(This story is a sequel to “Gone” and "Searching for Answers.” It is also part of the ”Trying to have a child outside of Recognition” storyline - see list for related stories..)
The tension in True Edge, Snowfall, and Kestrel’s den that night was thick. Two days had passed since Willow had discovered that the cub was gone; enough time for it to sink in. The elder lovemates and Willow were alone, trying to make sense of what had happened and address the question that was lingering in all their minds...what would happen now?
True Edge was seated with his back against the wall, a hand outstretched and resting on Snowfall’s shoulder. A couple of feet in front of them, Kestrel sat cross-legged next to the young healer, who had been silent for long moments as she worked past the nerves she was feeling. It was still a very delicate time, and what she wanted to say had to be said just right.
“I’m sorry,” Willow began, even though she had already apologized to them more times than she could count. It was a way of breaking the ice. “Even though I don’t know exactly what happened, I still feel responsible for this. It’s all I’ve been able to think about these last two days. I can’t help but think there’s something else I could have done to have kept it from happening.”
“We don’t blame you, Willow,” Snowfall said earnestly, for though her heart felt heavy, she knew the healer was not to blame for it. How could anyone have known such a thing was even possible? Even Kestrel, having lived the longest of all in the tribe, could not remember a cub being lost in such a way.
“You did everything you could. We couldn’t have asked for more,” Kestrel added, placing her arm around the healer’s shoulder comfortingly.
The healer nodded in response to her grandmother’s and Snowfall’s statements, having no doubt that what they said was true. True Edge hadn’t spoken to her much over the past couple of days, but she had the feeling that he simply didn’t know what to say; the matter was just too far beyond his comprehension.
“So...what do we do now?” he asked, in an attempt to address the pragmatic side of the conversation, which he was far more comfortable contributing to.
No one answered right away. The event was still so fresh in everyone’s minds that it was certain to cloud any decision they might make.
“I think perhaps we should take some time to reflect on this...all of us,” Kestrel said, looking at each of the others in turn. One by one, they nodded. No decision needed to be made right away.
The mid-evening sky that Kestrel gazed up into was clear on this night, with no clouds marring the twinkling stars that dotted its surface. She sat idly by the bank of Den’s Creek, her hands thrust deeply into the warm confines of her fur-lined coat pockets. The faint breeze in the air caused the night sky to shift almost imperceptibly, inciting the stars to cast their glow as a hypnotic curtain of light. Starlight lay beside her, offering silent comfort.
In the months since she and her lovemates’ last failed attempt at a healer-assisted pregnancy, she had come here often; it was far enough that she could have solitude if she needed to clear her head, but still close enough to the Dentrees that she could easily get to her lovemates if they needed her. That last talk she and her lovemates had with Willow entered her mind often lately. The days immediately after had seemed to drag on interminably, and their time was spent trying to return to some semblance of their normal, everyday lives.
Of course, in such a close-knit community, there wasn't a single member of the tribe who wasn't affected in some way, and the reactions of other tribe-members played a part in the three-mates' recovery. Most were sad for them and tried to be helpful (sometimes to the point of being overly so). Others wondered how the healer could have let something like that happen and felt angry about it. Some didn't quite know how to react, which often resulted in awkward conversations and attempts to put on a forced happy face.
Amid these varied reactions from the tribe, True Edge had been the first of the three-mates to recover from the loss of the cub; being more wolf-blooded than most prevented him from dwelling on such things. Kestrel, too, had learned through many years of losing loved ones to not let oneself wallow in grief overly long. The risk of never coming out of it was a dangerous one. Snowfall had taken the longest to return to normal, but with most of her closest friends and family being supportive of her, she, too, eventually was able to look past what had happened and begin to think of the future.
We’ve come a long way, Kestrel thought to herself. Standing, she gave Starlight a thankful pat on the head and sent to her lovemates that she was coming home.
“Welcome back, beloved,” Snowfall said with a smile as Kestrel entered through the hide-flap. True Edge gave his usual greeting nod as he worked on fixing his bow. Kestrel thought to herself how grateful she was that things had now returned to normal. It was easy to take normality for granted. Removing her jacket, she thought about how best to broach the subject with the other two. To her surprise, Snowfall spoke first.
“You were thinking about last summer...weren’t you?” she asked.
“I was, yes,” Kestrel responded. “I was thinking it’s about time we decided where we’re going to go from here.”
Snowfall nodded in agreement. “True Edge and I have talked about it a little too, but if we’re going to make a decision I think we need Willow here as well.”
Kestrel smiled, glad that they all were in agreement. “I’ll call her,” she said as she reached out to her granddaughter. Sure enough, the young healer agreed readily to come They had spoken a few times before, and Kestrel knew that Willow would confide often in Beetle, but still she wasn’t entirely sure what Willow would want to do next. Now was the time to find out.
The scene when Willow arrived mirrored that of that tense meeting during the summer. Kestrel sat beside her granddaughter, while Snowfall and True Edge sat together across from them. This time, though, the atmosphere wasn’t nearly as heavy. With all the time they’d had to think, everyone had come to terms with the loss in his or her own way, and each now had an opinion.
“I want to start by saying...if you all want to, I’m willing to try again. I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I feel I can do this,” Willow said slowly. “But again...that’s only if all of you are willing as well.”
Kestrel couldn’t help but smile. It was hard to believe this was the same girl who had taken it upon herself to try to heal Brightwood, even against the chief’s orders. Her maturity certainly had grown by leaps and bounds, and Kestrel was proud to see how far she had come.
