I was laying face up on my bed, listening to the sounds of the downtown night traffic outside my apartment. Normally, I’m a stomach sleeper, but after my … trip… to Pleasant Grove earlier in the week, my face just couldn’t take the pressure. I’d avoided leaving my apartment much this week as the wounds on my face inflicted by Detective Washington blossomed from red welts into deep purple bruises, and they were only just starting to fade to yellow, leaving me with a jaundiced movie-zombie complexion. I’d emptied a large bottle of Advil over the last few days. The pain was intense, and it seemed to be more than just the bruises – I’d probably overtaxed myself with the lack of sleep, major spell-slinging, and the physical abuse of the kidnapping, but you do what you have to do to survive.
The pain was just starting to fade a bit, allowing me to think about sleep when my phone rang. I pondered ignoring it, but given the limited number of people who had my number, it was probably important. I rolled upright and grabbed the phone, but didn’t quite vocalize as I gingerly placed the receiver to my ear. “Hrmph?”
I perked up – mentally, at least. “Barbara?” Hearing her voice was getting to be more of a regular thing again. After my apprenticeship with her during my last year at DTS, we drifted apart some as I became more involved in LINC. After Christmas, we’d steadily run into each other more and more, and she was now a regular part of my trips to the Nelson Center putting supernatural defenses in place.
“Yes, yes… Matthew, you were so right! It was glorious… and frightening… I feel so alive!”
I was fully awake now, if confused. “Barbara – slow down… what are you talking about?”
“We’re all meeting at Atwater’s to celebrate.”
“Celebrate what? Barbara – I’m not psychic…” As pleased as I was to hear from her, tonight wasn’t the night for mind games.
“Oh, just say you’ll come – we’ll fill you in on the details.”
I paused for a moment, and when no more information was forthcoming, I conceded. Maybe getting out was what I needed more than staying it. “Ooook. When?”
“Now?” I groaned. Ok, it might have been a whine.
Her energy ebbed a bit, and she got almost petulant. “Matth-ew!”
I sighed. “Ok, ok… I’ll get there as soon as I can.” I paused. “Everything ok?”
“Better than… I’ll fill you in when you get there!”
Then she hung up abruptly.
“What the heck…?” I let the question linger into the unresponsive phone, then hung up and got up to get dressed, popping a couple more Advil as I went. I chose to go casual… not sure why – partly the late hour, partly the unworried exuberance from Barbara, partly that it was Atwater’s – but mostly I think I feared the pain the stiff clerical collar would inflict on my sore face.
I strode into Atwater’s awhile later. It was late enough for supernatural-only hours, and the place was hopping with more than the usual mix of Confederacy members. I perked up a bit after entering – the energy in the room was palpable and infectious. I didn’t immediately spot Barbara, so I made my way up the bar. “Hey, Molly.”
“Preacher! I almost didn’t recognize you, dressed all casual.”
I laughed collegially as I considered myself in the mirror. The hoodie and jeans were a far cry from my usual attire of late, but the tattoos, piercings, and mussed hair were almost as much of a trademark for me. Luckily, the lighting in the place was such that my bruised face didn’t show. I shrugged, “Off night.”
Molly cocked her head at me, but before she could ask if I wanted to talk about it, I waved her off. “I’m good. Guiness, please.”
She returned shortly with the perfectly poured stout, and I passed a few bills over which accounted for a reasonably generous tip, given this would probably be my only drink tonight. She nodded her thanks. “Barbara’s upstairs, but I’m sure she’ll be down shortly,” she said slyly, and gave me a wink.
I grabbed my glass and headed for one of the common seating areas with the comfy leather couches. I stopped and chatted with a few people, getting snippets of the evening’s events as I went, but all I was able to make sense of was that something big had gone down this evening, and Barbara was at the center of it.
Conor and Erica were playing a set up front, and I raised my glass to Conor as I sat down. He nodded, continuing to play. I’d say hi to Erica later – her being blind, a wave was no good, and I wasn’t going to interrupt. I sank into the leather cushion and set my drink down on the table in front of me. I closed my eyes slightly and just took in the atmosphere, enjoying the music.
“Matthew! You made it!”
I snorted awake, vaguely aware that the music in the background was something slow with a Latin beat. Zoiks… I fell asleep in the middle of a crowded, noisy bar – before having anything to drink. My eyes focused first on the table in front of me, the diminished head of my drink and lack of condensation indicating that I’d been out for awhile, but then my gaze shifted to the speaker.
Barbara just stood there, waiting for me to greet her, but my brain was stuck processing her appearance. I was used to seeing her as the owner of the Purple House, dressed in bright, flowing dresses, or as the adroit businesswoman in stylishly sexy skirt-suits. But tonight… this was new. The black dress she was wearing was an iconic Little Black Dress – form-fitting, showing off every curve, yet still leaving enough to the imagination, and her makeup was more intense than usual. She was… well, stunning.
