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What the Darkness Does

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Emma fluffed out one of her spare blankets and let it flutter down over nephew, who lounged with a yawn on her sofa. Tom had agreed to let Emma have him over for the night, while he went out for an assuredly platonic get-together with Becky Barnes. Though Emma had been a little nervous, the evening had gone well, and she may have managed to score herself some extra Cool Aunt Points by letting Tim have extra ice cream after dinner.

"There. You comfy, bud?" She asked, pulling one corner of the blanket over.

"Yep!"

"So, how's this work, do you just go to sleep, are you too old for a bedtime story, or…?"

Tim raised a brow at his aunt. “Do you have a bedtime story?”

Emma shrugged innocently. “I might.”

“That sounds like you do.”

“And that sounds like you want a bedtime story.” Emma grinned at her nephew, who crossed his arms expectantly and slumped down into his makeshift nest of blankets on Emma’s pullout sofa. “I’ll take that as a yes. You’re into spooky stuff, right, like those zombie movies? Y'know, when we were kids your mom sometimes told me stories from old Hatchetfield legends. I never really got into them, I thought they were stupid, but that was before I ended up lost in the witch woods and met the shadow man."

Tim frowned. "I've never heard of a shadow man."

"Well, you've heard of lost souls, right?"

"I guess."

"That's what he is."

Tim wrinkled his nose, like he was considering that. Emma couldn't help the amused snicker in her chest at the idea of a nine-year-old critiquing her bedtime story like an esteemed folklore writing snob. He laid back, though, peering up at her.

"Keep going."

"Okay." Emma laughed a bit. "So lost souls can come in plenty of forms, but the shadow man is exactly what he sounds like, he's a man made of shadow. His body is a pitch black silhouette, blacker than the darkest night. It consumes all the light it touches, like a black hole, but he's shaped like a tall man. He can hide from you by blending in with the trees, skulking in the dark. He can disguise himself as your shadow - he may follow you for miles in the woods without you knowing. But if you're smart, and you know what to look for, you can spot him."

"So you can catch him?" Tim interrupted.

"What? No."

"Lost souls are evil, though. They try to trap people in the woods."

"No they don't," Emma countered defensively, her arms pulling over her chest. "I mean, not all of them."

"That's what the legend's about, Aunt Emma."

"Tim, bud, do you want me to tell my story or not?"

Tim mimed zipping his lips shut and settled back once again. Emma pointedly waited a good few seconds before continuing.

"If you know what to look for, you'll look for his eyes. They're big, bright, and blue. Can't miss 'em when they're open, if you're paying attention. But once you see them, you'll want to keep an eye on that mass of shadow, because he'll try to hide again. And if you can follow him, you might see his wolf tail, or the sharp spines on his back, or the big, pointy animal ears that stick out from his head and follow the sounds around him. When he moves he looks less like a person."

Emma gestured for emphasis as she spoke, holding both hands up over her ears in a perked position, attempting to resemble the pointed ears of a bobcat. That was what the shadow man's ears reminded her of. She watched Tim, not wholly convinced but actively entertained, and wondered if Jane would gesture when she told stories, too. Emma couldn't quite remember, and suddenly found herself wishing she'd paid a little more attention when they were kids instead of brushing it off as stupid. She quickly swallowed that feeling, though, and went on with the story.

"There's singing, too, if you ever think you hear music in the witch woods, that's the shadow man." She said.

"That sounds like someone who wants to lure people into getting trapped in the woods." Tim said.

Emma groaned, exasperated. "Tim!"

"Sorry! He sounds like a monster!"

"Not all monsters are evil, bud. What kind of crap does your dad show you?" Emma shook her head, waving her hands around. "God, nevermind. My shadow man is a monster, but he's not evil. He's friendly."

"So he didn't try to trap you when you met him."

"Nope." Emma grinned. "You wanna hear what did happen?"

"...Yeah."

"Okay. A couple weeks ago I got this freeform assignment for my plant biology class, and I went out to the witch woods to see if I could find some cool flora to study."

--

Emma recalled the cloudy, slightly damp early autumn day she'd chosen to trudge through the witchwood. Primarily because of the way her hiking boots sunk into the grass with every step. Perhaps she should have chosen a brighter day, a little longer after it had rained, but she'd seen much worse conditions. The cool air was crisp but heavy and Emma stuffed her hands into her jacket pockets against the chill. The woods were washed in the greyish blue of the overcast sky, and she could hear squirrels chittering and birds chirping in the trees. 

She reared up her shoulders to adjust her backpack. It felt wrong being so light, only carrying her notebook stuffed with assignment details, her pencils, a bag of trail mix, her phone, and her water bottle. For ten years she'd carried her whole life in a backpack. The lack of weight on a hike like this was strange, she kept feeling like she'd forgotten something. She kept her eyes fixed off the trail, scanning for something interesting she could study. 

That was all she was doing for a while, until the first time she saw her shadow shift.

It was cast to the side in front of her. Nothing out of the ordinary, until she paused on the trail to dig out her water bottle and from the corner of her eye caught her own shape warping mid-sip. A large pair of ears poked out from the head, twitching to follow the ambient sounds of the woods. Emma choked on the water in her throat and hacked, eyes wide, but the ears had vanished by the time she was able to double take. She brushed it off as a trick of the light.

Stashing the bottle, Emma kept walking, clicking her tongue in time with her trudging steps. A near identical clicking chitter seemed to echo her, but she didn't think much of it. The woods were full of strange sounds.

The rattling of a woodpecker hammering away drew her eyes up to the trees. The bird perched up high on the trunk seemed to pause to look right at her, and in the overcast shadows its eyes almost looked purple. Before Emma could blink to clear her vision and get a proper look, the bird fluffed out its pretty, black and white spotted wings, and took off, flying overhead. Emma watched it disappear beyond the treetops, followed by a scattering of more birds that seemed to look right at her before taking off and joining the flock.

Her brows knit, a strange feeling settling in the pit of her stomach.

"Hm." 

She flexed her grip on her backpack straps and carried on. She kicked a stray pinecone out of her path, sending it sideways into the trunk of a tree with a little klok. 

That was when her shadow moved again.

It seemed to flinch, like the dark form was cowering into itself in response to the kick. Emma froze, jaw set, and the shadow was still again. She rubbed her eyes, knowing she’d seen something this time, but instead of her own shadow moving this time she caught movement behind her from the corner of her eye.

“What the-?” She turned around. “What’s going on? Is someone following me back there?”

There was no verbal response. Instead the wind seemed to pick up, but only in volume. Emma felt no harsher breeze to accompany the slight howling sound that filled the air surrounding her. Beneath it sounded like an erratic but melodic buzzing of some kind, a rattling, chittering collection of anxious sounds she couldn’t quite place all together. And beneath that a very soft, almost inaudible voice.

“Back. Back there. Go back.”

"Hello?" Emma called, whirling around, trying to track the shadow at the corner of her vision, but she saw nothing.

The echo surrounded her. “Hello, hello. Hello, hello?” 

Emma tightened her grip on her backpack straps. "This isn't funny, jackass! Get out here!"

“Out. Get out. Get out.”

She turned again and squinted over her shoulder. She should have felt threatened, probably. A mysterious voice in the fucking witch woods surrounding her and telling her to get out? Textbook horror movie shit. But the voice was soft, almost timid, and Emma didn't feel threatened so much as confused, and a little unsettled. 

In a way, not feeling scared actually scared her a little more.

But Emma set her jaw and narrowed her eyes, still steadily turning, not planning to stop until she caught whoever was hiding from her. A flashlight, she realized suddenly. She should have packed a fucking flashlight in her bag. She silently cursed herself, but didn't waver. It wasn't that dark yet. Whoever it was, she'd spot them.

"I don't know what you're trying to pull, but I'm not in the fucking mood!" She yelled. "Come out!"

The voice didn't answer this time. Emma huffed and stopped turning, spotting the shadow shift behind her again. She whirled around in the other direction, and just barely managed to catch the movement right where her own shadow ended up cast at the base of the closest tree. She stepped forward, squinting. Had they hidden behind the tree?

"I know you're there, asshole. I've dealt with stalkers before, you don't fucking scare me."

An almost indignant chittering sounded from the trees.

“Stalker?!”

"Uh, yeah? You're kinda following me in the woods, man.”

The chittering quieted. The sound of a breeze whooshed past Emma but she still felt no air. 

“Not trying to stalk.”

The voice sounded apologetic, anxious. Emma watched the shadows around the tree shift seemingly on their own. Before she could say anything the voice came again.

“You get out. Go back.”

Something dark immediately rushed from the trees and swept past her. With it came an indignant stubbornness in Emma and without further thought she spun on her heel to follow.

“Hey!” She yelled, running after the figure.

It moved something like a man and something like a wolf. The way it seemed to pause, ears up like it was listening for her, only to keep running, made Emma think deer as well. She gained on the figure and her hand shot out fast enough to grab onto her culprit, as she dug her boots into the damp dirt to keep them both still.

“Gotcha!”

Emma’s triumphant grin died the second she looked up and caught a glimpse of the thing she’d grabbed, standing above her in a patch of dwindling sunlight.

A somewhat man-shaped mass of pitch black shadow, tall, sharp-looking spines protruding from its hunched back. The same pointed ears she thought she’d seen earlier stuck out from its head, twitching anxiously and ruffling its fluffy hair. The only feature within the dark silhouette was its big, round eyes, a vibrant light blue set against the black hole of darkness. Emma’s grip was secured around a wrist, the thing’s clawed hand balled into a fist. Its big eyes creased slightly into frightened crescents, a quiet yipping sound filling the air, like a scared animal.

Emma was frozen in shock. 

“...What are you?”

She couldn’t keep her grip when the creature yanked away and fled back into the surrounding shadows.

“Hey, wait!” She stumbled into a clumsy run, squinting to keep track of the movement as the creature disappeared into a small thicket. She flung her hands up in a gesture of peace - this thing was clearly more scared of her than she was of it. “I’m not gonna hurt you! At least, as long as you’re not gonna hurt me.” 

She slowed her approach, keeping her hands up. Slowly, the creature’s bright eyes emerged from the dark of the thicket, fixed on her.

“Not gonna hurt you.”

“Okay.” Emma said, nodding.

“Okay. Okay.”

Emma laughed a little, watching the creature’s ears twitch and flatten as she slowly came closer. She gestured her raised hands up a little further. It - he - stayed still, watching her intently, head cocked to the side.

“This is as fucking weird to me as it is to you, I swear,” She scoffed a little at herself. “But I think we’re fine, right? I mean, you seem pretty chill.” She held out her hand. “I’m Emma.”

The creature studied her cautiously, chirping softly. He reached out his own hand and took hers, and Emma felt the hairs at the back of her neck stand on end at how strange the touch felt. It really was like a living shadow; not fully corporeal, an odd, wispy kind of softness to it, and warm. A little frozen, still processing everything about this creature, Emma awkwardly shook the hand in hers, stepping back as he moved to step out from the thicket. Standing fully, he loomed tall over her, though hunched like an animal on its hind legs. Emma could see the wolfish tail sweeping side to side behind his legs.

“Emma. Pretty.”

Emma snickered, still shaking the creature’s hand. “Well, I’ve never seen any other featureless shadow men, but I guess you’re not too bad yourself.”

The chittering in response was reminiscent of a quiet laugh. Emma smiled.

The creature glanced up at the sun setting behind the trees, then back at Emma, nodding over her shoulder towards the trail. “Pretty Emma, go back.”

Emma followed where he gestured and noticed she’d somehow made it back to the edge of the woods, around where she’d first entered. Her brows knit.

“What, you want me to leave?”

A strangely beautiful, almost melodic - Emma swore she heard a guitar strumming - hum of confirmation filled the air. “Leave.”

Frowning, Emma glanced up at the setting sun before digging her phone out of her pack to check the time. “I guess it is-”

That slight howling wind sound whooshed past again, and Emma looked up just in time to see the creature retreating back into the woods. She blinked.

“...kinda late.”

--

The soft snoring of her nephew under the blankets pulled Emma out of the end of her story. Tim was sound asleep. Emma softly brushed his curly hair out of his face and stood up, turning the living room light off and heading back to her own bedroom. She hadn’t quite gotten to all she’d wanted to tell, but that was fine. If he liked it, she’d have more to tell the next time he stayed over. 

It seemed pretty likely that he would be staying over again when Tom picked him up in the morning.

“Thanks for taking him for the night, Emma, it was a big help.” Tom said, ruffling the boy’s hair.

“Ah, no problem,” Emma shrugged. “We had a good time, right bud?”

“Mhm!” Tim nodded.

“Alright, we’ll get out of your hair.” Tom shifted Tim’s overnight bag onto his shoulder. “See you for dinner next week, yeah?” 

“Sounds good. Later, Tom.” 

Emma waved, watching them head down the hall of the apartment complex. Once they’d gone, she stretched out her back and went back inside to gather up her things. She pulled on a vest, tied her hair up into a ponytail, and laced up her hiking boots, shoving a few snacks into her backpack and hefting it onto her shoulders before heading down to the complex parking lot herself, far enough behind to not run into them again. She tossed her bag in her car and slid in, drumming her fingers on the wheel. 

What could she say, talking about him made her want to see him again.

She walked with purpose into the woods, following the trail fairly deep until she felt her chances were good.

“Hey!” She called, to the response of a flurry of chirps and rustling leaves. She grinned, sure he was around. “You gonna come out, man? I told you last time, you can’t keep me from coming back.”

The chirps settled a bit, and Emma locked onto the big, blue eyes glowing within a cluster of trees. 

“I see you, dude.”

His chittering filled the woods, and the shadow man walked out, ears twitching.

Chapter Text

"I used to draw a lot in high school, y'know," Emma said, balancing her notebook on her knee as she worked to capture the petals of the patch of flowers in front of her on paper. "Not saying I was any good, but, hey, it was something."

She could see - and kind of feel - the shadow man drifting behind her on all fours. He radiated darkness, and he also radiated warmth. Emma felt it tingling on the back of her neck as he craned overhead, looking down at her paper with those big blue eyes.

"Good something."

Emma paused and looked at her work, the eraser end of her pencil between her teeth. "You think so?" The warmth behind her dropped heavy suddenly and she tensed, the creature leaning over her with a huff, resting his head on top of hers. He hummed that weird little hum of his and Emma snickered. "Well thanks."

She sketched another curve on the stem, squinting at her flower of choice. It was a small patch of wild columbines - arched stem with pinkish-red petals billowing out downwards in the shape of twin bells, yellow pistils hanging down from within. Part of her assignment included an illustrated diagram of her chosen subject's anatomy, and it was possible she'd been putting off some of her classwork for some more engaging research.

Shadow people, like her new companion, were a part of Hatchetfield lore, when she went searching she did come up with results. But this lore wasn’t nearly as prevalent as the Willabella Muckwab, or Lumber-Axe the Mad Woodsman, or the Hatchetfield Ape-Man. They were just passing details, to make the woods feel spookier - even from the blog or two Emma found run by locals deeply invested in the lore of the witchwood, there was barely anything about shadow people. 

It was believed they were creatures formed from the lost, trapped souls of people who had died in the woods long ago. Apart from that, and vague warnings to avoid their presence lest you end up trapped, too, there was nothing. Nothing about how they lured people, how they were made, how many there may be. No one could even try to describe the basics of what they looked like, or real signs of their presence apart from strangely moving shadows. People at least made theories about the Hatchetfield Ape-Man.

Emma had managed, completely by chance and stubbornness, to stumble upon and befriend what was apparently one of the most elusive and mysterious creatures in the witchwood. If not, at least by majority, the most dangerous. 

She glanced up at him, still resting against her back, looking right back down at her. His eyes narrowed into squinty slits, like a contented cat, his chin nuzzling against the top of Emma’s head. She smiled. Dangerous was definitely not the right word for this one.

With a little sigh Emma turned back to her sketch, darkening the lines of the columbine’s arched stem.

"I guess I am pretty decent," she continued speaking mainly for the sake of her company's large ears. "Imagine how good I'd be if I hadn't stopped, though, right?" She swept eraser crumbs off the notebook into the grass. "Not that it matters, I wouldn't've done anything of value with it anyway. The arts don't make for 'real' careers, not like psychiatry. Especially when you didn't even go to college." Emma's flippant tone devolved into something a little softer and heavier. She hadn't meant to go there so quick.

She sat still and quiet, looking down at her page with a head filling of static until her companion nudged against her back and gave a concerned little coo. Emma shook herself and sat up, flipping her notebook closed dismissively. She grabbed her backpack off the low hanging branch of one of the surrounding trees and dug inside, mumbling an irritated whatever to herself. She stashed the notebook and plucked out a granola bar. Slumping back against the base of the trunk, she crossed one leg over the other and ripped open the bar.

"I'd ask if you want some, but you don't have a mouth." She ribbed, glancing up at her companion.

The shadow man squinted at her, bewildered. "Have a mouth!"

"Oh, bullshit."

He shook his head. "No bullshit."

"Let me see."

He huffed. Emma grinned and waved her hand expectantly, and as the shadow man's eyes narrowed the black of his face split into a mouth, formed in a tense mimic of Emma's grin, revealing a row of massive, razor sharp white teeth. Emma's expression dropped into shock.

"Jesus christ."

The shadow man's grin widened, a little more natural as he buzzed out an attempt at a laugh, sounding like a squirrel had swallowed a chainsaw. 

"Well, sorry to snub you then, man," Emma said, laughing a little herself. "I assumed you just don’'t eat."

The creature tilted his head, sharp teeth vanishing back into shadow and puzzlement. "Don't."

Emma frowned. "Okay. What do you use that thing for, then? You clearly don't talk with it." She was met with a shrug and rolled her eyes. "Whatever. You want to try some?"

She held out the granola bar, of the chocolate and macadamia nut variety, as the shadow man dropped to sit down on his haunches beside her, leaning forward curiously. Emma broke off a chunk and offered it to him.

"I don't know how shadow people work, let me know if you've got allergies." She joked.

Her companion smiled, showing his teeth again. He took the bar in his mouth, and watching him eat it was clear he’d never eaten anything at all before. It was like he didn’t even know how to use his mouth, awkwardly chomping his big shark teeth around like he’d never even opened his maw before. Granola crumbs spewed into Emma’s face.

“Dude, gross!” She shielded her face.

The shadow man squeaked like a frightened rabbit and covered his mouth. “Sorry!”

Emma laughed, brushing herself off, and bumped the creature’s arm with her own. He looked at her, eyes wide, and slowly built up that buzzing, not-quite-a-laugh sound again. Emma grinned and he bumped her in response.

“Well, you’ve eaten now,” she said. “Thoughts on granola?”

He squinted his eyes like he was thinking on it. “...Decent?”

Emma snickered. “Noted.”

She sunk a little further down against the tree trunk, tilting her head back to look up at the sky. For the two-ish weeks following her first encounter with the shadow man, she’d dropped by a few times given she had the time in between work and class. He was warming up to her fairly quickly, even if he always made her leave before sundown. She watched beside her as he clumsily mimicked the way she leaned back, pulling his legs up to his chest and curling his tail around his hip. It definitely seemed he was more accustomed to sitting like an animal than like a person. 

"That looks comfortable," She said.

He glanced down at himself, tail swishing, and tried to adjust a little, pushing himself up straighter. Emma snickered, breaking off another little piece of the granola bar to give him before taking a bite for herself. 

“Y’know, I should probably ask,” she said, voicing her thoughts as they came. “What’s your name? You have one?” 

He’d never given her one, but who knew, maybe it was just hidden like his mouth. The way he looked at her, though, it didn’t seem like that was the case.

“Name?”

“What I’d call you, man. Mine’s Emma, you call me Emma.” She said, gesturing to herself, then to him. “I’ve got to assume your name isn’t Dude or Shadow Man.”

He shook his head. “Not. Don’t have one.”

Emma frowned. He couldn’t have never had one. She didn’t like the idea of that, or of never calling him by a real name. Something about that was disconcertingly upsetting to her, in a way she couldn’t quite explain. He couldn’t just be some shadow. If the vague theories about the creature he was were right, he’d been a person before. He still was a person, to a clear enough degree. She didn’t know if he remembered it, from the way it seemed so unfamiliar to him, but he had to be. He deserved to have a name. And she deserved to have something to call him. 

“Do you want one?”

“A name?”

 

“Yeah.” He shrugged. “Okay, I'm gonna give you a name.”

“Okay.”

“You’re gonna help me out though, I won’t saddle you with something you don’t like.”

“Okay.”

Emma studied him. It was a little hard to come up with a fitting name when he didn’t have much of a face. She knew already she was sticking to human names - anything else would just feel strange.

“I guess you could be a Christopher?” She started off. “Chris for short?”

He gave a little rumble that didn’t sound too pleased with that.

“Okay, not that. Maybe John?” Another rumble. “Ben?” Another. “Daniel?” He shook his head and Emma sighed, sliding further down and stuffing another bite of her bar into her mouth. “I dunno, man, I’ve never been good at naming shit. I’m not giving you an animal name, and you give me generic-white-guy-in-a-suit energy for some reason, that’s all I’ve got. Fuckin’ Wallace, maybe?”

“No.”

“...Gary?”

He huffed. “No.”

Emma snorted. “You’re not really making this any easier, pal.”

Funny enough, she saw a tiny glint of recognition in his eyes at that, and he chittered curiously. Emma raised a brow.

“...Was pal close?”

“Maybe.”

“Jesus christ. Okay. Uh, Sal?” Head shake. “Cal? Like Calvin?”

“No.”

“Ughh,” Emma dragged a hand down her face. “Pat?” Rumble. “Paul?”

He suddenly chirped, loud and right in her ear, and Emma jumped. His ears perked and his eyes wide with recognition, he chirped and chittered excitedly. Emma sat up straight.

“Paul? Is that it? Your name’s Paul?”

He seemed to think on it for a moment before nodding. “Paul!”

Emma grinned, and he grinned back. Somehow the name really suited him. “Well hi, Paul.” She said, holding out her hand.

She’d meant for him to shake it, but low enough in her reach Paul instead leaned forward and nuzzled his head against her hand, chittering cheerfully. “Hi, Emma.”

Laughing, Emma accepted it, moving her hand up to run through the softer fluff of his hair. Yeah, dangerous definitely wasn’t the right word for this one. Sweetheart was much more fitting.

--

Emma and Paul sat together quietly, as the sun began its downward trek towards the horizon and the woods filled with the buzzing of cicadas. While she polished off the rest of her snack, from the corner of her eye Emma watched the shadow man’s ears twitch to the sounds, a soft echo sounding from him. She could also hear the sound of lightly falling rain despite the mostly cloudless sky, a distinctly melodic quality to his echoes as though he was harmonizing with the cicadas. Slowly, his own whispery vocalizing crept into the chorus until he was singing softly to himself, his eyes relaxed little crescents. 

Wiping crumbs off onto her jeans, Emma shifted a little to face him, watching. His head rocked slightly within the rhythm, clawed fists tapping together in his lap. 

Despite the calm, a good ways behind him, through the trees, Emma could see the shape of a wolf prowling, shrouded in shadow but padding quietly closer. She squinted - its eyes were the same blue as her companion’s. A similar shape formed slowly behind it - there were more than one. And the echoed sounds were growing louder, almost surrounding the area. 

Before Emma could observe any further, though, Paul suddenly jolted out of his contentment, first by her watching him, and second noticing the wolves. Emma tensed in turn as the spines on his back seemed to raise and he leapt to his feet, pushing her to stand, too. She scrambled to gather her things as he jostled her in the opposite direction, growling back at the approaching wolves like he’d been threatened. When Emma was suitably moving he took off in a bound on all fours, and Emma ran after him, weaving through the trees until he stopped again and instantly circled around her, ears perked and twitching wildly, watching like he was worried they’d been followed.

“...Paul?” Emma tried, stumbling to get her footing, and after a moment the shadow man huffed and faced her again. “You okay?”

“Okay.” He confirmed. “Leave now.” 

“What?”

He butted his head against her shoulder insistently. “Leave.”

"No! What the hell was that?"

"Emma." He sank down so they were level, taking her by the shoulders.

"Paul."

He blinked, still not used to the name, then his ears flattened down and he nudged her again.

"Pretty Emma. Leave. "

Emma sighed. It wasn't worth it to argue, knowing the sun was setting anyway. "Okay, fine. But I'll see you tomorrow." She pointed at him like it was a threat and gripped her backpack straps. "Later, Paul."

She turned and headed towards the outskirts of the woods, expecting him to have vanished when she glanced back like he had the other times. He hadn't this time, the shine of his big blue eyes watching her go intently. Against the growing darkness of the setting sun, it almost looked like a matching light blue glow outlined his body. Emma lifted her hand in a little wave and he mirrored the gesture. 

Paul watched her until she was out of his line of sight. Then he turned and headed back, further into the woods. Shadows stretched as the evening grew darker, and like an exhausted man seeking a rest under a comfortable blanket, Paul slunk into the darkest shelter available, unseen by design. He curled into himself, feeling his ears perk as he heard the shadow wolves howling, and resisted the urge to echo.

Chapter Text

Shadow wolves were tenacious pursuers. Paul had been dealing with them for ages, and the fact remained as set as ever that he did not want their company, no matter how hard they pushed. He stayed still in his shelter as their howling calls grew distant, and eventually silent. By the time they'd retired to their den for the night it was truly dark in the woods. 

Fucking finally.

Paul crept into the open, dizzy on his feet and exhausted. The wolves knew what they were doing when they howled like that. He could only hope that he could prevent them coming around when he had the company he did want again. She didn’t need to see that. 

Clouds had gathered. He breathed in the damp, rainy night air, letting it wash over him and clear his head. The woods were his home, they always knew how to ground him. Cool droplets fell on his head, sinking into his wispy shadow form with a calming chill. It always felt like the rain fell through him. 

With a soft huff of a sigh and perking his ears up in all directions to ensure no further encounters, he comfortably left his shelter.

It had taken him some time to love his home. All he knew of the start of his existence was pain and pain and pain, and once the pain stopped all he had was fear. He hadn’t known where he was, he hadn’t known who he was, all he knew was the horrible hurting and how fucking terrified he was that it would come back. Everything around him felt like a threat to hurt him again. It had taken time, but he’d learned that, though home to plenty an unsavory presence, the darkness of the woods was kind. It was gentle and welcoming, and one of the only familiarities Paul had ever had. When it was dark he couldn’t be seen, he couldn’t be hurt, and he couldn’t be frightened. He felt safe on the darkest, starless nights, when the moon wasn’t even a sliver in the sky, to wander as he pleased and sing quietly to himself. Where there was always a place to hide should he need it.

