It’s a dark, dark night. The moon hangs high up in the black sky, gently illuminating the forest. In the middle of this forest, there is a small, quaint cottage. The fire burning bright in the hearth radiates warm light and comfort through the windows, in stark contrast to the cold breeze whispering through the trees.
Adam sighs, a bittersweet smile playing on his lips. Eve’s staring out the window again, staring at nothing in particular like how she often does lately, her expression tinged with wistfulness and sorrow.
“Hey,” Adam greets, bringing over two bowls and setting one on the table in front of Eve.
“Hey,” Eve replies sweetly, wrapping her fingers around the bowl and relishing the heat. “Porridge again?”
Adam cringes, but takes a seat beside his wife nonetheless. “Sorry. We’re running out of supplies, so I’m trying to use them sparingly. I hope you’ll like it.”
“Don’t be silly, dear.” Giving her husband a playful swat, Eve brings a spoonful to her lips and takes a sip, smiling in approval. “I love it, it tastes just right. You’re a great cook.”
“Not as good as you.” Adam chuckles, relieved. “If you want, we could go out later to gather some fruits?”
Eve hums, directing her gaze out the window. It’s a dark night, but the moonlight is more than bright enough to guide them through the forest and back home. And the idea of some fresh, sweet fruits is tempting.
Still. The wind whispers through the trees, and Eve can hear its song. A message of some sort, directed to her.
Stay. Wait. Something is going to happen. It’s best if you stay here for now.
“Maybe not tonight, dear.” Turning her attention back to the meal, Eve closes her eyes. “It feels like… something is going to happen. Something terrible will happen if I—if we go into the forest. It’s best if we stay home tonight.”
Adam’s puzzled, knowing how Eve loves venturing into the forest to gather herbs and flowers and other things, but he lets the subject drop. The two of them enjoy their meal together, and prepare to enjoy another quiet night.
It’s a dark, dark night, and despite the bright moonlight, Meta finds herself running through a dark, dark corner of the forest.
She’s running, running as hard and as fast as she can, breaths coming in short pants and gasps, yet still the people hot on her heels are steadily gaining on her. Meta hugs her children close to her chest and runs, runs, runs through the path of red flowers, a fugitive.
Flashes of memories bubble up to the surface of the mind, no matter how hard she tries to shake them off. No, no! She won’t let her precious babies end up like her, as playthings and puppets and pawns in someone else’s grand scheme of things.
But the people chasing her are getting closer, and the forest seems like it’s getting dark, darker, yet darker, and the twins are starting to fidget and cry in her arms—
There, a light! A house!
Hope renewed, Meta redoubles her effort and runs as hard and as fast as she can. It might be someone’s home, the owner might not let her in, she might be caught before she reaches it, but she’s close, so close to safety and another day of freedom and a chance for her children to live a better, happier life.
But someone, something catches on her dress, causing her to stumble forward and lose her footing. Meta falls, and thankfully has the presence of mind to tumble onto her side so as to not harm her children, but that’s it, it’s the end, they’ve caught her and it’s the end and her children will—
Meta lets out a wail that rises into a scream as magic crackles and suffuses the world around her, bursting forth in the form of rustling branches and thorny vines.
A loud rumble cuts the quiet night in two.
“Did you hear that?!” Eve jumps up from her seat in front of the fireplace, immediately tense.
“Sounds like thunder.” Adam answers, though he worriedly notes how Eve seems to be trembling. “Maybe it will rain soon.”
“It doesn’t feel like it’s going to rain,” Eve hisses, though she accepts Adam encircling her in a comforting hug. “And that didn’t sound like just thunder. It sounds like something’s in pain!”
“It might be a bear. Someone could be out hunting and they came across a bear.”
“They’ll kill the bear!” Gasping in horror, Eve looks up at Adam with wild, terrified eyes. “They’re going to shoot it and kill it! Adam, we have to go help!”
“It’s a bear,” Adam replies helplessly, but obediently follows along as Eve throws on a cloak in a hurry and holds another one out to him.
