Little Red Riding Hood / cells at work

 

Metadata

Fandom: Cells at Work
Series: Part 1 of the cellular ever after series
Sites: AO3, FF.net

Summary

It’s a simple task: walk through the forest, keep to the path, get to her grandmother’s house. Deliver bread with a smile and take in the obligatory cheek-pinching.

And above all, beware the terrible, bloodthirsty wolf.

or; ae3803:u1146, fairytale!verse.

 

It’s a simple task: walk through the forest, keep to the path, get to her grandmother’s house. Deliver bread with a smile and take in the obligatory cheek-pinching.

And above all, beware the terrible, bloodthirsty wolf.

Akane has a good start—really, she does. She has her map the right way up, she takes the first three forks in the path with perfect precision, she’s halfway there and it isn’t even midday—

Then she walks straight into a low-hanging branch, and the rough spindles of wood tear her map into a million pieces.

For a moment, she stares in shock at the tattered paper that’s strewn all over the path.

She expects to scream or cry, or at least berate herself for her clumsiness. But instead, the only thing that comes out of her mouth is a weak and halfhearted, “Nooooo.”

She’s in a forest.

A forest that’s very big and very complicated.

A forest with a hungry big, bad wolf that wants to eat her as soon as it sees her.

Nooooo.

She slaps her cheeks with her hands, shaking her head roughly. This is no time to feel sorry for herself. She has a basket of food to deliver, and a hungry granny waiting for her. At the end of the day, this delivery is her responsibility, and she’s going to see it through.

Revitalized, she marches down the path.

She’s lost.

She’s very lost.

She thinks that she’s been at this exact same fork in the road at least five times, and it’s not getting any better.

Akane chews lightly on her lower lip, turning over her options. She can’t exactly backtrack, because… she’s tried that, and it didn’t make her any less lost. If anything, it only improved the magnitude of her lostness. And she can’t exactly ask anyone for help, because she hasn’t seen anyone around. Very few ever walk the forest path.

Unless… there was someone waiting off the path, perhaps in a cottage or something—a woodcutter, a huntsman, a little old witch. Maybe someone could give her directions.

The face of her friend, Kaede—the elected “older sister” of the entire village—jumps into her head, sharp and stern. Never go off the path, Akane. You hear me? That’s where the wolf lies. Never, ever go off the path.

But it’s getting late in the afternoon, and the sun might be going down, and if she’s stranded in the forest at night… then she might have worse problems than a wolf. She could run into bandits, or venomous snakes, or a pack of starving mountain lions.

Or she could be late on her delivery.

And that would just be completely unforgivable.

“I’m sorry, Kaede,” Akane whispers. At the very least, she should find a sturdy, tall tree—something she could climb, somewhere she could get a helpful view. Maybe it’d help her find her way.

She gingerly raises one leg, squeezes her eyes shut, and places a toe down on the wild grass.

She squints one eye open.

Nothing; the wind continues to shuffle gently, and the warmth of the sun beats on her red cloak.

She clears her throat and raises her other leg, shifting forward until she’s standing solidly off the path.

Stillness and calm.

Well, that wasn’t so bad!

Akane shifts her basket in the crook of her arm and strides into the woods, whistling a merry tune. She keeps her eyes peeled for any sign of a house. At the edge of the forest, most of the trees are either too thin or too short to be of any use for climbing. Maybe she’ll have to keep walking until—

—until she sees a peculiar glow in the distance.

It’s beautiful and calming, and before she knows it, she’s being drawn towards it. She carefully pushes away thickets of brambles and peers between the low-hanging branches, looking for the source of light.

It’s a wolf, prowling quietly at the side of a creek.

Brilliant white; that’s all she sees. Its fur is as bright as snow, making the air shimmer with a purity, a magic that Akane’s never seen before. Power ripples beneath its flanks with every step.

Akane stares, mesmerized.

This is the big, bad wolf.

This is the big, bad wolf, but it’s gorgeous.

No, Akane, she scolds herself. This wolf has killed people. Eaten people. It’s not like the pretty, harmless flowers that you like to pick. It’s a wolf, and it will eat you.