And stunned I was. I finally managed to stagger up to my feet. “H-hey.” We exchanged cheek-kisses as usual and I motioned for her to sit. “Sorry… rough week. But you look…” I have a pretty good handle on Spanish… just not this night, “Er… te ves grandioso!”
She sat gracefully, a bright smile on her face. “Gracias – I know, yeah? I’ve toned down the make-up though – you should have seen me earlier after Claret got done with me-“
“Whoa whoa… slow down… ok, you promised you’d tell me what happened… why you dra- er, insisted I come out here tonight.”
She waved past me to Molly, who promptly sent over a fruity concoction of some kind for her as I drank a bit of my beer. “So you remember what you told Belle? About the Confederacy being stronger if we’d band together?”
I thought back for a minute, “Sure. Torches and pitchforks, as it were.”
“Oh, boy – we did it tonight. With Erica’s help!” Taking a sip of her drink, she spun the tale of how she’d staved off a potential gang raid on the Purple House with the help of some of the other Confederates. Despite my fatigue, I found myself reacting quite viscerally to the comments of the ganger punk in the car, and was caught up in her description of the various spells that had been layered on her to facilitate the “brow-beating” that she gave him. I felt like I was there, witnessing her yanking the car door off, the sound of breaking glass, the cold wind rushing through the air…
I shivered in the cold wind – and snapped my head over to look at Conor. The sensations faded as he focused on his guitar, playing something from an action movie soundtrack, and Erica blushed. What the… did he just glamour me…?
Before I could finish that line of thought, Barbara’s voice brought me back to her. “… and the little pendejo ran off in his soiled pants. I don’t think they’ll bother the Purple House anytime soon.” She held her head proudly, and I understood the excitement level in the room.
Part of me was impressed that the Confederacy had come together so effectively behind one of their own. Part of me was frightened that they might try the same thing with a supernatural threat – and I suddenly had a new insight into Belle’s stance on the matter. But Barbara’s excitement was just infectious. “That’s outstanding!”
We settled into conversation, comparing notes on who had provided which enchantments for her. I tried to focus on the conversation, but my tired mind – now well doped with Advil, and Guiness on an empty stomach – kept drifting to the gorgeous woman chatting with me on the couch. Her face was radiant, her perfume heady… some cactus flower blend that she liked… her excited movements creating other movement in all the right plac-
I glanced over at the stage again, and Conor and Erica ducked back into the song they were playing – another slow Latin number, and the overpowering sensations faded again. What are they doin-
“Sorry… thought I … recognized the song they were playing.” Man, was that weak – my brain’s not working right. “I’m sorry… I’m not in a great frame of mind tonight.”
I was vaguely aware of a change in the music as Barbara looked at me more carefully. “What’s going on? Are you all right?”
I looked away and started to stand up. “I’ll be fine, I – should go. I just need some rest.”
She grabbed my arm and forced me to sit. Waving her hand, one of the stage spotlights was suddenly shining on my face, even though the fixture didn’t move – revealing my battered face in all its bruised glory. Her smile dropped completely. “Madre de Dios, Matthew… what happened?”
“The hell it’s not…”
“Barbara, I don’t-“
“Matthew Consprite.” Ever since my early evocation lessons, it just grated when she used my name like that – because I normally deserved the reprimand. “If you came across one of the Freakshow looking like you do, what would you do?”
I looked down and mumbled. “Figure out who did it and…”
“…and I’d help,” I mumbled.
“What was that?”
I looked up and met her gaze, clearing my throat. “I said, I’d help.”
She stood up as the music stopped. “Then please allow me to do the same. No te muevas.” She even gave me the Evil Eye!
I nodded, masking the effect of her withering gaze with another pull of my beer. “Can I at least go say hi?” I asked as I motioned to the stage.
A bit of a smile appeared again. “No farther – comprende? I’m not done with you…”
“Conor. Erica.” I stood at the foot of the stage and glared up at them.
“Hi.” They said sheepishly, in unison.
“Were you glamouring me?”
Both stammered out a string of who-mes and what-do-you-means, but were saved from further inquiry when Conor motioned with his chin. “She’s back and looking for you, boyo.” Then he grinned broadly and winked at me. I narrowed my gaze suspiciously and tried to give him the evil eye, but I knew from his trademark lopsided grin that it wouldn’t work as I went back to the couch.
She was already sitting when I got back, and patted the cushion. A non-descript make-up type container was held ready in her hand. “Dare I ask?” I queried as I sat down.
She nodded towards the bar, and I noticed Claret there, who raised her glass to Barbara and nodded at me. Our styles were too divergent to remotely claim to be friends, but Claret and I respected each other, and I’d helped her out with potion components from time to time. “It’s a concoction of Claret’s. Old school healing poultice with a bit of a kick.”
“Barbara, I’m fine, real-” I flinched as she reached up quickly toward my face, her expression shifting between concern and satisfied smirk. Busted. I conceded, “Would you believe ‘You should have seen the other guys?’”
The smirk won. “Sí,that I’d believe, and you’ll owe me that story. Hold still.”