Eve always did love animals, he reasons, and always hated to see one hurt. They could probably save the bear from the hunters, and if the situation turns out more dangerous than they thought, say, if the bear were to turn on them…
Well, Eve isn’t known as the Witch of Nemu for nothing.
“Hurry, hurry!” Eve calls out, and the two of them leave the warmth of their home for the dark, dark forest.
Meta swims in and out of consciousness. She catches glimpses of the gentle moonlight streaming through the forest ceiling, and catches fragments of sentences from the people standing above her; witch, demon, twins of God, demon, Project Ma, evil forest, demon, Seth, millennium tree god, demon, demon, demon…
She catches a gasp and wonders where she’s heard that voice before, she remembers it screaming with agony and misery and lunacy and with a sentiment that she now understands intimately as a mother’s love and loss.
She catches a glimpse of blue and green and fragments of a spell being cast before the scent of ozone permeates her senses and overwhelms everything else.
And then, finally, with its fangs and claws, the darkness catches her.
When she comes to, she’s lying in a comfortable bed and covered with a warm blanket. There’s a fire crackling nearby and the smell of food makes her mouth water. But the twins aren’t in her reach and that’s what makes her eyes crack wide open as she jolts upward in a panic.
My babies! Where are my babies…? Meta mouths, but no voice comes out of her dry throat and parched lips. A pair of strong hands gently try to ease her back down but she stubbornly remains upright, eyes wild and searching, until another pair of hands, dainty and soft, delivers her precious babies into her outstretched arms.
“Shh, shh, they’re here, they’re right here.” Someone softly assures her as she takes the twins and holds them close, trembling and overcome with pure relief. “Don’t worry, don’t worry. Poor dear.”
“She might have a fever,” another voice interjects. One of the strong hands from earlier finds its way against her forehead, and Meta flinches away. The voice might be right; the hand feels ice cold on her skin. “Her temperature’s pretty high. Do we have medicine?”
“I’m not sure… but there are still some herbs in the pantry. You could make some tea with them.”
It takes her another moment or two to fully calm down, but the tension and adrenaline bleeds out of Meta at last and leaves her sagging against the bed’s headboard in fatigue.
Thank you, she wants to say, but the words don’t come and her voice continues to elude her as she finally makes out just who it is who saved her.
Eve Zvezda. The subject of the first Project Ma. And, if she recalls correctly the screaming and hysteria and despair, the one who lost her children.
Eve’s more than a little confused when the woman in front of her suddenly pulls back and hunches over, almost as if she were trying to hide her children from view.
“Are you hurt?” Eve asks, leaning closer to give the woman a once-over, but her frown deepens just a little bit more when she shakes her head and weakly tries to push her away. “Don’t worry, dear, I’m not going to hurt you…”
“Here,” Adam comes over and offers the woman a mug of steaming hot tea, but again she shakes her head, her brown hair falling over her eyes and obscuring them. “Come on now, it’s good for you.”
“What’s wrong? Tell us, maybe we can help,” Pleading, Eve reaches over to brush the strands of hair away from the woman’s eyes and brushing her fingers over her cheeks. “Are… are you crying?”
“Please…” the woman croaks, shaking off Eve’s gentle caress and drawing in a shuddering breath. “Please, don’t take my children from me.”
“What?” Setting the mug down on the bedside table, Adam takes a seat next to his wife and stares at the strange woman with concern. “What are you saying? We won’t do that!”
“Adam,” Eve murmurs, her face paling as recognition flickers in her eyes. “I think… I think I know who she is…”
“Please,” the woman repeats, this time more desperately, her face feverish and delirious. “Please, Eve, please don’t take my children from me.”
“Eve…?” Adam asks, his worried gaze passing between the two women. “Who is she?”
“…Meta. The Witch of Merrigod, Meta Salmhofer.” And with that, Eve falls silent, at a loss for words.
At the mention of her name and title, the woman breaks down into tears. “Please!” She begs, shaking like a leaf in the wind, “Please don’t send me back to Levianta! Don’t let them take my children! You must know how that feels, right?! So please, please, I’ll do anything! Anything!”
