Her skin was rich and smooth, like candied honey. Each fall of her little chest stopped his heart, and each rise started it again; she was so improbably small and delicate, it seemed impossible she would make it through the night, let alone trials and arcs to come. His hands were small, but hers were smaller; her little fingers wrapped around his own in a gentle but firm grip of warmth. Soft brown curls hung about her rounded head like cloudy wisps, and her eyes were the same green as the forest's most verdant groves. When she slept, her mouth fell just slightly ajar, her lips forming a gossamer ellipse and letting air pass through unhindered. There was nothing in the world like her, of this he was convinced. She was perfect.
"Door." The word was most certainly meant to be his name, and Doran smiled at Lily's efforts, her little face scrunched in concentration as she repeated it. "Door. Door, Door."
"Doran." He spoke slowly, accentuating the second half of his name.
"...Door." A gurgle followed as the toddler grinned, mirroring Doran's own expression of humor.
"What's that then, Lily?" With a firm point, one that the little girl's eyes followed slowly, he directed her attention to the door leading to the bedroom.
"Blaggabrer." She followed up with a happy bubble of laughter, clapping her hands together as she often did with little rhyme or reason why. "Buhbuh, dyah."
Doran lightly tapped his finger against her tiny nose, eliciting a fit of laughter from the little one. "It's a start, I suppose."
Once she had learned to walk, Lily was a force that could only be guided, for the very concept of cessation had left her the moment her feet had found they could carry her in any direction they so pleased. Doran, in his relative dotage, had both taken it and had it placed upon himslef by her parents the role of caretaker. While she was only a mere arc of age - he her senior by six -, Lily seemed never to tire and held a voracity for the world around her like he had never seen. They ventured out into the garden during the day, but it was the outer limit of Lily's world "until she was older" as his mother put it. Still, there was no end to Lily's curiosity: a dust mote could hold her a captive audience for breaks, a dandelion's petals entrance and amaze, dirt in her hands - and sometimes her mouth - was always a delight. Everything that she experienced, however new or exciting, was always brought before her trusted Doran, wide green eyes searching for a smile or a frown to inform her whether she'd been correct in her assessment of her surroundings.
Very rarely did he ever frown, but when he did, she never repeated the action. The first had been the moment she lifted a boot to her lips, her clear intent to shove whatever would fit into the waiting recesses of her toothy grin. Without having any sort of reprimand in mind, Doran frowned, and the boot was dropped immediately, little feet padding lightly on the wooden floor to find something more suitable for an arcling child to chew upon. It was strange, he thought, that anyone might look to him for guidance, and treated his power over her as a guardian might, using his influence to teach rather than control. She learned quickly, and soon, she looked to him less often for guidance and instead pulled him along, urging him to partake in every new discovery alongside her, as friend rather than watcher.
He was reluctant at first. She was so very different than he, and both his mother and uncle treated them as such. Where his mistakes were met with ire and a sharp rap of knuckles across his cheek, Lily could do no wrong. She was above him, in that way and many more, but she never seemed to notice. He was her Doran, and she would go nowhere without him. Even as she grew and her words gave way to statements and questions that were further fueled by his uncle's daily lessons, Lily never once thought to treat Doran as her parents did. She considered him her most dear friend, and always reprimanded him should he say otherwise.
"Now you try, Doran!" She stood on the other side of the creek's bank, brushing her hands off on what they had deemed her "play dress", as it carried upon it the stains, tears, and stitches of the arc's adventures in its once cream colored hue. It was now a sullied ocher streaked with mossy greens and the occasional rusty smear of blood. Two fresh smudges where the mud had been left behind now sat comfortable over her thighs as she grinned back at her cousin, beckoning him with a hurried gesture and a giggle at his unfettered reluctance.
"I don't know if..." Whether or not he wanted to leap over the turbid waters below as Lily had done with all the grace of a doe or not, she left no room for choice. Doran's words faded as he drew a deep breath and took two running steps before launching himself as far as he could go. Where Lily had landed with relative grace, lighting upon first her feet then hands to stabilize her, Doran missed the crumbling ledge of dirt by a hand's breadth, tumbling down into the tepid current with a shout and splash. Lily's laughter burst fourth, filling the forest with her mirth as Doran moaned from his seat upon the creek's bed, soaked from head to foot and leaning to the side where the waters ran strong enough to move him.
Between little gasps for air, Lily knelt down, offering Doran a helping hand. "Are you-"
In Doran's attempt to free himself from his soggy dilemma, he slipped on the slimy rocks, flailing his arms to keep his balance and, for a moment, succeeding. In the next trill, the rock shifted, and Doran found his hand fall just shy of Lily's, sliding down the muddy bank and back into the water. Laughter rocked the girl once more, and she proved unable to assist him in his fumbling climb up the slippery slope to plop himself down beside her. Though he was panting, hair matted and dripping down his neck and face, he couldn't help but join his cousin, too infectious was her merriment.
