Stop and Smell the Roses

"Open your eyes," he says, and Nicci obeys at once. She swore to herself when she quit the Keeper that she would never answer to anyone again—but this is Richard.

Blue sky—just that, no clouds, not even the tops of the Pillars of Creation—Nicci can see nothing but blue. She's never felt more positive about a color.

But she doesn't need to see Richard—she can feel his presence, as though she has another sense just for him. She's lying on a conjured blanket on the sand, and Richard, supporting himself on his elbow behind her, is pulling a strand of her golden hair through his fingers.

The crash of the surf hitting the sand would once have struck Nicci as repetitive, but with Richard, everything is shiny and new.

She also can't see the Mother Confessor and the Mord'Sith from here—still Richard's 'dearest friends,' as the Mother Confessor insists, although together they shamelessly broke his heart. At the moment, they are doubtless exploring the possibilities inherent in the Rada'Han Nicci stole from Darken Rahl and left lying around for them as a thank-you. After all, if it weren't for their lack of self-control, it would've taken her much longer to convince Richard that she is the 'love of his life.' The sugary sweetness of the phrase still irritates her, but she's certain she can do a better job looking after him than the Mother Confessor.

Already Nicci has chased some of the hurt out of his eyes, but there's a new gravity in him that will never go away. Nicci is grateful that she saw what was happening in time to save him from the Mother Confessor's negligence, but she's not sure he'll ever stop loving the traitorously fickle Kahlan Amnell.

And yet, after Nicci quit the Keeper, she couldn't get that kiss out of her mind. Richard had saved the Mother Confessor's life—but was the kiss only for Kahlan?

And then there was the way the Mother Confessor and the Mord'Sith looked, and still look, at one another…Nicci determined to find out the truth of it for herself, even if that did mean helping Richard save the rotten world.

"What am I supposed to be seeing?" Nicci asks now, tilting her head back in order to get Richard's warm brown eyes in view.

"To your right," Richard says, letting go of her hair so she can turn her head.

Nicci sighs, already lonely for his touch, but obediently she turns. About an inch from the edge of her blanket, there's a tiny green flower bud. As Nicci watches, the bud opens, to reveal a perfect pink baby rose.

"Isn't it beautiful?" Richard asks. "It must be some sort of powerful magic, don't you think? We beat the Keeper, and now the Pillars of Creation aren't a desert anymore."

Nicci rolls up onto her elbows, watching Richard. How he can take delight in something as simple as a flower…there was a time Nicci would have disdained such sentimentality.

But Richard looks so grave, so awed by the new life growing here because of their victory—perhaps the rose bud is a symbolic beginning.

Nicci stopped believing in the Creator's benevolence long ago. But Richard cracked the ice around her heart, and made her feel again.

"Only you, Richard," she teases gently, "would make me literally stop and smell the roses."

Richard sits up on their blanket, and reaches out one hand to cup Nicci's cheek. She rests her head on his knee, looking up at him with a tiny, self-mocking smirk playing about her lips.

"What made you change your mind about the world?" he asks. "You told me helping people was pointless, but without you…" he frowns, and Nicci knows he is thinking of the Keeper, whose deception nearly cost them everything.

"Well," she says thoughtfully, "there you were, the Mother Confessor getting in touch with her inner masochist," Unbearable agony, bound to the will of one man…Nicci will never understand the appeal of the Mord'Sith, "big brother looking over your shoulder," the Wizard is doubtless making plans right now for how Richard can take the throne of D'Hara before Darken Rahl, which prospect Nicci anticipates with faint distaste, "and the Keeper in the role of the most unconvincing child I've ever seen," her tone is faintly mocking, and inwardly she winces when Richard looks away, a faint frown between his brows—why can't she keep herself from being snide? But the child was obviously the Keeper, to her experienced eyes.

Nicci pulls herself up so that she and Richard are sitting with only their knees touching, the setting sun over Richard's shoulder getting in her eyes. Richard is watching the little green shoots popping up all over the sand—it seems the Pillars of Creation really are turning into an oasis. Nicci refuses to credit the Creator with this, even though there is no other possible explanation.

"What can I say?" she says, her voice a trifle artificially light-hearted now. "I've got a saving people thing."

At that, Richard looks back at her, not quite smiling, but his eyes crinkling at the corners with mirth. Nicci can't help her answering smile of relief—if Richard is happy, so is she. She's never been with a man who makes her feel. Who makes her smell the roses in all sincerity.

And if the Mother Confessor comes to her senses and wants him back, and Richard remembers that it's Kahlan Amnell who is the real 'love of his life…' Nicci may not be able to bring herself to stand in the way. She helped Richard save the world, but she did it for Richard, not the world itself. For all she cares, the Mother Confessor and the Mord'Sith and the Wizard and Darken Rahl and everyone else can go to the Underworld. She surely wouldn't lift a finger to stop it.

But Richard—no. He deserves better than the Keeper's cold, final rest. Better than the Creator's smiling half-truths and broken promises. Richard deserves to live. Richard deserves joy. Richard deserves love.

Richard is watching her with the oddest look on his face…it takes a moment for Nicci to realize that it's tenderness.

"What are you looking at?" she asks.

"The woman I love," Richard says, so simply it can't be anything but the truth.

He takes her hands, and Nicci leans closer, and then their lips meet…

In the light of the setting sun, under the shadow of the Pillars of Creation, with the love of her life (no longer sardonic, Nicci can think of it without quote marks), Nicci can't remember ever feeling this happy.

Neither the Creator nor the Keeper ever did anything for her—but Richard did. Basking in the warmth of his love and the security of his arms, Nicci knows she wouldn't trade this one moment with him for an eternity in the Creator's Light.

What do you know? Richard was right—the world is beautiful.