If I Ever Lose My Faith In You
By Darth Stitch

DISCLAIMER: Trinity Blood was created by Yoshida Sunao (R.I.P.) and is now an anime directed by Tomohiro Hirata and produced by the studio GONZO, as well as a manga drawn by Kiyo Kyoujou.

AUTHOR'S WARNINGS: Trinity Blood is set in a post-apocalyptic world where the Roman Catholic Church/the Vatican is portrayed as a military power as well as a spiritual one. The series also strongly implies major and controversial changes in the Church, such as women being bishops and cardinals as well as romantic relationships and quite possibly marriage between members of the clergy. If this disturbs you, do not read any further.

Earlier stories in the Milk Tea series can be found on my FF Dot Net profile.

One - If I Ever Lose My Faith

You could say I lost my faith in science and progress
You could say I lost my belief in the holy church
You could say I lost my sense of direction
You could say all of this and worse, but
If I ever lose my faith in you
There'd be nothing left for me to do…

- Sting, "If I Ever Lose My Faith"

Abel, as always, had put it best: "I've never been married before, but we'll muddle through it together."

Neither of them were perfect – Abel, as Esther had long known, did indeed have a temper, was inclined to occasional fits of brooding and when he actually stated he was in a bad mood, even if it looked like he was joking as usual, it was time to take him very seriously. Esther had her snappish, impatient fits herself and yes, there were days when they both drove each other crazy, although they had yet to have any serious fights.

Still, Esther had figured out that the best way to snap Abel out of a horrid mood was to simply sidle up to him, stroke his cheek or brush his hair out of his eyes which normally earned her an apology and a kiss. Abel had also learned that most of the time, what he needed to do to get Esther smiling for real again was to take off his glasses, give Esther what she mentally termed as That Look, stroke her cheek or show some other affectionate gesture and ask her "What's the matter, love?" in what she also mentally termed as That Tone of Voice Combined With That Endearment.

(Lord help her, it seemed that Abel had finally figured out how to use those beautiful winter blue eyes of his to scramble a woman's wits. Perhaps Isabel had put it best: "I simply cannot believe that man could be that oblivious!")

There were things that they were still learning about each other. Abel, for example, still found it hard to talk about his past ("I wasn't a good man, Esther. People hated me and I gave them a good reason for it."). The most that he'd revealed to her was when he asked if they not publicly announce that they were married, keeping only the AX members in the know and of course, the only ones in the Empire who were aware about that were Seth, Mirka Fortuna and her grandson Ion, Baybars and Astharoshe.

Abel had finally, reluctantly, spoke to her about his twin brother Cain, that he was mad and dangerous and that it was most likely that he headed the Rosen Kruez Orden, the enemy they so often fought against. He had told her that Cain had murdered someone he loved very much, a very long time ago and that Cain would be all too happy to do the same thing again if he ever learned about Esther.

It hurt that he would not tell her about that other woman, dead for so long. Esther knew her name though – Lilith­ – had in fact heard Abel whispering it in his sleep a few times, usually with a great deal of pain in his voice. Often, Esther would simply stroke his head and then, he would say "Esther" without ever opening his eyes and then slumber on. Abel would not say more about Lilith and indeed, he'd been much more moody than normal over the whole thing. Often, he would look at Esther and his expression would be sorrowful and apologetic. He would draw her close and kiss her, almost as if silently pleading for forgiveness. What else could she do but comfort him in turn?

"He has mourned her for 900 years," Cardinal Caterina had once revealed to her, when she'd tried to ask about it, wanting so much to help her beloved husband. "More than that, I can't say – it's his story to tell. You've been better for him than you know, Esther."

It had been getting close to Christmas when they'd finally managed to wrap things up in the Empire and go home. Seth and Isabel were especially reluctant to be parted from "big brother Abel and big sister Esther" (never mind if Isabel wasn't exactly the baby sister of the family, never mind her apparent age). Esther would miss that pair of mischievous sprites – Lord only knew what havoc they would cause poor Ion and all the rest in their Empire.

Abel was again a little distant these days. He would clown around at the mention of Christmas and presents and candy and cake but even the other AX members could see that the smiles never quite reached his eyes. The Cardinal and Sister Kate, even Father Havel worried over him, while Father Leon and the Professor held back from their usual teasing (Father Hugue, of course, was in no condition to comment, as he was off on another mission).

Just today, Esther saw Abel preparing their "unofficial" report of the events in the Empire and in Imperial Russia at their office computer. His hair was already coming loose from its ponytail and his glasses were on the desk, looking the very picture of exhaustion and annoyance.

She couldn't stand it anymore and walked over to him, gently touching his shoulder.

She knew how tired he was because he didn't even pretend to fall out of his chair in surprise at her approach. Instead, he merely covered her hand with his own.

"Sorry, I'm not good company right now," he said quietly.

She stroked his cheek with her free hand. "You don't have to be all the time, you know."

He took that other hand now and kissed it. And then, somehow he managed to tug her onto his lap and once she was comfortably ensconced, he nuzzled her a little. That got him another nuzzle from her in return and when she drew back, she said, "Not that I'm complaining, but you know Father Leon will never let you live it down if they walk in on us like this."

His eyes narrowed; Esther fancied she could see just the barest hint of red in those icy blue depths. "Right now, I don't give a bloody damn if the entire Church walks in on us," he growled.

She framed his face with her hands and kissed the tip of his nose. "It's the Christmas season, you silly grouch."

"Bah humbug." She wished she could ask him what dark memories were running through his mind, troubled his sleep but it would only worsen his mood. Especially when she could finally see a hint of that smile appearing in his eyes again.

So this time, she kissed her silly grouch on the lips, teasing just a little by drawing back when he tried to deepen the kiss. "If you're good, you could get me to help you with this report. I did happen to be there for most of it, you know."

"I'm always good!" Oh, there was that goofy smile now and this time, it wasn't quite an act.

"Well, let me get an extra chair…" She made as if to get up from his lap, but he'd wrapped his arms around her and wouldn't let her leave.

"You're staying right here, thank you very much."

"Abel!" She protested, half-heartedly, cheeks burning with embarrassment. Oh no, now he was in one of those moods.

