Chapter Nine

Dona nobis requiem

Grant us rest

Blurry orange light swam across John's vision. Hot tears filled his eyes, spilling over his soft lower eyelids, bathing his eyelashes and trickling like burning rivers down his nose, his cheeks, and the corners of his lips. The tears were cold by the time they reached his chin, and dripped to land on the back of his left hand. This hand, open, delicately rested palm down on the cool, rough-hewn stone of the battlement of the mansion roof. He closed his eyes, which sent a new surge of salt water coursing over his cheekbones. The heat and the light of the sunrise pressed against his skin, increasing the ache in the center of his brow and the back of his throat.

Despite his tears, his heart was empty. The tears had come when he had reached the roof, and he had been unable to stop them. He made no noise, and his face never moved. He barely breathed. His thoughts had stopped. His entire world was silence and numbness.

He took a breath, and almost automatically addressed that distant presence he had always sensed waiting for him amidst the darkness after he woke up from his nightmares. Only now he could not wake up.

"What am I supposed to do?" he whispered, his voice barely recognizable, rough and weak. "You can't...Please...Why would you...take them...from me?" He opened his eyes and tilted his head back, a shining tear running from his eye down his jawbone and neck. "I cannot...cannot go on without some help, here." He let out a long, rattling breath and squeezed his eyes shut. "I know this is what I deserve...but if you would like to forgive me, I'd--"

Something brushed his hand. He blinked, trying to clear his vision. He shook his head, spilling his tears, and glanced down to his right with furrowed brow.

A small hand clasped his. He stared, his eyes following the hand that was connected to a black-clad, slender arm, that was connected to a little brown-haired, brown-eyed girl--who was looking up at him and smiling.

And right behind her stood a slightly taller, brown-haired, blue-eyed boy.

"Are you okay, Daddy?" the little girl asked. "Your shirtsleeve is torn."

John fell to his knees and swept her desperately into his arms, then lashed out and grabbed Robbie, too, pulling them both to him and kissing their faces. They gripped him in return, and Lisa wiped the tears from his cheeks with her fingers.

"How did you--" John gasped.

"How did we what?" Lisa wondered. John backed up a little and looked at them.

"Herald said he put you in a...a gas chamber and filled it with toxin," John managed. Robbie's eyebrows went up.

"A gas chamber? No, he had us in a cage on the other side of the roof over there," Robbie had to merely indicate with his head, because John held both his arms captive. John glanced far past him and saw the corner of an iron cage behind some crates.

"How did you get out?" John asked, still baffled.

"I didn't go to five years of Cleric monastery so that I wouldn't know how to pick a lock," Robbie answered with playful scorn. John was still staring at both of them, his brain sluggish.

"So...Herald lied."

Lisa giggled.

"I guess so."

For a moment, John's eyes raced over her features, and then the features of his boy, and a smile broke across his face. Suddenly, he laughed, and kissed her forehead, and both children fell against him again, encircling his neck with their arms.

VVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVV

"Preston!" April cried as she hurried through the second mansion gate, trying not to jostle her left arm, which hung in a makeshift sling. The green lawn was bathed in golden sunlight, and sparkled with dew. The statues appeared serene and ancient in the day--they had lost their sepulchral pallor in the softness of the morning. A warm, welcoming wind tossed her hair and coat.

Thomas came right beside April, having taken a helicopter back, and Angel followed directly behind. April let out a laugh.

"You found them!"

John Preston beamed brightly, striding toward them with straight shoulders as he led both his children by the hand, one on either side. The two groups stopped and faced each other, the smile never leaving John's face. His bright eyes found his partner.

"Hello, Thomas."

Thomas gazed at John a moment, not knowing what to say. John then stepped forward and pulled him into a rough embrace that Thomas instantly returned.

Thomas backed up and John slapped his shoulder, nodding firmly at him. John then extended his hand to April. She grasped it.

"Well done, Cardinal," John commended. "And you, too, Angel." He warmly took his hand as well. "It looks like it worked."

"It did, indeed," April nodded, grinning.

"Hi, Matthew," Lisa said shyly. Angel smiled at her and gently tweaked her nose.

"How are you, Buttercup?" he asked.

