The woods were utterly still, muffled by the blanket of white that covered barren treetops, hushed by the small flakes that fluttered to the ground in bursts and flurries. Everything was obscured by the frozen droplets; the tiny flakes filled the air so completely that even the grey of the sky was shrouded by the myriad specks of snow. Nothing dared to venture into this land of chill silence, nothing dared to confront the drifts of powdery white that had slowly built beneath the trees. Winter's touch had reached the Cedar Woods at last in full, and the icy grasp was harsh and biting.
Not even the path that wound its way between the trees, so worn and used to frequent travelers, had escaped the snow's onslaught; its usual indentation was filled with the milky powder, and more narrow bends were completely lost beneath the rising sea of white. So too spread with snow was the tree that the little path eventually found its way to, and the building cradled in the hollowed trunk.
From inside the walls of the sturdy old tree a fire burned, fighting to stave off the worst of the bitter chill and to halt the advance of the cold upon those that took shelter within. The smoky light it provided flickered about the room, playing across the ceiling and the blankets heaped near the fireplace, reflecting in the eyes of the boy that kneeled by its side. The eyes were somber, their customary sparkle dimmed by the hush of the snow and the unusual burden of worry; they didn't stray for long from the pale face of the boy that lay wrapped in the threadbare blankets nearby. For long moments the silence continued, uninterrupted but for the crackling of the smoky blaze, until at last a fevered moan forced its way from the lips of the child who shifted restlessly, semi-conscious.
Concern flared in the wide blue eyes of his attendant, and the younger boy leaned closer, whispering words of reassurance to his brother. "Shhh, Teepo... It's alright, you're gonna be okay..." His gentle voice was strange in the quiet of the room, breaking words into the rhythmic crackling of the flame, but he continued with the comforting whispers nonetheless. "Rei must've found something, otherwise he'd have been back already... You'll be fine, I promise..."
A pair of dusky eyes fluttered open, slightly unfocused, and settled on the small boy with wild blue hair. Pale lips worked soundlessly for a moment, and the younger child was forced to lean closer to make out the words. "R... Ryu...... Please... d... don't..."
"Don't?" The little boy blinked. "Don't what? It's true- Rei'll make sure you get better... He said he would, and I know he will...!" He smiled his brightest, most encouraging smile, hoping that some of the feeling would be transferred to his brother.
"......please..." The word was barely a whisper, lost completely as a breathless, wheezing cough racked the boy's body. His eyes squeezed shut, and the pale features contorted with pain, hands grasping convulsively at the blankets below him.
The other boy's eyes went wide with worry, and he carefully removed one clenching hand from the blankets, taking it protectively in his own. "Calm down, Teepo, shhh... Don't try to talk, just relax... Rei'll be back soon, and then everything'll be better..."
The sincerity in his tone was rewarded when the older boy bit back the next fit of coughing with a shudder, allowing his eyes to open slowly once more.
Ryu beamed, noting that the sanguine gaze was more focused this time, and took it as a good sign. "He'll have stuff from town-- medicine maybe, even, and then you'll get better and we can make snowmen or something if you want... And before you know it, it'll be spring and there'll be plenty of food and we won't have to stay inside all the time and..."
A weak smile traced Teepo's lips for a moment as his fevered mind caught snatches of the younger boy's enthusiastic promises. Try as he might, though, the words' meanings seemed vaguely disjointed, unreachable to him in his current state, and soon the effort to keep his eyes open became too much. The lids fell, too heavy to bother keeping open, and it wasn't long before the cheerful chatter and the glow of the fire faded to black as unconsciousness set in.
The faint crackle of the fire was mesmerizing, quiet and soothing to the worries of the small blue-haired boy. It was steady, almost rhythmic, and his azure eyes were locked on the flames as they danced and flickered before him. So absorbed was he in the blaze that he almost missed the quiet creak as the door was pushed open, the careful footsteps that padded on the floorboards, the firmer 'click' as the door was pushed closed, fighting a drift of white to return to its place.
