Unfinished plots, still a happy reader
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End To Innocence, An: 17. A Quick Trip Home
She wrinkled her nose at the smell that leaked in where the window was cracked - gasoline fumes and the garbage that hadn't been picked up and was piled on the sidewalk in leaking bags. She turned to Chip. "Another garbage strike?"
He nodded. "They're trying to work out the privatization thing again."
"Hooray." She looked around the apartment, which seemed even smaller than usual with all of them in it - Chip, Janet, Gus, Greg, Jack, Michael, herself. She wondered how she'd managed to live here.
The box from the take-out she'd eaten before she'd left home for the Halfway Point still sat on the coffee table, and she was grateful that for once she'd actually finished it. She didn't want to think what weeks-old Thai food would smell like. Worse than the garbage strike, she supposed. She grabbed the box and tossed it into the trash, then turned towards her bedroom. "Make yourselves at home," she called over her shoulder. "I'll get changed."
She had worn again one of Boromir's shirts, leaves at the collar and cuff, remembered his soft laugh and assent when she'd asked if she could borrow it. In the familiar dark of her bedroom she stripped, folded her borrowed clothes neatly, then slipped into jeans and her white cotton blouse, her leather blazer over it, high-heeled boots. Her "I'm here on business" uniform. She considered adding the Glocks, but decided against it; the lawyer's office frowned on unconcealed weapons. Instead, she took the small pistol from the nightstand and slipped it into her purse.
A light caught her eye, and she moved her paperback copy of The Way Of The Samurai from the telephone and saw the message light blinking. Picked up the handset, dialed her voice mail. Eight messages: two from Mira, one from Jack and Greg, one from Paul, four from Steven. She listened to the ones from Steven. "Maggie, listen," his familiar voice, apologetic, placating, "I'm sorry for how things ended. I haven't seen you out - I was thinking we could talk. Maybe I'll make you dinner. Call me." That was the first message. The second, "Mags, I just wanted to see if you were all right. Mira wouldn't tell me anything. Call me, would you? I'd really like us to be okay. To be friends. Okay? Call me when you get a chance." Third, "I'm serious Maggie, I really need to hear from you. I get it if you don't want to see me, but please, I just want to know you're all right. Please call me, really, seriously. I mean it. Okay? Okay." And finally, "Goddammit, if you don't call me back by the weekend I swear to god I'll come the fuck over there and camp on your doorstep. I'm worried about you Maggie, and no one'll tell me where you are. Call me, goddammit." That was the fourth and last message.
She sat on the edge of the bed, the phone in her hand. After a moment, she dialed Steven's number, her heart pounding.
He answered on the third ring, sleepy. "Yeah?"
She hesitated. Then, "Steven, it's Maggie."
A pause. When he spoke again he sounded fully awake. "Maggie, my god, where the hell have you been? Why didn't you call me?"
"I've been, um. Out of the country."
"And you're not even fucking checking your voice mail? What - didn't they have phones where you were?"
"I'm sorry you were worried, babe," she said softly. "I didn't mean to worry you."
"Yeah, well you fucking did." Another pause. "Geez, babe, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to snap at you. But - well, are you okay?"
She nodded as though he could see her, and said, "Yeah, I'm okay. How are you?"
She could see his expression, see him shrug and reach for the cigarettes he kept on the nightstand. How many times had she watched him do that, early morning phone calls while she lay in his bed, half-covered by the sheets that smelled warm, smelled of his aftershave and their sweat, watching him talk to someone, work a deal, calm someone down, bitch someone out. "I'm okay," he said, and she heard the sound of a match, the distinctive intake of breath that meant he'd lit up. Exhaling, he said, "Yeah, I'm okay. Hey, listen, what are you doing this weekend?"
She blinked, closed her eyes. "This weekend?" she asked, trying to think what day it must be. She had no idea. What was she doing this weekend? Fighting a war. "I'm leaving again tonight," she said.
Silence. "Tonight? For where?"
"It's, um. Listen, do you want to get a drink before I go?"
And in the brief hesitation that followed she knew his answer. "I can't tonight, babe," he said. "It's just a thing I've got to do."
She drew a breath. "Right then," she said, bringing her hand to her eyes. She felt suddenly exhausted. "Well, have fun," she said. "I don't think we'll probably talk again."
