Once again, not even a squeak of reply. Crackle poked her head into another of the storage dens and pursed her lips when she found nothing there but baskets of bones and a bag of firestones. She wasn’t angry, really – it was hard to stay angry with Copper of all cubs – but was starting to get twitchy-eared. The girl had gone and vanished without as much as a by-your-leave while Crackle, in her capacity as babysitter, was trying to detangle Cinder and Rill, not an easy feat even after the fifth time that night. "This isn't nice, cub."
Fortunately, Copper had the well-ingrained habit of instinctively sending back an **in-holt-all-right** signal when an adult called, so that Crackle knew not to panic; but though she didn't add anything to it, she wasn't so good a sender yet as to mask the definite note of unhappiness. Hiding, then. Upset at something, probably a minor scuffle. It was getting late at night, and Copper tended to become tired of the other cubs' company fairly quickly. She preferred to be with her parents, but even the profoundly devoted Farscout and Brightwood sometimes wanted a little time for themselves, and Crackle had taken on the cubsitting task without thinking twice about it.
Copper was a little different from the other cubs… but then Crackle knew all about being a little unusual. She thought she understood the girl fairly well. To be dodged like this was a little deflating.
She paused briefly before continuing in her search. The shaped space beneath the Dentrees split here, and to her left was the entrance to the wrapstuff den – it was still hard to stop thinking about it that way, even with turns having passed. It was, she reasoned to herself, as likely a place for a cub to hide as any other.
She could see her as soon as she turned the corner and entered. Copper's namesake, her bright hair, stood out clearly in the murk of the storage den. The cub sat bunched between the biers that once bore Brightwood's and Fletcher's cocoons, and she was absently stroking the surface where her own mother, and she within, had lain for an oak's age. When she turned, Crackle could see that her eyes were dry. She looked thoughtful, in that strange way that was all Copper.
"There you are, little bit." Undeterred by either the gloomy atmosphere or the cub’s face, Crackle slipped in and sat herself on one of the other benches, formerly Fadestar's. Copper eyed her warily before turning back around. Crackle waited patiently for a moment, but no explanation, apology or gush of tears was forthcoming, so she had to take the lead. "Hiding?"
Copper hesitated, then gave a tiny nod.
"What from?" A faint shrug, the universal sign of a cub that wasn't about to go easy on you. That, at least, Crackle could read well. Even with Copper there were a few safe gambles. "Something my brother did? You shouldn't be angry with him. He doesn't know what he's doing half the time. It's like being angry with a rock." There – the tiniest bit of a smile. The storyteller grinned. This was making progress. "Come on. It isn't like you to be a grump. Let's go eat honeycakes instead."
"Don't wanna." The whisper that would've been nearly inaudible otherwise seemed much louder in the thick silence of the den.
In truth, Crackle wasn’t expecting a different answer. To send a cub as steady-minded as Copper into hiding, whatever it was had to call for something a bit more intense than honeycakes. She let herself slide off her seat to the floor until she was sitting level with Copper. "Do you want to tell me what's wrong?"
Another stubborn little shrug. "Do you know what happens to bad secrets you keep?" Crackle asked cheerfully. The cub stared at her, then gave her head a little shake. "They grow legs in your belly and climb out through your nose." Copper choked on a tiny burst of laughter and put her head down on her hands so Crackle wouldn't see her smiling.
"That's silly," she whispered.
"Yes, but if you told it to Rill he'd believe you." From the way Copper looked to be seriously considering the idea, she was on the right track. Better pounce now and bag the problem while its head was out of the burrow. "So what did he do?"
"Cinder too," Copper said quietly, which wasn't all that surprising, but then she added, "and Glow." Crackle's eyebrows shot up. She knew that Copper wasn’t always happy to go along with her agemates’ play, but three on one? That wasn't fair.
Copper was shifting around a little, uneasily, as though the secret was already growing legs in her belly. To push any more? No, Crackle decided in a split-second, and was rewarded when the girl finally turned to face her, knees drawn up to her chest as she murmured, "They keep asking."
Crackle leaned a little bit in. "Asking what?"
She realized that she’d made a mistake when Copper turned her head to one side, but then the cub whispered: "About wrapstuff."
Of all possible answers, that was the last one Crackle might have expected; without a clever comeback, she simply looked at Copper, who played nervously with her hair. They were asking about wrapstuff! Of course it made sense. Rill was her own brother after all. She and he were two peas from the same pod.
Feeling a little guilty suddenly, she reached an uncertain hand toward Copper, waiting for approval before brushing it against the little girl’s shoulder. Copper squirmed a little under the touch, and Crackle stopped at once and waited patiently until she relaxed before trying another brush. Bit by bit, touch by touch, she was stroking Copper’s shoulder, listening to her speaking on in her soft little whisper. “They keep asking, do you remember? And I don’t, and I told them stop, and they didn’t stop, so I went away.” She craned her neck and gave the bier behind her an unhappy look. “I don’t remember…”
She dodged the touch again, leaned back around and put both hands against the wood again. Crackle bit her lower lip, fishing for ideas. I should leave this to Brightwood and Farscout. It was obvious. They were her parents, they knew her best. They could talk to her without feeling like making their way through a thorn bush. But Copper was upset now, which was itself unusual for the calm and confident little girl. And this was Copper – you couldn’t just hug the trouble out of her. When she asked questions she wanted real answers, just like Crackle did when she was that small.
Maybe, she thought suddenly. Maybe…
She leaned over until her elbow was resting against the wood and her head on the palm of her hand, speaking softly next to Copper’s ear. “You know, no one remembers – what it’s like being in your mother’s belly, I mean. Rill and Cinder don’t either.”
Copper’s face was doubtful. The storyteller nodded sagely. “I know, you think wrapstuff’s different, don’t you?” A small nod. Crackle raised an index finger and spoke with flourish. “Well, you’re a lucky sprout, since I happen to be this tribe’s definite expert on wrapstuff. Just ask Fadestar and Newt. When they came out, I wouldn’t let them sleep for all the questions I asked. Ask your mother, too – I checked all the possibilities. Does something happen to an elf in wrapstuff? Do they change? Do they somehow become – “ she thrust up her finger, “dangerous? Very important questions!” Copper nodded at that, and Crackle could swear that it was a more vigorous nod than before, so she continued. “And having asked them until I was blue in the face, I can tell you with absolute certainty, as sure as the river flows, that an elf that was in wrapstuff is no different, in body or spirit, from any other elf. Of course everyone will tell you the same, but that’s just because they want you not to worry. I’m telling you because I checked.”
Finished, she tried hard not to hold her breath in expectation.
Truth was, she was a bit amazed that Copper listened to that speech end to end. But she did: drank it up like honeyed water. When it was done, she glanced back around to the wooden bier, but her gaze was different, less mournful, more contemplative. Slowly, she climbed to her knees, then straightened resolutely and eased herself up onto the bier itself. She arranged herself on it, smoothened out her skirt and looked at Crackle from above.
“I think they don’t know,” she said quietly. “Rill and Cinder. That elves from wrapstuff aren’t dangerous.”
There was this glint in her eye. Crackle blinked. She had to be imagining it… “So should I tell them?”
Copper paused, then, softly and cheerfully, whispered, “No.”
She grinned at Crackle, and Crackle grinned back. Oh yes, they definitely had an understanding now.