Author's Note: Sorry! I know, I know, I should've had this chapter posted ages ago. I honestly meant to, but real life intervened in a big way and I just didn't have the time/energy to finish up this fic. I've been having some serious (but non life-threatening) health issues lately that involved going out of state for testing and surgery and feeding tubes, so it took me forever to get back into writing mode. I do sincerely apologize for the delay, though. If it weren't for you, my awesome readers and reviewers, I would have lost my inspiration long ago. Once again, thank you all so much for your dedication, support and patience. I cannot begin to express how grateful I am. I do hope this last installment lives up to your expectations. Enjoy and once more, thank you!
Disclaimer: I claim no ownership of Priest.
Day Three: Family
The afternoons were almost unbearable. Priest, who was accustomed to working near the great furnaces underneath Cathedral City, felt himself dizzied by the white hot blades of sunlight that beat down on the open Wastelands. The orphanage sat in the middle of a shallow basin of land and the sunlight seemed to pool around it, chasing away the meager shadows that clung close to the sides of the buildings. During his stay at the compound, Priest found himself scurrying from corner to corner, trying to soak up the coolness of the thin shadows, his back turned against the desert winds, laced as they were with stinging sand and the heat of Hell.
But if the sisters and their charges were affected by the heat, they handily passed off their suffering. On the third day of his visit, Priest was stunned as he watched his own son play in the yard after lunch. Peter ran with the other boys, the lot of them a herd of hardy little beasts, raised in the unforgiving eye of the sun, away from the dank pollution of the city and the trembling fear imbued by Church doctrine.
Priest stood under the awning of the veranda and discreetly mopped at his brow with the edge of his sleeve. As he observed Peter's carefree games and gambols, he was ever aware of the other children sneaking glances at him. And then there were the sisters, the ones who would linger by the windows or pause in the corridors whenever he walked by. They were young too, he realized, only a few pitiful years older than the children in their care. He hated it most when he felt their eyes on him. He hated it most when he caught them staring and saw them blush.
Rebecca had been shy once, a girl trapped in an ungainly woman's body. A child without parents, who had been taken away, singled out from the teeming masses and domesticated. Priest wondered how many times over the course of their affair she had regretted giving herself to him. And he wondered, during the few precious months they had spent together, if she had begun to hate him.
Priest leaned back against the brick wall of the veranda. He watched Peter running with the other boys and decided that the guilt he had lived with was something of a blessing.
His mood turned meditative, mellow. The simplicity of the children's games amused him and he took heart from their happiness, found hope in their smiles, which were genuine. High, ringing laughter bounced off the brick. Priest felt the throb of the noise in his chest, a steady echo that mirrored the beat of his heart and the great sigh of the air in his lungs. The group of boys Peter had been playing with had organized a new game, one with a tough little leather ball that they battered around the yard with sticks. His son let out an excited yip when he finally managed to outrace his companions and smash the ball across the yard with the end of his bat.
Priest followed the course of the rolling missile. It skittered over the flat ground, stopping only when it hit the curb of the veranda, about a foot from Priest's right boot. He looked up and saw that the rest of the boys had scattered, afraid of this strange man with his marked face and settled frown. Priest found his son's eyes and knew that the game was over. There was nothing he could do but try to make amends, to soothe the spoiled fun.
Bending at the waist, Priest snatched up the ball. The leather hide was bruised and scuffed. Beads of sand had worked their way in-between the stitching. He hitched one shoulder up in a shrug and jerked his head in Peter's direction.
"Here," he said and lightly tossed the ball back to his son.
Peter caught it, dropping his bat in the process. After a moment's hesitation, he threw it back.
The ball hit Priest in the stomach. He lifted his arm, cradling it in the crook of his elbow. He was slightly surprised at the force Peter had managed to put into his throw. The skinny boy had a bit of strength that came from wholesome food, fresh air and a moderate amount of exercise. Not for the first time, Priest found himself silently thanking Sister Elizabeth for her care and diligence. Rebecca, he was certain, would be pleased with her child.
And he was too, of course. He was amazed by this awkward, gangly-legged creature who could have been his shadow, a boy growing up to resemble the father he had never known and the mother he would never meet.
A knot curled up in Priest's chest and rose up into his throat. He swallowed and tossed the ball back.
