Note: I'm going to risk the wrath of ff.n and leave a slightly lengthy AN here, since this is the last chapter, and we've come to the end of our journey (for now). Normally I would have waited before posting again so soon, but since this is the last chapter I just decided to plow ahead (plus, I had Anna urging me on!) Again, I want to thank EVERYONE for all their wonderful comments and reviews -- when I began this story I really had no idea what sort of reception it was going to get, so for it to top 200 reviews really means a lot to me. Reviews are the only coin we fanfic writers get for our efforts, so they are very much appreciated. (And if you've lurked through this whole story, I'd also love it if you'd leave a review for this final chapter.) Although I can understand why some of you would want to see additional scenes, or see something of whether the people back in Middle Earth realized the sacrifices Sarah and Gorendil made to restore things to their proper order, since this is Sarah's story I'll probably have to leave that to your fertile imaginations. (Although I might post a little viggie along those lines at some point.) I'm off to get back to my sadly neglected Star Wars fics and continue my Snape fic (so if you're a Harry Potter fan you might want to check that out), but don't worry -- I've been nailed by sequelitis once again, so you won't be left hanging like this indefinitely (although it will probably be a couple of months). Thanks again to everyone -- you have no idea how much your reviews, comments, and suggestions meant to me! —ChristineX
Chapter 19: There's No Place Like Home
Voices echoed in the darkness, voices with a flat drawl I hadn't heard for several months.
"Oh, my God -- she fainted!"
"Did she really drink that much?"
"Stand back -- she needs air!"
"Where the hell is Mike?"
I opened my eyes, making out the blurred shapes of vaguely familiar people clustered around me. Behind them I thought I could see the flickering of torches. The sharp scent of citronella hit my nostrils, and I sat up with a groan, pressing one hand against my throbbing forehead.
Well, unless heaven looked like Mike's backyard, I guessed I wasn't dead. Once my eyes began to focus I saw Drew Cummings hovering to one side, a bottle of Hornsby's cider dangling from his hand. He looked pale. And behind him hovered a group of other people, mostly friends of Mike's -- I'd tried to get my friend Lisa to come to the party, but she wasn't into dressing up in costume, to say the least, and she had to work anyway. Or, as she put it, "That's my excuse, and I'm sticking to it."
I put a hand down on the closely mown lawn beneath me, trying to reassure myself of its reality, and then said, "I'm all right," even though the backyard and the people in front of me seemed to be bobbing up and down like boats at anchor during a hurricane. A little more loudly, I continued, "Really. I just tripped." And I pointed at the round stepping stone that probably had been the thing that caught my foot in the first place. Thank God I sounded relatively normal. I felt as if I'd been run over by a backhoe.
What the hell was going on, anyway? As far as I could tell, I was right back in Mike's yard, with the party still going full swing -- or mostly, if you didn't count the distraction my little tumble had caused. Although my mind kept telling me I had been gone for months, it looked as if I couldn't have been out of commission for more than a few seconds at the most. After all, I had just sent Drew to fetch that cider for me a minute or so before I fell --
-- before I fell into Middle Earth. Had it all been a hallucination? Gorendil, Sauron, everything? Had I just cracked my head against the low planter that lay only a scant foot from where I had tripped and fallen? I knew the human mind could do unbelievable stuff to itself, but it had all seemed so real...
Then I looked down and noticed for the first time the gown I wore. It was a beautiful thing, filmy pale-gray silk shot through with silver threads. A belt of linked silver and moonstones rested around my waist. It was very definitely not the dress I had worn to the party, the replica of Arwen's blue gown that I had slaved over and which had been completely destroyed on my trip to Mordor. No, the dress I was wearing was the same one I had worn when I accompanied Sauron to the Cracks of Doom.
But if I had hallucinated the whole thing, one part of my brain argued, couldn't I also have imagined wearing the blue gown when in fact this silver dress was the one I had worn all along? Never mind the fact that I couldn't seem to recall how I could have possibly afforded a belt as expensive as the one that now encircled my waist. And I wanted it to be real, despite everything horrible that had happened. Who would want to admit that the love of a man like Gorendil might have been nothing but the fevered imaginings of a concussed brain?
