(Ed. Note: This story is a sequel to "Tender Skin and Callouses", and is related to the events in the story "Waiting".)
"Are you going berry-picking?"
Cloudfern glanced up. At the entrance of the storage den stood Trip, radiating impatient energy. She kept shifting her weight from foot to foot, and her eyes darted around the wrapped bundles, as if trying to see through to what they contained.
Picking up an extra basket, Cloudfern gave Trip a smile. "Bored, little one?"
"I'm not little," Trip said, but it sounded more like a reflex than a reaction to something that had actually offended her. "At least I won't be when the new cub comes! Why can't the seasons change faster?"
Ah, so that was the burr in her tail. It could indeed be hard to wait for such wonderful a thing as the birth of a child, especially when you were only two hands of turns old. "Excited to have a new friend soon, I see."
That got him a big smile from Trip. "We'll be best friends! I can't wait to have a friend! Well, a new friend. A friend who's more little than me!"
Cloudfern stifled a chuckle. He could well remember being the youngest in the tribe, turns and turns ago. Being the youngest wasn't always so much fun, though it had its upsides.
Offering Trip a basket Cloudfern began to lead the way out of the storage den. "I think everyone in the Holt is just as impatient as you to see the cub."
"Maybe," Trip agreed, keeping pace with him in the manner that had given her her name, "but you've all seen tiny cubs before. I've never seen a new cub!"
"True," Cloudfern said with some amusement, "but each new cub is different from those that have come before. There's never been a cub like you in the tribe, Trip. And the new one will be unlike any other elf born before. That's what so wonderful with new cubs."
Trip nodded to herself, as if Cloudfern had shared a big, important secret with her.
Silently to himself Cloudfern counted down from eight.
"Tossfur thinks it'll be a boy!" Trip burst out, a dam breaking under the strain of pent up excitement. "And so does Nettle! Do you think it will be a boy? What color do you think his hair will be? Do you think he'll be taller than me, or shorter? When he gets bigger I mean. How big do you think I will get before he's born? Who was the tallest elf who ever lived?"
And so they walked on, Trip chattering all the way, at the speed only excited cubs could reach.
After the incident during the year's salmon run there had been no words spoken between Cloudfern and Honey on the subject. That would have ill fitted the bad blood that had so recently finished flowing between them, leaving clean wounds.
No, Cloudfern and Honey had kept from speaking overly much with each other, just trading fewer angry and barbed words now than they had turns before. While together with Greenweave the tension between Honey and Cloudfern was even less palpable, that three-way grudge an old bone that had been gnawed raw long ago. But still Honey and Cloudfern had stopped baring teeth at each other, even without Greenweave's calming presence.
Thus, it didn't really surprise Cloudfern when he looked up and found Honey standing in the entrance to the storage den. He found himself picturing her as a cub, barely eight turns old and excited for the birth of Greenweave. He all but expected her to ask if he was about to go pick berries.
Instead, Honey took one of the baskets. For a moment Cloudfern thought it was some kind of challenge, but glancing over at Honey's face he saw no antagonism there. No friendly smile either, but a blank face was worlds better than a snarl.
Cloudfern remained crouched by the other empty baskets, weighing his options. She was standing there, clearly waiting for him to make the next move. What would be the wise one to make? Ignore her and grab something else from the storage den? Or go pick dreamberries as planned, with her as company?
Don't be a coward, he found himself thinking. You know where avoiding things have gotten you before.
They set out for the dreamberry patches in silence. The forest matched their shared mood, with only the wind and the occasional evening bird making noise to accompany their footsteps.
As they filled their baskets, still not speaking, something became clear to Cloudfern that he'd been sensing since the storage then; there was no tension. It was not the ease he felt with most of his other tribemates either, but the crackling distrust and hurt feelings between them shone with their absence.
How long had Honey been out of wrapstuff? With all that had happened since, the return of the Fierce Ones foremost among such events, it took Cloudfern half a basket to recall what he needed to remember. It had been more than two hands of years. And before that…
He mulled this over until they both were ready to head back. Should I say something? he thought as Honey took the lead back to the Holt. Or would that just unbalance this peace?
Before he could come to a decision, Honey beat him to it. She halted, shoulders squared as if bracing herself for a gale, and turned around.
"I think we can do this," she said, not looking directly at him. "Don't you?"
This. There was a lot of weight to the word. But Cloudfern understood.
"Yes," he said, allowing himself a smile he hoped came off as genuine as he wished it to be. He truly wished for peace between them, even if friendship probably never would be a possibility. They deserved such peace after countless turns of hate and grief between them. High Ones, the tribe deserved that peace! "Thank you for the help with the berries."
That got him a curt nod and something akin to an answering smile.
With that they parted ways and Cloudfern felt a great weight lift from his shoulders. No friendship had been made but maybe, just maybe, all distrust between them had finally been laid to rest. That was a heartening thought.