Peter caught it and examined the scarred leather, his knuckles bulging as he juggled the ball from one hand to the other. The high sun cast odd shadows on his face. He looked lost in thought.
"You've told me some things about my mama," he said slowly, "but I never got around to asking about you."
Priest dropped his eyes, hesitance sparking to life inside him. These were the questions he the feared most, if he was being honest with himself. The probing queries. The chances for misunderstanding, for misspeaking. Inwardly, he wished that he had been a better man, not only for his son, but for Rebecca also.
Too late, he told himself. He imagined Rebecca being forced down on her knees in front of the Monsignors before they put a bullet in her head…
"Father?" Peter's voice jolted him back to reality.
Priest raised his head, an acute pain in the back of his neck. He shook his head to dispel the ache. "Sorry," he mumbled. "I'm listening."
But his reticence had already reached Peter. The boy rolled his shoulders and pretended to look at the ball. "I only wanted to know…maybe…I just wanted to know where you came from. Sister Elizabeth says we're all born somewhere, even though we ended up here. Like Darcy, she came from one of the big cities. And Rachel told me that her folk were all from Jericho, where the trains run through. I know Sister Elizabeth said I was sent out here from Cathedral City…even though I can't remember it, I was just a baby. She said my mama came from there and I was wondering if you did too. You have pale skin, like the kids from the cities have on account of there being no sun. But you don't walk like them, all stooped-shouldered and you don't have their accent."
"I guess I don't," Priest answered, amazed by the child's astuteness. He had an easy intelligence about him and despite himself, Priest felt a smile lift his lips. "I was born in one of the Outposts, a town called Augustine."
"Is it far from here?" Peter asked.
Priest ran his tongue along his teeth, thinking, counting the miles. "Far enough. You'd need a fast bike to make it in under two days."
"Is that where you'll go then?" Peter asked suddenly. He paused, a faint flush darkening his already tanned skin. "I only wanted to know…Sister Elizabeth says you'll be heading off soon," he said, the words artlessly jumbled together in his mouth. "Is that true? Will you leave for home?"
Home. The word sounded stale and empty, even as Priest repeated it over in his mind. His concept of home had become rather skewed over the years. At first, home was the place he had shared with Shannon and Lucy, where he had loved and lived and laid the trembling, tender foundations of family out on the blustery plains near Augustine. Even when the clergy found him and brought him to Cathedral City, giving him a narrow bed and later a private cell in the Order's monastery, he had used Shannon and Lucy to identify home. Home was out there, beyond his reach. Home was a sacred space, a sanctuary he would have again someday when the war ended. But after the years had passed, Priest had allowed time and change to take its toll. Shannon's home became Owen's home. And it had been easy, oh so easy, for Priest to resign himself to an unsettled, nomadic lifestyle. He learned to live not where his heart was, but where he could find work, in the greasy, grim tenements above the coal mines in the city. Home was something he had given away and couldn't get back. Home wasn't something he could make or find, but rather measured in the price of his sacrifice.
Priest squinted through the sunlight at Peter. He knew he wasn't going home, but how could he explain that to the boy?
And how could he make his son understand that he couldn't come with him.
Because that's what Peter was asking him, really.
"I will leave," he said at length. "But I won't go back to Augustine."
Numbly, Priest raised his hand and caught the ball Peter threw to him. The leather hide was warm and slick with sweat from the boy's dirty fingers. Behind them, in a squat belfry on the roof of the orphanage, the afternoon bell began to peal. The other children dutifully abandoned their games and tramped across the yard, past the veranda and back inside to their lessons. Peter and Priest alone remained, with the wind and the sand and the sky.
Priest tossed the ball back to his son.
Peter's attention had slipped in the intervening minutes and he had to take a quick step forward to catch the ball, his hands darting out like a striking viper. He stood shuffling his feet in the dust, chewing on his lip with the few milk teeth left to him.
"Then where is it?" he asked. "Where is your home, I mean? Sister Elizabeth said they keep Priests in the cities nowadays."
"I used to have a room in Cathedral City," Priest replied, remembering his apartment with its single bed and the pot-bellied stove he had in the corner for cooking his meager meals and boiling his morning tea from the dry, tasteless roots he saved up to buy from the marketplace. "I don't live there anymore," he said. There was no way he could possibly explain his act of defiance against the Church, when he had willingly exiled himself in front of Monsignor Orelas and his congregation.