"Sarah!" Mike pushed through the crowd and knelt in the grass next to me. "Are you all right?"
Something about his voice seemed a little odd, but at the moment I couldn't really determine exactly what it was that sounded different. Maybe it was just that I'd never heard him sound that worried. "I'm fine," I said. "Really. I just fell, and I think I bumped my head."
"Can you stand?"
I put one hand down in the soft grass and attempted to push myself up, but almost immediately the whole world tilted around me. Gasping, I began to slip backward, but Mike caught me in time, sliding one arm behind my back and keeping me in a more or less upright position. "Guess that's a no," I said shakily.
"Let me," he said, and before I could stop him I felt his other arm slip under my legs as he lifted me up. I'd had no idea he was that strong, but then again, I'd never really had the opportunity to find out before this.
Despite my token protests, he carried me through the backyard and on into the house, where he took me into the spare bedroom -- the house had three bedrooms, one of which was used as an office -- and laid me down on top of the bed. I'd never been in here before, and it didn't look as if Mike had changed much since he inherited the place. The furniture was all dark antiques that looked late Victorian, the wallpaper a semi-fussy stripe above the mahogany wainscoting. But the bed was heavenly; I'd forgotten how good a modern bed with a real mattress and box spring could feel.
"Well, I must look like a complete idiot," I said, after Mike had pushed a second pillow under my neck.
"Don't," he said immediately. "I probably should have put more torches out there -- "
"And I should have practiced walking in long skirts more."
He grinned. "Well, possibly."
Again that air of unreality hit me. Maybe I was still drowning in the lava pit, and this refreshingly ordinary room and the familiar features of my friend were just the last gasps of a brain about to go down into the darkness forever. But that somehow didn't seem right, either.
I stared down at my silvery skirts for a moment, then said, "Mike, if I ask you something, do you promise not to tell me I'm crazy?"
"I suppose that would depend on what you were asking me."
It figured he'd give me an answer like that. Still, I hoped that the length of our friendship would help him to overcome any doubts about my sanity. "What was I wearing when I came to the party tonight?"
For a second he just stared at me. The lighting in the room wasn't very good; only one Tiffany-style lamp on a side table held back the gloom. It was difficult for me to see his expression clearly. He replied, "Um...is this answer supposed to be something different from what you're wearing now? If you're asking for details, I think you've got the wrong guy."
"But was it different?" I asked desperately.
"Geez, Sarah, I don't know." He glanced at my gown, and then back up at me. "I remember something silvery..."
Which didn't help much, because the Arwen dress had had silver sleeves, but the body of it had been the bluish-gray silk velvet. Then again, I was probably asking way too much of Mike. The guy had a mind like a steel trap, but me expecting him to remember all the details of a dress he'd seen for just a few minutes was like him expecting me to explain the theory of relativity.
"Never mind," I said wearily. "I suppose it doesn't really matter."
He looked down at me with some concern. "Are you sure you're all right?"
There it was again...some odd inflection in his voice that came and went so quickly I couldn't really begin to think what it was that sounded off. But I only nodded and replied, "I'll just lie here for a while, and then I should be fine."
"I think you'd better stay," he said. "If you bumped your head, you shouldn't be driving."
"I don't think that's necessary -- "
"Well, I do."
"Wow, Mike, I had no idea you could be so forceful."
For a second he looked almost annoyed, but then the flash of irritation was replaced by concern. "I'd just hate to see you smash your car up on the way home because you got dizzy or something. It's no big deal -- I've got the spare room here, and I'll go see if I can find you a T-shirt or something so you don't have to sleep in that dress."
I wanted to argue with him, but I had to admit to myself that he was just being sensible about the whole situation. Maybe I would have been all right to drive in a bit -- or maybe I wouldn't. The smartest thing to do was to just stay put and see how I felt in the morning. My parents would probably freak out, but --
"OK," I said. "But can you call my parents and let them know I'll be crashing here?"