"Hey now," he said sharply. "Just 'cause I can't make it tonight doesn't mean I don't want to see you. Come on, wait a day. We can have lunch tomorrow."
"This won't wait, babe."
"Then when you get back."
"I don't think I'll be back."
"What do you mean, you don't think you'll be back?" His voice was hard. It meant he was worried, and angry. But long experience had taught her, he was less worried about her, and more about how her leaving would keep him from being the good guy. The guy who manages to be friends with the women he fucks over.
"Just that," she said. "Listen, you're fine, you don't need me, don't worry about it."
"I do worry about it goddammit," he said angrily.
"I'm not your concern anymore," she said. "You gave that up."
"It's not that easy."
"It was that easy for you to let me find you there with her."
A pause, and she could see his eyes narrow. "You know I didn't mean for that to happen."
She sighed. "It's ancient history, babe," she said. "Over. Just - don't worry about me. I'm fine. I gotta go. Have a nice one."
She hung up on his voice saying something she couldn't make out, his tone unpleasant. She grabbed the spare mobile phone from where it nestled on its charger and walked out, glad he wasn't calling back, and angry that he let her go so easily. Glancing at the phone she saw eight missed calls, the same people who had left her voice mail at home - Mira, Mira, Jack and Greg, Paul, Steven, Steven, Steven, Steven.
Hours passed in a blur of strangeness, and she kept being struck by brief waves of dizziness. They'd seen the others into the cab that would take them to the metro station, then had walked the six blocks to the tower that her lawyer's office was in. The glass elevator looked out towards the east, and from the eighty-third floor she could see the haze of Black City in the distance, a miasmic cloud hanging low on the horizon. Black City, that years ago was Washington, DC, that had been a wreck and a ruin for decades. Almost her whole life. Where Sorrow lived. She said softly, "That's where we're going?"
"Not all the way," Chip said. "Just outside. One of the burbs, this little enclave called Lakeshore. I talked to the guy while you were changing. We'll fax him the paperwork from your lawyer's office - he's okay with going forward on that. Gus and Janet and Michael will meet us out there."
"What kind of delay will we have on the equipment?"
The doors of the elevator opened, and a woman and boy got on. The elevator rose again.
"No delay," Chip answered. "Everything's set, from the ammunition to the armoured trucks."
Maggie nodded. The boy looked up at her with wide, brown eyes. She smiled at him, and he pressed close to the woman, and smiled tentatively back.
The ninety-first floor, and the doors opened. Maggie stepped out of the elevator, turned to be sure Chip was coming; the boy raised his hand in farewell as the doors closed, and she raised hers in return, too late. Brown eyes in a coffee-and-cream face, tender as new grass.
It was late afternoon when they stepped onto the street again. Maggie dialed Janet's number, and the other woman answered on the third ring. "How's it going?" she asked.
Janet hesitated, listening to muffled voices in the background, then said, "It's all set. Come on when you're ready."
"You got Greg and Jack settled before you went, right?"
"They're good," she said. "They're safe. They send their love."
"Are you sure you can do this?" Maggie asked.
"I think so. The wizard Gandalf, he told me some stuff. And he's going to be waiting when we're ready to come back." She paused. "He has a weird mind, Maggie," she said, and Maggie frowned.
Another pause. "It's - you're going to think I'm crazy."
Maggie chuckled. "Janet, I don't think I'm crazy. Tell me."
"It's," and she hesitated, then said softly, "it's sparkly."
A beat, and then Maggie laughed delightedly. "Sparkly?"
"That's the best I can think of to describe it," she answered. "It's all sparkly. I can't see anything 'cause it's just shimmery, like - like it's all fireworks only without the noise. But I don't get that weird feeling that he's trying to hide something, or like I'm being locked out. It's warm, too," she said, and Maggie heard a smile in her voice.
"Warm and sparkly," Maggie said. "That sounds like a good mind to have on our side."
