As he walks into the church, Thomas leaves the main lights off. The only light comes through the small stained glass windows on the west side of the building. Everything is shadow and mystery, age and polished wood. Even in this cherished place, it's so easy to lose himself in the darkness, so easy to focus on his problems instead of his faith. He should start setting up for the Wednesday service—he's preaching about perseverance, mostly to inspire himself—but he just can't care.
Cloth rustles. He isn't alone. Thomas looks toward the front of the church. She... she can't be here. This isn't real. Quietly, he walks down the center aisle, stopping a few feet away to study her. She fought him so bitterly the last time he saw her—why would she come back?
Nicole sits in the front pew with her hands folded in her lap. A neat bun restrains her hair; none escapes and softens her sharp, sharp eyes. On the back of her neck, she has a tattoo of Einstein's equation of energy-mass equivalence. She once told him it was the most beautiful piece of writing she'd ever seen: "Energy equals mass times the speed of light in a vacuum squared," she'd sighed in his ear, her voice as reverent as his when he recited his favorite passage, Psalm 23.
Thomas sighs and sits in the pew behind hers. He doesn't want to bring up old grievances, but what else can he do? That has to be what she came here to talk about. "Never thought I'd see you here again." The words stick in his throat like half-swallowed pills.
Nicole doesn't look at him—he knew she wouldn't. "That makes two of us." She runs her hand along the pew, tracing the patterns in the wood. "Never got those cushions, I see. This would be a terror to sit through a service on." I don't belong here, her shoulders seem to say, and we both know it.
"You get used to it." He wants to ask why she's here, but he can't, any more than he can stop fidgeting with the silver cross at his throat. If only he had a wedding ring instead. He could—he's a pastor, not a priest—but, really, he couldn't, any more than he could ignore her. He takes out a hymnal and picks at the binding.
Swiftly, Nicole turns and plucks the hymnal from his hands. "Don't fidget." Why is she bossing him around? This is his place, his comfort. She's the one who doesn't belong. She's the one who said she never wanted to see him running this place. Nicole sets the hymnal on her skirt—black, knee-length, sensible—and runs her finger along the spine. "These are the same ones they had when we were kids."
Thomas can't listen to her talk about that. He gets up and walks to the altar at the front, running his fingers along carvings of sacrament and scripture. The wood soothes him, but breathing is still difficult. Too difficult.
It's been too long for this.
He takes one of the candlesticks and polishes it on his robe; he needs something to do with his hands. "So." He tries to summon the smile that makes his clergy call him confident, the one that makes him stand straighter to be worthy of the robe, the cross, the words he speaks. "How is Cambridge?"
A smile crosses Nicole's face: for a moment, he can see the whole room in her light. "Stephen Hawking almost ran me over a few days before I left—it was transcendent." Her face darkens. She stands and turns her back to him, stroking the top of the pew. "It's my vacation now. I… I thought I ought to come back to—"
To what? To this place? She's never been here, and certainly she can't mean "to him." She's the one who left!
She pauses. Then, for the first time, she looks at him. His heart stops; he almost drops the candlestick on his foot. If she notices, it doesn't show in her face. Frowning, she crosses her arms over her chest. She's uncomfortable, as she should be—this is his place. She lost all right to it. Or, at least, he'd like to think she did. Her gaze still draws him in.
She won't control him. He walks to one of the windows and touches the glass. It's below zero outside; his hand goes numb almost instantly. If he couldn't see it, he wouldn't know it was there. "I wish you hadn't," he breathes. It's the first time he's admitted it, even to himself.
Her lips part—the closest to shock she gets. She gets up and runs a hand over her hair. As she walks to him, he closes his eyes. He wants to stop seeing her. Nicole sighs. "Did I ever tell you about the event horizon?"
He's a religious man, but he loves when she talks physics. It catches her as the words of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John catch him, and it's beautiful. If only he could stop seeing how beautiful. Slowly, Thomas shrugs.
Though her eyes are on the great cross behind the altar, she leans against the wall next to him. "It's where black holes become black—the place where the speed needed to get away becomes so great that even light can't escape the pull."
Like always when she speaks of science, her hands come up in front of her, grasping for something glorious just out of reach. Truth. He knows how that feels, how certain verses lift him like nothing else, and…
Why can't she leave him alone?
He doesn't realize he's asked her aloud until she sucks in a sharp breath. Hesitantly, she tilts her head toward him, 'til there's barely space between his shoulder and hers. "I was getting to that," she whispers.
His gaze snaps to her. He can't help it, any more than he can hold his breath long enough to kill himself.
Her jaw works; she smooths her skirt over her thighs. Her words are slow, hesitant, hardly her usual "instructing" voice. "Everyone seems to think black holes are these... cosmic vacuum cleaners, but, really, they don't suck things in. You have to be heading toward the black hole already, and then the black hole's gravity is so great that it warps your course. You start falling toward it, and then you just have to get close enough for the escape velocity to exceed the speed of light, and—" She looks at him, her breathing sharp and quick. "At some point, it's inevitable. You cross the event horizon."
He turns so he's sideways against the window, facing her. It's still so hard to breathe. His lungs battle the great lump of hope and fear in his chest. "And then what happens?"
She shrugs, half-casual though her eyes are still full of tension. She's used to him missing the point. "No one knows. The current idea is that the black hole rips you apart, and then… then it radiates you back out, only in a completely different form." Her eyes flick around the room and settle on his face. "I don't care, though. I just like the idea that... that some things must happen." Suddenly, her voice cracks; her heart is just as raw and visible as his. "That they are inescapable."
She holds her wrists palm-up, a supplicant begging for mercy. For the first time, he sees words written on her wrists, etched on the delicate knot of veins: the Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
Fingers shaking, he touches her cheek. He's not a priest, but he can give absolution all the same. She closes her eyes; he cannot look away.
In the lobby, someone slams the front door and flicks on the overhead lights. Thomas glances over his shoulder. For a moment, he can't see—the light blocks out everything. And then his eyes adjust. She’s still standing there, and she belongs.