The snow had formed a soft layer over the woods during the past three nights, and another white flurry had come at dawn just as Firecat had curled up to sleep. She'd woken up at dusk and made sure not to wake her mother before she made her way to where most of the wolves slept, to watch them wake up. Cubbish, maybe. Most elves in the tribe were her elders, but she had reached the age when birthing a cub of her own was a possibility. Despite that, watching the wolves shake the snow out of their fur always brought a laugh out of her. And fresh snow with fair weather usually called up playfulness in not only the yearlings but some of the older wolves as well, which Firecat loved to partake in as much as she could.
With most of the tribe still asleep she'd made her way over to the wolves' resting place without encountering any other two-legged tribe members. The evening hadn't clad itself in stars yet and no breeze stirred the frozen leaves. After last night's big hunt there were no aching bellies to worry about — though Firecat wouldn't say no to a snack if one became available — and no one on guard had sent alerts of any larger predators or prey moving about the Holt's borders.
It looked like it would be a wonderful night.
"Why are you sitting here staring at the wolves again?"
Looking up to see green eyes framed by chestnut hair, Firecat gave a shrug. "I'm not staring," she answered Barkmoss. "I'm learning."
"Learning how cold snow is against your rump? That fur you're sitting on can't be keeping you too warm."
Firecat rolled her eyes. Whatever had gotten into her older brother, she decided to humor him. He probably had a prank planned out and needed accomplices. That's the only reason other than a hunt Firecat could think of that would bring Barkmoss out of the Dentrees this early.
He took a seat next to her on the fur, despite his comment. Firecat chose to ignore him for the time being and concentrated on the wolves. Barkmoss would talk in his own time. Knowing him, that would be sooner rather than later.
A handful of the wolves had already been up and about when she'd arrived, but now a second group were getting to their feet. Yawning and shaking their fur as if they'd just gotten out of a river, they began surveying their surroundings; or challenging each other to play-fights, in the case of the youngest wolves.
One of the yearlings broke off from the pack and came bounding towards the two elves, tongue lolling out in a wolf smile. Firecat held her breath. While the pack wasn't hostile or unfriendly toward her, or any other elf, there was a clear difference between how wolves treated any elves and how wolves treated their bond-friends. Some wolves were friendlier than others, of course, but that still made moments like these special, especially as she had no wolf-blood to bring her closer to the pack. Moments when a wolf chose to approach her, instead of the other way around. She kept from moving, but only just, every nerve on edge in a pleasant way. Any heartbeat now the yearling would be close enough for her to reach out a hand for sniffing and hopefully get to give it a scratch or two behind the ears.
But the yearling was off, chasing a piece of dried meat Barkmoss had thrown.
"Pucker…nuts!" Firecat had never been the best at using curses. They always came out stilted, no matter how angry she was.
Barkmoss dissolved into a fit of giggles, drawing a frustrated groan from Firecat. She would have yelled at him, maybe, if she hadn't noted the edge to his laughter. He acted like a low ranking wolf doing his best to diffuse a challenge. Strange.
Deciding that the best punishment for Barkmoss' interference would be to ignore him, Firecat went on to do exactly that. She hoped she could hold out and not yell at him until he cracked under the pressure of silence. She might not be great at sitting still and doing nothing, but he was worse than her and she wasn't doing nothing.
A handful of wolves took off, probably after a rabbit that had ventured too close to the Holt for its own good. Or they'd caught the sound or scent of bigger prey, farther away. Wistfully Firecat imagined going with them, catching the same smells their noses knew inside and out, and hearing all the noises her ears were deaf to.
She rested her chin in her hand and smiled to herself. It wasn't as if she couldn't go hunting with them without having the nose and ears of a wolf-blood. Part of her still longed for it, for a bond-friend and for being closer to the pack. But tonight was a good night and she wouldn't allow that to weigh down her thoughts.
