(This story is part of the "The death of Whispersilk, and Aftermath" storyline - see listing for related stories.)
“Give me my brother,” Foxtail demanded.
Honey, who had been smiling down at Cinder, looked up, yellowish-green eyes flashing with a mix of hurt, surprise, and challenge. She was only helping, or trying to. But Foxtail was having none of it, and none of her.
Foxtail thrust her arms out, waiting for Honey to comply. Honey was irritated by Foxtail’s attitude, but she was trying to be understanding. The red-haired elf had just lost her mother. “Well?” Foxtail asked.
Honey closed her eyes and lowered her head, nuzzling Cinder in his sleep. He was so precious, so innocent of all that had taken place around him. So at peace. Foxtail wasn’t trying to disturb that peace; in fact, Honey thought she understood why Foxtail wanted him. But Windburn’s daughter was tired. “You had him with you all day. You need some rest, too. I’m not leaving the den — you can sleep right here if you want to.”
“I need to take him to Quick Fang — he’ll be waking up soon, and he’s going to be hungry.”
Honey figured that Foxtail was looking for any excuse to get Cinder away from her, but she wasn’t going to be deterred. Quick Fang had been feeding Cinder and Rill for two hands of days already, and was not getting any more pleasant about it. In fact, Honey was beginning to wonder if Quick Fang might feel resentment about having to nurse the chief’s son. And that had given her an idea.
“About that…” Honey’s voice trailed off. She wasn’t sure she should mention it to Foxtail.
“What?” Foxtail asked, wary.
“I was thinking —”
“Stop thinking, and give me my brother,” Foxtail demanded again.
Honey squeezed the infant closer, then handed him to his sister. She smiled at Foxtail, who took the babe and left without saying another word. Honey closed her eyes, and bit her lip to keep tears from spilling over. She was working hard to be supportive to Windburn — and she, too, was grieving the loss of a beloved tribemate. Whispersilk hadn't always been the easiest elf to be friends with, but Honey could remember good times, when the weaver had welcomed her to admire the pretty fabrics and clothes she made. Now, the weaver’s daughter wasn’t making it easy for her — the red-head’s suspicious attitude and possessive behavior was trying at best. She tilted her head back against the wall.
Windburn’s scent informed her he had returned. She opened her eyes and smiled at him. He looked tired, too. He managed a weak smile in return, then asked, “Where’s Cinder?”
“With Foxtail,” she said, then remembered to add, “and Quick Fang.”
Her chief let out the breath he had been holding while waiting for the answer, and he made his way across the common-room of the chief’s den and sat next to her. “I don’t like having Cinder out of my sight for long,” he confessed quietly. Honey saw his eyes shift briefly to the curtained doorway of the sleeping-den he had shared with Whispersilk, before looking away; she knew he had not slept there since her death. “I’d feed him myself, if I could.” At that, Windburn let out a small laugh.
It was an opening — to something she had been thinking about for a day or two at least. “You can’t,” she said with a smile, “but Quick Fang doesn’t have to be the only female among us that does.”
Windburn looked at her, and she met his gaze with her own. She was serious.
“You mean…” he let his voice trail off.
Honey gathered that he was already following her words to their conclusion. She chose to wait, letting him work it out in his mind.
“Would you want to?” he asked.
“I would. And I’d wager there are others who would be willing as well. But… you’ll have to ask Willow — to see if she can help those who would want to.” That was the one part of the plan Honey hadn’t relished the thought of. She hadn’t wanted to approach Willow about it. There was still tension between them. But if Willow agreed, and Honey believed she would, then maybe some of those tensions could be eased if Willow could make Honey’s milk come in.
Windburn nodded. “Thank you,” he said quietly, and then stood to leave.
She waited until he was gone, then responded, “No, my chief. Thank you.” If she could do this, then maybe she would earn some respect from others — or at least acknowledgement that she was not always as selfish as many believed.
