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kukutux had not been back to the glen since it had all occured. she was being a rather poor aunt, the duck told herself, and, adding another name to her mental list, set her trajectory back toward moonspear.

forced to pause as a wind drove up the snow in front of her, the woman found squirrel bones to crack open in the shadow of great old trees. here the fireflies had lately been, and her heart tore for toad amelia, for desdemona, for keres, for osiris — for all lost. a place of spirits.
Part of Melaine was surprised to find herself back in these desolate woods, particularly since the wound she sustained last time she was here was still smarting with every step. 

She needed the peace though-- everyone she encountered in Firefly Glen was either wounded or grieving. Actually, what she really needed was help. As far as she could tell, she was the only functioning medic in the Glen, and she was exhausted.

It had taken Lane a few days to realize that the other medic, Holland, was nowhere to be found; she had assumed that he was just really busy like her, off tending to the Glen's physical and mental wounds. 

This was the last place she had seen Holland, and so this was the only location she knew to look. God, she would kill him if she found him. How could he let his pack fall apart like this, and leave Lane to triage the pieces back together?
the duck rested, jade-gaze fading beneath her eyelids.

sharp ears roused her to the nearby tread of another; the snowbird watched from her place beneath the trees as a pretty figure plodded through. there was a grim alertness clinging to the other; as the stranger drew closer to where kukutux had positioned herself, the duck caught sight of the odd black patches beneath the she-wolf's stare, the way that the light struck her spiced ruff.

slowly the moonwife cleared her throat, shifted slowly and deliberately so that she might too be seen.
The entire forest was draped in monochrome grays, black, and sparkling white, and so Lane's present company blended seamlessly into the scenery. It was the shift of movement that drew the yearling's attention.


She started speak, but stopped as soon as the sight registered. The moon-pelted stranger was quite obviously not Holland, not even close. Lane marveled at how she had managed to keep the soot off of her gleaming white coat-- you'd have thought that the surrounding filth would be attracted to that fur like a magnet.

She had clearly been busy, eating or chewing on whatever she had in her lap. Her malachite eyes now peered at Lane.

"Uh, sorry. Didn't mean to intrude." Lane took a tentative step back, ready to leave the woman at peace, if that's what she requested.
this woman's eyes held a knowingness behind the rich softgold honey coloration. kukutux suddenly felt very plain; she shook her head quickly. "no, it is all right." was there something familiar about the other?

"i will share," the duck declared in the next, sliding out from beneath the branches with a squirrelbone offering for the stranger. "it is not very much at all, but the marrow is rich with fat." curious now, to see where the she-wolf hailed from — and if she might have need of kukutux' honing skill.
The ivory stranger didn't seem keen on chasing Lane away from her meal. Quite the opposite in fact; she offered to share. Lane's ears flew up in surprise. 

"Seriously? Wow, thank you." Without a second thought, she strode forward to receive the offered bone. Lane was a proud creature, but her childhood experiences had accustomed her to receiving handouts. Her parents were practically celebrities in the Outer Wilds, and so their family had often been on the receiving end of acts of random generosity. 

Lane was also not a wary or suspicious wolf. To her, a squirrel bone was just a squirrel bone, nothing more. It never would have occurred to her to question the offer. There were plenty of wolves out and about who were happy to share a meal in return for some conversation. Lane assumed that this dainty, alabaster woman was one of them.

"So, whatcha doing in this--" CRUNCH. "--This burned-down forest?" Lane inquired conversationally. Her words were muffled and punctuated with crunching sounds as she bit down on the bone.
satisfied that her offering had been accepted, kukutux considered the other woman's question. it was direct, and her companion was kind. therefore the duck saw no reason not to respond in the same way. "i am kukutux, atsak in moonspear. it means that i make matches for those who are still unmarried."

it was the first time she had ever spoken of herself in such a way; jadeite glance was shy but wondering, and she filed a squirrel bone between her own teeth, matching the snap of ivory against that of the stranger.
Lane's mouth dropped open, and the squirrel bone hit the snow unceremoniously. Lane didn't even notice 

"Seriously?" she said again. "That's an actual trade? That's..." Lane trailed off, trying to find a word for how she felt about it. 

