“She said you were what?” Cloudfern couldn't quite keep the amusement out of his voice. He covered his mouth to hide his grin, but couldn't quite do that either, despite the fact of Farscout looking crestfallen.
“Scratchy,” Farscout answered wryly, scrubbing his stubbly growth of face-fur. Cloudfern hiccuped and glanced around him for support but found none. Greenweave, Starskimmer and Moss were all looking similarly entertained, snickering behind and around their hands. Cloudfern's lifemate cleared his throat and picked another bead from the small bowl next to him, keeping himself well busy with the work of twining it back into Moss's newly washed mane. He managed to concentrate only for a few seconds before Starskimmer fixed him with a look and his cheeks puffed and lips trembled. He held out his hands to Farscout helplessly.
“I could try to mix you some kind of lotion...”
“I'm surprised that Brightwood minds,” Starskimmer chimed in. She was lounging back in the lifemates' den, rolling some stone beads between her fingers and shaping them to her whim. “From what I recall, she always did like her love bites. A bit of rough stuff with your licks is half the fun of tumbling with an elder.” She dropped the beads in the bowl and reached over to fondle Moss's sideburns. He laughed and leaned into her touch like a wolf into an ear-scratch, until Greenweave gave his dreadlocks a small warning tug. “She should know by now!”
“Though Farscout's unlucky with his elder's fur,” Moss remarked. He thoughtfully ran a hand on his own cheek. Starskimmer squinted, and moved in for a test, which Farscout tolerated silently. She fingered both their cheekbones for a while, as Greenweave and Cloudfern waited with as serious a pair of expressions as they could manage. At last she gave an expert nod.
“I never thought about it, but you're as soft as a baby bunny's bum, while Farscout's a thistle-patch!” She gave a deep sigh. Farscout looked downright morose at that observation. Cloudfern coughed into his fist. None of that stopped her at her musing. “I feel for Brightwood, truly. As if it's not enough that fuzz covers up that sweet dimpled chin...”
“You don't think she really minds, do you?” Cloudfern asked his soul-brother, who offered a small shrug. The herbalist's eyes narrowed. Old and wise, calm and as reliable as bedrock, Farscout was still very much a fool for love, and Brightwood brought out all his rare moments of irrationality. Not that Cloudfern could entirely blame him, with Brightwood's unwrapping only freshly dawned, and all of them feeling their way around a great many changes. Still.
“Don't be absurd!” Starskimmer snorted through her nose, before he had a chance to and rather less finely at that. She tweaked Farscout's chin, making him jolt. “You know she's happy to have every last bit of you, thistles and all.”
“Brightwood sees your soul, not your face,” Moss added in a gentler tone. “One's not changed, even if the other has.”
Farscout shifted where he knelt. He looked down into the bowl of beads. “I know all that,” he said, in his soft measured tones. “It's simply difficult not to think, now and then, of all the things she's missed.”
The group sobered at that for a time. Cloudfern leaned a little closer in to his soul-brother, and Greenweave freed one hand from his work to touch Farscout's shoulder from his other side – something the elder often dodged, but now seemed to welcome. It was rare for him to share his feelings openly in this way; they had learned to respect it.
Suddenly, though, Starskimmer choked, and began desperately trying to swallow a giggle. Farscout blinked. Cloudfern looked narrow-eyed at his Recognized. The change was so abrupt that even Moss seemed to forget Greenweave's hands in his hair, and tried to turn his head to look at her only to be yanked back with a small “ow!” Starskimmer bit her lower lip but couldn't help herself. She clasped both hands on her mouth.
“I'm sorry, I'm sorry – I was only imagining – well, imagine if we shaved him!”
“What?!” Greenweave's voice was appalled. Moss gave another “ow!” and indignantly tugged his head free. “You can't do that!” the weaver continued, whirling on her. “Shave off face-fur – what if it doesn't grow back?”
“Why won't it? Hair's hair, whether on your head or cheeks. Ice's hair would always grow back, that's why she had to ask Owl to fix for it to stop.”
“Face-fur is different!” Greenweave insisted with vehemence. “It takes so long to grow, and it only ever grows the length and shape it chooses – who knows what might happen if you disturb it. I don't think Farscout wants to never look the proper elder again.”
