It might have been minutes or hours that passed, but Elizabeth moved not even a muscle as she stood there, mesmerized, watching Henry pray.
The weekend after she told him about the accident for the first time, he'd taken her hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains, telling her only to be ready at noon on Saturday, and he'd take care of the rest. His meaning had been loud and clear – he loved her, and the mess inside her head wasn't going to frighten him off.
They'd driven west from the city for an hour before they reached their destination, and the moment she saw it in the distance, a lump began to grow in Elizabeth's throat.
She hadn't been able to tell Henry then what Black Top Mountain already meant to her. All she knew was that between the weight off her shoulders, the fresh air filling her lungs, and the warmth of the sunshine seeping into her skin, she couldn't remember ever feeling a sense of peace like that before.
They'd risen early the next morning to watch the sun rise, and from the top of the mountain it felt like they could see forever.
Being here in this chapel was like that multiplied by a trillion, clearing her head and soothing the hurt of the last two weeks, giving Elizabeth strength and courage for the discussion ahead. She still had questions, so many more now than she'd had even when the day began – but there would be plenty of time for that later.
For now, there was comfort in the stasis, nothing for her to do but stand watch over Henry, no thoughts to fill her mind except how right it felt to be near him again. She could spend forever basking in the serenity of this moment, would gladly spend an eternity gazing upon this man, now that she'd had her first proper glimpse.
Long before she was ready, a sharp twinge in her belly followed by an electric charge in the air told Elizabeth that Henry's prayers were finished. Her heart instantly began to pick up speed.
He let out a long, heavy sigh, deflating on the exhale. Heaving himself up from the altar as though he'd just run a marathon, he scrubbed his face with one hand, and then dragged it through his tousled hair.
He looks so tired, Elizabeth thought, a panging ache seizing her heart when she finally saw his ashen face – not as though he felt better for all his prayers, but just drained enough for now that he might be able to get some sleep when he shut his eyes.
Only when he was turning to leave did Henry's gaze land on Elizabeth, his eyes sliding right past her at first, before coming into focus and whipping back to meet hers. On any other day, under any other circumstances, such a stunned double-take would have left her cackling helplessly on the floor, but today, in this moment, she was horrified to feel her throat twitching around a hysterical giggle, which flapped wildly in its mad bid to escape.
The urge to laugh died as quickly as it had come, because now that the moment was finally upon her, she wasn't ready, didn't know the right words to say. (From the large bay window inside her heart, she watched Henry passing by and wanted to call out to him, but there were too many ladders and drop-sheets and toolboxes in her way, and she could not reach him in time).
"Hi," she whispered lamely. Her mouth was bone-dry, her voice barely audible, but it felt deafening in the silence of the church.
"Elizabeth," Henry breathed, as if she were some kind of apparition, one that might dissolve before his eyes if he spoke too loudly or made any sudden movements.
The devouring guilt that should have deterred her before returned with a barrage of teeth and claws. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt," she said, her words turning shrill and swift as a rush of anxiety shot through her veins.
"No, I was finished," he replied, dazed and blinking like he still couldn't believe his eyes. He crossed the small chapel until they stood just a few feet apart. "What are you doing here?"
"I was hoping we could talk?" Elizabeth said, uncertain even as she spoke whether she was telling him or asking. "I went looking for you at your place, and Mark said you might be here."
Henry winced, and Elizabeth could see the despair filling his eyes, like ominous storm-clouds piling on the horizon. He dug his hands deep into his pockets, bracing himself for the hurricane.
Yearning to set his mind at ease even as her own heart went on tripping over itself inside her chest, Elizabeth couldn't help but roll her eyes affectionately at him. "Henry, do you actually think I would come here and cause a scene in the middle of your church?" she teased gently.
(Break up with you, she'd almost said instead, the words almost sheering off her tongue – but were they broken up already? She still wasn't sure, even after all this time, and that stole some of the wind out of her sails.)
The corners of Henry's mouth quirked upwards into what was almost a weak smile, and she watched relief blow most of the phantom clouds back out to sea. "Good point," he acknowledged, dipping his head, his whole countenance a little lighter with her assurance that she wasn't about to unleash a gale upon him.
His eyes still held a trace of trepidation, weighed down with wondering what she did have to say, but mostly he was looking at her the way he always did – like he was a parched man dying of thirst, and the privilege of drinking in the sight of her forever was all he would ever need to sustain himself.
Elizabeth allowed herself to savour the familiar warmth of that gaze for a moment. The lack of rise and fall in his chest told her that he was scarcely daring to breathe the longer the silence stretched between them, but she couldn't bear to let go of the stillness and the ease that had tucked itself around her almost from the moment she caught sight of him. What was it about seeing him here, like this, that had made her feel this way?
