Rena's back is cold when she wakes. It's a little cold every morning, of course—Noel sleeps curled against her chest and has finally agreed to rules about animals on the bed—but now the emptiness at her back is more than absence, like a presence turned inside-out. Even before she checks the guest room, she knows that Dias has left again.
Noel pads up behind her and nuzzles the back of her neck. He must have felt it, too; usually he sleeps until she waves his breakfast under his nose. They stand together in the doorway, Nede's misfit children, sharing a ragged edge between them.
"I keep thinking it should get easier," she says. "I know he's going to leave, so why does it always hurt?"
"You wouldn't want to get used to it, would you?" Noel's arms are warm enough to relax into, tight enough that Rena knows he's accepting as much as offering support. The tuft at the tip of his ear tickles Rena's cheek as he adds, "Come back to bed. It's still early."
She sighs. "You go ahead. I need to make breakfast."
Cooking takes her mind off the wait and the worry, focuses her on the now. Her mind can't wander far when there are pancakes to flip, strawberries to slice, and bacon to fry—hers to a delicate crisp, Noel's just past the point of rawness. If Dias were here, he'd want his bacon scorched black.
But he isn't now, and he will be later. In the meantime there are pancakes to flip.
When she carries the plates up to the bedroom, she finds Noel buried under fuzzy opportunists. She clears her throat, stamps her foot, and stares down the stragglers. They're adorable, all of them, but they'd overrun the house given half a chance.
After the last stubborn bunny hops off the pillow, Rena waves Noel's plate under his nose. His nostrils twitch to take in the steam. "Wake up, wake up," she sings, and finally, groggily, he sits up to join her for breakfast.
The bed is too big (they bought it, without question or debate, to sleep three), but they spread out their plates and fill it well enough together. He feeds her a strawberry dipped in syrup, smearing her cheek; she giggles as he licks her clean.
A widening sunbeam attracts a line of cats on the floor. "Well," says Rena, setting her fork on her empty plate, "he's probably halfway to Salva by now."
"Mmm." Noel stretches luxuriously and lets his hum open into a yawn. "I'll call Barney if you'll gather the snacks."
"Blue jar in the back of the pantry, right?" At his nod, she adds, "Did you make more of that thick jerky?"
Noel beams. "Of course. I noticed that it makes him frown less."
Three weeks later, Dias is still gone. There's nothing at all unusual about this, and there's no reason to worry about him; he can look after himself, and needs to. This knowledge doesn't stop Rena from staring out wistfully into the rain. He is always the cold at her back.
But Noel is here and warm, and so is she. Rena leans back against him as he rests his chin on her head and watches the water weave patterns down the glass. Their faint reflections leave space without creating a hole.
Reaching over her shoulder, Noel opens the window. "Do you smell that?" he asks before Rena can protest the potential mess. "I love the way the rain smells here. The waters of Nede were sterile."
She closes her eyes and breathes it in—softened earth, shaken leaves, the strange whiffs of sky plummeting drop by drop. Somewhere higher still hang the stars, between which so many of her friends flit. If she breathes deep enough, she can almost catch their scents, as well.
Noel would rather be out in the rain, probably, but he's here with her because the heaviness of her heart tugs at his. It's all backward today; he's usually the one turned inward, thoughts tucked neatly behind a soft smile, until she pulls him out into the bright noise of the world. They can balance without Dias, but they wobble.
"Let's go for a walk," she says, and Noel's reflection brightens.
No coats or umbrellas—just the warm, clean summer rain soaking through to their skin. Rena catches drops on her tongue and tries to pick out the lush layers of flavor that Noel describes in them. Under the gaze of their neighbors' lamplit windows, they make their way toward the forest.
When the path turns muddy, Rena takes off her shoes and leaves them tucked beneath a tree. The mud squelches between her bare toes.
If Dias were here, he might grumble about their catching colds and being out of their minds, or just flatly inform them that they could do whatever they wanted, but he'd stay inside. For all the time he spends outdoors, he still has a cool relationship with nature.
"That's one of the females," Noel says, stopping to point out a pale yellow bird perched on a nearby branch. "Her nest must be nearby. If you see another one with black wings, it might be her mate."
All her life, Rena has come to this forest, but only since she brought Noel with her has she begun to understand it. Someday she hopes to see as he does, able to pick out the intricate webs connecting everything that moves and grows. "Inkjays, right? What do they sound like?"
He whistles like a flute, twice high and clear before dropping into a long, low trill. The bird bobs its head and twists to fix the black bead of its eye on them. Rena mimics the sound, poorly, and the bird flutters to a higher branch.
"Guess I need practice," she says, and Noel laughs. They walk on beneath a tree that showers water from its breeze-shaken leaves.
When she has been quiet for a while, he pats her shoulder. "He needs this, you know."
"I know. It's just... sometimes I wish it were a little bit easier. If it was just something he needed to hear—"
"Then it would be something he needed to hear from himself." He catches her hand and squeezes it.