"Then where do you stay?" Peter asked.
Priest was still waiting for him to throw the ball back. His hands felt empty. "I move around."
For the first time, Priest experienced a surge of anger. He wanted to give Peter the answer he deserved, something better than an excuse, a truth more worthy than his shallow lies.
"Priests are needed in many different places," he explained with some difficulty, "especially these days." He paused and thought of Marcus already plotting revenge, a fiendish counterattack that could very well catch him unawares, when and where he was most vulnerable. Priest looked at his son and remembered what had happened to Lucy. The sudden weight of responsibility descended on him, dragging his shoulders and creasing his brow with worry.
He had never imagined, now, when he should be alone in his life, that he would have so much to protect.
Peter fumbled with the ball and then tossed it back in a high, smooth arch. "You mean you still have to chase after vamps?"
"Yes," Priest replied. There was a raw ache in the back of his throat when he spoke. He was uneasy with the frankness of Peter's questions. All along, his son had been satisfied with easy answers, but today, he was asking more of Priest, curious not about the past, but about the future.
And the future was too indefinite for Priest to understand. Somehow he would have to make sense of it, sort through what remained of his guilt and conflicted love. It was the first bit of parenting he had ever truly attempted, the first time he had squeezed himself into the role of father and tried to do what was best for his son.
"It isn't what I want," Priest said slowly. The words were sticking together on his dry tongue and the walls of his mouth were as rough as sandpaper. Conceding victory to the sun, he took a step back into the shade of the veranda. "Being out there, chasing vamps, don't think that I prefer it, Peter."
The boy scrunched up his face. He almost missed the ball when Priest tossed it across the yard to him. "Then why don't you stop?" he asked with the cutting logic of youth.
Priest considered the question for a second and he considered his own selfishness. It would make sense to stop, he thought, to finally free himself of the yoke the Church had harnessed him into so many years ago. And if he wasn't a threat, Marcus wouldn't come after him. Once neutralized, Priest was harmless…and safe. But then he looked at his son and the flimsy walls around the yard and tried to imagine what a raiding herd of vampires could do to a place like this. The thought wasn't pleasant and it made his stomach hurt.
"Your mama and I made a promise," he said. "We took a vow, like all Priests do. And that means we can't stop, even if we get tired or sick or old. We owe something to other people who can't protect themselves. It wouldn't be fair if we didn't help them. It wouldn't be fair—"
"But what happened to Mama," Peter interrupted. His hands went limp, the ball rolling from his fingertips to the dust at his feet. 'What happened to Mama wasn't fair either."
Priest lowered his eyes. "Well, two wrongs don't make a right."
"It doesn't matter what's right," Peter replied quickly. His voice had gone soft, thin and moist with the tears Priest knew he had been holding back. 'It doesn't matter to me….I…I want you to stay!"
Despite the heat, Priest felt the blood freeze in his veins. He took one hesitant step towards Peter before rushing out from underneath the veranda to embrace the boy. His son pressed his forehead against his stomach and sobbed. Priest absorbed his sorrow, tainted as it was with the loss of his mother and his sense of abandonment which could not be denied. But even as he held the child close to him, he realized that Peter had already overcome the disadvantages of his birth. He had strength, probably gleaned from Rebecca, that allowed him to surpass the role of the victim. It was that resilience, that pure, unadulterated courage that made Priest love the boy, love him more fiercely than he thought he ever could.
He wrapped his hands around Peter's shoulders and hugged him back, claiming the child as his own, his flesh and blood, a piece of his soul passed down into another living being. And all he could say, over and over again was, "It's all right, Peter. It's all right."
Peter broke off into hiccupping sobs, his shoulders jerking as he tried to catch his breath. His arms had reached around Priest's back and he fisted his fingers in his black overcoat, holding his father fast as if he could possibly keep him from being torn away.
"Sister Elizabeth says you have to go," he mumbled in a watery, warbling tone. "Sister Elizabeth says you can't stay and I can't leave with you. But I thought that's why you came to find me. I thought that you were going to take me away."
