A/N: Voila-- the end of this story. Many thanks to all who commented and I hope you enjoy.
Epilogue: Why I Shouldn't Have Done Anything Differently
They wouldn't stop playing "Christmas Time in Washington" on the radio.
I ground my teeth, but refrained from actually changing the station. I had promised myself to at least try and get a little Christmas spirit this holiday season. Unfortunately, this announcer seemed to think that Christmas spirit consisted of playing the same terrible song six times an hour, and discussing the designer dress that the First Lady was planning on wearing to her winter Gala, done in particularly garish green and red stripes.
All right, maybe there was something redeeming about this song. There had to be a reason why she kept playing it on the radio.
"It's Christmas Time in Washington," the singer crooned, finally nearing the end, "America's home town." I just barely suppressed my gag reflex.
"Now isn't that just a wonderful song?" said the saccharine voice of the female disc jockey, "it just calls up that Christmas Spirit, doesn't it?"
"Goddamn it," I said, standing up, "Bugger Christmas spirit!" I knocked the radio to the floor with a very satisfying smack, ignoring Artemis's reproving look.
"Come on," I said, stomping to the kitchen to refill my coffee cup, "don't tell me that you like this song too! Does everyone go crazy around Christmas?"
Artemis yawned and settled back down on the couch.
"Dumb cat," I said, taking my coffee back with me to the living room. Books littered the coffee table, all of which described the improbable subject matter of brass belt buckle brands used in regiments during the Spanish American War. I had to give old Mr. Thomas a research report on them tomorrow because he had reached a critical point in his novel. How brass belt buckles could be critical to any novel was beyond my understanding, but far be it from me to question the man who held my paycheck.
Not to mention a "get out of rules free" pass to the Library of Congress.
I cursed, remembering that I had to get those books back to the main reading room or suffer permanent disbarment from its hallowed stacks.
While Mr. Thomas paid me enough to keep the apartment without having to find a roommate, I could still not afford the dubious freedom of private transportation. Still cursing, I struggled into my heaviest down jacket, scarf, gloves, earmuffs and hat before shoving the books into a worn canvas bag and rushing to the bus stop.
Despite my precautions, I was shivering and panting by the time I made it to the stop. I had discovered that one does not recover from the combined effects of pneumonia, blood poisoning and some unidentifiable virus very quickly. In fact, for the first few weeks the doctors hadn't even been sure I was going to make it. Even though I was nominally recovered, I still got cold easily and my stamina, never outstanding, was downright pathetic.
I fell asleep on the bus, but someone stepped on my foot just before I reached my stop. I walked inside warily, peering around corners for any sign of Julie the librarian. Reassured that the coast was clear, I climbed the stairs to the Jefferson reading room, and walked up to the desk. Jonathan mimed relief when he saw me coming.
"Whew, I thought you weren't going to show. It would have been my ass on the line, you know, Miss Campbell."
I smiled. "That's Ms. Campbell to you, sonny boy, and don't you think that's why I braved the elements to come down here?"
"Braved the elements? Serena, it's thirty degrees outside."
I shivered. "Don't even mention it. I nearly died coming here." With a grunt I heaved the bag onto the table, and handed him the books.
"I don't suppose you'd let me help warm you up a little," he said hopefully, checking the books back into the system.
I smiled and patted him on his hand. "Not today, Jonathan. I'm a busy girl who doesn't have time for young rakes like you in my life. You want someone who can take care of you, who can darn your socks and massage your feet when you come home from a hard days work..."
"Come on, Serena. I'm asking for a date, not a life commitment!"
But that's what I want, I thought unexpectedly. "Maybe later, Jonathan."
"Oh, that's what you always say."
"Maybe that should tell you something," I said, raising my eyebrows and walking away.
"Don't be so sure of yourself," he said. "They all succumb eventually."
Well, Jonathan was pretty cute, but...somehow I doubted it.
I walked slowly down my street, staring at the naked trees shivering in the lamplight. It was cold outside, but I didn't consider it worth the extra effort to move quickly. Besides, I had missed my Georgetown streets during that long month and a half in the hospital. The off-white motif, I supposed, was meant to have been comforting, but I enjoyed the way the night rendered the world in shades of gray. Somehow, I just didn't want color anymore. Looking up, I saw the familiar outline of the lion's flanking Petunia's doorway. Shrugging my shoulders a little, I walked up to the door.
Petunia opened it almost as soon as I rung the doorbell and shooed me inside. She had been unfazed by the damage Ushiro and his men had wrought, and within a week had made it look like a home again. The only thing missing was Mamoru's ruined painting, but the one that he had made for me now hung in my own apartment, taking my breath away each time I looked at it.
