(This story begins directly after "Patience".)
Evervale was out of breath. She hurried across the tree tops, her feet touching lightly from branch to branch as she seemed to glide through the leaves. That would naturally cause anyone to be out of breath, but her lack of air stemmed more from her embarrassment at accidentally overhearing a conversation.
Once she was certain she was far enough away and definitely out of sight, Evervale stopped high in a tree to lean against the thick trunk. She braced her hands against the reassuring bark and closed her eyes. She worked to slow her breathing while she tried to sort out the whirl of thoughts going through her mind.
If a human had somehow been standing on the forest floor below and happened to look up, it would have been impossible for him to see the small lithesome elf high up in the trees. A human would have marveled that any two-legged creature besides a bird could find their way that high into the forest canopy, but to Evervale and most other elves, the feat was nothing out of the ordinary. Evervale always felt safest up high in the trees, which was why she often chose to nap in such surroundings.
How she had happened to choose the very spot that was above where Beetle and Pathmark decided to stop and chat, Evervale didn’t bother to fathom. Life was like that sometimes – random and strange. All sorts of meaning could be assigned to the meeting of two unlikely events, but in Evervale’s mind it was just coincidence.
What was more central to Evervale’s thoughts now was simply what had been said in the conversation she had overheard. Evervale opened her large green eyes and smiled. One of her hands moved to hold her cheek. Pathmark was sweet on her! Beetle had said so and Pathmark had clearly acknowledged it was true.
Evervale had wondered before how he felt about her, but could never be sure. He had started teaching her to carve when she was a child, and as she’d grown they had become friends. When she’d discovered her plantshaping abilities, Pathmark had expected she would lose interest in carving. He was so happy when Evervale told him she still enjoyed the challenge of carving and would still like to learn from him. She liked to carve little curios and give them finishing touches with her plantshaping abilities.
Now that she was older, when Pathmark would lean over her to point out how to hold the knife, sometimes Evervale felt a little tingle at his nearness. She hadn’t been sure if he felt the same way or if he viewed her as strictly a student. In retrospect, she could see the glint in his eyes had been true affection.
She felt a fool for not catching on sooner. A blush rushed to her cheeks and she felt the warmth against her palm. Excitement ran through her as she thought about how he was now looking for her, apparently planning to tell her, somehow, what he felt.
How should she react? Should she pretend not to have heard? Or should she make it easy on him and apologize for accidentally overhearing? Evervale grimaced. That could potentially be more embarrassing for him.
She didn’t think it fair to preempt whatever Pathmark was planning. She could tell approaching her would be difficult for him. The two had a good friendship blooming and he was afraid of hurting that. She could understand, especially since she knew he and Beetle had tried denning together and it didn’t work out.
Calming her buzzing nerves, Evervale began to make her way back to the Holt. She jumped from tree to tree like a squirrel, slowly lowering herself so that she was walking just above the forest floor. Her heart was pounding, expecting Pathmark to appear around any bush. She hopped down to the ground and walked towards her parents’ den without really thinking about it. Mostly, she was trying to calm down and act natural.
Pathmark’s heart raced as he walked into the Holt. ‘How am I going to talk to her? I promised I would tell her before the night was over! But how?’ Normally easy-going and optimistic, Pathmark did not feel as certain about approaching Evervale. Beetle’s words resonated in his mind, “You should tell her. You’ve been waiting forever to tell her, and I think it’s time. She’s been spending a lot of time with Longshot lately, so maybe she is ready for more. If you don’t talk to her, you may miss out all together.”
The thought echoed, “You may miss out altogether.”
He found his way to the Father Tree and stopped. Evervale’s scent was fresh. An able tracker, he quietly followed the scent until he was close enough to realize she was in her parents’ den. He wanted to talk with her, but he did not want the conversation to be public. ‘This is going to be hard enough without having to face Suddendusk and Windsong.’
Pathmark considered sending to her, but he knew his feelings had surfaced too much to hide them and he did not want to risk giving away the depth of what he felt until he had talked with her. Sighing, Pathmark made his way up to his den. It seemed smaller somehow. Wondering how to approach her, he absently gathered some tools for carving, then began descending. Part of him hoped Evervale would walk out of her parents’ den as he walked by, the other part longed for an escape into the forest.
When he reached the gathering area, Pathmark ran into Crackle, who looked up at him with a grin. “Are you looking for my sister?” she asked innocently. “She’s in my parents’ den.”
Pathmark reached out to ruffle her hair, asking, “What makes you think I’m looking for Evervale?”
“You have your carving tools with you and Evervale likes to carve with you. I can go and get her for you!”
“What’s in it for you?”
“Get her to make me a toy! I want a toy wolf that looks like Muddypaws, but I want to be able to move the legs. And if you could show her how to make it so that his mouth moves, that would be neat!”
