31st March 2009
"Yeah." She nodded. "Guns, food and sleep. In that order for you, mister." Stevie had slept a couple of hours on their way here so she would help Mick go over the weapons. Besides, she wanted to learn. What little her parents had let her do over twenty-years ago had not included guns and their care was something she would need to know. "Come on." She pulled on his hand.
Letting himself be pulled along, Daniel made no effort to retrieve his hand and followed her.
At nightfall, Father Frank came to wake the gang up. He found Noah reading rather than asleep but the other three had been down for the count. It was probably fair to assume no one had slept soundly since the attack a month ago.
Stevie slid off the top bunk and followed the older priest to go help him prepare some food for everyone. She came back half an hour later, pushing into the room with aluminium bowls on a tray and a beaten up camping teapot and cups balanced on the edge.
"Anyone game enough to come have a bath with me after this?" she asked, looking around the room at the sleepy faces looking back at her.
Seeing the request as nothing out of the ordinary, Daniel who had just woke up from a deep sleep muttered in response. "I'll join you if you like."
"What?" Mick asked between two huge yawns that seemed about ready to unhinge his jaw. "What are you talking about?" And he wasn't even sure if he was asking about Stevie offering a shared bath around or the priest saying yes to it.
Well, Stevie hadn't expected Daniel to volunteer but she turned to Mick first. "Father Frank mentioned a creek not too far from here... clean enough to bathe in," she explained. "I don't know about you guys but I'm dying for a proper wash..."
"Just as long as you don't have to worry about crocodiles and hippos," Daniel remarked, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. He had given up his shirt and and collar to sleep comfortably in his t-shirt. Reaching for his shoes, he slipped them back over his socked feet.
"I think we're safe from those here but I'll keep watch if you want," she returned with a smirk she couldn't help.
"Sounds like a good idea. In pairs, one on lookout at all time..." Mick let out, standing up to go make some room on the little table so Stevie could put the tray down.
"Come on, guys. Grubs up," she said, grabbing a bowl and fork for herself. "Tea's ready too."
Daniel smiled faintly, in a little better spirits after the news he'd received only a few hours and the understanding he and Mia had reached. It didn't change anything between them but at least, he knew the line that he couldn't cross and was content that she'd let him know if he did. Joining them at the table, he grabbed a bowl and took a seat on the floor, allowing the others access to the table. After being in Africa, he was used to doing it rough.
"So what are your plans, boys?" Frank asked as he saw his guests eating. "Do you plan on heading straight out?"
Daniel looked at the others. "I'm not sure, we've been driving for quite some time. What are supplies around here like?" Looking to Mick, he added, "This could be the opportunity to do some scavenging."
"True." Mick nodded.
"And help Father Frank refill his own cupboards wouldn't be a bad idea," Noah chimed in, jumping off his own top bunk.
"You're feeding us," he told Frank. "The least we can do is replace what we're taking..."
"Well that's awful kind of you," Frank replied. "There's plenty of picking here if it hasn't been destroyed. There some little stores on the edge of town that weren't destroyed, I've found those the best for supplies."
"Then I think we should consider using this evening to do a little foraging," Daniel suggested. "We can replenish our supplies, get some rest tomorrow and head out again at night."
"Works for me," Stevie said around a mouthful of food. Truth was, she wasn't looking forward to getting to Los Angeles... not after seeing Daniel so devastated by the news of his father's death.
"Alright, that's settled then," Mick said, putting his empty dish back on the tray.
"If you can have us another night, Father..." He raised an eyebrow at Frank.
"I'd enjoy the company," Frank said, not just of the newcomers but also of Daniel with whom he wanted to have a word when the opportunity came. Something was happening with his young friend that was more than Vassiley's death and while Frank wasn't certain what it was, Daniel had always been able to confide in him.
Daniel finished eating and glanced at Mia. "Well, if we're going to do this, we should get started soon. Come on, I'll stand guard while you have that bath."
Mick rolled his eyes but didn't comment. Well, it looked like the lovebirds had patched things up somehow.