Ryu blinked once, banishing the sting brought on by the smoke-filled room, and turned to regard the new arrival with wide blue eyes. It took him a moment to adjust properly after the brightness of the fire, but once he had, his eyes lit up with joy. "Rei!"
The boy in the doorway was tall, his lanky frame wrapped with a blanket for protection from the harsh weather outside. Even this was covered with a light layer of frost, though, and soaked through almost completely; the weather outside was bitter already, and it continued to worsen. The makeshift cloak was discarded quickly, left on the floor to dry with the heat of the fire, and Rei moved quickly to kneel by the fire, and by his brothers.
Aqua eyes fell to Teepo's pale face. "How is he?" The voice was quiet, barely a whisper, fearing to wake the boy that lay nestled among the blankets.
"He's real bad, Rei..." The small boy reached out unconsciously to smooth a strand of violet hair from Teepo's forehead. Then, expectantly, wide eyes rose to search the Woren's face. "Did you get any medicine?"
The older boy looked away uncomfortably. "I... Ryu, you know this winter's been tough on everyone, don't you?" The Woren desperately didn't want to break news of the failure to his little brother.
Ryu nodded his head uncertainly, the hope in his bright eyes fading a little as he recognized his brother's tone.
"Everyone was looking out for me." It was almost a plea, offered as a means of excusing the next statement. "I couldn't get anything... Not medicine, not food... And the lady who runs the herb shop has it boarded up-there's no way I can get in."
The smaller boy's eyes were downcast, and his usually optimistic thoughts were forced into grimmer considerations. "But... He'll..." Ryu swallowed. "Teepo'll... Be alright, won't he...?" The child sounded unsure for the first time, uncertain of the fate of his brother. "He'll get better even without the medicine, right?" Wide, innocent blue eyes found their way to Rei's face.
The Woren boy shifted nervously. "Yeah... Yeah, of course he will... C'mon, Ryu... You know Teepo. Come spring he'll be marching into town like none of this ever happened at all...!"
Ryu's response was in the form of a bright, though hesitant, grin, and Rei took reassurance in it that his response had been the right one. Reclining slightly, he stretched in an effort to work the lingering chill from his limbs. Then he regarded the child that kept blue eyes trained on him still, watchful and trusting. With something of a start, he realized that the younger boy expected him to say something more.
"Well..." he ventured. "I think you ought to get some sleep."
The small boy's eyes narrowed slightly in disapproval and his lips parted to voice dissent.
The Woren boy continued hurriedly before he could, though. "I'll stay awake," Rei promised. "I'll be right here, and if Teepo wakes up, I'll take care of him."
Ryu frowned slightly, his childish face forming a pout. "But what if he needs to talk to me or something?"
"Then it can wait till morning." He ran a fond hand through Ryu's mess of azure hair. "I know you're worried, but you're gonna make yourself sick if you don't ever get to bed."
The boy regarded him thoughtfully, then nodded slowly. "You... promise you'll wake me up if he changes at all?"
Rei smiled assent. "Alright... But only if you go to sleep now."
Immediately reassured, the child flopped down beside his brother. In wasn't long before the heat of the fire and the soft embrace of the blankets stole him into unconsciousness, leaving the eldest of the three to contemplate alone a solution to a seemingly impossible situation.
The cry for help that tried to pass his parched lips sounded more like a whimper than anything else, muted and terrified. Nightmare images danced before his sleep-closed eyes, visions of a woman yet nameless and a place that loomed foreboding in the future.
"Please..." his voice was so soft that even in the dream air it didn't carry far. "Please... Don't make me stay here..."
"Shhh...... You'll be safe here... And everyone will be safe from you..." The voice was soothing but firm, absolutely unwavering in its decision.
"But... I don't want to be here..." Desperate red eyes sought the source of the voice, failed to find it. "Please... Please, I don't understand." It was a plea, almost frantic in its intensity.