"..So cool," she finished, swallowing heavily. She was a little jealous of Kukutux. Lane enjoyed the helping aspect of her own trade, but she had always wondered if there might be some other way she could help others. Some way that would allow her to step out of her parents' shadow. 

"I know Moonspear, that's our sister pack in Firefly Glen. My name's Lane." 

Lane had so many questions. 

"So wait.. does that mean everyone in Moonspear gets married? Are you married? And why would that bring you here? Are you meeting your, uh, patients?" Lane didn't know what word Kukutux called her clients, so she filled in with the medical term. Lane took a beat to glance around, wondering if all the ash and cinders were considered "romantic." She didn't know much about romance, but honest to God this seemed like the last place she would choose for it.
"it is not — yet," kukutux admitted with a breathy laugh. "but i want it to be so. therefore i must make it this thing that i wish." nothing could be achieved without a firm sort of work, but she did not wish to dwell upon the effort now.

"it is good to know you, lane." a short name for an interesting woman; it reminded kukutux of the word pine, and she at once chose to attribute the fragrant green to this firefly. had she known the vibrant companions who had died beneath the bear? agony sparkled through her. she carefully tamped it down. "i am wife, yes," kukutux said with a tiny grin. "i have only just begun. but my daughter is ready for an ugi. that is ah, boy her age who she knows for some seasons. perhaps they become mates and perhaps not."

"i thought that i might make matches in the middle time. i am here only because i am traveling many places in a short time. and a man in moonspear has asked me to find him a wife." kukutux paused, green eyes flush with the delight of speaking so freely. "are you wanderer also?"
"It can totally be a trade," Lane encouraged Kukutux. "Isn't it really just like a kind of counseling, or coaching?" Lane was pretty sure all that touchy-feely stuff was considered a trade, at least for some packs. 

"You too, friend." Lane knew better than to attempt that tongue-twister of a name out loud. She really meant the sentiment, though. She was enjoying their conversation, and she liked the long, roundabout way that Kukutux spoke. Normally, Lane was all about efficiency and pragmatics, but listening to Kukutux forced her to slow down in a way that felt oddly nice. Relaxing. 

"Oh, a boyfriend," Lane chimed in, supplying her word for an ugi. Her voice was a little wistful. Traveling got lonely at times, and Lane kind of wished she had an ugi for herself. She should probably be trying harder to find one before all the boys her age got tied down and married, it's just that she was always so busy...

She listened to Kukutux's explanation, which made sense. She could see how the Heartwood would be a good shortcut, and a good place to protect a traveler from the weather for a short time. Kukutux also mentioned a bachelor in her homepack. Lane's ear twitched, betraying her interest. She almost asked more about him, but something about the word wife held her back. Was Lane really ready for that? She hadn't even had her first heat yet. And again, she was just so busy. If she couldn't promise any pups, and she couldn't promise any time, did she really have any business signing up to be a wife

"Yeah," Lane confirmed. Wanderer was a good word for it. "I'm working for the Glen for now. But once the weather clears and they're all patched up.. we'll see." She shrugged. Lane hadn't promised Antares anything permanent, after all. "I'm a traveling medic," she explained.
kukutux considered that for a moment. she did not know the word 'coaching,' and felt rather shy about seeking its meaning. but the rest of it came easily enough: lane meant to make of her an advice-giver. a woman with knowledge. friend. she grinned.

"i am also healer. perhaps it is the next step to know more ways of medicine," the duck suggested with an amused look, warming toward the firefly despite her usual shyness. "boyfriend." like 'girlfriend.' "i am always learning new names for these things," the duck admitted with a minute deprecation.

it smoothed in the moments to follow, for she had noticed the quick gesture posed silently by her companion. "i am happy to share what i know of the green things in this world, if you were to make a meeting with me in moonspear," the duck said softly, answering with a hinted invitation. "how far have you gone on your journey?"
So Kukutux was a caregiver in Moonspear too! That gave Lane some hope. If Kukutux could be employed in a traditional trade as well as make time for her matchmaking profession, who says Lane couldn't do the same? Well, not with matchmaking exactly-- Lane didn't have a clue in the world what made for a good mateship-- but you know, with whatever else she decided she wanted to do. She didn't have to just be a doctor and that's it. She didn't have to be like her parents. 

