to the little boy. "Did you come visit my daughter again, Leo?"
"Aye, sir," he promptly responded. "Father visits with you and I visit with the baby, said Mother."
"Well, you know the way, my boy. Go while your father and I finish up some business."
The boy nodded and scampered off to the nursery, which was adjacent to Max Linberg's library. He insisted on installing the nursery there, because he wanted easy access to his daughter. No matter the meeting or the arrangements being handled in the library, Max Linberg would leave if he heard a whimper from the baby.
In the nursery, Leo tiptoed in. The pretty baby girl was sleeping in the crib, and he stood on tiptoes so he could reach and touch the soft skin. "Hello Piper. How am I gonna visit with you if you're sleeping?" He was about to shake the baby awake when he decided it would be mean to do that. Instead, he grabbed a giant red block and sit on it waiting. He swayed his legs to and fro, humming his favorite nursery rhymes.
Her wet nurse peeked in, and Leo informed her, "Oh, she doesn't need to eat yet! She's asleep and is lazy." The nurse held a finger to her lips and waved goodbye to Leo. When she was out of sight, Leo figured out that everybody should be thankful because of him. If he hadn't spoken up when he did, the nurse would have woken Piper up. Piper would have yelled and screamed and cried, and the meeting at the other room would have been interrupted. Father and Mr. Linberg would come and stop their meeting and everyone would be disturbed.
The door opened again, and Leo sighed. When will everyone just stay where they are and stop disturbing the baby? His eyes widened when the beautiful Mrs. Linberg stepped in. He knew Mrs. Linberg didn't like Piper too much. Who would like a cry bag anyway? Still, Mr. Linberg seemed to care for the baby very much. Leo could count how many times Mr. Linberg called out a sharp, "Phoebe!" when Mrs. Linberg talked of her daughter.
Mrs. Linberg leaned over the crib. She didn't see Leo, because he hid behind one of the bigger blocks. Mrs. Linberg was a mean witch, he thought.
"Well, it looks like your father managed to save you." Mrs. Linberg then looked around, tapping her foot impatiently. A few minutes later, she opened the door and glared at the woman waiting there. "Prudence, you think that's enough quality time I spent with her?"
The woman nodded. "All right, you're free to go."
"Good! It's not like staring at that ugly thing is fun." The door closed behind them.
Leo crawled out of his hiding place and walked over to the crib. He regarded the sleeping baby quietly. His brows furrowed. "She's not that ugly," he murmured thoughtfully.
In the next room, Leo's father and Piper's father toasted to the most perfect partnership deal they've ever thought of. What contract is more bonding than marriage? Who ever thought that Linberg and Wyatt are not the shrewdest businessmen in San Francisco?
I "Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up."
-James Baldwin /I
Serious brown eyes looked up at the little boy standing arrogantly before her in a black suit. "You look swell!"
Leo huffed and waved the compliment away. "Oh shush, Piper. I don't look swell. And you haven't answered my question."
"This?" The girl grinned. "You don't need to know! You just wanted to come here and show me that you look swell."
Leo flushed. "You're changing the subject! Don't say it again. You just don't want to answer me."
Piper smiled and jumped off the bed. "This is a doll, Leo. You're too transparent!" She pulled her friend to the dresser and sat him down. She took a gold brush from her drawer and started combing his hair. "The color is so pretty. I'm so jealous. You have the same color hair as my doll."
The boy stared intently at their reflection in the mirror. "Why would you be jealous, little girl?" She thumped him on the head with the brush. "Ouch! What did you do that for?"
"I'm all of five years old, Leo Wyatt!"
"And I'm seven! You're little to me."
"You know I don't like you calling me little," she argued.
The boy hopped off the chair and stood tall. "I've been around longer. I saw you when you got born, you know. I've been taking care of you even before you could see."
The pretty mouth grimaced. "You were two."
"And I was already looking after you." Leo shook his head and drew out a miniature wallet from his pocket. "Here."
"I've seen that millions of times before, Leo," she retorted.
"No. You need to see it again," he insisted. "Come on."
Piper dragged her feet over to Leo. They sat at the edge of the bed, and he draped his arm over her shoulders as he flourished the picture. "Fine."
"See? You don't remember that coz you were too little then, but I remember. And I got this photograph. Maybe I should give you a copy for you to keep too. What do you think?" No answer. "Piper? Piper?" Leo bent to look at his friend. The girl's face was scrunched up and her eyes were shut tightly. "Piper, you're not looking!" he complained.
The brown eyes opened and gazed back at lucid hazel ones. "Coz I saw that photograph too many times!" she whined.
"Just look again!"
Piper sighed and took the wallet in both hands. A two year old Leo was captured smooching baby Piper's cheek. The photo was a fraud too. It looked like Leo was carrying the infant, but upon closer inspection, Max Linberg's supporting hands could be detected.
"I've been taking care of you since you were born."
"Sure, thank you, Leo."
"It sounds like you don't mean it," he grumbled.
"Of course I mean it."
The door opened and Phoebe, resplendent in a red knee length dress and fur drape, shook her head at the two. "Piper Linberg, you're not dressed yet! And you, Leo Wyatt, wait in the living room for your father. Piper, be ready in twenty minutes if you want to go with us." The door shut behind her.
"Boy, your mama's surly."
"Yeah, she is."
"I better go downstairs like she said."
"Oh, you crazy? I have twenty minutes. I need you to help me get ready."
"Your nurse can help you."
"I'm too old to have a nurse. And I'm gonna show papa. So come on, pull the chair and take down my yellow dress."
Leo did so and handed it to her. "You're too old for Nurse Polly but you're gonna make Ime/I your servant!"
"You say you take care of me and it's time you do it for real." The little girl slipped into the dress and the boy shuffled his feet, not knowing what else to do. "Zip me up!"
Leo groaned. "Nurse Leo?" he muttered. "I'm not Nurse Leo." He stopped when he saw her frown at her reflection on the mirror. "Whatsa matter, Pipe?"
She touched the straight brown hair. "My mama says I got ugly Linberg hair. And she's got pretty blonde curls."
"You don't have ugly Linberg hair. You got pretty Linberg hair. And I like your hair. It looks like chocolate I wanna eat it up!"
Piper giggled. "You wanna eat my hair up?" Leo nodded. "That is the cutest thing you said to me!"
I"Love builds bridges where there are none."
-R. H. Delaney /I
"What do you mean you're not going to school with me?" Piper demanded over the telephone.
"Piper, honey, modulate your voice," she heard her father say from behind the newspaper.
"We always come to school together, Leo!" she whispered furiously. "Fine then. You go off and cycle with your friends to school. I don't need you to go with me. Oh yeah? Well you can forget about lunch also." She slammed the receiver down on the hook.
"Don't you think you've rendered the young Wyatt quite deaf with that, mouse?"
Piper frowned heavily and sat down at her place. The maid poured a thick maple syrup over her pancakes. "He's gone and become of them, papa. He doesn't want to come to school with me anymore."
Phoebe took a sip of her hot tea before turning to her daughter. "Why on earth would you think a young man would stick around when you look like that?"
Max laid down the paper. "Don't listen to your mother. Leo's just doing what fourteen year olds do. He's a growing boy, and growing boys need to troop with other growing boys to feel like they belong. Don't worry about it. You're still he's best friend."
"Well he's not my best friend anymore. And now I have to go to school alone."
"I'll have Jamieson bring out the car."
"I'm going to walk."
Her mother brightened. "I have just the idea. You can go with Prudence's daughter. You know… Lillian! The two of you haven't really become close because that brat Wyatt has been with you incessantly. Now you and Lillian can bond." She shuffled out of her chair and went to the telephone. "Yes, Prudence darling, is Lillian still there? Well fabulous! She and Piper can walk to school together. No, no. The little tweet wants to walk. You'll bring her by? Marvelous! And then we can go down to Main Street to pick up a few of this and that." She hung up the phone and went back to her chair. "I just know you and Lillian will be fast friends!" she announced.
Prudence and her daughter arrived. Piper grabbed her bag and her books and kissed Max Linberg farewell. "Go get 'em, little mouse!"
"I will, papa." As Prudence and Phoebe vanished into the parlor, Piper approached the pretty blond girl. "Hello, Lillian. I'm Piper." Lillian smiled at her and hooked her arm to hers. Together, the two girls chatted on the way to the school.
"Piper! Piper!" She turned and saw a group of young boys cycling. "Hey!"
Lillian looked askance at her companion. "Piper, do you know that boy?" She nodded in response. "Aren't you going to wave back?"
"No, Lillian, I am not."
"He's betrayed me to that lousy group of ill-mannered youth!"
Piper's brows slammed together when she saw her new friend's reaction. Lillian was smiling dreamily as Leo Wyatt biked past them, and then blushed and looked down. "He's very attractive. I don't see why you'd be displeased with him."
"Oh, you have a crush on my best friend!" Piper said, disbelieving.
"No!" Lillian gasped. She covered her flaming cheeks with her hands. "I do not have a thing for your friend."
Piper laughed. "That's so funny. And it's so interesting too if you did end up with Leo Wyatt. Lillian Wyatt," she tested the name on her tongue. "Not too bad. Lillian Wyatt. Lillian Wyatt."
"Piper, stop it!" Lillian pleaded.
"You're both blonde. Your kids will all have pretty hair."
"Oh, don't worry, Lillian. You and Leo? That's a laugh. Oh, we're almost late!" Piper started running towards the school gate.
Lillian followed at a slower pace. A smile played on her lips. ILillian Wyatt./I She shook her head free of the silliness.
Leo tapped his foot on the floor impatiently, waiting for the bell to sound lunch break. The moment it did, he packed up his bag and sprinted out of the classroom. "Leo!" Travis called. "You having lunch at our table?"
"Uhhh.. no. I'm going to the other cafeteria."
"The one for the elementary students?"
"Yeah. See you later." Leo ran towards the stairs. At the top step, he already saw Piper with an unfamiliar girl. The same one she was walking with earlier. It seemed like they were two against a crowd of other grade school girls.
"Piper!" he called out.
Her face raised and he could barely see her from the distance. But somehow he knew she was crying. And then she lifted her skirts and ran off in the direction of the girls' comfort room. He rushed off after her.
"Piper…" He knocked on the door, but there was no answer. "Piper, come on out."
"No! You go away, Leo Wyatt! I don't wanna see you."
"Piper, what's wrong? You can tell me."
"No, I can't!"
"Please, Piper. Whatever your problem is, you can tell me. I'm your very very best friend remember?"
"Oh yeah? My best friend who just traded me in for a group of boys!"
"Sorry, okay?" Leo looked back and saw the blonde girl fighting with the others. He shrugged. She looked like she can handle it. "Piper, will you Iplease/I tell me what's wrong? I can take care of it. I can take care of anything for you."
He held his breath and waited. Finally, the door cracked open. And then she stood there right before him, sobbing. "What is it?"
"Leo!" She flung her arms around him and he held her while she cried. "Leo, I'm bleeding!"
"What? Did they hurt you?" he demanded. He was incensed. Piper Linberg never hurt a fly. It was unfair for those girls to pick a quarrel with her. "Where are you bleeding?" The linked arm pulled him down by the nape of his neck. She whispered into his ear, and Leo jerked up and swallowed. "What?" he whispered. She nodded.
"You have to help me, Leo," she pleaded sorrowfully.
"Okay." He took a deep breath. Looking around and seeing no one was looking, he stepped into the girl's comfort room and locked the door. "Let me see the damage." She turned around and showed him the back of her skirt.
"How does it look?"
He clucked his tongue. "It looks pretty bad."
He massaged her shoulders to calm her. "Don't worry. I'll take care of it. I've been doing it for twelve years. I'm not going to fail now," he assured her. "How are you feeling though?"
"Tired. And sleepy."
"Yeah. I've heard of that."
"Leo, what are we going to do?"
He took command of the situation at once. "Do you have an extra skirt in your locker?" She nodded. "How about… the… you know…"
"All right. I'm going to…" He seemed to be deep in thought. "I want you to stay here and don't get out until I get back."
"Where are you going?"
"I'm going to the store."
