(This story is part of the "The death of Whispersilk, and Aftermath" storyline - see listing for related stories.)
She remembered things said and done, awkward and hateful and sweet, and the memories made her a silent ghost around the chief. She lingered at the entry to Windburn’s den with her heart always in her throat. The grief-smell clung to them both, salty and acrid, but no words rose to her swift tongue. When he looked at her, she could only stare back hopelessly. The mother she had loved and resented was gone. The mate her father had dedicated his soul to was gone. Neither she nor Cinder was enough to fill that void.
Moving back into the family den had felt right at the time, an instinctual search for comfort and warmth when the cold of sorrow cut too deeply, but it had not taken long to realize that almost none could be found there. The den felt too big and empty and the furs still smelled of Whispersilk. She bore two nights of restless sleep before mimicking her father and abandoning the once-cozy bed-bowl. Where he went to the forest, though, she took to another nest. As she watched her grandfather hesitate and look to her before turning on his heel and following silently through the shadows to add his attention to his son's well-being, she knew that it would be alright. Blacksnake and One-Leg and Suddendusk would stand guard over Windburn's safety. She could let that almost-slip from her mind and seek her own attempts at peace. Bringing furs from her own den, Foxtail built a careful pile along the wall furthest from the bowl, careful to mind the drafts and stealing additional furs from winter storage.
No one told her no. Was it because she was almost-chieftess in her father's grief or was it the unsaid sympathy of her tribe? The lingering echo of One-Leg's words put a solemn shiver up her spine and she tried to walk tall when others could see her. Only in the safety of the den did she let the weight settle on her back and curl her down amongst the furs.
For once, she was thinking of her behavior and, for once, she wanted no one to see it. It felt strange and alien, a weight settled in her stomach that would jump and twist until she only picked at food. At least she hid that well. No one but a few could suspect and they would keep their mouths shut in loyalty or unerring good sense. Even if the worry coated every sending from Rainpace like moss on rocks and Willow's eyes burned holes in her back and Notch... Notch tried to lure her back to his den so many times that she lost count.
It felt strange to resist. He could bring comfort and warmth and he understood her so well. Yet she shook her head, touched his hand as the moons settled low over the trees, and slipped back into the quiet den. Someone else waited for her. Someone else needed her.
Foxtail would wait until the wet-nurses left before gathering her brother into the cradle of her arms. Waiting but always watching, her green eyes focused sharply on each tribe-member handling and nourishing her tiny, helpless brother. Then she would take him into the nest she had made and hold him close until he fell asleep. His soft breathing was the last thing she heard before she could allow herself to retreat into dreams as well.
Whatever he would grow to be, Cinder was her responsibility now. When you found something, she reasoned, it was yours. When you saved something, you kept it. It was a strange enough burden to begin with, taking on the cub she had so heatedly wanted gone, but he was hers, more than anyone else had been because he had no choice. So she watched and guarded and felt the faint balm as her wordless little brother allowed her to offer the comfort her father refused. Even after he came back to them and spent more time in the den, he still did not seem to see her or hear her. Bitterly, Foxtail locked her heart up again and told herself that, at least, he had his father standing steady and Cinder had her.
When Honey moved in after a hand or two of days, though, Foxtail felt the growl deep in her chest and knew that anyone wise enough to look could see the fierceness in her politely grateful smile. Indeed, Blacksnake's quick glance told her he, at least, knew but he was quiet and only touched her shoulder in passing, silent strange understanding that only made her feel more heartsick and guilty. No chieftess would need bother to challenge over a cub that was hers but... She was not quite chieftess yet, was she?
But Whispersilk's words haunted and Foxtail held her tongue as well as she could until the wolf would growl too loudly to ignore. Then it became all delicate blades and, again, she was not chieftess but only a motherless cub, howling her claim.