I used to be scared of heights
I used to get dizzy
I never felt safe with my feet on the ground
But you said that up there the air would be clearer
You said more space and more room to breathe...
You showed me the view from the hill
-Marillion, "Sunset Hill"
It was sunset before Setzer arrived at his hill that night. He was actually quite early, by his standards; usually he was out until well after the stars had come out.
Getting to the hill from an airship took some effort; the ships couldn't land on rocky ground, and Setzer's boots were made mostly for decoration, not for long hikes. Still, he didn't mind the walk that badly, although every time he walked it he wished that he'd worn better shoes. Nonetheless, it was very nice to have a place that he and Daryl could call their own. Oh, maybe they didn't really own it, not in that sense, but they were probably the only two people left in the world capable of even reaching it, so who else could possibly take it from them? And even if someone tried, Daryl wouldn't let them; she loved that hill, would fight like a demon before letting anyone else take it from her. The air was better up there, she'd told him - easier to breathe than the close, heavy air that everyone else in the world had to share. Of course, since he'd sampled that air, he was inclined to agree.
And as usual, she was waiting for him there - sitting on the very edge of the cliff and plucking at wildflowers that grew in the soil between the rocks. She already had a veritable bouquet of the delicate purple flowers, of which there seemed to be a limitless supply; it was as though a new flower would spring up as soon as she picked the old one. He'd never seen those lacy violet blooms grow anywhere but there before. They were, in his opinion, more beautiful than those "exotic" flowers that Jidoorians were so fond of, because unlike those plants - the ones that were grown in great quantities in some greenhouse or another and then passed off as rare and unusual - these flowers actually were a living rarity.
So was the girl - woman - who picked them. He could never tell which was more appropriate; she was actually two years his senior, but only acted her age when she had to. It was rebellion, he supposed; she'd been a first-born daughter in a country where the first-borns were supposed to shoulder all kinds of ridiculous responsibilities as soon as they grew up enough to be married off. Not that he would complain about it, of course. He wouldn't have wanted to see the life crushed out of her like that.
She heard him approach, and spoke without turning around. "You're late, Setzer." The words might've seemed harsh, but the way she said them told him that she was smiling.
The gambler smiled back. "You always say that."
"Yeah, 'cuz you're always late. It's that blasted casino of yours." Shaking her head, she pushed herself back from the brink, turning enough that he could see her face. She was smiling, just as he'd known she would be. "I mean, come on, that roulette table must weigh a ton all by itself. You expect to keep up with the Falcon in that thing?"
He held up a hand in mocking disapproval. "A thing? A thing? How can you possibly dare to speak of my BlackJack that way?"
"Easy. I open my mouth and words come out." She reached up to him with her free hand, still holding the bouquet in the other. "Now help me up, will you?"
"Hmmph. I'm not so sure I should." But he reached down to take her hand regardless, bracing himself so that he wouldn't be pulled towards the brink. She was no taller than he was, and certainly not fat, but his build was somewhat more delicate; she was beautiful in her way, with truly exquisite eyes and beautiful flowing hair, and quite strong. "You're insulting the core of my being with your careless words," he continued as he helped her stand, his tone light and goading.
She rolled her eyes. "Yes, yes. Your heart is bleeding, your entire reason for living has been called into doubt... I've heard it all, remember?" Disentangling her hand from his, she rested it on his shoulder to steady herself, then bent down to brush some of the dirt from her overcoat. "Doesn't change the fact that having all of that stuff in your ship makes it about as swift as a Rhinotaur with a broken leg. I mean, who the hell needs a gold-plated roulette wheel anyway?"
"Now that's going a bit too far!" He fastened his hand around her wrist, still laughing, not quite sure whether to kiss her or just hug her close.
"You wouldn't punish me just for telling the truth, would you?" He found himself staring at the wispy purple bouquet, as she waved it practically in his face. "Look, can we call it pax? Please?"
The gambler made a long, mocking sigh. "Oh, all right, if the lady insists..." With a flourish he took the bouquet and raised it to his face, enjoying the sweet fragrance. "But I may not be so lenient next time."
"You said that last time, didn't you?"
She laughed at his mocking scowl and pulled away, giving his hand a quick squeeze before letting go. "Ah, poor Setzer. What's making you so predictable lately? An overdose of fame and fortune, perhaps?"
"Predictable? Me?" The gambler's travelling coat - slightly less pretentiously decorated than the one he often wore to parties and other pointless social events - billowed out in front of him in the strong wind. He was more than a little surprised that she'd wanted to sit on the brink with this kind of wind. But then, she'd always been a bit of a daredevil. "You must be kidding. I'm as unpredictable as they come!"
She nodded. "Yep, I knew you'd say tha - hey!" The blonde ducked aside as he aimed a playful slap at her shoulder. "Geez, you don't have to be so touchy about it," she laughed.
His answering smile was a bit thin. Am I really predictable? I don't think that my style's gotten that stagnant....
Daryl noticed, of course. She always did. "Hey, I was just kidding. Are you ok?"
