Author's Note: Well, here it is, the final chapter of "Cross". I have to admit, I had a rather hard time making myself post this update. I wanted to nitpick and fuss over it, but if I had my way, I'd probably never post it, haha. So here goes!
Before we begin, I would like to once again thank all my dedicated readers and reviewers. I am sincerely grateful for your feedback and encouragement. I've truly cherished your support, which gave me the inspiration I needed to see this story through. This final chapter is dedicated to all of you. Again, thank you!
Disclaimer: I claim no ownership of Priest.
Part XXX A New Vow
The sun was slow in setting. The smooth curve of its belly grazed the western horizon, punctured by the jagged peaks of a rocky outcropping and it spilled gilded blood over the Wastelands. Priestess enjoyed the silken warmth on her face as she sat on her motorcycle. Her shadow was long against the ground, a patch of gathering dark that puddled in the sand. Behind her, the sky ceded its jewel-toned blue for a gauzy black and the stars were timid, showing themselves briefly from behind the rising sand clouds that were stirred by the wind.
It was a strangely beautiful evening. The air was mild and Priestess thought of gentle things, of kisses which had once been forbidden, but now seemed kind, tender blessings that she would bestow on him…and that he would give to her. She knew she should be lonely, but she wasn't. Patience was the one virtue she could still claim, an endurance born from years of practiced denial. Silently, she thanked Rebecca for teaching her each lesson, for lending her some of her remarkable strength to rise and rise again, though the night came, it always came…
Priestess leaned against the handlebars. She was waiting for him in the dark. Her adrenalin was spent, her spirit resting in a grateful peace, soothed by the finale salute of the sun as it fell further behind the distant peaks. Her fingers slipped to the steel rosary that dangled from her belt. She counted the beads, let them slide through her palm as each paternoster rang gloriously in her mind.
Our Father, who art in Heaven…
He was not with her now, but he would be. Soon. This time was hers alone and she treasured it. She listened to the whispers of her soul and the primal rhythm of her heart and she remembered that loyalty had a price, one that she had gladly paid.
After her meeting with Peter, Priestess had consciously stepped to the side, giving Priest a few days that he might spend alone with his son at the orphanage. It was a sacrifice she had been eager to make, in the hopes that Priest's guilt might finally be assuaged and Rebecca, the deprived mother, laid to rest.
Three days had passed since Priestess last saw Priest. She thought the interval was fitting, the time it took for Christ to rise from the dead. At first, she had planned to return with Seth to the rendezvous point and reunite with the others, but Priestess was too much the loner to anticipate their company now.
"Let me wait for Priest," she had told Seth when they stopped to charge their motorcycles on the morning of the second day.
It had taken him a long time answer and he stood with one foot planted on a stony slope, his balance off-center so that he seemed to be slipping over the edge of the world. "All right," Seth said, a pleasant glint in his eye when he looked at her. "You're getting selfish," he added with a wink, "not that I can really blame you."
Priestess left him by the slopes that day and rode out into the broad desert alone, circling back to within a couple of miles of the orphanage to wait for Priest. And now she sat on her bike, a figure of collected confidence, savoring the assurance of a love that she had sheltered for so many, many long years.
She worked her way through the first two decades of the rosary, savoring the last of the sunset, which closed with shafts of red on the horizon. The lingering light in the eastern sky behind her had melted into darkness and the stars were more brazen now. Priestess tried to remember what Sage had once taught her about the constellations. God's eyes, he had called them. God's smile. And as a young girl, she had cherished his wisdom, which to her had always been so worldly. Now she knew better, of course. Now she knew that God did not watch her from the night sky, but was hidden in her own heart, a constant presence, a never-ending promise that she held onto, even when doubt seemed to triumph.
She tucked her rosary into her pocket and made the Sign of the Cross. But as she dropped her fingers close to her heart, the desert came alive around her, the shadows lit with the hollow glow of neon bike lights. Priestess straddled her own motorcycle and listened to the throaty hum of an engine as it climbed over a dune, its echo exaggerated on the windless plains.
He came at a slow clip, his dalliance deliberate and pulled alongside her with his goggles still guarding his eyes.
