Characters: Aeris/Sephiroth, OCs (Ella, Ari, Rei),
Summary: When little girls wander into the woods without a fairy godmother, they have to rely on their own magic when dealing with witches, wolves or worse.
The grey days were the best. The threat of rain drove most people indoors. Summer's golden glow was a memory and winter stalked like a wolf through dying grass. People sought shelter in bleak November, preferring warmth and comfort to the distant companionship of strangers. The parks grew empty of people, and the geese, among other winged things, had full rein of the place.
"Daddy, what are the birds doing?"
Sephiroth glanced down at Ella, seeing only the top of her bright head from his height. "Taking a break from flying south, I imagine."
"How far do they have to go?"
"Um…" Sephiroth was distracted by the sight of a green rocket ship blanket fluttering out of the stroller he was pushing. SOLDIER-speed kicked in as he swooped, rescuing it in midair from disastrous collision with the wet path below. "Ari, don't do that," he said, tucking the blanket back in around the boy.
Ari giggled and kicked the blanket off again. It was Aeris who caught it this time while Sephiroth grumbled. "Ari," she said, folding the blanket neatly around the boy. "It's not a game. Rei's not kicking his blanket off."
Sephiroth frowned. "I thought we agreed we weren't pitting them against each other."
Aeris straightened with startled eyes. "Does that count?"
"I'm not sure," Sephiroth said, frowning himself now. Ari responded by kicking the blanket out of the stroller a third time. Sephiroth lunged, hair straying out of the low ponytail he had tied because of the wind. "I guess not, since it clearly didn't work."
He circled around the twin stroller and got down on eye level with his grinning son. "Look, you can't keep kicking this out. If it touches the ground it'll get earthworms all over it. They crawl out when it's raining, you know. And then you'll have worms all over you."
Ari's little grinning face crumpled and Sephiroth felt the sudden chest ache of impending doom. "Oh no, don't, don't- oh, hell."
"Well, now you've done it," Aeris said as Ari wailed. She took charge of the stroller and directed it to a nearby park bench. "Come on, Ari, you won't get worms all over you, I promise."
Sephiroth slumped down on the bench, gripping his forehead. "You won't get worms all over you," he said. "I promise I'll flick them off before I put the blanket back on." Ari shrieked loud enough that the nearby geese began to move away.
"Seph." Aeris had a tone she used for the children and one she used for Sephiroth that was not much different. Sephiroth wisely kept his peace, settling for rolling the stroller back and forth in an attempt to soothe the wailing boy.
Ella made her way over to the bench, fidgeting back and forth. "Why are you crying?" she asked. Ari was too young to answer. "Rei's not crying." It was true. Buckled in beside Ari, with a dinosaur blanket tucked around him, Rei stared at his brother as if the other boy had lost his mind.
"He's just upset about creepy crawlies," Aeris said, taking the boy out of the stroller. "There, there," she said, pulling him onto her lap. "Nothing's going to crawl on you, sweetie." Ari clung to his mother, burying his face in her neck.
Sephiroth scooped Rei up so the other twin would not feel left out. "I don't know what I'd do without you, woman."
"I don't know either." They sat together, bouncing their twins and examining blankets for creepy-crawlies while the sky darkened half a shade and the geese moved further up into the grass.
Ella looked further down the path to the inviting turn they had not reached. "Can I walk down that way?"
"No, Ella," Aeris said. "Not without us."
Ella looked behind the bench, where a gaggle of geese were settling in for the night, delaying their long journey for one more day. "Can I go pet the geese?"
"No, Ella," Sephiroth said. "Geese are mean, and those are wild. No telling what they're carrying."
Ella clung to the back of the bench, swinging herself side to side by the force of her own weight. Her head barely came up to the top bar. Walks were always having to stop for something the twins did. Usually Ari. Ella watched the geese go, milling around among shrubbery, wings folded tight.
Across the pathway there were some trees. Thin, sad things mostly, planted not by nature but design, too regularly spaced, with bark too smooth for grip, branches too high for climbing. The majority were very young but there were remnants of older growth here and there. Even bared of most leaves, they cast an inviting net of shadows. "Can I go in there?" Ella pointed.
"Ella," her mother began.
"Let her go," Sephiroth said. There was a tight knot of pent-up frustration in the outskirts of his mind. "It's not some deep, dark scary forest. I can see straight through to the other side."
"Seph." It was a question this time more than a warning.
"It'll be okay for a little bit, I think," Sephiroth said, "as long as she doesn't go too far."
Aeris's lips curved downwards, not disapproving, no, not entirely. "If you're sure."
"I can hear her," Sephiroth said, and Rei, balanced on his father's lap, clapped his hands in agreement. "And she can call for help any number of ways." Ella nodded, practicing her best innocent look. It was ruined a bit by the usual associations with slit-pupiled eyes.
"Now don't go too far," Aeris warned.
"And if you find any dragons, duck, drop and slay them," Sephiroth said.
"Okay," Ella called. She took off running and didn't stop until she was fully under shadow of branches overhead.
The world was so different when one was alone. A little distance, a little space, a little less noise, and the bits of song that drifted between earth and sky would spring to life. Ella slipped between the trees and followed the song. The woods were not very thick. They were sparse and tamed, nothing like the old growth that had stood there in centuries past. But Ella barely came up to her father's hip so even these skinny trees would serve.
Infant memory and a childhood full of her mother's stories about the days when it was always summer filled the quiet emptiness around her. Her father's presence lingered in its particular corner of her mind, their constant awareness of each other like a body aware of the lie of its own limbs. Her brothers now had their own space too.
