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Corona
1st April 2009, after dark


"We should head back." "We should." He nodded and turned away to retrieve his clothes to get dressed.




Daniel said nothing following their departure from San Marcos. If he were spoken to, he would answer and if Mia required a response from him, he provided one, but nothing was offered freely, not while his thoughts were like a storm of moths. If she noticed the slight bruise on his knuckle, she did not comment on it and for that Daniel was grateful.

He was still processing what had happened between him and Frank, trying to take the sting of the man's words away from his memory, if such a thing was possible. In all his life, he had never felt so angry and part of his ability to rise to the occasion was a testament to his feelings for Mia, the place she was slowly carving for herself in his heart. It was becoming more than infatuation, more than desire of flesh. She wound her soul through his like tendrils intertwining. He could neither rid himself of it nor deny himself the symbiosis.

And yet there was nothing symbiotic or communion about what he had done today, he had raised his hand in anger and that was a thing Daniel had never done.

When Noah and Mick had gone to take their turn at bathing and Mia was resting, Daniel had answered Frank's request for help in moving some additional supplies from one of the storerooms in the corridor. It seemed simple enough and he had not thought of Frank having another other reason for making the request. When they were alone, it soon became clear enough.

"What's going on with you and the girl, Danny?"

The question had taken him by such surprise that for a moment his emotions were naked on his face, fear of discovery, shock at being asked by someone other than Mick or Noah, a whole gamut of emotions laid bare for Frank to see.

He recovered as best he could and answered, "There's nothing going on between Mia and I, Frank." He almost sounded sincere enough that he almost believed himself.

"Bull," Frank retorted, coming up to him in the small room and staring him in the eyes. "I've known you since you were ten years old. I know you like I'd know my own child if such a thing were possible. I've seen the way you look at her and I've certainly seen the way she looks at you. Are you telling me there's nothing?"

Daniel swallowed. "There's nothing."

Frank turned his back on Daniel shaking his head. "When you were a boy and you came to me telling me you wanted to be a priest, do you remember what I said to you?"

"You said that you felt nothing but God, that the emptiness in your heart could only be filled by the ability to serve him."

Daniel nodded, remembering that day, remembering how proud Frank had been. He'd been so happy to give that to Frank, who had saved his family and so many others. "I still feel that way...."

"Do you really?" Frank countered. "Because I look at you and I see you wanting her, wanting that girl."

Daniel's spine stiffened. "What I want and what I am prepared to do, are two different things." For some reason Frank referring to Mia as 'that girl' irked him. "And her name is Mia."

Frank took the statement as proof of Daniel's conflict. "Danny, it's a hard road that we're on, I grant ya. I know that sometimes, a woman can seem like the answer to all the hardships in the world, to fill the void when you think you've lost God or your way, but do not let fleeting pleasure between her legs distract you."

"Frank, stop it," Daniel said more harshly than he intended, disliking the crudity of the language. "I may feel for her but I do not plan on doing anything to break my vows and even if I did, what is so wrong about a priest admitting he is as human as the rest of his flock? Where does it say in the gospel that we cannot marry?"

"It doesn't have to say it!" Frank hissed. "It's our sacred duty to remain pure."

"As pure as the priests who decide to molest little children because their duty makes them hunger for flesh that they are driven to seek anyway they can? How is that better?"

"It is the law of the Church..!" Frank insisted. "It has been for a thousand years..."

"A thousand years after Christ passed," Daniel snapped. "The Latin Rite does not supersede the Word of God and yet we are slave to it. St. Peter said in Corinthians that priests have the right to take a wife!"

"And she should be a virgin!" Frank bit back. "She does not look like a virgin..."

"Frank," Daniel warned. "Don't got there..."

"You think she's pure, lad? I'm sure she's a nice lass and all but even if you chose to do this thing, she is completely unacceptable!"

"She is acceptable to me..." Daniel countered. As a matter of fact, Mia was extraordinary.