Certainly, I thought? That didn't sound much like Mike. But he was probably a little on edge, and besides, I was keeping him from his own party. I settled for just saying, "Thanks, Mike."
He nodded, then muttered something about finding me a shirt and left. I watched him go, frowning a little.
As far as I could tell, I really was back home, back in Southern California, and apparently no worse the wear for my fall into Mount Doom...not to mention the weeks of sexual servitude to Sauron that had preceded it. I shivered at the memory, but I told myself I was back in San Marino, back where I was safe. Whatever force had brought me to Middle Earth in the first place had somehow neatly scooped me up and deposited me right where I had started, with no one here comprehending that what to them had only been a minute at the most had been weeks and months for me...weeks and months where it seemed I had lived a whole lifetime.
I closed my eyes, thinking of Gorendil. Maybe he lived, too, somewhere far beyond Middle Earth, in some afterlife I couldn't begin to comprehend. The thought comforted me a little, although I would have given anything to feel his arms around me again, to have his mouth against mine one more time. At least he had died trying to do the right thing. And maybe his death had given me the final bit of strength I needed to confront Sauron once and for all. I knew the Dark Lord couldn't have survived -- of course the Ring had been on his finger when we fell into the Cracks of Doom, and even if somehow his unnatural demigod form had been able to withstand the heat and flame, the Ring would not. And once it melted, Sauron would be no more.
I opened my eyes and saw Mike standing by the side of the bed, holding out a faded black T-shirt decorated with an iron-on decal of the Witchking.The irony of it made me want to laugh, but I worried that the laughter might turn a bit hysterical, so I just took the shirt from him and thanked him.
"Guess I'd better get back and check on everyone," Mike said. "If they trash those kegs, I won't get my deposit back."
"Can't have that," I replied.
He gave me a somewhat rueful smile and said, "I'll just close the door behind me. Try to get some rest."
I nodded, and watched as he went out and quietly shut the door. Immediately the sounds of laughter and far-off music were muted; I could still hear them, but I didn't think they were loud enough to keep me from falling asleep.
Moving with care, I sat up, remained still for a few seconds as I waited for the dizziness to pass, then slid to the floor. The little crystal-studded buttons that closed my dress gave me some trouble; my fingers still felt pretty shaky. But eventually I was able to get them all undone, and I pulled off the gown and chemise and draped them over the back of a side chair. My original underwear had long since given up the ghost, but during my brief sojourn in Minas Tirith I'd had the local seamstresses make up some pantalets for me, and it was a pair of those I still wore now. They covered my legs down to the knee, and the T-shirt Mike had loaned me turned out to be fairly oversized, so it reached to mid-thigh. It had to be fairly big on him -- he was tall, but lanky, and I imagined the shirt would billow around his slender form almost as much as it did on me. But it was comfortable and soft, and smelled faintly of whatever fabric softener he had used. That was another thing I'd forgotten -- how clean everything here was, how scrubbed and antiseptic.
I pulled the covers back on the bed and sank down onto the smooth sheets with a sigh. How good that felt, to be finally comfortable after so many weeks of terror and despair, of never knowing when my sleep would be interrupted by Sauron's nocturnal intrusions. The distant clamor of the party might have been nothing more than wave sounds generated by one of those sleep machines people use to block out unwanted noise.
Part of me wanted to stay awake, to try and process everything that had happened. Somehow it seemed almost disrespectful of Gorendil to go straight to sleep as if nothing had happened, as if I hadn't just spent months with a man whom I had come to love in a way I hadn't thought possible. But I was so tired, so achingly weary, that almost the second my head the pillow my eyes closed, and I drowned once more in darkness.
When I did awake, at first I couldn't remember where I was. A soft ambient glow filtered dimly through the curtains. Then I realized I still lay in Mike's spare bedroom, and the light I saw was merely the filtered illumination from the street lamps outside. It was still dark, but I couldn't tell what time it was. Late, probably, since I no longer heard any sounds from the rest of the house. The party had apparently broken up.
Then I sensed movement in the darkness. Someone sat down on the edge of the bed, and I tensed, whispering, "Who's there?"
Mike's voice. "Just me, Sarah."
