||[Jun. 14th, 2007|07:55 am]
Two Authors, One Mind
New to the story? Headers are here. Or start at the beginning.
"Where are they?" Jarl twisted around in his seat to look at the door, his face lined with worry. "They've never been this late to dinner before."
Gippal glanced out the window at the dusky sky. He and Jarl had spent the afternoon hanging out in the library, playing games -- he had taught Jarl dice, and Jarl had picked it up with almost frightening speed; the boy was going to be quite the gambler. But now the day was past and Jarl, restless with worry, had demanded that they head for dinner. Privately, he thought Paine and Nooj's absence might be a better sign than a prompt arrival would have been, but he wasn't sure how to explain that to Jarl. "They'll be along soon. But maybe we should go ahead and start eating."
"But their food will get cold." Jarl looked back at his uncle, and Gippal shook his head at the lines that stress had etched into the child's brow. He lifted a hand to his forehead and smoothed it with a smile.
"Don't worry about it," he said. "Everything'll be-- oh, there you are!"
Jarl leaned back alarmingly far in his chair and craned his neck around to look at his parents, who had walked through the door together. Paine was a step ahead of Nooj; his right hand rested on the small of her back, and they were both smiling. Gippal felt his heart leap upward with hope, and he raised a questioning eyebrow at them.
Paine caught his eye, and she nodded. Then she dropped down on one knee next to her son's chair. "Jarl, we have some news for you." She laid a hand on his cheek as Nooj stepped closer and let his fingers fall on her shoulder. "Your father and I have had a bit of a talk, and we've straightened everything out between us. You don't need to worry about us anymore. Everything is going to be fine."
Jarl trembled slightly as Gippal let out a glad whoop. "Does that mean you'll be talking to each other again? And sleeping in the same room and everything will be back to normal?"
"Better than normal," she answered. "Jarl, how would you like to stand up with us next year when we take vows in a formal ceremony?"
His eyes went wide. "You mean, you'd get married? Like all our aunts and uncles?" Paine nodded, and he launched himself from the chair into her arms. "Mama, Mama, I'm so happy."
Paine wrapped her arms around him and snuggled him close. Nooj moved his hand to Jarl's hair, and the three shared a long moment of togetherness.
Gippal watched for a moment, then slipped past them and out the door. He needed to make a sphere call. Finally, he'd get to go home.
"So, does all of Spira know?" Paine turned around in her chair to watch Gippal walk back into the dining room and plop down in his seat.
"Nah." He picked up his fork and took a huge bite of salad. "I just called Rikku."
Paine raised an eyebrow at him. "In that case, I give it about twenty minutes." Gippal laughed around his mouthful of food, and Nooj chuckled as well. The meal continued, everyone discussing casual topics and enjoying the congenial mood. Gippal found himself watching the family that sat before him: Jarl bounced in his seat and beamed, while Paine and Nooj sat next to each other, almost close enough to touch, casting each other fond glances, one hand or another occasionally disappearing beneath the table.
Once her son had finished eating, Paine looked at him with a smile. "Jarl, could you please go to the kitchen and ask the cook to find us something sweet to finish the meal? And then please bring it back to us."
"Yes ma'am!" Jarl leapt from his seat and marched off to complete his task, barely able to contain his eagerness. As soon as he was gone, Gippal set down his fork and leaned forward.
Paine and Nooj looked at each other. She shrugged; he nodded. They both faced forward, but it was only Nooj who spoke. "You were right about a great many things, my friend, but most importantly you were right about it being long past time for me to abandon my desire for Death. I have found a way to not just set aside my search, but give up on it, entirely and forever."
Gippal swallowed. "No more Taydrcaagan? "
Nooj shook his head. "No. And I thank you for your insights that helped make my choice possible."
"Any time, old man." Gippal rested his elbow on the table, hand in the air; without hesitation Nooj leaned forward and copied his position, clasping hands in a gesture of friendship. "Any. Time." They smiled at each other again, and Gippal decided that he had now seen Nooj smile more times in the last hour than he had in all the years they'd known one another.
After a moment, Gippal drew back and looked at Paine. "So, finally getting hitched."
