The Thirteenth / Chapter TWELVE

Chapter TWELVE


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Chapter TWELVE

Clean water, K rations, clean fatigues, and a place to lie down on pallets until the shelling stopped was what everyone needed. It was amazing to watch the human spirit at work--people from different languages and cultures all huddled together, trying to learn about one another, trying to socialize, sharing stories and pictures from pockets, playing with a friendly little girl, and honoring frightened elders as though they'd known one another all their lives. Differences melted away. It was so obvious to them all that pain was pain, joy was joy, love was love, and humanity was all connected by one source of Divine Light. Hope for the future was the fuel that kept them from giving up. Watching Ayana visit lap to lap offered them a glimpse of the tomorrow they'd never be sure they'd witness.

"In a little while, I'ma have to get with Tobias, and then me and him gotta get inside those tunnels in Jerusalem," Carlos said quietly as he leaned on an elbow next to Damali. "I just don't know about Heru's advice about taking the Weinsteins--and forget about taking Ayana into a potential demon hole to retrieve a blade. The couple is pretty shook up, but Ayana might be psychologically scarred for life behind everything that kid has seen ... all of 'em have been through the wringer . . . and I don't want anything happening to that little girl or Dan's people, you feel me?"

"I'll consult Pearl again," Damali said quietly, her gaze trapping his. "As circumstances change, so do forecasts and predictions. Nothing is set in stone."

"Yeah, well, that's just the thing ... it might really be in stone, or under stone, somewhere I can't see like that stone slab that Heather and Dragon Rider rolled away from that underwater burial chamber. This is Jerusalem, D. Old world and everything was done in granite, stone, marble, okay."

"Heather can't go," Damali said in a nervous rush under her breath.

"I know. I know," Carlos replied in a hard whisper. "I ain't trying to take her any more than I'm trying to take Frank and Stella, or Ayana for that matter. I really wish I could just go myself, not have to risk any Guardians getting near that thing, do the hit, and be out."

Damali gave him a blank look. "You are so not gonna go up against the Thirteenth by yourself, Carlos. Stop playing."

"Just a passing thought."

Her hand found the side of his jaw and she stroked the five o'clock shadow that roughly coated it. "Please," she murmured, closing her eyes. "I know you don't want anyone's loss on your hands, but can't you try something that will give you all a fighting chance to get out of there in one piece?"

"Like what, baby? I've been going over this in my head and no matter who I recruit, chances are, they're not coming back."

"Then, I'll go," she said, withdrawing her touch from his cheek.

"That ain't gonna happen." He sat up and leaned against the hard wall.

"All right, then," she said quietly to keep their conversation private. "Maybe see if Dragon Rider will go with you?" Damali cupped his cheek. "If she travels with you posing as your wife ... and Tobias and Habiba know the route, that's a small squad of specialized skills with no pregnancies or civilians in the mix. I'll be here to keep the teams safe on this end. Once you have a name and the dagger, you all get out of there . . . then we can figure out as a team how to get the target to come out of hiding."

"Yeah, I know," Carlos said, glancing around. "It all sounds so simple, so logical, but you and I both know it never works easy like that."

"I think you are right, Lilith," Nuit said, choosing his words carefully after the Dark Lord had left the war room. He stood slowly, looked around, and then walked to the war board rubbing his chin. "This is not idle, sycophant trivia to gain your favor or to kiss your lovely ass." He pointed to the Middle East. "What could they have possibly gained, personally, from taking their precious Neteru cargo there and exploiting all their forces in Megiddo . . . essentially blowing their loads, and then having nothing left to battle with?"

"What do they care?" Vlad said, standing to pace and nervously avail himself of a goblet of blood. "The Rapture is imminent. They will join the Neteru Councils in Mid-Heaven and become our nemeses from the astral plane, taking their unborn child into that realm--no different than Aset did with the birth of Heru. Why wouldn't it have been in their best interest to gut all of Hell and scatter her dark forces to the four corners of the earth, just like we'd scattered the twelve tribes of humanity?"

"I can see we are at philosophical odds, gentlemen," Lilith said, pursing her lips, striding up to the war board to study it next to Fallen. "But you both bring up intriguing and very plausible points."

"Whether they turn left or right at this crossroads, Lilith," Sebastian said, demanding to be recognized, "I will ensure that, well before the dreaded Light-inspired event they call the Rapture, I will have replenished much of our forces."

