Maggie's scream is cut off as she lands in the water with a satisfying splash and I feel a bit vindicated. When she finally breaks the surface, she's splashing, sputtering and gasping for air. She's starting to panic.
"Perhaps I should mention…" Guillermo starts in a worried voice.
"Oh, crap," I swear as I take a running dive into the tank.
"…that she's not a very good swimmer," Guillermo finishes as my head submerges.
I swim under her and try to avoid her thrashing limbs as she fights against the robe that's weighing her down. I finally manage to come up behind her. Grabbing her firmly, I press her into my chest and pin her there with my arm. I start swimming on my back toward the edge of the tank while she tries to squirm around and face me. Her mind is blank with terror.
We make it to the edge and Guillermo and I manage to heave her up onto the tile floor. She lies there in a fetal position shivering, coughing, gasping and crying all at the same time. I pull myself out of the water as Guillermo works on getting the soaking wet terrycloth robe off of her.
Between the two of us, we finally manage to remove the cumbersome thing. I go and grab the stack of towels off of the table and we start to dry her off. After getting her as dry as possible, I wrap her in the remaining towels and take her downstairs.
Moving one of the wingback chairs, I sit with her by the brazier. I briskly rub her arm to try and stimulate the blood flow. She's still curled up into the fetal position and shivering, silent tears are running down her face.
The fire is drying out my skin and the particles from it are making my gills work harder to deal with the arid environment. I ignore my own physical discomforts and turn my attention back to her. She's cold, frightened, and upset. I have a feeling that when she's feeling better that I'm going to be getting an ear full, metaphorically speaking.
A large blanket lands a few feet from us. I look up and see Guillermo moving away from the upstairs railing and heading for the stairs. After several laborious minutes, he slowly makes it to the bottom of the spiral staircase. After picking the blanket back up, he heads towards me and hands it to me. I take it and wrap it around her, but she continues to shake.
"I put the air hose you wanted on the table in your room," he starts.
He's staring into the fire. I try and read him, but Maggie's proximity to me and the strength of her emotions are making it impossible.
"Not that it'll do you any good now," he continues.
"You agreed to this," I remind him.
"I only agreed to it because I thought you would take it slowly," he says angrily, rounding on me with his eyes dark with emotion. "I never thought you would do something so callous as to throw her into the water, especially while wearing something that could pull her under."
"I didn't realize that she wasn't a strong swimmer," I answer quietly.
"Yes, well, after her parents died out at sea, she developed a rather nasty aversion to going into deep water," he tells me.
Maggie gives one final shudder and then lies still in my arms. While she is awake and the tears have finally stopped, she's still curled into a ball and her breathing is a bit labored from the exertion. She's angry but too tired to chew me out. Yet.
"I'd say you have some serious amounts of groveling to do," Guillermo suddenly states. "So I'll leave you to it. I'm going to bed. Wake me when she finally falls asleep. Hopefully I'll be able to lessen the severity of the earthquakes. I'll probably need to wake Sharon to control the wind storms."
"I thought it was her grandmother that helped last time," I state in confusion.
"Her grandmother was stronger than Maggie when she was nine," he replies. "Sharon is the only family member that's stronger than Maggie now. Good night, Abe."
"Good night, Guillermo," I say to his slowly retreating back. "Thank you."
I turn my attention back to Maggie. Her breathing has settled down to a normal rhythm, and she's physically exhausted, but her emotions are going full tilt. I start stroking her still damp hair. Even with it only half dried, it still feels like silk. I bend my head down to hers.
"I'm sorry," I whisper into her ear. "I didn't know. I never meant to hurt you or scare you like that."
"But you did," she manages to croak back.
She pulls herself into a tighter ball and starts to cry again. I wrap my arms around her holding her even closer and start rocking her. All the while I keep repeating the words "I'm sorry" over and over into her hair. Eventually, the tears stop and she relaxes a little. Amazingly, she's still awake. I relax my hold and go back to stroking her hair.
My skin now feels like it's going to crack and my gills are starting to struggle. I know I need to get back into the water soon, but I can't leave her right now. I just sit there and try to ignore my discomforts.
I hear something over by one of the darker corners of the library. I look around the back of the chair and catch a glimpse of a couple of small shadows moving quickly toward us. Before I'm able to react, Shadow jumps up onto the arm of the chair. She looks curiously at Maggie. It looks like she's trying to make up her mind about something. But if Shadow is out, then the second shadow I saw has to be…
Sure enough, Alley takes a flying leap over the arm of the chair, tackling Shadow. They land in Maggie's lap and start wrestling. A few seconds later, Shadow manages to break away and takes off with Alley in hot pursuit.
Maggie's body is shaking and it takes me a moment to realize that she's laughing quietly. She lifts her head up and watches the cats careen around the room at top speed. Shadow suddenly stops, turns and puffs up, causing Alley to turn and run in another direction. Shadow gives chase until Alley decides to turn the tables again and starts chasing Shadow once more.
