Ideas tend to sneak up on me, so I was rushing to begin and complete this within 24 hours for Easter this year. A feat that I'm surprised I actually pulled off. o_0 Unlike Core of Fairy Tales and Age of Light, this goes in the opposite direction, being human-centric and "mundane". It's a great deal shorter, too, but apparently people found it powerful anyway. *shrug*
Rated T for potentially disturbing thematic elements, and some shooting. It's actually pretty close to K+, but I doubt anyone younger would be interested. :P
"Excuse me, sir?"
Wearily the preacher looked up from his notes, meeting the steady blue gaze of an inmate. He was mildly surprised: though it was not uncommon for a prisoner to shyly approach him for a confession of sins, this group had seemed less than cooperative. Already they were flocking towards the exits, cursing violently and shoving gently under the watchful eyes of surrounding guards. None seemed to retain any of the thoughtfulness which usually followed one of his sermons.
None aside from this one, it seemed.
"'Sir'?" the preacher repeated with a dry chuckle, replacing his notes on the pulpit and interlacing liver-spotted fingers in his typical listening pose. It was his small, idiosyncratic way of showing that the conversation to follow would have his complete and undivided attention, though of course the stranger would find no significance in it. "That's a tall order for me, my son, and one which I'm unlikely to reach before the Lord calls me home. Father is what they call me. Father Daniels."
The prisoner nodded. "I know, Father. You introduced yourself before the sermon."
A shrug. "You never know who's listening."
"I appreciate your repetition for my sake, though." The prisoner ran a hand through his neat blue hair, streaked with the gray of aging. "I must undergo a confession. I have prayed day and night, Father, but I'm still burdened with my sins. Only through speaking with you can I be freed of the terrible guilt that pains me."
Daniels squinted at him curiously. "You're an interesting fellow," he observed. He gestured towards the orange-clad prisoners squeezing one by one through the nearest door; two of them were snarling at each other over some detail the preacher had missed, while a few others cracked their knuckles menacingly. "Them, now, I can understand why they're here. Defiled with tattoos, unkempt, punctuating sentences with profanity and so on. But you … aside from the jumpsuit, I wouldn't have guessed you were an inmate here at all."
"Appearances are deceiving, Father. There is little doubt that I was the most notorious of them all." The prisoner's face took on a grimace laced with shame. "As you know."
"Oh, pay it no more grief than it warrants, son," Daniels replied, shaking his balding head. "I have discussed many such sins with others across the region—"
"With all due respect, Father, you don't understand!" A hint of some pained expression – was it urgency? – flashed in his eyes. "I must apologize specifically to you for what I have done. You were there at the height of our power, in Goldenrod. Don't you remember?"
"I …" Daniels faltered, mouth still open, as he suddenly understood what the prisoner meant and memory snatched him back to that hellish day thirty years before.
Because oh, did he remember …
"Get down on the floor, all of you! Get down or we'll shoot!"
Whirling around, he only caught a brief glimpse of the black-clad figures bursting through the doors before his escort leapt toward them, waving the list in his hand as if to ward them off.
"Ex-cuse me!" the escort huffed, adding unnecessary emphasis in a snobbish manner. "Ex-cuse me, sir! I do believe you have no business doing thi—"
Daniels could only watch in horror as the body crumpled uselessly to the floor, blood spurting from a hole in his chest. Beside him, his wife gasped and clutched his arm.
As the men in black dispersed, continuing down past the frozen couple on their way to the next floor of the tower, a tall young man remained behind, twirling the smoking pistol idly in his hand. He made his way down the hall slowly, leisurely, knowing perfectly well that at this point nothing could stop him. With his lean, powerful body moving smoothly in a suit of pure white, he seemed for all the world to be an avenging angel come to herald the return of the Lord. But the blood-red letter "R" gleaming from his shirt pocket put any question of his allegiance to rest.
"No business?" He tsked softly at the grotesque corpse, shaking his head almost in pity. "Such ignorance. Such woeful, stupid ignorance … We've only come because we have business here, my dear pathetic little man. Business far too urgent to schedule for. We are alerting our true leader that the time is now."
