(This story is related to "Suddendusk & Quick Fang's Recognition" - see listing for more related stories.)
Blacksnake looked up from his task of fletching when the weighted mass of netting hit the ground beside him. He raised an eyebrow at his older brother, who sat heavily on a nearby log and began checking the knots that held the stones around the net's edges.
One-Leg acknowledged the implied question with a grunt. "I'm for going and hauling that she-wolf back to the Holt. This is my strongest net -- it ought to do the trick." He glanced sidelong at Blacksnake. "You with me?"
Blacksnake snorted. "If you think that net would hold Quick Fang for any length of time, then you've been drinking too much of Starskimmer's honey-wine. And I'm guessing," he added, "that's why you're overlooking the fact that if you tried it, our brother would kill you."
The redheaded elder blew out a frustrated breath that puffed out his moustache. "I don't know how he can stand it!" One-Leg exclaimed. "I don't know why he doesn't do something! Giving her time to get her head around Recognition is one thing -- High Ones know, it's enough to addle anyone. But this is ridiculous!"
"I'm not disagreeing with that." Blacksnake shrugged.
The older elf peered at him suspiciously. "It's not like you to keep that pointed nose of yours out of something like this."
"Don't think it's easy," he grumbled. "But I like my nose where it is, thank you. Our brother may be sunny and mild compared to you and I, but we both know he'd turn on us if we tried to meddle with Quick Fang this soon after they've Recognized."
"You, afraid of a tussle with Suddendusk?" One-Leg scoffed. "Tell me another, mighty Hunt Leader."
"Not afraid," said Blacksnake sharply. "Smart enough not to pick a foolish fight."
His older brother sighed, fingering the pile of netting in his lap. "I hate not being able to do something about it," he admitted. "It's hurting him -- anyone can see that. I can't watch that happening without wanting to fix it."
"It's hurting her, too," Blacksnake reminded him.
"That's cold comfort," the elder snorted. "Zerran's Blood! I don't understand her!"
"Zerran's blood may be the problem," said his brother thoughtfully. "Recognition's natural for elven-kind, not for wolves. The wolf's so strong in Quick Fang, maybe it's no wonder it unsettles her this much. Even the pack's alpha will snap at her mate until she's good and ready, in her own time. We've all seen it happen."
"Maybe," One-Leg agreed reluctantly. "But not for this long! Not to the point where it makes both of them ill."
"No. But they'll work it out," Blacksnake said, with more confidence than he felt. "They'll have to. They're not the first who've balked at Recognition -- but nobody can deny it forever."
That didn't even require a verbal agreement from his brother. It was a truth so obvious that every elf knew it, especially those who had experienced it for themselves. That didn't make it any easier to sit there and watch this take its toll on someone, when it was your own kin involved. One-Leg's brash and desperate suggestion, represented by the net, was just the older elf's way of showing how deeply worried he was about the little brother he loved. In truth, Blacksnake was no less worried. He'd kept a lid on that, so far – with difficulty, it was true, knowing his place but chafing at having to hold back. Now, though… maybe he could use One-Leg's impatience as cover for some interference of his own.
"Are you coming?" he said, standing and glancing down at the redhead.
"What do you have in mind?" One-Leg squinted up at him.
"We can't do anything about Quick Fang -- there's only one person who can. Who else is going to light a fire under his tail, but us?"
One-Leg grinned. "Now you're talking!" He heaved himself upright with practiced ease, ignoring Blacksnake's outstretched hand. "Should I bring the net along, just in case?"
"Probably couldn't hurt," Blacksnake agreed.
Blacksnake meant it when he told One-Leg that they didn't have a right to pressure Quick Fang on this. That would put them squarely in the wrong. He wasn't foolish enough to tempt fate that way, coming between Recognized mates. No, that wasn't the way to fix this. But what was? That was the problem that'd been gnawing at him as the days dragged on. And for once, he'd looked at Windburn's indecision and inaction, and been unable to completely fault his chiefly son for it. How could he, when he couldn't find the right answer himself?
