The Road Beyond St. Peter's

A pyre of mystical fire . . . an angel materializing from out of the crowd . . . her soft hand taking his and leading him into the night . . . guiding his exhausted, battered body through the streets . . . leading him here . . . to this suite . . . propping him half-sleeping in a scalding hot shower . . . leading him to this bed . . . and watching over him as he fell asleep like the dead. – From Angels and Demons, Dan Brown

Vittoria Vetra stared. It was all she could possibly do. She didn't have the energy to scream, she didn't care enough anymore to be horrified at the vision before her. There was no saving the Camerlengo – spiritually or physically. He had murdered Vittoria's father, slaughtered the Preferitti, and had used the very technology in which her father proved the existence of God, to try and destroy His Holy City.

There was no stopping the pyre of flame enveloping and engulfing the body of Camerlengo Carlo Ventresca. There was no sound, no screaming, no pain, no horrifying shrieks of agony. All Vittoria could do was watch as the fiery figure slumped behind the balustrade, the intense light fading, and heavy clouds of gray smoke becoming the only remnants visible. A horrific scent slowly permeated the air around St. Peter's basilica, and moved assuredly through St. Peter's Square – the unmistakable odor of burning flesh. Vittoria watched as the members of the stunned crowd now covered their mouths and noses with handkerchiefs, jackets, or coat sleeves to try and filter out the deathly stench.

Carlo Ventresca had committed many, many sacrileges that night – the worst of all was the ultimate act of cowardice – taking his own life in a pillar of holy fire.

I can't stand this anymore. I need to get out of here.

Pulling her eyes away from the balcony and the crowd, Vittoria glanced up at the tall, eruditely handsome man standing next to her. Robert Langdon was a mess. His hair was still wet and matted down with water, muck and mire from God knew where. He had still not told her what happened – how he survived the anti-matter annihilation, and even how he survived the fall – or jump – from the helicopter. He had still not explained why he was wearing a dark blue ambulance driver's jumpsuit instead of his Harris tweed, turtleneck, and khaki pants. He had still not explained why he was bandaged, bruised, and walked with a rather pronounced limp. But all that could wait. It would have to wait.

Vittoria saw in Robert's still skyward eyes, and in the slack expression on his face, that he was completely drained, utterly exhausted, and like her, too jaded to care about the Camerlengo's fate. She read in his face that all Robert cared about was that it – the entire surreal fiasco – was over. The Vatican was safe, the rest of the Cardinals could now elect a Pope, and Vittoria was by his side – herself untouched and, at least physically, unscathed.

Vittoria took hold of Robert's hand. It was clammy, limp, and cold - much un-unlike the strong, firm, warm hand she held earlier when they were forced to pose as a married couple. "Robert, are you okay?"

Robert continued to stare upward, toward the balcony. Unlike the rest of the crowd, he didn't seem to care about the smell of burning flesh now dominating the air. His otherwise kind eyes were now vacant, expressionless, without feeling. He did not respond.

"Robert," Vittoria tugged on his hand, the slight pressure leading him in a westerly direction out of the polluted square, toward Rome, and out of the Vatican, "let's go. We need to leave, now."

Robert didn't argue, he didn't balk. He gladly turned away from the ghastly sight before him, and followed Vittoria's guidance like a child follows his mother. Obviously, he had no idea where she was leading him, where they were going, or how they were going to get there. Vittoria knew that she had to get Robert cleaned up, get him some food, and more importantly, some rest.

As they made their way into the piazza containing the Bernini Hotel, Vittoria heard the otherwise silent Robert mumble. "What was that? What did you say?"

"Diagrama." Robert's voice was hoarse, and slightly squeaky.

"What about Diagrama, Robert?"

"Got wet. Gone. I ruined it. Last copy, gone. Dissolved."

"That's the least of our worries, now isn't it?" Vittoria could sense the guilt, hurt, and pain swimming in Robert's mind. He had been so careful in the archives, turning each page with the proper tools, wearing the proper archival gloves. Vittoria knew that the loss of the world's very last copy of Galileo's Diagrama – and that it was Robert's fault – weighed heavily on him.

