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The fire burned fitfully, as most of the wood Xaa and Merle had managed to find was damp from the snowfall, but it was at least some warmth against the chill, forest night. Xaa had lashed much of the wood he found into a large bundle to be dragged behind on the toboggan, saying that it would dry eventually and it would be harder to find wood the higher up in the mountains they got. Now, the three travelers were sitting by a small campfire under the starlit sky of the mountain woods two days after they'd first spotted them. The trees glistened with snow in the moonlight, and other then the sputtering and crackling of the fire, the woods were silent.
"There. This one is done. It should fit him, though it might be a bit long. Mine fits fine, though. How are the caps coming?" Xaa rumbled, giving Merle a long, thin tube made of white rabbitfur.
"Just fine. I should have yours done in a minute or two," Merle replied, taking the tube and passing it to Tinker before picking up the cap she was stitching and resuming her work. "Tinker, just slip this over your tail and tie it like Xaa has his tied, around his waist with those two thongs."
Tinker pushed the white rabbitfur gap that covered his ears back up, as it was threatening to fall over his eyes again. "Wear that over my tail?! I'll look ridiculous!" Tinker objected.
"Tell him I said he'll look even more ridiculous when his damn tail freezes off in the first blizzard and he has to go through the rest of his life without it. It gets cold in high mountains in winter," Xaa growled.
"Tinker, Xaa says it gets very, very cold up in the mountains in the winter, and if you don't wear it, you might freeze your tail right off. Then you really would look ridiculous. A mousie with no tail!" Merle said, and giggled.
"Really? I might lose my tail?!" Tinker squeaked, his little eyes going wide.
"Yes. That's why Xaa made those tail-sheaths for you and himself - I don't need one, because my tail is very furry and I keep it under my dress, anyway. I'm working on caps for us to keep our heads and ears warm, like you already have, and he is going to make mittens to keep our paws warm and booties for you and me to keep our feet and toes warm. He says we have to be very careful on this part of the trip to stay very warm or the cold could freeze off our fingers and toes! So, you better put that tail-sheath on right now and get used to wearing it," Merle replied, tying the thongs that dangled from Tinker's cap to hold it onto his head as she spoke, then resuming her stitching on the next cap.
"Yes, Merle," Tinker agreed, slipping on the sheath with no further protest. When he was finished, he flicked his tail around and examined it. "It's too long," he muttered.
"Pardon?" Merle asked.
"It... Umm... It makes my tail look... Really long," Tinker replied, a sheepish expression on his face.
Xaa chuckled deeply, looking up from his work. "Exactly, boy."
"What did he say?" Tinker asked.
"Well, what he said translates as "Exactly, boy", but I don't know what he really meant," Merle replied, a confused look on her face.
Tinker giggled, and flicked his tail about for a moment, making the loose end of the tail sheath flop back and forth. This caused Xaa to guffaw loudly. Tinker giggled again, then glanced at Merle and suddenly got a sheepish look on his face, and flicked his tail behind him. This only caused Xaa to laugh harder, and after a moment Tinker giggled some more.
"What's so funny?" Merle asked.
"Umm... Nothing," Tinker replied, looking sheepish again.
"Okay, you two - out with it! What's so funny? Is it something I said?" Merle asked.
"Umm... No, Merle, really. It's nothing," Tinker replied, looking very sheepish.
"What is it with you mice and your tails?!" Merle yelped.
Tinker squirmed uncomfortably. "Well... It's... Umm..."
Xaa grinned. "If you were a mouse, you wouldn't have to ask," he chuckled.
"Well, I'm not a mouse, so I do have to ask!" Merle replied, giving Xaa a very stern look. Merle was surprised when he finally looked away, the tips of his ears turning pink. Finally, he spoke.