That helps knock some sense into her. She bites her lip and slowly steps away, gingerly avoiding any of the twigs underfoot.

Until the wolf raises its head and looks right at her.

“Oh!” says Akane.

The beautiful white wolf stares at her, frozen in place.

“Oh my,” says Akane.

A languid blink.

“I’m about to be eaten, aren’t I?” whispers Akane.

She knows that it’s futile to try running away. The wolf is sure to be much, much faster than her. She’d hardly be able to get three steps before it pounced and wrenched her little red head away from her body.

No, it seems like her lot in life is going to be a little red snack.

The wolf still hasn’t moved. It’s watching her—waiting, perhaps? Something about the dappled sunlight filtering through the trees gives its fur an iridescent glow. It’s strangely beautiful, even for a creature that’s about to eat her.

Then she notices something.

Red is dripping from the underbelly of the wolf, forming a slow, sluggish pool of crimson on the forest floor.

The wolf is dying.

Suddenly, all fear vaporizes from her mind. It seems sad, too sad, that such a majestic, beautiful creature is dying.

Akane’s mind scrambles back to all the times she’s tripped and fallen, suffered scrapes and cuts and bruises—she remembers how she’d learned to bind wounds and treat injuries, all because of her own clumsiness—

She knows how to heal.

Akane slowly stoops, looking straight into the wolf’s eyes.

“Are you hurt?” she says softly.

The wolf continues to watch her, impassive. It probably can’t understand her. It’s a wolf, after all.

“I can help you,” she says. She extends a hand. If she’s eaten, she doesn’t even think she would mind. This poor creature can’t die.

Slowly, it steps towards her. The movements seem labored and careful, but it only stops once it’s within her reach, so beautiful and terrifyingly close that she has to hold her breath.

She reaches out and gingerly touches its shoulder, her hand pressing into the fur. Soft, silky. Surely this wolf couldn’t be bad. Nothing this beautiful could be bad.

“I’m going to look at your belly.” She feels the need to explain everything, even if it’s a wolf and it can’t understand her. “I’ve got some medicinal herbs here, they’re actually for Grandma, but I can pick some more before I get to her house. And I’m going to pack your wound with those herbs and bind it up, okay? I’ve got my cloak—we’re going to use that.”

Maybe the soothing tone of her voice is placating the wolf, or maybe it somehow understands her. It keeps obediently still as she lowers herself to the ground, peering at its underbelly.

Thankfully, it seems like a simple gash—not particularly deep. It’s bleeding, but it’s not as bad as she thought.

She quickly strips her cloak and grabs the herbs from her basket. She grinds them roughly against a stone with another, a makeshift pestle, and packs the ground herbs into the crimson fabric. After a few minutes of carefully washing the wolf’s matted, bloodied fur in the creek, she ties the cloak over the wound, binding it tightly.

She sits back to survey her work, and a thrill runs through her. She claps rapidly, beaming.

“There! I’m proud, if I do say so myself! I should become a doctor!”

The wolf’s tail swishes, and it seems equally pleased with her handiwork.

“Thank you for not eating me, by the way,” Akane says politely. “I don’t know if it’s because you’re hurt, but I appreciate not being eaten.”

The wolf’s ears flick, almost like it’s replying to her. You don’t even look tasty, Miss Red.

She giggles, and before she can think, she’s reaching up and ruffling the top of its head. “Get plenty of rest, and don’t move too much for today, okay?”

Both ears flick this time. Yes, Miss Red.

“Good,” she says. “I’d better get going. My grandma is expecting this delivery, and I hate being late!”

She leaps to her feet and seizes her basket, scanning the woods for the forest path. It’s easy to find in the light of the setting sun, and she quickly strides to the edge.

The wolf suddenly sweeps in front of her, blocking her way.

Akane hiccups. This is it. I’m going to be eaten. The wolf’s benevolence ends here.

But the wolf doesn’t move. It only stares at her, calm and motionless.

Akane blinks. “Um, Mr. Wolf, that’s the way I need to go.”

The wolf lowers its muzzle toward her basket, nudging it. Akane pales, wrenching the basket away.

