a/n: For the lovely, wonderful, generous, and patient AccioBourbon. I hope this is what you were looking for, hon.
Many thanks to HMonster and LightStarDusting for the short notice beta work, and excellent, excellent feedback.
I'm calling this a pre-Twilight AU. It's vaguely canon-ish. I'm taking a few liberties, both with Emmett and mythology.
1934. Emmett is nineteen.
Emmett rocked back on his heels. He'd come into town to visit his sister, her husband and their boys, and during his visit had decided to come see the new road that was cutting through the mountains and approaching the city. The highway system-which Emmett had grown up hearing his Pa alternately praise as visionary and condemn as a waste of federal money-had finally reached their part of Tennessee. US-441 was in Sevierville, and it was Emmett's understanding that eventually you'd be able to drive from North Carolina to Florida and never leave the road. He had an itchy desire to take the family car and test that theory out.
He wouldn't be able to, he knew; his family needed the money he earned in the lumber yard and the meat he provided from hunting, but he had to admit, he was tempted. The farthest away from home he'd been was Knoxville, and though the city wasn't what he'd call close, it wasn't far, either.
Emmett was trapped in the Smokies, and he was half glad to be woven so tightly in with his family and half stifled. He wanted to explore and see new places. He'd heard from others how the Rockies dwarfed the mountains of the Appalachians, how the valleys and canyons of eastern Tennessee didn't compare to the Grand Canyon out west, how the sheer amount of water thundering into the Niagara Gorge could make your mind boggle. All that information was second-hand, though, picked from visitors to his small town and from the books his little sister Maggie read so hungrily.
He had a sinking feeling that he'd never see these things for himself.
"Humans," a familiar voice said from near his left shoulder.
His friend's voice was a welcome respite from his internal musings. He'd been well on his way to sulking. "You're surrounded," Emmett replied. It was an old joke, and the literal truth.
The tall dryad sighed. "And outnumbered. You make our long lives miserable the more you breed." He gestured to the roadway in front of them. "And the more clever you get. Many of my friends were cut down to make way for that monstrosity."
Emmett paused. His friend sounded even more tired than usual. Never one who was full of energy, today Ataya looked as though he was only standing there through strength of will; the lines of his face were etched deep, his shoulders slumped so that Emmett found himself looking for the great weight that pushed them down. His long, bark-brown hair, too long to be fashionable, was pulled back by a strip of leather, as ever, but it seemed lank and listless.
His enthusiasm for the new highway disappeared as he realized what a toll the road's construction had taken on his friend. "I'm sorry you lost so many," he said. He meant it, too, but he realized how thin an offering of condolence that was. How many thousands of trees had been cut down? How many of them had been home to tree nymphs?
Which of his friends had been sacrificed so that he would have an easier time leaving home?
"The box elder you called Eddie," Ataya said.
Emmett looked over. "What? What about him?"
"You wanted to know which of your friends lost their lives to make that road." The dryad nodded his head toward the paved black path that stretched out of town into the surrounding area. "And Dosdu."
Emmett pushed out a breath. Dodsu had been the only other tree spirit, aside from Ataya, who'd actually liked him and accepted him as he was, human and all. She'd been the epitome of what he thought a dryad should be, based on the old Greek myths. He closed his eyes and said a quiet prayer for the old box elder and younger white ash.
"There were others," the oak spirit said, his resonating voice sad. "But you did not know them. Thousands of trees were cut down, and twenty or so of my kin."
There was nothing Emmett could say. Death was part of life. Scarlet fever, TB, childbirth, accidents...Ma and her friends were forever talking about who'd died recently. The usual platitudes had never set well for him, always feeling empty, and the magnitude of what his friend had lost was such that they were all, everyone, grossly inadequate.
He leaned into Ataya, and put his shoulder to the dryad's, offering silent support. He knew it was the right thing to do when he felt his friend lean into him in return.
It was the first time he could remember being there for Ataya, rather than having Ataya be there for him.
