(This story takes place directly after "Moving Forward", and also follows from the events in "Priorities".)
The welcome for Fadestar after her Very Long Walk had been going on until the early morning hours, with the sun about to rise, but now most of the elves were leaving for their dens alone, in twos or threes.
There had been little time for Fadestar and her family to have a private moment, and the girl finally had fallen into her furs, almost too tired to undress after the exertion of her Walk. Snowfall smiled as she pulled the furs over her slender form, then got up to go and see where her mates were.
She saw True Edge talking to Windburn, but for a moment could not discover Kestrel anywhere — until she looked up and saw the legs dangling off a branch a bit above their den. The huntress slipped out of the den opening and climbed up the tree quietly, only announcing her arrival shortly before reaching her lovemate: **Ah, there you are!** She slipped onto the branch next to her, leaning in and nuzzling Kestrel’s cheek.
The glider smiled at her, shifting a bit to lean against her shoulder. “I needed a quiet moment before going to sleep,” she said in a low voice. “It’s been exhausting.”
Snowfall nodded and put her arm around Kestrel’s shoulders. “I missed you while you were gone — both of you. We’re used to you being gone but that Fadestar wasn’t there somehow made me feel it much more.”
Kestrel didn’t give any answer but a smile and for a few moments the lovemates sat in harmonious silence. But finally the glider broke it, speaking slowly, deliberately. “Fadestar has matured so much. During the Walk —” She stopped and looked up to meet Snowfall’s eyes. “Well, let’s just say that I don’t think she really regards us as ‘parents’ anymore.” At Snowfall’s skeptical look, Kestrel chuckled and corrected herself quickly: “At least not that much.”
“It made you remember that conversation we had soon after Fadestar was unwrapped,” Snowfall stated, and Kestrel raised an eyebrow at how quickly her lovemate had come to that conclusion. “I’ve been thinking about that too,” Snowfall continued. “It was easy to forget about it while Fadestar was a cub and needed so much of our attention, but now...”
“Now it’s no longer only a dream, but a possibility,” Kestrel agreed. “Fadestar told me that she hopes we will have a cub someday.” She smiled warmly as she remembered her sister’s words — she never had talked to her about her wish for another cub and neither had Snowfall, she was sure, but Fadestar seemed to have felt it nevertheless.
Snowfall looked at her with slight surprise, then returned the smile, delighted. “That’s wonderful!” She had long wondered what their young charge would think of the the idea, but if Fadestar shared their hope, then it was plain that she would not feel jealous or neglected if a new child entered the family.
Snowfall took Kestrel’s hand and intertwined their fingers. “So what do you think?” she asked. “Is it time?”
Kestrel gave her hand a slight squeeze. “It is time,” she replied with a nod. “We should broach the idea to True Edge.” She paused for a moment before looking questioningly at Snowfall. “Do you think he’ll want to?”
Snowfall’s expression turned pensive for just a moment before she responded. “True Edge wasn’t happy with Willow’s betrayal, that’s for certain. But he’s had time to forgive, and I think the desire for a cub that he feels just as much as we do will override any other feelings he may have.”
Kestrel nodded, her mouth set in a firm line. “The three of us, and Fadestar too, must be entirely united going into this, or we must not do it at all.”
They didn’t have long to wait. Whatever it was True Edge had been discussing with Windburn didn’t take long and soon the third mate joined them near the entrance to their shared den. Like the rest of the tribe, he looked tired from the celebrations, but pleased none the less. It was a joyous time with the Long Walk now complete and the two sisters returned home.
“It’s been a long night,” he said simply, looking at his two mates. “I imagine our little explorer is out for the day?”
“She is,” Snowfall agreed, “which is just as well. We wanted to talk to you.”
True Edge looked at the two of them, seeming to sense that they had something on their minds. Through the bond Snowfall shared with him, one that not for the first time she wished the three of them together could share, she felt that he was a bit guarded but curious. Maybe he suspected what they wanted?
“All right, we talk while we walk,” he said, holding a hand out to each of them. “It’s been too long since we’ve all been together. I want you both close.”
Snowfall and Kestrel both smiled and took the offered hands. For a time they walked in silence towards the river bank. Eventually it was Kestrel who broke the silence.
“Fadestar doesn’t need us as much as she used to,” she said, to which Snowfall nodded in agreement. “Snowfall and I thought that now would be a good time to talk to you about something that's been on our minds for awhile.”
