A door banged shut. Glass shattered. A yell. Silence.
"What did that dork do now?"
Van rolled his eyes at Millerna who just glared at him in response. Stuffing his hands in his pockets, he strode back towards the house, the autumn sun burning down on his back. It was warm and the feeling spread to his fingertips. The soft sound of his footsteps and Millerna's voice followed him through the door.
"Godammit, Dryden, hurry up!"
It was quiet inside the house, sunlight filtering through the windows. The scent of their lunch was hovering in the air, rich and still warm, mixing with the scent of colours on canvas.
There were paintings and photographs everywhere, piled on tables, chairs and shelves, stacked against the walls, the furniture, filling the doorways. Within these last months Millerna had been on a creativity spree, hardly able to give vent to all the ideas in her mind. He remembered the moment when Millerna had been sketching two drawings at the same time. It was when he had started doubting her sanity.
Maybe she had thought her inspiration would decrease after she gave birth to their child or that she might not have as much time for her art. Maybe the baby had given her inspiration. Whatever it was, the Fassa family had to clean up that mess, that was for sure.
Climbing over a stack of canvases, he finally reached the kitchen. He found Dryden crawling across the floor, picking up the shards of the glass he had just broken. There was blood on his hands and they were shaking.
"Dryden?" Van kneeled down beside his friend, gently touching his shoulder. He had never seen Dryden like that before, nervous, insecure and at a complete loss of control over the situation. He could barely hold back his grin.
"She needs clothes and all the other stuff women need, right? And we need something to eat, right? It'll take a while, right?" Dryden was muttering while picking up the shards.
The corners of Van's lips twitched and he carefully took the shards away from Dryden and led him to the sink to wash his hands. Dryden stared at him and it was as if he was looking through him, eyes wide. "Why did she have to start labour during lunch? It's too soon. The date was supposed to be next Monday. Is that bad? I mean --"
"Dryden, man, get a grip." The water was gushing from the faucet into Dryden's palms and Van dumped the shards in the bin. His gaze rested on the table in the living room that was covered with plates filled with food, cutlery strewn across it, dropped in a hurry, remnants of the wave of excitement Millerna had caused by suddenly springing up and exclaiming that her amniotic sac had just burst. "Everything will be okay. You're going to have a baby soon. And that crazed wife of yours needs you right now."
Dryden turned his head to look at him. "I know. This is huge, huh?"
Laughter broke from Van's lips and he clapped Dryden on the shoulder. "It definitely is. And I cannot believe you're freaking out about it! Mr. Suave all shaking. This is hilarious!"
Dryden looked at the ground and a huge smile spread across his face. "We haven't even decided for a name yet."
"If that's your biggest problem at the moment, I'd call you a lucky man, Dryden." Van felt content just by looking at his friend. They had been waiting so long, worried so much and now it was actually happening.
"I know. It's just that..." Dryden trailed off and ruffled his hair.
"Dryden, you'll be fine. You'll be a great Dad, don't worry." Van knew what was on Dryden's mind. They had often talked about it and he had always given the same advice.
He spotted Merle on the ground in the living room, drawing with her crayons, undisturbed by everything, the havoc Millerna had caused forgotten. "See, even I managed so it cannot be that hard."
He turned his head when he heard the front door being opened, the sound of soft footsteps announcing Hitomi's arrival. Her head peeked carefully around the corner and a grin flashed across her features when she met his eyes. "Van, are the two of you okay?"
Dryden had just finished wrapping his hand with some band-aid. "Everything's alright, Hitomi."
Of course, it was. It was there, in the nervous shaking of his hands, in the smile on his face and in the glow of his eyes. "You'll be fine."
"I know." Dryden's gaze swept over the abandoned food on the table, the bottle of wine, a package of grape juice for Millerna. He started collecting the dishes, plates clinking when he put them in the sink. A wine glass in each hand, he suddenly stopped and turned abruptly. "Shall we?"
Hitomi and Van exchanged a smile and watched Dryden put the glasses back on the table. Following him to the front door, Van's hand almost too casually slipped into hers. She found a grin tugging at the corners of his lips when she studied his profile and squeezed his hand gently. It was warm and slightly rough.
A strong wind was tearing at their clothing and hair the moment they stepped out of the door. Van inclined his head to shield his eyes from the dirt the wind was sweeping along the sidewalk, strands of hair whipping into his face.
Sunlight was flooding the street, yellow leaves raining from yellow trees. The strong autumn wind caught them before they hit the ground, dispersing them, carrying them above the tops of the trees. It smelled of warmth and fallen leaves, smelled of autumn.
Dryden had already reached Millerna's side who was seated safely inside the ambulance. A paramedic was talking to them.
"You better go with them to the hospital." Van's voiced seemed to come from far away for the wind was tearing the words right from his lips, tossing them into the whirlwind of leaves it was chasing down the street. "Dryden needs moral support. I'll take care of Merle and Millerna's stuff."