Sending had told him where to find her — she was with Beetle at the near hot-springs. Because he wanted the conversation to be in person, he and Whirl had taken a ride out there.
Though they had known from his send that he was coming, his approach caused both elves to look up toward him. He noticed Willow tense, but then saw her relax again. Neither of the pair made her way out of the water. Beetle asked if he was coming in, and he shook his head. He sat on a rock near them.
Beetle spoke up, “I’ll leave, my chief.” She stood and started her way out.
“No, Beetle, you can stay. You might be able to help.” He saw curiosity light in the herbalist’s eyes as she sank back into the water. The healer, however, seemed more wary. Given all they had been through over the past turn of the seasons, he understood that.
He waited as they made their way out of the water and into dry clothes, then sat with them on some rocks at the edge of the springs. He didn’t know why, but he was nervous about what he was going to ask of Willow. He had not asked anything of Willow, especially anything regarding her talent, since the previous summer.
“I wanted to ask for your help, Willow.”
“My chief?” she asked, confusion on her face.
Beetle leaned forward.
“It’s about Quick Fang. And Cinder.” At her look of deeper puzzlement, he rephrased what he was thinking in his mind, and then asked, "Can you make someone's milk come in, even if they don't have an infant of their own?"
Willow sat back. She was thinking about what he had asked. After a few long moments, she replied, “Who?”
He laughed at that. “Honey, to start with. And anyone else willing to take a turn. Could you help others give milk? It would relieve Quick Fang of having to feed Cinder and Rill. She was close to weaning Rill — and now, starting over, I think it’s testing her patience.”
He watched as Willow sat thinking, and looked at Beetle, who appeared so eager and curious that she might burst, but who also seemed to be giving Willow space to think about it.
“I’m not sure how it would work,” Willow started, “but there are stories from Feverease’s day about it being done, so I can try.”
“That’s all I’m asking,” he responded.
Willow nodded, then looked at Beetle. “Yes, I’ll try it on you first,” she grinned. “If only because I know you’re wondering what it’s like.”
Beetle nodded, and the pair laughed.
Windburn was relieved. Willow would figure this out — he was certain of it. And Quick Fang would not have to nurse Cinder for the whole next turn of the seasons on her own. And Honey, and others, would have an extra-special way to care for his son. He would truly be a child of all the tribe.
He stood, then said his goodbye, leaving the lovemates to figure out the next step.
When he finally arrived back at the Dentrees, Windburn headed to Quick Fang’s den, and found the huntress, her son, and his two children there. Foxtail had just taken Cinder into her arms and was turning to leave. She saw him, and automatically handed her brother to their father. Windburn smiled at her, and from the quickly-hidden surprise of her expression, realized that smiles from him were something she had received all too rarely.
“Thank you, Quick Fang,” he offered the white-haired elf.
She merely nodded her head.
"I've asked Willow to help, and see if she can use her magic to make some others' milk come in, so you don't have to nurse Cinder all on your own."
Quick Fang's eyes widened, and he was amused to have startled her. "That would be a relief," she admitted. "Thank you, my chief."
Foxtail followed him out. “Father?” she asked.
He stopped and looked at Foxtail, his look questioning. He wondered if she might take a turn at nursing Cinder.
“Willow agreed to it?”
He nodded, waiting to see what she might say in return.
“I’m glad,” she said quietly. "I was afraid if he kept nursing from her, he'd become as snappish as she is."
“Are you going to take a turn at it?” he wondered.
She thought about it, then shook her head. “No… I’m his sister. But I’ll help anyone that does take a turn at it.”
“Even Honey?” he asked, amused.
She faltered a moment, but then collected herself. “Even Honey,” she promised.
Windburn smiled. Foxtail had changed, ever so slightly, since her mother’s death. He felt proud of her for that. Many things had changed, and despite the still-raw pain of his lifemate's loss, maybe some of those changes would be for the better. “Thank you,” he managed. Then, with Cinder in one arm, he put an arm around Foxtail and walked with his children back toward his den.