"While I appreciate your charming attempt," Lilith said with a hiss, narrowing her gaze on him, "most of our casualties happened with weapons of Light, not the normal beheadings and such. If you study the ground, the ash, most of it contained unrecoverable losses. They even nuked the caverns, hence why we cannot return."

"Then I will raise for you whatever you ask of me, milady," Sebastian said in a forlorn tone.

Lilith's gaze softened as she glanced around the war room. "Things have indeed changed. I'm not sure I like the direction of that, either."

"Madame Chairwoman," Lucrezia said, her green eyes filled with dread, "I will also do the dark empire's bidding, but after these catastrophic losses, I am not sure what you would have me do?" She chewed her bottom lip as Lilith's paralyzing stare captured her. "After the Rapture, when we break the seventh seal to bring about the Great Tribulation ... we will unleash six great plagues, yes? Could I be of service devising a poison for one of those?"

"Yes," Lilith said, drawing out the word and giving Lucrezia her full attention.

"Thunder and lightning, and earthquakes, in plague one," Lucrezia said, counting off the events on her fingers as she spoke. "Then that followed by hail and raining blood, then fire to burn away one-third of the trees and grass. The third plague, also called Wormwood, brings in the comet and mass destruction that will bring on human deaths by bitter waters. I could assist in making the waters bitter. From there, plague four, a third part of the sun and moon and stars will be smitten."

Lucrezia let out a hard breath to blow a stray red curl off her forehead. "For all intents and purposes, any light left in the sky will go dark, permanently--not like this temporary condition now."

"Yes, yes," Lilith said, growing impatient. "We have been over this time and again. The fifth plague at our disposal will unleash smoke from the bottomless pit, otherwise known as Hell. . . and we'll send up demon scorpions and locusts to eat the flesh of humans for . . . oh, I don't recall exactly, but something like five or six months."

"What has any of this got to do with our problems at hand, Lucrezia?" Elizabeth screeched leaning down the table, irate and impatient.

"I don't know," Lucrezia said coolly, "but I am a Borgia, of the House of Borgia, where politics and refined games of treachery are well beyond the average caste . . . perhaps this is why Fallen and I are so well suited for each other. But since the Light allowed their martyrs to assist in battling our force, blurring the lines, and did not immediately remove them after the fifth seal was broken, hence allowing them to interfere with our breaking of the sixth seal . . . perhaps we could make the one thing that humans need more than anything else, beyond air, become prematurely bitter? Water, milady. The Light was late in taking up their martyrs so perhaps we can be early in poisoning the water?"

Nuit chuckled softly and returned to the table with a goblet of blood for his wife, "Brava, my dear." He took up her graceful hand and kissed its cool, porcelain surface. "This is why I love her so ... her mind is an amazing instrument of deception. Vlad, I suggest that rather than brute force, you employ your wife to the more refined arts."

Vlad and Elizabeth responded with a violent hiss as the Nuits laughed and dismissed them with a wave of their hands.

"It might help if all of Heaven was very, very busy sorting and saving the dead and dying," Lilith said in an approving tone. "Humans cannot live long, especially in arid climates, without their elixir of life."

Lucrezia offered Lilith a deep curtsy of respect and then turned her fawning gaze on Fallen Nuit. "Mr. Chairman," Lucrezia said, noting her husband's newly elevated status to rankle her competitors. "If the sixth and final plague that will alter the balance between our side and the Light is the release of the Thirteenth to call the four bound dark angels now shackled beneath the Euphrates . . . and those fallen angels would be able to call forth a fresh, new army, one not yet vanquished or turned into unrecoverable ash, numbering two hundred thousand thousand ... or better stated, two hundred million--which matches the number of angels allegedly in Heaven . . . hmm."

Lucrezia placed a delicately painted French-manicured nail to her ruby lips for a moment as she stared at the world map. "Before I left to live happily ever after, I could envision a parting shot being the assassination of my archenemy's most trusted general." She turned to Vlad with a narrowed, mocking gaze. "You, sir, are not him."

Lilith's gasp sent a shiver through the assembled council. "That is precisely what I would do ... and then I would bear my heir and set him upon my weakened rivals."

"I told you she was deliciously wicked," Nuit said with pride, his seductive gaze raking Lucrezia's body. "Tres bon, ma cherie"

Lilith swept to Lucrezia and held her face, kissing her deeply.