"What do we do about the tape?" Robert slurred, "About Ventresca's confession?"

"Let's not talk about that right now, Robert," Vittoria chided as she led Robert into the grand front doors of the Hotel. "We can…"

Robert suddenly regained some energy. "No, now." He stopped abruptly just inside the expansive lobby and pulled Vittoria back toward him with a modicum of strength. "What do we do?"

"What do you want to do, Robert?" She eyed him with a hint of impatience. "I think Cardinal Mortati made it clear that he wanted to be the one to break the news to the world about Ventresca's…Ventresca's…ooh, I can't even say it, but I don't think it's our - yours or my - place to go blabbing to the press about…"

Robert smiled weakly, his eyes still droopy and heavy. "I hoped that was what you'd say."

Without another word, Robert enveloped his hand in Vittoria's again, and let her lead him to the front desk. She leaned over the counter. "Ciao, è chiunque qui? Hello?"

A prim looking man in a smart-looking pinstriped suit sauntered slowly from behind a partition wall. "Posso aiutarlo," he said with an obviously spurious and snobby drawl. "Do you require a room for…dio mio!" He looked up at Robert, over at Vittoria, and then back at Robert. "Dio mio, Signore! You are the…you are the man from the television…in the elicottero…Il Camerlengo…"

Vittoria watched with trepidation as Robert sighed, blowing a breath deliberately through his pursed lips, and sank his head into his chest. Robert lifted his face, licked his lips and smiled weakly. "Yes, signore, I am, and I'm exhausted. I need a shower. I need a bed, and I need those things right now, please, so the sooner you can give Ms. Vetra here a key to a huge, luxurious suite, the sooner I'll be a happy man."

The man behind the counter contemplated for a moment. "Si, signore," he said, smiling genuinely this time. "I have just the room for you two." He swiped a card through a reader, placed it in an envelope, and pushed it across the counter toward Vittoria. "Room 443, Signorina Vetra, Signore Langdon."

Vittoria rummaged through her pockets, trying desperately to remember which zippered compartment contained her credit cards. She pulled out a silver and blue Visa card with the CERN logo imprinted on it, and pushed it in the opposite direction toward the counterman. "Here, put everything on this card. Just take it. I'll pick it up tomorrow morning."

The counterman smiled again, placed two fingers on the credit card and slid it back toward Vittoria. "Your card is no good here, Signorina Vetra."

"Excuse me?" She blinked impatiently, her chin jutting forward with increasing annoyance. "That card is perfectly good! It has a limit of over…"

He tilted his head and his eyes twinkled. "I do not question your credit limit, Signorina Vetra, and I do not question the validity of your credit card."

Vittoria let out a breath and rolled her eyes. "Then what, pray tell, is the problem?"

The man raised his hands in a gesture of submission. "There is no problem. None whatsoever. The room, and dinner this evening, Signorina Vetra, are gratis," he looked at Robert, "on the house, as you Americans say. Whatever you wish, we will provide. Now, the elevator is behind this counter to the left. Take it to the fourth floor, and turn right. Your room is on the left side. Enjoy your stay, and sleep well."

Vittoria smiled, thankful tears welling up in her eyes. "Grazie, signore. Grazie." She took Robert's hand, and turned toward the elevators. "Oh, one more thing."

"Si,"

Vittoria again handed the counterman her credit card. "You have a concierge, correct?"

"Si."

"Please ask him to purchase some clothing for myself and Mr. Langdon. I can't quite wear these shorts and tank anymore, and Mr. Langdon certainly cannot travel back to the States wearing a medical jumpsuit. I wear an American size four, and Mr. Langdon looks to be your size exactly."

"Sara un paciere, Signorina. I will ensure it is done. They will be delivered to your room later this evening – after you two have had time to rest." He picked up the card and placed it into a small file folder under the desk. "Should you need anything else, just call. My name is Ettore, and I am the hotel manager."