Priest placed his hand on top of Peter's head, his palm flattening the coarse strands of reddish hair. There was nothing he could say to placate the boy. There was no soothing pantomime he could offer to dull the sharp edges of a cruel world. Priest had long become used to the harshness of life, the raw pain that accompanied his every breath and beating heart. And yet, he hoped in vain to shield Peter, to provide him with the safety that only a home could bring, a secure, comforting place where the boy could grow and nourish his innate strength until he was a man.
Priest tasted the bitter bile of his disappointment when he realized that again, sacrifices would have to be made. For it was his own heart he denied now, not Peter's, by pulling away from his child.
"You wouldn't want to leave with me," he said, hoping the conviction in his voice would catch and cradle the desperate boy. "You wouldn't want to leave your friends here and go out…out there. This is a nice place. This is a safe place, Peter and it's more than most children have. More than your mama ever had. She would be mad if I took you away from all this…and I would be wrong if I made myself happy and kept you with me. But you'll learn, Peter, you'll learn that life isn't so much about happiness, it's about survival. That's the one thing I want to teach you now and what your mama would want you to know. Maybe some other day, some other day soon, I can teach you about happiness. But not now. Now, we must be patient."
"For what?" Peter asked thickly. He rubbed his runny nose on the back of his hand.
Priest patted his hair. He knew better than to make promises to the boy. He knew that hope was unreliable, no more than a lie fed to those who were weak in the mind to begin with. But a deep fissure ran along his heart, eroding his strength and judgment when he looked at the child, when he looked at his son's lonely, starving face and found himself wanting to give him more than he had.
Rebecca had already paid the ultimate price for their child. Now it was his turn.
"Look," he said, the word scraping in the back of his burning throat, "I'm not saying that things will change soon, that I'll be able…that I'll be free to be a proper father to you, but…" Priest paused and chewed the inside of his cheek.
Peter's eyes suddenly lit up. He was more than willing to fill in the blanks for his mute father. "You'll come back?" he added, his words shaped into a question that he himself had already answered.
Priest found himself nodding. "Of course."
"And someday, maybe," Peter continued.
"I'll take you with me," Priest replied.
"And I can live with you," Peter said. His fingers hand curled around his father's belt. For a second, his youth shone through him and his smile was genuine, not the nervous, reflexive grin he had flashed Priest over the past few days during the most awkward moments of their visit.
Priest felt a slow tide of warmth trickle down his strained throat and into his chest and belly. He bowed his head until his nose was buried in Peter's hair and he could smell the soap from the boy's morning wash mixed with the airy scent that came from being out on the Wastelands. He kissed his son's forehead and smoothed back his reddish bristles and felt his whole body relax, an unnamed tension seeping from his limbs.
Priest knew he had finally done right by the boy. He had picked up where Rebecca left off and surprisingly, found a little happiness for himself along the way. And there was no telling, really, if he wouldn't be able to take Peter away with him someday, if they could live together in a small Outpost far from the cities, close enough to visit Lucy and Hicks when they wanted too, and safe from the grasping power of the Church, safe and sound, in their own little family, safe and sound…
Priest looked down past Peter's shoulders and saw that the ball had rolled close to his toe. He had a few hours left, before he had to climb back on his motorcycle and head off to meet the others at the rendezvous point. He had time to spare for himself and for the boy he had nearly forgotten, although his heart wouldn't let him.
"Go ahead," Priest told his son, reaching down for the scuffed up leather ball.
Peter understood, of course. He had a way of knowing things, without needing useless words to weigh down true sentiment. His mother had been like that, Priest reflected as he tossed the ball back and forth between his hands. And that was a good thing, a fitting memorial to the sacrifice she had made out of love for her child…and for Priest too.
The sun was still high in the sky when Priest tossed the ball back to Peter, the shafts of buttery light bringing some color into his son's face and shining in his blue eyes, which he owed to his father. It wasn't hard, Priest thought, to look at his Peter and see himself gazing back. It wasn't very hard at all.
Author's Note: Well, that's the end of this fic, but not the end of this story. As promised, I haven't forgotten about Rowan/Priest. There's another short, multi-chaptered story in the works that deals directly with their relationship after Cross, along with Priest's relationships with the other women in his life, namely Shannon and Rebecca. With any luck, I should have the first chapter posted in a few weeks. Thanks again for following this story and for being the all-around awesome readers you all are. See you next time and enjoy the summer!
P.S. If you're interested, I've posted some fanart for this series on my profile page.