“Wait, calm down,” Adam says, wringing his hands, unsure how to handle the situation rapidly spiralling out of control. “We, we’re not going to, calm down, Eve, help me out here… Eve?”
“Huh?” Startled, Eve turns to face her husband. “W-what is it, Adam?”
Adam says nothing, only reaching out to brush Eve’s cheek—and the wetness trailing down it. Eve says nothing, only gazing at Adam with a lost, forlorn look while tears bead in the corners of her eyes.
The two of them say nothing as a heavy quiet descends upon the small, quaint home, broken only by the muffled sobs of the fugitive in their bed.
The next few hours are awkward and more than a little unpleasant. Meta accepts the cup of tea and a bowl of porridge and a bottle of warm milk for her children, but after the meal she seats herself in Eve’s favourite spot next to the window and tries to make herself as small and unnoticeable as possible.
Which is quite difficult, considering the two babies gurgling and cooing in her embrace.
Adam and Eve find themselves in front of the fireplace once again, conversing in hushed tones and, every once in a while, sending glances over to the wanted criminal taking shelter in their home.
“We should send her back,” Adam mutters, idly combing his fingers through Eve’s soft hair. “The senate might send more people after her, and besides, we’re running out of food. We won’t have enough for all three… all five of us.”
“We can’t send her back,” Eve whispers, shooting her husband a disapproving look. “Look at her! She’s shaken up so badly… and I don’t want them to take away her children either.”
“She’s a criminal, Eve!”
“She’s a mother, Adam!” Eve snaps, looking up at Adam with fiery eyes. “And you saw what happened back there, right? The trees themselves were protecting her, we had to pry her out of the roots! And I heard the song of the forest. This must be what it was telling me about! This was meant to be; the forest god must have meant this to be.”
“The forest god? Eve, are you out of your mind?!” Adam snaps back, and immediately clams up, regretting his words.
Eve takes a step back, crosses her arms over her chest, and looms over Adam with a dark, dark expression clouding her face. “Maybe I did lose my mind,” she seethes, furious, “along with my children. But I still have you, and I still have this forest, and our love. She has nothing left but her children, Adam. I don’t want her to lose that too. I know how that feels.”
“Eve…” Adam sighs, relenting. “Alright. Say we let her stay. What will happen when we run out of supplies? Food? And we don’t exactly have a way to earn money here. We’ll all starve, and we’ll all die. Including her children.”
The two watch each other in stony silence, both unwilling to cede their point, before the noise of a chair scraping across the floor grabs their attention.
“Um…” Meta mumbles, taking a hesitant step towards them. “I could… I could steal things from the nearest town. I’m very, uh, good at it. It’ll be easy. No one will notice, surely.”
Adam pinches the bridge of his nose, huffing in exasperation. “No. No stealing anything, no crime, we don’t need more trouble on our doorstep. I could live with less of that, thanks.”
But Eve regards Meta with a strange look in her eyes, one that Meta matches with a fearful, yet determined glare. After a moment or two of deliberation, Eve asks, “Can you tend to a garden?”
Meta’s face falls, her eyes turning guiltily downwards. “No, I don’t, I don’t know how… sorry, Zvezda.”
Eve smiles, and reaches out to take one of Meta’s hands in her own. “It’s Moonlit now, Salmhofer. And don’t worry,” she says softly, and Meta is struck by the tenderness in her voice, “I can teach you.”
A week later, and Meta finds herself toiling away in the garden of the Moonlit residence. But there’s a smile on her face and a spring in her step as she carefully waters the various plants and cuts away the unwanted weeds.
“Eve!” She cheerfully calls out, holding the shears in one hand as she cups the other around her mouth. “Come quick, it’s starting to flower!”
“Alright, alright, I’m coming.” Eve laughs, stepping out into the garden and marvelling at the blooming greenery. “Woah, how pretty. Maybe we can make our own jam out of it? We could sell some and earn enough money for bread.”
“What fruit is it?” Meta asks, tracing a finger over the delicate petals. “I’ve seen something like this before, but I don’t know the name…”
“Pome, I think? It's a plant that naturally grows in this forest.” Eve shrugs, going over the rest of the plants with a critical eye. Good, everything’s still healthy and green. Meta might not have known anything about gardening before, but she’s quick to pick up on things, Eve gives her that.
