A/N- Ah, epilogue! Thanks for all those reviews last chapter! I can't wait to read your reactions to this one. As for the information on the sequel, that'll be in the End Notes. Also, I'm throwing in something a little extra after the End Notes as well. That being said, we'll move on!
A man said to the universe:
"Sir, I exist!"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
a sense of obligation."
-"A Man Said to the Universe," Stephen Crane
It was a beautiful day, really. Crisp and cool, but sunny and bright. Not a cloud in sight as the group of mourners sat in their neatly rowed chairs, facing the closed casket that held Keisha Stone's body.
There were several people present that Ria did not recognize. Relatives and other friends of Keisha's. She knew some of them to be from class, but there were a few others she could not fathom where Keisha would have met them. Ria sat separate from them. She sat separate from her family—her mother, holding hands with Darren, of all people, sat in one of the back rows of chairs. Sergeant Stone sat on the very front row, on the very opposite end of where Ria sat, and the young huntress had made sure of that.
She had not faced Benjamin Stone since the night, just a handful ago, that she had brought his daughter's body home. Alucard had carried Keisha's body and had put it in Stone's arms. The man had fallen to his knees, sobbing. As heartbreaking as that had been, when Ria had stepped forward, ready to offer her apologies—weak though they were—on her failure, she had stopped short. Stone's eyes had locked on Ria's and the fire… the anger in them had seared her down to her very soul. Ria had rounded Stone and sought refuge in her bedroom, tossing herself on her bed in tears.
Today was the first day she had left it. As much anger as Stone—rightfully, as Ria saw it—had, she was not going to miss the funeral of her best friend. The friend she had failed to save. The friend she had put in harm's way. Her fault. All her fault. The words circled her mind like a chorus of hooded grim reapers, bony hands pointing squarely at her.
Beside her, Isaac placed a hand on Ria's, gripping it firmly. She gazed up at him out from under her hair, but he was looking at the casket. Her lips tugged into a brief, sad smile. The minister was finishing his words, committing Keisha to the ground, but Ria could not watch the casket be lowered. Instead, she looked to her right and found herself quite surprised. Standing in the shadows of a nearby tree, stood Alucard in his Genya glamour. The shadows of the limbs—amazingly still covered with the orange, red, and yellow leaves of fall—obscured any chance of seeing the expression on his face. But something about having him there, knowing he had not left like Ria had supposed after that night, made her feel… "better" seemed too strong. So did "relieved." She could not find a word to cover it, but it was a good feeling, something she had not had in several hours.
The funeral was over. Guests were standing to leave, but Ria felt rooted to her chair. A crowd was forming on the opposite end of her row, were Stone sat, and Ria clasped her hands in her lap. It took a moment before she realized that she was gripping her hands so tightly that they were beginning to ache, but by that time, the crowd had thinned around Sgt. Stone. She was standing and moving toward him before she had even realized she had made the decision to do so. By the time the rest of the condolence-givers were thin enough for Ria to be seen by the military man, it was only Ria left.
She swallowed, hard, uncertain of what she had come over to say. Stone looked up at her, his expression a total blank, and Ria was not sure that that helped. Finally, before she could summon words, she summoned tears. They were streaming down her face, her breaths coming in hiccup-y sobs, and she was trying her best to talk around it all. Finally, Stone stood and wrapped his arms around her shoulders, gently shushing her.
"It's going to be okay. Maybe not right now. But they say time heals all wounds."
Clichés. That's all the two—the two who had known each other for only a matter of days—had to offer one another. Ria pushed herself out of his grasp slowly.
"I'm sorry," she sniffled. "I tried. I was there. Right there! I saw it happen, and I couldn't… I couldn't—"
How could she make him see? How could he ever understand? She was not sure it was possible… or if it even mattered in the grand scheme of things. He had been the one to lose a daughter, a blood relative. She had only lost a friend. The only normal friend she had had in a long time. She could feel the tears threatening to waterfall again. However, before they could start, Stone put a hand on her shoulder.
"At first, I was angry. At you. At the world. At that monster. At the man that… that did that to my Keisha," he said, jerking his head in the direction of the ever-lowering coffin.
Ria did a wet hiccup, followed by a deep sniffle. Stone shook his head.
"But then I realized. You're just a kid. Yes, I'm still angry. At that monster. At fate. But not at you. What happened with you? You being the one solely responsible for the state of the world? At sixteen? That's not fair. On an epic scale, as you kids tend to say now. You shouldn't have to feel like Keisha's death falls squarely on your shoulders. Because it doesn't. Destined monster hunter or not… they didn't come after her for you. And you're only a kid."
Ria let his words hit her, and they left her feeling numb. Just a kid. She was not sure if this made her feel better or worse. But knowing that Stone did not hate her? That did take off a little of the weight she felt over her heart. She wiped hastily at her eyes, trying her best to compose herself and come up with some last words of wisdom before the two of them parted.
