Dreamflight had not intended to stay out so late with her berry picking, but the cheerful golds and pinks of the dawn had brought with them a handful of birds, waking with the dawn and after the same bounty. One particularly bold redchest, her pale feathers attesting to this being her first summer, had perched just out of Dreamflight's reach to gobble her fill. She'd kept a wary eye on the golden-haired elf as she ate, but instead of fleeing after, she'd lingered to hold a lengthy exchange of assertive chirps with the delighted Dreamflight before finally taking to wing.
After that pleasant encounter, Dreamflight was left more wrapped up in the cheery birdsong still on her lips than in her surroundings as she made her way along the gentleberry patches dotting the banks of Laughing Creek. It wasn't until she heard Fumble's tail swishing along the ground and wondered what her wolf-friend had to be so excited about that she looked up. The smile on her lips pulled into a small moue of consternation as she caught sight of Greenweave farther down the creek bank, indulging in a late morning of solitary pole fishing. She found herself grateful for Fumble's keen nose and the cover of the berry bushes, for the idea of coming upon her father unawares was not really an appealing one. Though Dreamflight considered herself on good terms with Newt (after all, he hadn't asked to be brought into her father's den any more than she had asked to be born his daughter), her relationship with Greenweave remained, at best, cool. How could it be otherwise when Dreamflight was reminded daily of the wreck that Greenweave's choices had made of their family? True, Dreamflight was willing to concede that Honey was not always the easiest of elves to get along with since her return to the waking tribe; there were days when even she gave her mother distance. Even so, surely Honey had cause to be upset by Greenweave's betrayal, even more so than Dreamflight herself.
And yet, there Greenweave sat, perfectly at peace, lost in his fishing and sharing out the spoils with Lightjaw and Murkfur, a dark-coated lurker who normally pushed even easy-going Lightjaw's tolerance, but who was grudgingly tolerated as a substitute mount for Greenweave while Lightjaw nursed a paw that had managed to come down just wrong on a sharp rock a few days prior. For his part, Murkfur seemed oblivious to Lightjaw's grumbling disapproval and positively reveled in every pat or scrap of bait-fish that Greenweave spared for him. Dreamflight's expression pulled into a true frown as the old ache in her heart started up again. Greenweave seemed to have patience and affection for everyone in the tribe -- for elf cubs, wolf cubs, and even scrounging, self-important wolves without bonds -- but not for his own daughter and Recognized. Then, as if to deepen her feelings of loneliness, Newt rode up on his wolf, practically vaulting from the animal's back into Greenweave's arms.
"You're found!" the boy announced with a laugh, his voice carrying. "Browncoat took me right to you!"
"Then it's a good thing I wasn't trying to hide," Greenweave said, laughing in turn, "or I'd be as red now as you're going to be." He pulled Newt's hood up pointedly, hiding the cub's moon-pale skin from the sun.
"I had it on," the other objected, grinning as he brushed off the threadbare nagging. "It was only down for a moment. And anyway! Cloudfern told me to come get you because you've 'obviously left your time sense in the river again'."
"Well, I'm fishing the creek, so that shows what Cloudfern knows." Greenweave pulled an exaggerated expression of annoyance as he continued, causing Newt to dissolve into fresh giggles. "But he might have a point -- I suppose we will have to head back before too much longer."
Dreamflight watched them from her vantage point, unconsciously wrapping an arm around herself. Where once the sight would have eaten her up with jealousy from the crown of her head to the pit of her stomach, she had grown close enough to Newt over the years that the easy affection between the two of them now stirred only a melancholy longing. That lessening of that bitterness was something of a surprise, and not an unpleasant one. Maybe it was simply that she'd gone too long without sleep to get her hackles up, or that Newt being there meant she'd have someone else to talk to if Greenweave vexed her, or even just that the last wisps of the good mood that had sent her wandering along the creek to start with had left her feeling unusually forgiving this morning, but Dreamflight found herself rising abruptly to her feet and hailing the pair on the opposite bank. Newt was right, it was very late, and if they were going to head back to the Holt, she had as much right to walk with them as anyone. More, in fact. Perhaps she was not always best pleased with her father, but he'd been her father longer than he'd been Newt's. The walk was a short one anyway, and she could think of ways in which it might even be pleasant. She had berries to share along with Greenweave's fish, and she could tell her companions about her encounter with the bold red-breast. She might even show Newt some of her new trills, even if he still wasn't half as good with his calls as she was.
"Greenweave! Newt!" Dreamflight balanced her gathering basket on her hip as she picked her way across the creek, trying to keep her sandals dry as possible. She was so intent on her task that she didn't look up at her father until she was nearly on land again... and her heart dropped down into her gut like a chunk of ice.
