It wasn't easy, getting used to living in a perfectly safe world again.
It wasn't until they reached the Dusty Dunes Desert, where they could see all the way to the horizon and not spot a single insane creature, that this new safety really started to seem real to them. Now, as they chose to leave the road behind and slog across the sand, Paula had her heavy cast iron pan tied to her back so she could ignore its weight more easily and Ness was idly swinging his bat back and forth at his side. The only thing left to worry him was wondering when Paula would call him on leaving Threed in the opposite direction from Twoson, but for the moment she seemed content to let him escort her home in whatever round-about way he wanted.
Even the sun seemed kinder. It was still baking hot, and the sweat rolled off of them in buckets, but no matter how far they walked their bodies remained strong and their minds stayed clear. Still, Ness noticed Paula squinting against its glare when they crossed a long patch without any shade. Without a thought he pulled the baseball cap off of his head and put it on hers, letting the brim shade her eyes.
She turned to thank him, only to burst into laughter as soon as she set eyes on him. "Oh... oh..." she gasped out in short, hiccuping, bursts, apparently the only word she could get out between giggles, and her hands fluttered back and forth through the air a butterflies wings, as if she were trying to somehow fan more air into her lungs.
Ness blinked at her blankly, then glanced over his shoulder to see if maybe one of the deserts' monkeys had wandered up behind him and started to play. He couldn't think of anything else in the area that might be so amusing, and had no idea why her laughter got even harder when the back of his head was turned to her.
A few minutes passed before she finally gained enough control over herself to say, "Oh, I'm sorry Ness, but your /hair/," before dissolving into giggles once more.
He started reaching up to touch his bangs, hoping that the heat in his face was just a sign that he was starting to get sunburnt, but before he could Paula reached out and gently grabbed a lock just above his ear, twisting it between her fingers.
"So this is why you always wait until you've locked yourself in the bathroom to take a shower before you take off your hat," she said. "I never suspected you that got such bad hat hair! Ness, thank you for ruining your cool hero image for my sake."
Any thought off being insulted by how long she'd laughed at him was washed away by the warmth that rushed through him when he realized that she'd just said she thought he looked /cool/.
- - -
All of them except for Poo, who would look vaguely sick to his stomach and guzzle down water whenever they stopped for a drink, had developed a vindictive love for the coffee in Fourside. Anywhere else in the world the bitterness would make them screw up their faces and spit it out, but in a city where cups of espresso had once done their best to kill them a sense of revenge suddenly became all the sweetener it needed.
It didn't lose its appeal, even though they knew that they'd never be attacked by it again. Still, it didn't feel right anymore to be sitting on the rocky coast at the edge of the city, splashing his feet in the water while he blew on his drink to cool it and watched Paula absently twirling the stem of one of the flowers that grew nearby between her fingers.
Jeff was supposed to be there, holding his cup so close to his face that the steam made his glasses fog up, as if he was afraid that if he moved it too far between drinks he'd cause a splash that would grow into a tsunami and scald them all while the cup jumped to life in his hands. And Poo was supposed to be scowling at them over his water (or possibly just looking resigned; Ness never could quite read Poo's expressions), occasionally offering descriptions of the thickly spiced tea he drank in Dalaam, like he hoped he might tempt them into trying something different if they wanted a hot drink. Still, he never actually asked the others to hurry up and finish drinking; he had thrown in his lot with Ness, and if Ness thought that it was time to drink coffee than that was what they'd do.
It was hard to think that, as soon as he stopped putting off escorting her home, even Paula wouldn't be there anymore.
She seemed to sense the drop in his mood, glancing up from her own cup with a small frown.
"Ness," she said after a moment, setting her drink down and lacing her fingers together in her lap.
Ness tilted his head to the side and leaned forward attentively, ready to hear whatever she had to say.
"Do you remember when we read about what happened to Mr. Everdred in the newspaper?"
He nodded, but instead of the passing mention the paper had made of a man dying in the streets his memory settled on the man himself. He remembered him using the last of his energy to stagger down the road so Ness and Jeff didn't need to watch him die, after holding on just long enough to give them the vital clue they needed to rescue Paula. And he remembered Magicant, how Everdred had been one of the first things he saw when the world had come into focus around him. He never could decide whether that had been the old thief's ghost coming to encourage him one last time or just another figment of his own mind.
