"Forget which bed was yours, lad?"
Iain yawned, scrubbed at his face and peered into the kitchen. The ruddy glow of dawn filtered through the open shutters and filled the room with rosy light. His grandfather sat at the table, drinking tea, and his mother and father stood together by the hearth. A sense of rightness tickled at him, seeing the familiar postures, smelling the toasted bread, bacon, cooked oats and tea. He was home and it hadn't changed, much – Rafi wasn't standing behind him, nudging him to move out of the way.
Moving into the kitchen, Iain sat at the table and grinned across at his grandfather. "Well, after a hammock, the choice between two beds was overwhelming, grandpa. I wanted to test them both out."
A soft scratch sounded at the back door and his mother moved to open it. "And here's your friend."
Socks performed his most thorough stretch in the doorway, head down, bottom up, back curved between, tail pointing towards the ceiling. Then the cat offered a general greeting, a meow meant for the entire room, and made his way towards the table and leapt into Iain's lap with a small, throaty trill.
With a bemused smile, his mother said, "Where did he come from, Iain?"
After slipping a piece of bacon to his friend, Iain explained. "Sock was born at sea. They had a few cats on board and this one just decided to adopt me." Likely the cat had been thrilled to discover a person who kept a bed warm for more than six hours at a stretch. Iain had slept the clock 'round for days at first, and hours beyond the normal span for weeks afterwards until he'd regained his stamina. Almost always he'd awoken to find a warm lump at his side. He'd welcomed Socks' company from the first. A cat didn't require him to talk, only to be there, and that he'd been able to do. He didn't mind admitting it had also been a comfort to have something to hug at night.
His father and grandfather prepared to leave for their day of work and Iain said, "If you can spare a minute, I will come," before hastily finishing his breakfast. He ran back to get his boots and a coat and then slid back through the kitchen on socked feet.
His mother laughed. "Iain, slow down!"
It even sounded like home.
His grin wider, Iain bent to lace his boots, stopped to grab a pair of work gloves from the common box by the door, kissed his mother's cheek and stepped outside. Then he took a breath. His father and grandfather were waiting by the gate and when he reached them, he turned back, knowing his mother would be standing in the open doorway. She didn't want him to work today, he knew that. It was part of why he went. He needed to show her he was well – healthy and strong – and, if pressed, he'd admit to a certain fear at being in her company all day. She'd want to talk, ask questions.
Socks curled about her legs and he smiled at his companion, knowing the cat would stay put and await his return. Cats seemed to know where home was, instinctively. He waved to the pair and turned to follow the older men towards town.
"I see you are have as much energy as ever," his father commented as Iain moved into step beside him.
Gavin chuckled. "He sleeps like a rock, Callum, didn't even snore last night." The old man shook his head and then peered at Iain's nose, as if trying to decide what had changed. His eyes narrowed as they settled on the break, the small misalignment at the top. "Sometimes a broken nose is a blessing, eh?"
"In this case we'll say so," Iain answered casually enough. He'd not known his nose had been broken; he'd not been able to distinguish the pain of the break from his other injuries. It had been just another ache to add to the collection of bruises left over by a severe beating. Shy told him afterwards that the break had mended neatly enough and, well, he'd been lucky.
The three men walked in companionable silence the rest of the way.
His grandfather and father were known collectively as Morren & Son and had built many of the houses in the village. When not working in construction, Gavin liked to make furniture and Callum liked to fix things. He made repairs to structures damaged by time, weather and mishaps. His father-in-law helped out on the larger jobs.
Presently, they were in the final stages of building a house for the second eldest Darrow. Clinton Darrow planned to marry in the spring and this would be the house he took his bride home to. Folks didn't always build a house for their wedding, but the Darrows were a large family with four sons and rumour had it Clinton's girl had insisted on a place of their own. As she came from a family of all girls, Iain could quite understand her fear of moving into the Darrow household. The Darrow boys made him look tame.
Clinton and one of his brothers were helping out with the building. They were hoping to get the roof on before the first snow, and, with five men working at it, they probably would.
The day passed as Iain hoped it might, quickly and with purpose. He applied all his energy and all his enthusiasm to every task given. He'd always enjoyed hard work and he reveled in it now, not because it gave him a focus, something to think about other than his trials, but simply because he was alive. He had always taken great joy in the simple fact he existed. Now, when not in the grip of what he called 'the dark tide', the depression that occasionally crept upon him and tried to tug him down and away from life, he faced his days with the same eagerness he always had.
As the setting sun sent fingers of dusky gold across the sky, the Darrow boys invited him stop for an ale and a story.
He declined. "Maybe later in the week, when mum believes I'm not going to drop dead at the slightest breath of wind."
They all laughed at that, his father and grandfather included, and a moment later, he turned at a hand on his shoulder. His grandfather stood there, an inscrutable look on his face.
