.god is elusive at best.

a platonic richard/margaret fic

"What are you doing here?"

Margaret Schroeder was in no mood for this today. All of Emily's things had been burned; the little girl still laying, alone and terrified, in the bed of the quarantined children's ward at the hospital. She was surrounded by others like her; little boys and girls who had fallen prey to this terrible, debilitating disease for which there was no cure. The only reason Margaret was home right now was because the doctors found her, curled up and sleeping next to her little girl, her cushla macree, and they had shooed her out. Shoo was quite a mild term for it, actually - what it had really been like was more reminiscent of dragging her out, kicking and screaming the whole way.

And now here she was, sitting in the armchair in the parlor of her home. This big, fancy house that felt so empty without Emily to help fill it. Enoch was at the office - or at Babette's, it often came to the same thing these days - and Teddy was upstairs, asleep. Margaret was alone, a state of being which she was becoming quite used to these days. She had been sitting alone with her thoughts, considering possibly reading a book to try and distract her frenzied
mind. But that was when she heard the creaking in the hallway. When she looked up, a man was standing there. A man she had not seen in this house for months. She was instantly on her guard. The double-barrel shotgun was propped against the fireplace. She stole a glance at it, hesitated, then shot out of the chair and made a beeline for it.

"Hmm. Don't." Richard Harrow warned her gruffly from the archway, letting his own shotgun slip down his sleeve. He snapped it quickly into place, aiming it at Mrs. Schroeder with a kind of calm resolve. It was true this was the woman who had once likened him to a lovable protagonist in a children's story… but it was also true this was the woman he had been sent to kill.

Margaret was in mid-reach. She knew that if she grasped the gun he would shoot her sure as sunshine. She wondered if it might not be worth it to take the risk. Emily needed her, and Teddy, sleeping innocently in his bed upstairs. When Mr. Harrow finished with her, would he put the barrel of his gun in the mouth of her babe? Would they go to the pearly gates together, hand in hand? Instantly,
Margaret knew she would not. Where she was going was a place she hoped to God that Teddy would never have to see.

She lowered her hand, but only to shoulder height. Raised her other to match it, palms turned outward, and she slowly swiveled to face the masked man.

"Mr. Harrow," she said quietly, calmly. "Please. I beg of you. Don't do this."

"Hmm. I have. No choice." Richard replied, taking a step toward her. It was not necessary to get closer. He could do his bit of business from the archway. But he didn't want to chance her making a move for her own gun again. He grimaced, his mouth pulling all the way to the right, exposing his wolflike incisors. He tried not to think about how he had sat in this very room with her and her two cherubic
children. How she had read to him, as well as them; how she had opened the book and displayed it so that he could see the pictures as she read. Who better, she had said, To have in our house? Than the mighty Tin Woodsman?

He was suddenly and inexorably consumed with guilt.

Margaret could sense the hesitation in him. He didn't want to shoot her. If he wanted to, he would have done it already. Got his business over with and left, just as she was sure he did night after night under James Darmody's employ. But instead, here he was, standing and staring at her out of his one remaining eye. The other was looking blankly at a fixed point just above her shoulder. Blind and dumb and unknowing. Margaret thought, obscurely, of Matthew 6:3. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. She reflected on this, and prayed silently for mercy from him.

"You would come into my home," she wondered of him, her brows furrowed, her eyes and her voice full of sadness, and, rather bizarrely, sympathy for this poor misguided creature with his patchwork face. "And you would shoot me, an unarmed woman who has never had any quarrel with you? A mother?" She shook her head at him in deep disapproval, as though he were just another child of hers, just a child who had done wrong. "Will you shoot my son next, Mr. Harrow? After you're done with me? Will you go upstairs and kill him while he sleeps in his bed? An innocent child who has done nothing wrong?"

Richard's jaw muscles tensed, his brows furrowing together until a deep double line of worry formed between them. "I have no orders. Hmm. To harm your son."

"You'll harm him if you murder me, Mr. Harrow," Margaret replied. "You'll take away his mother when he's not but ten years old. Would that not be the worst kind of sorrow for a child to have to bear?" Bravely, slowly, she took a step toward him, her hands still held in surrender.

"Is this the sort of man you are now?" she asked him.

"I don't know, hmm." Richard replied, shaking his head slowly from side to side, his single eye never leaving her face. "What kind of man. I am."

"I do," Margaret replied. "You're the kind of man, Mr. Harrow, who protected my children in this family's time of need. You're the kind of man who read books with us, and who made my sweet…" She had to cut herself off as tears welled in her eyes and spilled down her cheeks. Her voice grew thick with emotion. "…Who made my sweet Emily laugh when she was so fearful of you. You're the kind of man who confessed to me that sometimes you look into the
mirror and can't recall what came before. I remember these things, Mr. Harrow; I remember all these things and I know that you are not the type of man who would pull that trigger. No matter who sent you, or why."

Richard looked at her. At the small Irish woman with the long brown hair. Standing there in the parlor in her nightgown. Unarmed. Tears streaming down her face. Begging him not to kill her. Not to murder her. It was sort of strange. When he thought of all the men that he had killed, both during the war and after, for Jimmy… he did not honestly feel as though he had murdered any of them. He felt as though they were targets. Enemy soldiers he needed to take out of the way. But here, now, tonight, looking from Margaret Schroeder's
tears to the shotgun in his hands… tonight he felt, for the first time, like he would indeed be a murderer if he pulled the trigger.

He grimaced. Shook his head. Was this what he wanted to become?

