The day was perfect. Crisp, blue skies stretched around them, dotted only by tiny, puffy white clouds. It was exactly what Amanda would imagine a hot air balloon ride looking like in her mind, had she ever been asked to imagine such a thing, that is. They glided over Albuquerque toward Santa Fe - the final destination.
Amanda watched as some kids playing in a park far below them stopped playing to run and point straight up as the balloon passed. Nick waved back at them, but whether they could see him from that distance or not was impossible to tell. Nick laughed and waved just the same, though, enjoying the idea of them all watching the balloon go by.
Even Brian seemed to be enjoying himself. Once the initial shock of the height had worn off, he'd started looking around and pointing things out to Nick and Amanda, too, although he'd been very carefully avoiding looking straight down over the side of the basket the way they were.
The balloon's pilot, an elderly man with a kind disposition whose name was Jimmy, was quiet, but not in a weird or awkward sort of way. He just didn't have a lot to say unprompted. He gladly answered when Nick asked him about the science behind the balloon's suspension, going into detail that made Amanda's head spin - she'd never been good at science and chemistry, but Jimmy had evidently excelled in it. Nick's eyes blinked rapidly as he tried to keep up, but Brian and Amanda could tell he'd lost the comprehension somewhere around the end of the first or second sentence. "You know, if you're interested in the balloons," Jimmy said, "Every autumn there's a wonderful festival here in New Mexico. Thousands of balloons from all over the world..." he smiled, "You should come."
"I don't think we can," Nick said. Amanda couldn't help but notice the sad, ominous tone in his voice, and she tilted her head questioningly at him, wondering why he'd said it like that.
"You never know Nick," Brian interjected, "We might." This positive statement from his friend made Nick's face break into a smile again.
"Yeah?" Nick asked. When Brian nodded, Nick's enthusiasm doubled - if that was possible.
Are they rescheduling the tour? Amanda wondered, But why would that make Nick upset like that? Does this exchange have something to do with what Brian was about to tell me yesterday? She wasn't about to outright ask either of them, though, at least not yet. They would tell her on their own when they were ready to tell her what was going on. Besides, she wasn't entirely certain she wanted all of the answers to all of the questions just yet.
Around ten o'clock, when they were about halfway through the ride, Jimmy pointed out a cooler on the floor of the basket by Brian's feet. "Complimentary champagne," he said, "A toast."
Nick pulled the bottle of pink champagne out of the cooler, which was packed with ice, and handed out the four chilled flutes as well. When he popped the cork, it went flying over the side of the basket and he looked down, "Hope that doesn't hit anyone," he muttered, not seeing anything but trees below them, luckily. They were all laughing at the cork's escape as Nick poured the champagne into their glasses, even Jimmy was laughing. Once the champagne had been poured, they all held up their glasses in a toast.
"To all of you," Jimmy said, smiling.
"And to long lives," added Nick.
"Filled with friendships," Amanda said.
They looked to Brian to cap off the toast. He smiled, "And to something beautiful."
"Something beautiful," Nick and Amanda chorused.
They clinked the glasses together and a slight mist of spilled champagne fell over them as it sloshed slightly on impact. They each drained their glasses, and Nick refilled his and Amanda's, although Brian and Jimmy declined seconds.
The six hours went by so quickly, and Amanda wished it would've lasted at least twice as long as it was. When the time was nearly up, she and Nick were leaning against the basket, looking down as Santa Fe came into view, while Brian was telling Jimmy all about their adventures at the Grand Canyon. Nick slipped his hand over Amanda's and squeezed it, smiling at her.
"Hi," he said in a childish voice.
Amanda laughed. "Hi," she said.
"You're pretty," Nick told her.
Amanda laughed again. "How much champagne have you had?"
"Just the two glasses." He leaned over and planted a kiss on her cheek, keeping his face there, the tip of his nose tickling just below her eye.
"My hair is a mess from all this wind," Amanda objected, "I should've put it up before we left."