Stevie wondered again if Daniel coming with her was a good idea but figured she'd let him decide on that. Maybe he was still feeling things out, his reactions and feelings. She went and grabbed her pack, emptying quite a bit to only leave what she would need to get cleaned up.
Ready, she turned around to catch Mick and Noah looking at her and averting their eyes immediately. Okay then, she wasn't the only one questioning this.
"I'm ready," she said, but avoided Father Frank's gaze when she passed him to go to the door, grabbing the shotgun as she did. "We won't be too long so you two can do the same before we head out supply hunting." Not that she was implying they were stinking up the place or anything. She grinned.
Daniel wondered at the look he was getting from Mick and Noah and assumed they were unaware that he and Mia had come to an understanding that didn't violate his vows. Besides, it was dangerous out there and he didn't want anything to happen while she took a moment to herself.
"We should try some of the gas stations too," Daniel suggested as they walked out of the room. "Did Frank tell you where this creek was?" he asked innocently.
"Yes. It's about a fifteen minute walk, he thinks," she replied as she climbed up the stairs. "He also said he hasn't seen anyone about so we should be pretty safe, still..." she let trail, implying they shouldn't let their guard down.
"That's probably when we should be most careful," he reminded. "Always someone there to take advantage of the quiet, human or Visitor." He glanced at her with a smile and added, "I think you told me that."
She paused and met his gaze, smiling in return. "I vaguely remember." Reaching the doors, she stopped before opening them. "Ready?" she asked, before unlocking their barrier to the outside world. It would be bad luck that someone happened to pass nearby just as they emerged but it was still possible.
"Ready." He nodded and stepped out first. Outside, there was nothing but darkness with only the stars and the moon lighting their way. He could see nothing that indicated danger but that didn't mean a thing. "Looks sort of clear." He extended his hand towards her. "Come on."
Grabbing his hand, she let him pull her outside before closing the doors again quickly, her eyes scanning past the church's rubble. "I wish we could have done this in the sun," she commented, suddenly feeling fed up with hiding and having to move around at night only like fucking vampires. Taking a moment to get her bearings based on what Frank had told her, she nodded to their left. "I think it's that way..."
Daniel found it odd that in one hand he held her fingers in his and in the other, he was carrying a gun. He hadn't even thought to arm himself until they were ready to leave and then realised that it was necessary in case they did get into trouble. Letting her guide him through the darkness, it felt eerie to move through the empty streets, past the wreckage of a town that looked like something out of a post apocalyptic horror film.
"Not a good idea since you plan on bathing," Daniel remarked, trying to listen for the sounds of anything suspicious.
"Are you kidding?" she asked, glancing at him. "You've never swum in a lake or a river to dry yourself in the sun afterwards?" Stevie was trying to not pay too much attention at the state of everything around them... the destruction, the silence, the stench. All she hoped was that Frank had been right and the creek was still clean because a rotting body in there would mess up her plans big time.
"I have," he countered, "in Africa, where there were a lot less people to happen to stumble across you when you were... exposed. Then again," he smirked, "there's nothing quite as exposing as finding a lion deciding to take a drink where you're bathing. It takes getting pruned to a whole new level."
Stevie chuckled at that, pretty sure he wasn't even kidding. "Aren't there bob cats and coyotes around these parts?" she joked before sobering up a little. "I don't think many people stumbling on us is going to be an issue here though, but yeah, the sun is out of the question," she stated the obvious, a state of affair she regretted.
"Well, there's something to be said about a moonlight swim," he said, trying to make her feel better as they left behind the buildings and trudged over what was once a park. Daniel tried to ignore the burnt trees and the destroyed playground furniture. "Those are nice too."
"You know about skinny dipping in the moonlight?" Stevie asked, turning to look at him, eyebrows to her hairline. She bet the guy wasn't even trying to flirt with her but he was doing a fine job of it.
"The nights in Africa can be brutal," he explained, wondering what he was missing by that reaction. "Sometimes, it's the only way to cool off."