He enjoyed the rain, too; the light beating of sky water on the ground and the leaves, and the rumbling of thunder through the clouds was an orchestra to harmonize with, as well as mask his singing and keep him secure in his solitude. In the dark he could exist only for himself.

Drifting through the trees, Paul raised up his hand to feel the cool rainfall run through him, letting the echoes of strumming guitarists he'd heard playing around campfires over the years flow into the air. He liked that sound. He liked music. He liked singing. It felt wrong, sometimes, like it wasn’t really who he was, but that didn’t make sense. He’d always liked it. He’d always been like this, he’d always been in the woods. The guitar chords lowered, the sound buzzing in his throat. He felt like he’d been reminding himself of that a lot more lately. It had been rare before, the feeling that he wasn’t quite himself, or that he didn’t really belong here despite never having known anything else, but recently it was coming up more often. 

Since he’d met Emma, actually. 

Paul had been around humans before, in passing. He’d never actually met one before Emma. Pretty Emma, who chased him when he tried to run, and always came back even after he’d told her to go. Humans were no strangers to going places they didn’t belong; scaring hikers back to the outskirts of the woods when they veered too far off the trails too late at night and keeping wandering campers in check was old hat for Paul. He’d figured out a long time ago how to take what had once frightened him about the woods and turn it on the people who didn’t know their place. Emma wasn't afraid, though, she was curious. And she kept coming back and finding him, and Paul was glad. That was new. Stubborn humans made him nervous, it made him nervous to recognize campers and hikers, but Emma didn't make him nervous. 

Emma made him happy. A different kind of happy than nice music or rainy days or a big, comfortable patch of shadows. He didn't think he'd ever felt this kind before.

Because of Emma he had a name. He was Paul now and though it would take some getting used to, something about that felt important. Special. None of the others in the woods like him had names. None of the wolves did. He'd never been the only shadow, but he was the only Paul. And it was weird and different, but he liked it. 

He liked Emma and the way she talked to him, even if it was unfamiliar, even if something about her made that off feeling a little more present.

A soft blue glow rose off the pitch black shape of Paul’s body. It surrounded him, lighting him up in the dark. His ears twitched, tail swishing nervously and he dove into a darker underbrush to conceal himself.

The shadows around him swallowed the glow, washed in a deep, twilight blue beneath the night. He huffed in relief. This was another thing Paul was getting used to on top of having a name now - glowing. He didn’t think he’d seen any of the others do that before. He certainly hadn’t done it himself until recently. At the very least it wasn’t too difficult to figure out the most likely correlation, though if the others glowed Paul doubted it had anything to do with a pretty, snarky hiker.

“Emma,” he murmured softly to himself, for no other reason than he liked the sound of her name. 

His song from the evening crept into his throat, echoes of buzzing cicadas, the gentle rushing of a stream to coincide with the falling rain, weaving in with tunes he’d heard before. Revisiting the song from when he was with her filled him with warmth as he drifted slowly through the underbrush, watching how the twilight blue colors shifted with his motion as they fully faded into the dark. When it was muted he actually found the glow very pretty. He continued on his night walk with leisure, carrying his hushed song with him.

The woods’ nocturnal life rustled softly around him. Most were just animals, unaffected by the shadows, but through the dark a few pairs of eyes like his peered, glowing purple from above, yellow through the thicket, white from lower on the ground. They would pay him no mind if he paid none to them. So he didn’t. 

He wandered peacefully undisturbed until the earliest golden-pink rays of sunlight began to spill over the horizon and through the clouds.

Emma had said tomorrow, he would be seeing her again soon. He moved towards the outskirts of the woods and slunk beneath a small patch of trees, settling down within the shield they cast from the daylight. He watched the sun make its journey up, washing the post-rain woods in a soft, bright warmth through the retreating clouds, shifting as his shelter did. 

Mornings were mostly quiet save for the cheerful chirping of the waking birds, and sometimes another sound Paul enjoyed hearing. He could hear it softly drifting through the trees now; the light, melodic plucking of guitar strings. Well, it wasn’t quite a guitar, he knew that much. It sounded enough like one, though. As he always did when he heard music in the woods, Paul felt a draw to get closer. 

He crept silently through patches of shadow towards the clearing where the trailer sat, and the young girl in the twin braids and layers of denim and flannel lounged out on the steps strumming the strings of her instrument. 

He’d seen her before, but never in the woods. Always just here, which he could tell was her home. He didn’t worry about the girl much, just enjoyed the mornings when she played her music. She played for no one but herself, the same way he sang. It was nice. Her music was pretty. 

Paul wasn’t sure how long she’d been playing when the chord seemed to snap out of tune and stop altogether, but when he opened his eyes the girl was staring right at him with wide, grey eyes.

For a moment he stared right back. 

“Hello?” The girl said, starting to stand.

Paul panicked and fled back into the camouflage of the trees before she could step any closer to where she didn’t belong.

Chapter Text

Emma balanced her breakfast bowl on her knee, where she sat crisscross on her sofa in front of the TV. The only slightly grating voices of Dan and Donna of Morning Cup O’News played in the background of Emma scrolling seemingly aimlessly through the blog feed on her phone.

Still yet to find anything about wolves. 

After returning home a few evenings ago and mulling over how it ended, Emma had pulled up the archive of one of the Hatchetfield lore blogs she’d been following. There were two big ones - essentially a glorified newsletter documenting solely the owners experience and research, and the one Emma preferred, a community-run blog whose owner allowed submissions and discussion boards. There was just more to find there, and she’d been combing through it in her free time for the last few days. Emma wasn’t really planning on sharing her own experiences publicly for the time being, but she hoped she’d be able to get something from the other people contributing to the blog. Even if there was very little on shadow beasts, she expected to find at least something strange about wolves.

There had to be a reason Paul reacted to them the way he did. Especially when he’d never reacted to other woodland creatures in their vicinity with anything beyond nonchalance before, and the wolves seemed to genuinely threaten him. Emma didn’t understand it, and her hunch that she'd get nothing of worth out of Paul turned out to be right when all he said the next day was that he didn't like them, and refused to dwell on the topic. So what better option than combing through the resources gathered by a hobbyist lore nut who ran a whole damn blog about this stuff?

Evidently that wasn’t much help either, though, as Emma was nearing the end and had found little to nothing about encounters with wolves at all. The timbers of Hatchetfield were just as generally peaceful as in any other forest, if a bit friendlier. There were other strange animal encounters recorded, nothing of immense substance, just uncanny behavior that Emma felt compelled to pay mind to. People being followed by strange-looking birds, under watch of purple eyes. Multiple stories of lost items found in the dark dens probably belonging to bears, only for the finder to be scared from the area recalling nothing but a flash of green. Sounds of a clock ticking were noted in multiple accounts, people convinced they’d felt a presence nearby but whatever it was always seeming too fast to be spotted. One story mentioned seeing a massive, toothy grin shadowed within the trees. That was reminiscent of Paul, knowing what his mouth looked like, but otherwise, the only mention of anything that Emma could find remotely helpful was passing remarks that the howling of the Hatchetfield timbers, when it came, sounded eerily song-like.

None of it gave her any intel on Paul’s behavior, though. Glancing at the time and noting she would have to leave for work soon, Emma closed out the archive with a sigh and finished her breakfast, half-watching the news show. She flapped a mocking puppet hand along with the anchors, now discussing the upcoming production block of Something’s Afoot at the Starlight Theatre downtown.

“With darling local performer Cassandra Fraley returning to portray Lettie, this upcoming hoot of a whodunnit is shaping up to be just the comeback our historic theatre has been needing after the roof caved in last year.” Donna said.

Her co-host maintained his plastered on grin. “That’s amazing, Donna.”

“Yeah I bet it fuckin’ is,” Emma muttered, reaching for the remote.

Those two had to be fucking on the side.

“Of course, some mysteries in Hatchetfield have yet to be solved,” Donna continued, her chipper tone dipping only slightly. “As this week we approach the eight year anniversary of the most recent unsolved event in town history, the disappearance of-”

Click.

Emma switched off the TV.

--

The songs on the radio were grating this morning. Or maybe Emma was just tired. Didn’t matter. She cranked down the volume to drive in silence, letting her gaze drift out the side window for a few moments.

Her hands tightened on the wheel as she passed by the Hatchetfield cemetery. About nine months back in town, taking the same route to work regularly, for the most part Emma had learned to tune it out. Sometimes it still stung, though, when she caught herself looking at the gates and the wrong feeling settled in her stomach. It felt so wrong passing by there so casually knowing that was where Jane was, instead of in her home with her yeti-man husband and her adorable snark of a son, where she belonged. 

Emma sighed, rolling back her shoulders and adjusting her grip on the wheel. Just another part of the process, she thought, breathing out the heavy, cold feeling as best as she could and turning her eyes back to the road. 

She drove on. 

Zoey had already opened up when Emma clocked in for her shift, greeting her with a distracted “Morning, Emma.” 

“Morning,” Emma said, tying her apron around her waist. “We get those fall flavors in yet?”

“They’re in the back.”

“I’m gonna bring ‘em out, you think Nora will notice if I heist some of that cinnamon pecan shit?” 

Zoey glanced over her shoulder where she was setting up the mugs. “I won’t tell if you hook me up with a latte.”

“...Deal.” 

Emma headed to the back where the box of flavor syrups they’d had delivered for the start of the season were sitting, hefted it into her arms and carted it out to the counter. Zoey was humming some showtune under her breath as she’d moved on to stacking to-go cup sizes. 

“Give me two smalls,” Emma said after setting up the cluster of pumps with the new flavors.

Her coworker handed over the cups and leaned back against the edge of the counter while Emma made the drinks. 

Zoey clicked her tongue a few times. “What’d you get up to this weekend?”

“I met my brother-in-law for a very awkward lunch the other day. Rest of it was studying for midterms, mostly, and I went on a couple hikes in the woods when I had the time.”

“The witch woods?”

“Yeah.”

“So that’s why you couldn’t cover my shift on Saturday, you asshole.” 

Emma rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I was busy.” 

“Two hikes over a weekend.” Zoey frowned.

“Yeah, Zoey. I spent the last decade backpacking, that’s not exactly new for me. Besides, I’m counting Friday.” 

“I mean, unless you believe in those hokey local legends I doubt you’re seeing anything in our woods as interesting as where you were. ‘Cept maybe some weird-looking birds.”

Emma scoffed on reflex; she’d definitely seen some interesting things on her treks through Central America, but nothing remotely like her shadow friend. Paul and anything else in the woods like him were certainly a Hatchetfield exclusive.

“You’d be surprised,” she said.

Zoey was quiet for a moment before Emma heard her quietly snickering behind her.

“What, did you see the Hatchetfield Ape Man or something?” She teased.

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Emma snarked.

“...Did you?”

“No, Zoey. Take your damn latte.” 

“Okay, jeez.” Zoey snatched the drink. “Just saying, I wouldn’t take you for a lore nut.” 

“You never know,” Emma shrugged, turning back to make her own drink, “Some of it’s interesting.” 

“Fair enough.” Zoey blew into the cup to cool down its contents before popping on a lid. She was quiet for another moment before glancing at Emma. “Just try not to like, die or whatever.” 

Emma snorted. “Thanks, Zo.” 

“Seriously, Emma, people die in there. I haven’t believed in any of the muck-witch, woolly-foot shit since I was little, but those woods are still fucked. Some guy went missing only a few years back and they could never even find his body, it’s like he just fucking vanished.”

“Aren’t you a little young to be mom-friending me?”

Zoey scoffed, setting her cup on the counter. “You suck, I’m so not helping the cops at all when you do disappear.” 

Emma clicked her tongue. “Good, I hope they think you did it.” 

Zoey snickered. Emma finished making her own drink and topped it off, taking a sip.

“Nasty, huh?” Zoey said.

“Ugh, yep,” Emma wrinkled her nose.

--

Emma worked through her morning shift with Zoey a little absently, probably noticeably antsy as the hours ticked by to clock out so she could visit Paul again. She didn’t have any classes on Mondays, so the afternoon was all hers, and with her backpack sitting in her passenger seat, Emma knew exactly how she wanted to spend it. She enjoyed his company, what could she say.

“What can I do for you?” She asked, glancing at the next customer in line, near the end of her shift.

The man in front of her looked noticeably downtrodden enough that Emma felt her own mood sink a little bit upon laying eyes on him. Though he perked up when she addressed him, there was still an anchor of reserved melancholy beneath his pleasant demeanor.

“Can I just get a caramel frappe and a black coffee?” He asked, scratching at the scruff on his chin.

“Sure thing, sizes?” Emma asked.

“Medium frappe, small black coffee, thanks.”

“Sure thing.” Emma punched in the order. “That’ll be $6.40.” 

The man dug in his pockets for his wallet, counting out the bills, and dropping the change Emma gave him into the tip jar. 

“You don’t have to sing,” he clarified, noting the sign taped to the jar.

“Thanks.” Emma sighed, “I didn’t want to anyway.” 

He laughed lightly.

“So, both of these for you?” Emma asked, filling the air as she readied the blender.

The man seemed to bristle at the question, adjusting his patterned red tie. 

“I’m, uh, meeting a friend today,” he said, the tone of his voice dipping slightly, volume dropping significantly. “I haven’t seen him in a long time. One of them’s for him.” 

“Oh.” Emma softened a little, feeling the cold weight pulling down his tone settle in her own chest. “Well, I hope it’s nice to see him again.” 

The man offered a small smile. “Thank you.”

Emma smiled back.

--

Pulling her car into the parking lot, Emma swung her backpack over her shoulders and practically flung herself out the door, bounding up to the trails. Today had tired her out, and that cold weight from earlier hadn’t quite left her chest. She was even more ready to see her friend than before. As her visits were becoming more frequent, she knew Paul had taken to waiting for her closer to the edge of the woods, so she didn’t walk too long before calling for him.

“Hey, Paul! I got some more granola bars for ya!”

She heard him call back from a little ways in the distance.

“Emma!”

She grinned, waiting as his bright blue eyes poked out from a shadowed thicket, then disappeared, then again from the bushes closer, disappearing again and reappearing closer every time until Paul crept out into the open and immediately bumped his head against hers when he reached her.

“Hi, Emma.”

Emma reached up and ran her fingers through his hair, listening to the soft rumble that came from his throat beneath a cheerful chirp.

“Hey, dude. Let’s go sit somewhere, I’m tired.” 

“Okay.” 

They walked together to a cluster of trees and settled beneath the darkening shadows. Paul seemed especially hesitant lately to let Emma get too deep into the woods, even with his company, but when all she wanted to do was sit with him she didn’t mind too much. Under the trees it was a little hard to properly see him without squinting sometimes, but every now and then a soft blue glow would outline the shape of his body enough to clear it up. Usually when she touched him.

“Here,” she said, ripping the wrapping off another granola bar and holding it out to him. “Maybe you’ll like this one, it’s got cranberries in it.” 

Emma had grown curious now that she knew Paul could eat and didn’t mind doing so, if she could find something he actually liked. Nothing she’d made him try so far seemed to strike a chord with him beyond decent.

The split in his face that formed his currently-visible mouth shaped into a small frown with his bright eyes creased in mild confusion, ears twitching. He broke a piece off the bar with the tips of his claws, though, splitting his face open further - almost uncomfortably so, like he was unhinging his jaw - and dropping it into his mouth. 

“Christ,” Emma snickered - it never got less weird.

A quiet little growl buzzed from Paul’s throat and he grimaced. “That’s gross.” 

“Dammit,” Emma folded up the rest of the bar in the tinfoil and dropped it into her backpack. “I’ll find something you actually like, I fuckin’ swear.”

“Why? I don’t need it.” 

“I dunno,” Emma shrugged. “I just wanna bring you something you like.”

Paul rumbled softly again. “Nice of you.”

“Yep, I’m a huge fucking sweetheart.” She laughed.

Paul echoed her laugh with that buzzing chitter sound, scooting a little closer to her. “Nice to me.”

“I like you,” Emma said, reaching up to play with his hair absentmindedly.

“I like you, too.” 

She glanced up and the brightness of his eyes had softened a little, creased in a shape reminiscent of a smile, despite his mouth being hidden again. The glow was back. Emma snickered, letting her nails lightly scratch the top of Paul’s head and watching his eyes squint and his ears flatten. Huffing softly he dropped his head to rest on top of hers. She let him, feeling the warmth of his shadow seep over her with his closeness. Something in her still felt a little cold, though.

Chapter Text

“Bullshit.”

“I know, right?” Emma flung her arms up, stopping where she was pacing across the grassy clearing. “And then Nora threatens to fire me because I wouldn’t sing for this asshole. I can’t lose my fucking job, so now I’m gonna have to do the singing. This policy is total bullshit.” 

Paul hummed in agreement from the sun-spotted patch of shadow he sat in. Emma had been unloading about her day at work for the majority of her visit today, and Paul was perfectly happy to just receive it. He liked listening to Emma talk,  she could probably talk to him about anything at all while she visited and he would gladly listen. Even if he shouldn’t know anything about what she was telling him, there was something he understood about it. He’d never been anywhere near a coffee shop before, but he knew what it was. He understood what Emma’s job entailed without explanation, and didn’t feel a need to question anything about her story. He wasn’t sure why. It felt distantly familiar in a way he couldn’t quite grasp, even though Paul knew for sure he had absolutely no experience with anything she was telling him.

It should’ve been off-putting, but somehow he didn’t really mind.

“Ugh,” Emma huffed, plopping herself down in the grass next to him. “Anway. I’ll stop talking those massive ears off now.”

Paul chirped, still not quite managing to capture the sound of a laugh, twitching his ears around pointedly. Emma grinned and reached up, ruffling his hair around those ears. The chirp quieted into a soft rumble, like a purr, and Paul leaned into her touch. Closeness and touch was the best way Paul was familiar with to communicate affection, and Emma only reinforced that. She ran her fingers softly through his hair, following his ears as they moved until her hand traveled to the base of his neck at the back of his head and absentmindedly scratched.

His eyes widened and his rumble pitched up, like the sound a surprised cat would make. Emma froze, drawing her hand away.

“You okay?” 

Paul hummed, reaching to mimic the action, very gently scratching behind Emma’s ear where her hair was pulled back into a loose bun. She laughed and swatted his hand away. 

“That tickles, you weirdo!” She snickered.

Paul pulled away, chittering again. With a grin Emma mussed up his hair a little more for good measure and he bumped her with his shoulder. She bumped him back, and sighing quietly reached into her backpack to check her phone.

“Ah, shit, I should go before I run out of time to study today,” she said, moving to get to her feet. “I have a bio exam tomorrow.”

Paul followed her, walking her from the clearing to the outskirts of the woods. It was still early afternoon, the sun hadn’t begun to set yet. 

“Later, Paul!” She waved, heading on her way when he stopped.

“Bye, Emma!” He waved back and watched until she was gone.

Paul slunk his way back into the thick of the woods.

A little ways into his walk back, he heard a soft chattering from the ground below him. He stopped and looked around, gaze landing on a cluster of four bright white eyes looking up at him through a small patch of shadows. Two pairs of ears, pointed like his but standing a bit taller, twitched slightly. Paul walked on, only for the chattering to come again, the other group of shadows following him. Paul didn’t care what other shadows did as long as they did no harm, but he did not like being followed. He narrowed his eyes and lowered himself to the forest floor.

“Leave.”

The smaller shadows didn’t respond. They didn’t move or make any sound in agreement or opposition to him, they just stared right up at him. Frustrated, Paul bared his teeth and swiped a clawed hand towards them, trying to gesture to scram.

“Go.”

Still nothing. Paul huffed and tried to just move on again, but the pair of small shadows still followed him. He stopped and so did they, he moved and so did they. What the hell did they want?  

He elected to just sit and stare right back at them and see if that changed anything, but it didn’t. They just locked him into a staring contest and Paul was not enjoying this prolonged eye contact. He just wanted to go without being fucking followed, dammit!

He dropped down again, growling this time, hoping that would threaten them enough to leave him alone. One of the shadows cocked its head, and the other turned and looked off towards the outskirts of the woods. Another moment of stillness passed, and both of the shadows scurried off into the thicket. Paul huffed. Finally.

He pulled himself upright, but before he could continue on his way, he heard heavy, running footsteps pounding in the dirt, over crunching leaves. His ears twitched back and he turned just in time to see a girl run towards him and skid to a stop. It was the girl who lived in the trailer on the outskirts of the woods, her twin braids flying behind her as she moved. Paul was too startled to make a break for it in time, just watching the girl pause and look him up and down, like she was listening to something. Then she spoke, out of breath.

“Hide me.”

Paul blinked. “Hide you?”

She nodded. “Hide me.” 

Paul backed up. This was the second human who’d ever spoken to him, third to ever be this close. He didn’t know how to process this, it was so fast. He should just, run, right? He should just leave her here, he didn’t know this child. Anxious chitters buzzed in his throat as the girl stared up at him with frightened, wide eyes.

But if Paul understood anything, it was the need to hide.

Against his better judgement he held out his arms and pulled the girl close, letting her sink into his shadow as he cast himself back against a tall, wide sycamore, darkness creeping up the trunk and over the ground until he and the girl were completely, inconspicuously hidden. 

He felt the girl curling tight into herself, pushing as far against him as she could. Paul’s shadow wrapped around her tighter, and he listened carefully in the direction she’d come. He didn’t hear anything at first. Then;

“Nanners! Where the hell’d you go, girl!” 

Paul watched a figure in the distance hobble a little ways into the woods, looking around halfheartedly for a moment. 

“Ah get yerself lost for all I care…” 

The figure turned back and after a few moments disappeared from Paul’s line of sight. That had to be who the girl was hiding from, and he remained still and quiet until she stirred in his grasp.

“Okay. Let me out now.” She said. Paul released her and she stepped back out into the light. She shook herself, brushing off the lingering wispy, too-warm sensation of hiding in a living shadow, and glanced up at him. “Thank you.” 

Paul nodded slightly, keeping his eyes fixed down the path where the figure had been. A soft growl rumbled in his throat.

"I'm fine. Momma doesn't hit," the girl said quietly, following his gaze, "but sometimes I get scared."

The growl deepened.

With a little sigh the girl turned back and started circling around Paul, looking him up and down again. Paul fell quiet, blinking down at her as she hovered her hand over his wispy form. 

“You’re the shadow I saw.” She said matter-of-factly. “Webby says, stuck. Broken toy. Not one of the pack.”

Paul tilted his head. “Webby?”

“My friend. Says you’re a friend, too, you won’t hurt me.”

“Won’t,” he confirmed, nodding slightly.

But who was Webby, and what did they know about him?

The kid just continued to nonchalantly study him. Paul bristled a little, backing up, and she respected his space, straightening to look him in the face.

“Stuck?” he tried.

“Stuck here,” the girl nodded. “Like the tree people, but you weren’t planted.”

“Planted,” Paul echoed pensively.

He knew what the tree people were. He knew as much about how they got there as he did about his own kind, but he could feel their presence. The sycamores that swayed when there wasn't even a slight breeze, like they were waving hello, the ones whose shelter felt the most familiar and understanding. The ones he could tell liked when he sang. 

The girl had started walking, a little further into the woods, and Paul caught up to follow behind her. 

“Their roots are in the ground,” she said, “yours are just in you.” 

She looked around as they walked, her every step cautious but curious. The way she regarded her surroundings with intrigue was like a little explorer walking a familiar path that had changed in between outings. She wrinkled her nose.

“I can’t see everything when I’m awake.” 

Paul didn't have anything to say to that. He walked with her quietly, watching her take in everything. She moved slow and thoughtful, and she stayed near Paul like he was her guardian. He had a feeling she wouldn't try to go too far. He also had a feeling that when she did go home, it wouldn't be the last he saw of her.

"Do you have a name?" He asked.

"Hannah," she said, rolling a stray rock down the path with her foot. "Do you?"

"Paul."

She stopped and glanced back at him, probably not expecting an answer. Paul didn't know how to tell her it was new for him too. She faced away again slowly, rolling the rock back and forth under the sole of her shoe.

"Paul is nice."

He hummed. He liked it too. 

--

Paul trailed Hannah through the outer areas of the witchwood until the sun dipped low enough towards the horizon to streak the sky pink. She was quiet, for the most part. She greeted some of the trees as they passed, and told Paul they said hello. As he accompanied her back towards her home he drifted thoughtlessly into one of his songs.

“That’s pretty,” she said. 

“Thank you.” 

She stopped walking for a moment, brows furrowed like she was listening to something again. Paul didn’t hear anything. Hannah turned and looked straight at him.

“Don’t trust songs without a source.” 

Paul blinked, unsure what to say to that. “Okay.” 

Hannah turned back and walked on without another word about it. 

He walked with her until they reached her trailer.

“Okay?” Paul asked quietly, remembering what she’d said about the woman from earlier.

Hannah nodded. “Okay. Promise. Thanks again.” 

Paul hummed. “Bye, Hannah.” 

“Bye.”

He watched Hannah head back to the outer clearing of the trailer park towards her home.

Another girl, older, layered in a hooded jacket, immediately swept Hannah into her arms.

“Hannah! God, there you are, you scared the crap out of me.” She squeezed the kid tight once before letting go. “You didn’t go too far in the woods, did you?” 

Hannah shook her head. “Nope.” 

“Alright, good. Who were you talking to back there?” 

“Paul.” 

“...Paul.” 

Hannah nodded. “Paul.” 

“...Okay. Is this another one of your tree friends, or-?”

“Not a tree. He’s a shadow.”

“Alright.” The older girl gave a brief nod. “Got it.” She ushered Hannah towards the trailer. “C’mon, Mom’s conked out, I can try to make something you like for dinner.” 

Hannah followed, but not before glancing back into the woods and catching Paul’s bright eyes. She waved, and he waved back.

Chapter Text

Emma spent her evening with her biology notes laid out on her apartment floor, textbook and laptop open, immersed in a cram session. After struggling her way through middle school and a particularly bad failure her freshman year, a younger Emma, not receiving the support she needed, had resigned herself to dragging through high school on the bare minimum and graduating by the skin of her teeth, only reinforced when she eventually decided to blow off college altogether and use all her funds to travel. In spite of everything she wouldn’t say she regretted her decision, and now that she was in the place that she was, community college seemed a much better fit for her than high school had been, or any private university would have. 

Though that didn’t mean she didn’t still struggle, though, finding herself in the very familiar position of having not studied for an exam scheduled for the next day, though.