"How are you?" she asked, after we had sat down in her library. Artemis, who had apparently sought better company once I left, now jumped onto my lap and purred contentedly as I pet him. After his prolonged adventure with Mina, I had a feeling that he was glad to be back with Petunia.
"Oh, fine," I answered, staring past her at a bookshelf, "Fine, fine, fine. I still feel a little weak now and again, but...it's expected. And the job is great. Yeah, everything is fine."
I grimaced internally. Yeah, right, Serena.
"That's good," Petunia said.
It occurred to me that there was a question that had been bothering me for a while that I had never asked her. "Petunia, how exactly did I get involved with this anyway? I mean, did you even mean for me to be there?"
She smiled a little and shrugged her shoulders. "To be honest, I picked this neighborhood because it has a lot of mild magic users, so it would mask my activities. So when I needed to hide Mina, I just set her up in the apartment across from me. I got a sense that you would be a good roommate for her to have, and I knew you had a facility with magic, but...no. I thought nothing special about you, at first. It was only when you stopped by my house that second time that I realized you could help me."
I nodded. "So you mean, no prophecies, no oracles at my birth, no eclipses, no royal parentage?"
She laughed. "I doubt it."
"That's good. I like to think that I managed to have an adventure entirely under my own steam."
December 24th Lita came to visit me. This was not a rare occasion, of course. Since she was living with Petunia now, she often bopped across the street to talk about the latest thing that she had Petunia had done together. This time, however, she seemed more serious. I was huddled on the couch, wrapped in a heavy blanket, drinking hot chocolate and trying not to hate the radio for playing "Christmas Time in Washington." I felt almost too sad to cry, which is pretty pathetic on Christmas Eve. Lita sat down next to me and handed me a letter. My hands shook as I took it; I knew before she said it who it was from.
"It's Mamoru's letter. You know, the one he wrote just before he," Lita paused. "Gave himself up to the Kojin. I got Petunia to translate it for you. That's what this is." She handed me another letter. "So, this is your Christmas present. You are not allowed to open it until tomorrow, okay?" I nodded dumbly, placing the two letters on the coffee table.
"And now I have something else to say." I looked at her expectantly. "You are being very stupid," she declared. "You love Mamoru, he loves you...so what are you still doing here? You know that he must be just as sad as you are."
It was the first time that anyone had dared mention Mamoru around me, and instead of feeling upset, I only felt relief. "I don't know what's holding me back," I said, sniffling. "I'm just...I'm just afraid, I guess. I'm afraid that if I go to see him, he won't want me anymore. I didn't tell him the real reason I didn't want him to come back with me! I just told him we needed time apart. What if he has gotten over me already?"
Lita shook her head. "Serena, you're not just stupid, you're an idiot. Do you ever notice the way he looks at you?"
"I did," I wailed, burying my head in my hands. "But I'm never going to see him again!"
"Okay," Lita said. "I'll see what I can do."
But I was too busy being miserable to even hear her.
Christmas day was pretty quiet. At around eleven Petunia, Lita and I all sat around her Christmas tree and opened each other's presents. I saved Lita's for last. Petunia gave me a beautifully inlaid music box that opened onto a different scene every time you lifted the top.
"How did you--" I began.
"Oh, I didn't," she said, "it's a rarity from the Tanay."
"Another country on that planet. It's near the south."
I had spent a lot of time thinking of a good present to get Petunia. She stared at the tiny package curiously, and then ripped off the sloppy wrapping paper. Once she saw what was inside, she started to laugh until tears formed in her eyes.
"What? What did she give you?" Lita asked curiously, and stared even more curiously when Petunia revealed he very own DC Public Library card.
"I'll tell you the story later," Petunia said. "So, what did you get?"
I gave Lita a leather bound edition of The Secret Garden, one of my favorite books of all time. Petunia gave her, of all things, a traditional long and short sword. Lita had grown incoherent at the sight of these weapons, and then proceeded to bear hug Petunia for a minute.
"What do you want those for?" I asked.
"I'm going to be a warrior!" Lita said, and I could not bite back my groan.
I waited till I was by myself before I read the letter. I had no doubt that it would send me into hysterics, and I was right, but what I did not expect was how happy it would make me.
I don't suppose that I ever imagined that I would be writing a letter like this, but then again, lots of things have happened over the past year that I never would have expected. I hope you know that you are one of them. I sometimes have to laugh when I think of the number of times I have tried to tell you how much I love you, and many times I have failed.
I love you. Did you know that? Sometimes when I look at you I can barely breathe; I am so overcome with the sight of you, the smell of you, the way your hair glints in the sunlight, the way your eyes narrow when you are annoyed with me, the way your nose scrunches up when you're hungry. I love all of you, and the scary thing is that I love you more now than I did before, and I am sure that tomorrow, if I live to see tomorrow, I will love you more than I do today. I don't even know how to describe what you are to me, except by saying: everything.