When she was finally able, wiping a stray tear from her eye, Lily tried once more, helping him to his feet and proceeding to inspect him, walking around in a deliberate circle to make sure nothing was too bruised or bleeding. "Are you alright?"
He wiped his hands on his sodden shirt, staring down at them first before moving on to his arms and elbows. "I believe so. Nothing looks broken."
"Good." Lily held out her hands expectantly as Doran disrobed, keeping his sopping small-clothes but handing over his shirt and pants for her to hang on a low hanging branch a couple paces away. Turning to face him with a stern but playful frown, she crossed her arms and shook her head. "You're six arcs my elder, Doran. You're supposed to be the one daring me."
"Not when you're so much taller than I am." The difference was at least four or five inches. Lily always insisted he would be taller eventually, it was the fate of the eldest, but until then, she was by far the physically superior of the two. "And what need have you of me to play danger's advocate?" He grinned, wringing out some of the water from his shoulder-length locks and shaking his head to help dry what he could not coax out. "None, that's what."
"Then you have need of me, Doran." She returned his smile, bright and warm like the sunlight that dappled the forest's floor, shimmering through the breaks in the verdant cover of the leafs above them.
"What was it said you saw again? A bear on a ball?" A soft giggle escaped her as she turned her head, verdant gaze twinkling as she caught his own dark umber. "How could a bear balance himself on a ball any how, Doran?" She grinned, staring up at the clouds that had sparked their creative minds into a discussion on the finer points of animals and their near impossible physical feats. "Oh!" An olive finger pointed towards a fluffy mass of white drifting lazily in the midtrial sky. "I see it!"
Doran's own laughter mixed with hers as she fell back on the sweet smelling grass bank they had laid claim to several breaks before. His jaw was still bruised enough that it was better for him to enjoy their companionship in silence, but it was a minor irritability that he had no intention of letting get the best of him. "You're next."
"I know, you silly thing, you don't have to tell me every time!" She reached over to ruffle his hair, fingers gentle even in so brash a gesture. With a soft sigh of thought, she turned her attention to the clouds, and the pair lay silent for a time. A gentle breeze lazily meandered its way through the clearing, bringing it with scents of lavender and honey. "There!" She kept herself from pointing this time, turning an impish grin to her cousin, brows raised in challenge. "An old woman hitting a tree with a fish."
His lips turned a frown, though his eyes still glimmered with mirth. "There's no such cloud, Lily. That's a cheat."
The girl shook her head, dark curls catching in the grass that she had splayed them over. "Old woman. Fish. Tree." Adamant as she was in her discovery, Lily waited patiently while Doran perused the firmament in search of such a scene.
As he was about to admit defeat, he saw it: a portly figure with an elongated, eel-like mass in hand aimed at what was surly the trunk of a large tree. With a giggle, Doran pointed towards it, "No."
"Yes!" Lily's laughter began to bubble fourth from within her. "It looks just like Lorell Blackwater, does it not? Down to the stubby legs and all!" They shared a fit of humor before Lily pushed herself up into a seated position, shaking her head with a sad smile. "That's... Rude, though. Isn't it? We shouldn't laugh. She can't help what age has done to her, I think."
Doran rose to join her, tilting his head in thought. "Maybe..." He shrugged, offering a conciliatory smile. "But where's the joy of feeling poorly for another when you can just invite them to partake in merriment over things we cannot change?"
"Humor in the face of fear, then?" Her sadness had faded, and she nodded in agreement. "But we shan't ever laugh at her to her face. That would be rude, Doran."
"Unless she laughs at herself first." He offered the amendment with a grin.
"Unless she laughs at herself first."
The light had begun to fade by the time the pair made their way back to the humble cottage, familiar flowers and bushes with berries greeting them as they always did with a warm whisper of the wind rustling their leafs and petals. A light glowed beneath the door's frame, suggesting that their dinner was warm and waiting. They dropped each other's hands then, and as always, Lily pushed her way into the house first with Doran trailing quietly behind her. She was greeted with smiles and welcomes, led to her place at the table and food was set before her. Like a shadow, Doran followed, gathering his own bowl of stew and settling in beside her. They asked her what she had spent her day doing, and she told them of all the fanciful creatures she and he had spied in the sky. Their mother found her stories quaint, but her husband could not hold back his tongue.
"But what is the point, Lily? Where is the productivity? Did you not promise me you would try to be a bit more constructive with your time? Didn't you tell me you would help her with this, Doran?" He was not quite to the point of anger, but there was a sound ring of irritation in his tone that did not go unnoticed by the children.
Lily was quick to respond, saving Doran words that had yet to form in his head let alone pass over his tongue. "Oh, but we did make things!" She quickly searched through her pockets before producing crude bracelets of woven grasses and flowers. "They're like the ropes you were explaining to us the other day, smaller strings braided together to from a stronger cord." He was not entirely impressed, but it served enough to allay his concerns.