Admittedly she could have spent a little more of her free time this week studying than in the woods, but it wasn’t like hindsight made much difference now. Nature walks were more appealing than note cards, anyway. They’d always helped her feel more at ease, no matter where she was, and hanging around Paul was always a bonus. Time spent making him try her hiking snacks and finding out he liked peanut butter pretzels of all things was massively worth it, in Emma’s clearly expert opinion. Worth both the time and the money she’d inevitably be spending on getting more for him now. She’d take the mildly panicked cram sessions if it meant more time walking the trail with Paul’s charmingly eerie songs following her, or the serenity of the woods when he was around. 

Despite Paul’s near constant anxious demeanor, the forest seemed to settle with his presence. Woodland animals wandered calmly nearby, even approaching like he was no different from them. Windy days seemed less harsh, darkness felt more welcoming, the strange sounds, like spirits whispering that the forest was known for seemed to quiet. Overall the woods just seemed less witchy when he was around. It was strange. 

Emma shook her head, snapping back to focus from her brief mental tangent. 

Fortunately, her lack of steady preparation wasn’t looking to be a problem for this exam, as she went through her notes for the unit, Emma was feeling pretty comfortable with most of the material. Professor Hidgens was a bit of a crackpot, but he was admittedly a pretty good teacher. After a few good hours of review and scribbling out some spare note cards, Emma closed her books and her laptop and stuck them in her backpack for the next morning. Stretching her back out with a sigh, she switched on the TV to the evening news and headed for the kitchen to make herself a cup of tea before going to bed. 

Tonight’s report was largely uneventful. A brief update on Peanuts the pocket squirrel with a cute little video provided by papa Ed, followed by the weather report for the coming days. Emma carried her nice warm mug out and took a seat on the sofa as the weather man threw it back to Dan.

"Thanks, Derek." He said. "Hatchetfield in the fall is certainly no stranger to dark, foggy evenings, though tonight's circumstances may give the weather a much more eerie feeling to those of us familiar with events in the witchwood forest."

"That's right, Dan." Donna said, her tone dipping the same somber way it had on the morning broadcast at the beginning of the week.

Emma nestled back on the sofa, taking a sip of her tea. This ought to be interesting.

“Eight years ago on this early October night, town local Paul Matthews went missing in the Hatchetfield witchwood.” 

Emma choked on her tea.

“Vanished, seemingly without a trace in the dead of night, the Matthews case was the first recorded disappearance in Hatchetfield history in well over thirty years, and sparked a renaissance in both fear and fascination for the legends of our local forest. Though its impact has yet to fully fade, with little to no information and the case long declared cold, this is a mystery doomed to remain unsolved.” 

Emma couldn’t fully process what she was hearing anymore. She felt like her ears were ringing. She fumbled to set her mug down on the coffee table and grab the remote to pause the broadcast, her mind racing to make connections.

There was a photo of him onscreen caught in the midst of fading, a perfectly generic brown-haired, blue-eyed, white young man. Emma didn't believe she'd ever seen this man in her life - she'd never met a Paul Matthews, or any Paul at all until recently. She still found herself overcome with an unshakable feeling of recognition looking at him, though. She knew this man, even if she didn’t know him quite like this.

It couldn’t be a coincidence. It just couldn’t. Emma couldn’t conceive of any other possible explanation. Paul Matthews, whoever he’d been, died in the woods back then and became a lost soul. And Emma had befriended him. 

This connection shouldn't have been hitting her as hard as it was. She’d figured the limited theories about shadow beasts were correct, she knew that at his core, Paul was the lost soul of a dead man. But she'd assumed he was a much older soul. The idea that he'd been lost so recently, only within the last decade, felt impossible.

It felt almost terrifying. 

Still in shock, Emma let the broadcast continue and Dan and Donna quickly moved on to their closing story, their acknowledgement of the long-missing man almost insultingly brief. She was left in the dust, unable to process anything further, and switched off the TV entirely. Her brain felt rattled. Her hand felt around to pick up her phone where it sat next to her and, feeling stuck in autopilot, searched his name with shaking thumbs. The only results - not even an inactive Facebook page - were two short articles about his cold case and one archived memorial newscast.

Emma didn't get much sleep that night.

--

Paul Matthews was last seen on October 7th, 2010, on an overnight camping trip with self-proclaimed family friend Bill Woodward and his daughter, when he was somehow separated from them in the woods. When they were unable to find him again, Bill reported him missing to the police, and when a search party lasting weeks came up completely uneventful, the case was closed and Paul declared officially dead.

That was it. That was all there was.

None of her resources - not even the fucking memorial - even talked much about Paul, his now empty place in town society, even anything about a family he may have left behind. Hatchetfield was a small enough, gossipy enough island that to leave basically zero impression before disappearing entirely was kind of a feat. It made Emma's heart ache a little.

Who was this guy?

In the morning she swung by the Java Cafe for as much caffeine as could reasonably fit in one non-shitty drink before her exam. She did her best to stay focused on the test despite everything bouncing around in her head and finished within the hour, handing her sheet to Professor Hidgens and beelining to the campus library, where she printed out the two painfully short articles on the Matthews case and claimed a small table to comb through them again, highlighter in hand. It didn't exactly help her pick out any particularly helpful details - apart from highlighting and circling Bill Woodward, who had apparently turned down a few interview offers - but it familiarized her with all that was available about the story, and that was all she could really expect.

That didn’t make it less frustrating, though. With a tired sigh Emma dragged her hand down her face and gathered up her printed papers, stashing them in the front folder of one of her binders. With nothing else to work with, Emma was stuck biding her time until her next class, considering her next step to take now that she knew what she did. 

Confronting Paul directly wasn’t an option. Even if she felt remotely comfortable with the idea right now, there was no chance he knew anything. He hadn’t even known his own name before. 

Given her extremely limited resources, investment in actually solving the mystery of the Matthews case was nonexistent. Emma doubted even the most deeply fascinated witchwood lore nuts would be of any help.

Her only real option was attempting to contact Bill Woodward to see if he could tell her anything, but just the thought of that put her on the fence. It felt too quick, and who was she to call up this man she didn’t know in a frenzy just to hound him about his allegedly dead friend? Even if years had passed, Emma knew she certainly wouldn’t respond well to anyone hounding her or Tom about Jane’s death. She would keep that option in the back of her head, for now. 

So for now, she really had no options but to sit with this and process it.

--

It took Emma a while longer than it should have to head into the woods again. She’d taken a few extra shifts, bothered Hidgens for an extra credit opportunity, offered to pick Tim up from school a couple of days as an excuse to keep busy and distracted. She just needed time to process before she saw him again. 

She hadn’t quite expected Tim to bring up her shadow man story on one of their drives, though. She couldn’t really tell if he actually believed it or if he just enjoyed the idea and brought it up to humor her, but it didn’t really matter. He asked about the shadow man and Emma was suddenly thinking about missing him.

“It’s, uh, been a little bit since I last visited him,” she said, blinking in surprise. “But I could still tell you a quick story or two, if you want. Did I tell you I found out his name?” 

Her nephew listened, enjoying her recounting until she had to drop him off at home, upon which she swung by her apartment to grab her pack and headed right back to the goddamn woods. 

He wasn’t waiting for her, like he’d started doing. She headed deeper down the path than she had in weeks to find him, feeling purple eyes on her from the trees. Chirps, chitters, soft, whispering murmurs her mind vaguely associated into clear phrases. The woods did seem to talk when she was alone.

“Map… map… where’s the map…”

“Can’t see…”

Emma shook her head, digging her finger into her ears. The murmuring quieted to incoherence again. 

“Paul!” She called. “You out here, dude?” 

She heard a chirp deeper into the trees.

“Emma?” He called back.

It took a minute or two for him to get close enough for Emma to see. He blinked rapidly upon spotting her and bounded up to meet her. He greeted her with a gentle head bump and nuzzled his cheek against hers. Emma laughed, returning the affection with a hug and scratching lightly behind his ears.

“Hey, dude. You miss me?”

Paul hummed. “Yeah,”

“I missed you, too.” 

They walked down the path together, mostly quiet but for Paul’s soft humming. Emma took in the sights of the mid-afternoon woods as casually as she could manage. Every now and then she couldn’t help her memory flashing back to the photo of human, missing, dead Paul Matthews from the news last night when she glanced at him. He didn’t look like that anymore, but Emma could see it, she could see the remnants of who he’d been within the shadow, the darkness of the woods that had changed him. She felt so wrong knowing that he’d been someone before this, and she had no idea who. He had no idea who. Something heavy settled in her stomach.

“Emma?” Paul chittered suddenly, sounding soft and concerned. 

“Hm?” She looked up and he tilted his head to the side, eyes concerned little crescents. “I’m just a little tired. Been… busy lately.” 

Paul chittered sympathetically, bumping his shoulder against her. She reached up and patted his hair. He bumped her again, ushering her off the trails. She gestured for him to pass her and followed him to a small, quiet, grassy patch of shadows. She stopped, watching him clear out a spot on the grass and circle around, before laying down and patting a spot next to his middle. Emma gave a soft, fond laugh, setting down her backpack and sitting where he’d gestured, leaning back against him and letting him curl up around her, surrounding her with warmth. He hummed, resting his head on folded arms. Emma slumped down a little lower, stretching her legs out and reclining slightly over his back. 

She gazed up at the clouds she could see peeking through the gaps in the trees, the sunlight slowly beginning to retreat. She reached around for her backpack, Paul reaching out to grab it for her, and she dug out the small bag of peanut butter pretzels she’d grabbed for him. He chirped, snatching them from her. She grinned.

“Told you I’d find something you like.” 

Paul grinned back with his massive teeth. “Thanks.” 

They lounged quietly, watching the clouds drift by through the obstructions. When Paul returned the empty snack bag to her, his large hand rested at her hip, Emma took it into her own absentmindedly. She held it in her lap, fidgeting carefully with his pointed fingers, drawing her thumb over his palm. Without thinking she pressed down into the pad of his palm and a concealed set of sharp, shiny, black claws, more directly claws from what his hands looked like, unsheathed from his fingertips. Emma blinked in surprise, looking at him. He looked just as surprised as her. 

How much did he not know about himself even now? 

Emma let go of his hand, tipping her head back with a small sigh. She really couldn’t stop thinking about it, could she.

"Hey, Paul?" She asked after a few more minutes. 

"Hmm?"

Emma could feel his purr where he lay against her back, his tail swishing slowly by her feet. She slung her arm back over his shoulder to scratch beneath his ear, feeling him nuzzle into her touch. 

"Have you always been in the woods?"

"Yes."

"Are you sure?"

He fell quiet, like hesitation. His head lifted where he was resting and he glanced at her, eyes puzzled.

"Yes."

"Just curious." Emma's hand drew a little lower down his neck and he buzzed against her, the spines on his back twitching slightly. "Never anywhere else, huh. You just… appeared here one day."

"...Think so."

"And there was nothing before that? You really don't have any clue how you got here at all?"

She'd felt him tense already. The patch of shadows they'd been lounging in seemed darker suddenly.

"I don't-"

"You had to have come from somewhere, Paul, there had to be something before this-"

"Don’t."

Emma felt herself shoved forward as Paul shot upright. The shadows around them were definitely darker now, and even the vague outline of Paul's form looked… sharper. His shoulders heaved, the spines on his back raised. Emma could hear a hint of a growl under every breath. She reached for him.

"Paul?"

He flinched, backing away from her. "I-" he shook his head, eyes frightened. "I want to go home,"

Emma's heart skipped.

"What?"

Paul's eyes shot wide, suddenly not a sound in his throat. Like he didn't realize what he just said. He shook his head again, the harsh, unidentifiable melody beneath the growing growl unsettlingly jarring. His mouth split open slightly into an uncomfortable snarl. Emma tried reaching for him again, heart pounding.

"Paul, what's wrong?”

He towered over her, tense, head darting around, ears flittering like he was looking, listening for something. Like he was lost.

His voice was cloaked in a growl, a chitter, a whimper. “Go home, I w-want to go home,” 

"Paul!" On her feet, Emma grabbed Paul's hand, pulling him to face her. Her other hand placed on his chest, sinking slightly into the warm darkness. "Look at me, hey! Everything's fine, okay? Breathe."

She reached up to hold Paul by the back of the neck, keeping his eyes on her. He blinked rapidly, shoulders heaving, but slowly she could hear the growl in his throat softening.

"I want to… go home…" 

Emma just held him still, rubbing her thumb over the back of his stiff hand. Slowly, she felt him relax in her grip, claws pulling back into his hands, spines lowering, snarl vanishing. He blinked again, the light of his eyes and the outline of his shadow softening. He gazed down at Emma and seemed to see her again, leaning into her touch, a purr humming from him like nothing had even happened.

"Paul?" She tried. "Are you okay?"

He glanced at her, eyes creased in confusion. "Mhm."

"You don't… want to go home anymore?"

Despite the lack of a visible mouth Emma could tell he was frowning. He reached down, mimicking the way she was holding his head, the warmth of his large hand tingling at the back of her neck. "Are you okay, Emma?"

That heavy feeling in her stomach was even worse now.

She looked down. “Yeah, I’m… fine. We’re both fine.” 

Paul chittered, bumping his forehead against hers. Emma smiled softly.

When she got home that evening, just before sundown, she dug out an old phonebook and flipped through the pages, taking deep breaths to steady her nerves.

“Hello?” A man with a slightly familiar, soft-sounding voice picked up when she called. 

“Is this Bill Woodward?”

“It is.”

“My name’s Emma Perkins. Do you have a few minutes to talk?”

Chapter Text

"My name's Emma Perkins. Do you have a few minutes to talk?"

"I'm not interested in buying anything," Bill said.

“And I’m not interested in selling anything, I’m interested in, uh, the disappearance of Paul Matthews?” 

Emma could feel the chill running down the phone line, making the hairs at the back of her neck stand on end.

“Paul Matthews,” Bill repeated, his tone painfully flat.

“Yeah.”

He sighed. “Look, miss, I don’t know if you’re a journalist playing catchup or some crackpot conspiracy theorist, but I’ve made it clear I’m not comfortable being interviewed about this. I told the police everything I knew back when it happened, that’s all there is.” 

“I know,” Emma nodded, chewing on the inside of her cheek. “I’m not either of those things, I’m just curious about the case. I haven’t lived in Hatchetfield for over ten years, I just found out about it recently. I want to try and find out what happened.” 

The line was quiet for a moment. “Can I ask why?” 

“I just…” Emma sighed lightly. “It bothers me that there’s nothing, y’know? This guy… died… and nobody talks about him. I think it’s because it was never solved. It seems like no one really sees him as a member of society who died, they just see him as part of the mystery. It rubs me the wrong way, he… he just deserves better.” 

“...Did you know Paul at all? You sound awful invested in this, and I don’t think I’ve ever met you.” 

Emma knew right off the bat she couldn’t be fully honest about her motivation. Not right away, at least. She imagined it wouldn’t make Bill any more willing to talk to her if she opened by claiming she’d met the spirit(?) of his dead friend in the woods. If anything that would just confirm his first impression of potential crackpot.

“No. I didn’t.” She said. “But I… I lost someone recently myself, and I can’t imagine how I would feel if her death was received the way Paul’s was. If she was just… forgotten, brushed off as a piece of a creepy story. That fucking sucks, and it can’t have been easy on you, or- or his family. And I know this might sound like some kind of stupid distraction crusade, to try and fix someone else’s grief so I don’t have to deal with my own, but-” 

“Woah, hey. Emma, you said?” Bill’s tone had softened noticeably.

“Yeah.” 

“I… I appreciate that, actually. Whatever the reason is.”

“...Yeah?” 

“Yeah.” Bill sighed again, a little more loosely. “When do you want to talk?”

Emma’s heart jumped. She’d been so worried he’d turn her down. She wouldn’t have been able to blame him if he did, but she’d been so ready for a no her brain practically short-circuited at receiving a yes.

“Would you want to meet up this weekend? Coffee shop or something? I’ll pay.” 

She mentally winced at herself. Solid exchange for making this guy relive his trauma, Emma.

“Sure. Okay. Does Sunday at around one work?”

“Yeah, I’ll be off work by then.” Emma nodded emphatically despite knowing he couldn’t see her. “Java Cafe?” 

“Sounds good.”

“Thank you so much. Really.”

“Sure. I’ll see you then.”

The call ended, leaving Emma standing in the middle of her apartment, clutching her phone. She couldn’t fucking believe that worked. It was a weird situation to get excited about, she knew, but that tingling buzz of energy started running through her body anyway. She felt herself bouncing slightly on the balls of her feet, rhythm picking up with every dip until an ecstatic grin spread across her face, pumping her fists repeatedly. She couldn't fucking believe that worked.

"Yes!" She shouted with a punch to the air and the buzz settled. 

She sighed in relief, bouncing one more time. In just a few days, she was going to try and find answers.

On the other end, Bill Woodward pocketed his own phone with a sigh. He dragged his hand down his face. Why was he doing this, he couldn’t say. Something about this Emma, maybe. She may have seemed easy to talk to, or maybe it was something about her inexplicable investment, the way she seemed to care more about what happened to Paul than the fact it was unsolved. Or maybe deep down Bill was just tired of avoiding the topic. He didn’t know, really.

He trudged over the floor to the living room mantel, that held one of Alice’s cute little plants and a few framed photos. He picked up one of the photos, an old favorite that he’d gotten copied and framed after the memorial. Little, nine-year-old Alice fast asleep on the sofa, all cozy in her pajamas and snuggled up to a young man - Paul - also asleep. Her head lay on his chest, cuddled against his side, his arm draped around her. The blue light of the TV unseen in the photo lit them softly. They’d both passed out while Paul was watching her for the night, leaving Beauty and the Beast still playing when Bill and his then wife got home. It was an adorable moment just begging to be documented, and to this day it was one of Bill’s favorite pictures. He smiled softly, blinking back the sting at his eyes, his thumb tracing over the image of his friend’s peacefully sleeping face.

“Dad?”

He looked up. “Hey, Al-Pal. I’ll get dinner going in a few minutes, okay?”

Alice joined her dad, taking in the picture herself, softening. She rested her head on his shoulder. Bill wrapped his arm around her and pressed a kiss to the side of her head. He heard her sniffle quietly and squeezed her a little tighter. She'd been young when they lost him, and they didn’t talk about it all that much. It could be easy to forget that Alice missed Paul as much as he did. 

--

“Safe?”

Hannah laughed, stepping back out of massive shadow. “Safe.” 

After their first encounter, Paul had taken to hiding the girl the second he spotted her, asking questions later. She hadn’t needed to hide again so far, this early noon day no exception, but Paul felt better this way. She didn't mind, as long as he let her go when she said so. 

She shook off the tingly shadow feeling and shifted her ukulele around in her hands, strumming the strings. Paul tilted his head, echoing the sound. Hannah glanced up at him, and after a moment played another chord. Paul hummed. She sat down on the grass, resting the uke on her crossed legs and plucked out a soft melody. One she knew from her dreams. Paul sat down next to her, following the melody quietly. 

“One of Webby’s,” Hannah slid her fingers up the fretboard. “Said you’d like it.” 

He seemed to, the shape of his bright blue eyes looked relaxed and his head rocked slightly with the melody. Hannah knew music was something she had to be careful with. There was a line she should avoid crossing, the difficult part was knowing where the line was. Webby’s songs were always safe, though, she trusted that. She played the song through for him, listening as he picked up the harmony, seemingly unconsciously. He was deeply in tune with the music in a way that made that gut feeling of caution make a little more sense. Something about it was just off putting, not in a way that made Hannah worried for her own safety - Paul was good, she was sure of that - but rather made her worry for his.

“Pretty,” he said as Hannah muted the strings. “Webby’s?” 

Hannah nodded. “She sings in my dreams. I’m supposed to remember. Anchor.” She drew the pads of her fingers in circles over the polished white wood of her instrument’s body. It felt just as special every time as it did the first time her sister had placed it in her hands. Gifts were hard to come across, and Hannah never expected them, but when Lex could manage it, she always knew what Hannah would cherish. The ukulele was absolutely no exception. “Lexi likes when I play. Momma doesn’t.” 

“I like it.” Paul said.

“Thanks.” Hannah smiled.

Paul mirrored her expression, the lower half of his face splitting open into two rows of dagger teeth. Hannah squeaked in surprise at the sight and quickly covered it with a giggle. Paul's smile widened a bit, his big ears twitching. Hannah's giggle quieted to a soft sigh and she looked back down at her instrument. 

She strummed again, starting a new song. Slower, lighter. Beside her, Paul's eyes drooped into slow blinking crescents. He slumped to the side, before fully lying down in the grass, curling up around himself and resting his chin on his arms. His eyes closed, the only motion from him now the slow, rhythmic sway of his tail in the grass as he hummed his quiet harmony.

"Asleep?" Hannah asked.

Paul hummed. "No."

Good. 

Hannah played on, feeling the light, crisp autumn breeze cool her skin, fluttering the locks of hair loose from her braids. The familiar chords pressed into her calloused fingertips in a comforting way. She couldn't play any of Webby's songs without looking yet, but this one was getting close. It was the most secure of each of the melodies - because it soothed her, she thought. It was calming to hear and calming to play. It helped her sleep at night. 

As she wound down the song, Hannah took notice of a couple shadowy shapes gathering nearby. Small shapes, only a little larger than rabbits, with tall, twitchy ears, and big, bright white eyes. Gazes fixed directly on her. Where he still lay beside her, Paul cracked one eye open like he could sense the other shadows, vibrant blue meeting empty white. His eye narrowed tentatively but otherwise he did nothing. Hannah reached carefully towards one of the smaller creatures. It crept a little closer, looking up at her and blinking rapidly. She patted the top of its head carefully, its ears flattening, and it gave a little chitter.

“Hello.”

The small shadow echoed her in a small, timid voice. “Hello.” 

Hannah smiled. “They’re like you, Paul.” 

Beside her, Paul lifted his head and squinted at the other shadows.

“Not like me.” 

Before Hannah could react beyond a frown, Webby spoke in her head, her voice quiet and resigned, almost… regretful.

He’s right. They’re not like him.

That didn’t sound right. Like didn’t mean exactly the same, and the other shadows were like Paul. Hannah could feel it. 

“How?” She asked.

Paul shrugged and lay his head back down. “They’re just not.” 

Hannah’s frown deepened, she looked back at the small creature in front of her. She held her hand out, palm up, and it sniffed her fingers cautiously. Obviously they were different. All of them were different. But they all came from the same place.

“All lost,” Hannah muttered. 

“Lost.” 

Hannah turned to the new voice, one of the other small shadows, wandering in the patch of sunlit grass, stopped. Its ears perked, head tilted. 

“Lost. I think I’m lost. Papa? Think I’m lost…”

Hannah’s chest tightened. Something uncomfortable buzzed in the back of her head as the little shadow looked around the clearing desperately, muttering like a frightened child. She glanced at Paul, a stammer in her throat, and he just sat up and crept towards the smaller creature. He hummed, something reminiscent of Webby’s lullaby melody but different. He lowered himself level with the other shadow, quiet music emanating from him.

“Shh. You’re safe.”

The muttering quieted, the little one meeting his eyes. “Safe?”

“Mhm.”

Hannah watched the grip of fear melt off the creature, like it had never been there in the first place. It chirped and nuzzled it’s cheek against Paul’s, like a thank you. Paul flinched backwards, the hum in his throat rich with discomfort. He sat up and gestured away with his clawed hand.

“Leave.”

The smaller shadow scampered away, followed close behind by the others like it. Hannah blinked, bewildered, and looked up at Paul. He just looked right back, nothing to say.

Broken toy.

Chapter Text

Paul didn’t get cold, but that didn’t mean he always felt warm, either. Usually he didn’t feel temperature at all. But when Emma was around, he did. When Emma was with him he felt as warm inside as she said he always was. A comfortable, brilliant warmth at the center of his chest he’d never felt before. It was strange, how Emma’s company came inextricably with new feelings, and Paul didn’t find himself disliking any of them. New things weren’t typically things he enjoyed. He enjoyed Emma’s company quite a lot, though. It balanced out. 

She was quiet today, but not in the way she’d been last time. She seemed relaxed, in a good mood from what Paul could gather, but she hadn’t chatted about any good news or anything. Just a good day, he guessed. It was nice to share it with her, the two of them lounging together in a quiet, flowery clearing under the light shade of a tall sycamore, Emma leaned close to his side. She had a book open in her lap, perusing the worn pages while Paul filled the cool, early noon air with one of his songs. Woven from the strummings of a ukulele, an acoustic, and the beating of drums, held together with the breath of the wind, the flow of the stream, the chirping of crickets. 

Emma turned a page in her book, slumping a little lower down against Paul, crossing her ankles. A lock of hair fell from behind her ear as she shifted. She didn't normally wear it down. It was pretty, loose and wild, thick and wavy and so soft looking. Paul brushed the fallen lock back, letting his fingers comb gently through the dark cascade of hair behind her shoulder. She bristled a little at the touch, glancing back at him.

"What'cha doing back there, dude?"

Paul blinked, combing back through the section of hair in his hands. Emma raised her brow at him, looking like she was about to say something. Instead, a bewildered smile spread over her face, freckled nose creasing. She snickered and turned back to her book without saying anything else. Paul took this as an invitation to keep going, running her hair carefully through his claws. It was just as soft as it looked, thick and silky and pleasant to touch. The sensation was unbelievably soothing, drawing each lock over his hands and between his claws slowly. He pulled what hung over her shoulder back as well and she didn’t protest, flipping another page in her book as Paul combed through. She settled back against him, enjoying the feeling, and Paul absentmindedly divided her hair into sections.

She only took notice again when it started to tug lightly off the back of her neck, turning again to see her shadow companion working her hair into a neat plait.

"Are you braiding my hair?" She asked. Paul looked down with wide eyes, ears twitching nervously like he thought he'd upset her. "Not saying I mind, but, how do you even know how to braid? What the hell is that?"

Paul just looked down at her neatly woven hair. He didn’t know there was a name for what he was doing - he didn’t realize he was doing anything at all. The motion just felt right. Familiar. It looked nice, too. He shrugged. 

“Hm.” Emma glanced at him curiously, like she knew something he didn’t. “Well don’t stop on my account.”

Paul chirped and continued weaving the ends of Emma’s hair together. When he got to the end, he plucked a little purple wildflower out of a small patch in the grass and tied the stem around her hair to keep it in place. He hummed, picking another flower from the patch and weaving it carefully into the braid, and tucking another behind Emma's ear. She brought her hand up, glancing back at him with a little smile. He hummed, nuzzling the top of her head, and she laughed and shoved his face away. He leaned into her touch, practically vibrating with the rumble of his purr. Emma moved her hand under his chin, scratching lightly up his jaw to reach behind his ear. His blinking slowed and he leaned his weight on her contentedly. Emma scratched the back of his neck and behind his ear - Paul could’ve collapsed on top of her it felt so nice - and then she did something new. She reached up and pressed her lips to his cheek, and that warmth at the center of his chest spread through his whole body. 

