Moonlight on the Caribbean

Chapter Twenty-Three

"We should be at the rendezvous site by tomorrow afternoon, Commodore," Rex said, his voice carefully expressionless.

Shawn nodded, pouring over the maps spread across his cabin desk.  Rex cleared his throat, and Shawn finally glanced up, his brown eyes dark and sad.  "Yes?"

"If I might be so bold, Commodore, as to say once more that I think it's fool-hardy to follow this plan.  You're giving into the demands of a pirate!"

"Would you rather leave Mrs. Kiriakis to die, Lieutenant?" Shawn questioned coolly.

"I think you know as well as I that Lady Wesley is in no danger from Blackheart," Rex said quietly, trying to keep the accusation from his voice.  "You're putting a great deal at risk for this woman.  Perhaps you should have left Mrs. Brady at home."

Shawn's face distorted momentarily with rage, before becoming deathly calm.  "I trust in the future, Lieutenant, you will leave matters concerning my wife to my discretion.  Am I quite clear?"

Rex knew he had pushed as far as he dared.  "Aye, aye, sir," he saluted.

"Dismissed," Shawn ordered, with a wave of his hand.  He bent over his maps and didn't look up again until his aide had departed.  He sank back wearily into his chair, his hand running over his tired eyes.  He hadn't slept a wink last night.  He'd been up pacing, thinking over everything that had happened.  Everything Belle had said…

She had spoken barely a handful of words to him today.  She had given him the note upon his return, asked when they would leave, and that had been all.  She was changed towards him, completely and utterly frigid.

Shawn ached for her.

With a frustrated cry, he swiped the useless maps off his desk and jumped to his feet, stomping out of his cabin.  He had to see her, talk to her, make her see how he truly felt.  The sky was nearly black; dark clouds hid the stars from view.  There would be a storm tonight.

Shawn paused outside her cabin door, his hand inches away from knocking.  By God, was he actually scared of a woman?  His own wife?  He heard footsteps approaching and quickly rapped his knuckles against the wood.

It was a long moment before the door was opened.  Belle's face, pale but serene, was framed in the light from her room.  "What do you want, Shawn?" she asked dully.

"I want to explain something to you.  I listened to what you had to say last night.  Will you please do me the same courtesy now?"

After a pause that felt like an eternity to Shawn, Belle nodded and cracked the door open for him to pass through.  She didn't offer him a seat but promptly sat back down in her chair, to her ever-present needle-work.  She didn't look at him.

"It wasn't my decision to keep the fact that Blackheart was your brother from you," Shawn began, standing before her.  His eyes bore a hole into her head, as he silently willed her to raise her eyes and see he told the truth.  "It was Brady's, and not because he didn't think you were strong enough to handle it.  On the contrary, he thinks you're one of the strongest people he's ever known—as do I, as does anyone who truly knows you.  The reason he didn't want you to know was he thought you had suffered enough loss in your life, without the addition of a brother who could be killed at any moment.  I argued with him, but there was no point.  Stubbornness must be a Black family trait."  

His mouth curved in a rueful attempt at a smile.  "I shouldn't have made the promise, I know.  I should have known my first loyalty was to you, not your brother, but I didn't think it was my place.  I'm sorry I hurt you, Belle.  It's the last thing on earth I would ever want to do.  I love you.  For your strength, for your compassion, for your goodness, I love you."

Her head was still bent low, her blonde hair shining by the glow of the lamps.  Shawn frowned.  He wished he could see what she was thinking, feeling.  If only she would raise her eyes…

When long moments passed in painful silence, Shawn cleared his throated and shifted awkwardly from one foot to the other.  "Well, I suppose that's all I can say.  I'll leave now."  His feet felt inordinately heavy as he lifted them one at a time to reach the door that would estrange him for another night from his new bride.  His fingers closed around the door handle.

"Wait, Shawn."

He breathed a heavy sigh of relief and turned to see her standing, her face raised.  Tears streamed down Belle's porcelain cheeks, but she was smiling as she whispered the most beautiful word Shawn had ever heard.

"Stay."

~~*~~

"Say it again."

Jason smirked.  "Mrs. Masters."

Mimi rolled her eyes and swatted him playfully.  "Not that.  The other part."

"You don't like being Mrs. Masters?" Jason teased, faking a pout.