He was so used to sharing every experience with the others by now that it was odd to realize that Paula hadn't been there for either of those encounters.
"I was thinking," she continued, oblivious to the thoughts running through his mind, "maybe there's some way that we could have his body transported back to Twoson. Or at least have a nice tombstone carved for him here that people could visit. You know how much everyone in Burglin' Park loved him."
Ness felt the smile stretching across his face as he nodded his agreement. It didn't matter whether Paula was there with him or not, he realized. She knew when something was important. They all did.
- - -
The second hardest thing to get used to was how empty the beds they slept in felt with only himself and Paula in them.
During their travels they'd always gotten the smallest, cheapest, rooms available in a hotel, at first because they didn't have the money for anything better then later because they didn't want to be separated. No hotel had questioned the arrangement; nobody would expect a group of kids had money to burn anyway.
At the very beginning he and Paula had kept to separate beds when the hotels provided two, but that had changed the very first time only one had been available. It had on a visit home even before Jeff had joined them. Paula, lonely, had left the couch his mother had made up for her and snuck up to his room, and he had been too exhausted to go digging around for a sleeping bag for her when it was so much easier just to scoot over and make room for her beside him. From then on they'd always slept beside each other, Jeff and Poo piling in with them as they joined the group.
It had felt so much safer that way. With Giygas influencing the world they never knew when the inanimate objects around them might leap to life and start attacking. None of them were afraid of a monster under the bed, but the bed itself being a monster, well, that seemed suspiciously possible. Being surrounded by the few people he knew he could trust--waking up every morning to find that one of Paula's hand had come up to clutch the back of his pajamas in her sleep, that Poo, never quite warm enough away from his city above the clouds, was warming his feet on the back of Ness's shins, and that somehow a few bolts and screws from one of Jeff's inventions had wound up underneath his side--made him feel secure when he was at his most vulnerable. Nothing could harm any of them badly with all of the others within arm's reach.
Ness couldn't remember ever having been afraid of the dark before, but now, in the time when he should be feeling safest, the rooms they stayed in seemed to stretch out hugely around them, their corners deep and black enough to hide anything. Though there was only a half-foot of space between him and Paula since she'd settled down partway into the spot Poo usually took, any space at all was enough to make the bed feel huge and cold.
Not only that, but it felt different having nobody but Paula in bed with him now. It was strange, but he felt more awkward sleeping with just her now than he did back before they'd met Jeff. It didn't seem right to him that he'd been more comfortable with her back when she'd almost been a stranger than he did when she'd become (although he'd never admit to having any preferences between his three friends outside of the privacy of his own head) the person he liked best in the whole world. There seemed to be some looming importance that hadn't existed back then to the fact that he was a boy and that she was a girl and that there was nobody else there with him.
But every night, just when he started to think he wouldn't be able to get comfortable enough to sleep, Paula would murmur in her sleep and roll over, unconsciously raising her hand and curling her fingers against his back to grip his pajama top. That was all he needed to just know that they were safe and sound, and that he was Ness and she was Paula and nothing could ever be wrong about them being together.
- - -
When they'd gone east as far as they could go, and their only choices left were to turn back towards Twoson, teleport somewhere, or somehow learn to walk on the sea, Paula surprised him by offering a suggestion.
"We have so much money now," she said, patting the pocket of her travel bag that bulged with her share of their funds. "We deserve to have a real vacation somewhere nice for a few day before we go home, don't you think?"
Which was how they found themselves in Summers, with the most luxurious room in the hotel theirs for the entire weekend. They both knew that the city was a tourist trap, but they found enough fun to make it worth it. Playing in the ocean alone would have been enough to keep them entertained, and, aside from needing to buy swimsuits since neither of them had brought one along on their trip, the beach was always free.
So Ness was surprised when he saw Paula looking troubled as she watched the city's information dealer packing up his things.
"Ness," she said quietly when he stepped up to her side, "I know this is a little bit silly, but... do you ever get the feeling that the entire world has been shutting down lately?" Before he could reply to her she seemed to read his incomprehension in his expression and rushed to explain further. "It's not just all the information booths, there's also Club Stoic," she said, gesturing down the street.
