For those of you who are still keeping track of this story, I welcome you back wholeheartedly. I'm aware as anyone of how long it's been since the last update (more than a blasted year!), and I won't waste your time with excuses.

I just hope you like what you read. I know I do.

Characters (with exceptions) © Disney

Story © unicorn-skydancer08

All rights reserved.

Chapter 26: Reconciliation

At the house, Pinocchio and Duke were bundled up in every blanket that could be found and placed as close to the hearth as possible. While Armando and Terence stoked the fire, Rhiella and Arietta brought in some hot broth for Pinocchio and a big bowl of steaming milk for Duke.

While Duke lay shivering under his heap of blankets, Figaro curled up beside him, even went so far as to lick the dog's ears. Duke kept still and let the kitten do this.

While the fire crackled, Terence sat on the floor and held Pinocchio in his lap, partly to provide additional warmth, partly for the personal need to have the boy close to him. Rhiella sat next to them with the broth and spoon-fed Pinocchio, who quietly but readily slurped each spoonful. After the first bowl, Pinocchio's teeth still chattered, though not so much now.

"Th-thank you, Rhiella."

"You're welcome," she said as she set aside the spoon and bowl. "Are you sure you'll be all right?"

"I think so." The boy sniffled. "Thank you for coming after me, Rhiella. You saved my life."

Rhiella took his hand, rubbing it ever so gently between her own hands. "Of course, dearest," was all she could say.

Pinocchio looked at Terence, whose face was the saddest it had ever been since Pinocchio could remember. In a husky voice, Terence asked, "Pinocchio, what were you doing out there? You know better than to go anywhere near that river, on any day."

Dropping his head to his chest, Pinocchio could only whisper, "I know. I'm sorry."

"If it hadn't been for Duke…" Terence shook his head, trying in vain to cast away the horrible thought. "What would I have done, Pinocchio? How could I get along without you?"

It was a long time before Pinocchio could meet Terence's gaze again. The firelight illuminated the young man's wet eyes and cheeks, and Pinocchio could barely focus through his own shimmering flood. Almost inaudibly, the boy answered, "I thought you could already get along without me, Terence."

If Terence looked and sounded hurt before, he now looked and sounded truly wounded. "How can you say that?"

With a sidelong glance at Rhiella, Pinocchio murmured, "You have her. She has you. She's all you ever wanted in the world. There's no one else you'd rather spend the rest of your life with, and nothing and nobody is going to stand in your way. You said so yourself."

Jiminy, Arietta, and Armando cringed.

Rhiella closed her eyes and averted her face for just a second.

In this way, it was easy to tell how such words could be misconstrued so badly.

Terence's heart all but stopped then and there. Despite having heard this from Jiminy, hearing it from Pinocchio's own lips still crushed him.

When the young man could move again, all he could do was clutch Pinocchio all the tighter to his breast. Pinocchio let his head rest against his guardian's shoulder, closing his eyes as the tears flowed without restraint.

"Oh, Pinocchio," Terence could barely choke out, "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

None of the others spoke, not trusting themselves to speak anyhow. Jiminy dabbed his eyes, one after the other, on a tiny handkerchief he'd produced from his jacket. Arietta brushed a tear from her own cheek. Armando, with his eyes closed, bowed his head and lightly massaged his brow with his fingertips. Rhiella reached out very slowly and placed her hand along Pinocchio's arm with a feather's lightness.

When Terence got some hold of himself and loosened his grip on the boy, he lifted the child's chin and all but pleaded, "Please forgive me, Pinocchio. I'm truly sorry if I ever gave you the wrong impression, if I ever made you feel like you didn't matter anymore or that my love was something you and Rhiella had to compete for."

With her hand still on Pinocchio's arm, Rhiella whispered, "I'm sorry, too, Pinocchio. Believe me, it was never, never my intention to take Terence away from you. Not for a second." Pinocchio's tearful gaze meshed with hers as she went on, "I know how much you mean to him, too, and no one has the right to even try to come between you and him." She offered a tender smile. "And now, I believe it's safe to say that you mean every bit as much to me."

