Generation Three, Chapter Twelve
After, as we lay in the bed together, I found the silence surprisingly comfortable. Neither of us seemed eager to jump up or talk – perhaps for fear of ruining the after effects. Lochi was the first to move, shifting his weight to his side and propping his head on his hand to look at me. He had a goofy smile on his face, the kind one gets after finally getting exactly what they'd been wanting for ages. "That was number six," he said.
"Only number six? I would have thought it ranked higher on the list," I said with a giggle.
"Well in my head – there was more kissing first. And a date with food. A walk under the stars," he offered.
"No stars out now," I said, turning toward the balcony. Morning sunlight steamed through the opening. "And we already had breakfast. But I wouldn't object to more kissing..."
Lochi smirked, "perhaps the stars and the food will come later – a bit out of order. I could cook you dinner downstairs. Or a midnight snack after a star filled stroll outside." His fingers trailed across my skin lightly.
"Mmhmm, sounds nice," I said. "Assuming you can cook of course. I tend to survive on room service and fast food – think you can out do that?"
"I think I can manage. What's your favorite midnight snack?" he asked.
My forehead crinkled as I considered the options and then I shook my head. "The problem with that question is time zones."
"What do you mean?" Lochi asked, his brow furrowing cutely.
"I rarely know when it's actually midnight. Midnight to my body – could very well be lunch where I am," I explained with a teasing smile. "But – I love waffles. That's not really a snack is it?"
"Not exactly but waffles it is," he said. "I'll have to call down to the front desk to see if they can get the ingredients for me. Any particular type of waffles?"
"Belgian waffles, with berries on top and light powdered sugar. That's how my grandma served them when I was little. Cobalt hated blueberries – so he always slipped me his before she saw," I smiled, thinking of Grandma Cinder's sweet smile as she spooned extra blueberries onto Cobalt's plate – no doubt thinking he loved them since he always "ate" them so quickly. As the memory faded, I twisted around to face him better, "I've never told anyone that. Not even my grandpa – though he probably knew."
"Why not?" Lochi asked.
"I don't know – it was a Cobalt and me thing I guess. Most things are – or were anyway," I said, with a small frown. "When I started flying with SimAm and moved out – we didn't share as much anymore. I didn't even introduce him to Felix until after..." I gave Lochi and apologetic grimace. "Sorry, you probably don't want to hear about him."
"I want to hear about everything," he said simply. "Why didn't you introduce your brother to your boyfriend?"
"Because he wasn't my boyfriend – at least that's what I told myself," I said. "It was all a secret – it had to be or we couldn't be on the same crew. And that meant it was never going to be anything more than a series of layovers. He'd never pass the five year test, and I knew that from the very beginning so I didn't tell anyone about him."
"The five year test? What's that?"
I chuckled, "um, it's a standard. A standard by which to gauge if a relationship is real. It's silly really but on job interviews or when you're about to graduate high school – they ask 'Where do you see yourself in five years?' right?" Lochi nodded, though he still seemed confused. "I never saw Felix beside me when I asked myself that question. After he proposed and I stupidly said yes, I tried to imagine life five years later but he was never there. It was always me and empty spot in the bed. There were no wedding pictures on the night stand or little green and blue children. I could just never see him. Even the morning of the wedding! I was about to do a press conference at SimAm and I stood in front of one of the locker room mirrors and I tried to imagine just five hours from then – when I would be standing at the alter in the dress. And he wasn't there. I saw Cobalt and Lotus and Sapphy. I saw the preacher and all the guests but no groom."
"If you'd gone through with it, do you think you would have found happiness eventually?"
"No, not really. I think we would have either gotten divorced or seen each other so rarely that we never had the time to make a home together. I would have resented him – I did resent him actually. This whole last year, I was doing a job I hated and he got to keep doing the job he loved. It wasn't his fault – not really – but I was jealous," I said. "Wow, I'm babbling a lot. I doubt this is on your new list of things to do."
"Listening to you tell me about your life is number one," Lochi said with a reassuring smile. "For what it's worth – I think you made the right decision," he added with a wink. "Although that may just be me being selfish."
True to his word, Lochi produced glorious Belgian waffles with an extra large heap of blueberries that night and we sat downstairs talking until the sun began to peek over the mountains. Talking to him came naturally and he listened to every story with rapt attention. When we returned to our room in those early morning hours, I didn't feel the pull to retreat to my own bed as I had so often around Felix. Without hesitation, I slid under the covers next to him and snuggled against him, feeling like a perfect fit. We spent most of the our final vacation days in the hostel – usually avoiding the common areas in favor of a hermitage in our room with rare attempts to forage for food without getting pinned down for small talk. Having given up on the top twenty Chinese tourist traps, we worked together to create our own top twenty list – which eventually grew to a top thirty-six list. Though we wrote it all down, we mutually agreed to burn the evidence on the last night.