It might be true that there were tales in the tribe of others for whom Recognition had been a steep, rocky climb to acceptance – but that was before Blacksnake's lifetime. He couldn't remember two who'd Recognized ever being this much at odds. He also wanted to believe what he'd told One-Leg: that it would have to work out, that neither elf could deny that powerful call indefinitely.
The truth was, he wasn't as sure as he'd sounded. Wasn't there a first time for everything?
He didn't want to admit -- to anyone -- how much that idea frightened him. He knew how strong a force Recognition was. He didn't want to see denial of it kill his younger brother -- but Blacksnake feared it might very well mean that, if denial of it was anything like as terrible as the severing of the bond between Recognized lifemates by death. He wasn't old enough to remember what the most strongly wolf-blooded of his ancestors had been like. He didn't know what struggles they might have had with their elven sides. But he knew the wolf was strong in Quick Fang and that, he was sure, was what was causing her to run from the compulsion within her elven blood. Recognition was strong -- but was the wolf within her stronger?
It didn't help that the tribe needed this Recognition so desperately. Even with Otter and Crackle and Evervale born so close together, the elders were aware that the tribe's numbers weren't what they had once been. Blacksnake thought with a shudder of the hand-and-a-half lost to the forest-fire -- and he'd thought the tribe needed more born to it even before that.
Recognition came when it pleased, though. No amount of fierce wishing could force it. He might think they needed more cubs born, but he'd known it could be another century until the next; and who knew how many might die before that? Who knew if he himself would even live to see it? So this Recognition had Blacksnake feeling relief, gratitude even for their continuing good fortune. Even if the pair struck by it were a surprise, it was a cause for joy and celebration…
It would be disastrous for all of them if it went wrong somehow -- if the blessing turned into a curse, if the promise of new life turned into the loss of two more of their already-small numbers. Fear of that was what made Blacksnake want to turn One-Leg loose, and go right along with him. He'd gladly suffer Suddendusk's rage, if it brought a happy end to things.
He hoped it wouldn't come to that. There were other things to try, first.
It wasn't hard to figure out where to find Suddendusk. Their brother was once again sitting with his back to a tree on the bank overlooking the river, the stone weir beneath him. Icemane looked up at their approach, and she growled in soft warning, but did not move to block them. Blacksnake took that as a sign of Suddendusk's indecision.
They weren't trying to move silently, and the three-pointed rhythm of One-Leg's stride – foot, staff, and wooden leg – would be unmistakable. Suddendusk's head tilted back against the tree as he slanted a look at them over his shoulder. "I expected to have the two of you breathing down my neck long before this," he observed, with a sardonic bite unusual for him. Blacksnake didn't like how dull his brother's eye looked, or the shadows beneath it and under the hollows of his cheeks.
"And we expected to be celebrating your union with the she-wolf long before this, too," One-Leg shot back, as he dropped his net heavily beside the seated elf and leaned on his staff to loom over his brother. "But here you sit, and where's Quick Fang?"
Suddendusk sighed. "You know as well as I do," he said, tiredly.
"Not true. Nobody knows Quick Fang as well as you do. Not any more," Blacksnake countered.
"Better you than me, brother!" added One-Leg, with a short laugh, and Blacksnake shot him a quelling glare, even if he privately agreed. Quick Fang was a valued hunter, but no easy elf to befriend, and the thought of Recognizing her…
Suddendusk snorted, but didn't rise to the bait. He wasn't looking at either of them any longer.
Blacksnake didn't like being ignored, and he didn't like his brother's passivity. "How you can just sit here and stare at the river, that's what I can't wrap my head around," he said pointedly. "How you can sit here, when she's out there, and anyone who looks at you can see how it's pulling at you."
"We're no strangers to that pull, ourselves." One-Leg thumped a fist on his chest in emphasis. "You can't fool us – but, High Ones, I never tortured myself trying to resist it, either."
That made the other elf look up again. Suddendusk stared at his eldest brother incredulously. "You can't think I want it to be this way!"
"Can't we?" Blacksnake asked sharply. "That's just it – we don't know what to think. All we can do is guess at what's really going on. And I, for one, am tired of guessing."
"And I'm tired of waiting," One-Leg threw in.