"Have you been sick?" he asked tentatively when she didn't go on, gesturing with concern towards the way she was still holding her abdomen.
Two weeks ago, he would have reached across and touched her to ask that question, covering the hand on her belly with his own larger one. She knew that they were both imagining it, both feeling a gulf gaping open between them, awkward and cautious and as wide as the Grand Canyon.
Conversation usually flowed so seamlessly between them, ropes slung with ease from the deck of one ship and gliding straight into waiting arms on another because of the trust that they shared. Now, the words they cast across the water were guarded and hesitant, each of them only hoping that the stilted lines might catch.
"My stomach's been hurting," she admitted carefully, "but I think it's starting to feel a bit better." Indeed, the icy, jagged knots had almost fully melted away, her hand still resting there now out of habit more than anything else. She lowered it to the back of the pew beside her.
Elizabeth's still-hollowed cheeks and the purple shadows beneath her eyes lingered on as evidence of darker days, however, and she could see Henry bite his tongue to stop himself from saying so.
She averted her eyes for a moment to break the tension, and felt a pull that she could not resist, nudging her gaze gently but determinedly back over to the shrine and all its flickering candles.
What exactly had she witnessed there today, and why had it touched her so deeply?
The chapel, the chapel, coaxed the little voice inside her heart.
Something about this place seemed to hold the key to all of Elizabeth's questions, and understanding why suddenly felt like the most important thing she would ever do.
Her eyes slid back to Henry, who was still watching her, waiting. He didn't seem angry with her for intruding on such a private moment…
"I've never been inside a Catholic church before," she said softly, her heart picking up its pace once more. "Can I ask you about…" her voice trailed off, motioning timidly towards the racks of candles.
Henry's eyebrows leapt all the way to his hairline, but he didn't falter for a second. "Of course," he said, stepping back into the chapel and inviting her to join him.
The candles could have a multitude of meanings, Henry explained.
Hope and faith, burning brightly in the hearts of believers, in a world filled with too much darkness and despair.
Physical manifestations of prayer itself, the flames reaching towards Heaven, and lingering on even long after the people who lit them had gone.
Elizabeth watched Henry as he spoke, the familiar sound of his voice washing over her like the tide coming in. So many evenings at home in the last two years had been spent just like this, one of their heads in the other's lap while he told her about whatever he was reading. She'd missed this so much in the last couple weeks.
She hadn't known much about religion or philosophy when they met, finding language unreliable in ways that numbers never were. But the way he explained things made them clear and easy – it was only because of him that she'd had the confidence to brave the social sciences, once he showed her that these subjects dealt with all the things she already cared about so passionately, like justice and goodness and equality.
He's going to be a wonderful teacher one day, she thought.
But listening to him now wasn't quite like hearing him quote Plato or the Buddha, thinkers whose philosophies he admired but didn't swear by. It wasn't even like his beloved Aquinas and Augustine, who had such a special place inside his heart.
This wasn't just something he'd learned to recite on Sundays and holidays, but could put out of his mind the moment he walked out the doors of the church, she realized. This was what he really believed, his faith an integral part of him, and with that understanding came a calmness even more absolute than she'd felt when she first watched him pray.
The pieces had just about come together now, and the picture they made caused her heart to swell with gratitude and humility.
Elizabeth let her gaze settle on Henry's candle, burning to ask him what he'd been praying for all that time. She knew she couldn't, knew the question was one invasion too far. But what if he wasn't interested in starting over? Just because he was hurting, just because he hadn't begged her to leave – none of that meant he actually wanted to try again.
She bit her lip, taking in the rack upon rack of dancing flames, so many already alight before either of them had arrived. "So all of these candles were lit by somebody asking God for help?" she asked. The vastness of it all was suddenly too much, despair settling heavily upon her shoulders and squeezing the air out of her lungs. So many people in the world were hurting, and most of them would never get the outcome they hoped for – why should her concerns be the exception?
"A lot of them, probably," Henry agreed. "People pray for good health, or success, or guidance. They pray for the strength to get through a difficult situation they know isn't going to get better."
Elizabeth nodded, looking away as her heart sank, the peace leaking steadily out of the air around them like helium from a deflating balloon.
"But they're not all like that," he added, and his voice was so warm and soothing and filled with reassurance that her eyes could not help but dart back up to meet his. "Some people light candles in thanks for a prayer that's been answered, or to celebrate the birth of a child. Or—"
He broke off abruptly, his eyes widening as his mouth slammed shut.