"Are you sure you can do this?"
"Hey, don't worry about it." He chucked her chin. "You stay here, okay?"
Piper smiled. "Thank you, Leo."
Leo opened the door and saw the blonde girl standing there. "Uhh.. uuhh.."
"Hi, Leo. My name is Lillian. I'm so glad to meet you." She shook his hand warmly.
"Nice to meet you too, Lillian." Leo shook her hand. "Lillian. Ummm… Lillian, I need to go get something for Piper."
"Oh!" She let go of his hand. "Bye then."
"Keep her company while I'm gone, will you?"
"I will." She turned to Piper and closed the door. "He's getting your skirt from your locker?"
Piper nodded. "And everything else."
"What! He's gonna go to…"
Leo stepped into the large store and, like a man convicted to be executed, walked directly to the racks and shelves of the undies. He closed his eyes as the saleswomen watched his progress. He stopped before a shelf and picked up the first pink bit of cloth.
IOh Piper, the things I do for you./I
I"We all suffer from the preoccupation that there exists ... in the loved one, perfection."
-Sidney Poitier /I
"Who's that from?" Leo jumped over the bench and sat down beside Piper.
Piper inhaled the fresh fragrance of the daisies and smiled dreamily. "It's from my secret admirer." She leaned back and folded her legs under her. "I wonder who it is. Mother always said I wasn't attractive."
He cocked his eyebrow and regarded her as though she were crazy. "And we've already known Phoebe Linberg is insane since we were toddlers. Who do you think it's from?"
She flung her hair back. "What, jealous?"
He cracked up, holding his stomach as he laughed, trying to catch his breath again and again. "Jealous! Of a nerd? Come on, Piper. You're taking a Literature course. Of course all you'll be meeting are nerds!"
She hit him playfully on the head with the flowers, and the thin paper wrapper tore. "See! You're so hardheaded you destroyed it."
"Me!" he cried in disbelief. "I'm the one getting abused here. If that were a bat, I'd be out cold! And all in defense of a nerd!"
Her eyes narrowed, and she threw the bouquet hard at his chest. "You, Leo Wyatt, are such an ass!" Piper stalked off, crushing the grasses with the force of her stomping away.
"Hey, come back here I was only kidding," he called after her. "Piper."
She was fuming. How dared he? Did he really think that of her? She angrily brushed away at the tears running ceaselessly from her eyes. She looked back, and saw that he had already started after her. But she didn't want to face him now. She's braved too many of these ridicules and taunts from her mother but Leo's hurt more. She walked harder and faster and before she knew it, she was running.
"Piper, would you wait a minute!" She won't stop. What had he done now? Argh! Ever since she had her Ivisitor/I eight years ago, he had had to get used to her mood swings. But that can't be the problem. She had it last week. Ah, they were laughable, he thought. Who on earth ever thought any young man and woman would have this kind of strange relationship? He knew every little detail about her, the way she knew about him. Yet she still caught him aback sometimes, and that was what was fascinating. He knew that if they both lived to be eighty, she'd still manage to surprise him every day.
She was running. Leo scratched his head and began to run after her. Fortunately his longer legs carried him at a much faster pace than hers. He caught up with her in no time. He slowed and ran behind her, trying to talk her into stopping.
"No. Go away!"
"The last time you told me to go away, it turned out you needed me so badly," he reminded her.
"Oh I don't want to see you!"
"Yep, you told me that then too."
Piper gasped for breath. "Stop it and go away."
"Are you all right?"
"Leo, just go away please." She continued running.
He ran beside her and looked at her nervously. "Stop running, Piper. You look—"
"Bad! I look bad! I always look bad!"
"No, Piper, you really look bad."
She turned to face him but still kept running. "Aaaaaah!" she screamed at his face, and then picked up her pace.
Leo was so shocked when lady-like Piper yelled at him, and he stopped stock-still. He watched her lengthen the distance between them, and Leo was worried. There was a reason that Max Linberg had always handled Piper with kid gloves. She'd been sickly since she was born, and it was only now in his classes really understanding what her physician called what she had. Frequently the doctor refers to it as congenital heart. When he was younger, his father had told him that she had a weak heart.
"Piper, slow down and talk to me."
"No!" He started running after her again.
"Well… slow down and I won't bother you again."
"Go away!" Leo caught up with her and grabbed her from behind and held her tightly. "Let me go. I don't want to talk to you." She struggled, trying to pull her arms away.
"What's wrong?" his voice soothed her, and he firmed his hold on her arms. "What's wrong, Piper? You can tell me."
Her struggles slowed, and then ceased. "I just—Leo, let me go. We can't talk like this."
"Do you promise that you're not going to run away?" She wouldn't answer. "You have to promise, Piper, or I won't let you go. I'm willing to stay here in the middle of the school lawn like this. I don't get embarrassed, you know. So what will it be?"
Piper took deep calming breaths. She glanced around and saw that there were already several people looking oddly at them. She turned her head and looked up at Leo, whose blazing eyes regarded her with a unique mixture of pleading and arrogance in the fact that she was crumbling. "I promise."
Leo let go of her arms. She turned around and faced him. "We'll talk over lunch?"
Piper glanced at the wilted bouquet yards away from the bench she and Leo always used. "Would you like me to get them?"
"No. They're just flowers," she said. But they were important to her. They were the first flowers she had ever received.
Leo offered his hand and waited for her to take it. When she did, they walked together towards the cafeteria.
"Now Piper, do you trust me enough to tell me what I did wrong?"
She stared at his hand covering hers. And then her gaze lifted to look him in the eye. Such expressive eyes. You always knew everything in his mind whenever you look into his eyes. The eyes of an honest man. "Do you really think I'm only attractive to nerds?"
"What! Piper…." He could hardly credit what he was hearing. The loveliest woman he had ever met in his life was asking him this? "I was only joking around. You want to know the truth?" She nodded. "I really was jealous. You're my Piper. You've always been. I'm not comfortable with the prospect of any one looking at you. And believe me, I'm going to have so much trouble because I know so many men will be coming after you."
"Leo, that's so sweet."
"Sweeter than when I said I wanted to eat your hair?"
"It's sweet in its own wonderful way."
He smiled. "Grab your burger. We're blowing out of this joint."
She giggled. "You sound like an MGM star."
"Didn't I ever tell you they wanted to sign me in?" Piper laughed again. "Really. They said to me, 'Mr. Wyatt, Errol Flynn is giving us some trouble here, and we think you are our next big hit.' And then I told them, 'But I'm going to be a doctor. I have no time for that acting nonsense.'"
"Dream on, Leo! Where are we going?" she asked, when he pulled her to the parking lot. He opened the door of his car and she stepped in. He leapt into the driver's seat. "There's a door, you know."
"I wanted to impress you with my athletic skills," he told her, and grinned. "You have ketchup."
"Oh! Where?" Piper immediately opened the glove compartment to get her mirror. She's been in his car too often and too regularly that she had her stuff scattered around.
"Never mind. I'll get it." Leo leaned closer. Piper presented her face. He moved nearer, and nearer. Jasmine. She smelled of jasmine. On her fifteenth birthday, he gave her a jasmine perfume, and it had been her scent since. He could feel her breath against his cheek. That offending ketchup was still there, a little off from the corner of her lips. Very tentatively, he licked it off.
She pulled away with a start. "Leo!"
He seemed to snap out of a hazy dream. And then he realized what he did. "Uh—I'm sorry."
She just looked at him openmouthed, speechless.
He started the engine. It turned out that they were on the way to a flower shop outside the campus. Like his usual mode of entry and exit, Leo leapt out of the car, ran to the store and back to her side. He handed her a bouquet of a variety of flowers. "I hope this makes up for the ones that my hard head destroyed."
He slipped into the driver seat again and drove back to the university. "So what time am I going to pick you up at the theater?"
"We're finishing around eight, Leo, so don't pick me up anymore. It'll be too much trouble if your lab is over by four."
"It's me, Piper. Of course it's no trouble."
"Well what are you going to do in between."
"It's a play, isn't it? I'll watch."
"IYou/I are going to watch my play? You hate Shakespeare!"
"Are you playing Juliet or not?"
"Then I'm going to like it."
"You're only watching so you can tease me about it later."
"Come on, Piper. I'm not that bad. Hey, what time is it?"
"I'm so bloo—"
Leo grimaced. "Oh boy, I am going to be late," he finished lamely, and Piper nodded in approval. He stepped on the gas pedal, and Piper stood up and grabbed the windshield, letting the wind blow through her hair as they sped back to campus.
Leo loved those moments. Whenever Piper let her inhibitions go, Leo felt like they were both giving each other gifts.
"All right, sit down," he reminded her. "We're almost at your college."
She immediately complied and combed the windblown hair into a semblance of order. Piper never let herself loose with anyone other than he best friend. When Leo stopped the car in front of her building, she stepped down and waved.
"Be careful now."
"You too. I'll see you later. And good luck."
The car sped away and Piper smiled as she watched him go. And then, unconsciously, her hand flew up to the corner of her mouth, remembering that weak moment. And—and—although she didn't want to admit it, she reveled in it.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I"You will find as you look back upon your life that the moments when you have truly lived are the moments when you have done things in the spirit of love."
-Henry Drummond /I
The pitch black auditorium was silent. The only light came from the spotlight on the stage. Each and every word of the actors carried to the back sharply and audibly.
Leo was enthralled by the girl on the stage. She was astounding, and never in his wildest imagination had he ever pictured her thus. Though Piper teased him about hating her course, Leo had read this over and over. He knew the lines by heart, but he was so captivated that he could barely wait to find out what will happen.
Piper rose with a start from the slab of stone she was lying on. "Where is my Romeo?"
Leo grinned. Her lovely hair was loose around her face, and she looked so fragile as the lady just waking up from death's sleep.
"Go get thee hence, for I will not away!" The stocky actor in the friar's robes left the stage, and Piper remained standing there. He knew that every man in the audience, upon looking at her helpless and lost there, wanted to take her in his arms and protect her from the cruel world. Piper gasped as she spotted the man lying on the floor. "What's here? A cup closed in my true love's hand? Poison, I see, hath been his timeless end." She took the bottle from the man and tipped it into her mouth. "O churl!" she cried in disappointment. "Drunk all, and left no friendly drop to help me after! I will kiss thy lips," she bent over the man, and Leo's eyes widened. He immediately shot up from his seat. "Haply some poison yet doth hang on them, to make me die with a restorative."
"Hey, sit down. You're blocking our view!"
"Oh hush it!" he threw back at the people seating behind him. He returned his attention to Piper and squinted, trying to figure out if she will in reality touch her lips to his.
"Thy lips are warm!" she sobbed. Leo almost sobbed in relief as well as he collapsed into his seat. It was a stage kiss! No contact.
Piper suddenly became alert. "Yea noise? Then I'll be brief. O happy dagger!" She grabbed the knife from the man's scabbard. "This is thy sheath." She forcefully stabbed herself, and Leo winced. "There rust, and let me die!" Piper fell onto the man's chest and lay there unmoving.
So that was it. Leo sat there in stunned disbelief. He didn't see the rest of the play as it continued, passing by like a haze before his eyes. He merely marveled at shy Piper Linberg's performance. After the curtain call, where she received a standing ovation, Leo ran down backstage.
He knocked eagerly on her dressing room door. "Who is it?"
"Piper, it's me."
"Oh, come in!"
He opened the door with a huge smile. "Congratulations, Juliet!" He was surprised to see a young man there with her. "Hey Romeo," he greeted as soon as he recognized him.
"Oh, Leo, he's the guy who sent me the daisies," she explained.
He didn't look like a nerd, he thought. "My name is actually Daniel." Leo shook the hand that the actor extended. "I'm in Theater." Leo tightened his grasp on Daniel's hand.
"Theater. That's a… shaky future," he commented.
"Leo's going to be a doctor," Piper explained. She wondered why Leo won't let go of Dan's hand. "Leo, he's Lillian's brother. I didn't even know until tonight."
"Yes, it is rather uncertain. But I love the work," answered Dan.