"Comfy?" This time, he pretty much did a very good impression of the cat who'd caught the canary, the bowl of cream and the thirteen cubes of sugar.

Esther gave up. She settled back down against his chest, laying her head on his shoulder. Between the two of them, they did manage to finish the report, even if Father Tres did point out that they could have done it in two hours, rather than four, if Abel had only let Esther get herself another chair and boot up the other office computer.

Two - It's A Cold and It's A Broken Hallelujah

Maybe I've been here before
I know this room, I've walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you
I've seen your flag on the marble arch
Love is not a victory march
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah

- Rufus Wainwright, "Hallelujah"

It had been a long time since he'd come here.

The day had been overcast, gloomy, with sudden gusts of cold wind and snow. It was a perfect reflection of his mood and that was possibly no accident, given what Isabel had told him about his long-dead "father's" abilities to affect the weather, especially in wintertime. Plus, he'd already noticed certain things happening when he was in Crusnik form, things that he was fairly sure he'd never been able to do before. It wasn't a bad genetic legacy, all things considered. Perhaps, one day, he would visit Seth and Isabel again and spend some time with his family learning about the magical part of their heritage.

Anyone who saw Abel Nightroad at this moment would probably find it hard to recognize him with his glasses missing, his hair down and an uncharacteristically grim expression on his face. Anyone who paid attention to the news feeds might be startled to recognize the Prince of the Tzara Methuselute in a priest's cassock.

Abel wasn't in any mood for masks today.

As always, his feet had automatically led him down the paths to take him to the underground catacombs. The air here was moist and humid from the water that went through the tunnels. There was the faint scent of flowers; he'd made sure that there would always be flowers where she lay.

Nine hundred years he'd spent down here; mourning her, guarding her. Perhaps the worst of his many sins was the utter waste of that time here, drowning himself in his sorrow instead of carrying on the work that she had left behind. When little Caterina had first stumbled upon him, that was the time he realized it was time to leave the dead behind and go out into the world again. He had been taken aback at the passage of years, not realizing how long it had been.

There she lay, in the ancient escape pod that now served as her coffin. She still looked as if she were merely sleeping, utterly serene, her long red hair still as bright and vibrant as it had been in life, her coffee and cream skin still seeming soft and supple.

If he closed his eyes, he could remember it now, clear as day.

Abel… This world is not your enemy.

Lilith had brought him back from the brink, when he had been ready to bathe the world in fire and death. He didn't understand at first, why it seemed that she betrayed them all by placing herself on the side of the humans who had so hated and feared them. But she had never stopped hoping. She had been the one who finally made him see…

You loved and you were betrayed and so you hated the world.

He should have seen it coming, when he had begun to notice Cain's irrational possessiveness of him, driving even Seth away. Once, he'd loved his twin dearly, one of the precious few people in the universe that he cared about. Perhaps he could have done something to stop the madness, seen how the total fusion of the Crusnik nanomachines in Cain's body had changed his brother or perhaps brought to the surface the hate and bitterness that had been there all along.

His ever-present nightmare – Cain telling him that he had finally removed the negative element from their lives, his hand clutching Lilith's severed head by the hair. Each and every time he thought of that, it brought back the rage and the pain, the hate, the deep need to destroy, to bring that pain back tenfold to his brother, who should have known better, who should have cared for this one precious person if only for Abel's sake…

Abel knew what he preached, had tried to help others back from that terrible edge, showed them how to forgive. But even now, he could not forgive Cain. Not for this. Never for this.

But even so, your love for the world remains unchanged.

Abel's voice softly echoed. "Hello, Lilith."

He could picture her standing there, with that fond smile and her amber eyes sparkling, quite vividly, imagining her teasing words.

"I know, I know – I should have invited you to the wedding. And I'm sure you'll never let me live it down – you're right, Esther is very good for me. She's wonderful."

I loved you then, Lilith. I'll never forget you. But I love Esther now and for always.

"I don't deserve her but I'm selfish. I can't let her go and she says…" His voice broke and he bit his lip, trying to control the sudden rush of emotions. "She says she chose me, of all things."

So strange, for someone to truly choose me, just like that, when so many others never did. I'm happier than I have ever been but I'm afraid I don't deserve this. Not after all I've done.

There were still things about his past he had never told Esther, afraid that if she knew, she would finally turn away from him. He hated himself for his lack of faith, his selfishness. But the bond was there, in his heart, in his mind, in his very blood – he felt her unhappiness at his lack of trust. Sometimes, when he wanted to blurt out the words – that he'd been as much a monster as his brother Cain, that it would take him eternity to account and atone for all that he'd done, all he could do was take her into his arms, try to show her with actions all that he left unsaid.

You can start over again anytime you want.

He took a deep breath and straightened. "I'll take good care of her. I won't fail her, I swear it." I won't fail Esther the way I failed you.

There were days when he sometimes doubted the existence of God, priest though he was. But Lilith, bless her, reminded him why he now had this faith, this kind of hope. For surely there was some other place, where there was light and joy, where Lilith now was. There surely was a heaven for someone like Lilith Sahl, with her goodness and grace, for a light like that could truly never die.

Never, ever forget that.

Three - 'Cause The Lie Becomes The Truth

People always told me be careful of what you do
Don't go around breaking young girls' hearts
And mother always told me be careful of who you love
Be careful of what you do 'cause the lie becomes the truth

- As performed by David Cook, "Billie Jean"

As everyone knows, a newly wedded couple in the first few months of their marriage would normally be in that blissful (and oft-times cavity-inducing) honeymoon stage. To the newlyweds (and the poor folk forced to suffer through the fluffiness and the cooing and the lovey-doveying) this stage seems to last forever.

Until their first fight.

When Father Abel Nightroad unceremoniously entered Cardinal Caterina Sforza's office, without even the courtesy of knocking first, with the fiercest, blackest scowl on his face instead of his normal carefree smile and a red tinge to his icy blue eyes (glasses nowhere in sight), Professor William Walter Wordsworth was sensible enough to run for his life.

And he locked the door too. The bastard.