"Yes, we-- Ah, Jarl. Any luck?"
He walked in the room, empty-handed, and shook his head "The cook said she didn't have any dessert, but if you want her to make something for tomorrow's dinner you should let her know." He looked at Paine with large, pleading eyes, and she laughed at him.
"Yes, okay, you can pick something. In the morning." She stood, and Nooj and Gippal followed suit.
Nooj turned to Jarl and asked, "You want to go with your mother and me to tuck in the twins?"
Jarl, who seemed to Nooj somewhat piebald as his burn peeled, froze with his mouth open for a moment before he could sputter out an answer. "Yessir. So we're all going down to the nursery? All of us."
"Well, you, me and your mother anyway. Gippal can come if he likes." Nooj held out a hand which Jarl gripped as tightly as he could as he slid from his chair.
Gippal grinned and rubbed the back of his head. "Nah, I'll go on and start packing. Rikku's getting restless and when she gets restless..."
Paine laughed with delight. "I think I get your drift. Yes, you'd better go get ready to go home as soon as possible. When she gets restless..." Another peal of laughter burst from her throat. "Come on, you two."
Just before they reached the door, Jarl tugged at his father's hand, signaling that the man should bend down. "Is everything really all right, Daddy? You and Mama are really all right? You sure?"
Nooj grinned, an expression which Jarl still found new and surprising on this father's face. "I'm sure. Things are going to be the way they ought to and you can stop worrying, my boy. We are going to have a lot to do and see and talk about when we get home."
"We're going home?" The lilt in the question left no doubt how the boy felt.
"Yes, we're going home."
The trio moved down the hallway, Jarl walking between his parents in something of a daze. He still wasn't sure whether he ought to believe that this was really happening. What if he'd dozed off at the dinner table while waiting for them and this was all just one of his daydreams, that all of the bad things with Daddy being sick and then Polarok dying had never really happened? Once, a long time ago, he'd heard his mother talking about something being too good to be true; he wondered if that could be the case here, and he stopped dead.
Paine paused as well; Nooj took one more step, then turned around with his eyebrows raised. "Yes Jarl?" She knelt down to meet his eyes.
"Is it true? What Daddy said? Are we really going home? And everything will really be okay?" His voice shook on the last words, and to his horror he realized he was fighting back tears.
Her eyes flicked up to Nooj's and they shared a look of fond amusement. Then she turned that same warmth on her son. "It's true. We're really going home. And everything is really, truly okay." She placed her hands on his shoulders. "I know we haven't given you much reason to trust us lately, and we're both sorry about that. But this you can trust. I promise. I don't promise that nothing bad will ever happen again; I can't, because no one can predict the future. But I do promise that your father and I will always be there for you, together, whenever you need us. Okay?"
He nodded and sniffed, and Paine drew him in for another big hug. When she thought he had himself under control, she pulled away and brushed his hair from his eyes with another tender smile. "Are you ready to go tell your brother and sister the good news?"
"Yeah." She straightened up as Nooj fell back in by Jarl's side, and the three of them went forth on their joyful errand.
The nursery seemed as different as the rest of the world to Jarl. It was warmer, more welcoming, bathed in a golden light from the small fire burning on the hearth. Even the twins were different. Instead of screaming and running, they came quietly from their nurse's arms to the embrace of their parents, looking angelic in their trailing nightgowns.
Each parent took one child; Avice wrapped her arms around Paine's legs and let herself be lifted into her own bed without protest, while Avtor took Nooj's hands. Jarl was near enough to his father to hear the whispered words between them: "Can we go home now, daddy?" "In a few more days and everything will be like it was. Sleep now, little boy."
A kiss on the smooth forehead and a tender smile down into the drowsily closing eyes completed the ritual. It had been a commonplace habit back at Mushroom Rock Road that had fallen into abeyance here at the Castle. Jarl smiled and hugged his arms around himself at this sign that things were actually returning to normal.
Suddenly, he was possessed of a very strange feeling. It was as if his body was filling with bubbles of happiness and his skin was too small to hold it all. He had never felt such joy before and did not know what to do with it although he thought he would burst if he did nothing. His parents had turned toward the door and he ran to them, stretching out his arms in a futile effort go embrace them both at the same time. He looked up at them with a face as radiant as the sun at noon.