"I will send a dispatch to Lucifer at once. We may not know the Neterus' exact location, but we can place spies everywhere in search of them. We will monitor their movements, we will see if they have found out anything that could lead them to our most-cherished demon. I have been so consumed with niggling details that I had not even considered the sheer recklessness of such a plan . . . which fits their arrogant modus operandi perfectly."

Nuit touched both women's cheeks with a deeply satisfied smile. "And now, dear Lilith, do you see why I love her so?"

It was eerily quiet above them. The brutal shelling had stopped, but nobody trusted that as a sure sign of safety. Tobias knelt on one knee while reaching forward and using a bowie knife to draw in the loose gravel and dirt on the tunnel floor at the edge of the reservoir. Neteru Guardians had gathered around Tobias and his wife with Damali and Carlos, while the others waited, hanging back to hear the full scope of the plan once the lead team nailed down logistics.

"If you were told to go into the tunnels," Tobias said, etching in the ground, his intense gaze going between the drawing he made and Carlos, "you have miles of potential disaster." Tobias wiped perspiration from his forehead with the back of his forearm and then released a breath of frustration.

"You have not seen what has happened to Jerusalem," Habiba said sadly. "Military is everywhere--some don't understand . . . but also there are demon spies everywhere. Human pawns have been manipulated to keep innocent people away from the holy places ... so if you try to enter the tunnels beneath il-Mabka, you could be shot or detained by a person who still has a soul."

"Il-Mabka?" Carlos glanced between the couple for clarity, trying hard to make his brain quickly sort through the volume of information within it.

"The Kotel," Tobias said, seeming impatient. "The Wailing Wall."

"Know it, been there," Carlos said, nodding as he immediately recognized the third name given to the holy site. "Now I understand why the Covenant clerics made us learn all the sites."

"It's also called the Western Wall," Damali said, emphasizing the word Western. "We're from the west." Tobias and Habiba shared a look.

"The Western Wall is on the western flank of the Temple Mount," Tobias said cautiously. "It has the Western Stone, which is the largest piece of unbroken stone . . . about thirteen-point-six meters. It's massive . . . weighs they say five-hundred-and-seventy tons. That part of the wall is underground and heavily guarded."

"That's more than one western reference," Damali said. "Then oddly the weight of it was cut to weigh in at five hundred-and-seventy tons--which reduces to twelve ... a holy number . . . because that reduces to three, the trinity? And it's heavily guarded. C'mon."

"I only wish that your Templar seer had been more specific," Tobias said, looking at Carlos and Damali. "You are talking about a long length of tunnel leading to one of the most bitterly disputed holy sites on the planet. The Temple Mount is built on a hill, but the side walls are hidden behind what is left of residential buildings on the north," he pressed on, beginning to draw again. "Then the southern portion of the west side is the Western Wall, which is only half-visible aboveground. If you enter from the southern end near the Kotel you can walk the tunnel's length and come out on the northern end to escape being trapped underground--but the tunnel passage is narrow in places."

"That's just it," Carlos said, glancing between Tobias, Habiba, and Damali. "Heru mentioned the Temple Mount. He said to ask Solomon and Akhenaton about this tunnel, so--"

"Well, it makes sense the reference to Solomon," Habiba said excitedly, holding the Neterus' gazes. "Solomon's Temple was first on that hill, but it was destroyed by the Babylonians."

"Lilith," Damali said, sucking her teeth and then standing for a second before she settled back down.

"We can only speculate," Tobias said calmly. "But it was overrun by Babylon. The second Temple was build by Herod after that, but then that was destroyed by the Romans with the rest of Jerusalem, which they razed to the ground, leaving only the Western Wall standing. This is why it is so sacred."

Carlos nodded and stood stretching his legs and back. "The clues are all there, I just hate riddles under pressure." He cracked his knuckles with his fist as Tobias, Habiba, and Damali stood. "Looking for a Roman dagger or sword or spear that pierced the side of Christ. . . reference to Roman destruction ties in-- as does Heru telling me to ask Solomon, since the ground was originally broken there for his temple."

"Not to mention, an escape route to the north--we're from North America," Damali added. "I would try to get more from Pearl, but she's spent--just like all our seers are."