Caterina knew that Abel wasn't here as her subordinate at this moment and simply poured him a fresh cup of tea and even dropped in the thirteen sugar cubes for him. It was a mark of how truly infuriated he was that he didn't even touch the now-syrupy beverage.

"She's jealous," Abel said through clenched teeth.

Caterina raised a brow. "Esther? Jealous? Of whom?"

"The bloody prima donna you've sent us to babysit! Apparently, she's under the impression that I'm her personal bodyguard, among other things."

"Oh dear."

The latest mission she had assigned to Abel, Esther and Tres was to see to the security arrangements of a grand Christmas concert to be staged at the Teatro San Gabriel. There were threats being made on the prima donna's life and several attempts had already been made but fortunately they had all so far failed. Caterina suspected that this was merely a cover, since it had been made known that the Pope and his siblings would be attending this concert, being held as it was for the benefit of the orphanages in Rome.

However, her idiot brother Francesco had promised that no harm would come to the prima donna Carlotta Guidicelli and would be assigning a full contingent of his own soldiers from the Inquisition during opening night. Caterina already secured the cooperation of the local police on her part and of course, there were her AX agents.

Either way, the Vatican would face humiliation before the entire world should aught happen to the prima donna La Carlotta, famed as she was throughout Europe for her heavenly voice and her astounding beauty. And God forbid that anything should befall His Holiness the young Pope during this event.

And yes, Caterina had heard about the diva's…er… fondness for men, fancying herself a connoisseur of masculine beauty. Even Abel, who could be so exasperatedly oblivious to female attention, couldn't mistake any of La Carlotta's displays of extravagant affection (splashed all over in the tabloids and news feeds in other instances) for anything else.

"Apparently, I am very much her type," Abel said disgustedly. "God only knows why. And if you make one single bloody comment about me needing to look into the mirror -"

Caterina simply raised a hand to cut him off in mid-tirade. "Abel. I'm on your side, remember? Even when you're being a complete featherbrain…well, especially then."

He rolled his eyes heavenwards. "And how, pray tell, would I be the featherbrain in this situation? Even Tres could tell I wasn't happy with how the woman all but molested me in public! He was probably this close to going into genocide mode!"

Caterina choked on her tea, coughed, sipped it more slowly and then: "I imagine Esther was also less than pleased with the…er…molesting."

Abel absently drew his glasses out of his pocket, idly turning the frames over and over again. "She should know perfectly well that I didn't like what was happening… I was practically about to tell that woman to bloody well sod off. I haven't given her any cause to be jealous –"

Caterina braced herself. Oh, she had a fairly good idea what was really going on and Abel wasn't going to like this. "Haven't you?" The question was as pointed as she could make it.

"Of course I bloody well haven't –" Abel answered hotly.

"She came to ask me about Lilith, you know," Caterina said softly, looking down at her teacup.

Silence. She dared to chance a look at her friend and saw him go very white.

"What did you tell her?" A whisper, ragged and full of pain.

"What could I tell her? What else could she think when I told her that I first met you in her tomb and that you've mourned her for 900 years?"

"Oh damn."

"She's told me that she heard you say her name in your sleep sometimes."

"Oh damn me."

"Stop that," Caterina said sharply and then, in a far more gentle tone. "It's hard to measure up to a ghost, Abel."

"Oh God, she can't think that," Abel groaned. "There are a lot of things about Esther that remind me of Lilith but Esther is Esther. And I don't love her because she resembles a woman who's long dead."

"Does Esther know that? Have you ever really told her about Lilith?"

Abel closed his eyes. "There are still a lot of things I haven't told her, Caterina. And it hurts her, I know… but it's not easy. Even you had to find it all out from the secret Vatican archives."

"And it hasn't changed what I think about you. Or feel."

"Has it?" His eyes opened and they were pure ice. "Am I not your weapon, as well as your friend?"

"Damn it, Abel," Caterina said, abruptly slamming down her tea cup, almost shattering the fragile porcelain. Tears stung her eyes but she would not let them fall. "I am only your friend; Esther is your wife. And sometimes, it really hurts when you won't let in the people who care about you. And there are a lot more of us than you think."

"I'm sorry, Caterina."

"You're hopeless." She sniffed. "I shouldn't have told her about Lilith. Not even that much. But Esther has been a blessing to you, Abel. Don't throw that away."

She startled at the touch of Abel's hand on her arm. This time, the icy blue eyes had softened; his expression rueful.

"You did what you had to do, Caterina. I also think that all of you are quite out of your minds but…thank you."

And Abel gave her one of those rare genuine smiles.

"Talk to your wife, Abel," Caterina said. She took a deep breath, composing herself. "Tell her what I had to find out for myself. Please."

For an answer, she felt him gently brush away the tears on her cheeks. Then, he left.

Four - The Way That You're Leading Me Home

I'm not afraid of the truth no more
I'm not afraid of the lies I hid
I'm not afraid of the price of my sins
I curse the day for the wrongs I did

I'm not afraid of the things you know
I'm just a book for the world to read
The final words on the final page
Will be your name 'cause I believe

Your love is blind, blind as a bat
The way that you're leading me home like that
Your love is blind, blind as a bat
Your heart is kind, mine's painted black
The way you'll forgive me and just take me back
Your love is blind, blind as a bat...

- Meatloaf, "Blind as a Bat"

There comes a time when a man must make a choice.

This is especially important if the man is married or is in a serious relationship.

When a man is in the proverbial doghouse, on the couch or as Abel mentally put it, utterly, completely fubar'd, he has the choice of making a complete ass of himself or he could be an intelligent, thoughtful, sensitive husband/significant other (and still make an ass of himself while begging forgiveness).

Actually, Abel knew there wasn't a real choice to be made.

He'd sworn it at Lilith's tomb and he knew that was the reason why he found the strength within himself to fight Tatiana's spell. He knew that this was the reason for the bond, why he would be willing to go into hell itself for Esther's sake (although he was quite sure his beloved, sweet, stubborn Esther would insist on being at his side).

I am on your side.

Well, wasn't that the first thing he actually taught her?

Unerringly, he made his way through one of the many private gardens in the Vatican, normally reserved for the Pope himself. He deftly snagged a single red rose from one of the bushes. One must go into this sort of thing suitably armed and despite all accounts, he wasn't that dense.