Pathmark laughed. It was a tall order, and it would take some time to finish, but it was the perfect opportunity to talk with Evervale, though keeping Crackle away while they worked on her toy would prove difficult.
“I’ll help her with your toy, but you have to promise to stay away until it is finished. If you don’t, we may use your toy for kindling.”
Crackle’s eyes widened and she nodded her promise, then ran into her parents’ den to get Evervale. Pathmark could hear her as she yelled, “Evervale, Pathmark’s waiting! He wants to help you make a toy for me!”
Evervale had been helping her parents sort through clothing. With an active child like Crackle, clothes often needed mending in their family. They did what they could themselves, only seeking a tanner for the worst situations. At Crackle’s loud voice and mentioning of Pathmark’s name, Evervale sat up straight and gripped a shirt tightly in her fist.
“Make a toy?” she answered Crackle nonchalantly as she tried to casually smooth out the shirt and fold it over her arm. She looked up as Crackle entered the den. “Sounds like fun!”
Evervale then looked at her mother. “I’ll take this shirt with me and mend it for you.” Windsong and Suddendusk smiled and said thanks while Evervale pushed herself up from the floor and made her way to the door.
So many times she had met with her friend to work on carving projects in the past and this was the first time she had ever felt nervous to see him. She wished she hadn’t overheard his conversation with Beetle so that her perceptions wouldn’t be colored by the knowledge of his plans. Evervale tried very hard to push the thoughts away and not remember. Maybe he had even changed his mind and wouldn’t bring up the subject tonight. “Good evening, Pathmark. Is Crackle right? You want to make a toy for her?”
Crackle stood in the doorway behind her older sister, listening intently to the conversation.
Pathmark’s face reddened. He wanted to talk with Evervale, to tell her how he felt. But first, he had to get her alone so they could talk. “Well, Crackle saw that I had my carving tools and…” He saw Crackle’s face, and he knew that she would be unhappy if others knew she had asked for the toy. He changed what he was going to say, “Well, yes. I wanted to show you how to make toys that have moving parts. Making a toy for your sister seemed like a good plan. Are you busy?”
“No, not busy at all,” Evervale answered, she hoped not too quickly. She could feel the presence of her little sister behind her and couldn’t help but notice the pink color rising to Pathmark’s cheeks. “In fact, I’ve been meaning to show you something I’ve been working on. Let’s go up to my den.”
Pathmark felt his heart rate increase, and he forced himself to take slow, deep breaths to steady it. He nodded to Evervale, indicating he would follow, then looked at Crackle and sent, **You promised!**
The child nodded, sending him an image of herself playing with Muddypaws, and sending another image of Evervale giving Crackle a toy. Pathmark sent his promise that the toy would be hers, and headed up to Evervale's den.
Evervale smiled and moved past Pathmark to lead the way up the side of the tree to her den opening. Not knowing the secret pact between Pathmark and Crackle, she was surprised her sister didn't follow them. The youth's curious nature usually meant she was hard to shake. But she guessed Pathmark had figured some way to keep her away. Obviously he wouldn't want anyone else around during his confession, assuming he still intended to follow through. Again, Evervale tried not to focus on the anticipation of the possible subject. Instead, she focused on the item she planned to show her friend.
Upon entering her den, Evervale took the very few steps to her furs and leaned over them to pick up something set on a shelf shaped into the wall. Since discovering her plantshaping abilities, Evervale had delighted in shaping her own cubby holes into her den walls and she changed them every so often at her whim. On the shelves she kept the few pots she needed, any other personal items she wanted to keep off the floor, and by her bedding, she kept carving projects she was currently working on. She sat on the edge of her furs and held up the item now in her hands.
"I found this, just as it is." A skinny branch lay across her palms. One end twisted in on itself, the other had obviously snapped off a tree. Her lightly freckled face held a look of wonder and pride at her discovery. "I love it when wood shapes itself into interesting forms. A little whittling and this could become... well, something." She laughed, the sound filling the little den. "I haven't figured that out yet."
Pathmark took in the sound of Evervale's laughter, enjoying the melodic sound of her voice. He looked at the branch she was holding and thought of different things that could be carved from it. Still, as a teacher, he always made a point of allowing the student to choose what would be carved, especially when the wood was found by the student. Gingerly, he sat beside her, taking the branch in his hands. "It sure shaped itself into an interesting form. It will be even more interesting to see what you make of it." Then, looking around at her well-organized room, and remembering some of the problems he and Beetle had when they tried lovemating, he asked, "You don't mind carving and knapping in here?"
Evervale looked around the room, surprised by the question. "I do some whittling inside when it's cold. I'm careful to do it over a blanket so I capture the scraps. Knapping I usually do outside, though. The little pieces that get knocked off are hard to catch!" She looked into Pathmark's face. She felt calmer now that they were laughing and talking. "Why do you ask?"
