Written for yuletide. Thanks to Hal for beta.
Polly and Tom, after the book.
When Polly was nineteen, she'd saved Tom, thwarted Laurel, and still wasn't sure what had happened to Mr. Leroy after he'd been sucked in by that pool. That was the easy part of being a hero. There was a hard part, and that was figuring out where one went after.
Polly went back to school. Tom and the quartet went back to touring. He sent her a copy of their latest recording, and she sent him stories about a trainee hero who, with full marks of heroism under her belt, wrote essays about Spenser and Donne in a cramped flat in Oxford. In return he sent her a postcard from Innsbruck of a long white building with a golden roof.
Gilded lives? he wrote on the back, and Fiona came in from the kitchen to find out why Polly was laughing.
At Christmas she and Fiona took the train to London to see the quartet at St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Fiona thought it was all very romantic. Fiona's idea of romance was a bit more gung-ho and torrid than Polly's. Ed dragged them all to a pub after, and Tom and Polly spent most of the night wide-eyed at each other, as if both were interesting specimens requiring further study.
"What do you suppose," Tom said, "that third twist had it right?"
Where Now, Polly thought, through the space of four years, a college entrance exam, a move, and a man she knew from memory and a picture on a record cover.
"So we keep looking," she said.
At Easter, they drove to Stow-on-the-Water. The car hadn't lost any of its reckless tendencies or bad road manners, and they narrowly missed taking out a hedge. The hardware store was still there, but the name had changed. They inquired inside; the previous owners had sold and left, and before Tom could ask any more questions, Polly tugged him away. "Let's don't," she said. She thought he looked rather pale.
The tea shop was still there, too. Even with her second set of memories back, there were still moments of fuzziness. She'd remembered cheese pancakes, but they were nowhere on the menu. Perhaps they'd just changed it.
"Are you going to do another recording?" she asked over tea, and even to her it seemed stiff.
"Yes, probably," Tom said, sounding a bit cowed by her primness. He cleared his throat. "The same company wants me to do another solo one," he said, like he was apologizing.
"That's lovely," Polly said, but it was all horribly Now-Here. She took a sip of tea.
On the way back to the car, Tom said, like he was swallowing a laugh, "I think we can safely say it's not here."
Polly rather agreed. Besides, she'd never liked the Cotswolds.
"Maybe you're going about it all wrong," Fiona said, as they ate cheese sandwiches between term-ending essays, perched at the table in the corner of Fiona's room like rain-drenched birds. Or at least it was how Polly felt. Like something dragged at her arms and legs and made her scalp itch.
"Do you think there's a right way?" Polly asked.
"No, that's not what I meant." Fiona chewed her lip. "Just that maybe it's not a place."
Polly hadn't ever thought it was a place. But she knew what Fiona meant, or thought she did. That night she wrote a story about a hero who, after having obtained the object of her quest, built a trophy shelf to put it on, taking it off to dust every few years. She sent it to Tom's London address, and got a note back a week later.
It would have to be a rather large trophy shelf, able to withstand the results of forced muffin-eating by Ann.She tucked the note away in a book alongside the Christmas concert ticket. She wrote back:
Perhaps Hero could take it outside every once in a while, just to air it out?
Perhaps it would like to buy Hero a coffee. Sunday at four?Coffee turned into pints at a pub with Ann and Ed and Sam, but Polly was just as happy to have all of them there. She joined Ann's teasing of Ed, who was seeing a M&S shopgirl who thought Dvorak was divine and violin players sexy. Polly wondered if she was Nina.
"I have a project I should like your help on," Tom said, when she was warm from the beer and feeling in that hazy way Nowhere.
"Today?" she asked, and he smiled a little, tilting the pint glass in his hand.
"No, not today," he said. "Can you come down next week?"
Polly could. She took the train again on Thursday, late morning to miss the crowds going into the city. Tom met her at the door and let her in. There were piles of sheet music on the floor and his good cello propped against his chair.
"I have to choose the songs for the new recording," he said.
It was like the panto, of things going magically. Tom played bits and pieces of things, pausing to ask what she thought. Sometimes, though, he got lost in what he was playing, and she almost didn't dare breathe as the cello thrummed through the room.
Summer, and she was back at Granny's feeding Mintchoc under the table. Granny set her to weeding when she got restless. She didn't prove any better at it than baking. "You've dug up the basil," Granny said, so they had pesto that night.
She didn't go by Hunsdon House. It was as if Laurel's shine had gone off. Granny still called it that house, but mostly Polly forgot it was there.
"Your young man's here," Granny said. She was still a little disapproving, but beginning to soften.
Polly looked out the window. The car was out front. "Tom," she said, when she went out.
"I thought we could go for a drive," Tom said.
Polly wiped her hands on her jeans; she'd been helping Granny with her pie crusts. "How far?"
"Hmm," Tom said. "How long until your term starts?"
Polly packed a bag and put it in the back. They drove to Shrewsbury first, and Polly paid 15p for a mimeographed history of the abbey. The B&B woman looked them over suspiciously but let them have a room.
"Probably murders her patrons while they sleep," Tom said cheerfully over breakfast.
"Buries their bodies in the cellar," Polly agreed.
Polly took a turn behind the wheel, and it really was the car and not Tom's driving. It kept wanting to start and stop at the same time. They bucked into a supermarket car park and she managed to herd it into a spot far away from the other cars.
"It's not a tame car," Tom said, as they went around the supermarket aisles and picked out bread and cheese and squashed packaged sandwiches. She ate her egg salad and cress in the car while Tom drove the long way around the Cotswolds. She fell asleep on the other side of Bath, and when she woke they were at Land's End.
They paid 10p each to walk down to the edge. It was windy and a little cold, and she leaned back against Tom. His sweater scratched the back of her neck.
Perhaps it is a kind of place, she thought.
Afterward they bought a pot of tea and some packaged biscuits at a nearby café, and sat at a table in the back. The walls were blue with dusty prints of seascapes that made Polly think of the picnic painting.
"The way I see it," Tom said, "if Laurel knew how to get Nowhere, she wouldn't be here."
"Like she's stuck," Polly said. Nothing could ever make her feel sorry for Laurel, but if she had been capable of it, she might. Just a little.
They finished off the tea and biscuits and went back out to the car.
"Where now?" Polly said, when the car zipped onto the motorway.
Polly went back to Oxford and Tom left with the quartet for another Australia tour. He sent her a long letter about a kangaroo who was locked in the cellar and forced to play the cello in eight concerts over ten days.
She put the letter away in her growing stack. She had a tutorial tomorrow to prepare for, but in a few weeks it would be Christmas and Tom and the quartet would be back.
Fiona was at the table with three open books in front of her. Their flat was bigger this year; they no longer had to cram the table into Fiona's side of the room.
"I feel like I haven't seen you at all this term," Fiona said, sighing over the books.
"That's because you've been exam-mad," Polly said. "We've still got ages."
"Five months!" Fiona said. "It's not ages."
Tom had them all over to his flat for the holidays, and Ed brought three bottles of wine. She and Ann sat on the floor and looked through Tom's record collection. Polly was feeling tipsy from the wine and warm all over.
"You've gone somewhere," Ann said, smiling, and Polly realized she'd drifted a bit, gone in her thoughts. Tom glanced up just as Polly looked his way. Not just hers.
"Oh, it was nowhere," Polly said.