″How could anything about our mutual orphanhood possibly make you so happy?″
″We can stay out all night!″
Varston crossed his arms and shook his head resolutely. "No way. Nighttime is when I go back to my pond and wait out the darkness till morning.″
″Are you afraid of the dark?″
″No. But there are bad things in that forest.″
Ellie frowned. "The forest is lovely at night. The moonlight filters through the leaves, everything is quiet, and you feel like you're the only person in the world." She looked towards the setting sun. "The sky will be completely clear tonight.″
″Late at night, the forest becomes violent," Varston countered sullenly. "It tries to grab you and pull you apart, tries to suffocate you under the dirt." His voice and expression were dull despite his harsh words.
Ellie's eyes were wide. "The forest would never do that. It has a magical presence, I mean, I won't deny that, but it's not angry.″
″Like I said, only late at night.″
″When did this happen?" she demanded.
″About a year ago, it would happen all the time." After a moment, he added, "It hasn't happened recently. But I also don't leave the pond at night any more.″
Ellie pieced together the events that he was referring to quickly: Will's nightmares. "It won't happen any more," she promised. "As long as you're with me, you'll always be safe within the forest.″
″Why does that not reassure me," Varston muttered, but followed Ellie through the undergrowth nevertheless.
The tramped through the forest at a steady pace for several minutes. What would have been a rather trying and bothersome hike for Varston on his own became as easy as walking down a dirt path, as the thorns and bushes parted for Ellie as she walked by. They relaxed back to their normal positions after Varston passed through as well.
″You haven't asked where we're going," Ellie commented.
″You don't have to," Ellie said. She sounded slightly hurt. "It can be a surprise.″
″Surprise me, then.″
Above them, the sun set, and the sky was left a strange bluish twilight. Little of this light made it through the canopy, and the forest was left dark below.
Varston's side began to burn like he had been stabbed, and he belatedly realized that he couldn't handle the pace Ellie was setting. Ellie had no shortage of stamina, but he, who spent most of his time floating around in a pond, tired quickly and easily.
″How much farther?" he asked.
″Just a bit," Ellie replied. "It's the most beautiful place to see the forest at night.″
″I thought I said to surprise me," Varston snapped, and gave a small gasp of pain.
″Are you okay?" She turned to look at him.
″I'm fine. Keep going.″
She did as he said, and continued to make the forest clear the path in front of them. Despite how easy she was making it for him, his legs began to ache as well. He tripped over a dead branch in his path that she had trotted right over, and soon began to trip more. She kept glancing back at him, but apparently could see his glare even in the dim of the forest, because she never spoke.
At long last, she came to a halt at a tree. It looked like any other tree at first glance, but then Varston saw that it was thicker and taller than any of the other trees around it.
″What now?" he griped.
″Now we climb!″
″Seriously?" he gasped. "I - let's take a break before we do any more strenuous physical activity.″
Ellie shrugged amenably and plopped herself down at the base of the tree. "There's a branch on this tree that's thick, and it's perfect for sitting on and just looking at the forest. The forest goes on for as far as you can see in every direction. It's amazing. You might even be able to see your pond, if the light's right. And the light is perfect tonight.″
″I thought I said I wanted it to be a surprise," Varston reminded her, but with no acid.
″You need to know what you're looking for, though," she countered. "Otherwise the impact won't be as amazing.″
Varston couldn't refute this. "How am I supposed to get up there? I don't have special forest powers, so I couldn't exactly float up there or whatever you plan on doing." The tree's branches started much farther off the ground than either of them could reach, and the trunk was too wide to shimmy up.
″My special forest powers don't let me float," Ellie told him, and giggled slightly. He didn't understand why she found him so amusing to be around. "A branch will droop down as far as possible and we can just hold onto the end while it lifts us up.″
″That's basically the same thing," he reasoned. The sky had become quite dark, and his side no longer ached as much. If he wasn't actually going to be climbing, then he supposed there was no reason to keep resting. "Make it happen, then.″
″Oh," she said. "I was kidding about that. You actually get up there by climbing a smaller tree and jumping from that tree to the big tree. Come on." She got up and began climbing a smaller nearby tree with surprising dexterity.