For some reason, that didn't reassure me at all. "What are you doing in here?"
"I just thought I'd come check on you. If you've really bumped your head and have a mild concussion, sleeping through the night isn't such a good idea."
That sounded logical enough, but for some reason all my mental alarms were going off. But my voice sounded steady enough as I replied, "I'm fine. I just need to sleep."
"You do sound better." The bed shifted slightly, as if he had moved closer to me.
My eyes had finally adjusted to the dim lighting, and I saw him then. He'd taken off the fancy brocade waistcoat I'd made for him, but he still wore the white linen shirt and dark breeches that finished off his hobbit-inspired costume. His hair was its usual rumpled mess. He looked so completely Mike that I felt my breathing ease a bit. Considering what I'd gone through, a bit of paranoia was probably normal, but I knew couldn't go on like that indefinitely. I'd have to start trusting people again at some point.
"I'll probably be able to help you clean up in the morning," I said. "Really, my head feels much better."
"Good," he replied. Then, before I had a chance to register exactly what he was doing, he leaned over and kissed me.
I lay there, stunned, for about two seconds before I jerked my head away and snapped, "What the hell -- "
He shifted slightly on the bed. "I've wanted to do that for a long time."
Oh, for Christ's sake... I maneuvered myself into a sitting position and demanded, "Are you drunk?"
The thing was, he didn't actually sound drunk -- no slurring of his words, none of the slow speech I'd heard from other intoxicated people, some of whom sounded as if they'd had to pick through their whole vocabulary before coming up with the next word to string onto a sentence. Then again, I'd never really seen Mike drunk, so how was I supposed to know what he would sound like after he'd had a few too many? Oh, yeah, I'd watched him toss back a few beers when he had a bunch of his friends hanging around, but never more than three at the most, which wasn't enough to get someone Mike's size drunk...at least not drunk to the point where he was apparently willing to throw aside years of friendship and admit that he'd wanted to kiss me for a long time..and then actually do it.
"Look, Mike," I said carefully, "I'm not sure now is the best time to be discussing this. I've got a knock on my head, and you apparently partied for the two of us, so -- "
In reply he bent and buried my mouth under his, stifling my placating words. He did smell of stale beer, but I wasn't going to let him use that as an excuse. I reached up to push him aside, but he neatly grabbed my wrist and forced it back against the pillows.
My irritation began to shift into outright fear. We were alone together in the house, and Mike was acting completely out of his mind. Although I knew for a fact that he never did drugs, still I wondered if he'd taken something, or if someone had maybe slipped him something as a sort of sick joke. The way he was behaving now was so out of character I wasn't sure what to think. What could possibly have happened to set him off like this? We'd been friends since the sixth grade, and although there had been a time or two when I thought he might have shot a wistful gaze in my direction, he'd never said anything, and certainly never acted in any way that couldn't be construed as simple friendship.
Also, to have this happening now, after everything I'd gone through with Sauron, after I had finally thought I was safe, was enough to bring angry tears to my eyes. Hadn't I suffered enough? Who or what had decided that I should be some sort of cosmic punching bag?
My fury stirred me to action, and I pushed on Mike's chest hard enough that he slid back a few inches, dragging the bedcovers with him. "I don't know what the fuck has gotten into you," I burst out, "but you need to get your ass out of this room right now!"
He sat very still, watching me through the semi-darkness. I saw him turn away from me slightly, and the pale glow of the streetlights seemed to catch at the edges of his brown eyes, waking an odd silvery glitter, like foam on a moonlit sea. "And what if I don't?" he asked, and even his voice sounded different, the flat Southern California drawl suddenly rounder, silkily beautiful.
"No," I said, cold terror edging up my spine, squeezing my throat so that the words came out in a tight whisper. "That's not possible -- "
"Isn't it?" he asked, and then bent toward me once again, his lips brushing the flesh of my throat. I could feel the heat of his breath against my skin as he spoke once more. "You see, Sarah, you're not the only one with the power to move between worlds. "
And I let out a low moan of despair as Sauron looked at me through my friend's eyes, then took me and claimed me as his once again...