1927. Emmett is twelve.
"You can't be a dryad." Emmett glared up at Ataya, hoping his face expressed the betrayal he felt at being lied to by this man, someone who he'd admired since he was little.
"Can't I be?" Ataya's voice was smooth and calm, the rich bass vibrating the air around them in the small forest clearing.
"I been reading. Dryads are girls. Nymphs. You're no girl. So you ain't a dryad."
"I am not human, and my life and my health are closely tied to the life and health of my oak. The acorn sprouted on the day I was born. My sex aside, do I not sound like a dryad?"
Emmett frowned. "Yeah. But in the myths-I went to the library to look you up-in the myths, the-" and here he struggled with the unfamiliar words "dryades were a type of nymphai. An' the nymphai are little goddess spirits or something. Girls."
Ataya crouched down so that he did not tower over Emmett. "Why do you think, my young friend, that the myths are right? Am I not here, in front of you, male and the spirit of a mighty oak?"
Ataya had never shown Emmett which tree was his, but there was a huge white oak-the biggest Emmett'd seen yet-farther up the mountain than he was allowed to go (according to his mother; he regularly explored farther than she was comfortable). It was a giant thing, with a trunk he couldn't hope to circle with his own arms and a canopy that made a man just stop and stare. He hoped the lumberjacks never found it, because he knew if they did, it was as good as felled.
He had no proof, but Emmett was certain that giant old white oak was Ataya's, sprouted when he was born. And if the tree's size really did show how old it was, as Ataya and the others had told him, his friend was very, very old. Older than the United States. Maybe even older than the first colonists from England-which made him positively ancient.
Emmett gave Ataya a hard look. "I read it in the library. 'Course its true. Them library books don't lie." Along with the lessons on reading when he was a kid from the schoolmarm, Miss Jan, she'd taught the sanctity of books and their library homes. Books were special, and unless they were cheap pulp fiction that he wasn't allowed to read, they didn't lie.
Ataya's eyes crinkled, the crows feet becoming more pronounced, and Emmett briefly wondered if he was trying not to laugh. He pushed the idea aside, though, because Ataya never laughed at him, at the questions he asked, or the beliefs he held. It was one of the reasons he liked the dryad. Tree-spirit. Whatever he was called.
"Have you thought," Ataya asked, "that maybe those who told, and then wrote down, the stories of the Greek spirits and gods did not know everything? They perhaps did not lie, but had not all the information?"
It was what Miss Jan would have called a 'reasonable explanation.' Emmett frowned and thought about his friend's question. "Maybe." The doubt in his voice was thick, but he couldn't dismiss Ataya's idea.
"So there were boy, uh, nymphai, and just no one wrote it down?" Miss Jan's lessons had also included much praise for the Greeks and Romans, and he found the idea of such smart people missing something like that tough to swallow, but it was worth asking.
Ataya smiled, and it was that slow gentle smile that warmed Emmett's insides, the one that felt like basking in the warmth of a small sun. It was the next best thing after praise from his Pa. "I am not old enough to have lived through those ancient times," he said quietly. "Nor am I able to travel that far away from my tree. I cannot say what is true along the Mediterranean. Perhaps there, the spirits of trees are only female. Mayhaps the males took a different form, and they were not recognized for what they were. I do not know. I know only that I am who and what I am."
Emmett paused to think, bringing his hand up to tug on his curling hair and wrinkling his nose as he thought. Things could be different here. Greece is a long way away. "Maybe dryads here ain't the same as the dryads in Greece."
"It is often the case, I have learned, that it is more likely for people, and things and habits, to be similar, rather than being the same. It may be that the situation is indeed different there." At this, Ataya shrugged, and stood so that he was once again head and shoulders taller than Emmett. "In either case, it does not change me or my existence."
Ataya reached out his hand. "Do you still believe me and call me friend, young man?"