"Right," Carlos said, smoothing his palm over his hair. "They want me to go find it in Temple Mount, just not out in the open--because like Tobias said, that's a hot zone. Probably gotta have all sorts of ID to get in there, if it's open at all."

"You are correct, brother," Tobias said, leaning over to stretch the tension out of his back.

"But I do not understand why your guides would tell you to go by way of tunnel," Habiba said, frowning. "It would be much easier to slip through the abandoned buildings, rather than be trapped--and there's no opening in the stone there that could hide such a relic you seek. The stone wall hasn't been chiseled. I have seen it so many times, I could close my eyes and see it now."

"That's just it, though," Carlos said slowly as awareness filled him. "Check it out. If a diversion was created aboveground, it would be far easier to do an energy fold-away into a place that's vacant. Dragon Rider is a class-A stoneworker from Scotland. Aboveground, she can't do her thing, leaning against the Wailing Wall in the open, since that's now off-limits. But if I get her in the tunnels, she might be able to get a GPS on where what we're looking for is hidden in the Temple Mount."

"Oh, boy, here comes the fun part--the diversion part," Rider said sarcastically, now standing as the other Neteru Guardians slowly got to their feet.

"Nah, man. Not this time. Full squad stays here as the fallback position to be the front line of defense for innocents and our away teams. Just me and Dragon Rider are making this run." Carlos looked at Tobias and Habiba, and then at Dragon Rider. "You read the stones, and then I'm jettisoning you back here while I go in and then try to get back in one piece."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Damali said. "Since when was that the plan? Who's watching your back out there?"

"Next question I was gonna ask," Yonnie said, stepping forward. "C, didn't you feel that power boost while you was out there fighting . . . like they made another Chairman or something?"

Carlos gave Yonnie a look, pissed off that he'd let the cat out of the bag in front of Damali.

"Yeah," Carlos said flatly. "Got a dark supercharge that I'm not real happy about." He looked at Damali. "At first I thought it was from all the Light harmonics you all were generating . . .but--"

"Your eyes went black just like mine did, bro," Yonnie said, ignoring Carlos's vibe to chill. "Then we got stupid strong and ripped out everything's heart within a reach radius, so I ain't particularly mad about it." Yonnie pulled the toothpick out of his mouth. "Just for the sake of speculation, who you think it is?"

"We can worry about all that later," Carlos said in a low rumble, his gaze boring into Yonnie.

"Peace," Yonnie said with a sheepish grin. "Just kinda leaves you high, you know. But I'm good, I'm good, I'll come down in a minute--damn, we up against two Chair-level vamps?" Yonnie shook his head. "This gotta be a first. No wonder I feel likeI do."

"Is that what happened out there?" Jose asked quickly, rubbing his jaw as he glanced at Rider. "Dayum."

"Later," Carlos warned, feeling fangs near the edge of his gum line.

"Aw'ight," Yonnie said, pushing the toothpick he held between his fingers back into his mouth. "Sho' you right, not in mixed company. But I still got your back, man. Figure, me and you get the word on where whatever you need is to do the hit, blow into the Temple--"

"You must be clean," Tobias said quickly. "It is still a holy site, no matter what is going on all around it--this is inviolate holy ground. Ruin that and you could possibly tip the balance of power in this region to permanent darkness! We don't know what could happen." He looked between Carlos and Yonnie, suddenly frantic. "You cannot go in there like commandos and storm the place. All men must take a mikvah."

"A what?" Yonnie said, spitting out the old, worn toothpick he'd been gnawing and materializing a fresh toothpick in his mouth to begin slowly chewing on it.

"A ritual bath," Marlene said flatly. "See, this stuff I try to tell you guys isn't some mess I just made up out of thin air. It goes back thousands of years in every old culture!"

"Aw'ight, so we clean up and do the job," Mike said, looking around. "We got your back going in, C. At least let a couple of us go to watch your six."

"Dragon Rider must not be on her menses, if she enters," Habiba said quietly.

"I'm good." Dragon Rider gave Habiba the thumbs-up. "But no man that has been with his wife even with the ritual cleansing can enter . . . choose warriors that have abstained from this for twenty-four hours, and with a ritual bath, you then will not disturb the hallowed ground." Tobias looked around. "I will go with you--I know the area, know the language, and know how to handle both conventional and supernatural weapons as a tactical."