She leans against him for a moment, eyes closed, letting him lead. Raindrops slide down her arm to where their fingers twine.
Word comes from Salva that Dias is coming home, as he always does. Rena wonders if "coming home" is how he thinks of it; he still sleeps in the guest room, but he no longer seems surprised to find it prepared for him. She and Noel dust the furniture and put fresh sheets on his bed.
They make dinner together and pass the time after by playing with a few of the kittens. (Every time Rena thinks that she knows all of their pets, an unfamiliar pattern of fur slinks past, and Noel scarcely even looks sheepish.) It's a warm evening; the dense smells of summer waft in through the open window, breathing lazy life into the curtains. The kittens not currently fascinated by Rena's ribbon pounce on the dancing fabric.
"No claws," she chides, futilely. Living with Noel has meant giving up curtains and furniture that don't make her mother sigh.
"He's almost here." The quiet excitement in Noel's voice draws Rena's gaze out the window. The low sun lends a red tint to Dias's pale hair where he stands at the edge of the village, almost out of sight. Rena's heart rises and flutters like a bird.
For a long time he is still. Then, at last, when Rena feels that she must either run to him or burst, he slowly approaches.
When his knock comes at the door, she and Noel pounce on him.
"You'd think you two hadn't seen me in years," he says in the dry voice that means he is secretly, on a deeper level than he will ever acknowledge, a little bit pleased.
Noel kisses him on the nose, which still makes Dias go a bit red in the cheeks. Physical affection hasn't stopped unsettling him, though at least he no longer blushes crimson and pushes himself away from it. "Welcome home," Noel purrs.
"Dinner's ready," Rena adds. She slips her hand into Dias's and feels her pulse leap when he returns the pressure of her fingers. "We kept the chicken skewers warm for you."
They eat near the open window, cats rubbings against their legs and big wet eyes gazing up hopefully at them from the floor. As usual, Dias seems overwhelmed by it all: the menagerie of pets, the shelves packed with knickknacks and mementos, the need for Rena and Noel to be as close to him as the physical demands of dining allow. But he isn't ramrod straight in his chair anymore, and his eyes no longer dart to the window and the road winding out of town. He's changing slowly, like an acorn laying down the roots for an oak.
He doesn't talk much about where he goes; he never has. Rena is more than happy to fill the silence, and eventually she steers the topic to a familiar place, watching Dias's reaction carefully: "I think we've almost got it narrowed down. That adventure, I mean. Wouldn't it be fun to find a wild forest somewhere to explore, where no one's chopped down trees or made paths or anything?"
"Something ancient, untamed, and ever-changing." There's a faraway look in Noel's eyes. He doesn't notice the little blue bird alighting just long enough to peck a chunk from his dinner roll. "I'd like to see animals that the people of this world have forgotten."
Dias snorts. "Animals are about all you'd find. You want treasure, you have to look underground."
"Ugh, I've had enough caves to last me for a while." Rena wrinkles her nose. "I bet Claude and Opera are in one right now, and they can keep them."
Noel nods, a little wistfully; he misses them as much as Rena does. "This wouldn't be about treasure, but it would still be a long and perhaps dangerous journey. Nothing we'd undertake without someone who has experience surviving for months on the road."
Rena holds her breath, but Dias doesn't take the bait. His lips part slightly before closing again; was he tempted, just for a moment? Is he wearing down slowly, like a stone in a river? She's certain of it; if they ask often enough, someday he'll be ready to hear the invitation.
After a long pause, during which the only sounds are the layered songs of summer insects, Dias says, "So, Rena, how's your mother?"
Someday, but not today. Rena exhales, smiles, and shares a story about rescuing a bird's nest from her mother's chimney.
After dinner, they sit for a while by the fire, sipping wine and hot chocolate. Dias is still quiet, but more visibly at ease, glancing between Rena and Noel as they discuss making more of the animals strictly outdoor pets. The noise he makes during Noel's first rebuttal is almost a laugh.
Rena resists bedtime until Noel has fallen asleep twice on her shoulder. When she moves to poke him awake again, Dias catches her finger and says, "Don't bother. It's late."
Noel shifts and mumbles something that bears scant resemblance to sleep. With a short sigh, Dias rises and hefts Noel onto his back. Rena follows them up to the bedroom, where Noel clings like a happy sloth until Dias manages to put him down on the mattress. His hand lingers for a moment on Noel's face, then brushes back a stray lock of hair.
"You're probably tired, too," Rena whispers.
Dias grunts noncommittally but heads down the hall toward the guest room. Rena tries not to be disappointed; there's no rushing Dias any more than there is seeds or caterpillars.
He opens the door and hesitates, taking in the freshly made bed and reasonably fur-free floor. Dryly, he says, "I see you haven't turned my room into a rabbit hutch yet."
My room. Rena grins and catches him in a fierce hug from behind, forcefully enough to elicit an "oof."
He'll leave again, maybe even tomorrow; he isn't ready yet. But he's getting closer, step by careful step, and Rena knows he'll be worth the wait.