(This story is a part of the ”Learning the Humans’ Languages storylines – see lists for related stories.)
“You can ruttin’ well stop watching me like I’m going to run naked out there into the Round-Ears’ camp, you know.”
Foxtail’s voice was unexpectedly sharp, bitter and edged in a way he had not heard in at least a hand of seasons. In fact, it was so much like Old Impatient Foxtail that Rainpace felt the red-hot flush extend all the way to the tip of his ears. Against his will, he ducked his head before quickly turning his gaze back towards the peaceful woods in front of them. He stared hard and determined as if on full alert.
He knew, though, that she would see straight through the charade. Everything was quiet, so very quiet. Their choice of a campsite had been determined for that very reason — privacy and safety. The closest human camp lay towards moonrise, further than an arrow could fly. Close enough to reach by wolf but just as easily fled from should one of the team sound an alarm. No signs of the humans’ passage ran near their camp and the closest half-hearted trail rolled through the thick evergreens a far-slung stone’s throw away. Judging by the state of it, the humans hardly went that way, certainly not for a long time. It was inconvenient and wild and the long cold was coming. The weather's only promise equaled inconsistency. Even the humans showed sense about ranging too far out at such times.
Beside him, he listened to Foxtail sigh and shift on the branch. Her fingers drummed in a low tattoo of annoyance. He bit his tongue. He also refused to look in her direction. While the embarrassed blush at being caught had left his skin, the memory of past swipes and growls when anger got the better of her lingered. He had absolutely no interest in earning any fresh outbursts. Her temper had always been too sharp and hurtful and their friendship was only too recently mended into something whole and strong.
Rainpace sensed the tension in her frame as she adjusted her position again. Still he kept quiet.
He swallowed and wariness colored his returned gaze. It took effort to keep it from his voice but he had learned more self-control over the past handful of turns than he could have imagined. “What are you talking about, Foxtail?”
**You know what I’m talking about, Rainpace.** The shock of her choosing to send again sharpened his attention to her body language. Rainpace knew the touch of her mind very well. Over the years, it had raised everything from heat to heartbreak in him. Now the open-secret feel of her thoughts only served to worsen his conflicted feelings. She held him just slightly away from her, their minds brushing only enough to create the impression.
It also made him realize the instinctive restraint he put on his own thoughts and his reluctance to send. If he felt this tail-twisted over her involvement with the team, over wondering how much longer her behavior could continue to improve... The last thing he wanted was his worry to interrupt his friend's success.
Rainpace attempted a half-hearted shrug and a little smile. He did not risk a send but felt something almost like exasperation brush over him as the chief's daughter watched and waited for his response.
Sighing audibly, Foxtail suddenly braced her hands against the branch beneath and leveraged her feet from beneath her body to dangle over the edge, lowering her body down to sit properly. “You’ve been watching me like you expect I’ll go running off the moment you stop,” she continued levely. "You don’t have to babysit me like I’m Glow. Like I’m about to wander off after something shiny.” Green eyes settled on him and he had the same sensation of a truth almost too-real to be completely honest. **I know how important the word-hunts are.**
He searched for the anger of her earlier words but found none in this fresh outpouring. Which did nothing to improve his increasing unease at his hesitancy. She had been trying, hadn't she? Windburn would never have allowed her to join the team if he believed her to be the same willful, thoughtless cub of old. Her last emphatic send showed very little of the previous Foxtail within it. Rainpace lowered his chin rather than match her steady gaze and scratched at the bark beneath his fingertips, buying a few moments of respite to think. Finally, he offered another shrug. “Do you blame me?” he asked quietly.
“Honestly? Yes.” Foxtail looked ahead at the needle-heavy branches swaying before them. “It’s not...” She shook her head, cutting off whatever she had been about to say. “It’s unfair,” was all she finally offered and he sensed the wall between them rise again.
Rainpace said nothing. What was he supposed to say in response to that, after all? It was ridiculous and, if he was being unfair, then so was she. He dropped his eyes to study the path beneath their perch again. Nothing moved; everything continued in dead quiet as if no time had passed at all. His fingertips itched for something to do, something more than toying with the bark beneath him, but he felt her attention still and dared not move. As if the slightest noise would break the spell, he maintained the stalemate of silence.
Suddenly, a slight blow at his shoulder set him back into motion and Rainpace scrambled to regain his balance. “What the..?” The sole of one boot slipped and he grabbed at nearby branches, trying to control the flail of his body and prevent injury. Landing flat on his stomach, he managed to cling at their perch, arms and legs wrapping around the thick limb in pure instinct. Breath knocked out of him, all he could do was blink mutely up at Foxtail who had clapped both hands over her mouth. Her bright eyes danced with laughter and her shoulders shook slightly.
He tried to find indignation at her reaction but the relief of her eased mood washed over him and, before he could stop himself, his grin widened with sheepish amusement. Permission granted, Foxtail removed her hands and her laughter burst forth in a small explosion before she could modulate it. The branches around them rustled as if in disapproval and she quickly moved her hands back up to stifle the noise again. After another few minutes, Foxtail’s giggles stopped and she whispered, “You’re going to get me in trouble.”
Rainpace lifted an eyebrow. Then, carefully, he pushed himself back into a sitting posture, straddling the branch and composing his expression into something as close to disapproving as he could manage. Judging by Foxtail’s renewed snickers, the result was something like a dreamberry-sick cub ready to explode. He sighed and a hesitant smile curved his lips. “How does it feel to say that?” he asked.
Foxtail blinked slowly at him and he immediately regretted his words as unwise. Their long history as friends played out in his mind, complete with a litany of near-misses and escalating dares, mischief and laughter and punishment. He watched her for long moments.
Suddenly, she rolled her eyes. Her hand stretched out and clever fingers flicked at the tip of his nose before she squirmed along the branch and tilted her head closer, foreheads pressed together. “I mean it, Rainpace,” she murmured. “Stop watching me like that. It’s not making things any easier, you know. I don’t like the storage dens and the waiting and all the do-this and do-that but I know it’s all important and my father has finally let me join the team and now here you are, watching me and... It’s not fair.”
Closing his eyes, Rainpace did not answer immediately but her words echoed in his ears. He felt them sink into his conscience, a drop in his stomach registering the guilt of his reaction. Maybe he shouldn’t have doubted. Just because it took Foxtail longer than most to grow up and show some responsibility. After all, he had once been feckless and free with no more concern than the immediate Now. Then time and turns and Recognition... With a sigh, Rainpace opened his eyes again and reached out to settle his hand over hers.
**Guess I keep waiting for the punchline,** he admitted sheepishly, trusting in his honesty to convince her. He knew the conflict he felt would show but she was his friend and she was trying. She deserved that much reward. **You and Notch...**
Foxtail drew her forehead back but her hand turned beneath his to lace their fingers together. “Notch,” she repeated aloud and her mouth twisted to one side. She hesitated. Her hand squeezed his as if to delay the words. Baffled, he returned the gesture before wrinkling his nose and crossing his eyes at her in a moment of silly indulgence. Anything to relieve the renewed sense of concern sitting heavy in his stomach.
His reward was instantaneous. She smiled, bright and wide, and ducked her head and the old Foxtail peered out from beneath the heavy fire-red bangs once more. “He’ll get to join us soon. You’ll see... Then we both can watch him.”
Rainpace stared at her, the concept more than a little startling. When she giggled again, he relaxed and shook his head. That was something to be handled when it happened, he thought. For now, though... Using their tangled hands, he pulled Foxtail further along the branch towards him and leaned into her shoulder. He and his old friend had other watching to do.