Emma jerked back as he immediately started glowing, blue light surrounding his body, brighter by the second. She couldn’t read his wide eyes.

“Paul?” 

He brought his hand up, hovering over his cheek where she’d kissed him. Why did she do that. Why did it feel so nice. 

“You okay?” Emma asked, laughing a bit. 

Paul nodded slowly. She grinned and took his hand, pulling it down, and pecked him again. He chirped, glowing even brighter now. He laced his fingers with hers and clumsily copied her, pressing his face against her cheek. Emma laughed harder, the flower behind her ear falling off in the midst of the barrage of affection. She swatted him away, beaming, and when he smiled back it felt less like mimicking her. More natural. They shared their smiles for a moment before something in Emma's expression changed. Softened. Saddened. Again she looked at Paul like she knew something he didn't. 

His hand was still in hers. She looked down, drawing her thumb along the side of his claw. He blinked and tilted his head, confused, but before he had the chance to question her, she pulled her hand away and picked up the fallen wildflower, tucking it behind his ear. She turned back around, sweeping her braid over her shoulder, and leaned back against him without another word.

Paul laid his head on top of hers.

--

The wildflowers were wilting. It had been a couple of days, and they sat laid out on Emma's bathroom sink, slowly withering. She'd throw them away soon, but not yet. 

Her eyes fixed on the pair of dying flora as she sleepily worked her hair up into a bun. She was meeting with Bill today. On top of having burnt herself out on restlessness, it was also four in the morning, so Emma wasn’t feeling much of anything about it. Her mind was stuck on the flowers, though. 

Emma didn't usually like it much when vother people touched her hair. It felt like an invasion of her space, something she learned to associate with discomfort back when she was little. Paul never felt like an invasion of space, though. His closeness was comfortable, his touch was gentle. Everything about being around him just felt natural and easy. It felt nice when he played with her hair. 

Finished pinning her hair up, Emma picked up one of the dreary wildflowers. Turned it slowly between her fingers. Set it back down.

Went to work.

--

The restlessness hit her again once her shift passed and she was sitting in the cafe. Her backpack sat at her rapidly tapping feet, nails on the table like a drum roll while she waited for Bill. Every minute felt endless, and he wasn't even late. She didn't need to think about why this was so important to her. She just needed to hear Bill's story, so she needed him to fucking get here. 

He called her when he was outside the cafe and she waved so he’d find her, and once they’d exchanged pleasantries and gotten their coffees and sat back down she finally felt like she could exhale. Bill had a kind, if tired face. Despite the quiet melancholic air about him, his smile was warm and welcoming. 

“So,” he glanced down, stirring his drink with a slight chuckle, “might as well rip the bandage off and get it over with.”

Emma wrapped her hands tight around her own cup.

Bill scratched the back of his head. “Gonna ask you to be patient with me here, this isn’t something I talk about all that much.” 

Emma nodded. “Yeah, take your time.” 

“Thanks. It’s just, Paul was my best friend, y’know? Even after this long it’s… it’s hard.” 

“I get it. If it helps at all, you’re not talking to someone who’s got no clue about grief. Whole reason I’m here at all is because my sister died last December.”

“I’m sorry.” 

Bill’s sincerity made Emma’s chest feel tight.

She waved dismissively, shaking her head. “Not about me. Go ahead.” 

“Okay.” Bill took a breath, smoothing his hands out over the surface of the table. “Paul came with me and my daughter Alice on a camping trip in the woods. He didn’t really want to. That was a regular thing for Paul, not wanting to tag along.” He looked down, smiling softly. “I pestered him, though. I said it’d be fun, the weather was supposed to be nice, the three of us hadn’t spent time together in a while, Alice missed him… He had a soft spot for her, and Alice absolutely loved him, you know. He was around since she was a baby, her mother and I… we had her a little young. Paul was even younger, but he helped out. He was family.” 

His eyes were getting misty already. Emma smiled slightly, trying to make sure he knew she was listening. 

“Anyway, um… I pestered him, and I actually managed to wear him down. He agreed to tag along, and it- it wasn't a secret he didn't want to be there." Bill laughed a little. "Paul didn't put on an act about those things, he wasn't a nature guy and he wasn't gonna pretend. It was a rough start, I remember the tent collapsing twice. Neither of us had all that much experience with camping, actually.” 

Emma laughed a little, too. The reminiscence was sweet, and honestly the idea of the woodland dwelling shadow she knew not being a nature guy was kind of hilarious.

“Paul started relaxing, though, and I think really enjoying himself.” Bill continued, folding his hands together. “We made a campfire, Alice was telling stories and singing little songs. I’m, uh, I’m glad that she gets to remember having fun with him that night.” His smile grew sadder. “He helped her make s’mores, didn’t complain when she wanted to sing showtunes. It was nice.” 

Emma hoped she could eventually circle back to hearing more about what Paul was like before. She was sure they were the same person, she could feel it. She wanted more to bridge the gap, to know it objectively. But Bill was visibly saddening, he had to finish his story. She leaned forward, invested.

“And then, um…” Bill looked down. He dragged a hand down over his face, his voice already starting to shake. “I put Alice to bed in the tent, and me and Paul were gonna stay up a while longer. It was nice, it was… we had drinks by the fire and we talked and he seemed fine, but he started getting a little quiet. He told me he was hearing something. I remember, I don't think he could describe it, but it made him anxious, he started worrying there was something in the woods close by. I wasn't hearing anything, I told him he was just tired, it'd go away." He sighed. "It's one of those - thinking about it now we should've just hit the hay then and there, y'know? Slept it off."

Emma nodded. Bill laid his hands down flat, the heavy vacancy in his eyes sending a very familiar pang through her chest.

"We didn't," he said quietly, "and when Paul couldn't stand it anymore he went to try to find out what he was hearing. Said he'd feel safer." Bill's hands shifted uncomfortably. "I thought he'd be right back, and I waited for him until I started really worrying. You, uh, you probably already know how it went from there."

Emma blinked, brows furrowing. "And he was just… gone? You didn't hear anything weird or- or see anything…?"

"No," Bill shook his head. "The search party lasted a couple weeks after I called in the report, but he was just gone."

It hadn’t fully hit Emma until then just how bleak this really was. That heavy feeling sank back into her stomach, even worse than before. “I’m so sorry.”

Bill shrugged and wiped his misty eyes with the back of his hand, sighing.

“Really I just wish they’d found his body at least,” he said. “I wasn’t too hopeful they’d find him alive after a point, if I’m honest. But I hoped there’d be some record of what happened to him, or he could at least be buried, you know?”

“For closure, yeah.” Emma nodded. 

It hadn’t entirely sunk in for her that Jane was gone until she’d watched them lower her casket into the ground. The certainty, the finality of it, and knowing her body was in there, identified by her husband just made it easier to accept. She couldn’t imagine how different the grief would be if they had lost Jane the way Bill had lost Paul.

“Exactly. Instead, his grave’s empty, and I couldn't even tell his parents what happened to him.”

Emma's heart skipped. She hadn't thought about parents. "His parents?"

"They don't live in Hatchetfield anymore," Bill said. "They moved to the city around when Paul came back after college. Came back during the case. That's another reason I always wished they'd found his body, so his mother could've at least kept some of his ashes or something. This way there's just... nothing." 

“I’m sorry,” Emma said. “Really.”

“Thanks.” Bill smiled softly. “I appreciate this, thanks for listening.” 

“Hey, yeah, man. No problem. Thanks for talking to me.” 

“I don’t know how much help it’ll be. I doubt you’ll find any more than the police did.” 

“I-” Emma bit her tongue, having to actively hold back from revealing all she already knew yet. “I don’t know. But I’ve got a good feeling about it, I think I’ll find more than we’d expect.” 

She would tell Bill eventually, but now wasn’t the time. She needed to have more definitive answers first, she needed to know how Paul had become what he had. Then she’d be fully honest. Not yet, though.

“Well, good luck,” Bill said, starting to stand. “I should hit the road, but let me know if you do find anything. And if you’d ever want to talk about your sister with someone,” he shrugged, “I could return the favor.” 

Emma blinked, not expecting him to leave so soon or make an offer like that. “I- sure.” 

He smiled. “Take care, Emma.”

“Yeah,” she waved. “See you around, Bill.”

Chapter Text

They were calling him again.

Paul curled tighter into himself beneath the rocky edge of the waterfall, using the current of the creek that split through the witchwood to drown out the shadow wolves’ howls. It never got easier. Something in him wanted to call back, something in him that wasn’t him, convinced he would be better off if he let them find him. That he was missing something without them. It made him feel hollow and cold whenever he heard them. He had to work very hard to keep that in check. He’d been working on it since they’d first found them, and he’d work on it as long as he existed, because he knew it was wrong. They would never leave him alone, not for long.

At least Emma wasn't around. That was comforting, Paul thought as the sun continued its crawl down below the horizon, darkening the fiery pink sky into a deep purple soon to be laden with pretty stars. The haunting, tempting, drawling music of the howling drifted through the darkening night, and Paul moved closer to the waterfall. He focused on the current and the evening breeze waving through the grass, and quietly murmured to himself.

"Okay. Okay. Okay."

He liked that word. He wasn't sure why, but it sounded nice. Felt familiar when he spoke it. Like a promise. If he said "okay," he would be okay.

Across the creek came a rustling from the thorn bushes, accompanied by a rapid tick-tick-ticking. Paul looked up as the sound grew louder, tensing. A shadowy head with the shape of long hair falling over large antlers and big, twitching ears popped out from the brush, big, bright yellow eyes shining towards the river. This shadow creature was shaped something like a human and something like a deer, walking shakily from the brush on spindly back legs tipped with hooves before dropping down to all fours and rushing to the edge of the creek. They met eyes with Paul and froze in surprise, though the tick-tick-ticking picked up in speed even more. 

Paul just gave a little nod in acknowledgement, and after a moment, a little taken aback, the yellow-eyed shadow nodded back.

They knelt down cautiously at the edge of the creek and laid down their head. Tick-tick-tick. Tick-tick-tick. Tick-tick… tick…

Hm.

The yellow-eyed ones always seemed to be in a rush - never stayed in one place very long. But Paul supposed everyone needed a rest every now and then. He wouldn't complain, at least the ticking sound was a welcome extra distraction. Under the rushing water, the night winds, and the slow but steady tick-tick-ticks, the ever distancing howls were almost easy to tune out.

As they eventually, finally faded into the night, the yellow-eyed shadow met Paul's eyes again from across the creek, staring at him pensively with twitching ears, like there was something they found curious about him, too.

They ran off again with another quick few tick-tick-ticks.

--

When the sun rose again, Paul wandered quietly near the edge of the woods until his ears perked to the plucking of ukulele strings. She didn't play in the mornings a lot, but Paul liked to check on her when he knew he could. 

She was sitting out on the trailer steps again, and her eyes lit up when she spotted him.

"Paul!" She waved.

"Hi, Hannah," Paul waved back. "Okay?"

She nodded. "Okay."

While she went back to strumming her instrument, Paul leaned against one of the sycamores to listen. She played slow and quiet, a little distracted, keeping watch on the road that bordered this part of the forest. 

“Lexi says we should get away from Momma for a while. Going downtown when Ethan gets here.” 

Paul hummed. Hannah had told him a little about Lex and her boyfriend. Not very much, but he knew that she loved them a lot. They were her family. Paul hadn’t ever had one of those of his own, but he knew what it meant. He saw families in the woods all the time, animal and otherwise. He trusted those names, as long as Hannah did. 

She strummed again, glancing back towards the trailer, where when he perked his ears and listened carefully he could just barely hear the sounds of commotion from inside. Someone was yelling.

“Been loud,” Hannah said quietly.

The tone of Paul’s hum dipped in sympathy. The air was quiet for a few moments before he picked up the music softly on his own. Hannah perked up a bit, rocking her head and flapping her hands slightly along with his song. After a bit of listening she propped her uke up on her legs again and cautiously tried to follow his melody. Paul slowed the song a bit to make it easier, and she kept up fine. It was nice, not just singing alone. He sank down the trunk of the tree he leaned on to sit in the grass, enjoying sharing the song. 

A car horn honked and Hannah plucked a wrong note. 

"Hey Banana Split!”

Hannah squeaked, bounced slightly where she sat and propping her instrument up in the grass. Paul peered out through the camouflage of the woods and could just barely see a tall boy in a leather jacket getting out of a car parked at the side of the road. The boy strode up to Hannah and ruffled up her hair. She swatted his gloved hand away, but she was smiling. That was Ethan, Paul guessed.

“How ya doin’, kid?” Ethan asked.

“Good. With a friend.” Hannah said.

Ethan’s expression shifted a little from what Paul could see, brows furrowing in confusion and thought. He gave a quick glance around before clearing his throat, his boots shuffling slightly in the dirt like he was worried he might say the wrong thing.

“That the, uh, the spider? Or the new one, uh… Pete?”

“Paul.”

At his name Paul tensed a little, slinking backwards into the shade of the sycamores. He didn’t particularly like the idea of humans he’d never directly encountered before knowing about him. Hell, he was still warming up to the idea of meeting humans at all. Two was plenty for now, and he silently hoped Hannah wasn’t about to try and introduce him to Ethan. At the moment though, all she did was shoot a brief glance his way, which her visitor didn’t seem to notice.

“Right,” Ethan nodded, stuffing his hands into his pockets. He nodded past the steps to the trailer door. “Your sister inside?”

“Mhm,” Hannah reached up and rapped on the door a few times.

The muffled sound of commotion from inside got slightly louder, growing into a shout of “I’m going!” before Lex slipped out the door and slammed it behind her, red in the face. She huffed out a sigh, pushing her hair back, and put on a tired smile, giving Hannah a little pat on the shoulder. She stepped over her to meet Ethan. 

“Hey. You okay?” He asked, wrapping an arm around her. 

Lex dropped her head on his shoulder with a groan. “Yeah,” 

They talked quietly while Hannah got up from the steps and approached Paul where he crouched behind the trees. She reached out and patted his head with a little smile.

“Okay?”

Paul chittered and smiled back, patting her head in return. “Okay.”

“Hannah!” Lex called, “You ready to hit the mall?”

“Mhm!” Hannah nodded. “Bye, Paul.”

“Bye.” 

Hannah bounded up to her sister, accepting the hug and smoothing down of her mussed-up hair she got. 

“Grab your uke and put it in the back, okay? I don’t want Mom messing with it again.” Lex said.

Hannah obliged, humming Paul’s song under her breath. Lex and Ethan exchanged glances, before both looking right in Paul’s direction. He yelped and jumped into the thicket before they could spot him. 

“Where’d the singing shadow friend come from again?” He heard Ethan ask quietly.

“I don’t know,” Lex sighed. “Duke says it’s normal for coping, nothing to worry about. Doesn’t hurt to let her pretend and express herself how she wants, I don’t want anyone repressing her.” She narrowed her eyes and gave Ethan a warning jab to the ribs with her elbow. “She’s creative, you got that?”

“Hey, c’mon, I said sorry like twenty times already, I ain’t done anything like it since!” Ethan threw up his hands defensively.

Lex nodded, satisfied, and reached up on her toes to peck his cheek. “Good.”

They pulled apart when Hannah came back from the car, Ethan giving her a fist-bump and Lex wrapping an arm around her shoulders. She snuck in one more goodbye wave to Paul before they piled into Ethan’s car and drove off through the woods. 

Paul tilted his head a bit, turning and drifting slowly back into the thick of the woods. For some reason, he felt hollow and cold again. He wandered in the direction of the creek again, sitting down in the same spot beneath the waterfall as the previous night. Maybe that would help again.

“...Family,”

Chapter Text

Emma pulled the printed photo out of her backpack and smoothed it out carefully over the steering wheel of her car. She sat in the parking lot by the witchwood trails, the same spot she parked in every time she came to visit Paul. She’d printed out the picture from the article on his disappearance - the same one from the newscast, a cropped, candid-looking, shoulders-up photo of the man in question, wearing a slightly nervous smile towards the camera. Emma knew she didn’t have a chance of getting any further in this investigation without involving Paul. Though judging by his response the last time she’d tried to question him about his past, it wasn’t going to be easy. She hoped that maybe a photo of himself could help jog his memory without upsetting him too much.

With a sigh she stashed it back in her backpack’s front pocket, slinging it over her shoulders and heading onto the trails.

Paul greeted her with a kiss to the cheek, the unexpected new affections throwing her off momentarily. His kisses were soft and warm, a little tickly, like being kissed by something that wasn’t entirely solid. It left a ghostly tingle on her skin that made her shudder. She should have expected he’d pick this up like every other display of affection he started mirroring, but somehow this felt a little different. She managed to give him a hello kiss back despite her surprise, though, and he grinned with those massive teeth and chirped. 

Paul followed Emma like her own personal shadow as she wandered down the trails. His quiet guitar melody drifted through the breeze. Emma wondered if it was music of some kind he'd been hearing that night. If maybe there was something in the traits of a shadow beast that hinted at how they died. Music didn’t make much sense, though. Bill said whatever he’d heard made him anxious, enough that he had to go look for a source. Music in the woods could easily be explained as other campers, reasonably something like that wouldn’t have made Paul scared for his safety. Still, she had a feeling there was something to his inclination towards song. There had to be.

They walked until they came across a shady cluster of large, mossy rocks, perfect for a hiker’s rest-stop. Emma detoured to drop her backpack in the grass and take a seat on one of the rocks, and Paul crouched beside her, his tail swishing back and forth. 

“I’ve got something to show you,” she said, unzipping the pocket she’d stashed the picture in.

Paul chittered curiously, showing his teeth just slightly, probably guessing it was another snack she wanted him to try. Instead, she pulled out the printed page, gave it an extra smooth-out over her knee, and held it up to him.

“Take a look.” 

Paul squinted, leaning close to the picture. As he studied it his eyes slowly went wide again. His curious chitter fell silent, and he was still. Unblinking. Emma tried to catch a hint of recognition as his head tilted slightly. She couldn’t read his eyes. Slowly, his hand lifted and he poked the center of the paper with his claw.

“Look familiar?” Emma coaxed.

Paul looked at her, chirping quietly. His eyes narrowed a bit, like he had an answer, but he wasn’t sure if it was right. Emma answered for him.

“That’s you, man.” 

He squinted at her, shaking his head. “No.”

“Yeah. Look, it’s you.”

“No it’s not.”

His voice remained steady and calm, but Emma could tell the shadows around them had darkened. His form was sharper, the spines on his back raising slightly. Emma bit the inside of her cheek.

“I know you don’t remember, Paul, but you weren’t always in the woods.” He shook his head again and Emma grabbed his face, pushing the picture closer to him. “You weren’t. You used to be a human like me-”

“No.”

“-and then you got lost here. You got lost here, Paul, and something happened to you-”

“No.”

“-something changed you-”

“No.”

“Paul, you’ve gotta fucking listen to me, okay, I’m trying to help you here!”

“NO!”

His yell shook through the trees, and Emma found herself clutching the picture to her chest, leaning backwards away from him. His eyes were bright and angry, teeth bared and growling, the spines at his arched back raised and sharp. Down on all fours, snarling like an animal.

Emma stumbled backwards off the rock and onto her feet, feeling her heart pound. A dark, unnatural shadow spread over the ground from his feet, shrouding them both in an uncanny blue-blackness that silenced every sound in the woods and sent a chill down Emma’s spine. She backed up further, eyes locked on Paul’s cold fury. 

A moment passed. He blinked, eyes wide, expression shifting into shock. The shadow retracted rapidly back into him, a silent panic as he realized what he’d done and shrank away into the bushes. 

“Paul-” 

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

Emma took a breath, running a hand through her hair. She knelt down in the grass and leaned her elbows on the rock, watching Paul shift further back into the bushes, like he was afraid to be near her. 

“It’s okay. I’m sorry, too. Shouldn’t’ve pushed it.” she said softly. She held her hand out towards him. “We okay?”

Paul chirped quietly. He shifted slowly towards her again, pressing his head into her palm. Emma pet his hair gently and let him come back to her, both leaning on either side of the mossy rock. For a moment they just looked at each other. Emma reached out to hold his face in both hands and leaned across the space to kiss his forehead. The soft, wispy shadows of his hair tickled her chin. He nuzzled up against her, humming softly, before pulling himself up to sit perched on the edge of the rock. He held out his hand and Emma gave him the picture. He studied it quietly, and Emma moved up to sit beside him. She wished she could tell what he was thinking. If he felt any recognition at all.

“...Me?” he said quietly after a little while. 

“Yep,” Emma confirmed, leaning her head on his shoulder. 

“Doesn’t feel right.”

“I fucking bet,” Emma laughed a little. “So, is anything, uh… coming back at all?”

“No. Sorry.”

Emma waved her hand dismissively. “Nah, don’t be. Longshot.”

She drew her hand up Paul’s back and lightly scratched the base of his neck as he continued studying the picture. The spines on his back twitched slightly before relaxing, and she could feel his form vibrating as he began to softly rumble. He glanced at her again, the glow in his eyes dull, tired. Confused.

“I saw it on the news,” Emma answered his unspoken question. “Eight years since Paul Matthews went missing in the Hatchetfield witchwood.” 

At Matthews his ears perked up. There was the recognition. Of course it would be the name and not the face. Still, that settled it, Emma knew for absolute sure now that she had the right person. 

“Yeah. Had a feeling it was you.”

Paul hummed, the tone long and high and dripping with discomfort. For a moment it almost looked like his shadowy form was fading in and out, trembling slightly, like a glitchy projector image. Like he might fall apart entirely. Emma brought her hand up his neck into the wispy hair at the back of his head, trying to run her fingers through to help him calm down. He flinched forward away from her touch, shoulders raised, spines twitching.

“I want to go home…”

Emma pulled her hand away. Paul shrank into himself, the outline of his body slowly melting together into a mass of darkness with sad, glowing eyes. The picture dropped from his grip into the grass. Emma sighed, leaning back on her hands and glancing up at the treetops.

“Do you even know what home is?” she asked.

Silence, for a moment. Then a hum, low tone indicating a no. Emma had a feeling he didn’t even know why he said it. The woods were the only home he knew now, but somehow, instinctually, part of him knew where he came from. Part of him missed it. 

Emma reached carefully towards him again. 

“Will you let me help you remember?”

The mass of shadow trembled. “Nononono… want to go home… “

Emma slid off the rock and back onto the grass so she was level with him. 

“I wanna help you, Paul. But you’ve gotta let me, okay? We have to figure it out together, or we never will.”

“Mmmmmm…”

“...That’s okay,” Emma sighed, picking up the picture and sliding it carefully into the pocket of her hoodie. “You’re okay. I’m right here, breathe.” 

She leaned back against the rock and stayed with him, keeping quiet company as he calmed down. Out of the corner of her eye she watched his form stabilize, sitting slumped and cross-legged, ears drooped and eyes dim. Emma turned to face him again. Paul crawled down off the rock to join her this time, dropping his head on her shoulder with a tired huff. She wrapped her arms around him, drawing her hand up into his hair again, actually managing to soothe him this time. He squeezed her tight into the warmth of his shadow, burying his face in her shoulder, barely muffling a frightened whimper. Emma’s heart hurt for him. She’d hoped a little that she’d be able to bring up a bit of what she did know today, at least mention Bill to him, but now wasn’t the time. She wouldn’t overwhelm him further, even if she was anxious to get to the bottom of this. So she just held him, pressing a soft kiss to his cheek, and he sat silently in her arms, processing what he could. 

“It’s okay,” she promised, “I’m gonna help you. You’re gonna be okay.”

Chapter Text

Paul was very confused and concerned by this new development.

So much so that it was hard to respond to much of anything. He didn't know how long exactly he sat in the grass in Emma's arms, but he knew at some point clouds rolled in overhead and he snapped out of his fugue state long enough to make her go home. After that he curled up in the nearest patch of shade he could find and hid. He lay there in silence, like eventually he would melt into the natural shade and just cease to exist. He didn't budge, only when the shadows shifted with the sun and carried him along. 

He hadn't felt so completely overwhelmed by existing since the beginning. The new, nameless, voiceless shadow who wanted nothing more than to hide. To escape, from what exactly he didn't know, but it was something that hurt him. Something in these woods. 

Something that made him like this.

That was what Emma thought, at least. 

Paul didn't want to think about this. He didn't want to go back to that feeling of drowning in fear when it had taken him so long to find solid ground. He'd reached a point of comfort, of understanding with the woods, where he could be concerned more with the safety of the humans who didn't belong than himself. But now, confronted with the idea that he - and maybe even his kind as a whole - didn't belong, he could feel himself being yanked back under, the threats of this place feeling more real to him than they had in a long time. 

"I want to go home,"

He snarled, clamping his hands down over his ears and curling tighter into himself. Those words weren't his. They were a reflex, something his body did when he was upset, they weren't part of the echoes he'd built his voice from. They'd always been there. He didn't know why. He didn't like it. 

The woods were his home. Nowhere else was, and nowhere else ever had been or would be as far as he was concerned. He didn't want anywhere else. Whoever he'd been when he was human didn't get to make that decision for him now. That Paul was gone. 

It shouldn't matter anymore.

--

He didn't move. He lay in that same spot through sunset and the safety of night, through sunrise and the golden glow of morning, hours ticking by until Emma found him again. He didn't know how. She just knew.

"Hey, man." She knelt by the patch of shade under the tree, speaking softly. "You gonna come out?"

"No."

"Okay." She dropped her backpack and flopped down to lay in the sunny patch of the grass beside him. She folded her hands over her stomach. "Got a call from Tom this morning."

"Mm?"

Emma had talked about her brother-in-law before - she talked to Paul about basically everything now. Her job, her schooling, her… family. Paul didn't mind. He knew she just wanted someone to listen, and Paul was good at that. He was grateful for it today.

"Asked if I could watch Tim again tomorrow, and then we got to chatting," Emma continued. "I mentioned I was going for a nature walk and he said maybe we could all try to go camping before it gets too cold."

“Mm. Good?”

“Yeah, I think so. Since I’ve come back to town I’ve only babysat and had one super awkward lunch, so… I mean, it’s a step forward, right? Tom and I don’t have much in common other than my sister, but we’re both pretty outdoorsy. Maybe we could bond a little? I don’t know.” She sighed, and Paul shifted, opening his eyes slightly to look at her. She glanced at him. “I don’t know. It was easier when I didn’t have to worry about this shit. I’m just trying to not fuck things up anymore.”

“You won’t.” 