I wish that I had the courage to say this to you in person, to watch your eyes light up as you realize that I will never be capable of loving anyone but you. Instead, I write it when I am not quite sure I will live to see the morning.
Do you know when I first knew? I'm not sure if you'll even remember this, but it was back at the temple. That novice priest was lecturing me about 'refined society' and you rescued me. You came tottering forward in that kimono you didn't know how to wear and those shoes you didn't know how to walk on and somehow saved me.
I don't have much time left, but I wanted you to know this. I am terrified to die tomorrow. We've had such little time to spend together, when we should rightfully have a lifetime.
Good bye, Serena.
I cried myself to sleep, imagining his scent on my clothes.
I sulked most of the day after Christmas. I walked between my bedroom and the kitchen and the living room perhaps five hundred times that day, and opened the refrigerator without taking anything out what felt like a thousand.
I looked at the radio, lying innocuously on the counter.
"At least they can't be playing that dumb song anymore."
Artemis meowed. "I can't believe it," I said, turning on the radio, "you really do like that song."
"And as part of our after-Christmas special, we will be playing--"
"No, don't say it!"
"--everyone's favorite 'Christmas Time in Washington!'"
I sent the radio flying across the kitchen counter, narrowly missing Artemis.
"Damn it." I grabbed my coat. "I've got to get out of here."
I wandered around the neighborhood for a while, trying not to remember the last time I had done this, only four months ago. Artemis followed at my heels, looking almost as though he were there to keep an eye on me.
"Listen, I'm fine Artemis," I said. "Go back to Petunia."
He just shook his head and continued to follow me. I sighed. Well, I had learned from experience that there was no point in arguing with that cat when he wanted to do something his way.
"I've just got one question," I said, turning to him, "If you're so smart, then why did you let Mina carry you in a picnic basket on an airplane?"
Artemis looked a little sheepish, and I laughed. "Don't feel so smart anymore, do you?" I said.
"You talkin' to me?"
I wheeled around, for a surprised second wondering if Artemis could actually talk. But his feline mouth was conspicuously closed, and I soon realized that the voice belonged to a guy sitting on the street corner, wearing a worn coat about as heavy as mine.
"Oh, sorry," I said, blushing a little. "I was talking to my cat."
Why did I say that, I thought, but he just smiled. "I do it too, sometimes. I don't suppose you have any change on this holiday season..."
The request surprised me; I really had been away from DC a little too long. What happened to you, I wondered, fishing in my pockets for whatever spending change I had with me. Had he traveled to another world? Had someone abandoned him? Had he abandoned them?
I handed him all I had, which was about ten dollars.
"Merry Christmas, ma'am," he said, pocketing the money. I was about to leave, but then turned around again.
"Do you ever wonder what you could have done to change things?" I asked.
He stared at me for a moment, and I wondered why I had asked that. "No," he said, "This is where I am. Gotta keep going, you know?"
"Maybe so," I said. "Merry Christmas."
I wandered past the yellow-tinted windows of Cluck-U Chicken, watching Harvey terrorize another set of minimum wage employees with a tiny smile of amusement.
"At least some things never change," I said.
"You can't tell me that's not funny," I said, gesturing towards the window while I turned towards him.
But Artemis wasn't hissing at me. He was hissing at a chicken.
"That can't possibly be..."
But it was. There was, improbably, a chicken sitting in the middle of the sidewalk, plucking at Artemis's fur in a determined fashion. It flapped its wings and squawked at Artemis, who backed up ever so slightly.
"Would it be too much to ask just what a chicken is doing in the middle of the sidewalk!" I said a little hysterically. "All right," I said, "this is not our concern, Artemis. We will just leave and let who ever is crazy enough to keep a pet chicken have it, and a visit with their psychiatrist too!"
Trying to avoid the sight of that brainless bird puttering around on the sidewalk, I walked away with Artemis trotting practically between my legs.
Apparently having gotten it through that little birdy brain that I was leaving, it chased after me, nearly barreling into the back of my leg in its haste.
"What is wrong with this thing?" I asked no one in particular. "How the hell did a live chicken get loose in the middle of Washington, DC?"
Giving the bird a firm kick in the rear end, I turned back around. It squawked, and waddled towards me.
"You aren't going to follow me home," I said, almost pleading.
It bobbled its head a little, and I groaned. "It nodded," I said. "First Artemis, and now a chicken. Fine, come home with me. Maybe when I get enough strange animals, Mrs. Aiken will call the SPCA and then I can claim that I'm the reincarnation of Noah. It ought to at least make the five o'clock news. It's not so bad a way to go, after all."