The silence between her and Barkmoss had gotten awkward, not helped by the fact that she kept catching him sneaking glances at her that she couldn't read. A thought struck her, unpleasant and pleasant, and she chose to voice it, to end the stand-still:
"Dawn will probably find a bond-friend with the next new litter." Firecat really hoped so. It had almost been a turn of the seasons since Dawn had lost her first wolf-friend to the river — because we were reckless and stupid — and while nothing could replace the dead a new life could be a balm to help you heal.
"But Heron won’t. And father doesn't have a bond-friend, and your mother doesn't, and not Ambergold or Littlepaw or—"
The torrent of words took Firecat by complete surprise. Her utter confusion must have shown in her eyes because Barkmoss fell silent the moment she looked at him. "What's with you tonight?"
"With me?!" he said, though he aimed it at the snow covered ground, avoiding Firecat's gaze. "I'm not the one freezing my ears off and mooning after the wolves!"
"I watch the wolves all the time!" was all Firecat could think to answer to that.
More awkward silence. The wolves went about their business in the snow, tumbling around or standing watch. Barkmoss sat and did his best to look anywhere but at Firecat, who in her turn fought the urge to grab him by the shoulders and shake answers out of him. This wasn't like Barkmoss at all and it was quickly moving from annoying to unsettling her.
Firecat didn't let out a sigh of relief, but it was a close thing. Barkmoss was meeting her gaze again, if out of the corner of his eye, and while he'd pulled his knees up to his chest he looked more relaxed than curled up in defense.
"I'm just…" He grabbed a handful of snow and crushed it into a ball, before letting it fall to the ground from lax fingers. "After what happened I've been worried you'll become like before. Not all the time. Just sometimes."
Firecat's brow furrowed into a frown. Her focus had completely shifted from the wolves to Barkmoss. The whole pack could have been howling and dancing in circles right next to them and she wouldn't have noticed. "You're not making any sense. What do you mean, 'before'?"
The chuckle that Barkmoss let out had the same shaky quality as his previous laughing fit. "I might only be three turns older than you, but I did notice how sad you were back when we were small. I haven't forgotten."
"Sad? Me?" What under the two moons…?! Firecat cast her memory back over the past few nights, trying to figure out what might have set this off. She could recall nothing unusual, only the familiar rhythm of hunting, sleeping, eating and enjoying the company of her tribemates.
More staring at the ground. The urge to cuff Barkmoss over the back of his head grew inside Firecat, but she resisted. The yearlings beckoned for her attention with their jumping around in the snow and play challenging each other.
"It wasn't all the time," he said, breaking the silence that was approaching the unbearable. "But it's no secret you dream of the wolfsong, sister. And you've been so serious since… since the river."
That was before spring! Firecat was all but gaping at Barkmoss at this point. She grasped for words and finally came up with: "Dawn almost died. Her bond did die, because of our foolish game. I'm not the only one who's been more serious after that. You think I should have just shrugged that lesson off?"
"I know, I know!" Barkmoss cut her off, a flush spreading over his cheeks. "It's just, I saw you sneak off to watch the wolves alone again, and I…" He trailed off and waved his hands at the clearing ahead of them, as if the woods and wolves would speak for themselves.
Still off balance, Firecat gave a groan of frustration and countered, "I'm not a cub any more! And you make it sound like I was about to go jump into the Vastdeep back then! Cubs make a lot of noise over very little," and some grown elves too, but saying that could take the conversation off its path and into the bushes, so to speak. "I think that fuzzy wolf memory of yours is making a bird out of a feather."
The concern in Barkmoss' eyes was what held Firecat back from yelling at him more. And she had to admit she also felt a little guilty. She had been rather loud about her wish for wolf-blood when she was young and she hadn't exactly put that behind her. The thought of one day having a wolf-friend, of going on a search for her soul-name and finding one, were both dear wishes of hers, no matter how unlikely the second one was; her parents said she didn't have or need one. Lying by saying she'd lost all desire for her cub-dream would do neither of them any good — Barkmoss wasn't one easily fooled, even if told a good lie. Firecat had never seen the point in lying.
