(Ed. Note: Laughter was the cubname of Beetle.)
When one lived in a forest one learned of its many inhabitants from the first day of one’s life. There were birds, there were fish, there were prey animals as small as mice or as big as marsh-beasts, all flying, swimming or walking through the woods day and night.
And there were insects. Eights upon eights upon eights of buzzing, stinging, flying or crawling bugs.
Cloudfern had thought he was used to the presence of bugs. Well, maybe not all. Most. Or at least the ones that stung and bit, leaving marks he had to treat with itch-numbing salves. And the worms that you could use for fishing, as well as the unending number of beetles. Oh, and butterflies. Butterflies were hard to miss, colorful and Preserver-like as they were. They were there, they made noise or crawled by, generally insignificant in the big picture of things.
The insects kept to their place in the grass or on leaves, not so much staying away from the dens as not actively seeking them out. They occasionally got into the dens, which could be an annoyance, but such visits were usually brief, mostly made by insects with wings and a thirst for elfin blood. Until his daughter was born, that was.
The elf in question looked up from the herbs he had gathered and frowned. Starskimmer’s mind-touch had been far from happy. There wasn’t any rage to be felt, but clear annoyance was unusual enough from her that it had Cloudfern frowning and folding up his half-filled bag. **Yes?**
**Our daughter needs a talking to and I think we both should be here for it,** Starskimmer sent.
Cloudfern squared his shoulders and stifled a sigh. It was going to be one of those nights, was it? At least it was almost over, the sky growing lighter by the moment. **I’m coming.**
Starskimmer’s den looked like it did most nights. There were no broken pots, no burnt furs, nothing out of place other than the elf cub radiating shame. Laughter was sitting in one corner of the den, head hanging, avoiding eye contact with both of her parents, the very picture of a five-turns-old cub caught doing something she shouldn't have.
Starskimmer had her arms crossed over her chest and stood leaning against the wall closest to the entrance. She said nothing as Cloudfern entered the den and as Laughter was keeping silent as a rock, Cloudfern took a step further inside. Nothing broken on the shelves, nothing dragged out of baskets…
Cloudfern knelt down next to Starskimmer’s bed, bending low and squinting. “Why are your furs full of caterpillars?”
Starskimmer’s neutral expression was marred by a smile, which she quickly got under control. “Laughter has been collecting them.”
“And she thought your bed was the best place to put them all?”
They both turned to look at Laughter, who squirmed in place.
Cloudfern glanced back at the furs. There were caterpillars of all colors and sizes crawling around in the fur, some eating on leaves scattered where an elf really should be sleeping. Sunrise wasn’t far away. “So…”
“I'm sorry!” Laughter cried, getting to her feet with a tiny jump. “I just had to find somewhere warm to put them while I built them a nest. And—”
“And?” Starskimmer said.
“We haven't slept in here in a while.” Laughter moved closer to the furs, putting herself between it and Starskimmer. The burst of volume in her voice was quick and went back to a whisper. “I put the bugs here three days ago, when it started getting colder. I thought I'd have them gone or that it would get warm again before anyone slept in here.”
Cloudfern looked at Starskimmer, who shrugged.
It seems this one is on me, Cloudfern thought, shifting closer to Laughter. “Why did you feel the need to build them a nest, cub?”
“…the trees have new leaves, but it's cold,” Laughter said and Cloudfern could see tears forming at the corner of his daughter’s eyes. “I found so many dead ones. I didn’t want them all to die! Coyote said I should build them a nest because they're too little to build their own.”
Coyote, of course. There was nothing to do but hug her. “Hush cub,” Cloudfern said, petting Laughter’s hair. “The bugs won’t all die. Sometimes the weather is like this when the new leaves come, warm and cold changing places without making sense. Not all bugs live through such changes, yet they've still been among us since I was a cub and that was a long, long time ago. It’s sad, but that is the Way. Some die, some live. Those who die become life in their own way, feeding both other bugs and larger creatures. And those who don't still change, spinning webs to become butterflies and moths."
Muffled sobs was Laughter’s only answer to that, but she seemed calmer all the same, her breathing evening out and the tension in her shoulders easing.
Cloudfern looked over at Starskimmer, who raised an eyebrow. She wasn’t exactly exuding annoyance anymore.
“Do you realize why your mother is upset with you?” Cloudfern asked, still hugging Laughter close.
“Mmm-hmm,” said Laughter.
Laughter pulled back a little and glanced over at Starskimmer before answering. “Because I put bugs in her bed.”
“Right,” Cloudfern said. “If you promise not to put bugs in places where people are supposed to sleep, I promise I’ll help you find a warm place for your little friends.”
Laughter’s eyes widened. “You will?!”
“The sun is almost up,” Cloudfern said. "We'll discuss this tomorrow night." His jaws fought to open wider in a yawn. He bit down as hard as he could, suppressing the urge.
“And where should I sleep then?” Starskimmer asked, her tone light and cheerful.
Cloudfern returned the smile that was spreading on her lips. “I think there will be room over in our den, if Greenweave scoots over. That is, if you’re fine with just sleeping.”
“I think that will be fine,” said Starskimmer.
His eyes narrowing, Cloudfern gave his Recognized a glance as he picked up Laughter. **You have spare furs and you’re not actually angry. You just wanted warm bodies to huddle up with today, didn’t you?**
**As our daughter said, the last few days have been rather cold and I doubt this one will be any better.**
Cloudfern rolled his eyes. He decided not to comment. He had to prepare mentally for a long lesson on bug life tomorrow.