Besides, that rose was the exact color of Esther's hair. End of discussion.

He caught a faint flash of white and red within the shadows of a delicately-constructed gazebo, covered with clinging vines and tiny purple flowers. Even from this distance, he could hear her soft, desperate sobs.

Quietly, he made his way to her, stepping inside her chosen sanctuary. She was curled up on the wooden bench, face buried in her hands, shoulders shaking as she cried. Abel's heart ached; already the field of battle belonged to her – she just didn't realize it yet.

Carefully, he knelt next to her and let the rose gently caress her cheek.

She looked up at that, of course, her eyes red-rimmed from crying, cheeks splotchy and wet with her tears. Obviously startled, she fumbled for her handkerchief, dabbed at her eyes, tried to summon a tremulous smile.

"Oh! Huh-hullo, Abel," she stammered. Those beautiful dark blue eyes went wide as he presented her with her rose.

Yes, it really was the same color as her hair.

"I was walking in the gardens and why, I saw this rose and it absolutely told me that I had to go and give it to my Esther because I've been this terribly insensitive fool who's gone and made her cry," Abel told her in his best silly, daffy fashion.

He was almost bowled over as she flung herself into his arms. Somehow, he found his balance, settling back on the hard wooden floor, cherishing the feel of her against his body. He held her even closer, breathed in her sweet scent and whispered, "I'm sorry."

She drew back from him a little, much to his dismay, her eyes shadowed. "I'm sorry too. It was silly of me, I shouldn't have made such a fuss – you absolutely loathed that woman…" Her breath hitched.

"Esther, you have nothing to be sorry about," he interjected.

She shook her head. "No, there's a lot of things… Abel, it hurts me when I see you like this and I can't do anything to help… I'm sorry I'm not her –" And at that sudden revelation, she gasped, tried to cover her mouth with her hands but he caught them, held them tight, his gaze locked on hers.

"Never, ever think that," he said fiercely. "You are not Lilith, Esther and I have never needed nor wanted you to be."

"I hear you calling out her name in your sleep, sometimes," Esther whispered miserably. "And there's always so much pain in your voice…"

"And then, I feel you touch me and the nightmares go away," Abel answered her. "You've quite spoiled me, you know – I'll never be able to sleep well when I'm alone again." He tried for his best silly smile and knew he failed at it miserably. He settled for raising her hand to his lips, pressing a kiss into her palm. "Please don't cry anymore, Esther. I can't bear to see you like this."

"And I can't bear to see you miserable too," Esther said, stroking his cheek tenderly. "You loved her so much…"

He sighed softly, finally chose to set the masks aside once more. "I won't lie to you, love; I will always mourn her – she died because of my sins, because I've been cruel and wicked and monstrous –"

"You are not a monster," Esther said, as fierce in her conviction as he had been a while ago.

He closed his eyes and turned away from her. "Nine hundred years ago, when they spoke of Contra Mundi, the Enemy of the World, they weren't only just talking about my brother, they also meant me."

He felt her sharp, indrawn breath. Don't look, Abel. Don't look at her just yet and see her finally turn away from you.

"Igne Natura Renovatur Integra - through fire shall all of nature be renewed. Cain spoke the Word and I wrote That in the flesh and bones of the humans of this world. I wrote it in their blood, Esther and even now, I'll never wash that away.

"You know that they created us in their labs, from people like Isabel and Kyrys and Elora. They made us and then they hated and feared us. And it grew even worse when we discovered the Kudluk and the Krusnik bacilli and found out how it changed us all. They hated us but they wanted what we had too…bloody hypocrites, the lot of them. I hated them all."

He felt her hand on his shoulder but he didn't return the gesture, didn't want to look at her, not just yet.

"Lilith was the only one who came to the side of the humans, their Naia Sancta, their miraculous Black Saint. And God only knows why, but she never stopped loving me, even when I was this awful horror." His breath hitched and again, he bit his lip, drawing blood, welcoming the pain. "She never lost her hope that I could be something more than this… she never lost that love and hope for any of us – Cain, Seth and I, for the Methuselahs, for the Terrans… and Cain killed her."

His cheeks were wet now and his eyes stung but he finished it. "Nine hundred years I wasted in that tomb mourning Lilith and then Caterina came and gave me my purpose and I thought that was it, that was all – that I should atone for all my sins in this life, pay for all the blood I've shed. But then, you came and you are like and unlike her and you are beautiful and brave and stubborn and quite utterly impossible – L ord help me, I grew to love you. I thought it would be enough, just barely, to be your friend but well, things didn't turn out quite the way we planned them, right?"

"No, it didn't," Esther said softly.

"I am selfish and a fool and utterly yours, love and you should realize that I am the one who isn't worthy of you." He opened his eyes and turned to look at her now, dreading to see her face, now that she knew the truth about him, now that he'd handed her the keys to destroy him as she wished.

But then again, impossibly, miraculously, she was in his arms again and her hands were threading through his hair, pulling him close and very, very gently, she kissed his tears away, her lips soft against his skin, a gentle benediction.

"Why?" He whispered, hardly daring to believe.

And then, she drew back and smiled, with her heart in her eyes, echoing back what he said, when they first met and it seemed so long ago now. "Didn't I tell you? I'll always be on your side."

Abel made a brief, desperate sound, a wordless cry before he captured her lips with his own fierce kiss.

And after that, there was no more need for words.

Five – As Long As The Stars Are Burning

Maybe I'm crazy, but it's crazy and it's true
I know you can save me; no one else can save me now but you

As long as the planets are turning
As long as the stars are burning
As long as your dreams are coming true
You'd better believe it, that I would do anything for love…

- Meatloaf, "I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That)"

There was a picture that Seth had once shown Esther, when they were back in the Empire.

The picture had a corner torn away but it was obvious that there was someone in that lost corner, someone Esther had known, even then, not to ask about. But there was a woman there, with long red hair and coffee-cream skin and golden eyes that laughed at the camera. Esther knows now that this was Lilith, beloved and now lost forever. Her memory is good; it calls up the face of the woman quite easily and she fancies that she could see, even from that photo, the gentle and loving heart that called a lost soul back from the abyss.