“Oh, no, Mr. Wolf! I’m sorry that you’re hungry, but this is important for my grandmother—”

The wolf looks up at her, ears flicking irritatedly.

Akane looks down.

The wolf’s muzzle is specifically nudging… toward her empty herb container in the basket.

She pales again. “Oh noooo! The herbs! I would’ve totally forgotten. Thank you, Mr. Wolf!”

She stoops, hurriedly breezing through the nearby trees and roots to find what was most important. She’s not an apothecary, not by any means, but she has learned to treat her own wounds and she knows the most urgent herbs. Thankfully, the forest is luscious and fertile, full of life and growing things. It only takes ten minutes before she has everything ready.

She finally steps on the path, giving one last sheepish smile to the wolf. “Thank you, and sorry, Mr. Wolf.”

The wolf nods.

Oh, wait. That means it understands her. And it’s understood her all this time.

Akane flushes, then resolutely turns back to the forest path. She steps forward once, and twice, and then—

—there’s a fork in the path.

And both sides look completely unfamiliar.

Akane’s mind grinds to a halt. She looks to the left, looks to the right. Her map is gone. She’s turned around. The sun is setting.

She sheepishly turns back to the wolf and rubs the back of her head. “Would you… happen to know which way leads to the seaside cottage at the top of the cliff, Mr. Wolf? That’s my grandma’s house.”

Maybe it’s a trick of the light, but she swears that she sees a twinkle of amusement in the wolf’s eyes. There’s a gentle brush of a tail on her back, something tender and lightweight, and the wolf springs on the path. Come, Miss Red.

The wolf walks her all the way to the forest’s edge, right as her grandma’s cottage peeks out from the crest of the cliff. The sunset washes the world with a fiery pink glow, glittering off the sea like a thousand shards of hand-spun glass.

Akane gasps in delight, beaming. She turns. “Thank you so much, Mr. Wol—”

The wolf is gone.

But at the corner of her eye, she thinks she sees the shadow of a man slip into the forest.

Grandma welcomes her in, looking ever youthful and doll-like despite her age. She smiles affectionately at Akane, sweeping to the kitchen in her ivory frilly dress to prepare some baked goods for Akane to take back. Akane blubbers an excuse about her cloak—it snagged, she tripped on it, it went flying in the wind—but Grandma only ruffles her hair and says, my clumsy girl, and provides her a new one.

Akane shuffles from foot to foot, antsy. “Grandma,” she finally says, “what is the Big Bad Wolf like? Has anyone seen it?”

Grandma giggles lightly as she scoops some macaroons into the basket. “Seen it, and lived to tell the tale? Heavens, no. It consumes any human it sees at a first glance.” She raises her fingers, miming claws. “It’s a very dangerous creature, my child. We would do well to avoid its path.”

Akane remembers the soft look in its eyes, the gentle brush of its tail. “Is it dark and scary?”

Grandma hums. “I believe it’s been rumored to be bright, yet terrifying, like a bolt of lightning. Not all evil things have a dark coat.” Her perpetually smiling face suddenly fades into a stern look. “You aren’t thinking of looking for the wolf, are you?”

“Oh!” Akane stammers. “Oh, I, I don’t want to get eaten!”

“Then you ought to stay out of its way,” Grandma says. “Don’t leave the path, dear. Whatever you do, don’t leave the path.”

It’s the next day, fresh in the morning, and Akane is returning to the village.

She’s also left the path.

And is not only looking for the wolf, but calling out for him like a total idiot.

She just can’t believe the legends—not after looking into the wolf’s eyes, feeling the breath of life under its fur, seeing how gentle it was. Had it really killed any villagers? Or were the villagers who wandered into the forest “never seen again” just because the forest was so vast and so impossible to navigate? (Really, the townspeople ought to put up proper signage!)

“M-Mr. Wolf?” Akane calls tenuously, gripping the basket closer to her. “Mr. Wolf, are you here?”

The forest is quiet around her. She’s probably scared away most of the animals with her voice.

She steels herself one last time. “YoOOOhooOO, Mr. Wolf—!”

“I heard you the first time.”

She jumps, clutching the basket to her chest like a flimsy shield. Her head whips around.

