Thanks again to all who reviewed. I hope to write some more Avatar fic over the summer, but for now, this is an end to this particular series. I had a lot of fun writing it, and I'm glad that so many people seemed to have enjoyed reading it. As a farewell, I'll be leaving you with something at the happier end of the spectrum.
30. A walk in the woods
"Would you stop being such a jerk! Hah!"
Smellerbee jumped up and swiped at the brace of squirrel-grouse, but Longshot raised them even higher above her head. His face was as impassive as always, but she knew damn well he was laughing.
"Fine. If you're going to be that way..."
She crossed her arms over her chest, and the creaking of leather armor said as much as a scoff or a huff would have. Longshot, damn him, lowered the squirrel-grouse back to his side. The two bundles of fur and feather bounced against his knee as they walked along, and for a while the only sound was that of feet on fallen leaves or the muffled clank of their weapons shifting as they climbed up a hill or jumped over a dry creekbed.
Normally, she wouldn't be stalking along in a straight line in front of him, occasionally sneaking a glance over her shoulder to see if he was laughing at her (he was). It would have been more like her to be half-crouched, looking around her all the time, keeping an eye out for the faint shift-and-rustle that would tell her that a woodrabbit might be burrowing under that leaf pile, or another flock of squirrel-grouse might be in that thicket. She wouldn't say a word, and even Longshot's usual silence would be more quiet than normal.
She was still watching for game, even though half her attention remained on Longshot. By the time they reached camp, she had flushed out three more squirrel-grouse and a pair of ermine doves. Longshot took them all down neatly and quietly, and when he had collected them, took some twine from his pocket and added them to the bundle by his side.
"I can carry them just as well as you can, you know," she said as he was bent over, tying twine around the doves' legs.
Longshot smiled up at her from under the brim of his hat. Then he just shook his head as he straightened up and headed off again in teasing silence.
Smellerbee stood and fumed for a moment before following. She wanted to stomp up behind him, kick him in the rear, and remind him that being a girl didn't mean she was weak. She had a notion, though, that doing either of those things, the reminding, or the kicking, might be a bit problematic. Instead, she just kept pace behind her friend, her eyes on his back and noticing just a little too much how his shoulders moved as he walked. She didn't spot any more game on the way back to camp.
They were silent, just as they usually were, but the silence had changed. She felt pressured to say something, anything, even just nonsense to fill the space, and she got the feeling that Longshot was always on the verge of actually speaking, or laughing out loud, or something. Lately, for whatever reason, they were always bickering like this, Longshot doing stuff that she guessed was supposed to be nice, but it always turned into something teasing, or else she got annoyed with him for some reason that she couldn't quite pin down. Something had changed, and she wasn't sure she liked it.
Still, it was always the two of them who did the hunting. Just them. They didn't even give the others a chance to suggest that they rotate that duty.
When they returned to camp, Jet looked at them for a good long moment, eyebrows raised, then just shrugged and turned back to what he was doing. "It's Sneers's turn to cook tonight," he called out as they passed. Smellerbee wanted to ask him what he meant by that look, but the Duke had come barreling up, and had started yammering away to him about something or another.
Sometimes, Smellerbee wondered what had happened to her crush on Jet. She still loved him, still looked up to him, but it wasn't like it was when she had first joined the gang and had spun out long involved fantasies about how as the only female member of the group, it was only natural that she and Jet would wind up together. Somewhere along the line, that all changed. Maybe it was because she'd figured out that Jet was kind of crazy, or maybe it was something else.
Longshot lazily slung the bundle of game to Sneers, who protested loudly at getting a sudden armful of bloody fur, feathers, and beaks but Longshot kept on walking. Smellerbee was just about to ask Sneers if he needed help with the skinning and jointing, but Longshot cast a brief and anxious glance over his shoulder:
You coming with?
She shrugged an apology to Sneers, then followed along after Longshot without even questioning why. She grinned when she saw his shoulders relax as he heard her trot up behind her.
"We'd better back before supper," she informed him. "The others will eat everything if we let 'em. You know them--they won't even leave us a bone."
They walked along in silence for a while, heading back into the woods even though they had just brought back enough food for the next two days. For a while, the silence was back to its usual, comforting self, and that was good. As they passed out of sight of the camp, Smellerbee jumped up and batted at the back of Longshot's hat, tilting it over his eyes. Not for any reason. Just because.
Longshot sighed and tilted the hat back to true. Then he smiled down at her, teasing and affectionate, and the silence became not-comfortable again, just like that. But maybe that wasn't such a bad thing, after all.