"Mother, Father?" Evervale took a breath to steady herself, and Suddendusk felt a knot clench in his gut. Something was up with his first cub, and he was not entirely sure he would like it. She closed her eyes and plunged forward. "I'm going to move into my own den. Not far, the one just above this one. I feel it's time."
A part of him had known this was coming. Evervale had mentioned finding the family den a bit crowded (Suddendusk preferred to think of it as 'cozy'), and he'd noticed her eying the empty dens of late. Knowing it was coming and being prepared for it were two different things, however.
Evervale was looking at her parents with unease, wondering if she'd just upset them. It was Crackle, however, who interrupted the thick and awkward silence of the moment.
"Are you leaving us?" Her wide green eyes shimmered with the promise of heartbroken tears.
"Only for sleeping," Evervale comforted her. "And we never sleep at the same time anyway. This way I won't disturb you when I get up in the evenings anymore."
And Crackle wouldn't disturb her so much during the day, Suddendusk noted. He could see the wisdom in such a move. He just couldn't see the bright side. Evervale was still so very young. Was she really ready for this? He had his doubts.
Windsong stepped forward and embraced her eldest daughter. "If you feel it's time, then it's time. I'll miss your warmth."
"And I'll miss yours," Evervale answered, hugging her mother back. "And it's not as though I'm moving out of the Holt altogether or will never come back. I'll actually be sleeping only a few wolf-lengths away." She pointed up. "Through the wood."
Windsong turned and gave Suddendusk a meaning-laden look. He was to accept this, and not stand in her way. Hanging on to her will just push her farther. He inwardly sighed and got to his feet. "I'll help you," he said. "That den has been empty a good long time, and it's past due for a thorough cleaning. We'll make it your own," he promised.
Evervale, relieved that her father was being so surprisingly helpful and understanding, threw her arms around him. "Thank you, Father."
He coughed to clear his throat of emotion before he answered, "You're welcome."
*** "Dust, dust, dust! Calmquiet Highthing not sleep here!" Dewdrop zipped around the empty den, making its decision sound ever so final.
"We will clean it," Evervale said patiently. She'd tied her hair up and came armed with rags and stiff, straw brooms. "It will be fine."
Suddendusk climbed up after his daughter and looked around dubiously. "It is a bit big. Are you sure you want to rattle around in here all on your own?"
Evervale smiled at his concern. "I won't be alone. You three will be right underneath me. I'll still be able to hear Crackle's sending-dreams."
Suddendusk chuckled. "The whole tribe can hear those," he said. "Sometimes I wonder if Farscout uses them to find his way home."
"She takes after you in that," Evervale gently teased.
"I know," he said, smiling. He clapped his hands and rubbed them together, preparing for the effort ahead. "All right, let's get to work. Dewdrop's right -- there are more spiderwebs in here than wrapstuffed morsels in the lower dens."
Father and daughter got to work. They swept, dusted, and brushed off the floor, and as Suddendusk cleared the cobwebs from the walls and ceiling, Evervale knelt down and, closing her eyes, smoothed out a depression in the wood beneath her fingers for her sleeping furs. So intent was she that she didn't see her father watching her until she sat back for a rest.
"I never tire of watching you do that," he admitted.
She smiled and blushed a little at the attention.
"You know," he continued, "You could open a small little hole between our dens, if you wanted, in the floor beside your furs. Just something to make it easy for us to--"
"Keep an eye on me?" she interrupted, one eyebrow arched with amusement.
"Talk to each other," he finished.
"And just big enough for Crackle to send her wormy friends into my furs," Evervale countered.
"It would be in her ceiling, she would not be able to reach."
"She would find a way."
"We wouldn't have to stick our heads out our dens to ask each other questions," he insisted.
"What questions would we have?" Evervale was almost laughing. Her father was so transparent sometimes.
"We ask each other things all the time. 'Mother, would you like to go berry-picking tomorrow,' or 'Evervale, do you think you could watch Crackle for a bit when she wakes,' things like that."
"And is it so hard to send?"
"You know your mother prefers speaking. It would be a nice gesture."