Jimmy had asked him to come here. He wouldn't order another hit on Mr. Thompson, but he had no problems asking Richard to take out his lady-friend. Had no problems asking that, even when he knew that Richard had become close to her once, to her and her two children. What kind of a person would ask him to kill a woman he had once protected? What kind of a friend would ask that of him?

"Hmm. I'm sorry. Mrs. Schroeder." The words full of shame, whole and complete. He could not do this. Would not do this. Not even for Jimmy.

"This is not, hmm. The kind of man, hmm. I want to be."

And Richard Harrow lowered his gun.

He expected she would take hers off the mantle now, and shoot him in the chest. But when he looked up at her, there was only sympathy in her eyes; sympathy and pity. She shook her head and went to him, taking the shotgun from his hands and laying it down on the floor. Then she took him by the shoulders and eased him down to sit in the armchair that Enoch usually sat in, to sip his brandy late at night. She went and sat in the chair opposite him, clasping her hands in her lap and gazing briefly into the fire.

"Do you believe in Hell, Mr. Harrow?" she quietly asked.

Richard didn't have to think very long about the question. He shook his head right away. "No." he replied. "Hmm. I don't. Believe. In that sorta stuff. Anymore." The war had made him realize that no hellfire and damnation could exist which was worse than that which he had already lived through. It had also made him realize that he did not, by all rights, believe in God either. After the things that he had seen, in the gospel according to Richard Harrow, God was permanently out to lunch.

"I think. Hmm. We make. Our own Hell. For ourselves. Hmm. Every day." He grimaced deeply, his throat making a brief series of clicks and clucks as the muscles readjusted themselves. "I don't, hmm. Think. We need. God's help. With punishing ourselves. We do. A very good job, Of that, hmm. All on our own."

Margaret turned to look at him, and in that moment she understood that Richard Harrow was a very wise man. He hid it well, underneath his half-mask and his sinister voice and all his facial tics. But he had managed to say more to help her in this moment than any priest she'd ever bared her soul to in a confessional.

"My daughter is sick," she heard herself telling him. "She has polio. They say… if she survives the disease… she may never walk again."

Richard swung his head, marionette-like, toward her. Appeared to think at some great length of what to say. "Hmm. I'm sorry." was what he finally decided on, though he knew it was not enough.

"I believed I caused it," Margaret confessed, turning away from him. Looking into the fire. "I slept with a man who works for Enoch. We made love right upstairs, in the bed I share with him each night." She could see, out of the corner of her eye, how Richard turned away; for a man who had only moments ago been ready to turn her into confetti, he certainly seemed to have a sensitivity to impropriety. She ignored the urge to apologise, and continued, "I believed it was my sin which my Emily is paying for."

"Mmm." Richard murmured in reply. "I don't. Think, hmm. It works that way."

"Oh, I know that," Margaret replied, a small smile tilting her lips, both wry and sad. She reached up and tapped her temple. "Up here, I know that. But… in here…" she said, and brought her hand down to cover her heart. "In here, I know I'm being punished, Mr. Harrow. Earlier tonight I thought it was God doing the punishing. But now you've made me realize it's me. I'm punishing myself. I'm taking the blame because I cannot bear the thought of a God who would bring such misfortune unto a little girl who has not yet even learned what it means to sin."

"If you don't mind. Hmm. Me speaking. Bluntly." Richard slowly replied. "God. Is elusive. At best. And fate. Hmm. Is fickle. And cruel." He shook his head. "Things happen. Hmm. In this life. Mrs. Schroeder. I've found. Mostly for no reason. At all."

His words struck a chord with her, and Margaret turned to look at him, really look at him. At both sides of his face; life and death forever at war right out there on his features, for all the world to see. That half his face should be taken from him for no reason at all was something which chilled her down to the bone, but that Emily should contract polio for no reason at all was a concept which was nearly unthinkable.

"What am I to do, Mr. Harrow?" she blurted out quite suddenly, her eyes welling again with tears. "What am I to do, should she never walk again? My poor little girl? My poor little cushla macree?"

Richard turned to look at her, furrowing his brows. Wondering if he had heard her wrong. "I don't. Hmm. Understand."

Margaret realized herself; that she had converted to Gaelic in her anguish, and she sighed, reaching up and wiping tears self-consciously from her cheeks. "It's Gaelic," she replied. "It means 'beat of my heart'."

"Beat. Of my heart." The phrase held a certain fascination for Richard; he turned it this way and that, inspecting it from every angle as a jeweler might to a particularly interesting and rare gemstone. "Because if she. Was not there. Hmm. You would not. Be able. To continue living. Your heart, hmm. Would no longer beat." Yes, he liked that phrase. He liked it very much. "That's, hmm. What I'm missing." he realized, all at once. It was Emma he thought of, instantly Emma, always Emma. Emma had been his cushla macree. "The beat. Of my heart."

"The mighty Tin Woodsman," Margaret softly mused, and all at once reached over and slipped her hand into his, lacing their fingers together. In that instant she forgave him everything; forgave his intrusion into her home, forgave the shotgun he had raised to her. Forgave him for scaring her and for making her cry. Margaret was willing to forgive him all these things, because in that moment she understood exactly how he felt. "Whoever it is that made your heart
beat so, Mr. Harrow, I pray you find her again someday." She squeezed his hand with her own. "Maybe she can show you the way to being the kind of man you want to be."

Richard said nothing, only looked down at their joined hands. After awhile, he squeezed hers back. And then they sat that way for awhile, staring at the fire.

Two still hearts praying desperately to find their beat.