As dinner went on, I re-thought my opinion of the relationship between Jethrop and Babur's sister as they argued aggressively over stupid things.
"Eat the stupid beans! Do you want an upset stomach later from ONLY eating those ripe berries? Put some protein in you! You need it for work. You can use the muscle. Dunce."
"Maybe I'd eat more beans if you would get off my back about my smell in the night. Or have you forgotten the midnight fiasco a few nights ago?"
"Oh, yeah, it's my fault. Thank you for reminding me."
The tail end of the argument ended with two pairs of crossed arms and eyes avoiding each other. I could feel the tension in the air as my eye twitched in an uncomfortable un-amusement.
"Lake! We haven't introduced ourselves."
Babur's father stood to meet me with a handshake and a mouth half full of food.
"Stop that. It's rude."
His wife scolded him.
"It's fine. I don't mind. Nice to meet you."
I held out my hand and we shook.
"I'm Buhban. This is my wife, Borai. The quiet couple over there are Jethrope and Binty."
"A pleasure to meet you all. Thank you for the food. It's good."
"I'm glad you like it. It's actually Babur's favorite food from when she was younger."
Babur seemed to become a tad shy after her mother mentioned her favorite food. I wanted to ask why, but not at the table. Not around her family. She had a kind of sadness in her shy look.
"What's next for you, Lake? Will you stay here?"
"I'm actually searching for someone. I make detours and stops from time to time but, I try to keep moving in one direction. I'm determined to find the person who I lost. Or rather, I was the one that got lost on the way home."
"Oh really? Family? A friend?"
Not wanting to reveal the fact that I have a wife in this scenario, I erred on the side of caution.
"Yeah... Something like that."
We finished dinner and spoke for a while more. Babur and I told them of our adventures heading south. I decided to omit any of my involvements with Wart Forest. It got late and Binty, along with her husband, left for the night. Babur's parents offered a spare room for us. I didn't want to impose and Babur didn't want to sleep somewhere I wasn't.
Babur seemed a bit quieter than usual after dinner. We found a nice quiet spot just outside of any cultivated land and set up the tent for the night.
The morning was soon around the corner when I awoke. Babur was still asleep. I just enjoyed her warmth. By the time the first light hit the tent, Babur began to stir.
She smacked her lips a few times.
"Always, when you are by my side."
She cracked a smile and pulled me closer.
"So, what was that I saw last night?"
"Nya? Sorry. My parents said the couple always argues like that anymore. They say it's a sign that they really care about each other."
"I meant when your mother mentioned your favorite food."
"Oh. That... wasn't my favorite. My parents never paid enough attention to me when I was younger to remember things like that. I just didn't want to upset her when she said it. I feel like we can be a real family nyow. I want to spend more time with them and help them learn more about me while I help them and learn more about them. I'm excited about the future."
The things she just said. They made me feel uneasy. I felt like she could see through my faux smile of a response. She buried her face in my chest more than usual.
"Let's sleep in a little longer. Nya?"
It was late in the afternoon when we finally got tired of the stiffness that came with oversleeping. Babur got dressed in front of me and left the tent.
"I'm going back to my parent's house."
"Okay. I'll pack up and meet you near the southern village border?"
Her response was... slow.
"Yeah... Okay. I'll see nya there."
I stopped at a boulder along the southern path, about a five-minute walk to the village border. I waited for what felt like an hour. I watched several travelers go by. Most of them were absorbed in getting home or having a good conversation with their travel partners.
"There you are. I've been waiting. Ready to go?"
She said nothing and took my hand. I happily held her hand as we walked south. I stepped over the village border. I stood only a foot or two outside of the edge of Oofo village. Babur's hand holding tightly onto mine with her feet firmly in place, preventing my advance.
"Lake… stay here with me. Here, in Oofo."
My jaw tightened. Somehow, I knew there would be some kind of complication. Her eyes were so hopeful. My heart. It felt like it was swimming its hardest in the middle of an ocean and failing.
I held onto my smile while tears began to form.
Her hand fell out of mine.
Just the sound of the tremor in her voice made me want to curl up into a ball and die.
"I can't stay here. I have to find Sophie."
I held out my hand once more.
"Just come with me. I'm sure she would be happy to…"
My hand recoiled and clenched into a loose fist, trembling with fear.
"I didn't follow nya to meet her. I followed nya because I love nya. I love nya, Lake. Can't nya understand that? I want nya to stay here with me so we can get married. Have children. Laugh and cry. Fight and make up."
Her expression was filled with pain and worry.
"Call me selfish if nya want but, I want nya all to myself. Nya said she was an elf, right? She will easily outlive me. Can't nya just stay with me until my end? Then, you can go back to her after that and it will have only felt like a few years for her. That is, if she is even still ali.."
"Don't say it. She is still alive. I have to believe that she is. Going back to her is the only thing that kept me going."
Hearing her admission of love made me so happy. At the same time, I felt daggers through my heart. She is…
"What you are asking me to do is to give up on her. Even if it's a small portion of her life, that short amount of time could be the difference in her losing faith in me coming back. It could be the point where she dies. She could be taken away and given to another owner that hides her and beats her away from prying eyes."
I grit my teeth. Revealing that she is a slave might have been stupid.
"Is she... a slave?"
Through all of the tension building up, I felt a bit of defeat on top.
"Nya would choose a slave, over me?"
"She is more than just a slave to me. I never saw her as a slave. To me, it's just a title that everyone else throws around. To me, she is just, Sophie."
Babur slumped down to her knees.
"Lake. I don't care if nya love a slave. I'm nyot asking you to give up on her. But, I can't leave here nyow. Nyot when I just got my family back. My whole tribe, back."
Her sobbing begins to trigger my own tears. I turned away to hide my face.
"Nya said, that she was the one who kept you going. Well, you nyot only did that for me, nya kept me living! I was ready to die that night. Nya brought me back from the brink of my own destruction. Nya helped me regain my confidence. Nya took over an underground assassination organization to save me from the anuran. You gave me my family back. I, more than anything, want nya to be a part of my family. Don't leave me here alone. Please."
My heart feels like a world, shattering in half.
"You aren't alone... Sophie may be alone right now. I can't leave her that way. If you can't come with me, then I guess this is…"
The next word was stuck in my throat. I didn't want to say it. I've never had such a strong resentment for the word until now.
But, for Sophie's sake, I had to.
I begrudgingly began my walk south. The sound of Babur's voice came through to my ears like a whisper on the wind, yet clearer than any crystal waters.
"Did nya ever love me?"
My pace did not falter.
'I do. I do love you. I love you so much that it hurts. It's the same love I have for Sophie. I care for you more than you know.'
Screaming that in my head was useless. But, saying it out loud may end up hurting her even more than I already have.