Leo nodded, still shaking the hand. "I'm sure you do. It will be quite difficult to raise a family though, with projects coming slowly."
Was he being an ass again? Piper asked herself. "Well now! Leo, Dan was just here offering me a ride home, but I informed him that I already have you."
"Yes, she already has me," Leo repeated pointedly.
"Ah well then I'll be off now. I didn't know," Dan said. "Ah, Leo, my hand." Leo let go. "Goodbye, Piper. It was a lovely performance."
"Thank you." The door closed after him, and Piper regarded Leo curiously. "May I say, Leo, that that was not very polite. You're scaring off my first admirer."
Leo sat down on the couch. "No, it's best to scare him off this early. You can't consort with a man with a future like that. You're a Linberg, for heaven's sake. You deserve better!"
"Didn't you hear me all right?" she asked, while washing her face with warm water from the sink. She dried her face. "Lillian's brother. Aunt Prudence's son. Leo, he doesn't need to work. His father's wealthy. His future is set."
"The way the Wyatts' are," Leo matter-of-factly put in. "But you don't see me aspiring to be a thespian. A man has to be responsible for his own future and not depend on how well set his family already is."
She grinned and sat down on his leg. She touched his cheek. "But you have the gift of healing, my friend! It would be a sin to keep it to yourself." Leo swallowed. He had never noticed before how soft she was. As she sat on his leg, he couldn't deny it any longer. Her sweet little derriere… He shook his head. IStop!/I
And then, she jumped up. "Oh papa will be worried soon. Unzip, Leo!" she commanded.
Leo immediately stood up. "Turning me into Nurse Leo again." He pulled the zipper down and stopped midway. "It's stuck!"
"Oh no! This costume is so old. Try it again." He pulled down and failed once more. "I know!" She pulled him with her to the dresser. "There's a candle here somewhere." She got one and handed it to Leo. "Rub the wax into the zipper, and then it would be smooth."
Leo bent closely and rubbed the candle onto the zipper. When he tried to pull the zipper down, it opened easily. So creamy, he thought. Her skin is so fair.
Piper closed her eyes against the tiredness. Leo's warm hands against her back were so comforting. She could feel his breath against her spine. His breath? Her eyes snapped open. His hot breath.
He pressed closed lips against the small of her back. Even here she smelled of jasmine. So beautiful. Leo's kisses crept higher. So familiar. He kissed the naked shoulder, and he felt the thrill shooting up her spine. So… Piper.
"Could you step out of my dressing room, please?" she squeaked out.
He coughed and took a deep breath. Calm down. "I'll wait outside for you."
"That would be nice," said the weak voice.
Leo left the dressing room, and Piper cocked her brows suspiciously when he adjusted his pants before closing the door.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I"The moment you have in your heart this extraordinary thing called love and feel the depth, the delight, the ecstasy of it, you will discover that for you the world is transformed."
-J. Krishnamurti /I
They were silent on the way home. Piper didn't raise the subject of what happened in the dressing room. And neither did she talk about the ketchup in the car. Leo's face was inscrutable. She was wrong when she thought you knew everything about Leo because of his eyes. It seems that she only knew what she did because he let her. Now, with his emotions so guarded, she could not even tell if he was happy or not.
When they arrived in front of her house, Leo stepped down. This time, to her amazement, he used the door. He opened hers and helped her out. She bent to pick up the large bag containing the props she brought to the theater, and he spoke for the first time. "I'll take that." He held her arm firmly as they walked to the door. "Well, I'll just drop you off here and not come in."
"Yes," she replied. "That would be better."
He turned to go when the door suddenly opened. "Ms Linberg, Mr Wyatt, welcome back. Your fathers are waiting to see you in the library."
"My father is here."
"Yes, sir," the butler answered. "They've been waiting for you for a few hours now, and I was instructed to see you right up."
Leo looked askance at Piper, who shrugged. "Well we'd better find out then." He offered his arm, and she slipped hers through it. Together, they climbed the Linberg's grand staircase, eager to find out what the mystery is about.
Leo knocked rapidly on the door. "Come in."
"Good evening, papa, Mr. Wyatt."
"Sir." Leo nodded at the two gentlemen. "You wanted to see us?"
"Yes, Leo." Mr Wyatt indicated the velvet loveseat, and the two of them sat down. "You see, years ago, Mr Linberg, your father," he injected for Piper, who smiled and said 'I know him, sir,' "and I signed the most binding contract we've ever conjured."
"Is this the Linberg-Wyatt Steel Corporation?" Leo asked.
"No, Leo. It's not the steel. It's something more than that. You've got to understand, we were best friends and partners. But we were perfectly willing to trash the contract if the two of you didn't get along. Since you are…"
"What is it, papa?"
Max Linberg sighed and drew out the document from his safe. He handed it to Piper. Piper read through the first lines. "What!" She gave it to Leo, and then peeked to glance at the date again. "You… engaged the two of us… when I was a few days old?"
"This is a signed contract," Leo whispered.
"Yes. Yes, it is. We don't really think you'll have a problem with it."
Piper shook her head. And then she stood up and walked stiffly out of the room. Leo moved to follow her.
"Leo, this is for your own good."
Leo held up his hands and left the room.
"Piper. How many times in our lives are we going to be at this situation?" He knocked again. "Open the door, Piper, and talk to me." He sighed. "I don't want to have to do something I've not done for a long time." She still didn't open the door.
Defeated, Leo ran down the stairs and left the house. He walked around until he saw the tree. He hadn't done this since he was seventeen, but the time calls for it now. He rolled up his sleeves and grabbed hold of the trunk. Slowly but surely, he progressed.
There was her window. Leo slithered on the branch and move closer and closer. How much weight had he put on in five years? He hoped he doesn't plummet to his death this very night. On and on, he pushed at the branch with his feet. And then he knocked on the glass window.
I"For it was not into my ear you whispered, but into my heart. It was not my lips you kissed, but my soul."
-Judy Garland /I
Piper turned at the sound and was shocked to find Leo waving at her while perilously hanging from the tree branch. She hurriedly opened the window. "Are you insane?" she hissed at him.
"Yes, Juliet, I am."
"You're not Romeo!" she snapped at him. "Our families aren't keeping us apart. They're pushing us together whether we like it or not." She grabbed at his shirt and struggled as she pulled him inside her room.
He dropped on top of her and they fell hard on the floor. "Well I don't know with you, but I like."
"Whether we like it or not. I like."
"You're just being a good son, Leo. Don't sacrifice yourself."
Leo pushed himself up by his elbows and looked down at her. Her hair fanned out around her head on the floor. Her body was so soft beneath his. "Do I sound like a lamb to be slaughtered? Have I been acting like I don't want to be with you? Piper, the two of them just hastened something we were already rushing headway for."
"Well I would never know that, now would I?"
Leo didn't know how to convince stubborn Piper. She wet her lips in anxiety, and the next thing he knew, he was dipping his head to taste her. "Ummm," she heard, and was surprised that it came from her.
Leo was in a deep daze. He was drowning in her very essence. Her lips tasted of strawberry, and in the back of his mind he remembered having seen a bowl of strawberries on her nightstand. Strawberries, jasmine and Piper. What a heady combination.
"Piper, if you think that this is a sacrifice to me, then let me tell you this is a sacrifice I've been waiting for all my life," he whispered when he took a breath. She gasped for oxygen the very moment he moved to take her lips again. This time, her arms rose to grasp his hair. She deepened the kiss by pushing his head against hers.
Sweet, sweet Leo. My beautiful Leo, in my arms and in the most fitting way possible. When had friendship turned to love? She couldn't pinpoint that exact time when the relationship took a sudden turn. Did it even? She was not sure. Maybe it had been heading this way from the very start.
Leo slowly undid the buttons of her blouse. He kissed each patch of skin revealed by his uncovering. "This is going too fast," he whispered, and lifted himself off her.
"No!" Piper took his hand and kissed his palm. "This is going just the way I want it, Leo." Since he had already undone all her buttons, she merely shrugged the blouse off. "Please, Leo, I cannot think of anyone I would much rather have this happen than with you. Please."
"On the floor. I can't do that to you."
She took his face in her hands and pulled him close so he could hear. "I have a bed, and it's only a few feet away," she reminded him.
Leo looked deeply into her eyes. "All right," he capitulated. He stood up and held his hand out to her. With a brave smile, she laid hers on it. Leo enfolded that hand in his and led her to the queen bed. He lifted her into his arms and laid her gently down at the center. Piper waited patiently while Leo divested himself of his shirt, pants and boxers. Naked, he climbed in beside her. "I—"
She drew him down for a kiss. Into the night, there were no more words, only faint sighs and moans. Only kisses and meeting into one. A sparring of love, maybe. A primeval dance. Neither of them had any idea of what this was supposed to be, but loving comes naturally to a man and a woman in love. Together they learned, and taught each other. And nothing in the world could be more perfect than what passed between the two. When he collapsed on top of her, she breathed in deeply and tightened her arms around him. She closed her eyes. INow I know what I love is./I
The door safely locked, they were in their own heaven, away from the intrusive outside world. Peacefully they lay together in the beautiful paradise of their own making. No words. There was no need. He slept in the cradle of her arms, his head resting on her breast, listening to the mute declarations of her racing heart.
I"I have said nothing because there is nothing I can say that would describe how I feel as perfectly as you deserve it."
-Kyle Schmidt /I
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I"In love the paradox occurs that two beings become one and yet remain two."
-Erich Fromm /I
"Piper, you have to agree. This is the biggest production I'll ever be a part of."
Piper sighed and looked up at her friend's dancing eyes. She was so excited, but finals month was coming, and her schedule was too full. Leo's hand tightened on hers, and she glanced up to see him smiling at her. "You think you can, Piper? I'd really love to see you up on the stage. Your theater performance nights are magical."
She remembered that first night, and she couldn't bite back a returning grin. "Yes, very enchanting." She turned her face up to his for a kiss. "You love those nights."
"I very much do," he agreed, meeting her lips.
The girl on the other side of the table cleared her throat. "Excuse me! What's the answer?"
"Oh Lillian. I'm so busy."
The blond girl placed her hand over their entwined ones and pleaded, "Piper, please! It's been two years since you performed last. This will be such a hit for me. Everyone's wondering where you dropped off to after that fabulous play."
"Well… how long will it play?"
"Two weeks. Just two weeks. Please!"
She looked up at Leo, who was smiling, amused at the two. "What do you think, Leo?"
"Well of course I think you should do it. If you can, that is. I wouldn't want you too tired for anything else."
Lillian impatiently watched while the two peppered each other with tiny kisses. "Did Uncle Max ever say when you two are getting married?"
Piper smiled against Leo's lips. And then she buried her face in the crook of his neck and let him answer Lillian. "It's really up to us. I'd like to get married now but she wants to finish college first. She's a new woman, you know."
Lillian's eyebrow arched. "A new woman who's melted onto you? Sit up, Piper."
Piper leaned closer to her fiancé. "Oh go find a man, Lillian!"
Leo chuckled. "Well, what's it going to be, Piper? I'd do anything for you to be on that play."
She glanced up. "Anything?"
"I'll pick you up, carry your stuff, ferry you around… kiss you at command," he teased.
"Oh, believe me, Leo Wyatt, you'll be doing all that whether I'm in the play or not. Kiss!" He did. She winked at Lillian. "See?"
Lillian grinned. "She's right, Leo. She's got you wrapped around her little finger."
"True," he admitted. "I'd not prefer to be wrapped around anything else though."
"You two make me jealous!" she complained. "An answer. Come on. I have a class in fifteen minutes across campus. Have pity!"
"Well," Piper answered. "I'll be there."
"Oh!" Lillian burst into applause.
"If Leo's playing."
"Anything, you said…"
Lillian and Piper looked on expectantly at Leo, smiling like two perfect angels. And he had no choice but to sigh.
I"Love has nothing to do with what you are expecting to get, it's what you are expected to give -- which is everything."
"May I just say, Piper, it would be quite an experience working with you again. I've been hoping season after season that you'd agree to perform again."
Piper smiled at the actor while a costume director tightened the ribbons at the back of the dress. "Thank you, Daniel. That's really very sweet."
