North-east of San Diego
30th March 2009, getting rather late at night
There was work for him to be done, this boy proved it. But by the same token, Mia's tenderness told him, to deny himself of her was equally as punishing.
God was either testing him or wanting him to fail.
It was at least a couple of hours later when Stevie, Mick, Noah and Brother Daniel were invited to sit down at Mrs. Perez's cousin's table for a meal. Cuts and burns had been treated, Jeremy had faced seven stitches with the help of lidocaine, and little Caroline had come to, though she remained rather groggy.
Six people already lived in this house and now they found themselves with five more, but there wasn't much Mick and company could do about that. They were heading for Los Angeles next, and that would be dangerous territory. Perez and her children were better off here with family members, rather than head north right away, while no one knew yet if a safe route existed. As for Jeremy and Caroline, they were both injured and rest was what they needed. Besides, there was talk among the Perez to go back to the house to see what had become of the children's parents.
"Thanks," Mick said, accepting the bowl of rice and chicken, digging in as soon as possible. A break from Noah's damn chilli was like a blessing.
Stevie watched him eat with gusto and grinned. "Thanks," she echoed, moments later when a bowl was placed in front of her. Glancing at Noah and Daniel as they got served as well, she picked up her fork and started to eat as their hosts went about their routine, the head of the house quizzing Daniel for news until his wife near chased him out of the kitchen with a broom.
"Let them eat, Paolo. For the love of..." Manuella stopped herself.
"I beg your pardon, Padre."
"That's alright," Daniel said with a little smile. "I don't mind. The news is not as bad as as it might seem." Daniel proceeded to tell them about the Emergency broadcast that revealed the state of the world, the church and free governments in the north's efforts to mount some kind of resistance and the fact that the red dust still protected half the planet.
It was actually a fuller version than what Daniel had had a chance to impart Mick and the others since they had met. Noah felt hopeful, Mick worried they wouldn't get there and Stevie too jaded to believe it would make a difference.
But it got the Perez household talking plenty and making plans. "Iced tea?" Manuella cut through the chatter after a moment, walking around the table with a pitcher of the sweet tea.
"Please." Stevie nodded, Mick and Noah following suit.
"Thank you," Daniel nodded graciously, grateful that his words had gone some ways to lifting up their spirits. "And you?" He asked them. "Are you safe from the Visitors here?"
"So far," Paolo answered, a sombre look passing over his face. "We stay out of sight during the day..."
"Wise." Noah nodded. "You should try and go north if you can," Daniel advised.
"We are planning to," Paolo said, looking to his wife. But moving a family this size was complicated and risky. And now with his cousin and her children, it didn't help matters.
"Perhaps we can help you," Daniel replied. "We are going north to San Francisco to establish an underground network there. If you must run, please seek out help at St. Ignatius Church. There will be people there who can help you."
"Muchas gracias. Thank you," Manuella said, her hands twisting together nervously as she checked everyone had enough to eat and drink. St. Ignatius, she would remember.
As they spoke, Mick looked at the time, getting a bit antsy. They had already lost three hours.
Daniel noted Mick's eyes clockwatching and supposed that with the distance they needed to travel and much of the night already wasted, they would only cover a little distance before they had to take cover during the day again.
"Thank you for taking care of Jeremy and his sister," Daniel said to Manuella and Paolo. "We will have to go soon but we'll rest easier knowing that they are with people who will care for them. God may be scarce these days but he still rewards kindness when it matters." He had been asked to say grace when they had sat down to their meal and guessed that Manuella was a god-fearing woman.
Stevie finished her food and downed the rest of her drink. "I'll go check on them now, actually..." She stood up.
"Thank you, Manuella. This was gorgeous." Stevie smiled to the woman.
"I don't get that kind of raving," Noah grumbled.
"That's because it's chilli and always chilli, morning or night..." Mick teased. "Chilli con Carne, Three Bean Chilli and, if we're lucky, we get Jambalaya." He smirked, nudging Noah with his elbow. There was genuine affection there.
Daniel smiled at the camaraderie between the group and felt saddened that they had lost two of their number before he had happened along. "We should try and make it to San Marcos by morning. I think if we leave in the next hour, we might be able to make it or get pretty close." Glancing at Paolo, Daniel added. "The church is a safe house, if you need it."
It wasn't as far away as San Francisco and more accessible if these people needed a place to go in a hurry.
Paolo nodded in thanks, filing that information away like he'd done with the rest.
"I won't be long..." Stevie excused herself and went to check on the kids, Manuella's eldest daughter tagging along, which was good. She could teach the girl how to change the bandages.
"Mia seems to know how to treat injuries," Daniel said to Mick and Noah. "I didn't realising the music profession could be so dangerous." He framed his curiosity about her talents in a joke.
"Mia?" Noah turned to the priest, surprised. "She knows you call her that?" He glanced at Mick as he whistled low.
"Yes," Daniel's brow wrinkled in confusion. "Is that not correct?"
Mick stared Noah down before the guitarist could start babbling about Stevie's preferences and reasons for them. "She went to Nursing School," he answered the priest's earlier remark instead.
"Oh," Daniel said with genuine surprise. "She didn't say." He wondered why she stopped.
Mick shrugged, his attention returning to the rest of his food.
"It was a long time ago," Noah said and then winced as Mick's boot connected with his leg. "Ouch."
Suspecting that they were entering sensitive territory, Daniel didn't press. He made a note to ask her about it later. "Well, I'm sure she's a better singer," he said, not trusting him to say anything else.
Coming back from a downstairs bedroom where Caroline and his brother rested, Stevie popped her head in the kitchen and saw the men were still eating and chatting. "Come on, guys. Half an hour, tops." With that she headed to the laundry outside to get cleaned up. She was wearing the boy's blood and it was beginning to get to her.
