(This story is a sequel to "Gone to Ground", and is related to "Suddendusk & Quick Fang's Recognition" - see listing for more related stories.)
These were the times Snowfall got along with her daughter, and they were fairly rare: walking through the woods side by side, solemn and silent, down a hunting path, although this time both felt the cautious beginnings of joy stir inside them. Quick Fang, although still a little apprehensive about the future as always, had come to some sort of peace with herself and her situation. The past few days had been tense and difficult, but not without reward. Snowfall felt exhausted, but for the most part, she was just happy her surviving cub had come to her senses before disaster struck.
Snowfall tried to escort her daughter homeward without seeming like an escort, without smiling too smugly, and without allowing a single squeak of joy to escape her serene countenance. Some parts of her journey were easy: she knew how to walk with her child rather than over her; it was a lesson she'd had to learn when Quick Fang was still quite young and chafed at her mother’s protective instincts. It was also easy to keep from smiling too smugly -- her long union with True Edge had taught her that trick out of pure necessity, although his amused glances told her that he knew exactly what was going on under her calm exterior. (Long association had taught him to read her, too.) No matter how much a part of her wanted to prance and preen a little at a job well done and at a stubborn family member who actually recognized her mistake, she knew that to do so was not only rude, but disastrous, what with True Edge's proud blood coursing so strongly through Quick Fang's veins. All this she could do: it was keeping in check her joy at the prospect of an impending grand-cub that most taxed her, however. She had never experienced it, wasn’t expecting it, and had settled herself in for a very long wait indeed. The fact that it was actually going to happen, and so soon, filled her so completely with happiness that she felt her skin stretch and threaten to burst with it. It was a struggle to keep her feet still from wanting to dance, and her voice quiet from wanting to howl her joy to the mountaintops and beyond.
Once in sending range of the holt, she sent a quick word to Suddendusk. **We return,** was all she said, a model of restraint, although she conveyed her happiness and contentment at the same time: all was well. She then purposefully fell into step behind her daughter, for she could no longer keep the smile from her face.
Suddendusk was lying on some furs that One-Leg was trying to air out under a tree, attempting to get at least a little sleep. His restless mind and equally restless blood made sleep difficult, and he tossed and turned and dozed in and out, never truly resting, while his family kept him company. One-Leg, Blacksnake and his autumn-haired daughters sat nearby. One-Leg and Blacksnake tossed dice between them. Crackle was putting up with Evervale's attempts to braid feathers into her hair. Evervale was one of the few who were allowed to touch Crackle's head; her touch was gentle and mild, never pulling too hard. If there was a knot that wouldn't budge, Evervale let it be rather than cause her younger sister pain, however momentary. Crackle appreciated that. Although she liked the idea of having feathers in her hair like Chicory, she didn't see the need to pull and pinch and wrestle with the knots that were determined to roost there.
There was not much any of them could do for Suddendusk but be there with him and keep him company, which they did. The waiting was hard on all of them.
And then, the lock-send: **We return.** Never had Suddendusk heard sweeter words. Snowfall and True Edge, dear friends, were finally bringing his Recognized home. He tried to scramble up but stumbled. Blacksnake caught him and set him on his feet. "What's the rush, little brother?" he asked, alarmed at the sudden flurry of movement.
"They're back," was all Suddendusk managed to say before he wrenched free and ran to the den-trees. His girls looked at each other in surprise and then raced to catch up with their father. One-Leg watched them go, and then looked over to Blacksnake. "Should I get the net, in case she bolts again?"
Blacksnake almost considered the idea as valid. Almost. "Let's see what happens first," he said. Normally, he would leave the two Recognized in peace and growl down anyone who tried to interfere, but Quick Fang's days-long absence concerned him, and pain caused to his family made it his business. He did not want to interfere, but interfere he would, if necessary. He hoped it wouldn't be.
Suddendusk himself was fighting many instincts at once. First was to call Quick Fang, to send to her, to call her by her innermost name and draw her to him. He fought against this, however. More than anything, he wanted her to choose to come to him, not feel compelled. If she could look him in the eye again and once more turn away, he would let her go. He would not seek to keep her, as much as it pained him. Another instinct that snapped at his heels was to go to her, to run to meet her. The urge to touch and smell and taste her was almost overpowering, and he trembled even more now that he knew she was near than he had when he didn't know where she was. It took a massive effort of will to keep his mind quiet, and his body still. He stood under the Father Tree and waited, although it nearly killed him to do so.
Word spread through the Holt like wildfire, and sendings lanced back and forth through the Holt like a flock of excited Preservers. Evervale told Windsong, then Longshot. Blacksnake ensured that Windburn knew. One-Leg placed a bet with Notch. Longshot told Beetle, Notch told Rainpace, Beetle told Dreamflight, One-Leg placed more bets with Cloudfern, Moss, and Nightstorm. Blacksnake alerted Kestral. Moss told Thornbow. Cloudfern told Greenweave. Nightstorm told Starskimmer, and together they squealed and whooped and after that nobody could remember who they'd told or who'd told them.
This sort of thing was normally a private affair, but it had been the biggest event to hit the tribe in some time, and everyone was curious, and concerned, and couldn’t keep away. The Preservers swooped around everyone’s heads and whistled and trilled and sang, and the elves draped themselves casually in the branches of the Home Trees and sat in the den mouths and for the most part tried to look like they all just happened to be there.
Suddendusk stood and waited. Windsong, at first unsure of what to do with herself, made her decision and stood next to him. They took each other’s hands and touched foreheads, each reassuring themselves of the other.