"So what part did they give you?" he sat on the arm of the wooden chair in his jeans and shirt.
"Hermia," she told him. "Aren't they fitting you for yours?"
"Already did. I agreed to do this one weeks ago. We've just been waiting for you."
Piper heard a loud crash from backstage. Soon, Leo strode out, looking resplendent in the Athenian garb. "I'm supposed to wear this?"
Lillian came running out, looking harassed. "Leo, please, Jessica isn't finished yet!"
"Piper, for heaven's sake, I'm a med student. You can't do this to me!"
She bit back a laugh. "You're gorgeous." The hose showed his long legs off perfectly. "Lillian, don't you think the… uhh.. well… that's a little obscene."
"Umm…" Lillian's eyes fell to where Piper indicated, and Leo blushed to the roots of his hair. "We'll have that fixed. Somehow. He's hard to dress up. He has been pacing the costume room since we showed him the clothes."
"Leo." She whispered to the girl fixing the ribbons at her back, and then walked forward, skirts swishing as she went. "Honey." She took his face in her hands, and he leaned to press his forehead against hers. "Do this for me, all right?" she whispered, "I want to remember that I performed with you at least once in my life."
The frown on his brow vanished, and his eyes cleared. "Okay, baby."
She smiled in victory. "Thank you!"
"So did they tell you about your role yet?"
"I don't even know what play this is."
"Well," Lillian announced. "It's Midsummer Night's Dream."
"Oh heaven help me, another Shakespeare," Leo muttered. When Piper looked up at him, he grinned innocently.
"Hermia, that's Piper, and Demetrius, that's Daniel, have been contracted for marriage--"
"Hey!" Leo protested, and Piper shushed him.
"Helena, played by me, is in love with Demetrius and you, Lysander, are in love with Hermia, as she is with you." Lillian went on to summarize the events, and Leo found it quite entertaining. Soon, he was laughing with the actors, easily forgetting that he wasn't supposed to enjoy this.
I"The best proof of love is trust."
He turned to see Piper and Daniel reading their scene. "He's had a crush on her forever!" He turned and saw Lillian holding two thick folders. "This is your script."
He took it and rifled through the pages. Well, I'm ending up with Piper, he grinned. "What were you saying?"
"I'm saying my darling brother Daniel has had a crush on her for years."
"Does he even know we're engaged?"
"Of course. Aunt Phoebe's told mother."
Daniel must have said something witty, because Piper was laughing. She hit him playfully with her script. IGood/I, Leo thought. IHit him harder, baby./I He grimaced when they just smiled at each other.
"As long as you're not married, he feels safe though."
"He's insane." Piper must have felt his eyes on her, because she turned and blew a kiss at him. "And she's mine."
"She'll kill you if she hears that."
"Ever wonder why I whispered?" Lillian burst out laughing.
Piper turned at the sounds. "They're enjoying themselves," Daniel commented. Leo was smiling down at Lillian, who was hysterically giggling.
"Yes. Yes, they are."
"Okay, people!" They turned and saw that the director had arrived. "We'll begin our rehearsals tomorrow at four and finish around ten. Are you amenable?" No one said anything. "I'll see you all then."
"You're going home with Leo?"
Piper nodded. "But thanks, Daniel."
Lillian smiled up at Leo. "May I hitch a ride with you? I think my brother has plans."
Piper walked over to them and wrapped her arm around Leo's. Dan followed closely behind her. "Come on, Lille."
"Oh!" Lillian waved at the two of them. "Looks like he doesn't. Bye!"
"Bye, Lillian!" She turned to Leo. "So did you enjoy yourself?"
"I wanted to kick his ass. And you?"
"I wanted to tear her lovely golden hair." She began to walk off the stage.
Leo caught her by the waist and spun her around to face him. "Oh!" His head dipped and he brushed his lips lightly against hers. "Leo-"
"How now, my love! Why is your cheek so pale?"
"You memorized already?" she asked in disbelief. "And because I'm jealous. I can admit it!"
"You don't need to be. Lillian pales in comparison to you."
"You're mine. I don't care about this 'I'm my own woman' thing you have going. You're mine."
"I've been yours since I was born. I'll always be yours until I die."
"Past death," he corrected.
He dipped his head and caught the moist lips. "Branded."
Piper glanced around and saw that they were all alone in the theater. "You hate these Athenian clothes?" She pushed the shirt off his shoulders, and revealed bold shoulders to her lips. She feasted. "Let's get them off. Never say I force you to wear these ugly things for long."
At the center of the stage, with the spotlight left on them, the white shirt fell to their feet. Piper pulled at the ribbons at the back of her dress. She tugged. "You need Nurse Leo's help again?"
She giggled. "Don't make me think of you as Nurse Leo. Not now!" She presented her back and he easily untied the ribbons. The dress fell to her feet.
Leo felt his breath catch at the sight of her. Her arms automatically rose and wrapped around the broad shoulders, and he held her by the waist. They knelt on the bed of discarded clothes. Leo broke free of the kiss. She lay on the makeshift bed, and he immediately stood up.
"I… Wait here!"
She looked after him, puzzled. He came running back onstage with a small pillow. He knelt before her. "Lift you head." He put the pillow underneath. "Better?"
"As comfortable as I can be on the stage of the university theater! Now come here."
He grinned and lay beside her, knowing that she had her wish. She wanted to remember a performance forever. There's no way she would forget Midsummer Night now. He caught the soft hair in his hand and let it run through his fingers.
I"Love is the immortal flow of energy that nourishes, extends and preserves. Its eternal goal is life."
-Smiley Blanton /I
"I'm a lucky man," he whispered, tracing her lips with his finger.
Piper playfully bit at the tip. "Of course you are. You just got lucky," she teased.
"That too." He loved the lightheartedness in which they did everything. "But more than that, I'm fortunate to have loved this early. I'm lucky you've completed me so young."
"I know. Sometimes, when I look back, I ask myself if from the moment I could think, I already knew that I would be ending up with you."
"And the answer?"
She smiled. "I've always known."
"Me too. I've never… In my life, there has not been… Piper, it's always…" Her eyes silently encouraged him to say what was on his mind. "Nothing has made me as happy as you have. Nothing ever will."
"My life will begin and end with you. Do you believe that?"
"Yes. Because I know mine will too." She took a deep breath and stretched her limbs. And then she giggled. "What is it?" he asked.
She felt the cold hair against her skin. "I can't believe we just did that!"
"We've done it before, Piper," he reminded her.
"In a public place?" She sat up. "Have you seen my clothes?"
"Hermia's dress? You were lying on top of it." She grabbed it and pulled it over her head. "Don't smile, Leo. I'm…"
"You're not regretting this, Piper."
"No. I'm not. I'm just… allow me some amount of embarrassment, Leo."
"You can't be embarrassed when I'm the only one here." He helped her get dressed. "You know let's not tie this anymore. We're changing in the dressing room anyway."
"Yes, you're right. Leo, I hope you're not going to back out on me now. I'm going to kill you."
He grinned behind her. "Let's get married now."
She slowly turned around and gazed up at him. "Are you serious?"
"Of course. You know I've always wanted to. You're the one who wants to wait. But I want to get married now, Piper. Please." He knelt in front of her. "Will you?"
"Oh Leo, you don't need to do that. We're already engaged!"
"My father was dealing with yours. They're not the ones spending the rest of their lives together. I know deep down you want this too. Because if I don't do this you'll look back to these days for the rest of your life, feeling empty because I never proposed. So tell me, Piper. Without your father and mine at the picture, without the steel corporation, without the courier services, without the railroad, with only you and me in the scene, will you marry me?"
She felt tears filling her eyes. She had hastily donned a costume from the play. He was wearing a tight, revealing hose for pants and his shirt was on the floor. "Leo…" She knelt before him. He seemed to be frantically searching for something. "What is it?"
"Ummm… the ring."
"You had a ring?" she exclaimed.
"Had is the right word." He went down on all fours and crawled around looking for the ring. Piper looked up and saw his butt. She started giggling. "What is it?"
Piper couldn't stop. Leo crawled to her. "Ahaa.. Ahh.. Leo! Eheee!"
He scratched his head. "Why are you laughing?"
"I…I just realized. I've fallen so in love with you a long time ago and it's only now that I've noticed how attractive you butt is!"
She flung her arms around his neck and covered his face with kisses. She tightly embraced him. "I love you! I love you so much and we'll get married now in all the churches we can pass on the way home. Forget about the ring. It doesn't matter. All that matters is you and me."
"Oh, baby, I love you too," he said hoarsely.
They just stayed there, kneeling in each other's embrace for a long time. And then Piper felt a drop of warm liquid on her bare shoulder. "Leo?" She pulled away to look at him. "Are you crying, honey?" When she saw him smile through his tears, she swore that no one in the world could be as brave and tender and gentle as her Leo. She pulled his head towards hers and she very slowly kissed away the tears. She dried the path with her lips, drinking in the salty liquid. No one will ever hurt Leo. As long as she lived, no one will touch him because she will protect him.
"I've… I've never thought anyone can be so blessed. But I am, Piper. I thank God every day because He gave me you," he told her. "You're the gift that Heaven saw fit to give me. And I'm humbled."
She closed her eyes upon hearing those words. Had there been, anytime and anywhere, a man who has said that to a woman? She felt the tears she'd been fighting so hard to control seep out of her tightly closed lids. And then his lips on her face, doing the very thing she'd done to him.
His warm mouth closed over hers. She met him in a deep, lingering kiss. Between them she tasted the salt of tears, and she didn't know if it was his or hers because it didn't matter. They were one.
I"At the touch of love everyone becomes a poet."
He had his arm around her when they stepped into the dressing room. He did not speak, and Piper respected his silence. It took a lot of courage and dignity for a man to speak freely of his emotions.
Quietly, Leo helped her into her skirt and blouse. She sat down on the chair in front of the mirror and was surprised when he picked up the brush from the table and started combing her hair. Every few moments, he'd stop to meet her eyes at her reflection, or breathe in the scent of her hair.
"Leo." He paused to lean closer to her. "Let's go." He nodded and took off the hose to change into his own pants and to shrug into his shirt. He picked up his coat and a blue box tumbled onto the floor.
Their eyes met. He picked it up, opened the box and slipped the ring onto her finger. She slipped her arm into his and side by side they walked to his car. Night was falling, and they sat in his car holding hands.
"There are no more open."
"No more churches open at this hour."
"Oh. But we have an eternity before us to get married."
"You're right. See the stars?"
Piper looked up and sure enough, the night sky was ablaze by the millions of diamond studs sparkling there. Piper raised her hand against the spectacle. "And my own star on my finger. Thank you, Leo."
He leaned his head back, and just looked at the sky. "He's there. Watching us."
Piper smiled and did the same. "Yes, He is. And very happy and satisfied too."
"Who would have though that I'd be given all this?"
"You are a beautiful person, Leo. You deserve this."
She glanced at him, but now his eyes were closed, and a look of utter fulfillment had settled on his face. He seemed to be seeking peace in himself and communicating his gratitude to Him. He was a good man, and she knew that he had a special purpose in life. What it was she did not know. But for now, he was hers. And she would relish every moment of it before he was called to perform that purpose. She sent up her own prayer of thanks.
"Thank You for lending him to me."
I"Sometimes the heart sees what is invisible to the eye."
-H. Jackson Brown Jr. /I
The car stopped in front of the Linberg home. Leo stepped out and walked over to Piper's side and held the door open for her. She slipped her arm around his and leaned her head against her arm as they walked together towards the house.
"I want to tell papa, Leo. I want him to know we've decided to do this already."
"He'll be very happy."
"Of course he will. He loves you. Where would you like to get married?"
"We've been going to St. Michael's forever, Piper. There's nowhere I'd rather be joined with you than in the church where we grew up."
"Then St. Michael's it is." They climbed up the couple of steps leading up to the front door. "Papa will look so handsome in his dark blue suit. He'll walk me down the aisle."
"And we'll choose an exquisite white gown together. I want to see you in silk and lace. You will be the loveliest creature in the planet. And our wedding will be the most incomparable affair that San Francisco has ever witnessed. They'll talk about it for decades."