"I like it like that," Nick answered. He wrapped his arm around the front of her and touched the lock of her hair closest to the left side of her face. "It makes you look... wild, and rebellious."
She smiled and felt her cheeks redden as she flushed. This was the first really intimate moment she and Nick had shared since leaving Los Angeles, she suddenly realized.
"We should go out tonight," Nick suggested, "Go dancin'. You wanna go dancing?"
"What about Brian?" Amanda asked, "He doesn't have a partner."
"We'll share you," Nick answered with a laugh. "Besides, most of the time he's just gonna sit there and watch any how. That's what he always does when we go out. He likes people watching, you know?"
Amanda smiled. "Okay, then. We'll go dancing."
Nick slid his hand softly against her jaw bone, his palm on her neck, and pulled her to look at him. His eyes searched hers for a moment, then he leaned down and kissed her. His mouth tasted like the champagne, but also a little salty, a flavor that made Amanda smile because of its uniqueness. His lips were soft and warm and his hands felt nice cupped against her face the way they were, so gentle... If she hadn't been in a hot air balloon, she would've described the way the kiss felt as flying, but seeing as they were flying, the adjective held little purpose.
When the kiss ended, and they'd started to pull their faces back, Nick held his gaze in her eyes, and said in a low, husky voice, "I love you."
Amanda's heart stopped, then reawakened and began pounding wildly in the cavity of her chest so hard she thought she might drop dead from its velocity. It was the first time he'd said those words to her. Her breath seared her throat, stuck there. "I- I-" she stammered.
Nick, sensing her panic, said quickly, "You don't gotta say it back." A part of him ached that she didn't want to, but somewhere in his heart he also knew that he didn't want her to say it, unless she meant it. "I just... wanted you to know."
Amanda's mouth moved without forming any words, gaping like a waterless fish. He kissed her forehead again while she did this dazedly. Then he turned and looked over the side of the basket again, the moment broken, his hands folded in front of him.
She joined him, also leaning against the side of the basket. But instead of looking at the scenery, she looked at his hands. She noticed the long fingers with the big knuckles. The wide, chewed up fingernails with dirt under the tips of them. His thumb bent funny from too many years of video games, and he had a writer's bump on the inside of his ring finger. There was a scar, too, by the wrist of his left hand. The skin puckered by the spot where his index and thumb bones met, and she could just see the inside of the palm of his right hand peeking out under his left. The veins in his wrist were purple and blue and bumping blood to his heart. The heart that had just confessed it loved her.
I love your hands, she thought. Maybe I can fall in love with you one part at a time.
"There's the bus," he said a few minutes later, pointing.
Amanda followed the point and indeed saw the rig, parked below in a large field, similar to the one they'd taken off from. Zach was a tiny dot, moving around between long silver barbeque grills that were pouring forth smoke. A large picnic table stood behind him, set with plates and dishes.
"Here comes the descent," Jimmy warned.
The balloon slowly lowered as they neared the field, the bottom of the basket only just clearing the trees. As it struck the ground, the basket trembled from the shock, but they all managed to stay standing by holding onto the side of the basket.
"Wow, that was amazing," Brian told Jimmy as they all climbed out of the basket. He was glowing.
Zach came running over, smiling widely. "Hey, how'd you like the flight?" he called, "Did Jimmy treat'cha right?"
"It was spectacular," breathed Amanda, still in awe from the sights they'd seen. Mountains, trees, clouds, cities, desert... everything. Nick smiled as he caught sight of the gleam in Amanda's eyes.
"Yeah it was great," he agreed.
"Beautiful," Brian added, winking at Amanda.
Zach beamed. "Great to hear that! And you're here just in time - the food's all ready."
Amanda hadn't realized how incredibly famished she was until they were immersed in the smell of the barbeque. They loaded up plates with pulled pork, beans, corn bread and grilled peaches. Zach passed around glass bottles of lemonade and Coors Light and they feasted, while watching the balloon slowly deflate across the field.