There are few artworks – statues, icons and portraits – dedicated to the Naia Sancta, who was said to have helped saved the world from the ravages of Armageddon. They barely resemble the woman in the photo. And there are stories about her miraculous deeds that Esther has heard and read as a child. She knows now that they are not accurate and yet the truth is buried in there, if one knew how to look. There are other stories too, about the angel guarding the Saint's tomb and Esther has her suspicions that Abel did not quite spend those centuries simply in mourning, though it finally took the young Caterina to bring him out.

The picture also showed a much younger Seth happily clinging to the arm of a scowling Abel, his unruly and much shorter silver hair seeming to fly out in all directions, his eyes set in that icy glare, his mouth in a thin, grim line. Esther fancies that had she met this man back then, she would have found him cold, insufferable and arrogant. But then, she looks at Seth's expression in the photo and the way she holds onto Abel's arm and Esther realizes that even then, there was the Abel that she knows now, gentle and loving, loyal and fiercely protective of all whom he cared for.

She understands now, what Lilith has seen in Abel, why she would reach out to save him, bring him home, even if it had cost her own life.

And Esther thanks her for it in her prayers each night.

The young Abel in that photo is with her today, as they continue with their duties at the Teatro San Gabriel. Most of the Vatican knows that Father Abel Nightroad is cheerful and friendly, occasionally clumsy and scatterbrained, a comic figure but well loved nonetheless. The Father Nightroad with her now is a different man – he is cold and aloof, utterly formal and icily polite but one can tell that he is near the limits of his patience. Father Tres has several times asked Abel for a status report only to be told that he is "perfectly all right" in clipped, precise tones.

Really, it is all that opera diva's fault. Esther blushes now at her little jealous tantrum over the woman's obvious and immediate attraction to Abel, ruefully aware that there was something else behind that petulant display. What he finally confessed to her would have horrified anyone and yet, she understands him perfectly, realizing that this was behind his efforts to bring her back from the edge when they first met, when she herself had been filled with nothing but anger and hate. Esther wishes that she could make him realize that she sees the glory that he is crafting from the ruins of his soul, that he, a priest, should know that forgiveness will be granted to those who seek it, that he should first forgive himself.

Esther is suddenly, acutely aware that it could take a lifetime and more for him to realize this. But the vows she made to him on that clear, glorious autumn day in the Empire weren't merely empty words nor were the ones she made to him when he'd pressed her mouth against his wound and so she tasted of his blood, his life, sealing the bond between them. He'd said that he was completely and utterly hers and she wanted him to believe that this was true for her as well. He said that he was unworthy of her; she would spend eternity at his side making him realize the untruth of those words.

La Carlotta is paying far more attention to Abel than to her rehearsal, pouting and batting her eyelashes coquettishly, her hands trying to linger on his arm, his shoulder, his chest, even trying for his long silver hair, held back, as always in that ponytail. Abel moves carefully away each time, his expression cold and his eyes flashing dangerously. La Carlotta again makes him an invitation to dinner, a chance to continue their "fascinating conversation" (though Esther can't imagine how fascinating a conversation could be in which Abel only makes perfunctory replies) in a more "intimate" setting. Abel demurs, citing his duties to Cardinal Caterina. La Carlotta tosses her hair airily and says that he can easily be freed from those boring things with a single word from her.

Esther knows that Abel wishes that he could simply tell the stupid woman that he is married and would rather much spend time with his wife, thank you very much, but Esther has long realized that even a wedding ring would not be enough to deter the diva, even if they could openly speak of that. And so Esther simply walks up to them, gives Abel his chance to escape by simply telling him that they needed to discuss some things about tonight's concert in private. It is not entirely a pretense; Brother Petros Orcini, the Head Inquisitor himself, will be leading the security detail on the Inquisition's side.

La Carlotta is suitably startled at Esther's sudden presence; she has all been invisible to the diva, dismissed as beneath her notice. But Abel only gives her a warm smile, his eyes showing affection where he could not dare show anything else. Esther sees the diva draw a sharp breath and finally deign to notice Esther who has managed to get Abel to do what La Carlotta has been trying to get him to do all day. However, the woman doesn't get a chance to unleash her claws; Abel coolly takes his leave of her and they escape.

They duck into an unused dressing room and as soon as the door is closed and securely locked, Abel sweeps Esther up for a fierce, intense kiss, which she is only too glad to return. When he draws back, the smile is back in his eyes again, although his expression is rueful.

"I'm sorry – I've been a complete grouch all day," he tells her. "That woman –"

"Christmas," she reminds him, playfully tapping his nose, making his eyes cross comically.

"Bah humbug," he answers but his tone is playful too.

"You do Scrooge so very well," she giggles. They had begun to read Dickens' A Christmas Carol, doing a chapter each night. She had been utterly content being snuggled in his arms, listening to his voice as he read the timeless story aloud.

"Later," he promises her, stealing yet another kiss. "Do we really have to go back out there? Tres is beginning to think I should be dragged in for a systems check. Or he'll go into genocide mode on that woman – I'm not really inclined to stop him…."

Esther now can't resist teasing him. "Well, really, I don't know what La Carlotta sees in you… what's all the fuss about?"

"Ehhh?!" He gives her a wounded look but she laughs and this time, she is the one who draws his head down so she could steal her own kiss.

They do get to discussing Petros and the Inquisition's soldiers coming in… eventually.

Abel's mood is much better once they leave the dressing room; the children from the Orphanage of the Holy Innocents have arrived, also performing for the show. Father Abel is apparently a frequent visitor for the children all know him and the moment a break from rehearsal is declared, the children are all over him in an instant. Here is a much better deterrent for La Carlotta; the diva is quite miffed at all the noise and has taken off in high dudgeon.

Esther can only watch fondly as Abel laughs and plays with the children until she is suddenly sure that she is the only adult in the room. One little blonde girl – Elise – as Abel calls her, clambers up on Abel's shoulders and gets a ride. Esther has a sudden vivid mental picture of Abel doing the same for a little silver-haired boy or a tiny red-haired girl and blushes again. Unconsciously she rests a hand on her stomach – she is very sure something like this will be a long way off yet and with the life they lead, it would have to be. Still, she knows that the biggest boy currently in this room would make a wonderful father.

