Endings are always bittersweet to me. Much as I love to mark another one of my stories as complete, it's hard to say good-bye to characters who've become almost as real to me as the people I know in real life. And it's always hard to say good-bye to all my wonderful readers, the people who have kept me going with the reviews and funny comments and exclamations of "how could you?" or "awesome!" or even "you suck!" This one came quickly...I mentioned in my last chapter that I tend to write very fast when I get to the end of a story...but even I didn't think I'd finish quite this soon. I hope you all enjoyed the ride! Maybe it didn't turn out the way you wanted, but sometimes that's how it goes. (And I hope you'll return to read some of my other works, but I know that not everyone enjoys the same sorts of things, so if you don't, I understand. On the upside, it does look as if the Gorendil "prequel" is leading my LiveJournal poll at the moment.)

Epilogue: Beginnings

Aftermaths can be messy. In the movies they never show the part where you have to call in a work crew to clean out your flooded basement, or have to explain to your father why you got a bill for five grand to repair all the water damage. No, it's just boom! climax, and then everyone lives happily ever after.

Well, maybe they do get part of it right.

Anyway, after a minute or so Mike and I recovered enough to slog our way over to the stairs and then climb up the steps into the kitchen. By the time I was done I felt as if I'd just scaled Mount Everest. God knows how Mike managed it. Still, wet and chilled through as I was, the first thing I did was cross the living room and go out through the front door. Don't ask me why -- maybe I wanted to reassure myself that the rest of the world was still the same. Or maybe I just wanted to get a look at Will's car in order to feel some sort of connection with him. In any case, I stepped outside, blinking a little at the bright sunshine, then paused in the middle of the driveway and frowned.

I didn't see Will's car anywhere. Now, maybe he'd just been circumspect and had parked it a little further down the street, but he couldn't have left it too far away -- not with how quickly he had made it over to the house from All Saints. My shoes made unpleasant squishing noises as I limped down the driveway to the street and then looked in both directions. Still nothing -- after all, that black Barracuda would have stuck out like a sore thumb in our neighborhood of Acuras, BMWs, and big shiny SUVs.

But I didn't see anything in that sea of upscale beige and silver and white vehicles. I heard Mike slosh his way up behind me and stop. His soaked tennis shoes probably felt even worse than my flats. "What're you looking for?" he asked.

"Will's car. I don't see it anywhere."

He shot me an odd look, then said, "Well, maybe he borrowed someone else's car. Or parked around the corner. Why don't we come back out later and check again when we're not dripping wet?"

I supposed he had a point. Despite the warmth of the sun, I was starting to feel downright cold. The light breeze made my sodden clothes stick to me in unpleasant ways, and I shivered.

Our neighbor across the street, the retired librarian who thought Mike and I were "the cutest couple," chose that moment to come out and fetch her mail. Even from that distance I could see her eyes narrow as she took in our disheveled appearance. "Everything all right?" she called out.

"Fine, Mrs. Samuelson," Mike answered. "Some trouble with our hot water heater."

"Oh, dear," she said. "Did you call a plumber?"

"Yeah -- we just came out to see if he'd shown up yet." In an undertone, he said to me, "We should probably go back inside."

I nodded, then gave Mrs. Samuelson a half-hearted little wave. She smiled back, and then shook her head slightly. No doubt she wanted to offer more assistance but couldn't think of the best way to ask. She was a nice lady, although a few times during the past few months I'd thought wearily that it would have been nice if Mike had had a pair of standoffish yuppies living across the street instead of someone who didn't have any children of her own and obviously wanted to take us under her wing.

To avoid any further questions, I followed Mike back into the house. My brain kept picking away at the inexplicable absence of Will's car. Maybe Mike was right -- maybe he'd just parked around the corner where I couldn't see the car, or maybe he'd borrowed someone else's vehicle. Who knew?

Not really paying attention to what I was doing, I wandered into the bedroom and started to pull out a change of clothes. A hot shower would feel good. Maybe if I turned it up hot enough I could numb myself so that I couldn't feel this empty ache inside. I started to unbutton my damp blouse, then heard a throat-clearing noise.

I saw Mike standing there in the doorway to bedroom, looking awkward, and I suddenly realized the rules had changed a bit. Just because I'd done the same thing in front of Smike dozens of times didn't mean it was a very good idea now.

"Um...sorry," I said, and hurriedly rebuttoned my blouse. "Force of habit. Wasn't thinking."

