For Disclaimer, please see Chapter 1.
Misplaced People by Devize © 2004 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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Chapter 16: The Last Homely House in the West [i]
Sullivan Llewelyn owned a Volvo. It looked as if it had been making the journey between Pwllheli and Lleuadraeth for many years, and knew the way without Sullivan having to do a thing.
Striker and Morien sat in the back, Striker staring absently out of the window at the green and hilly countryside, Morien tossing idle questions and answers to the front seat. Mostly it seemed to be local gossip, nothing too taxing, nothing familiar, and all entirely safe. From time to time a word or a name would catch Strikers attention, but she remained silent. Morien was fielding questions for the both of them, she knew it, and was grateful. Occasionally, a comment was aimed directly at her: pointing out a landmark, a suggestion for a visit, a mention of an activity .
"Oh, Striker, I forgot to ask, do you have a problem with cats?" Morien asked suddenly. The first question that had actually called for Striker to speak.
"Only if they havent got a problem with me," she said. She glanced up, catching Sullivans gaze in the mirror. He was watching her. Sizing her up? Striker didnt blame him. What did he know of her? At the very least, a wreck of a woman whod simply appeared in his daughters life, bringing trouble in her wake.
"Thats a relief. Weve got three of them. I wouldnt want you spending your time sneezing," Morien continued blithely. "And theyll love you, just as long as you realise your place in the pecking order, that theyll sleep where they damn well want to, that your food is their food, and that your toes are fair game."
"No problem," Striker replied, "itll be just like living with Danny." Sullivans eyes flicked up from the road again, puzzlement wrestling with amusement in his look.
Morien laughed. "Somehow I cant believe youre that low down the pecking order at home."
"True. Dannys toes are fair game too." She finally looked away from the rear view mirror and round at Morien.
Her friends face was alive. Morien still looked pale and tired, but there was a glow of excitement about her that reminded Striker of a child at Christmas. To be this animated about going home: Striker felt a strand of envy tugging inside, but conversely gloried at the joy. It inspired her, energised her, made her believe that she could at least stay awake until the nearest bed.
The green land rushed by. In the hazy distance Striker could see mountains, holding up the blue and sleepy sky. Sheep dotted the hillsides, as if the clouds had fallen.
And she remembered, this is where she had always pictured Morien. Never in a city, never in the dark and dangerous alleys that had led her to Striker, but here, in a blue and green panorama.
Now it was Striker that didnt fit.
In time, fields transformed to buildings, and then a whole street of stone and brick, followed by another and another, huddled at the foot of the hillside. Looking ahead, they could see the faint trace of water, but the car turned and the water was lost.
And in its place was a row of houses that looked as if theyd been designed by the Brothers Grimm, or their Cymric cousins. White painted, with grey slate roofs, individually they wouldnt have looked out of place in some enchanted forest, the white paint proving to be sugar icing, the slate-tiles maybe liquorice. Together they looked like a giants Monopoly board. Four dwarf cottages equalled one kings castle.
Striker smiled. If Sleeping Beauty had been daughter of a woodsman instead of a king, this would have been her home. And now her very own Sleeping Beauty was getting out of the car and approaching the cottage that was surrounded by impenetrable thorns. Except these thorns proved to be a carefully trimmed hedge, and the vines clinging to the cottage walls were nothing more than neatly-cultivated clematis, about ready to burst its buds. All the cottages had beautiful gardens, ablaze with summer colour.
She briefly wondered why she recognised the scene... and then it came to her. The photograph. Morien and Sophie, in happier times, posing and laughing.... She felt a little twist of jealousy that was quickly consumed by her overwhelming tiredness.
Striker pushed herself out of the car, as Sullivan hauled her suitcase out of the boot. "Mr Llewelyn, let me get that."
"No, its fine," Sullivan replied, though he seemed extremely grateful to set the case down. "Though I would be interested in finding out why youre carrying a set of weights round with you." His eyes teased. "And please call me Sullivan, Striker."
