Among the Trees
Written for Lyn Thorne-Alder in a fic exchange.
Vidrou, sa'Tree-Hugger – more commonly known as Vid or Viddie – hummed quietly as he inspected his orchard. It was summer, which meant the seasons for peaches, plums and nectarines. Never mind that their home in ex-Michigan was nowhere near the right climate. He might not be able to change the weather, but he could change the trees. Combined with his diligent and affectionate caretaking, this meant come midsummer, there were fresh peaches.
Aside from tending to the trees, gathering fruit for the next few days was Vid's main purpose in being out at the orchard this sunny afternoon. The basket slung over his shoulder was already half full, bearing a mix of red plums and yellow peaches.
“Papa, papa, look!” Seven-year-old Tilden raced across the grass, ignorant of the scrapes and dirt on his shins and elbows. He bounced to a stop in front of his father, proudly displaying a nectarine. “I picked it myself, just like you showed me.”
“All by yourself? Hmm.” Vid took the nectarine and with a mock-frown, inspected it closely. The inspection was mostly for show, but it was true: he was very particular about picking fruit. He'd taught both of their children the basic elements of how to tell whether fruit was ripe and the best technique for removing it without hurting the plant itself, but Tilden had taken to it with much greater enthusiasm than Jerusha. Vid was taking him to the garden and orchard practically every trip by this point, explaining differences between different kinds of fruits and vegetables and how best to harvest them.
Tilden was putting that knowledge to use, it seemed. The proffered fruit was perfectly ripe and the stem showed no signs of excess strain. Vid was pleased, but decided to tease his son a little, dragging out the inspection until Tilden ran out of patience.
“Papaaaaa, aren't you dooone?”
Vid chuckled, finally breaking character and handing the nectarine back. “Good job, Tilly. As a reward, you can have that one all to yourself.”
“Yay!” The boy gave him a hug, then took a big bite out of the nectarine. The juice squirted out, getting on his nose and running down his chin.
Laughing, Vid patted him on the head. “It tastes better if you don't rush, you know.”
Tilden gave him a dubious look, clearly not believing a word of it. “Ih sase hine,” he mumbled unintelligably around the mouthful of fruit.
Vid raised his eyebrows at him and waited until he'd swallowed. “Try again?”
“I said, it tastes fine.”
“Only fine, huh?”
“It tastes great! Okay? Amazing! Terrific! Excel-ant!”
“It's excellent.” Vid smiled and shook his head, turning his attention back to picking peaches. “I'm glad you're enjoying the fruits of your labors.”
Tilden frowned. “It's just one fruit, papa.”
“Oh right, of course. Well then, I'm glad you're enjoying the fruit of your labors.”
Satisfied, Tilden sat down in the shade of the tree, attacking the rest of his nectarine with vigor.
Fortunately for his son's seven-year-old attention span, it took Vid only another half an hour to finish the day's harvest. By this time, he'd been presented with a shiny rock, had his attention drawn to a scarlet tanager resting in the trees at the edge of the orchard, and had to explain that no, watering fruit trees with fruit juice won't make the fruit tastes sweeter.
He looked over at his son – intently watching some insect in the grass, it appeared. “Time to head back, Tilly.”
“Already?” The boy frowned. “Can't I stay just a liiiiittle longer?”
Vid shook his head, holding back a smile. “Not today.”
This time he just gestured for Tilden to follow, setting off at an easy walk back into the woods. His son followed, an exaggerated sigh his final protest.
The path back to the Tree was almost invisible – or would be, to anyone but the most astute trackers who wandered into their woods. It sketched a route between the trees even more faintly and crookedly than a deer trail, meandering between rocky outcroppings and natural patches of dirt. The children could follow it more out of familiarity than visibility, and Vid – the one who had “made” the paths – followed them the same way he'd first determined them: the route that would least hurt their forest. (He'd thoroughly earned the Name Tree-Hugger, both before and after receiving it.)