They said nothing for a few minutes and Priestess repeated a final paternoster. The prayer was an easy mantra that her mind could follow even when her heart seemed to double its beat. Priest switched off his bike and sat back. He put his hands on his thighs and looked right at her.
Priestess could only smile. "You weren't expecting me," she said.
He glanced over his shoulder at the way he had come. Priestess wondered if his son still called to him. She wondered what had been said and if he had told the boy about his mother.
Priest plucked his goggles off and hung them on the handlebars. He had a layer of dust on his face, the dirt streaked with rivulets of sweat that glistened by his temples. "No," he said. "I knew you'd wait for me."
The insinuation was there. Priestess did not bother to acknowledge it. There was a truthful sort of beauty in the unspoken and she relished the understanding between them, his gift to her.
Priest leaned back in his seat and for a moment, she lost him to the shadows that climbed down from the veiled sky to shroud the earth. "The others?" he asked bluntly.
Priestess put her hands on her lower back and stretched. Her shoulders were sore from sitting hunched over on her bike. She wondered if she was truly getting old, another charm lost, her youth sacrificed to a duty she still wasn't sure she understand.
"I told Seth we would meet them at the rendezvous point," Priestess replied. She hesitated before adding, "He didn't seem to mind the delay."
Priest tilted his head to the side. He seemed to be considering her and she hoped he wouldn't insist on pressing on through the night. She had searched for this time, a few hours they could spend alone together, with their secrets no longer crowding around them, suffocating the peace she knew they could share. Priestess waited for him to respond, her teeth catching on her lower lip as she silently pleaded with him to eschew responsibility…if only for once.
But it seemed useless to pray for change, to wordlessly accept what hand fate would deal to her. She looked Priest directly in the eyes.
Strange, Priestess thought. He seems to be waiting too.
"We can camp here," she said quickly, seizing the opportunity that fortune had kindly granted her. "Just for tonight, of course. The others will wait for us…they understand."
Priest glanced once at his boots and she was devastated when she realized that he was going to reject her. The loss would be shattering, especially now that she knew what he had meant to Rebecca and what Rebecca had meant to him.
But Priest surprised her, as he always managed to do even after so many years. His smile was timid when he raised his eyes to her, something of the young boy returning to his face, which bore the cares of age and heartbreak heavily.
"Show me where," he said. His grin bled through into his voice and Priestess was touched by his mirth.
Her stomach fluttered, as though a moth were batting its wings inside of her. She placed her hand flat on her abdomen and her palm began to tingle.
"I'll find us a place," Priestess said. She switched on her bike and watched the dashboard light up. The glow reflected on her face as night deepened.
Priest followed her on his motorcycle as they shot off into the desert. Their tires kicked up clouds of dust behind them, the sand colored silver by the moon, some ancient goddess whose belly was swollen with child. But the shadows remained, their embrace perfumed with the stars and the quiet echo of two hearts, beating in tandem.
The Wastelands ceded to open plains for several miles. Priestess had to double back towards the west, where the ruin of an old city, long reclaimed by the desert, stood as a skeletal reminder of disappointed glory. They decided to camp on the very edge of the site, far away from the nooks and alcoves that could easily conceal any nesting vampires. The night was surprisingly balmy and with a full moon shedding enough light, they could choose to forgo the usual fire. Priest insisted upon the precaution though, and he told Priestess not to trouble herself as he scrounged around the ruins for suitable kindling. In the end, he was forced to rip out the wooden frame of a door and he started the blaze at the foot of some towering building, where they had both crouched for shelter.
Priestess was only slightly drowsy by the time they settled down for the night. She hadn't eaten that day and a dull headache pounded against her temples, making it hard to look into the fire without squinting in pain.
She was surprised when Priest passed her a loaf of bread he had stashed in his saddlebag.
"Where did you-?" she began.
He shrugged, taking a long drink from his canteen. "Sister Elizabeth wouldn't let me leave without it," he answered, passing her the water. "I felt miserable though, taking food from orphans."
Priestess chewed on a piece of bread, the crumbs tickling her dry mouth. She tried to chase her meal down with a gulp of water, but the liquid hit her stomach hard. Swallowing convulsively, she handed the canteen back to Priest. "That was kind of her," she mumbled.