Varston took a deep breath. It made his ribcage hurt. Then he followed. He was very careful to only put his hands and feet where she had put hers, and stayed a good five feet below her. Finally she perched herself on a branch, and he laboriously hauled himself onto the same branch.
He looked down, and suddenly had to hold onto the branch very tightly, because if he fell, he would probably break his neck. "Um-
″From here, all you have to do is grab the branch above, get up so you're crouching, and turn around to face the big tree." She demonstrated. "Then you take a leap, and grab the closest part of the big tree. It's okay if you get a face full of leaves, because the most important thing is not hitting the ground.″
Varston stared at her with wide eyes. "That's insane.″
″But it's worth it," she said cheerfully, and then she jumped. She grabbed another branch with practiced ease and swung up onto it. "From here, all you have to do is climb two big branches up, and you're there," she called back to him as she climbed. "It's not that hard. Don't psych yourself out.″
Varston couldn't help it. There was four feet of open space between the branch he was jumping from and the branch he was expected to grab. It might as well have been a mile. His shriveled, water-soaked wings wouldn't help him here.
″I-I can't," he said.
″You won't know until you try," she sang.
″But what if I try and then I can't? I'd much rather not try and live than try and die.″
Ellie rolled her eyes; starlight reflected off of them. "Didn't I tell you that you'd always be safe in the forest when you were with me? You're not going to die. If you miss, the forest will catch you.″
″Why can't you catch me first and cut out the part where I miss?" Varston blustered.
″I don't know how," Ellie said sheepishly. "I haven't figured out how to make the forest do complex things on command. Just jump, I promise everything will be okay.″
Varston hoped she couldn't see how his hand shook as he reached for the branch above and pulled himself into a crouch. He carefully pivoted on the branch, readjusting his grip, and considered the gap before him. The branch he would need to catch.
″It's too far," he protested before he could stop himself.
Ellie frowned, and he wondered if she was about to make fun of him again, but then the branch that he needed to grab started to shake as if there were a heavy gale. She stared at it, and suddenly it shot towards him. He let a yelp out and slammed his eyes shut.
When he opened his eyes, the leafy tip of the branch was only three inches from his face. As he watched, it curved, and there was a slight groan from the wood as it angled so there was a thicker part closer to him.
″Grab it," Ellie said, and her voice sounded strained.
″Quickly," she urged.
Varston launched himself towards this branch, and no sooner than he did, it snapped back into place. He wrapped himself around the wood, and when the branch stopped swaying, he looked up to see Ellie grinning at him.
″Crawl a little closer to the trunk where it's more stable, and then join me up here.″
He did so, and pulled himself onto her branch on nothing but adrenaline. She sat farther from the trunk, but he sat at the fork and wrapped his arm around the trunk for support.
″Whew," he said. "That was quite… exciting." The branch was well placed; it jutted out into the sky like a bench strung from the heavens. Below them were trees and branches, above them was a considerable gap before the tree topped off.
″Look," Ellie said softly. She pointed out over the forest.
The moon was rising and it lit the trees with lovely pale light. Just as described, the forest stretched to the horizon like an unending sea. The night was warm and quiet.
″It goes like that in every direction," Ellie said, and her voice was filled with gentle wonder. "It's as if my forest goes on forever.″
Varston twisted around to verify whether the forest did, indeed, stretch into the distance in every direction. When he craned his neck to look all the way around, he gasped.
Far off in the distance, in a direction that he would never have traveled, a scar was burned across the forest, wide and deep and a black that contrasted the navy and dark green of the trees. "There was a fire," he said dumbly.
She turned to look behind her as well. "What? Where?″
″I don't - oh." She fell silent, looking at the scar. "Funny, I actually didn't see it at first. It's like not only can I see what the forest looks like now, I also see what it'll look like in ten, twenty, and fifty years. It's kind of amazing.″
Varston was still. "This is beautiful," he admitted. "Even with the burnt parts. Thanks for bringing me here.″
″Of course," she said. "Something just told me that you needed to see this.″
″Yeah," he agreed. After another moment of silent reflection, he asked, "Now how do we get down?″