Tilden followed in his father's footsteps, having learned from numerous lectures of various lengths to Respect The Plants. (Vid gave the lectures, but Ce'Rilla – their mother – being half-tree didn't hurt.) And the walk was only about ten minutes on a good day.
About halfway there, Vidrou abruptly stopped and frowned. He was always listening to the forest – feeling, really, but he described it as listening – on some level, and something had just pinged his senses as off.
Tilden stopped less abruptly, looking around curiously for the reason. “Why'd w--”
“Shh.” Vid lifted a finger to his lips, glancing down at the boy as he reached, feeling for the source. Something had hurt, something on the edge of his range. Not the usual twinges from resident fauna having lunch; it felt sharper, more direct. Instead of speculating further, however, he stood and “listened” for another minute, focusing on the source and examining it.
An axe, he suddenly realized. Someone was taking an axe to one of their trees. His frown deepened.
“Papa?” Tilden was watching him with growing anxiety.
Vid shook his head sharply, taking a deep breath and collecting himself. “It's all right, Tilly. Nothing serious.”
“But something?” The boy looked around again before looking back up at his father, head tilted curiously.
Vid nodded and started walking again. “Someone is at the edge of our forest. They're still too far to be a real problem.”
“What are they doing?”
“Cutting down a tree.”
“Oh.” Tilden's eyes were wide.
Vid smiled again, reassuring. “Your mother will deal with them, don't worry.”
Tilden nodded, sticking a little closer to his father than before. They walked quietly, with Vid moving a little quicker than he would have earlier.
After a couple of minutes, Tilden spoke again. “Does it hurt?”
Vid looked back at him, slowing his pace slightly. “Does what?”
“The tree, being cut down.” Tilden looks serious. “Are you hurting too?”
At that question, Vid stopped completely. After a moment, he crouched down in front of his son, to be closer to eye level. “A little bit, yes. It would hurt more if there were more trees, or the tree was closer.”
Tilden considered this. “Does mama know it hurts you when they do that?”
“Good.” Tilden nodded, satisfied, and started walking again. “She'll hurt them back, then.”
Vidrou stood up, hesitating, before simply shaking his head to himself and following.
They only had to walk a few more minutes before they reached the clearing. The Tree rose up in the center, with the path (a real path) circling around and up the Tree itself.
Tilden ran on ahead, with his father following more sedately with the fruit. By the time Vid stepped in the front door (set into the “trunk” of the tree), Tilden was bouncing in front of his mother in a mixture of nerves and excitement.
Ce'Rilla looked over at Vid, the faint traces of a frown on her face. “Tilden claims there are people cutting down trees?”
Vid leaned over and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. “Just one tree so far, on the very edge. Nothing to worry about, 'Rilla.”
“Mmm.” Ce'Rilla looked at him critically, the faint traces of a frown now tracing more of a smile. “Should I go inform them that these woods already belong to someone?”
“Whatever you want, love.” He smiled michievously. “After all, they belong to you.” Brushing a strand of dark hair from her cheek, he kissed her properly.
A moment later, a small tug on his shirt brought Vid's attention back down to their son.
“Papa, if you're busy, do you want me to put away the fruit?”
He chuckled, and Ce'Rilla smiled widely. “I have an errand to run,” she said. “so you two can put the fruit away together.”
“Here.” Vid handed the basket to Tilden. “Bring this to the kitchen and I'll be right behind you.”
Tilden obediently took the fruit and trotted off to the kitchen.
Vid turned back to Ce'Rilla, his expression serious. “You'll be all right alone?”
“I've dealt with worse than a few tree poachers.” She stood on tiptoes and gave him another brief kiss. “I'll send for you if I can't handle it myself.”
He nodded. “Be safe. Where's Jeri?”
“Upstairs.” She smiled. “I'll be back in time to help with dinner.”
From the kitchen, an impatient voice sang out. “Papaaa, are you coming?”
With a brief eyeroll and smile in Ce'Rilla's direction, Vid turned and went into the kitchen.