Priest put the stopper back into the canteen. He was looking straight ahead, the light from the fire exposing all the raised scars on his face and neck. "She took good care of him," he replied at length. "I told her that I was very grateful."
Priestess was surprised that he had mentioned Peter, but in a way, she felt privileged, knowing that he trusted her with his pain.
"He seemed happy," she said, not knowing what else to say. Her words were dull and she hated the way they sounded. She never wanted Priest to think that she was patronizing him.
"Peter wanted to come with me," he said. He pushed his feet a little closer to the fire. The toes of his boots were scarred with scuffs and creases. There was mud caked under the heels. "I had to explain why he couldn't…although I have to admit, I did think of taking him home to Lucy."
"Will you ever tell her?"
"Eventually. When she's ready…or when I am."
Priestess said nothing. She tried to imagine Peter's disappointment when he realized that his father wasn't going to take him away. Or perhaps the boy was relieved that he would never be forced from the only home he had ever truly known. She liked to think that the latter was true, because she couldn't bear to leave a heartbroken child in her wake. And her conscience wouldn't allow her to offend Rebecca again, she who had been something of a protector herself.
Priestess frowned and handed the bread back to Priest. She had lost her appetite, her body disinterested in petty comforts. There existed a deeper hunger that yearned to be sated. For once in her life, for a brief, shining moment, with the stars and God's eyes watching over her, she wanted to feel at peace.
And Priest, yes, him too, of course. It was the desire that bound them together, that reaching loneliness that had taken two disparate souls and made them one. Priestess touched her fingers to her chest. She couldn't remember exactly when her soul had joined with his. Or was it the other way around?
Indistinguishable. The word had a satisfying ring to it. She indulged in the fantasy and watched it grow, understanding that he belonged to her in a way that was unique, that gently excluded Shannon and Rebecca and his children. It was enough to remind her of why she loved him. And it was enough to renew her devotion for a lifetime, which they would now share together.
Priestess leaned back away from the fire. The music of the flames was hypnotic, a harsh lullaby that beckoned to her warrior's heart, that solidified her belief in a world that was generally unkind, but still kept its beauty nonetheless. She looked at Priest out of the corner of her eye. He was an ascetic in the wilderness, scrubbed clean of the polluting soot of the cities and given a body that was real, flesh that was warm…and inviting.
Priestess jerked, slightly disturbed by the very real stirrings of physical desire she felt. A sudden blaze of heat bloomed in her abdomen. Her high collar pressed against her throat, the tightness all too reminiscent of suffocation.
There had been many times, many hours in ash darkened nights, when she had entertained impure fantasies. But now the temptation was much more immediate and try as she might, Priestess couldn't reconcile her yearning with sin. Her perceptions had not necessarily been altered, but the world around her seemed to have changed, taking her to a place where she was more secure and even felt…wanted.
"You'll always think of them," she acknowledged plainly, unafraid of her own pain and jealousy, which nipped at her still. "Rebecca and Shannon…they will never go away."
"Ghosts," Priest muttered. He had put away his canteen and the food and sat with his legs crossed, his elbows resting on his bent knees.
Priestess dropped her chin. "Not ghosts," she told him. "They wouldn't want to be remembered that way."
Priest seemed to think about that. A wrinkle appeared in the corner of his mouth. The vein in his temple fluttered. "Perhaps that's where I went wrong," he admitted, "trying to forget them over so many years. It was a new sin against them, to deny them even a place in my memory."
Priestess bit her lip. She knew what she was doing, what she was encouraging and it was hard not to experience any envy. She was asking Priest to remember the women he had loved. She was enshrining those thoughts and quiet memories that would come to him when his mind wandered and he remembered their smiles and his returned promises of love.
This was her sacrifice. This was her memorial to the women who had come before her. Priestess didn't know if she possessed the strength to be so selfless, but it wasn't her right to decide what happened to Shannon and Rebecca, who had each claimed Priest in their own separate way.
I can love my part of him, she told herself, comforted by what she knew was still hers. But I cannot ask for more…they never did.