As the jar opened, a foul mix of smells assaulted my nose. I flinched again, but before I could say anything, the odors blended together into something that, while not pleasant, was at least, inoffensive. Barbara arched an eyebrow at me. “All these years, and this is the trust I get?”
“Confío en ti – our resident Mistress of Pain and Potions … not so much.” I cracked a little smile – as much as my face would allow.
She nodded, conceding the point as she dipped a finger into the goop and started applying it to my face. I closed my eyes, grimacing as the cold substance tightened my skin (and bruises), but the sensation quickly faded to a gentle warmth, and the pain faded as she carefully worked the poultice into my skin. I was faintly aware of another change in the music in the background, but it was a New Age-y soothing melody.
I don’t know how long it took – I honestly got lost in the sensation of having someone else minister to my wounds. Not in the doctor/hospital sense, but the touch of someone who cares about you and your well-being… who not only doesn’t like to see you hurt, but hurts when you do.
The background music changed again, and I realized that she’d finished. I slowly opened my eyes to find her face right in front of mine, her brown eyes searching mine. My mouth was suddenly dry, but I managed to stammer, “Thank you.” Unsure what else to do, I just held her gaze, and prepared myself for a soulgaze.
She finally spoke, in a husky whisper, “Eres lindo, Mateo, pero tú me vuelves loco!”
Then she kissed me – which I totally wasn’t prepared for.
Believe it or not… this was a first.
Oh, you believe it because I’m a pastor? Whatever…
But all those clichés about the first kiss – totally true from where I sat. I lost complete track of … well, everything but the feel of our lips pressed together, sparks bouncing around the inside of my skull, and a roar in my ears from blood rushing… We both pulled away reluctantly – mostly due to me needing some air. I kind of forgot to breathe, I think.
As the blood rushing in my ears faded a bit, I could hear the music again – and I really did recognize it this time:
I glanced at the stage to see Erica and Conor both wearing sh!t-eating grins, and as my hearing continued to recover, I felt the blood now rush to my face as I could make out the renewed chatter in the room…
“Not surprised she had to make the first move…”
“Holy Hand Lasers, Batwoman…”
I looked back at Barbara, but I couldn’t get my voice to work as she looked at me expectantly… so I just let my actions speak as I pulled her in for another kiss.
An hour later, we were still nestled into the couch, her head resting comfortably on my chest. We’d chatted with some of the Confederacy members, but it was pretty light conversation, with most of them leaving “the new couple” alone. I’d told Barbara about my involuntary foray into Pleasant Grove, and I saw some of the same reactions on her face that I’d felt as she told me about her night.
Finally, Molly kicked us out. “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” We all laughed, and Barbara and I made our way to her car.
“You need a ride home?”
“N-” I caught myself. “Yes – that’d be great.” I glanced at her. “Trick question?”
“Él puede ser enseñado!” she laughed.
As we drove back, there was some awkward silence. Finally, she broke it. “Regrets?”
I started. “Oh, no… worries, I suppose. Where things go from here… what it means for what I… we… have been doing.”
“Worries, Matthew? Doesn’t the Good Book have something to say about that?”
“Of course… but my profession doesn’t make me any less human. I still have them.”
She pulled up in front of my apartment. The windows of the LINC office, long boarded up, had been broken into tonight, but whoever had done it was long gone. Life in downtown with the gangs consolidating – yay.
Barbara gently grabbed my chin and turned me to face her. “Sí, mi corazón. But you can’t let those worries blind you to what’s right. In. Front of you.”
I smiled sheepishly. “I was pretty clueless, wasn’t I?”
“Tonight, at least, you had good reason.”
I gingerly touched my face, but Claret’s poultice had worked wonders. It was still tender, but I’d sleep well tonight, and would probably be healed by morning. Under my breath, I muttered the verse that Barbara had reminded me of, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”
She leaned in, “¿Qué le dijiste?”
I switched topics. Things that she’d need to know, if she didn’t already assume. “You realize that you’re my first, right?”
She was taken back a bit. “First what?”
I blushed – a lot, and that still hurt some. “Take your pick – relationship… kiss… Being a pastor isn’t the great relationship draw you’d think. Even in high school, I got focused on my studies to rise above being brought up in the Center. And of course, there’s my particular path of service…”
“Street preaching and fighting the supernatural?”
I nodded. “To a certain extent, the Venatori preach Catholic-/Jedi-style celibacy – that relationships are a hindrance to the fight.”
She nodded. “But that’s not you.”
“No, it’s not. I’ve come to the conclusion that there has to be a balance between the fight and the relationships… otherwise, what am I fighting for?”
She smiled and leaned toward me. “Permítame que le recuerde.”
So I did.
This idea has been simmering in the back of my mind since I first established that Matthew was apprenticed to Barbara to learn evocation, but the teacher/student relationship wasn’t quite right. Now, a year into the campaign, with 4+ years of IG time for the evolution of the character’s relationship via webisodes (and some subtle nudges from Wolfhound)… we’ll see where it goes!