“I have the utmost faith in you, Willow,” Kestrel said, looking her granddaughter in the eye. “I know you can do this, as well. But I do wonder if...perhaps we should give your ability more time to grow. The fact that there is no other healer to teach you means that everything you learn is learned on your own. We didn’t realize, in the beginning, just how much potential there is for disastrous consequences with this. If you have more time to work on your focus and concentration, this task might not be so difficult.”
Willow acknowledged the elder’s words and turned them over briefly in her mind.
“I understand what you’re saying, grandmother, but because of the time I've had to think, I believe I have a better idea of how to make this work. Beyond guiding the cub inside the mother, I also have to prepare the mother's body to accept the cub. I do think there might always be the chance for failure, because without Recognition, there are no guarantees. Giving my healing magic time to grow might help, for certain, but I do think I have what it takes to make this work now, High Ones willing."
Everyone present took a minute to think on what Willow and Kestrel had said. True Edge was the next to speak up.
“There’s so much about this that I don’t understand,” he began, his expression hardened. It was a difficult thing for him to admit. “But I do know two things. The first is that you’re no longer the cubling I still believed you to be before we started all this.” He looked Willow straight in the eye, adult to adult. Willow smiled and nodded her thanks; coming from True Edge, that was quite the praise. Then, True Edge turned to look first at Snowfall, then at Kestrel. “The other is this: I want another cub as much as either of you, but when,” he hesitated at that point, but only for a moment, “we lost the baby, I feared the risks were too great to try again. After having this time to think, though, I’ve come to understand that it’s all part of the Way, as much as the hunt - both our wish for a cub and the risks we’re willing to take for it.”
Snowfall and Kestrel both nodded in agreement. That desire for a cub had been so strong that it had caused them to try to achieve what they wanted themselves, rather than wait for what fate allowed. After considering what everyone had said, Snowfall finally added her opinion to the rest.
"We all know now that failure is always an option, and we can't just keep continuing on this way forever. It's just too emotionally draining on us, and on the tribe. But it seems like we’re united in our confidence in what Willow feels she can accomplish. I think we should give it one more try,” she said. “If we don’t, I think we’d continue to wonder if it would have worked had we taken this one last chance. And if, after this one time, we’re no closer than we were before, I think it's time to set this aside.”
She reached out a hand, and both True Edge and Kestrel clasped it tightly. There was no question in either of their minds that, of the three of them, Snowfall had been the most deeply affected. That she would be the one to suggest they try again, despite the potential for failure, gave them both more confidence that it was the right decision.
“So if this fails again, we wait a good long time before we take this kind of risk again. An oak’s age, at the very least,” True Edge added, his voice much less unsteady as he gazed into the eyes of his Recognized.
“Agreed,” Snowfall responded, her voice unwavering. True Edge looked to Kestrel for her answer.
“Agreed,” she said resolutely. The three of them were once again united, just as they had been before going through this journey together. And together, they would see it through to the end, now almost upon them.
As the healer watched the exchange between the lovemates, she couldn’t help but feel honored at the amount of trust they had in her. It was strange to think that, before this all started, she had been so unsure of her ability to make anything happen. Now it was different. Now she believed she could do this. At the very least, she wanted to give her all just one more time for those who had believed in her from the beginning... and who still did.
It had been different this time. As she lay with her head on True Edge’s chest, her hand clasped tightly with Snowfall’s, Kestrel tried to think of just what it was that had felt so dissimilar to every other time they had all tried together. Perhaps, she thought to herself, we’re at peace knowing this is the last time. We’ll accept whatever happens. Slowly, she turned her head to look at the healer, who still sat slumped forward with her head bowed, her breath coming with audible difficulty. She had to admit, Willow had completely thrown herself into the task this time, and it seemed to be taking much longer for her to come completely out of her trance.
Slightly worried, Kestrel squeezed Snowfall’s hand and the two of them sat up, each moving to one side of Willow. True Edge rolled himself up on an elbow.
“Willow?” Kestrel murmured softly, placing a hand on her granddaughter’s shoulder gently. Willow’s eyes fluttered a little before she slowly raised her head, looking first at Kestrel, and then Snowfall, seeming at first not even to recognize their faces. Then, slowly, she reached out a hand to Snowfall’s stomach, not wasting any time finding out if her effort had paid off. Her face wore a look of deep concentration for what seemed like ages, until finally, a satisfied smile crossed her face.
“It’s there,” she whispered.
Snowfall’s face brightened at the words, as did Kestrel’s. True Edge pushed himself more upright, though his expression remained guarded. None of them were ecstatic at the good news as they had been the last time, but they had expected as much. Nevertheless, the cloud of uncertainty that had been lingering since their senses returned was instantly cleared, leaving in its wake a wave of relief that washed over them all.
Willow’s hand went to Kestrel’s stomach then, and after another period of waiting, the healer turned her face up to Kestrel and smiled, nodding her head, too tired to even speak. An audible gasp filled the air, though if it was one of them or all of them, no one could quite tell. Could both of them really be with cub? The possibility had never come close to crossing their minds.
Then Willow slumped forward, seemingly too exhausted to even sit up anymore. Kestrel reflexively leaned forward to catch her, still slightly in shock, before her eyes filled with tears.
“Dear, dear child,” she whispered, stroking the girl’s hair as the realization of what happened hit her full force. She was a jumbled mixture of feelings--happiness, apprehension, uncertainty--but most strongly of great pride in her granddaughter. Snowfall, too, hugged the girl to her gratefully. Willow had pushed herself to the limit for them. It was something she would probably never be able to do again - or at least, not for a long time - but that was how much she had wanted to succeed; both for herself, and for the ones she loved. Snowfall, Kestrel, and True Edge knew they had a long road ahead of them, and now none of them could guess how it would end - but each was prepared to give their all, just as Willow had.