"Oh, man . . . well, as to the whole abstinence thing . . ." Yonnie nipped the toothpick in his mouth with his tongue, and then shook his head as he leaned against the wall. "Then count me as a liability, bro."

Val looked off into the distance, seeming embarrassed enough to publicly slap him.

Damali briefly closed her eyes and spoke in a private murmur. "I'm betting that's why Heru said to take the Weinsteins and the baby." She let out a long breath and looked away from Carlos. "The Light always has a reason."

"I'm not taking the Weinsteins and definitely not Ayana." Carlos folded his arms over his chest. "Forget that."

Damali's hands found her hips. "You'd have to stab me first before I'd let you take my niece or put Dan's parents in harm's way, Carlos so I'm not arguing with you . . . just trying to help."

Carlos let out a breath of exasperation as strained glances passed around the team.

Cordell stepped forward, joining the group. "Couldn't help, as a seer, to overstand the situation. When y'all met me in DC., you knew I was a black Hebrew--know the language . . . know antiquity, can see around corners, and ain't got no problem getting into the Temple Mount. I ain't been engaged in restricted activities."

"But look, man," Carlos said. "You've given enough already, it's cool."

"No, it ain't cool," Cordell replied. "Stop trying to be diplomatic, noble as that might be. You look and see the facts very carefully, young brother. I know I'm a fat old man. Will slow you down, but I'm of more use to you out there than in here, if this place gets laid to siege. You've gotta have a trinity at your back. Me, Tobias, and Dragon Rider. I'm also knighted as a Templar, and after what the darkside took from me, it'd be my honor to die taking some of them bastards out. Tobias got a wife . . . he's like my Dougie used to be ... don't need to be getting hisself hurt, but he knows the streets of Jerusalem cold and can send me images. Dragon Rider knows the stones. You can send her right back here before she gets hurt, so she can continya to be a fierce warrior to help guard this stronghold."

"He has a point, Carlos," Damali said quietly.

"I know I do," Cordell said, folding his arms over his rotund belly. "So stop arguing, young brother, and just accept the help as it comes to you. If anybody who steps up gets burnt, it ain't on your head. You've gotta let all that go--we at war. Plain and simple. 'Sides, my wife been dead for I don't know how long, so I ain't got cleansing issues, understand?"

Rider ruffled up the hair at the nape of his neck. "Always a technical difficulty on these missions. All right, I'm out of the race."

"You ain't said a mumblin' word," Mike muttered, folding his thick arms over his cinder block chest. "The fact that she's my wife don't make it cool, though?"

"Mike . . . would you just shut up?" Inez said, closing her eyes. "No. You can't go and mess up holy ground, okay."

"Oh, shit," Carlos muttered, dragging his fingers through his hair. "I got a little technical difficulty myself, truth be told. So, it's gonna have to be a remote job for me ... I can't go into the Temple, either."

Damali just closed her eyes and shook her head. "Now I see why your Neteru team is so fruitful and has multiplied," Tobias said with a straight face but a merry twinkle in his eyes. "Why don't you do the stone sensitivity divination underground, pass word to one of our, uhm . . . unburdened seers, who you can then jettison into the Temple Mount to the location--that man can retrieve the relic and be jettisoned back here."

"I don't know what they're talking about," Delores said to Stella. "I never know what they're talking about." She looked down at her granddaughter sleeping on her lap and stroked Ayana's mussed plaits and curls. "This poor baby has been through so much. Why can't we just stay here until all this is over?"

Stella nodded and then reached out her hand to gently lay it against the toddler's back, watching her small body expand and contract with deep breaths of peaceful sleep.

"Nowhere is safe for long, I'm learning. If they tell us we have to keep moving, then it's for the best, I suppose? But we are so blessed, Delores," Stella whispered. "I saw so much as we tried to escape New York and made our way into the mountains ... I won't even go into the horrors. Your daughter is alive, and my son is alive. Your granddaughter is alive, and my grandchild is still holding on inside of my daughter-in-law's body. You have a nice son-in-law ... I have a nice daughter-in-law. They took everything we own, but not everything inside us yet. If they go," she added quietly, motioning to their respective adult children with a tilt of her head, "then I am dead inside."