Crackle, alarmed and in a voice that carried to every ear, asked “They’re not going to join right here, are they?”
A quiet ripple of laughter ran through the tribe, and Crackle was gently shushed and reassured by Kestrel. The collective elves held their breaths.
Quick Fang sat as tall as she could on Growler as they paced into the Holt proper and to the den-trees, trying very hard to look like all was right in the world, and that she wasn’t torn up inside, excited and terrified all at once. She just planned to quietly find an elf, notably Suddendusk, of course, and then they could put this thing to rest, at least for now.
Walking into the Holt, the Preservers buzzed around her head and sang a shrill welcome. She waved them away impatiently as she would a cloud of insects, but had to grip Growler’s ruff again to keep her balance. She lifted her lip at them in a silent snarl instead.
One-Leg hadn’t needed to bring the net, although the sight of just about everyone gathered at the den-trees, watching-but-not-watching, was almost enough to make her bolt again. Her parents at her back and Suddendusk in front of her may not have been enough to hold her feet still, but there was something else, too. She had made a decision. She hadn’t planned on witnesses, and didn’t want them, but her decision was made and she wasn’t going to let a pack of too-curious busybodies make her veer off her path.
Quick Fang, too, had been feeling the effects of denying such a strong instinct, and in spite of the meat her parents had provided for her, she was still weakened. Her eyes were dark shadows and she had to rely on Growler to bring her into the little clearing between the den-trees, where Suddendusk stood, Windsong beside him.
She slipped off Growler and once again found her world both expanded and collapsed around him, around Suddendusk, around Dhay. There might have been an audience, but right now her world began and ended with him.
He took a step toward her, his one eye sunken and dark, but he stopped. Why did he stop? Did he not need her anymore? Had she taken too long? How was that possible? All she wanted was to feel his touch, breathe in his scent, hear him call her name. Could it be that he’d somehow chosen to stay with Windsong? She shook her head. Impossible. Recognition didn’t work that way. Did it?
“Quick Fang,” he said cautiously. A light shiver ran down her spine at the sound of his voice. This will subside, won’t it? She glanced at Windsong, as though expecting to see her shiver, too. Do they feel this way all the time for each other? Would she feel like this forever? How did they stand it? How could he feel this way for two separate elves? She suddenly felt for him, torn in two like that. They were more alike, now. Her, torn between wolf and elf, and him, torn between her and his lifemate.
He reached out a hand towards her, palm up. An invitation. He didn’t send to her. He didn’t call her soul name. He just reached out his hand. She stared at it, marveling at what it was: he understood. He was waiting for her, he was giving her a choice. She could, if she wanted, turn around and walk away. But she didn’t want to.
She intended to walk forward and take his hand with grace and composure, but before she knew what her body was doing, she’d leaped at him and was holding him in a fierce embrace. He stumbled backwards but kept his feet and held her to him. **Dhay,** she sent to him. **Dhay, Dhay, Dhay.** Her knees felt weak. The noise in her ears was her tribesmates, cheering in relief and the joy of an expected new member, although she wasn’t hearing anything with her ears. Her mind was full of Dhay’s voice, calling her by name, soothing her, praising her, sharing with her his need, which she echoed with her own.
Dhay and Dehn, the names echoed together, mingled in their minds – and in their echo, the shadow of a third name whispered to them both.
Wordlessly, she shared with him the image of a cave she knew of a little ways away, a den she sometimes took to when she felt the need for solitude, the perfect place for some privacy.
“Yes,” he said. “Soon. Very soon.”
Her brow furrowed, impatience threatened. “Why not now?”
He turned his head and she followed his gaze. Windsong stood there, watching and waiting patiently. She had a faint and unreadable smile on her face. Quick Fang’s face looked like it didn’t quite know what to do. Holding Quick Fang with one arm, Suddendusk reached his other out to his lifemate, who came to him and took his hand. Windsong reached for Quick Fang’s, and after a moment’s hesitation, Quick Fang cautiously took it.
Windsong and Quick Fang met each other’s eyes for an uncomfortable moment. Two of the tribe’s weakest senders shared a brief, locked exchange: **I know this bond,** Windsong said. **I envy you. But I will protect him if I have to, even from you.** There was no true threat, just a statement of fact. **But right now it’s you he needs.**
Quick Fang, as was her wont, sent mostly wolfy images. An intruder, skirting the territory of another, not by choice but of necessity, respectful but proud.
Windsong gave her hand a firm squeeze. **You are no interloper. He is your Recognized as much as he is mine. We will make this work.**
Quick Fang nodded, grateful.
“We have a lot to figure out,” Windsong said to them both. “But it can wait. I will be here when you get back.”
With one last squeeze of their hands, Suddendusk and Quick Fang let go and called for their wolves. Growler stepped up and Icemane bounded out from behind the Child Tree. They mounted and turned to leave the Holt together.
They both turned, surprised at Evervale’s voice. She came running up to Suddendusk, and handed him a bulging leather bag. “Some furs,” she said with a wry smile. “And food. You’ll need it.”
Suddendusk laughed and took the bag with gratitude, while heat rose to Quick Fang’s face and she spurred Growler on.
The pair left the Holt engulfed in happy laughter and chased by the well-wishes of the tribe, whose joyful howls filled the air, now that Snowfall need not hold back any longer. Starskimmer caught Moss by the elbow and pulled him into a den amidst even more laughter. One-Leg chucked Blacksnake’s shoulder and boomed, “Hah! And you wanted to get the net!”
(Other stories related to the aftermath of this one may be found in the "Suddendusk & Quick Fang's Recognition" listing.)