"She's not Christian and she's not pure," Frank refused to give in, to save the boy from himself. "You'll have your time with her and then she'll get bored or you'll become unfulfilled and one of you will leave. What then? You think that covenant can be restored once its broken?"

"That's my choice to make, Frank," Daniel replied, "God gave us free will.."

"Danny." Frank stared at him. "Don't throw your life away for a girl who's not worthy of you. You're a pure hearted man, a kind man, if you must do this, do so for a girl whose heart is with the church, not one who obviously takes her pleasure from so many.."

It was the last thing Frank said before Daniel snapped and punched him in the jaw. Frank staggered back but held his ground while Daniel stared at him, horrified by what he had done.

"You see, Danny." The man shook his head. "This is why having her means you can't be a priest. A priest does not lash out in anger. Passion for a woman will bring that out in you. A servant of God must be above that."

Daniel didn't know what to say, he had merely staggered out of the room, his knuckles still stinging.



Those same knuckles were almost white now wrapped around the steering wheel, trying to force the memory from his mind as they closed the distance to Los Angeles.

Stevie threw another sideways glance at Daniel and shook her head. Something was going on, or at least something had happened.

The night before, Mick and Noah had come back from the park and they all had headed out to forage around town for supplies and fuel, Father Frank staying behind. And then when they had come back, the old man hadn't helped unload anything and had merely told them where to stack his share. There hadn't been one word shared between he and Daniel during the rest of that night, or the following day. Their last meal, the one during which Stevie had thought they would have at least connected one last time before hitting the road, they had spent each sitting at one end of the room. They had tried to keep up appearances for her, Mick and Noah, but she and the boys had all seen through it. They just couldn't figure out why.

"Okay, pull over," Stevie told Daniel as they drove out of Corona. Next was Anaheim and she was getting anxious. In the darkness, they couldn't see LA and its suburbs in front of them and she kept wondering what would greet them. More desolation like they had driven through since Mexico, or just a big huge crater. "You've driven most of the night. You look shattered."

Somewhat subdued, Daniel glanced her way. "I'm fine," he countered, not wishing to let go of the wheel because the driving required concentration he wouldn't be focussing on Frank's words to him. However, a tiny voice did remind him that he had been driving for hours as she declared.

"Daniel, it's either that or I start to quiz you on what happened back there..." she threatened him without missing a beat. They had been sitting in silence for hours. He better believe that she was ready to give him her own version of the Spanish Inquisition.

"Fine," he grumbled and turned the wheel sharply enough to cause skid marks on the bitumen as he drove to a gradual stop on the shoulder of the road. "You drive." He got out.

Whoa. Stevie had to grab hold of the door and the dashboard not to be swung out of her seat. "What the fuck was that?" she spat as she went around the Jeep to get to the driver's side.

She could have just jumped seats but she took the opportunity to stretch her legs a little. She saw the van catch up to them and slow down and she motioned to them that they were just swapping drivers before her attention went back to Daniel.

"We don't want to be stationary too long," he said shortly, rounding the back of the vehicle to take up her seat. They were surrounded by darkness but he could see the uneven line of fences surrounding closely packed neighbourhoods that made up most of Corona. The wind carried the scent of ash in the air.

"Fine. Have it your way." She got in the jeep and buckled up before shifting into first gear. She was regretting just waving the Kombi on. If she had let them stop she would have swapped with Mick or Noah. There were more vehicles to weave around here, which was understandable as they were in a more densely populated area.

Daniel knew he was being a jerk, he knew it but now he had to time to think about what Frank had said and it wasn't going to improve his mood any. "Sorry," he made an attempt to appease her as he sat in his seat, arms folded, his expression intense, like the little boy who was told he was going to have one story at bedtime instead of three.

Stevie ignored him. She ignored him like he had her for the past four and a half hours. Instead she concentrated on not hitting anything and not losing Mick and Noah upfront. It finally gave her a break from worrying about what they would find in LA... or about what the hell was wrong with the priest sitting next to her.