It was the last day before we finally ventured outside. I'd put off buying souvenirs for Sapphy and the twins for the whole trip and would feel terrible returning empty handed so we made our way down to the village for one last shopping trip. "I need to pick up a book," Lochi said, pointing in the general direction of the book store. "You should probably consider a suitcase as well though, seeing as you're certainly leaving with more than you came with."
He was right of course. My single carry-on would barely hold the few things I'd brought with me from the church that day, let alone a couple new outfits and whatever presents I found to take home. "Meet back here in twenty?" I suggested. With a nod, we parted in opposite directions. I started with the hunt for a bag at the gear store. It was the same merchant I'd purchased a canteen and dried food from before we'd ventured into the Dragon Cave. After several disjointed attempts to convey "suitcase" or "travel bag" to her in broken Mandarin, I pointed to a small sack in the corner and then tried to mime putting it on my back like a backpack. The playacting did the trick because she ducked behind her counter and emerged with a new, larger backpack. I eyeballed it for a long moment, trying to gauge whether it was big enough to hold everything, and then conceded. It may very well be too small, but I didn't feel like wasting an hour to get my true meaning across.
In the next shop I found two obnoxious, hand crafted musical toys for Cerulean and Chambray. I picked out a gorgeous jade hair comb for Sapphy, though I almost put it back because the color reminded me too much of Felix. Shoving him from my mind, I took gifts to the register and tucked them each into my new bag for safe keeping. I'd already sent Cobalt and Lotus a wooden training dummy just like the one we'd experienced at the Academy. My shopping all done, I lingered a moment over the display case to look at the jewelry. Much of it was jade – or had jade somewhere in the design – but a small selection of amber and an even smaller collection of opals were tucked amongst the sea of green.
"There you are," Lochi wrapped his arms around my waist. "What happened to meeting outside?"
"I got distracted," I said, still enraptured by the delicate opal pieces.
"So I see. With so many glittery objects, it's no wonder," he said with a chuckle. "Though I didn't take you for much of a jewelry person."
"I suppose I'm not really – but those opals are just too pretty to ignore," I said with a chuckle. "I could become a jewelry person." After another minutes, and a long, pointed look from the sales clerk, I led the way out of the shop. "Okay, my flight is in about thirteen hours – any last chance stops we should check out?"
"There is one I've heard about," Lochi said with a smile. Without waiting for my consent, he took my hand and we made our way out of the village. A line of carts waited just outside the walls, each manned by a bored looking attendant. Four of them saw us at once and jumped to their feet, eager to get one last fare before the day ended. Lochi flagged one over, gave him our destination in perfect Mandarin and we awkwardly crammed into the seat. It was wider than one person needed but not quite wide enough for two people to sit without being VERY friendly. Barely situated, the attendant lifted the front of the cart and off we went.
"Where are we going?" I asked, looking back as the village walls disappeared behind a row of trees. After another few minutes, we began to climb and I felt sorry for the poor attendant dragging us up the side of the mountain.
I looked in my wallet, planning to offer him extra for his effort, but Lochi put his hand on mine and shook his head. "I'll take care of him, I promise," he said softly. Even after I put the wallet away, Lochi left his hand on mine before weaving his fingers between mine. Soon the slope flattened out into small plateau overlooking the village and the Chinese countryside. Lochi hopped out of the cart and then offered me a hand down as well. He and the attendant exchanged a few words and then our driver settled into the grass under a tree. "He'll take us back down when we're ready," Lochi explained, grabbing my hand and walking with me toward the edge of the plateau.
"How did you find this place?" I asked. "It wasn't in your guidebook."
"I overheard someone talking about it," he said with a dismissive shrug.
Gazing out toward the expansive scenery, I wished – not for the first time – that I'd brought my camera with me to China. I hadn't taken the time to go back home for anything after the wedding – just fled for the airport and hopped on a flight with an open seat. Stuck in momentary regret, I felt Lochi's arms wrap around my waist from behind. "It is beautiful," I said softly. "I should take a picture..." I started to reach for my cell phone but Lochi took hold of my hands.
"Just, enjoy the moment," he whispered. "You won't be happy with a cell phone snap anyway," he reminded me. He was right of course, my cell phone would not do the scene before us justice. Yielding to his advice, I settled against him and watched as a flock of birds erupted from a tree below us. We watched their flight for several silent minutes before he spoke again. "What are the chances of you returning to an international flight crew?"
"If my boss has her way, slim to none. Why?" I asked.
"Why? Because we both have to go back to our real world soon and I want to see you again – outside of China, in the real world," Lochi said. I tried not to let my uneasiness show but I felt him pull away. "Sorry, sorry – I realize you just got out of your relationship..." He paused, taking an abrupt step backwards. "You know what? I'm not sorry at all Zuli. I like you – and I know we just met – but the last few weeks have been amazing for me. And I hope they have been for you."
"They have," I insisted, grabbing his hand. "I just didn't come to China for this. I ran away! I expected to sulk in my hotel room and drown my sorrows with alcohol and cheap romance novels while I evaded the infamous real world. But then you were here and you had your top twenty list to distract me..."