The black-haired elf glowered up at them sullenly. "Oh, listen to the two of you," he growled. "Forget anyone else's problems -- you're tired of waiting, so the world should hurry up and arrange itself to stop inconveniencing you!" He said that with a sneer that, to Blacksnake's mind, at least showed a spark of anger lurking beneath the dull exterior. It was a start.
"It's doing more than inconveniencing you, little brother," One-Leg retorted. "You look terrible. It's eating at you, it's eating at your lifemate and your girls –"
"Leave my family out of this!" Suddendusk snapped. "They're my concern, not yours!"
"Wrong, brother," Blacksnake corrected him. "When it affects this many of us, it's the tribe's concern."
Even with just one eye, Suddendusk could manage a freezing glare. "Which is the chief's business, not yours!"
Blacksnake's eyebrows went up. That was unusually pointed, for peaceable Suddendusk; a good sign that they were getting to him. "What I see is our chief waiting and hoping for the best. That isn't good enough for me."
"Little surprise there!" the other elf muttered.
"Windburn's young," One-Leg added. "He hasn't seen near as many Recognitions as we have between us –"
"Oh yes, you're both such experts at life and love, aren't you?" Suddendusk rolled his eye. "You, who's never lifemated with anyone –" he stabbed a finger at One-Leg "—maybe Recognition was that simple for you. And you--" he glared in turn at Blacksnake "—never satisfied if you can't bully those around you until they do what you want them to do." They'd clearly struck a nerve, finally, and his agitation propelled the younger elf to his feet. "What, you expect me to follow the example of either of you?"
"I don't care what you do, if you'd only do something!" Blacksnake told him impatiently, unmoved by the other's gibes when he'd been accused of worse in his day.
"WHAT?" Suddendusk threw up his hands in exasperation, and to one side of him, Icemane came to her feet too and growled.
"Go after her?" One-Leg suggested, in a scornful tone that said he thought that was obvious. "Find her? Protect her? Join with her! High Ones, how can you let her run and hide from you? You heard her soul-name, and you just let her run away --?"
"As if you aren't practiced at that yourself, brother!" Suddendusk flung at him. "Or did you hear their soul-names and after you joined, you ran away from them?"
One-Leg stiffened, his head jerking back as if a pair of jaws had snapped in his face. Then he laughed darkly, and shook his head. "At least I knew what Recognition was for!" he shot back, with a sardonic smile. "As for the rest – Starskimmer won't lifemate anyone, cub, you know that. And I was mated to Tallow for longer than you've been to Windsong! Who knows? Maybe when Crackle leaves the nest, Windsong'll change her mind —"
Suddendusk's scowl and the rumble building deep in his chest told Blacksnake to interrupt that line of provocation before it became ugly. "That isn't the point," he said, bluntly – though privately, looking at his younger brother, he wondered if maybe it was, if that was a fear lurking in Suddendusk's mind, now that he'd Recognized another. Windsong's own parents had only stayed mated long enough to raise their children together. Or… did the fear come from the temptation that Quick Fang represented, the way she pulled him away from lifemate and family? He doubted the younger elf had ever questioned his own devotion to his family before.
"That isn't the problem," Blacksnake went on, before either of his brothers could say anything. "Not what we did after – not what you'll do after, either. It's getting to the 'after' that's worrying us!"
"A day or two to get your head on straight, that I can see," One-Leg added, "but this has gone on long enough!" He gestured emphatically at the net on the ground. "If you don't want to go and get her, then say the word, and I will! I'll have her back here –"
"Don't – you – DARE!" Suddendusk forced out the words around a snarl and erupted into motion, lunging towards his older brother, hands reaching reflexively for One-Leg's throat.
The bigger elf was taken by surprise by the other's attack, and while he got one hand up to ward it off, Suddendusk barged into him and caught him off-balance, with his weight back on his wooden leg. One-Leg went over backwards, a look of almost comical surprise on his face, with Suddendusk's weight on top of him, hands now fisted in the older elf's tunic.
"Don't you dare touch her! Don't you go near her --!" Suddendusk started shaking the older elf for emphasis.
