(Ed. Note: Trip was the cubname of Honey.)
It had rained for four days. Dampness could be felt, even inside dens with leathers tightly lashed, the moisture had made its way in. When the rain stopped, the sun had brought a humid heat, which made everything and everyone feel sticky. Tallow and Birdcatcher had taken the opportunity to hunt together, leaving their energetic toddling daughter, Trip, in the care of her beloved older brother, Thornbow.
He didn’t want to keep the cub indoors, and had instead taken her from the den she shared with her parents downstairs to the Gathering Den to look for his closest friend. Not finding Windburn there, they had made their way into the storage dens. Thornbow was surprised not to find the chieftess’s younger son there, either — he had a gift for keeping it organized — so had decided to head toward the river without him.
On their way back up, however, the light was blocked by Windburn’s silhouette. “Windburn!” Thornbow called out. “You’re not going to spend the day down here are you?”
“No!” Windburn said with a laugh. “I heard you were cubsitting Trip, and thought I’d offer to help out. I figured we could go to the river and play with her. It’s feeling like its going to get hotter and muggier as the day goes on.”
“Great minds think alike,” Thornbow said. “I’d come down here to find you, planning to suggest that, too.”
“River?” Trip, who was only three turns of the seasons old, asked excitedly from her vantage point on Thornbow’s back.
“Yes, Trip. We’re taking you to the river,” her brother acknowledged, cringing as she squealed her joy.
“Let’s go!” Windburn exclaimed and together, the three of them made their way into the daylight and toward the river.
Trip was generally well-behaved, and she seemed to enjoy being near her brother and his friend, so she was easy to care for, even near the river. She only went into the shallow water up to her knees, and usually just played in the dirt and rocks. It gave Windburn and Thornbow opportunity to talk, though both carefully watched the cub.
“You and Finch shared furs again?” Windburn asked.
Thornbow could feel his face flushing. Trust his best friend to cut straight to the point. “Yes,” Thornbow responded, though without enthusiasm. “We’ve shared furs a few times now, but we’ll never be more than furmates. She and Bowflight are lovemates, and she really only shares with me when he’s away.”
“He wouldn’t be opposed to having you there, you know,” Windburn responded.
Thornbow thought on it for a moment, then shook his head. “It just wouldn’t be the same. When it’s just the two of us… anything shared between us is… personal. And meaningful. It’s like we’re the only two elves in the world. And I like it that way. But the way she looks at Bowflight, and talks about him, it’s like I don’t even exist. I don’t think I would want there to be three in the furs.”
Windburn shook his head. “That’s in your head, you know that, right?”
Thornbow was about to respond when Splat! Mud landed on Thornbow’s bare chest, followed by a giggle.
The archer looked toward his sister, who stood before him covered in mud, and laughing. “Mud is fun!” she said. “Play?” she asked.
Windburn was already moving toward the muddy riverbank, his eyes smiling. “Yes, Thornbow. Play?” He bent down to scoop up some mud. He locksent to Thornbow while entertaining the cub, **You’re only second best if you think of yourself that way. Right now, Trip wants both of us.**
Trip was watching the hole Windburn’s hands had made. It was filling with water. “Oooh!” she said.
The sight of his little sister so enjoying the moment let Thornbow move past the deeper conversation so that he could engage Trip and Windburn in the fun.
Windburn tossed the mud over his shoulder, and Thornbow knelt down to look at the water-filled hole with them. Trip then said, “Again!”
He could feel her fascination with the water filling the hole, and he knew that if he dug another, it would fill up as well. He dug another hole in the mud, and was pleased with a clap and a laugh. “Again!”
“My turn,” Windburn said. “Watch, cubling.” Then, the red-haired elf took a stick and dug a deep line between the holes he and Thornbow had made.
Trip watched in awe as the water traveled from one hole to the next. Thornbow then went to the river’s edge and started digging a trench from the river to the first hole. It took a while, and because his sister decided to help, it took a little longer. She would step on the side, and mud would fill the hole again, and he would have to go back and dig it out, but he didn’t lose patience with her.
Windburn was making a channel from Thornbow’s hole to a spot further up the bank, which he dug very wide and deep enough for Trip to sit in. Mentally, they linked via sending so that they would build the channels together. Trip was excited, moving from Thornbow to Windburn to watch the progress.
About that time, Suddendusk arrived, and inspecting their work, quietly stepped to the river’s edge and began moving rocks.
“What are you up to, Uncle?” Windburn asked.
“If I move the rocks to make a small dam just below Thornbow’s trench, the water will build up, and you’ll have more flow to where you are, Windburn. Just joining the fun,” the inventor stated.