"I can use the bathroom down the hall," he replied. His cheeks were flaming red.

Immediately I said, "No, that's all right. I mean -- this is your bathroom, and your room. I'll go down to the guest bath." And with that I scooped up my stuff and raced out of the bedroom, not wanting to meet Mike's eyes.

Since it was a guest bath, it did have some shampoo and soap in the shower stall. Not my own stuff, but I wasn't about to go back into our -- Mike's -- bathroom to retrieve mine. As I stepped into the shower, I thought that I should probably move my things out of the bedroom we shared and into the guest room. Then I paused, standing there for a moment as the hot water beat down on the back of my neck. What the hell was I thinking? Shouldn't I just grab my stuff and go back to my parents' house now that this was all over?

For some reason that idea didn't appeal to me at all. Odd as it might sound, some time over the past few months this house had become my home. Besides, with everything that had happened, I didn't think I could handle the fallout from suddenly announcing that the engagement was off. In time, maybe, but now...

...now all I wanted to do was cry. So I did, head bowed, as the unending stream of warm water cascaded through my hair and down my shoulders, mixing with my tears as I wept for Gorendil and Will and the loss of the man I thought I loved.

Mike didn't argue with me when I said I thought I should move into the guest bedroom for a time. If anything, he looked a little relieved, and that hurt for a minute until I realized he was probably just thankful I hadn't told him I planned to move out of the house completely. Not yet, at least.

We did sort of a complicated little dance around one another, both of us overly solicitous of the other person, neither one sure exactly what to say. Since I was done with school and didn't have much going on otherwise, I sort of allowed myself to shut down. Mike told my parents and those of my friends who called the house that I'd caught the flu from him, and so everyone pretty much left me alone.

Having the workmen in to clean up the basement kept occupied Mike for a while; showing more presence of mind than I would have, he got them in awfully fast to pump away the worst of the standing water. My hair was still damp from my shower when they showed up, and I hid in the guest bedroom while the house echoed with the pounding of their equipment.

The next day another crew appeared to haul off all the shattered containers and broken racks. If they had questions, they obviously knew better than to ask Mike. Grim-faced, he accepted their invoice and watched in silence as they drove off in their big dump truck.

Frankly, I was so shattered by what had happened to me that it took me a while to stop and think how Mike must be feeling. After all, the guy had just spent almost three months being possessed by a malevolent entity who forced him to do and say things he never in his life would have done on his own volition. And here he was living with someone who had become his fiancée only under duress but who for some strange reason hadn't yet fled the scene. No wonder he gave me odd little looks from time to time, as if he wanted to ask what the hell what was going on with me but couldn't quite find the nerve.

As for me, well, after my weeping fit I moved around the house like a sleepwalker, not allowing myself to focus on anything for too long lest I give myself an opportunity to really stop and think about what had happened. I didn't know what to do about that horrible ache inside me. Obviously, talking about my loss with Mike seemed out of the question. That second night, though, after the workmen had gone and I'd managed to eat a few bites of the orange chicken Mike had ordered from the local Chinese restaurant because he knew it was my favorite, I sat in front of the TV, not really paying attention as Mike sort of channel-surfed, which was very unlike him. Usually he'd study the TV Guide, find what he wanted to watch (along with an alternate to jump to during the commercial breaks of his primary choice), and tune in on that. Unless, of course, he decided everything on TV was trash and pulled a DVD out of the archive instead, which tended to happen a lot.

For some reason he paused on a repeat of that old John Cusack movie, Say Anything. I don't know -- maybe he thought I'd do better with a chick flick than the usual action gore. And I was actually OK until it got to the part where Cusack's character stands outside the girl's room with that big boombox and plays "In Your Eyes." Then I just lost it. All of a sudden I started crying hysterically, great gasping sobs that felt as if they were being torn from somewhere so deep inside me I hadn't even known it existed until then. I was so blinded by tears that I didn't even realize Mike had gotten up from his seat and come over to the couch until I felt his arms go around me. It was the first real physical contact we'd had since we emerged from the basement the day before, but for some reason I didn't try to pull away. Actually, it felt good to have him hold me, to feel him gently stroke my hair while I cried myself out. Afterward, he didn't speak, but just let me pull away and flee into the guest bedroom. It should have been awkward, but strangely, it wasn't. Somehow he seemed to know that his silent comfort was what I had needed.