Stopping dead in her tracks, she turned to study his face in the pale light. "And you're not even joking, are you?" She shook her head, breaking into a smile. "Oh, Daniel... you have no idea of what you sometimes imply without meaning it..." If there were women working these UNICEF aid camp things he used to do in Africa she could only imagine how many would have expected more than cooling off.
He stared at her blankly. "Implying? Temperatures at times in Africa are hot during the nights. That's the way we cooled off," he wrinkled his brow. "What did you think I was doing?"
"Daniel." Stevie got the odd impression she was addressing a child. "Moonlight swims, to 99.9% of the North American population, will mean a couple getting it on in the water... a romantic encounter, if you will." She couldn't believe she had to spell that out. Every teenager she knew had done this, had been tantalised by the idea. "Do you understand what I'm saying?"
"I didn't have any of those at all in high school," Daniel replied, feeling a little embarrassed that she had to explain it to him. "I mean... once you tell a girl that you intend on joining the seminary, it's likely she's not going to ask you to the prom." Actually, he went with his sister but for some reason, he wasn't going to tell her that. "I never had moonlight swims with women... well, there was that one aid worker but we were clothed and I'm sure she wasn't expecting any... encounters."
"I gathered," she said with a nod, still smiling. It tickled her that he could walk through life, sprouting plenty of innuendos and not even realise it. But of all he said just now, what stuck out the most for her was the prom. "You didn't have a date for the prom? Neither did I..."
"Really?" He looked at her. "I mean it's pretty obvious why I didn't, but you... you're beautiful." He could say that now, unafraid to admit that he found her that way.
"And you think beauty has something to do with it?" She supposed it did but she had never quantified herself that way. Certainly not back then. "I was a mess. Rebelling against school, the institution it represented... because my parents wanted me to do it, I didn't." She didn't know why she was telling him this. "Actually, I think I didn't go, snubbed the whole thing, mostly because that's what my parents expected of me. Couldn't prove them wrong..."
Squeezing her hand a little bit more, Daniel replied, "You are allowed, you know, to explore your own path. I certainly did and you shouldn't be too hard on yourself. Although, I do have to admit, I'd like to have seen you in a prom dress," he teased.
"Really? Because some of them were pretty horrid." She cracked a smile. No, those types of dresses had never been her style, but she bet Daniel would have made a fine date. "I did explore my own path in the end," she added, going back to his earlier comment. "Come on, let's find that creek before Mick comes looking for us, thinking the worse has happened."
"This was your safari," he pointed out. "You're the one slowing us down about proms and moonlight swims." Good grief, he never considered that was implied. No wonder Mary Beth had been so disappointed that night.
Smiling, Stevie started walking again, looking around the park. They should be close now. "And yes, safari is right; New York is definitely a jungle." Not to mention the music industry.
"I went there once," Daniel replied. "I wonder if Milton knew that he was writing about a city on Earth." Perhaps he just wasn't in the right mindset to enjoy the place but Daniel found he couldn't get out of there fast enough. Looking ahead, he heard the swishing of water and realised they'd found her creek. "There you go."
"You didn't like it." It was a statement, not a question. She heard it in his tone. It didn't matter now anyway. Word was the Big Apple had been flattened too. "I felt alive there," she said simply, leaning the twelve-gauge against rock before starting to undress. It was still totally silent around and her spidey senses weren't tripping. She guessed they were okay for now.
"What are you doing?" He stared at her as she began to take her clothes off and turned around abruptly.
"What?" She looked over her shoulder. Oh. "I thought you knew all about moonlight swims," she teased. "Look, I wasn't kidding. I'm not here for cooling off, I'm here to wash. Can't do that in my clothes." She sighed, understanding why he would be uncomfortable. "I didn't expect you'd come, to be honest," she admitted.
"I knew you were going to but..." he faced away, stuttering a response. "I didn't realise you were just going to right... before ... I mean not without a little bit of warning." Daniel rolled his eyes, wondering when he had reverted to seventeen.