“Salmhofer!” Adam yells from within the house. “The twins are crying again!”
“Coming, coming!” Meta shouts back, then gives Eve a sheepish grin. “I’m sorry, I have to…”
“Don’t worry, I’ll take it from here.” Eve nods, taking the shears from Meta’s hands. “Take care of them.”
“Thank you.” Meta says, turning around on her heel and all but sprinting back into the house.
Adam’s standing by the crib he and Eve had built for the babies, cradling them both in his arms and looking positively harassed. The boy is noisily crying his eyes out, and while the girl seems to be amusing herself by tugging on strands of blue hair, there are angry tears beading in the corners of her eyes.
“Little brats.” Adam murmurs affectionately, passing the boy into Meta’s hands and trying to untangle the girl’s fist from his bangs. “Come now, your mother’s here. You can let go of the big bad blue man now.”
Meta chidingly clicks her tongue, carefully pulling the girl off of Adam and pressing their cheeks together. The twins quickly calm down in her embrace, tiny satisfied smiles on their faces. After a moment, Meta looks at Adam with an uncertain smile.
“Thanks.” She murmurs, apologetic. She still doesn’t know how to act around the runaway ex-scientist, still doesn’t know what he thinks of her. And the look on his face isn’t exactly trusting, but there’s no animosity to it either.
Meta doesn’t know what to think.
“No problem.” Adam replies, and the two awkwardly stand there for a while, avoiding eye contact with each other, until Adam blurts out, “Salmhofer, you hate Seth, right?”
Meta’s eyebrows rise in confusion, but she answers his question without hesitation and more than a little vitriol. “So much. So much. He’s a snake.”
“Yeah,” Adam laughs, the tenseness in his shoulders bleeding away, “Yeah, alright. Me too. I hate him too.”
And he leans over to plant a chaste kiss on her forehead.
“And anyone who hates Twiright is alright in my book.” Adam chuckles, giving Meta a lopsided grin as he turns away, heading for the kitchen. “Thanks for helping Eve with the garden, Meta.”
And Meta is once against struck by the warmth in his voice and the fondness in his eyes and the lingering feeling of his lips on her forehead.
On a day where Adam’s in the forest chopping down trees for more firewood, Meta and Eve find themselves in front of the fireplace, enjoying each other’s quiet company, while the twin babies sleep quietly in their crib.
Meta has her head lying on Eve’s lap, but her shoulders are hunched up in obvious discomfort. Eve spends a few more moments brushing her hair with her fingers, before sighing and letting up, drawing her hands away.
“You don’t like this, don’t you?” Eve asks quietly. It’s not an accusation, far from it, but Meta guiltily looks away nonetheless.
“Sorry,” Meta murmurs, shaking her head. “I’m just… still not used to this, I guess… the physical affection, I mean.”
“Poor dear,” Eve says sadly, leaning down to plant a chaste kiss on Meta’s forehead. “You must’ve been so lonely.”
“I was,” Eve’s heart pangs at the crack in Meta’s voice, and she nuzzles into Meta’s hand when she reaches up to cup her cheek. “But now I have you two. And I still have my children.”
A darkness grips at Eve’s heart at the mention of children, an ugly and rotten feeling, and she tries to ignore it, push it down and smother it, but it must have shown on her face, because Meta fixes her with a look of pity and something else, something she can’t figure out.
“Eve?” Meta whispers.
“It’s nothing, don’t worry.” Eve bites out, but she can’t help it, can’t help the sorrow taking form in her eyes as she thinks about her children and her loss, and the budding jealousy taking root in her core.
“Eve.” Meta repeats, more insistently this time.
“What?” Maybe she’s a bit harsh, maybe the venom in her voice catches Meta off guard, but then both Meta’s hands are caressing her face, gently wiping away the trailing tears with the pads of her thumbs.
“Eve,” Meta breathes, slow and cautious. “Have you ever thought about it?”
“Taking my children from me.”