That night I actually managed to sleep, and when I woke the next day I felt almost human, although it still seemed strange to wake up alone in the guest room bed instead of the one I'd shared with Smike for the past few months. You get used to sleeping with someone, after all, the sound of their breathing, the little movements they make, even the obnoxious way Smike used to steal all the covers.

I padded out to the kitchen, and while I saw evidence that Mike had been up already -- he'd left half a pot of coffee for me, and the morning paper was still spread across the dining room table -- I didn't see him anywhere. Although I'd overslept, it was still fairly early, just a little before nine o'clock.

Not knowing what else to do, I got myself some coffee and settled myself down at the dining room table to take a look at the paper. For obvious reasons I hadn't paid much attention to what was happening in the world lately, but as I picked up the local section, I got the sudden idea that maybe I'd see something about Will in there. After all, he'd been a fairly prominent figure at All Saints. Shouldn't there be one of those little pieces toward the back of the paper with a headline like "Local Clergyman Missing -- Foul Play Suspected" or something similar?

As I sat there, puzzling over the mystery, Mike emerged from the laundry room, which meant he'd probably been down in the basement. God knows why. I knew I couldn't have brought myself to go back in there. Although I knew intellectually that Sauron's gateway had been destroyed, I still didn't want to go anywhere near the spot where it had stood. The portal where Will had disappeared.

In his hand Mike held the little tachyon detector Sauron had built. I raised an inquiring eyebrow, and Mike said, "I figured I'd use this to get some readings. But it's clean -- I couldn't detect anything. Whatever energy was gathered there has been completely dispersed."

"Well, thank God for that," I remarked. Then I laid the paper down and asked, "Mike, how long does it take before someone's reported as missing?"

He didn't bother to inquire as to which missing person interested me. Instead, frowning slightly, he replied, "It depends on how long it takes for someone to notice that they're missing. I think it has to be at least forty-eight hours or something, though."

Barely that much time had passed since Will Gordon had come to my rescue, but surely someone would have noticed his absence almost immediately. After all, he'd told me that he had appointments scheduled for most of the day he'd disappeared -- surely one of those people would have commented that he hadn't shown up and hadn't been seen since early that afternoon?

"Oh," I said, feeling a little deflated. Even if someone had reported Will missing, it wasn't the sort of thing the papers would have picked up on yet.

The weird thing was that Mike and I had never been able to locate Will's car. After we'd gotten ourselves cleaned up, Mike had driven us all the way around the block, but we hadn't seen the Barracuda. In San Marino there's no overnight parking on the street without a permit, and Mike had even gone back out a little before six to see if there were any unfamiliar vehicles on our block that had gotten parking tickets, but no soap. It was as if Will had flown over here or something.

"I was trying to figure out what to do with this," Mike said, and laid the tachyon detector down on the dining room table.

I eyed it uneasily. The thing looked completely innocuous, but I couldn't forget that Sauron had built it.

"I thought that was your ticket to the Nobel prize or something," I said, but the quip sounded feeble even to me.

"Maybe," Mike replied, sounding thoughtful. "But I didn't really make it, did I? I was thinking maybe I should just destroy it."

"Destroy it? Why?"

He ran a hand through his hair, the way he always did when he got distracted. Since it didn't look as if he'd combed it since he rolled out of bed that morning, his action just made it stand up even more. A faint dusting of stubble covered his jaw; obviously he'd gotten up, thrown on some jeans and a sweatshirt, and had gone directly into the basement. He was a rumpled mess, but also disturbingly cute.

"It's one thing to talk about this stuff in a theoretical way," he said. His expression darkened. "But now..."

"Now?" I asked, feeling a little confused. "I mean, Drew told me that alternate universes and all that stuff were your passion. So what changed that?"

Mike turned brooding dark eyes on me. For a few seconds he didn't say anything. Then he replied, "Because now I know what's waiting on the other side."

A chill worked its way up my spine, and I stared down at my neglected coffee. I didn't know what to say to that, because it was the simple truth, after all.

Without speaking, Mike reached down and picked up the tachyon detector, and then disappeared back into the laundry room. A few minutes of silence followed, and then I heard an abrupt pounding noise. At first I couldn't figure out what he was up to, and then I realized the sound must be Mike going at the tachyon detector with a hammer or mallet, smashing it out of existence. If only it were as easy to destroy the rest of the fallout from Sauron's interference...

