(This story is a sequel to ”Angry and Unreasonable” and is part of the "Consequences of Willow's Rogue Healing" storyline — see the listing for more related stories.)
Ed. Note: “Moonmoth” was the cubname of Cloudfern.
Memory had always been a thing Cloudfern hated. It carried him places he didn't wish to go, and it refused to let him out of its grip for long. He wasn't wolf enough for that relief.
Wolves mourned. They feared and then the cause of their discomfort faded, gone forever or stored away until needed. They never saw faces of the dead in the bark of the trees, they never worried about going to sleep to be greeted by the same bad dreams.
But Cloudfern had learned at an early age that memory could be avoided and outsmarted, outrun, like a wolf losing an attacking bear. It was all about knowing the warning signs, the proverbial breaking branches and the scent upon the wind.
Elves could run from danger, like any wolf.
Light footsteps and the rustle of leaves told Moonmoth he'd been found, moments before his aunt said: "Ah, there you are! I was wondering where you'd run off to."
She hadn't meant to sound worried, he was sure of that, but the faint tremor in her voice spoke volumes, no matter how brightly she smiled. He did his best to return the smile with one of his own and quickly rubbed at his eyes with the back of his hand.
Sunlight didn't comment on the tear tracks on his dirty cheeks or the way he clung to her as she drew him into a hug. Walking slowly, rocking back and forth, she began to circle the glade, her wolf-friend their only onlooker.
"Did you know that I was the one who named you?" Sunlight asked after a moment of uneasy silence.
Moonmoth blinked, his eyelids brushing against the fabric of her tunic. Slowly he shook his head.
"I did," Sunlight continued, her voice steadier now. "You kept staring at the moons, you see. Not even your mother's breast could lure you away from them for long. I jokingly told your parents you were like a little bug, drawn to light without knowing why."
Shivers wracked through Moonmoth's body at that. His lips might have shaped the word 'mother' or 'father' against Sunlight's shoulder, but he never gave voice to it.
"Do you want to know a secret?" Sunlight asked and stroked her hand through his hair soothingly. Moonmoth nodded against her shoulder, his death grip on them loosening.
She bent her head forward to whisper in his ear: "The moons take away bad dreams and memories. That's why the wolves howl at them. They sing away their bad thoughts, so they can think only of the Now."
Gently she coaxed Moonmoth to lift his chin so he could look her in the eye. She gave him another smile, then turned her gaze heavenwards. Without any further words of explanation she leaned her head back and howled.
After a few heartbeats Moonmoth joined in. His voice was shaky and his song repetitive, but he followed where Sunlight led, accompanied by her bond-friend. The rest of the pack joined in, somewhere in the distance, and all the way through their song Moonmoth never took his eyes off the moons.
Silence fell over the glade, the howling fading away into the night.
"Better?" Sunlight asked, lowering Moonmoth back down after one final tight hug. She got a nod and a steadier smile in reply. "Good. We'd better go back to the Dentrees now, dawn isn't far away."
Another nod from Moonmoth, who took the hand she offered him without hesitation. His tears had dried and he looked, if not happy, then at least at peace.
Cloudfern started as Slystrike shifted in her sleep, nudging him slightly off balance. She opened one of her eyes and looked up at him from where her head rested in his lap, in an almost questioning manner. Cloudfern got the feeling that if wolves had had eyebrows, she would have raised one of hers.
"I'll be fine," he murmured to her, brushing with the hand he wasn't using to scratch her behind the ears through his own hair, "eventually." Slystrike gave a low whine and opened her other eye.
"There's enough chaos in the Holt without me howling my throat raw," Cloudfern said, choking back something that could have been a sob just as well as a laugh. "No body to send down the ri—" He cut himself short and forced himself to stare back up at the moons, partly hidden behind the passing clouds.
Another whine and a nudge, this time deliberate.
"As if losing Easysinger wasn't enough." Cloudfern gave Slystrike's neck fur a tug. She gave one of his thighs a nip, but got no reaction out of him other than more talking. "Both of my aunts, gone in less than a handful of turns, the flash flood, and now..."
Furrowing his brow, Cloudfern kept his gaze on the moons, though it was more of a glare than a simple look now. "Raven had Finch and Windsong, even though they're grown. How could he—"
Slystrike gave a yelp as Cloudfern's fingers tugged painfully in her fur. She gave him another nip and earned herself a yelp in return this time. This, finally, got him to look back down at Slystrike, which calmed her somewhat. She settled back down and didn't try to bite him again.