True Edge’s eyebrow crept up a bit — this was a bit unexpected.
“We want to ask Willow to help the three of us make another cub. After all, we know Owl was able to do it,” Snowfall said, continuing Kestrel's thought. “We hope Willow might be able to as well.”
His expression changed. No longer was he amused, but now seemed more worried than anything. “Willow isn’t Owl, thank the High Ones. She is still just a little snip of a girl...”
Snowfall and Kestrel exchanged glances. He didn’t sound so much against the idea as cautious, though perhaps there was a hint of curiosity to his tone, as if he wondered if such a thing were truly possible. Kestrel, who still held one of her hands in his, placed his hand palm down upon her belly and looked him straight in the eyes.
“She is young, but she is a healer... a stronger one than we know, I’ll bet. My soul aches to be a mother just once more, and Snowfall feels it as well. We think it worth the effort to ask her and find out if she can help. If she can, we want her to do it for us... for all three of us.”
His eyes widened a bit as he looked from one mate to the other. What he might feel about Willow’s past transgressions was open to some debate. What he felt about the two he stood with by the riverbank, though, was all too obvious.
“It’s bound to be a hard task to set before any healer,” he whispered, gathering them both close to him in a fierce hug. “Still, ask her if she would be willing, and we will see what is to be done from there. Who knows; we might still get lucky on our own.”
Both Snowfall and Kestrel smiled, returning his hug. He wasn’t anxious to put himself in the hands of the fledgling healer, but it was clear to them both that for them he would do so.
“I think I should be the one to talk to my granddaughter about this. All of us together might be a little bit overwhelming for her,” Kestrel suggested, and her lovemates nodded their assent.
“What was it you wanted to talk to me about, grandmother?”
Willow and Kestrel were walking side by side along the river the next night. The elder thought that there must have been something strange about her face or posture when she had requested that they walk together, for she had not said outright that she had something in particular to talk to Willow about.
“I see nothing gets by you, Willow,” Kestrel commented, a proud smile crossing her face. “The truth is, True Edge, Snowfall and I have noticed that you've become so much better at using your healing ability. We’ve been wondering if... you could do something for us.”
Willow turned her head towards Kestrel, waiting to hear what the request might be.
“It’s been done before for others, so... we were wondering if your magic might be able to help us conceive a child,” Kestrel continued, phrasing the request carefully. Her eyebrows knitted as she searched her granddaughter’s face, which was well illuminated by the moonlight, for her reaction to that statement. Willow carefully kept any expression off of her face, but Kestrel knew that her mind must be in turmoil. She wondered if whatever was going through Willow’s mind had to do with that horrible night when she had learned about the last healer in the tribe and his mistakes. ‘Perhaps what I’m asking feels too much like forcing her will over someone else’s, the way Owl did,’ Kestrel thought to herself.
“That’s quite a request, grandmother. I’ll have to take some time to think on it,” Willow replied after the pause. Kestrel nodded.
“Welcome back, lovemate,” Beetle said happily, her voice a bit groggy from sleep. She pulled the furs down and motioned for Willow to join her when she was ready.
“Sorry I woke you. I wasn’t planning on coming in so late, I just had some thinking to do,” the healer responded, wasting no time in pulling off her clothes in preparation for sleep; she was exhausted.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Beetle asked, propping herself up on her elbow as Willow lay down beside her with a sigh.
“I think that might help,” Willow began, pursing her lips as she considered how to start. “You remember how grandmother asked me earlier tonight if I would take a walk with her?”
“Yes... I’ve been wondering about that,” Beetle responded.
“I had noticed that something was off about her today, but I never dreamed that she, Snowfall, and True Edge were thinking about making a request like —” Beetle unconsciously leaned forward, very curious as to what the request might be. “They asked me to help them make a cub,” Willow stated plainly.
Beetle’s face registered shock, and then intrigue. She waited a moment to respond, trying to think of what to say. “You’re right, I wouldn’t have expected it of the three of them either... but it sounds like an interesting idea!”
“Interesting, yes, but there are so many ways it could go wrong. What if someone ends up getting hurt? What if I fail in some way and let the three of them down?” Willow interjected, frowning.
“That’s a possibility,” Beetle agreed. “This hasn’t been done in a long time, and it would take awhile, maybe, to figure out how... but I bet you could do it!” Beetle’s voice was confident, and she sat up, smiling down at her lovemate. “Remember how at first you didn’t know how to induce milk in those of us who wet-nursed Cinder, but you learned! This might be harder, but... my mother had a child outside of Recognition! Maybe your powers can help you figure out why it happened for her, and that will show how to make it happen for others....”