Was that just a tiny bit of frustration? Lane hadn't meant to cause that by supplying the word for Kukutux!

"I like the way you talk," Lane insisted. She really did! Kukutux's detailed explanations left little room for error in interpretation. There were a million different things that could be meant or implied by the word boyfriend, but "boy her age who she knows for some seasons," was delightfully straightforward. And straightforward was exactly how Lane liked things. 

"Sure!" Lane agreed without hesitation. As soon as everything slowed down and the weather was safe for travel, she'd love to visit Kukutux at her home and learn a little more about the local flora. As far as Lane knew, she was free to come and go as she pleased between the Glen and the mountain. That was how sister-packs worked, she was pretty sure. Lane was still a little fuzzy on the specifics, since she hadn't had much experience with packs so far. 

"Oh, I've been around the taiga in the north, and in the flatlands at the foot of the northern mountain chain. And around here, on the eastern end of the woodlands." She'd been a long way since departing the Outer Wilds, and she probably would have travelled further still if not for the blizzard and her lingering paw infection.

"But it's not really a journey," she explained. Calling it a journey implied that there was a beginning and an end. "It's more just like.. my life. I don't really belong anywhere." ..Or to anyone. Her parents had belonged in the sense that they belonged to each other. Home had not been a place, but a person.
kukutux laughed. "i do not think anyone has said such a thing to me before!" the duck exclaimed, thoroughly pleased by the firefly's regard. she was impressed by how far lane had gone in her travels, and nodded with a sage expression at the clarified sentiment. "you are tayanaq then. trader."

"they came to our island and brought furs i had not seen before. we traded medicine and tender salt fish. you could do the same. those who can heal are precious not only to their clan but to those they come to know." tayanaq; her mind turned it into an epitaph for the grey brother lost in blood and in anger, and silently kukutux offered a prayer of protection.

a pale ear flicked. "do you not feel that you belong in the glen village?" the duck knew so many things had changed in both firefly and moonspear; she would not have been surprised to know that lane felt rather displaced in the chaos.
Lane smiled and wagged her tail, glad to see the mirth returned to Kukutux's eyes. 

"Yes! That's it." Her expression lit with recognition as Kukutux described what she meant by tayanaq. "Those tayanaq medics that came to your island could have been us. My parents, I mean. That's exactly what they would do." She nodded when Kukutux suggested she do the same. Honestly, she was trying. The life of a tayanaq was the only life she had ever known, and she was doing her best... but she might have underestimated the importance of her parents' reputation and esteem among their region's packs. Starting from nothing here in the Teekons was a whole lot more difficult than Lane had expected. That, and working as an herb peddler in the dead of winter was functionally impossible. 

Lane's brow furrowed at the question. She didn't belong, that was a fact. It didn't have anything to do with how she felt about anything. 

"Well.. I don't really belong, do I? They're pretty much all family, or they have family in Moonspear or in nearby packs. I'm.. just a traveling medic." Just a tayanaq. "And I can't relate to their loss either. What they're going through." Everyone else in the Glen was grieving, and that grief bonded them. Lane had honestly never felt more like an outsider.
a breath, trembling in the column of her throat. "it has been a great pain in all hearts," kukutux murmured, not knowing how much she might share of her adjacency to the anguish. at night the remembered sound of her friend's choking, the sight of her blood; they drove the dreams away until kukutux could only lie staring helplessly at the roof of the ulaq, until it had lightened enough out of doors to begin her daily work.

"sometimes we must make roots for ourselves, lane," the duck uttered, turning her face toward where moonspear's crown reared proudly against the sky. "you are traveller, but one day you may want to be mother as well, follow in the footsteps of the one who bore you."

a smile. "and being mother means you will understand birth. that is important to healing, the medicines to help mothers before they become with child, during the carry-moons, and after."
Kukutux's murmured response reminded Lane that the Glen was not the only pack with losses. She winced, embarrassed once again by her own insensitivity. Here Lane was, whining about how she didn't fit in, while Kukutux-- suffering silently and gracefully through actual, real grief-- listened empathetically and offered solutions. Nice going, Lane. 