"Hm. The workmanship is shoddy."
"They are children, dear." Doran's mother made a tutting sort of noise, her smile catching quickly on her husband's own features.
"That they are."
It was Doran's duty to clean up after the family, one that he did not mind as there was a badger who had taken up residence in a burrow someplace he assumed to be not too far off who would stop by each night to finish up whatever food they did not. He had given the creature no name, but he liked to think that the animal did indeed have one in whatever badger-language it spoke. As it finished off a final chunk of potato, there was a crash from within the house that startled the badger back into the night. Without hesitation, Doran's name resounded out of the open window, and he hurried back inside to see his uncle standing over a shattered plate.
"How many times do I have to tell you not to balance the dishes on the edge of table?!" Had Doran been in a mind to answer, he imagined that his uncle had told him at least several hundred times before, but he could not remember the last time he'd actually been the one to leave a dish in that way. "Come here." It was not a request, and Doran moved immediately, unflinching as the hand struck him across the face. "Clean this up. You'll be getting up early tomorrow to help me with the weeding."
Doran nodded, the dull sting of where he'd been hit felt distant, like it had happened a long time ago rather than a few trills. Kneeling down, he gathered up the various shards and placed them in a bin for broken and useless things they kept just outside of the door to the right. As he wiped his hands on his pants when the job was done, it was only then that he realized the plate had cut his hands in several places. Dipping them into a bucket of water that was used to tend the plants at the front of the house, Doran cleaned the cuts, humming to himself a rhythmless tune.
"Doran? Are you all right?" Lily's whispered words pulled him from his watery reverie, and he brushed a couple of tears from his eyes before turning a smile towards his beloved cousin.
"When am I not, Lily?"
She frowned but did not press the issue. Instead, she disappeared for a moment and returned with a cloth for him to dry his hands upon and strips of fabric to bandage his hands and fingers. "You really should pay more attention to what you're doing. You really can't feel them?" By them, she meant the cuts which had been deep enough to continue bleeding even after their cleaning.
Doran didn't find it at all concerning, and set about wrapping his hands with a contented shrug. "I suppose I can, it's just... I don't know. It doesn't bother me."
Lily shook her head, an exasperated sigh kept quiet so as not to draw attention to them as Doran's uncle was loathe to have the two of them interact in so friendly a manner. "Well it bothers me. At least try not to cut yourself on every sharp thing that comes your way, Doran."
"There he goes!" The leafs crunched beneath their feet as the inseparable pair took off running after their furry quarry. Their target was a black and white badger who sped along on his stumpy feet, a streak of grunting fur that was relentlessly pursued by two giggling children. They dashed through the golden hues of oranges and yellows that littered the ground and fluttered carelessly from the branches above, the air crisp but not yet truly cold. Round a large stump and down a hill into a little valley they followed, their breath coming in joyful gasps as they ducked and dodged around the many obstacles the forest splayed out before them.
When they reached a small clearing at the other side of the valley's incline, they watched the badger slip into a crevice between two large, gnarled roots of an ancient oak. The tree itself was at least several feet taller than the trees around it, and it had created a natural break in the forest's growth, little bunches of still green plants suggested an mess of wildflowers when their cycle arrived but short of several berry bushes here and there, it was vacant of any other trees for a solid amount of space. Lily skipped over the tree's roots, hopping from one to the other and humming to herself as she surveyed the scene.
Doran followed suit, not quite so graceful, scrabbling over the wood with feet and hands alike until he was more sure of his footing. Above them, a family of squirrels chattered to each other, their scritching claws sending little cascades of broken bark and dust down from some unseen home amid the leafs and branches. "Is this tree his home, you think?" He gazed down between the mess of roots, uncertain whether the shadows beneath were merely tricks of the light or a tunnel below.
"Most definitely." She rest her back against the tree's trunk, nodding confidently in her reply as she gazed out at the scene around them, a small sigh of content escaping through her nose as she grinned first at the clearing then at Doran.
"How do you know?"
"Can't you feel it?" She let her eyes close and drew in a deep, meaningful breath. Letting the air out from between her lips in a controlled exhale, Lily grabbed Doran's hand, helping him to stand beside her. "Sanctuary."
Leaning into the tree's stout embrace, Doran followed Lily's lead. As he swathed his vision in darkness, he could still feel the warmth of the sunslight, hear the gentle murmur of water nearby, and taste the sweet hint of berries on the breeze. "Sanctuary."
Silence was broken only by the dry rustle of their books' pages turning, the peaceful summer air warm and heady with the scent of wildflowers, mud, and moss. Time had no hold over them whilst enveloped in the gnarled embrace of the Sanctuary's roots, and though the sun might rise and fall, when the light proved too weak to read by, it was time for more active pursuits. The sun had since disappeared from sight between the breaks and openings of the leafy canopy above them, and it was with the firm sound of a binding snapping shut that Lily signaled it was time to take up their glass jars and begin their hunt.