From the doorway behind him, three additional figures entered the hall. Daniels was vaguely aware that two were dressed in black, and one in white, the same clean, ironic white that the stranger wore; but all three bore the same scarlet insignia as the first. That was all he noticed. The stranger himself had harnessed the entirety of his attention: his calculating eyes, flashing blue, had found the shocked couple, transfixing Daniels like a snake poised to strike.
And there was his smile. Dear God, that smile …
"What do you want?" Daniels' wife shouted. The sound echoed off the smooth, pristine walls eerily, and Daniels shuddered.
"Nothing that concerns you," the stranger replied, in a strangely courteous tone that only enhanced the threatening message it carried. Behind him, more of the lesser thugs began to gather. Where did they all come from? Perhaps the Legions of Hell were gathering in an unanticipated form.
"You'd better get out of the way, chick," one of the other executives drawled darkly. Keeping his gun trained on them with one hand, he leisurely readjusted his black hat with the other. "And your hubbie too. Hands in the air, now, and get down on the floor. Slowly, mind."
The stranger said nothing, but his icy eyes, boring into Daniels', silently repeated his associate's demand. Swallowing hard, he began to crouch, hoping his wife would follow.
"What're you doing?" she fairly raved at him, tightening her grip. "Don't you get it? If we let them walk all over us, we'll just be letting them do these horrible things!"
"Eh, let's jus' kill her." The other executive in black giggled; his purple beard twitched strangely with the movement. "They're funny when they're dead."
"Patience, Petrel," the stranger replied, holding up a warning hand to stop his comrade from pulling the trigger of his own gun. Turning to look at the glaring woman, he said, "Madam, my patience is reaching its end. Perhaps I should make our situation clear? Very well. If you refuse to cooperate, you will die."
"Please," Daniels whispered, willing his wife to listen to them. "Please."
She only continued to glare at them. Defiance crackled in her eyes.
The stranger sighed. His pistol clicked.
"I did warn you."
Daniels never heard her corpse hit the floor. He was too busy screaming her name.
He was still screaming when two of those dark minions seized his arms and dragged him away. The stranger's cold gaze was the last thing he saw …
"You …" he breathed. Realization seized his heart with icy claws.
"Yes." The other swallowed. "It was me."
The old preacher shuddered.
"Thirty years," the prisoner whispered. "For thirty years I have been here, with little to do but relive that day again. And again. The horror of what we had done – what I had done to civilians without a second thought. When we held you hostage … it never hit me until much, much later how starved you were. How shriveled, sick, frightened … alone …"
Daniels' mind reeled. Was the room swaying? He couldn't tell what color the prisoner wore. Orange, accompanied by a horrified expression. Or was it white, with that cold, serpentine smile? Orange. White. Orange. White. Light. Dark.
"I must ask your forgiveness." There was a hint of pleading in his wide eyes now. "I repented before God, but it is not enough. I tore hundreds of lives apart, and His was not one of them. It's ludicrous to expect that I can apologize to all my surviving victims and their families. But you suffered the most, and you deserved my regret the most. And when you came … was it a miracle? For God is watching over us even now."
Doesn't he deserve forgiveness? asked the little voice in his head, beneath the numb horror on Daniels' face. The Lord himself says it all the time: Love thy neighbor!
He killed her. The rebuttal was automatic. Killed her in cold blood. He's a monster.
"Please." The prisoner extended a hand. "I know I cannot make it right. Nothing can ever excuse my crimes. I can only hope that the Lord will have mercy on me for my repentance."
Love thy neighbor as thyself.
What could he do?
Had only a few seconds passed? It felt as though he'd aged another decade, so long did that hand seem to hang there before him. As he grappled for a decision, the prisoner's pleading hope began to die in his eyes, snuffed out into a growing shadow of devastated rejection.
And then Daniels reached out and grasped his hand.
"I believe you've changed for the better, my son," he said, grinning slightly at the other's shocked expression. "Whether or not God will appreciate your change of heart remains to be seen. But if Jesus can forgive me for the many sins of my life – don't be so surprised, I don't pretend to be perfect, myself! – If He can forgive me, it seems a small thing that I can, and do, forgive you."
The prisoner smiled. "Thank you, Father," he whispered. His eyes glinted with tears.
At last they were at peace.