The Wood had changed in Kasia's time away. It was brighter, felt lighter--the sound of birdsong followed her footsteps through the trees. She'd have to apologize to Sarkan for doubting him. She could certainly see Agnieszka being happy here.
This didn't keep Kasia from wishing Sarkan could convince Agnieszka to move. The Dragon's tower would certainly have been closer.
Kasia stopped to rest under a heart tree. It should have been discomfiting--it should have been terrifying--but she felt only peace.
She didn't tire these days, but she needed a moment to adjust, to gather her courage.
In the end, Agnieszka found her. In this, at least, nothing had changed.
"Sarkan said you were coming, but I didn't realize it would be today!" Agnieszka cried happily. She held out a hand to help Kasia up, and Kasia humored her in taking it. Kasia could never tell if Agnieszka forgot Kasia's new heft and strength, or if this was Agnieszka's way of showing that none of the changes mattered.
"I didn't know when I'd be arriving," Kasia said and embraced her best, oldest friend. Agnieszka smelled of dirt and green, growing things. She had a smear of mud across her nose, and her skirt was torn. She was, as always, the sweetest, most precious thing Kasia could imagine.
"All the same, I'd have come to greet you if I'd known." Agnieszka kissed Kasia hello and took her hand once more. "Let me show you my cottage! Were you lost? Oh, and you should see--"
Agnieszka's chatter filled the air, better than any birdsong.
"Home, sweet home." Agnieszka waved a hand around the little cottage.
It was small and plain, but cozy, comforting. Near the fireplace were a wooden table and two chairs. A bed loaded down with quilts and several pillows lay under the window facing east. An armchair sat near a squat bookshelf filled with old diaries and books on the brink of falling apart.
"It's lovely," Kasia said. She dropped her sword and knapsack by the door. This left her without anything to do with her hands.
How was it this hard? It had been only a year.
Agnieszka directed Kasia to take the armchair and sat herself on the bed. "You've listened to me go on about things here, but what have you been up to? I've gotten your letters, but it's not--" Agnieszka cleared her throat, looked down at her hands folded over her skirt. She looked up, and her expression was one of concern. "How have you been?"
"Nieshka--" Kasia sighed. She rubbed a hand over her face. "Fine. I've been fine." At Agnieszka's piercing look, she relented, "It's been hard. But. Good, too."
Agnieszka still looked troubled. "I feel like there's something you're not telling me. Which is fine! You're entitled to your secrets, but--you know I'm here if you ever need me, right?"
Kasia smiled. "Of course."
Nieshka's friendship, she'd never doubted.
They shared the bed that night, though Kasia protested she'd sleep just as well on the floor. Few things registered as outright discomfort these days. She'd slept in fields and at the roots of trees her entire journey here, and found the rain as refreshing and welcome as the warm summer air.
"Stone is harder," Agnieszka had said, with the tone of one who'd slept in the dirt several nights herself, "and even if it doesn't hurt to sleep on the floor, it still feels nicer to sleep in a bed, right?"
Pressed up against one another in the small bed, Agnieszka's chin pressed to her shoulder and loose hair dangling in her face, Kasia couldn't help but agree.
The next few days, Kasia accompanied Agnieszka on her rounds.
They occasionally stopped in one of the villages for Agnieszka to hand out some of the fruit she'd gathered or the occasional remedy for someone's ailments, but mostly they stuck to the Wood. Agnieszka checked on the progress of some of the newer heart trees and chatted with their guardians. She pointed out landmarks and identified plants and creatures Kasia had yet to see, deep as they were in this newer, kinder Wood. Agnieszka led the way through thickets and past brambles as though following a clear, easy road.
Kasia sometimes thought she was more plant than person these days, but Agnieszka was the one who looked truly at home here. Watching Agnieszka encourage a new tree's growth, Kasia felt suddenly, fiercely glad. She'd worried, when Agnieszka was chosen, that she'd never see her friend again. That when she did, Agnieszka would be so changed as to be unrecognizable. That even if she returned, she would never stay.
Kasia smiled wryly. She hadn't been chosen, but--even if Kasia had returned, she had definitely changed. And whether she stayed, well. That remained to be seen.
That evening, Agnieszka curled closer than usual. Voice hushed, like they were still girls sharing secrets, she asked, "How long will you stay?"
"However long you want," Kasia answered.
"Mm." Agnieszka made a sleepy sound. "That could be a very long while."