"A large wedding is not needed, Leo. The only important thing is that the two of us, and our loved ones, are there."
He turned to face her and tipped her face to his. "But I want to show everyone how blessed I am with you. I want our wedding day to be able to compare to even a tenth of everything each day of our married life would be. When I love, I want to shout it from the highest mountain. I want to say it out loud and let the world know that this is how much we feel for each other. I will only be proud enough for an extravagant wedding when I've found the woman I really love."
"You make my wildest dreams come true."
"I know," he smiled down at her. "Just in the same way you have fulfilled my wildest dreams."
The door opened without him having to knock. The old butler nodded in greeting, and Piper noticed how red-rimmed his eyes were. "Mr. Trudeau, are you all right?"
"Oh princess!" Her heart warmed to the endearment her father has usually used on her. "Go see your father." Her heart skipped, and she automatically clutched at the butler's hand. Leo held her arm in support. "He's upstairs, princess."
She started running, heart madly beating. Leo followed closely behind her. When she arrived at the second floor, she shook her head at the number of people there. Leo saw his father, and Mr. Wyatt approached them. "Piper, I'm sorry."
"What happened, father?" he demanded.
"Sorry? What do you mean, sorry? What's going on here?"
Mr. Wyatt embraced Piper and then turned to Leo. "You'd better escort her in, Leo."
Confused, she allowed Leo to take her inside the master's bedroom. She felt that she was walking in a dream. Or better yet, she thought as she caught sight of a still form at the center of the bed, a nightmare. Phoebe was sobbing noisily at one side of the room. Piper forced her legs to move, and Leo's comforting presence was the only reason that she did not collapse then and there.
She stopped at the foot of the bed. "Papa, I'm home." she whispered. Leo's arm tightened around her shoulders. "Papa?" She turned to look at her fiance. "Leo, what's wrong with him?" she asked softly.
He smiled down at her comfortingly. "Piper, your papa's gone," he soothed.
"But he still has to walk me down the aisle."
He closed his eyes and bent to kiss her forehead. "I know, sweetheart. But there are just some things we can't control."
"Leo, make them all leave. Please."
Leo glanced at Phoebe Linberg bawling at the corner, surrounded by Prudence Wallace, Daniel and Lillian's mother, and the rest of her friends. "Your mother has a right to be here, Piper."
"No," she answered coldly. "She never loved papa. We have a right to be here, Leo, but not her. Please, Leo," she pleaded. "I need us to be alone."
He gazed deeply into her eyes. "All right," he finally said. "All right, sweetheart." He walked over to Phoebe's group. After a murmured request, Phoebe hissed an answer. Leo quietly explained and after a cold glare towards her only child, Linberg's heiress, Phoebe and her friends retreated from the room. Leo returned to Piper's side.
"Thank you, Leo."
"Would you like to be alone with him?"
"No, no." Piper shook her head and enfolded his hand in both of hers. She pulled him to the side of the bed and sat down, with him standing over her like a protector. "We're both Max Linberg's children, Leo. We grew up with him. I know he'll be glad if we were both here."
He silently stood with her, quietly accepting the cold reality of a man who, as she had stated, had been a father to him as he was growing up. He knew that Max Linberg had followed each stage of his life, and although it was because he knew that Leo would be his Piper's husband, Leo would be forever thankful for the love and attention he gave him, for the interest with which Linberg had scrutinized Leo's development.
"This isn't happening!" Piper broke the long silence. "This isn't real, Leo!" The calm was over, and Max Linberg's only and beloved daughter broke into tears. "Papa can't be gone."
He sat down next to her and opened his arms to allow her to burrow deep into the comfort of his embrace. "Cry it out, Piper. It's all right." She sobbed her heart out, mourning the man who had loved her beyond all boundaries, beyond his identity, beyond riches, beyond life.
"I need him, Leo. I need his arms around me!"
"I know, mouse," and a fresh flow of tears began again. Max Linberg had called her that when she began flourishing into a young woman. "But he's still embracing you. You just can't feel it right now. If you close your eyes and imagine, you'll feel his embrace."
"But I want to feel it just like before. I want to crawl in next to papa and embrace him. I need that warmth around me."
"You'll always have mine, Piper. I swear."
"Leo, hold me please. Don't ever let me go. And don't ever leave me."
"I won't, Piper." He tightened his embrace. From the corner of his eye, he saw the door open. "Say goodbye to your papa now. We need to—"
She nodded and pulled away. Piper moved closer to Max and leaned down to kiss her father's cheek, her tears falling on the pillow beside him. "Goodbye, papa. I'll see you soon. And we'll be just like before." She choked on her tears, but nonetheless continued, "Please wait for me in heaven, papa. I'll be with you. And fifty years will be like no time at all."
The door opened, and Leo signaled for the arrival to wait. He took Piper's arms. "Come on, baby."
"Goodbye, papa." She hastily turned around and burrowed deep into his arms. "I can't do this, Leo."
"Yes, Piper. You can. You can because you have me. You always will."
"As long as I have you."
I"Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength; loving someone deeply gives you courage."
Leo held her tightly as the coffin was lowered into the ground. Piper stood stiffly, her face covered by the black veil that concealed the depth of her grief from prying eyes. She blinked away the tears, forcing her attention to the events happening around her. As Max Linberg was being laid to his final resting place, she knew the world still revolved, and that the characters playing around her father would now play for her.
She threw the rose down at the coffin, and closed her eyes against the sound of the first soil thudding onto the cover. She could not shut out the sounds, then perhaps she could keep out the sight. "Goodbye, papa."
She felt warm lips brush against her temple, and she opened her eyes to see Leo looking down at her impassively. She touched his cheek. "We'll have to wait a year, love." He nodded. He respected the mourning period that she had to observe. "Will you be able to wait that long?"
"There's no question about it, Piper. We're immortal," he teased. "Nothing can touch us unless we want it to."
The moment that the final soil was placed on top of the coffin, a group of people converged on Piper. Solicitors, associates, friends, family all vied for a chance to talk to her. "Please, just give me a few hours," she pleaded.
Leo asked them to leave. "Could you give her some space? Please…"
She couldn't breathe. The sun was high overhead and the people, the noise, the heat… It was all too much. A wave of dizziness overcame her, and Leo must have sensed it. She clutched at his sleeve, and Leo's arm automatically supported her back. She tried to fight off the darkness. Piper felt her knees weakening. All around her faces swam, and voices deafened her. Suddenly, the world of darkness seemed like a welcome refuge. He was beside her, holding her, and she knew that no harm will come to her. She let herself go. And Piper collapsed into her fiance's hold.
Leo caught her up in his arms and forced his way out of the crowd, mindless of whoever he would step on or push back. He strode towards the car, and asked the driver to open the door. He climbed in with her limp against him. In the safety of the closed vehicle, Leo tenderly patted her cheek. "Piper. Piper, baby, wake up."
Her pale lips moved, and he took a bottle of water from the pouch in front and gave her a sip. "Are they gone?" she asked softly.
"No. They're still there. But you're not going back into that jungle." He shook his head in disgust. "And those people call themselves the cream of society when they can barely help acting like wolves at the scent of blood!"
She was sitting on his lap, and she burrowed her face in the crook of his neck. "What happens now, Leo? Papa's gone. And I'm all alone."
"I'm still here."
She didn't answer. Wasn't it merely a week ago when she had decided that he had a special purpose in life, and that she would never stand in the way of that? "I know you are. But you will not always be."
"Who says so? Piper, our souls are one. There would never come a time when we're apart."
Someone knocked at the window of the car, and Leo cracked it open a bit. It was Mr. Wyatt. "Leo, I'd like to talk to you for a moment."
"Excuse me." He extricated himself from her embrace and got out of the car to talk to his father. "What is it?"
"You don't need to marry Piper Linberg."
"I beg your pardon."
"You don't need to marry her. I just checked with Max's solicitors, and our shares in the companies are all contracted in separate documents already. Max fixed everything in advance so that his daughter would not have to go through all the legal hooplas of this. And it's a blessing in disguise for us, because the properties are settled."
"Upon my marriage to his daughter," Leo insisted.
"But he already signed the documents, Leo. We're in the right according to the law. Now I want you to look over to your right." Irritated, Leo nonetheless glanced to his right. "Lillian Wallace. She's quite a catch too. You can marry her instead. You don't have to worry about Piper Linberg. I'll talk to her."
Mr. Wyatt moved to open the car door, and Leo gripped fast to his father's arm. "Don't come near her." Mr. Wyatt looked shocked. "I don't want you feeding her with this crap, father. I'm marrying her."
"You don't understand, Leo. All the reasons I agreed to a marriage between you two are now ours. If you marry Lillian Wallace, and believe me, that girl has the hots for you, I know it, you'll have everything Max and I agreed, and more!"
"Stuff all that gold down into your throat, father. Piper and I agreed to get married not for anything you and Mr. Linberg had in mind, but because of our free will."
Mr. Wyatt backed away from his son. "You're really in love with her! Didn't you ever realize that this wasn't supposed to be real?" Leo didn't answer. "How on earth did you fall in love with her?"
"Father," Leo sighed. "If you can't see even that, then you are hopeless." He turned his back on him and stepped into the car. He sat beside Piper and enfolded her in his embrace. "I love you."
She smiled. "I love you, Leo."
Leo gave instructions to the driver. On the way back to the Linberg home, they passed by a huge mural being painted onto the white washed walls of the City Hall, portraying the tension in the Pacific.
His arms tightened around her. "I'll never leave you," he vowed. And then he glanced back at the mural. "I'll never leave you."
Piper was silent for a very long time. They've turned the curve in the direction of the Linbergs' when she finally spoke up, "Who are you trying to convince, Leo?"
The car stopped in front of the Linberg house. He assisted her out and walked her to the door. "Will you stay, Leo?" She was scared. Deep inside her, she knew that this was that time when he would need to go, and when she would need to send him away.
"I'll stay with you until you fall asleep. You need to rest."
"Until I fall asleep." IOnly until then? I don't want you to go./I Her hands sought his and they entered the house and climbed up to her room together. She didn't bother to change her clothes. She fell heavily into bed, and he lay down beside her, taking her into his arms. They lay there together, fully clothed, silent. A few minutes later, her deep breathing convinced him that she was already asleep. His eyelids were heavy, and he fell into a deep slumber beside her.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"I brought you these, Piper." He placed the vase of tulips on her dresser, and sat down next to her in bed. "Are you still feeling bad? Your friends miss you already." She had not gone to the university for two weeks after the burial, and she had mostly been staying in bed.
"I don't know anymore, Leo. But I'm drowsy and I feel so heavy. I don't want to get up." She turned and looked at the tulips. His flowers always made her smile. "Thank you for the flowers."
"You're welcome." He bent down to meet her lips. "And I hope you'll feel better soon."
She opened her arms. "Come and lie down next to me." He did cuddle in beside her, laying his head on her arm. "You are my baby, Leo."
"Piper, I love you so much."
"And I love you too."
"I cannot live without you, and I don't want to leave you," he whispered into her ear.
She felt a cold wave in her. So this was it. She never thought it would be so fast. She asked quietly, "When are you leaving, Leo?"
"In three days. I will be stationed in Hawaii."
"You won't be home for Christmas."
"No. No, I won't. But this is getting too big now. And soon there will be war, Piper. I would do anything I could to make sure that it would not happen. I don't want our children growing up in a sad, desperate world."
He seemed to be trying to convince her. He didn't have to. She understood. IOh God, help me have the courage to understand. /I "All right. I will miss you. And I will wait for your return."
"You're not angry about my decision?"
"Why should I be angry, Leo? I have always known that you have not been created simply to be Piper Linberg's husband, or even to be just Dr. Wyatt. I've been expecting that special purpose He had saved you for, and now it has arrived. Keep safe as you fulfill your destiny, Leo, and then come home to me."
"I will not rest until I can come back to you, Piper."
"I'm scared," she admitted. "I don't want to send you off at all, but I must do so with a smile, because this is the man you are."