"Theyre not weights, daddy," Morien called from the gate. "Strikers got a library with her."
The look of respect that graced the mans face told Striker that Morien had just won her some well-earned points of parental approval, and he seemed to lift the suitcase with an added reverence.
"Lets get you inside then," he said. "You look as if youre about to drop."
* * * * *
Morien had to admire her. Striker had managed to give the perfect impression of politeness as she was ushered into the sitting room and offered food and drink and the most comfortable armchair by her father.
Morien watched Striker struggle to keep her eyes open as she declined a cup of coffee, even a glass of wine, in favour of a glass of water. And she watched in amusement as a tabby cat appeared from nowhere, landing heavily on Strikers lap and kneaded her knees with sharpened claws before settling herself down.
It had woken Striker up a little, but she now looked positively panicked. "What do I do now?"
"Chuck her off or stroke her."
Gingerly, Striker stroked the soft fur and received a rumble of appreciation in response. So she did it again.
"Her names Easey."
"One stroke and shes anybodys." Moriens eyes twinkled.
"And I thought I was a pussy magnet," Striker retorted, stifling another yawn.
Morien smirked. "Thats a cheap joke."
"Yeah, well Im not feeling too expensive right now." One more stifled yawn.
She looked at the cat, so peaceful on her lap. Anybodys, huh? You and I, cat, we understand each other. She ran her hand along the dappled fur again, and again felt the answering vibration.
The warmth of the cat and her purring, finally sent Striker over the sweet edge. She closed her eyes.
Morien watched from the sofa. Her friends face was pale, and if she looked closely she imagined she could still see a ghost of a handprint on her cheek.
She moved, crouching down by Striker so she could stroke Easey. And she touched Strikers hand. "How would you like that glass of water in bed?"
Striker jerked her eyes open and Morien momentarily wallowed in the gratitude that she saw there.
The suitcase was already in her bedroom. Drakes bedroom, they called it, but there was little of the boy there now. It was simply a pleasant guest bedroom, although Striker could only seem to notice the bed, duvet-covered with welcoming soft pillows. It wasnt as large as her own of course, but still sizeable, and infinitely tempting, although right now she could have slept on a bed of nails.
Morien encouraged her into the bathroom, where Striker, her hair gathered on top of her head, did her best to wash away the grime of the last how long now? The last day and a half clung to her skin in layers, and she soaped off the travel, the police station, (was that a tomato seed under her nail?), the hospital, Tumblety Street .
She regarded her body as she rinsed soap from her now clean skin. She couldnt wash off the scratches and bruises shed gained her skin a sensitive work of art in places and she knew she could never fully wash off the stain the chapel, so she shut off the shower, wrapped the large, borrowed towel round herself, gathered her clothes, and tiptoed back to the bedroom.
She opened the door and found herself wrapping the towel around her more tightly, as she realised Morien was in there.
"I thought you might want the window open in here," she said, her back to Striker. "It took me ages to find the key, and theres a particular knack to opening " she turned and saw Striker was all but naked. Her cheeks glowed in the dim light of the bedside lamp. "Um sorry Ill give you some privacy." She headed for the door.
Morien turned, expectantly.
Striker wondered what to say. "I I would like the window open. Could you ?"
"Of course," Morien smiled and returned to the window. "I think its going to be a warm night." She put the key in the window lock.
Striker smiled at her words one night, baby, but not when Im running on empty but didnt respond, merely dropping her dirty clothes in the corner and turning to her suitcase, a single hand clutching at the top of her towel.
She dug a t-shirt out from the mess of her hurriedly-packed clothes and books, and glanced at Morien. So, she could wait for Morien to leave or she could
shit, they were friends werent they?
With her back to her friend, who seemed to be fully occupied in wrestling with the window, she dropped the towel and unpinned her hair.
And Morien stopped breathing.