"But the water's there..." How much warning did he need? But she knew she was being purposefully obtuse. Soon, she was sinking into the water after toeing it lightly, checking its temperature. "Okay, you can turn now."
Daniel risked a look and was glad to see her covered by the water even though he thought she had nice shoulders. This is not helping, Danny Boy, he thought he heard Frank's voice in his head reproachfully.
"I'm sorry." He found himself a place to sit that was close enough to keep an eye on her without actually keeping an eye on her. "I didn't think... I was just worried about you out there.. alone."
"You mean why you volunteered?" Stevie found that funny. "Noah or Mick would have come with," she said. "In fact they're probably pissed you called shotgun before either of them had a chance to," she quipped. She took a breath and sank underwater to get her hair wet.
He knew why he volunteered, because she was Mia. He resisted the urge to think his Mia. "Oh..." he looked at her. "They would?" He never questioned the relationship between them but her comment made him wonder.
"To bathe, why not?" she asked, puzzled, and then it dawned on her. "You know, if you volunteer to come, we have to believe it's only for my safety... but if Mick or Noah does, you automatically assume it's to bang me." She smiled but it didn't reach her eyes. She'd never been big on double standards and it surprised her that Daniel would have them. "Pass me the shampoo, would you?"
He looked over to where she had set down these things and picked it up before walking to the water's edge, "I'm sorry," he apologised. "I thought.." He shook his head and handed her the bottle. "You're right, it was an unfair assumption." Based on him being jealous.
"Apology accepted." But she felt bad for it. Chances were Daniel had picked up on some vibe without really knowing it. She poured shampoo in her palm and handed him the bottle back. "Thanks." Working a nice lather, she suddenly said, "Me and Mick, we've slept together. In the past. It was... two lonely people finding comfort..." She sank her head in the water once more to rinse the suds off. Coming back up for air after a moment, she nearly moaned it felt so damn good.
He took the bottle from her, noticing the way her skin glistened and the curve of a breast mostly hidden by the water line. He listened to her speak of sleeping together with Mick, of lonely people and comfort and could only watch somewhat mesmerized when he spied more flesh than appropriate when she came back up. How beautiful she was took on a whole new level, just like the temptation of her. In all his life he hadn't seen a woman naked up close and hadn't understood the appeal. What he couldn't see tantalised him more than what he could.
"Well, it's good," he swallowed, "to find comfort..."
"Daniel." Stevie stopped moving as she caught his somewhat stilted speech and lowered herself down until she had water to her neck. "You're staring."
"Oh," he said, startled. "I'm sorry." He turned around, turning red with embarrassment. "I didn't meant too..." Oh yes, you did, Brother Daniel, and you know you did, Frank's voice pointed out clearly.
"I don't mind," Stevie found herself saying, venturing out now that Daniel was giving her his back. She grabbed the soap quickly and slid back into the water. "I was just thinking of what you said... where you don't want to go..."
If it wasn't for that, Stevie would forget about the damn soap and would walk out of the water, walk right up to him to have him touch her and kiss her. Like back in that tree.
"I know." Daniel nodded. "It's just that you look so..." The words failed him. "I've never seen a woman..." He felt like a complete idiot for admitting it but then everything else had tumbled from his mind like she was his confessor. "You're very beautiful, Mia, and sometimes, it's hard to hide how much I want you..." Damn his weakness, it was the truth. Even if there was nothing he could do about it.
There was such sincerity in his voice and none of the artifice brought on by lust, it made her look away and long for it so much more. She started to soap up, slowly at first and harder and faster as she went, frustrated and rough. It figured that the one time she finds someone who is really interested in her for her, someone who wants her in the purest sense of the word, it's the one person she can't have. Daniel spoke to her, reached her soul. She hadn't felt connected to anyone else as she felt to him, and that in a matter of hours.
She didn't speak and the slippery slide of water and soap made him glance over his shoulder to see if she was alright. What he saw made him face away again, thinking that perhaps, he should have let Noah or Mick do this. "Maybe I shouldn't have volunteered for this. I haven't seen the Porky's movie either."