"Oh, it's lovely.  My whole life I've been dying to be addressed as Mrs. Miriam Masters."  She wrinkled her nose.  "It really doesn't have much of a ring to it, does it?"

"I think it's delightful."  Jason kissed her lightly on the mouth.  "Wonderful."  A bit longer this time, walking her back towards the cot in his cabin.  "Perfect."  This time, she melted fully into him as he swept her back onto the sheets.

Slowly, Mimi was able to disengage her lips.  "Say it again," she panted.

"I love you," he volunteered easily, as his hands went to the long row of buttons keeping him from his goal.

"Not that way," Mimi reprimanded, bringing his face up to hers.  "Tell me you love me."

Jason raised an eyebrow.  "Do you doubt it, Mrs. Masters?"

"Never," she swore, tangling her fingers in his sandy hair.  "That's why I want to hear it.  I've never trusted anything so much in my life.  Tell me again.  Tell me a hundred times, and I'll only believe it a hundred times more."

His teasing manner fell away immediately as he cupped her face and emerald eyes radiated honesty to her.  "I love you.  I love you, Mimi.  My wife.  My beautiful nanichi."

She released a contented sigh as she brought his face back to hers and lay waiting and wanting upon the bed.  "I know."

~~*~~

It was odd to be back aboard the Vengeance.  For months, Chloe had prayed for nothing else.  Now that she was here, it was all wrong.  She was once again in the captain's cabin, but this time, she was all alone.  Belle was with her own husband.  Jason and Mimi were in the cabin next to Chloe's, sharing their first night as husband and wife.  Brady had not been seen by her since they stepped aboard ship.

Chloe closed her eyes, trying to lose herself again in the rocking of the ship as it cut through the water.  Always before, the rhythm of the sea had been capable of lulling her into sleep.  Tonight, as with the many nights since she had lain with Brady, she was cursed with troubled thoughts and visions which kept her restless and awake.  She fidgeted restlessly on the cot.  This was Brady's bed.  He should be here, sleeping beside her.  His hand should be resting over her belly as they whispered sweet words to their child.

Once again, the image of the family they had stayed with in Port Royal flashed inside her mind.  The handsome husband, the loving wife, the beautiful, dark-eyed child.  Elizabeth said her husband was a pirate, and yet they had made it work.

Of course, Elizabeth had not married the man who was responsible for the death of her lover's father.

Chloe groaned in frustration and tossed her covers aside.  She was hot and miserable; the air was sticky with the approaching storm.  Suddenly nothing seemed so wonderful as being on deck when the clouds broke and let the rain fall.

Rising and dressing hastily, she ran up the steps to the deck.  It was pitch black, but she didn't care.  Chloe knew this ship now, knew it as though it was her home—and in a way, perhaps it was.  It was the only place where she had ever truly been free to be herself.  She wanted that again, wanted to feel that wild freedom once more, if only for a moment.

Chloe stood in the middle of the deck and raised her face to the sky.  She closed her eyes and breathed deeply of the scent of the sea.  Slowly, she raised her hands beside her.  As if it had been some unspoken signal to the gods, the first storm cloud burst, and rain began falling in torrents over the rollicking Caribbean and the boats that sailed her tempestuous waters.

Chloe opened her mouth, drinking the life-giving moisture.  She laughed up at the sky, hysterical, yet strangely happy for the first time in months.  The liquid was soaking her through to the skin; her dress would be ruined.  It clung to her now, heavy with water.  Her hair streamed down her back in a velvet river, and Chloe danced in the storm, wildly abandoned and free.

It didn't occur to her that she wasn't alone, until she opened her eyes and found Brady watching her from the helm.  He steered the ship through the gale without seeming effort; his eyes were only on her.

And suddenly, she thought, it didn't matter that she had married Philip.  The laws of men had no place under this ferocious sky, here in this turbulent sea.  All that mattered was once on a night like this, she had sworn she was Brady's, and she was his still.  No other man had ever touched her; no other man ever would.  She was running across the deck now, skimming up the ladder that brought her to his side.  She was pressing a hot, longing mouth against his and kissing him as though she could never stop.

"I'm yours," she murmured, between fervent kisses, while the torrent continued to drench them both.  "I'm only yours, Brady."

"Chloe," he groaned back, and in his voice was surrender.  All the ache of the past months—of years—of a lifetime—was released as he kissed her and found in Chloe his absolution.