Delores nodded as Stella kissed her cheek and then stood when her husband, Frank, approached. She watched Frank hug his wife and guide her to stand with Dan for a while before there was yet another change, another move, another battle. Clear pride and respect for their son's valor shone in the Wein-steins' eyes. As their daughter-in-law, Heather, joined the small circle and was warmly received, tears blurred Delores's vision. Why couldn't there be that kind of warmth among her small circle at a time like this?

Deep hurt and a sense of isolation scored her. Delores swallowed hard, allowing a fresh torrent of tears to roll down her cheeks unashamed. In a crowded tunnel she still felt all alone, as though everyone meant something to someone, that is everyone but her. The only person in the world who really cared if she lived or died was Ayana.

And even with that, when danger came, the child naturally went straight for her mother or her aunt Damali or her daddy, Mike, knowing full well that her nana was a complete failure in protecting her . . . just like she'd failed to protect Inez from the predatory stepfather that molested her--the same predator that had gone after Damali and had caused that child to run away from home.

No wonder all Inez did was to make sure she was physically safe and had food and water, but then had gone back into the huddle with the other soldiers. There was no time for a weak momma. Was no time to just sit and put her arms around her to let her cry and make sense of a totally insane new world. Stella and Frank Weinstein were blessed to have a son like Dan and a daughter-in-law like Heather, who made time to make sure their hearts and minds were all right. However, she couldn't even be mad.

Jesus knew that if she'd been a better mother, then maybe someone would have come over by now to check on her--and she certainly wasn't going over there while the team generals were discussing what to do. She'd already been humiliated enough time and time again with the Neteru team for making mistakes . . . last thing she wanted was to get yelled at in front of all of these people she didn't even know.

Guilt lacerated Delores as she sat on the ground, dirty, terror-stricken, tears streaming down her face, head leaned against the wall with her eyes closed. But she gave a start at the sound of someone sitting beside her.

"I'm sorry," Monty said. "I didn't mean to frighten you-- and after all we've seen, I should have announced myself."

"It's all right," Delores said in a flat monotone. "It doesn't matter. If something was that close, I was dead anyway." "How can you talk like that?" Monty said gently. His gaze was tender, his voice nonjudgmental and caring. He was the first person since her world had turned upside down that had spoken to her with any patience or understanding. Everyone else just pushed her to the side and acted like she was in the way, but he seemed to be waiting for a real answer from her.

"Because," she said after a moment. "I really don't matter.

I'm probably just here to make sure that, while they fight, nothing happens to the baby . . . but then again, look around. There're so many others that can take good care of my pumpkin. Plus, I just make people mad. Won't be long before one of these times I fall, or slip, or can't keep up and one of those things we saw out there takes me."

She pressed a trembling hand to her chest, for the first time really giving voice to her fears. "I'm not special. I don't have the gifts. I've messed up my life so ... messed up my daughter's life, and for a while Damali's, because I didn't want to see some things I should have seen. Now, in hindsight, the terrible things I'm seeing are all from the same place--they're all demons, just not in disguise. If it wasn't for this little baby girl, I'd be nothing to anybody in the world, not even my own daughter."

"Oh, no, ma'am," Monty said, closing his eyes against her words and shaking his head slowly. He surprised her by taking up one of her hands and patting it between his. "I was on the yacht when your daughter and your son-in-law thought you and the baby had perished." Monty opened his eyes and stared at Delores hard, his intense brown eyes seemed haunted with the memory. "They had to literally tie your son-in-law down to the deck to keep him from hurting himself. Your daughter nearly flung herself overboard at deep sea, weeping at the rails."

"You are kind, sir, and have a good heart," Delores said, sniffing hard. "But me being gone isn't what upset them like that."

"Monty. I am Monty," he stated firmly, also holding her hand tighter.

"All right, Monty," Delores murmured, gazing down at the sleeping child on her lap. "But all that upset was for this little precious angel, as it should be. If they knew she'd made it, no one would scream and wail for me." Delores looked away from Ayana and Monty, staring off into the distance. "I thought I'd be able to make up in Yaya's life all the things I did wrong in my daughter's life . . . and maybe that would help Inez to forgive me for all the mistakes I'd made with her . . . like not seeing what I should have seen, not being there and listening when I should have been there to listen." .