Esther is soon drawn into their play and much later, their energy spent, the children demand a story. One little red-haired boy with the most unusual violet eyes pipes up that he wants to hear about the Dark Angel who guarded the Black Saint's tomb.

Abel is clearly taken aback. "Ehhh?!" Confusion is written all over his face and he looks to Esther, who is sitting beside him, for an explanation.

The little girl Elise sighs. "He's been interested in angels ever since he was cast as one for our Nativity scene. Shinta wants to be like the archangels who protect us when he grows up."

Red-haired Shinta sticks out his tongue at her and Elise makes gruesome faces right back.

"It's a very old story, something that I used to hear as a little girl too," Esther says, knowing now the real story behind the fairy tale.

"How come I've never heard of it?" Abel asks her, obviously bemused.

"It is about the Black Saint and the Dark Angel of Destruction who fought during the Armageddon," Esther says softly.

She sees him grow pale. One of his hands is resting on the floor; discreetly, she covers it with her own and their fingers entwine. The children are naturally interested and they want to hear more. So Esther tells the tale as she heard it from Bishop Laura as a child.

"It is said that The Black Saint could see the goodness in people's hearts and bring them out, no matter how dark and wicked they seemed to be. One of these was the Dark Angel."

"What did he look like?" Shinta asks.

"He had black wings… and silver hair… and he was very beautiful," Esther continues, conscious of Abel's warmth at her side, his sudden silence. "But he was very angry because people were cruel and were filled with envy and hate. So he did many terrible things and people said then that he was an instrument of God's wrath for the wickedness of humans.

"But the Black Saint knew that the Angel's heart was gentle and kind and good. So she reached out to him because she believed… she knew that she could show him the way back to the light, that there was still goodness in people's hearts and that he should protect and defend them. And so the Angel listened to her and his eyes were opened and the anger was purged from his soul and he grew to love her dearly.

"But a terrible thing happened – the Black Saint was killed by the Angel of Death. In sorrow, the Dark Angel struck down the Angel of Death, then he flew down from the sky and brought the Saint's body back to the Church."

"Oh that's sad," breathed Elise.

Abel's head is bent and his glasses are askew and he seems to be wiping away an invisible speck of dirt on his cheek, close to his eye.

Esther ends the story. "It is said that from then on, the Angel guards the Saint's tomb, mourning her. Sometimes, he is seen, usually when there are people who are in great danger. So he comes and protects them, as the Black Saint had taught him. But people can still be foolish, for the Angel can be terrifying in his wrath so they are afraid of him. So he continues to hide away and that is sad, for when we are afraid, there shall be no comfort for this Angel, who now only wants to protect and defend us, as the Black Saint wished."

"I wouldn't be afraid of him," Shinta declares stoutly. And he is echoed by the other children.

"Yes," Esther says softly and she smiles at Abel now, whose expression is completely unguarded, looking at her with a mixture of tenderness and gratitude. She addresses her last words to the children, but her eyes are on him alone.

"I would not be afraid of the Angel at all."

Six – The Glory of a Love That Does Transcend

Mine eyes have seen the glory of a love that does transcend
Mine eyes have seen the worst inside of Man
And fear is like a fallen bridge broken from an edge
And the proof is in the bloodshot eyes of the one who failed to see…

- Live, "Mystery"

Brother Petros Orcini is no one's fool.

He leads the most feared organization of the Roman Catholic Church, serving as its fangs and claws in an increasingly wicked and dissolute world where demons openly walk the earth. If one asked Brother Petros where his allegiances lay, he would have proudly proclaimed that it would always be with His Most Holy Superior, Cardinal Francesco di Medici and of course His Holiness, Pope Alessandro XVIII. The teachings of Holy Mother Church are taken as God's Word and woe betide the disobedient and sinful. Brother Petros is not called Il Ruinante – the Knight of Destruction, for nothing.

All his life, Brother Petros has believed himself on the straight and narrow path, walking in the company of God's own angels and saints. The vampires are foul, unholy demons straight from the Pit and it is his holy duty to send them back from whence they came. Those heretics in the AX under that too-clever woman Caterina Sforza are also close to the path of perdition what with their unnatural powers and abilities and worse, their beliefs but Brother Petros still respects them as his brothers and sisters in Christ.

Brother Petros has always been sure and certain of himself, secure that he is carrying out God's Will.

These days, his mind is full of strange thoughts. He does not doubt or question his faith, for a true knight's heart must be pure and clean of sin and to question his faith would indeed be a grave offense. But God has granted him free will and a mind to use and he is not Head Inquisitor for nothing.

He remembers the vampire boy – Ion Fortuna, the Count of Memphis, who conducted himself with honor and courage throughout that affair in Carthage. Petros had not expected such from a vampire, to the extent that Ion offered him his head so long as Petros would serve as his halberd on their way to meet with Cardinal Sforza. The boy would have made a fine knight of the Church, were he not an unnatural creature. Cardinal Sforza believed in peaceful coexistence between humans and vampires, a laughable concept were it not for the fact that the world currently existed in this uneasy peace, the threat of another apocalyptic war hanging over it like a shadow and with untold millions of innocent lives in the balance. Petros himself does not fear death but then, he is a Knight of the Holy Church; it is for him to protect the innocent and the weak.

And then, there is AX Enforcer Abel Nightroad.

When he had first set eyes on the AX Enforcer, Petros knew in his heart that he had succumbed to the mortal sin of Pride, wanting to test his skills against these fabled agents who regularly went up against vampires and lived to tell the tale. Nightroad had not truly fought against him, he knows now – he had dodged and ducked and tried to evade the worst of Petros' strikes with a light grace and almost vampire-like "haste." In the end, Petros had still given him the beating of his life.

Petros had been disappointed when the priest had fallen into the sea, regretting his death, regretting the politics that had put the two of them on opposing sides within the same Church, but at the same time also regretting that it had not been the fight he'd wanted.