Emma laughed quietly. “Ah, you don’t know that. Thanks, though.” She rolled over onto her side, propping her head up on her hand. “But hey, if we do go you might spot us. And I’ll know you’re around, so-”

“Camping here?” Paul’s ears twitched.

“Yeah, man, there aren’t really any other spots around Hatchetfield.” 

“Mm…”

“I know you don’t want me around after sunset, but we’ll be fine, okay? I’ve handled my share of fuckery in the woods before and Tom’s this burly lumberjack yeti-man, he can for sure take care of himself.”

“Emma,”

“Hey, if anything does happen, you’ll be around to keep us safe, right? You know what goes on here better than anyone.” Emma reached into the patch of shade and found the top of Paul’s head, running her hand through his hair. “You’ll protect us.” 

Paul frowned, but Emma knew exactly what she was doing. Of course he knew he couldn’t do anything to keep her away. Of course he’d keep watch over the perimeter of the camping area all night to make sure Emma and anyone she cared about stayed safe. He knew how to deal with campers, he knew that plenty of the time they didn’t get up to much of anything dangerous and left the woods perfectly fine in the morning.

But something about this made him really nervous. Just sitting here his mind was already spiraling with scenarios of Emma getting hurt. Targeted. Trapped. Not being able to help her… or himself. He didn’t want to be in a situation like that ever again. He wanted to know she was safe.

...But she was looking at him like that again. The way that made him feel warm inside, and eased his anxiety almost instantly. The way that made him glow. And she fucking knew it, too, the way she smiled when the blue lit up his body from within the shade. 

Dammit.

He huffed. "Okay."

"It'll be fine. Promise."

“Okay.”

Emma laughed softly, rolling onto her back again. She crossed her arms behind her to prop up her head, and Paul watched as she gazed up at the treetops where the sun shone through the leaves. She picked up her legs and balanced her right ankle on top of her left knee, her foot bouncing where it dangled in the air. 

They lay in the grass quietly, watching the clouds drift overhead.

“I’m not gonna make you if you don’t want to,” Emma said after a while, “but I do know some shit that I think you’d wanna hear.” She glanced at him. “Up to you.” 

Paul buried his head in his arms. “Okay.”

He didn’t look at her while she talked. He hoped she wasn’t looking at him. But he listened, and she recounted a vague second-hand story about - what else - a camping trip with a friend and his daughter that Paul allegedly knew.

She wanted it to jog his memory. It didn’t. It sounded just as familiar to him as any story Emma had recounted, save for the name she used.

Bill.

It was a similar kind of right feeling to when she’d said Paul for the first time, but completely different at the same time. This name wasn’t connected to his own identity, but it was someone important. He didn’t know why, though. He didn’t know who it was, and that vague feeling that he should only made him feel worse.

Emma didn’t say the daughter’s name. Without the words to ask and preferring to avoid even more unsolvable discomfort, Paul stayed quiet.

"He's a sweet guy," Emma was saying, "he really misses you. I wanna try and get him here at some point, see if that does anything. Helps him or you, or… I don't know. He doesn't know about… this yet. Probably thinks I'm just obsessed or some shit. But you're still around, y'know, he… he deserves to know. I'd want to know if Jane was."

Paul watched her bristle slightly, like she did when the words just fell out and she hadn't realized what she was saying. He edged a little closer to her, humming softly. She glanced at him and sighed, reaching out to run her hand through his hair again. 

"I don't know what figuring this shit out is gonna do for you, Paul. I hope it's something good and I'm not just wasting my fucking time. Fucking this all up, too."

Paul shook his head. "No,"

Emma scratched the top of his head and his ears flattened.

"Sorry I kinda forced this all on you," she said, "asshole move on my part."

Paul hummed again. He moved closer still, emerging slightly from the edge of the shade so Emma could just make out his shape more clearly, settling to lay right next to her. He heard her laugh softly, getting the message. 

“I never even believed in all the folklore shit, y’know. Now I’m all invested, I blame you, you dick,” she ribbed, and Paul rumbled that little chainsaw laugh. “At this point it wouldn’t surprise me if the fucking ape-man turned out to be real.” 

Paul chirped curiously and Emma paused.

“...Is he?”

“Chumby?” 

Emma grinned in shock; “His name is fucking Chumby?” she cackled, “God that’s fucking great. You know him?”

The ape-man had been in the witchwood much longer than Paul, and likely much longer than any other shadow as well. It had been a good while since he and Paul had last crossed paths, his memory was a little fuzzy, but the ape-man was kind. The first kind thing Paul had ever encountered, in fact. Though he’d much preferred to be alone before he met Emma, he always considered their encounters fondly. 

“Friend,” he said.

Emma chuckled. “Damn, small fucking forest.” 

Paul hummed, laying his head back down. Emma scratched lightly down the back of his neck and he felt his spines twitch. They were quiet again for a few minutes.

“Whatever else is out here,” Emma said after a bit, “we’re gonna find out what did this to you.”

Paul didn’t respond. He shut his eyes and curled tighter into himself.

Chapter Text

“Oh, that’s my favorite,” Bill peered over Emma’s shoulder with a smile. She was holding a framed photo of Paul - human Paul - asleep on a sofa with a kid who looked about Tim’s age. “That’s Paul and my little girl. Back when she was still actually little.”

“What’s her name again?” Emma asked.

“Alice.”

“She’s cute.” 

“Mhm. She’s eighteen now, but she’ll always be my baby. She’s my whole world,” Bill said, taking the photo. “When her mother left me I fought tooth and nail to get custody. I couldn’t lose her, not after we’d already lost Paul.” Emma nodded. “Things aren’t perfect, we have our disagreements. You know how it can be with teenagers.” 

“Oh yeah,” Emma laughed a little, she knew all too well from how she’d been as a teenager. 

“She’s a good kid, though. She’s smart, and I respect her choices, even if I don’t always agree with them. I just hope she knows that. I hope she knows I’m proud of her, and that…” his thumb drew over the surface of the photo, “...and that I think Paul would be, too.” 

Emma gave him a soft pat on the arm. “I bet she does. You seem like a good dad.” 

“Thanks, Emma,” he smiled. “I bet she’d like you.”

“Maybe I could meet her sometime.” 

Bill glanced back at her and smiled softly. “That’d be nice.”

Emma smiled back. 

Bill had mentioned when he invited her over that his daughter was in Clivesdale for the weekend - Emma presumed to visit her mother. She had a feeling he could use the company. The fact he’d offered to tell her a little more about Paul - in the interest of assisting her investigation, of course - was a little bonus, but Emma did genuinely like Bill, from what she knew of him. He was sweet, and they could probably both do with a friend.

“I do have a few others of Paul, if you wanna see,” Bill said, setting the photo back in its place on the mantle. “Not a whole lot, he didn’t like being on camera much, but…”

“Sure.”

“Go ahead and sit, I’ll be right back.”

Emma took a seat on the sofa, taking a moment to look around the living room. Bill’s home was cozy and well-kept; clean and organized without it feeling stuffy. Emma felt welcome there. Comfortable.

Bill returned after a moment or two with a small envelope of printed photos labelled P.M.

“I got some of these as old copies from his mother the last time she was in town. Been thinking about putting them together into a photo album or something, but I haven’t gotten around to it,” he said, sitting down.

The first photo in the stack was a young woman in a winter hat and a peacoat standing out in the snow, balancing a little red-faced boy in a blue sweater and mittens on her hip.

Emma felt a sharp pang in her heart as she processed the image. Paul was a child once. He had a mother. He'd had a whole life that he'd lost, full of people who’d lost him. People he had no memory of now. It was obvious, but only really hit her when the evidence was right there. Because she hadn’t known him in that life. To her, Paul wasn’t even really dead. 

His mother was smiling at him in the photo. A wide, toothy grin with kind, loving eyes, a candid expression of love and joy that made Emma's heart ache for this woman. The same way it ached for her nephew and brother-in-law when she saw the photos around their house, or for her younger self whenever she dared to lay eyes on one of the few photos she had of her and Jane enjoying themselves. Not only was the memory long gone, so was the person they'd shared it with.

“Paul was always really sweet with his mother,” Bill began in her silence. “Big momma’s boy. Can’t blame him, she’s great. Always been good to me since I met her."

He shifted to the next in the stack, another childhood photo. There were more people in this one, dressed festively and gathered in front of a lit Christmas tree. An older couple - grandparents, Emma guessed - a pair of young women, a little boy and girl who looked like siblings, and a gruff-looking man knelt beside Paul's mother, sitting on a chair with little boy Paul in her lap. The camera had caught her with her arms wrapped around him in a tight squeeze, kissing his cheek while he laughed and kicked his feet.

"Oh, I know the story behind this one," Bill said, "Norma told me that was the first extended family Christmas they had with Paul, and he was just miserable the whole time. He didn't like the outfit they put him in, there were too many people getting in his space, his cousins were loud, all that. She'd promised him he could go to his room and be left alone after they got a family picture, but he wouldn't smile. He could never fake that sort of thing. She said this was the only way they could get one where he was happy. Let me take it because I thought it was sweet."

They flipped through a few more childhood photos in the stack. Another Christmas, a Halloween or two, a trip to the Clivesdale zoo. In all of them he was the closest to his mother. If seeing records of Paul just before he went missing felt uncanny, the more she saw of him as a kid felt completely wrong. Like she wasn’t supposed to be seeing these, she didn’t have the right. She was an intruder to this part of his life, and to the people who lived on after him. 

The stack skipped over any teenage years entirely, moving right along to what looked like a graduation featuring an older - but not quite pre-death yet - Paul in semi-formal summer clothes alongside Bill, dressed in a black cap and gown.

“I met Paul in college,” Bill said, “I started late and he was two years behind me, but we hit it off quick.” 

He flipped to the next photo, now showing Paul in the black cap and gown, his degree in one hand and the other wrapped around Bill’s shoulders, a sheepish response to Bill’s enthusiastic embrace. He smiled softly, trailing off as he studied the photos. The next was another from Paul’s graduation, this time caught laughing and holding a chubby little curly-haired toddler, who couldn’t have been older than three. She had her arms wrapped around his neck and looked like she was yelling right in his ear.

“Is that Alice?” Emma asked, leaning a little closer.

“Yeah. Her mother and I, uh… she was a surprise, honestly. The best surprise of my life, of course, but being unprepared had its challenges. Paul helped out a lot on top of school, he drove me to the hospital when she was born so he was really there from the start. He was a big help and…” Bill’s voice started to tremble and he brushed at his eye with his thumb, “...and Alice just adored him,”

Emma laid her hand on Bill’s shoulder tentatively, really starting to feel that she had no right to be here now. Who was she to intrude on Paul's family's grief for the sake of - to them - hollow fascination with a mystery? Even knowing the rest of the story, was the intrusion even worth it when all it had done for Paul so far was upset him? Why the fuck was she here?

"He was no saint, he missed a good amount of things just because he didn't want to be there." Bill laughed a bit. "He'd tell me, too. Like a real asshole sometimes, just shrug and say no. Peeved me off a little, but that's just how Paul was. No bullshitting - if he didn't wanna go, he wasn't gonna." Bill looked down at the photos before casting his gaze over to the frame on the mantle. "That just meant when he was there, you knew it was because he wanted to be. You know?"

He turned back to face Emma, his eyes misty.

She blinked, still a little caught in her tornado of doubt. 

"Jeez, I'm sorry," Bill gave a shaky laugh at her silence, wiping at his eyes again. "I didn't mean to get carried away like that. I'm, uh, realizing that I really don't talk about him much." He shifted the photos in his hands. "The last time Norma visited was a couple years ago, and Alice was little so I don't like to bring it up unless she does."

"You don't have to keep going," Emma said, the guilt rising further.

"No, no," Bill shook his head. "It feels nice. I'm glad to get to talk about him, and that, uh, someone else in this town wants to listen. It doesn't feel like you just see him as that guy who disappeared, so… thanks. I really do appreciate this, Emma."

Emma let out a soft breath she didn't realize she'd been holding.

"I… Sure." She gave a small smile. "You've talked to me about Paul more than my brother-in-law has about my actual sister, so you're giving me way more than I'd ever ask for, honestly."

Bill's expression shifted. Maybe she shouldn't have said that.

"Your sister was Jane Perkins, right?"

"Yeah."

Bill gave a small nod. “Yeah. I heard a lot about the accident when it happened. And about a flaky stoner sister who came back to town.”

He glanced at Emma apologetically and she bit her lip.

“Guess Paul and I had something in common,” she said.

Bill chuckled. “He probably would’ve liked you.”

“Heh.” Emma looked down at her lap. “I dunno if I could say I’m back now because I want to be, though. I never planned to come back here at all, it’s just… the only option I had. I couldn’t keep going without roots anymore.”

“I get it.” Quiet, for a moment. “Give him some time. I bet he’ll come around.”

Emma just nodded.

They were quiet again. Bill slipped the photos back into their envelope and set them on the arm of the sofa. Emma rubbed the pad of her thumb over her nails, thinking.

Well, trying to. Her mouth had a tendency to move faster than her brain.

“Hey, are you free again tomorrow?” She asked.

“I should be,” Bill said, blinking in surprise.

“Will you come on a nature walk with me? There’s- uh, I found something that I think you should see.” 

“...What kind of something?” Bill spoke slowly, skeptically, surely not too enthusiastic to go anywhere near the witchwood.

Emma couldn’t blame him, but there wasn’t really another option. “Something about Paul.” 

“Emma-”

“I swear I’m not fucking with you.”

“...Okay.”

Chapter Text

Bill didn't really know why he was letting Emma drag him back into the witchwood.

Because he trusted her? Because she was just too genuine not to believe when she said she cared, she had a lead, she’s found something he should see? Because he wanted her to have the answers the police couldn’t find, even if there was no good reason to believe she did? 

Who knew. They were here now, and it was too late to change his mind.

So he followed her.

The early evening Hatchetfield witchwood was dim and misty. Every step they took Bill felt like he was being watched. Like something hovered just outside his field of vision, like if he just looked up he would see it. He kept his eyes trained forward, on Emma where she walked in front of him. Nothing was there, he was sure. 

“I haven’t been here since the search party was called off,” he muttered, picking up the pace to match Emma’s confident stride. “What could you have found since then?”

“Just trust me, dude.” Emma said, taking a swig from her water bottle.

Bill frowned. He wished she’d tell him something about what to expect. Was she leading him to a rotting corpse? The bones of a severed limb? Some old object Paul might have dropped? How could the search party have missed any of the remotely reasonable options? And why wouldn’t Emma tell him? He had an easier time getting Alice to tell him about her day, and that was saying something.

Emma stopped suddenly and Bill almost ran into her. 

“What?” He jumped back, a little more fear in his voice than he expected.

“Shh, shut up,” Emma held up her hand, squinting straight ahead towards a cluster of trees. 

Bill followed her eye line, not sure what she was seeing. The shadows within the trees were dark, almost blue-looking. He glanced at Emma curiously, her expression shifting from a studious squint to a satisfied smile.

“I saw you!” She called.

“Saw who?” Bill huffed, still seeing nothing. “Who the hell else is out here?” 

Emma didn’t answer, but she didn’t need to. A shadow moved from within the cluster of trees, a large shape taking form and creeping through the dim light towards them. Bill felt his heart skip, backing away as the - animal? No, that wasn’t the shape of any animal he’d ever seen before. It couldn’t be a person, either, people weren’t pitch black, featureless save for a pair of massive, glowing blue eyes. People didn’t move like that, and Bill couldn’t think of anything that did - the creature slunk its way up to a fearless Emma.

“Hey, dude.” She greeted the thing like she knew it, reaching up to scratch behind its big, pointed ear.

The creature’s big eyes narrowed into little crescents, and it chirped, leaning into her touch.

“Emma,” 

Bill stumbled back over his heels, barely catching himself before hitting the ground. “What the hell?!”

Emma looked back at him, and so did the creature, its eyes going wide like spotlights again before it dove behind Emma, disappearing into the shadow she cast on the ground. 

“Paul, hold on!” She bent down. “This is my friend Bill. Remember, I told you about him?” 

Paul. 

Bill’s frustration began to boil into anger.

The creature poked its head out from Emma’s shadow, looking right at Bill now. It stayed behind her as she faced Bill again with a tired smile.

“It’s, uh, a weird fucking story,” she said, shaking her hands out like it was a show, “but I found Paul!”

Bill felt his jaw clench. He was steaming.

“This isn’t funny, Emma.” 

She stood straight again. “What?” 

“Whatever the hell this is! It’s not funny!” He gestured wildly at the creature, and it flinched backwards. “I don’t know what that thing is, or how or why you’re doing this, but I don’t fucking appreciate it!”

“Bill-”

“I mean, how the hell would you feel if I- I don’t know, if I dragged you out to a car dealership and told you one of them was your goddamn dead sister?”

“That doesn’t make sense.”

“You know what I mean!” He yelled. “I don’t know what happened to Paul, but that is not him.”

The creature had disappeared entirely again. Emma held up her hands.

“Bill, I know this is fucked up, okay?” She said, “But you gotta listen to me. You’ve heard of shadow beasts, right? That legend that people who die in the woods turn into lost souls?”

“Knock it off, Emma.” 

“I fucking swear, Bill. I don’t know what happened to him, either, this is why I’m trying to figure it out. This is Paul, though. I know it for sure.”

Emma held her hand out to the ground and murmured something softly. A dark, misty, clawed hand reached from her shadow and took hers, and the creature emerged again.

It stood up fully, looming over Bill and approaching tentatively, head cocked to the side. Pointy ears twitching. Curious. It chittered. It leaned down, face-to-face with Bill, staring at him for a hauntingly silent few moments before… bumping its head against his.

"Hello."

Bill tried to pretend that wispy echo of a voice didn't sound just like he remembered Paul. He didn't sense a hint of recognition in those bright blue eyes. He didn't feel any himself.

He didn't believe it.

But he was frozen in front of this shadow. This… animal, person, something shadow, reaching a big, clawed hand out, like it… wanted to shake his hand. Bill took it, bristling at the strange, tickly, warm feeling, and that's exactly what they did. They shook hands. And then the shadow bumped his head again.

Bill pulled his hand back. The shadow looked lost. Anxious. Bill could almost, maybe see where Paul might be underneath this creature, if he was there at all. It couldn't hurt, to just give a small wave. 

"Uh, hey, buddy," he said awkwardly.

The shadow's eyes went wide again, slowly this time. Like an epiphany. Maybe not a complete one, his head still tilted sideways, but he spoke again, the painfully familiar voice taking a tone of near recognition.

"...Bill?"

His heart skipped. 

Back a little ways, Emma's jaw dropped. "Do you remember him?" She called, running up to join them.

Those big blue eyes narrowed into slivers, confused and frustrated. A distressed hum emanated from the shadow's body, giving the impression he didn't have an answer at all. The way the dark shape began to close in on itself reminded Bill a lot of the few meltdowns he'd witnessed when Paul was alive.

He moved before he realized, setting a steady hand on the back of the creature's neck. "Look at me, okay buddy? Don't worry about it, hey. Right here."

The shadow looked at him. Bill nodded softly, the truth hitting him all at once as he looked in those eyes and knew they were Paul's. He drew his hand slowly over the center of Paul's neck down his spine in a repetitive up and down and watched him begin to relax, the pointed spines sticking out from his back twitching slightly. That gesture had never once failed to help calm him down - like a sweet spot in his bones, Bill used to say.

"It really is you, huh, Paul?" 

He didn't answer. Bill didn't need him to. Just continued the gentle up and down over Paul's back until the unsettled chitter in his chest quieted to silence. Bill pulled back his hand and moved it cautiously to the shadow’s face, holding just below the pointed ear. It didn’t feel right, but he couldn’t say it was wrong, either. Not when Paul’s apprehension seemed to fade and he pressed against Bill’s hand. A rush of emotion hit Bill head-on and he could barely blink back the tears beginning to sting at his eyes.

“What the hell happened to you…”

Paul gave a sad hum, like a whine. "Don't know."

Bill nodded. He held Paul's face in both hands, feeling the soft bump against his forehead again. He wouldn't have thought that something familiar could hurt this much.

Grief was a fickle thing, but Bill had managed to acclimate to a life without Paul in those last eight years. He'd accepted a loss he would never understand and regained stable footing, and now here he was, barely able to stand with the rug ripped out from under him again. This felt like twenty steps back, and despite the storm of confused conflict Bill felt raging beneath the torrent of emotion, now that Paul was in front of him he wasn't sure he'd be able to let go again.

Paul wasn’t moving, but he hummed. A soft, sad sound, hollow like the wind. Bill could almost feel the sound in his chest.

Emma sat back quietly in the grass, fidgeting with her hands. 

“Oh god, look at me making a scene,” Bill sniffed when he’d regained his composure, wiping his nose. “This is a lot to take in.”

“No one’s around, man, go nuts.” Emma ribbed. 

“Emma, how did you even figure all this out?” 

She stood back up, moving next to Paul. He drifted behind her, like her own personal shadow.

“I met Paul first actually. I’ll fill you in later, but everything just kinda… came together.” She shrugged.

Paul shifted further into the natural shadow of the trees, like he didn’t want to be seen anymore. It reminded Bill of how he’d slink into the corner during social events. 

Jesus.

How many… things like Paul were there? Enough to lay the groundwork for a good ghost story, evidently, but what did that mean? Bill shook his head. He was not ready to go down that road right now. He wasn’t ready to go down any road right now, his dead friend was standing right there - more or less - and didn’t even remember him. He shook his hands out along with his head.

“I don’t know if I can… do this,” he muttered.

“Bill,”

“Just… time, I just need some time.” 

“Time,” Paul echoed softly. 

Bill nodded. “It’s a lot, I gotta let it sink in, okay?”

Paul hummed. “Okay.”

The waters rose again. Bill scrubbed at his eyes before it could breach the surface.

“...Okay?” Paul repeated again, with a concerned chitter. 

Bill gave a shaky laugh. “Yeah, I’m okay, buddy.” He rubbed the back of his neck and sighed. “I’ve missed you like hell, Paul.”

Paul chirped quietly, ears twitching. He crept from behind Emma and leaned down, pressing his forehead against Bill’s again. Bill shut his eyes tight and let it all wash over him.

He and Emma left. Bill with nothing else to say for the time being, and Emma with something murmured softly. She’d brought Bill here, so she brought him home, all the while talking and thankfully not caring that he had no response. She filled him in on her side of the story, dropped him off at the cafe they’d met up at, he said thank you, and went home. To do what he did when things got a lot, lay down for a while and just… process.

--

Paul watched them leave. That overwhelming feeling was back, that want to just crawl into the darkness and vanish, but something else followed it this time. Something that was confusing and concerning and tugged at his thoughts like a nagging, pesky fly. 

He did know Bill, even if he didn’t remember how. Even if he didn’t remember anything about him, or anything else before this. It was just a familiar feeling, that something he’d been missing was back and now that he was, watching him walk away and be gone again was almost painful.

He didn’t want Bill to leave. He didn’t want Emma to leave. He wanted them to stay and he’d never wanted that before. As much as he knew they’d come back, the same way Emma always came back, something about being left alone made him feel hollow, as if this wasn’t his normal. As if he hadn’t spent the entire length of the only existence he knew anymore actively avoiding the things that had always wanted his company.

He blinked. Felt his form start to flicker, the spines on his back rise, blue-black shadows start to spread across the forest floor as a steady hum droned unconsciously from somewhere inside him.

Something in that deep, unwanted feeling seized him tight, a barely escapable grip he’d only felt once before, and from the center of the stretching shadow he threw his head back and let out a long, melodic howl.

The second it escaped him he silenced himself. He pulled the shadows back to him. He perked his ears and listened carefully for the distant echo, before running as fast as he could in the other direction to hide.

Chapter Text

Walking back into her dad's home Sunday night always felt like a sigh of relief.

Alice didn't hate her mom. She hated Clivesdale, and being pulled away from her friends and her girlfriend every month. And maybe she resented her mom a little for being the reason she had to be in that situation in the first place. Her dad wasn't perfect, but it wasn't his fault his wife hadn't been faithful. Even if he was a little annoying and embarrassing sometimes, and his taste in musicals sucked, he'd saved her from having to live in fucking Clivesdale full time, so maybe Alice was a little biased.

She'd been terrified of having her life uprooted when the divorce settlements started. She knew statistically, the mothers were the ones most likely to get primary custody when kids were involved, and her dad was… not always the most assertive. He'd surprised her, though, and here she was. Still in Hatchetfield with him.

Thank God.

She couldn't imagine how shitty her life would be if the situation was reversed.

After slipping in through the front door and dropping her bags in her room, with no indication Bill had heard her come in, Alice went looking. He was home, his car was in the garage. He was usually pretty quick to smother her the second she got back, so getting nothing did unnerve her a bit.

"Dad?" She called down the hallway. "I'm home!"

She headed towards his room and went to knock on the closed door just in time for him to open it himself. He smiled at her, but he looked exhausted. His eyes were tired and sad, maybe a little bloodshot, but Alice didn't get enough time to tell before he pulled her into a hug.

"Hey, Al-Pal," he said, kissing the top of her head. "How was your mom's?"

"It was… fine," Alice said, pulling back a bit. "Dad, are you okay?"

Bill gave a weak little laugh and wiped at his eyes - which were in fact, bloodshot. "Yeah. Just had a bit of a rough weekend is all."

Alice thought back to when she'd found him looking at the old picture on the mantle. This felt awfully similar to that moment, the air heavy with a grief they barely addressed.

"You've been thinking about Uncle Paul lately, huh?" She asked softly.

"Geez, is it that obvious?"

"...I miss him, too, Dad."

Bill reached out and squeezed Alice's hand gently. "I know you do, pumpkin."

He backed up through the doorway, giving a gentle look that said now was the time to address it. Alice followed, sitting with him on his bed.

"Do you remember when he lived with us?" He asked.

Alice nodded. "A little bit. I remember him reading to me before bed sometimes."

"Mhm. It was nice basically having a live-in babysitter for a year or two."

"Nice that he didn't mind being saddled with me," Alice joked.

"Hey, Paul loved you."

Alice waved her hand dismissively and smiled. "Yeah, yeah. Enough to watch Disney musicals with me, I know." She gave a soft sigh. "Sometimes, uh… when a new one comes out, I wonder, if he was still here… if I could get him to go see it with me." She shook her head and laughed at herself. "Thats stupid, though."

“Don’t say that.” Bill squeezed her hand. “I wonder how things would be if he was still here all the time.”

He seemed to trail off a little, his eyes going slightly wide and he looked at Alice like he wanted to tell her something. Then he looked down. Thinking. And back up again.

