Jace and I stood in a back room of a church. White robes hung from a nail on the door. The wickers used to light and extinguish the candles were propped against the wall. An old bible was open on the counter with scribbling on one of its pages. Communion cups were stacked beside it with a little box of matches beside that.
Jace stood, dressed in a black suit jacket, black buttoned down shirt, a black tie, and black dress pants. He stood, his hands in his pockets, his shoulders tense, as he stared out one of the mosaic colored windows.
I sat on a rose-plush cushion that had been propped on an abandoned pew in the room. My black silk dress was simple, but it was scrunched as I watched the man I loved watch where we would be standing in an hour.
"You know what sucks?" Jace said softly, his voice hoarse.
We'd been in that room for an hour. We'd been shown there by one of the pastors. It was the room where we could get away from the arriving crowd and yet, we hadn't spoken one word the entire time.
"What?" I asked, my voice hoarse too.
"The last time I was at a funeral, it was my brother's. And my dad was there with me too, but he didn't even want to be in the same room. We were shown a room just like this and he left. He couldn't stand it."
I uncrossed my legs and smoothed out my dress.
My fingers wanted to tremble, but I didn't have it in me—not yet.
"My dad couldn't—and where we are, burying his granddaughter and he doesn't show up."
I closed my eyes. Some days, I forgot how truly human Jace was. He had a brother, a mother, a father. He had another brother. He buried the mother of his child and now he was burying his child.
"Is she here?" Jace asked, huskily, yearning.
I took a soft breath and flattened my hands on the top of my legs. I didn't feel the silk below them, but I felt the cold sweat on my palms.
Jace turned at my silence and asked again, "Is she?"
I looked up then.
Jace met my gaze, he saw the tears brimming at the corners of my eyes, and he smiled sadly, "You can't see her, can you?"
I shook my head and whispered brokenly, "I'd give anything to have that back."
I had the gift. I said no to the gift and now he was the one that paid for it.
"I'm sorry." I added, stricken.
Jace turned back around and nodded out the window, "She's going to be buried out there. I wanted her next to Brian. They're family."
I stood next to him and flattened a hand on his arm. I slid it down, felt the rigidity in his arms, and slipped my hand into his. Our fingers brushed together and I stepped closer.
Jace sighed and lifted his arm to encircle around me. I stood within his arms and watched where he hadn't been able to look away from.
The gravediggers had already set up the tent. The dirt was piled high to one side and a metallic box was set for where the casket would be placed.
The flowers were already there, but I knew more would come.
Jace Lanser had finally stepped out of the ghost's world.
Chief officials of the DEA had already arrived. I heard rumors that some FBI and NSA representatives were in attendance.
The heads of Jace's Panther clan had already sent word that they'd line up the walls of the church and stand in the background.
And I knew that his entire undercover team would be in the first eight rows.
The second row was Tray, Taryn, Carter, and Mandy.
Krein, Cherry, and the rest of my family would take the third row.
Gray would sit next to us. Jace had requested for him to be with us.
I couldn't help but wonder if Jace had purposely requested just the three of us in the first row, leaving plenty of empty spaces for the supernaturally inclined to have a seat with us.
"Tell me what she said." Jace requested softly as he bent his head into my shoulder.
My hand cradled the back of his head and I took a deep breath.
He had requested the same words, over and over, as we laid in bed the last few nights.
When I woke, he was always awake. Some nights he'd be at the window, watching it rain, and other nights he'd be in the chair just watching me. He always got up and moved behind me in bed when I woke.
He asked the same thing.
He wanted to know her last words.
I smiled with tears down my cheeks, "She said that they're all different and that they're lovely."
"The messengers?" Jace nuzzled into my neck, needing more than my warmth.
"Yes." I wrapped both of his arms around me and entwined our fingers. I moved my head just an inch and looked up at him.
He met my gaze, still pressed into the crook of my shoulder and neck.
"She said that she wanted to give me sight. And that's when she touched my hand and I saw…"
"Them." I echoed. "And then…she said to take care of you, that she knows you, and that she's here visiting you. And she said that she was saved before the fall."