Emmett clasped Ataya's hand in his own. "We're still friends. I'm sorry I doubted your word." Guilt flooded through him. His Pa and Ataya had both taught him that a man's word meant something, that you didn't lie, and that your honor resided in doing what you said. It hadn't felt good to question Ataya as he had.
"Questioning is a good thing, my young friend. It is how you question, and your intentions for doing so, that are important." Ataya's lip quirked up, causing the deep dimples in his darkly tanned skin to stand out. "You could have approached me in a better way when you read your legends and came to doubt."
Emmett looked down at his toes. "I'm sorry," he said, digging the toe of his shoe into the carpet of fallen leaves. "The next time I have questions, I'll ask. Won't go 'round makin' trouble again." He felt Ataya's large warm hand on the top of his head, and it felt like a benediction.
"Then we are truly friends, Emmett."
1921. Emmett is six.
He opened his eyes. Emmett didn't recognize where he was-it wasn't the room he shared with his brothers, or his MeMa's spare room. The room didn't look like any he'd seen in his six years. Not square or rectangle-shaped, but was almost round; a big oval. The walls were wood, but smooth, not the rough-hewn logs of home, or the wallpaper Pa hung for MeMa last summer. It looked more like the wood had just grown smooth.
His stomach was more worried about being empty than the walls or the room, though, so Emmett sat up and swung his legs over the side of narrow cot he was stretched out on. Even though his Ma'd been grumbling about how fast he'd grown and how, soon, Henry's old clothes wouldn't fit him, Emmett could swing his legs freely off of the cot, with more than the usual space between the bottom of his feet and the floor.
Whoever lives here, he thought, must be tall.
Part of the wall moved, and Emmett watched, rapt, as the outline of a door-oval shaped, not rectangular-opened in the wood. He'd not seen the door when he'd looked around, but maybe he'd just missed it. As it opened, he saw a man-tall, skinny, big Adam's apple-with long brown hair, tanned leathery skin, and angled brown eyes. The man stepped into the room, and Emmett was suddenly nervous.
He brought his legs up, resting his heels on the cot, and wrapped his arms around his shins to rest his head on his knees.
"Where am I?" He whispered. "And who're you?"
The man left the oval door open behind him as he walked in, and Emmett saw a soft light spilling in from the other side. It felt warm and cozy, and he felt a little less nervous. It seemed like there were soft whispering voices on the other side of the door, but he couldn't understand any words, he could just hear the quiet voices.
The tall man pulled a straight-backed wood chair in front of Emmett. It was smooth, like the walls, and looked like it had been made from one big piece of wood. There were no joints or legs like the chairs he was used to. The man lowered himself onto the chair and leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees, loosely clasping his hands together and letting them hang between his legs. He looked at ease, and in turn, Emmett felt more relaxed.
"I am Ataya," the strange man said. "I found you in the woods." He reached over and lightly tapped his finger against Emmett's temple. "You were hurt."
Emmett nodded, and held his hand out like his Pa had taught him to do. "Hi Mr. Ataya. I'm Emmett McCarty. Glad to meet ya."
They shook hands. "Well met, young Emmett. Now tell me, where is your family's home? I should return you to them."
"Outside of town. Up Mill Creek. We live kinda near the Simmons."
Mr. Ataya had that twisty almost laughing look that adults got when they thought he was being funny or worse, cute, but he didn't laugh at Emmett, or say anything mean like his brothers would've. He only asked, "Jedidiah Simmons?"
"Old Man Simmons is named Ernest, I think. Mr. Simmons, Thomas and Matthew's Pa, is just Mr. Simmons." Emmett lowered his voice and whispered. "I don't think Mr. Simmons has a first name, sir. He's just Mr. Simmons. Even Pa calls him that, and most folks talk to Pa first-name to first-name."
This time, Mr. Ataya did laugh, and Emmett bristled in reflex. Mr. Ataya held up his hand, though, and said, "Peace, child. I do not laugh at you. I laugh because you describe Jedidiah Simmons perfectly. I know his farm." He tilted his head and looked at Emmett carefully. "Your family is the one with the many small children? The house of wood logs, with the small water wheel in the creek behind it?"