“Alice,” he sighed, rubbing at his eyes with his thumb and index finger before dragging his hand down his face. “I know you were young when it happened. But you know what they say about the witchwood, have you ever thought that what happened to him really might’ve been… supernatural, somehow?”

Alice blinked. She wasn’t expecting this to be the direction her father took tonight. He’d never seemed like one to believe in that kind of stuff, save for enjoying it in movies, and when it came to Uncle Paul she’d always gotten the feeling he just… never wanted to consider it. He wished they’d figured it out, sure, but didn’t want to dig into trying to solve it himself.

Alice’s memory of that trip was as foggy as any kid’s would be. She’d been asleep when Paul went into the woods. The last time she ever saw him was right before her dad got her settled in the tent, when he smiled and said “sleep tight.”

Despite typically being a pretty light sleeper, she had, at first.

Her dad had woken her in a barely-disguised panic maybe three hours later, scooped her up in his arms and carried her into the woods, only saying they were going to find Uncle Paul. She’d clung to his jacket and helped him call out Paul’s name, shouting turned to yelling, yelling turned to screaming, screaming turned to sobbing. She knew they’d returned to the campsite when she started crying. After packing everything up, her dad had taken her home and gone to report the disappearance alone.

He told her what happened after she’d gone to sleep a couple days later, and though she never said anything, she never thought it quite added up.

Not that Alice thought her dad was lying, or had done anything to Paul - of course not. But the idea that her Uncle Paul, as chronically anxious and avoidant as he’d always been, as little of a nature person as they’d known him, would ever walk willingly into the fucking witchwood alone in the middle of the night, for any reason? It just didn’t seem right. Especially since her dad said Paul had heard something.

She’d only really realized how much the story didn’t sit right when she’d gotten a little older, and it had led her to an interest with the urban legends of Hatchetfield.

She’d thought about this on quite a few occasions.

Clearing her throat, Alice actually answered her dad’s question; “Yeah, uh… I have.”

Bill’s eyes widened a little and Alice couldn’t help giving a tiny smile.

“I, uh, I’ve done some research before, actually, I never found much that’d make sense, but-”

“How come you never told me?” Bill asked.

“I don’t know, I thought it’d upset you!” Alice shrugged. “You’d think it was insensitive or something.”

“...Fair enough, I probably would have,” Bill admitted, rubbing the back of his neck. “You can tell me now, though. I’d like to hear it.”

“Okay, um…” Alice tapped her fingers together, not sure where to start. “Well, you know about shadow people, right? That vague-ass legend about people who die in the woods?” She waited for her dad to nod, barely noting the way his mouth set into a straight line. “I mean, that’s gotta be it, right? If they’re, uh, real I mean. No one knows how they work or where they come from, and no one has any idea what happened to Uncle Paul, it’s the only thing that would make any sense.”

Bill nodded again, looking like he had something to say but didn’t know how to say it. “Yeah.”

“I know that doesn’t, like, actually tell us anything else, but I don’t know. I feel like it’s related somehow.”

Alice looked down, feeling this really wasn’t helping at all. Her dad probably just thought she sounded stupid, like the kids at Hatchetfield Middle had, which was why she’d stopped talking about this shit at all-

“No, no, I know what you mean,” Bill said, nodding again. “It makes sense.”

Alice looked back up, smiling a tiny bit. She cleared her throat. “Y’know, uh, Deb’s friend Danny is real into the urban legends, too. I once sat through this whole stoned rant about how he thinks shadow beasts are connected to Willabella Muckwab.”

Bill blinked. “How?”

“What?”

“How would they be connected?”

“Well, she was hanged for witchcraft and spreading ‘demonic gospel’ right?” Alice pulled her legs up onto the mattress and sat criss-crossed, fully invested now. “Danny thinks she laid some kind of curse on the woods before the execution and claimed everything else that died there for the dark gods she worshipped. And shadow beasts are supposed to be people who died in the woods, so that’d put them under her curse.”

Bill’s eyes went wide. “So if Paul ended up one of the shadows, that’d make him-”

“Property of the muck-witch’s dark gods, yeah.” Alice finished. “If Danny’s right, at least.”

“...Do you think he is?”

Alice shrugged. “I don’t know. I mean, he was stoned out of his mind, but it kinda makes sense. Where else would the shadow beasts come from?”

"...Right." Bill nodded slowly.

He looked down at his hands where they fidgeted in his lap. Alice could tell he definitely had something more on his mind now. She leaned forward a little.

"You okay, Dad?"

He covered his face with his palm so his words were muffled; "I don't know what I believe anymore, Alice," he muttered, "I thought Paul was dead."

Alice reached out and grabbed her dad's shoulder, genuinely concerned now. "He is dead, Dad."

"Is he?" Bill's grip tightened on his own face, pads of his fingers pressing hard into his forehead. "They never found a body, no evidence of what could've happened! For all we know he's just… out there somewhere… Hell, for all we know shadow beasts aren't even dead people."

Alice's brows furrowed. "What're you talking about?"

Bill sighed heavily and brushed his hand up over his hair, posture slumping forward as though in defeat. He looked exhausted, and Alice didn't know what to do.

"I found him," he huffed, "er, I was brought to him." He looked up at her. "You're right."

“...Dad-?”

“I didn’t think that stuff was real. But I swear to God, Alice, it was him. Paul’s out there in the woods, he’s just not… human anymore.”

“Wait, stop, slow down.” Alice said frantically, holding up her hands. “You’re fucking with me, right?” She waited, watching her dad shake his head. “...Seriously?”

“I know. It’s… a lot.” Bill sighed. “I still don’t know what happened to him, that’s what my friend Emma’s trying to work out.” He glanced down at his fidgeting hands again. “Your… stoner friend’s theory makes me real nervous, though. I dunno what it means for Paul if it’s true.”

Alice didn’t know how to respond to this, very similarly - unbeknownst to her - to her father’s reaction.

“Hah, I really didn’t learn anything from how I found out, huh,” Bill remarked, noticing just that. “I’m sorry, Alice. You deserve to know, I just… don’t know how to go about this.”

“No, it’s fine,” Alice shook her head, “I just… you’re right, it’s a fucking lot. You’re really not just fucking with me?”

“I’d never. I could… take you to see him sometime if you want? He might not remember you, though. He… didn’t remember me.”

Alice watched her dad visibly deflate recalling the encounter, his eyes sad and tired.

“Sounds like it sucked.”

Bill laughed softly. “It kinda did,” he admitted, wiping at his eye. “He’s not the same. I know it’s him, though. I could feel it. And he does know me, or something in him does, at least. I think he might remember if I give him time.”

Alice frowned. “Would it even be worth all that?”

“I think so. He was my best friend. He was family. I don’t wanna lose him forever if he’s still here.”

Alice just gave a small nod. She wasn’t sure she could understand that line of thought. Paul was gone. He’d been gone for eight years, and if he didn’t remember them, he probably never would. If whatever her dad met in the woods really was Paul - and she didn’t think her dad would believe something like that if it wasn’t true - given the way the legends presented shadow beasts, it was probably only barely Paul. Alice wasn’t sure she’d even want to see him. She wasn’t sure if she could put herself through something like that. And if fucking Danny turned out to be right, she was even less sure.

But she leaned her head on Bill’s shoulder anyway and let him gather her up in his embrace. Her dad always gave the best hugs.

“Thanks for telling me,” she said.

Chapter Text

Emma came back to the woods after bringing Bill along with the sole intent of giving Paul a goddamn break. She’d basically been putting him through a perpetual identity crisis with every recent visit and that was just cruel. She’d brought her entire bag of peanut butter pretzels for him, and dammit, they were going to rest.

And rest they were, sitting side-by-side in the shade of a tall sycamore at the edge of a flowery clearing. The air was crisp this afternoon, the golden autumn sun shining pleasantly over the grass. Paul’s warm, almost ghostly form was wrapped around Emma in a comfortable embrace, his head resting on top of hers as he sang that sweet little tune he always seemed to go back to, a melodic echo of rain, wind, and stray guitar chords. Emma just let him hold her, easing into the closeness as the afternoon passed by. 

Paul seemed grateful for the rest, if the affection was any indication, and quite frankly Emma was, too. It felt like a return to form, however brief it may be. Before that newscast visiting Paul had been a leisure, something she did just because she liked it. Because it felt nice to have a friend, even one who wasn’t human. Paul’s company was just nice in a strange but simple way, and she hadn’t stopped enjoying it, but since finding out about his past the visits were different. They made her feel a little guilty in a way she couldn’t put into words. Like she was ruining it for them both just by knowing what she knew. Today felt nice, though. Emma felt comforted in the idea that she wasn’t ruining anything. Paul still enjoyed her company as much as she enjoyed his. She shouldn’t have been concerned at all, really - he’d never seemed any less happy to see her, but it was still nice to feel sure.

She reached up and scratched lightly under his chin, and the gentle melody devolved into a buzzing purr that vibrated all around Emma. She found herself nestling further into his embrace at the feeling, the sound and the buzz pleasant. She felt Paul’s warm kiss at the top of her head - he really liked doing that. Little kisses had very quickly become his new favorite way to show affection after Emma had given him the first. It was sweet. Emma hadn’t gotten much affection at all since she’d ditched her last boyfriend in Guatemala a few years ago, and the girl she’d dated before that hadn’t been much of a giver. Not that she’d minded much, but having more of it now was nice. It made her feel loved.

...Loved. 

Was that the right word?

Was that what this was?

Emma honestly hadn't thought much about the nature of her bond with Paul. What kind of label she'd put on it, if she'd put one on it at all. She never liked that kind of thing much, she'd always found the pressure from people to put some kind of stamp on their relationship ended up driving her away from them entirely. She'd get close with someone, they'd spend time together, they'd get mushy and intimate, it would be nice, and then they'd call Emma their girlfriend and she'd start feeling shackled. She'd ride it out until things got too heavy, but the label always felt like a warning sign for her. It meant it was time to start getting ready to escape.

The time she spent with Paul felt similar to the nice, early periods of those relationships. Hell, here she was literally wrapped in him, letting him smother her with affection. And she felt no impending sense of doom that he'd expect something from her, that he'd want her to tie herself to him. Maybe because he wasn’t human he didn’t come with expectations. Maybe he just didn’t care at all. He seemed to just like being around her. Emma definitely liked being around him.

She felt him nuzzling at the top of her head before lowering down to gently bump her temple.

“Okay?” He asked.

Emma laughed softly, bumping him back. “I’m okay, dude. Just thinking.”

Paul hummed curiously and Emma shrugged. She didn’t really want to bother trying to put it into words. She just wanted to keep sitting here with him. 

It was just really nice to know this part of knowing him wouldn’t change. The simple comfort of Paul’s company. Being around him was the most comfortable she’d felt since coming back to Hatchetfield. The happiest, really. She didn’t have to pretend around him, or worry that she was fucking up again. That she was just the wrong kind of person for everyone around her. She could just be, and she had a feeling if she’d known Paul when he was alive it would be just the same. She couldn’t explain it. It was just a feeling.

A nice one.

Emma let out a little sigh and nestled closer to the soft shadow. Paul hummed, hugging around her a little tighter. A comfortable warmth rushed through her at that response, and not just from his touch. Emma felt the heat beneath her cheeks rise slightly.

Oh. Huh.

Maybe it was the right word.

She covered up her face with one hand, curling up closer to Paul. He rested his head on her shoulder and pressed a warm little kiss to the back of her hand. Emma smiled against her palm, leaning her head against his.

Paul’s hand brushed over her wrist and she uncovered her face, and he mirrored her grin, freaky shark teeth and all.

Emma felt herself moving before she was thinking, leaning up and kissing him, long and soft and right on the mouth. At least, where it was when he smiled. Paul chirped in surprise, rigid for a few moments before Emma could feel him start to remember what kissing was. His eyes fell shut and disappeared and he leaned in, kissing back, arms wrapping around her as his whole body hummed.

Kissing a shadow - really kissing him - was a unique experience. She could breathe through it, maybe because he wasn’t fully corporeal. He was warm and soft, the touch of his lips tickling her mouth and sending a wispy, ghostly feeling drifting all across her face. It was super fucking strange in the best way possible.

Emma felt warm inside and out as Paul only held her closer, and when the kiss did end he dropped his head down to rest against hers, a blue glow surrounding them the same hue as his wide-eyed stare. His hand moved to her cheek.

“Pretty…”

Emma laughed, burying her face in Paul's shoulder and squeezing him tight. He nuzzled her head and they relaxed back into autumn serenity. Emma let her eyes shut and just lay in his warmth. They stayed there in comfortable quiet, enjoying each other's company until the sun began its inevitable descent towards the horizon and Paul reliably ushered Emma to the edge of the woods.

She knew he'd kiss her again when she left. It wasn't unexpected. But when his big, glowing eyes went soft and his clawed hands cupped her face, the wispy feeling of the shadow drifting over her again as he pressed his mouth to hers, the flutter in Emma's chest still caught her off guard.

--

When she got back to her apartment she slumped back against the door with a sigh, feeling like a confused teenager just getting home from a whirlwind date but ten times more fucked.

What was this, The Shape of Water ? Or shadow, she supposed. What was she doing, and why didn’t it feel more weird?

She dragged her hand down her face, still feeling traces of warmth from Paul’s goodbye kiss. She shut her eyes and waited until the feeling faded. She trudged to her sofa and flopped down, picking up the printout from the article she left sitting on the coffee table. 

If she’d met him before he died, would she have liked who he’d been? Would they still have been friends? Would she still feel… something about him?

It wasn’t like she could ever know. That didn’t stop her from thinking about it. Didn’t stop her from sitting there, staring at the picture, not entirely sure what she was trying to figure out.

Not sure if she was doing something wrong.

Chapter Text

There wouldn't be many more warm autumn days in the season, Paul could feel it. The cold would settle in as they neared the end of October, and soon the snow would come. People would stay out of the woods for a while. 

For now, though, the golden sun shone on another nice, quiet weekend day. Hannah had sought Paul's company today, and he was glad to have her. They lounged in the grass, Paul curled up lazily at the edge of a patch of shadows, and Hannah in the warmth of the sun, laying against him with her head resting on his back, methodically ripping up fallen orange leaves. Her ukulele sat beside her.

"You're happy," she remarked, peeling the blade of a crumbling leaf along the midrib.

"Mhm," Paul hummed.

He was very happy. He'd felt light and warm and good since Emma's visit yesterday. He'd never felt like this before. He didn't think he'd known what feeling happy was before he'd met Emma, and this kind was extremely new. It was nice.

"Shadows aren't, usually." Hannah said.

"No," Paul confirmed. 

In all his encounters with the others in the woods, Paul had certainly never met one he'd call happy. Ones that smiled, sure, but smiling wasn't the same as being happy. While he didn't choose to group himself in with the others much, if there was one thing all the shadow beasts certainly had in common, they were all deeply, painfully somber.

"Happy for you," Hannah reached to scratch at Paul's back.

Paul hummed, his tail sweeping back and forth in the grass.

Hannah dropped her torn up leaf and picked up another, moving to peel along the membrane when she paused. Listened for something. She crumbled the leaf up in her hands. 

"Be careful," she said.

Paul's ears twitched curiously. "Always careful."

"Timbers. Not one of the pack."

"...Mm."

"You are like them. A little."

"No,"

"A little. Webby says."

Paul's eyes narrowed a bit. He didn't particularly like how much this Webby knew about him, especially if she knew about his one bad moment. Nothing had come of it. He knew he'd be careful from now on, he had to be. 

He believed Hannah when she said Webby was a friend, but something in him didn't trust her. What business was it of hers, what was good for him? If he had any desire to be with the shadow wolves he would've gone with them a lifetime ago, when the pack first found him. 

They'd been the first things he'd seen that were anything like him. He knew they were more like and than any of the other shadow beasts. 

"A little," he quietly admitted.

The wolves were big creatures, shaped in pitch black, wispy silhouettes like wolves that had once been something else. They had large twitchy ears and sweeping tails, big bony spines that stuck up from their backs, and massive, glowing blue eyes, many features that matched Paul. What made them off-putting to him was their faces. It wasn't something one might notice at first glance - almost no human would ever get a clear enough look. There were cracks somewhere in the face of every shadow wolf, revealing incomplete masks of broken bone with empty eyes, that dripped some kind of glowing substance. No two looked quite the same.

Paul remembered being new and small and frightened, and being found by one of them. Face cracked right down the middle, half in mask and half in shadow, they'd stared Paul in the eyes and for a brief moment, for the first time, he'd felt safe. They'd hummed out an inviting tune, and Paul had crawled out of the shadows. He might've gone with them. But as he got closer something felt wrong. The sound, the gooey, glowing substance oozing from the cracks felt familiar in a way that deeply disturbed Paul, negating the momentary comfort. As more of the pack crept out around him, harmonizing, the feeling only grew. He made his choice, declining with a shake of his head and bolted, dooming himself to be pursued by the pack as long as he existed.

As much as there was a part of himself Paul didn't trust, there was a part that he believed was smarter than him. The part that knew what to fear, his own instincts that ran deeper than any compulsion, was what he trusted more than anything. He knew what was good for him, he didn't need someone else telling him what he knew.

Hannah was quiet after his admission.

"Not one of the pack," he reiterated quietly, just to make sure it was clear.

"I know," she confirmed.

Paul settled back into rest, laying his head in the grass and letting his eyes close. Hannah crushed another leaf and let the bits fall to the grass, sitting there for a moment before reaching over to pick up her ukulele. She strummed absentmindedly, an improvisational melody that slowly but surely transformed into a familiar, soft tune. The calming lullaby she said Webby sang to her.

Paul didn't sleep, but he did rest, and he felt himself relax almost instantaneously as Hannah's familiar melody drifted into his ears, his state of rest deepening. The woods as a whole seemed to fall into rest - a quiet serenity, like every ear stopped to hear the lullaby. 

Something about those songs, something about Hannah was very powerful in a way that Paul couldn't comprehend but was still deeply, instinctively, if unconsciously aware of. The whole of the woods could feel it, engrained, the song calming because it felt like home.

Paul genuinely didn’t know how long his eyes were shut. He didn't know how long Hannah sang for, or when she had stopped, but the haze of rest over the woods didn't lift immediately. When it did and Paul's eyes blinked open, a small, white-eyed shadow sat in front of his face, staring at him. 

He chirped in surprise, his head picking up. The little white-eyed shadow bunnies hopped all around him and Hannah - mostly Hannah. She held one in her lap, scritching its little head.

"Thank you, miss," it said in a timid little voice, "Thank you for saving me, miss,"

Hannah frowned. She shifted the little creature out of her lap and back to the grass. A foot or so away, Paul sat up, knelt on all fours. He peered at Hannah curiously. She fidgeted with her hands in her lap, glancing around at the bunny-shaped shadows drawn to her. 

Paul didn’t see the little white-eyed ones very much. They were timid and incredibly easily frightened, and like Paul and the other blue-eyed shadows tended towards wolfish traits, the white-eyed ones resembled bunnies. All the other shadow beasts Paul had seen had tendencies towards specific animal traits - purple-eyed birds, green-eyed bears, yellow-eyed deer, pink-eyed boars. All varied in shape and form but typically groupable by a few shared traits. The little white-eyed bunnies were the only ones Paul ever saw that all truly resembled little bunnies, just made of shadow.

He’d noticed that he was seeing the little ones more often around Hannah. They’d shown up right before he’d met her, and this wasn’t the first time they’d come to her songs. It reminded him of the way the timbers were drawn to each other - and to him. None of the other beasts seemed to group together like the ones with blue eyes. Even the bunnies, who often appeared in clusters, didn't seem to do so consciously. It was curious the way they flocked to someone who wasn’t even like them. 

One wandered up to Hannah and sniffed at her knee. She scratched behind its ears, a puzzled look in her eyes, and the little creature nuzzled her hand.

“Warm. It’s warm here. It’s warm here.”

Hannah’s brows furrowed in thought for a moment, and then she blinked wide as it hit her.

“Last words.”

She looked at Paul, who cocked his head. “Hm?”

“It’s the only thing you can all say. The woods took everything away when you got stuck in the web, but you kept the last words. All of you did.”

Paul’s body tensed, the spines on his back twitching. “Last… words?” He had a feeling he already knew what she meant.

Her eyes were somber. “The last thing you said before you died.”

Paul felt cold. Was that why he said-

“I-I want to go home,”

He cut himself off with an uncomfortable growl, dropping back to the ground and hiding his face in the dirt. He huffed evenly, and as he calmed himself the words escaped his grasp, retreating somewhere into the furthest corner of his mind. He knew he’d spoken, but the words weren’t reachable. How often did he say that without realizing? Had he said it to Emma? What did he even mean?

The woods were the only home he had.

“I’m sorry,” Hannah said quietly, and when Paul looked up she was sitting in front of him with her hands over her mouth. “Is that what yours were?”

Paul rumbled, dropping his head back down. He didn’t like this.

“You can’t remember,” Hannah said.

“No,”

“Don’t want to.”

“Don’t want to.”

Paul’s body heaved, the sound coming out of him like a breathy growl, with a faint hint of someone plucking the wrong chords on a guitar. He felt Hannah place her hand on his back carefully.

She didn’t know what to do. She didn’t even really know how she’d upset him, all she really knew was she wanted him to calm down again.

Lullaby.

She blinked.

Amidst his attempts to calm himself, Paul heard that melody come again. The soft, gentle, sleepy song that seemed to settle everything that heard it. It flowed into Paul’s head and clouded his distress, and he felt his body fall completely limp under the uncontrollable wave of serenity that crashed over him. He slipped instantly back into a silent rest, unable to move at all as Hannah strummed Webby’s tune.

She didn’t play the whole thing, just a short few bars to settle him down. But when she stopped and thought returned to Paul’s head, he felt almost betrayed. It had only been like a calming song before, but he’d felt it this time. It had gripped him, overpowered him entirely. It had taken his control away. He did so much every day to keep his control, and Hannah just stripped it, that easily. He didn’t even know she could do that, let alone why she’d want to. 

He picked himself up on all fours, his body shaky, spines twitching.

“Go home,” he said.

Hannah looked surprised, like she didn’t know what she’d done. “Paul?”

“Go home, Hannah. Leave.”

He watched it hit her, her eyes widening, that she’d made a mistake. “I- I didn’t mean-”

“Go. Home.”

Hannah nodded. She stumbled to her feet and backed off, watching Paul shake himself, like that would shake the spell off. The shape of his form fluffed out like fur. Biting back another attempt at apology, Hannah turned around and headed down the path back towards the edge of the woods.

“Webby-?”

The lullaby works. He’ll forgive you.

Hannah gripped her instrument tight and walked the rest of the way home in silence.

Chapter Text

Hannah sat out on the trailer steps, her knees pulled up to her chin, her ukulele sitting in the grass away from her. A little white spider crawled atop her left knee.

"Why did you tell me to do that?" She asked. "It didn't calm him down, it just made him hate me."

He doesn't hate you, Hannah.

"I upset him! You made me upset him!"

The spider paused, twitching one of its legs like it was tapping in thought. Thinking of something to say.

He doesn't hate you, Hannah, I promise. He's just frightened right now, he'll be okay. 

Hannah's frown deepened. "Why'd it frighten him? It helps me sleep."

It helps everything sleep when you play it.

That did make sense, it was a lullaby, after all. Hannah knew she had a power, and that just made the song stronger. She'd seen Paul relax normally when she'd played it for him before.

Still, she recalled the way his body slumped over like he physically couldn't help it, like the song wasn't relaxing him as much as completely incapacitating him. And with how shaky he was when he was freed from its grip, she didn't like what she'd done to him. She knew music was a dangerous thing, she didn't want to take that kind of power over him ever again. Paul didn't deserve that.

Hannah, I just want you to be safe.

"I am safe." Hannah scooped up the little spider on her knee and shooed it away into the grass. "Not doing that again."

Hannah rested her chin on her knees. The little white spider disappeared, and Webby was quiet.

"Hey, Banana."

The soft voice of her sister made Hannah perk up. 

"Lexi,"

Lex gave a tired little smile, dropping her backpack in the grass and waving her hand so Hannah would scoot over. Hannah did, and Lex took a seat on the step next to her.

"Mom out for the day?"

Hannah nodded. "Mhm."

"Good." Lex bumped Hannah's shoulder playfully and she giggled. "What'd you get up to while I was working?"

"I went into the woods. Saw Paul."

Lex frowned, glancing towards the woods. "I don't want you getting lost in there, Hannah. Could… Paul ever come see you out here?"

"Won't get lost," Hannah said, shaking her head. "I know the way. It's better to go to him. He can't leave the web, shouldn't get too close to the edge."

Lex hummed in uneasy confirmation, knowing she probably couldn't convince Hannah otherwise. "Okay. Just promise you'll be careful out there. I don't wanna worry about you too much."

"Promise," Hannah nodded, bumping Lex's shoulder this time.

Lex smiled and ruffled Hannah's hair, Hannah batting her hand away with a squeak. 

“So, uh… how’s Paul?” Lex asked.

Hannah glanced up at her. She knew Lex didn’t believe that Webby or Paul or anything in Nightmare Time was real. She pretended to, but she was lying. Hannah didn’t mind - Lex still listened to her, and that was way better than being written off as “crazy.” 

“He’s mad at me,” Hannah said quietly, leaning against her sister’s side. “I did something bad. But I’ll make it better next time."

"I bet you will," Lex squeezed her arm. "Who could stay mad at you?"

"Mm." 

Lex frowned. The Foster family’s social worker, Duke, said Hannah’s imaginary friends were a coping mechanism she used to deal with loneliness and to help process things. Lex understood that - she’d done the exact same thing when she was little, and she’d always figured Hannah had picked it up from her. Paul seemed like he’d come completely out of nowhere, though, and Lex didn’t really know what he was supposed to mean. How likely was it that she’d need to develop another new friend just to keep her company at this age? What purpose was he serving for her that Webby didn’t already fill?

Lex understood Webby. Webby came from a place and manifested in a way that Lex was incredibly familiar with, so those conversations weren’t difficult to navigate. It felt less like meeting her sister in the middle of her imagination, and more like talking about an old friend. With none of that connection, Lex didn’t know how to navigate Paul. 

“Hey, you’ll work it out. He’s your buddy,” was all she could think to say, squeezing Hannah a little closer to her side. She felt Hannah give a small nod against her and hum in confirmation again. “C’mon, let’s go in. We can get in some TV time before Mom gets back and boots us off.”

Hannah stood up to follow her sister inside, pausing for a moment to pick up her instrument off the grass. She stashed it under her bed before joining Lex on the ratty sofa.