Moments later, Vittoria was ushering a now half-sleeping Robert Langdon out of the elevator, partially supporting his weight on her shoulders as they scuffled down the hallway. She worked the key in the lock and the door swung open on the first try. Vittoria was immediately stunned and amazed at the beauty, luxury and elegance of the suite laid out before her – but, appreciation of the décor would have to wait.

Vittoria, with Robert still half-slumped on her shoulder, made a sharp right turn and immediately found the bathroom. "Okay, Langdon, get your bulky body off me." She pulled his arm from around her neck, and lowered him gently onto the closed toilet seat. "Time for a clean-up, you smell like…like I don't know, but it's horrible."

"Silt… from the Tiber," Robert garbled.

Vittoria stood over him, stunned. "You fell in the river?"

Robert's eyes were flickering open and closed, and his head was bobbing ominously. "Uh-huh."

"How did you get out?"

"Fell…by…hospital…pulled…me out."

Dio mio. Dio mio, I can't believe he survived that.

"You are one lucky bastard, you know that?"

"Tell…me…'bout…it." He curled the right side of his mouth in an exhausted grin, and chuckled slightly. "Don't…feel…lucky."

I can hear the rest later.

"You don't smell lucky, either, let's get you in the shower." Vittoria pulled the textured glass door aside, reached in, and turned on the tap, pushing the lever all the way toward the "caldo" side. Within seconds, steam began filling the bathroom, fogging up the mirrors, and making the marble countertops and terrazo floors rather slippery. "Do you have anything on under that jumpsuit?"

"No."

Okay, Vittoria thought. No problem. Just get it done, get out, get him to bed. Don't look. All business - nothing sexual.

"Can you stand up?" Robert pushed off from the now slick seat and stood, wobbling slightly. Vittoria undid the button at the collar of the jumpsuit, grasped the large pull and began undoing the zipper, moving it down to where it stopped just below Robert's mid-section. Despite her self-imposed clinical attitude, Vittoria couldn't help but notice – and appreciate - the defined, and rather clean, chest muscles, the slack, yet still sexy abdominals, and the tiny tufts of black hair covering the top and bottom of Robert's exposed navel.

Robert's eyes kept flickering, and he took large breaths in through his nose, letting them out in extended, near constant yawns and groans.

In this state, he wouldn't even notice if I just…grabbed him down there…Vittoria, stop it now!

She pushed the jumpsuit from Robert's broad shoulders and turned him around so that he faced away from her. She could hear a faint laugh and saw Robert's latissimus dorsi muscles – his swimming muscles - quiver slightly. "You…shy?"

"No, just respectful," she laughed a bit herself, and continued to remove the garment, pulling it down off of his somewhat sculpted, but not perfect, arms, letting the top of it dangle from his thin waist. "You want to do the rest?"

He took another breath in through his nose. "Yes, please." Vittoria turned around, and heard the scratchy sounds of stiff cotton being peeled away from dry skin, and heard the thump-thump of Robert's size eleven feet lifting and resetting down on wet terrazo. She then heard Robert pad into the shower and groan ecstatically under the intense heat of the streaming water. She turned around and noticed that Robert had not closed the shower door. He stood there, wavering back and forth under the steaming cascade. Vittoria feared for a moment that he would fall. She pulled off her boots and socks and stepped, fully-clothed, into the marble bathtub behind Robert, and held her hands up against his back for support. His lithe, hot skin under her hands sent a shudder of… God knows what feeling…throughout her entire body.

Stay professional, Vittoria. Keep your mind off of it, Vittoria. Keep your mind off of it. Keep your mind off of…him.

But she couldn't. Even from behind, even battered, bruised, and unbelievably fatigued, Robert Langdon's wet body was…well, quite desirable, even for a man ten years her senior. It took everything Vittoria had to keep her brain on the task of getting him cleaned up, getting the matted muck out of his hair, and getting him to bed. Langdon obviously needed all the help he could get right now, and she was it. Vittoria inhaled, pumped some shampoo into her hand from the wall dispenser, reached up, and began massaging it through Robert's thick, dark, tresses.