Eyes following her appearance and departure despite himself, the priest checked his behaviour and regarded his two other companions. "I'm going to check the jeep, top up the tank." He gave his thanks to Paolo and Manuella and excused himself from the table. Leaving the house, he stepped into the night air and took a deep breath, needing a moment because it seemed maintaining the façade of being a priest was difficult when his thoughts were so filled with Mia and what lay ahead.
Pulling her pack out of Daniel's Jeep, she nearly jumped out of her skin when she heard a noise behind her. It took her a second before she realised it was only Daniel. "Jesus... I think I peed my pants," she let out, knowing she was way too edgy.
"Sorry," he apologised hadn't expected to see her. He thought she had gone in a different direction and felt somewhat compromised because it looked as if he followed her out here, which he hadn't. "I didn't realise you were here."
"Just getting my things," she let out after a shaky breath. "I need to get out of these clothes," she explained before walking past him to get to the laundry the daughter had told her about. Stevie hadn't wanted to make a mess of their bathroom and the outside sink would be perfect.
"Mia," he started to say and almost faltered. "We need to talk."
"We do?" Stevie paused, still finding it odd to hear and respond to that name after all that time.
He nodded sombrely. "I think we need to talk about what's happening between us." He was conflicted as any man could be and hiding how he felt about her in front of Paolo and Manuella had driven home the line he had to walk, the choice he was trying to avoid making.
"Between us?" Stevie swallowed, suddenly feeling on the spot and unsure of where she stood. What did he want? To tell her he preferred his god? Somehow that possibility stung and she reacted the only way she knew how. "They were just kisses, Padre," she muttered before carrying on walking to the laundry. She dropped her pack and started to unbutton her shirt before peeling the blood-soaked garment off.
He stared after her, having wanted to tell her that he was sorry that he had to play the part. That he was confused about how to proceed, perhaps even gain her input. She had more experience in these matters but when she walked away, with those words trailing behind her, it left an ache in his heart. "Not to me," he said quietly, beneath her hearing. "Then we should just be friends," he spoke up instead.
"Then?" Stevie popped her head of the little room. "Daniel..." She let out a frustrated sigh as she moved back in, her foot kicking her bag. "I don't know what you want," she almost growled. She turned the tap on, washing her hands and bending down to run the water high along her arms, before she pulled her singlet off and used it to wipe the blood off her chest, rinsing it under the tap and repeating this a couple of times. Blood could be so damn sticky. The copper smell invaded her nostrils again and she nearly gagged.
"You say friends and then you kiss me some more and then it's cold again," she carried on, not even sure if he could hear her. It didn't matter. She was getting it off her chest, one way or another. "Hot. Cold. Hot. Cold. I don't know what you want from me... I don't know what I can offer or what you want to take." She stopped, taking a breath. "I'm just trying to give you an out..." Before we carry on and someone gets hurt, she finished in her head.
The church had such strong views about the role of women and yet Daniel had never met one who didn't in some way, know the path that God had laid out far more clearly than most men. Perhaps, it was because they had come second, maybe God had added to the mix an insight he thought not about when creating Adam. Whatever it was, she had divined their path far more clearly than he had and she was right. They had to end this before someone really got hurt and Daniel did not want it to be her.
"I... don't know what I want," he confessed. "But it is unfair to you that I fluctuate between hot and cold. I think you are right, I think we need to step away from this for now. I don't know what I can be to you but if nothing else, I'd like to be your friend."
He had moved closer, she realised, but remained outside the laundry, which was a good thing considering she was half naked. She turned the tap off and started foraging in her bag to pull a new top out. "Friends' fine," she returned, though she found herself wishing it wasn't so. And it was an alien feeling for her. Lust, she knew well. Desiring to bed a handsome guy, that was familiar territory. But that need, that raw sexual drive that so often got the better of her, she hadn't felt when they had kissed. Oh, there was desire there but it wasn't driving everything else out like it usually did.
"If you want to travel with Noah and Mick, I'll understand," he said, wishing otherwise but at this stage, he couldn't demand very much from her. He had known inwardly that what they had shared was nothing so trivial but the implications of accepting what they might have together could change them both and neither were ready for it.
"Wow," she let out, pulling her old Mickey Mouse t-shirt on. "Alright then." An all or nothing man and he'd definitely gone for nothing. "I'll ask Noah if he wants to ride with you..." she offered, knowing Mick would probably be a bad match. She shimmied out of her jeans and pulled on a pair of BDUs she'd picked up at an Army surplus. She then moved back to the sink to rinse her dirty clothes as best she could.
"It's not necessary," Daniel returned, turning back to the vehicle. "I drove from Guadalupe on my own, I can manage." A part of him was annoyed, annoyed that she had chosen otherwise. Clearly being friends was not an option. He knew that this was his fault, this was bitter crop he had sown and he had no one to blame but himself but it was still hard to swallow.
Stevie heard the shift in his voice. The priest was pissed off. She recognised the passive aggressive shit her mom had been so good at and cursed before she left her clothes in the sink and stepped back out to face him. "You're doing it again," she accused.
"What am I doing?" he asked, turning to walk away.
"Hot and cold," she retorted. "You tell me to fuck off back to the van and then you get pissy when I say fine."
"I didn't tell you to..." he stopped himself from saying. "I was thinking about you. I thought it would be uncomfortable for you..." What the hell was he saying?
Uncomfortable? "Oh, don't flatter yourself. You're cute but I'll survive," she cracked with a little smirk. Truth was, it hurt. A little. But hey, who could compete with the big guy upstairs?