"We're going home!" It was the only thing he could think to say; they seemed to understand, and beamed back at him.
The three -- Paine, Nooj and Jarl -- left the nursery hand in hand, the boy serving as a living link between his parents. His feet hardly touching the floor, he swung along in a delirium of happiness. Everything was going to be all right, the world was in order again and they were going home. At the door of his room, Paine turned the knob and swept the trio inside. The maid had turned back the bed and, to Jarl's dismay, had drawn his bath. He had forgotten he had not washed yet. Seeing his sudden dejection, his mother laughed and disengaged her hand to walk over to the tub and pick up an odd object.
"Look, Jarl. This is a sea sponge. When you get in the water, use it to scrub all over. It'll help rub off the peeling parts of your hide and stop the itching." She raised it to her nose and breathed deeply. "Here, smell. You can smell the sea on it. It's a nice big one and you'll love the way it feels."
Jarl obediently sniffed at the pale brown sponge and could catch a fresh salty smell. He nodded and blushed.
"We'll leave you alone to put yourself to bed, son. You don't need tucking in any more. Sleep well and we'll see you at breakfast." Nooj smiled at the embarrassed child and stoked the disheveled hair back from his forehead. Without warning, he bent and bestowed a kiss on the brow of his eldest. "I'm glad you're happy. Glad we all are."
Once back in the corridor, the two adults looked at one another with a certain feeling of confusion. They were alone again and felt strange and mysteriously uncertain with one another as though their affair had just begun and each was slightly unsure of the other's needs or desires.
"Where...?" Nooj began.
"Which...?" Paine murmured, overlapping his word. They both paused and laughed nervously. He gestured her to continue.
"Where do you want to sleep tonight?" She placed her arm around his waist and snuggled into him.
"With you." He eyed her hungrily.
She stood on tiptoe and kissed him, vibrating with more laughter. "I meant," she murmured, her mouth still pressed against his, "your rooms or mine? We have to pick one or the other, until we can get home to our real bed."
"I know what you meant. My answer is unchanged." He leaned his forehead into hers and ran his hands over her arms and then firmly down her sides. They came to rest on her hips and pulled her tightly against him. "I don't care what bed I sleep in as long as you're in it."
"Mmm." They kissed again, long and slow and searching. When her mouth was her own once more, she stepped away and smiled. "All right. Mine, then. My bed is bigger, and it's closer."
His right hand drifted into her left; he laced their fingers together, then took the cane from where he had rested it against the wall. "Lead the way."
Their progress down the hall, viewed by a neutral observer, might have looked more like a brace of lustful adolescents than the long paired adults they in fact were -- hands intertwined, they casually brushed against one another and cast teasing, longing glances back and forth.
"Have you missed me?" He nudged her shoulder with his and looked at her sidewise.
"Naturally. I got used to having you around." She giggled at his fallen expression.
He stepped in front of her and playfully untied the top lacings of her bodice. "I don't like you in all this cloth. It suffocates your body. Let my love pillows breathe." With a gentle touch, he rubbed her left nipple, feeling it harden against his fingers.
She laughed again and slapped his hands away, grabbing the fingers of his right hand. "In the hallway?" She fixed him with a teasing glare, walking backwards as they continued on their way. "No self-control, such a shame."
He chuckled. "You're sure it's a shame?"
"No." She tugged on his hand and pulled him close for yet another kiss, its passion taking his breath away. By this time they were at the entrance to her rooms, and she took another step to back up against the closed door; he pressed against her and imprisoned her there with the weight of his body. With her free hand, she groped behind and down for the door handle and twisted it open. As the door gave way, Nooj nearly stumbled, but Paine kept balance for them both as she stepped backward. Both laughing, he followed her all the way into the room and pushed the door shut behind him.