"For Mother," she said, suspicious of her father's true motives.
"For Mother, of course. And it would ease the pain of separation for poor little Crackle."
"For Mother and for Crackle," Evervale repeated, still skeptical.
"Exactly. And for you! You have never been on your own before. You might get lonely."
"I might get lonely?" She thought she'd hurt something if she didn't let herself laugh soon. After sharing a den with others all her life, she was looking forward to a little loneliness. Right now, loneliness sounded a lot like independence, and she liked the thought of that.
Suddendusk seemed to be perfectly aware of how silly he was being. "I don't mind either way," he said casually, a twinkle in his eye. "But it would be a nice gesture for your mother and sister, and a comfort to you."
The twinkle let her know that he knew what he was doing, and she couldn't help but let out a small giggle. Once the leak was sprung, however, there was no stopping it. She laughed, glad that her father still wanted to hold on to her but even more glad that he was letting her go.
"Father," she said once her mirth had subsided, "It's only a hop and a branch away. I'm sure I'll be fine, and I'll be sure to say a special 'sweet-dreams' to Crackle, and I'll spend some extra time with Mother. We won't need a Preserver-sized tunnel from my den to yours."
Dewdrop seemed to like the idea, however. "Quick-tunnel through nesting-tree! Calmquiet Highthing can make! Oh yes yes!"
"Oh no no," Evervale said firmly. "I'm not going to riddle the home trees with tunnels. Forget it."
"Aww." Dewdrop's wings drooped. "Silky-soft Highthing says same thing. Woodmagic Highthings mean!"
"They certainly are," Suddendusk agreed with a sage nod.
The sky was getting lighter and lighter, and all Evervale wanted to do was sleep. Crackle, however, was still crawling over every inch of her sister's newly-outfitted den and poking her fingers into the soft tallow candles and asking how long it had taken to shape the little alcoves and what did it feel like and do trees like being shaped? "And what about the den-trees?" she continued, without waiting for an answer or coming up for air. "Are they different? Are they easier or harder? Do they know they're special? Do they know we love them? Do they love us, too?" The whole business of plant-shaping was a fascinating topic. Crackle had a thousand questions and by the time she'd asked them all, she'd thought of a thousand more. Evervale herself was still so new to her own magic that she was at a loss to answer them all, and even had a thousand of her own still unanswered.
Evervale looked at her father for help, but he just smiled patiently and went back to carving something small out of bone.
"Crackle, dear one," Evervale said in her softest, kindest voice. "You've been in here all night. I'm tired now, and it's my first time sleeping in my very own den--"
"Oh, I'm not sleepy at all," Crackle announced. "It's okay, go ahead and sleep. I don't mind." She continued picking up and examining everything that caught her eye. Which was everything. "Ooh, where did you find this one?" A pretty feather Evervale wanted to twine in her hair. "I bet it was the hubward shore of the river, right?"
Windsong's face appeared in the door. "There you two are! I should have known." She reached her arms out for Crackle and softly whistled a 'come home' call. "Let Evervale get some rest for mercy's sake, she's worked hard today." Evervale sank gratefully into her nest of furs. Thank the High Ones for mothers.
Crackle came scrambling towards her mother and was swung down and into the lower den, silently locked in an internal, epic dilemma over whether to ask to be told a bedtime story or to tell them one of her own. Hey! Why not both?
"And you," Windsong said to her lifemate with a perfect balance of irritation and affection. "Have you been up here all day? You should know better. Come out, come down. You're smothering the poor cub."
Suddendusk got to his feet and scoffed. "Oh, I am not. I'm just making sure all is well. You don't mind, do you, pretty cub?"
But Evervale was already fast asleep.
Longshot wandered around Evervale's finished den, admiring the shelves she'd shaped into the walls and the comfortable fur-nest she'd molded into the floor. "I like it a lot," he said, running his hand along a curved ledge in the wall that held a tallow candle. "It suits you."
"Of course it does!" Evervale laughed, pleased with herself. "I made it to suit."
Longshot settled himself into the fur-nest and stretched out with a sigh. "Very comfortable," he commented. He wiggled his feet, which poked out the bottom. "If a little too short."
