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We'll Have to Muddle Through Somehow

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It started in mid-November. Mildred knew that was when it was, even though she didn’t immediately realize what was happening. Because the reason she didn’t realize what was happening was that she (they, she and Gwendolyn) had been pre-occupied with everything else. With Edmund and his escape. With the Governor and his darned re-election bid – and what Edmund’s escape meant for that. With plans about Gwendolyn’s health and the move to Mexico, which ended up being rather rushed. At least, Mildred thought they were both pre-occupied by all that. It – especially everything with Edmund – was really the only reasonable explanation for Gwendolyn’s sudden increase in attentiveness and affection, to an almost anxious level, in spite of how exhausted she must be by the point she’d now reached in treatment. 

‘Are you all right, my love?’ Gwendolyn would ask, her eyes glinting with gentle concern.

And Mildred would nod,  stretching to cradle the older woman’s hand between both of her own, before whispering, ‘I am now.’

Just as Gwendolyn had done in the hospital.

And the (deliberate) parallel seemed to placate her partner.

For a while.

Eventually, though, the questions became more insistent; too insistent to ignore. 

‘How are you feeling, Mil?’ Gwendolyn asked on the thirtieth, her tone so earnest it was endearing. 

Mildred addressed the specific phrasing in the query. ‘I’m feeling fine, Gwen, darling. Why, are you worrying about me?’

She watched the taller woman flush close to the same color as her deep red headscarf, and marveled that something so supposedly simple as a pet name could have such an effect. They were very similar in that respect, she thought with a smile, as she waited for Gwendolyn to answer. 

‘Well,’ she heard, after a moment’s pause, ‘it’s nearly December, and I’ve been thinking that we haven’t discussed how you feel about Advent and Christmas –’

Gwendolyn paused again, and Mildred jumped at the chance to interrupt the rest of the sentence. ‘Distant. The same way I feel about Hallowe’en, and Thanksgiving, and any other holiday.’

She kept her voice as even as she could, hoping to prevent further comment, and that that might be considered an end to the conversation.

But the taller woman tutted, and murmured, ‘Sit on my lap, sweets?’ along with an adamant, ‘You won’t break me, and I’ll kiss your hair to prove I’m not in too much pain,’ as an apparent attempt to reassure Mildred when the smaller woman raised an eyebrow.  The nurse in her was unconvinced, but then Gwendolyn fixed her with a pout so adorable that Mildred felt herself melt; and moved to curl up as requested. She was rewarded with a kiss to the crown of her head. It made her hum happily, although it did little to soften her partner’s next observation. ‘That isn’t true, is it? Because you hate Hallowe’en for being so cavalier with images of death, and Thanksgiving made you cry –’

Mildred almost chuckled as she cut in a second time. ‘With gratitude that I finally had – have – someone I’m thankful to share it with, even if the entire premise is a dubious one. And I might hate Hallowe’en, but we have Día de Muertos as a contrast now we’re here, and everyone was so welcoming about that…’

She felt Gwendolyn press another kiss to her hair. ‘They were, yes. But you still can’t pretend you’re distant from any of these days, my love.’

She heard herself huff, but she already knew she’d acquiesce. Mostly because she loved Gwendolyn, and loved her particularly for wanting to understand. Even if Mildred still couldn’t comprehend why she would. Or how she could. Because, half the time, Mildred didn’t understand. That was why it felt simpler – safer – to keep these things, these days and the emotions they inspired, at a distance. But Gwendolyn had asked, and Gwendolyn was the very definition of safety, so her presence (and their physical contact) gave her the courage to try and talk through the tricky topic. ‘What do you want to know?’

The older woman hummed, and the younger shivered pleasantly at the vibration of Gwendolyn’s voice as she spoke. ‘Whatever it’ll help you for me to know.’

Mildred giggled. ‘Very generous of you, Gwen, but I might need more guidance than that.’