They stopped back by Maggie's apartment and she packed a leather satchel, slipping The Way Of The Samurai in at the last moment. She changed clothes again, out of her "I'm here on business" uniform and into her "don't fuck with me" one. The Glocks rode in their familiar places at her hips, snug pants tucked into her boots, one of which bore one of the knives, the other knife back in its arm sheath, and instead of the blazer she wore her long leather coat, with its many pockets cut into the lining. She left her spare key and a note on the door of her neighbor's apartment, the note leaving instructions if she hadn't returned in a week. It wasn't new - she'd done this before, the same neighbor always willing to help, not asking questions, but so far Maggie had always returned before the set date. This time, on impulse, she also left three one-hundred dollar bills in the envelope, stowing the rest of her cash in one of the hidden pockets of the coat. The small pistol still nestled in her purse.
They took a cab to the metro station and ate at a noodle shop before boarding the train. Maggie bought a small bottle of cold Sake before they left, and in the gift shop found two stuffed dogs, one black, one brown, both with black button eyes, plush and soft. She bought them as well, and managed to stuff all three items into her already overpacked bag.
The trip to Lakeshore took two and a half hours, between the train ride and the cab they took to Chip's contact's home. The place was palatial, and Maggie's nerves were strung tight as they waited at the gate for the guard to fetch them. Inside, the business was conducted quickly and efficiently. The contact, who was introduced to her only as Mr. Coleman, was brisk and dispassionately friendly, offered them drinks which they declined, and took them to the outbuilding where Janet waited with Gus and Michael.
So close to Black City, Maggie could smell the fumes that weighed on the horizon as heavily as the shadows that had covered Minas Tirith on the dawnless day. Even in the dark, the haze made a deeper shadow, blocking the stars to the east.
"So, you think you can take the wizard out?" said Mr. Coleman.
Maggie's expression remained neutral. "We plan to try," she said, "assuming we can resolve the issues faced by our prospective allies."
He nodded. "Well," he said, "I hope the weapons I can provide will be of some assistance. If you do return," he said, fixing them with an inscrutable gaze, "perhaps we should discuss an alliance ourselves."
Chip nodded. "We should know in a week or so what's going to happen. In any case, you'll hear from me or my representative before month's end."
"All right," said Janet, casting a quick eye over the assembled weapons and equipment and turning to Maggie. "I'll get you and this stuff to where Gandalf is waiting, then the guys and I'll assemble Chip's people and we'll follow in probably an hour or two. Good?"
"Good," Maggie said. "But give me a minute."
Turning from the group, her nerves feeling shattered, she dialed Steven's number as she stepped a little ways away. His voice mail picked up on the second ring; he'd hit the "busy" button. At the tone, she said, "All right, I'm outta here, just wanted to let you know. Wish I coulda seen you before I left. Right then. Have a good one, babe - I'll talk to you later." She hung up and walked back to where Janet waited. "Good then," she said.
Janet closed her eyes, and Maggie braced herself for that flicker. Her phone began to ring just as the universe blinked, and she found herself on the dark of the Pelennor, Gandalf beside her in the glimmering moonlight, crates and trucks between them and the wall, and the mobile phone silent, "No signal" on its display.
She turned it off.
Mira found her in the Court of the Fountain. Maggie was sitting on the low wall that encircled the fountain and the White Tree in the glow of the early morning, one hand stretched out and catching drops that fell from the branches. Mira came and stood in front of her, and Maggie looked up.
"Staying?" said Mira. "What do you mean, staying?"
She shook her head. "Just that," she said.
"You can't stay, it's not your world."
"I don't care," she said. "I'm tired. I'm not leaving. If this place still exists when all's said and done, I'm not leaving."
"For some guy?" Mira said.
"Yeah," Maggie replied, nodding. "For this guy."
"What makes you think he'll be any different?"
Maggie dropped her head to her hands, leaning her elbows on her knees. "He can hardly be worse, and it doesn't smell like rotting garbage here."
"So, what, you're just going to abandon all of us?"
Surging to her feet, Maggie pushed past Mira and strode towards the embrasure that looked out over the Pelennor, Mira following.
"Goddammit Maggie, answer me!"
"Yes!" she said, spinning on her heel and striding back towards Mira until they stood face to face. "Yes, if that's how you want to put it, yes!" She scowled, her heart beating hard, her chest tight. "Dammit, Mira, I am fucking alone in that place!"
Mira's scowl matched her own, her olive skin flushed, dark eyes flashing. "You have us - what are we, shit now?"