~~*~~

Chloe had watched as the small blur in the horizon became larger and larger until it stood before her now as the proud H.M.S. Miranda.  A cold knot of dread formed in her stomach, as she glanced from the impassive faces of Brady and Jason to the approaching longboat.  She felt as though she had lived through this all before.  Only this time, she stood at her proper place, by Brady's side.

He reached out and enclosed her hand in his, giving it a reassuring squeeze, before letting their fingers rest together.  Chloe looked over to see Jason and Mimi share a similar silent moment.  She smiled.  She suddenly felt as though everything would turn out exactly as Jason and Brady had told them it would this morning.

Chloe schooled her face into the same expressionless mask as Shawn and Rex came aboard.  It became a bit harder when Philip and Jan came over the edge; she had the desire to murder them both herself.  It became almost impossible when Belle ascended last, looking at Chloe and Mimi through betrayed eyes, before settling her gaze on Brady's unmasked face for the first time.

Belle wasn't the only one who looked surprised.

"Alamain?" Philip cried, taking a step forward—though he still stayed behind the wall of soldiers. "It was Victor Alamain the whole time?  But you knew…" he continued, practically foaming at the mouth, as he rounded on Shawn.  "You knew who he was!  You've been protecting him!  Arrest this man, Lieutenant!  He is a traitor."

Rex made no move towards his commander, merely raised an eyebrow in question. 

Shawn glared at Philip.  "I owe you no explanations, Kiriakis, and you have no power here."

"Then why the hell did you bring me here?" Philip screamed.

"Because of the note," an unexpected voice spoke up.  Everyone turned to see Belle taking her place by Shawn's side.  She removed a small piece of parchment from the sleeve of her dress.

"I already know about the note," Philip snarled.  "To pay ransom for my wife.  Well, I'm here, my wife is here, I have the money.  Let's get on with it."

"The ransom isn't money," Belle interjected smoothly.  "The ransom is your head."

Not an eye was absent from Belle's unruffled features.  Chloe hid her smile; she had never expected Belle would be able to pull it off…or even if she'd be willing to.  The note had been a gamble, but one that had paid off, as Philip and Jan were standing aboard the deck of the Vengeance with nowhere else to go.

Philip looked around from unsmiling face to face, trying to find a weak link.  "Chloe, my love, what's going on?"

"I'm not your love," Chloe spit back, stepping further into Brady's shadow.  "You planned to kill me."

"What?  What are you talking about?"  Even from across the deck, Chloe could see the sweat running down Philip's brow.  His eyes looked almost wild as he darted glances around the deck, searching for an escape that was not there.

"I heard you, Philip."  Miriam Masters stepped forward, accusing emerald eyes traveling from Philip to Jan.  "I heard both of you.  I know everything.  How you're spies, how Jan killed Lord Black—"

"And Kevin Lambert," her husband interjected.

"And how Philip was going to kill Chloe," Mimi finished.  "Jan knows it too.  It's why she tried to kill us.  We all fought for the gun, and it went off.  That's why she's wounded."

"As long as we're all being so honest," the Spanish brunette spoke up, cinnamon eyes flashing, "you could at least have the decency to call me by my given name, Juana Maria Lanzas de Enero.  You might also add that that…that pirate killed my brother.  He sank his ship and left no survivors.  He's sent dozens of Spanish galleons to the bottom of the sea, and does he care about all the widows and orphans he leaves behind?  Even while we were aboard his very ship, he took another ship, and you all wished him luck.  You wished him success!  Even you, Belle, supposedly so pious and good.  But I was the only one who said prayers for the lives he took that night.  I killed his father.  I would do it over again in a heartbeat.  I would plunge a knife into his back this moment if I could.  I would take as much from Brady Black as he has taken from me!"

As if believing the threat in her words, Rex Evans stepped forward and grasped the raving woman's arms securely, holding her back from the scene.

Brady's face showed no remorse or regret as he heard her indictment of his actions.  His blue eyes were steel as he faced her.  "If you want to throw around guilt, Senorita de Enero, it must go back even further than that.  To your countrymen who spent a decade torturing my mother, the saintliest woman who ever lived.  If you want to know who made me what I am, you need look no further than your own precious homeland.  As it is, the only reason you are standing alive before me is that even I can't bring myself to kill a woman.  Your partner, on the other hand…"

And with a ring of steel against steel, Brady's cutlass was free and aimed at Philip's heart.  "You have two choices, Kiriakis.  You can fight me like a man, or you can die right now like the coward you are, hiding behind a woman's skirts."