"You know my house!" Emmett was surprised and pleased. He liked his home, even if he had to share a room with his brothers, and put up with sisters underfoot.
"I know of it. I have not yet met your parents, so I have not been there." He pushed up off of his knees and stood up, standing tall above Emmett. "Now that I know where you belong, I shall bring you home."
Nodding his acceptance, Emmett jumped down from the cot. As he did, his stomach growled fiercely, and Mr. Ataya laughed again.
"I will feed you first, young one. I have been a terrible host." He gestured to a small table nestled against the far wall. "I have bread, water, and honey. Please, sit and I will bring it to you."
Emmett's eyes widened. Honey was a rare treat at home. Mr. Bentley, the bee keeper, had died last winter when a storm knocked a tree into his house, so now the only way to get it was at the general store, and Pa said they couldn't afford it. "Honey?" He said it almost like it was a holy word, and in his mind, it practically was. He got to eat honey far less often than he had to go to church, anyway.
"Honey," Mr. Ataya confirmed, sounding delighted. "Sit, young Emmett. Be a guest at my table."
He didn't need to be asked twice. Emmett walked as quickly as he could to the small table and hopped up into the indicated chair. "Thank you, Mr. Ataya," he said, remembering Ma and Pa both harping on his manners.
"You are most welcome, my young friend. Most welcome."
1925. Emmett is ten.
"You have to give a project your full attention, and listen to the wood." Pa's voice is pleasant, his smooth tenor soothing and calm as he lectures Emmett in the wood shop.
Listening to the wood has never been a problem for Emmett. He knew wood, both the living wood of trees and the lumber that filled the mill. It spoke to him. He knew that what his Pa meant by 'listen to the wood' was not the same; it was a manner of speaking for the elder McCarty, but reality for his youngest son.
Emmett's older brother, John Jr., had no feel for woodworking, and had not followed in their father's footsteps. Instead, John Jr. enlisted in the army the day he turned eighteen, to their mother's horror. She'd seen how the men who had managed to return home from the Great War had been changed by battle. Seen and been grateful her little family hadn't had to make that sacrifice.
Mrs. McCarty may have been horrified, but John Jr. had been pleased with himself, and his younger brothers, Henry and Emmett, were excited to see their idolized older brother in a soldier's uniform. Ma was silly for worrying, Henry reasoned, because everyone said that the Great War was the war to end all wars, which meant that John Jr. wasn't going to be seeing any action. The boys had all been little when victory was declared, but they all had a certain fascination with soldiering. John Jr. was just the one to make that fascination a reality.
It took their Pa two hours to understand that his second son, Henry, was even worse with wood than John Jr. Henry instead worked under Mr. Satterfield, who owned the town's general store and had no children of his own to apprentice. Henry had a head for numbers and a natural talent for gossip-Pa said this made him perfect for the general store.
Emmett, though... from the time he first sat next to his Pa at his work table, the youngest McCarty son had shown a talent for shaping wood in any manner he saw fit. He turned scrap wood into small soldiers and animals to play with, into small dolls and figurines for his sisters. Under his father's watchful eye, he carved details that should be too delicate for his young fingers into finials and newel posts. John McCarty had found his apprentice, and he was no taller than a fence post.
Emmett stopped giving all his attention to his Pa, and instead let the calm tones of his voice carry him elsewhere. Idly, he caressed the piece of wood they were working with. Pa was making a cradle for the Newberry family, one of the few in the area who could afford to buy richly carved furniture. Mrs. Newberry was pregnant with their first, and Mr. Newberry had commissioned the cradle just yesterday.
He felt the grain under his fingers, felt the echo of the life of the tree-a maple, he knew, just by touch-and knew exactly how he would carve the roses along the top edge, how this piece would fit with the adjoining ends and bottom. The cradle was a finished image in his head, and all it took now was the time to make it reality.