"It's strange," Cloudfern said, stifling something that might have been a chuckle just as well as a sob. "We weren't lifemates and I didn't know his soul-name, but I still can't help but think he should have come to me. I was right there!"
**Pryn?** Worry and muted sorrow brushed against his mind, the thoughts familiar.
**I am here, Vree** he sent back, pushing Slystrike's head out of his lap. Starskimmer came into view; there was grief in her eyes, mixed with a worry that had nothing to do with death. **I am unharmed and not thinking about doing anything stupid, for any reason,** he sent.
**Of course you're not,** Starskimmer sent back, her face making a valiant effort to shape itself into a scolding, yet playful scowl. It failed. There had been no real fear in her first sending, no real belief that Cloudfern wouldn't answer her sending, but there had been gnawing doubts. **You wouldn't dare leave this cub with me!** She patted her belly with one had. **Seeing how Coyote turned out should be warning enough.**
**Very true. Though I think One-Leg is at least partially responsible for that one.** Cloudfern got to his feet and Slystrike followed suit. "What say you we get back to the Holt? I think there are a lot of people there in need of calming teas and herbs."
Tears gleamed in Starskimmer's eyes, but she quickly brushed them away. "I think you are right." Her voice didn't shake. With something akin to a smile directed at him, she turned around and began to lead the way back to the Holt.
Cloudfern followed her, leaving his thoughts for the moons. He would have time to dwell on the past some other night.
"It's not fair." Cloudfern whispered the words into Leaf's fur, knowing he sounded like a cub seeking solace after a scolding and not caring. The news was still too fresh, too sudden for him to care about his reaction to it. "Not fair, not fair, not fair!"
His wolf-friend didn't make a sound, only lay there and let him rage.
"Why did it have to be her?" he hissed, not quite sobbing. "Anyone else, I could have shared. I'd gladly have shared!"
Outside his den — his alone now — the moons had risen. He barely spared them a glance. He sat stock still for what felt like an eternity, but couldn't have been more than ten or twenty breaths.
"I could fight for him," he muttered to Leaf. "I could. Honey is Honey, but I could fight for him. Recognition doesn't have to mean lifemating. I should know." The last he added with something that almost sounded like a laugh. "It wouldn't be pretty, but I could..." He thought of the cub growing in Honey's belly and fell silent.
He could fight for Greenweave. But he wouldn't. Instead he'd be civil to Honey, as kind as he could to Greenweave and glad for the new life that was to be born. He'd wait for Greenweave to make a choice. For what else could he do?
Drying his tears, Cloudfern sat up and took a deep breath. The thornwall could use some mending.
Said elf looked up from a herbal mixture, pounded to dust and close to useless. Greenweave was right outside, his scent as obvious a sign as his sending. Cloudfern waited a heartbeat, waited eight heartbeats. Dread and longing tugged at him like two wolf pups playing with a piece of leather.
"Yes?" he replied, not daring to send.
Greenweave's face appeared in the gap between the tree and the hide strung up across the door-hole. "Can I come in?" The words were soft and hesitant.
Cloudfern gave a curt nod. He had no idea what to feel at that moment; hope? Hurt? Resentment? Joy? It was all a mess inside his head, the feelings twirling around each other like leaves in a storm.
What he hadn't prepared for was Greenweave's sending. It was overwhelming at first, so full of emotions and jumbled images that he barely could make heads or tails of its contents. Images of Honey were prominent at first, accompanied by Dreamflight and joy. But there was grief as well, for a choice poorly made and a love far too complicated to be anything but hurtful.
The sad scenes transitioned into even older ones. Cloudfern saw himself through Greenweave's eyes, saw long ago nights and days left buried deep in memory. Lastly there were two words, or maybe they were feelings, repeated over and over again: **I'm sorry.**
Then it was over, as suddenly as it had begun. All that was left was him, Greenweave and a silence full of anticipation.
You left me! something at the back of Cloudfern's mind screamed. You left me for her, but as soon as she's gone you come crawling back?! How long will it last this time?
But Greenweave was standing there in front of him, gentle eyes full of hope and regret. The rage faded as swiftly as it had come. Instead there was only the joy of Now, the knowledge that he had his lovemate back, that he was wanted. And for Now, that was enough.
With a wide smile, Cloudfern opened his arms and welcomed Greenweave back.