Her silence made him feel guilty, which added only to the ire he felt. "I'm sorry, I have things on my mind," he tried to explain. Unworthy of him. Really. Judging by his behaviour since they left San Marcos, it was him that was so evidently unworthy.

Sighing, Stevie glanced at him. "You want to talk about it?" she offered.

He opened his mouth to speak and then swallowed thickly, choosing his words very carefully. "What's the big deal about virginity anyway? I mean is it really a rite of passage, does it change a person, make them any better or worse?"

"I..." Her breath left her. WHAT? Trying not to laugh because she guessed that would hurt his feelings, Stevie looked his way again. "That's what's been on your mind?" Wow...

He stared at her for a moment, thinking that she was belittling his concerns and then realised she wasn't aware of its context. "It isn't funny. My faith is based on abstinence, no premarital sex and so on and so forth and yet, the archaeological record almost certainly indicated that Joseph and Mary had premarital sex before Jesus was born... so..." He hadn't had debates like this since he was in Jesuit school. "So, why all this damn importance on virginity?"

Stevie blinked. She didn't like the fact that just by behind here she was sending this poor guy into a spiral, questioning everything from his faith, his motives, to feelings and himself. "I guess it's like the end of innocence..." A glance at him before she reverted to checking the road. She'd never really dwelled on it, the why and all that, but she still remembered her first and she was certain she would never forget. "I guess it is some rite of passage... from a child to someone who can procreate. I mean that's the biology of it. Mentally and emotionally, I've been told it's very different for men and women, and it also varies from person to person." She had learned that with Daniel you had to get back to basics when you tried to explain something to him.

"I understand the importance of the event." Daniel frowned, because he wasn't naive. He had come from a place where everyone was so poor that most of the time, there was really nothing to find pleasure in except the flesh. "The apostles were married men, any score of Saints and good Christians were not virgins when they did the Lord's work. I find it hypocritical that so much importance is placed on such a personal matter. Mary Magdalene was hardly a virgin and yet, having sex becomes the benchmark of a sinner and a saint. My faith, my belief in Christ and God, doesn't have as much hypocrisy as the bureaucracy surrounding it."

"Daniel, you know I agree with this..." Why was he telling her all that like he was expecting her to argue with him? "The why? My personal take on this? It's not about purity. Not really. Men... back in the day, they liked to know their wives had known no other. Men, in most cultures, have always ruled over women, so while a woman might have liked her partner equally 'pure', it very rarely happened. It's a control thing... driven by jealousy... for many it's a possession thing. I don't think women are built like that, but a lot of men, on a primal level, are. Maybe because once you know how good taking a lover feels, how intense and all-encompassing it can be, that's why they rather not have their priests sexually active. I don't know. I mean sex... you can become slave to it. Don't kid yourself. It's a powerful drug. And in some cases, it is power."

He listened to her and all of it made sense, to a degree he even knew it before she said it out loud but all of it didn't equate to why Frank considered her unclean. "Power.." he shook his head. "That's what it comes down to, doesn't it? Power over another being. Power to possess. You know, there is nothing in the scriptures that says a priest can't marry. You know, absolutely nothing."

"That's not all it comes down to though..." She shook her head. "Sometimes, it's not about possession... at least not in that sense. Sometimes, it's about love and about sharing it in the most intimate manner. I think... I think that the whole purity thing might stem from this. When you do the act for the wrong reasons... when there's no love, no attachment... when you squander that gift, then it's not like what your god might have intended." Stevie frowned because while she knew it could be beautiful when love was involved, she also didn't believe it necessarily had to be there to be fun and good. And it sure as hell should not send you straight to hell. His other comment finally sunk in and she looked at him sharply.

"Did you ask Father Frank about the scriptures and why the Catholic church won't let their priests marry? Is this what happened?"