Nooj spun drunkenly toward the bed, intoxicated with the joy of their reunion. Dropping down to sit on the edge, he pulled her to him so that he captured her between his knees. His cane slid, unheeded, from his grasp as he reached for her lacings again. When she was bare to the waist, he leaned his head between her breasts and breathed the fragrance of her skin and trembled with the intensity of his desire. Carefully and precisely, his hands found the catches of her skirt to release them, letting the fabric pool at her feet. Only her underpants remained and they were easily slipped down and away. Then he placed his fingers on her hips and slowly turned her in a complete circle in order to feast his hungry eyes on her body, learning her shape and all its contours as he had done when first they had become lovers. He looked at her as though she had been freshly created for his pleasure then bent forward and kissed her navel and her mons.
She quivered with pleasure, and with the anticipation of more. Seized by the need to see and feel his naked body, she dropped to her knees, her fingers traveling over the buttons of his shirt. She pushed it off his shoulders, pressed her mouth against his broad chest, trailed kisses up his sternum and then his collarbone. With a gentle push, she signaled that he should swing his legs onto the bed. As he did so, she turned her attention to his trousers, a hand casually brushing against his penis as she undid the fastenings; he let out an involuntary moan, and she glanced up at him, the glint in her eye both predatory and amused. She slid the pants down over his hips and over his feet; his undergarment quickly followed, and then she was next to him on the bed, her hands running up and down his bare torso.
He pushed himself up to cover her but she pressed him back against the pillows. "Let me," she whispered.
"No, you don't need to ..."
"I want to." She bent to his chest and, with lips and fingertips, drew patterns tracing down his body.
He sighed with pleasure and lay supine, abandoning himself to her touch. When she had reached her goal, he reached to caress her head with his right hand, carefully tracing the delicate bones of her skull and letting his body respond as it would. She had given him pleasure in this way many times, but never before like this. There was an intensity which lifted him out of himself and onto a plane he did not recognize. It was as though he had fallen into the arms of the Death he had envisioned -- an extinction of everything save a sublime bliss, which seemed to continue for eons.
When he could command his body again, he drew her to him and touched her with awe. "Beloved," he gasped. "What have you done? You have made me a god with your love. I am not worthy." His eyes told her what his words could not. Finally, she saw him savor life as she had longed for him to do. He was hers, finally and completely with no reservations. He was as transparent to her as a pool of calm water and as refreshing. She lowered her head to drink, touching her lips to his. His tongue plunged into her mouth and she held him there for many long moments.
Then she broke the kiss and framed his face with her hands. "I love you, and you love me. That makes you worthy." She brushed a lock of hair from his forehead with the tip of finger. "Everything I am and everything I have is yours. I offered it to you a long time ago. All you ever had to do was take it." With a sigh, she curled into the crook of his arm; he rolled over to embrace her fully, and she felt him tense under her touch. "Is something wrong?"
He tightened his arms around her and buried his face in her hair, breathing deep. "Beloved. I have no doubts, I'm holding nothing back, and yet there's a piece of me that still worries. This happiness, this joy is so strange to me. What if I can't keep it going? What if I..." He cut himself off and pressed even closer into the crown of her head.
Paine nested against his chest and ran a hand up and down his back in slow, reassuring strokes. "Today is like a dream," she murmured. "The most beautiful dream either of us has ever had. Tomorrow or the next day we'll wake up, and we'll have to get back to the business of living our everyday lives." She pulled away and met his eyes, solemn but smiling. "You're right, the overwhelming joy we're finding in every moment won't last. You're still you and I'm still me, we'll still have hard days and struggles and times when we disagree and all of that. But we've built a stronger foundation now, out of the trust we didn't have before. And that will make everything better."
A shadow passed over her face, and Nooj brought a hand to her cheek to smooth it away. "Now you seem troubled. Tell me."
She shook her head and looked away. "I just-- we both saw how our relationship was broken and we made the changes we needed to fix it. And we needed that, and it makes me happy. But the price we paid... it was so high, Nooj. So, so high. I can't forget that. And so there's sadness here, too, and there always will be."
Nooj pulled his love back into his chest and cradled her there, soothing her grief with gentle touches and soft, meaningless words. For a long time they lay together, sharing their sorrow and their joy. When he thought she was ready to speak, he looked down at her, tracing her jaw line with a fingertip. "Paine. Some time ago, I asked if you wanted me to give you another child. It was too soon then, but perhaps it's time to ask again. Would another child help you heal?"