His Pa's voice shook him out of his mental planning. "Ain't listening to me at all, are ya?"
Emmett cringed. "No sir. M'sorry, Pa. Just picturing the cradle in my head."
His Pa gave him a long, considering look. "Got it planned out already?"
He nodded. "Yes, sir."
Without a word, Pa turned and looked through some drawers, finally coming back with a stubby pencil and a scrap of paper. "Think you kin draw it?"
Emmett bit his lip. His drawing wasn't good, like his carving, but he thought he could draw enough to show Pa what was in his head. "Yes, sir."
Pa nodded, and handed Emmett the pencil and paper.
Hours later, Pa looked over his shoulder to see Emmett's sketch. Emmett froze, mid-motion, and held his breath, waiting to hear what his father thought.
Mr. McCarty's hand was heavy on Emmett's shoulder. His voice was thick with emotion. "From God's mind to your hands, son. You have a gift."
Emmett understood that Pa was impressed, and that was all that mattered to him. "So I can help with the cradle?"
Pa squeezed his shoulder. "By the time we're done, son, I'll be helping you."
1935. Emmett is twenty.
He stalked through the woods, determined to get at least one deer. He'd heard Ma telling Pa in hushed tones that they were almost out of meat, and he knew that with both brothers out of the house, and Pa ill, that his folks and little sisters would be eating the thin soup that Ma used to stretch out the root vegetables stored in the cellar, and those casseroles she said made a little bit of food more filling.
He'd pretended he hadn't heard, though, and the next day stopped into the old farmhouse as if it were any old day, and he went hunting all the time, even when there was work to be done at the mill. "I'll be back in two days," he'd told his Ma at the door. Then he'd waggled his eyebrows-the gesture always made little Maggie giggle-"maybe in three days we can have venison stew."
Ma knew, of course, that he was doing this for them, and she'd stood on her toes to give him a peck on the cheek. "Be careful," she said.
"Always," he answered. "I like your stew too much to get hurt and miss it."
Her answering smile was weak. She'd never liked Emmett being on the mountain. John Jr. and Henry had been allowed to range far afield, been allowed to take the dogs out all over the place to hunt rabbit and raccoons, but Emmett, she'd always kept closer to home. She said she had a bad feeling about her youngest boy being in the mountains alone.
Emmett couldn't tell her he was probably the safest of the three; he had a dryad for a friend and knew how to talk to the trees.
There was a light frost on the ground, and he crunched through it as twilight fell and the woods grew darker. He had an old hunters blind-a tiny room barely large enough to hold him now-built up in a youngish oak that Ataya had said didn't mind. Another ten minutes and he'd be up in his tree, snoozing until the morning, when he hoped the deer would come into the nearby clearing for the last bit of fallen apples.
He heard the trees' whispered warnings too late, and the black bear was there on him before he had time to react. He lost his footing, and the shot he fired at the bear went wide, and the report only seemed to make it angrier.
As he scrambled to get away, he thought of Ma's worry over his time in the woods, and wondered if she'd had a premonition of this.
And then there was white-hot pain all through him, and an angel there to hold him.
1990. Emmett is seventy-five.
The moon is full on the night Emmett and Rosalie return to the region where she'd found him, curly hair and dimples, ravaged by an angry bear and on death's doorstep. He hasn't returned to his old home since he woke as a vampire, but Emmett has been feeling a pull to the mountains for months now, and finally caved in to the urge to come back home.
Their small plane lands at the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge Airport just after the sun has set. When the wheels touch tarmac, Emmett fidgets, anxious to get going. The tug he'd been ignoring with middling success during their stay in Denali is incredibly strong, pulling him to the south, down the long completed US-441, toward the park that opened the year before he was changed by Carlisle.
Memories of his human life, like many of his kind, are blurry. He remembers with crystal clarity some images of family and homestead, a small handful of conversations, an enormous white oak, and a tall, weary man with brown hair tied back with a leather band. Emmett cannot remember his name, but he knows that man was important to him.