The next day I drove over to Will's house. I know that sounds crazy, but somehow I needed to see it. Besides, maybe I could get one of his neighbors to say something about his mysterious disappearance. Grasping at straws, absolutely, but a lack of closure drives me nuts faster than just about anything else.

It was another mild, early winter day. A little cooler than it had been, maybe, but still a far cry from the storm that had hit us a week ago. I parked in front of the house next door to Will's, then got out and approached the place. Then I stopped dead, staring up at it in confusion.

Oh, it looked about the same -- a big brown Craftsman-style home with a smooth green front lawn and flower beds bordering the front walk. But instead of the somewhat scrubby irises and poppies that had bloomed there earlier, these flower beds had been planted for the season with rows of poinsettias. A large wreath hung from the front door, and I could see strings of unlit icicle lights hanging from the eaves.

The biggest difference, however, were the two little girls playing in the front yard. They had a plastic pail full of that thick chalk kids use to mark up sidewalks, and they were busily sketching out a hopscotch grid on the cement walkway that led to the front door. I'm not very good at estimating kids' ages, but I figured they were probably around five and seven, give or take.

"Um, hi!" I called out uncertainly. I stayed on the sidewalk, a few inches back from the start of the pathway in front of the house. The last thing I needed was for someone to come out and give me a ration of crap for trespassing or something.

The older of the two girls looked up at me. She had light brown hair pulled back into a sloppy ponytail and big brown eyes. Planting her hands on her hips, she gave me a direct look and said, "I'm not supposed to talk to strangers."

Great. Somehow I managed to manufacture a smile and slap it on. Then I said, "Well, my name's Sarah. Am I a stranger if you know my name?"

She paused to consider that. "I dunno."

Well, this was going to take all day. My brain was trying to figure out what on earth they'd be doing here. Will had told me he wasn't married, and I had believed him. Then where the hell had these two kids come from? Then I suddenly recalled how he'd mentioned he had a sister. Maybe that sister had kids. Maybe they'd come out here to try to find out about Will.

"Are you staying here at your Uncle Will's house?" I asked.

That question just got me a puzzled look. The girl poked a considering finger into the gap in her mouth where her front tooth should have been, then said, "I don't have an Uncle Will. We live here with our mommy and daddy. I have an Uncle Jason, though," she added, as if she'd somehow picked up on the look of consternation that I felt cross my face.

What the hell was going on? I knew this was Will's house -- I'd been through a lot the past few days, but I wasn't so stupid that I couldn't match an address. Anyway, the rest of the house looked pretty much the same, except for the minor alterations I'd already noted, so it was obviously the same place.

"How long have you lived here?" Stupid question, I suppose -- even if Will had been declared dead in such a short an amount of time, which I highly doubted, I didn't think another family could have moved in and gotten settled quite that fast.

The girl's brown eyes widened. At that point her little sister spoke up. "Mommy brought me home from the hospital here. After they took me out of her tummy," she added helpfully.

So OK -- that meant they had to have lived here for at least five years. Which also meant it couldn't have been Will's house, at least not the house where I had sat in the cozy yellow kitchen with him, or where I'd seen a hole poked in the garage roof by an unfriendly tree branch.

Head swimming, I said, "OK -- thanks," and backed away. I felt as if I were going to faint, but somehow I managed to make it back inside my car. Then I sat there in the driver's seat, staring out through the windshield without really seeing anything. How could any of this be happening? Had the world gone completely insane?

After a few minutes, I felt steady enough to drive. I turned the key in the ignition, pulled away from the curb, and headed back down Los Robles toward All Saints.

It looked exactly the same, thank God...at least until I wandered down the shabby hallway where Will's office was located. I paused outside his door, and stared at the unfamiliar words on the nameplate. "Fr. Joseph Michelson." What the hell?

"Can I help you?"

I turned to see an older man wearing a clerical collar looking at me with kind dark eyes. "Um...I'm not sure," I replied. "I'm looking for Father Gordon. I thought this was his office?"

"Father Gordon, you say?" the priest asked. "We don't have anyone with that name on our staff here. Are you sure he was with All Saints?"

Was I sure of anything anymore? I didn't know what to say, but it seemed obvious to me that Will Gordon had left no more of a mark here at his church than he had at the home he had once occupied. "My mistake," I mumbled, then fled, ignoring the man's worried question as to whether I was all right.

Unfortunately, I was far from all right.