“I'm not even sure how to shave off face-fur,” Cloudfern found himself musing. “No one's done it before that I can think of.”
“Because everyone's always known it to be a fine thing!” His lifemate still sounded horrified. Cloudfern sneaked a glance at Moss, only to find him with a fist shoved in his mouth, battling laughter as fiercely as Starskimmer had a moment ago. At last he thought to look at Farscout.
His soul-brother seemed contemplative. Sometimes, for all his steadfastness, it was hard to tell what Farscout was thinking. He was stroking his scruffy beard with little unsure motions. **What do you think?** came his unexpected sending.
**What do I think? When did this become about me?** Cloudfern gave him a slit-eyed look. He had no great preference regarding face-fur, one way or another, and didn't think that his sister was any different. It did seem absurd that Brightwood would specifically mind the state of her lifemate's chin, or that, if she did have any trouble adjusting to his changed appearance, this would ease them in any way. One thing was sure, though, he knew as he looked at the snickering Moss.
“It'll make her laugh, if nothing else,” he said dryly.
Farscout sat still for a few minutes, mulling over that piece of advice with the profound consideration that it warranted, while Greenweave and Starskimmer continued their heated debate. At last, he gave his beard a final, regretful tug, and rose to his feet.
“I'd like to try it,” he said to Greenweave.
The weaver's baleful look to Starskimmer promised future retribution for causing him to be saddled with such traumatic duty. But he was a good tribemate, and he nodded with a sigh. “Fine, then. Let me just finish with Moss here. Make some beauty before I'm forced to destroy some. Shave you, I cannot believe...” he continued muttering well until the last golden bead was in place, and a good while after.
“You want to do what?” Kestrel stared at them blankly. Even Farscout wilted a little under the plain confusion in her voice, while Cloudfern shuffled his feet and Greenweave looked indignant and put-upon. Crowded in the entrance to Kestrel's den with their question, Cloudfern couldn't help but feel a bit like a cub looking for help at getting away with something.
“Shave my face-fur,” Farscout said again, his hand cupped about the offending hair. “For Brightwood.”
“What if it won't grow back?”
“That's what I said!” erupted Greenweave. “But does he listen? Does anyone?”
“Ice's hair grew back,” Cloudfern feebly tried to remind his lifemate. “We were hoping you remembered, elder, how she used to do it before Owl healed her scalp smooth. We've cut hair close to the skin often enough, but all I've ever shaved is fur off injured wolves.”
The floater lay down her half-carved bone flute and squinted hard. Her face became pinched and even more bird-like than ever. “I was half your girl-cub's age when Owl did that. Less. I can't even recall who used to do her shaving for her.” She drummed her fingers on the bone for a moment, before her eyes lit up. “I remember her sitting with head lathered, though. That is hard to forget.” She shared the memory with all three of them in an open-sending.
Cloudfern choked a little at the picture of Ice, sitting pretty with her head all pale fluff and bubbles, crowned like a strange bird and scowling like a marshbeast. “It doesn't look like she enjoyed that,” he remarked. At his side Greenweave nodded vehemently.
But Farscout was undeterred. “Was it a special soap?”
“No, just a gentle one. It made things smoother. But...” Kestrel hesitated. “Are you sure that it'll grow back? We don't even know what makes face-fur come in in the first place...”
“We'll take our chances,” Cloudfern cut in before Greenweave could let loose the wail that was clearly sneaking up his throat. He thanked Kestrel over his shoulder and herded them back out of the den.
“This is the gentlest soap we have,” Nightstorm said, putting the batch right under Cloudfern's nose for him to catch a whiff. The thick paste smelled faintly of tartfruit, one of her favourite ingredients, which made its scent mouth-watering. And eye-watering, at this range. Cloudfern coughed subtly, trying not to withdraw. “I mixed it special for Brightwood's first wash out of wrapstuff, but with all the fuss about it, I forgot. Waste of a masterpiece!” She swerved and shoved the bowl at Greenweave, who retreated behind Farscout with eyes glazed over.
“I'm not sure...” Cloudfern begun weakly, still smarting from how the soap stung his nose, but Greenweave cut him off.
“If it's the smoothest choice, then that's what we should use,” he said.
“But there must be - “
“I don't want to risk cutting his face.” The weaver quite suddenly appeared resolute. “This is delicate work, and your sister would never forgive me.”