She thought for a moment, turning over the faces of all four of the children she had birthed in her mind's eye. Finally, she smiled at Nooj and ran a hand over his hair. "Thank you for asking, but I'm not ready to make that decision yet. Let's work on rebuilding what we have first. Okay?"
He arranged her more comfortably against his body. "Take as much time as you need. We have more than enough now. Do you know what I regret most? I kept things from you, innocent things, things I thought of in passing. My excuse to myself was that you were too busy to bother with idle musings but I should have talked to you more. Maybe then, we wouldn't have had the chance to grow so distant with one another. Beloved Paine, I'm going to bore you to distraction and talk you into a coma from now on. No more secrets. You have my heart; now you are going to have to put up with having my mind too." He nuzzled her, blowing softly through her tousled hair.
"Good. I often wonder what's going on in there. Another mystery, revealed." She grinned up him; he laughed, and she snuggled up with a sigh. "I love the sound of your laugh. So rich and warm. I hope I get to hear it more often now."
"You will." He chuckled softly.
Paine kissed his neck and pulled her body tighter into his. He felt himself stirring against her, and he kissed her in return, lips traveling over her hair, her forehead, her eyelids and nose, before settling on her mouth. With a contented moan, she deepened the kiss and welcomed his caresses, permitting his hands to wander as they wished. Gravitating to his desire, his natural hand found the smooth curve of her breast, and he stroked it, cupped it, ran his thumb over the nipple. She moaned again and arched into his touch. He bent down and kissed the nipple, stroking it and nibbling lightly, taking care not to hurt her. To his surprise, he tasted her milk against his tongue, and he pulled away in shock.
"Is it still--"
Her hand firmly gripped the back of his head and guided him back to her. "Yes. It's all right. Take your fill; I want you to."
Needing no more encouragement, he fastened his mouth against her breast. She groaned with passion and relief as he drank and she filled him with her life. When he had finished, he kissed her lips again, the taste of the milk mingling with that of his own juices, igniting their need again. Finding her ready, he eased inside and they clung together, consummating their new-made union at last.
And they became gods together.
Nooj woke in the morning light, vaguely aware that something had changed recently in his life. It took him a few moments to remember what it was, what had happened the night before. He pushed himself up on his elbow and looked at the woman lying by his side. Paine's breathing was deep and measured as she slept so he could indulge himself in the pleasure of memorizing her face and body all over again, as though they had become new people - as in many ways, they had.
When he thought about how the day before had ended, with the general joy about the dinner table, Gippal's excited call to Rikku and the visit to the nursery -- not to mention the other things later in the night -- he realized that he was feeling a sense of freedom. He could think of a future in which no shadow would obscure hope and happiness. It was a new day, indeed.
At the realization, he gave a sharp laugh, and Paine lazily raised her lids and fixed her scarlet eyes on him. "You've been watching me sleep, you devil", she drawled, slowly wrapping her arms around his neck to pull him into her embrace.
"Hmm..." She drew back a bit. "You know what? You kiss differently when you smile." With a forefinger, she traced the arc of his lips. "It's like kissing a stranger."
"Then it seems like you'll just have to learn to enjoy the stranger in your bed." He smiled more broadly, with a touch of the predator in his eye.
"Okay. I think I can get used to that. Come here, stranger." And there were no more words for a while.
Two days later, after a flurry of packing and preparations and messages sent back and forth to Mushroom Rock Road, Paine stood on the landing dock, one hand on her hip and the other shading her eyes from the noon-day sun. She watched the airship glide to a landing, and a smile spread over her face as Rikku exited the ship and ran to her, feet slapping against the wooden planks, almost knocking her over with the force of her embrace. "Paine! Oh, oh, I am so happy for you!"
"Hey." Paine hugged her friend back. "Thanks for coming so quickly."
