Crackle shooed Windsong out of the den with a laugh. “Go, have fun, Mother. The High Ones know you and Father could use the time laughing together.”
As Windsong left the den, Crackle let out a small sigh. Though she’d been laughing as she teased her, Crackle still worried about her mother and father. They had weathered the storm that followed after Suddendusk and Quick Fang Recognized, but to Crackle, at least, things had always seemed a bit strained between the pair. She held on, though, to the notion that love could overcome anything, and that her parents were meant for one another. She couldn’t imagine them deciding to not be lifemates; in her mind, though she would never confess it to anyone, the High Ones had made a mistake. Suddendusk and Windsong, not Quick Fang, should have Recognized.
“Crackle!” her little brother’s voice called, knowing where she was, but looking for a response from his big sister anyway.
“In our den, Rill,” she responded, not unhappy to see him this time. In her opinion, Rill was the one good thing that had come of her father’s Recognition.
“Hey, Crackle,” Rill said with excitement, “You have to come and see what Glow and I painted on the babies’ bellies.”
Crackle laughed, nodding her head in assent as she followed him back out of the den door. Rill was almost twelve turns of the seasons. In just a few more turns, he would likely be looking to be a more active participant in the festivities that others were starting to enjoy. But tonight, he and his near agemates, Glow, Cinder, and Copper, would spend the evening with Crackle, who had volunteered, not for the first time, to be with the cubs for New Green. She had offered to the threemates, Kestrel, Snowfall, and TrueEdge, to watch Spark and Flicker as well, at least for a part of it, so that the trio could enjoy some well-deserved time together.
She wondered what it might be that her brother and energetic Glow had painted, though she doubted it would be anything that would garner disapproval from Rill’s grandparents or Kestrel.
When she arrived at the cubs’ chosen gathering spot near the river, Crackle spied Snowfall, who was still overseeing the youngsters. The younger elf called a greeting to the elder, who smiled up at her.
“Did my grandson tell you what he’s done to his tiny uncles?” Snowfall asked with amusement.
“No. He only said that I should come and see,” Crackle responded.
“Look,” Snowfall replied.
The babies were bare-bottomed and crawling side-by-side over a small log. Several dots had been painted on their backsides, and Crackle smiled, wondering what was on their bellies. Flicker made it over the log first, but Spark followed quickly, tumbling instead, and landing on his back. It was then that Crackle saw the painted resemblance of a frog’s mouth on the cub’s stomach. Spark’s legs and arms were painted to match, and it made her laugh.
“Is Flicker’s the same?” Crackle asked Snowfall.
“No,” the proud mother responded. “Flicker’s is more of an owl’s design.”
“That suits him, don’t you think?” Crackle asked.
“Aye,” Snowfall agreed. “That it does.”
Pleasantries aside, Snowfall asked, “Crackle, are you certain you want to stay with the cubs again for this New Green?”
Crackle nodded. “I am. It’s a good opportunity for me to get the group of them to myself.”
“All right, my young storyteller. Just don’t scare the cubs too much, all right?”
Crackle’s eyes widened as she feigned surprise and hurt. “Scare them, Snowfall? Whatever can you be talking about?”
Snowfall laughed, quickly kissed hers and Kestrel’s babes, and headed to join the rest of the tribe for New Green.
Snowfall and Kestrel returned for their babes halfway through the night. Cinder and Rill had both headed toward the chief's den around sunrise — they were tuckered out. Copper and Glow had fallen asleep snuggled against Flea. Rainpace came to get his daughter before he and Chicory headed to bed. Crackle stayed watching over Copper until Brightwood arrived, and Crackle headed toward her family's den.
The sounds and smell of this particular night held little appeal for Crackle. It wasn't that she didn't understand it, she just did not have the desire to take part in it yet. As she neared her den, she could hear her mother, father, and Starskimmer's talking, and scented freshly opened dreamberry wine. Though Rill could sleep through just about anything when worn out, Crackle felt she would be intruding if she went in. So she kept moving up the tree. She realized everyone had at least one someone with them, some more than one. She knew she would be welcomed if she approached someone, but Crackle knew she just wanted some time to herself.
She climbed as high as she could, finding herself at her favorite branch in the Dentrees, and sat, legs dangling, just looking up at the stars. She liked to watch their dance, and enjoyed trying to learn the stories they told. Truthfully, sometimes, she tried to find her own story there, too. Sometimes she would make believe that she was the great branch-horn, trying to avoid the hunter. Other times she saw herself in the hunter, facing the greatest, most elusive of prey, and choosing to let it live another night. These were the things Crackle thought on as she leaned back and closed her eyes.
"Crackle!!!" Rill's voice interrupted the storyteller's dreams. "Why are you all the way up here?" he asked as he climbed toward her. "You could have slept in our den."
She groaned as she sat up, carefully stretching out muscles that had grown cold through her sleep. She sensed her brother nearing, and she scooted over to allow him a seat next to her.
"The den was rather busy," she answered pointedly. "I didn't want to interrupt our Father and Starskimmer."
"Don't forget Thornbow and Nightstorm. They joined in after I headed to bed."
Crackle knew they hadn't been there when she'd gone by, and she was relieved she had passed her den by. "See, Rill. Our den might be big, but that many would have made it a tight squeeze."
"I don't see what the problem is," Rill said matter-of-factly, adding, “I wouldn't have traded my bed bowl for a branch."
She laughed. He was being honest — she didn't think there was much that could stop him if he put his mind to something. It often got him into trouble, but other times, it served him well.
"Are you taking me hunting today?" he asked.