Jace closed his eyes and tightened his hold.
I choked back my tears and hung my head with my eyes closed.
"I have never done anything that I regret. I have never second-guessed any decision that I've made, but if I could give it all back for one day with my daughter—I'd do it in a heartbeat."
I turned in his arms and murmured, soothing, "Don't." I wrapped my arms around his neck and pulled him tight as Jace pulled me tight. "Don't…they both knew—she already knew, Jace."
He shook his head. His hair brushed against my skin, but I held him tighter.
"She already knew and she's more than us now."
"It's not how it is." Jace pulled back with tears in his eyes. "We're more than them. That's what our faith is supposed to say. We're more than them. I don't want to be more than my daughter."
"What she is—she's more than your daughter. And she's not yours anymore. She's…she's everyone's. I think you should be proud of that."
I took his face in my hands.
His piercing grey eyes met mine and held me captive.
We were about to partake in the rightful ceremony to lay Ambrea's body to rest. Jace was about to be recognized for the loss that he's endured. And none of it mattered because we both knew where her soul and spirit was.
Nonetheless, I kissed him tenderly and Jace swept me closer.
"You and me." I whispered.
"You and me." Jace vowed. A second later, I heard just on the whisper of the wind, "Thank god."
I smiled against his chest and knew we were ready.
The pastor shared a few words about the journey of life and how Ambrea had ventured ahead of us on the journey home. He talked about how a child, no matter the age, strikes us deep within our hearts and we are to heed that ache. We are to heed and remember the child that lies before us for she walks with us to our home.
Speeches and eulogies are given at a normal funeral, where the people know and remember the dead.
Ambrea had talked with me just before she died.
She was born of Jace's blood, but he touched her hand once.
And Gray…Gray shifted in my lap and whispered loudly, "She liked chocolate ice cream, but hated vanilla. She told me that one time. And she liked to touch rocks. She thought they were really nice and pretty. And she likes ponies, but not their foots. And she liked her blanket. And she had a picture of her daddy. She carried that with her everywhere, but she told me that she left it in the cave. She'll show me where it's at sometime. And she—"
Jace turned to us, tears down his cheeks, as he listened to who his daughter had been.
Gray leaned forward and wiped one of the tears away. He sat back in my arms and touched Jace's arm as he said, "She looks like you."
Jace smiled sadly. As a tear slid down his cheek, he touched the back of Gray's head and gently touched his forehead to Gray's.
"Thank you." Jace whispered.
"She likes to sing. She sings to me a lot." Gray whispered, smiling.
Jace pressed a kiss to Gray's forehead and met my gaze as he leaned against the pew.
Gray crawled onto Jace's lap.
Surprised, Jace looked at me, questioning, but I smiled and took Jace's hand so I could slip underneath his arm.
Jace relaxed with Gray's feet dangling over my lap.
The pastor went on to talk about how children are beacons for life. They are the future and Ambrea's future was now with God, himself.
As a soloist sang a haunting melody, Gray leaned forward and whispered in my ear, "If you want to see, you can."
"What?" I whispered back.
Gray said again, "You just have to want to, Auntie Maya."
"It's not as easy as that."
"Yes, it is." Gray insisted patiently. "I see all sorts of them."
"But no one else can." I patted his tiny hand.
"You can. You just have to want to."
At his words, I was at a loss.
Was that all there was to it? Could I just want to and with the snap of a finger, see what I hadn't truly believed in for so long? Did that mean that I didn't want to truly see them?
I felt a prickle at the base of my neck and couldn't help a peak over my shoulder.
For a moment, a brief moment, I saw a shape in the doorway of the church.
I saw a brief outline of someone that stood there and I saw that they were watching someone who sat in the back section.
And then, as I blinked, the shape was gone and instead I met Taryn's gaze, as she sat behind us.
She held Tray's hand and Carter held Mandy's.
Molly and Props sat beside them with Jake and Cora, who smiled at me.
I turned back around, but I met Tray's gaze now.
Our eyes held for a moment and I remembered the night before.
I remembered telling him that I had broken the code.
Every letter, every number, even every space between the letters stood for something.