"Are you kidding? It was all I could do not to pile all the kids into the ship that night and drag you all back home for a celebration. But I figured you needed the time to pack and stuff." Rikku stepped away, hands still on Paine's shoulders, eyes sparkling with excitement. "So, so. Gippal tells me you guys are finally getting married?" Rikku bounced on her heels. "I've been thinking about it, and--"
"The answer is no." Paine fixed Rikku with a stern glare.
"But you didn't even hear my ideas," Rikku protested.
"Doesn't matter what they are; the answer is still no." Paine shook her head to underline the point. "If you think I'm going to have some over-blown, Spira-wide production like the one Yuna was forced into, think again."
Paine stepped back, propping her fists on her hips. "Rikku."
Rikku raised her hands in the air in mock surrender. "Okay, okay." Then she grinned. "So, I had another idea. Maybe this one you won't mind so much. Hey, guys!"
Immediately following these last words, she whistled to the ship. The door opened again, and to Paine's delight Yuna and Baralai popped out, waving madly. Another door opened behind her, and Paine turned to see Gippal and Nooj walk into the sunshine. Gippal wasted no time in striding down the gangplank and whisking Rikku into his arms; Nooj followed close behind and reached Paine at about the same time as the newcomers from the ship, and soon the six friends were consumed by a flurry of hugs and handshakes and well-wishes.
After a few confused moments, Paine started to head inside and everyone followed, Yuna by her side, Gippal and Rikku right behind and chattering contentedly.
Baralai started to join them, then caught Nooj's eye and paused, letting the others get ahead and out of earshot. "So, is everything all right now? All the demons exorcised?" His lips smiled, but his eyes retained a suggestion of concern.
"Yes. All abolished," Nooj responded. "When things settle down, I'll come to Bevelle or you can come to us and I'll tell you the whole story. It was so simple one of us should have spotted it long ago and you'll probably feel as big a fool as I did." To Baralai's astonishment, he clapped his friend on the back and grinned amiably.
Baralai was momentarily struck dumb, amazed at the air of ease and contentment which radiated from Nooj. The older man had always before seemed on a hair-trigger setting, ready to respond to any situation. Now, he was calm, the only sign of restlessness his frequent glances to Paine at the other end of the dock.
"Okay. I can see where your heart lies." Baralai permitted himself to finally relax. "Let's rejoin the mob."
"Let's." Nooj nodded. "Come, lunch should be ready and waiting in the upper courtyard."
Lunch had been a merry meal, with more toasts than was entirely sensible. Jarl had been permitted to join the adults and to partake of the toasting with heavily watered wine. As a result, by the time the platters were removed from the tables, he was sound asleep curled up in his chair.
When the heads and bodies of the others had grown heavy with feasting, they resumed their conversations with lazy contentment.
"I want to see the twins." Rikku suddenly demanded. "Can they come up here?"
Paine nodded agreeably. "Come on, Nooj. They're too heavy for me to carry them both."
"Neither one of us is going to carry those little monsters. They can walk on their own. But I'll come help you get them up and ready." He levered himself from his chair. "I need the exercise anyway. I ate too much."
Paine reached up to tweak his cheek. "Yep, and drank too much too. You're turning into a regular shoopuf." Laughing, they left the courtyard arm in arm.
As soon as they were gone, Baralai turned to Gippal and raised an eyebrow. "So." He kept his voice low, so as not to wake the dozing Jarl. "The truth, now. How are they?"
"Really, really good." Gippal grinned and dropped an arm around Rikku's shoulders. "That first night, they acted more like teenagers in love than they did when they actually were teenagers in love." Baralai shook his head as the women laughed. "They've settled down a little, but still, I've never seen either of them quite like this. Especially not Nooj. He's-- I'm not sure how to describe it. Calmer, maybe? More content. I don't see even a hint of restlessness in him. It's like..." He paused and lost himself in thought for a moment. "It's like, whatever he was hoping to find by dying? He's found it in life instead. And in Paine. Maybe mostly in Paine." He shook his head. "I don't know if that makes any sense."
Yuna exchanged a glance with Baralai, then nodded. "Yes, it does. It makes perfect sense."
Rikku sighed happily and leaned into Gippal's side. "Whatever the reason, I'm glad it's worked out. For everyone." All eyes landed on Jarl for a moment; Yuna, who was nearest to him, lightly tousled his hair. The boy stirred with a contented mumble, then settled back into his nap.