He turned to look into her face then. She'd gone from playful to earnest in seconds; another few seconds, and she'd be enraged, or perhaps depressed. It was as if she found it painfully dull to stay with one emotion for too long. "I'm fine. I was just thinking."
They stood in silence, watching the sky. Sunset hadn't come just yet; the sun was still hanging slightly above the horizon, its edges just tinged with rose and still too bright to really look at.
"Well, you're predictable to me, anyway," she finally replied. "But I doubt anyone else knows you quite as well as I do. Don't worry, your reputation's safe," she said wryly.
The gambler nodded, his eyes fixed on a single star that had appeared high above the horizon. "I suppose I should be glad to hear it," he murmured with a smile. "But I really don't care what they think they -" Then the other half of what she had said penetrated, and he turned to look at her. "You don't think you know me all that well, do you?"
"After all this time? I'd bet there's not a single thing you could tell me that could surprise me anymore."
"You'd make a bet about it with me? You'd better be pretty damn sure of yourself, then. Any bet against me is a sucker's bet, my dear."
"Oh, I'm certain of it, believe me." She reached out to brush a single purple petal away from his shirt and watched as it drifted over the looming threshold, a cinder in the face of the sun.
"Well, then. What do you want to bet?"
She didn't hesitate. Apparently she'd been thinking about that particular bet for some time. "If I win, I can ask you for one thing - anything I want. If you win, you get to take something from me. Deal?"
"Deal!" His hands opened in an expansive, indulgent gesture. "Unless you want to change your mind, of course."
"Like hell I will! You're not backing out of this one, Setzer!"
She was a bold woman, he had to give her that. And really, she wasn't far off of the mark. After almost two years, she really did know more about him than perhaps anyone else in the world. But, he thought with a smile, she had to learn to watch out for his trump cards. A good gambler was never caught without one, and this would be no exception.
"So," she continued. "Try me. Tell me something I don't know about you, if you can."
"Well, now," he said, pretending to be lost in thought. "Let me see...." He paused, letting the silence drag out, knowing that she would soon grow impatient enough to demand an answer. For a second, he toyed with the idea of letting her have this bet; he was making a pretty big admission about himself, one he wasn't sure he wanted to make.
Sure enough, she soon reached out to shake him on the shoulder, her voice edged with impatience. "Well? Come on, you're not giving up, are you?"
"Of course not, Daryl." In that instant, he made his decision. He would tell her.
"Well, come on! Tell me, or else I'll -"
He interrupted her, speaking quickly, knowing that he would not be able to take the words back. "Would you believe that I'm afraid of heights?"
She started to say something, but paused. Whatever she'd been expecting, she hadn't expected that particular sentence. "Hey, wait just a second! I know you don't like losing, but can't you make up something a little more believable than - "
"It's not a lie," he said quickly, "but I didn't expect you to believe it."
"Well, you'd better have a damn good explanation, because I don't believe it." Her eyes were fixed on his, fierce and a bit puzzled. It was obvious to him that she was looking for any sign of amusement, anything that would tell he that he really was trying to put something over on her. "How am I supposed to believe that? I've seen you fly, Setzer. I know how much you love the sky."
"Yes, I do love the sky. It's the ground that I don't care much for." He turned to look over the cliff again - keeping his eyes fixed on the little violet clouds, the deepening blue-black of the sky above them. "You've told me how breathtaking the view is from this hill."
"Yeah, especially at sunset. Don't you agree?"
He turned back to her. "I wouldn't know. I've never been able to look down without getting dizzy."
"You're serious, aren't you?" Of course she still sounded incredulous. She had every right to be, he told himself. Sometimes he barely believed it.
"Have I ever lied to you about something like this?" he murmured.
"It just doesn't make sense." Her eyes were cast downwards over the precipice. She seemed to be scrutinizing the view, wondering why he was so afraid of it. "You can fly an airship that you built yourself, but you can't look down from a hill?"
He shook his head. "It's not the same thing at all, though. The BlackJack is... well, it's like a part of me, because I built it. When I'm flying, I'm the reason that I'm in the air."
"The BlackJack could crash." One hand made a small twisting motion that he recognized as a warding sign. Some of his disapproval must've shown on his face, because she was very quick to amend her words - "Well, maybe not now, but you didn't know at first that you'd be safe, did you? So how did you get yourself up into the air at all?"
The gambler smiled wryly. "Would you rather die at someone else's mercy, or as a free woman, Daryl?"
The blonde raised an eyebrow; the look in her eyes remained unreadable to him. "You know the answer to that."
"So do you. That's what sets the two apart, at least to me. I... I guess I just don't want to die because of anything that I didn't have any control over. I want to live like I want to live, and I don't want my death to be any different. And besides, when I die..." He broke off. Death was not his favorite subject; he preferred not to think about it, to ignore it when he could. He'd been cheating it for quite some time; thinking about it seemed to bring it closer. "I don't want people to say that I fell off of a cliff or something like that; that's carelessness. But dying in an airship crash, especially on an airship that I built myself, that's a glorious kind of death. They'll look at those pictures and say, 'Look, that's the man who died while braving the skies.' They won't shake their heads and laugh at the fool who let himself fall a bit too far."