"Good," she blushed, hiding behind her dad's arm.

"You remember Matthew Angel, don't you Robbie?" John looked down at him.

"Yes."

John's eyes suddenly flickered, and his smile faded.

"Where are James and Mill?"

"Mill was hit, but it's not serious," Thomas told him. "James is with him."

John took a breath and nodded.

"Well, good."

April glanced up at the forbidding mansion and narrowed her eyes.

"I'll call Base right away and have them strike this place as soon as we're gone."

"No."

She faced Preston, her brow furrowing.

"No? Why?"

His eyes strayed over the windows and battlements, and up and down the impressive stairway.

"It's beautiful, April. Probably one of a kind," he said softly. "We can take it for our own, and see what's inside--but we can't destroy it. No matter what's happened here."

April watched him carefully. A smile twitched her mouth and she marveled at him.

"All right, Cleric," she allowed. "Whatever you say."

Instead of looking back at her, though, his gaze became even more distant and serious. He swallowed.

"Cardinal," he said quietly. "Would you and Thomas do me the favor of watching my children for an hour or two?" He looked at her then. "I have to go talk to someone."

April straightened.

"Of course, Cleric," she assured him. "We will be waiting for you."

VVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVV

"Mary! Mary, he's come back!" Gena shouted down the hallway.

Mary jerked up straight in the window seat of the downstairs parlor. All night and all morning, she had sat there, dressed in a long, deep-green, long-sleeved velvet dress, Preston's right-hand glove, his book and the red ribbon that had hidden between the pages now clutched in her lap. All night and all morning, she had waited in silence, watching the sun come up, trying to keep her heartbeat slow. But now, at Gena's words, her heart leaped into her throat.

She turned toward the doorway, gripping the glove, a shiver running all through her. She felt the light of the sun warm her back and the curtain she leaned against.

She heard strong, hurried footsteps against the wooden floor of the corridor. And then he came in.

He stopped at the edge of the floral rug, breathing hard, touched by fingers of sunlight. His black Cleric's uniform was torn and soiled. His dark hair was slightly mussed, one strand brushing the top of one of his heavy eyebrows. His handsome, rugged features were marked with occasional cuts, the bottom lip of his soft mouth bore a bruise, and his dark eyes shone with depth and brilliance.

"Mary," he said breathlessly. She pushed the contents of her lap onto the window seat-- though she still grasped the ribbon--rose and quickly swept toward him, her bare feet padding on the carpet.

"Are you all right?" she whispered, her throat closing, and she reached out to him.

"No, no, Mary," he cast his gaze down, his brow knotting. But she could not help it--she could not keep her hands from him. Her pale trembling fingers took hold of his black shirt sleeves, keeping him from fleeing, and her eyes earnestly searched his face. There was silence a moment, but she waited. He swallowed.

"Who was it?" His deep voice was quiet and hesitant, but desire and fear lay beneath it.

"What do you mean?" she asked, just as softly.

"The man you sang about," he murmured. He lifted his shimmering eyes to hers. "The man across the water--the man you love but couldn't reach."

Mary gazed at him for a long moment. Then she stepped in a little closer and reached up to delicately touch his face with her left hand. She stroked the soft skin beneath his eye with her forefinger, then traced his lips with her thumb. His breathing became unsteady, but his searching hands cautiously wrapped against her waist. Her eyes traveled slowly over his forehead, the bridge of his nose, his cheekbones and his chin, then found his gaze again. Her right hand slipped the ribbon into his coat, next to his heart, then came up to rest against the nape of his neck.

"If you want to know the truth, Cleric," she smiled gently. "It was you."

He blinked, and his eyebrows flickered. A tear fell. She leaned up and met his warm lips with hers. They both tasted salt.

A dam broke within him. He wrapped his arms fiercely around her and drank her in as her arms embraced his shoulders.

When their lips broke apart, he did not withdraw. Instead, he squeezed his eyes shut and pressed his forehead against hers.

"Mary," he gasped. "Mary, I love you."

She leaned her head back so she could see him, and beamed at him. After a moment, his eyes lit up and he laughed uncertainly, then he could not resist a radiant smile. Quickly, Mary drew him back down and covered the smile with another kiss.

THE END