I had remembered, when I often woke to an empty bed, that Lily had talked to me about Galverson's entire purpose.
He had been looking for a second chance.
He wanted his family to live on. His two children had proven unable to produce this wish for him. No one truly believed in Tray, but Galverson's second chance lay at the foot of a little girl that no one could find.
Tray was second to Chance.
It wasn't until Jace mentioned that Sal Galverson's lawyers sought Tray out and informed him of the inheritance that I realized that Tray was Sal Galverson's second chance.
The little girl was lost, probably dead, and so his only real hope laid at Tray's feet.
When I realized the significance of the words, the code broke quickly.
I connected the spelling of 'second chance' along the home row of a keyboard and from there, every letter and every number lined together and pretty soon—I was reading names, locations, dates, genetic readings, parent lineages, and information that I couldn't understand.
I gave the books to Tray the night before at Ambrea's wake.
I knew that Tray would leave to find his little sister. I just didn't know if Taryn would go with him or not.
As the funeral ceremony drew to a close, Jace stood up. So did Oscar, Scottie, Carls, Coolay, Stirley, Krein, and Tray.
Ambrea was a little child, but each of them took a pole and lifted the casket.
I was the first to follow behind the pastor with Gray in my arms.
I asked Viiwa to walk just behind me because I wanted her to stand for Munsinger.
I knew he was there in spirit, but Viiwa had become family. She belonged there.
And then after her, everyone filed behind until the casket was carried around the church and laid on the metallic box that Jace and I had watched an hour before.
Roses were handed out, prayers were spoken, and Jace was the last as everyone filed back inside.
There was no reception afterwards. There was no food or coffee given. Jace hadn't wanted it.
I waited just inside the church's door and watched Jace stand alone at Ambrea's grave. Gray had ran off to be swept up by Cherry with Steven and Krein nearby.
I felt Taryn come to stand behind me before she said anything. When she did, she only said, "He loves you. Don't make him regret that."
Her words were simple and true.
Somewhat unlike Taryn herself.
I chose not to think about it. Instead, I felt them.
They were the right words and I knew that Taryn was passing along her 'ownership' of Jace to myself.
I remembered Jace's words so long ago. Taryn was family. They both loved Brian. They had loved each other once and still did in different manners, but they were family.
I glanced down the stairs behind me and saw the undercover agents.
They all still waited.
And then I looked out the door and saw the trees that lined the lawn of the church and cemetery.
The Panthers stood there.
They were all family.
And then a presence was beside me. This one was calming, instantly loving, and I knew I needed its warmth. When I looked over, I was surprised to see Abagail. Her black and graying hair was swept up in a braid with an elegant teal shawl wrapped around her shoulders.
She smiled kindly and took my hand. She squeezed it and I felt her strength seep into my fingers. She said, "She's here and you know it. I can hear them, but I can't see them. I'm not as gifted as your nephew, but I've been told about him. We've got a war coming. You and your man are going to be needed, in ways that you can't conceive. I've heard their mutterings."
Jace was still at Ambrea's grave so I turned and met Abagail's chocolate eyes directly.
Abagail nodded, approving, and said lightly, "You've got the fierceness and you're coming round already. Before long, you'll be seeing them and hearing them. I know it."
"Who is he?"
Abagail frowned, but knew who I meant. She smiled tightly and said, "He's no angel that I've ever met before. He's above them all."
I wanted to know about Doron. She told me what she knew.
And she asked, "What does he look like?"
"He's bald. He has a beard like yours. He's African. He wears a brown robe and has a staff taller than him. And…his eyes are too scary to look into." I said shortly.
Abagail smiled and drew her shawl tighter around herself. "I thought so, but I never knew."
"Who are you?" I asked.
"I can speak Meslenongue. That's the language of Messengers. I speak it and I can hear it, but I don't hear all of them, you know."
"Why here? Why tell me this here?"
"Because…" Abagail looked over my shoulder and saw Jace. "Because he's going to walk away from everything…and he's going to do it to be with you and this world that his daughter lives in. He's resigned from the DEA. He ain't a Panther anymore. He's yours because he loves you and because you're connected to a much more important world where Ambrea is a very important messenger herself."