She'd promised the day before to go small-game hunting, and her stomach was growling at the thought of fresh meat. "Yes. Let's go now," she said, laughing at his whoop of excitement. They weren’t likely to catch more than a rabbit or two, but it would be fun, and they would eat well.
Crackle enjoyed the times when no one was in her family's den. She loved having a quiet place to sit and think. This particular night offered no exception. She looked around her in appreciation of the love that had filled the small den over the course of her short life. She thought of the times when her sister, Evervale, still lived there. She could only recall that Evervale had been great to snuggle with, and that she had been very tolerant of tiny Crackle’s exuberance. Crackle wondered, though, whether some of that tolerance might have worn off in some ways, which may have been why her sister moved out before Crackle was two hands old.
Thoughts of Evervale led Crackle to think of her sister’s lovemates; lovemate, Crackle corrected herself. Evervale had three-mated with Longshot and Pathmark, and they had been together for quite a few turns of the seasons. But then Fadestar had grown up, and Pathmark had chosen to leave the three-mating; now he and Fadestar were lovemates, though they weren't yet living together. Evervale and Longshot seemed agreeable to the changes, and Pathmark still shared a den with them, but Crackle couldn’t understand it.
When she thought of the difficulty that must come with changing thoughts and feelings, it made her even more hesitant to share her heart. She wanted something more, something deeper. A commitment that went beyond the moment and beyond feelings. She wanted her soul’s mate, or nothing. She couldn’t imagine her mother’s heartache with having to share Suddendusk’s soul with Quick Fang. She was glad her mother was so strong — Crackle didn’t think she could be if she were ever in the same situation.
Crackle shook her head. She’d had those thoughts before, and nothing new came of them. She wanted to give attention to the den she shared with her parents and Rill. She loved it; she loved them. And yet, she acknowledged to herself, sometimes she just wanted a space of her own.
“CRACK-LE!!” her brother loudly interrupted her reverie with impatience.
She turned her head and glared at the entrance to their den. Rill stood there, hands on his hips, looking at her with irritation. “I’ve been calling you.”
“You could have sent,” she retorted. “I didn’t hear you.”
“Everyone in the holt heard me, except you. Why were you ignoring me?” he demanded to know.
Crackle softened, a little. She remembered what it was like, being his age, and how it felt to be ignored. “I was thinking,” she explained.
“About what?” he asked, stepping into the den.
“Nothing, really,” she answered, neither needing nor wanting to explain herself.
Rill’s face fell. He’d been genuinely interested, she could tell, but she didn’t think he’d have understood. “What did you want?” she asked.
“Come play with us. We’re going to play taal. We need you.”
Crackle sighed inwardly as she pushed herself to standing. She usually enjoyed the game, and she didn’t expect this day to be an exception. Still, she wished she hadn’t been interrupted. A thought was nipping at the back of her mind, and she had not yet attended to it. She pushed it back again, and went to play.
Crackle was frustrated — understandably so, in light of a failed hunt. She, Beetle, and Longshot had gone out together, and though they’d seen their prey, they’d not gotten close enough for a good shot. It was disappointing, and the taste of freshly wrapped meat, while technically the same, just didn’t hold the same appeal as freshly caught meat.
Choosing to forego the meat wrapped in the storage dens, Crackle made her way toward her own den. She wanted something to do with her hands so she intended to get the leather she’d been working with and finish the summer skirt she was making. She hoped that the crafting would help dispel the frustration she still had.
Neither Beetle nor Longshot could be considered bad hunters. They were good at archery, though Beetle typically waited too long and rarely actually took a shot. Longshot rarely missed, and Crackle was good at sneaking up on prey. She couldn’t understand what went wrong.
Crackle reached up to brush aside the leather hanging in her family’s den-door, and realized as she stepped into it that she wasn’t alone. Her parents were there, mid-conversation, and they looked toward her as she stepped in. They smiled at her, and though she knew she was welcome, she suddenly didn’t want to be there. She had wanted some time alone in her den.
The thought that had nipped at the back of her mind finally bit, and she stood there, stunned by it.
Windsong and Suddendusk noticed the change in Crackle’s expression, and the concerned parents approached her. “What is it?” her father asked.
“Are you all right, Crackle?” Windsong inquired.
Crackle nodded, though tears were coming to her eyes. Now that the thought was there, she knew she had to act on it, but she’d not even had time to think about how to say it to her parents, and here they were. She didn’t think it would hurt their feelings but she still worried it would.
“Crackle?” her mother asked again.
“Mother, Father,” she said through tears, “I need my own den. I’ve probably needed it longer than before this moment, I just hadn’t really thought about it.”
Windsong cast a glance at her lifemate, and something passed between them that Crackle didn’t understand. Then she looked back at Crackle, smiling and blinking back tears. She reached out to hug Crackle.
When Windsong let go, Suddendusk did the same. “We knew this day would come, daughter.” A few moments later, when they broke away from the hug, her father added, “I’m rather surprised you didn’t come to this conclusion turns ago.”
Crackle laughed. “Now that I’ve said it, I think you’re right. You’re not upset, then?” she asked them both.
Windsong smiled. “How could we be upset that you’re coming into your own? It’s what parents want for their cubs.”
“Thank you,” she said to both of them, smiling. “I’ll go see if one of the plantshapers can shape a den for me.”
That said, Crackle exited the den, leaving her parents behind to finish their conversation. She wasn’t working on the craft as she’d planned to; the day wasn’t working out the way she had expected at all. But by the end of the day, she knew, she would sit down to craft, eat a piece of wrapped meat, and think, in her own den.