Thornbow watched as his sister headed toward where Suddendusk was standing in the water. She stopped when the water hit her knees, as she was supposed to. Thornbow smiled with pride.
“Up?” the cub asked Suddendusk.
He looked toward Thornbow, seeking permission. Thornbow nodded, and Suddendusk carried the cub into deeper water, letting her splash, then playing with her, throwing her high into the air and catching her just before she went too far under.
“We’ve almost finished with the trenches. Should we build a mud house for her, too?” Windburn asked.
“Why not? If we keep at it, maybe others will join in the fun, too,” he responded, his mind drifting toward Finch.
“You could just send and ask her, you know,” Windburn said knowingly.
“Shhh!” Thornbow hissed at his friend. “Leave it alone. We’re just occasional furmates. Friends. Nothing more.”
Windburn responded, **If you wanted more, and were willing to share, I think you’d be welcome.**
Thornbow stepped up the shore, looking for a place to begin on the mud house. He bit his tongue and did not respond in a send. Truth was, he didn’t want to be someone’s second — he wanted their heart to be his without competition. Simple, loving devotion. It was a romantic notion, but one he wouldn’t let go of. **No,** he finally responded. **I want something more than sharing.**
**As you wish, archer,** Windburn answered. **It’s your choice.**
“Come on, Uncle! Can’t you keep up?” Dreamflight called to Thornbow as she raced toward the river.
He didn’t respond, but the young adult had to sense he was gaining on her as she rounded a bend and the river came into view. It was late spring, and as it was a hot day, others were certain to be found at its edges.
Windburn was at the river’s edge, his young daughter, Foxtail, playing on its banks. “To Windburn,” she called, speeding up.
Thornbow was beside her now, matching strides for just a moment before he sped up. He grinned at her, then dashed toward his friend, jumping at the last minute, flying over young Foxtail, and landing in the river with a splash.
Foxtail squealed, and Windburn groaned, “Thornbow!” but he did so with a half-smile, which showed he wasn’t genuinely upset.
Dreamflight was laughing as she splashed into the river. “You beat me again, Uncle!”
“He probably always will, Dreamflight. He’s a fast one,” Windburn said with a smile.
Thornbow looked at his friend and chief, smiling at the compliment. Though they had been friends since Windburn could walk and talk, sometimes it was hard being close to the chief. Sometimes Thornbow wished for the days when his friend was just Windburn. Add to that the responsibility of being a father and lifemate, his friend was sometimes just not the same. Moments like this, though, were precious.
“I remember a day like this once before, Windburn,” Thornbow stated. “Do you remember? When Honey was Foxtail’s age?”
“Aye, I remember,” his friend responded. “It started with a conversation about Finch…” his voice trailed off.
“Didn’t she get killed by a mountain lion a few turns before I was born?” Dreamflight, who was a little more than eight hands turns of the season old, asked.
Thornbow nodded, keeping his thoughts to himself. He remembered the conversation with Windburn so long ago, and how his friend had suggested that he and Finch could be closer, if only Thornbow were willing to share. That feeling of being second-best had plagued him most of his life, he acknowledged. Windburn had said it was all in his head, a choice he was making. Wanting to be first was still something he fought for.
“What was the conversation with Finch?” Dreamflight asked, wanting to know more of the story.
Splat! Mud hit Thornbow on his neck. A childish squeal sounded.
Thornbow sent, **I’ll tell you later,** to Dreamflight, then looked toward the miniature vixen who had thrown the mud at him and bent to scoop some up. When he did, the hole filled with mud.
“Oooh!” the cub said, squatting to tap at the water filling the hole.
Thornbow looked at Windburn with a knowing smile. His chief nodded.
Dreamflight looked between them, asking, “What? Why are you smiling, Uncle?”
Thornbow took his niece’s hand and said, “You’ll see. Help us!”
Together, the three adults worked to create small puddles and channels, digging trenches and moving stones in the river. Foxtail splashed and played in the new ponds, stepped on hills of mud, and tried picking up her own rocks to move.
Thornbow was grateful for the distraction from more painful thoughts. It was better to live in the moment and enjoy the fun as it happened.
As they worked, Windburn sent, **Thank you, Thornbow. I’ve missed moments like this.**
**Why miss them?** he asked.
**Responsbility, Recognition, Fatherhood. They’re not easy,** his chief responded. There was resignation in his tone, but also acceptance, pride, and happiness.
Thornbown was glad his friend was content in his roles and place. **I’m grateful for moments like this, too, you know!**
Windburn chucked a small pat of mud at him, and he ducked. **What was that for?** Thornbow asked, wondering.
**To make you smile, too!** Windburn responded. **Let’s just have fun for as long as we can right now.**
**All right,** Thornbow agreed. **Let’s.**