"Not too short for me," she said haughtily.
"Really?" Longshot started reaching for her. "Let me see for myself."
Evervale giggled, but then froze as she heard someone climbing up the dentree. She'd heard this many times before, and knew that in a matter of seconds, the flap would open and--
"Hello, cub!" Suddendusk's cheerful face appeared. He carried under his arm a bundle of furs and some coiled twine.
Evervale suppressed an exasperated groan. "Hello, Father."
"Good evening, Suddendusk!" Longshot tucked his hands behind his head and looked wholly unapologetic for being there. Suddendusk gave him an inscrutable look and turned to his daughter.
"I've brought you a new den flap," he said.
"Father, the one I have is less than a couple hands of days old."
"But the days have had a chill to them lately," he explained. "And this will keep you warmer."
Evervale opened her mouth to thank him and to shoo him out, but he interrupted before she could. "Oh! And I thought of a neat idea I could do for you. If we attach the den flap like so, and then punch a hole in the corner here, and then run some strong twine up and over -- and you could shape some wee little holes through the top of the door here and here and here..."
She loved him dearly, but he could be such a nuisance sometimes and she was beginning to lose patience with him. "Father, what are you talking about? I don't need a new den flap and I don't need some complicated mess of ropes and holes to do whatever it is you think it ought to do."
Suddendusk deflated, looking hurt. "But... the days are getting chilly..."
Evervale instantly felt badly for snapping at him, but he needed to learn. She felt like their roles were slowly reversing -- she was becoming the weary parent, he the enthusiastic youngster who still needed to learn what was appropriate and what was not. She braced herself and crossed her arms. "I have not felt chilly lately," she said firmly.
Longshot squirmed and looked uncomfortable. He wished she'd keep him out of this, especially as this was his first viewing of Evervale's new den and he'd like to at least have done some of what she was insinuating they'd done if there was to be trouble for it.
"Ah," Suddendusk said, coming to his own conclusions. And then added, "I see." After a brief but awkward moment of silence, he said, “I'll go, then,” and he bundled up his fur flap and his ropes and his ideas and left the den.
Evervale felt terrible as soon as he'd left. He really was only looking out for her best interests -- even if they disagreed on which interests were indeed best. Longshot didn't say anything, but reached out and took her hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. He would follow her lead on this.
She squeezed his hand back and with an apologetic look, slipped out of the den after her father.
She found him walking with no apparent destination. He was on one of his many 'thinking paths' which he took when he wanted to trust his feet to walking and set his mind to other tasks. She fell into step beside him, unsure of what to say.
Suddendusk spoke for her. "It wasn't that long ago that we walked together, like this."
"My Very Long Walk," Evervale remembered. It had been about a decade ago, which she knew seemed a lot shorter a time to her father than it did to her. She'd walked with Suddendusk until her feet ached, and then walked even further. It had been a difficult choice between mother and father, but in the end, she had to choose one, and rather than decide based on emotion (an impossible task), Suddendusk's uncountable years of experience won out. "We've already walked that path," Evervale pointed out as gently as she could. "And I feel it's time for me to follow my own feet now, but I can't do that with you at my heels every step of the way."
Suddendusk remained silent for a time, his nimble mind turning the situation over and over and over again, like a spider examining a web-wrapped fly. He kept coming to the same conclusion, although he didn't like it much. "You're right, I know," he finally admitted. "But a part of me wishes that your feet would follow mine for a little while longer."
"It's not as though they lead me out of the Holt entirely," she said. She slipped her arm around her father's as they walked. "I know you want to help me, and I appreciate everything you do, but... you've got to let me do some things on my own."
He squeezed her arm in his. "I know," he said. He felt very old. "I'll try."
"Thank you, Father."
They walked a few more paces in an easy, comfortable silence. Evervale could almost hear his mind skittering from thought to thought. It comforted her.
"Are you sure you don't want to try my den flap idea? I think it would work well. It would allow you to open it without even getting out of your furs— "
Evervale laughed. "Faa-ther!!"