The pedestrians were staring at me a little strangely, but few seemed to note the anomaly of a chicken on the sidewalk. I continued towards my apartment.
"What kind of dumb chicken hangs out in front of a fast-food place, anyway? You know what Harvey would have done to you if he had found you? I bet he has a whole wall of chicken heads in his basement."
The chicken squawked in alarm.
"Yeah, that's right," I said. "Be afraid, be very afraid. I just saved you from a fate worse than death."
I opened the door to my apartment, and Artemis streaked inside, getting as far from the chicken as he possibly could. I walked inside, but the chicken remained on the doorstep, looking at me with an expression that I would almost call plaintive.
"Oh, fine, come inside. You might as well."
It waddled across the living room and settled down on the throw rug beneath the coffee table, plucking up bits of popcorn that I hadn't had a chance to vacuum yet.
"Well, at least you're good for something."
Sighing, I collapsed onto the couch, wondering what the hell had just happened. Was there really a kitchen in the middle of my living room, or was this a cruel trick of an overworked imagination? With a sinking feeling I remembered something Petunia had mentioned about chickens possibly being my bond animal and groaned.
"Maybe I need to go to sleep."
I idly watched the chicken wander around my living room, checking behind the television and under the couch for what, I do not know. Eventually it made a running leap onto the coffee table, sending the heap of papers flying.
"What are you doing, you idiot bird?" I shouted, trying to get it back down. It flapped its wings at me, and continued to pluck at the papers. Finally, it settled down, having uncovered some object that it found particularly interesting.
"What is..." but then I saw. I had taken the amulet off yesterday and forgotten to take it off the coffee table. The bird plucked at it for a few moments, glanced at me, and then jumped off the table.
"Well, what the hell was that for?" I asked, but the bird was already making a beeline for my door. As soon as it got there it began flapping its wings and making noises about as pleasant as fingernails scratching a blackboard.
"Oh, you want to leave? Please, be my guest," I said, but by now I was more than a little curious. I levered myself off the couch and walked to the door. The bird stepped out of the way a little bit and quieted down. What was going on, anyway?
I opened the door.
There was a shadowy figure on the step. He looked like Mamoru but I knew that was impossible. Except, he sure looked a hell of a lot like Mamoru, even with the unfamiliar parka zipped up to his neck.
His eyes were wet, but he smiled tentatively at me.
"You...you..." I stuttered incoherently.
"I came," he said.
"Yes," I said, and then cursed myself for sounding so stupid. I remembered Lita's words: 'Do you notice how he looks at you?' And he was looking at me that way now, with that strange intensity that made my knees melt and my mouth part in desperate expectation.
"I'm sorry," we said at the same time, and then laughed.
"I should have come," I said first. "I got too scared. Even after I got better."
"I should have come anyway. I have Lita to thank that I didn't wait any longer."
"Lita talked to you?"
He laughed. "You could put it like that, yes." He paused. "So...I have to ask you something."
"Yes?" I said a little breathlessly.
"Will you...will you do me the favor of spending your life with me, going on wild adventures and exploring the world?"
I stared at him until the silence became deafening. The love of my life stood in front of me, offering me my dream. I somehow doubted that life could get any better. I let out an uninhibited shriek of delight and kissed him. Both of his arms wrapped themselves strongly around my torso and picked me up.
As he swung me around, I rubbed my face against his slightly unshaved cheek and laughed a little. We kissed once, desperately, and then again more gently.
"I missed you so much. I don't think I've ever been so stupid in my life," I said.
"I wouldn't count on it."
"Insult me again, I even missed that!"
"You must have been really desperate."
"Didn't I say so?"
"How often do you say what you mean?"
I paused. "I am now. I love you Mamo-chan. I'm sorry it took me so long to tell you that."
He set me back down on the ground carefully, and looked into my eyes.
"You mean it," he said.
"Of course I mean it. What did you think?"
He shook his head. "I never knew what to think, and I hardly dared believe it was possible."
"Oh," I said nonchalantly, "it's quite possible, although if you don't kiss me right now, I might just--"
He took me at my word. Somewhere within that unending joy, I realized that this kind of happiness couldn't last forever. There would be problems, just like there had been before. But this time, I wouldn't run away from them. We would not walk off into the sunset together with a "happily ever after" at the end of our screen time. We would have adventures, and fights, and probably a couple more near-death experiences. We would make of our lives exactly what we wanted them to be, and we would do it together.
"I was wrong," I said, breaking off the kiss for a moment.
"There was nothing I should have done, after all. I don't regret anything."
"Even the chickens."