Startled, I looked back at Jace.
For some reason, I knew what she said was true, but Jace hadn't said a word. Then again, we hadn't talked about the future.
When I looked back, Abagail was gone.
Instead, I watched as Tray came to stand beside me.
He rested a hand on the doorhandle, but just used it to lean on. He sighed and acknowledged, "I gave the books to Props. He's running them through some program to try and find my sister."
Everyone was embarking on a new mission and yet, I felt like everyone were saying their last goodbyes.
"Thanks." Tray grunted.
"Can you—" I started, but caught myself.
Tray gazed at me questionably and I added, "I know that your brother loved Lily. I did too. Can you tell him that?"
Tray narrowed his eyes at me as we both remembered who had been the one to pull the trigger, but after a quick perusal, he nodded his head jerkily and left.
To my surprise, Rafe took his place and stood against the wall, her arms crossed tightly over her chest. She stared at me, almost defiantly and clipped out, "If he fucking quits, I'm gone. I don't know why I'm telling you this. It ain't of your business, but I only joined because of him. He leaves, I don't owe him a goddamn thing. Got it?"
I smiled sadly and murmured, "He knows, Rafe. He loves you too."
She sniffed and her nostrils flared briefly, but she said, hoarsely, "I couldn't carry her. Tell him I'm sorry. I just couldn't…"
I broke our conventional rules and leaned across to touch her arm.
Rafe stiffened, but I held on and said firmly, "Just because you didn't carry Ambrea doesn't mean that you didn't carry your leader. You did. Don't think that you let him down because I know that you didn't."
Rafe took a deep breath, but she didn't wrench her arm away from my hold. Instead she said tightly, "We all know what happened out there. Jace and her fell two miles from where we found them. No one touched them, but they got moved. We all know that. We ain't dumb and it ain't the first time something like's happened. I just…"
I let my hand fall to my side.
"We know." Rafe repeated and left abruptly.
No one else came up to me.
I pushed open the door. It was as if the sight of me was the signal for everyone else.
I heard the door open and heard the agents all cross to their vehicles. A second later, they all pulled out of the parking lot. I glanced towards the trees and saw the last of the Panthers disappear.
I looked back and saw Cherry load Gray into his seat before they too left the church.
I walked to Jace and slipped my hand into his.
He smiled from the corner of his mouth to me, but his eyes didn't leave the casket.
That's when I lifted his hand and pressed a kiss to his knuckles.
And that's when Jace enfolded me against his side and kissed the top of my head.
We stood there together until Jace said it was time to go.
Author's Note: Holy freaking...this story is done! I'm sorry. I've received my fair share of criticism with this story, but I am damn proud of it. It was never about a romance or about some simple journey. I knew this story would end how I wanted. I had the vision early on and I fulfilled it.
I wanted someone who could equal Jace because I knew that he would be the best character I've ever written. He is and he probably always will be. I think I achieved that with Maya. She's got layers, people. She doesn't give a damn about so much, but she's got this earth-shattering need to better her world...I think it's poetic justice that she was the one who didn't 'believe' and yet not only was she given the 'help' she desperately wanted for this world, but she was also the one who had been able to see the spiritual realm and rejected the gift in the first place. she did it because in her mind, she gave up when Krein had left her. There was a lot more to Krein's rejection that some people might think. However, it's hard to get into that without having people tell me that Maya 'thinks' too much in her narrative.
And the somewhat poetic prose of her thoughts--it just tied with how I wanted the story to go. For me, as the author, each story has a certain feel to it. Read this story and read Jaded or Sweet Lullaby. They are completely different characters and therefore, the feel and narrative of the story is much much different.
I hope, I truly hope, you all can appreciate the philosophy, sociology, psychology, and theology threads that I put into this story. Also, there is a shitload of foreshadowing in this story. It started in chapter one. I didn't write a freaking word without having it 'stand' for something else. I even agonized over the double entendre of Abagail's gift 'of clear sight.'
Ah. Long author's note. I don't usually do that. I put so much heart and thought into this story. I am truly proud of it! This story was a message. And I'm done.