A bit later than I'd intended, and not quite what I'd anticipated writing, here's a chapter to close out the war for you. To everyone who has followed, favourited, reviewed, or just dropped by to read, many thanks. I've enjoyed discovering this world and I hope you have too. I'd love to come back to them someday, so if that's something that would interest you, let me know.

Faith saw them long before they saw her and at first hardly dared breathe for the reality of it. Standing among the ruin of the harbour they looked like so many birds of paradise, all decked out in what she supposed must once have been their graduation finery. There was sleek, seal-like Poppy, golden Mara, Di like a flame and Nan nut brown and glossy as ever, and radiant with it. Faith raised a hand in greeting, then pulled her cloak tight against her as the sea breeze crept under it and found out the secret corners of her skin and nipped at her throat. The salt and sulphur smell of it was on her hair and in her skin, mixed with the dry parchment scent of sun; if she stuck out her tongue she could almost taste it, the lye soap and gritty musk of others' travel-sickness but none of it mattered. She was pink-cheeked and chapped with fresh air, laughter irrepressible as ever tugging at her mouth at the sight of her friends. In a moment she would run to them and draw them close. The boat jolted into place against the dock and having fairly pushed her way down the gangway, Faith lingered long enough to bend and kiss the earth. It was hard-packed and cakey, slivers of it lodging in her fingers where she pressed them against it. The sight of the harbour, raw and desolate had shaken her more than she had expected, and when she closed her eyes and thought of Di and Mara fighting their way through the throbbing heart of its ruin…a wave of dizziness rocked her and she pressed her fingers deeper into the ground. It was solid, and they were well, and it was good to be home.

Faith did go to them then, frayed edges of her cape billowing with expectation against the rush of her running. She flung her arms wide around them and swept them close, Di, Mara, Poppy, Nan, and for a long moment could only stand rocking with them on the dock inhaling the old smells of home, luxuriating in their reunion. Nan's apple-blossom scent she would know anywhere, likewise the yeast and greenery of Poppy. Traces of the Ingleside kitchen lingered still on Di, and there was something else too, that spoke uneasily to long illness, and Faith brushed pushed it away. There would be time to learn their hurts soon enough. Now she was home and that was enough.

'I've missed you,' she said, her throat tight. 'I've missed you, I've missed you, I've missed you.' The words wove their way into the eyelet lace, of Poppy's collar, but she meant it for all of them, and the sentiment was reciprocal. It washed over the girls who pinned hopes in waves as they kissed cheeks and leaned into hugs.

'We missed you!'

'We thought we'd never get you back!'

'It's good to have you home.'

Their breath brushed ticklishly against her ears, her cheeks, her neck as they all spoke at once, unwilling to let her go. They stood uncertainly on the dock, rocking with it and scanning their surroundings for somewhere suitable to sit and talk. There was nowhere of course; the explosion all those years ago had seen to that. There being nowhere better they clambered up onto a pile of neglected lobster traps, Faith's protestations that the girls would tear their dresses notwithstanding. They had three years of separation to make up for and the air buzzed with frenetic chatter as they all fought to talk at once. There were tears and laughter, and then, like a comet shooting across the sky, someone –was it Nan? –asked, 'Where were you when the war ended?' Once, many moons ago, they had fought for control of a kitchen and quizzed each other on where they had been when the war began, fully expecting to see it out together. Now, as the mesh of the lobster nets cut rivets into the soft backs of their knees they poured out stories that ran the gamut from triumphal to unbelieving.

'Anthony Sloane came tearing into the school with a telegraph,' said Nan reminiscently. 'Of course I sent the children home early –there was no teaching anyone anything after that. Even if they had been interested, I couldn't have done it.'

Poppy had been helping to mend a tear in a fence when one of her young nieces had come flying up the lane screaming like a banshee in her excitement, and Poppy had almost taken a finger off in the ensuing chaos.

'We knew weeks before it happened that it was coming,' said Faith when pressed. 'By the time armistice actually happened it was almost anticlimactic.'

Di knew when she arrived at the harbour light to find the flag raised and the resident piper making a magnificent mangle of The Maple Leaf Forever.

'What about you, Ariel? You've hardly said a word about it.'

'Oh,' said Mara. 'We were burying wee Maisie, I think.' She sounded exhausted. 'You weren't wrong about knowing heliotrope cyanosis for what it was –but you might have warned me how heartbreakingly lovely it could look. I've never seen anything so unearthly as wee Maisie in her church best among the lilies and blue as our milk.'

'Oh,' said Faith, feeling this syllable deeply inadequate. She knew all too well the bone-deep uselessness that was almost as symptomatic in her book of influenza as heliotrope cyanosis. I wanted to keep you safe stuck painfully in her throat. I thought if I made a cipher of it, it would pass you by, like the Israelites marking their lintels with lamb's blood, lay thick and heavy in her larynx.

'I'm so, so sorry,' she said instead, threading an arm around Mara. They all did.

'Never mind,' said Mara. 'Tell me something nice?'

'Will a wedding do?' asked Poppy and suddenly there was no containing their raptures.

'I told you so, I told you so, I told you so!' Faith was triumphant. She leaped off the lobster traps pulling Nan into a raucous waltz, not caring how many eyes it drew.

