A/N: And another wild TWitW fic appears! This runs in much the same vein as the previous fic; it's primarily inspired by the 2017 musical (notably the timeline, which occurs over a year), but borrows some aspects (and a few lines) from the book. The title comes from one of the book chapters, meaning "sweet home," and I have also borrowed one misquote from Robert Frost's poem: Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. Again, this can be read in either a romantic or platonic light, but is definitely intended to be soft, whichever way you read it :)
The inspiration to write this came from reading tangerine_skye's fic: something that should have always been on AO3, which I wholly recommend checking out if you like ratty/mole fluff!
"The house becomes familiar to Mole, comfortable, homely, theirs."
- something that should have always been, by tangerine_skye
Mole knows well the season of spring in his home. He knows it by the thawing of the earth and the springtime rains, by the budding fresh growth that curls in the corners of his rooms and crackles roots through his walls.
The spring that lies above is a different beast altogether.
It is a noisy, cacophonic, chaotic thing, bustling with life after the slumber of winter, and possesses the potential to be overwhelming to an underground creature such as himself. And so when he agrees to stay above ground, it is only to be a single night. It is too soon, he tells himself, to retreat from the world of sunshine and spring and so he stays.
And the days pass.
And he stays.
He does not become immune to the chaos of spring, but in time it endears itself to him. The morning song is still too loud, the sunrise too bright, the weather too temperamental, but these become quirks, as particular as the quirks beneath the ground and just as well-known.
(When he mentions these in passing to Ratty, the riverside window of his room is mysteriously fixed in the following days with working latches and a thick blind that shuts out the early-rising sun. He sleeps sounder after that.)
He adapts. He comes to know life on the riverbank, to learn the waterbirds' calls and the shades of the sky and the bubbling language of the river. Slowly, surely, the discordance of the riverbank harmonises into something he is beginning to understand, like a musician finding instruments in a melody, and it clears a little more each day.
And he comes to know his host.
Unlike the riverbank, which he strives to learn, this knowledge comes quietly in small, passing moments.
It rests in the laughter that ricochets through Ratty the first time Mole capsizes the boat (and the second, and the third) even as he hauls both of them to shore. It lingers in the familiarity of the scratching of Ratty's pen as he attempts another spat of doggerel poetry that he can never find rhymes for, and the tunes he hums beneath his breath during chores.
The knowledge settles alongside everything riverside, nestled behind Mole's ribs somewhere between heart and lungs, and he doesn't know what to do about it.
There are also dilemmas he has never encountered beneath-ground. He is familiar with floods (he knows of the way the earth becomes thick and waterlogged, and how the smell lingers in the dirt) but never before on the riverbank. April showers beget April floods, and he wakes one morning after a sudden torrential downpour to Ratty dragging him over to help sandbag the riverside door.
The next week is spent leaving through the fieldside door.
Ratty endures it with forgiving familiarity, as it is the river's way he tells Mole, but Mole eyes the trickle of water through a low-lying window and cannot help but think that the earth has no such way.
But, even so, there is something comforting about living in a place - however temporarily - where the only way out is up.
Tomorrow, he thinks. Tomorrow, he will return home.
Mole has thought such things so many times in the passing weeks that it is more tradition than promise by now. It is a mantra that has lost all attachment to its original meaning, free-falling through his mind at irregular frequencies.
Tomorrow, he will return home.
Except the weather is so beautiful.
Except he is still learning to row.
Except they have already planned for tomorrow's picnic.
Except one more day can't hurt.
And so he stays.
A new routine is formed, one of boats and picnics and riverbanks and, before he knows it, spring has reached its peak and is rolling with alarming surety towards summer.
And quietly, gently, even the remains of his homeward bound promise falls silent.
Summer brings with it a new home, mobile and wheeled and canary yellow. It's like its owner; bold and brash and notably detached from reality - and Mole finds it difficult to imagine Toad would enjoy life on the Open Road half as much if he weren't assisted by staff. There is no time for the packing and preparing of picnics. No period set aside for the washing of dishes or tidying of tables. No semblance of cleaning - spring or otherwise - that steals time away in comfortable domestic routine.
It is an easy life, full of activity and new horizons with nary a moment for boredom. It suits Toad to a T, but in the moments in which life slows, Mole finds himself homesick for something other.
"Don't you ever miss it?" Mole asks once. It is midday and the air is thick and lazy with the heat of high summer. It's just him and Ratty on the driving seat; the potent mixture of warmth and too many good meals has left Toad sleeping in the belly of the caravan, and Mole realises he has missed these moments. Toad is many things, but understated is not one of them.