Instinct tells him that man is the reason he is being pulled back to a part of the country he wasn't quite ready to visit yet. Many of his nieces and nephews are alive, still living in the area. He wants to know that they are safe and healthy, but he knows he cannot see them, that if he does, leaving the mountains a second time will break something inside of him.
Better to have their birth and death dates in a carefully stored file in his home, secure in his knowledge, but buffered by distance.
Rosalie had secured a rental car before they left Alaska, so it takes little time to deplane and get settled into the small SUV. They drive toward his old home, toward the place where she found him, and he steadily becomes all nerves, jittery and fidgety like the teenage humans they've spent so much time around.
Emmett follows his gut, his wife close behind him as they run on foot, letting him lead the way through the forest. They pass by young black bears and their mothers, ruins of old mills, and other evidence of former human residents, and cross into a part of the park that clearly sees little use. It is an area that feels somehow familiar to him, and he wonders how often he came here as a human.
"I found you about a mile from here," Rosalie tells him. He doesn't like the quaver in her voice, but he presses on anyway. He has this overwhelming feeling that he's almost too late.
Emmet just doesn't know for what.
As he moves, he can taste a difference in the air. It is rarefied here. If air and space can feel sacred, this does. Quick as thought, he's passed through the stately maples, beeches, and oaks and found the tree that was so clear in his memory.
He circles around it, pacing the edges of a small clearing, examining the great white oak, looking to see why he is drawn to it.
It has not been frozen in time as he has been. He can see that the canopy is just a bit higher, the branches reach that much wider, and that the trunk is ever so slightly thicker than it was decades ago.
There is evidence of past storm damage, too. Most recently, a lightning strike. The back side of the trunk is black, and a great split ripped through the bark and wood. Emmett circles around it slowly, in tightening circles, assessing its state. His sixth sense, his wood sense, tells him the great oak is dying. Emmett thinks it has lived a surprisingly long time, for having been so badly damaged by the storm and lightning-years, based on how the trunk has become hollowed out, and how animals have made it a home.
Rosalie, still slightly behind him and giving him the space he needs to process what he is seeing, what he is not quite remembering, hisses. He turns his head to see the man who stands out more clearly in his human memories than even his siblings.
"You came," the man says.
Emmett frowns at how weak and thready the man's voice is. It doesn't match his not-memory, his expectation.
"Do I know you?"
The man smiles sadly. "You did. As a boy, as a young man. You knew me. Surely death did not take your memory, my young friend?"
Rosalie is at his side now. She's smelling the air, and looking confused by what she smells. She turns to Emmett. "He's not human."
Startled, and disturbed that he didn't notice himself, Emmett inhales deeply, and is rewarded with the rich, moist odors of the mountain woods, of plants and animals and dirt and yesterday's rain, of Rosalie and himself, and the definitely not human male standing before him. He smells, Emmett thinks, like a tree.
"I remember your face," he tells the not-man slowly, still trying to come up with an identity for the almost stranger. "But I do not remember your name or how we knew each other in my human life."
"Emmett..." Rosalie's voice trails off, but he hears the warning she has not vocalized. The creature before them could be dangerous, though Emmett's gut is telling him to trust this male, to listen to his story. To help. He feels as much like family as Rosalie or the Cullens do, like he somehow belongs to Emmett.
The almost-stranger's eyes, his body language, his energy, the slow beating of his heart, everything about him speaks of a great tiredness. He moves slowly toward Emmett and Rosalie, and though he appears old and worn down, his movements are smooth, and it is again apparent he is not human.
"I am Ataya," he says. His voice is low, a bass that sends the leaves of the surrounding trees quivering.
A pulse of recognition pushes through him. Not only does he recognize the face, he recognizes the name and voice. "I did know you," he whispers in wonder. "Have you been-" he pauses, not sure how to phrase it, "calling me here? I've been feeling the urge to come to my old home for a few months now."