After several minutes of tearing around the room, Shadow jumps up onto Maggie's lap and starts sniffing around. Alley hops up a few seconds later and looks Maggie right in the eye. She starts meowing and butting her head against Maggie, demanding attention. Maggie works a hand free of the blanket and towels and finally complies too Alley's demands. Shadow finds a corner of the blanket that she likes and settles down. She's kneading the blanket and purring away.
"I really am sorry," I tell her.
She turns and looks at me. Her eyes are red and puffy from crying and her eyes are filled with an emotional pain. It kills me to see her look at me that way.
"Why?" she asks.
Talk about your loaded questions. I sigh and try and answer the best I can.
"I thought if I could get you to sleep underwater, then we wouldn't have to worry about the nightmares as much," I try and explain. She looks at me with confusion in her eyes now. "You can't use your powers underwater, right?" She nods. "If I can't stop the nightmares then you won't be able to cause earthquakes or windstorms while there. As for why I threw you into the tank, I was angry for you not telling me about the year and a day thing. I know you didn't do it on purpose, but still, I'm frustrated too, you know."
She turns away from me and concentrates on scratching Alley's ears. I belatedly realize that I said that last part a little bit more vehemently then I intended.
"I'm sorry," I say again.
God, I must be on the verge of setting a world's record for apologizing in one evening. I wrap one arm around her leaving her arm free to pet Alley and start stroking her hair with the other hand. I feel and hear her sigh.
"I'm sorry, too," she says quietly. "I meant to tell you, but it seems every time I remembered was just after you'd gone on another assignment. By the time you came back, all I could think about is seeing you again, feeling your touch again. Like I said before, my brain turns to mush when you're around."
"If it's any consolation," I whisper into her ear. "I don't tend to think straight when you're around either."
I can feel her silent chuckle as she leans into me. She's forgiven me, and right now, I'm the happiest male alive. She stops petting Alley, and places her hand on the arm that's wrapped around her. I feel her body tense. She suddenly sits up and looks at me. There's worry in those hazel eyes now.
"How long have you been out of the water?" she demands.
"I don't know, maybe an hour," I answer.
Suddenly, she's kicking and squirming her way out of from under the towels and blanket. Yowling in protest, Alley and Shadow beat a hasty retreat half way across the room where they sit and watch. They have rather indignant looks on their faces.
Maggie finally gets herself free of all of the material and stands in front of me. She sways slightly and I grab her hips to make sure she doesn't fall. She steadies after a few moments. Then she grabs my wrist and drags me out of the chair.
She starts to pull me toward the stairs and I let her. I must admit, she looks good in a swim suit and I'm enjoying the view. My eyes travel upwards and I see the faint scars left by the demon that attacked her. I wish for the millionth time that I could have been faster and stopped its attack.
Within a few moments, we're back at the top of my tank. She walks right up to the edge with me in tow. In a flash, she does a spin that puts me in front of her and she pushes me in, catching me totally off guard. The water feels wonderful on my parched skin and gills. I just want to soak forever, but I sense her leaving. I quickly leave the water and she turns on me.
"What do you think you're doing!?" she demands. She points back toward the tank. "Get back in that water."
"Only if you come with me," I reply grabbing her hands.
"Abe, I can't," she says hesitantly as she takes a step back. She looks down and explains. "I'm afraid."
"The best way to conquer your fears is to face them head on," I whisper in her ear as I pull her back toward me. "I'll always be there to keep you from drowning."
"How?" she eventually asks.
"I'll show you," I answer.
I pull her over to the table and pick up the long black hose that lies coiled on the table. It looks like fifty feet of long skinny snake. Then I reach up onto the shelf next to my respirator and pull down a mask similar to the ones used by hospitals to give their patients oxygen. However, this mask is a little bit more complex. I hold them up for her to see.
"You wear this mask," I start to explain. "It will be attached to the air hose. The hose will be attached to the machine that aerates the water of my tank."
I put down the hose and point out the valve on the front of the mask where the hose connects.
"This valve only opens when you inhale and it automatically closes when you exhale."
Then I point to the two valves on the side of the mask.
"These valves open when you exhale and close when you inhale. The rubber along the edge will keep the water out of the mask," I finish. "It's like a scuba divers respirator, but on a slightly bigger and less complicated scale. You'll be able to talk underwater with this."
"But what if the hose comes off?" she asks nervously.
"It won't," I answer.
I grab a small metal band and a pair of pliers off of the shelf. I put the band on one end of the hose, I attach that end to the mask and then I crimp the band down on the hose to secure it to the mask. I take another metal band and a screw down valve off of the shelf and attach them to the other end of the hose.