There was no welcome at all on Greenweave's face. Dreamflight knew that bland, polite smile with its underlying hint of wary resignation. She had seen it for years in her father's interactions with Thornbow and in his rare, passing encounters with Honey since the unwrapping. And now...
"Good day, Dreamflight." Greenweave brushed his foreward plaits back over his shoulder; the scrimshaw hair beads clacked lightly against each other as he hefted his string of fish. He stepped farther up onto the bank and gave drowsy Lightjaw a gentle nudge with the toe of his boot to signal that it was time to go. "What are you doing out here with the sun so high?"
"I..." The uncomfortable pressure on her stomach had turned into a panicking stranglehold on her heart that left her bereft of words. "Berrying!" she blurted finally, thrusting out her basket as proof. "They're getting ripe."
"That's a very good haul." He offered her a smile, but it was so distant that it almost seemed a mockery of approval. "Well, I've just been informed that I should be turning myself homeward." The warmth in the teasing grin he flashed Newt could not have hurt more if he'd turned and struck her. "We're heading back to the Holt."
If there was any offer of company in his words, the pounding of Dreamflight's blood in her ears drowned it out. "I'll catch up," she heard herself saying, as if from very far away. "There's one more bush I want to get to before the birds strip it bare."
Greenweave nodded and gave Lightjaw an affectionate pat before mounting Murkfur, causing the former to grumble and the latter to all but prance with pride. "We'll see you back at the Holt."
Newt swung up onto Browncoat's back easily. "Don't stay out too long," he called over one shoulder as his assertive wolf took point on the trail back, his tail and ears held high.
"I won't." The words tasted bitter in a way that she'd all but forgotten. The old insecurities rose up from where they'd so long lain in wait to bite in deep with a sharpness that stole the breath from her lungs. What difference did it make to Newt what happened to her? Maybe he could afford to care now that he'd truly taken her place. He didn't have to worry about sharing Greenweave anymore, did he? It hurt too much to see them ride off together. Dreamflight turned her back to them and faced the water as if to wade across again. Her eyes stung with tears, turning the world to an uncertain smear of hazy colors that would have made crossing again too risky, even if she'd had the will to try. She held on to her composure until she was sure the others were out of sight, then dropped to the bank and let those hot drops roll down her cheeks.
For all the times she had feared losing her father to his new family, somehow the reality of how it would feel to have that fear finally come true had never truly occurred to her, especially not after spending so long working with Newt. Now that the day had finally arrived, she felt sick. What had she done that was so terrible? Loved her mother? Wished to not be left alone? How could Greenweave have so much love for one orphaned cub and none for his own daughter? She heard Fumble splashing across the creek to her and reached out for her wolf with a miserable cry, heaving great, heartbroken sobs into her fur, even as she tried to harden herself. She didn't need them. Any of them. She'd been alone before. It was no different now. At least now she knew the truth of who her father really loved, and there was nothing more he could do to hurt her ever again.
When her tears were finally spent, Dreamflight forced herself to lift her head and crawl to the edge of the creek. She splashed her face, grateful for the cool water, for the cold cleared her head and would clear the redness from her eyes. She didn't want to answer the questions of concerned tribemates, not now. She stood and brushed off her knees, then stooped to reclaim her basket. The tracks of Greenweave, Newt, and their wolves stood out in the soft earth of the bank, clustered close and familiar. The sight made her bite down on a fresh sob, but it died away in the next moment, smothered by confusion.
Those couldn't be Newt's footprints, for they were nearly three-quarters the size of Greenweave's. And Browncoat's tracks...they were larger than Lightjaw's. The happy scene from before replayed in her mind unbidden, small details surfacing with new importance. Newt's height and the breadth of his shoulders. The complete lack of expectation in her father's welcome. The flecks of gray peppering Lightjaw's muzzle and brows, very much like Darkpelt's shortly before the pack had run him off.
"But Darkpelt was old," she whispered, as if speaking out against the sight would halt the realization dawning in her mind. This wasn't right. She could still remember the delighted smile on her father's face when he'd come back from the wolf dens with a bundle of fluff and fang nipping merrily at the cuff of his boots. No, Lightjaw was still young for a Wolfrider's bond. She was only...
"Eighteen turns." The truth was stamped there in the dirt, concrete and irrefutable, and now the flood of numbers wouldn't stop.
Newt was fifteen turns now. Greenweave and Cloudfern had been his family for more than a hand of his short life; he wasn't a little lost cub any longer.
And it had been almost ten hands of turns since Honey had been wrapped. Turns upon turns since she had approached her father open-heartedly, or come to him for his sake alone.
Now it seemed he'd given up hoping that she ever would.
Somewhere along the way, she'd run out of time she hadn't been aware was slipping away. And now, she realized, she had no idea how to get it back.