“You did not,” Rill announced, wide-eyed and cross-armed.
Crackle looked down at him, smug as always. She was reclining back on a fork of branches, arms spread to her sides to support her against the wood, but she was still a good few heads taller than the six-turn-old. She always was, Rill thought with annoyance: even when they were both sleeping, she took care to sleep on a higher branch. “You never leaped off the top of the Father Tree. There aren’t enough furs in the Holt to give you a soft landing. There just aren’t.”
“You’re only saying that because you can’t count,” Crackle informed him. “I did too. I did it twice. Otter got up there too, but he was too scared to jump.”
Rill stared at her, trying to amass whatever little he had left of healthy doubt after six turns of the seasons in his elder sister’s company. Sometimes the stories Crackle told of her cubhood adventures were real, all right – she had a knack of telling the real ones when she knew he was going to go ask someone else. But you could never really know. Cinder and Copper had solved that problem by simply never taking her entirely at her word, and Glow just didn’t care either way. But for Rill, who felt obligated to never fall short of Crackle in anything, the question of what he could pass and what he really had to do himself was a crucial one.
He began scrambling up the roots, bare toes curling into notches in the bark, trying to get face to face with her. Crackle kept to her easy pose, toying with her topknot, smiling serenely at his heroic efforts. “All right,” he grunted at her, “so I dare you to do it again!”
Crackle’s arching eyebrows rose, overflowing with contempt. “Why should I? I haven’t got anything to prove.”
“Neither have I!” Rill stressed with all the power of no confidence at all.
Crackle just grinned at him, the kind of grin that said that she didn’t really have to say anything, except that she was very sorry for him that he’d chanced to have been born her little brother. Looking away with a pout, the boy clenched his jaw heroically and swung himself up another branch. He was above Crackle’s head now and working his way upwards: this tree was maybe not as tall as any of the Dentrees, but he figured he needed some practice before approaching the major feat itself. There was nothing wrong with first jumping off a shorter tree. Perhaps just off a large rock. Or a stump.
A hand grabbed hold of the hem of his pants. He glanced down, indignant at being interrupted in his moment of daring. Crackle was giving him a dubious look.
“You should pile up the furs before you jump down onto them,” she said dryly.
Foiled again. Rill gritted his teeth. “But I’ll need so many furs!” he wailed. “Father will see it and stop me, you know he will!”
Crackle twirled her necklace around two fingers. “He didn’t stop me.”
It was such a brazen, audacious lie that for a moment Rill was almost taken by it. Then he came to his senses. Crackle could say that the sky was once red and the grass once blue and he might believe her, but some things were absolute and immutable, and Suddendusk’s fatherly concerns were one of them. “You’re lying, you big babblemouth!” he accused.
His sister sighed. “All right, I am,” she conceded. “But seeing you dragging around a fur pile larger than you are would’ve made Newt and Fadestar split their guts laughing.”
Rill felt the very tips of his ears flush in righteous fury. He most certainly did not think the bold endeavor he had very nearly committed himself to was funny. Frustration mounting, he did the only thing that seemed appropriate given the circumstances.
He twisted like a little cat, grabbed the hand holding his pant leg and sunk his teeth into it to the gums.
Crackle yowled, letting go of the leather and smacking the back of her hand against his face. Rill hissed and snapped his head back, lost his footing on the branches, overbalanced and fell right over her, landing belly-up in the dirt. He blinked up with dazed satisfaction, making little warlike sounds as Crackle cursed a blue streak, dropping to sit cross-legged as she examined the wound. Though he was a small cub, he had fangs above and beyond the call of duty. Crackle’s hand was fiercely bloody. She sucked on the deep marks and glared at him, extending a foot out to bump the top of his head.
“You’re a coribibble!”” Rill threw back, flipping himself over and spitting coppery blood and small flesh-bits. “You never jumped off any trees!”
“I never bit anyone, either!”
“Yes you did!” He drew himself to his full height, ears flushed all the way down now. “You chewed on Evervale all the time, she told me! So your teeth won’t grow into your head! Except they did anyway, they did so!”
“Yes, but I stopped,” Crackle answered sulkily around her injured hand. “You’re supposed to stop or your teeth will just keep growing. Look at how big they already are!” She waved her hand at him, showing the impressive size of the bite.
Rill puffed with pride. “That’s right! They’re big like Mother’s.”
Crackle glared at him. Her voice dropped low. “I wouldn’t use your mother as an example if I were you. Do you know how her fangs got so long? It’s because she never stopped biting.” When she talked like that, all focused and half-whispery and deadpan, it was like Rill’s ears were listening without the rest of him telling them to do so. He resisted, of course, standing cross-armed, but his eyes went attentively wide of their own accord. The notion of just walking away never occurred to him. “You know it’s true. Now no one knows if they’ll ever stop growing. Someday they’ll be as long as your arm.” She reached to grab Rill’s arm by way of demonstration, but the cub skittered away in terror, so she held out her own arm instead. “And longer.”
Rill stood with his mouth agape, the imagination he shared with his sister already running wild to figure out what an elf would look and be like with their fangs as long as Crackle’s arm, when, without warning, Crackle darted forward, lips pulled back from her upper teeth. “RAH!”
“Mama…!” With a shriek, Rill was off, scrambling around the tree and making for the dens with all the speed his six-turn-old legs could produce. He hadn’t gotten more than a few wolf-lengths away, however, before Crackle shouted out after him:
”Are you sure you want to go to your mama?”
Wailing, Rill staggered to a halt, changed directions sharply and disappeared into the undergrowth.
Crackle stood still for a few more moments, admiring her handiwork and sucking noisily on her injured hand. Soon, she knew, an exasperated Suddendusk or Windsong would be showing up, perhaps even a furious Quick Fang, to tell her once again that just because she had stopped being scared of her own stories didn’t mean Rill was as immune. That was all right: it was just another part of their relationship. She sighed to herself as she began climbing the tree one-handed, wondering if perhaps she could pretend to be busy with her carving or fishing. She didn’t expect them to understand the very special thing she and Rill had. The important thing was that she understood it.
And maybe he would, too, one of these days.