His arms tightened around her waist. "Thank you, Piper. For understanding. For knowing me. For accepting everything I am, and everything I am supposed to be."
"I would be a fool not to," she answered, "when who you are may be the best thing that has happened to me." She sighed in his embrace. "Every day and every night that you are gone, I will be in St. Michael's, praying for your safe return, hoping for this to be over soon so we may settle back to our normal lives. Remember, Leo, when you get back, I will be waiting in my wedding gown, and we can resume the life that has always been meant for us."
I"With all my heart/And all my soul/I am with you/Though I am far away."
–Anon., Carmina Burana, "Omnia Sol Temperat" /I
"Darling, do smile a little, why don't you?" Phoebe crooned from the end of the table. "Or our guests would suspect that you aren't happy to see them."
Piper looked up at Aunt Prudence and her children and forced a smile. She sliced the meat on her plate and bit on the bread. Prudence and Phoebe chattered away while Daniel watched her nibble on her food. Lillian, beside her, whispered, "Is something the matter with you, Piper? You do look a little pale."
"I'm fine, Lillian. I just worry. About Leo."
Her friend's hand enveloped hers and squeezed. "Do not. He will be all right, I know. And there is not even a war yet really. He was just eager to participate."
Piper nodded. "Yes, I pray he will be fine."
"Say, Piper." She glanced at Daniel, who was addressing her. "I have just the thing to take your mind off your worries. How would you like to attend the theater tonight? I know you will love it."
"I'm sorry, Daniel," she replied. "But I believe I will be too tired after my visit to the church."
"You were just to St. Michael's this morning, darling. What sin are you repenting for that you have to be there morning and night of every day? A night out with Daniel would not be such a bad idea."
"I am praying, mother. Something I am sure even you are aware of," she answered softly.
"Why don't you take her, Daniel," she suggested. "Miss a night. The world will not suddenly melt if you miss a night in this strange new routine you've adapted."
"No!" Piper protested. "I cannot do that."
"I insist, Piper."
Daniel cleared his throat. "It's all right, Mrs. Linberg. I'll just accompany your daughter to St. Michael's tonight. I'm sure that would be a good compromise."
Piper remained silent. At least she would not fail in her promise. As long as she kept at this, he would be safe. It didn't matter what she has to do, as long as they allow her to pray for him.
That night, Daniel arrived to take Piper to church. Piper knelt on the cushioned panel and bent her head, intently speaking to Him, begging that Leo be allowed to fulfill his destiny, and continue on with life. Lillian's brother sat by her quietly, watching her as she prayed for the safety of a man that he would rather never return, yet somehow, for her sanity, he wished would arrive as soon as possible.
This went on for days on end, until the days became weeks, and weeks forged into months. With every passing day, she cherished the secret that was the miracle love had created. Soon, he will come home. And soon, he too will find joy in her little treasure.
The morning of December 7th, she woke to the scent of bacon and eggs wafting through the window. The kitchen staff were busy again, probably because, as it was Sunday, the Wallaces would be breaking fast with them.
With a groan, she sat up on her bed and immediately felt bile rising up her throat. She flung off the covers and ran to her bathroom, heaving dryly. Minutes later she emerged looking harried. And then she smiled. If only he could be here through this, the torment would be so sweet. She imagined that Leo would take care of her, would hand her a wet towel afterwards, and would take her breakfast in bed. No matter. As long as he arrived before the baby came, she would be satisfied. What a surprise this will be to Leo Wyatt!
After dressing up, she went to the dining room to greet Phoebe, Prudence and her children a good morning. She smiled at the seated people in the room, but noticed how silent they were. "Is something the matter?" she curiously queried.
"Piper, have a seat." And she did. Lillian seemed different. Her eyes were red-rimmed. And Daniel seemed concerned. "Do you know which ship Leo Wyatt was assigned to?"
She glanced up from her plate in surprise. Phoebe Linberg never spoke about her fiancé. After all, she never approved of any of Max's decisions. "He is stationed in Hawaii," she answered slowly, still unsure where this was going.
"Which ship, honey?"
Piper looked over to Lillian. "The USS West Virginia. Why the interest?"
Lillian stood up from her chair and embraced her friend. "What is it, Lille? You're scaring me."
Daniel went over to her. Prudence was about to explain when he held up his hand to silence her. "I'll do this," he informed his mother. Prudence nodded. "Come on with me to the garden, Piper."
Confused, Piper let him lead her away from the table. "Daniel, what is happening?"
"News arrived," he began. He sat her down on the swing and stood before her, intent and serious. "It's been no puzzle the way you feel about Leo Wyatt."
She felt a cold fist gripping her heart. "What happened to Leo?" she whispered.
"Piper, everything happens for a reason."
"What happened to Leo?"
"This morning, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Battleship fleet wiped out. Aircraft and vessels destroyed." He paused. "Three thousand men dead."
His face swam before her eyes, and she could find no words to say. She did not want to say anything, for to respond to it would mean that it was true, that she accepted it.
"Piper, the West Virginia was wrecked."
She covered her mouth with her hands. It couldn't be. This was not Leo's destiny. To die without having achieved anything? "The men escaped," she said softly.
Daniel sadly shook his head. "The enemy attacked at 7:55 in the morning. They've barely finished their morning preparations. And they came unannounced. Three thousand casualties, Piper. If Leo was in Pearl Harbor, he's most likely dead. And if he was in the West Virginia, I can assure you that he is." She stared down at her hands, not wanting to hear Daniel's voice. He fell to his knees before her. "Tell me that you understand what I'm saying, Piper. Give me some clue about what you're going through in there."
Her eyes flew up to meet his. "What do you think?"
"I'm sorry." She nodded. "I'm begging you to cry."
The transformation of her composed features broke his heart. "My God, Daniel, he's gone!" she burst out. Piper fell into his waiting embrace, and he tightened his arms around her. "He's really gone." She sobbed into his neck, incoherently muttering along with her tears.
"It's all right to cry. Just… cry. And then you can put your grief behind and move on," he told her. "But now, cry."
"I can't lose him. He said he would come back for me."
"Leo didn't want to go. He didn't want to leave you. The choice was taken away from him, Piper. I'm sure he's very sad right now that he won't be able to fulfill his promise."
She pulled away from him and asked, "What do I do now, Daniel?"
"You go on with your life the way Leo would have wanted you to."
"The only way we wanted and planned for life to be was... together."
"And that's not possible anymore."
"I need Leo. He and I…we're having a baby," she confided. "I don't know what to do. Mother will kill me. And this baby doesn't deserve to be a bastard. This child was created in love. I will not let it be born tainted."
Daniel took her hand and squeezed. "I'll think of something, Piper. I won't let that happen. You can always count on me."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
She dressed in black, and although she knew that she saddened Daniel with her choice of clothes, she knew she could not go through with the ceremony pretending differently. In the mayor's office, so far from that dream of an elegant attire in St. Michael's, Piper became a wife. Daniel Wallace took her to her home to gather her belongings afterwards.
In the safety of her room, she pulled a stool and took down a pad. She rifled through the pages and smiled at the sketches. They were Leo's drafts, sketches of her wedding gown. There were other drawings of course. They did them together lying in bed. Here was his rather weird looking dream house, to be constructed right after the wedding. And this one was the ring design he wanted. It was a coiled gold and silver band, with three diamond studs at the center. Piper turned the pad to the last page. He had everything to the smallest detail, she remembered. There were numerous sketches of different shoes, so they could choose which style would be best for the down they finally settle on.
She put down the pad and let herself fall onto the bed. What happened to that beautiful life, to all those plans? Blankly she realized that everything good in her past and her future connected to Leo Wyatt, and without him she might as well be nothing.
When you depend as much on anyone else, was it pathetic? How pitiful was it that she was now lost without him? How pointless it would be to go on.
II am a ship without a sail. I am lost in the sea with no course to follow. /I
The knock on her door reminded her that it was time to go. Everything was changing so fast. She let her husband into the room and allowed him to kiss her.
"Are you all right?"
"Are you packed?"
"I will be right with you." She turned and opened her bag. The framed picture of Leo sitting on her dresser caught her eye. She picked it up and traced the smiling features with a fingertip. Lightly, she brushed her lips on the cold glass. Glancing back at Daniel, she saw that he had left the room. She slipped the frame inside her bag. They never agreed to put the ghost of Leo Wyatt behind. And she never will.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The cab stopped in front of the Linberg home, and the man flung his bag over his shoulder as he ran up the steps and knocked. He smiled widely as the door opened.
"Lillian?" he asked, surprised. "What are you doing here so early? Is Piper there?"
The blonde's pretty eyes widened in shock, her face drained of color. "You're not dead."
The man laughed. "No, it looks like I'm not. I need to see Piper. You won't believe how much I've missed her! The moment I arrived there, I knew in my heart I shouldn't have left. I mean, why go into that much turmoil when I have heaven waiting for me at home? So is she there? She'll be surprised."
"She'll be very surprised," she admitted. "Leo!" She embraced him. "Piper is married to my brother. And they live down the street."
Leo dropped his back on the doorstep of the Linberg house and ran the long driveway back to the street. "Leo!" Lillian called after him.
"Not now, Lillian."
"Leo!" She ran after him. "Please stop and listen to me."
He glanced back and saw her after him. Leo slowed his pace. "There are things I need to settle, Lillian."
"What do you plan to do—storm in to her house and ruin everything? She's only just learned to live again, Leo. You can't be so selfish. I thought you wanted her to be happy."
Breathing hard, Leo looked down into her eyes. "You don't understand, Lillian. She can't ever be happy with anyone else but me. How could she do this? I thought… No! I know she loves me. I know."
Lillian stepped closer to him and touched his cheek. "I don't like seeing you hurt. But you can't torment yourself further. Don't go there. Calm yourself, Leo."
"What do you care, Lillian?"
"I care. I love you! I've loved you since we were kids. I've loved you since the first time I saw you biking with your friends. I've loved you even when you only knew Piper and no one else. And I've watched," she screamed, "I've watched every time and every day, letting you kill me with every touch and every kiss!" She took a deep breath. "And still, Leo, I've loved you all along."
"Lillian!" Leo said in disbelief. "I never—"
"Of course you never! You only saw her, never me. Look," she added, and turned away, "forget I said anything. Please. Go to Piper. I'm just… going to go now. Say hello for me, will you?" Lillian walked away.
He continued on, and stopped when he saw Daniel Wallace's car go by. He caught sight of the couple inside. Daniel held her in his arms, and she seemed molded against his body. Leo had not believed it before, but suddenly, he felt the blow to his stomach. It was as though his heart had been ripped apart.
He felt his face flame and his chest tighten. He turned around and ran after the blonde girl slowly walking away. "Lillian! Lillian!"
She stopped stock still in her tracks. Leo caught up with her in a matter of seconds. "Leo, what—"
He bent his head and caught her by the waist, pulling her lips to his in a hard, desperate kiss. His mouth mashed against hers. He was hungry for love, and she was there, openly stating the fact that she was offering all of herself to him. When he lifted his head, he gulped in air. "Do you love me?"
"More than my life," she answered, her eyes glistening, hoping against hope.
"If you love me, Lillian, you'll marry me."
"You're not in love with me."
"I've been in love, Lillian, and look where it got me."
A tear dropped from her eye. "I don't like this… no love."
"Who knows, Lille? Maybe I will fall in love with you. I don't think it will be all that hard." He took her hand in both of his. "Please, Lillian. Save me. I need someone to hold on to, because I'm drowning."
"All right, Leo. I'll save you." Above his shoulder, she saw that her brother's car was already down the street.
"What is it?" Daniel inquired obsequiously as he saw his wife suddenly turn pale in the car seat. "Honey, are you all right?"
She took deep breaths. "Yes, yes, Daniel. I'm just having a little discomfort."
His eyes were worried. "Come here." Piper sat nearer. He took her wrist in his hands and monitored her pulse. "It's fast. Here," he grabbed a bottle of water and handed it to her, "calm down. You get some sleep." He pulled her into his embrace. "Sleep. It will calm your heart. Sleep."