A tall, striking man, every feature bone-white and brilliant under the glittering sun, is leaning against the tree, gaze calmly fixed on her. Every piece of clothing, from the rough coat lined with fur thrown around his shoulders to the lace-up flat boots on his feet, is stainless ivory. He’s almost hard to look at.

She blinks.

He raises a small wooden cup to his lips and sips. She sees a hint of green on the mouth of the cup. Tea, of some kind.

“Hah?” she says.

He raises a hand, his face unmoving. “Yo. I’m the wolf.”

Silence.

“You don’t look like a wolf,” Akane says dumbly.

“Not right now,” he admits. He looks away, almost bashful. “So, Miss Red, what did you want?”

It’s pretty anticlimactic. She didn’t expect to meet the wolf like this—so casually, so humanlike. “Uh.”

He waits patiently.

Her brain finally seizes something. “My name’s Akane! I just, I don’t know, wanted to thank you!”

“You already did,” he says.

Beat.

There’s a hint of pink on his cheeks. “No, I mean, you’re welcome. My name is Shiro.”

He’s strangely kind and approachable, and Akane eases a little. “Are you the big bad wolf that everyone talks about?”

Shiro sips his tea again. “I don’t know. I’m not close enough to the village to know what everyone talks about.”

“Oh.” Akane blinks. “Well, is there another wolf in this forest? A big, bad one that I should be careful of? Are there like, wolf factions? So you’re part of the nice one, but there’s a bad one that wants to feast on children for breakfast?”

He chuckles lightly, amused by her antics. “No. I’m the only wolf.”

“But you’re so nice,” Akane blurts.

He only sips his tea. Then there’s a rustle in the trees, and he straightens, his eyes bright and alert.

The forest falls silent, deathly quiet.

“Have to go,” he says, terse and sudden. “Keep to the right until you hit the double oaks. Then go left. That should lead you straight to the village.”

“Thank y–”

He’s already disappeared into the trees.

When she gets back, she’s bursting to tell Kaede the news. I met the wolf! He’s kind! He’s not bad at all! Look, he didn’t eat me! And guess what, he drinks green tea. Crazy, right?

But she arrives to grave faces, downcast frowns, a single casket.

The entire village has collected at the center of the square, and a woman is sobbing as the casket is burned in a funeral pyre. The melancholy strains of a dirge greet the listless moon.

Akane’s giddiness melts away and hardens in the pit of her stomach. She slowly shuffles next to Kaede.

Kaede’s eyes are red, but dry. “Hana is dead,” she says brusquely. “Mauling. She went to pick herbs in the forest without a huntsman.”

Akane’s heart clenches, remembering the competent, level-headed apothecary’s apprentice. She showed so much promise. “By the wolf?” Akane whispers.

“All we found were her bloodstained robes,” Kaede says. “Torn apart by claws.” She shakes her head. “This is why… I tell you to never leave the path.

Akane thinks of the gentle wolf, his humored smile, the civil way he sips his green tea. Something’s wrong. Something clammers inside her head, tells her that this isn’t right, something isn’t right.

But she can’t say that. Not at Hana’s funeral.

She watches the fire in silence as Hana’s mother keens to the sky.

Akane waits impatiently for her next week’s visit to her grandmother’s house. Kaede’s barely placed the basket in her arms before she’s out the door, barreling straight towards the forest for answers.

The woods are a little darker and dimmer around her this time. Maybe it’s just her imagination. Maybe it’s because Hana is dead and Hana was mauled, and she doesn’t have any answers. She doesn’t know.

“Mr. Wolf,” she pleads. “Mr. Wolf, where are you?”

Maybe he’s planning on mauling her, too.

“Mr. Wolf!” she calls, and the third time’s the charm, because of a glimmer of white flickers behind a shroud of hedges.

She pushes through, and she finds a human Shiro calmly standing by the creek, sipping at his wooden cup of green tea. He doesn’t look vile and vicious, and a gentle warmth pulls through her chest. Relief, maybe, that he looks normal.

“Miss Red,” Shiro greets. He’s smiling a little, his eyes resting on her face.

But Akane isn’t in the mood to smile—not this time. She gnaws at her lower lip, the words bubbling in her chest. “Mr. Wolf,” she blurts, “why didn’t you eat me?”