"But you've... you can fly an airship, but you've never looked down from here."
"No." He could still hear the disbelief in her voice, along with a bit of the anger he had feared. But he knew that there was nothing he could do to make her believe him. "I don't look down unless I have to. And even then... even then it isn't easy."
There was another long silence between them, so long that Setzer began to wonder if he'd been right to tell her. That was one of his biggest secrets - one of the secrets that he would have never considered telling anyone but her. It was another facet of who he was, a bit of the truth behind his bluff. He'd been afraid to give even Daryl that much of himself; he'd been afraid that admitting such a glaring weakness would alienate her, make her doubt that he was the same man that she'd fallen in love with.
I hope I haven't hurt her... I've told her so much, but that one thing just never would come out... but now what does she think?
Then he felt her turn towards him, her arms encircling him and pulling him a bit closer. She was much stronger than she looked; he doubted that he'd be able to pull away, even if he'd wanted to. There was an entire conversation in that embrace; neither of them liked to waste words if there was an action that was more appropriate.
Setzer had always believed that true love meant more than words. But he hadn't known exactly what else there was until he'd met Daryl. He'd never imagined that anyone could express so much love with just a touch.
They held each other for what seemed like a long time.
But then the blonde engineer pulled away from him, her hand still tight around his wrist. She began to tug him forwards, towards the precipice. Suddenly apprehensive, he resisted the pull. "Daryl... what...?"
"It's ok," she said quietly, turning to face him. "Just follow me."
She leaned back, whispering so softly that even he had to strain to catch her words. "Don't worry. I won't let you fall."
He swallowed, inwardly marveling at her uncanny ability to know exactly what he was thinking. Nervously he allowed himself a single baby step forwards, too afraid to close his eyes.
She let go of his hand and wrapped her arm around him, guiding him forward. Her voice was a bit louder, but the tone made it almost indistinguishable from the winds that swirled around the hill. "Do you think that you could try to trust me enough to look down when I'm with you?"
"I..." I'm not sure, he thought. I'm not sure I can trust anyone that much.
But her arm was around him, holding him tightly against her; he found that his entire consciousness seemed to focus on the touch of her hand against him, a sensation more powerful than any he'd felt before. She was standing beside him, like an anchor against the internal storm that was growing inside of him. And somehow, with a certainty that he was unfamiliar with, he knew that she wouldn't let him go.
Closing his eyes, he took a deep, ragged breath, hoping it would calm his nerves. He tilted his head down, feeling the rays of the setting sun burn his eyelids. Well... here I go, he thought to himself.
He opened his eyes.
The reflection of the fading sunlight greeted him, glimmering off of the ocean that surrounded the little island. It moved in a constant flux across the waves, seeming to wink at him as it twinkled. Breakers crashed against the rocks, the pure-white chalk cliffs that surrounded the island; foam flew into the air as the stone repulsed them. The overall effect was hypnotic; he felt the old dizziness returning as the distance became apparent to him. His distrust of that narrow strip of land between him and the empty air grew.
Her arm tightened around him, demanding his attention. Somewhat to his surprise, he found himself pulling her closer, not leaning away - and not trying to overcome the obstacle himself. He'd already known that it was a weakness, had known it since he'd first looked down. And while he'd also known that she wouldn't let him go - that he could trust her - something deep inside of him was immensely relieved that she hadn't pulled away.
"I always liked this hill the most," she murmured.
He nodded slowly. "It's lovely," he whispered. "But..."
"I know." She squeezed him a bit more tightly, but somehow with enough tenderness to calm his nerves, even if for just a second. "It's a long way down. But you can't live without a little bit of danger."
The gambler didn't respond at first. He was looking at the view, although he found that he was seeing something else entirely. There had been something of a reproach in her words, and it didn't seem to be about his fear. No, it was something deeper than that...
Can you try to trust me enough?
How had he managed to live with the belief that he would never be able to fully trust another human being for so many years? He'd been with her for a very, very long time, had shared a great deal with her - but never himself. Never had he been able to open up to her like that. And she'd never even known it, had thought she'd known everything about him. How long had she been waiting for him?
He slipped his hand on top of hers. "Stay with me." The whisper was low, soft, and full of the guilt that he once would have tried to hide.
The touch of her lips against his face left him weak-kneed and unsure which of them had really won the bet that time. For once in his life, though, it didn't matter.
The view from the hill really was breathtaking.
This took a long longer to edit than it did to actually write. Romance isn't my strongest point; besides, I didn't want to write another mushy love story, as I'm not a big fan of mush (at least not without a little more to it than fluffiness.) I'm hoping that this is something that's a little different, at least.
I'd like to thank Margaret Rennie for proofreading this for me. I'm very grateful for that. :)