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Give and Take

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Barney smiles down at Valancy and she smiles back, something giddy rising up in her chest. She pushes up onto her toes and kisses him back, wanting to know if it will feel the same the second time. It does--or maybe it's better, because it lasts longer this time. Barney's arms tighten around her. "Good?" he asks.

She meets his eyes, feeling shameless and ready for whatever comes next. "Good," she says,

"Alright, then." Barney picks up Valancy's suitcase and takes her hand in his and leads her up to the house.

"Shack" has a ramshackle sound to is, but Barney's home is snug and solid. It's a comfortable, assured solidity, nothing like the defiantly respectable solidity of the house on Elm Street. Barney's house is very much like Barney himself, and Valancy's love for him immediately expands to include it.

Showing Valancy around takes only a few minutes, most of them spent on introducing and fussing over the cats. "I'll start showing you around the outside tomorrow," Barney says. "There's so much more of it; it will take a little bit longer."

"How long?" Valancy asks, laughing.

"Well, I haven't finished exploring it myself, yet," Barney admits. The memory of Valancy's condition touches them both at the same time. "Nature is one of those things that expands to fill the time you have," Barney says, his voice gentle. "There's always more, but whatever you have time for has a way of being enough."

"There are so many things I want," Valancy confesses. "But I feel like that, too. Everything that happens to me now is something I never thought I'd have. Like an extra on a hotel bill that I won't have to pay."

Barney sits down on the bed and looks up at her. He's still holding her hand. "And is this one of your extras?" He touches the bedspread with his other hand, "It doesn't have to be, Valancy."

Valancy's eyes well up suddenly, and she thinks of CIssy. She had never condemned Cissy for taking what she wanted, because Cissy had been willing to pay the price. Valancy wonders what price she'll have to pay--if life will find a way of presenting her with that hotel bill, or whether death will save her from it. Is she being selfish, or is love just a willingness to pay, whatever the price may be?

Barney's still looking at her, waiting. She reaches out to touch his face, traces the line of his jaw. He turns his head slightly and kisses the inside of her wrist. Valancy feels breathless, and the only thing she can be sure of is that she can't be sure this is wrong. And she wants it.

The old fear touches her again, because whatever does remain of her life hinges on this moment. "Don't you get a say?" she asks.

He smiles. "I like you," he says, and there's something boyish and confiding about it. "If you say yes, I say yes."

"I say yes," says Valancy. It's as much of a compact as their wedding, in its way. Barney pulls her down to sit next to him and kisses her again, one hand still holding hers, the other at Valancy's waist. This kiss is different, more purposeful. Barney licks along her lower lip, and Valancy gasps. His hand creeps up her side, warm through the thin fabric of the green dress. When his thumb sweeps along the underside of her breast, she puts her arm around his neck to steady herself, and finds her hand sliding into his hair without her really having thought about it.

That's how the rest of it goes, too, her body two steps ahead of her brain. Two steps ahead of Barney, too, it seems like. He stops just as he's about to push into her, holding himself over her with one hand, the other warm on her inner thigh, and looks down at her like he's not sure how he got here, or what he's doing, or what happens next.

"Are you sure?" he asks.

"Yes," she says. "Are you?"

"I--" He closes his eyes for a moment, and Valancy doesn't want him to stop. She's afraid of what's about to happen to her body--girls tell stories, and Olive has told her more than a few--but she's more afraid of what will happen if he stops. She doesn't think she could stand it. She pulls him down to kiss her, soft and coaxing until he's smiling against her lips again.

"Please," she says, finally, and he lines himself up again, presses into her until she's not sure if what she's feeling is pain or something else, only that this is something she's wanted for a long time.

Afterward, she curls up against him, his arm around her shoulders. "Thank you," she says.

"You don't have to thank me for that," he says. She turns so she can look at his face, because there's something odd in his tone. He's looking at here with an expression that's a little bit odd, too--not unhappy, she's sure about that. But she feels like she's gained confidence in the past hour, and the expression on Barney's face makes her wonder if she took it from him.

"You didn't have to do anything for me," she tells him, "but you're giving me everything I want. I want to be your wife, not just..." She doesn't quite know how to describe what it is she doesn't want. "I want everything," she says, eventually.

Barney smiles at her, looking more at ease. "You're giving me things, too," he says. "Things I didn't ask for at all."

"That's very presumptuous of me," says Valancy. "I'm sorry." And she is--but not very sorry. He's not upset with her, and a whole new world is opening up for the second or third time since she visited Dr. Trent.

He laughs. "I think I'm going to like being married to you," he says. "It's--I think it's going to be surprising."

***

The second Christmas of their marriage finds them snowed in at an inn in the Italian Alps. There are bearskin rugs draped over the furniture, one exotic tiger mixed in, and snow is piled up almost to the top of the thick, many-paned windows. The fireplace is huge, the whole space too big, but Valancy feels more at home than she has since they left their Blue Castle. She pulls one of the bearskins down in front of the fire, pulls Barney down on top of it.

He understands--of course he understands. "Feels like home, doesn't it?" he says. "Do you remember--I was just thinking about you curled up on one of the wolfskins the night were were married, wearing just one of my shirts."

"I felt shameless," she says, turning her face into the fur. It's gotten harder, since she found out that there was nothing wrong with her, to remember how she pushed herself into Barney's life. She's glad she did, and she knows he is, too, but sometimes she thinks of specific things she did and blushes for her brazen earlier self.

"I liked it," said Barney. "I think--"

"What?" She pulls him closer and rests her head against his shoulder.

"I didn't know it," he says. "But I think that was when I started to fall in love with you. You bowled me over, you know."

"I know," she says, embarrassed.

"I wasn't sure whether you were giving me something or taking something for yourself," he says. "And then there was a moment--I got a little lost--"

"I remember," says Valancy. "I pushed you, and I felt so selfish."

"It felt like generosity to me," says Barney.

"Giving things to you feels like giving them to myself," says Valancy.

"Exactly," says Barney. "I think that's what love is. And that was the first time I felt that way."

Valancy smiles and turns her head to kiss his chest. "Then I should stop feeling bad about taking things from you," she says.

"Definitely." Barney ducks his head and kisses her ear. "What would you like me to give you next?"

"Tickets to go home," she says. "Before the snow melts. I want this at home." She gestures at their surroundings.

"It's been nice here, though, hasn't it?"

"Of course," says Valancy. "But it's a poor substitute for our Blue Castle."