Ness had thought it was a little strange that the club had been bought out by somebody who wanted to turn it into a truck stop. Even the name of The Lazy Cowpolk Stop'n Go didn't seem to fit into the tropical resort town at all. Did trucks ever even pass through Summers?
"And the pizza place... Who shuts down their entire business just because the delivery boy quit?" Paula threw up her hands and shook her head, radiating overblown bafflement for a moment before she went back to being subdued. "It should feel like we're all getting a second chance at life now, don't you think? Instead things just keep ending."
Ness couldn't seem to think of anything to say that might make her feel better. All he could do was out to take her hand in his and squeeze it tightly.
- - -
Ness seemed to dream about Magicant all the time, although it never felt quite right. The memory of a dream never could be as bright as the real thing.
But it was enough to send him on a trip to Winters when he was deciding where to dawdle with Paula. He wanted to make a snowman, somewhere where it wouldn't start to melt away the same day that it was constructed until it existed only in his memories. He knew that if he'd told almost anyone else what he wanted to do they'd think it was a dumb whim, but he knew just as well that Paula would understand. He'd told the others so much about the land of his heart that he thought they must almost have been able to imagine that they'd been there themselves. Sometimes in his dreams they were, their own avatars of courage hovering close behind them to join his own flying man.
She didn't need to be asked to join in when he bent down to start packing snow into a ball. She knew by then that she would always be welcome in whatever he did.
It wasn't long before they drew attention, since the spot they chose to build on was just outside the walls of the school. He'd thought that they'd gotten there when everyone was in classes, but there must have been a free period because soon students were flowing out of the gates to go visit the store, and more than a few stopped to watch what the strangers were doing. Before long they seemed to decide that the snowman building was a cue to start up their own fun in the snow, and soon forts were being built and snowballs were flying with no regard for how wet their school uniforms were going to end up being.
In the middle of all the chaos, a voice suddenly called out to them. "Hey! Hey, it's you guys, isn't it?"
They both looked up, and spotted a distinctive hat before they saw the boy it was attached to.
"Is Jeff here too?" was the first thing he asked when he reached them, craning his head in all directions as he tried to find the other boy. "I was worried since he hasn't called me, but it must be because he was coming home, right?"
Ness and Paula glanced at each other, then Paula dusted the snow off her hands and stood up with a smile. "I'll talk to him. You finish the snowman."
There wasn't much work left to be done really, just lifting the balls they'd rolled onto each other and then giving it a face, but he was glad for the privacy. Even though he suspected she'd made the offer because she didn't want to do any of the lifting.
He thought of Magicant and especially one of the snowmen within it as he put the head into place, packing snow between it and the ball below to give it support, then reached up and pushed a finger into the side of its head to make and ear hole. Keeping one eye on Paula the whole time, he leaned up and whispered the name of the girl he liked now to the snowman.
He finished just in time, as she left Tony looking dejected to come back to Ness, pausing on the way to pick up a pair of rocks that she offered him for eyes.
"Tony is really stuck on Jeff," she said as she carved a smile in the snow face with her finger. "/Really/ really. I think we should go back to Saturn Valley, Ness, and tell Jeff to at least call him, even if he doesn't want to come home yet."
The thought to backtracking to so much closer to Twoson made something in his stomach roll, but when he looked over at Tony, who seemed just about ready to start crying, he knew that there was nothing he could do but agree. If he felt so bad at the thought of leaving Paula, when they were together almost every minute of every day and she lived just a quick teleport or slightly longer walk away, he didn't even like to think about how Tony must feel with Jeff an entire continent away and not even keeping in touch.
He grabbed Paula's hand and backed away from the snowman, feeling his powers well up within him and he whirled her in a wide circle and fixed his mind on their friend.
- - -
It seemed only right to go to Dalaam after dropping Jeff off at Winters for a visit, like it was impossible to visit Jeff without seeing Poo. It was always strange to see him on his throne, humbly claiming that he had little to offer but would share it all with them even as he stood in a room made from plates of gold. It was impossible to remember that he was a prince when they were alone with him. He was just one of them, one-fourth of a whole that could never be complete without him there.
At least his subjects took their cues from him when they decided how to treat them. Ness didn't know what he'd do if they tried to make him treat Poo with the respect royalty deserved, but he guessed it would involve a lot of laughter from both of them.