Piper nodded and rested her head against his chest. With closed eyes, she can pretend the arms around her were Leo's. And that nothing ever changed.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Lillian sat in her chair apprehensively, combing her fingers through her hair. Was she wrong in jumping at the chance so suddenly, without giving them a chance to speak, to explain, to meet again? Was she really this selfish?
He emerged from the bathroom with a towel wrapped around his waist, and their eyes met from their reflections at the mirror. She opened her mouth to apologize. This was not real.
But he walked towards her and wrapped his arms around her. In her ear, he whispered, "I will learn to love you, Lille," and she knew she would speak of it no more. Instead, Lillian turned around in his arms and pulled his head down to hers, tasting of his lips, which she had long wanted to do.
Now, he is hers. Nothing will ever take him away. He lifted her into his arms, and the ring on her finger caught the silvery moonlight, glinting an unmeasured pattern of beams and blinding shafts.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Daniel helped her out of the coat. They were standing on the hallway leading to the Wallace dining room for the weekly reunion dinner. Before she turned to enter the dining room, Daniel took her hand and kissed it. "I'm the happiest man in the world."
"You've made me happy too, Daniel."
"I love you."
Piper nodded and smiled, and then she slipped her arm in Daniel's and together they entered the dining room. "Hello, Piper."
"Hello, Prudence. Good evening, mother. Where is Lillian?"
"Well, Lillian has a surprise for all of us. We're eager to know what she was so excited about in the telephone a while ago."
Daniel pulled a chair for Piper and she gratefully sat down. "I'm sure it will be a good one."
"So how are you doing, dear?"
She folded her arms around her belly. "I'm doing very well, mother. Thank you for asking."
"She's been very uncomfortable, Aunt Phoebe," Daniel responded. "I may be taking her to Boston, where a specialist may see to her."
"I have a doctor of my own, Daniel."
Prue glanced at the door. "I think Lillian's arrived." The four anxiously watched for her entry, and were surprised to see her pulling someone along.
"Good evening. I got married yesterday!" she announced so suddenly, smiling widely. And then she turned to her sister-in-law. "Piper…"
Her eyes filled with tears and she shook her head. "What—what's happening?" she asked faintly. "They—"
Leo stepped close to Piper. "Mrs. Wallace," he greeted coldly. And then he turned his back on her and seated Lillian directly across from her brother, so that he sat in front of Piper.
"Leo, please—" Lillian said under her breath.
"Yes, Mrs. Wyatt?"
"This is not the time or place."
"I beg to differ."
The table was silent. Lillian looked guiltily at the family, and Daniel appeared, for the first time in his life, angered. Leo tried to look cold and nonchalant, but one could see the flames of fury in his hazel eyes. Piper was the one whose emotions were starkly apparent in her face. "Excuse me," she whispered, and pushed her chair back.
Leo watched her and was stunned when she stood up. His eyes fell to her bulging stomach. He gritted his teeth and followed her out of the dining room.
Piper shivered at the cold. A warm coat wrapped around her shoulders, and she immediately knew who it was. "They told me you were dead," she said by way of an explanation. An explanation that was until that moment uncalled for.
"You weren't sure."
"I was confused. And I couldn't think."
"You could have waited."
"I couldn't have waited because you left me with child, Leo. I had to decide fast."
"Lillian never told me. Why did Lillian not tell me?"
"You married Lillian!"
"I was mad. I thought you betrayed me."
"You could have waited until we talked, Leo."
"Could have, would have. What's the difference? What's done is done. I'm wed to her, and you're Daniel's wife."
She sadly shook her head. "Fate is cruel to us."
"It's not fate's fault. All this is because you betrayed me."
Piper gasped, stepping back. "I did not! Can't you understand—"
"I understand very well, Piper! The first moment your faith in me weakened, you dove right into his arms!"
"I went to him when I was told that you've perished in Hawaii! IYou/I married Lillian but you knew I'm here."
"Here, right. But in my arms? Piper, when I saw—when I found out—I wished I Ihad/I died in Pearl Harbor!"
"Don't say that! Don't you ever ever ever say that! Be thankful that you are alive, for I sure am." He handed her a handkerchief, and she wiped away the tears. "What now then?"
"Now we go back to the hellholes we've so ignorantly dug for ourselves," he answered quietly.
"I don't want to."
"We have to. Piper, I want my child."
She closed her eyes at the feel of his warm hands over her belly. "Oh God, the baby! What of the baby?"
"We'll figure this out. An annulment perhaps? You married him under the cloud of deception."
"Leo, Daniel has done nothing wrong."
"You love him," he realized.
"No sane woman can not love a man as generous and kind as my husband. But I never have and never will love him as much as—"
"I held off loving anyone else because of my love for you!"
"I did not ask you to do that!" she cried. "I did not ask for any of this! Do you think I Iwanted/I to have had my fiancé die in an asinine mission to save the world, and leave my child and me in the mercies of a cold-blooded, callous society? Leo, did you think I relish the idea of spending every night in bed with a man I never, not once in my life, dreamed of? Did you think the prospect of having the body of the man I love blown to pieces by heartless bastards swooping down from fighter planes pleases me? Blame me for everything, Leo! That way, you don't have to blame you!"
Leo stood before her trembling, unable to speak because the thoughts were tumbling through his head. All he knew was that she was there and he was here, and nothing will ever be right again.
And then his coat fell from her shoulders. No… Daniel Wallace had taken it off and replaced it with his own. He quietly handed Leo back the coat and wrapped his arm around his wife's shoulder. "We're going home, Piper. You're not supposed to overexert."
She nodded and the two walked away from him, not looking back.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"But you have only just arrived!" she protested.
Leo tightened his hands around his wife's. "You must understand me, Lillian. They need me there. So many wounded men, Lille. If I remain here in the safety of our home while boys are leaving their farms, fighting for something they don't even really understand, I'd be denying myself."
"No! I will not understand it, Leo. Here at home you will have a future. There you could be killed at any given moment!"
H shook his head. Leo had been trying to convince her for hours. Why could she not be more like Piper? Piper understood his reasons, the force that drove him to want to help, to take part. Why could Lillian not accept the man that he was?
"It's my decision, Lillian."
"But I'm your wife!"
Perhaps he was not being fair to her. Lillian did not know him the way that Piper did. In fact, Leo doubted that she ever would. The kind of bond that he and Piper shared was too rare to ever be repeated in one lifetime. "I know, Lillian. I know you are. When I return, we'll try to make this work. I don't know. I can't promise anything."
She'd lost him to the madness of this war. "All right. Just tell me something. Leo, have you learned to love me?"
"I love you, Lillian." Her bright smile warmed his heart. Maybe he cannot have heaven anymore, but this would do just fine.
The next day, he kissed his wife farewell to leave for the war. He ran out to the waiting taxicab when he heard her calling out to him. Tears streaked her face, and he embraced her comfortingly. "What is it, Lillian?"
"Mother telephoned Leo. There's been an accident!"
"Daniel and Piper had some automobile mishap driving towards the train station."
Hell. Why does hell continue to creep behind him at every minute? If anything happened to her… Hell. Damned hell.
He closed his hand around hers and rushed her to the waiting cab. "Which hospital have they taken them?"
The driver sped the car away. His wife burrowed in his arms, sobbing out her despair and he held her close, wanting to cry but knowing he could not. Please… not her.
Why did it have to be her? Have they not been punished enough?
If he lost her…
"Everything will be fine, Lillian. You'll see. Everything will turn out just fine."
Lillian's tears wet his uniform, and he hushed her. "But Mother said that it was awful, Leo! The car was wrecked. Daniel is—"
He did not ask about her. He did not need it said. What he wanted to know about her, he would find out for himself.
The cab stopped at the hospital entrance, and Lillian ran out immediately, not waiting for her husband. He was relieved that he would go through this alone. He did not want Lillian around that time. He did not want to have to contain himself.
He swallowed the knot in his throat when he arrived at the floor where he was pointed to. He could see the busy staff working on several patients. Gurneys rolled from the emergency treatment area, white sheets covering the bodies, and he knew he would die if—
"Leo," he heard the faint voice say.
Very slowly he turned around and saw her seating at the corner, waiting. Her hands were bandaged, and her eyes were red from crying. He sucked in his breath and ran towards her. "Piper, thank God you're alive!" He fell to his knees in front of her and drew her tightly to him.
"Yes. Yes, Leo. When he saw the other automobile coming towards us out of control," she explained in between sobs, " he swerved so that the impact would fall on him."
Leo held her face in his hands, dropping a thousand kisses on her cheeks and eyes and forehead and her lips. "Bless him then." He sat back on his heels to assure himself that she was there. And then he drew her in his embrace once more. "I thought I'd lost you again! I couldn't bear the thought of leaving without meeting you again. I didn't want to go, knowing that the last words we've exchanged were lies. We've never hated, Piper."
"Never. There's no use for pride now. I have nothing to do with it. I love you, Leo. Whatever I feel for anyone else, it would not be a hundredth part of the love I have for you. Please don't be angered about the love I have for my husband."
"For what he's done, he'll have my eternal gratitude," he assured her. "I shall always love you no matter what happens. We might not have control of the world, Piper, but in this I can proudly have my voice. I'll see you soon."
Piper fingered the lapels of his uniform. "You'll go to war and die!"
He smiled and traced her lips with his finger. Leo shook his head slowly, whispering, "Not with you to come back to I won't."
"And make me an adulteress?"
"No!" he gripped her shoulders. "You're my Piper, and you have always been and always shall be my heart's wife! In my mind, and in my soul, you're the only one. When I come home, you will lead your life, and I will lead mine. The directions we follow may be opposite, but even from afar you'll have my soul entwined with yours."
She leaned her forehead against hers, and whispered in determination. "Leave then. I know you must. But come back! Even if it's to give her children and be her faithful husband, even if it's to hurt me every day with the sight of your beautiful life. Just… come home, Leo."
"You'll be the first one I will go to see, because I will not be home until I can hold you close to me."
She nodded. "And as I vowed to you. Every day and every night until you're back, I shall be praying for you."
"Then I'll come to see you at St. Michael's."
"Get up, Leo," she told him. "Here they come. It's time for us to be who we are not."
They broke apart from their embrace, and Leo sat down next to Piper. "Will we have a happy ending, I wonder," he whispered.
Prudence and Lillian walked over to them. Lillian held Piper's hand. "He's awake. Daniel's asking for you."
Piper pushed herself up, the weight of the five-month pregnancy making it difficult. Leo helped her to her feet, and lightly brushed his hand in farewell to his baby. Their eyes met, but they did not need exchange words.
Halfway across the room, Piper heard their discussion.
"It's leaving in an hour, so I have to be there. If Daniel's going to recover, then I'm going to go now. I'm sure you understand."
She closed her eyes. And she couldn't even cry. What right had she?
IGood luck, Leo. Keep safe./I
She continued on and closed the door to her husband's room. They fingers intertwined, and she knew that she would not see Leo Wyatt again.
"How do you feel, Daniel?"
He sighed in exhaustion. "All I could think of was whether or not you were hurt."
Piper brushed her lips on his. "Rest, Daniel. And we'll soon be home, and we'll put all this behind us and lead our life together as we will."
"That's a novel idea, Piper. We'll do that," he murmured as he closed his eyes.
IWill we have a happy ending?
We've ended, my love. Was it happy?/I
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Leo folded the letter and pressed it against his lips. He laid back in his bunk with a small smile playing on his lips. Soon, the child was due to arrive. He would be a father any day now. He wondered what the child would look like. If it were a boy, what would they call him? Teddy. Now that's a good little boy's name. Little Theodore Wyatt. He stopped himself. There was no way he'd be Teddy Wyatt. His son would be a Wallace.
He took a deep breath. He would accept it. He must. He did not have much choice, did he? He would take comfort in the fact that the child would still be his and Piper's, no matter what legal documents would say.
If it were a girl… An image of a toothless grin, of smiling brown eyes and wispy hair appeared in his mind. Such a pretty baby. So much the little Piper.