Lane frowned, distracted from her self-deprecating thoughts by Kukutux's advice. When people spoke of belonging, they almost always talked about "finding where you belong" as if it was an actual place out there. Lane assumed that if she travelled long and far enough, she would end up there eventually. But was if Kukutux was right, and it was more about planting your own roots, well... Lane knew all about how plants worked. They had to be patient, and they had to be still

"Maybe that's true," Lane allowed, her disquiet evident in her faltering voice. She blinked, listening to Kukutux's reasoning behind motherhood. She had never thought of it that way-- that she would have better care to offer a mother if she had been a mother herself. That reasoning appealed to her more logical side, and without really realizing it she found herself agreeing. 

"Yeah, I guess.. I guess I would give it a shot," Lane found herself saying. It was all hypothetical anyway... it's not like there was anyone here, offering to make motherhood happen for her. Or was there? Lane cocked her head questioningly. 

"So about these matches, then.." she trailed off, not even really sure what she was asking.
lane's tone was not easily readable; she was tangled sedge in a summer pool. and yet kukutux felt the firefly wolf soften; a smile curved her lips. "you do not need to decide now," she said softly. "i will tell you of the two hunters who have asked me to find wives. the first is aiolos. he is leader in island yuelong, with empress hua. he lives upon the sea, and his children would have good status. aiolos is very kind and listens to all that is said. he has one son from first year, and seeks a wife who would want more."

"the second is wintersbane in moonspear. he is a great warrior and has seen many things. he is fierce and shrewd, like hawk. he looks for loyalty over the top of love, and wishes to put down roots in this land with a strong woman. he has many scars, all over his face," kukutux added, for though lane did not seem as though she would place vanity first, a wife must at least like the look of her husband.
Lane didn't have any issue with scars-- considering her profession, she had just about seen it all. In fact, she would prefer to have a warrior at her side, because at least she knew that he would always have use for her and her medical skills. 

Kukutux presented two options, and both of them filled Lane with a sense of.. what was it? Anxiety? Inadequacy?  Neither of these men would be interested in Lane. She was too young, too flighty, and too green. She would be a shit stepmom and an even shittier leader. She didn't know the first thing about pack life. 

The emotion made Lane uncomfortable-- she wasn't used to feeling less-than. 

"I think I would want someone more like me," Lane finally piped, voice quiet. "Someone just getting started.. Like not so, uh, established.." How had Kukutux put it? "Fewer roots, I guess." Lane had plenty of time, she didn't have to jump at the first bait that hit the water. She would wait and see if Kukutux could come up with a better match. An even match.
kukutux smiled. "i had thought that an older woman for both of them would be best," she revealed. a smirk touched her lips. she thought of antares. but he was not yet interested. and he was devoted to the glen. rooted, as lane said. "perhaps he does not yet want children," she suggested, "but wishes to see what a marriage might be." 

in that manner, she could think of many. "and you must see him at least twice before you make your choice. i only make a meeting." tonguetip held slyly between teeth a moment; she laughed and sighed, turning her eyes in the direction of moonspear.
"Right," Lane confirmed, a little relieved to have the pressure of pups off the table for now. Since all this was new to her, she preferred to take things one step at a time. Focus on the relationship first, then worry about pups later, if it felt right. 

"Of course," Lane agreed. Of course she wouldn't marry someone after only meeting them once! And it made sense that Kukutux would bow out after arranging a meeting. She couldn't be expected to do everything. If there was a spark, things would take care of themselves. ..Right? 

Kukutux was glancing off toward home, like she was ready to depart, and Lane was feeling like she needed some time to process all of this. 

"I guess we'll catch up with each other at some point, then?" Lane knew where to find Kukutux. If she decided that she wanted to pursue this.. opportunity then she could track Kukutux down and see what else (or rather, who else) she had up her sleeve at that time.
"we shall," and on impulse she reached out, nudging along lane's shoulder if allowed. "this was a good meet," the duck said gently. her eyes shone into that of the other. reluctant to depart, and yet knowing the sooner that she returned unto moonspear, the sooner that she might begin to carve fortune from the deep stone.

it was with a light heart that she thought of the proud spire, and of all upon and within. of the companions that she had made throughout her time within the wilds, and within the home that the blackbear had given her.

a nod, and the duck began to turn in the direction of her beloved stone-home.