Sissel blinked sleepily up at Jowd, impressed as always with how silently the big man could move, when he felt so inclined. Jowd looked down at him and jerked his head in silent invitation to the upper deck. Sissel nosed at the kittens—yes, they were all soundly asleep—and carefully got up, making his silent-pawed way over to Jowd and bouncing up to his shoulder as Jowd climbed the ladder.
The sullen wind outside was humid and hot, and Sissel put his ears back as he slunk to the railing. “Where is everyone? We should leave this place. It’s got a strange air to it.”
Jowd looked blankly out into the night. “I think it’s the Veldt? There was something about a cave, and the Professor wanting to research… I wasn’t really paying attention,” he said, shrugging. “Little preoccupied.”
“Mm.” Sissel leapt to the railing, looking out too. “Maybe they went for supplies?”
Jowd listened to the boundless sloughing of the wind and the sounds of distant monsters howling. “Not sure there’s anyone out there to get supplies from.”
Sissel sniffed the air, vaguely remembering the scent from previous visits to the area before it had all been shifted. “Mobliz isn’t even attached to this land anymore…”
Jowd stretched mightily, leaning against the balustrade as he turned away from the night. “They’ll be all right. Kamila’s got her tools, Memry’s got her spells…”
Sissel chimed in, “The pigeon man has his pigeon…”
Jowd laughed. “Cidgeon, Sissel. His name is Cidgeon.”
“Whatever.” Sissel let his whiskers quiver against the wind, testing it for any changes. “Still, I’m surprised you didn’t go with them.”
Jowd’s face twitched a little. “After the last few days, I’m just about good for guarding the airship,” he said. “Those two in there wore each other out, finally, and you were sleeping too. Someone needed to…stay.”
The Esper, a being of heightened senses who was well used to guarding a town, night and day, sleeping and waking, flicked an ear at him, but said nothing.
“Memry convinced me Kamila needed a little time away,” Jowd admitted. “And Cidgeon wanted a chance to get more monster lore. And besides… it was good to see them sleeping safe.” Jowd said, his words so quiet only a cat might have heard them. “They needed it, after Doma.”
“Don’t they need you in there, too?”
Jowd looked away. “What they need… I can’t provide by being in there with them. Right now.”
Sissel snorted. “I think you’d be surprised.”
Jowd remained unmoved. “Mm.”
They stood there for a little longer, guarding the ship together, until a distressed mewl from below called Sissel down the ladder. “Will you be all right alone?”
“I imagine I can handle it,” said Jowd, his tone dry as the desert from whence he’d come. “Go check on your kids.”
He stood there a little longer, looking out to the darkened Veldt, which showed no signs of returning the others, and his fists clenched on the railing. He was constrained, and unsure what to do with that feeling. It had never bothered him particularly before. It did now.
At last, as the sky lightened and the dawn began to break, he went inside, trading places with Sissel once again as he went to look into the bedroom. Alma still slept; Cabanela had woken but couldn’t move with Alma leaning heavily against his side. He looked up with faint hope when Jowd came in. Jowd looked down at them, expressionless, and Cabanela began to draw away, his own expression changing to resigned understanding.
“No—” Jowd stopped. He had brought that look on himself. As always. And he turned away from it, as always, rather than fight to change it, knowing that hope was useless.
“Jowd…?” Alma’s sleepy voice stopped him. “Have you gotten any sleep at all?”
“…No.” Jowd rubbed a hand down his face. “How about some coffee.”
The sound of high-speed rustling made him turn around, but not before Cabanela stood, adjusting the last strands of hair to perfection, and said, “I’ll get it, baby, why don’t you just take it easy for a minute.”
The face of Cabanela’s resigned understand rose up before Jowd. He said, “No. I’ll get it,” and left the room, letting the door swing heavily closed behind him. The need to feel like he had done something to show his appreciation for Cabanela’s endless loyalty overwhelmed him. Coffee was, perhaps a start, so he was doing his best to remember just how Cabanela liked it until he was startled mid-fifth spoonful of sugar by the clamor outside the door.
He jerked it open. Missile stared back at him before joyously yelping, “Welcome!!” and wriggled his little body inside, followed by Memry and Cidgeon, then Kamila, who was carrying Amelie’s unconscious weight.
“No time, gotta get in the air,” Memry barked, shoving past him. “And sorry, but we need a place for the kid.”
“Yes, of course,” Alma said behind him. He turned. She still looked too frail, too pale, but she stood straight and regal. “Kamila, do you need help?”
“Gramps and I got her, mama.” Kamila nodded at her, then walked to the door to the inner parts of the airship, followed by Cidgeon. “Can you guys take care of Missile—”
“Oh, you gooot it, baby,” Cabanela said enthusiastically, sweeping around Jowd and drinking the half-finished coffee in one quick yet, of course, still elegant gulp. “Good to see you, little warrior!”
“Oh, Mister Cabanela! I missed you! They told me you were here! I knew you were a friend!” Missile swarmed him, all licks and wagging tail, and Jowd subsided, knowing he was unneeded here as well. Alma caught his hand as he turned to find someplace else to be.
“Oh no, you don’t,” she said warmly. “I know someone who needs a B-A-T-H—”
Jowd sniffed himself, and she rolled her eyes. “Go help Cabanela with it up on deck—”
“Waaait a minute, baby,” protested Cabanela, but she drew herself up.
“Go help each other, and I’ll go help Cidgeon and Kamila. I know you can do it. Have an Esper or two help you.” She drew close to Cabanela, giving him a kiss on the check, and put his hand in Jowd’s, eyes narrowing in satisfaction at whatever she saw in Jowd’s face at the feel of Cabanela’s fingers in his. “We have so many things to do and so little time to dither, my love,” she told him. “Saving the world in this case begins with giving a dog a bath—”
“A bath? Nooo…” whined Missile, suddenly cottoning to what she was saying. His ears flattened and he dashed through the door deeper into the ship. Instantly, Cabanela was after him, and the game was on.
“—and saving yourself begins with being here and doing tasks as they come,” Alma finished, more softly, and kissed Jowd as the airship rose, heading for Jidoor. “Thank you for guarding us last night. Next time, come in and get some rest with us.”
“Someone had to—”
“I know. But it’s time to stop thinking about it and do something.” She snorted a laugh as Missile dodged Cabanela’s grasp, barking, and dashed back through Jowd’s legs. Wincing, she leaned down and picked him up, handing him firmly to Jowd. Indeed, the little dog stank.
He held him fast, despite Missile’s protests and wiggles and desperate calls for Miss Lyyyyynne, and turned to Cabanela. “You heard our Queen… shall we?”
Cabanela’s face, tortured between hope for this moment and despair for his clothes, would stay with Jowd for a long time, but his cheery “Nice hot bath, baby, nothing like it,” rang of confidence. For the first time in a long time outside of dreams, Jowd felt hope surge again, just a little.