Gwendolyn hummed again. ‘All right, Mil. How about you tell me the first word that comes to mind when you think of “Christmas”?’

She hardly paused for breath before replying, ‘Humbug.’

Behind her, her lover barked out a laugh, and whispered, ‘My sweet little Scrooge.’

The smaller woman feigned affront. ‘Less of the “little”, thank you. This “little” body lifts you in and out of bed just fine, doesn’t it?’

She felt the taller woman nod against her shoulder as Gwendolyn responded, ‘Yes. And I thank my lucky stars for that each day.’

I thank my lucky stars for you,’ Mildred murmured immediately. ‘And I’m teasing, my love, you know that?’

She felt another nod, and was about to comment that her darling ought to be conserving energy, but Gwendolyn got in first. ‘I do. And I’m teasing, too, when I call you both “little” and “Scrooge”.’

She giggled. ‘Oh I know. And I don’t mind either of those, not really.’

The older woman chuckled. ‘But you do mind “sweet” as an adjective for you?’

‘Depends who’s using it,’ she quipped coyly, suddenly feeling shy, and small in age rather than stature.

The kiss that landed in her hair suggested that Gwendolyn had registered the shift in atmosphere, and she was grateful. All the more so when the kiss was accompanied by some additional guidance for their discussion. ‘So, my love, is there a second word to go with “humbug”? Perhaps a reason for it?’

Mildred pursed her lips, thinking, and found a phrase that felt too medical, but was the only one she knew which came close to fitting. ‘Melancholy.’

‘All right,’ Gwendolyn affirmed, and Mildred was amazed, having expected to be judged. But her taller partner seemed genuinely intrigued, because she just asked, ‘Do you think we can work out why together?’

The intimation of shared responsibility offered in the word “together” caused the smaller woman to bite her lip as she endeavored to swallow the lump rising in her throat. Yet it also (oddly) gave her the strength to say (albeit softly), ‘I know why.’

‘Oh?’

The prompt was so quiet it was almost a purr, but she needed a nudge, so she was glad it was offered, however surreptitiously. And it set off something of a stream, ‘The pressure to be festive, and happy, and spend time with family, and buy gifts. What about people who don’t have loved ones –’ which came to a shuddering stop, when she heard how harsh her voice sounded and was scared it might be taken as ingratitude for the loved one she did now have.

But Gwendolyn just continued the sentence, finishing it off as a question. ‘Or gifts?’

Mildred shook her head, surprised at where the older woman’s thoughts had gone, even as she conceded that anyone else would probably consider it a natural progression. ‘No. I got gifts. More than I could ever have imagined. Eventually. When we were transferred to the – the last house. So it’s not not having them. It’s that I don’t want them. I can’t trust that –’ She broke off again, partly because she was unsure she was making any sense, and partly because she was absolutely sure she seemed like a complete brat.

For the second time, though, Gwendolyn finished her phrase – and got it right. ‘You can’t trust that there isn’t a hidden agenda?’ Mildred nodded numbly, unable to say anything more, and sagged against the taller woman as she continued speaking. ‘And that you won’t be beholden to the person if you accept?’

She nodded again, in awe, and bit her lip to halt a sob while a kiss was pressed to her scalp. But the gesture appeared to push her over the edge, and release the emotions she’d been so desperately trying to keep at bay. Because, despite biting so hard that she nearly convinced she’d split the skin, her lip wobbled – and she began, not just to cry, but to wail.

Gwendolyn – gentle, generous, Gwen, who was far too good, far better than she knew she deserved – simply held her as she shook with sobs. Then, as they started to peter out, she heard her soothe, ‘That’s it, I’ve got you. Let it out.’

Notwithstanding, well, everything, the by now familiar (and comforting) collection of words made her smile through the last few tears. She still felt guilty, however, so she heaved out, ‘S-s-sorry.’