"Miss what?" Ratty asks.
Ratty creaks one eye open, almost as sleepy as Toad from the caravan's lull, and glances to Mole. "Of course I do. I think about my river all the time." The other eye opens. "Why? Do you?"
"I'm beginning to."
Ratty smiles. "I wouldn't worry about it too much. Toad will eventually grow bored of it; he always does with his fads." He yawns. "Mark my words, before the season is out he'll had found a new obsession and we'll be home before you know it."
"I hope so."
It is only later that Mole realises he's no longer sure what comes to mind with the promise of home.
But when the Life Adventurous comes to an end in a squeal of breaks and breaking of wheels, it seems to be no question - no question at all - about it when he returns to the riverbank.
It is autumn when Mole finds himself at the mercy of the Wild Wood. The wood is stark and dark, shadowed even more-so by the shortening days and chilling nights. The cold seeps through the upper world with a sharpness that it lacks beneath ground, and there is more than simply relief in his bones by the time he and Ratty stumble into Badger's sett.
Badger's home is a far cry from the light of Ratty's riverside dwelling or the grandeur of Toad Hall. It is dark and deep, with miles of tunnels beneath to keep, and somewhere in the dormant air lingers the scent of home.
"It's because you're an underground animal," Badger says when the thought slips from Mole's mind to mouth. "And a very sensible thing it is to be, too."
"There's nothing wrong with being an above-ground animal," Mole replies.
"Of course there isn't," Badger assures. "But with being underground, you always know exactly where you are. Nothing can happen to you, and nothing can get at you. Just look at Rat - all it takes is a few downpours and suddenly he's tail-deep in floodwater. Or suppose a storm hits, and tiles are blown off or walls crack - then what?"
Mole does look at Ratty then. His friend is curled up in an armchair by the fireplace, tail tucked between his paws and sleeping soundly. It's become a common sight over the course of the evening; there's something about the heavy underground air that renders him drowsy, slumber slipping past his guard at odd moments.
Badger shakes his head. "No, up and out of doors is good enough to roam about and get one's living in, but underground to come back to at last - that's my idea of home."
Mole makes an automatic agreeing noise in the back of his throat. He does not speak of the mornings spent flood-proofing Ratty's home, or the hours shifting everything water-prone to the upper floor. He does not speak of how such inconveniences have become part and parcel of his life, but he thinks about it and as he does he wonders at what point has he slid from underground animal to riverbanker?
Winter is harsh on the riverbank. The daybreaks are quieter now; flocks have flown south and the field mice have moved to their seasonal quarters before the farmers' harvest. An icy December morning is spent hauling their little blue boat up out of the water before the river frost can claim it, and with it marks the end of riverbank picnics.
"Migrating," Ratty grumbles during one brisk walk across the fields. He spares a withering glare to the empty skies above, now devoid of the sparrows and swifts that once flocked the horizon in summer. "Can't be doing with that. Why can't they just stay in one place like any sensible animal?"
Mole trails behind, unaccustomed to the way the frost has stilled the ground into solid sea of frozen mud. Beneath ground, the warmth stays trapped and, save for the soil becoming compact and unyielding, winter usually passes without such complications. The sky has shifted to a strange purple sheen, one that Ratty assures him promises snow.
Mole picks up his paws and attempts to lessen the widening gap between them. "Surely it's not all that bad," he calls ahead. "Seems quite practical to me, moving to somewhere warmer this time of year."
Ratty pauses then, and glances back. "Oh, Moley, not you too. Don't tell me you're catching the travelling bug as well."
"What? No, I just..." And he trails off, not entirely sure how he means to end that sentence. He tries again. "Anyway, everyone knows moles don't migrate."
Ratty watches him a moment longer, as if considering for the first time that this arrangement might not be permanent. Then he shakes his head and carries on, promising a roaring fire and tea when they arrive home and there's that word again - home.
The conversation moves on, reclaiming old discussion grounds in the form of Toad and his misfortune, dinner, and the shifting weather, and all thoughts of first and second homes have quite flown away by the time something in the air shifts. Mole doesn't notice it at first. The discussion has moved back onto Toad, a prickly topic which neither animal will concede on, and it's only when he pauses for breath that the scent of something achingly familiar whispers through his senses.
He stops cold there, unable to name it initially. There is only the sensation that everything has shifted, everything has fallen apart and come back together in almost but not quite the same formation as before. He stops, and even the bitter cold of winter does not move him.
Thoughts of the riverbank slip from him and in its place images of tunnels and dirt-swept floors fill the space where home once occupied. His lungs ache for the still, heavy air of beneath-ground in a way he cannot form into words, except for the singular thought of home.