"Well, then it works out well then." He turned away and continued walking. "It's up to you. If you wish to ride with me, I could use the company; if you don't, that's fine too."
Yeah, she told herself, pivoting to go back into the laundry to finish washing her clothes and gather her stuff. But she knew she wouldn't be able to leave him alone.
Three hours later, they were still driving, the no headlights rule slowing them down considerably. The only good thing now was that they were far enough away from San Diego to see the night sky unobstructed. The Jeep was upfront with the van following a few ways behind. Stevie had dozed off in the passenger seat next to Daniel and it was a patrol of skyfighters that woke her up with a start when they flew overhead.
"It's okay," he assured her when she woke up suddenly. "I don't think they saw us."
True enough the formation continued unbroken above and then away from them, the lights from the crafts looking like an odd patterns of stars in the night. "Try and go back to sleep," he suggested.
"Where are we?" Stevie asked, looking around, her hand going to her mouth to hide a yawn. Daylight wouldn't be too far off, she noticed, a slight glow was appearing to the east.
"Just past Escondido," he answered, glad that she had opted to ride with him even though it had been a little awkward getting there. "We're not that far from San Marcos, we might be able to make it before daylight."
"My god..." Stevie let out as their surroundings finally registered with her sleepy brain. "What happened here?"
He didn't answer her for a moment as they drove through what used to be Spruce Street and the only reason Daniel knew this was due to the sign lying across the road, the illumination from the stars and moon above allowing him to barely make out the lettering. It had been blown away from its place because Daniel could see the concrete foundations encrusted along its base.
Even though the lack of street lights made it hard to see, Daniel could understand Mia's horror. Even in the darkness, they could see enough. This street a month ago would have been the thoroughfare to a fairly ordinary neighbourhood. Framed on either side by small country style homes with white picket fences or weatherboard ones separating each lawn from another. The kind of place where you wouldn't lock your doors or feared drive-by shootings. It was peaceful and not the kind of location that would have reason to be flattened in the wake of an alien invasion.
If not for the fact that Camp Pendleton was less than twenty miles away.
As a major military base, it would have been one of the first place targeted and the Visitors, in their usual ruthless efficiency, had ensured that any soldiers who might have found reason to take refuge in the surrounding areas would not live for very long. They had rained death on the landscape, until the pretty farmhouses were piles of charred cinder, the fences obliterated and the tall palm trees that covered this area were now nothing more than blackened trunks staring miserably at the dark sky.
"Camp Pendleton is sixteen miles that way," Daniel replied as if that was answer enough.
"Oh..." Of course, the Marine base. That would have done it. "So they levelled the whole surrounding area?" It was a rhetorical question. "I think I'm gonna be sick..." The smell of fire, rot and decaying flesh hung heavily in the air and the darkness was probably a blessing because it was easy to imagine bodies and animal carcasses behind every charred piece of rubble. Hell, how had she slept through that?
The want to reach for her was overwhelming but Daniel fought it. Considering their earlier conversations, he was not going to play hot and cold with her again. Instead, he put his foot on the accelerator, speeding up to get them past this area as quickly as possible. "Mia, do you need me to stop?" It wasn't the best idea since this place was the cause for her nausea but then again, throwing up in a jeep they had to travel without car detailing services available was going to cause its own problems.
"No," she was quick to answer, not wanting to see any of it up close. "I'll be fine." She bit on the bile and sunk down in her seat.
They rode in silence for a few minutes longer until houses started to thin out. "San Marcos is even closer..." she let out, not having to say anymore, knowing Daniel would understand where she was going with this.
"It was attacked," Daniel answered. "From what I am told, the area is largely unpopulated now but the safe house still exists. Churches in this area are old, I believe this one survived partially."
Stevie turned to look at him. So he'd known all these towns had been shot to hell? She wished he had warned her of that. Mick and Noah would have sure liked to know too, she suspected. The one good thing about this was Visitors probably didn't feel the need to come back here...
He could see the accusation in her eyes. "I didn't know it was this bad. I knew the church had been damaged but until I drove here, didn't realise the level of it. One must assume the closer we get to LA, the worst it will be."
Daniel was right, she realised. She had to start getting used to more of this, and worse. She swallowed thickly. "You're right..."
"Try to get some more sleep," he urged, thinking that if she were asleep, she wouldn't see.
Sensing Daniel's concern, Stevie didn't say no. She turned her head away from him, for all intent and purposes looking like she might have dozed off again, but she couldn't close her eyes.
After a moment, when the spectres of houses grew more frequent as they approached San Marcos, she asked, "Is this what you were used to see overseas... on your missionary work?"
It was honestly impossible say which was worst. In looking at the ruined landscape outside, the sheer level of destruction was rather terrifying. In one instant, all these people had died. In a flash of lightning that might have been a thunderbolt from God. However, in Africa, he had seen emaciated children with bloated bellies, starving because the local warlord was stealing UN food supplies and selling them. They were stealing young boys for their army and young girls to rape and murder because AIDs was so rampant that the only way to ensure safe sex was to deflower a child. Was this any more horrible than what he had seen there?
"I've seen things almost as bad," he volunteered. "Violence isn't always destruction like this. Ghandi said that the worst kind of violence is poverty. We managed that kind of violence almost as efficiently as the Visitors."
Her head swung his way as he spoke until she shifted in her seat so she was almost facing him. "I remember a friend of mine... went to India a few years back. She found the poverty level over there so... shocking," Stevie spoke quietly, wincing at the memory. "She fought with depression when she came back, just couldn't reconcile how we live here, the excesses, the waste of food, after what she had seen over there... she attempted suicide."