The voice was serene when it replied. "You will... Soon, you will."
"But I have to know...!" His tone was pained, desperate, and he whirled quickly to try and catch a glimpse of the woman that he had seen before only in shadowed impressions. All he could perceive was emptiness, though, dark and complete... And then the soft words whispered in his ear: "You will know what I say you can, Teepo." The speaker was so close that he felt the warm whisper of air as the words left her mouth. "Only what I say you can."
Her closeness caused a nameless terror to blossom in the chest of the child, a horror so obscure that he couldn't bring himself to look at her face as he stuttered the question. "W-why?"
"Because, Teepo..." It was a murmur, gentle but adamant. "You are mine..."
Rei was jolted abruptly from his reverie as a hoarse scream pierced the silence of the tree house, and his startled eyes quickly found their way to its source. The small boy from whom it came sat propped into a sitting position with one arm, strands of long violet hair plastered to his forehead with sweat. His eyes, huge with fright, stared about the room dazedly, as though unable to comprehend the surroundings. His breathing came in ragged, unsteady gasps, and spots of color flushed the boy's pale face.
Alarm flared in the Woren's mind, and he moved quickly to Teepo's side, mindful though that his other little brother was nearby, and still sleeping despite the startling cry. He watched with concern as the boy's eyes flickered closed, and as he swayed slightly, still gasping for air. Then Rei shot out one clawed hand, almost too late to catch the boy as he moaned softly and fell back toward the blankets.
"Teepo...?" The Woren's voice was soft with worry as he moved his other arm to support the frail body. "You alright...?" No response greeted his question, save the soft, labored breathing of the child. "C'mon, Teeps... Don't do this... You're gonna be alright, you're gonna get better..." His voice was strained, the words more to convince himself than the one to whom he spoke.
The boy's eyes fluttered open at the sound, though, and Rei was shocked to see their sanguine depths glazed and distant. For a long moment, the child regarded his brother without any shred of recognition, and then the feverish gaze was cut off as ruby eyes closed and his face contorted in pain. A whimper forced its way past parched lips, transforming halfway into an agonized moan.
Helpless to ease Teepo's pain, the Woren could only watch with worried eyes and an increasingly grim outlook until eventually, reluctantly, he lowered the boy back to the blankets. His mind was a confusion of half-formed suggestions and desperate plans, all directed toward the well-being of his little brother... and all of which had been discarded due to some flaw. Rei forced himself to reconsider each, though, as the child fell once more into a fit of coughing that racked his entire body and caused him to wince in pain. Again and again he eliminated every option, coming each time to the simple conclusion he'd been aware of all along: Teepo needed help. Badly.
The Woren shook his head, then narrowed aqua eyes in determination. "Ryu..." he said softly, shaking the little blue-haired boy. "Ryu, wake up..."
Bleary-eyed with sleep and still half dozing, the child regarded him with mild surprise. "...huh?"
"C'mon, wake up... We're going." Rei's tone, quiet and somber, was all that the boy needed to raise him from the makeshift bed.
"Going?" The child's blue eyes clearly showed the confusion he felt, but he reached for a blanket nonetheless, mimicking the action that his older brother had taken many times before to prepare from venturing into the snow.
The Woren knelt to wrap a blanket about his shoulders as a cloak, then lifted Teepo, still bundled in another. "To get help." Rei paused, hesitating in his decision to make the rest of his worries know. He took an uncertain breath. "Ryu, Teepo's really sick..." He glanced down, unable momentarily to look his brother in the eyes. "I'm hoping maybe we can..."
But when the Woren looked up, into the eyes of the little blue-haired boy, there was only understanding. "I know..." His voice quavered slightly. "I know... But do you think they'll...?"
Rei's smile was more than a little uncertain. "I dunno..." His gaze settled on the child in his arms, and when he looked up again, the concern he felt showed clearly in his eyes. "But I know that staying here's not doing him any good."