Eve’s taken aback, the wind knocked out of her, but she’s more shocked by the emotion rushing out of her like a burst dam, spilling out from her lips before she has a chance to take them back and lock them away.
“Yes,” she grounds out, simmering with barely-concealed rage. “Yes, and I hate it. I want to steal away your babies so bad, so bad. I love them so much, and it hurts so much because they’re not mine, they’re yours, and they only love you and I hate that. I’m a terrible person, Meta.”
“Would you kill me to have them?” Meta asks.
“Yes,” Eve answers, resigned to the malice in her heart. “I probably would.”
“You love them that much?”
“I do. More than anything, I want to have children to love and to be loved by. The twins are my only chance at that.”
“Then that’s enough.” Meta reaches up to pull her arms around Eve and pull her down until their faces nearly touch. “I love my children. I want them to be loved, to give them every ounce of love that I never had the chance to get. If you love them that much, then that's good enough for me.”
“Meta,” Eve stammers, a red heat rising to her cheeks. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying,” Meta smiles, closing her eyes, “That if one day, I die by your hand, I’ll forgive you. Because I love my children, and you love my children just as much, and you’ll take care of them for me, won’t you? You’ll love them as much as I do, and you’ll give them the love that I want to.”
The tears start to flow. Eve shakes in Meta’s embrace, drowned in a torrent of emotions both familiar and not.
“And maybe, Eve,” Meta slips a hand behind Eve’s head, opens her eyes just a tiny little bit, and Eve lets out a crumbling, pained noise at the tenderness in her eyes. “Maybe I love you, too.”
And then their lips meet, and the shadows in Eve’s heart loosen their grasp on her just a tiny little bit. Maybe not by much, never completely, but for now, it’s enough.
It’s a dark, dark night, but the three of them are snuggling together in bed, warm and content and happy. The fireplace has burned down to embers, but the light of the full moon and the stars sparkling in the sky sends soft, gentle light streaming through the windows.
“Oh, before I forget… what are their names?” Adam asks, stifling a yawn and inclining his head to the two babies sleeping in their cot. “I’ve never thought to ask before.”
“Oh, yeah. What are their names?” Eve asks, her voice laced with sleep as she cuddles close to Meta’s side and plays with her hair. “It’s been almost a month since you came here, but I keep forgetting to ask you.”
Meta squirms a little in their embrace, and the two move aside a bit to give her some space. Prolonged physical contact still has her feeling ill, but it’s slowly getting better and she’s slowly learning to accept their affection, Adam’s strong hands and Eve’s soft touch.
“Names, huh…” Meta muses, feeling the pink of embarrassment settle on the tips of her ears. “I haven’t really thought about that before. I guess they don’t have names yet.”
“What?” Eve laughs, earning a flustered whine from the woman beside her. “You haven’t given them names, really?”
“Well then, why don’t we name them now?” Adam suggests, giving Meta’s hand a squeeze. “No time like the present.”
Meta takes in a deep breath, but nothing really comes to mind. “I don’t know.” She mumbles, stretching a hand up and reaching for nothing, as if the empty air could provide her an answer and all she has to do is grab it. "I can't think of anything."
“Hm.” Eve hums, propping herself up on her elbows. “For the boy… what about Hansel? I think it suits him.”
“Then,” Adam adds, pushing himself up to lean his chin on one hand. “It’s only fair that the girl's name is Gretel.”
“Hansel and Gretel.” Meta says, closing her eyes and pulling her outstretched hand back to rest it on her chest. “That sounds nice. I like it. Hansel and Gretel Moonlit.”
She cracks her eyes half-open to see looks of surprise on Adam and Eve’s faces. Sitting up, Meta reaches for their hands and intertwines them with her own.
“Hansel and Gretel and Meta Moonlit.” Meta murmurs, shy happiness illuminating her face. “If you’ll have me…?”
Adam and Eve look at each other in wonder, and then back at Meta. And then the three of them collapse together in an embrace filled with tears and laughter and three words whispered over and over, three words Meta’s never truly heard in her life, never for her, up until now.
Three words that fill her heart with joy and peace and finally, finally, a sense of belonging.
Finally, finally, she’s loved.