**Are you just trying to make this harder for him?** Cloudfern lock-sent to his lifemate, unsure if he was amused or appalled. Greenweave answered with a mental sniff.
**He'll come to his senses any moment now.**
“Cut his face?” Nightstorm's confused voice broke into their conversation. She looked at them curiously while Farscout tested the soap by smell and touch, with the expected nose-wrinkling response. “What are you talking about?”
“Farscout wants to have his face-fur shaved off,” Greenweave said in an ominous tone. “I'll do it for him, although I think this is a terrible mistake.”
“It sounds perfectly fine to me!” Nightstorm replied with immediate interest, oblivious to his distress. “What an interesting idea! You know I don't think I've ever seen anyone do it? I wonder why.” She leaned a finger against her cheek and seemed to sink into a reverie, her mind doubtless full of the chins that she had never seen bare before. Cloudfern considered taking the soap and removing Greenweave from her immediate surroundings before something weird happened, when the tanner popped the inevitable question. “Are you sure it'll grow back?”
“It's not important,” Farscout said in a low voice, already halfway out of the storage den. But Greenweave's dejected moan drowned him out. The weaver was clutching at his forelocks in his mounting distress.
“He'll regret it. We'll all regret it...” His dark muttering got him an odd look from Nightstorm. Cloudfern wrapped his arm about his lifemate's waist and nudged him towards the exit.
“It's going to be just fine,” he reassured Nightstorm, glancing back. “Just... let us try it, before you start to badger Moss to try it too.”
“Every single one of you is completely moon-mad,” Goldspice dead-panned.
Cloudfern tried to exchange a glance with his lifemate, but Greenweave only crossed his arms and tapped his foot and turned his nose up and away. Thankfully, the bulk of Goldspice's arch look was at her brother, who seemed equally at a loss to counter her declaration.
“You want my father's knife – my father's brightmetal knife, the sharpest thing in the Holt except Starskimmer's special-made obsidians – you want to take it and scrape your face with it, and under your chin, too?” She flicked a finger at Farscout's scraggly beard. “All it takes is one slip, and your nose could be off!”
“Or your lips,” Greenweave put in helpfully. “Or your ear. Or your throat, High Ones guard us.”
“What did that bit of fluff ever do to you? Brightwood may not like it, but I'm sure that she does like your nose where it is.”
“And she fresh out of wrapstuff,” sighed Greenweave with feeling. “To find her good, reliable lifemate playing at such dangerous tricks...”
“This isn't like you, brother. Whose idea was this – One-Leg? Notch?”
“I'm afraid it might have been mine,” Cloudfern said glumly.
“It was Starskimmer's,” Moss, ancestors love him, intervened from behind his lovemate's back. “And it's really nothing so serious, my heart. The obsidians, now, that worried us, but this should be just fine. Greenweave's hands are steady. If he can stitch a wound, he can do just fine.” He eyed the weaver with a smirk. “As long as he doesn't decide that Farscout is better off dead than furless.”
The well-aimed barb hit its mark. Greenweave winced and traded his cries of discouragement for silent shakes of the head. Goldspice continued to look dubious. She turned back into her den and paced for a moment before producing the brightmetal blade from where it hung on its peg on the wall. She drew it smoothly from the scabbard so that it hardly rustled in parting from the leather, and it glinted in the candlelight in the den. A wistfulness caught her features at the sight of her father's blade, and as always, wonder at its singular sharpness. Cloudfern had to stop himself swallowing hard at the sight of it when he imagined it against elfin skin.
“It'll still need sharpening,” she mused. “Special sharpening to get its edge right for your purpose. I'll fix that for you, quick enough. Though when you need a smith for your grooming, you know you're overdoing it.”
Farscout shrugged. “I want to make Brightwood smile.”
The smith scowled at him. His shot, too, had found just its spot. Sighing, she glanced back over her should to Greenweave as she turned to find one of her sharpening-wheels. “If you maim my brother – “
“How is this my fault!” the weaver wailed, but Cloudfern already hooked his arm through his lifemate's elbow and swerved him back around, Farscout following serenely in their wake and the ring of Moss's wild laughter as their companion back down along the Mother Tree. Only when they were almost out back into the Dentrees' clearing did they catch Goldspice's anxious call:
“What if it doesn't grow back?!”