Endless seas of white churned violently in the night, carried on the bitter sweep of the winter wind. Swirling flakes, combined with the darkness that night imposed, made sight nearly impossible in the storm; massive trees barely made themselves seen, looming as dark shapes in the midst of the driving snow.
For the Woren boy that struggled through the thick banks already coating the ground, the obscurity of the night was almost too much in addition to the harsh, biting cold. He staggered for a moment, his advance slowed by a sudden gust of wind and the weight of the child he carried. Unprotected by the make-shift cloak, the furred tips of his ears and the area around his jaw line had begun to gather a light coating of frost. His feet were already numb with the exposure, leaving his steps to grow weak and making travel in the heavy drifts nearly impossible. He was increasingly aware too of the fact that the little blue-haired boy clutching his pant leg and walking along behind him must be facing more trouble still wading through the endless blanket of snow, but Ryu never spoke a word of complaint.
And then, through the flurries of white and the barely perceptible shapes of the trees, Rei glimpsed a light, faint but warm. Heartened even in his near-exhausted state, he pushed toward it, ignoring his body's protests as his steps quickened in response to the sighted goal. His renewed efforts brought him closer to the beacon, and for the first time, he could make out the shape of a log cabin nestled between the trees; drawing near, he was able to discern that the welcoming light shone pleasantly from within the windows.
A few short steps brought him to stand on the doorstep littered with snow, and he carefully shifted the small violet-haired boy he carried to the other arm. The sound of his knuckles on the door was almost lost in the howl of the wind, though it must have carried well enough inside the little cabin; the door swung open slowly to reveal a barrel-chested man that regarded them with unreadable dark eyes.
Rei looked away, wetting his lips with a nervous flick of the tongue; he thought he had seen disapproval in the big man's gaze and quietly hoped it was only his imagination. "Please..." he began, but the harshness of the weather had dried his throat, and it came out as a hoarse croak.. He swallowed and tried again, still not meeting Bunyan's stern eyes. "Please..." His gaze found their way to Teepo's pale face, and the Woren boy suddenly became aware of a persistent stinging in his eyes. "He's... He's real sick........."
Finally Rei gathered the courage to glance at the big man in the doorway, unconsciously wiping at his eyes with one cloth-wrapped hand. The Woren tried unsuccessfully to read Bunyan's expression for several long seconds, worry nearly causing his breath to stop altogether. At last the stern-faced man stepped aside, though, his face touched by a surprisingly kind smile, and pushed the door farther open.
Words swam by, disconnected and incomprehensible, nearly lost in the fog that clouded his mind. Even the dream images had fled, leaving only occasional snatches of broken reality, threaded together by his fevered brain.
"...okay.........?" Worry, painfully evident. The tone familiar, but not the emotion, not to that extent. Rei's voice. Was something wrong?
"...fine......but.........almost wasn't.........glad...came.........could......died" Calm, but concerned as well. A deep voice; strong, stern, unwavering. Vaguely familiar... almost like... Bunyan's?
"...don't know............thank you." Rei again, his words soft and subdued. His tone grateful.
"...don't......" Bunyan; it had to be. His voice was surprisingly gentle though, without the usual disapproval it contained.
There were more words, but they were even less coherent than the few snatches he'd managed to hear before. And soon, silence joined the blackness that clouded his vision as even this semblance of consciousness became too much effort, and he slipped into a deep sleep once more.
Teepo woke slowly, his first awareness of soft breathing just beside him. It was calm and even, soothing to him, and familiar, and for several seconds the boy lay still and simply listened without questioning his surroundings or even opening his eyes.
But then the realizations came to him: he lay on something soft, infinitely more comfortable than blankets spread across a hard floor, and the air was no longer filled with the smoke that came by burning soaked wood... and, miraculously, he seemed to feel better. Not entirely better, but his head no longer throbbed with pain, and he could take a full breath of air without succumbing to a fit of coughing. The boy cautiously slit open a single sanguine eye and regarded his surroundings, attempting to determine what had caused the changes.
