I bolted awake at the sound of Barbara’s scream. She was thrashing wildly in the bed next to me, and I quickly hugged her close, sleepily whispering to her that she was safe, that everything was fine, and finally softly singing “Amazing Grace” until she settled down. This time, she settled back to sleep without waking up, a merciful result compared to the long crying sessions when actually she woke up in the throes of her nightmares.
As I lay back down, I pondered again the consequences of standing against “this present darkness” and tried to sort through my feelings about tying Barbara to my call in that regard. Although an engagement ring was snug in my backpack, could I really justify exposing her to this kind of danger “’til death do us part” – if we’re that lucky?
It had been three days since the Erlking’s Daughter conducted her power play by capturing our loved ones and trying to blackmail us into doing dirty work that she was bound from doing herself. Barbara had been taken from her home in an early morning raid by goblins, and while we were able to rescue everyone later in the day, the experience had left its mark. Admittedly, it could have been worse if the Marchioness hadn’t reduced their memories of the incident to nightmares, but that still didn’t make them go away. I hadn’t wanted to tell her what really happened, but once she started putting two and two together about her recurring nightmares, I couldn’t hide the truth from her. She was all but moved into my apartment while her house was being cleaned and repaired. I’d removed the writing in blood from her walls while she slept on the night of our return, but there was still the detritus of her violent kidnapping to eradicate as well.
But, lurking in the background of those events is us. Nearly a year into a relationship that had been beyond wonderful, I found myself questioning it in the wake of the kidnapping. My brief conversation with a faerie spy had given me a fresh perspective on the question, and I was prepared to talk to Barbara about it rather than forcing a unilateral choice on her. Yet once again, I found myself waiting for the “right moment,” just as with the ring.
Later that morning…
I cracked a few eggs into the skillet that was merrily sizzling away with some bacon, onions, and mushrooms. I don’t claim to be a gourmet chef by any stretch of the imagination, but I do alright cooking creatively and somewhat healthy.
As the smells filled my small loft, I heard Barbara stir back in the bedroom. I continued cooking as she went through her morning ablutions, but was ready when I heard her barefoot steps in the kitchen area.
“Sleep better last night?” I asked, as off-handedly as I could.
“Creo que sí. I don’t remember my dreams as vividly.” She padded up behind me and kissed me on the shoulder. “How many times did I wake you up?”
I shook my head a little as I turned around to kiss her. “Sólo dos veces. I think you’re starting to get past them.”
“I’m sorry I woke you, Matthew, I –”
“No, don’t apologize. It’s my-”
She cut me off angrily. “Don’t you dare.”
I nodded, realizing what I’d tried to do, and I simplified my response. “You don’t have to apologize.” I turned back to the skillet, finishing the preparation of breakfast, and served it onto a pair of plates. I turned back and she was still glaring at me. I offered the plate of food, motioning to the table. “We need to talk about this.”
She accepted the plate as we sat down. “Yes, we do.”
We ate in silence for a minute or two, and I set my fork down. “Barb… have you considered that this might not … be right? For either of us?”
She swallowed and waved her fork. "What – us? Isn’t that what you worried about that night last summer?"
I nodded. “It was more – academic – then. Now…”
She set her fork down as well. “Now, what?”
“Now, it’s real. My initial fears and worries come to life. My calling putting you in harm’s way.”
She cocked an irritated eyebrow at me. “So you don’t think any of the work that Pallas, Claret, Tom, and I have been doing put us on her radar?”
“I’m sure it did,” I conceded, "but none of them were kidnapped! The church fires, the note in the newspaper, the message at your house – those were meant for me! She kidnapped you to get at me, just like Erica’s aunt and Jamie’s kids were taken to use as leverage against them."
“And so the solution is for us to disconnect?”
“That’s what Jamie’s doing.” I’d worked with Jamie to help him sort out his affairs after the murder of Alice. “He’s sending the kids off to some secret Warden boarding school. A place for them where he won’t have to worry about their safety every time he steps out to take on whatever comes his way.”
“So where are you planning on shipping me off to?” she snapped.
I felt an unusual scowl appear on my face. “It’s not the same. I can’t-”
“Tienes la maldita razón, no es lo mismo!” Her hackles were up, now. “They are children, unable to look after themselves or make informed choices. Plus I’d like to believe that you’d think twice before using Mr. Anti-Social as a model for your relationship choices.”
That hit home, but I wasn’t completely discounting his reaction, especially in light of what happened to Alice. “I don’t know how he’s coping… with Alice…” I looked over at her, the images from Jamie’s house still fresh in my mind. “You didn’t see… what the goblins did to her. I thank God every moment that were only used as blackmail, rather than…” I choked off, unable to finish the sentence.
“Being ‘used?’” Her face softened, and she reached across the table and took my hand in hers. “Don’t think that doesn’t factor into my dreams…”
“God, Barbara – it tears me up that you get put in danger. I could barely think straight after I found your house…”
“Good.” Her simple response caught me off guard. I raised a confused eyebrow.
“It’s a little taste of what I feel every time you go gallivanting off the with the rest of the Scooby Squad.” She wasn’t angry any more – her tone was almost … satisfied? "I remember what you looked like that night at Atwater’s. And how many times have you come back from your adventures with a injuries that required Santiago’s intervention? You throw yourself into harm’s way without a thought for anyone else, and I understand that, but it’s hell on me waiting to find out if you’re ok!"
I looked her in the eyes, understanding. “De acuerdo… Why do you want to risk more of that?”
She shook her head. “You really are clueless sometimes, Mateo. It’s because I have faith in you, and I love you, idiota!” She stood and came around the table to me, never releasing my hand. “Being with you, having you as part of my life… it’s worth the risk.”
That finally shattered the excuses I was making, trying to justify pushing her away because of my own fears and weaknesses. I stood as well, and we embraced. It wasn’t a lovey-dovey hug, or playful teasing. It was fierce, full of pent up emotion as we both fed our feelings for each other into that physical action. I don’t know how long we stood there, but our food got cold as we whispered quietly to each other, revealing and taking on each other’s doubts and fears, reactions to the last few days, letting what seemed unbearable burdens for each of us be lighter by the sharing.
I get it – no more waiting. I slipped my hand into my pocket, finding what I’d fished out of my backpack earlier that morning. The down-on-one-knee thing seemed way too cheesy for this moment, so I just pulled back slightly and brought my hand up between us, slowly opening it as I looked at her.
“Then if you’re really hell-bent on staying with me… ¿Quieres casarte conmigo?”