Pathmark blanched for a moment, then stammered, "Um... well, I was hoping we could talk, that I could talk with you about something, but it would be better if we talked privately. And we're supposed to make Crackle a toy. If we could work here, then we would have privacy to talk while we work on the toy. Um... if that's all right with you. I can help you clean up after we're done." 'If you don't kick me out of your den' he added.
Evervale smiled, her chest constricting slightly. She knew if she hadn't overheard him and Beetle talking earlier, she would be wondering what he wanted to talk about privately. She felt so strange feigning ignorance. "Sure, it's fine if we work in here." She leaned to the side to pull a blanket in front of them. Then she spent a few moments lighting candles to give them more light to work by. When she sat back down beside Pathmark, she felt how cozy the room had become.
Uncertain what to say, she also pulled a few pieces of wood from the same shelf the branch had been on. Hopefully one of them could be used to make the toy for Crackle. Her small whittling knife was easily within reach. Finally feeling settled, she looked back at Pathmark, the light of the candle dancing in her eyes. She took the twisted branch from him and put it away, replacing it with two larger pieces of wood. "Will one of these work for your project?"
Pathmark noticed how fiery Evervale’s hair looked, and he wondered if it was really as hot in the den as he felt. Reaching to take one of the pieces from her, his hand brushed hers, and he felt a shiver run up his arm. He almost dropped the wood. Tightening his grasp on the wood, he struggled to lift his eyes back toward Evervale’s. “Both, actually,” he answered. He wanted to send a picture of what they were going to make, but he knew he couldn’t send and hide what he had to say.
A groan barely escaped his lips, and he sighed. Now that the moment was here, the only thing he could do was tell her. “Um, Evervale?” he started, laying the piece of wood beside him.
Evervale looked at Pathmark intently, her breath catching in her throat. "Yes?"
Pathmark wasn't sure how to say it, but he knew he couldn't back down now. He forced his eyes to meet hers and then reached for her hands, hoping that she wouldn't pull away. Then, he said it, "Evervale, I like you. And I've liked you for a long time." Now that he had started to share his feelings for her, he couldn't stop, but he also looked away, afraid of seeing rejection in her face. He continued, hoping somehow to convince her of his sincerity. "I like the way your hair looks like fire when the light hits it, and I like the sound of your laugh. I like how you wanted to continue learning to carve even though you could shape things faster, and I like the way you keep going even when something is hard. I like how you make Crackle feel important, even when you don't want her around at times. There are so many things I like about you."
Even though Evervale knew Pathmark was going to reveal his feelings, she hadn’t guessed what he would say. She'd sensed affection from him before, but she hadn’t known he had been noticing all these little things about her. The string of words that flew from his lips was surprising and endearing. He'd turned his face away, so he didn't see her gentle smile.
Pathmark continued, "I have wanted to tell you this for a long time, but... I don't want to lose you as a friend, and I didn't want to scare you away. You don't have to return my feelings, just please don't stop talking to me..."
Evervale shook her head slightly and put a hand to his cheek so that he would stop talking and look at her. The room was silent for a moment as she searched his face. All she saw was sincerity and an awful fear. "Dear Pathmark. I'd never stop talking to you."
She felt at a loss for words. She should have been at an advantage, but she didn't feel that way. "You're sweet," she finally said. "And I like you, too. You're kind, patient and smart. I enjoy spending time with you." She squeezed his hands in hers and smiled, noticing the way his eyes sparkled in the firelight.
Pathmark was elated. He had merely hoped she wouldn't reject him, he had not expected she would return his feelings. He wanted to let out a howl of joy, and relief, but he contented himself with smiling back at her, finally able to meet her gaze. "You have been spending a lot of time with Longshot, too. That's all right. Maybe the three of us can... well, assuming you would want to enjoy both of us?"
Evervale couldn't help but giggle a little. She didn't know if he meant both at the same time, but that image popped into her head at his words. "I'd love to spend time with both of you. Longshot and I have never laid claim to each other. I'm sure he'll be all right with this, but of course, we may have to test the waters a bit."
She looked sideways at the wood that Pathmark had set aside. "You know, I think Crackle's toy can wait." She pushed the wood away further and moved closer to her friend. She looked at his face and lightly pushed his long blonde hair back, thinking of the contrast between him and Longshot. How many other ways did they differ or were they alike?
Pathmark's heart was light, and he could feel every strand of hair she had pushed away. They had shared furs in the distant past, but not recently, not since his feelings for her had become so strong. Her smile, and her nearness, banished his feelings of anxiety. He responded to her advance with a smile, wondering what it would be like to be with her now.
As he put a hand around her, lightly touching the small of her back, he leaned closer, beginning to guide both of them into a reclining position. Forgotten was the promise to Crackle for a toy, and the promise to return to go with Beetle to visit the wolf cubs. The only thing Pathmark knew at the moment was Evervale.