Briar knelt next to the grey-furred wolf, lightly stroking over his side, combing out the tangles in his undercoat with her claws. As she groomed Shadowdance with one paw, the other moved cautiously towards the wolf’s muzzle, his breath slow and warm against her wrist. She hesitated, her fingers hovering over the black, wrinkled skin of his nose pad, but then she brushed the pads of her fingers against it, startling the wolf into a brief wakefulness.
“Rrr?” Dancer mumbled, his eyes blearily reflecting the firelight from their dilated pupils. He lifted his head groggily from his forepaws, the tip of his muzzle bobbing in the air as if he were drugged.
The rabbit rubbed her fingerpads against the palm of her paw, rolling the droplets of moisture between them. “It’s nothing, Dancer. Sleep now,” she whispered, stroking again over his flank, guiding his muzzle back down to rest.
The wolf muttered something else incoherent, then yawned, a quiet whine escaping his throat in the process, before rolling over onto his other side, facing away from the fire. Almost as soon as he stopped moving, his breathing fell back to the rhythmic rise and fall of heavy sleep, leaving Briar alone in the lodge with the heavy, cleansing smoke.
She rose, retrieving Alex’s shirt from the far side of the fire, and then left the tent, going back to the river’s edge. The man knelt, his head bowed, his hands on the knees of his jeans. His greying hair still hung against his head in damp ropes, glistening silver in the moonlight. The heavy, knotted leather around his neck looked black, the ivory claw swaying slowly from its cord from his rocking.
Alex didn’t open his eyes as Briar approached, but he did raise one arm, holding out his hand to her. “Thank you,” he said softly, exhaling heavily as he clutched at the bear-claw talisman.
She passed the shirt to him, kneeling next to him on the bank. “His nose was damp,” she breathed, as if afraid to say it too loudly lest it might not be true. “He’s getting better.”
“Watcher said he would,” Alex replied as he shrugged into the work shirt, so out of place in the middle of the woods. He left it unbuttoned, exposing the heavy thatch of hair that covered his chest. He shifted around, sitting tailor fashion next to Briar, propping his elbows on his knees, his chin on his folded hands. “Did you doubt him?”
Briar smiled gently, her ears kinked in amusement. “You did.”
Alex shook his head. “No, if… if there were anyone I doubted in this, it was me.” He inhaled deeply, then let it out in a heavy sigh. “I still wish that had gone differently.”
The rabbit cocked her head to one side. “How could it have?”
“I don’t know,” Alex admitted. “I just feel that… I don’t know. I want it, but wanting it isn’t enough, and I don’t know what is.”
Briar shifted on her knees, turning to face along the bank, her head focused along the river. “I trust you,” she said softly, the words giving Alex a start. “I never felt safe before, around Children of Man, butâ€”but I do around you.” She hung her head, her ears flattened against her head. “It’s why I thought you were a Lost One. I’m sorry.”
“Hey, hey.” Alex rose to his feet, closing the gap between himself and the Child of Rabbit in a few strides before kneeling behind her, gently cupping her shoulders. “No need to apologize. If anything, I should be thanking you for the flattery.” He gave a squeeze with his hands, rubbing his thumbs through her soft fur. “How do you know you can trust me, though? I mean, we don’t really even know each other.”
Her shoulders rolled in a shrug, a strange rumble escaping her muzzle as she ground her teeth in pleasure at the contact. “I justâ€¦ know. It’s part of being a Child of Rabbit, as Dancer knows his Protectorate as his own paws. I can trust you.”
Alex let the subject drop there, though he kept his hands on her back, lightly massaging her shoulders. She wasn’t pulling away, and he was in no hurry to leave. “Like you trust Watcher?” He asked with a smirk.
Briar nodded, leaning her head further forward, relaxing under Alex’s touch.
Alex started running his fingers through the rabbit’s fur, letting his nails brush against her skin as he had with Dancer. “I hope he’s alright,” he said quietly, notes of concern creeping into his voice.
The rabbit lifted her head and looked back over her shoulder. “He will be,” she declared gently. “He’s lived his life between worlds. He knows how to protect himself.”
“You’ve got a point,” Alex conceded, pausing in his massage. “I just don’t like this. He admitted he was walking what could be a deathtrap, just to meet with some contacts he said might be able to tell him more about what we’re really facing. Even he doesn’t know what’s going on, now.” He let his hands drop, balancing them on his elbows again, smirking. “At least without him around, my itch is gone.”
“Itch?” The word made Briar turn fully around, looking into Alex’s face expectantly.
“Yeah, itch,” Alex said cautiously, eyeing the rabbit with confusion. “Whenever Watcher’s close by and I’m not too distracted, there’s like this tingle in my head, like a spider crawling on my brain. It doesn’t hurt, but it’s really unnerving.”
“Odd,” was all she said, her voice even. Her ears, however, told a different story, perking at his words. “I don’t feel anything of the sort around him.”
Now it was Alex’s turn to cock his head. “I’ll ask Dancer when he’s coherent and see what he says. Maybe it’s just me.”
“Maybe it is,” Briar said, hints of concern creeping into her voice. “I hope it is.”