Ataya nods, slowly, gracefully. "You are the last to know what and who I am. The few other mortals who knew me are gone." He moves his arm, and the sweep of that long limb seems to encompass all of the forest around them. "I have my friends here, but many of them are asleep, and my fellow spirits of trees are almost all gone. A dryad has not been born in these woods in many long springs."
He looks sad, and Emmett thinks his friend (he knows this to be true, now; they were, and are, friends) is lost in his memories. Then Ataya looks at him, and he is pinned to the spot by that gaze. "I did not want to die alone," he says.
Rosalie's soft gasp, tiny and quickly stifled, is the only noise around them.
"I barely remember you," Emmett says quietly, "but you will not be alone. My wife, Rosalie, and I will be with you."
Rose nods her agreement, and he's grateful that she doesn't argue. She does, sometimes, when he speaks for her. The space is so sacred, though, that it seems to affect her nearly as much as it does him, and she remains quiet.
Ataya steps forward, within arm's reach of both vampires. He nods somberly at Rosalie. "Well met, Rosalie. As his mate, you are our friend, too." He extends his hand to her, and when she reaches out to gently clasp it, Emmett sees a faint pulse of energy around their joined hands.
Startled, Rosalie pulls back. Ataya just smiles, though, and gestures for Emmett to come closer.
He does, and finds that the being before him is slightly taller than he is-something Emmett doesn't encounter often. Ataya reaches up to lightly tap Emmett's temple. "When we first met," he said, "you were injured here. Do you remember?"
Emmett shook his head. "I do not. I am sorry."
"It is the way of your new identity." Ataya frowns. "I would have you remember, however." He taps Emmett's temple again, this time with some force, and Emmett can feel the energy that moves through his friend and into him.
Abruptly, he remembers. Everything. With the clarity of a vampire's memories, he knows again the faces of his parents and siblings, neighbors and friends. He knows his friendship with Ataya and Dodsu, how he used to whisper with the trees as he walked the woods. It is a great gift. The weight of it pushes him down, and he sags.
Rosalie is pressed against him, shoring him up, in less than a second. She looks up at him, worried, her expression marred with concern.
"He gave me back my memories," he says, his voice hoarse. "My human life. All of it. Like it happened yesterday."
His mate's eyes, wide with incredulity, flicker to Ataya.
"I would have him remember me," the dryad repeated. "There are none left who will do so. Animal memories are short. In a generation, the animals of the forest will only know my tree as a shelter from the storms, and not as the old guardian of the forest."
Emmett reaches out and places his hand gently, but firmly, on the dryad's knobby shoulder. His memories tell him that six decades ago, this shoulder was broad and strong, muscular and packed with power. He wants to cry at how fragile it feels under his palm. "You are not alone," he says, "and you will never be forgotten. You live on in a vampire's memories."
This time, when Ataya places his large hand on Emmett's head, he understands it for the benediction it is. They stand there for a long moment, and Emmett is positive that the red, yellow, and gold leaves falling from the trees around them freeze mid-fall, and time stops.
Then Ataya's hand falls away and he moves toward the broken trunk of his tree. "Thank you, my friend." His voice is quiet. He leans his back against the trunk, and then fades from sight.
Emmett sinks to the ground, and pulls his legs up against his chest, wrapping his arms around his shins, and resting his chin on his knees. He lets his gaze soften as he watches Ataya's white oak. He takes in the burrow at the base, among the nest of roots, and smells the rabbits that must live there. He sees that the hollow of the trunk is home to at least one possum, and as his eyes wander higher, he sees the nests of birds and squirrels. Moss is already growing on the north side of the trunk. If he focuses, Emmett finds the tiny details of bugs and worms and all the tiny, living things that make up the web of life, and he knows that though Ataya might not live on in the memories of the animals who call his tree home, that his legacy of watching over them will.
Rosalie sits on the ground next to him. She winds her arm in with his, and cuddles into his side, resting her head on his shoulder. "Tell me about him," she says.
And he does.