Simon Allende went through what he supposed were the usual emotions—shock, joy, anger, confusion—in less than an hour after Commander Luccio told him. The shock didn't last very long; maybe a minute or so. The anger bloomed and faded in about five. Confusion took about forty-five minutes to dissipate, even after Luccio had sat him down and explained what had happened very slowly, in short sentences with words of less than two syllables. And the joy… the joy still lingered quietly in the back of his heart.
What he was feeling most right now was hurt. And worried.
The odd part was that he wasn't really hurt because of Maggie, per se. She'd had her orders; she'd done what she had to. That Luccio hadn't trusted him enough to tell him the truth, or let him go with Maggie to help her, that hurt. Surely he could have helped? He was smart, quick, and capable, and more, he was Maggie's best friend. Surely they could have worked something out.
Luccio didn't apparently think so, and Simon had stopped that line of questioning pretty fast. It didn't matter much, anyway. He gathered from what Luccio had not said that Maggie needed a hand, which meant it was past time to be going, which was where the worry came in.
Funny, though. Maggie didn't look like she needed support. She perched on his couch, her legs drawn up to her chest and her chin resting on her knees, watching him thoughtfully as he went about making tea; he knew from past experience that neither of them would drink it, but there was something rather nice about holding a warm mug of tea while you talked.
Simon brought her a mug, watched critically as she unwound herself and took it. "God, you're thin," he said, and sat down beside her.
She made a face. "Ninety-two pounds," she said, and Simon winced. She was supposed to be about a hundred and twenty.
"Eat a sandwich, woman."
She made a face again, this time at him. "I didn't do it on purpose. You think I want to look like a twelve-year-old again?"
He watched her for a moment as she stared down into her mug, then asked, quietly, "Then what happened?"
Maggie shrugged, and did not look at him.
"C'mon, Mags," he said, after a long pause. "It's me."
"Stress," she said, flatly.
Simon didn't quite have the courage to press further.
She stared into the mug as if all the answers lay in the swirling tea. He stared at her, categorizing all the tiny little differences two years had left in his dearest friend; thin lines between her eyes, pale blonde streaks in her dark hair. She must have dyed it. Prominent cheek- and collarbones; she'd gain back the weight in time, he thought, but he wasn't sure if those lines would leave her eyes.
She looked up suddenly, and gave a thin smile when she caught him staring. "Look like hell, do I?"
"Not quite hell," Simon said, thoughtfully. "Purgatory, maybe. Did you dye your hair?"
She nodded, a quick, clipped motion, and laughed a little bitterly. "Blonde was a mistake. I look like Mom when I'm blonde."
He put an arm around her shoulders and hugged her. "She'd be proud of you, Maggie."
"You think so?" She didn't sound like she believed him, but she also didn't wait for an answer. "Thanks, by the way. For not making me apologize."
Simon shrugged. "You're not the one who needs to apologize," he said, dryly. "That little duty lies at the Commander's door."
Maggie made a startled noise. "What'd Morgan ever do to you?"
"Wrong Commander." He hugged her shoulders again. "I don't think I'll ever forgive Luccio for making you do that."
"I…" She paused, looking vaguely surprised, and then said, "You know, I did kind of have a choice in it."
Simon sniffed. "I shall persist in my delusions and you will allow me to keep them. For my sanity's sake."
She giggled. "If you insist."
They stared at their mugs for another long silence, but this one was comfortable, companionable. That hadn't taken very long, Simon thought, absently patting Maggie's shoulder. It was almost like she'd never been away. Almost.
"Maggie?" he asked, finally. "What happened?"
She went still, her spine stiff, and her knuckles whitened on the mug. "I… a lot of things," she said, carefully. "Why?"
"I want to know," he said, choosing his words with great care. "I couldn't be there to help you then, so… I want to help you now."
Silence, then… "I faked my death," she said.
"I know." Quiet hurt made him add, "I was there, remember?"
"Yeah," she said, and sighed. "I guess Luccio told you…"
"…that she arranged the whole thing, yes." He shook his head, and put his tea on the side table. Maggie had abandoned hers a minute before. "I just wish she'd told me. Somehow. I… I went to your father."
Maggie touched the silver star at her throat, her focus, and nodded. "He told me. I didn't want to do it with you there. I figured you'd feel better if I'd gone off on my own and died than if you couldn't save me." Her voice rose, turning the last into a question.
But this was not about him, or how he felt, and he had no intention of letting her turn the conversation that way. "Maybe if you'd actually died, but you didn't, so it doesn't matter. Then what?"