And then, Petros was humbled at Carthage, falling under the blows of the Inquisition's own mighty weapon, the Goliath, turned against them by that foul vampire traitor Radu Barvon. Petros had failed in his duty to protect the Count of Memphis and the boy lay in his own blood on the ground and the young red-haired nun Esther Blanchett was his only protection. Petros could only lie helpless as well, prayer his last recourse, silently pleading for deliverance from the Lord.

Ask and ye shall receive.

He saw the AX priest, Abel Nightroad, stagger to his feet, saw him cry out, unfurl great black wings, his eyes crimson, his teeth sharper than a vampire's fangs, his nails lengthening into claws. He saw the vampire boy's blood slowly draw towards Nightroad, now changed into an Angel of Wrath. He watched Nightroad summon his scythe seemingly out of thin air, calling down lightning from the sky and bringing the Lord's Vengeance upon that filthy demon-spawn Barvon, destroying the Goliath and the Inquisition ships he had stolen.

And then, Petros saw the Angel on his knees, weeping with horror and regret, when he had tried to approach the little nun and she, frightened out of her wits, had only screamed at him in terror.

Petros too knows the stories about the Black Saint and her Dark Angel, even the ones that the Church has kept quiet from the general populace. He made it his business to know, after Carthage.

He'd sworn it to himself after his last conversation with Nightroad.

They were on the balcony of the Church's Embassy in Carthage, on the night that officially ended the meeting of Cardinal Sforza and the Count of Memphis. Brother Petros knew that the Count would be leaving soon but he himself was wounded and he had to see to his own men, who had fared badly in this entire dismal business. There was officially nothing that he or even his second, Sister Paula could do.

"It is no bad thing to wish for peace," Petros had told Nightroad that night. "Do we not hail our Lord Jesus Christ as the Prince of Peace?"

Nightroad smiled. He was not quite as diffident or as foppish as he had seemed to be when they had first met. "Do I hear the Head Inquisitor wanting peace between humans and vampires?"

"Bah," Petros harrumphed. "The Count is an honorable lad; I have done my duty as a Knight of Mother Church and nothing more. But mark me, Nightroad, he has promised me his head in payment and that debt shall be called in, eventually."

"That is true," said Nightroad softly. Their gazes locked and Petros found himself unable to look away from that wintry blue stare. "But mark me, Brother Petros, Ion Fortuna is under my protection."

A chill finger touched the back of Petros' neck, making its way down his spine. He would never forget what he had seen on the streets of Carthage. The message was clear.

And Nightroad left.

Brother Petros has grown up with those old, old stories and they have formed an intrinsic part of his childhood. Not all the secret archives of the Church are open to him, even given his high rank, but he has enough to understand something of the truth. It is rather disconcerting to read about legends and then to actually stand in the presence of one.

Especially when this particular legend is all too human.

So far, the Christmas concert has been a success. La Carlotta, is as always, an exquisite performer, though the woman's personal life is nothing short of scandalous. Not for nothing were theater performers denied the right of a Christian burial hundreds of years ago. Still, La Carlotta is well-loved by her adoring public and Brother Petros may pass judgment but it is his duty to obey his Cardinal and see to the woman's safety.

Before the concert, his men and the AX Enforcer Gunslinger had apprehended the man who had been threatening the diva, an obviously deranged fellow driven to madness by his obsession with La Carlotta. For once, it seemed that the man was indeed working alone and no sinister outside force was pulling his strings.

Still, Brother Petros orders his men not to relax their guard and in fact, doubles it around the Pope and his siblings. The forces of darkness would only be too happy to take advantage of their laxness. Brother Petros sends out a silent prayer to his Lord, that the concert, which had so far produced the most heavenly music in celebration of Christ's birth, would not be spoilt by blood and strife.

Brother Petros makes his rounds and eventually ends up backstage, where the children are preparing for the final part of the concert – the Nativity scene. Father Abel Nightroad is also there and he too has been hither and yon, making his own rounds of the theater, just as watchful and alert. On occasion, Petros has also seen Nightroad's usual partner, the young nun Sister Esther, who is now in attendance upon the lady Cardinal.

There is a sharp cry, a clatter of wooden props and scenery and Brother Petros runs towards the commotion. The tall figure of the priest has already beaten him to the scene – despite the gloom of the backstage and his black cassock, that silvery hair easily gives him away. Nightroad has thrown back the wreck and is helping a little red-headed boy in an angel's costume. One wing is definitely broken, hanging forlornly from the child's back and it looks like this is not the only thing that is damaged.

"How is the boy?" Petros asks.

"Broken arm," Nightroad tells him. "I don't think it's too bad; he may need to have it set but he won't be able to perform tonight."

"Father Abel, I have to sing," the little boy tells them desperately. "I'm singing the solo part and Dennis doesn't know my lines! He's never around when we're practicing! I'm the Angel who brings the news about the Baby Jesus to the shepherds and I get to sing at the very end!" The child's bottom lower lip trembles and his unusual violet-colored eyes begin to well up with tears but he is trying to bear the pain.

"Oh Lord," Nightroad murmurs in dismay.

"Don't be foolish, lad – you'll need to go to a doctor for that arm," Petros tells the child. "You'll have to forget about performing tonight, I'm afraid."

The little boy is making a manful effort not to cry and Petros is proud of his courage – he couldn't be much more than five or six years old, by the look of him.

Nightroad seems to have arrived at some sort of decision and then, he sighs. "It will be all right, Shinta. I'll take care of it. Can you tell me what the song is?"

Petros isn't sure what Nightroad is planning but the priest is smiling reassuringly now at the lad and that gets the boy to smile back, despite his injury. The child, naturally, tells the latter what he needs to know.

The atypical children's Nativity Play is usually a hopelessly inept production but therein lay the secret of its charm. However, the children of the Orphanage of the Holy Innocents are endearingly serious about their roles and conduct themselves with a skill and professionalism worthy of La Carlotta, who had brought the audience to a standing ovation just a few minutes ago.

The children's voices too make the theater ring, each note clear and sweet as they serenade the Christ Child in his Mother's arms with well-loved Christmas songs, with St. Joseph standing protectively over his Holy Family.