The magic of twilight. The window had turned half-mirror. She could see her own face, flushed pink, in the glass, the darkening garden shouldering the blue dusk outside, and seemingly beyond, a phantasm. Pale against dark, Strikers skin seemed to glow, translucent against the lazy, silhouetted trees. Hazy curves the arc of a muscle, the swell of a breast converging with the evening as if smoothed by a lovers touch. Then her hair cascaded like water across her shoulders and down her back, both hiding and accentuating the landscape of her body.
And then a long t-shirt came down like a shutter and Morien was left with her own swift breathing and the impending night. She heaved the window open and gulped the air as if it was liquid in a desert.
No one, her dazed mind thought, no one deserves to look that good on a diet of coffee, burgers and bacon sandwiches.
She felt her heart slow with the sound of Lleuadraeth at night: the distant sound of cars, the final whisper of birdsong and beyond it all, the faint hush of the sea. And, drawing the curtains, she felt brave enough to turn.
Striker was slipping into bed, covers now drawn up over the body that had tantalised her from the shadows. She put her head down on the pillows and made a sound halfway between moan and sigh that went straight to Moriens centre. But Strikers eyes were closed and her breathing even.
Morien was caught halfway between relief and disappointment, but took this as her cue to leave. Treading softly, she moved the bedside. "Goodnight, Striker, love," she said, as quietly as she could, and switching off the bedside lamp, turned towards the door.
"Morien," she heard as soft as starshine through the nightfall of the room, her hand caught in a soft grip.
"Yes?" She looked back and saw Strikers eyes neon blue in the dark.
"Morien." Striker spoke her name so sweetly she thought her heart would melt. "Before you go, I wanted to say ." There was a pause. Morien felt the tension in Strikers hand. She seemed to be struggling for the words, as if looking for them through a maze of sleep. " I wanted to say thank you." Another pause, but Moriens hand was still prisoner, waiting for more.
"Striker, I havent ."
"Morien, what youve done for me I couldnt begin to tell you how much ." Still the hand grasped hers. There was a sigh, a long breath in the dark. "Morien, your friendship has meant more to me than than anything."
And Strikers hand slipped from her own.
Morien closed the door behind her, just for a moment resting against the soft wood as if unwilling to leave. She wanted to go back in. She wanted to go to Striker on her knees and worship her for what she had just said. She wanted to curl up in Strikers embrace, and sleep. It had only been a few nights ago when .
But Striker needed sleep, desperately, and so did she and she would be terrified in disturbing her in so many ways.
She had the quickest and most welcome of showers, changed into a pair of pyjamas, and made her way back downstairs to say goodnight to her father.
He was in the kitchen, standing at the counter, a big, black tomcat winding gently round his legs. "Heriell, you know hot chocolate is not good for your teeth," he was saying to the determined feline, and Morien wondered, not for the first time, if he didnt get lonely here on his own.
She crept up behind him and reached up to give him a peck on the cheek.
Sullivan glanced round at her and smiled. "You look as if youre ready for bed, too."
"Yeah, sorry, dad. Its been a long day. A long few days. But if theres enough of that for a second mug, I wouldnt say no."
"Big surprise there," Sullivan said, raising an eyebrow, and revealed the ready-prepared second mug, complete with bobbing pink and white marshmallows.
"You know youre the best dad in the world, dont you?" Morien said, stealing the mug away and scampering to the kitchen table.
"I always suspected as much," Sullivan replied, following her.
There was a contented silence as the chocolate cooled.
"Are you going to fill me in on the details, then?" Sullivan finally broached.
"Of whats been going on. This bit of trouble youre in. Just how serious is it. I mean, if you wanted Idomeneo involved?"
"Dad ," Morien sighed, "do you mind if we talk about it tomorrow? If I start thinking about it now, Ill never shut down." She stuck a finger in her hot chocolate and held it out to the plump, black Heriell, who had followed them to the table and now sat patiently waiting for a night-cap.
