The soles of his shoes were all worn down.
It was amazing. They'd been good shoes, when he'd first started this journey. But, they'd only ever been used for walking back and forth, from home to Onett, or to the club house. Now, though…he'd come further than he'd ever imagined he could have, when he'd first started out.
And it was only the beginning.
"Did something happen to your shoes?"
And he wasn't alone anymore.
No, when Ness looked up from picking at the flaking rubber on the bottom of his sneakers, it was to see that Paula had taken a seat beside him. Paula, in a freshly washed pink dress, clutching a lovingly patched up teddy bear, with a new red ribbon tying back her hair. The girl he'd rescued, and who had gone on to help him by fighting through a Sanctuary by his side.
Really, when she'd said they must go to Threed, next, what could he do but say yes?
But it would be a long, long way to the next big city, the next stop on their grand adventure. It would have been even longer, if they hadn't met the Runaway Five when they had, and if the band had been a bit less generous in their gratitude. Even a backpack of food often dragged down on Ness' shoulders, especially when he was running headlong away or towards some enemy. He'd dreaded to think of potentially adding a tent into the mix. But, fortunately, this way they wouldn't have to.
Instead of the more normal, row by row styles of seats he was used to, like in a car or a classroom, the Runaway Five had seats built into the wall of the bus. It served to make the entire thing feel much less confining, like a big moving room rather than a crowded vehicle. The seats were well padded, the floor was carpeted, and an air conditioning system took the edge off of waiting for the band to finish packing before hitting the road.
Ness had taken a seat in front of one of the big picture windows. He'd never ridden in a bus before – he was looking forward to maybe enjoying the view.
"Ness?" Paula frowned worriedly, freeing one hand from around the bear to pinch her cheek lightly. "Is there something on my face?"
With that, of course, Ness realized he'd been staring. It was easy, to stare at Paula, although he really did try not to. The boy felt himself blush softly in embarrassment, and returned to fiddling with his shoes. All the same, though, he wasn't quite able to banish a small smile from his face. "Nah," he said. "I guess I was just thinking. About…some stuff."
"What kind of stuff were you thinking about?" She sidled just a little closer, so close that he could feel the ragged fur of her teddy bear against his bare skin. He didn't even have to look up to know she was smiling, too. "You can tell me. I promise I won't laugh."
A flake of rubber fell away and bounced on the floor. Underneath, Ness could see his dingy white socks. Really, seeing that only really drove the point home, how much his feet hurt. He hadn't realized until now.
But he looked away from that to look back up at her, even if it made his cheeks feel strangely warm to do so.
"I was just hoping Threed would have a place where I could buy some new shoes. What about you, Paula? I could buy you some, too. We probably won't get to ride in style like this that often. There's gonna be a lot of walking to do."
"I guess you're right." Paula stared thoughtfully down at the toes of her shoes, where they just barely brushed the floor of the bus. He could see her debating inwardly with himself, and wished she wouldn't. It was because of Ness that she'd need new shoes soon, anyway. The least he could do was pay for it.
Fortunately, Paula finally gave a nod after a few second's thought, and smiled like the sun. "Thank you, Ness! That's really nice of you."
"Aw, it's nothing," said Ness, sheepish and pleased all at once. Really, in the strictest sense, it wasn't. He knew Dad wouldn't mind covering for two pairs of shoes, instead of one. It would certainly be a worthier cause than hamburgers. "Gotta be prepared, right?"
But it wasn't just shoes. Ness knew that, although he didn't know how to say what he knew, deep in his heart. It was wanting to take care of her, and make sure she was okay. It was that Paula was coming a long way for him when she didn't have to, and was the first person to have fought by his side against a world that was rapidly turning mad. It was Ness wanting to show how much he valued her sitting next to him on this bus, and calling him to her in the first place. He'd been prepared to leave her with her family, here in Twoson. But, secretly, Ness was glad she was coming with him. It was nice, not being alone anymore.
He just wished he knew how to tell her that. He didn't, but…maybe he could show her. Starting with new shoes for the both of them. From there? Well…it would all depend on what else their adventure had in store.
With this comforting thought, as though the universe had been waiting for him to give a signal, the bus rumbled to life and began to roll down the street – slowly, at first, and then faster. Ness turned around in his seat to stare out the window, folding his arms on the sill and resting his head on them to be comfortable. Burglin Park…Polestar Preschool…Orange Kid's house, and Apple Kid's…all the sights he'd come to be so familiar with here in Twoson were sliding away behind them. Not so fast that he couldn't recognize them, but fast enough for Ness to know that the city that wasn't first would soon be far behind them.
Lucky was humming a little ditty in the background, almost but not quite drowned out by the bus's s engine. One of the musicians was practicing with his saxophone. It was the perfect, lazy accompaniment to slowly watching the world roll by.
He heard a rustle of fabric, and saw Paula out of the corner of his eye, also turning to look out the window. But it took Ness a few seconds longer to realize what was wrong. Then he looked, and he saw.
Paula's hands were braced against the windowsill. She wasn't lazily watching the sights, like Ness was…no, instead, she was staring out with an expression of utter concentration and focus, the sort that Ness had only seen before on Tracy's face, when she was preparing for a particularly difficult spelling test.
And, after their journey together through the Sanctuary, he knew her well enough to pick out hints of fear.
As they drew near the city limits, Ness understood. He could have kicked himself for not getting it sooner. Twoson had only been another stop on his journey to discover the eight Sanctuaries. But to Paula…Twoson was her home. She'd probably never left it of her own volition before. Getting kidnapped by Happy Happyists certainly didn't count, and a journey home didn't carry the same weight as a journey away.
What was just one more step for him was the first for her. Sitting on this bus with him, watching everything she'd ever known fall away into the distance…
…if he'd been in her shoes, Ness knew that he'd be scared, too.
He didn't say anything. Ness knew he didn't need to. He just reached out, and held her hand. When Paula looked back at him, as though only just remembering he was there, he saw the expression of worry and anxiety, before she tried to banish it with a smile.
He gave her hand a tight squeeze, and her smile became a little more genuine. Ness didn't say anything. But she seemed to understand the intended meaning – that he was here for her, because they were friends, and that's what friends did. That if she was going to come with him to see the world, at least he could make sure that she was never alone, and never afraid.
Buildings became trees. The paved road became a dusty dirt track. The tour bus rolled on, into the distance, into the future. Ness and Paula didn't know how long they sat together, staring out the window and just admiring the world. But when they finally turned away, it was with a desire more powerful than ever to save it, and save it together.