--

Across town, Emma followed the Woodwards down the sidewalk to a place she’d been pointedly avoiding visiting for the last few months.

"Thanks for joining us, Emma," Bill said, pushing open the gates to the Hatchetfield cemetery.

"Thanks for letting me," Emma pulled in a deep breath and stuffed her hands in her hoodie pockets. 

"You got the flowers, Alice?"

"Yep," Bill's teenage daughter trailed next to Emma, hoisting a small bouquet of blue wildflowers balanced on her arm. "Do we still have to do this if he's, like, still around, though? I don't get it."

"It's still paying respects," Bill said. "I guess just to our Paul. We don't know how it works, maybe he can feel it?"

"I don't think it works like that, Dad."

Bill glanced at Emma, who shrugged. She had no fucking clue.

Bill looked down at his boots. "Well, we don't know. I just wanted to stop by. It's still important."

Emma reached up to give Bill a soft little pat on the shoulder. She followed him and Alice through the graveyard to a small headstone. It looked isolated and lonely amidst the other, bigger graves.

"Here he is," Bill gestured to the headstone. "Well, not here but… God, you know what I mean."

Emma crouched down to study Paul's empty grave.

Paul Fredrick Matthews

1983 - 2010

Beloved son and friend.

Emma swallowed. Paul lived twenty-seven years. He was just a little younger than Jane. God, the more and more explicit evidence she saw that her shadow beast friend was a fucking dead man, the more surreal this whole situation felt.

Bill knelt down next to Emma, and Alice next to him, still holding the flowers.

"His mom picked it out," Bill said. "Said he'd just want something small. He'd wanna stay home."

Alice rested her head on her dad's shoulder. He took the flowers from her and laid them down over the grave. 

The air was quiet as they just knelt in front of the grave for a short bit, and Emma found herself wondering if Paul could sense the tribute at all. She didn't think so. Paul didn't seem connected enough to his living past for something like that to work. Maybe if there was a body in the ground below them for him to be linked to, but she knew there wasn't. That didn't make the tribute any less important, obviously, and she wasn't about to shoot it down. Still, it didn’t really seem fair that it couldn’t actually reach him.

Her eyes drifted down to the little bouquet. The flowers were pretty, the blue around the center the same shade as Paul's eyes.

"Could I take one to him?" She asked quietly. "One of the flowers."

Bill shrugged. “I don’t see why not.”

She glanced at Alice, who didn’t seem to care. So Emma carefully plucked one of the blue wildflowers from the bouquet and tucked it into the chest pocket of her shirt for safekeeping. 

She stayed silently knelt with the little family for a few more somber minutes, unsure if she was meant to say something or not. Eventually, Bill rose to his feet with a quiet sigh, tapping the small headstone with affectionate acknowledgement. Alice stood, too, eyes trained on the ground. Emma heard her clear her throat as she walked past. She stood up to follow them, their little visit over, when her eyes caught another headstone a little ways away.

Her breath caught and her feet froze. She knew it was here, she knew where it was. Why did it catch her so off guard?

“Emma?” Bill looked back, noticing they’d lost her.

“Just a minute,” she said, feeling herself trudge forward.

She’d been getting better about running away from things, she really had been. She would’ve visited on purpose if she hadn’t been so… occupied. The guilt that sank into her stomach was heavy like stone, and she didn’t even know why. No one was here to lecture her about it, to tell her the avoidance was disrespectful. That she was just doing the exact same thing she’d done before and putting it off, putting it off, until she had no excuse anymore. No one even knew. Still, she felt it, as she dropped down in the grass in front of the handsome headstone.

“Hey, Jane,” she said quietly.

After a moment she felt a steady hand on her shoulder and Bill was standing behind her. He knelt down to join her.

“I haven’t been back here since the funeral,” she said. “I meant to. I really meant to, but for a while I just wasn’t ready, and then I started working, I enrolled in school, and I got distracted…”

Bill squeezed her shoulder softly and Emma brought her hand over his in silent appreciation. He really was such a sweet man. She reached with her other hand and drew her fingers over Jane’s engraved name. It was a nice headstone. Clean, polished white stone. Sophisticated. Very Jane. 

Emma knew Jane didn’t believe in Heaven. Emma didn’t particularly, either - the Perkins family hadn’t really been raised that way. Emma hadn’t come back to Hatchetfield in the hopes that Jane would know it, or enroll in school to pursue her farming career with the notion that Jane would be watching her from high above on some ethereal cloud, feeling pride from the beyond. Emma knew that the regrets she had towards her relationship with her sister were cemented, she’d come to terms with being unable to truly rectify anything with Jane herself. Even if - now that Emma knew that on some level an existence after death was possible - Jane could observe her, that had never been her goal. It was connecting with the people Jane had left behind, the only roots Emma had left, which was the reason for her return. She only hoped she was doing enough trying for them to make up for her past failings.

“Uh, Dad?” Alice said suddenly from behind them.

Emma blinked the mist out of her eyes just in time for a new voice to enter the cemetery.

“Aunt Emma?”

She shot to her feet, sending Bill stumbling back as she turned around to spot the Houstons approaching from over the small hill.

“Tim! Tom! Hey!” She stuffed her hands into her pockets awkwardly, somehow feeling like she’d been caught. “Good to see you, uh… here.”

Tom looked at her, expression mildly bewildered as his gaze shifted to Bill and Alice, too.

“Yeah, you too,” he said. “How are things?”

“Fine,” Emma nodded, “fine. You?”

Tom shrugged dismissively, setting a hand on his son’s shoulder. “Ah, Tim’s had a rough week, thought I’d bring him to see his mom.”

Tim glanced down at his shoes and Emma hummed sympathetically. “I’m sorry, bud.”

He shrugged. “It’s okay.”

Tom was back to studying the Woodwards, and Emma could see the question forming in his mind and spoke up before he had the chance to put her on the spot.

“Uh, Tom, this is my friend Bill and his daughter Alice,” she said.

“Hi, Mr. Houston,” Alice waved, and he waved back just as awkwardly.

“I just tagged along with them to pay respect to a family member and they let me stop by Jane, too.”

It wasn’t even a lie, but Emma’s heart was still pounding like she was doing something wrong. Tom slowly nodded.

“That’s nice,” he glanced at Bill and Alice, his expression softening a little. “I’m, uh, sorry for your loss.”

“Thanks. I’m sorry for yours, too.” Bill said.

Emma pushed a hand through her hair, stepping away from the grave. “Well, I’ll get out of your way. You guys have a good visit.” She ruffled Tim’s hair gently. “See you soon, bud.”

Tim smiled at her softly as she passed, Bill and Alice in tow. Tom watched for a moment.

“You go ahead and start, Tim, I’ll be right there,” he said, and jogged to catch up with the other group. “Hey, uh, Emma?”

She turned around, a little surprised. “Yeah?”

“I, uh, I know last time I called we talked about maybe going camping before it got too cold, and Tim’s got a long weekend this week. It’s supposed to be nice on Thursday.”

Emma blinked. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. Just if you’re free, I guess. We don’t wanna drag you along-”

“It wouldn’t be dragging me along,” Emma interrupted quickly. “That sounds great, I’d love to come camping with you guys.”

Tom looked as surprised as Emma felt. A hint of a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth for a second. “Alright. Yeah, I’ll call you later and we’ll make a plan. Sound good?”

“Sounds good,” Emma nodded.

“Alright. You have a good evening, Emma.”

“You, too.”

--

Her hands tapping on the steering wheel, a little energized by the successful interaction with her brother-in-law, Emma drove towards the woods after dropping Bill and Alice back at their house. She checked on the flower tucked into her shirt pocket to make sure it wasn’t smashed, glad to find it was just fine.

When she found him, Paul greeted her affectionately, pulling her into a warm, ghostly shadow kiss. She laughed, feeling a slight flutter in her chest.

“Oh, here, I brought you something,” she reached into her pocket for the little blue wildflower and held it out to Paul.

He studied it, chittering quietly, and when he didn’t take it, Emma reached up and stuck it behind one of his big wolf ears. His eyes blinked wide and his body lit up in a soft blue glow.

“It’s from Bill and Alice, means they miss you,” she said, sitting down at the edge of the path as Paul knelt beside her. She reached up to scratch behind his ear, smiling as his eyes squinted. “From me it means something a little different, but I thought I’d deliver the message anyway.”

Paul hummed, resting his head on her shoulder.

He didn’t particularly understand the flower in a way he could’ve explained himself, but deep down he did, in the same way that deep down he knew Bill. The feeling it gave him was warm and loving, if a little somber. He nuzzled into Emma’s cheek, silently thanking her for giving it to him.

Chapter Text

I don't think this is a good idea.

Hannah frowned, trudging down the dirt path leading into the woods. She usually brought her ukulele with her, but her hands were empty this afternoon. She didn't plan to bring it again. This would be her trust offering to Paul, she'd decided after a day or two of thinking on it. She would lay down her arms, and he would forgive her.

Hannah-

"I'm not going back to get it," she said. "I don't need it."

It's good for him.

"I don't believe you."

I don't lie, Hannah.

"I don't care!" Hannah paused and took a breath, looking down at her shoes. "Paul can't hate me. Has to trust me."

Webby didn't protest again. Hannah kept walking.

She found Paul lounging atop a mound of fallen leaves in the shade. There was a light, blue glow around him, a soft hum drifting from him. He held something carefully in his big, clawed hands. Hannah moved a little closer, seeing it was a small, wilting, blue wildflower.

"That's pretty," she said quietly.

Paul yelped. He jumped to all fours, dropping the flower, spines raised, eyes wide, all set to bolt away from whatever had found him. His eyes met Hannah's and he froze.

"Hannah."

"Hi."

"...Hi."

He didn't run away from her. Good sign. He also didn't seem any less tense. Not as good of a sign.

Hannah held up her empty hands. "I don't have my instrument. Won't play that song again." She shuffled her feet in the dirt. "I'm sorry."

Paul blinked. He sat back on his hind legs, visibly letting his guard down. Hannah stepped a little closer.

"Are you still scared?" 

"No," Paul shook his head.

"Are we still friends?"

A little laugh-like chirp escaped him, his head cocking curiously like it was a ridiculous question. "Yes. We're friends."

Hannah smiled, her hands flapping a little at her sides. Paul smiled, too. As Hannah fully approached him he reached up to gently pat the top of her head. She giggled and mirrored the gesture. Paul let her sit next to him in the leaves. 

"I didn't mean to," she said, crossing her legs as she plopped down. "The song. I didn't mean to do that to you."

"It's okay," Paul said quietly. "How… did you?"

"Webby says I have a power. I can see and feel and do things, with my mind. I don't really know how yet. She helps." Hannah folded her hands in her lap, rubbing the pads of her fingers over her nails. "You were upset and I didn't want you to be. Webby said to play the lullaby and it… helped."

"You did it… with your mind? "

"Not on purpose," Hannah reiterated quickly. 

"I know," Paul assured. He glanced down and hummed softly. "Can you… feel things … about me? With your mind?"

"Mhm."

"What things?"

Hannah looked up at him. His bright eyes were intent and curious, if incredibly anxious. He really didn't know much of anything about what he was, though Hannah supposed most of them didn't. She turned a little to face him better.

"You're dead," she said, and he hummed in confirmation like that was something he knew. "And you're stuck here."

"Stuck like the tree people?"

“Mhm,” Hannah nodded. “The hatchetmen planted the tree people to hold the witch. Contain their gifts, too. That was all. It’s a web. She cursed it so it holds you, too. Everything like you.”

Paul hummed.

Hannah closed her eyes, trying to see. Visions didn't always come to her when she wanted them too, but if she knew what she wanted and she really tried she could usually see something. There was a lot to take in inside her mind, and that was what Webby helped with - she filtered and organized things to make it easier for Hannah to understand. Hannah knew that Webby kept things from her, too. Not as secrets, she didn't think, just as things she didn't need to know just yet. 

Some of the finer details of what Paul's kind came from fell into things Hannah couldn't see very clearly. She could feel things, though.

She could feel a kind of concentrated energy over Paul - not a power, but a claim. An ownership. He belonged to someone. Something. Hannah had a feeling all the timbers belonged to the same something. Like toys. 

Broken toy.

Hannah blinked. Paul was looking down at her, his head cocked and his eyes curious. 

"There's something… bad," Hannah said. "I don't know what it is. It likes control." She heard Paul give a quiet, anxious chitter. "I don’t think it’s the only bad thing. But it’s the one I can feel on you.”

Paul nodded slowly. He hummed, soft and somber. Hannah understood that he could feel it, too - probably all the time. Though he didn't know what it was either. She doubted any of them did.

"I've seen bad things," Paul said quietly.

Hannah glanced up at him. He'd seen things directly related to the presences she was feeling, she could tell. Maybe the one on him. Maybe one of the others. But from the look in his eyes she decided not to ask. She didn't particularly like talking about the bad things she saw, either, not unless she had to. Especially when she couldn't even explain it.

As she glanced down at the ground instead she spotted the little flower Paul had dropped. She picked it up.

"This is yours," she held it out to him and he took it between his claws.

His eyes softened as he looked at it, holding it with care. “Thank you.”

“It’s pretty.”

“Mhm.”

Paul gently tucked the wilting flower behind one of his big ears. Hannah could feel the loving, somber gesture the flower represented. It was important to him. 

She bumped his shoulder and he gave a little chirp, reaching over to pat the top of her head again. She smiled.

Paul was still her friend.

Webby was quiet.

--

Hannah didn’t stick around too long before heading back home. Paul curled back up in his little patch of leaves, content in the assurance that he could still trust her. Though now he certainly felt more apprehensive about Webby.

That didn’t make much of a difference, though. He laid his head down carefully, trying not to disturb his little flower. He’d get rid of it once it withered too much, but for now he wanted to hold onto it and the warmth it gave him as long as possible.

He relaxed into it, enjoying the quiet, cool afternoon on his own, until his ears perked to the approaching sound of fallen leaves crunching under footsteps. Alert once again, he shifted backwards into the shadow of one of the trees so he was hidden as the footsteps - two sets, he believed - grew closer. A pair of voices came from down the trail.

“I haven’t been out here in a while. We’re gonna go camping on Thursday, though, thought I’d scope out a spot.” A gruff but soft sounding man.

“I hope you’ll be careful,” A gentle sounding woman.

“‘Course. There’s nothing to worry about out here that me and Emma can’t handle.”

Emma?

Paul peered down the trail as the pair walked into sight. The man - Emma’s brother-in-law Tom, Paul assumed based on context - was scruffy and disheveled, a woodsy-looking type, but if Paul had ever seen him before it had been from a far distance. The kind-eyed, redheaded woman with him, who gave an anxious little hum as they walked side-by-side, now she was familiar.

But why?

Paul squinted.

Tom glanced at his companion, who held onto his arm. “You sure you’re alright? You didn’t have to come with me - we can go back.”

“I’m fine, Tom, don’t worry!” The woman waved her hand dismissively.

“Alright, if you’re sure,” Tom said, his gaze softening with uncertainty. “You’re just squeezing my arm a little tight there.”

She let go of his arm and stepped away, giving a sheepish laugh and glancing down at her boots equally so. “Sorry!”

Tom glanced down, too, rubbing the arm she’d been holding awkwardly. “You don’t need to be sorry, Beck.”

Beck.

That wasn’t quite the name Paul remembered.

“I guess I’m just a little on edge today,” she said, pushing her fiery hair out of her face.

“Becky, really, we can go if you want.” Tom said. “This was a last-minute thought, if you’re nervous-”

Becky.

“I’m fine, I promise.” Becky said a little too quickly.

Paul’s head tilted to the side, eyes narrowing curiously.

Beck… Becky… Becca… 

His eyes widened.

“Rebecca.”

He watched the color drain from her face. He hadn’t meant to echo it at all. But now he knew exactly who she was. Though, the last time he’d seen her, she’d been covered in blood.

“Hey, you okay?” Tom asked, setting a hand on her shoulder.

“Um, I…” Becky’s eyes darted around, her voice trembling, unable to deny her fear now. “I think I would like to go back, actually.”

Tom moved his arm tentatively around her and she sidled up against him, gripping his arm tight. He fully hugged her, glancing around, searching for the source of whatever spooked her.

“We can go, it’s alright. I don’t want you scared.”

“Thanks, Tom,”

Becky managed a last glance over her shoulder as they turned and walked back down the path, and though Paul couldn’t be sure if she actually saw him, she seemed to look directly at him.

Chapter Text

"I think this is the most anxious I've seen you," Bill said as Emma paced the floor in front of him. "You're reminding me of Paul."

Emma rolled her eyes. "Ha-ha. I'm not anxious I'm just… I don't fucking know. I just want this to go well."

"I'm sure it will."

"This is the first time I'll be hanging around Jane’s family together for longer than five minutes. It's- this is a real family thing. I'm not babysitting this time, and it’s not a funeral.” She stopped walking and pushed her hair out of her face with a sigh. "I need this to work. I'm done fucking things up."

"You're not gonna fuck it up." Bill set his hand on Emma's shoulder. "Tom invited you, he’s coming around. And from what you’ve said about watching Tim, he likes you already. It’s gonna be just fine, Emma.”

She gave him a little smile. "Thanks, man."

Bill squeezed her shoulder softly. “Hey. I think you’re great. However it goes, I’ve got your back, alright?”

Emma nodded. “Alright.”

--

That evening, Emma hefted her heavy backpack onto her shoulders as she headed down to the apartment lobby and out, where Tom's car waited in the guest lot. She waved at him and he waved back through the windshield. The doors unlocked and she stashed her backpack in the backseat next to Tim.

"Hey, bud!" She ruffled his hair and he beamed.

"Hi, Aunt Emma!"

She circled the car and slid into the passenger's seat, clapping Tom on the shoulder. He glanced at her with an amused little smile.

"You dudes ready to hit the woods?" She said, sliding down in the seat.

"Not 'til you put on a seatbelt," Tom nodded towards Tim pointedly.

Emma gave an awkward little laugh, sitting up straight and fastening her seatbelt. "Right."

Tom nodded, satisfied, and started the car. 

Emma's leg began to shake.

She watched out the window as they drove the first few minutes quietly, and then Tom tapped lightly on the steering wheel.

"So, uh, how's your week been, Emma?"

"Fine," she nodded, "fine. Work and school mostly."

"Oh yeah, you're at HCC right now, aren't you? What's your major again?"

"Botany."

"That's cool." Tom shot her a little acknowledging glance and she felt herself start to relax a bit more. "You got any plans after you graduate?"

“I’m into farming,” she said, her finger tapping against her leg. “If I can I wanna get myself some good land and set up a farmhouse, start my own business.”

Emma wasn’t typically one to care what people might think of her dream - far from it - but she had a feeling going on a tangent about pot farms in front of her nine-year-old nephew wasn’t likely to help her standing with Tom all that much. He thought of her as enough of a deadbeat stoner already. She had no reason to go into detail.

"That sounds nice," Tom said. "Sounds peaceful."

"Yeah." Emma smiled. “It will be.”

Tim leaned over in the backseat, grabbing onto Emma's headrest from behind. "Could we come visit?"

Emma snickered and turned to face him. "You'd better, smallfry."

The air in the car felt a little lighter as they drove on towards the witchwood.

Tom spoke again as they pulled onto the dirt road leading through the forest, brows furrowed as he studied where he was going carefully.

"I dropped in to find the camping spot the other day," he said, mostly to himself, like he was trying to jog his own memory.

Emma bit her lip, realizing if Paul intended to keep an eye on their little party - and she knew he would - he'd have to find them himself. For his sake, she hoped it wouldn't be too difficult a spot. Paul hadn't been too thrilled when she told him the overnight trip was confirmed. As sure as Emma was that everything would be fine, she still didn't want him to worry too much.

"Took a little while," Tom continued, "Had to leave and come back to take Becky home, but it should be-"

Emma bristled a little. She turned to face Tom, raising a brow.

"You brought Becky Barnes with you?"

Tom gave a little shrug. "Yeah, since she reached out and we met up for dinner we've been trying to get back in touch. It's… been nice to have a friend."

Emma couldn’t help her biting tone. "I'm sure."

Tom's grip on the wheel shifted slightly. He frowned and shot Emma a brief glance. "It hasn't even been a year, Emma. She's my friend."

Emma's chest tightened. She blinked, forcing a nod. "Right, no, yeah,"

Her teeth clenched behind her lips.

Goddammit.

She turned towards the window. Tom drove along the dirt path, silent now. Soon enough they came upon a nice wide clearing not too far from the summer camp cabins, and Tom slowed the car to a crawl with another satisfied tap to the wheel.

“Here’s the spot,” 

He pulled into the clearing and parked. They unloaded the car and while Tim rifled through the food they’d packed, Tom and Emma set up the Houstons’ nice, big tent with only minimal frustration.

“Alright,” Tom said, dusting his hands off, “tent’s all set, there’s drinks in the cooler and it looks like Emma brought trail snacks. I’ve got stuff for dinner and s’mores later.” He glanced towards the horizon, squinting at the afternoon sun. “Shouldn’t be too long before it starts getting dark.”

He scratched at the scruff of his chin thoughtfully. Emma peered around the edge of the clearing, her breath catching when she met a pair of dim blue eyes through a shadowy brush. 

“I can go gather up some firewood,” she said. “For later. Then we could go for a hike or something.”

“Sure,” Tom nodded. “Tim, why don’t you tag along? I’ll get the rest of our stuff set up.”

Tim looked up at Emma questioningly and she blinked in surprise.

Well… it wasn't like Tim didn't already know about her friendship with the beast watching from the trees.

"Sure," she said, beckoning him to follow her, "C'mon, bud."

Tim beamed brightly and sped to catch up with her as they headed for the edge of the campsite.

"So... how's school going?" Emma asked, stuffing her hands in her pockets.

"Fine," Tim said. "Math's hard."

"Math sucks," Emma scoffed and Tim nodded sagely. "What do you like?"

Tim shrugged. "I dunno. English, I guess? I got put in an advanced reading group, that means I'm good at it."

"Hey, that's cool." Emma nudged him with her elbow. "Right on track to be an overachieving nerd like your mom."

Tim gave a soft little laugh.

Emma tracked the shadow from the brush with her gaze as they walked, watching him drift along the edge of the campsite to meet her. She stopped suddenly, and so did Tim. 

He frowned, glancing around. "Aunt Emma?"

As if on cue, Paul popped out, bumping his head against Emma's. She smiled and scratched behind his ear.

“Hey man. How’d you know where we’d be?” She asked.

“Saw Tom. Followed him.”

“Mm. You see Becky Barnes too?”

“Mhm.”

The tone of his hum was apprehensive, but before Emma could question it her nephew piped up from behind them with wide eyes, reminding her of his presence;

"Woah!" 

Paul chirped, nodding at the kid in awkward acknowledgement. Emma turned out to face them both.

“Oh, uh, Paul, this is my nephew Tim,” she said. “Tim, this is my friend I told you about, the shadow man.”

Paul gave a small, timid wave. “Hi,"

Tim’s eyes filled with stars, his jaw practically at his feet. “Paul’s real?!”

Emma snickered as the kid bounced a little on the balls of his feet before rushing up to Paul and studying him up and down, a huge grin on his face.

"That's so cool! He looks like a werewolf!" He grabbed at Paul's face excitedly. "I've never seen a real monster before. Is all of it real? Do you try to trap people? You've got big ears. Are there lots of others that look like you?"

As Tim rattled off questions Paul began to chitter anxiously. Emma set her hand on Tim's shoulder and guided him back a bit.

"Take it easy, bud, you're making him nervous," she said.

Tim stepped back. "Sorry!"

Emma patted his shoulder and looked at Paul expectantly. Paul eased forward and held out a clawed hand.

"Hi, Tim."

Tim glanced back at Emma. "Do I shake his hand?"

"Yeah, dude," Emma ushered him forward.

Tim grabbed Paul's hand and shook politely, his bright smile quickly coming back. "It's nice to meet you."

"Nice to meet you," Paul echoed, smiling back.

"Cool!" Tim surged forward, marveling at the dagger teeth that made up Paul's mouth. "You don't use those to eat kids, do you?"

"No," Paul bristled, mildly offended.

"Just peanut butter pretzels," Emma said.

"I can't believe you're real," Tim said, starting to stare a little bit. "I really thought Aunt Emma just made up a story."

"Honestly I am not that creative," Emma laughed lightly. “Thanks for humoring me anyway, bud.”

“It’s the most I got to talk to you, I wasn’t gonna stop you,” Tim shrugged.

He was still enamored with Paul, not noticing Emma’s surprise or the way her expression softened. 

He prattled on with questions he didn't give Paul a chance to even attempt answering. "Are you part wolf? Can you talk to wolves? Can you talk to all animals? Do you have cool powers?”

Paul blinked rapidly, trying to process every question. Emma bit back a laugh.

"I'm… Paul?" He tried, and Emma's laugh came right back full force.

“He’s not gonna be much help in that department, kid,” Emma said, “I had to figure out his name for him, remember?”

Tim frowned. “Lame.”

“Yeah, he is pretty lame.”

Paul gave an offended huff, eyes narrowing and ears flattening. Emma laughed again and scratched behind his ears, immediately making him melt in her hands again.

“Ah, c’mon, you’re lame and cute, you jerk,” she said, giving him a little shove. Paul cooed affectionately right as she pulled back. “Me and Tim still gotta gather firewood, you’ll do me a solid and keep an eye out for Tom while we’re gone, right? Make sure nothing weird happens.”

“Okay,” Paul nodded.

He leaned down, kissing and nuzzling Emma’s cheek softly. She shoved him away again, but still smiled at the tingling warmth left under her skin.

“Let’s go,” she turned to Tim, “we don’t wanna keep your dad waiting too long.”

Paul disappeared back into the trees lining the campsite as Emma and Tim headed the other way. Tim glanced backwards, and after a moment, nudged Emma with his elbow.

“I think Paul like- likes you,” he said quietly, like he was telling a secret.

Emma snickered. “You think so?”

“Mhm. I think he’s got a crush on you.”

“Can’t say I blame him,”

“Do you like him back?”

Emma shrugged. “Sure I like him.”

Tim nudged her again. “Like- like?”

Emma ruffled his hair and he batted her away. “Does it matter?”

“I dunno! That’s what everyone at school asks.”

“If you ask me, it doesn’t,” Emma gave another little shrug. “I like Paul and Paul likes me, that’s all there is to it. There shouldn’t have to be anything else to it.”

Tim looked ahead and nodded slowly. “Cool.”

They wandered the area of the forest, gathering loose pieces of wood and once their arms were full of branches, bark, and small logs, they headed back to the campsite. Tom stood leaned against the hood of his car, an acoustic guitar propped on his knee that he was tuning. Emma hadn’t noticed it packed under the rest of the supplies.