Hesitantly, Kasia petted Agnieszka's hair. "I've got the time."
Agnieszka's breath was warm against Kasia's neck. "We both do."
Kasia dreamed of spreading roots, unfurling leaves. She dreamed of gentle rains and bright sunlight. She gathered creatures in her arms; birds nested in her hair. At her feet stood Agnieszka. Her hands were warm on Kasia's body.
"We're not done yet," Agnieszka said. Leaning closer, she promised, "We never will be."
When Kasia woke, Agnieszka's head was pillowed companionably on her chest as though she were made of finest cotton. Kasia's hand was still tangled in Agnieszka's hair. "Nieshka--"
Agnieszka made a sleepy sound of denial.
"Nieshka, that can't be very comfortable."
"'S very comfortable," Agnieszka mumbled.
"We should probably get up."
"Probably," Agnieszka agreed. She didn't move.
"Weren't we going to visit Sarkan today for breakfast?"
"Ehhh," Agnieszka said. Well, that, or she was making sleep sounds again.
Kasia gave it a moment. Yes. That was definitely the breathing pattern of one deeply asleep. That, and Agnieszka had started to drool.
Kasia couldn't help her smile. "What am I going to do with you?"
(Keep her, Kasia hoped.)
They had a late lunch with the Dragon instead. Sarkan kissed Agnieszka hello. He looked her up and down, and smiled at what he saw. "Sleeping better, I see."
"It helps to have company," Agnieszka said.
"I approve," Sarkan said. He turned to Kasia and held out a hand. Rolling her eyes, she pulled him in for a hug. He stood there stiffly, enduring it admirably. After a hesitant moment, he patted her on the back. Kasia took this to mean, "It's good to see you," and, "You ought to visit more."
"He missed you," Agnieszka contributed to the translation efforts.
"Yes, well." Sarkan cleared his throat. "It's good to see you."
It was amazing how a man so eloquent in letters never failed to be incredibly awkward in person. Kasia and Agnieszka shared a look to this effect, Kasia amused, Agnieszka besotted. Kasia had missed this, too.
"So," Kasia said brightly. "Are we eating in the kitchen or the library?"
They spent the afternoon and early evening catching up. Kasia passed along news from Alosha, and Agnieszka insisted Kasia re-tell several tales of her travels to Sarkan as well. As it grew darker, Kasia stood at the library window to watch the sun set.
Sarkan came to stand beside her as Agnieszka continued to rifle through the shelves in search of a map reference she swore she'd seen a few months before and wanted to check again. "I do," Sarkan said, and his smile was small, but there, and deeply fond. "Approve, I mean."
"Alosha said--" Kasia paused a moment to order her thoughts, to collect herself. "Alosha said that it wasn't unusual, among wizards and those who'll live that long--"
"It's not," Sarkan said gently.
"But that doesn't mean Nieshka will want to," Kasia said. Only the tip of the sun peeked out over the horizon now.
"Whatever she chooses," and Sarkan took a moment to direct that smile Agnieszka's way as she let out a little cry of triumph, "she'll always love you." Repeating himself from an earlier letter, he said, "She went into the Wood for you."
"I know," Kasia said. As always, the thought buoyed her--warmed her right through. No matter how the rest went, that would be enough.
Kasia had expected to spend the night at the tower, but Agnieszka had grabbed her hand and waved her free one at the moon, waxing near full overhead. "Plenty of light to see by!" Agnieszka hummed a little tune as they walked, and hardly any time passed before they were at her cottage door.
Before Kasia could ready herself for bed, Agnieszka stopped her and took her hand once more. "Before I say anything else, I want you to know that I can walk you back to the tower, or you can take the bed, or you can sleep outside, or--" Agnieszka paused to take a breath, then let it all out at once. Instead of saying anything more, she leaned forward and pressed her lips to Kasia's own.
It was soft, and dry, and over far too soon. It said, "Hello, I'm here," but it wasn't a kiss of greeting. Though Agnieszka's smile was tremulous, almost uncertain, it wasn't a kiss goodbye. It was--
Kasia pressed their lips together again. Again. Again.
Later, they curled naked on top of the quilts and talked of everything, of nothing.
Kasia said, "This isn't how I pictured the future."
"But it's okay?" Agnieszka asked.
"Mmm." Kasia drew the sound out, teasing, until Agnieszka pushed at her shoulder. She seemed too tired to manage more. Kasia said, "It's better than I imagined."