Pinocchio blinked, only half-believing his ears. "R-Really?"

"After seeing you in that river, that's when it struck me—with full force—how much you mattered to my heart, how terrified I was about losing you. I had always cared about you, of course, if only because Terence cared. I was truly intrigued by you from the moment we met." She paused for a time before she finished. "But seeing the danger you were in today…that was the moment that made me see just what I would have done to keep you safe. Even had Terence not been part of this at all."

"I love you, Pinocchio," Terence said fervently. "I'll always love you. Nothing and nobody will ever take your place in my heart. I want you and Rhiella with me. There's no reason why I can't have both, is there?"

This made Pinocchio stop and think, really think.

It dawned on the boy that, when all was said and done, there was no reason why he and Rhiella couldn't be in Terence's life.

All this time, had he been just as ignorant of Terence's true emotions as Terence had been of his true emotions?

Had he been so caught up in his own needs that he hadn't noticed Terence's needs, too?

As for Rhiella…well, why not?

Yes, having her around was a tremendous change, but then Pinocchio recalled all the other tremendous changes in his life. Most of them had been for the better; couldn't this change with Rhiella become a welcome one as well?

If she truly made Terence happy, shouldn't that be good enough for him?

Rhiella said, "I know this is difficult for you, Pinocchio. I know we've still got a long way to go. Heaven knows I've still got a great deal to learn about you, and likely enough, there's a lot you still need to know about me." She moved her hand to the boy's cheek, which she fondled gently. "But believe me when I say that I love you, just as Terence loves you. I promise to always be there for you and do my best. Hopefully that will suffice until everything else is settled." Her smile broadened. "So, what do you say? May I share Terence with you? Would you like to have me as a mother-sister figure?"

For the first time in ages, a true smile spread over Pinocchio's face, and he answered promptly and wholeheartedly, "That will be all right with me. Now that I think of it, it might not be so bad to have a lady around after all. It might even be fun!"

"I believe we could all benefit from having a woman in the family," said Terence as he used one arm to draw Rhiella closer. To the animals, he added, "Wouldn't you agree, mates?"

Figaro gave an eager meow and rubbed vigorously against Rhiella's leg. Duke, despite his weariness, managed a few sound tail thumps. The grin on Jiminy's face spread from ear to ear.

Rhiella regarded Terence with a most thoughtful expression. "So, does that make this an impromptu proposal, my dear?"

He smiled and leaned a little more to her side, though his hold on Pinocchio remained as sure as ever. "Oh, I plan to make it official soon enough, my darling. Just wait." He closed his eyes as he bowed his forehead against hers and dropped his voice further. "One day, someday soon, I'm going to make you mine."

A shiver raced along Rhiella's spine. Her own voice scarcely a whisper, she responded, "I'm already yours."

He brushed his fingers along her jawline, bringing yet another shiver out of her. "I'll make you mine in every sense of the word, Rhiella. Legally, physically, publicly…and any other way you can imagine. One day, you will stay in this house and not have to worry about rushing anywhere. One day, none of us will have to live as strangers. We'll raise Pinocchio together, as well as any other children that may come along."

This made Rhiella withdraw a little from his embrace, and she and Pinocchio both gaped at him.

"You want more children?" she hardly had the breath to ask.

He laughed. "As many children as possible—when the time is right, of course." His face and tone became as serious as ever when he said, "And only on the condition that I can share them with you, my most beloved." To Pinocchio, he added, "As far as the world is concerned, Pinocchio, you are my first child. I consider you my son just the way Geppetto considered you his."

Even if Pinocchio could speak at that time, all words would have failed him. Instead, the boy flung his arms around Terence's neck and squeezed as hard as he could, which let Terence know pretty well that everything between the two of them was forgiven.

He squeezed the boy every bit as hard, if not harder, and when he felt Rhiella's presence again, he clasped her to his side once more and bestowed a kiss on each of the two heads.

In the background, Arietta whispered to her own husband, "Isn't that just the sweetest thing?"

Armando rejoined, "If it were any sweeter, my head would explode into cotton candy."