Ella shoved them aside, choosing to forget them for a moment to recall things closer at hand. Young as she was, Ella was learning to bring memory sight to the fore the way her mother often said she had done when she was young, in the old dead city where the trees were concrete pillars and the canopy was steel. It came easier where things lived and grew. The Planet graced the trace of her Cetran blood, sharing with her the memory of the world in the time of her ancestors. The vision of ancient woods, thick and green and wildly populated, flared overhead and just as quickly faded back to a wet, quiet reality.
Ella huffed and folded her arms. Her visions did not last long. The price of growing older, her mother said. Ella headed further into the woods. What vision and Lifestream could not supply, imagination would. The place was just right for fairytales. Not large enough to hide a dragon, even a baby one, but green enough for pixies and sprites.
Ella slipped around a tree, toying with being out of her father's direct line of sight. This trunk was big enough to hide her completely, from eyes anyway. By luck or someone's unimaginative design, there was another tree right in front of her, taking its place in the grid that was meant to simulate a forest. Ella stood with her back against smooth bark, eyes closed, with her face upturned to the filtered sun.
Then a stranger crossed her path. Ella knew it by the shift in the light across her closed eyes. Someone had slipped around a tree to stand right in front of her and would not move away. Ella sighed heavily, blowing her bangs out of her eyes, and deigned to see what the person could possibly want.
He was tall. She had to tilt her head all the way back to look at him. He wore a long coat in a dull tan, like many people did. He had a hat on his head that cast a shadow on his eyes, and a thick red scarf around the rest of him, hiding almost all the rest of his face. All Ella could really see was a nose, lips and wisps of hair that matched the weather. Ordinary. Indistinguishable in a crowd. She leaned back against her tree and closed her eyes again.
"Hello, little girl," the stranger said.
Ella's mouth twisted in annoyance. She turned away, hiding her face against the tree. "I'm not supposed to talk to strangers."
"Oh," the stranger said. "That's… that's a good thing, I suppose." He had a deep voice, but nothing like her dad's, nothing that carried the deep rumble of something long buried beneath the ground. A voice was a voice though, and Ella could tell how he moved by the way it carried in the air. She tracked his movements by the sound of shifting boots in damp earth, by the shadows cast through slivered light, by the very rhythm of breathing.
She raised no alarm. Not yet. She took another glance at the man to mark his face in her memory. "You have very bright eyes."
The stranger seemed taken aback. "I… yes, thank you. They're very good for seeing with." Ella said nothing and turned away again.
"If you're not supposed to talk to strangers, I guess you're not supposed to take things from them either," the man said, sighing. Ella dared to look up at him again, just long enough to catch an odd little smile. She shook her head at him. "That's very sensible," he said. "Can't fault it at all." Ella turned away again and listened the way her father had taught her. There was a sound of fabric meeting bark, of dirt giving way beneath sinking heels as the stranger leaned back against his tree.
"It's a shame," he said, filling the space when she would not. "I brought you something."
Ella shook her head again, wrapping one arm around the tree in half a hug. "I have plenty of candy at home. I don't need candy from strangers."
"But it's not candy," the stranger said. Fabric rustled again as he drew something out of his coat. Ella hazarded a glance and turned away again just as quickly.
"What kind of weird thing is that?"
The stranger held it out towards her. "It's an apple."
"Well, technically it's violet," the stranger said.
"Shade of blue."
"Gaia, you are your father's daughter, aren't you?" the stranger said. "Don't you want it?"
"I'm not eating any blue apple." Ella whirled her way around the tree trunk and popped back up on the other side. "It's probably poison."
The stranger looked stricken, cradling the affronted fruit close to his chest. "It is not."
Ella frowned up at the man and shook her head, hiding her face with her hair. "That's what wicked witches say."
The stranger gasped. "I am not a witch," he declared. "Not a wicked one, at any rate." He stared down at the dusky apple he held, cupping it in both hands like a jewel. "Tell you what, I can cut it in half and we can each have a piece. That way you'll know it wasn't poison."
Ella shook her head and turned away again. "Wicked witch did that too."
"Do you believe everything you hear in fairytales?" The stranger sighed then and after giving it some thought, he put his blue apple away. "Well, you are at that age, and I suppose it's for the best. Taking things from strangers isn't a good idea. Your mother and father are teaching you well."
"Mmhmm." Ella nodded. "I better go."
"It is getting late," the stranger said, looking up at the sky. Even with grey skies and the net of bare branches above, there was a change in the quality of light coming through the clouds. "You won't get in trouble for speaking to a stranger, I hope."
Ella turned away from the tree and looked up at him properly, letting him see her face clearly for the first time, from the slit-pupiled green eyes that people called eerie, to the doll-like cupid's bow mouth that despite the words ringing clearly in the stranger's mind, never moved. "I didn't speak."
The stranger took his apple and ran.
Ella skipped her way back through the woods to her family. Her mother was just getting the twins settled in their stroller again, blankets tucked in neatly, knitted caps firmly on their heads. "Oh good," Aeris said. "You're back."
Sephiroth reached out and smoothed Ella's bangs. "Did you have a good walk?"
"Mmhmm." She planted both hands on the armrest of the park bench and kicked up her heels. She would be ready to jump up walls and off rooftops soon enough, Sephiroth mused.
"Did you find any elves in there?" he asked.
"Nope." Ella shook her head. "I met the Big Bad Wolf."
Aeris laughed and Sephiroth smiled. "Did you, now?" he asked, rising to go.
"Yep," Ella said. "Sent him packing."
Sephiroth laughed and took her hand. "That's my girl."