Frank's name changed the theological slant of the discussion which, he had to admit, he found quite interesting. Her perspective was quite challenging, refreshing almost, and Daniel realised he could probably talk to her a lot about his faith and gain some stimulating insights from her. However, her question about Frank made him stiffen.

"No, I did not," he answered and that was the truth, to a degree. "But the discussion was had nonetheless." Sighing, he added, "He knows how I feel about you."

Stevie didn't have to ask how that went down. It was damn obvious and it explained why he'd been so quiet and tense... and the looks Frank had thrown her way before they left.

"Let me go out on a limb here and say he didn't approve of me."

Daniel's jaw tightened but he wasn't about to tell her that. "He disapproved of my weakness."

"Oh, Daniel. I'm not an idiot..." She swerved suddenly as a white cat ran across the road. "Shit. Sorry." She glanced at him, eyes wide. Fuck, the thing had made her jump.

"Could have been worse," he said, grabbing the dash when she almost ran over the albino feline. "Could have been black. No, you're not an idiot and his reasons for objecting to you are bullshit," Daniel said hotly and then rolled his eyes. "It's come to this; I've used the word bullshit."

She was just thinking that about the cat. Had it been black... His reaction made her smile, though sadly.

So, Father Frank had disapproved of her. Well, that came hardly as a surprise.

"Your questions about virginity and premarital sex is what gave you away," Stevie said with a smirk. "I'm not offended, Daniel. Remember what I told you when we met? There are far better women out there. Father Frank is right about that. That said..." She glanced at him. "I would have thought him more worried about you wanting to leave the Order than whom you fancied."

"Oh, he was upset about that," Daniel snorted, "don't you worry. However, I do not consider you unworthy or impure. Nor do I need to go find myself a nice Christian girl if I choose to leave the order. I strongly suspect that if I had met a nice Christian girl, we wouldn't be having this problem. I care for you, I will not have anyone deem you unworthy or call you promiscuous without having a... reaction."

Stevie swallowed, maybe for the first time in her life really feeling bad about her ways.

"But I am. I have been."

She kept her eyes front, a nervous tick in her jaw as her hands tightened around the steering wheel.

"And I won't make any apologies for it," she added, voice tight. Some of her choices had been stupid, granted, but she had learned to cope. If finding comfort in the arms of guys deemed her impure or unworthy, then yes, she was all of those things.

"That's not the point," he snapped at her without meaning to. "I know that and the only person that should have a problem with that is me, if I choose it to be a problem, which I might add," he said firmly, "I do not. I won't have him speak that way about you. He doesn't know you, he doesn't know your heart. You're a good person in my eyes and someone I care about. I was so angry when he spoke badly of you, I... I... hit him," Daniel confessed, still mortified that he had done it.

Oh.

Wasn't that one of the Commandments?

"I'm sorry." She didn't know what else to say. Hell, she didn't even know how to react to him defending her virtue. They'd only just met. Besides, the concept was so alien to her, her parents having had no qualms with demeaning her. Her friends respected her, yes, but they also weren't blind to her lifestyle, to her sleeping around. And it wasn't like Stevie had ever tried to hide it from them either. It was what it was, but it would have greatly surprised her if she'd seen Noah punch Mick for a similar comment.

"You have nothing to be sorry for," he said quickly. "I'd never struck anyone in anger before. I've defended myself, accepted that sometimes I must shoot a weapon to save not just my life but others with me but to actually strike someone I cared about, respected out of sheer rage," Daniel shifted his gaze at her. "That I haven't done."

"I still am sorry," Stevie let out. "Still feel like it's my fault. I know what you said about it being your choice but I still feel responsible for that first kiss." He could say or think whatever he liked but Stevie couldn't stop believing that had she not kissed him that first day, they wouldn't be where they are now and Daniel certainly wouldn't have struck his long time friend, and probably mentor.

