“Abby? Abby? Abby!”
Abby shoots out of bed immediately at the sound of her mother’s panicked voice. She throws off her blankets and crouches to the floor in search of the old t-shirt she’d been wearing up until Buck stripped it off of her earlier in the night. Her fingers close around it just as the light on his side flips on and he sits up in bed, disoriented.
“Abs," he asks urgently, "what’s wrong?”
“Abby!” Patricia calls again, sounding even more agitated.
“Oh,” Buck says. She sees him throw aside his covers as well, obviously intending to lend her a hand, but she shakes her head at him.
“I’ve got it,” she says as reassuringly as she can manage, “you can go back to bed.”
“Abs,” he protests, locating and pulling on his pajama pants, “let me help you.”
Instead of answering, Abby rushes into the dining room and switches on the light to find her mother frantically trying to get out of bed. “Abby!” Patricia says when she sees her. “Where am I? How did I get here? This isn’t our house!”
“Mom,” Abby soothes as she approaches, “Mom. It’s okay. Everything’s ok.” She sits down on the edge of the bed and places a gentle hand on her mother’s arm.
“Why aren’t we at home?”
Abby brushes her mother’s hair back from her face. “We live here now, Mom. This is my apartment. You’re safe here. It’s okay.” She kisses her forehead and pats her hand. “I’m here, Mom. Everything’s okay.”
Patricia’s hand settles in her daughter’s lap. “Abby,” she says, sounding relieved. Buck edges into the room just then and Patricia zeros in on him, her voice taking on an authoritative tone. “Martin!” she says sharply. “Why is she still awake? You know it’s past her bedtime!”
Buck stops dead in his tracks and glances at Abby just long enough for her to mouth my dad at him before he slips easily into character.
“Oh,” he says to Patricia convincingly, “I caught her reading in bed again. I was trying to get her to put down the book and go to sleep.”
Patricia’s expression is all disapproval. “You said you’d take that flashlight away from her.”
Buck nods apologetically. “I know. I’m sorry. I will this time.”
Patricia nods. “Good. Falling asleep once in class is enough.”
“Mom,” Abby tries to interject.
“Go to bed, Abby,” her mother replies firmly. “You give your father that flashlight.”
Abby agrees obediently. “Okay, Mom. You go back to sleep and I promise I’ll hand over the flashlight and go to bed. No more reading.”
She hugs her mother and kisses her cheek, then helps her back down under the covers. “Sweet dreams, Mom.”
Patricia looks over Abby’s shoulder to get in one last instruction to Buck. “Martin, make sure she has Toes. You know she can’t sleep without him.”
Buck shoots an amused look at Abby before agreeing with her mom.
“I will. Sleep well.”
Abby waits a minute or two to make sure her mother really is down for the rest of the night before she turns out the light again and joins Buck at the door. They walk silently back toward Abby’s bedroom together, but only get about halfway there before she clears her throat uncertainly. “There’s still time for you to back out of this, you know.” She tries to make it sound like she’s joking, like she’s never actually been worried about him deciding to bail at any given moment. She soon realizes that she really shouldn’t have bothered with pretending, because he sees right though her anyway. She never has been good at hiding things from people.
Buck reaches for her hand and tugs it gently, pulling her against the wall with him. They stand toe to toe in the dimly lit hallway. “How many times are you going to try to break up with me over this?”
She sighs and searches his eyes. Finding nothing but sincerity and compassion, she decides to be honest. “I’m not trying to break up with you, Buck. It’s just that this is exactly why Tommy left. I chose to take care of my mom. I chose this whole never leaving the apartment except to go to work thing and the middle of the night episodes thing and the dementia hell thing. Between my job and my mom, I didn’t have enough of me left to give to him and it wasn’t fair to expect him to stay. It’s not fair to expect you to stay. I can’t expect someone else to make this choice just for me. It’s selfish.”
Buck snorts. “Abs, you are the opposite of selfish.”
“You sound like Matt,” she tells him dryly. “If you call me a saint, I’ll deck you.”
He chuckles. “Got it.” He’s quiet for a second before adding decisively, “But if Tommy left just because of that, he was a jerk.”
She shakes her head sadly. “He wasn’t, though. He was a good guy who loved me. He just didn’t want to make this his life. I can’t fault him for that.” She shrugs. “Sometimes love isn’t enough.”
Buck shakes his head and pushes off the wall. “I don’t believe that,” he tells her. She raises herself up onto her tiptoes and kisses him, then pulls back and gives him a tired half smile. “I need to find a way to tap into your endless well of positivity.”
He returns her smile. “I’ve got plenty for both of us.”
They continue the rest of the way to Abby’s bedroom hand in hand. She leaves the door open a crack just in case her mother wakes up again and they settle back into bed. Finding herself unable to let the subject go, she makes one last realistic point.