Stranger still was watching while Poo obviously savored his dinner, although the weirdness was mixed strongly with guilt. Poo rarely ate well outside of his own city, the heavy food served in the rest of the world leaving him severely sick to his stomach as often as not if he let himself eat enough to really feel full. Ness had tried to fit in visits to Dalaam to buy food he could eat as often as possible, but there was a limit to how much they could carry and a pressing need not to waste much time on side trips so Poo still ended up doing his best to fill the empty spaces in his stomach with water more often than not.
So even though the rice gruel they were served seemed thin and tasteless to Ness and Paula, they both smiled and ate, even taking seconds, though they added pats of butter and sugar to it to try and give it some flavor.
It wasn't as if it hard to act like they enjoyed it. How could they do anything but smile when they were sitting at the same table with a friend who they'd missed so much? And though Poo's face remained almost as inexpressive as ever, it was easy for them to tell that he was just as glad to see them. He talked more animatedly than usual as he filled them in on everything that had happened in Dalaam since he'd last seen him. He often illustrated his words with gestures that made his hands brush against Ness's arm or Paula's hand, and they all knew that it was his way of reassuring himself that they were really there, and that Paula and Ness were just as glad for the contact as he was, though for the sake of his dignity they all pretended it was accidental.
At the end of the evening all oddness Ness and Paula felt at Poo's rank was overwhelmed by how nice it was not to go through the charade of waiting for couches or guest rooms somewhere to be made up for them only to sneak away after everyone had settled down for the night. Nobody questioned it when Poo just led them to his own room; he was their prince, and still just a boy as well, so if he wanted his friends to stay with him it was his choice.
Ness knew that he was a perfectly normal boy. He knew that there was no way that he should feel like he fit right in in a room where everything was gold plated, in a bed larger than three of the one he slept in back home pushed together. There was no way that he should even have ever been there at all, if his life had continued down the path it had followed until the night the meteor fell.
But in no time at all they all fell naturally into the places they'd always taken on their journey, Paula curled into a ball at his back with her head tilted to close that he could feel her breath on the back of his neck, Poo at her back with his legs bent up under her's until his feet found Ness, and it didn't matter at all that they were in the middle of a palace in a prince's bed. The only way things could feel more right was if Jeff were at the foot of the bed, trying his best to stay quiet as he worked on his inventions well into the night.
- - -
Ness wished that he'd thought to teleport somewhere when they left Saturn Valley again. /Anywhere/, even the most shadowy parts of Deep Darkness, would have been better than reaching Threed and realizing that there was no way he could justify leaving town from the east exit instead of the west /again/.
Paula didn't seem at all bothered by the same thoughts; she was smiling and humming to herself as they walked through the city. Ness guiltily wondered if maybe she was happy to finally be so close to home again. Maybe she'd been feeling homesick the whole time he'd been dragging her around to avoid bringing her back to Twoson, and just hadn't said anything to be nice.
He was beginning to wonder if he should apologize to her when she suddenly spotted something and began to pick up her pace, almost skipping the last few feet between them and a newspaper box. "Look at the headline on the front page, Ness!" she said, fumbling through her pocket for quarters and taking four copies of the paper once she got the box open. Then, because she was Paula after all, she fed the machine the money for the extra three copies, opening and closing the box again to relatch while she said, "They've made us honorary citizens! How nice of them."
Ness skimmed the article in the copy of the paper Paula had pressed into his hands. It was surprisingly vague for one that was given the top headline. The main gist of the story seemed to be that they weren't sure exactly what Ness and his friends had done, or who they'd done it to, but everyone had the feeling that they'd done something and there were no more insane creatures wandering around, so good for them!
"I'll have to send these other copies to Poo and Jeff..." Paula said, absently flipped through the rest of her paper until she reached the homes for rent section of the classifieds. "You know, Threed is close enough that it would be easy for Jeff to live here and bike into Saturn Valley during the day. And close enough to Twoson for me to do the same thing to get to the Preschool. You and Poo can teleport, so it would be easy for you to visit your family from anywhere, or for him to take care of his duties in Dalaam during the day and go somewhere else at night. If they think of us as citizens here anyway, wouldn't it be nice if we had somewhere where we could all be together? Even if it's only every once in a while?"