Juana struggled against the bonds of Rex's arms to no avail, while Philip paled and took a step away from the treacherous blade.  "I…I have no weapon.  You can't possibly be serious.  Commodore, Lieutenant, how can you allow this to happen?"

"It seems to me this is a duel of honor, Kiriakis," Shawn said evenly.  "If you need a sword, take mine."  He too freed his saber from his belt and tossed it across the deck.

Philip caught it in midair, betraying that for all his political maneuverings and aversion to violence, he had been well-trained by experience.  With a quick swipe, he pushed Brady's blade away from his throat.  The two circled each other for several tense moments, each taking the measure of their opponent.  Chloe's breath caught.  Half of her longed to rush forward, to put a stop to this nonsense before Brady got hurt.

But the wiser part of her, the part that had been matured over months at sea, through death and hardship, knew that every event since she had left England—possibly before—had been building towards this confrontation, and nothing would stop it until one of them was dead.

Philip lunged first, testing, and Brady parried easily.  They circled again, closer this time, while the others backed away from the scene.  Juana still struggled; all the others were solemn and still, barely daring to breathe.

And then, the swords were flashing back and forth; the sun glinted off the blades, the strikes, too quick to be seen clearly, sent off sparks and clangs which distressed Chloe's eyes and ears.  She jumped each time, only to be reassured by Mimi's sympathetic grip on her hand.  She squeezed back so tightly she was sure her friend's hand would break.

Brady and Philip fought on, lunge and parry and blow.  Their footwork was sure and steady, their attacks well-calculated, their defenses impenetrable.  For a while, it seemed they were equally matched.  As the sun grew higher in the sky, sweat poured down their bodies, soaking their shirts, slipping onto their sword arms.  And still they fought on.

Chloe was sweating too.  She longed to sit down and rest.  She was leaning more heavily now on Mimi, though more from exhaustion than fear.  She had seen the look on Philip's face as he made his last lunge.  He was a man on his last edge; his eyes were panicked.  His legs were faltering.  His swings were weaker.  Brady fought on, a man possessed, pushing Philip to his limits and beyond.

A great cry ripped across the deck, startling Chloe back to attention.  Philip fell to one knee, his arm gushing blood. 

Brady sneered down at him.  "Get up."

"You win, all right?  You got first strike," Philip panted.  "It's done."

"It's not done.  It won't be done until you're dead.  Now, get up."

Slowly, Philip pushed himself back to his feet, groaning with the effort.  Once again, the blades crashed together.  Pirate and spy in a battle to the death.  Philip knew now no cry for mercy would save him.  It seemed to give him a second wind.  Despite the open wound on his arm, he parried with greater force.  He managed to slice down Brady's arm, and Chloe winced.  It was the same place he had been injured the night they took the prison ship.  She wanted once again to call an end to all this, to take Brady far away, bandage his hurts, and keep them all safe for the rest of their lives.

The cut didn't seem to faze Brady.  He didn't even show pain for a moment as the razor sharp steel sliced through skin.  He fought on, striking out, drawing equal shares of Philip's blood.  A cut to Philip's leg.  A gash on Brady's cheek.  A scratch to Brady's side.  A laceration across Philip's chest.  And then, in for the kill.  Still standing, ready to deal a blow, Philip's life was stripped from him as the cutlass struck straight and true through the heart and lungs.  He fell, grasping for breath he could not get.  His blue eyes widened in pain and settled one last time on his love's face, reaching out a limp, bloody hand as if to caress Juana's curls once more.

He lay still.

"NO!" Juana's scream was piercing in its heartfelt agony.  Shocked, all turned to look at her, and Rex's hold slackened enough for her to slip through.  She threw herself down beside Philip's body, wrapping her arms around the grisly corpse.  She pulled it to her and whispered words in Spanish, meant for his unheeding ears alone.

Chloe felt a movement of pity inside her as she observed the scene.  Strange that she could pity the people who would have taken her lives without a second thought.  But she thought she might not have been alone in that emotion.  Rex made no move to take hold of Jan again.  Jason and Mimi stood back, holding each other tightly, as though afraid something could happen to separate them like that.  Shawn and Belle stepped closer to Jan, silently grieving beside her. 