She let out a bark of laughter, harsh, and threw her gaze up towards the sky. "Y'all aren't there at three in the morning when I wake up crying from nightmares," she said. "You're not there to bring me soup and read to me when I'm sick, or to - to fucking remind me that I need to get the tires rotated, or help me pay my fucking bills."
"You can call us for any of that," Mira replied angrily. "Call me if you wake up crying from nightmares!"
"And you'll hurry right over and rock me to sleep again?" Maggie asked, meeting her eyes. "It's not the same," she said. "I love y'all, you know that. And you're the best partners that friends can be. But you can't hold me when I go to sleep. I don't wake up and smile when someone hugs me to him in the night because there's no one there to do it. Hell, even when I've been with someone, as often as not no one stayed the night unless they were too drunk to leave. That would have been too complicated, too much like a capital-R Relationship." She turned away again, feeling the bitterness of her own words, ashamed and angry, crossing her arms in front of her chest and gripping her own shoulders tightly. She knew Mira understood. She also knew Mira still didn't want her to stay. "I'm so fucking tired of being alone all the time," she said, her voice ragged.
"So you're just going to settle down with the first really-goddamned-foreign foreigner who bats his eyes at you?"
She sighed. "Yeah, Mira," she said wearily. "That's it exactly. That's exactly it."
"Don't pull that sarcastic crap with me," Mira said sharply.
"Then don't you start with it."
There was a pause. "If I'd have known you'd do something like this, I'd never have agreed to help."
"You're the one who told me I should tell him how I felt," Maggie replied softly.
"Yeah," said Mira, "when I thought it'd be a nice fling and help you get over asshole Steven."
Maggie glanced over her shoulder at the other woman. "So, you were thinking Boromir could be my rebound-boy?"
Mira shrugged. "Something like that."
Turning to face her, Maggie said, "Have you even looked at him? He's, like, forty years old and the fucking guy in charge of the army here. He's not really 'rebound-boy' material."
Mira seemed to almost smile, then didn't. "Yeah, well," she said, "I didn't know about the army thing when I said you should go for it." She hesitated, then reached out to take Maggie's hand. "Don't stay here, Maggie," she said gently. "We need you."
"And I need him," she whispered, her eyes on their clasped hands.
"Then bring him home with us," Mira said. "If he loves you like you love him, he'll come back with us."
She shook her head. "It'd kill him to leave here," she said.
Mira frowned. "Like, do you mean really kill him? like, we can come here but they can't go there?"
Maggie glanced at her, startled. "Actually," she said, "I hadn't thought about that. No, what I mean is that this is - he's been brought up to love this place more than his own life," she said. "I'm not sure he even loves his brother more, though I wouldn't want it to come down to a choice."
"Why should you stay here if he wouldn't come back with you?" Mira asked angrily. "Why should you have to give everything up when he won't?"
Maggie drew a breath. "Because I will," she answered. "I will."
Boromir found her in the apartments she'd taken when they'd first arrived. She had been lying on the bed, gazing out the window at the sky, the two plush dogs sitting on the pillow beside her when she'd heard him come in, and she smiled as he entered the chamber. The empty Sake bottle was on the bedside table. She picked up the black dog. "I brought you a present," she said, holding it out to him. "I got one for Faramir too."
He came and sat next to her on the bed, a smile of his own playing about his lips, and he took the proffered dog. "What a noble beast," he said, gazing at it, and he touched its ears, turned it over to examine its paws. "So soft." He leaned over and kissed her. "Thank you. What shall I name him?"
She looked at the dog. "I don't know," she said. "What's he look like to you?"
Boromir considered the question thoughtfully, then said, "Thalion, I believe."
"'Thalion'?" she repeated, sitting up.
"It means strong, or dauntless," he said, "if I remember correctly. In any event," he went on, holding the animal to his face and inhaling softly, "he looks like a Thalion to me." He glanced at her then, and said, "And he smells of you."
She chuckled. "I slept with him when I got back last night. So, he's sort of a used present."
"Gently used," Boromir said with a smile. "How did your trip go?"
"It went well," she said, dropping her gaze. "We got the supplies, and Chip's getting his people sort of acclimated."
Boromir frowned. "It seems strange to me, how quickly they would join in our struggle."
"Cult of personality," she replied. "Some of it, at least."
He looked at her quizzically.