"Our Tessa always believed you were out there somewhere, you know." His grandfather squeezed his shoulder then released it before continuing. "Said you'd come home with some wild tale about where you'd been, just as you always did." Gavin paused, his brows drawing together. "I often wondered if that letter was more cruel than kind, lad, I knew it was from you, I think we all did. But it kept her going. I'll always thank you for that."
Iain grasped his grandfather's solid arm in gratitude and they nodded to one another in understanding. Then they went home to Theresa, to their Tessa, and showed her that her son was still there, still walking and breathing, still alive and come back to her. She hugged him as fiercely that evening as she had the first and Iain submitted with good grace, kissing her cheek fondly.
That night, he did not drink any bitter tea. He slept in his own bed, Socks draped over his head (understanding his fur would not be required as a handkerchief) and listened to his grandfather breathing quietly beside him. He glanced over at the other bed and thought of Rafi. They'd shared this room until his grandmother had passed, and then Gavin had moved in here, giving his granddaughter a room of her own. It was fitting, he said, for a young woman to have her own space. It made little sense now, Iain supposed, for the two men to still sleep side by side. He didn't mind though, the young man had rarely slept alone and he liked to hear someone else breathing in the dark.
The days took on a quiet rhythm. The sun rose and the sun set and beneath it he labored beside his father and his grandfather. In the mornings he raced through the house in socked feet, laughing at his mother's quiet urgings to slow down and in the evenings he squirmed beneath her pointed questions regarding his future.
"When will you go to Highever? Should you not write to Sera?"
When he shrugged and told her he had not fully pondered his course, she changed tactics.
"Will you stay here, then, and work with your father?"
And on only his third evening in Ferelden: "Finola Aiken asked after you today, Iain."
Rolling his eyes, Iain let out a familiar wail. "Muuum..."
Laughter greeted his response and his father clapped him on the shoulder and leaned in to whisper, "We've had you back three days and already she's looking towards the next generation."
One afternoon he went for an ale with the Darrow boys, as promised, and they asked where he'd been and about the scar on his face. He told them pirates had attacked the ship (which they had) and that he had killed three of them (which he had) and saved the life of the captain's son (also true). He told them his scar was a trophy, the mark of a pirate sword, and they believed him, their eyes wide and their heads bobbing. Iain grinned at the pair and did nothing to disabuse them of the notion he'd been doing nothing but adventuring these past three years and worrying his mother to an early grave. That's what young men did, after all. They bought him an extra ale and toasted his bravery and Iain drank deeply as they all swallowed his lies.
One evening his mother asked him if he still sang and he treated her to a colourful tune he'd learned in a tavern in Nevarra. He laughed as her ears turned pink and his father thumped him on the arm and his grandfather told him to mind his language. Then they all laughed and sang together some more. Though he enjoyed the evening – the music, as always, seeping inside and lifting his soul high above the rafters of the kitchen – a sour note pulled at him now and again. A voice was missing, the harmony to his melody. Rafi wasn't leaning against his side, elbowing him in the ribs when he made up ridiculous words or smiling at him as they sang the song properly, together.
The next evening he did not go for an ale or accompany his father or his grandfather home.
"I'll be home later," he told them before jerking his head towards the line of low cliffs marking the western horizon. "I want to go watch the sun set."
He hummed as he walked towards the beach, no song in particular, more a snippet of this and his favourite part of that as his mind skipped back and forth. After threading his way through the low cliffs, he crossed the dunes, feeling the sand tug at his heels in an almost forgotten fashion. Despite his time at sea, he'd not visited many beaches, the merchant vessel always put in at busy ports where docks and warehouses cluttered the coastline. He stopped and looked up at the ocean, noting the gentle swell of evening tide. The sun hovered just above the water, casting a rippled glow outwards.
Sitting down, Iain pulled his legs up and rested his chin on his knees, mimicking a posture his sister so often adopted. He continued humming softly as he watched the sun descend below the sea and then, when the light had faded enough that he could not really read, he pulled a small packet of letters from his pocket and thumbed through them. His letters to Rafi, the ones he'd written and never sent, unable to bear the thought of his words never reaching her. He did not need the light to read them, he had memorized every word. In a way, the letters had become his sister. He'd imagined her voice as she read them and he'd only written things she'd like to hear, the good, the happy and the light. His joys and his successes.
He knew he should write to her now, tell her he was alive. He should go to Highever and see her, tell her his tale. A weight held him down though, one he could not quite define. Guilt, though he knew he could not have saved her from harm, sorrow that he had been away for so long. Shame that he had not been able to keep a simple promise and fear that she would see through his lies and find what he sought most to hide.
Not yet. He wasn't quite ready yet. He needed to stay here, to stay home and rebuild himself into the Iain she remembered, the one she relied upon. He needed time.
The last crescent of the sun dipped below the water and Iain counted out the minutes for a while, measuring the time and wondering how much he would need. Then he picked himself up, stuffed his letters back into his pocket and turned towards home.