Delores swallowed hard as tears refilled her eyes and her voice broke. "That's all I wanted to do. I thought that would give me a role and a place. Do you know what I mean?" She glanced at Monty briefly and then extracted her hand from his palms to wipe her tear-streaked cheeks. "But this baby girl here needs, like, what do they call 'em . . . Special Ops soldiers with guns for a grandma." Delores laughed self-consciously as her voice hitched and her lip began to quiver. "I don't even make a good grandma in this crazy world."

Monty pulled Delores into a loose hug with Ayana still dozing between them. He petted Delores's frazzled hair and rocked her gently. "You are a good grandmother, just for loving that child the way you do. I heard the stories of how you put your life on the line for her more than once."

He made Delores look at him by pulling back a bit. "You're blessed because your daughter is still alive and you have a courageous and wonderful son-in-law. I know about not having those things . . . and about losing them and wondering what role is left for you in the world. So you go ahead and cry and let it all run out of you. This time, maybe, let someone else take care of you--since you've been trying so long to take care of everyone else while so afraid."

"You don't even know me, but you know me," Delores said in a thick, quiet sob. "Why do you care about some old, broken-down woman who is useless?"

"Because you are not some old, broken-down woman--and you are most certainly not useless, even though I am some old, broken-down man without a family or anybody to care about me ... and after a lifetime of caring about other people, and feeling needed, suddenly I had no role." He brushed her hair off her face with a weathered, meaty palm and then hugged her again for a while. "I know how terribly lonely that can feel."

They sat that way for a long time, her crying quietly, him blinking back tears as he kept his gaze on the tunnel ceiling, each thinking about the gnarled journey of their lives. Finally she pulled back, wiping her nose on the back of her blouse sleeve.

He held Delores away from him and looked at her, wiping tears from her face. "I was all by myself, Delores. They all died. Didn't even have a pretty grand to hug close to my heart to remember them by. When angel Damali and the others found me, I was sitting in an empty confessional, where even the priests had fled. And I was asking God to excuse me for getting ready to take my own life . . . and then all these young people flooded into my life, needing this and that: 'Can we borrow your boat, Mr. Sinclair, can we use your linens and your navigational skills?' They overran my life and my ship, the only two things at that moment that I had left in this world."

Monty chuckled and wiped his eyes, hugging Delores again. "At first I thought, Am I going mad? And then I remembered that I really wanted all the chaos. I had prayed for it, and now I'm on the adventure of my life." He watched her studying his face and his eyes. "Giving up that last bit of what I was clinging on to from my past made me feel so alive. The yacht is ruined, and I may never see it again . . . but who cares?"

"You think we'll make it?"

"I honestly don't know, but I promise as long as I'm here in this fine quagmire with you, I won't leave you to die alone. That's a vow," Monty murmured, and then looked down at Ayana.

Delores nodded and sucked in a huge, steadying breath. "Thank you for saying that. Everything is changing, our roles are changing . . . better get used to it--life ain't never going back to the way it was before."

"No, I'm afraid not. But, so what if our roles change?" He glanced at Delores directly again. "So what if this tiny angel has more people than you to help her grow up--look at all these magnificent individuals fighting for good . . . and look at all the cousins about to be born. She'll be surrounded by love and excellent role models."

"Yeah, I guess you're right," Delores said quietly. "Funny how things work out. If she was growing up with me in the old neighborhood, the way I had to raise Inez . . . there was nobody good, I mean, really positive for her to emulate. I don't even have anything she could really model herself on, except I think I know right from wrong . . . but some days I'm not even sure about that."

"We all have special skills, Delores. Okay, so I can navigate a ship. You also have something positive you can do. It will be revealed." He smiled broadly. "Or maybe you've already prayed so hard about wanting to take care of children you'll be saddled with a whole kit and caboodle of crying infants at once? Can you actually see the very serious-minded Marlene Stone playing nursemaid to a houseful of Guardian tots?"

When Delores cracked a smile, Monty pressed on. "I promise you, she will bop those children over the head with her magic fighting stick as quick as look at them--being a grandmother and finger painting with peanut butter and jelly is a very highly specialized skill, madam. Not everyone is up to the task. That's Special Forces."

When Delores laughed softly Monty wagged a finger at her. "So, be careful what you ask for, you just might get it."

"Thank you, Monty," she said, taking up his hand again and squeezing it.

"The pleasure is all mine."

He released a contented sigh and let his back rest against the wall with a soft thud. She slowly relaxed to lean back against the tunnel wall, smiling for the first time in a very, very long time.

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