Watching from the side, Blacksnake was mildly impressed that for once in his life, the usually gentle Suddendusk seemed like a credible threat. This certainly had to be the first time he'd ever bested stout One-Leg in a physical contest – but then, Blacksnake had predicted as much, even if his hotter-headed brother hadn't listened. Initial surprise over, the older, heavier elf's expression changed to determination. In the wrong or not, there was no way One-Leg was going to let Suddendusk beat him, no way he'd show throat to his little brother. He'd lost his grip on his walking-stick when he fell, but now he had his good leg braced and his arms were coming up to push back –
By rights, Blacksnake ought to have left them to it. That was the Way. And he'd usually have no qualms about letting them settle it on their own – but that didn't suit his purposes at the moment. Bestirring himself, he wrapped his arms around Suddendusk from behind, and hauled him off the prone elf and to his feet. Credible threat or not, it was as much for the younger elf's benefit as for One-Leg's.
"Point taken, and you're right," Blacksnake reassured him. Letting go, he kept one hand on his brother's shoulder, ready to fend him off if he wasn't done lashing out. Suddendusk stood, breathing hard and glaring down at One-Leg, who was sitting up and brushing himself off with a sour expression – probably annoyed that Blacksnake hadn't let them finish the tussle. "You're right," he repeated, giving the older elf time to gather himself. "It's not our place – but it is your's. You can't say you're not suffering from this – just look at you!"
Still panting, Suddendusk finally looked at him, then back at One-Leg, and he winced. "I'm sorry," he said awkwardly, and he held out a hand to the redhead. One-Leg looked at it for a moment before taking it and allowing his younger brother to help pull him upright. "But I mean it," he warned. "Let me handle this in my own way."
"And what way would that be?" Blacksnake prodded him, letting his skepticism show.
Suddendusk rubbed tiredly at his eye. "Trust me that I know what's best for her. Because I know her now."
Blacksnake let his hand stay resting on the other elf's shoulder, kneading the tense muscles he felt there. "No one knows her better than you, that's true."
"Don't think I didn't consider going after her." Suddendusk sighed. "It might even work, but – that isn't what she needs, right now."
"What can she need that's more important than the call of Recognition?" One-Leg demanded.
"To feel like she has a choice," said the black-haired elf simply.
"But there's no –"
"No choice in Recognition; I know. We all know that. But this is her first time, and it's Quick Fang." Suddendusk gave them a weak smile. "None of us like feeling trapped. But the wolf is strongest in her, and it's that part of her that she has to reconcile to this. I… I can't do that for her, only she can do it. I don't want her to feel that I forced her into anything. So the only thing I can do for her now is… give her time."
"You've given her time," Blacksnake reminded him. More than enough, it seemed to him.
"I know. And we all know, in the end, you can't deny Recognition." Suddendusk said that with confidence, and privately, Blacksnake buried his fears on that score. "She still needs to feel like it's her choice – even if it's only the choice between accepting it, or growing so sick that she dies."
"We won't let it come to that," One-Leg warned him, seriously.
"I know," Suddendusk repeated. "But trust me, all right? It won't come to that."
"All right. We'll trust you." Blacksnake kept his remaining doubts to himself. It was enough, for now, to know that there was thought, and logic, behind his brother's inaction. That it wasn't just helpless passivity that kept him here, waiting. "But any help you need, anything at all," he added, "you just ask, and it's yours."
Suddendusk smiled again, and this time, it looked more genuine. "Thanks. Don't worry, I know I can count on the two of you."
"Always, brother. For anything." One-Leg reached out himself, putting his hand on the opposite shoulder from Blacksnake's.
And at least, the younger elf's expression was lighter now than it had been when they'd arrived. The look in his eye was a little brighter. Perhaps there was nothing they could do – a conclusion that Blacksnake never liked, it made him feel trapped himself. He told himself that was nothing compared to how the Recognized couple must feel. But maybe… maybe they'd done some good after all, even if all they'd done was give Suddendusk a way to let out some of the fear and frustration that was bottled up inside him.
It wasn't much. For now, Blacksnake concluded, it would have to do.
(This story has several sequels, which may be found in the "Suddendusk and Quick Fang Recognize" listing.)