Giving in completely to Vittoria's touch, Robert slumped and sat down on the floor of the shower, ducking his head forward, his chin dipping into his chest. Vittoria knelt behind him, the hot water now hitting her in the neck and chest. She gingerly pulled his head back toward her, and moved her fingers deftly over the follicles, stopping now and then to scrub at a particularly difficult patch of mud. After two rounds of shampooing, and careful rinsing, Vittoria was satisfied.

"There," she said, standing up, turning off the shower, and squeezing the excess water from her hair, "finished. Clean as a whistle."

"Do you have to stop?" Robert said in a hoarse voice. Despite the water being turned off, and the chill now permeating the air, Robert remained sitting on the bathtub floor, still facing away from Vittoria.

Vittoria laughed, pulled a towel from the rack, wrapped her hair in a makeshift turban, and stepped out of the bathtub. "The mud's all gone - down the drain."

"Yeah," Robert groaned, tilting his wet head to one side, "but do you have to stop?"

"Yes, I do," Vittoria chided, with a sly tone of voice, knowing full well that any further physical contact might lead to a wholesale lack of sleep, "however, Signore Langdon, we can pick it up later, after at least eight hours' sleep. Of course, only if you want to."

"I'd…I'd…like that."

Moments later, Robert Langdon emerged, shuffling painfully, from the bathroom. His body was loosely swathed in a luxuriously thick Hotel Bernini bathrobe. His black-with-gray hair was sticking up at various and sundry angles, having been tousled dry by Vittoria. Having done so, Vittoria walked out of the bathroom to change out of her own - now soaking wet - clothes and into a bathrobe of her own.

Vittoria pulled up the corner of the stark white comforter and bedspread on the left-hand bed, making a wide space on the Egyptian cotton sheets for Robert to lay. Without a word, without cue, and without direction, Robert trod barefoot around Vittoria and plopped unceremoniously onto the edge of the bed. In one fluid motion, Robert sank his head back onto the goose down pillow and kicked his legs up, sprawling prone on the feathery soft mattress.

"You shouldn't sleep in that," Vittoria pointed to Robert's bathrobe, "it's too thick, the knot will drive you nuts and you'll get overheated."

Again, without a word, Robert reached his hands down and tugged at the loosely tied sash. Vittoria, still holding the bedcovers aloft, averted her eyes. When she heard the offending garment slump heavily to the floor, Vittoria took a few steps backward, allowing the airy sheets, blankets and comforter to sail over Robert's body. Satisfied that he was covered and comfortable, she turned around and sat facing Robert on the edge of the bed opposite – the bed where she decided that she herself would be sleeping.

It's too soon, much too soon, to sleep with him, to cuddle up next to him. He's too exhausted for me to curl my body up against his, to run my tired hands through his thicket of hair, to…oh, Dio mio, Vittoria…stop thinking about that!

Not having the luxury of a hairbrush, Vittoria pulled her fingers through her long, brown hair, removing as many of the tangles as possible. Through her work on her tresses, she kept her eyes fixed upon Robert Langdon. He was curled up on his side, the blankets tucked up under his hand against his chin, so that only his head poked out of the cocoon of soft cotton and goose feathers. With his eyes closed, Vittoria could now appreciate just how long his eyelashes were. They seemed to reach down to caress his flushed-pink cheeks. His mouth was slack and partially open, the lips slightly chapped but still full of color. After a short time, Vittoria noticed that his breathing became very regular, his face slackened considerably, and subdued rumbling noises emanated from his open mouth.

Finally, after nearly eight hours of non-stop adrenaline, fear, near-death experiences, terror, loathing, and danger, Robert Langdon was asleep – Robert Langdon was at peace.

May you have a dreamless, sleep, Robert. Or, if you do, at least, dream of me.

Vittoria pulled off her robe and let it fall to the floor atop Robert's. She pulled up the covers of her own bed, slid underneath, snuggled down, and tucked herself in. Just like Robert, Vittoria Vetra drifted off to peaceful sleep nearly the moment her head hit the pillow.

Dream of me, Robert Langdon…