"And she chose to fight this by ending her life?" He looked at her with clear puzzlement. He was after all a priest and taking one's life that way was a mortal sin. Kissing a woman was also high on the list, a voice said snidely. Deciding not to provoke an argument about mortal sins, he chose his words carefully. "She could do more by trying to help those unfortunate children than ignoring the problem by dying. It serves no one. What happened to her?"
Stevie first shrugged at his reaction. She hadn't understand her friend back then either and the way Daniel put it now, it made no more sense to her now. "I don't think she was seeing clearly. She fell in a deep depression. Was on meds. Got hooked on them..." Poor Christine had never really had it easy to begin with and India hadn't helped. "But she cleaned up. Actually... she's the one I spoke of yesterday." Stevie suddenly remembered. "Medecins sans frontiere."
"Then she found a path that allowed her to help," he said with a little smile. "The journey a person takes sometimes may be what they need even if it takes them to dark places." He wondered if that applied to him.
"Maybe..." As Daniel spoke, Stevie realised she could see his face better. "It's getting damn bright," she let out, changing the subject as she sat up, on her guard. "How much longer?" She glanced behind her, the kombi easily discernable now.
He saw what concerned her and risked speeding up, causing the engine to rev louder and hoped that Mick and Noah would do the same. The vehicle surged forward through the road and Daniel had become adept at missing the discarded cars by now to be able to weave through them somewhat expertly. "Ten minutes..." he said.
Holding on better now that they were moving faster, Stevie motioned ten minutes to Mick and Noah behind them, noticing the van kept up with them and even ran a bit closer than before.
Pulling her t-shirt over her nose, Stevie faced front again, her gaze trying not to dwell on the destruction around them.
He hadn't said much about what to expect when they got to their destination but now that they were approaching the church at San Marcos and seeing the destruction that followed them, a sliver of anxiety began to creep into his features at what they would find. This journey had been so complicated by her presence and it was somewhat self-serving his reasons for pulling back.
Driving into the city limits of San Marcos, it didn't take long for Daniel to reach St. Marks. She might have noticed that he had no difficulty whatsoever navigating the streets to find the place. As he did so, he saw the devastation to be much worse. Small house and large buildings were similarly destroyed. The tall round building that stood next to the church was almost reduced to half its size, steel girders protruding where floors had been.
"It's just over there," he said, pointing in its direction. "The church was behind that building."
Stevie sensed his anxiety as they approached, both obviously wondering if the church was still standing. The total silence was creeping her out. "There's no birds left," she commented as the early morning light kissed everything with a brief pinkish glow, such a contrast as it lit up the devastated town.
"If they know what's good for them, they would have flown north..." Daniel retorted, trying to see over the line of buildings if the church was still standing there. Come on, Frank, tell me you're still here, he said to himself. San Mark's Roman Catholic Church had been the recent parish of one Frank Clearly, the priest who had smuggled his family out years ago. It had been no surprise for Daniel to learn that the man was still here because who else would know better than to man a safe house after what he had done during the first occupation.
"If they got a chance," Stevie returned. She was nearly standing up to try and see over the building as they rounded it. A spire, a bell tower, something... but there was nothing sticking out. And when Daniel's Jeep finally made it to the other side, she knew why. There was no church left. Mortar and old stones were pretty much it. "Shit, Daniel," she let out on a breath.
Daniel's jaw clenched as he saw the state of it. Blinking slowly, he composed himself, wearing that damn stoic expression that priests were supposed to wear like their Rabats and mitres. Frank. Tell me you got out before this happened.
"Stop the Jeep," she told him gently. Her hand would have gone to his but she stopped herself. He'd drawn a line and she would respect it.
Stevie jumped out of the Jeep, shotgun in hand, and walked to Noah, who had pulled the van up just behind them.
"That's not the church..." Noah let out, head peering out of the driver's window.
"It is." She glanced back at the ruins. "I'm going to go check it out."
She heard Mick curse next to Noah and a second later the tall drummer was climbing out. "I'm coming with," Mick told her before looking at Noah.
"Eyes peeled, man. Eyes peeled."
Stevie was already walking toward the crumbled stones, some part of a wall still standing but barely. The wooden pews were mostly burned and splintered, like they had been picked up and thrown across the way. There was glass everywhere... coloured glass, she noticed, probably from grand stained glass windows. She glanced back to the Jeep, to an obviously shaken Daniel. It occurred to her that he probably knew the priest here as well as the place. He had found his way easily enough.
"Stee," Mick called her over to where he stood. "What do you make of this?" His boot nudged at the debris partially covering a pair of heavy wooden doors in the stone floor.
"A cellar? Catacombs?" Stevie let out with a shrug before she turned to Daniel.
"Hey, Daniel, you guys drink a lot?" she quipped, partly because she remembered he was partial to vodka and partly because she couldn't really imagine in this day and age a church running a distillery under its floorboards. "Come here," she motioned to him, still thinking these doors could be good news.
Daniel closed the distance and went to the doors. The church was at least a hundred and fifty years old, a Spanish mission. He remembered Frank writing to him about the architecture and yes, they were cellars and catacombs. Filled with a sense of hope, he swallowed thickly and, lowering to his haunches, he stared at them and knocked twice against the wood, then one and three and waited.
A good minute passed before the door creaked open and an old man emerged, with thinning white hair and a beard.
"Danny!" the man exclaimed. "You remembered!"
Daniel let out a heavy breath of relief. "I remembered. Frank."
Stevie smiled and, looking to Mick, she even surprised a smile on his dour features of late before he got back to the business at hand.
Nodding to the old priest first, Mick reminded Daniel they had two vehicles out in the open. "If we're staying, we need to stash those..."
