"High Ones, Suddendusk," Windburn grunted, holding the little warm bundle in his arms at what he hoped was a safe distance. "I'm your chief, not your cubsitter."
The elder grinned. "Of course you are, my chief. And you need to closely know each one of your tribemates, even the ones born just a season-turning ago."
Tiny Crackle, in the meantime, thought this was a fantastic arrangement.
The world used to be a very small place when it was limited to what she could see from the arms of Mama and Papa and occasionally Sister. Papa was always holding her very close and making funny noises when Mama put her on her back so her little chubby hands could grab all sorts of stuff. But recently, both Papa and Mama began putting her into other arms, and there were so many new options there. Crackle once spent half a fascinating night chewing her way through Cloudfern's elaborate hairdo, and she once got to filch this wonderful golden-shiny brooch from Goldspice, although Goldspice didn't look so happy about it.
But this was the first time Papa gave her to the one with the braided red hair. Crackle felt incredibly lucky. She'd been wondering what red hair tasted like ever since she found out she couldn't reach her own.
"Suddendusk! Your cub is eating me!" Windburn protested. He discovered to his dismay that the further he put Crackle from him, the closer she pulled herself by claiming exclusive ownership of his braid. He had no idea she had that much room in her mouth.
"Enjoy her," Suddendusk suggested pleasantly. "She is a clever cub. She must learn that everyone in the tribe loves her and would care for her." He twined his arm with his lifemate's, looking well capable of walking away right then and leaving his chief to… enjoy. Crackle gurgled and laughed, deciding she liked the taste of red hair.
"Ba!" She clapped her hands, missing Windburn's nose by a hair's breadth.
The chief flinched. How could something that couldn't even talk be so much trouble?
"I suppose we'll have to live with each other, Crackle," Windburn told the cub on his knee when the moons have moved some, and Crackle had gone through her nightly routine of crawling up his head, hanging off his shoulders, chewing through his braid and picking at his chief's torc. It was a little like getting caught up in a hailstorm.
"Ba!" She said.
"This is no way to treat your chief, you know. When you're older, you'll have to learn this."
"Oh yes," Windburn continued, tapping the girl on her nose. "You will have to learn to listen on the hunt, and not disobey a den-hide, and most definitely not to chew on braids."
The chief sighed. "Although we may have to wait until you learn how to talk."
Crackle giggled, caught his braided necklace and yanked awfully hard for such a small cubling.
Caught unprepared, Windburn doubled over. His hand darted up to pry her little fingers off for dear life before the baby menace choked the very spirit out of him. "Ugh! Let go! Why you – you - !"
Crackle took her hand off and put it in her mouth, sucking on her thumb contentedly.
'Too small to even talk,' Windburn reminded himself with a shake of his head.
What was the matter with this cubling? Had he been so bad with Foxtail? But at least Foxtail was his own daughter, who'd also be chieftess one day. She didn't disarm him quite so much as this cruel little bundle who didn't care at all that he was chief, and he had dignity to uphold, which he couldn't very well do when covered with milk-teeth marks and handprints.
He sighed again.
"Am I being a grouch, Crackle?"
Crackle thought about this for a moment. Then she clapped her hands happily, this time catching square the tip of his nose.
Windburn reeled, aghast. "What?"
"Grouch!" Oh, High Ones, he hadn't just imagined it…
"No. No, no, no." He held her up and stared hard into her moss-green eyes, trying to cow her into submission like an alpha to a pup. "My name is Windburn. I am your chief. I am not a 'grouch'."
She wasn't a pup, she was an elf cub, and she cared so little about his chief's torc that she bit it. "Groooouuuch."
"I'm warning you!"
"Grouch grouch grouch."
Windburn breathed out in relief. "Yes. That is much better."
He stroked her messy hair. Crackle beamed at him, pleased to be so soundly praised for such a little trick. It was easy.....
The elder came bolting out of the foliage within a moment's breath, trailed a few steps away by an armed and alarmed Windsong, crossing the distance as if a cloud of wasps was behind them, or more appropriately, threatening their precious daughter. "Windburn! What is it? Is she all right? My cub?"
Suddendusk came to a tumbling halt, going to his knees besides chief and cubling, opening his arms to the delighted Crackle, who launched herself off Windburn's lap and into his awaiting hug, squealing and making chattering noises of profound satisfaction with herself. As Windsong thrust herself closer, anxious and grasping her blade, Suddendusk looked the cub all over for any injury, very much unconcerned with his red-faced, fuming chief.
"She's all right," he breathed out, "so it must be you. Good."
"Good?" Windburn growled in outrage. "Good? Your daughter –-"
Crackle chose this very moment to stick her tongue out and make a face. "Grouch."
A moment's silence. The lifemates exchanged looks.
Suddendusk brightened like sunrise over the rivers. He swept his cubling into his arms and held her high, swinging her as she squealed. "She spoke! Did you hear? Her first word! Oh, Crackle!" He hugged her tight to him until she made a little ugh. "Clever, clever cub!"
Windburn looked to Windsong for salvation, but she only smirked. "Good work, my chief."
"Yes," he grunted and pulled back his hair, which was still chewed quite thoroughly. "And they say nobody likes a grouch."