Since I didn't know what else to do, I poured out my story to Mike once I got home. He'd been sitting in the living room with his laptop, that rapid-fire typing I remembered so well coming to my ears even as I entered the house, but he immediately put the computer aside once he saw the look on my face.

Once I was finished, he sat quietly for a minute, a frown pulling at his brows. Then he said, "It sounds like a complete collapse of that particular wave function."

If I hadn't been so close to hysteria, I might have laughed. Instead, I just snapped, "English, please!"

He shrugged. "Sorry, but that is English -- it's just physics. All I'm saying is that maybe once Will had done what he was meant to do, the particulars of his existence erased themselves."

"So you're saying it's like he never existed?" How could that be possible? I remembered everything about him -- the sound of that Massachusetts accent of his, the way the lines at the corners of his eyes crinkled when he smiled...the feel of his lips on mine.

"Not exactly. It's a little more complicated than that." Mike pushed himself to the edge of the couch and faced me, fingers tapping against his knees as he appeared to work through the problem. "You remember him, because you knew him in his true state in Middle Earth. And I remember him because I had Sauron living in my brain for three months, and of course Sauron knew him from Middle Earth as well. But everyone else -- " He lifted a hand and made a waving gesture, as if to indicate the rest of the world outside -- "They have no reason to remember him, because once he'd done what he needed to do, once he'd saved you and left this universe, that particular wave function ceased to exist."

My brain tried to unravel all this and promptly gave up. I repeated, "So you're saying he never really existed."

"It's not that simple, Sarah." To my surprise, he reached out and took my hands in his. His fingers felt warm against mine, which were chilled with shock. For a second I thought about pulling away, but I decided that I actually liked the warmth of his hands against mine. It made me feel a little less alone. "He existed for you. Somehow, through whatever force or mechanics or grace or whatever you want to call it, he came into being here to stop Sauron, to free you. I don't know if it was God or Eru or the power of love." After he said that, Mike's mouth tightened a little. Patient and understanding he'd been -- more than I could have imagined, actually -- but no man likes to think about the woman he loves being in love with someone else. "Maybe it was the one last thing he had to do to tip the cosmic balance sheet back in his favor. Maybe now he can finally rest." He sighed, and lifted his shoulders once again. "But I don't know for sure. This is all just speculation."

Possibly, but somehow Mike's words comforted me more than I thought they would. Oh, the pain was still there, along with my disbelief that someone so real could have been ripped from the fabric of the world with no one apparently noticing. If nothing else, however, my experiences had taught me that it really was possible to believe six impossible things before breakfast and all that. Besides, the idea that Will might have finally found absolution for the Lord of the Nazgûl's endless years of evil made the ache a little easier to bear.

"So what now?" I asked finally, feeling a little helpless.

Mike's hands tightened on mine. "Make his sacrifice mean something," he said.

And I did. I'm not saying it was easy; despite Mike's hypothesis for what had happened to Will, I kept checking the newspaper, one portion of my mind telling me that there was no way he could have been pulled from the fabric of this world without a few dangling threads left behind. But I found nothing. And as the days and eventually weeks went on, I realized I never would.

One odd thing, happened, though. I was in Old Pasadena doing some last-minute Christmas shopping a week later, and I actually passed crazy physicist Rupert as I headed down Raymond toward the parking structure where I'd left my car. The pale blue eyes fastened on me, and for a second I thought I saw the faintest flicker of recognition there. But then he just shook his head and disappeared into Lucky Baldwin's. I guess some things never change.

And some things do. Or maybe it's just that they finally become clear.

I hadn't been able to understand what Will had been driving at that last time we met in his offices, but as the days passed and I still couldn't bring myself to move back in with my parents, I finally began to realize what it was that he'd been trying to tell me.

Love doesn't always come thundering in on a big white horse, sweeping you away like a heroine on the cover of one of those bodice-rippers my mother doesn't think I know she reads and which she hides in her nightstand drawer. Sometimes it comes quietly, surrounding you like the sudden warmth you feel when you come home on a cold winter night and pull a blanket around you. And then you turn, and find it unlooked for in the face of a friend.

I've been to Middle Earth and back. I've seen things no one in this world should have ever been forced to witness. I've known the love of a man the world once thought lost, and lived to see his redemption. Yet with all the terror and glory, the doubt and pain, I find that at last I've come full circle, and have found love in the arms of my dearest friend.

I've come home.