The air crackled with electricity and anticipation, and Elizabeth's heart skipped a beat, her eyes locked on his. "Tell me," she whispered, forgetting to breathe.
When Henry spoke again, his voice was quieter, as if that could soften the impact of the words that were so reluctant to fall from his tongue. "Some people light candles for the souls of loved ones who have passed away," he said gently. "It's a way to show them that we still love them, that they haven't been forgotten."
She didn't say anything at first, only just managing to keep her hands by her side when a sharp pang tore through her chest, like dry lightning on a cloudless summer evening.
He had never raised the subject of her parents on his own before.
He'd always been willing to listen, in those rare moments when she felt able to open up to him, posing thoughtful, safe questions until she needed to stop. But all of it had only been on her terms before, and the regret written all over his face told her he wasn't at all sure he should have opened his mouth now.
Elizabeth swallowed hard against the aching lump in her throat. His words had shocked her, but they didn't hurt like she'd thought they would, didn't leave her sprinting for the exit.
Both of her parents had been on her mind a lot lately…
Elizabeth bit her lip again, her heart hammering against her ribs now. "Even though I'm not Catholic," she began slowly, her eyes darting away and then chancing a glance back up at Henry, "do you think it would be alright if I…"
"Of course," he nodded. "Anybody can."
He motioned for her to take his place before the altar, and she took a few halting steps closer, her lips twisting with discomfort as she waited for a bolt from the heavens to strike her down as an imposter.
Out of the corner of her eye, she caught sight of Henry backing away from her, out of the chapel entirely, and back into the main sanctuary of the church.
A surge of anxiety flooded her bloodstream. "No, don't go!" she begged, louder than she meant to.
He was only trying to give her some privacy, she knew, the same privacy that she ought to have afforded him earlier. But his retreat looked entirely too much like the way he'd fled her apartment on the morning that had rocked her world. Already so tightly strung, it was the very last thing she needed right now.
He paused, and Elizabeth flushed miserably. Why was she making such a big deal out of nothing? It was just a candle. Why was it so important for her to do it at all? This was all such a big mistake.
"We could do it together, if you want," Henry offered softly. He was back beside her now, close enough for her to smell the clean scent of the soap that she knew so well, all traces of that stranger from the park truly washed away.
"Yeah?" she asked, her voice cracking, the question loaded with so much more than the fate of a candle. He was being so nice about all of this, though she'd given him no reason to be. He was probably the only person who would understand that she was nervous in this moment, when even she couldn't explain it.
"Yeah," he replied simply.
His presence at her side giving her courage, Elizabeth reached into her pocket for some change before he could offer to pay.
She got as far as picking up a taper stick before she hesitated again.
"I don't know what I'm supposed to say," she choked, turning her head away from Henry so he wouldn't see how her face burned.
"You don't need to say a special prayer," he replied, reaching carefully across the front of her body to take her hand, and stroking the back of it with his thumb. "Sometimes I just talk to God, tell Him what I'm thinking and feeling. Does that sound okay?"
It was the first time his skin had touched hers since he grabbed her hand in the park, and heat smoldered low in her belly, all of her nerve endings concentrated on that one, tiny point of contact.
She trembled, but nodded uncertainly, and together they lit two candles right beside Henry's.
When they lowered their joined hands, Elizabeth dared once more to listen to the little voice inside her heart – tucking herself against his body, she leaned her head on his shoulder and shut her eyes.
Henry let out a gasp, one she could only hear because she was pressed so close to him. He held himself still at first, but when she didn't change her mind and pull away, his hand came up to settle onto her hip, pulling her more firmly against his side. He sighed deeply, the warmth of it teasing her hair, and her heart soared all the way up into the church's vaulted ceiling.
Soaking up the familiar, steadying weight of his fingers over her jeans, she drew in a long, slow breath, and let her eyes flutter open again, ready to take in the sight before her.
Watching the twin flames flicker, Elizabeth's eyes welled up with tears. I'm not sure what I believe, she thought, feeling awkward about sending her message out into the universe when she wasn't sure where it was going, or if anybody was even listening in. But she forged ahead all the same. I still miss them so much. I just wish I knew they were okay.
Blinking back her tears, she let her gaze drift over the rest of the candles in the racks before the altar, filling her up with their glowing light the longer she looked. I hope whoever lit all these other ones find what they need, she thought.
Her eyes landed, finally, back on the one candle that started it all. Especially Henry, she thought fervently. Please hear his prayer?
Lifting her head regretfully from his shoulder, Elizabeth pulled back to face Henry.
"Ready for that talk?" she asked.