It was the only assurance she would ever have, her silent pact with Shannon and Rebecca, who lived again now that they were remembered.
I won't let him forget, Priestess promised them. It cost her only a little bit of her happiness to make the vow, but she endured. For their sake…and for his.
Priest shuffled his feet suddenly, driving back the encroaching cinders. The sparks were like rose petals on the sand and Priestess thought of flowers, the things her mother loved …and would never see again in her wretched desert hovel.
"It is strange," Priest said, "but I think I pity Rebecca the most. For twenty years she served the Church and the legacy she left behind is tarnished. They couldn't even give her that, I suppose. They couldn't even reward all she sacrificed for them."
"You're talking about Peter?" Priestess asked. She turned around to face him fully, the right side of her body taking the full heat of the fire.
Priest shook his head. "No," he said. "I'm talking about us, Rowan. I like to think that we never belonged to the Church. The Order was something Rebecca built over the years she served. She used to tell me, on the rare occasions when she seemed vaguely sentimental, that her life wasn't dedicated to the War, but to us. She tried to protect us…in her cruel way, as you would define it…"
"You and Marcus and Seth and all the others were the children she was allowed to keep," Priest continued. "She used what strength she had to prepare us for what we would one day become. And when we weren't strong enough…when I wasn't strong enough…she protected us from the Monsignors. Her greatest wish was that we would survive her. That was her legacy. But Rebecca failed. We have to blame her, Rowan, even after all she did. It's ironic, isn't it, that the one thing she tried to preserve she ended up destroying? I wonder if that haunts her still…if she can be haunted in death at all."
Priest's expression was so intense when he spoke that Priestess found it impossible to look away. She knew he was reaching beyond his normal boundaries, extending himself until he reached a place of raw pain that not even he had been brave enough to explore.
"It's easy to blame Rebecca for everything," she said. "That was one thing the Church taught us. We are terribly adept at finding scapegoats."
Priest rubbed his eyes, his weariness evident. "You're too kind, Rowan," he said.
"You think that I can't forgive her? You think that I'm selfish enough to hold a grudge?"
"I never said your hatred of her wasn't justified," Priest replied.
"Not hate," Priestess conceded, ready to defend herself. "I don't hate Rebecca."
Priest rolled his eyes in her direction, his sarcasm ill-placed. "I'm trying to tell you that she is a guilty," he said. "This time she does deserve the blame. It was Rebecca's betrayal, her violation that led the Monsignors to doubt us. They began to distrust the Order when their prized warrior was brought before them, stumbling under the weight of her bastard child. Think of the implications and worse, the consequences. It must have seemed like an awful betrayal to them…the dog biting the hand that feeds it. I can't imagine how shaken Orelas was."
"As if he were the one about to be ripped away from his child," Priestess said. She allowed a little bit a weakness to seep into her voice, some barbed anger that she couldn't repress.
Priest's smile was taut, no more than a grimace. "Their conscience is corruptible," he muttered, "especially Orelas and the Monsignors realized that Rebecca had become more of a liability than an asset. Their faith, you see, was never quite as strong as ours. It was easy for them to rely on their doubt, to disband us so quickly after the War ended. They had been considering it for a long time, I think. And Rebecca was their guiding light. She had the misfortune to show them the way."
Priestess let his words settle in her mind. He was surprisingly fatalistic and she disliked his pessimism. There had to be more to their lives than failure and disappointment. It was difficult to measure their Order's worth, however, when so much of their esteem had been eclipsed by the paranoia of the senior clergy. Their pride was tarnished, aged and weakened by the blind obedience that had forced them to submit to earthly gods. It was indeed an unbecoming legacy, she decided and for an instant, she was ashamed of herself for having succumbed to apathy so easily. But the years of toil must stand for something. Looking at Priest and seeing his defeat for the first time, played out so plainly in the flickering recesses of the shadows, Priestess knew that the responsibility rested with her. She would have to make their suffering and sacrifice count, because Rebecca couldn't and Priest, frankly, didn't seem to share the inclination.