"It's just that Chip is one of those people who inspires loyalty," she said. "Plus, they know he's a good leader, and they're getting something out of it themselves. They stick together." She shrugged. "Chip convinces his squad leaders, and then the squad members have two reasons to come - Chip and their own leaders. And once one squad member decides to come, the rest of the squad has another reason to come. It's a snowball effect."
"Ah," and he nodded. "And apart from that?" he asked. "How do you find your home?"
Steven, who wanted to see her but not enough to do it; Mira, who wanted her to come back, to leave this place for good; Greg and Jack, who had stayed behind, in hiding. The smell, the noise. The boy's brown eyes, his small hand raised in goodbye as the steel doors slid shut. "About like always," she said, and rubbed her nose vigorously to try to push back the unexpected tears that suddenly threatened.
He reached out to her with the hand not holding Thalion, and raised her face until she met his eyes. His grey gaze was warm, concerned. "Does something trouble you?" he asked. "You seem... sad."
She shrugged. "It's nothing," she said.
He cupped her cheek, and she pressed into his touch. "I have rarely seen you drink," he said. "It is an odd smell," and he set Thalion down and picked up the bottle, not taking his hand from her cheek. "Unlike ale, or wine. What is it?"
"Sake," she said, closing her eyes and bringing her hand up to touch his. "It's Japanese rice wine."
He made a small sound of assent and set the bottle back down. "Tell me," he said gently.
"It's - I don't know if now's the time," she said, frowning.
"No one waits for me," he said. "Are you needed elsewhere?"
She shook her head.
"Then tell me."
She didn't speak, didn't trust her voice.
After a time, he pulled her forward, gathering her into his arms. "You sacrificed much in selling your land," he said softly, stroking her hair. "Too much, perhaps."
"No," she said, slipping her arms around him and holding him. "No, not too much. I'm just not sure what to do next."
She felt him stiffen slightly, and she raised her face to look at him. He looked back at her with eyes she couldn't read. "What do you believe are your choices?" he asked.
Her breath caught in her throat when she started to answer, and she pressed her face back to his broad chest. After a moment, she said, "Well, basically two. I can go home and help get rid of Sorrow, or I can go home and help get rid of Sorrow and then come - " and she hesitated. "I mean, if there's - if - I mean maybe there's something I could do here that'd be more fun than what I've been doing back home."
His arms tightened around her. "I do not wish to - to influence you," he said.
She pushed away from him, scowling, struggling out of his embrace. "Too late," she snapped, turning her back to him. "Look, if you don't want me here, if there's no place for me here you have to tell me."
She heard his intake of breath, but was afraid to turn back around. "If I did not want you here," he snapped, "I would have told you before now. I thought I had made my desires known."
"Well yeah, but," and she hesitated, feeling as if there were a distance of miles between them and not at all sure where it had come from. "People have changed their minds about me before," she said finally, bitterness hard in her voice.
Suddenly his hand was on her arm and he pulled her hard around to face him. Anger colored his features, and he said, "My mind, and my heart, are in agreement on this, Maggie. I did not wish to influence your decision for this is your life as well as mine, and your home which you are considering abandoning. But if the decision is mine, then you will stay, do not doubt it."
"What about your father?" she asked. "Your people? It's been pointed out to me," she said with a frown, "that this isn't my world."
"My father and my people are my concern," he answered sharply, and then his gaze softened and when he spoke again, so had his tone. "They will not deny you," he said. "They will not deny me in this." He smiled then, and added, "And remember, you are the heroine who brought the weapons which saved so many of our soldiers. You are not reviled, lady."
She returned his smile shakily and picked up Thalion from where the stuffed dog had fallen. "You dropped your dog," she said, handing it to him.
He cupped the back of her neck and drew her close, kissed her cheek, and then her lips. "As long as I do not lose you, sweet." He leaned back then and his gaze flickered over her. "And indeed, if I were to let you loose in the City in this attire, you might be lost to me indeed. Your world has an eye for displaying the loveliness of its ladies."
She glanced down at herself and realized she was still wearing the snug black pants and equally snug tee-shirt she'd worn the day before. "Well," she said, smiling, "we lack subtlety in comparison with some places."
He laughed, and ran one finger down her thigh, pulling her close again. "You will not find me complaining," he said, "only, I wonder," and she caught his thoughtful gaze. "How difficult are these unsubtle clothes to remove?"
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