Betes and Losis pawed at the dirt, trying to uncover their brother Cad. Mother had told them that Cad was gone, that he couldn’t play. But that was a lie. Cad was right here. He was hiding, just like they did, playing hide and seek.
Large jaws wrapped around Losis, picking him up. The hatchling gave a cry, squirming in Winse’s mouth. Betes was lifted too, instead by her father. Both larger Guardians moved away from the graves, Winse smoothing the dirt over Cad with his tail.
Leth merrily took the hatchlings from them when they circled around and into the lair mouth. She distracted them with stories and aerial displays. She even tied herself in a loose knot that Lymph needed to help disentangle her from. The hatchlings were sufficiently amused, forgetting about digging up their sibling.
Safe sighed as Zone laid beside her. She was happy, so happy, to finally have children. Betes, brave and wild. Losis, the spitting image of his father. They were beautiful, precious, loved.
If only Cad hadn’t died. They could’ve been a perfect family of five.
No, eight. A perfect family of eight. Winse, Lymph, and Leth were family, just not by blood. They may as well be, Zone had said.
It should be fifteen. Nobody should have died, in Safe’s opinion.
Her first nest, those three gorgeous hatchlings–Fluen, Kanker, and Pox–should never have died. Malihini, Bola, and Pizzicato should be alive right now too. And Cad–poor, sweet, innocent Cad–should be laughing alongside his siblings right now.
None of them should be dead. None of them.
…But they are.
They were dead…and they were never coming back…
“Safe,” Zone rumbled, as if reading his mate’s mind. “I know you miss him. But look.” He gestured his mighty head toward Leth and the children. “We got lucky this time. We have two beautiful children to care for now. Cad would want us to be happy.”
Safe watched Losis wrestle with Betes, interest lost in Leth’s story. The teal-belly Spiral looked upset by the interruption. She was swiftly distracted by Lymph trotting over to nuzzle her. They watched the hatchlings wrestle and paw and nip each other, squeaking and chirping.
Safe was no fool. She had seen the way Lymph and Leth looked at each other. They were in love. Late at night when she just lay there with her four eyes closed, listening to the sounds of the night, she’d pick up bits of conversation between them. Leth wanted a nest, hatchlings of her own. And Lymph–sweet, loyal Lymph–wanted to give her that. It made Safe feel proud.
But it also frightened her. Her first clutch and then Cad from her second clutch had all died on the nest. Leth, so brave, was still so young. How would she handle it if her clutch all perished?
She would be devastated, Safe suspected.
Had they even thought of that? Or was it just her imagining that nest full of dead eggs, the babies inside barely breathing, expiring minutes after finally coming into the world?
A sharp squeal from Betes brought her back to the present. The blood-red Guardian leaped away from her larger brother, paw bleeding from a deep bite. Losis scurried back, head lowered in guilt, eyes wide in shock. The streak of red on the cave floor shone like a neon-colored banner.
Zone rose, ready to deliver a scolding, when Safe stood. Zone watched her as she crossed the lair to her daughter. Betes’ eyes shone with fresh tears but she refused to cry outright, snout twitching in an attempt to hide them.
Safe fetched some of the herbs and plants that Winse and Lymph had brought home once from one of their outdoor excursions into the wilderness. She wrapped them around Betes bleeding paw and put gentle pressure. The flow stopped. Betes was careful in placing the damaged limb on the ground, limping slightly.
“I’m sorry,” Losis apologized softly.
Safe picked up a stray piece of linen and turned, wiping her son’s mouth. There was blood on his teeth and a smear on his lower jaw. The fabric cleared it away and her son looked pure again.
“Play nice,” Safe requested, nuzzling her son.
Three days old and Losis was almost as big as her. How fast these children grow.
Maybe it was a testament to their survival abilities. The plague had failed to kill Losis and Betes on the nest. Safe prayed they would continue to survive.