She felt a headshake against her shoulder then. ‘No. If anyone should be sorry, my dearest darling, it’s me, for bringing it up. But I’m grateful that you’ve felt able to tell me. And I’m hoping it’ll help if I tell you in return that I don’t particularly like gifts either. Especially not expensive or extravagant things. My favorite kind are homemade, actually.’

Mildred’s smile grew into a grin. ‘I think I’d like exchanging that sort,’ she chirped timidly.

‘I would too, my love. It’s not as if I’ll have all that much energy to shop for any others,’ Gwendolyn muttered behind her.

‘It’s enough of a gift being here with you,’ Mildred replied readily, hoping her very real sincerity would be evident.

The older woman chuckled. ‘From anyone else, I’d dismiss that. And I would’ve done so from you, as well, not that long ago. But you work so hard at meaning everything you say now, Mil, that it makes my heart nearly burst with happiness to hear. I share the sentiment, too – sweets. My best gift is that we’re still together, and that there seems to be even the smallest spark of hope of me staying a while longer.’

She had to bite her lip again after Gwendolyn spoke, as fresh tears sprung in her eyes. But it was more successful than her previous attempt, and she managed to murmur, ‘I’m so glad, and grateful, Gwen, that you took this chance with me.’

She thought she heard the taller woman swallow – a sign that they were both feeling – yes, that they were both feeling. And Mildred was struck by the (somewhat startling) realization that, above all else, she valued their shared vulnerability. And it appeared Gwendolyn did also, because she returned, softly, ‘I’m so glad, and grateful, that you stayed so we could take this chance together.’

‘You stayed too,’ Mildred felt compelled to remind her.

‘You gave me a reason to stay, sweets.’

She wanted to grumble that that was ridiculous, that she wasn’t worthy of being a reason for anything, and she opened her mouth to begin with, ‘But –’

But Gwendolyn cut across her argument before it’d even started. ‘No. I know you’re fragile today, darling, and that a lot of that’s my fault, but I totally refuse to let your brain lull you into believing you’re anything but brilliant and brave and beautiful, and strong and steadfast and stalwart. I also know those things will be hard to hear, no matter how much alliteration I try to squeeze into this speech. So – and I really want you to listen to this, my love – I’ll say instead that you’re not alone. Not to belittle the significance of your feelings, or the specifics of the situations that caused them, but to show you that they make sense. There are plenty people who’ll struggle as you do at this time of year, precious; for reasons as different and diverse as they are individuals. It’s important – no, vital – to give space for that. What’s unreasonable, and unfair, is – as you said – the pressure to pretend otherwise. And, if you need external, unbiased evidence, you can find it in Meet Me in St. Louis, and Judy Garland’s Christmas song. That is, if it doesn’t bring back bad memories of your service.’

Mildred guffawed at that, and shook her head. ‘It doesn’t, although you’re very thoughtful to check. But that isn’t why I’m laughing. I’m guessing you mostly like the song because you enjoy the opportunity to pun on the line “make the yuletide gay”, Gwen?’

She heard a slight intake of breath, and then a sheepish chuckle, as the older woman was clearly trying her best to sound offended by the (admittedly rhetorical) question. ‘I’m surprised you even know the alternate meaning of that word, Mil.’

The younger woman laughed again. ‘It’s becoming present in psychology now. But anyways, just because I was oblivious to my own feelings, it doesn’t necessarily follow that I never noticed other people’s preferences or behavior. Or the words they used to describe them.’

‘Huh,’ Gwendolyn breathed behind her, the sound laced with amusement. ‘I guess not. My perfect paradox of a person putting me right yet again.’

Mildred felt her face grow hot at the praise – not to mention the description – but stopped herself from squirming for the sake of keeping their current position as comfortable as possible for her partner’s beleaguered body, and purred, ‘You put me right. You’ve been so kind about all this.’