Willow had to chuckle — Beetle was already treating the idea like one of her experiments, but the healer had to admit that her lovemate’s enthusiasm was infectious.
“The one thing that’s holding me back is... fear, I suppose. It’s just hard to commit to this without knowing for sure if we’re going to get the results that we want. I just can’t shake the feeling that something might go horribly wrong.”
Beetle nodded. “It could. And yet... if it does, you have the support of the tribe. And you would be acting in response to others' requests, not doing something on your own. There’s definitely no way of knowing for sure what will happen or how long it will take, but I’m here for you. Sure there’s a chance it might not go how you want it to, but think of what you’ll gain — what the whole tribe will gain! — when you’re able to make it work.”
Willow turned pensive for a moment. If she did decide to go through with the request, it would be completely different from anything she’d ever tried before. She could admit, now, that what she’d done with Brightwood was for purely selfish reasons, but this was something she wanted to do because she knew how much it meant to her grandmother and her lovemates, and not so much for herself. Knowing that, Willow thought that it just might be worth the risk involved.
Willow turned to her side to look at her lovemate. “I suppose you’re right. Maybe not trying at all would be the worst failure.”
Willow found Kestrel a couple nights later in her den, and thankfully she was alone.
“I’ve done some thinking, and... I’ve decided I want to help you,” Willow said. The healer’s expression was now one of determination and resolve. “I’m not sure exactly how it’s going to work, but I want to try.”
Kestrel smiled gratefully at Willow. She had known that it would not be an easy decision for the healer to make. Still, Willow appeared to finally be free of doubts about her decision as she wrapped her arms around her grandmother, hugging her tightly.
“As I was thinking, I realized that I’m interested to know why the three of you came up with this request in the first place. It’s not something I would have expected from you, grandmother, or Snowfall and True Edge either, for that matter,” Willow commented when she drew back from Kestrel’s arms. “I thought the three of you would be content to let something like this happen when it happens.”
“Honestly, I wouldn’t have expected it either, Willow,” Kestrel said. “Snowfall and I, at least, are usually so levelheaded, maybe too much so at times.”
Kestrel noticed Willow suppress a small snicker at this, and she couldn’t help but laugh too.
“But sometimes emotions are something you just can’t control, no matter how hard you try.” The elder’s expression grew slightly distant, as it tended to do when her thoughts drifted to long ago. “I always regretted that Recognition came to me only once, but it was something I rarely thought about once you and Pathmark were born. It wasn’t until after we lost your father that I again began to have those feelings and wonder why I couldn’t forget them.” That time in their lives had affected both of them greatly. Kestrel reached out to take Willow’s hand, squeezing it.
“I was glad when you lovemated with Snowfall and True Edge. It seemed like something changed in you after that. While you all were raising Fadestar, it was the happiest I had seen you in a long time,” Willow commented with a smile.
Kestrel nodded. “It was enough to push my feelings back again, but then to find out that my lovemates felt the same way I do! It seemed like too much of a coincidence to ignore.”
“There is something else that I wanted to ask you, though... how would you feel if I can’t make this work? I know that I’m not the healer that Feverease was, or even that Owl was. Not yet, anyway.”
Kestrel hid a smile behind her hand at Willow’s last statement.
“There’s nothing we can do but try, Willow. I think all of us are prepared for the fact that this might not bring the results that we want. My lovemates and I have been around long enough to learn that things don’t always go how we want them,” she responded with a reassuring smile.
Willow was silent for a moment. “Have you decided which of you will be the one to carry the child? That’s not to say, of course, that I couldn’t make it happen for both of you,” Willow added confidently.
“I don’t doubt it, Willow, but if it turns out that it can only happen for one of us, I’m content to let the High Ones decide. This will be our cub, the result of the efforts of all three of us. Snowfall and I haven’t discussed it outright, but I know that whoever carries the cub will share every moment of the experience with the other. I believe that would be enough for me. All that really matters is that in the end, both of us will be ‘mother’.”
Willow raised an eyebrow. Kestrel could tell that even after hearing all she had said, Willow still found it hard to understand why the three of them would want to go through this just to do something that may very well happen on its own. Perhaps she never would understand. Kestrel accepted that, grateful that regardless of whether she understood, Willow was willing to try.