"Of course," Father Frank Clearly nodded. "If you go down that road a little," he gestured to a narrow strip of bitumen that turned off the main street and circled the destroyed building overlooking the church, "you'll see a turn off into an underground parking lot. The building above is completely demolished but there's enough space and integrity left in the structure to house some cars."
"Alright, we'll go do that," Mick said, extending his hand to get the keys for the Jeep from Daniel. "Thank you, Father."
"I'll grab our stuff," Stevie said, heading for the Jeep so she could get Daniel's and her stuff out and save everybody some carrying. After that she moved to the van, bringing Noah up to speed on what was going on and, with his help, grabbed his and Mick's gear out of there and the other stuff they'd rather not risk losing by leaving it in an unprotected and unwatched vehicle.
Watching her go, Daniel allowed himself a moment to take in the sight before facing Frank again. "It's good to see you, Frank."
"It's good to see you, Danny," Frank said, smiling, the corner of his eyes crinkling. "These are hard times. I knew someone was coming but I didn't know it would be you."
"I volunteered," he replied. "When I found out this was one of the safe houses, I wanted to make sure you were alright." Frank Clearly was almost as close to him as his own father. The priest had given him direction in life for as long as he knew and right now, he waited to ask the man the question he had been dreading. God hates cowards, he reminded himself.
"Frank... did you hear anything about my father."
"Maybe we should go inside first," Frank said evasively and in that instant Daniel just knew.
"Frank..." he asked.
Frank's response was a shake of his head. "I found him a week after. It took some time but apparently when the Pulse went, your father was driving on the freeway..."
Daniel sucked in his breath. "Was it quick."
"Yes." Frank nodded. But he was lying.
As Stevie went to the van, Mick brought the packs she had unloaded out of the Jeep to the door and was just about to go get in the Jeep when he heard Daniel's inquiry about his father. Despite himself, he hung back a little, wanting to hear about the man's fate. Poor bastard, he thought, when he caught the look on the older priest.
Mick met Noah and Stevie, grabbing a carton from her and the trio went to drop their load next to the two priests. "Come on, let's go put our rides out of sight," he nudged Noah. He threw a glance at Daniel before turning away, wondering how he was coping with the news.
Catching the look, because so far there had been no love lost between the two men, Stevie paid attention, surreptitiously studying Daniel as she approached the other priest. "Hi, I'm Stevie," she introduced herself, extending a hand. "We should get these in." She didn't mean to be pushy but she didn't know the lay of the land here and she had come to fear standing outside in broad daylight.
Considering what he had been told, Daniel maintained his stoic mask, taking the news of his father's passing in silence. He didn't look at her and imagined that Frank would take care of her.
"Yes, follow me, lass," Father Frank replied, gesturing the young woman to follow him down the stairs that lead through the open doors.
The steps descended into a cellar as indicated, however, an exposed section of wall revealed a corridor that ran further quite beneath the entire remnants of the church. "This used to be a Spanish mission," he explained. "The Jesuits built this place to hide the natives from the Spaniards who could be quite brutal in their conquering of the new world."
Allowing Mia to go first, Daniel trailed behind her carrying some of their supplies, allowing Frank to do the talking.
"Wow," Stevie let out. She'd visited the catacombs in London - West Norwood and Camden - and the ones in Paris, but she'd never thought that a small church, in her own neck of the woods, would have some too. Ridiculous really, because as she heard the Father tell her of the reason for their existence, it made a lot of sense that there would be some.
Not that she knew Daniel all that well, and since their awkward discussion back at the Perez's house it was hard to tell if that had some bearing on his behaviour now, but it struck her that he was uncharacteristically quiet... especially since it turned out his friend was alive and there was still a safe house under all that rubble.
"Impressive it managed to withstand the attack," she commented, her eyes touching on Daniel. Putting what she carried down, she straightened up. Maybe they had things to talk about, she decided, he and this priest he seemed to have genuine affection for. "I will go get the rest and wait for the others," she said, turning to climb the stairs.
"Well, it was built at a time when everything was made to last," Frank replied as Daniel set down their gear behind her. "Not like the gyprock, Formica rubbish we have these days," Frank continued to talk largely to distract the girl from Danny's silence.
"Lucky for us," she threw over her shoulder, making sure she caught sight of Daniel too. There was something definitely wrong.
Taking the stairs two at a time, she went to pull the rest of their stuff in just as Noah and Mick were coming back. Slipping inside, they closed the thick doors and locked them up.
"What's it looking like down there?" Noah asked as they both sensed Mick turn a little edgier as they locked themselves in.
"Didn't see much," Stevie admitted, glancing at Mick. "Just came back to get the rest of our stuff... I think there's something wrong with Daniel," she blurted out on the tail of the rest, like one subject fitted with the other.
Mick looked away then, pushing past her to head down the stairs.
"Mick?" Stevie turned to Noah.
"He knows something. He told you?"
"No," Noah said, not having the faintest idea of what they were talking about. "What do you mean there's something wrong with Daniel? Isn't this the place he was heading to? Finding someone still alive not good enough?" He supposed it would be a shock to see the church flattened, especially if the place had some special meaning for the man but still, considering the circumstances...
"Never mind." Stevie shrugged. "Come on."
"Are you alright?" Frank asked Daniel after the girl had gone.
"Yes, I'm fine," Daniel said on automatic. "I knew this could be a possibility. So many have died it would be unfair to assume that Papa wasn't dead but... hearing it. He's with God know, at least there's that."
"Look, once we get your friends settled, we'll go have a drink and you can deal with this." Frank said, clutching his arm.
Mick came down the stairs and pretended not to notice the comforting gesture. A private man himself, what the Brother was going through was his business and until he chose to let the others know, Mick wouldn't mentioned he had overheard.