They were in the darkest hour of the night now, in that indefinable space between gracious twilight and the creeping dawn. Priestess stared at the open Wastelands before her and relished in the empty space, the vast stretches of desert that seemed to promise something more than barrenness. She was grateful for the freedom, which was indeed a foreign concept, and accepted the independence that came with it. The felicitous warmth of her desire returned and she thought of the vows she had made, the rules that she couldn't break, because she had never truly understood them. Priest was sitting close by and she realized then how precious she could make this time, for her as well as for him.
Priestess let her fingers brushed the very top of his hand. She felt the hard ridges of his knuckles and the places where the skin was rough. She was not so ashamed of her own calluses when she felt his.
"It's not too late to change things," she told him. "We've denied ourselves. We surrendered our power—"
"The Monsignors couldn't take it from us," Priest added in a monotone, "unless we gave it to them first."
"This is not the legacy Rebecca deserves…"
"She had a vision. She wanted so much more for us."
"…and it's not we deserve either." Priestess brushed her thumb over his fingers. "But it's still possible…we have a chance."
Slowly, Priest turned his hand over until his palm was facing upwards and she could feel the sticky beads of sand on his fingers. "The others," he muttered. "We've come together again."
Priestess nodded, cool relief seeping into her body when she realized that he understood…he finally understood. "The Monsignors cannot order us to the front lines this time," she said, "not when we've come together of our own accord. And that is Rebecca legacy, what she gave to us and what we've kept alive for her…for ourselves. We're still Priests…"
His hand tightened around hers. His fingers curled around her palm in an iron grip and she squeezed back, until her knuckles were white and she could feel her heart beating in the veins near her wrist.
"This War belongs to us," she said.
"If we'll have it," Priest added.
The wind rose, a vicious manifestation of vengeance and it swept away the smoldering ashes of their fire. Priestess closed her eyes to keep out the sting of the cinders. When she wasn't looking, Priest pulled her hand close to his chest and she experienced a wild thrill when she felt the fabric of his tunic against her skin.
Close, God, they had never been this close.
Priestess sat completely still, hoping she would feel his heart beat, the subtle throb of life locked away in his breast. Her own pulse quickened and she was not immune to the fever of the flames. It infused the air around them, more intoxicating and exotic than the incense they burned in the monastery chapels. The smoke was bewitched and it left her enthralled. She could feel her feet edging closer to the precipice, her senses stirred by the promise of the plunge, the fall that would bring her closer to him.
He brought her hand close to his lips, the moist heat of his mouth and hectic breath bringing a burning blush to her skin.
"You are too noble, Rowan," Priest said, "Sometimes, I think we deserve more."
She felt his words, his voice touched by some secret strain. His eyes were half-closed and he seemed to be dreaming as she always had, on the nights when she couldn't remember the war, but only him. Only them…
"I waited for you," she replied. "But I wasn't sure if you were coming…if you even wanted to…"
"I didn't mean to wound you," Priest said. He raised his other hand and touched her brow, his fingertips gliding over her temple in a smooth caress. Priestess realized that he was trembling.
"I'm sorry," she said, the words no more than a lisping hiss. "When I was young I placed a burden on you that I shouldn't have. It was wrong of me to rely on you, to make you responsible for my happiness. I don't want you to resent me for that, Priest."
"How could I?" he asked. His eyebrows darted up and he seemed strangely invigorated, a untamed eagerness rendering him impulsive. "I don't think you realize that you've been a blessing to me."
Priestess turned her head away. His fingertips grazed her shoulder. She shivered in response to his touch and was poisoned by the heat building inside her, the surge of yearning that demanded she go to him and fulfill the love her heart had already promised her.
"You owe me nothing," she said. "Please don't feel obligated…there is nothing to make amends for…"
"You think I am rejecting you?" Priest questioned.
For a moment, silence settled between them. Priestess wondered if she could dare, if she could only dare to reach for him…would he be waiting for her?
"It's too painful for me," she admitted, swallowing her sorrow, which was coiled tightly around her. "To come so far with you. I'm not strong, Priest. I'd rather have my stale dreams than know you would turn me away."
And what would happen, she mused, when she found herself alone again? She was groping in the dark, more of a phantom than Rebecca and Shannon, that orphan who never found a home, that unloved soul who existed in the desert, as impermanent as the rising ashes and the pitiful, howling wind.