"You should know, I didn't care about the top twenty list – it was a ploy," Lochi's previous tension faded and he relaxed beside me. "I just wanted an excuse to stay and get to know you more."
I grinned, "really? That's... well kind of crazy. But sweet," I added. "Look, I'm not opposed to seeing you again – out in the real world – but, as you said, I just got out of an almost marriage. I think, maybe, I need time and distance."
"I suppose it's a good thing we live on different continents then," Lochi said with a faint smile. In spite of it, I could hear the sadness in his voice but could offer no words of comfort. We were silent for several minutes, each deep in our thoughts as the sky turned pink and the sun slipped to the horizon. Lochi wrapped his arms around me once more and pulled me closer. "Ya know, I knew the moment you showed up at the door that I was in trouble."
Though Lochi's flight left a couple hours after mine, we left for the airport together. When we reached the check in desk, the customer service rep was confused by the fact that we were going to different places – I guess we gave off the "couple" vibe already. Noting that I was an employee of the airline, she offered me an upgrade to first class since they had empty seats and handed me my new ticket and boarding pass. I waited for Lochi to finish up and we passed through security together.
At the top of the stairs within the concourse, I knew that Lochi's gate was the opposite direction as mine and paused. "I guess, this is it," he said, taking my hands in his. "I could walk you to your gate?"
"I think that would just suck. I've been on this side of the glass as the plane pulls away and it's horrible so I don't want to think of you like that..." I said. My mind flashed back to the days before SimAm and before Felix, as I watched Monte disappear. "No, I think here is better. I'll call you when I land – you'll probably still be in the air but I'll call you."
"I'd appreciate that," Lochi said, tracing his thumb over my hand absently. After a long moment, he pulled me into a tight embrace. "Let me know when you're ready," he whispered. Our last kiss started tenderly but quickly became more passionate as neither of us was ready to let go.
Reluctantly, I pulled away first, tears stinging my eyes. I swiped them away quietly and offered him a patented SimAm smile. "Thank you Lochi – you can't know how helpful you've been to me these last few weeks," I said, as I shifted my bag on my shoulder. "I'll see ya," I blew him a playful kiss and quickly turned away before the tears started to fall.
I'd almost made it to a turn when he started calling for me. I heard him jogging behind me but tried to ignore it, feigning temporary deafness. "Zuli!" His hand landed on my shoulder and I was forced to stop and face him with watery eyes and a couple of fat tears on my cheeks. "It's not enough!" he exclaimed. "I can't – it's not enough."
"What are you talking about?" I asked, brushing the tears away. "What's not enough?"
"This – this goodbye and wait and see approach! I can't do it, I want to be understanding and respect your limits but I can't do that. At least not without saying something first..." he said.
"What? Without saying what?" I stammered, unsure if I wanted to know; if I was ready.
"I love you," he said simply. "And I know that's beyond crazy – we've barely met but I've never slept on a plane before because I hate flying – with a fiery passion – but you, you made it easy. And it's not what you said or what you did, I just felt better with you next to me and I think that's significant. Everyday I've spent with you has made me feel ecstatic. And I think that's love – the together forever kind of love. The kind that stands up to the Five-Year-Test. Where do you see yourself in five years Zuli?"
"I....I don't know," I stammered, trying to imagine five years into the future. For a moment, I saw the picture on the night stand and I heard the sound of shrieking kids but I couldn't see their faces. "Happy with a family, I hope?"
Lochi grinned and dropped to one knee. He pulled out a small velvet box but didn't open it right away. "The contents of this box are yours, no matter what you say. As is my heart." He opened the box with a light pop. One of the opal rings I'd admired in the village was nestled into the slot. "Marry me. Because I think you feel the same as I do. I think your heart swells and your head feels light when we're together. I think you know that we fit together perfectly and I think you know that we'd make each other happy forever."
"You're insane!" I said, though I couldn't deny anything he'd said. "We can't get married after knowing each other for three weeks."
"Sure we can – people do it all the time," Lochi said, with a playful smile on his face. "But I admit to being insane – utterly and completely insane for you."
"No, no this is crazy Lochi. I don't know you," I said. I realized it was a lie almost as soon as it came out – I did know him. I knew more about him than I'd ever known about Felix and he knew me. "I can't marry you after so short a time."
Lochi nodded, getting to his feet. While a few people had overheard the exchange, no one paid us much attention and there were no startled gasps at the refusal. "I was kind of hoping you'd say that," he whispered, a conspiratorial smile on his face. "I didn't want you to say yes out of some sense of expectation," he said, as he slid the gorgeous opal ring onto my finger anyway. "So I think you should go home and talk to Cobalt about me – tell him anything and everything. Like you used to. And show my picture to Sapphy so she can tell you to marry me. Talk to Lotus too – he seems to be the levelheaded one. I imagine his advice is sound. And ask yourself, as you look at this ring every day, where do you see yourself in five years?" He placed his lips against my hands and smiled once more before spinning away toward his own gate, leaving me speechless in the concourse.