"The van and the jeep are as secure as they'll get," he announced, handing Daniel his keys back, as well as some spark plugs.
Noah and Stevie soon appeared behind him, carrying the rest of their stuff.
"Well, come along, girls and boys," Frank said, leading them through the last door at the end of the corridor, which opened into what appeared to be a chapel that had been converted into living quarters.
It had bunk beds, a small stove that worked on gas and any other pieces of comfort that the Father had been able to salvage in the wreckage. There was also an old fashioned valve radio that looked right out of World War II. It probably was, Daniel thought.
"It's not the Waldorf Astoria but the plan is not to let anyone stay here too long," Frank explained. "It's a safe house and the last batch of travellers I had left two days ago. I hope they made it." He sighed.
"This is more than we hoped for," Noah said. "Thank you, Father...?"
He glanced to Stevie but she only shrugged in response. Daniel hadn't introduced them properly yet and despite giving the older priest her name earlier, he hadn't reciprocated.
"Francis Xaxier Cleary," Frank said, extending his hand towards the young man. "But you can call me Frank."
"Oh, yes." Daniel suddenly realised that he hadn't introduced them. "I'm sorry.. uhm this is Father Frank, we've been friends for a long time, since my.. " The words failed him and he took a moment to compose himself. "Since Frank ran the underground during the first occupation. Uhm, Frank," Daniel looked at the older man, "I'm just going to go get some air," he added, confident that the priest would attend to his newest batch of travellers.
Okay, now Noah had to agree. He hadn't spent much time with the priest - not as much as Stevie for one - but enough to see something was amiss. "Father Frank," he said, distracted but shaking the man's hand nonetheless. "This is Mick."
To the side, Stevie watched Daniel turn around to head out and concern got the better of her. "Daniel, what's wrong?" she asked quietly as he passed in front of her, her hand reaching out to him.
Daniel paused and looked into her eyes, wanting badly to take comfort in her touch, to allow himself to forget the pain in the pleasure of her but he couldn't. It would be too easy to forget himself in her and he couldn't do that, not to her and not when the consequences could be so damning. "I'm fine," he managed to say and brushed past her, his voice barely a whisper.
When he had gone, Frank decided that these confines were too small for such tension and the girl seemed genuinely concerned. "Let him go, lass, he needs a moment. I'm afraid I had to tell him his father didn't survive the Pulse." However, as he said that, he noted the look exchanged between Daniel and the girl and that sparked his interest.
Stevie blinked, shoulders slumping, and she turned to stare at the corridor Daniel had disappeared along. So much for friends, she thought. A friend would have allowed another to comfort them.
"Stee, come on." Mick wrapped an arm around her shoulders and moved her to one of the bunks. "The weapons could do with a clean. You want to help?"
Trying to get the attention off Stevie all of a sudden, Noah told Father Frank, "Sorry to hear that. We know Daniel had hoped..." Noah sighed. They were all living on hope and often proved wrong as they went. "My folks went with New York," he found himself saying simply. His mind went to Cage and Davey and Noah looked down. "I'm gonna try and sleep. Thanks again."
"That would be a good idea," Frank replied. "I gathered you've been driving at night?" he asked.
"Yes. It's been easier that way. Turns out our own kind can be as deadly as shock troopers..."
Daniel knew he probably hurt her feelings but right now, he was trying to be stoic, trying to hold it together and found that he couldn't. He and his father were close. The man had always been so full of life, while his mother had been dour and severe. He and Xen had grown up to a house where they laughed, heard stories of Georgia where Vassily grew up. He was a man a little larger than life and had stood by Daniel when he had made his choice to become a priest. His mother had never forgiven him but his father was only concerned with what made him whole.
Bracing himself against the wall he uttered a few sobs, letting the grief escape him. He wanted very much to bury himself in Mia's embrace but that would be wrong on so many levels. He was at his weakest now and if he went to her, he would not be doing so as her friend. He knew that in his heart.
A few seconds later, Daniel returned, composing himself, though his eyes showed his grief in the redness of it.
Mick looked up when the priest re-entered but Stevie didn't and that made Mick want to kick her in the shin. This wasn't about her or about how the man had shut her out. It was about his grief and everyone dealt with that in different ways. Stevie could be amazingly bright sometimes but frustratingly inept at others. He'd noticed the pair had not been as cosy as the day before but she had still chosen to ride with him so Mick hadn't really thought beyond that.
"No, this bit goes here," he corrected her when he looked back down and saw she was trying to put the 9mm back together.
"We're sorry, Daniel," Noah offered from the top bunk he'd chosen. Lying down, his arms folded beneath his head, he stared at the old stone ceiling.
Daniel shot Frank a look. The older man showed no repentance and Daniel supposed his behaviour demanded explanation and so he trusted in Frank's judgement. "Thank you," he said to Noah quietly. "I suppose I should have expected the possibility but knowing for certain and suspecting... they're quite different things."
He didn't look at Mia, who hadn't regarded his return and supposed that she was still angry with him. Perhaps it was for the best if she hardened her heart to him. Nothing about what they felt for each other could end well.
"Frank, we've been on the road a bit, what are the chances of some food." He tried to remember that his flock had basic needs. Rest was one, food was the other.
"Well, I'll see what I can come up with."
"Thank you, Father Frank," Mick said. They still had reserves but it would be nice if they didn't have to use them right now. It was still a long way to San Francisco and they had no idea how much of a detour they would have to do around LA, if any.
When Stevie finally looked up, Father Frank had left the room and she allowed herself to steal a glance in Daniel's direction.