"Well, at least I managed to kill the sons of bitches that did it," she said, a bit more savagely than she had intended.
So much for parting wisdom. But Sgt. Stone smiled, sighing. He patting Ria's shoulder.
"I can't bear to watch them put the dirt on her. Take care, Ria. And don't be a stranger."
And he was gone, walking the softly sloping terrain until he had exited the cemetery. The same cemetery they had summoned death in. The same cemetery that Ria trained in. And now the same cemetery she would visit Keisha in. Ria heard the soft thud of the coffin reaching the ground below, her eyes focused on the ground and lost in the dulling buzz that hovered around her brain now. She did not even register that her mother's black heels had entered her line of sight until Sophy gently shook her daughter.
"Ria? Are you all right?"
A ball of fury welled up inside of her, and she wanted to scream at her mother, to tell her what a completely idiotic question that was… that of course she was not "all right." But she quelled it, shaking her head. Sophy hugged her.
"I figured," she spoke softly into her daughter's hair.
"I tried," Ria said, feeling like she had said this a million times now, and that she still needed to say it a million more before she could ever be "all right."
"No one doubts that, Ria," Darren said, appearing over Sophy's shoulder.
Ria felt ill. She had no idea when this had happened… when Sophy had decided to grace that worthless, manipulative scum with a second chance. She sincerely hoped that it was just grief that had driven the two back together, and that as soon as they had nursed their wounds, they would part ways. Ria hated him. She wanted Sophy to have nothing to do with him. And she did nothing to hide it.
She shot Darren a glare, breaking the embrace with her mother. She shook her head, turning away from them.
"Why are you even here, Darren? You never wanted to help us anyway," she growled.
She could feel the hurt radiating off the archaeologist, and she almost punched him. Right there, in the middle of the cemetery. But she waited too long, and Sophy had taken his hand.
"He's just trying to help," she said so softly that it was almost a whisper.
Ria bit the inside of her lip, bringing her gaze to the man who had started all of this. The man stupid enough to drag a perfectly intact throne away from obviously ominous ruins. The man who had whined the whole way through the ritual process, young girl in danger or not.
Logically, she knew that Darren had not known it was Dracula's Throne, had not known that it would throw the world into chaos. And she knew he had only reacted as any other person suddenly faced with the supernatural would. But a part of her held on to the idea that maybe, just maybe, he did know. No matter how silly that notion was, it made hating him a little easier.
"Whatever," Ria sighed. "Mom, maybe you ought to take him away."
Not a statement that Sophy took a lightly. After all, Sophy Smith did not take orders from her daughter. But today, she knew not to push it. She slipped a hand under Darren's arm and nodded, pulling him away. Ria waited until Darren was well out of earshot before muttering something she was sure that, even today, Sophy would not have stood for.
"He's grieving as well, Ria."
She whirled, finding that Alucard—Genya—had emerged from his shadowy perch. She sighed.
"I know. But can't I do something that makes me feel better?"
He smiled, shrugging. "Perhaps. So long as it's not too destructive."
Approval. Ria managed a laugh.
"So, where to next for the son of Dracula?"
All signs of humor left and his eyes drifted off in the direction of Sophy and Darren. Ria suddenly felt sadder than she had felt in days, enough to label it as "soul-crushing." When Alucard pulled his eyes back to her, he shrugged, and she found the incredibly human motion odd on him for some reason.
"I was stopping by in passing, truth be told. I wished to offer my condolences and well wishing. I must return to Japan to resume my place there. Many other supernatural problems to be attended to."
The sadness that permeated her now was different, and it was with a soft pang that Ria realized that she would miss the dhampire. Blinking, she tripped over her words for a moment.
"Will I ever see you again?" was the question she finally managed.
That soft smile again, the one that was almost a ghost of itself.
"I'm not sure. But, you do have my cellular number, should you need me."
Ria nodded. He rested a hand on her shoulder—like everyone seemed to be doing—and nodded.
"Ria. Remember? We're friends."
He grinned. "Of course."
With his departure, Ria found her way back to her seat. She was alone now, with all others having left the cemetery. She had left the Vampire Killer at home. It was the weapon that had failed her like it never had before, and she just could not have dealt with having it at Keisha's funeral. The downside to that was Sara was not with her, and Ria desperately felt her absence. She watched as they began the preparation to cover the open grave, and she shuddered. She knew she should not watch this. That, like Stone, she should have left. But she was glued to her seat, staring but not at the hole in the ground.
She was crying again, and it surprised her. After all the crying she had done over the past few days, she would have thought that she had no tears left to spare. But there they were, silently rolling down her cheeks as Isaac sank into the chair beside her.
"Oh," she gasped, "I thought you had left."