“I couldn’t even get away long enough to go on the hot air balloon. I could be in for years of this. How long until you get tired of it?”
They’re both sitting against the headboard, and when she turns to face him, she doesn’t miss the flash of hurt in his eyes. She feels a pang of guilt, but waits for his answer anyway. As much as they might want to, they can’t hide from this discussion if they want their relationship to have any hope of sticking.
“I get it, Abs.”
She gives him a skeptical look and he amends his statement. “Ok, so I don’t totally get it. I get that it’s hard and messy and exhausting. But if this is where you are, I want to be here with you no matter how bad it gets.”
She feels herself start to tear up as he takes her hand and moves closer.
“Abby, if you feel like you want to do this on your own, I’ll respect that. If you want me to walk away from the relationship part of this because it’s all too much for you to handle right now, I will. I’ll support you as a friend instead if that makes things easier. It has to be what you want, though, because I want to stay right here with you in the middle of this. I’m not gonna lie, a few months ago I would have run the other way, but now, I’m in. Being in this relationship with you changed me, and I don’t want to lose that. But I can’t prove it to you unless you trust me.”
Abby’s speechless as relief spreads unimpeded through her body. She already knew from their mini discussion after the failed hot air balloon date that he was determined to be a good sport, but she didn’t expect to hear that he’d been giving the situation this much thought. She knows he’s waiting for a response, but she doesn’t trust herself to speak without bursting into tears, so she settles for nodding enthusiastically.
Buck grins and pulls her into a hug. “Well, okay then.” He rubs comforting circles into her back and says quietly. “I’m in, Abs. I’m here. You can’t get rid of me unless you choose to chase me away on purpose.”
After hearing that, she can’t help it. The tears come anyway and he continues to hold her as she sobs. There’s so many feelings swirling around inside her that she can’t even hope to name them all, but all the anxiety and fear and apprehension she’d been hanging onto in the back of her mind was slowly melting away. Her tears slowly begin to subside after a few minutes and she hiccups a few times, trying to get her breathing under control.
“I know that you’re going to want to keep talking about this,” Buck comments quietly, “and we will, but for now, will you tell me who Toes is?”
Abby laughs and pulls away, grateful for his obvious attempt at lightening the mood. “My old stuffed bunny,” she tells him, wiping away tears. She leans over to the bedside table in search of a tissue and then straightens back up, facing him again. “God,” she adds wistfully, “I wonder what happened to him.”
Buck looks amused. “You named your stuffed bunny Toes?”
“I was a very literal kid. I would have named him Feet or Ears, but that was too obvious even for me.”
He chuckles and Abby eyes him curiously. “How did you even know how to handle that? You know, with my mom?”
“My neighbor,” Buck explains. “When I was a kid, the family next door moved their dad in with them. He was my friend’s grandfather and he was always confused at the end. They, uh, they said not to argue with him. We were supposed to just go with whatever he thought was happening. I was a lot of different people, but mostly his little brother.”
She nods. “Well, you were great. Thank you for not freaking out.”
He shrugs likes it’s no big deal and Abby thinks of something else just then. “I never told you I used to get in trouble for reading in bed at night, did I?”
He looks surprised. “No. But,” he leans in and taps an arm of her glasses with one finger, “lucky guess.”
She can’t help being impressed. “Very perceptive.”
That earns her an easy grin. “It comes with the job.”
She smiles back at him gratefully. Even through utter exhaustion, she finds that she’s feeling a sense of peace within herself that didn’t exist before tonight. “You make me feel so calm, like I can handle whatever happens and still come out okay.”
He kisses her then, slow and gentle. “You don’t give yourself enough credit,” he says next. He tucks a strand of her hair behind her ear and looks intently into her eyes. “You had those Jedi hands before I came along, I just helped a little.”
“You’ve done a lot more than that. You’re helping me find myself again, Buck. That’s huge. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to tell you how much that means to me.”
He lies back into his pillows and holds out an arm for her to join him. Abby presses herself against his body, settling into her position as the little spoon and pulls the blankets over them both. Buck snakes an arm around her waist and pulls her close. “You have told me,” he says in answer to her last comment. “Just by being willing to trust me and letting me in. I know it’s hard with the position you’re in, but it’s so brave. You’re a rock star, Abs. Don’t doubt that.”
She turns her head so she can see into his eyes. There’s really nothing left for her to say except thank you, so she does and he winks. “Don’t thank me, it’s all true.”
She kisses him and turns away, snuggling down deeper into the covers. His arm tightens around her and she sighs contentedly, truly relaxed for the first time in over a year. Sleep comes easily, and her last coherent thought before she drifts off is of how ready she is to face whatever the future brings.