Daniel went to the corner of the room and sat down heavily on the floor. Reaching into his jacket pocket, he fished out the photograph he had in his wallet. A memento of happier times. He noted Mia's gaze in his direction and made contact long enough to try and apologise although she was quite angry with him, he supposed.
Swallowing hard, Stevie caught the look and understood in that sad, washed out gaze of his that he couldn't allow for physical contact. They were in a church, under another priest's protection, one he knew from a long time ago, and she realised he probably couldn't trust himself while hurting as he was. Another dimension to that line he'd drawn in the sand...
She understood, Daniel realised. With just that look, she understood and once again, that need to go to her was overwhelming. Daniel wondered how it was possible that she could slip past the walls of his soul so easily. Was it something that came about when intimacy was shared between man and woman? How come he didn't know this? Why was knowledge of this communion denied him before he made the choice to give it up forever?
"We should rest until tonight and then resume our journey," he suggested.
"Yep," Mick replied readily with a nod. "Some drove most of the night," he added pointedly, his gaze flicking to Noah, who was already snoring softly. "After some food, you should try and do the same..."
Quiet, Stevie realised something else. Daniel breathed easier once he knew she wouldn't try to go near him. It hurt, surprisingly, because how damn quick could she fall for a priest? It was crazy. She was crazy. It also made her wonder why Daniel had asked for friendship, offered her to ride with him when her proximity obviously affected him so. Or maybe he hadn't realised at the time. One thing was for sure, this little exercise had shown them there was probably no possibility for real friendship. She'd want him and he'd want her in ways his faith wouldn't allow. She finished putting the pistol together under Mick's supervision and started wiping the oil off her fingers.
"You have guns?" Mick asked Daniel. "If you do, might as well check and clean them now while the gear is out," he offered.
"I have guns in my jeep." He nodded. "I'll go get them," he said, rising to his feet, and then saw the opportunity to take a moment with Mia. They needed to clear the air. He could tell that she was still conflicted and knowing he was the cause of that, despite his grief, didn't sit well with him. "Some of your things are in the jeep as well... Stevie."
The fact Daniel had just called her Stevie wasn't lost on either Mick or Stevie. Mick watched her frown and realised she was about to say she had already gotten her stuff out of his Jeep earlier so he nudged her shoe with his boot.. Yep, things could whoosh right past her head sometimes. "Go. No one should head outside on their own anyway," he said helpfully.
"Oh," she let out, finally catching on. "Alright." Rather stiffly, Stevie stood up and grabbed the 9mm in case. Truth was, she didn't want to go. She feared what Daniel wanted to tell her, disliked the fact he had decided he didn't like Mia anymore. Yeah, she was crazy because she hadn't even wanted him to call her that to begin with.
Glad that she followed him, Daniel walked up the corridor, not speaking. The Jeep had been moved to the underground lot that Frank had directed them to and only when he emerged through the doors and the sunshine was above them, did he deign to speak.
"Stevie... Mia... I don't know what to do," he admitted first and foremost. "I'm conflicted and I am pulling away because I don't want to hurt you. This is new ground for me and I feel a great loss right now that would make it very easy to find comfort in you, for all the wrong reasons."
"Okay." She nodded, standing there, squinting in the bright morning sun. She sort of understood what he meant. In fact, she understood very well the idea of seeking comfort in someone, in great sex and physical intimacy. Stevie was a pro at it. And because she too did it for the wrong reasons most of the time, never letting love get into it past real care for the guy (sometimes), she could understand why a man like Daniel - a priest - would want to steer clear of it.
And it was odd that it was him who didn't want to hurt her. She had always been standing where Daniel was, the one who needed the comfort but wouldn't be able to deliver anything beyond it, beyond great sex and physical intimacy. But unlike Daniel, she didn't always care whether or not she hurt the other party when she would pull away. She'd always lay it out on the table and if the guy took it, to her it was just like he'd agreed that it was all that there was to it. It didn't always work but she'd never been able to open her heart to anyone or anything other than music. She loved her band mates, but she loved them as friends... friends with benefits for some of them, but nothing more than friends or family.
Daniel... well, she wasn't so jaded yet to not recognise that it was a little different. That it could be very different.
Call it Karma.
"Tell me something though... you want us to be friends, yeah?" She wanted to verify that first, because he could have well changed his mind since their stop with the Perez.
"I do," he nodded. "Or rather I hope we can be." He met her gaze. "I just didn't want to confuse things with... hot and cold," he said, using her own words.
"Well, I think we need to figure out if we really can... because real friends offer comfort when the other is hurting... they touch when the other is grieving or is in pain." The human touch, not anything sexual, and it occurred to her that maybe a priest wouldn't know the difference. While she would probably always be left wanting more with him, it hurt a lot worse not being allowed to console him when he so obviously needed it.
"I understand why you want to keep your distances," she continued. "I think I figured that much out, but that also tells me you don't trust we can only be friends."
Damn. She had him there. "The feelings I have for you are new, Mia," he said softly. "New and strong. Sometimes, I don't understand how it can be so strong so when I touch you, it's hard to pull away, to know what isn't too much, but I want us to be friends but I don't want my lack of..." He struggled to find the right word. "Experience to cause more harm than good."
Stevie looked down, nearly blushing at his candour. He was really, truly a virgin in every sense of the word. "I..." She sighed, looked back up. "Okay, no touching."
She didn't know how she would do it, because she could be a touchy feely person with the folks she hung out with - her way to balance her total lack of serious attachment to one special guy. But Daniel obviously needed this. He needed her to be there and in a specific way. Hadn't she taken enough from others, just the way she'd needed it even if the others would have liked it differently? Yes, Stevie knew she had. Maybe it was time to give back.
