Crouching outside the cozy, dim cave, Foxtail smiled at the sight of three roly-poly little wolf cubs as they teetered about on uncertain feet. Then she turned to share the expression of innocent joy with her friend. “What do you think, Beetle?” she asked. “Any likely bonds in this litter?”
“I don’t know.” Beetle absently placed a hand on Foxtail’s back to better balance herself as she peered into the cave. Whirl gave a faint growl low in the back of her throat but neither elf took any notice; they knew the difference between an instinctive reaction and an honest warning. “They’re so sweet, though, aren’t they? Look at the one with the white blaze on his face! Isn’t he handsome?”
Foxtail squinted and then laughed. “He’s a little nightmare,” she answered. “Look at him, biting his mother.” One of the pups yelped and she shook her head. “And his sisters. Not so sweet.” She turned her head, grass-green eyes bright from the amusement, but she was careful to hold position and not dislodge Beetle’s hand. “Amazing, isn’t it?”
Blinking, Beetle drew her attention away from the pups and met her friend’s eyes. She tilted her head a bit, a perfect imitation of a curious bird if ever there was one. “What’s amazing?” she asked.
“How they all turn out.” Reaching back, Foxtail gave Beetle’s hand a little push from her and stood. She took a moment to stretch out her legs. Some tension had entered the muscles from the improper crouching and Beetle’s slight weight. She knew better than to do that, she thought. Both of them had spent countless moonrises, crouched and waiting and watching on hunts. “It’s just like us, you know?” she elaborated once she felt loose again and returned her attention to Beetle, who was now sitting directly on the packed dirt ground.
“Us?” Beetle frowned for a moment and then chuckled as she cast her mind ahead to follow her redheaded friend’s logic. Bracing a hand against the ground beneath her, she pushed her body upwards to stand. She dusted off her backside in the automatic way of someone who had been scolded over tears in leather. “You mean us and them,” she elaborated. Foxtail nodded. Beetle shrugged and reached up to lace her fingers behind her head. “I suppose so,” she continued thoughtfully. “Notch and Otter and I kind of look a bit alike, I guess, but we’re different. At least I think so.”
“Oh, you’re definitely different.” Foxtail grinned again and gave a faint tilt of her head in invitation for the other elf to join her. She waited until Beetle had loosened her hands and took the first steps before she led them back through the woods and along the trail, back to the Holt proper. “I was just thinking about it the other day. You and Otter and Notch. Crackle and Evervale and Rill.” She paused for a moment as she skirted a fallen log. “Me and Cinder.”
Foxtail looked up at the canopy of leaves stretching above their heads and a strange little smile played around her mouth. “Maybe you and Otter are more alike and maybe it’s Crackle and Rill,” she mused. “I don’t know. Maybe if it’s three, there always has to be an odd one out. Maybe one always has to be like that white-faced pup. I wonder if he was first out or if he pushed the others ahead of him. One way would be Notch and the other would be Evervale, I bet. Maybe. So if there was a third cub with us…”
“No, not a bit.” Foxtail shook her head and grinned again, full-on and properly like herself, strange mood gone. “The cubs are already growing up, aren’t they?” Unsure how to interpret this sudden turn of events, Beetle nodded her agreement. “Pretty soon there won’t be any more really little ones running around. It’ll be a little strange. Less bawling and chasing and screaming, I suppose.” Foxtail lifted her gaze towards the trees above, hands raising to lace fingers behind her head.
“Quieter,” Beetle offered uncertainly.
Foxtail laughed. “No way. Not with that pack of howlers. They’ll just be getting into other mischief.” She shot a sideways grin at her friend. “Hopefully, none of them are like Notch and me, huh?”
Caught off-guard by the question and her own honesty, Beetle made a face. The moment she realized it, though, she giggled and wrinkled her nose. Then she reached out to loop her arm around Foxtail’s waist and the other elf maiden obligingly dropped her arms and reciprocated the gentle affection. Beetle grinned. “If they are, I’m definitely not offering to cubsit. Ever.”
“Good luck,” Foxtail giggled and leaned her head briefly against Beetle’s as they walked. “I said the same thing and look at me. An old hand at it with Cinder and then Rill comes along for the ride and...” She interrupted her laughing response with a shrug. “We have to, anyway,” she pointed out. “If we don’t and it’s just their parents, well, they’ll be ready to run howling in no time. They’ll need a break.” She considered their mutual fate for a moment and then, squeezing her arm around Beetle’s waist, continued, “We’ll sign up for joint duty, though. It’ll be better than alone. It always is.”
Abruptly, Foxtail released her friend and scampered out of the way, ahead on the path. She grinned and motioned for Beetle to hurry. “But that’s only if they can find us,” she announced. “Come on. I want to show you something.”
And that was that, Beetle thought, as she took off after the swiftly retreating redhead. For all the new thoughts the other elf seemed to be having, Foxtail was still Foxtail.