The first thing he noted was that the room he found himself in was definitely not a part of the tree house he shared with his brothers. Although sparse furniture lined the walls of the log cabin, it was well-made and well-kept, and the bed Teepo lay in was near the fire: an impossibility in the tree house due to both beds' inability to fit down the stairs.
Before he could place his surroundings, however, he found the source of the breathing; slouched in a chair beside him, Rei was sound asleep, looking as though nothing in all the world could wake him. The position appeared extremely uncomfortable, and a slight smile touched Teepo's face as he realized that it didn't appear to faze the Woren boy in the least. The younger boy was just about to begin the significant task of waking Rei when he heard a voice from the doorway.
"Teepo?!" Ryu sounded surprised and pleased all at the same time, and by the time the violet-haired boy had looked up, his little brother was already halfway across the room. Before he could say a word, Ryu had vaulted over the sleeping Woren's tail and landed on the bed, locking the older boy in a tight embrace. "Teepo, you're alright! I was so worried, I thought you wouldn't ever get better-and then Rei brought you here and Bunyan got you some medicine and..."
"Bunyan...?" The confusion in the boy's sanguine eyes was plain as he pulled away from Ryu a bit to regard him curiously.
The child nodded enthusiastically, mussing his erratic blue hair even further. "Yeah-you were real sick and there wasn't any medicine and so Rei thought that if we could get you here maybe Bunyan would have some... and he did!" He beamed, azure eyes shining with their usual optimism once more. "I knew everything would work out..." It was spoken with confidence, but then he paused a moment, his voice growing softer. "But for awhile..." he admitted, "I was kinda scared. I thought you might..." Ryu looked away, young brow furrowing with remembrance of the worry. "Might..."
Teepo shook his head, allowing a grin to creep onto his face as he lifted his brother's chin. He felt more like himself than he had in a long time. "Hey... The last thing you need to worry about is me." His grin widened, as though to emphasize the point. "Don't I always pull through?"
Ryu was quick to agree, his own smile soon returning as they decided to wake the Woren who still slept, oblivious, nearby. So busy were they at their task that neither noticed the big man that stood in the doorway, watching with no small amount of wonder, and smiling quietly.
Already the snows had begun to subside as winter drew into it's final days; the banks that had seemed great and foreboding before now glistened under the light of the sun, endless piles of perfect white in the clearing surrounding the tree house. The path was discernible, now, and quite usable in parts where the drifts had been flattened by passage... And although it was cold, the sun's presence made certain that it was not an unbearable cold, nor an unpleasant one.
Rei stood in the doorway of the great hollowed tree, reclining slightly against the frame, tail twitching lazily from side to side. His expression was amused, lips touched by a grin, as he regarded his younger brothers; what had started as a snowball fight had quickly degenerated until the only goal was getting as much of the white stuff on the other, as quickly as possible. He couldn't help but snicker as Teepo slipped and went down, sending powder flying up around him and letting out a startled shriek... but the expression on his face as he stood, bits of white sliding down his now-drenched hair, was too much. The Woren laughed outright and Ryu dissolved into a fit of giggles, trying to gasp out an apology but failing miserably.
The oldest of the three suddenly ceased his laughter, however, when a tightly-packed snowball connected with his chin, flying apart and soaking most of his shirt. His gaze rose quickly, finding Teepo's grin the answer to his unspoken question. "Hey!" called the soaked little violet-haired boy. "You don't get to laugh until you can say you did it too!" Which was, of course, all the invitation Rei needed.
The Woren's quick footsteps brought him out the door, down the path, and past two half-finished snowmen before he joined his brothers, bending along the way to scoop up ammunition of his own. And by the time he reached them, a full-out snow fight was, of course, inevitable.