At that moment, the lift doors opened and the twins tumbled out. With shrieks of delight, they both ran across the courtyard and tumbled into their Aunt Rikku's open arms. Content with her handful of niece and nephew, she looked up with a teasing grin.
"Hey! Take a good look, everybody." She gestured at the two figures who still stood together in the open doorway. "You may never see ol' Nooj show this much emotion in public again. Better get pictures or he'll deny it."
Her victim raised an eyebrow. "You think not? Then what do you make of this?" He swept Paine into his arms, dropping his cane as he did so, and kissed her heartily for a prolonged time.
"Hey, you two! Get a room!" Gippal cupped his hands around his mouth and called out over the general laughter and applause.
Paine turned around and smiled smugly. "Okay. May we be excused?"
A fresh bout of laughter followed, and Nooj looked up to consider his old friends. Rikku, Gippal, Yuna, Baralai: they had all interrupted their lives and abandoned whatever occupied them to come and rejoice on Kilika. He remembered his promise to share his thoughts with the woman in his arms, and he turned to her. "Paine, I just realized what we have. I guess they've always been there and I was too self-absorbed to notice. These are true friends who have stood by us when we've needed them, over and over. I'm going to have to get used to being part of a supportive community and showing I appreciate it. Will you kick me if I start forgetting again?" He let his lips trail across her forehead. "The terrible thing is that it took a great tragedy to make me aware of what I had and nearly lost."
"You're not the only one." She touched his face tenderly, her smile tinged with sadness. "But yes. We'll make sure to remind each other."
He kissed her again, and then they rejoined their family.
The celebration lasted all day and through dinner, after which goodbyes had been said and all visitors ferried back to their own places in the world. Sometime during the hours of darkness, a new crew had returned the airship to the pier and was ready to take Paine, Nooj, and their children to the encampment on Mushroom Rock Road - that more modest set of accommodations for which all five of the exiles longed. Now in the fresh coolness of the early morning, the family made its way to the gangplank.
"Did you remember the scrolls Yuna left for you to examine?" Paine frowned in concentration.
"I packed them in my personal luggage." Nooj smiled. "Calm down; anything we forgot we can send for. Kilika isn't the end of the world, you know. Just make sure there are three children here and everything will be fine." He brushed a stray wisp of hair back from her forehead. "Come on kids, all aboard."
"Baralai's promised to come visit in a couple of weeks."
"I'm glad to hear it. Now stop fretting, and let's get moving."
Jarl popped up. "I'm bringing my sea sponge. Lady Dona said I could."
"Good." His mother gave him a little shove. "Go to the bridge when you get inside."
Nooj and Paine each took a hand of a twin and followed their older son though the waiting door and down the corridor to the bridge. They climbed the stairs to the elevated platform at the rear and watched the smooth lift-off through the wide windows at the nose which offered an unparalleled view of the world slowly spreading before them.
"Look, Jarl. You can stay here and watch for home. See if you can recognize it from the air." Nooj laid a hand on the shoulder of the excited boy.
Jarl's knuckles were white as he gripped the railing and stared forward. "Home!" He cast a quick look up at his father. "Will you stay and help me spot it?"
Nooj glanced over at Paine and raised a questioning brow.
She nodded and took a firmer hold of Avtor's hand, then transferred Avice's grip from Nooj's hand to her own. "You men stay here. I'll put the little ones down for a nap and take one myself. I'm still a little sleepy." She leaned forward to kiss him lingeringly and give him a knowing look.
"Sleep well. And make sure the rails are up on their beds." He stroked her cheek.
She stared at him with exasperation before grinning widely. "I've been doing this for a long time. I think I know how."
He gave her a sheepish smile. "I guess I wasn't thinking. Sorry." He watched as she left the bridge with the twins in tow. For a brief moment, he was almost overwhelmed with gratitude for the existence of Paine and the children. He had come so near to losing them. Then he shook himself and turned back to the windows, Jarl pressed against his leg. The future was waiting and they would all greet it together. Together ... a beautiful word.