She looked at him, considering, then shrugged. "I went underground, changed my name, set up a life near where the Maligare had set up shop. We have an informant there, Petra Casale, she just told everyone I was a distant cousin and we worked it out like that." She paused a moment, and stared across the room. "That was the hardest part, I think. Actually being someone else. I had to give up everything I believed in and become Ellie—that was the name I picked, Ellie. I had to believe what she believed, and be who she was, and she wasn't—she wasn't a very nice person."
Simon put both arms around here then, and kissed her forehead, and said nothing.
Maggie took a deep breath before she went on, but she did not cry. "When I finally got into the compound—and that took about a year and a half, it was the reason I was gone so long. When I got in, they put me to guarding people. Sacrifices to the Corpsetakers."
He sucked in a breath. "There were Corpsetakers?"
"Two," she said, and sighed. "I knew they were there. R&D worked out a trap for them and that was one of my jobs, to set them up. And I never saw… but they took two people away, and then the next time I saw them they'd be dead. I think I'm glad I didn't see it. Ellie wasn't."
"You know I almost got caught once?" She shifted so she could hug him back, or cling—it varied. "They dragged me up to the guy running the whole show and told him I was a Warden. He looked at them, and looked at me, and asked them which Warden, I think 'cause he liked me."
The pause hung for a while, until Simon said, "Or you'd be dead."
She started, blinked, as if she'd gotten lost in a memory. "Yeah. Basically. But they told him Margaret Dresden, and he told them she'd been dead for nearly two years, and the sad part was he was fucking right. I wasn't Maggie then, I was Ellie, and I hated her, I hated being her but I had to be her. I hated it."
Simon answered the question she wouldn't ask. "You aren't her. You were never her. You're Maggie, my Maggie, and if you start becoming Ellie again I'll kick your ass. Deal?"
Thank God, thank God, she laughed. It was only a little laugh, and rather wet, but it was a laugh. He hugged her fiercely.
"Deal," she mumbled, a little muffled in his shoulder.
She stayed silent for a while after that, content to be held, until something visibly occurred to her and she sat up a little. "Hey, Simon? Is it always that messy?"
"What?" Simon asked, startled out of his own dark thoughts.
He choked, and stared at her. "Maggie, you are not a virgin."
"I am with men." She paused, then added, "Was, I guess. Is it always that messy?"
He stared at her, and began to feel a little nauseous. "Well, there is a certain amount of guck involved… Maggie, what are you saying?"
"I had sex with one of the leaders in order to get in," she said, and then rolled her eyes. "Don't look like that, I promise it wasn't traumatizing. It was just gross."
"If you say so," Simon said, watching her face closely.
"I'm fine," Maggie said, not unkindly. She laughed, suddenly. "Anyway, when he did that whole melodramatic 'Why, Ellie, why,' thing I told him 'cause he was a lousy lay. Worth it for the face."
"But you're sure you're okay."
Maggie rolled her eyes again and snuggled close again. "It is absolutely the least painful memory in this whole impossible mess. It's not like I haven't used a dildo before."
Simon thought about that for a moment.
"Hey, Mags? Remember the TMI thing?"
She laughed. "Okay, okay, I'll shut up. If it helps any, you're the only one who got that little detail. Not even my sister heard about that."
"That's because you love your sister and want her to remain unscarred," he retorted. "Whereas you take a sadistic pleasure in tormenting me."
It came out with a little more hurt than he'd meant.
Maggie stilled, then pushed herself properly away, got up on her knees and took his face between her hands, the better to look him in the eye. They'd soulgazed long ago, so there was no fear on that account. She just wanted… what did she want?
"Listen to me," she said, quietly. "I did not do this to you. I did not do this for you, either. I did it because I had orders, because it was the right thing to do, and because nobody else can do what I do. I did it because I promised to keep people safe and because this was the only way I knew how to keep that promise. I did it because I love you, and I love my family, and I love this world, and I want to keep that all the same way. So don't you dare develop a martyr complex over this or I'll… do something unspecified but horrible."
He smiled, rather in spite of himself. "Roast me over a slow fire?"
"Something of that sort," Maggie allowed, generously, dropping her hands and sitting back on her heels. "But slower. And more horrible."
"Gotcha." Simon plucked an invisible pen and paper out of the air, and pretended to take notes. "Slow and horrible death. I'll be good."
"See that you do." She impulsively went back up on her knees and kissed his forehead. "I missed you. You make me feel like me again."
"Glad to help, sweetheart." Simon hesitated, then slung an arm around her skinny shoulders and pulled her tumbling back into his arms. "Don't do it again."
She snorted. "It wouldn't work again. Speaking of, don't try that trick again or I'll dislocate your elbow."
He laughed, and hugged her. "It's good to have you back."
He knew she'd know what he meant.