“You can't just shave his face like you'd do a hide for tanning.”
“Are you using Riskrunner's knife?!”
“What in Foxsly's filching fingers is in that soap? It smells much nicer than anything you ever gave me to use...”
“Should we warn the other cubs off? You don't want to be surprised, with that blade by his throat.”
“I wonder if he's even still got a chin under there...”
“Hush!” Greenweave threw his arms up, causing the little crowd in the crafting den to wince away from the newly sharpened brightmetal blade in his right hand. Seated on a stool right in the centre of the den, Farscout endured with heroic resolve, sniffly and teary-eyed from the soap smeared over his face. Greenweave had lathered the scout's cheeks and chin in a layer so thick that it seemed to give him an extra beard, a fluffy pale one like an old human's, and the scent drew in all and sundry. Goldspice and Moss had wandered over from their den to view the proceedings, picking up Starskimmer on the way. Notch and Otter, who had been looking for their mother, immediately attached themselves to the procession. Crackle's nose for entertainment somehow led her in as well with Evervale in tow. Now they all stood, chastised into silence, waiting with bated breath for the unprecedented event to begin.
“One last chance,” Greenweave told Farscout.
The elder shook his head. “Get it over with.”
With a tremendous sigh, Greenweave set to work. Necks craned all throughout the den. Evervale put a hand on Crackle's mouth to stop her giving too loud an “ooooh” when Greenweave first moved the knife away and revealed a smooth, if foam-speckled bare spot on Farscout's cheek. Face-fur, it seemed was as susceptible to a keen edge as any hair. Cloudfern opened his mouth to remark on how this seemed easier than he'd expected, but then thought better of it. There was a deep furrow of concentration between his lifemate's eyebrows as he worked with slow smooth care. Say what you will about Greenweave, Cloudfern thought warmly, once he put his mind to something he followed through with all of his craft. A pink jowl emerged, the edge of a jawbone, the corner of a mouth. Greenweave leaned low and eased the edge of the knife into the dimple of Farscout's chin. He was just emerging out the other end of it when, in Cloudfern's head, Suddendusk's voice rang with distress.
**Cloudfern – I'm sorry, she's on to me. She realized I mean to distract her. She's headed your way.** He was almost cut off by Brightwood herself barging into the sending.
**Brother, what are you doing?**
Sometimes sending's truth was a headache. **Nothing dangerous,** Cloudfern assured her. He searched Farscout's face, but with the elder sitting rigid under Greenweave's ministrations, it was impossible to tell if Brightwood had sent to her lifemate as well. He only felt Brightwood's buzzing annoyance in his mind – she always did hate being kept out of things – and was forced to add, **it's a surprise.**
Something of his trepidation at the proceedings must have showed through, because Brightwood's response was a displeased pulse. **Are you in the Crafting Trees? I'll be there soon.**
When Brightwood said soon, she meant soon. Cloudfern tried to catch Greenweave's eye, afraid of distracting him while the weaver had the knife scraping under Farscout's chin. No luck. Greenweave's great focus was a bane as well as blessing. He was going to have to send, and send very carefully. **Beloved...**
**Not now,** Greenweave half-hummed, half-snapped.
**I'm afraid you need to hurry, Brightwood's on her way...**
**What, already?** Cautious as he was with his hands, alarm just made Greenweave work slower to keep himself steady, not faster. **I'm not done!** Cloudfern could see as much. About half of Farscout's face was uncovered, but even that half still needed some work, small stray hairs sticking out here and there. However dexterous, this was Greenweave's first crack at this task, and his lack of expertise was showing.
**You can't let her see him like this, it's ridiculous!**
**That's what I said before we even started!**
**I'll go outside and see if I can gain you some time.**
**Oh, of course,** Greenweave sent with uncharacteristic wryness. **You'll stop an annoyed Brightwood from finding out what I'm doing in this den with her lifemate, a funny smell and half the tribe...**
Cloudfern chose to set his jaw at the clear impossibility of his proposal and emerge from the Crafting Tree to give it his best try.
