"I've decided what I want for my wolf-bonding gift!" Crackle said excitedly.
She bounced a little up and down in her mother's lap. Windsong gave Kestrel a smile of apology, full aware of how difficult it was to make arrow fletching with a cub going round and round and left and right (and up and down) around and between (and under) them. But she'd promised Crackle that present before the pups even opened their eyes. And now that Muddypaws was a very certain presence in their lives, howling out of the den at seemingly every sunset, bonding was done and the gift was up and coming.
Crackle never forgot a promise.
"What'll it be, kitling?" She asked with a weary smile. Probably that red scarf that Crackle had been adamant about Muddypaws needing so he'd be matched with her when winter came. Or a necklace like Evervale's. Or something such.
Crackle beamed. "I want a little sister!"
Windsong let out a breath of air and a clutch of feathers flew out of her suddenly slack hand. She blinked once, and cleared her throat.
Kestrel hid her grin with her hand.
"Crackle," Windsong started gently, "you already have a sister."
The six-year-old made a face. "Yes but she's big."
"And you have a wolf."
Crackle rolled her huge green eyes theatrically. "He's a wolf, Mama."
"I can't produce cubs by request," the huntress said helplessly.
"That's right, Crackle," Kestrel interfered just as the situation was about to become sulky and even tearful. "You have to wait for your mama and papa to Recognize again."
Crackle got a stricken look. Wait had not yet integrated itself properly into her six years old vocabulary, and anything more than a day between asking and receiving seemed a terribly huge injustice. She opened her mouth to protest – Windsong's ears already twitched very faintly – when the elder smiled softly at her and ruffled her muddy hair.
"But," she said quietly, as though sharing a great secret, "maybe it can work with someone else, what do you think?"
Windsong blinked twice.
There was a brief silence. Windsong tried hopelessly to poke Kestrel in sending into explaining just where had this theory come from, while Crackle's eyes only grew rounder and rounder. The cub struck a finger in her mouth, chewing a little and tilting her head as she considered the offer.
"Who?" She endeavored eventually, still suspicious.
Kestrel smiled. "Well, that depends on what sort of sister you want."
Crackle chewed on this, too, for a while. Somewhere in the grass, a cricket chirped.
"Maybe I want a brother," she said, then more confidently, "I want a little brother, Mama. Can I have that instead?"
"Umm," Windsong said.
Kestrel nodded as sagely as any elder. "Of course. It could be a brother too. But you must make a careful choice. For a start, I don't think it would be too fair to ask your mama to Recognize some wild rascal. She'll soon have a cub to take care of."
Windsong's face went a slightly odd shade. "No rascals," Crackle said, striving for a sagely nod. "Then… not Notch. Or Longshot."
Kestrel held up her hand. "Nor Blacksnake. After all, he already had three cubs of his own."
"Thank you," Windsong said weakly.
Crackle was only too happy to agree. "And not True Edge either! Or One-Leg." The prospect of having to share her new brother with Quick Fang or Otter was a little more than she could stomach.
"What about Farscout?" Kestrel suggested. Crackle answered that with a frown.
"He goes away all the time," she complained. "Would he even come back to join with Mama?"
Windsong changed shades further. Kestrel's face was the very image of thoughtful consideration. "Perhaps not Pathmark either, then."
"It can be Windburn!" Crackle chirped. Her mother grabbed her instantly and put her on the elder's lap.
"No," she said crossing her arms. "It can't."
Crackle looked at Kestrel, who held out her hands innocently.
"It can't be Cloudfern or Greenweave," the cub said ponderously. "I don't want a brother with all fussy hair." And she tugged at her own hair, which was most definitely not fussy.
Kestrel nodded in understanding. "And speaking of hair, what hair should your brother have?"
"Red!" Crackle clapped her hands. "Like mine!"
The elder reached over and cat-quick, tugged one of Windsong's blond braids, currently hanging over her face. "Not Moss then. Yellow and yellow makes another yellow. It must be someone with a darker coat." She tapped a finger against her lips in thought. "Rainpace?"
"Not dark enough," Crackle protested, and Windsong breathed thanks to the High Ones. "It needs to be really black."
"Well," Kestrel said happily, "we are left with two black-haired males."
She looked at Windsong and smiled, a full happy smile, so easily confident that the huntress almost dared to hold her breath, that maybe, just maybe, it had all been a colossal misunderstanding…
"Thornbow…?" Crackled piped.
"Hmm," Kestrel hummed. "Perhaps Thornbow, but you know, Crackle… if you want a brother whose father your mother will like… whom you won't have to share with anyone, and will stay here with your family…a brother with red, not-fussy hair… a third, male cub… there is one male here at the holt who is all this, and whose own father produced three cubs. Three brothers." She looked at the girl. "Wouldn't you say that's perfect?"
Windsong froze. Crackle frowned. Feathers swirled a little in the air. A cricket continued chirping.
"Well," the cub said, shrugging her little shoulders. "I guess I'll just have to wait for Mama and Papa to Recognize again!"
And she jumped out of Kestrel's lap and, happy and content, ran off to play with her new wolf.