'Mouse, not us,' said a breathless Nan. 'We never had any quarrel with you on the subject of Peter.'

'No,' said Faith as her breath returned, 'no I suppose you hadn't.'

Poppy was struggling to say something coherent and Di cut her off saying, 'You can hardly protest now Mouse,' and to Faith, 'you'll be pleased to know Mara fought your corner valiantly for you after you'd abandoned us.'

'Did she?' said Faith, even as she turned to Mara and said, 'I thought you might.'

Mara had got Poppy's hands in hers and was making a general fuss over the little sliver of silver and sapphire that had belonged to Peter's grandmother.

'Why did you never say?'

'Why do you think?' asked Nan, a smile in her voice. 'She knew you two would react this way. I'm right, aren't I, Mouse?'

'I might have entertained the thought,' said Poppy. She was trying to be serious but a smile was tugging at the corners of her mouth and trying to encompass even her eyes. 'Though really, I wanted to wait and tell you all at once.'

'We must celebrate,' said Faith. 'Where shall we go? I'm sure some of that grant money can stretch to cover a celebratory feast.'

'There,' said Poppy with satisfaction. 'I knew you'd want an occasion. We were so starved for them before, and it's good to be able to give you one.'

Much animated discussion bringing no consensus there was nothing for it but to take the train into Kingsport. It had been theirs once, after all, and they knew it. When they had wandered the wynds and closes to no avail though there was nothing for it but to go into the woods, to the brown babbling brook, the grove of beeches, birches and lilac that had come to feel their private haven, and there they easily fell into their old roles. Nan built up an expert fire, Mara lay flat on her stomach among the long grass, one hand submerged in water the better to lure fish. Poppy searched for makeshift plates and Di for edible herbs to season the fish with. Their one concession to town, a box of dainty petit-fours, Faith cradled to her and thought how strange it was that some people one could live with for years and never know, and others one met and understood in a minute, heart, mind and soul, and when that happened time could build as effective a wall of Jericho as it liked and one would still be able to sit and talk as if mere seconds had elapsed on reunion instead of years.

'Bon accord,' said Mara as she wrestled a writhing trout from the stream and Faith realised she had spoken aloud.


'What you say at a parting,' said Mara by way of elaboration. 'We meet to say goodbye to meet again it means. It's not really –I mean it wasn't our part of Scotland as said it –but it's what you mean, I think.'

'We meet to say goodbye to meet again,' said Faith trying the words in her mouth. 'You know, I believe it is.'

It was a faerie feast really, scantier even than the pick-up supper that had witnessed Jem's return. They rubbed the fish in wild thyme and bay leaves and blistered their fingers in the eating of it. It tasted of the brook it had come from, and the heart of the fire, the smoke and the woody musk of the thyme and bay, as well as the savour of reunion. That was probably why when it spackled their hands with the scales Di's knife had missed and rendered their hands almost translucent in the sunlight, or fell piping hot onto their knees and scorched them, no one noticed. They had years of news to catch up on, and in the sun-dappled grove of beeches and birches they did their best to cram it all into the pauses between mouthfuls. No one could get used to the idea that this was the pattern now, that normalcy had come back and the future was brimful of glad, golden days.

Afterwards, when they had eaten their fill, they revisited all their old haunts. The Martello tower and the duck pond at the park, thick that summer with duckweed and smelling strongly of sedge and wet leaves, the library where they had spent hours reading themselves into trances induced as much by the combined smell of ink and old book as by the closeness of the type and dimness of the light, the convocation hall that had brought them so much revelry and respite. They were at Swallowgate almost before they had thought to go there. Di eased the wrought-iron gate open and they drifted into the yard. The geraniums were heat-sore and neglected, the net curtains drawn, the ivy half-wild, but still it seemed to welcome them, the blue door sedate and inviting as ever.

'Of course,' said Nan as a sleeper awaking, 'they've no reason to stay through the summers –I never thought.'

'Nor I,' said Poppy. 'But of course they'll want to be home between terms. I'm glad.'

'How do they get on?' asked Faith, who had met none of Swallowgate's inheritors and was keenly curious.

'I thought you'd ask,' said Nan. She reached into her sleeve and extracted a neatly folded epistle covered in spindly writing.

'From Naomi,' she said. 'Our resident English scholar.'

Not only Faith, but Mara, Poppy and Di all flocked round to read it.

If you've had Ruthie's letter, it ran, then you'll know we've all settled beautifully into Swallowgate. This includes the two fellow first years we spoke of after graduation. They were waiting to meet us in the garden…and so it ran on. There was a detailed account of the new friends she and Jo had made, the division of the rooms, and an exacting, if tongue-in-cheek recapitulation of the struggle for the kitchen.

'Sound like anyone we know?' said Nan, and they all laughed. Then, handing the letter to Di, she darted forward and kissed the much-worn doorstep, and laid a hand against the blue door.

'We'll find a way back to you,' she said for all of them, 'but until we do, bon accord.'

The goodbye rippled silvery as swallow-song round the garden. With all the gravity of ritual they took it in turn to kiss the stoop before linking arms and turning for home. Shortly they would part, but the future lay before them a slender cord of rope inviting of time enough and world enough to meet and part and meet again as often and gladly as they could hope for. Once such a future been little more than a soap bubble of a dream, but now it was before them, and it was theirs.