[AW] fair and bright
early morning, crossing the landbridge from northern wildwood to enter cape acadia
Kohl didn't usually find herself very restless during the warmer months, but it turned out that being cooped up in an icy den with your loved ones can make even the most patient Luperci a little irritable. Luckily, the forest surrounding the peninsula made for beautiful sight seeing and she felt safe enough to venture farther than usual with the added visibility she had with so few leaves left on the trees. There were evergreens aplenty of course, but the landscape was definitively less plush than it was in the warmer months. The dog had recently begun learning to craft sling-type bags, and one of the first prototypes had made a wonderful vessel to hold the day's vittles against her body as she moved along, despite the type of leather used being rather heavy. It had been one of the mystery pelts Thread had brought home from his day-to-day, and he'd said he picked it up in the wild somewhere as if the previous owner had discarded it. Kohl saw no holes in that story and had been grateful, as always, for his kindness in thinking of her and her crafty hobbies. A small knife jingled at her hip on the opposite side, although it was more for carving and plucking interesting objects from the earth as opposed to self defense. As a matter of fact, Kohl didn't rightly know how to fight and she hoped she'd never need to. As it were, she was smallish and generally pretty quick on her feet and hoped that if there were trouble along the way she could simply give up her belongings to the would be attacker and make a run for it back from whence she came. Perhaps she wasn't quick enough to entirely escape, but surely she could get within hollering distance of home in order to rally reinforcements. Marten wouldn't be able to do much in the way of killing, but she knew her mate could from his mannerisms and strength alone. 

Shaking the ugly thoughts away, Kohl continued in silence for a bit longer. She held her cloak around her shoulders warmly and her bicolored eyes spun about quickly, taking in all the beauty the frozen north had to offer. It wasn't quite her first winter here, but it was still early in the female's residence in the area and she had yet to grow tired of the way everything seemed to glitter with white jewels after a fresh snow. Icicles hung from tree branches sharply, and on a whim she grabbed one from a low hanging limb to inspect it. It was crystal clear and she could see the pads of her fingers holding it from the other side, and when she bit it it crunched satisfyingly in her teeth. With a wag of her tail, Kohl dropped the rest of the ice and hoped no locals had seen her inspection of it lest she look like a fool, but at last reckoned she was safe from prying eyes when no scents or sounds met her on the cold wind. 

In moments of silence, Kohl sometimes sang to herself. She didn't fancy herself an incredible talent or anything close to it but she did like the sense of comfort and familiarity one could find in the lyrics of a song passed down by generations, and as she made her way through the tundra she began to coo just loud enough that her own ears could hear. 

"Young men and maids, pray lend attention
To these few lines that I shall write
A comely youth that I shall mention
Who courted a lady fair and bright."

[WC — 608] 
OOC Text
Drawing back his hood so his ears could perk, O’Brien strained to hear a melody.

The hunter had departed the packlands for two purposes — the first simply to track a herd of deer that moved through the northern forest in search of food now that their supply was dwindling. He’d passed pines stripped of their bark where the ungulates browsed, and patches of earth where their hooves had pawed for acorns, desperate for sustenance. Hunger might lead them to venture closer to canine territory to find fodder, and he’d hoped to report the passage of the herd to someone like Battalion so they could capitalize on it. The prospect of a feast was a far cry from those cold months in the west, reliant on fish and anything he could trap to keep his family fed.

The second purpose was to seek solitude to think, after the marketplace and the court events and the encouragement from packmates. When this overwhelmed him, it was simpler to return to humble duties, ones he performed without need for accolades or thanks.

All that said, O’Brien had not expected to find another person out here.

For a moment, he thought that his ears were playing tricks on him, so soft was the singing; he couldn’t make out any words from that under-breath coo. But he approached what he thought was the source, and caught a scent passingly familiar. When he emerged from a pine, snow dusting his shoulders where it fell from a bough, he recognized the woman he saw, and wagged his tail.

”Kohl,” the man recalled (easy to remember with her dark pelt), and lifted a hand in greeting, his expression warm as a rare small smile touched his lips.
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She'd just fixed her mouth to begin the second verse of the song when footfalls on snow caught her attention, and then a distantly familiar voice said her name. The dog did a little jump and spin combo that was more graceful than anything she'd be able to accomplish had she actually been trying to dish out some decent footwork, but her hackles quickly flattened again when she spotted the friendly face a few paces away. "O'Brien! It's you! Imagine seeing you here!" she barked, bushy tail wagging furiously as it always did when she was even a little bit excited. She had few friends in this world, and even fewer on this side of the continent, and so it was second nature to recognize the smiling brown male. Grateful she hadn't been found alone by a potentially dangerous stranger, she hopped through the deep snow with her arms crossed over her chest against the chill and came to a halt an arm's reach away from him.

Normally she'd have already wrapped her arms around him in a bear hug, but she didn't figure that would be appropriate since this was only their second meeting and O'Brien didn't seem like the most cuddly type of Luperci, at least upon first glance. Instead she restrained herself and kept her hands clamped under her armpits lest they gain a mind of their own and get away from her. "How have you been? It seems like we saw each other not long ago at all and here I was thinking we'd never meet again!"

She thought of the bag of goodies at her hip and wondered if he’d accept one of the trinkets within as a token of gratitude. He was well equipped on his own of course but surely he’d have use for some jerky, a hat, a pair of mittens or something of the like. Growing up, Kohl had the ideology instilled deeply within her that one could never be too prepared and so it had become part of her ethos to make sure that everyone else she cared about was taken care of as well. The thought of giving her friend a gift was almost too much to anticipate, but she thankfully was able to restrain herself rather than dancing on the spot as she might have liked to.
[WC — 181] |
she real excited :x 
The black dog startled and spun toward him, her cloak and dress twirling, but before O’Brien could peaceably raise his hands and retreat a step in apology for frightening her, she recovered swiftly. Her enthusiastic greeting and the wild wag of her tail surprised him, but his widened eyes soon squinted with warmth as a low chuckle escaped as vapor from his mouth.

Encumbered by the snow, the woman bounded toward him and wrapped her arms around herself, her mismatched eyes bright. (The blue and brown were placed opposite of Beth’s eyes, he noticed with a smile.) She asked after him, and he nodded, his posture relaxing though he kept his own hands neatly to himself.

”Been weel,” the pickpocket answered, the wag of his own tail more subdued, though it would have surprised many of his packmates to see it wave so. ”Ah didnae expect te see ye either,” he admitted. Her group had chosen an out-of-the-way land to settle, and Kohl didn’t seem like the type to roam far from home. The thought of visiting had crossed his mind, but he hadn’t wanted to be presumptuous and intrude in case her band had secluded themselves for a reason.

”Whit are ye daein’ oot this wey?” he asked, letting his curiosity get the best of him.
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She loved his accent, Kohl decided as he inquired after what she was up to so far from home. It was lilting and at times difficult to discern what he was saying although she always got the gist within a few moments of mulling over his words. The dog realized it was odd for her to be wandering out alone, but stir-craziness could indeed make one do strange things- as the name might suggest. The rest of her group seemed content to mostly stay at home and poke at the campfire with sticks these days but she could only stir the cooking pot so many times before her vision began to swim with boredom bordering on lethargy. Perhaps it was in part due to her pregnancy and the worry it brought her, the sensation in her belly not being one of great comfort. Something had felt off ever since she realized what was growing inside her, but she couldn’t place exactly what it was. Even her scent wasn’t entirely right, not for a pregnant female anyway.

Deciding to focus on the here and now rather than worrying about what could one day be, Kohl’s sparkling eyes remained on O’Brien’s gentle face as she answered.  “I reckon I just got a ‘lil bored sittin’ around all day, ya know? The others don’t seem to mind it but this is all pretty new to me- back home we ain’t got wintertime like y’all do here- and I figured I better check it out while it’s here!” Not to mention the first winter she’d spent in the area had been less than pleasant without a concrete home to go to, so now that she had a warm bed and a full belly she realized she could fully enjoy the weather without fear of it taking her life. “I s’pose I should ask the same of you?” She wondered to herself if O’Brien spent much time at home at all, and suspected he must be the type to prefer to be on his own if they had run into each other in the wilderness twice now when he had a whole pack he could be with instead.
[WC — 363] |
OOC Text
Boredom was Kohl’s answer for why she was wandering the wintertime woods. It was a feeling that O’Brien empathized with — not boredom exactly, but restlessness. Even when he was with the Troupe, happy to sit around in good company, far from bored listening to Malik sing and Gaston and Galilee boast, there was always an itch in his paws. He’d always made the most of it, ranging far afield to bring back food and trinkets, but sometimes he viewed his wanderlust with guilt.

He’d missed a lot being gone, no matter how noble his purposes had been.

He enjoyed her accent, too, a drawl not dissimilar from the Cormiers’ in the dropped syllables. ”Winters ’re lang ‘ere,” he informed her — warned her, maybe? ”Though Ah dinnae ken how lang ye’ve been ‘ere,” he added, his ears flicking back. They hadn’t exactly spoken about their histories, though he knew that Kohl had come from a self-sufficient family in the south. Whether this was her first winter here, or the novelty hadn’t worn away after a few, he did not know.

She turned the question back onto him. Characteristically, O’Brien hesitated in his answer. To a packmate, he might not have replied honestly at all, and instead come up with a flippant reply, a way to change the topic, and an escape route through the trees.

But Kohl was not a Caledonian, and her judgment therefore would not burden him with the same guilt as those meant to be his comrades. Scratching his jaw, he conceded and answered in his low burr.

”Ah wis trackin’ deer oot ‘ere, but… Ah need te git away sometimes,” the pickpocket admitted. ”Ah’m no’ used te a big group, ‘n’ they’re lovely ‘n’ all, nae fault o’ theirs, but… Hard fer me te fit in.”
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He seemed hesitant to answer, although a look of resignation glanced across the male’s face as he offered a short explanation as to why he was out and about instead of at home with his friends and, she assumed, his family. The idea crossed Kohl’s mind that O’Brien may have a wife and children, or maybe brothers and sisters, or maybe no one at all back home waiting for him in his packlands. She didn’t dare push him on the matter, though curiosity burned at the back of her mind as it always tended to no matter the situation. It seemed to take a bit out of him to fess up that he needed some alone time, so she didn’t want to spook him with further inquisitions just yet. She could understand what he meant about not fitting in though, perhaps better than she’d understood anything in her life. Despite her mama’s best attempts to raise a good housewife and perfect mother, here she was living in the forest with a ragtag group of folks who her family wouldn’t have even deigned to spit on if they crossed paths. Fitting in, she’d decided long ago, was for the birds. That fact didn’t make it any easier to carry the burden of being an outsider though, and for that she did have sympathy toward the man.

“I know just what you mean, friend. Sometimes even when you fit in…ya just still don’t. Like a puzzle piece someone has jammed into a spot that isn’t quite right. It works well enough but it ain’t what you wanted it to be.” She gazed up at him kindly, and without any pity. Kohl had never claimed to be a smart woman, but she knew that a man, any man, did not want pity for his troubles. Understanding, yes, but it would never do for someone to feel sorry for them. She brightened, not wanting to linger too long on the subject; she’d always been that way, thinking quickly through every scenario in order to make those around her comfortable no matter what.

Straightening her posture, she rubbed her hands together and began to rifle through the leather sling around her hip, cursing herself for not being more organized with its contents. Finally, the dog found what she was after. “Here, I know the color is real ugly but it’ll keep yer ears from freezing off if you get in a pinch out in the wild!” She proffered the brown knitted wool hat to O’Brien, feeling suddenly as if she’d laid her soul bare for another to see. Kohl had given her handmade clothing to others in her group (although they had yet to wear any of it), but never had she gifted anything to someone outside her direct circle. “Call it a token of my appreciation for your help before, and for your company now.” She grinned widely, trying to push aside the slight nervousness that he would decline the gift.
[WC — 497] | 
OOC Text
Those mismatched eyes studied him with kindness and patience as Kohl shared her wisdom, and a soft rush of air escaped O’Brien, caught somewhere between the huff of being punched and a sigh of relief.

”Aye,” he agreed, reticent as ever, and the smile that touched his lips did not quite crease his eyes. She’d hit it right on the mark, somehow. His choices in life had brought him to where he was now, and he knew that it was right in the grand scheme of things — tending to his daughter, providing for the pack — but no small part of him wondered if he would be happier leaving. He’d come to the borders of New Caledonia to fulfill a promise and had known even then that he might end up abandoning it for the only other home and family he’d known in the region.

The Troupe was scattered now, though, and La Estrella Roja full of strangers. And O’Brien believed himself to be both a terrible person for considering leaving his daughter with her relatives, and a terrible danger should he stay.

He’d been cursed to never fit in since the moment he was born, a traveler’s bastard. Every moment since then had become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

His brown eyes flicked away, a signal of discomfort that Kohl had respected each time they talked, and when they returned to her the woman was reaching into the sling hanging from her hip. When she presented a wool-knit hat, declaring that it would keep his ears warm, he blinked rather stupidly, and silently took it from her hands. His fingers roved over the knit, familiar with the texture, and eventually he slipped it over his head, holding his ears snug against his skull. It was warm.

O’Brien broke out into a grin, tremulous at first (and perhaps his eyes suspiciously shiny at the corners), until it spread over his plain-handsome face and rested there, warm like the sun.

”Thank ye,” he said, quiet but emphatic. ”Ye did no’ hev tae,” he added quickly, smile vanishing for a moment as his brow furrowed in admonishment, but then the warmth returned. While he might have humbly refused her gift, he did not want to disrespect her by doing so — and it was so rarely that O’Brien, who’d always had a habit of slipping trinkets into friends’ pockets and wordlessly bringing them food at the end of the day, was given something by someone else.

His grin sharpened playfully, nose wrinkled. ”Tell me true, dae Ah look daft?” he asked, hands raising to cover where his ears were pinned under the hat.
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His acceptance of her offering was like a dose of goodness straight to Kohl’s heart, making her head swim almost as if she were drunk off the kindness he’d offered by taking it. She spotted the dampness at the corners of his eyes and instantly felt a frog in her throat, though she pretended to experience nothing of the sort lest he become shy about the whole thing. It was a blessing that he didn’t end up shedding a tear, because as a sympathetic crier Kohl would have been immediately doomed to her own crying jag from that moment on. The hood he normally wore puddled around his shoulders as if it were sad to have been displaced, but he still shoved the knitted hat over his head even though it seemed like it might be a little uncomfortable to fit his large, doggish ears inside. Kohl did her best not to giggle at the uneven lumps his ears left in the hat, but when his grin turned playful and he asked for her honest opinion she couldn’t help but let out a cheerful bark of laughter.

“No, no, not daft per se! Just er, on the next one I’ll be sure to leave extra room for the ears. I didn’t think of that part I guess,” she said, holding a hand over her muzzle to hide the way her lips were trembling against the grin she held back. Once the giggles died down, she wanted to somehow let O’Brien know that he was welcome as far as she was concerned, even if he didn’t feel quite welcome anywhere else, but she worried that drawing the conversation back to his vulnerability would make him shy away. It was a precarious dance she had to choreograph, offering kindness without suggesting weakness. “If you think that’s cool, the next time you’re in the area you should come visit and try some of my famous ‘Everything Soup’. It’s called that because…well, you just throw everything in the pot and cook it until it turns to soup! It’s tastier than it sounds, I promise.” She joked, leaving out the part about how the others didn’t much care for her soup at all. They tended to complain that there were too many veggies, but she’d always believed it was important to eat things that grew in the dirt and not only things that you had to catch and kill. Not to mention, if they didn’t like it she figured they could find their own suppers. Still, Kohl hoped the message landed the way she intended it to and even if it didn’t she figured O’Brien was kind enough to let the comment pass without any fuss.
[WC — 451] |
OOC Text
Fitting his floppy ears into the hat had been quite the accomplishment, though it wasn’t so constricting as to be painful. The way the flaps were pressed against the side of his head meant that they were closed to sound (an issue that he had to a lesser extent with his hood), which meant that he likely wouldn’t be scouting or hunting with the hat on, but for a cold day chatting with friends, it was comfortable enough.

The thought counted more than anything, and he found himself upset that he didn’t have Kohl anything to give in return — even if this gift was supposedly thanks for his intervention with the moose. Next time, he would slip some jewelry or a carving into her sling — and he certainly did want there to be a next time. The people he looked forward to seeing again were few and far between, often so distant as to become regrets, but Kohl — well, anyone would be utterly charmed by her, he reasoned, and ignored the little stir in his chest when she giggled.

From behind her hand she gave her critique, and O’Brien adopted a solemn expression, but tilted his head this way and that as if to model his lumpy head for her, his sparkling eyes betraying his mirth.

Kohl brought up her specialty soup next, and the hunter let out a huff of amusement. ”Ah wis oan boord wi’ ye ‘til that disclaimer,” he teased, but his tail wagged agreeably. It didn’t in all honesty sound bad; hunter’s stew was a staple in New Caledonia, as various prey was brought back to be added to the pot.

”Ah wuid like that sometime,” he said, ”visiting.” He offered a shrug. ”If yer fowk ‘re okay wi’ it.” Isolated as they were, they might not enjoy a stranger in their midst, but it might be different if Kohl were to vouch for him. He was curious with the type of people she kept as company.
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Trying her best to seem as nonchalant as he did, Kohl mimicked the shrug O’Brien gave her as he halfway accepted the invitation. Truthfully she worried her heart might burst from the excitement of having a guest, a real life guest! Nevermind that Thread wasn’t the most traditional host, she figured she could give him enough of a pep talk to get past the initial awkwardness and besides, that bridge could be crossed later rather than worrying about it now. “Well, I’d be glad to have ya! It’s just me and Thread and a couple others. Thread is a little different but he’s the type you have to get to know, ya know?” She cocked her head, hoping he’d understand without her revealing too much about just how different Thread truly was. She liked that about the male, although she realized he wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

“We just have a small camp, nothing like I’m sure you’re used to in your pack, but the seclusion is kinda nice if you ask me.” She chewed her bottom lip before stopping herself, reminded of the way her mother used to admonish her for the bad habit.

“It’s real different here compared to where I came from, and I don’t have many folks that I know real well,” she caught herself, “I mean, I realize I don’t know you all that well either, but ya know what I mean. I’m glad we met I guess is what I’m saying; we have more in common than I thought at first! Although I think I would have chosen different circumstances, come to think of it.” She joked, trying not to let the tone of the conversation become too serious. “So yessir, you are welcome any time on my front porch. Nevermind that I ain’t got a front porch at the moment.” Kohl cocked her head, glancing over his shoulder rather than directly into his dark gaze, and idly hoped that he would actually take her up on the offer one day.
[WC — 338] | 
OOC Text
Wondering if Thread was the male whose scent clung to Kohl’s dark fur, O’Brien nodded. He could see Kohl as the type to give someone different a chance; Willow had been the same way, searching for the good in someone’s soul despite the evidence against them. She hadn’t been entirely naive, but she had been open to people in a way that O’Brien couldn’t bring himself to be. He was himself a thief, after all.

He didn’t give any indication of his thoughts, though, but listened politely as Kohl went on, a smile quirking his mouth at her lighthearted quip. ”Ach, Ah dinnae ken,” he interjected. ”Likely takes a life or death situation te draw me oot o’ mah shell.” His nose wrinkled playfully again with his self-aware remark; he knew it was probably wasn’t far off from the truth.

He smiled and nodded at her offer, mentally trying to recall the path he’d traveled to reach the peninsula and the length he’d escorted her through the forest. Satisfied that he thought he could find his way to her camp, he opened his mouth to say something else — but found himself coming up short. The words did not stick in his throat this time, because he didn’t have words. It was like they had run out.

”Th’ herd Ah wis trackin’,” he began. ”D’ ye—” Want to join him? Would she be content ambling along the trail while he looked for signs of scat and dropped antlers? It would be an excuse to talk to her more, which he wanted, but— Suddenly uncertain of himself, he gave a shake of his head. ”Ah kin leave ye be, if ye wanted te enjoy th’ scenery.”

Ears unable to pin tighter than they already were, folded in that homemade hat, O’Brien flashed her a smile that he knew was awkward but hoped got across the fact that he wasn’t necessarily in a hurry to leave her, but he felt utterly lost.
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If she didn’t know any better, Kohl would think the fella was feeling a little unsure of himself at the moment. The thought dismayed her, only because what little she knew about O’Brien didn’t leave much room for the man to be anything except the pinnacle of surefooted confidence. Shifting from foot to foot, her brain scrambled for a way to ease his mind a bit although she couldn’t fathom why he might be feeling such a way. He was always friendly enough toward her, sure, but she knew she had a way of making just about everyone feel at least somewhat obligated to be kind just because she herself was never anything but. Maybe he wasn’t good at goodbyes, which was understandable, and maybe, she thought with a start, he wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye to her. She cocked her head again, this time in the opposite direction from the first time, as she sometimes did when trying to decipher what a strange noise was, and puzzled over his final sentence. Feeling a little off balance herself, Kohl’s mouth began to work without her full permission and she found herself scooting to stand shoulder to shoulder with O’Brien.

“Scenery’s just as pretty with company, I reckon. Plus I don’t know a damned thing about tracking deer. Maybe you can show me a thing or two so I’m not such a bump on a log when it comes time to go huntin'!” She looked up at him, mismatched eyes creased at the corners from the placid smile she wore, and she couldn’t help but notice he was head and shoulders taller than her- although most folks in these parts were. It tweaked her neck to look directly up at him and so, in order to play it off, Kohl made a show of pointing into the middle distance and barking, “Those little shits won’t know what hit ‘em when we find ‘em!”

A little voice scolded her in the back of her mind, telling her how incredibly inappropriate it was to venture off with another strange man when her mate was at home…doing whatever it was Thread did all day when she wandered off recently, but she reasoned with herself that it wasn’t as scandalous as all that. They were practically on her property, and he was simply teaching her a valuable life skill. That’s all!
[WC — 397] 
Her head tilted, this way and that, as if trying to listen to the gaps between his stammered words, before decisively she shifted closer and suggested that she could join him. The offer made him grin with equal parts surprise and relief — and perhaps a little bit of guilt, though he did not know why. Maybe he didn’t feel like he deserved her company? O’Brien had taken to others in his pack before, like Liam and Kaleidoscope, and even then he hadn’t sought them out to spend time with beyond when their paths crossed naturally in their duties.

Used to being alone these days — except for Beth, and his memories and sorrows — he wasn’t sure what to with someone wishing to spend more time with him.

He nodded in solemn agreement to showing her some tips about tracking prey, but his serious expression shattered when she thrust a finger out toward the woods and barked, calling the deer “little shits.” It shocked the dog so much that he burst out with husky laughter, doubled over, an arm holding his middle as if trying to keep his guts spilling out along with his chuckles. When he straightened, it was to whisk moisture from the corner of an eye and to beam at her.

”That’s th’ spirit,” the hunter woofed, reaching to give her a gentle, friendly touch on her shoulder before he beckoned with a flick of his head. ”Let’s go.”

He led them back along the trail that he’d discovered, not walking as quietly as he would have on his own. He spoke, softly, as he pointed out various signs of passage. Some were universal and might help her notice when others were moving through the territory, such as footprints and broken twigs. He explained how the deer’s cloven hooves splayed for purchase on the earth, and therefore how to see when they had been running. He told her how they browsed on bark in the wintertime, when there was no greenery on the ground to sate them, and when their fall feast of acorns had been buried by snow or squirreled away.

Speaking came easily to him now, even though his voice remained low, and he didn’t ramble without purpose. Sharing knowledge kept him from overthinking; tracking was a safer subject than family or history, after all. Though O’Brien did not shine when he talked, like someone more outspoken and charismatic, there was a softer, warm glow about him, modest, content. It was not a look he wore very often.

He held a hand out to stop her at one point, but his posture remained relaxed, with no indication that there might be something out in the wood he was keeping her from trundling into. Instead, he crouched down and hefted something from the snow: a single antler from a young buck, with just a few additional tines to suggest that it had been the animal’s second autumn. With a smile, he presented this to Kohl.
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Beaming at him as he cackled at her outburst, Kohl thought her heart might have grown ten sizes as he straightened and gently jostled her shoulder before directing them both deeper into the woods in search of their, well mostly his, prey. She did her best to pay attention to the tips he gave her, realizing it was truly valuable information coming straight from someone who knew precisely what he was doing, however her mind still wandered a bit as it often did. Luckily Kohl managed to stifle any personal questions she might have otherwise lobbed at him, mostly for fear he’d clam up and she’d no longer get to reap the benefits of the somewhat more bubbly mood she’d managed to draw him into. The pair continued along the trail, O’Brien stopping to point out bare spots on trees where the deer had stripped the bark for sustenance, or little piles of somewhat-fresh droppings that she would have definitely missed if she hadn’t had help.

Suddenly he stopped her with an arm across the chest and just as she opened her mouth to question whether they were coming closer to the herd, he leaned down and plucked something from the snow. Before she registered what it was he had thrust the deer antler into her hands and her tail had already begun to wag of its own accord. “Thank you, wow!” She said, doing her best to whisper in case there were any deer nearby, although it might have come out as more of a low-pitched screech than she’d hoped. Growing up, her father collected trophies from the mule deer he hunted on their property. Enormous racks of various shapes and shades of bone-white decorated their home, plus skeletal remains in smaller amounts if he found something interesting about them while cleaning the animal. The gesture made her just a little homesick, as strange as it was, and before she knew what she was doing she clamped her arms around O’Brien’s middle in a bear hug. To her it felt as if she was gripping him hard enough to squeeze the air from his lungs, although since he was quite a bit bigger than her it was also possible she wasn’t as strong as she thought in comparison.

Realizing herself, she gasped and leapt back with the antler clutched to her chest. “Sorry! I didn’t mean to be weird! This is just really nice of you,” Her eyes might have been a little misty, but she didn’t pay much mind to it. Kohl hoped she hadn’t made him uncomfortable or angry, but she had always been a hugger and sometimes emotions were just too big to be contained within simple words. The woman selected a little leather strip from inside her sling bag and tied it to the fork on the antler so it could hang freely from the strap over her shoulder, and suddenly she felt like a much more authentic outdoorswoman.
[WC — 494] | 
O’Brien had always been a giver of gifts.

Most of these were mundane little things, like the antler. Little trinkets that he’d stolen without thinking about it found their way into new pockets or beneath pillows. Sometimes they were not really presents in the sense that one could hold and cherish them, but rabbits or fowl left at the doorstep or brought with a mug of ale after a long day. Rarely did he make anything, and most of the carvings he’d whittled away at never found their true recipients: the caribou hung in the tree, the skunk and the steer stared at him from the work table.

But all these things, small and unimpressive as they might be, felt like pieces of himself that he was giving away, because gestures were always easier than words.

He never expected to be thanked, and so he’d never gotten used to it. Her hushed exclamation made his muzzle wrinkle in an amused and warm smirk, but that expression slackened as Kohl unexpectedly embraced him. If unused to gratitude voiced in more than two words, he was wholly caught off guard by a physical display of affection. It had been a long time since anyone but his daughter had hugged him.

The embrace did not last long, as Kohl reeled back with apologies and O’Brien was left looking a little vulnerable. He touched his ribs as if to check that they hadn’t been cracked, then brushed off her worry with, ”Nae bother, hen.” While it had surprised him, it hadn’t been unwelcome. His cheeks felt a little warm in the crisp air.

He chuckled in admiration of the way Kohl attached the antler to the strap of her bag, then gestured for her to continue to follow him. He hoped that together they would be able to find the herd, if only to show Kohl. He thought she might like it.
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