Her father sighed and licked melted marshmallow off his top lip as he watched his daughter. The cats pink tongue lapped at Moriens finger. She smiled at the feeling.
"Well," he said, "it cant be that bad. For someone in trouble you seem remarkably contented, which is lovely to see."
"Ive got my two favourite people in the whole world under the same roof. Why wouldnt I be happy?"
The silence made her look up at her father and then she realised what she had said. Sullivan didnt look shocked or judgmental. His raised eyebrows simply asked a question. He swirled the remains of his chocolate in the mug and regarded the liquid with seeming fascination, while his mouth tried to form words. He finally started with: "May I ask you something, cariad?"
"Yes " she replied, tentatively.
"How how long have you known Striker?"
Morien thought for a moment. Since February technically. Well, thats how long Striker had known Morien. But she had known Striker . It felt like a lifetime. It felt like centuries. It felt like shed known Striker, soul-deep, for a thousand reincarnations.
She stared bleakly at her chocolate. It was showing signs of developing a skin. "A week," she said. And almost half of that week was spent believing that Striker was harassing her.
The concern softened on Sullivans face. "Im not going to ask anything stupid like How do you know you can trust her? I trust you, Mo, and I trust your judgement. And anyone who carries that many books around with her cant be bad."
Morien smiled, despite herself. Then apprehension stole into her eyes. "But ?"
"But the first time I hear about her is the same time I hear youre in trouble, and I cant help but wonder. I love you, Im your father, its my job to worry and youve been through so much this year. I dont want to see you hurt again."
"I am an adult, dad."
"I know that, sweetheart. I suppose Im just concerned that its been a difficult time for you, and with Sophie away ."
"Ive latched onto the first person I can find?" Moriens tone was clipped. "You dont know her, dad."
"Do you?" It was couched in the softest, sweetest, most loving manner, but Morien felt as if the question had drawn blood.
She looked her father in his hazel eyes. "No, I dont. Until a few hours ago, I didnt even know what she did for a living. I dont even know her real name. How foolish is that?"
"But I trust her, dad. I trust her. And its frightening because theres a big part of me that cant explain why and I cant control these feelings I have for her. I feel so guilty, because Sophies my girlfriend, but its like I forget her the moment Striker walks into the room." She took a breath, trying to calm her heartbeat. "And I dont know what to do, dad, because Im so scared of what Im feeling. Im scared of losing Sophie, but Im even more terrified of losing Striker. I feel like Im on a cliff edge," she finished, lamely.
Again the silence. Morien ran her fingers through her hair, her hand settling unconsciously on the scar at the back of her scalp.
"So, what do you know about her, sweetheart?"
Moriens voice was quiet, but the words came fast and easily. "I know that at the lowest point in my life, when you werent there, when Drake wasnt there, when I was lying in a hospital bed in a coma, and wasnt even there for myself, she was there. Daddy, she read to me. It wasnt her job, she didnt have to do it. I was a complete stranger, but out of the goodness of her heart, she reached out to me. And when someone has that much goodness in their heart, does anything else matter?"
It was an honest question, and looking at his daughters earnest emerald gaze, he answered only as a parent could. "Your happiness matters ," Morien was about to speak, but he raised his hand to silence her, " and if Striker truly makes you happy then I will love her for it."
Gratitude welled up like tears in Moriens eyes. "Thank you."
Sullivan smiled back, simply glad to have his daughter there. "Now," he said eventually, "finish your chocolate, and get yourself up to bed. And dont forget to brush your teeth."
"How old am I, dad?"
"Twenty seven going on five," Sullivan retorted, chuckling, and went to do the washing up.
* * * * *
Upstairs, Striker slept the sleep of the dead.
And didnt dream.
i " The Last Homely House in the West" – Tolkien’s Rivendell: a stopping place on many a long and hazardous journey in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings
Continued in Chapter 17...
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