(Thanks to Karena for the last sentence.)
The hunters raced back to the Holt as fast as their feet could carry them, and when they arrived, they found Badger’s firstborn squalling in its mother’s arms.
Chief Burn pushed his way into the crowded den, eager to investigate the tribe’s newest member. Littlepaw offered up her newborn to the chief, who, conscious of his deceased mother’s ritual, sniffed and tasted and finally took up the screaming, red-faced naked bundle himself.
“Strong,” Burn announced with satisfaction. “It’s a strong boy. Listen to that howl. Sounds like his father.”
Badger still hung back, hiding his discomfort behind a scowl. He saw the wry smirk his brother cast him, and was aware of the watching eyes of his tribemates. He understood that they were waiting for something from him, and he refused to give them that, whatever it was. He wasn’t sure, and remained pricklish in defense of his dignity and of his ignorance.
Littlepaw’s grey eyes were on him as well, hopeful as always. Her expectation he could read, at least. She was waiting for him to show approval in their child, as she had waited for his approval in other things since the night of their Recognition. She was always seeking his favor, always looking to him in need, and at first that had pleased him. At first he had been keen to possess her, his Shayha, But the constancy of Shayha’s neediness wore at him now. She was elf-complex, always busy in thought, always thinking ahead to tomorrows he wasn’t curious about, when what he wanted was wolf-simple, easy and unquestioning and not always gnawing at him like a woodmouse.
“Come, brother,” Burn called, holding out the wailing newborn. “Come feel the weight of your first pup.”
Badger looked at the waving arms and legs, and then at his Chief-brother’s confident face. There was challenge in Burn’s eyes – there always was, in any interaction between them. Burn was already a proven sire himself, twice-over. Until now, Badger’s failure to spark a child had been measured against Burn’s two healthy cubs. Now, maybe, this was a score Badger could begin to match.
He realized that this was what his tribemates were waiting for – for him to hold his own son and show some interest in the screaming creature. Badger stood where he was, not willing to perform for their approval. He could see the howling pup from where he stood, he didn’t need to get any closer. Badger didn’t much like children to begin with. Small children grew tolerable when they could begin to speak, but babies were swaddling sacks of spit-up and runny stools, who made too much noise, far too often.
“He’s beautiful,” Littlepaw said, looking weary and wan from her labor. “He’s a beautiful boy.”
“I can see him from here,” Badger growled. “He’s loud.”
Flushing with emotion, Littlepaw reached for her child, but Chief Burn turned a shoulder to the new mother, denying that silent plea. Instead, the chief pushed off from the bed and carried the squalling baby to its father. “Hold him,” Burn said, his sharp tone an order.
Badger showed his teeth at his brother-chief, resistant as always to any command. But he felt the disapproval of their kin around him more keenly, and with reluctance, took the small, naked creature he was offered.
For a moment, the wailing stopped. Badger looked down at this strange beast he held, and for a moment, little eyes unscrunched and gazed back at him. Muddled eyes, like its mother’s grey – no telling what they might be when the pup-blue shade aged out. But the fuzz of hair that crowned the little head was golden-brown, the same shade as Littlepaw’s braids.
“Doesn’t look like me,” Badger grunted.
“Not at all,” Burn agreed. “He’s a handsome little cub, pretty like his mother.”
Badger ignored the jibe. He met Littlepaw’s eyes, and saw there the fresh pain and yearning which he somehow always caused her. Badger shouldered past his brother, and carried his child back to its mother.
“Take it,” he said, giving the infant back to Littlepaw’s waiting arms. She all but snatched the newborn from him, her expression taut and for once wolf-fierce.
**Shayha,** he locksent then, touched by her tears and by that rare anger. **You did well. He will grow big and strong, and be a tough hunter.**
**He’s your son!** she flung back at him, her sending a swirl of raw pain and frustration. **Just because you never knew your father doesn’t mean our child should suffer the same!”
The bite of her words shocked Badger askew out of his stubborn self-focus. He felt her own grief in that fierce thought – Littlepaw had grown up an orphan herself, both of her parents lost on the trek which had brought the tribe to the Holt. But moreso, for that moment, he saw himself through the filter of her tangled love and resentment for him. **Grest – my beloved, hard-headed and hard-hearted, so deliberate in his course of drifting away from me and from this child of ours before it’s even born! Wants to be first-wolf so badly, it poisons everything he touches--**
The sting of that truth was like snakebite. Badger recoiled from his Recognized. Someone made to stop him – Bravestride, he thought, too blinded with emotion to actually see whomever it was he pushed violently out of his way. He forced his way out of the crowded den, and stalked toward the river. His temper was beginning to roil in wake of the blow, and his wolf-friend wisely shied off.
**That’s why the tribe has never looked to you as chief, and looks to your brother instead!** blazed Littlepaw’s angry thoughts against his back. **You can hunt and you can kill, but you don’t want to nurture what loves you. And you’ll never be chief without that!**
Badger flinched as her words hit him like arrows hit a deer. He stripped and dove into the river, determined to lose himself in the now of wolf-thought and leave the confusion of obligations and conflicting emotions behind.