And then, it is time for the final triumphant scene, with the Angel of the Lord coming down from on high to join the humble shepherds and the Three Kings in paying homage to the new-born King of Kings.

O Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining.
It is the night of our dear Savior's birth…

The Angel in question is very tall and dressed in black robes, with bright silvery hair a halo framing his fair features. In his arms he carries a red-haired little cherub, the bandages for the child's broken arm discreetly covered by his white robes. Brother Petros is experienced in battlefield medicine – his bandaging is expert and the child has been given something to bear the pain for this brief time.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth…

Of course, no one, save perhaps Petros, is aware that the Angel's "robes" and armor are actually the black cassock and armored cloak of a Catholic warrior priest. The Head Inquisitor is watching everything near the front rows, standing against the wall along the right aisle, hidden in the shadows of the balcony seats over his head.

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

It is easy to forget these niggling little details for the Angel's voice is glorious and resonant, filling the entire theater. Black wings unfurl from his back, the iridescent feathers seeming to catch the light so that it looked like countless stars were reflected within.

Fall on your knees! Oh hear the angel voices!

The theater is silent, not a single cough or whisper or rustle to disturb his song, as the audience can only sit and listen spellbound to the angel's beguiling voice.

Oh night divine! Oh night when Christ was born!
Oh night divine! Oh night! Oh night divine!

It seems for these few moments, the theater has faded away and this is indeed a humble manger in far-off Bethlehem. The audience, like the shepherds and the Kings are merely there to witness this miracle and to pay reverent homage to the Child just born on this night divine.

Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother,
And in His name all oppression shall cease.

Petros once again thinks of that boy vampire Ion Fortuna back in Carthage, the Empire's most unlikely emissary for peace. And then, the Head Inquisitor chances a glance at Cardinal Caterina Sforza up in the Main Box reserved for the young Pope and his siblings. It is suddenly hard to look upon the lady they call the Woman of Steel for her eyes are filled with joy and pride and sheer wonder. And Petros remembers that this woman, deemed a heretic by her own brother in the privacy of his own offices, has wanted nothing but peace in this world, an end to all oppression.

Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we;
Let all within us praise His Holy Name.

Oh Petros too knows the old, old stories, had learned and loved them when he was but a boy the age of young Shinta. And once again, the Knight of Destruction is humbled and awed by what he is witnessing on this night, the Dark Angel of God's Wrath seeming to blaze with an incandescent Light as he sang in glorious praise of the Christ Child.

Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever!
Noel! Noel! Oh night; oh night divine!
Noel! Noel! Oh night; oh night divine!
Noel! Noel! Oh night; oh night divine!

There is a reverent, awed silence as the last notes die away and the Angel folds his wings and withdraws gracefully from the stage. And then, the audience is on its feet, the roar of applause and cries of admiration are well nigh deafening, far eclipsing the ovation given to La Carlotta.

Later the children will be asked who was the man singing with them and the children are innocent and will babble about the Black Saint's Angel, who had come to sing with them that night. There will be those dismissing their words as children's fancies and will wonder about that mysterious man. There will also be those, whose faith is like the children's own, who will cherish that wondrous few moments in time and simply believe.

And as for Brother Petros – well, had not the Lord Himself said that one must have faith like a little child's? The Head Inquisitor will not forget what he saw backstage, where he saw the Angel become a simple man again, in a priest's black cassock, saw him hand the small child off to his caretakers for his injury to be properly treated, heard the child cheerfully cry out his thanks.

Petros will not forget the red-haired nun who had run into the Angel's arms, her eyes alight with joy and love. And he will not forget the look on the Angel's face, which was that of a man who had finally come home.

Ah, it is a blessed Christmas indeed.

- end -

Author's Notes:

Christmas in July. Hehehe. You guys have been a fabulous audience, what with the fan artwork and the wonderful commentary. So, this is my thank you!

(Although Abel's gonna kill me for getting him to sing - in public. Can I say it was all Esther's fault and run for my life? :P)

You lot can tell I have the songs quoted in this story on constant play in my Ipod, yeah? (sheepish)

If you are Catholic, then you must love stories. It's something I picked up from one of my favorite writers – Father Andrew M. Greeley, who is an excellent novelist. We Catholics have stories for everything, especially our saints and heroes. For the world of Trinity Blood, considering who our players are, I just knew we had to have some kind of Catholic stories and legends about Lilith as the Black Saint. In the manga, Abel himself gives a hint of this by telling Ion and the rest of the crew in the Iron Maiden II stories about the Naia Sancta, the Queen of Carthage and Saint Istvan during the Carthage arc.

I just knew Father Silly over here would figure in certain of the stories – not that he's likely to tell us or know about them. And I'd bet my last dinar that Esther and the rest of the Vatican cast will know these stories as well. As for the truth behind them, well, it makes sense that Caterina knows the real score and Petros, who is really likely to have clearance to at least some vital Church secrets, wouldn't be ignorant too.

The anime gives Petros a certain character development arc where he is proven not to have this narrow-minded, fanatic mindset, which would have been typical, given the organization he belongs to. I thought I'd amp it up a bit. Consider this Foreshadowing Applied With Scythe for future messing with the Inquisition's heads. Heh.

Much thanks goes to my officemates Glenn-kun, John, Marlon, Abraham and Carlos – who patiently provided me with a guy's point of view when… hehehehe…. he does something so completely fubar (man, I LOVE that word) with his girl and needs to apologize for it.

Also many many thanks to Ellie, Mommy Mitchie and Mel for giving me the girl's side of things, plus Eugene, who's done his share of being my sounding board even as they're all wondering over what I'm messing around with during break time. Heh.

Okay, you guys know me and my love of crossovers. Yes, I could NOT resist the Phantom of the Opera reference. Since I took the story to the theater, I just HAD to do it. Yes, Elise is a very familiar character from the anime so I decided we'll have a look on how she's doing. Yes, there IS a hommage to a certain red-headed hitokiri in this fic – I just absolutely could not resist. Kudos points go to those who spot which anime I've referenced. Plus, Abel can think of this as practice for his future kid. (I was writing the last few chapters with this HUGE smirk the entire time….)

No, this is not the end of the Milk Tea series. Not by a long shot. :P