Having to turn his back on his daughter, and pretend she was air for three hands of days, was one of the most painful things Cloudfern ever had experienced. Even though she'd done her best to keep hidden for most of it, the mere knowledge that she was out there, alone and abandoned, made his sleep restless and filled his waking moments with helpless grief. It was even worse than the fact that she'd risked her life, and the tribe along with it, to join Notch and Foxtail in playing pranks on the humans.
But they hadn't been just pranks; not to her, not to his clever cub.
The worst part was that he thought her better than him. He clearly remembered his own thoughts of revenge, long ago, after, when he'd been safely back in the Holt. Once the mind-numbing grief had given way to anger, he had wanted to see the snow painted with the Fierce Ones' blood. Had he been older, in possession of his magic, and without people to hold him back, he might have done something stupid.
At least Beetle had been wiser than that. There had been no blood sought. There had been risk, but in the end no one had been hurt. Where he'd only felt fear and rage, she had sought understanding, not vengeance. Maybe, if he had taken better care of her in the aftermath of Crawfish's death, she wouldn't have joined in Notch's plan. Maybe she would have gone to him, to ask the chief and the elders of the tribe for advice, instead of seeking knowledge in such a dangerous fashion.
My fault, he thought to himself and hid his face in his hands. If I only hadn't....
Fathers shouldn't shake and be in need of comfort, when their children were in pain. Fathers shouldn't stutter and fall silent, when their children were howling with grief. But he had.
The shunning has been punishment enough for both of us, he thought and buried closer to Greenweave. Outside their den, the sun was shining. There were no moons to howl at. Once it's over, everything will be better. We'll learn from it and leave the pain behind us.
He didn't quite believe himself. But the moment the sun set, he would welcome Beetle back with open arms.
Images of old blood and possible deaths haunted his dreams, as he closed his eyes. They had appeared on the first night of Beetle's punishment. They would stay with him for days to come.
Nothing he did worked. Nothing.
No matter how sincere Willow's apology or how well she bore her punishment, Cloudfern couldn't find it in himself to forgive or forget. Not when every time he saw her face or smelled her scent he was back in time, seeing Brightwood's trapped body being healed, smelling the blood and the Fierce Ones on her. Staring at the moons did nothing and yet he found himself sitting on high branches and doing just that, like a silly cub trying to chase away bad dreams.
The fear and the fury were mind-numbing.
If I just ignore her, it will all go away. I'll just ignore her. The mantra had lasted a mere handful of nights and he found himself jumpier and jumpier for each that passed.
And then the fight with Beetle happened. Well, one of them. The worst of them.
How could I scream at her like that? he thought to himself, his hands crushing herbs far too roughly. I've never...
He fought the urge to punch a wall or kick something; the sensation of building anger and frustration quite unfamiliar and unsettling, not to say painful. He abandoned the herb mixture and left his work den to slump down on his bed. Thankfully, he was alone in there; had been for most of the night.
He had to do something. Things were getting out of control, he was getting out of control. If he continued like this, there was no telling what damage would be done. Permanent damage. For a heartbeat an image of Dreamflight and Greenweave crossed his mind and he shuddered.
"First things first," he said out loud, to no one but himself. "Mend what you can, before it's too broken."
He took a few deep breaths, emptying his mind, but not waiting long enough for worry or panic to float to the surface of it, in the absence of anger. And then he sent to Beetle:
**I plan to go gathering soon. Would you go with me?** He tried to keep the question neutral, but against his will, thoughts of Willow found their way into his sending, like a dark undercurrent.
He cursed himself.
**Willow and I are outside the Holt. We won't be back before dawn.** Beetle answered.
All thoughts of Willow faded from Cloudfern's mind, turning into a faint buzzing at the back of his mind, even though she was a prominent feature in his daughter's reply. Beetle had answered him. For a moment he felt at peace with the world. Then the message of the sending sunk in. **Another time then,** he sent back, his hands curling in the bed furs. **Just the two of us.**
**Very well, father.** The words were accompanied by feelings and images that made it clear where Beetle stood; he could be as angry with Willow as he wished to be, but Beetle would stand by her lovemate.
Cloudfern couldn't find the energy to answer her. He lay on the bed and stared at the ceiling, blinking as images of wrapstuff and the scent of human filled his mind.
That was when Brightwood entered his den.
"Brother, we need to talk."
Elves could run from danger, like any wolf. However, they were not as swift as wolves nor as strong.
And they must run for much, much longer.