Picking up the hose and mask, I grab Maggie's hand and head back to the tank. I can feel her shaking as we stand on the edge. I know it's not from being cold. Then I get an idea.
"Sit down," I order.
I sit down and hang my feet into the water. She stands over me looking dubiously at me. I smile and give her hand a little tug. She finally relents and sits next to me with her feet in the water. She's shaking even harder now as she gazes into the waters depths. I turn her head so that she's facing me and I give her a gentle kiss. The shaking subsides slightly.
"Here, hold this," I say as I put the end of the hose with the mask in her hand. "I need to go and attach the other end to the air pump. Wait here, I'll be right back."
I wait for her nod and then I slip into the water. Flipping over, I quickly swim to the bottom of the tank and find the spigot. I attach the hose and then turn the valve on the spigot to the open position. I break the surface of the water and look at Maggie. She's still sitting there with the hose in her hand. She's shaking and has a worried look on her face, but at least she didn't take off.
"Push the button on the front of the mask," I tell her as I tread water about a foot away from her.
She turns the mask over in her hands until she finds the button near the hose. She pushes it and a stream of air comes through the hose. Startled, she lets go of the button and the stream of air stops.
"Oh," she says as she starts to reach for the button again.
"It's all right," I tell her. "I just wanted to make sure air was making it to the mask. Put the mask over your face and then adjust the straps so it fits snugly on your face."
She complies, and a short time later she's looking at me with the mask firmly in place. I hold out my hands to her. She puts her shaking hands in mine and I start to slowly swim backwards, gently pulling her into the water. With a rather ungraceful splash, she lands in the water. I wrap her arms around my chest, and she grabs hold with a death grip.
"I would really like it," I say with a strained voice, "if all of my ribs were in one piece tomorrow morning."
"This was your idea," she replies in a barely contained panic. Her voice is slightly muffled by the mask. "Deal with it."
"Breath normally," I instruct as we slowly start to sink.
I didn't think it was possible, but she tightens her hold on my chest. I won't be surprised if she does manage to crack a couple of ribs. At the very least I'm going to have bruise that runs all the way around my rib cage. I'm just thankful that I breathe with gills and not lungs.
About a third of the way down, Maggie lets go and starts kicking toward the surface. I try to hold her close and her foot connects with my shin. As I try to ignore the pain shooting up my leg, I touch her mind to find out what's wrong.
"Try and pop your ears," I tell her. "It will balance the pressure in your Eustachian Tubes."
I feel her move her jaw around against my chest, and after a moment, she stops struggling. I pull her close again and she resumes her rib crushing embrace. After a couple of minutes, I finally maneuver us to the center of the tank where we just hover.
"Ok, now just relax," I instruct.
"You're joking, right?" is her sarcastic reply.
Her voice is now not only slightly muffled but a bit distorted by the water and mask. I chuckle and try to remove her arms from around my ribs, but she refuses to let go. I give up trying since it's causing her to get more upset. Instead, I start rubbing and massaging her arms and back, in hopes of getting her to relax.
Now that we're no longer moving, I notice her hair starting to move around us in the current. It's starting to get tangled in my gills. I hadn't foreseen this problem. I try and push it away, but there's so much of it and it's so long that no sooner do I push one handful away then more of it ends up around neck. Now I understand why she keeps it in a braid all the time. Then I get an idea.
I catch her hair in one hand and start corralling any stray strands with the other. After I've finally got her hair in one hand, I untie the ribbon on my wrist that she tied there so long ago. I finally use it to tie back her hair. It's not perfect, but it'll do for now.
I put my hands back on her shoulders to resume massaging but I find that it's not necessary. Exhaustion has finally claimed her and she's asleep. I was so busy dealing with her hair that I hadn't even noticed when she had loosened her grip on my ribs.
I smile, kiss her on the head and then start to drift off to sleep myself. Before I can slip into blissful unconsciousness, the first nightmare hits.
This time she's underwater. There's a thick sheet of ice on the surface of the water. She's banging on it with her fists, trying to break it. Taylor is there and grabbing her again. I'm there with the spear gun as well.
Before I can change anything or even stop the nightmare, my dream self raises the spear gun and shoots Taylor. Then I watch as the dream version of me breaks through the ice and pulls Maggie out of the water. The dream fades as she slips into a deeper stage of sleep.
Maybe I didn't need to put her through all this after all. I wonder if she'll need me to guard her dreams any more. In the back of my mind I'm sort of disappointed, I had hoped that I would be able to sleep with her in my arms for many months to come.
I push away my thoughts and start to relax. There's no point in worrying about it now. All that will accomplish is to keep me awake, and right now I need sleep. I slide into a blissful dark oblivion where I dream of fish.
Author's Note: If you some how missed it, the story of Alley and Shadow can be found in "A Tail of Two Kitties" that was co-written by yours truly and AlleyD8.