And Brady…Brady looked up at Chloe, and the rest of them melted away.  The mask was gone completely.  He stood before her, bare and broken, aching, vulnerable, and needy.  Chloe held her arms wide for him, and he stumbled willingly towards her.

What happened next was out of a dream.  A nightmare vision.  So focused on Brady, Chloe barely saw the flash of silver against the sunlight; Juana was standing, moving faster than the warning in Chloe's throat.  A dagger flashed in her hand, as she ran towards Brady, who had yet to notice her.  Another shape moved, even quicker, jumping betwixt the Spaniard and her target.

"NO!"  Belle's shriek seemed to still even the sea around them.

Brady turned around to catch Shawn's limp body as it fell, Juana's knife in his gut.  Jason and Rex rushed forward simultaneously, both grabbing the murderess by the arms and pulling her back.  Belle fell to one side of her husband, as Brady knelt at the other.  She screamed Shawn's name over and over again, and all he could manage was a weary smile, a strained, "I love you," before the death rattle sounded in his throat.

Chloe stood back, frozen in her shock.  This couldn't be happening.  This had no part in Jason and Brady's perfect plan.  Her eyes fastened on Belle's face, strangely tearless, though she screamed and shook with grief.  Brady couldn't even do that much.  He rocked back on his heels, his face a portrait in disbelief and guilt.

And then, Belle's hand went to the embedded dirk in Shawn's stomach.  She wrenched it out, her hand covered in blood and other substances Chloe didn't want to know the names of.  She stood, regal even with her face, arms, and dress covered in filth.  Her footsteps were loud across the silent deck.  No one stopped her as she crossed the short steps to where Juana stood, imprisoned between Rex and Jason.  Jason even yanked Jauna's hair back, as though to offer her up for sacrifice.

Belle raised the knife to the pale, white line of her enemy's throat.  She just stood there for a long time, shaking visibly, as the others waited in silent horror.  When she finally spoke, her voice was surprisingly steady.  "By the laws you've lived by, by the laws my brother has lived by, your life is mine.  Do you deny that?"

Juana didn't answer.  She watched Belle without expression.

"Spaniards killed Brady's mother.  He felt that entitled him to kill Spaniards—including your brother.  In revenge, you killed our father.  My brother killed your lover, and now you have killed my husband.  By all the codes either of you have followed, your life is forfeit to me."

Chloe shivered.  She had never heard Belle's voice so cold, detached.  Even her hysteria after her father's death had been more bearable than this cool, murderous intent.

And then, slowly, Belle's hand lowered.  The knife clattered to the deck, and she kicked it overboard, under the rails, before turning back to Juana.  "I'm not going to kill you, Jan.  I want to.  God, I don't think I've ever wanted anything in my life quite as much as to see you dead at my feet.  But the killing stops here.  Do you understand that?  All of you…"  She turned around, her eyes fierce, as they landed separately on each of the surviving members on deck.  "It ends now!  There shall be no more loss and no more bloodshed.  Is life really so immaterial to you?  Do you have no thought for the pain you inflict?  On others?  On yourselves?  It's over."

Belle's shoulders sagged in defeat, and she walked back to Shawn's side.  She knelt down beside his body and raised his hands to hers, kissing his palms his fingers.  She leaned over his still-warm body and trailed her lips across eyes, cheeks, forehead, and at last, the unresponsive mouth.  She stayed like that for a long moment.  None of the others had the heart to go to her.

Finally, as her body began to shake again, Brady stepped forward, resting supportive hands on her shoulders, as he gently lifted her to her feet and turned her away from the sight.  Belle went willingly into her brother's arms.  She clung to him, sobbing.  And Chloe found herself turning away from the reunion that was not as any of them had planned.

~~*~~

Rex Evans knew he was an outsider here.  The others around him were bonded by a legacy of death, heartache, and love that he had no part of.  Belle's grief, as much as it moved him, showed him just how far out of reach she was for him and ever should be.  So quietly, discreetly, he arranged for the removal of the bodies.  He had Juana de Enero brought to the brig of the H.M.S. Miranda to be brought back to Port Royal for trial for murder and espionage.  She showed surprisingly little resistance.