“You play?” She asked, dropping her armful of firewood into the campsite’s designated pit.

Tom looked up. “Oh, hey. Yeah, I learned in high school. Just a hobby.”

“He used to play for Mom,” Tim said, “on their anniversary.”

Tom smiled softly. He set the guitar in the grass, leaning up against the side of the car, and joined Tim and Emma to set up the firewood.

“I used to play for you, too, y’know,” he said, setting a hand on Tim’s shoulder. “Mostly when you were a baby. Tried to teach you once, too.” He glanced at Emma. “He wouldn’t let me.”

“I don’t wanna learn! The strings hurt my fingers.” Tim said.

“It stops hurting the more you play, bud.”

“I don’t care!”

Emma laughed. “I felt the same way about violin lessons in fifth grade. Hated it.” She said, stacking branches in the pit. “You gonna treat us to some campfire songs tonight, Tom?”

“I might,” Tom shrugged.

“Well, I’d like to hear you play.”

Tim hummed in agreement. Tom’s soft smile widened just a bit.

--

Tom stashed his guitar in the tent for the time being and the group headed back into the woods for a nature walk, leaving Paul to watch over the campsite. 

“How long have you had that backpack, Emma?” Tom asked, eyeing the object in question as he caught up from trailing right behind her.

“God, I dunno,” Emma shrugged, jostling the straps a bit. “Ten, maybe twelve years? Somewhere in that ballpark. I had it before I left Hatchetfield and I kept my whole life in it while I was gone.”

“It’s looking a little beat-up,” Tom said. “Hope it doesn’t fall apart on you, we wouldn’t want you losing anything.”

“Yeah, I guess I should think about getting a new one.”

Emma noticed Tom glance at the backpack again. She brushed it off and kept walking, heading towards a creek she was pretty sure cut through the woods somewhere around here. Behind her and Tom, Tim trailed behind, eyes wandering all over the path’s surroundings. Emma had a feeling she knew exactly what he was looking for, and she was proven right when he stopped suddenly, staring up at the treeline.

“Aunt Emma, look,” 

Emma followed where he pointed, up to a high branch among the trees where a vaguely bird-shaped silhouette sat perched. The bird seemed to notice it had gained their attention, turning its gaze down. Its single-eyed, bright purple gaze.

“That’s a funny shadow,” Tom remarked from behind them, squinting up towards the bird as well.

Emma cleared her throat, lightly nudging Tim. He got her message, slamming his mouth shut and nudging her back.

“Yeah,” Emma said, feeling the gaze of the bird bore and burn directly into her own eyes.

Wind whistled past her ears, and a voice seemed to whisper; “I can’t see.”

A chill ran down her spine. “Let’s keep going,” she said, ushering Tim to move.

He kept his eyes trained forward as they walked on.

When they came upon where the creek split through the woods, Emma veered off the path and knelt down in the grass, unlacing her hiking boots and setting them next to her along with her socks. She scooted forward and sat down at the very edge of the creek, dipping her feet into the rushing water.

“I’m more of a hiker than a swimmer,” Emma said, shivering slightly at the water’s chill, “But there’s nothing like a nice creek, huh?”

Tim rushed up to join her, kicking his own shoes off. He rolled his jeans up to his knees before sticking his own feet in the water. “Hoo!” He shuddered. “That’s cold.”

"Feels kinda good after walking, though, right?" Emma said. "When I'd be hiking for almost full days back in Guatemala, a nice cool creek or lake was the prime rest stop. For me, at least."

"Did you ever go swimming?" Tim asked, swaying his feet through the water.

"Sometimes, if the water wasn't too murky or cold. This is better, though, less chance of getting touched by nasty, slimy sh- stuff."  

"Did you ever see a lake monster?"  

Emma grinned, chuckling as Tim jostled her side with his shoulder. She jostled him right back.

"Not yet," she teased. "Maybe there's one in the lake by the summer camp grounds. I never went there, the only campfire story I know about is Lumber-Axe."

"That's the only one they had," Tom said from where he'd sat down at Tim's other side, crossing his legs and just watching the water run by.

Emma's grin widened and she leaned over to catch his eye. "Tom, did you go to Abstinence Camp?"

"Once," Tom rolled his eyes. "It was awful and I never went back."

"What's Abstinence Camp?" Tim asked.

"Don't worry about it."

Emma laughed. She fully intended to harass Tom for his Idonwannabang horror stories later. 

She stretched her legs out and leaned back on the heels of her hands, flexing her toes just under the water's surface. It rippled with her motion, the small rushing waves rolling over the tips of her toes. With a small sigh she tipped her head back and breathed in the heavier air of the creek. She hadn't let herself just experience the woods like this in a little while. God it was refreshing. She laid back fully in the grass, letting her head sit against her backpack, and her legs dangle into the creek. Beside her, Tim laid back, too. After a moment, Tom followed suit. 

For a few quiet minutes, the Houstons and Emma lay half in the grass and half in the water, staring up at the sky through the treetops. Emma glanced at both of them laying beside her, then back up. She sighed again and closed her eyes, feeling some of the tension in her body release.

Then she felt a splash over her legs. 

Eyes snapping back open, Emma turned to face her nephew, his gaze wide-eyed and innocent.

"You little menace," she said, kicking her foot to splash him back.

Tim shot up, scooping a handful of water into his hands and throwing it into Emma's lap. Emma retaliated, flicking water into his face, and they devolved into a juvenile splash fight.

“Don’t fall in, Tim,” Tom warned, still reclining in the grass.

Emma grabbed Tim’s shoulder and leaned down. “Let’s get your dad.”

Tim grinned. He and Emma plunged their hands into the creek and flung water onto an unsuspecting Tom’s crossed legs. 

“Gah!” He jumped and sat up, staring bewilderedly down at his soaked pants. He looked down at Tim.

“It was Aunt Emma’s idea!” Tim yelled far too gleefully.

“Ohh, you’re on my list now, kid.” Emma said.

Tom frowned at Emma, and for a split second a sinking feeling that she’d fucked up again weighed in her stomach, but then he reached into the water and splashed her legs himself. He splashed Tim, too, cracking a smile. Tim kicked his feet and laughed, and Emma snickered, too, wiping her hands in the grass.

The splashing stopped, lest they get too wet and catch cold when the sun did go down, and after lounging by the creek a bit longer they put their shoes back on and headed back to the campsite.

Emma walked a bit ahead, freezing as she reached the edge of the clearing and spotted Paul. She glanced back, throwing her arm out to stop Tim from going any further. 

“Go distract your dad,” she hissed.

Tim glanced into the clearing and ran right off to intercept Tom.

At the middle of the clearing Paul stood on guard before their setup, down on all fours in a standoff with another shadow beast. His blue eyes, narrowed, locked with the green eyes of the other one. The purple-eyed bird had been small, shaped fully avian, if a little strange. This one was more like Paul, but notably bigger, shaped something like a woman and something like a bear. It had sharp spines on its back like his and stood hunched on all fours, Tom’s guitar clutched in one of its paws. The shape of its face was soft with a pointed chin, rounded ears poking through the tousled, tangled shape of a bob haircut. Though it - she? - loomed over Paul, part of her form was obscured by the shape of torn, draping fabric hanging over her shoulders.

Paul bared his teeth and crept towards the bear, growling. She lunged forward and growled back, snapping her jaws. 

Emma started into the clearing and Paul noticed. He glanced at her, eyes widening for a second before he huffed and returned his attention to the bear. He stretched up so he was face-to-face with the other beast. A harsh, blue-black shadow began to spread over the ground from his feet and he shoved up into her face, almost looking like he’d grown in size just slightly. He snarled.

“Leave it.”

The bear shadow pushed back, challenging him, and he didn’t back down. His eyes glowed bright, almost painfully so, even from Emma’s distance. After a moment, the bear huffed and stepped back, dropping the guitar on the ground. Like she’d decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. With another snap in Paul’s direction she stalked back into the thick of the woods. Paul stayed on the defensive until she was out of his sight, and then dropped it, the shadows on the ground pulling back to him. He picked up the guitar and returned it to the tent, and trudged towards the edge of the clearing.

Emma hurried to catch up with him, reaching to touch his back.

“Hey,” she said as he turned to her, looking tired. “Thanks, man.”

His eyes squinted slightly in the shape of a mouthless smile and he reached to kiss her forehead. Emma smiled, scratching lightly over his soft, wispy hair as he nuzzled against her. He glanced back towards the clearing, spotting Tom and Tim approaching, and pulled back. He retreated into the shadows and Emma went off to meet them again.

She glanced towards the west, the sun crawling its way down. “Should we get the fire going?”

--

Hours after the sunset had burned across the horizon, the fire flickered into the air, warming Emma and the Houstons where they gathered around it. They’d eaten dinner, hot dogs Tom had brought to cook over the fire, and Emma and Tim polished off their second round of sticky, sweet s’mores while Tom strummed his guitar. 

He was self-admittedly a little rusty, but not bad by any means. He played through a few songs - Emma recognized Styx's Renegade - and seemed to grow steadily more at ease along the way. Emma tapped her foot and nodded along with the music and Tim swayed his head side to side. Tom stole a glance at them and smiled softly.

Along the treeline Paul sat under the brush, enjoying the music, too.

As Tom strummed a finishing chord and started shifting the instrument off his knees, he spotted his son yawning.

"Looks like it's bedtime for you, bud," he said.

"Aw, what…" Tim protested through his yawn.

Emma reached out and ruffled his hair. "Night, kid."

Tim frowned, but got to his feet anyway. Before following his dad to the tent he headed for Emma and wrapped his arms around her in a short little side hug, barely giving her the time to process and hug back.

"Night, Aunt Emma."

She smiled, sitting in the warmth of her nephew's affection as Tom got him settled in the tent.

"Alright," Tom said when he came back out, "Emma, you want a beer or something?"

"Oh! Sure, yeah."

She caught the can he tossed her way and cracked it open, taking a swig. 

“Thanks for tagging along,” Tom sat back down. “It seems like Tim’s had a good time, I think he needed this.”

“Hey, yeah,” Emma shrugged. “Anytime. It’s been nice.”

“Yeah. I’ve only ever brought Tim camping one other time, it’s been a while. Jane wasn’t… she wasn’t too interested in camping.”

“Ah, nope,” Emma smiled slightly. “She never was real outdoorsy.”

Tom looked down. The subject hung awkwardly in the air before he pulled it back. It didn’t feel like the time was right yet anyway.

“So, uh, you said you wanted to start a farm?” He said. “Thinking about getting in on the farmer’s market scene, or…?”

“Ehh, more the weed scene, actually,” Emma said, tipping her hand back and forth. Tom blinked, and she chuckled. “Yeah, I know. Don’t worry, I wasn’t gonna say anything in front of Tim.”

“Hey, it’s your path,” Tom shook his head. “You sold stuff in high school, didn’t you? I knew some guys on the football team who bought off you.”

“Yeah. It was kinda shit, I didn’t know what I was doing. I’ve worked on real farms since then, got more experience. I’d hope I’d grow some better bud by now. It’s hard work but, I dunno, I like it.”

“Well, I… hope that works out for you.”

Emma laughed softly at the awkward attempt. The air between them wasn’t very comfortable, there was still a palpable tension, but it was starting to melt. That was enough.

“Thanks, man.”

The fire crackled over their silence for a moment. They drank. Then Emma raised a brow.

“So. Abstinence Camp?”

“Ugh,” Tom rolled his eyes. “Be lucky you never went. It was just a summer of stingy kids scaring each other straight and making wallets. I didn’t buy it so all it did was waste my time.”

“Mad woodsman story didn’t scare ya?”

Tom scoffed. “No. These woods can be a little creepy, but there’s nothing out here that’s not in every forest.”

Something nearby growled.

Emma stiffened, gaze snapping towards the sound. 

Tom frowned. “Emma?”

Not answering, she squinted, the shadows around where her eyes landed tinged… green. She stood up. Three pairs of bright green eyes emerged from the dark. The same shadow beast that had faced off with Paul earlier, and two bigger, even more animal new ones.

Following her gaze, Tom stood, too. “What the hell?”

Emma only managed to start raising her hands before the beasts bounded into the campsite. She advanced, only to be checked hard and knocked to the ground by one of them. Another tackled Tom. Emma stumbled back to her feet. The first shadow looked right at her and snuffed out the campfire with a massive paw. Emma rushed her and shoved her back, then beelined for Tom. The beast pinning him didn’t move, just burned his gaze with green light. Tom looked frozen. Emma flung herself at his attacker with a shout and managed to knock it to the ground. 

“Paul!” She screamed.

Already on his way, a blur of blue-black shadow knocked into her, pushing the other beast away and scooping her up onto his back. Emma barely had time to register the movement as he dropped her off beside Tom, still laying stunned in the grass, and stood between them and the shadows. 

The one he’d already encountered tipped her head and grinned, her expression cocky. Challenging. Paul zeroed in on her and narrowed his eyes, otherwise silent. She growled. He growled back. The other two beasts lunged in at him, teeth bared, eyes furious. Paul flinched, stumbling back.

“Weak,”

Paul huffed. He glanced back, briefly meeting Emma’s eyes. She could almost see a conflict in him as he righted himself, standing up taller. There was one of him and three of them, all bigger than him. In any other circumstance this wouldn’t be his problem. He’d leave it be once it got this far. That wasn’t the case this time.

He snarled and snapped at the one on the right as it drifted towards Tom. It looked at him and huffed back, as if to say “stop me.”

That blue-black shadow began to spread from where Paul’s feet touched the ground. He slowly stood up taller, his spines twitching anxiously, his eyes wide and uncertain. Still he stood his ground, staring down the bigger beasts. He blinked rapidly.

Emma watched him make a choice.

Paul threw his head back and let out a long, hauntingly melodic howl. Seconds passed in quiet, and then an echo sounded through the trees. More wolves, the ones Emma knew he avoided, calling back. Harmonizing. The glow of Paul’s eyes began to burn. Something unfamiliar seemed to cross over him, uncertainty melting away as he slunk towards the other beasts, glaring them down. Emma watched, eyes wide, as he howled again, joined in unison by the pack though they remained unseen.

The sound fell on a single, unified tone. A droning, ceaseless note, piercing through the night. A cold feeling of dread pierced through Emma’s chest.

Still looming above, the bear creatures seemed to falter. One dropped to the ground, covering its ears. The one advancing on Tom backed away. The third - the one from earlier - twitched before her mouth opened, a new tone joining the howling chorus. It seemed to creep closer to the pitch of the pack by the second. Her green eyes flickered, flashing blue for just a second. The others followed suit. The second shadow shook itself and prodded the one on the ground to follow as it ran off, leaving their companion at the mercy of the droning howl. 

She twitched violently, dots of bright blue forming at the center of her eyes and beginning to expand, engulfing the green.

Emma stumbled to her feet and forward, grabbing Paul by the shoulder. “Stop,” she said, shaking him a little.

He didn’t.

Emma shook him harder. “Paul, stop.” He faltered briefly at the sound of his name. “Paul Matthews!” She yelled. “Fucking stop!”

That did it. Paul snapped out of whatever stupor he was in and dropped from the howl. The other wolves, wherever they were, evidently followed suit, the sound fading from the air. 

Released from its grip, the green returned to the eyes of the other shadow and she collapsed on the ground, shaking as she pulled herself back to her feet and ran off.

Paul slumped over, looking dazed. 

“What the hell was that?” Tom yelled, stumbling to his feet now.

“Yeah, Paul, what the hell was that?” Emma snapped, grabbing Paul by the face and turning him to look at her. “You scared the shit out of me, what the fuck happened there?”

“I-I don’t-” Paul stammered weakly; “I don’t know. I’m sorry. I don’t know.”

Emma sighed and just pulled him in, wrapping an arm around his neck. He slumped against her, his eyes blank and bright.

“Emma?” Tom stalked up to join them. “What just happened? What the hell were those things, what the hell is that?” He gestured at Paul.

“Tom, uh, hey…” Emma reluctantly looked up at her brother-in-law, but before she could speak a small, tired voice piped out from the tent.

“Dad?” Tim mumbled, rubbing his eyes. “Aunt Emma?”

Tom and Emma exchanged looks.

“Get back inside, Tim. Everything’s fine, go back to sleep.” Tom said.

“Promise it’s fine?” Tim asked.

“Promise, bud.”

Tim mumbled something incoherently that gave Emma the impression he didn’t really buy it, but he zipped the tent back up anyway. Tom turned back to her. She could barely make out his expression without the light of the fire, but the air between them felt cold.

“God, I’m sorry,” she sighed, looking down. She felt Paul nestle against her, his warmth seeping through. “This is my friend Paul. He’s from that story I told Tim, I met him here a couple months ago. He’s chill, but I guess not everything like him is, and… I don’t know. I’m sorry.”

Tom paused, softening as he actually took in Emma’s demeanor, the way she ever so slightly drew into herself under his scrutiny, tightening her grip around Paul.

“Emma, I’m not… I’m not mad at you,” he said, his voice significantly gentler. “Whatever just happened wasn’t your fault, it’s just… a lot.”

“No, I know,” Emma nodded forcefully, glad she couldn’t be expected to meet his eyes in the dark. “I know.”

Tom took a deep breath, trying to steady his pounding heartbeat. He set a tentative hand on Emma’s shoulder. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah. You?”

“Fine, yeah,” he nodded. “Just got the wind knocked out of me. Listen, let’s… we can talk about this in the morning, alright? Your, uh, your friend makes a pretty good bodyguard, yeah? We can sleep on it.”

They both glanced at Paul and he nodded, though he still looked a little vacant in the eyes. “Mhm.”

“Okay.” Emma nodded. “Okay.”

“Alright. I’m gonna make sure Tim’s okay, you come in whenever.” Tom let go of her shoulder and headed for the tent. 

Emma sighed right as Paul wrapped her up in his arms and squeezed tight. She returned the embrace, burying her face in his chest. When they pulled apart she reached up to hold his face.

“You okay?”

“Mhm.”

“Okay. I’m… I should join them. Try to get some sleep. You’ll be fine, right?”

“I’ll be fine.”

“Okay.”

Emma reached up and pecked his cheek gently. She followed Tom into the tent. Paul slumped to the ground, sitting guard over the campsite all night in silence. Eerie, cold, deeply uncomfortable silence.

Chapter Text

Nothing else came in the night.

Emma, too restless to get more than a measly couple hours of proper shuteye, woke first, her hair chilled with early morning dew. She pulled her coat on from out of her backpack and carefully tiptoed over Tom and Tim, and out of the tent. 

Paul sat, still and quiet. His shadowy form was softer, almost translucent in the morning light. Emma crept across the misty grass and crouched beside him.

“Hey,” she said, nudging him with her shoulder. “Morning.”

“Hi,”  

He didn’t otherwise move to acknowledge her. Emma looked up at him. His eyes were dull and tired, his posture slumped. Something about his form looked… different, in a way Emma couldn’t place. Just off. She chose not to question it, instead reaching up to run her fingers into his wispy hair. It felt softer, looked a little poofier, even. His eyes squinted, a purr rumbling from him almost the instant she made contact. His ears flattened. They looked a little bigger.

“Emma,” he nuzzled up against her touch.

She smiled, drawing her hand down the back of his head. To her surprise she found the soft feeling of his hair carried down his neck to his shoulders. It was always a different kind of soft to the rest of his form. Almost more like fur. He kept purring as her touch brushed over him, though, leaning into her.

He kissed her temple and she chuckled at the tickly feeling.

“There ya go, I knew you were fine,” she ribbed, scratching at the base of his neck.

His spines twitched slightly as he nestled closer. He turned to face her and gently closed in, and Emma bridged the gap with a snicker, wrapping her arms around his neck.

“Man, I’ve probably got fucking awful morning breath,” she muttered.

Paul just hummed, kissing her tenderly and holding her closer. When they parted his eyes looked a little brighter. "Emma."

"Thanks for sticking around last night," she said quietly. "I know that kinda sucked for you."

"Mm…"

"It meant a lot to me, though. Having you around. It helped. Plus you kept us from getting fucking mauled, so there's that." She looked down and gave a soft chuckle. "What's family bonding without almost dying, right?"

Paul gave another uncomfortable hum. Emma peered up at him, a little uneasy herself. She hadn't forgotten how he'd driven the other monsters away. Whatever the hell that was, it freaked her out. She watched his eyes dim again as he met hers. He could tell. It freaked him out, too.

"I'm sorry," he said.

Emma drew her hand through the fluff at his neck and gave a weak smile. "It's... don't worry about it. I know you're still chill." She scratched under his chin. "And I still owe you big."

Paul's purr returned, doubled in volume. "I like having you around."

"Dork."

“Mmh, Emma?” Tom’s sleep-heavy voice came from behind them, poking his head out of the tent. “How you doing out there?”

“Hey, morning,” Emma said. “Is Tim awake?”

"Barely." Tom crept out of the tent. His eyes trained on Paul as he approached and he froze, expression exhaustedly baffled. Like he'd convinced himself he'd dreamed the night before. "Right. Uh. You."

"Paul,"

"Paul." Tom nodded. "That's normal."

He kept nodding as he walked to crouch down on Emma's other side. She jostled his arm lightly.

"This fuckin' guy," she ribbed, "acting like he's never seen a beast in the woods before."

"How the hell many have you seen?"

"Eh, not many. I think they're all here."

Tom sighed. "That's comforting."

Emma laughed. "I know, right?"

Tom stared out into the woods contemplatively. He looked a little mad, but Emma was starting to realize he always looked a little mad. It was just his face. That was a funny thing to have in common.

"So," he leaned over to look at Paul now, his brows furrowed "what exactly are you?"

Paul, in turn, looked at Emma. "He's kind of a spirit?" She said. "Not a straight-up ghost, I don't think. A lost soul, I guess. He died here a while ago and now he's stuck like this."

"So these things come from... dead people?"

"Yep."

Tom looked ahead again. Emma couldn't read his expression to discern what he was thinking about, but a possible train of thought dawned on her in his silence. Her heart skipped at the thought, eyes widening, and she grabbed at his shoulder.

"Tom, I don't think Jane is-"

He shrugged her off. "I know she isn't."

Emma pulled back and looked down. They stewed in silence for a moment.

"I remember hearing about a Paul who went missing a few years back," Tom said quietly. "That you?"

"Yeah."

"Sorry."

Paul shrugged.

"The things that attacked us last night are like him, I'm pretty sure," Emma said, and Paul hummed in confirmation. "Not as friendly, though. But that's probably why the legend's about them luring people to their deaths."

"Jeez," Tom scratched at the back of his neck. "Guess I can see why Becky got so spooked here."

Emma pulled in a deep breath through her nose. 

Paul looked down. "Rebecca,"

Both sets of eyes darted to him. 

"Do you know Becky Barnes?" Emma asked.

"Mm."

"How do you know Becky?" Tom leaned forward, eyes darkening just slightly.

Paul flinched back. "Saw her once."

Emma and Tom exchanged glances before looking back at Paul expectantly. “Well?”

“No,” Paul shook his head. “No.”

Tom frowned. “What, is he not gonna tell us?” 

“Guess not,” Emma shrugged. “Lame.”

Paul huffed.

After another few minutes or Tim emerged from the tent, completing the party. “Hi.”

“Morning, bud,” Emma waved.

“Hey, now that you’re up, how would you two feel about going to that diner in town for breakfast?” Tom asked, turning around.

Emma glanced at Tim. “Sure.”

“They make good pancakes,” Tim said through a yawn.

“Alright. We’ll pack up and head out, then.” Tom got to his feet.

While he and Emma packed up the campsite, Paul kept Tim company.

“You look fluffier,” Tim observed once he’d woken up a bit. “Can I feel?”

“...Sure?”

He reached out and placed his hands on Paul’s upper chest, immediately grinning ear to ear. “You’re soft!”

“Uh. Thanks.”

"So if you were a guy," Tim started absent-mindedly pulling up grass as he spoke, "like Aunt Emma says, why are you like a werewolf now?"

"I don't know."

"D'you have a pack?"

"No."

"Aw. Aunt Emma's right, you're lame. It'd be cool if you were in a big, scary pack of monster wolves."

Paul's spines rose slightly. "No it wouldn't."

"Yeah it would. Don't you get lonely out here by yourself?" Tim looked down at his lap, ripping blades of grass into little pieces. "I get lonely at home sometimes. Since Mom died, Dad doesn't always talk to me that much. He just gets sad, but… I get sad, too." He swept bits of grass off his pants. "But, um, camping made me feel better."

Paul just gave a little nod. Tim wiped at his nose.

"I'd wanna have a pack. If I was like you. To make me feel better." He said.

Paul looked down. "I like… being by myself,"

Tim frowned and gave Paul a shove. "Liar. I saw you all mushy with my aunt."

Paul blinked. "I-"

"Tim! You ready to go?" Tom called from the fully packed car.

"Oh! Yeah! Bye, Paul!"

As Tim stood up, Paul reached out and patted the top of his head, like he did with the only other kid he knew. "Bye."

Tim laughed. "You're weird."

"Later, dork!" Emma waved, and Paul waved back.

She and the Houstons piled into the car and drove off down the dirt road. Paul sat in the grass.

--

They knew where he was now. Paul could feel it. He knew where they were, too. He could almost see the den. Hiding wouldn't make a difference anymore. They weren't coming for him, though. Like they could feel he'd just resist again. 

If he wanted to join the pack, he'd go to them himself. There was an understanding now.

Somehow that was worse.

He felt wrong. He’d felt wrong all night. Since… whatever it was he’d done. Whatever Emma had to snap him out of. He really didn’t know. He remembered howling, and then it was just haze. Comfortable, warm, peaceful haze. Emma yelling his name pulled him back, and the other beasts had gone. He didn’t know what he’d done. What they’d done.

He knew it wasn’t good.

He wandered quietly into the thick of the wood and found a place to lay down and rest. 

Paul did like being alone. He always had. Even after coming across Woolly-Foot, the first and really only non-threatening option for company he'd ever had, Paul still chose to keep to himself. It was just more comfortable. Lonesome was familiar, before he'd even known what familiar was. 

Taking a liking to the humans he’d met since then didn’t change that. The woods were his place, not theirs. Emma would always leave to go back home. So would Bill. Paul knew that. He was fine with that.

He didn’t want anyone around him all the time. Even if he didn’t always like watching her go. He didn’t want her, or anyone for that matter, staying any longer than that camping trip. He didn’t want that much company, he didn’t want a pack. He wanted…

…to go home.

Paul curled tighter into himself.

He didn’t think he’d ever know what that meant.