It was mere moments before Brightwood appeared, astride Redbrush and annoyed indeed. She eased off her wolf-bond's back, mindful of her swelling belly, and canted her chin to stare her little brother down. Cloudfern cleared his throat, reminding himself that he was not concealing any kind of dreadful secret. He shifted a little, left and then right, as Brightwood tried to walk past him.
“What are you all doing in there?” The huntress demanded. Cloudfern raised both hands, palms out.
“Nothing harmful, I promise. It's just a surprise.”
“I don't like surprises,” Brightwood said flatly – she never did, Cloudfern recalled with regret – and moved towards him again. He reached and hooked two fingers on her sleeve.
“Sister, please, just a moment.“
“Let me go, Moonmoth.”
“We're not doing anything that could hurt – “
Somewhere within the Crafting Den, Greenweave must have chosen this exact moment to nick Farscout's face as he shaved him, because a slight and surprised hiss of pain emerged and reached the two elves' keen ears.
Brightwood twisted herself away from her brother's grip and all but flew into the den. Cloudfern darted after her, concerned despite himself. In a moment he had collided with her back. Brightwood stood just past the entrance all, eyes on her, including Greenweave's – and Farscout's. The elder scout's cheeks and chin were mostly bare, but not completely. Tufts stuck about, one right at the centre of his dimple. Foam speckled him from cheekbones to chest. Greenweave had nicked his lower lip, and he had his tongue stuck out awkwardly to feel the tiny wound. Certainly a surprise, Cloudfern thought in dismay, and held his breath.
Brightwood started laughing like a drunk goose.
“What - !” she gasped, hunched over and slapping her thighs. “What are - “ She straightened with a huge breath and dissolved into helpless giggles again. “What are you doing?!”
“Ah,” Greenweave said weakly. All around, their tribemates seemed to resolve to side with Brightwood. They erupted in an outpour of hilarity. Greenweave pinned Cloudfern with a look of the profoundest affront. The herbalist could sense a flurry of tight sendings run between Brightwood and Farscout, and then his sister made forward and threw herself around her lifemate's neck.
“You stupid – stupid – you! You think I care about your face-fur! You think I don't love every poking little bristle on your ridiculous face!” She prodded her finger into the dimple in Farscout's chin and nipped at his bloodied lip, then sputtered in disgust at the taste of the soap. “You moon-mad moose, you – “
“This is how you remembered me,” Farscout said very quietly. “I wanted you to see this face again.”
“You could send! You could paint!” But her laughter didn't ebb. She swiped at a patch of foam on his cheek. “You look like a thistle-patch in winter.”
“It'll be better once I've finished,” Greenweave tried bravely to sound encouraging. He measured Farscout's face, rubbing his own chin. “Come to think of it, I've done lovely work, haven't I?” Brightwood snorted at him.
“I don't care how it'll look. But I'm glad I got to see this. Funniest thing I've seen since I woke.” She smirked and put her forehead against Farscout's own. He leaned against her with what Cloudfern could swear was a satisfied little smile.
“Although,” Brightwood added after a moment, “I do hope that it'll grow back.”
Greenweave groaned and buried his face in his hands.
“It grew back nicely,” Starskimmer drawled, twirling a finger through Farscout's beard. She leaned close and slid her cheek against the fine hair. “Nice and smooth.”
At her lifemate's other side, well into the dreamberry wine herself, Brightwood giggled in response. She twisted where she lay on the thick, pillowing grass and draped herself ungainly across Farscout's body. He reached up a lazy arm and threw it around her. “What luck. My brother's lifemate would never have forgiven you,” she told him.
“It's only hair,” said Farscout, though he didn't sound displeased.
“Pft!” Brightwood stretched like a she-wolf, and took a deep sniff of her lifemate's hair. “Just hair. It's a survivor's mark. It's patience and courage. It's your hair.” She nibbled at the base of his ear. Starskimmer watched with approval. “And it's soft now, so soft, like a baby hummingbird's belly...”
“I'm waiting,” Starskimmer said in a sing-song voice. Brightwood gave a throaty laugh.
“Thank you, Starskimmer, for encouraging my lifemate to experiment recklessly with his own flesh.”
“Hair,” Farscout put in.
“We've made a valuable discovery. Shaving softens face-fur! Who would have thought?”
“You're very welcome,” Starskimmer said and took another happy swig from the wineskin. “So! Blacksnake? Suddendusk? Who should be next?”