And now, Rex waited and pondered what he should do.  By law, he should commandeer the Vengeance and have her brought back to port, where her captain and crew would all be tried and hanged for piracy.  Twenty-four hours ago, this would not have even been a question for him.

But Lieutenant Evans had learned an awful lot about life in this last day, and very little of it had to do with the laws of the British Royal Navy.  His superior officer, his friend and mentor, had been a traitor to crown and country…but not to his own conscience.  Now, he was dead, saving a man whose right to life was debatable, at best.  His beautiful wife, whom Rex had envied him, was a widow within two days of her wedding, and she was more untouchable now than ever.

Perhaps it was Belle who decided him.  He would never know.

Once everything else was accomplished, he approached her, now surrounded by the attentions of the other two women.  He took his hat off and shifted nervously before her, half-afraid to speak.  "Mrs. Brady?"

She looked up at him, her pure blue eyes reddened by grief.  "Belle," she corrected him, her voice strong despite her tear-stained cheeks.  "What do you need, Lieutenant?"

"We're about to turn homeward, m'lady," Rex said, unable to force her name past his unworthy lips.  "If you ladies would come with me, we'll get you settled on the Miranda."

Chloe glared at him, Mimi blinked at him in surprise, but Belle spoke for all of them, as she said, "We're not coming, Lieutenant."

Part of him had known all along that would be her answer, but the section of his brain still left untouched by the events of the day made him press on.  "You can't stay here, my lady!  This is a pirate ship.  I am obligated to escort it back to Jamaica and see Captain Blackheart" – somehow it seemed easier to call him by his alias than to refer to him as Belle's brother – "undergoes trial for piracy."

Belle's eyes were unblinking as she looked at him.  "You won't do that, Lieutenant.  And we will stay here."

Any further protest choked in Rex's throat.  "Where will you go?" he found himself asking instead.

"Anywhere that isn't where I've been," Belle answered with sad knowledge in her voice.  "That's all gone now."

"I'm so sorry, Belle," he whispered.

She forced a smile for him, though it didn't reach her eyes.  "I know.  Goodbye, Lieutenant."  She held out her hand, and he pressed it to his lips, sure he had never touched anything before so radiantly pure; its milky whiteness was stained with the blood of her love.

~~*~~

Jason stood at the prow, watching as the Miranda disappeared over the horizon.  He felt her presence as she came up beside him.  He didn't turn around, but he held out his hand, and she slipped hers into it, without question.

"What happens now?" Mimi asked.  She too stared out to sea; both found a strange measure of peace in the unfathomable waves.

"What do you want to happen?  I promised you I would be whoever you wanted me to be, take you wherever you want to go.  You have only to tell me, Mimi."

"Hush," she whispered.  She turned towards him and used her soft hands to turn his face towards hers.  Her green eyes were clear and shining with emotion.  "I want you just as you are.  I want to be where you want to be.  You're home to me now, Jason."

He pulled her closer to him, wrapping his hands possessively around her waist.  "As you are to me."

Sighing, Mimi leaned into his chest.  She turned her face towards the cabin where Belle was locked in her private grief.  "I want us to stay where she is."

Jason didn't need to ask who she meant.  He nodded, his chin knocking against the top of her head.  "That's what we'll do then."

His wife pulled back the slightest bit to search his face.  "You don't mind?"

"Why would I mind?  Belle's family to you.  That means she's family to me now too.  Brady's been like a brother to me for years; Chloe's your friend.  I feel…we're all tied together some way, you know?"

Mimi nodded.  She knew exactly what he meant.  "So we go wherever the sea takes us, is that it?"

Jason's mouth curved in what might have been his familiar smirk, if the grief they were all feeling wasn't so new.  "Why not?  It led me to you, after all."

She didn't respond in words.  Words took effort, and they were never about effort.  They were easy.  They flowed together in the rhythm of the sea, and as their lips blended, they both knew that was how it would always stay.

~~*~~

"A baby?  You're sure?"  Even in the darkness, she could see Brady's eyes light with wonder and disbelief.

Chloe nodded, from her place in the bed next to him.  Moonlight streamed in through the porthole, illuminating naked, entwined bodies.  Brady's eyes drifted down to her belly, his hand following, tracing the smooth skin in loving circles.  He didn't say anything for a long time, and when he finally looked at her again, she was surprised to see the formerly impenetrable man had tears sliding down his cheeks.

