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All The Myriad Ways

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He’s waiting by her tree again.

He always sits by her tree. Why does he always sit by her tree? The elm is her oldest and dearest friend; it gives her quick passage into the clouds and back when she needs lightning and vapor and sky beneath her feet again, and although she used to worry about the burns she leaves along its trunk, it never seems to mind.

It stands alone, apart from the other trees, and speaks rarely to anyone but her, and never tells her secrets to another living soul, and she never tells its.

It’s her tree and he’s sitting under it.

She peers from between the trees, hands resting lightly on the mossy trunk of the oak that is murmuring to stay back and away, only trouble comes of their kind.

It is an old tree—no, not simply old; it was ancient when the old trees around it were seeded—and it has been a familiar and trusted presence since before she can remember.

She ignores it all the same, because it is not her tree, and because her tree is the one being sat under by one of the village folk, and because it has happened before, and because she is tired of being forced to hide from her own place and her best friend for hours and hours at a time.

So she vaults over a root that reaches nearly to her knees, paying no heed to the rustling admonishments of the oak, and treads across the soft, thick grass of the moor toward the intruder.

He doesn’t notice her at first, busy as he is with scribbling in a strange, oblong object. He is small and whip-thin, eyes and hair dark brown, muttering softly as he scratches away. A strange, unwieldy pendant dangles around his neck, two thin pieces of black—metal?—wrapping around two roundish pieces of glass and meeting in the middle.

She doesn’t have a very good concept of ‘young’—few of the forest folk do; their lives start like a twist of the tongue, a wisp on the wind, an idea taking shape—but even to her, he looks young. A little anxious, a little angry, a little tired, as though some past hurt has worn grooves into his soul, but determined in spite of it.

Also, he is not very observant.

She is close enough to touch the charred bark of her tree before he realizes she is there, in fact, so she does. Is he bothering you? she asks it silently, and is both relieved and a little annoyed to feel its breezy laughter in return.

I think he’s bothering you more, it whispers, and static pops crossly over her skin.

At this, he finally looks up, and his eyes widen. “Who are—” he says, making as if to jump to his feet; he looks tense, nervous, excited. “Did you come from in there? Are you one of the forest folk?”

She is taken aback by his forwardness. Village folk rarely venture up here except at solstices and season festivals, where they carry out their strange rituals while speaking in hushed tones of the wild forest folk, the fae, who control the air and earth and eat dreams and bring rain or pestilence as it suits them.

They’ve always amused and intrigued and a bit repelled her, if she is honest (which she is, and bluntly so).

And now this one is here, in broad daylight, asking her questions without apparent fear or hesitation. Nerves, maybe; excitement, maybe; but not fear.

It’s… interesting.

"The clouds are where I walk," she says, "but I suppose the forest is my home, yes." She crosses her arms and lowers the angle of her head slightly, which serves not to make her look deferent but to give her gray stare the piercing quality of lightning.

His hands tighten on the rectangle, which she notices is made up of hundreds of sheets, thinner than bark, held together by a coarse leather cover. “My… my dad went in there,” he says, face pale. “Years ago. At least, I think he did. We’ve never found him, but I…”

He stops, stares at a large stone peeking through the grass near his foot. It takes a moment for him to continue. “Anyway. I thought maybe one of you had seen him.” He chuckles, and it’s a strained, fragile sound. “He was obsessed with this place.”

She is silent for a moment. Fathers are another concept she is not entirely clear on, but she can tell that whoever this person was, his disappearance has left scars on this boy that have only grown sour with time.

"I haven’t seen him," she says. "I’m sorry."

The look on the boy’s face—a sudden, bitter crease in his features, a disappointment that he has obviously been waiting and waiting for and has maybe gone through many times already—compels her to add, lamely, “But it’s a big forest.”

He looks up at her.

"Maybe we can find him," she says, and hears her heartbeat in her throat and how the the tree-voices will rise in shock, what is she doing, but she doesn’t care. All she can think of is what it would be like if one day she woke up and the elm tree was gone, and if she knew so in her bones but not in her head, and how it would tear her straight down the middle, not to know.

He looks wary, but considering. “Is it safe?”

"Probably not; but I’ll do what I can, if it’s so important to you."

He scrambles to his feet, and there is relief and gratitude and eagerness on his face. “It is,” he says hastily. “I have to get some things from the village, but I’ll be back this time tomorrow.” He pauses uncertainly. “Will you be here?”

She stares at him for a long moment. “Yes.”

That’s apparently all he needs to hear. He grabs up his things and takes off over the moor, skinny limbs almost tangling together, and shouts a thank-you over his shoulder as he runs for the village.

She watches him go, one hand on the bark of the elm tree.

That was well-met, the tree tells her; and, I promise not to tell.

The rest of the day is passed flittering through the clouds, feeling them tense and darken around her to match her—apprehensive? not quite—mood. When it’s time to meet, she darts impatiently down the familiar pathway to the ground, riding the lightning.

He’s waiting by her tree again.

And that’s all right, she realizes, because she’s going to help him get back his own.