Shiro’s face turns bland. “I don’t eat people.”

“But you—but I—” Akane swallows. Her throat is painfully sore. “Hana… Hana’s dead. The apothecary’s apprentice. The village said that she was mauled when she went to the forest to collect herbs.”

Shiro stills. The hand on his green tea tightens. “You think I killed her.”

“No, I don’t—I mean—I don’t know,” Akane says lamely. “Did you? Kill her?”

“No,” says Shiro.

His tone is calm and unfeeling, but relief washes over Akane. “Then I believe you.”

He blinks. “Just like that?”

She nods. “Well, yeah.”

Shiro looks down, his face hidden by his bangs.

“But what happened?” Akane says. “I mean, she was—she was such a kind person, and it’s just very sad. It’s very sad that she’s dead, and it’s even sadder that people think that you killed her. I might not know you too well, but you seemed gentle, so I thought—that, you know, you didn’t eat little girls or apothecary’s apprentices. But would you know? Would you know what happened to her?”

“She’s not dead,” Shiro says, and his voice is strangely gentle. “A friend is looking after her. She’s strong.”

Akane breathes sharply. “She’s alive?”

“Yes.”

“I should tell her mother!”

“Not yet,” Shiro says urgently. “We still don’t know if she’ll make it.”

Akane slumps against the tree, but she’s not disappointed; she’s just relieved that the promising young woman is alive. “Will you tell me once you know?”

“I will.”

Akane smiles hopefully, and the spark re-enters her eyes. “Everyone is scared of you,” she pouts. “They all think that you’re some big, bad monster, but you’re the one who saved Hana. Well! I’ll show them that they’re all wrong! You’re one of the kindest people—um, animals—um, spirits—“

A chuckle, deep and low. “Person.”

“You’re one of the kindest people I’ve met! Wait, you’re a person?”

Shiro’s eyes are smiling at her. “More or less.”

Her curious, bright look is infectious. He has to explain more.

“I’m the protector of the forest,” he says. “I was given the power to morph between a human form and a wolf form, depending on whatever best fits the threat.”

She gasps. “That’s so cool.

He laughs at that.

“No, really!” she bubbles. “That’s wonderful! Sometimes I wish that I could like, you know, fly or something, and then I could just fly over the whole forest and take the food to my grandma! I mean, then again, I never would have met you, but just imagine if you could morph into a hawk! Or a dove! Or a flying squirrel!”

He was starting to choke. “A flying squirrel?”

“Aren’t they amazing?! Just, you think it’s a regular squirrel, but then it suddenly jumps off the branch and spreads its limbs and it’s all like, Surprise, fools! I’m a flying squirrel!

His grin is across his entire face now, lighting up the pale, bone-white of his skin. “Oh?”

“Have you ever done that?” she says curiously. “Have you ever pranked some of the villagers? Like, pretended to be a man, and then boom, become a wolf?”

The thought never crossed his mind. “Can’t say I have.”

“It sounds like it’d be hilarious,” she says. “Why, I bet that they—“

Suddenly, Shiro stands.

His eye is clear and sharp, sweeping the surroundings.

Akane’s words die on the tip of her tongue. She feels it: the sudden silence of the forest, the thrum of something in the air. There’s a flickering shadow on the edge of her vision, but every time she turns to look, there’s nothing there.

“What is it?” she whispers.

Silence. Shiro crouches low to the ground, his bangs falling forward and shadowing his eyes. He seems impossibly still, like his entire body is listening through the earth.

And then—

—a ghastly shriek rips through the woods. Dark tendrils seep through the trees, and every bough shakes, trembling like a silent scream.

Ethereal smoke suddenly winds around Shiro’s form, glittering bright, and his figure becomes a vague outline, shifting and molding—

—and he’s the beautiful white wolf, crouching in front of Akane.

A moment of silence.

The wolf lashes his tail and snarls, low and cold.

The entire forest pulsates, and the ghastly shriek sounds again, a piercing alarm that vibrates through Akane’s skull.