"No, maybe you shouldn't have," Stevie agreed, coming out of the water. Did he realise he was tempting her just as much as he might be tempted by her? With his admissions and stolen glances... it was almost like he was testing her resolve, see if she would stick with what they had agreed. Suddenly annoyed with this, with his god and his faith, she rinsed herself and came back to the bank, dropping the soap near the shampoo, she walked out without warning him and without covering her body. Maybe it was his turn to be tested.
Assuming she had covered up, Daniel proceeded to kick off his shoes to get a wash himself when he was confronted by the same sight he imagined struck Boticelli the first time he saw Simonetta Vespucci and decided to use her as his inspiration for the Birth of Venus. Mesmerized, he watched her move, the moonlight gleaming off the wet of her skin. She didn't seem quite real and the only thing he thought to say as he saw her, magnificent as she was, was, "I think you forgot your towel..." It could also have been gibberish, he really wasn't paying attention.
"Getting to it," she replied, satisfied by his reaction and the look on his face. "Thought I'd give you an idea of what Porky's was about." She took two more steps and reached for the towel she had laid on her pack.
"I suppose renting the movie is out of the question these days," he muttered but continued to watch her, studying her because he hadn't seen a naked woman in the flesh (so to speak) face to face and he was fascinated by the form. The curve and swell of her breast, the dusky colour of nipples tightened by the cool air, the smooth alabaster skin all the way down to the wet curls between her legs. He could feel the desire for her escalate with each second he stared and forced himself to look away though the images were burned into his mind and would be there for quite some time.
Suddenly, he really needed to get into that water.
His gaze was like a real weight on her, hot and insistent but shy all at once. Wrapping herself in the towel, she watched him... what she could make out in the moonlight. She could tell he was turned on, in his stance and breathing. Priest or not, that kind of reaction and readiness was built into us as a species to reproduce. And of course her little payback backfired somewhat because sensing him so primed for her made her own desire flare up, which she tried to tame immediately, before it could spread and became an itch she wouldn't resist scratching, be it with him or someone else.
"Had a good gander?" she asked good-naturedly as she started to dry herself. "Daniel, get your ass in the water before I do something I'll regret."
"Yes, of course." He stood up and stripped the t-shirt of himself and then divested himself of his clothes, careful to ensure she wasn't looking when he stepped into the water naked. The cool helped to calm the churning in his gut. God, he had never wanted anything so much in his life. It wasn't as if he was a teenager and he had admitted to self gratification inside the confessional over the years. Of course, none of those incidents made him acutely aware of his masculinity as seeing her.
"Uhm, can you pass the soap?" he asked. In his haste to get in, he hadn't picked it up.
Looking busy with drying herself and getting dressed, Stevie had spied on Daniel's progress to the water. Sweet torture really because, for a man of the cloth, he had a damn fine body. Again, not something she would have expected from a priest. Young, handsome, nicely built... she shook her head, kicking herself for even looking to begin with.
Buttoning up her jeans, she picked up her t-shirt. "Sure, gimme a sec," she threw over her shoulder before passing the top over her head. Decent now, she went to get the soap and passed it to him. "Here." Standing there, she made no move to turn away. She just used the towel to work the excess water out of her hair and sort of watched him while she forced herself to pay attention to their surroundings as well.
"Thanks," he took the soap and started lathering himself for something to do, to calm himself of the thoughts at seeing her naked. "I'm sorry for behaving like a teenager," he apologised. "It's been a while since I've seen a naked woman." For awhile? How about never?
"A while?" Stevie couldn't help calling him on it.
"Okay, okay," he relented and confessed. "Never. I've never seen a naked woman."
"Well, now you have." He was so sweet. Too sweet for the likes of her, really. "You know, it's no big deal... and I don't mind really... it's just that..." How could she put it so he wouldn't think she wanted to rethink on their agreement?
"It's just that...?" He looked at her.