His hand was still on her shoulder, a reminder of her continuous denial. Priestess was determined to break away from him. She was ready to free herself at last…
But Priest wouldn't let her go. There was a harsh scraping sound, the pebbles skittering towards the fire as he moved close to her and then his lips were on her mouth. The kiss was something of a penance, his own repentance and without thinking, Priestess offered him absolution. Her hands found his face and she splayed her fingers against the back of his head, the bristles of his close-cropped hair tickling her skin. He had freckles on his cheeks and his nose, she noticed and she kissed him there, her teeth catching on his ear lobe.
Priest gasped. His hands were on her ribcage, just below her heart.
"I waited," Priestess said, her voice a quivering vibrato that mimicked the uncertain crackle of the flames. "I never asked for anything from you…"
"But would you take what I gave you?" Priest asked. His right hand moved to her jaw, along her neck, lingering in the shallow well of flesh by the base of her throat. "Could you live with yourself?" Priest asked her suddenly, as if the thought had only just occurred to him and he did not trust her devotion.
Priestess tried to find her voice again. It had fallen away into the fold of darkness, secured by a silence that was safer and more primal than the reason she usually relied on. "I've lived with my love for a long time," she admitted at last and was surprised at how easy it was to confess herself to him. She watched his expression closely, searched for the trepidation or maybe even a sign of repulsion.
The lines around his mouth disappeared, his frown softening. "Did I wait too long?" he asked.
Priestess did not hesitate. "No," she said. "There is always time."
"Not time," Priest corrected, "but faith. Why did you ever bother to believe in me, Rowan?"
Priestess smiled. She had been waiting, waiting for so long, to give him such an answer.
"Because I knew you loved me," she said.
He closed his eyes and Priestess realized that the uncertainty had been just as torturous for him. She knew well the pain of doubt. She knew the agony of futile hope, of keeping alive a wish that seemed destined to rot in disappointment. But strangely enough, the fulfillment she experienced now was not overwhelming. It had not the power she had anticipated, but rather, dawned within her, the sun rising, rising until she was certain it had been always present and never missing.
I was never without him, she told herself. And he was never without me.
"I don't think it's wrong," Priestess said, leaning forward on her knees until her lips were close his ear again.
"We always knew," he replied. "So much time…wasted."
"Not wasted," she corrected. "We would have never come here together without it."
Priest grinned and touched her hand to his lips once more. "We're still Priests," he muttered.
"Forever," Priestess said and she knew it was true. The Church couldn't take that right from them…and neither would her love for him. It remained. It would always remain.
Priest turned his head towards the fire, which had burned low, leaving them in the company of the eager shadows that welcomed the lovers in a cool embrace. Priestess did not move, but let him come to her when he was ready. She reclined back on the hard-packed soil and searched for his eyes in the dark.
Priest stretched his body over hers, his arms braced on either side of her shoulders.
"It's not a sin," Priestess assured him as his mouth closed over hers.
She cupped her hand over the side of his face, his jaw moving against her palm as he kissed her again and again and over again.
Priest smiled, his lips curving against her chin. "It never was," he said.
Priestess went to him, her vow not broken, but renewed. And behind them, over the dark and broken glory of the ruined city, the sun showed on the horizon. It was slow in rising, a resurrection promise and soon fulfilled.
Author's Note: Hmm, it only took them thirty chapters to finally hook up. Honestly, I had intended on leaving the ending a little ambiguous, but I thought you guys deserved something more concrete. ;)
And no, this is not the end! I have a lot more in store for Priest and Priestess, so their story will certainly continue. For those of you who were looking forward to a reunion scene between Priest and his son, it's on the way. I currently have a three-chapter story in the works that covers the three days Priest spent with Peter. Here's a preview of the summary:
His daughter he knew, his son he didn't. Priest reunites with the boy he left behind, the child of a martyred mother, orphaned by his father's guilt.
With any luck, I should have the first chapter posted in two weeks, sooner if I can manage it.
Again, thank you all so much for being such awesome readers! It was an absolute joy writing this story and I truly couldn't have done it without your support. Take care and have a great weekend!