Dark smoke pours through the trees, writhing and pulsing, blackening the sky. Just looking at it fills Akane with a cold horror, a feeling of wrongness, like a blank mirror or the shedded skin of a venomous snake.

And her wolf—

—he roars, shaking the forest with the power of it, and pounces straight to the center of the terrifying mass.

They twist and thrash together, light and dark, a swirl of disharmony. Her wolf’s jaw is snapping at the darkness, which convulses around him, shrieking endlessly. Dark limbs thrash at his face and underbelly, and he nimbly breaks away. He sprints up the nearest tree, lithe and powerful, and pounces again.

Akane can’t bring herself to look away. It’s horrifying, it’s a mess, and there’s a tight knot of fear in the pit of her stomach, but she can only watch.

Please, Mr. Wolf. Be careful. You must be careful.

There is no softness in her wolf’s eyes. His pupils are slitted with bloodlust, his strikes fierce and unrelenting. He almost feels foreign to Akane—a mindless killing machine, focused purely on the thrill of the hunt.

He buries his muzzle right in the heart of the darkness, clamps his jaw, and tears away.

One last, terrible scream.

The tendrils slowly dissipate into vapor.

The wolf lands solidly on his paws, chest heaving with exertion, nostrils flaring. Up close, he’s a powerful and formidable beast. Akane instinctively shrinks away, her pulse pounding angrily.

The wolf instantly turns on her, sensing the motion. His lips pull back in a snarl—and then he recognizes her. He blinks. His muzzle smoothes over.

Ethereal smoke, a shifting figure.

Shiro stands before her, his face stoic and unreadable.

Akane’s hands are white in her skirt. She swallows past the fear in her throat. “T-thank you, Mr. Wolf. For saving me.”

His expression doesn’t change. “You’re welcome.”

He seems ready for something, resigned to something. But what?

She swallows again. “What was that? That… thing?”

“That was the Darkness,” Shiro says quietly. “You can think of it as an undying wraith—a spirit of vengeance and despair. The animals that it touches go beserk and kill anything they see.”

A small sob from Akane. “That sounds t-terrible…”

“My job is to keep it at bay,” he says. “If I do my job properly, then it can never enter the forest. Not beyond the perimeter.”

Her heart swells, and she wraps her fingers in the soft fabric of his coat. “You must get so lonely.”

There’s a moment of silence and surprise, a heart stuttering beneath a coat. He clears his throat. “It’s my job.”

Akane sniffles. “Thank you, thank you, Mr. Wolf.”

He’s blinking at her, and the careful blankness of his face is gone. A hint of confusion mars his brow. “You’re not running?”

“Didn’t you get rid of it for now? The Darkness?”

His expression becomes very complicated, and she doesn’t know how to interpret it. “Yes.”

“Then I don’t need to run,” she says plainly.

Shiro stares at her for a very long time.

“Um, what, Mr. Wolf?” she says.

He looks away. “Do you need to get to your grandmother’s house?”

“Oh, right,” she chirrups, brightening. She hoists the basket in her arm, then pauses. Her mouth opens, then closes, searching for words.

He waits patiently.

“That was what hurt Hana, wasn’t it?” she says, her voice small. “The Darkness?”

He nods, his face grave.

Akane shuffles towards the forest path. She raises one leg to step on it, but stops, turning to look back.

Shiro smiles, nodding forward.

Akane steps back and runs to him, quickly throwing her arms over his shoulders. “It seems really nasty,” she says in a rush. “Be careful, okay, Mr. Wolf?”

He’s frozen to the ground, even as she pulls back and runs down the forest path.

An hour passes, and a little red head pokes into the woods, and—

“Um… Mr. Wolf—?”

“Go left.”

“Thank you.”


Author’s Note

YAHO. this is kinda complete but there's?? plenty of room for further fluff?? so might expand it if i get inspo

ANYHOO, here's the names so far:

- ae3803 / Akane, little red
- u1146 / Shiro, the white wolf
- aa5100 / Kaede, the village overseer's daughter
- nt4201 / Hana, the apothecary's apprentice

i do have ideas for u2626:aa5100 fic and u4989:nt4201 fic in the same fairytale!verse... so might write those at some point...

HOPE YA'LL ENJOYED