"I like you, Daniel," she admitted, grabbing the shotgun and sitting on the rock she had leaned the weapon against. "So when you look at me that way..." Her gaze strayed to his chest and down past his belly button to check what the water might let her see. "It gets to me too." She gave him a longing look before her gaze went past his shoulder, to the other edge of the creek, barely visible if not for the ripples of water shimmering in the moonlight. "If I didn't like you, it wouldn't matter so much..."
"It's the same for me. I care for you deeply, which makes it even harder, on top of my obvious lack of experience in some areas." He met her gaze and decided that they couldn't go on this way. Stolen glances, desire that lay on the surface, affection that threatened to spill over at a moment's notice.
"Some say that the greatest gift God ever gave us was not the world we live in but free will. He's given us free will, more specifically me. I need to make a choice soon, Mia," he admitted "I don't know what that choice will be but I promise, I won't make this harder for you."
"A choice?" Hadn't he already chosen this morning? Hadn't they agreed to be there for each other in a (devastatingly) platonic friendship?
"Yes." He met her eyes. "Whether or not I can go the rest of my life wondering what we could have been because I was too afraid to decide."
"I thought..." she started saying and then stopped. "Oh." She swallowed, the reality that there could be... that there was a possibility he would choose her sinking in.
"Yeah," he nodded, and proceeded to wash his hair, dipping his whole self into the water before surfacing again. "I made my choice as a priest without ever realising what I was giving up. You are the first person to ever make me think I should have considered the question more carefully. Before I make choices that could change both our lives, I need to be sure."
"Wow." She was responsible for a lot then. No pressure. "Sounds like I have a lot to answer for... especially if your meeting me makes you quit your life." He looked strange like that, hair licked back, skin wet and clean.
"Being a priest isn't all I am, Mia," he said sincerely. "It can't be. If I don't remember I am a man first, how can I be a priest? Serving God is not always about wearing the robes." He started to move out of the water. "And you have nothing to answer for. My mother once said I'd regret this decision, that I hadn't thought it through..."
He supposed Katerina might have been right. She certainly believed it enough to never speak to him again once he was ordained. She had held out hope to the last minute that he'd change his mind. After he was ordained, she had no hope left for him nor forgiveness. He wondered what she would think of all this now.
"She was right."
"Your mother didn't approve?" She stood suddenly when she realised he was ready to come out. She got his towel and moved to the edge to hand it to him before turning around.
"Thank you," he took the towel and wrapped it around his waist when he stepped out. "No," he said with some sadness. "She never forgave me for joining the priesthood. After I was ordained, she cut off all contact."
That was something Stevie was well acquainted with... disapproval or no forgiveness. "I'm sorry." She hesitated, looking over her shoulder to check he was covered before turning around again. "You regret it now... that decision you made?"
"I don't know whether regret is the word I'd choose," he said, thinking. "I think I should have maybe tried life a little more before choosing to walk away from it." The words his mother had chosen was 'hiding'.
"I can't argue with that," Stevie let out, remembering one of their first conversations. "So..." She took a step closer, her hand going for his hair and ruffling up the short, wet locks into spikes. "Is this going to be like for the elections? Each side presenting their best arguments to try and sway you into choosing them?" She smirked. "Because if it is, let me know. I'll need a head start. Surely competing against God over a priest is really no contest." Even his own mother had lost.
Daniel laughed at that, looking down at her with fondness. "I wouldn't underestimate the competition you bring to the table." He smiled before leaning down and kissing her on the cheek. However, unlike other times when it was so hard to pull away, this time it was easy because he had reached an understanding not merely with her but with himself. "In any case, you should never consider yourself less for any reason. You are more remarkable than you realise."
A part of her balked at that, long ago trained to feel unremarkable enough for her parents to take no notice of her, but she couldn't deny that in this instance something about her had definitely caught Daniel's attention or they wouldn't be here. She smiled, looking down at her still bare feet while she still felt his lips on her skin.
"We should head back."
"We should." He nodded and turned away to retrieve his clothes to get dressed.
To be continued in All the King's Horses