Barkmoss was the first to break their stare-down. He ducked his head and said: "You're right, I'm being silly. I must have had a bad dream before I woke up. I don't know why I'm like this tonight. I should stick to how things are now, right? Not try and picture tomorrows and more tomorrows." He gave a nervous laugh and poked at the snow with one finger, drawing meaningless lines in it.
They could have left it at that. Firecat knew her brother well enough to know how his thoughts went. His wolf-blood didn't run as strong as his mother Wolfsister's, but he had the wolves' ability to easily lose himself in the here and now. Whatever had brought on this sudden wave of concern might come back in the future, but ignoring it would bury it again and again.
Burying a feeling didn't make it go away, however. Firecat knew that all too well. That was a good way to make things fester.
In that moment, Firecat wished she'd inherited more of her mother's patience and way with words. Cubmaker would have known what to say to make Barkmoss feel better and stop worrying. Or at least to help him start to stop worrying…
Barkmoss got to his feet. He gave her another smile, this one apologetic, and made to turn back towards the Holt. "I'll go see if anyone's up for a small hunt. With this much new snow there ought to be fresh tracks somewhere. Join us if you want!"
Words almost always failed Firecat when she had important things to say or a story to tell. She could seldom estimate what details she should or shouldn't include, where she should start the story and where it should end. The usual result was both her and her listeners being lost to confusion and irritation.
But an idea had struck her, as Barkmoss turned his back on her. And she wouldn't have to tell it, would she?
"Wait." Firecat reached out and took one of Barkmoss' hands, pulling him to a stop. "I'd like to share something with you."
That got her a wary look from Barkmoss. "Sending?"
Firecat managed to not roll her eyes at him. She was used to this reaction from some of her tribemates — sending was her strength, which could be dizzying for elves who didn't match her talent. She knew this, but it could get on her nerves at times, not being able to share her skills with all equally.
Barkmoss took a seat next to her again, doing his best to hide his unease, and failing.
This time Firecat did roll her eyes. "I'll make it quick," she said to him. They sat cross-legged and face-to-face with only a fur between them and the snow. The cold wouldn't make that comfortable for long. Toughing it out to watch the wolves was one thing, but sitting about outside sharing sendings another. "Just, try and concentrate and feel what I felt. Understood?"
Locking eyes with Barkmoss, Firecat began to send:
**Bravestride and her, out far from the Holt. She is younger, impatient, dying for the hunt to start. Bravestride is dictating the pace, easing her eagerness. It's the two of them and Bravestride's bond, hunting, tracking, relying on each other. Belonging.**
The memory put a smile on Firecat's face. Not a reassuring or questioning one this time, but a genuinely happy one.
**There, a stranger-wolf, alone, growling, hackles raised. Teeth bared, but not only at her. Bared at Bravestride. And Bravestride’s wolf-friend growls back, stepping up, protecting both of them. Both of them. Not just Bravestride. Pack.**
Firecat broke the sending as abruptly as she'd begun it and leaned back, her hands resting on her knees. "Do you understand?"
"I…" Barkmoss blinked at her, as if he'd just woken up from a long sleep. "I think so."
Firecat's smile transformed into a relieved grin. The frown that had furrowed Barkmoss' brow was smoothing itself out and he looked her in the eye again like normal, like two friends should. "You see! I might dream of having a wolf-friend one day, but dreams are dreams. They won't make me do anything stupid. I practice 'talking' with the wolves like you should be practicing sending, that's all. I know I'm pack."
"Of course you are!" Barkmoss returned her smile with a much steadier one now. "And I'll practice sending when you practice tracking with your nose."
This got him an attempted hit to the back of his head, which he dodged, chuckling.
It was Firecat who got to her feet first this time. She pulled at the fur until Barkmoss got off it and wrapped it over one arm. Then, after giving him one final long look, she set off at top speed towards home.
"I'll race you back to the dens. Loser has to do all the other's chores until next nightfall!" she called over her shoulder.
"You cheater!" Barkmoss shouted back, his laughter undermining any anger the words could have held.
And with that the two were off towards the Dentrees, all worries of wolves and blood for the moment forgotten.