"The tail of a mouse is covered with small, fine hairs. It is very sensitive to movements of air, changes in temperature, and so on. It helps cool us when it's hot, also. We can use it like a weak, clumsy paw, if we need to, but we never do in public, because... Well, it's a social taboo, because of the other thing about our tails. They're very sensitive to being touched, and stroking or touching the tail is... Umm... Well... It's a very erotic sensation for both males and females, and is often a prelude to mating. When mice do mate, they often... Well, they often twine their tails together during the act. He and I were laughing because to a mouse, the length of the tail is believed to be an indicator of how... Well, how good a sex-partner a mouse might be," Xaa rumbled in reply, his ears blushing brightly.
"Really?" Merle asked, fascinated.
"Yes. A mouse's tail is their pride, their honor, and a sign of their virility for both males and females," Xaa replied, still blushing.
Merle looked at Tinker, who still looked very embarrassed. "You told her, didn't you?" Tinker asked Xaa.
"Spirits, this is embarrassing!" Tinker said, fidgeting as he sat by the fire.
Merle suddenly looked at Xaa, her eyes widening. "No wonder every time we visited their village, the females all looked at you funny! Your tail is as long as their whole body!"
"Yes," Xaa rumbled in reply, now fidgeting himself.
Merle grinned, enjoying having both of them on the spot. "And is the rest of you... Similarly proportioned?" she asked, giggling.
Xaa growled. "So far as I know - though it's not like any damn female I've seen in the last eight months has been even slightly interested in finding out," he replied, his tail lashing in irritation.
Merle blanched. "Sorry, Xaa. I didn't mean to make you mad, I just-" she began, when Xaa cut her off.
"Enough. You've had your laugh at both me and him - especially at me. Enough," he growled.
Merle nodded, and remained silent, biting her lip.
"He's mad again, isn't he?" Tinker asked, his tail twitching nervously, making the loose end of the sheath flop around.
"You can tell Tinker that yes, I am angry. But for once, I'm not angry with him, I'm angry with YOU," Xaa growled, and resumed work on the mittens, grumbling.
"He says that yes, he is mad, but not at you, he's mad at me," Merle explained to Tinker, her voice very quiet.
"Oh!" Tinker replied, vast relief in his voice and on his face as his tail relaxed.
Merle looked at Xaa for a moment, then sighed. She so desperately wanted to tell him how she really felt, but she wasn't sure how she really felt, or if he even wanted to hear it. Sometimes she wanted to lie with him so badly it hurt, but other times she didn't - she wanted to be with Tinker, instead. In Xaa, she saw maturity, wisdom, gentleness, and compassion. In Tinker, she saw her very best friend, someone she'd known all her life. She knew that with the arrival of winter, her second heat was coming on and she still didn't have a mate. She didn't see anything wrong with a mouse as her mate, and her chief had said that it was alright, but her heart was still very confused as to which mouse. Merle sighed again, and returned to stitching the cap she had in her paws. 'Maybe it will come and go quietly and everything will be alright again afterwards,' she thought to herself.
Xaa gave Merle the completed mittens and booties about the time Merle had finished the cap for Xaa. Xaa tried on the cap, tying it beneath his jaw, and nodded. "It fits well. Thank you," he rumbled.
"You're welcome," Merle said quietly, slipping on the boots and mittens and helping Tinker on with his.
Xaa simply sat there, staring at the fire. For a brief moment, Merle realized how silly he looked, sitting there in the white rabbitfur cap, mittens and tail-sheath. The contrast with his armor, black boots and gray fur was comical. She nearly giggled, but decided that it wouldn't be good to laugh at him right now, and so suppressed it. After a few more minutes, Xaa spoke.
"I'm sorry, Merle. It's just been awhile for me. Since my wife died, in fact," he rumbled quietly, then suddenly stood.
"Where are you going?" Merle asked in alarm.
"Just for a walk. I'll be back," Xaa rumbled, then turned and strode off into the forest.
"Where is he going, Merle?" Tinker squeaked.
"He said he was just going for a walk. I don't think he'll get lost, since he can follow his tracks right back here. Don't worry, Tinker, everything will be just fine," Merle replied, hugging him.
"Oh, okay," Tinker said, and snuggled into Merle for warmth.
Merle tucked the blankets around themselves, she looked in the
direction Xaa had walked off. 'At least, I hope everything
will be fine,' she thought to herself.
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