He sat up and grabbed his knapsack from under his bed and drew out a small cardboard box. Taking off the lid, Leo ran his fingers lightly to the crinkled envelopes neatly filed inside. He picked up one. This was the first letter she'd sent to him, and the paper was worn, tearing at the folds. He'd read this over and over, like all the other letters, and he knew each word by heart.
The booming noise of a distant explosion did not so much as make him flinch. He'd been here too long to even be surprised. Leo slipped the newest letter inside the box and placed the lid on. Carefully he returned the box inside his bag, knowing that this was the only item of heaven he had in this harsh world of murder for life, of war for peace.
Piper started from her sleep because of the gripping pain in her belly. She felt her muscles clench and moaned, her fingers clutching at the silk sheets. Was this it? She had not expected the pain to come full force at once. She had prepared for a steady climaxing of pressure, not this all too sudden, all too intense labor. She felt the hot flood of liquid between her thighs. She called it confirmation. The space beside her was empty. Blindly she reached at the nightstand for the bell pull that her husband had installed for that very purpose.
Within moments Daniel Wallace had come running into the room. "What is it, love? Is it time?" She meekly nodded, and a harsh breath escaped her tightly closed lips at the eventual contraction. "I'll take you to the hospital." He strode towards her and slipped his arms under her. When he easily lifted her, she felt at though her insides had been ripped apart, and she let out a scream. He gently placed her down on the bed. "What is it?"
Her head fell back on the soft pillows. It was too painful. She turned her head to plead with her husband not to move her. She licked suddenly dry lips. She could not form the words. Daniel nodded as though he understood the silent entreaty. "I'll call for the doctor. Rest a bit, Piper. You'll have a long night ahead of you."
She gave him a small smile, and he responded by dropping a kiss on her brow. She sucked in her breath as another wave of pain gripped her. "The child is eager," he commented. "I had better hurry then."
Her husband gone, Piper placed her hands on her abdomen, whispering, "Hush, little one, not too fast. All in due time, my love. All in due time." In response, the child inside her seemed to move restlessly, and she bit her lip in discomfort. "Easy," she said. And then that unbelievable wave of pain ripped her apart again, and she could do nothing more than whimper.
Morning dawned brightly on the Pacific Theater, and the camp seemed to come alive when the horde of Japanese fighter planes zoomed high above them. The troopers circled and with every cycle they dropped lower and lower in altitude. There was no doubt that they were preparing for attack.
Leo threw open the medicine cabinet of the camp and dumped necessary supplies into his first aid kit. He shrugged into his medic uniform and strapped the kit onto his belt. He ran back out into the rapidly building formation of men being briefed by the commanders.
And then the first bomb dropped.
Piper screamed in pain and the doctor pushed on her hard stomach. Daniel soothed her by wiping her face with a cool towel while the doctor worked to deliver the baby. "What is it?" he demanded from the old man. "This is not the way it's supposed to be!" he furiously whispered at him.
"No, Mr. Wallace. We'll have to turn the child." He spoke softly at Piper, who was in such pain that she saw and heard everything through a haze. "Mrs. Wallace, your baby is coming feet first, and I don't want to try and risk delivering it like this. I'll need to turn the child." She nodded weakly, tears streaming down her face. "This will be very painful."
"Just do it! She's already in enough pain as it is," Daniel commanded.
The doctor took out a bottle of oil and liberally greased his hands. He lifted Piper's nightgown to her breasts and worked the massage on the tight belly. Her eyes slammed open as she felt her insides coil and twist at the doctor's ministrations. "Aaaahhhh!"
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Wallace. There is no other way to do this."
Daniel held Piper's wrist when he noticed the rapid rate of her pulse. "Finish it!" He nervously glanced down at his wife, whose face was flushed and lips were bitten blue.
The doctor continued turning the child, and Piper kept crying out in pain. "It won't be long now," he soothed. His eyes flickered in fear when his patient stopped screaming and merely fell back on the bed, unmoving. "There. Mrs. Wallace? I'll need you to push now."
Daniel helped Piper sit up and brace herself against the headboard.
Leo furiously turned to his left and to his right. Everywhere he looked, his companions were falling down from shrapnel and bullets. He ran towards a young private who took a bullet on his shoulder. He poured the antiseptic to prevent infection from setting in. It was the most he could do in the circumstances. There was no way to probe the wound for the bullet and absolutely no time to clean and bandage it.
A loud blast just a few meters away from him brought his attention up to the four soldiers who had simultaneously been hit by shrapnel. "Will you be all right?"
"Yeah, Wyatt," hissed the young soldier. "Go to the others. They need help too."
Tying the kit back to his belt, Leo crawled through the dusty ground to avoid sharpshooters. A bullet hit the ground beside him, and he immediately slithered across the ground faster. He reached the wounded men. He desperately searched for other medics, but there were none. Two of the injured were easy to treat. All they needed was disinfecting for the arms. The other two seemed to be in more serious condition. He bent over the first one and looked for the wound.
"Dammit!" he yelled in frustration as he uncovered the wound in his neck. It had cut through too much, and there was no way he could treat him. "I cannot heal the dead," he mourned. He drew out his white handkerchief and covered the soldier's face.
Immediately, Leo attended to the last one who had fallen farther than the others. "Private! Wake up, private!" The man did not stir. With trembling hands, he turned the soldier over. There was a huge, gaping hole in his stomach that spewed a large amount of blood.
He knew this one had to be attended to fast. He cleaned the wound a bit and reached in his pack for some bandage, only to realize that he had ran out. He glanced back at the supplies tent. It was on the other side of the field, much to dangerous for him to go there. His eyes went back to the fallen man. He decided to give him some encouragement while he decided on the best course of action. "Okay, listen here—"
"Teddy," the young man supplied. "Theodore Richards, sir."
His nostrils flared. "Listen here, Teddy. I'm going to be back. I need to get some bandages for you," he told him. The soldier nodded and Leo ran back to the tent, effectively dodging bullets and shrapnel along the way.
"Push, Mrs. Wallace, push!"
She was limp on the bed, too weak to sit or speak.
"We need you to do this, Mrs. Wallace. Come on. Push!"
Daniel lifted her up again. "Come on, love. The baby. Push!"
With the last of her strength, Piper pushed the child out with all her might.
Leo returned to the soldier and covered the hole to prevent putrefaction. "Thank you." Leo offered the soldier his hand to try to sit up. Teddy took it and held firm. Leo's brows knotted. Teddy did not let go. Leo's eyes widened when he saw the soldier nod at someone behind him and Leo felt the sharp explosion at his temple.
She pushed, and the welcome relief of the hot, wet, slippery body sliding out from between her thighs registered somewhere in her dim recollection. And then everything slowed as she heard the mad pumping of her heart slowing, the echoed rhythm loud in her ear. She was weightless of a sudden, and she had no more control of herself. Piper's eyes closed and she fell limply back into a dark, dark void.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Strangely lightheaded, Leo opened his eyes to see himself floating towards the clouds. He glanced down and saw the razed battlefield, the corpses of young men scattered at the dusty ground like so much rag dolls. Leo raised his face to the sky.
A chance to help special people, they tell him. Without opening his mouth, he asked, "Am I dead?" He was. But they were giving him the option to become immortal, living forever, serving, guiding. Whitelighting.
But none of the things they said registered in his mind. All he could think of was the young woman waiting at St. Michael's, where she had sworn to keep vigil until the day he returned safely home from the war.
"I have to see her."
Immediately he felt extraordinary tingles all over his body, and saw the blue lights surround him. At his next conscious thought, he was standing on the marble floor of his childhood church. Dizzy from the unfamiliar mode of transport, it took a while before his vision cleared.
Daniel Wallace sat at the pew, cradling a swaddled bundle against his chest, murmuring comforting sounds of nonsensical words, and Leo's heart warmed. "My son," he whispered.
The man sitting with the child did not see him, nor hear his claim. Daniel rocked the child and leaned his head back. He closed his eyes. "She'll always watch over you, Patrick," he told the baby in reassurance.
Leo's head snapped back to the front of the church. He mutely stared at the ominous truth before he accepted it. IThis is not real./I This cannot be real.
His legs carried him forward, and his heartbeat thundered in his ears.
IEvery day and every night that you are gone, I will be in St. Michael's, praying for your safe return, hoping for this to be over soon so we may settle back to our normal lives./I
Is this normal? He wanted to scream. I came here expecting to comfort your grief. I came here to tell you that you've lost me. What happened?
How long before the end of this aisle? I've been walking for decades, it seems!
Leo stood a few feet away from the coffin, not knowing if he should approach, if he would be able to take the final blow. He stepped forward. Another step. Another. Until all he needed to do was open his eyes and look down. The hard wood of the coffin beneath his hands, the cold reality of the glass brushing his skin…
He opened his eyes and looked down.
I Remember, Leo, when you get back, I will be waiting in my wedding gown, and we can resume the life that has always been meant for us…/I
He had never been broken, or hurt, or betrayed, before this. A beautiful, peaceful face, so serene and at rest, encased in glass. Untouchable. Those lips, in memory so soft and warm. Never to be kissed again. Those breasts, so pliant, always his. Now unmoving, too still.
And he has not been really dead until this moment.
And he has died a thousand deaths.
He felt that his knees would no longer support him as he grasped the side of the coffin, wanting so badly to hold her in his embrace, feeling his arms so empty without her. "God help me, how can I go on?" He felt his entire body bend over itself as he fought to control the tears threatening to flow. A sob rose in his throat, and he tried to hold it in, but could not.
She wore an exquisite white dress, one of those they have sketched together as they planned for their wedding that day that now seemed like lifetimes ago.
Their life was perfection. What happened?
Like a lost boy he curled beside the coffin, the cold marble of the church floor numbing his cheek. Once more he saw the swaddled infant in Daniel Wallace's arms. His child. His and Piper's. Yet though Leo knew he loved the only living product of their love, he could not think of anything besides the loss.
How could it have gone so wrong? They had everything. Reason, love, the support of a family, a lifetime together. What assurance would any lesser love have when one like theirs has ended so bitterly?
And then, she was sitting next to him, in that same white dress.
"I told you I'd be waiting for you here in St. Michael's." Her voice seemed to echo in the church.
He could not believe it. Has she become an angel? "And in your wedding gown, no less."
She gave him a small smile. "I'm not responsible. Daniel decided to send me to my eternal rest in this."
"Piper, I've died."
"So have I. Are we finally together?"
He nodded. "In heaven. Nothing's ever going to keep us apart again."
She bent to kiss his lips. "An eternity in heaven. That sounds lovely." And then she looked over to Daniel. "Our baby—"
"Will be with us when his time has come." He offered his hand and she took it. And the two vanished from earth with their palms pressed together, and their lips molded perfectly.
She leaned her head back against his warm chest, that beloved heart beating so near her ear she could hear it say I love you with every thundering crescendo. Large white feather wings enfolded her, and the tears fell like crystal droplets of rain.
"I can stay here with you," he told her.
Piper shook her head. "I've always known you'd have a special purpose in life, Leo. They're offering you a chance to fulfill your destiny. You must take it."
"It means never seeing you again, Piper. I will be immortal. I shall never be dead. I cannot enter this part of Heaven to see you again."
I love you. His heartbeat thundered the words into her ear. I love you. I love you. "I love you," she told him. "I've always understood your destiny, Leo. Don't let me keep you from your fate."
"We'll never see each other again."
"Don't be too sure," she whispered.
"You're dead. I never will be. This is one wall we cannot scale."
"I am convincing myself that there is a chance, Leo. Please just agree with me," she begged him.
Hidden inside the haven of the feather wings, he buried his face in her hair. "I never want to let you go."
"I never want for us to be apart, but sometimes it's the only way. Leo, take your part in fulfilling destiny."
"IYou/I are my destiny. And I'm leaving you in heaven."
She did not speak. And he did not need to add anything further. They just stood silently in an embrace that must last for infinity. When the feather wings opened, she knew the time has come.
Piper gazed at her love as he faded from her sight amidst those wondrous lights, knowing that it was the last time as he began his neverending journey helping those who needed him on earth. She turned around and walked on the clouds, ready to face an eternity in heaven pining for a man who would not come through these gates again.