Ness looked over Paula's shoulder at the ad her fingering was covering. There was a picture of a small house that he thought he recognized from the outskirts of the city. It was a tiny little place, advertised as a starter home to gloss over just how little space there was, but it wasn't as if they needed a lot of room. If anything, they were happier when they didn't have much space. And if anybody asked why they were staying there, the zombies and ghosts the circus still kept trapped in its animal trailers would make an easy excuse to point to. With the only monsters still left in the world trapped in the town, of course Ness and the others would want to be around to help if they ever got loose.
It was a beautiful dream, but he knew that it couldn't be anything more, at least for the time being. If nothing else, he'd learned early on in his journey not to trust any real estate agent who would sell a house to a twelve-year-old, and he had the ramshackle shack to prove it.
Paula seemed to realize it to. "No, I guess that wouldn't do. I know my parents would never be happy with it, and I need to help out at the preschool, don't I?" She smiled again, but now he saw the small, pained, lines pulling at the corners of her eyes. "It's time to go home now, isn't it, Ness?"
He wanted to come up with someplace else for them to go instead, but he realized now that he couldn't put it off any longer. He knew that the longer he did the more tempting that little house in Threed would be, and the more disappointed he'd end up if he found out for sure that it couldn't be.
- - -
It seemed like she was gone too fast, even though she said good-bye to him again and again to put off leaving him to enter her house. He stared blankly at the preschool for a long moment before shaking himself and turning towards the road to Onett. He wanted to go straight into her house after her, but it didn't seem right to run straight back to Paula when she'd only just managed to pull herself away from him. He thought that maybe they could use a little bit of time to get used to living apart before seeing each other and before too long having to say good-bye to each other again.
So he went home. He talked to his dad for an hour on the phone. His mom made him a cake bigger than his head and said nobody else could have a piece without his say-so. Tracy piled him with little presents she'd bought with her work money that she thought he'd like based on the things he'd sent to be stored with Escargo Express. He could tell that some of them were definitely based more on Paula, or Jeff, or Poo's possessions than his, but that was fine by him. It just made them more precious. And that night he slept in his own comfy bed for the first time in months, though he had to leave on a lamp and drag King up into bed with him before he was able to drift off. Even then he couldn't sleep deeply.
He almost lasted a full day before heading straight back to Twoson, teleporting his way there because the short walk between towns felt like it would take much too long.
He was blushing by the time he reached Paula's bedroom, after her father had cornered him on the way through the house to give him a long speech about he approved of Ness as a boyfriend for Paula. But he couldn't help but grin at the same time. He thought that maybe that would be a good thing to know.
The minute Paula looked up and saw him when he entered her room she jumped up and lunged for him, wrapping her arms around him so tightly that he wouldn't have been surprised if his ribs started to buckle under the pressure. It didn't matter, all he wanted to do was hug her back just as fiercely. Somebody looking in on them might have thought that they were being reunited after years of separation instead of just one night.
He thought that it was full minutes before she pulled herself together and pulled herself away, but it didn't feel like nearly long enough to him. Then she sat down in her armchair and gestured for him to get into it with her, and when they were jammed snugly together in the chair the tight feeling he'd had in his stomach ever since the day before finally began to ease away.
They sat in comfortable silence for a long while before she said, "I remembered what it was I meant to say to you yesterday."
He looked at her, inclining his head slightly, making it clear that he was listening.
"There's another one of us out there, do you remember that, Ness? Another friend who we haven't met yet." She lifted her arm the tiny amount needed to cover his hand with hers, and he turned his palm-upwards so he could link their fingers together. "Couldn't you feel them at the end of the fight against Giygas? Even though we've never spoken to each other, or seen each other's faces, even though we don't even know their name, they prayed for us with their whole heart. Their strength let us win." She beamed at him, and even though he could see wetness at the corners of her eyes Ness knew her heart and was positive that they were tears of happiness. "So, even though we have to stay at home for awhile, one day we all need to get together again, don't you think? You and me and Jeff and Poo, we need to go out and search for our last friend, and let them know how grateful we are."
For the first time since leaving Saturn Valley to escort Paula home, Ness felt entirely happy. Just because they'd all gone back to their own lives it didn't mean that their travels together were over for good. There would be other adventures someday, even if they had to go out there and find them themselves.
And in the times between, Paula would always only be one town away, ready to hold his hand whenever he needed it.