Hitomi stopped and frowned. "But don't you want to be there when the baby will be born? I can get Merle. It's okay."
It seemed as if it had been just last week that Millerna had told him she was pregnant, that she had finally told Dryden but it had been more than seven months. And yet so much had happened within that time, so much had changed that the days before he had met Hitomi seemed like a lifetime away.
"No, go." He grinned. "It's not like Millerna's going to have the baby within the next two hours."
"What?" Millerna had risen from where she had been seated in the ambulance and Dryden was unsuccessfully trying to get her to lie down again. "Be careful what you say, young man! I heard every word and I promise you I won't wait for you!"
"My mom once said that the first one is the worst one," he called out to her over the wind, mischief laced into his words.
"Just shut up!" Millerna yelled from inside the ambulance, her frustration audible. "I'm going to deliver right here on the sidewalk and nobody cares!"
"Why are you still here? Just go already! We'll be there later!" Van yelled over Hitomi's shoulder and over the wind before focusing his eyes back on her, one dark brow raised. "Once you're in the hospital, lock her up and throw away the key."
Hitomi bit her lip to stifle the laugh, her fingers caressing the nape of his neck. "You're evil." Her grin vanished when she frowned. "But are you really okay with this?" She wanted to be with Dryden and Millerna, the two people who had grown so close to her within these last months and yet she felt that Van should have the privilege to be by their side.
The engine of the ambulance roared and gravel crunched under the tires when it backed out of the driveway. Dryden stood on the sidewalk, watching it disappear down the street, blue lights flashing silently.
Van turned back around to look down at Hitomi and his eyes were dancing when he smiled. His arms encircled her waist, his hands resting comfortably on the small of her back. He pulled her close. "Yep, I'm okay with it. Don't worry. I'll join you in a bit. Merle and I, we'll take it a bit more slowly." Hitomi's lips twitched briefly when he leaned down and kissed her slowly, letting her taste his smile. "I should ask if you're okay with this."
She studied his lips, full and soft, tasting of ginger, turmeric and sunshine. "Why?"
"Didn't you say you had to leave for Pallas tonight? Creating plans of action for next year's fund raising with Yukari or something?" he asked against her mouth in a murmur.
"Ah, that." She grinned and shrugged, her hands sliding up his chest towards his face. His skin was cool and soft beneath her fingertips and she outlined the traces his smile left on his features. "I just decided to stay."
Van leaned away from her, the wind tousling his hair. "Oh, alright, now I'm hurt. You wouldn't stay because of me but you'll stay because of Millerna?"
She saw the laughter in his eyes and knew it was just one of their usual badinages. This time he was teasing her. There were other times when there was nothing of light-hearted bantering. They had argued about her new job, about their relationship, about commitment and compromises, about sacrifices and their future. She felt always drained after an argument, exhausted and frustrated. But then she noticed that Van looked just the same.
Her grin widened and she linked her hands behind his neck. "Jealous?"
He gave a loud laugh. "Of that mad woman? Are you kidding me?" He leaned back down and rested his forehead against hers, his hair brushing her skin. "But say, if I had been pregnant and had suddenly decided to start labour during lunch, would you have stayed as well?"
"You're such a goofball, Van."
His lips parted in a wide grin. She was so close that the outlines of her image were vague in front of his eyes like a blurred photograph. He smelled her skin and felt her warm breath on his mouth. It reminded him of waking up beside her. "And you like that."
She muffled her grin against his lips. Sometimes it seemed time passed too fast when they were together, too fast for him to savour it the way he wanted. Sometimes he lay awake at night and just watched her sleep, trying to carve her image into his mind, fearing there might be a time he could forget her. "Alright, you should go."
Hitomi pulled away and nodded, her eyes bright. "See you soon."
She went to join Dryden in his car. They would follow the ambulance to the hospital. Her hand resting on the door handle, she turned and smiled at him, the wind tossing her hair about her head. Her smile was wide and warm, infectious.
Sometimes he wondered what would have been. If he had not let Yukari bribe him into attending the benefit concert that one day in February. If he had ignored the sadness in Hitomi's eyes. If he had not been selfish. If he had given up.
He did not know. But he knew what would not have been. Hitomi would not be standing there, brushing strands of hair out of her eyes, smiling at him.
Van watched them until the car was out of sight, leaves chasing each other around his legs. A silence befell him, but not from the outside. There were all kinds of noises which the wind was tossing round him. People were talking on the other side of the street, children were yelling, birds wailing against a cornflower sky, the wind whistling along the bare branches of trees.
This silence was inside him. A feeling of calmness and peace, the end of a journey, the end of a search, a feeling of being home.
He turned around and went back towards the house, sunshine in his wake.