And so he returns.
His home looks so very different from the place he remembers. It is darker than Ratty's cosy river-lit home, rougher than Badger's history-rich sett, smaller than the emerald grandeur of Toad Hall, but it is still his. He falters in the doorway for only a moment before that instinctive sense of homecoming rushes back over him and his paws reach for the dusty knickknacks that mark moments in his life before his riverside adventure.
Ratty follows behind him, stooping slightly in the entrance that had been carved out for other small tunnel-dwellers, not water rats. That will have to be amended, Mole thinks automatically, and then he hesitates. A decision stretches forth before him of two houses that both claim the title of home. It was one thing to live alongside the riverbank when everything was fresh and exciting, but somewhere during the year his quarters in Ratty's home have gone from holiday home to domestic.
Ratty doesn't push the matter either way, although Mole senses an unease from him that stems from more than just the underground air. Instead, he busies himself with building the fire and familiarising himself with the pantry contents until the homesickness that has overtaken Mole recedes to a manageable murmur. And when Ratty talks of returning again - of not leaving it so long - there is a question in his voice that leaves the outcome in Mole's paws.
Perhaps he should take the opening, Mole's mind whispers. His home - this home - is dusty and neglected; it would not be particularly remarkable if he made plans to stay a little longer to gather the place into order. He thinks upon the nature of being an underground animal - 'and a very sensible thing it is to be, too' Badger's voice echoes - and the sense of a space that is just his, but he does not find the words. Instead, something between brain and mouth - maybe instinct, or maybe in spite of instinct - the answer he gives is one that returns him to the riverside.
The seasons are only just shifting when the tale of Toad comes to a satisfying conclusion, and the celebration at Toad Hall is shared by frost and fresh growth alike. Sometime during the extravagant party, Mole finds himself beside Mrs Otter, who still watches her wayward daughter with unrelenting eyes.
"I suppose you'll be heading back home soon," she remarks. She motions to the sky that, in true English fashion, threatens rain in the oncoming hours. Mole notes the weather and remembers in a strange spat of nostalgia that the sky was an unreadable vastness to him only a year ago.
"I suppose so," he agrees. Then, because his mind is wandering and there is a no-nonsense attitude to Mrs Otter in which he finds security, he adds, "That said, I seem to have found quite a few homes this last year. I barely know where I'm coming or going anymore."
"Made quite a few homes," she corrects him. "You find a house. You make a home."
"You sound like you've got some experience on the matter."
She doesn't answer him immediately, instead focusing on her daughter as Portia skirts the edge of the party. When Portia relocates to a buffet table, she relaxes and returns her attention to Mole. "I've had a few homes. Used to live further upstream until, well, until the otter hound incident. Then we moved away from village and made a home on the Wild Wood bank until the neighbours got a little too interested in the taste of otter pups. Portia, you stay in my sight, you hear me?"
Both animals watch as the otter pup scowls but moves back into the bustle of the party.
"Honestly, that pup is gonna be the death of me," Mrs Otter mutters, but with a fondness that belies the lengths they have gone to retrieve her daughter from the Wild Wooders during the depths of winter.
"I'm not sure I would like that very much," Mole says, his mind returning to the topics of homes and houses. "It's very nice and all to get away sometimes, but there's something about having a place to come back to that's just yours."
"Maybe," she says, "but in all my years I've found that the place isn't really the thing that's important. It's the people." She looks at him fully then, with a gaze that seems to know more than she's telling, She smiles, her attention shifting to the crowds of animals, and Mole isn't sure if he imagines it or not, but he is sure her gaze lingers on a few animals in particular.
"Too many homes," she murmurs. "Barely know where you're coming or going anymore. Bah. Really," she says, "what a wonderful problem it is then, to have built a home in so many people."
Mole knows well the season of spring in his home.
He knows it by the visits of Badger as he shakes off the winter dormancy, and the chatter of Mrs Otter and Portia as they reclaim the river from its frozen sleep. It lingers in the the chaos of Toad, as the brightening days open up new adventurous opportunities and the passing fads made accessible by the oncoming season.
He knows it by the tending of paint and paddles to set their little blue boat in working order before the boating season is upon them, and the packing of the first picnics of the year. It rests in the hat that Ratty pulls down across his eyes against the low springtime sun and the icy water they wade through when the oars tangle in the new reed growth. It is found in the laughter that spirals away from them in a misty remnant of winter. Most of all, it is known by the hours spent messing about in a little boat on the river.
And the days pass.
And he is home.
"Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving."
Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky