a Seafort Saga fic
Notes: Written for kangeiko for Yuletide 2011.
Summary: Nick hates shopping. Tolliver hates shopping with Nick.
"I don't give a damn what colour the curtains are! Pick something and be done with it." I shoved the swatches away. They fell from the staff lounge coffee table like fragments of broken rainbows.
"And I suppose you won't take one look," Tolliver said, testily, "decide you loathe it, and make me redo the whole thing."
"Wintermelon," I said in disgust. "Who comes up with these names?"
"Might I remind you," Tolliver said, with exaggerated patience, "that you were the one who insisted on redecorating Commandant Kearsey's office? Otherwise, we could simply have left all the furnishings in place."
"Redecorate?" I sputtered. "I want to get rid of his clutter, not replace it!"
"Easily done, sir, but even you could hardly work in a bare office."
"Tolliver-" I growled.
"Would you like the original furnishings restored?"
"No! Donate them to charity. Or better yet, have them burned." I paced. "No more gaudy luxuries. I'm running a naval academy, not a tea parlour."
"Would you like me to bring some more catalogues then?"
"No more catalogues!" If I had to look at another preening advertisement, I would shoot someone. Probably Tolliver. "Just go and pick something out."
Tolliver began to withdraw, but I forestalled him with a raised hand. "No, wait. I want to supervise this. Or who knows what monstrosity you might come back with."
"Surely you have more important-"
"No. I've decided. Take me somewhere, and I'll pick out what I need."
Tolliver sighed. "Very well, sir." He made a note.
"And nothing fancy! Just plain and serviceable. Basic."
The long line of cars snaked forward, into the maw of the parking lot. Beyond it, a garish yellow and blue building loomed like a planetoid, drawing us all into its gravity well.
"What the devil is this, Tolliver?"
"It's efficiency," he answered, as he navigated towards a parking space. Several other cars tried to beat him there, but his piloting skills outmanoeuvred them. "Everything you need in one place."
The neon sign blazed overhead, summoning a tide of shoppers through the automatic doors. This was not what I'd had in mind. I'd envisioned a small workshop, perhaps owned by the same family for generations, where the carpenter still crafted everything with his own hands. Not some giant commercial enterprise. "Tolliver-"
"You said basic. This is as basic as it gets."
Inside, a chirpy attendant handed us a fold-out map. Tolliver thanked her, and began cross-referencing it with his list. It was, I realised with dread, quite long.
Everywhere I looked, lamps glittered, rugs sprawled, and mirrors flashed. A paralysing range of options. I must have looked as panicked as I felt. Tolliver took pity on me. "Office chairs are this way," he said, herding me to the right.
It was a bewildering maze. While Tolliver inspected tags and jotted notes, I followed, trying to avoid being run over by overloaded trolleys or wild joeykids. Where were their parents? No doubt engrossed in finding the right shade of sofa, rather than disciplining their unruly offspring. I spotted one oblivious couple nearby, hand in hand, laughing over a cowprint cushion. I turned away.
In the tableware section, Tolliver stopped in front of a display of wine glasses. Handmade and unique, the tag proclaimed. "What do you think?"
I gave a noncommittal grunt.
An elderly woman stopped her trolley near us. "I have the same set at home," she confided. "Perfect for entertaining."
"I am not entertaining," I stated.
Tolliver examined a glass. "You will have guests on occasion," he observed. "You may as well be prepared."
"You can shop for frivolities in your own time. Are we done yet?"
Tolliver sighed, and put the glass back. The woman patted his arm, and said, knowingly, "It's all about compromise, dear. And never going to bed angry!"
He flashed her a brief smile, and moved on to home textiles.
"Aha, curtains," he said. "What do you think?"
"You're not serious."
Fabrics exploded with floral designs and multicoloured patterns. It was all relentlessly cheerful. Tolliver eyed them dubiously.
"Perhaps stripes," he said.
He held out one fabric in white, with red, blue and yellow piping. But I reached out for the one behind it. A beautiful blue, like the sky of Earth. I had missed it sometimes, on the long voyages through space.
I stood there, hands wrapped in the fabric, aware of Tolliver looking at me with fond exasperation. A tightness rose in my chest. It would be so easy to pretend to be a part of this world. A world where people sat down to breakfast together and shared the newspaper over toast. Normal. Happy. Alien.
I let it fall from my hands. "I don't care what colour. I told you before."
"You're already here," Tolliver said, coaxing. "You'll be looking at them all day, you may as well pick something you like."
He would never stop pushing me. Something inside me snapped. "Do you think it matters? Do you think any of it matters? It's all junk anyway!" I knew I was causing a scene, like the screaming matches between couples who disagreed over the wallpaper. But I no longer cared. "A waste of time and money. Coming here was a mistake."
I marched out, past the scandalised staff and gawping shoppers.
I sat curled against the wall of the darkened office, arms around my knees. The sole glimmer of light came from the naked glass of the window. The room had been stripped bare of furniture. Only imprints on the carpet left signs of what had been.
I tried to imagine it: a chair worn into comfortable curves, a desk burnished smooth from decades of use, a proud array of photographs on its surface. Useless. These fantasies belonged to a life I could never have. Where was home? It had been the bridge of one ship after another, years of moving from posting to posting.
Losing people every time.
A knock on the door. Tolliver entered without waiting for a response. Whatever rebuke had been on his face fled at the sight of me. "Sir. You should go home."
"Home?" I laughed. "Where is home, Tolliver? That apartment they assigned me? That's not home, that's a place to sleep."
"Then sleep. You need it." He slid to the floor beside me, our shoulders touching.
I did not look at him. I stared out the window instead. "Do you think I've never tried to put down roots? Never thought about making a home of my own? I tried with Amanda, and she died. I tried with Annie, and look how that ended. I'm sick of trying, Tolliver, sick to death of it."
"Sir," Tolliver said softly.
"It's vanity to think we can hold onto anything in this world." I pushed myself to my feet, impossibly weary. "Do what you like with this place. It doesn't matter anyway."
The curtains billowed as I opened the door to the office. They were the colour of the morning sky, laced with wisps of cloud. The walls were a paler blue, trimmed with navy. The muted grey of the carpet complemented the walls. A brass standing lamp cast its glow about the room. Two chairs for visitors, and one chair behind the desk, which was a rectangle of pine, clean and solid. It looked like it was made to last. On the wall, in a lacquered frame, hung a verse I knew well:
Through wisdom a house is built,
And by understanding it is established;
By knowledge the rooms are filled,
With all precious and pleasant riches.
My fingers tightened around the doorframe.
"This academy will be home to hundreds of cadets for years of their lives," Tolliver said. "They need someone on whom they can rely, to lead them and guide them. You're not just making a home for yourself, you're making it for them. You can't change the past. No one can. But you can build a future."
Moisture pricked at my eyes. "Damn you, Tolliver. How do you do it?"
"Because I know you."
He was right. As always. In my self-pity and self-absorption, I had lost sight of my duty. The anchor that held me fast through all storms.
I walked into my new office like a man waking from a dream, turning in slow circles. "Thank you. For all of it."
"No one said you had to do this alone," Tolliver said. "I'll be here."
"You can't know that. Everyone dies."
"Then I promise not to die." His eyes gleamed with an intensity that shook me.
"You won't lose me," Tolliver said. "Turn up like a bad penny, I will. I'm rather afraid you're stuck with me."
He was stubborn enough to keep his word too. Stubborn as a mule. Stubborn as myself. I fought a smile. Almost won.
"I don't know why you put up with me," I said at last, resting a hand on his shoulder.
His lips curved. "Because no one else will."
I pictured it in my head: someday, two old men, arguing over the newspaper and who had burnt the toast. Home was not four walls and a roof. Nor was it the material comforts within. Home was the people you found there. The people you shared your life with.
Tolliver had dropped all pretence of formality, regarding me with familiar warmth. I drew him closer, backing up until my legs hit the desk. Good workmanship. Solid.
"Sir," Tolliver warned, "this desk is brand new."
"Edgar. Close the damn curtains."