"I'm so sorry about your dad," she said, keeping her hands in check.
"Yes." He nodded, almost forgetting for a moment that his father was gone and now her apology brought it back. "We were close and I had hoped he was okay, maybe I blinded myself to the fact he could be gone. I hoped..." He blinked as the grief came back to him and he struggled to maintain his composure. "I was foolish. I've told people to understand that this is part of God's plan and right now I'm so angry I can't think straight because that doesn't seem to be any plan that is worth this!"
Biting on her bottom lip to stop it from quivering, Stevie had to twist her fingers together to keep from reaching out to him. "I don't... Daniel, I don't know what to say. I've been mad at yo-... at God for so long..." She felt helpless and it hurt not to be able to comfort him the only way she knew how. Anything she could have said would have felt so empty anyway.
He was near shaking and he tried to calm himself. "All my life I told myself that I understood God's plan but right now I don't care about his plan when so many have died. I can't trust the words that I've been telling others for so long." He took a step closer towards her. "Words I said to you."
Stevie shook her head as she took a step closer herself, not wanting him to guilt himself with that. To her they had been words she'd expected a priest to tell her and she'd told him where to shove them, hadn't she? Father Frank would be best for him right now. Surely the old man would know how to soothe a faith that was being tried and tested to breaking point.
"They're not stupid words," she tried to say, the back of her hand nudging his hand even as she cursed herself for tempting him to accept it. She just couldn't help it. She wanted to pull him close, console him with a hug, lend her shoulder to his pain and tears. She remembered all too well how sharp and fiery that pain felt. "They just feel a little... insignificant right now."
And just the touch of her when he was so angry and so much in pain was all that it took and he was pulling her to him again, wanting to kiss her, wanting to forget the pain. He damn near crushed her lips with the demand he felt for her flesh. Anger and grief making him care not for the vows he made. He didn't understand God, didn't understand how service and devotion could result in pain for so many. What was the purpose of it? What was the need for sacrifice, denying himself her when God had no intention of answering prayers or keeping anyone safe? For an instant as he ravaged her lips, Daniel wanted to punish God by giving in to her.
Oh, god, no, she thought as he grabbed her and pulled her into a bruising kiss. He hadn't been joking; he had no control over this when she got too close. This wasn't what she wanted to give him. Not like that. This wasn't a comforting embrace or a shoulder to cry on. This was him angry... rebelling. And Stevie knew about all that. She didn't fight him but she didn't respond to his demanding kiss either, hoping its intensity would soon subside and they would be left with her arms around him and Daniel leaning on her for a little while.
She tasted so good and yet Daniel realised that she wasn't kissing him back and for a moment, he wondered why. And then it came upon him like a splash of cold water, because he was using her just like he feared he would and she was being strong by not letting him get away with it. He pulled away from her, looked into her face and blinked slowly. "I'm sorry," he whispered, his body shuddering in sorrow and shame. "I didn't..."
This time he embraced her but he embraced her with the touch of a man who needed a friend to steady him, not satiate him in his hour of need.
"Don't apologise," she replied quietly, her arms snaking around his body, pulling him close. "I know it's tempting and it feels like the thing to do." Her hands caressed his back and the nape of his neck. "Believe me, I know. I'm the queen when it comes to seeking comfort in..." Well, she couldn't very well call it a shag, could she? Not to him. "You know... it works a little for a time but it's like trying a Band Aid on a gunshot wound."
"Of all people," he whispered hold onto her, grateful for the contact and taking it for just that and nothing more. "I should know that." However as soon as he thought that, he questioned why. She had lost her whole family and he had lost his father. Xen was still alive somewhere and someday, he would find her. "It is tempting to take comfort in you." He met her gaze. "With you, I feel... better. I don't know why."
It made her smile a little because she liked the way she felt around him and, like him, she had no idea why. The fact she had been able to stop him just now, to not respond instead of going for it like she would have normally done, told her there was a different meaning to this attraction she felt. Oh, she fancied him alright - as twisted as it was to go after a priest - but there had to be more or she would have simply dragged him to the van and let him do to her what he wished. "I'm equally confused... Daniel..." Her thumbs went to his cheeks and she wiped the tears away. "Maybe we're just meant to be each other's strength..."
A part of him wanted it all.
He wanted to make love to her, he wanted to know what it felt like to be able to explore every inch of her skin and watch her sleep all night in bed they'd shared, like he had stolen glances at her in the jeep. He wanted to listen to her talk, the strange questions she asked sometimes. She was so jaded and yet not. She walked a line he didn't understand, for him it was always all or nothing. It was why as a youth, he hadn't thought twice about being a priest. Questions he should have asked then was now surfacing.
And yet he still felt God.
As angry and furious at Vassily's death, as much as he wanted to punish God by denying him a priest, Daniel could still feel the faith inside of him. To serve his God and others. After what had happened on their journey here, his calling had meaning and yet, she had also appeared. Temptation thy name is woman but I don't believe thy name is sin. His father and mother loved each other and no matter what fealty he swore to his God, he would never believe that their love for each other was anything but divine.
So now he was in this place with her, a place that bordered between Heaven and Perdition, not knowing which to choose.
He clutched her hand against his face and replied, "Then I accept that if you can."
Stevie could so easily lose herself in his blue eyes, she realised. Whoever had coined that phrase about the eyes being the window to the soul had surely done so after meeting Daniel, she told herself in silliness.
"I already have..."
Still holding her hand, he managed a sad smile. His pain was no less but at least they had an understanding, tenuous as that might be. He had no illusions that he would not be tested still in the question of her but at least, at least she understood him better than he understood himself. "I suppose we should go retrieve those weapons..."
"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.
To be continued in Porky's