Isaac smiled. "I promised I wasn't going to leave you again, remember?"
"Oh, yeah. Thank you."
He wrapped an arm about her shoulders, and she leaned into him. The two were silent for a long moment, simply listening to beat of each other's hearts and the rhythm of their breathing.
"It wasn't your fault," Isaac said finally.
"It was. I wasn't strong enough. But I thought I was. And that's the problem."
Isaac glanced down at her, pulling away to face her, a brow arched.
"You saved the world, Ria."
"It's not enough. It's never enough. I saved the world, but at what cost? My best friend's life? Is that what it'll always be? Because, if it is… I can't… I can't do this!"
"Ria, it won't always be like this. This was… this was a tragic accident. Last year you saved not only your mother's life, but mine as well. You've proved you can do this. But this time it just wasn't meant to be."
He was so calm, and it sounded all so reasonable. Just a kid. Look what you did last time. Saved the world. Not your fault. All of it played against the negative. Should have been stronger. Should have been faster. Should have known what to do. Should have saved her.
"I feel like I'm losing control," Ria said, whirling in her seat to face the former forgemaster head on.
Without a second's hesitation, she reached out, wrapping her arms about his neck, and pulled his lips in to connect with hers. She deepened the kiss, not thinking a second about her inexperience or how strange it all felt or how new. Instead, she thought only of him, of feeling his hands gently grasp her waist, of feeling the heat rise in his skin. They broke apart, and he waited, patiently, for her to explain.
"I feel like I'm losing control," she repeated. "When I sent you after Keisha's body, it was only after, when it would have been too late, that I worried. I worried that you were going to slip into that portal. I worried that I was going to lose you too, and I can't lose you, Isaac, because I love you. I feel so stupid that it's taken me this long to figure that out, but I do, Isaac. I love you. I feel like I'm losing control over myself, and I need something to keep me grounded. To help make it all okay and make the stuff fate has decided to throw my way feel worthwhile again."
Isaac blinked, and he did not move for a moment. Finally, he took both her hands in both of his.
"I'll keep you grounded, Ria. Always."
They kissed again, briefly, as they turned their eyes back to Keisha's grave. Ria knew they should leave, but she just could not pull herself from her chair. So she sat there, with Isaac holding her tight—like she might slip away any moment—until the grave was completely covered.
End Notes: Sad Ria is… well, hard to write for. I mean, keeping her sad for an extended period, anyway. But sort of a happy ending, right? I hope you all enjoyed reading this fic as much as I enjoyed writing it. As promised, the sequel will be called Tribulations. Now, like I did with the transition from Untested to Trials, I plan to put the prologue out for Tribulations ASAP, followed by a break to work on other things. But that way, you will all have a way to add the story to alerts without having to search for it. Now, like Fan of Games, asked, here's a working summary for Tribulations: "Things are different. And not good different. Ria, Isaac, and Sara have been noticing strange things about their lives that no one else seems to view as odd. When the source of the trouble is discovered, the solution seems as impossible as the situation itself. Ria has to travel back in time and fix what has got the timeline all out of sorts before the damage is irreparable." Pardon the rough wording, I'll try to suss it out before I get that prologue posted. Anyhow, thanks for sticking with me through another story, and I hope to see you at the sequel!
Author's Musings: So, I had this thought, way back in like chapter three or so, about what the theme of this story was. I mean, I don't always theme my stories, and sometimes themes happen by accident. But I felt like I had something to say about Ria's life as a hunter in Trials. And then I got to thinking about a conversation Slinky (BFF extraordinaire) and I had had one time about a TV show called Stargate: Atlantis. We had heard in an interview that the idea of SGA was to show that people aren't perfect, and when exploring new and alien worlds, you tend to screw up. A lot. Applying that to the idea of a sixteen year old girl hunting vampires didn't seem too farfetched for me. She's new at this. And she's a kid. She's going to make mistakes. But then I started to think about the characters I was going to have around her this time. Isaac was formerly evil. He's never—in my own head canon—felt love like this. So he's gonna screw up in dealing with it. Jason was an angry teen when he learned that this "super awesome" destiny couldn't be his, and that his bratty older sister didn't want it. So of course he was going to lash out in some way that could be hazardous. Sara had watched Ria defeat Dracula the year before. Of course the training was going to be a bit more lax when maybe it shouldn't have been (except for the free running, maybe, ha). And then there's Alucard. Oldest of them all. And even he made mistakes. Because he's not perfect. No matter how we fangirls like to write it, he's not. Not logically. I mean, his parentage alone is enough to screw him up for a million lifetimes or more. And that's just the good guys. In short, my theme for this fic was "nobody's perfect and shit happens because of it." Maybe that's not a happy theme, but I think it fits. I'd love to hear everyone's thoughts on this, so feel free to include them in your review. Or heck, PM me with them if you want. Thanks again for reading!