"Daniel, you shouldn't have left things like that between the two of you..." Life was too damn short.

He nodded, having to give her credit for being right about that. "I know that but I wouldn't trade that first kiss for all the forgiveness in the heaven, Mia." It was the truth, he had felt stirring for her since the first moment and yes the kiss had set off a flame of passion inside of him, but he had no doubt his feelings for her would have manifested nonetheless.

"Promise me you'll contact him once you get settled in San Francisco..." She made the request, her eyes briefly making contact before returning to the road.

"You said if I let you drive you weren't going to give me grief." He gave her a look, a hint of playfulness in his voice that only she seemed to bring out.

"Okay then." Stevie forced a smile, honestly appreciating his attempt at humour but just being too wrapped up in her own emotions about leaving things unsaid. The closer they got to Los Angeles, the more upset she was becoming. What Daniel had had to go through with his friend on her account wasn't helping.

Daniel had noticed her sudden silence and cursed himself when he realized how close to Los Angeles City they really were. The city itself sprawled across a wide area and they were on the Pasadena Freeway skirting the edge of the Los Angeles State Forest. While they could spy the hills in the distance, dark mountains against the starry sky, Pomona itself showed the signs of devastation. Like San Marcos, the outskirts of LA had been in ruins, however, as they came closer to LA, the effect was quite different indeed.

The reports had said Los Angeles, like New York and other major cities of the world, had been totally destroyed but not until they neared the coast did Daniel understand what that meant. Above them, the mothership kept a watchful eye over what was left of Los Angeles City, sometimes called Lala Land, other times, Tinsel town.

What was left wasn't much. Whatever weapon they had used to devastate Los Angeles was enough that Daniel found himself gasping, taking the Lord's name in vain.

"Oh my God.." he said with a strangled whisper.

Nothing remained, not a tree, not a building, not even the roads. Everything was a dark mess of cinders and debris. If you looked hard enough you could actually see the ocean because there was nothing in the way to obscure your view of it. All he could see in the dim light was piles and piles of burned ashes, debris and wreckage. Daniel had never seen anything like it and instinctively crossed himself out of sheer horror.

Not caring whether or not there were personal lines drawn between himself and Mia, he reached for her hand and squeezed tight because this annihilation had been her home.

Trying very hard not to fall apart, her hand let go of the steering wheel so she could return the gesture. Except it didn't fortify her, the contact just seemed to crack through that wall she had around her when it came to her family and the life she had here. She hadn't been sure how she would react at seeing her hometown destroyed. She expected some pain, a sense of loss, but then she hadn't expected this.

"It's all gone," she said, voice flat, looking at the charred landscape. Even the air smelled nothing but ash.

The van ahead of them came to a stop and, to her surprise, she saw Mick stumble out.

Stevie choked on a sob, bringing the Jeep to a halt next to the kombi. "I..." She glanced at Daniel before getting out of the vehicle on shaky legs. The ground felt funny underfoot, like soft sand, and it made her sick as she realised it was ash and a mix of concrete and bones... things that even high heat didn't totally disintegrate.

Fearful she was going to collapse, Daniel was at Mia's side in a minute, taking her elbow so that he could stop her if her legs gave way. Like her, he was trying not to become overcome by what he was seeing, by the fusion of bone, glass, concrete and plastic that was not the streets of Los Angeles. "I've got you," he said quietly.

Blinking, Stevie allowed herself to lean against him momentarily, until she saw Mick bend forward, hands finding his knees to try and keep himself from falling down altogether as he fought to breathe. Staggering forward, she tried to reach him, passing Noah, who seemed to be frozen in place, undoubtedly imagining New York City to be looking much the same way.

When she moved towards Mick and Noah, Daniel was right at her side, staying close in case it became too much for them. There was nothing he could say that would make any of this bearable and if he came out with something to do with God, it would only make things worse. Truth be told, right now, he had difficulty understanding the design God had in mind when he allowed this to happen.

Her hand brushed up Mick's back, feeling a strong shudder beneath her palm before she heard a strangle cry. Her throat tight, she couldn't utter a thing, even though she knew Mick was probably facing a sense of loss like he had never anticipated he'd feel.

Mick pushed up and turned, his gaze touching on Daniel before finding Stevie. His face breaking into a grimace, he pulled her to him for a brief hug, tears spilling for a moment, before he sniffled, reining in the storm of emotions shaking him. "Shhh," he let out, kissing the top of her head. This was all he would allow himself, for now at least.

Checking on Noah, he said, "We can't stay here too long." He didn't need to explain why.

When Mick let her go, Daniel was ready to step in and hold her for as long as he was needed. Holding on to Mia, he nodded when Mick made his remark about leaving soon. "Right," he said simply. He'd drive when she was ready.

Grabbing Daniel, she held him so tightly, her fingers felt numb. She felt sick and light-headed, swaying as what had been just hearsay until now was proved all too real. Unable to look away, to close her eyes even, she tried to take a breath. "I can't breathe..."

"Come on," he said, walking her to the car, "I'm getting you out of here," he said soothingly in her ear.

"I'm heading out," he told Mick and Noah.

"Right behind you," Noah replied with a nod, seemingly shaking himself all of a sudden.

"Mick." He waved his mate over. "Come on."

Stevie didn't even really notice the walk back to the Jeep. She kept thinking she wouldn't be able to clean her shoes after this... that she was walking over the city, over its people... that she was wearing them on her feet, that the dust they were inhaling was them too.

Daniel helped her into the vehicle, making sure she was strapped in before taking up the driver's seat again. He waited long enough for Mick and Noah to climb into the van and he was driving away from the scene, heading back to the Freeway that would take them far away from here. Right now, he didn't care what direction they went as long as they didn't have to look behind them.

Bundled in the car, Stevie turned to the side, bringing her legs up to her chest. She watched what the darkness allowed her to see pass them by, thinking it was a damn good thing it was night. She couldn't fathom what all this would look like in the light of day.

Daniel wanted to offer words of comfort but even a priest knew when it was time to take comfort in silence. He glanced at her occasionally, ensuring that she was alright while he continued away from the city, heading towards the Pasadena Freeway that would take them out closer to the mountains. By daybreak, he wanted nothing of Los Angeles to be seen by Mia. Occasionally he reached for her, whether it was to stroke her shoulder soothingly or offer her a squeeze.

"The last time I heard from my parents, it was a lousy Christmas card," Stevie started saying, her voice scratchy. "I sent them one and my dad sent one back. Either him or the maid... who knows?" She shrugged. "That was fifteen months ago. The last time I heard their voices, it was my mom calling me after some music award thing. I was in London in a hotel. Two and a half... near three years ago," she managed to get out around a sob. She hadn't spoken to them since and now she never would again. "You think it was quick?" she asked, turning her head slowly towards Daniel. "You think they felt it?"

"Come here," he reached over to her and pulled her across the seat, so she could rest her head on his shoulder while he drove. "I'm sure it was very quick. I don't think anyone had any time to realize what was going on until it was too late." He was lying of course, because he had no way of knowing, but Daniel was starting to suspect God wouldn't mind it very much.

Stevie settled against him, as awkward as it was to lean across the bucket seat, but she needed it, needed the contact and his warmth. She suspected he needed it too. It couldn't be any easier for him. Not when he knew his father had perished as well. The tears came and silently she let them with a shuddering breath. She felt so tired, so empty. She couldn't fight them anymore.

He held her as best as he could, with one hand on the steering wheel and another around her shoulders, holding her close. He let her weep her tears, let her say farewell to the dying city while he, in turn, uttered a prayer for the voices now silenced forever in this calamity. Issuing his word of hope to God and hoping that the Almighty would have some answers... for he had none.


To be continued in Scout

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