‘You deserve kindness, darling,’ the taller woman insisted, so vehemently that each syllable sent a vibration through the smaller woman’s spine – and her point was augmented by a throaty chuckle as she added, ‘even when you make inaccurate insinuations about the motivations behind my interest in music.’

Swallowing a whimper, Mildred turned it into a (rather giddy) giggle. ‘But I don’t understand the relevance otherwise – the lyrics are either “next year all our troubles will be out of sight”, or “miles away”, depending on the verse.’

‘Ah yes,’ Gwendolyn murmured back, ‘but it’s all conditional, and the focus is on the future: “Someday soon”, “if the fates allow”, “until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow”.

Mildred nodded, realization dawning at last. ‘You’re right. We certainly muddled through the fighting, and – if I’m as generous with myself as you seem determined to be – I guess it’s what I’ve done for the majority of my life. As you have, too, in a different way. So it is an acknowledgement that everything isn’t always easy or simple or positive. And it shouldn’t have to be.’

She once again felt a kiss fall on her hair. ‘Exactly, my love. But we find a way to manage the difficult days, with support. Because it also shows that happiness and sadness aren’t mutually exclusive – and that they can, and should, coexist. Openly and honestly.’

Mildred giggled at the end of that short speech, and said wryly, ‘Because openness and honesty are good things.’

‘They are, yes,’ Gwendolyn replied with an (obviously exaggerated) exasperated tut.

‘I’m teasing, Gwen. Thank you for understanding – and accepting – my reasons for being wary of this time of year, and for easing my guilt about not feeling entirely festive,’ Mildred offered contritely.

‘I’m teasing as well, Mil,’ she heard, as her older lover punctuated her response by peppering multiple kisses across her hair. ‘And I accept all of you. Thank you for having the strength to share yourself with me.’

The younger woman thought back to her earlier musings that they were both sharing themselves, both being vulnerable in varying ways, and answered, ‘Thank you, too.’ Then, deciding to honor her need to deflect (and encouraged in doing so by the patience her partner had shown throughout their conversation, along with the conclusions they’d drawn together), she posed a related but somewhat removed query. ‘Did you bring the record, d’you think?’

Gwendolyn nodded. ‘I did. I wouldn’t dare put Judy Garland in storage, sweets.’

Mildred chuckled as the taller woman snickered against her back, and then murmured, ‘I’ll find her,’ before pushing herself up off Gwendolyn’s lap as gently as she could, and promising, ‘I’ll be quick. I’m very methodical. And I’m in the mood for some music, for once, so you may wish to make the most of that.’

She grinned impishly at her still-seated sweetheart, who crowed triumphantly, ‘Treatment be damned – this calls for a celebratory slow dance, my love.’

‘I thought you might say that,’ Mildred returned with genuine joy, even as she shifted briefly into her nursing mode, and cautioned, ‘but don’t try standing until I’m close to you again, okay?’ She waited only for a (begrudging but compliant) nod, then turned to thumb through the singles side of their collection.

As soon as she found what she – what they – wanted, she placed the disc on the turntable, got it playing, and darted back to Gwendolyn. Then, helping her precious partner to stand, she reveled in the fact that such spontaneous activities were still feasible; and in the feeling of their arms supporting one another as they swayed to the opening chords.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
Next year all our troubles will be out of sight

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the Yuletide gay
Next year all our troubles will be miles away

Once again as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who were dear to us
Will be near to us once more

Someday soon we all will be together
If the fates allow
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now
 

While they listened, and danced, and even sang (though really it was more mouthing than attempting actual notes, since both their energy reserves were occupied in remaining upright and stable), Mildred made a quiet vow:

A pledge to be content with however December – and Advent, and Christmas, and New Year – made her feel; whether merry, melancholy, or an altogether different emotion.

Regardless of all they’d carried this year, and all they’d face in the next, she was confident she (they, she and Gwendolyn) could, and would, muddle through somehow.

And, really, that was what mattered.

That they’d make it.

Together.