"I don't deserve this," he whispered.  "Shawn…Shawn should have had this."

Chloe was half-tempted to joke about how good it was of Brady to want to share her with another man, but she knew the grief was still too soon for laughter.  It was why she had chosen tonight to tell him.  After so much death and destruction, they all needed a reason to hope.  "Shawn loved you like a brother, Brady.  He would have been happy for us."

"He's not here to be happy for anything," Brady shot out bitterly.  "Because of me.  It's all because of me."

Chloe's defense was ready.  "Do you think that Belle would still be here if she thought that?  Do you think I would be here if I thought that?"  When Brady didn't respond, she grabbed his face with both her hands, demanding his attention.  "I love you, Brady.  Our baby will love you.  Our children will know their father is a good man.  Our children will grow up with a father who loves them; they'll never know the lack of it as you did.  They'll grow up happy and healthy and free, and they'll give us all another chance to make it right.  You must believe that, Brady.  Believe it for my sake, if you can't for your own."

"I don't deserve this," Brady said again, but his tone was different now.  Where there had been despair and sorrow, there was now gratitude and tenderness.  "I love you, Chloe."

Chloe closed her eyes, savoring the words.  He had never told her that before.  She was almost certain he had never told anyone that, at least not since his mother died.  There was something freeing in those words.  Something more liberating than the sea and the sky and the earth lain before their feet.  That night, they cried together and made love together.  They grieved and loved and laughed.

And became whole.

~~*~~

The moon shimmered, casting its deceptive glow over sea and ship together.  Edges blended together, indistinguishable in the strange light.  A door opened, and a figure emerged.  She had dressed quickly, heeding a desire she didn't understand, and now stepped forward with unsure, hesitating steps.  The ocean breeze blew on her face; the moonlight cast strange shadows across it.  The deck sloped under her feet, but she held steady; she was beginning to understand the movement of the ship.  It had settled somewhere deep in her blood.

She crossed to the rail and closed her eyes.  The moon shone full and radiant upon her, giving her an otherworldly glow of purity.  For the first time, Belle Black Brady threw back her head and listened to the call of the sea.

The End

It's finally done!  I can't believe how long I've been working on that story, the last four months being the worst, given my lack of inspiration.  But it's done…

However, this experience wouldn't be complete if I didn't thank a few of the people who made it possible to finish this epic in the first place.

To everyone who ever reviewed, thank you!  You have no idea what your comments meant to me!  They kept me going; they really did.  I'd especially like to thank some of my most faithful reviewers: 

Katiebroe – thanks for your support!  I'm glad you loved my Days work, and if you (or anyone else) really did want to know what I'll be doing with my writing now, you might want to head over to Checkmated, a Harry Potter's Ron/Hermione fanfiction archive, where I'm just beginning a Draco/Ginny/Harry & Ron/Hermione epic, in addition to my occasional R/H fluff piece.  My username there is "freelancer."  URL: 

Alesun – I think you've reviewed every single chapter (and some twice)!  I can't imagine how my story inspired such devotion, but trust me, it did not go unnoticed.  Thank you!

Abbyu, cj, and kalvana – I can credit each and every one of you for making my day on at least one occasion with your encouraging and detailed feedback.  Thank you so much!  I treasured your words!

Karma – who actually emailed me begging for a new chapter!  Consider me humbly gratified!

To SilentTypewriter, MzThing, Sasami, mooseyfate, GAPPrincess, Ash, Foxy, Summer, and a dozen others whose names I can't think of right now, but whose support still stays with me, thank you all!!!

To Jen, who I miss dearly, and who once said "scalawag" and gave me an idea for this entire story (once I'd stopped laughing, lol.)  I love you, Li'l Angel Girl!

To Wen, for too many reasons to name, love ya, girl!

To CB, who has talked me through so many cases of writer's block, I think she almost deserves co-author credit, you're the first and still the greatest, girl!  Love you!

And to Robyn, who has been the heart and soul of this story since she first discovered the Sexy Pirates, who loves me enough to become a HP addict right alongside me, who's my defender and inspiration, and who will even forgive me for sounding so horribly sappy right now, *you* are the wind beneath *my* wings, girl.  Love you!

It's been a sincere pleasure sharing an obsession with all of you.  I wish you a fond farewell and a return to happier Days!